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Lord of the West (Inuyasha) [PG-VL]


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[color=gray][i][u][b]Author[/b][/u]: Yamisui
[u][b]Rating[/b][/u]: [b]PG-13[/b] for violence, language and Miroku
[u][b]Summary[/b][/u]: Welcome back to the Tatesei city of Reiyama, where the past never dies and Japan's future is at stake. The Sacred Jewel is one potential prize; the contender: Sesshoumaru. Driven by an obsession with the past and by his innate desire for power, he has found among his human subjects a Seer to serve him--one whom he has been promised will unravel the riddle of a prophecy spoken centuries before, by Midoriko herself... Meanwhile, an abruptly altered future draws Inuyasha, Kagome, Miroku, Sango and Shippou into a quest to restore fate. Once again they make the journey to Reiyama, where a force more ancient and terrible than Naraku or his coveted Jewel has begun to stir. A new battle is about to begin, for the struggle to save the Tatesei from themselves may lead to a future in which Inuyasha and his brother are destined to die...

Author?s Note: ?Lord of the West? is the companion to my first full-length story (?The Bearers of the Shards?), and I highly recommend reading ?Bearers? first. It's posted on this forum, and also on ff.net. ?Lord of the West? will make a whole lot more sense that way.

A reference for this chapter: the word ?Ningen? means ?human.?[/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=green][b]{+} PROLOGUE {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple][i]Long ago, before the Feudal Age of kings and warlords, the darkness rose, and the world burned. War surged onto the land from the north and from the south, from the east and from the west like a tidal wave. It crossed the mountains, and the fields, and behind it, as in the lee of a great inferno, lay the fields of the dead, and the rivers running red with blood.

Onto these fields of ruin, through these forests felled by the passage of warriors...there crept the demons of the wood and of the rivers, of the hills and of the deep places in the earth, and these grew fat on the flesh of the dead. Some were small and weak--little more than animals. Then came the larger, more hideous beasts--brutal and fierce and mindless as they were strong--and also the sly, poisonous ones who reveled in cruelty. There came the wild but gentle spirits of the water and the wood, who had long shunned the settlements of men for quieter places. And then...from the midst of these hordes there emerged the oldest and most enigmatic breed of demon. These were strangest of all, for they were straight and beautiful, and possessed within them souls not unlike the souls of men. Yet for all their human appearance, these demons wielded the power of monsters.

And they--the Greater Youkai--were the most dangerous of all.

In the emerging era of darkness, they were like gods among men...

...Or wolves among lambs...

But then She arose: a human woman, yet wielding holy powers strong enough to oppose them.

Midoriko.

She came from a village in the mountains--a young priestess, wearing a man?s armor over her miko?s robes. In her hand she carried a sword of unknown make, and at her side there walked a Youkai resembling the tigers from across the sea.

And with these things, she waged war against the demons, until finally she became immortalized in the tale of the Shikon Jewel?s formation. But that is another story.

On the night before she went into her final battle with the Youkai, Midoriko went into a meditative trance to prepare her spirit for the fight to come. Yet the trance went far deeper than she had planned, and from her lips prophetic words poured forth. When she came to herself again, she remembered them, and gave them to her people, who recorded them and held them sacred.

Once Midoriko had sealed her soul and the demons? inside the Shikon Jewel, the people of her village became very afraid, for demons now flocked to the mountains in hordes. These hordes, driven by greed and lust for power, desired the talisman for themselves.

Very quickly, the villagers became divided over the decision of what to do with the Jewel. Most of them wanted to surrender it to the demons and flee to safer lands. But the warriors of the village were unswervingly loyal to Midoriko, and wished to stay and defend the talisman containing her soul. Thus it was that the warriors chose to remain in their home, with the Jewel in their possession. This proud group of fighters would one day mature into a larger tribe of demon-slayers, dedicated to guarding the Jewel of Four Souls.

The others--those who chose flight from the mountains--traveled southwest for a long ways before settling. They chose a valley there in which to live--a valley green and fertile; ringed by mountains on all sides. They brought with them the scroll upon which Midoriko?s prophecy was inscribed.

Time passed. A Greater Youkai came upon the valley, having newly laid claim to the western lands. Yet he did not destroy the villagers, offering them protection instead. These people, who were once Midoriko?s people, were cowardly and selfish, caring only for the survival of their own race. So they accepted the great demon?s dominion, and bided their time until the day when they would become strong enough to overthrow him. They learned necromancy: the darkest of all sorceries, and there arose among them a ruling class of priests, second only to the king himself. These sorcerers called themselves the Council of the Wise.

Under the great demon?s protection, Midoriko?s people established a splendid city--Reiyama--in a time when other lands were too ravaged by war to build anything but fortresses. But these mortals had grown greedy, and the Wise had grown powerful. Finally, after many years of prosperity, the people of Reiyama betrayed their Youkai protectors. The great demon and his kin were killed, and their souls were taken by the Wise and enslaved. These enslaved spirits were bound to the city, and forced to guard it even in death. Thus Midoriko?s people forged a new name for themselves: the Tatesei--the ?Spirit Shield.?

Over half a century later, the son of the Greater Youkai returned to avenge his ancestors. He destroyed the Wise after forcing them to free the Youkai souls. He set a new king upon the throne of Reiyama--one who hated sorcery, and one whom he believed he could control easily.

But the Tatesei Line harbored secrets that even the young Youkai lord could not have guessed.

Hidden in a deep chamber in the Temple of the Wise, there lay a tattered scroll with Midoriko?s words still printed upon it:

?Two rivers I see: one flowing alongside the other. They are two great Lines; theirs is a flow to span the Ages. One is a line of Youkai, strong and terrible. The other is a long line of sorcerers and kings--a race guarded by a shield of spirits. Where these rivers meet, I foresee the end of this Age, for a battle which began long ago shall at last be lost.

?And that which was broken...shall at last be destroyed...?[/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=green][b]{+} Sesshoumaru Speaks {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[i][color=purple]"You know my tale.

You know me for the great evil that I have done, and also for the strange mercies I have shown. Perhaps you look upon me and think me beautiful. Perhaps you look closer...and think me hideous. Beneath the veneer of civilization, I am the steel of sword-blades and the iron of shields.

I have killed. Does that frighten you? It does not trouble MY sleep, for I regret nothing. All that I do is done in the name of my father?s broken Line--in the name of an old power that passes slowly from the world, before my very eyes...

Judge me as you will; I am not human, and I do not care how you see me.

It is enough for you to know that I am not soulless.

Inside this cold steel there burns the warrior?s flame.

In this shield of metal is a hairline crack--the weakness of a heart burning alone, in this world where honor fades..."[/color][/i]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=green][b]{+} Chapter 1: The Gray Specter {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Feudal Era, In the Tatesei Valley[/b][/CENTER]

Three figures cut across the rice fields at mid-day, drawing the eye of every man, woman and child within distance to see. One was tall and white--pale as the ghosts that roamed the mountains; cloaked in white so pure it hurt to look at him. At his heels scuttled a small, imp-like creature with eyes big and bulbous as a frog?s and a harsh, croaking voice to match. Completing this strange trio was the bewildering presence of a young human child, walking at a respectful distance behind the tall one.

The first two held themselves aloof, disregarding the stares the humans cast their way. But the child noticed, and upon noticing spoke to the tall one in a thin, piping voice.

?Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i], why are they staring at us?? she asked. ?Ew,? she added, ?I stepped in mud.?

?Hush!? the frog-like being ordered, picking his way around the puddles in the road. He was already mud-stained up to his bulging middle from previous mishaps.

?They stare because they are afraid,? the tall one told her without turning around. Yet his yellow eyes flickered from right to left, searching for signs of possible attackers.

Tatesei archers lined the walls of the city overlooking the fields. Sesshoumaru had nothing to fear from them--their arrows could not fly fast enough to strike him at ANY distance. Yet he did not want the child to die, or to give his enemies in the city evidence that the girl was his weakness. That was what Rin was to Sesshoumaru: a weakness. But he was too proud to be embarrassed that he had one, and so he did not cast Rin aside.

Though he had slaughtered many the last time he set foot in Reiyama, the Tatesei city, the [i]kirin[/i] had still named him lord of the West. Sesshoumaru had used his newfound dominion over the Tatesei to force the Wise to free his family?s souls. The working of that final spell had killed all of the Wise, for they had bound their very lives too tightly to their own sorcery to survive the reversal of it all. Sesshoumaru had thought their deaths would bring him peace. But then he had looked upon Reiyama, the city whose fate he now ruled, and realized that the same old bitterness still resided in his soul.

The kirin had warned him before that, in order to become the great demon that his father once was, he must not become like the Wise. Yet it had also left him with a warning: [i](This is not over.)[/i]

Because of that warning, Sesshoumaru was always wary of Tatesei treachery. Why the [i]kirin[/i] had chosen him to watch over them was beyond even his own intelligence. He certainly hadn?t [i]asked[/i] to be saddled with the burden of protecting them.

For the time being, he controlled his anger because it was necessary.

The day that it ceased to be necessary there would be a reckoning.

The Tatesei watched him pass and made no move to attack him. He and his two companions moved beneath the protective cover of the woods, beyond the eyes of his enemies.

Sesshoumaru did not know it, but his own fate was still bound to the Tatesei, even as theirs was bound to him.[/color]


[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]


[color=purple][b]The Present; Tokyo, Japan[/b][/CENTER]


A world away, in the Time beyond the Well, Kagome was brushing her teeth. She was still in her pajamas, and her hair had yet to be brushed. Fortunately for her, it was a school holiday, and she had been allowed to sleep in. She had [i]conveniently[/i] neglected to tell Inuyasha that it was a three-day weekend, and so today she looked forward to some much-needed relaxation.

Kagome proceeded to rinse and spit, and then reached up to close the medicine cabinet in front of her. She contemplated her half-lidded reflection in it for a minute, then realized what she was looking at and let loose a blood-curdling scream.

?KYAAAAAAAAAAH!?

?Gah! Stop that fucking noise!? Inuyasha yelled, clapping both hands over his ears. The acoustics in the bathroom caused the scream to reverberate and amplify itself manifold.

Kagome stopped, pressing a hand to her heaving chest and glaring at his reflection in the mirror.

?Don?t...EVER...do that...AGAIN!? she panted.

He was perched behind her on the rim of her bathtub, peering at her rather glumly.

?It?s the New Moon already, huh?? Kagome commented, running hot water to wash her face. Her hands were still shaking as she turned the faucets.

?Feh,? he grumbled, looking even more glum.

His hair, of course, was black, and his ears were human. If his claws hadn?t disappeared, she would?ve made him get off before he scratched up the tub.

Kagome finished washing and then turned to face him, hands on her hips.

?You?re bleeding, you know,? she observed. ?All over the bathmat.?

This, of course, was an exaggeration. There was a small cut on his cheek that had dripped one droplet of blood onto the fuzzy pink mat. But Kagome disliked being surprised while in her pajamas and she hadn?t cooled down yet.

?No one answered the door, so I tried climbing up the side of your house,? Inuyasha explained. ?Then I realized that I didn?t have any claws.? He paused, scowling. ?Why the fuck did you have to plant those thorny flowers under your window?!?

Kagome exerted a very valiant effort to keep from laughing. She had begged Inuyasha time and time again not to climb through her window because the neighbors had begun to notice the gouge marks.

?So,? she said, setting the matter aside. ?Why exactly are you here??

?I?ve got a problem,? Inuyasha announced.

Kagome stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate. It took him a second to realize this.

?Um, yeah,? he said. ?Someone is fucking HEXING me.? In response to Kagome?s blank stare, he added, ?I think I?m gonna DIE.?

Surmising that this was going to take a while, Kagome hoisted herself up onto the sink.

?So--er--when did this start?? she asked reasonably, folding her hands in her lap.

Inuyasha frowned.

?Yesterday,? he answered. ?Miroku claimed he couldn?t exorcise me. Kaede tried to feed me some fucking NASTY herbs. I gave HER a piece of my mind! Sango and Shippou tried to hold me down and MAKE me take the herbs. I kicked their asses. Then Miroku tried to jump me, telling me to calm down; I wasn?t being hexed. I kicked his ass, too. I KNOW I?m being hexed, so I came to see you because you live in a shrine.? He paused, scratching one ear pensively. ?They didn?t try to stop me. Seemed kind of happy I was going...?

Kagome peered at him curiously. His face seemed more flushed than usual.

?What does the curse feel like?? she asked reasonably.

Inuyasha pondered this for a moment, then answered, ?Dizzy. And hot. And it makes me have to...? He broke off, turning a delicate shade of green.

Apprehensively, Kagome watched as he stood up. Inuyasha stood very still for a moment, and then his eyes bulged a little. He staggered out of the bathroom and into Kagome?s bedroom.

?[i]Oh, NO[/i],? she thought, hurrying after him. ?[i]Don?t tell me he?s going to-- ?[/i]

?Come BACK, Inuyasha!? she wailed, but he had already flung open her shutters and was now proceeding to puke out the window.

?Oh, GROSS,? Kagome moaned, covering her face with her hands.

?COOL!? exclaimed her little brother Souta, who had just wandered into the room to see what all the fuss was about. ?Hey, Sis, at least he made it to the window instead of using your sock drawer or something.?

Kagome found Inuyasha a paper towel to clean off with before she would allow him to bring his head back inside. He flung the towel out the window when he was done with it.

?Souta, go get that before the cat finds it,? Kagome ordered.

?Aw, SIS,? Souta complained, but she ignored him, turning to Inuyasha.

?This is not a hex,? she explained. ?It?s called ?the flu.??

Inuyasha just stared at her.

?The what?? He sounded vaguely disappointed.

?The flu,? Kagome repeated patiently. ?Remember that cold I got a long time ago?? She almost added, ?When you dragged me shard-hunting, we ended up fighting a lot of necromancers, and then I broke my arm? When you came home with me and flooded my bathroom?? But in the interests of peace, she held her tongue.

?Hell, yeah, I remember!? Inuyasha looked disgusted. ?So it?s some human disease??

Kagome sighed. He made it sound like he?d caught the plague from rats.

?Whatever you call it, you?ve got it, and you?re stuck with it for at least the next twenty-four hours.?

Inuyasha managed to pull a face that was horrified and indignant at the same time. Kagome exited the bathroom.

?Hey, where the hell d?you think YOU?RE going?!? Inuyasha called after her. ?I?m SICK, here!?

?I KNOW that,? she answered, her voice sounding slightly muffled through the wall. ?I?m getting you some pajamas.?

There was a pause, and then: ?What the fuck are ?pajamas???

Inuyasha sat there, wracking his brains in an effort to remember where he?d heard that term before. Kagome didn?t bother to answer this. Instead, she called back, ?Oh, and if you need to be sick, do it in the toilet. Do NOT miss.?

?Yeah, sure,? he grumbled.

?And remember what you learned LAST time, okay?? Kagome warned him. ?The toilet is NOT like Miroku?s Wind Tunnel. It does NOT suck up objects larger than--er--?

?Shit?? Inuyasha offered helpfully.

?Er--right,? Kagome replied. She had a feeling she was in for a bit of a ride.[/color]


[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Feudal Era; The Tatesei Valley[/b][/CENTER]

Sesshoumaru and his two small companions walked swiftly through the forest--or, rather, Sesshoumaru walked swiftly while Rin and Jaken hurried to keep up with him. He deliberately kept his pace quick--Rin was always quieter when she had been well-exercised, and Jaken... Well, Jaken had no excuse. Jaken had been serving his master since Sesshoumaru?s infancy, and should have long since ceased his endless, whining entreaties for his master to wait for him.

The woods were silent to Rin and Jaken, but to Sesshoumaru?s keen senses the very darkness seemed to breathe. He heard every heartbeat of the hare running from the wolf; every call of the white owls roosting in the trees. He felt the eye of every lesser demon, fair and foul, that watched him from the shadowed and sheltered places of the wood. This was what it meant to be a demon of the purest blood. In the great garden of savagery, his senses sang and yet he feared nothing. He, Sesshoumaru, was lord here.

?But what is that clacking sound I hear?? he mused aloud.

His head turned slightly, so that one eye beheld the source of the noise.

?L-look, my l-lord! S-snow!? Rin announced between chattering teeth. With one arm she hugged herself for warmth; the other hand she jabbed skyward excitedly.

Sesshoumaru?s pace didn?t slow, but he did turn his gaze upward. A flurry of snow was indeed beginning to fall. It settled gently on his hair and eyelids.

?We will be home soon, Rin,? he told her.

Sesshoumaru felt the cold like any mortal, yet because it represented no danger to him he chose to ignore it. The child was another matter, of course. He did not want to have to use Tenseiga on her yet again just to thaw her out.

And the chattering of teeth was most irritating.

?Wh-whining brat,? Jaken grumbled, embracing himself and shuddering just as violently.

Then the little imp stopped abruptly as he bumped right into Sesshoumaru?s legs.

?M-my lord, what is it?? Jaken asked.

Sesshoumaru shot him a glare that clearly meant, ?Cease speaking or die,? and he fell silent.

The demon lord then directed his attention elsewhere, keen yellow eyes sweeping the area.

The mountain pass connecting the Tatesei Valley to Sesshoumaru?s personal estate was heavily wooded and almost never traveled by anyone but Sesshoumaru himself. He had brought Jaken and Rin with him this time because he needed them to tend his two-headed steed. But A and Un had been killed--slain in battle by Naraku?s latest hideous creation--nearly taking down with them Naraku?s real target.

?Rin,? Sesshoumaru called, to make sure she hadn?t gotten herself lost already.

The little girl snapped to attention.

?Yes, my lord!? she chirped.

Simultaneously relieved and annoyed, Sesshoumaru did not deign to answer. Rin immediately seemed to forgive him for not answering and began skipping after him.

It was becoming clear to him that it was high time he stopped bringing her with him on these excursions. Having Rin around when he went into battle was irksome. Naraku had clearly identified her as Sesshoumaru?s weakness, and kept trying to burn/stab/poison/melt her. Soon, Sesshoumaru surmised, his nemesis might run out of ways of trying to off her... But then again, Naraku was a most cunning and persistent character. Sesshoumaru rather admired his creativity.

But now he sniffed the air, frowning. It was not Naraku?s scent that he caught.

?What is it, my Lord?? Jaken asked, approaching him tentatively. ?An intruder??

Sesshoumaru?s lip curled upward in disgust.

?[i]Ningen[/i],? he said, with heartfelt distaste.

?Rin is [i]Ningen[/i],? Jaken interjected slyly.

Sesshoumaru chose to ignore him.

Somewhere behind them, only a bit further down the slope, a stick cracked. More noises followed--either the intruder was unaware of their presence or simply didn?t care.

?Jaken, take Rin home,? Sesshoumaru ordered calmly.

Obediently, the two continued on up the slope. Sesshoumaru, in the meantime, turned and started downward at a pace that was almost leisurely. As he walked further, his frown deepened. Beyond the single intruder, more Ningen were coming--he could smell the tar on the pine torches that they carried. But the lone intruder carried no torch with him.

[i]?So,[/i]? Sesshoumaru mused. ?[i]Hunters and their quarry...[/i]? He was not smiling. ?What fools you are,? he murmured softly, ?to trouble me with your insignificant quarrels...?

Then the first intruder burst through the undergrowth, scattering flurries of the snow that had settled on the bushes. He was of medium height for a [i]Ningen[/i], but all other features were indistinguishable, because he wore the gray cloak of the Wise with the hood pulled low.

Sesshoumaru?s ire at the sight of that cloak was instant and terrible. His eyes flared red, and he flew at the enemy so fast that the man had no time to react. His strong white hand encircled the man?s throat, cloak and all, and pulled him close. It cost him a supreme effort not to kill the man outright, clenching until the head burst from the body. But he was Lord of the West; master of himself, and so he reined in the sudden tide of dark passion.

?I don?t care who you are,? Sesshoumaru said icily. ?I don?t care if you?re some mere charlatan, fool enough to wear their raiment. But you will tell me...why your boy king has suffered you to live. . .and why he has dared to tempt my wrath.?

He loosened his grip on the man?s neck to allow him breath, but did not let go.

?Don?t let them take me,? the intruder pleaded in a choked whisper, clutching at Sesshoumaru?s white-clad arm in an effort to free himself. ?I swear, I will serve you and only you...if you?ll protect me...?

Sesshoumaru?s expression was hard and cold.

?I make no pact with filth like you,? he said softly. ?Answer, and your death will be swift. That is the extent of the mercy you may expect from me.?

One of his nails pierced the gray cloth, digging into the flesh beneath. The man gasped, and attempted to pull away, but Sesshoumaru?s grip was far too firm. The intruder?s hood slid askew, enough to reveal one wide, gray eye beneath.

?Please,? the man whispered.

?Why me?? Sesshoumaru asked. ?Why do you come to me, your enemy, to ask for aid? Do you think to haunt me, like some gray specter of the past??

The man did not answer, and neither did the gray eye?s gaze waver. His hand, with which he had been clutching Sesshoumaru?s sleeve, now slid downward to grasp the white demon?s wrist. At that touch--that pressure of human flesh upon demon--Sesshoumaru recoiled. He didn?t let go of the man?s throat, but his arm flinched in an effort to make the man let go. When this didn?t prove successful, he allowed his Youkai poison to begin to seep into his hand and outward toward his nails--toward the intruder?s neck.

He had been touched by humans before--oftentimes when he killed them; seldom against his will--but this...

?Sorcery,? Sesshoumaru gasped, face darkening further. ?You [i]dare[/i]...!?

This was not like any human touch he had ever encountered. He was no longer even sure that this WAS a human. Though the hand upon his wrist was real and alive, he felt as if the intruder?s sorcery was seeping into his head, laying his mind bare and vulnerable.

Sesshoumaru despised vulnerability.

?Die,? he whispered, making ready to poison the man with his claws.

But then the sorcery that had been building so rapidly finally took hold of him. Time seemed to slow and stretch, and the world around him shifted. The trees and the slope vanished, and the moon?s brilliance was suddenly shining down upon him where before there had been only clouds. The ground he stood on now was flat and blanketed with snow. It was a field--he was standing in a Tatesei field.

Slowly, Sesshoumaru glanced down at himself and began to understand. His clothing was stained crimson. In his hand there was a sword.

Then he looked up at those surrounding him and he understood in full.

?I know this place...? he whispered.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Present Era[/b][/CENTER]

?What the FUCK are THESE? I?m NOT wearing them!?

?Inuyasha, please calm down! Besides, you?re ALREADY wearing them!?

Kagome and Inuyasha were facing off, standing on either side of her bed and glaring at each other. Inuyasha was wearing a pair of black, pin-striped pajamas and looking none too pleased. One arm was out of the shirt sleeve, and was crossed stubbornly over the other arm across his chest.

?They?re too small!? he complained. ?How the hell am I supposed to have room to fight in them?!?

Kagome tried darting around the side of the bed to overtake him, but he vaulted over the entire mattress, landing in a defensive crouch on the other side.

?For the LAST TIME, Inuyasha: you don?t have to FIGHT anyone here!? Kagome cried, exasperated. ?You came here to get WELL! No one?s AFTER you!?

?YOU are,? he pointed out, squinting at her. ?Just leave me the hell alone! I?ll sleep in my clothes like I always do!?

?Your clothes are all germy!? Kagome fired back. ?They need to be washed!?

?FINE!? he snapped. ?I?ll sleep in these short pants-thingies you?re making me wear under it, but NOT the PA-JA-MAS!?

To his surprise, Kagome turned bright red and took her hands off the bed.

?FINE, then!? she shouted. ?JUST wear the boxers. But don?t think you?re sleeping in HERE!?

?FINE!? he hollered back. ?You?re pissing me off, anyway!?

Inuyasha seemed on the verge of launching into a long tirade about this, but his face suddenly went quite green, and he dashed out of the room. Kagome slammed the door shut behind him. For a minute she just stood there, leaning against it. Then she let out a long, slow sigh of frustration and opened it again.

She walked down the hall toward the bathroom, but when she peered in he wasn?t there. The evidence that he HAD been there was still there, however. Kagome flushed the toilet with a grimace and then started back down the hall and down the stairs to find him.

She didn?t have to search long--there soon came a mighty ruckus from the laundry room.

?WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT?! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!?

She nearly collided with Inuyasha as he stormed out of the laundry room, still wearing the pajamas and looking positively furious.

?I?m sorry, but they?ll have to drip-dry or they?ll shrink,? Kagome?s mother called from behind him.

Kagome wasn?t too sure just HOW you washed the robes of a Fire-Rat, but she sensed that this wasn?t a good time to join the argument. She also wasn?t sure that Inuyasha?s tantrums were the best thing for his health right now.

?Inuyasha, why don?t you go lie down in front of the TV?? she suggested, putting on her sweetest expression. ?You?re here to relax, remember??

Inuyasha glared at her suspiciously.

?You?re not going to feed me any of that nasty herb shit, are you??

Kagome sighed and shook her head.

?No,? she answered, ?but if you?ll quit charging around the house and lie down on the couch I?ll bring you some miso.?

?Ramen,? Inuyasha demanded, folding his arms across his chest.

?Miso,? Kagome corrected him. ?It?s good for you.? She didn?t bother turning around but headed straight for the kitchen.

?RAMEN,? Inuyasha repeated more loudly. Then he noticed that the background around her had gone all dark and swirly, and prudently shut his mouth.

Grumbling half-heartedly, he meandered into the family room and flopped face-down onto the long, squishy chair-thing. It smelled of crunchy potato flakes, incense, and Buyo the cat. Inuyasha rolled over onto his back, sniffing. This room didn?t smell anywhere NEAR as good as Kagome?s, and he wondered vaguely why she wouldn?t let him sleep in THERE. And it was really hot here, too. Kagome was wearing some kind of shift that looked more suited to summer than to the Feudal Era?s weather--well into winter now. What had he been complaining about? Oh yes...the weird clothes. A problem easily fixed...

?Hey, your miso?s ready,? Kagome said after a while, coming to stand behind the couch. ?It?s...HEY, PUT SOME CLOTHES ON, WILL YOU?!?

?What?? Inuyasha asked. He was lying on his back with both hands behind his head, wearing nothing but the short pants that Kagome called ?boxers.? ?These [i]are [/i]clothes! Aren?t they clothes?? he asked Souta, who had just come into the room to see what all the commotion was for.

?Yep,? Souta agreed. His hair was wet, and he was wearing nothing but a towel around his waist--evidently having just come from the shower. ?Jeez, Kagome, why d?you have to be so bossy? It?s not like he?s NAKED...? Souta was, if anything, just as naked as Inuyasha.

?You hear that?? Inuyasha smirked, turning toward Kagome again. She stood frozen on the spot, the bowl of miso still poised in one hand. ?HE says it?s fine, and HE?S a boy. If HE can wear THAT and you don?t complain, why can?t I just wear THIS??

Kagome flushed a little and averted her gaze.

?It?s not the SAME, okay?!? she sputtered.

Inuyasha stretched his arms out over his head, cracking his knuckles. ?This is much better than those wimpy little things YOU wanted me to wear.?

Kagome set the bowl down on the coffee table and straightened slowly. Inuyasha?s smirk died when he realized she wasn?t buying this.

?There?s nothing wrong with them!? she snapped. ?They were my dad?s!?

Kagome seemed upset, and Inuyasha saw the dangerous sparkle of tears in the corners of her eyes, but he wasn?t the sort to go nosing into other peoples? pasts, so he kept quiet. After a minute she sighed and plopped into a nearby chair, reaching for some kind of small metallic object. Inuyasha tensed, expecting her to throw it at him, but instead she aimed it at the shiny box facing the couch and clicked something on it. The shiny box became even shinier.

?I remember this!? Inuyasha remarked, eyeing it suspiciously. ?The tivvy. You stare at it and it sucks out your soul.?

Kagome gave him a weird look, and the tears receded from her eyes.

?I watch it, and I STILL have MY soul,? she pointed out. ?You?re not eating,? she added, nodding toward the soup on the table.

Dutifully, he picked up the bowl and began slurping at it, obeying mainly because he?d already won the right to stay in the boxers and he didn?t want to push his luck.

?Well, it just gives your soul back when you turn it off,? he suggested.

The miso was actually quite good, for all its resemblance to pond scum floating in water.

They watched the tivvy for most of the day. Inuyasha didn?t seem to care one whit about the technological marvel of it all, but he did get far too involved in whatever was on it. He frowned at the game shows (?They oughta kill the people who don?t answer right.?); scowled at the dramas (?Change it--I don?t want my soul being sucked into THAT.?); went silent with wonder while watching the sports (?. . .?); yawned at the news (?Forget this fake crap. I want to watch the REAL stuff.?); and was positively mesmerized by the music channels (?Why does that ugly spike-haired pierced guy have all those women fondling him??). Through it all Kagome pressed an endless stream of glasses of water on him, which he accepted but after a while took to dumping on the carpet under the couch when she wasn?t looking.

Finally, he fell asleep on the couch, one arm and one leg hanging onto the floor. Nobody woke him until late that evening. Souta came in and poked him in the head.

?BWAH!? he yelled, sitting up in a flash, reaching for Tetsusaiga, which, of course, was nowhere near him.

?Hey,? Souta told him. ?It?s time for bed. You?re bunking with me.?

Inuyasha?s eyes narrowed.

?I?m what??[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple][i]Kagome dreamed of the jewel.[/i]

[i]She dreamed of a man raising a blade over his head. She saw the Shikon jewel tumble from her grasping fingers. She saw the jewel fall into a bowl of water. Ripples spread outward from the place where it fell.

The ripples became tidal waves crashing on the shores of Japan. The waves became mountains. Between the mountains, there lay a valley. She saw a city of people with blood coursing through their veins that glowed through their skin like rivers of fire.

She saw a hand close around the jewel.

She saw a great and luminous eye slowly begin to open, and was filled with nameless dread for what this might mean.[/i]

She awoke to find Inuyasha staring at her, his nose inches from her face.

?Hey,? he said. ?What?s a ?pimp???

Kagome sat up with a start, clapping a hand to her heaving chest while clenching the bedclothes with the other.

?You--you--WHAT?? she gasped. ?You woke me up to ask me about THIS?! What?s WRONG with you?!?

?[i]No wonder I dreamed about an eye[/i],? she thought. ?[i]With him STARING at me...?[/i]

Inuyasha settled back onto his heels. He was crouched by the side of her bed, wearing the pin-striped pajamas.

?You said I could sleep in here if I wore these,? he explained simply. ?But Souta said I looked like a ?pimp.??

Kagome scowled in the darkness.

?The real question is: how does SOUTA know what a pimp is?? she muttered. To Inuyasha, she said, ?It means a really strong warrior.?

?Oh,? Inuyasha said, looking well-pleased. ?So...? He glanced around. ?Where do I sleep??

Kagome stared at him a moment, then pointed to the foot of the bed.

?There,? she told him. ?Unless you don?t mind the floor.?

She flopped down against the pillows again, assuming he would take the floor. However, the creaking of the mattress springs told her he was taking the bed. He sprawled across the foot, near her feet.

[i]'Oh well[/i],' Kagome thought sleepily. [i]'Just like sleeping with Buyo, I guess...[/i]'

She drifted off again, and forgot about the dream.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]END OF CHAPTER 1[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=gray][i]Author?s Note: Again, I plead with you: if you have not read ?The Bearers of the Shards,? PLEASE READ THAT FIRST. I assure you it?s just as good as this story, so you won?t regret it. But this story will make a WHOLE LOT MORE SENSE if you do. Onegai! Also, ?Otou-sama? means ?Lord Father?---a respectful form of address for one?s father.[/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} Chapter 2: The Seer of Reiyama {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[i][color=purple]The young man stood in the field, ankle-deep in snow. His clothes and flesh were torn and stained with blood. Some of it was his; some belonged to his enemies...and some belonged to his family, who lay dead beneath the blanket of white. He stood frozen, but it wasn?t from the chill.

He had fought his way through a multitude of warriors, sent by the human king to stop him from reaching the battlefield. And he had slain them all. Their bodies--ripped and dismembered by his own claws--lay strewn in a bloody path behind him. Yet he had reached the field too late: his father lay dead, the last to fall amongst his kin. Their enormous bodies lay in the snow, as if they were slowly sinking into it. Their souls were no longer their own, for the Wise had taken them.

And now the sorcerers were moving toward his father, chanting their dark spells to entrap the dead Youkai?s soul. He had been standing frozen with shock before; now something snapped in his mind, and he rushed at his enemies with no thought for his own life.

?NO!? Sesshoumaru snarled, curling his claws in preparation to tear them down. ?You will NOT take him!?

They were the Wise: the self-appointed priests of the Tatesei city, who had long been practicing their dark necromancy in secret, until the time came when they were strong enough to attack the Inu Youkai Clan... Until the time when they were strong enough to betray the very ones who protected their people...

Now some of them turned from his father, and the red light of their necromancy reached toward him like grasping claws. It seemed they wanted to take him as well.

?No!? he cried again. He pushed past them, brushing their fragile human forms out of his way as a man might swat at flies. He did not stop until he had come to stand between the leader of the sorcerers and his father.

The high priest of the Wise was an old man; wizened and shrewd. To his comrades, he said, ?Take him.? The sorcerers obeyed, moving toward the young demon slowly but steadily. Their long, gray robes covered their feet, so that they seemed to glide like ghosts over the snow.

Sesshoumaru, knowing that their advance meant his doom, drew the sword that hung at his hip.

?If you would take me,? he said to them in a low voice, ?then take me. But I will not let you take him.?

He raised the sword, gripping the hilt so tightly that his hand went white at the knuckles.

?Tenseiga,? he thought, speaking to the sword with his spirit. ?If you are truly the Sword of Life, then give me back my father...?

?That sword,? the sorcerers murmured. ?It shines. That is no ordinary blade!?

They drew back from it, fearing that the young Inu Youkai would mow them all down with one sweeping arc of the blade. Yet his attention rested not upon them, but upon his father?s enormous body. The true form of the lord of the West was twice as large as Sesshoumaru?s--larger than any other Inu Youkai?s. Yet his father?s brilliant fur had lost its silver luster, and the snow beneath the Greater Youkai was dyed crimson.

?I can see him,? Sesshoumaru murmured, and it was so.

His father stood before him--not in his massive Inu form but as the man who had once held Sesshoumaru?s hand as they walked through the forests together. This was the man who had taught him sword-craft and Youkai magic, and how to kill with predatory swiftness. This was the man who had shown him not only the beauty of the woods and streams, but also the music and the gardens of Men.

Now this man--Sesshoumaru?s father--was surrounded by the imps of the dead, who had come to guide his soul onward.

?Come back to me!? Sesshoumaru called to him. ?With Tenseiga I call you back!?

But his father?s soul, standing amongst these otherworldly messengers with quiet dignity, smiled and slowly shook his head. His gaze upon his son was keen with love and pity. But Sesshoumaru was weary and nearly numb with shock, and still barely over the threshold of manhood. He didn?t want pity.

?Father!? he cried, aggrieved. ?You gave me the Sword of Life! I want you to LIVE...!?

Sesshoumaru brandished the sword and made to slash at the imps.

But his father stepped between the little guides and the descending blade. He caught it in his hand, and his fingers around it were firm and strong as any living man?s.

?No,? he said softly to his son.

The eyes of the lord of the West were grave; for all the love there, there was no possibility of him accepting his son?s offer.

?Don?t turn away and leave me,? Sesshoumaru pleaded, forsaking all pride in his desperation. ?Return, and you and I will walk together as we once did. We will avenge our kin!? He paused to take a deep, shaky breath, and then added in a low voice: ?Their blood cries out from the fields of the Tatesei. How can you leave me...to stand alone here??

But his father only shook his head again.

?Live,? he bade his son, ?and protect them.?

Then he turned his face upward, and his form dissolved into light. His soul as he began to ascend into the night sky was so brilliant that Sesshoumaru could not bear to look upon it. Throwing one arm up before his face, he averted his gaze. When he was able to see again, his father was gone--taken by the messengers to whatever lay beyond.

Slowly, Sesshoumaru?s gaze drifted to the sword in his hand, Tenseiga.

?Useless,? he whispered hoarsely. ?He is dead. Of what use is a life-giving sword when it cannot even bring him back??

And with an incoherent snarl, he cast Tenseiga aside, flinging it to the ground. Then he became aware of the bemused mutterings among the Wise, and remembered that he was surrounded by enemies.

?The Great Demon is gone,? the leader of the sorcerers told his fellows, ?and the sword is proven powerless. Take the young one, then.?

Then the old man turned his pitiless gaze upon Sesshoumaru and said, ?Son of the Inu Youkai: the age of your kind dies with your father?s Line. You must accept this. Don?t waste your last breath fighting a battle that you cannot win. Die like a Man, and not a beast.?

Sesshoumaru?s young face settled into a calm, cold mask; still waters hiding the current of hatred that ran beneath.

To the sorcerers, he said, ?Oh, but I AM a beast...?

Then he plunged forward into their midst.

He lay about him as if his hands had become scythes and he was reaping grain from the fields. Yet it was human lives that he harvested now, and their blood drenched his hands. He struck blindly in his rage, not caring who it was that he killed, for the only living ones around him were his enemies. His sorrow maddened him, and with this new unraveling of his sanity his human form was also departing.

He began to rise into his true form. Then he was the great white Inu, laying about him with claw and fang. His rage filled his spirit with so much strength that the spells of the Wise could not take hold of him, and because the souls they had captured were newly taken, they could not yet be used to attack him. He was white death, and they were helpless as children before his might.

Only when their bodies had been trampled to a bloody pulp beneath his claws did Sesshoumaru come to himself again. He cast one glance about him, surveying his dead foes, and then turned away from them, no longer caring to dwell on the fact of their deaths.

Before his father?s corpse, he sank onto his knees in the snow and wept bitterly.

After a time, his hoarse sobs became dry, for there were no more tears left in him. He rose to his feet, scarcely aware of the chill in the air. It had begun to snow again. Then he remembered Tenseiga. He walked over to the place where he had flung it and stood there, gazing down at it in silence. Flurries of white were slowly burying it.

Why shouldn?t he leave it here? Its powerlessness had left him bitter and angry. His father had left him a worthless blade, because Sesshoumaru was not the one chosen. His father had not given him Tetsusaiga, the sword that might have destroyed the Wise before they could utter their foul spells. His father had not thought him worthy.

In the instant that the lord of the West had turned away and left him, Sesshoumaru?s heart turned to ice.

And yet...

And yet...though his veins now coursed with the poisoned chill of bitterness, Sesshoumaru found himself bending to retrieve Tenseiga. He sheathed it quickly at his side, because he no longer cared to touch it.

But he kept it...because his father had given it to him.

The snow swirled around him, pure and cold and empty as the night...[/color][/i]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]...Then the world spun and shifted, and once again Sesshoumaru was standing in the forest on the slope of the mountain, but a few miles away from his home. He was himself again--no longer the young man he had been then, who had let his passions rule him. The hand that had held Tenseiga was no longer there. But he was stronger now, and quieter as well, for time had begun to ebb away his arrogance and his bravado like the tide upon the sands. Yet for a moment the anger and bitterness that had driven him so long ago had been slashed open like an old wound by the sudden onslaught of memory.

[i]?What can this mean?[/i]? Sesshoumaru wondered to himself. He was not frightened, but neither was he glad. He had heard of mind-readers before, but what the man in the gray cloak had done to him was something else entirely.

The sorcerer, of course, had vanished. Sesshoumaru had no idea how much time had passed since the spell had first been cast. Then, with sudden concern, he touched his remaining hand to the hilts of both his swords. He was reassured to find that Tenseiga and Tokijin were both still hanging at his hips on either side. Though the Wise would not be able to wield Tenseiga because it only obeyed its master, he had no such certainties where Tokijin was concerned. His strength had overcome the sword?s evil will and bent it to his own, but he was not certain what would happen if it ever fell into the hands of another.

Sesshoumaru wondered why a sorcerer so powerful would be fleeing from mortals. That the man was a practitioner of the arts Sesshoumaru himself had forbidden was no mere possibility...

Sesshoumaru was not allowed much time to stand and wonder. By this time, the torch-bearing posse had overtaken him. They burst through the trees as noisily as a bunch of stampeding yaks.

They were, as he had surmised, Tatesei warriors, but to his surprise they were armed to the teeth. They carried bows and arrows, swords and shields--though the shields were lightweight to make for faster travel up the slope. They wore metal helmets and thickly studded leather armor. They stopped short at the sight of him, and then half-sank, half-fell to their knees before him, regardless of the snow.

[i]?So[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought. [i]?Even in the boldness of their intrusion I have their fear.[/i]? This was always good to know.

A long and uneasy pause ensued. Sesshoumaru was notoriously not very sociable, and the warriors waited nearly a full minute for him to say something before finally giving up and addressing him first.

?Great Lord of the West, have you seen the girl?? their leader asked. He looked very cold and wet, doubtlessly longing for a cup of tea and a warm fireside.

If he was looking for hospitality, he certainly wasn?t going to get it from Sesshoumaru.

?A girl,? Sesshoumaru repeated slowly. He supposed the sorcerer might have been female--not that it mattered. Male or female, all [i]Ningen[/i] smelled alike to HIM...But he wasn?t about to let these clanking fools know that the sorcerer had eluded him. Instead he asked, ?Why have all of you (his gaze swept across their numbers) come chasing one girl with so many weapons??

The warriors shifted uneasily at this question. Sesshoumaru rather enjoyed watching his enemies shift uneasily in his presence.

?She is a most valuable servant of the king,? the leader finally answered.

?Truly?? Sesshoumaru asked with feigned idleness. ?Your king serves under me; is she not my servant as well??

The warriors did not answer. Sesshoumaru fought the urge to grimace. They reeked of fear. Yet after another moment?s pause he switched to a different tactic.

?She passed this way,? he informed them. ?She heads upward toward my estate. The punishment for such intrusion is death. Especially...(here his eyes flashed) for a heretic necromancer who has dared to practice those arts that I have forbidden you.?

There it was. He had found the warriors? weakness. They blanched at his words; it seemed they had come to take the girl alive. The warriors, in turn, seemed to realize that he was toying with them and that avoiding giving explanation was getting them nowhere.

?We cry your mercy, O Great Lord,? their leader pleaded. ?Spare her. She?s not a sorcerer like the Wise. She?s a Seer.?

Sesshoumaru?s piercing gaze flickered, and it was with supreme effort that he concealed his surprise. The [i]kirin?s[/i] last words echoed in his ears as if they had been spoken a moment ago and not two years:

[i](This is not over. Though I ordained you, you are not the one chosen in prophecy. If you will not rule the city, then choose a king who will. But do not abandon the Tatesei. It is dangerous to do so--far more dangerous than you know.)[/i]

Sesshoumaru had then asked of the [i]kirin[/i]: ?Why does this prophecy the Wise spoke of point to Inuyasha? Why do they fear him so??

And the [i]kirin[/i] had answered: [i](If you would know, then take this Shikon shard and use it to find the Seer.)[/i]

But Sesshoumaru had cast the shard away, giving it to the girl who traveled with Inuyasha. Though he did not like to admit it, he had been more arrogant then. He had refused to heed the [i]kirin?s[/i] advice out of pride. Yet now he was not so certain. He had elected not to seek the Seer, but he had never anticipated that the Seer would find [i]him[/i]...

But all this was meaningless, regardless of the coincidence. Sesshoumaru did not trust the Tatesei enough to reveal that he was interested. If there was one thing that he had learned from his encounters with Naraku...

[i]?If your enemies cannot prey upon your fears,[/i]? he thought, ?[i]then they will prey upon your desires. And that is a more dangerous thing, because they are YOUR desires...?[/i]

The warriors made no attempt to rise. They watched the white demon warily, awaiting his answer. Some of them were visibly shivering now.

Sesshoumaru asked, ?What will you do with the Seer when you have found her??

The leader bowed his head.

?Then you wish me to find her, Lord?? he inquired respectfully.

?Don?t make me repeat myself,? Sesshoumaru said coolly. ?Tell me now, or I shall lose patience.?

He shifted the stump of his left arm ever so slightly, so that its sleeve fell away to reveal Tokijin at his side. The warriors noted this and tensed, thinking he would reach for the sword.

?We will bring her back to the city,? the leader answered, daring to raise his eyes to Sesshoumaru?s unsmiling face. He was a much younger man than the others, but he seemed to hide his fear more successfully. ?A Seer is prized among our people. He or she brings us great counsel and advice.?

?[i]Either this one is young, and has not heard the stories of me[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought wryly,[i] ?or he is a fool who believes them to be lies.?[/i]

In the white demon?s two-year reign as lord of the western lands, never once had the Tatesei offered the slightest hint of revolt. But Sesshoumaru?s memory was long, and he recalled that there had been many years of peace before they betrayed his father, as well. As for their betrayal of Sesshoumaru...he believed that it was not a matter of if, but when.

[i]?Did you know, Otou-sama?[/i]? he often wondered. ?[i]Did you feel this ever- deepening mistrust that I feel now? This lordship so binds me to them, in ways that I can neither fathom nor deny. I can sense the approaching storm, even if I cannot judge its distance. You MUST have known...and yet you guarded them. You...loved them...?[/i]

Sesshoumaru realized that, without noticing it, he had lapsed into silent contemplation of the young warrior?s face. The man?s jaw and cheekbones were angular and high; his eyes were deep-set, bearing the shape and color of almonds. His expression now was very earnest.

?Will you allow us passage?? the young man asked humbly, with ill-concealed hopefulness.

As he gazed upon this young man?s face, Sesshoumaru found himself wondering--as he so often did--?[i]Will it be you? Or your children someday?[/i]? The young warrior bore this piercing scrutiny stoically, but Sesshoumaru could tell that his companions were very frightened now. They probably thought that he would take their leader?s head because the youth had dared to lock eyes with the white demon. His nostrils flared slightly, and his lip curled in disgust as he smelled that one of the warriors had wet himself. Disgusting. The beast in him urged him to slaughter these contemptible creatures where they knelt, painting the snow red with their flesh.

But the lord of the West turned his back on them instead, sharp gaze spanning the darkness between the trees. He caught the Seer?s scent; she wasn?t far off.

?Find her,? he bade the warriors, ?I will allow it.?

With some difficulty because fear and cold had made them stiff, the posse rose to its feet. The men were too nervous to pause and stretch the flow of blood back into their muscles, so their progress as they filed off into the trees was slow and awkward. The leader brought up the rear, probably to ensure that his cowardly underlings didn?t give up altogether and flee.

?You,? Sesshoumaru said to him, calling him back.

The warrior did not approach the white demon, but turned and inclined his head respectfully. His long warrior?s queue slid over one armored shoulder. Like all the Tatesei, his hair was a very dark brown, like the trees in winter.

?Yes, my Lord?? he murmured, sloe eyes fixed upon Tokijin hanging at Sesshoumaru?s side.

?What is your name, [i]Ningen[/i]?? Sesshoumaru asked. He had already decided that he disliked this human stripling who didn?t seem afraid of him.

?Irusei,? the young man answered.

?Well, Irusei,? Sesshoumaru said, ?if you and your men are not down from this mountain by morning, I will hunt you.?

Irusei bowed lower to conceal his apprehension, but Sesshoumaru saw his lips tighten. Then the young man turned and followed his companions off into the darkness of the wood. Sesshoumaru stood watching the flickering lights of their torches until they became mere fireflies against the denser shadows of the trees.

?It is good that you fear me,? he said softly to Irusei, even though the warrior was long out of his sight. ?The day that your fear of me dies, so shall what little trust I have in your people.?

Sesshoumaru waited until the falling snow had filled the last prints left by the warriors, and then turned to move homeward up the mountain.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Present Era[/b][/CENTER]

?...and so we conjugate this verb by adding...?

[i]Thunk.[/i]

?Kagome-[i]chan[/i]? Kagome-[i]chan[/i]??

Slowly, Kagome lifted her head from where it had just hit the desk, blinking groggily. Her friend Yuki was gently shaking her arm, whispering her name. As Kagome?s eyes came into focus, she saw that her face had fallen onto her open textbook. There was a faint nose-print right over the poem they were reading aloud in class.

She glanced up at her teacher, but fortunately he hadn?t noticed her nodding off. To prevent further mishaps, she propped her chin up on her hand and directed her gaze in the general direction of the blackboard and zoned out, recalling the reason for her current condition.

She had been starting to dream of holding the Shikon no Tama in her hand when a sudden commotion set the bed to rattling on its frame. Naturally she sat bolt-upright to see what was going on. What she found was Inuyasha and Buyo the cat locked in what appeared to be a life-and-death struggle over the spot at the foot of the mattress. Buyo had dug his claws into Inuyasha?s chest and was also managing to hiss around a mouthful of Inuyasha?s hand. Inuyasha, while trying to swat the cat away from his right hand with his left, had also managed to bite him in the rump.

?ET IS FFFKING GAT OV ME!? the [i]hanyou[/i] managed around a mouthful of white- and-brown-spotted fur.

Somewhat reluctantly, Kagome plunged into the fray. After some kicking and scratching on her own part, she emerged holding Buyo by the scruff of his neck and Inuyasha by the ear. Buyo she dropped over the side of the bed. He landed with a thud on all fours and scampered out of the room.

?HEY, LEGGO!? Inuyasha bawled--apparently the ears were very sensitive.

?Not until you PROMISE you?ll go to sleep and STAY asleep!? Kagome insisted. ?I?ve got school in the morning. EARLY.?

Inuyasha nodded and she released the ear.

?School,? he muttered, rubbing it as if to bend it back into shape. ?School...?

Kagome flopped back down in bed and rolled over, pulling the comforter over her head with both hands. There was a moment of silence, and then...

?School??

?I?ve got to go to learn about math and Japanese so I can get a good job,? Kagome explained with a groan.

?Why the fuck d?you have to LEARN Japanese?? Inuyasha demanded, folding his arms. ?You already KNOW how to TALK!?

Kagome could see he was in one of his stubborn moods--one of his ESPECIALLY stubborn moods. Apparently this was a side effect the flu had on demons.

?I have to go,? she explained patiently. ?And you have to stay here and rest. You?re sick, remember??

?Relax,? Inuyasha told her, lying down with his arms behind his head. ?I?m not going to tag along like some lost little puppy. I?ll stay here and protect your family while you?re away.?

?Okay,? Kagome murmured from beneath the blankets. She was too tired to worry just what he meant by ?protect.?

She had awoken this morning with her head feeling like it was full of lint. Getting ready for school involved twice the usual effort because she was so tired, and also because Inuyasha was making things difficult. He seemed to have decided--perhaps as revenge for the Buyo incident--that he was going to milk being sick for all it was worth. He kept demanding that Kagome bring him glasses of water, and then soup, and as what was perhaps his last desperate attempt to keep her from leaving he demanded that she bring the ?glass stick? to insert in his mouth.

Thus Kagome had arrived at school late and bleary-eyed.

?Kagome-[i]chan[/i]??

?Eh?? Kagome?s head snapped up again from its slow, nodding descent toward the desktop. ?What did I miss??[/color]
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[color=purple]Her friend leaned over next to her and whispered, ?[i]Sensei[/i] just reminded us about the field trip tomorrow.?

Kagome directed her gaze toward the front of the classroom, where her teacher was writing the time and place of departure on the board.

?Field trip?? she asked, blinking groggily. ?Oh, I forgot...Where are we going again??

The teacher turned around to address the class.

?Be sure to be on time,? he told his students. ?This is our nation?s capitol building we?re visiting, and the available hours for tours are few and far between. We can?t afford to wait for anyone.?

Kagome frowned, sitting up straighter in her chair.

?So we?re going to Tokyo?? she asked her friend. ?Isn?t that a bit far for a day-trip??

Her friend stared at her.

?Hell-OOOOOO.? She waved a hand in front of Kagome?s face. ?Since when is Tokyo our capitol??

Kagome stared right back, slightly dazed. ?You?re kidding, right??

?Eight-o-clock sharp,? their teacher was emphasizing over their whispered conversation. ?The last bus for Reiyama leaves at eight sharp.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Feudal Era[/b][/CENTER]

Sesshoumaru sat cross-legged on a wooden terrace overlooking the gardens. Right now they were covered in snow, which glittered in the moonlight revealed by the clearing clouds. The flowers and leaves of spring lay frozen beneath the white blanket, bent and subdued. Only the reeds that grew around the edges of the pond weathered the chill, standing straight and proud above it.

His long white hair spilled over his body like a silken curtain. He sat completely motionless--deep in thought, with his yellow eyes fixed upon the moon reflecting off the frozen pond.

[i]?I don?t care to know what Inuyasha was chosen for that I was not[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought. ?[i]And yet...the kirin?s words haunt me still... I have found the Seer...and she is Tatesei. Can it be. . .that she is a precursor to some darker form of sorcery spawned among them??[/i]

?Milord??

Sesshoumaru didn?t so much as twitch, but his lips moved.

?What is it, Jakken?? he murmured, his tone insinuating that violent chastisement would ensue if the imp had bothered him for nothing.

?I?ve brought you tea, Milord,? Jakken offered timidly, shuffling nearer to his master. ?You?ve been sitting in the cold for so long.?

Sesshoumaru held out a hand expectantly and Jakken placed the small, steaming cup in his palm.

?Jakken,? Sesshoumaru said, bringing the cup to just beneath his lips that he might breathe in the steam.

?Yes?? Jakken responded. He had been preparing to leave in a hurry in case Sesshoumaru?s mood turned ugly.

?You are older than I,? Sesshoumaru murmured. ?You knew my father and his dealings with the Tatesei. What can you tell me...about a Seer among them??

The imp?s bulging eyes narrowed as best they could, and a pensive frown wrinkled his green, bulbous face, making it uglier than usual.

?So...? Jakken croaked, folding his little arms in front of him. ?After one hundred years, they?ve found another one...?

Sesshoumaru sipped his tea, frowning slightly.

?Then you know of a Seer from [i]Otou-sama?s[/i] time,? he said softly, lowering the cup to his lap.

?Oh, yes,? Jakken answered, warming to the subject. ?Among the Tatesei, the advent of a Seer can either mean great prosperity for their people...or great danger...?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?WHAT?! You mean that city and those people still exist TODAY?!?

?For heaven?s sake, don?t shout, Inuyasha,? Kagome advised, laying a placating hand on Inuyasha?s chest to push him back down into bed.

She was sitting on the edge of her bed, having just taken his temperature. Inuyasha was glaring up at her, one eye slightly obscured by his bangs flopping over it. He was wearing his [i]haori hakama [/i]again, even though he had apparently come to a truce with the striped pajamas.

?But it seems like it,? Kagome added when he?d settled. ?This is very weird. Not only is the city of Reiyama on all my MODERN maps now; it?s now Japan?s CAPITOL.?

?And you?re going there tomorrow?? Inuyasha demanded. ?Alone??

?Yes,? Kagome answered firmly, seeing where he was going with this. ?And, no, you CAN?T come. People in my era aren?t used to seeing Youkai. They?ll either think you?re a nutcase or they?ll just get scared and shoot you.?

?I guess you?re right--they WOULD be afraid,? Inuyasha agreed somewhat smugly. Then he grew more serious. ?If Sesshoumaru?s guarding them, I can see why the Tatesei might?ve survived for so long. But why would they be so POWERFUL? With Sesshoumaru as their lord, they can?t practice sorcery and they can?t leave their valley. They?re no better than any other mortals. Sesshoumaru?s practically made them his bitches.?

?I can?t see why, either,? Kagome said, laying a thoughtful finger on the side of her chin. ?But all this seems to have changed RECENTLY. Sesshoumaru?s ruled the Tatesei for two years and I haven?t noticed the Japanese capitol city being anything other than Tokyo...?

Inuyasha frowned.

?Unless...? he began.

?Unless something?s happened recently in the Feudal Era that I CAUSED...? Kagome finished. She was really beginning to worry. What would she find in Reiyama? That the Wise had been reborn and risen to power again?

Or something worse...?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]END OF CHAPTER 2[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=gray][i]Author?s Note: I would like to remind readers at this point that this story takes place somewhere in the midst of the latest manga scripts coming from Japan. (You can check these out at [url]www.wot-club.org.uk/Inuyasha/[/url].) At this point in time the near-completed Shikon No Tama is in Naraku?s possession. The secret of Naraku?s seeming immortality is now known: he has hidden his mortal heart in an infant incarnation of his self. The baby is being protected by the demoness Kanna, who has her hands full because now EVERYONE is out to destroy Naraku?s heart---including Kouga, Sesshoumaru, Kikyou and Kagura, as well as Inuyasha?s group. Kagome bears the last Shikon shard needed to complete the jewel. [/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 3: Paradox {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?The first Seer,? Jakken began, ?was with the Tatesei race even before they moved to the valley where they live now. I don?t know who she was; only that she was a woman, and that she gave her people that prophecy you?ve heard of.?

The imp paused, because Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed at the mention of the prophecy. But then the demon lord turned his face out toward the garden and replied, ?I am willing to listen now. Tell me what came after.?

Jakken swiped at his brow with his sleeve, very relieved that his master?s temper was not about to ignite.

?Eh...right,? he responded, bowing. ?As I was saying, the first Seer left the Tatesei with a prophecy. The Tatesei consider their Seers to be very sacred. They were said to ?speak with the Breath of God.? The next Seer was not born for another century. He lived during your father?s time. He gave no prophecy that anyone knows of, but he did see the future. A [i]blind[/i] man could?ve seen the future [i]he[/i] saw...?

Sesshoumaru lowered his head, frowning. He took another sip of tea and then said, ?He saw that the Wise were going to rise to power and betray the Inu Youkai, my kin.?

Jakken squatted down on his stumpy little knees.

?Yes and no,? he answered, holding up a finger and looking rather professorial. ?The Wise had already risen to power by that time. The Seer was the only one warning the Tatesei king that one day there would be [i]retribution[/i] for the betrayal.? Jakken paused, smirking. ?And he was right, wasn?t he? Now the Wise are dead, and you?re Lord of the West.?

?Don?t waste time flattering me, Jakken,? Sesshoumaru cut in, watching the moonlight shift across the ice. ?This is not a matter that I can allow to slide. The Tatesei warriors...did not want me to find out that this Seer existed.?

?I?m getting there, I?m getting there,? Jakken stammered, breaking a sweat. Even as a pup, patience had never been Sesshoumaru?s strong point. Jakken still had scars from the bite marks to prove it. ?What I?m trying to say is that the second Seer warned the Tatesei over and over again that betraying your father was sheer folly. He predicted many years of great prosperity for the city of Reiyama, and then he warned that the son of the Youkai lord would return and destroy their way of life.? The imp?s voice trailed off.

?And the third Seer?? Sesshoumaru prompted, disliking Jakken?s halting narrative.

Jakken looked slightly crestfallen.

?Well, you see, there isn?t that much to tell,? he said apologetically. ?There was no third Seer. This mortal you?ve found is the first in many years.?

Sesshoumaru sighed faintly.

?If that is all, you may go,? he told Jakken.

The little imp bowed low and trundled off into the warmer palace rooms. He pulled his robes tightly around his small, shivering frame, muttering as he went.

Sesshoumaru stretched his arm out in front of him, catching in his hand the snow that now fell beyond the shelter of the roof. The small flurries gathered in his palm, white on ivory.

[i]?Do I interfere?[/i]? he mused. ?[i]After two years of watching from afar while the boy king Asano rules in my stead...it seems that I may have missed much. Perhaps too much. Yet to whom do I go? To the king...?[/i]?

The shadows interspersed among the bamboo stalks in the garden offered him no counsel.

?My Lord.?

Sesshoumaru neither moved nor spoke; a tall statue with its marble arm outstretched to catch the snow. Jakken had returned, and the white demon?s silence indicated that he was listening.

?My lord...? The imp approached somewhat hesitantly. ?I?ve just remembered...What I said before...was not entirely true... It may be that there WAS another prophecy...?

Sesshoumaru lowered his head ever so slightly.

?It ?[i]may[/i]? be...?? he murmured.

?The second Seer,? Jakken told him, rubbing his nonexistent chin with his thumb and forefinger, ?mysteriously fell ill--at a time when he was warning the king not to betray the Inu Youkai. He died young.?

Sesshoumaru stared at the snow gathering in his hand.

?Of course,? he murmured. ?He had to die. The king valued the ?Breath of God? more than any counsel the Wise could give.?

?They were afraid,? Jakken agreed. ?They were afraid that the second Seer would sway their king?s course of action. They hated the Inu Youkai and wanted them dead, but they could not act without the consent of their ruler, whom the kirin had ordained. I believe they poisoned the Seer to keep him from stopping the king?s betrayal of your father?s people. And they succeeded: the Seer fell very ill indeed. In the throes of his fever, he became delirious. But his wide-eyed ravings were not as incoherent as the Wise would?ve liked. They made sure that the king never heard them. His words were jumbled, but they were pieced together to mean essentially this:

[i]?A great tree of two boughs stands in the valley. Strong is the branch of the Tatesei. But take care what power you bring to this place; do not expose the roots, which have long lain dark beneath the earth. Do not wake the sleeping blood; for then you wake your doom...?[/i]

Sesshoumaru closed his hand into a fist. Clenched tight against the warmth of his flesh, the snow melted and ran in rivulets down his arm, soaking the edges of his sleeve.

?This means nothing to me,? he responded. ?I see only that the Tatesei are obsessed with the number two. In the first prophecy they saw two rivers and predicted doom as well.? He paused as a thought occurred to him. ?If the king never heard the Seer?s words, then how do you know them??

Jakken nodded sagely.

?An excellent question, milord. You see, the king didn?t go near the Seer because he was told the man had a contagious disease--by the Wise of course. But the king?s daughter did...?

Sesshoumaru?s lip curled with disdain.

?Inuyasha?s mother,? he said, wiping the melted snow off on the folds of his robes. ?So she gave the Seer?s words to my father, no doubt. Why else would he keep a human pet unless she was useful??

?Yes, well...? Jakken prudently chose to skirt around [i]that[/i] particular issue. ?When the princess went to live with your father in his palace, the Seer fled with her. It was in your father?s house that she cared for the Seer and nursed him back to health. Your father kept the second prophecy among the family documents, along with the first one.?

Sesshoumaru turned away from the garden, frowning down at his servant.

?The poison did not kill this man?? he asked. ?You told me that he died young.?

?Ah...? Jakken tapped his fingertips against each other nervously. ?He didn?t die of the poison. But by the time he had recovered, the war between the Tatesei and the Inu Youkai was almost over. By this time...the Wise had taken the princess and her little half-breed son back to Reiyama, and they had recaptured the Seer as well. It was too late for him to stop the war from happening, so they decided to make use of him. They brought him out onto the battlefield with them. Seers have strange powers, you see. They can see more than visions. If one touches you, they can see your memories and thoughts as well. The Wise had just defeated your father, but before he died they wanted to use the Seer to learn something from him. What it was, I have no idea...and at any rate they didn?t succeed. The Lord of the West died...and then you came...? Here Jakken?s narrative faltered yet again.

But Sesshoumaru had heard enough.

?I came and killed them all,? the white demon finished. ?I left none alive there, so the Seer was killed with them.? He went silent for a moment, frowning, and then arrived at a decision.

?Where are you going?? Jakken asked as his master swept past him. ?You?re going to find the Seer you encountered??

Sesshoumaru was across the terrace and into the palace chambers.

?I am going to see what it is the Tatesei are hiding from me,? he answered without looking back. ?I will go alone. See to Rin.?

Jakken was left standing on the wooden deck, looking rather forlorn and put-upon.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple](The Present; Our Era)[/CENTER]

[i]?Two rivers I see: one flowing alongside the other. They are two great Lines; theirs is a flow to span the Ages. One is a line of Youkai, strong and terrible. The other is a long line of sorcerers and kings--a race guarded by a shield of spirits. Where these rivers meet, I foresee the end of this Age, for a battle which began long ago shall at last be lost.
And that which was broken shall at last be destroyed.?[/i]

Kagome stared at the words embossed on the plaque in front of her, feeling as if she?d slipped into another dimension. Behind her, the last of her classmates were filing off the bus, chatting and laughing as if alternate futures were too commonplace to be worthy of notice.

?Gather around, everyone,? her teacher was saying. As the throng of uniformed students gravitated toward him, he began taking roll. ?Asagi, Atonashi, Ayako...?

The buses had unloaded on the street right outside the capitol building, which was surrounded by a very ornately-carved stone wall. The building itself was very high and made entirely of some kind of shiny black stone. It was a good twenty stories tall, with transparent elevators rising and descending at each of its four corners. To Kagome it looked sort of like an obelisk, which fit in pretty well with her impressions of the rest of the city.

She?d spent the entire bus ride through Reiyama with her nose pressed up against the glass windows, taking it all in. She wasn?t sure what she?d expected to find, but it sure wasn?t this. She had expected to see distorted influences of the Feudal Era everywhere--perhaps pagodas with tiers that floated on magnetic fields instead of resting on pillars. She had half-expected to see cars being towed by enslaved Youkai souls, or gray-clad Wise milling around everywhere like agents in the Matrix ?.

Instead, everything seemed quite modern and normal. The people walking the streets were ordinary people. They drove cars; they wore skirts and suits; they certainly didn?t have any ghostly servants trailing after them. The architecture of the buildings was simple and professional, like any modern Japanese city. However, this appearance of normalcy unnerved Kagome even more than anything abnormal might have. Three years of experience with ordinary-looking peasants who transformed into enormous bug-like carnivores tended to make a girl a little paranoid.

And then she?d gotten off the bus and seen the plaque, and she knew with a sinking feeling in her gut that this was where the weirdness was going to begin. The plaque seemed to be displaying some kind of prophecy about Reiyama, because it mentioned a ?line of sorcerers and kings--a race guarded by a shield of spirits.? That was the Tatesei race, all right. And it spoke of another ?great Line?...a line of Youkai. That had to be the Inu Youkai--Inuyasha?s family...

?Higurashi...Higurashi??

?She?s over there, [i]Sensei[/i].?

Kagome startled out of her reverie to see one of her classmates pointing at her.

?Oh, sorry,? she told them. ?I was just a little distracted, reading this.?

Her teacher beamed at her over the sea of teenagers? heads.

?I?m glad to see you taking such an interest in our nation?s history,? he praised her.

Pasting a fake look of curiosity on her face, Kagome joined her classmates in following their teacher to the capitol?s main gate. There they were met by a group of security people wearing black suits and rather dour expressions, who--after a few moments of intercommunication via their tiny phones and earpieces--caused the mechanized gate to slide open.

?[i]This is nothing new[/i],? Kagome reminded herself. [i]?EVERY capitol building has secret service bodyguards and a whole lot of security.?[/i]

The students were half-way up the long walkway leading to the building?s entrance when they were met by their tour guide, whose expression was a whole lot less dour than the guards?.

?Welcome,? she told them all, beaming, ?to our nation?s capitol. Please stay with me and don?t fall behind, because people who lag tend to get...?

?...shot,? one of the boys near Kagome muttered. The tour guide?s smile never wavered as she waited patiently for the tittering that followed to subside.

?They tend to get lost,? she finished. ?Now, if you?ll walk this way and look to your right...?

In the next hour, the students received a tour of what appeared to be a completely normal government building, full of offices and long halls with pictures of various officials lining them. Everyone was busy pushing papers or had their phones glued to their ears, and no one seemed the least bit concerned with anything REMOTELY relevant to magic. All of this normalcy was making Kagome tenser by the minute.

Then there was a question and answer session with the local governor, in which Kagome didn?t participate because any of the questions she REALLY wanted to ask were far too weird. What she REALLY wanted to know was the history of how Reiyama had come to be the capitol of Japan--so that she could go back and fix whatever it was that she?d done.

It wasn?t until the class was ushered into the gardens in the courtyard to take lunch that the real weirdness became apparent. The courtyard was indoors, with a very high-domed ceiling of gold-tinted glass over it. It was filled with statues--one of the strangest assortments of statues that Kagome had ever seen. While the other students sat and ate on benches along the walkways, she wandered from pedestal to pedestal, reading the plaques there and trying to make some sense of them.

The first one Kagome studied was the statue of a samurai warrior. His helm and attire were excellent replicas of what she had seen two years ago on the warriors of Reiyama--whom Sesshoumaru had slaughtered without mercy. The statue was carved from some kind of shiny black stone, and when Kagome peered up into the figure?s face it gave the effect that his eyes were luminous as any living man?s. Frowning, she lowered her gaze to the plaque on the pedestal:

[CENTER]?[u]Raiiru-o-sama: The White King; He Who Shook The Earth[/u]?[/CENTER]

The date below this rather cryptic description was, according to Kagome?s quick mental calculations, a good forty years after the last time she?d been to Reiyama--years in the Feudal Era, at any rate. By modern terms, there were several centuries between the present and when she?d last set foot in the Tatesei city. Pondering this was very confusing, and the warm sun glinting down through the semitransparent ceiling was giving her a headache. Time to move to the next statue.

The statues had evidently been placed in the garden for purely aesthetic reasons and not for historical instruction, because they seemed to be in no particular chronological order. The next one was also the life-sized figure of a man, but he wore a modern business suit and a sharp military crew-cut. He was tall, by Kagome?s estimate, and very dignified-looking, but his sculpted eyes seemed cold and calculating.

?I?d say it?s a good likeness, except for the eyes.?

Kagome jumped a little, startled. She had just been bending to take a closer look at the fine engravings on the statue?s pedestal, and when she turned to see who had spoken, she found herself confronted with the man the statue represented. He was gazing up at the statue?s face, wearing a very similar expression.

?I?m sorry Sir, you startled me,? she told him, bowing. ?I was just starting to read
the--?

?The description?? the man finished for her. ?Allow me. I?m Tatesei Sano, president of Tatesei Systems.?

It took every ounce of Kagome?s willpower not to start backing away from him. Even though common sense told her that to him she was just an ordinary schoolgirl, instinct made her want to run. Two years ago, Kagome, Inuyasha, Miroku and Shippou had come face to face with the Tatesei sorcerers who called themselves the Council of the Wise, and experienced firsthand what it was to fight against necromancers. It was not an experience that she cared to repeat.

This man?s resemblance to Reikotsu, the leader of the Wise, was almost perfect.

There were minor differences, of course--his navy blue business suit was a far cry from the gray robes of the Wise, and he wore no hood over his close-cropped dark brown hair. His gray eyes, which Kagome had thought piercing and cold when she saw him in the Feudal Era, smiled at her through his blue-rimmed spectacles. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled.

Reikotsu-of-the-Feudal-Era had died when Miroku deflected his own spell back at him. Then Naraku had assumed the dead sorcerer?s shape in a plot to trick the Wise into stealing jewel shards for him. That, of course, was a whole different story. The point was that apparently the necromancer had been reincarnated and now ran what was apparently a very successful company called ?Tatesei systems.? Kagome was vaguely surprised that Reikotsu had been allowed to come back in human form--with all the bad karma he?d racked up a cockroach would?ve been more appropriate.

Blissfully unaware of Kagome?s reproachful thoughts, Tatesei Sano was giving her some history of his company?s foundation. She forced herself to pay attention. From listening, she could see that Tatesei Systems was a perfectly normal modern enterprise--completely ordinary save for the fact of its immense success. Apparently the company had great influence over the government, and practically controlled Reiyama--which made perfect sense. The governor himself was one of Sano?s distant cousins. When the president paused, Kagome used it as a polite way of changing the subject.

?Your family is very successful,? she remarked. ?But the Tatesei family was successful long before they founded the company, right? How far back can you trace your lineage??

Sano did not seem the least bit suspicious; instead her flattery seemed to be working.

?You must like studying history,? he replied, nodding toward the statues. ?Come with me, and I?ll give you a little tour of the garden. The statues tell our story, you see--the story of the Tatesei Line.?

Kagome followed the businessman down the path, ignoring the curious glances of her fellow students. If they wanted to think she was brown-nosing some congressman, let them. There were greater things at stake here than her reputation.

The path wound around a cluster of bamboo and over a small arched bridge. With a jolt of [i]deja-vu[/i], Kagome realized that this bridge could easily have been one of the very bridges she and Inuyasha had walked over in the Reiyama of the Feudal Era. They skirted around the enormous bronze carving of a dragon breathing fire, and then Sano stopped in front of a sculpted woman wearing a miko?s robes. She had very long, straight hair and a proud, high-boned face. Over her robes she wore a man?s armor.

?This woman was a priestess in the time before the Feudal Era,? Sano explained, gesturing toward the statue. ?In the Tatesei bloodline--her bloodline--there were people who foretold the future, whom we called ?Seers.? She was the first.?

Kagome stared, dumbfounded. She knew this woman. She had seen this priestess in a cave once, petrified by time and magic to remain eternally locked in the coils of a mighty demon. This was Midoriko, from whom the Shikon No Tama was born. Of course, Sano had no idea that Kagome knew this, so she forced her expression to remain neutral as she asked her next question.

?So she?s one of your ancestors??

Sano nodded.

?She gave us the prophecy you may have seen on the wall near the main gate. Did you see it?? he asked.

?I...saw it,? Kagome answered. ?What does it mean??

Sano leaned back against a pillar, folding his arms across his blue-clad chest.

?I?m not sure whether it?s true or not, but it was said that there were once such things as Youkai, and they were the scourge of Japan,? he answered. ?The Inu Youkai in particular were the enemies of the Tatesei. Their lord laid claim to our lands even though we arrived in this valley first. He assumed control over our borders and demanded tribute from us. Eventually we rose up against them and defeated them.? Sano paused, shrugging slightly. ?Purportedly the Tatesei had sorcerers among them who controlled the dead, and that was how the Inu Youkai were defeated. I myself don?t believe it, but it was recorded in the Feudal Era that the prophecy was fulfilled. I don?t believe in Youkai, either, but I do believe that a warlike tribe calling themselves ?Inu Youkai? did exist and did indeed oppose my people. The ?two great Lines?--the Tatesei and the Inu Youkai, met and eventually came to war. The prophecy warned us beforehand that when ?the two rivers?--the two Lines--met, the Age would come to an end.

?Legend tells of a Youkai-human half-breed, born to the so-called ?Lord of the West? and a princess of our people. Well, you can imagine how this fueled those Dark Age superstitions, and the Tatesei decided that the young [i]hanyou?s[/i] birth foreshadowed their own doom. They thought that somehow his destiny would be tied to the destruction of Reiyama--and to the breaking of the Tatesei Line.? Here Sano shrugged again. ?It was probably some poor child born deformed, and so they blamed their troubles on him. All of this sounded more like a witch hunt to me than some epic battle between mortals and demons.?

Again Kagome prudently kept her mouth shut. At least the part about Inuyasha being innocent of the destruction was true. But she wanted to keep the businessman warmed to the subject of the prophecy, so she pointed to the next statue and asked, ?And what about this one??

It was a statue of a short youth with a very gentle expression and a regal bearing. He wore the raiment of a king of the Feudal Era. Kagome could tell that he was Tatesei by the traditional long plait that hung down his back with pearls in it.

?That is Asano-[i]o-sama[/i], the fifth king of Reiyama,? Sano replied. ?He was young when he rose to the throne...and young when he died.?

Kagome blanched. Gentle, noble Asano--the boy king whom even Sesshoumaru had deemed worthy to rule the Tatesei--dead? If the boy had died young...then whatever had happened to change the future so drastically must have occurred because of events surrounding his death. This was too much of a shock--Kagome plunked down on a nearby bench.

?How did he die?? she managed to ask.

?Are you quite all right, young lady?? Sano asked solicitously, peering down at her over the lower rims of his glasses. ?Does that upset you??

?More than you know,? Kagome thought, but all she said was: ?No, it?s okay. Please go on.?

?Very well,? Sano said, redirecting his piercing gaze toward the statue. ?At that time there was a great eruption of Reiyama--the highest of the mountains surrounding the valley, after which this city was named. Lava and ash rained for miles all around, and for a long time all of western Japan was covered in it. But for some strange reason the city of Reiyama was spared and untouched. It was written by a Tatesei scribe that the boy king threw himself into the volcano as a sacrifice to save his people.? Sano paused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. ?Now, I?m a bit of a skeptic, but I can?t really say it didn?t work. By all physical laws the city should have been buried by the eruption.?

[i]?So that?s IT[/i],? Kagome thought. ?[i]That?s the event I need to change to make things normal again. Somehow I have to go back and convince Asano not to do such a thing.?[/i]

?It?s a pity history had to lose so fine a king, though,? Sano mused. ?He was the one who put an end to the reign of the priest-caste who called themselves the ?Wise?. He was the one who freed his people from ignorance and religious oppression.?

For a moment Kagome?s head reeled from the absurdity of it all. Here she sat in an alternate future in the capitol of Japan listening to a reincarnated necromancer telling her that he didn?t believe in sorcery.

?When he died, another young lord became the sixth king,? Sano went on. ?And it was then that the Tatesei Line was set on the road to progress that it?s still traveling today. The eruption of the mountain exposed an extraordinary new kind of liquid metal that we call ?[i]ryunochi[/i].? With it we were eventually able to design thin films and conductive plasmas like none the world had ever seen.?

?And this sixth king...was this man?? Kagome asked nodding toward the next statue. It was the statue of the samurai warrior, Raiiru. In its hand, the figure gripped a [i]katana[/i] by the blade. The lines running down his hand and onto the blade indicating blood seemed eerily realistic with the reddish glow of the noonday sun through the stained glass above.

?That is Raiiru, the White King,? Sano agreed. ?He led his people to a new way of life, forsaking all practice of spirituality for the way of the warrior and of metal-shaping.?

The businessman stepped closer to the statue and ran one long-fingered hand down the length of the blade.

?His statue is carved from [i]ryunochi[/i]. It would not shatter, not even if a nuclear bomb were to hit it. Now, this next statue--?

?What about the prophecy?? Kagome interrupted, no longer caring about seeming nonchalant. ?You said it was fulfilled. But ?that which was broken? DIDN?T shatter. The Tatesei Line, which your Seer predicted would be broken and finally shattered because of the birth of the half-breed, was never broken and never destroyed. So the prophecy never really came true, did it??

Sano frowned.

?That?s another place where history is diluted by myth. The prophecy, it seemed, wasn?t referring to OUR Line, but the INU YOUKAI Line. After the Tatesei defeated the Inu Youkai, THAT Line was broken. And then...there?s a mythos that says only two remained. You?ve never heard the legend of the White Brothers??

Kagome swallowed against the sudden tightening in her throat.

?I?ve forgotten,? she managed, folding her hands in her lap to conceal a sudden onset of nerves.

Sano removed his hand from the statue and turned to face her, folding his arms again.

?Some old records say that after the Inu Youkai Line was broken, only two brothers of that blood remained. They were said to be white of hair and pale of skin, like all the moon spirits in the old tales. One attacked the city of Reiyama in a desperate attempt to avenge his fallen kin. The other...the other stopped him. And then both disappeared for a long time, and the Tatesei lived in peace. Then they reappeared, returning to the valley not to slaughter the Tatesei but to wage war on each other. It was said that one of them stole from the Tatesei something very valuable. One pursued the other into the caverns of the mountain. Then it erupted, and neither brother was ever seen again. The sixth king, Raiiru, was said to have seen them at the last, fighting each other even as the fire rained down from the sky. Maybe they were so full of hatred for each other that they didn?t care if they lived or died.?

Kagome?s eyes had gone wide with shock.

?So...because the half-breed was born, he fought his brother, and they died,? she said softly. ?And then the broken Inu Youkai Line was finally destroyed.?

Sano nodded.

?That?s it, I guess,? he answered. ?The White Brothers died, and with them the Inu Youkai. Somehow their deaths seemed to mark the end of all appearances of Youkai in historical records. No demons were seen afterward, anywhere in Japan. And Raiiru became king, and ushered in a new age of metal and progress.?

?Higurashi? Higurashi??

Kagome?s head snapped up like a dreamer waking as she heard her teacher call her name. But this dream was a nightmare, and it didn?t end with waking. Mechanically, she rose to her feet, and hurried back to join her classmates after stammering a rushed thank-you to the businessman for his time. In a way, she was relieved that Tatesei Sano hadn?t had time to show her any more. She didn?t think she could bear it.

There was no doubt in her mind as to who the White Brothers were. If nothing else, the manner of their death told it all. Kagome had always been afraid that the hatred between Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru might bring them to this. Then Sesshoumaru had found Rin, and he had begun to change. Then he had found Tokijin, and no longer coveted Inuyasha?s inheritance of Tetsusaiga.

But now it seemed there was something over which the two brothers would fight.

Something for which they would die.

And somehow, Kagome had done something in the past to cause this.

Somehow, [i]she[/i] was the [i]cause[/i] of their deaths...and this future...[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple]([b]The Feudal Era)[/b][/CENTER]

The inner sanctum of the Temple was dark and cold, and smelled of ash and stone. The Seer sat upon a divan in the shadows with her cloak drawn about her shoulders for warmth. The room was dank and windowless save for a single shaft of light beaming down from a square opening in the roof. The light fell upon a stone pedestal in the center of the room. On it was a round, shallow bowl full of water.

The Seer?s gray eyes avoided the water. She knew that if she looked, she would See.

But she did not want to See.

Outside, she knew, the snow was falling quietly. The Tatesei people sat around blazing fires, bedecked with jewels and well at ease in the company of loved ones. And she cursed the gift that condemned her to remain in this place.

A soft tread fell in the hallway. She heard its muted echo, but did not move.

A tall figure slid through the shadows. She did not move as he approached, because he was not human and there was nowhere she could run from him. The priests of the newer, gentler Temple Order had allowed the demon in without protest, because he was Lord of the West and he held the lives of the Tatesei in the palm of his one hand. She didn?t look at the water in the bowl, because she didn?t want to see how the demon would kill her.

The Lord of the West halted his slow, measured approach to stand before the bowl and the shaft of light.

?You are the Seer of Reiyama,? he said softly.

She shuddered, revolted that so soft and cultured a voice could come from a creature of such violence and greed. There was no need to answer; he had not meant it as a question. But then he posed another question that she could not ignore.

?Will you serve me?? he asked simply.

Then she turned to look at him, her gaze piercing even from beneath the blue veil that she wore to hide her face.

[i]?Here it is[/i],? she thought bitterly. ?[i]The animal DOES bear some semblance to a man. He desires not my death, but the enslavement of the gift that is my curse.?[/i]

Aloud, she answered, ?I know you, demon. You think yourself above humanity, yet what you desire is no different from what men desire of me. You want to know what I See. You want me to unveil the past and so unveil your future.?

He moved forward into the light--cold and pale and cruel, with the grace of a lion stalking its prey.

?Yes,? he said, in that deadly soft whisper. ?I know that the priests imprison you here to hide your truths from the people, because truth is a deadly weapon indeed. Yet I offer you freedom, if you will serve only me.?

The Seer eyed him coldly.

?You offer me another cage,? she told him, ?and in return you demand that I belong to you.?

The white demon?s face remained calm and impassive.

?Yes,? he said again.

Then he held out a hand. It passed through the light above the scrying-bowl; a knife-slash of white against the stark gray stone.

?Come, then,? he told her, ?if one cage is not so different from another.?

She made no move to rise.

?When they brought me back to the city,? she said, ?they broke both my knees.?

The demon stared at her for a moment.

Then, with a hiss of steel, he drew the sword at his side.

