A/N: Thanks to Daisie, for her review of North Sea Dawn on Amazon!
I appreciate all of you have taken the time to leave comments, reviews, suggestions, and kind words. It has been a long road, but we’ve reached the end. This is the last chapter. It got a little long, as I was cognizant of some concerns that I might try to rush through all of the action, but I hope you enjoy it. And watch back here for an epilogue soon – just to help us say good-bye to these characters.
Chapter 60: Relational Transgression
Inuyasha didn’t hate Sesshomaru, he could admit that to himself, if not to anyone else. He hadn’t felt anything other than grudging respect, irritation, a tiny amount of envy, and the occasional – also not to be admitted to – stab of fear for a long time where his half-brother was concerned. However, as he was sprinting though the forest, sliding on loose rock and snagging his dark hair on spindly bushes he was very close to hatred. Four days. Four fuckin’ days. And on the new moon. The fucker.
He used every swear word he knew, under his breath, and then ran through them again employing suggestions for what Sesshomaru could do with his schedule. Most of them were anatomically impossible. Probably. Inuyasha would have been happy to help Sesshomaru try. Ice prick. He was tired, but he had been tired before. He had pushed the soldiers hard to reach Maruyama before sunset, but he still had a long run ahead of him to get to Kawageta.
A long, human run.
Inuyasha snorted, and barely managed to step around a hole in the ground. The old animal burrow would have been easy to see with his normal eyes, but his human vision was almost as bad as being blind, as far as he was concerned. He briefly considered that he could have asked one of the faster youkai for a ride, but it was too late to change his mind. Youkai would be just what the enemy was looking for, if there were spies around. Vulnerable as he was, Inuyasha was far more likely to get past any dragon informants without arousing any suspicion. It might have been the only good thing about the ridiculous schedule Sesshomaru had imposed. Asshole.
Instead, he had left the lieutenant in charge at the camp. Between him and the dragon, Tuso, that had stepped up to keep the defectors in line, they would have the soldiers rested and ready to go by morning; Inuyasha fully expected to have to fight when the sun rose. He had also ordered Egg to make sure no one followed him. Inuyasha trusted the youkai and monks that had pledged to fight with him – as much as he trusted anyone outside of his friends – but he wasn’t eager to make his night of weakness public. It was another good reason to make the trip to Kawageta himself. The hair on the back of his neck tingled, and Inuyasha swore again. Unfortunately, Egg hadn’t done a perfect job. One youkai had followed him out of camp, and although they didn’t get close enough for his human senses to get a read on them, he had a pretty good idea who it was, and Egg would have had to have been blessed by a luck demon to keep that one at camp.
It didn’t matter much, in the moment. Even though he couldn’t smell or hear them, he knew they were there. Growing up in the wilds had given Inuyasha an overdeveloped sense of paranoia, and he knew when he was being followed. On the bright side, a few more minutes and he should be in range for Sesshomaru’s emissary to scent him. They could tussle with his tag-a-long. It would serve them both right – his tail for not following orders, and the messenger for following Sesshomaru. Fuckers, the both of them.
He was breathing hard and his legs were near cramping when he arrived at the steep ravine that bordered the village of Kawageta. From previous travels he recalled a small string of huts that trailed up and down a well-traveled road, all anchored by a prosperous inn. A kitsune inn, he remembered with a frown. He dropped over the edge to the ground fifteen or twenty feet below, silently cursing himself as his ankles reminded him that they were not as resilient as he was used to. He rolled to absorb some of the shock and came to a stop on his knees, brushing cold dust and wet snow from his clothes.
“At last you offer the respect due This One,” spoke a quiet voice from the shadow of a tall pine tree. Inuyasha squinted, his weak eyes barely making out the pale smudge of a vague man-shape in the darkness. He didn’t need to see to recognize the arrogant tone and faint amusement of his half-brother. He was surprised that the Western lord had come personally, but did his best to hide it.
“Yeah, that’s it.” He snorted, “After a couple of centuries, I thought, what the hell. Bowing to a self-absorbed, power-crazed ice-prick can’t be that bad.” Inuyasha paused, as though considering the option. After a long second he scowled. “Oh, wait, no. It is worse than being fucked by an angry thorn-squid youkai with an oozing rash. Glad we figured that out.” He stood and flicked his hair behind his shoulder, ignoring the tingle of awareness on his scalp and the predatory stillness around Sesshomaru’s seated form. He sensed my tail, Inuyasha thought with satisfaction. He was betting the little sneak had realized who was meeting him at Kawageta too. That had to be a real kick in the pants.
After a moment of silent enjoyment, he gave in, figuring the soldier had suffered enough. “He knows you’re there, dummy. Just come out.”
Sesshomaru, the picture of serene disinterest, remained seated. Inuyasha moved closer, finding a perch on a bare patch of ground close enough that he could see the daiyoukai clearly, but far enough away that he didn’t feel like they would look friendly. Allies, maybe, but he didn’t want to give any wrong impressions. It took longer than he had expected for the youkai to emerge from the woods. She slinked silently down the ravine wall, practically flowing down to the ground. Her dark skin and clothing made the perfect camouflage for the moonless night. Her red hair looked nearly black under the meager starlight. She came to a halt some twenty feet away and bowed deeply.
“Inuyasha-sama, Sesshomaru-sama,” she murmured in the same silky warm voice that made soldiers fall over themselves just to drool on her. Inuyasha glanced at Sesshomaru to catch his reaction.
“Hn.” That retort was about what Inuyasha expected, but he still relaxed a little bit, not realizing he had carried any tension over what Sesshomaru would say about the rain demoness.
“You were ordered to stay in camp, Niji,” Inuyasha did his best to keep his voice stern. It wasn’t as hard to be the commanding officer as he had once thought it would be. It helped, too, that Niji could have gotten them both killed – or worse, captured – by following him.
“Did you give that order, my captain?” She asked, almost sounding genuinely distressed. Inuyasha snorted. “I must have been on patrol and not heard.”
“You are aware of That One’s nature,” Sesshomaru stated flatly, his hard gaze narrowed on the face of the demoness. Inuyasha blinked, taking a moment before he realized that the formal title referred to him. Then he became uncomfortable. Obviously Niji had figured out he was human at the moment, but there wasn’t a need to call attention to it.
“She ain’t-” Inuyasha began, not sure exactly what he planned to say.
“My lord-” Niji started, but Sesshomaru interrupted them both.
“Patrol,” he ordered. His golden eyes gleamed with a familiar violent intent, “This One’s words are not for your ears. That One will meet you when this is done.” Niji bowed low after Sesshomaru’s obvious dismissal, and Inuyasha was surprised to find that she stayed that way – waiting.
“Wha- oh, er. Yeah. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.” He folded his arms across his chest, just to let her know he was serious. The dark oval of her face cracked with a wide, white smile.
“As you command, Inuyasha-san.” Her humor was evident, as was the innuendo in her words, and Inuyasha blushed as she melted back into the shadows. He refused to look at his brother. Thankfully, their relationship, although less murderous than a few years ago, was not one that encouraged teasing or discussion of emotions of any sort.
“You are late,” Sesshomaru said after a lengthy silence.
Inuyasha bristled, but managed not to take the bait. “Yeah, I stopped for a nap. Had a bite to eat. Did a little fishin’,” the sarcasm dripped from his words.
“Your messenger smells of blood and pain.”
“I wouldn’t know, jackass,” Inuyasha rolled his eyes and tapped one claw against his nose. There was only so much of Sesshomaru’s bullshit he could listen to. As it turned out, his limit was one comment.
“She was the cause for the delay.” It wasn’t a question, but a pronouncement, and that really got the hanyou riled.
“Niji was attacked, you self-righteous prick. And she got rid of them all – not a one escaped, and no one followed her back to me or you, so I think she did a pretty damn good job.” There was another long silence where Inuyasha bit his tongue to keep from taunting the older youkai into a fight.
“I did not intend to insult your vassal’s competence.”
Inuyasha blinked. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn Sesshomaru apologized. He shifted uncomfortably. “Keh. Whatever. What did you want to say – and how come you came yourself?”
“I have brought the strategy for the attack,” Sesshomaru said, ignoring the hanyou’s other question. He pulled a folded paper from his obi and held it out, all without looking at Inuyasha. “We will move tomorrow. I expect treachery.”
“No shit,” Inuyasha replied mildly. “They’re dragons.”
