Anabel, you have waited far more patiently than you had a right to, and I am grateful. Just as grateful as I am for your review of North Sea Dawn on Amazon. It took me a while to be satisfied with the action here, and how it will lead into the next chapter. This is the culmination of three years of work, and I am not ashamed to say that I am getting a little clingy in these last few weeks. I hope it meets your expectations. Here is the next chapter of Second Alliance, only one more to go.
Chapter 59: Battle Lines
Kimi kept her scent and youki carefully masked as she neared the camp of the Western allies. Of course, she was aware of many details regarding the two that were leading the forces hidden deep in the mountains, but she preferred to gain a first impression before they were aware of her presence. It made for more accurate assessments. And it was particularly amusing to sneak up on young males and watch as they scrambled after their masculinity. For some inexplicable reason, they always were more embarrassed that a female had out maneuvered them. Kimi considered it to be an important lessons for the youths: they needed to recognize that they could be eclipsed. Kimi brazenly admitted that she also enjoyed how it stroked her ego to upstage another.
Practically infants, she thought, looking upon the leaders. The wolf youkai was barely older than Inuyasha. His youki had not yet matured and grown enough to allow him to completely conceal his true form. That, she considered, or the brash pup wishes to flaunt his heritage among humans. She could understand the impetus; after all, Kimi was perfectly capable of restraining her own energy sufficiently to make her mokomoko disappear. But it was so much more fun to let others see the tangible display of her power and wonder. It also looked magnificent. She admired his muscular form and rugged appeal with the eye of an artisan. Kimi appreciated beauty – although she could have done without the strong musk mixed with old kills and dens.
The monk was another matter entirely; similar, and yet vastly different. Her spies had traded her intriguing tales of his antics. A male that appeared to be consumed with desire and the instinct to breed, but whom never forced his attentions on another. In fact, Kimi strongly suspected that many of his exploits – those involving lips and naked flesh – were actually the work of a tanuki that had been his companion. It was not impossible to imagine that such a human would have found more pleasure in the submission to a single female. It was not unheard of among even youkai, so it was not strange to her that the slayer – a female of admirable skill and spirit – would have dominated the monk to his enjoyment.
Kimi cocked her head slightly. Although she could see the physical appeal, even under his loose robes, she was more intrigued by the spark of intelligence in his eyes. The monk had often been the diplomat for the Shikon group during the hunt for the shards, and was an accomplished spiritual force as well. Kimi realized, as she observed him interacting with the wolf prince and several wilder youkai, that his easy, pleasure-seeking persona was a mask for a sharp mind. Cunning. Devious. Kimi smiled widely. She would enjoy working alongside that one.
She stepped silently from the sparse undergrowth and shadows of twisted pine trees. A ripple of stillness moved across the camp; Kimi waited until all eyes were on her, cautious, admiring, and fearful. Then she spoke, “You are honored by the presence of This One.” Her gaze narrowed in on Kouga, then the monk. Where the young youkai had quickly covered his shock with a stern countenance, the human had bowed low and used the motion to conceal his expression. When he rose, his face had smoothed into a gracious smile of welcome and respect. Cunning indeed, Kimi thought with relish. She quirked one brow, “Do impress.”
Kagome took one last look out over the still, deep waters of the lake before turning with the rock brothers back to the camp. It was an impressive sight, but it didn’t stop her heart from worrying over all of those who were in even greater danger than before. Sesshomaru had led his forces to the plain where the battle would take place, and they had arrived in advance of the Northern army – as the Saidai Mao had planned. The bustle and tension of moving the soldiers and preparing the field had given way to the lull before battle. Kagome had no weapons to sharpen or drills to train to keep her thoughts from wandering into an ever tightening spiral of anxiety. Aina and Sango had travelled separate from the army, in order to further conceal their arrival at the Inawashiro shrine. The children would be safe there, with accomplished monks, the slayer, and a five-tail to guard them. Still, Kagome bit her lip as she walked, unseeing, through the camp.
Aina had been fervent in her pledge to protect the four children with her life. It was a promise Kagome knew the kitsune would have made regardless, as she truly cared for them. However, the knowledge of the potion’s hold on her tainted her actions. Kagome felt guilty and shamed for detecting even a hint of disingenuousness in Aina’s actions, but too it was impossible not to feel that way. Not after the redhead had looked to Hisao before answering each question. Not after the way she whined a little – high-pitched and chilling – in the back of her throat when the captain stepped away from her attempted embrace. Not after the kitsune had slumped with devastated longing when the inu youkai that she had given her will to had turned on his heel and left to command his soldiers.
It was a terrible thing, to realize that she was grateful for the sacrifice of someone else. Aina was suffering, although she wouldn’t say so while she was under the effects of the potion. Kagome was nearly overwhelmed by the guilt that ate at her for her reaction: relief that it was the kitsune and not herself that was enslaved to a single name and guilt that she did not entirely trust Aina to put the children’s lives before her own if the compulsion of the potion was tested.
The guilt mixed with her worry for adopted son and Rin, as well as the younger inus. Shippo had been so brave and serious under Sesshomaru’s gaze when the Western Lord informed him that he must assist Aina in hiding them – and be on guard for the dark magic to overwhelm the five-tales. It was such a responsibility for one as young as him, and Kagome was proud of his maturity. Not surprised – she couldn’t have been surprised since she knew, first hand, all that Shippo had lived through – but proud and still scared for him. Rin too had taken the gravity of the situation well. She was the heir to the West, and on the eve of war it could not be denied that there was the possibility that she might actually have to take her adopted father’s place if Ryukostokken succeeded. Sesshomaru had gifted the girl with her own weapon, forged from one of his fangs, before they departed. It should have been done at a grand festival, in celebration of Rin’s coming-of-age, but the sentiment was the same, and the girl accepted it with reverence and respect. Kagome’s eyes had teared up, and then spilled over when Sesshomaru pulled Rin into a public embrace.
