Kohaku's training was coming along nicely. Sango sat in the shade, Kirara a familiar warmth across her lap, as her brother neatly executed a series of complicated exercises with his chain scythe. Soon, she guessed, he would be able to count himself among the village's warriors. As he turned to face her, a wide grin crossing his face at his success, she had never been more proud of him.
His expression sobered quickly as two of the village men approached the house. One of them was their father, the other an accomplished warrior named Isamu. Sango was surprised to see him; the last she knew he'd been out serving a tour as a messenger, gathering tales of youkai to bring back to the village. That he'd returned ahead of schedule did not bode well.
Kirara slipped away as Sango rose and went to meet the two men. Her father spared a small smile for her but she could tell by his demeanor that this conversation would be all business.
"I have a job for you, Sango," he told her.
She nodded, masking excitement with trained professionalism. Right now she was a warrior, not merely his daughter. Even so, it had been a while since her last mission and she was eager for the chance to take on another challenge.
He left it to Isamu to give her the details: a nearby village, plagued by an enormous centipede unlike anything they had ever encountered before. The creature was causing a great deal of damage to the area around the village, and the villagers feared that they would be the next target. Isamu had just been passing through, but had thought this an excellent opportunity for Sango. As a specialist in close combat himself, he had not been keen to take on the creature himself. Sango, however, specialized in this sort of thing.
She hid a small smile as he finished his explanation. "Of course I'll go," she assured him, aware that her brother watched with envy in his eyes.
A flurry of activity followed as she obtained directions to the village from Isamu and set about gathering her things, armor and sword and the great bone boomerang that was her primary weapon, readying herself for the battle to come. She was on her way out of the village just a short while later, humming a jaunty tune to herself as she went.
She awoke in flames. Fire and magic and grave soil and bones wove a jarring cacophony, piercing the darkness — and Kikyou roused from the endless sleep of death.
Memories flowed like an incoming tide, bringing awareness in their wake. Fired clay fell away as she sat up and opened tired eyes. She was sitting within a kiln of some sort. She wore no clothing, but was untouched by the flames and the scorching heat. Her right hand gripped a spray of ash leaves.
Through the haze of smoke and flame she heard a voice. "You've awakened, Kikyou," it rasped. Blearily, she glimpsed a wizened old woman standing at the entrance to the kiln. Slowly reawakening spiritual powers told her this was no human woman, but something else. "It's said that when you lived, you were the one that protected the Shikon no Tama," the woman went on, voice grating.
Kikyou watched impassively as the hag grinned. "Now you will collect the pieces of the jewel for me!" the woman declared. "I, Urasue, command you: rise and fight!"
Of her own volition, Kikyou rose on unsteady legs and took faltering steps forward. She had no idea what sorcery had brought her here or what this body she now inhabited, for she knew it could not be her own, could do. All she knew for certain was this witch-hag meant to control her. Kikyou did not intend to give her the opportunity.
She laid her hands on the woman's shoulders, ignoring the screeching protest, and with a surge of power purified Urasue into oblivion.
Later, when the fog of death had receded from her mind, Kikyou found the garb of a priestess within Urasue's hut and dressed herself in it.
She had expected that death might retake her upon the witch's demise, but now that it had not, she must to return to the world. If what the witch had said was true, and the Shikon no Tama had indeed reappeared, then it was her duty to destroy it.
Exhausted, furious, filled with purpose, Kikyou made her way down the mountain.
Miroku did his best to give the impression that he was in no hurry as he left the village behind. It wouldn't do to arouse suspicion, not when he had so neatly swindled so many of that same village's men out of their hard earned money last night.
The tactic worked admirably; no one questioned his departure and by late morning it was obvious that no one was pursuing him. No doubt it would take them some time yet to figure out that the wandering monk wasn't just lucky when it came to games of chance, he'd been cheating. It didn't really matter. By then he would be long gone.
There were few other travelers on the road this time of year, which suited him just fine. He was accustomed to traveling on his own and in fact often preferred it. There was less need for pretense that way, and when he came upon a crossroads he could take whichever path he wanted.
It was late afternoon before he encountered anyone else, two men heading in the direction he had left behind. At first he paid them no mind, intending simply to go around them and be on his way. But as they passed the words of their conversation leaped out at him.
"They say it's no ordinary beast, but a youkai instead. They've hired a slayer to take care of it," one man told the other. This was not impressive in itself — Miroku had slain dozens of the creatures — but what came after caught his attention. "And I hear the slayer's a woman, and a pretty young thing at that."
His companion had a good laugh at that, but Miroku stopped walking and turned. "Excuse me, did you say there is a youkai in need of slaying?" he asked. When they answered in the affirmative, he went on, "Could you perhaps give me directions to the village? I would like to offer my services, as well."
This, of course, they did without question. Experience had long ago taught him that people were happy to trust a man dressed in the robes of a monk, and he was not above using this knowledge to his advantage.
And while he could not know for sure if there was any truth behind what the men had told him, there was an extra spring in his step as he continued on his way.
Life went on much the way it always had, considering there was a demon in the castle. The lord ruled over everyone and the lesser folk did their best to obey his every whim, and all of them pretended that the beast had truly fled this time.
They all knew it for a lie.
Each night without fail the creature returned, a spider of impossible size and implacable ferocity. Each night it attacked with webbed silk and clawed legs and potent venom. And each night, men died.
And with each day that followed, they pretended it was over this time.
Days ago they had sent for the slayers of youkai, for their foe could be nothing else but youkai, but the horrifying truth was no one knew where to find one. The messengers must first find one of the itinerant slayers and plead their case. Only then could they hope to receive the help they so desperately needed.
By then it might be too late, and so they pretended rather than face despair.
They did not realize that it was already too late.
Something else had already crept into their lives, sowing dark seeds of discord and malice among them.
For days he had watched. Watched and listened, nothing more. And then — like a spider he crawled through the cracks in their lives, slipping in to fill a void that had gone unseen to all eyes but his own.
No one noticed if their lord's son behaved any differently than he ever had. They were too busy worrying about battles and monsters, oblivious to the monster that was already among them, that pretended to be one of them. Deceiving them was a simple matter, though it galled one of his power to play the invalid.
For now he swallowed his resentment because he knew it was necessary and because it would not be long now until he got what he wanted. Then and only then could he grant these fools the fate they so richly deserved.
So he accepted that he could not act. Not now. Not yet. But soon.
My thanks to everyone who commented or left kudos for the first installment of this fic! As always, feedback is appreciated.
How long has it been? The question was foremost in Kikyou's mind as she walked the path down the mountain and away from the witch's hut where she had been revived.
She had died. She knew that much. She remembered dying. She even remembered, almost, the fire that had burned her body to ash. The fire that should also have consumed the Shikon jewel. But she had no idea how much time had passed since then or what had befallen the people — and things — she left behind. How long?
Now that Urasue was dead, she had no idea where she was or how many days or months or years had passed since her death, and would have no way of knowing any of these things until she could find other people and convince them that she was not a threat. The priestess' clothing that Urasue had unwillingly provided would work in her favor, but first she must find her way out of the mountains.
She should have waited to kill the witch, she knew, but she had been unable to stand the thought of spending another instant in that hateful creature's presence. Destroying Urasue had been momentarily gratifying, but it had not sated the burgeoning hatred and regret that roiled within her. The tumult of emotions that had consumed her in the moment of her death had returned along with the spark of life. Worse, now she had no one to answer her questions and no way to give vent to her frustrations. All she could do was keep walking. Walking, and wondering.
There had been no sandals with the clothing she had found in Urasue's hut, and the only path that led away from that hut was steep and uneven, littered with sharp-edged rocks and loose scree. Her feet should be torn and bleeding by now, but she felt only a slight discomfort with each stumble or misstep, more inconvenience than pain.
Was she, then, not fully reborn, not fully human? The thought was distant, nearly lost amid the storm of anger and hatred. In the end it didn't matter if she was human or not. It was just one more reason to hate.
She could not afford to look forward or back, could not think of the past and the wounds it had inflicted upon her heart, or the impossible vengeance that same heart demanded. Could not think of the future and what challenges it might hold. Not yet. Not now. For now she must concentrate only on the path laid out before her, and the hate that coursed through her very veins. There would be time, later, for the other things.
For now she had only to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.
And yet: how long has it been?
Miroku arrived at the village to find no sign of the foretold slayer. If that slayer had ever been anything more than rumor, he thought ruefully. He supposed that he might have ended up at the wrong village, but he had followed the men's directions exactly. This should be the place. And yet he saw nothing out of the ordinary, and he certainly saw no beautiful woman ready to slay the demon.
At first glance, the village was like any other. It was a peaceful place, secluded, surrounded on all sides by forest without so much as a wall to separate civilization from the wilds. There was only one road into town, and one road out.
No one here was destitute, that much was obvious from the quality of the buildings and the clothing the people wore, but this was not a wealthy village. He watched the villagers for a while, wandering slowly down the single main street and taking note of his surroundings without attempting to draw attention to himself. Everyone seemed to be going about their daily business in spite of the odd pall that hung over the town. That strange, pervasive sensation told him that even though there would be little profit to be had here, the villagers might really be in need of a slayer's services. It wasn't a bad place, he decided at last. It just wasn't the sort of place he usually went out of his way to visit.
The village was small enough that it wasn't long before someone noticed him. As a stranger and a monk, he must surely stand out.
Predictably, the first one to notice him was a young woman. She couldn't have been older than fifteen or sixteen years old. Her face was plain, if earnest, until she noticed the newcomer and the spark of curiosity lit her eyes. She had been heading down the street on some errand, walking in the direction he had come from, but that duty was immediately forgotten in the face of burgeoning curiosity.
"Good afternoon, Houshi-sama," she greeted, her voice sweet in spite of the excessively formal tone. Perhaps he had misjudged this one. "What brings you to our village?"
The sound of her voice and the question she asked had already begun to draw attention from the other villagers nearby. Miroku paused to regard her, the rings on his staff jangling and sounding too loud to his ear in the sudden hush. "I had word that your village is having trouble with a youkai," he told her. That much, at least, was true. "I did not think to find a maiden of such beauty here," he went on.
By that point Miroku was aware of a group of several men heading in his direction. Word spread quickly in a town this size. Rather than propositioning the girl as he had intended, he affected his most affable demeanor, knowing that one of these men was likely the village headman.
He returned their greeting with a respectful bow and a repeat of the explanation he had given the girl just a few moments before. The men did not seem displeased to hear that he had come to put himself at their disposal in the matter of removing the troublesome youkai.
"We asked for a slayer," one of the men admitted, sounding a bit rueful, "But we don't know if they'll actually send one. We're just a small village. We might not be worth their time."
The other villagers murmured uneasily among themselves. It was as if they truly were not sure their problem merited the attention of a slayer. But in that case, why send for one in the first place?
"Tell me more about what's been happening here," he prodded.
Preferring not to speak of the beast where it might somehow overhear, the men escorted him in short order to the headman's home. The man who had done the talking up until this point was indeed the village head. The others clustered round while Miroku sat across from him in the main room of his spacious, but plain home and listened with apparent intentness as he explained what had been happening near the village lately. Silently, Miroku despaired at having to do this work with no hope of a decent reward.
Still, he was a monk. He supposed that from time to time he could do good deeds out of charity — more or less. But he had to wonder what this village hoped to offer a slayer in return for his or her services if there was nothing they might even offer a humble monk.
Knowing that this wondering about slayers did not matter, he redirected his attention to what the headman was telling him.
"You see, the centipede hasn't actually ventured into the village yet," the man was explaining. "But it's been causing a lot of trouble in this area, and we worry that it won't be long before we become its next target."
Miroku nodded. "Entirely understandable," he murmured.
"It lurks in the forest outside town," the man went on, encouraged by Miroku's obvious sympathy. "But it occasionally emerges and leaves destruction behind. It tore up one of our fields just before the messenger from the slayers came through town…" His tone was sober as he trailed off, leaving the rest to Miroku's imagination. The creature must be of enormous size to be responsible for the kind of destruction the man was describing. And since arable land was rare in hilly country like this, they could ill afford for even one field's crop to be destroyed.
"I will slay the beast," Miroku declared. "Show me where it was last seen."
He did not relish the idea of tangling with such a creature, much less the fleeting thought that it might take the power hidden in his right palm to finish the fight. But in the absence of the hoped-for slayer, he was well aware that there was no one else to help these people. He might as well be the one to save them.
Miroku and the other men had risen and were heading for the door when the young woman from before, evidently the headman's daughter, burst through the doorway. "Father!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "The slayer has arrived!"
Utterly forgotten, Miroku trailed along behind the headman and the sudden press of villagers trying to get a look at the youkai slayer. They had gathered at the very edge of town, perched between village and forest.
Peering past the throng, Miroku was surprised to see that the rumor had not been wrong: the slayer was indeed a woman, and an attractive one, at that. She was nothing like the imposing, muscled woman he had imagined. Instead, she appeared sweet and charming, entirely unprepossessing save for dark eyes that flashed with inner fire.
But first impressions could be deceiving. This woman, he realized, was not only a competent slayer of youkai, she enjoyed her job. At once he found himself intrigued. She wore entirely unremarkable traveling clothes such as any woman might wear. Surely she did not intend to fight in that outfit, he thought, although the sword at her hip and the enormous boomerang slung on a strap over her shoulder implied that she did.
"Ah, Lady Slayer," the headman said, pushing his way to the front of the crowd. Miroku hung back, waiting to see how this would play out and if his services would be needed after all.
The woman inclined her head slightly. "I came as soon as I heard you had need of us."
"Wonderful," the headman told her. He motioned toward Miroku, the crowd parting obediently to reveal him. "The good monk here just happened by a little while ago and has also offered his help. We shall be rid of the youkai at last!"
The woman nodded to the headman before letting her gaze fall on Miroku. With those piercing eyes fixed on him, he felt suddenly and irrationally self-conscious. She appraised him coolly, utterly indifferent, and did not need words at all to convey that she did not require whatever paltry assistance he might offer.
Oblivious to the way monk and slayer were sizing each other up, the headman carried on. "The youkai lurks in the forest outside town," he began to explain.
The slayer smiled sweetly. "Our messenger relayed all of the details that you gave him," she said, her voice as sweet as her smile. She went on, "If there is somewhere I can change clothes, we can get started."
"Of course, of course!" The headman waved over one of the village women, who led the slayer off. As tempted as he was to follow, Miroku remained where he was.
"Have you hired such a slayer in the past?" he inquired of the headman.
He looked surprised, as if he had all but forgotten Miroku's presence. "Yes," he replied, "but it was long ago. I was only a boy then." No useful information there.
"So this centipede youkai," Miroku mused. "It only appeared recently?"
"I wouldn't say that," the headman said after a thoughtful pause. "I've heard stories of such a beast living in the forest ever since I can remember, handed down from the time of my father's father, so I think it must have always been here. But it was never aggressive before."
Now that was interesting. Youkai were, Miroku knew, becoming more and more common everywhere as war, disease, and famine spread across the land. Such creatures were drawn to death and suffering, or so the stories said. This place seemed to know only peace and quiet. What could have caused a docile youkai to become suddenly violent? He gazed out into the forested wilderness, thoughtful.
It wasn't long before the slayer returned, and this time there could be no doubt that she was armed for battle. Miroku had tried to mask his curiosity before. He was incapable of making such an attempt now. The woman was clad in formfitting leather armor with protective pads over elbows, knees, shoulders, and middle. Silk sashes secured the padding in place, and thick leather boots protected her feet. Her long hair was pulled into a high tail to keep it out of her face during a fight, and a strange metal mask covered the lower half of her face. Her sword was still prominently at her side, and she carried the boomerang one-handed and hefted over one shoulder as if it were no burden at all.
Miroku had never seen anything like it before. And neither, apparently, had most of the villagers. Until that moment he had half wondered if such an ordinary seeming woman could really hope to kill a youkai. He no longer doubted. Not that the slayer noticed.
In fact, she was pointedly ignoring him. "Where was the centipede last seen?" she asked the headman.
"I can show you," he answered, sounding the slightest bit unnerved. Then again, he probably had no desire to encounter the beast himself.
Before he could say more — or lead her off without him — Miroku interjected. "Forgive me, Lady Slayer," he said, using the title the headman had used. "I have never encountered a professional demon slayer before, and I must inquire —" he stepped forward so that she had no choice but to acknowledge him and clasped her free hand in both of his "— are all such slayers as lovely as you?"
For an instant she fumed, infuriated by his presumption. But she was spared the necessity of responding, beyond jerking her hand free of his grip, when someone cried out. "It's coming! From the forest — it's coming!"
The slayer was already running, racing to intercept the youkai before it could reach the town. Miroku loped along after her, unwilling to be left out of the action entirely. He did not know if she would need his help, but he did not want to find himself too far away to help in the event that she did.
Miroku stumbled to a stop as the centipede burst from the trees. It was enormous and terrifyingly quick on its many legs, rushing toward the village with frightening speed. Small wonder the villagers were afraid to deal with this on their own. While Miroku paused, trying to determine if it was safe to use the kazaana's power to kill the beast, the slayer raced on.
Irritated that she was inadvertently preventing him from using the most convenient means to dispose of the youkai, Miroku hurried after her. Didn't she realize she was putting herself in harm's way? Of course she didn't. How could she?
She skidded to a halt, lowering the boomerang behind her as she did so. He didn't realize she was preparing to hurl the boomerang until she had let it fly — in a perfect arc that neatly sliced between two pieces of armored carapace to cut the youkai in half. Miroku stared, unabashed. To make such a shot from this distance, to kill such a creature in a single blow… This woman was unbelievably skilled. And remarkably unperturbed as the split halves of the youkai crashed to the ground.
She simply stayed where she was, reaching up to catch the boomerang on its return flight. Despite its size, she easily swung the massive weapon back into place over her shoulder. With that mask covering the lower half of her face, Miroku couldn't see her expression, but he had a feeling she was pleased with her performance.
The villagers kept their distance, awed that the slayer had dispatched the threat so easily, and on the very threshold of their home. While they were thus occupied, Miroku wandered over to have a look at what was left of the centipede. Painful experience told him that centipedes like this were difficult to kill, and it hardly seemed possible that she could have slain it so easily. But it did not so much as twitch when he drew near.
It was unusual for him to get to see a dead youkai up close like this. When he dispatched youkai, whether with holy sutras or the kazaana, there was usually nothing left. To his surprise, the slayer followed him rather than approaching the villagers. While Miroku investigated one half of the centipede, she began to inspect the other. She seemed to be looking for something, although he could not have said what. Until, that is, she began to tug the creature's legs off.
She's gathering supplies, he realized. He wondered now how much of that strange armor she wore was made from the parts of slain youkai. When she had selected the suitable legs, she moved on to the carapace. This she seemed to find less satisfactory, for she took only a few small pieces. She still wore her mask, so he could not see her expression, but he imagined a slight frown of full lips.
Leaving her to her work, he continued his circuit of the other half of the youkai. The creature's enormous size alone was discomfiting. As he rounded its head the sight of its huge mandibles made him glad he hadn't been the one to fight it. The centipede's jaws could have caused some serious damage.
Between those jaws, something glinted in the sunlight. Upon closer inspection, it was a lump of purplish crystal that had been wedged into the creature's mouth. It came free easily when he tugged on it. He held it up to the light, wondering aloud, 'Well, what have we here?"
The slayer rounded on him in an instant. He had not realized she was watching him until she abruptly snatched the stone from his hand, clasping it in a protective fist. "I was the one to slay the beast," she told him, her voice firm and indomitable despite the slight muffling from her mask. "The spoils of the fight belong to me."
He knew as well as she did that he had done nothing to earn a reward of any kind, but he tried anyway. 'Surely you are willing to part with something so trivial." If that bit of rock was what he thought it might be…
"Do you even know what this is?" she demanded, eyes flashing angrily. If she had hoped to render him uninterested, she had failed utterly. And she knew it. Grudgingly, she added, "I suppose you must if you're so determined to get your hands on it."
"It's a piece of the Shikon no Tama," he told her. "Or am I wrong?"
"You're right," she admitted. "Which means by rights it belongs to me no matter who killed the centipede."
He wasn't sure exactly how she was thus entitled to the Shikon no Tama, but let that question go for now. She opened one of the armored shoulder pads, revealing a hidden compartment into which she quickly tucked the gem. That armor was truly remarkable, though no more so than the woman wearing it.
By now, several of the villagers had gathered enough courage to approach. "Lady Slayer, the beast is dead?" one asked.
Another added, "What was that you had just now?"
"It's the reason this centipede went on a rampage," she told them. It did not escape Miroku's notice that she did not answer the question of what it was — or that she had never given her name. He began to understand why he had never heard of these demon slayers before, much less seen one. "Without it and with the centipede now dead, you shouldn't have any more trouble."
The villagers exchanged looks of abject relief and gratitude, clamoring to thank the woman for her services. She waved off their praise and their talk of rewards. "For now I'll just borrow your shed again, if you don't mind."
Miroku was tempted to follow. He had many questions and tantalizingly few answers. Aside from that stone, which might be part of the legendary Shikon no Tama, she seemed uninterested in any payment for her services. From the way the villagers were carrying on, they would have gladly given her anything as thanks, and yet she did not care the least bit. It was baffling. But then again, if that unprepossessing lump of stone was a genuine piece of the sacred jewel, then it was worth more than any other reward they might offer.
And if it was a genuine piece of that jewel, he needed to obtain it no matter the cost.
Once she was safely within the confines of the shed, Sango sighed. It had been an easy fight today, and the recovery of a piece of the Shikon no Tama was no small feat.
She stripped out of her armor and dressed quickly in her traveling clothes again. With her armor folded and ready to go back into her pack, she hesitated. Finally, almost reluctantly, she withdrew the crystal from its hiding place. Could this really be what she thought it was? Rumors of the Shikon no Tama had been trickling into the village for weeks now, but Sango had always felt that her father had the right of it: the jewel vanished years ago, and there was no reason for it to reappear now.
But what if it had?
She regarded the small stone in her palm and wondered. Her father had told her stories of the jewel ever since she was a child. Perfectly round, swirling with color, and surging with power. When she closed her eyes she could almost imagine that this jewel, which seemed like little more than an unusual pebble, tingled against her hand. Was there power here, or did she merely want there to be? This jewel was smooth, but not perfectly round, and was quite a bit smaller than she would have expected the Shikon no Tama to be. Perhaps it was only a part of the jewel, as the monk had suggested? She closed her hand over the stone.
She needed to take it back to the village as quickly as possible. Her father would know how to verify its authenticity. Which left only the question of what she ought to do here. She had resisted telling the villagers the truth of what she had found, simply because she did not want them to know how valuable or how dangerous it might be, but the monk had recognized it for what it was. And he had wanted it. She frowned.
She could not truly imagine a monk trying to rob her, but he had seemed very eager to claim this jewel for himself. In the end, she supposed, he knew she had it. The villagers could very well find out from him, so she might as well just tell them what she thought she had found. If this turned out to be only a part of the Shikon no Tama, it could be useful to let people know that her village was the jewel's birthplace and that it rightfully belonged there.
Feeling less resolute than she would have liked, Sango secured her traveling pack. She reattached the carry strap and slung the hiraikotsu over her shoulder, and then it was time to go out and face the villagers. And the monk.
She took one last look at the small jewel in her hand, uncertain whether she wanted it to truly be a piece of the Shikon no Tama or not, and stepped out of the shed and into the afternoon sunlight. A small cluster of village men was waiting for her, including the headman and that damned monk from before. Sango tried not to let her irritation show. Her behavior must reflect well on her village and her people.
The headman stepped forward. "About your reward," he began.
Happily distracted, for the moment at least, from her misgivings about that monk, Sango smiled. "This will be enough," she assured the headman, opening her hand to reveal the jewel. "Just the parts of the centipede that I set aside earlier, and this." She held up the jewel for all to see. They seemed more confused than impressed, all except the monk.
"Are you sure?" the headman asked. A buzz of confused and concerned murmurs was rippling through the gathered crowd, for the villagers did not want to be seen as slighting their protectors.
"This is a piece of the Shikon no Tama," she told them. From here, she hoped, the words she was about to say would be spread throughout this area, and news would make its way back to the village if more pieces of the jewel were found. And if it turned out not to be part of the Shikon jewel, well, no harm done. "It belongs with me. The Shikon no Tama originated in my village. Returning this to its proper place will be more than enough payment."
The villagers liked the sound of this, and seemed relieved not to have to pay more for her services than a few pieces of the beast that had threatened them until today, and the supposed piece of some legendary gem. These people were not wealthy and had little hope of paying for services like those Sango could provide. Any proposal that meant they did not have to part with any of their precious food or crafted goods was one they would agree to, and one they would not question.
"And remember," she told them as the group began to disperse, "don't be afraid to send for us if you have any more trouble."
Although the headman nodded enthusiastically, Sango knew the villagers would be glad to see the last of her. She didn't linger long, partly for that reason and partly because if she left now she would get home all the more quickly. As she gathered up the small pack of youkai parts, tucking the piece of the jewel inside for safekeeping, Sango had to admit she was pleased. It felt good to be on her way home with her mission so easily completed and such a potentially great prize in her possession.
There was a spring in her step as she left the town behind her; there was something about heading for home that always cheered her, and today was no exception.
The location of the village of the slayers was a closely guarded secret, more or less, so Sango noted with some concern that she had not exactly left town alone. She hadn't gone far yet and it was already obvious that the monk was following her. And he wasn't even trying to be sneaky. The rings on his staff rang almost merrily with each step he took, announcing his presence over and over. She walked a little faster, noting with irritation that the monk casually kept pace so that she would not escape his sight.
She went on a little bit further, past the first crossroads and the next, before slowing to let him catch up. He did not slow down in an effort to avoid confrontation or pretend he was following her out of simple coincidence. Instead he merely fell into step beside her as if they had been traveling together all along.
"What do you think you're doing, monk?" she asked, strained politeness crumbling in the face of exasperation.
"I thought I'd travel with you to your village," he told her serenely.
Sango frowned. "If you think I'm going to give you this piece of the Shikon jewel…"
"Not at all." He seemed entirely unperturbed by her tone. "But you mentioned that your village was where the jewel originated. As I am curious about its origins as much as its purported powers, I had hoped to journey to your village to find out more."
He didn't seem to be lying, but it was hard to tell. She wasn't entirely sure she wanted to lead him back to her village, much less that she wanted to spend the rest of her day traveling in his company, but she had a feeling he would follow her no matter what. She could refuse him, but he would only follow her anyway in secret. By traveling together, at least she could keep an eye on him.
"Fine," she said. "Follow me, then." She made no attempt to hide her irritation this time, but felt no regret for her inhospitable tone. This man was clearly a flattering smooth talker, and was probably a lecher and a conman, too, if his behavior back at the village was anything to go by. She sincerely doubted he was capable of dispatching that youkai as he had obviously claimed to the village headman, and she doubted even more that he was only interested in learning the history of the Shikon no Tama.
Rather than letting her take the lead, he kept pace beside her whether she sped up or slowed down, until she gave up and maintained a steady pace. He let the silence linger just long enough to irritate her, then said, "I didn't catch your name back there. Or is it just 'Lady Slayer'?"
"It's Sango," she bit out, wondering if his next step would be to praise her beauty again like he had done just before the centipede attacked. Did he really think flattery would get him what he wanted?
"I'm Miroku," he told her cheerfully, with a smile that suggested his charm usually worked perfectly well in getting him what he wanted. Somehow that made her even more disgusted to be traveling with him. If only she had thought to bring Kirara with her… But she had not, and now she was stuck with the monk. And now he was going to know how to find the village of the slayers.
A little while later, Sango found herself wondering if maybe she ought to blindfold him so that when the slayers sent him on his way, he wouldn't be able to find his way back. She was strangely certain that they would send him on his way, too, and hoped it would be sooner rather than later. Something about his reasons for following her just didn't add up.
Curiosity about the Shikon no Tama. Right. If he knew what the sacred jewel was, then he also knew what it was capable of. Of course he was curious. Of course he was interested. But why follow her all the way home? Why not just take the thing, or at least give her the chance to wipe that smug expression off his face?
Suddenly he chuckled.
She frowned. "What?"
"You're smiling," he told her.
The frown threatened to turn into a scowl. Just who did this guy think he was? She consciously smoothed her expression, refusing to let him get on her nerves. She had completed her mission quickly, and would be home yet tonight. The monk was just a small inconvenience, one her father would deal with as swiftly as Sango had dealt with the centipede. Thus decided, she decided that walking a little faster couldn't hurt.
"You don't waste time, do you?" he mused aloud. She wasn't sure if he expected an answer, and decided not to humor him.
Unfortunately, he was just as persistent as she was stubborn. "Looking forward to getting home?"
"Yes," she bit out, aware by now that he had contrived to inch closer and closer to her as they walked. It could be incidental that he was now nearly close enough to brush her hand with his, but she doubted it. She watched him carefully through narrowed eyes.
He was patient, she had to give him that much. But sure enough, not much further down the path, his hand sneaked toward her. She had pegged him for a pervert from the moment he made that stupid attempt to sweet-talk her in front of the village headman, but even she had to admire his boldness. To make such a blatant grab for her bottom…
Fortunately, she had plenty of experience dealing with men who didn't know how to keep their hands to themselves. She intercepted that hand — not the one, she noted, that was covered by a strange gauntlet and wrapped with a string of prayer beads, but the one he left uncovered — and glared at him as if to say, nice try.
The worst part was that he didn't even seem embarrassed at having been caught. He just chuckled slightly and tugged his arm free of her grip, as if the whole thing had been nothing more than a game.
Sango was grateful when the time finally came to leave the main path and follow the hidden trail that would eventually wind is way up into the hills where her village was located. A glance at the sky through the trees told her she wasn't making good time. It would be dark before she got home. Maybe the monk would trip and fall on the steep path ahead and break his neck.
She could only hope.
The hidden track that led to the village of the slayers was rough going, and for good reason. It was nothing Sango couldn't handle, having come this way over and over since even before she became a recognized taiji-ya, but it kept all but the most curious wanderers from stumbling upon the village by accident. And this left the slayers free to hone their craft in private. It might leave visitors a little breathless and tired, but it kept secrets safe.
It also kept the monk firmly focused on not tripping or falling in the fading light, rather than babbling at her or making another attempt to grope her bottom.
There was a flat place, about halfway between the turnoff point and the village, and she paused there to give him a break. She didn't like him one bit, but she wasn't going to be cruel just for the sake of it. He was winded, though not dangerously so, but he seized the chance to pause and catch his breath. If he was grateful for it, he did not say so. Instead, he asked, "How long do you train, in order to become a slayer?"
"Do you really think I can tell you that?" she asked without malice.
He shrugged. "What harm would it do?"
"The ways of my people are closely guarded secrets," she told him. Then, grudgingly, she took pity on him. Again. But they were close to home now and she could afford to be generous. "I was ten when I became a taiji-ya and began to join the others on raids." She smiled slightly in spite of herself. "But I won't tell you if that was older or younger than most."
He seemed pleased that she was willing to speak to him at all. "Did you carry that —" he nodded toward the hiraikotsu "— when you were ten years old?"
This time her smile was genuine. She couldn't help it: her weapon was a point of personal pride. "Yes."
She'd had enough experience with outsiders to know what he was doing now: trying to imagine a ten year old child lifting a weapon the size of the hiraikotsu. Most outsiders could hardly believe a young woman could carry such a weapon at all, much less use it effectively in battle, but he had seen her in action and was fully aware of what she could do with it.
"You are an impressive woman, Sango," he told her. She sobered immediately. There was the presumptuous monk she remembered from earlier today. It rankled, that he had nearly managed to get past her guard. She vowed silently that it would not happen again. Oblivious to her angry thoughts, the monk went on, "Are all the women in your village fighters?"
"No," she said bluntly, although that wasn't strictly true. While everyone in the village, including the women, trained as warriors from a young age, Sango's decision to become a slayer instead of a wife made her stand out. Most women ultimately chose to become wives and mothers, serving as part of the village watch rather than becoming itinerant warriors. But every woman was given the choice to make. "And we should get going if we don't want to arrive too late tonight."
The monk yielded to her expertise and followed when she headed further down the trail. The going here was even rougher than before, which was why in ages long past someone had carved out that level spot to rest. The land sloped steeply uphill from here, and would remain steep and treacherous until they came to the plateau atop the hill where the village had been built.
Above, glimpsed fleetingly past the leaves of the overhanging trees, the sky shaded from blue to orange and scarlet and finally deep violet as the sun set. Sango ignored the passing of time and the growing ache in her belly, preferring to push on and eat when she was finally home again. She did not ask if the monk was hungry or if he wished to stop because, quite simply, there was nowhere to stop now until they reached the village.
Finally they came to the most familiar switchback in the path, and Sango smiled. The trees began to open up around them and at last they emerged into the full dark of night and onto the crest of the hill. This place had been stripped of trees long ago, and their trunks honed and fashioned into a thick defensive wall that circled the entire village, separating it from the forest all around. It must look imposing to an outsider, but to Sango it was blessedly familiar. That wall meant home to her.
The large gate at this end of the village was open. In fact, it was never closed except in times when there was a threat to the village. And for the length of Sango's life, there had never been a need to close the gates.
Two women kept watch, however, calling out happily when they recognized Sango. She was too far away yet to identify them where they stood in the shadow of the wall, but she knew her friends Kasumi and Kaori had been assigned watch duty tonight. When they realized she wasn't alone, the two women shared a knowing look. Then one called out, "Finally found one you like, Sango?"
Sango immediately recognized the voice, confirming her guess as to the guards' identities. Trying furiously not to flush with embarrassment, and knowing she was going to be teased even more fiercely by her father and brother, she managed, "He was going to follow me anyway. Might as well keep an eye on him."
This earned a riot of laughs from the two women, who knew that Sango was telling the truth — and that as her friends and frequent training partners, they could get away with giving her a hard time.
"Come on," Sango growled to the monk, and very nearly hauled him inside.
Hitomi Kagewaki was, if not healthy, at least tolerably well connected. Very little went on in his father's castle of which he was unaware, and what news of the outside world came to the castle very soon reached his ears. And though his physical infirmities were a nuisance to the one who had assumed his place and identity and could not risk the questions raised by a sudden, miraculous recovery, his connections proved worth the bother. And besides, this confinement was only temporary.
Sooner or later, the time would come to rise up and claim his true place as lord and master of this castle. Even now, the servants and his few remaining friends among the castlefolk brought him news of his father's declining health. Some of them even whispered that there were times the lord did not seem himself, as if he might be going mad from the strain of unsuccessfully dealing with the castle's demon for so long. What would happen to them, they wondered, if the lord gave up the fight, if the demon could not be defeated?
Kagewaki only nodded his understanding and murmured the proper words of concern. What else could he do? He barely had the strength to rise from his bed. He could not hope to fight the creature that nightly threatened the safety of all who dwelt within the castle. Nor could he hope to make his father see reason and abandon their ancestral home. Or so it must seem. Now was not the time for the castlefolk to discover that the lord's illness was no illness at all, or that his son was no longer his son but something far more insidious.
No, they could not know yet.
He had waited this long. He would wait a while longer, and see what news he could gather. He had been too long alone, too long isolated from the world of humans and the world of demons, and now he must find out what he had missed. For rumors had reached him, and continued to reach him now that he had become Hitomi Kagewaki. Rumors that spoke of power beyond imagining, and a sacred jewel thought lost to the depths of time.
He had coveted that jewel once, and it had very nearly been his. But he had been thwarted in the end, and his heart burned with rage at the memory of the woman responsible for his failure. His only solace was that now the damnable woman was dead and gone these fifty years, and this time no one would stand between him and his goal. The jewel would be his, and with it his greatest wish.
After hours of walking, bare mountainside gave way to ancient forest. Kikyou scarcely noticed until she stepped into the shade of enormous, tangled trees and felt soft plant growth brush against her bare feet with each step. The path beneath her feet was still rocky and uneven, but there were patches of softer soil and moss. In other circumstances, she would have appreciated the gradual softening of the landscape. But in her fury, she could not appreciate the natural beauty around her.
Kikyou walked for some time beneath the thick canopy of trees, until the path at last turned over entirely to soil and moss and hardy grass that grew in the places where sunlight dappled down through the leaves. The way began to meander then, rather than making its way quite so steadily downhill as it had before. There was no sign as yet of a crossroad and there was no other path to take, so she followed the trail before her. She had no idea what she might find around each next turn, but there was no other choice. She hoped to find a village nearby, although that was more out of habit than due to a desire for rest.
Perhaps because she had been roused from the dead and her soul was now housed in a body of clay-become-flesh, Kikyou found that her body did not tire easily. Or perhaps it was the anger that surged within her that pushed her onward. Regardless of the reason, she felt as if she might walk for days and nights, never stopping for rest until she reached her goal.
If only she knew what, exactly, her goal was.
Ephemeral, compelling, it urged her ever onward, beckoning with answers to questions she had not yet thought to ask.
She felt something waiting up ahead and slowed her pace. The path looped around a thick stand of trees and brush up ahead, and she could not see past it. Anything might be lying in wait behind that convenient obstruction. And something was waiting. She was certain of it. She could not explain the strange sensation any more than she had ever been able to explain her ability to purify the Shikon no Tama or destroy youkai, but she trusted it implicitly and prepared herself for danger as she rounded the bend in the path and came upon the last thing she had expected.
Unmoving, half hidden by bushes and the fading light of late afternoon, a girl crouched by the side of the path and watched with wary eyes.
Kikyou stopped walking. She did not allow her expression to betray surprise at the sudden appearance of another person in this empty place, but instead forced the semblance of a smile onto her face. "Don't be afraid," she said, and the sweet, gentle tone of her voice surprised her. "There is nothing to fear."
The girl's eyes widened, disbelieving. But in the end, she knew what that distinctive white-and-red clothing meant. She was very young to be out in the forest alone, but not too young to recognize a priestess when she saw one. "You're a miko," she said shyly.
Kikyou's heart ached at the sight of this child. It was a sweet and familiar ache, and for just a moment it chased away the torment of anguish and hate that roiled inside her. And then her emotions churned once more, and she had to wrest back control. "Yes," she agreed, kneeling to put herself on a level with the child. "I'm looking for a place I could stay for a while. Is there a place like that around here?"
The girl hesitated, glancing nervously over one shoulder, no doubt in the direction of home. Wherever this place was, Kikyou guessed that not many strangers wandered through. She could not even be sure that there might be a village nearby; this girl was the first sign of human habitation that she had seen since setting out from the witch's hut, and that had been quite some time ago now. Down this path, she might find not a prospering village but only a hut or two, a few people eking out a living among the harsh mountain foothills.
There might, after all, be nothing for her here. This was only the first time she had encountered another person since she reawakened in Urasue's kiln. It might mean nothing. But she very much wanted it to mean something.
"My name is Kikyou," she said, trying to put the child more at ease. Strange, how she had fought so hard to control her anger and pain through the endless hours of walking down the mountain, only to find that the mere presence of this child eased all her sorrows. What had been overwhelming was now nearly bearable. "What is your name?" Seeing that none of this had reassured this frightened child, and ignoring the pang of disappointment, Kikyou rose. "It's okay. You don't have to tell me."
"It's," the girl began, and then paused as if shocked by her own audacity. "It's Sayo!"
"Sayo," Kikyou mused. "A lovely name."
Sayo ducked her head, blushing.
"Won't you at least come out from the bushes?" Kikyou asked.
Still wary but no longer afraid, the girl stepped onto the path. To Kikyou's surprise, Sayo reached out and took her hand, grasping lightly and turning it this way and that. "You're really a miko," she decided at last.
"And what did you think I was?"
Sayo cast her gaze to the ground. "I thought you might be a youkai," she admitted. "Nobody ever comes through here, especially not a miko… and everybody says there's a witch that lives up in the mountains, and that if she ever caught me, she would eat me up!"
This time when Kikyou smiled, it was a genuine smile. "I lost my way in the mountains," she explained. "That's all."
Sayo seemed to find this immensely reassuring. She looked up at Kikyou, her eyes alight with excitement.
"And I believe I met your witch on my way here," Kikyou went on. "She'll trouble you no more."
This appeared to strike Sayo as more reassuring than everything else put together. Kikyou was relieved to see the wary expression replaced with one of awe. "Really?" she asked, breathless, wanting very much to believe that this strange wanderer might be a powerful hero.
Kikyou felt something tug at her heart. Anger, pain, the unrelenting need for knowledge — of where she was, how long it had been since she died, whether Urasue's whispers of the Shikon no Tama were true — these were the things she must face. As ever, there was no time for simple pleasures. And yet in the presence of this child, she could almost pretend there were.
What would it be like, to spend time with Sayo the way she had done with her own little sister? What would it feel like to teach another girl the secrets of herbcraft and healing, or archery? Would she feel pride? Would she feel joy? Could she feel joy? This body that was hers but was neither truly human nor truly alive… what was it capable of? Almost, she wanted to find out.
Sayo had not let go of her hand. She only realized it when the child gave a tug. "Come on, Kikyou-sama," she said, filled with newfound determination. "I'll show you the way to my village!"
There was still only the one path winding its way through the forest, though it was somewhat obscured by overhanging trees, and there was much that Kikyou knew she should attend to, but she let Sayo lead her onward anyway. She could not wander aimlessly forever. She needed to find other people, needed to find out if Urasue had been right about the Shikon jewel. There was no reason not to start her search for answers with Sayo's village.
The village of the slayers was quiet as Sango led the monk past the gate and into the village proper. There were still a few people out and about despite the late hour, and many of these paused to congratulate Sango on her return and her successful hunt. Sango was glad of the acclaim, but she also wished that circumstances and sheer stubbornness had not forced her to bring the monk along, and thus to endure the knowing looks from the villagers.
She refused to dignify their teasing questions with a response, although if her companion had been anyone but this monk, perhaps she might have answered in kind. But she wanted nothing more than to get home and let her father deal with their guest, so she delayed only long enough to be polite — and not long enough for the monk to strike up a conversation with anyone. That, she was sure, would only lead to trouble.
It was full dark by the time she led the monk through the gate and into the small compound that was her family's home. Her father was no overlord to have his own palace overlooking his domain, but their abode was larger than those of the ordinary villagers and set slightly aside. It was peaceful and familiar. She took a deep breath, smelling the lingering scent of dinner, and hoped they had saved some for her. She had not even stopped to eat after slaying the centipede, and now was ravenously hungry. If not for the monk, she would have broken into a run, happily announcing her return. Instead, she opted for a more dignified approach.
"Father," she called. "Kohaku! I'm back! And —"
She cut off as Kirara bounded out the nearest door, chirping merrily and leaping into her waiting arms. "And Kirara," she amended, giggling as the cat nuzzled her cheek. "I missed you, too, my friend."
It didn't take long for Kirara to realize that Sango had not returned alone. She felt the cat grow tense in her arms before climbing over her shoulder and leaping the short distance to land, claws extended, against the monk's chest. His face betrayed a twinge of pain as tiny, needle sharp claws dug through his robes and Kirara climbed to his shoulder. Amused, Sango left him to deal with the cat and headed for where her father and brother had appeared in the doorway.
"I've returned," she told them. "I bring spoils from the fight and… him." She gestured to the monk who, distressingly, seemed to be getting along just fine with Kirara. The nekomata paced carefully around his shoulders but did not, as Sango had very nearly hoped, claw him in earnest. For his part, the monk seemed more amused than alarmed by Kirara's twin tails.
Her father gave her the same knowing look the other villagers had given her, but asked only, "Again?"
"It's a long story," she grumbled, feeling her cheeks flush at the memory of the occasions when smitten young men had followed her home in the hope of winning her over. "And it's not my fault!"
Her brother, at least, had the decency not to show his amusement quite so obviously. "Welcome back!" he said, and promptly disappeared into the house. With any luck, he would be making dinner for her and their guest. She thought she heard him laughing to himself as soon as he was out of sight, but chose to ignore it.
"I apologize for my imposition," the monk said smoothly. "But once I discovered that your daughter was from the very village where the Shikon no Tama originated, I felt obliged to accompany her. She had little choice in the matter."
Her father did not question the monk's version of the tale, but Sango knew he would want to hear the real story from her later on. Instead, he kindly invited the monk into his home. Sango followed with a sigh. Of course they could accommodate a guest. Their house was large and their family was small; there was plenty of room. She simply would have preferred that the monk spend the night under a different roof than her own. She might have brought him here, but she was not fool enough to trust him.
As she removed her sandals and stepped past her father into the main room of the house, she remembered the way that monk's hand had so casually reached for her, no doubt fully intending to… She bit down on anger at the thought. Later. Right now the monk, infuriating and presumptuous as he might be, was a guest in her father's home and she must treat him as such. Even if it killed her. Or made her want to kill him.
She used the excuse of returning the hiraikotsu and her armor to their proper places in order to avoid dealing with the monk immediately. When she was finally able to maintain an expression of calm politeness, she joined her father and the monk in the sitting area of the main room. She wasn't sure what the two men had discussed during her brief absence, but they both looked very serious until they noticed her return. She took a place beside her father at the low table, with the monk sitting across from both of them.
Delicious smells wafted through the air. Kohaku was indeed at the hearth, preparing dinner for the two latecomers. She knew better than to offer to help. She had just returned from a mission, and would be accorded honors for such even by her own brother. He was, she sometimes thought, entirely too proud of his big sister. As if she wouldn't feel the same way in the next month or two when he completed the last of his training and became a slayer in truth.
"Welcome back, Daughter," her father began. "I trust you had a good hunt?"
She nodded. "I was able to salvage many useful parts from the youkai. I'll take them to the villagers tomorrow." She took a deep breath. "And I found something else, besides."
"I can see that," her father said, chuckling good-naturedly.
Sango frowned. "Not him. Something else." She opened the small storage compartment tucked along the side of her left arm-guard and removed the small, shining stone she had hidden there. "I found this," she said, handing it over to her father. She watched the monk sidelong, noting the obvious desire that sparked in his eyes at the merest glimpse of the jewel.
Yes, that man might very well prove dangerous. And yet she also noticed that Kirara still perched happily on his shoulder. Kirara never took to anybody that was troublesome or dangerous, or who felt ill will toward any of the villagers. It was strange that she should like the monk so much after only just meeting him. Sango felt a twinge. What do you see that I don't? she wondered.
Her father had not missed the look in the monk's eyes as he beheld the jewel, but he did not acknowledge it just yet. Instead he took the stone from Sango and looked it over thoroughly. Finally, he asked, "And what is it?"
"I believe it is a piece of the Shikon no Tama, Father."
They all had time to think about the implications of what she had said, for Kohaku chose that moment to serve dinner to Sango and the monk. Her brother had always had a remarkable sense of good timing, Sango thought as she dug happily into the bowl of leftovers. Even as she ate, she kept an eye on her father, hoping to see some sort of reaction as he inspected the stone she had given him.
"Very interesting, Sango," he said at last. Sango frowned into her food. She'd been hoping for something more conclusive than that, some indication that she ought truly to be proud of what she had found today, although she supposed with the monk watching so avidly her father might rightfully prefer to be cautious.
Ignoring the monk for now, her father set the stone aside and turned to his daughter. "Now, tell me about your hunt."
Sango set her bowl down, wanting nothing more than to finish her meal. But her father had asked, and she would not disappoint him. "Isamu was right," she began. "For me and hiraikotsu, it was an easy kill." From the corner of her eye, she could see that her father's expression was one of amusement and indulgence.
"I arrived at the village to find the monk offering his services to the villagers in the matter of slaying the youkai," she went on. "The beast attacked before I had a chance to speak with him." She couldn't mask a smile, and didn't need to. Not here. Not in her own home, with her father and brother. "An enormous centipede, one of the biggest I've seen. I felled it with one blow from the hiraikotsu." She sobered, smile slowly shifting into a frown. "From its remains… the monk found this stone."
She glanced to the monk, but he did not interject as she continued. "I guessed right away that it might be part of the Shikon jewel. And if that were true, I knew it must be returned to our village, so I claimed it as part of the spoils. I didn't realize it meant I'd be bringing him, too."
Her father chuckled. "This isn't the first time Sango has brought a guest home with her," he told the monk. "But it is the first time she's found something like this." He peered thoughtfully at the shining jewel.
Kohaku dropped down to sit beside the monk. "Is it really a piece of the Shikon no Tama?" he asked.
"That remains to be seen," Father told him. Sango nodded her agreement, though secretly she was positive that it really was a piece of the jewel. She wasn't entirely sure what that would mean for the village, but it sent a thrill of excitement through her. The jewel was an integral part of the village's history, an ancient and powerful relic that had been lost years upon years ago in the time of her grandfather. That she had found it again struck her as vitally important and perfectly natural. What worried her was that she had found only a piece of the jewel. What had befallen it that it was now in pieces? And what would happen if the other pieces remained scattered, as they must now be?
"We will present it to the elders tomorrow morning," Father decided. "They will help us determine if this truly is a piece of the jewel." He turned to Kohaku. "Please go now and inform the elders before it gets any later." Kohaku nodded and slipped away without a word.
"And what if it is really a piece of the jewel?" the monk asked.
Sango speared him with a look — she had known this man was trouble from the moment she met him. But her father was unperturbed. And, indeed, the monk's voice had betrayed nothing but simple curiosity.
"If it is a piece of the Shikon jewel," Father answered placidly, "then we must decide what to do with —and about— it."
"The jewel must be returned to the village," Sango declared.
Her father cast an amused glance her way. "That is for the elders to decide, Sango."
Sango had heard the story a hundred times, but her father repeated it now for their visitor's benefit. "In the past, the elders have decided that the safest place for the jewel was not within our village. You know that it requires a person of unusual power to maintain the jewel's purity and keep its evil from spreading."
"Yes," Sango agreed. "But look at what happened the last time they did that. Grandfather took the jewel to the priestess, and when she died it disappeared. It's only just reappeared, and in pieces." To Sango, it seemed obvious that something terrible had befallen the priestess and the jewel she was supposed to protect, but her father did not seem bothered by the idea.
"That may be," he told her. "But it does not change the fact that we've no one within the village capable of purifying the jewel."
"How can you know that?" Sango asked. "The jewel hasn't been here in more than fifty years!"
Her father chuckled at her outrage, and she flushed with embarrassment at having become so animated in front of a stranger. "Call it a hunch."