They spent the next several hours discussing the plan, and Inuyasha was quietly impressed. Sesshomaru had outdone himself with detail and counter-contingencies. Although, the younger brother privately thought that the more intricate deceptions were probably the work of Kimi. That woman was devious as all fucking hell. When Inuyasha returned from a break to relieve himself, he found a square of cloth had been laid out with a bento and water skin in the center. Once he sat down, even his blunted nose could pick out the mouth-watering smell of food.
“What’s this?” Inuyasha’s stomach rumbled embarrassingly. He was always hungry, but a human body demanded food on a much more regular basis than a youkai one.
Sesshomaru, typically, did not answer the question directly. “Kagome wished me to tell you,” he paused, and Inuyasha recognized the same weirdly curious voice that he used himself for unfamiliar words from Kagome’s time, “ ‘hi’ and to please be careful.” Inuyasha huffed in acknowledgement. It was just like the soft-hearted girl to worry that he wasn’t eating enough. He opened the box to find several rice balls, wrapped in bamboo leaves. Dried nori was carefully placed next to pickled ume fruit, and in a separate little area thin strips of grilled eel were wrapped in a spiral around a tiny pot of dark, salty-sweet soy sauce and a smear of the wasabi paste that he only liked when his inu senses were dulled.
He seized the included chopsticks and ate with gusto. He had a rice ball and two strips of fish packed into his mouth when he noticed Sesshomaru wasn’t eating. It pained him to do so, and he knew stick-up-his-ass would refuse, but Kagome had made it, and she would think he should. “Want some,” he offered. It came out garbled around all the food, but the daiyoukai understood.
“No,” he replied coolly. “I hunted before your arrival.”
By the time he was done, Inuyasha was feeling the strain of his run on his weakened body. His eyelids tried to slide closed, and so he sat up straighter to stay awake. Weird, he thought, having the Killing Perfection around should be enough to keep anyone from sleeping. He decided perhaps he was softer than expected at the new moon, or perhaps Kagome’s ability to stay cheerful and decidedly not maimed while living with the asshole was ruining his icy image. Inuyasha chuckled to himself. If anyone thought that having Kagome around made Sesshomaru less deadly, they deserved to have their stupid head melted right off their shoulders.
“Rest,” Sesshomaru said suddenly. “I will wait here until dawn.” It was obvious he intended to watch over Inuyasha until his youki returned. The hanyou-turned human wasn’t sure exactly what to think about it, or if he should argue and brush off what seemed suspiciously like concern. The great Western Lord didn’t say it, and Inuyasha certainly wouldn’t, but as he closed his eyes and leaned back against a tree opposite the daiyoukai, it occurred to him that it was appropriate. It had taken Kagome and a threat bigger than even Naraku, but Inuyasha could admit, privately, at least on that one night, that it was almost nice to have a brother.
“Oh, before I forget,” he sat up quickly and drew the light bag off his shoulder, tossing it Sesshomaru’s way. As expected, he caught it, snatching it out of the air on reflex. Inuyasha fought to hide a grin. “It’s not exactly what you asked for, but I’m just a hanyou, ya know? It was the best I could do.” He leaned back and closed his eyes again, biting his cheek to keep from smiling. There was a faint whisper of cloth, and Inuyasha knew the exact moment when the special youki-made wrapping was removed and the scent was released. Sesshomaru sneezed inelegantly, and Inuyasha couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “I brought you all of Natsou I could find. Ask him anything you want – but he’s not much of a talker.”
Arashi stood silently at Ryukostokken’s left, waiting for an order. Several soldiers had thrown him sidelong glances. Some were envious of his position so close to their lord. Others pitied him for having drawn such attention from the notoriously unstable Saigo Mao. A few others, those that should have guarded their expressions more closely, clearly felt that Arashi was not in his proper place. None of those things mattered so much in that moment, not when there was a precipice looming before them all.
“Wei,” Ryukostokken called and the administrator appeared as if out of thin air. “Signal to Sou, the first wave is finished.”
“Yes, denka-ue,” the obsequious bureaucrat bowed and hurriedly turned to a runner that would send a message down to Sou near the waiting troops. Arashi reviewed the battlefield with calculating eyes. Nearly a mile away, the conflict was in full press. The frontline for the North outnumbered the Western soldiers considerably, but even their masses were not enough to overcome their lack of training. They were young, some barely old enough to hold their forms. Many too young to be expected to know their kanji, much less fight. Those ranks also held the least important of Ryukostokken’s foreign allies. The criminals, undesirables, and lessor children from shameful unions that were best left to die on Japanese soil – far from the honor of their own lords. Given the rate at which they were falling, Arashi estimated it would be less than an hour before the Western army began to make forward progress again.
His black eyes turned up to the faint blur of color and death that was Sesshomaru. The highest, quite literally, in that moment, of the youkai lords had claimed a vast stretch of sky for himself and easily dispatched any dragon that invaded his territory. That is power, Arashi thought to himself. That is a lord that knows he cannot be defeated. He glanced at Ryukostokken who was shifting his weight and leaning forward to gain some advantage of view over the battle playing out before him. Who thinks he cannot be defeated, he added. Ryukostokken licked his lips and Arashi followed his gaze to the second line of soldiers, at the foot of the mountain. Sou stood there with them, the runner bowing before him. Perhaps these two lords have more in common than they realize. Ryukostokken raised one arm, then dropped it. Far away, Sou nodded, then turned to his youkai, issuing commands. The first wave would be pushed into the Western ranks. Their deaths would cause confusion and tire the enemy before the second wave, more skilled and better armed, arrived. High above two silvery dragons flew through the air at reckless speeds toward Sesshomaru.
A small dragon, barely out of babyhood and still unable to conceal the scaly tale and flickering tongue of his true form, edged out from behind a large rock and waited to gain Arashi’s attention. He had been expecting the child for some time. The whelp was sneaky, quiet, and loyal to the point of death to the one who had found him and saved him from starvation. Arashi valued fidelity as only one who is intimate with traitors can. He stepped quietly to the side, making room for the returning Wei and allowing his informant to duck back behind the shelter of the rock.
“The lost son?” Arashi asked quietly. The young male nodded, his tale twitching nervously and pointing to the east. Arashi dipped one hand into the bag at his side and pulled out a rice ball, wrapped in a leaf. The boy took it with a quick smile. “The mother?” The boy glanced to the west and nodded again, carefully securing the rice in his own bag. “The ally?” Pale green scales pulled together on the whelp’s brow. His lips turned down into a frown. “That is alright,” Arashi responded. “I did not expect you to find him.” He removed a pouch from his bag, the faint jingle of coin muffled by the leather. “The woman?”
The boy frowned again, then hesitated before angling his chin to the south. “Healing,” he replied shortly, his voice almost too soft to be heard. He drew a line in the snow with his bare foot, and then three dots behind it. “The woman.” He tapped his toe on the dot to his left, and then turned quickly, sweeping his tail across the drawing and racing into the trees.
“Our lord demands your presence,” Wei spoke from near his shoulder. Arashi had a brief, savagely enjoyable, desire to turn and rip the administrator’s lying mouth from his face. Ironic, really, given Arashi’s own occupation was dependent upon a good lie. He smoothed his face into a mask of indifference before turning and making his way back to the Northern Lord, who was watching him closely. One hand on Shianma.
“You were ordered not to leave This One’s side,” he said. His voice was calm, which every creature within hearing distance knew was a sign that pain and dismemberment were sure to follow. Arashi quickly considered his options, not liking any of them, but finding some more palatable than others.
“I have news, my lord,” he bowed low. “Sesshomaru has secreted healers behind his front line. A targeted attack would weaken his ability to replenish his forces.” He stood tall again, aware that the black eyes roving over his face were looking for any sign of deception. Ryukostokken’s tongue flickered out.
“Scout,” he ordered suddenly. A young dragon, already transformed into his true state, crawled as quickly as he could to kowtow before his lord. “Confirm this information.” He snapped his teeth and the dragon took one powerful bound to soar into the air. He was only an adolescent, but his small size gave him great agility, and his speed was uncommonly good. Within minutes, he returned and with an unimpressive swirl of youki stood on two legs.
“My lord,” he bowed low, “there are three that heal the wounded and return them to fight.” He drew a line in the snow, just as Arashi’s informant had done. “Here, here, and here.”
“Go, tell Sou, and inform him that This One commands the archers to end these healers.” The pale dragon bowed again and was gone before Ryukostokken had turned his attention to Arashi. “Tell me of Natsou,” the lord commanded. His tongue flicked out again and his nostrils flared. “He is late.”