Worry. Anxiety. Dread. Sesshomaru had personally travelled to Maruyama to meet with Inuyasha. He would be fastest by himself, and the meeting less likely to be discovered if the brothers were the only ones present. Hirimoto had arrived in his absence, and although Kagome had no doubt of the bear’s loyalty, his grief was an ominous dark cloud. It settled across his entire encampment and was equaled only by the stoic vengeance that every Southern soldier had sworn by their honor. They would bleed justice from the dragons or die in the attempt.
Kagome glanced up at the sky and judged the time. The Western Lord would be returning at any moment, and every second past noon that he was not close enough for her to sense tied another knot in her intestines. Waiting, waiting. It pulled on her like unskilled fingers on a guitar string, twanging a flat note. Eiji and Eiichi were silent guards on either side of her, leaving her to stew in the uncomfortable sludge of her own thoughts.
Ironically, given his distaste for humans in general and his specific dismissal of Kagome beyond her position at Sesshomaru’s side, it was Tsukahara that offered her a moment of respite.
“Come, Miko-sama, and deal with these fools before I end this alliance with human blood on my claws.” His lip curled and the deep crimson of his cloak rippled with his frustrated movements. Kagome blinked in surprise to see the eagle youkai closing in on her, and quickly realized she had deviated from her intended course and ended up walking between the tents of their human allies and the small, scattered fires of the birds of prey. Regret is always sharper than foresight, but accomplishes less, she reminded herself with an inward wince. She opened her mouth to greet him, but was interrupted by another voice.
“Fools?” Date spluttered. “It was not fools that the Killing Perfection sought as allies. And it won’t be fools that send your blackened soul to the underworld if you don’t apologize!” The warlord stalked in Tsukahara’s wake, turning his narrowed eyes on Kagome, “Priestess, I demand that you resolve this issue! By purification, if necessary!” A small crowd gathered a respectful distance away as the two males came to stop before her, bowing shallowly.
Respectful, or out of weapons range, Kagome wondered to herself. “Gentlemen,” she began, and immediately Date bristled. She reminded herself that he was a lord. Self-made, certainly, but history would remember him as nobility. “Lord Date,” she corrected herself. “Tsukahara-san. Please, what is the problem?”
Date’s complaints about the eagles turned out to be fairly petty, in Kagome’s estimation, but entirely correct. The youkai were taunting the humans, and Tsukahara was turning a blind eye. After nearly an hour of listening to bickering that began to border on a real fight, Kagome had had enough. She ordered that each side turn over five soldiers to serve her personally. Neither could refuse her the demand – which was really an honor for them to contribute to the guard of the future Western Lady, and both were very aware that every youkai eye would see the combined force as a testament to their agreement. They weren’t happy, but they weren’t unhappy either. A true compromise, Kagome thought without mirth. Unfortunately, it meant that she had to deal with an increased defense around herself, when she didn’t really want any at all. Except Sesshomaru, of course. At least he had recognized, however begrudgingly, that she could defend herself. As she continued through the camp to the tent where Sesshomaru had ordered their shared futon and a table for battle maps to be placed, she was ringed by alternating eagles in deep red robes that did nothing to soften the sharpness of their eyes and teeth, and ninjas in shadowy black whom were nearly as skilled as Sango. That was in addition to the two rock brothers, who stuck closer to her than ever.
It was little wonder then, that when, not ten yards from her destination, Hitashimashita eased into her path, that she had to bite her lip to avoid snarling at the tree youkai. Over the months that she had been in the West, she had found Sesshomaru’s feelings towards court a bit over the top, but increasingly understandable. The tree began his usual long-winded, creaking greeting, and Kagome found herself channeling her absent fiancée as the desire to blast her way to peace with reiki nearly overwhelmed her. She was tense to begin with, having to coordinate so many things in Sesshomaru’s absence did not help matters.
“…priestess of the Shikon. Scion of-” Kento stepped out of her tent, caught sight of her predicament, and moved more swiftly than the tree could speak to reach her side. The miko could have kissed the secretary in relief. “…so it is with the honor of a thousand blossoms-”
“Kagome-sama,” Kento interrupted, bowing swiftly. Hitashimashita’s voice ground to a halt and he blinked without having taken any obvious offense to the disruption.
“Kento,” she replied warmly. She could feel a headache coming on and was eager for almost anything that could get her out of the cold wind and harsh sunlight and away from the thousands of soldiers that stared at her as she passed. Or worse, the nobles that wanted to talk.
“It is excellent that Hitashimashita-san has found you. May I presume that you have agreed with his suggestion to send an update to Bokuseno-sama?” The stripes on his forehead remained unwrinkled as he calmly waited for her response. Kagome wasted a few precious seconds trying to remember if Hitashimashita had actually said anything about it, before deciding that it didn’t matter. Bokuseno did need an update, the tree youkai was the best option to arrange it, and a detailed explanation would only make her head pound more. She had enough physical turmoil between her knotted stomach and her nervous heart without bringing her mind into the mix.
“Yes, of course. Great idea Hitashimashita-san. Go ahead however you and Kento see fit.” She smiled tightly and offered him a little bow, feeling guilty for not wanting to listen to his sincere words. His slow, sincere, wordy words. The weight of that guilt was only slightly mollified by her relief to escape another discussion, at least for a short time. Eiichi gave orders to the new guards to ring the tent while Eiji escorted her inside. He searched the small quarters, even pulling back the curtain that divided the meeting area in the front from the sleeping area in his effort to secure the space.
Once he gave her a nod of acceptance and bowed, she removed her shoes and slipped the curtain closed. It wasn’t until she sat down on the mat next to the folded bedclothes, waiting for her lunch to be delivered, that she realized her mistake. Without Tsukahara, or Date, or Hitashimashita to occupy her thoughts she was left alone with the anxiety and remorse that had been her closest companions since Sesshomaru had left. The pounding in her head surged with a vengeance.