"I still don't see why we couldn't bring a priestess here, where she could be protected," she grumbled, aware that the monk was watching her with newfound interest. "We never found out what happened to the other one, only that the jewel disappeared. If she had been brought to live here, maybe the jewel would never have been lost in the first place."
"Be sure to bring that up to the elders tomorrow, daughter," her father suggested.
Sango subsided, but she still felt as if he were teasing her. He'd already decided that this piece of the jewel was genuine, she realized, and he had also already decided what to do with it. What she couldn't figure out was what that decision might entail. He was buying time by insisting that they take the jewel to the village elders for assessment. But why?
Long years of experience told her it would do no good to ask. Her father would reveal his plans when he saw fit, and no sooner. Not even to the woman who was his eldest child and heir. So she changed the topic of discussion. "You seem awfully interested in the Shikon no Tama," she said to the monk. He nodded. "Most people think it's nothing but a legend, but you knew right away what this was, and when you couldn't keep it for yourself, you followed me here."
He heaved a put-upon sigh, as if her suspicions were completely unfounded. "I promise you, Lady Slayer, that you have misunderstood my intentions!" he protested, using the ridiculous title the villagers had bestowed upon her.
Sango looked to her father for help, but he gave her a look that said both this is far too entertaining for me to intervene and this is your problem, take care of it. She would find no help from that quarter. Frustrated with her father's reaction to her plight, Sango turned once more to the monk. "Care to explain yourself?"
"It's getting late," he protested. "And it is a story perhaps better saved for morning."
"You may tell us now," Sango told him. She had to admit that she was looking forward to hearing whatever ridiculous explanation he was about to concoct.
"I've heard stories of the Shikon no Tama for my entire life," the monk began. "The jewel is a legend…" He smiled a charming smile that swayed Sango not a bit. "But I think you knew that already."
He was hedging, thinking, preparing to invent a story on the fly. Sango had suspected as much. Her father leaned forward, seeming interested. "Go on."
"They say the jewel is capable of granting the wish of whoever holds it," the monk went on. "And while I knew the jewel was a legend and might not truly exist, I always entertained some hope of using its power to grant my own wish."
Sango blinked. This was not at all the tale she had expected to hear. She could hardly believe he was being so open and honest about his selfish desire for the jewel. Did he really think to sway them with this story? She found herself asking, "And what wish is that, Houshi-sama?"
"To put an end to the curse that was placed upon my grandfather by an extremely powerful youkai many years ago. Upon his death, the curse was passed to my father. And after it claimed his life, too, it was passed to me." He held up his right hand, the one bound by a gauntlet and prayer beads, slowly closing the fingers into a fist. "When my grandfather was young, he fought many times with a powerful youkai called Naraku. At the end of each encounter, Naraku always managed to get away."
His expression had turned so serious that Sango wondered if he might be telling the truth after all. Unless this was a story he told often in order to gain sympathy…
"Until the very last time my grandfather ever saw him," the monk went on. "At that time, Naraku took on the form of a beautiful woman in order to get past my grandfather's defenses." He lowered his hand to rest atop the table, unclenching the fingers as if with great effort. "That time, before he vanished, he pierced my grandfather's hand and cursed him with the kazaana."
Sango's father sat back, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "An air rip," he mused aloud.
"Yes," the monk confirmed. "When unsealed, the kazaana pulls in everything —and everyone— that happens to be nearby. The curse grows stronger with each year that passes, in addition to being passed down from generation to generation. In order to be rid of it, I must find and destroy Naraku. If I do not…" He let his gaze drop to his cursed hand. "Then one day the curse will consume me as well, and be passed on to my children." He paused. "If, that is, I am ever lucky enough to find a woman willing to bear my children."
He glanced up at Sango through long lashes with a look that was such an obvious proposition that she had to marvel at his audacity. In front of her father, on the very day he had met her, without any idea whatsoever whether she was married or betrothed! And yet, if the story he had told them was true, she felt a pang of sympathy for him in spite of his outrageous behavior. She had seen no proof of the curse, but she couldn't help wondering. What would it be like to live as he did, with no family to support or help him, only a curse that he knew would kill him one day?
It was a disquieting thought, and she was glad this was not her challenge, but his. Looking at her father, remembering vividly the pain of losing her mother, she could not imagine life without him — or Kohaku.
"Tomorrow," she heard herself saying, "after the meeting of the village elders, I will take you to the cave where the jewel was created, and I will tell you everything I know about its history."
She wasn't sure what she intended to accomplish by sharing the history of the Shikon no Tama with this man. He was plainly not a good man. She didn't even particularly like him. But she wanted to help him in whatever small ways she could, even so. There was no chance that he would be allowed to use the jewel's power to put an end to his curse, but at least she could help him to understand why before sending him on his way.
To mask the uncomfortable mix of emotions she was feeling, she grabbed her bowl and dug back into the rest of her dinner. Her father, being the eminently sensible man that he was, asked for any news the monk might have from outside the village. They so seldom had visitors that it was worthwhile to ask even the least trustworthy guests for word of the outside world. And in the monk's case, Isamu's recent return meant that they already had a pretty good idea of what was going on, which in turn meant this was a fairly innocuous way to determine how trustworthy the monk might be.
It was an obvious tactic, but Sango approved. She half expected the monk to lie as blatantly as he had indicated his desire for a tryst with her earlier, yet from what she could tell he told only the truth.
Before she knew it, she found herself staring at her empty bowl and only half listening to the monk as he finished his tale. And still she was nowhere nearer to understanding that man or what he hoped to gain by remaining here. He had to know that they would not just hand over the Shikon jewel even after hearing his tale of woe. Did he plan to try to steal the jewel? Sango frowned.
"You seem tired, daughter," her father said suddenly.
Sango started, and realized she had stopped paying attention to the conversation around her. She'd been so caught up in wondering about the monk that she had forgotten everything else. Realizing that she was still frowning, she said, "I apologize, Father. It has been a long day."
"There's no need to trouble yourself staying up with us," he went on. "Your brother will return soon, and I can keep our guest entertained well enough on my own, I hope!" He chuckled. "Go and get some rest. You earned it, slaying that centipede."
"Of course, Father."
Before she could rise from her place beside him, her father leaned close. "You have a kind heart, daughter," he told her, and she understood it for the warning it was.
She gave a curt nod, repeating, "Of course, Father," as if he had given her some final directive for the evening, before rising and departing. She felt the monk's gaze on her as she walked the short distance from the main room to the chamber that was hers alone, and was glad to close the door behind her. How could a man at once be so frivolous and so intense? The thought gave her pause, and made her hope she wouldn't come to regret the offer she had made him.
I'll tell him about the jewel, she told herself, and nothing else. And then I'll send him on his way, and good riddance. It isn't like I want to help him break that stupid, so-called curse or anything.
Long after Kohaku had returned and all three of his hosts had gone to sleep, Miroku sat outside on the veranda and listened to the quiet sounds of the village through the darkness around him. The slayer family had given one of their spacious guest rooms over to his use, but he preferred to sit outside and consider his current circumstances beneath the stars. He was long accustomed to spending nights in unfamiliar places, and equally accustomed to the sort of lonely desperation that kept sleep at bay.
He sat with his legs folded and his hands resting gently against his thighs. If he closed his eyes, anyone passing by might think him meditating — or asleep. He let his gaze drop, staring with unseeing eyes at his two hands, the one whole and ordinary, the other bound and protected against the deadly curse set into the palm. Surrounded by people and still utterly alone in this village of demon slayers, he wondered what he was doing here, really.
Choosing a path because he heard a rumor of a pretty girl was one thing. Following her home because she might have found a piece of a legend was something altogether different. It was dangerously close to hope.
He'd heard of the Shikon no Tama, of course. He'd heard of just about every miraculous power in the world, every relic and blessing that so much as whispered of the potential to end his family's curse. None had truly held the power that rumor claimed they did. Or, at least, none had been able to resolve his particular dilemma. But the Shikon no Tama with its promise of limitless power and the granting of wishes had always eluded him. He had assumed it didn't really exist. That something like that couldn't really exist.
Yet if Sango and her father were right, it did. Tomorrow —today, now— Sango would take him up into the mountains to the cave where the jewel had been born. She had promised to share the legends with him: everything she knew about the jewel and its history.
If Sango and her father were right, the jewel could be the solution to his difficulties. There might be no need to waste the rest of his life searching pointlessly for Naraku.
If they were right, he ought to go into their home now that they were all sleeping, take the piece of the jewel that Sango had recovered, and vanish into the night before anyone realized he was gone. He could track down the rest of the pieces, if they existed, and use the jewel's wish-granting power to put an end to Naraku and rid himself of the kazaana. He would no longer have to live each day with the threat of death hanging over his head, knowing he was a danger to every person around him, knowing each day might be his last day alive and Naraku's final victory. He could live an ordinary life.
And yet he stayed where he was and watched the stars wheel slowly across the lightening sky. The sky was growing gray with false dawn when the little cat youkai crept out of the house and made herself at home in his lap. Miroku chuckled at her boldness, stroking a hand idly through her silken fur and earning a rumbled purr for his efforts. Both tails flicked slowly back and forth, the only sign that the cat wasn't simply napping. "What do you think, little one?" he asked. "Am I a fool for staying?"
She peered up at him, opening both red eyes. They glowed faintly in the darkness. He had never seen a cat with eyes like that before. But he was also not especially familiar with nekomata, so for all he knew this was perfectly ordinary. After a long moment of intense regard, she mewed softly and went back to her nap. He got the absurd impression that she approved of his choice to stay rather than pilfer the jewel. Exhaling a bemused sigh, Miroku remained where he was.
He was still sitting on the veranda long after the sun had risen and delicious smells had begun to waft from the house. Someone, it seemed, was cooking breakfast. He had to hand it to these slayers: in his admittedly limited experience, they really knew how to cook.
It wasn't long before Kohaku appeared, toting two bowls of rice and vegetables for the morning meal. Miroku had hoped that Sango would be the one to join him this morning, or else that the entire family would dine together, but kept his disappointment to himself. "Will you be going with your father and sister to see the elders this morning?" he asked.
Kohaku grimaced slightly, and Miroku knew without asking that he had not been given permission to attend, and that he resented being treated like a child. "The elders will be coming here," Kohaku informed him. "Our house is the only one with enough space for a big meeting like that."
Miroku nodded. Their home was relatively large compared to the others he had glimpsed last night, although he had by no means explored the entire village. "You will be joining them, then?"
Kohaku pouted. "Sango says I have training to do if I want to become a slayer like her," he admitted.
"That's what big sisters are for," Miroku told him amiably, though he had no experience with siblings, elder or otherwise.
"Don't remind me," Kohaku grumbled.
Seeing an opportunity to find out more about Sango's past without seeming to pry, Miroku asked, "Is your training so bad?"
This earned a small laugh from the boy. "It's not bad, it's just… some days I feel like it's all I do and all I'll ever do," he admitted. "It seems like they're never going to let me be a real slayer. And even when I do become a slayer, I still don't think I'll ever catch up to my sister!"
"Maybe not any time soon," Miroku agreed, careful to leave room for the boy to hope. "She does appear to have got several years' head start on you."
"And she never lets me forget it!" At least the conversation seemed to be brightening Kohaku's spirits. Sango was so confident and charismatic that it had surprised him to discover that her brother was comparatively quiet and contemplative, almost gloomy.
They ate in silence for several minutes, Kohaku stewing in his good-natured frustration with his sister, and Miroku waiting patiently. Finally, the boy said, "I'm so close to being a full slayer. But they haven't sent me on the mission to prove myself yet, so I can't officially be part of the meeting with the village elders. They let me join in for little things, but not for important business like this."
Miroku suspected that Kohaku had been given the relatively important business of keeping an eye on their visitor and making sure he didn't wander where he was neither wanted nor allowed. He kept that opinion to himself, however, not out of any particular sympathy for the boy, but rather out of simple expedience. If Kohaku didn't realize he was supposed to babysit Miroku, then he might be more lax in his watch.
"There's a test, then, before one may be considered a slayer?"
Kohaku's expression was glum when he nodded.
Miroku pressed his luck. "Are you allowed to divulge what the test entails? Your sister was quite secretive every time I ventured to ask even the simplest question…"
That earned him a laugh. "She wasn't very happy with you yesterday," Kohaku told him. "Father was pretty sure she wanted to throw you out until you told that story about the curse in your hand." He sobered. "Was it true? Are you really cursed?"
News traveled quickly through this household, it seemed. Miroku gestured with his bound hand. "I wouldn't bother with all this if there wasn't a curse," he said honestly. While the curse made for a good story and often, as was apparently the case with Sango, won him sympathy from those who would otherwise ignore or dislike him, it was no laughing matter. It was the one part of his life about which he usually told the truth.
The boy seemed duly impressed by the revelation. It was easy for others to find the curse impressive, rather than horrifying. Their lives were not at stake. Miroku had heard it all often enough that he no longer took it personally. "Would you like to hear the story yourself?"
Kohaku shook his head. "It's okay." He paused. "Unless you want to tell me!"
"I won't trouble you repeating it, then," Miroku decided. He fell silent when Kirara lifted her head and blinked her big red eyes open. She mewed plaintively just as Sango appeared in the doorway.
Sango, clad in the same fetching kosode she had worn yesterday, smiled briefly at the cat. For a moment Miroku allowed himself to imagine that the heartfelt smile was for him. Hers was no stunning beauty, but when she smiled she was utterly charming. That a woman could appear as sweetly innocent as Sango and yet kill youkai for a living only made her the more intriguing. Miroku's thoughts drifted toward a very pleasant fantasy of discovering whether or not this woman was as innocent as she looked.
And then she heartlessly shattered his lovely illusion. Without bestowing so much as a polite greeting upon him, Sango made her way past the veranda and down toward the gate, where the first of the morning's visitors had appeared.
While Kohaku gathered up the remains of their breakfast, Miroku watched Sango and sighed. What a disappointment, that this remarkable woman would likely be forever beyond his reach. He would have very much liked the opportunity to get much better acquainted with her.
As if he were fully aware of the monk's thoughts, Kohaku was smirking when he returned from cleaning up. "Come on," he said, his voice betraying amusement, as if Miroku were not the first visitor to be rendered completely besotted with his sister. "We'd better get out of the way."
"There's someone to see you, my lord," the man said without looking up. His voice betrayed nervousness bordering on fear.
Hitomi Kagewaki showed no outward reaction for a long time. Finally: "Show him in."
The servant had all but prostrated himself on the floor beside his lord's sickbed. He rose now and hurried from the darkened room, seeking the visitor that he should not have delayed in the first place.
Kagewaki waited with carefully concealed impatience while the servant was gone. He felt taut inside, tense with anticipation. His lips curled in a smile that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. At long last he heard the sound of footsteps in the hall beyond his room. Two sets of footsteps.
By the time the door opened and the servant stepped aside and bid the newcomer to enter, Kagewaki had managed to sit up, although he still lacked the strength to rise from his bed. "Leave us," he told the servant. He did not look toward the visitor until the servant had departed, closing the door behind him. Only then did he look to where the newcomer was standing.
The visitor stood silently just inside the door. His clothing and body were hidden beneath the pelt of a white baboon, his face covered by a mask in the shape of that same creature's face. Dark, empty holes gaped where the eyes should have been. "I am Naraku," the man said, but Kagewaki already knew that.
He knew, because this man was of his own creation. A part of him, carefully concealed, exulted. Outwardly, he must show no sign of recognition, but inwardly he could not deny that this was a great victory. To all appearances, this creature was a living, breathing man acting of his own volition and under his own power. Only Kagewaki knew the truth, that this Naraku was but a puppet, crafted of magic and human hair and other bits of power wrapped round a wooden core. That core was safely hidden here, among Kagewaki's things.
A puppet like this would be more useful to him than any human servant, for its loyalty was complete and assured.
"I had word that my lord's son was indisposed," Naraku went on, "and have come to offer what services I can."
"And what services might those be?" Kagewaki asked. Again, he knew what Naraku would say. The act was tiring, but necessary. In Hitomi Castle, one never knew who might be listening in. The castle folk, irritating as they were, must continue in their belief that he was their lord's son until he had gathered enough power to be rid of them.
"I am inconspicuous, my lord," Naraku told him. "I see and hear much in my wandering, and would be pleased to provide an account of all I have seen." Almost slyly, he added, "Since my lord is presently unable to venture forth to see for himself."
If he had not been responsible for the creature's existence, such insolence would have been intolerable. Kagewaki pretended not to notice. He waited in silence for several moments, as if deep in thought, before responding to the offer. "This could be a valuable opportunity," he mused, "for you can see that I cannot leave this place." He gave the puppet-man a sharp look. "What is it you ask in return for this service?"
"Only the opportunity to serve you, my lord," Naraku answered smoothly. Had this come from any other man, Kagewaki would have harbored grave doubts. But coming from the puppet Naraku, he knew it to be the simple truth.
Kagewaki smiled. "Tell me what you have seen."
This one goes out to Molly, Gabby, and Lauren for their unerring enthusiasm about this endeavor, along with my thanks to everyone who has supported this fic so far by reading, commenting, or leaving kudos. Thank you so much!
Kikyou was no longer human. She had clung tenaciously to the fragile, furious hope that in rebirth she might have held onto some shred of her humanity, and with nightfall that hope had been dashed. The same body that seemed impervious to pain or fatigue also had no need for sleep.
The villagers had been shocked when Sayo led her out of the forest, but shock had quickly turned to gratitude when Kikyou told them of Urasue's death. She had altered the tale, of course. She did not know what had happened between her death and her awakening in Urasue's kiln, so she told them that she had lost her way in the mountains, whereupon the witch had captured her in order to perform some evil ritual. And she told them that, in freeing herself, she had killed her captor.
She might as well have told them anything, or nothing at all. The villagers cared nothing for the details she supplied. They were just glad to know the witch was gone, their terror ended.
There had been only a brief debate about whether or not she would be allowed to remain in the village. The villagers had given an empty hut over for her use and brought her food and fuel for dinner and a fire, but it was late by then and none of them stayed long. She was a priestess, after all. She was trustworthy. She would stay. She would keep them safe.
She had spent the night in her dark and empty hut, sleepless. Seething silently, burning with feelings she could fight but never conquer.
And not once, even when the sky grew grey and pale as the sun rose behind the mountains, did Kikyou feel the need for rest. Her mind was exhausted, but her body of fired-clay did not respond to human needs. A part of her wondered bitterly if the villagers realized yet that they had exchanged one monster for another. She should leave this place, she knew, once she had found out all she could from the villagers. Before they found out what she really was.
But with the dawn she rose and built a fire in her empty hearth. She could not stomach the thought of food, but she made a meal of what the villagers had so generously given her anyway. It was best for now if they believed everything was as it should be. She would find a way later to dispose of the food so they would think she had eaten it. This accomplished, she left the hut behind.
In the night the village had been obscured by darkness and the people who had crowded around her and swept her off to the hut at the end of the road that now belonged to her. In the light of day, she could see the village as it truly was. It was larger than she had expected. In this isolated and desolate place, she had thought to find perhaps a small cluster of huts or even a tiny hamlet, but there were more than a dozen houses built where the trees gave way to wide open meadows and terraced fields that burgeoned with green. A spring twisted around the village on one side, clear and cold and fresh from the mountains, its babbling a cheerful backdrop to the sounds of the village at the break of day. In the distance, the deeper green of trees closed in around misty fields once more.
This place might as well be hidden from the rest of the world. Somehow, this thought pleased her.
Many of the villagers were already up and about, and they cast curious glances in her direction when they saw her emerge from her hut. She hated them and pitied them and wanted to be one of them all at once. All she had ever wanted was to be an ordinary woman, and even now that was denied her.
She smiled as gently as she could, though the expression still felt far too sharp, and turned away from the clustered huts and the curious stares. She needed information from these people. And more than that, she needed something to trade for information.
Kikyou made her way past the village and the fields and into the trees, oblivious to the early morning beauty of her surroundings. Birds called and fell silent as she passed, and even the incessant sounds of insects faded away. They knew what the villagers did not: no mortal creature walked among them.
The swelling silence around her tore at Kikyou. She struggled to focus on her task instead of her impotent fury. Anger would do her no good, she told herself over and over. But the anger did not abate.
Herbcraft was something she could offer to the villagers in exchange for the information she so desperately needed. Her gifts of healing, if they remained to her, would make her invaluable to the villagers despite the oddities she knew she could not hide for long. Sooner or later, someone would notice how little their priestess ate, how seldom she slept, how she sensed things that other people could not. But these things would trouble them less, she hoped, if she was also the one that healed their injuries and tended to the sick.
Thus this foray into the forest. She would stick close to the village today, so the villagers could see her at work and know that she had not simply vanished into the night like a youkai might. Later, she could venture further afield.
She was pleased to find large clusters of medicinal herbs growing quite near to the village. It seemed that her initial guess had been correct and they did not have a healer of their own. She wondered if there was another, larger village nearby, and if they might send for a healer from that village, or if this village was small enough to simply get by without a true healer. With that question in mind, she gathered as much of the herbs as she dared to take and headed back to the village.
She would need supplies in order to properly dry and mix the herbs so that they could be used as medicine, and this would give her the chance for a first, crucial conversation with the villagers. As she crept back through the forest and onto the path that served as the village's main road, she wondered what it would be like if she stayed here. Urasue had whispered of the Shikon no Tama, and if those whispers had been more than mere rumor, then it was Kikyou's duty to seek out the jewel and destroy it as she had failed to do in her first life. She prayed that the jewel's return was only a rumor.
Sayo was waiting outside her hut when she returned. The child's eyes lit up when they fell on Kikyou. She hopped up from where she had been sitting, beaming as she asked, "You're going to stay?"
Kikyou smiled, aching inside. "For now," she said. "If the other villagers will allow it, I would like very much to stay."
Sayo's delighted smile tugged at Kikyou's heart. Did she have a heart? She was almost certain she did not. And yet the sensation persisted.
She brushed aside the feelings of longing, the desire to be mother and sister and friend to this sweet child, with the ease brought by years of practice. "Is there someone in the village who might have a basket to spare?" she asked. "There are a few other things I will need, as well…"
Sayo thought for a moment, then nodded earnestly. "I'm sure everyone will be happy to help you out!" she chirped. "Come on!"
Kikyou was not as sure, but she followed Sayo into the village anyway.
The slayers arrived first singly and then in small groups as the morning grew brighter. Sango met each one of them at the entrance to her family's small compound. As the eldest child and heir, not to mention the instigator of this meeting, it was her duty to greet them and apprise them of the situation at hand before sending them in to join her father.
Finally, the last pair arrived. There were fully twenty taijiya warriors in the village at this time, if Sango and her father were counted among them. The rest were out serving as itinerant messengers or on other missions and would not be part of today's meeting, but the twenty gathered today would be enough to reach a decision. Curiosity and impatience gnawed at Sango as she escorted the final two elders into the house and carefully closed the door behind them. Hopefully that small safeguard —and Kohaku's watchful presence— would be enough to keep their guest out of the way and out of trouble. The last thing she needed today was for the monk to cause a major disruption. Or a minor one, at that.
For now, she set aside her worries about the monk's bad behavior and took her place among the gathered warriors. As village headman, it fell to her father to inform the gathered elders of her finding and solicit their opinion on the matter. Although she was the one who had found the jewel, she was among the most junior of the warriors gathered today and her voice would be only one among many. As, she thought, it should be. She was confident in her finding and believed that she truly had found a piece of the missing jewel, but the strength of her conviction might stem only from the fact that it was her discovery and nothing more.
So she sat quietly as her father relayed the tale of her mission and its result, and forced herself to remain calm as he revealed the piece of smooth, faintly shining gemstone to the other warriors for inspection. It was imperative that the other slayers get their first chance to determine it to be genuine without any persuasion from her.
She hung back as the other slayers gathered around her father, each taking their turn to investigate the might-be jewel. The meeting room was large, big enough to hold every single slayer and then some, but today it seemed small and cramped, filled as it was with excited murmuring.
It wasn't long before Sango found Isamu standing beside her, looking thoughtful. "What do you think?" she asked him.
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "Although I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed I didn't take that mission for myself now."
Sango chuckled. "So you could claim the glory?"
"It would've certainly got Kasumi's attention," he said, adding a melancholy sigh for good measure.
Sango whapped him playfully on the arm. "She already agreed to marry you. What more do you want?"
He laughed. "She doesn't even miss me when I'm off on a journey! If I brought back something like that, I'd be a hero and maybe she'd actually notice when I'm gone!"
"If you want the glory, then you have to do the hard work," Sango told him, utterly unsympathetic to his plight — and completely ignoring the fact that it had been a quick and easy fight. Six years older than her and an accomplished slayer from a young age, Isamu had been Sango's idol growing up. She was glad that he had more than found his match in her friend Kasumi. And that he tolerated her teasing about it.
Both Sango and Isamu fell silent as Sango's father spoke to the group. "You have all had the opportunity to inspect the spoils that my daughter brought back from her last mission. What are your thoughts? Is this a piece of the Shikon no Tama?"
Sango had not felt this nervous since the day of the trial that confirmed her as a full taiji-ya and village elder. She had been only ten years old at that time, but she felt much the same way today. She was counted among the best warriors the village had to offer, but she was also one of the youngest present today, and was keenly feeling her relative lack of experience. If she had judged wrongly in front of the rest of the village elders…
Isamu gave her a reassuring glance, even though she already knew that he believed as she did.
"The Shikon no Tama vanished years ago." Takeshi, eldest of the taiji-ya and the oldest person present, was the first to speak. "Have we any reason to believe it was not destroyed? Beyond, of course," he went on with a cutting glance in Sango's direction, "the rumors that have persisted of late."
"We were never able to discover what became of the jewel," Isamu spoke up. "We don't know if it was destroyed or merely hidden."
"Or lost," Sango murmured.
"That may be," Takeshi countered, "but there's no one left in the village that ever saw the Shikon no Tama. How do we know if this is it?"
"It can't be the Shikon no Tama," Hoshiko pointed out. "All the stories say the Shikon jewel was perfectly round. And this, obviously, is not."
"And what if," Father cut in, "this is but a piece of the jewel, as Sango suspects?"
A thoughtful hush fell over the room. Sango looked to Isamu, but he was watching her father.
"What if," her father went on, "the jewel was not lost, but broken and scattered?"
Sango's heart pounded fiercely in her chest.
"If this is even a part of the jewel, it must be kept safe," Takeshi's younger brother Tetsuo pointed out. "Others will only try to gain its power for themselves and evil will overcome it."
Hoshiko gave a snorting laugh. "And it'll be safe here? Who here can free it from evil and keep it that way?" she demanded. She turned to Sango's father. "If this is a piece of the jewel, as you say, Iwao, then we need to find another person that can keep it safe, as we did in the past." She paused, frowning. "And we'll need to find the other pieces before they can be used to stir up trouble."
"That's if this is a piece of the Shikon no Tama," Takeshi reminded her. "And that's a very big if."
"What else could it be?" Sango asked, knowing she should leave it to the others to decide. "The centipede had embedded it in its carapace of its jaw. I've never seen a youkai do that before." All of the slayers had turned to regard her, so she carried on. "When was the last time any of you heard of a youkai doing that with any other object?" she asked. They all knew the answer as well as she did: it had been when her grandfather had first recovered the Shikon no Tama from a youkai and returned it to their village for the first time in generations. It was only later that the jewel had been given over to a priestess for purification and subsequently lost again.
Even then, she remembered, there had been doubters. Not everyone had believed that her grandfather had found the Shikon no Tama, the crystallized soul of their ancestor and the demons she had battled. Sango must now be as strong and convincing as her grandfather had been.
"This must be a piece of the Shikon jewel," she went on. "It can be nothing else."
Takeshi and Tetsuo both spoke at the same time, and the discussion went downhill from there, with everyone trying to get his or her opinion in at the same time.
Sango grimaced. "This is not how I hoped this would go," she moaned.
Isamu chuckled. "They'll come around. They wouldn't be this riled up if they didn't think you were on to something."
Sango nodded absently and hoped he was right. She kept an eye on her father while the others argued, marveling at his apparent tranquility. Then again, he wasn't the one who had found a strange stone and concluded that it must be part of the lost Shikon jewel, and therefore merited the immediate attention of every recognized taiji-ya in the village. His reputation was not at stake. Hers was.
Slowly, the furor began to die down. The elders had split themselves roughly into two factions, with one side feeling that Sango had made her case —or at least that it bore more thorough investigation— and the other believing that she had not. Only a few remained undecided. A quick tally told Sango that her supporters far outnumbered the doubters. She breathed a sigh of relief, but knew that now the true work would begin. The remaining pieces of the jewel, if they existed, must be found and protected. They must find a way to rejoin the broken pieces, and keep the jewel pure and safe. There was so much to do…
If Sango was certain of one thing, it was that the Shikon no Tama must not be lost again.
She stood stoically beside Isamu while her father announced the majority consensus. "I think we are in agreement, at least," he began, "that caution is necessary. If this is indeed what Sango —and many of you— believe it to be, then it must be kept out of enemy hands."
Hoshiko, ever practical, piped up to say, "And even if it's not a piece of the Shikon no Tama, better to have safeguarded it as if it were, than to risk losing the jewel to carelessness again." She shot a derisive look toward Sango's father, as if the jewel's loss were his fault because it was his father that had found and then lost it again all those years ago.
Father remained unperturbed. He was accustomed to Hoshiko's brash personality by now, after long years of clashing with her. "Exactly," he said with deceptive mildness. "Is this really a chance we can take?"
The other elders had little choice but to agree. From eldest to youngest, they eventually all acquiesced to the wisdom of protecting what might not truly be a relic out of legend… but might yet turn out to be exactly what Sango thought it was. They could agree, however grudgingly, that it was better to mistakenly guard a useless pebble than to fail to protect a powerful relic. Unfortunately, that agreement led only to more questions.
"If this is a part of the Shikon jewel," Isamu mused, just loud enough to be heard above the low murmur, "then where is the rest of it?"
Seiichi, Takeshi's son, countered, "That is why we must not act rashly. We must be certain this is a piece of the Shikon jewel before we devote too much time and effort to finding and protecting the pieces."
His thoughts following the same path as his son's, Takeshi added, "And what do we do with them once we have gathered them all?"
"Let's worry about that problem when we get to it," Hoshiko suggested. "We have a lot of questions to answer before we decide what to do with this thing in the long term. We ought to work on those, first."
Sango had to agree. "First we must see if other pieces can be found. Otherwise we'll only be acting on guesswork. If it isn't a piece of the Shikon no Tama, we shouldn't find any other pieces. And if it is part of the Shikon no Tama, then we must obtain the other pieces before they fall into the wrong hands."
"And what are the wrong hands?" Seiichi demanded. "Is that something we should decide?"
"Yes," Sango insisted. "The jewel was born here. We know what it can do better than anyone else. And we know what it can do when used wrongly."
Seiichi was not convinced. "Myths. Stories."
"Whether it's just a story or not, if it's here, we know the jewel will not be used," Sango pointed out. "And if it's just a rock, what's the harm in keeping it here for a while to see what happens?"
Seiichi and his father both moved to speak up against her, but for or the first time all morning, her father interrupted to speak on his own behalf. "I suggest that we send word to the itinerants and messengers. See if they can turn up anything in their travels, and give them orders to return any unusual gems that they find to the village for inspection. But in the meantime, we safeguard this piece as if it were a piece of the Shikon no Tama." He glanced briefly to his daughter. "No sense taking chances."
"Easier said than done," Takeshi said dismissively. But he did not outright protest the idea this time.
"Not if we send Kohaku and Kirara," Sango suggested. "Kirara can cover a lot of ground quickly, and Kohaku can relay the message." Every slayer present knew what she did not say: that a mission of this nature would be excellent preparation for the test that would see him named a slayer in truth.
Maybe in the end, that was what swayed them. Or perhaps she and her father had simply made arguments that were compelling enough to convince the others. But by late morning they had come to a consensus. Kohaku and Kirara would be dispatched to deliver the message to the itinerant slayers, and in the meantime the piece of the Shikon no Tama would remain here at the village, where it could be kept relatively safe. It wasn't a resounding victory by any means, but it left Sango feeling refreshed and excited… until she remembered that she had promised to take the monk up the mountain to see Midoriko's cave.
While Sango went to greet the day's visitors, Miroku followed Kohaku's excellent suggestion and simply got out of the way. Annoyed at having her nap interrupted, Kirara shook herself and slipped into the house. Miroku made no attempt to follow. Sango had made it perfectly clear to Kohaku that this meeting was not their concern, and though Miroku was entirely too tempted to spy on the proceedings, Kohaku was every bit the good younger brother. And a good babysitter, too.
Kohaku did not wait until the last of the village elders had arrived, but left Miroku to sit and watch while Sango was still outside greeting each of the arriving warriors in turn. Unlike most of the villages and towns Miroku had visited, the status of elder did not seem to be conferred by age but by prowess in battle and accomplishment in the slaying of youkai.
Miroku found it odd that this village counted some relatively young people among its elders. He even got the impression that Sango herself was not merely the instigator of this meeting, but was accorded an equal status with each of the elders she greeted and escorted to the door. It made a sort of sense. She had passed the test to become a slayer. Perhaps that was also how one became a village elder.
He was even more surprised a little later to note that at least one of the other elders was a woman. She was taller than Sango and striking in appearance, with a sharp beauty that bordered on sly fierceness. Miroku's mouth ran dry just looking at her. He realized he was staring but made no attempt to look away. The slayer woman returned his gaze with a cool look, as if she couldn't quite decide if this leering stranger were a fool or she might actually be interested in him.
Sango glared at him as she led the other woman up the steps and into the house. The only thing that saved him from what was sure to be a withering condemnation was Kohaku's return. The boy was dressed in rougher clothes than the ones he had been wearing earlier, and carried a chain-scythe in one hand, the long chain hanging in a neat loop around his arm. He ignored Miroku, but cast a hopeful glance toward his sister, which Sango rewarded with a look of beaming approval. Kohaku sighed and got to work.
The main building of the house was surrounded at a short distance by a fence into which was set a gate. Although the fence was low enough to climb over, guests were admitted through the ornate gate, much as Miroku himself had been last night. Miroku hadn't paid much attention to this feature of the property until now, when Kohaku walked over and began setting a series of differently-sized logs on end atop the fence. Some were short and squat, others taller and thinner. Some he balanced precariously, poised to fall at the slightest breeze, but others he set firmly upright.
Miroku watched, more out of boredom than actual interest, until his attention was diverted by Sango's approach with what must be the last of the elders. The only clue that this was the case was the gate, which was now firmly closed. Without so much as a word to or about him, Sango and the two men disappeared into the house. Sango closed the main doors behind them with a depressing finality, and Miroku turned his attention back to Kohaku with a sigh. If he was absolutely not to be included in today's meeting, he might as well see he could get anything useful out of the boy.
Unfortunately, Kohaku was now well and truly absorbed in his training. Or perhaps that was fortunate, after all. Miroku watched, wondering if an opportunity to sneak away would present itself. He could probably learn just as much by wandering through the village as he would learn from Sango's brother.
With practiced ease, Kohaku hurled the chain-scythe in perfectly-prescribed sweeps and slashes. It was as if the weapon were an extension of his body. It was, Miroku noted, the same ease and perfection with which Sango wielded her boomerang. Yet this boy couldn't be older than eleven or twelve years.
Unabashed, Miroku stared. Just how young were these slayers when they began training? How many hours had Sango spent working with that boomerang before she could even lift it to begin training? A chain-scythe was one thing. Small. Lightweight. Manageable. Sango's boomerang was at least as tall as she was. Not for the first time he tried, and failed, to picture Sango at Kohaku's age. She had told him that she was ten years old when she became a taiji-ya and he did not doubt her. Only he could not quite believe her, either.
It seemed as if Kohaku whirled his chain-scythe at close range for ages. When he finally decided that he had practiced enough in this way, the chain suddenly lashed out to its full length - and the blade neatly sliced through the first of the logs. After that, Kohaku never stopped moving. He weaved and turned, whirling, almost dancing as he made his way slowly along the side of the house. The chain lashed out and pulled back, swirling with his every move, and with each lash it cut through one of the logs. Not once did Kohaku miss his mark, until at last there were no more intact logs left. Even the most precariously balanced stumps remained where Kohaku had positioned them, the wickedly sharp blade disturbing them not a bit.
"Very impressive," Miroku commented as Kohaku drew the chain back in with a sudden jerk, neatly catching the scythe by its handle on the return.
The boy blushed, suddenly awkward. "You think so?"
"You'll be challenging your sister for the title of best slayer in the family in no time," Miroku said, trying and failing to reassure him. Seeing that this had failed, he opted for a different approach. "How long have you been practicing with that thing?"
This, at least, seemed to distract him. "Since I was old enough to pick a weapon. I think I was… four or five years old? Maybe younger," he mused, as if not quite sure. It occurred to Miroku that training was such a part of life here that there might not be an official beginning to it. Children in this village might simply be born to it.
"Does everyone in the village pick a weapon?"
Kohaku came over and plopped down next to Miroku. The chain from his weapon formed a neat pile beside him almost by accident. "Everyone learns to fight," the boy said at last. "But not everyone picks a weapon in the way the slayers do."
Miroku must have looked well and truly confused, because the boy laughed. "I don't know how to explain it to an outsider!" When he had settled down, he went on, "Everyone trains so that they know how to defend themselves and the village if they have to. So they'll pick a weapon for that."
"But it's different for those who go on to become taiji-ya," Miroku murmured.
Kohaku nodded eagerly. "We feel drawn to a particular weapon," he told Miroku. "And we know right away that's what we want to do. Or at least, Sango and I did."
"So the two women guarding the gate last night," Miroku began.
"Kaori and Kasumi? They're trained fighters, so they take their turn at guard duty, but they aren't slayers like Sango and Father," Kohaku explained.
"Is it unusual for women to become slayers?"
Kohaku did not seem deceived by Miroku's line of questioning. That boy would be a force to reckon with in a year or two. "It's not common," he decided. "But it isn't unusual, either. It's just… being a slayer is hard. There's the training, but there's also a lot you have to learn. About weapons and potions and youkai, stuff like that. I guess most of the women just would rather have children or take care of the other work that needs to be done."
"Your village is self-sufficient, then?" Miroku probed. He wasn't sure how much he could get away with asking. Sango had made it perfectly clear that her people kept their secrets to themselves, but Kohaku seemed much more willing to talk.
"Sort of. There isn't room to grow much of anything up here, so we trade for most of our food and for metal and stuff if we need it," Kohaku explained. "But for the most part people are happy to trade with us. We usually bring back something of value after each hunt." Miroku remembered how Sango had carefully gathered pieces of the fallen centipede, though he had been unable to tell the difference between the parts she chose and the ones she left behind, and could not imagine how centipede legs and shell could possibly have any value.
"Including youkai parts? What do you use those for?"
Kohaku frowned slightly. "You ask a lot of questions."
Miroku suspected that he really meant Sango wouldn't like me telling you that. So he told the boy, "I have been traveling for most of my life, but I have never before encountered a village like this one." He gave a self-deprecating smile. "I apologize if my curiosity is uncomfortable for you."
Kohaku shook his head. "I don't mind. It's just… Sango wouldn't like me to tell you too much. We don't even usually let outsiders know where our village is, much less tell them about our daily lives." He paused, looking past Miroku. "Besides, we have company."
Miroku turned, following the boy's gaze to the gate where two women, who might have been the two gate guards from last night, were standing and watching them. "It appears we do," he agreed. "Shall we invite them in?"
This earned a put-upon sigh from Kohaku, but he called to the women anyway. "Come on in."
Both women were about Sango's height, though the one was perhaps a finger or two taller than the other, and they looked enough alike to be sisters. When they had come through the gate and joined Miroku and Kohaku on the veranda, the boy introduced them as Kaori and her elder sister Kasumi. They were indeed the two women he had so briefly met the previous night, the very same ones that had teased Sango about bringing him with her. And, much as he was curious about life in their village, they were intensely curious about him.
"This isn't the first time Sango's brought someone back to the village," Kaori commented. She was shorter than her sister and had shorter hair as well, and a slightly deeper and very pleasant voice.
Kasumi grinned. "Was it love at first sight, or something else that convinced you to come home with her?" Her tone left little doubt that any previous tagalongs had been completely and hopelessly in love with Sango.
He chuckled. "I have to admit, I was most impressed by Sango's skills in battle," he told them. "But I was more curious about what she found after the fight."
The sisters shared a glance. "And what did she find?" Kasumi prompted.
Miroku shrugged. "That's what they're trying to decide right now. Sango thought it might be a piece of the Shikon no Tama."
Both women's eyes went wide. "But the jewel was lost ages ago," Kasumi protested. "Nobody's seen it in at least fifty years!"
Kaori's expression was dark, her pretty mouth turned down in a slight frown, her brow furrowed. "And you followed her here because you thought she was right, didn't you?"
"Kaori, don't go accusing our guest of anything underhanded like that," Kasumi scolded.
"I didn't accuse him," Kaori sniffed. "I questioned him."
Miroku, having often been on the receiving end of both types of interrogation in the past, very much appreciated the distinction. "She was right to question me. I did follow Sango because of the jewel." He paused, drawing in a breath for dramatic effect. "You see, I bear a curse that has been handed down from my grandfather to my father when he died, and upon my father's death was passed to me. In a short time, it will kill me as well, and pass on to any children I may sire before that time. I had some small hope that the power of the Shikon jewel might rid me of the curse."
He had both of them now and he knew it. Kaori's frown deepened ever so slightly. Kasumi gave a knowing grin. "So you got Sango to take pity on you?" she asked.
"More or less," he agreed. "Although I didn't actually tell her about the curse until we got here," he added for good measure.
Kasumi crowed with laughter and nearly toppled against her sister in her mirth. "So you convinced her with nothing but charm? That's a new one!"
"What? It's funny! Come on, you know it is."
She exhaled sharply and turned away so quickly that her hair, cropped to just shoulder length, whirled around her. "You shouldn't encourage him."
"Why? Because Sango's too focused on her work to worry about finding a man even after they keep following her home?"
Kaori turned back to glare at her sister. "Because this one's obviously nothing but trouble!"
Miroku glanced to Kohaku, wondering what the boy made of all this. His silence betrayed nothing, but he looked to be just as bemused as Miroku. With perhaps a bit less confusion and a bit more amusement than the monk was feeling. After all, if these women were Sango's friends, Kohaku must be quite familiar with them and their quirks himself. He could probably guess what they were thinking, where Miroku didn't have a clue.
"You're only saying that because he's eloquent and good looking," Kasumi teased. "And that story about the curse -"
"Which is absolutely true," he cut in.
"- makes him just about irresistible, doesn't it?"
Kaori's glare did not lessen one bit. Miroku thought she might pounce on her sister at any moment until Kohaku chuckled and rose from where he was sitting, and made his escape by saying, "I really should get back to my training." On his way back to restock the fence with logs for practice, he added, "And I think Sango would prefer if you kept him alive for now."
Kasumi seemed to find this much more entertaining than her sister did. "For now!" she agreed.
"Should I be worried for my safety?" Miroku asked mildly.
"No!" Kaori said, at the same time as her sister grinned wickedly and said, "Yes."
Kaori slumped, groaning. "Stop leering at him like that! He's up to no good and you know it."
"You don't know that."
"I do," she countered pointedly. Miroku was beginning to think it was for the best that these two had decided not to become youkai slayers. He could only imagine what they might be capable of, given the proper training.
"You're just overly suspicious," Kasumi accused.
"I am not!"
Miroku shrugged and intervened. "She has every reason to be suspicious." When both sisters look at him in surprise, he went on, "I followed your friend home and wouldn't leave until she agreed to tell me more about the Shikon no Tama. I do, in fact, hope to convince her to let me use its power to rid myself of my curse. I freely admit that my purpose here is entirely selfish, and have done nothing to convince anyone that I am anything but a complete scoundrel."
Kasumi was giggling in earnest by the end of this solemn recitation. "I say we keep him."
Her sister was not impressed. "Why are you flirting with him when you promised to marry Isamu?"
"When he's done with his years as an itinerant!" Kasumi tossed her hair, on the verge of outright laughter. "And in the meantime, I'm betrothed, not blind!"
Miroku was both surprised and pleased to find that the slayer women were much more forthcoming than Sango. Or at least, Kasumi was. Though he strongly suspected Sango would never forgive him for seducing one of her friends. And somehow that thought actually gave him pause. He needed her cooperation right now, or else he would have little hope of finding out more about the Shikon no Tama and none at all of using its power to end his curse. He had a feeling it would take little effort on Sango's part to see him thrown out of the village with orders never to return.
He couldn't afford for that to happen. Not yet. But once he had what he wanted… the idea of seducing a powerful and very willing woman like Kasumi held a definite appeal.
They were still conversing —much more amiably now— when Sango and the elders finally emerged from the house. The quiet of late morning was punctuated more by the rhythmic sound of Kohaku's chain scythe than by the quiet voices of the trio clustered together on the veranda. All three fell silent as Sango politely escorted all of the guests as far as the gate. When at last everyone was gone, she seemed almost to sag with relief until she spotted Miroku sitting with her friends.
"Sango, come join us!" Kasumi called cheerfully.
Miroku watched as she drew in a deep breath and considered refusing, then strode purposefully over anyway. "I hope you've all had a pleasant morning," she said and did not sit with them. She cut an imposing figure, looming over them like that.
"I didn't let the monk get into any trouble, if that's what you mean," Kohaku chimed in from somewhere behind Miroku.
Sango almost chuckled. "Kaori and Kasumi can take care of themselves," she declared.
"You wouldn't say that if you knew how much Kasumi and Miroku were flirting with each other," Kaori pointed out.
"The monk's incorrigible," Sango told them. "But for now he's our guest, so we have to put up with him." She sighed and let her arms, which had been crossed over her chest, fall to her sides. "Now: are you coming or not?"
Realizing that this last part was directed only at him, Miroku asked, "Coming?"
"I'd like to get back from the cave before nightfall."
He had been enjoying his conversation with Kaori and Kasumi so much that he'd all but forgotten Sango's promise. Hastening to his feet, he said, "Of course. We had best get going, then." As he followed Sango away from the group, he turned back to regretfully say, "I will miss the excellent company, however."
Kasumi giggled and waved him farewell. Kaori watched without humor. She was very protective of her friend, that one.
"Have fun at the cave!" Kasumi called after them. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
Miroku noted with interest the way Sango's cheeks reddened at the suggestion. Was she perhaps more affected by his charms than she let on? The thought of leaving the sisters behind saddened him, even as he relished the thought of an afternoon spent alone with Sango. Perhaps this would be the opportunity he needed to get past those defenses of hers. He'd seen a glimpse of a kind heart last night, when she offered to take him to the cave in the first place, but she responded more coldly to all of his advances than he was used to.
"Should we perhaps eat something before we depart?" he suggested as they headed away from the house, thinking that it had been quite some time since breakfast and not particularly enjoying the thought of hiking uphill to a cave in the mountains on an empty stomach.
Sango gestured to the pack tied loosely around her shoulders. "I have everything we'll need."
"Ah, a picnic with a lovely woman, then? Delightful," he said as sweetly as possible.
"Don't get your hopes up."
He tried not to smile in the face of her apparent displeasure. "If you no longer wish to go with me, simply point the way and I will go myself," he told her when they reached the gate. "It isn't too late to change your mind."
She sighed. "And what would that tell you? All you would know is how to find the cave where the jewel was born."
He shrugged. "Or you could just tell me here, and save us both the trip."
She shook her head. "It's not the same. It's… better if you see."
Better if I see what? he wondered, but followed Sango in silence as she opened the gate and went out.
"I have witnessed strange occurrences," Naraku began. "Unexplainable events."
Hitomi Kagewaki felt his lips quirk into a smirk. "What sort of strange occurrences?" he prodded, knowing that Naraku would tell him nothing he had not heard already. And yet a part of him was excited: what would this puppet tell him?
"In a forest not far from here, there has dwelled a youkai from time out of memory," Naraku went on. "For as long as any could remember, the youkai lived quietly and left the nearby villages in peace. But recently, and without apparent cause, that has changed. The beast now attacks any who pass to close to its dwelling place, and the villagers fear that it may soon turn on them."
"And you have seen this, have you?" It was not a question.
"I did not dare stray into the youkai's lair, but I have seen proof of its recent activity."
Kagewaki briefly considered this. "And what do you think has caused this change in behavior?"
With that damned baboon mask covering his face, it was impossible to tell from his expression what Naraku might be thinking. Or not thinking. "I can think of only one explanation, my lord," Naraku said, his voice pitched low so as not to be overheard. "Surely you have heard the rumors… that the Shikon jewel has returned."
Kagewaki inclined his head in a slight nod. "I have heard these rumors. I believe them to be unfounded."
"This youkai was in possession of something very like the Shikon jewel," Naraku told him. "Its power —and its anger— has grown immensely greater in a very short time. And, although I saw only from a great distance, there was something shining upon the creature's forehead."
He paused, as if considering his story. As if he could truly think. "But I do not think it was the Shikon no Tama. Or, at least, not the entire jewel. If it were… surely the creature would have made use of its power to grant its master's greatest wish."
Not for the first time, Kagewaki wished for the strength to leave this wretched sickroom and go out into the world. Not yet, he reminded himself. For now he must maintain the illusion and must remain hidden. Naraku had brought him valuable information, although he had already guessed much of it, and would bring more in the days to come. Until he knew more about the current situation in the wider world, he must bide his time here.
It was not just news of the Shikon no Tama's whereabouts that he hoped to obtain.
"I understand," he told Naraku at last. "Your report is appreciated."
Naraku bowed deeply. "Thank you, my lord. I am glad to have been of service."
"Go now. Return when you have more to tell me." Frowning, he added, "Or when you have something to show me." Perhaps the jewel itself, or one of the scattered pieces of it.
Naraku rose from his bow without another word and moved toward the door. As he departed, he turned back for a moment to say, in an offhanded way, "You may want to take care that your youkai does not come into possession of such a powerful object, as this other has. It may prove troublesome."
Kagewaki's expression betrayed nothing.
It was no easy walk up the mountain to the cave where legend said the priestess Midoriko had died and the Shikon no Tama had been born, but the trip was worth the effort. Sango could easily have asked Kirara to carry her and the monk to the cave, but she had not been thrilled at the prospect of even a short flight with that man. It was no stretch to imagine him using it as an excuse to press himself suggestively against her, whispering innuendo in her ear, and she found herself almost waiting for him to make a move, if only to give her an excuse to retaliate.
