Actions

Work Header

Purity Zero

Chapter Text

Author’s Note:

Hiya!  Okay, so I just wanted to start by putting this in here.  It’s a reminder that the original story was written before the manga scroll Wind, where Kagura dies.  Because of that, it means that anything after that did not happen in this timeline, either, including Sesshoumaru’s arm and Bakusaiga (sob!!) … I know, I always said before that I wasn’t interested in writing this story, and I had a few reasons for it.  Firstly, there’s a lot of history that I’d have to make sure was accurate within the Purity universe.  Secondly, I don’t write a story unless there’s a clear idea in my head, and for a very long time, there wasn’t one for this.  Thirdly and this really is the big one, the main reason … Yes, Sesshoumaru could have (in the universe) resurrected Kagura with Tenseiga, but that’s … Well, it’s too easy, isn’t it?  What’s the point if you have centuries to cover and the whole premise starts with something as simple as swinging a mythical sword?  … Anyway, I got this kernel of an idea one night.  What if … What if … What if it’s not that simple?  What if he cannot save her with Tenseiga?  What would he do to get her back?  And just how would his journey to retrieve a lost soul change him?  So, that’s where I am.  Here it is: one of the stories I never thought I’d write. I won’t update this story again till Vivication is completely posted (a couple weeks), but here’s the prologue.   I hope you enjoy the journey of Purity Zero with me

 

 

~o~

 

 

~~Prologue~~
~The End~

 

~o~

 

 

The rumble of miscreant laughter filled the air.  “Ah, Sesshoumaru . . . How good of you to join us . . .”

“Naraku . . .”

Is this vile thing his true form?

Amber gaze flicking over the misshapen hanyou—a conglomeration of distorted tentacles, of grotesque and sickening grayish-green vines, all connected to the bloated and distended body that vaguely resembled a spider—Sesshoumaru’s eyes alone bespoke his absolute loathing as he slowly drew his sword, Tokijin.

“Sesshoumaru!  You bastard!  Just what the hell are you doing here?”

Casting his half-brother, the hanyou InuYasha, a momentary glare, Sesshoumaru drew the sword back, ready to strike.  “Stand down, InuYasha.  This is not your battle.”

“The fuck it ain’t!” InuYasha snarled.  “Why don’t you just go hide and watch while I kill Naraku?”

“You had your chances before,” Sesshoumaru pointed out coldly.  “If you get in the way, I’ll kill you, too.”

“Why, you—"

Naraku’s diabolical laughter rumbled in the air once more, cutting off InuYasha’s commentary.  “Allow me to extend the proper greeting for one such as you, Sesshoumaru—by absorbing you, too!”

Hopping back as those vines streaked across the barren ground, Sesshoumaru flicked the glowing green whip from his fingertips, burning the tentacles well before they could reach him, and with each strike, the severed limbs unleashed streams of miasma—jyaki—thick and putrid and foul . . . ‘Miserable vermin . . . Detestable abomination . . . Absorb This Sesshoumaru?  I think not . . .’

Lips curling back as he slashed Tokijin with a flash of light on the blade, the flicker of a bare hint of emotion, entirely out of place on Sesshoumaru’s grim countenance, the inu-youkai grunted slightly as the razor-sharp edge sliced through the tangle of living vines that tried to intercept him . . .

Those damned runners, shooting out of Naraku’s body, flying through the air just above the ground, the snaking tendrils, moving much too fast to avoid, and the best he could do was to slam Tokijin into the ground, the residual flash of blue energy and flashes of lightning—Souryuha—that reverberated outward from the blade, burning those runners before they could break through the makeshift barrier around him . . . The disgusting hanyou had managed to strengthen himself beyond what should have been possible—something that enraged Sesshoumaru . . .

Undaunted, Naraku shot out his plant-like tentacles, straight at Sesshoumaru once more, but Sesshoumaru was busy, flashing the energy whip from his fingertips, cutting down countless Saimyoushou in the process.  That fool houshi—one of InuYasha’s friends—was preparing to open the kazaana in his hand, despite the taijiya’s pleas for him not to do any such thing.  Sesshoumaru wasn’t doing it for him—kami, no—but he didn’t see the runners coming this time . . .

Kagura had been near enough to see it, though.  Without a second thought, she had stepped into the path of the lightning-fast runners. Five had impaled her at once, as Sesshoumaru whipped around, just in time to see those vines, slamming straight through the wind-youkai’s body, lifting her into the air, her head falling back as the softest gasp slipped past her lips.  He unleashed an enraged howl as he shredded the vines as though they were made of little more than paper in his haste to get to her.  As he reached her, as she closed her eyes, an oddly misplaced yet peaceful kind of smile, quirking the corners of her lips, and he had heard her one word: "Sesshoumaru . . ."

He barely noticed as the sparkling streak of a sacred arrow skimmed over the ground, as it joined with the steady pink glow of the dead miko’s arrow . . . They had exploded as they struck true, as they obliterated Naraku’s body with the force of InuYasha’s kaze no kizu following close behind.  Naraku’s screech died out slowly, carried by the gale force wind that had crashed down on them, only to fade out to nothing as the jyaki dissipated, as the unholy body that was once Naraku melted away.

“Kagura!” Sesshoumaru hissed, jamming Tokijin into the scabbard on his hip as he dropped to his knees to pull the broken body of the wind sorceress into his arm.  And the vicious growl that escaped him as he held her limp form . . . Holding her in one arm, he felt the red bleeding into his vision as a rage the likes of which he’d never felt before surged through him, growing louder and more malignant like a howling in his ears. . .

Suddenly, that smile that had remained on her face contorted, disappeared as a sharp and ragged gasp, as a harsh grimace, twisted her timeless features.  Eyes squeezing closed as she gasped once more, her body tensed against him, and his eyes flared wide as the sudden resonance of her beating heart erupted in his ears.

Her heart . . .?  Because . . . Because Naraku is dead . . .’

And that body that had been fighting so hard to heal itself . . . It wasn’t fast enough, was it?  Through the gaping holes in her chest, he could see it: the flow of blood that was hastened by the heart that was restored to her, only to become her worst enemy as it pumped it out faster than she could heal, the scarlet trail of blood that slipped from the corner of her lips . . .

Tightening his jaw, he ground his teeth together.  Somehow, somehow, the idea of allowing her to die here, amongst the destruction of the conflict, in this ignoble place, torn by the ravages of battle, rent by the violence that lingered in the air . . . Standing up, cradling her in his arm, he strode away, ignoring the voices that echoed in his wake, intent on the sound of her heart as it fluttered and struggled within her . . .

“Put . . . me down . . .” she murmured, her voice, tight, constricted, even as she struggled to mask the pain in her voice.  She shoved lightly at him to emphasize her point, but he ignored it.  She didn’t have enough strength to put up a fuss, anyway.

He stopped for a moment, glancing down at her hand, resting against the smudged armor that covered his clothing, and what he saw made him frown, made him blink.

That hand, so small, so delicate, marred with streaks of her blood, crusting around her fingernails . . . Something about the slight way that her fingers trembled, fluttered with the labored quality of her breathing . . .

“You’ll heal, Kagura,” he said, unsure where the words were coming from; unsure why he felt . . . compelled . . . to reassure her, at all.

She managed a quiet little laugh, almost more of a breath than a sound.  “I . . . I don’t know why I . . . My body . . . just moved . . .” Then, she sighed.  “That’s . . . a lie.  I . . . I wanted to . . . protect you . . .”

“. . . Arigatou gozaimashita,” he murmured.  It was a phrase he didn’t often say—couldn’t rightfully remember having ever said it before . . .

Sesshoumaru gritted his teeth as she gasped, whimpered, her body, tensing in his arm, her hand, balling into a fist that still rested against his chest.

Ever so slowly, she relaxed, and yet, he knew, didn’t he?  With every step he took, he could feel the waves of pain, rattling through her with the jarring motion, and before he could think about it too hard, he quickened his step, pushed off the ground, the end of his Mokomoko-sama, wrapping around his feet.

He didn’t think about where he was going.  It didn’t occur to him that he’d left Jaken and Rin back on the battlefield.  Nothing really mattered to him, at all, except that he wanted—needed—to get her somewhere peaceful—beautiful—somewhere far removed from the ugliness that he knew instinctively had been her entire life since her shameful beginnings . . .

And the feel of her hand, wrapped around a long strand of his hair, drew his attention, and he glanced down at her.  The vague and dreamy smile was back, but her gaze was clouded over, as though she didn’t really see him at all, and, with a sickening sense of understanding, he pushed himself farther, faster.  ‘She . . . She doesn’t have much time . . .

It was true.  Her pale skin was taking on a strangely sallow undertone, and it seemed to him that her skin was even sinking in around her cheeks, her eyes.  He could feel her body against his arm, his shoulder, and even through the fabric of his clothing, he could feel the drop in her body temperature.  Shrugging his shoulder, he managed to slip Mokomoko-sama down, allowed it to fall onto her in a vain attempt to replace some of the warmth that her body was losing entirely too quickly.

He landed just as the first stars of the night sky flickered to life high above.  He didn’t have to look around to know, just where he was.  Somehow, he’d brought her to his home—the castle on the cliff—the courtyard where the flowers grew in a chaotic order—in the farthest, eastern corner where the wisteria grew, thick and intoxicating, beside the steady, gurgling stream . . .

Sinking to his knees in the soft, soft grass, he gently settled her on his lap, helped her to rest her cheek against his chest, just below the spikes of his armor, lost in the softness of the Mokomoko-sama, both white and crimson—stained with her blood.

The sounds of the night creatures sprang to life, one by one, and the breeze that descended smelled like her, brushed over his skin like a taunt, a tease, a vengeful gentleness.  Her breathing was labored, shallow, and he frowned over her head, unable to reconcile the vast ache that opened up, deep within his chest.

“What . . . is this . . . place . . .?” she mumbled, her eyes slowly clearing as she looked around.  He’d thought that she had fallen asleep.  He was wrong, and the sound of her voice, weak as it was, was both welcoming and yet, ghastly, too, even if he didn’t know why.

“This is . . . my home,” he replied.

“Your . . . home . . . It’s . . . beautiful . . .”

He grimaced.  She did not see it.  “It’s just a place,” he told her.  “It is peaceful, though.”

“Why did you . . . bring me . . . here?” she asked quietly, breathily.

“I . . . I don’t know,” he said.  It was the truth . . . or was it . . .? “I did not think about it.  I just flew.”

She managed a very small, soft laugh, and it was missing the harsher edges that her laughter had once held.  “Thank . . . you . . .”

Holding onto her for a painful heartbeat, he drew a deep breath—could she feel it?  Then, he slipped her off his lap and stood, drawing Tenseiga, holding it upright, resting the flat side of the blade against his forehead.  ‘Speak to me, Tenseiga . . .’

The sword remained silent as the evening shadows crept closer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter One~~
~Once Upon a Time~

 

~o~

 

 

Take my . . . feather . . . Will you . . . think about me . . . every now and . . . then . . .?

Tightening his grip on the hilt of Tenseiga—he didn’t know when he’d taken hold of it—Sesshoumaru strode through the blackness, along the narrow and crumbling path.  On either side of the sometimes less than a foot-wide trail was fathomless void, and the place was silent—silent as the grave—so still that his footfalls resounded like claps of almighty thunder on the dull, dank dirt.

The echoes of Kagura’s last words rang in his ears, reverberated in his brain in a whisper, in a breath.

His fingers had been shaking when he’d reached out to take the feather that she’d managed to pull from her hair.  Only then did she smile, her expression taking on such a peace, such a sadness that shone through the somber joy . . . And the tightening in his chest—the foreign burning just behind his eyelids . . . He did not understand it, did he?

He couldn’t comprehend it; not when the darkest rage, the deepest frustration, and a strange sense of being lost seemed to crash down on him all at once as the light had faded from those magenta eyes—eyes so dark that they bordered upon crimson in that moment . . .

Emotion the likes of which he’d never felt before, and none of it made any sense.

He’d slain innumerable youkai, humans, beings over the centuries of his life.  If they were fool enough to step into his path, he had little issue with removing them the most expedient way possible.  But with every life that he’d ended, had he ever stopped, thought about it?  Had he ever cared?

No, he hadn’t, and, truthfully, the cumulative losses didn’t bother him, even now.  So, why?  Why Kagura?  Why did her death touch him?  Why was the sudden realization that she was lost to him . . . open an ache somewhere deep within him . . .?

But . . . Don’t you know why?  You’re here, after all.  You know—

It is simple curiosity that brings me here; nothing more, nothing less.

Simple curiosity?  Is that what you’re telling yourself?  You’ve come here, of all places.  You left Jaken and Rin to fend for themselves, and—

I know what I’ve done,’ he interrupted coldly.  ‘Those two are fine.  Jaken knows the way home.

The youkai-voice in his head heaved a heavy sigh, but it remained silent otherwise.

He’d never watched anyone die before—at least, not like that.  He’d seen his fair share of death, had seen the aftermath of bodies and blood and the unrelenting heartache on occasion.  But he hadn’t really bothered to witness it; not really.  Always before, he’d stood apart, had watched as people buried their dead, and he’d always held it all with a certain level of detachment.  He really hadn’t understood the tears, the overwhelming mourning, that he’d born witness to.  He’d thought that humans were an ignorant lot, unable to grasp the absolutely pathetic way in which they existed.  Their lives were too short, too brief, too futile, and he supposed that he’d felt little aside from a generalized scorn for them, at best.

But he’d watched Kagura die—watched and felt the impotence that consumed him as though from the depths of the deepest chasm, unable to help her, unable to sway Tenseiga into compliance, no matter how much he willed it to be so.  Within the confines of his own mind, he’d come as close to begging as he’d ever had before, and yet, the sword remained dormant.

It was content to allow her to die, and the anger—the resentment—that swelled within him at that realization—it was almost . . .

And he’d buried her under the tallest wisteria, used his own hand to dig the grave.  As he’d stood there, looking down at her, her face still holding onto that sense of peace, despite the idea that she’d left her body behind—one last indignity, maybe, heaped upon a half-life, spent, tied to a monster.  Perhaps that was the reason why the rage boiled so thick, so hot, inside him.  Grinding his teeth together, he’d let his gaze fall to Tenseiga, but the very image of his legacy sword only served to thicken the outrage that he felt.  He’d started to lay Tenseiga in with her, but one wild thought had stopped him, had stilled his hand when he’d grasped the misbegotten sword.

He still needed it—for now—just for now . . .

The realm of the afterlife—the dominion of hell—Yomi no Kuni, the realm of the dead . . .

He could not save her, but he wasn’t ready to let her go, either . . .

Sesshoumaru . . .

. . . I know.

There was someone following him.  He could sense him, even if he could not see or smell him.  He chose to ignore him.

You won’t confront him?

This Sesshoumaru cares not.  Whoever it is . . . Let him come.

Once again, his youkai-voice fell silent.

It was . . . perplexing.  He didn’t sense any kind of animosity.  In fact, he sensed nothing at all, and that was strange enough.  Ordinarily, it would have irritated him enough to turn on the follower, to cut him down without a second thought.  At the moment, however . . . Well, he really couldn’t be bothered . . .

He’d wanted to kill Naraku himself.  He had meddled in Sesshoumaru’s affairs just a little too often, and he hadn’t really considered the idea that Kagura would throw herself into the fray, too.  When he’d spotted that ignorant half-brother of his, along with his friends, fighting the ghastly debacle that was Naraku, he had only stepped in to gain his own revenge, galled that it would have to come on the coattails of his half-brother and InuYasha’s human friends . . .

But Kagura . . .

Why had she done something as foolhardy as that?  Even if they had struck Sesshoumaru, he would have survived.  He was much stronger than the pitiful likes of her master, after all.  The idea that someone as wretched as Naraku could have ended his life?  ‘I think not.

And yet, he could not get the expression on Kagura’s face out of his mind, either, that overwhelming sense of peace that had settled over her.  As those magnificent eyes of hers had taken in the tranquility of the garden, it had seemed as though the pain of her ravaged body didn’t touch her—or maybe . . . Maybe it couldn’t touch her.  That might be more accurate to say.  As though her mind might be able to block out the consuming and overwhelming pain . . . Was that even possible?

Or maybe . . . maybe it was simply being with you that comforted her, Sesshoumaru.  Have you considered that?

That would be entirely self-serving, wouldn’t it?  It had nothing to do with me.

If . . . If they hadn’t defeated Naraku, she would have lived.  It was something he tried not to think about, even though it was entirely true.  Kagura did not possess a heart.  Naraku had held onto it, kept it from her—kept her from being free.  Even if her body had been torn to shreds, she still might have survived it, had she not had possession of her heart.

He’d seen it for himself.  Months ago, when InuYasha had faced down Hakudoshi, he’d watched from afar as the hanyou had unleashed the kaze no kizu on the incarnation.  It had ripped the child’s body to bits and pieces, and yet, somehow, the pieces had been drawn back together later, and it made sense that, as long as his heart was held elsewhere, the body had no choice but to heal itself . . .

And killing Naraku?  It had also killed off all of those who were unwillingly bound to him, too—one way or another.  If Kagura’s heart hadn’t been restored in those crucial moments . . .

His frown deepened.  None of that mattered now.  Nothing could change the past.  All he could do was to follow this path, to find out if there was anything that he could possibly do . . . In truth, he wasn’t sure how long he’d been traveling.  Simple to think that it would lead him where he ultimately wanted to go.  The real question was, just what could he do once he got there . . .?

Blinking as the engulfing blackness lightened gradually, Sesshoumaru drew to a stop as something stirred in the murkiest shadows before him.  The path seemed to widen, and as he stood, watching, as the darkness brightened to a hazy dusk, he slowly shifted his gaze around at the ocean of eyes that were suddenly staring back at him, growing brighter a they drew nearer.  A hundred yards separated him from them, but he could feel the malevolence in their collective aura.

They had no bodies, were little more than misshapen, black blobs, and only their eyes separated them from mere tricks of light and shadow.  As they drew a little closer, he sensed it: the malice, the hostility, was directed at him—only at him.

The souls of the ones you’ve killed.

Sesshoumaru stepped forward, unwilling to retreat.  If he had to make his way through them in order to get to the guardian of his world, then so be it.  “Come,” he spoke, just that one word.

The spirits rushed in on him.

 


 

 

Tou-chan!  Tou-chan!  Will you play with me?

Sesshoumaru opened his eyes, frowned at the stark whiteness surrounding him.  He could make out nothing, as far as where he was, what he was about.  He stood on a floorless ground without beginning or end.  ‘Where . . . am I?’

An insistent tug on his hand made him look down at the small child—a boy—a dog-youkai with raven hair and bright amber eyes, no more than three years old.  He smiled up at Sesshoumaru, those eyes clear, bright, the black of his hair, so stark against the fog that enveloped them, and the shape of his face . . .

Who . . . are you . . .?” Sesshoumaru demanded, though not unkindly.

The boy laughed.  “Kaa-chan says I should leave you alone ‘cause you’re so busy, but you promised you’d play with me!

I . . . did . . .?

Another round of childish laughter that was entirely familiar to him . . . “I’ll go hide, tou-chan!  Come find me!  Then will you tell me the stories?  Your hunt for Naraku with Yasha-oji-chan?

And he carted around on his heel, grasping the waistband of his strange hakama—more like trousers, really, but of a strange kind of cloth that Sesshoumaru had never seen before.  Then, he was gone: disappearing in the thickness of the white mist . . .

Eyes flashing open wide, Sesshoumaru blinked as the blackness seemed to press in on him from all sides.  Pushing himself up, he stood slowly, furiously trying to brush off the void of unconsciousness that he’d just woken from.  The spirits had overwhelmed him—he’d allowed them to do it, even if he wasn’t sure, why.  Every one of those spirits had touched him, imparting him with a lifetime of their memories in an instant . . . Good things, bad things, terrible things, wonderful things . . . Every thought, every breath, and the consuming circle of light and dark that comprised a soul . . . The isolated moments that made up the crux of a life, ended too soon . . .

And every one of those spirits . . . They’d poured those memories into him in a blink of an eye, in a fraction of a moment . . .

He’d passed out, and then . . .

It was a dream, wasn’t it?  The black-haired child, the pervasive whiteness.  Somehow, though, there was something entirely too familiar about that child, even if Sesshoumaru had no idea, just why he’d think that.  He’d never seen him before, and he didn’t know who he was.  Still . . .

“It was a test.”

Blinking as his gaze shot to the side, he narrowed his eyes as a solitary figure suddenly lit up in the center of the platform, now empty and desolate—and void.  He could see nothing of the man’s face, his body.  Wrapped in a strange kind of cloak that covered him from head to toe, a deep hood that prevented Sesshoumaru from even seeing his eyes, he sat on a lump of dirt.  He bore no scent, no markers.  Was he a spirit?  A figment of his imagination?  “Who are you?” he demanded quietly, no less forcefully.

The being chuckled.  It wasn’t unkind, but there was a certain mocking to it, and it grated on Sesshoumaru’s nerves.  “Come with me.”

For the briefest of moments, Sesshoumaru considered, ignoring the order.  Following someone else’s dictates was never one of his strong suits.  Still . . .

But he said nothing as he trailed behind the unknown entity.

He sighed almost melodramatically.  “It won’t work, you know.  You can’t gain an audience with her unless you’re extended an invitation—and those from the land of the living are never extended that courtesy.”

“Her?”

“Izanami no Mikoto,” he replied.  “The ruler of this place.”

“Where are you taking me, then?”

“You came to see Kaze no Kagura, didn’t you?”

“Why would you take me there?”

“Would you rather blunder about here for days?  Years?  Time passes differently here than it does on earth.  Would it interest you to know that you’ve been wandering around here already for nearly two of your days?”  He stopped, turned as though to face Sesshoumaru, but his face was hidden within the darkest recesses of the hood.  “Tell me, why do you wish to see her?”

“She should not have died,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “That is reason enough.”

The hooded figure slowly nodded.  “I see.  You realize, don’t you?  You . . . You may not like what you find.”

“She doesn’t belong here,” Sesshoumaru murmured, resuming the path, ignoring the unknown guide.

“You might as well give up if she’s eaten the food of the dead,” he warned, hurrying forward to catch up with the Lord of the Western Lands.  “Once a soul has done that, they cannot be returned, no matter what.”

“And has she done that?”

The being sighed.  It escaped him like a gust of wind in the dank stillness, and there was no bravado in the sound this time.  “There’s no way to know without seeing her,” he admitted.  “This place . . . It does not intertwine.  Everyone is placed into their own, private versions of what they’ve wrought in life, so what you’ll find is as good a guess as mine.”

Gaze shifting slowly from side to side, struggling to find any kind of light—anything at all—in the vacuum-like darkness, Sesshoumaru kept walking.  “And why are you helping me?  Did someone send you?”

Again, that chuckle.  “Not at all.  Let’s just say I was . . . bored, and leave it at that.  You can call me Jester, by the by.”

“Jester?” he repeated.  “A fool for the entertainment of others?”

“Close enough,” he said.  He sounded rather amused.  “It seems . . . apropos, don’t you think?”  Sesshoumaru said nothing in response as the being suddenly veered to the right onto a path that appeared out of nowhere.  It was a short one, and he stopped at a closed metal door.  “Here we are, but . . . But are you sure you really want to see her?  Like I said, I cannot guarantee that you’ll like what you find here, and . . . and if it’s not what you wish to see, then there’s a good chance that you will suffer, maybe more so, than you did when she died the first time.”

“I will see her,” Sesshoumaru said, cracking his knuckles in his impatience to get on with it.

“Something you must know before I open the door,” Jester said, catching Sesshoumaru by the shoulder to hold him back, and the hand that he used, encased in a black glove, was solid.  “She cannot see you.  The dead cannot see the living.  Cannot see you, cannot hear you, will never realize that you’re even here, which is good, given that you cannot try to warn her against eating food she might be offered if she hasn’t already.”

“Why not?”

Jester shrugged.  The robes he wore whispered with the movement.  “Think of it as a game,” he replied.  “A really warped and twisted kind of game.  After all, Izanami no Mikoto has had a lot of free time on her hands.”

That said, he turned and held up a hand, emitting a shimmering, dim light that seemed to dissolve the door entirely.

He did not try to follow as Sesshoumaru stepped past him and through the doorway.  This room, like all the whole place, was empty, with just the dusty floor, and for a moment, Sesshoumaru didn’t sense, didn’t feel, anyone at all.

A weak hiss, a flicker of light that grew steadily brighter, even if still dulled by the pervasive darkness, floated past him.  Jester had tossed a small ball of flame that glowed in shades of somber blues that hung, suspended in the air, beside Sesshoumaru, and in that light, he finally spotted her.

The same, shapeless, blackened form, those magenta eyes that stared right through him.  She hovered near the far wall, but the eyes haunted him.  Such a vagueness, such a blankness, and he could feel it now, couldn’t he?  The unyielding sense of sadness, of a melancholy so deep, so harsh, that it . . . it hurt . . .

“Kagura . . .”

“She hasn’t eaten . . . yet,” Jester remarked, still lingering on the other side of the doorway.  “If she had, then she’d possess a more familiar form . . . Good . . . Good . . .”

“If she bears no form, but cannot hear or see me, then how was it that those souls did earlier?”

Jester shrugged.  “They didn’t hear you or see you.  You killed them all, didn’t you?  And their souls bear that in their absolute cores.  You cut their lives short, and somewhere, deep within them, they reacted to you—an instinct, if you will.  When your life is ended in such a senseless and abrupt manner, then you retain that hatred long after.  It will never be assuaged, and it will never be forgotten.  It’s why souls that are reincarnated are prone to instantly despise another upon first glance.  It’s why certain others are drawn inexorably toward one another in love.  It’s a bond, good or ill, that never goes away.”

“So . . . Those pitiful souls will bear their grudge against me forever.”

Jester nodded.  “That sounds about right.”

Sesshoumaru nodded once.  In truth, he didn’t care, but the answers that Jester gave were interesting . . . Turning his attention back to Kagura once more, he frowned.  “I’ll find a way to bring you back,” he said, unsure why the vision of her made him feel . . . “I vow this to you, Kagura.  I won’t leave you here.”

For the briefest of moments, Kagura’s eyes seemed to clear, seemed to stare right into his, before that vagueness resurfaced once more.

Jester sighed.  “Okay, you’ve seen her.  Now, it’s time you left.”

 


 

 

Wandering along the barren cliff, the wind off the water, blowing over him as he shifted his gaze without truly seeing, as he wondered, yet again, if he could have done something differently.  Holding Kagura’s feather between his fingers, he slowly rolled it as he stared off over the horizon.  The wind felt like little more than a mocking reminder, a hateful friend, carrying with it the scent of her, and if he listened close enough, he could discern the vague sound of her laughter . . .

But he could not reach her; not now . . .

Three days since he’d returned home.  Seven days since he’d helped to defeat Naraku.

He was no closer to finding a way to bring her back than he was when he’d left the afterworld.

In the end, Jester had accompanied him back to the gates that separated this world and the world of the living.  The gatekeepers—Gozu and Mezu—had allowed him to pass unscathed.  Tenseiga was useful in this, at least.

It won’t work, you know.  You can’t gain an audience with her unless you’re extended an invitation—and those from the land of the living are never extended that courtesy.”

So, all he needed was to gain audience with Izanami no Mikoto . . . but how . . .?

Surely, there was someone, somewhere, who could accomplish such a thing.  Just because Jester maintained that no one had ever done so before didn’t mean that it couldn’t be done.  The trick would be, finding someone who might well have the ability to arrange it . . . Maybe someone like . . .

“Sesshoumaru-sama!”

He didn’t turn to face the imp as Jaken hurried toward him.  Tamping down a surge of irrational rage that he would be interrupted for any reason, he said nothing as he stowed the feather into his armor once more—under his breastplate—over his heart.

“Sesshoumaru-sama!  I have news!  They say he’s gone—InuYasha-sama . . . They say he followed that miko—that he can never return!”

That got his attention readily enough.  Turning his head, narrowing his gaze on the imp, Sesshoumaru glowered at him.  “Who says this?”

Jaken was still trying to catch his breath, huffing and puffing as he bent over, leaning heavily upon the Staff of Two Heads—Nintoujou.  “The . . . The taijiya and the houshi—and the kitsune.  They say he’s gone; that he can’t come back . . .”

Considering that, he was almost ready to dismiss the claims.  “And how would you have come by this information?”

Jaken grimaced, rubbing at a small lump on the side of his head—one that Sesshoumaru hadn’t noticed right away, probably because he hadn’t truly cared to notice.  “They’re here,” he replied.  “They wanted to speak with you.  I told them to go away, that you don’t have time for the likes of them, but that houshi—he’s got a short temper, milord!  He hit me with that staff of his!”

“Where are they?” Sesshoumaru demanded, pivoting on his heel and starting away before Jaken could reply.

“They are waiting at the castle, milord!” Jaken called after him, scrambling in vain to keep up.  “Wait for me, Sesshoumaru-sama!”

Sesshoumaru ignored him as he seemed to step off the ground, the floating end of his Mokomoko-sama curling around his feet, propelling him forward much faster than he could walk to cover the ground faster.

“InuYasha . . .” he murmured to himself, gaze clouding over as he pondered just what Jaken had said.  The baka was gone, was he?  He’d followed the human miko?  But . . .

A few minutes later, he stepped off the plush fur, following the sounds of Rin, the human child’s, laughter.  It was coming from the gardens behind the castle—her favorite place to play.  He could feel their auras, as well.

The young one was darting about, collecting flowers in her small hands that she brought over to present to the taijiya.  They were content to humor her, but even so, Sesshoumaru frowned as he approached.  “Rin, go inside,” he ordered.

She turned her little head up, smiling at him in that endearing way of hers.  She didn’t argue with him, and instead, bowed to their visitors before darting inside.

No one spoke right away.  As though they were all busy, trying to size one another up, they said nothing.

“What do you want?” Sesshoumaru finally demanded, rapidly tiring of the petty game that was playing out before him.

“We . . . Well . . .” the taijiya began a little slowly, almost hesitantly, as though she wasn’t entirely certain, where to start.  She shot the houshi a quick glance, even as a grim kind of determination surfaced on her features.  “We thought we should tell you about InuYasha . . . We thought that you should know . . .”

“That he followed that human miko?” Sesshoumaru countered.  “I am aware.”

Miroku stepped forward, as though he meant to insinuate himself between taijiya and Sesshoumaru—an entirely worthless gesture, really, but Sesshoumaru dismissed it.  “I mean, you’ll probably see him again one day . . . That is, if you live long enough.”

Cocking an eyebrow, Sesshoumaru eyed the houshi for a moment.  “Meaning?”

The two exchanged looks, as though they were trying to figure out how much they should say.  “Kagome-chan’s from the future,” Sango finally replied.  “Five hundred years in the future, to be exact.  The well that connected the times was closed.  We assume that she managed to purify the Shikon no Tama.  She must have wished Kikyou-sama back to life, because she was the one who was able to reopen the well for InuYasha to pass through.”

A well . . .?  The future . . .

Somehow, that made sense, didn’t it?  After all, the miko had always seemed a little out of place, even amongst the humans.  He supposed it might account for a lot of it, all things considered.  But InuYasha followed her?  ‘Baka . . .

“And why are you telling me this?” Sesshoumaru countered.  “You think that where that ignorant half-breed is or isn’t should be of any interest to This Sesshoumaru?”

“Actually, we were just in the area,” Miroku said quietly, his violet gaze blazing with an unvoiced irritation.  “We were asked to check an abandoned shrine not far from here.  We just thought, since we were nearby . . .”

Turning his back on the humans, Sesshoumaru shifted his gaze around the garden—the riot of flowers and the gentle flow of water in the nearby reflection pond.  Enclosed as the garden was by the looming walls of the castle on three sides, it created a kind of sanctuary, he supposed, and, over in the far, eastern corner: a beautiful little alcove that was enclosed by a riot of wisteria, and beneath the tallest wisteria that bloomed every summer there . . .

Sesshoumaru flicked away the thought as though it was of little consequence.  Not at all the truth, but . . . “Isn’t it dangerous for the two of you?  Traveling with a youkai child and a nekomata . . . One might think that you were inviting trouble.”