The waiting was worse than it had ever been during the quest for the Shikon. Perhaps it was because more lives were so immediately at stake. Perhaps it was simply that she was older and at least a little wiser. Wiser to the risks they all took, to the danger posed by the enemy. She wondered how Sesshomaru had managed, over the centuries since his father had died, to bear so much responsibility alone. That, in turn, only made her feel worse for her frustration with the daily command of the camp. Work of which the majority had actually been performed by Kento and Hisao. They only involved her when a final decision was absolutely necessary, or when one of their allies came directly to her. She was ashamed that she hadn’t lived up to the expectations she had for herself, what she was sure Sesshomaru had for her.
Blood pounded in her head and thundered across the inside of her skull like the tide of an ocean, captured in a too small bottle. She closed her eyes and laid her head down on the folded futon, not even bothering to lay it out. Just for a moment, she would breathe deep and try not to think about anything but the faint scent of cloves on the bedding and the imagined sensation of silky hair brushing across her cheek.
“It is time,” Ryukostokken spoke in a low voice, knowing that it would carry to Sou’s ears. His captain nodded and snapped a quick bow before turning to give orders to the army. The Northern Lord stood still on a narrow outcropping of barren rock, facing south. A dragon’s eyes were keen enough to spot prey from the sky and pounce; Ryukostokken had no difficultly making out the broad, white plain in the distance where the forest and rocky terrain broke to allow for fields and pastures, meadows and open spaces. At that distance, not even he could see the villages that he knew were scattered along the edge, but he imagined that the haze along the horizon was the steam rising from the lake at Inawashiro. Not soon enough, he thought with a desire to bare his teeth and grin.
“Inuyasha and his followers are behind schedule.” The deep, quiet words of Arashi startled him, although the lord covered his surprise well with a snarling frown. Silently, the spy had arrived at his side, just out of arm’s reach of Ryukostokken. The lengthening shadows under ancient pines and barren maple trees concealed more than the cold winter sun revealed. Ryukostokken could clearly see little but the soft darkness of Arashi’s robes and the glint of his black eyes under the edge of his hood.
“You will be held responsible, as will Natsou, if the half-breed does not play his part,” Ryukostokken snapped. A subservient bow in response did not quell his unease as it usually did. “Blood will run,” he snarled to remind the whelp of the consequences of failure.
“I do not doubt that, denka-ue,” Arashi stated. Ryukostokken flicked out his tongue but could taste nothing but sincerity on his spy. “If Inuyasha does not fulfill the role that has been given him, my future will be forfeit. Inuyasha’s actions determined Natsou’s fate.”
The truth was inescapable, but it still made the short hair on the back of the lord’s neck prickle. He did not like the calm expression that smoothed Arashi’s shadowed grey skin or the impassive gaze that stared out at him. He had never trusted the spy – only a fool would put his trust in dirty blood and skilled lies – but his youki was stirring with awareness of some unnamed threat. With a snap of his teeth, Ryukostokken issued new orders, “You will stay at This One’s left during the battle.” The dragon lord favored his left hand, and placing Shianma between himself and Arashi smoothed his unsettled suspicions. “Do not fail the North,” he threatened.
Ryukostokken waited only long enough to ensure that the spy bowed in obedience before turning away to summon the wind demoness and take his place supervising the troop movements. He had a thick length of pale hair wrapped around his fist and the crackle of youki-born leaf under his feet when he sensed the half-breed’s eyes on him. Ryukostokken blamed the wind for the chill that settled on his spine.
“My miko,” Sesshomaru spoke quietly, so as not to startle her, but his intended was a deep sleeper. The rustle and muffled voices outside the tent only caused her to snuggle deeper into the awkward hold she had on their bedding. He would have given her more time, if he had it to give, but that luxury had passed by. He had taken far longer than expected at Maruyama, and his return coincided with the first sightings of the enemy. “Kagome,” he said louder, and placed a firm hand on her shoulder. The thick blue material of her outer kimono was soft under his palm, the simple white embroidery pressed into his skin as he shook her once.
“Hmm,” she murmured sleepily. Dark lashes fluttered against her cheeks, the faint purple smudges under her eyes a testament to the strain of the past few days. Her gaze finally focused on him, and he felt his youki swell and his heart stutter under the twin onslaught of her soft smile and the familiar caress of reiki. He had not seen her since the previous morning, and there was nothing he desired more than to return her smile, to settle beside her and wrap her in his fur. There was no time. The state of matters had changed his plans, and war was upon them. Never enough time.
“Kagome,” he repeated, sliding his hand down her arm to find hers. She weaved together her delicate human fingers and his deadly claws without hesitation. “You must rise.” He watched her face carefully, savoring the welcoming brush of her power. “Ryukostokken approaches.”
He had always been left wondering at the fast and ever-changing pace of her emotions, but the ripple of her aura was as swift as it was expected. After months in her company, he could easily scent the most dominate of her emotions. Worry. Trust. Hatred. And the undercurrent of dry mace that was her fear. “You can go to the shrine, protect the pups,” he offered one last time, knowing she would refuse, not sure any longer if he wanted her to give in.
“Just let me get my bow,” she answered, and with her words her expression and scent became resolute. His patience was not necessary, as she had her weapons and shoes laid out and ready for quick retrieval. The braid that imprisoned her hair was slipping loose at the back of her neck, but she merely pulled on a knitted blue wool cap that flattened her hair and covered her ears from the cold. The future garment strangely added to her appearance in a positive way. She was more than any woman or miko that had come before her, and the head covering combined with the fine winter kimono that brushed her knees, the tight, thick leggings that she insisted were not at all scandalous in the future, and the sturdy leather boots he had purchased for her to make her appearance reflect her person. Powerful, in title and ability, beautiful, in form and spirit.
Her weapons were strapped to her back and she nodded, signaling that she was ready to depart. It was Sesshomaru who hesitated at the entrance to the tent, earning a puzzled glance from the female at his side. He glanced down at her face, her pink lips parted on a question, and gave in to the compulsion to reassure them both.