She hoped it would do him good to expend a little effort in learning the history of the relic he so desired.
They made the journey more or less in silence, though not for lack of trying on the monk's part. He tried several times to engage her in conversation, but eventually subsided when he realized he would get no more than terse replies out of her. Even when they stopped to eat the small meal she had brought for them, she stubbornly refused to rise to the bait. His determination to win her over only made her more suspicious of his intentions and more eager to send him on his way. With any luck, this trip to the cave would do the trick… if she could put up with him long enough.
Failing that… Sango glanced over her shoulder as he huffed up the last few steps to the mouth of the cave, and was not sure what she would do. Even if she convinced him to leave the village of the slayers after this, she had the unpleasant feeling that this would not be the last she saw of him.
"This is the place?" he asked, sounding less winded than she had expected.
"Yes," she told him. It did not look like the sort of place where one would find a large cave, this narrow ledge on the side of a mountain where thick bushes clustered and the path disappeared. Sango herself had not believed there could be anything here, the first time her father brought her. She had been only a child, then. Now she had become the guide.
She led him past the curtain of greenery and into momentary darkness. The monk followed cautiously, suddenly nervous now that they had reached their destination and the time had come for her to keep the promise she had made. It surprised her a little to see him so tentative.
The cave was dark and narrow as it meandered into the mountain. Even Sango felt closed in and nervous, and she knew what lay ahead.
Finally the monk could take it no longer and asked, "Should we have brought torches?"
"No," said Sango, and she rounded the curve and stepped into the light. She listened to the monk following, noting when he stopped to stare in awe at that which was hidden within the cave. Sango let him look in silence; even after all these years, the sight still engrossed her. A long time ago, parts of the ceiling had collapsed, allowing daylight to stream into the gloom. Thin beams of sunlight illuminated the cavern with strands of eerie, bluish light.
The cavern was dominated by an ungainly formation of stone that twisted and bulged from floor to ceiling. At first glance it seemed like nothing more than an ugly, but natural feature of the cave.
It was also a mummy, the petrified remains of the priestess and the youkai that had killed her, but this was not immediately obvious from where Sango and the monk stood near the entry passage. Sango edged further into the cavern and said nothing, letting the monk take his time as he took in the sight before him.
From her new vantage point, the eerie figure came into view and became recognizable as the form of a woman and… something else. The massed youkai, which still seemed to roil and seethe despite being dead and long since turned to stone, were like nothing she had ever seen before. Sango always felt an inexplicable draw when she came to this place, a deep and enduring curiosity about the woman who had died here and the powerful relic that had been birthed in the aftermath. Even so, the sight sent shivers down her spine. This cavern was both a tomb and a memorial to a powerful woman who had lived long ago, but it was also a warning: no matter how skilled the warrior, no matter how much they knew about youkai, there were always dangers.
"What do you know about the jewel's creation?" she asked as the monk finally came to join her and beheld the cavern's secret for the first time.
"I know nothing," he said, and there was a slight tinge of appreciation to his voice. "Only that it holds powerful magic, or is said to."
She noticed the way the fingers of his right hand, the bound and cursed hand, seemed to tighten of their own accord to form a loose fist, but did not mention it. Instead she took a few steps forward, putting herself well out of his reach. "It was created here," she told him. She kept her voice quiet and somber, as respectful as possible, but still it echoed loudly and ominously through the cavern. "The stories say over a hundred youkai are mummified here."
The monk stepped closer to the stone, glancing to her as if seeking permission. She nodded, knowing what he would find. Each strange lump turned out to be a skull or a twisted youkai limb, all piled up against the woman's body as if they had been trying to kill her — or consume her. There was no telling, now, which it had been.
"And they gathered here…" the monk trailed off as his eyes found and recognized the armored figure among the youkai. "…For that," he finished. He looked for a moment, then ventured, "A general?"
"No," Sango said. "Long ago, this woman was a priestess, and the youkai came here to destroy her."
"She must have had great power, to be targeted like this," the monk observed.
Sango could almost like the somber, thoughtful man that he was right now. "She was called Midoriko, and she was a fiercer enemy to youkai than any samurai or monk. It is said that she could kill ten youkai with a single strike," she explained. "She used a technique that drove out the souls and purified them."
"Ah, so that is why," the monk murmured.
Sango glanced at him sidelong, wondering just how much he had understood from so little explanation. "I had wondered why it was called 'shikon'," he told her, catching the knowing glance. "But I think I begin to understand. It wasn't just the souls of youkai that she could exorcise, was it?"
"No," Sango agreed, pleased in some small way at how quick a study he was. "It was any of the four souls. Or all of them, as she desired."
"It's easy to see why youkai would come to fear her. With such power, she would have been truly formidable."
The monk fell silent, inspecting the mummified mass again in light of this new knowledge and taking special note of the hole that gaped where the priestess's heart would have been. "So how did this happen? Couldn't she just have destroyed the demons?"
"She could, and did," Sango told him. "Eventually the youkai learned that an immense power would be required, a soul far stronger than hers and evil enough to withstand her powers of purification. The youkai that attacked her here were beyond counting, and they used their power as one."
She had not really answered his question, and they both knew it. "As for how they managed this…" She gestured toward a darkened corner of the cave where no sunlight seemed to fall. The villagers seldom visited this part of the cavern, and Sango was no exception. Midoriko's death scene was unnerving enough on its own.
She braced herself as the monk came to stand next to her, peering into the gloom, but he made no attempt to touch her inappropriately. He seemed entirely intent on learning everything he could. "Another human," he observed. Indeed, Midoriko had not been the only human to die in this cave. The other had been entombed here, doomed always to be separated from the woman who had been his obsession in life. Some of the villagers thought it a tragic story; Sango found it horrifying.
"This man loved Midoriko in life," she explained. "But his love became a dark and twisted thing, and the youkai were able to prey upon it. They overwhelmed him and possessed him."
"And he became the conduit for their power, their weapon against the woman he loved so much," the monk surmised.
"Yes." Sango sighed. "Using a weak human is often the easiest way for youkai to combine their power." She closed her eyes, remembering not quite fondly. "When the children from the village are old enough, they are brought here and told the story. We learn the signs of such possession and the dangers of allowing powerful youkai to conspire without challenge. A part of what we do is intended to stop something like this from happening again."
The monk considered this for a long time. She wondered what he was thinking about, but did not ask. She did not want him to lie to her.
Finally, he asked, "What happened once the youkai possessed the man?" He gave a small, self-deprecating laugh and gestured toward the mummy. "Aside from the obvious."
"For seven days and seven nights, the youkai fought against Midoriko," Sango told him, as she had told so many of the children from her village over the years. "Until at last even her power was exhausted. The youkai consumed her body and absorbed her soul into their own." She always found this part of the story difficult to tell. "But they miscalculated. She used the last of her power to expel the souls of the youkai. They died here, together, and the Shikon no Tama was born from what remained. The clustered souls…"
She trailed off into silence that hung heavy in the close atmosphere of the cave. Even the sunlight streaming in could not fully seem to illuminate the darkness.
"It is said that the two souls continue to fight within the jewel even today, Midoriko against the youkai," she said at last.
"And because of its nature, the jewel can thus be turned from good to evil or the reverse," the monk observed. "This is, I assume, why even a small piece of the jewel must be kept in your village and closely guarded."
Sango nodded. "In the wrong hands, the jewel's power will turn to evil and it will begin to corrupt everything around it. Youkai will be drawn to it. There will be intense violence. It has happened before, in the time of my grandfather. The jewel was found and returned to the village, but it was badly corrupted by then. When it was entrusted to a priestess for purification, it was lost once more. We slayers are, more than anyone else, equipped to protect it and prevent it from being corrupted again." Her father might have been right when he said that no one in the village had the power to purify the jewel and maintain its neutrality, but at least they were capable of keeping it safe from youkai. It would not be lost again, so long as it stayed here.
"But in the right hands," the monk mused, "surely the jewel's power can be used for good."
This was not unexpected. In fact, she had been waiting for it ever since she offered to bring him here and tell him the story. And she was ready with an answer. "The jewel always bears the taint of its youkai half, even when it appears to be purified," she explained gently, perhaps more gently than this man deserved. "No matter the intentions of the person using it, their wishes will always be twisted and changed, and there will be unintended consequences." She could not know, of course, if this was true or just a legend, but on this point all of the stories agreed: the jewel's power was treacherous. She caught his gaze with hers and said, "We cannot allow you to use the jewel even if it would rid you of your curse."
There was no deception in his eyes, at least not that she could see, but he looked away first. She let him have the silence. It was the least she could do. Finally, he asked, "What will happen if you cannot find someone in the village who can purify the jewel?"
Sango knew only as much as the family stories had passed down, but that was enough to venture a guess. "Once, the jewel was given to a powerful priestess in a village far away," she told him. "Her power was enough to keep the jewel purified at all times. I would imagine that if no one with such power can be found here, we would again go in search of such a person."
"Might I try --" he began.
He heaved a put-upon sigh, but did not argue. "In that case, I suppose it is time we headed back to the village," he decided. "Unless there is something else here that you wish to show me?"
"This cave goes very far back into the mountain," Sango told him, "but the mummy is the only thing worth seeing."
He followed as she led the way back to the path down the mountain, for once blessedly quiet. Sango remained alert for any untoward behavior, but the monk seemed deeply affected by what he had seen in the cave — or at least he seemed more contemplative than usual. If only she could trust that this was truly the case. Instead she quietly kept an eye on him all the way back to the village.
It wasn't until they had passed through the gate and into her family's compound that the monk spoke again. "What will happen now?" he asked.
Sango steeled herself. "In a day, or perhaps two, you will be escorted from this village," she told him, keeping her voice level lest she give him some false hope. She felt almost guilty, knowing as she did the terrible curse that haunted this man, and knowing that she was perhaps sentencing him to death. "And after that, what happens to the Shikon no Tama will be none of your concern."
She tried not to notice the grave expression on his face as he followed her into the house.
As she left him at the door to the guest room Father had given over to his use, she thought that if things were different, perhaps she would have offered to go with him when he left the village, to help him hunt down and slay the demon that had cursed him. If things were different… but for now she had to find out what Kaori and Kasumi had learned from their visitor today.
When she first emerged from Urasue's kiln, Kikyou had been filled to the brim with anger and hatred. Her blood had seethed within her veins — clay made flesh by the witch's powerful magic, revived exactly as she had been at the moment of her death. Happiness had not existed within her, only pain and anger and sorrow. She had felt certain she would never experience even a fleeting moment of happiness again.
And why should she? She, who had been revived for one purpose and one purpose alone: to seek the scattered pieces of the Shikon no Tama for her erstwhile master. Kikyou's happiness had mattered not at all to Urasue.
And so it was with some surprise that by afternoon Kikyou found herself surrounded by the children of this isolated mountain village, who all insisted on helping as she searched the forest for useful herbs. These children were strangers, ignorant of the danger they faced. They would flee from her if they knew the truth of what she was and where she had come from. And yet they were interested in her precisely because she was a stranger. New and unknown to them, her presence provided a bit of excitement in lives that must otherwise seem dull.
She knew she ought not to hide what she was from the people of this humble village, but she could not bring herself to speak the truth. Not when they had welcomed her into their midst. Not when the smiling faces of their children gave her even a moment of respite, a fragile thread of happiness tangled through the turmoil that writhed in her heart.
Surrounded by the quiet of the forest, soothed by the smiling faces of the children around her, Kikyou could finally begin to examine her circumstances without simply being overcome by anger. She was beginning to recognize that ceaseless anger for what it was: the all-consuming fury she had felt as the life bled from her body and death claimed her. It was the selfsame fury she had felt toward the man who had been responsible for that death, though she dared not think too carefully about him lest that only make her situation more unpleasant.
Rage kindled inside her in spite of her determination to remain calm. Betrayed by a man to whom she had given her trust…
Was there no way to move past that hatred and pain? Somewhere beyond this village, Kikyou had little doubt that the Shikon no Tama was waiting for her. Could she find it in her current condition? Could she purify it and keep it safe?
She had no answer.
It was small solace that the children seemed oblivious to her anger. Instead, they sought her approval. Each wanted to be more useful to her than the last, bringing her sprigs of all different kinds of plants in the hopes that this one would be more valuable or more rare than any other. For her part, Kikyou taught them what each plant was called — though she suspected that they were already familiar with many of them — and what its medicinal uses might be, if she knew them.
It reminded her with a pang of all the afternoons she had spent teaching the same herb lore to her sister. Indeed, it was difficult not to think of her sister, who had been not much older than these children when Kikyou died. She wondered suddenly what had become of Kaede after her death. Was her sister still alive and well? Had she begun training so that she might become the village's next priestess, as she had always hoped to do?
The sudden thought of her sister filled her with a greater sense of urgency than anything else since her resurrection. Memories began to return to her, vague at first and then clearer. Memories of Kaede being grievously wounded on that day, the day that she herself had died, though she could not recall the nature of the injury, only the sight of her sister's clothes stained with slowly oozing blood. If Kaede had died as well…
For the hundredth time, Kikyou wondered how much time had passed since last she lived. How much had been lost forever since then?
Perhaps staying in this village was the wrong choice. Perhaps what she needed to do was go back home — to go back to the beginning, where all of this had started, and follow the path from there. Perhaps…
"Kikyou-sama, is something wrong?" one of the children, a girl perhaps half a year younger than Sayo, asked. In her arms she held a bundle of fragrant herbs. In some cases it looked as if she had uprooted entire plants.
Kikyou realized that she had stopped her work, had allowed her basket of herbs to fall to the ground at her feet, letting thoughts of her past overwhelm the present. The Shikon no Tama, Kaede, her old village… it seemed that she would never escape the past, even here where no one knew her true identity. "It's nothing," she assured the little girl. "I'm just tired, is all."
"She's just tired," Sayo piped up defensively. She was almost fiercely protective of Kikyou, as if their brief encounter in the forest had forged some sort of connection between them. "Killing the witch took a lot out of her!"
Kikyou affected what she hoped was a tired smile. "Let's finish up here and take a break before we carry all of this back to the village," she decided. "Can you help me sort through all these plants?"
The children chorused an enthusiastic affirmative.
For just a moment, Kikyou set aside what had been and what was to come and focused instead on the children clustered around her. Such sweet children, all of them. How she had wished for the life of an ordinary woman; how she had yearned to one day bear children of her own. She had known then, as she still knew now, that such would never be her fate. This was the closest she would likely ever come to that life.
And for the space of the time it took to sort the herbs, bundle them back into her basket, and make their way back to the village, Kikyou could pretend that this was her life in truth.
All the same, she could not ignore the distant feeling of unease that began to creep along the forest path behind them as they returned to the village. It was a feeling with which she was intimately familiar, one that she wished more than anything to deny.
Can I not have this much? she wondered, futilely railing against the inevitable.
For the sensation that slipped along the forest path and into her consciousness was an awareness of the Shikon no Tama. She could feel it, the same way she could feel the sun on her skin and determine its direction even with her eyes closed. She had often sensed the jewel this way in life, ever aware of its location even when it was not on its chain around her neck.
The return of that sensation made her want to weep, or to scream her frustration to the world. She did neither of those things, but docilely led the children back to their homes as if nothing at all were the matter.
Even in the privacy of her own hut, she did not let her anger and frustration show. Instead she forced herself to calm, succeeding largely through the discipline instilled by endless years of practice. She needed to think, and so she sat down to process the herbs she had just collected. At least this gave her something productive to do with her hands while her mind worked through the possibilities.
If her ability to sense the Shikon no Tama had indeed returned to her, what other abilities might be restored over the days to come? And what challenges might be waiting for her?
Whatever lay ahead, she must be ready for it at any cost. That would require preparation, which would in turn require time. It was almost a relief to come to this conclusion.
She would, she thought, stay here in this village for a while yet. It was quiet and isolated here, and what better place to recover her strength? She would venture forth to seek the jewel when she was ready. And this time, she would put an end to it once and for all.
Late in the afternoon, Miroku resumed his place on the veranda. He knew Sango had meant for him to stay where she had left him, safely out of the way in the guest room, but he had begun to feel stifled there. He had endured the feeling of being trapped for as long as he could before finally fleeing. It had come as something of a surprise that no one had prevented him from doing so.
Being out of doors did little to soothe his frayed nerves, but at least he no longer felt as if the walls were going to collapse on top of him. His thoughts raced as swiftly as the wind, freed now from the confinement of walls, yet always returned to the last thing Sango had told him. What happens to the Shikon no Tama will be none of your concern.
As the sun made its steady way across the sky, he could feel the day slipping away from him. Like the Shikon jewel, like promises of wishes. Like his last chance to live.
He wondered if he was only imagining the ache in his right hand.
The soft sound of the door sliding open roused him from his reverie in time to see Sango emerge from the house, followed by her father and brother. Thinking that perhaps his removal from the village had come sooner than Sango had thought it might, Miroku turned to face the slayers only to find that they were paying him no mind at all.
"You know where to go?" Sango's father asked.
Solemn under the weight of unexpected responsibility, Kohaku gave an earnest nod. From her perch on the boy's shoulder, Kirara mewed.
"That's my boy."
Miroku realized belatedly that Kohaku was dressed for travel and armed with a pack and his chain scythe.
"Take good care of him, Kirara," Sango said, as much to her brother as to the nekomata. "We want him back in one piece." Kohaku looked slightly embarrassed by his sister's concern, but did not protest.
"There's no need to hold him up here," Sango's father pointed out. "If we keep him much longer, he won't get to his first objective before nightfall. Kirara, are you ready?"
The nekomata gave a chirp that must have been an affirmative and jumped down from her place on Kohaku's shoulder. As her paws touched the ground, a flash of fire swirled upward to consume her. The flames spread outward, growing larger and larger before dissipating to reveal a monstrous nekomata the size of a tiger. Flames wreathed the creature's legs and long, curved fangs protruded from its enormous mouth. There could be no doubt that this was still Kirara. Even so, the transformation was shocking to behold. To think that only this morning, this astonishing creature had crawled into Miroku's lap and purred while he stroked her fur.
In this form, Kirara was large enough for Kohaku to mount and ride as if she were a horse. Indeed, she seemed to have no objection whatsoever as the boy slipped onto her back. He gripped with his legs rather than using any sort of saddle, his hands sinking into thick fur to find a grip.
Miroku thought fleetingly that riding a nekomata that way would be sure to attract undue attention. Then Kirara bunched powerful muscles and launched herself forward and up, into the air — and stayed there, hovering, while the family said their farewells. Abruptly, Miroku realized that attracting attention was perhaps entirely the point, and wondered where they were sending Kohaku, and for what purpose. Certainly, no one had seen fit to inform him that the boy would be leaving.
Then again, he thought sourly, so would he. And probably quite soon.
The thought made his heart pound harder, a forcible reminder of just how precarious his situation had become. If they threw him out, they would consign him to death. They knew that, and yet they had no intention of letting him stay or allowing him to take the piece of the Shikon no Tama. Even knowing the secret of the kazaana, they chose to let him die.
Miroku did not want to die. Not when he might yet have a chance at life.
When all was said and done, Kirara rose into the sky, drifted over the wall that encircled the village, and disappeared. Miroku wondered only vaguely where she was going and what Kohaku's mission was. He knew better than to ask. He was on borrowed time already. No one was going to tell him anything at this point.
Sango paid him no mind, save a pitying look, as she headed back into the house. Her father hesitated a moment, as if he were considering joining Miroku on the veranda.
Miroku briefly entertained the idea of trying to bargain with him. Surely a monk could be of some use to the slayers, especially if one took into account the power of the air rip in his hand. A mutually beneficial partnership was not out of the question. But common sense dictated that if the slayers wished to work with holy men, they would already be doing so. And in the end Iwao, like his daughter, was no fool. He would know that Miroku's loyalty was likely to go only so far as self-preservation demanded.
"Something is troubling you," Iwao observed.
Miroku glanced up at him. "Your daughter has decided that I must leave this village soon."
Sango's father chuckled, then dropped gently to sit beside Miroku. "She is… strong-willed. And she has not taken much of a liking to you, I am afraid."
"I had noticed that much."
"No one will force you to leave, if that is what you fear."
Miroku looked down to where his hands were folded in his lap, the one whole and the one pierced by its deadly curse, bound in cloth and sealed by prayer beads. "That is not what I fear." He seldom found himself at a loss for words; the feeling was unfamiliar, uncomfortable. "If I will not be permitted to use the jewel, then I must find another means of freeing myself from the curse of the kazaana. To do that, I must leave."
"Yours is a difficult position." Iwao sighed, considering. "With your permission, I will spread the word of Naraku among my slayers. If we hear word of your enemy, we will take action."
Miroku did not really believe that even the slayers could track down a youkai that had successfully avoided detection for three generations, but he still appreciated the offer. He remembered all too well his father's eternal, fruitless search, and the way that search had ended. He wondered, not quite shuddering, if such would be his fate, too: to die screaming as the void consumed him whole. "There is nothing I can say or do that will convince you to do more, is there?"
"What more would you have me do?" Iwao asked, his voice betraying more tension than Miroku would have suspected. "In this village we know all too well what the Shikon no Tama is capable of, even in the hands of one that would not use its power for evil ends. There is no telling what a man might do, if he held the power of the Shikon jewel in his hands — or what its power might do to him." He paused. There was a certain humor in his voice, as if he did not quite agree with what he was about to say. "And my daughter has told me that you are perhaps not the most trustworthy of men to begin with."
"I admit I have done nothing to convince her otherwise. My motives are entirely selfish." He said it with a shrug and a lighthearted tone that was entirely false, but which seemed to appease the other man. He could have attempted to deny it, and could probably even have done so convincingly, but what was the point? In the end, they would both know it for a lie. And for some reason Miroku no longer felt particularly like lying today. Better simply to skirt around the truth without committing one way or the other.
They spoke idly for a time after that, shifting the conversation to safer topics, until the scent of cooking began to waft from inside the house as Sango prepared dinner. Iwao excused himself and went inside shortly afterward, leaving Miroku to his thoughts. Miroku was not sure this was an improvement. Iwao had not tried to offer any solutions, but their conversation had at least been a distraction.
By now the sun had dipped low enough to brush the horizon, slowly tingeing the clouds overhead with deepening shades of red and violet. Miroku did not mind the encroaching darkness. It seemed almost a reflection of his mood.
He knew now that nothing he could say or do would convince the slayers to aid him beyond seeking signs of Naraku. They were never going to agree to let him use the jewel, even though it was his last, best chance to survive his curse. Death hung like a stormcloud over him, and he imagined his long-sought enemy laughing at his misfortune. To be so close to salvation and then be prevented from reaching it… it stretched the limits of his endurance and his temper.
He closed his eyes, shutting out the vibrant colors of the sunset. Better that he leave this place sooner, rather than later.
It was late in the night before Miroku finally left his place on the veranda and went into the house again. The large, too-empty building was silent and still in the darkness, seeming even more empty and sad with Kohaku and Kirara gone. Such a large house for such a small family.
He thought of Iwao's promise, that no one would force him to leave. If things were different, he might even have considered staying here a while.
But things were not different. He needed to do what must be done, no matter the cost, and this might be his only chance.
It took him longer than he would have liked to find where Sango's father had hidden the piece of the Shikon no Tama. It glowed faintly in the gloom of night, and was entirely unguarded where it sat upon a shelf above the family shrine. A part of him wanted to sneer at such foolishness. Sango had cautioned him so carefully about its power, and yet there it was, out in the open for anyone to see. All he had to do was take it.
Another part of him felt a twinge of guilt at the mere thought of stealing a family heirloom. It was obviously important not just to the village's pride, but to Sango and her family, that the jewel remain here. And whatever Sango might think of him, he really had no wish to hurt her.
He remembered the way she had looked earlier, when he had pretended her sweet smile was for him. If things were different, he thought, feeling his heart stir unpleasantly all over again, he might even…
He knew better than to think like that, to let his foolish fantasies get the better of him, and sternly reminded himself of the truth of the situation. It was the same thing he did every time he felt himself growing too attached to a woman that had shown him even the tiniest bit of kindness or sympathy. It would never happen. Could never happen. Not with a woman he might actually come to care for. Not until the kazaana was gone and he could have some hope for a normal life, however bereft of money and family connections he might still be.
As long as the kazaana remained in his palm, he was a danger not only to himself but to everyone around him.
It always came down to that: if things were different… but they were not.
Back at the cave, Sango had spoken of unintended consequences, and her words had given him pause. But in the end those words were not enough to stop him. There might be unintended consequences if he tried to use the jewel's power to destroy Naraku and the curse that threatened each day to kill him… but what did he care about unintended consequences? If he used the jewel, he would live. He would be freed from the specter of the curse that had killed his father and grandfather before him. It was all he had ever wanted. It would be enough, no matter the consequences.
Thus resolved, he seized hold of the tiny piece of the jewel and disappeared into the night.
The woman was visibly trembling. She was more of a girl than a woman, really, and obviously terrified. Naraku could have that effect on ordinary people.
"What do you want to know?" she asked. Her pathetic trembling was echoed in her voice. Caught alone in the dark of night, just outside the feeble protection of her village, she must feel as if her very life were at stake. Naraku wondered idly if she would soil herself if he were to press her just a little harder. He was aware that to others, this woman would seem pitiful, but was himself incapable of such emotions.
"What happened when the centipede died?" he probed, mildly irritated at having to ask again. He had wasted enough time just returning to this place. He did not wish to waste more time because his unwilling informant was too distressed to cooperate.
"The woman killed it - the slayer," the woman stammered. "W-with that big weapon of hers."
He had gathered that much just from taking a look around. The beast's corpse was still lying in the field where it had died so disgracefully. Hacked into pieces, with parts of its body sliced away and carried off, what remained of the centipede youkai might also be described as pitiful.
"Yes," he said, stepping closer. The woman flinched away. "Tell me what happened after that."
"I don't know!" she whimpered, squeezing her eyes shut and looking away. "I didn't see."
"Did the slayer woman take anything from the centipede's body?" he prompted.
Slowly, the woman's eyes opened. Tears slid down her cheeks. "Yes. Now I remember. She took some pieces of its body with her when she left. And - and a gem of some sort! The monk found it, I think, but she claimed it as her reward. She said that would be payment enough, that my father didn't owe her anything else for killing the youkai."
Naraku reined in a sense of potent urgency. "And did she say what this gem was, or why she valued it so highly?"
"She said… she said it was part of the Shikon no Tama," the woman told him. Her words came more slowly as she spoke, as if she were beginning to realize that she was not the one facing the greatest danger, and this masked man who had confronted her out of the night's abyss had another, more important target. As if she were no longer quite sure she wanted to cooperate with him.
"So it has returned," Naraku murmured, more to himself than to the hapless woman cowering in front of him.
"I don't know! I only know what she said! I don't know if any of it was true. She could have been wrong."
The slayer woman could have been wrong, it was true. But Naraku did not think she had been. "You say that the slayer claimed the jewel as reward for slaying the youkai," he prompted. "She took it with her when she left?"
His victim would not look at him. "Yes."
"Where did she go when she left here?"
"I don't know. I-I think they went north when they left here."
That piqued his interest. "They?"
"The monk went with her," the woman admitted. "I don't think she wanted him to, but they were together when they left here. I don't know where they went after that. Father said not to watch too closely, that the location of the slayer base is a closely guarded secret. They helped us, so we owed it to them not to seek out their secrets."
"So you have no idea where they went from here," he said dryly, more statement than question. "If no one knows where their village is, how did your father hire them in the first place?" he demanded, his voice ever so slightly betraying his impatience.
The girl flinched away from him again as if he had made to strike her. The silly thing did not even realize that when he decided to hurt her, she would know. Finally regaining control of herself, or perhaps realizing that he would hurt her if she did not answer, she managed to say, "One of their messengers came through a couple of days ago. We sent word with him that we needed help, and then the other slayer showed up yesterday to take care of the youkai."
Already the clues were beginning to add up. If it had taken only a day or two to mobilize a response to this village's plea for help, then the slayers' home base could not be terribly far away. Now that he knew where to look, the slayers—and their piece of the Shikon no Tama—would not be difficult to find.
His victim was restless, perhaps realizing that she had now given him the information he wanted. "I've told you everything I know," she whined. "Please… I just want to go home. I won't tell anyone about any of this. Just let me go home…"
Behind his mask, Naraku's lips curled into a smile she would never see.
Sango's father was calmly seated at the family table when she emerged from her room to go prepare breakfast. This was such a familiar occurrence that she barely even glanced his way as she walked past. "It would seem our visitor has left us," he said.
Sango froze, fury igniting in her heart as all thought of breakfast fled. She turned abruptly to make her way to the family shrine, to the place where her father had left the piece of the Shikon no Tama and found her worst fears confirmed: the jewel was gone. However small this pieces of it had been, it was still part of the Shikon jewel. It was still dangerous. It belonged here, where it could be protected. She had made all of those things clear to the monk, and still he had taken it.
Anger and disbelief set her limbs to trembling.
"I will find him," she said as her father followed her into the shrine room. "I will find him, and I will bring back the jewel he has stolen."
"I thought you might say that," Iwao murmured.
"Do not try to stop me," she warned him. "I allowed him to follow me here. I told him our secrets. This is my responsibility."
He did not try to argue with her—or to reason with her. Instead, "Take care with that one, Sango."
As he had intended, that gave her pause. "I can handle myself, Father."
"I don't doubt that," he agreed. It grated on her nerves to see him so apparently unbothered by their guest's betrayal. "However, Miroku is a desperate man just now. That will make him more dangerous than most. He is clever and underhanded, and if he told us the truth about that curse of his…" He trailed off, letting her imagination fill in the details.
Sango scowled, but knew better than to ask why he was telling her this. She might be a youkai taiji-ya in her own right now, and might have earned her place among the village elders, but he was still the village headman and she was still his daughter. There would always be something else she must yet learn from him.
"I understand the risks, Father," she said, speaking carefully, reining in her temper as a good fighter must. "But he has stolen a piece of the Shikon no Tama. It must be returned to the village." She almost added that the jewel must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands, but bit back the comment because she had already allowed it to fall into the wrong hands.
"I don't disagree. However, I do caution you not to act rashly." She heard what he did not say: if you rush into this without thinking, you will run right into whatever trap the monk sets for you.
Sango bowed her head. "I will leave as soon as the proper preparations have been made."
She hated the thought of giving that traitorous monk any more of a head start, but understood the necessity. A man in Miroku's position was capable of anything, and so she must be ready for anything. That would mean more than just grabbing her hiraikotsu and calling for Kirara.
Sango hesitated, recalling that she had sent Kirara away with Kohaku only yesterday. With the nekomata's assistance, she would have made short work of tracking down the monk and retrieving the jewel. Without Kirara, it would be a much more difficult endeavor. Sango steeled herself and went to gather the supplies she would need for the journey ahead. The task before her might be difficult, but that made it all the more vital. There was no time to lose.
It had seemed like a brilliant plan at the time: steal the piece of the Shikon no Tama from the slayers and escape from their village with the prize in hand and no one the wiser. Brilliant, maybe, but also desperate and foolhardy.
Stealing the jewel had been one thing. Getting out of the village with it—and without being detected—had been another thing altogether. It had taken him far longer than he would have liked to find a place where he could safely scale the wall without being seen by the guards, and even longer after that to make his way down the forested hillside without raising an alarm. At last he'd reached the road and set off at random. The sun had begun to rise before he passed the first village.
By the time he skirted the next small village, his empty stomach complaining because he hadn't stopped to pilfer any food for his journey, he was having second thoughts. He wasn't moving fast enough to feel comfortable stopping for even a short while. It seemed inevitable that the wrath of the slayers, or at least of Sango, would soon descend upon him.
With the sun rising ever higher and the day growing brighter and brighter, he would have to tread carefully from here on out. He wouldn't be able to slink past the next hamlet unnoticed. A traveling monk passing through was unlikely to arouse much suspicion. He would only attract unwanted attention if someone saw him skulking about among the fields. Beyond such meager precautions, he could only hope he had not left enough of a trail for angry pursuers to easily follow.
He sweet-talked a breakfast out of a kind family in the next village and kept walking. And walking. And walking.
By mid afternoon he still had seen no sign of any pursuit and was getting very tired of walking. He told himself that perhaps he would take a break in the next village. That way he could catch his breath and take stock of his situation. Maybe he could even come up with a plan.
If he had somehow managed to escape from the slayers, he wasn't sure what to do or where to go next. He hadn't really thought about anything beyond getting away. Perhaps he could go back to his childhood home to regroup. The temple where he'd grown up was isolated, and these days was home to only one monk. Certainly, it would make it difficult for the slayers to find him, so long as he was careful not to leave a trail leading up to the temple door.
He was still mulling over possibilities when he arrived at that next village. It was quite a bit larger than any of the settlements he had passed through so far, and at first he was hopeful. But then one of the village women looked up and noticed the newcomer heading down the street. She glanced at him, then stopped and turned to stare. The look on her face was one of shocked horror.
Miroku slowed his pace but kept moving. He did not know what could have caused that reaction, but it couldn't be good. This was just what he needed today: to walk right into the middle of a bad situation.
He got the same reaction from the next group he passed. A woman farther down the street saw him, then turned and hurried back into town, calling for someone.
At that point Miroku stopped walking and waited for her to return. The villagers' behavior was mystifying… unless of course the slayers had somehow reached this place before he got here, and warned the villagers what to look for. He remembered quite vividly the way the nekomata had flown through the air to carry Kohaku off on whatever mission he'd been dispatched on.
If the slayers had indeed spread word of his misdeed, he felt it prudent not to do anything to arouse suspicion or anger. He might still have a chance to talk his way out of the situation.
After an interminable, uncomfortable wait, the woman returned. This time a man was with her. Her husband? Miroku supposed it didn't matter.
"Hello, good sir," Miroku greeted him amiably. "I gather there seems to be some sort of trouble in your lovely village. Is there any way I can be of assistance?"
"What is the meaning of this?" the man demanded, ignoring Miroku's attempt at civility and not even bothering to introduce himself.
Miroku was at a loss. A glance at the gathered villagers did not help matters. "I don't follow."
"You look just like the monk that's been carousing in our teahouse for the last three days," the man growled. "How can you be there and here at the same time?"
Miroku allowed the man's angry tone to flow past him. "Take me there, please," he said, sounding as urgent as possible. "It seems I was right and there is indeed trouble afoot in your village." The look the man gave him was darkly unpleasant, as if he did not believe a single word that had just been said. "You see, I am on the trail of a tanuki that's been known to impersonate me and get into the worst trouble imaginable, only to disappear just before it is held accountable for its actions. It may be that I've caught up to the fiend at last."
He was afraid he would have to keep talking, but the man relented. "If I take you there, you'll roust him out of our town?" he asked.
Miroku nodded, hoping his guess about the miscreant's true identity was correct, and followed as the man led him down the town's main street. If he was right about what was going on here, he'd just had an enormous stroke of luck.
The tea house was a somewhat shabby building much like the others in town, if somewhat larger than most. A sign outside was the only indication of what might be found within. Miroku's guide planted himself just outside the door, arms crossed over his chest, his powerful glare indicating that Miroku would proceed alone.
Shaking off the man's unwelcoming demeanor, Miroku left his sandals on the porch and entered the tea house. The interior was much as he expected, with a large open space for entertaining. What was somewhat less expected was seeing his own face looking back at him from across the room, where he was apparently enjoying the company of several dancing girls. He found it vaguely surprising that a town of this size could support this many female entertainers, and wondered if perhaps his guide's displeasure stemmed from some recent corruption of the local girls.
Heedless of the trouble brewing outside, the other Miroku's expression was one of carefree enjoyment. Or at least it was until he laid eyes on who had just entered the tea house.
Ordinarily Miroku would have liked to enjoy the spectacle a bit, himself, but he was short on time. As the look on the fake Miroku's face shifted toward panicked astonishment, the real one raised his voice and said, "All right, impostor. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Everyone in the tea house turned to stare in shock. The other monk sputtered. Recovering his composure, he shot back, "It is you who is the impostor!" He stood up and swayed a bit drunkenly. "Begone! Sully my reputation no more!"
Miroku sighed. "I don't have time for this," he muttered and brandished his staff. "If you insist on a fight, I'll give you one."
His adversary stumbled backward. Miroku took this as an invitation, moving forward with purpose. "I'm afraid you've all been deceived," he said loudly enough that everyone in the room could hear. "The man you've been entertaining these past several days is no man," he declared. He raised the staff and brought it down with enough force to momentarily stun the impostor—and dispel the illusion.
Smoke clouded the tea house the moment the staff connected with the monk's forehead. When it cleared, there was no sign that the impostor had ever been there. "Nothing but a tanuki's trick," Miroku explained.
For a moment no one moved. Then he found himself abruptly surrounded by young women who were duly impressed by his heroics.
It was exactly the sort of situation he always hoped to find himself in, and he had no time to stay and enjoy it. The longer he stayed here, the more time his adversary had to escape. He needed to find out if his suspicions were correct before that could happen. So he extricated himself from the situation as delicately as he could.
It wasn't difficult. All he had to do was pretend to be suitably pious and refuse to partake in any earthly pleasures. Now that the villain was vanquished, he must be on his way, no matter how much it pained him to leave behind the thought of dancing girls and free booze. The men of the town, at least, would be glad to see him go.
He made his way out of town amid a series of glares that warned him against ever coming back. He focused instead on following the slight mental prickling sensation that told him which way the tanuki had fled. He followed that feeling away from the road and across a couple of fields before coming to a dense growth of trees. The creature must truly have been frightened to come so far so quickly.
Miroku waited just beyond the edge of the trees, but there was no sign of his quarry. Finally, he grew impatient and called, "You can come out now."
For a long time nothing happened. Not a single leaf seemed to stir. And then there came a sudden rustling of the undergrowth and a tanuki came slinking out. A very familiar tanuki, one that was more commonly known to haunt the area around the temple where Miroku had grown up. It seemed that the situation here was much as he had suspected, though he couldn't fathom why.
"All right, Hachi, I don't have much time," Miroku began, "so tell me what in the world you're doing all the way out here."
"Master Mushin sent me to find you," the tanuki explained.
Hachi trembled visibly, as if he were about to deliver bad news. "He says he is dying. You should come at once."
Miroku cursed. "That stupid sot. I don't have time for his nonsense." He paused, exasperated, then had to ask. "Why does he think he's dying?"
"I didn't ask," Hachi admitted.
Miroku cursed again. That idiot Mushin had the worst timing. He was tempted to ignore the old man's request just because of the deplorable timing. But what if he'd told Hachi the truth?
Hachi watched in silent terror as Miroku vented his anger. When he had finally finished cursing, Hachi ventured, "What will you do now, Miroku-sama? Will you go back to the temple like Mushin asked?"
He considered his options. "I don't think I have the luxury of going to the temple just yet. If the old man wants me to be there when he dies, he's going to have to wait."
The tanuki knew him well enough to know what that meant. "You're in some kind of trouble," he observed.
Miroku couldn't help but smirk. "Some kind, yes."
"You're in a hurry," the tanuki went on, putting the pieces together. "But you didn't ask me to take you to the temple tonight…" He trailed off, ears drooping. "Tell me what you did."
How to put it most delicately? "I've come into possession of a very powerful relic," Miroku hedged.
"What did you steal this time?" Hachi asked. A greedy gleam appeared in his eye, as if he wanted in on whatever plot was afoot.
"That doesn't matter," Miroku interjected, hoping to cut off any further complaints—or requests for more information. The less anybody, even Hachi, knew about what he was doing, the better. "What matters is that its former owner is probably on my trail right now and I'd really rather not be caught with the thing."
The tanuki whined, flattening his ears even closer to his skull."Why do you have that scary look on your face?"
With a wicked grin, Miroku told him, "Because that's where you come in, my shape-changing friend."
Naraku had much to consider as he made his way back to Hitomi Castle, and much to accomplish in a very short time. If the girl had been telling the truth, and he had no reason to think she had not, in the end, then the mysterious slayers had come into possession of a piece of the Shikon no Tama.
This did not make them particularly dangerous, but it was irksome. Their secretive ways and hidden base of operations meant that he would have to take certain steps to find them before he could retrieve their piece of the jewel. It would be a small inconvenience, but an inconvenience — and a delay — nonetheless. He thought with a half-hidden smirk that Lord Hitomi Kagewaki would not be pleased by the delay.
He stepped off the road, moving instead among the trees that bordered it on one side. There was no path here, but he did not need one. As he made his way deeper into the forest, he became gradually aware of the sound of insects buzzing. He headed toward the sound until it had reached a nearly unbearable volume. The trees in this part of the forest were covered with enormous wasps, all buzzing furiously as they crawled over the trees. Their black carapaces flashed in iridescent shades of blue and violet in the small patches of sunlight that filtered past the thick layer of leaves overhead.
If the insects were bothered by his sudden appearance, they gave no sign of further agitation. This pleased him, as he had been raising this clutch of insects here for several months now. It would have been disappointing had they failed to recognize their most dutiful master.
He selected a likely looking insect and extricated it from the mass that crawled upon a nearby tree. The buzzing from the other wasps grew even more intense as he lofted this one into the air. Its wings beat rapidly until they blurred into invisibility, but it remained aloft. One by one, the other wasps rose to join their companion until the air was thick with enormous buzzing carapaces and throbbing wings. Behind his baboon's mask, Naraku grinned.
"Find the village of the youkai taiji-ya," he said aloud, although there was no need for that. The wasps should be able to understand his intent without the spoken command. "When you have found the village, return to me."
Half of the wasps rose, drifting upward past the leaves of the canopy overhead, and dispersed.
To the remainder, he said, "Find me one of the wandering slayers. I believe my lord may have need of their services."
Just as their fellows had done, the remaining wasps drifted upward to clear the canopy before heading off in all directions to do as he had bid. He waited there until the last of the buzzing had followed, just to make sure that none of the wasps returned in confusion. Then, the purpose of his detour accomplished, Naraku returned to the road and continued on the way to his lord's castle.
All he needed to do now was wait.
Morning was gentle in this isolated village. Between the trees and the mountains, the light seemed reluctant to reach down to touch the buildings and people that lived there. With the arrival of the light, Kikyou's lonely vigil ended.
She rose from the mat where she had lain for much of the night, unmoving but not sleeping, and set about putting her hut in order for the day. The borrowed hut felt much more like a home with bundles of herbs hung to dry. As she prepared the morning meal, Kikyou could almost pretend that she could stay in this place and simply be a normal village priestess for the rest of her days. How sweetly fulfilling would it be to stay here, to teach her arts to Sayo and the other children, to heal the small, simple hurts that would affect a place like this?
Kikyou knew she could not stay forever, but it was nice to wish. Much more pleasant than furtively disposing of her supposed breakfast in the fire so that whoever was lurking outside her hut would think she had eaten the food. She could sense the presence, had sensed it since just after first light, but not well enough to recognize it.
What, she wondered, anger flaring dangerously, might the villagers suspect, that they had set someone to watching her? She had taken pains to make sure they thought she was nothing more than she seemed. Were her efforts futile after all?
Still pretending that she had no idea she was being watched, Kikyou set about sweeping the floor of her hut. It was not particularly in need of sweeping, but this gave her an excuse to move ever closer to the doorway. She took her time, giving the observer plenty of time to slink away, but at last she threw open the mat that covered the doorway and found herself face to face with Sayo.
For a moment Kikyou did not know how to react. This was not at all what she had expected. And then she did know how to react, after all: she giggled as the little girl's expression shifted from startled to chagrined.
"How long have you been out there, Sayo?" she asked, keeping her tone gentle. "Why didn't you ask to come in?"
"I didn't want to bother you so early," Sayo admitted, staring firmly at the ground between her feet.
"Oh, Sayo, you're not bothering me. Why don't you come in?" She felt more or less like a wolf, inviting this innocent child into her den all unawares.
But Sayo was entirely unperturbed as she skipped into Kikyou's hut. Although she must have seen her own mother prepare plants for drying in much this same way, the child stared delightedly at the herbs Kikyou had prepared last night. She was full of questions as Kikyou put away the broom and collected her baskets, wanting to know how long each of the herbs would need to dry and how they would need to be prepared before they could be useful.
Feeling somewhat more at ease to know that the presence lurking outside had merely been Sayo all along, Kikyou happily answered the questions. In this, at least, she could be both truthful and useful.
When at last she had gathered everything she would need, Kikyou said, "I am going back into the woods today to see if I can find a few more herbs. Would you like to come with me?"
Of course she did. And naturally, by the time they had made their way out of the village and into the woods, all of the other children had asked to come along as well. Although their presence meant that she must maintain careful control of herself, she accepted their company without complaint. How many times in her first life had she wished to spend her days just like this? Yet the feeling of tranquility could not penetrate all the way to her heart. Deep down, her heart still raged at the memory of betrayal and death and rebirth.
They had to range a bit further away from the village this time, as they had cleared most of the vicinity of its useful herbs. She would have to remember to teach the children to leave a bit more behind next time, to facilitate future regrowth.
All things considered, it was a pleasant way to spend a morning. The forest was quiet, dim and peaceful as if nothing had ever disturbed its calm. Once or twice they encountered a pair of villagers, out gathering wood and other supplies, but for the most part Kikyou and the children were utterly alone.
It was about midday when she realized that she and the children were being watched, and this time she was certain the gaze she sensed was malevolent. She had planned to take the children back to the village before now, but there was only one more plant that she wished to find and she yet had hope that it might grow in this area. And, she had to admit, they had found a truly beautiful spot that she was reluctant to leave.
The clearing was large and filled with flowering plants, many of which had useful medicinal properties. The children had been taking turns bringing samples to her to show off what they remembered from yesterday's excursion, but Kikyou's attention was increasingly drawn to a stand of trees on the far side of the clearing. Someone, she was certain, was hiding there. That same someone was watching, and their intentions were unkind.
Perhaps she ought to take the children back to the village, just to be safe.
"What does this one do, Kikyou-sama?" one of the girls asked, hopefully holding up a sprig.
"That one helps wounds to close," Kikyou replied absently, her gaze still drawn to those trees.
The children fell to chattering quietly among themselves. Kikyou could almost hear voices coming from the trees where the watcher hid.
"Excuse me," she said quite clearly, irritation getting the better of her. The children all looked at her, then followed her gaze to the stand of trees.
"Is someone there?" one of the children asked, though Kikyou did not look to see if the question was directed at her or another of the children.
Finally, a man dressed in the clothes of a traveling monk emerged from the stand of trees, followed by another, younger man who must have been his student. "Ah, so you noticed me, then?" he said, his voice falsely amiable.
Kikyou felt cold. Somehow, this man knew what she was.
"You've been watching me for a long time now," she told him. It required delicate balance to keep the anger out of her voice. She managed it, though her words were still blunt.
"Your beauty has entranced me," he told her. The words were so blatantly false as to be almost offensive. "I cannot help but stare," he went on.
Her patience began to wear thin. "Surely you jest."
The monk narrowed his eyes dangerously. He signaled to his student, who reached into his sleeve and withdrew a bound scroll. The younger man tossed the scroll to the ground at Kikyou's feet, then stepped back to eye her haughtily from the protection afforded him by his master.
Kikyou looked from the monk to the scroll and back again. She knew what he was planning: that she would be unable to touch the scroll without being harmed. She was equally certain that the scroll's power would not harm her. She wondered what he would make of that, and decided to find out.
"Could you pick that up for me?" the monk asked.
Smiling disarmingly, Kikyou knelt to retrieve the scroll. She could sense its power before she ever touched it. A powerful spell had been worked into the scroll, and it lashed out at her as her hand made contact with it. She twisted the spell around, using her own spiritual power to contain its force. All innocence, she held the scroll out for the monk to take. "Here you are," she said pleasantly. "This is a valuable scripture, isn't it? You wouldn't want to lose it."
"Yes," the monk replied, his voice grating as the awaited victory was denied him. "It possesses such power that it's said any youkai that touches it will be forced to reveal its true form."
"A valuable relic, indeed," Kikyou murmured.
Kikyou released her hold on the scroll's power as the monk snatched it from her hand. It was simple as releasing a bowstring, and nearly as satisfying. Though there was no visible effect, the monk recoiled as if he had been struck. Kikyou resisted the urge to smile. It served him right, after baiting her like that. To think, he thought she might be a youkai.
While the monk shared a panicked look with his student, she gathered the children to her. "We really should get back to the village," she told them sweetly. If the children had noticed the dangerous undercurrent to Kikyou's conversation with the monk, they gave no sign of it. Instead, they chorused their agreement with her decision to head home.
Sayo, as usual, stuck close to Kikyou's side as they followed the path home. One of the boys carried her basket of herbs, so she was able to accommodate another girl on her other side. The rest formed a loose group in front of her, leading the way.
Kikyou, however, could no longer take any pleasure in their presence. Now she must worry about what would happen when the monk and his student made their own way to the village, and she had no doubt that they would. What would they tell the villagers? Would the villagers trust her, or the newcomers? She did not particularly want to find out.
If she had been here longer, if she'd had more time to reinforce her connection to this village and its people, things might be different. But having been here only a few days, she was still very much the newcomer. The villagers were grateful to her for killing the witch that had haunted their mountains, but she was still an outsider to them. To all except their children.
She felt a pang, watching those children happily cluster around her on their way home. One more regret to add to the mountain that threatened to crush her heart.
"Miko-dono!" the monk called out suddenly from somewhere far behind. The children paused, looking to each other in confusion as if they had already forgotten about the unwanted interloper. Kikyou stopped walking and turned to look back.
The man stood as if in shadow, hardly visible through the trees but still a noticeable presence. "I don't know who you are or what regret you're holding on to," he went on. "But you don't belong in this place. You should return to where you belong."
Though her body gave no sign of it, the words pierced her as easily as an arrow might. Return to where you belong.
She had only just decided to stay in this place a while, but she knew the monk was right. She did not truly belong here, and she never would. This village could be only a temporary haven. There were other places she must go, and things she must do. She had deliberately ignored it all day, but she could still feel the ineffable pull of what must be the Shikon no Tama.
"What's he talking about?" one of the boys asked another. His companion only shrugged.
The sound of his voice drew Kikyou out of her reverie. "Come," she said to Sayo and the other children. "Let's keep going."
Nothing in the forest had changed since they came this way earlier in the morning. The forest was still calm and peaceful, dappled by occasional spills of sunlight through the leafy canopy. The children still wandered around her, dispersing and then clumping together again, sometimes bringing her flowers or interesting plants they had found. But Kikyou no longer felt at ease.