?Did you really think,? he asked slowly, ?that I would give you a choice??[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 3}[/b][/color][/CENTER]
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[color=gray][i]Author?s Note: I forgot to mention in my manga update before the previous chapter: at the most recent point in Takahashi?s manga scripts, Miroku and Sango have agreed to be married once Naraku is defeated. This is not to say, of course, that Miroku has mended his lecherous ways. . . Also, the word ?kehai? means the aura radiated by someone or something possessing supernatural or spiritual power.[/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} Chapter 4: One Man?s Obsession {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]The Seer flinched as Sesshoumaru?s sword cleared its sheath and watched as he turned the blade into a position of readiness, but still she made no effort to rise from the divan. The white demon lifted his gaze from the weapon for a moment to study her reaction. Seeing that she was not about to flee him, he approached her calmly. As he passed beneath the beam of light around the bowl and its pedestal, his sword shown with borrowed radiance, and for the briefest of instants the Seer thought she saw it pulse. Watching the gleam pass across the lambent blade, she understood that this Youkai lord was not one to bluff.

As Sesshoumaru skirted the pedestal and the scrying bowl, the fear that had been clutching at the Seer?s heart with icy fingers now sharpened into panic. She pushed herself backward off the divan and onto the floor. The impact on the cold stone was jarring; she was unable to suppress a whimper of pain. The divan was overturned by her sudden lurch, and had landed across the backs of her calves. But this didn?t stop her from dragging herself free and crawling rapidly away from the advancing enemy. The crunch of bone in her knees was nearly unbearable, but her instinct for self-preservation was stronger. And now she had the overturned divan between her and the Youkai lord, which she hoped would buy her a few seconds? time.

Then she glanced up, and he stood directly in front of her, the sword angled downward toward her in his one hand. The white folds of his clothes hung motionless from his tall frame, as if he had not needed to move at all to intercept her. Yet he HAD moved--with lightning speed, faster than her eye could detect. There would be no running from this fey creature.

Instead of trying to creep away from the Youkai lord on her hands and knees, the Seer made a sudden lunge for his feet, stretching out her hands to grasp them. If she could but touch him...

But Sesshoumaru knew now to expect this particular defense, and sidestepped so swiftly that she landed on her stomach, hands clutching at empty air. Before she could recover herself to try again, he planted a foot in the small of her back. This was done with surprisingly little brute force, but it did serve to effectively immobilize her by pinning her to the stone floor.

Though she could not see it above her, the Seer heard the whoosh of air as the sword sliced downward through it.

?NO!? she screamed.

But Sesshoumaru?s strike never faltered, and then the blade passed through her flesh.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]It was the late afternoon by the time Kagome finally arrived home. She echoed her family?s greetings somewhat hollowly, because there was indeed a hollow in the pit of her stomach. What had she done? What had she DONE? Or was it something she had YET to do in the past? This was all so confusing, and frightening as well, because Kagome had no idea what it was, and so had no idea as to how to avoid it.

Whatever it was, it would inevitably bring about Inuyasha?s death.

Wearily, she climbed the stairs, scarcely aware of when she accidentally stepped on Buyo?s tail and sent the cat yowling down the stairs. She walked slowly down the narrow hall and then turned into her room.

Inuyasha was sprawled across her bed, apparently slumbering deeply because Buyo?s racket hadn?t awoken him. The warm afternoon sunlight slanted in from the window, falling across the [i]hanyou?s[/i] face and the one arm he had tucked beneath his head. Kagome sat down on the edge of the mattress, not wishing to disturb him. It wasn?t at all reassuring to her to see him sleeping like this. When he was awake, Inuyasha seemed practically invincible--loud and full of life, and inhumanly strong. But like this...he seemed more human...more...fragile. For the briefest of instants, Kagome?s heart skipped a beat as she imagined him lying thus, dead beside his brother as the mountain fell...and then the vision was mercifully gone. She reached over and removed a stray lock of hair that had fallen over Inuyasha?s nose, wondering what she should tell him when he woke up.

She had scarcely one second to ponder this, because in a flash his eyes snapped open. Instantly, he half-leaped, half-rolled off the bed, grabbing Kagome around the waist and taking her with him. Both of them thudded to the wood floor below.

?Get DOWN!? Inuyasha shouted, peering over the top of the bed as if he saw something fierce and slavering coming at them.

Kagome, who?d had the wind temporarily knocked out of her when they landed, now found her voice and let out a scream.

?KYAAAAAAAAAAAAH!?

She tried to kick at him, but her feet were tangled up in the bedspread. The scream, however, was more effective, and seemed to snap Inuyasha out of whatever dream it was he?d just woken up from. He blinked repeatedly for a few seconds, and then glanced down at Kagome, whom he was straddling. Her arms were pinioned beneath his knees. She was glaring up at him, her expression the prelude to explosion.

?Fuck! I thought there was...? Inuyasha started, and then decided that it would be better to start with an apology than it would an explanation. ?Sorry. Are you okay??

?I WILL be when you get OFF me!? Kagome snapped, trying to pull her arms out from under him.

?Okay,? Inuyasha told her, ?I?ll get off if you promise not to slap me when I DO.?

They glared at each other for a moment--Kagome with righteous indignation and Inuyasha with mistrust. Then he climbed off of her and she sat up, straightening her blouse and rearranging her hair.

?I dreamed there was a HUGE eye staring at me,? Inuyasha explained, scooting backward to stay well out of slap range. ?It was bigger than I was, and then the head started to move.?

Kagome stared at him, but he didn?t elaborate.

?And...um, that?s it,? he finished, folding his arms in front of him. His long white hair was still bristling from remembering the dream.

Kagome?s anger vanished, because she suddenly realized that this wasn?t a nightmare--it was a premonition. Now that he mentioned it, she recalled a dream she?d had that was similar...

?What did the eye look like?? Kagome asked, frowning.

She was trying to remember what it was that she?d seen BEFORE the eye, but for some reason the images eluded her. There was a brief flash of white--something white. It could?ve been[i] anything[/i]. It could?ve been Inuyasha?s HAIR for all SHE knew...

?Hmm...? Inuyasha laid a finger on the side of his chin, looking pensive--which in his case meant owl-eyed and button-nosed. ?Well, its eyes were pitch black, but they SHONE, Kagome, as if the color black could GLOW. It saw me. I could FEEL it. That was why I flew at you like that. I could still SEE the thing when I woke up.? He paused, looking somewhat disgusted with himself for admitting fear. ?I can STILL see it.?

Kagome shuddered. That was what she had seen, all right: a black eye, luminous as obsidian in sunlight, slowly beginning to open. But Inuyasha had seen it open all the way...now Kagome was no longer certain that it was Sesshoumaru who would kill Inuyasha. If BOTH brothers were to perish...it was possible that both would die at the hands of a greater enemy...

Inuyasha crossed his legs, hiding his hands in his sleeves.

?So...? he said, ?how was Reiyama??

And Kagome spontaneously burst into very noisy tears.

For a moment Inuyasha recoiled, caught completely off-guard. Then he approached her cautiously, reaching his arms toward her somewhat hesitantly as if she might bite him. Comforting crying women was not one of his strong points.

?Hey!? he told her nervously, still reaching for her. ?Don?t be like that! It can?t be THAT--?

[i]WHAM![/i]

Inuyasha never had time to finish whatever words of reassurance he was trying to convey, because at that moment Grandpa Higurashi?s frying pan connected with the back of the hanyou?s head.

?ACK!? Inuyasha squawked in surprise, falling over backward and clutching at his skull.

?How DARE you assault my granddaughter!? Grandpa bellowed. ?And in MY OWN HOUSE, too!?

?HEY! WHAT THE FUCK?!? Inuyasha bellowed back, sitting up and rubbing at a lump on his head. ?I didn?t MAKE her cry...!?

?Grandpa, STOP it!? Kagome pleaded, wiping hastily at her tears. ?He didn?t DO anything to me!?

Grandpa Higurashi took another swing at Inuyasha, but this time the hanyou caught the frying pan between his claws. They grappled for a bit, and then Inuyasha?s demon strength allowed him to wrench it free of the old man?s grasp. The [i]hanyou[/i] tossed it backward over his shoulder, where it sailed through the air before connecting with Kagome?s lamp and shattering it all over her desk.

[i]CRASH.[/i]

Kagome covered her face with her hands and shouted: ?STOP IT, you two! Gramps, I?m OKAY, so will you PLEASE stop whacking Inuyasha?! Inuyasha! Will you PLEASE stop BREAKING things?!?

?Okaaaaaaay,? both men replied.

Grandpa retrieved the frying pan and shuffled off down the hall, looking sheepish. Inuyasha rubbed at his head, looking grouchy.

After a moment, Kagome?s tears were reduced to sporadic hiccups, and Inuyasha felt that it was safe to resume their prior conversation.

?So tell me what happened,? he said simply.

And she did. She told him everything that had happened to her during the field trip to Reiyama?s capitol building--everything that President Tatesei Sano had said. She couldn?t look directly at Inuyasha during the part about the ?legend of the White Brothers?--she didn?t want to unnerve him even further by starting to cry again.

When Kagome had finished, Inuyasha was silent for a moment.

Then he shrugged and said, ?Heh. So THAT?S it.?

Kagome?s hiccups vanished completely, and her hands balled into fists at her sides.

?What do you MEAN, ?THAT?S IT??! It means that you and your brother are going to DIE!?

Inuyasha?s expression settled into a very familiar closed stubbornness.

?Like I give a flying fuck if SESSHOUMARU eats it,? he muttered. ?Er...? He had just taken notice of Kagome?s revived prelude-to-explosion face. ?Look, it?s no big deal. Now that I know what to watch for, I?ll be ready when it comes. If it?s Sesshoumaru, I?ll whack him first. If it?s some big-ass eyeball, I?ll use Tetsusaiga to hack up whatever the hell the eye?s attached to.? He paused, considering. ?If all else fails we can just have Miroku suck it up. I have to admit, he DOES come in handy sometimes...?

Kagome sighed. It seemed there was just no convincing Inuyasha that ?near-immortal half-demon? did NOT mean ?immortal.?

?We should go back,? she told Inuyasha, regretting these words even as she spoke them. ?Whatever I did--whatever happened to throw off history, it NEEDS to be fixed. We need to explain all this to Miroku and Sango, at any rate. And maybe Kaede can help us, too.? Regardless of what she was suggesting, Kagome?s heart balked at having Inuyasha return to the time where he ran the risk of dying.

?Yeah,? Inuyasha responded, climbing to his feet. ?Let?s go, then. Get your stuff together.? He paused, blanching a little. ?But first...before we go, I?ve got to...?

And he ran out of the room. Kagome clapped a hand to her forehead during the puking noises that followed.

?[i]WHAT are we getting ourselves into?[/i]? she wondered, shaking her head.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple]([b]The Feudal Era)[/b][/CENTER]

Now that the blade no longer pulsed in his hand, Sesshoumaru sheathed it and stepped back to observe the effects upon the one he had struck. These always interested him, because the sword?s true magic still remained something of a mystery to him. Usually Tenseiga chose its target and Sesshoumaru wielded it, curious to see what reasoning lay behind the sword?s choice. It had been so with Rin, and also with Jakken. This was only the second time the white demon had actually chosen to wield it--the first had been to give life to the head of Goshinki, Naraku?s telepathic minion, that the sword Tokijin might be forged from its fang.

The Seer lay prone on the floor for a minute, apparently frozen with terror. Then, slowly, she rolled over and sat up. She ran tentative, exploratory hands down her legs, stopping at the knees, and then gasped.

?I?m not harmed!? she exclaimed. Sesshoumaru couldn?t see her face through the veil, but it was obvious from her tone that she had been expecting him to kill her. ?The sword...has healed me??

It seemed to be so, because she then proceeded to draw her knees beneath her and rose shakily to her feet. Sesshoumaru said nothing, watching her calmly. ?[i]So[/i],? he thought, ?[i]I have willingly called upon the sword to heal a mortal, and it has obeyed.?[/i] He wasn?t overtly surprised by this, but he was slightly embittered--the sword had only disobeyed him once, when his beloved father had been slain by the Tatesei.

The Seer shifted her weight from one leg to the other, testing the extent of the healing spell. Then she stepped on the edge of her long cloak, tripped, and almost fell right into Sesshoumaru. He stepped back hastily, and she righted herself, making no move to touch him as she had before.

?You healed me?? she asked him somewhat hesitantly. Her eyes were downcast now, as if she were afraid to look at him.

Sesshoumaru, who despised timidity, turned his back on her and started walking.

?The sword chose to heal you,? he corrected her sharply. ?Now follow me.?

He didn?t hear footsteps behind him, so he came to a halt, glancing backward over his shoulder, so that one yellow eye glared balefully at her. She stood motionless, the blue veil fluttering in and out gently as she breathed.

?What the sword did I can just as easily undo,? he told her pointedly. ?Come now. Or stay, if you like. I can obtain my answers from the Tatesei officials using far bloodier methods, if that is necessary...?

?I will go,? the Seer murmured. ?In truth, it does not matter; one way or the other.?

Sesshoumaru frowned. The Seer bent to lift the scrying bowl from its pedestal, her veil falling forward and concealing her human face in an opaque curtain of blue. Then she straightened again, and he could see with the veil resting once again near her face that her lower lip trembled beneath it. Wordlessly, he turned and stalked out of the chamber. Striding briskly down the dark halls of the Temple, he knew that she followed by the salt-scent of her tears.

When at last the two of them had reached the Temple?s outer stairs--rebuilt since Sesshoumaru?s massacre of the Wise two years ago--they were met not only by the nervous guards (who gave Sesshoumaru a very wide berth) but the king and his highest servants as well. The guards? armor creaked as they shifted uneasily. They parted to allow their king to walk through their midst, but flanked him closely as he approached the white demon and his Seer.

?Well met, Sesshoumaru, Lord of the West,? Asano said softly, bowing low and respectfully.

The boy king?s gold discs tinkled gently against each other in the dark nest of his hair. He straightened just as slowly, and there was a moment?s silence as his black-eyed gaze shifted from the Youkai lord to the Seer woman, who stood behind Sesshoumaru?s tall form as if she were hiding.

Asano?s heart had always been noble, and now the passing years had made him shrewd and perceptive.

?You?re taking her from us,? he murmured, inclining his head slightly in the Seer?s direction as well.

?Yes,? Sesshoumaru agreed. ?I have use for her.?

?As do [i]we[/i],? one of the nobles behind Asano interrupted, but the boy king cut him short by holding up a restraining hand.

?The Seer belongs to the Tatesei,? he explained calmly. ?Her gift is needed.?

Sesshoumaru was not one to be fooled by outward appearances; Asano was afraid--afraid because he did not understand why the Lord of the West had returned after two years of silence. The Youkai lord could see that it was time to remind them all who their [i]true[/i] ruler was.

?The Tatesei belong to me,? he told them icily, ?and so does ?her gift?.?

Asano took a deep breath, squaring slender shoulders beneath white silk robes embroidered with flying cranes. The boy-king?s face was young and unlined, but his eyes were old.

?The people are afraid, Lord Sesshoumaru,? Asano ventured to explain, spreading his hands in a gesture of appeasement. ?They do not see the new world that I see. They do not see that your presence--and the spiritual ties that bind us to you--shield them from invading demons and men. They see only that the Wise are gone, and that we have only our warriors to protect us, and a young, untried king. They fear and hate you because they believe you have reduced us to weakness. They see the change you brought as a curse, when in truth you forced the City of the Dead to live again, as men--however...bloody the lesson you taught them.? He sighed, noting Sesshoumaru?s impassive stare. ?I don?t expect you to pity them,? he added, ?but the presence of a Seer among them, whose predictions may guide them in a time when the future is uncertain... This is one comfort I would not deny them.?

Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed. A sudden, icy wind ruffled the white fur slung over his shoulder, but his body remained immovable as stone.

?I am lord here,? he told them. ?I will take what I desire. And what I desire is an answer to the riddles of the past.? His yellow eyes flashed a warning.

Low, angry muttering broke out among the assembled warriors, many of whom were nearly as young as their king because Sesshoumaru had killed all the older ones. Calmly, the white demon surveyed the crowd of mortals, reading the fear and the helpless anger in their faces. His gaze came to rest upon one familiar face: high, proud cheekbones and earnest almond-shaped eyes: the young man named Irusei. The warrior exuded only anger.

?[i]This young fool[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought, [i]?is one to watch.?[/i]

Asano studied the white demon thoughtfully for a moment, weighing the possible consequences of questioning him further. However, after a moment he apparently thought better of it, and bowed low in acquiescence.

?I see that you cannot be swayed,? the boy king observed. ?Then I can only ask that you will protect the Seer and treat her well, for her sake and ours.?

To this Sesshoumaru did not reply. Instead he turned away from them and finished his descent down the Temple stair. Behind him, after a moment?s hesitation, the Seer followed, lifting the hem of her long blue robes with one hand while clutching the scrying bowl tightly in the other. They had almost reached the bottom when the warrior Irusei broke away from his comrades to pursue them.

?I beg of you!? he cried. ?Don?t take her! She is my sister! She is the only family I have!?

The Seer?s pace slackened, but then Sesshoumaru?s hand gripped her shoulder, propelling her roughly on ahead of him. Behind him, Sesshoumaru heard the clang of a sword hastily drawn from its sheath. He turned quickly at the sound to behold the young warrior standing on the stair, naked blade in hand.

?Stay your hand, [i]Ningen[/i],? Sesshoumaru said calmly. ?Or attempt to strike me, if you wish. Give me a [i]reason[/i].?

Slowly, mechanically, Irusei lowered his sword and replaced it at his hip.

?Return to the barracks, Irusei-[i]kun[/i],? Asano ordered sharply.

?Come,? the white demon told the Seer, and she obeyed.

Together they strode out of the city and into the open fields, unhindered by any who crossed their path. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]A quiet snow was falling as the Youkai lord and his Seer ascended the slope leading homeward. Sesshoumaru did not deign to speak with her, but he did breathe more deeply than usual every once in a while to catch her scent and to reassure himself that she hadn?t fallen behind. He was [i]not[/i] in the mood to be fishing human girls out of snowdrifts right now. The Seer trudged wearily after him, breathing hard because she wasn?t used to traveling long distances on foot in two feet of snow.

Together they slipped silently through the forest like two ghosts, through the narrow, craggy pass, and into the valley that comprised Sesshoumaru?s estate. Sesshoumaru paused a moment before starting down into it, as he always did, enjoying this first sight of the palace. It was surrounded by vast gardens, lovingly tended by the little wood spirits that his father had given sanctuary in the valley. Through these gardens ran a maze of paths and streams and bridges, though now because night had fallen none of these were visible. All the paths led to the valley?s center like the spokes of a wheel, the hub of which was the palace, rising from the dark, snow-capped trees in all its ancient splendor. It was fashioned from gray mountain stone and dark pine, left to their natural colors because his father had always appreciated natural beauty. The roof of the building?s main hall was high and vaulted, and its corners curved upward into peaks. Its size was mainly for show--the Inu Youkai did not transform inside it. Even Sesshoumaru could count on the fingers of his one hand the number of times he had seen his father transform--such displays of power were frowned upon if used unnecessarily.

From each window of the palace there shown tiny pinpoints of light: beacon fires, lit by the household imps to welcome their lord home. Sesshoumaru drank in the sight of them, remembering a happier time when those lights had been lit for his family members, who were already inside enjoying the warmth--unlike their young, impetuous son. Even in his early youth Sesshoumaru had been full of wanderlust. Yet he had always returned home and paused here, to look upon his family?s halls and let the sight fill his heart with peace.

He did so now out of habit, imagining for the briefest of instants that he would not find those fire-lit rooms barren and empty.

He savored this moment of spiritual quiet, knowing full well that a noisy human child and an even noisier family servant awaited his return and would doubtlessly begin to irritate him the instant he set foot across the threshold. He glanced over at the Seer, who was ruining his moment of peace by gasping like a fish out of water from the exertion of the long climb into the valley. He supposed that after a time even she--silent, pathetic creature that she was--would become an irritation.

Perhaps he would kill her if he decided the nuisance she caused outweighed her usefulness.

For now, it looked to be a long journey down through the gardens when she was already exhausted, and Sesshoumaru didn?t feel like waiting. Without warning, he wrapped his arm around her waist and slung her over his shoulder. She uttered a very undignified shriek of surprise, clutching at the bowl to keep herself from dropping it. With the briefest of glances over his shoulder, Sesshoumaru ordered: ?Do not touch me.?

Then he was off like an arrow from a bow, every stride carrying him for yards at a time. Some of his bounding leaps carried them about the level of the treetops. The Seer obeyed his warning and did not grasp at his skin, but when at last they arrived at the palace the Youkai lord had to pry one of her fists open to free his hair. He did so roughly and briskly, so that he only touched the skin of her hand for the briefest of moments. He saw no visions.

Mutely she staggered after him into the main hall, staring curiously at everything around her. As Sesshoumaru had predicted, they were met immediately by a very flabbergasted Jakken, who after a moment of gaping at the human woman standing behind his master launched into a very whiny string of protests.

?Oh, NO milord! Why have you brought a HUMAN?! What am I to do with ANOTHER one?! This bodes ill for us, Master! We haven?t the room!? This last, of course, was preposterous, because the palace was far larger the living space needed for four people. Of course, Sesshoumaru preferred there to be a large number of vacant chambers between his own and those belonging to the palace?s two noisier tenants, so there was always THAT to consider...

?This, Jakken, is the Seer of Reiyama,? the white demon explained blandly.

The Seer did not seem the least bit concerned with Sesshoumaru?s reasons for bringing her, and was now studying the paintings on the vaulted ceiling, which were outlined in intricate gold filigree. The household imps were beginning to creep into sight, staring curiously at the Seer with their bulbous eyes.

?Take her,? Sesshoumaru ordered them, and then turned his back on her to confer with Jakken.

Several imps approached her, and after two of them tugged on her skirts with their child-like fingers the Seer understood that they wanted her to follow them from the hall.

?Truly, Milord, what are you thinking? Why--? Jakken was saying.

Sesshoumaru stopped him mid-sentence with a glare.

?You overstep your bounds, Jakken,? the white demon warned.

Prudently, the imp shut his mouth and hurried after his master, who had begun to walk down the hall in the opposite direction.

?The [i]kirin[/i] ordained me Lord of the West,? Sesshoumaru said quietly. His footsteps rang hollowly across the stone floor. ?Yet it also told me something which after these two years I have not forgotten...?[/color]

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[color=purple]It was still gently snowing many miles to the north when Kagome poked her head out of the top of the Bone-Eaters? Well. She paused a moment before hauling herself up out of it, raising her eyes to the level of the rim in order to scan the area for unwanted interlopers. There were no footprints that she could see, and the glade was quiet. She was just about to duck back down again and shout an ?All clear!? to Inuyasha when a pair of strong arms locked under hers and pulled up onto the Well?s rim.

?KYAH!? she screeched, and then nearly fell over off the rim as the hands hastily detached themselves from her body.

?I?m sorry!? Miroku apologized, backing away from her in a hurry. ?I didn?t mean to--say, where IS Inuyasha??

Kagome turned to see the monk glancing about him somewhat nervously. He seemed more worried about Inuyasha pounding him for touching Kagome than he did about the fright he had caused her. She sighed, supposing that was the best anyone could hope for.

?He?s coming,? Kagome replied. ?He?s just bringing my stuff through for me. There?s quite a bit of it this time.?

True to her word, a moment later Inuyasha appeared over the rim of the Well hauling an enormous sack as well as Kagome?s backpack. Both were full to the point of bursting.

?Girls,? Inuyasha grumbled. ?What a fucking LOAD...? He paused, dropping the sack and turning quite pale.

?Are you all right, Inuyasha?? Miroku inquired solicitously, apparently still wary that Inuyasha had seen him with his hands on Kagome. He had hastily withdrawn the offending appendages into the folds of his sleeves to avoid drawing attention to them.

Inuyasha didn?t answer, but then the moment passed and his normal color returned.

?He?s all right,? Kagome assured the monk. ?It?s just when he goes from white to green that you want to stand clear.?

Inuyasha scowled, and Miroku rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful.

?So you?re still ill, are you?? he remarked. ?Well, I suppose you ARE mortal...?

As Inuyasha?s scowl deepened, and Kagome saw that a hasty change of subject was in order.

?Where?s Sango?? she asked the monk.

?She?s with Shippou in the village, helping Kaede cook dinner,? he replied, brightening a little. ?There?s stew tonight.?

?Good,? Inuyasha grunted. ?Now help me haul this shit down there before I die.? He happened to glance over and noticed Kagome?s sudden blanching at this, so he amended, ?Help me haul it before I puke again.?

Dutifully the monk took the backpack while Inuyasha slung the bulging sack over one shoulder. With the added weight he sank a good three inches deeper into the snow on the ground than his two companions.

By the time they had arrived at Kaede?s the night had fallen completely. In the chilly darkness Kagome was cheered by the sight of the firelight shining through the bamboo slats covering the windows of the village houses. She often thought of this village as her second home.

[i]?No, wait, that?s not quite it[/i],? she thought fondly. ?[i]It?s more like wherever Inuyasha is, THAT?S my second home.?[/i]

The object of her affections barely managed to stagger in Kaede?s doorway before dropping the sack with a loud thud and scurrying back outside to wretch over the snow. Kagome paused before going in to pat his back comfortingly. As he followed her in his mood seemed to have improved somewhat--either because of the pat or because his guts were through heaving for the time being. As Kagome pushed aside the door hanging she was nearly bowled over by the small ball of brown fur that came hurtling into her arms.

?Hi, Shippou!? she greeted him, catching him.

?Oh, Kagome, I MISSED you,? the Kitsune exclaimed, hugging her. ?You have no IDEA how boring it is being here alone with THOSE two.? He pulled away from her long enough to glare at Miroku and Sango, who were now sitting companionably by the fire. ?All they ever DO any more is sit and TALK with each other, and sometimes all they do is SIT...?

Miroku and Sango smiled in unison at this, and Shippou turned away from them in disgust.

Then Miroku, because he was Miroku, couldn?t resist adding: ?That?s because that?s ALL she?ll [i]let[/i] me do...?

Sango ignored this and said, ?Welcome back, Kagome...Inuyasha... Say, Inuyasha, you still don?t look too well.?

?Feh,? was Inuyasha?s only response as he flopped down into a cross-legged position in front of the fire. ?Give me stew,? he demanded of Kaede, pointing at the pot.

?Welcome back, Inuyasha,? the old priestess said dryly, stirring the stew with her ladle.

?I hate to break the cheerful mood, now that we?re all together,? Kagome told them, seating herself beside Inuyasha, ?but we came back earlier than we intended for a reason. Otherwise, we would?ve stayed until Inuyasha was over the flu.?

Taking a deep breath, she proceeded to explain everything that had happened since she had first noticed the changes in her time. The others listened with growing concern as her tale unfolded. [/color]

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[color=purple]Fifty miles to the south, in the darkness of a cave, the demoness Kanna listened as well. She sat on a damp, moss-covered rock holding before her a silver disk that shone with unearthly radiance. She watched the images that swam through it, and listened to Kagome?s tale with a face utterly devoid of expression. At her side, on a bed of moss, there lay the small, frail form of a baby wrapped in swaddling. Yet the darkness concealed the truth of what it was. In its tiny infant?s hands it clutched a fist-sized jewel, stolen from the demon Fuyouheki. The jewel concealed the [i]kehai[/i] left by the baby?s Youkai presence, and so prevented enemies from finding it. The baby?s eyes were sly and fey, and black as the abyss.

?Turn the mirror toward me, Kanna,? it said, its voice not the high mewl of an infant but the deep tones of a man. ?I wish to see her face as she speaks of Inuyasha?s death.?

Wordlessly, Kanna angled the mirror?s light toward the baby?s face.

The child who bore Naraku?s heart smiled into the darkness.[/color]

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[color=purple]Sesshoumaru did not go to the Seer immediately upon changing out of his snow-sodden clothes. Instead he visited the girl Rin in her own chambers to see that she ate properly. The imps had managed to convey to him that if no one enforced her eating habits the little girl would tend toward eating only meat--a practice which Sesshoumaru couldn?t really fault her for, but he sensed that this wasn?t healthy for humans. Sesshoumaru himself didn?t eat food cooked or sliced or mixed in the human fashion.

He had lost his taste for human food long ago on a battlefield, standing among his fallen kin while their blood stained the snow crimson.

?[i]Itadakimasu!?[/i]

He sat and watched Rin eat, though, sitting cross legged in front of her. The little girl wore a silken kimono embroidered with blue and red fish. She was perfectly comfortable with being under Sesshoumaru?s sharp scrutiny, and kept herself busy tucking into her dinner. When she had finished, she laid her chopsticks across her bowl and dabbed at her mouth with a towel brought with her wash-basin. Sesshoumaru tolerated nothing less than the best of behavior from her--even when one?s Youkai form was an enormous white dog that drooled poison, this did not imply that one?s manners should be boorish. The little girl favored him with a sunny, gap-toothed grin, which--despite its human lack of solemnity and disturbing lack of teeth--did not irritate Sesshoumaru at all.

Usually after Rin ate she would show him what she had learned during the day--generally what she had read from the scrolls and records she found in the palace storerooms, but occasionally something she?d found lying around that interested her. The latter were a rather kitsch mixture of artifacts left by the Inu Youkai--Rin liked swords the most--or things she?d found in the garden. Once she had brought a pair of mating beetles, which had led to a very interesting conversation:

[b]Rin[/b]: ?Look, milord, this beetle has two heads!?

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?. . . .?

[b]Rin[/b]: ?Was it born this way??

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?THEY are mating.?

[b]Rin[/b]: ?Oh. . .?

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?. . .?

[b]Rin[/b]: ?Why??

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?. . .?

[b]Rin[/b]: ?. . .?

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?Because it is in their nature to breed. They must do this to make more beetles.?

[b]Rin[/b]: ?. . .?

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?. . .?

[b]Rin[/b]: ?So beetles mate, and I know Youkai come from eggs. But what about humans??

[b]Sesshoumaru[/b]: ?Do not bring insects into the palace any more. They will breed here and eat holes in the woodwork.?

And that, fortunately, had been the end of THAT.

Though he knew it was a sign of his own weakness, Sesshoumaru found that Rin?s exuberance made the palace?s emptiness seem less acute. Rin had enough exuberance to fill up several chambers at once. She seemed to relish making noise, as if she remembered being mute for her early years and was now making up for lost time.

Now that she had finished her dinner, Rin told him, ?Jakken says that you have brought a lady here.?

?I have found a Seer,? Sesshoumaru answered stiffly. ?She will serve me by explaining the visions that she Sees.?

Rin wasn?t about to be dissuaded from her current train of thought.

?Maybe we can play when you are gone,? the little girl mused. Since Sesshoumaru had stopped taking Rin with him when he left the palace, she was alone for most of the day.

Sesshoumaru rose swiftly to his feet, suddenly feeling very restless and irritable.

?You will stay away from her, Rin,? he ordered, glaring down at her. ?The Seer is Tatesei.?

Rin frowned, wrinkling her nose.

?But the Tatesei do whatever you tell them to, right?? she pressed, tilting her head beguilingly to one side. ?So she is not dangerous.

Sesshoumaru, who was in the process of leaving, paused in the doorway, glancing back over his shoulder at the little girl sitting on the marble-tiled floor. The imps were already clearing the remains of her meal.

?You will not go near her,? he repeated. ?She is not a human like you are. If she touches you, you will see nightmares. You will see your memories.?

Then he disappeared through the doorway. Rin watched the white flag of his hair fan out behind him as he vanished around the corner, somewhat confused because he seemed sad about something.

?But I LIKE my memories,? she protested to the empty room, ?because when I first woke up, you were there.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?So somehow, because of something Kagome did, Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha are going to kill each other?? Sango asked slowly. ?Or whatever this eye belongs to will destroy them both??

Mutely, Kagome nodded, swallowing back the tears that were threatening to spill.

?Hmm...? Kaede rubbed her chin thoughtfully. ?I?ve never known anyone with the gift of foresight. I don?t have it, and neither did my sister.?

Inuyasha?s left ear twitched.

?But I will say this,? the old priestess went on. ?Never ASSUME that ye know the meaning behind a prophecy. This is not the time to abandon hope.?

While the others mulled this over, Kaede proceeded to begin doling out the stew in wooden bowls.

?Oh, she?s RIGHT,? Shippou asserted, breaking the silence and pounding his tiny fist into his palm. ?We CAN?T just SIT here and LET this happen!?

?Then what do we do now?? Sango asked. Her hands rubbed absently at her elbows; it was habit that manifested itself when she was worried. Miroku seized the opportunity to sneak an arm around her shoulders.

?I think the answer is clear,? the monk responded. ?We must go to Reiyama. That is where all this started, according to the legend Kagome-[i]sama[/i] heard from Tatesei Sano.?

?It does seem the most logical way to go about this,? Kaede remarked, handing Kagome and Shippou their bowls.

Inuyasha held out his hands expectantly as she filled the next one.

?None for you, Inuyasha,? Kagome told him. ?You just threw up, remember? You should just have tea for tonight.?

?You said the Tatesei were necromancers,? Sango reminded Miroku. ?Even with my demon-slayer?s training I?m not sure I know how to handle the spirits of the dead...?

?I want stew,? Inuyasha insisted, attempting to grab the bowl from Kaede. Kagome grabbed it first and passed it to Miroku.

?But they?re not necromancers any more,? Shippou told her. ?Remember, we told you that Sesshoumaru took over and now he won?t let them use it.?

Sango looked doubtful.

?If they were so powerless without their sorcery, then why is the predicted danger in Reiyama?? she asked.[/color]

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[color=purple]The Seer lay in her chamber upon the bedding provided for her. It was made of green silk, and rustled when she shifted upon it. She would have liked very much to sleep immediately, but she knew that the white demon was coming and there would be no point in trying. Instead she rested her weary head upon the down pillows with her eyes open and her face turned toward the fire blazing in the hearth.

She knew that the Youkai lord would be coming because she saw in his eyes the same hunger that she had seen in the eyes of the Tatesei nobles. The Tatesei were obsessed with knowing the outcome of a future they perceived to be uncertain; the Lord of the West was haunted by a past sodden with bitterness and a riddle that he did not understand. There was very little difference between one man?s obsession and another?s, the way she saw it. Both wanted answers that they did not necessarily deserve to questions that even they were not entirely certain how to ask. The Seer?s greatest difficulty lay in deciding whether to answer the questions that they [i]asked[/i] her or the questions that plagued them because they were [i]afraid[/i] to ask.

The Youkai lord entered through the hallway door, his footsteps a soft and measured tread upon the stone floor. He was quiet, this one. The Seer had never known such a creature as this, who wore silence wrapped around him like a cloak. As he entered, she sat up and pulled her veil across her face before turning to face him. He looked down at her, then glanced elsewhere in the room as if searching for something.

?Where is the bowl you carried?? he finally asked, in his soft prince?s voice. ?The dark one.? He moved closer, then settled down onto the floor in a cross-legged position.

The Seer obediently fetched it from the corner where she had set it. She threw aside the corner of the bed-sheet that she had used to cover it and placed it between them. There was already plenty of water in it--melted snow that she had collected by placing the bowl in the chamber?s window.

Sesshoumaru sat perfectly still, his white robes pooling on either side of his body. He watched her intently. The Seer found this unnerving--she was more than a little afraid of him. In her sheltered life she had never met a demon before, and now she was to serve one.

?If you lie to me,? the Inu Youkai told her, ?I will know. And I will deliver you back to your people... You will not be alive.?

The Seer blanched beneath her veil. She was not afraid of him catching her in a lie, but she [i]was[/i] afraid that he might interpret something as a lie that was indeed truth.

?The only power I have,? she warned him, ?is in choosing which questions to answer. I can?t lie to you, even if I want to. The gift of prophecy means that truth flows through your lips like water.? She touched the surface of the water in the scrying bowl delicately with one finger. Small, perfect ripples spread outward from her touch. ?I am but the vessel for it.? She raised her eyes to his, allowing the gift flowing through her veins to gather and build so that it eclipsed her fear. ?Ask your questions, Lord of the West.?[/color]

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[color=purple]?We don?t really have any other alternatives,? Miroku reminded them all. ?We will have to make the journey as soon as possible.?

Kagome?s face was a study in misery. She wondered if they were doing the right thing.

?[i]What if, by going now, we FULFILL the prophecy because we?ve taken Inuyasha to the place where he?ll die?[/i]? she thought worriedly.

Sango moved to kneel beside her, resting a comforting hand on Kagome?s arm and giving it a squeeze.

?It will be all right,? she assured Kagome. Then she looked up to address the group. ?But don?t you all think it would be better if we waited for Inuyasha?s illness to pass? I mean, it IS winter out there, and we don?t want to take any chances, do we? And we?ve got time, because the unknown threat we?re worried about is nowhere near this village.?

Inuyasha crossed his arms more tightly, shoving his hands even further into his sleeves.

?Feh,? he grumbled. ?I feel FINE.?

?Oh REALLY?? Shippou chimed in. ?Of course. That couldn?t have been YOU out there ralphing in the snow a while ago...?

Kagome scooted closer to him and put a hand on his cheek. He blushed at the closeness of the contact, and then scowled even more because he was blushing.

?You?re definitely not over this,? Kagome told him. ?You?re all hot and flushed. You should get some rest now.?

Inuyasha, who was not about to explain the real reason for his coloration and temperature, obediently moved off toward his corner of the hut, muttering, ?I STILL want stew,? under his breath as he went.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?What do you mean, you cannot answer this??

Sesshoumaru stared down at the woman before him with a mixture of disbelief and the beginnings of anger. Was she defying him, or did she mean that the answer to his question was beyond her ability? Through the blue veil he could see the Seer?s eyes widen with fear, and then she looked down quickly at the scrying bowl.

?I See why it is you ask this,? she told him in hushed tones. ?I See it in the water, as surely as you see me sitting here. There is one who looks like you, whose hair and flesh are white as yours. Yet his blood is not the same, and you hate him for it. You wonder...why he was chosen, and you...were not.?

Sesshoumaru?s brow knitted at the way her words eerily echoed his most private of thoughts. Yet he said, ?Speak,? and peered down into the depths of the bowl himself, curious to see if he might catch a glimpse of what she was describing.

?Jealousy festers in you,? she went on. ?You have everything now: power, your father?s inheritance, two swords of immeasurable power... You no longer desire the sword your brother carries, because you don?t need it. But you wonder why he was the one the Tatesei feared. You wondered why he was the one they tried to murder to stop the prediction of Reiyama?s destruction from coming to pass...? The Seer looked up at him, studying his cold, proud face the way one might study a curiously shaped marble sculpture. ?You wonder why the [i]kirin[/i] told you...that the prophecy chose HIM to shape destiny...and not you.?

The white demon lifted his gaze from the scrying bowl, and leaned closer to her with eyes of burning yellow ice.

?You [i]will[/i] answer,? he told her. His tone, unlike the savagery that shone in his gaze, was deadly soft.

The Seer glanced down at her hands, which she removed from the bowl?s edges and replaced in her lap.

?Foresight is completely unpredictable,? she told him. ?It doesn?t come at a Seer?s beck and call. It often comes when it?s least expected. For me to call up a vision of my own volition would mean I need a great deal more power than I actually possess.?

?More...power?? Sesshoumaru repeated, eyes narrowing further.

Recognizing how thin the ground was upon which she was treading, the Seer realized that she couldn?t tell him no now and remain breathing for much longer. She had no choice but to look into the scrying bowl and see what it was that she needed.

?I see a stone,? she told the Youkai lord. ?It falls...into the bowl... The stone is white...but drops of blood are spattered on it.?

Sesshoumaru stared at her, his anger vanishing only to be replaced by dawning realization. He thought he understood...but he had to be sure...

?I see. Where is this jewel now?? he pressed, peering down into the scrying bowl.

The Seer frowned down at the water.

?A boy carries it. He is pale--pale as a corpse, but his eyes are dark and alive. Another boy walks beside him...a human wearing armor. He carries a sickle on a chain.?

Sesshoumaru straightened, pushing at the fur over his shoulder because it had fallen forward when he bent over.

?That is Hakudoushi, Naraku?s incarnation,? he murmured. ?And the stone is the Shikon no Tama.?

The Seer looked up from the scrying bowl wearing a troubled expression.

?I have heard of this ?Jewel of the Four Souls?. They say it was shattered, and now demons and humans both strive to reform it. They say it magnifies the power of the wicked a hundredfold, but that it is purified in innocent hands.?

?So...? Sesshoumaru said slowly, ?you must have the jewel to reveal the fulfillment of this prophecy, and to explain why it is tied to Inuyasha.? He mulled this over silently for a moment.

The Seer continued to gaze into the depths of the bowl, and her expression changed to one of abject horror.

?The jewel is needed,? she whispered, ?but I do not [i]want[/i] it. I See a hand closing around it...and then I See fire, flowing like a river to the sea. I See an eye, black as the void, opening.? Her hands gripped the sides of the bowl, turning white at the knuckles. ?Oh, do not seek it! I beg of you! Don?t bring it here, to the realm of the Tatesei! I fear its very presence will awaken some evil that has been sleeping here. I beg you, do not--?

Sesshoumaru?s face remained impassive. He leaned forward and, taking hold of her jaw through the veil, forced her to look up from the bowl and its visions. He was inhumanly strong, and she could not break away.

?Tell me,? he murmured. ?[i]Where[/i] is the jewel? Where [i]are[/i] Hakudoushi and his servant, Kohaku??

?I beg, you don?t ask this of me!? the Seer whispered. Her tears were beginning to soak through the veil, which Sesshoumaru?s grip on her face had caused to be pressed closely against her eyes. ?It is perilous to bring it here! You will wake the eye, and the skies will rain fire!?

Sesshoumaru gave her a shake.

?Fool,? he said calmly. ?You are Tatesei. You [i]must [/i]obey.?

From the moment of his ordaining as Lord of the West, Sesshoumaru had always been conscious of the supernatural connection that existed between him and the Tatesei. It was what had bound the Wise to him; it was why they had obeyed him and released the souls of his kindred. It was sorcery, slumbering in his blood until he should call upon it. He had not done so yet. The Wise had obeyed him because they [i]knew[/i] he [i]could[/i] force them to obey. Yet now...this pathetic, weeping creature before him dared to defy him even when she knew it was futile...

And inside his heart, the slumbering, coiled serpent began to stir.

A shadow passed between them--demon and Seer--and though the woman flinched at the shadow?s touch, she could not shrink from it because Sesshoumaru?s hand held her fast. Then the shadow passed over her face and vanished.

For a moment, her lips tightened, and it seemed she had lost her ability to speak.

Then, in a voice subdued and hollow, she answered, ?The boy carries the Jewel toward a human village. I see a well.?

Sesshoumaru had heard all that he needed to hear. He released her and swiftly to his feet; there was no time to waste. The Seer slumped forward, resting both palms on the cold stone floor on either side of the scrying bowl.

?Please,? she whispered. ?Don?t go. Don?t let this obsession with knowing the prophecy?s answer drive you to folly. The jewel will bring a curse down upon Reiyama.?

Sesshoumaru paused at the chamber?s threshold, his shoulders and back; squared his head unturned.

?Since when,? he asked, ?have I ever cared what suffering befalls the Tatesei??

Then he was gone. Alone in her chambers, the Seer trembled with fear. He did not see what she had Seen. His bitterness and jealousy had blinded him to all save his own ambitions.[/color]

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[color=purple]The violet-eyed baby watched Kagome through Kanna?s mirror.

?So,? he mused, ?both brothers are to die. Most interesting. It would seem that this girl has been granted foresight. She has seen what will come...when I have at last completed the reforming of the Sacred Jewel.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 4}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: Hold onto your hats, folks---the stage is set for war.[/i][/color]

[color=gray][i]Author?s Note: Yet another consistency with the updated manga scripts that I forgot to mention: Kohaku?s soul is now completely free of Naraku?s dominion, but he, like Kagura, intends to maintain the illusion that he is serving Hakudoushi (Naraku?s incarnation) in order to learn the secret location of Naraku?s heart. In order to do so he has not told Sango that he is free now. Kohaku desires to destroy Naraku?s heart as penance for the crime Naraku fooled him into believing he committed---the murder of his father and the other demon-slayers. Thus he and Hakudoushi are traveling around on a white horse Youkai that flies. Oh, and for those of you who don?t know, ?Hiraikoutsu? is the name for Sango?s boomerang-like weapon.[/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 5: The Battle For the Fragment {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]Snow fell quietly in the night, clothing bare branches like sleeves and gathering atop clusters of needles on the pines. In the village, Kaede stepped over the sleeping bodies on her floor to stand in the doorway. She pushed aside the bamboo door fastenings and peered out into the darkness. The snow beyond her house was nearly a foot high now, and showed no sign of melting.

[i]?This winter will be a hard one[/i],? she thought to herself, not as a complaint but as an observation of one who has seen many such winters and weathered them well.

Her elderly bones ached from the cold, but her keen [i]miko?s[/i] intuition was focused on the things that moved through the night beyond.

?What is it, Kaede-[i]sama[/i]??

She didn?t turn around as Miroku came to stand beside her, but her eyes narrowed, and with her hand she fingered one of the protective wardings carved into the wood beside her door.

?I sense a foul presence tonight, young monk,? she replied. ?It lingers in the trees, watching.?

Miroku followed her gaze and frowned. He held his staff in one hand, already prepared for defense.

?I, too, sense this presence,? he said darkly. ?It watches us, waiting for the opportune moment.?

?Oh, aye,? Kaede agreed. ?Naraku.?

Miroku skirted the priestess to stand between her and what lay beyond the door.

?Do we wake the others now?? he asked quietly, gripping his staff with both hands and beginning to call up a barrier spell the instant he saw any movement in the forest. ?I can?t think of a moment more opportune for Naraku than this. He?s been watching us; he must know that Inuyasha?s ill and isn?t at his best and he?ll [i]AAAHHH[/i]!?

A strong, clawed hand had just clamped onto the monk?s shoulder, nails digging into his robes.

?Not at my best, EH?? Inuyasha drawled, an evil gleam in his eye. His breath smelled like the tea Kagome had forced him to drink. ?Weren?t going to tell me, EH??

?I-Inuyasha,? Miroku stammered, still recovering his nerves. ?I didn?t think you were awake...?

?Well, you THOUGHT WRONG, DIDN?T YOU?!? Inuyasha bellowed, giving Miroku a shake before the monk was able to wrench himself free of the hanyou?s grip. ?Stupid humans--thinking after THREE YEARS of shard hunting I don?t know Naraku?s scent like I know my own SMELL?!?

Miroku rubbed his shoulder, stepping away before Inuyasha could inflict further damage.

?Speaking of which...? he began thoughtfully, but fortunately Kaede interrupted.

?Silence, ye ungrateful dog!? she hissed. ?Since ye insist on not being left out, then do thy part and aid us in our vigil!?

?Feh,? Inuyasha grumbled, tucking his hands inside his sleeves and looking sulky. ?So...is this one of Naraku?s golems, or another one of his incarnations??

In the shadows of the forest, something stirred.

?We shall see,? Miroku murmured, stepping outside into the snow.

The instant his sandaled foot touched the ground outside with a crunch, the thing in the woods was off like a startled animal. It darted swiftly away from the village, leaving the faint rustle of pine needles as evidence of its passage. And the instant Miroku?s eyes were drawn to this small movement, Inuyasha flashed past him in a blur of white and red.

?Inuyasha--WAIT!? the monk cried, reacting too slow with his human reflexes to stop the [i]hanyou[/i] from streaking out into the night. To Kaede Miroku said: ?Wake the others. We?re going to need help.? Under his breath, he muttered, ?...to control Inuyasha...?

?[i]Mew[/i]?? Kirara had appeared in the doorway beside them; she had not returned to the hut until nightfall because she had been out hunting all day. Miroku had almost stepped on her.

?Bring Sango and Kagome,? Miroku told the little cat, who promptly vanished inside the hut with a flick of her tail.

He and Kaede glanced at one another.

?I will alert the villagers, so that they may flee the village if they have to,? the priestess told him.

He nodded, then took off in the direction Inuyasha had taken.

?Damn that fool of a [i]hanyou[/i],? Miroku muttered as he pelted across the snow. ?That temper of his will be the death of him...?[/color]

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[color=purple]Inuyasha hurtled through the forest, feet barely touching the ground as he went. Twigs snapped against his sides, but the toughness of the Fire-Rat [i]hakama[/i] he wore prevented them from snagging and hindering his passage. His nose detected Naraku?s foul scent wafting back to him; his demon ears heard mocking laughter, which might or might not have been in his head. His enemy smelled sharp and cloying--a smell much purer than that of any earthly thing, yet it reminded him keenly of a graveyard. Along the road chasing Naraku and the Shikon Jewel, Inuyasha had seen many graveyards.

The voice became clearer the further he ran. It was a boy?s voice, but soft and cultured, for the child was old beyond his years.

?Are you coming for me Inuyasha?? it asked him teasingly. ?You would chase a mere part of me all this way, knowing all the while that destroying it will not destroy that which is Naraku??

Branches whipped past, and a shower of snow fell upon Inuyasha?s head. Then he burst through the trees into a clearing. The snow fell quietly here, and nothing else moved. The clearing was empty.
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[color=purple]Befuddled, Inuyasha walked across the clearing on a carpet of white until he came to the object at its center. He knew exactly where he was.

[i]?The Well[/i],? he thought, face settling into a puzzled frown. [i]?Why has he led me here? What the hell does this MEAN??[/i]

He rested a hand on the well?s rim, absently digging furrows into the snow atop it with his claws. Then, suddenly angry, he whirled to face the darkness of the trees, standing with his back to the well.

?Show yourself!? he demanded, brandishing his claws. ?Hakudoushi!?

There was a moment of empty silence, and were it not for his enemy?s ever-present scent, Inuyasha would have thought him long gone.

But Hakudoushi slipped noiselessly from the trees: a short youth with pale skin, paler hair, and sly violet eyes that marked him as an incarnation of Naraku. He wore a white hakouma, and black sandals fashioned from ebony; his shoulder-length hair hung loose about his face.

?Why are you here?? Inuyasha growled, unsheathing Tetsusaiga in a flash. ?On second thought, I don?t give a damn. Prepare to DIE!?

He lunged for Naraku?s incarnation and swung the blade downward toward Hakudoushi?s skull to cleave it in two. The boy never moved.

But the creature behind him did.

It came forth from the darkness of the wood, chittering and scuttling on its many legs. With demon speed it moved to grasp Tetsusaiga between its black pincers not two feet above Hakudoushi?s head. With an exclamation of disgust Inuyasha wrenched the weapon free of its grasp, staggering back a few paces to take stock of this new opponent.

Had he known what a scorpion was, Inuyasha might?ve described this as a much larger version of one. But he hadn?t, and he wasn?t quite sure what to make of it. It had a stinger on the end of its long, curling tail, and four giant pincers that functioned as arms for grabbing prey. Its body was composed of black chitin, which was rounded and hard like a beetle?s carapace. But its eyes, which were divided into what looked like a thousand tiny mirrors, were a sickly violet color, and Inuyasha knew that he was dealing with another of Naraku?s creations.

The creature?s tail whipped down toward him at lightning speed--for all its size and awkward shape it was fast. Inuyasha recovered himself and slashed at the stinger with his sword, but just as quickly the tail retracted. Not waiting for it to finish this maneuver, he took a flying leap at it, preparing to stab downward through the top of its abdomen. Instead he found Tetsusaiga buried in the bark of the tree trunk beyond it. Amidst a shower of wood splinters scattered by the force of the blade?s [i]kenatsu,[/i] he turned to see that the creature had scuttled sideways on its many legs. One of the pincers snapped at him. He kicked it with his right foot, forcing it backward, but then the smaller pincer that had been hidden from view beneath it shot forward and clamped around his left foot.

With a shout of pain and anger, Inuyasha yanked Tetsusaiga free of the tree, twisted his upper body, and sliced downward. The creature chittered as the pincer gripping Inuyasha?s left ankle was severed. A gout of sickly yellow ichor sprayed from the wound, but the creature did not retreat. Instead, as Inuyasha bent to slice the severed claw from his ankle, shot its left large pincer forward and caught his right wrist, which held Tetsusaiga.

?You?re slow, Inuyasha,? Hakudoushi observed calmly from somewhere beyond the monstrosity. ?You may die sooner than I had anticipated.?

?LIKE HELL I WILL!? Inuyasha yelled, baring his fangs.

The Youkai?s tail unfurled rapidly toward Inuyasha, whom it had used its pincer to yank off-balance. But just as swiftly Inuyasha plucked Tetsusaiga from his right hand with his left and swung it downward. The creature?s chittering rose to a high-pitched whine; Inuyasha had severed not only the pincer holding his right wrist, but also the one below it. Then he leaped clear, and the creature?s sting fell harmlessly upon the snow. Yellow-green poison trickled from the needle-thin point of it, staining the snow.

?WHERE ARE YOU, you little BASTARD?!? Inuyasha demanded, whirling around; eyes searching the clearing for Hakudoushi.

The snowfall had grown thicker, and it was harder to see. With Tetsusaiga, Inuyasha managed to pry the two pincers from around his ankle and wrist, though he did manage to cut himself in his haste. When he looked up from this brief occupation, he spotted Hakudoushi, seated comfortably on the rim of the Bone-Eaters? Well. The pale-skinned youth had tucked his arms into his sleeves, and he watched Inuyasha coolly.

The scorpion-like Youkai, now maddened with pain, rushed at Inuyasha, but he dodged just in time, swinging Tetsusaiga and managing to take off one of the creature?s legs. Then it aimed its tail at him, and he was forced to roll out of the way. By the time he got back on his feet his hair was full of snowflakes.

?You think this pathetic excuse for a Youkai is gonna KILL me?!? Inuyasha scoffed, pointing the blade toward Hakudoushi accusingly. ?What are you--stupid?! I?m already hacking this thing to pieces!?

Hakudoushi tilted his head to one side, smiling a little.

?Of course you are. But the fever seems to have addled your senses.?

Inuyasha scowled, slashing half-heartedly at the scorpion as it rounded for another attack. It dodged Tetsusaiga, but backed away for a moment, as if the wounds he had inflicted upon it had made it wary.

?What the hell do you mean?!? Inuyasha shouted. ?How did you know I?m sick? And why did you REALLY bring me here?!?

The pale youth?s smile deepened.

?Was it not YOU, Inuyasha, who followed ME here??

The scorpion came at Inuyasha with demon speed, its insect?s legs scuttling so fast they seemed to blur. Inuyasha waited until the thing was almost upon him, and then he leaped high into the air and landed on its back. He stabbed downward with Tetsusaiga, but the Youkai?s black armored carapace was so hard that even the sword?s strong [i]kenatsu[/i] was deflected. The [i]kenatsu[/i] rushed upward around Inuyasha?s body like a strong wind, ruffling his hair and Fire-Rat robes. The Youkai bucked its body, attempting to throw him off, but he managed to shift his weight and keep his balance.

?Just answer the fucking question!? Inuyasha growled.

Hakudoushi rested one foot on his other thigh, looking amused.

?I know you?re ill because Naraku knows. Naraku knows because Kanna saw it in her mirror. I decided to take advantage of the situation.? The pale youth raised a sardonic eyebrow, running a hand along the wooden railing. ?As for the Bone-Eaters? Well...?

Inuyasha glanced down and experienced a bit of a nasty shock. The scorpion?s severed appendages were magically reattaching themselves to its body. They slid along the ground as if they were being dragged by invisible hands. Inuyasha was simultaneously forced to shift sideways as the creature lurched sideways and to duck to avoid its flailing tail.

?This creation of Naraku?s cannot be killed by stabbing it, Inuyasha,? Hakudoushi informed him calmly. ?If you slice off its limbs, they will re-attach themselves. If you try to stab its body, your sword won?t pierce the hard shell. And as for the Well... I know that for you and the priestess? reincarnation the Bone-Eaters? Well is some kind of portal. You cannot use the stronger magic of your sword against the Youkai, or the Well will be destroyed in the process.?

?Oh, I?ll find a way, BELIEVE me,? Inuyasha retorted. He hacked off one of the reattached pincers, which was making another grab for his ankle. But inwardly, he was worried. ?[i]So now Naraku knows about the Well??[/i] he thought. ?[i]Damn Kanna and her mirror! Now he?s found another of my weaknesses to exploit...?[/i]

Then a rare flash of ingenuity struck Inuyasha?s brain like lightning.

He attempted to slash the scorpion?s tail off, but the tail was coated with the same chitinous armor as the rest of the creature?s abdomen. He had expected this; severing the tail wasn?t his main objective anyway. Then he deliberately allowed the snapping pincer to clamp onto his ankle and sank into a crouch, pretending to be thrown off-balance.

As he?d predicted, the tail furled and then unfurled rapidly, hurtling down toward Inuyasha?s mid-section with the intent of embedding the stinger there. Instead, he dodged at the last minute, and the scorpion chittered with rage. Its stinger had missed him, and become embedded in the vulnerable flesh attaching the pincer to the body--which Inuyasha had known to be vulnerable because it was the only place aside from the legs that Tetsusaiga had done any damage. The scorpion tried to free its stinger from its own body, but the blow had been hard, and its own poison was now flowing into it.

Inuyasha leaped clear of the bucking, thrashing body wearing a feral grin.

?Heh,? he said, approaching Hakudoushi, who hadn?t moved from the Well?s rim. ?I guess Naraku overlooked the fact of making it immune to its own poison when he made it.?

He flicked the dying creature?s yellowish blood off of Tetsusaiga?s blade. Hakudoushi looked on with a calm expression.

?Why did you follow me into the woods, Inuyasha?? the pale youth asked coolly.

Inuyasha brandished his sword in Hakudoushi?s direction.

?I came to take back the shard of the Shikon Jewel that was stolen from Kagome.?

Hakudoushi smiled and removed his slim white hands from his long sleeves. There was nothing in them.

?I don?t have it,? he told Inuyasha. ?But the Shikon no Tama [i]is[/i] the reason that I let you chase me here...?

Inuyasha, who wouldn?t have known a riddle if it bit him in the rear, shouted, ?Shut it, you lying bastard!? and swung Tetsusaiga.

The blow clove Hakudoushi completely in half at the midsection. Hakudoushi laughed as it happened.

There was no blood.

Then Hakudoushi disappeared, leaving only a small wooden golem lying in the snow on the rim of the Bone-Eaters? Well.

Baffled, Inuyasha picked it up, examining it between his claws. There was not a single jewel shard to be found on it, or around it, either. Hakudoushi hadn?t been lying...but this hadn?t been the [i]real[/i] Hakudoushi, either...

?Just a puppet?? Inuyasha murmured, confused. ?But then WHY...??

?Inuyasha! What happened here??

Miroku had just entered the clearing, and now stood panting and clutching his side. He cast a sidelong glance at the scorpion Youkai, which appeared to be dead though its legs still twitched spasmodically. Then he turned and noticed the wooden figure in Inuyasha?s hand.

?A golem?? he asked, frowning. ?Naraku sent another one of his golems and a new incarnation to attack you? That seems pointless. For someone who wants you dead, a bug and a puppet seems rather halfhearted. Unless...? The monk straightened, having dispelled the stitch in his side. ?Unless it was a lure...?

Inuyasha?s eyes widened. ?DAMMIT! THAT was what Hakudoushi meant! The golem led me here...so that the REAL Hakudoushi could go after the JEWEL SHARD...KAGOME...!?[/color]

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[color=purple]Kagome and Sango hurtled through the forest atop Kirara, following the direction that Kaede had given them. The woods were dark and cold, but the two were warm because riding Kirara was like sitting atop a furnace. The woods were dark, but they weren?t silent. Kagome could hear the faint sounds of Inuyasha shouting as they rode, echoing through the trees. But it wasn?t the echo she was following--it was the [i]kehai[/i] of the jewel shards.

?That way,? Kagome told Kirara, pointing off to the left where a small shadow had just slipped between the pines. ?It?s there.?

Kirara seemed to have other ideas. The enormous tiger-like Youkai was sniffing the air in the opposite direction and rumbling a little in her throat.

?Kagome...are you certain it?s left?? Sango asked. The demon-slayer was seated behind Kagome with her arms around Kagome?s waist to keep her balance. ?Kirara seems to think Inuyasha?s somewhere to the right.?

Sango was in full battle gear, with Hiraikoutsu strapped across her slender back and a metal breathing-mask on because dealing with Naraku meant dealing with poisonous miasma. Kagome didn?t need a mask, because out of the entire group she was the only one completely immune to the poison.

?No, I?m sure it?s left,? Kagome insisted, reining Kirara in that direction. ?I sense the Shikon no Tama not far ahead, and that should be where Naraku and Inuyasha are.?

With some reluctance, Kirara veered off to the left. The snowfall was growing thicker by the moment, making visibility worse. Were it not for Kagome?s ability to see kehai and Kirara?s keen nose they might as well have been blind. The ground was beginning to slope upward as they covered more ground and traveled further from the village. Neither girl was very certain exactly where they were now. After a while, Sango?s doubts were growing.

?Kagome, I think we should go back to the place where we turned,? she urged. ?I don?t even think Kirara knows where we?re going any more.?

Kagome pressed her lips together worriedly. She had her doubts as well, but she was more afraid of leaving Inuyasha alone to fight for himself even though Tatesei Sano had told her he died in Reiyama. The certainty that Inuyasha was going to die had sapped the confidence she had in Inuyasha?s ability to defend himself, and the fact that he was ill didn?t help, either.

?Just a little farther,? Kagome insisted, squinting to keep the snow flurries out of her eyes. ?The [i]kehai[/i] is gathering ahead. I can almost see the actual shape of the jewel, so it?s close!?

Kirara seemed to be sensing it as well. Her great furry head swung from side to side, sniffing intently at the air. The low rumbling in her chest sharpened into a growl. She pushed off a rock protruding from the snow and bounded up and over the slope ahead. Beyond it was a small gully, carpeted with snow.

?It should be here--? Kagome started to say, but then she was cut short by a sudden jolt.

From beneath the snow in the gully white-robed Hakudoushi rose so fast his body became a blur. Kirara snarled and twisted in mid-air. Kagome and Sango gripped the Youkai?s thick orange fur to keep from being bucked off. Then Hakudoushi?s hands flashed again, and Kirara reared and let out a high-pitched yowl. Her two riders were thrown to the ground; both of them sank into the snow on either side of the gully?s banks. Kagome struggled to push herself into a sitting position, unable to scream because the wind had been knocked out of her. With fingers already numb from the snow she grasped at the arrows in the quiver strapped to her back. Sango was much quicker. The demon-slayer rolled down the slope onto her feet, swiftly drawing her sword.

?What on earth...? KIRARA!?

Kirara sank into the snow, flames blazing around her body as she transformed back into her smaller form. In that brief flash of fire, Sango saw in the sudden light the flash of steel in each of Hakudoushi?s hands. He held two daggers, with which he had sliced Kirara?s vulnerable underbelly four times when he leaped up from the bottom of the gully. Then Kirara?s flames went out, and the little beast lay motionless in the darkness. Sango wasted no time and flew at Hakudoushi, aiming her slash for his throat.

Sword rang against metal as another boy and his weapon imposed themselves between Sango and Hakudoushi.

?Kohaku,? Sango breathed.

Her brother stood between her and her enemy; her blade had struck his sickle. In the moment that she hesitated, he curved the weapon?s blade around her sword and jerked the chain. The sword pin wheeled off into the darkness. It landed point-down, and its landing was followed by a very loud crack.

Meanwhile, Kagome had managed to find her bow, which had been dislodged from her back when she was thrown from Kirara?s back. However, now she was having trouble notching an arrow, because her hands were almost completely numb from digging through the snow. The ground beneath her was strangely hard, as if the very earth had frozen under the snow.

The first crack was followed by a longer one.

?What [i]is[/i] that?? Sango asked, reaching for the smaller dagger concealed beneath her sash.

Kohaku, of course, did not reply, but proceeded to drive her back with a series of vicious swings of his sickle. Sango tripped and fell backward as the lower tip of Hiraikoutsu caught on a protruding rock and hit the backs of her knees. But Kohaku did not press his advantage--instead he advanced slowly upon his sister, with eyes downcast and hidden.

Kagome finally managed to notch an arrow. As Hakudoushi stood over Kirara?s small, motionless form, poised to stab downward with his swords, she let fly.

The arrow glowed as if set alight, cutting a short path through the darkness as it sped toward Hakudoushi. However, the enemy saw it coming. He whirled around, crossed both swords in front of him. The arrow struck them and flashed brilliantly. Still silent but no longer smiling, Hakudoushi tossed the blades from him. They fell into the snow, still crackling with energy.

?I grow tired of this,? the pale youth said calmly, addressing Kagome. ?As much as it would please me to kill the beast and the demon-slayer, it was you that I came for. It?s time I put an end to this.?

Over the top of the gully a large insect with a stinger on its tail came scuttling. Kagome heard it coming before she saw it--multiple legs thumping against the earth like horses? hooves. Its chittering call raised the hair on the back of her neck.

?Take the flesh,? Hakudoushi told it. ?But leave me the jewel fragment.?

?[i]Where are Inuyasha and Miroku?![/i]? Kagome thought frantically. ?[i]Why haven?t they COME?!?[/i]

She notched another arrow, clumsily this time, and made ready to fire it at the new monstrosity. But she had underestimated the creature?s speed, and it was upon her before she could shoot. Its pincers snapped at her mid-section. Her heavy winter clothing saved her. The scorpion?s top two pincers sliced through three layers of fabric and a little skin as well, but she managed to throw herself backward against the ground to avoid the brunt of the attack. As she did, the arrow she had notched shot forth from the bow, and went blazing into the night sky.[/color]

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[color=purple]Inuyasha was speeding back toward the village with Miroku on his shoulders to make better time.

?Inuyasha, they may not even be in the village,? Miroku shouted into Inuyasha?s ear over the rush of wind. ?Hakudoushi lured you here so that he could attack Kagome alone, right? He may have lured [i]her[/i] out into the woods as well!?

?She?s with Sango and Kirara, right?? Inuyasha shouted back. ?Let?s hope that means she?ll be safe until we get there...?

Then a brilliant flash of white light lit up the sky. Inuyasha skidded to a halt, turning just in time to see the white blaze die as the arrow reached the pinnacle of its ascent and began to return earthward.

?That?s--? Miroku began.

?Kagome?s arrow,? Inuyasha finished for him.

Then they were off, running in the direction of the signal.[/color]

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[color=purple]?Little fool,? Hakudoushi remarked coldly. ?You?ve wasted your shot.?

One of the scorpion?s lower pincers shot forward and clamped around Kagome?s bow. The appendage clenched, and the wood splintered. Abandoning any hope of retrieving the ruined weapon, Kagome scooted backward on all fours, trying to find some purchase in the snow with her heels to get to her feet. But the ground beneath the snow was too slippery. In fact, it was [i]very[/i] slippery...

The scorpion?s tail crashed downward, and Kagome threw herself to one side and rolled just in time to avoid it. The stinger struck the ground with terrifying force.

And then there was another crack.

A loud one.

Followed by a groan as of large things shifting underfoot.

Kohaku sliced his sickle downward, severing his sister?s sash. The small weapons that she had concealed in it tumbled out and rolled away from her, but she did not attempt to retrieve them. Instead she used her dagger to parry the sickle?s blows. Then the groaning of the ground beneath them rose to a thunder-loud rumble, and both looked up in surprise.

?Master!? Kohaku cried, backing away from Sango a little as she leaped to her feet and swiped at his weapon-hand. ?You must call the demon off! It will collapse beneath us!?

?Ice!? Sango cried in realization. ?This isn?t a dip in the earth; it?s a [i]river[/i]...?

Hakudoushi cast a cold stare Kohaku?s way but offered no sign of acquiescence. Instead he stepped backward carefully until he was standing on the slope above the frozen river.

?If you can?t save your own life then you?re of no use to Naraku,? the pale youth said icily. To the scorpion, Hakudoushi said: ?Finish it. Kill her.?

Then the demon bore down upon Kagome, who threw her hands in front of her face in one last attempt to protect herself. Her right hand came into contact with one of the scorpion?s multifaceted eyes. It chittered in agitation as light flared between them and the eye began to melt, but it didn?t retreat.

Then the creature?s body heaved as something struck it heavily from behind. Red light blazed in lines along the creature?s body as if claws were raking themselves along it. The attack did not pierce the scorpion?s armor, but in the process every one of its legs were severed. No longer able to support itself, the creature crashed to the ground. Kagome struggled, but she remained pinned beneath its weight. The only good thing about this was that without being able to support itself standing, the scorpion could not maneuver its pincers well. In its rage it flailed them, attempting to snap her head between them. The ice beneath them groaned, and the air was split with the chain-reaction of cracks that followed.

Hakudoushi saw that the object he?d come to steal was about to fall through the collapsing sheet of ice and be swept beneath it downriver. He darted back down onto the groaning ice, and reached toward Kagome?s throat, where the last fragment of the Shikon no Tama hung on its chain.

?NO!? Kagome cried, but she was powerless to stop him with her arms pinioned beneath the scorpion?s body.

She could see the Sacred Jewel hanging inside Hakudoushi?s clothes near his heart as clearly as if it had been outside of them. It was beautiful--she?d forgotten how beautiful, because she?d been carrying the last small fragment of it for so long while Naraku carried the larger piece. The shard at her throat began to pulse, almost seeming to rise toward Hakudoushi?s hand as he reached for it. It was almost as if, after all this time in fragments, the jewel itself longed to be whole...

Then a sword-blade flashed between them, wreathed in red flame.

Hakudoushi?s reaching hand was severed halfway up the forearm, and the youth rose and leaped back with demon speed to avoid taking the full brunt of the blade?s [i]kenatsu[/i]. Crouched spider-like on the side of the gully, he glared at his attacker, violet eyes narrowed to slits.

?YOU,? he breathed, clutching at the stump of his arm. ?Why YOU??

Kohaku abandoned pursuit of his sister, running up the opposite bank and disappearing over the top. Sango, now free of having to defend herself, shouted: ?KAGOME, I?M COMING!? She scrambled to her feet and slung Hiraikoutsu off her back. Yet in her haste, she had forgotten that the ice was collapsing beneath her very feet. The ice groaned and crackled as she moved, and she realized that if she moved any further it would collapse in full. Yet she couldn?t throw Hiraikoutsu forcefully without running momentum. And then she saw the red flash of light illuminate the face of the one who had intervened. Red light still smoldered at various places along the ice--remnants of Tokijin?s [i]kenatsu[/i].

?Sesshoumaru,? Hakudoushi hissed, backing up the slope. Miasma seeped from his wound, slowly turning the air in the gully to mist.

Sango watched with both horror and surprise as the mist began to spread and Inuyasha?s half-brother advanced on the enemy.

?I?ve come for the jewel,? the white demon said softly.

?You fool,? Hakudoushi said in a low voice. ?After all the time that it has been in my hands, do you think you can just take it from me??

Sesshoumaru took a slow step toward Naraku?s incarnation, nudging the severed hand with his foot.

?I have taken [i]this[/i] from you,? he answered calmly, ?and it was a [i]part[/i] of you.?

Sango tensed. The poisoned mist was growing thicker. If she was going to handle this, she would have to do it soon because it was even with the mask she couldn?t stand Naraku?s miasma for long. And she also wasn?t sure if she should aim Hiraikoutsu for Hakudoushi or Sesshoumaru. On one hand, Sesshoumaru seemed to have become somewhat reformed. He had saved her life and the others? several times before, though he claimed otherwise. On the other hand, it seemed that now he had developed a sudden interest in the Shikon no Tama itself--something which he had never done before.

Sango frowned, shaking her head.

[i]?The miasma must be getting to me[/i],? she thought chidingly. ?[i]What am I thinking? He?s too strong for me to handle. Hiraikoutsu won?t DO anything to Inuyasha?s brother except make him angry[/i].? In this sense attacking the pure-blooded son of a Greater Youkai with a single un-enchanted weapon was roughly the equivalent of walking up behind him and slapping him heartily across the rump.

Plagued with indecision, Sango hesitated a moment longer.

And then fate made the decision for her.

Hakudoushi?s eyes flashed white, and an aura of power gathered swiftly around his body.

?The jewel, Lord Sesshoumaru, is more a part of me than any [i]flesh[/i].?

The white demon flew at him, but the aura pulsed once and then exploded. A rush of light filled the gully. Sesshoumaru was thrown back by the force of the magic.

[i]?So this...this is the true power of the Shikon no Tama[/i],? he thought as he was hurled against the snow-covered ice. ?[i]And it is not even WHOLE yet...?[/i]

By the time the light had cleared, and the eyes of those watching had grown accustomed to the darkness once more, they saw Hakudoushi and Kohaku ascending heavenward atop the back of an enormous white horse. Sesshoumaru immediately tried to leap up to meet them, but all around the horse clouds had gathered and the skies flashed lightning. Froth poured forth from the beast?s mouth, and its eyes were mad. This was Hakudoushi?s steed Entei, whose hooves made thunder as it flew. No one, not even Sesshoumaru, could match it for speed or flight.

The white demon descended to the earth once more, where he sheathed Tokijin and stood watching silently as horse and riders ascended beyond visibility.

Meanwhile, the scorpion?s legs had reattached themselves. The ice groaned as it lifted itself off of Kagome. She scrambled out from under it. Then Sesshoumaru turned, seeming to notice her for the first time. The scorpion attempted to pursue her, but it didn?t get very far because the ice beneath it was breaking up.

Sesshoumaru stared at Kagome as she staggered to her feet on legs numb from being pressed against the snow, and there was something calculating in his stare that unnerved her.

Then several things happened at once. The scorpion lunged for Kagome, pincers clacking menacingly. It caught her around both legs, and at this very instant the ice beneath it gave way entirely because of the sudden weight shift. The creature was plunged into a dark hole in the white and into the icy waters running below...and still it did not release its hold on Kagome?s legs. Then Inuyasha and Miroku burst forth from the trees, shouting things that no one could hear above the deafening groan of the ice breach and the enraged chittering of the scorpion. Inuyasha took a flying leap and landed on the creature?s back. The sudden impact caused the ice to collapse further. The scorpion sank in so far that only its upper body and tail protruded from the dark, swirling water. Only Kagome?s head and shoulders were visible above the ice; the scorpion?s upper pincers were now clacking wildly in an attempt to grab her head and pull her under with it. Kagome herself could scarcely move--her body had become numb almost instantly in the freezing river.

?Hang on, Kagome!? Inuyasha cried. He grasped hold of the scorpion?s tail with one hand and dived under the water with it. Then the ice really began to churn as the beast and the [i]hanyou[/i] thrashed beneath it.

?Stay there, Miroku!? Sango cried to the monk, who was still standing on the bank. ?The miasma?s too strong down here, and you have no mask for it!?

Reluctantly, Miroku obliged. He couldn?t use the Wind Tunnel, because his friends were too close to the scorpion to avoid being sucked in, and they had nothing to hold onto to anchor themselves.

Sango plunged into the miasma, regardless of the risk, heading for Kagome.

Sesshoumaru reached her first. [/color]

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[color=purple]Beneath the water, though he faced the numbing chill and nearly no visibility, Inuyasha managed to force the scorpion?s tail down against one of its legs. Then he grabbed the leg, and impaled it upon the stinger. The scorpion?s thrashing intensified into death throes, and for a moment he thought he might drown because he lost sight of which way to swim to the surface. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?KAGOME!? Sango shouted, fanning at the mist with one hand while keeping a firm grip on Hiraikoutsu with the other. ?WHERE ARE YOU?!? She could scarcely see a thing; the large amount of miasma that had issued forth from Hakudoushi?s wound now pervaded the air in the gully. It was thick as any fog. Sango made her way along the ice with difficulty--haste was making her less sure-footed, and it seemed as if everywhere she stepped new cracks opened up and the ice groaned and sank.

She almost tripped over Kirara, who lay curled up in a nest of blood-soaked snow.

?Oh, Kirara,? Sango whispered, tears coming to her eyes. ?Please don?t be dead...?

To her immense relief, the little cat?s eyes opened slightly, and she mewled at the sound of her mistress? voice. Clutching Kirara tightly against her chest, Sango pressed on. She didn?t have time to take Kirara to safer ground before she reached Kagome--the ice was breaking up with increasing speed. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]Sesshoumaru stood before Kagome, staring down at her as she held on to the shifting, cracking ice while the claws of the scorpion demon tried to drag her under with it.

?P-please,? Kagome managed through chattering teeth. ?H-h-help m-me...?

Sesshoumaru did not move, but his yellow eyes flickered toward the scorpion?s head, which had just emerged from the freezing river beyond Kagome and was now chittering madly.

And then, slowly, he drew Tokijin from its sheath. [/color]

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[color=purple]A hand plunged beneath the icy waters and grasped hold of Inuyasha?s wrist. He clasped it convulsively in return, and pushed off the bucking demon?s carcass in order to propel himself in the direction the hand was pulling him. He broke the surface with a gasp, using his claws to drag himself up onto the remaining ice.

As Miroku helped Inuyasha to stand and climb clear of the breaking ice, they heard Sango cry: ?NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?

Both of them plunged back into the miasma, regardless of the risk, stumbling over the ice in the direction of Sango?s shadowy figure. The scorpion was very large and very long, and they had to circle far around it to avoid falling into the breach in the ice shelf created by its thrashing.[/color]

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[color=purple]?S-s-sesshou-ma-maru,? Kagome whispered through blue, trembling lips. Her body was beyond even the point of shivering.

The white demon knelt and bent near to her, laying Tokijin across his knee and reaching his hand toward her.

Kagome?s eyes widened.

He was reaching for the chain at her throat.

?SESSHOUMARU! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!? Inuyasha and Miroku had just emerged from the miasma to see Sesshoumaru looming over Kagome. Miroku noticed Sango standing frozen, her face pale and frightened. Kirara was cradled in the crook of one of her arms; with the other hand she gripped Hiraikoutsu?s edge as if were thinking of throwing it but was afraid to.

?Inuyasha...? Miroku said in a low, warning tone. ?Don?t be rash...?

Sesshoumaru?s claws curled and slashed downward. Kagome gave a weak cry of protest. The white demon rose swiftly to his feet, lifting Tokijin off his knee. Dangling from his fist, with the broken chain still threaded through it, was the fragment of the Sacred Jewel.

Inuyasha started forward, his face darkening with fury.

?If you touch her again, I swear I will send your soul to hell if I have to drag it down there myself,? he said in a low, harsh whisper.

Sesshoumaru heard, and his fist clenched more tightly around Tokijin?s hilt. For a moment time seemed to stretch. There seemed an eternity between the blade gleaming as he raised it above his head and the instant of closure as he stabbed downward with inhuman force and plunged it into the ice.

Tokijin pulsed once.

Then a wave of red light poured down the blade in rivulets and shot outward in all directions upon contacting the ice. Red, jagged lines shot through the ice like veins.

And then, with a final, heaving groan, the entire surrounding ice shelf gave way. The scorpion was suddenly submerged again, and this time it dragged Kagome with it into the roiling, dark waters.

Sesshoumaru sheathed Tokijin even as the ice gave way beneath him. His hand closed around the jewel.

Inuyasha flew at him then, a blur of white through the falling snow. But then Sesshoumaru was gone--dissolved into motes of light and traveling well beyond the [i]hanyou?s[/i] reach.

?Inuyasha, HELP ME!? Miroku shouted. The monk was kneeling on a small island of broken ice, floating rather precariously but still trying to reach for Kagome in the water.

Inuyasha leaped to his aid, plunging into the icy river. He found Kagome floating just below the surface, but when he tugged at her she would not move. Then he realized that the scorpion?s pincers still held her legs, even though the thing was dead now. Swimming a little deeper, he slashed the creature?s limbs asunder with his claws.

He re-emerged from the river and hauled Kagome to safety. He hated having to lay her in the snow on the bank, but Sango and Miroku needed his help getting off of the river as well because both were somewhat weakened from breathing the miasma-fouled air.

Then Inuyasha crouched beside Kagome.

?Sesshoumaru...he...? Kagome whispered.

?Don?t speak,? Inuyasha ordered. ?Save your strength.? To Sango and Miroku, he said, ?You?ll be all right getting back to the village, right??

?We will,? Sango agreed, removing the short waistcloth she wore over her pants and wrapping Kirara in it.

Miroku sat up, coughing a bit.

When the fit had passed, he added, ?And if worst comes to worse we won?t freeze. Sango and I can always strip and use my robes as blankets to wrap ourselves in.?

This earned him a glare.

?Precautionary measures, you understand,? he told Inuyasha.

Satisfied that his friends were lively enough to make it to safety on their own, Inuyasha turned back to Kagome, whose condition was more critical.

?I?ll take you home,? he promised, sliding his arms underneath her. ?I won?t let you die.?

?W-why...d-did...he t-take it?? Kagome asked insistently as Inuyasha carried her across the river in one leap. ?Why...would he w-w-want it??

But Inuyasha didn?t answer, and she was losing consciousness. She heard voices, swimming in her head: Sango?s and Miroku?s, and Inuyasha?s... She wanted to tell...wanted to tell Inuyasha that...

?What did she say?? Miroku asked, frowning down at Kagome, who had gone limp in Inuyasha?s arms.

?She said ?in the dream he took the jewel, and the sky rained fire?,? Inuyasha replied, confused and more than a little worried.

Then he was off, feet scarcely touching the ground as he headed for the Bone-Eaters? Well.

In the river, the last burbling breaths of the dead scorpion surfaced amid the churning ice.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 5}[/b][/color][/CENTER]
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[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 6: The Curse of the Scrying Bowl {+} {+} [/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]He sailed through the night; a collection of lights bearing his physical form in within the envelope of his soul. Trees rushed by beneath him; clouds blew past above him. Wind rushed through him, yet he felt no chill.

This gift was his mother?s legacy--she who had been a wild spirit of the deeper woods; a relic of the dawn of demonkind given moon-pale flesh and a woman?s warmth. She had met his father in the wood, in a glade where the sun fell slantwise through the interlacing branches and there existed such stillness and such peace that the Youkai lord?s heart had never known the like. He looked up from the spring where he had been drinking and she stood on the other side, ephemeral and unreal as a legend. Though it was morning, there was moonlight in her hair, and in her eyes. Yet her flesh had proved real enough as both fell upon a bower of moss to merge beneath the forest canopy, drawn together by the magic of the place. Afterward, she kissed the lord?s eyes, and he fell into a deep slumber, and did not wake again until nightfall. When he did, she was gone, swallowed by the forest as if she had been given form only for that moment in the glade and none thereafter.

Sesshoumaru?s father had never seen her again, though he searched for her often and always walked alone in that forest in the morning light. Yet one such morning, he arrived at the spring, and found a sight that made his heart clench with the fires of memory. Where once the spring moss had grown to carpet the forest floor, there now grew a cluster of snow-white flowers. In their midst there lay a small child, pale and ephemeral and unreal, lying curved like a crescent moon. The Youkai lord bent to touch the boy?s hair, his face, breathing in the sweet scent of the blossoms that cradled him.

The child awoke, turning his small, beautiful face upward, revealing eyes the golden shade of amber--eyes like his father?s. The child?s head lay cushioned on white fur; his father?s fingers brushed across it carefully, as if the Youkai lord were afraid this boy were an illusion that would vanish as his mother had.

White fur was the mark of the Inu Youkai Clan.

The child was his.

The Lord of the West lifted his son in his arms, and the fragrant blossoms tumbled from the boy?s body in a soft shower of white. Though he was very small the boy was not afraid. Trustingly he wrapped his arms around his father?s neck, and allowed himself to be carried away beyond the forest.

The child did not know speech at first, though it seemed he understood everything that was said to him and he learned rapidly. His father taught him this and many other things, but when the boy asked about his mother his father could only answer: ?I have lost her, but the forest gave you to me.?

He called the boy Moriatae meaning ?Forest Gift.?

Later, when the boy became a man, he chose for himself a new name, but in those first years he was Moriatae to his father.