“We’d never leave either of them behind,” Sango remarked tightly, obviously taking offense at Sesshoumaru’s rather pointed question.

“And you . . . Do you care not to take the kitsune exams?” he continued, ignoring Sango’s statement entirely, as he flicked his gaze to the youngest of the group, Shippou.

“Exams?” Shippou echoed, shaking his head in confusion.

Sesshoumaru let that go.  After all, what did he care, really, whether or not the kitsune received the education that he should have been acquiring all along?

“Anyway, we thought that you might want to know,” Miroku stated.  “Regardless of how you feel about InuYasha, he’s still your half-brother, isn’t he?”

That only earned a slight narrowing of his gaze as the monk met his look without hesitation.  Something about the exchange bothered the human.  It did not matter to Sesshoumaru.

“We’ll be going now,” Miroku said, ending the rather stilted silence that had fallen.

They moved to leave.  Sesshoumaru didn’t attempt to stop them.  Slowly, though, his gaze shifted to the side, and he watched their retreat out of the corner of his eyes for a minute.  Venturing into his domain?  That took some fortitude, didn’t it?  Even so . . .

“Jaken,” Sesshoumaru called, knowing that the imp wasn’t far behind.

“Milord!” Jaken wheezed since he’d had to run the entire way back.

Sesshoumaru started walking away again, back the way he’d come.  “Escort them to the borderlands,” he commanded without stopping.  “Make sure no harm befalls them—or I’ll kill you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Two~~
~Stalemate~

 

~o~

 

 

“Sesshoumaru-sama!  I caught a bird!”

Sesshoumaru turned and glanced at Rin, who was speeding toward him with a small bird, held carefully between her hands.  It was fluttering, or at least, trying to, and even where he stood, he could hear the frenetic sound of the creature’s beating heart.  “Are you going to eat it?” he asked her, arching an eyebrow to emphasize his question.

She stopped abruptly, cocking her precocious head to the side as she peered up at him.  “Well, no-o-o-o-o . . .”

“You shouldn’t catch wild animals unless you’re going to eat them,” he reminded her since he’d told her that before, too.

She bit her lip, lifted her hands to stare at the bird.  “Oh . . . That’s right!  I forgot,” she said, tossing the bird gently into the air.  It caught itself and took off as Rin cupped her hands over her eyes to watch it fly away.  “Do you eat everything you kill?”

“I don’t kill animals,” he replied.

“Just annoying youkai—and human girls who talk too much,” Jaken added.

“Hey!” Rin exclaimed, turning on the imp, her hands balled into fists and propped on her small hips.  “That’s not true!”

Jaken snorted, lifting his head arrogantly.  “Well, it ought to be!”

Rin shook her head.  “You have such a small heart.”

“Jaken.”

Cut off from the retort he’d been forming, the imp spun around to face his master.  “Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama?”

“Take Rin back to the castle,” he said as he started to walk away.

“Where are you going, Sesshoumaru-sama?  Can I go, too?” Rin asked, hurrying after him.

Sesshoumaru stopped, peered down at the child.  “Stay with Jaken,” he told her.

She looked crestfallen for a moment.  Then she sighed.  “Will you be gone long?”

“As long as I need to be,” he told her.

She broke into a bright grin and nodded then dashed back over to Jaken, who looked entirely irritated to be left behind, and with the child, no less.  Sesshoumaru walked away without looking back.

InuYasha was gone?  Into the future, if the taijiya and houshi were to be believed . . . Sesshoumaru wasn’t sure that he bought into that whole thing.  After all, something like that simply wasn’t possible.

Are you really one to judge, what may or may not be possible?  Aren’t you, too, seeking to accomplish something that should not be possible, as well?  And, if what InuYasha has done really is possible, then maybe . . .

That ignorant half-breed is not my concern.  That he is no longer of this world?  That only serves to prove just how foolish he really was.  Leaving those humans to fend for themselves?  Ignoble, at best . . . Treating the ones who helped him defeat Naraku since he was too weak to do so alone as nothing more than an afterthought?  It speaks volumes about one of his ilk . . .

Except that he went after his mate, and that should mean something, too.

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes, kept moving.  ‘Mates?  Mates, indeed . . . There is no such thing as mates—not in such a lasting way—not in a way that should ever matter.  If there were . . .

If there were, then your father would never have left your mother—never would have created that abomination of a half-brother of yours, either, right?  That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?  And yet, your father favored InuYasha, didn’t he?  If he didn’t, then why would he have left him Tetsusaiga . . .?

That matters not . . . Not anymore.

Not since you learned that the true reason he left InuYasha that sword was to restrain his youkai blood.  However . . .

Which is neither here nor there.  What is done is done.  Let it die.

That’s fine, too.  The truth is nothing more than what you choose to believe, after all . . . Anyway, your original thought that mates aren’t real . . . If that’s true, then tell me—if you’re right—if mates aren’t really forever—then why are you going to such lengths to find out if there might be some way to bring her back?

It’s mere curiosity; that’s all.  I would know why Tenseiga didn’t react to her.  What good is a sword of life if This Sesshoumaru must obey its whims?

So, it’s nothing more than a question of your legacy sword, then.  I see . . .

He didn’t deign to answer his youkai-voice.  It really wouldn’t do any good, anyway.  What he hated about the whole situation, he reasoned, was the deplorable feeling that he’d been entirely impotent when faced with the question of life and death.  Tenseiga . . . It should obey his will, and it did not.  If it had . . . No, better to concentrate on the things he could do . . .

It would have taken him three days if he’d had to stop to accommodate the child and imp.  He could reach his destination much faster without them.

He’d been considering it for a while now, and, though a part of him said that he was being ridiculous, a part of him couldn’t quite let go of it, either—not until he knew that he’d exhausted every possibility that he could think of . . .

Maybe, if he didn’t feel her presence so strongly, every time the wind blew, every time it touched him, lingered on his skin like a breath or a caress . . . Maybe, if he didn’t see that damned expression on her face in those final moments every time he closed his eyes . . . Maybe if he could forget that sad and lonely look on her face when she’d come to him, had fallen from the skies with a hole in her chest from Goryoumaru’s attack to give him a crystal made out of Gakusanjin's youki . . . That woman . . . She came to him in his dreams, but those dreams faded when he opened his eyes.  There was something in those dreams—something that he knew instinctively meant something, and if he could remember them, then it might point him in the right direction.

The sense that the knowledge he required lay just beyond his comprehension, his grasp . . .

It was infuriating.

He was the one who made demands, the one who bent others to his will.  He gave no sway to anyone else, and, if there was a way to bend the very whims of nature—even death—then he would find that way.  The earth would yield to Sesshoumaru.

Or he would destroy it.

 


 

 

“Sesshoumaru-sama . . . So, it really is you.  I heard the whispers of the foolish trees, the rumors on the wind . . . You and InuYasha-sama . . . You defeated Naraku—together as the Brothers of the Fang.”

Stopping before the ancient magnolia-tree-youkai, Sesshoumaru narrowed his gaze, gave one curt nod.  Slowly, with groans and creaks, the trunk of the tree rearranged itself, seemed to split open to reveal the face of the youkai.  His eyes opened slowly, registering a trace surprise.  “And yet, something displeases you, does it not?” the ancient youkai mused.

Sesshoumaru did not confirm or deny it.  “I am not here to rehash that,” he replied.  “I have come for your counsel.”

Bokusenou chuckled.  It rattled the boughs of the old tree as the trembling leaves created a gentle whisper that filled the tiny clearing.  “My counsel, is it?  You, of all people?  Ah, then tell me, son of the great Inu no Taisho, what is it that you would have of me?”

“What do you know of Yomi no Kuni?”

Bokusenou looked surprised by Sesshoumaru’s question.  “The shadow-land of the dead?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been there before, have you not?”

“That has nothing to do with this.”

“Hmm, I see . . . What do you wish to know?”

Sesshoumaru gave no outward change in expression, even as he bristled inwardly.  That he was being forced to ask for a favor was bad enough.  There really was no choice, though, given that he’d already tried—and failed.  It was the only way; his pride be damned.  “I require an invitation from Izanami no Mikoto.”

Bokusenou’s amusement died away as his eyes bulged slightly, standing in a strange sort of relief from the stout tree trunk.  “Izanami?  Why would you want such a thing?”

“That is none of your concern,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “Can you arrange it or know you of someone who can?”

“Possibly, but I’ve heard it said that interfering with one’s destiny can offset the future.”

“She never should have died,” Sesshoumaru growled.

Bokusenou considered that for a long moment, his gnarled old face, contorting in a few more wrinkles that made him blend into the trunk of the tree once more.  “This ‘she’ . . . So, you wish to return a soul to the living . . . and your Tenseiga would not save her?”

Grinding his teeth together so hard that his jaw ached, Sesshoumaru had to force himself to answer.  “No, it would not.”

The old youkai sighed, drawing another shiver and rustle from the leaves and branches as they swayed overhead.  “You should know, Sesshoumaru-sama . . . if Tenseiga rejects your will, there is always a good reason for it.  The woman—whoever she is . . . Perhaps she is better off to remain dead.”

“And I say she is not.  Can you assist me or do I need to look elsewhere?”

Bokusenou’s boughs rumbled as he seemed to ponder Sesshoumaru’s question.  “Am I to assume that you already passed through the gates, only to be turned away?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the old vassal that it was none of his business.  Suddenly, though, the invisible fingers of a delicate breeze brushed over his cheek, and he smothered a sigh.  “I was told that I could only get answers if I was invited,” he admitted.

“That is no simple request,” Bokusenou muttered.

“So, you cannot arrange it.  Know you of one who can?”

Bokusenou uttered a terse grunt—an offended sort of sound.  “I did not say that I cannot.  You do not wear impatience very well, Sesshoumaru-sama.  Give me until the first light of dawn.  I’ll see what I can do.”

 


 

 

The stars hung thick and low in the sky.  Above the trees, they stretched out on the midnight blanket, too innumerable to count.  Cold and somber, almost sad, they seemed, and yet . . .

Funny how he hadn’t really noticed them that much before, if he ever really had.  Many were the times when he’d look off, over the horizon, and he’d notice the stars in a vague kind of way, but he wasn’t sure when or if he’d really looked at them before, either.

Reclined comfortably in the forked boughs of a tall sugi pine tree, Sesshoumaru blinked slowly, savoring the feel of the breeze—warm and almost sultry—against his skin.

He could feel the wind better up here, could smell the scents carried upon it.

Idly toying with the pristine white feather, held between his fingertips, he slowly, almost methodically, rolled it back and forth, willing himself to find a level of patience that he was far from feeling.

“. . . You do not wear impatience very well, Sesshoumaru-sama . . .”

No, he didn’t suppose that he did . . .

It was a long shot, and he knew it.  Even so, Bokusenou was the only being that he could think of that was ancient enough to know some way of wheedling the necessary invitation out of Izanami no Mikoto.  The belief was that Izanami died in childbirth of one of her kami-children, and she was sent to the underworld—Yomi no Kuni—the land of the dead, and when her mate ventured there to find her and bring her back, he realized that, because she’d eaten the food of the dead, her once-beautiful form had been ravaged, decayed, and was rotting away, eaten by maggots and other unsightly vermin.  The woman he found had frightened him, and he’d run away, leaving her behind to escape back to the living world.  She was enraged, and she’d sent her servants to stop him.  They had failed, and she’d caught up to him herself, just as he reached the gates that separated the realms, and in her anger, she had vowed to kill a thousand people every day.  He retaliated in kind, claiming that he would ensure that there were fifteen-hundred born daily, too.

Izanami was the ruler of Yomi no Kuni—and if Sesshoumaru had any hope of restoring Kagura to life, then he had to find a way to meet with her, to bargain with her, if need be.

But you remember what Jester said.  A living being, being granted audience with her?  Such a thing has never been done before, and, if you stop and consider it, it’s entirely possible that she may not like the idea that you hold a weapon such as Tenseiga.

He’d considered that.  After all, most rulers didn’t take kindly to others who could rival them in power, and Tenseiga could easily level the playing field in such a way.

His lip curled as a highly cynical half-smile surfaced on his face.  ‘When it feels like cooperating, that is.

So, you want to bring her back?  And then, what?

That question irritated him.  Given that it was second-nature to despise being questioned by anyone for any reason, it wasn’t entirely surprising—even when the questions came from that voice that was held somewhere deep inside him.  ‘And then . . . Does it matter?

Doesn’t it matter?  Why do you wish to bring her back so badly?  What is it about her that compels you so?

And you do not know the answers to your own questions?’ he parried.

The voice chuckled softly—a rumble that was warm, even if it held an edge of condescension.  ‘I know the answers, Sesshoumaru.  I simply wondered if you do.

Then enlighten me.

And where would the challenge be in that?  You know, don’t you, that the most worthwhile things in life are learned through experience.  Giving answers to the tougher questions avails you nothing—nothing at all.

Spare me the lectures.  This Sesshoumaru does not need them.

It was entirely her fault, wasn’t it?

His frown turned a little more introspective as he flicked the feather against his lips, as he savored—and hated—the smell of her that lingered on it.

He didn’t know when the first time was that he’d truly noticed her.  Certainly, he hadn’t seen her as anything more than an extension of Naraku from the start.  A woman with audacity—one who sought to manipulate him into doing her bidding, knowing that she was not in the position to free herself from Naraku’s grasp, so she’d tried her best to proposition him—to get him to go after Naraku for her own reasons—for her freedom.

Still, he could forgive that, he supposed.  After all, it was the way of the world, wasn’t it? When it came right down to it, all people were only truly interested in things that benefitted them.  She was more straightforward than most of them, and that, in his opinion, spoke volumes . . .

He’d flushed her out of the trees where she’d been watching.  He’d been off with Jaken, looking for Kaijinbou, whom he had ordered to forge a sword for him—Tokijin—and he’d left Rin at a small campfire.  It had only taken him a moment to realize that they were being watched, and he’d launched himself at the trees, cutting them down, exposing Kagura, who was the absolute visage of a dancer in the pristine white and crimson kimono—and her small, delicate, bare feet . . . Entirely regal in bearing . . . And she was beautiful, even if he didn’t trust her.  Given her association with Naraku, it was understood . . .

There was a directness in her stare, a no-nonsense lilt in her voice when she spoke . . . She didn’t try to play games, and she didn’t resort to the typical female kinds of ploys.  True, she did encourage him to kill Naraku—not that he really needed any such thing, and yet, he could understand her situation there, as well.  She was tied to him, plain and simple.  Naraku held her heart, and it was at his whim that she survived at all.  For her, there was no real means of escape, and she’d done what she needed to do.

She was . . . a lot like him, wasn’t she?  Unwilling to ally herself too deeply, preferring to look out for herself because she really didn’t want to be beholden to someone else, and just ruthless enough to do the things that she needed to do if it meant that she’d be just a little closer to her goal . . .

Yet, she still asked him to kill Naraku, to set her free . . . Had it stung her pride to have to demean herself to do that?  Or . . .

Why do you want to restore her, Sesshoumaru?  If you don’t care, as you say, then why are you even bothering?  And don’t say it’s simply because Tenseiga wouldn’t react, that you’re trying to prove whatever strange and cynical point you have.

Sesshoumaru frowned.  He didn’t rightfully know why he felt so compelled; not really.  In truth, it made no sense.  It wasn’t something he could explain, possibly because he couldn’t put the feelings into words, but he’d felt it more often recently, hadn’t he?  That strange fascination, that draw . . . And he’d told himself many times that he was being foolish, that he wasn’t like his great and terrible father—swayed by a pretty face, only to end up, fighting someone else’s wars, only to leave behind messes that someone else would have to clean up . . .

And that was the crux of it was, wasn’t it?  His father, insisting that he had to confront Ryukotsusei, all because he’d posed a general threat to Musashi, Izayoi’s father’s territory, and then, he had ended up, sealing the great dragon, surely, however, he had also sustained mortal wounds in that fight, leaving Izayoi behind—that miserable human woman he’d taken to mate—as well as an infant: InuYasha.  Before he’d succumbed to his wounds, however, he’d come to Sesshoumaru, had asked him to watch over the infant pup, to promise that InuYasha would reach his majority.

And wasn’t that the highest of insults?  Asking him to watch over the infant pup who never should have been born—a creature that was neither human nor youkai . . . And even so, Sesshoumaru had done exactly what his father had asked of him, drawing away threats, making sure the pup did not die, despite his own feelings on the matter, and, of course, that hot-headed miscreant of a half-brother had never realized it, either, which was fine with Sesshoumaru.  It was beneath his dignity, wasn’t it?  But he’d given his word, which, in turn, allowed their father to die in relative peace.

Damned fool.

But now, his father was gone—had been gone for such a long time . . . InuYasha was gone—maybe not dead, but gone, just the same . . . Kagura was gone, too . . .

It didn’t matter.  It shouldn’t matter.  Being alone was something he was accustomed to.  He prided himself upon needing no one, had fashioned his entire existence around the idea that he could stand alone, was beholden to no one.  He’d decided long ago that he didn’t need anyone, that he would be the strongest, the fastest, the best, and . . .

Rin and Jaken . . . Well, they needed him.  Jaken had chosen to follow him.  He had certainly never asked him to do so.  As such, he was not exactly what Sesshoumaru would consider a companion, of course.  Jaken was more of a servant than anything.  The imp was convinced that Sesshoumaru had saved him from an invading youkai and had dedicated himself to a lifetime of servitude to show his gratitude.  Sesshoumaru, however, had simply been passing through, and the youkai had gotten in his way—as simple as that.

Rin?

His scowl turned thoughtful as the image of the little girl flickered to light in his mind.  That joyful smile, the exuberance that hadn’t been there when he’d found her—or rather, when she found him—after an ill-conceived fight with InuYasha.  He’d sought to teach InuYasha how to see the fissure where youki collided—the kaze no kizu.  He didn’t tell InuYasha what he’d done.  He knew the baka well enough to know that he would rather fight than listen, especially when it came to Sesshoumaru.  So, instead, he had taken Tetsusaiga and had unleashed the attack upon InuYasha.  It had never been that cut and dried between them, and it probably never would be, either.  InuYasha was intuitive enough, though, to replicate the attack after seeing Sesshoumaru perform it, and that, in Sesshoumaru’s mind, was more than enough, simpleton that he was.

Rin, however . . . She’d stumbled upon him, deep in the forest near her village where Tenseiga had teleported him to avoid being killed by InuYasha’s kaze no kizu, though not before enough damage was dealt him.  She hadn’t spoken then—he thought that maybe she couldn’t at the time—but she had tried to offer him food that he had declined.  He’d told her to go away, to leave him alone.  She hadn’t listened, and when she’d come to him with bruises on her face, he’d asked her, almost on an impulse, where she’d gotten them.  She hadn’t answered . . . but she had smiled . . .

Then, he’d smelled her blood, found her, lying in the path, dead, the victim of a wolf-youkai attack.  On a whim, Tenseiga had decided to save her, and she’d been with him ever since.

He felt a warmth toward her, as much as it consternated him.  She was a child—a glorious child—always so eager to please, so ready to smile, to lighten his spirits, even if he never really showed her that.  He’d been accused before of keeping her like a pet, and there might well have been a bit of truth to that.  Even so, he couldn’t forget the way she’d tried so desperately to help him in her own way.  He might not have needed it from her, but he could not discard it, either.

But she was just a child, and she, like Jaken, relied upon him.  He could live without them if he had to, but they . . . They could not survive without him . . .

 


 

 

“Good morning, Sesshoumaru-sama.  I trust you slept well within the safety of my forest?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t deign to comment as he stopped before the ancient magnolia tree.  “Tell me what you’ve learned, Bokusenou,” he demanded instead.

Undeterred, Bokusenou chuckled, and the sound of it seemed to fill the clearing.  “I think I should warn you that no living soul has ever been granted audience with Izanami.  It seems that she does not like to mix the living with the dead.”

“I realize that,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “Did she deny me?”

“Actually, she did not.  However, she requires that you bring her something—a gift—to show your good will, but I warn you: what she’s asked for is not something easily acquired.”

“What does she want?”

The magnolia-youkai took his time before answering.  “She wants the Heart of Kiriyama.”

“The Heart of Kiriyama,” he echoed.  “Does that even exist?”

“It does,” Bokusenou replied.  “However, the way is dangerous, even for one such as you.”

“It will be of little consequence to me,” he insisted.

Again, the rumble of branches and leaves . . . the sound of the ancient being’s laughter, indulgent and earthy, and tinged by the scent of magnolia blossoms.  “If you lose your way, look to the trees of Kiriyama for aide, but be cautious.  Some of the trees there have been perverted, bent by the ill that lingers there.  Over time, that ill has tainted them, twisted them, but there are a few who cling to the old ways of honor and dignity.”

“I won’t need it,” he predicted, his countenance settling into a mask of concentration.

“Do you know what you’re even looking for?”

“It matters not.  I will find it.”

Bokusenou sighed.  “If it were that simple . . . They say that a fog lies heavily upon the mountain—a fog created by the jyaki of all the youkai who die.  It migrates there and settles.  It’s as close to Yomi on earth as you will ever find.  Ill will and rage reside there, lingering in the visceral form of the fog.  You must travel through that, immersing yourself in the thick of it, to find the Heart of Kiriyama.  They say that the heart lives, deep in a cave on the eastern side of Kiriyama . . . None who have gone there in search of it have ever made it back alive.  You will go mad or die—that is what they say.”

“I will succumb to neither,” Sesshoumaru replied.

“Are you so sure?” Bokusenou challenged mildly.

Amber eyes narrowing in silent warning, Sesshoumaru stared back at Bokusenou for a long moment.  “You assume that I am as weak as the ones who have tried before,” he stated coldly.  “You assume much.”

“Perhaps I do.”

Sesshoumaru pondered it for a minute.  The Heart of Kiriyama?  He’d heard whispers and legends about it before, but as far as he knew, no one had ever actually looked upon it, much less retrieved it.  “So, I simply have to retrieve the Heart of Kiriyama and take it to Izanami.  Well done, Bokusenou.  You’ve been most helpful.”

The wizened old tree sighed.  “Be careful, Sesshoumaru-sama—and good luck.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Three~~
~The Search~

 

~o~

 

 

They say that a fog lies heavily upon the mountain—a fog created by the jyaki of all the youkai who die.  It migrates there and settles.  It’s as close to Yomi on earth as you will ever find.  Ill will and rage reside there, lingering in the visceral form of the fog.  You must travel through that, immersing yourself in the thick of it, to find the Heart of Kiriyama.  They say that the heart lives, deep in a cave on the eastern side of Kiriyama . . . None who have gone there in search of it have ever made it back alive.  You will go mad or die—that is what they say.”

Stepping out of the forest, Sesshoumaru stopped, lifted his gaze to stare at the visage of Kiriyama.  The mountain, located in the eastern lands, was picturesque, almost beautiful, standing in silent majesty, surrounded by wispy cloud formations—the fog?  Yet, even from where he stood, well away from the base of the mountain, he could feel the malignance that lived there.  Why Izanami would want something born in such an immoral place was vexing, at best . . .

The thing was, Sesshoumaru might well have heard of the Heart of Kiriyama before, but he didn’t actually know what it was.  To his knowledge, no one did, which would make searching for it exponentially more troublesome.  Funny how it never occurred to him to decline the task . . .

It didn’t matter, though, did it?  It wasn’t like he was given a choice.  Either he retrieved the Heart of Kiriyama or he failed; there was no middle ground.

There were also no villages, no local dwellings, where he could gather information, either.  It was a testament as to just how much this area was feared that no one would dare try to live here.  It was also not surprising.  Given that humans as a whole seemed to be a lot more on the superstitious side than youkai tended to be, the mist that gathered here was more than enough impetus to turn them away.

Creatures of nature steered clear of Kiriyama, that was no secret.  Sesshoumaru himself had only seen the mountain once before, and he had been farther away from it then than he was now.  When InuYasha was small, the fool had blundered near it.  Too young, perhaps, to feel and to take heed of the warning to his senses, that foreboding undertone that grew increasingly strong, the nearer one got to the edifice, or maybe, in his haste to escape the oni that had been chasing him at the time, he had ignored it, believing that he would rather chance the proximity of the mountain than to try to find a better place to hide . . .

At that time, Sesshoumaru had killed the oni.  It wasn’t that difficult to do.  The hardest part, really, was hiding himself from his half-brother’s notice.  Far too perceptive, InuYasha had always been . . .

Are you so pitiful that you would chase after a worthless half-breed?

The oni stopped, grunted, sniffed heavily as he turned his lumbering body around, his beady little eyes, seeking out the owner of that voice, but relying far more heavily upon his sense of smell.  The area—a very small clearing—wasn’t the best place to fight the creature, but Sesshoumaru had been tracking it for the last few hours as he chased after InuYasha.  The pup at least had the sense to run away.  Unfortunately, what the oni lacked in intelligence, he more than made up for in his annoying tunnel-vision whenever faced with something perceived to be a light snack . . .

Sesshoumaru’s lip curled in absolute disdain.  Stone oni were far too stupid—barely cognizant, really—and this one was no exception to the rule.  The creature was nearly thirty feet tall and formed of stone.  There were only two areas where any kind of attack could damage him, and both of those places were on his head.  The sizzle and snap of the harsh green energy whip cracked through the air, connecting with the oni’s right eye.  The infertile beast howled in enraged pain as blackened blood, as thick as tar, slowly oozed out of the ruined socket.

The oni lunged blindly at Sesshoumaru.  He was faster, hopping onto the creature’s arm then pushing off again.  Reaching back, he straightened his fingers, forming a blade of sorts, that he jammed straight into the oni’s already injured eye, unleashing a flood of noxious poison from his claws.

The shriek echoed in the forest, bent the trees, shook the very ground as Sesshoumaru sprang away from him, lit on the dirt floor.  Pausing just long enough to watch as the beast exploded in a rain of that same sludgy blood, Sesshoumaru uttered a terse grunt and strode back into the forest in the opposite direction from where he’d watched InuYasha run away . . .

Sesshoumaru frowned.  He hadn’t thought of that day in a very long time, if he had ever really thought about it, at all.  In fact, he preferred, not to think about those times.  After all, no good could come of it, and now . . .

Narrowing his gaze as a wind kicked up, carrying with it the scent of grasses and dirt and other earthy things, Sesshoumaru strode forward, heading straight for the base of the mountain.

He could feel eyes upon him as he stepped into the forest once more, only this forest wasn’t clean and peaceful, as the one he’d just passed through had been.  No, there was an underlying sense of foreboding about this wood, as though the very trees were attempting to lean in, to listen—to wait . . .

And with every step closer to the mountain, the heavier the sense of trepidation grew.  He did not fear what lived there—if one could call it that—but he could feel the gravity of the mingled jyaki, so thick, so strong, that even he could feel the toxicity in the air.  In spots here and there, it was gathering, thick, like a shroud upon the ground.  The evil desires, the deceitful and malignant leftovers of the youkai who would seek their own personal gains . . . These were the things that lingered, long after their souls were dispatched . . .

And if you fall, will yours join these?

I, Sesshoumaru . . .?  That is not possible.

Do you honestly think that?  Are you so arrogant that you can truly think that you, alone, are above this?  Do you think that your will—your desire—to surpass your father, to exist as the strongest amongst the youkai, is all that different from the dank and abhorrent mist?

Arrogant?  Perhaps. Even so, his desires might well be the same, but his reasons . . . Those were vastly different . . .

It was not as simplistic as that.  Power . . . to be strong . . . It would mean that he would be free—free to make his own rules, to set his own path, one that disallowed anyone else from touching him.  Power . . . He did not desire it in order to subjugate others, nor did he seek to use it to protect anyone else, either.  That was a fool’s quest, and he’d already seen the spoils that would come of such a base and elementary compulsion.  Hadn’t the great and powerful Inu no Taisho already proven that beyond any shadow of a doubt?  The strongest, the most feared . . . And he was dead now—all to protect that miserable human life—and InuYasha.  He . . . He was a fool . . .

No, the power Sesshoumaru sought was simply a means to allow him the ultimate kind of existence, one where he relied upon no one, needed no one, and nothing—nothing—could be more important than that . . .

Except there’s more to it than that, and you know it.  Whether you wish to admit it or not, you know why you feel the way you do.  You know how easy it is, to fall into the hands of the enemy, to be truly unable to save yourself, and that . . . That’s what you fear most, isn’t it?

Enough.  That has nothing at all to do with this.

But it does, you realize.  It doesn’t help to tell yourself that you were young then, that you did what you had to do to survive until your father came to save you.  Somewhere in your soul, you still blame yourself—blame yourself for being young, for being weak, and that’s why you vowed that you could never, ever allow yourself to be weak again, isn’t it?  And . . . And you blame him, as well.  You blame him for allowing you to fall into that bastard’s hands, in the first place . . .

Brushing aside that thought was simple enough.  He’d become quite adept at doing so in the years that had passed.  True enough, back then, he was little more than a pup himself, and those days—those miserable and terrifying days—had etched themselves into his mind so dark, so deep . . . True enough, he’d sworn that he wouldn’t allow anything like it to ever, ever happen to him again . . .

Power.  Yes, a desire to obtain power . . . That power would save him, not condemn him.  Ending up like these innumerable and pathetic youkai?

“That will never happen.”

 


 

 

Without a second thought, she had stepped into the path of the lightning-fast runners. Five had impaled her at once, as Sesshoumaru whipped around, just in time to see those vines, slamming straight through the wind-youkai’s body, lifting her into the air, her head falling back as the softest gasp slipped past her lips.  He unleashed an enraged howl as he shredded the vines as though they were made of little more than paper in his haste to get to her.  As he reached her, as she closed her eyes, an oddly misplaced yet peaceful kind of smile, quirking the corners of her lips, and he had heard her one word: "Sesshoumaru . . ."

She remembered the feel of his arm around her, holding her close as he carried her away.  She recalled the haste in his steps, then the smell of the wisteria, the wavering light of the full moon, though it might have been the tears that had filled her eyes.

She remembered, trying so hard to hang on, could feel her body as it worked to repair itself, but the heart that had been returned to her upon Naraku’s death . . . It had pumped the blood out of her faster than her body could compensate . . .

She’d thought that those minutes had been enough—minutes and memories that would last her forever.

Here, alone in this blackness, this void . . . Time meant nothing here.  There was no way to mark the passage of days or weeks, months or years.  Even minutes or seconds meant nothing at all, and she really had no way of knowing just how long she’d been here . . . There was no sky to mark the time, no sun, no moon—just an overwhelming sense of nothing at all, and, little by little, she had to struggle harder and harder to remember those basic things: the feel of the wind on her skin, the warmth of the sunshine upon her . . . the cool tickle of water on her feet, the scent of Sesshoumaru’s very being, the sound of his voice . . . Those things were fading from her, even though she tried so hard to hold tight to them . . .

She had no voice, and, without a body, she had no smell or touch or taste or hearing, and, try as she might to hold fast to those memories, it was growing more difficult to hang onto anything but fleeting images—and those regrets of a life lost, half-lived . . .

If she’d realized back then, would she have done things differently?  What could she have done, really?  Bound to an entity that saw no value in the incarnations he created, just what might have been?  The only thing—the one thing—that had made her existence of value . . .

Sesshoumaru . . .

She couldn’t speak his name, couldn’t hear it as it tumbled from her lips, couldn’t comfort herself, simply from hearing the sound of it.  But she’d protected him, hadn’t she?  Protected him from Naraku’s runners, and, despite the darkness, the nothingness, she . . . she couldn’t rightfully say that she regretted what she’d done, even when she had been banished here.

His existence . . . It was worth more than hers, wasn’t it?  He, unlike her, had those who depended upon him, who counted his life as necessary.  She’d never had that.  She, after all, was never more than a pawn, playing someone else’s game, and . . .

I . . . I just wanted to see him, one last time . . .

How much longer would she remember him before he just became an image in her mind—someone that she used to know, but she couldn’t recall his name, his scent, his voice?  Did she know him at all or was he simply a phantasm of the darkness—an embodiment of light in a world without any? A figment of her imagination, as bright as the memory of the sunlight that was slowly, dreadfully, starting to fade . . .?