The villagers noticed the change as soon as she returned. She made sure that the children were reunited with their parents, so that it could never be said that the strange priestess had spirited away any unsuspecting and innocent children, and then allowed Sayo to escort her home.
She was going to miss Sayo, she thought. This child, who was so eager to learn, who reminded her so much of her own sister, would be difficult to leave behind.
"Say, Kikyou," Sayo began, then hesitated. They were alone now , just the two of them, and nearly to Kikyou's hut. She must have felt that she must speak now or there might never be a chance. "You're going to teach us more about plants tomorrow, right?"
How she wished to say yes, of course she would!
Even a child could understand what that silence meant.
"You aren't going to go anywhere, are you?" Sayo pressed.
"No, Sayo," she said absently, the lie like a knife in her heart. "I'm not going anywhere."
She realized she had already planned it out, without stopping to think about it. Tonight, while the village lay sleeping, she would creep away from her hut and they would never see her again. She had little doubt that the monk and his student would find their way to this place, nor that they would immediately begin sniffing around like eager dogs, seeking proof of their accusations. She intended to be long gone before they could stir up any real trouble for her.
Sayo reminded her of her own sister, Kaede, so much so that the idea of leaving her behind was painful. Yet she knew she must. In this place she had been able to ignore her feelings of anger and betrayal, and had been able to spend her days pretending she was other than what she was. The encounter with the monk today had shown her that she could not escape it, even here.
If there was no respite to be found even in this place, then there was no reason to linger.
She was about to send Sayo on her way when she heard an all too familiar voice. "Stop there, miko-dono."
Kikyou bristled as anger pushed all other thought aside. She fought and failed to keep her grip on her runaway emotions, humiliation billowing up like so much smoke to accompany her unrestrained fury.
Oblivious to the transformation occurring in Kikyou's heart, or perhaps just not caring, the monk continued, "Have you told them what you are, miko-dono? Do they know what they have welcomed into their midst?"
"I killed the mountain witch," she murmured, more to herself than anyone else. The villagers had been so happy the witch was dead that they hadn't asked any real questions. She hadn't lied.
But she had not told them what she really was.
"Get away from her, child," the monk cajoled. Until he spoke, Kikyou had not realized that Sayo was still standing—and trembling—beside her.
Regardless of the child's presence, she wished for her bow. Even though she was aware of the villagers' attention, some staring openly while others peered from dark doorways, she no longer cared what they saw. Now that it had been unleashed from the tight grip of her control, her fury threatened to consume her whole. It burned along her skin, seeming to seek an opening into the world.
She wondered sharply if this monk truly understood what he was doing.
"Sayo, go," she said quietly, the words sounding tight and forced, on the verge of cracking.
She did not look down to see the child abandon her for the safety of her own family. She knew better than to look away from an enemy. She'd done that once, and died for her foolishness.
She did not intend to die again.
As soon as the child was safely away, as if he had heard her very thoughts, the monk said, "You are dead, aren't you, miko-dono?"
She stood shaking and wondered if she could reach him to throttle him before the villagers dragged her down. "May I never know peace?" she asked him, but her voice betrayed her anger for the villagers to hear. "All I wanted was to stay here for a while. Can't you just pass through and let me be?"
"I'm afraid I cannot," the monk told her, though he did not sound the least bit regretful. "You are a danger to these people. I must put your soul to rest."
If she had her bow to hand, this nonsense would already be finished. But she did not have her bow, and so she was forced to endure the monk's pretensions. She yearned to scream: I am no danger to these people, only to you, and only because you will not leave me in peace! But in her anger the words could not seem to reach her lips.
She was so caught up in her anger that she had not realized the monk's companion was missing until he came running up to hand an object to his master. It was round and appeared to be ceramic, formed in the shape of a coiled dragon. "Here, Master," he said breathlessly. As if he were excited by the prospect of her imminent demise.
While the monk took the relic from his student and prepared whatever spell he thought to use against her, Kikyou felt suddenly calm. She knew this feeling, the instinctive sense of calm focus that descended whenever she was faced with an enemy. She had experienced that feeling so often in her days as the guardian of the Shikon no Tama. Now it was almost a familiar friend. Calm, and ready to lay waste to her opponent, Kikyou waited.
And then the monk was hurling the ceramic dragon statue directly toward her. As it moved through the air, it seemed almost to come to life, growing and flowing, spreading outward and lifting its head toward her. Kikyou allowed it to entangle her with its sinuous body, unperturbed by the way the cold ceramic coils felt against her flesh as the dragon squeezed.
She felt it when the spell began to take effect: the scales became suddenly warm, heating rapidly until they threatened to burn her. She felt suddenly light, as if her soul might indeed come unmoored from this new body into which she had been revived.
"Do not fight it, miko-dono," the monk urged. "Your soul will be saved from this fate."
"Leave me alone," Kikyou snapped, though it was far too late for that.
This man was truly a fool, to try to use spells on her twice in almost exactly the same way. Deftly, Kikyou shifted the flow of power until the force of the spell was directed not at her, but back into the writhing form of the ceramic dragon. For a moment, she exulted in the power she wielded—and in wielding that power against one who meant to do her harm.
The ceramic could not contain the full force of the spell and the dragon burst outward, shards of ceramic hurtling straight toward the monk… and also toward the hapless villagers. Some were able to duck back into their homes in time to be spared. Others, including the monk and his lackey, were not so lucky. Kikyou watched them for a moment in satisfaction. The monk had taken a large shard through the throat, and was in the process of silently bleeding out onto the ground, and his student writhed beside him, screaming, his hands covering whatever damage the shrapnel had done to his face.
Sayo, too, had been luckless in the end. She had been standing too close when the dragon shattered and had been struck by several pieces of broken clay.
The sight of that sweet child's blood gushing from the huge wound in the side of her neck brought Kikyou up short. It had been infinitely satisfying to give into her fury and end the troublesome monk's life, but she had never intended to harm the villagers. And Sayo…
Kikyou froze, horrified by the death her anger had wrought.
Angry eyes watched her from the darkness, and fearful eyes, too.
Sayo's mother wailed as she clutched her daughter's lifeless body. Her own shoulder had been torn open by half a dozen small shards, but that injury would likely heal without trouble. She would live. Sayo would not.
Kikyou could only watch, though a part of her shared the woman's suffering. But there was no comfort she could offer. This was all her doing. The monk had brought death upon himself by interfering and by refusing to leave, but it was Kikyou who had so arrogantly shattered the statue without regard for what might happen or who might be injured.
She shook free of her reverie. She had caused so much damage here. Perhaps she could set some of it right by helping tend to the wounded. She took a step toward the mourning woman.
"Get out of here, monster," someone said. "Haven't you done enough?"
"Leave, and don't come back," someone else said.
Someone, she did not see who, hurled a rock at her. It was the size of her fist, and when it smashed into her shoulder she noted absently that she did not feel any pain from the blow.
As more rocks followed the first, Kikyou backed slowly away from the angry mob of villagers. With each stone that failed to harm her, they grew more frightened… and more angry.
Anguish filled her heart as she realized she had no choice: she must leave, and she must leave now.
After two days on the road and innumerable false leads, Sango was beginning to wonder if the monk might escape her, after all. It seemed that no matter how swiftly she pursued, she was always hours behind, and he barely left so much as a footprint or an errant scrape from the butt of his staff for her to follow, forcing her to ask after him at every village she came to. And in every village, it was the same story: a monk had passed by, yes, but that was all.
It was all starting to seem just a little too convenient, like the monk had been ready to run from the moment he followed her home.
As she headed down the road and away from her latest failure, in the direction the villagers told her the monk had headed, she mulled over possibilities. This time she had even asked about traveling companions, only to be assured the monk was traveling alone. Assuming the villagers had told her the truth, she could at least count on not being outnumbered when she finally caught up.
If she ever caught up. The monk could hardly have evaded her more neatly if he'd planned the whole thing from the start. She'd never asked how he came to be in that particular village just before the centipede attacked. Perhaps he'd known all along what they would find there, and had simply bided his time, waiting for an opportunity.
This line of thinking made her so angry that she almost stormed past a crossroad without looking for signs of her quarry. Backtracking did little to improve her mood, nor did the fact that there was absolutely no sign that the monk had come this way at all.
The road she'd been following thus far was much more heavily traveled than the one that crossed it. Sango wondered whether the monk would be more likely to head toward people or away from them. If his ridiculous story about that family curse were to be believed, then he should head away from this road before it came to any large towns. She had a feeling that was the last thing he would do now.
It was a gamble, making an assumption like that about a man she barely knew — and about whom she knew next to nothing. She reined in angry impatience as best she could and took the time to look for the monk's trail along each of the possible paths, just to make sure.
She found no sign that anyone, much less the monk, had taken the cross road recently. All the tracks were quite worn down, and all of the vegetation growing alongside the road was intact. By contrast the main road, with its relative myriad of tracks that were only a few days old, at most, seemed the safer choice.
She set off again with a sigh, following the main road and wishing she had Kirara's help. With Kirara she would have caught up to the monk long ago and saved herself this pointless chase. But Kirara was far away with Kohaku, helping him deliver word of the Shikon jewel—now stolen!—to the itinerant slayers so the remaining pieces might be found and recovered.
With renewed resolve, Sango quickened her pace.
By late that afternoon, she had come to the outskirts of a fairly large town. She had seen a few marks on the road that might have been left by the monk's staff, but seemed no closer to catching him than she had been that morning. The townspeople watched with curiosity as she made her way into their town. Their reaction did not bother or surprise her; whatever care she took to appear ordinary in her travels, a woman wearing a sword and carrying a weapon the size of the hiraikotsu was always an unusual sight.
She approached a likely looking cluster of older women that stood deep in conversation beside the road, ignoring that she was the obvious topic of discussion. "Excuse me," she began, "I'm looking for someone, and I wonder if he might have passed through here today."
"Are you planning to use that sword?" one of the women asked acidly.
"Not if he agrees to return the family heirloom he stole," Sango replied with utter calm. She was far more likely to use nearly any of her other weapons on the monk before she would resort to the sword, but they didn't need to know that.
"A thief, is he?" one of the other women asked. She sounded far more sympathetic than the first had.
"Yes, though he clothes himself as a monk in service of the Buddha." She gave them a moment to consider that. "He is quite skilled at pretending to be what he says. He may not have seemed to be anything but what he appeared. Did someone like that come through here today?"
"Come through here?" the second woman seemed as if she wanted to laugh. "The scoundrel's still here, probably taking dinner with the headman and his lovely daughter!"
Sango's expression must have given away her thoughts.
"I told you that man was up to no good the moment he arrived," the second woman told her companions.
Another woman spoke up. "You wear a sword… do you really think you should be handling a situation like this?" Her words practically dripped disdain.
"I carry a sword and this hiraikotsu—" she hefted the weapon for emphasis "— because I am a youkai taiji-ya. I can handle myself against one human thief." It wasn't the first time Sango's skill had been called into question. People were inclined to take her seriously when she was solving their youkai problems. They were more critical when there were no youkai to slay.
The group of local women shared a glance. They knew each other well enough to understand without words; Sango did not. She waited for them to sort things out and thought perhaps she should have approached one of the men instead.
Finally, the last woman in the group, who had been silent so far, said, "I will take you to the headman's house. If it is as you say, then the situation must be dealt with immediately."
As this last woman led the way further into town, Sango could sense the others watching her. She did not think they believed her story, but that didn't matter. What mattered was what the headman thought— and whether or not she could convince him to hand over a guest. There was, after all, nothing but her word to prove the monk had stolen the piece of the Shikon no Tama.
She had been counting on catching him in the open, not when he'd taken shelter in someone's home. This turn of events could complicate things.
The headman's house was large enough to be imposing and to display the family's wealth, but not so ostentatious as to require guards. Sango recognized it for what it was even before her guide pointed it out.
"Your friend mentioned that the headman has a daughter," she began. "Should I expect anyone else to be present?" As they drew nearer to the building she became aware of an eerie, depressive aura in the air, and had a feeling she knew how the monk had wormed his way in.
"The headman's wife died a few years ago," her guide explained. "His daughter is his only kin. They live here alone."
Sango nodded in acknowledgment. There might still be servants or bodyguards, and she did not want to rely too much on the word of one person, anyway.
"I can take it from here," she told the other woman. "Thank you for showing me the way."
"If that monk is really a con man, we don't need the likes of him swindling our headman," the woman replied, sounding surprisingly vehement. The headman must be well-regarded by his people. "And if he's stolen something of value from your family, the heirloom should be returned to its proper place. Good luck in your endeavor."
"My thanks," Sango said. The other woman took her leave, and Sango found herself facing the headman's home all alone. A part of her was furious that the monk would seek to take advantage of a family that sounded so like her own, but she did her best to control her flaring temper. She knew only what she had been told. It would be dangerous to think she knew the full truth of the situation. It would be dangerous, also, to allow anger to rule her.
To her relief, the headman, his daughter, and the monk were all sitting outside on the veranda to enjoy the sunset. Her anger flared at the sight of the monk, sitting with the family as if he belonged there and smiling up at the young woman who was pouring him a cup of sake. At least this would save her the trouble of gaining entry to the house.
All three of them looked up when they heard her approach, their quiet conversation dying away into uneasy silence. Sango met their gazes with the appearance of calm, half expecting the monk to somehow give himself away. But he was better than that. He stared at her as if he had never seen her, or anyone like her, before in his life.
The headman's expression was one of consternation. Sango supposed she might have seemed less strange had she showed up in full daylight rather than the growing gloom of dusk. Well, it couldn't be helped.
"Greetings, my lord," she began.
"What brings you to my family's home, stranger?" the headman asked. There was no particular hostility in the question, at least. He sounded almost resigned.
"Did the monk tell you he would take care of the dark aura that hovers over your home?" Sango asked in return.
"He did," was the cautious answer. "He performed the exorcism this afternoon. That is why we are celebrating tonight." He spoke like a man afraid he was about to have his worst fears confirmed.
A pang of sympathy stabbed at her heart. How many times had she heard of people swindled like this, by charlatans that called themselves monks or taiji-ya and fled before their deception could be discovered?
"My name is Sango," she told the headman, though her eyes remained fixed on the monk. She began to walk closer to the veranda. "I am a youkai taiji-ya. I think you know why I'm here: that monk's a fraud."
At that point two things happened at once. The headman seized the monk by the front of his robes, demanding to know the meaning of this. And the monk exclaimed, in a voice that was nothing like Miroku's, "You're a what?!"
The monk's eyes grew almost impossibly wide as he fought to free himself from the headman's grip. The more he struggled, the more his face seemed to shift and deform right before her eyes. "He didn't say anything about a youkai slayer!" the impostor monk wailed.
Sango realized immediately what this must mean, and so the ensuing transformation did not startle her nearly so much as it did the headman and his daughter. The girl shrieked and dropped the bottle she had been holding as the monk turned suddenly into a tanuki. The headman gave a surprised shout and relaxed his grip enough for the creature to slip away.
Sango's thoughts raced even as she reached into the sleeve of her kosode and withdrew the long, coiled length of chain that she kept there even when she wasn't expecting trouble. Had the monk been a tanuki all along? No—she, or someone at the village, would have noticed. It only made sense if this was an accomplice, sent to lay a false trail while the real Miroku made a clean getaway. That would explain why he'd taken on Miroku's appearance, and why he'd failed to recognize her and hadn't known just who was hunting him.
No doubt the monk had left out the part of his tale where he stole the Shikon no Tama from a village of youkai slayers. She almost felt sorry for this hapless creature.
Even so, her aim was true: the chain tangled neatly around the tanuki's legs and a well-timed yank saw him flat on his belly on the ground. He whimpered, covering his head with his forepaws.
"Please don't kill me!" he cried as she approached.
"I'm not going to kill you," she told him, "as long as you cooperate." She knelt beside him. "This won't be pleasant. It shouldn't kill you, but I need to be sure you won't try to escape while I'm busy." While she was speaking, she had taken off the pack tied over her shoulders and removed her gas mask and several scent beads. Applying pressure burst the beads and released the soporific gas within. Sango's mask filtered the air to keep her safe, but the tanuki had no such protection. In a short time he lost consciousness.
With the mask still covering her mouth and nose, lest a stray breeze blow any of the lingering smoke back in her direction, Sango made short work of tying up the tanuki. When he was fully trussed, she turned back to the headman and his daughter. The headman looked grim, his daughter shaken.
"Now," Sango said. "Let's see about your problem." She was tired and frustrated, and wanted nothing more than to take the tanuki and be on her way, but something was not right here. Years of experience had taught her to identify the eerie sensation that indicated the presence of harmful youkai. It was this feeling she had noticed when she first approached the house. She was certain there was another youkai here even before the headman confirmed it.
She let him explain what had been going on—strange sounds in the home, persistent bad luck, and his daughter's mysterious and lingering fatigue, which no healer had been able to resolve. It was this last part that worried Sango the most.
"Please show me around," she told the headman. To his daughter, she added, "Stay here and keep watch over the tanuki. If he does anything or seems to be waking up, shout."
Wide-eyed, the girl nodded her understanding.
It was fully dark by the time they finished assessing the exterior of the building. Nothing seemed amiss, though the strange aura lingered. Leaving her bulky hiraikotsu with her sandals outside, Sango followed the headman through the open door and into the house. Even with a cheery fire in the main room's hearth, it was surprisingly gloomy inside. Shadows seemed to lurk in the corners and along the ceiling like cobwebs. Some of that, she knew, was from the darkness outside. But some of it…
"Do you mind waiting here?" she asked, eying the doorway at the opposite end of the room. If she wasn't mistaken, the evil aura originated beyond that door.
She went through the door, sliding it most of the way shut behind her, and found herself in a very dark room. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, then slipped away from the door, edging slowly along the wall. She reached a corner, crouched down, and waited.
After what seemed like ages, she saw it: movement, snuffling along low to the ground. Small and hairy, it might have been a dog. Sango knew better. She'd only heard of creatures like this before: masses of dust and dirt and hair that grew large enough to gain a life of their own. Even among the taiji-ya they were mostly laughed off as myths, and as scapegoats for poor hygiene. True examples of this sort of youkai were so unheard of that at first she wasn't quite sure what to do about it.
In the end she opted for the direct approach. She waited until it had snuffled its way close enough, then struck quickly with her sword. She would have preferred to bash it with the hiraikotsu, in the hope of obtaining an intact specimen to take home with her, but would have to make do with this. And as it turned out, the sword worked just fine.
The blade sheared through the creature almost as if it weren't there, leaving two lumpy halves on the floor at her feet.
"Come quickly!" she called. "And bring a light!"
The headman stumbled over himself to obey, rushing in with a lit oil lamp in one hand. It didn't help much, but its light was enough to confirm her suspicions.
"Here's your youkai," she said, indicating the two piles of dust and matted hair. "Or what's left of it."
The man's expression was one of disgust. Seeing the condition of the room, which was evidently not the storage room she'd thought, but someone's bedroom, Sango shared the sentiment.
"What is it?" the man sputtered.
"Let's go back outside, so your daughter can hear, too," she suggested.
They gathered not on the veranda, but in the main room of the house where the hearth could provide some extra light. Sango explained what she had seen, and to her surprise her host's daughter exclaimed, "I told you, Father! I told you something was sneaking around in the dark, and all you would say was we don't have rats in this house!" Realizing that she had just embarrassed her father in front of a stranger, she clapped her hands over her mouth and stared at the floor.
"Since your wife died, who has been taking care of the house?" Sango asked gently. From the shambles around her, it was easy to guess. The building might look whole and healthy from the outside, but on the inside it was falling apart.
Her host would not look at her. She went on, "You must bring light and fresh air back into the house. You must clean out all the dust and dirt, and keep it that way, or another youkai like this one will soon appear. If you can, obtain some incense and burn it regularly to purify the air. That will help."
She paused, then decided to continue. "I've killed this one, but if you continue to live in grief like this, another will come—or worse—and your troubles will return." She took a breath, let it go. Quietly: "Your wife would not have wanted this for you."
Afterward they offered to let her stay in their home for the night, but the urgency of her own mission compelled her to turn them down. When she would not accept their hospitality they offered her money as payment, but she turned that down, too. After all, there was still the issue of the tanuki. She couldn't take the chance that he might escape while she slept. So she said her farewells, gathered her things, and went out into the night to face her captive.
It might have been hours yet before he roused on his own. Luckily Sango carried smelling salts that were a quick antidote to the knockout gas she'd used earlier. The powerful scent had the tanuki wide awake and whining unhappily in a matter of moments.
"Whining isn't going to help," she told him. "I won't hurt you if you answer my questions."
"Yes, my lady!" the hapless creature stammered.
"How did you come to take the form of that particular monk?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Sango prodded his fat belly with her hiraikotsu. "The resemblance was too close to be random. Try again."
"He grew up near the place I used to live," the tanuki offered. "I used to watch him often, so his appearance is familiar to me. It's easier to use that form than try to make one up."
She prodded him again, harder. He struggled against the chains, but couldn't free so much as a paw.
"You expect me to believe it's a coincidence that I followed that same monk's trail from my village, and instead of him I caught you?"
The tanuki yelped even though she hadn't made a move toward him. He squeezed his eyes shut and flattened his ears against his skull as if he expected to be struck.
"You're helping him get away, aren't you?" she probed. Recalling the tanuki's reaction when she introduced herself as a slayer of youkai, she added, "But he didn't tell you who was after him or why, did he? He left you to die so he could get away."
The tanuki went limp and let out a quiet whine. "It's true."
"Tell me where he is."
Another whine. "I can't! I don't know where he is!"
Sango knelt so she could look him in the eye. "Maybe not," she agreed, "but you know where he's going, don't you?"
The tiny mountain trail gradually grew into a path as it wound through the foothills, and finally became a true road as it left mountain and foothills behind for good. Kikyou made good time as she followed trail and path and road. Unceasing, unrelenting. It was easy when she did not need to pretend to be human and could simply keep walking through the night.
There might of course be bandits and worse things abroad in the night, but Kikyou did not fear such specters. After the damage she had unwittingly wrought in the mountain village, after the death and suffering she had unleashed, she had very little to fear.
For days and nights she kept walking, letting her feet carry her where they would. If she stopped, if she tried to settle down someplace, even just for a few days, she knew it would only create more tragedy… and those wounds were still too fresh. The memory of Sayo's mother, clutching her child's lifeless body came to her every time she closed her eyes. Sayo, who had reminded her so much of her own sister, who had helped her calm the anger in her heart.
In the cruelest twist of fate, Kikyou no longer felt as if her anger would swallow her whole. All she could seem to feel was sorrow.
She set aside her sorrow when she came within sight of the place she realized she had been going all along: the village of her birth. She felt the anger begin to creep back in, wondering how she had come to wake up in Urasue's kiln, when her ashes should have been interred here, as she had wished. She had told them to burn her body, and the Shikon no Tama with it. And yet Urasue had revived her to find the jewel.
Had Kaede and the others not done as she asked? Had they kept the jewel for themselves only to lose it?
There was only one way to find out.
The village had changed significantly since her death. Only a few of the buildings were as she remembered them, and several were entirely new. How long, she wondered, had it been since she died? For the first time it occurred to her to wonder if so much time had passed that there was no one left that might remember her.
The villagers gathered to meet her as she came into town. She had grown up here. She knew this place and its forest and river better than any other. And yet among the people gathered here she did not see a single familiar face.
She should turn and leave before she could cause trouble for these people. She knew this, but her feet were rooted to the ground. She stared back at the strangers and knew she should never have come to this place. What had she possibly hoped to find here?
A young girl led a wizened old woman dressed in the garb of a priestess to the front of the crowd. Her hair was white, but meticulously pulled back, and she carried a bow over one shoulder. One eye was covered by a patch, and might have been missing. Her ancient, wrinkled face furrowed into a frown as she beheld Kikyou. "So," she said, "it is as I was told. I did not want to believe, but I cannot deny what I see with my own eye. Welcome home, sister."
Horror roiled within Kikyou as this stranger called her sister. "Kaede?"
The slayer was wary as he entered the isolated forest glen. Naraku pretended not to notice. His chosen appearance often had that effect on people.
"The message said you were in need of my services," the man said. He remained standing, looking down to where Naraku sat. Looking at him, he seemed utterly ordinary, not at all what Naraku had expected. But the wasp had led him here, and it would not have led him astray. Ordinary and unthreatening as he looked, this man had slain a youkai recently.
"That depends on what those services are," Naraku countered. "An evil aura has fallen over the castle of my lord, bringing illness and ill luck with it. No one has been able to dispel it. We have been forced to conclude that a youkai is to blame."
"Is that so?" the man mused, with the air of one who has heard it all before. And considering his profession, he probably had.
"My lord is among those who have fallen ill, and the medicine he receives only makes him grow weaker. Now his son has taken ill as well," Naraku explained smoothly, allowing the proper amount of emotion to color his voice. "I have heard whispers of an enormous spider seen inside the castle. I fear the tsuchigumo is to blame."
The man took in the information Naraku had shared. He did not seem fully convinced. "Such spiders prefer quiet places, away from people," he said as if speaking to himself or thinking aloud. "It is strange that one might take up residence in a castle, where it might be easily discovered."
This was not going as planned. The most irksome part was that the spider was real, an ancient beast he had coaxed out of the forest to keep the castle's denizens busy and distracted while he insinuated himself among the companions of the lord's son.
"Please," Naraku said, "I fear if nothing is done we will lose both my lord and his son."
The slayer regarded him for a long time in silence, as if he wished he could see past the mask to the face beneath. Naraku let him wonder.
Finally: "I will take your request to the leader of the slayers. I can make no other promises, but know that he will at least hear your plea." He'd gone from all caution to all business, a good sign. "I will need to know the location of your lord's castle, and what payment a slayer can expect to receive, should an extermination be in order."
"Of course," Naraku agreed, and told the slayer everything he needed to know. After swearing again to carry the message, the man departed.
Naraku watched him go and wondered what tales he would take home, what he would say about the eerie, masked man dressed in a baboon's pelt who had pleaded for aid. His lips formed the semblance of a smile beneath the mask.
Presently, he heard the sound of an insect buzzing, and the wasp that had led him to this meeting emerged on a nearby branch.
"Follow him," Naraku said.
The wasp took flight and disappeared above the trees.
It took three whole days for the tight feeling in Miroku's chest to begin to loosen. He trusted Hachi to lay a convincing false trail, but he still worried that Sango's skill might best even Hachi's abilities. And then what?
With luck, by that point the real trail would have run cold. He'd hide out at Mushin's temple for a bit while he figured out what to do next, and he'd keep a sharp eye out for anyone that might be a slayer for the rest of his life. This plan obviously needed work, if this was the best outcome he could realistically envision.
Thinking while he walked would at least have helped pass the time and would have kept him from looking over his shoulder too often. Unfortunately, it would also have been a powerful distraction. He couldn't afford to lose sight of the stakes just yet. He had only a small part of the Shikon jewel, after all, and he hadn't gotten away with it yet. Sango and her fellow slayers might still be after him, and a single piece of the jewel would not be enough to put an end to his curse. For that, he would need the entire Shikon no Tama. And in order to get his hands on the rest of it, he'd have to avoid being captured.
Keeping an eye out for stray slayers and their allies meant that he was keenly aware of what was going on around him. As he walked, the sound of songbirds was gradually replaced by the coarse cries of carrion birds. There were several times he even thought he caught the scent of blood, and of rotting flesh and burning wood. He slowed, wondering what he was walking into. Perhaps a battle had occurred not far from this place.
It was risky to continue, but he did not want to turn back and waste time finding another route. He began to question his choice a few minutes later when he came across a grisly scene just off the road. The stench of blood and gore was strong enough to merit a closer look. That closer look confirmed his suspicions: the crumpled heap at the base of the tree, or what was left of it, had once been a person.
He knew he should keep moving, not least of all because whatever or whoever had done this could come back at any time. But he couldn't shake the sense that something was terribly wrong, or the feeling that he ought to do what he could for this poor soul. He certainly didn't have time to dig a proper grave, but the ground here was very rocky. He could probably build a cairn, at least, so the remains would be somewhat safe from the defilement of animals.
He was still pondering his options when a trio of men armed with farming implements appeared on the road and headed toward him. He watched them draw near and take in the scene, though he couldn't tell what they thought about it. They almost looked more resigned than horrified. For several minutes, they conversed quietly with each other, though Miroku was too far away to hear what was said.
"You'd better come with us," one of them called at last. One of his companions was looking skyward, as if to judge the hour, while the other stared nervously toward the treeline and the distant mountains.
Miroku made his way toward them, letting them see his clothes and the staff he carried. "I was hoping to be of some assistance," he told them, fully aware that they might be behind the crime themselves, "but it appears I arrived too late. Did you know him?"
"You'd better come with us," the man who had spoken before reiterated. A wolf cried somewhere off in the distance. "It's not safe to be alone out here."
Fear had nearly overcome these men, Miroku realized. He might not know what had happened here, but they did. Whatever it was, he had a feeling they were rightly frightened of it. And that wolf's cry in broad daylight had not been reassuring. So Miroku acquiesced and followed the men back down the road toward their village, though he would have preferred to do more for the dead man than just to say a few prayers. But he wasn't going to take chances just now, not when he was surrounded by jumpy, frightened men.
They heard the sound of wolves most of the way to the village, though Miroku did not glimpse even a single wolf. All along the road were untended fields, with the occasional felled tree and, once, the charred remains of what had been a house.
They were within sight of the village when they found it: a fresh kill. A pair of wolves was feasting on something in the middle of an abandoned field. They looked up as the humans approached, and fled across the field and into the trees without a sound. Miroku's companions waited on the road, obviously uncomfortable, while Miroku went to investigate. He wasn't much happier than the others, but he had to confirm his fears. Just like the corpse he'd encountered earlier, this one had once been human, a young girl.
There was nothing he could do for her, knowing that even if he buried her the wolves would simply dig her back up, so he said a prayer for her soul and returned to his companions. "Are the wolves in this area always so bold?" he asked.
"We shouldn't talk about this here," the men told him.
Miroku kept his mouth shut until they finally reached the village. The whole place seemed to exist under an unnatural pall. He could feel it—and realized he had been feeling it— long before the cluster of ramshackle buildings came into view. It looked as if this village had once been prosperous, even pleasant, but it was clearly in decline now. Every bit as miserable as the countryside around it, the buildings were worn, some tumbling down, and the few villagers were gaunt and kept their eyes cast down except when the distant sound of wolves could be heard. They looked up at each howl and snarl and growl, and he saw fear in their eyes.
Something deeply unpleasant was happening here, and he'd walked right into the middle of it. He knew he should just keep going and leave these people to their mess. It had nothing to do with him and was likely just to make trouble for him. He thought of the piece of the Shikon jewel concealed within his robes, and of the slayers who might still be following his trail, and knew he needed to keep moving. He could not afford to stop here even to try to lift some of the misery.
But even he couldn't stoop that low. He let his companions take him to the village elders; the least he could do was find out what was going on, although it seemed obvious.
The elders were, to a man, elated to be presented with a Buddhist monk, all but confirming his suspicions.
"I cannot linger here for long," he cautioned them after introductions had been made. "I have urgent business elsewhere, but I will do what I can for your village. Tell me about the wolves."
"They came down from the mountains a few months ago, in the spring," the eldest of the elders said. "It used to be that travelers would sometimes run into sending-off wolves in the mountains, but now they haunt the roads and forests around our village." It almost seemed that he could not continue, but he recovered himself after a few moments of choked silence. "Recently they have begun to follow travelers even on the main road. They attack men on their way home after a day's work in the fields. Women and children see them prowling around even in daylight. These last six nights, they've been bold enough to attack the village."
"There are more of them every night," another man chimed in. "In a few more days, we might not be able to fight them off."
"We sent away everyone that had family in other villages that could take them in," the first man added.
Miroku could guess what was not being said. These men anticipated a bloodbath, and he was their last, unexpected hope for survival. He couldn't just leave them to such a fate.
"If the wolves come at night, we have no time to lose," he told them. The sun was already dropping low in the sky, and there was an entire village to be fortified. Time was against them. Thinking quickly, he asked, "What's the biggest building that's still standing?"
If they could squeeze everyone into one or two buildings, he might be able to protect them for the night. If he had to protect the entire village, with so little time to prepare, they would be lost. They might be lost anyway, if there were enough wolves and they were truly determined.
After a quick tour he selected two likely-looking buildings, the village's lone inn and an adjacent storage building, and sent the elders to gather the remaining villagers. While they were thus occupied, Miroku steeled himself and went to work. The judicious application of holy sutra scrolls around the perimeter of each building should help repel the wolves. And more scrolls attached around each door and window should prevent them from entering.
Using two buildings was a gamble, he knew. If it came down to it, he could use his spiritual power to project a barrier and protect one of the buildings. If that happened, the other would be at the wolves' mercy. Unless…
He hated the thought of using the kazaana, that the situation might become that dire. The very idea sent an uncomfortable chill coursing through him.
A woman cried aloud from where she was being escorted to the inn. Miroku finished applying a last scroll to the doorway before looking to see what the fuss was about.
Something was coming toward the village from the air. Something large, moving fast. It seemed to double in size even in the few minutes Miroku watched. As it drew closer, he began to recognize the shape: longer than it was tall or wide, and vaguely gourd-shaped. He had seldom seen his friend take such a form, but it could only be Hachi.
"Get everyone inside the inn," Miroku ordered, "and finish getting the livestock and valuables into the storage building." In other circumstances, this situation would have seemed ripe for exploitation, but he couldn't stomach doing such a thing to these people. If he survived here, there would be other villages to swindle.
He stood alone outside the inn, listening to the sound of wolves and watching the sky turn crimson as Hachi descended. The tanuki came down fast and hit the ground hard, made careless by abject terror. And it was easy to see why, for Sango had made the journey with him.
Dressed in her black leather armor, her weapons at the ready and her eyes flashing fire, she looked ready to kill Miroku on the spot.
"Sango-sama!" he began, trying not to sound as desperate and afraid as he felt watching her stride furiously toward him. Instead he tried to sound relieved, hoping to somehow salvage the situation. "Thank goodness!" He forced himself to walk toward her. "We could use your help."
Sango halted just in front of him, just beyond the striking range of his staff. "What game are you playing at now, monk?" she demanded.
He shook his head. "No game. These people need help."
"If you're here, of course they do."
"It's not that," he insisted. A wolf's howl from quite close by saved him from having to say anything else. Just behind Sango, Hachi, now reverted to his normal form, cowered in fear.
At the sound of the howl, Sango's expression changed. "Mountain wolves?" she asked.
"They came down from the mountains in the spring," he explained. "They've been ravaging this village ever since."
Surprise and confusion shifted into cold anger. "And you've convinced them you can keep them safe."
"I have to try," he protested. She strode right past him and up to the inn door, where a cluster of villagers watched. To her back, he went on, "Whatever you may think of me, I cannot leave innocent people to be devoured by wolves and do nothing to help."
It was too late. "That monk is a fraud," Sango announced. "A con man and a thief. Did he tell you he would save you from the wolves? He's probably planning to steal from you as soon as you're all in hiding."
That he would have done exactly as she said had this village been a happier, wealthier place only made him more indignant.
"Hand him over to me and I will help you," Sango continued.
Miroku inched closer to Hachi. He was dying to know how Sango had secured the tanuki's help, and furious that his friend had brought her right to him, but there would be time for all of that later. So instead he murmured, "Get us out of here."
With the wolves about to attack, Sango would be too busy to stop them. This might be their only chance to escape.
"Don't even think about it, monk," Sango said without turning around. Just how keen was that woman's hearing? "My hiraikotsu will knock you right out of the sky."
The villagers clearly did not know what to think or whom to trust. Wolves howled, sounding even closer than before, first one and then more and more until a full chorus of them set the air to echoing with their eerie cries. Miroku wondered what they might be communicating with each other and decided he would rather not know.
"Sango-sama, we can discuss our differences when this is all over, but right now I think we would be better served by working together."
She finally turned, tossing a length of chain to snare him. He stared at it, stupefied. Her armor was very form fitting, leaving little to the imagination. Where had she possibly hidden so much chain?
To Hachi, she said, "You have done all I asked. You may go."
Miroku could only watch, impotent fury kindling all over again, as the tanuki transformed once more and floated off into the night. He didn't even have the decency to look back.
Meanwhile, Sango secured the chain around Miroku, looping it around his arms and torso until he was well and truly at her mercy. He did not resist, for all the good it did him, even when she shoved him toward the inn's entrance.
"Keep an eye on him," Sango told the villagers, "and leave the wolves to me."
It wasn't easy to push his way through the crowd of villagers with his hands tied, but Miroku had to see what was going on. Several men muttered angrily as he squeezed his way between them. Eventually he emerged at the front of the group; he wondered if they had allowed him to pass just to put him between them and the wolves, and if that should bother him.
In the end, the why of it didn't matter. This was where he should have been, anyway. He'd offered to help these people. He would have preferred to do it without his hands tied, but at least he had the best view as Sango took her stand against the wolves.
She hadn't moved off very far, probably intending to use the building to keep anything from sneaking up behind her. She crouched, the hiraikotsu gripped in one hand, hanging down behind her. From his vantage point, Miroku could almost see the tension in her as she waited, the lone target for the wolves' wrath. No wolves were visible yet, but their calls still reverberated through the empty village. Sango was right to be tense. It wouldn't be long now.
He saw the wolves an instant after Sango did: a pair of them, moving in from the left. And those were only the first. In only a few minutes, Miroku counted almost twenty wolves, all converging on the spot where Sango waited.
Twenty wolves, and only one slayer. Sango was good at what she did. He knew that, he'd seen it firsthand. But against so many, he did not like her odds of success.
He strained against the chain that bound him, knowing it would do no good. Twenty wolves were nothing to the power of the kazaana. He could end this in minutes, if anyone would let him. Instead, he was forced watch as the wolves began their attack.
He'd expected Sango to throw her weapon before the wolves could get close, using its range to keep them at bay, but instead she let them close in. This forced them to crowd together, allowing her to smash two and even three of them with a single blow from the hiraikotsu until they took the hint and fell back to a safe distance.
The strategy was working--for now--but Miroku wondered how long she could keep it up. Sango was strong and capable, but these were no ordinary wolves. She'd fended off the wolves' first assault, but she also hadn't managed to kill any of them. A few of their number were visibly limping as they continued to circle their prey, but that was the extent of the damage.
A pair of older wolves slipped between Sango and the inn as she contended with the mass of younger wolves. They came so close to Miroku that he could have counted their ribs if he wanted to, or struck them if he'd had his hands free to use his staff, but they passed by as if they were totally unaware of his presence. At some imperceptible cue, they rushed forward together to harry Sango from the rear.
Sango whirled to block them with her hiraikotsu, the female wolf's claws sliding harmlessly off whatever it was made of. The male wolf swerved, darting around the enormous weapon and forcing Sango to dance out of the way of its snapping jaws or risk a crushed ankle. She found her footing and pivoted again, sweeping wolves aside with the sheer bulk of her weapon.
Miroku realized he'd grown breathless just watching her fight. Her pride might be insufferable, but Sango in battle was a sight to behold. All quick grace and surprising strength, she was truly impressive. Too bad it was only a matter of time before one of the wolves managed to get past her defenses.
He wanted to have faith in Sango. He wanted to believe she could win this fight, that she would win this fight and they would all be safe. But there were so many wolves already, and a quick glance showed more of them arriving even as he watched. He knew that, slayer or no, no one woman could hope to defeat so many.
He knew of only one thing that could put an end to this without any loss of human life.
"She is vastly outnumbered," he pointed out. "Do you think one youkai taiji-ya will be enough to stop this?"
This provoked angry murmuring from the people clustered around him. Of course they did not want to believe him. It was easier not to. They all had simply accepted Sango's authority, and by extension her assessment of his character. Changing that would be an uphill battle. He only hoped it wouldn't take so long as to cost Sango her life.
He watched as Sango changed tactics and finally went on the offensive. She bashed her way through the first group of wolves by main force, bringing the hiraikotsu down on any that got too close, whipping the weapon around as if it were not huge and cumbersome at all. She was fighting hard, but the wolves still had the advantage. Their attacks were pushing her steadily away from the meager protection of the inn and out into the open where she would be more vulnerable.
Suddenly, at some signal that Miroku couldn't see, the wolves pulled back. Another group of wolves began to sweep in from the side. Letting the first group go, Sango hurled the hiraikotsu into the midst of the newcomers and charged in, drawing her sword as she ran. The hiraikotsu struck several of their number, bounced, and crashed to the earth a short distance away. Sango was upon the wolves before they could recover from the hiraikotsu's strike, skewering the first wolf she came to.
The moon crept ever higher in the sky as she began killing wolves in earnest. The moon cast a silver sheen over everything, muting all colors except the brilliant coral hue of Sango's armor and the red blood that coated her sword.
By the time Sango stood alone, ringed by dead wolves, Miroku had begun to wonder where the first group of wolves had disappeared to. He could hear their calls in the distance, but had no idea what the growls and howls might mean. Were they regrouping for another assault? Calling for reinforcements?
Sango sheathed her sword and retrieved the hiraikotsu before making her way back toward the inn. She was clearly winded, her face flushed and sheened with sweat.
"Sango-sama," he began.
She ignored him to lean the hiraikotsu against the side of the building so she could secure her mask over the bottom half of her face. He'd seen her wear that mask before, back when she fought the centipede, and wondered what it was for and why she'd left it hanging around her neck until now. He decided he could ask about that later, if they survived.
"Sango-sama, I know you don't trust me, but," he tried again. She fixed him with such a withering glare that he subsided.
If that was how she wanted to be, there wasn't much he could do about it. As a strict matter of fact, everything would be made easier if he stayed where he was and allowed Sango to die in her battle with the youkai. With her gone, no one would stop him from taking his piece of the jewel and disappearing. He shied away from that path. In a few more years, perhaps, he might be desperate enough for such callous disregard for human life. But for now...
He had no problem being self-serving, or cheating greedy rich men out of their ill gotten gains, but the thought of letting Sango die for his own convenience made Miroku's skin crawl. He could not allow that to happen. She was a nuisance, but she was also a human being. If Sango herself would not free him so he could come to her aid, he would have to convince the villagers to do it. Somehow.
Sango took up her hiraikotsu again, putting her back to the inn. She appeared to be watching something in the distance; it took Miroku a moment to realize that what he'd thought was a cloud was actually smoke rising from somewhere in the forest, and it was this that had attracted Sango's attention.
At first he thought it must be a building burning somewhere in the forest, then when the source of the smoke seemed to be moving he thought perhaps it was a blaze in the forest itself. But the longer he watched, the more obvious it became that both of these assumptions were wrong. The plume was clearly moving, and it was not growing the way a forest fire ought to. At the rate it was approaching, he supposed they would find out the cause soon enough.
It burst out of the trees long before he expected it to, moving so quickly that at first it was only a blur. It skidded to a sudden stop just beyond the range of Sango's hiraikotsu. Dust swirled, obscuring the creature for a long while, but Miroku already felt a sick feeling in his gut. The wolves had been bad enough, but this was something entirely, horribly different.
"Sango-sama," he began again, "If you try to fight that thing..."
She ignored him and walked straight toward it until she had passed out of the village and stood at the edge of the large open field that separated the village from the forest. The dust cleared, and he made out a vaguely human shape before the thing charged. One moment it stood far enough from Sango that she still would have struggled to hit it, and the next moment it had closed the distance between them. She had no hope of dodging the creature's strike or making a throw before it reached her; she managed to block with her weapon but the blow still sent her stumbling backward.
A chill shivered down Miroku's spine at the sight of such inhuman speed and strength. That, Miroku thought, feeling numb, was no ordinary youkai.
Sango recovered her footing and her bearings in time to bring her weapon around for another block. The youkai's claws clashed loudly against the hiraikotsu. Sango took a step back under the force of that blow. Just when Miroku was sure there was no way she could turn the battle around, a cloud of smoke erupted around her. He didn't see where she got the smoke bomb, but even from this distance he could smell the acrid stench.
The youkai snarled and drew back. Miroku imagined its eyes watering, mouth drooling from the onslaught of powerful scent, but he was too far away to be completely sure.
Sango pressed her advantage, whirling her hiraikotsu as if it were a much smaller, lighter weapon than it actually was. She landed several solid hits, though the smoke seemed far more effective.
Miroku was so focused on Sango that he didn't notice the wolves closing in until it was nearly too late. He thought to shout a warning, but the breeze wafted some of the smoke from the scent bomb toward the wolves. Whatever was in that smoke, it made the wolves recoil and draw back, rethinking the wisdom of their attack.
Even so, it was only a matter of time. The noxious smoke was already beginning to dissipate on the breeze.
By now the pack leader had recovered enough to fight back. Sango tried to use the hiraikotsu as a shield against the renewed onslaught, only to have it torn from her grip and tossed summarily aside. The youkai wasn't fooling around now and slashed powerfully at the slayer. Sango threw herself to the ground—Miroku couldn't see if the youkai's claws got her or not—and more smoke billowed up around her.
While the youkai doubled over, struggling to breathe, Sango scrambled back to her feet. Miroku willed her to run for the inn. She did not.
She ran for the hiraikotsu, seizing the weapon on the run. She whirled and threw without ever slowing down. He wondered how long she had trained to be able to pull off a feat like that. She couldn't possibly have had time to gauge the distance accurately, but the hiraikotsu hit its mark anyway, bouncing off the furious youkai without apparent effect.
"I've seen that weapon of hers tear through a centipede with a single shot," Miroku found himself saying. For the first time the villagers seemed to notice that he'd joined them.
The angry murmurs began again almost immediately. "Nice try, monk," said someone behind him. "Like he thinks he can convince us to let him go."
"If we have to die here, so do you," said another, the man's voice dripping venom. It had been a long time since he heard such malice, not since…
No time for reminisces now. "That's what I've been trying to tell you," he protested. "No one has to die here. I can put a stop to this right now, but only if you let me."
This statement failed to have the desired effect. He pressed onward. "Those wolves aren't focusing on that slayer just because she's a threat. They have more than enough for that. So, tell me, why haven't they destroyed this inn? Why are we all still alive?"
Silence. He nearly had them now.
"I have a weapon that can stop this madness, but I can't use it unless you let me go!"
"Why should we believe anything you say?" asked the woman standing next to him. She was older, and had a matronly air about her. He wondered why she had stayed here in spite of the wolves. "She says you're nothing but a fraud," she added with a nod toward Sango for emphasis.
"Sango-sama may not trust me—and rightfully so," he continued, though it pained him to have to admit it. "I stole something from her that I should not have. But I can't return it to her if you force me to stay here while that youkai kills her. You have to know that I'm telling the truth, that I can help, or else why are we all still alive?"
More angry muttering.
The woman beside him asked, "What did you steal from her, monk?" She spoke quietly, as if they were having a private conversation.
"A family heirloom. I thought I could use it to end the death-curse upon my family."
"And could you?"
Miroku bit back desperate, mirthless laughter. "Not like this."
The woman seemed to accept this. Moreover, she did not seem to care what agreement the others might be arriving at. After a few false starts she managed to undo the chain that bound Miroku and stepped aside, saying, "You had better not try anything funny, monk. My boy's a good shot, and he's got a few arrows left. If you try to run, I'll tell him to shoot you."
Miroku had absolutely no doubt this woman would keep her word, though he hadn't seen anyone among the people gathered inside the inn with a bow—or any weapon for that matter. Fortunately, he thought as he stepped across the threshold and into the open, he had no intention of running away just now.
In their haste to retreat into the shelter of the inn, the village men had left his staff where he dropped it earlier. He retrieved it now, then headed away from the inn, toward the place where Sango did battle with the leader of the wolves.
The circling wolves noticed him before Sango did. Three of them turned to slink toward him, no doubt hoping he would be easier prey. They were doomed to disappointment.
He only had a few sutra scrolls left, so he settled for using his staff to keep the wolves at bay, holding the scrolls in reserve. A few strikes from the staff had the wolves maintaining a safe distance. He knew better than to assume they would stay there, but pressed onward anyway. For an agonizing span, he watched Sango grapple with the pack leader, wondering how he was going to intercede without causing her death.
Seeing a chance as Sango—somehow—brained her opponent with the hiraikotsu and gained a momentary advantage, he shouted, "Sango-sama!"
She leaped backward and away from the youkai, eyes narrowing dangerously. "Why are you here?"
"I came to help."
She didn't bother to respond. Her attention was focused on the youkai, which retaliated with lightning speed. It pressed the advantage of that speed, forcing Sango further and further backward as she struggled even to block its rapid-fire slashes. Seizing the opportunity that had just presented itself, Miroku circled, falling in behind the youkai.
Caught between the two of them, it chose to keep pressing Sango, leaving room for Miroku to close in from behind. He darted in, smashing the head of his staff into the creature's head. It howled its fury and turned, fixing him with icy blue eyes. "Do you want to die, monk?"
Miroku hadn't expected it to speak. Taken aback, Miroku faltered. Seen from this close, the youkai's face was far too human for his comfort, although the ears were oddly pointed and fangs were clearly visible in the snarling mouth.
Apparently heedless of the monk's proximity, or perhaps just willing to injure him if it meant taking down her opponent, Sango renewed her assault. She swung her weapon with all her might, missing Miroku by inches as the edge slammed into the youkai's ribs, denting the leather armor it wore. The youkai whirled again, slashing at Sango with enormous, wicked-looking claws.
They were holding their own so far, but Miroku knew it was no good. If they didn't find a way to incapacitate or kill the thing, it or its wolves would get them eventually.
Too late he realized that some of the wolves he'd chastened earlier were already closing in behind Sango while she struggled with their leader. A few more steps and she wouldn't have any more room to retreat.
"The wolves," he warned.
"I know," she snapped.
He'd practiced the move enough that the sutra scrolls had adhered to each of the wolves before Miroku realized they were in his hand, much less that he'd thrown them.
The pack leader turned again as the wolves cried out and began to paw at the scrolls. The scent of burning flesh filled the air. "My wolves!" it growled. "You bastards, I'll make you both pay for hurting them!"
Sango swung again before it had finished speaking, slamming the full weight of her weapon into the youkai's ribs again. It staggered away, the first indication Miroku had seen that her efforts were having any effect at all. Maybe it wasn't as impervious to her attacks as it had first seemed. Maybe it was just angry.