“We will succeed,” he stated.
She quirked a brow and the corner of her mouth tilted up, “Did the Killing Perfection ever doubt it?”
He brushed aside her attempt at levity and cupped her jaw in his hand. She was so delicate. A porcelain cup – filled with lethal fire. He would not allow failure on this day, refused for that fire to be doused. “You will defend yourself,” he commanded.
“I will do whatever is necessary,” she agreed. He nodded, but then she amended, “to protect the West.”
“Kagome-” he began, frustrated with her prevarication. Sesshomaru was not certain what he intended to say, only that she was the West to him. All that he was, all that he intended to save, it was her and he refused to have one without the other. His mind could not conceive of it. His body would not allow it. He would not otherwise survive.
“Your responsibility is mine, Sesshomaru,” she said steadily. “I would do this, even if it weren’t. But it is, and we are, so – together then, right?” She spoke nonsense, disjointed words that would have no meaning to anyone else. To him they were right and true. She was a part of him now, even if the mating ceremony was het to come. She shared his responsibilities, his triumphs and losses – and he hers. Her cool touch on the back of his hand had a trace of power in it, and he savored the pink energy as it sank under his skin – wrapping it tightly in youki as he wished he could do to the woman herself. Keeping it safe and close to his heart.
“Hn.” There was no more time to speak, to say all that he suspected she should hear, all that he wanted to say. Still she smiled and squeezed his fingers, drawing his hand to hang between them and turning to face the entrance. An unnatural quiet had fallen over the camp, in absence of the army that had so recently been waiting there. They had moved to the front to meet the enemy, as their Saidai Mao had ordered. Sesshomaru could feel his youki rising, his instincts stirring and urging him to refocus on the battle ahead. He gripped the hilt of Bakusaiga with one hand and returned Kagome’s gentle pressure with the other. “We go.”
It was chaos.
The frozen ground had been churned by a thousand boots – a thousand more claws and talons and powerful limbs of hair and scales and anything else that had ever been seen on earth. The sounds of growls, shouts, screams, and snarls blended with the screech of steel sliding on steel and the meaty, moist sound of flesh hitting flesh into a cacophony that was deafening. At first it had made her ears ache, but the noise had become horrific background music that had to be ignored along with the sights and smells of violence and death so that she could focus on a single instant, a single action. And then another. And another. Kagome fired a glittering pink arrow into a brief break in the maelstrom around her. One more dragon turned to ash. Surrounding her, the mixed-guard of eagle youkai and human ninja pivoted and turned, keeping the fighting from reaching her. They occasionally broke to allow an ally to enter.
“Miko-sama,” called a green-skinned youkai. Kagome’s attention snapped to the voice, barely audible above the sound of hundreds of attacks. She half-carried one of Hirimoto’s soldiers who had been injured mid-transformation. Although his body was upright and his features more humanoid, dark brown fur covered his thick skin and paws the size of dinner plates were draped across the female’s shoulders. She carefully lowered him to the dirty snow at Kagome’s feet. “A spear,” she explained shortly, pointing to the wound high on his ribs that was pumping blood onto the ground. “Poisoned, like the others. He broke off the shaft, but the barbed head is still in there.”
“Thank you,” Kagome murmured absently while she knelt to examine the wound. She set her bow aside and awkwardly shifted the staff strapped on her back out of the way. The bear snarled as her reiki drenched fingers drew close. The green youki growled back at him in warning. The priestess smoothed her hands across the fur, ignoring the reflexive grip and twitch of three inch long claws.
“He is not in his right mind, my lady,” the female said apologetically. “Please do not take offense.”
“No, none taken.” Kagome flashed a brief smile, because she knew that the youkai needed to see it. There, on the battlefield, she was the Miko no Mao. She fought for the West – and she was second to no one save Sesshomaru. The soldiers needed to know that she sided with them, embraced them, supported them. They needed to see that she was not afraid of the consequences of the bloodshed – to see that she believed they would win. The green youki bowed, and Kagome’s brain flew away in another direction. Half of her was brushing back fur, probing for the metal spear head she knew she would find and the poison she had encountered many times. It was the same compound that Wei had used to test her skills during her captivity: an anti-coagulant and some combination of herbs or energy that combated the natural reflex of youki to heal wounds.
The other half of her was internally sobbing. Two ninja and an eagle from her guard had gone down nearly an hour previous. Three of the last five youkai that had come to her for healing had barely survived long enough for her to close their wounds – and then still had to be sent to the rear rather than returning to the fight. One had died despite her attempts to help. There were others she knew – Hirimoto’s physician and a human monk – whom were placed among the troops as she was. Kagome could not see them, but she knew they were fighting the same frantic battle against death that she was. As the Western forces had pushed forward or lost ground, she had moved with them, behind the front line. Once, she had dropped an arrow before she could shoot. When she bent down to grab it, she found herself standing not on an uneven hillock of snow and mud, but on the severed hand of some unfortunate soldier. She had swallowed the bile that rose in her mouth, refusing to show such weakness, but the sight haunted her. Would haunt her, she knew, for months. Perhaps years.
Her fingers found the jagged hole under thick fur and brushed across the splintered shaft of the spear. The bear youkai made a barking, screaming sound and his eyes burned red.
“I will hold him, Miko-sama.”
Kagome looked up in surprise to see the green-skinned youkai still within her circle of guards. The female’s thick fur kimono was stained in red and brown streaks from the blood of her allies. There was no way to tell what color it might have once been. The slender youkai easily looped one arm under the bear’s elbows, locking his arms behind his back and drawing another snarl from his lips, quickly becoming coated with foam. So sorry, so sorry, she whispered in her head. Kagome sucked in air through her mouth and plunged her fingers into the wound. The bear screamed and bucked, thrusting the broken wood into her palm. The steel was slippery, but Kagome grasped it tightly, sliding it out and leaving a thick syrup of reiki in her wake. She didn’t have time to tailor her power to the individual youkai, and there were too many others who would need her assistance soon for her to waste even a drop of energy. The hiss of purification was accompanied by the smell of burnt hair. For a moment, it overwhelmed even the rotten blood-wet grass smell around her. The bear jackknifed, throwing Kagome to the side, but the green youki did not budge.
