Second Alliance – Chapter 23

Back to Chapter 22: Eloquence

Chapter 23: White Knight

The stars were bright. Kagome stared up in confusion for a few moments. It shouldn’t have been so dark.  The sun hadn’t yet set when she was talking with Ko… Ko.  Kagome’s eyes widened.  Ko had said she would help her escape. She had a leaf and then…

Kagome tried to sit up. Her transport rocked wildly, spinning enough to make her reach out to grip the sides.  That was a mistake.  Dry, curled leaf crumbled under her hands.  She let out a little cry of alarm, and froze, half-lying and half-sitting.  The leaf – nearly six feet long – was shaped like a taco shell: open on both ends and angling up at the top.  Gradually, gently, she lay back down and the flight began to steady.

Kagome willed her heart to stop pounding and tilted her head as far as she could to look out the open end of the leaf. The storm clouds, present for so many days, had disappeared.  It was lucky the high sides of the leaf and youki-fueled wind shear kept the worst of the snow and bitter cold away.  She was dusted with a light crust of the frozen white flakes, and her face felt numb, but it could have been much worse – deadly – if she had been exposed to the elements for very long.

The darkness curved from one end of the leaf to another; the sky was distinguished by pinpricks of stars and fat crescent moon.  Kagome sighed, gently, so as not to disturb the delicate balance of her glider. Ko had done it. She had somehow managed to get her out of the dragons’ castle, just as she said she would. Kagome worried her lip.  The wind youkai was still there, back in the Northern fortress, with the most reprehensible monster she’d ever had the misfortune to meet.

Her eyes hardened. She had to go back.  Ko deserved to escape as well – perhaps even more than Ryukostokken deserved to die.  Kagome owed her that, and it was the right thing to do.  As soon as she landed, and figured out where she was, and got back to the Western Palace, and talked to Sesshomaru…

Kagome wanted to moan in despair.  It was overwhelming; she would have never believed she would think it, but she almost missed the ‘kill the bad guys, steal the shard, rinse and repeat’ quest for the Shikon.  In comparison, a pending war with a psychotic killer required more strategy and finesse than she had ever had to employ with Inuyasha.  Kagome laughed to herself.  That was the real difference between Inuyasha and Sesshomaru.  Easy simplicity versus stunning complexity.  The brothers would fight the same battles, protect their packs and their honor, never consider giving up, but their methods were as different as black and white.

She glanced up at the stars and moon again, and frowned.  The leaf had leveled out, mostly, and the rotation had stopped completely – which was great news for her stomach – but she thought she might be going slower.  Kagome listened to the wind around her.  She sighed in frustration; she just couldn’t tell how fast she was moving.

Hesitantly, she reached out with her reiki, hoping that the youki that kept her afloat might have a tiny bit of information about where she was, how far she had to go, or how fast she was travelling.  And maybe she could nudge it to flatten out so that her blood would stop slowly draining to her head and she would no longer have to worry that she might suddenly begin to slide out the open end of the leaf.

She closed her eyes, smiling a bit at the last little curl of Sesshomaru’s power that was still wrapped around her protectively.  She tugged, gently, and it relaxed just enough that she could tap a small portion of her energy and send it outside herself to probe her surroundings.  Kagome had a split second to gain the impression of cool silver currents before her reiki came into direct contact with that air.  The leaf dropped, and like a skydiver without a parachute, Kagome felt the sudden increase in pressure and the air below rushed up to bend the leaf around her. “No!” She couldn’t help but sit up and cry out, and her reiki mimicked her – flaring wildly.  Quickly, she reigned her power back in, Sesshomaru’s youki tying it up tightly, but her drop did not slow at all.

“Please, please, please,” she whispered.  Her holy energy was clamoring at her to do something. She pressed her hands against the leaf, straining to hold back her own instinct for self-preservation, knowing that the only way she would survive a descent from such a height was if youki assisted her. Ko said not to use my reiki, she reminded herself with a mental slap.

One hand accidently broke through the delicate paper of the dry leaf, and Kagome screamed.  Still, she held in her reiki. A pulse of cool air sent her transport spinning, forcing her to close her eyes or throw up.  Another, stronger blast hit her from below.  Her descent slowed for a moment, and then she was falling again. Another, hard burst of wind pushed her up and angled her forward as well.  The process repeated, making Kagome’s stomach churn with fear and motion sickness.

The unnatural gusts of wind – Kagome knew they had to be youki-fueled and sent a blessing to Ko – grew less frequent and intense as time wore on. If Ko was losing the ability to sustain the wind, it was only a matter of time before she fell.  Without youki to hold the shape and size of the leaf, it would shrink, leaving her in a dive.  Think, Kagome, think, she ordered herself.  She needed to be lower, or it wouldn’t matter if she dropped over water or land – the impact would still kill her.  If she landed in the water… Just don’t land in the water.

She inched out and turned her head to peek around the edge of the leaf – and almost immediately regretted it.  Bitterly cold air stung her face and threatened to freeze the liquid in her eyes.  She pulled back quickly, only able to make out that the black below her reflected the moonlight, the ocean, and in the distance it became flatter and lighter.  Please, by all that is holy, let that be snow.   “If it isn’t land, I’ll always have thought it should have been,” she muttered. For about three minutes, until I fall into a hypothermic coma and drown.