It wasn't much, but at least it meant things weren't completely hopeless. Still, there was a much easier way to end the fight, if Miroku could just get Sango to cooperate.
He knew it wouldn't work, but he tried anyway. "Sango-sama, get behind me!"
She did not so much as glance toward him. "Why?"
He had hoped it would be obvious. After all, if their enemy could speak, it could also understand what they said. "So I can use the kazaana and put an end to this," he told her, wincing as the hiraikotsu absorbed another crushing blow. Even using her weapon as a shield, it seemed impossible that she could continue to take such a beating for much longer.
How long did they have before her strength would give out at last? How long before her weapon and armor became too damaged to protect her?
"How do I know the kazaana is even real?" Sango demanded.
"Would I willingly put myself between you and that if it weren't?"
It turned out not to matter. The wolf leader ducked past Sango's next, distracted attack and slipped through her defenses. Before Miroku could react, it had one hand around her throat and hoisted her into the air. The other hand pulled the hiraikotsu from her grip and tossed it toward Miroku.
He danced out of the way, watching helplessly as the youkai hurled Sango toward the distant trees.
He couldn't watch. Guilt was an unfamiliar feeling, hot and painful in his chest: If she dies in this place, it's because I led her here.
He slapped two sutra scrolls to the hiraikotsu's blunt cutting edge and tried his hand at hefting the thing. It was huge, ungainly, and heavy. His best effort only sent it flopping to the ground a few paces away.
The youkai bared its teeth in what might have been a cruel grin and lunged toward him. Miroku stumbled backward, avoiding the rending claws by blind luck. He threw a last sutra scroll to buy some time, missing his intended target but still landing a hit on the creature's right arm as it slashed at him.
With no choice left, he prayed that Sango had survived that throw, and that she was safely out of range. He threw his staff aside and grabbed for the beads that circled his wrist and restrained the unstoppable power of the kazaana.
Even with the holy energy of the scroll charring its flesh and slowing it down, the youkai was too fast. There was no way Miroku could open the kazaana before it could reach him. And without his staff he could not even hope to protect himself from the claws.
At least he was going to die giving Sango a chance to live instead of screaming in helpless terror as his curse inevitably consumed him. It was a better death than his father's, or his grandfather's.
Before it could strike him down, the youkai's arm suddenly fell away, blood showering from the remaining stump. The creature's howl was loud enough to rattle Miroku's bones and was, apparently, a call to retreat. The wolves turned as one, including the powerful youkai that was their leader, and fled back into the forest as if they had never been there at all.
Belatedly, Miroku realized he had Sango to thank for his continued existence. It was her timely and unbelievably precise use of the hiraikotsu that had avoided hitting Miroku even as it severed the youkai's arm, striking exactly where the sutra scroll had weakened it.
Sango herself stood, apparently unharmed, so close beside him that he could have reached out and touched her. Her weapon, now spattered with the youkai's blood, hung loosely from her hand with most of its length resting on the ground. She was visibly trembling.
With the youkai's claws coming at him, he hadn't even noticed her.
"We won," he murmured, still not quite believing it.
Sango slid to her knees, letting go of her weapon so she could use both hands to pull the mask away from her face. "It's not over yet," she said, grimacing slightly. "They'll be back. And next time they won't just be hungry. They'll be angry."
Looking around, he could see that they had only accounted for a few of the wolves. Many of the wolves injured in the fight had not died, but had escaped alongside their fellows. Sango was right: it wasn't over. They had won this battle, but it would be only the first.
It took Sango a long time to recover herself, and for it to fully sink in that the tai-youkai had fled. She had not been at her best from the very beginning of the battle, and now exhaustion clawed at her more fiercely than any other time she could remember. But she had survived a fight with a tai-youkai!
She wasn't sure if that made her want to laugh or cry. During her years of training, the older and more experienced slayers had often warned of youkai just like this one. Youkai that were powerful enough to appear human or nearly human were very rare, but they were also the most dangerous youkai a slayer might encounter. The village would have deployed a contingent of its best fighters to face this threat, and she had faced it alone and lived.
But she had not won a complete victory. The tai-youkai and its wolves were still out there, and sooner or later they were likely to return. When they did, they would not seek only food, but also revenge.
She would have to be ready when they came. If she could not convince the remaining villagers to flee, and she did not think she could, not if they'd been willing to stay this long, then she would have little choice but to stand and face the wolves again. It wasn't a prospect she relished.
There was no time to return to the village to seek reinforcements. Her supply of scent beads was dangerously low. She hated the thought of continuing to cooperate with the monk, but knew it might come to that. If his kazaana were real—and she was no longer sure it wasn't—it might turn out to be the only way to deal with the wolves without putting human lives at risk.
The monk just stood there while she tried to sort this all out, standing far closer than she would have allowed if she wasn't so tired. She wasn't sure she had the energy to tell him to step away from her, or to deal with his reaction, and at least this way she knew where he was and what he was doing.
Eventually, the village folk would realize that the wolves had fled for the night. She expected the monk would seize the opportunity to slip out of town as soon as she was distracted. And he would probably have help. She wasn't entirely sure what she wanted to do about that, and about the person—or people—who had freed him in the first place.
She was sorely tempted to obtain a room at the inn, sleep for the next day or three, and let them all do what they would in the meantime. That at least would be easier than thinking about what might have happened if the monk hadn't showed up to provide a crucial distraction.
Now that death was no longer imminent, her thoughts were coming to her as if through a fog. She shook her head as if that might help to clear it. It didn't. She'd pushed herself hard tonight, and it showed.
Slowly, she forced herself to focus.
The tai-youkai's arm lay on the ground where it had fallen, not far from the bloodied hiraikotsu, which would soon need tending. Her body protested the movement, but she climbed to her feet and went to inspect the spoils from the fight, such as they were.
The severed arm looked very much like the arm of a very strong human man, save for the wickedly long claws that tipped each finger. Looking at it made her feel almost uncomfortable. She knew her duty, no matter how uncomfortable she felt, and knelt to examine it more closely.
It was as she had expected: there was very little here that would be of any use to the other youkai taiji-ya back home. The claws, perhaps. The bones and flesh, and the leather band encircling the wrist, almost certainly not.
At first she thought the glint was merely a figment of her overtired imagination. A closer inspection revealed that the source of the faint gleam was a small, irregularly shaped bit of gemstone, which seemed to peek out from beneath the tai-youkai's leather wristband as if it wanted to be found. If it hadn't suddenly caught the moonlight in just the right way, she probably would have overlooked it.
She must have made some sort of sound that alerted the monk, because he immediately knelt beside her, saying, "Sango-sama, is everything—"
He cut himself short when she held up the stone. She knew with utter certainty that this was another piece of the Shikon no Tama. No doubt the monk recognized it, too.
He said something then, but she didn't hear. She was too busy reviewing the fight in her mind. Much of what had happened tonight made a great deal more sense now that she knew the tai-youkai had been augmenting its power with that of the jewel. Youkai were often stronger and faster than humans, but this had been far beyond anything in her experience. It was almost a relief to find out that, if not for the jewel, she would not have been quite so outmatched.
She ignored the monk as he spoke again, tucking the piece of the jewel into an empty compartment hidden in her armor where it would be safe. This accomplished, she rose and made her way back to the inn to tell the villagers what had happened and what must yet be done. To her surprise, the monk fell in behind her and followed her all the way back to the inn.
It wasn't until much later, when she was finally lying on a borrowed mat in the room she'd been granted at the inn, that she realized the monk wouldn't be going anywhere as long as she had a piece of the Shikon jewel. One less thing to worry about, for the time being, anyway. Moments later, sleep carried her into blissful oblivion.
Faceted eyes watched the slayer as he made camp for the night. If he was aware of the watcher hiding among the leaves, he gave no sign of it. He simply went about his tasks as if he were entirely alone. It was clear he would not reach the village of the slayers tonight.
Hitomi Kagewaki opened his eyes, the vision fading. The lamps had burned low while he slept, leaving his sickroom in darkness. Beyond the main door he could hear the sound of voices, probably the servants worrying over their young lord again. How he wished he could reveal the truth…
There came a rustling from outside the room's exterior door. He preferred that door to be left open; the servants must have closed it while he slept.
Cursing the weakness of this body, he rose from his bed and crossed to the door. It slid open easily, without a sound.
No one awaited him on the other side. There was only an enormous wasp, hovering. Its black carapace shone faintly purple in the moonlight. Potent venom gleamed in droplets on a stinger as long as his hand. And in two of its forelimbs, it grasped something that glimmered.
Leaning against the door's frame for support, Kagewaki extended a hand. The wasp remained where it was, as if deciding what it ought to do. Then it darted forward and deposited the object it carried into his waiting hand.
Its mission completed, the wasp tilted its head several times until it seemed almost quizzical.
"You may go."
The wasp departed in a buzzing of wings, leaving behind no sign that it had been there at all, save for the pebble Kagewaki now held in his hand. In the moonlight it appeared more pink than purple, and shone as a pearl might. He inspected it for a moment longer, then closed the door and withdrew back into the darkness of his room.
By feel alone he made his way to the mat that concealed the compartment in the floor. He knelt, drawing the mat aside and removing the wooden box from its hiding place. He ignored the three wooden figures, each carefully wrapped with human hair, that the box contained. Instead, he scooped out a small pile of pebbles that had collected in one corner of the box. Each was small, smaller than the fingernail on his smallest finger, but they were all alike in their smoothness and coloration—and the faint glow they emitted. In fact, they were very much like the pebble the wasp had brought him tonight.
With tonight's addition, they numbered eight. It would seem he had amassed quite a collection in just a few days. Smiling slightly, Kagewaki added this eighth stone to the collection and replaced the box beneath the floor mat.
He had only just returned to his bed when he heard the sound of footsteps outside the exterior door. He supposed he ought to summon the servants, or the castle guards, but he remained where he was. After all, who would come here that meant him harm?
Presently, the door slid open and his puppet entered.
"You bring news, I hope," he asked. He spoke more loudly than was his wont, as if hoping to be overheard.
Naraku knelt just inside the door, limned in moonlight. "Of a sort, my lord."
"My agents seek the Shikon jewel on your behalf."
He gave the appearance of mulling this over. "So you have not confirmed its existence."
"Not yet, my lord. But soon."
"Come back when you have more for me," he decided.
"One more thing, my lord: I've sent for a youkai taiji-ya."
Kagewaki smiled coldly. "You still believe there's a youkai in the castle?"
"Do you doubt it?"
"Go. Bring me that jewel."
Naraku rose, bowed deeply, and departed, leaving Kagewaki alone in the darkness.
While they conversed, a hush had stolen over the castle. Even the servants in the adjoining room had fallen silent, leaving the entire complex bathed in frozen moonlight.
For a long time, Kagewaki lay in his bed and watched the door, which Naraku had failed to close when he left. The moonlight silvered the porch outside and nearby vegetation, until all seemed calm and still.
Just before he closed his eyes to sleep, a shadow crossed the open doorway, enormous and many-legged. A trick of the light… or perhaps not.
Not too much later, a scream echoed through the silent castle.
The tea was warm and soothing, impeccably prepared, but for Kikyou it was no sustenance. She drank it anyway.
Kaede sat across from her, looking much calmer than Kikyou felt. The only sounds were an occasional crackle from the fire and Kaede's quiet sipping as she drank her own tea. Within the hut that was both entirely strange and too familiar, nothing else moved.
Kikyou set down her cup. "You are not surprised to see me, sister?"
Kaede's expression was grim. Her aged face was another stab at Kikyou's heart, at once achingly familiar and utterly foreign. "On the night of the last new moon, someone defiled your shrine. They stole ashes and soil from the place where you were buried," Kaede said quietly and with perfect calm.
Kikyou felt anything but calm. She seethed, fury rising unreasonably even though she knew the culprit was dead. The mountain witch Urasue had died at Kikyou's hand only a few days ago. She is dead, Kikyou told herself. She is dead. You killed her. You are avenged. It didn't help.
Hate boiled inside her until she thought she would burst.
Kaede's hand, callused and gnarled with age, rested softly atop her own. The soft purity of her sister's power, so unlike the tempest of her own, seeped through her skin, its gentleness calming the storm within until it was bearable again. Kikyou shuddered.
"I worried that something like this might happen," Kaede was saying.
"There are few other reasons to steal ashes and graveyard soil," Kikyou commented. The words tasted bitter in her mouth.
"Indeed." That dry tone was as unfamiliar as the wrinkles that marred her face, or the missing eye. How strange was it for her to see her elder sister again, unchanged after all these years? Was it any stranger than Kikyou felt confronting her younger sister, now so altered by the ravages of time?
"I killed the mountain hag that revived me," Kikyou confessed.
"And then you came here. Why?"
Kikyou fell silent. She had not truly expected to find a welcome here. She was known to these people, even now. Some of them had been alive when she died, had been there when her body was burned and her ashes buried. There would be no escaping what she was, here.
At last: "I did not know where else to go." Indeed, she'd planned to die alongside Urasue.
The mere thought of that name sparked her rage all over again. She wanted to cling to Kaede, and did not. "Tell me, sister, what has happened since my death," she said, almost pleading. She might not find sanctuary here, but she could at least find information.
Kaede sat back, releasing her hand. "Not much, in this part of the world," she admitted. "With you and the Shikon no Tama and… InuYasha gone, things have been peaceful in our village, for the most part, anyway." She spoke the words slowly and deliberately, watching Kikyou's reaction to each one.
Without her sister's calming touch, Kikyou reeled. The memory of her final day, of his betrayal, his smirking face, his claws in her gut, gushed forth and swiftly became overwhelming. She almost thought to see blood seeping from reopened wounds… but of course there was no blood. Even if her clay body could somehow bleed, it had never been so grievously injured as the flesh of her true body that day.
Her vision went red. She gripped her bow and reached for an arrow, ready to kill him all over again—
"Who do you intend to kill in my home, sister?" Kaede asked.
The red haze lifted. She did not know when she had grabbed it, or from where, but her old bow was in her hand. She needed only arrows.
"He is still where you left him that day fifty years ago," Kaede went on, unperturbed. She had known all along who Kikyou intended to kill. "You should go see for yourself." She refilled her cup, took a sip. "Did you know they've started calling it InuYasha's forest?"
Of course she had not known. She did not know anything.
She did not know how long she stood there, shaking, helpless in the grip of a rage she could barely control. Kaede waited patiently while she recovered herself.
Finally, she found she could force words past clenched teeth. "And the Shikon jewel? Is that also where I left it?"
"No. We burned it with your body, as you asked."
"Then why was I revived?" There was no way Kaede could know the answer. The only person who could answer that question—who had already answered that question—was dead. But now that she had begun to speak, she could not stop. "Why now? What has changed?"
With each word, another layer of denial fell away. The vague unpleasant sensation resolved into a pull as insistent as fate. It had been there all along, of course, but she had shied away from confronting it. She had wanted so desperately not to believe that she had refused to accept what she knew, deep down, to be the truth.
The Shikon jewel had returned, however impossible it was. She closed her eyes and through the darkness she could see it shining like a series of distant beacons. Glowing dimly, tinged with impurity that would only continue to grow. Greed, lust, hatred, apathy… all the things she had always been denied. All the things she must still be denied.
The jewel was the true source of her hate. More than Urasue, more even than InuYasha. Even in life, the jewel had robbed her of happiness and of any chance to be the ordinary woman she had so longed to be. And now, because of it, she had been made into a monster.
"I will require arrows," she told Kaede.
Kaede, who had not been privy to her revelation, slowly rose on unsteady feet. "My sister, you have no enemies here."
"Not here," she said. "But the Shikon jewel is out there—somehow. I must do what I did not in life, and destroy it once and for all." She gripped her bow so hard she almost wondered if her clay fingers would crack under the strain. "There will be others who will stand in my way."
She expected resistance, but Kaede did as she asked and brought her a sheaf of arrows. As she handed the quiver over, she said, "I hope you find peace, Kikyou."
The hut was too small to contain her turmoil. If she stayed, it would surely suffocate her. Dizzy, the edges of her vision fading to black, Kikyou stumbled out into the night. In the open air, she felt she could finally breathe again—even though her body did not need to breathe any more than it needed to eat.
Kaede did not follow her. Perhaps that was for the best.
All around her, the village was quiet. Most everyone had already gone home for the night. They'd left their priestess alone to deal with the monster in their midst, just as they had always done.
She could not stay here any more than she could have stayed in the mountain hamlet where Sayo and her family had lived. She could not stay anywhere for long, not while the Shikon jewel still existed, for its fate was her fate. Only when it was destroyed would she be able to rest.
Closing her eyes once more, she sought the familiar aura. Somehow, the jewel had been broken into pieces and scattered across the land. She must begin by finding the pieces, just as Urasue had revived her to do.
Armed once more with her bow and arrows, she had all that she would require in order to begin. She could make good time yet tonight if she started walking now. And yet… as she crept away from the village, her gaze fell upon the forest as if it had called out to her. From here it was little more than a dark blur in the distance.
The wind rose, lifting her hair and seeming to tug her in that direction.
The forest was hushed around Kikyou as she walked the long-familiar path. She remembered the way as if it had been only yesterday, though she now knew nearly fifty years had passed since she last came this way.
The path had been well traveled back then, but it was clear that almost no one used it now. If she had not known the way so well, she might not have realized there was a trail at all beneath the thick overgrowth and the deep gloom of low-hanging branches. The nighttime shadows welcomed her like a lover's embrace, drawing her ever deeper into the forest. Leaf litter muffled the sound of her steps; frail strands of starlight slipped past the leaves overhead.
At last she came to the place she had sought: the clearing of the great tree, rising larger and older than any other tree in the forest. It towered over everything, its upper branches seeming almost to touch the moon high above, its silvered leaves rustling softly in the breeze. And there, tucked into the side of the tree, slept a man with an arrow through his heart.
Kikyou fell still. Her feet would not carry her forward.
He looked no different now than he had on the day he betrayed her and shattered her heart. On the day he killed her.
She had imprisoned him here as revenge, knowing she would die, and for fifty years he had remained.
She had expected to feel anger, but beneath the great tree her rage deserted her. At the sight of the once-beloved face, softened by sleep and framed by a glory of silver hair, a well of anguish and despair opened in her heart. She found that she could move, after all, and stumbled toward him. As she drew nearer to his resting place, she could not help but wonder: what do I hope to accomplish here?
She did not know.
Kikyou paused at the base of the tree to look up at him. She was so close now that she could have touched him, yet it felt as if an abyss separated them.
Her hand lifted of its own accord, fingers reaching up as if to grasp the arrow she could not hope to touch. If she were to climb up the vines that had grown around the bottom of the tree, forming a natural ladder that led straight to him, perhaps she could…
In her last moments she had bespelled him, thinking never to see him again, believing that if she died he need never wake again. Could she undo what she had wrought? Did she want to?
Was that why she had come here?
He looked so peaceful now. If she awakened him, she knew she would see her own hate and rage mirrored in his beautiful golden eyes. He would not care what might once have been, save that she had thwarted his desire for the Shikon jewel. In all likelihood, he would try to finish what he started all those years ago. Even without her spell to bind him, what was fifty years to one such as he?
If she climbed those vines, if she touched him once more, she might set him free. Instead she turned away.
She could not free him, not while the Shikon no Tama still existed. And so she left him where he lay nestled against the great tree, and returned the way she had come.
The forest was still quiet around her as she made her way back to the main path. This path would lead her toward one of the places where, in the distance, she could sense the jewel's presence. It would take her away from this place, perhaps never to return.
Was it regret she felt at that thought, or simmering anger?
She had not gone far when she felt the malignant aura of a youkai. It was cleverly hidden along a tree branch just beside the road, but that powerful aura gave it away. Even from her position on the path, she could tell this was no ordinary insect. The sight of it troubled her. Even among youkai she had never seen its like.
Shaped like a heavily armored wasp, it was fully as long as her forearm, with an enormous stinger to match its alarming size. Its huge, multifaceted eyes watched her with a malevolent intelligence.
Kikyou reached for her bow, moving slowly to avoid startling the wasp. It buzzed a warning despite her efforts, its wings whirring to life, lifting it from the branch. Once airborne, it hovered, waiting.
In one smooth motion, Kikyou nocked an arrow, aimed, and fired. At such a small distance there was no chance she would miss.
Her arrow flared with light—white and crimson—and annihilated her target. Satisfied, she retrieved her arrow and continued on her way.
The strange creature watched the world through many-faceted eyes, taking in many moonlit views of grass stirring in a gentle breeze as it flew over the empty field. He found that he could watch through its eyes and even direct its vision in whichever direction he chose. A wishful trick of the imagination, or…?
Hitomi Kagewaki opened his eyes upon the same dull room in which he spent all his days and nights. He sat up. Had he really seen what he thought he saw? He allowed himself to relax slightly.
Real or not, these visions of his helped to pass the time. Hours that had been interminable now became bearable, when all he had to do to escape the boredom of his darkened sickroom was close his eyes and peer through the faceted eyes of a hellish wasp. He was tempted to spend all his time with his eyes closed, exploring this newly discovered skill.
He laid back down on his mat and closed his eyes. In his mind's eye, he saw through the eyes of another wasp. This one rested docilely on what looked like a tree branch. A nearby path extended in a straight line off into the distance. The deep green leaves and thin branches were nearly still. In fact, the only movement was a figure half-glimpsed as it approached along the path.
He was surprised, at first, to see a lone figure wandering around so late at night, though he knew by now it was nearly dawn. As it drew closer, he recognized the clothing of a Shinto priestess and felt his curiosity grow stronger. Where was this wasp hiding, that it could spy such a sight?
The priestess halted. He felt a horrible pang of recognition.
Unaware that she was being observed, the priestess adjusted her course, turning slowly and inexorably toward the wasp's hiding place. She must have sensed the creature's youki, to know it was there without seeing it. Yet that was not the part that troubled him. Through its faceted gaze, there could be no denying: he knew this woman. Knew, and hated her.
The wasp trembled, its wings buzzing angrily as it lifted off its branch. He trembled too, shaking with rage and disbelief.
She was dead.
She was dead.
She was dead.
The dead woman lifted her bow, took aim, and fired a shining arrow directly toward the wasp.
Phantom pain exploded through his skull. He was sitting up and clutching his head when he opened his eyes again, though he had no memory of rising. And that wasn't the worst of it.
Something beat painfully in his chest, a throbbing agony that scalded hot as fire through his veins. Had this pain always been there, waiting to be unearthed?
Unbidden, one hand clawed at his chest. This pain, this heart… he needed desperately to be rid of it, as he thought he had been rid of it before. Before he glimpsed the damnable woman again.
He had no idea how this could have come to pass. She was dead. That woman was dead. He knew she was dead. He had made sure of it, had made himself the instrument of her death, and it was that death that had enabled him to bury his disgusting human heart these fifty years. And yet he did not doubt the vision he had glimpsed through the wasp's faceted eyes, any more than he doubted the wasp in question had been utterly obliterated.
Somehow she had come back to haunt him, just as he began to put his plans into motion.
He seethed, feeling the room spin wildly around him. His hands clenched and unclenched as if to break a woman's neck, but the cursed woman was not here. He could not truly be sure where she was, for the wasp visions could only convey to him what the wasps saw, not where they were.
But she was out there, somewhere.
Would he never be free of her?
A footstep sounded just outside the door; he barely heard the soft sound of the door sliding open as the hapless servant, the impotent healer charged with caring for both Hitomi Kagewaki and his ailing father, entered the room. The man spoke softly, his voice placating as he explained the cause of his unwanted presence—the elder Hitomi had taken a turn for the worse and might not survive the coming day. Or something like that.
In that particular moment, the creature wearing Hitomi Kagewaki's skin could not have cared less about any of it. The schemes, the games, the illusions that he had spent so much time crafting had all crumbled away in the face of searing anger and hatred. He wanted nothing more than to inflict pain. To kill.
The healer knelt beside him, speaking words that could not penetrate the urge to kill. Concern blinded the healer to the danger until it was too late. Hands clamped over his throat, squeezing hard as his assailant rose to loom over him, forcing the life from the body until at last it had ceased struggling and lay still and dead on the mat beside the bed.
Hitomi Kagewaki stepped back and regarded the twisted corpse with indifference. He had not truly expected to be strong enough yet to kill a man with his own two hands. It seemed that fury had allowed him to tap into an unexpected well of strength.
If he had been thinking, he would not have killed the healer. Not yet. In his blind rage, he had created a mess that he would now have to clean up. There was no good way to explain this man's death, so the body must not remain. Better that the healer simply disappear than be discovered murdered in the sickroom of Lord Hitomi's son.
He sent out a thought, a summons, along the insubstantial thread that bound his puppet to him. Come to me.
Far away, the puppet abandoned its mission to seek pieces of the Shikon no Tama, and hastened to return to its master.
He exhaled, resisting the urge to slump as something like irritation or exhaustion washed over him. Even if the puppet returned to dispose of the body before anyone else chanced to arrive and discover it, he would likely still be forced to take action long before he had planned.
He glowered at the corpse, though there was no life left in it to pay him any mind. If he'd killed it in a different manner, he could simply have attributed it to the predations of the tsuchigumo and called for the beast's destruction. But it was obvious the man had been strangled. Looking at the pattern of marks along the neck, he could almost see where each of his fingers had crushed into the other man's flesh and forced the life out.
If only he could do the same with the human heart that now beat so frantically within his chest. Years ago, he thought he had silenced that heart for good. Now he knew he had only been fooling himself.
He continued to stare at the dead man.
Mortal creatures like the one he had just killed were so fragile. Stop them from breathing and they died. Slice into their flesh and they could easily lose enough of their life's blood to die. Remove their hearts and they would die a quick death. And yet he, inhuman as he was, could not be rid of his heart.
He almost envied the dead man, so quiet and still.
The human heart of him still beat within the cage of his chest. Was death what peace looked like?
He knew from careful experimentation that he could physically remove the quiescent heart from his body and not die, as humans and other mortal creatures did. Curiosity sparking, he looked again at the dead man and wondered. What would happen if he found another vessel for this troublesome heart of his? Would the heart die if he released his grip on it, and kill him? Or could he place the burden on the shoulders of another and begin to distance himself from the heart's insidious influence?
He sucked in a breath, inordinately pleased with himself in spite of the problem of disposing of a dead body while maintaining his carefully-wrought disguise. In all his years of life, such an idea as this had not occurred to him, but even now he could see the vast array of possibilities that had opened before him. In comparison, the dead man was only a minor inconvenience.
Hitomi Kagewaki smiled as he returned to his sickbed.
Sango jolted awake the moment she realized she wasn't alone; alarm flashed through her dark eyes, followed swiftly by fury as she recognized the intruder. Miroku remained where he was and waited for Sango's anger to pass or for death to come.
Sango scowled at him from her bed. It looked like anger was there to stay. Miroku supposed it was warranted and decided not to take offense. After all, he had broken into her room uninvited.
He'd considered waking her earlier, but it had seemed more prudent to let her sleep while he took a look around. It hadn't taken long. Sango traveled light, and had hidden her piece of the Shikon no Tama where he couldn't find it easily, at least not without waking her.
"What do you want?" she demanded.
Miroku was glad he'd thought to sit outside of striking range, and not just because it was safer. It also came with a better view. If not for the furious look on her face, he would have liked to imprint the memory of Sango like this—all mussed from sleep, or other activities—on his mind. The fire in those eyes wasn't just a reflection of the lamp's glow. He almost wished they did not have to be at odds. Yet he could see no way they could be reconciled.
Sango was still waiting for an answer. Miroku said nothing, but held out his hand, the one without the curse, bridging half the distance between them. In his palm lay the piece of the Shikon jewel that he'd stolen from her. He hated the thought of giving up even part of the jewel that might finally rid him of the kazaana, but after last night he knew he couldn't keep it.
Sango's brow furrowed as uncertainty replaced anger.
"I didn't want you to think I intend to keep it," he told her.
She lifted herself on one elbow and reached over. Miroku dropped the stone into her outstretched hand, ignoring the fear that shivered through him at the loss.
"Why the change of heart?"
He considered how best to respond.
"That's what I thought," Sango muttered, tucking her hand back under the blanket. "Now, unless you'd like to explain what you were really doing in here…"
"There is still the matter of the wolves," he cut in. Too much was at stake. He couldn't let her dismiss him so easily.
Sango sat up with a sigh, tucking the blanket neatly around her lap. "The wolves," she prompted.
"You said it yourself—they'll be back. And when they return, they'll want to avenge their leader's loss," he explained, though it frustrated him to be made to state the obvious. "If we don't stop them, this entire village will be destroyed."
He should have known she would make this difficult. "Yes. The two of us. The villagers here aren't equipped to deal with something like this."
"I had assumed you would run off at the first opportunity, along with whatever valuables you could get your hands on," she said, her voice lush with disdain. He supposed he deserved that one.
"In other circumstances, perhaps I might have done so," he admitted. It couldn't hurt anything but his pride to let her win this one, especially when her biting accusation was true. "But the lives of innocents are at stake. No matter what I would prefer to do, I can't simply run away and leave these people to die." He paused to gauge Sango's response. She didn't look happy, but at least she was listening. He kept going. "No one was going to be harmed if I took the jewel from your village, but its power might help me live. How could I not take it? But if I leave here, there is no uncertainty. People will die."
"And so you're determined to stay and help me," Sango murmured. She spoke slowly, as if judging the truth of his words with each syllable she uttered.
He knew that look: she didn't like it one bit, but couldn't think of an alternative. She might actually be coming around. It wasn't ideal, but it was a start.
"Can you fight?" she asked at last.
"If the need arises," he assured her. He'd held out some small hope that the events of last night would speak for themselves, but it seemed not.
Sango did not look particularly convinced. "Can you hunt? Track?" she asked. "If I weren't here, what would you do?"
"Even the worst hunter ought to be able to follow that many wolves," he countered. "And before you arrived, my plan was to conceal everyone for the night and convince them to leave in the morning. If I had to stay and fight…" He paused to consider. What would she be most receptive to hearing? He kept coming back to the same strategy, one he knew she wouldn't like. "Against so many I must seriously consider using the kazaana."
Miroku knew she thought him a liar and that she probably thought the kazaana was nothing more than a story he'd invented to garner sympathy. But to her credit, Sango did not scoff. He went on, "However, knowing that the pack leader had at least one piece of the Shikon no Tama—" Her eyes narrowed. Had she really not guessed that the wolves might have more than one piece? "—Clearly the kazaana would be too risky. I suppose I would consecrate more scrolls, take out as many wolves as I could that way, and focus on bringing down the leader. It would still be dangerous, but he's missing an arm and whatever power he may have been getting from that piece of the jewel. It might work."
"Well," Sango decided, "it's not good, but it's no worse than anything I've got. There's one major flaw, though: that tai-youkai would make short work of you by the time you got close enough to attack."
"So what do you have in mind?"
"Those scrolls of yours are good for controlling the wolves. You do that, and I'll take down the leader from afar with the hiraikotsu."
"If I remember right, you had a tough time of that last night. What's different now?"
She nodded once toward the hiraikotsu, where its huge bulk was propped against the wall. He'd noticed earlier that the sutra scrolls were still in place, but hadn't thought much of it at the time. "Those scrolls you attached to my weapon, and the fact that our enemy is now down one arm and the power of the Shikon no Tama," she pointed out. "Did you know we purify the youkai parts before we forge them into weapons and armor?"
"It was a lucky guess," he told her weakly, refusing to be baited by her argumentative tone. In truth, it hadn't occurred to him at all that his scrolls might destroy the weapon rather than augment it. "Under the circumstances, anything I could do to keep us alive seemed worth the risk."
This answer seemed, if not satisfactory, at least acceptable. "Still," she murmured, "why bother to help me in the first place? It would have been easier for you to just stand by and wait for the wolves to kill me."
What could he possibly say to that? He knew Sango held a low opinion of his character, but he had not expected this. That she would think him willing to sacrifice another person for his own ambitions—it occurred to him suddenly that he had done just that to Hachi, and not thought twice about it. He set the unpleasant realization aside to be dealt with later. "You need to ask?"
She speared him with a look. As if she knew what he'd been thinking, she said, "You never even told that tanuki that the person chasing you was a youkai taiji-ya."
This was a path he would rather not tread. "Hachi owed me a favor. He offered to help me out."
"And you conveniently left out the one detail that could make him reconsider," she noted. "How do I know you won't do the same thing to me?"
"Whatever you may think of me, I could not discard a human life so callously," he protested. "Not the lives of the people who live in this village, and certainly not yours."
Sango was frowning. Something about this conversation still displeased her, though he couldn't be sure what it was. He forged onward, trying a different tactic. "You now have two pieces of the Shikon no Tama," he pointed out. "If you die, it is likely that both of those pieces will fall into the hands of the wolves. I would have no hope of recovering them, and would probably be killed, myself."
"What, you wouldn't just use the kazaana, and then take the jewel pieces for yourself?"
"And risk losing a piece of the Shikon no Tama to the void? No."
"You mean, I should just take your word for it?"
"I can offer you no more than the truth," he said, pitching his voice the same way he did when he was trying to seduce a lord's daughter. "If you accept my help in hunting the wolves, I will not betray you."
She sighed, her gaze dropping to the hand that still held a piece of the Shikon jewel. "I will just have to accept that, won't I?"
"What more can I do to prove my intentions are pure?"
He watched with interest as she carefully smoothed the angry frown from her face, replacing it with calm indifference. "Fine. I will allow you to help me dispose of the wolves." He managed not to breathe a sigh of relief. Victory! "Now go make your preparations. We'll head out as soon as you're ready."
He nodded. "Of course."
As he rose and walked to the door, he could feel her eyes on him. He wasn't entirely sure he liked the sensation.
He slid the door open.
"And — monk."
He turned back. "Yes?"
"If you steal from me again, I won't just hunt you down to take back what's mine," Sango told him. She was still seated on the sleeping mat with the blanket gathered around her lap, her voice pitched low and steady. But instead of seeming appealing, she was inexplicably terrifying as she said, "I'll skin you alive."
Sango supposed things could be worse, though she wasn't sure how. This was the last thing she had expected this morning: to embark on her hunt with the monk in tow.
She had assumed he would be long gone, but instead he had returned what he had so recently stolen. She wasn't entirely sure what to think about that. And yet for lack of a better option, here she was. And here he was.
They walked in awkward silence as they left the village and its outlying fields behind and entered the forest. She almost would have preferred inane chatter from the monk, because that would at least give her something to be annoyed about other than the aches and stiffness last night's battle had left her with. Instead, the monk was all business. The flirt and the thief had vanished without a trace, leaving behind the outward appearance of an authentic monk.
The effect was disconcerting. It was no wonder the villagers had fallen for his act; if she had not known better, she could have believed it herself. Worse, it would have been easy to trust this somber and serious man, which she knew she must not do. She was not so naive as to believe the monk had truly changed his mind about the jewel—despite her threats, it was only a matter of time before he would make another attempt to steal the pieces she possessed.
She would have to find a way to keep him in line. At least she was fairly certain he would not allow her to be killed—or kill her himself—to get his hands on her pieces of the jewel. Too bad she couldn't be so sure he wouldn't try any other nonsense, or that he would prove to be anything but a distraction in battle.
She had been lost in her own thoughts, and watching for signs that they were on the right trail, for a long time before she realized the monk was speaking.
"The mask—it protects you from the smoke from your… bombs?"
She nodded. "It's an air filter, so I won't be overwhelmed by the smell."
"Are you planning to use more of those bombs, then?"
She thought she understood what he was getting at. "If I do, I'll make sure you're out of range first," she promised.
He didn't seem very reassured and she wasn't feeling very sympathetic. Silence fell over them again, and this time Sango was happier about it. The monk hadn't said anything outrageous or unreasonable, but she already wished he were anywhere else. Even if that meant she would have to face the wolves again alone.
It began to feel as if they had been walking for hours with no sign of their quarry, though at least the effort of walking warmed her and eased her aching muscles. She knew it must still be early in the day, but found herself frequently looking for the sun to gauge how much time had passed. On her own, Sango would have taken all this in stride. With the monk watching her every move, she just wanted it to be over.
She had no doubt that by now the wolves, with powerful noses and keen ears, knew they had entered the forest. So why hadn't they attacked yet? It was all beginning to feel too much like a trap for her liking.
With trees closed in on all sides, it would be much more difficult to use the hiraikotsu than it had been yesterday. The wolves had no reason to delay in defending their den, wherever it was. So what were they waiting for?
The wolf pack leader was a youkai powerful enough to take on human form. Even deprived of the power of the Shikon jewel that had been embedded in its arm, such a tai-youkai was a force to be reckoned with. Now that she had proved she could be a threat to it, there was no telling what it might do. Perhaps she had moved it to caution, or perhaps it was only trying to draw them into a trap—or lure them away to leave the village defenseless.
She disliked the uncertainty of it all, much as she disliked the thought that she might at some point be forced to rely on the monk for assistance. She strode ahead, hoping fervently that it wouldn't come to that. She'd been wrong about him before. She did not want to find out she'd made the same mistake twice, not when her life was at stake.
The monk followed dutifully behind as the trail led them deeper into the forest, his staff ringing a cheerful counterpoint to their steps, oblivious to Sango's growing displeasure.
It was perhaps another hour before they came across the wolf. It looked much like any ordinary wolf, though it was visibly emaciated, but it sat in the middle of the path and did not move, as if it were waiting for them. Not quite trusting the monk not to do something foolish or self-serving, Sango slowed her steps so they came up to the wolf together.
The wolf trembled slightly as they approached, quivering as if it yearned to bolt for cover or lunge for their throats. Sango listened carefully, but heard no sound that might hint at other wolves hiding in the brush.
"Bait?" the monk asked in a low voice, "Or…?"
The wolf stood up, walked a few paces down the path, then turned to watch them.
"A guide, I think," Sango murmured.
"Do we follow, then?"
"It seems easier than the alternative." She fixed her mask over her face and slipped the hiraikotsu over her shoulder so she could remove the carry strap. With her depleted supply of scent beads, the strap fit neatly inside the hidden compartment under her left shoulder pad.
The monk watched all this with undisguised interest. Sango glared at him, but his only response was to affect a look of total innocence. Shaking her head, she forged ahead to follow their guide.
They rounded a curve in the path, then the wolf led them along a tiny game trail that wound its way through the underbrush. It didn't look like much of a trail at first, but it soon widened, revealing tracks left by many paws. There was no doubt that at least some of the other wolves had come this way.
Sango tensed for an ambush and kept walking. Eventually the game trail widened to meander through a forest clearing. Through the opening in the canopy, Sango could see that the sun was nearing its zenith and they were now much closer to the mountains than she might have expected, as if they had been heading directly for those distant peaks.
Their guide paused at the far side of the clearing and sat facing them, its mouth open as it panted, tongue lolling to one side. The walk to the clearing had not been long or strenuous enough to provoke such a response. Was this a signal, perhaps?
Before long the tai-youkai who was leader of the wolf pack emerged from the underbrush, flanked by three wolves on each side. His right arm ended in a stump that had been wrapped with leather and fur, but he showed none of the paleness or weakness she would have expected in a human with such a grave injury. None of the wolves gave any outward sign of aggression as they entered the clearing and stopped a safe distance away from the two humans. Sango was willing to wait for them to make a move, but readied herself to throw the hiraikotsu anyway.
"Youkai taiji-ya," the tai-youkai began. His voice was deep and rough, like a growl turned to human speech. "Are you here to kill me and the rest of my wolves?"
"If there is another way to stop the killing, no." She thought she saw something like surprise flicker in the tai-youkai's icy blue eyes. "I am not here to slay wolves. I am here to protect the people of the village you have been destroying."
"You don't know a damn thing about what's going on here," the pack leader snarled, "but you walk right in and start killing like you know everything." A couple of the wolves lowered their heads and bared their teeth unhappily, though they did not attack. They seemed almost to be waiting for a signal from their leader.
"You're right," Sango agreed. "I don't know what's going on here. I only know that your wolves have been killing people ever since they came down from the mountains. It's easy to guess that you've been killing the people for food. But as for why you left your home, I have no idea."
More wolves growled, some rising to their feet and puffing up their fur, bristling with what might have been indignation or anger. Sango kept her eyes on the leader for now.
"Since we are ignorant, perhaps you would be willing to explain the circumstances that have brought you out of the mountains," the monk interjected in a placating tone.
The tai-youkai glanced in his direction, seeming to notice him for the first time. He snorted. "Why bother?" He held up the stump of his arm to demonstrate. "Humans are all the same. They think wolves need to be killed whenever they appear, no matter what."
Sango waited for the monk to respond. When he did not, she spoke up. "My people do not hold to such truths," she murmured, knowing the tai-youkai's keen hearing would catch her words across the distance between them even if she spoke with quiet sincerity. This was not at all the direction she had thought this confrontation would go. "We may be slayers of youkai, but we do not kill indiscriminately. Youkai that are not harmful, we leave in peace. There are even youkai who live in my village, youkai who have allied themselves with my family and others for generations. We would be foolish to spurn their aid and their blessings."
"That can't be true," the tai-youkai retorted. "I've heard stories about the likes of you before, slayer. And every one of them ends with dead youkai."
"Who tells the stories, then?"
The tai-youkai recoiled as if she had struck him. Fury crashed down over his features and Sango knew she had gone too far.
"The ones that are smart enough to hide and escape notice," the tai-youkai spat. His arms trembled, and his remaining hand had clenched into an angry fist. Any moment now, he would be angry enough to attack.
"I cannot explain away your convictions," Sango began.
"I cannot speak for the rest of her people," the monk cut in, "but as for this one, she came here chasing me after I stole an heirloom from her family. I set a youkai friend of mine, a tanuki, in her path and told him to pretend to be me and send her on a false trail so I could get away. It didn't work—obviously—and yet she allowed my friend to live." He paused, as if to let that sink in. "For my part, I think if you tell her what happened and what troubles you and your wolves are facing, she will listen."
The tai-youkai fixed the monk with a look of disbelief that almost perfectly mirrored Sango's own. She knew the monk was sneaky and that he could think quickly, but somehow she had not expected such a speech from him. She had to remind herself that he was also a liar and a con man, and that he had just shared a story that was not his to tell; it was unlikely he meant even a bit of the respect and admiration his tone and words had conveyed. At least it appeared to have had the desired effect upon the tai-youkai.
"Does this man speak the truth?" he asked.
"I hate to admit it, since it came from him, but yes. Everything he said just now is true. If you will tell me what your circumstances are, I will listen. I won't fight you unless I have no other choice."
"The monk admitted to being a thief, yet you not only let him live, you are now working with him," the tai-youkai mused. Sango felt her face grow warm as she flushed with anger, though she had to admit that she had indeed agreed to work with the monk. The tai-youkai could hardly have failed to notice her reaction, but made no mention of it. "Either you're incredibly gullible or you can be trusted after all."
Sango bit back her anger at being so insulted. Anger would do no good now, not when she was so close to getting answers instead of violence from these wolves. "The monk stole my family heirloom thinking it could save him from a curse upon his family that will inevitably kill him," she said. "No matter how angry I was that he would so insult my family, I couldn't kill him for wanting to save his own life."
She took a step forward, noticing how the wolves were all immediately alert but did not leap to the attack, and kept walking until she had crossed half the distance to the wolves. Then, hoping the monk would be able to defend her if the wolves chose to attack, she sat down and indicated that the pack leader should join her. "Tell me what happened."
Almost grudgingly, the pack leader came to sit opposite her, still flanked by his many wolves. A few moments later, the monk joined them.
"My pack has lived in the mountains for thousands of years," the pack leader began. "We used to prey on any humans dumb enough to wander into our territory, and on the animals that lived there." His expression grew grim and he began to speak in a way that bared his teeth angrily. "Our ancient enemies were the birds of paradise, flying pieces of shit that lived even higher up in the mountains than we did."
"What are the birds of paradise?"
"They're like big-ass pigeons with teeth."
Sango nodded for the pack leader to continue while she began to mentally run through the list of youkai with which she was familiar, seeking one that might meet this description. She could think of none, and wondered if perhaps she would take the story of a new kind of youkai home with her when all was said and done.
"It was like that ever since I was a pup," the tai-youkai went on. "We'd fight the birds of paradise when they came down from their mountain peaks, and then they'd go back to doing whatever the hell they did up there and we'd carry on with our hunts until the next time. But the last time they came down from the peaks, something was different. Their leader was stronger than it had ever been before. They routed us. Killed most of the pack and forced the survivors out of our dens and into the cover of the forest, where the trees are too dense for the bastards to fly."
Finally, the situation was becoming clear. This wasn't a pack leader bent on the casual destruction of any human settlement he could find. This was a pack leader determined to save what was left of his pack, no matter what. This was a pack leader who was terrified that a monk and a youkai taiji-ya might team up to finish what his ancient enemies had begun.
"It was during that last fight that I realized why the leader had become so strong. It had attached some magic rocks to its wings and beak, so nothing could stop it," his voice had stopped sounding so much like a growl, instead becoming suffused with bitter weariness. "Since then my wolves have been hunting what they can, and I've been running as fast as I can all over the damn place, looking for more of those magic rocks. It took me almost a month to find even three. I thought maybe we'd finally have a chance to reclaim our home… and then you showed up and took one away, and half my arm, too."
Sango's heart pounded. Three! That meant the wolf pack leader had two more pieces of the jewel and, if his story could be believed, the leader of the birds of paradise had more still. She fought to keep her voice steady. "If I can rid you of the birds of paradise, will you give me your remaining magic rocks and go back to your territory in the mountains, and trouble these people no more?"
The pack leader bared his teeth in earnest now. "Why should I give you anything? You'll probably just turn on me and mine when you're done with those damn harpies."
"My people expect payment when we are hired to kill a youkai," Sango told him calmly. "I will kill your enemy so you may return home, and in return I ask only for your magic rocks and those of the 'harpies'. I won't harm a client." Somehow she managed to keep the indignation out of her voice and avoid mentioning that she didn't entirely trust the monk to share her scruples.
"Without those rocks, the harpies will just force us out again," the tai-youkai pointed out. "What kind of deal is that, where we end up worse off than before?"
"They will defeat you even if I strip them of their rocks, as well?" She kept her voice level, almost sweet. She understood why he wanted to keep any pieces of the jewel he could, even if he seemed not to know what they really were, but knew she had to get him to hand over the pieces he had. If he didn't, she would have to find a way to take them by force, and she wanted to avoid that if at all possible.
The wolf's eyes narrowed. "You seem to care an awful lot about those rocks," he said slowly, going on the defensive.
"They are a part of the heirloom I spoke of before. This woman chased me here because I stole a similar magic stone from the village of the youkai taiji-ya," the monk interjected quickly. "The original stone was broken into pieces in recent the past, and the pieces scattered throughout the land. Naturally, now that she has found some of the pieces, she wants to take them back to their proper home."
The wolf pack leader wasn't quite as thick-headed as he had appeared at first. "That story sounds familiar, monk."
Sango wished the monk had kept his mouth shut instead of getting them into trouble. If the tai-youkai recognized the story as that of the Shikon no Tama, he might refuse to give up the pieces in his possession. They were so close to negotiating this without a fight, too. "I could tell you any number of stories and legends that are similar to this one," she said. She would have liked nothing better than to glare at the monk, but did not want to seem to be colluding with him on any sort of scheme.
"What makes you so sure these are part of your so-called heirloom?"
"The stone I retrieved from your severed arm was. I have no reason to doubt that the others will be, as well." She paused for effect. "This is the best offer you are going to get. Either I kill your enemy and you give me those stones, or we fight again here and now." She let him think about that. "Even if you survive me, the birds of paradise will kill your wolves bit by bit until there is only you, and then they will kill you, too."
The tai-youkai snorted. "You know what? Fine. It's no skin off my back if you die facing the birds of paradise. Go kill 'em, if you think you can."
"And when I do, you will pay me the fee I ask."
"Fine. If you live, I'll give you the damn rocks."
"And you will return to your mountains and leave these people alone."
Begrudgingly: "That too."
Behind her mask, Sango smiled. Things were finally looking up. "Then you have a deal."
For those who are still reading -- thanks for your patience while waiting for updates!
Men had gathered along the road up ahead. There were perhaps a dozen of them, Kikyou estimated. And there were probably more that she couldn’t yet see. She hesitated, wondering whether it would be best to approach openly or to slip quietly in among the trees and hope to pass by unseen.
In the distance, the power of the Shikon no Tama called to her. Nearby…
There was no mistaking the scent on the breeze — smoke and blood. Peering again into the distance, she realized that the men up ahead were likely soldiers… or bandits. Probably there had been a skirmish somewhere nearby. Buildings were burning, people were bleeding.
Fifty years had passed since her death, and nothing had changed.
Kikyou kept walking down the road. She was almost upon the men before any of them noticed her.
Someone shouted an alarm, and then it seemed that all eyes were upon her.
One of the men had a horse, and rode above all the others. He carried himself with an obvious sense of authority even though he had failed to notice her approach. “You there!” he called. “Priestess!”
“Some of my men are injured,” the man went on, imperious and oblivious. “Help them.”
Kikyou regarded him for a long moment without looking directly at him. Young enough to be brash and needlessly belligerent, he somehow gave the impression of actually caring about his men. A part of her seethed at his presumption, hated him for thinking he could command her just because she had happened by. Armed as she was with bow and arrows, she could have simply killed him and all of his men and carried on. And yet.
Without answering, she kept walking, but stopped when she came to the first of the wounded men. He’d made it to the road, but wouldn’t be going much further without medical treatment, and even then there was no guarantee.
She knelt beside him and closed her eyes, sensing for the elusive youkai that were drawn to battle and the death that ensued. She found them almost as soon as she sought them, tiny impish creatures that fed on human suffering, whose bites could lead to fever or worse. Nasty little creatures. She shooed them away with a hand and a purifying aura. Banishing them would help this man keep up his strength, but it would not treat his injuries.
“Have you no healer?” she asked, speaking loudly so their leader would hear. “I have no supplies for injuries of this extent. I need needle and thread, and bandages, clean water, and healing herbs.”
She rose and made her way to the next man, and the next, and the next. Like all such battlefields, this place fairly swarmed with fledgling youkai.
At some point someone brought her the supplies she had demanded, and then she set to work in earnest. It was grisly work, but she found that she relished it. She had caused so much death already in the short time since her rebirth —Urasue, that hapless monk, poor, dear Sayo…— that it almost felt good to save life instead. Each man that she saved felt like a step toward redemption.