“Inuyasha has been running his soldiers night and day, my lord,” Arashi responded. “I expect he will arrive at any moment.”
“Eh.” Unpredictably, Ryukostokken smiled, but it had the slick, hidden meaning that punctuated most of his humor. “Natsou will be dragging that weak hanyou bastard right to the cowardly pup’s feet. Sesshomaru won’t know what a gift he has received.” Arashi blinked, but did not give any other indication how right, and how wrong, he knew the dragon lord was. “Wei,” he snarled, once more serious and ill-tempered, “Send the signal to the western battalion. They will attack when Natsou arrives on the field.”
Inuyasha had woken alone just before dawn broke feeling surprisingly refreshed. Sesshomaru had disappeared, along with the empty bento. As the first rays of light spiked over the horizon, Inuyasha sat up and watched with satisfaction as he became hanyou once more. The color drained out of his long hair, and with it the weakness from his body. His eyesight sharpened, almost to the point of pain for a moment while he adjusted. Swiftly, his ears became more sensitive, alerting him to the sounds of the mountain and forest. A tidal wave of scent nearly overwhelmed him, but he was grateful for the sensation. A bird of prey had killed a mouse during the night. Badgers that had not yet returned to their burrows had met and were fighting for territory. Juniper berries were crushed, releasing their fragrance into the air. Clear, cool water. Wet leaves. Pheromones. He opened his eyes to find Niji watching him intently from the top of the ravine. Inuyasha took a deep breath. There was only two ways for such a confrontation to go: either doubt that he was as strong as he was before the transformation, or disgust that he was not fully youkai. He could deal with either, but doubt would be easier. Inuyasha cracked his knuckles. He was always eager for a fight after his youki returned. The mere thought of it had his energy surging under his skin, stronger and more potent than ever.
“Report,” he barked out, standing and stretching while he waited for her reaction.
“A lessor hare youkai was sneaking around a few hours ago. Scampered off to the south before I could catch her, but no other movement.” She cocked her head to the side, studying him.
Inuyasha tensed, “This gonna be a problem, soldier?”
“Did you know,” she replied conversationally, easily avoiding his question, “that you look even more delectable with dark hair?”
His face reddened uncontrollably. He hadn’t considered their might be a third reaction. “Keh,” he muttered. “Get your mind out of the gutter, we got work to do.” He bent his knees and sprang off of the ground, exhilarated, as he always was after a new moon, that his body responded with strength and speed. He soared over Niji’s head and landed easily in a bare tree. Looking back, he was equally proud and embarrassed by her wicked smile and sensuous pose. He forcibly reminded himself that she had given the same lascivious smirk to at least half of the males in camp. And some of the females. Get your own mind out of the gutter, idiot.
“There are dragons needin’ a beat down – can’t leave ‘em waitin’.” Her laughing agreement floated up to him as they raced back to Maruyama.
Ko listened carefully as Wei relayed orders to prepare the archers. She gripped her fists tightly inside her sleeves, stilling the urge to go, to leave. To leap off of the mountainside and take flight. She was one with the wind. She was the air itself. With her eyesight returned, none would be able to catch her. She could be above the clouds and behind the Western line in the blink of any eye. High. Fast. Soaring.
She had to swallow hard and carefully release the tension in her muscles. There were more important things than even her freedom, and she would see them, with her own eyes, or die in the attempt. The witches were weaving their magic, but Ko could do nothing but wait. Wait and listen for the opportunity she knew would come. Wait for Ryukostokken to die.
Arashi had settled back into his place after providing information that might get Kagome killed. Healers, the scout had said. Ko knew that the miko would be one of them. The spy had taken his lord’s temper calmly, as though there was no possibility that the anger of the Saigo Mao could result in his death or maiming. Ko could not understand him, had never, but after they had each revealed secrets to the other, she found him to be more of an enigma. Before her attempt to kill him, she would have said that he was one of many that followed Ryukostokken’s orders because there was no alternative. She had been nearly certain that he searched for ways to lessen the brutality of those orders – to avoid senseless deaths. She had known that he did not cause pain for his own amusement.
And then she had seen his wings. Felt his power. Arashi was a youkai unparalleled in the North – surpassed only by the captains and Ryukostokken himself. That she was sure of and she wondered about more. Wondered why he had let her see more than he had to in order to survive the fall. Wondered why a youkai with such reserves of power remained under the claw of the North. Wondered why he had not yet revealed her own secret. Her treachery. Ko longed to turn her face toward the spy. To feel the air that moved past him and carried his scent, to brush the haze from her sight and look upon his face. She wanted to know him, to know why.
Ko bit her inner cheek and kept her face resolutely forward. Wait, she repeated the mantra to herself, a little longer. Just wait.
The second wave of dragons was significantly better trained than the first. Sesshomaru had little difficulty dispatching his attackers, but the sheer numbers consumed precious minutes. He rarely had time for more than a deep breath and a glance at the field below before another northern youkai demanded his attention. Date’s men had positioned themselves perfectly; their stealthy movement across a brightly-lit plain riddled with clashing forces was impressive. They only needed a signal so that they could act in unison. Sesshomaru felt a growl rumble in his chest as he spun in the air. Three dragons had come upon him in formation, darting close and then away again without any taking serious damage. The alternating tactic kept him too occupied to pursue any one of them and end the fight. He needed to light the sky – a simple burst of youki would activate the ninja.
He had no time.
His lips parted in a snarl and he accepted the dig of claws into his shoulder in order to sink Bakusaiga under the foreleg of one of the dragons. His steel delved far deeper and that dragon lost the light in his eyes before Sesshomaru had even withdrawn his sword. It fell toward the ground as he turned on his other assailants. The second, the one who had drawn his blood, was dispatched with a flick of his whip. Acid melted through thick hide as though it were paper. Sesshomaru lifted his hand then, prepared to release a burst of youki, but he was too late.
His eyes widened with concern and surprise and the last of the three dragons flinched and cowered as a pink light exploded in the sky over the forest. She should be conserving power. What has prompted this? The oily smoke of dark magic coalesced in the air. She discovered a spell. Pride suffused him. His intended, his Kagome, was truly an asset. Even there in the midst of a war against enemies that had centuries of training to her two decades of life, she fought with the unique talents and perspective that had allowed her to survive and thrive out of her own time. He inhaled deeply. It was worth the stench of blood and death to get a taste of the salty-sweet breeze that was Kagome’s power. Even more gratifying that the scent, was what her display had revealed. Dragons, older and better equipped than any that he had faced yet that day. They were moving with hesitation and confusion, no doubt surprised and pained by the sudden burst of holy power. Then Sesshomaru noticed the heat growing in their mouths. They mean to immolate the forest, he thought. He forced power into his cloud and quickly gained speed as he moved to intercept them, decapitating the still-reeling third dragon on the way. The monk and wolf-cub cannot be revealed until the time is right. Although he knew he could not defend two positions at the same time, he did not allow failure to enter his consideration. He would simply have to find a way to destroy the western flank of the dragon army and still protect the core of his own.
An explosion of splintered wood, fur, and youki slowed his progress. With her usual flair for the theatrical, Kimi burst from the trees, jaw open and claws gleaming in the sun. Her growl shook the air and caused several dragons to swallow their fire prematurely. Sesshomaru considered his mother with the eye of a general. She was smaller than he remembered – although it had been well over two hundred years since he had last seen her covered in fur. Still, she was as tall as himself in his true form, although more delicately built. Any disadvantage she might have in mass was made up for in vicious predatory instinct and a millennia of rigorous training. She bowled through the ranks, catching two in her mouth with a wet crunch before flinging the bodies away to knock another three dragons from the sky. Just past the edge of their formation she turned, her paws churning a wind in their wake as she repositioned for another pass. The dragons that had been poised to blindside and decimate the Western forces hidden in the forest were in complete disarray, many injured, and at least five already unable to fight.
Kimi did not have a speck of blood on her white fur.
The decision to return to his position was an easy one. Sesshomaru had no doubt that his mother would quickly deal with the situation, and would likely even turn it to their advantage. He flew back to the center of the army, noting that Kagome was closely guarded by a human warrior on each side, in addition to her tight circle of soldiers. The mangled body of a purple dragon lay nearby. Date’s ninja had also taken the opportunity to seize the distraction created by his miko’s display of power. Three witches had already fallen, the dragon soldiers that should have protected them stumbled and searched blindly for an enemy. It had begun on the edge of the forces closest to the forest, and dark miko fell like tiles set on end – one after the other, just ahead of the realization of the soldiers that an enemy was among them.