Shaking with cold and fear, Kagome judged the distance to the land and the ocean, whispered a blessing for good luck, and punched her hand through the leaf. With two holes in the bottom, the currents holding her up were less effective, and her downward momentum increased. The land was drawing closer, but she couldn’t be sure if it was enough. Kagome’s teeth began to chatter and her legs felt numb.  Cold air stung her exposed face and hands, but she refused to lie back down.  She judged the shore to be less than a mile away, although it was difficult to tell in the darkness. Kagome tried desperately to remember anything from geography class.  She hoped that wherever she was had a minimum of sharp rocks and basalt cliffs – preferably none.

She counted to sixty, and guessed how far she had travelled; glad she had managed to get some studying done between shard hunts – especially time and distance equations.  Her rate of speed was too slow, both in forward momentum and descent.  Swimming in freezing water was a bad idea, but she knew how to swim and how to build a fire. She did not know how to keep afloat with a broken pelvis, which was likely if she was more than two hundred feet above the water.  I’m not going to make it to land, so how do I survive a fall into water?

She had no way to make the wind stronger, or the leaf faster. But she could increase her rate of fall. Not too much – just enough. Too much and I’ll break something, either my spine or my ride; not enough and the leaf will disappear before I am ready. Kagome stared up at the moon, knowing what she should do and calling herself crazy. This is so dumb, so dumb. Shit. Just do it. Goddamnit! Just do it! She punched her hand through the leaf again, and then again. Wind howled into the rents in the thin tissue, screaming past her and heralding a rapid drop. A heartbeat behind, the youki wind buffeted her, tearing through the side of her transport and slamming directly into her.

Kagome was much, much closer to the land.  She could clearly make out a snowy beach and the uneven shape of a icebound forest.  She was also closer to the water, but it wasn’t enough.

She couldn’t hear her own sobs of fear and desperate frustration over the sound of her plummet.  Tears and snot ran down her face, freezing against her skin.  Something tugged inside her and she felt the pull of Sesshomaru’s tendril of youki on her reiki, urging it to the surface. She hadn’t figured correctly, or something else was conspiring against her – as usual. Her last thought before she slammed into the water, feet first, pink light blazing around her, was, Damn, Inuyasha should have let me study more.

ooo

Ko leaned back against the wall in the small cell, gasping for breath and holding her aching ribs.  She had lost it. Her youki was almost completely expended; she didn’t have enough power to sustain flight – even if she could find the miko again.  If her leaf lasted ten minutes without her energy, it would be a miracle.  She tilted her head to listen to the wind, waiting for news of the one who had escaped.  She had flown to the mainland many times and knew how long the journey took. She hadn’t carried the miko far enough; she was going to fall into the ocean.

The demoness didn’t know many humans, and none well, but she was aware that a human was far weaker than a youkai.  It was unlikely that the miko would survive if she landed over the water.  She was not too far from the shore, less than a league, but the waters were cold, and humans needed warmth. Ko closed her eyes against a tidal wave of despair.  The miko needed to get word to the Saidai Mao; he had to attack Ryukostokken. The Western Lord was perhaps the only being strong enough to defeat the dragon, and the longer the North was left to prepare and plot, the more difficult the upcoming battle would be.

The storm had slowly died out while she worked to help the miko escape.  No more snow fell outside and the demoness could see the stars.  For the first time in decades, she could see the stars. Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Ko quickly summoned mist through the window to cloud her eyes as she listened to a muffled conversation.

“I should have been woken immediately!” Wei’s angry voice was unmistakable.

An apologetic guard replied, “I am sorry, sir. Your personal attendant said that you did not want to be disturbed until morning. I waited as long as I felt prudent.”

“You waited until another guard had the balls to deliver our Lord’s summons and do your work for you.  You are not only a coward, but an idiot. The tree youkai I was questioning are not going anywhere, that’s why they are called prisoners,” the mocking condescension was audible in his voice. “Their interrogation and preparation for my Lord would have waited for something this important.” There was the sound of flesh hitting flesh, and a restrained growl. “You can consider your mistake while you spend the next century cleaning latrines,” the administrator snarled.

The door slammed open, and Wei stood in the entrance, two guards at his back. “Bring them both. My Lord wishes-” He sucked in a deep breath in surprise and snarled in the language of the dragons.  Ko had been held captive long enough to make out his words, “Search the castle, find the human!” One guard dashed off and Wei stalked into the room.  “Where is she?”

“Drowning, I assume,” Ko said dryly.  It was the truth, and not the truth. In her years under Ryukostokken’s rule, she had learned to walk a careful line.  To protect her secrets, she had to be honest enough that youkai senses would not discover a lie, and vague enough that she gave nothing away.  If she was too vague, an intelligent demon would suspect her.  Lucky for me, there aren’t too many of those around.

With the fog clouding her eyes she couldn’t see, but Ko had years of practice at blindness as well.  Wei leaned back from her, stirring the air slightly and scented so strongly with frustration and fear that even she could smell them.  Ryukostokken didn’t have the superior nose of an inu, but he would sense the administrator’s fear as well.  Few things sparked a predator’s interest like fear.  Wei was in trouble; responsibility for the guards, and ultimately their prisoners, was his alone. Ryukostokken would not be pleased. Ko held in a vengeful smile.

“She jumped out the window?” The administrator shoved Ko out of the way to lean out of the opening in the wall and peer down at the waves.  The sound of their crash against the rough stone of the cliff base was loud in the absence of the storm.

“I heard her leave,” Ko said, wiping all emotion from her voice.