For their part, the men expressed surprise and gratitude as much for her unexpected appearance as for her skill as a healer. So far as these men knew, she was an ordinary Shinto priestess. An ordinary woman. She was nothing special to them. She had simply been in the right place at the right time.
She gave herself up to the work they required of her. It was familiar work, and it afforded her the opportunity to forget who and what she was, at least for a while.
By mid-afternoon, all of the survivors were stable. She had washed and bound and stitched their injured bodies until no more of the fever youkai appeared. The work was far from done; she would have to remain vigilant, but the worst was over.
With her patients all resting and taking their first steps toward recovery, Kikyou headed into the countryside in search of medicinal herbs. She had not stopped to gather any supplies since leaving the mountain hamlet where Sayo died. Even as she sought the familiar forms, looking for the plants that would prove most efficacious in relieving pain and preventing the onset of infection, she wondered why she was doing this.
She owed these men nothing. Her actions served no purpose. Even her best efforts would merely postpone their deaths, and perhaps not for very long.
Kikyou paused in her search. She was being watched.
She had become all too familiar with the sensation during life, and recognized it now with some disdain. Had one of the men followed her out here? She remained where she was, letting her awareness expand around her, but could not sense anyone nearby. Nor had she heard the telltale sounds of an approach. Yet still she sensed clearly that something was watching her.
The signs pointed toward something that was not human. Something malignant and resentful.
She continued to search for useful plants, but made her way steadily toward the source of that evil aura. She found what she sought crouching amid a stand of thick brush near the road.
Whatever she had expected to find, it was not this. It was a man, or at least it was shaped like a man, but it was concealed completely beneath the pelt of some white animal, its face covered by a mask in the shape of a baboon’s face. Whoever or whatever he was, she sensed nothing from this man except a deep-seated malice.
Kikyou turned to leave.
“So,” came a man’s voice from beneath the mask. “It is true — you do walk the earth again, Kikyou.”
She froze mid-step. That voice. Impossible as it was, she recognized that voice. It had been fifty years, but she had heard that same voice on the day she died. It was the voice of an evil man, a thief who called himself Onigumo.
He had come to her with grave injuries, and she had tended those injuries even as she despised him. Without her to care for him, the hateful man should have died years ago. And yet, not only had it apparently recognized her, she would swear that this strange creature had spoken to her with Onigumo’s voice.
He must be dead, but then… she should be dead, too. She was here, so why not him?
And at the same time, why him?
She had a feeling she knew. She knew the tales as well as anyone, how a person filled to the brim with hatred or anguish might become a youkai instead of dying like an ordinary person.
The man she remembered had certainly been filled with hatred for the world around him.
“You know me,” she murmured. “Yet I wonder, who hides his face behind that mask?”
He chuckled, a dark, unpleasant sound. “Surely you can guess.”
Something inside her snapped at this provocation. She lashed out, seizing the mask, not yet ready to see the burn-scarred face beneath but unable to stop herself. Triumphant in her fury, she ripped the mask free — and stopped short.
There was nothing beneath the mask. At her purifying touch, whatever spark had animated the puppet-body fled, leaving behind only the mask and the baboon pelt. Without support, the pelt crumpled into a sorry looking pile on the ground.
Even this left Kikyou feeling empty… and angry.
Onigumo was out there somewhere, and he knew that she lived again. If he had indeed managed to escape death, this would not be his last attempt to antagonize her.
Sango was sure they had been walking for an eternity. It had begun to seem that she had always been following the path into the mountains, the monk dogging her every step. There had never been anything else, and there never would be. Or perhaps that was only the uncertainty of the hunt.
This was the part of the hunt when she always felt as tense as a drawn bow. She had prepared herself as best she could, but the situation could still turn against her. The outcome of today’s hunt was still far from certain.
And today she was even warier than usual. Her target was all but unknown. Her companion was unreliable at best. And it was beginning to seem that the wolves had agreed to her plan too easily, after all. The farther they went, the more something didn’t smell right. Had she misjudged the situation? Were they walking into a trap?
It was the wolves that had set them on this path and told them it would lead to the birds of paradise. So far, however, Sango had seen no sign that this was truly the case. The forest had opened up as the path went into the mountains, leaving only smaller plants — and nothing at all that could be called a bird of paradise. Despite the discouraging turn of events, Sango knew better than to give up so quickly. Experience had long ago taught her that patience was the most important tool a slayer could possess… even if she did occasionally want to throw the monk down the nearest cliff.
Her patience paid off about an hour later as the path took them around the side of the mountain. Raucous calls alerted her to the presence of something up ahead. She signaled to the monk to stay back, a signal he miraculously obeyed without question, then crept forward alone to see what awaited them.
Thirty or forty enormous birds swarmed in the air between the mountains, hidden from view until now by the mountain’s very bulk. Their hiding place meant that unwary travelers could be taken completely by surprise, and would make perfect victims. This strategy must have served them well. Despite the relatively barren environment, there were too many of them to easily count, each one larger than the biggest birds Sango had ever seen before.
Truthfully, they were like nothing Sango had ever seen before. Feathered and roughly birdlike in shape, with wide wings that flapped to keep them airborne, that was where the similarities with mundane birds ended. In place of a bird’s head, these creatures had what looked like a nude female torso, complete with arms, voluptuous breasts, and hairless head. Sango could only guess what purpose these features might serve. Gigantic eyes blinked from each beast’s chest. Below the eyes, a mouth filled with jagged teeth slashed across each swollen belly. The creatures’ talons were easily large enough to clasp around a wolf… or a human.
There could be no mistake: these must be the birds of paradise, mortal enemies of the mountain wolves.
For several minutes, Sango crouched where she was and simply observed. What an addition these would make to the rolls of youkai back home! But she would have to keep her promise to the wolves before she could carry the story of these new and strange youkai back to her village.
The so-called birds of paradise were clearly agitated, flapping back and forth, almost seeming to squabble with one another through their uncanny screeching. As she watched, Sango wondered what had riled them so. Had they noticed the travelers creeping up the path from the forest?
She waited a while longer, taking in as much as she could. The birds were large, and parts of them were very humanlike. There was a slim chance they might be able to understand human speech, just as the leader of the wolf pack had. It wasn’t much of a lead, but it was more than nothing.
Her observations as complete as they were likely to get without alerting the birds to her presence, she crept back to where the monk awaited her.
“We aren’t going to have to track them, at least,” she began, and told the monk what she had seen.
“Any idea which one might be the one with the Shikon pieces?”
“Not yet. Come on.”
The monk followed her back the way they had come, asking, “Shouldn’t we be going toward the youkai?”
“I’m not ready for them to know we’re here yet,” she explained. “Something’s stirred them up. I want to avoid confrontation until we know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
The monk fell thankfully silent as they continued back along the trail, coming at last to what Sango had sought: a small track that led up the mountain by a different path. This trail was much steeper than the one they had been on, and the footing was far less certain, but it would allow them to gain some more altitude without coming into view of the birds.
They climbed for a while, always choosing branches of their path that kept them from venturing too close to where Sango had seen the birds of paradise. She wasn’t sure exactly what she hoped to find — an aerie, maybe — but she did not relish the thought of a direct confrontation on a narrow mountain path. She needed to find a place where she could safely use the hiraikotsu or they wouldn’t stand a chance.
As they neared the rounded summit of the mountain, she began to worry that they would never find such a place.
“We’re running out of ground,” the monk commented.
She wished he had kept his mouth shut, but realized she would have to explain what she was trying to do if they were going to work together. “We may need to backtrack again,” she acknowledged. “I’m looking for any place where we can stand against them, or lure them to us.”
“A nest,” he murmured. “I’d wondered about that, myself.”
“We probably aren’t lucky enough that it would be on this particular mountain,” she told him, “but we should be able to get our bearings from up here.”
He gestured for her to lead the way, so she did. The path grew thinner up ahead until they had to take care with each step. Sango did not envy the monk his sandals and voluminous robes as she clambered up a particularly steep rise and made her way around a cluster of boulders toward what promised to be a relatively level and flat space, but he kept pace remarkably well. As she rounded the boulders she stopped short so suddenly that the monk brushed against her as he hastened to keep from knocking her over.
Before them, sheltered on three sides by the mountain, spread a series of massive nests composed largely of tree branches, uprooted plants, and enormous feathers. The wolves had not led them astray, after all.
The nests were so large that Sango could not see what they contained, but she heard nothing that indicated the nests were currently inhabited. If there were eggs or baby birds of paradise in these nests, then she and the monk had found a way to get the birds’ attention. They would have to tread carefully from now on.
“Give me a boost,” she murmured, setting the hiraikotsu aside on her way to the nearest nest.
The monk cupped his hands and boosted her up so she could peer over the edge and into the nest. Three eggs rested there. If she had stood next to them, each one would have come up to her hip.
“Eggs,” she reported as the monk helped her back down.
“That would explain why they seemed so agitated earlier,” he replied. “With the wolves fled, they won’t have much to feed themselves, much less their young.”
That was all well and good. “If they find us here, they will show no mercy. We need a plan.”
“We must destroy the eggs. The question now would be whether we can do that without being detected.”
Sango was less certain about that. “Do we need to eradicate them all? These youkai have coexisted with the wolves for generations. It’s only recently that something changed, that the pieces of the Shikon no Tama began to turn up.”
“You sound almost sympathetic,” the monk noted.
“What will keep the wolves in check if we kill all of their enemies?” she countered. “We must at least kill the leader and acquire whatever pieces of the Shikon jewel it may have… but beyond that, we may want to consider options for getting out of this alive instead of how to kill them all. There are a lot of them and only two of us.”
“What would you suggest, then?”
“Destroy as many eggs as we can before we get their attention,” she decided. “Draw them in so we can determine which is the leader. I can keep at least some of the rest at bay with the hiraikotsu, if you can use your scrolls to neutralize the leader.”
He was quiet for a while, considering. Already they could hear calls from the birds of paradise growing louder as they drew closer. “We can try.”
Working quickly, the monk boosted Sango back up and over the edge of the nest. Her sword made short work of the eggs. Mission accomplished, she tossed the end of her chain over the edge for the monk to anchor, then hauled herself up.
“One down,” she reported.
There were five nests clustered on the mountainside. Sango was just pulling herself out of the ruins of the third when she heard the enraged cry from directly above. They’d been seen, and the birds of paradise were not pleased to find intruders among their nests.
Sango pulled her chain down after her, looping it into a manageable shape and securing it to her belt as she raced for the hiraikotsu.
Birds swarmed in the sky, screaming their rage. Sango grabbed the hiraikotsu and whirled, throwing blindly into their midst.
“Which one is the leader?” the monk called from somewhere behind her, barely audible over the screeching birds.
“I don’t know yet!” Her initial throw had scattered a few of the birds, but there were too many of them for the hiraikotsu to be much of a deterrent. She raced between the nests to catch the hiraikotsu on its return flight. “Do you see one that’s different from the others?”
“No — wait! There! One of them has two… heads?” Not two heads, but two of those deceptively feminine torsos. Sango saw it a moment after he pointed it out.
“That’s the one we have to bring down,” she agreed. She hurled the hiraikotsu skyward again. “I can try to keep the others busy. Can you —” She dove for the ground, barely getting out of the way before the enormous talons snapped shut. The bird of paradise slammed into the ground, snarling furiously and flailing with its wings, shedding feathers as long as Sango’s arms.
Fully aware that she had only a few moments to take advantage of this opportunity, Sango hauled herself to her feet and raced to intercept the returning hiraikotsu as it arced down out of the sky. She caught the strap and pivoted hard. The hiraikotsu was on its way before she had finished turning, hurtling toward the grounded bird of paradise. It saw the danger, hissing savagely and baring its teeth, but it was too late.
The hiraikotsu slashed neatly through the beast, then struck the side of a nest and careened to the ground.
“Monk!” she called, racing again for her weapon, “take down that leader!”
Even as she said it, she knew the leader of the birds of paradise was still well out of reach. She would need to lure it closer somehow, or else she might find herself killing each of its underlings in order to get to it.
Three of the birds stooped from the sky at once, sweeping down toward her with talons extended before them, ready for the kill. While their companions screamed in continued rage, Sango bolted between the nests. All three of the birds crashed into the ground behind her, willing to dash themselves against stone to get at the intruder. Happily for Sango, they were ungainly on the ground, and this tactic bought her enough time to put some distance between them.
Hoping that the monk was out of the way, she secured her mask back over her face and threw a smoke bomb into the birds’ midst. Caustic smoke exploded outward, enveloping the birds and everything around them. Sango waded into the smoke to see what effect it might have had. The mask ensured that she could breathe easily, though the birds had no such protection.
They wheezed weakly, irritated eyes leaking copiously, and could only put up the barest of fights before she dispatched them with her sword. It was good to know that they were so vulnerable to her poison smoke bombs, but unfortunate that she only had two such bombs left. Two wouldn’t be nearly enough for all the birds, not in the open air.
Perhaps there was another way.
From the hidden compartment in her armor where she stored the poison smoke bombs, she withdrew a vial of liquid poison, then bolted for the hiraikotsu. The liquid wouldn’t harm the weapon, but might make it more potent against the birds. It didn’t solve the problem of luring the lead bird into striking range, but it might give her the edge she would need to bring down a bird that had been augmented by the power of the Shikon jewel.
She had lost track of the monk in the chaos, but she didn’t really want to rely on him anyway. A better plan was beginning to form in her mind.
Sheltering close alongside the nearest of the nests, Sango fished one of her remaining scent bombs from its compartment. The scent had been very effective against wolves, who relied so much on their sense of smell. She doubted the effect would be as powerful against birds, but that wasn’t important. As long as the birds thought this might be one of the poison smoke bombs that had so weakened their fellows, the plan would work.
She burst from her sheltering place and lobbed the scent bomb skyward. The birds screeched their outrage, fleeing in all directions as the scented smoke colored the sky.
Close on the heels of the bomb, Sango hurled the hiraikotsu into the massed birds. Their attention divided, only a handful of the birds successfully evaded this second strike. The hiraikotsu sheared through two of the birds before glancing off a wing and tumbling through empty air, and then down the mountainside.
Sango watched in horror, knowing there was no way to retrieve it without leaving herself open to attack. She would have to finish this fight without it.
The last vial of liquid poison was enough to treat her sword, for all the good that would do her.
Far above, one of the birds gave a scream so loud it seemed that even the mountain trembled. Glancing up, she realized that she’d accomplished her goal: the lead bird was descending, and fast.
There wasn’t enough time for the sword.
The poison bomb was in her hand even as she began to turn and run. Time seemed to slow as she waited for the sensation of talons tearing into her back. Yet when she turned, the bird was still several feet above and behind her—talons reaching, mouth opened wide to reveal dripping fangs.
Sango lobbed the poison bomb directly into that gaping maw and threw herself out of the way.
She heard the bird scream, was dimly aware of the thud as it collapsed bonelessly to the earth, but mostly she was grappling with the realization that she’d made a crucial error. The birds of paradise had made their nests on a large, flat space near the top of the mountain… and she’d lost track of where the flat space ended and the steep slope began.
Her last-ditch effort to dive out of the way had carried her too far. She scrabbled for purchase, but went over the edge before she could stop herself. She tumbled down the rocky slope, trying to at least roll so that she was going down feet first, but earning more bruises than success. As she tumbled her head struck something hard—a rock?— and pain blossomed through her skull.
Stars and black spots danced before her vision as dizziness swept over her. It took the space of several heartbeats to realize that her wild descent had stopped. The ground had leveled off, providing a space where she could slide to a stop.
Not that it mattered.
A head injury was the last thing she needed right now, and would seal her fate. Furious, Sango fought against a wave of nausea and dizziness, and barely managed to keep from vomiting. At least she wasn’t going to die with her mask full of her own vomit.
From behind and above, the monk’s staff jangled a cheerful warning. Somehow his less-than-sudden appearance at her side still managed to surprise her. Not only had he stayed to watch the fight, he’d apparently decided to try to rescue her.
“Get out of here, monk,” she warned him, wincing as the sound of her own voice sent shockwaves of pain through her skull.
“I’m not going to stand by and let you die,” he told her gently. It felt almost like they’d had this conversation before. Maybe they had. “I don’t want anyone, least of all you, to die on my behalf.” While Sango stared dumbly, failing to understand, he looked her over. “Are you seriously injured?”
“Hit my head on the way down. Dizzy.” She didn’t want to even think about standing up, much less fighting.
He nodded. Having addressed her condition to his satisfaction, he turned his attention to the swarming birds. “Do you think it likely that any of the others possess pieces of the Shikon no Tama?”
She wracked her brain, but could come up with nothing. “Do any of the others have two heads?” she asked. “The wolves only mentioned the one with pieces of the jewel…”
He surveyed the birds. “All of the remaining birds have only one head,” he confirmed. “I suppose that’s good enough for me. We can deal with the consequences later if I am wrong.”
Sango wished he would stop speaking so cryptically. And that the birds would attack and get it over with. “Why aren’t they attacking?” She hadn’t meant to ask the question out loud.
“My guess? They are waiting to see if their leader survived your attack, and if it will rejoin them.” He looked past her, back up the mountain, to the aerie where the leader must have remained after it swallowed the poison bomb. Sango tried to follow his gaze, but it only made the dizziness worse. She would just have to trust him. “It appears to still be alive, but it is in no condition to rejoin its fellows,” he reported. “We should have little trouble dispatching it when we’re done with the rest.”
“You make it sound so easy,” she grumbled. His expression—solemn, with the barest hint of a grim smile—sobered her instantly.
“Whatever you see next, stay behind me,” he told her. And with that he rose and put himself between her and the massed birds of paradise.
He was going to get himself killed as soon as the birds realized their leader was as good as dead and plunged from the sky to avenge it, but Sango lacked the strength to tell him so.
Without a word, the monk slipped the prayer beads from around his right wrist. She heard a sound as if from a great rushing of air as he raised his arm, and watched in horror as the kazaana in his palm exerted its inexorable pull, its fierce gales drawing the birds of paradise into the hungry void until not a single one remained.
All told, it took the monk only an instant to deliver complete destruction upon the youkai. Sango felt sick all over again. She could scarcely believe what she had just seen.
The curse of the kazaana was no lie. He’d been telling the truth, or at least a version of it, all along.
Day dragged on toward night. The dead man lay still and silent on Kagewaki Hitomi's floor, and still the puppet Naraku had not returned to claim it.
This irritated Kagewaki. It was only a matter of time before some simpering servant demanded entrance to his sickroom or went looking for the healer and found evidence of what had transpired. Something must have delayed his puppet's return. And in the meantime…
He had grown tired of looking at the dead man. Resigned to necessity, he contemplated how to proceed. Perhaps he did not need to wait. Perhaps the solution was already here.
He went to the floor mat that concealed his hidden cache. This small storage compartment housed not only his collected pieces of what was most probably the Shikon jewel, but also several bundles of supplies suitable for working powerful and forbidden magic. From one of those bundles he withdrew a small, roughly man-shaped puppet made from straw.
Returning to his bed, he regarded the doll for a moment. It was crude, roughly made, but he thought it would suffice. He’d used a similar doll to create the puppet that now moved about the world doing his bidding although the resulting creature was not strictly alive. It did not seem outside the realm of possibility that the same sort of magic could compel the dead man to do the same. Better for the hapless man to be seen leaving the castle — and never again after that — than for his remains to be found here.
It couldn’t hurt to try.
His course of action decided, he took a few strands of hair from the dead man's head and tied them carefully around the doll, weaving a careful pattern. His hands tingled as energy surged. There was power here. He focused his will on the doll and commanded the body to which the hair had belonged to move.
Power rose within him, funneling into the doll… and dissipating uselessly. The dead man remained where he was, unmoved even by the power of the wara ningyou.
He snarled, furious at this thwarting of his will. First the vision of that damnable woman, then the delay in his puppet's return, and now this. A part of him was tempted to flatten the entire castle and be done with this farce, but a more rational part of him realized that he had been constructing this scheme for too long to destroy it now in a fit of anger. He need only pretend for a little while longer.
Once he had gathered the pieces of the Shikon no Tama, he would be free to act as he chose. Until then, he must be patient.
The thought of the Shikon no Tama sparked an idea. If his power was not enough to accomplish his aims, perhaps the power of the jewel would be up to the task. His collected pieces of the Shikon no Tama glittered faintly from their hiding place, all but begging to be used.
This was dangerous. Until now he had been content to merely collect pieces of the jewel, if only to see what might happen if he accumulated enough of them. Pursuing this line of inquiry would mean using the power of the jewel, if there was any power in the tiny pieces he’d amassed. If he used its power, if he established that these were indeed pieces of the famed Shikon no Tama, there would be no going back.
A part of him relished that thought, and the thought of the power he might gain from the jewel.
Deep inside, an ugly, craven, human part of him quailed.
With ruthless fury, he squashed that part of himself, pushing it down into the darkness, never to see the light of day again. That accomplished, he retrieved one of the irregularly-shaped pieces of the jewel and applied it to the straw doll that he had wrapped with the dead man's hair. Again he channeled his will. Again, nothing happened.
He forced himself to remain patient. There were other tactics to try. He removed the jewel from the doll and applied it to the dead man's neck, where the flesh was discolored by bruises.
When he channeled his will through the straw doll again, the dead man twitched. He felt his lips curl into a determined grin as he shaped his focus and pushed an intangible spark into the doll. The thin strands of hair gleamed in the dark, pulsing with a purplish light before fading into darkness once more.
At his bidding the dead man shifted, sat up. Stared vacantly, unblinking, at the wall in front of him. This was more than he had dared to hope for.
"Tell me what you remember from earlier today," he instructed.
The dead man remained silent.
"Tell me who you are," he tried.
"Can you not tell me, or are you unwilling to tell me?" he probed.
No answer. The dead man continued to stare past him at the wall, as if he were not there at all.
He set down the straw doll and inspected his newest puppet. It followed his orders but did not appear to be at all aware of his presence — the spark had returned but the self had not. Unfortunate for the dead man, perhaps, but expedient for him.
"Go out into the forest beyond the castle and wait for my servant Naraku there," he instructed. "Don't let anyone see you."
Somehow he had expected there to be some obvious sign that the man was dead, some visible stiffness to his movement, or perhaps a lurch in his step. There was no such sign. The dead man simply stood up, walked smoothly to the door, and departed, presumably to follow the orders he had been given.
By the time Miroku and Sango reached the foot of the mountain, the sun had almost disappeared beneath the horizon. The return trip had taken a lot longer than Miroku wold have liked. He’d had to borrow Sango’s sword to finish off the leader of the birds of paradise so the pieces of the Shikon jewel could be retrieved. And on top of that he’d had to locate the hiraikotsu and carry it back up the mountain. Considering Sango’s head injury and the lingering ill effects of absorbing so many youkai at once into the kazaana, it was a miracle they’d made it down at all.
At least he hadn’t had to carry Sango and the hiraikotsu. The weapon on its own had been an awkward and challenging burden.
Sango’s steps had been slow and faltering at first, but she was moving steadily now. She’d even taken the hiraikotsu back not long ago. Miroku, on the other hand was feeling the effects of overexertion more keenly than ever before.
He had used the kazaana on youkai in the past, but never more than one or two at a time. From those previous experiences, he knew to expect chills and fatigue, but he had not expected to feel quite as ill as he currently did. He supposed that was what he got for acting recklessly, without thought for the consequences.
Even now, hours after the fact, he was alternately shivering and sweating. His skin itched abominably and a terrible nausea gripped him until he was glad he hadn’t eaten all day, so there was nothing to throw up. Increasingly exhausted and disoriented, it seemed a miracle he didn’t lurch with every step. It probably was a miracle that he hadn’t fallen or seriously injured himself yet.
It was dark beneath the trees as they made their way into the forest proper. Miroku wondered how much longer Sango would try to keep going tonight — or if she would see reason and agree to find a place to rest for the night. They could find the wolves in the morning, collect their reward, and be back at the village well before midday.
On the other hand, they could also just keep walking until they reached the village or collapsed, whichever came first. Glancing at Sango, he had a feeling he knew which option she planned to pursue. This would require immediate action.
Recalling that they had passed by a substantial stream not long before they entered the mountains earlier that day, he listened for the sound of running water. He veered off the main path without a word as soon as he heard what he sought, heading toward the sound.
“Monk,” Sango said warningly.
“If you have it in you to keep going, be my guest,” he told her. “But I’m not going any further tonight.”
Her silence betrayed her inner conflict.
“If we delay in returning, the wolves may decide that we failed and attack the village,” Sango pointed out. Yet he heard her begin to follow him toward the stream.
“Then I suggest we bring the wolves to us.” He was upon the stream almost before he knew it. He knelt to slake his thirst, and was still there when Sango came up alongside him. She stood, he assumed glowering down at him, in silence.
“You have a way to bring the wolves to us?” she asked finally.
“If they don’t have spies to tell them we’ve returned victorious, they’ll notice a large fire in their forest and come to investigate,” he told her. “And in the meantime, we can rest and prepare.”
“Hmm,” Sango muttered, from which he gathered that she had not thought him capable of good ideas. Nonetheless, she helped him gather fuel for the fire. It wasn’t long before they had a decent bonfire going.
Now all they had to do was wait. Miroku managed to find a comfortable-looking niche at the base of a tree, which seemed almost made for him to recline in. Sango remained near the fire, keeping a wary watch. He wondered what worried her more: his presence, or an impending meeting with the wolves.
“Can I ask you something?”
He resisted the urge to grin. Curious, was she? “Of course.”
Curiosity evaporated, leaving only skepticism. “I meant, if I ask you something, will you answer truthfully?”
“I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t.”
She frowned, but asked anyway. “If you knew it would make you sick, why did you use the kazaana on the birds of paradise? Why not just run?”
Somehow, he had thought he’d successfully hidden the worst of it from her. “Sango, I meant what I said. I couldn’t just stand by and let you die.” Was it a trick of the flickering firelight, or had she flushed when he said that? Perhaps she might be more susceptible to his charms than she had initially seemed. He continued, “Not when I knew I could prevent it.”
She turned back to face the fire. “If the kazaana absorbs too many youkai, will you die?”
She might as well have dumped a bucket of cold water over his head. “It is a possibility,” he conceded. He’d carried it in his palm for most of his life, but there was a great deal about the kazaana that he did not understand, that even Mushin could only guess at.
“Then why risk it?” she murmured. “I don’t understand.”
Neither did he. It wasn’t like him to put his life on the line for anybody. “No one should have to die as a result of my actions,” he decided. It was close enough to the truth. He might follow a proper moral path only when it suited him, but he really didn’t want anyone to die on his behalf. “However accidentally, I led you into this mess. The least I could do was help you get out of it.”
“In that case, you have my thanks.” It was hard to read her like this, silhouetted by the fire and with her back turned to him. He couldn’t tell if she wanted to ask more questions or if, having provided answers, she wanted him to leave her alone.
Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled.
After the call had faded, Sango asked, “What will you do now?”
“You mean, do I intend to continue my pursuit of the Shikon no Tama?” he asked. “You may rest easy on that count.” For now, anyway. Once the slayers had amassed the entire jewel, who could say? “I will seek another means to put an end to my curse.”
“So you intend to find the youkai responsible for the curse in the first place?”
“That appears to be the only route left to me,” he agreed. “I do not know if I can succeed where my grandfather and my father failed, but I must try. The alternative is unthinkable.” He paused, not so much because he wanted to dwell on the depressing nature of his situation, but because he did not relish what he was about to ask. “Sango, your father offered to spread word of Naraku among the slayers, to see if he might be found and destroyed. Is there any hope I might convince him to honor that offer in spite of my… transgressions?”
She turned to face him again, her expression softening. “I understand the difficulty of your situation,” she said. “And so does my father. He may be willing to act on your behalf, knowing that you stole the piece of the Shikon jewel not out of greed, but out of a desire to save your life. More than that… I cannot promise.”
“Will you at least allow me to accompany you back to your village to plead for his mercy?”
“I will not stop you from attempting it.” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “And I will tell him how you saved my life today.”
“Then you have my thanks,” he told her. Sango’s acquiescence didn’t feel like much of a victory, although her carefully measured words left him wondering… if the other slayers denied him, would Sango offer assistance on her own? He would almost venture to say yes, though that could be mere vanity talking.
After that the wolf calls came closer and closer together, until it seemed the entire pack must be lurking just beyond the light from their fire.
Sango rose hastily to her feet. Miroku joined her an instant later, as he caught the sound of something large coming—quickly—through the forest. Eyes glowed a golden hue from the shadows between the trees, standing far too high to be an ordinary wolf, and then the wolf pack leader stepped into the firelight. He seemed to be doing quite well for someone who had lost much of one of his arms in the recent past.
“Your enemies are slain,” Sango told him.
The wolf sneered. “You think I’m just going to take your word for it?”
“Of course not,” she replied easily, taking no apparent offense at the wolf’s disbelief. “Monk.”
At Sango’s request, he’d gathered more from the fallen birds than just pieces of the Shikon jewel: talons and feathers, mostly, and a pair of fangs that were each as long as one of Miroku’s fingers.
A display of these items earned them a derisive snort from the wolf pack leader. “So you killed one of the birds. Big deal.”
“You will find that the rest are gone, as well,” Sango told him, “though there were no remains from which to salvage materials.”
“Bah,” the wolf scoffed. “No remains? That’s convenient.”
“Go and see for yourself, then,” Miroku interjected. “You’ll find that the taiji-ya speaks the truth.”
The wolf pack leader was clearly reluctant to return to the mountains. Perhaps it would best to give him a good reason not to stick around.
“The situation became difficult,” Miroku went on. “I was forced to take drastic measures to ensure our victory.” He clenched his cursed hand into a fist, watched the wolf’s gaze momentarily flash that way, and let the youkai wonder just what sort of drastic measures he might be talking about.
“We upheld our part of the bargain,” Sango said smoothly, ever the practiced professional even in the face of a scowling wolf youkai. “I expect that you will honor your agreement.”
The scowl deepened, almost baring teeth. He stared straight at Sango, with a gaze so intense Miroku thought sparks might fly, but in the end he relented. “Fine,” he bit out.
He knelt, and from the furs bound around each leg he withdrew a tiny, shining gem. He handed these over to Sango, saying, “But if it turns out you’ve lied to us, woman, I will find you and I will feast on your flesh.”
Sango accepted her payment, looking not the least bit perturbed by the grisly threat. As soon as their leader had handed over his pieces of the Shikon no Tama, a pair of wolves crept out of the darkness. For a moment Miroku feared they meant to attack, but they went directly to their leader and seemed much more intent on comforting him than on striking down the humans.
The leader glared at Sango for a few seconds longer before retreating into the night with his wolves. Miroku and Sango waited where they were until they could be absolutely sure that they wolves were gone. When it seemed the coast was clear, Sango gave a shuddering sigh and sat down beside the fire again. Watching her now, Miroku was impressed. If she had been nervous about the transaction with the wolves, she certainly hadn’t showed it.
“Do you think they’ll keep their word?” Miroku asked.
He’d dealt with enough youkai to be surprised by her conviction. In his experience such creatures usually lacked a true sense of right and wrong, preferring instead to do whatever seemed most likely to benefit them… much as Hachi had done in leading Sango straight to him.
“All they wanted was to go home,” Sango continued. “Once they’ve done that and seen that their enemies are gone, it’ll seem like too much work to come back for us tonight.”
“Well,” Miroku said, taking up his previous spot beneath the tree once more, “I hope you’re right.”
They waited there in companionable quiet, getting what rest they could, until the fire burned low. With the embers buried and the moon risen to light their way, they headed down the path that would lead them back to the village.
The puppet wasn’t coming back.
Suspicion had kindled to fury, dwindling at last to fuming resignation. The puppet wasn’t coming back. This was an annoyance at worst: it was not that difficult to create another puppet that could be ordered about and sent exploring where he did not wish to go himself. Yet his plans had been proceeding so smoothly that the creature who had once been called Onigumo, who now wore Hitomi Kagewaki’s skin and used his own name to address his puppets, felt a simmering discontent at the disruption.
He sat listlessly atop his futon, contemplating a strong desire to tear down the castle around him. With his schemes now perilously close to fruition, he could not afford to give in to his destructive urges, no matter how much he wanted to. He would not be stopped now. No, he would create another puppet, and —
A vision swept aside his awareness of his sickroom — a secluded village, glimpsed as if from the air. It was remote, nestled among mountain foothills, and surrounded by a wall of wooden posts that stood perhaps ten feet tall. The openings in the wall were all guarded, some of them by women.
Through the haze of the sudden vision, he was aware of his heart beating. It grew louder and faster until it seemed to drown out every other sound with its excited racing. Could it be that one of his wasps had found its way to the secret hiding place of the youkai taiji-ya? Even now, was his plea for assistance being relayed to the slayers there? Was his trap about to be sprung?
The vision faded as quickly as it had come, but even that brief, promising flash served to diminish his rage. No longer did he feel as if he must destroy everything around him. No, not when he was so close to getting what he wanted.
If all went well, in just a few days he would no longer need to fear the killers of youkai.
The thought brought a smile to his face. Even as he felt his lips curl into the uncomfortably human expression, an idea began to develop in his mind. Puppets were useful. He could send them out into the world to do his bidding while he remained here, hidden from any potential enemies. Yet this ability of his hell wasps, to seemingly share their sight with him directly, had the potential to be even more useful than the puppet’s abilities. If he could combine the two in his next puppet…
The possibilities were intriguing, and would give him something to do while he waited for word from the village of the slayers.
The magic of wara ningyou was easily manipulated and could produce seemingly endless variations. With a little trial and error, he could doubtless achieve the effect he desired. The wasps proved it was possible, it was just a matter of figuring out how to replicate their abilities using a different type of magic. As long as he was not interrupted… though with the local healer mysteriously disappeared, he supposed there weren’t many left who would dare interrupt their young lord’s rest.
He worked through the night, completely consumed, tireless after days of idly biding his time and invigorated by the prospect of a new project. By dusk of the following day, the puppet Naraku knelt once more before him, garbed in his customary white pelt and baboon mask. When he closed his eyes and willed the connection to form, he could see himself sitting upon the mat, looking at his creation. He could see through the puppet’s eyes.
Without warning, someone slid the door open. Ruddy sunlight streamed into the room, harsh after so much time spent in darkness. He blinked back into his own body.
“Who bid you enter this room?” he snapped.
“M-my lord,” the man stammered. He couldn’t seem to stop looking at Naraku. “I’m sorry, my lord. Are you busy? It’s just…”
“I was consulting with Naraku, yes.”
“B-but the guards… they said you were alone.”
He exhaled sharply to show his disapproval. “The guards were mistaken.”
“They said no one had come or gone all day.” This man seemed clearly unnerved that Naraku might have somehow eluded detection. Or perhaps he had realized that it had not occurred to anyone to provide their lord with sustenance in more than a day.
“And you believe their word over mine?” he asked mildly. “Naraku has his ways of coming and going. If the guards were not able to detect him, well, then perhaps we need to find guards with more adequate powers of observation.”
The man finally managed to tear his gaze away from Naraku and stare at the floor, as was proper. “Yes, my lord.”
“Since you are here, what is it you came to tell me?”
“There are visitors to the castle, my lord,” the man explained. “They claim to be slayers of youkai, my lord, and that Naraku asked them to come.”
The man waited. Whether he was hesitating for a reason or merely dawdling, it was impossible to tell. After a few minutes, Hitomi Kagewaki grew tired of the man’s presence. “Why are you still here?”
“My lord, your father is too ill to meet with them. Are you… that is, could you…”
“I have strength enough to meet with them, if that is what you mean,” he interrupted. “Now leave me. I have orders for Naraku which are none of your concern, and then I will attend these supposed youkai taiji-ya.”
“Yes, my lord.” The man bowed so deeply that it was a wonder he didn’t fall over, and all but fled the room. He forgot to shut the door behind him.
“They have begun to fear you,” Naraku observed when the man was gone.
“An inconvenient turn of events,” he conceded. “But shortly it will not matter.”
Naraku chuckled. “And what orders do you have for me, my lord?”
“Bring the tsuchigumo.”
Naraku bowed, the slightest inclination of his head. “Of course, my lord,” he said, and then he, too, departed.
With no one to see, he need not pretend to be seriously ill as he rose from the futon. This was all to the good, because it was difficult to contain his rising excitement. If his vision from yesterday could be trusted, he might not only have a group of youkai slayers in his clutches, he could find his way to their village even without their help. And if he could find his way to their village, so could any other youkai that might seek revenge against them.
As he stepped out of his sickroom, he took care to once more affect the faltering step of one suffering serious illness. The guards watched him sidelong and said nothing. By now they would have seen Naraku exit the room before him. They might even have been warned by the servant who preceded Naraku. No doubt they would begin their gossip as soon as he was out of sight.
Let them talk. There was nothing they could do now. By the time they realized just how dangerous the situation was, it would be too late.
A pall hung over the castle as he made his way down the halls toward the courtyard where all guests were left to await Lord Hitomi’s pleasure. Gloom lingered in corners like spiderwebs. It was true that tsuchigumo preferred more isolated habitats, but this one had made itself well and truly at home.
He passed several more guards, each as silent as the first set, and brushed past cobwebs to make his way into the courtyard.
Seven warriors, two of them women, dressed in unusual armor and armed with even more unusual weapons, awaited him there. Their armor covered them from the neck down in black leather, with colored padding at shoulders, elbows and knees, and the front and back of the torso. A different color for each slayer, just as each used a different type of weapon. Three different kinds of spear, a morningstar, throwing knives, a long blade, and a staff of the variety he would have expected to see an oni carrying.
Six of the slayers formed a half-ring around a tall man who appeared to be in the prime of his life. Their leader, no doubt. A scant few of the locals skulked around the edges of the courtyard, curiosity or fear compelling them to see what might happen.
When he sat on the mat that had been prepared for him, with Lord Hitomi’s retainers on either side of him, all seven of the slayers knelt and bowed their heads.
“So, you are the youkai taiji-ya,” Hitomi Kagewaki said, with all the strength a dying young man might muster.
The leader of the slayers looked up at him but did not rise. “We are.”
“I am told a giant spider haunts this castle,” he explained. “That night after night it stalks its prey, and many have already died from its predations.” He paused to let this sink in, and to relish the aura of fear that emanated from his servants. Until now, none of their betters had so much as hinted that there might be any truth to the rumors of the tsuchigumo. How they must yearn to flee, even now, in front of their lord, at hearing their fears confirmed. “Do you claim you can stop it?”
“I come with the best available warriors from my village,” the leader told him. “If anyone is up to the task, it is these fighters.”
Hitomi Kagewaki inspected the slayers for a long while, giving them plenty of time to feel uncomfortable under his gaze. If any of them did feel discomfort, it did not show. They were utterly impassive. “You say these are the best warriors you have?” he asked.
“Yes, Lord Hitomi,” the leader agreed. “We have other warriors who are just as skilled, but they are on other missions just now. And, as your servant told us that time was of the essence, we have come as quickly as we could.”
He had hoped to crush the best of the youkai killers in one fell swoop, but he supposed it was too much to hope for things to work out so neatly. He turned his irritation into lordly criticism. “I count two women among your number,” he pointed out as dismissively as possible.
“Hoshiko and Noriko are among our best fighters. Only my own daughter, Sango, can surpass them, and she is at present attending to another endeavor. You will not be disappointed in the performance of any of my warriors tonight,” the leader explained smoothly, as if the casual dismissal of two of his warriors bothered him not in the slightest.
“Ah, you intend to slay the spider this very night?”
“If it please you, my lord.”
Hitomi Kagewaki shrugged and let his eyes fall closed. “The rumors say the spider stalks its prey at night. Perhaps you’ll have luck hunting it, instead.”
Through the puppet’s eyes, he could see the looming bulk of the tsuchigumo, obscured from view from the courtyard by the building behind him. The thin threads of its web extended to touch each of the guardsmen and retainers. More threads dangled into the courtyard from above, ready to snare additional prey.
He opened his eyes. The slayers still knelt before him, impeccable in their show of respect. Their weapons were all arrayed behind them. They would waste valuable time turning to seize those weapons in the event of an attack.
The leader of the taiji-ya rose and nodded his head. On this cue, the others rose as well.
The creature pretending to be Hitomi Kagewaki imagined that at this moment, also, the sun sank below the horizon and gave way to night. To the tsuchigumo’s hunting time.
He gave the silent command.
The guards launched into action, racing into the courtyard with their weapons drawn. Chaos ensued as the slayers realized they were under attack, but from humans rather than the youkai they had been expecting. As he’d hoped, he watched them grapple with the unpleasant reality that they must defend themselves to the death — they must kill the humans they ordinarily worked to defend.
One by one they came to the realization, their leader last of all. And when they did, they fought back with remarkable fierceness, clustering together to better protect one another from their attackers.
They were better fighters than most of Lord Hitomi’s guards, and they certainly knew their way around their unusual weapons. But none of them had yet realized what was really going on.
Pain and injury had no apparent effect on Hitomi’s guardsmen, for they were entirely under the tsuchigumo’s control. It had spent the last month or so carefully weaving its web over the entire castle until hardly anyone remained that was beyond its reach. Even the pathetic old man who claimed to rule this clan and its castle had been taken in. It was no ordinary illness that had rendered him and his son so conveniently incapable, just when such a move would be most useful to the monster in their midst.
Watching as his plan unfolded in all its glory, that monster felt a sense of pride… and glee.
One of the slayers became mired in a web he could not even see. Hampered by the unusually strong silk, he went down under the unremitting onslaught of the guard he had been facing. Unlike his opponent, he stayed down as his blood soaked into the earth of the courtyard.
It was palpable, the wave of fear and dismay that swept through the rest of the slayers when they realized one of their number had passed into the afterlife. Every time one of Hitomi’s guardsmen went down, he got up again a moment or two later, as soon as the tsuchigumo had re-exerted its control. The slayers had no such advantage. They could be wounded, crippled, killed.
And so they were.
Too stupid or too stubborn to run, they fought to the very end. Exactly as he had hoped.
Their leader was the last to fall, proving that he was indeed their best fighter or that the others had died to give him a chance to live. All the loyalty in the world couldn’t save him from this trap, as the tsuchigumo at last hauled its bulk over the building’s roof and into the courtyard to survey the prey it had caught in its web. The puppet Naraku followed sedately, as if he were walking across a floor rather than a roof.
The spider must have been the last thing the leader of the taiji-ya saw while he still lived.
“The guards and retainers are yours, as I promised,” Hitomi Kagewaki told the spider. He had originally thought to give the slayers over to the youkai as well. It would have been amusing to watch them devoured by the creature they thought to slay. But now he was developing a new idea, and it was a great deal more promising than making spider food of such fine warriors.
He recalled the fate of his loyal healer, what a single piece of the Shikon no Tama and the power of wara ningyou had accomplished. Here before him were seven fallen warriors, each of them far more useful than the simpering healer could ever have hoped to be. And in his bedchamber were at least as many pieces of the Shikon jewel.
If he did not tarry, could he yet find a use for seven slayers?
While the guardsmen fell busily upon their lords and each other, Hitomi Kagewaki strolled peacefully back to his sickroom. There, he retrieved pieces of the Shikon no Tama and supplies for several more wara ningyou dolls from the cache beneath the floor mats.
Urgency compelled him as he returned to the courtyard, the unwavering certainty that he must act immediately or the opportunity would be lost. He moved without conscious thought or effort, as if propelled by some unstoppable force, until he knelt beside the heaped bodies of the fallen slayers. It seemed somehow fitting that they had been tossed into an unceremonious pile and forgotten as the rest of the humans set upon each other for the spider’s amusement.
He tugged a body from the top of the pile: one of the women. Hoshiko or Noriko, he wondered, and decided he did not care. It didn’t matter anyway. Whoever she was, her identity was about to be erased.
After a day and a night spent developing his latest puppet, he could now build another wara ningyou doll with practiced ease. The straw doll came together swiftly, easily, as if it wanted to be made, as if it yearned to be given new life. To serve him.
He sealed power into it by wrapping it with strands of the woman’s hair and adding thick drops of her blood, into which he also dipped a piece of the Shikon no Tama. As if some outside force moved his hand, he pressed the shard of the jewel not into the straw doll, but into a deep gash in the woman’s back. That injury and all of her others began to knit shut before his eyes, healing so rapidly he could see their progress through the slashes in her armor. He stopped and stared, wondering what he had just done. How might this change in the spell have changed the outcome? By giving over a piece of the jewel, had he done something other than breathe life and obedience back into the woman’s dead body?
Soulless eyes opened at his command. The woman pushed herself upright and sat beside him, waiting for orders.
He nodded his head toward the nearest of the guardsmen. “Kill that man,” he told her.
She said not a word as she rose and retrieved her naginata from where it had fallen when she died. Her gait was even and smooth, exactly as it must have been in life, and she displayed not the slightest hesitation. The guardsman, however, still under the spider’s spell, had no desire to go peacefully.
The two battled swiftly, ruthless and silent save for the clashing of their weapons.
And then, with practiced ease, the woman’s naginata slipped past her opponent’s defenses and parted his head from his shoulders in a single powerful blow. With this accomplished she turned as if awaiting further orders. Hearing none, she returned to her master’s side and knelt once more.
Hitomi Kagewaki watched her raptly. She had performed even more admirably than he had dared hope. Until now, he’d had no way of knowing whether his resurrected slaves might retain any of their skills from life, or if those departed along with the soul. Now he knew. He planned to make good use of this knowledge.
Slowly, as if sensing his gaze upon her, the woman raised her head to look at him. He realized that she was perhaps still waiting for orders.
“Bide,” he told her. She did.
While she waited, he set to work on her companions. Working methodically, taking only as much time as he dared, he roused the slayers from death. One by one by one by one. Their souls might be gone, but that only made them the better to serve him. Powerful killers, unquestionable in their loyalty, and seemingly immune to death itself, they would make easy work of retrieving the remaining pieces of the Shikon no Tama.
At last he came to the final slayer, their leader. This one groaned when his new master turned him over and his eyes flashed with dimming anger. His life’s blood was ebbing away with each passing moment, seeping from wounds beyond counting, but the pathetic creature was somehow still alive.
He deigned to cup the slayer’s battered face in a hand, forcing the once-proud man to look at him. The man’s lips moved as he tried to speak, but his throat and chin had been mangled in the fight. He could form no words, only that despairing groan.
“Don’t worry,” the one once called Hitomi Kagewaki said. “Your daughter —” What was her name, again? “— Sango won’t be missing you for long.”
The wasp found Naraku sitting on the veranda outside what had until quite recently been Hitomi Kagewaki’s sickroom. He’d dispatched three of them on an important mission yesterday, after cleaning up the mess the youkai taiji-ya had left behind in the courtyard. Only this one had returned so far.
He rose and approached the place where it hovered, offering an arm as a perch. The enormous insect came daintily to rest atop his forearm. It weighed less than it looked like it ought to. He closed his eyes, seeking connection — and finding it.
A series of images told the story, strung together one after the other like paintings on a scroll. Youkai had been found, and had been informed of the opportunity at hand. Grudges held for decades had been ignited by a promise: the chance to destroy an enemy forever. At his command, they would attack.
Naraku smiled as he released his hold on the wasp’s mind. The wasp rose from its perch and hovered again, waiting for orders. Return to the others, he communicated silently, and come when I call you.
Having received what it wanted, the wasp flitted away.
He slid the door open and entered the sickroom. Hitomi Kagewaki, or the semblance of him, sat idly atop a futon near one wall of the room. It felt a bit strange to see himself through someone else’s eyes, even if that someone else was a puppet of his own creation, but he was becoming accustomed to the sensation as he spent more time using the puppet this way.
Opposite Lord Kagewaki and limned in shadow knelt seven figures, all lined up neatly in a row. Seven slayers, just waiting to go home. Time to give them what they wanted.
“Come,” he told them. “And bring your weapons.”
The village of the slayers was nestled among wooded hills, with mountains looming nearby. Little of the village could be seen from below. If you didn’t know to look for it, you might pass by without ever noticing it at all. Only a few thin pillars of smoke rose above the wooden wall, itself all but masked by nearby trees. Naraku regarded the sight with hostility, thinking it looked like something from one of the fine paintings back at Hitomi Castle — and that he wanted to burn it to the ground as much as he wanted to burn those insufferable paintings.
He could not see the youkai that lurked nearby, but he could feel them, an ugly tension in the air like the moment before a lightning strike. He wondered if the residents of that village could feel their presence, too. He wondered if they knew they were mere moments from death.
He hoped they had no idea.
He turned to the man that stood beside him, preternaturally still and silent. “Go home,” he told the man who had been leader of the youkai taiji-ya, “and kill everyone you find.”
The man nodded and signaled to his six companions. They moved forward together in utter silence. It would have been an unnerving sight if he didn’t know they were dead, and if they weren’t under his command. Naraku fell in behind them as they approached the village, following at a discreet distance. He wanted very much to see what was about to occur, but it wouldn’t do to simply throw his new puppet away by being reckless.
Two men were posted at the nearest gate. They called out a cheerful greeting when they saw who was coming up the path. Naraku watched their happy expressions turn dark with mistrust when they realized the returning slayers were dressed in their armor and openly carrying their weapons.
One of the guards shouted an alarm even as Naraku’s seven slayers raced up the path to the gate. Damn. He’d hoped to enjoy at least a few moments of sheer chaos before anyone realized what was happening. Oh well. It was too late now. The trap was sprung, the alarm was sounded. All that remained was to slaughter these slayers before they could truly become a threat to his plans, and to take what he had come here for.
His seven slayers were gone by the time he reached the gate. He regarded the two corpses which now decorated the entrance, their blood spattered in arcs across the wooden columns and dripping slowly into the earth beneath them, then stepped nimbly over them and into the village proper.
If he ignored the sounds of carnage his slayers were visiting upon their home, the village of the slayers was actually somewhat disappointing. Somehow, he had expected more from those who would pit mere mortal strength against the uncanny powers of youkai. And yet, beyond the guards posted at the gates and the laughably ineffective wall, this village looked much like any other.
Several buildings lined the main street. Most of them appeared to be dwellings. He crept toward the first of these he came to, and was pleased to find that the people of this village seemed to employ none of the irritating magic used by those blessed by Buddhist or Shinto deities. With no such barriers in place, he entered without a problem. It was dark inside but for the hearth fire, but that provided enough light to see that his slayers had done their work to perfection. The entire family was slain down to the youngest child, who could not have been more than three or four years old.