In fact, the only thing she could feel at all was a strange sort of emptiness, an ache that she didn’t quite understand.  If she were alive, she might have thought it was hunger, but . . .

But she could ignore that for now.  She’d rather focus her concentration on the inu-youkai with the amber eyes and the silken strands of silvery-white hair . . .

 


 

 

The mist was wearing on him.

As loathe as he was to admit as much, that was the truth of it.  The stagnant air seemed to be devoid of oxygen that had very little to do with the altitude, even as he climbed the steep grade.  The fog seemed to press in on him from all sides, and it felt clingy, almost searching, as though the jyaki were seeking to find a way into his body.

For three days, he’d been searching the mountainside for a cave.  It was really all he had to go on: Bokusenou’s words . . .

They say that a fog lies heavily upon the mountain—a fog created by the jyaki of all the youkai who die.  It migrates there and settles.  It’s as close to Yomi on earth as you will ever find.  Ill will and rage reside there, lingering in the visceral form of the fog.  You must travel through that, immersing yourself in the thick of it, to find the Heart of Kiriyama.  They say that the heart lives, deep in a cave on the eastern side of Kiriyama . . . None who have gone there in search of it have ever made it back alive.  You will go mad or die—that is what they say.”

If he knew what he was looking for, maybe . . .

Impatience wore at him, fast on the heels of rising indignance.  He felt like an idiot, didn’t he?  Seeking what could not be found with only a vague idea to go on . . . It was a fool’s venture, and he . . .

The Heart of Kiriyama.

It was infuriating.

There was nothing on the mountain in the way of living creatures.  Even the foliage was sparse, aside from the trees that all seemed to be growing at odd angles and strange twists, and the winds that blew through here carried a low and sweeping kind of melancholy.  He was not a superstitious being, but even he could feel it . . .

How will you know when you find it?  If you find it?

That was a question that he didn’t have an answer to, either.  Easy to think that, perhaps he’d just know, but would he?

He ground his teeth together as another wave of sheer frustration rolled over him.  For once, he could understand why InuYasha would fly into impetuous rage.  He hadn’t really comprehended that before . . .

“You . . . You are Sesshoumaru-sama of the Western Lands, are you not?”

Flicking his gaze around as he stopped abruptly, he watched as a face slowly emerged from the trunk of an aged sugi pine tree.  It was bent, wizened, yet hulking and regal in a tragic kind of way, but whether the deformities were the result of age or exposure to the putrid mist, Sesshoumaru didn’t know.  “I am,” he replied, but offered no more.

“So, I finally get to meet the great Inu no Taisho’s heir . . . I am Hotaka, and it has been my charge to guard this land for the last thousand years—maybe longer.  I’ve lost track of time, young one. Bear me no ill will.  Bokusenou told me that you were coming.  Tell me, son of the Inu no Taisho, what is it you seek here?”

“I am Sesshoumaru,” he repeated, narrowing his eyes in what should have been warning.  He’d outgrown that kind of address long, long ago—the need to walk within his father’s long shadow.  “I seek the Heart of Kiriyama.”

“The heart?” Hotaka echoed, sounding more surprised than perhaps he ought to have.  Why else would someone venture into this place that even the kami had forgotten, after all . . .? “If that’s the case, then best you turn around—go back the way you came.  There is nothing for you here.  Not even your father was able to find that, and he tried.”

“Chichiue tried to find it?  Why?”

The tree chuckled.  “Surely you have heard the ancient tale.  They say that if you have the Heart of Kiriyama in your possession when your soul is taken to Yomi that you may be able to barter with Izanami’s personal guard.  Cheat death, as it were . . . The Inu no Taisho, however . . . He was not doing well when he ventured here.”

“Do you know what it is that I am looking for?  The heart?”

The branches of the tree creaked and groaned as they bent and swayed in the falling dusk.  “I cannot tell you that, son of the Inu no Taisho.”

“Do you plead ignorance or is it that you simply refuse to tell me?”

“I may not tell you,” he corrected, and, for his part, he did sound remorseful—not that Sesshoumaru cared as he tamped down the rise of fresh and entirely unwelcome frustration.  “It is not allowed.”

“By whose decree?”

“Izanami no Mikoto.  We may not interfere.  It is her law.”

“So, you obey the law of the dead when you dwell in the world of the living?” Sesshoumaru challenged.

“She protects us from the mist, from the fog—allows our roots to dig deep, allows us to remain when all others have gone.  In return, we abide by her wishes . . .”

“Then you are of no use to me,” Sesshoumaru decided, turning on his heel, ready to go, to resume his search.

“There is one who knows—just one,” Hotaka called out behind him.

Sesshoumaru stopped, but he did not turn to face Hotaka again.  “Who?”

The tree rumbled once more, almost as though it were trying to lean in.  The creak and the groan of the ancient wood, the slight shifting of the tangled and gnarled roots . . . “I know not his name, but he was with the Inu no Taisho all those years ago.  That is all I know.”

“Describe him,” Sesshoumaru demanded, his patience wearing thinner by the second.

This time, Hotaka sighed—a great, rumbling sigh that even seemed to shake the ground below him.  “I never saw him.”

“If you didn’t see him, how, then, did you know that he was with chichiue?”

“I heard the Inu no Taisho speak to him—and I heard him reply.”

“But you never saw him.  Did any of your kin see him?”

“No, they did not, but the way in which he spoke . . . I believe he was one of the Inu no Taisho’s vassals.”

 


 

 

One of chichiue’s vassals . . .

Those words.  Those words had plagued him for the last couple days, ever since Hotaka had uttered them.

One of chichiue’s vassals . . .?  That . . . That avails me nothing at all.  Chichiue had many vassals . . .

As true as that may be, how many of them would fit the rest of it?

The rest of it . . . That Hotaka did not see the vassal?

Yes, that’s right.  Yet he said that he also heard him speak.

Frowning at the irritating patience in his youkai-voice’s words, Sesshoumaru idly flicked the feather against his lips.  He’d taken a break since the darkness of night had fallen an hour ago—an annoyance that he simply couldn’t stand, really.  He’d considered, trying to sleep, but discarded that idea, as well.  In this place of stagnant mis, of invasive fog, the very idea of sleeping held absolutely no appeal.

If he gave in, if he slept, that mist . . . It would try to steal away his dreams.  It was more of an intuitive realization than an absolute thought, and, though he couldn’t remember his dreams, he knew that within them, he saw Kagura . . .

I wonder, though . . . Just when did your father come here, seeking the Heart of Kiriyama?

Sesshoumaru didn’t know the answer to that, either.  In truth, it was the first he’d heard about his father searching for the elusive thing.

It was even more vexing, really.  Given that his father had searched for it, too, how was it that he wasn’t able to find it?  His father, the tai-youkai, the Inu no Taisho . . . and if his father had not been able to locate it, then how would Sesshoumaru fare any better?

It does not matter.  I will find it.

All of this, just to save a woman who you barely acknowledged in life . . . Why?

His jaw tightened, his fingers, gripping the feather a little harder than he meant to.  Certainly, this question had come up a number of times since he’d walked through the gates and into Yomi.  Always, it was the same answer.  Unable to reconcile the very idea that his own sword would ignore his bidding . . .

It was a convenient answer, and he knew it.  He simply didn’t know otherwise.

Those feelings that he’d had still plagued him.  They still lingered there, just below the surface.  But he didn’t understand them.  Such a strange sort of melancholy that he simply could not abide whenever he remembered the expression on her face as she lay, dying . . . Anger, rage . . . Those things he understood, could reckon.  But the subtle warmth that he’d felt whenever he’d allowed himself to think about her—a warmth that had steadily grown stronger and more difficult to ignore as time passed, as their chance meetings had etched themselves in his mind—had twisted, changed into such emotion that he could not define . . .

He’d never felt anything like it before, and he didn’t like it.  Something about those feelings made him feel vulnerable, almost naked, in a manner of speaking, and that kind of thing wasn’t something he could accept easily.  In truth, if he could have just continued on about his life in the same way that he had already done, it would have been far more to his liking.

Unlike InuYasha, he wasn’t given to impetuous or nonchalant actions.  He prided himself on his ability to stand apart from it.  Considered cold, calculated, it was entirely unlike him to be doing what he was doing, and the sense that he couldn’t quite help himself just made it all a little worse, too . . . Even so . . .

Five days, he’d been searching, and, while he’d found caves aplenty, he had still yet to find anything that might be considered the Heart of Kiriyama.  He’d know when he found it.  That was the sense he got.  Still, the vagueness of his quest was annoying, the sense that he was playing a fool’s game, unacceptable.

And don’t forget what Jester said: if Kagura eats the food of the dead . . .

Yes, he supposed, there was that, too.  He had no way of knowing, just how long she could or would hold out.  If he found the Heart of Kiriyama, but she ate the food in the meantime . . .

It would be better to deal with one thing at a time.  But . . .

The air was cold this far up the mountain, and the night air was colder still.  If he had to search for another few days, he’d doubtless reach the peak.  The east side of the mountain—that’s what Bokusenou had told him.

Pushing himself to his feet, he tucked the feather away in his armor once more.  Night on this mountain was fairly brutal, and despite the myriad of stars that dotted the night skies, it seemed that light did not touch down, either.  He’d never seen darkness so vast, so deep, as he had here upon earth.  Only the darkness in Yomi was thicker, more profound, more insurmountable . . .

It matters not.  This Sesshoumaru will find what it is that I seek.  There is no other choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Four~~
~The Heart of Kiriyama~

 

~o~

 

 

Ten days.

Ten days, and he still hadn’t found the Heart of Kiriyama.

Ten days, and he still had no idea, just what the heart really was.

He’d reached the summit three days ago, and now, he was working his way back down, searching for anything he might have missed the first time, yet unable to shake the feeling that it was a fool’s quest.

His patience threshold was at an all-time low, and yet, he couldn’t abide the idea of giving up, either.

Kagura’s scent was starting to fade from the feather that he carried with him.  When he’d first realized that a couple days ago, he’d very nearly succumbed to blind rage.  Instead, he’d taken that anger and had focused it into his search.

Deliberately slowing his gait as he ventured through the macabre forest just below the snow line, Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes as he slowly, methodically, scanned the area.  At this elevation, the terrain was harder to see since the trees here grew so gnarled and warped.  Higher up, the blowing snow was a minor annoyance, but at least it was easier to see . . .

So, Sesshoumaru . . .

He ignored the voice and kept moving.

Tell me something.

Ducking into a cave that he was fairly certain he’d already checked before, probably more than once, Sesshoumaru still didn’t respond.

Assuming we find this damndable heart—assuming we are able to barter it for Kagura’s soul—just what will you do with her?

Do with her?  It’s not my place to do anything with her.  She . . . She will be free.

And we’re going through all this, just to free her?

I have no claim on her.  She . . . She simply didn’t deserve to die.

Yes, perhaps, but when did you start to care if one got what one deserved or not?

That question drew him up short, and he frowned.  ‘I don’t care,’ he insisted.  ‘However, she died for me.  She put herself between Naraku and me.

And that makes a difference?

. . . It does to me.

His youkai-voice sighed.  ‘So, what you’re saying is that all of this insanity really is simply about your anger toward Tenseiga.

Is that not what I have said?

Then you don’t remember . . .

Remember?

You’ve felt it before.  When you saw her, you wanted her.  You’ve felt lust before, but the emotion that you felt was deeper, darker—and somehow, lighter, too.  It was more than that.  That tightening in your body, that surge of that heady thing . . . You felt it, and you reveled in it, even as you sought to secret it away.  It was a desire the likes of which you’ve never felt before—and then, you closed that away.  You made yourself forget about it because it was, what?  Ignoble?  Beneath you?  But you felt it—and I did, too.

Silence.  I don’t need you to tell me what I do or do not feel.

No, you do need that of me.  You simply don’t want to hear it—don’t want to think it.  Don’t want to face it. That woman—Kagura . . . You know her.  You know you do. Your impetuous desire to lock away your own emotions? And yet, you ask yourself why, don’t you?  That’s fine, though.  You will figure it out . . . If we can find this damned heart, that is . . .

It was absurd, wasn’t it?  The very idea that he, Sesshoumaru, would lower himself to suffer such a base emotion as that?  It wasn’t possible.

I simply do not wish to feel beholden to her.  She had no need to do what she did.  As if This Sesshoumaru would succumbed to death by such a vile affectation as that . . .

To settle a perceived debt, then . . .

Isn’t that as good a reason as any?

His youkai-voice grunted.  ‘Perhaps you won’t find the Heart of Kiriyama.  Perhaps one such as you deserves no such thing.

I will find it, and when I do . . .

And when you do, then you’ll have to face the truth of . . . everything . . . won’t you?

Ignoring those words, Sesshoumaru moved on.  If nothing else, he was more determined than ever . . .

And finding the heart . . . He would find it—or he would die, trying.

 


 

 

Roused from a fitful slumber, Sesshoumaru instantly came awake, pushing himself to his feet from his place, reclined against the rock wall on a very narrow cliff about fifteen feet off the ground.  He’d taken to slightly higher ground out of habit—entirely stupid, really, given that there wasn’t anything living on the mountain aside from vegetation.  He hated the idea of sleeping here, but the mist was draining him.  He could feel it, and every day he spent in it was slowly wearing him down.

He blinked slowly, scanned the area for anything amiss.  There was nothing.  He could tell by the sound of the wind, the smells being carried on the air, that it was nearing dawn.

Following the faint trickle of water, it didn’t take long to locate a small stream.  Despite the pervasive fog, the uncomfortable mist, the water was remarkably clean, and he knelt on the bank, taking a moment to rinse his face, to drink a few handfuls of the cold, cold liquid.

Youkai, as a rule, didn’t need to eat.  Some of them did, simply because of a base urge to do so, but he was not one of them.  Some of them—wolves, for example—ate because it pleased them to do so, and most of the youkai who did eat targeted humans.  He had eaten when he was younger, growing, but that was so long ago, that he really did not recall it, and even then, he had never eaten a human, either.

Well, there was one time since he’d matured: just once.  He had eaten when InuYasha was small, shortly after the hanyou’s mother had died.  The baka had no idea, how to fend for himself, though he had tried.  Seeing no other way around it, after observing as the baka had eaten handfuls of grass, Sesshoumaru had stopped at a stream near the area where InuYasha was hiding, and he’d made sure that the pup had seen him catch a fish that he’d proceeded to eat, raw, simply so that he’d learn without Sesshoumaru having to demean himself by showing InuYasha in a more straight-forward way.

It had seemed strange to him, too, when he’d seen that his half-brother had taken to cooking his food once the miko had started traveling with him, though, in hindsight, he supposed that was more for her benefit, as well as their other human companions, than it was for InuYasha.

All of that aside, there was something about the mountain that made him feel thirst more acutely, and that was something he couldn’t simply ignore, either.

Standing up again, he slowly looked around.  The fog, he’d noticed, tended to be a little thinner by water.  Where it hung so thick in some areas that he couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of him, here, it was more of a thin veil, though the moisture still seemed to permeate everything, making his clothing damp and clingy . . .

And he hated the sensation that he was being watched.  It felt unnatural, given that there were no living creatures on the mountain.  No, it felt more like the mist itself was probing him, trying to infiltrate his very mind, and when he listened closely, he could hear the rush of whispers—none of them discernable—like a thousand voices or more, talking in hushed tones.  They were like the voices he’d heard when he was attacked in Yomi . . . But these voices . . .

He was starting to comprehend the idea that those who sought the heart might well have ended up, going mad . . . Hadn’t he so foolishly and arrogantly believed that he was above that sort of thing?  And yet, he, too, could feel the very edges of his psyche, starting to fray.  He wasn’t near madness, but he could . . . could begin to understand how someone with a lesser constitution might well give in to it.

Heading away from the water, he meant to resume his search, but as he passed under the low hanging branches of a weeping cherry tree, his empty sleeve caught—and pulled against him.  Glancing down at the branch that had ensnared his clothing, he frowned.  It looked like a gnarled old fist.

“You . . . Who are you?”

Shifting his gaze to the side, meeting the eyes of a cypress-youkai as the face emerged from the gnarled trunk of the bent and misshapen tree, Sesshoumaru ignored the demand to provide his name.  “Let go of me,” he said, quietly, no less forcefully, his voice a low rumble in the otherwise stillness.

The tree held tight to his sleeve.  “You are searching for the heart, are you not?  I could help you . . .”

“Know you where the cave lies?”

“Lies?  Fallacies?  Untruths . . . That is all you will find here, inu-youkai . . .”

“The cave,” Sesshoumaru reiterated.  “Where is it?”

The tree laughed.  “There is no cave—no heart!” he wheezed.  “No cave, no heart . . . No cave, no heart!”

He could feel the approaching branches, long and slender like vines, and he didn’t have to look to verify it.  It was as simple as feeling the area within his youki—a skill he’d learned well over the years.  With every one that crept closer, the scent of the cherry blossoms grew thicker, headier, creating a haze in his mind—almost a sense of bemusement.

Sesshoumaru, be careful . . . That tree’s trying to drug you . . .

He didn’t need the warning, flashing his claws as the vines tried to snake around his wrist, around his ankles, his legs.

“So hungry . . .” the tree moaned, almost whimpered, as more branches closed in, faster now.

Sesshoumaru cut them down, too.  Tree-youkai didn’t eat, taking their nourishment in the same way as regular trees.  That this one seemed to think otherwise only proved just how corrupt the mountain was.

A third round of runner vines closed in fast, but not nearly fast enough to catch him.  With a flash of metal, Sesshoumaru whipped Tokijin from the scabbard on his hip, neatly severing them in one efficient slash.

The tree-youkai shrieked in anger, the entire trunk, leaning toward him with a hellacious crack and groan.  It meant to try to overwhelm him.  Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes, swung Tokijin, cutting the tree in half in one mighty blow.  The shriek shifted into a caterwaul that echoed through the sentient forest.  Then it slowly faded, died away, as a sudden flash of blinding light, of unnatural wind erupted around him, as the weeping-cherry-tree-youkai’s aged body disintegrated into harmless dust.

Another’s jyaki to add to the mist . . .

Sesshoumaru said nothing as he resheathed his sword and walked away.

 


 

 

Sesshoumaru . . . Fancy meeting you here.”

Stepping out of the dense forest, his gaze lazily trained upon the wily wind-sorceress, Sesshoumaru said nothing to acknowledge her.

Let me guess: you were looking for Naraku, right?

Perhaps, but he wouldn’t be so brave as to appear, out in the open, would he?”  Sesshoumaru asked, his voice, rumbling softly in the night stillness, almost a sneer—almost.

Kagura laughed.  It was a warm, almost sultry kind of sound that rippled over him like the fingers of the breeze.  He ignored it.  “I can feel it in the wind,” she said, her voice, taking on a rather sad kind of lilt.  “I think . . . I think it will all be over soon.”

And will you battle against me?

Her smile turned a little ironic, her skin, tinted a melancholy shade of blue in the burgeoning night.  “I will battle against everyone.

Only if you’re strong enough to survive.”

She laughed again, and then, she sighed.  “I apologize if you’re disappointed that you didn’t find Naraku instead of me,” she quipped, but she sounded entirely amused.

I knew it was you,” he admitted, striding past her.

He was traveling, on his way to visit Totosai, the ancient swordsmith.  He’d seen InuYasha recently in the tomb of their father, had witnessed Tetsusaiga as it had absorbed the power of the kongosouha from Hosenki, and he wanted some answers about it.  That he’d happened across Kagura along the way was mere happenstance . . . or maybe . . . Maybe it wasn’t . . .

He could feel her gaze upon him as he strode away.  Her voice stopped him.  “Sesshoumaru . . .”

He didn’t turn around to face her, but he did peer over his shoulder at her.  Something about the far-away look in her eyes, the almost sad sort of smile that touched her lips . . . Just what was she thinking? he wondered.

She took her time, shuffling over to him, her bare feet, whispering in the cool, damp grass.  She stopped beside him, her face tilting upward, staring at the stars so high above.  “Are you my enemy?

For some reason, her question caught him off guard, but he only paused a moment before replying.  “Of course, I am.”

Will you kill me, then?  Send a message to Naraku in that way?

That would serve no purpose.  He ought to know already that he will never escape me.”

She laughed again, and this time, she neatly whipped a feather out of her hair, tossing it up over her head.  It enlarged with a gust of wind as she hopped atop it and flew away into the night.

Her husky laughter trailed behind him long after she was out of his sight.

Blinking away the lingering memory, Sesshoumaru sat down on a large and rotting tree.  As loathe as he was to admit it, he was growing weary from the days of endless searching.

Almost four weeks, he’d spent, combing over every inch of the mountainside, only to find nothing.

Just why was he still looking?

There was no easy answer for that particular question.

“Sesshoumaru-sama?  Is that you . . .?  It is!  It is you!”

Blinking, almost sure that he had to be hearing things, Sesshoumaru narrowed his gaze as he looked down, only to see as Myouga, InuYasha’s retainer and a flea-youkai, landed upon his knee.  “Myouga,” he said, his voice almost rusty-sounding after so many weeks of no actual use.

“This seems like an odd place to find you,” Myouga remarked.  “What brings you here, of all places?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Sesshoumaru countered dryly.

Myouga hopped up and down.  “InuYasha-sama is gone!  Sango and Miroku tell me—”

“I know,” Sesshoumaru cut in.  “He followed the miko.  Now, tell me why you are here.  Kiriyama seems an odd place for one such as you.”

The flea chuckled.  “Well, you’re right.  Ordinarily, I avoid this mountain.  It feels so . . . unnatural, but I . . . I wanted to speak with your father, and he feels closest here.”

Sesshoumaru frowned.  “Speak to chichiue?  Why here, of all places?”

Myouga’s seemingly good spirits died, and he slowly shook his head.  “Because this is where he died,” he said.  “So close, and yet . . .”

“Chichiue did not die here,” Sesshoumaru interrupted coldly.  “He died in that human castle—InuYasha’s mother’s home.”

“Oh, but he didn’t,” Myouga said.  “I went there after the fire—after the castle collapsed.  I found him unconscious among the rubble and the still-smoldering embers, but I woke him up.  Make no mistake, he was gravely injured, and he considered, going to find Izayoi-sama, to spend his last bit of time with her and InuYasha-sama, but he’d thought that maybe, if he could find the Heart of Kiriyama . . .”

“So, he wished to barter for his life with Izanami no Mikoto,” Sesshoumaru concluded.  “But he did not find it.”

Myouga sighed, tiny shoulders drooping as a melancholy washed over him.  “He could not get it, no . . . How he managed to move his body still amazes me now.  He had lost an arm, had innumerable wounds, both from Ryukotsusei as well as from the castle guard . . . and the castle, collapsing on him . . .”

Sesshoumaru considered that for a moment and slowly nodded.  It made sense.  Sesshoumaru had gone looking for him when he’d heard of the battle at Izayoi’s father’s castle, but he couldn’t find him, and now, he knew why.  “Chichiue died here . . . I see . . .”

Again, Myouga sighed, only this one seemed more resigned than anything.  “There he was, at the threshold of the cave, and his body . . . just gave out.  He said he had to rest a moment, but he never opened his eyes again . . . His body dissolved in a storm of light and wind . . . and he was gone.”

Sesshoumaru stopped dead, frowned at the retainer, who looked entirely inconsolable.  “Then the heart . . . You know where it is?”

The sadness in the flea-youkai’s aura faded, only to be replaced by a thoughtful kind of concentration, as though he was trying to remember.  “Well, it’s been a long time.  Maybe the guardian moved it, but . . .”

“The guardian?  There is one?  Tell me, why have I not sensed this guardian?”

“Because it’s not alive,” Myouga replied simply.

Not alive?  Just what did that mean?  Surely no one from Yomi would have been tasked with such a thing.  After all, once one died, there was no coming back . . .

“Show me,” he said, standing abruptly, ignoring the holler when the flea fell to the ground.

Myouga bounced up onto the metal spikes of Sesshoumaru’s armor.  “The cave is up there,” he said, pointing up the side of the mountain.  “Not too far.  It’s hidden by a barrier, but if you are looking at it just as the line between daylight and darkness falls, you will see the outline and thus can you enter.”

Hidden?  It explained a lot . . .

“Tell me, Sesshoumaru-sama, if I might ask.  Why do you seek the Heart of Kiriyama?”

“I have my reasons,” he replied.  The flea heaved a loud, long-suffering sigh, and fell silent.

 


 

 

Standing back, scowling at the rock wall that looked entirely solid, Sesshoumaru deliberated the idea of squashing the flea between his fingers for feeding him misinformation if he was wrong about the location of the cave after all.

“Myouga.”

“Yes?”

“If the cave is not here, I will kill you,” he promised.

Myouga squeaked indignantly.  “I tell you, it’s here—unless the guardian moved it!”

“And yet, I sense nothing—nothing at all.  If you have wasted my time—led me astray, you . . .” Sesshoumaru started to respond, but he trailed off when the rocks suddenly seemed to glow just a little—just for the vaguest moment.

“Quick, Sesshoumaru-sama!  Quick, go through before it closes!”

Striding through the barrier into the dank and solidly black cavern, he blinked at the solitary beam of stingy light that filtered through a hole on the far side of the rounded chamber.  It didn’t reach the floor, so far below, the shaft of brightness slowly fading as it descended until all that was left was the blackened void once more.

He said nothing as he slowly strode forward, narrowing his eyes as he struggled to see in the darkness.  No, it was more than darkness.  Even in darkness, there were vague sorts of shapes, shadows upon shadows.  In this?  It was . . . negated . . .

As he stepped into the middle of the cave, though, he stopped as torches, affixed to the cavern walls, suddenly sprang to life.  The chamber was empty—entirely empty, and oddly lacking of the permeating fog.  No furnishings, no alters, no pedestals—nothing that gave indication that this was the place he’d been searching for, and yet, he could feel it—the presence of something that was neither good nor was it evil, neither malignant nor pure . . .

Where was the Heart of Kiriyama?

He started to step forward once more, but he stopped.  All around him, sliding over the humble stone floor, came the mist.  It rolled past him, effusing the chamber with the faintest sense of foreboding, but something about it . . . It felt different from the rest of the mist . . . Before him, the prevalent fog swirled, seeming to pull together, to grow taller as it condensed into a very vague and fuzzy outline of a being.

“I am the guardian of the Heart of Kiriyama . . . Who are you?”

The voice seemed to echo around the space but did not sound like one that came from any kind of corporeal body.  It was more of a harsh whisper than a tone—dry and papery, like autumn leaves, dancing across the frozen ground . . .

“I am Sesshoumaru,” he replied.  “I’ve come to take the heart.”

The mist laughed.  The sound of it grated against Sesshoumaru’s nerves.  “You must earn it,” the voice told him.  “If you do not, then you die here.”

“Do you mean to say that no one has managed to take it?  That everyone who has sought it has died?”

A strange rumble filled the air around him—a scoff, maybe . . . “None of them were worthy of it.  Tell me, why do you wish to possess it?”

Sesshoumaru reached across his body, grasped the hilt of Tokijin, but he did not draw the sword.  “My reasons are my own.”

“Let go of your weapon, Sesshoumaru.  Fighting will avail you nothing here.”

He didn’t move his hand.

The disembodied voice laughed again—a haughty sound, as though it had seen all of this before.  “That is an interesting sword . . . Tenseiga, is it?  The sword of life?”

“Yes,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “What of it?”

The entity slowly seemed to nod.  “Will you offer it to me in exchange for the Heart of Kiriyama?”

“No,” Sesshoumaru said.  “I offer you nothing.  You’ll give me the heart, and I’ll be on my way.”

The rumble of laughter again . . . “No, you must barter for the heart.  That which is of great value is never given for free.  If you will not offer your sword, then you must offer me something else—something worthy of the trade.”

Something about the way the voice spoke . . . What was it that the guardian wanted . . .?  “What would that be?”

“Tell me why you want it.  The truth or you die.”

“You said I had to earn it, then you say I must barter for it,” Sesshoumaru pointed out.  “Which is it?”

“Can they not be one in the same?  Or are you so arrogant that you believe that all should fall to your sway?”

Bristling at the self-righteous guardian, Sesshoumaru’s grip tightened on Tokijin as he gritted his teeth and willed himself to be calm.  “I want—need—the heart to correct a mistake.”

“A mistake?”  The guardian suddenly laughed that nasty laugh once more.  “Are you dying?”

“Dying?  This Sesshoumaru?  No.”

“Then tell me of this mistake.”

“I don’t have time to—”

The entity unleashed a harsh gale, a roughened growl.  “On the contrary, Sesshoumaru.  You have nothing but time if you want my treasure.  Do you wish for the heart so that you can be reckless?  So that you can go and wage war without the fear of death, hovering over you?  Do you wish to possess it so that you can stand before Izanami no Mikoto and trade your miserable existence for it?  To squeeze out another few paltry years, be they decades or centuries—to me, it is all for nothing!”

“I fear nothing like that,” Sesshoumaru insisted.  “I am not so easily killed.”

The being seemed to be amused by his reply, even though Sesshoumaru couldn’t rightfully say why he felt that way.  “Then why?  If you say you do not wish for it for yourself, then you must tell me why . . . And again, I say, true answers or die now.”

His gut reaction was to fight the guardian, and maybe that would have been simpler.  It was how he had always lived his life.  Fight his enemies, vanquish them . . . Being forced to do anything . . . Well, it simply did not settle well with him . . .

“There was one who . . . who died in my place,” he ground out, angry that he was being forced to entertain these questions—angry that he was allowing it to be so.  “I would not have died, but she . . . She did.”

“A woman?  You want the heart to restore a woman—your woman?”

“I—” Eyes flaring wider as the crux of the question slowly sank in, Sesshoumaru had to force himself to speak again.  “I know not, but she . . . She should not have died.”

“And you are one with the ability to say what should or should not have been?”

“I am not that presumptuous, but . . . but I know that she should not have, yes.”

It seemed to him that the guardian was quiet for far too long.  Did it think he was lying?  Was it trying to figure out, whether or not Sesshoumaru was speaking the truth?  The guardian’s foggy form wavered back and forth, almost as though it was resonating with something that Sesshoumaru could not see.  Suddenly, though, the mist glided forward, surrounded him, seemed to be pressing in on him on all sides.  His first instinct was to warn it away, but he ignored that impulse, reminding himself silently that he had to get the heart . . .

He could feel the mist as it invaded the recesses of his body, his mind, his memories.  It felt like an eternity as he stood his ground, as he fought the impulse to struggle against the assault.  Finally, however, the mist receded, scooting over to congeal before him once more.

“You need the heart to barter with Izanami,” it concluded.

“Yes.”

It sighed.  “Others have come here, have stood before me, trying to convince me that they wished for the stone for such an altruistic purpose, and when I probed their minds, it was to find that they lied.  Always after power, always searching for a way to squeeze out just one more day of walking in the light.  You . . . You are the first who wishes to have the heart, solely for someone else’s sake, but it’s strange.  You, who holds little in the way of compassion for others, though you are learning . . . You, who would rather fight than to question yourself—or to answer those questions, even unto yourself . . . You, who possesses the potential but not the desire to achieve great things, terrible things . . . or nothing . . . I grant you the Heart of Kiriyama, Sesshoumaru.”

Sesshoumaru watched as the mist seemed to condense, drawing in upon itself, spinning like a cyclone as it grew smaller and tighter.  With a flash of light, a loud rattle, the mass fell to the ground.  It teetered, wobbled a few times, before finally stilling.

Sesshoumaru strode forward, picked it up.  It was smooth, cool, like a stone, but small enough to be held in the palm of his hand, and as he rolled it slightly, the stone seemed to reshape itself as the mist inside swirled and undulated, emanating a soft light—a warm light . . .

He stared at it for a long moment.  Then he stuck it into his armor, right next to Kagura’s feather, and he turned to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Five~~
~Meetings~

 

~o~

 

 

Striding through the gates of Yomi no Kuni past the stone guardians that protected the entrance to the underworld, Sesshoumaru did not stop as he followed the same path that he’d taken during his last visit.  He moved with purpose, having come straight here from the cave on Kiriyama with the heart tucked safely in his armor.