Sesshoumaru?s ability to travel as he did now--in the form of clustered light--and the crescent mark upon his forehead were the only remnants of his mother in him. He did not care to remember her because she had left him, and he could not have remembered her even if he had desired it. From the moment of birth his life had passed in a strange dream of moonlight and vines, and he had not awoken until the moment his father lifted him in his arms. Then his life had begun anew, and all else faded to white.

In this way, Sesshoumaru was not so very different from Rin.

He flew over the woods, over hill and dale, rock and river, and then on into the mountains. [/color]

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[color=purple]The Seer lay dreaming.

She tossed and turned in her bed, entangling one hand in her hair, which was splayed across the pillow like a halo. The dream was dark, as all of her dreams had been since the Youkai lord had brought her to this place. She saw his face clearly now when she slept. The black, obsidian eye was open now, and watching, and now it was turned upon this proud, quixotic demon whose obsession she understood all too well.

?He walks blindly,? she whispered as she slept. ?BLINDLY. Blindly into...?

?Into what??

The Seer snapped awake to see a pair of large brown eyes peering down into hers. She let out a startled cry and sat up, pressing one hand to her bosom.

?Into what?? the child bending over her repeated.

It was a little girl, wearing a silk kimono embroidered with fish. For a moment the Seer could do nothing besides stare at this vision of youth and happiness in the heart of what seemed to her a very lonely, empty castle. The little girl stepped back a little, placing her small hands on her hips.

?What is your name? Can you not speak?? she asked, tilting her head to one side and eyeing the startled woman with a look both curious and shrewd. Something about the girl?s formal manners and rather piercing scrutiny seemed very familiar to the Seer.

?I am Suiton. Are you a ghost?? the Seer asked, letting the blankets fall away from her shoulders. It was the only explanation she could think of for such a young human child wandering around the Youkai lord?s halls. She supposed that he must have devoured this girl at some point and now her spirit was confined to the castle.

?Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i] says that there were ghosts once, but now their souls are free,? the girl replied, laying one thoughtful finger on the side of her chin. ?Rin is glad there are none,? she added, ?because the ghosts made him sad.?

Suiton stared at the girl, unsure of what to make of this strange speech. This child spoke as if she knew the Youkai lord well, and she certainly didn?t [i]seem[/i] dead...

?Come on,? the little girl urged, suddenly catching hold of the Seer?s hand and tugging at it. ?Let us go exploring now!?

Suiton flinched at the contact of skin on skin, fearing that she would frighten the child from the offset with the strangeness of her gift, but then she realized something that came as a further shock to her.

Even as the little girl?s small hand grasped hers, no magic came, and no illusions filled the space between them. The Seer was aware only of the small, warm fingers as the girl pulled her hand encouragingly.

This girl--this ?Rin?--had no memories.

Suiton opened her mouth to ask something, but then she changed her mind and allowed the child to lead her from the room. It didn?t seem plausible that the girl could be one of the Youkai lord?s servants; the imps seemed to be quite efficient on their own. Whatever reason it was that made him keep Rin, the Seer was not sure she wanted to know.

Together they traversed the long, lonely halls, skirts swishing softly as they walked. There were torches lit everywhere, even though there didn?t seem to be any other inhabitants.

?Where are we going?? Suiton asked, by this time quite lost in the maze of empty corridors. She pulled her blue robes more tightly around her shoulders; a cold draft pervaded the hall, and it was beginning to seep into her very bones. Rin didn?t seem to mind it.

?Into the garden,? Rin answered, skipping so that she landed on every other stone in the floor.

The Seer paused, frowning.

?It?s very cold outside,? she pointed out. ?I?m not dressed for this.?

Unexpectedly, Rin?s eyes lit up.

?I know!? she exclaimed, grabbing Suiton?s hand. ?Let?s go find you something warmer in the silk room!?

?The ?silk room??? the Seer asked somewhat doubtfully as the girl pulled her down the hall with renewed zeal.

?I found it all by myself,? Rin explained. ?There are lots of clothes there. Most of them do not fit me, but you are much bigger.?

The ?silk room,? as it turned out, contained many items other than silk. Suiton ran wondering hands over them. There were folded silken kimonos, all stacked neatly as if waiting for a crowd of women to pluck them from their shelves. There were sashes dyed the color of flame, and haori hakoumas embroidered with ornate depictions of white dogs and fluttering red banners, swords and arrows, animals and flowers. Some of the men?s clothing she found particularly unusual--many of the robes were lined with what appeared to be predator?s fangs sewn onto the fabric.

?Here,? Rin said, presenting the Seer with a cloak lined thickly with black fur. ?Wear this.?

Suiton took it somewhat reluctantly--it was soft and warm, and as she slipped it over her shoulders she felt as if she were putting on a living thing.

?These things were theirs, weren?t they?? she murmured, glancing about the room. ?They belonged to the Inu Youkai. So I shouldn?t take them.?

Rin tilted her head to one side, considering. She had found an oversized man?s haori, and was wearing it like a coat.

?But you belong to Lord Sesshoumaru,? she pointed out. ?So his things belong to you, do they not? Besides, all of the Inu Youkai are dead except for Lord Sesshoumaru and his brother. No one else will use these things.?

Slowly, the Seer nodded, and allowed the girl to lead her from the room. They traversed the hall some more, and then stepped out through a sliding door into the snow-covered garden. Suiton breathed in deeply, enjoying the crisp winter air and the sunlight sparkling on the snow.

?Come on,? Rin urged, tugging her onward. ?I will show you my special place.? Then she added, as an afterthought, ?But we must come back before lunch, or Lord Sesshoumaru will catch us.?

At this the Seer?s heart plummeted.

[i]?What am I doing?[/i]? she thought, raising one hand to her mouth. ?[i]Why am I staying here? He?ll return with the Shikon no Tama, and soon if the girl is to be believed. I should use what time I have to run...?[/i]

Lowering her hand, she followed Rin out into the garden.[/color]

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[color=purple]Inuyasha emerged from the Bone-Eaters? Well in Kagome?s time with snow still caked in his hair. The night air on the other side was cold but still temperate when compared to the blizzard in the Feudal Era. The sudden contrast in the air sent a convulsive shudder down his back. Kagome was limp as a doll in his arms.

He didn?t even bother knocking on the Higurashis? front door. Instead he dug the claws of his left hand into it and flung it aside so violently that it was nearly jounced from its hinges. Inside, he was greeted with the much more tranquil sight of Kagome?s mother and grandfather seated at the table drinking tea. At the sight of Kagome in such a state clutched in the arms of one snow-encrusted hanyou, Grandpa?s jaw dropped. The cookie that Mrs. Higurashi had been holding slipped from between her fingers and landed with a splash in her teacup.

?What--?!? she exclaimed, horrified. She leaped to her feet instantly.

?What did you DO to her--bury her in a snowbank?!? Grandpa demanded, advancing on Inuyasha in a fury.

?She needs to get warm!? Inuyasha insisted, pushing his way past the both of them and heading for the stairs.

?Where are you taking her?? Kagome?s mother called, hurrying after him.

?Her bed is warm,? Inuyasha answered as he thudded up the stairs, a flurry of snow scattered behind him. ?If we put her there she?ll get warm.?

?Inuyasha, that?s not quite enough,? Kagome?s mother protested. ?She won?t warm up quickly that way. We need to get her in a warm bath.?

?How does HE know her bed is warm?? Grandpa muttered, wheezing as he pursued them.

?In here, then,? Inuyasha decided, veering off to the left and skidding to a halt on the bathroom tile.

Despite his rather clumsy entrance, he did manage to lay Kagome down gently on the fuzzy bathmat. Kagome?s mother caught up with him and started the water running.

?So when do we put her in?? Inuyasha asked anxiously, hovering around the girl on the bathmat, over whom Grandpa Higurashi had draped a blanket.

?We have to get these clothes off her,? Mrs. Higurashi remarked. ?They?re caked with ice.?

?That?s your cue to leave her to us,? Grandpa added, bending to assist his daughter.

Inuyasha turned very red and hastened out the door. Grandpa kicked it shut behind him. Such was the [i]hanyou?s[/i] haste in exiting the bathroom that he almost fell over Souta, who was standing just outside holding Buyo the cat and looking very frightened.

?Is Kagome okay?? he wanted to know. ?She won?t die, will she??

Inuyasha folded his arms into his sleeves.

?Of course not,? he replied loftily. ?I saved her. She?ll be okay in the warm bath.?

But Souta?s lower lip was quivering. Inuyasha scowled--dealing with tears wasn?t one of his strong points.

?I?ll sleep in your room again,? he announced.

?Really?? Souta managed a watery smile, clutching Buyo to him so tightly that the cat began to squirm. ?Okay.?

Inuyasha followed him back down the hall.

?So, uh, your room is near the other bathroom upstairs, right?? he asked casually.

?You?re still sick and puking, aren?t you?? Souta asked with interest.

Choosing to ignore the question, Inuyasha pointed to Buyo.

?I?ll keep you company on one condition: THAT goes OUTSIDE.?

He and Buyo still had issues.

Souta dropped the cat, which immediately scampered away, hissing as it passed Inuyasha and taking a brief swipe at Inuyasha?s foot with its claws.

?Fucking cat must have demon ancestry,? Inuyasha grumbled.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]For a while Suiton?s resolve wavered. As Rin led her through the maze of garden paths, showing her interesting statues and trees, the woman did not think she could bear to simply leave the child without explanation. Her conscience balked at this and conjured up the vision of Rin trying to chase after her, wailing for her to come back.

Being a Seer could be burdensome at times.

But then nature intervened. As the morning progressed and noon approached, the snowfall had thickened dramatically.

[i]?It would be easy[/i],? Suiton rationalized, ?[i]to appear to get lost. She knows her way back to the palace even though I don?t. This way, if the demon lord finds me I will have an excuse...?[/i] And she began looking for opportunities.

Suiton?s toes were completely numb by this time, though Rin didn?t seem to mind the cold at all. The little girl skipped here and there, her attention alighting on objects of wonderment at every turn. The numbness was making the Seer clumsy and somewhat unsteady on her feet.

[i]?I?d better do it soon[/i],? she thought, [i]?before stealth is entirely out of the question.?[/i]

?I will show you my special place,? Rin announced with a winsome (if gap-toothed) smile. ?It is just beyond those trees over there.?

The Seer?s heel slid in the snow as she made to follow Rin, and she stumbled a bit. Then she looked up, and her head reeled. For a brief moment, it seemed her heart stopped. Then she understood.

She had hesitated too long.

There would be no running now.[/color]

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[color=purple]Sesshoumaru stood quietly, as if the icy winter air had frozen him into a column of marble. One white sleeve was still stained with Hakudoushi?s blood. At his side, in a pouch fastened to the sword-belt from which Tenseiga and Tokijin hung, he felt the Shikon no Tama begin to pulse. Before him, the Seer stood utterly still as well, as if his presence had cemented her in place. He hesitated, because her scent was commingled with that of the black fur cloak she wore. Seeing her standing thus--face averted and shielded behind a curtain of black hair; body swathed in the long, formless cloak--he saw a memory that he did not care to see.

Then she turned, and the spell was broken. Her face was very pale--but a few shades darker than the snow--and her dark eyes were long and slanted. But he avoided looking her in the eye, instead resting his gaze somewhere over her left shoulder. He did not want the memory to overwhelm him.

[i]?Is this why she wears the veil?[/i]? he wondered detachedly. ?[i]Does her very face work a curse??[/i]

The Seer?s gaze was wide-eyed and frightened. Sensing that something was amiss, Rin ran over and caught hold of the woman?s cold hand in her small, warm one.

?Lord Sesshoumaru, you have returned!? the little girl chirped, smiling a little uncertainly.

Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed.

?Step away from her, Rin,? he said softly. ?She is here only to do my bidding, and now I have come for her. Go back to your chambers.? But he also thought, ?[i]Interesting... Rin can touch the woman and remain untroubled.?[/i]

Rin obediently backed away, but she hesitated to leave.

?Please do not be angry with Suiton,? she pleaded. ?It was Rin who brought her out here.?

?Go,? Sesshoumaru repeated without looking at the girl.

This time Rin obeyed, scampering off toward the palace.

Then, before the Seer had time to react, Sesshoumaru grasped hold of her arm and pulled her along with him toward the northern wing of the palace. Very much afraid now, she clawed at his wrist with her free hand; even tried to work her magic on him, but his mind was too focused on the present to be swayed by her gift. He paid her frantic attempts to free herself less heed than the twigs that snapped beneath his feet as they went.

By the time they had reached the Seer?s chamber, the breath was sobbing in her chest. He had forced her along with demon swiftness; now with demon strength he pushed her away from him, toward the scrying bowl.

?Please...? the Seer pleaded softly, but her hands automatically reached out and took hold of the scrying bowl as if they knew of their own volition that the demon lord would not be swayed.

With the air of a woman tying her own noose, she slid the bowl a little ways across the stone floor, so that it lay between them. The water sloshed a little, slopping over one side because her hands trembled.

Slowly, Sesshoumaru reached into the pouch at his side and withdrew the Shikon Jewel. The Seer drew in a deep, shaky breath and let it out slowly. At her sides, her hands clenched and unclenched within the black folds of her sleeves. Deftly, Sesshoumaru knelt before the scrying bowl, raising the jewel into plain view, where it glimmered despite the dim winter light.

?Demon lord,? the Seer said softly, ?if you give me the Sacred Jewel, then what I have Seen will come to pass. I warned you before; I am warning you now. I have Seen the Black Eye open, and the skies rain fire.?

Sesshoumaru?s expression remained cold and resolute.

?Take the Jewel,? he ordered impassively, ?and give me my answer.?

?Do you know, demon lord, that there is a curse upon the scrying bowl?? she asked. Though she did not move to take the jewel, her eyes were fixated upon it.

Sesshoumaru?s expression darkened and he did not reply. The Seer did not seem to notice; she spoke in a low voice, as if she were already in a trance.

?Men turn to Seers because they have neither the wisdom to let the past lie nor the courage to shape their own future. Noble men turned to me--men of compassion; men of honor; warriors and kings. They chained me to a Temple throne and worshipped me with their desperation. And when I ran, they hobbled me that I might run no more. And when I tried to crawl beyond the Temple walls, dragging my broken body with me, they sent warriors to guard my prison. And then you came, and took what you wanted. And what you take will destroy you, even as theirs will destroy them.?

Sesshoumaru, whose patience had already reached its limit (a very short trip), began to call upon the magic that bound the Tatesei to his will. It uncoiled like a serpent stirring, raising its head and sliding sinuously toward the kneeling woman in a thin line of shadow. Still the Seer did not reach for the Jewel.

?The curse of the scrying bowl, demon lord, is obsession,? she whispered. ?Because you do not believe the disaster I have foreseen, you will awaken it blindly.?

The shadow passed through her breast and disappeared.

?Take the Shikon no Tama,? Sesshoumaru said sharply, as if she had not spoken at all.

With her left hand she reached out and covered the jewel in his palm with her own small hand. Her skin was hot now--feverishly so. She did not take her eyes off the Jewel.

?There is no need to force me,? the Seer said softly, ?for now that the Sacred Jewel is so close I am drawn to it as surely as a moth to flame.?

Her fingers closed around it convulsively, and she took it from him. Then she passed it into her right hand and let it fall into the bowl. Ripples spread outward from it in perfect rings as it sank to the bottom; the jewel was a glowing pearl settling into an ebony chalice. Seer and Inu Youkai leaned closer, bending their heads so close that they nearly touched.

Light swirled in the water, following the current of the rings until, upon reaching the center of the spiral, it spread outward until the bowl was filled with brightness. Sesshoumaru squinted, trying to see past this sudden brilliance, but even his demon eyes were not keen enough. Images flashed out at him: his own face, younger and full of anger; a river of fire twisting sinuously down a mountain; a sword-blade, flashing in the sun; a child standing on the edge of a ravine, bleeding and defiant... Bombarded by these strange sights--some of which were achingly familiar--Sesshoumaru was finally forced to avert his gaze, fearing that he might go blind--or mad.

In glancing up, he found himself eye-to-eye with the Seer. There was accusation in her stare, but Sesshoumaru was beginning to sense that she was no longer herself. He had never seen the gift take hold of her this strongly.

?Remember, Lord, you chose this,? she whispered. ?You brought me the Jewel, and the choice was no longer mine. What you reap now...are the fruits of your endeavors.?

Then her eyes were flooded with darkness, and the scrying bowl was filled with fire. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Present; Our Era[/b][/CENTER]

Kagome sat up in bed with a start, shuddering.

?What...?? she asked without knowing why, eyes darting nervously around the peaceful darkness of her room.

For a moment her disorientation terrified her, but then things spun into focus and she remembered what had happened and how she had gotten here. She was tired but no longer freezing; the warm bath and sleep beneath piles of blankets had helped immensely.

Yet Kagome clutched her shoulders, shivering as if from bitter cold.

?[i]No, not cold[/i],? she thought. ?[i]Fear...?[/i]

?Hey, you okay??

Inuyasha?s head popped up over the railing at the foot of the bed. He was sitting on a sleeping bag that he had dragged in from Souta?s room--sleeping in there had not worked out because as it turned out Souta?s room [i]wasn't[/i] near the other upstairs bathroom, and Inuyasha [i]hadn't[/i] been able to keep down the [i]soba[/i] Mrs. Higurashi had fed him before bed. The sleeping bag underneath him was rumpled but unused; restless and worried about Kagome, Inuyasha had been unable to sleep and instead spent the night sitting cross-legged atop the sleeping bag and twitching occasionally.

?Inuyasha,? Kagome breathed, very much relieved to see his face. ?I?m glad you?re with me.?

Inuyasha was too concerned to blush at this, and with one bounding leap he was crouched on the bed in front of her.

?What is it?? he asked, prying one of her hands off her shoulder and feeling it to reassure himself that she was warm now. ?Did you have a weird dream again??

?No,? Kagome answered, shaking her head. ?Not this time. What I saw...I think it?s happening right NOW.? She looked up at the [i]hanyou[/i] worriedly. ?I think we have to go back now. Whatever this is, it?s in Reiyama. We have to stop it from happening before it?s too late.?

Inuyasha eyed her gravely for a moment, then nodded slowly.

?Get your stuff,? he told her. ?Get warmer clothes this time. If we?re going to head for Reiyama, we?ve got a long journey ahead of us.?

While Kagome slid out of bed and set about the task of packing again, it occurred to Inuyasha that he ought to let Kagome?s family know that they were leaving. Then it occurred to him that her family might not let her leave given that she was still recovering from being dunked in a frozen river. Then it occurred to him that since he was going to take her with him anyway he?d better leave a note.

?We should leave a note,? he told Kagome.

?Right,? she responded, fishing pen and paper out of her desk drawer. ?But what should I tell them about--??

?Never mind that,? Inuyasha interrupted, snatching pen and paper from her grasp. ?Hurry up and finish packing before the fucking cat wakes up and decides to come after me.?

Kagome eyed him curiously.

?I didn?t know you could read and write.?

Inuyasha stared back, on eye beginning to twitch.

?Of COURSE I can! My mother taught me how.?

Somewhat doubtfully, Kagome returned to her packing while Inuyasha scrawled out a message. Then he and Kagome were off, bounding out the open window and heading for the Well.

On Kagome?s desk, the note said:

?We will go back to my time now. Kagome will be back soon (word ?if? crossed out) when we kill the (word ?bastards? crossed out) enemy. Do not worry; I will protect us all.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Feudal Era[/b][/CENTER]

In the depths of the scrying bowl, Sesshoumaru and the Seer saw the obsidian eye open as the massive head lifted. Its scales shone like mirrors, reflecting the fire and stone that surrounded it.

?[i]I SEE it[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought wonderingly. ?[i]What IS this, and why can I see it as well as she does? Is her power that interconnected with the Sacred Jewel?s??[/i]

Then the dragon raised its head and fix its flinty gaze upon them. In that briefest of instants, Sesshoumaru felt as if he were drowning in blackness deeper than the earth itself. All thoughts of what he had asked of the Seer fled, leaving him empty and naked beneath the dragon?s watch. He felt its heat surround him, lifting robes and fanning his hair out around him. The dragon?s presence was like a rush of desert wind; he had never sensed such immense power before. It was the power of a god.

And he wanted it.

But the dragon?s eyes upon him were filled with malice. This being hated him; hated him with the intensity of an old enemy who knew him well, even though he had never met such a creature in his life.

?What are you?? he found himself whispering beneath the roaring of the flames. ?What is this power??

?No,? the Seer whispered, but neither demon nor dragon would heed her.

Sesshoumaru felt tides stronger than the force of will sweeping him into the fire. He sensed that something great awaited him there, if he but had the desire to reach out and take it. The dragon?s power was terrible...greater than any force wielded by Tenseiga or Tetsusaiga...

The dragon, too, was bound to him, and because of this it hated him.

The serpent coiled in the demon lord?s breast--that which bound the Tatesei to him--reared its head and struck. Sesshoumaru?s hand, which had been reaching toward the vision in the water, landed instead upon the rim of the bowl, upsetting it and knocking it over. Numbness consumed his limbs and he pitched forward onto the stone.

The Seer?s hands shook uncontrollably as she pulled the scrying bowl out from beneath his arm. Most of the water had spilled out onto the floor. Some of it had soaked into the demon lord?s sleeve and spattered across his pale brow; the rest pooled in a depression in the floor. The Shikon no Tama lay in the puddle. The Seer?s breath would scarcely move through her chest--her body had gone tense with fear.

Yet still she crawled closer to peer into the water where the Jewel lay. In it, in place of the brown stone beneath, she saw the dragon turn its head away. The vision followed its gaze, moving swiftly down the side of the mountain to the city below. A shadow moved with it, pulsing outward from the dragon?s metallic flesh like a black wave. The shadow covered every house; every building of the city. A man stood on the Temple stair, with almond-shaped eyes and a noble, aquiline face. He saw the darkness coming, and spread his arms open wide to receive it. It passed through his body, and when it had gone she saw that his veins now ran with fire, and his eyes were black as the dragon?s.

As she watched, the shadow moved on to every house, passing through wood and stone and demon bone-pillars as if they were naught but illusions made of air. And in each house, she knew that it passed through each person there, igniting the blood of the Tatesei...awakening in them a magic as old as demonkind...

The man on the stairs turned his face toward her, and when she saw who it was she dashed her hand across the water?s surface, sobbing. The vision shattered into fragments and then disappeared, dissolved because she had willed it so.

She had Seen enough.

And now she was frightened--afraid for herself, and for her people, even though she bore very little love for them. The demon lord lying motionless at her side had brought her the Jewel, and now the creature in the mountain was awake. She did not know what it would do. It had awakened to find the people who bore its blood ruled by the son of its demon enemies. There was no fathoming the rage of such a creature over this strange twist of fate.

?What have we done?? the Seer whispered. But the vision was gone, and the white demon lay as one dead, his hair and robes draped over his tall body like a shroud.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]In the still quiet of the palace, King Asano awoke from a fitful slumber. He sat up in his bed, the covers slipping down over his chest. His breath was heavy, as if he had just run a great distance, and cold sweat was beaded on his forehead. Frowning, he felt at his bare chest with both hands, where he had dreamed the shadow passed. It had been so vivid, and now he felt...[i]changed.[/i]

As if there were now something inside him that had not been present before.

For a brief moment he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remember. All that came to him was a flash of flame, and then darkness. The vision would not return.

With a sigh, he glanced down to his left. At his side, his wife stirred, grimacing as if in the throes of a nightmare. Asano brushed his fingers across her forehead, smoothing her hair away from her brow. He was surprised to see that his hands were not shaking. In fact, despite the strangeness of what he had dreamed, he was not shaking at all.

In fact...he felt stronger than he had ever felt before...[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]In the peaceful confines of Kaede?s hut, Sango awoke with a gasp from what had been a deep, exhausted slumber. She sat up, clutching the blankets to her chin, eyes scanning the darkness for the source of the fear she felt.

But there was nothing. Nearby, Miroku slumbered happily, one of his fingers clutching at the cushion beneath his head.

[i]?Probably thinking about my rear[/i],? Sango thought with fond irritation.

Reassured by the monk?s presence, she lay back down and forgot what it was that she?d dreamed.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]The Seer crept away from the water on the floor on her hands and knees, weak with fear and exhausted but wanting to put distance between herself and the Jewel in the puddle. She didn?t know what she could do to right this wrong. She wasn?t even sure she [i]could [/i]stop this fire, now that it had been awakened. She laid a hand on the demon lord?s back, pressing a little to feel for breath. To her immense relief, his body still rose and fell beneath her palm; he wasn?t dead.

Had he been dead, she would not have known whom to turn to. The man on the Temple stair, who had so willingly embraced the shadow and drawn it into himself, was her brother.


Now the demon lord was the only one who might be able to stand against the Tatesei and their newly-wakened blood. She knew because he had demonstrated his power to control them before.

Though it seemed he remained unaware of her touch, Lord Sesshoumaru?s pale lips moved beneath the white curtain of his hair. At first only a breath escaped. Then the Seer bent nearer, and heard what it was that he whispered.

?At the dawn of the Greater Youkai,? he murmured, ?there were also dragons...?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 6}[/b][/color]

[color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 7: Fire Awakened {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]Wordlessly, the infant Naraku stared into the mirror for a long time. He had turned his attention away from watching Inuyasha and his comrades the moment Sesshoumaru took the Shikon shard from Kagome.

?How troublesome,? he murmured.

Kanna, who was holding the mirror, merely glanced at him blankly. This was fine with Naraku--noisy subordinates were more likely to become food for the worms.

?An irritating development,? Naraku went on, ignoring her and talking to himself. ?The mortal girl no longer has the fragment. This complicates things...?

Regardless of the fact that she was under Inuyasha?s protection, Kagome was still mortal--albeit a mortal who could see the shards. But Sesshoumaru...this was not something that he could have predicted. Sesshoumaru had never shown any direct interest in obtaining the Jewel before...

?Knowing him, it must be a quest for vengeance,? Naraku mused wryly. ?In the mirror, I have seen that he still watches the Tatesei city with hatred in his eyes. Yet up until this point, he has done nothing, because Reiyama is silent...?

The mirror that Kanna held was dark and silent. Naraku had witnessed what Sesshoumaru saw in the scrying bowl, but at the instant the dragon turned its burning gaze upon its watchers something strange had happened and the vision had vanished. Now the mirror would no longer call up Sesshoumaru?s image.

?It?s as if something has erected a wall around his soul, barring all from entering,? Naraku murmured. Kanna?s mirror revealed images seen by people whose souls were troubled by hatred or fear or sorrow; the way her magic worked was for the soul to become the window to the eye.

Naraku?s violet eyes narrowed.

?Somehow, he has managed to summon a dragon--which may prove to be his undoing, for the dragon hates him. Yet at the same time something is protecting him from me, because I can no longer use the mirror to spy on him... A mystery.?

?What do you want me to do, Naraku-[i]sama[/i]?? Kanna asked in her soft little girl?s voice. ?The mirror is dark. Shall I go to Hakudoushi and send him to find Sesshoumaru??

Naraku frowned. In his current physical state, regardless of the crystal that he had obtained to disguise his demonic aura, this was still the most vulnerable that he had ever been in his life. Thus he could not go personally; that would be too much of a risk. It was a considerable price to pay for spreading himself so thin--distributing his demonic life-energy among his minions so that he might seek the last Shikon fragment more swiftly. That was why he had been forced to hide his heart in this small, weak form, which would ever be vulnerable until the day the completed Shikon no Tama was placed in his hands...

?I will not send Hakudoushi, or any other,? Naraku decided. ?Nor will I go myself into that particular den of vipers--the Tatesei city. Instead...I sensed something vital at the last moment before Sesshoumaru?s mind became closed to us... He wants the dragon?s power. With it, he will no doubt come to destroy me. This I cannot allow.?

Kanna merely stared blankly at him, now that he was no longer directly addressing her. The only other sound in the cave was the infrequent dripping of condensed moisture from the ceiling to the rock below.

?Yet...there is another way,? Naraku mused, a cruel smile flitting across his lips. ?A trump card, which I have waited for a long time to put into play. The dragon, wherever it came from, hates Sesshoumaru. Yet he will seek it, because he desires to kill me, and perhaps he also desires to finish what he started and destroy the Tatesei.? Naraku paused, eyes flickering toward the darkened mirror. ?Very well. Let him be lured to the dragon, to take its power if he so desires. There is another weapon that will kill him, though I cannot be present. This weapon is a blade ever aimed at his heart.?

He laughed softly, and the sound echoed through the cave.

?When Sesshoumaru is dead, I will send Hakudoushi to take the last shard for me. Once the Sacred Jewel is made whole in my hands, nothing else will matter.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]In the palace chamber, the fire still crackled heartily but the air had grown colder. At least, it seemed this way to Suiton, who had been kneeling on the stone floor for so long that her limbs were stiff and chilled to the bone. The demon lord still lay unconscious, speaking no more after his last strange pronouncement. She managed to turn him over onto his back and laid a blanket over him because his skin had grown icy to the touch. She refused to or even so much as glance over her shoulder at the Shikon no Tama on the floor. At this point she felt that seeing another vision might truly drive her mad.

Even as this thought occurred to her, the Seer turned back toward the white demon in alarm. She didn?t exactly [i]know[/i] what it was that had happened to him to make him like this. Had he Seen what she had Seen? And, if so, why had he alone been affected?

What if he had been driven mad?

The hand that she had been reaching toward his face withdrew and returned to her lap. If he had been driven mad, then touching his mind would do her no good. Suiton had no desire to risk her own sanity by plunging into whatever maelstrom the dragon had unleashed within him.

So instead she waited, keeping a silent and worried vigil at his side.

Hours passed, and eventually her head slumped forward onto her chest as patience gave way to exhaustion.

She awoke moments later to the sound of his voice, opening her eyes to find him sitting up and rubbing his forehead.

?Where is the dragon?? Sesshoumaru asked softly. He did not seem angry, but the slight knit of his brow gave indication of bemusement.

The demon lord seemed to show no sign of lingering pain or weariness. He rose onto his knees and then turned to stare at the Seer, who was regarding him with something akin to amazement.

?You--you?re ALIVE,? she blurted out without thinking. She had half-expected him to die from whatever it was the dragon had done to him.

[i]?He is strong[/i],? Suiton thought to herself. ?[i]Perhaps there is hope...?[/i]

Sesshoumaru didn?t appear pleased that she?d had any doubts about his survival. His arm shot out and grabbed her by the front of her robes, pulling her off-balance. He leaned toward her, until their faces were nearly touching. Suiton braced herself. She had supposed that death was imminent from the moment the demon lord had laid claim to her, but she wasn?t overtly fond of pain, either.

?Your eyes,? he said unexpectedly. ?They have changed.?

?I?m sorry, my lord,? she managed, averting her gaze. ?I will find the veil and wear it again so--?

He gave her a little shake, cutting short her stammered apology.

?Your eyes are like the dragon?s now,? he said sharply. ?Why??

?What?? Suiton straightened, hands moving automatically to her face, but of course she felt nothing amiss. Her face was still her face.

Yet his words echoed the unease that she had been feeling before he awoke, and she rushed to the chamber?s dressing table, casting about clumsily in her desperation to find a mirror. The disc the Seer found was small, but it was enough.

Holding it level with her face, Suiton saw that her eyes were black--completely black. No white remained, though she was frightened and her eyes were wide open. The Seer dropped the mirror, and it shattered on the floor at her feet.

She sank to the floor after it.

?What is this?? the Seer whispered, pressing her fingers into her eyelids as if it were a stain that could be rubbed off. ?It?s inside me...[i]inside[/i] me...?

A strong hand caught hold of both her wrists at once, forcibly pulling them away from her face.

?Be still,? Sesshoumaru ordered, wrenching her wrists downward. ?Tell me what you See.?

There was no fear in the Inu Youkai?s voice, nor any anger, and the Seer calmed down a little.

?I See no visions,? she answered, staring down at her hands, which were held fast in the demon?s grip. ?It?s as if these were my own eyes. But I feel...something stirs inside me.?

?What is it?? Sesshoumaru asked sharply. His touch on her skin was cold, as if he had been holding snow in his hand.

He was recalling how the shadow-magic that bound the Tatesei to him had seemed to strike him from inside his very blood. He had been aware of its presence within him from the moment of his ordination, but nevertheless it unnerved him. And now...from the moment that the dragon had been summoned in the scrying bowl it had seemed to come awake... But was it acting to protect him, or to destroy him on behalf of the Tatesei...?

[i]?Or perhaps[/i],? he thought darkly, ?[i]it acted according to the dragon?s own will...?[/i]

But the Seer could not hear these thoughts.

?I don?t know what it is,? she answered. ?But it moves through my blood...and I feel stronger, somehow. More alive. I don?t know.?

Sesshoumaru released his hold on her, and her hands fell limply into her lap.

?Have I changed as well?? he asked softly.

The Seer lifted her chin and stared boldly into his face, as she had not dared to do before. His features were cold and perfect as sculpted marble; his mouth a firm line that betrayed neither fear nor anxiety.

?You are as always, my lord,? she answered. ?Your eyes are your own. But...?

She paused, frowning.

?Explain,? the demon lord ordered.

Unexpectedly, the Seer reached out and took hold of his wrist with both her small hands. Immediately Sesshoumaru began to feel her sorcery at work, and snatched his arm away.

?You will not touch me,? he told her icily.

But the Seer did not cower from him this time. Instead she leaned toward him, heedless of the broken glass upon which she was pressing her palms.

?My lord, I cannot See your mind,? she told him, peering up at him earnestly. ?The way is blocked. I See only darkness.?

Sesshoumaru rose briskly to his feet, backing away from her. His gaze down upon her bordered on contemptuous.

?Good,? he replied tersely. ?That is as it should be.?

For a moment the Seer stared at him in amazement, scarcely able to believe the folly that his arrogance was driving him to. How could he not see the danger? Something had taken hold of him when he and the dragon locked eyes.

Now that her gift was blinded, the Seer could not divine what it was.

?My lord,? she murmured, bowing her head. ?Then you must know that I can no longer serve you. Believe that I?m telling the truth, because if it is indeed truth then my life is now forfeit.?

Sesshoumaru was silent for a while. The Seer crouched with her head bowed low--so low that her black hair brushed the stone floor, trailing through spilled water and broken glass.

?Killing you,? he said finally, ?would be an utter waste of my time.?

Slowly, the Seer raised her head.

?And,? Sesshoumaru continued calmly, ?I smell the stench of [i]Ningen[/i] nearby.?

?What?? the Seer whispered, surprised yet again. Though the demon lord?s tone of voice was even, she could tell from the sudden ire kindling in his eyes that he was not referring to Rin. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?Wake UP! We have to leave NOW!?

Inuyasha?s bellow filled Kaede?s previously peaceful hut. Miroku and Sango were up in a flash, staff and Hiraikoutsu in hand.

?OW!? Shippou wailed. ?That?s my TAIL!?

?Sorry,? Kagome apologized, removing her foot. ?It?s so dark I can?t see. Inuyasha, you shouldn?t have yelled--we?re not under attack or anything.?

?MIROKU, THAT?S MY CHEST!? Sango exclaimed in exasperation.

?Whoops?ah?? Miroku didn?t bother to offer any explanation for this particular ?accident.?

?Ye gods, ye have given us a fright,? Kaede grumbled from the opposite side of the room.

Inuyasha didn?t bother to apologize.

?Get packed so we can leave!? he ordered. ?We?re going after Sesshoumaru!? There was a fierce gleam in the [i]hanyou?s[/i] eye; he didn?t seem overly dismayed at this prospect.

?You mean we?re going after the SHARD,? Miroku corrected him. ?We are [i]not [/i]dragging ourselves out into a blizzard just because you finally have a good excuse to go slay your brother.?

Kagome placed both hands on Inuyasha?s shoulders to calm him down.

?Inuyasha, you?re still sick,? she reminded him. ?This isn?t the time to be ?slaying? anyone. Remember we?re doing this for your sake...?

To her surprise, Inuyasha shrugged her off, bristling and somewhat perturbed.

?Will you STOP with the ?heading to my doom? crap?!? he snapped. ?We?ll worry about the Reiyama problem AFTER we?ve got the shard back.?

Stepping away from him, Kagome knelt and fished a flashlight out of her backpack.

?[i]HONESTLY[/i],? she thought in frustration. ?[i]He thinks he?s immortal or something...?[/i]

Once she had produced the flashlight, she switched it on to reveal the scene of tracked-in snow, scattered bedding, hastily-packed food provisions, and the hut?s rather tense and irritable occupants. Shippou scampered over and clung to her legs.

?I?m coming too, right?? he asked her, gazing up at her hopefully.

?No, you?re NOT,? Inuyasha told him from off to the left. The [i]hanyou[/i] was hefting Kagome?s pack. ?Hey, Kagome, you?re going to have to leave most of this stuff behind or it?ll take us ten times as long to reach the mountains.?

Kagome sighed. She knew she should?ve thought of this earlier. Of course they needed to pack lightly in order to make good time; time was of the essence when one?s quarry could travel in the form of little glowing balls of magic.

?Fine,? she told him. ?Just keep the food, about half the clothing, the toothbrush, the hairbrush, and the math book.?

Inuyasha just stared at her. Kagome sighed again.

?Okay, maybe not the math book...?

?Right,? Inuyasha replied. Hunkering down over the bulging knapsack, he set to.

Soon the objects he deemed unnecessary were flying across the room in all directions.

?Inuyasha, quit it!? Shippou cried as a shoe hit him across the back of the head. He was still clinging to Kagome?s legs.

?What?s this?? Miroku asked, fingering a bra that had been flung into his arms. ?Some sort of sling??

He seemed genuinely mystified, prodding at it with one finger. Sango walked over to investigate, frowning.

?I?ve seen this before,? she told the puzzled monk. ?You?d better give it back to Kagome.?

Kagome snatched it back, blushing furiously. Then she dropped it, just in time to catch the pair of blue panties sailing through the air.

?InuYASHA!? she cried. ?Stop throwing stuff away that I?ll NEED! I?m NOT going on a journey that long without clean underwear!?

?Underwear?? Miroku asked, a gleam of interest kindling in his eyes.

?Here, Kagome,? Sango said, collecting some of the objects flung onto the floor and handing them to Kagome. ?I?ll help you repack.?

Inuyasha and Miroku stepped back and watched while the two girls crouched over Kagome?s knapsack and replenished its supplies.

?Will you hurry up?? Inuyasha grumbled, folding his arms and looking cross. ?Sesshoumaru?s probably already reached the mountains by now.?

?Underwear...? Miroku muttered, rubbing his chin and looking pensive.

?Inuyasha...? Kagome paused in her work, looking thoughtful. ?How do we know that that?s where Sesshoumaru went? We don?t really know WHAT he?s taken the shard for, so we can?t assume he took it to Reiyama...?

Inuyasha shrugged, looking somewhat sullen.

?Feh. You?re the one that predicted our doom in Reiyama,? he reminded her. ?And the way things are going it sure looks like I?m gonna have to fight him if we follow him. So we assume that?s where he went.?

?But why REIYAMA?? Sango asked, standing up and brushing the dust off her knees. Kagome?s flashlight beam revealed that she was wearing her demon-slayer?s suit now, albeit with a woolen cloak over it to keep the snow off it. ?Do you think he?s changed his mind and means to finish the massacre that he started two years ago? I can?t see any other reason for him to take the shard there.?

?I never said he?d go DIRECTLY TO Reiyama,? Inuyasha told them. ?I said he?d go to the mountains.?

Kaede, who was seated opposite the room?s central fireplace, frowned at them over the glowing embers.

?What lies there, Inuyasha?? she asked. ?In the mountains, at this time, there is naught but snow and wind and rock.?

Inuyasha, who was heading for the door, paused in the doorway with one hand on the bamboo curtain.

?He lives there,? the [i]hanyou[/i] said in strange, flat tones, ?in the palace of the Inu Youkai.?

?I wanna go!? Shippou insisted. The Kitsune had reattached himself to Kagome?s leg.

?NO,? Inuyasha and Miroku said at once.

?Ye will stay here with me,? Kaede told him. ?I fear this trip may be too dangerous for the likes of young Kitsune.?

?I can go, right, Kagome?? Shippou pleaded, peering up at her. ?Kagome...??

?Is something wrong, Kagome?? Sango asked, strapping Hiraikoutsu across her back.

Kagome was standing utterly still, with the flashlight aimed at Sango.

?Kagome?? Inuyasha moved to stand beside her. ?What?s wrong? We don?t have time to stand and...?

Inuyasha?s gaze followed the path of the beam and then his voice trailed off.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]Abruptly, Sesshoumaru spun and swept out of the chamber, white robes snapping with the suddenness of movement.

For a moment, Suiton knelt there, frozen with shock.

Why any human intruder would come here, she could not fathom. Yet the boldness of this intrusion showed that the stranger had either abandoned all fear of death...or all fear of Lord Sesshoumaru.

The Seer staggered to her feet, clutching at her skirts.

She was about to hurry from the room when it occurred to her that the intruder might be someone seeking the fragment of the Shikon Jewel. Remembering that she had flung it onto the floor, she began searching for it on her hands and knees. Her hand plunged into the puddle in which the shard lay, but the instant the shard had settled in her palm, a very strange thing happened. The shard, which had been opalescent and shining before, was now jet black.

As the Seer stared at it with wide, frightened eyes, it began to sink into the flesh of her hand.

?NO!? she cried, flinging it to the floor again and clutching at her palm.

The flesh was whole and undamaged--it seemed the shard had not pierced her skin but was being absorbed by it. The Seer knelt there a moment, breathing hard, wondering what this meant. Then, slowly, calm returned and she was able to think rationally again.

?[i]This didn?t happen before the dragon appeared[/i],? she thought. [i]?Either my use of the Jewel to See Lord Sesshoumaru?s answer in the scrying bowl tainted it...or somehow the dragon has done this...?[/i]

Whatever the reason, the fact remained that Suiton could not touch the Jewel. Instead of trying to pick it up again with her bare hands, the Seer wrapped it in a silken sash lying nearby and tucked it into the inner sash of her kimono. If the intruder tried to take it, then they would first be forced to come within range of her sorcery. Unless, of course, they came at her with a sword...

The Seer hurried out into the hall to search for the demon lord and his quarry.[/color]
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[color=purple]Sesshoumaru swept through the halls in a fury. So swift were his steps that the torches lining the way blew slantwise in a great rush of flame. He would not have been so angry if the dark magic coiled inside him were not warning him that the intruder was Tatesei. That one of them had dared invade the sanctity of his home was unforgivable.

He rounded a corner and flung open the screens leading out into the garden so violently that they were nearly thrown from their runners. Outside, the snow fell quietly, piling over the bushes and foot-bridges in drifts; coating the stark brown branches with a mantle of white. The torchlight through the open doorway shone on the snow, making it sparkle.

Irusei stood beneath the terrace roof, silent and utterly still.

He stared calmly at the demon lord as if he had been waiting for this very moment. The young warrior wore no armor and no cloak to stave off the chill. He wasn?t even wearing shoes, though he must have walked for hours to ascend the icy mountain slope to reach the Inu Youkai Valley.

Sesshoumaru stood motionless in the doorway as well, eyeing the young man narrowly and wondering at the strangeness of his appearance. Irusei?s clothes were utterly soaked through; his dark hair dripped melted snow onto his brow, which trickled down his cheeks like tears and pooled in the hollow of his throat. His hands were clenched into fists.

?Lord Sesshoumaru,? Irusei called, in a low voice. His head was lowered, but his stance was firm and resolute--it seemed he had no intention of fleeing.

This was fine with Sesshoumaru, who at this point had no intention of allowing him to flee.

?What folly has brought you here?? Sesshoumaru asked coolly. At his side, the nails of his hand began to glow a poisonous green.

Still Irusei made no move to flee. He tilted his head to one side, as if the demon lord about to slay him was merely an object of curiosity.

?I see it?s true, what they say,? the warrior said softly. ?You hate us. I have crossed your boundaries, and now I am to die. But...don?t you even want to know why I?m here??

The green glow around Sesshoumaru?s claws expanded down the lengths of his fingers.

?Speak, [i]Ningen[/i],? he answered coldly, ?but don?t think that it will spare you the fate you?ve brought upon yourself.?

Irusei took a step toward the demon lord, plucking his [i]hakama[/i] away from where the water made it cling to his legs. Drops of melted snow pattered softly on the wooden floor, falling from the young man?s clothes.

?I?ve come for my sister,? he said simply.

The gleaming poison now encompassed Sesshoumaru?s entire hand.

?Really?? the demon lord said dispassionately. ?You won?t take her. The Seer is mine.?

Irusei took another step toward him, not seeming to care that there were five toxic glowing claws with his name on them.

?Oh, no, my lord,? he said softly. ?You see, the Seer has always belonged to the Tatesei. She belongs to us now. Especially now. Now that she has awakened the fire in our blood...? He paused, correctly interpreting Sesshoumaru?s bland expression as one of surprise. ?Don?t you know, my lord, what you?ve done? What you have allowed to happen??

Sesshoumaru made no move to raise the glowing hand, but it clenched into a fist at his side.

?Explain,? he ordered, his tone a warning not to try his patience.

?Very well,? Irusei said, halting his slow progress toward the demon lord. ?But perhaps you might ask [i]her [/i]to explain it, for she knows it as well as I.?

Sesshoumaru glanced over one shoulder to see that the Seer had come to join him in the doorway. She stopped short at the sight of her brother, frozen with shock as if she were afraid of him.

?Explain,? the demon lord commanded her.

?There...there is a legend that tells of the Great Dragon who...who formed these lands,? she began, somewhat haltingly. ?They say his lashing tail stirred the first currents of the ocean...his claws gouged hills and valleys into the lowlands...and that with his mouth he breathed fire into the mountains...?

Sesshoumaru turned from her in disgust.

?I will waste no more time on the legends of [i]Ningen[/i],? he told her. ?Speak plainly, or do not speak at all.?

But the Seer laid a placating hand on his elbow, and when he glanced down at her Sesshoumaru saw that her eyes, though black and inhuman, still gleamed with the inner light of her gift. This was the Seer, not the frightened woman from the inner chamber, and Sesshoumaru remembered that once the gift claimed her she would speak only truth.

?Here legend blurs into history,? she continued, ?for in the heart of the mountains far to the north there dwelt a clan of humans bearing the Great Dragon?s blood. They began as half-breeds, this race, but after years of intermixing with humans they came to be human themselves. The Dragon still looked upon them as his children, and into their midst the First Seer to guide them. She came in the form of a young priestess wearing a man?s armor, called by the name Midoriko.

?It was Midoriko who gave the Tatesei the prophecy that you have heard, Lord Sesshoumaru. The very same Midoriko from whose soul the Sacred Jewel was born. Yet afterward...those villagers who wished to dedicate their lives to defending the Jewel were the ones to inherit it...while those who feared the greed of demons chose to flee, taking the prophetic scroll with them. These found refuge in the valley where Reiyama exists today. The rest you know--the legacy of the Tatesei.?

The light faded in the Seer?s eyes and the woman glanced up at Sesshoumaru.

?All I know, my lord, is that the Tatesei bear the Dragon?s blood within them. I didn?t know what would happen if I used the Shikon shard to See your answer, but somehow...somehow my doing so has awakened the Dragon.?

Sesshoumaru stared at her, saying nothing and refusing to admit even to himself that she had tried to warn him.

?You tell it so nicely, Suiton,? Irusei said, frowning. ?Yet you leave out what is truly important. For someone so wise, sister, you really don?t know what you?ve [i]done[/i].?

Sesshoumaru turned back toward the young warrior standing on the terrace.

?Speak, then,? the demon lord bade him, in a tone devoid of anger. ?This becomes interesting.?

?[i]Ryunochi[/i],? Irusei said softly, ?is the metal we call ?dragon?s blood,? drawn from the mines in the mountain... That is what the scrying bowl was shaped from, in the forges of the city. It was given to Suiton ten years ago by the Wise, who foresaw a time when she would use it. They knew then, from the warnings given by the Second Seer, that in time there would be born a Seer whose vision would wake the Dragon. Then the Wise were destroyed, and the Second with them.? He paused a moment, so that Sesshoumaru would not miss this point. ?But there were still those of us...who never gave up hope.? Slowly, the warrior lifted his chin. The long strands of dark hair that concealed his face in shadow fell away.

The Seer gasped, backing away from the terrace. She recalled her brother as she had last Seen him--standing on the Temple stair, arms wide open to draw the shadow into his breast. Seeing him now, she began to understand what that had meant.

?You could not imagine our joy...? Irusei whispered, ?when we felt the blood in us begin to stir...?

His almond-shaped eyes were black now--black as the shadow that he had welcomed into his body. Now Sesshoumaru sensed the hot energy gathering within Irusei?s flesh, and understood what it was that he was facing. Irusei had come here to attack him.

[i]?Like Yaburenumaru, the exiled prince[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought darkly, [i]?this young one has accepted something fell inside of him in exchange for power.?[/i]

?Has everyone been...changed, like you?? the Seer asked her brother worriedly. ?Have all the Tatesei succumbed to the Dragon?s will??

Irusei?s face was grim.

?It?s not a matter of choice,? he answered. ?Everyone has been changed because this is what we are meant to be. Even you,? he added, nodding toward her. ?Even you have the Dragon?s eyes, and the Dragon?s blood, if only you would call upon it.?

A strange, fey light was beginning to gather around his skin.

With his right hand Sesshoumaru pushed the Seer back further from the door.

?Go home, [i]Ningen[/i],? he told Irusei, his voice a soft warning.

The warrior?s expression darkened, and his hands clenched into fists at his sides.

?No,? he answered firmly. ?No. I?ve come for my sister, and I mean to leave with her.?

Sesshoumaru raised his hand, calling power into his fingers once again.

?Go home,? he repeated.

Something flared brightly from within Irusei?s skin, and then both demon and Seer experienced the strange spectacle of the fire running through the warrior?s veins, visible even through the flesh. An aura of flame was gathering around Irusei, rushing and swirling like a hot wind; Sesshoumaru could feel the heat warming the skin of his face.

Then Irusei rushed at him.

Flames wreathed the young man?s body, regardless of the fact that his cold, soaked clothing clung to his skin. They touched him but did not burn him, and now he was summoning them into his hand. He was thrusting the burning hand straight out in front of him as he rushed forward. He was aiming this deadly attack directly at Sesshoumaru?s heart.

He was stopped a mere few inches away.

Sesshoumaru caught him by the wrist and held him fast. The two regarded each other from this sudden proximity--Irusei with open hatred; Sesshoumaru with icy disdain.

?Did you truly believe, [i]Ningen[/i], that you would kill me?? the demon lord asked scornfully. ?With this mortal hand, you thought to destroy your own lord and protector??

?You aren?t my lord,? Irusei retorted through clenched teeth. ?We never chose you.? He was straining against Sesshoumaru?s vise-like grip, but it seemed that even the strength granted to him by the Great Dragon?s blood was not enough for him to break free.

?The Tatesei, had they been allowed to choose, would have set a liar and a murderer upon Reiyama?s throne,? Sesshoumaru said frostily. He tightened his hold on Irusei?s wrist. ?I have little faith in the ?choices? you make.?

?I care nothing for your faith,? the warrior responded. ?And don?t think your demon strength can stop me.?

Though his hand was held fast, the flames that Irusei wielded spread outward from the vertex of his palm, reaching toward Sesshoumaru?s heart so hungrily that they seemed to be alive. Sesshoumaru did not move to avoid them at all, but his grasp of his enemy?s arm tightened further. Then the flames began to shrink.

?The dragon?s blood in yours, is it?? the demon lord murmured idly. ?Then, if I were to cut off the flow of blood to your hand...it dies. Or perhaps I should remove the hand completely...? To emphasize his point, Sesshoumaru clenched his hand, and the snapping of bones was audible even above the crackling of the flames. The fire surrounding Irusei?s hand shrank back into his flesh and disappeared.

To his credit, Irusei did not flinch or cry out. However, now flames were beginning to gather in his one free hand. Sesshoumaru sensed it the instant the magic began, and his eyes narrowed.

?Go home, [i]Ningen[/i],? he repeated for the third time.

?No,? Irusei whispered. ?Die.?

The flames finished gathering in his left palm, and he thrust it at the demon lord?s belly. But this time his hand froze on its own, inches away from striking.

A shadow passed between them, from demon lord to Tatesei.

[i]?What is this?[/i]? Sesshoumaru thought, uncertain as to why this had transpired. ?[i]The magic in my blood that binds me to the Tatesei...has protected me of its own accord??[/i]

The coiled serpent had never struck unless he bade it to do so--with the exception of the time he and the Great Dragon had locked eyes through the scrying bowl. At that time, it had struck [i]him[/i]...

Irusei pulled away, staggering backward. Sesshoumaru let him. Even as the Tatesei warrior did so the fire in his veins subsided and its light vanished.

?So I must obey,? Irusei said bitterly, clutching his broken wrist and continuing to back away. ?But don?t think this will save you. The Dragon is awake. Your binding sorcery won?t make slaves of us for much longer.?

?Slaves?? Sesshoumaru asked coldly. ?Slaves? Whom, [i]Ningen[/i], do you think has been protecting your borders? It was not the dragon.?

?We belonged to the Dragon, demon, before we ever belonged to you,? Irusei spat.

Sesshoumaru stepped smoothly out onto the wooden terrace, eyes flashing.

?Go home, [i]Ningen[/i], and tell your king that I am giving him the choice you so desire.?

Irusei?s scowl deepened.

?I will give him three days to choose,? Sesshoumaru continued inexorably. ?If he chooses not to abandon what honor the Tatesei have left, then I shall come and new fealty shall be sworn.? The demon lord paused, lowering his head. ?If he chooses to betray what he had sworn to uphold...then I will come.?

There was no need to explain what the white demon?s coming would mean in the second case.

Apparently too angry to reply, Irusei turned and stalked off into the garden. Sesshoumaru watched him go with a placid stare, as if he understood the magnitude of what had just transpired but he didn?t care. The Tatesei warrior?s dark form vanished beyond the curtain of falling snow.

?Why did you spare him??

It was the Seer, whose presence behind him he had forgotten.

?He will bear my message,? Sesshoumaru answered coldly. He would not do her the courtesy of turning to face her--this frail woman with her eyes inhumanly black and her fall of dark Tatesei hair. ?I will give them their precious choice.? Absently, his hand slid over Tokijin?s hilt. ?[i]And then[/i],? he thought, ?[i]whether or not they betray me... I will use them to lead me to the Dragon...? [/i]

The lord of the West removed his hand from the sword. ?When they betray me...? he murmured aloud.

?My lord,? the Seer whispered, daring to lay a hand on the back of his sleeve. ?Is your hatred for them so strong...that you WANT them to betray you...??

Sesshoumaru didn?t move.

?Get out of my sight,[i] Ningen[/i],? he said icily.

Immediately the hand removed itself and she left, vanishing down the palace corridors. He hated the way her scent lingered.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]?Sango,? Kagome whispered, body so frozen with shock that she could scarcely move her lips. ?Your eyes...?

?Black,? Miroku said softly, joining girl and hanyou in staring at Sango?s face. ?Completely black.?

?Truly?? Kaede asked, getting up to see. ?Is it so??

The old priestess ran her hand across Sango?s forehead, muttering a spell. She touched Sango?s eyelids with gentle fingers, uttering another spell. Nothing changed.

?It?s no curse put upon her,? Kaede told them when she finally stepped back. ?I admit this is not something I?ve seen before.?

Inuyasha sniffed the air.

?She doesn?t SMELL different at all,? he announced. ?She still smells like Sango.?

Sango pulled a face.

?And just what does [i]that[/i] mean?? she asked, fingering Hiraikoutsu?s straps uneasily. ?Listen, all of you: I don?t [i]feel[/i] any different. In fact, I?m quite warm and well-rested.?

?Your aura has changed,? Kagome said softly.

?But I?m still [i]me[/i],? Sango insisted, frowning worriedly.

?Relax,? Miroku admonished, sneaking an arm around her shoulders. ?No one?s saying you?re not. We will take care of this, I promise.?

?I?m not sure she should come,? Kagome murmured, still staring. ?Her aura...looks like flames...?

But no one heard her last words, because at that point there was a sudden loud burst of erupting flames from the opposite corner of the hut. Everyone jumped, except for Shippou, who was still clinging desperately to Kagome?s leg.

?Kirara?? Inuyasha asked, turning around in surprise.

The tiger-like demon had just transformed into her large shape--that had been what the flash of fire was all about.

?Kirara, you shouldn?t be up with that injury,? Sango told her worriedly.

?Kirara, you shouldn?t transform in the hut,? Miroku scolded her. ?Wood is flammable, you know.?

Kirara shook her head, growling a definite negative, and then she swung her head in Sango?s direction, seeming to wait for the girl?s response.

?She wants to go with you,? Sango told everyone, ?and I think she wants me to go with you, also.?

To confirm this, Kirara moved closer and nuzzled Sango?s arm with her nose.

?Huh,? Inuyasha said. ?I guess she?s going, then.? He always trusted Kirara?s instincts--probably because he was the next closest thing to an animal himself.

Despite everyone else?s apparent determination to go through with the journey together, Kagome still felt highly uneasy. Inuyasha sick, Kirara wounded...and now Sango...

The change in Sango?s aura made her uneasy. It had faded since she?d first noticed it, but nevertheless it reminded her of something she couldn?t quite remember.

?He took the Jewel, and the skies rained fire...? Kagome whispered to herself.

But Inuyasha was already tugging at her hand.

?Come on,? he insisted. ?Let?s GO...?

Donning her knapsack and wrapping her scarf snugly about her neck, Kagome followed her friends out into the snow. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]END OF CHAPTER 7[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: The plot thickens. (It?s about gravy-consistency by now.)[/i][/color]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: Think of Chapter 8 as a bit of a break while you digest the deluge of history, prophecies, and other confusing krapola you?ve had flung at you in the first seven chapters. Now we?ll get back to Inuyasha, the Inu Youkai brother who ISN?T busy hurtling toward his doom...

...or IS he...? (kukuku)

P.S. I apologize in advance for the language in this chapter, but what can I say? The crunchy brown stuff made him do it... ;-P[/i][/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 8: The Return of the Brown Crunchy Stuff {+} {+} [/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]What would have been a very long and miserable trek through the snow-covered lowlands beyond the village turned out to be a one-hour trip. With Miroku and Sango riding Kirara and Inuyasha carrying Kagome on his back the pace they kept was far swifter than their first journey to Reiyama. Two years ago, it had taken them nearly an entire day of walking on foot through the marshes in the rain. Now despite the snow the group was hurtling across the terrain at Inuyasha-speed--in other words, like a bat out of hell.

?Inuyasha,? Kagome yelled in his ear over the wind rushing past them, ?shouldn?t you take it easy and go a little slower? You don?t want to overtax yourself when we?re relying on you to get the Jewel shard back from Sesshoumaru.?

Apparently feigning deafness, Inuyasha kept up his breakneck speed, though Kagome could?ve sworn she heard him mutter a scornful ?Feh? under his breath in response to her suggestion.

Kirara was flying overhead, a little ways behind. Being the shrewd, sensible beast that she was she elected to watch the [i]hanyou?s[/i] back, as his haste in these cases tended to make him oblivious to more immediate threats. Miroku was seated astride her with his arms around Sango?s waist--a position which seemed to suit him just fine.

Shippou was not with them.

[CENTER][b]Flashback: One Hour Ago[/b][/CENTER]

[b]Shippou[/b]: ?I wanna GO!?

[b]Inuyasha[/b]: ?No.?

[b]Shippou[/b]: ?But--?

[b]Miroku[/b]: ?No means no.?

[b]Sango[/b]: (muttering under her breath) ?Like that?s ever stopped YOU. . .?

[b]Miroku[/b]: *sweat drop*

[b]Shippou[/b]: (clinging to Kagome?s legs and wailing at the top of his lungs) ?You CAN?T go without me! Inuyasha won?t last a DAY without someone around to talk some sense into him!?

[b]Kagome[/b]: (gently) ?I know you?re just as worried as we are about the risk, but that risk also applies to you, Shippou. We just don?t want you getting hurt.?

[b]Shippou[/b]: ?YOU HAVE TO TAKE ME! YOU HAVE TO YOU HAVE TO YOU HAVE TO YOU HAVE TO!?

[b]Inuyasha[/b]: *claps a hand to his forehead in irritation*

[b]Shippou[/b]: COME ON! LEMME COME!

[b]Inuyasha[/b]: *BAM!* (punches Shippou in the head)

*dead silence reigns* and then...

[b]Sango[/b]: ?Inuyasha, don?t you think that was too violent??

[b]Inuyasha[/b]: *glances down at Shippou*

[b]Shippou[/b]: *lies on hut floor with swirlies in his eyes*

[b]All present[/b]: ?. . . . .?

[b]Inuyasha[/b]: (breaking the silence) ?Well, he?s quiet now. Can we go??

[CENTER][b]Return to the Present---erm...the Past...whatever (time travel is confusing)[/b][/CENTER]

Kagome pulled her scarf up over her chin because the wind was stinging her face. They had just passed beyond the lowlands and were now navigating the more difficult terrain beyond. The area was a maze of snow-covered hills with groves of trees in between. Beyond it, according to Kagome?s map, the land was flatter but covered in dense forest. Beyond the forest were the foothills, and beyond these were the mountains. Peering around Inuyasha?s hair (which the cold winter wind was blowing every which way) Kagome could see the mountains from here. They looked as if they were covered in snow. She frowned, imagining the conditions that she and her friends would be forced to endure when it came to sleeping there. The closest pass leading through the mountains was extremely windy, and last time they?d been forced to use boulders for shelter. Kagome supposed that this time would be worse because they?d have to dig for the boulders to find them under all that snow.

That night they made camp in the shelter of a grove between the hills. Even beneath the trees the ground was covered with snow, so Inuyasha took it upon himself to dig them all a campsite. Snow scattered in every direction as his dog-like shoveling made the perimeter larger. Meanwhile, Kagome was starting a cook-fire with the meager portion of dried wood and pine cones that Miroku had collected for her. She could tell that finding dry kindling of any kind was going to be a problem.

Sango knelt beside her on the blanket they?d spread out over the cold earth. The demon exterminator was silent and pensive, staring down at the burgeoning flames with her strange black eyes. While Kagome watched, Sango shuddered unexpectedly.

?Sango, are you all right?? Kagome asked worriedly, laying a hand on the other girl?s shoulder.

?Mm? Oh, yes,? Sango replied somewhat uncertainly, rubbing her forearms as if to stave off gooseflesh. ?It?s nothing.?

To Kagome, who was used to interpreting Inuyasha?s withheld emotions, it didn?t look like nothing, and she said so. Sango sighed.

?This is frightening, Kagome,? she admitted. ?There doesn?t seem to be any [i]reason[/i] why this has happened to me. And I feel a little strange...?

?Strange like what?? Kagome asked, frowning.

The rings on Miroku?s staff clinked softly as he shifted in his spot by the fire. He wasn?t looking at Sango, but he was obviously listening intently.

?Well...? Sango hesitated, glancing at the monk for reassurance. When Miroku didn?t look at her, she went on to say, ?I feel...warm. And alive. Like my senses have been sharpened.?

Kagome poked at the kindling with a stick.

?Sango...? she began hesitantly, ?your aura has changed. There?s a weird [i]kehai [/i]about your body that wasn?t there before.?

A pinecone shifted, and the fire flared abruptly, scattering sparks and crackling.

?It resembles flames, doesn?t it?? Miroku asked unexpectedly. He was gazing into the cook fire, wearing a somber face usually reserved for discussing Naraku.

?I--I don?t know anything about that,? Sango answered, looking uneasy. ?But I think I?m doing the right thing in coming along. At least, Kirara still seems to think so.?

Kirara, who was curled up in Sango?s lap, mewed contentedly.

?She seems to agree,? Kagome said encouragingly. She had started a pot boiling over the fire and was now adding the ramen and its seasonings.

?It?s all right, Sango,? Miroku said, initiating a comforting gesture but ending up patting Sango on the rump. To Kagome?s dismay (and Miroku?s delight) Sango didn?t even seem to notice.

A heavy silence followed, and then Kagome paused, wooden spoon poised over the pot that she?d been stirring.

?Sango, do you think this might have something to do with something I?ve done to alter the past?? she asked, looking thoughtful. ?I mean, all of this happening at once can?t be a coincidence, can it? Just like the changes back home happened before I knew it, you changed overnight.?

Sango said nothing, pulling restlessly at the cloak over her shoulders as she always did when she was nervous.

?Lady Kagome,? Miroku mused, ?don?t forget that the true question we must worry about is the connection between the event that altered the future and Reiyama?s rise to power. Though I don?t make light of it, perhaps Sango?s transformation and the predicted deaths of Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru are merely byproducts of the main event.?

A hush fell over them all as Inuyasha returned with more firewood. There was a small conical pile of snow on top of his head and two smaller piles on each shoulder. He stood there for a moment, looking down at them very grimly.

[i]?Did he...hear that?[/i]? Kagome wondered uneasily. [i]?After all, this must be the hardest for him, knowing that he?ll die but not admitting it to himself...?[/i]

?I smell ramen,? Inuyasha declared.

He allowed the firewood to fall to the ground with a clatter.

Kagome?s face contorted in frustration.

?[i]And then again...[/i]? she thought. [i]?Maybe he?s too dense to realize how serious this is.?[/i]

?Well?? Inuyasha crouched down beside her, looking very much like a dog begging for scraps. ?I seem to be through puking. I want some ramen.?

Despite Inuyasha?s apparent refusal to accept the direness of the situation, everyone?s spirits were low for the remainder of the evening.

That night they slept huddled around the fire, somber and silent...

...everyone except Inuyasha, that is, who as it turned out [i]wasn't[/i] through puking.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color] [/CENTER]

[color=purple]For the next two days, the strange pall that had settled over the group remained. However, by the third evening they had passed beyond the hills and reached the forest, which afforded considerable relief from exposure to the wind and constantly being cold and wet. Kagome was infinitely grateful that her fur-lined parka was so heavy--it had prevented her from being soaked to the skin for the duration of their passage through the hills. That evening, seated around the campfire, she boiled more ramen and surprised everyone with a bag of plums, which in the Feudal Era were out of season and therefore unavailable. Miroku and Inuyasha were feeling lively enough to argue over the last plum.

?Inuyasha, you shouldn?t be eating all of those--they?re wasted on someone who?ll just throw up afterward,? Miroku said.

?So? It still tastes good going DOWN...?

Miroku sighed, looking pained at the hanyou?s vulgarity.

?Well, at least don?t eat more than your fair share,? he said.

?I?m NOT!? Inuyasha retorted, reaching for the coveted item even though his mouth was still full of his previous helping.

?That?s your third one,? Miroku argued mildly.

Kagome went to hang her soaked parka on a nearby branch to dry, wisely choosing not to get in the middle of this.

?Feh. So? It?s YOUR fourth,? Inuyasha pointed out, using his demon speed to take the fruit before the monk could grab it. ?Just because you?re wearing that bland look on your face doesn?t mean you?re the reasonable one here.?

Kagome sighed and shook her head, but she actually felt relieved to hear them acting normally. Only Sango seemed quiet and withdrawn, sitting with her hands in her lap and staring absently into the fire. Kagome didn?t know what to say to comfort her friend because no amount of reassurance seemed to be working.

?Who?s counting? You?re the one--? Miroku began, but he was cut off from further argument by a sudden loud popping noise.

It sounded very much like someone had put a microphone to a cork popping out of a bottle, and it startled all present into silence. Slowly, Kagome turned away from the campfire to see what they were all staring at. On the branch behind her, her parka had disappeared. Scuffling around in the bush below the branch was a very disgruntled-looking Shippou.

?Don?t just sit there GAWKING,? he wailed, thrashing around and sending twigs flying every which way. ?Get me OUT!?

Still somewhat dumbfounded, Kagome set to disentangling the Kitsune?s tail and clothing from the bush and set him down on the bare ground next to her.

?Shippou?? Sango finally said, raising one hand to her mouth. ?What on earth are you doing here??

?YOU!? Inuyasha pointed an accusatory claw in the Kitsune?s direction. ?I thought I TOLD you not to come!? Then he added, muttering out of the side of his mouth, ?With that punch to the head you should?ve been out cold...?

Out of all of them, only Miroku didn?t seem too surprised. He merely sat there cross-legged, as if he?d been expecting something like this.

?You used one of your leaf-magic replicas, right?? the monk asked mildly. ?Knowing we wouldn?t let you come, you transformed into Kagome?s parka and let Inuyasha punch your double.?

?Yeah, that?s right,? Shippou agreed, trotting over to join them.

?Say, YOU seem to know a lot about this...? Inuyasha said, leaning threateningly toward Miroku and glowering.

Miroku shrugged.

?It is the most prudent course to let wisdom speak for itself,? he intoned. Then he calmly took a bite of the last plum, which he had slipped away from Inuyasha when they were first distracted by Shippou?s appearance.

?So...um, Shippou? I was wearing YOU all that time?? Kagome asked, coming to sit down beside him.

?That?s right,? Shippou replied as she ladled him out some ramen. (Inuyasha was eyeing the ramen-ladling process somewhat jealously.) ?We sorta kept each other warm.?

?A most enviable position,? Miroku remarked, dabbing at plum juice with the corner of his sleeve.

?Er...oh...? Kagome looked somewhat unhappy.

?Don?t be upset,? Shippou urged her around a mouthful of ramen. ?I didn?t mind one bit. Besides,? he added, ?you smell good.? Two small circles of pink appeared on each cheek.

?Don?t be sniffing Kagome!? Inuyasha warned, hurling his plum pit at Shippou and hitting the Kitsune in the head.

?Hey! Don?t THROW things at me!? Shippou wailed. ?You should be GLAD I?m here! You wouldn?t last one DAY without me!?

?Feh,? Inuyasha snorted, folding his arms. A vein looked close to popping in the middle of his forehead. ?RIGHT. Like YOU?LL be a huge help if we run into a demon who wants to kill me...?

?Rough as he may sound, Inuyasha?s only looking out for your safety,? Miroku pointed out. ?He just doesn?t want to put you in the same grave danger he?s in.?

?Feh,? Inuyasha grumbled, turning his head to the side and looking sullen.

Shippou ceased rubbing at the lump on his head and sighed with an air of long suffering.

?Inuyasha, just admit you need me,? he said, folding his hands in his lap. ?You didn?t even NOTICE that we?re being followed!?

This floored everyone, and for a moment they all just stared at the Kitsune. Shippou nodded very solemnly in agreement with himself, seeming quite pleased with the bombshell he?d just dropped.

?Are you certain, Shippou?? Miroku asked after a minute. ?I haven?t sensed anyone threatening. What about you, Inuyasha??

This seemed to touch on a bit of a sore spot with Inuyasha, because he actually managed to look even sulkier.

?Feh,? he snorted, hands disappearing into his sleeves.

?Who?s following us, Shippou?? Kagome asked, glancing around the area. She detected no movement in the trees, and sensed no jewel shards and no demon aura, either. There was nothing but snow-laden pines and bamboo groves for miles in every direction. ?I haven?t noticed anything unusual.?

?You wouldn?t,? Shippou told her. ?He?s staying well out of range of your shard-sensing. But Kouga?s still got his shards, all right, and he?s been following us since we left the village. The wind?s been carrying his scent towards us.?

?KOUGA?!? Inuyasha exclaimed. ?Why the hell is HE following us?!?

?I don?t know,? Shippou answered, and then filled his mouth with noodles.

While he chewed, Miroku rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful. ?If Shippou says he?s been following us since we left the village, then he might have sensed Hakudoushi?s presence the night Kagome?s shard was stolen. He might be following us, thinking we?ve found a lead to the location of Naraku?s heart.?

?But why is he keeping his distance, then?? Kagome asked. ?Usually he barges into our midst without hesitation, asks what we know, and then tries to hit on me before he leaves.?

?Feh,? Inuyasha snorted. From within the depths of his sleeves they could all hear his knuckles cracking at the mention of Kouga hitting on Kagome. ?He must?ve sensed Sesshoumaru?s [i]kehai[/i] as well, and he?s too scared to get near us because he doesn?t want to run across the Lord of the Assholes.?

Kagome shrugged, sipping at the tea she carried in her thermos. ?Just as well for him, since he has shards in his legs and Sesshoumaru seems to be after the Jewel now.?

?What d?you MEAN, ?just as well for him??!? Inuyasha said, rounding on Kagome. ?Don?t tell me you?re WORRIED about that whiny wolf!?

?Have some more ramen,? Kagome told him, passing him another bowl with air of long experience. Inuyasha took it, and calmed down immediately as he started shoveling it into his mouth.

?So now we know Kouga?s following us,? Miroku said. ?But that still doesn?t explain why Shippou smelled him but Inuyasha never caught his scent.?

Shippou glanced at Inuyasha somewhat nervously. The Kitsune?s eyes were wide as saucers but his mouth was safely stuffed with ramen. Fortunately for Shippou, Miroku answered his own question.

?Ahhh...that?s it,? the monk exclaimed, nodding sagely. ?Inuyasha [i]couldn't[/i] smell Kouga. Somehow his illness is affecting his nose. That also explains why he couldn?t smell Shippou, who was disguised as Kagome?s parka.?

?Speaking of which,? Kagome interrupted. ?I don?t have a parka to wear now. I?m going to be freezing once we hit the mountains.?

?Right,? Inuyasha agreed, turning to staring pointedly at Shippou (who rapidly filled his mouth with more ramen). ?You heard her, Shippou. She needs a par-ka, and YOU?RE going to make sure she has one.?

Because his cheeks were full like a chipmunk?s the Kitsune could only blink in reply.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color] [/CENTER]

[color=purple]That night, they slept huddled around the fire as usual.

Or, rather, four of their number slept.

?You?re still awake, aren?t you, Sango??

Sango, who was lying with her back to the fire, opened her eyes.

?Yes,? she answered softly.

Inuyasha was staring at her from across the smoldering embers, where he sat cross-legged keeping watch. His expression was unusually grim.

?You aren?t sleeping,? he observed. ?At all. Not since the first day, when you woke up changed.?

Sango was silent for so long that Inuyasha thought she wasn?t going to reply.

?No,? she finally said with a sigh, ?I?m not. I haven?t needed to.?

?Like a demon,? Inuyasha murmured, frowning. ?As far as I know, Youkai can go for almost a week without any sleep. And that?s just ME...? Privately, Inuyasha was thinking, ?[i]Who knows if Sesshoumaru EVER sleeps...creepy bastard...?[/i]

?I wonder if this is what being a demon feels like,? Sango whispered, staring absently at Kirara, who was sleeping curled up atop Hiraikoutsu. ?I feel restless, like there are winds shifting all around me, urging me to [i]move[/i]. Only I don?t know where... I feel like I should control those winds, drawing them to me, gathering them into my flesh...until I can?t contain them any more...and they burst from me in all directions, and the world feels the power of my being...?

Inuyasha?s head lowered, so that his long white bangs hid his face.

?That?s pretty close to it,? he agreed softly. ?It?s like this weird longing to draw everything into you...so close to you that it shatters and becomes your own.? He paused, thoughtfully, and then said, ?When I become a full-blooded demon...I?ll be able to control the winds of demon energy like that. I?ll wield powers like the Wind Scar--but I won?t need a sword to do it.?

?I feel it, too,? Sango murmured worriedly. ?I understand, now, why the demons I?ve hunted take such joy in destruction.?

Inuyasha?s brow knitted with concern.

?You HAVE changed,? he told her. ?I couldn?t smell any difference in your scent because I?m sick, but neither did Shippou, and he?s the one who caught Kouga?s stench. That means you?re still the same person. But what you just told me...it?s something only demons can understand... Which makes me think that whatever this is, it?s changed your soul, not your body.?

Beneath the blankets, Sango hugged herself as a shiver ran down her spine. But she wasn?t cold--not at all. In fact, since she had woken up changed there was a constant heat circulating just beneath her skin, as if it were running through her blood.

?If my flesh hasn?t changed, then why are my eyes like this?? she whispered.

Inuyasha was silent for a while.

?I don?t know,? he finally answered. ?But whatever this is, it happened after Sesshoumaru stole the Jewel, so we?ll fix it when we get the shard back.?

After this Sango didn?t speak again. Inuyasha left her alone, though he knew that she wasn?t sleeping. He regarded her back for a while, wearing a puzzled frown and wondering what she might be thinking after what she?d just admitted. It was something he knew all too well, and something that weighed upon him very heavily despite his desire to become a full-blooded demon.

He sighed, weary of [i]that[/i] particular issue, and glanced over at Shippou, who was asleep in the crook of Kagome?s elbow. The Kitsune was right about one thing: they [i]did[/i] need him. Inuyasha scowled because this irked him to no end.

?[i]In a way[/i],? he pondered, ?[i]all of this is my fault, after all. If my sense of smell hadn?t been off four days ago, I wouldn?t have fallen into Hakudoushi?s trap. I would?ve smelled that the one I followed was a golem sent to trick me. Kagome never would?ve been lured away from us and Sesshoumaru never would?ve taken the Jewel fragment.?[/i]

Kagome made a soft noise and shifted in her sleep. Shippou?s mouth fell open and he began to snore.

[i]?Because I couldn?t protect Kagome I got us all into this mess[/i],? Inuyasha thought, looking at her. ?[i]But I can?t keep worrying about that. There are more important things to figure out... Like: what does Sesshoumaru want with the Shikon fragment??[/i]

In truth, however, Inuyasha had a horrible gut feeling that he already knew. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]The end of the third day began with a brilliant dawn, streaming light over the hills and through the pass; stretching fiery lines over the snow-covered garden surrounding the Inu Youkai palace. The skies had temporarily cleared, and the snow had ceased for a time--at least until the mountain of gray clouds building up just beyond the valley crested the ridge.

The Seer stood on the terrace overlooking the garden, utterly still. She wore only her dark blue robes--she had given up wearing the veil, and for some reason the sight of her in the black fur cloak seemed to make the demon lord angry. She watched the sunrise grim-faced and tight-lipped, and as it rose her heart sank.

Time had run out for the Tatesei.

Whatever they chose: betrayal or loyalty...Lord Sesshoumaru would find a way to take what he wanted and then destroy them. The Seer wasn?t exactly certain what it was that he wanted from them, but the fact that he hadn?t used Irusei?s attack as a motive to destroy them immediately indicated that he had further use for them.

?Come, Seer.?

The Seer stiffened; she had not sensed the demon lord?s presence as he stepped out onto the terrace behind her. He brushed past her, moving out of the shade and into the morning. Silhouetted against the garden, his clothing and white hair were so bright that it hurt to look at him. The Seer shielded her eyes with both hands as he walked across the sparkling snow. His feet, unlike those of mortals, did not sink into the deep drifts.

?You want me to go with you?? the Seer asked, frowning against the brightness. ?Aren?t you afraid I?ll allow myself to be captured? My brother won?t be the only one wanting to reclaim me.?

Sesshoumaru kept walking. Still the Seer remained on the terrace.

?Aren?t you afraid I?ll betray you?? she called after him.

The demon lord paused atop an arched bridge spanning a stream. He glanced backward over one shoulder, white hair fluttering in the breeze.

?You won?t,? he said calmly. ?Because you hate them, too.?

Suiton?s first instinct was to deny it...but she was pervaded by a sudden keen awareness of the truth in this.

The Tatesei claimed to revere her, but had made her a prisoner in their Temple; a slave to their greed for knowledge. And she, in her bitterness, feared the forces the dragon might unleash more than she feared the fate that awaited her people.

That a murderer and a monster should understand her so clearly was both frightening and shameful at once.

In this moment, the Seer truly hated Sesshoumaru.

But she stepped out into the snow and stumbled out to join him on the bridge. Then he turned and began moving westward, and she followed him.

She had resolved long ago not to weep for the doom of Reiyama.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color] [/CENTER]

[color=purple]Inuyasha and his friends set out early in the morning under a bleak winter sky. Overhead, the clouds were proceeding southwest, heading for the mountains. Kagome observed that it looked like they were heading into a storm, to which Inuyasha didn?t reply. He just pressed his lips together grimly and increased his speed. They would reach the mountains by nightfall, if he had anything to say about it.

?Hey, Inuyasha, maybe you should slow down?? Kagome?s parka suggested.

?No,? Inuyasha replied immediately.

?Inuyasha!? Miroku called from atop Kirara. ?Perhaps we should--?

?No,? Inuyasha repeated. ?We have to keep moving. Kagome?s right about the storm, and I don?t want to have to fight Sesshoumaru in a blizzard. It?d be like camouflage for that albino freak.?

?But InuYASHA, there?s--?

?Shut up,? Inuyasha snapped. ?I don?t take orders from clothing.?

Kagome?s parka had sprouted a pair of saucer-like eyeballs, both of which were now fixed on something behind them. Noting the eyeballs? focus, Kagome craned her neck to see what Shippou was talking about. The sun reflecting off the snow was nearly blinding, but even as she turned her head Kagome realized what it was.

She sensed the Jewel shards immediately.

Two of them.

Seconds later, she was able to see the whirlwind approaching.

Inuyasha turned just in time to get a face full of snow scattered by the whirlwind?s passage through the drifts. Then the whirlwind?s rotation slowed and it vanished altogether to reveal the wolf demon crouching in its midst.

?HEY! WHAT THE FUCK!? Inuyasha bellowed, spewing snow.

?Hey, Kagome, long time no see!? Kouga called out in greeting.

?Er...it?s only BEEN two weeks,? Kagome said, peering out from behind Inuyasha?s ice-encrusted hair.

?Whaddya want, wimpy wolf?!? Inuyasha demanded, balling both hands into fists.

?That?s what I?m here to ask YOU, mutt-face!? Kouga announced.

?Whaddya mean by THAT?? Inuyasha asked, one fist lingering near Tetsusaiga?s hilt. ?YOU?RE the one following US.?

?I?ve only been following you because I thought you?d be useful,? Kouga retorted, jabbing a finger level with Inuyasha?s chest. ?But you?re just leading me on a pointless trek through this god-forsaken country!?

?USE me, EH?? Inuyasha?s right hand closed around Tetsusaiga. ?We?ll see about THAT. I?ll--?

Kouga cracked his knuckles, settling into a rather bulldog-like stance.

?You?ll what?? he sneered.

?Hey! If you two are going to fight, put me down first, Inuyasha!? Kagome insisted.

Temporarily, Inuyasha?s expression lightened.

?Oh, right,? he said, crouching lower so that she could step down off him.

The instant both of Kagome?s feet plopped into the snow, however, Inuyasha was all business again.

?Now where were we?? he asked, grinning fiercely.

?Wait, Inuyasha!? Kagome cried, taking hold of the hanyou?s elbow. ?Just because I got down doesn?t mean you SHOULD fight...!?

But Kouga, noting Inuyasha?s grip on Tetsusaiga?s handle, seemed to think better of it and jumped back in a hurry.

?Hey, wait, I didn?t come here to waste time brawling,? the wolf demon explained hastily, waving both hands to indicate a truce. ?I caught that creepy Hakudoushi?s scent five days ago and followed it. He led me to you, and then he disappeared. But then YOU started traveling, and fast, so I thought you were on his trail.? Kouga folded his arms, looking bored. ?But I should?ve known that YOUR sense of smell would just lead you on some pointless trip to the western mountains.?

?Wait,? Kagome told him, surreptitiously stepping between the two Youkai to ensure that they didn?t resume their fight. ?What do you mean, ?pointless???