Wei snapped his teeth at her. “Why didn’t you stop her, you useless whore?” In response, Ko pulled her hands away from her body and carefully straightened her legs, revealing what she knew to be a massive bloodstain on the white shirt the miko had left her.  Her insides were still ripped apart from Ryukostokken’s treatment. They would take days to heal completely. She tilted her face to the side, revealing the burn marks left by Kagome’s reiki – which Ko knew would be taken as signs of a struggle. The dragon did not comment, but turned sharply and left, issuing orders to the remaining guard, “Gather as many soldiers as can be spared; scour the rocks for any sign of her.”

The door was left partly open behind them, as Ko was given free reign to move through the castle.  A blind wind youkai was incapable of leaving, so there was no reason to lock her in. She released the mist from her eyes, grateful to see once again.  The miko had done that for her, given her sight, and much more.  The human woman had struggled against Ryukostokken when she had no reason to hope.  She’d helped Ko when there was no benefit for her to do so.  She is strong, Ko decided.  She may have a chance.

ooo

The stifling heat of the earth irritated Sesshomaru.  He wanted to run, to fly, to expend some of the furious energy that was building inside him, had been since the moment the miko was taken and he had forced himself to remain inactive.  The power of the rock brothers made movement not only unnecessary, but also dangerous – even for a being of his caliber.  They bent the earth and stone around themselves and their Lord positioned between them. The lands moved around them, rather than they moving over the lands.  It was a fast, efficient means of travel, if confining.

More importantly, Sesshomaru reminded himself, it was stealthy. Under normal circumstances, the underground travel of the rock youkai was more than sufficient to avoid detection.  It was the same method they had used to infiltrate the North two decades earlier and destroyed the prisoner camp where Ryustokken kept his food.  For this expedition, the daiyouki had ordered additional precautions.  He was determined that even someone who knew the methods of elemental movement would not sense their departure or passing – another safeguard against the espionage he suspected was still at work in the West.

Eiji and Eiichi had wrapped their youki around him and had pulled him slowly into the rock floor of the hot springs, underneath the castle. It had taken an hour to descend to a depth Sesshomaru had deemed acceptable, and then they had begun moving forward.  The heat of the deep earth pressed against them as the weight of hundreds of feet of dirt and stone weighed down on them.  Sesshomaru estimated that several hours had passed since they had begun – several more since they had travelled under the border of the Northern Lands.  He gauged their travel speed and the distance between the Western Palace and the waters of the Tsugaru Strait.

With a quiet word, he stopped their progress, “Up.”

The rock demons obeyed, slowing the ripples of the earth around them until they came to a standstill.  Beads of sweat formed on their brows; Sesshomaru judged them to be working hard, but nowhere near exhaustion.  They released additional youki, infusing the layers of stone beneath them and parting the ground above, and they began to rise.  Sesshomaru continued to fulfill his role in their plan, masking his presence and containing his massive power.  He surpassed even his usual control; except for sight, no sense – demon or otherwise – would note his presence from more than a few feet away. Rock demons, to those unfamiliar with their abilities, were often mistaken in passing as spirits of the earth. The Western Lord was counting on Ryukostokken’s intolerance to have kept his patrolling soldiers unable to recognize the particular sensation of elemental youki when it was nearby.  The location had been carefully chosen: far enough from the landing site for Northern ships to avoid soldiers, but still minimizing the distance of the water crossing.

As they neared the surface, Eiji reigned in his power and used the impenetrable skin of his hands and the strength of his arms to part the soil over their heads.  Eiichi sent one last bolt of energy below them, eliciting a tremor from the earth that would propel them the rest of the way, before hiding his own youki.  The ground parted, sending crumbles of dirt and puffs of dust and snow scattering around them as they emerged.

Sesshomaru was immediately greeted by the sight of the crescent moon – the sign of his mother’s house – and a tug on his youki.  He reigned it in, suppressing his energy and scanning the ice-encrusted rocky beach and black waves of the ocean.  He reviewed his strategy.  They would rest briefly, then return to the earth, moving even deeper to cross under the sea and reach the stronghold of the North.  Once there, the brothers would search out the miko through the stone that was Ryukostokken’s castle.  Sesshomaru felt certain she would be on an upper floor – height was an easy way of containing humans – and he would climb the exterior of the castle, without assistance from his youki, to reach her. His lip lifted slightly in a minute display of disgust at the indignity of scaling fortifications like a common human thief. If all went well, he would not have to kill many guards before he found her and brought her back to his own soldiers.  Once underground again, we –

His skin tightened and his youki heated inside him, rolling and gathering itself – ready to take action.  Something was wrong. Some detail was incongruous and it disturbed him.  Still unwilling to stretch out his power and risk alerting a patrol, Sesshomaru instead pushed his other senses to their limits.  Turning in a slow circle, he listened to the woods further inland: every tree branch that creaked under a burden of snow and creature that stirred.  His ears focused on the rough wash of cold saltwater on ice-slick dark stones. His eyes scanned everything while he inhaled deeply, trying to find what was out of place.

Trees and snow. Pine and clean, cold water. A wary owl. Feathers and warm meat. Smooth stones and black waves. Frozen earth and wet salt.  The moon, the sign of his house. Distant stars that winked and disappeared behind a lone cloud. Winter on the ocean. Crisp tang, warm salt, cherry wood-

Sesshomaru froze, tilting his face in a manner he had never done before, would have scorned if he saw another so poised. He lifted his nose to catch a delicate breeze.  New, sweet cherry wood. Magnolia blossoms. Sour melon.