He made short work of sifting through their belongings before making his way back onto the street. It was easy to see these people had owned nothing of value. It was much the same in each successive building.
He took his time investigating each domicile he came to, giving his slayers plenty of time to dispose of the people who lived here. Further down the street he could see a large building which emitted a thick plume of smoke from its roof and a ruddy glow from its wide, open door. A smithy. He would have to make sure that building, in particular, was destroyed.
With this in mind, he supposed it was time to see how his slayers were doing. They had spread out while he was otherwise occupied, fanning out as they hunted down the rest of the villagers. Happily, he need only follow the trails of blood and corpses to find where they had gone. And as it turned out, those trails converged in an open space to one side of the smithy, where his slayers had trapped the remaining villagers.
The initial onslaught had caught some of the slayers and their families, perhaps as many as twenty people, unawares. These had made for easy prey, and it was in their houses that Naraku had begun his explorations. More still had been killed as they tried to flee their attackers. Their bodies now lined the village’s main road.
As for the rest… they’d had sufficient time to arm themselves for battle at least, though he could see that some of the survivors had also found time to don their armor. They appeared to have decided that they would fight to the death to defend their home. He lingered near the corner of the smithy, feeling the heat of the building through the fur pelt he wore, content merely to watch while his slayers did their work.
And what work it was! The remaining villagers outnumbered his fighters by at least six to one, but it was immediately apparent that they stood no chance of surviving. His slayers were the best fighters in the village to begin with, and many of those they had rounded up were not fighters at all but women and children. He noted that even those women and children were armed, and not with mere kitchen knives or toy weapons. Their gazes were steely and determined as they stared down their implacable foes.
A few of the men were still calling out to their former friends and comrades-in-arms, as if they hoped to persuade them to stop the slaughter, to no avail. They must not yet have realized that nothing they could do would reach his slayers.
Nearby, a different group of doomed village men launched an attack on one of his slayers. All five were armed and clad in the strange armor that seemed to be the local specialty, and they ranged in age from one that couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen to an old man with a wrinkled face and gray hair. Their chosen victim was the man who had led the slayers to Hitomi Castle.
What was his name, again? Naraku wondered idly. Perhaps the man had never given his name. Had he been a leader only for that one expedition, or was he regarded as a leader within the village? Did they pit themselves against him because he had betrayed them, or because they thought they might stand a chance of defeating him?
His man stood unmoving before his foes, his crescent-tipped spear at the ready. The five men approached as one, arraying themselves into a small arc. One good cut with a bladed spear would have gutted them all — if not for the armor that protected them, that is.
Naraku scowled at the way the rest of the villagers banded together to defend the five men from the rest of his slayers. Had they practiced for this? Rehearsed what they ought to do should their village ever come under attack? Too bad it wouldn’t save them.
The men launched their attack, but he’d chosen his warriors well. Moving as if in a dance, his slayer used his spear to ruthless perfection. The curved blade made short work of disarming each foe in turn, darting and twisting to tear weapons free, flicking to the side to toss them to the ground… flicking forward and up to slice open throats, just below the jaw, where that unique armor didn’t cover. It took just a few seconds. Only the quickest of the five managed to avoid those quick strikes. The others leaked blood from deep gashes in their necks.
Those wounds wouldn’t kill them, at least not quickly, but they did give the men pause. This man they’d once known and respected really would kill them.
The best part was they had no idea why, much less who was pulling the strings. The pain and confusion written on their faces were far more beautiful to Naraku than any of those damnable paintings back at Hitomi Castle. Without their weapons there was no hope for victory. Even at this distance it was satisfying to watch them grapple with the reality.
“Kill them,” he urged, his voice little more than a whisper. He was too far away for any of his slayers to hear, but he’d given the same command earlier and that they remembered.
His slayers moved forward. In response, the group of village men surprised him. Two of the men produced lengths of chain from compartments hidden in their armor, and used those chains to ensnare his man, one chain around each of his arms. The hauled on the chains, throwing the man off balance and forcing him to his knees. The oldtimer approached, knife in hand, flanked by the rest of his desperate group.
“I do not know why you have betrayed us, Iwao,” the oldtimer said, loud enough for Naraku to hear. At least now he knew his man’s name. “But you will not survive your own treachery.”
With the knife he cut open Iwao’s throat. Thick red blood flowed and Iwao slumped. But it wasn’t long before the flow slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether. Naraku was too far to see, but he imagined the jagged tear in Iwao’s throat knitting shut, imagined the blood resuming its ordinary course through Iwao’s body, imagined the strength returning to depleted limbs.
The village men looked to each other uncertainly. Somewhere, another of their fellows went down, crying out in agony.
Iwao lifted his head. He adjusted his grip on the crescent spear, his arms still tangled in the chains, and gave a mighty yank. Taken by surprise, his captors nearly lost their footing. They managed to hang on, but Iwao was already up and moving.
The crescent blade punctured the leather armor across one man’s chest as if it weren’t there. Blood spurted as he twisted that crescent-shaped blade and tore the man’s chest open. He was onto the next village man before the first had even hit the ground.
The oldtimer gave ground while his companions were slaughtered. Naraku felt a chill when he realized that the old man’s gaze was locked on where he was standing. He spoke again. The words didn’t reach Naraku, but they didn’t need to. He could guess: Is that the one that did this to you, Iwao? Is that your new master?
Fear speared through him even though he was not actually present at the village of the slayers. Anger followed swiftly. His slayers might be indestructible, but he was not. What would happen if the puppet were destroyed while he was still inside it? He had no desire to answer that particular question. Naraku sent the silent signal to his wasps: now is the time.
All this time the wasps had been waiting with the hordes of youkai they had awakened earlier. With the signal finally given, the furious mass of youkai appeared from the forest, sweeping over the walls and carrying destruction into the village of death. What the slayers had begun, the youkai finished. They smashed into the trapped group of villagers and when they departed there was not a single person left alive. And then they went for the village itself, as if they would not be content if a single building remained standing. It wasn’t long before the scent of fire joined the stench of blood in the air.
Behind his mask, Naraku could not help but smile. Even with the best of the slayers turned into his slaves, there had been an element of risk in a frontal assault like this. He’d been lucky. Everything had gone according to plan.
And he was about to become even luckier. Only two buildings remained to be inspected: the forge he had lurked beside during the worst of the fighting, and one last house. This house was slightly larger than the others, but built in the same style, and was set off on its own and surrounded by a low fence with a gate.
If the stories he’d heard were correct and the slayers really did possess a piece of the Shikon jewel, this largest home was most likely where he would find it. The village had no shrines or temples — the closest thing he’d found was a building with a cellar filled with scrolls — and he doubted that they would store a piece of the jewel in their smithy. None of the other houses had contained any sign of the jewel. This must be the place.
To the wasps, he communicated, not this building. Not just yet, anyway. The wasps would relay his desires to the rest of the youkai. If they had any sense they would obey, and wait for him to complete his search before they sought to enact their vengeance. If any of the youkai tried to interrupt him… he would deal with them.
The house was quiet, filled with a delicious emptiness. Naraku wondered whether its inhabitants were among the slain, or if he could claim them among his captives. He supposed it didn’t matter, since the building would be destroyed as soon as he was done with it.
He made his way from room to room at a leisurely pace, content to take his time now that he knew every last slayer in the village was dead, yet all he could find was the inconsequential detritus of daily living. Aside from the room filled with weaponry, armor, and what must be training supplies for aspiring youkai killers, the house was like any other house in any other village. And exactly like every other house in this village, there was no sign of the Shikon no Tama. If it wasn’t here, all that remained was the smithy.
Naraku stormed from the house, all but flying as he raced toward the hellhole that had been the smithy. The youkai had destroyed it while he had been otherwise occupied by his imminent victory. Now the once-proud building was little more than rubble and flames. Furious, he had to hope that the piece of the jewel had not been inside when the place went up in flames.
The Shikon jewel had been burned with Kikyou’s body and had disappeared for fifty years, reduced to ash and scattered on the winds. His lifespan had no limits and he could easily afford to wait another fifty years if he had to, but the possibility sparked fury beyond bounds. He could not accept that his carefully wrought plans could crumble so easily.
One of the slayers had retrieved a piece of the Shikon jewel; of that he was certain. Yet somehow that piece had been spirited away from the village of the slayers before he could lay claim to it. His fury grew more intense. Had someone, somehow, had warning that he was coming? Was it possible that someone had realized the danger and moved the jewel to a hidden, safer location?
If the slayers had hidden it… then they could tell him where it was.
He turned on his captive slayers. “Where is it?” he demanded, heedless of the fact that he was shouting in his rage. There was no one left alive to hear, anyway. “Where is the piece of the Shikon no Tama that the slayer girl brought here? What have you done with it?”
None of the slayers would answer him. He supposed it was possible that they could not answer him, that the power that had resurrected them and placed them under his command had not restored their conscious memories or their ability to speak, but he was not in a generous mood.
“Tell me!” he raged.
No one answered.
Dusk descended upon the smoking ruin of what had once been a thriving village of youkai taiji-ya. Naraku, still watching through his puppet’s eyes, couldn’t help but feel that the destruction was an improvement.
The youkai horde had long since departed, leaving the village to Naraku and his seven slayers.
And the dead. Couldn’t forget about them. Scattered about the town, they were all that remained of what might have been a dangerous foe.
Or almost all.
The leader of his slayers had said something back at Hitomi Castle. Something about bringing the best fighters available to kill the tsuchigumo.
Naraku sought Iwao where he stood flanked by the other six slayers. “Is this everyone?” he asked. “Are all of the youkai killers dead now?”
The man did not react. It was infuriating, this inability to get answers out of his toys. Some part of their previous selves still remained, or they would not be able to fight as they did. Yet he could not reach their memories. At least not by asking.
Perhaps there were other ways.
“Which one is Sango?” he asked. If she was here, then the others who had not been available to become his slaves might also have returned to meet their doom. “Show me your daughter.”
Iwao gave the slightest shake of his head. Almost, Naraku thought he saw defiance flickering in those dark, empty eyes, but the sensation faded. Perhaps it had been nothing more than his imagination.
“Sango is not here?”
A small nod. As if Iwao did not wish to divulge this information, but the power of wara ningyou forced him to obey.
Regardless of whether some part of Iwao had survived his enslavement, his answers indicated that his daughter was not here and had not fallen with the rest of the village. At least one slayer still remained beyond Naraku’s reach. Where one had survived, there were likely to be more. And that must be rectified.
He stepped away from Iwao to address all seven of his fighters at once.
“Find the rest of the slayers,” he ordered, “and kill them.”
After several days on the road with Miroku, Sango was beginning to rethink her life choices. When she’d been exhausted and suffering the effects of a blow to the head, and when she also might have been just a little bit awed by the fact that he’d quite recently and dramatically saved her life, it had seemed only natural to give the monk a second chance.
And, in fact, those first few days had not been unpleasant. Miroku was a talented storyteller, even if she didn’t believe half of what he told her about his past exploits, and he listened attentively when she shared tales of her own. Hers at least were true, mostly taken from her training days or her early missions as a youkai taiji-ya still learning her craft. They were neither of them willing to share anything that was too personal, but at least swapping stories made the journey go by faster.
She wasn’t entirely sure what she had expected, only that she had harbored some vague sense that he would somehow try to swindle her out of her pieces of the Shikon jewel. Yet if that was his intention, the attempt never came.
But none of that mattered now. After this morning she was giving serious consideration to tossing him in the nearest river.
“Sango!” he called, a vain attempt to make himself heard past her anger.
She ignored him and kept walking.
“Sango,” he tried again, really pleading this time.
She stopped walking long enough to glare at him over her shoulder.
Now that he finally had her attention, he attempted to explain. “The curse isn’t just the kazaana. That hand has a mind of its own!”
Sango took a deep breath to keep her temper in check, then turned and kept walking.
The monk sighed and fell into step behind her. He must have realized by now that she wasn’t going to stop him from following no matter how irritating he chose to be. She had given her word about letting him plead his case in the village and she meant to keep it. Even if doing so strained her temper to the breaking point.
It helped considerably that they were almost back to the village now. If she had been traveling alone, she would have pushed on into the night and probably arrived sometime after midnight. Since she wouldn’t put it past the monk to trip and break his neck on the unfamiliar path to the village, she’d decided to stop early and camp in the open one last night. She’d also found the monk’s hand on her bottom while she prepared their breakfast.
The worst part was he’d been a perfectly agreeable traveling companion up until that point. She’d even begun to enjoy their conversations as the days went by, and to think that perhaps she might find a new friend in this man who had once been her quarry. And so it had felt like betrayal to find his hand on her like that. It still hurt, and if his protests were even remotely to be believed he either did not know what he had done wrong or felt he was not responsible for his own actions.
It made her want to shout at him from sheer frustration or storm off in a huff, but she was bound by her promise. Miroku might be a liar and a thief and a womanizer, but Sango was a woman of dignity and integrity and she intended to demonstrate that beyond a shadow of a doubt. The monk might even learn something from the experience. Or so she could at least hope.
Her anger had begun to cool by the time they left the main path to follow the hidden track that would take them to her village. The familiar landmarks and the thought of home made the anger and annoyance much easier to bear. Soon she would be home. She wasn’t sure what would happen then, but she had some vague hope that the presence of her father and the other slayers would suffice to keep the monk in line.
Without her anger clouding her judgment, she wondered once again whether she had made the right choice in bringing Miroku back to the village with her. There was always a chance that she had misjudged him yet again, and that he was just waiting for a chance to steal all of the recovered pieces of the jewel. Or worse. She didn’t think he would try such a stunt again, but had to admit it was possible. He might turn out to be that hard-headed.
She supposed it was a moot point now that they were almost back to the village and, given enough time, he could probably find his way there on his own. She would just have to be vigilant and make sure he didn’t make too much trouble for her village.
The thought of trouble lingered with her, as if it had caught in her mind and had no choice but to stay there. Something of this ominous feeling must have showed in her face because the monk, now walking more or less beside her as the path allowed, took notice.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
She couldn’t have explained it even if she tried, and shook her head instead of answering. It was almost like the eerie, barely-felt sensation of an especially elusive youkai’s aura. She tried to dismiss it as merely her imagination, that her mind was inventing paranoid stories because treachery seemed to follow wherever the monk went, but it always returned as soon as she convinced herself it was all in her head. And that sense of foreboding only grew stronger as they drew closer to the village.
As they walked, she found herself paying less and less attention to the monk and what he was saying, and spending most of her time looking for signs that might explain her feelings of unease. Watching through the breaks in the trees, she began to put together the pieces that had been puzzling her.
Where was the smoke from the hearth fires, from the forge? She ought to be able to see the dark plumes against the sky by now—they were almost at the village gates. The familiar scent of home and its surrounding forest had gone somehow sour, like food beginning to rot. Her heart seemed to freeze in her chest. Forgetting both the monk and her dignity, Sango raced up the path at top speed. Something was wrong. She wasn’t sure yet exactly what it was, but she knew it in the core of her being: something was terribly wrong.
For a moment as she crested the hill it seemed that she’d been wrong. Everything was fine, the village was exactly as she’d left it days ago. Of course it was. She should have known better than to let fears get the better of her.
And then she realized that the gates stood open and unguarded. No one to beckon and shout a welcome, or to let the rest of the village know she’d returned. There were no fires to send thin plumes of smoke over the wall. A strange scent thickened the air, like ash and dirt and… blood.
Fear and fury shrieked their way past her lips; she cast caution aside and ran through the gate and into the village, her hiraikotsu at the ready.
The wreckage was absolute. Not a single building remained standing. Worse, the streets were littered with bodies that had been left where they fell. Youkai bodies and all too familiar human ones.
She couldn’t stop her feet from carrying her forward. Her eyes flitted from one corpse to another, unable to focus on anything for more than a moment or two before the next horror demanded her attention. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see past the anguish of seeing her home in ruins. And the bodies. So many bodies. So many dead. Had anyone survived the destruction?
Without having consciously decided to go there, she found herself standing in front of the pile of rubble that had once been her family’s home. Of Kohaku and her father, there was no sign. Had they been buried when the building collapsed? Or were they among the dead elsewhere, killed trying to defend their friends and their village?
She wanted to scream out her sorrow and pain, wanted to find whoever or whatever was responsible for this and put an end to them, though she had no idea where to even start looking. In the end she simply fell to her knees in shock and bowed her head beneath the weight of her grief.
From the moment she encountered Onigumo, or his disembodied spirit, Kikyou knew that she could no longer delay in her search for the Shikon no Tama. Onigumo had lusted after the jewel during her first life. She had no doubt that he still desired its power even now. Perhaps he desired it even more now that he had transcended death itself.
Loathe though she was to accept the destiny that had been forced upon her once more, she knew that Onigumo must not possess the jewel. Especially now that he was most likely no longer mortal. If she could prevent him from acquiring it, then she must.
With this thought foremost in her mind she had done what she could for the wounded soldiers and then slipped away under cover of darkness. She had been walking ever since. This time she took care to avoid people when she encountered them, which sometimes forced her to travel cross-country rather than following the roads. But since her revived body never seemed to tire and did not require food or water, this was not a major challenge for her.
In the solitude of the countryside, with only trees and wild animals to see, she could seethe. She did not need to hide behind a mask of calm serenity, but could let her face twist into expressions of her anger. Even better, Onigumo gave her a convenient target for her rage. The witch that had revived her and tasked her with finding the Shikon jewel might be dead, but Onigumo yet lived… if it could be called living.
If, as she suspected, he had indeed sold his soul and become a youkai, that would make him a much more formidable foe than he had been when he was merely a crippled thief living out his last days of misery. A part of her hoped for the opportunity to put an arrow through his heart. Perhaps that might help dispel the anger that continually threatened to consume her.
The thought buoyed her, when everything else threatened to drag her down and drown her.
She honed her sense of the jewel as she walked, often closing her eyes to better visualize the signal of its power. As the witch Urasue had believed, it seemed to be in many pieces, and some of those must be larger than others because the jewel’s aura emanated much more strongly from those pieces than the others. She would need a careful attunement in order to find all of the scattered pieces.
As she tried to sense the jewel as deeply as possible, she found she could even get a sense of how tainted or purified each of the disparate pieces was. Without someone working constantly to purify it, she knew from painful experience, the jewel would slowly become tainted over time until its power was entirely overtaken by evil. For now, most of the smaller pieces felt relatively free of taint. The larger pieces, however…
Was it her imagination, or had the largest of the fragments started to become rapidly more tainted? It felt almost as if some evil force were steadily corrupting that part of the jewel, so swiftly that she could feel it growing more and more tainted with each passing minute. She had a feeling she knew what—or who—was responsible for that corruption, and wondered if he realized she could track him that way.
She hoped not.
She wanted it to be a surprise when she appeared at his hiding place and purified him out of existence once and for all.
“Sango!” Miroku called after her as she took off running, but it was no more use than it had been all day. At first he stood where he was and sighed at his own misfortune, thinking she was finally fed up and simply wanted away from him. But the more he thought about it, the less certain he was of that conclusion. She had put up with his foolishness all morning without complaint. Of course, she had threatened to deprive him of his hand if he ever did anything inappropriate with it again, and had proceeded not to speak to him for the rest of the morning, but her sudden departure made him wonder if he ought to be alarmed.
Wishing that the path were at least a little less steep and winding, he grudgingly resumed his trek. He had been walking for several minutes when a strangled cry echoed down from the hilltop.
He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he did. That anguished sound had come from Sango.
He shouted her name, even knowing that she was unlikely to respond from this distance, and picked up the pace. He was huffing and puffing by the time he reached the top, but he didn’t slow at all as he raced past the conspicuously unguarded gate and into the carnage beyond. The village had been obliterated during his absence, its buildings reduced to rubble and its people slain in the streets despite their armor and weapons.
For a horrible moment he was eight years old again, experiencing this kind of crushing devastation for the first time as he watched the kazaana consume his father. He shook off the painful memories that threatened to overwhelm him—now was not the time to revisit the worst day of his life—and went in search of Sango.
He found her outside what had once been her family’s home, on her knees and in shock.
“Sango,” he tried. She either did not hear or chose to ignore him. Even when he rested his hand on her shoulder, she did not respond. After this morning, he’d expected that to get some kind of reaction. “We should look for survivors.”
Based on the number of bodies he’d seen so far, he didn’t hold out much hope of actually finding anyone alive. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to destroy any last shreds of hope Sango might have to cling to. He waited with her a long time, silent, his hand on her shoulder. She showed no willingness to stir, not even at the prospect of looking for anyone that might have escaped the destruction. In the end he left her where she was and went to search on his own. She wasn’t likely to go anywhere while he was busy, anyway.
The village of the taiji-ya was not large, just one main street and a few cross-paths along which most of the homes and other buildings were arranged. Those buildings were now in appalling condition, little more than heaps of burned rubble. It looked as if special care had been taken to destroy a large and especially sooty building that might have once been the village forge, though he couldn’t begin to guess why. Revenge, perhaps, if that was where their artisans turned the salvaged parts of dead youkai into weapons and armor for their own use.
The people were in even worse shape than the buildings. The scent of death hung heavy in the air, permeating the entire village. Even though it appeared that all the villagers had succumbed in the end, they had accounted well for themselves: not all of the bodies were human.
Miroku’s search very quickly became not for survivors, but for some idea of who might have been killed in the attack and who might have escaped. Most of the dead were unknown to him, and this would be their only encounter. Their deaths were a tragic waste, but did not strike him to the core the way they had Sango. He had no idea who these people were, much less how they might be related to Sango or her family. They were just so many faces, so many lifeless bodies left in the wake of whatever calamity had struck here, so many lives pointlessly cut short by this twist of fate.
His trepidation grew each time he failed to find a familiar face among the dead. It would only be a matter of time before he finally found one of the few taiji-ya he recognized. And once he had confirmed their deaths, he would have to take that information back to Sango. He had no desire whatsoever to tell her that her father was dead, or her friends.
And then there was the matter of Kohaku. He had left the village on a secret mission just before Miroku took his leave. Had the boy returned before the destruction? Or was he still out there somewhere?
Miroku couldn’t face Sango again until he knew.
When he had exhausted the village’s few streets, he found himself heading back toward the house where Sango had lived with her family. Adjacent to the house was a large open space that he guessed had once served as a practice field—he imagined it was here that Sango had first learned to throw that boomerang of hers, but put that thought away for another time. Whatever it had been before, now it was a killing field, strewn with the dead. From a distance it seemed that most of the villagers had actually died here, rather than in or near their homes. As if they’d been herded to the slaughter.
He approached and began again his unpleasant task, turning over bodies to see if he could identify any of the fallen. As before, most were strangers to him. He hesitated when he came to two clearly female bodies, clad in all too familiar clothes, lying back to back as if they had died protecting each other to the bitter end. Steeling himself, he stepped closer to investigate.
It was as he had feared: the two bodies had until recently belonged to the flirtatious Kasumi and her lovely but far more suspicious sister Kaori. It hurt more than he had thought it would, to know that the two of them had been killed. They lay where they had fallen, the earth darkened where their blood had pooled around them, their weapons still in their hands.
He realized suddenly what had been nagging at him all this time. While some of the bodies he’d found were youkai, none of the villagers so far looked to have been killed by youkai. The people in the village proper had been killed by what looked like sword slashes and spear thrusts. In contrast, Kaori and Kasumi looked as if they’d been rended by teeth and claws.
The weapons of men and the weapons of youkai, working together for the same ends…
He did not like the thought of that.
The rest of the bodies in that clearing were much the same, bodies torn open by teeth and claws, jagged and gaping wounds that would never heal. And none of them were Sango’s father or brother. Her family had not died here.
Only when he was absolutely sure did he head back to where he had left Sango.
As he skirted his way along the edge of the field, Miroku couldn’t help but wonder just how long ago this tragedy had occurred. Long enough that he and Sango had seen no sign of the perpetrators as they returned, but not long enough for the corpses to become disfigured with rot, either.
The timing was lucky. If he’d lingered a few days more trying to earn the slayers’ trust before making his attempt at the jewel, he might now be among the dead. Sango, too.
Though to look at her now, she might as well be dead. She hadn’t moved from where he left her, and sat now forlornly in the deep shadows of late afternoon. He could only imagine how she must feel, returning home to find that her home was utterly gone and could never be restored. Suddenly he wondered just how much solace it would be to know that he hadn’t found her father or brother among the dead. Their absence was no guarantee they were alive, after all. Perhaps the perpetrators had taken prisoners. Perhaps they had simply been outside of the village and would soon return.
The only person who could help him unravel the mystery of what had happened here—and who might have survived and where they might be—was Sango.
He took a moment to prepare himself for whatever might come, and approached her. As gently and unobtrusively as possible, he began, “Sango.”
At first he didn’t think she would respond, but after a moment she turned her head to glare at him, her dark eyes filled with anger and pain. Still she would not speak to him, but he did not think the anger in those eyes was entirely directed at him. At least, he hoped it wasn’t.
It was hard to keep going with her staring at him like that, but he persevered. “Your father and brother are not here,” he told her, hoping that getting straight to the point would alleviate her pain at least a little. “I know that doesn’t mean that they’ve survived… but they weren’t killed here. I thought you would want to know.”
Sango slowly turned to face him, and he realized that she held her left fist clenched in front of her chest.
Never before had he felt so conflicted between wanting desperately to comfort a woman in pain… and wanting to run away from her as fast as his legs would carry him. For a moment he hesitated, not sure how to comfort Sango, not sure if he even could comfort someone like her in a situation like this. Before his thoughts could fully run away with him, she spoke.
“What do you care?” she asked. Her voice had lost its fire, becoming dull and flat. “You’re just here for these, anyway,” she went on, opening her hand to reveal the pieces of the Shikon no Tama they had collected from the wolves and the birds of paradise. She held them up, offering. “Just take them and go away.”
He was tempted. He was entirely too tempted, but he couldn’t do it. Instead he walked toward her, reaching out, but only to fold her fingers back over the shining pieces.
“Not today,” he said gently.
She clearly was not happy with this answer, or perhaps her displeasure stemmed from the fact that he still held her hand in his. He let her go. It didn’t seem to improve her mood.
“There’s nothing for you here, monk.”
“Maybe not.” He settled himself beside her, taking a moment to mentally prepare for what was likely to be a very long night. “I’ll stay anyway, at least for tonight.”
“If you must,” she grumbled.
I must, though he couldn’t have said why he felt that way and did not say it out loud. A lifetime of carefully honed selfish instincts told him that now was definitely the time to leave this place of death and destruction, and that if Sango wanted to stay, well, he didn’t owe anything more to this woman he’d just met. She’d even offered him their pieces of the jewel. Something must be terribly wrong with him that he hadn’t taken them and done exactly as Sango suggested. He could be free and clear with exactly what he’d wanted…
Instead he busied himself with building a fire and cooking dinner for the two of them from the last of their travel supplies, and tried not to think too hard about what he was doing or why. Sango accepted her portion of dinner without a word. She had apparently hidden away the pieces of the Shikon jewel again while he worked, for he saw no sign of them now. They ate in uncomfortable silence and he cleaned up after their dinner in equally uncomfortable silence.
Miroku wondered if Sango’s continued silence was a good sign. He couldn’t tell what she might be thinking or what she might do next, or how she might lash out. He had not failed to notice that, if not for his thievery, she would likely have been here to die with her people. It was only a matter of time before she came to the same realization, if she had not done so already.
He was not overly accustomed to nighttime vigils, but sleep eluded him. Sango, too, remained awake. She did not move away when he sat next to her after dinner, and stayed there while she stared into the small fire he’d built. Miroku watched her when he could, or when he thought he could get away with it without attracting her attention. Or her ire. She was willing to tolerate his presence, but he wasn’t sure she would be as willing to tolerate his concern.
They were lucky that night. The weather remained clear and relatively comfortable all the way through so at least they avoided having to find shelter somewhere among the ruins.
With the dawn, Sango seemed to emerge from her grief, just a little. “You said you didn’t find my father or, or Kohaku,” she began. Her voice was rougher than usual, harsh. “Was it true?”
She thought he’d lied to spare her feelings. Something that might have been his conscience stabbed at a tender spot deep inside him. He had told her lies aplenty from the moment they met, but it hurt that she thought he might lie about this. “If they are here, I did not find them. And I was very thorough,” he told her. “But you may search yourself if you do not believe me. You may know of places here that I didn’t know about or think to look.”
She nodded, a tight, grim thing. “And what will you do now? Do you still plan to leave today?”
“No.” She didn’t ask for clarification, and even he didn’t realize what he intended until he spoke the words. “Today I must see to the dead.”
He was not sure such a proposition would be welcome, did not know if the Buddha’s rituals would be allowed in this place. Certainly, Sango had made no mention of rites for the fallen.
She bowed her head. It took him a moment to realize that she was quivering, and that those were tears streaking down her cheeks to drip onto her lap. He’d been waiting for this, fearing that it might not come as much as he feared that it might. At long last, Sango wept. Her voice trembling, she said only, “Thank you.”
A part of him wanted to comfort her the same way he had always treated grieving women who were utterly alone in the world, with caresses and murmured words of comfort that turned to desire… but his heart wasn’t in it. As it turned out, even he wasn’t sleazy enough for that. He’d given considerable thought to the possible merits of seducing Sango during their days on the road, of course, but that had been before he saw what had become of her home. Sango deserved better than a cheap seduction when she was at her most vulnerable.
Somehow her words of gratitude, spoken so genuinely, meant more to him than those same words uttered by anyone else he’d ever met. However much the idea horrified him, he wanted to be worthy of that gratitude.
He excused himself before he could inadvertently commit himself to any tasks more monumental than the one he’d just voluntarily undertaken, and left Sango to do her crying in relative privacy. He hoped she would appreciate the gesture.
It took him a long time and a lot of searching to find a workable shovel, and then even more searching to find a place that might serve as a suitable burial ground. Once that was finally accomplished, he set to work. He’d held out some faint hope that Sango might join him once she had worked through her tears, but there was no sign of her. Perhaps she’d taken his advice and gone to see for herself if her family had been slain.
At any rate, if Sango was not up to the task of burying the dead, that left only Miroku. He might not like it very much, but it was now clear as crystal: he couldn’t just leave these people where they’d fallen, unacknowledged, the funeral rites undone. Much like Sango, they were remarkable people, or they had been. Their deaths were a tragedy, one that would slowly affect much of the surrounding area. What would happen to the people of the small nearby villages without their youkai taiji-ya to help them when problems arose? Who else would be willing to help, and would accept the meager payments they could manage?
He paused, not liking but unable to overcome the sudden intense feeling of obligation that had come over him. What was happening to him? Without even any particular effort on their parts, Sango and her people were inflicting dramatic, almost alarming, changes upon him.
Despite his reasons for seeking them out, the people of this village had been kind to him. Sango had brought him here, her father and brother had welcomed him into their home in spite of her misgivings. And there had been the lovely sisters, Kaori and Kasumi…
He might not know most of them, but he did know that these people deserved better than he could offer them. But there was no one else. Only him. He was only one man. He could only do so much, and it wouldn’t be long before the bodies were no longer in any condition to be moved, much less laid to rest. They deserved better by far, but a mass grave and heartfelt words would have to do.
He dug into the task before him. It was hard work, and it wasn’t long before he truly regretted his commitment, but he kept going anyway. He began to wish that it had rained during the night, if only to soften the earth for him. But he kept at it and slowly, painfully slowly, the grave began to take shape.
It was nearing midday when Sango said, “You were right. Kohaku and my father are not here.”
Miroku, sweltering in the sun and soaked in his own sweat as he endlessly shoveled dirt, hadn’t heard her approach. Nevertheless, he was grateful for any excuse to take a break. “I’m glad.”
Her expression was somber when he turned to look at her. “You said it yourself. That doesn’t mean they’re alive. They may have been taken prisoner, or…” She trailed off, shaking her head.
“True,” he agreed. “But it is reason to hope.”
“That’s the thing,” she told him. “I’m not sure what to think. There are… A number of the youkai taiji-ya are missing. And yet Yuuto is here, and I would not expect him back for a while yet. Unless he found something in his travels that led him back here ahead of schedule.”
Miroku mulled that over but wasn’t sure what to make of it. It occurred to him to ask, “How many other slayers might still be out there? Your brother was sent on a mission. Were there others doing the same?”
“There are always slayers outside the village,” she explained. “Some of them are on specific missions, like my brother. Others are just sent to wander in search of troublesome youkai. That’s how I found out about the centipede the day we met. Isamu heard about the youkai, but he knew better than to take it on himself, so he came back to get me.” She frowned. “Isamu should be here. His wandering would have been done for a while, since he was already here. But he’s not.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Not exactly, but it raises questions.”
He didn’t follow, and said so.
“Father is gone. Isamu is gone, too. And so are Hoshiko, Noriko, Tadashi, Seiichi, and Daisuke. They should all be here, but as far as I can tell, they’re not.” Her voice had gone hard. Looking at her, he guessed she was barely managing to contain her grief. “Our best warriors were not here when the village fell.”
Suddenly he followed all too well. “That’s quite the coincidence.”
“I’m not sure it was a coincidence.”
Was that just her grief talking, wanting to find a conspiracy that would lead her to someone she could blame for this tragedy? Or was she right, and it was too much of a coincidence that the village’s best fighters had been conveniently missing when the youkai hordes—or whatever or whoever had done this—had arrived to lay waste to the village?
She cut him off. “I’m also not sure it’s a coincidence that this happened just days after I brought a piece of the Shikon no Tama to the village.”
“You think someone might have been after that piece of the jewel? Who could have known you had it, or that you’d brought it here?” She’d told the people of that village after she killed their centipede, but that had been a small village of modest means. He couldn’t imagine any of the people there being capable of this kind of destruction. And why bother, when they had only to take the prize from a single slayer in their own village?
“I don’t know,” Sango admitted, finally softening. “But the timing is… strange.”
He had to agree. “If that’s the case, what is our next step?”
If his use of the plural surprised her, she did not let it show. “It follows that more pieces of the jewel might bring more danger,” she said. “If you’re going to stick around, we’ll need to be on guard.”
“So you’ll stay?” she asked.
“You want to wait here,” he observed. “For what, exactly? And for how long? We don’t exactly have an abundance of supplies.”
“I don’t know where Father and the other fighters might have gone,” she murmured. “But I know that Kohaku and the other itinerants will return here. And there’s always a chance that Father and the others will return, too. What else can I do but wait?”
As much as he wanted to, Miroku chose not to argue. Not yet. Because there was a chance that Sango was right. But if there was still no sign of the missing slayers in a few more days, he would have to push harder. If someone else was also actively seeking pieces of the Shikon jewel, and that person was capable of masterminding the destruction of this village, then he and Sango needed to make sure they got to the pieces before their rival… whoever that rival was.
Naraku, in the form of his latest puppet, followed in the wake of his seven slayers. He had given their leader an order and now all that remained to be seen was how—and how well—that order would be carried out. Despite his long years of experimentation with magic, much of this was entirely new to him. Never before had he taken such close control of something that had died, and so he had no idea just what his new slaves might be capable of accomplishing. They had retained their fighting abilities, as they had so ably demonstrated in the streets of their village. But could they follow orders that relied more heavily upon their memories from life? Would they be able to find the remaining slayers he had ordered them to kill? Or would they simply wander at random and hope to find their prey?
He was still uncertain about that. The slayers had followed their leader, heading unerringly in a single direction and deviating only when a major obstacle forced them to go around. Yet, since they did not speak even when commanded to do so, he could not be sure whether they had struck out at random or were deliberately traveling this way in order to intercept one of their wandering fellows.
The sight seemed to unnerve the few humans they passed, none of whom had probably ever even thought to see a battle-ready youkai taiji-ya, much less an entire group of them. These people backed away slowly and stared as the strange procession passed them by. No doubt they would take stories back to wherever they were going. Naraku made a mental note to tell his slaves to move more stealthily the next time he sent them out on a task. Better not to attract so much attention.
They traveled for days this way. Tireless. Unrelenting. Had he been human or susceptible to exhaustion, they would have left him behind.
Driven by his command and the power of the Shikon no Tama, they were the perfect servants.
On the third day, they encountered their prey.
The man didn’t look like a youkai taiji-ya. He didn’t look like anything, really. Just an ordinary man of more or less modest means, without even a visible weapon. While Naraku’s slayers had come to him fully armored and ready to do battle with the tsuchigumo, there was no sign of armor on this man.
From his place behind the line of slayers, Naraku watched as his slayers descended upon the man. His face betrayed his emotions: surprise, followed swiftly by confusion, both of them swallowed up by fear. He took a step back, reaching for something in his sleeve. A hidden weapon, probably.
“Iwao-sama,” he began, confirming that he must at least be familiar with the slayers, “what’s going on? Why are you all here? Why like this?”
What must he be feeling, seeing his former companions rise up out of the darkness in their armor with their weapons drawn and ready? What must he think of their ominous silence, the cold stare of their empty eyes? The thoughts roused a thrill deep inside Naraku, a gleeful anticipation he hadn’t expected. It seemed he would never tire of this magic and the destruction he could wreak with it.
Of course, Iwao could not answer the man’s questions. None of the slayers could. Only Naraku could do that, and he chose not to. He was enjoying the man’s fear too much for that.
Kill him, he thought. Kill this man who was once one of you. Make him suffer before he dies.
But he did not say it out loud, wanting to see what his slaves would come up with on their own. He needed to see this, needed to know how his slayers would perform and if they required input from him before he could send his puppet away to deal with more important matters.
Iwao reached for his spear.
The other slayer took another step back. “Iwao-sama, I don’t want to fight you!” he proclaimed. “But I don’t want to die, either. Please, tell me what’s going on!”
Naraku’s slayers reached for their weapons, as well. As they moved slowly forward, the other slayer leaped backward and flung a wickedly curved knife from its hiding place within his sleeve. Naraku thought him a fool at first, throwing away what was probably his only weapon when he faced not one but eight foes, but the knife was attached to a length of fine rope which allowed him to quickly retrieve it after each strike.
He would be hard-pressed to take down seven of his fellows with such a small knife in any case, but he was willing to give it a shot. Unfortunately for him, Naraku’s slayers had no fear of taking injuries. The slash of his knife did little to deter them. He changed tactics, trying to snare them using a weight that was attached to the end of the rope opposite the knife. This slowed them down a bit, Naraku observed, but it was not nearly enough to stop them.
One of the women, whichever one it was that used the little throwing knives, put one of her blades into the man’s arm. Immediately the limb went limp, as if he’d lost all sensation in it. A nice shot, Naraku thought, finally finding a reason to appreciate his female slayers.
It was all over then. The man must have known he had no hope at all of victory now, but he fought until the bitter end, peppering Naraku and his slayers with questions and pleas for mercy until the moment a spear pierced his heart.
Standing over the man as he bled out onto the road, Naraku felt almost sad. If only he had another piece of the Shikon no Tama to spare, he could have healed this man’s wounds and turned him into another slave. Seven slayers were a delightful weapon to wield, but imagine what he could do with an army of them… A missed opportunity, certainly. And a shame that he would lose even his seven when the time came to rebuild the Shikon jewel, though perhaps with its power he might be able to control them even without the direct application of pieces of the jewel.
Still, he considered this mission a success. His slayers had done exactly as he ordered them to, without question and without any visible resistance. They had made no attempt to warn their prey and had not held back when it came time to kill him. Naraku could not have been more pleased with their performance.
Even so, he waited until he was absolutely certain the man was dead before moving on. He hadn’t gone far when a thought stopped him. This slayer was a man, and could not be the elusive Sango. Naraku retraced his steps and, standing in front of his slayers, observed Iwao’s face. He searched for any sign that the man had deliberately avoided leading the group to his daughter, and saw none. His face was as blank as the others’ as he waited for further instruction from Naraku.
“Was this the last of the slayers?” he asked.
Finally he caught a flicker of that old resistance in Iwao’s eyes, as if something from his former life still lived within him and fought Naraku’s control, but the man still shook his head obediently. No, there were still more slayers out there.
“Keep killing slayers until there are none left alive but you,” he told them. “Return to me when your duty is done or when I send one of the saimyoushou to fetch you.”
All seven slayers bowed their heads, in regret or submission… it was hard to tell. If he was lucky, it was perhaps a bit of both.
A vision came to him before he could say more, from one of the wasps he’d left in the forest outside the village of the slayers. A woman had raced up the path to the village, her face a mask of worry and fear. She had long brown hair and wore a pink kosode, and might have been anyone. She might even have been Iwao’s wayward daughter, Sango.
Keep an eye on that one, he sent to the wasp, but the vision continued.
Shortly after the woman, a Buddhist monk followed up the path. Naraku found himself snarling with rage. He hated all humans with a consuming passion, but reserved a special loathing for men who claimed to follow the Buddha’s path.
There had been no temple in the village of the slayers and no sign of any monks living there. Was this man, then, a stranger? Or perhaps a wanderer who regularly passed through the village? But, wait. The man’s right hand was covered by a gauntlet and wrapped by prayer beads. This was a turn of events that demanded a closer examination.
That man did indeed look familiar. A long time ago, Naraku had cursed a particularly uppity monk by placing an air void into the man’s hand. The air void could only be contained through the power of prayer beads—only some quick thinking and luck had saved that monk from being instantly consumed by its power. Unfortunately for him, the curse was designed to grow more powerful over time, and could be passed from generation to generation.
Could the monk he saw now, with his hand conspicuously wrapped by beads, be some distant relation of that same cursed monk? Oh, how he hoped so.
Keep an eye on that one, too, he decided. Alert me immediately if they attempt to leave the village.
As always, there was no sense of the wasp’s response, but by now he trusted that the saimyoushou would do his bidding as best as their limited intelligence allowed.
And in the meantime, his path now was clear. He would send his slayers on their quest while he returned to the ruined village of the slayers to see what he might find there.
Even with Sango’s help, burying and praying for the dead took several exhausting days and left Miroku feeling wrung out as he had seldom felt before. He wasn’t used to putting that much effort into anything, especially not something that took such an emotional toll. He preferred to find the path of least resistance and follow that. It wasn’t like him to willingly do something like this. But something about Sango and her people, something about the earnest and straightforward way they went about everything they did—or had done—had made him start to want to be more like them, rather than to take advantage of them. Or what was left of them.
Already he missed the Sango he’d first met, what seemed like half a lifetime ago although in truth it had only been a few days. The charming, smiling woman that killed the centipede had disappeared as if she never existed, or as if she’d been replaced by someone darker, angrier… more brittle.
She rebuffed his every attempt at comfort, or at cheering her up. Instead, she focused single-mindedly on seeing her fellows properly interred, and stood in stern silence while he spoke the prayers and performed the death rites for each and every one of the slain in turn.
There would be no singular graves for the villagers, no individual markers where offerings might be left, but Miroku supposed that didn’t really matter when there was no one left to leave offerings but Sango. And maybe a wandering monk who had to all appearances suddenly and unexpectedly developed a conscience, and who might one day pass this way again. Even if she had bothered to ask, he couldn’t have explained why he was so sure that no one but Sango had survived the village, but each day that passed with no sign of her brother and Kirara only made him more certain of it. Given that he had the help of a flying nekomata, it seemed that the boy really ought to be back by now. And yet he had not returned.
If I had been here, he thought several times in the course of those long and exhausting days, maybe these people would still be alive. He could have used the kazaana’s power to at least stop the youkai attackers. It might have killed him, but better him than an entire village—a thought that shocked him to the core, having spent much of his life seeking an end to the curse that would prematurely kill him. The slayers might even have remembered him as a hero for such a sacrifice, and wouldn’t that have been something to stick to his father and grandfather in whatever hell awaited him beyond the kazaana’s malice.
The very idea should have made him want to laugh, he who had never in his life wanted to be a hero, but it didn’t. He refused to think too hard about that. Nothing good could come of it.
After the last of the bodies had been laid to rest and the dirt heaped back on top, he paused to offer one last prayer for the souls of the people who had died here. He had to hope that would be enough, because there was nothing else he could offer them. Thus far he and Sango had managed to scrounge enough food to get by from the ruined houses, but he knew it wouldn’t be long before they ran out of food entirely. Exposed to the elements, what little sustenance was reachable beneath the piles of rubble would soon be rotten beyond eating. The simple fact of the matter was they couldn’t stay here much longer even if they wanted to. If they did, they’d starve.
But Sango still wouldn’t hear about leaving, even temporarily. Every time he tried to broach the subject with her, she simply ignored him as if she hadn’t heard a word he said. He was beginning to think that he would have to leave the village in search of food if he didn’t want to starve to death. And yet he already knew that, if he left, he’d be back unless he could convince Sango to go with him. He didn’t much like that thought, either.
In the silence that followed his final prayer, Sango said only, “Thank you.”
“It was the least I could do,” he demurred. And it was. A better man probably would have found a better way to memorialize those who had been lost. Or would have leaped headfirst into finding out who or what was responsible so he could avenge the fallen. Miroku didn’t have it in him to do either of those things.
“Still,” she went on, “I’m grateful.”
Well-honed instincts told him this was the time to make a move, to embrace her while she was vulnerable and grateful and would be putty in his hands. With no one else to turn to, it likely wouldn’t take long to get her to give up her pieces of the Shikon jewel. Exercising great restraint, he held himself back. In fact, a significant part of him felt disgusted for even considering such things here, beside the grave of so many people she had known and loved.
The rest of him was simply disgusted that he hadn’t taken the jewel pieces and run when she first gave him the chance, and that he wasn’t already on his way out of here now that he’d done his duty. Nothing good could come of any of this.
Yet he stayed where he was and offered another silent prayer to the dead.
Following the pull of the Shikon no Tama, Kikyou made her way along a path that led through deep forest toward mountain foothills. She almost liked this place; it was quiet and remote. She hadn’t seen another human being in more than a full day. No pretenses, and few worries.
Yet as she drew nearer to the jewel, the old feelings of unease and frustration began to creep back in. Beyond her certainty that a piece of the jewel was now quite close, she did not know what she was going to find when she reached her goal. She might find an isolated cave where Onigumo had made his lair—he’d certainly had an affinity for dark and hidden spaces during life—or she might find a small village, a prosperous town, a fortress, or anything, really. She disliked the uncertainty of it all, of not knowing whether she would be forced to pretend to be a living human again… not knowing whether she would unwittingly be the cause of more death.
There was nothing to be done but to face whatever lay ahead. Resolute and resigned, Kikyou followed a side-trail that headed in the direction where she sensed the jewel most strongly. This path twisted and wound its way up a large hill, and at first she thought it might not lead her where she wanted to go, but as she neared the top of the hill she knew it had not led her astray. The sound of insects had grown louder and louder, becoming an impossibly loud buzz. This sound she recognized, and sure enough, with a little searching she located the enormous wasp.
It perched on a branch overlooking the path. This was the second such creature she had come across recently, and it did not seem a coincidence. Had someone sent these insects to keep an eye on her?
The wasp remained where it was as she approached, apparently unafraid, and did not move even when she was close enough to touch it. She showed it the error of its ways: a single touch infused with holy power, and the thing crumbled to dust. This accomplished, she returned to the path and resumed her climb.
It wasn’t much longer before she reached the top. Someone had built a fort there, or at least thought to surround their village with a large timber wall. It was well built, with each of the logs that comprised the wall whittled to a deadly point on top. And yet the gates were incongruously left open and unguarded, and there was no sign of life from the village, no scent of cooking food or burning fires. No sounds of conversation reached her ears.
Perhaps the place was abandoned. Or perhaps something monstrous had made its home here and killed the original inhabitants. Either way, it was ideal for her enemy’s purposes.
Those wide open gates seemed to mock her; this could only be a trap, yet what choice did she have but to walk right into it?
She had to trust that she retained enough power yet to obliterate Onigumo where he stood, jewel or no jewel. With him disposed of, she would be that much closer to accomplishing what fate had wrought for her in this second life. Maybe then it would let her rest. This was a lot to hope for, and she ought to have known better than to let hope blind her, but she wanted desperately to believe that she might find a way to return to hell and peace.
With an end in sight, it was much easier to take the first step toward the looming gate and whatever awaited her beyond.
When all was said and done, Sango felt numb inside. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. All of this, all the death, all the destruction, it had to be a bad dream from which she would wake up at any moment to find herself in her bed, in her family’s home, just a room away from the comforting presence of her father and brother. She wasn’t sure if she wanted the monk to be a real visitor or just a figment of her imagination, but the mere thought of him carried her out of her daydreaming and back into cruel reality.
She sighed. Miroku glanced at her and offered a small smile, which she did not return. She was standing closer to him than she probably should, given his tendency toward wandering hands, but he had been on his best behavior ever since he saw what had become of her village and she felt she could trust him that far at least. He’d earned that much, and she hoped it might make him worry less.
He had buried the dead, and she truly believed he would have done it all himself if she had not been able to bring herself to help. More than that, he had seen to it that the souls of the dead were properly sent into the afterlife. She hadn’t expected any of that from one such as him. Nor had she expected to feel as if she now owed him not only for her own life, but for the souls of everyone who had died in her village and for the comfort he had tried, however unsuccessfully, to bring her.
This feeling of indebtedness to someone so immoral and capricious as Miroku did not sit well with her. She almost wished that the monk had left her here alone with the dead instead of suddenly deciding to show that he could do the right thing without any immediate threat to his own life or freedom. She would have been happier continuing to despise him for being callous and selfish. But he had been kind and compassionate instead and now she felt conflicted, not sure what to expect from him next. How long before he couldn’t contain the liar and the thief anymore, and returned to being the man she had first met?
Or, she thought dourly, how long before his curse supposedly exerted control over him again and caused him to touch her inappropriately and make insincere apologies afterward?
Although she recognized that she owed him some measure of gratitude, however begrudging, for what he had done for the dead and for her these past few days, her gratitude was soon dwarfed by the strength of her burgeoning resentment and disgust. And all the while the monk seemed content just to stand there beside her, close enough that she could punch him if she really wanted to, his head bowed as if he still silently prayed for the souls of the dead. She watched him from the corner of her eye as hatred bubbled up from some hidden place inside her to burn at her heart.
She had found the monk frustrating and even infuriating sometimes during the short time she’d known him, but she hadn’t realized she had it in her to hate him quite this thoroughly. She should have realized it sooner, perhaps as soon as their first meeting. If not that day, then at least the day they first returned to the village together. She’d told him to leave then, when he came to tell her he hadn’t found her family among the dead. His decision to stay had baffled and, suddenly, infuriated her. The fact that he was still here was impossible to understand. Even more confusing was the fact that she had allowed him to stay, despite hating him. He should have left a long time ago. What could she do to get him to leave?