It was the opening he had planned meticulously. Sesshomaru removed another dragon from the fight and snapped his whip in the air again. The forces below him did not react, occupied as they were with the dead and dying dragons from the first wave as well as the fresh northern soldiers that had arrived at the line of attack. Instead, wolves surged from within the western ranks – the red hair of Ayame easily discernable amid the snow and mud. They leaped over their allies and raced through the oncoming dragons. Ayame led them exactly as had been discussed. They nipped, clawed and growled, even tripping a few soldiers as they ran, but did little damage as they fled toward the east. It was the distraction and confusion that had been the goal – and that was achieved readily.
Sesshomaru cracked his whip again, and within moments, the forest exploded with snarls and snapping jaws. Wolves and wild youkai of every size and shape flooded onto the field, colliding with the exposed flank of the second wave of dragons. The initial attack was devastating, row after row of dragons were easily dispatched as they struggled to reorient themselves for a two-front assault. Just as the progress of Kouga and his youkai was slowed, the monks stepped out of the trees. Sesshomaru had never been impressed by the quiet prayers and relatively weak bodies of holy humans before he had joined Inuyasha’s group in the fight against Naraku. Kagome had given him a new outlook on the power a human could hold. Miroku had shown him a keen intellect that had equal effect in diplomacy and battle.
His skills were clearly displayed – including his flare for spectacle. Sesshomaru noted in the back of his mind that time spent with Kimi might have swelled the pervert’s ambition to be the greatest fraud in Japan. Their faces had been painted black with a wide band of gold across their eyes and down their noses. The effect was riveting. Each monk wore robes of dark purple. Simple prayer beads dangled from their necks and hands. Although they were weaker and slower than any youkai, they had played to their strengths. With precision and exact timing, the men moved as one. A hundred staffs were planted in the ground, their bells chiming and clinking. The sound was soft and melodious from a single monk; together the jangle grew and swelled until it echoed over the field. Magic of some sort must have been worked into the brass, because the sound was chilling rather than soothing. It rang with the tones of death and the end of things, rather than peace and rebirth.
It was a single voice, the woven words spoken by each mouth so that they blended into a great and terrible thing that was unnaturally loud. It found places in the ear which had never heard sound, places in the heart which had not known fear, and pressed down with the weight of the heavens. With the weight of hell.
Sesshomaru did not know the language. He was not sure if they were even words that were spoken, but the notes of their chant seemed to stretch time out into a thin thread. The battle slowed, each soldier, regardless of allegiance, glancing with trepidation at the line of men painted as gods that stood still and steady. The monks raised their free hands, lifting them parallel to the ground. And then the chant stopped. In a single motion, one hundred fists opened, releasing what had been clutched tightly.
Narrow strips of fine white parchment fluttered on the breeze, tipping and floating slowly towards the snow. Before the first piece could land, Miroku stepped forward from his place at the center of the line.
“Evil demons,” he called out. His voice was strong enough that Sesshomaru was certain even Ryukostokken, wherever he had secluded himself from the battle, would hear it. “Begone!” He lifted and planted his staff again, thrusting the belled end out towards the dragons. For an instant, nothing happened. Then the papers rose, narrowing, flattening, cutting through the air like blades. In a blur of white motion, they streaked through the warriors, sailing over and around wolves and western youkai. The battlefield was silent. Then the first body fell. A dragon youkai, his tail falling heavily to the earth as he sank to his knees, a slip of white paper embedded half through his neck.
Another, his helmet falling as he slumped into a comrade. Another, sword clanging to the ground as he collapsed. Still another. And another. One hundred dragons were killed with a prayer, and their blood wicked up the simple slips of paper that had ended their lives. Sesshomaru watched with interest as the remaining second wave vacillated for a moment. Then at least a quarter of them turned and ran.
“No,” screamed Ryukostokken. “No, no, no!” He snarled and swiped at the closest youkai. Only his scout was misfortunate enough to have remained within reach when the new force of Western allies had emerged from the forest. Unburnt. Unscathed. Fresh and eager for battle.
The dark miko had all fallen or been incapacitated. The first wave was dead. The second wave was in frightened and confused turmoil; three hundred soldiers turning and fleeing when the monks finished their chant. Arashi had not anticipated such power and precision, after the tales he had heard of the companion to the Shikon Miko, Miroku. Impressive, he thought dispassionately. Humans are truly more of a threat than the Saigo Mao has ever given them credit for. Perhaps even more than I had previously considered. Even as he edged away from his lord, anticipating what was to come, he ran through several possibilities in his head of ways to attract and keep such power in the North.
A dark grey hand, pebbled across the knuckles and pitted with scars, snatched the adolescent dragon from his place on the ground. The young male was not even given the opportunity to beg for his lord’s mercy. His eyes widened, and then his collarbones were separated from his chest with a vicious tear leaving the front of the ribcage protruding at an angle from the chest and exposing the organs. There was no time for a scream. Arashi listened to Ryukostokken’s enraged roar and watched the slow blink of the dying dragon. Once, twice. Thre- no, he’s dead. Ko, on the far side of the daiyoukai, had positioned herself close the edge of the cliff they stood upon. Arashi wondered if, since she had her sight, she could out-fly a gust of Ryukostokken’s fire. He wondered why she had not yet attempted it, in any of the moments of confusion that could have helped her to escape at a time when no soldiers could be spared to go after her.
Hard, black eyes caught his, “You should have known this!” The Northern lord advanced, but Arashi held his ground. He bowed low, folding his hands in a display of subservience and giving him ready access to the blades he kept secured under his sleeves.
“You anticipated as much, my lord,” he said evenly. “If not for your placement of the concealed squadron over the forests, even now the Lady Kimi would be on the field.” He waited, ears trained on the uneven gallop of Ryukostokken’s heart and the grating suck of air over roiling ash in his throat. In a rare moment of self-control, the least of the cardinal lords pulled back, snapping his fingers at the wind demoness.
“This One will remove with the third wave.”
“My lord-” Wei protested. Arashi’s mind reeled. His plans did not include Ryukostokken attempting a retreat. Attacks will come quickly, he thought. Shianma’s reach is-
“Do not.” Ryukostokken’s warning and his blazing eyes cut off anything further Wei had intended to say. “This One shall lead the remainder over the mountain pass and west. The shiro of the dog will be unguarded. It will fall while the Western soldiers are occupied here.” His clawed hand reached out and grabbed tightly around Ko’s arm, wrinkling the pale blue of her sleeve. Wei’s mouth fell open in shock. Arashi knew that if the blood-thirsty rat of an administrator found a plan to be ill-advised, then it was foolish beyond reason. Even if the dragon lord was successful and managed to slaughter whatever rear guard and civilians Sesshomaru had left behind. He could not hope to gain anything by holding the Western castle. It would be sieged, and that would only allow time for the enemies of the North to heal, regroup and wait for close quarters and low supplies to weaken the dragon soldiers.
It also did not adhere to Arashi’s plan. It could not be allowed.
“I-I, of course, my lord,” Wei stuttered a response and bowed. It was clear by his dismayed glance he wasn’t sure how to relay the order, given that the scout was dismembered and the last messenger had wisely not returned, sure to have heard the snarls of Ryukostokken. The lord yanked his slave transport to the ground and gripped her hair tightly, preparing to leave. Arashi cast his thoughts wide for an argument that would keep the Saigo Mao in place. He opened his lips, for once without a ready word, but the wind demoness spoke first.
“Someone comes,” she said simply. Her face was tilted into the winter breeze, towards the east. Arashi watched Ryukostokken carefully, and when his interest was secured, the spy too turned to look. On the eastern edge of the plain, the hills rose sharply in rocky, dry angles that were covered only with hardy, sparse undergrowth before merging into the mountains. At the very edge of the trees, barely visible and more than a half-mile away, stood a single figure. The uniform of the North was obvious against the white snow. A second figure stepped out beside it, dressed in red.
“Natsou has arrived,” Wei announced, unnecessarily. The excitement in his voice was obvious.
“He is late,” Ryukostokken stated flatly. He roughly shoved the female away from him and turned back to watch the field, having apparently lost interest in an immediate retreat. The calculating expression on his face made Arashi wary. It rarely gave positive results. “Send the signal.” He gripped Shianma tightly and smiled, baring all of his teeth. “This Ryukostokken will take the field.”