Kagome was suddenly aware how dry her own mouth was. She reached for her water skin, before remembering it was empty, and her hands too slick with blood to open it. “Here.” A green hand, smeared with mud and fluid, held a full water container out. Kagome took it and drank, distantly grateful. “I’ll take him back out. By the time we get to his unit, he’ll be ready to fight, right?” The youkai was taller than Kagome, but could not have weighed much more than her. Still, she raised an eyebrow at the miko and shifted, putting one heavy bear arm around her shoulders and pulling him to stand without even a deep breath.
“He should be,” was all Kagome replied. She held out the water skin, but the youkai shook her head.
“Keep it, my lady, you need it more.”
Kagome wasn’t sure how long she sat in the freezing snow, but it was the high-pitched sing of arrows flying that drew her attention. The bright light of the winter sun was temporarily blocked out by a cloud of deadly missiles. Is it irony, she wondered stupidly, for an archer to be killed by an arrow? Or maybe just really unlucky?
“Ranged attack!” The shout came from several voices around her. Those youkai that could lifted shields to protect themselves. Others turned hard hides to the sky, or dashed away from the targeted area. Her own guard closed ranks, the eagles providing cover with fiery red disks of metal that shone dully but repelled weapons with little effort. She had heard her own arrows hit metal before; they made a sharp ping sound that echoed in the quite of the forest. The discord of hundreds of heavy iron heads slamming into armor, of wooden shafts splintering and demon-made fletching screaming as it cut through the air was terrible and very real. To the future-born priestess, the sight seemed more of a reflection of how far she was from the comfortable peace of her own time than even the blood on her hands. It seemed like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, before the storm was over. Her guard stepped away, and Kagome took in the sight of a ring of bodies around her little group. Some were getting to their feet, and drawing blades against their rising enemy. Many more would never get up again. The strangled moans of the dying, Western allies and dragons alike, made her stomach churn. Kagome didn’t even try to hold back, but turned her head to vomit away from the soldier nearest to her.
“Miko-sama,” one of the ninja called worriedly, stepping out of formation and towards her. His absence was smoothly covered by the eagle on either side of him, sliding over to close the gap.
“It’s fine,” Kagome mumbled, wiping her mouth on the edge of her sleeve. She squeezed a small amount of water past her lips and spat, waving away his concern. “Help me up, please, we have work to do.” With one hand she tucked the skin into her obi while she held out the other.
“Lady,” he hesitated, and Kagome looked up. His face was masked, save thick-lashed brown eyes, which were staring at her outstretched limb. Blood dripped off of the edge of her palm and traced down her wrist to disappear into her sleeve. The metal head of a spear jutted out of her skin, affixed there by the sharp bits of wood that had been jammed through her hand. Seeing it made her realize she was injured, and the haze of numbness born of a single-minded determination and the drone of battle fell away.
“Fuck,” she breathed out. A scream was trapped in her throat, unable to move past the shockingly sudden agony. The world seemed to stop for a moment and Kagome’s entire being centered on the torture that was consuming her hand. She couldn’t think, couldn’t react, but for a split second was nothing but raw nerve endings and pain. It was over so quickly she didn’t flinch until the ninja had bowed in apology, the broken weapon on the ground between them and her blood smeared across his gloves.
“Forgive me, Miko-sama,” he said earnestly. “Such a thing must be done swiftly or-”
“Fine,” she squeaked, then managed to clear her throat. “It’s fine.” For some reason it struck Kagome as grimly funny that she kept repeating that phrase – it’s fine. Nothing was fine. Not even close. But there was nothing to do but continue. She struggled to her knees, then her feet, keeping her throbbing hand cradled against her chest. “Thanks,” she said, belatedly. She even managed to catch his eye and part her lips in a semblance of a smile. “Let’s get to work.” The man returned to his position and her protective circle rotated again, slowly moving her across the battlefield and back into the relative safety of the main body of the army. Kagome pulled a bandage from the bag over her shoulder and awkwardly tied it around her palm. Definitely not ironic, she thought with a grimace, thinking about death-by-arrow. Bad luck with a side of idiocy is more like it.
A flap of wings far too large to belong to a bird stirred snow into the air, stinging her exposed face. She glanced up at purple scales and razor sharp claws just as one of her guards yelled, “Get down!”
Sesshomaru darted down to the ground again, slicing through the enemy ranks with ease. His frustration was mounting. The first wave of dragons were young and inexperienced, barely capable enough to carry the title of soldier. One on one, or even two against one, they were no match for the rigorous drilling and expert weapon mastery of the West and his allies. However, their numbers were far greater than Sesshomaru had anticipated. Even utilizing the largest of the reports he had received and allowing a liberal margin of error had not given him an accurate estimate. There were five dragons for each one youkai he had on the field – and he could see a line of dragons that had yet to take the field. He could also sense a mass of teeming youki, just out of sight that would make up a third wave of attack. The whelps that vaulted naively into combat against seasoned soldiers were cheap ranged attacks – treated by Ryukostokken as little better than spears to be thrown in Sesshomaru’s general direction and then forgotten. Although the dragons were unskilled, their sheer numbers and ferocity were causing problems for his ground forces.
With an elegant spin he flicked the blood from his blade and vaulted into the sky again. There he met another dragon that thought to take advantage of the opening he had left behind. The leathery skin and thick sinew of its left wing was no more an obstacle to Bakusaiga than a particularly thick scroll. A blast of fire erupted from its mouth as the demon fell, spiraling back to the earth in a spray of blood and soot and shrieks of pain. Sesshomaru did not take the time to watch where it landed, as two more dragons were diving toward him. He bit back a snarl of his own.