It didn’t take her long to come up with a reason, almost as if it had been lurking there at the back of her mind all this time, just waiting for her to discover it.
“It’s strange, that this happened right after you came to the village for the first time,” she began, looking not at the grave in front of her, but at the monk.
He at least pretended to look surprised by the accusation that lay beneath her words. It would seem this was not how he thought she would break the silence. “What are you saying?” he asked, his tone guarded, neutral. He sounded as if he had something to hide.
Sango tried to keep her voice icy, turning each word into a barb. “Was it your demon that did this? Did you lead Naraku here when I brought you to the village? Is that who did this?” Her efforts were to no avail, by the end she was all but shouting at him.
The monk looked suddenly as if he might be sick. She glowered at him, seething with barely contained fury, as he struggled to find words. Finally, he told her, “If that’s the case, it wasn’t intentional.” She watched him hesitate, consumed by the horror her suggestion had wrought in him, and relished the pain he now felt as he confronted the possibility that this tragedy was all his fault. “Sango, I swear to you. I have never knowingly encountered Naraku, and even if I had, I would never have willingly led him here, knowing what was sure to happen.”
“Really?” she retorted. “You wouldn’t have led him here in the hopes that a village full of youkai taiji-ya would put an end to your problem for you?”
“It’s not like that! And—I don’t want to fight you,” he protested.
Her hands were clenched into fists so tight her nails dug into her palms. It took everything in her not to strangle him where he stood, she was that sure he was lying to her. It all fit so neatly: his determination to follow her home, lingering just long enough to know that his personal nightmare would draw close enough to strike, telling a sob story to garner sympathy and fleeing before he could get caught up in the damage. And then, of course, he’d arranged to follow her back after a safe period of time had passed, to see for himself that his curse was ended. Only it hadn’t worked out so neatly as he had planned, and she and her people were just collateral damage.
“It was too late for that a long time ago, monk,” she warned. “You should never have come here.”
“I’m beginning to think you’re right,” he murmured. “I never meant to hurt you. If this was somehow my fault, then—” He bit down on whatever he’d been about to say, whatever false promise he had intended to make.
The storm that had been threatening all morning finally broke, rain pouring down in torrents from a sky that echoed Sango’s own anger.
“Let’s not argue,” the monk proposed. “We should take shelter until the storm passes.” Lightning flashed, as if to emphasize the wisdom of his suggestion.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she snapped, her words punctuated by thunder. A couple of days ago, fearing their luck with the weather might not hold out, they had cobbled together a shelter on the lee side of one of the few walls in the village that still stood upright. The building itself had been too damaged to be safe, but the wall would at least keep the worst of the wind off them. They had been right to take precautions, as the weather was so amply demonstrating, but the shelter was… cozy, to say the least. While she had inexplicably not minded before, she had no desire to be in close proximity to the monk right now.
“It’s not like that.”
She didn’t believe him and to make it clear she turned on her heel and stormed away from him and the little lean-to shelter. She wasn’t about to let him continue trying to snare her.
He’d been touching her more frequently since they returned to the village, deliberately when he seemed to think she was in need of comfort and incidentally as they worked together, too. At first she hadn’t thought anything of it, and had even taken some measure of comfort from his presence as much as his concern, but now she found herself beginning to look for self-serving motives in everything he did, including this. And of course it didn’t take her long to find those motives once she stopped letting the grief and crushing loneliness blind her.
The man might be a monk, but he was also a confirmed liar and thief, and she was willing to go on instinct and add “cheat” and “womanizer” to the list. Of course he wanted to be there to comfort her. He needed her help if he wanted to have any hope of getting his hands on the Shikon no Tama or slaying the youkai that had cursed his family. None of it was because he actually cared about her beyond what she could do for him. It was all right there, so obvious. All she had to do was think about it for a little bit.
She hated him for having duped her so easily. She hated herself a little, too, for having ever been glad that he seemed capable of genuine emotions after all. That he’d seemed truly concerned with her wellbeing in the aftermath of this disaster, and that he’d stuck around when he could have abandoned her. How easily he’d suckered her in.
She couldn’t let that happen again. She had lost too much already to risk letting the monk take everything that was left.
Her angry meandering took her in a long, slow loop around the village, following the inside of the wall. She circled the entire village several times before slowing to consider her options. Soaked to the bone by now by the downpour and growing chilled, she knew she ought to turn back soon, but she didn’t want to face the monk just yet. What would she say to him? How could she tell him she was onto him without provoking another argument?
Although, the more she thought about the, the more she wasn’t sure she really wanted to avoid another argument. Maybe it would be better to just have it out before they went their separate ways.
No closer to a decision, she kept walking. One of the gates came into view through the rain up ahead. And that wasn’t all: a solitary figure was stepping through the gate.
Without stopping to think, Sango ran toward it. For that one moment, she felt blind elation. It was an enormous relief after the pain of the last several days. Someone had returned at last! And then reality reared up and shattered her hopes. It was no slayer that had come to the village, and it certainly was not her brother. It was a woman, dressed in the clothing of a Shinto priestess and carrying a longbow. Sango stopped running.
Even at this distance and in heavy rain, she saw her own hatred and fury reflected in the woman’s dark eyes. The priestess caught sight of her and headed straight toward her. There was nowhere she could hide, and she had already been seen anyway, so she waited where she was and let the priestess come to her.
She was the most beautiful woman Sango had ever seen, with perfect skin and shining black hair, yet her expression was somehow terrifying. Unfortunately for her, Sango was used to working through terror and merely stared her down. While she waited, anger bubbled up anew within her. Who was this woman, this stranger to intrude on her village? This was Sango’s place to grieve. No one else belonged here except the last of the slayers.
Sango expected the priestess to hail her or greet her, or at least acknowledge her presence, but she did not. She stormed right up to Sango, far too close for comfort, her gaze never faltering as she seized Sango by the hands.
At the miko’s touch, it all disappeared. The hate and fury that her heart had directed toward Miroku, even the sharpest edges of her grief at the loss of her home and family… all of it, gone. And only blessed quiet in its place. Reeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Sango stumbled to one side and fell to her knees in the mud. The priestess let her go. “What?” was all she could think to say.
The priestess knelt before her, heedless of the mud. Sango had time to look weakly into her eyes, and then her hand was past the opening of Sango’s kosode, digging into the linen that bound her breasts, seeking and finding the pieces of the Shikon no Tama that Sango had hidden there, knowing the monk couldn’t get at them without alerting her. Sango scrambled backward, clutching her kosode closed again in horror, but it was too late. In one swift movement the priestess had just stripped her of every last piece of the Shikon jewel she possessed.
“What,” she repeated, more outraged this time.
“You’re lucky I arrived when I did,” the priestess told her. She had a lovely voice, too, that belied the frigid sternness of her expression.
Belatedly, Sango realized that the jewel pieces, which had gradually taken on a dark purple cast over the last several days, were shining a brilliant pink from their place in the miko’s hand. They had been a dull pink color, shading into violet, when Sango first acquired them. It wasn’t a huge leap to realize what had happened when this woman touched the pieces of the jewel. Sango wasn’t sure how it was possible, but a woman with the power to purify the Shikon no Tama had just found her way to the village.
“Lucky,” Sango echoed, apparently only able to speak in single words.
“Your pain was corrupting these pieces of the Shikon jewel,” the miko explained. “It reflects back what is given to it, and so it was amplifying everything you felt. Would you have preferred I not interfere, so the pain could grow further?”
“You mean…” She trailed off, feeling a sudden, crushing guilt at the way she had treated Miroku today. She’d never even considered that the Shikon no Tama might be contributing to her inner turmoil and had lashed out at him just because she felt like it and he made a convenient target. At the time, it had all seemed natural. It had all made perfect sense. And all of it was wrong. Baseless, lies the jewel’s power had been feeding her.
She owed the monk an apology for the accusations she had flung at him earlier.
As if thinking about the man summoned him to her side, she heard him calling for her from somewhere in the village. “I understand if you’re still upset with me,” he called, “but dinner is ready if you want to eat.” He came round a pile of rubble and, catching sight of her on her knees in front of the newcomer, shouted, “Sango! Are you okay?”
He was at her side in an instant. “And who is this?” he asked.
“I’m fine now,” she told him, feeling the slightest bit irked at the way he seemed to forget all about her when he laid eyes on the lovely face of the priestess. “And I don’t know yet who this is. She didn’t introduce herself.” She’d cut to the chase and simply taken the jewel pieces.
The priestess rose to her feet. Apparently remembering that Sango existed, Miroku helped her up. His hands lingering on her arm as the miko spoke, as if he’d forgotten he was holding onto her.
“My name is Kikyou.” The name set warning bells to ringing in Sango’s head, but she forced herself to stay calm. She did not wish to jump to conclusions.
“Welcome, Kikyou. Now, why don’t we get out of the rain for a bit?” Miroku asked, far more cheerful and pleasant than Sango could manage. This time, it sounded like a wonderful idea.
A while later, they were all three of them crammed into the makeshift shelter Sango and the monk had built. It wasn’t warm or spacious by any means, but it did keep out the worst of the weather and it gave them a relatively dry place in which to talk. All of which would have seemed a lot better to Sango if she hadn’t already been soaked through and covered in mud from the knees down. But since she was not about to change her clothes in front of the monk and a complete stranger, never mind that she had no longer had any other clothes to change into, she simply bore the discomfort.
When they were settled, Sango introduced herself as the daughter of the village headman. She explained how she had only recently returned with her pieces of the jewel and the monk in tow, to find that the village had been destroyed in their absence. She left it up to Miroku to divulge—or not—the true purpose of the mission that had led her away from her village at the crucial moment. As far as she was concerned, he had by now more than made up for that transgression. She wouldn’t poison Kikyou’s opinion of him by focusing on that, but she wouldn’t stop him from sharing of his own accord.
Much to her surprise, he made no attempt to hide what he had done. “It’s my fault Sango wasn’t here when the village was attacked,” he began. He went on, deftly filling in the gaps Sango had left in her retelling until Kikyou had the whole story, including all the grisly details of his family’s curse.
As she sat with Kikyou on one side and Miroku on the other, Sango couldn’t help but notice something that sent a chill through her. Where Miroku was noticeably warm, she felt no body heat from Kikyou. It was possible, she supposed, that the difference was only because Miroku was sitting just a bit closer to her than Kikyou was. But she couldn’t help but wonder. The name Kikyou was not uncommon, but it seemed more than a little strange that a priestess bearing that name had suddenly showed up to purify their pieces of the Shikon jewel. If she remembered the stories from her childhood correctly, when her grandfather took the jewel from the village for purification, he’d left it in the care of a priestess with that same name.
It had to be a coincidence, didn’t it? There was no way this could be the same Kikyou. Even if the stories were true, Sango’s grandfather had given the jewel to the priestess Kikyou decades ago, and this woman was far too young for that. She hardly looked any older than Sango herself.
While Sango struggled to give voice to her misgivings, Miroku began by asking, “How did you find us here, miko-dono?”
For a long time it seemed she might not answer the question. Was she deliberately hiding something, or just not sure yet how far she could trust them?
“I didn’t come looking for you,” Kikyou replied at last. “But I knew there was a large piece of the Shikon no Tama here. I was seeking that, not knowing who or what might have brought it here.”
Miroku glanced to Sango, but she didn’t have any more idea what to make of that than he seemed to.
“If you didn’t know we had it, how did you know it was here?” Miroku tried again.
The barest hint of a smile flitted across Kikyou’s lips. “I knew it was here because I can sense the jewel’s power. All I had to do was follow it until I found its source.”
“You can sense the jewel,” Miroku repeated. Sango wasn’t sure what to make of this information. There seemed to be at least a little truth to it, since the priestess had found her way here, but the Shikon jewel had been lost for long enough that it had become nothing but legend to much of the world. A short time ago even Sango hadn’t been sure it had ever really existed. So how could this woman be so sure that she was sensing a legendary jewel?
“Something here doesn’t add up,” Sango murmured. “How did you know what you were searching for? To most people, the Shikon jewel is just a legend.”
“Long ago, I was the jewel’s keeper,” Kikyou said. It sounded as if she were serious.
Sango shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. The jewel disappeared years ago. Unless it was hidden somewhere, being guarded all this time…”
“The jewel was destroyed a long time ago, but it has recently reappeared.”
“And just how can you be so certain about all this?” Sango demanded. At least this time she could be fairly sure it was her own temper reacting to Kikyou’s cryptic answers, rather than the jewel feeding her strange ideas and urging her to violence.
“I am not alive,” Kikyou confessed. She sounded reluctant, as if she weren’t sure whether she should reveal what she was about to say or not. “At least… not the way the two of you are.” The revelation surprised Sango a bit, but went a long way toward explaining why Kikyou’s body lacked the warmth of a living person, and the way her chest never moved to draw breath as she spoke. Sango glanced toward the monk, trying to gauge his response. His gaze was fixed on Kikyou, his expression one of consternation mixed with doubt.
Seeing that neither Miroku nor Sango appeared openly horrified by her revelation, Kikyou must have decided it would be safe to tell them more. “I died a long time ago, but a witch dragged my soul back from hell and fused it into a body made of clay and the soil and ashes she stole from my grave.”
“So you are the one they gave the jewel to,” Sango murmured, not realizing she had intended to speak. Clarifying, in case the monk had already forgotten everything she told him in Midoriko’s tomb, she explained, “Here in my village they tell… they used to tell the story of how my grandfather recovered the Shikon no Tama from a powerful youkai and brought it back to the village. But its power was corrupted and evil, and no one here could purify it, so they sought far and wide for someone with enough spiritual power to purify the jewel and keep it from falling into the wrong hands again. Eventually they found a priestess named Kikyou with unbelievable power, and she agreed to take the jewel.”
The stories also said that her grandfather had died not much later, from the injuries that youkai had given him before it died, and that the priestess Kikyou had disappeared with the jewel. It had been lost to the slayers ever since.
“You don’t just share her name,” Sango went on, surprised by her own certainty, “you are the same Kikyou, aren’t you?”
The monk had been silent for a while now, apparently content just to listen while Sango drew Kikyou’s story out of her. Now, he asked, “But why revive you in the first place?”
Kikyou looked almost annoyed by the question. Or perhaps her resurrection was just a sore topic. “Because I can sense the jewel,” she said. “The witch that revived me wanted me to find its scattered pieces for her. I killed her for her pains.”
“So now you seek the jewel anyway,” Miroku mused.
“The jewel becomes tainted over time if it is not actively purified. You have experienced firsthand what happens in the short term when the jewel is not purified. Left unchecked, it could eventually bring dark times to the entire land. War. Epidemics. Ever more powerful youkai.” She sighed. “It must be destroyed. And since I did not return to hell when the witch died, I can only assume that I must destroy it if I wish to ever know peace.”
They fell into uneasy silence after that. Sango had no idea what to make of this woman who called herself Kikyou, and whose story fit so neatly into the village tales. She had never thought to meet someone from village lore in the flesh, no matter how strange the circumstances. And for it to be the unfortunate priestess who had been tasked with protecting the Shikon jewel, a figure that had never particularly interested Sango except for the tragic mystery of her unknown end, the one part of her family’s story that was missing…
“May I ask you something, Kikyou?” she asked.
After some thought, Kikyou said, “You may ask.”
“What happened after the slayers gave you the jewel?”
Kikyou shrugged. “They went home. I took the jewel back to my village and did what I could to safeguard it.” She chuckled, and the sound was dark with resentment. “Is it any surprise, really, that I failed?”
“Someone should have stayed. I would have stayed,” Sango blurted out, her voice betraying the outrage she felt on Kikyou’s behalf. And to think, it was her own grandfather that had done such an unreasonable thing! “It was wrong of the slayers to leave you to watch over the jewel all alone,” she clarified more calmly. “If I had been there, I would have stayed to help you.”
For just a moment it seemed that Kikyou’s icy demeanor might be about to thaw, and then it was gone. The priestess was more skilled than anyone Sango had ever met in hiding her thoughts and emotions. But Sango supposed she would have to be, in order to keep the Shikon jewel properly purified and protected even for a short time. Still, she felt a pang of sympathy for Kikyou. What must it be like to have to live like that? She couldn’t begin to imagine.
Not burdened with Sango’s musings, Kikyou went on. “Before I died, I thought to destroy the jewel. I asked that it be burned with my body. And it was. Why and how it has returned now, I do not know.”
Sango got the impression that there was more she did know, but that she wasn’t willing to share it just yet.
“So what now?” Miroku asked.
“Your part in this is done,” Kikyou said. “It’s not your concern.” Her voice fairly resounded with finality.
Sango looked to the monk, but his expression was unreadable. She was almost afraid to know what he would think about what she intended to say. “No,” she said. “It’s not.” She took a calming breath, then plowed ahead. “There is nothing left for me here. I will go with you. It was wrong of my grandfather to leave you alone to protect the jewel, and I would be wrong to leave you to recover its pieces on your own.”
The village of the slayers beckoned. It had taken Naraku days to cover this distance with his contingent of enslaved slayers because he was not yet ready to see if he could push them beyond the ordinary limits of human endurance. His puppet, on the other hand, had no such potential limitations. He could push the thing to run for great distances at top speed and it never showed the slightest sign of fatigue—it was truly a thing of beauty. Directly occupying its mind, seeing through its eyes as grey, overcast countryside blurred past, he reveled in its indefatigable power.
No exhaustion for this puppet. No limits, either. So much better than his flesh-and-blood body back at Hitomi Castle. If only he could find a way to exist like this instead of being bound by flesh. He filed that idea away to be revisited later, when he had more time. What mattered right now was getting to the village of the slayers before his victims had the time to leave.
He’d seen nothing more from his wasps concerning the ruined village, which meant that the woman and the monk were likely still there. No doubt they were shocked by what they had found there. If the woman was one of the slayers, she was probably mourning. Perhaps the two of them would even take it upon themselves to tend to the lost souls of the dead, certainly a monk ought to feel compelled to do so.
What fools mortals were. He looked forward to disabusing them of such foolishness.
One of his wasps buzzed into his line of sight. He slowed to allow it to approach. Faithful creatures, those wasps, some of the only things in existence for which he didn’t feel a deep-seated hatred. Even so, he hadn’t expected them to seek out his puppet form unless he ordered them to do so.
Once the wasp drew near he saw that it clutched a piece of the Shikon no Tama in its legs. Glinting a dull purple, this piece was slightly larger than any of the others he had thus far acquired.
He stopped moving altogether, considering for a while whether to send the wasp back to the relative security of Hitomi Castle—where by now the tsuchigumo must have put an end to the last of the humans—or whether to allow the puppet to take the jewel. His puppet was powerful, but there was always a chance that it might be destroyed, especially since he was taking it to the village of the slayers to singlehandedly face a youkai taiji-ya and a Buddhist monk. If the puppet were lost, he would also lose any pieces of the jewel it possessed.
And yet, he wondered. What might this puppet be able to accomplish, infused with more of the jewel’s power?
He held out his hand. The saimyoushou dropped the jewel into his waiting palm. Puppet fingers closed over it, holding it secure, waiting for… something.
He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Some delicious thrill of power coursing through him, perhaps? Instead he felt nothing. It was as if his puppet held any ordinary stone and not a piece of the Shikon no Tama. Apparently there were limits to what he could sense through the puppet.
The saimyoushou had landed on his still outstretched arm and now regarded him with enormous, faceted eyes.
Find more of these, if you can, he told it. On second thought: No, come with me instead. If the monk he’d seen was indeed the heir to the air void curse, the venomous wasp might prove a useful deterrent.
With a buzzing of wings, the wasp was airborne again. It hovered just in front of him, waiting for him to lead the way, but he was not ready to start moving again just yet. The puppet’s complete lack of response to the jewel’s power concerned him. It seemed that he should have felt something when he took possession of it.
When he concentrated, it almost felt as if the puppet were an empty vessel into which he could pour power. The power of this one tiny fragment of the Shikon jewel was not nearly enough to fill it up: a single drop in an enormous bucket. Perhaps this was why the puppet could not directly sense its power the way his flesh and blood body could.
What would happen if he tried to draw upon that power?
He supposed that at worst his puppet would be obliterated, possibly even taking his consciousness with it. Rather than run that risk, he withdrew and found himself once again in his darkened room in Hitomi Castle. It had only been a few days, but the place already seemed to be giving way to decay. He approved. Later he would have to take some time away from his puppet to investigate further. He would enjoy confirming just how deep the rot went.
It took him the work of a few minutes to sort through the strands of thought that connected him to each of the wasps, sifting from wasp to wasp until he found the one that was with his puppet. When he found it, he seized control and looked upon his puppet through the wasp’s faceted eyes. Thus established, it was time to reach out to the puppet once more.
Use the jewel’s power, he commanded. Show me what you can do now that you could not before. In theory, the jewel’s power was boundless. He wasn’t sure exactly what to ask for.
To his surprise, the puppet liquefied before his eyes, becoming a silvery, viscous substance that was roughly the same size and shape that the puppet had been. And then it began to change, slowly shifting its form before beginning to regain its coloration. When it had finished, a perfect replica of Iwao stood before him.
Do that again. Become someone else, he told it.
The puppet’s body flowed again, at last resolving into the form of one of his female slayers.
Again and again he tested it, marveling at how easily it could shift from one form to another. He, too, had been capable of shapeshifting from the moment Onigumo made his pact with the youkai and became Naraku, but for him it still took tremendous effort and left his body weak for days or months afterward depending on the difficulty of the transformation. The puppet, on the other hand, seemed none the worse for wear. Even ten shifts into various forms of his choosing appeared to have no effect on it. As far as he could tell, it was as powerful and durable as ever.
This unexpected discovery should make his encounter at the village of the slayers a good deal more interesting. He had been looking forward to it anyway, but now that it would provide an opportunity to test his puppet’s new power against that of a pair of mortals, he was even more eager to see the outcome. With more puppets like this, he wouldn’t even need his seven slayers with their limitations.
Nearly satisfied, and eager to get to the village of the slayers before his prey could slip away, Naraku allowed his consciousness to once again take control of the puppet. Before he could resume his journey, he needed to try one more thing. At his will, the puppet body became amorphous once more, shifting fluidly from one half form to another as he considered what he wanted to achieve. Finally he solidified the lower half into a mass of writhing, boneless tentacles, each of which was capable of lashing out at great speed. Testing his new limbs against an unfortunate nearby tree, he discovered that they were not only quick but extremely flexible, and that he could control them as naturally as he could any of his limbs when he was in human shape.
He had worried that it might require a great deal of practice to master these abilities for use in combat, but he was pleased to find that those fears had been for naught. With that settled, he could resume his journey.
Sango’s unthinking words tore at Kikyou. I will go with you. Just who did this woman think she was, to make such promises? Everything Kikyou had revealed so far had been calculated to achieve two objectives: to justify her seizure of Sango’s pieces of the Shikon no Tama, and to warn the monk and slayer against getting in her way. In this, it would seem, she had failed utterly.
In her heart of hearts, Kikyou knew that everything Sango proposed was a bad idea. Attachments would only make her weaker and slow down her quest for the scattered pieces of the jewel. Worse, they might lead to tragedies like that which had befallen Sayo’s little village. Already she could imagine herself losing control of the anger and pain and sheer power that surged within the clay vessel of her body, and wreaking death and destruction on innocents all over again. And yet a part of her yearned for nothing more than this earnest young woman’s companionship, rather than the burning resentment she felt in the face of Sango’s presumption.
If Sango were anything but the daughter of slayers, Kikyou would simply have walked away and that would have been the end of it. She had what she had come here for. There was no reason to dally.
But Sango was the daughter of slayers. And, if she had told her story truly, she was an accomplished youkai taiji-ya in her own right. She might actually prove a useful companion instead of a burden. She might be able to help defend the jewel and its protector. With Sango beside her, Kikyou might not have to manage it all on her own.
This was a new feeling, and the suddenness of it damped her surging emotions until anger and resentment were mere embers instead of raging flames. In their place, she at long last felt something new: the desperate desire for Sango to have meant what she said. I will go with you.
The thought of not being alone threatened to overwhelm everything else, including duty. She had been alone for her entire life… with few and fleeting exceptions. She knew better than to get her hopes up, but hope had already got the better of her. Could she bear it if Sango went with her?
“The path I walk is dangerous,” she said, not sure if she was actually trying to dissuade the slayer, or just testing her resolve. “The jewel’s power is treacherous, as you have seen.” Having grown up among the slayers, Sango ought to already know this even without today’s first-hand experience, but she had to be certain. So she said it anyway. “And I do not accept help lightly.”
“I understand,” Sango replied. “But given the circumstances, I must offer.”
“That is easy to say, but the Shikon jewel is a lifelong responsibility. If you choose to shoulder that burden, you will never be rid of it. It will be yours to carry for the rest of your days—you will never again have a chance for an ordinary life.”
The slayer shook her head. “I have never had an ordinary life. And I am bound to do what is right.”
Still seeking the weak point in Sango’s armor, Kikyou looked to the monk. “And him?” she asked.
“What about him?”
“He’s no slayer. You brought him here for a reason. Now you would abandon him for me? That doesn’t speak well of you, slayer.”
That did it. Looking rather stricken, Sango turned to the monk. “I don’t want to abandon him—”
“Your divided loyalties would make you nothing but a liability to me, slayer,” Kikyou said. She spoke the words softly, but with a sharp edge.
“I am not so sure our purposes are at odds,” the monk interjected. He had remained silent until now, regarding the women with quiet intensity, biding his time until he fully understood the perspective of each. No doubt he’d only been waiting until he had decided what approach would be most beneficial to him. “The jewel’s power might be just what I need to lure Naraku out of hiding. By traveling together, I could be there when he made his move. And in the meantime I can help protect the jewel from other youkai.”
Kikyou immediately disliked the way he seemed to so smoothly arrive at the perfect solution to their dilemma. The man was trouble; he’d admitted as much when he casually explained the treachery that had led him and Sango away from the village just before it was destroyed. And yet here he was, blithely positioning himself as a potential asset rather than a constant threat.
Sango added, “You’re both looking for something. Why can’t we look for both of those things at the same time? Why not help each other?”
Because, Kikyou wanted to scream, accepting their help would mean letting them fail her in the end and she couldn’t cope with the pain of betrayal and failure. Not again. Not when the betrayal of another had already led to her death once. Not when she’d been dragged back from hell and forced back into a destiny she had never wanted, that she even now wanted only to be done with.
“What you propose cannot happen,” Kikyou said, if only for her own benefit, to silence the desperate desire for companionship. “The jewel requires all of my attention. Anything and anyone else will only get in the way.”
“You can’t possibly keep all of your attention on the jewel, all of the time,” Sango pointed out. “You already told us you failed once. If it didn’t work last time, why think it will work now?”
She was right. If anything, that made Kikyou want to dig her heels in and resist even more. Oblivious to the way she was hitting all of Kikyou’s sore spots, or perhaps because of it, Sango kept talking. “If the jewel requires all of your attention for every waking moment, doesn’t it make sense to have someone around that can keep you safe, so you can keep your attention where it needs to be?”
It did make sense. And Kikyou wanted more than anything for it to be that easy. “Impossible,” she protested, her voice hardly more than a breath. Not impossible because no one would be willing to help her, but impossible because their inevitable failure would hopelessly compromise her and her control over the jewel. And that could not be allowed to happen, no matter the yearnings of a woman’s lonely heart.
“No one can manage that,” she murmured.
“Kikyou…” Sango’s voice was all soft sympathy.
“No!” Kikyou cried, aware with a sense of growing horror that her anger was rekindling even hotter and more furious than before. She didn’t even remember climbing to her feet, much less gripping her bow or fighting the urge to reach for an arrow. Trembling, she whispered, “No.”
Miroku braced himself to intervene as tempers flared: Sango’s with the rage of an inferno, Kikyou’s as bitter as the coldest winter night. The situation had been tense from the moment Kikyou arrived, and he had a feeling it would only get worse unless he could think of a way to settle the disagreement.
“Perhaps,” he said to Sango, “we should not push the issue. There is no need to commit to one plan or another just yet.” Kikyou clearly had her reasons for not wanting to ally herself with their cause. Since she did not see fit to reveal what those reasons were, he could only guess. Something to do with the circumstances surrounding her death, or maybe her rebirth. Or maybe it was something else altogether. He didn’t waste much time worrying about it.
Kikyou greeted his proposal with a bland, if somewhat stony, look. Sango frowned. He suspected she was trying to figure out what he was up to.
“There’s no rush,” he went on. “Sango and I will need to leave this village eventually to resupply. But until then…”
“Your curse steals more of your life away with each day that passes, and you tell me there’s no rush?” Kikyou asked. Her tone was even and without emotion, but the words cut deep. Like a knife-blade to the heart of him, her words left an ominous, unsettled feeling in his chest.
Sango’s frown grew deeper. “That he has a stake in this is no reason to discount his suggestions.”
“Isn’t it? If I cannot trust his intentions, how can I trust him to be a help and not a hindrance?”
Miroku let the two women figure that one out. He couldn’t shake the overwhelming sensation of unease that Kikyou had ignited within him. As even the sound of the conversation going on in front of him faded to indistinctness, he realized that this was greater than the effect of a woman’s words. This was… a youkai? If not that, then something very like it.
He glanced through the opening of the shelter, but from this limited vantage point he could see no sign that anything was amiss. Even so, he felt more convinced that something dangerous was on its way with each moment that passed. He waited as patiently as he could, seeking confirmation of his fears and hardly hearing a word his companions said, until it seemed they must be aware of what he was sensing.
“I hate to break this up,” he interjected quietly, and was pleasantly surprised when both Sango and Kikyou abruptly fell silent, “but we have a visitor.”
It pained him to see hope pass fleetingly over Sango’s features, as she no doubt hoped to find one of her own returned at last, only to realize from the eerie sensation that hung in the air that the newcomer must be youkai rather than human. Kikyou, on the other hand, simply readied her bow and headed out of the little shelter. Her face reflecting the same frustration that Miroku felt, Sango grabbed her hiraikotsu and went after Kikyou. Miroku followed at a more sedate pace, seeing no reason to put himself in harm’s way when he might let Sango and Kikyou take care of the enemy for him, and telling himself that he would of course intervene if the situation warranted it.
Following Sango and Kikyou also meant he could avoid the hard work of pinpointing exactly where the evil aura was coming from. It didn’t take them long even without his help: standing just inside the north gate was a solitary figure. From a distance it resembled a man in size and shape, but it was hard to tell exactly what he was seeing. The whole thing was covered in a mass of white fur from neck to feet, and its face was that of a monkey.
If not for that aura, Miroku would have thought perhaps this was indeed one of the missing slayers, returning home at last.
He was about to ask Sango if she had any idea who or what this might be when Kikyou fired an arrow. The projectile shot forward before Miroku fully realized what it was, and would have struck the newcomer in the face if he hadn’t thrown himself out of the way. Having escaped Kikyou’s arrow, the man raced toward them. He moved with uncanny speed in spite of his bizarre clothing, which looked like it ought to have hindered him, nearly covering the distance between them and the gate in the time it took for Kikyou to ready another arrow.
“You’ll have to try harder than that, Kikyou,” the man said.
Kikyou released the arrow she had nocked. At this range, there was no way she could miss. Rather than attempting a dodge he could never execute in time, the man simply flowed out of the way, his body shifting to form a perfect hole through which the arrow could pass before returning to its original state. It didn’t even slow him down, which forced Miroku and the others to skirt out of the way or be trampled.
“So you really have become a youkai, Onigumo,” Kikyou snarled. “Was your humanity too much of a hindrance to your ambition?”
Onigumo finally stopped moving, coming to a halt in the middle of the triangle Miroku, Sango, and Kikyou had formed. Keeping one eye on the man called Onigumo, Miroku looked for a reaction from Sango. It was clear Onigumo was some enemy of Kikyou’s—one she’d conveniently failed to mention until now. And in an eerie echo of the accusations Sango had lobbed at Miroku, Onigumo had followed Kikyou here, apparently to make trouble. The only thing that was lacking was destruction, and Miroku didn’t think they would have to wait long for that.
Onigumo chuckled. It was a cold, unpleasant sound that chilled Miroku to the bone. “I haven’t been Onigumo for a very long time, Kikyou.”
He turned to face Miroku. The black eyes in the monkey mask seemed to spear him where he stood. He got the unnerving impression that whoever was behind that mask could see past all his lies and schemes and pretenses, all the way to the depths of his soul where his curse waited to kill him. He didn’t like the sensation one bit. He clutched his staff a little tighter, readying himself for the inevitable attack.
“And you,” Onigumo said, addressing him at last. He couldn’t see the sneer, but he could hear it. “You have the look of a womanizer, just like your grandfather.”
For an instant Miroku’s world went red. Rage and fear coursed through him in equal measure, tempered too late by disbelief. From the time he was eight years old—from the day the kazaana took his father away—he had fantasized about this moment, planning for what he would do on the day he finally found Naraku.
Some of his fury must have showed on his face. Apparently finding the situation amusing, Onigumo chuckled. “What’s the matter, boy? You finally find what you’ve spent your whole life looking for, and you don’t know what to do?”
“Naraku.” It was Sango who said it out loud.
The sound of that name, spoken aloud, jolted Miroku from rage to action. In his fantasies he always used the curse of the kazaana to end Naraku’s life, but with Sango and Kikyou so close that wasn’t practical. He settled for smashing his staff into Naraku’s face.
Still chuckling, Naraku stepped backward and put himself just out of reach of Miroku’s strike… and directly in the path of Sango’s hiraikotsu as it came down on him. It should have been a killing blow, striking his shoulder and nearly cleaving his body in two as it descended, but Naraku seemed more amused than harmed by the bloody rent Sango had carved in his flesh. Miroku quickly realized why: that blow would have killed a human, and probably even a lesser youkai, but Naraku’s body was already knitting back together, healing with horrifying speed from the damage Sango had wrought.
Sango tugged her weapon free before Naraku’s flesh could heal around it, trapping it within his body, and stumbled backward. Already Miroku could tell she was looking for a weakness to exploit, some sign that would tell her how to overpower this youkai.
Miroku surged forward again, stabbing with the butt end of his staff. Naraku caught it with a single hand, arresting the motion before it could cause any damage; Miroku willed what little holy power he possessed into the staff, earning a grunt of disapproval from Naraku as his flesh began to sizzle as if it had been thrust into a fire. The grunt turned into a snarl as Naraku shoved back and sent Miroku reeling.
Kikyou took her turn next. While Sango and Miroku had inadvertently provided a diversion, she had put some distance between herself and her target so she could safely use her longbow. Almost too fast to follow, her arrow shot toward Naraku’s heart. At this absurdly close range, there was absolutely no way she could miss... unless Naraku conveniently opened a hole through his body again.
Something that was definitely not a human limb surged from beneath the white pelt, something long and flexible and a deep, unnatural violet color. The limb seized Kikyou’s arrow out of the air before it could hit its mark. It loosed its grip on the arrow almost immediately, but it was too late. Whatever power Kikyou had infused into the arrow obliterated the tip of the tentacle.
The mask rendered Naraku’s face invisible and unreadable, but Miroku could guess he wasn’t taking the loss of that tentacle well. An enormous cluster of them burst out from beneath the pelt, seething like some sort of gigantic, land-bound octopus seeking prey.
While Miroku leaped backward, seeking to avoid being snared by any of those tentacles, Sango lunged forward to bring the hiraikotsu down once more. She caught three of the tentacles with the weapon’s blunt edge and crushed them into the ground with enough force to sever their tips and leave a deep gouge in the wet earth. Unfortunately there were plenty more where those three had come from, and Naraku now directed them against her, slowly forcing her backward and away from Kikyou and Miroku.
She used her boomerang now as a shield rather than a weapon, fending off the tentacles as long as she could. But it was only a matter of time before they found a hold on the hiraikotsu and tore it from her grip.
Once it was in his possession, Naraku tried twice to bring the weapon to bear against her. Fortunately Sango was not only adept at wielding the hiraikotsu, she apparently knew every possible way to defend against the thing, too. She simply flowed out of the way of each attempted strike, moving smoothly as running water and always managing not to be where the hiraikotsu was. On the second attempt Naraku missed her by mere inches. She spun away and came out of the movement with her chain in her hand.
Before Naraku could position the hiraikotsu to block her, she’d tossed the weighted end of the chain into the writhing mass of tentacles and taken off running in a wide circle that would eventually loop all the way around Naraku. Somewhere in there the chain must have tangled itself around something, because it didn’t come out when she yanked on it. Instead this, combined with another well-aimed arrow from Kikyou that blew off one of his arms, managed to throw Naraku off balance.
“Enough of this,” he growled. One of the tentacles wrapped itself around the chain, reaching nearly to where Sango gripped it. He pulled, forcing Sango several steps forward and almost within reach of the rest of the tentacles. Much closer and she would be in danger of being snared herself—or crushed by the hiraikotsu, which Naraku still held in reserve. Sango dug in and pulled back, to no avail.
With one last mighty pull, Naraku managed to get the chain away from her. Rather than scrambling to retrieve it, Sango drew her sword and stood her ground. If he hadn’t been so busy trying to keep the rest of the tentacles from catching hold of him or his weapon, Miroku would have been impressed. As it was, he settled for feeling grateful for her efforts, which were probably the only things keeping Naraku from simply killing them all where they stood.
“Your turn,” Naraku said.
Miroku barely had time to register that this comment was directed toward him before even more of the tentacles came at him. He only just managed to thrust his staff between him and the approaching onslaught. At his command an invisible barrier formed. Unable to penetrate the sphere of holy power formed by the barrier, the tentacles simply wrapped around it. For a horrified moment Miroku wasn’t sure whether his barrier would hold if the tentacles were to wrap all the way around the barrier and crush down upon it. He was spared from finding out when another of Kikyou’s arrows planted itself amid the writhing mass. Most of the tentacles promptly exploded in a spray of purple gore.
Given this momentary reprieve, Miroku let his barrier fall and slowly backed away. Sango moved to fill the gap he’d left, putting herself and her sword between him and his enemy. “And you,” Naraku told her, “ought to learn from the mistakes of your kin. You cannot stand against me.”
Sango had her back to him, so Miroku couldn’t see her face, but he knew what he would see there. By claiming responsibility for the destruction of her village and the death of its people, Naraku had just ripped open wounds that had barely begun to heal. If Miroku could see her face, he would see echoes of his own anger and pain, only fresher, without the years he’d had to plot out how he wanted the encounter to go.
Whatever she was feeling, she didn’t back down. Her blade made short work of any tentacle that dared reach too close. Miroku watched, hardly daring to breathe, as she slowly inched her way toward Naraku. He had no idea what she planned to do if she should somehow get within striking range. Surely a simple blade would not be enough to put an end to one such as Naraku… yet he dared to hope that she might have some trick up her sleeve that would give her the means to slay her foe.
As it turned out, Sango was at the moment angling not to kill Naraku, but to get him to release his hold on the hiraikotsu. In one last rush she whirled past the lashing tentacles and ducked beneath a strike from the hiraikotsu, leaping upward to jab her blade into Naraku’s remaining arm. She let momentum carry her forward, cutting deep with her blade even after Naraku had let the hiraikotsu fall.
The sword must have hit bone; it stuck in the arm and wouldn’t come free. Snarling his rage, Naraku struck Sango hard enough to send her crashing to the earth. She rolled through it, coming up into a crouch with one hand braced on the ground and the other gripping one of those poison smoke pellets Miroku had seen her use against the birds of paradise. She was clearly still ready for a fight: her entire body tensed for the attack, her face set in a grim expression. Miroku got the impression that she was willing to keep throwing herself at Naraku until one of them died, and that she didn’t much care which one it was.
Or maybe she was just that intent on her opponent—it was hard to say. Naraku lashed out with more tentacles, bringing them down like whips on the spot where Sango had been crouched a moment ago, but she was already gone. Even as she neatly launched herself out of the way of the attack, she lobbed the poison bomb straight at Naraku’s face. It exploded the instant it connected with the hard surface of the mask, clouding the air with poison powder.
Naraku simply laughed at this latest attempt to penetrate his defenses. “Do you think your little tricks will stop me?” he asked. The poison had been extremely effective against the birds of paradise, but seemed to have no effect whatsoever on Naraku. Without her mask, which she must have left back at the shelter, Sango could not risk approaching again until the poison cloud had dissipated. Miroku did not dare risk opening the kazaana, either. Thus protected, Naraku took his time. A new arm grew in a matter of seconds, sprouting from the stump that remained where Kikyou had destroyed his left arm with her arrow. When this new arm had finished forming, Naraku pulled the sword free from his other arm and tossed it aside.
Kikyou was not as inhibited by the poison as Miroku and Sango were. By using arrows to deliver bursts of her purifying power to where Naraku was standing, she could attack from a safe distance. Unfortunately, Naraku could also see the arrows coming before they arrived, and his shape-shifting ability meant that he did not even need to move to get out of the way. He could simply let the arrows sail harmlessly through his body, which was exactly what he did when Kikyou fired at him now.
Unable to see any other way to get out of the fight with all three of them intact, Miroku reached for the beads that kept the kazaana bound. Naraku was distracted by Kikyou’s attack, and the breeze had begun to dissipate the poison cloud. Even if it hadn't weakened enough, Sango would know a cure for its effects. He hoped. Everything in him screamed now is your chance! He could end it all, and be freed from his curse right now.
“Go ahead, monk,” the youkai taunted. A pair of enormous wasps, each easily as long as Miroku’s forearm, buzzed over the wall and into position over each of his shoulders. “See how you like my saimyoushou’s venom.”
Venomous wasps… Suddenly Miroku wasn’t sure it was worth the risk. His grip loosened on the prayer beads, already betraying his reluctance to put himself directly in harm’s way. He couldn’t be sure the venom from the wasps wouldn’t combine with Sango’s poison to kill him, but he was sure that killing Naraku would be worth nothing if it resulted in his own death, too.
Naraku’s preoccupation with taunting Miroku was apparently all the opening that Kikyou required. Her next arrow pierced through the youkai’s head, smashing through the side of his mask. It stabbed into Naraku with such force that Miroku almost expected the head of it to emerge on the other side, but it didn’t. Instead Naraku’s body seemed to crack and then to crumble, turning at last to a pile of dust… topped by a single shining piece of the Shikon no Tama. The wasps flitted off as he died, as if they realized they would be next.
Shock, trepidation, and joy washed over Miroku all at the same time—had it really been so easy? And yet if Naraku was dead… why did he still feel the evil energy of the kazaana in his palm? Why, when he closed his eyes, did he still sense the rushing of wind through his soul? “He’s,” he bit out, angry with Naraku for not being dead, furious with himself for foolishly getting his hopes up. “He’s not dead.”
“That wasn’t Onigumo… or Naraku,” Kikyou growled, apparently every bit as angry as Miroku was. “That was just a puppet, form without substance. I destroyed another one like it before I came here. Although this one was more robust than the first.” She didn’t say it, but he could guess: there would be more puppets to follow, each likely to be stronger than the last.
Kikyou retrieved the piece of the jewel the puppet had left behind; it flashed from murky violet to brilliant pink as soon as she touched it. Miroku had not realized before that there might be a visual cue to indicate the jewel’s status, and filed the information away for later use.
While Sango gathered up her scattered weapons, he turned to Kikyou. “What will you do now?”
“My plans have not changed, monk.”
“Even after that?”
Her face was unpleasantly cold when she frowned. “What are you getting at?”
“Perhaps the burden of restoring and protecting the Shikon no Tama from enemies such as this would be lighter with others to help carry the weight,” he suggested.
Kikyou was clearly displeased by the suggestion, but he knew if she stopped to think about it she would see that he was right, as Sango had been right earlier.
“Haven’t we proved by now that we can be useful to you?” he prodded.
Kikyou’s frown deepened. “It was my arrow that destroyed the puppet.”
“But what would have happened if we hadn’t been there to keep it at a safe distance?” Sango asked mildly, having collected her weapons and stashed them once more about her person. “We can help you. At least let us try.”
“Allow me to suggest a compromise,” Miroku cut in, hoping to avoid another pointless argument. “We will accompany you. If at any point we fail to help you, then we will dissolve the partnership. You’ll go your way and we’ll go ours.”
Sango appeared about to object, but Kikyou seemed to realize this was the best offer she was going to get. “Very well.”
Sango went alone to the place where she and Miroku had buried the people of her village. She knelt at the edge of the too-large patch of disturbed earth. The grave. She felt the cold dampness of the earth soak into the fabric of her kosode, listened to the silence of this place that had always been so lively. So many dead, she could hardly believe it even now. Kaori and Kasumi, their parents, their aunts and uncles and cousins… and so many other families just like theirs. Just like her own. And all of them gone.
And now she was here to tell them that she was leaving the village, too. The circumstances formed an enormous weight, ready to drag her down until she could no longer move, even while duty compelled her to keep trying. She wished she had something to offer them, or to offer on their behalf. But everything of value had burned or lay buried beneath too much rubble for one person to move.
“This is good-bye,” she said aloud, even knowing that these people were beyond hearing. “But I promise it’s not forever.” Her voice was thick with unshed tears, but she felt less self-conscious about it here and now, where only the spirits of the dead might hear, than she did in front of Miroku and Kikyou.
She breathed in the cold, clammy silence. “I will find the other survivors and bring them home.” This she said more quietly, more hesitantly, because she couldn’t be entirely sure there were other survivors to bring home. She was determined to carry on as if there were others who had escaped the massacre, but it was worrying that no one else had yet returned. Ordinarily one of the itinerant slayers would return to the village every five days or so, sooner if they had something of interest to report, and yet there had been no sign of anyone at all.
As much as she hated to admit it, Miroku might be right. For days he had been cautioning her against getting her hopes up and against making assumptions about what had happened to the slayers that were not accounted for among the dead. Deep down, she realized she had always known he must be right. He was right about everything: she shouldn’t let hope get the better of her, there were too many unanswered questions, and they could not remain indefinitely in a dead village without supplies. She just hadn’t wanted to admit it.
Kikyou’s arrival—and Naraku’s—was simply the push that had started her moving forward again. If it was too dangerous to hope that her father and the others were still out there somewhere, free or imprisoned, then she needed to focus on the things she could do right now and hope that the rest would fall into place along the way. And right now, it was Kikyou and the Shikon no Tama that demanded her attention. It wouldn’t matter at all if her father and brother were alive, if she allowed the jewel to fall into evil hands.
She should get back to Miroku and Kikyou so they could be on their way. She knew, but still she lingered, reluctant to leave this place behind her. There was so much she should say before she left, but it felt as if her tongue had been bound. She could not speak.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help.
She had been so proud to return with her recovered pieces of the Shikon jewel. But those pieces were nothing in comparison to what had been lost.
Tears blinded her and traced hot tracks down her cheeks. She had better cry now, because there would be no time or space for such displays with Kikyou. In fact, she was surprised that the revenant priestess had allowed her even this much time to say her farewells.
I’m so sorry.
“I have to go,” she said aloud, using the words to help calm herself. “I have to do this… I can’t leave Kikyou or the jewel unprotected. But when the jewel is safe, I’m going to bring it back here. Back where it belongs.” She paused, filled with a grim sense of purpose, suddenly more angry than sad. “And I’m going to find the one that did this, and I’m going to make him pay.”
She wasn’t sure how she would manage it, when she had barely managed to destroy Naraku’s puppet with help from Kikyou and Miroku. And yet if she had to choose, she would choose to be propelled by her anger rather than drowned by her sorrow.
She rose then, amid fresh drops of rain, and left the mass grave behind. One last time she walked the familiar streets of her home. She had been born here, grown up here. Had watched her mother die here, trying to give birth to what would have been Sango’s little sister. She’d looked after Kohaku here, had her first crush here, known her greatest friendships here. This was the place she had always thought she would return to, and the place where she had always imagined her future.
This was the place where she had planned to settle down with a husband one day, to have babies, to raise her family and train the next generation of slayers, to grow old, perhaps even to follow her father’s path and become leader of the village. And now none of that would ever be. So she walked through the ruins and put her future behind her.
She would have to find something else.
One corner of the building that had been the village forge remained stubbornly standing in spite of the destruction that had been wrought all around it, with only its edges burned away. She went there now and, using her sword because it was the only implement she had to hand, left a message graven there: Sango lives, and will return.
His head reverberating as if it had been struck like a bell, Naraku opened his eyes and found himself back in his own body where it was ensconced in the depths of Hitomi Castle. The room was pleasantly dark, though the thick strands of cobweb that clung in the corners and to the ceiling were new, most likely the tsuchigumo’s work as it watched over its lair. He might have been pleased that it chose to remain and protect this place, had his plans not just been spectacularly thwarted.
Damn that Kikyou…
He had not been prepared to encounter her in the hidden village of the slayers, and certainly not when his saimyoushou had given him no warning of her presence. In fact, until now he had preferred to believe that he merely dreamed she had returned to life. He couldn’t pretend anymore.
He supposed she must have killed the wasp he left to stand sentry over the village, rendering it unable to warn him. He hated her even more for having destroyed one of his wasps. And even worse, she had deprived him of his most powerful puppet to date and the piece of the Shikon jewel that had endued it with that power. How he wanted to break that woman’s neck before she could cause more trouble for him… If only he could get his hands on her without being destroyed by her power.
He would need to proceed carefully from here on out. Kikyou’s companions posed no real threat to him or his plans, though they might yet prove entertaining, but Kikyou herself was clearly a force to be reckoned with. He cursed whatever foul power had returned her to life at this crucial time. And then he got to work.
The puppet magic was second nature now and had become almost easy. Rather than requiring long hours or minutes of careful preparation, he could simply drop into the proper state of mental focus and watch as the puppet came together and the magic imbued it with life. Within minutes, a new “Naraku” knelt before him once more. This one was not augmented by the power of the Shikon no Tama—so no effortless shapeshifting for this one—but that was of little concern. This puppet should not need to engage directly with his enemies. He had something else in mind.
“Go,” he told the puppet. He sent a mental signal and was soon rewarded by the sound of saimyoushou buzzing from somewhere outside his room. They were ready to accompany the new puppet on its mission. "I require more pieces of the Shikon jewel. Bring them to me."
The puppet bowed its head in acknowledgment, then rose and departed. Now all that was left to do was wait, and gather his strength for the next part of his plan.