?Heh, just what I said,? Kouga snorted. ?Pointless. Those mountains you?re headed for can?t be crossed. For a long, long time they were protected by these weird nets with bones hanging in them.? He paused, rubbing at the furry wrist-guards he wore. ?Makes my fur bristle just THINKIN? about it. Me and my clan moved on from THERE in a hurry. Why the hell are you following a scent THERE? Have you got stinkweed up your nose?!?

?Feh.? Inuyasha?s hand moved away from Tetsusaiga. ?The nets are gone now, wimpy wolf, so don?t wet yourself in fright.?

?Now that territory belongs to Inuyasha?s brother, Sesshoumaru,? Miroku interjected. He had come down to join them, prudently sensing that conflict might ensue. Kirara had alighted several feet away with Sango on her back. ?It?s protected under his dominion.?

?No kidding?? Kouga rubbed at his arms again, apparently as intimidated by the prospect of braving a Sesshoumaru-infested mountain pass as he was by the spirit-web wardings the Wise had once constructed to guard their valley. ?Either way, Inuyasha, if you?re gonna head in there do Kagome a favor and don?t drag her along. That place is cursed, no matter WHO?S guarding it.?

?Yeah, whatever,? Inuyasha said dismissively, looking somewhat bored. ?It?s not the VALLEY that?s cursed--it?s the people living in it.?

Kouga looked pensive for a moment--a look that was quite unusual for him.

?My grandfather told me that the highest peak in those mountains was called ?Reiyama? long before those Tatesei bastards picked that name for their city. Youkai named it that, and kept far and clear of it, because everyone who encounters it says that it?s haunted by a powerful spirit that hates demons. And lately...there?s been the scent of blood and metal around that valley...? He paused, seeming to shake himself out of his reverie. ?Anyway, take my advice and stay the hell away from there. For KAGOME?S sake at LEAST...?

?We?re GOING,? Inuyasha insisted. ?So get lost.?

But Kouga ignored him and grasped hold of both Kagome?s hands, pulling her close.

?Kagome, are you really gonna let that mutt-face drag you into danger like that?? he asked, in tones far more romantic than the words he was using.

?Er...it?s not a matter of me LETTING him take me,? Kagome argued, surreptitiously trying to disengage her small hands from the wolf demon?s large ones. ?I CHOSE to--?

Kouga?s expression darkened.

?What, he?s FORCING you to go?? Turning to Inuyasha and superimposing his body in front of Kagome?s, he declared, ?I can?t allow this! I won?t stand for it this time!?

?Oh, shut up,? Inuyasha grumbled. ?You know, just for that I think I?ll kick your ass.? The [i]hanyou[/i] advanced on the wolf demon, cracking his knuckles ominously.

?Just try it, dog turd!? Kouga barked back, starting an advance of his own.

?Oh, great,? Kagome muttered worriedly. At this point she knew she?d just have to let this thing run its course, because it seemed that where Reiyama was concerned Kouga wasn?t going to take no for an answer. She had never seen him so serious about separating her from Inuyasha...well, with the exception of the first encounter, when he?d kidnapped her and hauled her off to his den...

True to her assessment of the wolf demon?s mentality, it was Kouga who attacked first. He flew at Inuyasha, aiming a kick at the hanyou?s head. Inuyasha sidestepped just in time, simultaneously dodging the blow and landing a blow of his own to Kouga?s lower back. But Kouga whirled and landed a right straight to Inuyasha?s jaw. The [i]hanyou[/i] went down hard, but fortunately the snow cushioned his fall and he was back on his feet in a flash.

?Heh! You?re slow today!? Kouga taunted him, rubbing at his back. ?What?s the matter, mutt-face? Feeling faint? Or is it too hard to fight me man-to-man instead of drawing that sword of yours??

Inuyasha?s face darkened.

?Now he?s done it,? Kagome?s parka remarked in hushed tones.

?I?m not drawing Tetsusaiga because I?m SAVING it for someone STRONGER!? Inuyasha shouted, and then he flew at Kouga.

But the wolf demon dodged the attack, and once again Inuyasha landed face-first in the snow. Kouga came at him with lightning speed, aiming what promised to be an earth-shattering punch. Inuyasha, however, managed to roll to the side, and as Kouga?s fist landed where the [i]hanyou?s[/i] head would?ve been the force of the blow exploded the surrounding drifts in a veritable geyser of snow.

Sango, who was observing the brawl from atop Kirara, asked wryly, ?Shouldn?t we stop them??

?It?s not necessary,? Miroku replied. The monk rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ?Kagome will shout ?Sit!? before Inuyasha can kill Kouga, and on the off-chance that Kouga wins I?ll just--?

?Oy!? Inuyasha rounded on Miroku. ?WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN--if KOUGA wins?!? In a sudden fit of temper, the [i]hanyou[/i] unfastened his sword from his side and shoved it into Kagome?s arms. ?I?ll show YOU! I?ll win this battle WITHOUT Tetsusaiga!?

Miroku rubbed at his brow as if all this were giving him a headache.

?If you want, Inuyasha, but DO IT QUICKLY. We shouldn?t waste time.?

Kagome cast a worried glance at the monk.

[i]?What he?s really saying,[/i]? she thought, [i]?is that the more energy Inuyasha wastes here, the less he?ll have when he finds Sesshoumaru.[/i]? Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and shouted, [i]?OSUWARI[/i]!?

And Inuyasha, of course, plunged through two feet of air and three feet of snow to land on the frozen earth below with a resounding smack.

?BWAH!? he yelled.

Meanwhile, Kouga apparently saw Inuyasha?s misfortune as a golden opportunity. He suddenly turned and flew at Kagome, and before anyone could move to stop him he caught her around the waist and slung her over one shoulder.

?KYAH!? she screamed, beating at his back with her fists and kicking at his chest with her knees. ?PUT ME DOWN!?

?Sorry, Kagome, but I?m not letting him take you to that place,? Kouga told her. ?Something big?s goin? down, and I don?t want you in the middle of it.?

?KAGOME, what?ve you DONE?!? her parka wailed, the saucer-like eyeballs peering down at Inuyasha, prone in the snow. ?Now Kouga?ll take you for SURE!?
[i]
BAP![/i]

Abruptly, both Kagome and Kouga went flying and landed in the snow. Kouga was temporarily stunned by the impact, and Kagome scooted hastily out from under the wolf-demon?s arm. Then she saw that he had apparently been smacked in the head by what appeared to be a very large snowball. Recovering quickly, Kouga pushed himself up onto his knees, looking around him angrily.

?What the hell was THAT?? he demanded. He turned to look over his shoulder just in time to catch a second frozen projectile straight on in the face. It knocked him over again.

Kagome?s followed the missile?s trajectory to its origin: Inuyasha. The [i]hanyou[/i], though still laid low by the ?Sit!? she?d shouted, had managed to scoop up a chunk-full of snow in each hand and to hurl them at her would-be abductor.

?You bastard!? Kouga bellowed around a mouthful of snow. ?That?s fighting dirty!?

[i]Piff![/i]

Another snowball struck the wolf demon hard across the back.

Inuyasha was on his feet again.

?Whatever it takes to protect Kagome,? he growled.

?Wow,? Kagome?s parka remarked in an awed, hushed tone. Kagome herself had gone beet red and speechless.

But Kouga wasn?t through yet. He pushed himself to his feet and whirled around to face his attacker with clenched fists.

?Oh YEAH?? he yelled.

Then the wolf demon knelt and scooped up a huge lump of snow. With demon speed he compressed it into a head-sized ball and pitched it overhand straight toward Inuyasha. The hanyou dodged, rolled, and in the process gathered his own king-sized projectile from the nearby ground. In the meantime Kouga assailed him with a sudden barrage of smaller snowballs--no less violent because they were hurled at much faster speeds.

[i]Piff piff piff piff piff piff piff piff piff piff!

Piff![/i]

?HEY!? Kouga hollered, glancing back over one shoulder because a snowball had just hit him in the back of the head. ?Who threw THAT??

?It seemed like fun,? Miroku admitted, brushing white flecks off his hand guards.

?STOP THIS NOW!? Kagome cried, seizing the brief snowball-free moment and running between the two battling demons. ?We don?t have TIME for this!?

She suddenly found herself thrown to the ground and held flat by Shippou, who had transformed back into his Kitsune form.

?Kagome, this is one snowball fight you SHOULDN?T get involved in,? Shippou warned her.

Kagome glanced up just in time to see why. At the moment Shippou had forced her to fall, Inuyasha had let loose an enormous snowball that went sailing right over where her head had been. It missed Kouga, but hit a low tree branch just past his head. The branch snapped and fell off.

?HEY!? Kouga shouted angrily to Inuyasha. ?THIS IS WHAT I MEAN! STOP FUCKING PUTTING KAGOME IN DANGER!?

As the barrage of snowballs continued, Kagome and Shippou crawled out of range and sat down on a rock near Kirara. Miroku, tired of standing knee-deep in snow, came to join them, and they all settled down to watch.

?I guess all we can do now is wait,? Sango said.

Fifteen minutes later, the fight was still going strong.

?Will this EVER end?? Shippou complained, throwing his hands up and rolling his eyes dramatically.

?Well, they sure don?t seem to be getting tired of it yet,? Sango observed, frowning.

The surrounding trees were now quite devoid of branches, and the ground was littered with sticks and half-exploded snowballs.

?At least Kouga isn?t,? Kagome murmured, watching Inuyasha intently. ?[i]Inuyasha?s beginning to show the strain[/i],? she thought worriedly. [i]?He?s pushing himself too hard and it?s making him sicker.?[/i]

Because she knew him so well, Kagome noticed the slight slowness to his movements, and the fevered brightness in his eyes. The more he fought, the paler his face became.

?If I don?t do something soon,? she thought, ?he?ll end up fighting Sesshoumaru half-dead.?

Inuyasha, in the meantime, had just managed to dodge a head-sized ball of snow in time to see the wolf demon foot descending after it. Kouga?s kick was lightning fast, and it caught Inuyasha squarely in the face. He flew several yards and hit a tree trunk, causing the snow on its branches to fall and form a pile around him.

[i]?Shit[/i],? he thought, baring his fangs. ?[i]My body is...?[/i]

Kouga came at him again, and with a snarl Inuyasha burst free of the snow pile and dodged, landing a roundhouse punch on Kouga?s shoulder. The wolf demon pin-wheeled sideways and landed in a crouch.

?Inuyasha!?

Inuyasha spun around just in time to see an arrow speeding toward him. He leaped to one side as it went sizzling past.

?WHAT THE FUCK?!? he shouted, glaring over at Kagome, who was lowering her bow. ?If you?re trying to get me to stop fighting, I?d PREFER you say ?[i]Osuwari[/i]? instead of trying to SHOOT me!?

?I?ve sent you something to help,? Kagome called, nodding toward the arrow, whose point had sunk into a tree trunk. ?Look at the tree!?

Inuyasha reached the tree in one bound, dodging yet another kick attack by Kouga. True to Kagome?s word, she [i]had[/i] sent him something.

Tied to the arrow?s shaft was a bag full of a dark, gritty-looking substance.

For a moment, Inuyasha just stared at it, dumbfounded. Then he tore the bag free from the arrow.

Shippou watched, looking very nervous.

?Kagome, are you SURE this is the best idea?? he asked, scooting closer to her on the rock.

?Kagome-[I]sama[/I], tell me you [i]didn't[/i]...? Miroku said in a hollow, dead sort of way.

?We don?t have any other choice,? Kagome replied, a bit shakily. ?Inuyasha?s the only one of us strong enough to fight Kouga off with those jewel shard?s he?s got in his legs, and Miroku can?t use his Wind Tunnel because Kouga has the shards.?

?What did she give him?? Sango asked, perplexed, looking down from atop Kirara.

Inuyasha tossed aside the bag, having just poured its contents into his mouth.

?YES!? he cried, a triumphant gleam in his eye. ?THE CRUNCHY BROWN STUFF!?[/color]
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[color=purple]Not even bothering to wipe away the flecks of it that had fallen onto his clothes, Inuyasha whirled around to face Kouga with renewed vigor.

?Feh,? Kouga snarled, cracking his knuckles. ?Now that you?ve had your little snack...PREPARE TO DIE!?

?In your DREAMS, wimpy wolf!? Inuyasha retorted, and then both of them charged at each other.

They came together in a violent clash of snow and flying fists. Snow sprayed in every direction from the impact, temporarily obscuring the observers? view of the two combatants. Miroku, Kagome, Sango and Shippou stared at the sight tensely, waiting to see who would emerge victorious. The eruption of snow settled, forming a huge mound where Inuyasha and Kouga had previously stood. At first, nothing moved.

?I can?t see them,? Sango said, fingering Hiraikoutsu?s straps anxiously.

?Maybe they exploded?? Shippou suggested.

?The brown powder is explosive?? Miroku asked, turning to Kagome in concern.

?N-no...? Kagome stammered.

At this very instant Inuyasha burst forth from the snow pile in a geyser of scattered flakes.

?MOOWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!? he cried, raising his fists skyward and looking maniacally triumphant. ?IHAVEDEFEATEDHIM!? It seemed that he spoke the truth, because his emerging also partially unearthed an unconscious Kouga.

?Well, I guess it IS explosive, in a sense,? Kagome amended.

?Oh, good, Kouga?s defeated,? Sango breathed, moving her hand away from her weapon. ?Now we can get on with this.?

?It won?t be that easy,? Miroku said flatly, taking a firm hold of his staff and standing up on the rock. ?He?s coming this way.?

True to the monk?s word, in two bounds Inuyasha landed on their rock, knocking all of them off it onto their backs.

?ThereyouseeI?vebeathimwithmybarehandssodon?tyouEVERgosayingIdidn?t!? Inuyasha rattled off, looking down at their legs sticking up from the snow. ?OnceagainI?mthestrongestdemonalive!MooWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!?

Sango stared at Inuyasha, dumbfounded. Kirara laid back her ears and growled, apparently wanting no part in this.

?Inuyasha, have you gone mad?? Sango asked, reaching for Hiraikoutsu again.

?DON?T, Sango,? Miroku cautioned, pushing himself to his feet. ?You do NOT want to give him a reason to fight you when he?s like this.?

??CAUSEI?MTHESTRONGESTANDDON?TYOUFUCKINGFORGETIT!? Inuyasha bellowed, standing up and jabbing a thumb toward his chest.

?Only because I gave you coffee,? Kagome grumbled, clutching onto the rock to pull herself out of the snow. ?Now calm down--we?ve got to keep moving to get the Jewel shard back from Sesshoumaru.?

Inuyasha suddenly stopped dead in the middle of another string of maniacal laughter, body going rigid. His eyes went very narrow and steely, and his hands balled into fists.

?Is it over?? Shippou asked tremulously. The Kitsune was hiding behind Kagome?s legs and clinging to her.

Miroku took a firmer grip on his staff.

?We can only hope it?s--?

?BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!THATLILYASSEDEXCUSEFORADEMONISGOINGDOWN!!!? Inuyasha shouted, so loudly that the snow was knocked off all the branches in the near vicinity. ?Youslowhumanscatchuplater?causeI?mgoingRightNow!? He jabbed one clawed finger in the general direction of the mountains. Then he took a flying leap and bounded off the rock.

?[i]Osuwari[/i],? Kagome said flatly.

[i]WHAM![/i]

Inuyasha crashed to the ground, sinking down through three feet of snow.

?I?m glad he has his prayer beads on this time,? Miroku remarked, mopping at his brow with a corner of his sleeve. ?Otherwise there would be no controlling him.?

?Whew,? Shippou sighed in relief, emerging from behind Kagome and hopping up onto the rock. ?I?m glad THAT?S over. We--OH NO! KAGOME, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?

Kagome was heading for the prone [i]hanyou[/i], carrying another bag of coffee grounds.

?Lady Kagome, I really must protest!? Miroku told her, moving to block her way with his arms outspread. ?You can?t be meaning to--?

?I have to,? Kagome insisted, skirting the monk and crouching down next to Inuyasha. ?Inuyasha, listen to me,? she said, opening the bag.

?DAMMITPUNYMORTALSLETMEGO!? Inuyasha growled, flailing his arms and legs in an effort to throw off the ?Sit? spell. The only thing this achieved was to form a rather grotesque-looking snow angel.

?Not until you listen,? Kagome told him. ?Then I?ll let you go.?

Inuyasha?s only response was a long and heartfelt string of swear words, rattled off at breakneck speed. But he stopped struggling, so Kagome assumed she had his attention.

?I?m going to give you more coffee,? she explained, holding the bag open. ?It?ll give you energy so you won?t get overtired when you fight Sesshoumaru. It?ll counteract the effects of the flu, and the fact that I?m giving you more will keep you from crashing for quite a while.?

Inuyasha managed to lift his head from the prone position, fixing two gleaming eyes on the bag of coffee grounds.

?Thecrunchybrownstuff,? he breathed, almost in awe.

Kagome held it out to him.

Then he opened his fangs wide and, in one mighty gulp, bit off most of the bag and its contents. Kagome backed away hastily as he leaped to his feet.

?Inuyasha, you ate the bag, too!? she exclaimed. ?Plastic isn?t edible!?

Inuyasha stared at her a moment, blinking, and then let out an earth-shattering belch. The remnants of the plastic bag went flying and landed somewhere on the ground.

?AllrightI?moff!SAYONARA,WEAKLINGS!? he declared. And then, before anyone could say anything else to him, he was off like a bat out of hell, heading straight for the mountains.

Sango watched him go, gaping.

?I really hate him when he?s like that,? Miroku muttered, rubbing at an ache in his temple.

Kagome sighed, bending to pick up her bow and backpack again.

?Well, I guess there?s nothing we can do now but follow him,? she said. ?With the amount of caffeine I gave him, he?ll be in that--er--?state? for the next twelve hours.?

Shippou sighed heavily, shaking his head.

?I?m glad it?s SESSHOUMARU who has to deal with him and not us.?

?Ah, Miroku-[i]sama[/i], I hate to be a bother,? Sango said, ?but just how are we going to find him? Inuyasha?s [i]far[/i] ahead of us, and [i]he's[/i] the only one who knows the way to Sesshoumaru?s home.?

?Oh, that won?t be a problem,? Miroku said flatly, gazing off in the direction that Inuyasha had taken. ?We just follow the path of destruction.?

Kagome followed the monk?s gaze, and true to his word all the trees and bushes along the way had been crushed and scattered.

?You?re right,? she agreed. ?With that much caffeine in him, he could probably tunnel through sheet rock.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]A company of warriors drew aside the bolts and manned the pulleys to open the gates to the city. As the heavy wooden doors swung outward the morning light streamed in, blinding the men who stood beneath the shadows of Reiyama?s walls. When their eyes had become accustomed to the sun, they saw the white demon standing there, brilliant and terrible.

?Open the gates at dawn,? their king had ordered. ?The Lord of the West is coming.?

And he had come indeed. For a moment he stood still, taking in the company of warriors with icy scrutiny, assessing the weapons that they carried and dismissing them just as easily because they didn?t pose him any real threat.

?Where is Asano?? he asked them curtly.

?He awaits you in the palace, my Lord,? one of the warriors told him.

Sesshoumaru stalked off in the indicated direction with the Seer following close behind like a shadow. The Lord of the West did not like what he saw. Everywhere along his path through the city, the Tatesei he encountered knelt at the side of the road and bowed to him. Yet he knew, though they hid their faces from him, that the eyes of every man, woman and child here were black as pitch.

He came upon King Asano in the northernmost palace garden, standing on a footbridge amidst a cluster of bamboo. Though the young man stood with his back to Sesshoumaru, the Lord of the West did not announce his presence. He merely stopped and stood there, staring at the white cranes that soared across the silk on Asano?s back. The Seer, after a moment?s hesitation, knelt down in the snow and bowed, as the Tatesei had to Sesshoumaru. Sesshoumaru glanced down at her, wearing an expression bordering on contempt.

?Stand,? he told her coolly, but she remained as she was.

At the sound of Sesshoumaru?s voice Asano turned to face them. He inclined his head toward Sesshoumaru, causing the gold in his hair to tinkle. Then his eyes came to rest upon the Seer, and for a moment he stiffened, frowning.

?Please rise, Suiton[i]-sama[/i],? he finally told her, seeming uncomfortable in her presence.

?You have heard your warrior?s message,? Sesshoumaru addressed the king. It was not a question.

?Ah...yes,? Asano replied, returning his attention to the demon lord as the Seer rose to her feet. ?I do not mean to be disrespectful, but I anticipated something like this happening the day you took the Seer from us.?

Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed.

?Don?t try my patience, [i]Ningen[/i],? he warned. ?I gave you a choice; I have come for your answer.?

Asano regarded the demon lord somberly for a moment. The young king?s black eyes appeared liquid and alien against the fair, youthful face. They were eyes far too fey and ancient for the flesh that encased them.

Asano lowered down onto his hands and knees and bowed before Sesshoumaru so that his forehead touched the snow. The Seer stared down at him in surprise.

?This, Lord Sesshoumaru, is my answer,? said the king. Then he lifted his head. Looking up into the demon lord?s face, he added, ?Irusei is dead.?

Sesshoumaru stood utterly still, as if frozen in place. For the briefest of instants, his eyes widened, and flashed with the terrible brilliance of sun on ice. Then the moment passed, and his expression became as placid as ever. Between the kneeling king and standing lord, a quiet snow began to fall.

?It is done,? Asano murmured, lowering his head. ?Go in peace, and take Suiton-[i]sama[/i] with you. Do not bring the Seer to this city again.? This last was worded oddly--almost like a plea.

Alarmed by the strangeness of this, the Seer turned to glance at Sesshoumaru for some indication that he understood. But the demon lord was already walking away, his footsteps soft and nearly soundless in the light snow. Casting one last puzzled look back at Asano, she hastened to Sesshoumaru?s side. The king remained kneeling in the snow; a lone, pale figure against a forest of dark bamboo. [/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]Clouds roiled overhead, building into what promised to be a heavy winter storm. Sesshoumaru stood watching the graying skies from the terrace outside his chambers. He knew what was coming.

?My Lord.? The Seer stood beside him, frowning. ?Despite Irusei?s threats, the king continues to swear fealty to you. And he has executed my brother, no doubt as an example to any sharing Irusei?s--?

?Irusei is not dead,? Sesshoumaru cut her off.

The Seer fell silent in surprise, taking an involuntary step backward.

?Not dead??

?The king lied,? the demon lord went on inexorably. ?He lied, for he does not have the strength to fight the power of the dragon?s blood in his veins. He has kept the warrior alive, because he believes that Irusei will lead him to a better understanding of all that is happening. And Irusei...will no doubt oblige him.?

The Seer frowned down at her feet.

?Then why did he seem to be warning you when he told you to keep me away from Reiyama?? she asked.

Sesshoumaru was silent for a long while.

?The boy Asano,? he said softly, ?was the last chance I gave the Tatesei.?

The Seer glanced up at him, standing there with his white robes fluttering in the breeze, and for the briefest of moments she thought she read sorrow in the rigidity of his posture. It surprised her, but she prudently chose not to remark on it. Instead she asked, ?What will you do now??

The answers slid through Sesshoumaru?s mind in an orderly stream.

?[i]I will wait here, to let the Tatesei believe that I am fooled by their king?s feigned loyalty[/i],? he thought. ?[i]I will wait for Irusei to come after his sister again, and allow him to take her. I will follow them and they will lead me to the dragon, for that can be the only reason that the Tatesei wish to use her. I will take the dragon?s life and power with Tokijin?s blade. And then...I will abandon the Tatesei. Leave them alone and empty of strength, naked to whatever swarm of demons has a taste for their flesh. Leave them alone and betrayed, as they have betrayed me...?[/i]

But Sesshoumaru did not tell these things to the woman standing beside him. Instead, he said, ?Get inside and stay there. Someone is coming.?

?Tatesei?? the Seer asked in alarm, already backing away toward the sliding door.

?No,? Sesshoumaru answered, laying his hand upon Tokijin?s hilt. ?Not a traitor. Just a fool.?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color][/CENTER]

[color=purple]Inuyasha, whose swift and arrow-straight passage had been churning up snow and flying debris all the way through the Inu Youkai palace gardens, skidded to a halt about fifty feet away from where his brother stood watching. For a moment the [i]hanyou[/i] just stood there panting, having run a good twenty miles in one hour. Then, abruptly, he straightened and pointed a claw at Sesshoumaru.

?YOU!? he bellowed, standing with his legs planted shoulder-width apart. ?YOUBASTARDGIVEMEBACKTHESHIKONSHARD!?

Sesshoumaru just stood there staring at him, which of course inflamed Inuyasha to no end.

?WHATAMIFUCKINGTALKINGTOMYSELF?! FORK OVER, BUTTMUNCH!?

Inuyasha reached for Tetsusaiga. By this time Sesshoumaru seemed to realize that the [i]hanyou[/i] was seriously going to attack him and drew Tokijin in a flash of red flame. However, he did not attack, staring down at Inuyasha and frowning.

While Tokijin certainly seemed to be working, Tetsusaiga remained a skinny, ordinary blade--it hadn?t transformed at all.

?WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WAITING FOR?? Inuyasha shouted. Then he glanced down at the sword in his hand and said, ?Oh.?

He gave it a shake or two, and then the blade fired into functionality, becoming the large glowing fang it was meant to be.

?There we go,? Inuyasha muttered. Then he straightened, brandishing the blazing Tetsusaiga. ?ALL RIGHT, SESSHOUMARU: PREPARE TO DIE! [i]KAZE NO KIZ[/i]---?

Tokijin?s blade clanged against Tetsusaiga before Inuyasha could complete the attack. Tetsusaiga glanced off Sesshoumaru?s sword as the white demon struck it, and Inuyasha flew back several yards before skidding to a stop by digging his feet into the snow.

?Not [i]here[/i], you fool,? Sesshoumaru said coldly. ?You?ll destroy our father?s house.?

Then the Inu Youkai proceeded to force Inuyasha back a good two hundred feet into the garden with a deadly elegant series of slashes keeping the hanyou on the defensive. When Sesshoumaru seemed satisfied that they were beyond the palace-trashing range, he eased off a bit to circle Inuyasha warily.

?You are here for the shards, are you not?? he observed. ?Well it doesn?t matter. For this intrusion you will die.?

With predatory swiftness, the white demon rushed at his brother, blade aimed straight for Inuyasha?s heart.

Sesshoumaru?s speed was phenomenal--so fast that his body became a blur that was nearly invisible...

...but Inuyasha was high on some speed of his own.

He arced Tetsusaiga around and countered Sesshoumaru?s charge. The two blades met in a violent clash of fire and lightning.

For a moment, neither brother moved, and they stood there locked in stalemate. Snow flurries swirled around them, stirred up by the violent [i]kenatsu[/i] of both swords.

?You have...increased your speed,? Sesshoumaru observed in surprise.

?DAMN STRAIGHT I HAVE!? Inuyasha bellowed into his face. ?NOWHANDOVER THESHARDANDNOONEHASTODIE!?

They both sprang apart, forced into movement as each brother attempted to press his strength against the other?s blade. Sparks lit the air between them, sizzling as they sank into the snow.

Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed and he tightened his grip on Tokijin?s hilt--a sure sign that he was growing angrier by the second. But Inuyasha avoided every attack with ease, practically dancing as he hopped from side to side and grinning fiercely from ear to ear, which was all the more infuriating to his opponent.

?WHAT, BACKING OFF?? Inuyasha jeered, dodging another lightning-quick thrust of his brother?s sword. ?WHAT, ARE YOU AFRAID? AFRAID NARAKU WON?T LOVE YOU IF YOU SCRATCH YOUR PRETTY FACE?!?

Sesshoumaru stopped altogether and stepped back, keeping Tokijin raised between them. This last affront to Sesshoumaru?s dignity seemed to have been the final straw.

?What the [i]hell[/i] is [i]wrong[/i] with you?? Sesshoumaru demanded angrily. ?Stop this at once!?

?GIVE ME THE SHARD, YOU OVERGROWN PRETTY-BOY!? Inuyasha insisted, brandishing Tetsusaiga. The sword seemed to be blazing even brighter than usual--some of the overhead tree branches were beginning to be singed.

Sesshoumaru weighed the possible outcomes.

He didn?t particularly want or need the Shikon shard for himself, and he knew that it would be safe from Naraku if it were in the hands of Inuyasha?s human girl, so there was no harm in returning it.

Inuyasha had greatly insulted him, not only implying that he preferred to mate with males but also that one of those males was the despicable Naraku.

But Sesshoumaru also, as a rule, refused to fight his brother when Inuyasha was insane, and this certainly seemed to be the case.

Sesshoumaru also had bigger fish to fry, and wasting more time exchanging blows and insults was not the least bit preferable.

?Take the shard,? he conceded icily, sheathing Tokijin and producing the fragment from a pouch hung from his sword-belt. ?Just retreat and leave me alone, and cease destroying the garden our dead kinsmen so laboriously planted.?

Inuyasha seemed somewhat disappointed, because the stupid grin vanished from his face, but he reached out and took the shard from his brother. Then, abruptly, he turned and sped off in the direction he had come with crazed swiftness.

Sesshoumaru watched him go with a mixture of distaste, bemusement, and a great deal of vexation.

Inuyasha?s crazed ?MOOWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!? echoed through the valley.

[i]?Next time I see you, Inuyasha[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought, [i]?I will kill you.[/i]?[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color] [/CENTER]

[color=purple]Kagome, Miroku, Sango and Shippou were all sitting huddled against Kirara?s warm sides for warmth when Inuyasha returned. They heard him coming long before they saw him coming in a cloud of snow and debris.

However, his momentum was noticeably dying as he sped down the slope toward them. Kagome glanced at her watch, which she wore underneath her gloves.

?Are you ready with your ?sit? command?? Sango asked her, nodding toward the approaching [i]hanyou[/i].

?Won?t need it,? Kagome replied. ?He?s back just in time. Caffeine crash in five...four...three...two...one.?

?I?VE GOT IT!? Inuyasha shouted triumphantly, skidding to a halt in front of them and spraying them all with snow. ?THAT ALBINO DRAG-QUEEN NEVER STOOD A CHANCE AGAINST MY--?

Whatever it was that Sesshoumaru hadn?t stood a chance against, they would never know. Inuyasha flopped forward, landing face-first in the snow with one fist still triumphantly upraised.

?Oh my!? Sango exclaimed, looking worried. ?Is he dead??

?No,? Kagome said, kneeling beside him. She pried open the fist and, true to the hanyou?s words, the Shikon shard was there.[/color]

[color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/color]

[color=purple]The boy-king Asano knelt in the garden, alone in the bamboo grove. The snow beneath his knees had long since melted and seeped through his white silk robes, but he paid no heed to the chill.

The chill in his heart was greater.

?Heaven preserve me,? he whispered, staring blindly into the verdant depths of the grove. ?I?ve betrayed him, and he knows it. Yet what choice do I have? I had to draw him into this; he?s the only one who might yet turn back the change that has come over us...?

In the king?s mind, a darker echo of a thought whispered, ?[i]He is the only one, yet he will never forgive this. It is not in his nature. You have gambled for the lives of your people on a fool?s hope that a demon would show you mercy...?[/i]

?If he cannot save us, then there is no one...? Asano murmured.

Then he lowered his face into his hands and wept.[/color]

[CENTER][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 8}[/b][/color][/CENTER]

[COLOR=SlateGray][I]Author?s Note: A ?tennyou? is a ?heavenly maiden?---sort of like a fairy in Japanese folklore, for those of you who?ve no familiarity with Ayashi no Ceres. ?Gaijin? is the Japanese term for ?foreigner.? ?Chichi-ue? is a term used to address one?s father with endearment. ?Otou-sama? is a respectful way of addressing one?s father. ?Ningen,? in case you?ve forgotten, means ?human.? Sesshoumaru uses the term in a derogatory fashion, because he is usually speaking condescendingly when addressing a human. His use of this term implies that to him all humans are alike and scarcely worthy of his attention.

This chapter is going to clear up a lot of mysteries at once, so hopefully you readers are fully awake. Of course, not ALL the mysteries will be cleared up. . .got quite a few plot twistses up our sleeves in the chapters ahead, yesss, don?t we preciousss?[/I][/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][B][CENTER]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 9: Dragon?s Blood {+} {+}[/CENTER][/B][/COLOR]

[I][COLOR=Purple][CENTER]?Drifting snow

A soft curse upon the bride?s dark hair

White, the color of my sorrow. . .?[/CENTER][/COLOR][/I]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple][CENTER][B]Seventy Years in the Past[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple][I]It also snowed on that day---the day his father betrayed him.[/I]

[I]He came home from one of his long absences at midday, when the sun shone weakly through the mountain haze and the air was clear and cold. He walked lightly atop the snow through Reiyama?s fields, crossing the valley at a leisurely pace. Such a slow pace was rare for Sesshoumaru, who always felt that the destination?s importance far outweighed the journey?s, yet today he moved idly through the territory of his enemies. He walked with a warrior?s grace and dignity, knowing that the Tatesei watched him from atop their walls.

The Tatesei were always watching. And always, whether in the company of the city guards or standing alone, the ones in gray robes watched him with cold eyes. He saw the Wise more and more frequently as the years progressed; those of his kinsmen who had been inside the city said that their numbers had grown.

Calmly, Sesshoumaru approached Reiyama?s northern gate and stopped when he stood in its shadow. He made no formal announcement of his presence, but atop the walls the guards hastened to draw the gate aside to let him in. Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed as he passed between their ranks, which stood at attention on either side as he entered. He remembered many years ago, when Reiyama?s gates were always open, because under his father?s protection there had been no need for defense. Now they closed the city unless they were formally called upon to conduct business with their Youkai guardians. Even now, the Tatesei flourished under dominion of the Lord of the West, and feared no invasion.

It was the Inu Youkai that they shut their gates against.

Seeing the gates of Reiyama closed even on the day when the Inu Youkai lord was to be wedded to its princess, Sesshoumaru understood that it was only a matter of time before the Tatesei betrayed his father.

He walked silently through the streets, where the venders and the merchants and the women on their errands scattered to either side of the road to make way for him. As with the samurai in the ages to come, the Tatesei people sank to their knees and averted their faces from him lest he strike them down for their disrespect. He passed them by without sparing them so much as a glance, lip curling slightly at the strange scent of their flesh. In general all Ningen smelled alike to Sesshoumaru, but the Tatesei were different. Their scent bore the odd mixture of pine and cinnamon, beneath which ran an undercurrent of fire-smell, like burning wood.

Eventually he reached the palace grounds, and after following the familiar scent of Inu Youkai through the gardens he entered a courtyard and came upon the place where the wedding was being held. An enormous crowd had gathered there; Ningen on the right and Inu Youkai on the left. The snow had been cleared from the ground here, and all were kneeling in the presence of the Tatesei royal family and the demon lord who ruled over them.

Sesshoumaru did not kneel to join his kinsmen. He had entered the courtyard on a path hidden from view behind a bamboo grove; now he stopped and stood utterly still, watching the ceremony from between the dense cluster of stalks.

From this vantage point, Sesshoumaru could see his father kneeling beside the princess. Both faced away from him---she in her white kimono and silk drapings, hung with silver; he in the black groom?s attire that Ningen wore, bare-headed yet crowned with the silver of his hair. Facing both of them and the assembled crowd was the Temple?s head priest, resplendent in a cloak embroidered with the twisting shapes of flames and dragons? claws. Standing in silent attendance behind him were his gray-robed servants---the Wise. They wore their hoods low so that their expressions were impossible to read, but even from that distance Sesshoumaru sensed that they were not pleased at all with what was taking place.

Sesshoumaru, of course, was not pleased either.

Later, after the ceremony had ended and the obligatory feast had been consumed by the wedding?s attendees, his father remained for a while with the princess to speak to her father the king. While the rest of the Inu Youkai Clan left the valley and returned home, Sesshoumaru waited in the outskirts of the forest just outside Reiyama. The Lord of the West and his bride followed soon after, passing beneath the pine tree in whose branches Sesshoumaru waited. The thick winter needles hid him from view as he sat comfortably in the cradling boughs.

?Your plan won?t work,? Sesshoumaru said softly.

Both the Lord of the West and his new bride stopped in their tracks; the woman seeming startled, while Sesshoumaru?s father seemed to have been expecting this.

?A white bird calls to me from the branches, returned from his long migration,? the Lord of the West said softly, turning and gazing up at his son. ?I caught your scent in the Tatesei gardens as well. After all this time, you come to speak with me? Then speak.?

Smoothly, Sesshoumaru descended from his perch and landed a little ways in front of his father. Sesshoumaru?s long white hair, bound behind him to keep it out of his face, fell heavily across his back.

?This is futile, and you know it,? he repeated. ?This union.? His resentful stare was directed at the back of the princess, who turned around slowly turned to face this new and unexpected opposition to her marriage.

Her new husband had draped a black fur cloak over her shoulders for the journey to the Inu Youkai palace. Above this dark mantle, her face was exquisitely delicate, possessing a pure beauty to rival any tennyou?s. She regarded him calmly and without judgment, despite the obvious resentment with which he regarded her.

Hastily, Sesshoumaru averted his gaze and rounded to confront his father.

?Do you truly think this charade will keep Reiyama loyal to the Inu Youkai Line?? he asked in a low voice. He was forcing his tone to remain reasonable though his hands clenched inside the folds of his long sleeves. ?It is a blind hope, Otou-sama. They grow restless beneath our rule.?

?I have known this for quite a long time,? his father replied, unruffled. ?Even before they stopped paying us tribute.?

The princess? brow knitted at this, but she did not speak up in defense of her kinsmen.

?THIS is NOT fitting tribute,? Sesshoumaru said coldly, pointing at her without sparing her a glance. ?This is a ruse, meant to buy them time while they gather their strength to move against you.? He lowered his hand. ?She is meant to be a distraction from their disloyalty.?

The Lord of the West did not grow angry, as Sesshoumaru had hoped he might.

?Moriatae,? his father said softly, using the name from Sesshoumaru?s childhood. ?I recall your bitterness when first I came to you to give you news of my imminent marriage. You left me in anger that day, taking with you nothing and no one and journeying alone into the wilderness. And now you return, but your bitterness remains unresolved. And your rashness and your warrior?s spirit have led you to judgment without wisdom or foresight.?

Sesshoumaru took a step toward his father, his foot crunching in the snow.

?I foresee the Wise, with their strange death-magic, coming for the souls of your children,? he said, voice trembling with ill-restrained emotion. ?I see a coward who clings to peace when we stand on the brink of war.?

Still the Lord of the West did not grow angry, but nodded slowly instead.

?When first I laid claim to this valley, the Tatesei were already there,? he told his son. ?You are right in saying that the Tatesei are dangerous. They are a people of many secrets. I know what you would have me do---slaughter them all, as I could have when first I encountered them. Slaughter them before they become a danger. But. . .it isn?t that easy. You can?t condemn a man simply for the blood that runs in his veins; only for the path he chooses for himself.?

Sesshoumaru stood silent after this speech, but his mouth was set in a stubborn line. Reading in Sesshoumaru?s face his closed state of mind, the Lord of the West adopted a sterner manner.

?I will do all that is in my power to make this peace last,? he told his son. ?Even though I, too, foresee what it is you fear. I do this because as a Lord of the West it is my sacred charge to love those over whom I have been given dominion. If you cannot learn this before the time comes, then you are not worthy to inherit the title.?

For a moment father and son stared at one another, each vying silently for the other?s accord. Yet when the moment passed, neither had gained it. Sesshoumaru?s father turned and rejoined his new wife, who had listened patiently to all that was said.

?Come, my beloved and my son,? the Lord of the West said to them both. ?Let us go home.?

As they began to walk ahead of him, the words that had been on the tip of Sesshoumaru?s tongue from the beginning spilled forth.

?How can you love something so weak?? He glared at the princess? receding back, but he was also referring to the Tatesei.

His father glanced over his shoulder to answer.

?Not all strength lies in a man?s ability to bring death to his enemies.?

Sesshoumaru made no move to follow them. Standing silently in the snow until they passed from view, he murmured softly, ?On this day you have betrayed us.?

Yet in his heart, the white demon was thinking, ?On this day, you have betrayed me.?

A soft snow drifted down, beginning to settle on the branches and on Sesshoumaru?s head. With these bitter thoughts in his heart, he started up the slope toward the place he called home.[/COLOR][/I]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]The Feudal Era[/B][/CENTER]

Inuyasha awoke at sunset and sat up with a start.

Immediately, he wished he hadn?t.

?SHIT!? he exclaimed, and laid back down. Apparently his friends had wrapped him up in a blanket to keep him warm while he was unconscious.

?Oh, you?re up, are you?? Miroku observed from across the campfire. Everyone was seated around it except for Kirara, who was curled up in Sango?s lap, asleep.

?Inuyasha, how do you feel?? Kagome asked, coming over to kneel beside him.

Inuyasha started to bluster something about being perfectly fine, but then Kagome laid a gentle hand on his forehead and he decided maybe he still felt sick after all.

?I feel like there?s a demon in my skull trying to gnaw its way out,? he groaned.

?Well, at least you got to enjoy the effects of the coffee before you crashed,? Shippou reminded him, sounding somewhat jealous. ?All she ever gives ME is chock-lit.?

?Let us just be thankful that it was someone [I]else[/I] who enjoyed Inuyasha under its influence,? Miroku remarked to Sango, who nodded in agreement.

?Huh.? Inuyasha rubbed his jaw with one hand. ?Actually, I don?t remember much at all. I sort of recall Sesshoumaru?s face. He looked really pissed off.?

?Well, you obviously had to fight him to take the shard back,? Kagome pointed out. ?And you obviously won, because you?re here now with the shard. I can [I]see[/I] where that would make him mad.?

Inuyasha sat up, headache completely forgotten.

?I defeated Sesshoumaru, and I can?t even REMEMBER it!? he exclaimed, pounding the blanket with both fists in frustration. ?Of all the rotten luck. . .?

?Inuyasha, we?re just glad you?re back safely,? Kagome said, interrupting his tirade.

?Hmm. . .? The [I]hanyou[/I] shifted to sit cross-legged, tucking his hands into his sleeves. ?I wonder if I actually killed him, or just beat the crap out of him. . .? While Inuyasha lapsed into pleasant rumination, Shippou finished his bowl of ramen and scampered over to sit in Kagome?s lap.

?Hey, Kagome?? he asked, gazing up at her. ?Since Inuyasha has the Shikon fragment back, does this mean the problem will fix itself? Can we just forget about Reiyama and go home??

Kagome, Miroku and Sango exchanged very serious glances.

?You were out looking for firewood, Shippou, so you wouldn?t remember,? Kagome told him. ?We already came to the conclusion that the problem is far from over.?

?What?d I miss?? Inuyasha asked, frowning at their serious faces. ?You guys look like someone?s died.?

?On the contrary, it?s someone?s [I]survival[/I] that presents a problem,? Miroku remarked darkly. ?Kagome-[I]sama[/I], please show him the maps, and the paper.?

Kagome unzipped her backpack and pulled the maps out. There were two of them; she unrolled the first one and spread it out over her lap.

?There it is,? she said, pointing to a spot on it surrounded by mountains. ?Reiyama. This is a map of feudal Japan, according to archaeologists from my time. This is what Reiyama looked like about twenty years ago on your timeline. There?s the mountain Reiyama, the valley?s highest peak.?

She unrolled the second map, spreading across the first one.

?And this is a map of historical Japan in the eighteen hundreds. Reiyama is still there in that time, and it?s grown a lot since we last saw it. There are roads leading in and out of the valley?a lot of them?which means the Tatesei are making regular contact with the outside world. There are even roads leading to the sea.?

Inuyasha leaned closer to follow the path she traced with her finger.

?That means that the Tatesei must?ve made contact with the Gaijin during the Meiji Era,? Kagome explained. ?This must have been where they became so powerful?introducing the special metal they call ?[I]ryunochi[/I]? to the world.?

Inuyasha rocked back onto his heels, looking pensive.

?For the Tatesei to be alive and well at that time,? he said, ?can only mean [I]one[/I] thing---sooner or later they?d have to face the wrath of Kenshin Himura.?

This earned him blank stares from all present.

?You?ve got the wrong anime,? Kagome whispered, nudging him with her elbow. ?The Battousai isn?t one of Takahashi?s characters.?

?Feh,? Inuyasha scoffed. ?Well, he [I]should[/I] be. We need more sword action on this show to balance out the romantic shit.?

Kagome gave him a weird look.

?Er---right.? She turned her attention back to the map. ?Let?s not get sidetracked here. In my era, the sorcerer Reikotsu?s reincarnation told me that there was an eruption in the Tatesei valley---an eruption that exposed the [I]ryunochi[/I] metal. He said that, according to the history, at the time of the eruption the boy king Asano sacrificed himself in the fire so that somehow it would spare his people. And afterward. . .someone named ?Raiiru? took over, and that was the start of the Tatesei Line?s success. And Reikotsu---Tatesei Sano---also told me of a legend. . .one in which the last two sons of the Inu Youkai died in that same eruption, fighting each other to the bitter end.?

?So you?re saying there?s supposed to be some sort of eruption tying in all of this?? Inuyasha asked, sobering up. ?In the Tatesei Valley??

Kagome frowned.

?That?s the weird thing. There aren?t supposed to [I]be[/I] any volcanoes in this mountain range. Before the future---my time---was changed, there wasn?t even a mountain called ?Reiyama?. It simply didn?t [I]exist[/I]. But in the Feudal Era map we can see it marked clearly right here.? She jabbed the spot on the first map with her finger for emphasis.

?What about the second map?? Shippou asked. The Kitsune was leaning on Kagome?s knee and peering over her arm at the maps. ?Was it on the second map, too??

Kagome shook her head.

?No, it isn?t. Look there.? She pointed. ?In the eighteen hundreds, there [I]is[/I] no mountain called Reiyama. There isn?t even a mountain drawn here. It?s like it vanished completely, even though the Tatesei city at its base is still there.?

?Or,? Miroku interjected, ?maybe it didn?t vanish. . .it [I]erupted[/I]. Maybe the eruption destroyed the entire mountain.?

?So that means. . .it [I]did[/I] happen,? Sango murmured, absently stroking Kirara?s head. Kirara stirred but didn?t awaken. ?What this man Reikotsu told you wasn?t just a legend---there really [I]was[/I] an eruption. And the part about the three deaths. . .it?s probably true.?

Inuyasha folded his arms, looking unusually pensive. The firelight flickered, fading a little. Shippou fed it some more dry wood.

?Tomorrow we?ll probably reach Reiyama,? Miroku remarked. ?We?ve made very good time. We?ll find a way to fix this.? Unobtrusively, his hand slid to the right to cover Sango?s. ?Don?t worry.?

Kagome sighed, shivering a little and rubbing at her arms.

?I just wish,? she said, ?that I knew what I did to change the future like this. It could be something so simple. . .even though it?s leading to death.?

?Feh.? Inuyasha picked up the blanket he?d been sitting on and dropping around her shoulders. ?Hey, like Miroku said, don?t worry so much. What?s done is done, and if you can?t change it then there?s no sense beating yourself up over it.? He plopped down again beside her and folded his arms.

Shippou tossed a pinecone into the fire. While a brief flurry of sparks ascended from it, he slyly suggested, ?I bet INUYASHA?S responsible for all this. He probably stepped on a beetle or something and now mountains are exploding.?

?HEY, YOU FUCKING BRAT!? Inuyasha exclaimed, slamming one palm down right in front of the Kitsune, who dodged it hurriedly. ?I WAS TRYING TO CHEER US ALL UP AND YOU?VE GOT TO GO AND---?

?Well, you?ve certainly squashed [I]something[/I]. . .?

All five heads swiveled downward at the sound of this new voice. It was strikingly familiar, if somewhat small and feeble.

?Myouga '[I]Jii-san[/I]?? Inuyasha identified it, lifting his hand from the ground. A nickel-sized Myouga pancake floated down from beneath his palm before re-inflating with a pop.

?Master Inuyasha! We have to stop meeting like this,? the old flea demon said earnestly. Looking somewhat indignant, he hopped onto Inuyasha?s knee to address the hanyou from a higher vantage point. ?[I]Really[/I]---squashing me when I?ve come all this way to tell you something of such vast importance. . .?

?Eh? Vast importance?? Inuyasha bent nearer to Myouga in surprise. ?Are you saying that you know what?s going on??

Myouga nodded sagely.

?I sensed that something was amiss, so I journeyed down to the Tatesei Valley riding on a raccoon,? he explained. ?There I made the arduous trek into the Tatesei city itself to see what had happened. What I found there chilled my very blood. . .? The old flea demon paused dramatically, apparently savoring his tale?s importance.

?Well? Get on with it,? Inuyasha demanded, one thumb hovering perilously close to squishing the little demon.

Myouga sighed with the patience of the long-suffering.

?Very well,? he conceded, seating himself cross-legged on Inuyasha?s knee and bowing his head. ?But in order for you to understand what you?ll be facing when you reach Reiyama, I must tell you where the problem began. It all started two hundred years ago, before the Tatesei even existed. . .when your father added fuel to the fire of a bitter feud that would eventually lead to his death, and the deaths of all your kinsmen. . .?[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple][I]?At the dawn of the Greater Youkai, there were also dragons.?[/I]

?What?? Sesshoumaru came to a halt and pulled a sharp about-face. ?What did you just say??

The Seer, who had been trailing after him, stopped also, eyeing him warily. Though his face was as calm as ever, Sesshoumaru had been in a foul mood since their return from Reiyama.

?You spoke those words before you lost consciousness, when we saw the dragon in the scrying bowl,? the Seer answered. ?I was wondering what they meant.?

They were standing in the cavernous main hall of the Inu Youkai palace, whose walls were lined with tapestries and whose central tables and gilt cushions were abandoned and empty. Though the afternoon sun warmed the palace?s outer chambers, here the air was cold.

The words struck a resonant chord in Sesshoumaru.

[I]?Moriatae,? his father had said, carrying the child through the darkened halls. ?Since tomorrow I leave for battle, tonight I will tell you a story.?

?Chichi-ue, why must you go?? the boy asked earnestly.

His father?s footfalls, unlike the strong arms that held his son, were soft and measured upon the stone floor. All of their kinsmen had retired for the night; the soft echoes of his father?s voice in the hall and the darkness---broken only by periodic torches along the wall---made it seem that the two of them were the only living souls in the world.

?I must because I am Lord here,? his father answered. At that time, there was a grave, sad quality in his father?s face that the child did not understand.

?What is the story?? the boy asked, understanding only the safety and the warmth of his father?s arms, and that they would soon be parted.

A fierce gleam came into his father?s eyes.

?Before the dawn of the Greater Youkai,? he began, ?there were also dragons. . .?[/I]

?Sit,? Sesshoumaru said sharply.

The Seer flinched, startled by the command after so long a silence. She had begun backing away in preparation to leave the demon lord alone with his bad temper. Yet now he gestured toward the cushions nearest the end of the hall. Slowly, the Seer nodded and approached them. The ones closest to her were arranged neatly before a great stone hearth. A fire blazed cheerily therein, in front of the empty seats. The imps that served the demon lord kept the palace clean and warm and hospitable. . .for kinsmen who would never return here to wander its shining halls.

Feeling as if she were taking the seat belonging to a ghost, the Seer sank down onto her knees on one of the cushions facing the fire. As she arranged her dark blue robes around her lap, she was surprised yet again as the demon lord knelt down on the cushion beside hers. His shoulder did not brush hers, but she felt his presence and the shift of his weight as surely as if it had. She did not need to touch his mind to sense his strong presence.

?You are Tatesei,? he said coolly, settling into a cross-legged position, ?and yet you do not know how the Inu Youkai Line ties into your own history. . .though your people saw fit to destroy us and make slaves of our souls.?

The Seer bowed her head in assent.

?No,? she agreed. ?I know only what I?ve been taught, and what little I?ve Seen.?

Staring moodily into the flames, Sesshoumaru frowned.

?I myself do not know it in full,? he murmured. ?What I do know. . .is the story my father once told me. . .? He paused, casting a brief glance toward the woman at his side. ?Your people believe that a dragon created this land. In a way, the legend is true. One hundred years ago. . .?[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]?. . .when Inuyasha?s father had yet to lay claim to the Western Lands, there were also dragons,? Myouga began. ?There were two great forces in this world: dragons, and demons, and both of them were born of the human race.?

?[I]Feh[/I]. Dragons, born of the [I]human[/I] race?? Inuyasha scoffed. ?And I could give birth to a chicken.?

?Don?t interrupt, Inuyasha,? Kagome murmured. ?Myouga, what do you mean by that??

The flea demon pointed on finger skyward, looking very professorial.

?Well, you first have to understand how demons came to be,? he explained. ?Every one of us, fierce or gentle, is descended from a demon born of a human. Not in the physical sense,? he added hastily, ?but in the spiritual sense. Human thoughts and dreams; human passions---these things are full of power. With them, it is possible to create anything, and also to destroy anything. . .?[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=Purple]?Humans are fools,? Sesshoumaru murmured, staring into the hearth without really seeing it. ?They were not content to live on this world while the gods watched over them from the heavens. They found no comfort in the worship of infinite beings; [I]Ningen[/I] in their greed and shortsightedness sought instead what they could touch, and see. They told stories. Legend was born. . .and the beings of which these stories told were born as well.

?From the hearts of those humans longing for simpler days, when their kind lived in harmony with all nature, came the demons of the woods and hills; spirits of rock and stream. From the minds of those who longed for human dominion over land and sea, rock and river. . .there came the dragons. . .?[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]?So you?re saying that demons first manifested from the souls of [I]humans[/I]?? Sango asked, clearly taken aback by this suggestion. In her lap, Kirara stirred, awakened by the sudden movement of her mistress? body.

?That is precisely what I am saying,? Myouga responded, turning toward her. Upon noticing her strange black eyes for the first time, he frowned, rubbing his chin pensively. ?So. . .it isn?t just the Tatesei. . .it?s all the dragon?s descendants as well. . .?

?Myouga-[I]sama[/I], please continue,? Miroku interjected, laying a hand on Inuyasha?s knee near where the flea demon was seated. ?It?s important that we understand this.? (He then hastily withdrew the hand, because Inuyasha was bristling---apparently the [I]hanyou[/I] disliked being touched so familiarly by anyone who wasn?t Kagome.)

?Very well.? Myouga nodded. ?The first demons were indeed born of human dreams and emotions. Demons are still born that way. For example, the Mu-Onna: the demon born of a woman?s grief over her lost child. Inuyasha and Kagome encountered such a demon, long ago. Also there are the Spider-Headed Demons, born of the souls of soldiers beheaded in battle. Demons are born of love and greed, grief and hatred. . .and in times like these, when the human world is consumed by wars, many demons are born.?

Inuyasha frowned.

?So I came from my ancestors. . .who were created by humans?? This thought apparently rankled, because his left ear had developed a slight twitch.

?Correct,? Myouga replied. ?After all, Inuyasha, your father was one of the Greater Youkai. And isn?t it interesting. . . I met many Great Demons when I served your father in my youth, and there is one trait that they all shared to the greatest degree: they---the most powerful of all demons---[I]were the most like humans[/I]. Not just in form, but in spirit as well. . .?[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]?But dragons are a force of creation,? the Seer dared to argue, interrupting the demon lord?s tale. ?How can both demons and dragons be born of the same human souls??

Sesshoumaru paused, glancing down at her. Her expression was earnest; almost childlike as she attempted to defend her heritage. The foolish, fearless way in which humans so unabashedly bared their vulnerabilities was oddly painful for him to see. He turned away from her to face the fire, which despite its brightness was easier to look at.

?Creation, woman, is merely the earliest form of destruction,? he said coolly. ?You say that the Dragon?s body shaped your land, and its fire shaped your mountains? That is true. In my father?s time---in the time of the Greater Youkai---the Western Dragon Clan did indeed shape the land.

?They laid waste to the forests and rivers. Where their tails lashed the sea, tsunami arose. Where the tsunami crashed, the coastline was formed. They summoned volcanic fire into the mountains from the deep places in the earth, granting to Ningen the gifts of metal-shaping and jewel-mining. With their breath they burned away the old forests, exposing the fertile land beneath. They made war on the Youkai, their brethren, so that we would not seize control of the land they had prepared. . .so that we would not rise to power and take the land that they had prepared for their precious humans.?

Sesshoumaru lowered his head, absently running his hand along the white fur over his shoulder.

?But my father saw the danger back then,? he said softly. ?He foresaw that the dragons? nurturing of humankind was a dangerous thing. He saw how the greed of [I]Ningen[/I] grown powerful would eventually lead to the doom of all Youkai. Of all the Greater Youkai, it was the Lord of the Inu Youkai Clan who possessed the most foresight. He saw then the poison that mankind could become if they were not kept weak beneath demon rule. . .?[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=Purple]?Inuyasha?s father never wanted to see humankind grow weak and fall prey to demonkind,? Myouga continued. ?Don?t make the mistake of assuming that. Yet neither did he wish to see them grow too strong. Under the protection and guidance of the Western Dragon Clan, [I]Ningen[/I] would become too powerful too fast. They would grow in population; develop in government and technology---before they acquired the wisdom to use it. And then, because those were turbulent times, they would make war on each other with their newfound power instead of growing peacefully as a civilization.

Inuyasha?s face had grown quite solemn.

?So [I]Otou-sama[/I] led an alliance of Greater Youkai against the dragons,? he murmured. ?He drove them into the mountains, didn?t he??

Myouga nodded sagely.

?That?s correct, Inuyasha. The dragon Ryukoutsussei, whom you fought to strengthen your Tetsusaiga, was once your father?s enemy. Ryukoutsussei was one of the dragons that went to war with the Greater Youkai long ago.?

?But [I]Otou-sama[/I] completely destroyed the Western Dragon Clan, didn?t he?? Inuyasha asked, frowning. ?My mother told me the stories. So what do dragons have to do with the Tatesei??

?Be patient,? Myouga admonished, waving both hands at him. ?I?ll explain. . .?[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]?Until recently, I believed that my father had slaughtered all the dragons save one,? Sesshoumaru said, ?and that one was destroyed by the [I]hanyou[/I] Inuyasha a year ago. The Western Dragon Clan was no more. And yet. . .their blood remained.? He paused, evidently mulling over something distasteful to him. ?In the same manner which Youkai interbred with humans, the dragons had been interbreeding as well. There came to be a new race of [I]Ningen[/I], bearing the blood of dragons in their veins. This was the Western Dragon Clan?s chosen race: the [I]hanryu[/I], of whom you spoke when Irusei came here.

?When the dragons were defeated, the [I]hanryu[/I] fled into the mountains, fearing for their lives because they were no longer protected by their progenitors. However. . .now I see that I was mistaken. The [I]hanryu[/I] survived the harsh life in the mountains because they were still under the dragons? protection. I was mistaken---my father did not destroy all the dragons. One remained---the one whom you call the ?Great Dragon?. . .the one whom I saw in the scrying bowl. Somehow, that dragon escaped being killed, and has survived even to this day. That is the one who watched over your ancestors, and who sent into their midst the [I]hanryu[/I] priestess Midoriko. The [I]hanryu[/I] survived, and the Tatesei are their descendants.?

The Seer looked down at her hands, shivering despite the fire?s warmth.

?The Dragon survived war with the Greater Youkai because he was the strongest. He was the Lord of all Ryu. But he was weakened, somehow. . .I don?t understand it fully. All I know is that my gift combined with the Shikon no Tama in the scrying bowl sent out a summons to him. And now he has awakened, wherever he is.? She glanced up at Sesshoumaru, wonder and horror at war upon her face. ?And he is calling upon his children to restore him to power.?

The firelight flickered across Sesshoumaru?s face, deepening the shadows there and setting his eyes aflame. His gaze flitted briefly toward the Seer, and then returned to the blazing hearth.

?If I am to destroy this threat before it claims dominion over your people,? he said softly, slyly, ?then I must know the nature of this monster?s weakness. How is it that something so powerful is kept from rising up and taking what it truly wants? Why must it use humans bearing its blood as its pawns? Can it be that my father. . .imprisoned it, somehow. . .??

The Seer bit her lip, bowing her head.[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=Purple]?Now that I?ve seen you, Sango-[I]sama[/I], I understand,? Myouga said, nodding as he addressed her. ?The dragon?s blood has been awakened in [I]all[/I] of its descendants; the Tatesei. . .and the demon-slayers.?

Sango stiffened. Her face went deathly pale.

?You?re saying that I---that [I]I?m[/I] a [I]hanryu[/I] also?? she asked. Miroku squeezed her hand, which was shaking. ?Because I?m one of the two remaining demon-slayers??

Myouga stood up and walked closer to the edge of Inuyasha?s knee.

?That has to be it,? he agreed. ?And whatever?s happened in Reiyama has awakened the dragon?s blood in you as well as in the Tatesei.?

Inuyasha slammed a fist down on his knee, nearly bouncing the flea demon clear off it.

?[I]That?s[/I] why Shippou and I couldn?t smell anything different about Sango!? he exclaimed fiercely. ?Her scent didn?t change when the dragon?s blood was awakened in her, because [I]it?s always been inside her[/I]. It?s a part of her---we just never realized what it was.?

?Only her aura changed,? Kagome murmured, glancing sidelong at the horror-struck Sango. ?Her blood was always the same---it?s only the spiritual part that the dragon has awakened.?

Suddenly, Sango?s eyes widened as a sudden realization occurred to her.

?Kohaku!? she cried, placing one palm against the ground as if making ready to push herself up and rush off somewhere. ?This must be happening to [I]him[/I], too! What if Naraku kills him, to prevent him from becoming dangerous. . .??

Miroku laid a calming hand on her arm, gently forcing her to remain seated.

?Sango. . .Kohaku?s not alive in the same way you are. His life?s blood flows only at the command of the Shikon shard in his back.? The monk paused, sighing. ?I don?t think his body is capable of responding to the dragon?s call.?

Sango sighed heavily---a sigh full of both misery and relief.[/COLOR]
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[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]?I can?t tell you, my Lord.?

Sesshoumaru?s head whipped around to glare at the Seer, who refused to look at him as she spoke. Her long, dark hair fell over her thin shoulders, hiding her face.

?Surely,? he said icily, ?you do not profess to retain actual [I]loyalties[/I] to the [I]hanryu[/I]. . .?

The claws of his hand clicked against the stone floor as he shifted on the cushion into a position facing the Seer.

?No, my Lord!? she replied hastily. ?I truly don?t know! I Saw only what you saw in the scrying bowl! There was nothing. . .nothing to tell me what it is that keeps the Dragon from rising in the flesh.?

Sesshoumaru was silent for a while, staring at her and trying to gauge the truth of what she said. The fire crackled beside them, sending a small shower of sparks onto the stones. Slowly, the Seer lifted her head and turned to face him. Though Sesshoumaru kept his face a cold mask, he had the impression that the Seer was beginning to sense his intentions---regardless of whether or not she could read his mind.

?Demon lord. . .? she murmured, speaking with a puzzled little frown. ?The answer that you seek. . .wouldn?t Irusei know. . .? Perhaps you must speak with Irusei, and not Asano-[I]o-sama[/I]. I think that Irusei is the one who seeks the Dragon, while the king has been reduced to a mere pawn in all this.?

Sesshoumaru offered no reply. For some reason, the mention of Irusei?s name roused in him a deep pain that he had not anticipated.

[I]?Have I become so weak[/I],? Sesshoumaru thought, ?[I]and so foolish. . .that human treachery brings me to sorrow?? [/I] His eyes narrowed to slits, red demonic anger beginning to creep into them. ?[I]No[/I],? he amended, rising abruptly to his feet. [I] ?I have seen centuries of life. There are no illusions left.?[/I]

To the Seer, he only said, ?There is no need to seek Irusei. He will come to me.?

Yet as Sesshoumaru turned to leave, something stopped him---her hand, tugging on the corner of his white robes. She knelt at his feet, blue robes pooled around her and pale face upturned and earnest.

?If you will destroy the Dragon,? she told him, ?I will serve you.? There was something hard and fierce in the way she said it that gave Sesshoumaru pause. In that moment, she became a person to him.

Then sorrow stirred again in the Lord of the West, and his anger returned. . .

. . .and she became a pawn, kneeling at his feet.

?Irusei will come,? Sesshoumaru told her coldly. ?And I will destroy the Dragon. If the Tatesei fall with it, then so be it. If you fall, so be it. I no longer care what lives are spent, so long as this threat is vanquished.?

He turned from her once more, white robes flowing around him as he went.

?You don?t trust me,? she called after him. It wasn?t a question.

Sesshoumaru came to a halt again, his last footstep scraping harshly against the stone floor. He was silent for a moment, his one hand hanging placidly at his side. Then he raised his chin and breathed in the damp winter air.

?It is no longer a matter of trust,? he said softly. ?I never had faith in the honor of humankind.?

The Seer bowed her head in humble acceptance, staring down at her folded hands. There was nothing to say to him---nothing she might say that could sway him from his bitterness. Nevertheless, she dared to ask, ?Then what of Rin??

The Lord of the West did not deign to answer this, but swept from the room and left her, kneeling alone in the vast hall. Her question made him angrier---he did not understand why she brought Rin into this; nor did he care to. Rin, like the Seer, like Jakken---like all whom he surrounded himself with---was nothing but a pawn. The child had been useful to him once, and because of that he had brought her here. One day Rin would serve him further, when he had need of her again.

But in the end, as always, Sesshoumaru of the Inu Youkai walked alone.[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{+} {+} {+}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[COLOR=Purple]?There?s one final thing I must tell you before you venture into the Tatesei lands,? Myouga told his listeners, seated cross-legged on Inuyasha?s knee. ?It is a great secret. . .one that your father told only to me and no one else. Not even Sesshoumaru knows of this.?

Inuyasha leaned forward eagerly, greatly intrigued by a secret being divulged to him that his brother wasn?t aware of. The [I]hanyou?s[/I] ears perked forward with interest.

?One dragon survived your father?s war,? the flea demon told him. ?The strongest of all dragons; the first. This Great Dragon was too strong for even the Greater Youkai to slay. Instead, your father imprisoned the beast deep within the mountains. I don?t know exactly how he managed this. . .but I was meant to tell you this, Inuyasha: the place in which the Dragon has slept until this time. . .is the mountain that both men and demons have named ?Reiyama?.?

?You-you?re saying the Dragon is actually [I]inside[/I] the mountain?? Kagome asked, amazed. ?Could this mean, then, that the eruption, the deaths. . .are all going to be tied into the fact that the Dragon in the mountain is [I]awake[/I]??

Myouga nodded. He was strapping his tiny pack back over his tiny shoulders and standing up.

?Well, that said, I?ll be off,? he announced, and stuck a foot out to start walking.

Inuyasha, however, caught him by the tiny pack between the nails of his thumb and forefinger.

?Leaving so soon?? the [I]hanyou[/I] asked, baring his fangs. ?I think you ought to come with us, since you seem to know so much.?

Myouga?s little legs flailed in mid-air as he struggled to free himself from Inuyasha?s grip.

?Really, I?ve told you everything I know,? he insisted. ?I?ll be of no further use to you.?

?Hmph.? Inuyasha bent nearer to the flea demon. ?Then answer me this: why did my father only tell YOU this, and why were you meant to tell only [I]me[/I]? Sesshoumaru is the Lord of the West; the Tatesei are under his dominion. The way I see it, this is more [I]his[/I] problem than it is mine. . .?

Myouga stopped struggling, and a puzzled frown crossed his wizened face.

?I don?t know myself,? he mused, fingering his chin with two of his arms and scratching his bulbous head with a third. ?But I do know that all those years ago, when the Tatesei betrayed your father and made war on the Inu Youkai. . .it wasn?t Sesshoumaru that their prophecies spoke of. The one they truly feared. . .was [I]you[/I], Inuyasha-[I]sama[/I].?

Surprised, Inuyasha released his hold on the flea demon?s pack.

?Best of luck!? Myouga called, giving them all a general salute. Then he hopped off the hanyou?s knee and disappeared into the snowy darkness beyond the campfire.[/COLOR]

[COLOR=DarkOrange][CENTER][B]{END OF CHAPTER 9}[/B][/CENTER][/COLOR]

[color=gray][i]Author?s Note: ?Ki? is the Japanese form of ?chi,? referring to spiritual energy in the body. A ?haori? is a shirt. An ?onsen? is a hot spring. A ?yukata? is sort of like a kimono but lighter.[/i][/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} THE LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 10: The Lord of the West, Betrayed {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]In Reiyama the snow fell soft upon the rooftops, adorning the pagoda tiers and the gardens, the houses and the terraces with purest white, like a bride awaiting her groom. And the city did wait; a deathly quiet had settled over it as it waited. The Tatesei were waiting as well--their king could feel it, as surely as he himself sensed the coming of the Dragon. His feet crunched in the snow as he trudged up the Temple stairs.

They were keeping Irusei in the Temple.

Asano nodded to the guards who stood upon the terrace surrounding the main building, and they returned the gesture, regarding him oddly. All of the Tatesei looked at their king the same way now, with their strange black eyes. They were confused--confused by the Dragon?s call, and by the changes in themselves--and they looked to him for answers that he did not have. The guards swung the Temple gates open wide, and Asano strode briskly into the dark halls, brushing the snow off his shoulders and the top of his head. His footsteps rang hollowly off the wood and stone.

The king navigated the warren-like halls without faltering, though the place called up unpleasant memories. The Wise had tried to kill him here, once.

When he came to the room where Irusei was sequestered he motioned for the guards to step aside and slid the wooden panel door open himself. The room was windowless and utterly bare save for two braziers burning on silver stands at opposite ends. The prisoner knelt facing the door with his head bowed low in the presence of his king. He was shirtless, wearing only a [i]hakama[/i], and even that was tattered and singed in places. His warrior?s queue fell forward over one shoulder as he raised his head after bowing. The flames in each brazier flickered as he moved.

?My Lord,? he murmured respectfully, removing his palms from the floor to rest them on his lap.

Asano waved one hand behind him and the guards obediently slid the panel shut, leaving him alone with the prisoner.

?I think you know...why I have not killed you,? the king said, kneeling opposite Irusei on the wooden floor. ?But before you speak to justify your actions, let me first make you aware of the measures I have taken.?

Irusei nodded slowly. In the faint light, when he lowered his head his eye sockets became pits of shadow.

?I have lied to the Lord of the West,? Asano informed him. ?I have told him that you were executed. Do you understand the implications of this? What I?ve done??

Again Irusei nodded assent.

?You are protecting me, my king...though you do not want to. You do this because you are noble, and because you believe in protecting the Tatesei.?

Asano sighed. He understood Irusei?s motives all too well, though Irusei was ten years older and a warrior, and Asano had lived the gilded life of Tatesei royalty. He understood, and he saw no evidence of treachery in Irusei. There was only a fervent centrism, whose focus was the Dragon. He could scarcely fault the warrior for this--he felt it as well.

?But you have acted rashly,? Asano said sternly. ?You have caused this breach of our contract of loyalty with the demon lord Sesshoumaru. Did you not understand the danger he poses to us? You were there as well, two years ago, when he laid waste to this city.?

Without warning, Irusei?s calm demeanor slipped.

?WHY, I ask, do you insist we keep this CHARADE going?!? he said loudly, leaning forward and pounding both palms on the floor. ?HE is a DEMON! What he did two years ago earned our FEAR?not our love.?

?His quest for vengeance was human enough,? Asano snapped. ?What the Wise did to his family was unforgivable. Theirs was an evil that did not deserve to endure.?

?Then the women and children he crushed beneath his claws were evil as well?? Irusei countered.

Asano shook his head slowly.

?No,? he replied quietly, ?and neither was my father. But still I recall the massacre and say, ?It was a fair trade.??

There was no condemnation in the young king?s tone, or on his face. Irusei?Sesshoumaru?he condemned neither of them. At this point, Asano was weary of condemnation. There was only one choice left to him, and he had resolved from the moment he betrayed the lord of the West that he would see it through.

?Did you come to kill me, then?? Irusei asked, frowning because he was staring at Asano?s face and did not like what he saw. Slowly, he straightened, replacing his hands in his lap. ?You can?t.?

Asano?s eyes narrowed. Slowly, his hand reached back to encircle the hilt of the short sword fastened to the sash at his waist. His silken sleeve whispered as it brushed the floor.

?I am king here,? he said sternly. ?You serve me. You do not tell me what I can and cannot do.?

Irusei drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. The brazier flames flickered.

?I am not a traitor,? he said quietly. ?You are my lord, and I would die if you asked it of me. But I am no longer free to do so. Do you understand why? It is because the Dragon has chosen me.?

Asano?s expression remained stony, and the sword at his side slid a little ways from its sheath.

?Chosen for what?? he asked coldly.

Irusei tilted his head back and gazed upward, as if his sight could pierce the Temple roof to see the sky beyond.

?To see this nation rise to its full glory,? he answered, his voice trembling with an undercurrent of excitement. ?To put an end to this era of wars and see all humanity raised high on a pedestal of wealth and peace.? The young warrior lowered his head, and his black eyes gleamed in the firelight. ?To see the Dragon awaken in full to lead his children,? he said softly, ?beginning with the eradication of demonkind...?

?Madness,? Asano whispered.

?If you truly believe that,? Irusei told him, ?then try to kill me.?

Green and untried as he was in the ways of the sword, the young king did not hesitate. In a heartbeat his blade sang forth from the sheath as he rushed at the kneeling warrior with full intent of slashing his throat. Irusei made no move to stop him, even going so far as to tilt his chin upward, baring the vein for his lord to strike.

Yet the sword stopped its fatal descent inches away from the warrior?s flesh.

Asano stood there panting, frozen mid-strike. The edge of his white sleeve swung forward and brushed the side of Irusei?s throat, but aside from this the king did not touch him.

Asano could not touch him.

The sword slid from between his suddenly nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor, and slowly he staggered backward, away from his last chance to end all this before it began. With equal and deliberate slowness, Irusei rose to his feet and advanced toward the retreating king.

?You see now where you stand,? Irusei murmured. ?You can?t oppose the Dragon, for it is in your blood also. And now that I have spoken with you, it is time for me to leave this place.? He brushed past Asano and slid open the wooden panel. ?I am the Dragon?s avatar, but that alone is not the answer. There is much yet to be done...?

?What will you do?? Asano asked, fighting to keep his voice from trembling. ?How will you raise the Dragon??

Irusei paused on the threshold of the small room, his profile outlined in the torchlight from the hall.

?The Dragon chose me,? he said, ?because I was the only one who felt its coming and embraced the power in our blood without a backward glance. And it has filled me with fire. But...there is still only one who knows where the Dragon is imprisoned. The Dragon is held back by something, but I do not have the insight to see what it is.?

Asano?s heart clenched, and his blood turned to ice.

?But Suiton does,? he said softly.

Irusei stepped beyond the threshold.

?My sister does,? he agreed.

?She will never go with you!? Asano insisted. ?Even if Lord Sesshoumaru were to allow it.?

Slowly Irusei slid the panel closed behind him.

?If the white demon dies,? he said, ?she won?t have a choice.?

The guards outside made no move to stop him, and he strode out into the night beneath the quiet snow.[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]The passage through the mountains proved to be long and arduous for Inuyasha and his friends. The clouds that they had seen looming over the peaks in the distance now showed themselves to be formidable overhead. The hanyou guided them through the same pass that they had traversed two years before. Now the necromancers? webs were gone, and in their place was a path plagued by driving snow. The long trek consumed the entire morning, after which they stopped to eat lunch and to rest before making the descent into the valley.

Lunch was rather unappealing fare--strips of dried meat that Sango had brought, which everyone was decidedly sick of and about which everyone (even the stoic Miroku) complained. Inuyasha was the most outspoken among them (?It tastes like shit!?), and in the interests of peace Kagome fished out her last cup of ramen for him. He ate it cold and uncooked because there was no place sheltered enough from the wind and snow to build a fire. However, he didn?t seem to mind, because he crunched it between his fangs with as much relish as he usually exhibited when slurping it up.

After they had eaten Inuyasha led them down the steep hill and into the valley. Kagome was now riding Kirara behind Sango, so that Kagome?s weight on Inuyasha?s back didn?t cause him to sink further into the snow. In some places there were drifts higher than his head, and sinkholes waist-deep. Miroku, who was also on foot, brought up the rear.

?What the HELL?!? Inuyasha turned around at one point and noticed something very strange about Miroku?s mode of travel.

?Yes?? the monk inquired mildly, looking down at the [i]hanyou[/i] from where he stood atop the snow. He had been walking across the surface instead of sinking in up to his waist like Inuyasha.

?Why are YOU prancing across the snow like some oversized fairy while I?M slogging through it up to my stomach?!? Inuyasha demanded, pointing an accusatory claw in Miroku?s direction.

Unruffled, Miroku took a few steps forward to demonstrate.

?It?s quite simple,? he explained. ?I?ve used my spiritual powers to draw my [i]?ki? [/i]into the bottoms of my feet.?

Inuyasha scratched his head, looking thoughtful.

?Well, if Myouga?s right about demons being born from magic, then I should have WAY more[i] ki [/i]than you!? he concluded.

Miroku stared at him, resting his staff tip atop the snow.

?Doubtlessly,? the monk agreed. ?However, because you are a demon you are not pure and therefore you can?t control it. That is a spiritual ability allotted to a select few, even among humans.?

Inuyasha clenched his fists and bared his fangs, straining in what was apparently an attempt to control his [i]ki[/i]. However, when he took an experimental step forward, he only succeeded in sinking neck-deep into the snow.

?WHAT THE FUCK?!? he bellowed, thrashing around and spraying snow everywhere.

Miroku extended the end of his staff for Inuyasha to grab hold of, but the hanyou was still too miffed to bother freeing himself just yet.

?Since when are YOU ?purer? than me, anyway?? he demanded. ?Does ?please bear my child? ring a bell??

?I wasn?t referring to virginity, Inuyasha,? Miroku explained, adopting a rather Buddha-like persona to put up a sagacious front.

?MY VIRGINITY IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!? Inuyasha snarled, bursting his arms free of the snow.

?Of course not,? Miroku agreed, nodding sagely. ?It?s Kagome?s.?

Both Inuyasha and Kagome--who was peering down from atop Kirara to observe the commotion--turned identical shades of crimson. Sango merely sighed with an air of long suffering.

?[i]Miroku's[/i] the one who needs the prayer beads and the ?sit? command,? she muttered.

?Uh, Inuyasha...? Kagome?s parka called.

?What is it, Shippou?? Kagome asked, glancing down at the Kitsune, whom she?d been wearing all day upon Inuyasha?s insistence.

?You?d better get out of that sinkhole really quick. I smell some of the Tatesei heading this way!?

Inuyasha?s head lifted and his mouth snapped shut mid-rant. Quickly, he accepted Miroku?s proffered staff, and the monk clasped hold of his other arm to haul him out of the sinkhole. Upon reaching firmer ground, Inuyasha found a large, flat boulder to climb onto and stood there gazing down the slope.

?Shippou wasn?t kidding,? Inuyasha muttered, shielding his eyes from the snowflakes blown into his face.

?What do you see, Inuyasha?? Sango called, raising her voice to be heard over the wind whistling through the pass behind them. Kirara alighted on the rock behind Inuyasha, shaking her head to keep the snow from piling up on the bridge of her nose.

?This can?t be good,? Miroku murmured, following Inuyasha?s downward gaze. He had climbed up next to the hanyou, who was fingering Tetsusaiga?s hilt.

Kagome peered over Kirara?s massive shoulders to see what they were all staring at. She couldn?t see down the slope, but she COULD see that Inuyasha had gone tense and rigid. Though only his back was visible--and even that was covered by his long white hair--she could tell that he was angry. Usually a very dynamic and physical person, when Inuyasha went utterly still like this it always meant trouble. In this way, she supposed he and his brother were complete opposites.

?No,? Miroku warned. He clamped a hand around Inuyasha?s wrist before the [i]hanyou[/i] could draw Tetsusaiga, and covered the movement with his long black sleeve so that the approaching Tatesei wouldn?t see the gesture.

?It?s not a welcoming party--it?s a bloody ARMY,? Inuyasha said tightly. ?We can?t just stand here and allow them to surround us...?

?They?re under Sesshoumaru?s protection,? Miroku reminded him in a low voice. ?If you spill blood here you will violate whatever contract he has with them, because you?re his brother.?

Inuyasha shook the monk off, edging away from him.

?They?re under Sesshoumaru?s protection, are they? Look at their EYES.?

Miroku nodded grimly.

?Like Sango?s,? he murmured.

The Tatesei, in the meantime, had already caught sight of the group standing atop the hill, and were making straight for them. They were indeed a veritable army--there were forty young men in the company, warriors all. They wore the green haori of Reiyama beneath their armor and long queues beneath their helmets. Bows and quivers were strapped across their backs, swords at their hips, and daggers at their thighs.

?They?ll be upon us in about five minutes at the rate they?re traveling,? Kagome said apprehensively.

?We hold our ground,? Inuyasha ordered. ?Kirara, at the first sign of hostility I want you to take Kagome, Sango and Shippou out of range of their archers. Miroku, I?ll need you with me, because if we?re going to try not to draw too much attention to ourselves I can?t use the Wind Scar.?

Miroku nodded, and Kirara grunted her assent.

After but a few moments? span, the warriors had reached them.

The Tatesei stopped twenty feet downhill, holding rank but making no move to reach for their weapons. One of their numbers stepped forward; a tall young man with a lean, angular face and slanted, almond-shaped eyes. Apparently he was the leader; he seemed prepared to speak for them all. He took two steps forward, and sank waist-deep into a sinkhole.

?[i]They?ll use their archers[/i],? Inuyasha was thinking, sizing them up. ?[i]The snow?s too deep for them to get close to us and fight effectively with short-range weapons.?[/i]

However, the young leader soon proved that snow wasn?t going to impede his progress. He looked down at the snow he had become mired in, frowning, and almost immediately it began to disappear, melting away from the general vicinity of his body in a faint hiss of steam.

[i]?Shit![/i]? Inuyasha thought, fighting the sudden raging desire to feel Tetsusaiga?s pommel secure in his hand. ?[i]This is too fucking weird...[/i]? Beside him he heard Miroku?s sharp intake of breath.

The young man, on the other hand, seemed equally as surprised to see Inuyasha.

?Silver hair,? he murmured, studying Inuyasha intently. ?And demon?s claws. You?re an Inu Youkai...?

Inuyasha reached for his sword. The young warrior noticed the gesture and held out empty hands to indicate peaceful intent.

?I am Setsuna no Irusei!? he called, tilting his head back to look up at them. ?We have no quarrel with you, Inuyasha-[i]sama[/i]. Our quarrel is with the Lord of the West. He has wronged us greatly, and we go to make amends.?

Inuyasha stepped forward to the edge of the rock, still gripping Tetsusaiga?s hilt. Miroku stepped forward as well, laying a cautionary hand on Inuyasha?s arm.

?Lord Sesshoumaru is your ruler,? the monk said sternly. ?How can he have wronged you so greatly that you must retaliate??

The young warrior?s expression darkened. He appeared older when angry.

[i]?This guy is dangerous[/i],? Inuyasha thought grimly, ?[i]even though he says he has no quarrel with US[/i]...?

The warrior regained his composure, and it was an eerie thing to watch--rather like a calm, cold mask sliding over something roiling beneath.

?He has taken from us...something very precious,? he answered carefully. ?A Seer--a priestess of our new Temple. Though we have forsaken the teachings of the Wise...?

Kagome straightened in her seat atop Kirara.

?A Seer...?? she murmured. ?Tatesei Sano told me that Seers gave them prophecies... It must?ve been a Seer who gave them the prophecy that made them fear Inuyasha...?

Sango, sitting in front of her, shifted uneasily but said nothing in reply. Her gaze was continually drawn to the Tatesei warriors, with their strange black eyes.