Kagome felt light-headed. It wasn’t surprising, given the huge amount of power she had used to disperse the spell, and that was on top of all of the healing and arrows she had fired. She knew she should stand up straight and try to look more impressive, but she was exceedingly grateful for the ninja that allowed her to lean against him.
“My lady,” the man on her right said, concerned.
“Miko-sama,” the ninja she had collapsed against sounded distinctly uncomfortable.
“Just a sec,” she breathed heavily. “I just need a second.” His shoulder shifted under her cheek and Kagome closed her eyes to stop the ground from spinning up at her. Sesshomaru would not be happy if she fainted during a battle. He would probably lecture. Or at least say a few admonishing words. Or frown. Strongly. And he probably wouldn’t let her leave their room for a week. Not that she would have objected, at least not at the moment. She was exhausted. Her stomach fluttered weirdly and her reiki rippled under her skin in a way that made the youkai around her hiss with discomfort. “Sorry,” she whispered, grimacing and trying to get herself under control. “Sorry, just need a sec.”
She opened her eyes once she was sure she wouldn’t black out – only to see the ground moving beneath her feet. “Ugh,” she murmured, squeezing her eyes shut and holding her belly. Only the jostling of her human sentries and the defensive shouts of the eagle youkai made her open her eyes again. Eiji stood in front of her, waving off the spears and swords of a half dozen of her guards Eiichi was just rising from the ground, dust forming a cloud around his head that emphasized the knot over his eye and the blood running from his hairline down his nose to his jaw.
“Just came for healing,” Eiji was saying calmly.
“It’s okay,” Kagome sank down to the ground beside Eiichi, grateful to be closer to her feet. “I’ve got this, we’ll move again after I heal him.” The soldiers threw dark glances at the rock demons, but returned to their stations, once again working to keep the fight away from the priestess. It took her longer than usual to calm herself enough that she wouldn’t burn Eiichi with her powers, and then a few more moments to coax energy from her fingertips into his wounds. When she opened her eyes again, Eiji was frowning at her and her guards were circling tighter. “What is it?”
“We need to move,” Eiji responded. His flat tone worried her. Kagome glanced to the ninja that had supported her earlier.
“A second wave of dragons has attacked, they are pushing us back,” he said quietly. The narrow strip of forehead exposed by his mask wrinkled and he shared a look with the most experienced eagle youkai. “If we don’t move her now, we’ll get stuck on the wrong side.”
“Agreed,” the eagle nodded shortly. Kagome found herself picked up and shielded by the rock brothers as her circle of guards began a slow, careful pace to the south. Twice, they stopped to pull up their shields as arrows rained from the sky. Eiji offered to take Kagome underground, but she refused. Eiichi was still knitting together, she didn’t want him to strain his youki. There was also the matter of being seen. It was important that the soldiers saw her retreat and advance with them – not run to hide behind their swords. As they stood once the third arrow attack had passed, Kagome found that the front line was nearly upon them. Hisao was barking orders at his warriors, who were struggling to fend off two or three dragons for every one western soldier. As she watched, a huge dragon youkai, taller than even Sesshomaru and twice as broad, closed on the captain and raised a naginata that gleamed with blood. Hisao was occupied with another enemy, their blades locked together.
“Watch out!” Kagome screamed. Hisao jerked his head forward, butting his opponent in the face. Blood spray from a broken nose and cheekbones splattered across them both. Kagome’s stomach dropped in fear as the foot long blade at the end of the naginata pole descended towards her friend. Hisao dropped suddenly, out of Kagome’s line of sight.
“No!” She surged forward, breaking though the ring of guards who were too surprised to attempt to hold her. She sprinted for a dozen yards, then tripped over a groaning youkai. Her face landed in the snow, and then a claw-tipped hand was hoisting her up.
“Miko-sama, you must-” The eagle youkai began.
Kagome cut him off, scanning furiously for Hisao. “No! We have to-” There was a deep grunt, followed by a howl of triumph, and Kagome watched the enormous dragon fall, a look of shock on his face. Hisao knelt behind him, blade buried in the dragon’s spine from base to neck. Kagome felt herself sag with relief and she hung on to her guard with trembling finger. “Oh, it’s-” A few stray arrows sang through the air. The eagle turned her quickly, pulling her to the ground and sheltering her with his body. She heard the ping, ping of the projectiles hitting stone.
“Let go, we can go back,” she said as soon as the sound stopped. Eiji and Eiichi were racing toward her, pointing and yelling at something behind her. She turned. Immediately behind her guard was a newly-formed earth dome. One arrow was embedded in the dirt. Rock demons, she thought, with a twist of humor. Then her gaze travelled outward. Hisao was still kneeling on the ground, but a human soldier was at his side protecting him from assault. The captain stood, one hand over his face, the fingers wrapped around a wooden shaft protruding from his eye. Kagome gasped and slapped her hand over her mouth. As she watched, Hisao clenched his jaw and yanked the arrow out. Blood poured down his face, but his good eye focused on her.
“Kagome-sama,” he called out, “move back! There will be another assault!” Even as he spoke, they could all see the dark line of arrows rising from the distant Northern archers. The Western army began to retreat slowly, gathering the injured as they moved and placing those with shields or iron-tough hides closest to the danger.
“Go get your captain,” she ordered Eiichi, pointing.
“My lady,” the eagle began.
“Our first priority,” Eiji started.
“You have one minute before those arrows get here,” her eyes narrowed and she tried not to think about the lives she was risking. Tried not to think about what it meant to determine one person was worth more than another. Tried not to think about how her guards, and the rock brothers, would give their lives to protect hers. We need Hisao, she reminded herself. “I am not moving until you get him.” Eiichi looked like he wanted to argue, but Eiji dragged him away, reaching the inu captain just as time was running out. “Let’s go,” she said to her guard. The rip of earth opening behind her was swiftly overcome by the screams of arrows.
Sesshomaru cut down another dragon, accepting a minor wound to make the fight end more quickly, and watched the progress below. For once, Inuyasha had arrived on time. A lone dragon stepped out of the trees, at the far north-eastern corner of the little valley where the battle was taking place. Inuyasha’s red clothing was a signal flag as the hanyou followed. Intently, the daiyoukai turned his gaze on the enemy camp. A third division of the northern army was visible at the base of the mountain, those, he knew, would be the core of Ryukostokken’s power. The most skilled, the most experienced dragons were waiting to be deployed after the West had been weakened by a day of battle against expendable thousands. Above them, on a wide cliff, shadowy figures massed and moved together. Saigo Mao, Sesshomaru thought with disgust. The tactic was valid, and would serve his life and forces well, but no youkai with any honor would send those loyal to him to die while he watched and waited.
Two more dragons, one black and one red, came at the Western lord from opposite sides. They were quick, and Sesshomaru was unwilling to trade any of his own blood to land a significant hit as long as they did not attempt to move past him. Their agility and willingness to harass, rather than aggressively assault, worked to their advantage. It was the labor of nearly a half hour to dispatch the two. One falling through a cloud of smoke and the stench of his own melting wing, the other in two cleanly divided halves that would hopefully crush another dragon below.
When he was next able to assess the Northern camp, the figures on the cliff had disappeared. Sesshomaru had considered that Ryukostokken might flee when the outcome seemed to fall from his favor. He had left kitsune surprises at his shiro in case of attack there, and was prepared to regroup and follow the dragon lord north, all the way to his stronghold if necessary. A cascade of arrows descended on the Western line, and Sesshomaru had to ascend to avoid the missiles. As the sky below him cleared, he noted that Kimi had nearly completed her task over the forest. He frowned, his gaze narrowing. His mother appeared to be toying with the last three dragons, allowing them to fly a short distance and then easily swatting them down towards the ground. He glanced to the tree line where the monks had been stationed. They were given instructions to retreat into the trees in the case of an aerial assault, and Kouga’s wolves and wild youkai would protect them from melee attacks. However, the accuracy of the archers was disappointingly respectable. Kimi soon joined them with a swirl of youki. Her silk kimono was a sharp contrast to the deadly wakizashi blades she drew, prepared to defend the western line, but few living monks were visible.