“She is here,” he growled in a low voice.  The rock brothers stood at attention, their inferior senses scanning the area around them.  She was across the water, he knew, but without his youki, he could not tell where.  Another scent reached him, hidden, but not well enough. “So is the enemy.”  His blood pounded in his chest; his eyes grew hot. She was close, so close, and he would have her again. Reveal yourself, alert the enemy, and it will mean nothing, he admonished himself.

He signaled his soldiers, and the rock brothers stepped silently away, seemingly melting into the shadows between the tree line and the beach.  Footsteps were muffled by deep drifts of snow. The approach of a youkai, strong, but not a daiyoukai, grated on his senses, but he remained still.  Only his head turned, his eyes seeking out the wayward dragon patrol that had stumbled upon them. Pale violet eyes caught his, and widened.

Before the dragon could open his mouth, he was silenced by the violent wrenching of his neck between the powerful hands of a rock demon. Eiji smoothly, slowly, parted the snow and soil under the body of his brother’s victim using a minimum of youki.  Eiichi waited for the body to be almost entirely below the ground before he wrenched the head again – removing it completely and ensuring that the dragon would not revive.  Both parts of the corpse were pulled into the earth, swallowing the evidence of the dead patrol and the scent of his murder. Eiichi used a fallen branch to dust the snow back into place, leaving no sign that anything had happened.

Sesshomaru stepped to the edge of the water, the tide nearly kissing his boots, and waited.  The scent was slowly growing stronger, but still he could see no craft upon the waves, feel no youkai presence carrying her to him.  He waited, motionless at the border of the sea, breathing her in and trying to balance his own desires against the path of conquest he had to walk – one that seemed to grow narrower and more treacherous with each footfall.

The rock brothers returned to their stations behind him.  Minutes ticked by, and he glanced upward once more, judging the time by the moon.  For a brief moment, the dark cloud he had seen before passed in front of the bright crescent, and he saw it for what it was. Not a cloud, but a transport not unlike Kagura’s feather – large enough to carry a human.

Anticipation clawed at his insides, easily tramping down worry and the heartclenching rightness he felt at knowing she would be with him again soon. The conveyance continued on, dipping and bobbing in a reckless path towards the shore before it fell.  Moments later, a brief, thready scream grated on his ears.  His youki rose up, ready to form his cloud and go to her.  Ruthlessly, reluctantly, he forced his power away rather than risk alerting any demon nearby to his presence.  He snarled in rage, instead ripping off his armor and leaving them on the beach with his boots and mokomoko before he surged into the ocean. Sesshomaru’s nose told him of the sour anxiety the miko must have felt as she fell.

He held his breath, straining his ears and eyes to track the dark shape against the darker sky as it crashed toward the water.    He watched her break the surface in a brilliant splash of pink light before Sesshomaru dove.

The water soaking his clothing was nothing to the powerful movement of his limbs. It pushed and pulled against him, trying to steer him into currents that would carry him away from Kagome. Weak moonlight filtered through the waves, giving him just enough direction to know up from down.  He surfaced only once for air and to track the miko’s location as she sank, reiki slowly dimming like a signal fire threatening to go out.

She will most likely inhale the water, his logic told him dispassionately.  While his mind struggled to remain focused, his instincts were threatening to overtake him, urging him to release his youki and transform, to reach her sooner.  He barely managed to repress them, swimming as quickly as his smaller form would allow – cursing the imperative to conceal his true form and desiring to force nature itself to submit to him and give back what was his.

Faster! He reached the area where she had entered the water; he did not stop for air before diving, deep, deep – following the faint glow of her power.  He seized the arm that trailed her descent, desperate to bring her back to the air.  He pulled her tightly against him, the remains of the leaf that had transported her, and the faint youki that fueled it, dissipating in the ocean.  He kicked hard, his anxiety burning in his lungs and mind until they broke the surface.

He took a deep breath, but heard no similar sound from the miko. Fear, unfamiliar and sharp, raked along his gut with sharp talons.  He glanced at her face as he swam back to the shore, holding her above the water with one arm.  Her eyes were closed, her mouth slightly open and dripping with seawater.  Sesshomaru, even without using youki, was a great deal faster than any human. He refused to doubt that he would be quick enough. He could feel the slow, weak pulse of her heartbeat in her belly, under his arm – but no breath.  Humans needed more air than youkai, he knew. Experience with Rin and travelling with the miko during the hunt for Naraku taught him they also needed warmth and dry clothing.

His feet touched the ground of the shore and mokomoko immediately twined up his leg to coil around the miko, holding her close. The rock brothers followed him off the pebbled beach, wide-eyed and with barely concealed anxiety. They stopped at the edge of the trees, behind a large root structure that blocked the rising cold wind which plastered his wet garments uncomfortably against his body.  Sesshomaru laid her on the ground, outwardly calm and inwardly shaken as he studied her pale skin and grey lips. His listened and watched for the pulse under her skin.  Her blood did not pound, but slipped through her veins quietly, sluggishly.  Terror, stark naked and colder than even the sea, gripped him.  Still, she did not breathe.  His hair slipped over his shoulder, dripping icy water onto Kagome’s slack face while he raced through every possible means of making her breathe.

“My Lord,” Eiji murmured, breaking the silence he had commanded of them before they left the castle.

Sesshomaru did not spare him a glance, but sat down, drawing her between his bent knees.  The thin silk of her undershirt was wet beneath his hands as he gripped her arms, careful to avoid the strange angle of her limb that indicated a break, and propped her up so that her stomach and chest pressed against his leg and her face leaned towards the ground.