?What would Sesshoumaru want with a human fortune-teller?? Inuyasha asked, squinting down at them with great suspicion. ?He thinks humans are a waste of flesh--why would he bother kidnapping one??

?Suiton is the one who woke the Dragon,? Irusei replied, seeming somewhat offended. ?Somehow, Suiton?s power has achieved what no Seer has ever done before. You see...Suiton is connected to us all through the Dragon?s blood, the central thread of a spider?s web. Perhaps the Lord of the West feels threatened by Suiton?s power--or perhaps he intends to use it to destroy us. Either way, we go to confront him now, to plead for Suiton?s release.? He paused, looking down at his feet and frowning, and then lifted his gaze and asked, ?Will you come with us??

Inuyasha mirrored the warrior?s frown. This sounded like a trap to him--a trap set by Sesshoumaru.

?Our business is with Asano-[i]o-sama[/i],? Miroku interjected, planting his staff in front of him on the rock. ?We came to speak with him, and would prefer to continue on our way to Reiyama.?

Irusei?s gaze remained unwaveringly fixed upon Inuyasha.

?Asano-[i]o-sama[/i] sent us,? he explained. ?He fears for his people. Though we are hanryu, we have nothing but human strength to wield against the Lord of the West should he choose to attack us. However...you are his brother, aren?t you? Two years ago you came to the aid of the Tatesei when he would have slaughtered us all. That sword you carry (here he nodded toward Tetsusaiga) has the power to match his. If you came, our lives might be spared.?

?[i]Definitely a trap[/i],? Inuyasha thought, folding his arms. ?[i]Sesshoumaru?s probably been looking for an excuse to destroy the Tatesei since day one. Now he?s stolen their Seer to get them to attack him. And he stole the shard from US to lure me here... No, wait, that makes no sense... Why would he want to lure ME here?? [/i]

?Inuyasha?? Miroku prodded his arm, apparently awaiting his decision.

A firm refusal was about to escape from Inuyasha?s lips when Kagome approached him from behind. She had slipped off of Kirara?s back after the warrior?s first mention of the Seer.

?Inuyasha, we should go,? she urged. ?We shouldn?t just let them walk into danger alone.?

He glanced over his shoulder, looking quizzical. Silently she shook her head, letting him know not to argue.

?The [i]SEER[/i] can foretell the[i] FUTURE[/i],? Kagome told him, stressing the two words and hoping he got the message.

Slowly, he nodded, and then turned back to face the Tatesei.

?We?ll accompany you,? he informed them. ?Lead the way.?

Something flickered in the warrior?s black eyes, but he nodded assent and motioned for his company to resume travel. The warriors filed past the rock, melting the snow around them to clear a path as they walked. Inuyasha waited until they had all passed, watching with great misgivings as the steam rose around their bodies and hissed--a sound audible even over the creaking of their armor. Then he motioned for his companions to follow him and they descended into the runnel in the snow created by the warriors.

?I don?t like this,? Shippou complained, nestling in Kagome?s lap once she had climbed back onto Kirara. ?Sesshoumaru?s creepy. And these Tatesei are only slightly less creepy...?

?Oy, you--you?re supposed to be a par-ka,? Inuyasha snapped, not taking his eyes off the warriors ascending the slope in front of him.

Shippou sighed and transformed with a pop. Absently, Kagome put him on again. She was extremely nervous now, because they were heading into what promised to be direct conflict with Sesshoumaru. However, if that was where the Seer was, there was probably no way around it, either. Apparently Miroku was thinking along the same lines.

?If this ?Suiton? is the one who started all of this, then he may be the key to fixing the future,? he murmured. But he kept a firm grip on his staff and a sharp eye on the trail ahead, and every so often he would finger the prayer beads around his right hand.

Their ascent up the mountainside veered off to the right--gradually at first, and then sharply as they approached the woods that blanketed the slope. Inuyasha was unfamiliar with this particular route, but Irusei seemed to have no doubts as to where they were going. Miroku noticed this and commented on it.

?He seems to have visited Sesshoumaru before,? the monk said in a low voice. ?Look at him up ahead--he isn?t looking anywhere but straight ahead. He knows this route well.?

?He knows the exact direction to take because he can sense where the Seer is,? Sango said, speaking up unexpectedly. She had been utterly silent from the moment when they first sighted the Tatesei, and even now there was an unusual hush in her tone. Her gaze was fixed somewhere ahead up the mountain, as if she could see through the thick screen of pines. Miroku slowed down and fell into step beside Kirara.

?Sango, can you sense the Seer as well?? he asked, looking up at her.

?Yes,? Sango murmured, but she wasn?t looking at him when she answered.

Sango?s distracted manner troubled Kagome, who leaned forward to whisper in her ear.

?What about the warriors, Sango? Can you sense [i]them[/i]??

Sango didn?t reply for quite some time.

?It?s just as Irusei-[i]sama[/i] described it,? she said. ?It?s as if all the [i]hanryu [/i]are threads in a spider?s web. Suiton is at the center; we can feel the Seer?s every movement.?

Miroku walked beside her for another moment, frowning when he finally realized she wasn?t going to add anything to clarify this explanation. Then he turned and moved forward again to join Inuyasha. Both monk and [i]hanyou[/i] noticed then that Irusei had paused further up on the trail, and stared intently at Sango for a moment before turning to resume his lead. [/color]

?I don?t like this,? Miroku muttered.

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Sesshoumaru left the Seer alone in the palace?s main hall and swept from the room in an extremely ill mood. He spent the better part of an hour restlessly pacing the dimly lit corridors. So swift was his stride that the torch fires blew sideways as he passed. Finally, in a fit of temper, he flung open the sliding panel that led from his personal chambers to the terrace overlooking the garden. The door rattled on its hinges.

For some reason, the sight of the snow-covered groves outside calmed the anger roiling in him, and he stood there for a moment as his breathing slowed. He had stood here, in this very place, looking out upon this very scene, since he was but a child. Now the sight left him feeling calm and strangely empty. Absently, he brushed the white fur away from where it had fallen forward over his chest, watching the snow fall.

He lost all recollection of how long he stood there, awash in memories, but after a time awareness of a different kind of emptiness in his gut gradually lured him back to the present. Sesshoumaru had not eaten for many days, even as he had not slept since he first learned of the Seer?s existence. Jakken--who normally kept better track of his master?s health than his master--had been too intimidated by Sesshoumaru?s ill temper to come barging into his chambers wheedling and coaxing him to eat. After a moment?s consideration, he decided that this was an ideal time to hunt. After all, there was nothing to do now but wait for the [i]hanryu[/i] to come for their Seer. He owed the Tatesei woman no warning or explanation, just as he no longer owed her people the shelter of his protection.

Stepping out onto the terrace, he breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with the freezing winter air; drawing in through his keen nose the scent of prey. Then he stepped of the edge of the terrace, and rose into demon-shape before his foot ever touched the snow beyond. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Returning hours later--near sunset--Sesshoumaru slipped back into man-shape in the snow outside his chamber. He did so with a good deal of reluctance; there was a wild, cold freedom in wearing demon-shape and hunting in the mountains. Flying over the snow-crested peaks, his mind was clear of everything save the chase and the kill. And there was always the scent of flesh; of his prey?s blood beating rapidly through the chambers of the heart...

Shaking aside those desires before they could distract him further, Sesshoumaru straightened and climbed back onto the terrace. His step was lighter now that his belly was full, as was his mood. He recalled that he had not seen Rin for several days, and headed down the halls to search for her.

He stalked through the palace, following her scent as he had the trail of the white wolves along the course of the frozen river that snaked through the mountains. Sesshoumaru preferred to prey upon predators--upon souls that he understood, so that he felt in communion with them as they died beneath his claws. He also preferred pale, pure quarry, untainted by disease or blemish--or the touch of [i]Ningen[/i]. Livestock he considered beneath him, though inwardly he also harbored a secret horror that a creature could be bred solely for the purpose of being slaughtered.

Rin was nowhere to be found. After searching all of the rooms the little girl frequented, he finally met Jakken coming out of her chambers carrying a tray laden with untouched food.

?M-my Lord,? Jakken stammered, nearly dropping the tray in surprise. ?I d-didn?t suspect you back so early. You?ve hunted...??

?Where is Rin?? Sesshoumaru interrupted, glancing pointedly past his little servant into the empty room.

This time Jakken did drop the tray. It clattered to the stones, scattering jasmine rice every which way. Guiltily, he turned his small round head right and left, but of course the halls were empty.

?I-I don?t know,? he replied. ?I thought she was with you. She WAS saying earlier that she wanted to visit her special place, but I told her she couldn?t go alone...?

Sesshoumaru?s nose caught the subtle fragrance of pine and metal, and immediately he pushed past the baffled imp standing in the doorway and swept out the terrace door of Rin?s chamber.

It was her meal-time, judging by the angle of the sun--normally she would not have missed it. This left him with no further doubts.

?The Seer,? he murmured darkly, eyes flashing.

Then he swept out the door.

?W-w-WAIT, my Lord!? Jakken called, stumbling through the snow as he attempted to follow his master through the garden.

But Sesshoumaru was in no mood to wait. Now that he was outside again, he could smell the Seer?s scent commingling with Rin?s.

?[i]I should not have left her alone with Rin[/i],? he thought, breaking into a run.

He didn?t believe that the Seer herself was any sort of threat to the little girl, but he did not want her anywhere near Rin when the Tatesei came for her. The warriors of Reiyama already knew that Rin was a liability to him, and now that they had betrayed him they would no doubt wish to take advantage of that fact. He counted himself fortunate that he knew the location of Rin?s ?special place.?

It wasn?t long before he found them together, in a stream at the garden?s northern edge that ran down the mountainside. There was a fissure leak beneath this area, and the northern fork of the stream was a natural hot spring. Rin bathed here most of the time because she liked to play in the water, and Sesshoumaru allowed it because if there was one smell he truly abhorred it was the stench of unwashed [i]Ningen[/i]. As long as Rin was clean, he didn?t mind that she smelled faintly of sulfur. Sesshoumaru washed himself only in the snow, which blanketed the highest peaks above where he hunted even in the summer.

The Seer and the little girl were bathing now. The Tatesei woman sat serenely on a rock half-submerged in the steaming water, watching as the more boisterous Rin amused herself by using a nearby bush for snowball target practice. Rin saw him approaching first and hastily submerged herself in the water up to her chin. The Seer turned in surprise, but made no move to hide herself.

?Rin, you should not have come here,? Sesshoumaru said quietly.

Though his tone was smooth as ever, Rin knew when he was being stern and nodded solemnly. Then he turned cold yellow eyes toward the Seer, who was regarding him with a slightly puzzled expression.

?Suiton, you are being disrespectful,? Rin said, tugging at the Seer?s hand and trying to pull her beneath the water as well.

Still frowning at Sesshoumaru, the Seer patted Rin?s head.

?A demon lord is not like a man,? she told the girl absently. ?The wolf doesn?t care that the sheep it hunts are naked.? To Sesshoumaru, she said, ?Why wouldn?t we be safe here? Aren?t we under your protection??

Then she lost her balance as Rin finally managed to tug her off the rock. She landed with a splash in the hot spring, and Sesshoumaru was oddly relieved that this opportunity had been provided to avoid speaking the truth in front of Rin. The possibility of lying never occurred to him--the Lord of the West had always been ruthless in his honesty.

As the Seer broke the surface again, sputtering and coughing, Sesshoumaru?s head snapped up as he caught the sudden strong scent of pine and metal. His eyes widened in surprise.

?[i]Why did I not detect them before?[/i]? he thought, disgusted with himself. [i]?I only catch it now...now that they are upon us...??[/i] Then he realized the reason for it.[i] ?The onsen! I could not catch their scent above the sulfur smell!?[/i]

Through the trees beyond the hot spring, a host of Tatesei warriors moved in the shadows. In the long shadows of twilight, they were scarcely visible. The black pits of their eyes seemed to darken their entire faces--it was like watching ghosts slip through the garden. Irusei emerged from their midst, wearing full armor and weaponry.

?Sister!? the warrior called sharply. ?We?ve come for you!?

The Seer froze at the sound of his voice, staring wide-eyed at Sesshoumaru.

?Have you?? Sesshoumaru asked coolly. He made no move to cross the stream to stand between the hanryu and their quarry.

This was not as he had envisioned it. He had hoped that the Seer would try to run from the palace, and that the Tatesei would take her when she was alone. Yet now Rin was here, and this complicated matters greatly, for he was not going to stand idly by if they chose to take the girl hostage.

?Suiton, come to me,? Irusei told her, his tone softer than before. He knelt beside the stream, reaching a hand down toward her. The snow around his knees melted and ran down the bank. ?You?ve been fighting it for a long time, and for that we acknowledge your strength. But now you must forsake your own strength, for you were always meant to bow to the Dragon?s will. We all were.?

The Seer saw him out of the corner of her eye, but she did not turn to him. Instead she looked up at Sesshoumaru, her black eyes full of pleading. Naked and shivering, dark, wet hair clinging to her neck and shoulders, she was a pitiful sight. Sesshoumaru could not stand to gaze upon such unabashed vulnerability. Wordlessly, he bent and picked up her clothing--draped across a boulder nearby--and tossed it to the opposite bank, where it landed in the snow beside Irusei. Then he stepped away from the stream?s edge, indicating that he would do nothing to defend her.

?Don?t let them take me,? she begged. ?They wish to free the Dragon!? When Sesshoumaru merely stood there, gazing down at her dispassionately, a frantic note entered her voice. ?Do you not understand?! I have Seen this! If the Dragon is resurrected, fire will rain from the skies! The world will change! And the Inu Youkai Line will die!?

?Foolish [i]Ningen[/i],? Sesshoumaru murmured. ?Did you truly believe your loyalty would earn you my protection??

?Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i]?? Rin cried, confused. ?We must help her!?

To Rin, he merely said, ?Come, Rin. Let us leave them to their foolish pursuits.?

The Seer stared at him in disbelief. Losing patience, her brother grasped her by the arm and hauled her up onto the bank. Numbly, she allowed herself to be pulled. Once he had her on the bank, Irusei draped her robes over her shoulders. Rin climbed out of the water and wrapped her yukata around her small body. As she did so, Sesshoumaru turned and began walking in the opposite direction.

This final denial of any obligation to defend the Suiton jolted the Seer back into mobility.

?Was it not [i]you[/i] that brought this upon us?? she cried. ?All for the sake of an answer!?

Sesshoumaru glared balefully at her over one shoulder. He did recall that he had forced the Shikon shard upon her because he had wanted an answer to his question. Yet now...the question no longer seemed important. It was dwarfed by the Dragon?s shadow; out-shown by the Dragon?s flame, which beckoned him to find it, to make it his own.

?I have no intention of destroying the Dragon,? he said icily.

Even as Irusei pulled her to her feet, the Seer called out to him one last time.

?COWARD!?

The white demon?s foot paused mid-step.

The Seer began to thrash and struggle, kicking at her brother?s shins and attempting to push him away from her.

?Enough,? Irusei told her sharply. Then his fist connected with her jaw. The impact snapped her head back, and her teeth clicked together loudly. Then she sagged forward in her brother?s arms.

?What the HELL is going ON?!?

At the sound of [i]this[/i] voice, Sesshoumaru turned swiftly on his heel. Rin nearly collided with him, but he used his hand to push her out of the way.

?The Seer has just been returned to us,? Irusei said in calmer tones, turning toward the red-clad Inu Youkai who had moved forward to stand beside him. ?I will bring Suiton with us.?

?Inuyasha...? Sesshoumaru said, in a low voice very much like a growl.

Inuyasha eyed his brother suspiciously.

?You just GAVE her back? Just like that??

?Why are you with them?? Sesshoumaru asked, ignoring the question. ?Have you come to Reiyama to police my actions yet again??

Inuyasha stepped forward, one hand on Tetsusaiga?s hilt.

?Yeah, that?s right,? he snarled belligerently. ?We came upon the Tatesei warriors and they told us you?d kidnapped their Seer. And after the little stunt you pulled stealing the Jewel shard from us, I believed them!?

Sesshoumaru made no move toward his own weapon.

?Then you will be sorely disappointed,? he said calmly, pushing back the white fur that trailed over his shoulder. ?I am giving them what they want.?

?Is that the Seer?? Inuyasha?s monk companion had just come to stand beside him, the rings on his staff tinkling as he set the tip down in the snow. He frowned at Irusei. ?Why was it necessary to subdue her??

Sesshoumaru?s instincts were now urging him to reach for his own sword. If Inuyasha and his friends were going to make trouble, the monk was the one who would most likely put an end to it. Yet he refrained, knowing that the best way to get what he wanted here was to avoid a fight.

?You have heard all that I have to say,? he told Inuyasha coldly. ?I will say nothing more to the [i]hanyou[/i] who chooses loyalty to his Tatesei blood over our father?s.?

?[i]Hanyou[/i]?? Irusei murmured softly, frowning.

?So you?ll be returning the Seer to the city?? Miroku asked Irusei, but again the warrior ignored him.

Abruptly, Irusei shoved his sister?s inert form into the arms of one of his comrades. His black eyes were beginning to fill with fire.

Sesshoumaru knew by now what this precluded. In a flash, Tokijin sang forth from its sheath. It blazed in his hand, trailing red [i]kenatsu[/i] through the air as he hurtled forward toward his enemies.

Tokijin rang as it clashed against Tetsusaiga. Sesshoumaru suddenly found himself face to face with Inuyasha. Red and gold sparks showered around them as both brothers pressed their blades forward in an attempt to hold off the other.

?I knew it, you fucking LIAR!? Inuyasha growled through clenched teeth. ?You were planning to attack them all along!?

Tokijin burned brightly in Sesshoumaru?s grasp. He could feel its heat spreading to every muscle in his body, lending him strength. His temper, which he had kept in check for the sake of his ambitions, now spiked beyond his limits of control.

?YOU FOOL!? he snarled. ?DON?T DEFEND THEM!?

In one swift, fluid movement, Sesshoumaru pulled Tokijin back in an arcing path that freed it from Tetsusaiga?s defense. Then he turned the blade forward and buried it up to the hilt in Inuyasha?s flesh.[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 10}[/b][/color][/center]
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  • 3 weeks later...
[color=gray][i]Warning: Contains vague spoilers for the third Inuyasha movie. No majorly important spoilers, mind you, but I still felt obligated to warn. ?Chichi-ue? is an affectionate term for one?s father. ?Daiyoukai? means ?Greater Demon?--which is what Inuyasha?s father was. Supposedly these are the oldest and strongest demons.

This is going to be a pretty dark and violent chapter. Hold onto your chibi plushies...[/i][/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} Chapter 11: The Hanryu Quest: Into the Mountains {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple][b]The Feudal Era; The Night of Inuyasha?s Birth[/b][/center]

[i]On the night his father died, Sesshoumaru shed no tears. It was so cold that had he done so they would have frozen before they could slide down his proud face. But that night, he was beyond tears. The one thing in the world that he had loved had passed on to the next, where he could not follow.

?Protect them?? he whispered, slipping Tenseiga into its sheath and turning away from his father?s corpse. ?Love them??

His father, grievously wounded from a battle with the dragon Ryukotsussei, had gone flying back to Reiyama against Sesshoumaru?s admonitions. Word had reached his ear that the Tatesei princess, Iyazoi, was about to give birth, but had been captured and taken from his palace to the city. And the Inu no Taishou had fought there against a warrior named Setsuna no Takemaru, buying time for Iyazoi to escape the city with her newborn son. But the battle had claimed his life?and then the Wise had nearly claimed his soul.

?Love them?? Sesshoumaru whispered, bitterly.

He walked aimlessly through the wood beyond the field of slaughter. The Wise had long since deserted the field, secreting the souls of the Inu Youkai to the depths of their Temple, there to bind them into servitude. Now the human jackals crept in behind them, robbing the corpses of clothing and weapons and finally harvesting the very bones to carve their pillars and to sell as relics.

Love them? His throat closed off before he could speak aloud--only his lips moved.

He did not know where he was going, or what he planned to do. There was so much hatred coursing through his blood that he could not think clearly. He was scarcely aware of himself--of the pain from his own wounds, or the hunger that weakened him. As he ascended the wooded slope, the world was flickering in and out of focus. The shadows of the trees lengthened and grew taller, seeming to bow over him as if they would crush him. It was not melted ice that dripped from their overhanging branches, but blood.

Then, mercifully, his memory faded to gray for a while.

He did not return to himself until he stood atop the mountain overlooking the palace, his home. Red mist seeped into his field of vision, like winter clouds across the moon. Then he rose from the snow-capped peak, forsaking man-shape for a demon?s flesh.

That night, he hunted as he had never hunted before. Wholly lost to savagery, he became like a mindless beast, without thought or reason, lost in the depths of his own senses. For many days, he hunted in this state, heedless of the cold, or the driving winds, or the blood that stained his white fur crimson.

When he returned at last to the valley he called home, he could not remember how many he had killed. He remembered blood and flight and the crunching of bone between his jaws, but to him the cries of man and beast seemed to blend into one at the moment of death. He slid back into man-shape, landing on his knees in the snow that blanketed his father?s garden. His clothing was torn and dyed crimson, and his limbs trembled with exhaustion. Yet he glanced up and saw the tiny light glimmering in the palace window nearest him, and suddenly he found the strength to push himself to his feet and stagger toward it. His heart, numbed by sorrow and death, now clung desperately to the wild hope that he would find some survivor of the massacre there in the palace...though the Wise had attacked the palace first and taken the souls of the women and children long before they met the Inu Youkai warriors in battle...

Panting, Sesshoumaru stumbled onto the wooden terrace and flung open the sliding panels so hard that they snapped free of their hinges. He plunged into the torch-lined halls, glancing fervently this way and that, hoping to catch some glimpse of the one who had lit all the lights in the windows. Of course, in the back of his mind, beneath the layers of pain too great to bear, reason told him that the imps that served the Inu Youkai had lit them, and that he would find no one here.

But at this most poignant of moments, tormented by unreasonable hope, Sesshoumaru could not bear to listen to reason. He practically flew down the halls, following with his keen nose the scent of the Inu Youkai. It was faint. . .so faint...but there.

?Yes,? he whispered feverishly, turning a corner and heading for his father?s chamber. ?There. It is there. Chichi-ue...?

A lone figure sat upon the chamber?s bedclothes, wearing a cloak made from black fur. His father had taken this fur from the pelt of a Wolf Daiyoukai whose clan broke a treaty and made war on the Inu Youkai.

Sesshoumaru stopped short at the sight of it.

It was draped over the slender shoulders of Iyazoi, the Tatesei princess whom the Inu no Taishou had taken for his bride. She sat with her back to him, and did not see him, but she heard the hiss of steel as he drew the long dagger from the sheath belted around his waist. She did not cower or cringe, but straightened and turned to face her death with dignity.

Sesshoumaru froze.

Her face was haggard and marred by tear-streaks, yet this in itself lent her a bold and terrible beauty that he could scarcely bear to look upon. For a moment he held the dagger poised above her head, eyes wide and maddened. Then, gradually, his blood slowed and he remembered speech.

?Ningen,? he whispered, moving toward her with a slow and measured tread, ?you have brought this upon us. And yet...you are alive...when my kinsmen are dead...?

The princess offered no defense, and made no move to flee him. The dagger caught the firelight as he lifted it, reflecting a thin red line across her face.

?Justice,? his senses sang to him. ?This is justice. Take it!?

And yet...strangely enough...his nose caught the faint scent of the Inu Youkai. It did not seem to be coming from the black fur cloak. Then Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed, for he heard beneath Iyazoi?s shaky breathing the soft, small breaths of another in the room. The princess saw his eyes widen in surprise, and knew what this meant. Her slim white hand darted across the stone floor, strewn with bits of broken pottery, and found among these a long and jagged piece. This she raised in front of her, brandishing it and suddenly regarding him with all the fierceness of a beast defending its young.

Sesshoumaru moved around her in a blur. By the time she had turned on her knees to follow his movement, he was already crouched over the child lying on the cushions behind her. Roughly, he flung aside the mantle that she had thrown over her son to conceal him.

He found himself looking into a tiny face like a mirror of Iyazoi?s, with eyes the amber shade of his own. Atop the infant?s head, between two tiny dog ears, was a tuft of silver hair--the mark of the Inu Youkai Line.

?Inuyasha,? the princess whispered, her gaze moving from Sesshoumaru?s cold face to the child?s frail, tiny body, to the dagger hanging over her son by the thread of his half-brother?s sanity.

Fortunately for them all, the Lord of the West had left behind one last measure of protection for his sons.

A mighty pulse rattled Tenseiga in its sheath.

A wave of light swept out from the blade--blinding and brilliant as a summer sky. It expanded outward until the room was filled with it, outshining even the fire in the hearth and the torches lining the walls. Then it flew backward, drawn inward to Sesshoumaru?s body like a star imploding. He fell back, dropping the dagger and clawing at his eyes, fearing that he would go blind from the sheer brilliance. The sword?s light condensed to liquid flame, forming a second skin around him. Dimly he was aware of Iyazoi edging away from him, clutching the baby to her breast. He could do nothing to stop her--Tenseiga?s power held him helpless in its thrall, and he pitched backward onto the floor.

He never felt his head strike stone. Instead, he seemed to fall deeper, beyond the floor---not merely into senselessness, but into an enfolding warmth that reminded him vividly of the times his father carried him...

When he awoke hours later, on the floor, he was still warm. Some part of the dream lingered, settling warmth into his bones, whispering his name.

?Moriatae...?

Sesshoumaru sat up, reaching out with desperate hands for someone no longer there. For a moment, he sat there mutely, staring at his empty hands, and then at the empty darkness of the chamber beyond, where the long-dead torches hung. Ashes fluttered gently to the ground beneath them, like black snow. Then he noticed the bloodstains on his hands, and everything that had occurred the night before came flooding back to him in a rush so violent he nearly blacked out from it. He slumped forward, clutching his head, breathing in the sharp, metallic odor of the blood drying on his clothes.

He understood now what had transpired. When he had left the Tatesei field of battle, he had been wounded deeper than he realized. All night long as he bled---even in demon form; even as he dealt death out to others---Sesshoumaru had been dying slowly. And in his father?s chamber, with his last ounce of life?s strength, he had tried to deal out one last death to the ones who deserved it most.

But instead...Tenseiga had acted, drawing him into the depths of healing sleep, before he could die.

His father?s love, at that crucial moment, had saved both of his sons.

?Damn you, Chichi-ue,? Sesshoumaru whispered, pushing himself onto his knees. ?I never asked for your mercy. I?ll find him again. I?ll find HER. And I won?t rest until the blood price has been repaid in full..[/i].?[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color]

[color=purple]The Feudal Era[/center]

To Kagome, all time seemed to stop in that instant. The world froze and went still--even the snow ceased its soft fall upon the garden. Just as she stepped beyond the trees and into the clearing, she saw that Tokijin--Sesshoumaru?s sword--was buried to the hilt in Inuyasha?s stomach. Paralyzed with horror and shock, Kagome?s bow fell from her hand and hit the snow.

The sword-blade was long; it had also pierced through Inuyasha?s back and exited his body.

Upon its point, Irusei was also impaled.

His hands--which he had been reaching forward as he approached the dueling brothers--were full of fire.

Now his arms lowered slowly, and the flames cupped in his palms flickered and died.

Time resumed its flow.

Irusei expelled a shaky breath, and his hands flew to the blade through his belly, bloodying themselves as he grasped hold of it, for Tokijin?s[i] kehai[/i] was like a thousand tiny knife-blades to the touch. As his men watched in horror, Irusei lurched backward, wrenching the point from himself. He staggered backward into the arms of those warriors nearest him, who caught him before he fell.

Inuyasha attempted to speak, but the sword was pressed against his diaphragm inside him, and he only managed to draw in a long, tortured breath.

Miroku was the first to speak.

?Inuyasha!? he cried, practically flying toward the two brothers.

The monk?s expression was fierce--it seemed that he planned to attack Sesshoumaru while Tokijin was still held fast by Inuyasha?s body. He raised his staff over his head, and with lightning speed struck the white demon full in the face.

?[i]SEIBAI[/i]!? Miroku shouted, in a voice that resonated even above the ensuing din. Kagome could feel the force in that spell resonating in her very bones.

She watched it all as if in slow motion--Miroku?s dark robes billowing out behind him as he moved; the staff?s descent...and, strangely enough, Sesshoumaru?s expression of vague surprise, directed not at the blow aimed for his head but at the sword in his hand.

Then the staff struck him, and light crackled between metal and skin like an electric charge. Yet at the same time, the other sword Sesshoumaru wore at his waist sent out a brilliant blue pulse, which expanded up and outward to meet Miroku?s spell. The force of clashing powers--holy and demon-born--caused an explosion that blew all three of them away from each other. Miroku was flung back the hardest, landing against the trunk of a tree. A pile of snow, shaken from the tree?s branches by the impact, half-buried him. Sesshoumaru flew backward and landed in the stream behind him. Rin ran to his side, crying out in fear. Inuyasha flew backward as well, too weakened from his wound to prevent it.

?INUYASHA!? Shippou cried in horror.

With a massive pop, he reverted from parka form to that of a giant, balloon-like thing with eyes, which zoomed forward. The Kitsune managed to arrive just in time between Inuyasha?s hurtling body and a tree bristling with low, jagged branches. The [i]hanyou[/i] bounced off of Shippou?s rounded form and landed so hard in the snow that he practically disappeared beneath it.

Kirara had started toward the Inu Youkai brothers at the same instant Miroku began his attack on Sesshoumaru, snarling and intending to separate the white demon from his sword herself should the monk?s attack fail. However, the enormous demon suddenly found herself arrested mid-leap by the press of a blade at her throat. Slowly, she lowered into a crouch, growling deep in her chest. The blade followed, not allowing her to move another inch forward.

Meanwhile, Shippou had not yet transformed back into his Kitsune form. Instead, he was trying to use his enhanced size to block the Tatesei soldiers trying to get to Inuyasha. They were stabbing at him with their blades, attempting to skirt his large, round body and clearly intending to kill the hanyou while he was down.

Something in Kagome?s mind finally snapped awake. The fetters of shock that bound her body unlocked, and she rushed toward Inuyasha and Shippou.

?No...no...no...? she breathed, over and over again, like a mantra.

The Tatesei warriors arrested her attempt to reach her friends, crossing their blades before her to block her path. In her shock she would have hurled herself against them regardless, but one of the men caught her around the waist and flung her backward, away from the immediate vicinity of the fight.

?[i]This isn?t happening[/i],? she thought, pushing herself to her feet where she had fallen in the snow. ?[i]This isn?t HAPPENING. This wasn?t supposed to happen HERE. This ISN?T how it HAPPENED...[/i]? Her mind was a maelstrom of confusion; of blood, rushing in her ears. ?[i]Inuyasha?s going to die HERE...and I can?t stop it...?[/i]

Her lone bow would do her no good against forty men with bows and swords of their own. What little strength she had in her body would do even less good.

But if she did nothing, Inuyasha would die.

Pushing herself to her feet once more, Kagome began to run.

Sango?s voice, and a warrior?s blade pressed against her belly, stopped her dead in her tracks.

?DON?T KILL HIM!? Sango shouted.

With one hand, the demon-slayer flung her Hiraikoutsu into the midst of the Tatesei warriors attacking Shippou. Snow sprayed outward in every direction from the place where it struck the frozen earth. Men scattered as well, flinging themselves out of the way to avoid being struck.

With her other hand, Sango pressed a sword against Kirara?s throat.

?Don?t kill him!? she repeated. Some of the warriors hesitated, turning toward her.

Kirara?s growl died in her throat. She tried to glance up at her mistress in confusion, but Sango held the sword too firmly at her neck.

?He knows where the Dragon lies,? Sango declared above the din of clashing metal. ?He KNOWS!?

The warriors who heard and understood her words backed away from their intended prey, glancing questioningly down at their fallen leader.

?Let her speak!? Irusei cried hoarsely. He sat on the frost-hardened ground, leaning against the supportive arms of one of his comrades. Blood seeped through the creases in his armor, staining the fabric of his green [i]haori[/i] a shade as dark as the soil beneath him. ?She is one of us!?

Dazedly, Kagome staggered back a step, away from the blade leveled menacingly at her stomach.

?Sango...?? she murmured, eyeing the sword at Kirara?s throat in confusion. ?Sango, what are you...??

?His father, who sealed the Dragon, has passed on the secret to his son!? the demon-slayer shouted. ?Inuyasha is the key! The [i]hanyou[/i] is the KEY!?

?What?? Kagome asked, staring at Sango in shock. ?Sango, what do you mean, ?the key???

If the demon-slayer heard her, she didn?t bother to answer. Her black-eyed gaze spanned the crowd of Tatesei warriors with cold appraisal that bore an eerie resemblance to Irusei?s.

?Who the fuck...are you calling...?[i]hanyou[/i]??? Inuyasha called weakly.

?Inuyasha!? Kagome exclaimed. Her head lifted, and hope filled her?he was alive, and still able to speak. ?Let me go to him,? she pleaded, turning toward Irusei, but he ignored her. She turned her imploring gaze upon Sango, but the demon-slayer refused to look at her.

With a pop, Shippou deflated, returning to his regular shape. He was shaken and covered with scratches, but he did not seem to be harmed beyond the exhaustion from maintaining the transformation spell for so long. The Tatesei warriors allowed the Kitsune to approach Inuyasha, who was lying on his back in the snow, sensing that he would be of little help to the injured hanyou.

?Speak,? Irusei bade Sango. ?I wish to know why you claim the [i]hanyou[/i], bearing mixed blood of Inu Youkai and Tatesei, is the ?key? to the Dragon?s resurrection. I judged it wiser to destroy him, for it has been prophesied that a [i]hanyou[/i] of such blood will bring doom upon Reiyama. Had I known two years ago who Inuyasha really was, I would have killed him sooner. Had the white demon not attacked us both at that instant, I would have killed him a moment ago with the Dragon?s flame.?

The pile of snow that had fallen over Miroku shifted as the monk began to revive. He groaned, reaching one arm up to tentatively explore the back of his head.

?I can?t say exactly,? Sango admitted, frowning. ?But consider this: Inuyasha has within him both the blood of the Dragon and the one who sealed it. Sealing a creature so powerful is a complicated spell, requiring elements of both the one casting it and the one being sealed. Even my father, the leader of the demon-slayer?s village, required a priest?s power for such things because he couldn?t do them himself.?

?Irusei-[i]sama[/i]?? One of the warriors holding the wounded [i]hanryu[/i] leaned down to look into his face. ?What would you have us do??

Kagome held her breath.

?Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i],? Rin whimpered, her small body bent over the demon lord?s. ?Please wake up...?

?We bring him with us,? Irusei decided, breathing hard as he attempted to push himself to his feet.

?Irusei-[i]sama[/i], you mustn?t--? the warrior holding him protested, but Irusei shook off his arm and managed to rise into a standing position. ?The wound...?

?The Dragon will heal me,? Irusei told him impatiently. ?In the meantime, we will make the journey to where the Dragon is imprisoned. We will bring the [i]hanyou[/i] and the Seer. The Seer knows more than she willingly reveals. She will know the way to use Inuyasha, if he is of any use at all.?

?HEY!? Inuyasha croaked. ?No way in HELL is anyone going to USE me!? But everyone ignored him.

?And afterward?? Kagome asked sharply. ?Will you let him go afterward??

Irusei spared her the briefest of glances.

?Once the Dragon is freed, you may do as you wish,? he told her. ?Nothing that you do will make any difference after that.? To his men, he gave the order, ?Make a sling to carry him.? Then he turned to Sango, who still held Kirara at bay. The demon-cat?s growl rose in volume at his approach. ?Did Inuyasha tell you the Dragon?s location?? he asked, eyeing Kirara warily.

Sango nodded.

?Inside the mountain you call Reiyama,? she answered. ?Beyond that, I can?t say. It may be contained in some kind of cavern or chamber there, or perhaps the Dragon is embedded in the rock itself. That is where we?ll have to rely on Suiton.?

?So that?s it, then?? Kagome blurted out, staring at Sango in disbelief. ?You?re just going to join them, just because your eyes have turned black? You?re going to let them take Inuyasha??

Sango gazed at her levelly.

?Yes,? she replied curtly. Then she reached into a pouch at her side with her free hand, withdrawing a handful of some strange-looking leaves with purple veins running through them. Addressing one of the warriors standing nearby, she nodded toward the sword in her other hand. ?Hold this. Keep her from moving.?

The instant the man took over her position, Sango darted around Kirara?s side, reached under the demon-cat?s belly, and shoved the leaves beneath the bandages there and into the wound. Kirara?s immediate reaction to snarl and thrash. Her massive body bucked so violently that the warrior holding the sword at her throat was knocked aside. She whipped her head around to snap at Sango, heedless of the fact that the demon-slayer was her mistress. Sango leaped backward, the snapping jaws missing her by a hair?s breadth.

Kirara yowled in anger, turning this way and that, but she was surrounded on all sides by spears and sword-points. The Tatesei warriors jabbed at her to hold her at bay, but they could not get close enough to do any real damage without braving coming within range of her claws.

?Sango...? Kagome breathed in horror. ?Please...?

Under Irusei?s supervision, the warriors fashioning the sling to carry Inuyasha had made short work of it. Then they moved toward him, intending to lift him onto it, and found their way blocked by Shippou.

?No!? the Kitsune cried, standing spread-eagled between the hanryu and their prey. ?Leave him ALONE! FOXFIRE!? With this last pronouncement, a rush of green flame appeared in front of him, causing the warriors to draw back.

But Irusei stepped forward, into the flames, and waved one hand through them sharply. To Shippou?s horror, his foxfire dissipated like smoke, melting into the cold night air. Once again the Tatesei warriors approached Inuyasha, who by this time seemed to be in a very bad way. He no longer offered any protest, but stared up at them dully as they reached for him.

?DON?T TOUCH HIM!? Shippou howled, and launched himself at the nearest [i]hanryu[/i], sinking his needle-like fangs into the man?s outstretched hand as hard as he could. Swearing, the man began beating the Kitsune with his free fist.

Yet Shippou alone could not hold ten men at bay. He was unable to prevent them from lifting the injured half-demon onto the crude travois, which they had fashioned by lashing their cloaks and spear-shafts together.

Kirara turned slowly amid the circle of warriors, searching for an opening through which to break free of them. Yet her movements were growing sluggish, and her fierce eyes were taking on an odd, glazed look.

?Poison,? Sango told the warriors tersely as she yanked her Hiraikoutsu free of the frozen earth. ?From the herbs. She?ll drop soon. Then it will be safe for us to leave.?

The warriors hoisted the travois up onto their shoulders, looking now to Irusei for the command to march. Irusei himself appeared to be in a bad way, looking quite pale and haggard. He turned toward Sango, glancing at her questioningly.

?I will go with you,? she told him grimly.

Slowly, Kagome bent down so that one knee touched the snow, and one hand grasped hold of her bow. Slowly, she rose, her other hand moving mechanically to draw forth an arrow from the quiver strapped across her back. She was not sure whom she intended to shoot--the men surrounding Kirara or the men carrying Inuyasha...or Sango. In the end, she reined in her emotions and aimed for Irusei?s back.

A firm hand caught the wrist notching the arrow and forced it to lower.

?No, Kagome,? Miroku whispered in her ear. ?It won?t help. We have to let them go.?

Kagome glanced over her shoulder at him in outrage, attempting to wrench her wrist free of his strong grip. Blood was trickling down the right side of his face, from somewhere under his black hair.

?What are you SAYING?? she hissed. ?You want me to just LET them DO this?!?

But the monk only wrapped his other arm tightly across her chest, effectively immobilizing her.

?We HAVE to let them GO,? he repeated, this time with peculiar emphasis on certain words, implying that he had a rational reason for preventing her from shooting.

The man whom Shippou was biting caught the Kitsune in the forehead with his fist, knocking him aside into the snow.

Kagome wasn?t the least bit inclined to listen to rationale right now.

?Let me GO!? she protested, kicking at his shins with her heels and thrashing against him. ?Let me GO!?

Miroku refused to budge.

Amid the ring of warriors, Kirara finally fell--dropping like a stone, her orange eyes already fallen shut before she hit the ground.

Then, with Sango in their midst and Irusei limping along beside her, the [i]hanryu[/i] bore Inuyasha and their Seer away into the trees.

Miroku held Kagome for a long time--until the warriors had long passed from view. When he finally released her, she turned and slapped him hard across the face. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]When the crunch of Tatesei boots in the snow had grown faint and ultimately vanished, Sesshoumaru stirred and pushed himself into a sitting position.

?Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i]!? Rin cried exultantly, flinging herself against his chest.

The white demon caught hold of her and pushed her firmly to the side, peering off in the direction the [i]hanryu[/i] had taken. He was still unable to catch their scent over the sulfurous odor of the onsen, but he knew that once he left the garden he would be able to follow their trail from miles away.

?[i]They will lead me to the Dragon,[/i]? he thought, a slight smile playing upon his lips.

?Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i]!?

The urgent note in Rin?s exclamation compelled him to tear his eyes away from the path his quarry had taken.

The girl Kagome stood not ten feet away, with an arrow notched in her bow. Sesshoumaru knew her name--heaven knew Inuyasha could never seem to shut up about her. The arrow was aimed straight for his face.

?Stay back, Rin,? he murmured. The little girl obeyed, but she didn?t move far. As always, she was reluctant to leave him. Then his calm, cold gaze settled once again on the girl and her weapon. ?Kill me, and you will never see him alive again.?

Tears streamed down Kagome?s face, but her expression was hard and determined.

?You would kill him yourself if you had the chance,? she snapped. ?This is YOUR fault.?

Yet Sesshoumaru noted with satisfaction that she hesitated to shoot. He was no fool--he knew she was weak where Inuyasha was concerned. Love made her weak.

?I was preparing to fight the Tatesei, to prevent them from taking the Seer,? he told her icily. ?Then you came--of your own free will, with THEM. The moment Irusei learned that Inuyasha was a half-breed, he began summoning the Dragon?s fire into his hands. He would have killed Inuyasha immediately for the danger he posed, and I moved to destroy him before his flame could fully manifest.? Sesshoumaru paused, glancing away as if the rest were of no consequence. ?The [i]hanyou[/i] interfered, and so my sword tasted the blood of both.?

?Kagome...? The human monk that Inuyasha traveled with moved to stand beside her. He seemed unsteady on his feet, and kept rubbing at the side of his head. ?Doing this won?t help.?

Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed--he had not considered the monk. If Miroku followed the Tatesei into the mountains to rescue Inuyasha, he could conceivably defeat the Dragon single-handedly by drawing it into his accursed hand. By every rationale, he knew he should kill the monk now, before such a risk could become possible. His eyes darted across the snow and he located Tokijin, which lay on the ground a good twenty feet away. Inuyasha?s blood, and Irusei?s, stained the surrounding snow crimson, yet the blade itself shone all the brighter. His enemies? blood never tainted Tokijin--the sword absorbed it hungrily.

But there was also the chance that the monk would draw [i]him[/i] into the Wind Tunnel if he attacked them here...

?It may not help, but it?ll make me FEEL a lot better,? Kagome murmured. Yet if anything, her flow of tears increased, and Sesshoumaru knew that she wouldn?t shoot.

?I will pursue them into the mountains,? he told her coldly. It was not a lie. ?Inuyasha will not die by my hand.? This was not a lie, either. He was going to take the Dragon?s power--Inuyasha could live if he chose or die if he chose. ?[i]Father chose him[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought darkly, ?[i]but when I have become powerful beyond anything living on earth...that choice will no longer matter...?[/i]Then there came the twanging of a bow, and Kagome?s arrow shot forth. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]END OF CHAPTER 11[/b][/color][/center]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: Tsk, tsk. There Sesshoumaru goes again; underestimating Ningen. [/i][/color]

[color=gray][i]Author?s Note: ?Jyaki? refers to the aura given off by a demon?s power---not to be confused with ?kehai,? which is a more general term referring to the ?residue? left behind by any source of spiritual power. Uh...and if you don?t know what a chibi plushie is, well...it?s high time you visited an anime convention somewhere...[/i][/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} Chapter 12: A Thorn In His Side {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]He swam back toward consciousness through a sea of darkness. He heard voices speaking around him, and more than anything else his perception of the sound gradually returned awareness to his body.

?I tire of this, [i]Nee-chan[/i].?

?This is madness, and you know it.?

The first speaker was a man; the second a woman whose voice trembled.

Slowly, Inuyasha?s eyelids lifted. The travois that he lay upon had been set down upon a long, flat boulder still dripping with the snow melted by his captors? hands. They had bound him into the sling, which under ordinary circumstances would have been easy enough to remedy, but his body felt leaden and weak. Strangely enough, there was no pain, though he felt as if he could sleep for ages.

?Why do you fight this?? The man?s voice was low with anger. ?You shouldn?t deny what you are.?

Inuyasha rolled his head to the side. The world spun crazily as he did so, but after a moment his eyes regained their focus and he saw the woman wringing her hands. There was something inherently pathetic and wretched about the gesture. Even if she was opposing the man?s agenda, she probably wasn?t going to be of much help. Escape, of course, was Inuyasha?s first priority.

?I am human,? the woman insisted in a low voice. ?You are the one who has forgotten what you are.?

She caught sight of Inuyasha staring at her and quickly looked away. Inuyasha recalled hazily that this was the Seer, whom Irusei and his men had stolen back from Sesshoumaru. Seeing her conscious for the first time, he noticed that her eyes were the same fathomless black as the rest of the [i]hanryu[/i]. She was definitely not going to be of any help...

He felt his clothing shift and turned his head to gaze upward. Above him the sky was so thickly blanketed with clouds that it was starless. Then he saw a familiar face illuminated in the light from a nearby fire; Sango, bending over him.

?Sango...? he rasped. A thousand questions flooded Inuyasha?s mouth, but for some reason his tongue felt thick and leaden and he couldn?t form the words.

Without replying, she unfastened the ties of his [i]haori [/i]and shifted it aside. Beneath it he could feel her shifting aside the bandages that someone had wrapped around his ribs where Sesshoumaru had stabbed him. When she probed the site of the wound he grimaced, expecting pain, but to his surprise there was none. Sango peered down at his chest, pursing her lips and frowning.

?Already closed,? she murmured, and then she replaced the bandages and re-fastened his [i]haori[/i].

Inuyasha recalled the excruciating sensation of Tokijin impaling him in the gut and shook his head. He had never healed so swiftly after such a serious wound before; this made no sense.

?How?? he whispered.

For the first time, Sango looked him full in the face. There was no pity and no remorse for what she?d done to be seen. More than the harsh winter air, this chilled Inuyasha to the bone.

?The Dragon,? Sango said, answering his question. ?It?s in your blood, also. The Dragon?s awakening has made us all stronger than we were.?

Inuyasha--who had considered himself to be pretty damned strong before all of this--begged to differ. Yet he was also somewhat unnerved, because it had scarcely occurred to him that he was a [i]hanryu[/i] as well. Sango busied herself for a minute with some task that he couldn?t see, and he blinked repeatedly, trying to get the world to stand still when he moved his head.

After a while, he noticed the demon-slayer regarding him intently. She no longer wore her Hiraikoutsu, and over her regular clothes she wore a green cloak whose edges were embroidered with the Tatesei crest. With her strange eyes and the hood pulled over her hair to keep her head warm, Inuyasha barely recognized her.

?You don?t feel the Dragon?s calling at all, do you?? she asked him quietly.

Inuyasha merely scowled at her.

Correctly interpreting this as a ?no,? Sango answered her own question.

?I didn?t think so. It must be your Youkai blood that holds the Dragon?s at bay. But the fact that you?ve healed so quickly is a sure sign that both are present in you.? Sango paused, gazing off into the darkness of the surrounding trees without really seeing them. ?I wasn?t wrong,? she said, more to herself than to him.

Inuyasha shifted his left hand experimentally, and found to his dismay that his sword was no longer fastened at his waist.

?Tetsusaiga,? he said in a low voice. ?Let me go and give me Tetsusaiga, and I?ll put a stop to this.?

Sango glanced down at him sharply; the hanyou was beginning to test the strength of the rope securing him to the travois.

?The herb is wearing off,? she observed.

Then she held up her handiwork: a stone bowl full of purple-veined leaves, which she had been grinding into pulp with a blunt rock. Inuyasha flashed her some fang.

?HELL NO!? he protested vehemently. ?So THAT?S it, eh? Well, no more of THAT shit...?

Sango, of course, paid this little heed. She even went so far as to roll her eyes, which made her look a bit more like her old self. But she pinched a dollop of the stuff between her thumb and forefinger and leaned over him again, clearly intending to force the drug on him.

?I?ll bite,? Inuyasha warned, baring his fangs (which made him look rather like a deranged puppy).

Sango eyed him narrowly for a moment, and then produced a stick with thorns on it. She broke off one of the longer ones and dipped it in the gook between her fingers. Inuyasha stared at it hostilely, but he was still too weak from its previous effects to free himself. Sango took a firm hold of his hand with one of hers, and then proceeded to draw the thorn down the inside of his wrist. Inuyasha reacted violently, and the claws of that hand raked across the demon-slayer?s arm almost out of reflex.

Sango withdrew hastily, clutching at her wrist, but Inuyasha could tell he?d reacted too late. Apparently the herb acted extremely quickly because he hadn?t even felt the sting of the thorn-scratch. A queer, liquid numbness was already creeping along his arm. It spread to his shoulder, and then branched off spider-like in all directions down his body.

While Sango scooped the rest of the herbs into a small pouch, Inuyasha struggled desperately to stay alert by talking.

?Why are you REALLY doing this, Sango?? he asked, managing to turn his head sideways to watch her. ?If the Seer can fight it, why can?t YOU??

The demon-slayer fastened the pouch into a larger one at her side, and then lifted her elbow for him to see. She peeled back the sleeve, and together they watched a thin line of blood trickle down her pale forearm to drip onto the snow.

?We?re all born with a destiny, Inuyasha,? Sango told him. ?Some people say it?s written in the stars, or in the human heart. The Tatesei know it to be ingrained in the blood. Irusei knew this--that was why the Dragon chose him to lead us. He embraced what he truly was when the rest of us were too afraid of losing what we thought we were.? She broke off this peculiar speech with a shrug of her slender shoulders. ?Humans are weak and selfish creatures. The [i]hanryu [/i]are merely humans striving to be something more.?

Inuyasha?s lip curled in disgust.

?You sound like Sesshoumaru,? he grumbled.

Sango rose to her feet, a vague half-smile on her lips. But as she turned away, Inuyasha thought he saw the smile fade into an expression of worry.

?[i]Something about my mentioning Sesshoumaru?s name upset her[/i],? the hanyou thought. He tried to think more about why this could possibly be, but the blood to his brain had slowed and thinking was hard.

Sango moved off somewhere beyond his field of vision, and after a moment he heard her conferring with Irusei in low, serious tones.

[i]Since when did those two get so chummy?[/i] Inuyasha wondered groggily.

Then gray fog rolled in through his brain, and for a while he drifted in an uneasy drugged sleep.

When he awoke, it was to the sound of footsteps approaching where he lay.[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]The arrow cut a brilliant path through the cold air between the archer and the white demon. Her aim was too straight for it to arc and descend; instead it shot straight forward. There was such power behind the blow that the air surrounding it sizzled.

The arrow struck the ground, where Sesshoumaru?s left arm would have been had he still possessed a left arm. It pierced the empty white sleeve instead, sinking into the earth beside his body. A brief pulse of light burst outward from the shaft, scorching the side of Sesshoumaru?s [i]haori [/i]and melting all the snow within a one-foot radius of it. The Inu Youkai actually flinched as he felt the heat from it on the flesh over his ribs.

Kagome froze with her left arm still crooked in the position from which she released the shaft. The other hand clenched the bow and held it aloft, and her face had taken on very hard, unyielding expression that caused her to bear an eerie resemblance to Kikyou.

Sesshoumaru?s face registered surprise, and then hardened into anger like water into ice. He wanted to kill her; Kagome could see it in his eyes. Yet Miroku hovered behind her protectively, and she sensed that the Inu Youkai wasn?t going to try anything when she had the Wind Tunnel on her side. She stepped forward boldly, her foot crunching in the snow. She was through being afraid of him, and through being afraid of the Dragon and its children. There was only one thing now that she had room in her heart to fear, and all else she shoved aside.

?I don?t care if you hate him,? Kagome said in a low voice, finally lowering the bow. ?Hate me instead, if you want. But right now only you can get to him fast enough to stop whatever they?re planning to do with him.?

Slowly, Sesshoumaru pushed himself up on one elbow and sat up. Rin clung so tightly to his shoulder that he couldn?t shake her off easily. The little girl?s eyes were wide and frightened, but it seemed she refused to run away and leave her...whatever he was to her...alone. Kagome knew that Sesshoumaru was too proud to use Rin as a shield. Shaken as she was by all that had happened, she couldn?t help being touched by the girl?s devotion. If it were her, and he were Inuyasha, she would?ve done the same.

The white demon rose to his feet without taking his yellow eyes off Kagome. His hair and white[i] haori[/i] were soaked with melted snow, and his right sleeve was soaked with blood.

?I will go,? he said quietly. ?You may be sure of that.?

Rin?s gaze was trained on him as she clung to the leg of his pants.

?Don?t go, Sesshoumaru[i]-sama[/i],? she pleaded. ?Suiton-[i]sama[/i] warned you!?

Sesshoumaru spared the child a brief glance.

?Go to the castle, Rin,? he ordered. ?Stay there with Jakken. If the Tatesei intrude there, go to the caves below the garden?s western wall.?

Kagome?s eyes narrowed.

?[i]Caves?[/i]? she thought in confusion. ?[i]Inuyasha never mentioned any caves... He must not have known about them, or he would have taken THAT route when he went to take the shard back from Sesshoumaru...?[/i]

Kagome opened her mouth to speak, but fell silent when Miroku squeezed her left hand in warning. In the meantime, Sesshoumaru seemed to feel he had said all that was necessary. He turned away from Rin and tilted back his head, breathing in the air of the surrounding night.

Then his eyes narrowed; he had caught the scent. Without another word to Kagome, Sesshoumaru began to walk softly across the trampled snow, in the direction that the [i]hanryu[/i] had taken Inuyasha. Kagome watched him heading toward the trees with great misgivings.

The snow was beginning to fall heavier between them, and the air seemed to have grown even colder in the short span of an hour.

It was nothing to the chill that suddenly gripped Kagome?s heart.

Her pack lay in the snow a few yards away; now she hurried over to it and pulled the zipper open. She had to fumble a bit; her hands were numb, and the metal teeth on the zipper were part-way frozen. Miroku put a steady hand on her shoulder.

?Kagome-[i]sama[/i], what are you--??

?The map,? she mumbled, unrolling it and squinting in the faint light. ?I have to see...?

And she saw.

?No...? Kagome breathed.

On the map, nothing had changed. The mountain Reiyama was gone, and the city of Reiyama was marked as the capitol. She had changed nothing.

?Sesshoumaru!? she cried, standing up and shaking Miroku?s hand off her shoulder.

The white demon stood on the edge of the clearing, but a few footsteps short of vanishing into the shadow-laden wood beyond. He paused, angling one baleful eye over his shoulder. Kagome stumbled forward a few steps, and sinking up to her knees into a drift of snow that had somehow escaped being trampled in the previous melee. Then she stopped dead in her tracks. The rational part of her mind told her that increasing her physical proximity to the white demon wasn?t exactly going to improve things.

?Sesshoumaru!? Kagome called from where she stood. ?You ARE going after the Tatesei to kill the Dragon...aren?t you? You?ll stop them...??

Sesshoumaru didn?t answer.

He turned away from her completely, and a sudden wind arose, stirring his hair. In a split second?s passage, his body was bathed in light. The light engulfed him, obscuring his form until he no longer resembled a man at all. Then he moved swiftly into the forest. Kagome hurried to the edge of the clearing, peering into the wooded darkness until the white demon?s light had darted too deep into the shadows for the eye to follow.

?Lady Kagome??

Miroku had followed her and now stood by her side. Kagome felt herself start to sink toward the ground.

[i]?My legs...they won?t support me![/i]? she thought numbly. [i]?Why didn?t he ANSWER??[/i]

Fortunately, Miroku caught her gently by the elbow and held her upright.

?You did the right thing,? he assured her, but his gaze was also drawn toward the direction in which Sesshoumaru had vanished.

?No...I didn?t,? Kagome murmured, distractedly brushing the snow out of her eyes. ?I?ve just sent Sesshoumaru to the place where the Dragon is. The mountain Reiyama is where he and Inuyasha are supposed to die.? She clapped a hand to her mouth, fighting to keep the tears from spilling because they would only freeze on her cheeks. ?How could I not have realized? I should have shot him when I had the chance...?

Miroku shook his head.

?You aren?t a killer, Kagome,? he said reasonably. ?Even though it took courage to place your faith in someone like him...?

?But...it hasn?t changed anything,? Kagome said faintly. ?Look at the map.?

Gently, the monk took the map from her near-nerveless fingers and squinted at it. Then he sighed.

?I know it doesn?t seem like things have improved, but consider this: the map looks the same as it did [i]before[/i] you spared Sesshoumaru and sent him after Inuyasha.?

Kagome heard Shippou moan and begin to stir. As she turned and walked toward him, she asked Miroku, ?What exactly do you mean?? The Kitsune was half-buried in the snow and looked rather pale, but when Kagome bent and picked him up he opened his eyes. Miroku, in the meantime, moved over to examine Kirara, who lay utterly motionless.

?What I mean is that what you did just now hasn?t changed things for the worse,? the monk said, kneeling and pressing his palms gently against Kirara?s massive chest. ?And who knows? Maybe you [i]have[/i] changed things for the better, regardless of whether the mountain will be destroyed.? He looked up, peering at Kagome over the top of Kirara?s side. ?She?s breathing.?

?Thank goodness,? Kagome murmured, clutching Shippou tightly against her.

?Ow--not so tight,? the Kitsune mumbled as she hugged him. ?I?m not a [i]chibi [/i]plushie.?

?You?re sort of drawn like one, though,? Miroku remarked from behind Kirara. He was probing the side of his head gently with one hand.

?Sorry, Shippou,? Kagome apologized, managing a weak smile. ?Hey, Miroku, Sa--the [i]hanryu[/i] drugged Kirara, right? Can you use your power to reverse the drug?s effects??

Miroku stopped rubbing at the sore spot on his head and bent nearer to the cat-demon. Reaching a hand under the bandages on Kirara?s side, he produced a torn bit of one of the herbs Sango had used to subdue her. This he crushed between his thumb and forefinger, and then sniffed at it tentatively.

?It?s not really a poison,? he told Kagome. ?I?ve seen healers use this herb before to induce sleep. It?s used in extreme cases, where a person is in great pain.? He frowned down at the purple stain on his fingers. ?In fact, it can wear off in as little as an hour.?

Kagome lowered her head, smiling a little.

?[i]Maybe there?s hope for Sango after all... She wouldn?t kill Kirara; maybe she?ll protect Inuyasha?s life as well...?[/i]

?Hey, [i]houshi-sama[/i], can you do anything to speed up the process?? Shippou asked. Now that Kagome was no longer squeezing him so tightly, the fact that she held him close in her arms seemed to be a comfort to him.

Slowly, Miroku nodded. He placed both palms on the flesh over Kirara?s heart with the fingers turned inward toward each other. For a moment, he went utterly still and nothing happened. Then, abruptly, his face tightened with extreme concentration. Kagome could literally see the[i] ki[/i] he was focusing through his arms into Kirara?s flesh. Regardless of what flesh barred her view of the physical, with her inherent [i]miko?s[/i] abilities she could see the blue lines running through his body, through which light coursed like blood. Bathed in the light of his spiritual power, Miroku looked rather beautiful. It was the only time, Kagome supposed, that he had anything to do with purity.

The glow spread from his palms through Kirara?s body, the majority of it pooling around her heart. Her heartbeat began to gain speed, pushing the purer blood through her arteries to overwhelm the poison. Then she began to stir. She lifted her head, and her orange eyes rolled sideways to the monk kneeling at her side. With a sigh, he removed his hands, giving her a wan smile.

?We must wait for her to regain her strength before we move out,? Miroku called to Kagome over the Youkai?s prone body. ?Her speed will more than make up for the wait.?

Kagome nodded somberly. Her heart was urging her to go Right Now, but she had already noticed the snowfall increasing, and didn?t want to end up stuck waist-deep in it an hour later.

Miroku seemed to be thinking along the same lines. He stood up slowly, brushing the snow off his head and turning his face skyward.

?I think we?ll have to move out soon, though,? he remarked. ?This may turn into a storm.?

Kagome set Shippou down and followed the monk?s gaze, shielding her eyes with the flat of her hand. Thick clouds roiled overhead?the sort of clouds they had seen filling the sky in response to an epicenter of [i]jyaki[/i].

?[i]Can it be that the Dragon?s jyaki is drawing the storm toward Reiyama Mountain?[/i]? she wondered. ?[i]But that doesn?t sound right. The Dragon isn?t a Youkai; if that dream I had was correct the dragon gives off a very different kind of aura. And also...the hanryu don?t give off jyaki, either. So then WHAT--?[/i]?

?Kirara!?

Kagome turned at the sound of Shippou?s joyful cry to see that the demon-cat had risen to her feet and was shaking the snow off her pelt.

?I?m glad you?re all right,? Kagome told Kirara, walking over and hugging her neck. ?Now let?s go find Inuyasha.?

The demon-cat growled a fierce and unmistakable agreement, and her three companions moved toward her to climb onto her back. Kagome was the last to mount, with the aid of Miroku?s extended hand. She hesitated a moment, glancing at the sky over the mountain in the distance. Those clouds were being drawn by some spiritual force--that fact was undeniable.

?Shippou, I?m sorry but I?ll need you to transform into a coat,? Kagome said.

Solemnly, the Kitsune nodded and began the spell to alter his shape.

?We?re going be hard-pressed to stay warm,? Miroku observed, also still eyeing the clouds. ?They may be drawn to the mountain by supernatural forces, but they?re still full of snow. I have the horrible feeling we?re about to head into some very harsh weather.?[/color]

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[color=purple]Inuyasha awoke to the sound of soft footsteps approaching, and then to a cool hand on his brow. He opened his eyes and found himself staring up into a woman?s face, partially concealed in shadow by the hood she wore low over her forehead.

?Sango?? he muttered. ?No...more...fucking...thorns...? His tongue felt thick and spongy--no doubt an aftereffect of the herbs.

The woman made no reply. Instead she pressed her palm more firmly against his face, and her mouth compressed into a grim line.

?What is it, Suiton?? a man?s voice asked sharply. ?What do you See??

Amid his blurred peripheral vision Inuyasha could see the shapes of two other figures looming behind her bent head. The man was Irusei and the one beside him was Sango--his [i]hanyou[/i] nose told him this much, though his other senses were dulled.

?[i]But who?s this woman?[/i]? he wondered hazily. ?[i]And what do they want her to see??[/i]

And then, even through the drug, he felt her touching his mind. It was a subtle thing, not an active invasion. She was not delving into his brain; it was as if the mere touch of her hand on his flesh was drawing his secrets out of him through her skin.

[i]?Or through her BLOOD...[/i]? Inuyasha realized. The herb seemed to be wearing off again; the fog was lifting and his thoughts were coming quicker. ?[i]This is the woman the Tatesei call the Seer, and she?s a hanryu. Somehow the Dragon?s blood works differently in her, so she can see the future...?[/i]

?The pearl on the left,? she answered, in a low voice.

Irusei knelt beside her, peering at her through narrow black eyes.

[i]?He looks pale[/i],? Inuyasha noticed as his eyes focused on the man?s face. Sweat was beaded there, though the temperature of the air was near to freezing. [i]?His wound, maybe??[/i] As if in confirmation of Inuyasha?s guess, the Tatesei warrior held one hand pressed against his middle.

?What does it mean, ?the pearl on the left??? Irusei asked his sister.

The Seer removed her hand from Inuyasha?s brow, frowning.

?It?s a riddle,? she told the hanryu warrior. ?But he knows the answer already. The ?pearl? is really a mote of demon-crafted magic, hidden in his left eye.?

[i]?I?d forgotten that,[/i]? Inuyasha thought. ?[i]How on earth did she remember it FOR me?[/i]?

?The first Lord of the West ordered it made and inserted into his son?s eye to allow him passage into the land of the dead. But that event is past; the [i]hanyou[/i] has already used it once to retrieve the heirloom sword Tetsusaiga. It cannot be used again for such a purpose.?

Irusei sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

?Then what is the use of the pearl now?? he demanded wearily. ?We could spend a month scouring the mountainside in search of the Dragon--time in which Asano-[i]o-sama[/i] may rally a force to oppose us. Time in which the monk with the void-magic in his hand may gather support of his own from elsewhere... If the [i]hanyou [/i]is ?the key,? I have yet to see proof of it.?

Squatting on her heels a little ways behind Irusei, Sango was unusually quiet.

Inuyasha saw the Seer?s face grow tense as she bent over him again. One dark lock of hair fell forward across her throat. Again she laid her small hand upon his brow, and Inuyasha understood that she was doing this against her will.

[i]?Pathetic woman[/i],? he thought sourly. ?[i]She doesn?t want to, but she?s too afraid to stand up to her brother.?[/i]

?The pearl was like an imprinted map,? the Seer murmured, ?connecting his soul to the site of his father?s remains in the otherworld. Namely, it drew him to the sword he inherited--Tetsusaiga, which was forged combining a sword-smith?s magic...and also the blood of his father, the Inu no Taishou. That is the pearl?s purpose--to draw him toward places or things possessing his father?s imprint. The sword Tetsusaiga was imprinted because it was forged from the Inu no Taishou?s own fang...and the seal placed on the Dragon is imprinted, because it was sealed with the Inu no Taishou?s own blood.?

Irusei?s black eyes widened.

?Ahhh,? he breathed, peering shrewdly at Inuyasha?s face. ?Then it is [i]here[/i]...?

He reached one calloused finger toward Inuyasha?s left eye. Inuyasha growled low in his throat, and screwed the eye shut to keep the [i]hanryu[/i] from touching it.

?Sango, the drug is wearing off,? Irusei said without turning around.

?You can?t activate the imprinted magic by removing the eye,? Sango informed him. ?He told me once how it was done, but I seriously doubt that would work for us. Lord Sesshoumaru did it.?

Irusei withdrew his hand. Glaring up at his captors, Inuyasha thanked his lucky stars individually and by name that he had told Sango about the pearl on the left. The heads of both [i]hanryu[/i] warriors turned toward the Seer in unison.

?Sister,? Irusei said softly. Inuyasha detected an underlying warning in the young man?s soft tone.

The Seer flinched as if she were afraid her brother would strike her, even though he merely regarded her steadily with his hands resting in his lap. Slowly and mechanically, the woman?s cowled head turned toward the hanyou on the travois.

?There is a way,? she whispered. ?I can draw the magic out.?[/color]
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[color=purple]Sesshoumaru stood silently among the trees beyond the Tatesei encampment; a white birch amid the dark pines. His legs were still formless and ghostlike from the knees down, so that when he moved he glided silently over the rough forest turf and when he stood still his feet did not sink into the deepening snow. He stood on the barest outskirts of the camp perimeter, mindful of the guards that Irusei had set patrolling the area. It seemed they expected Inuyasha?s friends to come rescue him immediately. Sesshoumaru snorted faintly in derision--the [i]hanryu[/i] gave the half-breed?s companions far too much credit.

He could smell them now--the scent of pine and metallic blood, and also Inuyasha?s scent, which with his mixed blood was something akin to a human putting on Sesshoumaru perfume. Sesshoumaru could hear them from this location as well--when he focused his concentration, his ears were supernaturally sharp. It was tiresome, sorting through the chorus of voices saying stupid and meaningless things to each other, but eventually the Inu Youkai heard something that made his perpetual frown smooth into a look of surprise.

?...use the pearl on the left to focus the Sight...?

?[i]So THAT is it[/i],? the demon lord thought in amazement. [i]?Inuyasha is ?the key? because of the talisman Chichi-ue merged with his left eye.?[/i] As he listened further to what the [i]hanryu[/i] intended to do, he couldn?t help resenting the fact that he hadn?t stolen the eye himself. It would have saved him the trouble of trailing after the Tatesei as they made their pathetically slow journey into the mountains...

Then the voices fell silent, and Sesshoumaru heard the sound of footsteps approaching. In a flash, he was airborne, ascending rapidly until he came to rest over the treetops. There he stood utterly still, with each foot balanced on the uppermost branches of a pine tree, as the small group of Tatesei moved along the forest floor beneath him. The screen of snow-capped needles barred him from their view, but he did not need to see them to know where they were going. As the group headed southeast, ascending the wooded slope, he could track their progress by scent alone. There were no more than five humans, he judged, counting Inuyasha, whom they were bearing on some kind of litter atop their shoulders.

After following them from above for a quarter of an hour, Sesshoumaru was finally relieved of his impatience when the Tatesei crested the mountain, emerging from the trees onto the bare rock at the top of the ridge. They appeared to be seeking someplace at a high elevation that also provided a panoramic view of the mountains ahead. Standing with both feet balanced on a single thin branch, Sesshoumaru watched as they carried Inuyasha?s litter to the top of the highest outcropping. The snow melted beneath their feet, running down the rock only to freeze minutes later as it hit the snow on the ground. The air was growing decisively colder. While the Tatesei completed their laborious climb, the demon lord tilted his head back to gaze at the sky. Dark clouds were swirling directly overhead--the sort of clouds he might expect to see in the presence of a demon with extraordinarily strong [i]jyaki[/i].

?[i]Why is jyaki gathering around Inuyasha[/i]?? he wondered. [i]?He isn?t wielding Tetsusaiga. Can it be that his hanryu blood has begun to war with his demon blood??[/i]

It seemed the most likely explanation. But Sesshoumaru predicted that this would soon give rise to another problem: it was drawing every snow-laden cloud in the realm into one converging coriolis overhead, which meant that wherever Inuyasha went a blizzard was sure to follow. In this sense, his brother?s very existence was a dire nuisance.

The Tatesei had set Inuyasha?s litter down on the rock, and two of the warriors were now hoisting him onto his feet, each with one of his arms hooked around their shoulders. The [i]hanyou[/i] didn?t appear to be putting up much of a fight--he seemed to be exerting a great deal of effort just to keep his head from lolling forward onto his chest.

[i]?Drugged[/i],? Sesshoumaru estimated, knowing that Inuyasha wasn?t generally the sort to keep quiet about [i]anything[/i] that displeased him.

Irusei made a sharp, beckoning gesture, and Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed as he noticed for the first time that the Seer was among them. She approached the [i]hanyou[/i] somewhat hesitantly, but then she took his face between her hands and her hesitation seemed to vanish. Even through her voluminous robes Sesshoumaru could see that her body had gone rigid as her gift claimed her. She whispered something, but at that moment an icy wind swept across the ridge and Sesshoumaru could not hear it.

The Seer?s touch upon Inuyasha?s face became the catalyst for something strange.

A dragon emerged from his left eye.

It was translucent as a ghost, yet its scales gleamed silver and its black eyes shone with an unearthly light. It was precisely like the Dragon Sesshoumaru had seen in the scrying bowl, yet from the scent he knew that this was an illusion.

?[i]Yet if this illusion is any indication, the Dragon is a great and terrible behemoth[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought, watching the apparition soar into the cold night air with something akin to awe. [i]?Larger than my father?s demon form...?[/i]

As the spiked tip of its tail slid free of Inuyasha?s eye, he gasped, and his eye gleamed pure white. It seemed they had seen no need to remove the pearl; something in the Seer?s gift had called forth whatever magic remained hidden. Serpentine and fluid, the Dragon?s apparition coiled through the sky. Its long body undulated gracefully while the tail corkscrewed behind it. The Tatesei gazed up at it in reverent silence as it flew.

Then a shuddering convulsion seemed to pass through Inuyasha?s body, and he went rigid as the Seer, flinging his head back and straining against his captors. The Seer stumbled forward a little in order to keep her hands in contact with his face.

[i]?So this is the secret, Chichi-ue[/i],? Sesshoumaru thought darkly. ?[i]The Dragon?s seal is connected to the pearl[/i]...? A sudden, irrational streak of jealousy surged through him, and his hand started to reach for his sword of its own volition.

A sudden icy wind howled across the ridge, so strong that it blew his hair completely sideways. Overhead, the converging clouds were now so thickly layered that not even an echo of moonlight reached the earth below. The only light now came from the torches the Tatesei carried, and from the bright form of the Dragon arcing through the air.

Not long after Inuyasha flung back his head, the apparition changed course mid-flight and shot toward the mountain Reiyama, cutting a path through the air straight and swift as an arrow. Sesshoumaru turned sharply, dead-set on seeing where it was headed. The illusion streaked toward the mountain, and as it did so its body grew thinner and thinner, until at last it vanished altogether, and there was only a long, silver beam of light stretching from Inuyasha?s eye to a point at the base of the mountain. Sesshoumaru stared at it intently, willing the image of the location to be burned into his memory.

On the rock below, Irusei stepped forward and aligned his arm with the brilliant path of the beam, gauging the exact direction they would need to take. Then he nodded to one of the warriors nearest him and the man pulled the Seer away from Inuyasha. She stumbled backward, no longer held in thrall by her gift, and Inuyasha?s head fell forward onto his chest. Irusei gestured excitedly and gave an order to one of his men, sending the warrior back the way they had come. It was quite apparent that the Tatesei planned to move immediately, heading for the place at the mountain?s base, and from the appearance of things they intended to take Inuyasha with them.

Sesshoumaru had seen enough. He turned and veered eastward along the treetops, flowing swiftly on ghostly feet. When he felt he had gone far enough that the Tatesei would not notice him, he dissolved into light and sailed southward on the wind. Beyond the ridge where the way had been shown, the land sloped downward dramatically, bowing downward into a steep valley that, given the sheer amount of snow that blanketed it, would be nigh impassible for the hanryu on foot. However, as he swooped lower to avoid the strongest of the driving winds, Sesshoumaru noticed to his consternation that there was a passage there. It was a long, narrow canyon that twisted down the landscape, nearly invisible to the naked eye because the rock on either side of it was bowed into a kind of natural tunnel-shape. The passage, he recalled in chagrin, contained a river during the spring, summer and autumn months, but ran low and froze solid during the winter because the high mountain snows that fed it were no longer melting.

[i]?The hanryu will take that route[/i],? he thought darkly as he moved. ?[i]I should cut it off--block it, somehow...?[/i]

However, it also occurred to him that this might not be to his advantage. He hated to admit it, but there was always the possibility that he would reach the place on the mountain and find that somehow he could not access it without Inuyasha.

[i]?The ?key?,[/i]? he thought to himself in disgust. Had he been in a form wholly solid at that point he would have shaken his head and grimaced. Again irrational jealousy surged through him. ?[i]Always Inuyasha is the one chosen... Chosen for Tetsusaiga; chosen for the talisman that would also lead to the Dragon...[/i]? Dimly, he was aware that that was where all of this had begun--all had commenced with him stealing the fragment of the Shikon no Tama so that the Seer could answer a question about his past... Odd, that he should still remember such a trivial thing. What mattered now...was the Dragon. If the Dragon?s power was in his possession, he would be the one to...

The Lord of the West slipped downward into the canyon and slowed to a halt. His form solidified into man-shape, and he stood atop the ice in the dark, trying to clear his mind of sudden confusion. A small, faint voice inside him persistently asked if he were really doing this of his own volition...or if something was driving him to it. It sounded suspiciously like the Seer.

?I [i]am[/i] driven,? Sesshoumaru snapped, to silence her. ?This[i] is[/i] obsession. But I am the Lord of the West, and I do as I please. And I choose not to shy away from this. I choose to [i]take[/i] what I want.?

His voice, dark and chill as the ice beneath his feet, reverberated through the long passage. There was no one near to hear him but himself. [/color]

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[color=purple]Sango walked at the head of the [i]hanryu[/i] company alongside Irusei, as he had bidden her. He claimed that he wished her to lead with him because of her skills as a demon-slayer, but she knew that the real reason he had asked her to do so was that his strength was beginning to fail him. She had insisted upon taking a look at his wound from Sesshoumaru?s sword when they stopped in the forest because it seemed to her that he looked unnaturally pale for someone who claimed the Dragon would heal him. Because she had already demonstrated some medicinal skill in her treatment of Inuyasha, Irusei had readily complied. What she found when she unfastened his armor and pulled aside his haori did not reassure her. The wound was closed and no longer bled, but this was where the resemblance to healing ended. Over what should have been newly-grown flesh there grew a patch of gray scales, like a metallic bruise, nearly a hand?s-span in diameter upon the hard muscle of his belly.

This in itself was strange enough. Looking at it made Sango violently nauseous, wondering if the same inhuman blood inside her would give rise to scales across her own flesh. Yet stranger still was the angry red color the flesh around the scaled patch?s perimeter had turned. It was unmistakably an infection--the type that men died from in a pool of their own sweat. As she walked side-by-side with the Tatesei warrior, Sango could see the sweat beaded on his brow and in the hollow of his throat. The short locks of hair that straggled out from beneath his helm were soaked with it.

Sango had only one theory as to why he was so feverish: it was a conflict of the blood. Dragons, she knew, were in many ways polar opposites of Youkai, and so it seemed natural that the magic inherent in each of the races would conflict with each other. Irusei was filled with the blood of the newly-awakened Dragon, and he had been stabbed by a blade forged from pure, concentrated Youkai power--from the fang of the evil Goshinki, Naraku?s incarnation. The residue of the blade?s[i] jyaki[/i] was at war with the Dragon?s blood, and so Irusei suffered for it. Only Inuyasha seemed to be immune to these mal-effects, in all likelihood because of his inherent demon blood.

Irusei had asked her to walk beside him because he knew that she alone guessed what was truly wrong with him. He understood well the precariousness of his situation--he had taken it upon himself to lead the [i]hanryu[/i] into the mountains in defiance of both their king and the Lord of the West; he could not afford to show such extreme weakness at this crucial point, when they drew so near to their destination. He desired Sango to walk beside him because he trusted her with the secret of his illness, and so that if he stumbled she might catch him. Sango walked beside him because she understood his warrior?s heart and his fierce love for his people, and because it made her sad to see how his shouldering of this grave burden had already made his eyes old. He hadn?t betrayed his king lightly, nor risked Sesshoumaru?s wrath without fearing deeply for what might befall the Tatesei because he had dared to do so.

His sister walked several ranks behind them, amid a cluster of soldiers. Irusei did not trust her.

They had chosen to take this long, dark passage through the canyon because it was the swiftest route. Yet Irusei was also well aware of the risk they were taking in making the journey through such a confined space. He was just as aware as Sango of the fact that Inuyasha?s companions would eventually rally their strength and come to the[i] hanyou?s[/i] rescue. The tunnel restricted his warriors? ability to fan out and also their visibility level, which would serve them ill if it came to a battle.

Archery was not an art best practiced in the dark.

Irusei walked at the front of the company because he expected the attack to come from either fore or aft.

In the end, it came from above.

There was no warning--at least, not for the [i]hanryu[/i], but by some stroke of fortune Sango happened to glance back at the Seer the instant before it happened, and saw the woman?s head snap upward in alarm. Sango quickly looked up as well, and her hand automatically flew to her Hiraikoutsu. A wave of red light washed over the top of the canyon, completely blotting out the sky beyond. It only took her a split second to realize what this was, but instinct drove her to act. While the Tatesei warriors were still looking up in surprise, she gave Irusei a shove that caught him off guard and sent him staggering sideways toward the canyon wall. Then she plowed back through the ranks, using Hiraikoutsu to throw added weight against the men bearing Inuyasha on the litter. Though caught off-guard because they were staring up at the light, they were men made strong by the Dragon?s blood and she couldn?t move them an inch.

?Everyone, stand against the WALLS!? Sango shouted, fervently praying that they would listen to her order.

Some of them looked to Irusei, who regarded Sango with wide dark eyes and nodded sharply.

?DO it!? the warrior shouted, bracing himself against the wall.

Above them all, the topmost walls of the canyon bowed inward and crumbled. Then the rock groaned and gave way, and a heavy deluge of snow poured down into the passage. Though she was pressed against the wall, Sango?s view of the tunnel was suddenly obscured in a heavy fall of white. She flattened herself against the wall as best she could, knowing that those who lingered too close to the center would be crushed by the falling debris. A stinging barrage of ice assailed her face; pounded against her body. Then the passage filled with snow, and she found herself buried in snow with her back crushed against the stone behind her. For a moment, she went blind and deaf, stunned by the impact and blinded by the fall of ice.

Then, slowly, full awareness of the situation returned to her. By some miracle she was able to keep hold of her Hiraikoutsu, though she severely doubted that it would do any good against the one who had brought this all upon them.

[i]?But first things first[/i],? she told herself fiercely. [i]?Remain calm. Free yourself from the snow, and find the others.?[/i]

Thinking clearly in a situation like this was what made demon-slayers strong.

She could hear the muffled cries of the Tatesei as they struggled beneath the snow. It sounded as if most of them had survived.

?Lord Irusei!?

?The litter! The [i]hanyou[/i] was caught beneath it!?

Nearby, she heard Irusei?s voice, sounding as if he were only three feet away from her.

?Burn the snow!? he cried hoarsely. ?Use the blood!?

Somewhat belatedly, Sango realized what he was calling upon his warriors to do. She hadn?t used her [i]hanryu[/i] blood yet, and was unsure as to how it worked.

?Irusei-[i]sama[/i]!? she called urgently. If Inuyasha was trapped beneath the full brunt of the avalanche...

?Sango-[i]sama[/i]?? There was a brief pause, and then he replied, ?Imagine the fire running through your veins. Let it heat your flesh, and the snow will part before you.?

Sango tried to take a deep breath, but the air was stifling beneath the snow and she ended up with a nose full of water. Choking a little but determined to do as he advised, she thrust both hands out in front of her. In her mind, she pictured the Dragon, whose black, lidless gaze watched over its children from within themselves.

As she did so, warmth began to travel along the length of her arms.[/color]

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[color=purple]Sesshoumaru stood atop the canyon wall, staring down into it as the last of the snow trickled over the edge to join the greater mass in the tunnel. His sharp eyes scanned the darkness for any sign of counterattack, but though he waited for a fair bit of time none came.

?[i]Now, then[/i],? he thought to himself. ?[i]To find my quarry...?[/i]

Lightly, the white demon sprang from his eyrie and descended into the darkness. He landed without a sound upon the snow, white hair trailing after him like a banner. A little ways to his left, he noticed a sinkhole opening amid the avalanche?s remains. At first it was little more than a dark depression in the snow, but as he approached it with narrowed eyes it grew wider. Sesshoumaru could hear the hiss of steam as the snow melted.

As he had anticipated, the [i]hanryu[/i] intended to burn their way free of it. Yet he was counting upon the snow to delay them, to buy him time to find Inuyasha beneath it. He inhaled deeply, searching for the [i]hanyou?s[/i] scent amid those of the Tatesei trapped therein. To his immediate surprise and growing consternation, Inuyasha?s scent rose from the sinkhole.

?[i]The hanryu gift of fire--has he...?[/i]?

The white demon aimed Tokijin toward the hole, and the sword?s vibrant red glow filtered down into the darkness. By this time the hole had widened to nearly five feet in diameter, and with the borrowed illumination he now had a clear view of its occupants. Twenty feet down, Inuyasha lay on his side, partially buried beneath the snow. Crouched over him, as if she had been shielding his body with her own, was the Seer.