The reason soon became apparent as the trees parted – quite spectacularly. The largest trunks at the edge of the woods split open, slowly pulling back to allow a tumble of monks to spill out. Smaller trees, moving slowly, emerged as well from deeper in the forest. Hitashimashita, Sesshomaru thought. They herded the monks back to the south, even deflecting a few attackers that had slipped past Kouga. The trees had pledged to provide intelligence and ferry messages, but the Bokuseno had obviously committed even more. His tree youkai actively, albeit slowly, fought against the dragons. They gave the monks the opportunity to cast additional sutras between attacks.
A small contingent of dragons transformed far below, their outpouring of youki alerting Sesshomaru to their intent. They made a direct line for the opening over the center of the Western army. The daiyoukai rushed to meet their attack. The scent of fear melting away their arrogance was pleasing as he once more drew his sword. He fought through another wave of arrows, carefully tracking the measured retreat of his own army, before he noted movement to the north.
With an irritated, “Hn,” he removed the head from the last of his opponents and focused his attention. The final wave of dragon soldiers was moving forward, instead of retreating. Sesshomaru stilled, pushing youki into his senses to fuel them. His sight narrowed and sharpened, bringing the oncoming army into clear view. A tall dragon, scarred by battle, led. His face was hard and devoid of emotion. The captain, Sou, Sesshomaru noted. Just behind the first two ranks was a void space. Ryukostokken, Sesshomaru thought with satisfaction. The Saigo Mao strode forward surrounded by his personal guard. To his left was a stocky dragon, grey-skinned like his lord. To his right was a pale female, dressed in blue. Ko, he surmised, based on her position and the unnatural breeze that pulled her hair to float out behind her.
Two more dragons, larger and more obviously well-trained that his previous opponents closed on the daiyoukai’s position. Sesshomaru allowed a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth and he released his whip. Finally, he would have the opportunity to face his enemy. Ryukostokken would die.
Kagome fell down at Hisao’s side as soon as she found him again. The captain was snarling at a healer, trying to force the man away without hurting him. “I am fine,” he bit off. “I will return to the battle!”
“Not until I take care of this you won’t,” she said, drawing his attention. The broad-shouldered inu turned towards her, and Kagome nearly gagged. Blood covered most of his face, some already dry, and ran down his neck, obscuring the black stripes there. Of all of the wounds she had seen, some horrific beyond belief, the empty eye-socket was one of the most sickening. The lid was nothing more than a few wisps of flapping skin. She wondered absently if he had closed his eye when the arrow came down – it would have been nearly impossible not to. The organ itself had burst upon impact, the bulk of the fluid and tissue fallen out with the arrow or removed already by a healer. A greyish jelly sat in the hollows and gouges left behind, making the raw flesh that still oozed blood appear vividly red and the places where bone was visible starkly white. Loose strands, the arteries and nerves that had been brutally severed, hung short and shriveled against the back of the socket – as though trying to draw away from the agony there.
“There’s others that need you more, Kagome-sama,” he said gruffly.
“I will get to them,” she replied. It wasn’t entirely true, and she tried to push down that knowledge with the bile that rose in her throat. Some would die. Some who might have lived if she had gone to them immediately would die because she had chosen to treat this wound. Although the poison on the arrowhead was preventing his youki from beginning the healing process, Hisao’s life was not in danger. Even humans could survive the removal of an eye, as long as the bleeding was stopped. She closed her own eyes, extremely unconscious of the act and of the movement of the orbs behind her intact lids. Reiki came easily when she called it, a small, steady amount. It was as if her power agreed that Hisao was necessary, needed to be able to fight with all he had. All he had previously had, to protect the West.
She found the poison first and corralled it within reiki – forcing it to disperse through sheer will. She knew they were pressed for time, could hear the shouts of soldiers and feel the shield wall being raised over her once more as another wave of arrows descended on them. Hisao grunted as she increased her energy, not taking the time to ensure that it would not sting. His youki rose to fight her off, once the poison was gone. Kagome batted it aside. His body would be to slow to heal itself, and she knew that they were on the knife’s edge. The war would be decided soon. Her heart beat too fast, as though it might burst out of her chest at any moment. Blood pounded in her head and her muscles clenched. Reiki burst from her fingertips and Hisao gripped her arms tightly. Her guards let out groans and hisses as an overflow of power singed them.
Finished, she slumped back. Only Hisao’s palms on her arms and his claws sunk into her skin kept her from falling over. Her vision tunneled for a moment, and she thought she might black out. A rustle of feathers behind her startled her into full wakefulness.
“Let go, Captain-san,” her guard said sternly. Hisao’s claws pulled back, tearing her sleeves, and she relaxed for a moment against the chest armor of the eagle youkai. His head feathers cascaded over his shoulder and tickled her cheek. Kagome was thirsty. And hungry. And so, so very tired. “Your- Captain, your eye,” the eagle said warily.
Kagome looked up, wincing and thinking that she must have messed up the healing process. She was sure Hisao looked terrible. The inu captain was holding one hand over her face, moving it in and out as though trying to focus. His mouth was pulled into a scowl.
“Can you see even a little,” she asked timidly.
One dark brown eye, whole and unharmed, focused on her. He dropped his hand, and Kagome gasped. The empty socket had been filled, but his new eye did not match the original. The iris was completely pink, the pupil silver instead of the black that it should have been. He focused on her and both eyes widened, the new reddened skin around his injury stretching and swelling a little. His mouth opened and closed several times, as he looked at her, then up at the sky, then back to her.
“Is it-” she began hesitantly.
Hisao scowled. “He’s not going to like this,” Hisao stated. His grumpy tone was almost a relief. Obviously he could at least see, even if it was a strange color. “Don’t think I won’t put all the blame on you for this.” Kagome had no response to that strange statement, nor the energy to argue with him as he stood and pushed out of the circle of her guards. “Don’t let our Miko do something so stupid again,” she heard him lecture as he left, “Or I’ll have your eyes to replace this one.” His mutters were lost in the noise of combat as he got farther away. “Holy eye. Never thought…Ridiculous.”
“My lady?” The eagle beside her lowered his head in an awkward bow, waiting for her order.
“Right, well then.” She struggled to stand, and only had to grip her head once to keep from hitting the ground. “Find me someone injured.”
Eiji reappeared from a nearby tent, with a new weapon to replace one he must have lost somewhere. Kagome hadn’t realized how far they had been pushed back. The rear of the Western forces was backed against the outer edge of their encampment. There was only the lake beyond it. “That won’t be-” Eiji started with a tired smile. A sudden increase in the volume of the battle buried the rest of his words. They all turned to look, and Kagome felt the blood draining from her face as she watched Sesshomaru descending at breakneck speed, toward a massive dragon. The explosion of youki as he transformed washed over both sides, causing physical pain to the fighting and watching demons. Kagome sucked in a breath and tasted the sharp, electric tang of his power.
There is no going back, she thought. She searched for her bo staff, and found one of the ninja was holding it for her. With a gesture she took it back. “Come on then, before the reinforcements arrive,” she said with forced cheer. They had not taken more than a few steps before a roar thundered across the plain, bringing combat to a temporary halt.
Inuyasha jogged as slowly as possible, waiting for his scout to return. His lieutenant matched his pace on one side. On the other, Tuso, the dragon that had stepped up to lead the others walked at a fast clip. His long legs ate up the ground and put his head more than a foot over Inuyasha’s.
“Why do we travel so slowly,” Tuso asked quietly. “I would rather we attack now, and end this.”
“Eager for blood,” the lieutenant muttered.
“Enough,” Inuyasha ground out. Niji snickered somewhere behind him and he rolled his eyes. He had listened to the two demons taunt each other for the entire four day run to Maruyama, and it hadn’t lessened as they came closer to joining the fight. They had their reasons – had been bitter enemies less than a week ago and both had killed comrades of the other during the conflicts. It had to end now, or at least take a temporary break. Inuyasha was depending on them to fight together, not with each other. “I’m eager to get this over with too, but we gotta take our time. Let others get into place.”
“Others?” the dragon questioned.
“You don’t need to know,” the crane responded, not mentioning that he hadn’t been let in on the entire plan either.
“The West has allies,” Inuyasha answered instead, “and this is going to be the last time we fight Ryukostokken, as I promised.” He had told all of the dragons that joined him that once the Saigo Mao was dead they would be free to return to their homes without penalty from Sesshomaru. “We just need to make sure he can’t get away.” As he spoke, the hanyou judged the field before him carefully. The final wave of dragon soldiers had marched, using the second wave and successive barrages of arrows to push the Western army back to their camp. The tactic was well-designed, trapping Sesshomaru’s forces between a thousand or more fresh soldiers and an icy cold lake. Would have worked, if the scaly bastard wasn’t fighting Sesshomaru, Inuyasha thought to himself. The mixed battalion of cranes, turncoat dragons, and lord-less youkai was only a few hundred yards from the main battle when the scout descended, dropping into a kneel with a flurry of feathers and youki.