Eiji’s eyes twitched between the forest and Sesshomaru. “My Lord, another patrol is coming this way from the dock the dragons use. They will have sensed Miko-sama’s energy.”

“Their youki is concealed, but even this snow cannot hide their footfalls from the stone,” Eiichi elaborated in a whisper. The more impulsive brother shifted impatiently.  Sesshomaru did not respond, but carefully modulated his strength, and hit the miko.

“Sesshomaru-sama!” Eiji sounded shocked.  Eiichi actually moved to grab his hand, faltering when met with the daiyoukai’s poisonous glare. Assured that they would not attempt to interrupt, Sesshomaru returned his eyes to Kagome and hit her again, in the center of her back, directly between her shoulder blades.  On the third, more desperate, strike, she vomited.  Sea water and bile poured from her mouth in a choking cough. One of her hands ineffectually clutched at his knee where it pressed into her chest and tremors coursed through her.  Finally, she drew in a shaky breath. Sesshomaru breathed again as well; he had not realized he had been holding it.

He picked her up, both to ease her shivers and settle his own racing pulse, cradling her against him and wrapping mokomoko around her. His brows drew together and he clenched his jaw.  She was safe from his enemies, now that he had her, but there were many other ways a human could die.  He had to get her warm and dry – soon. There was also the growing scent of other youki approaching

He swiftly stalked into the woods, looking for a patch of ground where the snow was not so thick, and their departure would be less noticeable.  Sesshomaru nodded shortly to signal it was time to leave. The rock brothers were at his side in an instant, silent once more and straining to feel the echoes of patrols moving across the earth.  One carried his armor, the other his boots, as they each touched one of his shoulders and began sinking into the earth once again. He had been irritated by the hot press of earth on their way north, but the brittle ice forming in Kagome’s hair, the cold that seemed to emanate from her, made him eager to return to it.

Her eyes fluttered weakly before focusing briefly on his face and her speech stuttered, “I k-k-k-knew you would c-c-c-come, Sess-s-s-ho-ma-ru-u-u-u. S-s-s-saved me.” She sagged bonelessly against him, a tiny smile lifting the corners of her mouth. As the light dimmed to nothing Sesshomaru studied the miko’s pale face, her lips blue with cold. “My k-k-k-knight in shining ar-r-r-mor.”

The Western Lord did not respond, but pressed her closer to his chest. There was too much he wanted to say – too many things she needed to hear. She was foolish. He was a fool as well. He needed her. She was forbidden to ever come so close to death again. She was without parallel – awesome and beautiful and damned fortunate. She acted fearlessly, even while she was drenched in the scent of terror, in a way that made his heart stop and his stomach flip.  Unable to calm himself enough to speak, he only whispered against her temple, “Quiet, Miko.” His voice came out far weaker and tinged with a plea that he had not intended. He willed the heat of his body to seep through the wet cloth of his clothes and hers to warm her chilled skin.  His youki clamored against the restraints he set on it, desperate to sink into her and bring back her flush – she had looked pale, even greyish. He ground his teeth together in frustration. He could not – not until they were far from the Northern patrols, and potential spies, to eliminate any chance of his youki being detected.

He had not saved her, not truly. His sardonic realization tilted his lips in a small, unwilling smile. She had somehow managed to save herself. He brushed his nose against her half-frozen hair and let out a sigh that was part exasperation and part amazement. The only defense his human woman had was untrained holy power, and she had proven nearly incapable of using it without self-injury. Her vulnerability, and her lack of concern for it, was staggering. He breathed in her scent to steady himself before straightening.

The miko had somehow escaped Ryukostokken’s imprisonment, at the seat of his lands, without weapons or reiki. He reconsidered the battered, youki-fueled leaf that had carried her nearly to safety. She had apparently found allies in the most unlikely place in Japan, and made her own way back to him. Sesshomaru’s lips tilted into a wry smile. The woman was utterly impossible.

There was a time when Sesshomaru would have been insulted that his brilliant strategy had been subverted… but that time had long passed.  He was not certain which feeling would win the battle inside him: pride over her accomplishments, anger that she had nearly drowned herself, or the shaking release of the fear that had nearly choked him when he saw that she did not breathe.  Something even less familiar to him than fear – gratitude – rose to the top.

He was grateful to Kagome for her open nature that drew humans and youkai alike to her side like a moth to a flame. Grateful to his mother for her timely intervention. Grateful to Ryukotsusei for building such poor dungeon chambers during his reign and to Ryukostokken for guarding his prisoners so meagerly.  Sesshomaru’s ego, merited though it was, admitted that he had played only a very small role in the rescue of the miko.  It was a strange sensation – gratitude.  It unsettled him, tugged at his honor and his heart. He had no control over it, nor the actions of the one that prompted it, so it seemed. With unfamiliar submission he gave into the realization that he might be forced to become comfortable with gratitude. As long as Kagome was in his life – forever, he reassured himself – he would have things to be grateful for.

While a part of his mind considered the surprisingly effusive turn of sentiment, his more logical half was reviewing his intended’s injuries and assessing her condition as he had seen it before they went underground.  There was a shallow claw wound on the side of her face.  Sesshomaru had little doubt about how she had received it, but it smelled of nothing but her blood and the sea, which was preferred.  If he had scented Ryukostokken on her, he was not certain he could have continued with the plan, rather than turning and seeking out his enemy to rend him limb from limb.

The idea that any creature would act so blatantly, so personally offensive to the West made his blood boil. Kagome’s kidnapping, the potential dire outcomes of that, would have been catastrophic for the West and Japan as a whole. The brutal intimacy of her treatment was innately dishonorable and the seal on Ryukostokken’s fate. Even if he had not sent soldiers to attack villages in the West, Sesshomaru would have hunted him down and bled him dry for his malfeasance.