The woman glanced up sharply as the light filled the hole, and for a moment they merely stared at one another, gauging the possibilities of what would come next. Then she laid an arm across Inuyasha?s chest, as if she intended to protect him from the Lord of the West himself. Sesshoumaru?s blood churned at the sight of her; she had called him a coward.

Then he realized that he was still gripping Tokijin fiercely, and that its deadly point was aimed downward at the two below him. She thought he intended to kill them both with the sword. Calmly, he reinserted the sword into its sheath, and the red glow died.

?I will raise you out of this,? he told the woman coolly, and then his body dissolved into light.

It did not take long to travel the depth of the sinkhole, and after just a few seconds Sesshoumaru stood at the bottom. The space was cramped, for he had just reverted to man-shape again, but of course he had no intention of lingering here. The Tatesei would soon burn their way free of this, and then things would become troublesome. The Seer still eyed him with great apprehension; she knew that Sesshoumaru hated his brother.

Sesshoumaru had little patience for the woman?s newly-acquired concern for Inuyasha.

?Move, woman,? he ordered, bending nearer to the [i]hanyou[/i] lying quietly in the snow.

Inuyasha?s eyes were closed, and his skin was very pale, but Sesshoumaru knew from his scent that he wasn?t going to die anytime soon. His unconsciousness and his pallor were merely the effects of the drug the demon-slayer woman had given him. Sesshoumaru hooked an arm around his brother?s waist and hefted him onto his shoulder. Inuyasha was quite heavy, and Sesshoumaru deeply resented having to carry him, but with god-like power at stake it was a sacrifice he was willing to accept. He rose to his feet.

?Take me with you.?

Sesshoumaru glanced down sharply over Inuyasha?s back.

?You wish to follow me?? he asked, allowing bit more sarcasm to creep into his tone than he?d intended. ?Follow the [i]hanryu[/i], if one cage is not so different from another.?

The woman kneeling at his feet bowed her head.

?The Tatesei walk willingly toward their doom,? she murmured, ?and I don?t want to walk with them.? Her brow knitted in shame. ?But I?m like them,? she went on. ?I don?t have the courage to resist. They don?t have the strength to fight the force that drives them.? She looked up, and her black eyes were intense. ?But I want to believe that you do--even though you say you won't destroy the Dragon. So...freely, this time...I offer you my gift, such as it is.?

Sesshoumaru turned away from her in disgust. She was asking him to save her from herself; from the blood inside her. He had no desire to save anyone.

?I can?t see your future, Lord of the West,? the Seer said softly. ?But I can see [i]his[/i].?

She was referring to Inuyasha.

Sesshoumaru sighed, tilting back his head to stare up at the surface of the snow. Above the canyon, he could see dark clouds roiling overhead. ?[i]This woman[/i],? he thought, ?[i]is a thorn in my side[/i].?

?Take hold of my tail,? he ordered. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Seated astride a revitalized Kirara, Kagome, Miroku and Shippou flew southeast at breakneck speed. They passed over the walls of Sesshoumaru?s garden, skimming the forest beyond for traces of the [i]hanryu[/i]. They ascended the wooded slope and crested the ridge where the pearl on the left had shown the way. Beyond that the land sloped downward, blanketed in a thick carpet of snow, and then flattened onto a long, level plain before the foothills of the great mountain. Beyond the plain all was swallowed in the inky blackness of the winter night. All that they could see from where they sat astride Kirara could be seen because the demon-cat?s fiery aura reflected off the snow beneath them...and because off in the distance, the massive form of an Inu Youkai could be seen making its way toward the mountain.

Kagome?s grip tightened around the wooden frame of her bow.

?Sesshoumaru,? she murmured. Even from this distance, they could see the faint gleam that his demon form cast on the snow around him, and the twin red eyes that cut like lasers through the thick veil of snow blowing across the valley. She could see that the demon lord?s eyes were fixed upon a point somewhere near the base of the mountain ahead. ?[i]Is he going to the mountain to stop the Tatesei?[/i]? she wondered.

?Kagome-[i]sama[/i], look there.? Miroku grasped her shoulder with one hand and pointed downward with the other.

?Uh...? Reluctantly, Kagome tore her gaze away from the Inu Youkai to see what he was looking at.

Below them, cutting through the white purity of the plains, a jagged line of darkness stretched from the northern slope to Reiyama?s foothills. Kirara swooped closer to it, and Kagome saw that it was not a solid line of rock but a canyon--a narrow passageway, coincidentally leading in the same direction that Sesshoumaru was headed...

The storm had reached the mountain ahead...and the weather seemed to be growing steadily worse. Toward the bottom of the northern slope, Kirara?s attempt to regain altitude was foiled abruptly as a sudden strong gust of wind shrieked across the plain. The force of it nearly unseated her riders; Miroku pulled Kagome against him and tried his best to shield her and Shippou from the sting of blowing ice. He scarcely kept his own balance; it was then that Kagome realized how very tired he was. The pair of saucer-like eyes in the shoulder of Kagome?s ?coat? squeezed shut against the wind, and Shippou?s voice could be heard whimpering in discomfort.

?C-c-c-cold...?

The wind subsided for a few seconds, and then swept across the plain again.

?We should take the route through that tunnel below us!? Miroku cried, shouting in Kagome?s ear to be heard above the din. ?The storm will only get worse as we draw nearer to the mountain!?

Without waiting for Kagome?s response, Kirara swooped lower, heading for the dark mouth of the canyon. Kagome stared fixedly at some point further down the tunnel?s line.

?Ah--Miroku!? she cried suddenly. ?There is [i]kehai[/i] there! The [i]hanryu[/i] are there! They?re moving toward the mountain, too!?

Another barrage of wind and ice nearly unseated them again, and this time Kirara dipped down completely into the shelter of the passage.

?We should follow them, then,? Miroku replied grimly. ?We can?t follow Sesshoumaru through this weather--it would be more advantageous to take the path that is safer for humans.?

Kirara alighted on the rocky canyon floor, and her riders slid off on either side of her back.

?Foxfire,? Kagome?s coat declared, and suddenly there was a little ball of green flame directly in front of them. The path that it illuminated a long, dank passage of rock and ice, and no sign of the Tatesei. There were no footprints here because the ground was frozen solid.

?Besides,? the monk added, ?the [i]hanryu[/i] have Inuyasha with them. We should stay closer to them to ensure his safety...?

Kagome glanced sidelong at him, shifting her bow to the other hand and flexing her near-numb fingers. She smiled at him encouragingly, but it was a very sad and worried smile. She could hear his unspoken words like an echo: ?[i]And Sango is also with them...?[/i]

She wasn?t sure any more if that was really something to be thankful for. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]END OF CHAPTER 12[/b][/color][/center]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: Ahhh...(removes fingers from keyboard and stretches them) [/i][/color]

[color=green][center][b]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 13: Tokijin?s Dark Aura {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Fire pulsed through her veins, infusing her very blood with strength. Melted snow washed over her head; her face; plastering her long, black hair to her shoulders and streaming down her cheeks like tears. Through a blur of water cascading over her eyes, Sango stared at her hands. She could [i]see[/i] the fire. Even through the torrent, she could see it. It coursed a twisted, winding track down her arms, emerging from beneath the cover of her black demon-slayer?s sleeves to branch spider-like across the tops of her hands, and through the palms on the underside. This was the Dragon?s legacy, in her blood.

[i]?I. . .I had wished to avoid this[/i],? she thought, simultaneously mesmerized and repulsed by this strange sight.

Yet now it seemed that avoiding it was no longer possible.

The avalanche was dissolving all around her as the other [i]hanryu[/i] freed themselves; it cast the strange illusion that the world was melting, and that she would soon sink into some unknown darkness below.

Yet as the snow finished melting, Sango found instead that her feet were firmly planted on solid rock, albeit knee-deep in cold water. All around her, the Tatesei warriors were moving away from the walls. The light from their veins cast a warm orange glow onto the canyon walls around them, strongly reminiscent of firelight save for the fact that this did not dance. It only seemed to flicker when they turned and their armor blocked the illumination of their flesh.

?The light. . .it doesn?t die.?

Sango half-turned to see Irusei beside her near the wall. Slowly, he raised one hand and held it before his face. Caught in the glow from his veins, his black eyes were luminous with hope. She could almost feel the hope radiating from him.

But she turned away, bending to lift her Hiraikoutsu out of the water. There was a hairline crack near the weapon?s tip, but otherwise it seemed undamaged. Sango was eminently grateful for this; she foresaw the need for it to be fully functional in the near future. As she bent, the demon-slayer saw in the water that her own eyes gleamed like Irusei?s.

?Where is Inuyasha?? she asked sharply, straightening quickly and forsaking the reflection at her feet.

Irusei turned toward his men, who were watching him expectantly. The travois that they had been using to carry the [i]hanyou[/i] lay empty beneath the freezing water. Sango made her way over to it, splashing across the canyon floor.

?Gone?? Irusei murmured with a frown.

Sango saw no sign of a struggle around the litter. The ropes that had bound him to it weren?t broken, so it seemed that someone had untied them.

?Suiton-[i]sama[/i] is gone as well!? one of the warriors exclaimed, emerging from the darkness a little further down the tunnel.

Irusei offered no reply to this, but Sango could see that he was angry. Absently pressing one hand over the wound in his middle, he gazed upward into the storm above the canyon. There was no doubt on his face as to what had happened.

?Irusei-[i]sama[/i]. . .it was the white demon; it[i] must[/i] have been!? one of the warriors declared, taking a step toward his leader.

?[i]Of course[/i],? Sango thought, rising to her feet and abandoning the litter. [i]?The red light we saw was Tokijin?s kenatsu. He did this to trap us so that he could take Inuyasha. . .?[/i]

She felt nothing but unease. Somehow she doubted that Sesshoumaru?s interference had been intended as a rescue mission. [/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Inuyasha swam slowly into consciousness through a haze of gray. The first breath entering his nostrils that he was aware of brought the scent of pine and metal and also Inu Youkai. For a while he became confused and fancied that he was a child again, sleeping between his parents. They all lay upon a bed of soft fur. His mother?s hand stroked his hair gently as she drifted off into sleep; his father?s strong arms wrapped protectively around them both. It was very warm.

But both of his parents were dead; his father before his mother, so that the three of them had never been together like that.

With the advent of this epiphany, Inuyasha?s return to awareness came like a cold slap in the face.

He was lying on soft, white fur, whose hairs were so long that they practically covered him where he lay. Beside him sat a woman; she was the one who smelled of pine and metal. At first he thought that the drug was making his mind play tricks on him. Thin lines of fire twisted across her pale skin like veins, illuminating the falling snow with an eerie glow. As his eyes came into focus, Inuyasha realized that he was looking at the Seer, and that the light he was seeing was indeed coming from her veins. The wind had blown back the blue hood of her robes, and there was ice in her hair. One of her hands gripped the white hair beside her to steady herself. Her head was bowed and she swayed a little; she appeared to be asleep. Tearing his gaze away from her strange appearance, Inuyasha realized that they were moving. The fur at his feet, of course, was attached to flesh, which in turn was attached to the massive form of an Inu Youkai.

With an ill-tempered growl, Inuyasha sat bolt-upright, and then immediately wished he hadn?t. He didn?t feel groggy, but his head ached fiercely. The woman beside him was startled awake and backed away on her hands and knees, allowing him a considerable amount of room to stand. Inuyasha staggered to his feet. For a moment his head reeled, until he became accustomed to the rising and falling of the flesh beneath him.

Then he began making his way up the long back toward the neck.

?[i]OI[/i]!? he shouted. ?Where the [i]hell[/i] are you [i]taking[/i] me?!?

Ahead of him, one of the ears on the massive head twitched at the sound of his voice, but otherwise Sesshoumaru gave no indication of having heard him. Of course, Sesshoumaru often gave no indication of hearing people when they were two feet away and standing eye-to-eye, so this wasn?t exactly a surprise. With a sigh of disgust, Inuyasha rounded on the Seer, who was still kneeling and clinging to his brother?s fur.

?Where?s Tetsusaiga?? Inuyasha demanded. ?Where the hell is he taking us??

The Tatesei woman gazed up at him with her strange black eyes, which he found severely unnerving, but at this point she seemed to be the only person willing to listen to him.

?Do you mean your sword?? she asked, somewhat timidly. ?The woman---the demon-slayer---she took it from you hours ago.?

Inuyasha?s eyes narrowed.

?Sango??

The Seer looked down at her hands somewhat shamefacedly.

?If that is her name. The Lord of the West pulled us from the snow, and we are headed toward the mountain now. He would not have had the patience to look for your sword, and besides---if you had the sword now you would be trying to kill him.?

Inuyasha nodded slowly; this sounded about right. The white plane of Sesshoumaru?s back rose beneath their feet. It seemed the ground below was beginning to slope upward again. Inuyasha attempted to peer ahead of them to pinpoint their location, but the wind around him was fierce, driving snow across the way in front of them like a screen. Perhaps it was only his imagination, but he didn?t recall from before any indication that the weather was going to be this bad. Fortunately, his Fire-Rat robes and his Inu Youkai blood afforded him a great deal of warmth, but he was beginning to worry about Kagome and the others. They were human; their bodies weren?t built to withstand this kind of cold.

?Why me?? Inuyasha asked the Seer. ?What is he planning to do with me??

Still the Seer refused to look him in the eye.

?The Lord of the West plans to use you to unseal the Dragon,? she replied quietly. ?Then he will destroy it.?

Inuyasha stared at her. She was clearly living in a fairy tale.

?And just how does he plan on doing that? With Tokijin? With [i]Tenseiga[/i]? The Dragon?s [i]not[/i] dead, and it?s [i]not[/i] some small-fry Youkai, either.?

The Seer finally looked up to meet his gaze. Wrapped in her thin blue robes, she looked quite cold and miserable. But determination was written plainly on her pale face.

?I don?t know,? she answered, a bit sharply. ?I don?t know how your father sealed the Dragon in the first place. But I intend to help in any way I can.?

?Heh,? Inuyasha snorted, folding his arms. ?Even if that makes [i]me[/i] your little virgin sacrifice??

The Seer blinked, clearly taken aback.

?You and your brother are very different,? she remarked.

Inuyasha eyed her shrewdly for a minute; this was true, but it was also an evasion of answering his question. Clearly this meant that Sesshoumaru intended to proceed with something on the order of killing his [i]hanyou[/i] brother and finger-painting ?Open Sesame? on the mountainside with his blood. Inuyasha reached an abrupt decision. Without warning---before she even had time to utter a protest---he caught the Seer around the waist with one arm and shielded his face with the other as he took a running start toward the edge of Sesshoumaru?s back.

He heard the Seer gasp as she drew back a breath in preparation to scream, but then they were airborne, and her cry was lost in the maelstrom.

It was like falling through a cloud, only this was a cloud formed from blowing bits of ice, and they stung. Inuyasha tucked his head against his chest and wrapped one sleeve around the Tatesei woman?s head to protect their faces.

They landed four feet deep in half-frozen snow with a loud crunch that might have been ice cracking or possibly Inuyasha?s kneecaps. He grunted as fire shot through his shins and released his hold on the woman; it wasn?t as if she would be able to go anywhere, buried four feet deep in a snow bank. She didn?t seem inclined to run away, anyway, judging from the way her thin fingers were digging into his shoulder. Even on half-demon flesh, it would probably leave a bruise.

?[i]It?s near[/i],? she whispered cryptically, taking their surroundings with her wide, fey eyes.

?[i]We?ve already reached the mountains[/i],? Inuyasha realized grimly, prying himself free of the snow bank and hauling the Seer up onto higher ground with him.

There were rocks in front of him---a mound of boulders commemorating some past rockslide down the face of the mountain whose base they now lay at. While Inuyasha had been unconscious, Sesshoumaru had carried them clear across the valley and into the hills beyond. By ?it,? Inuyasha had the horrible suspicion that the Seer had meant the Dragon, which meant that going further would lead them closer to the place he?d intended to avoid. Yet behind him the [i]hanyou[/i] could also see the red half-moons of Sesshoumaru?s eyes cutting through the darkness. The ground trembled beneath their feet, rattling the boulders.

?Let?s go,? he told the Seer, pulling her along with him as he clambered over the loosening rocks. ?We can?t stay here; he?ll catch our scent soon even through this wind.?

Fresh gusts of ice bits blustered around them, stinging their noses and cheeks like tiny insects. The wailing of the storm rose to a near-deafening pitch before mercifully subsiding a bit. Inuyasha sighed.

?[i]Damn this snow,[/i]? he thought irritably. ?[i]I probably should?ve stayed on the bastard?s back until we reached higher ground[/i].? But there was no use worrying about what he should have done now that he?d taken the plunge.

Glancing over his shoulder at the Seer, he told her, ?I don?t know where we are, and I don?t care, but we have to find shelter even if it means going further in. The storm will bury us if we don?t.?

The Seer?s mouth fell open and she came to an abrupt halt, gaping at him in abject horror. It wasn?t a very dignified expression, but it did make her seem more human despite the web of veins gleaming through the pale flesh of her face.

?You---you have no [i]plan[/i]?!? she gasped when at last she regained the power of speech. ?You just jumped. . .without knowing what lay below you??

Inuyasha stared at her in bemusement.

?Lady, you?re supposed to be a [i]psychic[/i]? Of course I didn?t know. We?re going to have to work together to get out of this, but if you really [i]can?t [/i]see the future then I don?t see how you?re going to be much use.? He gave her arm a rough yank, forcing her to stumble after him over the boulders.

?I wasn?t touching your skin,? the Seer murmured in more subdued tones, sounding as if this admission made her uncomfortable. ?I can?t See without touching you.?

Inuyasha made a mental note to himself not to let her touch his skin---one of the nights he?d stayed at Kagome?s house he?d had a particularly steamy dream about her and every once in a while he kept getting pleasant flashbacks. It wasn?t exactly something he planned on sharing with anyone [i]else[/i].

In the meantime, the ground beneath their feet was now trembling so violently climbing normally over the snow-slick rocks was nigh impossible. With an impatient grunt, Inuyasha swept the Seer into his arms and took off at his own pace. Using demon strength to travel instead of letting the woman slow him down, he managed to navigate a more efficient route around the side of the mountain. Together they crested the outermost perimeter of the rock-pile.

On the other side the earth dipped downward into a long ravine of sorts, sheltered by an overhang of rock jutting out from the mountain?s eastern side. Inuyasha made straight for the depression, noting that while the snow was blowing slantwise into it there weren?t any large drifts blanketing the ground there. It also looked like a space too confined for Sesshoumaru to traverse in demon form. He hesitated before descending, however, glancing over his shoulder at the storm-lashed terrain behind him.

[i]?Kagome. . . You must think I?m dead[/i],? he thought solemnly.

The ground was trembling beneath their feet, and even over the howling winds he could hear the growl rumbling deep in Sesshoumaru?s chest. The white demon was already aware of their escape, but Inuyasha estimated that through the fury of the blizzard it would be difficult for Sesshoumaru to catch their scent. With a sigh of reluctance, Inuyasha set the Seer on her feet and pulled her after him, moving deeper underground.

?There is no point in trying to run from this.?

Inuyasha glanced behind him and saw that the Seer was watching him intently. There was an odd gleam in her black eyes that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He vaguely remembered seeing her like this at one point, but then a strange, near-blinding light had flashed before his face, and he couldn?t remember if it was a dream or not. Frowning, the [i]hanyou[/i] gave his head a little shake, trying to clear it of the memory.

?Feh,? he scoffed as they moved further into the tunnel, his bare feet crunching in the thin layer of snow covering the stone. ?Who says I?m ?running?? As soon as we get out of this, we?re going to find Kagome and Miroku. They?re out there somewhere in this, and they don?t have your [i]hanryu[/i] ability to stay warm.?

?[i]Listen[/i] to me!? the Seer insisted, grasping hold of his forearm and looking as if she wanted to shake him. ?Destroying the Dragon is [i]utterly beyond[/i] the importance of finding your friends! Don?t you [i]understand[/i]??

Inuyasha?s eyelids lowered, and his feral grin vanished.

?To be honest with you,? he said quietly, ?I don?t really care [i]what[/i] kind of world results from this. If I can?t protect my friends, then the future doesn?t matter.?

?That is selfish.?

Inuyasha glanced down at her sharply. Her head was lowered, and she did not look him in the eye as she said this. The small drift of ice flurries that had gathered on his brow while they were outside had begun to melt and run down his face. Angrily, he brushed it aside with his fingers.

?Lady, the future isn?t some vast living thing that you have to protect for its [i]own [/i]sake. It?s made [i]of[/i] people,[i] by [/i]people. Don?t forget that it?s [i]people[/i] we?re trying to save here, not ?[i]the way things happen?[/i].?

When she didn?t answer, Inuyasha nodded to himself and turned away, satisfied that he?d won the argument. Ahead of them, he could see that the way was growing narrower and more sheltered, almost like a tunnel. And it seemed the ravine ran in more than one direction as well. As they stumbled deeper into the sheltered darkness, he could see from the illumination cast by the Seer?s veins that to his left it forked off into what appeared to be a somewhat wider chasm, which appeared to lead due north. Gradually, Inuyasha?s brisk pace slowed to a walk and then to a halt. He was wondering if he should take the left fork instead, as it seemed to lead in the general direction of the Inu Youkai palace, where he?d last seen Kagome and the others. But common sense presented possible consequences that he found too great to risk. Regretfully, he shook his head. The wider, northward route might well have taken him directly into Sesshoumaru?s path. He also had no guarantee that it led any farther than one hundred feet. The light from the Seer?s skin only spread so far, and for all he knew the left fork could dead end out in the middle of nowhere.

?[i]He will kill you if you oppose him[/i],? the Seer intoned in a low voice.

There was an eerie, echoing quality to her tone of voice that made Inuyasha?s flesh crawl. She lifted her chin slowly as he turned to face her. Her eyes were deep and black and ancient beneath the straggle of hair across her pale brow.

?[i]It is the fang?s will, and he will choose not to resist[/i].? She tilted her head to one side, staring at Inuyasha?s face but seeming to look straight through him. ?[i]If you oppose him, you will not be spared[/i].?

Inuyasha gazed down at her, confused and slightly taken aback. Her words were too cryptic for him to fathom; he?d never had a head for riddles. He was more accustomed to threatening the riddler with bodily harm until the answer produced [i]itself[/i]. But there was one thing he [i]had[/i] understood. . .

?The ?fang??? he asked, fighting the urge to grasp her by the shoulders and shake her. ?What about the ?fang?? Do you mean Tenseiga or Tetsusaiga??

?No. . .? Slowly, she shook her head, her lips parting as her eyes went glassy with concentration.

This made no sense to Inuyasha. He didn?t think either Tetsusaiga or Tenseiga would ?will? Sesshoumaru to kill him. The sword-smith Toutousai had told Inuyasha that the Inutaisho gave his sons the two fangs to protect them, so such a thing didn?t seem possible.

?What do you mean ?NO??!? This time Inuyasha gave in to the urge to shake her, grasping the front of her robes in his fist. ?Give me a straight answer, damnit!? The shaking of the earth beneath their feet was growing louder and stronger.

?The fang!? she insisted. Her pale face had gone even paler between the web of fiery veins, and her eyes were bulging slightly. ?You will DIE! Each one a fang to strike the other. . .?

With a grunt, Inuyasha released her.

?Keh. More of that ?you?re going to eat it? crap,? he grumbled. ?I?m sick of hearing it. Try focusing on the here and now for once and use that Sight of yours to help me find a way out of here.? He surveyed the tunnel ahead of them, which appeared to veer southeast. ?Where does this place lead? It seems like it was once a riverbed, so it must open somewhere further into the mountains. Once we get out of here we may be able to make it back to the Inu Youkai palace by traveling along the high ridges to the north of the valley. Where the storm isn?t so bad. . .?

The Seer bowed her head, partially obscuring the light from the fire running through her veins.

?If you die,? she whispered, ?there will [i]be[/i] no future.?

Inuyasha glanced down, suddenly becoming aware that her hand was still clasping his wrist. Angrily, he pulled away.

?Don?t touch me,? he snapped. ?I don?t want to hear your confusing prophecies. Just shut up and follow.?

Aside from the wind howling past the tunnel?s opening behind them, things above had gone ominously quiet. This observation made Inuyasha nervous, and he began pulling the Seer along at a much faster pace.

Already he could tell that it was not going to be a question of [i]whether or not[/i] Sesshoumaru found them but what [i]form[/i] he?d be wearing [i]when[/i] he found them. To Inuyasha, the silence meant one of two things: the white demon had reverted to man-shape and was now stalking them through the underground route, or his brother had lost the scent. Inuyasha didn?t have much faith in the second option; even in the confusion of a blizzard Sesshoumaru?s nose was frighteningly keen.

And he was beginning to notice something else that was cause for alarm---the tunnel was growing narrower the further they walked, instead of widening and opening up somewhere as he?d anticipated. Because there were two forks nearby, it made sense that the sheer force of water that had once flowed through this point would have widened it. Instead, the walls appeared to be closing in wedge-like both above and on either side of them. He didn?t think it was an illusion of the darkness, either.

?Hey,? he said in a low voice, peering down at the woman stumbling along beside him. ?This isn?t a river, is it?? It was not a question.

When the Seer didn?t answer, he sniffed the air, squinting as he peered into the darkness ahead of them. The ground seemed to be sloping downward, and it was definitely growing warmer in the tunnel.

?This place is suddenly rank with [i]jyaki[/i],? Inuyasha muttered, wrinkling his nose with distaste. ?Why I didn?t smell it before?? Then realization hit him: [i]the Seer?s Tatesei scent had distracted him from the traces in the air[/i]. Now that he was aware of this, he focused his nose on the underlying scents, and caught amid the scent of musty stone the stronger scent of metal and blood. . .and Naraku.[/color]

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[color=purple]Amid the swirl of driving snow, the great Inu Youkai sank down into man-shape, white fur trailing upward as the wind caught it. His long white sleeves fluttered against his sides, and the wind lashed his hair across his face. He reached up to brush it aside with one hand, tilting his head back to glance at the sky above him.

Even through the blinding current of white, he could see beyond it the greater swirl of dark clouds, orbiting in a turbulent column above his head.

?[i]Above me?[/i]? he thought, his eyes narrowed to slits against the stinging ice. ?[i]I, Sesshoumaru, am the one over whom the storm gathers?[/i]? It made little sense to him; there was no possible way that he could be the source of the [i]jyaki[/i] drawing the clouds. Such supernatural violence of the weather did not result from any normal source; in his hundred years of life he had only seen such things surrounding a place where two sources lay in direct conflict with one another. It made no sense; Inuyasha was not with him. The [i]hanyou[/i] was somewhere ahead, closer to the mountain. Yet the air above was unmistakable; high above the snows, amid the twisting column of gray, he could see the jagged play of lightning across the epicenter. He understood that it was a warning of some sort. Yet he was so close to the Dragon now. He could[i] feel[/i] it.

And the warning no longer seemed to matter.

?[i]Inuyasha[/i],? he murmured, catching a faint scent on the wind.

Once again the gale lashed his long white hair across his mouth and narrowed red eyes. Uttering a soft noise of impatience, he tore loose the sash he wore around his waist and used it to bind back his hair. Then he turned his head downward, toward the depression in the earth into which his brother had disappeared with the Seer, and he headed toward it with a soft, measured tread. His white [i]haori[/i] billowed ghostlike in the wind. [/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Moving through the darkness of the tunnels, Kagome, Miroku, Shippou and Kirara traveled in grim silence. The ground appeared to be sloping gradually downward, yet they had no way of knowing how far they had actually come, or what precisely lay above them. The wailing of the freezing winds over the plain beyond the canyon?s bowed walls had grown soft and muted. Occasionally casting apprehensive glances upward, Miroku finally offered comment on it, which to Kagome?s consternation added to her own growing suspicions.

?The storm is dying,? the monk remarked with a frown.

?But how can that be?? Kagome asked, hugging Shippou closely against her shoulders for warmth. ?That much [i]jyaki[/i] can?t just fade on its [i]own[/i], can it??

Miroku went pensively silent for a minute. The only sound was the dismal tread of their feet plodding across the damp stone.

?No,? he finally answered, ?but it may be that the source is moving further away from us.?

Kagome?s eyes widened.

?That means we?re falling too far behind! Kirara!?

The demon paused and swung her massive head Kagome?s way, blinking in the wan light of Shippou?s foxfire.

?Are you still feeling strong enough to carry us?? she asked.

?Uh, Kagome, why is the floor wet??

Surprised by the question, Kagome took an involuntary step forward. Her shoe landed with a faint splash. Shippou?s eyes were peering over her shoulder from atop her sleeve at the ground ahead of them. Together they peered down at the stone. Ahead there were sunken places in the ground, and in the weird green glow of the foxfire they could see that these contained puddles.

?Standing water?? Miroku murmured, moving to stand beside them. The rings on his staff clinked softly against each other. ?There shouldn?t [i]be[/i] any standing water---even here. It?s too cold. Unless this was made recently. . .?

He and Kagome exchanged worried glances.

?Melted?? Kagome asked shakily.

?I smell blood,? Shippou whispered, his disembodied eyeballs trained on the darkness ahead. ?And pine trees. They?re not far.?

Kirara seemed to have the same idea. She sniffed at the stone between the puddles and then lifted her head, nostrils flaring. Then she swung around to stare at her human companions, orange eyes narrowed to slits.

?We walk,? Miroku decided. ?If they?re ahead, we need to be ready to fight. Kagome, you have your bow??

She nodded, and the monk moved a little ways ahead of them to lead the group down the tunnel. There was a tense set to his shoulders belying the inner turmoil his calm exterior concealed.

?You can?t change someone?s heart if it was their own blood that changed it first,? he said quietly. ?If it comes to. . . Then I will. Even Sango.?[/color]
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[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Inuyasha came to an abrupt halt, nearly causing the Seer to collide with him. He rounded on her abruptly, his hands balling into fists. ?This is leading us into the mountain, isn?t it? Where does it really lead?? His voice rang hollowly through the tunnel.

The Seer?s black eyes stared back gravely from between the lines of fire running through her skin.

?It was said of the Dragon that his lashing tail stirred the first currents of the ocean,? she murmured. ?And that his claws gouged hills and valleys into the lowlands. . .and that with his mouth he breathed fire into the mountains. . .?

?Shit. . .you?re saying[i] it [/i]made this. . .? Stay here.? Wasting no time waiting for an answer, Inuyasha set off in the opposite direction, moving at a dead run and leaving her standing by herself in the tunnel.

[i]?I don?t trust her[/i],? he thought grimly. ?[i]Why?s she so keen on finding the Dragon? She claims she?s serving Sesshoumaru, but now I think the Dragon?s pulling the strings. . . And why the hell do I smell NARAKU?!?[/i] Despite these suspicions, he had every intention of going back to fetch her once he?d established where his enemy?s scent was coming from. Boorish though he was at times, Inuyasha was not the sort to leave a woman alone in the face of danger.

Now that Inuyasha had put a considerable amount of distance between himself and the Seer, the air was a veritable maelstrom of scents. Behind him, the scent of pine and metal permeated the tunnel. From somewhere ahead of him, he kept catching whiffs of an enemy more familiar---sly and smoky and cloying as incense. And somehow. . .mixed with this scent was that of his own blood, and beneath it the faintest fragrance of white blossoms.

The scent of his brother.

A wave of red cut through the darkness.

He had no time to dodge it, nor even to stop, and went hurtling straight into the brunt of it. The pain that followed was terrible; like a thousand tiny needles piercing his flesh. Yet the force against Inuyasha?s body was like the hammer of a giant?s fist. Despite his forward momentum, he was flung backward like a rag doll. Fortunately, as he went sailing through the air toward the walls where the tunnel veered right, he still retained the presence of mind required to minimize the impact. Mid-air he arched his back and turned a somersault, so that instead of landing head-first against the wall he hit the tunnel?s floor, skidding a good twenty feet and cutting a long runnel in the stone. Prying his claws loose of the rubble they?d dug up, Inuyasha lurched sideways, rolling onto his feet and rising shakily to stand.

Blood trickled down the undersides of his arms; the backs of his ankles. Beads of it spattered the walls around him, glistening jewel-like in the light of Tokijin?s lambent blade.

?Still standing,? the white demon murmured, approaching him with a slow and measured pace. Inuyasha?s blood, which had soaked Sesshoumaru?s right sleeve hours ago and then frozen there, was now beginning to melt and drip down the demon?s wrist.

For a moment Inuyasha could only stare at his brother, panting and regaining his balance. Red, veined light shifted like water around the blade in the white demon?s hand. Inuyasha had only once seen the sword blaze this brilliantly---and at that time, it had been in the hands of Gaijinbou, the rogue sword-smith.

?[i]It?s the SWORD[/i],? Inuyasha realized abruptly. ?[i]The sword REEKS of Naraku. . . But why. . .??[/i]

?What the HELL do you think you?re DOING?!? he demanded aloud, having finally regained enough air to shout. ?You want to get past me so badly to UNSEAL this thing? Wake UP, jackass! It HATES us. It wants us DEAD.?

Sesshoumaru?s advance remained steady.

?You have the strength to destroy it yourself?? the white demon asked softly. ?I think not.? Slowly, he circled Tokijin upward to point directly at his brother. ?And if you believe I [i]need[/i] you, you are gravely mistaken. The Dragon is [i]there[/i],? he said, sharp eyes flickering toward the darkness behind Inuyasha and back again. ?And all I need from [i]you[/i]. . .is your blood. . .?

Inuyasha scowled, baring his fangs.

?You want my blood? [i]Take it[/i]! [i]HIJINTESSOU[/i]!? Digging his claws into the slices across his left forearm, he flung his own blood like a weapon, using his own [i]jyaki[/i] to turn it into a barrage of tiny red blades.

Sesshoumaru swung Tokijin in a wide, swift circle in front of his body. Inuyasha?s attack shattered upon Tokijin?s thick [i]kenatsu[/i] like glass.

?Always you stand between me and what I desire,? Sesshoumaru said softly. His eyes still gleamed crimson; the fight was apparently exciting his demon blood.

Inuyasha glared at him, teeth and fists clenched, but he couldn?t think of anything to say in his own defense. He didn?t have Tetsusaiga, and even his Fire-Rat robes weren?t going to be much of a defense against Tokijin. . .and he sensed that Sesshoumaru was in no mood for negotiation. The white demon wore no armor; his white [i]haori[/i] hung loose, flowing behind him as he moved. There was a tear in one side; it looked as if something had burnt him. Of all these oddities, perhaps the strangest was the dark discoloration beneath the Sesshoumaru?s right eye---a faint, charcoal smudge on his cheekbone like a bruise.

?[i]He?s injured?[/i]? Inuyasha wondered, eyeing the bruise. ?[i]Is that from when Miroku hit him??[/i]

The [i]hanyou?s[/i] mind racing furiously as he tried to think of a way out of this. Weaponless and wounded, he was practically defenseless. The only thing that might give him an advantage would be if Sesshoumaru was injured as well. Yet whatever the bruise was from, it didn?t appear to be a weakness---and now Sesshoumaru was nearly upon him.

Inuyasha sank into a crouched stance of readiness.

?[i]I have to stop him from driving me backward down the tunnel[/i],? he thought, grasping at straws. ?[i]If I can get just get around him, he?ll probably follow me through the tunnel to the surface. Up there, at least, I?ll have room to dodge Tokijin?s kenatsu. . .?[/i]

At the same instant, both brothers launched their attacks. Sesshoumaru abruptly dropped all semblance of patience and flew at Inuyasha, pulling the sword back over one shoulder and then slashing downward. Inuyasha rushed him with his claws curved and raised dagger-like before him. At the last instant, before they clashed, Inuyasha launched himself sideways and upward. The hanyou was gambling on the remote chance that his brother could be deceived mid-charge by a feint.

The chance immediately proved itself far too remote for probability. Changing directions so fast that his body blurred, Sesshoumaru moved to block his way, and Inuyasha crashed straight into him. The impact caused the white demon to slide backward nearly five feet, yet his feet scraped runnels in the stone and he did not fall. Mid-collision, Inuyasha?s left hand shot forward past Sesshoumaru?s defenses. His claws tore through the billowing [i]haori[/i], sinking into Sesshoumaru?s belly. With his right hand Inuyasha caught Sesshoumaru?s forearm in an iron grip, holding back the strike of his brother?s sword with strength born of desperation. Together they skidded to a stop amid a scattering of dust with Tokijin?s blade pressed close between them, glaring at each other.

It was then, beneath the crackling light of Tokijin?s aura, that Inuyasha caught a close-up glimpse of the dark spot on the white demon?s face.

It wasn?t a bruise.

?What---what the fuck happened to your FACE?? Inuyasha panted, attempting to shove the sword away from him.

Regardless of the five nails curved cruelly into his flesh, Sesshoumaru refused to relinquish his hold on the sword. It was like trying to move a steel wall. The white demon offered no answer to his brother?s question save a slight narrowing of the eyes. Amid the strain of deadlock, Inuyasha couldn?t summon the words to ask him again. Sweat streamed down his forehead, trickling between his eyes. Tokijin?s energy crackled jaggedly around them, as if Sesshoumaru had brought his own private thunderstorm with him into the darkness of the tunnels.

?[i]Shit,[/i]? Inuyasha thought, gritting his teeth. [i]?I---[/i]?

?You?ve become a hindrance,? Sesshoumaru said softly.

Then [i]jyaki[/i] surged through the sword between them, flaring red and sharp as a hail of needles. [/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Suiton stood alone at the end of the tunnel, waiting. The darkness surrounding her wasn?t complete, for the fire in her veins cast weird patterns on the walls around her. After Inuyasha left her, she had turned and moved deeper into the earth. There was no point in watching to see what became of him; she had already Seen it when she held his arm. Instead she walked alone to the end, where the rock on either side of her narrowed to an arm?s length in either direction.

?[i]Here the serpent?s throat narrows to the fangs[/i],? Suiton thought, staring apprehensively at the barrier at the tunnel?s end. Smoky crystal protruded from the ceiling and floor in front of her like teeth. Several feet ahead, the teeth were closed in an impenetrable wall of crystal. The wall appeared to be covering the mouth of a cave. What lay beyond Suiton could only guess at; the crystal?s multiple facets distorted the images behind it. Vague, fiery shapes twisted sinuously there, as if this were the gateway to hell itself.

The air here was warm and fetid and alive.

Swallowing hard, she took a step toward the barrier, reaching out toward it. As her hand drew nearer, she could feel the fire inside converging toward the spot behind the barrier nearest her outstretched fingers. The Dragon sensed her presence. That which it had long awaited had come at last. She had never felt such a sense of awe in her life. . .nor such fear. Behind the crystal lay the power to reshape the world. Suddenly, the barrier between her hand and the cave seemed painfully, frighteningly thin.

The instant her fingertips brushed the cold surface, she could see clearly the black well of an eye snap open behind the crystal. Suiton uttered a strangled cry, stumbling backward a few paces and almost colliding with the demon who had come to stand behind her.

?What? Are you afraid now?? he asked softly, stepping back a pace himself so that she wouldn?t bump into him. ?You chose this.?

Mutely, the Seer shook her head, embracing herself for warmth even though the Dragon?s blood flowed furnace-hot through her veins. The white demon skirted around her, turning his attention toward the barrier ahead. The eye she had seen was gone. The faint, flickering firelight had returned, dancing shadows through the crystal?s facets.

?The seal,? Sesshoumaru murmured, staring at it. ?I can[i] see[/i] it.?

Suiton?s eyes widened.

?I. . .[i]I [/i]can?t, my Lord,? she said shakily. ?I see no seal, and no pattern.?

?Of course not,? Sesshoumaru agreed, glancing over his shoulder at her. ?You are not Youkai.?

Finally getting a good look at him, the Seer clapped both hands over her mouth in horror.

?My lord---your [i]face[/i]!? she gasped.

His clothes were flecked with blood, and blood stained the front of his white [i]haori[/i], and beneath his right eye, upon his cheek, the flesh was discolored like a bruise. Yet the shadow on his face came not from injury but from something stranger still. Beneath his skin, the tangle of veins had gone visibly dark, as if in that one place on his body his veins now flowed with ichor.

?I am unharmed,? Sesshoumaru said coolly, turning away from her to regard the barrier once more. ?And nothing remains to hinder me.?

Suiton removed her trembling hands from her lips, casting one brief, nervous glance into the darkness of the tunnel behind them. [i]One[/i] thing remained: his brother, whom he had neglected to kill.

?My Lord, there is a fell air about that sword you carry,? she finally said, her gaze falling upon the blade sheathed at Sesshoumaru?s waist. ?A demon sword, isn?t it? Forged from a demon?s fang??

Sesshoumaru ignored her; he appeared to be studying runes graven in the crystal that only he could see.

?My Lord!? the Seer repeated, emboldened by urgency. ?That sword draws a storm of [i]jyaki[/i] around you! Bringing such powerful demon energy this close to the Dragon?s [i]kehai[/i]. . . I fear your body is poisoned by the clash.?

?Tokijin was forged from the fang of Goshinki, offspring of the demon Naraku,? Sesshoumaru murmured. ?Its [i]jyaki[/i] obeys me; I am master of it.? Though he did not look at her, the tone of his voice was a warning. ?You See much. . .but you are not Youkai, and you do not [i]understand[/i] all that you See.?

?That fang will drive you to clash with your brother,? the Seer breathed, seeing it all unfold in her memory as it had when she touched Inuyasha. ?I beg of you---do [i]not [/i]take the sword with you to destroy the Dragon. Cast it aside here---[i]on this all things depend[/i].?

No sooner had she spoken than she realized that those three words---?I beg of you?---had been chosen poorly. The Lord of the West listened to none save those he felt to be more powerful than himself. In his eyes, once again Suiton had humbled herself from a wise counselor to a pleading woman, asking for mercy where she knew that ?asking? only bred contempt.

Standing with his back to her, Sesshoumaru lifted his head as he finished contemplating the barrier.

?Your ?faith? in me is unfounded,? he said softly. ?Did I not say before. . .that [i]I have no intention of destroying the Dragon[/i]??

Blood pounded in the Seer?s ears, matching the frantic rhythm of her heart. [i]This [/i]was the man that she had chosen to serve. That he had rescued Inuyasha from the hands of the Tatesei had redeemed him in her eyes---had given her hope that he would not fulfill the destiny she had foreseen. . .that he would destroy the Dragon and spare his brother. But that had been foolish; the Lord of the West was not human. The only honor he valued was that accorded to those possessing power. Suddenly angry---with herself as much as with him---the Seer took another step toward him, hands clenching into fists at her sides.

?I wanted to believe you had the strength,? she whispered. ?But obsession has made you [i]weak[/i].?

She had called him a coward once; she was doing so again.

Sesshoumaru?s hand shifted to rest lightly upon Tokijin?s hilt. For the briefest of instants, it seemed that he would draw it forth from its sheath, perhaps to cast it aside. . .or perhaps to strike her down. But in the end, he did nothing. Instead he lifted his hand to the barrier. Now Suiton saw that it was wet with blood---the blood of his [i]hanyou[/i] brother, mixed with the [i]ki [/i]of the sealed Dragon and the one who sealed it.

?I release you from my service,? the Lord of the West told her icily. Then he swept the blood-soaked palm of his hand down a jagged pattern in the crystal.

And the crystal began to melt. [/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+} [/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Sango stopped dead in her tracks. It felt as if someone had just passed a torch through her; she could almost hear the rush of flame. Sango, who in her warrior?s training had grown accustomed to the synchronization of body and mind, found now that with her newly-awakened blood her body was becoming stirred by the Dragon?s influence. It was unnerving. The danger of the body being stirred was that the mind soon followed.

Irusei?s head snapped up swiftly.

?The seal is broken,? he said softly, wonderingly.

Abruptly, he spun on his heel to face his comrades.

?It isn?t far ahead of us!? he exclaimed, excitement masking the weariness on his face. ?Follow me!?

?[i]The seal is broken?[/i]? Sango thought, alarmed. ?[i]Then what of Inuyasha. [/i]. .??[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{END OF CHAPTER 13}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: See? I?m NOT dead! And neither is the story (I hope)[/i][/color]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: Arrr. . .the map, she reads: ?Here thar be dragons. . .? [/i][/color]

[center][b][color=green]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 14: Ryunochi {+} {+}[/color][/b][/center]

[color=purple]In the heavy darkness of the tunnel, Inuyasha lay prone on the ground. Beneath him blood was smeared across the stone. It formed a long trail from where the last blow had sent him sliding along the tunnel floor, as if someone had painted it there.

?Shit,? he muttered, around a mouthful of rock.

He was lying face down where he?d fallen, too incensed even to do anything but lie there and fume.

The blow Sesshoumaru had dealt him had not been meant to kill him. Of course, it had [i]hurt[/i] a great deal, and he was still leaking some rather vital fluids, but already he could feel his strength returning. This meant he wasn?t going to die---which was good to know because he would prefer to die with his head in Kagome?s lap, not face-down in some stinking cave.

?[i]Shit[/i],? he swore again, finally taking the initiative and pushing himself up into a sitting position. ?That cocky [i]bastard[/i]. . .?

His hair was sticky with blood, and in disgust he pried it off of his face as he rose onto his knees. Then he turned his attention in the direction Sesshoumaru had presumably taken. Though he had been unconscious at the time, Inuyasha was quite certain that his brother had gone ahead of him to seek the Dragon.

?That idiot,? he growled, staggering to his feet. ?And where the fuck is the [i]Seer[/i]. . .??

Ahead of him, the scents of Sesshoumaru and Naraku were overpowered by the scent of blood and metal. The air was rank with it. As Inuyasha stumbled down the way his brother had taken, he kept one hand clapped over his nose to keep the stench at bay. How Sesshoumaru could have gone this way with his acute sense of smell was beyond Inuyasha. Of course, why Sesshoumaru seemed to be ignoring the fact that Tokijin [i]reeked[/i] of Naraku was [i]also[/i] beyond Inuyasha. . .

For a while he bumped into walls as he traversed the tunnel, still reeling from his injuries and disoriented by the darkness, but then a soft, reddish glow began to permeate the air. He rounded a bend in the path, and then realized that he was wading into a river of steam. It swirled around his legs, knee-deep and so hot he could feel the warmth through the thick fabric of his [i]hakama[/i]. It took a while for his skin to become accustomed to the heat, but he paid it little heed because there were more pressing concerns ahead.

Now that he was in the direct path of the light, he could see that it was emanating from some kind of chamber in front of him. Vague, fiery shapes dancing beyond the scope of the tunnel cast weird, flickering shadows on the stone walls around him. The reflections wavered, as if what lay beyond was some manner of red ocean. Inuyasha walked forward more cautiously now, wrinkling his nose against the stench of metal.

His next footfall resulted in a soft splash.

The [i]hanyou[/i] stopped dead in his tracks, slowly turning his head downward to see what lay at his feet.

?Black water. . .?? he murmured, staring down at it in bafflement.

In the places where the swirling steam grew thin, he could see that the strange water lapping at his feet was spread across the floor in an ink-dark puddle. Yet there was no plausible way this could [i]be[/i] ink. . .

?What. . .?? Inuyasha whispered, hastily withdrawing his foot. ?What the [i]hell[/i]??

He stood there, somewhat daunted by the prospect of wading into whatever lay ahead. Against the skin of his bare foot, the dark liquid felt warm and alive. He lifted his gaze, and saw now that the walls surrounding the narrower passage that led into the red-lit chamber were crusted with bits of crystal, hanging jagged from the ceiling like broken teeth. The crystal was smoky, and dripped beads of dark water, which landed soundless in the puddle beneath the hiss of steam. The jagged bits shimmered like ice, as if they?d been formed from frozen brackish water.

Inuyasha realized he was holding his breath and let it out in a long, slow hiss, barely audible over the steam.

?[i]What the hell?[/i]? he thought, mentally knocking himself upside the head. ?[i]It?s just water. I?m not going to melt. . .[/i]?

After making this inner assertion, his limbs unfroze, and he stepped out over the puddle. The warm liquid grew deeper further out, lapping against his ankles, but otherwise his flesh didn?t start to sizzle so he quickened his pace, returning his attention to the strange formations on the walls. Unlike his feet, the crystal crusting the walls [i]did[/i] seem to be melting. . .
[i]
?This. . .can this be the seal? Is this stuff melting because Sesshoumaru broke the seal??[/i]

Moving nearer to the wall where the crystal grew, Inuyasha swiped two fingers down it. They came away smeared black, and smelling of metal and blood.

Metal and [i]blood[/i]. . .

Growling a curse, Inuyasha hastily wiped the stuff off his fingers on a portion of the wall where the crystal didn?t grow. The scent had abruptly brought to mind something Kagome told him before. . .something the Tatesei leader in the future had told her. . .

?[i]Ryunochi[/i]!? he suddenly exclaimed. ?[i]Shit[/i]! The black liquid that Tatesei Sano told Kagome came from the mountain. . . THIS is IT! And it really IS ?[i]ryu-no-chi?[/i]---the Dragon?s [i]own blood[/i]!?

Staggered by the realization, he stopped dead in his tracks again, standing there transfixed while the black blood sloshed gently at his feet. The entire future that Kagome had seen. . .this was where it began. The secret to the survival and the success of the [i]hanryu[/i] race lay in the very [i]blood[/i] of their Dragon protector, whom they had awakened, and whom Sesshoumaru had unsealed. . .

?Wait. . .no. . .? Inuyasha shook his head. ?This can?t be right! If the Dragon was freed, and lived to protect the Tatesei, then how could they have used its blood to shape their metals??

A sly epiphany slipped through the haze of his bafflement.

?[i]But Kagome never said the Dragon had to LIVE for that future to be possible. . [/i].?

Once again, he found himself staring down at the blood pooled on the floor. Experimentally, he stamped downward in it. It splashed beneath the impact, like any normal liquid would.

?[i]But this ISN?T metal[/i],? Inuyasha thought, one corner of his lip curling in disgust. [i] ?It only reeks like metal.?[/i] He was no expert at blacksmithing, but he had a pretty good idea that metal in its liquid form should be molten. The stuff he was standing in was hot like real blood, but it certainly wasn?t burning him.

Frowning, he lifted his head. Whatever lay behind the melted seal certainly might be molten. He could see the lines of red light wavering along the ceiling ahead.

[i]?Maybe the hotter blood is still inside the Dragon[/i],? he thought, scowling so deeply his eyebrows met. ?[i]Maybe. . .I?m not supposed to KILL the Dragon. What if. . .what if I?m meant to keep it ALIVE. . .?[/i]?

Again, he shook his head in an effort to clear away the confusion. After having been tossed around and slashed up by kenatsu, he was feeling a bit woozy. The smell wasn?t helping, either.

?[i]Whatever[/i],? he finally muttered in irritation. ?Fuck the details; I?m going after Sesshoumaru.?

And he took off down the tunnel at a run. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Irusei expressed no concern whatsoever when they came upon the steam, which swirled thicker and thicker around his comrades? legs the further they traveled. A stifling, oppressive heat was beginning to pervade the entire length of the tunnel. The group of hanryu came to the place where the way forked northwest and southeast. Peering at the northwestern tunnel as they passed it, Sango couldn?t help wondering about the strangeness of the terrain here. The tunnel was of unusual shape for something purportedly formed by a river?s course; from what she could envision, it was forked like a serpent?s tongue.

?[i]What REALLY formed this place?[/i]? Sango wondered, glancing about her with great misgivings.

But Irusei led them onward without a backward glance, and she could do nothing but follow.

Sango was frightened.

There was only one other time in her life when she could recall being this frightened---and that had been the dark day when Naraku took her family?s lives, and her brother?s soul. This, however, was a very different breed of fear. Here, her [i]own[/i] soul was at stake.

From the very beginning, she had intended to deceive everyone to save Inuyasha?s life. If she hadn?t, the Tatesei would have killed him, because they feared the Inu no Taishou?s [i]hanyou[/i] child. She had made this decision the instant Sesshoumaru?s blade scored its mark through the Inuyasha?s flesh, almost on instinct. Yet instinct [i]wasn?t[/i] what ruled her---that was why her intentions had[i] never[/i] included freeing the Dragon. The Tatesei had trusted her all this time because of her act of betrayal. . .and because they could not imagine someone actually [i]resisting[/i] the call of the blood.

But Sango knew that blood wasn?t what determined the course of a person?s destiny. She knew this because of the long, strange journey she?d begun years ago, with a monk, a half-demon, a Kitsune, and a girl from another time. She knew it because of the half-demon who cast aside the part of him that craved power time and time again to protect those he?d come to call friends. She knew it because of the monk she loved, who refused to accept the inevitability of death by the accursed hand passed down through his family, instead seeking to destroy the one who had cursed him. She knew, because though the blood in her burned and stirred to wakening, her desire to protect her friends had not diminished.

But she was afraid nonetheless.

Since she?d first called upon the power of the [i]hanryu[/i] blood to melt the snow in the tunnel, Sango was finding it harder and harder to ignore the Dragon?s call. It was almost like a humming in her veins---a music that she could almost hear but not quite; the sort of sly noise on the threshold of hearing that could drive one to madness. Thus far, the demon-slayer told herself that her mind and body remained her own, because thus far the Dragon had not used its influence to prevent her current course of action. However, as she walked on amid the host of Tatesei, nagging doubts plagued her.

?[i]Perhaps it hasn?t tried to bend my will to its own. . .because I HAVEN?T really tried to oppose it yet. Maybe it ALLOWED me to bring Inuyasha because if he?s killed to break the seal binding it, it no longer needs to fear him. . .?[/i]

Sango hated not knowing if she?d done the right thing. But she could see no other choice here. She had to follow the [i]hanryu[/i] now, because now she was afraid her act of deception really might end up costing Inuyasha his life. From the very beginning---though she?d realized it too late---there had been one major flaw in her desperate plan.

The flaw?s name was Sesshoumaru.

There was no way she could have predicted that Sesshoumaru would kidnap Inuyasha, let alone take matters into his own hands like this. She could not for the life of her understand why Inuyasha?s brother would say that he had no intention of destroying the Dragon and then change his mind.

After what seemed an interminably long time spent trudging along the rocky path, with only their skin to light the way, they soon came upon a part of the tunnel where the floor grew very uneven. Sango paused to kneel and bend nearer to the ground, so that her flesh illuminated what she was looking at. Her palm brushed tentatively over the place where the stone had ruptured, buckling in places and strewn with rubble.

If Sesshoumaru had ever really intended his procurement of Inuyasha as a rescue. . .then something had gone horribly amiss. There were small, dark stains upon the rock---darker than the stone. Sango froze, staring wide-eyed in horror. Raising her head, she saw that there were long runnels in the stone, as if someone with razor-sharp claws had been flung there. . .or [i]dragged[/i]. . .

?It?s here!? Irusei called abruptly, jolting the demon-slayer from her shock. ?The seal!?

The other [i]hanryu[/i] kept walking while Sango knelt---after all, it was Irusei they were following. The young man seemed to slough off the weariness induced by his injuries as he strode quickly ahead of the others. Something in front of him cast a strange, reddish glow on his earnest face---a glow that did not belong to the fire in his veins, but to some other fire that lay beyond.

?No,? Sango breathed, but there was nothing she could say that would sway them from their course---not at this stage in the game. This was what their quest had been leading to all along; it was stupid to expect them to listen to reason [i]now[/i].

Biting her tongue, Sango pushed herself to her feet and hurried after them.

The Tatesei warriors had scarcely rounded the bend in the tunnel when they found themselves wading through drifting tendrils of steam. Sango eyed it with great misgivings; it grew thicker the further into it they went. And it almost felt as if they were treading upon some kind of liquid underneath. . .

?The seal was broken,? Irusei murmured, staring at something ahead in hushed tones.

Picking her way around the outskirts of the company of warriors to avoid knocking them with the Hiraikoutsu strapped across her back, Sango made her way to the forefront. Her shoes were definitely splashing through [i]something[/i]. . .

Red light danced on the walls, glimmering through the smoky bits of crystal that clung to the ceiling.

?What do you mean, ?it was broken??? Sango asked him. ?How do you [i]know[/i]?? She was glancing down at her feet nervously, where the steam had temporarily parted to reveal the odd, dark liquid she was standing in.

Irusei ignored her, reaching out to touch the crystal. His leather armor creaked as he stretched out his arm.

?There is crystal all around this part,? he finally answered. ?It probably stretched from floor to ceiling, forming the seal.? He half-turned toward his comrades, gesturing sharply for them to follow him.

However, no sooner had he turned back and set foot upon the broken barrier?s threshold when a very strange noise stopped him in his tracks. It began as a low hiss, like the sound of wind whistling through a narrow opening.

Sango, of course, instantly thought: [i]Dragon?[/i] as her thoughts had been progressing along those lines the instant she saw the red light. However, the Tatesei company froze and made no sound, and nothing scaled and slavering came bursting through the broken seal. One of the warriors just behind Sango was the first to glance down at his feet, and he uttered a low cry of startlement, stumbling back a few steps to avoid whatever it was that he saw. Irusei whirled about swiftly at the sound, and then he, too joined his comrade in regarding the ground.

The black liquid, which they had been splashing through for the past few yards of tunnel, was moving. Sango?s eyes widened with horror; the foul, brackish-smelling stuff flowed swiftly around her angles, like the sea tides ebbing. It flowed toward the way ahead of them.

?Blood,? Irusei said softly, wearing a frown.

The [i]hanryu[/i] company watched as the liquid slid smoothly across the stone, like some live thing fleeing to its den. The hiss came from the speed at which it moved. Unconsciously, some of the warriors stepped backward as it slid out from under their feet, glad to see it gone. However, it didn?t vanish utterly. Instead of flowing naturally along the cave floor, it raised itself in the place where the crystal ringed the way. Irusei stumbled backward, startled, as a curtain of black, ink-like fluid rose in front of him, blocking the way.

?This is the seal?? he gasped. ?The Dragon?s [i]own blood[/i]? The Inu no Taishou sealed the Dragon into the mountain with its [i]own blood[/i]??

?How can this be?? another man asked. ?We aren?t meant to enter??

The black blood, undulating like shaken silk, now stretched from floor to ceiling.

The seal, it seemed, was restoring itself.

?NO!? Irusei cried suddenly, lunging for it. In a flash the sword at his hip had cleared its sheath, and he struck hard at the barrier.

However, in the split-second before the blade could touch the dark curtain before him, the black blood hardened into crystal. This process, unlike the initial re-formation of the barrier, was almost instant, and far louder. The blood crystallized and thickened, with a cracking sound like something being scraped across ice. The noise was near-deafening in the confined space; all of the [i]hanryu[/i]---Irusei included---backed away with their hands clapped to their ears. Yet when at last it had finished, Irusei flung himself forward against it, attempting to batter it down with blade and fist.

?NO!? he shouted, and this time one of his fellow warriors tried to catch hold of him to stop him.

Sango expected the man to pull him back easily from the barrier, but Irusei shook him off with a force that could not have come from any mortal strength. Injuries aside, his rage was causing the Dragon?s blood to course more swiftly through his veins. All could see that the fire beneath his flesh intensified, giving off a stronger light that reflected even in the smoke-dark crystal in front of him. Irusei?s sword rang off the barrier as if it were made of steal.

?Irusei-[i]sama[/i],? a warrior called. ?That is [i]ryunochi[/i]; you can?t break it!?

However, to Sango?s amazement, Irusei suddenly seemed to be beyond all reason.

?WHY?!? he snarled, hurling the sword aside. It clattered against the stone, landing somewhere beneath the steam, which was already dissipating. ?WHY does it not allow us in? WE are its children! Why does it keep us from entering? WHY?!?

Surprised as she was by Irusei?s behavior, Sango was wondering the same thing. Whether by the Dragon?s will or by the will of the one who had sealed it, it looked as if only Inuyasha and his brother were meant to pass through.

?[i]I [/i]am the one chosen by the Dragon!? the young man cried, fire flaring beneath his flesh. His company was standing clear of him now; no one knew what to expect of him in this state. Fire gathered in his palms.

Sango backed away slowly, one hand slipping deftly behind her shoulder, reaching for the strap that fastened her Hiraikoutsu to her back.

Flames erupted between the Tatesei warrior and the obstacle to his desire. He flung himself against it once more, flesh ablaze. Tongues of fire licked along the dark surface of the crystal, rippling like water. Sango could feel the heat even from several yards away; it made her squint.

Yet after a moment. . .it died---thinning into smoke before vanishing altogether into thin air. Then Irusei beat against it with his fists until blood ran down his forearms from where the sharp edges of the crystal?s facets had cut him. No one made any move toward him; he seemed beyond all reason.

He continued like this for a moment, and then beat both fists against it one final time. When his pounding fell silent at last, his followers held their breath, waiting to see what his verdict would be. Slowly, he slid his hands downward over the barrier, and then dropped them to his sides, turning to face his comrades.

?Of [i]course[/i],? he murmured, in a tone much softer.

To Sango?s surprise, his noble, aquiline face was utterly calm, though his eyes were narrowed to black slits.

?The Dragon, it seems, has chosen my sister.?[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]?The seal hasn?t been broken,? Shippou reported. ?They can?t get in.?

He had just returned from a spying mission of sorts, creeping quietly over the rubble-strewn tunnel floor on his tiny paws to look for the Tatesei. Kagome breathed a deep sigh of relief.

?Then Inuyasha must not have come this way,? she said. ?Or Sesshoumaru.?

As they drew nearer to the [i]hanryu[/i], Shippou had extinguished his Kitsunebi to make for better stealth; they could not see the way the ground was torn up by demon claws.

Miroku seemed less relieved.

?Are they still trying?? he asked. He was clasping the head of his staff very tightly in one hand so that the rings wouldn?t jangle and alert the enemy to his presence. ?To get in, I mean.?

Mutely, Shippou nodded, eyes huge as saucers. They could see each other?s faces faintly when they turned toward the tunnel ahead, where the darkness faded away into a faint reddish glow. Miroku turned toward Kagome.

?We can?t spare the time to search for Inuyasha,? he said heavily. ?If they break the seal, then [i]no one[/i] will be safe. We have to stop them, above all else.?

Kagome opened her mouth to protest, tears burning her eyes, but then she saw that the monk?s face was a study in weariness. He looked like he?d aged twenty years in a day. Kagome held her tongue; the look on his face had subtly, painfully reminded her that Sango was with the [i]hanryu[/i].

?We?ll attack them,? Miroku decided, nodding in the direction of the red light?s origin. ?Kirara will have to lead the charge. You will be behind her. You?ll be able to see clearly when we get there, I think, but I don?t want you shooting your arrows unless it?s a matter of life and death for Kirara or Shippou. I have a feeling you may need them more in case we. . .?

?[i]In case we fail[/i],? Kagome finished silently. But she didn?t speak this out loud; everyone was demoralized enough as it was.

Kirara padded closer to the monk, butting his elbow with her nose as a show of encouragement. He sighed.

?I?ll bring up the rear,? he continued. ?I will form a barrier around us all, so that they won?t be able to touch us with their fire-magic. I don?t know if any beside Irusei can do that, but I?m not willing to risk it.?

Shippou sprang up into Kagome?s arms, peering worriedly at the monk.

?But Miroku, you can?t protect yourself if you do that,? the Kitsune pointed out. ?I can only do so much to help you. I can make myself [i]bigger[/i], but I can?t really make myself [i]stronger.[/i] . .?

Miroku laid a hand on Kirara?s massive shoulder, and some of the weariness left his face.

?You?re forgetting there?s one more of us,? he told them. ?I haven?t given up hope yet; neither should you.?

Kagome frowned.

?You mean. . .??

Abruptly, Miroku smiled---a smile very serene and very out-of-place in a situation as dire as this.

?I trust Sango,? he said simply. ?I?m willing to stake my life on her.?

And then, without another word and before his companions could protest, he turned and began walking down the tunnel toward the inevitable battle. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Beyond the barrier, the way was jagged with smoky crystal, jutting sharply from the floor in long spikes. Flickering red light glimmered in the larger facets, simultaneously magnified and darkened so that everything was bathed in luminescence the shade of blood---human blood. Sesshoumaru strode purposefully through it all without looking back. All around him there came the steady drip-drip-dripping where the Dragon?s blood slid down the crystal stalactites in thin, dark lines. The floor was awash with it; every step the Inu Youkai took ended in a soft splash, though his tread was soft and measured.

Everything was also waist-deep in steam, which shifted and roiled around him as he walked like a sea of ghosts. Every so often a long, slow wind would pass through the tunnel---the Dragon?s behemoth sigh---stirring the steam and drawing it downward and inward through the tunnel before gently expelling it again in a warm gray tide.

?The crystal seal is melting where you pass,? the woman behind him whispered. Her tremulous words bounced off the myriad facets around them, amplified tenfold. ?The Dragon is gathering its strength, preparing to kill you.?

Sesshoumaru ignored the remark; he had nothing more to say to her. The [i]hanryu[/i] woman had been following him all this way, despite the swift pace at which he traveled. He never sped up to lose her, but neither did he slow down to wait for her. The ground was very sharp and uneven here, and grew increasingly so the further he traveled. In some places the way sloped dramatically downward, and the ground was slick and treacherous from the blood that coated it. In others, blade-sharp bits of crystal were strewn across the way so thoroughly that he and his would-be pursuer were forced to trod upon them. He could feel the points beginning to tear through the soles of his shoes; he could only imagine what the jagged edges were doing to the soles of the Seer?s bare feet.

Yet still she followed him. He could hear from the unevenness of her breath and her tread that she was limping along in what was apparently a great deal of pain. Her determination was beginning to irritate him.

His head was beginning to hurt.

The Seer didn?t say anything more. If she had, he might have killed her.

More time passed, and Sesshoumaru lost track of how far he?d come, or how far beneath the mountain they were now. The air was growing oppressively hot, and the steam oppressively thick. At some point, at long last, he finally heard the woman behind him collapse, landing hard between the needle-sharp stalagmites and no doubt losing a good deal more blood. He left her lying there, breathing hard and struggling pathetically to rise. Soon he had put enough distance between them that he could no longer hear her whimpering echo off the walls.

The tunnel was growing wider again; he was sure of that now. Steam now drifted past his face, making the hair nearest his face sticky enough to cling to his skin. He moved through a strange red haze, both in body and mind. The ache burgeoning between his brows intensified into a distinct, sharp throbbing. His shoes finally fell apart, slashed to ribbons by the sharp crystals. Time ceased to matter; pain ceased to matter. He had no idea how long the trail of bloody footprints was that he left behind him, nor did he care.

When at last the tunnel widened and opened into an enormous cavern, Sesshoumaru knew beyond certainty that this was the place he?d been searching for. The instant he stepped through the opening, he was assaulted by a scent of blood and metal so strong it made his stomach roil. The pain in his head spiked outward into his temples, but he gritted his fangs, ignoring it as he entered the cavern. Ahead of him, spanning a chamber nearly a mile cross-wise and height-wise, there stretched a lake of fire.

Heedless of the wounds on his feet, or of the hot sting of sweat that poured down his skin, he kept moving, staggering across the long, flat shelf of rock that rose but ten feet above the roiling magma.

As he stumbled further out into the chamber, something dark and massive began to rise from the lake.

It rose slowly---not with the awkward speed of some, caged, dumb beast but with calculated laziness. The long, sinuous neck was the first thing visible to Sesshoumaru above the rock shelf, at first a dark hump, but soon with silver scales reflecting fire as it unfurled and the massive head lifted. Black eyes, brilliant as obsidian borrowing a flame?s light. . .a body serpentine and fluid, yet impossibly large. . .[i]this[/i] was what he had seen in the scrying bowl. [i]This[/i] was what had called to him, silently and yet with eyes that spoke a language he knew well---the language of power.

The head lowered, descending toward him, and he stopped where he stood, knowing that he need go no further. Here, at the heart of this mountain, was the end to every means he had ever employed. Here was his due. Here was his [i]right[/i].

The Dragon hated him. He could feel it; the hatred was a thing as tangible as the heat that oppressed him. It called to him in malice deep and black and bitter, but also in deepest fundamental [i]need[/i]. Now that he stood before it and felt its presence in full, he understood that it was bound to him.

That it [i]wanted [/i]something from him.

?Dragon,? he said softly, wonderingly. ?[i]You[/i]. . .are not [i]alive[/i].?[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Inuyasha found her crawling on her hands and knees, pathetically slow over a stone floor slick with black blood.

?[i]Damn[/i],? he thought morosely, scratching absently at the cuts on his arms, which were itching him. [i] ?The LAST thing I need is someone ELSE to protect. [/i]. .?

But he knelt beside her, hoisting her into a sitting position.

?Where is he?? he demanded, handling her a bit more roughly than was polite. ?What the [i]hell?s[/i] going on??

?He left me,? the Seer whispered. ?He goes to find the Dragon. The [i]Dragon[/i]!?

Sensing that she had been through a lot and was about to become hysterical, Inuyasha gave her a shake. It rattled her teeth, but at least her wild, black eyes looked a lot less wild, and managed to focus on his face.

?Suiton!? he snapped. ?That?s your name, right? Listen, Suiton, I?m going to find him. I?m going to stop him. Just tell me what the fuck he?s planning so I know what to expect.?

Her clothing was in tatters; she looked like she?d been crawling for miles over broken glass.

?There was crystal here,? she told him, sounding saner after hearing the sound of her name. ?But it melted when he left. It?s gone, now. There?s only blood. . .?

Her voice broke off, and her head flopped rather than turned toward the tunnel ahead. Inuyasha fought hard to keep from pulling a look of disgust; he could see the fiery veins in her face pulsing.

Her eyes went wide with alarm.

?Go [i]now[/i]!? she whispered. ?You [i]must[/i] stop him. He won?t [i]destroy[/i] the Dragon. . .he wants to [i]become[/i] the Dragon. . .?

Shocked, Inuyasha released her. She slumped backward a little, still staring into the distance.

?He?s WHAT?!? The [i]hanyou[/i] hadn?t seen [i]this[/i] one coming. ?[i]That bastard,[/i]? he thought, lip curling in a snarl. ?[i]With him it?s just one goddamn surprise after another. . .? [/i]

?Go back,? he ordered the Seer. ?Get the hell out of here. [i]You[/i] can?t help him, or he wouldn?t have gone on alone.? Inwardly, he added, [i]?The only thing to ?help? him now will be five claws through his gut.?[/i]

The Seer just shut her mouth and looked at him, an odd, prophetic gleam in her eye.

Rising from his crouch, Inuyasha sighed.

?Alright---what is it that you See??

?I See you dead.?

?Feh.? Though greatly unnerved, Inuyasha turned away from her and began to run. If Sesshoumaru was far ahead of him, he didn?t have time to waste worrying about himself. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Sesshoumaru gave no ground, standing before the Dragon undaunted. The magma had scarcely shifted at all when the Dragon came forth, and the walls of this entire place dripped with the creature?s life?s blood. The Dragon was dead and yet undead at once. Though the late Inu no Taishou had defeated it, its powerful soul lived on beneath the mountain, imprisoned by a magic seal formed from its own blood. The thing before him was both god and wraith, awaiting its return to life.

The beast?s head lowered further, until at last its gaze met his. Its head was easily twice as tall as he was, and just as wide. In order to face him, it tilted its long nose downward, angling the horns at the back of its head toward the heavens that it had not seen in centuries. Hot, acrid steam blew around him as the great nostrils flared. Then it released the breath it had drawn in with a long, clacking hiss.

In Sesshoumaru?s mind, the Dragon?s seething malice coalesced into words.

[b][i](LORD OF THE WEST. AT LAST. AT LAST.)[/i][/b]

Almost of its own volition, Sesshoumaru?s hand reached for the sword fastened at his side---the Sword of Life. He could do it, he knew. Easily.

Bring the beast to life, with Tenseiga.

Rise into demon form, like his father before him; wage the long, terrible battle.

Use the malevolent power of the demon sword Tokijin to slay it at long last, and then carve with his own poisoned talons the warm heart from the broken chest.

Devour the source of its power, and so make it his own.

[i]?What a fool you were, Chichi-ue, not to take this when you had the chance. . .?[/i] he thought. ?[i]Instead you rot in a graveyard, taking nothing with you and leaving nothing behind.?[/i]

[b][i](YOU CANNOT KILL ME.)[/i][/b]

Sesshoumaru?s eyes narrowed to slits against the pounding in his skull, and his hand tightened into a fist around Tenseiga?s hilt.

?Can?t I?? he asked, with icy calm. ?I carry with me two swords of immeasurable power. I carry within me the blood of the Daiyoukai who bound you here. There is nothing I [i]can?t[/i] do.?

The nostrils flared again, more briefly this time, in a snort. Amusement? Perhaps. Sesshoumaru could see his twin reflections in its eyes---two smaller, darker versions of himself.

[i][b](LORD OF THE WEST YOU MAY BE. . .YET YOU ARE ALSO LORD OF THE TATESEI. AND YOU ARE BOUND TO ME AS I AM TO YOU.)[/b][/i]

Clenching his teeth, Sesshoumaru pulled Tenseiga free of its sheath. Yet another thing he recalled from the tales his father told him: dragons lied. They spoke falsities, and they were believed, for words seemed so much more like truth when spoken by something so ancient and powerful.

As if age and power bred wisdom.

This time the Dragon?s laughter came distinctly in his head. It rang like a clamor of great bells, maddening and terrible. This time Sesshoumaru tried to shut his eyes against it, but there was no escaping the sound. Rivulets of sweat ran down his chest, between his shoulder blades.

[b][i](SMALL, BLIND CREATURE. SUCH FOOLISH ARROGANCE. YOU CANNOT KILL ME. I AM INSIDE YOU.)[/i][/b]

His eyes flew open. The voice in his head went on inexorably.

[b][i](IT IS THE FATE OF ALL KINGS WHO WOULD RULE MY CHILDREN. FROM THE MOMENT OF ORDINATION, THE TATESEI RULER CARRIES WITHIN HIM THE STRONGEST OF MY BLOOD. YOU ARE NO EXCEPTION.)[/i][/b]

?No. . [i].impossible[/i]. . .? Sesshoumaru breathed, staggered by the fiery aurora of realization dawned too late. Tenseiga clattered to the ground, falling from the grip of fingers suddenly gone nerveless. ?I [i]never[/i] made that choice.?

Yet the evidence that he [i]had[/i] had been there all along.

The coiled serpent in his breast; the command which the Tatesei could not resist.

The fanged, black shadow in his heart; the force which protected him from the [i]hanryu [/i]and from the Seer?s intuition, and which drew him here. . .

?It [i]cannot [/i]be true,? he insisted, shaking his head as if to clear it. ?[i]I never chose this.?[/i]

Again, the laughter. The massive head turned sideways, so that Sesshoumaru saw his reflection clearly in the mirror-like scales. He saw his body fragmented there, broken by the black, flint-shard edges of the plates. And in one shining silver scale, held at such an angle so that there was no distortion of the image, he saw the pale shape of his face.

No longer pale.

?This. . .this is. . .? The words would not come to him. Instead he raised his hand to his face, running long fingers down the cheekbone, where the black veins spidered through his flesh.

[b][i](THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED.)[/i] [/b]the Dragon mocked him. [i][b](YOU HAVE LUSTED AFTER MY POWER, AND SO YOU SHALL HAVE IT.)[/b][/i]

Behind him, Sesshoumaru felt a great rush of hot air, and glanced behind him to see the long, black tail snaking its way across the rock shelf in a rasp of scales. He could no longer see the way out beyond it.

[i][b](I AM YOU AND YOU ARE MINE. NO FIRE MAY BURN YOU, NOR DEMON BLADE OVERPOWER YOU. THIS WAS WHAT YOU CHOSE.)[/b][/i]

?[i]No[/i].? Demon instinct and the throb of pain in Sesshoumaru?s forehead urged him to flee. Yet the fear only made him angry. ?NO.? Master of himself, even beyond the point of fear, he bent and swiftly took Tenseiga up in his grasp once more. ?You will not GIVE me your power, Dragon,? he said coldly. ?I will TAKE it!?

He raised his arm above his head. Enclosed in his fist, Tenseiga pulsed white-hot, like a star.

The Dragon?s head lifted as well, the long neck coiling sinuously above. Wraith though it was, slaver trailed downward from between its jaws, landing in a hiss of steam upon the stone. The dark maw opened, revealing rows of fangs, wickedly curved and serrated. The black eye fixed itself upon him.

[i][b](I, TOO, WILL TAKE WHAT IS MINE. SEE NOW, O DEMON, WHAT IT MEANS TO BE CHOSEN. . .)[/b][/i]

Another star-pulse radiated from Tenseiga. The Sword of Life was gathering strength for resurrection.

Then the Dragon struck. The gaping jaws plunged downward toward the white demon standing on the rock, who held his ground defiantly.

Sesshoumaru did not try to dodge the Dragon?s striking head. There was nowhere to go anyway, and he knew the thing above him to be dead and powerless against living flesh.

Thus it came as a complete and total surprise as blackness, hot and immaterial as steam, surrounded him, extinguishing Tenseiga?s light.

Utterly disoriented, he heard the Dragon?s voice in his head.

[i][b](YOU HAVE CHOSEN POWER OVER LIFE, DEMON. AND NOW YOUR LIFE IS FORFEIT.)[/b][/i]

The dark mouth yawned around him, and then the black jaws snapped closed. [/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]The warriors standing at the rear, with their backs to the shadow, fell first. Claws raked across flesh, through leather armor as if it were paper thin. Tusks sank dagger-like into bone at the base of the skull---the point of human fragility that every predator knows. Unlike the monster whose advent they awaited, this monster was warm and very much alive. Three men fell, and then their comrades cried an alarm, turning to face this new threat with spears and swords.

Kirara fell back a little; even she was daunted by weapons aimed her direction when the battlefield was such a close, confined space. Something small and vicious scuttled out from behind her, snapping at her assailants? legs with pinchers and stabbing at weapon-bearing arms with the long spike on the end of its curled tail. Shippou had been inspired by the scorpion-like thing Naraku had sent after them, and had elected to take its form to fight.

?Kirara!? shouted the man bringing up the rear of this odd war party. The shout was a warning; as they moved further into the midst of their enemies, Kirara had allowed a gap to form between her hindquarters and the girl behind her, whom she was charged to protect. Snarling and snapping at the Tatesei, she retreated a little ways, until she felt Kagome?s body against her back legs.

The battle did not last long.

The [i]hanryu[/i] leader?s voice rose above the din, calling an order to his men.

?STAND DOWN!?

When they did not immediately obey, fire flared in his hand, drawing everyone?s attention to the place where he stood with his back to the barrier.

?I said [i]stand [/i][i]down[/i],? he repeated, more calmly. There was an odd sort of serenity about his face, as if he no longer had any pressing concerns. Clasped tightly to him, with one of his arms pinioning hers to him, was Sango.

?[i]Miroku[/i],? she said softly. But she couldn?t move because of the knife Irusei held pressed against her throat. Her Hiraikoutsu lay several feet away; the instant the calamity began, Irusei had torn it from her back and flung it aside.

Slowly, guardedly, Irusei?s warriors backed away from her would-be rescuers, still holding their weapons raised defensively before them.

?Stand down,? Irusei repeated a third time, but now he was addressing the monk, who had shifted slightly to see what was going on around Kirara?s massive form.

?If you think holding her hostage is going to make us surrender, you?re sadly mistaken,? Miroku told him. His dark-browed face, though smudged with dirt, was hard and determined.

Irusei?s mouth quirked ironically.

?Don?t be foolish, monk. You love her. Your tongue lies, but your eyes don?t.?

Sango blinked her black eyes, unprepared for the sudden rush of strong feeling in her chest at the sight of Miroku. To her credit, love was utterly responsible for the dire mistake she made next:

?Miroku.?

She spoke his name again. His eyes shifted toward her; toward then knife at her throat. And then, with painstaking slowness, he laid down his staff.[/color]
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[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Inuyasha had no idea what he?d been expecting to find at the tunnel?s end. The lake of seething magma was about right; that didn?t surprise him in the least. He didn?t know much about dragons, but he was under the impression that lava pits were sort of like hot-springs to them. But there was no sign of any dragon at all.

Sesshoumaru stood alone, on the middle of a long rock shelf stretching outward from the chamber?s entrance. His white clothes were tattered, and there were bloody footprints leading to the place where he stood with his back to his brother. Other than this, he appeared utterly unharmed. Inuyasha wanted to kill him right then and there, for all the trouble he?d caused. Righteous anger surged through him, strong and fiery.

But the Seer?s last warning echoed in his furry ears.

[i]?I See you dead.?[/i]

Swallowing hard against the lump of temper in his throat, Inuyasha forced himself to speak instead.

?Sesshoumaru.? That was all he could manage between clenched fangs: his brother?s name.

Slowly, the Sesshoumaru turned to face him. His brother?s countenance was as cold and composed as ever. The dark veins that Inuyasha had noticed when they fought earlier were gone; even in the red glow of the magma, the white demon was white once again. Yellow eyes regarded Inuyasha calmly and without malice. Inuyasha?s nostrils flared briefly, breathing in his brother?s scent. . .

. . .of pine and blood and metal.

?Just [i]who[/i]. . .the [i]fuck[/i]. . .are [i]you[/i]?? Inuyasha glowered at the man before him, hands clenching into fists at his sides. ?And don?t give me some bullshit about you being Sesshoumaru, because it?s obvious you?re [i]not[/i].?

A slight, wry smile lifted the corners of the creature?s mouth.

?He received what he sought,? the Dragon said, in Sesshoumaru?s soft voice.

The smile raised the short hairs on the back of Inuyasha?s neck. He started forward, a low growl in his throat. There was a tremendous aura of power about the tall, pale demon standing before him, as if his comparatively small form had suddenly become the focus for the dark, fiery power contained in these chambers.

?That doesn?t answer my [i]question[/i], jackass. WHO THE HELL [i]ARE[/i] YOU??

Again the cryptic smile.

?Centuries ago, before your father sealed me here in this prison of rock and blood. . .my name was Raiiru.?[/color]

[center][b][color=green]End of Chapter 14[/color][/b][/center]

[color=gray][i]Yamisui: Hmm. . .Raiiru. . . Sound familiar? Perhaps he was mentioned in chapter 3? Why, there might even be a CLUE there. .[/i] . ;-][/color]

[center][b][color=green]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 15: Raiiru {+} {+}[/center][/color][/b]

[color=purple]?You---you?re telling me that [i]you?re[/i] the Dragon?? Inuyasha growled menacingly. ?How the hell is that even POSSIBLE??

Steam drifted past the ankles of the two standing on the rock shelf, and the cave walls continued to drip black blood.

A shadow passed over Sesshoumaru?s face---a dark, bitter expression that was wholly his brother?s. Inuyasha was simultaneously hopeful and unnerved. The look meant Sesshoumaru might still be [i]inside[/i] Sesshoumaru. . .but on Sesshoumaru that look also meant Death.

?At one time,? the Dragon said, ?the Daiyoukai---your father---bore the one weapon that could defeat me: the sword Su?unga, drawn from the tail of my ancestor Orochi by the war god Susanouo. The Daiyoukai used the sword to destroy my living body, and for that the spirit of the sword came to hate him. It had no choice but to obey its Inu Youkai wielder?s strong will, yet it resurrected me in the form of a wraith---neither living nor dead---that I might exact my vengeance upon the Inu no Taishou.?

Inuyasha scowled.

?[i]Shit. . .I guess even Otou-sama had trouble with the damn sword. . .[/i]? But he prudently kept his mouth shut, in case the thing wearing his brother?s form accidentally revealed a weakness. As far as [i]usable[/i] weaknesses were concerned, the vanquished sword Su?unga was definitely out.