“Get up,” Inuyasha snapped, startling the bird. “Talk while you move.” The crane scrambled to his feet and began running backwards with impressive agility while he gave his report.
“The Saidai Mao has given the signal. One of Uesugi-sama’s otters ran for the lake and dove in. The dragon captain is leading the charge, with the Northern lord behind him. I-”
Youki surged under Inuyasha’s skin and he stopped abruptly, causing the rest of his soldiers to do the same. His energy was crawling under his skin, building and twitching and making him feel like he had squeezed into clothes two sizes too small. Inuyasha looked around wildly for a threat. Never had he felt so out of control before, except when he had lost his sword. He gripped the hilt of Tessaiga tightly, still searching for something that might have set his instincts off. Far ahead, a burst of energy shot out, tingling his senses and throwing snow and dirt into the air. When it had cleared, a huge pearly-white dragon stood on its hind legs. Its forelegs crashed to the ground and the northern soldiers attacked aggressively. Two bears launched themselves at the large dragon, and where immediately snapped up by its maw.
“Captain Sou,” Tuso stated flatly. The hanyou barely heard, his own power screaming for release. He could barely control it, unsure what his instincts were driving him to do. On the other side of the dragons, a funnel cloud of swirling youki shot out of the sky. A semi-circle of northern soldiers flew backwards, knocked to the ground by gale-force winds. Sou stood his ground, but turned his head from what Inuyasha knew from experience was a searing bite of electricity. In the next moment, a white dog, more than two times larger than Sou, growled, the sound reverberating in Inuyasha’s chest even from the distance.
Something deep inside him snapped into place. Miroku would have teased him in his good fortune for having such a slow mind – if his thoughts had caught up with his body he might not have been able to complete the act. A roar was building to the south, but Inuyasha ignored it, focused entirely on himself. Power, red-hot and gleaming, shot through his limbs. He threw himself down to the ground, digging his claws into the snow and dirt to keep from screaming at the pain. His muscles pulled and stretched, his bones broke with an audible snick-snack that repeated over and over until it was one long, continuous sound. The soldiers around him stumbled and backed away, but he paid no attention. A surge of heat and power was building and growing inside him. It burned. It was amazing. His skull felt as though it would crack open. Every nerve was alive. Scents that had been dull and far-away to him burst into full-color in his nose. The sounds of the lieutenant scrambling backward was just as sharp as the beat of the scout’s heart, just as clear as the grate of steel on bone as a dragon one hundred yards away attacked a kitsune. He opened his eyes, not having realized that he had shut them, and the world tilted around him. Colors were strange and somehow better, the things that were important were vibrant and pulsing, others fading to greys in the background. He was ready to fight.
We attack now, he meant to say, but it came out as a low growl that almost startled him with its deep intensity. He turned his head to look at the lieutenant, and found the crane was far below him – his feathered head just below the joint of Inuyasha’s foreleg. His foreleg. Inuyasha looked at himself and saw only white fur. Powerful paws the size of a hand cart and tipped with razor sharp claws. He glanced back at a tail, straight and high in the air. Inuyasha was reeling, his mind spinning over itself as he tried to take it all in. He was a dog. He was a youkai. Inuyoukai. Inudaiyoukai.
“Inuyasha-sama.” The hanyou turned canine demon whipped around to face the Tuso. The tall male had bent on one knee, his head lowered in a bow of respect. “Lead us.”
Fuck thinking about it. Introspection had never been his favorite activity, and it was easy to put off with a war so close at hand. Inuyasha lifted his head and howled. The gathered youkai behind him raised their weapons and yelled their own battle cries. A few transformed into a more deadly version of themselves, following their leader’s example. Inuyasha dug in his claws, and ran.
Ryukostokken swung Shianma in a wide arc and cut down another demon. The bear twitched and moaned as the blade drank up his energy, flooding the dragon lord with excitement and vitality. Arashi had moved further away and slightly behind him, but Ryukostokken allowed it. The spy was engaged with a wolf-female that sounded more animal that youkai. And the death of a mere hanyou could be arranged at any time, the lord had more important matters to execute.
Sou had blinked hard, but given no other indication of surprise or hesitation when he was ordered to attack Sesshomaru. Wei had long insinuated that the taller of his two captains was plotting treachery, and although Ryukostokken had not entirely believed it, he had grown increasingly displeased with the soft-heart and bold words of Sou. Natsou had taken the field and would soon join his lord, and so Ryukostokken determined that he no longer needed two captains. Either Sou would die by Sesshomaru’s jaw, or he could easily be killed for failure to do so. Either way, he would test the pretender Sesshomaru’s defenses. The pup would be even weaker when Ryukostokken made his move, allowing the dragon lord to savor the defeat of his enemy.
The wind demoness had stayed close to his side, never more than an arm’s length away. There was no need to order her compliance. A blind demon in the midst of a battle was helpless without protection. She would follow him to the gates of hell, he was sure. A grin split his face, growing into a laugh as another Western soldier slipped past the line and through his life on Shianma. The additional pulse of energy left him feeling incredible. His power was ultimate, his conquest secure. He ripped his blade from the corpse and licked it, lovingly. His eyes found the tangled forms of Sou and Sesshomaru, rising above the gathered armies. This would be a great day.
Satisfaction flooded Sesshomaru as Ryukostokken ordered his army to engage. The dragon lord was finally within his grasp, and Sesshomaru would end things. For all he had done, to the North, to youkai and human throughout Japan, for all he intended to do, Ryukostokken deserved a death sentence. For what he had done to Kagome, he deserved to die slowly. Sesshomaru dispatched the last of the dragons that had attacked him in the air and lightly ran his fingers over Tenseiga. The sword hummed under his touch. Perhaps, in the moment, it could be persuaded to revive the filth so that Sesshomaru might kill him a second time.
Inuyasha and his soldiers had come down the mountain and spread themselves across the plain. Their approach was measured, as Sesshomaru had instructed, to allow the Northern army a moment of confidence. Ryukostokken had not yet realized it, but he was surrounded. To the north and east was Inuyasha. To the west, Miroku, Kouga, and Kimi. His mother fought with a graceful fury, her twin wakizashi flashing as they cut down dragon after dragon. To the southwest were Sesshomaru’s forces, led by him in the air and Hisao and Hirimoto on the ground. There was only one small gap to the southeast which led to the icy waters of Inawashiro lake. Sesshomaru cracked his whip with a burst of green light and began a rapid descent.
Before he could get halfway to his target, the dragon captain stepped forward from the line and transformed. Sesshomaru let out a snarl of frustration. It had been too optimistic, too great a responsibility upon Ryukostokken to think that the dragon would fight his own challenges. Even in the midst of war, even so close to the enemy that he had plotted to kill, to overthrow, the Saigo Mao would send others to fight on his behalf. Coward.
A roar was growing in the air. Ryukostokken would not find that such tactics could keep him safe.
Sesshomaru steepened the angle of his descent and allowed his youki release. His form rippled and stretched, and he was relaxed and predatory as he could only be in his true form. His paws touched down and the force of his youki pushed back the soldiers around him, leaving a barren ring in which to face the dragon there. Sou was large – an indication of the strength of his youki – but still smaller than Sesshomaru. However, he had the advantage of three additional limbs with which to fight. His tail swung out first. Razor sharp ridges along the top of it would cut through flesh and demon bone easily. Sesshomaru met it with his forepaw, digging the claws in and helping Sou to complete the motion – with a quarter less meat on the appendage.
The dragon roared, smoke and heat flaring from his mouth, and leaped. Sesshomaru was quicker, surging into the sky, forcing the dragon to put his wings to use flying so that the clawed points could not be utilized as weapons. Below them, the dragons were advancing, pushing the Western army hard against the shoreline. The sun was dipping closer to the horizon. The long day of battle against so many, despite their lack of skill, had worn down those that fought for him. Sesshomaru knew they could not continue much longer.
Kagome yelled orders at the monks, healers, and even the injured who could walk. The roar was growing louder, and she had almost forgotten why they had fought so passively. Almost forgot the true purpose of their tactics today. Make certain Ryukostokken cannot escape. Kill the Saigo Mao. The inu lieutenant that should have been organizing the retreat and watching the camp had gone to the front line after his mate and counterpart was killed. It fell to Kagome to make certain they were ready.