It was a diversion, a waiting tactic intended to tire his forces and thin them before the actual assault. Sesshomaru was angry, not only with the cowardice of his enemy in using whelps barely out of the nest as a living shield, but at himself. He should have examined the reports more closely. There must have been a hint, somewhere, from some source, that reflected the true size of the Northern army. Ryukostokken must have been forcing reproduction among his subjects to achieve such numbers. And if the dragons had suffered from the same fertility issues as other youkai, and there was no reason to believe they had not, then it would have taken a systematic, large-scale breeding program that would have required the near enslavement of every female dragon of the proper age. That, or the Saigo Mao had been importing dragons. Perhaps both.
A silvery-blue dragon let loose a blast of smoke and heat as it feinted, soaring away before Sesshomaru could bring his sword to bear. Another dragon, a match for the first, was not so lucky. The tip of Bakusaiga caught him just under the jaw. Billows of smoke and embers cascaded down through a fountain of blood as the metallic scales split open under the pressure of Sesshomaru’s blade. There were shouts from below as the dragon fell. The Saidai Mao turned to face his first opponent and met a reckless charge of fire and obscenities – screamed in a foreign tongue. The daiyoukai easily summoned a shield of his youki to protect him from the flame, and considered the words. Joseon, he thought with disgust. Too long and far has Ryukostokken reached in his attempt to take Japan. It might mean more bloodshed, more war, even after the dragons of the Northern lands were put down, to ensure that the peace was lasting. At the very least, it would require travel and diplomatic discussions.
Sesshomaru hated diplomacy.
A frown pulled down the corner of his mouth, and he did not bother to conceal his emotion. As the open mouth of the dragon drew closer, Sesshomaru reshaped his youki into a cone. The tip twisted and sharpened, narrowing to a point that met the dragon’s outstretched tongue mere yards away from the lord. A ballista could not have done a cleaner job of spitting the reptilian demon. There was a moment of shock for his enemy, when Sesshomaru looked into a surprised blue gaze, before the daiyoukai withdrew his energy and flew away, avoiding the spray of blood that might have stained his clothing.
He faced north again, searching for an opening so that he could sweep through the lines and cut at the heart of the enemy. Ryukostokken was a dishonorable creature whose presence in hell would be an unjust punishment to those already in that place – but he was a skilled strategist. Before Sesshomaru could move more than a few feet, he was forced to change directions to meet another suicidal dragon. The dark green youkai was determined to end its life before it even entered combat, wings beating furiously to speed its way to the Western Lord. Even as Sesshomaru prepared to engage, his attention was pulled elsewhere. From his vantage, hundreds of feet above the battlefield, he could make out the pools of calm around each of his healers. His youki reached out to the one on his left and found Kagome. Her reiki was still strong, but from the distance he could only determine that she was alive and utilizing her powers. Her guard – a thing Sesshomaru had pushed her to accept and she had refused, only for him to find she had acquired one on her own – circled her protectively. He counted their number and found that some had fallen, but their defense was still acceptable.
Her position was a compromise for them both. She was close to the front lines – closer than he preferred, but not part of the leading edge of fighters. No few weeks of training, even under a youkai as skilled as Kimi, could prepare a human to meet demons in hand-to-hand combat. However, she was deadly accurate with ranged weapons, far more so than she had been when they defeated Naraku. Her healing abilities too were an important advantage to his forces. It was Kagome, and the other two healers, that were keeping his soldiers able to return to the fight even as the North sent fresh troops to be slaughtered.
Kagome was well enough, and his concern for her would not be entirely eased until Ryukostokken was dead and they were safely returned to his shiro. Still, his senses prickled with an unknown tension. Dark green scales flew past him, riddled with shallow cuts from Bakusaiga. His opponent turned in a wide arc ready to attack again, and Sesshomaru waited impatiently. Moments before he lifted his blade again, the distant twang of bow strings preceded a dark shadow across the land. Archers.
He did not have time to warn the soldiers below, as the green dragon spewed fire at him. Slightly more well trained than his previous adversaries, Sesshomaru found himself forced to exert a small amount of caution in order to avoid the strike. Faintly, he heard calls on the ground, “Ranged attack!”. The black stain of arrows moved between his position and the army. By the time he had dispatched the green dragon the volley was over and the Western soldiers were already regrouping for another assault. Sesshomaru used the brief pause to assess the field. Hirimoto’s physician was darting behind a sturdy line of bears, returning most of the injured back to fight alongside the Southern Lord. The monk, almost directly below him, had been wounded and was being carried to the medical tents in the rear. Another would replace him, Sesshomaru knew. He saved Kagome for last, and his gaze lingered on her longer than he should have allowed.
She was covered in blood. His keen eyesight could make out the dark red on her pale hands and smeared on one edge of her jaw. The blue of her strange hat remained a bright spot amid the dirty snow and mud. One of her guards assisted her, handing over her bow before returning to his place. She is protected, he reminded himself, even as another injured youkai was brought to her for healing. He followed the motions of the eagles and humans that deflected any attack that drew too close to their charge. They made a tight circle around her. A circle. His eyes widened slightly, taking in details that another would have missed.
He fueled his cloud and shot straight up into the air, so that he could turn and look down upon the entire battlefield at once. The archers had shot with precision accuracy – straight at each of the healers. A circle of dead and wounded surrounded each of them, with open spaces of unharmed western soldiers in between. Ryukostokken knew Sesshomaru had healers behind his front line, and he was focused on removing them. A roar, a thousand voices raised as one, caused the chill breeze around him to tremble. Sesshomaru cursed the timing, and descended again to meet the second wave of dragons, descending from the mountains and onto the field. He had to trust that Kagome would defend herself, that she was capable and those that protected her dedicated – to the point of their own deaths. He was the Saidai Mao, and he was needed elsewhere in order to win the battle. The war.