Her cheek was deeply bruised; a small cut split the skin high on the bone. Her wrists were raw and purple as though she had been shackled.  Her right arm hung awkwardly; the skin was not broken, but he suspected the bone had fractured on impact with the water. Her footwear and outer shirt were missing, but the rest of her clothing was mostly intact.  He longed to send his youki into her to better know how she fared, and to soothe any injuries she had acquired during her imprisonment, but it had to wait until they were out of Northern Territory and far from prying senses.

The soil was cooler, the dirt rimed with frost so close to the surface.  The daiyoukai began to reconsider his decision not to travel deeper, where the heat of the earth would have warmed her body.  They travelled closer to the surface than before, to increase their speed and allow occasional replenishment of their air supply. Humans needed to breathe more often than demons, and they required cleaner air. Sesshomaru would not jeopardize Kagome’s health further, but he had formulated many plans to deal with such circumstances.  Eiji and Eiichi were already putting one of his many contingency plans into effect. Kagome’s injuries demanded that they head to a safe haven just inside the Western border, instead of going directly to the Palace.

Sesshomaru pressed his nose against her forehead, letting his breath warm her skin and feeling her shivers as though they were his own. Her scent was watered down, but still soothing to his youki, while her obvious injuries and low temperature had his bestial side pacing. His body alone produced enough heat to keep her temperature stable, but he would have to warm her from the inside out to reverse the effects of her near drowning and prevent death. Unfortunately, he knew that she was susceptible to death from many other fronts.  She had numerous visible injuries, and he would not know if or how severely her organs had been damaged until he could examine her more closely.

The pocket of air around them was growing stale again, and Kagome’s shivers had ceased long before they reached a safe location to ascend.  Sesshomaru was worried that although she no longer shook, his miko was no warmer either.  Her pulse had continued to slow while they traveled, and her chest barely rose with each breath. When the ground above parted, he breathed deeply, and shook the miko awake so that she would take in more air as well.  He had to retrain himself from using too much strength out of concern. They had arrived just outside of a cave complex – one he had used before. “Kagome,” he said softly.

Her damp clothes showered tiny particles of salt on his naked feet, mixing with dried crust of seawater on his own skin and clothing, and her eyelids were heavy with exhaustion. Her lips were blue. As a young youkai, Sesshomaru had seen humans that had died of exposure.  He had overheard mourners describe their deaths as peaceful, ‘like falling asleep’. Regardless of the manner, it was still death, and he would not allow it to claim her.

“Kagome,” he said again, more insistently.  He shook her harder and her eyes opened wide. “You must not sleep.” He pushed a controlled measure of youki into her. Immediately, some of his tension eased as his power stirred her to wakefulness and began the long process to warm her. Her reiki reached out to him in a sluggish hello, a small bit slipping under his own skin, and despite the danger still present he felt a surge of determination and confidence. The sensation of being with her, being so close that they were inside one another, was more fulfilling than anything he had experienced – even regenerating his arm.

“Um-’k, Sesss- esso-maruu.” Her tongue seemed to get tangled around his name, and Sesshomaru’s concern spiked.

His eyes snapped to the rock demons. “Eiji, secure this place. Eiichi, fire and food for the miko,” Sesshomaru bit off his orders.  Eiichi obeyed him without question, although his concern for the miko was evident in his expression, and disappeared out of the mouth of the cave. Eiji hesitated, as though reluctant to allow his Lord and future Lady far from his sight.

“‘s-kay,” Kagome slurred, burrowing into Mokomoko and offering a stilted wave to the guard, “I’m fffffine.” Eiji nodded and left, although Sesshomaru could smell the demon’s disbelief; it laced his own scent as well. He did not acknowledge either as he continued inside, ignoring the miko’s clumsy attempts to arrange her clothes.

The location had been carefully chosen to provide maximum protection from the elements and any aerial patrols the dragons might send over the border.  Sesshomaru had been inside the temporary den before, and the series of bends that led down, deeper into the mountain, created an ideal bottleneck for attackers.  He carried the miko to the third and final chamber and sank down to the ground with graceful efficiency, settling her in his lap with her shoulder and hip pressed against him. Kagome pulled at her shirt, and he wondered if she was well enough to be irritated by the salt chafing her skin.

“Cannn’t wear this to sssschool, Sesss-mar…take off.” She struggled when he tried to pull her hands away, before collapsing in exhaustion.  Sesshomaru’s fear returned. He knew Kagome had not been to school for some time. If she believed she needed to be at that place she was severely disoriented. Her continued garbled attempts to communicate to him that she needed to take off her clothes confirmed his suspicions that the cold was harming her mind.

He gently touched her face with his claws, brushing her damp hair back from her eyes and sank more of his youki into her. “Be still, Kagome.”  Her good arm fell back to her lap, but she continued to shift around – paradoxically requesting to remove her clothes with increasing incoherency and pressing closer to his heat. He examined her power carefully; her reiki was tired, but completely recovered from her earlier ordeal.  Her body was exhausted, but the injuries from her captivity and fall were mostly superficial. Even the damage to her arm was not insurmountable for a human to recover from as long as their basic needs were met.  His greatest concern was for her temperature.  She never felt as warm to the touch as a youkai would, but she was cool now – even to the core.  He threaded additional youki through her, trying to warm her organs and muscles from the inside while he examined her body on a deeper level. She had healed him with her power – he refused to believe he could not do the same for her.  Her muttering subsided and her eyes drifted completely shut.