Myouga had returned with him, although the flea-youkai had opted, not to accompany him into Yomi.  It hadn’t mattered to Sesshoumaru at all.  Given that the aged flea was InuYasha’s retainer and not Sesshoumaru’s, there really wasn’t any reason that he needed to come along, anyway.

Others have come here, have stood before me, trying to convince me that they wished for the stone for such an altruistic purpose, and when I probed their minds, it was to find that they lied.  Always after power, always searching for a way to squeeze out just one more day of walking in the light.  You . . . You are the first who wishes to have the heart, solely for someone else’s sake, but it’s strange.  You, who holds little in the way of compassion for others, though you are learning . . . You, who would rather fight than to question yourself—or to answer those questions, even unto yourself . . . You, who possesses the potential but not the desire to achieve great things, terrible things . . . or nothing . . . I grant you the Heart of Kiriyama, Sesshoumaru.”

Those words . . . They had repeated in the confines of his mind since they had been uttered in that cavern.  The raw and naked truths that had been spoken . . . The mist had, indeed, searched the recesses of Sesshoumaru’s memories to verify if what he said was truth or not.

Except that one person’s truth is often another’s lies.  It is simple perception.  Your comprehension depends solely upon the angle with which you see it.

There was a very definite veracity in that.

Just as you feel that Kagura did not deserve to die, don’t you think that there are others—souls housed here, even, that would disagree with that?

There was truth in that, too.  Kagura had cut down countless youkai in the things she’d done upon Naraku’s orders—cut them down, only to reanimate them to do her bidding . . . Cut them down and spared not even a second thought about it.

If that is one’s measure of worthiness or not, then perhaps I should have been banished here long, long ago.

You, who possesses the potential but not the desire to achieve great things, terrible things . . . or nothing . . .

What did that mean?

Brushing aside his musings as though they were of little consequence to him, he narrowed his eyes, focusing on the path before him instead.  There’d be time later to mull over those words, to try to make sense out of the half-riddles that the guardian had spoken.

To his surprise, however, he came to a platform with a large door standing in the center—nothing else around it, just the door, perhaps where the angry souls had attacked him on his prior visit, but the door was not here at that time.  Stopping an arm’s length away, he frowned.  There was no other path, and even the one that had brought him this far seemed to have vanished behind him.

“These are Izanami-sama’s chambers.  Will you go inside?”

“Jester,” he said when the whispery being appeared beside the door.  “So, she knows I’ve returned.”

Jester chuckled that airy laugh.  “There is nothing that happens within these gates that she does not have knowledge of.  So, you were successful in retrieving the Heart of Kiriyama, I take it.”

“Was there any doubt?”

“I suppose there wasn’t.”

The door opened of its own accord, and Sesshoumaru did not hesitate as he stepped forward, stepped through it, only to blink at the sight that greeted him.  A large courtyard with a perfect nighttime sky, dotted with a vast array of stars.  Lush grass on either side of the dirt path that spread out and around the looming castle—ancient in structure—in the distance . . . Yet, as perfect as it was, it was only a replica.  There were no sounds, there was no wind, no smells, nothing . . .

The overall feel of it was surreal, almost horrifying in its exsanguinous splendor, but Jester seemed not to notice Sesshoumaru’s distaste as he glided past him, beckoning for him to follow.

“Her hell is this: the world that she left behind.”

“How is this hell?” Sesshoumaru asked.

Jester seemed to shrug.  “She’s reproduced Yahiro-dono here, complete with Ame no Mihashira . . . It is her heaven—and her hell.  Heaven because she longed for her old home; hell because, as beautiful as it is, it is but a faint shadow of what she knew in life.”

“The Pillar of Heaven . . .” Sesshoumaru mused, more to himself than to Jester.

“Everything here is culled from her memories, but it is eternal night, and it is most definitely dead.”

Sesshoumaru digested that for a moment.  The ghastly beauty of Izanami’s hell made a poetic kind of sense, if he were wont to think of it in such a way.  The pragmatism that he tended to live by needled at him, but he reasoned that it made sense, what Jester had said . . . “Know you why she desires the Heart of Kiriyama?”

Jester grunted.  “In this place where one feels nothing, where one has been robbed of most of one’s senses, does it surprise you that she would wish to possess something that reminds her of the world above in a more concrete sense?”

Put that way, then it did make sense.  The mist, the fog, captured in the fluid stone . . . Yes, he supposed he could understand that . . . “Tell me why you are accompanying me. I had no issue in finding her chambers.”

Jester sighed.  “Gozu alerted me to your return.”  He paused for a long moment.  “It is my task to accept the dead and to put them into their chambers.”

“I am not one of the dead,” Sesshoumaru pointed out.

“True, however, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a living being.  Surely you can understand my curiosity.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that, and they fell silent as they approached the imposing structure that was Izanami’s domain.

 


 

 

Sesshoumaru knelt in seiza on the tatami mat to the right of the dais where the shoji screen separated him from the goddess herself.  Flickering candlelight cast shadows against the screen, allowing him a glimpse of her form, even if he could not look upon her directly.  On both sides of the dais were incense burners with tendrils of smoke, rising lazily from them, but there was no odor.  Paper lanterns chased away the duskiness cast by the cold and dead moon outside the opened screens

Jester sat in seiza across from Sesshoumaru, but he remained silent, and even in the light, he had no real form, no distinctive shape, other than the copious robe that hid all of him.

“Sesshoumaru . . . am I to understand that you were successful in retrieving the Heart of Kiriyama?”

Her voice was rich, fuller than any others he’d heard in this place.  She sounded young, her voice soft, almost lyrical.  Yet, there was something else belying her words—something calculated, maybe even too calm . . . “I did,” he replied.

“And you will gift it to me?”

“I want Kagura’s soul in exchange.  I want her restored to life.”

Izanami clucked her tongue, uttered a soft chuckle that sounded a little more condescending than humored.  “That is hardly a proper way to ask for a favor, Sesshoumaru,” she chided.

He didn’t back down.  “I was not aware that I was requesting a favor.  It was my understanding that we were to discuss an exchange—a barter, if you will.”

“A barter?  No, the retrieving of the Heart of Kiriyama was merely a token from you—a show of appreciation, you might say.”

Sesshoumaru gave a barely perceptible shrug.  “And yet, the heart remains within my possession—for now.  I accomplished what you asked of me.  I simply want Kagura to be restored.  That’s all I came here for.”

She seemed to consider his words for a long minute.  Then, she sighed.  “Leave us, Jester,” she commanded.

The hooded figure offered Sesshoumaru a low bow before backing out of the room, leaving Sesshoumaru alone with the queen of Yomi no Kuni.

She didn’t speak again for several minutes.  The silence was enough to grate on his nerves.  There was no rustle of clothing, none of the living sounds that he’d taken for granted, and even the steady throb of his own heartbeat was veiled in this place.  He hadn’t realized, just how reassuring that was . . . “Tell me . . . The heart . . . Was it difficult to obtain?”

“It was difficult to find,” he allowed.

She uttered a soft noise—not quite a sigh, but not quite a sound.  He might have likened it to more of an exhalation, but she didn’t breathe, did she?  “I will see it.”

“Show yourself first.”

He didn’t think that she was going to comply.  After all, she’d gone out of her way to hide herself from his view the entire time, hadn’t she?  A few moments later, however, the shoji slipped to the side, revealing Izanami.

He didn’t know what he thought he’d see.  Maybe he expected to see another form, much like Jester’s, a being clad in an indistinct black robe, shapeless and shiftless.  Izanami, however, was solid enough, clad in layer upon layer of fine silken kimonos, all of them in rich blacks that still seemed somehow faded, replete with ornate embroidery in golden thread, embellished with gems and pearls.  She also wore a black lace veil that seemed to be comprised of a number of layers, as well, bearing no flesh at all, and when she held out a hand to receive the heart, he noticed that she was wearing black gloves, as well.

He dug the heart out of his armor and stood to give it to her.  As it touched her hand, she gasped, holding it up, seeming to watch it as the mist inside it swirled and undulated in a lazy and almost mesmerizing kind of way.  “It’s the Heart of Kiriyama . . . The true heart . . . At long last . . .”

“Do we have a deal?”

She stared at the orb for another minute before setting it on the tatami before her.  “First, you will tell me why.  Why is it that you would go through this to retrieve her soul?  Is she your mate?  Your lover?”

“She shouldn’t have died.”

Something about his answer irritated her, and that irritation came through in her tone.  “And yet, you didn’t use Tenseiga to save her?  Or is it that you . . . could not . . .?”

“Kagura was an incarnation created by another.  He held her heart to gain her compliance.”

“Ah . . . So, when her creator died, so did she, rendering your Tenseiga ineffective.  What kind of black magic was used in her creation?”

Sesshoumaru shook his head.  “That, I know not.  Naraku had a nasty habit of absorbing bodies that did not belong to him, after all.”

“Naraku . . .” She seemed thoughtful for a moment.  “He is not here.”

“What do you mean?  What kind of trickery do you speak of?” he demanded sharply.  “He was dispatched.  One such as he—"

She held up a hand, as though to placate him.  “There was a strange influx of youkai and a human recently . . . Perhaps, if he was what you say he was, those souls separated upon death—each their own.”

“He merged his body with the others but he could not merge their souls,” Sesshoumaru mused.

“Oh, perhaps he suppressed them within himself, but souls remain, even if they are trapped within another.”

That makes perfect sense, you know.  Never stopped to consider that before, but . . . And that means that Naraku truly is dead.

“Anyway, this woman—Kaze no Kagura . . . You will tell me why you seek to have her restored—and you must understand, this . . . This is not something that is allowed—never has been allowed.  It’s unnatural.  It could easily upset the delicate balance that exists between the earthen plane and this one.  Do you fully comprehend, just what you are asking of me?”

Narrowing his eyes, Sesshoumaru did not drop his gaze from the veil that covered her face.  “I care not about that balance, Izanami.  That balance was already upset when she was taken.  It was not her destiny to die that day.”

Izanami sighed, and when she spoke again, she sounded mildly irritated, as though she disliked having to explain what he should have easily understood, at least, in her opinion.  “Every single soul, alive and dead, affects the flow of time, of order.  Whether you want to believe it or not, it was her destiny to die that day.  Things like this do not happen arbitrarily.  There is reason; there is direction, and even if it weren’t so, have you considered that her death was a boon to you?  Your feelings for her will die eventually—whatever they are.  That she died when she did will enable you to hold her in your mind, stopping your emotions forever where she will remain, suspending her in the golden thrall of your memories.  Why not allow her to endure that way?”

“Do not misunderstand me,” he countered quietly, no less forcefully.  “This Sesshoumaru is not as capricious as that.”

She uttered a terse laugh—a wholly deprecating kind of sound, full of bitterness, of condescension.  “Is that so?  Then, tell me why.  Tell me why you want her back.”

“She was not the one who should have died that day,” Sesshoumaru maintained.  “She protected me.  That . . . That is reason enough.”

“I say it is not,” Izanami rebuffed him.  “Now, why?”

Grinding his teeth together, he narrowed his eyes, his anger growing with every passing moment.  Still, she demanded reasons and refused to accept that which he’d already told her?  “I owe her that much,” he growled, unable to repress the rising surge of emotion that spiraled, deep within him.

“You owe her?” Izanami mocked him.  “Those answers are convenient,” she replied.  “Rehearsed and convenient.  Perhaps it is your truth, perhaps it is simply the easiest reason that you could give.  Now, I will ask again: why do you want her back—and if you lie this time—if you seek to hide the truth from me—I will know.  Understand that you, Sesshoumaru, exist here upon my whim.  Do not be so arrogant as to think that your Tenseiga affords you special treatment here.  Yomi is my domain, and whether you walk from the gates of this place or not lies entirely within my discretion.”

Sparing a moment, fighting back the desire to lash out at her, the thinnest thread of reason held him in check.  Had he come this far, just to be turned away?  But the answer to her question . . . “I don’t . . . I don’t know!” he growled, feeling the rise in his pulse, the tell-tale singe of the blood in his veins as crimson bled into his vision.  He held on, fought the rise of his youkai.

“Then try harder,” she shot back, rising to her feet so quickly that he didn’t rightfully discern the movement, her rage a nearly palpable thing.  “You dare to enter Yomi, to stir the souls of the unrelenting dead, to demand audience with me, only to mock me with your flip responses and arrogant belief that, just because you want something, it should be so?  Begone with you, you fool, and when next we meet, I assure you, you will never walk through the gates back into the living world, ever again.”

The anger that surged through him was hard to keep in check.  Being challenged was simply not something he could tolerate, and yet, he had no real choice, did he?  Indulging himself in a moment to brush off the goddess’ curt words, Sesshoumaru focused instead upon the answers she demanded.  Except . . .

Put away your pride, Sesshoumaru . . . As much as you hate that she challenges you, she is right.  She holds the power here; not you—you, who pride yourself upon possessing might that surpasses all others.

This . . . This is not about pride.  Does she believe that I would do this on a whim?

It doesn’t matter, what she believes, you know.  All she wants is truth—and if you give her that, maybe . . . maybe . . .

But . . . what is the truth?

It’s simple.  It’s what you believe.  Make up your mind.  Will you walk away now, tell yourself that you tried while knowing that you held your arrogance in far higher regard than you held the life of another?  Or will you do what you came here to do and nurse your wounded pride later?

His . . . pride . . .?  And that was the problem, wasn’t it?  He’d built his entire existence around the quest to be the strongest, the most powerful, but here . . . The field had been leveled, and standing behind the impassive nature that he’d striven to attain . . . His youkai-voice was right.  It would avail him nothing here . . . “I cannot answer you as to why I want her back,” he finally said, unable to curb the hint of hostility in his tone.  “I can only say that I am . . . compelled . . . to make it so.”

“You . . . do not love her?  Yet, you would go this far for her?”

“I am youkai, Izanami.  That thing that you call love . . . That is a human invention—a pathetic attempt to veil the overwhelming weakness of their transient existences with a nobler and unnaturally altruistic façade.  I am not so foolish as that.  Kagura . . . She still speaks to me, if only in the confines of my own thoughts and in the whispers of my dreams.”

“Dreams are for the living, Sesshoumaru.  You might well dream, but she cannot.  That is her fate.”

“I say it is not,” he countered mildly.  “She commanded the wind, but she could not be one with it—a short life, bound to a master whose entire existence was tainted by those human emotions that he could not rid himself of . . . She was used and forgotten, and still, in the end, she smiled.  That . . . That cannot be her fate.”

It seemed to him that Izanami took her time in answering.  She sat back down, remained perfectly still, and even though he could not see her face, he knew that she was staring at him.  He had no idea, just what she saw, but in the timeless void, his moments ticked away, as loudly as a hammer against iron in his mind.  It all came down to this, did it not?  Everything he sought to accomplish . . .

Finally, she spoke, and when she did, her voice took on a softer cadence, almost as though she’d reached some kind of understanding, though he did not know what kind of understanding that could be . . . “I have read your mind, Sesshoumaru, from the moment you entered Yomi.  I have heard your thoughts, your conversations with your youkai-voice, but I can see deeper than that.  I can see your heart—your soul—that even you cannot comprehend, and I tell you this: I require four things, and you will bring them to me.  To acquire them will be more difficult than searching for the Heart of Kiriyama.  However, if you bring me these things, I will return the soul of your wind sorceress—if she has not eaten food of Yomi when you return.  If she is given back to you, then know this: the moment you succumb to the faithless disdain that comes after, I will claim her back again.  After all, to exist here is far better than to spend a lifetime in a world with the one that you cannot forget.”

Sesshoumaru’s frown turned thoughtful, but he nodded once.  “And what are these things you require?”

She laughed softly.  “From the north, you will bring me the Essence of Joy.  From the south, the Blackened Tears.  From the east, the Fire of Wrath.  From the west, the Balm of Peace.”

Slowly, he shook his head.  These things she asked for . . . Just what the hell were they?  “I have never heard of these things,” he admitted, his rage igniting once more as the feeling that she was playing him for a fool nearly sent him over the proverbial edge.  “What kind of trickery is this?”

“It is no trick, I assure you.  These things are real, and to prove my good will—after all, I do want these things—I’ll even provide you with a guide.  He might not know exactly where to find these items, but he is familiar enough with them to help you figure out where to look.”

“A guide?  And who would that be?”

She nodded and chuckled, apparently amused by Sesshoumaru’s show of irritation.  “Jester. Come.”

A moment later, the robe-clad figure appeared again as she held out a hand, palm-up.  Above her hand, two blackened jewels solidified.  “Take these, Jester, and give one to Sesshoumaru.  They will allow you to walk in the light, so long as you have one in your possession—and as long as Sesshoumaru holds onto his, you two will be bound.”

Jester slowly shook his head, hesitated before taking the stone she offered.  “You . . . would send me out of Yomi?”

“He requires a guide.  He will find for me the Sacred Ward.”

Jester’s head shot to the side, staring at Izanami.  “The Sacred Ward?  But—”

“If he accomplishes this, then I have promised to return Kaze no Kagura’s soul to him once more.  You feel that is an unfair barter?”

Jester slowly shook his head.  “On the contrary, it’s . . . a very generous one.”

Stepping over to drop the other stone into Sesshoumaru’s hand, the youkai blinked as Jester’s filmy body solidified the moment that the stone fell into his possession with a flash of strange, hazy blue light.  Tall, certainly, the rest of his form was lost under the jet-black robe, and this time, when he faced Sesshoumaru, he could see the man’s lower jaw, but the rest of his face was hidden behind a blackened mask under the hood that was still over his head . . .

“Who . . . are you?”

Jester gave pause at Sesshoumaru’s question.  “I am Jester,” he replied.  “Haven’t we already been over this?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t acknowledge the intended jest.  Something about him—his bearing, maybe his demeanor . . . Something . . .

“The Sacred Ward,” Sesshoumaru murmured, brushing the odd feeling aside.  And if he were to believe Izanami’s words, then he had to find these things before Kagura ate the food of Yomi, as well . . .

Jester dismissed it all with a flick of his hand and a very formal bow toward the monarch.  “All right, then.  Shall we go?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Six~~
~Loose Ends~

 

~o~

 

 

“The Sacred Ward . . . That’s a hell of a task—if it’s even possible . . .”

Sesshoumaru didn’t reply as he passed over the ground, gliding over the land to the west—toward his castle.  It used to belong to his father, who had ruled over the Western Lands long before Sesshoumaru was born, and for a very long time, Sesshoumaru had avoided it entirely, opting instead to roam without laying claim to the castle on the cliff.  It wasn’t really until he’d revived Rin that he’d chosen to go there, to allow her to be somewhere in relative safety, even though they still traveled quite a bit.  The castle, however, was a veritable treasure trove, full of spoils his father had acquired over the span of his long life.  Sesshoumaru, however, cared for none of it.  They were simply things, and those things meant very little to him.

“Tell me why we’re going west first?  Do you know something about the Balm of Peace?”

“I know not, how long this may take,” Sesshoumaru admitted after Jester broke the silence.  “You said you have limited knowledge, at best.  There is something I must see to before I leave.”

Jester nodded slowly.

Casting a glance out of the corner of his eye without turning his head, Sesshoumaru frowned as he watched his guide.  From the time that they’d stepped through the gates of Yomi no Kuni, Jester had done little but look around, as though he were trying to take in everything at once.  He supposed that he could understand that.  Though Jester hadn’t said, it had to have been a long while since he’d been on this side of those gates.

The feel of the wind against his face, the scent of the earth and the trees, the water that lay just off to the east . . . the warmth of the sun . . . How often had Sesshoumaru felt these things, only to disregard them?

Maybe, but . . . don’t you wonder about Jester?  I mean, who was he?

Does it matter?  It is of no concern to me.  If he can help me, then fine.  If he cannot, then I have no need of him, anyway.

Stepping over to drop the other stone into Sesshoumaru’s hand, the youkai blinked as Jester’s filmy body solidified the moment that the stone fell into his possession with a flash of strange, hazy blue light.  Tall, certainly, the rest of his form was lost under the jet-black robe, and this time, when he faced Sesshoumaru, he could see the man’s lower jaw, but the rest of his face was hidden behind a blackened mask under the hood that was still over his head . . .

He looks just like any other living being, and yet, he bears no scent, no youki.

What he is or is not, what he was or was not, is none of my concern.

“Tell me, Jester . . . What do you know about the Sacred Ward?”

Jester blinked, and it seemed to take him a moment to register Sesshoumaru’s question.  “What do I know of it?  Not a lot, to be honest.  I do know, however, what they are.”

“And what are they?”

Jester shrugged.  “They’re ingredients.”

“Ingredients?”

“Ingredients for a tincture . . . It’s said that the Sacred Ward can restore a soul, rotted by the food of Yomi.  I would guess that’s the reason why Izanami-sama wants it—to restore her original beauty.”

Sesshoumaru considered that, then frowned.  “If one merely exists in the shadow form until they eat the food of Yomi, then how is it that you possessed a shape?  Have you not eaten the food?”

Jester sighed.  “No, I haven’t,” he agreed.  “It’s more difficult to ignore it in the beginning.  It gets easier over time, but the hunger never truly goes away.  It’s the only actual feeling that you have, this gnawing in the pit of you, and when you have no other senses to appease, then the hunger becomes a driving force within.  However, if you manage to avoid eating, there’s a good chance that Izanami-sama will show you favor.”

“And that’s how you became one of her guards?”

“That . . . and she’s my great-great-great grandmother.”

“You’re related to her?”

Jester chuckled.  “I didn’t know this until after I died, but it stands to reason.  Youkai  . . . humans . . . We all descended from the kami.  It just so happens that my bloodline was a little closer and less convoluted than others.  Many are descended from Izanagi, but fewer can claim lineage that can be traced back to Izanami.  My great-great grandfather was, in fact, the first of his kind.  Izanagi later begot a daughter, but she was not Izanami’s, and she was born to be my great-great grandfather’s mate—at least, that’s how the story goes.”

They traveled a while longer as the silence settled once again, but it was a comfortable kind of stillness.

It was strange, really.  Sesshoumaru, by nature, did not trust many, preferred to do things on his own if possible.  It was an independence that he’d forged over the years.  He wasn’t not in the habit of being comfortable around anyone.  Even with Jaken and Rin, there was a level of separation: a defined role.  He was their protector, their lord.

So, why was it that Jester’s presence did not bother him?

Jester sighed.  “I have a question, and I might as well get it out of the way or suffer the preoccupation of the unknown.”

Sesshoumaru said nothing, but he shot Jester a quick glance, which was as close to an agreement as he was inclined to give.

Jester intercepted the look and interpreted it to mean that he could proceed.  “What happened to your arm?  How’d you lose it?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, you’re lord of the Western Lands, aren’t you?  Which means you’re strong—possibly one of the strongest youkai in the realm.  After all, if you’re able to hold a territory that vast, then it attests to your strength.  That means my question is valid.”

“My . . . half-brother cut it off,” he said, unsure exactly why he was answering the question when he really hadn’t intended to do any such thing.  “It makes no difference.   I am as powerful without it as I was with it.”

Jester nodded slowly.  “You have a sibling—a brother.  I take it from what you said that you do not get along?”

“Half-brother . . . and it’s a moot point,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “He chose his path, and I’ve chosen mine.”

“Ah, the complicated relationship between siblings,” Jester mused thoughtfully.  “Well, I didn’t have any in life, but I hear that it’s complicated, anyway . . .”

Stopping abruptly, Sesshoumaru slowly shifted his gaze around.  Deep, they were, into his territory—land that he knew as well as he knew his own heartbeat—and the feel of something, malignant and foul, was rife in the air.

Jester lit on the ground beside him.  “It’s an oni,” he concluded after a moment.  “I can sense his vulgar intention.”

The creak and rattle in the trees just ahead drew Sesshoumaru forward.  “You can sense intent?”

“So it would seem,” he said.  “Show me, Sesshoumaru . . . Show me your strength.”

The huge oni, almost as tall as the trees, lumbered forward, grunting, growling . . . It was from the lower lands, a beast born in the fields and hills.  Tough, leathery skin, akin to armor—and this kind tended to use their minds a little more than their rock or stone counterparts that were more prevalent toward the mountains.  “Sess . . . homaru . . .” he rumbled, his voice akin to the roll of thunder, “Sesshoumaru . . .”

“Out of my way,” Sesshoumaru commanded without stopping.  “This is my domain.”

“It is nice here.  I want it,” the oni stated.

“You had your warning,” Sesshoumaru said, drawing Tokijin and unleashing the bright blue flash of the Souryuha without breaking his stride.  The lightning shot out, engulfing the oni in the jagged streaks of blinding light.  The beast shrieked as he exploded in a strobe of white light and a blast of wind.

“Not bad,” Jester remarked as the wind died down behind them.  He seemed to be staring at Sesshoumaru—or rather, at Tokijin—and he snorted indelicately.  “That sword . . . feels ominous.”

“It should,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “It was forged from the fangs that broke my father’s fabled sword, Tetsusaiga.”

“Broke it?”

“Goshinki was able to break a sword as powerful as that.  It suits my purposes.”

Jester chuckled.  “I suppose it does,” he mused.  “I suppose it does . . .”

 


 

 

“Sesshoumaru-sama!  You’ve returned!”

Sesshoumaru didn’t smile as he stepped into the garden behind the castle, but his eyes brightened to a lighter gold as he watched the child skitter across the grass, a handful of flowers clutched tightly against her chest.  “Rin, I trust you’ve behaved yourself?”

The girl beamed up at him, twirling around on her tiny feet.  He’d noticed it before, hadn’t he?  Rin was one of those creatures that simply could not be still, could not hide her happiness, her absolute joy.  “Yes, milord!  I’ve been tending Ah-Uhn, and Jaken-sama has been teaching me how to write my name!”

“Sesshoumaru-sama!  Sesshomaru-sama!” With a peal of giddy laughter, the green imp dashed over to them.  “I’m so glad that you’ve finally returned!  Did you manage to find the Heart of Kiriyama?”

“I did.  Now, come.”

The two hurried after him when he turned on his heel and started away.  In truth, he’d been considering, just what to do with them, and he’d made a decision, though he was sure that Jaken would likely object on principle.

“Are we going to travel again?” Rin asked, darting over to Ah-Uhn to clamor atop the dragon familiar.

“I am taking you to the human village for a time,” Sesshoumaru replied, stepping off the ground.  The dragon followed, but Jaken, who hadn’t managed to get up on the beast, shrieked and ran after them.  Without a second thought, Sesshoumaru caught Jaken with the long tail of the Mokomoko-sama and tossed him onto Ah-Uhn’s back with Rin.

“The . . . human village?” Rin echoed, the trepidation she tried to hide, coloring her voice.  The girl had harbored a fear of humans ever since she had witnessed her family being murdered by thieves, and maybe that was the reason she’d tried so hard to reach out to Sesshoumaru so long ago, when she’d stumbled across him, deep in the forest after a particularly tough battle with InuYasha . . .

“I’ll come for you when I finish what I have to do,” he told her.

“And . . . And me, milord?  Surely I—"

“You will be watching over Rin, Jaken,” Sesshoumaru replied.

“But, milord!  This Jaken—”

The imp’s words died on his tongue when Sesshoumaru turned his head just enough to narrow his eyes on him.

Jaken heaved a fitful sigh.  “Aye, milord . . .”

“You . . . You keep a human pet?” Jester remarked, an understated but present incredulity in his tone.

“She is not a pet,” Sesshoumaru corrected.

“Then is she your child?”

“Surely you can tell that she is entirely human,” Sesshoumaru remarked rather dryly.

Jester nodded.  “Well, I thought so.  The nose on this body I’m borrowing isn’t nearly as keen as the one I had in life . . . She is simply under your care, then.  I understand.  Funny, though.  You don’t strike me as the type to indulge any humans, much less a child.”

“Body you’re borrowing . . .?”

Jester shrugged.  “I wouldn’t be of much assistance if I were just a spirit, now would I?  Izanami-sama felt it wise to give me form, though it isn’t quite the same as it was when I was living.  Oh, it doesn’t belong to anyone else, if that was what you were wondering.”

“Who were you in life?”

“I am not at liberty to say,” he admitted.  “Anyway, it’s of no real consequence.  Best we just find the Sacred Ward and get back.  Time is of the essence.  If Kaze no Kagura eats of the food of Yomi, then . . .”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that.  There really wasn’t anything to say.  He wasn’t the type to keep a human in any capacity; Jester was right.  Even now, he couldn’t rightfully say why he’d saved Rin after a pack of wolf-youkai had killed her.  It was simpler to say that Tenseiga willed it to be so, but . . .

In any case, leaving Rin and Jaken in the care of the humans—InuYasha’s allies—was reasonable, given that he had no idea, just how long this search for the Sacred Ward would take.  Rin, he’d noticed, was all right around them, and, provided that they didn’t drag her out into dangerous situations, they’d be able to adequately protect her with Jaken’s assistance.

“Milord, if I might be so bold as to ask . . . who is this shifty fellow?” Jaken called from his spot upon Ah-Uhn’s back.

“His name is Jester.  That’s all you need to know,” Sesshoumaru replied when the imp nudged the dragon faster.

Rin was busy, twisting around, trying to look past Sesshoumaru to stare at Jester.

“And you are sure that he is to be trusted?”

That earned Jaken a scathing side-eye, and the imp hurriedly waved his hands.  “Not that I would ever question your judgement,” he blurted, bowing fast and often.  “Forgive me, milord!  A thousand apologies!”

“Hello,” Rin piped up, having decided that, since Sesshoumaru was all right with Jester, that she was, as well.  “I’m Rin.  Jester’s a funny name, don’t you think?  What does it mean?”

Jester looked surprised but glanced past Sesshoumaru at the child.  “I . . . I suppose it is,” he agreed slowly.  “It . . . It suits my purposes, though.”

Rin looked thoughtful, her tiny mouth curving downward at the corners, as though she were considering what he’d said.  “Then . . . should I call you Jester-sama?”

Jester choked out a curt laugh.  “Just Jester is fine, Rin.”

She thought that over, too, and then, she smiled.  “Okay!  And we’ll be friends, won’t we?”

“He won’t be around very long, Rin,” Sesshoumaru pointed out.

The child looked slightly disappointed by that, but she recovered quickly enough.

“So . . . If she’s not a pet or your child—or a snack that you’re keeping for later, I daresay—why does she travel under your care?” Jester asked.

Sesshoumaru didn’t answer right away.  In the end, though, he shrugged.  “She chose to.  That is all.”

Suddenly, Jester didn’t look like he was willing to accept that answer at face-value, but he did let the subject drop.  “She seems happy enough, though you don’t strike me as the kind to know much when it comes to raising a human child.”

“She is fine,” he replied.

Jester nodded slowly, and he finally fell silent.

 


 

 

“So, you want us to keep her for you—that’s what you’re saying.”

Eyeing the houshi with a slow stare, Sesshoumaru gave a small nod.  “For a time,” he replied.  “Will it be a problem?”

“No, not at all,” Miroku said, quickly holding up a hand.  “However, we were getting ready to travel to the taijiya village.  Sango wishes to settle there, but . . . But you’ve traveled with Rin all this time.  Why do you want us to take her now?”

He sounded more curious than anything.  Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes.  “I have something I must do,” he said.  “It could prove to be dangerous for her—and there are things that the taijiya might well be better adept at teaching her.”

A look of general understanding surfaced on the monk’s face, and he slowly nodded.  “Say no more.  I think I understand.  She’ll be just fine with us.  We’ll protect her with our lives.”

“See that you do,” Sesshoumaru replied.  He started to turn away, but Miroku’s voice stopped him.

“If you don’t mind my asking, who is that peculiar fellow you’ve got with you?”

Following the direction of Miroku’s gaze, only to spot Jester, kneeling down, talking in hushed tones to some of the village’s children, Sesshoumaru slowly blinked.  “He is my guide.”

The houshi looked like he still had questions.  Sesshoumaru turned away, scanned the area for Rin, and called her over before the man grew brazen enough to ask anything else.  “Rin!”