He pushed the frustration and anger aside to keep his mind clear and focused. With Bakusaiga in one hand he flicked out his free fingers, releasing a stream of youki to form his whip. Three dragons were cut down before he recognized the ruse in the latest attack. The soldiers were better trained than those that had first taken the field, but their skill was used primarily to dodge and distract. The real threat was embedded within their ranks. Dark miko. Every twenty or thirty feet a priestess of evil power and unnatural energy stood, weaving her magic. Some placed protections on Northern soldiers. Others sent out their spells against the youkai that fought for Sesshomaru. He watched as one inu was struck by a clinging mass of fog. The grey wisps latched onto his skin and pulled, sticking and binding, burrowing under his skin and flaying it from his bones while he screamed and thrashed uselessly.
Sesshomaru bared his teeth with a growl and let his whip crack in a signal to the human lord, Date. Ryukostokken had bribed or threatened witches to serve him, but Sesshomaru had allies equally strong. Allies that fought of their own will. The Dragon lord no doubt thought himself wily and clever in his strategy. The growl turned to a cold countenance of grim fortitude. Sesshomaru had faced deception and tricks since birth. He had learned such lessons from his own dam’s knee – no cupidinous reptile was capable of besting Kimi in chicanery. There was no strategy that he and his advisors had not foreseen, considered, and counter-planned. Of that he was certain.
Kagome dropped her bow and pulled her bo from the ties on her back. Purple scales and scorching heat moved toward her faster than she could raise the weapon, so she heeded the advice and fell flat to the ground. The flap of dragon wings was so close that it sent dirt and snow billowing up her nose and into her eyes; her spine tingled and flinched with the pressure of movement as the demon missed her by less than a foot. Tears were running down her face, her vision distorted by dust and debris, as the shadow of the dragon passed and she tried to roll to her feet to stand. Too late she saw the dark blur of a muscular tail whipping toward her. She was hit from the side suddenly – not by shiny scales and sharp spikes, but by a solid mass of red silk and golden feathers.
The impact was bruising, jarring, almost causing her to drop her staff. It was the second blow when she hit the ground that knocked the breath out of her. The eagle remained perched over her, his head up and scanning for the enemy even while he protected her from another assault. “To your left!” he screamed, and Kagome heard a grunt and another sound like tires kicking up gravel. Wide, dark chips rained down on them. The eagle crouched lower to cover her face. Kagome could see where they landed; concave plates the size of a cell phone scattered across the ground. Another voice yelled, indistinguishable from the rising noise of battle increasing around them.
With a grunt and a yell of anger, her guard was ripped away. Golden feathers fell from the sky, mixing with blunt, discarded scales, as a burst of youki signaled his transformation. Kagome scrambled to her feet and shielded her eyes against the bright sunlight. The purple dragon hovered some thirty feet above the ground, twisting and snapping at two dark figures on its back. Ninja had leaped onto the demon, one barely maintaining a hold on the spines of its neck while fending off awkward swipes of large claws. The second had secured his position ingeniously, having driven two sai deep into the hide. One was pressed close to the spine, creating a handhold, while the other was at the base of the tail and supported the ninja’s feet. His left arm was free to wield a sword, although with the wild movements of the dragon he was not able to score any more decisive hits that scraping off protective scales. Another shower of the hard flakes fell down as the northern youkai was attacked by her eagle guard. Transformed, the eagle was virtually equal in size, and he had the advantage of flying without passengers. Kagome worried for those soldiers that were fighting above her, protecting her, but they seemed to have the situation in hand.
Hastily she tried to take in the situation. Another line of dragons were advancing on the line of battle, and aerial assaults had increased in accuracy. She could barely make out Sesshomaru’s tiny figure, high above her. The green light of his whip flashed, but it was clear to Kagome that her daiyoukai’s opponent was not trying to engage, but only to distract. The dragon flitted close and out again, like Buyo teasing a stray dog. Never close enough to get bitten, but never far enough for the dog to lose interest. Something is wrong here, the thought flashed across her mind. A few other youkai had been stationed in the air over the army – hawks, eagles, and one wind demon that were loyal to the West. They too were under assault from dragons that dipped and turned, inviting attack but never themselves venturing to strike. Her eyes raced across the sky and she spun in a circle, nearly tripping on her own feet as she searched for each of the youkai that Sesshomaru had ordered to take flight. The two that had been on her left, between the field and the forest where Kimi was waiting, were nowhere to be found. Only one demon, the hanyou that she had met on her last trip back from the well, was between the forest and Sesshomaru. All of the others had been taunted or maneuvered further East, or were no longer in the sky.
It’s a trap, she thought. Kagome’s lungs froze in her chest and her mind raced. Her reiki was shooting out in a panicked attempt to find the threat to Sesshomaru, to the West. Why, why, what could they – Sesshomaru’s exposed on one side, they could, but- Then she felt it. The sensation was light, but pervasive. Youki was leaking from an unseen source. It washed over her reiki and clung there, like oil on water, clouding her senses. She had to close her eyes to focus on finding the root of it, trusting in her guard to protect her. The battlefield fell quiet around her. In her mind’s eye she stood in a washed-out version of reality. Those around her moved with a strange combination of slow-motion and sudden blurs, as if she was watching a stop motion video that hadn’t come out right. She tuned out the sharp lights of those monks that were among the Western army. Like turning a dial, the vivid lights that represented the energy of every youkai around her faded.
Remaining behind was only the massive green light high above that was Sesshomaru, and shadowy knots of power secreted among the dragon ground troops. Dark miko, she realized with horror. She could see their magic at work, attacking inus and bears, shielding dragons. Without thought, she began to shape her reiki between her hands, forming a sphere of light so intense it warmed her skin. Just as she prepared to throw it and eliminate the twisted witch nearest to her, a flicker of movement caught her eye.
At the very edge of the Northern army, within a few hundred feet of the trees, knelt a trio of women. The energy around them turned Kagome’s stomach as it writhed and paced between them. They each had one hand on the hilt of an upraised knife, and the shadow of their power slithered across the surface, making the old metal glint in the sunshine. Kagome followed the oily spell as it left their implement, rising in the air to collect and hover in a cloud over the forest. It would be invisible to the naked eye, she knew, but its intent was clear to her. Those witches were concealing something that was intended to attack the West. Kagome dropped her staff.