The raw, green energy he injected raced along her limbs, creating a thin, hot coating of youki between her skin and muscles.  The remaining tendril, all that was left from the cocoon he had made for her reiki days ago, rejoined with the rest of his power and brought him knowledge of her body and reiki that was nearly overwhelming.  Every bruise and strain, thirsty tissue, and exhausted muscle were catalogued and the pain and tension she felt because of them was made clear to Sesshomaru in vivid detail.  Her temperature was not as low as he had worried, but it was apparent that humans had a much narrower range of tolerable heat than demons.  The pressure pushing her blood through her veins was low, and the veins themselves had restricted.  He came to know, as her body already seemed to have accepted, that if she was not warmed soon, she would begin to lose her extremities.  Her organs were all still working, but her body was preparing to cut them off from nutrients in a final effort to stave off loss of heat.

As his youki slipped deeper and he gleaned more of her, it occurred to him how strange a human was while at the same time it fueled his determination to prevent her from harming herself.  Without her permission, her body had determined what was essential for survival and would allow, even actively kill, parts of her in order to maintain a chance of saving the whole.  And yet, his intended was not the same as other humans.  Her wellspring of power was combating the self-destructive instincts to restrict the flow of blood.  Reiki swirled within her, healing damage that had been done to her lungs, heart, liver from cold and lack of blood.

However, reiki was not youki. It did not burn – at least, it did not appear to generate a heat that Kagome could feel, despite its scorching effect on demons and the gentle warmth Sesshomaru felt in its presence.

He gradually pushed her power aside with his own, increasing the heat of his youki and pouring it through every tissue, each tiny unit that made up the flow of her blood.  Hesitantly, her reiki gave way, and then re-concentrated upon the next most serious concern to her health.  The massing of pink holy energy drew his attention to her broken arm, and Sesshomaru was fascinated by the display. The bone had snapped cleanly; the two ends offset from one another and tearing into the soft tissues surrounding it, drawing blood.  He could sense the pain emanating from the wound – pain which would have taken her breath had she been fully awake and her senses not dulled by cold. He did not understand how humans could endure such pain – and he had seen her go on fighting with injuries much more severe.  He had watched her smile and worry over others with wounds that made a simple break seem paltry.

Like humans, youkai felt pain. However, unlike humans, their injuries healed quickly and the pain rarely lasted long. Instinct and decades of training allowed demons to endure a great deal by focusing their senses outside the pain until the injury was healed. But Sesshomaru had never experienced anything as all-consuming as the distress Kagome’s body was undergoing.  Even the loss of his arm, excruciating as it had been, had not affected him the way he realized it would have crippled her. Where he was capable of removing pain from his mind while his injuries sealed themselves, humans seemed to go on in spite of the pain. Sesshomaru felt a tiny, irritating flicker of admiration for his half-brother’s stamina during their sparring sessions. Perhaps the hardness of Inuyasha’s head ruled over the sensitivity of his human blood.

Her reiki stroked down the length of her arm, attempting to speed healing by increasing blood flow to the area and encouraging the growth of the strangely porous bone. This too, was like youkai, but not.  He had examined demon bones quite closely and knew them to be far denser; if they had such strange air pockets with their skeletons, they were too small to see, even with his excellent eyesight. Despite the furious activity of her reiki, it did little to assist in her recovery.  Until the two damaged ends were realigned, her power would do nothing but increase bleeding and irritation. He flexed his jaw and cradled her elbow and wrist, dreading the pain she would feel if she woke up, but knowing what had to be done.

As lightly as he possibly could, he shifted his youki to secure both halves tightly.  Then, with his clawed hand on her arm, he set the bone with a snick that grated on his ears and made him thankful she had fallen unconscious. He used his power to hold the two pieces in place while her reiki surged forward to begin the healing process.  Satisfied that her holy energy would be sufficient to finish what was necessary, he caressed her from the inside out with his power.  He stroked along her heart, quickening the beat. He pushed against her lungs, forcing her to breathe deeper. He slid along her arms and legs, infusing every part of her with himself, until he was satisfied that none of her would refuse him and that his youki would speed his intended’s recovery.

His eyes opened – he didn’t remember having closed them – and he considered her calm profile. Her hair hung in a messy disarray across his chest and arm.  He traced the delicate line of her jaw with his gaze, following the arch of her neck to the steady beat of her pulse at the hollow of her throat. She was mortal. He forced himself to acknowledge the truth of that assessment. It hurt; painfully, frighteningly, it hurt. He had sworn to himself that he would not lose her, not to his enemies nor to the death that came naturally to her kind.  He had nearly made a liar of himself, and that was unacceptable. Sesshomaru was always honest with himself; he had no need to lie or justify his actions.  He would not fail in the task he’d set for himself.

Sesshomaru had thought to finish his business with the North and then devote himself to a solution to the impermanence of her life. That was a luxury he could no longer afford.  Kagome was in danger, more than he had realized. More than his ego had allowed him to consider.  He had thought to extend her life and youth to match his, but finding a way to bolster her against simple human frailty had become a priority the instant he recognized how close and constant mortal injury was. Even with her enormous capacity to heal, her reiki could not have fixed her arm by itself. If he had not been there…if it had been her spine…Sesshomaru’s nostrils flared as he blew out a breath and forced his mind away from unrealized possibilities. She had not died. She would not die. It would only paralyze his ability to make decisions if he dwelled on the thousands, millions, of ways she could be harmed.