Sesshoumaru?s proud head turned to the side, gazing out over the lake of fire.

?The Daiyoukai could not kill me, for I was already dead. And the sword, possessed by the powerful spirit of the dragon Orochi, would not send my spirit to the underworld. Already tremendously weakened from fighting me, the Inu no Taishou was only able to seal me into the mountain, using my blood and his.? A pause, and a smile. ?From your brother?s memories, I see that he died a century later, after killing one of the last survivors of my kind. The battle itself didn?t kill him, but fittingly enough he died at the hands of one of my human children. Setsuna Takemaru---that was his name.? The smile faded. ?What a pity Setsuna failed to kill [i]you[/i].?

The white demon turned away from the magma, and took a step toward Inuyasha.

Inuyasha held his ground, lip curling to bare one fang. Despite his fierce stance, however, his mind was racing furiously. This creature wanted him dead; that much was obvious. And if his father hadn?t been able to kill this ?Raiiru? when he was in dragon form, then the hanyou had a pretty good idea that he wouldn?t be able to, either. Weapon-less and wounded, he wasn?t going to be much good.

?[i]And then again,[/i]? he thought hopefully, ?[i]it ISN?T in dragon-form right now. . .?[/i]

Inuyasha wondered if it was even [i]possible[/i] to kill the Dragon by killing Sesshoumaru?s body. The beast had somehow possessed his brother, but there was no telling whether it would be destroyed with its mortal shell or simply find another vessel to inhabit. . . That and he felt killing his brother while Sesshoumaru wasn?t himself wouldn?t be as satisfying.

?What?ve you done with Sesshoumaru?? he demanded, jabbing an accusatory claw in the Dragon?s direction. ?Where is he now??

The white demon?s lips curved into a tight grin, baring the needle-points of his fangs. The effect was utterly creepy; the short hairs rose on the back of Inuyasha?s neck.

?Inside me,? came the soft answer. ?As I was once inside him. Sleeping, dormant since the time he invited me in by choosing to rule the Tatesei. Awakened, and freed at last when he chose to break the seal. All for power.? The Dragon laughed; a low, ugly sound coming from Sesshoumaru?s throat.

[i]?I don?t have Tetsusaiga,[/i]? Inuyasha thought, wracking his brains. ?[i]He was never weak against anything but that. . .[/i]? A sudden thought came to him, sly and small, seeping through the cracks of his resolve. [i]?But there is always the blood. . . Always my demon blood. . .?[/i]

He didn?t have Tetsusaiga.

There would be nothing to hold him back. Almost as if in response to the impulse, Inuyasha?s blood quickened.

Sesshoumaru?s yellow eyes turned downward. He lifted his arms a little, causing the white sleeves to fall away from pale hands.

He lifted his arms.

[i]He lifted his arms.[/i]

The shock of this almost completely distracted Inuyasha from plotting his own self-defense. Somehow, the Dragon had regenerated that which he?d cloven off years ago. That meant there was one more limb to contend with, and that Inuyasha was now officially twice as screwed.

?[i]Just hurry up and kill him,?[/i] the voice urged in Inuyasha?s head. ?[i]It?s no good trying to save Sesshoumaru if you can?t save yourself. . [/i].? It was the same ruthless, logical voice that suggested the use of his demon blood despite the risk.

It sounded a whole lot like Sesshoumaru.

Inuyasha ignored the voice and charged.

The thing inside his brother moved.

Shadow came roiling out from Sesshoumaru?s tall form, hot as smoke, only this held more substance. One pale arm lifted, the claws idly outstretched, and the shadow of the Dragon?s massive claw rose out of the body it inhabited. Inuyasha?s eyes widened at the sight of it, and mid-charge he swerved to avoid it. Where he brushed by it, he could feel the heat coming off it in waves. It grasped after Inuyasha?s body as he passed it, billowing as it changed directions like a living storm-cloud.

Inuyasha realized that he was running toward a dead end: the fiery sea of magma ahead of him surrounded all sides except the way he?d come, forming some kind of archipelago of rock. To kill his own momentum he leaned low, dragging the claws of one hand into the ground and digging them into it so that he skidded in a rough half-circle, wheeling about to face the Dragon again. Rubble churned up from the friction of this maneuver stung his hand and feet, but he pushed himself upright, preparing to dodge the next attack. It came swiftly; it had been coming even as he ran. Now as he swerved smoky talons sang past his face, barely missing him because he had turned so quickly. One ear was suddenly scored with a searing pain, and the side of his face felt singed. He smelled burning hair.

The pain made him angry.

Yet he had no time to catch his breath; the smoke reeled around, shooting straight for him again. It was formless now; as Inuyasha darted forward to outrun it he wondered detachedly if that didn?t mean the Dragon was displaying a little desperation. The smoke stretched outward from Sesshoumaru?s body like a long third arm. Inuyasha made straight for Sesshoumaru, lip curling in anger. There was something incredibly infuriating about the way his brother?s tall, pale form stood there, calm and unmarked. The white demon?s gaze was placid as he watched the wraithlike substance of the Dragon?s spirit pursuing his brother. It was almost as if once the smoke left his body, he became an empty shell with its host gone.

?[i]Maybe[/i],? Inuyasha wondered, ?[i]that?s why the smoke doesn?t leave him entirely??[/i]

That the body was left a mindless shell was a theory soon disproved, however, as Inuyasha finally came within striking distance. Light lashed across him like a whip. The weapon crackled in his brother?s hand. Inuyasha saw it coming and surged forward in time to keep from being hit in the face. Instead it caught him across the back, ripping a long weal through Fire-Rat Robe and flesh beneath. The blow sent him sprawling; he tucked into a roll to avoid hitting the jagged rock floor full tilt.

Shakily, Inuyasha picked himself up from the ground, wincing as the skin on his back stretched from the movement. The weal wasn?t deep, but it was bleeding freely and it hurt like hell. Turning around to face Sesshoumaru again, he saw that his brother?s sharp nails beginning to glow a poisoned green.

He knew what that meant.

?[i]Shit[/i],? he thought, cracking his knuckles as he assessed the situation. ?[i]I can?t get close to him without being wounded. When he whips out the poisoned claws he really MEANS to kill me.?[/i]

But this wasn?t Sesshoumaru. This was the Dragon. Inuyasha blinked repeatedly, trying to detour the sweat dripping down his forehead away from his eyes.

?[i]Why is the Dragon using Sesshoumaru?s power?[/i]? he wondered. ?[i]On second thought, why the hell is it using Sesshoumaru?s BODY? Why would it give up its own to jump inside HIS??[/i] But he couldn?t think of anything to ask that might convince the Dragon to reveal its reasoning. It stood silently in Sesshoumaru?s skin, waiting intently for him to make his move.

With a jolt, Inuyasha became aware of what he was steeling himself to do. He was automatically sinking into a stance of readiness, preparing to charge again despite the danger.

[i](I See you dead.)[/i]

For once, Inuyasha thought of fleeing. His last rush had taken him behind Sesshoumaru; he now stood between the Dragon and the exit to the chamber. If he went running down the tunnel and found the Tatesei, he might be able to take back his sword from Sango. He might be able to use the [i]Bakuryuuha[/i] to break up the tunnel, to seal the Dragon into the mountain again. . .

He shook his head vehemently, furious with himself.

[i]?Like that would WORK. Otou-sama wouldn?t have sealed it in with his own blood if burying it under a mountain was enough. I?m just thinking of that to save my own skin, believing in the Seer?s stupid doom ramblings.?[/i]

Dipping his claws into his own blood, Inuyasha snarled a challenge.

Then he moved.

And the air between them was filled with smoke and red blades. [/color]

[center][b][color=green]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]Miroku laid his staff down quietly, scarcely daring to breathe, as if the knife was pressed against his own throat and not that of the woman he loved. It was a definitive standoff---he could see no way around surrender. If he used his cursed hand here, in such close quarters, everyone would be sucked in. There was nothing for his friends to grab hold of, and he wasn?t about to sacrifice them to keep the Dragon sealed. If worst came to worst, he would wait for it to emerge from its rocky prison and draw it into the void then.

These desperate plans were running through his mind so rapidly that he almost missed Irusei?s next words.

?You?re too late, followers of the [i]hanyou[/i]. The seal was already broken. Inuyasha-[i]sama[/i] is dead.?

Somewhere behind him and to the right, Miroku heard Kagome gasp. There came the faint sound of clacking wood; she was shifting her bow.

?No, Lady Kagome,? Miroku told her, forcing his voice to remain calm and steady. ?Listen to him speak. We must hear what has happened.?

Irusei?s eyes lowered, almost as if he shared their sorrow at the news he?d just relayed. Held tightly against him, Sango stood frozen, eyeing Miroku?s staff on the ground in dismay.

?It was necessary,? the Tatesei warrior continued. ?Inuyasha-[i]sama[/i] had to die. It was the price of breaking the seal. Soon the Dragon will emerge from the mountain, born anew. Now that it?s chosen a human whose spirit will revive it. . .?

In surprise, Shippou started forward a little, only to find himself stopped by several spear-points aimed his way.

?A [i]human[/i]?? he exclaimed. ?You mean the Dragon?s [i]eaten[/i] someone??

Briefly, Irusei shook his head. In the fiery gleam of his veins, his forehead shone with sweat.

?The Dragon spoke to me in a vision,? he explained. ?It spoke of choosing one to give it new life. It spoke of choosing one human to be its voice among its people.? A pause, and a hint of bitterness. ?I falsely believed [i]I[/i] was the one chosen. But instead it has chosen my sister, the Seer.?

?What kind of sense does THAT make?? Shippou grumbled, shifting nervously on the gravelly floor.

Miroku ignored the Kitsune?s remark, frowning. If he could get Irusei to talk more, he might reveal a weakness---if the Dragon had any.

?What will you do when this thing emerges?? he asked, deliberately using the word thing to goad the hanryu. ?You think it won?t destroy this country, as it did when first these lands were formed??

Irusei lifted his chin. There was a feverish gleam in his eye.

?We shall see,? he replied cryptically. ?There is only the promise that we, the Dragon?s children, will endure. Whatever else is destroyed is worthless to us.?

?Th---THERE!? Kagome exclaimed suddenly. ?What?s [i]that[/i]??

She was staring not at Irusei but past him, toward the wall of rapidly darkening crystal at his back. Behind it, something was moving swiftly toward them. Behind the seal, a cloud was gathering, billowing like smoke, only this seemed alive and cognizant, for the instant it contorted into the semblance of a recognizable shape. The shadow of a claw spread across the crystal, stretching from floor to ceiling like the grasping hand of a giant.

Shippou uttered an involuntary whimper, retreating closer to the relative safety between Kirara?s massive forelegs. The Tatesei warriors drew back as well, keeping their spears aimed at their four captives while their eyes were trained on the seal.

Only Irusei held his ground---and Sango, whom he refused to release. He turned slowly, black-stained eyes lowered, as if he already knew what was coming and awaited it in reverence. Swallowed in the shadow of the claw, the crystal began to melt.

Miroku watched in dismay as black rivulets cascaded down the seal. Then there came a sharp crack, and a long groan, as of ice breaking, and the wall that held the Dragon in collapsed in a sizzle of dark liquid.

There was no claw. There was no shadow.

Sesshoumaru stepped into the tunnel.

Miroku let out the breath he hadn?t realized he was holding. The sight of the white demon emerging when he?d expected something fouler was initially a relief. But then he recalled something very strange.

?[i]Back then. . .back in the garden. . .why did Sesshoumaru refuse to agree that he would destroy the Dragon??[/i] There had been no promises exchanged---Sesshoumaru had merely gone after the [i]hanryu. [/i]

And now Inuyasha was dead, and his brother stood alive and unharmed, having emerged unscathed from the stronghold of his greatest enemy.

There was something very odd about the way the Inu Youkai was looking at the group gathered beyond the seal. His regard of the assembled humans, usually so icy and detached, was now intent and shrewdly assessing. Everyone present stared at him, afraid even to draw breath for fear of what he might do.

In the long stretch of heavy silence, drops of black water clinked pointedly on the cave floor.

In the end, it was Irusei who first found his tongue. He finally released his hold on Sango, shoving her away from him carelessly, as if she no longer mattered.

?My Lord,? he murmured, in a tone both reverent and troubled. ?Why. . .have you done this??

Miroku, who had been trying to gauge Sesshoumaru?s intentions, now turned his attention toward the Tatesei warrior.

?[i]Does he really think to regain the favor he?s lost?[/i]? Miroku mused. ?[i]Does he call Sesshoumaru ?Lord? now because Sesshoumaru has defeated the Dragon??[/i]

The white demon?s cold regard came to rest upon the young warrior, and slowly his hand lifted. Miroku immediately lost interest in what Irusei?s motives were---Irusei was about to become dead. The monk cast a surreptitious glance down at his staff, which lay on the ground several feet in front of him. It was half-submerged in a puddle of the dark liquid from the melted seal, and a bit of energy crackled around the ring at its head, but nevertheless he decided to make a grab for it the instant the Tatesei warriors were distracted. He expected them to be distracted very soon; their leader was about to have his head sliced off. He would use the ensuing melee to take his comrades and escape.

He tried to catch Sango?s eye, but she was regarding Sesshoumaru with a dazed kind of horror.

Sweat trickled down the bridge of Miroku?s nose as he waited for the opportune moment.

Nothing happened.

There was no sound of human flesh tearing, and no outcry among the Tatesei.

Sesshoumaru?s white hand lifted to rest gently on Irusei?s cheek.

?Child,? the white demon said softly, ?this is not the hour to doubt me.?

The hand lingered; a caress.

Irusei was trembling.

?Ew,? Shippou muttered, pulling a face. The Kitsune was keeping well within the bounds of Kirara?s forepaws.

Kirara?s fur was standing on end, and her orange eyes were wild. She looked as if she wanted to lunge for Sesshoumaru then and there, but was too unnerved to dare. Kagome was strangely silent, but Miroku could feel her presence at his back as she stepped closer to him. None of the Tatesei made any move to stop her.

?His [i]kehai[/i]. . .? she whispered, but her voice trailed off.

?My Lord, why have you chosen. . .this?? Irusei whispered. ?This form? Why not Suiton??

Sesshoumaru?s touch trailed down his jaw line and throat, the palm coming to rest over the place where the [i]hanryu?s[/i] clothing was torn and singed. Miroku realized with a start that it was the place where Irusei had been stabbed by the blade Tokijin, hours earlier. Now, with his hand resting against the young man?s chest, Sesshoumaru?s eyes were full of regret.

Something was [i]definitely[/i] wrong. . .

?Yours was the first heart that chose mine,? the white demon murmured. ?You have served me well.?

Irusei?s feverish black eyes were downcast, and when he spoke it was with an undertone of bitterness.

?It was my desire to be chosen for your avatar. Why you?ve chosen the flesh of your greatest enemy?s spawn is incomprehensible to me.?

By this point Miroku---in a state of great perplexity---felt compelled to interrupt.

?Lord Sesshoumaru! What has become of Inuyasha??

Behind him, Miroku heard Kagome?s breath catch in her throat, sharp as a sob. Down by his side, he held out one hand, signaling her to stay where she was. Rashness would only get her killed here, and Inuyasha---alive or dead---wouldn?t want that.

Slowly, the Inu Youkai?s pale face turned toward him---too slowly for it to have been a response to his name.

?Inuyasha-[i]sama[/i] is dead,? he answered, with dispassionate calm. ?And the white demon is gone. Only the Dragon remains.? [/color]

[color=purple]It was then that Inuyasha?s comrades knew that he spoke the truth, and that this was not Sesshoumaru. Never would Inuyasha?s brother have deigned to call him ?lord.?

Miroku was a man slow to anger, but even so it took every ounce of his self-discipline not to reach for the prayer beads that reined in the curse in his right hand. The Dragon?s sharp eye was upon him, and he dared not reveal his trump card until the moment was right.

?[i]I have to get him out in the open before I use the Wind Tunnel. . .? [/i]

?You will want to take your comrades and go,? the Dragon addressed him. ?For I intend to bring down the mountain behind me.?

Having said this, the Dragon strode past the monk, paying no heed at all to the way Kirara?s fur bristled as his left arm brushed her shoulder.

His [i]left[/i] arm. . .

?[i]I wonder,[/i]? Miroku thought, staring at the arm. ?[i]I wonder. . .what this fell creature promised Sesshoumaru in exchange for this. . .?[/i]

Not that it mattered any more. The Tatesei were beginning to turn and file down the tunnel after their Dragon, who walked in silence.

An arrow went sizzling through the darkness after them.

Immediately, Miroku flew at Kagome, wrapping both arms around her and pinning both her arms and bow to her chest.

?[i]No[/i],? he hissed in her ear. ?Kagome, [i]no[/i]. Let them go.?

Several of the Tatesei warriors whirled swiftly about, thinking to form a protective barrier before their Dragon. Yet the thing in Sesshoumaru?s body waved them aside, and retraced his steps through their midst. He stopped not four feet away from where Miroku held Kagome. She wasn?t struggling, but Miroku could feel her slender body tensed to act the instant he let her go. He held her fast, eyeing the Dragon with great apprehension.

Yet it didn?t seem angry. There was something like pity in its eyes---a look utterly alien to Sesshoumaru.

?The [i]hanyou?s[/i] death was necessary,? he told them. ?It cannot be undone. But [i]you[/i] I will not touch.?

Miroku glanced down in bemusement at the head of black hair pressed against him just below his chin. It wasn?t him that the Dragon was addressing.

It was looking at Kagome.

?Why?? Kagome whispered. Her voice sounded strained, as if she were trying hard to keep from screaming. ?Why do this? Why?? She seemed incapable of formulating any specific question.

?Survival, child,? the Dragon answered simply. ?Survival---for myself and for them.? By them Miroku supposed he meant the Tatesei. ?The white demon---the one whose flesh I wear now---did not have the foresight to choose wisely.? The Dragon lifted Sesshoumaru?s hand, staring at the pale flesh of the palm as if it were some alien object and not its own. The edges of its sleeves were drenched with blood. ?The Lord of the West believed in his foolishness that he knew the way to immortality. He believed that by eating my power he would proceed to mastery over the earth. He had no idea that I would gladly have traded the sum of my power for what he [i]already possessed. [/i]. .?

The Dragon ran the tips of fingers lightly over the white skin of the forearm. Behind him, in the tunnel, the [i]hanryu[/i] stood silent and watchful. There was fanatical adoration in their eyes; their god was speaking.

?It is the nature of demons to lust after the unattainable,? he continued.

Hearing the Dragon speak, Miroku found that he could no longer think of the Dragon as ?it?. This was a rational being, with a mind not very unlike that of the person whose body it now inhabited.

Sesshoumaru?s high-boned, aristocratic face lifted, and eyes that had once been untouchable as ice kindled now with something new entirely. To Miroku, it was like watching the unfolding of some alien future---a future unnaturally wrought. A metal flower unfolding, blossoming black blood and new order.

Kagome had gone utterly still against him; there was something hypnotic in the Dragon?s words.

?To destroy the earth is to reshape it---that is how demons think,? the Dragon said softly. ?But destruction begets only more destruction. The answer to forever cannot be found in a god?s power.? The white hand clenched into a fist, which he lifted in front of him with sudden passion. ?[i]This[/i] is the answer,? he declared, in a voice that rang through the tunnel. ?No jewel, no talisman---[i]this[/i]! This mortal body, frail and small, [i]this[/i] is what will endure the ages.?

A pause, and the eyes burned like twin lighthouse beams, seeing something distant on the tides of future.

?I have seen it,? the Dragon went on, in a hushed tone. ?A world of metal and wheels, where the blood that once sealed me has made my children powerful. And it is a new kind of power---a peaceful power, in an era where the ability to deal death is no longer what determines success. . . A world of humans, with no place for demonkind.?

?You?ve seen this through the Seer,? Miroku found himself interrupting to say, against his better judgment. ?But prophecies aren?t set in stone. [i]Nothing[/i] is set in stone, or none of this could be happening at all.? He paused, swallowing hard. ?What you?ve seen may not come to pass.? There was something terrible about looking the Dragon in the eye that the monk had never known when facing down even the fiercest of demons. This was a creature whose kind had seen the dawn of time; it was like staring a god in the face. Yet Miroku forced himself to regard the tall, pale figure with outer calm, for this was a god he had no desire to serve.

The Dragon tilted his head to one side. His expression was thoughtful, with no sign of anger at Miroku?s contradiction.

?It was indeed the Seer who woke me,? he agreed. ?Yet the eyes through which I saw this future. . .were [i]yours[/i].?

He was looking at Kagome.[/color]

[b][center][color=green]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]In the glow of torchlight, two small figures made their way through the long, echoing halls of the Inu Youkai palace. One muttered nervously to himself; the other remained silent. They weren?t heading anywhere in particular; Jakken was pacing worriedly and Rin was following him as he paced.

?I don?t like this,? he grumbled, rubbing at the side of his wizened head. ?It?s been too long. He should?ve returned by now.?

He stopped abruptly, spinning on his heel to pace in the opposite direction. Rin nearly bumped into him.

?He?ll come back, Jakken-[i]sama[/i],? she assured him. ?He said he would.?

Jakken fixed her with a brief, bulgy-eyed glare. There was snow in his cap from when he?d gone outside to look for signs of Sesshoumaru?s return. It was melting now, and running down the sides of his face.

?He never said that.?

Rin blinked her wide, innocent eyes, laying a finger to the side of her mouth.

?Well, he always comes back, anyway,? she amended.

?Except for the day he decides he [i]isn?t[/i] coming back,? Jakken muttered darkly. One of the nearby torches sputtered, and he jumped in startlement.

Mercifully, the little girl kept silent for a bit, giving him ample time to ponder what he would do if the Tatesei decided to invade. Sesshoumaru had left them with instructions to flee to the caves on the side of the hill if misfortune befell them. Jakken wasn?t keen on the demon lord?s choice of sanctuaries. Those were the caves where, nearly a century ago, the Inu Youkai children had been sent to take refuge. The Wise---the Tatesei priests---had found them, of course.

When Jakken had visited the place years later, there hadn?t been any bones or remains.

But he could still recall the claw marks on the walls.

As an imp and a demon, he had a certain immunity to the sight of death, but one?s kinsmen were different. . . The deaths of the small ones were [i]always[/i] different.

He remembered the look on Sesshoumaru?s face as they passed through the place. He never wanted to see that look again.

But right now, he couldn?t see any alternatives. If the Tatesei came, he would have to take Aun and lead Rin there. And if Sesshoumaru never returned. . .he would have to keep her alive long enough to see her safely to a human village, where she surely belonged. He would do this for his master?s sake.

Rin seemed to read his mind.

?Don?t worry---my lord is very strong.?

Once again, the slap of Jakken?s feet against the stone floor came to a halt. He spun abruptly and resumed pacing in the other direction. Rin followed, flopping the long sleeves of the oversized [i]haori[/i] she wore. It looked like one of Sesshoumaru?s. Smelled like it, too.

?Nothing is strong enough to stop him if he wants to come back,? she chirped.

Jakken scowled, deciding that he was going outside for another look.

?[i]There isn?t any living thing that CAN stop him[/i],? the imp thought grimly. ?[i]Except maybe himself. . .?[/i][/color]

[b][center][color=green]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple][i]He swam through the wind currents as if the sky were water. Night had fallen over the lands below him. Where he passed, the night spread.

He was the night, falling dark over plain and mountain.

It was heady, this revelation. He could bring darkness, if he chose, or scour the earth with fire. . .if he chose. His body was hard and impenetrable, clad in scales sharp as silver mirrors, reflecting the fire in his eyes. He wove between the clouds of a building storm, forked tongue lolling between fangs serrated like scimitar blades.

Ahead of him, on a peak so high its base was wreathed in clouds, there rose a great castle, with spires reaching heavenward and gleaming in the light of the moon. It overshadowed a host of surrounding cities, where the frail, clever creatures that called themselves human stretched supplicants? arms up to greet him. Glad and fearful cries rose to meet him; their god was returning to his throne.

It was a dream he was lost in---a dream from which there was no emerging. The wondrous illusions of his own desires closed around him like a trap, and he sank ever deeper into dying sleep.[/i][/color]

[b][center][color=green]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]?What---[i]what[/i]?? Miroku asked hoarsely, as if he could scarcely believe his ears.

Pressed into the circle of his arms, Kagome trembled. Her lips moved, but no sound emerged. There was a strange intensity in the Dragon?s eyes upon her, burning through Sesshoumaru?s face. It was deep gratitude---or love. Not the love of a man for a woman, but that of a god for the one who has served him best. Sickened, Miroku?s grip tightened on Kagome?s shoulder.

?Don?t listen to him,? he warned her.

The Dragon ignored him.

?You I won?t touch,? he repeated, gazing intently at the girl before him, ?for while I lay dreaming it was your mind that reached out to mine, across the span of ages.?

[i](She dreamed of a man raising a blade over his head. She saw the Shikon jewel tumble from her grasping fingers. She saw the jewel fall into a bowl of water. Ripples spread outward from the place where it fell.

She saw a hand close around the jewel.

She saw a great and luminous eye slowly begin to open, and was filled with nameless dread for what this might mean.)[/i]

?The eye,? Kagome whispered, the hair at the nape of her neck rising in horror. ?The eye was yours. . .?

Her legs began to give way beneath her. Miroku?s grip on her shoulders, now tight enough to bruise, was the only thing holding her upright.

?No, Lady Kagome,? the monk insisted, giving her a bit of a shake. ?Don?t listen. None of this is your fault!?

But he was wrong. Kagome knew he was wrong. She hadn?t told him about the dream. She hadn?t told anyone about the dream---hadn?t even [i]remembered[/i] the dream until now. . . She thought it had meant nothing. But it had meant [i]everything[/i]. . .

?You wore the Jewel of Four Souls close to you as you slept,? the Dragon told her. ?That talisman which was born of my strongest child, Midoriko. . . And across time my sleeping mind saw through your memory a world in which only humans thrived---a world which held no place for monsters. And I dreamed. . .[i]oh how I dreamed[/i]. . .of what my children might achieve in such a world. . .?

Righteous anger surged through Miroku. His left hand ached to reach for the prayer beads restraining the curse in his right. Were it not for the sake of his friends, he would have.

?And how many innocent lives will it cost, this vision of yours?? he snapped. ?Do you really plan on single-handedly putting an end to the age of demons? If such a thing is even possible. . .?

The Dragon?s burning gaze lowered.

?Perhaps you recall. . .the power of the Wise?? he asked softly. ?It is Mine. The end of demonkind is an inevitability.?

Behind him, there came a low rumbling from deep in Kirara?s chest, and the sound of someone?s foot scraping against stone. Miroku knew that Sango had moved to stand just behind him by the lightness of her tread. A warrior?s tread.

There came a sharp hiss of steel, and briefly Miroku closed his eyes. She held the blade close to his neck, where one swing would take his head. She could do it, he knew. She was that strong. He could see the shadows on Sesshoumaru?s white [i]haori[/i] where the red light from the tunnel behind them had sketched Sango?s blade behind his throat, as if she were striking him now. She could do it now, for her god, with no one to stop her.

He trusted her.

?Will you follow me, daughter?? the Dragon asked, turning toward her. ?Or is your heart still bound to these comrades, and to the [i]hanyou[/i]??

Uttering a low cry, Sango flew at him, bearing her weapon down to strike.

Miroku?s eyes opened. Kagome?s breath caught in her throat.

The Dragon caught the blade inches from his chest.

?No!? Sango snarled, gritting her teeth and trying to pull the blade free.

The Dragon?s face---Sesshoumaru?s face---was unreadable. The sword she had tried to slay him with was none other than Tetsusaiga, which she had taken from Inuyasha.

?Futile,? the Dragon told her calmly. ?This talisman, forged from the fang of the my greatest enemy, may kill demons, but it is useless against my kind. There is nothing left on this earth that can seal me into the mountain again, now that the Inutaisho is long dead.?

Sango?s beautiful face was terrible to behold. Sweat clung to her brow, and the shadows of anger pooling in the hollows of her face were heightened by the blackness of the Dragon?s stain in her eyes. She looked like a demon herself. Breathing hard, she attempted to twist the blade in the Dragon?s grasp.

Blood black as ichor trickled down Sesshoumaru?s pale wrist, from where Tetsusaiga?s edge dug cruelly into his palm.

Kagome watched this as if it were a moment frozen in time. She had seen this sight before---the tall figure standing there, fist clenched around the blade. This---[i]all[/i] of this---was so terribly, utterly familiar now. . .

[i]?When he died, another young lord became the sixth king. . .?

?And this sixth king. . .who was this man??

In its hand, the statue gripped a katana by the blade. The lines running down his hand and onto the blade, indicating blood, seemed eerily realistic.

?That is Raiiru, the White King. . .?[/i]

The Dragon Raiiru wrenched Tetsusaiga from Sango?s grasp and flung it aside. It clattered against the stone wall and landed in a puddle of the blood congealing on the floor.

?Accept it,? he said to Inuyasha?s comrades. ?There is nothing to be done. Go now and live, or stay when the mountain falls.? His eyes flickered down to Kagome, who was staring straight ahead as if she saw nothing. Her eyes were glassy with tears. ?Live, child,? he bade her. ?You are human. This future is for [i]you[/i].?

And he turned and walked calmly from the place. Sesshoumaru?s white hair trailed behind him, and his feet, bare from where Sesshoumaru?s shoes had been sliced to ribbons, left a trail of bloody prints on the stone. The Tatesei warriors followed.

Inuyasha?s comrades made no move to stop them. Kagome?s head was bowed now, her clenched fists resting on top of her knees. She knelt on the warm stone; Miroku had finally let go of her. Hot tears dripped from beneath the veil of her black hair, splashing mutely in the blood on the floor.

Miroku swallowed against the sudden dryness in his mouth. His throat ached with the words he spoke next.

?We must go, as he said. Somehow he means for the mountain to erupt and destroy itself, and we?ll die if we stay here.? He paused, closing his eyes briefly in sorrow. Then he bent over Kagome, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. ?Sango and I will protect you. I promise. . .?

Shippou, who up until this point had been listening in silence, now burst into very noisy blubbering, clinging to Kirara?s foreleg. The demon lowered her head, blinking her large, orange eyes toward Kagome and making no move to shake him off.

Kagome shrugged Miroku?s hand off her shoulder, leaning forward over the puddle of [i]ryunochi[/i] on the floor.

?Kagome-[i]sama[/i]. . .? the monk repeated, this time more urgently. He thought she was going to collapse fully, no longer caring that she fell in the pool of dragon?s blood. He thought to himself, ?[i]To endure this, so young. . . Can I blame her? Would I not do the same if Sango perished. . .??[/i]

?Kagome-[i]sama[/i],? Sango whispered, moving to stand beside him.

The demon-slayer?s voice, unlike Miroku?s, was low with wonderment.

Kagome did not fall to the stone floor. Instead she reached both hands into the dark pool there, and withdrew the sword Tetsusaiga. Slowly, she rose to her feet, clutching it by the hilt, and Miroku stepped back from her. Ichor dripped from the blade, and from her hands, staining the edges of her sleeves, but she no longer seemed to care. The legs upon which she stood now were steady.

?He isn?t dead,? she said quietly.

Shippou?s sobbing began to fade. The Kitsune removed his face from Kirara?s fur, blinking watery green eyes in Kagome?s direction.

Miroku took a deep breath.[/color]

[color=purple]?Kagome-[i]sama[/i],? he said, ?I know the sorrow you feel now, but. . .?

?He [i]isn?t[/i] dead.?

Kagome turned to face them, brandishing Tetsusaiga before her as if to ward off her grief. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, running down her cheeks to drip off her chin, but her expression was hard and resolute.

?He?s still here,? she insisted. ?I can feel it. . .somewhere in the mountain.? She glanced down at the sword in her hand. ?Tetsusaiga was forged from his fang. When I lifted it, I could feel its [i]kehai[/i] still pulsing.?

Miroku stood there in silence, torn between taking her and fleeing and surrendering to the contagion of her hope. She seemed utterly certain of this.

?Kagome,? Sango said softly, ?you reached for the sword [i]before[/i] you knew this.?

Kagome walked past them, carrying Tetsusaiga cradled against her even though it. They watched her warily, for clearly she intended to do something rash. Her young, elfin face wore a look that declared her heart unswerving. She was heading for the tunnel, from which the Dragon had emerged through the broken seal.

She stopped, just before crossing the place where the seal had once been. But she didn?t look back.

?I knew before I picked up the sword,? she agreed . ?Because if he were really gone, my strength would be gone, too.?

Beside Miroku, Sango drew in a deep, shaky breath. Then she strode forward, laid a hand on Kirara?s massive shoulder, and abruptly swung herself up onto the demon?s back. She let out the breath sharply, securing her Hiraikoutsu across her back. Kirara was already beginning to move beneath her.

?Come on,? Sango said, offering Kagome her hand. ?I?ll go with you.?

As Kagome clasped her arm and climbed up astride Kirara in front of her, Sango craned her neck to address Miroku.

?[i]Hoshi-sama[/i],? she called.

Even through the black stain of the Dragon?s blood, Miroku could see the apology in her eyes, and the determination. The part of him that loved her selfishly wanted to call her back, to keep her from risking her life again. But he knew she couldn?t live with herself knowing that she hadn?t tried to make right what she?d helped to make wrong. He smiled at her, a little bitterly, but without falter.

?You?ll go with her,? he agreed.

Sango turned away, and Kirara burst into a run. Miroku stood there motionless, watching somberly as the two women riding the demon vanished into the red haze of the tunnel.

Then he sighed, and bent to scoop up the silent, wide-eyed Shippou up in his arms.

?You-you?re not going with them?? the Kitsune asked, in a quavering voice, peering up at the monk?s solemn face.

?No,? Miroku answered quietly.

He retrieved his staff from the cave floor, and then bore staff and Kitsune down the tunnel in the opposite direction. Together they headed into darkness at a run.

?Listen to me, Shippou,? Miroku said after a time.

Shippou pressed himself tight against the monk?s robes, already with an inkling of what Miroku was going to ask of him.

?When we reach the end of the tunnel---when we?re finally free of the mountain---I want you to flee. Transform into something light and fly over the snow, to Sesshoumaru?s palace. You?ll be safe there, I think. He told the child who travels with him something about a cave. . . But what matters is that you get as far away from me as you can.?

?M-Miroku?? Shippou whispered, digging his claws into Miroku?s purple sash. He couldn?t see the monk?s face in the darkness.

?I am going to open the Wind Tunnel,? Miroku said softly. ?To kill the Dragon. . .?[/color]

[b][center][color=green]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]To Kagome it seemed the tunnel went on interminably. Kirara ran lightly down a way lined with jagged crystal, strewn with sharp, broken bits. Smell of sulfur; stink of blood; press of heat. It was like riding through a dream.

She clutched Tetsusaiga tightly against her breast, because it was firm and real and the only link she had to Inuyasha.

After a time, Sango lifted an arm beside Kagome?s ear.

?There!? she cried. ?A woman!?

Kagome squinted through the red haze and saw what it was the demon-slayer was pointing to.

The Seer lay prone amid the broken shards.

Kirara slowed to a halt, and Sango slid off her back, hurrying to the woman?s side. There were streaks of blood across the spikes of crystal around her, and a thin line of blood ran from her mouth. However, the veins in her face still glowed a fiery red, and as Sango lifted her gently her eyes opened.

?Can you stand?? the demon-slayer asked gently.

Kagome hung back a little, horrified to see the woman in such a state yet wary because her eyes held the Dragon?s black taint.

Those black eyes rolled upward toward her, and one pale hand lifted.

?There,? the Seer whispered, pointing toward something down the tunnel that only she could see. ?He?s. . .there. Find. . .him. . .free. . .? Then her head lolled back into Sango?s lap, and she went still.

?Unconscious,? Sango announced, checking her pulse and glancing up at Kagome. ?Can it be. . .she meant. . .??

Kagome was already running.[/color]

[b][center][color=green]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]At the end of the tunnel, the Dragon and his followers emerged into a world blurred white with snow. The Tatesei filed past their god, while Raiiru turned back to face the mountain that had once been his prison.

The [i]hanyou?s[/i] comrades had not emerged.

?Very well,? he said softly. ?They will be buried there. Such is the fate of all who choose not to follow me.?

In the air around him, the maelstrom winds parted to form a calm eye. His eyes burned wide with the fires of the ancients, and at his sides his white hands clenched into fists.

From the mountain, there came a mighty groan.[/color]

[b][center][color=orange]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=purple]In the warm haze of the tunnel, plastered against a wall behind a mass of crystal, she found him. His eyes stared sightless out at her from behind a prison of glass, and his lip was curled in a grimace.

She laid her small hand on the crystal, her mouth forming his name.

But she didn?t weep; there was no time for weeping. There would be time for tears later, if she failed.

Clasping the sword?s hilt between her fists, she stabbed at the crystal in a fury, thinking to shatter it with his fang.

It held fast, and the sword clattered useless from her hands. In a fury, she swept it up again, intending to beat at this barrier until it broke, or she broke.

?Kagome.? Sango had come to stand behind her.

Kagome flung the sword aside, panting.

?It?s useless,? Sango told her quietly. ?He can?t be breathing under that. And you can?t cut it with your bare hands. . .?

From the quiver strapped across her back, Kagome drew forth an arrow. Sango fell silent, holding her breath in hope as Kagome?s arm rose, and the arrow stabbed.

Light seared through the crystal?s facets, and then a web of cracks began to spread.

From the mountain all around them, there came a mighty groan.[/color]

[center][b][color=green]END OF CHAPTER 15[/color][/b][/center]

[i][color=gray]Yamisui: Hmm. . . I?m sorry to leave it at a cliffhanger, given how LONG it?s going to be between chapters. But I?m ending it here because I?m about to fall asleep but I?m such a review whore that I want to post Now. So there you are. That?s life. Anyway, stay tuned for Chapter 16: ?Chosen.? I estimate that there will be 18 chapters total. . .but that?s just an estimate.[/i][/color]
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[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

+ + + Chapter 16: Chosen + + +[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]It seemed he drifted in a strange limbo between sleep and death, very different from the web of memory and illusion in which his brother was now ensnared. It was as if all time had stopped, and now he had truly died.

Yet he [i]lived[/i].

He could not move; imprisoned in a casket of dark glass; seeing nothing but empty rock and steam mirrored in the crystal's myriad facets. He caught no scent and heard no sound, but in his mouth there was the bittersweet tang of blood; his own, from where the crystal had cut him as it grew a little ways between his lips. That taste, and the dizzying shine of crystal in his eyes, were all that his awareness encompassed. He had no thoughts, nor awareness of who he was. He wasn't even breathing.

Then there came a flash of light, so brilliant that a slight awareness of his body returned. He tried to shut his eyes against it, but the crystal encasing him forbade even a movement that small. A horrid cracking noise followed, so deafening that he thought his ears might rupture. All around him, the facets split and split again, splintering into pieces so tiny that he could no longer see through them. Luminescence surged between the cracks.

And then he was falling.[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]Strong arms wrapped around her, pulling her back. Her hand lost its grip on the arrow, but that no longer mattered. The arrow dissolved into brilliance, and then disappeared. Roughly, she was flung to the ground. The impact jolted her hard, causing her teeth to click together loudly. She lay pressed against the stone, stunned.

The disorientation lasted only a few seconds, however, and then she realized that the person crouched over her protectively was Sango, and that between the two women and the shattering crystal Kirara stood as a living barrier. The demon's fiery [i]ki[/i] deflected the worst of it, sparing them all a potentially deadly shower of jagged shards. Kagome didn't bother waiting for Sango to sit up and move away from her. The ground was trembling beneath her belly, but she scarcely noticed it. She wriggled out from beneath the other woman and staggered to her feet.

The [i]ryunochi[/i] encasing Inuyasha's body had shattered, and he was falling. His eyes were wide and staring, as if he were dead, and he fell to his knees with a loud thud. He would have tipped forward to land face-first on the sharp debris, but at the last instant Kirara caught the back of his [i]haori[/i] in her jaws. Kagome rushed to his side, kneeling down and catching him in her arms once Kirara let go. He was very heavy; the weight of his head and upper body on Kagome's lap pressed her shins into the debris underfoot, tearing holes in her jeans. She paid this no heed, grasping him by one arm and shaking him. There was a long, nasty-looking weal across his back, oozing blood. She was so terrified in this instant that she couldn't even manage his name. All that emerged was a kind of wordless whimper.

?Kagome!? Sango shouted from somewhere behind her. ?The mountain's going to fall! We have to leave NOW!?

Clasping both arms tightly under Inuyasha's Kagome tried to lift him as she rose to her feet. Yet he was too heavy; she was forced to kneel again to keep from dropping him. She was aware now of the ground rumbling beneath her legs, but somehow he was more important.

?[i]Help[/i] me!? she cried. ?We're [i]not [/i]leaving without him!?

Sango's hand grasped her firmly by the shoulder.

?Kagome, he's. . .?

?Alive!? she breathed.

His hand moved.

He placed one palm flat against the shard-strewn ground, pushing himself slowly into a kneeling position, crystal tumbling from his hair in a fall of dark glass. As he did so, he laughed softly.

?Inuyasha?? Kagome asked, still grasping his arm tightly. She peered up into his face, seized with the new fear that he was somehow no longer himself. She had no idea what his imprisonment in the ryunochi might have done to him.

Yet he caught hold of her by the arm, and pulled her with him as he rose abruptly to his feet.

?I [i]see[/i] now,? he murmured, and Kagome found herself heaving a sigh of relief. His face was slashed cruelly in places from where the shattered crystal had cut him, but the expression he wore was a familiar fierce grin.

?Inuyasha, we have to leave here,? Sango insisted. She was now carrying the unconscious woman Suiton with one arm beneath her shoulders. ?Raiiru intends to bring the mountain down on us.?

?Yeah; to kill [i]me[/i],? Inuyasha said, moving quickly to help her. He held the Seer while Sango climbed atop Kirara's back. When the demon-slayer had helped Kagome up as well, he lifted the woman and set her in front of them astride Kirara. ?Hold onto her, Kagome. We have to move.?

Wordlessly, Kagome nodded, clasping her arms around the Seer's waist to hold her steady. The woman slumped helplessly against her.

They took off at a flying pace down the tunnel. Though the whole place was shaking violently, Kirara's feet scarcely touched the ground and her riders scarcely felt it. Inuyasha ran alongside them, for Kirara could only carry so many. Kagome kept her eyes fixed on his face, unable to bear seeing what the sharp crystals jutting out of the floor were doing to his feet. He bore it with grim resolution; it seemed as if from the moment he'd been freed from the casket of ryunochi he'd become filled with a renewed grim purpose. Kagome wasn't reassured in the least.

?Inuyasha, what did you mean, `to kill [i]you[/i]'?? she asked him, wincing as a bit of falling crystal glanced off her shoulder. ?Why does the dragon want to kill [i]you[/i] so badly??

Inuyasha's head lowered, shading his eyes with shaggy white bangs.

?[i]Heh[/i]. Because Sesshoumaru is a dolt.?

Kagome's mouth formed a little O of shock. Then she became so angry and confused that even her thoughts started running into each other.

[i]`How can he. . .how. . .after what thinking he died just put me through. . .he says `heh'. . .?'[/i]

Fortunately, Sango was still able to think coherently.

?[i]Inuyasha[/i],? she said, in a low warning tone, ?that doesn't explain anything. We want to know what's going [i]on[/i].?

Inuyasha grunted as his foot trod on a particularly sharp bit of shard.

?[i]Ow.[/i] Fuck.?

?[i]Inuyasha[/i]. . .?

Inuyasha took a deep breath, biting back the longer string of swear words that had apparently been pending.

?Like you said earlier, the `[i]hanyou[/i]' holds the key,? he blurted out instead. He stumbled a little; the shard had cut him just under the ball of his foot and it hurt like hell. ?[i]Otou-sama[/i] knew what he was doing when he entrusted the secret of the Dragon's location to me. He knew that if for some reason the seal faded, my blood alone would hold the key to restoring it.? He paused, smirking. ?And he knew Sesshoumaru would just fuck everything up. Which he [i]has[/i].?

Sango nodded slowly.

?That makes sense,? she agreed. ?But why didn't Raiiru just kill you outright? Why go to the trouble of dropping a mountain on you when he had you at his mercy??

Inuyasha's fierce expression faded into a frown.

?I don't know,? he admitted. ?That's the funny thing. But it seems to me like he's afraid of just coming into [i]contact[/i] with my blood. We fought, in the cave, when he'd just taken over Sesshoumaru's body. And I noticed something weird: he seemed to be avoiding touching me. He used Sesshoumaru's power against me only twice, and neither time did he use very much of it at all. The first, when I attacked at close range and he gave me this.? Inuyasha nodded over his shoulder, presumably referring to the weal across his back. ?The second. . .I think it was a lure. He called poison into his claws, to make it look like he was going to charge me. But when I charged him. . .like before. . .the wraith in him attacked instead.?

Sango nodded, comprehension dawning on her face. Kagome was starting to get an inkling as well.

?And he used the [i]ryunochi[/i] to imprison you?? she murmured, shuddering a little.

?You didn't have Tetsusaiga,? Sango remarked, a bit more shrewdly. ?Here.? She let go of Kagome's waist to remove Tetsusaiga from the strap across her back. She'd been storing the sword there ever since she'd retrieved it after Kagome cast it aside. It had shared her Hiraikoutsu's harness. Now she leaned to one side and passed it to Inuyasha, who took it quickly and re-fastened it at his hip.

?I didn't have Tetsusaiga,? Inuyasha agreed as he did this. ?And I couldn't get close to him. So I used my [i]Hijintessou[/i].? He paused, looking very grim indeed. ?And that was when he did it. I think that was why he did it; if he hadn't dodged it, the attack would've brought him into contact with my blood.?

Sango's brows knitted together in a frown.

?You mean to use the [i]Hijintessou[/i] to defeat him,? she said slowly. ?You think that somehow if your blood touches him, it will destroy him??

Inuyasha grunted.

?Something like that, yeah.?

Neither Sango nor Kagome found this very reassuring. From his behavior it seemed less like Inuyasha didn't really have a plan and more like he was trying to keep something from them.

?The tunnel ends up there,? Kagome said suddenly, lifting one of the hands from the Seer's waist and pointing.

As they moved, the air had been growing steadily colder. They had already passed the place where the tunnel forked, and were now running up the branch that led to the surface. Behind them, larger chunks of rock were beginning to shake loose and fall from the ceiling. From somewhere far behind along the way they'd just come, there came a loud crack, and then a crash, as of even weightier debris descending. Then there came an even louder crack, causing Kagome and Sango to flinch. The noise was so deafening that it echoed repeatedly off the cave walls.

?That wasn't just rocks falling,? Kagome said in a low voice. ?That sounded like something hit the whole mountain, making it crack like that. . .?

?Not [i]hitting[/i] it,? Inuyasha replied unexpectedly, in a voice equally as low. ?[i]Pulling[/i] it down from the inside out. Reiyama is filled with the Dragon's blood. Over the centuries, sealed away by his own blood, he couldn't move. But I think the [i]ryunochi[/i] has soaked into the mountain itself, becoming part of it.? Even for describing something so grim, the [i]hanyou's[/i] tone was unusually dark. ?I understand, a little, what the Dragon endured. Being sealed in that stuff is like. . .well, not like dying. . .but like being trapped in a state of [i]wanting[/i] to die. No wonder the Dragon dreamed so hard of freedom that his soul reached out to Kagome's. . .?

Kagome pursed her lips, forcibly holding back tears. She had resolved the instant she lifted Tetsusaiga from the bloodstained floor that she would make this right somehow. And she had saved Inuyasha from the waking death of the seal. Yet the way events were beginning to move, she had changed [i]nothing[/i]. . .

?Say. . .where the hell is Miroku?? Inuyasha was asking Sango.

Sango looked over at him.

?Oh? He took Shippou and went on ahead of us.? She sounded faintly puzzled.

Inuyasha's brow furrowed, and then abruptly his eyes went wide with what appeared to be a mixture of outrage and horror.

?He WHAT? Sango, do you KNOW why he LEFT YOU? SHIT! THAT COCKY BASTARD!?

Sango flinched, somewhat taken aback by this outburst, but when the look of horror didn't fade from Inuyasha's face she gasped as if in sudden realization.

?DAMNED IDIOT!? Inuyasha swore, shaking his head to clear away some rubble that had fallen into his hair. ?He thinks he can kill the Dragon HIMSELF with the Wind Tunnel!? He paused, panting from the exertion of emoting and running all at once. ?The Wind Tunnel. . .will devour lesser Youkai. . .but he forgets that that THING in my brother's body is that thing in MY BROTHER'S BODY. . .?

Sango's grip around Kagome's waist tightened.

?We'll go to his aid,? she said firmly.

Inuyasha turned away, nodding. His eyes gleamed fiercely, fixed now on the tunnel's maw ahead. There the cave opened onto a sky like a roiling sea of storm clouds. Icicles hung from the ceiling there like pointed teeth.

`[i]Inuyasha is avoiding looking at me[/i],' Kagome thought, watching him. She could not bring herself to say anything, because the way he looked she doubted anything could dissuade him. [i]`What are you thinking, Inuyasha? Why do you look like you know you're about to do something terrible?'
[/i]
He was alive here and now, but she had changed nothing. They were racing to meet the Dragon in battle. . .

. . . who wore Sesshoumaru's flesh. . .

The flesh of one who was destined to die with his brother when the mountain fell. . .[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]A lone figure struggled across a frozen plain, bearing in his arms what appeared to be a bundle of red fur. His dark robes flapped around his body, billowing away from his skin and letting out precious warmth. He shuddered, clutching the bundle tightly against him as he stumbled. Even his [i]ki[/i] was waning; his ankles were starting to sink into the snow.

And his feet, though wrapped in cloth shoes beneath the sandals, had gone numb long ago.

?Ow,? the bundle protested.

Miroku offered no apology, but loosened his grip.

?You should go now, Shippou,? he said, lifting the Kitsune in his arms. ?Transform and get to the mountains to the north as fast as you can.?

Shippou uncurled, staring up at the monk in defiance.

?No,? he argued. ?I won't leave you.? His teeth were chattering as he said this.

Miroku smiled wearily at him.

[i]`I will probably die doing this,[/i]' he thought.

?You [i]will[/i] go,? he told Shippou gently. ?Because if you are drawn into the Void in my hand along with the Dragon, Kagome-[i]sama[/i] will cry.?

Shippou's determined expression wavered.

?And she's cried enough on this journey, hasn't she?? Miroku pressed.

Slowly, the Kitsune nodded. His eyes were very large and liquid. He turned away from Miroku before jumping from his arms and transforming.

Miroku squinted against the driving snow, shielding his eyes with one hand as the large, awkward bird Shippou had become winged its way northward. Then he lowered his arm, tucking it beneath the voluminous folds of his sleeve and pressing onward.

Ahead of him he could see a dark cluster of boulders: an outcropping. They formed a ridge, atop which there stood another dark cluster of much smaller figures: the Tatesei. He would have known them even if he hadn't been able to distinguish their shapes; their faces were glowing embers in the dark. The fire still flowing through their veins had rendered them pinpoint candles, ringing the one tall, pale figure standing in their midst. Even from this distance, Miroku could see Sesshoumaru's head turned toward the mountain, palms slightly upraised. The Dragon's eyes gleamed; he was bringing the mountain down.

[i]`I MUST stop him[/i],' Miroku thought. [i]`But is it possible from this range?[/i]' He stole a quick glance around him.

The plain, of course, was still blanketed in snow. If he opened the Wind Tunnel at this distance, it would be less effective against Raiiru, and would pull tons upon tons of snow in as well. This could potentially be as harmful as pulling boulders or hordes of demons into his hand; it could tear the hole wider again. He hesitated a moment, weighing the risks. The storm was not as intense here as it was surrounding the Dragon; a fact which Miroku did not fail to notice. The fact that the [i]jyaki-[/i]driven storm still circled where Sesshoumaru walked must mean that there was still some clash between the white demon's blood and the Dragons, igniting this maelstrom. The closer Miroku came to the Dragon, the less the winds would interfere with the wind from his hand. But closer in, the Dragon would be able to react more effectively to counteract his attack. . .

It was a risk he could not avoid.

Flinging aside the prayer beads covering his accursed hand, he shouted, ?[i]KAZAANA!? [/i]into the face of the storm.

Then the windswept plain was besieged by a storm of his own.
[/color]

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[color=purple]Shippou, for the first time along the journey, elected to obey his elders and go to where he could remain in safety. He told himself as he flew that he would not cry, he would not cry he would not, though of course he was crying as he said this. It was difficult to fly against the wind at first; the ice stung his eyes. However, when at last he cleared the ridge on the far side of the plane, he found that the wind was slower, and the snow did not blind him as he flew.

`[i]Miroku was right[/i],' he thought angrily. `[i]Sesshoumaru really IS the center of the storm. ALL of this is his fault!'[/i]

Not far ahead, he could see buildings below. The Inu Youkai palace, he recalled. Where he was supposed to go. He knew that he was supposed to take shelter here somewhere, but he also knew that the two who followed Sesshoumaru lived here. He didn't know what sort of welcome he would receive.

He doubted it would be friendly.

To Shippou's surprise, as he began to circle low over the slanted roof he saw that there were lights on in the windows. And the odd thing was. . .as he circled around the building, he saw that there were lights on in every window.

[i]`Just how many people live in this place?[/i]' he wondered.

Finally, when his magic was beginning to exhaust him and he could no longer hold the transformation, Shippou landed on the snow-strewn garden and considered what to do next.

Now that he was no longer flying, his teeth began to chatter, and his thoughts turned immediately to warmth. He scampered over the snow and climbed onto the wooden terrace that ringed the palace, taking shelter under the roof. There he huddled against the wall, watching the icicles dripping off the eaves. He was still shivering.

`[i]Maybe I can find somewhere to hide inside,[/i]' he decided.

There really wasn't anywhere else to go. He was too tired to fly anywhere else, and he'd freeze to death trying to travel through this weather on foot. That left the Inu Youkai palace itself. He swallowed hard. He wasn't sure he wanted to meet whoever Sesshoumaru's friends were inside. He wasn't afraid of the two who traveled with the demon lord; they were small, and though the one named Jakken carried a staff that breathed fire, it wasn't anything he couldn't run away from in time. However, it occurred to him that Sesshoumaru might have stronger demon allies living here as well. At least, it seemed lighting the whole palace with candles would be too wearisome a task for two people alone.

Looking right, then left, Shippou saw no one coming round the terrace. He slid aside the nearest door panel and crept inside.

The room he found was empty. It smelled of dust and stone and old wood, and also of Inu Youkai. But even that was an old scent. It looked as if no one had lived there for years.

Yet there was a candle burning in the window, flickering against the canvas drawn closed to shutter it. And there were no cobwebs in the corners.

There was a dagger lying on the floor. Shippou stepped on it quite by accident; the light wasn't good. With a yelp, he temporarily forgot his intended caution and scurried out into the hall.

There was no one there.

Again he paused, nursing the cut on his foot and considering what to do.

[i]`I can't stay in the hall, at any rate[/i],' he finally decided. [i]`If someone comes there's nowhere to hide.'[/i]

He wandered furtively down corridors lined with torches. He heard soft scurryings that sounded too large to be rats, and felt eyes watching him, but every which way he turned there was no one. At long last he came to a vast room, where a fire pit burned invitingly at one end, and where cushions had been laid out for its denizens' comfort. Shippou approached the fire, thinking only of warming his numb little hands and feet. However, he hadn't come within three feet of it before he realized what was happening. This was just like some tale Kagome had once told him, where the young maiden seeks shelter in a demon's castle, and in return the demon forces her to become his wife. Or maybe it was a tennyou maiden, and the castle was a wood-cutter's hut? Or a temple with a lecherous priest?

Shippou shook his head, knocking on it with his tiny fists.

?Gah!? he chided himself. ?Everyone's stories confuse me!?

?Stories??

The Kitsune jumped so high it was practically levitation.

Then he turned, and saw that the young maiden from the story was standing there, staring at him. She was wearing a blue silken tunic embroidered with fish and swirling waves.

?What stories?? she persisted, folding her hands before her composedly and peering at him with polite curiosity.

Then Shippou, despite his rapid heartbeat, realized that this was Rin; the girl who followed Sesshoumaru around. He relaxed a little; he wasn't afraid of her at all.

?Isn't there anyone else in the castle?? he asked her, folding his arms and trying to look mature.

The little girl looked somewhat crestfallen.

?Rin has only Jakken to look after her,? she said sadly. ?Lord Sesshoumaru has gone to fight the Dragon.? She approached the fire and plunked down on one of the cushions, hugging herself. ?Rin is afraid.?

Shippou realized with a start that he couldn't just blurt out how this was all Sesshoumaru's fault in front of her. She might cry, and he knew better than to make girls cry. Instead, he patted her on the hand in a companionable sort of way.

?You're afraid he'll forget you?? he asked, in his trying-to-sound-older tone of voice.

Rin shook her head, staring transfixed into the flames. Her brown eyes were very large and liquid.

?No,? she answered sadly. ?It has been a long time since he left. And the Seer said he will die.?[/color]

[center][color=green][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/color][/center]

[color=purple]The instant the monk's cursed hand began to disrupt the storm-winds surrounding Raiiru, the Dragon turned away from the east to face this new interference. He regarded the tiny figure of the monk with yellow eyes narrowed. One of his children lost their footing and went sliding off the ridge and into the pull of the vortex. Still more attempted to grasp hold of something, anything, to hold themselves fast against it, but there was little for it. Several more were lost before he could react; the others acted quickly, planting their spears deep in the earth beneath their feet, where the snow had melted. They clung to the secured weapons, turning their faces toward him expectantly.

Raiiru pushed his way past them, disregarding the snow buffeting against him. His eyes were beginning to blaze. The strange wind-curse would not pull him into it, as he was sure the monk intended, for his soul's wraith-like talons dug into the stone where he stepped, leaving runnels in the rock. Despite the fact that he had taken a mortal's flesh, the Dragon and the flesh had yet to become one. It was not because the white demon's soul prevented him; Sesshoumaru was bound deep in shadow, wound into the heart of a labyrinth of lies. The Dragon knew the heart of Sesshoumaru far better than Sesshoumaru himself. The lies that the white demon chose to believe most; the ones that formed the strongest shackles, were the lies Sesshoumaru had told himself.

[i]?I will take the Dragon's power and become a god. I will not lose myself to it.?

?Power will bring me peace.?[/i]

Raiiru shook his head faintly, stalking toward the edge of the ridge. Sesshoumaru was nearly gone. But he could not fully merge his soul with this body until he was certain it could not be defeated. He would remain a wraith in a demon's body if it meant an easier way to defeat this new threat. He would remain in this state until he was certain the [i]hanyou[/i] Inuyasha was dead, also.

He was not a fool, and he was not so full of pride that he refused to acknowledge his vulnerabilities. While in the mountain he had come to realize something vital: the [i]hanyou's[/i] blood touching him caused Sesshoumaru to stir inside him. He feared what might happen if too much of Inuyasha's blood made contact with his borrowed flesh, and so he chose to bury it beneath the mountain, so that none would ever be able to retrieve it. Only when Inuyasha's blood was sealed away from all retrieval would he be able to merge fully with this new form. Only then would he become the destined White King.

Yet now this new distraction was calling him away from the task at hand.

He descended from the ridge, cutting a steaming path through the driving snow where he passed. The monk was holding his ground, his face pale and drawn from the strain of using the curse in his hand. Raiiru was finally forced to halt at a distance of roughly one hundred yards. Even with Raiiru's ghostly talons digging into the earth to hold him fast, the monk's vortex was formidable, and he would not be able to move closer. Neither would the monk be able to draw him in.

A standoff.

He didn't speak; he merely stood there, waiting. Soon enough, the monk saw that his ploy was having no effect, and began to move toward him.

Raiiru's head lifted, white hair streaming out behind him.

?I see your aim,? he called. His voice was Sesshoumaru's, soft and cultured, yet it now possessed a strange resonance. It carried past the shriek of wind, into the monk's very head, so that he would not fail to hear it. ?But you won't spare him time with your power. He's DEAD. And the mountain WILL fall. . .?

Raiiru's yellow eyes rolled upward in his head, flashing white. His consciousness shot through the places in the mountain where his blood had seeped through cracks in the rock, as if he were traveling through his own veins. And now there came one final crack. The earth began to rumble.

The monk ran at him. He could not see the monk, but he could smell the stench of desperation on him. And he tensed, preparing to move with according speed to dodge the brunt of the vortex.

The monk was too late. With a mighty din, the mountain fell.

It was a slow thing to watch; the massive, broken rock face crumbling and sliding down beneath the weight of the snow atop it. A gigantic cloud of snow mushroomed over it, rising skyward, only to be caught in the winds of the storm that swept across the plain. A smile spread across Raiiru's pale face, baring pointed teeth. It was done. The [i]hanyou[/i] was buried.

Slowly, he turned to deal with the monk.

It was then that he realized the vortex was gone; closed.

The monk's eyes were wide with surprise. As Raiiru turned to face him, brushing aside the hair the wind whipped across his eyes, he saw the monk take a single, unsteady step toward him. Then the young man pitched forward, stumbling to his knees in the snow, bent double with the sudden pain of the dagger protruding from his back.

Irusei stood behind him.

Raiiru said nothing; he made no further move to approach. It seemed the strain of maintaining the vortex had become too great, and so the monk closed it. And as he did so, Irusei had caught him unaware. He was finished, whether he lived or died. The wound would rob him of consciousness, if not his life. For a moment, the Dragon and Irusei regarded each other across the man bleeding in the snow. The Tatesei warrior's face glistened with sweat, though the air was so cold that it frozen where it dripped off his chin. Irusei's eyes, still black against the cross-work of fiery veins beneath his skin, were feverish.

?I guarded the way out of the tunnel,? the young man finally said. His voice was hoarse and breathy. ?As you bade me. And I followed him all this way. But my strength failed me. . .and I did not overtake him until now.?

Still Raiiru said nothing. He had known when first he laid mortal eyes upon Irusei that the young warrior would die from the wound the white demon's sword had dealt him. And still Irusei continued to serve him, even though he had not been chosen; even though the Dragon had chosen Sesshoumaru instead.

?What would you have me do?? Irusei asked. His voice had dropped to a whisper, scarcely audible above the monk's ragged breath. He sank to his knees behind the man he'd stabbed, bowing his head in obeisance. His hands, wet with blood, branded red prints into the snow. ?What must I do now??

Raiiru, who had seen the dawn of centuries, and whose claws had furrowed valleys and lashed seas, was beyond words. This humble creature, though he should have been bitter over his coming death, instead knelt before him, holding out his remaining life like a gift. Human strength. Human strength such as this was what would endure the ages. Raiiru knew himself to be wise to see this, and to choose this race for his own.

But for his devoted child Irusei, he could do nothing.

?Heal me,? Irusei whispered, pleading with his head bowed. Stringy wet hair fell across his eyes, hiding his face. ?Let me see the world you will make.?

Raiiru glided closer to him, skirting around the monk, who lay groaning and helpless.

?You were stabbed by a demon blade, to which Sesshoumaru gave the name Tokijin,? Raiiru said softly. ?Its poisonous[i] jyaki[/i] has mingled with my blood in you. Because of this, I might save your life, but you would become something unnatural as a result. A demon.? He tilted his cold, beautiful head to one side, thoughtful as he laid one hand gently atop Irusei's bowed head.

?If that is so, still I ask that you save me,? Irusei begged. He wanted to live, despite his courage. He clung to life in the manner of humans. His shoulders were tense with it. ?Please. I want to see the future ahead. I want to see. . .?

Sharp talons curled inward, clenching into flesh and through the skull, into Irusei's brain. He died with his eyes open, staring at nothing.

Gently, Raiiru disengaged his claws and lowered the dead man into the snow beside the monk. The fire in Irusei's veins had faded and grown dark, and his eyes were clear.

?You have died a man, and not a beast,? Raiiru told him softly. ?That is my gift to you.?

Then he turned and started up the ridge, toward his remaining children. They had pulled their spears free of the frozen earth, and now regarded him silently. There was no accusation in their eyes; only hope. He had not suffered a demon to live, and so it would be from now on. Now he would merge fully with the body he'd possessed, and with his art of necromancy he would put an end to this age.

The power once possessed by the Wise, amplified a thousand-fold in him, would sweep across the land like a wave.

?It is done,? he said softly to his followers. ?And now I am the Dragon no longer. I will take this mortal's body in full, and become Raiiru, the White King. [i]Your[/i] king.?

Going utterly still, he drew his soul inward, toward the core of the flesh, burning white-hot as a star imploding. He felt his blood begin to melt, to merge with the white demon's, becoming something entirely new.

The winds around him began to slow, for now the clash of his blood with Sesshoumaru's demon jyaki was nearing its end. He was overcoming it, becoming one with it and stilling its malice, and so the storm was fading.

And he felt the soul that had once worn this flesh begin to fade away and die.[/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]Inuyasha had known what he had to do from the instant before the Dragon locked him away in crystal. That was why the Dragon had done it. Now that he was free, and he had finally come across the frozen plain to see his enemy standing there on the ridge, his resolve was hardened further. As the tall, pale figure became clearer to see through the maelstrom, he fell back and drew abreast of Kirara. Then he lifted Tetsusaiga free of its sheath and pressed it into Kagome's hands.

She stared at him, her face full of questions. She grasped the blade as if it were a life-preserver, even though her arms were also locked around the Seer's waist.

Inuyasha hadn't had any regrets up until this point. Now he hated himself for doing this.

?Keep it safe,? he told her huskily. ?And stay back.?

Then he reached upward for the Shikon shard that hung on the chain around her neck, and with one swift tug tore it free.

He turned quickly away, and without warning surged ahead, speeding full tilt toward the Dragon.[/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]Kagome stared after him with her lips pressed together tensely. Her face had gone white with surprise, and dawning horror.

?Inuyasha!? Sango called after him, but he ignored her completely. He was already well beyond earshot.

Finally, Kagome found her voice.

?What is he thinking? What is he thinking?? she found herself shouting. She was angry. And full of fear. ?He's going to fight without Tetsusaiga! And with the shard. . . He'll lose to his own demon blood!?

Behind her, Sango shook her head, mystified.

?I don't understand, either. He knows from past experience that trying to fight Sesshoumaru without Tetsusaiga will only get him killed. . .or rob him of his sanity. Does he think if he gives in to his Youkai blood he'll be strong enough to take on the Dragon??

The woman in Kagome's arms stirred a little, moaning. Kagome's hands tightened around Tetsusaiga. Its blunted edges dug into her palms.

?What are you thinking, Inuyasha?? she asked softly, even though he couldn't hear. ?What made you choose this???[/color]

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[color=purple][i]In the cavern beneath the mountain, the air had been filled with smoke and red blades. The thing in Sesshoumaru's body dodged them with fluid speed, as Inuyasha had suspected he might. That was when the hanyou dug his nails into his flesh yet again, and let loose another volley.

?HIJINTESSOU!?

This time, the Dragon did not evade it completely. The edge of one crimson blade caught him in the upper arm on the left side, on the arm that wasn't supposed to be there. It scarcely fazed the Dragon at all, drawing only a little blood to spot the white sleeve. Yet in that instant Inuyasha thought he saw something of his brother return to the cold, yellow eyes. And the blood he'd drawn smelled only of Sesshoumaru.

He prepared to let loose yet another slew of red blades, but his preparatory gathering of inner ki was impeded by a growing sense of exhaustion. The air here was thick, and too hot. It reeked of sulfur.

The Dragon grinned at him; an eerie, bestial expression that bared the points of Sesshoumaru's fangs.

?Your blood can't wake him,? Raiiru sneered, ?because you are both hanyou and hanryu. There is too much of me in you, and too much that is human, for you to reawaken the demon in him.?

Inuyasha darted sideways, evading the smoky claw that shot straight for him. He landed in a crouch, panting, and reflecting on the Dragon's words. They were true.

If that was so, there was only one way left.

He began to let the Youkai in him loose. It seeped through him like a poison, carrying with it the power that he'd long kept buried. Every muscle in his body went taut with it.

He found himself laughing; a low, ugly sound, and with the lengthening claws of one hand he reached into the red blossom of his wound.

This time the Dragon acted swiftly and without comment. Black blood rained down upon Inuyasha; flew toward him from every direction, in droplets like insects swarming. They coated him like a second skin, blinding him, filling his nose, pressing in around his body. Maddened, he lashed out at them, but his Hijintessou flew blindly, and the Dragon avoided them easily. Running blindly, he tore down the tunnel, in a rage but unable to see where his opponent was. The black mist came frothing after.

The infuriating thing, amplified tenfold by his excited demon blood, was that he KNEW he could defeat the Dragon, if only he could see where he was. His fury escaped his throat in a roar, which reverberated off the tunnel walls. But then the ryunochi had overtaken him, and he was able to run no further.[/color][/i]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]Now, as he ran toward the ridge, Inuyasha began calling that fury back into his blood. He was glad he did not have to look at Kagome as he did this. It felt like his very flesh was boiling with it. His fangs lengthened, and his claws curved cruelly outward, and he became suffused with strength. The wounds from the tunnel before had already closed, but now he opened a new one, gouging deep into his own chest between the folds of his [i]haori.[/i]

The pain was white-hot and terrible, but it added to his fury. It was swallowed by his other self; the one who laughed when he killed.

It made him feel [i]alive[/i].[/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]Raiiru, flowing through his own veins in a rush, was not aware of the danger rushing toward him. His awareness was locking itself into bone and skin and muscle, drinking in the deep awareness of this new Self. He was not aware of the red blades that cut through the now-windless air, until at last they struck him.

He did not receive the full brunt of the attack. Two of the Tatesei had seen it coming and interposed themselves between the White King and the blades of blood. They were cut asunder, bodies pistoning grotesquely as they were sliced to shreds where they stood. Their blood splashed into the snow; spattered across the back of his white robes. Several flashed past the warriors, however, catching him in the ribs on one side, beneath the arm, and on the other at the hip. The last caught the side of his face as he turned, slicing a new stripe down his cheekbone.

What he saw made his eyes widen in disbelief. The [i]hanyou[/i] was alive. Somehow, he had escaped the seal of ryunochi, as the Dragon had never been able to. Raiiru's breath caught between his grimacing fangs in a hiss of pain. He was remembering a prophecy, spoken by Midoriko. Midoriko, who had chosen to abandon the one whose blood flowed strongest in her veins, to serve humankind in place of the Dragon. . .

[i]?Two rivers I see: one flowing alongside the other. They are two great Lines; theirs is a flow to span the Ages. One is a line of Youkai, strong and terrible. The other is a long line of sorcerers and kings---a race guarded by a shield of spirits. Where these rivers meet, I foresee the end of this Age, for a battle which began long ago shall at last be lost.
And that which was broken shall at last be destroyed.?

?Where these rivers meet. . .?

?. . .the end of this Age. . .?[/i]

Long ago, the Inutaisho had broken the strength of the Ryu Line. Then Sesshoumaru had broken the strength of the Tatesei Line. Now the rivers had met. The two Lines had blended. And now. . .to destroy at last that which was broken. . .

The Inutaisho's chosen son had come for him.

The [i]hanyou's[/i] blood was already beginning to seep into his body like a poison.[/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[i][color=purple]His body coiled atop a great black throne, carved with dragons twining, with embedded rubies for eyes. His claws curved over the armrests. He surveyed with placid authority the host of those come to pay tribute. Still more waited outside, bearing gifts of rare fruit and rarer gems, tokens of allegiance and new armies, bought and paid for. The world was his.

This was what he'd always wanted.

What he'd always wanted.

The man kneeling in front of him was lifting a sword to him; the symbol of a regiment newly sworn to follow beneath the shadows of his wings. His head was bowed. The dragon-lord did not allow his subjects to look upon him. They averted their faces, veiled their eyes, for he was too beautiful and too terrible for them to be worthy of seeing him this close.

Idly, he reached silver claws down to take the sword. To take an army on a whim.

That was when something went wrong.

The kneeling supplicant raised his head as the dragon-lord's claws closed around the blade.

The blade cut him. He gazed down at it in wonder. It gleamed red, and his blood trickled over its edge, running slantwise to the hilt, which was cradled in the supplicant's palms. The blood was not black, as the Dragon's should be. It was not black, but. . .

The supplicant raised his head, sneering, baring fangs while yellow eyes mocked him over the sword between them.

?What, jackass? You thought I'd just GIVE it to you? WAKE UP!?

The dream wavered. Then everything was as it had been; as he'd always wanted it to be. Yet now Sesshoumaru shifted his silver coils, restless upon his throne.

Now there was a problem: he was beginning to remember who he was. . .who he'd once been.

And he could no longer make himself believe that this wasn't a dream.[/color]
[/i]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]?NO!? the Dragon rumbled, swiping at the blood running down his cheek. ?It isn't enough! You're a [i]hanyou[/i]! You aren't demon enough to banish me!?

Inuyasha laughed; a guttural, menacing sound. Then he flew at the tall, pale figure standing on the ridge. The Tatesei warriors who followed the Dragon threw themselves into his path, but his claws swiped vicious arcs through the frozen air, rending them down before their spears could reach him.

?My blood [i]burns[/i],? he called as he charged. ?It burns [i]pure[/i]. And he'll wake soon. I see him stirring in you. . .?

Raiiru was retreating. Dimly, Inuyasha was aware of fearful cries coming from somewhere behind him. One was Sango's voice. Miroku was down; he could smell the blood. The other was Kagome's. He was trying not to listen, or his blood would cool. He didn't like her to see him like this.

The shard embedded in his flesh pulsed in time with his heart. He'd inserted it into the wound he'd dug from his chest, and the skin had immediately closed over it. His wounds were healing. Grinning fiercely, he dug his claws into his left arm, then slung crimson blades outward in a horizontal rain. The Dragon leaped backward, retreating a good ten yards to avoid the [i]hijintessou[/i]. Simultaneously, the smoke of his wraith-like form surged forth from his body, forcing Inuyasha to halt his charge. It seared past Inuyasha's left side as the[i] hanyou[/i] dodged it.

Inuyasha landed against the slanted side of a boulder atop the ridge and catapulted himself off it, hurtling toward Raiiru from a new angle. His lips were drawn back in a snarl now; he had been hurt. Though his Fire-Rat robes had protected him from the heat, there was an ugly scorch mark down the side of his left cheek, and the flesh of his left hand swiftly grew red and blistered. It hurt like hell. It made him want to kill.

Again the smoky claw swiped at him, and again he dodged. He was coming to realize something. He crouched atop yet another boulder, breathing hard.

?You. . .can't reach me,? he called to his enemy. ?. . .can you? You're afraid. You're losing. . .hold of that body.?

Raiiru spun to face him, mouth pressed firmly closed and eyes snapping sparks of ice. The Dragon was angry, and did not seem to know how to hide it. For a moment, both went still, each taking the measure of the other.

?You can't use his power, can you?? Inuyasha jeered. ?Can't use the power of the body you wear because you can't merge with it `til I'm dead, is that it? What's the matter? Am I keeping you from what you want??

The wounds in Raiiru's pale flesh were beginning to close, but slowly.

Inuyasha grinned.

[i]Well[/i], he thought viciously, [i]I'll just have to reopen them, then. Tear him open.[/i]

The grin stretched the seared skin of his cheek, sending tiny wires of pain shooting up into his eye that might have been scorched nerves. He clung to the pain, knowing that it kept the Youkai blood in him boiling. He needed that. Needed to be stronger to. . .

To be strong to. . .

To banish this thing from Sesshoumaru's body.

He'd almost forgotten. It was hard, thinking while in this state. His grin contorted into a grimace. He was going to have to make this fast, before he lost control completely. He was about to attack again when his fortune took a sudden turn for the worse.

[i]?HIRAIKOUTSU!?[/i]

The Dragon turned from him, and in one flying leap sped clear of the ridge. Sango's weapon landed in the place where he'd previously been standing. The impact was thunderous; snow sprayed outward from it in every direction. Inuyasha's view of his enemy was temporarily obscured by it. Cursing darkly, he sprang from his perch, dashing straight through the spray after him.

What he saw upon emerging from the brief shower of snow drove the madness completely from his blood.

The Dragon might not yet have had complete mastery over Sesshoumaru's power, but nevertheless his strength was formidable.

As was his speed.

He stood between Sango and her weapon. Sango stood between him and Miroku, seeming uncertain which way to move. She seemed torn between going to Miroku, who lay wounded and bleeding in the snow, or to advance on the Dragon. She was weaponless now save for the short sword she carried, which would never be able to strike beyond the reach of Raiiru's claws. One of the Dragon's pale arms was lifted, its sleeve fluttering gently like a banner. His hand encircled Kagome's throat as he held her aloft.

Her legs dangled limply; at first Inuyasha thought she was dead. Then he realized that her eyes were wide open and she was staring at him and breathing shakily. She was not struggling because Raiiru's claws were pressed against her neck.

Kirara started toward them, a growl rumbling deep in her chest. Raiiru heard the sound but did not turn toward it. Instead he tightened the grip of one finger, digging one nail into delicate skin. Kagome flinched. Her hands, grasping feebly at the arm that held her, were shaking. A few drops of blood leaked onto the collar of the sweater she wore. Kirara halted her advance, unwilling to risk the girl's life.

The Dragon said nothing, but his pale face tilted sideways toward Inuyasha, yellow eyes rolling slightly. The expression gave him an eerie, feral look that had nothing to do with the demon whose body he inhabited.

The message was clear.

Inuyasha was filled with sudden rage. He was disgusted; with Sesshoumaru for becoming the instrument of all this, and with himself for his helplessness. He could not break the standoff by rushing at his enemy now. All care for himself aside, all futures aside, he had meant what he told the Seer before.

[i]?I don't really care what kind of world results from this. If I can't protect my friends, then the future doesn't matter.?

If I can't protect her, then the future doesn't matter.[/i]

That was when he made the choice; a choice to change a future.

His future.

?She's not the one you want,? he said, standing with his feet planted in the snow.

The Dragon remained still and silent; waiting for him to continue.

Inuyasha swallowed hard, brushing a hand over the place in his flesh where the Shikon shard was buried. It pulsed at his touch, reassuring and sly all at once. He was going to need it.

?You can't be sure you'll keep that body as long as I live,? he called, more stridently now. ?Whether or not you kill her, I won't rest until you're gone.?

And then he did one of the hardest things he had ever done in his life.

?If you want me,? he said told his enemy, ?come and take me. But I won't surrender my chance to kill you, no matter who you hold hostage.?

Then he turned and sprinted down the ridge. He did not charge the Dragon. Instead, he veered eastward, away from them all, across the plain. He gritted his teeth as he ran, trying not to picture how fragile Kagome looked in the Dragon's grasp. He was gambling with her life, and with his own.

If he fled, the Dragon would pursue him. Odds were, Raiiru would not kill Kagome before doing so, believing that she did not mean enough to Inuyasha to be worth killing.

All Inuyasha's hopes now rode on Raiiru's obsession with seeing an end to the threat he posed.

He didn't know where he was leading the Dragon, or to what end, but he did know that he had to draw his enemy as far from his friends as possible. Many Tatesei had died because of his brother. He was not going to let his friends become sacrifices to Sesshoumaru's stupidity.

He ran swiftly atop the snow now, no longer hindered by sinking into it. The jewel shard had strengthened his ki to such heights that he had not even needed to think to achieve this. In fact, his body had been steadily acquiring more and more jyaki the longer he kept it. It was heady, and distracting. If he weren't so uncertain of what to do next, Inuyasha might have removed it to keep his head clear. But it seemed he'd gambled correctly; the Dragon was now giving equally swift chase across the snow-lashed plain, and he could not afford to lose speed.

Yet.

Inevitably, he would have to turn and face this thing, and kill it.

It was not until he came to the gargantuan heap of broken rock that he realized which direction he'd been fleeing: eastward. This was the remains of the mountain Reiyama. He sprang up onto the mound of debris, darting across it in desperation.[/color]

[color=green][b][center]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[color=purple]?Where. . .is he??

Kagome turned in surprise. The Dragon had released her and gone after Inuyasha; she had been standing frozen on the plain, shielding her eyes from the snow and squinting as she tracked their progress. They were soon gone from view. Sango had hastened to Miroku's side, lifting him into her arms and clutching him to her breast as if she would never let him go again. Only Kagome glanced over at the Seer, who, amazingly enough, was pulling herself shakily to her knees. She leaned against Kirara, who had gone to her aid.

?Where is [i]who[/i]?? Kagome asked in return, rounding on her a bit more angrily than she'd intended. This woman had served Sesshoumaru.

Suiton leaned her head sideways against Kirara's massive shoulder, breathing raggedly. It looked as if she wasn't going to be able to stand at all. Her face was haggard, and her hands shook even more than Kagome's. The Dragon's fire in her veins gleamed more dully than Sango's.

?Inuyasha-[i]sama[/i],? the Seer answered weakly. ?The Dragon. . .??

?He went after Inuyasha,? Kagome said thickly. It was hard to speak around the lump in her throat. She wanted to cry very badly. She wanted to go running after him, after the Dragon, even though she was out of arrows and out of ideas and venturing out across the frozen wasteland between them would probably kill her.

[i]?Stop him.?[/i]

Something in the Seer's tone was too compelling to be ignored. The woman's voice had taken on an odd, echoing quality. Kagome hastened to her side, heart thumping wildly. It was as if Suiton had read her mind. . .

[i]?Stop him[/i],? the woman repeated. Kagome was clutching at her shoulders, but the Seer's eyes were looking at something much, much further away.

?How?? Kagome pressed, filled with desperation. ?[i]How[/i] do I stop him??

Suiton shook her head.

[i]?The Dragon's defeat is not the answer to Midoriko's prophecy[/i],? she whispered, in her strange, echoing voice. [i]?That which has been shattered. . .is not what I believed it to be. I know now that I've seen it. What was shattered. . . You wear it.?[/i]

Kagome stared at her in surprise.

?You mean. . .the [i]Shikon Jewel[/i]? The jewel that was shattered by my arrow. . .? One hand flew to her throat, where the chain had hung. ?But he took it. Inuyasha took the shard I carried.?

Again the Seer shook her head.

[i]?The Jewel was shattered. . .and the hanyou is the one fated to see that it is destroyed. But the Dragon has unraveled the threads of fate, and now they are dangling loose. The destiny for which Inuyasha-sama was born is no longer assured.?[/i]

?The jewel. . .? Kagome breathed. ?You mean. . .if Inuyasha dies. . .Naraku will get hold of the whole Shikon no Tama and it won't be destroyed??

[i]?If he dies,? [/i]Suiton breathed, ?[i]the future, no matter what shape it takes, will see the rise of the greatest evil this world has known.?
[/i]

?The Dragon?? Kagome persisted. ?What can we do to keep the Dragon from killing him??

And the Seer shook her head a third time.

[i]?Even the Dragon will not be able to stop the one who possesses the whole Shikon no Tama. And. . .the Dragon is not the one fated to kill Inuyasha.?[/i]

Kagome recoiled, taking her hand off the woman's shoulder.

?You mean. . .?

The Seer's hand, thin and wiry, suddenly clamped down on Kagome's wrist. The woman's eyes shone fiercely.

[i]?Go!?[/i] she urged. ?[i]Lord Sesshoumaru's strength is vast. You are the only one left here with the power to kill him.?[/i][/color]

[center][color=green][b]End of Chapter 16[/b][/color][/center]
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[COLOR=orange][B][center]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 17: The White Brothers {+} {+}

Three Hundred Years In The Past[/center][/B][/COLOR]

[COLOR=purple][I]She was leaving him.