She pivoted on one heel and slammed her opposite foot into the ground. Then Kagome braced herself just as she had practiced with Kimi and her reiki sphere shot forward like a major league fastball. Hit the mark, she whispered in her mind. The purple dragon above her screamed, and the ninja both jumped to the ground beside her. Kagome jumped, startled, and tripped over a body on the ground at the same time the huge scaly body slammed in the dirt in front of her. The eagle perched on its exposed belly shrieked in triumph at the sky, distracting her. It was the violent connection of her reiki with the dark spell that drew all eyes to the air over the forest. Pink sparks showered down on the trees, sizzling where they met the last wisps of evil smoke – exposed for all to see. Hovering at the center of the maelstrom was a knot of dragons, at least sixty, Kagome estimated. They hesitated for only a moment after the spell was lost before opening their maws in unison. The glow of their combined fire rivaled the sun.
“Enough waiting. I need some action,” the wolf prince growled, fidgeting in place. Kimi would have smiled at the predictability of his impatience, but there was another concern teasing at the edge of her mind. She listened to the monk settle his companion with one ear while she stretched out her senses.
“Calm yourself, Kouga-san,” he said in a soothing voice. “Your tension is making the others nervous.”
“I am not tense,” the wolf bit off. Kimi stared unseeing into the shadows of the thick forest. Her youki flitted through the trees, as quick and unobtrusive as a bird. At the edge of the forest she touched on the amassed energy of the Western Army. The quiet pink spark of Kagome’s power was discernable from that of any other holy human only because the daiyoukai had spent so long training the woman. It was still amazing, even in the pitch of battle, that such a small, delicate creature could so easily and completely conceal a power to rival the Saidai Mao.
Kimi found nothing unexpected there, and so sent the tiny flutter of her youki further out. Sesshomaru’s massive energy, even as controlled as he was, lay over the army like an armor coating. On the far side, opposite her and nearly out of range of her senses was the sharp gold of Hirimoto. His youki was furious, but well disciplined. Having not found anything that accounted for the disturbance that was still ruffling her mokomoko, Kimi wanted to frown. She smiled instead, directing her power to skirt along the enemy lines.
“I must respectfully disagree, Kouga-san,” the monk was saying. “It is not a shameful thing. Any great warrior in his prime, as you clearly are, would feel tension in forced inactivity.” The wolf’s youki swelled annoyingly and his chest puffed up. “In addition-” Miroku continued. Kimi easily anticipated what was coming, and several youkai close enough to hear the two leaders talking obviously guessed something similar as they backed away quietly. “Although it has never been in my destiny, and many would say it is not misfortune, but opportunity to better direct one’s thoughts and actions-”
Kimi noted the increased level of youki in the next rank of dragons that were attacking. They were still not the best the North had, but Ryukostokken was preparing to end the distract-and-tire portion of his strategy and move on to more pointed combat. The first hint of power was so slight that she doubted for a moment what she had sensed. The second confirmed it: dark miko.
“Such tension is an understandable result of a lack of masculine release.” They quiet waiting that had been the group’s companion for more than a day fell into a horrifically eager silence. In the long moment it took for the wolf to understand the insult, Kimi had identified twenty-six other witches working among the enemy. Her mind reviewed and discarded many possibilities. Although she and Sesshomaru had considered that Ryukostokken might employ mercenaries of many different skills, the possibility that the xenophobic lord would actually do so was remote. Cautiously, she pulled her youki back in, considering what such an ally might mean to the North.
“You saying I’m not getting any?” Kouga’s voice remained quiet, but his youki was bucking hard, nearly breaking his control. Kimi noted absently that his nostrils were flaring and his tail twitching in anger.
“Action?” The monk sounded so believably innocent that even Kimi was almost fooled. “I believe you were the one who made such a statement.” The threatening rumble Kouga made signaled that the teasing was about to become something else. Kimi raised her hand, prepared to intervene, despite the loss of entertainment she would suffer. She opened her mouth, and sucked in a breath. Power.
Reiki flashed across her senses, blazing through the combined armies and leaving the smell of a sea breeze in its wake. Kimi’s youki recoiled. Never had the miko attacked her, or used her power in a manner that would result in actual injury anywhere that Kimi had seen. The projectile that the miko had let loose was burning, uncaring and uncontrolled. The allies hidden around her in the forest sucked in a collective breath as they too felt the distant scorch of purification. It collided with another force, high above the trees, and the resulting shockwave deafened her sensitive ears temporarily. Twinkling bits of reiki fell through the branches overhead, smoking where they hit unprotected youkai flesh. Kimi noted that another substance fell in droplets that smeared and greased any surface they hit. Kimi snapped her jaw shut, decisively. Magic.
“What the-” Kouga began with honest confusion.
“I believe Kagome-san,” Miroku said at the same time, his tone far more considering.
“You shall have your wish, wolf-cub,” Kimi cut off both males. She shook out her shoulders, letting mokomoko fall so that one end pooled on the ground around her delicate silk skirts. Her youki unspooled languorously, oppressing all of the nearby demons. She smiled, a real, unchecked grin of anticipation. It had been centuries since she had taken the opportunity for a good fight. “Stay on the ground. Wait for This One’s signal before you attack, and action you shall have.”
“What signal?” She didn’t answer the cub, nor acknowledge the respectful bow of the monk, but sprang easily onto a high branch. From there it was only two more jumps and she was clear of the trees and flying through the air. The concealment spell that had hidden the dragons over the forest had been decimated by the miko, and Kimi reminded herself to thank the little human. Scaly jaws opened wide, flame built. Kimi let her youki strip away her fictitious form and reveled in a howl of utter enjoyment, icy wind fluttering the fur of her ears as she charged.
It was time to play.