The girl dashed over to him, beaming up at him.  “Are you leaving now, Sesshoumaru-sama?”

“I am,” he told her.  “I will come for you when I’ve completed my task.”

“And I will learn how to write my name while you’re away,” she declared.  “I’ve almost got it now!  By the time you return, I’ll be able to do it for real!”

“Behave yourself, Rin,” he told her.  “Jaken will stay with you.”

She nodded happily.

He watched as she carted around, dashed off to inspect the top that the kitsune was toying with.  He observed her for another long moment before pivoting on his heel and starting away without another word.

He was already well beyond the village by the time Jester caught up with him.  Slowing to a walk beside Sesshoumaru, Jester shook his head, though he seemed amused otherwise.  “You’re really abrupt, aren’t you?” he mused, though the question really didn’t sound like a question, at all.

Sesshoumaru said nothing as the two of them stepped into the forest—InuYasha’s Forest.  It felt somehow empty, didn’t it?  As though it realized that it’s protector was gone . . . There was a subtle sadness, the likes of which he hadn’t felt in such a long time, not since the passing of his esteemed father.  That was different, though—slightly, anyway.  Back then, Musashi had fallen under his jurisdiction as well as the Western Realm.  He was in the process of claiming it when he’d met her—Izayoi.  Sesshoumaru had helped his father take the lands, and, once he’d defeated the other youkai in the area that could have been considered strong enough to rival him, he’d passed the Western Lands over to Sesshoumaru for the most part.  In those days, it was rare to find him, roaming through the forests or idling in the fields.  When he’d died . . .

When he had died, Sesshoumaru had overseen the region, but he laid no claim to it.  To him, it was tainted land, and he had wanted no part of it.  Somewhere in his mind, Musashi had become synonymous with his father’s death—had come to signify his father’s foolishness, his downfall . . . Sesshoumaru needed no such curse, and he carved it out of the whole like a bit of rotting and malignant flesh and had discarded it, allowing it to be passed instead onto the infant, InuYasha . . . No, he’d only done enough to ensure that it remained for InuYasha, who had never realized just what Sesshoumaru had done—not that Sesshoumaru really cared.  As ignorant as he was, InuYasha had never even understood that Musashi was his birthright, anyway.

Back then, it seemed as though the whole of the countryside knew and mourned his father’s passing.  It was in the air, in the land, even in the waters as they flowed, and as the land slowly recovered, so, too, did Sesshoumaru . . .

That’s not really true, you know.  You still harbor that old resentment, that old hostility, toward your father.

I do not,’ he argued almost philosophically.  ‘There is nothing to resent.  Chichiue . . . He made his choices.  It was all that there ever was.

Yet, you go out of your way to do everything that he would never have done.  That was your vow, wasn’t it?  That you would never live a senseless life like he did.

No, I vowed that I would never died a senseless death like he did,’ Sesshoumaru corrected tightly.  ‘And I will not.

His youkai-voice sighed.

It was the truth, as far as Sesshoumaru could see.  After all, his father had sought power, surely, but he’d done so in order to create a world where they could live in peace—those were his words.  He wished to protect what he called ‘the weak’—those who were too weak to stand on their own.  It was something Sesshoumaru had never truly understood.  What good was might if he was forced to use his power in order to champion those who were far too inept to do so themselves?

No, to stand tall was to be stronger than all others.  He did not want or need to be burdened with those who could not fend for themselves.  If they died, that was none of his concern.  It only meant that they were too weak to hold their own.  As for himself?

That will never be an issue.  Pitiful . . . There is no room for those creatures.  They’re better off dead.

“The expression on your face is about as foreboding a look as I have ever seen, Sesshoumaru.”

Blinking away the lingering thoughts, Sesshoumaru kept moving.  “Blackened Tears to the south.  What do you know of it?” he demanded, ignoring Jester’s musings.

Jester slowly shook his head but said nothing about the abrupt change in topics.  “In truth, I don’t know much.  I vaguely remember hearing before, though, that the tears are tricky to obtain—not impossible, but not easy.  I also seem to recall something about a swamp and a creature that wakes at midnight . . .”

“A creature that wakes at midnight . . .” Sesshoumaru repeated, considering Jester’s words.  It wasn’t much to go on and sounded like the stuff of some warped child’s tale.  “A guardian?”

“Could be.”

“Then it can be defeated,” he concluded.

Jester sighed but said nothing as the two set off toward the south.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Seven~~
~Tasks~

 

~o~

 

 

The skies over the ever-moving water was painted in hues of pinks and oranges and fiery reds that belied the layer of violet that darkened above the horizon.  It was a calm, peaceful night as the stars started to emerge, one by one, yet the thoughts swirling around Sesshoumaru’s mind were far from settled.

I think that the best thing to do would be to question the locals, see if anyone has heard tale of anything strange—anything out of the ordinary that could point to the presence of the Blackened Tears or the creature that wakes at midnight.”

Sesshoumaru stared at him for a long, long moment.  “And you honestly believe that mere humans would be perceptive enough to know?

Jester chuckled.  “There are humans who are smarter and more cunning than you’d like to give them credit for.”

The look on Sesshoumaru’s face must have stated quite plainly that he didn’t agree with Jester’s assessment.  It had always been his opinion that humans, on a whole, tended to be unwilling or unable to take note of anything that did not directly affect them, one way or another.

The entity sighed.  “All right, then.  I shall venture into the village and ask around if you’d be so kind as to wait for me.  You’d probably just scare the hell out of them, anyway, if you did accompany me.  You really do have a habit of looking like you’re about to light into someone for simply breathing, Sesshoumaru.  Anyway, I’ll be back.  It shouldn’t take long.”

He was still waiting, sitting upon a large rock, gazing out over the lake.

It had taken them two days to reach the area that Jester thought was a good place to start looking.  The large lake was surrounded by marshes—swamps . . .

The Sacred Ward . . .

I have read your mind, Sesshoumaru, from the moment you entered Yomi.  I have heard your thoughts, your conversations with your youkai-voice, but I can see deeper than that.  I can see your heart—your soul—that even you cannot comprehend, and I tell you this: I require four things, and you will bring them to me.  To acquire them will be more difficult than searching for the Heart of Kiriyama.  However, if you bring me these things, I will return the soul of your wind sorceress—if she has not eaten food of Yomi when you return.  If she is given back to you, then know this: the moment you succumb to the faithless disdain that comes after, I will claim her back again.  After all, to exist here is far better than to spend a lifetime in a world with the one that you cannot forget.”

Scowl deepening as Izanami’s words echoed in his mind, Sesshoumaru ground his jaws together.

I would make more progress if I set out to find this alone,’ he mused.

Even so, he made no move to set out alone.  Scowling at the skies, he did not blink.  The sky . . . It was the same, wasn’t it?  That evening, so long ago . . .

Sesshou!  Sesshou!

He stopped, turned in time to see Hibana, darting through the tall grass, her delicate laughter, coloring the air as she ran toward him.  For a brief moment, he considered ignoring her.  After all, his cousin was only a child of seven—an oftentimes annoying child—never mind that he was only a couple years older than her . . .

I found you!” she exclaimed happily as she skidded to a halt before him, her crimson eyes, sparkling in the waning evening sunshine.  “I’ve been looking for you all day!

I was off, training with chichiue,” Sesshoumaru replied, indulging a surge of unmistakable pride, his tone indicating that it ought to have been a foregone conclusion.  It was a big deal, though—a huge deal: the first time his father had taken him out to teach him without his mother . . .

She made a face, silvery white hair, blowing in the breeze, even as she impatiently shoved the strands back out of her eyes.  “But you promised you’d go with me, Sesshou,” she complained as her deep pink bottom lip jutted out in a very real show of petulance.  “You promised we could look for the fire flowers together.”

Chichiue said there is no such thing,” he pointed out.  It was a common enough discussion between the two of them, after all.  No matter how many times he’d told her that the fire flower didn’t really exist, she’d argued that it certainly did . . .

Papa said that there is!  If you know where to look, anyway,” she challenged.  “He said they only grow in the Valley of Fire between the Gale Mountains and the Blue Depths.”

And chichiue has traveled all over the Valley of Fire, and he has never seen them—Never.”

Maybe he just doesn’t know what to look for,” she scoffed, her stubborn streak, rising fast.  “Oji-sama might be strong, but he doesn’t know everything!

Chichiue would know if he’d ever seen a fire flower before,” Sesshoumaru retorted coldly.  He couldn’t help the surge of irritation that anyone, even Hibana, would dare to say something against his father, never mind that the two had been friends as well as cousins their entire lives.

Hibana wrinkled her nose, crossed her arms over her chest stubbornly.  “You still promised, and if you break your promise, it’s the same as lying—papa says so.”

Wrinkling his nose since he had been told the same thing by his own father before, Sesshoumaru shook his head.  “I have more important things to do than to run off with you, looking for a flower that doesn’t exist,” he shot back.  “You’d better go home before oba-san gets mad and blames me because you had to sneak out after dark.”

Hibana’s chin dropped, her shoulders slumping under the short, pink kimono she favored in the summertime.  “It’s not dark yet,” she muttered, slowly shaking her head.  “And . . . you promised, Sesshou . . .”

He’d said nothing as she’d turned and walked away, the air of defeat, so thick around her, woven into the very strands of her youki, and he’d sighed.  There were a million reasons why he ought to just walk away, not the least of which was the anger he’d have to face from his own parents, once they returned from the Valley of Fire.  Even so, Hibana was right.  He really had promised her . . .

But it was normal, wasn’t it?  He was nearly ten years old—no longer a child, left to play all day with a little girl.  He was old enough to start training to be a great inu-youkai, like his father, who ruled over the Western Lands.  There was no one who could come close to his power, his might, and Sesshoumaru, in time, would be just like him, too.  If he truly wanted to do that, though, then he couldn’t waste his time, chasing after fire flowers in the Valley of Fire, either . . .

“Sesshoumaru, if you want to be a truly honorable youkai, then you must remember that, with power comes responsibility and wisdom, and it will fall upon you to make the right choices.  Always remember not to give your word lightly, and when you do, never, ever go back on it.  Do you understand?”

Staring solemnly up at his father, Sesshoumaru had slowly nodded . . .

And he’d sighed.  Maybe he shouldn’t have made that promise to her, but he had, and since he had . . . “Hibana,” he called after her, quickly, before he changed his mind.  “Come on.”

She peered over her shoulder at him for a long moment.  Then she’d broke into the brightest smile as she ran back to his side . . .

“Well, I found out a few things.”

Blinking as the memory faded, Sesshoumaru slowly shifted his gaze to the side to meet Jester’s.  He didn’t seem to notice Sesshoumaru’s preoccupation, however.  “Oh?”

The entity nodded, biting into—something—and taking his time, chewing it before he answered.  “They indicated that no one ever ventures outside of the village after darkness falls, especially in the direction of the marshes.  One of them mentioned lights that lead people astray . . . He said that a couple years ago, a child had sneaked out of the village after sundown, but was captured in the thrall of the lights, and that he’d been found a few days later in the marshes, his face, frozen in a grimace of sheer terror.”

“And you believe—What are you eating?”

Jester blinked, as though he wasn’t sure what Sesshoumaru was talking about, only to glance down and stare, rather blankly, at the thing in his hand.  “Oh, it’s a dried persimmon,” he explained.  “Do you want a bite?”

Sesshoumaru wrinkled his nose.  “I don’t eat,” he said.

Jester chuckled.  “Are you sure?  That’s a shame.  This is really good.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that, but he did stand up, his gaze sweeping over the lake and the marshes beyond.  He started to walk away.

“Where are you going?” Jester called after him, hurrying to catch up with him once more.

“I’m going to find those lights,” Sesshoumaru replied.

“Oh,” Jester drawled.  “All right.  Let’s see what the truth is in the rumors, shall we?”

 


 

 

Narrowing his gaze as he scowled at the one who was supposed to be his guide but was failing miserably in his estimation, Sesshoumaru stood back, remaining silent, even though he thought that the entire situation was sorely beneath him.

The lights that the villagers had spoken of had turned out to be nothing more than fireflies.  They’d spent the entire night, searching the marshes, trying to locate anything that might be a sign of something unnatural.  In the end, they’d come up with nothing, so Jester, in one of his more inspired moments, had talked Sesshoumaru into venturing into the next village they found, where it became immediately apparent that the village itself was being plagued by a particularly troublesome leech-youkai.

Sesshoumaru hadn’t cared about that, one way or another, but Jester, for some reason, did, and now, he was busy, trying to flush the creature out of hiding using weird talismans—almost like ofuda—that he slapped onto the closed doors of the headman’s hut.  Those things would draw the creature out, certainly, however . . .

A minute later, a strange howling grew louder and louder as the doors of the building shook and groaned.  The youkai wanted out, didn’t he?  Even so, Sesshoumaru didn’t move, had no interest at all in helping to intercept the leech.  It burst through the doors, straight at Jester, who caught him easily in a swirling orb of blackened mist.  It held the leech securely as the entity shot Sesshoumaru a look.  “A little help, if you would,” he remarked dryly, holding out his hands, obviously controlling the sphere of smoke.

“You flushed it out but have no intention of killing it?” Sesshoumaru asked.

Jester shrugged.  “Strictly speaking, I’m not allowed to kill.”

“. . . What?”

He grimaced, pushing his hands together slightly, but it took some effort, judging from the tightness in his jaw, the slight shaking in his stretched-out hands  “I’m a guide, not your personal protector,” he gritted out.  “Besides that, does it look like I have any weapons on me?”

His flip response only served to earn him a rather narrow-eyed glance from Sesshoumaru, who still made no move to assist.  “You shouldn’t have volunteered to rid the place of that youkai if you had no intention of doing it yourself,” he pointed out instead.

“It is a well-known fact that leech-youkai infest villages for the sole purpose of infecting every person alive with their larvae,” he growled from between clenched teeth.  “If we did nothing, then this whole region would be overrun with their spawn, and if those were left unchecked, then they’d eventually spread all over—even to the Western Lands—and then, you’d have a scourge to deal with, not just one paltry leech.”

Sesshoumaru said nothing, even refusing to acknowledge the truth in Jester’s claims.  It was a little more sinister than that, as well.  Jester had over-simplified things.  Those larvae would attach to human hosts, but by the time they were finished, the humans nearly always died since they were used as nutritional hosts for the parasites, but the real trouble was that the leech-youkai were barely sentient.  The lived instinctually, which meant that, if left unchecked, they would raze the area entirely since they fed off life-force, and not just humans—animals, plants, even youkai if they could find any that were weaker than they were—anything that grew . . . It would leave the entire area, completely dead in every sense of the word . . .

Despite that, it still annoyed Sesshoumaru that Jester hadn’t been a little more forthcoming with a significant detail like his inability to kill.  Defensive control seemed good enough, but . . .

Too bad he was also right, Sesshoumaru thought with an inward snort of pure derision.  With a flick of the bright green energy whip, he struck the leech-youkai, even through the smoke sphere.  The creature shrieked—it was dulled by the orb—its body, shattering into little more than a cloud of dust that disappeared, along with the orb of murky mist.

He didn’t bother to wait on Jester, either, as he turned on his heel and walked away.

 “All right; all right.  I should have told you that.  I confess, I forgot.  I . . . Well, I rather lost myself when we left Yomi, and you can’t really blame me for that.  It’s been a long time since I was on this side of the gates, and . . . and . . . just everything . . .”

Casting Jester a sidelong glance, Sesshoumaru slowly shook his head as he faced forward once more to resume his path.  He was eating—this time, a dried eel, it looked like.

And yet, he supposed that he could understand Jester’s almost unnatural preoccupation with everything.  The limited time that he’d spent in Yomi had been just a taste of what Jester had known for such a long time.

“Do you mean to tell me that you agreed to help those villagers all for a dried eel?” Sesshoumaru asked rather blandly.

“No,” Jester replied, stuffing the rest of the eel into his mouth.  “They gave me some dried fish and two pears, too.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that.  In truth, he figured that there wasn’t much to say.  After all, it wouldn’t change anything now, and as long as Jester didn’t make a habit out of volunteering Sesshoumaru’s services . . .

Jester sighed, his gaze, shifting over the area.  “We don’t have much to go on,” he murmured.  “Even so, I . . . I feel like we’re heading in the right direction, but whether that’s my own wishful thinking or not, I can’t really say.”

Of course, it’s difficult.  If it weren’t, then the Sacred Ward would have been gathered for Izanami no Mikoto long ago, don’t you think?

He knew that, too.  It didn’t matter.  He didn’t care how difficult it would be.  He’d vowed that he’d find these things, this Sacred Ward, and he would.  If it meant that he’d be able to retrieve Kagura’s soul, then he’d find them all.

Failure wasn’t an option.  ‘This Sesshoumaru . . . This Sesshoumaru will not fail her again . . .

 


 

 

They stood at the top of a tall cliff that overlooked the lowerlands that eventually ran to the sea somewhere in the vast distance, well over the horizon.  As the oranges and golds of evening fell, lingering in the patches of fog, Sesshoumaru frowned.

It looked so peaceful.

From where he stood, he could make out the vague rising of smoke from a small and ramshackle dwelling down below.  In the distance, the sound of a wolf, howling, broke the companionable silence, and Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes as he scanned the area for anything that looked even slightly out of place.  There was nothing.

“So,” Jester drawled, plopping down on the ground, dangling his feet over the edge of the cliff, “those humans that you left your human with . . . Those are your brother’s friends?”

“Half-brother,” Sesshoumaru corrected automatically.  “They were, yes.”

“Were?”

Closing his eyes for only a moment as the rise of a gentle wind hit him, full in the face, Sesshoumaru sighed inwardly.  “It is not my story to tell,” Sesshoumaru said.

“Why wasn’t he there?  With his friends?” Jester pressed.

“He . . .” Trailing off, his amber gaze darkening considerably, Sesshoumaru carefully measured his words.  “It is none of my concern.”

Jester stared at him.  Sesshoumaru didn’t need to look to verify it.  He could feel the probing gaze, and it felt curious, maybe even a little surprised.  “You sound . . . angry about this,” he finally mused.

“Angry?  No.  It has nothing at all to do with me.”

Jester slowly shook his head, but his gaze moved on, off over the horizon once more.  “And now, you sound even angrier.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t answer that.  It was absurd, anyway.  Angry?  Of course not.  Why should he be?

Why, indeed . . .

He ignored that, too.

Jester, however, didn’t seem to notice Sesshoumaru’s mood—that, or he simply didn’t care, and he dug a pear out of the folds of his robe and bit into it with a low moan.  “We’ve got time before midnight,” he ventured when Sesshoumaru remained silent.  “Do you want the other pear?”

“I told you, I don’t eat that,” Sesshoumaru murmured.  “Tell me what you know about the other wards.”

“The other wards,” Jester repeated, taking his time as he chewed the fruit and took another bite.  “The eastern one—the Fire of Wrath—is said to be the Sacred Fire—the fire that never extinguishes, and if I recall rightly, we’ll have to travel the Road of Hell to get to it.  That’s the challenge.  The Balm of Peace to the west may not be that difficult—well, if you compare it to the other things, although they say the guardian is particularly troublesome.  The one we’ll have the most trouble obtaining, I think, is the Essence of Joy to the north.  That is said to lie within the Sacred Mountains, protected by barriers maintained by the ancient order of monks that dwell in those mountains.  It’s going to be a lot more difficult to breech those barriers without some kind of spiritual power, and we . . . Well, I highly doubt you have any of that.”

Sesshoumaru frowned as the other part of the challenge came to mind: that Kagura must not eat the food of Yomi.  “There is no time to lose,” he growled, feeling the edges of impatience, licking at him.

Jester nodded slowly.  “You’re afraid she might well eat the food,” he concluded.  Then, he sighed.  “There’s more to it, you know.”

“What’s that?”

Jester gave a little shrug.  It almost seemed apologetic, though Sesshoumaru wasn’t sure why he’d thought that.  It took him a minute to speak, as though he were trying to decide, just what to say, or maybe, how to say whatever was on his mind.  “If she gives in—if she eats the food of Yomi . . . Well, you know, don’t you?  If she does, then her soul will also never be reincarnated, either.  She really will be condemned to remain in Yomi forever.”

 


 

 

If she gives in—if she eats the food of Yomi . . . Well, you know, don’t you?  If she does, then her soul will also never be reincarnated, either.  She really will be condemned to remain in Yomi forever.”

Gazing out over the valley, bathed in the light of the full moon so high above, Sesshoumaru watched for anything strange, even though it still wasn’t really close to midnight, even as Jester’s words replayed in his head, over and over again.

Suddenly, the idea of collecting the Sacred Ward had grown infinitely more ominous in his mind, and the sense of urgency that was already there had only swelled into something far, far larger, far more urgent.

Sesshoumaru-sama . . . I’m not lonely anymore . . . but maybe Kagura is . . .”

Gritting his teeth as the soft chime of Rin’s words echoed within the confines of his mind, he couldn’t abide the strange and unwelcome ache that shot through him.  It made no sense, and yet . . . Just why would that memory make him feel so . . .?

You really don’t know, Sesshoumaru?  Or is it that you simply don’t want to know?  Because you shut that part of you away so long ago on that night . . .

I, Sesshoumaru . . .?  It’s got nothing to do with this.

Doesn’t it?’ his youkai-voice challenged.  ‘That was the beginning.  That was when you decided that you wouldn’t allow anything like that to ever affect you again . . . and then . . .’

Let it go.  It wasn’t the beginning of anything—nor was it the end.  It was—

It was both, and that’s why—

That’s why you’ll drop it,’ Sesshoumaru growled.  ‘It matters not—not to me.

Ignoring the voice’s heavy sigh, Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes, caught sight of Jester, far below, moving through the marshy land.  He’d thought that perhaps he’d be able to find something while Sesshoumaru watched from the cliff, and that was just as well.  The entity had proven to be a lot more verbose than Sesshoumaru was accustomed to.

Besides . . .

If she gives in—if she eats the food of Yomi . . . Well, you know, don’t you?  If she does, then her soul will also never be reincarnated, either.  She really will be condemned to remain in Yomi forever.”

A flash of irritation surged through him, and he uttered a quiet, even terse, grunt.  “The hell she will,” he muttered to himself.  ‘She doesn’t belong there.  I will not allow it.

Sesshoumaru . . . Naraku cannot possibly be killed except by someone of your caliber.  No one else surpasses you in terms of your skill and youkai power.”

And yet, he’d ignored those stirrings deep within himself, hadn’t he?  That fateful day, when she’d dropped out of the sky . . . He’d told himself that it was little more than a shameless ploy on her part—an attempt to get him to kill Naraku, solely to set her free.  Somehow, it had been easier to believe that than it was to stop, to think about the motivation behind her superfluous flattery.

Because you never, ever take anything anyone says to you at face-value.  That’s why . . .

Even so, the look on her face had stayed with him.  As she’d stood to leave, as she’d turned away . . . Perhaps he wasn’t meant to see it: the sadness that settled in the depths of her eyes.  She was suffering then, but was too proud to say, settling instead for allusions and bravado.  But if she had given that vulnerability voice, would he have listened?

Grinding his teeth together so tightly that his jaws ached under the strain, he knew the truth.  No, he really wouldn’t have listened to her—and might even have interpreted it all as another form of manipulation . . .

Was he really as jaded as that?

Maybe . . . Maybe he was . . . and maybe . . . Maybe he shouldn’t have been.  Fixing it now—a little too late, fighting against time itself . . . If it could be done . . .

“I’ll bring you back, Kagura,” he vowed as the wind caressed his skin, tossed his hair upon its capricious and invisible fingers.  “This, I promise you . . .”

And the wind laughed softly, and the laughter sounded like hers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Eight~~
~The River~

 

~o~

 

 

“Do you think flowers would taste as good as they smell?”

Blinking at the latest in a long line of strange questions Jester had asked since they’d set out once more, still searching for the elusive Blackened Tears, Sesshoumaru wasn’t entirely sure whether he ought to answer this question or not.  “You are not going to eat them to find out, are you?”

Jester chuckled.  “Well, no-o-o-o-o,” he drawled, which, in Sesshoumaru’s opinion, meant that he really had been considering doing it.  “I suppose that it would look a little odd.”

To Sesshoumaru, Jester sounded almost as though he hoped that he would disagree with the conclusion.  “We had to stop earlier because you wanted to catch some fish,” he reminded the entity.  “You said that you wouldn’t ask to stop again for the rest of the day if we did.”

“I know,” Jester remarked, sounding rather wistful.  “I’m not asking . . .”

Sesshoumaru let it go at that as they continued on in silence. They were nearing a village—he could smell the humans, even if they hadn’t gotten close enough yet to see any of the huts.  As long as Jester didn’t try to volunteer him to rid the place of any stray youkai, then he figured that it’d be good enough. 

The usual pattern was to find settlements, to ask questions of the locals.  Sesshoumaru had no issue in allowing Jester to do the majority of the talking, anyway.

“It looks like it’s going to rain.”

Sesshoumaru nodded slightly.  He’d noticed that earlier: the scent of the rains that were coming.  It was a certain kind of smell that only came at a time like this, one that he welcomed despite the thickening in the air, the humidity that had steadily risen all day.  Scents were easier to discern, too, as though they lingered in the wind a little better.

This region, he knew, was the area where many of the more peaceful youkai tended to settle.  The lands were richer and more fertile, making them more suitable for raising crops, and many of them had opted to live here, safe from the relative instability of the youkai wars that tended to break out in the more rugged areas.

Wolves, for example, tended to prefer the rockier terrain near mountains.  The neko-youkai weren’t necessarily the strongest, but they relied upon strength in numbers, and they gravitated toward the forested areas and the cover the trees provided.  The birds of prey tended to battle each other for domination in the mountains, as well, and the list went on.  But the youkai who tended to eat vegetation, who were given to being a more peaceful lot, had migrated here over time.  Some of them had even settled into villages, though they tended to construct high walls around their settlements, likely to keep out the prying eyes of humans.  There were, Sesshoumaru supposed, a few of the lesser predator-types that had also settled in and around this area.  It would be something impossible for them to ignore, given that there were so many of their prey in the vicinity, too . . .

And the dogs?  Well, they tended to be like Sesshoumaru: solitary beings who ruled over regions and were given to allowing those others to work out their own issues.

Not entirely true.  Your father, you know . . . He always took a far more hands-on approach to it than you ever have.

And look where that got him.  It was that loathsome meddling that is the very reason he’s dead now, isn’t it?

Do you think that?  Is that what you truly believe?  Your father always wanted you to carry on his legacy.  He wanted you to protect—

This Sesshoumaru?  I will never be the keeper of others,’ he scoffed.  ‘Why should I?  There is no point.  Everyone dies.  Either one is strong enough to prevent that or one is not.  It is not my concern to worry over it when it has nothing at all to do with me.

Is that right?  Then why, exactly, are we doing this now?

Sesshoumaru didn’t answer that.  It wasn’t the same, not by a long shot.  Going out of his way to cut down those who endangered others?  No . . . But Kagura . . .

It wasn’t at all the same.

Or was it . . .?

 


 

 

“Lord Dog . . .!”

Stopping abruptly as they neared the river that eventually fed into the sea, Sesshoumaru turned, stared at the young otter that scampered onto the bank.

“You saved my tou-chan!” the otter blurted, his small body, erupting in an excited kind of tremor as he fidgeted near Sesshoumaru’s feet.  “You and InuYasha!”

Narrowing his gaze upon the child, Sesshoumaru started to turn away without a word, but stopped again when the water burbled and roiled.  A moment later, the young otter’s father rose up out of the river.  He bowed quickly and strode out of the water.  “Sesshoumaru-sama,” he greeted.  “I never got a chance to properly thank you for what you did for me . . .”

“What did you do for him?” Jester asked, leaning in far enough to mutter his question under his breath, just loudly enough for Sesshoumaru to hear him.

“Tenseiga chose to save you,” Sesshoumaru replied almost carelessly.  “I did not.”

“Even so, I—we—thank you,” the huge otter replied.

“Kanta, go tell kaa-chan that we have visitors.”

“We are simply passing by,” Sesshoumaru said as the young one—Kanta—darted back into the river again.  “We don’t have time to—”

“Do you know anything about a creature said to wake at midnight?” Jester interrupted.

“A creature that wakes at midnight?” he echoed, thoughtfully scratching his fuzzy chin.  “Well, there is the Night Reaper . . .”

“Night Reaper?” Sesshoumaru echoed.  “What is this thing?”

“That’s what they call it,” he explained.  “No one sees it, but sometimes, if it’s really quiet, you can hear it crying.”

“The Blackened Tears . . .” Sesshoumaru murmured.

“What’s that?”

Jester cleared his throat.  “The Blackened Tears,” he repeated.  “That’s what we’re looking for.”

The otter nodded slowly.  “Please, come,” he said, jerking his head toward the water.  “There’s another entrance, but it’s a good distance away.  I haven’t heard of these Blackened Tears, but maybe the elder has.”

Seeing no way around it, Sesshoumaru followed with Jester in tow.  Straight into the water, along the bottom of the river, it took a few minutes to reach the opening under the riverbank on the other side.  They surfaced in a small cavern where two other otters sat, playing a game of chance on a squat table near the thick wooden doors.

Kanta’s father nodded at the two as he led them past, ignoring the water, dripping from their clothes, their hair, until they had stepped inside the long corridor.  Pausing long enough to reach into a nondescript cabinet near the door, he pulled out a couple towels and handed them over.  “Sorry for that,” he said, grinning wide in a way that indicated that he really wasn’t sorry in the least, he boomed out a great laugh before leading them deeper into the cavernous corridor.

It was a network of chambers, dug deep underground.  In the distance, Sesshoumaru could hear the laughter and merriment of the otter clan.  There was a certain warmth in the place, despite the rather bleak surroundings.  It was . . . unsettling . . .

“Do you think the elder has any knowledge of the Blackened Tears?” Jester asked.

“I would hope so,” Sesshoumaru muttered darkly.

“The elder has lived here for a very long time,” Kanta’s father remarked without slowing his gait as he led them past a couple doorways.  “If anyone knows anything, he’d be the one.”

“Kaa-chan!  This is Lord Dog,” Kanta exclaimed as his father strode into the large chamber with Sesshoumaru and Jester behind him.  “He’s the one who saved Tou-chan with his sword!”

The female otter smiled wide, bowed deep.  “Welcome to our home, Sesshoumaru-sama!” she said, clasping her hands before her.  “I’ve wanted to thank you for what you did for so very long!”

“Lord Dog, did you bring InuYasha with you?  Or Shippou?” Kanta asked, scurrying over, dancing around Sesshoumaru’s feet.

“No, I did not,” he replied.  For some reason, the idea of saying that InuYasha was gone irritated him still.

Kanta’s ebullience waned slightly but did not disappear entirely.  “Oh . . . Lord Dog, would you tell him thank you for me again the next time you see him?”

He opened his mouth to inform the pup that it wouldn’t be possible.  He narrowed his gaze slightly and nodded once instead.

“InuYasha helped you with your father?” Jester asked, staring down at the young otter.

Kanta nodded enthusiastically.  “He did!  He tracked down his body so that I could put his head back on, but . . . but we were too late . . . and that was when Lord Dog used his sword to revive him!”

“Tenseiga compelled me to do so,” Sesshoumaru murmured.

Jester shot him a look, but the mask covered his eyes, so he couldn’t rightfully tell what, exactly, he was thinking, although if he had to guess, he would have said that the entity seemed . . . amused . . . “Then it’s a very good thing that Tenseiga willed it to be so.”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that.

“Would you care for a drink?  We were just about to have dinner, if you’re hungry,” Kanta’s mother said.

“No,” Sesshoumaru answered.  “I would merely like to speak with the elder.”

“I’m hungry,” Jester piped up.

Kanta’s mother seemed very pleased by that, and she hurriedly led them over to the neat row of pillows arranged near the hearth where a blaze was already going.

She left them there and grabbed Kanta by the hand, telling him that she needed his help.  He didn’t grumble or complain, but he did cast a longing kind of look over his shoulder.

“Let me see if the elder is awake,” Kanta’s father said, turning on his heel and lumbering toward the doorway again.