Her leave-taking was an act of utter betrayal.

She was his last and dearest daughter, whom he had formed into a woman?s shape from a piece of his own heart. She stood in the cave, at the end of the tunnel that the last desperate scraping of his claws had carved into the earth. She stood facing the seal that held him fast, binding him into the mountain. Out of all his children, she had been the only one to come back to him after the Inutaisho cast him into this prison. This waking hell.

(FREE ME, DAUGHTER. YOU ALONE POSSESS THE POWER.)

Midoriko shook her head.

?I know what you ask of me. You wish me to lay with the one who sealed you; to bear a demon?s child. . .and then to paint its blood upon the walls of your prison to free you.?

Raiiru?s great eye glared at her through the barrier of crystal. He loved her, and yet he hated her as well. He had created her; shouldn?t she do this? She was denying him. She was betraying him. She was standing there wearing human armor and human robes and human flesh; frail things that would pass away. And she was telling him that they meant more than the power he was offering her ever would.

(INSTEAD OF WASTING YOUR LIFE PURIFYING DEMONS IN THAT WEAK HUMAN SKIN, FREEING ME WOULD END DEMONKIND IN A DAY. FREE ME, SERVE ME, AND BECOME A GODDESS AMONG INSECTS.)

Again Midoriko shook her head. She was a woman of insurmountably strong will. Raiiru saw that she would not be swayed.

?All you offer is power,? she said to him. ?It is all you know. But that is not what will endure. I foresee a future that has no place for monsters.?

Raiiru became angry. His soul beat violently against the seal, but it held fast.

(I WILL ENDURE) he thundered. (I WILL SURVIVE. I WILL TAKE MY PLACE AS RULER OF THIS EARTH, AS I WAS AT ITS DAWNING.)

She sighed then, and turned away from him.

?You will remain sealed,? she murmured. ?Tomorrow, I go to battle a great horde of demons, in my own way, of my own strength. Sleep, my Lord; my King. I pray your dreams will turn to peace. But here you will remain, for your age is past.?

Then she started back down the tunnel, her footsteps echoing softly. He knew that she wept as she went.[/COLOR][/I]

[center][b][color=orange]{+} {+} {+}

The Feudal Era[/b][/center][/color]

[COLOR=purple]He stalked his prey across the mounds of rubble. As he walked, he could feel the [I]hanyou?s[/I] blood making his own begin to sicken and rot. Once the [I]hanyou[/I] was dead, he would be able to use his power to purge it from himself, to ensure once and for all that this flesh was his. Once the [I]hanyou[/I] was dead. . .

His nostrils flared and he inhaled deeply. He could smell the demon?s presence ahead of him. Inuyasha smelled of pine and metal and human and power all at once. And fear. Raiiru?s lips rose in a feral grin. Inuyasha had more to fear than he knew. He thought he was buying himself time, forcing Raiiru to chase him across this frozen waste. But he did not know. . .[I]could[/I] not know. . .that though the mountain had fallen the Dragon still possessed an unearthly power over this place. In truth, Raiiru had [I]allowed[/I] himself to be lured here now, forsaking the possibility of holding Inuyasha?s companions hostage, knowing that this was the place where he could kill the [I]hanyou[/I] easiest.

This mountain, and the ones surrounding it, were hallowed ground.

He slowed to a halt, robes cracking against him as the blood staining them dried and froze. He was not a demon, though he wore a demon?s body. He was a Dragon, and he did not waste time [I]hunting[/I]. It was time to flush out his prey.

He planted his feet on the rock and allowed his consciousness to seep into the [I]ryunochi[/I] beneath him. This time, however, his great mind reached further down than that, into the very roots of the earth. He had not wanted to do this; it would ravage the surrounding land. His children would be forced to flee it to survive. But had he not been the one who had watched over his children on their long journey to the Tatesei Valley? Had his blood in their veins not given rise to the Wise, who had destroyed their demon enemies and allowed them to grow as a nation? Did his blood not extend their lives far beyond the normal human lifespan? They were nothing if he did not survive to lead them.

This land was his to do with as he pleased.

He knelt, pressing both palms flat against the rock. Fire filled his eyes.

And the earth began to tremble.[/COLOR]

[center][b][color=orange]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[COLOR=purple]Inuyasha felt the earthquake coming long before it came. The Tatesei in him knew it was coming. It was a humming in his bones; a ringing in his ears. It made the hair on his head rise in horror.

He had been crouched in a depression between two junctured plates of rock shelf. He had found this hiding place quite by accident, having slipped on a place where the rock was slick with snow. He had huddled there for several minutes, resting his hands on his knees and wondering what to do. In order for his blood to purge the Dragon from his brother?s body, his own Youkai blood would need to be ignited. But the Dragon was still in Sesshoumaru, though he had succeeded in wounding him with the [I]Hijintessou[/I]. At that time, he had not lost himself completely to his demon nature, which could only mean one thing: he had not called upon enough of that power.

?[I]Damnit[/I],? he swore, vehemently shaking away the small drift of snow that had gathered atop his head.

He had called upon his anger toward his brother that time to ignite the blood. It seemed that somehow his anger wasn?t strong enough. The only other way he could think of was to place himself in a situation where his body was in danger of dying. It would mean that he would have to fully lose control of himself, as he had not when he fought Raiiru on the ridge.

?[I]Just because I couldn?t hate Sesshoumaru enough, I?m going to have to. . .?[/I] He had not forgotten what Kagome had told him, about how the ?White Brothers? were to kill each other and so end the Inu Youkai Line. Now the answer was becoming clear to him: he might take Raiiru with him, but he and his brother were still going to die.

It had been fate.

?[I]Keh,? [/I]he scoffed, at his own fears. ?I?m thinking too much again.?

He rose to his feet, and began to climb out of the hiding place, using digging his claws into the stone for traction.

He had nearly crested the juncture of rock when the earth began to shake.

The rubble around him exploded upward, first in a hail of debris, and then in geysers of liquid flame. The heat caught him and sent him skyward, searing around his skin, blinding him and deafening him with its roar. Utterly disoriented, tumbled head over heels by the momentum of the eruption, Inuyasha held his breath and prepared himself to die. Two things saved him: the first the Fire Rat robes that he wore; the second the shard of the Sacred Jewel embedded in his flesh.

The heat did not burn his limbs or chest where the [I]haori hakama[/I] covered it, and the jewel. . .the jewel?s protection was another matter entirely. A great wave pulsed outward from his body, unlike anything he?d ever felt before. Once he had inserted a Shikon shard into Tetsusaiga, and that alone had been a rush of power that sent his head reeling. This was. . .he was not prepared for this. Nothing could have prepared him for [I]this[/I].

The Shikon no Tama, forged from the clash of demon strength and the unearthly power of the woman who had once defied the Dragon, flashed rays of brilliance in every direction. Inuyasha?s head tipped back, light spilling out his mouth and eyes, as the erupting lava broke upon the jewel?s [I]kehai[/I] like water. It splashed outward, spraying the outermost rubble of what had once been Reiyama Mountain, mingling with the thicker rivers of lava that had begun to seep and burn their way onto the plain.

He tried to blink, clawing at the skin of his own arms in confusion, trying to suppress the white heat that ringed his body like a halo. He thought, dimly, that the lava overflowing onto the plain would send it directly onto his comrades, who were still out there. He thought, even more dimly, that the lava would continue past the plain, gravity pulling it downward into the Tatesei Valley, right on top of the city.

But then thinking became an impossibility.

He sprang free of the fiery geyser as if he were flying, snarling, eyes aflame. Not far from him, standing atop a boulder that the lava had not consumed, was his enemy. Tall and white and silent as a statue.

Reeking of fear.

Raiiru. . .the Dragon. . .he could no longer remember the body?s other name. It didn?t matter. His enemy?s [I]name[/I] didn?t matter. And he rushed forward, ugly laughter bubbling from his lips like slaver. He flung the blood he had clawed from his arms.

The white figure dodged it, pale robes and silvery hair trailing ghostlike after it. Raiiru landed upon another boulder, closer to the path of the lava. Inuyasha skidded to a halt where his enemy had been standing a split-second before. The rock was burnt and cut deep where his blood had scored it, and steaming. He laughed again. It was enough this time. It was [I]finally[/I] enough.

His demon blood was truly ignited.

He turned to face his adversary a second time, leering.

?[I]Afraid to die?? [/I]he snarled. [/color]

[color=purple]Even from a distance, he could see his enemy?s pale face contort. Fountains of lava burst upward through the cracks in the boulders. Inuyasha was already hurtling toward him, long before the rock could explode beneath his feet from the heat and the pressure.

The rock exploded in front of him, forcing him to veer sideways, away from his target. He flung more blades of blood, recklessly, but the spray of debris and lava deflected them. He ended up running a half-circle around his enemy, with such increasingly wide radius that he was forced further away from Raiiru than he was before he?d charged. The ground erupted at his heels. Once again, he found himself at an impasse, reversing direction again and again to avoid being struck. Then he realized something, and bared his teeth in a feral grin.

His survival instinct was no longer a problem. He didn?t need to veer so far away to avoid being struck. With the power of the Shikon shard at his command, there was nothing to fear. He reversed direction one final time, and made straight for the white figure, heedless of the hell erupting skyward from beneath his feet.

A sea of rock stretched between them, cracked now with steaming fissures, releasing stinking sulfur. The landscape was a broken, jagged puzzle, through which the earth?s firelight shone upward onto the faces of [I]hanyou[/I] and Dragon. The Dragon?s face was ugly to behold, fierce and contorted with hatred as he finally forsook his pride and turned to flee. Inuyasha?s face was a mask of grim laughter.

He tore across the long distance between them, shouting as he went.

?[I]Afraid to die, are you?? [/I]he snarled. ?[I]There?s nothing that can stand between me and you NOW! Still want to BURY me to save your hide? JUST TRY IT!?[/I]

The space between them closed rapidly. Inuyasha reached deep into his arm, soaking his nails; his fingers. The pain was nothing. The pain was only what he chose to take from himself. The pain meant something. . .meant. . .something. . .

He struggled for thought.

?[I]Why?[/I]? a voice inside him asked. ?[I]Why do this??[/I]

Then he remembered. Something vague. Something. . . His blood. He was doing this so his blood would touch the enemy?s. . .

?[I]No[/I],? he growled, a flash of intuition cutting through the red haze of his rage. ?Not touch. . . It has to [I]mingle[/I]. . .?

Fire exploded between them, rising in a jet so high it disappeared into the circling storm-clouds. Inuyasha ploughed through it blindly, safe within the brilliance of the Sacred Jewel?s [I]kehai[/I]. As he passed through the column, it seemed his ears went deaf for a time, and the light had swallowed him.

?[I]Kagome[/I],? he thought, inanely, striving to remember who that was. The light was drowning his memory.

The Dragon stood still beyond the rush of fire, as if he had not expected his prey to live.

?[I]Ha! Bastard!?[/I]

Inuyasha caught him too swiftly this time, and too unexpectedly.

As liquid flame fell around them in a soft, lambent rain, demon and Dragon clashed.[/COLOR]

[center][b][color=orange]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[COLOR=purple]Kagome straightened, pulling away from the Seer?s grasp and shaking her head.

?What did she say??

Kagome turned and saw that Sango?s head had lifted from Miroku?s chest, and that the demon-slayer was now regarding her with obsidian eyes devoid of hope.

?Miroku?? Kagome asked, the words coming thin and choked through the tightness in her throat. ?He isn?t. . .[I]is[/I] he. . .??

Sango swallowed hard and shook her head faintly; Kagome couldn?t tell whether this was to confirm that he wasn?t dead or to brush aside the question.

?What did she [I]say[/I]?? Sango repeated, a tremor in her voice this time. ?The Seer.?

?[I]You must go[/I],? Suiton whispered, her black eyes fixed obsessively on Kagome.

But Kagome was not given the time to answer to either of them. At that moment, the earth beneath their feet began to rumble.

Inanely, Kagome was reminded of the earthquake drills they?d had at her school, where they?d dived under their desks, clutching their hands tightly behind their necks. She forced herself to suppress a hysterical bit of laughter; school and home and earthquake drills were worlds away from this. This felt like the end of the world. She clutched at both the Seer and one of Kirara?s strong forelegs, so that neither would be flung by the tremors. Sango pulled Miroku tight against her, looking around in bewilderment.

The ground began to heave, until at last it buckled, rising in long, twisting humps. Curiously enough, these distortions of the earth all ran toward the ruins of Mount Reiyama like veins toward the heart. In some places the rock warped so dramatically that it ruptured, and jets of poisonous-looking steam shot skyward from them.

The snow that coated the plain was beginning to melt.

?Kagome, we [I]must[/I] get to higher ground!? Sango shouted suddenly. ?There?s going to be an eruption!?

?A what. . .?? Kagome turned toward the mountain in abject horror. ?Then it?s a [I]volcano[/I]??

?I don?t know,? Sango answered. ?I didn?t think so. But this may be the Dragon?s doing. And I used to live in the mountains; I?ve seen eruptions from a distance.?

Staggering unsteadily to her feet, Kagome hoisted the Seer up onto her feet. Fortunately, Suiton was conscious, though clearly in pain from her wounds, and she was able to wrap her arms around Kirara?s neck to hold herself upright.

?No!? she hissed through clenched teeth. ?Our lives are [I]nothing[/I]. [I]Go[/I], Kagome-[I]sama[/I]!?

Kagome was not a selfish person. She would never willingly leave her friends in such dire straits, not even if it meant going to the aid of another one of them in dire straits. But right now, she wanted more than anything to take Kirara and go, as the Seer had bade her.

Even if she wouldn?t be able to do anything to stop this, she couldn?t bear the thought of Inuyasha dying alone.

But she found herself kneeling, hoisting her clasped hands beneath the Seer?s torn feet.

?Get on, quickly,? she urged. ?We?re getting out of here.?

The Seer was too weak to resist, but neither did she help lift herself. She turned wild eyes Kagome?s way, as if she thought Kagome had gone mad.

?[I]Don?t tell me that their lives, and your life, are NOTHING!? [/I]Kagome suddenly found herself shouting. She was angry at her own helplessness, and at the Seer?s attitude. ?The future isn?t made of ?Lines? or ?blood? or prophecies! It?s made of [I]people[/I].?

She broke off, instantly ashamed that she?d yelled. The Seer?s pale face was very young, and very sad.

?Inuyasha-[I]sama[/I] said that to me also,? the woman said softly.

This time Kagome couldn?t stop the tears. They ran freely down her cheeks, now that the heat rising from the plain would no longer make them freeze. Ignoring them, she hoisted the Seer upward yet again. This time Suiton swung a leg over Kirara?s back, still clinging to the demon?s neck for balance. Kagome turned to Sango.

?We have to hurry and move Miroku,? she called.

But Sango had already been thinking along these lines. She knelt and hoisted the monk onto her back, draping his arms around her Hirakoutsu and over her shoulders, and hooking her own arms under his legs. Then, gritting her teeth with the effort of it, she rose to her feet, staggering toward Kirara as she held herself upright against his dead weight. His chin rested on her left shoulder. He was breathing.

Kagome could see that he was breathing, from the faint puff of steam about his lips.

Kirara knelt and Kagome mounted her next, and then the two women pulled Miroku onto the demon?s back behind Kagome. Sango mounted last, bringing up the rear.

?I?m sorry, Kirara,? the demon-slayer called. ?I know it will be heavy flying with so many of us. But it?s the only way.?

Kirara growled an affirmative, springing into the air with aplomb. Once she had risen clear of the rumbling earth, travel was unexpectedly easy. The storm that followed Raiiru was now centered around the mountain, and even that had grown weaker.

?[I]If it disappears, I?ll know it?s too late[/I],? Kagome thought. ?[I]The Dragon?s kehai will have won over Sesshoumaru?s jyaki completely.?[/I]

Then a horrid thought occurred to her.

?[I]But. . .how can that be POSSIBLE? If Sesshoumaru breaks free of the Dragon?s hold, the Seer says Sesshoumaru will kill Inuyasha. If the Dragon WINS, he will become the White King Raiiru, history will change, and Inuyasha will STILL die. . . What?s the way out of this, then??[/I]

There [I]was[/I] one way. It was the only one she could think of.

But it wasn?t good.

?Suiton,? she murmured, bending over the Seer?s shoulder to speak directly into her ear. ?What exactly is it you want me to do? How am I supposed to kill someone who might be the [I]strongest[/I] of [I]all Youkai[/I]??

The Seer was utterly still, and Kagome thought she had slipped into unconsciousness. But then the answer came, faint and cryptic.

?[I]Your last arrow.?[/I]

Kagome drew in a sharp breath.

From behind her, Sango said softly, ?There are two arrows left in your quiver.? [/color]

[color=purple]Kagome had given no thought to the bow she carried on her back. It had been useless in the cave. It had been her arrow that had broken the seal around Inuyasha. But. . .this was not going to be like that time in Sesshoumaru?s garden, by the hot-springs, where she had been able to hold him at her mercy. He had been stunned that time, by Miroku?s holy powers. This time, he would be. . .[I]this[/I] time. . .

In thinking this way, she came to realize that she intended to go back; back to the place where the white brothers were destined to fight.

Reiyama.

She squinted across the dark plain ahead of them. Almost as if by mutual, silent agreement, they had all accepted that Kirara would take them north, to Sesshoumaru?s stronghold. That was where he had bade his two small companions to wait for his return; surely he wouldn?t have considered the place safe without good reason.

Kagome kept glancing behind them at the plain and the mountain. Lava was beginning to run down the side of the ruins, its flow impeded only by the boulders, which were beginning to crumble away in its lee. Soon it would cross the plain. . .perhaps heading for the valley where the Tatesei city stood. . .

However, she was immediately distracted from this sudden realization; Sango had arrived at some sort of decision.

?Kirara!? she called. She didn?t have to speak very loudly to be heard, though, for the wind around them was no longer very strong. ?Take us down at that pass there, just west of the ridge!?

Kagome glanced back at her in alarm.

?Sango, what are you [I]thinking[/I]? We can?t dismount [I]there[/I]! It?s in the middle of nowhere! Miroku will [I]bleed[/I] to death if we don?t get him somewhere where we can make a fire. . .? Kagome knew about cauterization. She?d only seen it in movies, but she knew that you had to heat a blade until it glowed, then press it on the wound to burn it closed. It was the only thing she could think of in the Feudal Era, without any sort of medical help necessary to save a human being from a mortal stab wound.

Sango ignored her.

?Take us [I]down[/I]!? she ordered, more fiercely this time. Kirara had already been veering northwest toward the pass below the ridge. It led northward, into the wooded slopes bordering the Inu Youkai valley. If it wasn?t clear before, it was certainly clear [I]now[/I]: Sango intended to go the rest of the way on foot.

?I?m going to go back,? Kagome informed her. ?I?m going to take Kirara and go back to the mountain, to do what I can. But first we?re going to get the wounded to safety. I won?t be the cause of any more. . .?

Sango shook her head firmly, wearing an odd, bitter little smile. Kirara took them down.

The snow was only a foot deep where she landed. She knelt and her passengers slid off. Sango laid Miroku down gently on his side. Suiton, who was still conscious, slid down next to him, huddling against him to melt the snow surrounding him with her supernatural body heat. Kagome was loath to leave them.

Sango would have none of her hesitation.

?He [I]won?t[/I] die,? the demon-slayer asserted, kneeling beside Miroku?s prone form. ?And neither will the Seer or myself.? Then she pulled aside his sash to reveal the tear in his robes where Irusei?s dagger had wounded him. The tear was now singed around the edges, and the flesh beneath was an odd raw, reddish shade. The wound was closed.

Kagome?s eyes widened.

?What? How. . .??

Then Sango held up her hand. There was a bloody slash down the palm, too cleanly cut to be anything but deliberate.

?Uh. . .? Kagome couldn?t think of anything to say. She knew Sango wasn?t proud of her [I]hanryu[/I] blood.

Sango rose to her feet, gesturing sharply to the south.

?Take her to the mountain, Kirara,? she bade the demon, who had risen to her four feet as well. ?She needs you to get her within shooting range of Sesshoumaru. It?s going to be risky. If she loses both arrows, please take her out of there quickly, regardless of whether she?s succeeded. If she fails, her protection comes first.?

Kagome knew Sango meant well, but the part about failure made her heart clench. It was obvious that the demon-slayer was not happy about letting her do this alone. Yet if the Seer lost consciousness when left alone with Miroku, Suiton would not be able to warm him, and he might freeze to death. Kagome turned toward the Seer one last time.

?Suiton,? she said, clasping her hands before her in pleading. ?Please tell me. . .where to aim."

For a moment, it seemed as if the Seer?s black-tainted eyes pierced right through her. Then Suiton lowered her head.

?[I]There are two brothers[/I],? she murmured, ?[I]and two arrows.?[/I]

Sango rounded on her.

?What does that [I]mean[/I]?? she demanded. ?Tell her what it [I]means[/I].?

Suiton shook her head, refusing to look at Kagome. Her shoulders hitched once. It was then that Kagome realized she was weeping. Her black hair trailed over her face, dragging in the snow.

?I don?t see what you See,? Kagome told her gently, blinking back her own tears and forcing a quavering smile. ?And I don?t envy you. But I promise that I will try my best to make this nightmare end. . .so you don?t have to See it any more.?

Then she turned and mounted Kirara, hands moving automatically to check that her bow and quiver were securely fastened to her back. Soon they were airborne, heading for the mountain, which blazed ahead of her now like a torch across the storm-darkened plain.[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]On the mountain, a temporary hush had fallen. It was as if a brief spell of silence had fallen over the two combatants.

Inuyasha found himself stopped short, his bloody fingertips outstretched inches from the Dragon?s chest.

At first, he could not understand what had happened. He tried to reach further; to snarl a curse, but as he did so he felt something warm rise into his throat. It trickled from between his lips. Snarling again, impatient, he tried to lunge forward, but found himself stopped by the blade his enemy had thrust directly through his chest.

He looked down at the sword. It had a name, he remembered vaguely. What was the name? Didn?t matter. It hurt like hell. His vision wavered.

A seductive, slow languor began to steal through his limbs. He fought it, trying to think. That feeling was his greatest enemy right now; even greater than the man holding the sword upon which he was impaled.

The human in him might have recalled Kagome in this moment. The languor of approaching death felt like laying his head in her lap while she stroked his hair, whispering for him to sleep. But the demon in him would not listen. And it was the demon who was in control now.

The shard was still in him. He had to survive.

Grinning around a mouthful of blood, he lurched forward abruptly, pulling the blade deeper into his body as he went. His enemy had thought to use the sword as a last resort, to keep his fingertips from reaching that pale flesh. Now he thrust forward with his own blade-like nails, darting fingers forward like razors to part white robes and white skin. His enemy tried to stagger backward to avoid him, but his newly-awakened demon strength surged through him. He was about to die and he bore a jewel shard; it was more awake now than it had ever been before. His mind was almost utterly consumed by it.

Yet he remembered now his purpose for doing this. The sudden spurt of hot blood over his hands had reminded him.

?[I]Wake UP!? [/I]he growled.[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple][I]The Lord of the West dreamed as he swam toward waking. He knew now who it was that was waking him. He knew this person well.

Long ago, when his father and kindred had died, only two besides himself survived that massacre: the Tatesei princess Iyazoi and his young half-brother, Inuyasha. He hated Iyazoi, for bringing his father to such ruin. And he hated Inuyasha, for the simple fact of his existence. It was easier than hating himself for his own powerlessness to prevent the massacre from happening. The Wise were afraid of Inuyasha, and that was why they had attacked when they did. The sorcerers believed the hanyou was meant to destroy them. Inuyasha?s birth was a curse.

From the moment Sesshoumaru had learned of Inuyasha?s existence, in his mind the hanyou was marked for death.

That was why he tried to kill both mother and child, when they had sought refuge in the palace. The sword Tenseiga had stopped him then, and Iyazoi had fled. The Wise recaptured her, returning her to the Tatesei city. Then they erected the wardings around the valley, so that no demon could pass.

Frustrated that his vengeance remained unfulfilled, Sesshoumaru became obsessed with watching the city from afar, awaiting the day when he would be able to reach it. Sometimes he saw a tiny pinpoint in the distance; a silver-haired head in the gardens. More often he saw the grey hoods of the Wise, filing somberly down the palace walkways. The years passed.

And then. . .the Wise made their move. Iyazoi took her son and fled into the night. For the first time in years, they left the safety of the valley, passing through the mountains and heading north. Sesshoumaru began tracking them.[/color][/i]

[i][color=purple]The Wise found them first, in the forest beyond the mountains. Sesshoumaru found them soon after. They had wounded the hanyou; his blood-scent was strong on the air. They were going to kill him.

Killing Inuyasha was a privilege that belonged solely to Sesshoumaru. Sesshoumaru rose into his demon form in a brilliant flash of white, and with his claws he gouged a great runnel in the earth, between the Wise and their prey. Then he sank back into man-shape, and began killing them before they could flee into the forest. He was wearing a white hood pulled low, and a grey cloak, in the manner of a high priest of the Wise, so that they had not noticed him at first. Before taking action, he had slipped silently into their midst to see what had become of the hanyou and his mother. He was not surprised to see the mother dying, and that the Wise intended to kill Inuyasha.

After he had carved the ravine into the earth, dividing the hanyou from the sorcerers, he laid about him, killing the Wise one by one. His attack had been swift and unexpected; the Wise were unable to use their magic against him effectively. His stolen cloak was soon stained with death.

It was not until every last one of them lay shredded across the grass that he turned toward his half brother. The child stood watching him from across the ravine, frozen and wide-eyed with terror. Pale as a human throat waiting to be torn.

Sesshoumaru had every intention of doing so.

But then. . .something changed in the child?s face. As they stood their in silent regard of each other, the young eyes narrowed, and the fear that had frozen that face now contorted into hatred. And Sesshoumaru read in that look something of himself. If he spared this pathetic creature. . .what might Inuyasha become? He was no longer sure.

If he spared this creature. . .

?Run half-breed,? he said coldly. ?I am going to kill you.?

To his utter surprise, the child then flung his own blood at him, and it became blades. He dodged them easily, staring in amazement as the boy disappeared into the woods.

?Well,? he thought, standing quietly in the clearing. ?Interesting. . .?

Years later, he sought out Inuyasha once more. He was not really sure why; perhaps out of mere curiosity. He had expected to find his half-brother wild and uncouth, a beast wandering the wilderness alone. Instead, he found the boy staying in a human village, with an old man. This made him angry. Humans had massacred the boy?s own kin; why did he deliberately seek out their companionship? When the old man would not tell him where Inuyasha was, Sesshoumaru killed him. Then Inuyasha returned.

Sesshoumaru gave him one chance to deny his human blood. Inuyasha, foolish and stubborn, refused.

Then Sesshoumaru gave him another chance.

Still he refused.

Sesshoumaru left him for dead there, in the ruins of the old man?s house.

Years later, he heard rumors that his half-brother was still alive, but by then he no longer cared. His rage had dwindled over the years, perhaps because of the deep solitude that he kept. He decided that since the boy had chosen humanity, he would leave him to the mercy of humans. After all, Inuyasha would never find peace with a people who hated demonkind.

To Sesshoumaru, who had never been able to find peace himself, that was vengeance enough. [/I] [/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]He awoke to the sensation of sharp pain in his chest. His vision swam into focus through a red haze, and he drew in a gasp. Yet even through the pain, he was aware of a dark cloud being lifted from his head, and of his mind shaking free of its shackles. Then he realized that the Dragon?s spirit was leaving him, and that the long dream in which Raiiru had imprisoned his soul was broken now beyond all repair. He could never return to that illusion; that world where he was god.

And it was because he was impaled now upon his half-brother?s claws. The [I]hanyou?s[/I] blood had flowed into his own, and in circulating through his heart had driven back the Dragon?s. He was himself again; the white demon. Lord of the West.

Inuyasha?s head was bowed. Sesshoumaru wrenched himself free of the claws, stepping backwards. The wound was not mortal. Inuyasha, on the other hand, appeared to be dying.

Sesshoumaru?s left arm, which the Dragon had regenerated, was gone again. The sword Tokijin hung from the [I]hanyou?s[/I] chest.

?Inuyasha,? Sesshoumaru said softly. ?Return my sword.?

There was still time. The Dragon had deserted him, and could no longer possess him now that Inuyasha?s blood flowed through his. That meant the wraith would seek a new host. Sesshoumaru understood why the Dragon had chosen [I]his[/I] body and not one of his followers?: though Raiiru believed that humanity was what would endure the ages, he had not been entirely willing to surrender his immortality. Thus he had chosen Sesshoumaru as a kind of happy medium; neither god nor man. A powerful mortal body, which could pass for a man?s, but without human weakness. Yet now, given no other option, the Dragon would surely go to the Tatesei city, to find himself a willing host. There were plenty there; all were [I]hanryu[/I].

The only way to ensure that the Dragon?s spirit never rose to power was to kill every possible willing host. Then the wraith would have nowhere to run. Sesshoumaru would revive Raiiru with Tenseiga and take his heart, as he had intended from the beginning.

But he wanted the sword Tokijin back, and Inuyasha had not moved. Impatiently, Sesshoumaru reached for the hilt.

Inuyasha?s head lifted.

The [I]hanyou[/I] was smiling. His eyes were insane. [/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]?Something is wrong.?

Jakken, who was busy wearing holes in the rugs with his pacing, had to agree. He had found Rin and the Kitsune Shippou sitting in front of the fire in the great hall together. He was too worried about Sesshoumaru to be irritated by the Kitsune?s presence. The earth had trembled for a bit, and he was worried that somehow the earthquake and his lord had something to do with each other. And Rin, who was foolish sometimes but not stupid, had obviously arrived at the same conclusion.

?Let?s go to see if we can find him,? Rin persisted, standing up and coming over to prod Jakken with an insistent finger. ?He may need us.?

?Ha!? Jakken replied, with amusement that was quite obviously feigned. ?Sesshoumaru-[I]sama[/I] doesn?t [I]need[/I] us. He?s all-powerful!?

Rin just stared at him.

?Hey, I?ll help.? The Kitsune had risen to his tiny feet.

?[I]Damn the Kitsune brat[/I],? Jakken thought viciously.

Rin turned toward him.

?Oh, will you, Shippou-[I]sama[/I]??

Shippou puffed up his chest importantly.

?I?ll go to the mountain-top, to see if I can see what?s going on across the plain.?

?Rin will go with you,? she decided, thumping one small fist decisively into her other palm. ?We will take Aun.?

And the two of them scampered off down the palace halls.

?W-w-w-w-w-w-WAIT!? Jakken stammered, scampering after them. ?Sesshoumaru-[I]sama[/I] will not be pleased if we disobey him!? But he could see that his words were falling on deaf ears. Briefly, he considered using his Staff of Heads to fry the troublesome Kitsune to a crisp, but he was too worried that he might hit Rin. [/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]Sango curved her body around Miroku?s pressing her face into his chest. His heartbeat was slow, in the manner of someone sleeping, and no longer erratic. He smelled of sweat and blood.

[I]?I won?t let you die[/I],? she whispered, and he sighed in his sleep. The Seer was sleeping as well, curled up against him on the other side, lending him her warmth as well. The wound on his back had been cauterized with Sango?s own blood; with the Dragon?s blood. For once, she was glad of it.

But her troubles were far from over. There was no conceivable way she could carry both Miroku and the Seer through the pass to the Inu Youkai palace. She was exhausted. The best she could hope for was that Kagome would return with Inuyasha and Kirara, to help them all to shelter. The best she could do for now was to keep both of them warm with her [I]hanryu[/I] abilities. But if the Dragon was somehow destroyed in the battle to which Kagome was hastening. . .she and Suiton would be [I]hanryu[/I] no longer. Their blood would slip back into dormancy, and they would be left with nothing but human warmth to see them through this awful night.

When first she heard the voice, Sango thought that she might be dreaming. It wasn?t Miroku or Suiton; it sounded like a little girl. Then she lifted her head, pulling out of her troubled doze, and saw that some sort of creature was approaching. It had five heads. She blinked.

Then it landed, and she saw that it actually only had two; the other three belonged to a girl, an imp, and a Kitsune.

?Shippou?? she called blearily.

?No, no, NO!? the imp was wailing as the girl and the Kitsune dismounted. ?We?re supposed to be going to find Sesshoumaru-[I]sama[/I]!?

The two young ones ignored him, hurrying over to the three people lying in the snow. [/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]Sesshoumaru drew in a long, deep breath and exhaled just as slowly, blowing a gentle drift of steam into the air. So. It had come to this.

Tetsusaiga was not in the scabbard hanging from Inuyasha?s side. The [I]hanyou[/I] was becoming a pure-blooded demon before his very eyes.

Inuyasha took hold of Tokijin?s hilt and wrenched it from his own body. Then he cast it to the side with a clatter, spitting out a mouthful of blood at Sesshoumaru?s bare feet as he did so. His form was wavering; he was beginning to change. Into [I]what[/I], Sesshoumaru had no idea. He had never thought it possible for Inuyasha to take beast-shape, in the manner of pure-blooded Inu Youkai. That was a privilege he had always assumed belonged to himself alone, now that his father was dead.

He had always sensed, in some intuitive way, that Inuyasha in this state would be more powerful than anything he?d ever faced before. He stared coldly into his brother?s crazed red eyes. Once he had told his father that he would kill him one day, when he became strong enough. To Sesshoumaru?s mind, such a challenge was a sign of deepest respect, for he did not believe in loving anyone who was not his equal.

Ever since the first time he had seen Inuyasha?s demon blood awakened, he had never challenged Inuyasha in that way. Never as an equal.

Because the [I]hanyou[/I] Inuyasha was [I]not[/I] an equal.

Inuyasha was stronger.

Quietly, Sesshoumaru faced the rival before him, his face composed and his eyes clear and sane. He could see that if he was to survive this, he would have to fight with both raw power and a Daiyoukai?s cold clarity. After all, the thing in front of him was now nothing more than a mindless killer.

To think he had once wondered what the [I]hanyou[/I] child would become.

?So,? he said softly, ?it comes to this.?

This was not the way he had envisioned this. He was surprised that he, Sesshoumaru, would feel this way at such a time, and he was not one who surprised easily. He eyed Inuyasha shrewdly, looking for a weakness in his stance. Plotting the best way to subdue him.

[I]?I must try to wake him, as he woke me. . .or he will never return to himself again.?[/I]

He lunged straight forward toward Inuyasha, sparing no more time for rumination. He conjured a whip made of pure light as he moved, seeking to catch Inuyasha with it, all the while calling poison into the claws of the hand that held it, to stab when the weapon had reeled his prey in. Inuyasha darted sideways with such speed that his body blurred. Sesshoumaru snapped his wrist sideways, causing the weapon to recoil back into his grip. He had suspected the [I]hanyou?s[/I] speed might have increased like this. Inuyasha was faster than he?d been when they fought in Sesshoumaru?s garden, when the [I]hanyou[/I] had gone to take back the Shikon shard. But Sesshoumaru soon turned the missed strike into a feint, serving the dual purpose of gauging Inuyasha?s reflexes and diverting him.

Now Sesshoumaru had an opening to retrieve his sword.

He darted sideways, swiftly catching up the blade by its hilt. It had been teetering on the edge of the rock, over a crevice in whose depths the lava flowed steadily. He heard his brother snarl, and knew that Inuyasha was readying to charge again.

That was when he changed his mind.

[I]?No.?[/I]

Sudden, black certainty flooded his heart.

[I]?No. I?ve already risked much. I won?t risk dying to save this fool from himself.?

?If you kill him. . .? [/I]his darker self whispered.

[I]?If I kill him. . .?

?There will be none to stop you from taking what you want.?

?But if he dies[/I],? he reasoned, ?[I]there will be none to protect the Shikon no Tama from Naraku. . .?[/I]

[I]?If you take the power you seek, the Dragon?s power, you will be a god. The jewel is made from a human woman?s soul, is it not? A human?s power is nothing.?

?I am Lord of the West. I take what I want.?[/I]

He turned slowly toward his advancing brother, raising the sword in readiness.

?Come, half-breed,? he challenged softly. ?I am going to kill you.?

His eyes flared red with new malice. It was he, and not Inuyasha, who charged first.[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]The baby in the cavern smiled, peering intently into Kanna?s glass.

?At [I]last[/I], Lord Sesshoumaru,? he whispered. ?The Dragon?s presence is gone from your soul. It protected you from me because it wanted you for itself. But now it has gone, and it has left you [I]weak[/I].?

In the mirror, he could see the red [I]jyaki[/I] from the sword, twining round the demon lord?s body like a serpent. It had already struck his heart. It had struck him the moment he picked it up.

?What fortune,? the baby murmured. ?Or perhaps [I]mine[/I] is the hand of fortune. . . The sword Tokijin, after all, has been mine all along. You have wielded it all this time, but it has always been [I]my[/I] trump card.?

He found a poignant beauty in this irony. The white brothers were to die, as the girl Kagome had feared, though not at the hands of the Dragon. The Dragon?s possession of Sesshoumaru had merely cracked open the flaws in the white demon?s heart, through which Tokijin?s dark influence would seep.

?It was a blade ever aimed at your heart. . .and it struck you. Now you aim it at [I]Inuyasha?s[/I].?

Naraku laughed softly into the darkness.[/COLOR]

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[COLOR=purple]As he fought, Sesshoumaru found himself flooded with burgeoning anger. That first charge had resulted in a clash of claws on steel. Under normal circumstances, Tokijin?s deadly [I]kenatsu[/I] would have been too much of an impact for Inuyasha to bear. His feeble [I]hanyou?s[/I] claws should have shattered, and his body should have been sent flying backwards amid a hail of [I]jyaki [/I]slivers from the sword. Instead, it had come to an even draw. Inuyasha?s muscles had thickened, and his claws had lengthened to the measure of small daggers. It was like trying to shatter solid steel. Inuyasha?s claws actually passed [I]through[/I] Tokijin?s [I]kenatsu[/I] to clang stridently against the blade itself. The slivers flying toward the [I]hanyou[/I] broke like water upon the strange aura surrounding him. Red light splashed in every direction.

Sesshoumaru glared at him, clenching his teeth with the effort of holding him at bay. He did not understand what this aura meant. It was one thing to take a demon?s form; it was another to project [I]ki[/I] like a shield.

Then the two brothers sprang apart from each other, circling warily. Inuyasha?s hair had grown thicker, and it crackled with energy. Sesshoumaru had never seen[I] jyaki[/I] this strong. . .save on the several occasions when he faced Naraku, who possessed the shards of the Shikon no Tama.

[I]The Shikon no Tama[/I].

?The [I]jewel[/I],? he snarled. ?You have the[I] jewel[/I].? That had to be it; Inuyasha had taken the shard from the girl Kagome.

He initiated another rush at Inuyasha, leveling the blade with the [I]hanyou?s[/I] heart. It was a maneuver meant to kill instantly. He had to end this quickly. What he wanted was worth more than this mindless monster, shard or no shard. Sesshoumaru?s red eye glared down the length of the blade as he moved swiftly forward, tracking the line to Inuyasha?s heart with cold-blooded accuracy.

When they clashed this second time, the outcome was even less favorable. The sword caught Inuyasha through the chest once again, but it struck too far to the right to reach the heart. Energy crackled white-hot between them as Tokijin?s red [I]kenatsu[/I] passed through the Shikon no Tama?s aura of [I]ki[/I]. It sent sparks snapping into the air. Inuyasha?s claws, in the meantime, had finally scored their mark. The fingers of Inuyasha?s right hand sank into the flesh just above Sesshoumaru?s chest on the left side. He let out a hiss of pain. One claw had literally hooked itself [I]around the other side[/I] of his collar bone beneath the skin. The other fingers formed a ring of thick punctures just to the left of his breastbone.

Had he not managed to stab Inuyasha just now, degrading the [I]hanyou?s[/I] forward momentum, Inuyasha would have gouged out his heart.

Uttering a swift curse, Sesshoumaru yanked Tokijin toward himself, thinking to let go of it at the last minute, to tear Inuyasha?s throat with his poisoned claws. But Inuyasha wrenched his own body backwards, jerking free of the sword. The claw hooked around Sesshoumaru?s collar-bone wrenched also. Demon bones were strong, but his was instantly dislocated. He lunged forward, and this alone saved him from having the bone snapped in half. As Inuyasha?s claws came loose of his chest, he stabbed forward viciously, thinking to catch Inuyasha a second time. This time, Inuyasha dodged it, leaping high into the air and hurtling straight for him again. The [I]hanyou[/I] laughed, revealing bloodstained teeth.

[I]?What?s the matter, bastard?? [/I]Inuyasha jeered. His voice had thickened as well; it was more guttural now, with an odd echoing quality to it, as if there were several of him speaking at once. [I]?Are you holding back? Don?t you hate me??[/I]

Sesshoumaru leaped backward, landing a good ten yards away from where Inuyasha landed in a crouch. The rock cracked beneath the impact from the hanyou?s transforming body. This time when Inuyasha rose, it was onto all fours. His face was beginning to lengthen, lips drawn upward in a grimace as his fangs grew.

Sesshoumaru had never been so humiliated.

?[I]I hate you[/I],? he said, with certainty. [/color]

[color=purple]Then Inuyasha flew at him again, in a fury. This time Sesshoumaru realized that he was standing with his back to the pointed edge of the boulder, and that there was nowhere to run. Again he raised Tokijin. Inuyasha slammed into him, impaling himself yet a third time upon Tokijin?s point. White and red energy cracked and whistled around them, twittering like tiny birds. Together they flew backward over the edge, bathed suddenly in a rush of sulfurous steam from the lava flowing below. They did not descend into the flow, however. Instead, the impact was so strong that they flew onto the next boulder, which was a good twenty yards away. There they both landed on the ground, skidding across the rock almost to the opposite end.

For a moment, neither moved. Both were severely wounded, and exhausted as well.

Sesshoumaru was the first to rise.

With cold, calculated precision, he slide his sword out from the body of the beast lying beside him and rose to his feet. It seemed Inuyasha was temporarily stunned. The [I]hanyou[/I] was covered in blood; Sesshoumaru was certain that even with his borrowed strength, he was dying of his wounds. The Shikon no Tama, whatever power it might lend its wielder, lacked the power to heal.

[I]?Kill him.?[/I]

?I will kill you,? he whispered fiercely, planting a foot on Inuyasha?s back. Then he lifted the sword at an angle, preparing to take his brother?s head.

Something struck his sword.

It came sizzling through the steaming air like a bolt of lightning. He froze for a split-second, confused. Like Inuyasha?s claws, the arrow rang off Tokijin?s blade rather than being stopped by the red [I]kenatsu[/I]. Then the arrow vanished, and a brilliant pulse went out from the sword. It burned him, instantly searing his hands, leaving them red and raw. With a gasp, he dropped the sword, shielding his face from the light. The blade clattered to the stone, skittering across the rough terrain before coming to a stop several yards away.

Then he turned and saw who had come.[/COLOR]

[center][b][color=orange]{+} {+} {+}[/center][/b][/color]

[COLOR=purple]Kagome had been thinking long and hard on the journey to the mountain. She did not want to kill Sesshoumaru. It wasn?t that she bore any particular liking toward him at the moment, but the mere fact that him dying was part of the Seer?s doom prophecy made her reluctant. And when she saw him standing there, she was horrified. Not just by the sword he held, poised to chop downward, but by the unusually bright red aura of the blade. It twined slyly around his body, like a serpent slowly constricting.

?[I]Can?t he SEE it?[/I]? she wondered. ?[I]It?s taken over him like it did Gaijinbou, the one who forged it!?[/I]Another great shock was his appearance. His face was twisted. She had never imagined someone so refined and coldly beautiful could be so distorted by hatred. That was what she read on his face: open, raw hatred. She had a pretty good idea what weakness of his the sword was feeding off of.

Both he and Inuyasha were drenched in blood. Their silver-white hair was slick with it. So was the rock face where they were. And Sesshoumaru was about to take Inuyasha?s head.

The Seer had told her to kill Sesshoumaru. But right now, to save Inuyasha?s life, she was going to have to shoot the sword. Tightening her knees about Kirara?s back to balance herself, she notched one arrow into her bow and shot.

The blow struck its intended target. And Sesshoumaru dropped the sword; it seemed to have burned him. Then he turned slowly in her direction. His face had smoothed into an expression of vague surprise, like a sleeper waking.

Behind him, Inuyasha rose to his feet, a hulking shape against the background glow of magma.

Before it could even register in her mind what was happening, Inuyasha attacked.

His body slammed into his brother?s back full-force, throwing him against the stone face. Sesshoumaru swiped at him with his claws, snarling something incoherent, and tried to throw him off. Inuyasha locked both hands around his brother?s throat, pulled him upward, and then dashed his head downward against the rock.

There came a sickening crack. Kagome could hear it even from where she sat, hovering atop Kirara a good thirty yards away.

?INUYASHA!? she screamed, horrified. He no longer looked human.

At the sound of her voice, he lifted crazed red eyes her way and laughed. Blood dribbled over his front teeth.

Sesshoumaru had gone limp beneath him.

He let go of his brother?s throat with one hand, cracking the knuckles of the other, priming his claws for a second go.

?INUYASHA, STOP!? Kagome shouted. ?Kirara, take me closer.? She had Tetsusaiga with her. If she could just get him to touch it. . .

Kirara growled, refusing to obey. The demon cat clearly intended to hold to her promise to Sango to keep Kagome out of danger.

?INUYASHA, YOU CAME HERE TO SAVE HIM!? Kagome called in desperation, tears welling up in her eyes. ?DON?T DO THIS!?

Inuyasha laughed thickly.

?[I]I?ll save him!?[/I] he crowed. [I]?I?ll drink his blood. Paint him across the snow.?[/I]

Then he turned away from her, lifting his claws.

And Kagome realized now what destiny was asking of her. She could see the shard in his back. If she could hit it. . .

?[I]There are two brothers, and two arrows.?

?I can save them both[/I],? she realized.

[I](?How am I supposed to kill someone who might be the strongest of all Youkai??

?Your last arrow.?)[/I]

And she understood.

[I]?I am the one with the potential to make the prophecy come true. What the Seer told me. . . I could kill them both.?[/I]

If she shot him, Inuyasha might die. The shard was not in a location anywhere near his vital organs. However, she remembered that Kikyou?s arrows were deadly to him. She prayed with every ounce of desperate love that her own were not.

There was no other way.

She notched the arrow and took her aim. Even through the blur of tears, the shard glowed brightly in him.

A clear target.

Steeling herself, she murmured, ?If I must, I will. . .?[/COLOR]

[center][color=orange][b]END OF CHAPTER 17[/b][/center][/color]
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  • 3 weeks later...
[i]Yamisui: There will be one more chapter after this one. As for some of you, those predictions you?ve postulated are wrong. (kukuku)[/i]

[b][color=Green][center]{+} {+} {+} LORD OF THE WEST {+} {+} {+}

{+} {+} Chapter 18: ?If I Must, I Will . . .? {+} {+}[/center][/color][/b]

[color=Purple]There are certain moments in a person?s life that do not seem real. Yet they [i]are[/i] real . . . so real that the mind cannot bear to see them in full clarity, and so they take on a dreamlike quality to soften their intensity. This was what Kagome felt, watching the arrow cut a sizzling path through the steam that rose from the surrounding fissures. The edges of her vision blurred, as if she had her own steam rising, only this might have been tears. And Inuyasha, bent over his brother?s inert form, was so caught up in his bloodlust that he paid it no heed.

It passed through his back as easily as if he?d been made of air. Kagome knew that it had struck the shard by the sudden flare of light. It radiated briefly from the place where it struck, like a sunburst, and then she saw the minute twinkle of the shard as it fell from Inuyasha?s body. Watching it, Kagome was amazed at her own shortsightedness. While preparing to shoot, with her thoughts only of Inuyasha, she had not considered the consequences to the [i]shard itself.[/i]

It was now split cleanly in two. As Inuyasha slumped forward, head bowing over his brother?s chest, Kagome let her bow fall. It clattered onto the stone face below. She didn?t even look at it; her eyes were on the shards. One lay where it had fallen. The other half skittered haphazardly across the rough ground, jouncing toward the edge.

?KIRARA!? Kagome cried, motioning toward it frantically.

Kirara?s eyes were sharp; she understood immediately. Together they swooped downward into a death dive. The tiny fragment spun, still glinting from the residue of Kagome?s arrow, and she tracked its progress with her great orange eyes.

They landed at the edge of the rock. Kirara stamped one massive paw down over the shard, inches away from the edge. Kagome didn?t waste time retrieving it from the demon. Instead, she slid off Kirara?s back, heading for the other shard. It lay beside Inuyasha. She was almost afraid to even look at Inuyasha. His white hair, now soaked with sweat, straggled blood across his brother?s chest, hiding his face. She knelt by his side, reaching for the shard.

A clawed hand clamped down over hers, pinning it against the shard, against the rock.

Inuyasha?s head lifted.

[i]?You[/i],? he snarled. [i]?You?ll die for this, bitch. I?ll slit you open.?[/i]

Kagome froze. She didn?t know what to do. The arrow had expelled the shard from him, yet he hadn?t returned to himself. He wasn?t even recognizably [i]human[/i] any more. His eyes were red and pupil-less, and blood trickled from his fangs. And his voice was little better than a beast?s growl.

She swallowed, forcing her tongue, which had suddenly gone numb, to find her voice.

?Let me go, Inuyasha,? she whispered. She was shaking. She couldn?t stop. [i]?It wasn?t even the SHARD that did this. This is. . .Inuyasha. This is what he really IS . . .?[/i]

She hated herself for thinking it. Even through the fear, so thick she could hardly breathe, she was angry at herself for letting herself [i]believe[/i], even for an instant, that he was a monster.

But she didn?t know what to do.

Behind her, she could hear Kirara behind her, growling low in her throat. Kagome?s gaze slid sideways; out of the corner of her eye, she could see that the tiger demon shift ever so slightly, preparing to take a step toward them.

In that instant, as her attention was diverted, she never even saw the clawed hand shoot out. One instant she was breathing. The next, she wasn?t. His hand was clamped around her throat. There was no hesitation in that hand; he began to squeeze immediately, without a word. She tried to speak, but her voice was held fast in his grip; she could only gaze imploringly. His face, distorted and ugly, began to waver in her vision.

Then things went hazy. She heard a loud snarl and felt a jolt. Pain flared along one side of her body, and the world reeled crazily. Then the darkness cleared from her vision, and she became aware of the rough press of stone against her cheek and hand, and that she was lying on her side on the rock. Inuyasha had thrown her aside. Gritting her teeth against the ache in her jarred bones, Kagome pushed herself up onto one elbow. Inuyasha was advancing on Kirara now, who now bore a nasty-looking gash across the front of her chest. Kagome couldn?t see the actual wound, but in the lurid glow of the lava flowing around them she could see blood matted in streaks across Kirara?s thick ruff.

Streaks splayed like claws.

Squinting against the pain, Kagome reached for the sword strapped across her back.

[i]?I haven?t saved him yet[/i],? she thought fiercely, willing fingers numb from bruised nerves to move to move to move. ?[i]But I WON?T give up! Not until he?s Inuyasha again!?[/i]

White wires seared through the nerves of her hand as it clenched around the hilt, willing muscles to tighten and lift her arm, to roll her body onto her knees.

Love alone moved her legs, and her arm.

She ran at him, charging him from the side.

At that moment, the ground beneath them lurched suddenly. Somewhere below, where the great boulder was still rooted to the ruins of the mountain, something had begun to give way. The shift was brief, for at that moment, far below, another boulder had also fallen and wedged against it. Yet it was enough to throw off Kagome?s balance. She tripped over Sesshoumaru?s body.

When she landed, her elbow and forearm hit stone, causing her to lose her grip on the sword. Tetsusaiga went spinning across the rock face in a hiss of steel scraping. She lunged after it on her hands and knees. Then the ground lurched again. She heard a faint, tiny [i]ping[/i] as the jewel shard lying near Sesshoumaru bounced a few feet along the rock. She?d kicked it with her sneaker.

[i]?Oh!?[/i] she thought. The pain had temporarily brought her to her senses. If one shard of the Jewel was lost, it would never be completed, and none of this would ever end. She lunged backward over Sesshoumaru?s body again to recover it. She slid it inside her jeans pocket and hoped desperately that it would stay there; she didn?t have anywhere better she could put it right now. Then she turned toward Inuyasha again, still on her hands and knees.

To her utter surprise, Kirara appeared to be holding her own. There was an aura of fire about her that flared far brighter than usual. And though Inuyasha, enraged beyond all reason, struck at her in a blind fury, it seemed he was unable to land another blow. Kirara was moving to avoid his claws with a speed unlike anything Kagome had ever seen.

But she understood why; she could see the other half of the Shikon shard in Kirara?s mouth.

Then Kirara lashed out with her own claws, catching Inuyasha across the stomach. He went down on one knee with a grunt of pain, but didn?t seem badly wounded. A split-second later he was on his feet again, lunging for his opponent with a vicious swipe of his claws. Red light trailed from his nails where he struck; his awakened demon blood was adding extensions of raw [i]jyaki[/i] to his transforming body. Only Kirara?s own enhanced [i]jyaki [/i]held it at bay. His claws connected with her powerful chest, but could not penetrate the wall of muscle to reach her heart. And she, in turn, snapped forward and caught his throat in her jaws.

?NO!? Kagome screamed. ?Don?t kill him!?

Kirara heard her and hesitated, and the massive jaws closed tight but did not meet. Kagome cast about her desperately, searching for some way out of this. Inuyasha was not going to die. She was going to save his future. [i]The[/i] future.

Once again, she caught up Tetsusaiga with both fists clenched around the hilt.

?[i]Hold[/i] him!? she cried to Kirara, who was doing this anyway despite the deadly claws digging their way deeper into her chest. In a few seconds she would be dead.

Kagome wasted no seconds hesitating. She charged again this time, and did not fall. The blade caught him deep through the shoulder---the arm with which he was attempting to reach Kirara?s heart. It was also where Kagome felt it was least likely to kill him.

He let out a bellow of rage, snarling something incoherent, and let go of Kirara. The demon cat kept her jaws firmly locked about his neck, twisting her head and attempting to shake him off balance. He wasn?t getting much air at all, and her fangs were digging into his skin, but he didn?t seem to care. He was all but mindless.

?[i]Inuyasha!? [/i]Kagome cried, forced to back away from him again because of the danger of his thrashing claws. ?[i]Inuyasha, come BACK!? [/i]She was crying freely now. She didn?t know what to do. ?Come . . . back . . .? she repeated, her voice drained to a whisper.

His one good arm balled into a fist, and slammed into the side of Kirara?s head. Because he had used raw brute strength and not [i]jyaki,[/i] the demon cat?s own aura did nothing to protect her. Kagome winced at the sound of bone cracking, and Kirara?s jaws flew open as her head was struck away from Inuyasha?s neck. The punch was so violent that it pushed her a good five feet to the side, throwing her off-balance.

That was when Kagome saw the shard fly out of her mouth, amid a shower of blood-flecks from her shattered jaw.

It soared through the air, glittering in the firelight.

In that instant Kagome chose between saving the world and saving Inuyasha.

She sprinted after it and took a flying leap.

Inuyasha turned toward the running girl with a malicious grin. With his good arm he grasped hold of Tetsusaiga?s hilt and wrenched it free of his arm.

The shard was falling fast, toward the edge of the rock. Kagome forgot all about keeping her own balance and dove for it.

In Inuyasha?s hand, freed from the flesh of his arm, Tetsusaiga blazed into life.

Kagome?s hands closed around the shard just as her body hit the rock. She landed on her stomach, and the wind was knocked out of her, but her hands were firmly clamped around her prize. Then the ground lurched again . . . and she was hurled forward, scraping across the stone, toward the end of the boulder. She scarcely even had time to draw in a breath of alarm as her body slid off the edge. [/color]

[color=Purple]Her eyes, which had until this instant been focused on the shard clasped between her palms, now witnessed the roiling river of flame below, toward which her downward tilt was speeding her. Her heart clenched in terror . . .

. . . then strong arms caught her from behind.

She gasped now, pulling the Shikon shard in to her chest. Her last desperate thought was to protect it, to see to it that it did not fall forever beyond reach. She knew she was about to die. She felt hot breath on the back of her neck, and warm saliva, and knew the crunch of fangs through bone would come next.

He pulled her back from the edge, onto the stone, but he didn?t kill her.

He just held her. And Kagome, pulled into this sudden, fierce, embrace, realized that the body against which she was being held was shaking, and that the heat on the back of her neck was the warmth of his tears.

For one brief, blessed, eternal moment, neither moved. The ground beneath them ceased to heave, the flame-light dimmed, the heat cooled, the dark rock faded, and Kagome was locked away in the circle of his arms, where pain and danger were a fairy-tale somewhere far away.

?[i]It?s over[/i],? she thought, closing her eyes to stop her own tears. [i]?At last it?s over. I?ve saved him.?[/i]

Then the ground beneath them heaved again, violently.

She felt something thump against the body pressed against hers, and woke from her dazed moment in dull surprise.

?Kirara??

Inuyasha?s voice. [i]His[/i] voice.

?Kirara!?

Kagome turned to see that Kirara had reverted to her smaller form, and that she had leaped onto Inuyasha?s back. She seemed in very bad shape; she was slumped over his shoulder, whimpering. Her jaw was a mess; Inuyasha was wincing at the sight of it.

?Don?t worry, Kirara,? he said hoarsely. ?We?ll get you out of here.?

Then he turned back to Kagome, whose head now rested just below his chin.

?We have to get out of here[i] fast[/i],? he told her. His face was very pale. ?This place is falling apart. And if these earthquakes are any indication, it?s [i]really[/i] going to blow soon.?

As if in response, the ground beneath them began to slant downward, tipping over into the river of fire below.

?[i]Shit!? [/i]Inuyasha swore, digging the claws of one hand into the rock and catching Kagome round the waist to keep them from sliding down into it. Bits and chunks of rubble bombarded them from above.

Kirara was clinging to Inuyasha?s shoulder with her tiny claws, mewling in alarm. Thinking quickly, Kagome inserted the Shikon shard she?d been clutching into her pocket before she forgot herself and let go of it. Then she heard a familiar rasp of steel on stone, and saw Tetsusaiga sliding down with the debris.

[i]?Shit!? [/i]Inuyasha swore again when he saw it. ?Kagome, hang on!?

Kagome had no idea what he was doing, but she knew better than to disobey when their lives were on the line.

Pushing off the slanted rock face with his feet, like a grappler, Inuyasha swung them to one side. Realizing now what he intended, Kagome disengaged one arm from around his neck and reached out to catch Tetsusaiga. Once it was securely in her sweaty palm, Inuyasha allowed them to swing back.

?Good, now give it to [i]me[/i],? he ordered.

Kagome blinked in confusion.

?You don?t have any hands free!? she protested.

He opened his mouth. Kagome stared for a second, and then. . .

?Oh!?

She inserted the blade between his teeth, and he clamped them closed. Kagome wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck, trying to use her feet to brace them against the rock as well.

The boulder was still tilting downward.

[i]?Shith!? [/i]Inuyasha swore a third time, this time with his speech impaired by the sword in his mouth. ?Le ave thoo GO NOW!?

He turned his face upward, braced his feet against the rock, and jumped. His leap carried them high up the rock face, almost to the opposite edge, which was now swiftly becoming the high ground.

Almost.

His nails found scant purchase, for the fingers of that arm were suffering nerve damage from when Kagome had stabbed him with Tetsusaiga. He dug his claws into the stone, but he was beginning to slide.

[i]?Inuyasha!? [/i]Kagome screamed, letting go of him with one hand and trying to find her own handhold. This wasn?t working; they were going to . . .

White claws caught Inuyasha?s sliding wrist.

[i]?You . . . half-breed . . . bastard[/i],? came the whispered curse from above. ??[i]Chosen? . . . she called you . . . and you can?t . . . even save . . . yourself.?[/i]

Inuyasha?s head tilted upward. Kagome saw his face light up with sheer amazement. She didn?t blame him. She was just as surprised---although she was even more surprised to see Sesshoumaru [i]alive[/i] than she was that he?d bother to save them. Then Inuyasha remembered that this was his half-brother, and that they were supposed to mutually hate each other, and he scowled.

?Justh shuth ub and PULL!?

Sesshoumaru obliged without a word, hauling them up with a strength that Kagome could not fathom. Where it was coming from, she had no idea.

Because it was obvious that Sesshoumaru was dying.

Blood trickled down the sides of his face, and his hair was matted with it. His breath came long and painfully labored through his mouth, and his eyes were clouded with a glazed, faraway look. As he dragged them upward Kagome watched his pale face, and she could see that he was battling to keep his eyes focused on them, and his mind focused on this task.

It was a battle she could see he was losing.

?Inuyasha, let go of me,? she said tightly. ?I?ll hold on to you. You have to help him, or we won?t reach the top.?

Inuyasha nodded grimly. His own breath was whistling between his teeth and the sword clamped between them. Kagome tightened her hold, and now he dug his other claws into the rock, pulling himself upward toward his brother. Together, they crested the edge, until at last the four of them slumped over, panting, atop the boulder.

Sesshoumaru lay back, resting his head on the stone. His eyes were unreadable as he gazed upward at the cloud of ash above. The [i]jyaki[/i]-driven storm from before had cleared. Kagome saw that he had somehow reinserted the demon sword Tokijin back into the sheath at his side, but she no longer felt any malice emanating from it. Once again, having mastered himself before this last act of begrudging loyalty to his brother, he had gained mastery over Tokijin.

The rock beneath them began to rumble, and this time it did not stop. At long last, the mountain was going to erupt.

?INUYASHA!? Kagome cried. ?We have to get out of here NOW!?

Inuyasha grunted, rising into a crouch.

?I [i]know[/i].?

Kagome stole a swift glance around them. The ground was vibrating so badly now that her teeth chattered and her head ached.

?Get on my back,? Inuyasha ordered, reinserting Tetsusaiga into its sheath at his hip. ?We?re going to run for it. . .or die trying.?

?[i]Ah . . . no . [/i]. .?

Both heads---black and white---turned at the soft whisper of voice.

Sesshoumaru lay still and calm, like a dead man, but his lips had moved.

[i]?Take . . . sword[/i],? he whispered.

Inuyasha went utterly still at the sound of that voice. Kagome, who had just climbed onto his back, felt his uncertainty in the stiffness of his shoulders. Sesshoumaru?s breath had become so quiet that steam no longer drifted from his lips into the sulfurous air around them.

Then, abruptly, Inuyasha rose to his feet.

?We?ll go,? he said brusquely, still staring down at the pale form lying on the rock.

But Kagome could hear the thickness in his voice, and felt a lump gathering in her own throat.

?[i]Inu . [/i]. .? she began. But she stopped short; he had just shaken his head sharply.

?We have to hurry,? he cut her off. ?We?ll leave him. He?s dying anyway.?[/color]

[color=Purple]Kagome was shaking so badly that she knew she wouldn?t have been able to stand had he set her on her feet. She was terrified for her life. The ground was heaving now as if it would never be still again. Kirara, who was pressed between Kagome?s chest and Inuyasha?s back, was unconscious. There would be no more transforming, and no swift ride out of this hell of stone and fire. Even if they should run, with Inuyasha?s demon speed . . . even then . . . the place could blow at any instant.

?It won?t make any difference, Inuyasha,? she whispered raggedly into his furry, singed ear. ?Take his sword. It?s what he wants.?

Inuyasha drew in a swift, shaky breath. Then he knelt to take the sword Tenseiga from its scabbard at his brother?s side. In order to do so, he had to reach across Sesshoumaru?s broken, battered form. As he did so, Kagome thought she heard his breath catch, but she couldn?t see his face and it might have been Sesshoumaru?s breath catching. Or it might have been the fissures of steam, rising through the cracks appearing suddenly beneath their feet.

As Inuyasha?s one free hand closed around Tenseiga?s hilt and drew it free of its scabbard, a pale hand clamped over his like a vise, clasping both sword-hilt and hand against the bloodstained chest. Alarmed, Inuyasha tried to pull free, to loosen the sword from Sesshoumaru?s grasp. When that didn?t work, he tugged sharply to free his hand, intending to leave the sword behind.

But Sesshoumaru would not let him go. Sharp nails, sharp as needles, sank into the back of Inuyasha?s hand, pinning it to the sword, which in turn he held close against his chest with unnatural, iron strength.

?What are you[i] doing[/i]?? Inuyasha hissed, letting go of Kagome?s leg in order to attempt to pry himself loose with his other hand. ?[i]Why are you doing this??[/i]

One second passed. Then two. Sesshoumaru said nothing. And the white claws did not release their hold.

Inuyasha?s breath came in quick pants now with the strain of tension. If he could not free himself, they would all die here.

?Do you [i]want[/i] it to end this way so [i]badly[/i]?? he snarled suddenly, lowering his face nearer to his brother?s. ?We?ll die the White Brothers, here, on the mountain! The fucking [i]White Brothers[/i]! And Naraku will win. And he?ll [i]deserve[/i] to win, because we were too fucking [i]weak[/i] to save [i]ourselves[/i]!? He paused, breathing hard, angry beyond measure.

Sesshoumaru?s gaze shifted, coming to rest upon his brother?s face. His eyes were strangely beautiful; luminous and deep. There was no savagery left in them. Kagome held her breath.

Inuyasha?s head lowered further, as if he, too, were trying to fathom what lay in the white demon?s heart at this moment.

[i]?Do you hate me . . . that much?? [/i]he whispered.

The ground beneath them all began to crack and shift. Small geysers of steam rose around them; between them.

And Sesshoumaru opened his mouth to speak.

[i]?Don?t . . . fight . .[/i] .? he breathed. ?[i]Trust .[/i] . .?

The ground beneath them heaved mightily.

And then the rock exploded, and they were swallowed in a column of fire.[/color]

[color=Green][center][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=Purple]Even from the snow-covered streets of the city, in the sheltered valley beyond the mountains to the east, he could see the fire from Reiyama. It pierced the night in a violent, upward jet, like a red sword stabbing skyward. It thickened, becoming a pillar, exploding so high and straight that it disappeared into the dark clouds circling that place.

Asano-[i]o-sama[/i], king of the Tatesei, stood upon the stone terrace of the palace, on the side which overlooked the lake behind the city. The orange light from the distance reflected in the lake?s surface, which was broken and distorted into countless tiny shards of water because the earth was shaking beneath it.

?[i]The mountain has erupted[/i],? he thought, wondering what this meant. He knew nothing of the future that stood to be altered, nor that in that future he was to die in the flood of fire that would spill forth from the mountain. Yet he felt its coming, as surely as if the lava had already washed over him in a hot wave.

?[i]Sesshoumaru-sama[/i],? he thought, his eyes reflecting the glow from the fire. [i] ?Do you watch? Are you watching us now? Do you stand atop the cliffs of this valley, watching our fate come pouring toward us over the ruins of the mountain??[/i]

He thought of the Seer, and how she had looked upon the white demon with such apprehension.

Asano?s youthful face was smooth, but there was sorrow in his eyes. Deep sorrow. He was sinking in it.

[i]?Or are you the one hastening this doom[/i],? he thought, ?[i]because we have betrayed you??[/i]

?Husband!?

A tall, slender woman came rushing onto the terrace, throwing herself into his arms. He did not look at her, though his arms closed automatically around her thin shoulders. She was taller than he was, but fear had bowed her head and she had to lift her face to look at him.

?Husband,? she repeated, her voice trembling. He did not have to look down to know that her obsidian eyes, black with the Dragon?s taint like his own, were full of desperation.

But he, as her king and lord and lover, had only one hope left to give her. . .one last hope for [i]all[/i] of them . . .

?The guards came to me saying you?d given the order to empty the city,? his queen said, grasping the front of his green robes as if she intended to pull him away from the terrace by force. ?But they said you refused to leave. [i]Why? Why[/i] won?t you flee with your people??

Still he would not look at her. He kept his eyes trained upon the mountain.

?A shadow is coming,? he said quietly. ?It is the Dragon. I can feel it, searching among us for one who would draw it in . . .?

His wife shook her head, pulling back from him a little in horror.

?You mean to possess one of [i]us[/i], as you said Irusei-[i]sama[/i] believes??

Slowly, Asano shook his head. The gold ornaments in his hair jangled softly.

?Irusei is dead,? he said softly. ?Either Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i] has killed him . . . or he has died in the eruption. I can sense that the Dragon is searching for one among us who will draw it in willingly; if Irusei were not dead the Dragon would not be searching for a new avatar. But our people must flee, and they must be made to understand that the Dragon is the one who has brought this upon us. If they fear it, they won?t accept possession willingly, and the Dragon can?t take their bodies.?

His wife was not a shrewd woman, but nevertheless she drew back from him now, knowing instinctively what he intended.

?Then why . . . won?t [i]you[/i] flee?? she whispered. ?You can?t intend to . . .?

?The Dragon wants a human vessel,? Asano interrupted grimly. ?If it gains what it wants, it will surely save us from the lava.?

?[i]No!? [/i]the queen cried.

But she was already backing away.

?I am king of the Tatesei,? he told her softly. ?If I must give this creature what it wants to save my people, then [i]so be it[/i].?[/color]

[color=Green][center][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=Purple]It was Shippou who first heard the rush of wind overhead. It wailed between the peaked roofs of the Inu Youkai palace; whistled between the trees in the garden. It was Shippou, with his keen Youkai ears, who first noticed beneath the noise of the gale the fainter rasp of scales on stone.

?Something?s[i] outside[/i],? he announced at the top of his lungs, scurrying back down the hall from the room where he?d gone fetching blankets.

At first, his cry gained little attention. Both Miroku and the Seer had been laid on the cushions in the main hall, close to the fireplace for warmth. Sango was busy tending to them, and she didn?t turn around as the Kitsune came running. Jakken heard him, but he was too busy pacing worriedly to care.

?Shut [i]up[/i], stupid brat,? he screeched. ?I?m trying to think!?

Hurriedly, Shippou dumped the blankets he?d brought beside Sango and began tugging on the sleeve of the kimono she?d thrown on to replace her wet clothes.

?Hey, there?s something [i]out[/i] there!? he insisted, peering up at her with wide green eyes. ?On the roof.?

Sango finally took heed, turning away from the dressing she was applying to Miroku?s wound. However, before she could even open her mouth to reply a new distraction burst onto the scene.

?RIN!? Jakken wailed. ?DON?T BRING AUN [i]INSIDE[/i]!?

The heads of all parties not lying unconscious by the fire now turned toward the two who had just entered the hall. Rin was approaching them, leading the two-headed steed by a short halter. Aun?s claws clinked across the stone floor.

?Jakken-[i]sama[/i]!? Rin exclaimed, ignoring his protests. ?There is a monster circling the palace! We must do something about it!?

Sango rose onto her knees, eyes narrowing.

?Where did you see it??[/color]

[color=Purple]One hand was already reaching for her Hiraikoutsu, which wasn?t there. She?d taken it off when she?d changed clothes.

?It is big!? Rin told her, wide-eyed and pale. ?And black, but shining too. It keeps circling the palace.?

Shippou was about to ask ?[i]What IS it?? [/i]but then shut his mouth. One glance at Sango?s face told him exactly what it was.

?Sango!? he cried, tugging worriedly at her sleeve. ?You shouldn?t go out there. Even [i]Inuyasha[/i] was no match for the Dragon!?

?Her FACE!? Jakken exclaimed suddenly, pointing directly at the Seer, who lay to Sango?s left. ?L-l-l-l-look at her [i]face[/i]!?

Shippou crept nearer to see what the imp was stuttering about. To his surprise, fire was beginning to gleam through the veins in her face again. And the odd thing was, the phenomenon seemed to be confined solely to [i]her[/i]---Sango?s face was normal.

?He?s calling us,? Sango said, tilting her head back and gazing up at the ceiling. ?Raiiru is calling us.?

?But why isn?t [i]your[/i] face like hers?? Shippou pressed.

?He?s searching for a willing host for his spirit,? she replied in a low voice. ?But I?m unwilling. She, however . . .? She lowered her head, glancing pointedly at the Seer. ?Some part of her must be willing . . .?

The Seer?s eyes flew open.

?Suiton!? Rin dropped Aun?s tether and came running to her side. ?You must not go!?

The woman was attempting to sit up. Sango caught her, however, holding her down with one hand on her shoulder.

?Stay,? she warned. ?We haven?t fought this hard for him to win now.?

Suiton?s eyes were mad with fear.

?I?ve seen this!? she cried. ?I?ve [i]seen[/i] it!? She fought against Sango?s restraint with sudden vigor, arching her back and trying to twist sideways out of the demon-slayer?s grip.

Alarmed, Sango bent over her, pressing more of her weight against the woman?s chest and taking hold of her other arm as well.

?Someone [i]help[/i] me!? she called, casting a brief glance at the others. ?She?s gotten stronger, and my body?s too tired for this.?

Overhead, a gale-force wind wailed across the roof, and the Dragon let out a long, reverberating hiss. All present froze, scarcely daring to breathe as they listened. Then Suiton began to struggle again. Tears streamed from her black eyes, soaking into the hair strewn across her face.

?We can?t fight this!? she cried. ?Give me to him, and he?ll spare us all!?

Rin stood beside her, wringing her small hands in distress.

?But Sesshoumaru-[i]sama[/i] will save us,? she told the Seer. ?Inuyasha-[i]sama[/i] too. And Kagome-[i]sama.?[/i]

The Seer turned toward her, her fire-streaked face contorted in misery.

?Sesshoumaru is [i]dead[/i],? she said, in a voice heavy with despair. ?His brother killed him. And Inuyasha has been consumed in flame. The skies are now raining fire. Can you keep doubting my vision? The White Brothers are [i]dead[/i], and the [i]world[/i] is going to [i]end[/i] . . .?

Sango slapped her. Hard, across the face.

?Be quiet,? she told the woman sharply, still holding her down. ?Stop letting your fear of evil make it your master. Raiiru is showing you these things in your mind, isn?t he? That?s where your visions come from, isn?t it??

The Seer went silent for a moment, struck dumb by the blow.

?Has it never occurred to you,? Sango pressed, ?that the Dragon might be using your predictions to [i]manipulate[/i] the future??

The Seer drew in a soft gasp.

?My gift . . .? Suiton finally murmured. ?It is . . . All Tatesei Seers were the Dragon?s children. It [i]must[/i] be so . . . And I . . . After the Dragon began to awaken in response to Kagome[i]-sama?s[/i] possession of the Shikon no Tama, he must have sensed Sesshoumaru-[i]sama?s [/i]obsession with power through [i]me[/i]. And he showed me the Jewel falling into my scrying bowl, because he knew that if Sesshoumaru brought it to me and it came into contact with the [i]ryunochi[/i] the bowl was carved from . . . he would then awaken in full.?

Sango nodded grimly.

?All the more reason not to give him what he wants. We?ll find a way to fight this future.? She paused; she felt movement at her back. ?What---??

Behind her, Miroku was pushing himself into a sitting position.

?Miroku!? Shippou exclaimed tearfully. ?You?re [i]awake[/i]!?

The monk didn?t reply. His gaze was turned upward; he was listening to the noises overhead. Slowly, pushing himself up one knee at a time, he rose to his feet.

?Miroku,? Sango said in a low voice, watching him, ?what are you thinking??

?The Dragon?s in wraith form right now,? he said quietly. ?It isn?t wearing Sesshoumaru?s flesh.? Absently, one hand brushed across the prayer beads covering the other.

It was a gesture Sango didn?t fail to notice.

?You?re [i]not[/i] doing this,? she warned him, understanding what he intended. ?At least, not without [i]me[/i].?

?Sango, please stay inside,? he told her, without looking at her. ?We don?t know what this thing is capable of, and you?re injured.?

?You [i]too[/i]!? she argued, temper flaring.

?[i]Stay,? [/i]Miroku said firmly. ?I can?t risk having you nearby; you might be drawn in. I want you to find somewhere in this place to anchor yourselves. Hide yourselves. Especially [i]her[/i].? He nodded toward the Seer.

He seemed much steadier on his feet than Sango had anticipated . . . or, at least, adept at ignoring the pain.

?I won?t leave you to do this by yourself!? she snapped.

Then there came a loud crack from overhead.

Shippou jumped and let out a squawk.

?Th-th-th-the DRAGON!? Jakken stammered, cowering behind his Staff of Heads, which he was holding in front of him like a shield. ?It?s going to come through the [i]roof[/i]!?

Sango gritted her teeth; this was bad. Though he was a wraith, apparently Raiiru?s body was just solid enough to crack stone.

?Jakken, Rin,? she said, turning abruptly to face them. ?Is there anywhere to hide in this place? Any underground passageways??

Rin and Jakken exchanged glances.

?One,? Jakken replied, in a tone oddly hushed. ?It leads to caves in the mountains just northeast of here.?

Sango stared at him; he looked a bit sad. But they didn?t have time to indulge his reluctance.

?Can you lead them there?? Miroku asked him. ?You won?t be safe here for long---from the Dragon or from me.?

Sango rounded on him to protest, but the movement set her head reeling. To her frustration, Miroku caught her before she could stumble. She was surprised how strong the urge was to keep standing her, with his hands on her shoulders, but another reverberating crack from above forbade hesitation. She lifted her head, straightening, and saw that he was smiling down at her.

?It will be all right,? he told her. ?Just go. I?ll keep the Dragon from following you; right now [i]they[/i] need you to lead them to safety.?

Sango swallowed hard and nodded.

?Once we get down into the passageway, we can ride Aun,? Rin volunteered. ?They will fit; the tunnel is large.?

Sango nodded briskly.

?Very well. Can Aun carry all of us??

?I can walk!? Shippou offered gallantly.

?You can go ahead of us and conjure foxfire to light our way,? Sango told him. He nodded seriously. His face was pale, but he seemed proud to be of use. ?Now, where?s the passage?? she asked, turning to Jakken.

The imp sighed, rubbing at his nonexistent eyebrows as if opting for the tunnel pained him greatly.

?Follow me,? he said.[/color]

[color=Green][center][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=Purple]Miroku strode quickly down the empty halls, robes billowing about his legs. His right hand was clenched into a fist so tightly around his prayer beads that they left indentations in his fingers. His left trailed along the stone wall; he was extremely dizzy and feverish, and was trying not to faint. He had left his staff in the great hall; it wasn?t going to be any help given what he intended to do. His staggering gait was swift, however awkward, and his course undeviating. He soon reached the end of the hall, and slid aside two door panels carved with white cranes.

He paused on the threshold, panting.

At first he thought he had been unconscious for a whole day, and now it was night again. Then he realized that what he was seeing wasn?t the pitch blackness of an unlit garden at night, but the dark coils of the Dragon flowing past the doorway.

[i]?It must have wrapped itself around the whole palace[/i],? he realized, staggered. He hadn?t imagined it would be so huge. He couldn?t even see top or bottom of the coil---all he saw were rows of silver-black scales.

?[i]I should try to get outside to do this[/i],? he thought, swiping at the sweat on his brow. [i]?If I try to pull it into my hand from inside the palace it will end up breaking this place apart, and I?ll be crushed before I can draw it in fully.?[/i]

Leaving the doorway, Miroku stumbled back down the hall, searching for a room where he couldn?t see black out the window. The last one he tried had no window, but its contents gave him an idea. He could see by the dim light from the hallway torches that the place was full of weapons. Swords and shields, axes and daggers, arrowheads and halberds, all stacked on shelves or mounted on sconces like someone?s collection. He lifted down an axe and swung it at the wooden wall. If he could hack a hole large enough to squeeze through, he might be able to find a place where the dragon?s coils didn?t block his way.

Weak as he was, his swing only made a dent in the wood. The walls were thick; it would take a supreme amount of strength to penetrate them . . . unless he swung with something heavier. Miroku dropped the axe and caught up a halberd. It was far heavier, and his muscles burned as he lifted it, but he gritted his teeth and swung it anyway. It clove a great crack in the wood, vertically long enough for him to slip through. He could see faint light filtering in from outside; there was an opening, if only he could reach it.

But to reach it, he was going to have to widen the crack considerably, and this meant swinging [i]sideways[/i] with the halberd---a task that seemed near impossible. His arms were shaking. He struck slantwise, and the crack widened a bit. But it was nowhere near enough. He could tell this was going to take multiple tries to work.

?[i]But why is the Dragon still determined its prey is HERE?[/i]? he wondered as he labored. ?[i]It came here in the first place because it sensed two of the hanryu were HERE . . . But they should be gone by now . . .?[/i]

He lifted the halberd over his head to give extra momentum to his next strike, but this time the weight was too much for him. He started to topple backwards.

Strong arms caught the blade before it could descend, and he found himself stumbling against someone standing behind him.

That someone had breasts.

?You?re a fool to think I?d leave you like this,? Sango murmured into his ear.

?Nice and soft,? Miroku remarked. His ear was tingling.

Sango made a faint chuffing sound of irritation and clasped both her hands more firmly around the halberd?s handle, just above his.

?We?ll swing together,? she said.

And they did.

The crack did not merely widen; an entire section of the wall of approximately one-yard radius shattered, showering splinters outward onto the terrace. They dropped the halberd and crawled through it, emerging into what appeared to be the freezing crack of dawn.

Immediately, Miroku realized that something was Very Wrong.

?Why can we see the dawn?? Sango asked, echoing his thoughts. ?Where has the Dragon gone??

The dark coils were gone; in their place was the view of the garden, touched gently by a wan morning light gleaming between the mountains. Miroku fell from his knees to his rear end, splaying both hands behind him on the terrace.

?Why has it left us?? he mused. ?If it has given up on [i]you[/i], Sango, it must have gone after the Seer . . . but . . .?

?. . . we would still [i]see[/i] it if that were the case,? Sango finished for him, picking splinters out of her bangs. ?It would have been tracking their progress through the passageway from overhead, which goes east.? She pointed across the garden; despite the ashy cloud hovering over the mountains, there was no sign of the Dragon there. ?But what could have lured it away from the palace so swiftly??

?Then . . . it may have gone west.? Miroku started, rising onto his knees again in alarm. ?Sango, if it has found you and Suiton-[i]sama[/i] unwilling vessels . . . and it?s left this fast . . . It may have found a [i]willing[/i] vessel elsewhere . . .? [/color]

[color=Green][center][b]{+} {+} {+}[/b][/center][/color]

[color=Purple]Asano stood upon the stone bridge by the lack, watching the fury of the mountain unfold. The air above it, and above the Tatesei Valley, was swathed in a black curtain of ash, but he could still see the liquid flame beginning to pour down toward the city. It filtered through the crevices in the slope, pooling and splashing and oftentimes simply flowing [i]over[/i] the obstacles in its path that it could not burn.

Reiyama, the city of the Tatesei, was going to burn.

Then he tilted back his head, squinting against the black snow because he?d seen something moving. It was coming toward him, dipping into the valley and flying down toward the lake.

[i]?Raiiru-o-sama!? [/i]he cried, lifting his arms in supplication. ?[i]Come fill me!?[/i]

And the shadow twisted, fixing his small figure with the pinpoint gleam of its eyes. The long forked tongue flickered, tasting the air and reveling in the scent of destruction. For a moment it hung poised in mid-air over the water; the Dragon had wrought this catastrophe, and was savoring it.

Then it made straight for him.[/color]

[color=Green][center][b]END OF CHAPTER 18[/b][/center][/color]

[i]Yamisui: . . .where it took over his body and stopped the lava flow and the Tatesei made a fortune starting up their own casino chain. The deaths of Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru, and Kagome were tragic but unavoidable. The End.

(As if. Stay tuned for the last chapter in LOTW: ?One Winter?s Eve.?)[/i]
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