As soon as they returned to the castle, he would begin the search for a cure for the unfortunate aspect of her humanity.  Setting the matter aside, the daiyoukai frowned at the smell of seawater still coating her.  Sesshomaru knew the salt would dry out her skin, and he assumed her organs as well considering how much she had consumed. The wall beside him was wet with meltwater that pooled in a shallow depression on the floor before trickling out underground.  Sesshomaru shifted her in his lap and ripped the sleeve from the miko’s already damaged shirt, tearing it into strips.  He soaked one in the pool, squeezing out the salt water, before wetting it again against the wall.

“Kagome.” He pressed the cloth against her lips, wringing the cool water into her mouth. “Drink,” he ordered.   Her eyes had been closed throughout his triage and treatment, but the cold liquid in her mouth revived her.  She licked her lips and even sucked on the cloth before sagging back against his shoulder.

“It hurts,” she complained and cradled her arm against her chest. “I j-j-ust want to go to s-s-sleep.”

“Hn,” Sesshomaru was desperate to keep her awake, despite her obvious pain as blood flow was restored to her broken arm.  She was shivering again, which would help her body generate heat, but she needed to stay alert until the fire was going, so that he could be sure she would not relapse. “Tell This One how you escaped.” His tone, purposefully arrogant and cold, made her frown and narrow her eyes.

“You donnn -don’t think IIIII could ddddo it? This One,” she mocked, “issss ssstronger than ssshe loooooks.” A violent shiver racked her body and made her wince as her elbow knocked against his ribs.  He was grateful that her reiki seemed to be dulling her pain to a manageable level while it mended the bone.

“I do not doubt it, Kagome,” he said softly.

She smiled a little, and confided, “I hhhad some hhhelp.”

“Of course you did.” He did not intend to insult her, although she seemed to take his words that way. Rather, it was a compliment. Only his miko could find assistance in the home of his greatest enemy.

Eiichi entered with an armful of wood and two fish.  He made quick work of spitting the food and began building the fire. If not for his youkai grace, he might have sliced off a finger with the kindling. His eyes were on Kagome as often as the wood, and his frown and furrowed brow gave away that he was far more concerned with the miko’s condition than his duties. Sesshomaru understood his preoccupation, although he would not accept it if it delayed Kagome the comfort of a warm fire.

“I c-c-could have done it-t-t-t on my o-o-own, m-m-maybe.” The miko sighed, her irritation fading again and sleepiness radiating from her. “Ko is rea-a-lly n-n-n-nice. S-s-s-she sh-sh-shouldn’t have s-s-stayed…with that-t-t-t….w-w-w-with that…” Her eyes closed, although her mouth was still moving, mumbling, “r-r-rapist.”

A stick clattered to the stone floor and Sesshomaru glared at the rock demon with hot eyes.  His claws remained gentle on the miko, but his youki flared – crashing into his guard.  Eiichi barely managed to stay standing, would not have been able to if his heritage did not allow hims to root himself into the floor. She shifted in the daiyoukai’s arms, frowning and muttering incomprehensibly.

The rock demon, his scent layered in shock, rage, and pity, restacked the gathered wood and tended the fire without comment until it was steadily burning.  Sesshomaru gestured for him to leave the chamber, and hardened his youki into a barrier that would protect them both from attack, as well as giving the miko privacy. It would alert any in the area of his presence, but he was far enough into the Western Lands and the risk was justified.

He knew she had not been raped.  His power still flooded her body; he knew her injuries. However, she would not have called the Dragon Lord such a thing unless she knew it to be true.  She must have… Sesshomaru growled. She had mentioned a female called Ko. If Ryukostokken had injured the gentle spirit of his intended, marred the innocence that made the miko who she was, then the Saidai Mao would take extreme pleasure in ripping the cock from his scaly body and feeding it to him. Then Sesshomaru would kill him.

It took a garbled moan from the miko to draw him back to himself, but he managed to push aside his thoughts of vengeance and focus again on her well-being.  He reluctantly set her down, and stood.  Once her immediate needs were met, his own discomfort reminded him that he should see to himself before he made her colder. A brief blast of youki dried his own clothes and Mokomoko.  He detached his tails and coiled them on the ground near the fire.  Her clothing was stuck to her skin, stiff and cold where it had frozen, wet and melting where she was pressed against him, all of it chafing with salt. With careful claws, he sliced away the knotted string of her pants and removed the ruin of her shirt.  She wore only her modern underwear beneath her clothing, but he brushed aside the interest seeing it always generated to focus on her well-being.

The material was fitted, and the clasps difficult.  He cut through both garments carefully, and the great daiyoukai found himself admiring her form and imprinting it on his mind for recall at a more appropriate time.  He set both vestments aside to pick her up and blow the hot wind of his power around her, as well.  He lay her down in his fur, and quickly covered her chilled body with his.  Pressed skin to skin, the tails of Mokomoko curled around to cover them both. Sesshomaru tightened his hold on her, pulling the miko against his chest and burying his face in her hair.

The tightness in his chest did not ease for many long minutes. Not until the fish had cooked enough that he had to reach out and shift them to prevent burning. Not until the darkness of night was made greyish by the dawn.  Then, her skin finally felt warm against his.  She breathed easier, her heart beat stronger.  Sesshomaru closed his eyes and breathed in her scent: sleepy, content, and far from death.

She was his. He would not leave her unprotected again.

Chapter 24: Selfless Act of a Daiyoukai

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