Jester stood up long enough to remove the robe that was still drenched with river water.  Sesshoumaru blinked since it was the first time he’d seen Jester do that, watching in silence as Jester stepped around the table to hang the robe on a tall hook near the hearth that was put there obviously for drying out things.

He wore a pair of rather short, gray hakama, gathered at the bottoms around his calves and a pair of scuffed up brown boots with a simple brown happi emblazoned with Izanami’s mon: the Ame no Nuboko.  That he was dressed as little more than a peasant was strange.  Even so . . .

He sat back down, carefully tugging off his gloves and dragging his fingers through his tangled brown hair.  For some reason, it struck Sesshoumaru that something about the way he looked, from his stature, his hair, his clothing . . . All of it was designed not to draw undue notice, wasn’t it . . .?  And he had a feeling that it was done on purpose, too.

“You didn’t look like this in life, did you?” he asked when Jester sank back down.

Jester shot him a quick glance before turning his attention back to the fire once more.  “No,” he replied.  “I told you, this isn’t my body—just some random person who died recently—I think . . .”

Sesshoumaru wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that, but he supposed that it didn’t really matter.  “Then, why the mask?”

“It adds an air of mystery, right?”

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes slightly.  He ought to have known that he wouldn’t get a real answer out of Jester, after all . . . “You look like a puppet,” he said, opting not to remark upon Jester’s flip response.

Jester chuckled.  “Well, in a way, I kind of am.”

“Are you?”

“You’re the one, pulling the strings, aren’t you?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that, but it didn’t matter as Kanta and his mother returned with trays, each holding a cup as well as a small earthenware bowl with assorted fruits and berries.  “Thank you!” Jester said, grabbing one of the nashi and biting into it with a low groan.

Sesshoumaru slowly shook his head and ignored the tray before him.  “Shameless,” he muttered under his breath.

“These are almost as good as sex,” Jester ventured, biting into the pear again.

He really didn’t deign to comment on that and could only be slightly relieved that Kanta’s mother had hurried away after delivering the refreshment, so she didn’t overhear Jester’s off-color commentary.

. . . Wow . . .

Not.  A.  Word.

But—

Not one.

His youkai-voice sighed.

He might have relaxed, too, except that he could feel Jester’s gaze upon him.  He refused to look at the entity, though.  “Sesshoumaru, can I ask you something?”

Somehow, Sesshoumaru had the feeling that, whatever it was on Jester’s mind, he really didn’t need to hear it.  “No.”

“But—”

“No.”

“But if you have a lover, then would she happen to have a sister . . .?”

Sesshoumaru’s answer was a sidelong glower and no words at all.

Suddenly, Jester sat up a little straighter, mouth rounding in an ‘oh’.  “Kagura!  She was your—”

Before he could finish his thought, Sesshoumaru dug the black stone from behind his armor and closed his fingers over it: his intent to crush it into dust quite clear.

“All right; all right!  No more questions,” Jester blurted, then sighed as he turned his attention back to the pear once more.

 


 

 

“So, you want to know about the Night Reaper,” the aged otter mused as he sat heavily upon the small, flattish pillow.  His mate was already seated beside him, her expression kind and gentle, though she remained silent.  “Well, to be honest, I’m not sure it really exists.”

“What do you know of it?” Sesshoumaru demanded, lifting a hand to dismiss the food that Kanta’s mother started to place before him—raw fish, other assorted seafood, strange greens.

“Thank you,” Jester murmured as the she-otter-youkai set a heaping tray before him.

The old otter scratched his chin as he considered Sesshoumaru’s question.  “They say it lives in the swamp just south of here.  They say that it lures wayward travelers to their doom.  No one lives there.  It ain’t fit for man nor beast, y’see?”  Leaning forward, he stared intently at Sesshoumaru, black eyes igniting with a strange inner fire.  “They say that the Night Reaper’s song will capture you—will draw you in—and no one that ever was lured to it has ever been seen or heard from again!”

Jester frowned, picking up a spiky and strange looking creature from the assortment before him, taking his time as he carefully inspected it from every angle.  “So, it’s like a . . . a land siren or something?” he mused, almost more to himself than to Sesshoumaru or the elder otter.

The otter slowly shook his head.  “They say that its tears, though . . . They say if you can get its tears that they can heal any ailment!”

“The Blackened Tears,” Sesshoumaru murmured.

“Am I supposed to eat this whole thing?” Jester suddenly piped up, holding the sea urchin out in one hand.

Kanta broke into a loud round of giggles.  “You break it open and eat the insides!” he said, demonstrating by doing just that.

Jester frowned thoughtfully at the urchin in his hand, and he tried to mimic the pup’s method.

“So, the swamp is directly south of here,” Sesshoumaru said, ignoring Jester for the moment.

The elder otter nodded.  “Look for the dead tree in the center of the marsh—if you’re really of a mind to go there—but don’t say I didn’t warn ye!”

Sesshoumaru started to open his mouth to say something, but stopped, mouth agape, eyes flashing to the side, as Jester grabbed hold of his hand, poking out his index finger, jamming it deep into the sea urchin’s spiny body.  Catching the look as he used Sesshoumaru’s claws like a makeshift knife, he shrugged.  “This body doesn’t have claws—and I think they might be poisonous,” he said in way of explanation when Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes in silent warning.  “You’re immune to poison—right?”

Yanking his hand away, Sesshoumaru uttered a terse grunt.  “Get a knife, Jester,” he growled.  “Besides, you’re already dead, aren’t you?  So, it won’t matter if you’re poisoned or not.”

Jester snorted.  “In theory, yes, but I’d rather not test it, thanks,” he growled, making a face as he chewed the urchin thoughtfully.  “This isn’t nearly as good as I was hoping,” he replied, completely ignoring Sesshoumaru’s irritation.

Just . . . let it go, Sesshoumaru . . . We need his help, remember?

Do we?  Do we, really . . .?

His youkai was silent for a moment, obviously considering the validity of the claim.  ‘Well, I doubt Izanami would have sent him along if we didn’t . . .

Sesshoumaru stifled an inward sigh before turning his attention back to the elder otter once more.  “Your assistance has been invaluable,” he said.

“If you’d like, I could . . . could lead you there,” Kanta’s father offered.  Sesshoumaru didn’t miss the slight hesitation, though he didn’t remark upon it.

“We’ll find it.  Come, Jester,” he replied.  He started to rise to his feet, but Jester shook his head slightly.

“Oh, please, finish your meal!” Kanta’s father insisted, waving a hand at the trays before them.  “It’s the least we can do for the one who saw fit to save my life!”

Settling back down, Sesshoumaru did not reach for the food.  Jester, however, kept eating . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Nine~~
~Aoizoku~

 

~o~

 

 

Sitting with his back against the thick trunk of an old sakura tree, Sesshoumaru frowned as he stared out, over the marshland, at the solitary dead tree in the midst of the swampy ground.

The sun was just beginning to set, which meant that he still had a few more hours’ worth of waiting to do.  As it was, his clothing had finally dried out—well, mostly, anyway.  Jester had opted to head into a nearby settlement—really only a few huts, grouped close together—to see if he couldn’t find out anything more about the Night Reaper, which was also fine with Sesshoumaru.  He didn’t particularly mind having Jester around but having a little bit of time alone was entirely welcome, too.

Pulling Kagura’s feather out of his armor plate, he frowned as he twisted it between nimble fingers, remembering the many times he’d watched her toss it into the air, only for it to expand so that she could hop upon it and fly away.

He hadn’t realized that the last time that he’d watched her do it would really be the last time.

The finality of that cut him deep as he ground his teeth together, clenched his jaw so tightly that it ached.  That horrible feeling, like some part of him was missing, dug at him, opened up an ache so vast, so awful, that he had to will away those thoughts.

It made no sense.

How was it that a simple memory of her was enough to make him want to rip into something—someone?  The rage was so consuming, so overwhelming, that he could feel the tell-tale stirrings as the flow of the blood in his veins shifted, grew stronger, far more powerful with every beat of his heart.  He could feel the pressure in his body, could feel every nerve in him—the final step before his visceral nature took over, but he managed to subdue it, to calm it, before he slowly, almost carefully, opened his eyes.

It had to be anger, didn’t it?  Anger was the trigger for the transformation—at least, without the effort that it took to will himself to do it.  And yet, that feeling wasn’t quite the same, either.  No, it was far more intense, more . . .

Do you honestly think that was nothing more than anger?

For some reason, he didn’t trust himself to answer that question.

You really do hate to feel anything, don’t you?  Hate it so much because—

Emotions are a human convention,’ he cut in coldly.  ‘Youkai—This Sesshoumaru . . . does not understand such things because they simply do not exist.  They are nothing to me.

Because you closed that door a long, long time ago, didn’t you?  You shut it all away, along with the memories of Hibana.  You didn’t need them, right?  Just as you didn’t need her . . .

That was a long time ago,’ he argued.

But you do know it on some level.  That was why—'

Enough.  Digging up the past avails me nothing.

Except you never did want to hear it, did you?  Even when you found Rin, you—

Rin has nothing to do with this.

Doesn’t she?

He didn’t respond to that, either.

What do you think they’re made of?

Sesshoumaru blinked, turned his head to frown at Hibana as the two of them lay in the tall, thick grass in the small and picturesque meadow.  Full of the summer flowers and the long and wavering grasses, the smells of earth and the sunbaked sweetness that he tended to think of as ‘brown’, they’d spent the last few hours, chasing butterflies, trying to catch them.  They hadn’t managed to catch any of them, which was fine since it was more fun to chase them, anyway.  Even so, Hibana’s question had caught him off guard since he wasn’t sure what she was talking about now.  “What what are made of?

She wrinkled her nose.  “The clouds, Sesshou!  I mean, they have to be made of something, don’t they?

His frown deepened as he turned his attention back to the skies overhead and the puffy, white clouds that seemed to be floating so high above.  “They’re not made of anything, really,” he told her.  “They’re just kind of . . . damp, like fog, only in the sky instead of on land.”

She heaved a sigh, very obviously disapproving of his blunt and pragmatic answer.  “They look fluffy, like piles of feathers,” she ventured.  “Do you think they’re as soft as your Mokomoko-sama?

Wrinkling his nose as he yanked the end of his Mokomoko-sama out of her hand, Sesshoumaru made a face.  “They’re not made of feathers, baka, and they don’t feel like much of anything—except damp,” he scoffed as he rolled to his feet.

Have you flown through them before?” she demanded, pushing herself onto her hands and knees as she tried to grab the fur once more.

It’s not a toy,” he told her with a frown.  “And of course I have.  How else would I know that it’s nothing but damp?

She made a face, settling back on her heels, her hands falling into her lap in a dejected kind of way.  “I wish I could . . .”

You mean, you still can’t transform?” he asked.

His question earned him a rather sullen look.  “I tried, but it’s too hard.”

He said nothing about that for a moment.  Given that his own father had said that transforming was harder to do if he wasn’t angry and reacting to emotion, he supposed he could understand that.  “All you have to do is practice,” he told her, mostly to alleviate that sense of defeat that was rolling off her in waves.

Everything’s easy for you,” she pouted.  “There’s nothing you can’t do.”

Letting out a deep breath, Sesshoumaru slowly shook his head.  It might well have had more to do with the backhanded compliment, but still . . . “Come on,” he said, waving a hand to get her to hurry.

Where are we going?” she asked, her tone, still quite sulky.

Just come on,” he stated once more, taking a few steps away from her.  He wasn’t very big, no, but he’d definitely be large enough to carry a slip of a girl like Hibana . . .

She giggled, her slight irritation with him, instantly forgotten as she hopped up and darted to his side while he concentrated on transitioning to his visceral form.  He was getting better at it—faster.  If he kept working on it, he’d be able to do so whenever the mood struck him, he supposed.

Uttering a terse woof at her, he waited until she crawled onto his back before leaping off the ground, straight into the sky.  He’d never managed to leap quite that high before, but with a mighty lunge, he broke into the lowest cloud.  Hibana’s laughter rang in his ears, and he shook his head, barked out a happy sound in response

He could feel the moisture in the cloud as it instantly condensed on him, but it was in a vaguer kind of way.  Still, he was able to round a couple of times before he could feel his body dropping lower.  Fatigue set in pretty fast when he did manage to transform, but that was fine.  He could feel the girl’s happiness, it was so thick in her youki.  He lit on the ground without incident, and Hibana scooted off of his back when his feet touched down once more, and he flopped onto his back, struggling to catch his breath, as his body reverted to its humanoid form.

They still look like feathers,” she said, her eyes sparkling in the afternoon sunlight.  “When I can do that, will you take me to see your home?

Cracking an eye open, he slowly gave a nod.  She’d mentioned that before.  He lived in the sky mansion with his parents, but Hibana’s parents had opted to remain on the earth.  The sky mansion was always shrouded in those clouds, isolated, maybe even a little lonely, and the only way to get there was to transform.  His father had once said that there was a barrier in place, that only those who were in their visceral form could see it.  Then he’d gone on to say that Sesshoumaru was getting too big to be carried to it, which was why he was concentrating so hard on his transformations . . .

Sesshoumaru!

Pushing himself up on his elbows with a grimace that he tried to hide, he quickly scrambled to his feet as his father landed, not far away.  The wind blew his silvery hair, lifted the ends of the long sash he wore around his waist, the stark black of his armor such a contrast from the white of his clothing beneath, the burnished metal of his shoulder and arm plates, shining brilliantly in the light.  Bright golden eyes that missed nothing immediately lit upon his son, and he broke into a small smile.  The strength that fairly exuded from him was enough to give Sesshoumaru a moment’s pause.  He had very little doubt that his father was the strongest youkai in the world, and he grinned as he hurried over to greet him.  “Chichiue!  Welcome home!

His small smile widened slightly as he paused long enough to ruffle Sesshoumaru’s hair.  “All is calm, as it should be,” he said.  He’d been gone for the last fortnight, checking the reaches of his domain.  “Ah, Hibana-chan . . . Are you keeping Sesshoumaru out of trouble for me . . .?”

The little girl laughed.  “Yes!  He took me to see the clouds!  I rode on his back!

Did you?” his father asked, cocking an eyebrow as his gaze shifted to Sesshoumaru once more.  “Very good.”

Sesshoumaru’s cheeks pinked slightly, basking in the warmth of his father’s praise . . .

The memory faded, and Sesshoumaru’s frown darkened.

Utterly useless,’ he thought, brushing aside the misplaced feelings of nostalgia.  What was the point of remembering those who were long gone?

There was no answer, just the steady whisper of the trees.

 


 

 

They needed some help.

Striding away from the huts that stood in close proximity, Jester frowned as he lifted his chin, let his gaze sweep over the landscape.

Yes, they had some things to work from, vague references to this Night Reaper, but nothing really aside from that—nothing that really explained anything, as far as what the Blackened Tears were or how to obtain them . . .

It was too soon to give up, of course, and, even if that were an option, something told Jester that Sesshoumaru was a little too stubborn to admit defeat, anyway.

No, the thing that bothered him the most was Kagura herself.  If she gave in—if she ate the food of Yomi—then there wasn’t a thing that anyone could do to save her.  Unfortunately, too, no matter what his own feelings on it were, there was nothing he could do to prevent it from happening, either . . .

It had already been over a week in earth time, and, while time passed slower in Yomi, it didn’t reassure him as much as he’d like.  No, there was only one being who could really dictate anything, but the problem was, whether or not she would—or could.  After all, there were a few things that even Izanami-sama couldn’t control . . .

Glancing around the immediate surroundings, ascertaining that he was alone, Jester slipped off the path and into a small alcove created by some bushes that grew just outside the line of sparse trees on the rise of the hillside.  It wasn’t exactly an ideal location, but it would do for what he needed.  A little bit of cover, just enough to be hidden from wandering passers-by . . . Sinking down, resting against a thick boulder, he pushed up the long sleeve of his robe, pressed his hand against his forearm, allowing his youki to flow into it—the invisible mark that Izanami had put upon the body he was occupying . . .

“Ah, Jester,” the ruler of Yomi greeted, her voice coming to him in a whisper well before he opened his eyes.  “Is there something you require?  Have I not done enough, granting you leave of this accursed place?  Is it the body?” She sighed.  “I apologize.  It was very short notice, you realize, so I was limited in what I had to work with . . .”

Frowning thoughtfully at the woman, he slowly shook his head.  “The body’s fine, Izanami-sama—well, aside from it having belonged to a weaker youkai, but then, I’m not there to fight, now am I . . .? Anyway, I wanted to know if you had more information on the keepers of the Sacred Ward—specifically, the southern ward.”

“Isn’t that your task?” she parried, though not unkindly.  In fact, she almost sounded as though she might be teasing.

Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back, gaze almost lazy, taking in her black-clad visage.  In all the years he’d known her, even he had never seen her true face.  Vanity, she’d once said.  She couldn’t stand the idea of anyone looking upon her . . . “Do you want him to fail?  Surely not in the retrieval of the Ward—that benefits you, after all—but in his quest to regain Kaze no Kagura?”

“Do you honestly think that I would resort to such trickery?” she demanded.  “Do you believe that I would waste his time and my own on a whim?”

“Come now, Izanami-sama.  All you really have at your disposal are your whims.  You didn’t have to allow him audience at all, now did you?  Yet, you did.  Why?”

“Were you not the one who told me of his determination?  That he braved the wraiths, just to see her?  His courage was commendable—those were your words, Jester.  Or were you simply being sentimental, seeing someone who still walks above us, braving this forbidden realm, all for the sake of a woman?” she countered, her voice taking on a hint of censure.  “I extended him an invitation because I wanted to test him, to see how deep his resolve dwelled.  He proved his mettle, and I granted him audience.  Yet, after all that, you question my motives?  Why is that?”

Unmoved by her long and pretty speech, by the outrage that belied her words, Jester shook his head.  “Because you told him yourself that if she eats the food of Yomi before he completes his tasks, she’ll be lost to him forever, so I’m asking: did you set him up to fail, Izanami-sama?”

He could sense her irritation, her instant and intense spark of righteous outrage, and she verified it was she rose from the dais and strode past him, over to the doorway, out of the opened shoji screens, only to pivot on the polished walkway to face him once more.  “So, you believe that I asked him to gather the Ward, simply for my own benefit, and, all the while, you suspect that I anticipate that he will fail?”

“That’s what I’m asking, Izanami-sama,” he replied calmly.  “You know that the odds are high that she’ll eat the food of Yomi.  You, more than anyone, understand that hunger—how consuming it can be, how ugly it is—and how rare it is that one is able to resist the lure once it is offered.  You know that gnawing ache that never goes away, that grows, larger, uglier, with every passing moment when all you can feel—the only thing you can feel—is that awful ache.”

Uttering a terse little grunt, Izanami waved a hand, opening a projection in the air before him, and he frowned thoughtfully.  It was Kagura’s soul, still trapped in that desolate little chamber.  That she hadn’t begun yet to assemble her visage of hell meant that she still hadn’t eaten, and that was encouraging—for now.  Far stranger, however . . . “You still haven’t presented her with food?”

Izanami sighed.  “I haven’t allowed it yet,” she admitted.  “However, it must be soon.  Her soul grows restless.  She must either fight the temptation . . . or not.”

Jester nodded slowly.  It was a fine line, indeed.  A restless soul if left alone would slowly begin to degenerate.  The very act—the struggle against the temptation of allowing oneself to eat the offered food or not would ultimately preserve her spirit—or damn it, should she give in.

“There is nothing I can do about that.  As time passes—as I watch her—it becomes clear to me that she is already showing signs of loss.  How much of herself do I dare to allow to fall away before she is given the choice, Jester?  What percentage of her does Sesshoumaru look to save?  A vague shadow?  A profound sense?  Tell me, then . . . You know as well as I that the balance is precarious, at best . . . Shall I withhold the one thing that could preserve her soul, just to keep her from giving in to temptation?”

Jester frowned at the candid sense of gravity in the woman’s tone, in her very subtle movements.  It was something that she was weighing with every moment that slipped away.  How long did she dare to keep Kagura from making her own choice, and yet . . .

Izanami shook her head.  “Tell me, Jester.  What would you do?”

“Forgive me for doubting your intentions, Izanami-sama . . . Kagura’s loss . . . It is not yet profound, is it?”

“I wouldn’t know without visiting her myself,” the queen remarked at length, watching as the wind sorceress’ soul seemed to ebb and flow in the darkness.  “She had suffered some of it, but the extent isn’t something I can judge just from observing her.  At such time, however, that I feel that she is on the brink of losing herself entirely . . . You must know—Sesshoumaru must be told . . .”

And he understood that, too.  Izanami-sama . . . It was all there, all in her every action, her every word.  She honestly did want Sesshoumaru to succeed, not just for her own benefit, but for himself, too.  Something about him, about his plight, had touched the timeless queen . . . and . . . “Just what did you see when you looked into his mind?” he couldn’t resist asking, his curiosity getting the better of him.

Flicking her hand once more, dismissing the vision of Kagura, Izanami glided back over to the dais once more, knelt on the cushions, her irritation spent.  “In truth?  I have never seen a more determined spirit.  He will restore her, or he will die, trying—and he really doesn’t even understand why.  In his mind, he has convinced himself of these reasons, and yet, he cannot quite grasp the simplicity of it all, either.”  Suddenly, she laughed, but it was a sad kind of sound—full of a melancholy born of ages within the confines of this place.  “That one . . . He has lived his life, convincing himself that his reasons are sound—tells himself convenient answers so many times that he absolutely believes them to be his truths.”

“That sounds . . . sad,” Jester mused.

Izanami nodded slowly.  “It is,” she said.  “I have seen it, Jester.  If he fails in retrieving her . . . then he is doomed to live out his life, stuck where he is now, and all of those things that he tells himself will dictate everything now and in the future.”

“The future . . .”

“I see great things in him—and yet, I see a nothingness, too.  Both possibilities exist within him, but whatever he does or does not do will surely hold great impact for the shape of the world in the centuries to come.”

“Is he really so important?”

“Do you think that he is not?” she challenged.  “Isn’t that the true reason you wished to accompany him upon this mission?”

Jester shook his head.  “I wouldn’t know.”

She laughed, and this time, it was entirely pleasant, but that laughter died away quickly enough, and she sighed instead.  “The only thing I can tell you is that the Night Reaper that they told you about—he is not the keeper of the Blackened Tears.  However, in order to obtain the Blackened Tears, the two of you must confront the Night Reaper.  Only then will the way to Aoizoku open.”

“Aoizoku?”

She nodded slowly.  “The Night Reaper captured Aoizoku long ago.  It’s the Blackened Tears that gives the Night Reaper his power.”

“I see.”

“Good.  Then you’d better return now.  I sense that Sesshoumaru is looking for you.”

Jester bowed quickly, and when he opened his eyes, he blinked in disorientation as he stared up through the tangled branches of the bushes at the sliver of a moon so high overhead . . .

The Night Reaper captured Aoizoku long ago.  It’s the Blackened Tears that gives the Night Reaper his power.”

Aoizoku . . .’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Ten~~
~The Blackened Tears~

 

~o~

 

 

“They said that the Night Reaper is a fiend that spirited away Aoizoku, who is the real source of the Blackened Tears.  We’ve got to find and defeat the Night Reaper in order to find Aoizoku.”

Sesshoumaru considered that as he and Jester traveled through the sparse forest on the way back to the marsh with the solitary dead tree.  “Did they say what kind of youkai this Night Reaper is?”

Jester sighed, shook his head.  “No, they didn’t know,” he replied.  “I doubt he’ll be too hard to find, though.”

The continued on in silence for a while.  At least the people that Jester had talked to seemed to know a little more about the mysterious Night Reaper.  It seemed that they were afraid of it, too, refusing to leave their dwellings after dark for fear that they would be ensnared in the creature’s spell.

It was nearing midnight.

There was a strange sort of calm that seemed to settle over the marsh, but it was an unsettling kind of calm, as though everything that should have been there had been forced into silence.  Glancing at Jester, he frowned.  The entity was moving slower, almost cautiously.  He felt it too, didn’t he . . .?

“So,” Jester said, breaking the silence at last, “Kanta said that you revived his father with Tenseiga . . .”

“What of it?”

Giving a little shrug, Jester kept walking.  “It just doesn’t strike me as something you’d choose to do out of the goodness of your heart.”

“I harbor no such feelings as those,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “Tenseiga willed it to be so.  That is all.”

Jester frowned.  “Tell me something?”

Sesshoumaru shot him a sidelong glance but didn’t speak.

“Why do I feel as though you view such things as weakness?”

“Such things?”

“Yes, compassion, for starters.  Is it so wrong to feel badly for someone else?  Kanta’s a child, and a child should not be left to fend for himself, now should he?”

“It is the way of the world,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “Didn’t Izanami say it herself?  Some are meant to die.”

Jester slowly shook his head.  “Is that . . .?  Is that truly what you believe?”

“I have neither the time nor the patience to venture around, helping others out of the goodness of my heart.  I am not so naïve as to believe that it would make a difference—and strength is not achieved through the coddling of others,” Sesshoumaru maintained.

“Then tell me why you would retrieve Kagura’s soul.”

Stopping abruptly, the dog-youkai narrowed his sidelong gaze on Jester.  “She died only because she tried to protect me when I did not need her to do so,” he said.  “That is reason enough.  I will not be beholden to her; not even in death.”

“And the child, Rin?  Why do you care for her?  She holds little value for you.  I would, in fact, argue that she is more of a liability than a resource, so why?”

“Tenseiga chose to revive her when she was cut down by wolf-youkai,” Sesshoumaru said.  “She chose to follow me.”

Jester didn’t accept that reason.  Sesshoumaru could feel it, surging in the air around him.  “So, she, too, was resurrected by Tenseiga . . . But tell me, Sesshoumaru, why would you allow it?  A human child who is so weak, whose very existence is so transient—That is what you believe, isn’t it?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t answer that.  There was no point, was there?

And you retreat into silence again because you do not like the questions—or perhaps it is the answers that you despise . . .

Ignoring his youkai-voice’s statement, he kept moving, focusing instead on the task at hand as he pushed back the impatience that never seemed far away these days.

Now, he needed to concentrate, to devote everything within him to finding the Sacred Ward, and with those items, he’d fix what had gone so very, very wrong . . .

Kagura . . .

“You’re angry with me.”

Casting the entity a sidelong glance, Sesshoumaru said nothing for a moment.  Explaining his feelings just wasn’t something he had ever been interested in doing, after all.  Even so . . . “There’s nothing to say, Jester,” he replied instead.  “Rin follows me by choice.  I never forced her.”

“I’m not saying it is bad, you know,” Jester went on in an almost placating kind of way.  “It simply seems like an odd choice; that’s all.”

“Her family was killed by human bandits,” Sesshoumaru heard himself saying.  “She was mute after that and lived on in the village, however . . . She came to me when I was . . . resting in the forest nearby.  She offered me food and water, and those humans in her village beat her for stealing fish.  Then, the wolves came, and they cut her down.  I smelled her blood, and Tenseiga chose to save her.  That is all there is.”

Jester considered what he’d been told for a long moment, and not for the first time, Sesshoumaru wished that he could properly see the entity’s face beneath the half-mask.  Being unable to read someone’s expression bothered him far more than he was wont to admit.  “I think that I would feel the same way,” he admitted finally.  “It sounds to me as though the child has seen more than enough in her short life.”

Sesshoumaru frowned.  Had he not thought the same thing himself?  And, yes, it was part of the reason that he told himself that he allowed her to remain.  As much ugliness as she’d already experienced, and yet, she still smiled.  It wasn’t something he understood; not really.  For that matter, he didn’t suppose that Rin understood it, either . . .

Stopping abruptly when Jester grabbed his shoulder, Sesshoumaru shot him a withering glance, only to frown as he shifted his gaze, following the direction of the entity’s stare.

At first, he sensed nothing at all.  Slowly, however, from the opposite direction, he saw it—felt it.  The youkai—he still couldn’t discern exactly what kind—seemed to be lurching forward, dragging something behind him: a small human child?

Strangely hunched over, bulbous growths that distended the creature’s sallow green-skinned back; glowing yellow eyes, unnaturally bright . . . He almost seemed like an oni, but he wasn’t large enough . . .

“An imp . . .?”

Nodding slowly in agreement with Jester’s whispered words, Sesshoumaru’s frown darkened.  Even so, an imp?  However, unlike Jaken, this one was huge in comparison.  Imps weren’t strong, as a whole, tended to rely upon each other for strength.  ‘The power of the Blackened Tears . . .’ he thought.

The imp—the Night Reaper—dragged the unconscious child toward the dead tree.

“Put the human down,” Jester said, his voice, echoing in the stillness.

The Night Reaper stopped for a moment, looked around slowly, though Sesshoumaru could tell, even from the distance that separated them, that the imp was having distinct trouble seeing.  “Who’s there?” he demanded, his voice, an ominous rumble of something dark and rusty from misuse as he slowly turned his head from side to side.

“We seek Aoizoku,” Sesshoumaru replied, cracking his claws as he narrowed his eyes upon the pitiful imp.  “Get out of the way or die.”

The overgrown monstrosity wheezed out a strange little laugh, but he did let go of the human as he turned to face the sound of Sesshoumaru’s voice.  “Aoizoku?  She belongs to me!”

Without warning, the imp dashed at him, moving faster than he should have been able to, and what he lacked in the ability to see he very clearly made up for in his hearing and perhaps his sense of smell.  Swinging a heavy and cumbersome wooden club at him, he uttered a terse grunt as the blunt end hit the ground hard, sending up a spray of water with a sickening squelch, Sesshoumaru hopped back to avoid the attack, drawing Tokijin and blasting off a ball of green energy in one fluid motion.

The Night Reaper sprang out of the way as the blast hit the ground behind him, illuminating the night in a flash of brilliant light that shook the earth, outlining the imp in the flashes.  He leapt forward, swinging that club once more, and once more, Sesshoumaru evaded it entirely, but had to leap again when the imp managed to barrel after him.  The club of his was moving with so much force behind it that the wind it created ruffled Sesshoumaru’s hair.  Grumbling, growling, burbling out a string of inconsequential noises, he spun to the side, kept Sesshoumaru moving to avoid that club.

Sesshoumaru’s irritation was fast spiraling higher and higher.  An imp shouldn’t have had the ability to move the way this one did, shouldn’t have had the power to swing that club with the force that he put behind it.  It was on par with the strength that petty youkai got when in possession of a single shard of the Shikon no Tama before it was purified—maybe even more.  ‘The Blackened Tears . . . They hold so much power . . .?

“You can’t take her!  She’s mine!” the Night Reaper bellowed as he charged at Sesshoumaru again.  Cleaving an arc through the air with the unwieldy weapon, he grunted, snarled, focusing his youki into it as it erupted in a hazy red glow.  Sesshoumaru met it with Tokijin and all the hate and malice that was housed in the wicked blade.  It split the club in the Reaper’s hands straight down the center, and that ought to have been enough.  It wasn’t.  The Night Reaper howled in abject frustration, his fist, snapping out straight, catching Sesshoumaru in the center of his jaw, sending the dog-youkai, sliding back as he jammed the point of Tokijin, deep into the soft earth, boots squelching against the sodden ground before he managed to stop himself, to draw himself up to his full height, even as the wind rose around him, as his youki flashed in the darkened night.

He could feel the electricity in the air, billowing through his hair, his clothes.  His vision remained clear, though.  Reverting to his visceral form?  ‘I think not.

Tossing his head back, unleashing a high-pitched shriek that rattled straight through Sesshoumaru’s body, the Night Reaper shot forward once more, bearing unnaturally long fangs that glinted in the shivering light, eyes still dull and blank, and yet, they glowed, too.

Sesshoumaru yanked Tokijin free and slashed hard, shooting off a streak of blue light, the crackle of lighting that ripped through the night.  Standing still, staring without blinking, Sesshoumaru watched as the Souryuha engulfed the imp’s body, as his shrieks of pain echoed in the air, even after his body exploded in a gust of light and dust and wind.

“That . . . seemed rather anticlimactic,” Jester remarked as Sesshoumaru dropped Tokijin through the sash around his waist.  The entity frowned as he watched Sesshoumaru for a moment before stepping over to check upon the unconscious child.  “That sword has an evil aura,” he remarked at length, hunkering down to check the child over for injuries.

“It serves my purposes,” Sesshoumaru responded.  That said, he turned on his heel and headed toward the dead tree.  “My youki is much stronger than that of Tokijin.”

There was nothing at all remarkable about the tree, yet that was where the imp was taking the child.  Slowly stepping around it, he frowned, narrowing his gaze as he methodically examined it.

“They say that defeating the Night Reaper would open the path to Aoizoku,” Jester said, placing his hands against the gnarled bark, tilting his head back as he peered up at it, investigating it in much the same way as Sesshoumaru already was.  “Given that the imp wasn’t all that smart, I highly doubt that any kind of concealment used on this would be that tough to figure out.”

“Wh-Who’s there . . .?”

Stepping back at the sound of the voice that didn’t actually seem to be attached to a body, Sesshoumaru frowned at the tree.  It had spoken, hadn’t it?  An almost lyrical, most certainly female, voice . . . Not unlike old Bokusenou, and yet . . . “Are you Aoizoku?” he asked.

There wasn’t a response for several moments.  Finally, however, the voice—the tree—spoke again.  “I . . . I am,” she admitted quietly, almost cautiously.  “Who are you?”

 


 

 

There was nothing more than unending darkness, nothing but void and emptiness.

The flicker of images that were more emotion than actual thought both comforted and tormented her by turns.  A flash of amber—brilliant, glowing—and yet, the color held no form, and something about it . . .

It . . . hurts . . .

But, why . . .?

The memory of the scent of the forest and the trees, the earth and the sea, carried on the wind, but it was fading.  That scent—the combination—it . . . It meant something to her, and yet . . .

And she knew that it was precious, but she couldn’t remember why.

The flash of silvery-white, almost like strands of . . . of hair . . .

Why was she remembering these things, and why couldn’t she remember more . . .?

A garden of wisteria, the calming trickle of water as it ebbed and flowed in a small and crystalline stream . . . an incredible peace that had felt like . . . like coming home . . .

What was it?  What did it mean . . . to her . . .?

The unsteady and labored throb of her heart, growing weaker and fainter by the second, and . . .

And such a sadness, captured in the depths of the amber lights . . .

Something about that . . . She wanted to hang onto it, didn’t she?  Wanted to cling to it . . .

The one word that she knew, even if she had no idea, just what it meant . . .

Sess . . . Sesshoumaru . . .

 


 

 

“You . . . You defeated Toshiaki . . .?  And he’s gone . . .?”

Slowly regarding the dead tree, Sesshoumaru nodded.  “Was that the Night Reaper’s true name?”

“Y-Yes . . .”

“He is dead.”

“Then . . . Then I’m free . . .”

Jester shrugged.  “Well, as free as a tree ever can be . . .”

Blinking as the flash of white light erupted before them, Sesshoumaru wasn’t entirely surprised to see the tree had disappeared, and where it had stood . . .

She was pale, almost glowing, from the top of her bluish-white head to the soles of her tiny and bare feet.  Her skin seemed to absorb all the stingy, thready moonlight as she peered up at him through the thick fringe of her eyelashes.  “I am Aoizoku,” she said, offering him a low bow.  “Thank you for freeing me from Toshiaki.”

He brushed aside her thanks, as though it were of very little consequence, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Jester was faster.  “You’re a light-youkai,” he blurted, shaking his head in obvious disbelief.  It wasn’t surprising.  Light-youkai were few and far between . . . In truth, it was the first time Sesshoumaru himself had ever seen one, though he had, of course, heard rumors.  Jester went on, “Why were you a tree?  Did the Night Reaper bewitch you?”

She shook her head quickly.  “He didn’t have the ability to do that,” she replied, wrinkling her nose, as though it should have been a foregone conclusion.  “I did it.  He . . . He threatened to force me to be his mate, and I . . . Well, he couldn’t do that if I became a tree . . .”

Jester nodded sagely.  “And how long have you been his prisoner?”

She sighed.  “I don’t know,” she admitted softly.  “I know it’s been a very long time, but counting days is hard to do in that form . . .”

“I am searching for the Blackened Tears,” Sesshoumaru cut in.  “I was told that you have them.”

She didn’t look particularly surprised.  In fact, she took an involuntary step back, as though to put some distance between them.  “Will you capture me, too, if I give them to you?”

“I have no interest in doing so,” Sesshoumaru replied.  “I merely want the tears.”

Biting her lip, she considered his words, tried to decide whether or not she ought to trust him.  “And then, you’ll just leave me?”

“I have no desire to imprison you, if that’s what you’re asking,” he replied.  “Tell me, though.  Can any light-youkai produce the Blackened Tears?”

Taking her time as she slowly stretched, she sighed.  “They cannot,” she finally said.  “I . . . I am the oldest of my kind.  That is why . . .”

Sesshoumaru considered that for a long moment.  Then he nodded once.  It made sense, after all.  Youkai, for the most part, tended to keep evolving, even as they aged, and with those evolutions came greater power, too.  What she claimed made sense.  “And the rest of your kind?”

She frowned, and suddenly, she seemed sad.  “I don’t know where they are,” she admitted.  “Some youkai have heard the lore, and every day, I can feel the voices of the others as they fall silent.  The ones that remain are scattering—trying to hide what they are, simply to survive.”

“As you’ve done,” Jester remarked quietly.  “Where will you go, Aoizoku-san?”

Shaking her head, she seemed to draw back into herself—almost a seemingly reflexive kind of stance.  “I wonder if anywhere is safe any longer,” she mused.  Then, she gave herself a little shake, her gaze clearing as she lifted it to meet Sesshoumaru’s.  “As for the tears . . . I can only produce them on the night of the new moon, but if I give them to you, can I . . .?  Can I come with you?  Can you help me to find somewhere safe?”

“Somewhere safe?”

She nodded slowly.  “It may take me some time to regain my bearings,” she admitted.  “To think about where I should go from here . . .”

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes.  He wasn’t really on a mission to search and rescue anyone, however, a youkai like her, falling into the wrong hands?  That could be potentially disastrous, not to mention that the lore of which she spoke . . .

“Until you find a more suitable place,” he allowed.

“But first, we need to find out where this child belongs,” Jester added, striding over, lifting the child gently.  He gave him a little shake, attempting to rouse him.  It didn’t work.

It was on the tip of his tongue to demand that Jester leave the pup.  In the end, though, he stifled a disgusted sigh and strode away in the direction where the Night Reaper had first appeared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Eleven~~
~Small Truths~

 

~o~

 

 

Slowly shifting his gaze around the tiny village where they stood, Sesshoumaru caught the slight stirring of the tatami mats that covered the doorways to a few of the huts.  The humans behind those mats were frightened.  The emotion stood, thick in the air, heavy against his skin.  The villagers had lived in fear of the Night Reaper for so long that they refused to emerge, and, in a way, Sesshoumaru figured that he couldn’t rightfully blame them . . .

Jester sighed, staring down at the unconscious child in his arms.  Sesshoumaru could hear the boy’s heart beating, the steady, if not shallow, breathing.  He wasn’t sure exactly why he wouldn’t wake up, but he seemed fine otherwise.

“I have a child here,” Jester said, raising his voice to be heard throughout the silent village.  “The Night Reaper had him, and I want to return him to his people . . .”

At first, there was no response.  There was no lifting of the mats, no one speaking up to claim the boy—just the same very pregnant quiet that seemed to hang over the village like a pall.  Sesshoumaru was starting to wonder if the lad belonged in the village at all, and he opened his mouth to say as much to Jester, but Jester’s voice again cut him off.  “Please, we mean no harm.  The Night Reaper will trouble you no more.  We just want to return the boy so that we can be on our way.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t belong in this village,” Sesshoumaru murmured.

Jester nodded slowly.  “You might be right.  But—"

“Kenichi . . .?”

Sesshoumaru’s head turned to the side, following the direction of the woman’s voice.  She lingered in the doorway of a nearby hut, her anxiety a palpable thing.  On the one hand, she wanted desperately to run out, to claim her child.  On the other?  She was still afraid, and it was that distress that drew his scowl.

Jester, however, started toward her, but he moved with deliberate slowness, likely so that he wouldn’t spook the woman.  When he reached her, he held out the boy for her inspection.  She uttered a hoarse little cry and grabbed him, hugging him tightly to her bosom.  “Kenichi!  Oh, Kenichi!” she rasped out, her voice, thick with emotion, her dark eyes, glittering in the darkness, even as the scent of her tears, the waves of her relief, washed over them.

“We don’t know why he’s unconscious, but he seems to be fine,” Jester explained as he took a step back.

“Thank you so much!  When he darted outside, we tried to stop him, but . . .”

“You’re welcome,” Jester said.

“Did . . .?  Did you really defeat the Night Reaper?”

Sesshoumaru turned to face the older man that had stepped out of the nearest hut.  He was dressed slightly better than most of the other villagers, who were also slowly creeping out of their huts, which Sesshoumaru took to mean that he was the village headman.  “He’s dead,” he replied simply.  “Jester, let’s go.”

Jester offered the woman a quick bow before hurrying back over to Sesshoumaru once more.

He was acutely aware of the looks that they received as they turned to leave the village.  Some of them were merely curious.  Others were laced with unspoken fear, dread.  They were still afraid on some level.  Humans had a habit of despising youkai, after all . . .

“Please, won’t you stay here for the night?” the headman called after them.  “It’s late, but I’m sure we can find food for you and offer you a nice room to bed down.  It’s . . . It’s the least we can do.”

Sesshoumaru opened his mouth to say no, but he caught sight of Jester out of the corner of his eye and stifled a sigh instead.  Jester was trying to hide his very acute interest—and failing.  “You’re hungry, are you not?”

Jester seemed surprised for a minute.  Then, he chuckled.  “We-e-e-ell . . .”

He’d figured as much.  “Then you stay if you like.  I’ll wait for you outside of the village.”

That said, he continued to walk away, leaving Jester and Aoizoku behind to make their own choices if they wished to accept the humans’ show of gratitude or not.

It was a mild night—what was left of it, anyway.  As he headed away from the village, he let out a deep breath, only to stop short when Aoizoku called out behind him.  “Sesshoumaru-sama!  I . . . I’d rather stay with you,” she said as she hurried up behind him.

Narrowing his eyes as he stared at her, he nodded once, but said nothing as he moved off the trail and down a small embankment where he sat upon a large, flat boulder.

“They made me uneasy,” she admitted, even though Sesshoumaru had not asked.  “I guess I was isolated for so long . . .”

He didn’t really respond to that, either.  There really wasn’t anything to say, anyway.

“You . . . You don’t talk much,” she remarked, settling on the grass not far away.  “Can I ask you why you want the Blackened Tears?  I mean, you don’t need them, do you?  I can feel your power.”

“They aren’t for me,” he said, almost as an afterthought.  “I’m collecting the Sacred Ward.”

“The Sacred Ward?” she echoed, slowly shaking her head.  “I’ve not heard that name in . . . in a long, long time.”

Eyes narrowing, gaze slipping to the side to look at her—the silvery-blue creature that captured the stingy moonlight—he stared at her.  “What do you know of the other wards?” he asked.

“Well, not a lot,” she admitted, shaking her head.  She seemed almost disappointed that she didn’t have more information to give him.  “The only thing I know is that the northern ward is held by a hell-youkai named Fumai who dwells deep within Fubukizan . . . As for the east and west wards . . .” She sighed, gave an almost defeated kind of shrug.  “Those, I . . . I don’t really know.”

“They say that the northern ward is held behind a barrier,” he ventured.  “Do you know anything about that?”

Biting her lip, she considered his question for a moment.  “I can’t say for certain, but I remember hearing my parents talking about it.  The hell-youkai were so reviled because of the destruction that they couldn’t control, they chose to isolate themselves, and, from what I understand, they called upon the assistance of a mountain sage who enclosed Fubikizan within a self-perpetuating barrier.”

“Self-perpetuating?  So, it cannot be circumvented?”

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “If you had someone—a human with spiritual powers . . .”

A human with spiritual powers . . .

There is one who might be able to access that barrier . . .

I should go to the east and west first, though.  If the northern ward is going to prove to be the trickiest to obtain, then it’s best to get the others out of the way first.

“If you want to collect the Blackened Tears, you’ll need a special vial,” she said, breaking through his thoughts with her almost lyrical voice.  “It needs to be formed from the lava rocks in the Valley of Fire and baked in the heat of those flames.  Otherwise, the Blackened Tears will corrupt it.”

The Valley of Fire . . .

He said they only grow in the Valley of Fire between the Gale Mountains and the Blue Depths.”

Hibana . . .

There was no answer in the night.

 


 

Uuuuuh . . .”

Casting Jester a sidelong look, Sesshoumaru said nothing and tried to ignore the fifth yawn in as many minutes as the trio made their way north.

“What’s that?”

Jester held out the persimmon he was about to bite into and eyed it thoughtfully as Aoizoku hurried up to peer around the entity’s arm.  “This?  It’s a dried persimmon.  Surely you’ve had these before.”

She frowned in an entirely consternated kind of way.  “Well, I . . . I might have,” she ventured at length.  “It’s been so long since I ate anything, though . . . I mean, when you’re a tree . . .”

“Oh, right,” Jester replied, carefully tearing the dried fruit in half and handing her one of the pieces.  “You should have stayed in the village last night.  They had fish and some rice and—”

“Mmm!” she half-squealed, half-moaned as she bit off some of the persimmon.  “Oh, this is so good!

“Isn’t it?” Jester agreed.

Sesshoumaru slowly shook his head, not that either of his travel companions noticed.  They didn’t.

He didn’t really care, one way or the other.  After all, he had a specific set of tasks, and he couldn’t help the sense of urgency that lingered deep within him.

However, if you bring me these things, I will return the soul of your wind sorceress—if she has not eaten food of Yomi when you return . . .”

Those words kept echoing through his mind, and with every time they repeated, a steady sense of foreboding grew.

Why . . .?

Why did he feel more uneasy today than he had thus far . . .?

“You’re being quiet, Sesshoumaru—well, quieter than usual, anyway . . .” Jester remarked, hurrying his stride to catch up with him.

He cast the entity a sidelong glance, only to narrow his gaze when he caught Jester yawning yet again.  “What is wrong with you?” he asked instead, ignoring Jester’s commentary entirely.

Jester dropped the hand he had been using to cover his mouth and shrugged.  “I . . . I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he confessed.

Something about the way he’d said it, though . . . Suddenly, though, another thing occurred to him: the unmistakable scent of some strange woman that lingered on the entity, and he veered off the path, heading straight toward the smell of water nearby.

“I don’t need a break,” Jester called after him.  “Sesshoumaru?”

He didn’t stop until he reached the water, and then, he turned on his heel and eyed Jester.  “You reek,” he stated flatly.  “It offends me.”

Jester cocked his head to the side for a full second before breaking into a soft chuckle.  “Caught,” he said, sounding anything but contrite.  “Does it help if I say she was pretty?”

“No,” Sesshoumaru said.  Then, he walked away.

Aoizoku shook her head, frowned thoughtfully as she followed Sesshoumaru as he stalked away.  “Was there something wrong?” she finally asked.

He didn’t respond to that, either.  In truth, he wasn’t exactly sure why it irritated him as much as it did. After all, he didn’t rightfully care, what Jester did, as long as it didn’t interfere with their quest.

Or did it . . .?

“I didn’t notice anything different about the way he smelled,” she went on.

“That’s because you’re not a dog,” Sesshoumaru growled under his breath.  It was true enough.  Inu-youkai tended to have sharper senses of smell than many of the others.

She considered that, crossing her arms over her chest as the length of her pale pink yukata blew around her bare ankles in the breeze.  “But, why would he smell like a woman?”

Grinding his teeth together, Sesshoumaru held his silence, growing more impatient with every passing second.

Is it really such an issue that he dallied with a woman?

Sesshoumaru turned away from Aoizoku, staring off instead over the surrounding trees, trying to discern anything that seemed amiss in the area.  No, that wasn’t it.  That wasn’t it, at all.  The thing that bothered him most was that the quest to find the Sacred Ward, and Jester ought to be focused on that, too . . .

“Sesshoumaru-sama . . .”

He didn’t answer her, but he did shift his gaze to the side to meet hers.  Twisting her hands together, she seemed to be thinking mighty hard about something again.  She didn’t seem nervous, exactly, but . . .

Seeing that she got his attention, however, she gave a slight shrug and let her hands fall to her sides.  “Why are you searching for the Sacred Ward?  I mean, if you’re not looking to increase your power, then . . .?”

“I made a deal with Izanami no Mikoto,” he replied.  “If I gather these things, then she will restore someone . . .”

Aoizoku looked surprised by his answer.  Given that it was the first true answer he’d allowed her, then he supposed he could understand it.  “You . . .?  You’re so revered that you can barter with the queen of Yomi?  I mean, I could tell that you’re powerful—maybe the most powerful youkai I’ve ever seen, but that . . . Surely, you are formidable . . .”

“I simply wish to bring someone back who never should have died,” he stated flatly, letting his gaze sweep over the sparse forest once more.  “Nothing more, nothing less.”

“But to gather all of the Sacred Ward?  They say that it is impossible.  They say that it tests everything about you—that brute strength is not enough . . . Yet you would go this far for someone?”  She trailed off for a moment, walked around him to regain his attention.  “This person is special to you?”

Sesshoumaru frowned.  “Not especially,” he replied.  “It is a debt I must settle.”

She didn’t look like she believed him, and she opened her mouth to speak, only to snap it closed again when Jester rounded the large boulder beside the path that led to the water.  “Give up, Aoizoku.  That’s about the best answer you’re likely to get from him,” he said.

Turning his head far enough to peer over his shoulder at the entity, Sesshoumaru said nothing as he turned instead to walk away.  Jester was dripping wet from head to foot, but at least he no longer bore the stench of the human woman and his obvious indulgence from the night before, and that, he figured, was good enough.

 


 

 

Well, well, well . . . Fancy meeting you here . . .”

He didn’t bother to glance at the wind sorceress as she sauntered out of the treeline as he stood on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the lands of Musashi.  Such a picturesque and quaint little scene, wasn’t it?  The village where InuYasha had met the miko so long ago . . . the meadow where the Bone Eater’s Well stood . . . From here, he could even make out Goshinboku—the God Tree where that baka had been sealed away for fifty years . . .

What do you want, Kagura?” he asked, ignoring the pleasantries that he should have at least attempted.

She chuckled.  The sound of it rolled over him like a caress—the warmth of it, the deep and unspoken secrets it contained.  “Nothing, really . . . I was simply in the area and thought that I sensed your presence.  It’s hard to ignore, after all . . .”

A loud and groaning rumble reached him on the breeze, the scent of something foul that smelled entirely like Kagura, and yet, not like her, too . . . “Tell me,” he said, narrowing his gaze as he searched for the cause of the disturbance.  “Has Naraku been up to something fell again?

To his surprise, Kagura sighed softly.  “You must mean Musou,” she concluded.

Musou?

His latest incarnation,” she admitted.  “I’ve been sent to keep an eye on him . . .”

Then should you not be there?” he asked, inclining his head toward the valley below.

I suppose I should be,” she agreed, though she made no move to leave.  “Where are your imp and child?

What business is it of yours?” he countered evenly.

Mine?  I’m just making conversation; that’s all,” she quipped.

Is that right.”  It wasn’t a question.

This time, she sighed.  “Musou . . . He’s different from us—from me,” she ventured, her own gaze, following the direction of Sesshoumaru’s.  “I don’t know why or now, but . . . but he is.  Naraku sent me to watch him . . .”

Sent you to watch him?  Can he not do so for himself?

He could feel her eyes on him, probing, searching.  “I told you.  There’s something different about him.  It’s almost as if . . . as if Naraku has no control over him.

Yet he wields control over you.”

His statement was matter-of-fact, even if his tone wasn’t entirely unfriendly.

She smiled, but there was a certain darkness behind the expression—a darkness that he didn’t fully comprehend.  “Something like that . . .”

Blinking away the lingering whispers of the memory, Sesshoumaru frowned.  He really hadn’t known at that time, had he?  He hadn’t realized it back then.  He hadn’t known that Kagura did not possess her own heart.  He hadn’t figured that out until that fateful day when she’d fallen from the sky with that hole in her chest . . .

And then, he’d understood her anger, her frustration . . . her inability to fight against Naraku.  She couldn’t; not while he held her heart, quite literally, in the palm of his hand . . .

“We’re heading toward the Valley of Fire,” Jester mused.  Stretched out on the ground with his hands behind his head, beside the small fire he’d built for Aoizoku’s benefit when they’d stopped for her to rest, he didn’t look at Sesshoumaru as he made his statement.

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that.  As far as he was concerned, there really wasn’t a reason to do so.

Jester sighed.  “A special vial to contain the Blackened Tears, she said,” he went on in an entirely conversational kind of tone.  She’d told him about the need for a special container for the tears as they’d traveled on.  It made no difference to Sesshoumaru, in any case.  “Have you been there before?  The Valley of Fire?  I mean, other than to locate the door to Yomi?”

“I have been,” he replied, but he let it go at that.

Jester chuckled.  “You don’t strike me as the kind who enjoys, walking through flame, Sesshoumaru.”

“It was a long time ago,” he said.

“Even so, they say that boiling geysers explode at your feet if you’re not careful.  They say—”

“I know what they say,” Sesshoumaru cut in rather abruptly.  “There is far worse in that valley than boiling water and steam.”

“Is that so?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t speak again as he turned his attention back to the sky once more.

Yes, there most certainly was, and he knew about that, first hand . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Twelve~~
~Bulls and Flowers~

 

~o~

 

 

“Kami’s bones, it’s ho-o-o-ot . . .”

Sesshoumaru said nothing as the trio kept walking, moving through the mountain pass where the cooling breeze simply did not reach between the hills and the steep rises, the thick trees that blocked out the hottest rays of sunshine.  That might have been fine, too, except that the humidity in this area was ridiculous, as well.  He felt it, of course, but whining about it really wouldn’t do any good.  Apparently, however, Jester had yet to figure that out . . .

“It’s so damn hot, my body parts are starting to stick together . . .” Jester went on with a melodramatic sigh.  “Hey, Sesshoumaru . . .”

Sesshoumaru didn’t pause in his gait, nor did he turn to look at his traveling companion.  “No, Jester,” he stated flatly.

“But—”

“I’m not pulling your . . . body parts . . . apart.”

The entity heaved a sigh.  “You know—”

“If you keep talking,” Sesshoumaru said in a deceptively mild tone, “I’ll kill you.”

Jester stopped short, stared at Sesshoumaru, who kept walking.  “I think you meant that,” he muttered, half-to-himself.

“I did.  I do.”

“But if you killed Jester-sama for simply needing assistance, then—”

“Jester-sama?” Sesshoumaru echoed, glancing over his shoulder at the light-youkai.  “Sama?”

Jester grinned at him.  “She recognizes greatness when she sees it,” he said.

Narrowing his gaze on the entity, Sesshoumaru said nothing else as he snapped his mouth closed and resumed his trek once more.

He’d decided that, since they were venturing close, they might as well stop in to see Totosai.  After all, Myouga had a habit of sticking around the old swordsmith, and Sesshoumaru rather thought that maybe the flea might know something about the Sacred Ward.  He also wanted to see if he couldn’t get Totosai to agree to forge some kind of weapon for Jester since the entity didn’t have any kind of defense.  He supposed that the odds were roughly fifty-fifty that he’d gain Totosai’s compliance.  Totosai might not care for him, but Jester was a lot better at being friendly overall, so maybe . . .

So, you do care about Jester.

If his body were to be destroyed, he’d end up back in Yomi, now wouldn’t he?  I still need his assistance, such as it is.  It’s better than nothing.

You know, don’t you?  It’s all right to be concerned about someone else.

No, it’s not.  It’s really not.  That is weakness, and weakness is always exploited.  Besides, Jester is simply annoying, at best.  If I didn’t require his knowledge—

Except that’s just an excuse, too.  You realize, don’t you?  He doesn’t know much more about the Sacred Ward than you do.

Or he simply hasn’t told me everything he knows yet.  That’s the feeling I have.

But what would he have to gain in not telling you everything he knows?

I don’t know.  It doesn’t matter.

His youkai-voice didn’t respond to that, and it was just as well.  Truthfully, it was strange.  As annoying as the entity could be, Sesshoumaru really did have to admit, at least, to himself, that he didn’t actually mind having Jester around.  It was odd, wasn’t it?  Having someone around who wasn’t afraid of him, or reliant upon him, or irking him to the point that he wouldn’t mind, ridding the world of the general pest, who picked fights with him, just by donning the hostility and bluntly obtuse attitudes that were the earmark of the baka’s general existence . . .

InuYasha doesn’t annoy you nearly as much as you pretend he does, hanyou or not.  Like it or not, you know, too, that InuYasha grew up in the best way that he possibly could, given the situation.  That he survived at all should be miracle enough, but . . . But the truth is that he never really has annoyed you—not like you want to believe.  What annoyed you was simply the reminder that he invariably dealt you every time you saw him.

Sesshoumaru chose to ignore that, too.  After all, there really wasn’t anything to say about it.

He reminds you of the things that never should have happened, doesn’t he?  That your father and your mother weren’t true mates.  If they were—

Drop it,’ he cut in coldly.  ‘None of that matters.  Let it alone.

If you say so, but you know, don’t you?  As much as you hate to consider such things, at some point in your life, you’re going to have to.  Otherwise, you’ll stop progressing, and then, you’ll die.

Die?  Kono Sesshoumaru?

In a manner of speaking, yes.  To live is to grow, isn’t it?  Even if you’ve finished growing physically, you still grow mentally.  Everything you learn in life is there, and even when you don’t realize it, you add to that growth every day.  If you stop, then you stagnate, and you cannot move forward.  Do not fool yourself into believing that you will be the same in a thousand years as you are now, today.

He said nothing to that, either.

Instead, he quickened his pace and set himself to ignore the annoying sound of his youkai-voice.

 


 

 

“Where is Jester?”

Glancing up from the dancing light of the Heart of Kiriyama in her palm, Izanami no Mikoto casually glanced at the shadoe that strode into the receiving chamber with an air of impatience around his dusky form.  “Surely you do not come before me without so much as a formality?” she intoned, her lyrical voice, taking on a hint of censure.

“My apologies, Izanami-sama,” he quickly corrected himself, offering her a low bow that he held for a long moment before he straightened up again.

She nodded once, allowing the oversight to pass.  “As for Jester’s whereabouts, suffice it to say that he is on an errand for me.”

“An errand?” he echoed, his irritation rising once more.  She could sense his impatience and was mildly surprised.  This one in particular tended to be much more controlled than others, including Jester.  Suddenly, though, he lifted a shadowy hand, pointed at the Heart of Kiriyama.  “That’s . . .”

“Hmm, it is,” she agreed easily enough.

He stared at it for several moments, as though transfixed, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, given that something like the Heart of Kiriyama was such a huge thing in a place like this.  “Will you . . . break it . . .?”

She frowned at the question.  True, she could break it—release the mist inside.  It would linger here in her chambers, lending another dimension to the staid and stagnant environment, however . . . However, she wasn’t sure that it was something she wanted, either, given that she possessed no real body, no real form, and therefore could not feel the moisture on her skin, would never be able to savor it on that level . . . It might well be more torment on her soul that she simply couldn’t endure.  “I will not,” she replied at length, lifting the glowing orb, as though presenting it to the shadoe to emphasize her claim.  “This is enough.”

He nodded, though his stance indicated his disagreement with her on the matter.  He was smart enough not to give voice to it.  “About Jester . . . How long am I expected to do his job as well as my own?”

“For as long as I require him elsewhere,” she replied evenly.  “Your impatience is showing yet again.”

“It’s not impatience.  I simply wanted to know how long I was being expected to pick up the slack, as it were.”

“It isn’t so bad,” she corrected him.  “That is to say, Jester’s tasks shouldn’t interfere with your own.”

The shadoe grunted.  “But to send Jester on an important errand?  The fool is far too impetuous, far too volatile.  To trust him anywhere—”

She cut him off, her effigy stilling, her tone steeling in a most uncharacteristic sort of way.  “Is it really your place to question me?”

He sighed.  “My apologies, Izanami-sama.  I . . . I didn’t mean to question your judgement.”

She laughed softly, but let it slide.  “While it is true that you were once a great and mighty tai-youkai in life, it avails you nothing here.  The position you occupy now is because I allow it to be so.”

“Of course, Izanami-sama,” he agreed quickly, though she didn’t miss the hint of irritation in his overall tone and demeanor.

“Anyway, I trust that you can see to Jester’s normal tasks as well as your own well enough,” she went on, opting instead to ignore his general displeasure.  “When he returns to Yomi—”

“You . . .?  You sent him out of Yomi?”

“I did.  It was necessary.”

“But that . . . That isn’t normally allowed.”

“And it is my choice as to whether or not I bend the rules, is it not?”

He didn’t seem like he was ready to accede to her logic.  “And should he become tainted?  You were the one who told me the risks of sending a soul out of Yomi on a whim.  If he cannot re-assimilate when he returns . . .”

“It was a calculated risk, but you underestimate Jester,” she said.  “Besides, he was the best choice for this particular task.”

“And what task is it?”

Sparing a moment to stare at the shadoe, she nodded just once.  “If you must know, he is helping Sesshoumaru search for the Sacred Ward.”

“Sess . . . Sesshoumaru . . .?”

She nodded slowly.  “Yes, Sesshoumaru.”

“Izanami-sama—”

She shook her head. “No . . . It’s because of your own feelings toward Sesshoumaru that I chose not to send you. You . . . You're far too close. You understand that, don’t you?”

“And Jester is not?” he challenged faster than he could stop himself.

Izanami uttered a terse little sound, more of a breath than an actual word.  Instantly, the shadoe recoiled.  “Be careful,” she warned quietly before stating once more, “He was the best choice.”

He didn’t seem as though he wanted to concede any such thing, but he finally nodded.  “As . . . As you wish, Izanami-sama.  I’ll get back to my tasks, then.”

She watched him go without another word, but it was only after his presence in her domain had faded that she slowly stood, swept off of the dais and across the floor, stopping at the edge of the polished wooden platform as she stared up at the perfect moon.  It was stunning, that moon—the kind of visage that was only witnessed once or twice in a lifetime on earth.  Here, everything was unnaturally perfect, controlled—everything except for him, anyway . . . She could understand his irritation, even his jealousy.  After all, it was natural enough, given the shadoe’s relationship to Sesshoumaru in life, and that Jester was also given the chance to leave Yomi, even if it was only for a little while . . .?

Yet everything rode upon it, this quest.  “Everything . . .” she murmured into the uncanny stillness.

There was no answer in the night.

 


 

 

The clank of the hammer hitting metal rang out long before Sesshoumaru stepped over to the opening in the skull on the side of the volcanic mountain.

It hadn’t taken long to reach the place—not for him, anyway.  Even so, Jester had to carry Aoizoku part way when the path had become more treacherous.  She couldn’t hover, as Sesshoumaru and Jester could, but she hadn’t complained at all and had actually seemed rather fascinated by the fissures of lava that streaked the landscape in little, thin streams.

“Totosai,” he called, smelling the aged blacksmith long before he saw him.  Stopping at the edge of the gaping maw of the huge skull that Totosai called home, he narrowed his eyes as they adjusted to the dimmed light within.

“Oh, Sesshoumaru . . . it’s you . . .” he said as the sound of the hammer, stilled abruptly.  “What brings you here?”

“I need a weapon,” Sesshoumaru replied, striding into the makeshift hut.

“I told you, I wasn’t going to forge one for you,” Totosai insisted, flicking a gnarled old hand toward Sesshoumaru’s waist.  “Isn’t that why you went and had Kaijinbo forge that one that’s almost as evil as you?”

“It isn’t for me,” he reiterated after sparing a bare moment to very nearly smile, blinking slowly as Totosai shifted his bulbous eyes around in a decidedly nervous fashion.

“Then why ever would you want one?” Totosai blurted.

Reminding himself that he didn’t dare clout the swordsmith over the head, Sesshoumaru settled for narrowing his glare at Totosai, instead.  “I am traveling with an entity that has no weapon,” he explained curtly, hating that he had to explain himself, but knowing that the journey would only be that much more difficult if Jester continued, unarmed.

“I don’t see anyone with you—just you—not even your imp,” Totosai remarked, jamming his arms together under the sleeves of his striped kimono.  “Surely you don’t want a weapon for that little human girl, do you?  That would seem a little odd, even for you . . .”

“Don’t make me strike you, Totosai,” Sesshoumaru warned.  “Jester, I—” Cutting himself off as he turned his head, only to realize that Jester wasn’t behind him, he started to scowl, but that scowl shifted into more of an expression of suspicion as the lowing of Totosai’s bull, Momo, rang out.  “Damn . . .”

Pivoting on his heel, he strode out of the hut, only to shake his head when he spotted the fool, standing near the three-eyed, flying bull, but it was the look on Jester’s face—a mix of foreboding and absolute interest—that drew the dog-youkai forward.  “No,” he stated flatly, loudly enough to gain both Jester as well as Aoizoku’s attention.

“What?” Jester said.

Sesshoumaru stifled the urge to snort.  “You cannot eat that,” he said.

“. . . He looks really tasty, though . . .”

“He is Totosai’s travel companion,” Sesshoumaru explained, wondering in the back of his mind, just why he would have to explain such a thing, at all.  “Now, come on.”

“Travel companion?  Sounds a bit iffy, if you ask me . . .”

“Jester . . .” Sesshoumaru muttered in a warning growl.

“He has a point, Sesshoumaru-sama.  I mean, that’s a lot of meat . . .” Aoizoku remarked.

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that, but he did glower at Jester.

Jester, true to form, grinned.  “I didn’t put her up to that,” he said.

“Come.  And don’t say anything to Totosai about eating his bull or he won’t forge a weapon for you.”

“. . . Do I want him to do that?” Jester challenged mildly.

“. . . Yes, you do.”

“. . . Did he forge your weapons?”

Grinding his teeth together for a moment, Sesshoumaru let out a deep breath—slowly.  “One of them,” he said, leading the way into the skull dwelling.  “Totosai, this is Jester—and Aoizoku.  Jester, this is Totosai.  He is the one in need of a weapon.”

“A weapon?  You want a weapon?”

“Totosai . . .” Sesshoumaru began in a definite warning tone.

“We’ve been over this.  I don’t like you.  You’re scary.  And evil.  And the devil-incarnate,” Totosai went on.

This time, Sesshoumaru didn’t stop to consider the consequences as he balled-up his fist and thumped the swordsmith in the head.

“Ow!  See?” Totosai whined, grasping his head between his spindly fingers.

“It’s for him,” Sesshoumaru gritted out, jerking his head in Jester’s direction.

“Tell me, old man, how close are you to that bull in the yard?”

“Jester—” Sesshoumaru warned.

“Can’t blame me for trying,” Jester muttered.

“Momo?” Totosai said, blinking in confusion as he slowly rubbed at the knot forming on his head.  “Why do you ask?”

Sesshoumaru stifled the urge to sigh.  “No reason, Totosai.  Now, about a weapon for him . . .?”

“Well, I . . .” the old swordsmith began, only to frown thoughtfully as he stared at Jester.  “What kind of weapon are you looking for?”

Jester shrugged, apparently giving up on the idea of eating Totosai’s bull, at least, for the moment.  “I don’t really think I need a weapon,” he said.

“Yes, he does,” Sesshoumaru muttered.  Then, he narrowed his gaze as he slowly turned his head to look at the entity.  “You know how to fight, do you not?”

“I prefer the intellectual approach,” Jester quipped.

“Is that a, ‘no’, then?”

Jester sighed, letting his careless demeanor fall away.   “I know how to fight, yes,” he replied.  “I’d prefer not to, though, if it’s all the same to you.”

For some reason, Sesshoumaru felt that there was more to the answer than Jester was willing to give voice.  He didn’t know why he thought so, but he had the feeling, too, that the entity might well be better at it than he was willing to allow.  Perhaps it was part and parcel with his being allowed back, Sesshoumaru didn’t know.  “Fighting is unpredictable,” he said instead.  “You need a weapon.”

“You mean, you can’t protect me?”

Sesshoumaru grunted.  “I shouldn’t have to protect you.”

Jester gestured at Sesshoumaru as he stared at Totosai and gave a curt shrug.  “Well, there you have it.”

A certain understanding—recognition?—flashed over Totosai’s face, and he shook his head.  “I thought you were dead!” he suddenly blurted.

Jester chuckled.  “I still am,” he said, just before lifting his extended index finger to his lips in a shushing sort of motion.  “I’m just borrowing this body while I help him gather the Sacred Ward.”

“The Sacred Ward?” Totosai echoed, almost incredulously.  “But that’s impossible, even for him!  Especially for him!”

“What do you know of it, Totosai?” Sesshoumaru demanded, taking a menacing step toward Totosai.

“Nothing!  Nothing!  I just mean that gathering those things requires a skill set that you don’t have—things like compassion, general decency in your heart of darkness, Oh Great Lord of Evil.  That’s all . . .”

“Great Lord of Evil, Sesshoumaru?  He’s talking about you?  Really?” Jester muttered, leaning toward Sesshoumaru and lowering his voice just a touch.

“If you weren’t already dead, Jester,” he warned.

Jester chuckled, smashing his palms together and making a couple mocking bows.  “Warii warii.”

Ignoring the entity’s rather crude apology, Sesshoumaru continued to eye the blacksmith.  “Do you know something useful about the Sacred Ward?”

Totosai blinked a few times, a telling sense of blankness, filtering into his gaze.  “The Sacred Ward?  Oh, oh yes . . . the Sacred Ward . . .”

Sesshoumaru had to wonder if the aged youkai might have been hit over the head a few too many times over the years.  Waiting for him to go on, somehow, he wasn’t really surprised when Totosai remained silent.  “What do you know, Totosai?”

“Well, for starters, your . . . your uncle tried to gather those things long ago . . . Wanted me to use them to forge a powerful sword that could rival your father’s Tetsusaiga,” he finally said.  “That’s how he died, you know.”

Sesshoumaru considered that for a long moment.  “Hahaue’s brother?”

Totosai nodded, casting Jester a quick glance before meeting Sesshoumaru’s gaze once more.  “That’s the one.  Died, trying to retrieve the one in the north.  Fool of a dog tried to force his way through the barrier.”

Jester snorted indelicately but said nothing.

Sesshoumaru didn’t miss the sound, but he chose not to remark upon it.  “I see.  Since you already seem to be familiar with Jester, then I shall presume that you will fashion him a weapon?”

Totosai let out a deep breath as he stared at Jester with a thoughtful frown.  “Well, I could . . .” he mused, “but . . .”

“Maybe I should have something appropriate for my level of dead-ness,” Jester went on, his tone taking on a philosophical lilt.

“Level of dead-ness?” Sesshoumaru echoed, pinning Jester with a very dry look.

“Hmm,” Totosai said, scratching his chin slowly.  “Well, can you give me a day or two?  I’ll see what I can do . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~~Chapter Thirteen~~
~Onward~

 

~o~

 

 

The sound of the blade, slicing through the air, whirred around Sesshoumaru’s brain as Jester spun the staff-part of the rather fearsome-looking and razor-sharp scythe that Totosai had just delivered.  It was a little ridiculous, as far as he could tell, but it would do, he supposed—unless Sesshoumaru decided to toss it away since Jester couldn’t seem to stop fidgeting with it . . .

“If you cut me with that, I’ll send you back to Yomi,” Sesshoumaru warned.

Jester chuckled, but the whirring blade stilled.  “Just what am I supposed to do with this?” he queried, but he sounded pleased enough.

“Use it to defend yourself,” Sesshoumaru replied.

“Isn’t that what you’re here for?”

Sesshoumaru uttered a very terse grunt.  “No.”

For some reason, his response only served to make the entity laugh.  “We’ve got to work on your people skills, Sesshou,” he remarked.

The shortened version of his name brought him up short.  It had been centuries since anyone had dared to use that, and even then, he did not welcome it, especially when the last one who had felt familiar enough to do so was long, long gone . . .

If Jester realized that he’d managed to irritate him, however, he gave no indication.  “You’re entirely too serious for your own good, you know.”

Opting to ignore the current line of conversation, Sesshoumaru brushed aside the acute irritation that had surged through him at the use of the too-familiar form of address.  “Totosai seemed to know you.”

His statement drew an abrupt end to Jester’s misplaced amusement.  Turning his face upward, as though he were studying the skies, he deliberately took his time before answering, “Well, that old codger seems a little off-kilter, if you ask me.  Maybe he confused me with someone else.”

“Or maybe he did not.”

Jester didn’t argue that.  Truthfully, Sesshoumaru didn’t care, per se.  After all, Totosai had been alive for a long, long time, and there likely weren’t many that the old youkai didn’t know—or at least, know of.

No, the truth of it was that Sesshoumaru just couldn’t quite shake the rest of what the swordsmith had said, and it was of far greater interest to him than just who Jester was before he’d died . . .

Well, for starters, your . . . your uncle tried to gather those things long ago . . . Wanted me to use them to forge a powerful sword that could rival your father’s Tetsusaiga . . . That’s how he died, you know . . . Died, trying to retrieve the ward in the north.  Fool of a dog tried to force his way through the barrier.”

His mother’s brother, was it?

That was interesting.

Too bad Sesshoumaru himself didn’t really remember this uncle of his.  Vague memories, at best, but even those weren’t the strongest.  He couldn’t even remember his name, and his face was nothing at all but a blur in the recesses of his memory.  He was little more than a pup the last time he’d seen his uncle—he thought.  He didn’t remember him, dying, either—if he had even been told, in the first place . . .

According to Totosai, that uncle had died, trying to breech the barrier that surrounded the Northern Ward . . . A purification barrier akin to the one that had been erected on Hakurei-zan . . .? If that were the case, then Sesshoumaru would have to figure out how to get through it, too, because giving up was simply not an option . . .

That barrier might well pose the biggest obstacle of them all.  If it was strong enough to kill oji-san, then it’s nothing to scoff at, and even you ought to know that it won’t matter, how strong or powerful you might well be.  If it’s a spiritual barrier, then there will be no passing through it.

I realize that much,’ he thought, his gaze taking on a steely glint.  ‘I do not have a choice.  I must find a way past it.

If you were InuYasha, you might be able to breech it.  He was able to force his way through the barrier on Hakurei-zan, wasn’t he?  Just how did he do that?

As though I’d care, what that miserable half-breed did back then,’ he scoffed, temper flickering to life at the mere thought of his idiot half-brother.

Be that as it may, he did find a way to get past that damned barrier—something you’re going to have to figure out, too, so, instead of getting all irritated at the mere mention of your baby brother’s name, maybe you ought to focus on how he was able to do it, in the first place.

He didn’t reply to that.  There wasn’t really anything to say, and more importantly, he really should focus upon the task before him.  He still had two wards he could get before he had to deal with the issue the barrier presented, and he’d figure it out, too.

“Is there a reason why you suddenly look like you want to rip something to shreds?  Well, more than you usually do, anyway . . .”

He didn’t glance at Jester, either.  “It’s nothing,” he lied, mostly because he just didn’t feel like delving into it any deeper than he already had.

“You know, you really need to work on those expressions you get on your face,” Jester went on casually, as though he were discussing the weather.  “I mean, you honestly look like you’re contemplating someone’s imminent demise.”

“Yours,” Sesshoumaru shot back in a rather matter-of-fact tone.

“Except you can’t kill me,” Jester pointed out with a good-natured chuckle.

“I don’t really need your assistance,” Sesshoumaru pointed out.  “It isn’t as though you’ve been of much help thus far, anyway.”

Jester snorted and shook his head.  “No, I mean that you can’t kill someone who is already dead,” he quipped.  Before Sesshoumaru could reply to that, however, the entity whipped the handle of the scythe once more, and this time, the tip of the blade managed to cut through a few strands of Sesshoumaru’s hair.  “Oops.”

“You realize that isn’t a toy, don’t you?”

“I’m trying to get a feel for it,” Jester said.  “Can’t say I’ve ever used something like this before . . .”

In one fluid motion, Sesshoumaru yanked Tokijin from the sash at his waist and swung around.  Pure reflex moved Jester, and, with a flash of his arms, he blocked the blade easily enough.  Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes, but gave one curt nod, satisfied that Jester did, indeed, possess some sort of skill, no matter what he’d claimed.

“Were you really going to lop my head off?” Jester asked as Sesshoumaru slipped Tokijin back under the sash once more.

“Only if you were too slow to stop me,” he replied simply.

Jester grunted.

“But if you’re already dead, couldn’t you just . . . put your head back on, Jester-sama?” Aoizoku asked.

“Well, probably,” Jester said.  “Then again, I’d rather not test the theory.”

“I’ve never tried to reattach someone’s head before, but I could probably do it,” she went on.

“You’re very useful, did you know?”

This time, Sesshoumaru pursed his lips and resumed his trek once more, resolved to ignore the inane chatter of his travel companions as he wondered yet again if he really, truly needed to bring them both along with him . . .

 


 

Youkai!

Sesshoumaru frowned as he stopped on the narrow road that wound around the outskirts of what appeared to be a small village in the distance.  The human man who had raised the alarm dropped the huge basket as he turned and ran toward that village, screaming as he went.  The others he met in passing reacted in much the same way, dropping whatever they were carrying and running as though the devil himself was hot on their trails.

“I take it that these people haven’t had much in the way of dealings with local youkai,” Jester mused, more to himself than to Sesshoumaru or Aoizoku.

“Do you think they’re going to cause trouble?” Aoizoku fretted, wringing her hands, shifting her weight from one foot to the other in a decidedly nervous fashion.

“If they are wise, they won’t,” Sesshoumaru muttered, making no move to keep going as he watched the growing group of men, running down the path toward the one hut well away from the rest of the village.  A moment later, a larger being stepped out of the hut—a tall and gangly creature—but even from the distance, Sesshoumaru could feel his youki . . . But . . .

Hanyou,’ Sesshoumaru thought.  ‘Interesting . . .

And the three stood still.  Aoizoku hid well behind Sesshoumaru and Jester as the group of humans, led by the larger hanyou, crossed through the fields, making no bones about it as they headed straight toward them.  None of them held anything resembling any kind of weaponry, and the humans all stopped well before the hanyou did.

“My neighbors would like to know who you are and what you want,” the stranger asked, though not unkindly, despite the obvious reservation in his aura.

Sesshoumaru blinked slowly as he sized him up.  Earth, most certainly, and chosen to speak for the group of them because of what he was, no doubt.

“We are simply passing through,” Jester replied when Sesshoumaru offered no explanation.  “We’re on our way to the Road of Hell.”

“The Road of Hell?” the hanyou echoed, already bulbous eyes, widening even more.  “It’s a dangerous pass.”

“We’re searching for the Fire of Wrath, rumored to be located, deep in the Valley of Fire,” Jester added.

“None who have ventured that deep into the Valley of Fire has ever come out alive,” one of the humans piped up.

The hanyou frowned thoughtfully as he stared at Sesshoumaru.  Finally, though, he shook his head.  “I . . . I don’t know why, but you . . . Something about your youki reminds me of InuYasha, but your scent . . . It’s vaguely familiar to me . . .”

He couldn’t help the instant bristling at the mere mention of his half-brother’s name, though he managed to tamp down the irritation quickly enough.  “That baka is my half-brother,” Sesshoumaru allowed in a tone that should have served as warning enough that InuYasha wasn’t exactly his favorite topic of discussion.

“InuYasha?” one of the men murmured, turning to eye the rest of the group.  “Oh, that hanyou!  The silver haired one who traveled with that strangely-clad miko . . .”

A general rumble of agreement and recognition passed through the crowd.

“The little girl,” the hanyou suddenly exclaimed.  “The one who sought the sennensou berries for her youkai friend . . . I smelled your scent on her clothes . . .”

“Rin,” he said.  He did indeed remember that.  He’d barely managed to catch the girl as she fell from the cliff after she retrieved the medicinal herb for Jaken, who had been poisoned by the venom of the saimyoushou.  “And you are . . .?”

“I am Jinenji,” he replied.  “You . . .?”

Jester sighed under his breath.  “He is Sesshoumaru.  I’m Jester, and this,” he said, jerking his head toward the rear, ‘is Aoizoku.”

Jinenji nodded politely before he finally shook his head.  “I’ve not heard of this Fire of Wrath,” he said slowly, “but if you’re going to the Valley of Fire, allow me to make a tincture for you.  It . . . It should help you, should you breathe in the lava fog.  It’s toxic, even to youkai.”

“And why would you offer such a thing?” Sesshoumaru asked.

Jinenji smiled slightly, almost shyly.  “InuYasha helped me,” he replied simply enough.  “I would like to return the kindness in some small way.”

 


 

 

“So, the little girl . . . She’s your pet?”

“She is my ward,” Sesshoumaru corrected dryly.

Jinenji’s mother cackled loudly, the old woman, pausing in her task of stacking wood beside the small hut.  “If that’s what you wanna call it,” she shot back pleasantly—abrasively.

Sesshoumaru held his commentary.

Jester and Aoizoku were in the hut, talking with Jinenji as he created the tincture, while Sesshoumaru had opted to remain outside where he’d hoped to be left alone.  He had been until the old woman had come outside . . .

“What’s your brother up to these days?  Haven’t seen him around these parts in a while,” she went on, seemingly unaware of Sesshoumaru’s desire to be alone.

Half-brother,” Sesshoumaru replied tightly.  “I would not know.”

“Ah, well, if you see him, tell him to stop in if he’s in the area,” she went on, entirely oblivious to the irritation in Sesshoumaru’s otherwise dry tone.  “He’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s a decent one.”

“Jinenji said that he helped to prove that another youkai was troubling your village,” Jester remarked as he stepped out of the hut.

“That he did,” the old woman agreed.  “They blamed Jinenji for killing and eating some the villagers, but it weren’t him.  He was going to help defeat the beast, but I wouldn’t let him. Jinenji needed to learn how to do for himself, but InuYasha’s help was invaluable.”

“I’m sure Sesshoumaru will let him know when he sees him,” Jester replied, stepping forward, letting his gaze sweep over the landscape.  “This place . . . The plants are amazing here,” he said slowly, thoughtfully.

“That’s all Jinenji.  He’s got a way with them.  Always has,” she said.  “Got it from his father.”

Jester chuckled.  “I imagine that he did.”

“Jinenji says you’re heading for the Valley of Fire through the Road of Hell,” she said, bracing her hands against the small of her back and grimacing as she stretched.  “It’s a dangerous place.”

“We’re looking for the Fire of Wrath,” Jester told her.  “Have you heard of it?”

Letting out a deep breath, she crossed her arms over her chest, her gaze taking on a far-away kind of contemplation.  “The Fire of Wrath . . . I can’t say I have . . .”

“The Fire of Wrath,” Jinenji mused as he stepped outside.  He had to hunch his shoulders inward, stooping down to clear the small doorway, but the straightened his back once he did.  “It sounded familiar to me the first time you mentioned it, and then, I remembered.  My pa mentioned it to me a few times . . . It’s another name for the fire flower.”

“The . . . fire flower . . .” Sesshoumaru mumbled under his breath as another voice echoed in the annals of his mind.

He said they only grow in the Valley of Fire between the Gale Mountains and the Blue Depths.”

“I’ve never been there,” Jinenji went on thoughtfully, entirely unaware of the quiet voice that still echoed in the confines of Sesshoumaru’s mind, “but Pa said it grows in the one valley between the three great lava geysers, but it only blooms on the night of the summer solstice—that you must sear the stem in the lava after you’ve picked it or it will wither away to ash within minutes—so if you want it, then you need to hurry.”

 


 

 

Hovering over the unwelcoming terrain that was otherwise known as the Road of Hell, Sesshoumaru could feel the myriad of eyes, of creatures that lurked in the shadows.  Whether they were trying to size him up or if they were simply waiting for an opportunity to present itself, he didn’t know and didn’t rightfully care, either.  Those lesser-youkai were of no real concern to him, but the sheer number of them was enough to warrant a little more attention.  If they were to work together, then it might present a bit of a problem—if they were intelligent enough to do so.

“We’re being watched.”

Sesshoumaru uttered a curt sound to indicate that he’d heard Jester’s rather quiet words.  The entity did not shift his gaze, either, nor did he look particularly alarmed.  He’d come to the same conclusion that Sesshoumaru had.

At least, in this, they didn’t have the added trouble of looking after Aoizoku since she had chosen to stay behind at Jinenji’s farm, at least, for now, so it was just the two of them, and, given the situation, it would make dealing with these vermin a lot simpler, should it come to that.  As it was, time was a definite factor, so if they didn’t bother him, then he supposed he would ignore them, too. Tomorrow night would be the summer solstice, and, if what Jinenji had said were true, then it was the one chance he had to find and pick that flower . . .

“Do you think it was safe to leave Aoizoku with Jinenji and his mother?” Jester finally asked, giving voice to the question that Sesshoumaru figured he’d been pondering since they’d taken their leave of the hanyou’s farm.

“It was what she wished,” Sesshoumaru replied simply.

“You don’t suppose she likes Jinenji, do you?”

Blinking away the blackness of his own thoughts, Sesshoumaru increased his gait and didn’t reply.

Jester chuckled.  “Or maybe she does.  Come to think of it, it wouldn’t surprise me.  After all, she spent so much time as a tree . . .”

“You have the most curious sense of humor,” Sesshoumaru remarked.

“Think it’s funny, do you?” Jester quipped.

Sesshoumaru grunted.  “Keep it to yourself.”

Jester heaved a melodramatic sigh.  “Somehow, I feel as though you just don’t appreciate it as much as I do.”

Lighting on the ground in a smallish but clearer area than most of the road, Sesshoumaru spared a moment to pin Jester with a very dry glance.  “Your ridiculous sense of humor got you killed, didn’t it?”

Jester choked on a loud guffaw of laughter, leaning heavily upon the scythe as he doubled over, as the sounds of his misplaced amusement filled the air.  “Kami, you?” he gasped out when he finally managed to get a hold of himself.  “You’re making jokes?  I never thought I’d see that . . . That was a pretty good one, too . . .”

“I don’t know if I would say it was a joke as much as an educated guess as to how, exactly, you died,” Sesshoumaru replied.

Jester’s amusement finally, mercifully, wound down, and he straightened his back, a good-natured smile still gracing his features—the ones that Sesshoumaru could see, anyway.  “No, but . . . but it would have been preferable, I guess.  I mean, to die while laughing would be a far sight better than dying with regrets still lingering in one’s mind.”

“You died with regrets?”

Jester shrugged as the last remnants of his amusement finally faded away.  “Everyone does,” he remarked quietly, in a tone that Sesshoumaru hadn’t heard from him before.  “It’s the nature of death . . . to think of the things you should have done, the people you should have spoken to, just one last time . . . The things you might have said, given the chance, and knowing in your soul that you will never have that opportunity again.  So, you spend time after death, wondering if those you left behind really understood the wisdom you’d tried to impart through life, and you hope, but it’s a hollow hope.  It’s tempered by the realization that, even if you did the best you could, it might well not have been enough . . .”

He started to open his mouth to reply, but snapped it closed as the feel of a thousand or more youki pressed in closer around them.  Those little fire imps—some that greatly resembled Jaken, others a little more grotesque in shape and body, others larger, some smaller . . . The growing rattle of their countless voices, like chirps of crickets in the evening still . . .

Without a word, Sesshoumaru yanked Tokijin free, slammed it, point down, into the hardened and cracked earth, sending out a blue shockwave that drove the creatures back with screams and shrieks and hollers.   

Jester hopped away, as though he wished to give Sesshoumaru some room, even as the whistle of the scythe cut through the din created by the army of fire-imps.  Another collective wail filled the air as the reek of blood filled Sesshoumaru’s nose.

On they came, pouring forth from the craggy rocks that rose on either side of the narrow trail, closing in from ahead and behind—innumerable—as vast as the sea.  With every swing of Tokijin, Sesshoumaru cut down tens—hundreds—of the little vermin, and yet, they still swarmed as thick as ever.  The malignance in their youki, the hate in their eyes, in their very auras . . .

“How many of these are there?” Jester hollered, his voice, barely registering over the collective din.

Sesshoumaru grunted, unleashing a series of energy balls that blazed a path straight through them.  “Come!” he yelled back, dashing through the valley of the imps on the path he’d forged, firing off more energy balls to keep the way cleared.  He could feel Jester behind him, and that was good enough.  They didn’t have time to waste, battling with the imps.

“Sesshoumaru!”

Skidding to an abrupt halt when Jester’s hand on his shoulder stopped him, Sesshoumaru turned, just in time to watch as the imps seemed to divide, to suddenly gather into huge piles, climbing up each other’s bodies into small humps that grew into larger hills, almost totems . . .

Six of them, well over twenty-feet tall, and those imp piles . . .

Their bodies merged, morphed, seemed to pull together into huge oni—fire-oni . . .

Their collective roars were enough to send tremors, shockwaves, deep in the ground, unseating landslides of rocks and boulders and dirt, cascading down the high cliff walls.  Sesshoumaru pushed off the ground, just in time to avoid being crushed under a huge boulder.

The nearest oni swung at him.  He lopped off the appendage with a flash of Tokijin as the oni screeched in rage and pain.  The blood that poured from the severed arm was blackened, sullied by darkness and the venom that lived in this valley.  A moment later, and a flick of the energy whip, Sesshoumaru decimated the oni in a blast of wind, an explosion of rock and sand and blood . . .

Down below, in a flash of yellow light, Jester managed to cut off the leg of one of the oni.  It fell with a heavy and massive thud as the entity leapt up, sliced the oni’s head off with a clean sweep of the scythe.

Lighting on the ground, he spun around, swinging Tokijin, firing off a blast of bright blue lightning that shot across the surface of the land, only to explode as it hit another of the giant oni who shrieked and fell and crumpled to earth once more.

Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted Jester, embedding the blade of the scythe deep into another of the oni’s skulls and dragging it straight down, cutting the beast open from top to bottom.

The oni before him stomped the ground, setting off another surge of violent tremors.  Sesshoumaru started to leap off the ground, only to grunt when one of the oni behind him, dealt him a good, hard swat that rattled straight through him.  Grunting again as though the oni shot a shockwave of fire straight through his body, Sesshoumaru felt the flames sear through him, settling in his very bones, setting off a pain the likes of which he’d never felt before.  Slamming into the rock edifice with such force that he couldn’t move, it took a moment for him to shake off the effects of the stunning blow, of the strange surge of malignant fire energy that seemed to cling to him.  Something about it had numbed Sesshoumaru’s arm, his legs, but he forced himself, braced his body, shoved himself away from the wall, but he couldn’t stay aloft.  Grimacing as he landed rather unceremoniously on the ground, he barely managed to stretch out his hand as a wild and uncontrolled spray of acidic poison jettisoned from his claws, showering the oni that was bearing down on him.  It screeched and flailed, toppling backward as the acid ate away at it . . .

He could feel the rapid and thundering approach behind him, yet his body wouldn’t cooperate.  As hard as he tried to force himself back to his feet once more, the effects of the oni’s fire blast hadn’t worn off.  Peering over his shoulder, he saw the oni closing in as he tried yet again to get his body to move.

Suddenly, though, the flash of brilliant white light, the gust of unnatural wind . . . Sesshoumaru barely turned his face away in time to avoid the debris that suddenly filled the air.  The oni’s shriek cut off abruptly as its body exploded in a rain of pebbles and dirt . . .

 


 

 

“Summer solstice is tomorrow night,” Jester said as the two of them strode into the rocky terrain of the scant trail otherwise known as the Road of Hell.  “We should make it—barely.”

“We have time.”

“And you’re sure you’re all right now?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond to that, other than to offer a very curt grunt.

Jester nodded slowly, but he seemed thoughtful.  For a long moment, he didn’t speak, opting instead to inspect the path ahead.

In truth, Sesshoumaru still felt a little stiff, could feel the ache that the fire had caused, deep in his very bones, but the initial numbness had worn off, and that was good enough.  He should have paid better attention.  Allowing himself to be caught even slightly off-guard by the likes of those miserable oni?  It was careless, and he knew it.  After all, the Valley of Fire was dangerous, especially since they were taking this road.  It was the only true entrance to the valley since the only other trail lead ultimately to the gates of Yomi.

This path . . .

It had been a long time since he’d ventured into the Valley of Fire.

That’s right . . . You haven’t been this way since—

I don’t care to talk about that,’ he interrupted sharply.

Will you ever care to?  I doubt that.  It was a long, long time ago.

Exactly why it does not matter now.

It wasn’t really your fault, you know.  You don’t believe that, but it’s true.

Sesshoumaru ignored that.  He knew the truth better than anyone.  He was there, and it was something he would never, ever forget . . .

“So, do you have a plan?” Jester asked, breaking through Sesshoumaru’s silence.

“We must create a vial for the Blackened Tears,” Sesshoumaru said, ignoring Jester’s off-kilter sense of humor.  “Aoizoku said that it must be formed of the lava rocks and baked in the heat of the valley’s flames.  You can do that while I find the flame flower.”

“I’m hardly a potter or stonemason,” Jester pointed out.  “I’ll do what I can, though.”

“Come,” Sesshoumaru said, increasing his pace as his expression shifted into something a little darker, a little more determined.  “We have a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it.”

Jester complied immediately, moving with an easy grace that hadn’t been there initially.  The entity was growing more accustomed to the body that he was given, which was good, and yet, it vexed Sesshoumaru, too.  After all, just how hard was it going to be for Jester in the end, when he had to return once more to Yomi?

“I . . . I knew someone a lot like you, you know,” Jester suddenly said.  “When I was alive . . . He was . . . He was my best friend—and my rival.”

“Like me?” Sesshoumaru repeated.

Jester nodded.  “Remarkably similar, actually . . . Sometimes when I see you, when I watch you . . . I have to remind myself that you’re not him . . .” He chuckled softly, but there was a marked sense of sadness, of true melancholy, behind it.  “I can’t tell you how many times I’d try to figure out, just what he was thinking—what he was plotting.  I mean, he never said anything outright.  It was always hidden behind vague innuendo or masked behind half-truths . . .”

“And that’s how you see me?”

He nodded again.  “And yet, when it came down to it, he was always there, always ready to fight or to defend . . . and it wasn’t until he was gone that I realized, just how much he truly meant to me . . .”

“He died before you.”

“He did . . . and I missed him every day, for the rest of my life . . .”

Sesshoumaru frowned as he pondered the point of Jester’s musings.  It was the first time that the entity had really offered any actual seriousness in his words, and even then, he had the feeling that there was something belying Jester’s momentary introspection than he’d said out loud . . .

“So,” Jester remarked after a few minutes of silence, “if I were to ask you something, would you answer me for real?  Not just your normal, cryptic half-answers?”

“Is that what you think?” Sesshoumaru countered, nearly breaking into the barest hint of an amused smile.  Then, he blinked.  When was the last time he could remember being even slightly amused by much of anything?  He couldn’t rightfully recall, but . . .

Jester heaved a sigh, shook his head.  “You . . . You hate your half-brother, don’t you?”

For some reason, Jester’s question caught him off-guard, and he spared a moment to glance at him before turning his attention forward once more.  “Of course, I do,” he replied, but it was an automatic response, and it sounded as hollow and empty as it really was.

Jester grunted.  “Can I ask you why?”

Sesshoumaru didn’t respond right away.  The instant reply was the normal things, and yet . . . He frowned.  He wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to actually answer Jester’s question.  “Many reasons; none of them more important than another . . .”

He could feel Jester’s stare, though he didn’t look to confirm it.  “I . . . I believe you,” he replied.  “You really aren’t sure why, are you?  And maybe it’s not hatred, after all . . . Maybe it’s something a little harder to explain . . .”

This time, Sesshoumaru didn’t answer, but that was all right.  Somehow . . . Somehow, he had the feeling that Jester actually did understand . . .