“Move!” She smacked a young bear on the back of his head to gain his attention. The youkai had one arm in a sling and an eye swollen shut, but his legs worked. “If you see someone who can’t walk, carry them!” The soldier nodded vigorously and ran to do as she asked. Kagome glanced over her shoulder at the snarling mass of fur and scales that was locked in battle. Her heart clenched, but she forced herself to turn away. Oncoming sunset had put a new, sharp chill in the air. The orange light glinted off of the surface of the lake, making the water appear more like a sheet of glass. A ripple started in the center of the lake, some two hundred feet from the shore line. It grew rapidly, each ridge growing and rising as another took its place until the roar in the air was earsplitting. Kagome clasped her hands over her ears, hoping that she would not go deaf from the noise. Her ever-present guard did the same, halting their movements to clear the center of the camp and turning to face the lake.
A channel formed in the water. At first, shallow, like the wake of a boat. Then it grew. Widening and deepening and the roar was still building. The ripples had become waves, towering over the surface of the lake and casting shadows over the camp. The setting sun was perfectly framed by the ravine of frothing liquid. Its light shone wetly on the exposed sand of the lake bottom.
As the water pulled away from the floor of Inawashiro lake, the roar stopped. Kagome waited, holding her breath for what seemed to be an eternity. Steadily, with the practiced gait of a skilled soldier, a head rose above the sand. The figure grew in size as it stepped over the ridge of the lake shelf. Dark blue hair gleamed in the orange sunlight and danced across glittering armor. Kenjirosu strode out onto the beach to stop before Kagome. Behind him marched Matsudaira and two thousand human and youkai soldiers.
The soldiers streamed out onto the shore, taking several minutes, even at their quick pace, to clear the water. Kagome could feel tears of relief starting to prick at her eyes. Reinforcements have arrived. “Miko-sama,” he bowed deeply. “I believe these are yours.” He held out his hands. In one was a purple pearl, its surface dark and still. In the other was its mate, the green half of the kanjou manjou jewels. Light pulsed in its heart in time to the pull of the lake waters. Matsudaira joined them. “I thank you, and Sesshomaru-sama, for the loan of your betrothal gift. I fear I would have been tardy, if not for ebb and flow.” A smile twitched the corner of his mouth, and Kagome returned it with a huge grin.
“No problem, Kenjirosu,” she carefully plucked first ‘flow’ and then ‘ebb’ from his hands. As her skin touched the green pearl, its light winked out and the water of the lake crashed back to the surface, spraying those soldiers who were nearest the shore. She tucked them into a pocket, and then gestured toward the battle. “Please,” she said.
Kenjirosu nodded and Matsudaira offered her a small smile before they turned and ordered their soldiers into a quick run. Kagome circled around them, her guard forming a half circle behind her as they were further from the fighting. She hadn’t realized how much tension had been riding on the arrival of the water demon and the bulk of the human forces. Now that they had joined in the fight, she felt almost lightheaded with the loss of strain. She came to a stop a short distance behind the main front, prepared to return to her duties as a healer even though her reiki felt nearly depleted. She would deal with the consequences later, after it was over.
Kagome glanced up to check on Sesshomaru just in time to see him swipe a paw at the white dragon. The force of the blow snapped its head back, and it fell to the ground. There was a scream of rage, which sent a chill down her spine. Three more dragons, much smaller in size, darted up to prevent Sesshomaru from descending. Western soldiers who had fought all day began to filter behind the line as relief troops joined the fight. Through a narrow gap in the wall of bodies, Kagome caught a glimpse of Ryukostokken. Her breath caught in her chest, her lungs painfully tight. The lord had his hand wrapped tightly in Ko’s hair, a trickle of blood running down her temple. He is going to escape.
Kagome’s heart stopped. He couldn’t. He can’t. Sesshomaru was too busy with his own enemies. Ryukostokken would sacrifice every soldier in his army – throw them at Inuyasha and Kouga, Miroku and Kimi, Hisao and Hirimoto. Even with Kenjirosu and Matsudaira’s strength, they would not be able to keep the Northern lord from fleeing. I can.
Rightness, a goal, seized her mind. Kagome darted forward, clipping one soldier with her bo staff and giving the weapon up to another who attempted to stop her. She broke through the line of Western soldiers and straight into the open area around the fallen white dragon.
“Ryukostokken!” she screamed. Cold black eyes turned on her.
Arashi’s ears stung from the scream that Ryukostokken let loose. It was the sound of reality breaking. It was the sound of death approaching – the sound of failure. Although his little informant had not been able to find out what had happened to the water demon that so astonishingly refused to ally with Sesshomaru, Arashi was not surprised to see him join the fight.
He had been shocked to see his method of arrival, as had the majority of the army. The waters had parted for the demon as though he controlled the lake itself. Many would see it as a sign of his powerful youki, and the dragon soldiers avoided him, some even turning as if to flee rather than face such an ability. Arashi had the strong suspicion that there were other forces at work, but the thought had little value – the outcome was the same. There would be no pushing though the Western line with Sesshomaru’s additional forces. Ryukostokken could only hope to use Natsou and Inuyasha to cover his retreat and allow him to regroup or escape.
Ah, Natsou, Arashi thought to himself as he picked up a fallen spear, the grey flag of the North torn, but still visible. He could almost read Ryukostokken’s mind as he turned to look for his most trusted captain. Unfortunately for the dragon lord, those soldiers that had been guarding the rear or recovering from injuries were about to come under a heavy assault. Arashi slammed his fist into the demon that had attacked him and glanced up, trying to gauge the timing. For a moment, even he was stunned to see the force descending upon them. Inuyasha’s crane soldiers and mixed youkai were expected. And Arashi had considered the possibility that some of the dragons under Natsou, if given the prospect, would join the inuhanyou for the opportunity of vengeance against the lord that had abused them so long. It was their leader that gave him pause.
Inuyasha, obviously. That much was apparent from the color of his coat and eyes, and the aggressively reckless way he charged into battle. It was his size and nature that was a shock. Few hanyou ever managed to live long enough with their clashing blood to reach adulthood. Fewer still were strong enough, had enough power, to manage a transformation. It was rare for one outside of the offspring of a daiyoukai to achieve it, and Inuyasha had done so with alacrity and of a size that exceeded most noble full-youkai twice his age. The spy was intimately aware of the requirements. Arashi glanced to Ryukostokken. There was still a glimmer of superiority, of pride, on the lord’s face. Foolish. If only your rage and arrogance had not blinded you, he thought. Then again, fate is a hard-shaken thing.
Inuyasha opened his jaws and tore a dragon from the rear line. Ryukostokken’s face fell, the color leaching out of it until it was nearly white under the dark pock marks from his disease. Arashi cast a glance to Sou. The captain was still alive, his chest moving eyes turned toward Arashi, and his soldiers had rallied to defend him, but he had not gotten up. Sesshomaru was high above, his massive form harried by several small dragons. The battle is decided. Time for the final move.
Arashi thrust the almost useless spear into the ground, the Northern standard fluttering half-heartedly in the winter air. He started to reposition himself at Ryukostokken’s right, just behind the lord and the wind demoness. So close, he could taste the power in the air around the Saigo Mao. Shianma hummed with it, and the overabundance of energy was vibrating under the lord’s skin. Arashi wondered, in the back of his mind, how Ryukostokken had not been driven insane by the near-sentient sword and its lust for youki. Then again… He placed his hands in his sleeves as the Northern lord seized his slave transport. The demoness cried out sharply as claws dug into her scalp. As Arashi had surmised, Ryukostokken intended to escape with whatever soldiers could follow him. A figure, dark with blood and mud, burst from the line of Western youkai.
“Ryukostokken!” The Shikon Miko skidded to a stop, throwing out her arms wide to keep from falling. Her sleeves were torn. Great claw marks wrapped in red around her pale upper arms, as though someone had tried to hold her back. Blood was smeared on her jaw. Dark purple bruises under her eyes suggested she had not slept in days. Her hair was in wild disarray, tumbling out of a blue covering – the only part of her that was not filthy and exhausted. Although he wondered how the scenario would turn out – he had assumed that the miko had avoided the potion to enslave her to Ryukostokken – the larger part of him was focused on the task ahead. This day was the culmination of years of planning, of decades of service and cunning. Treachery and spying. Lying and debasing himself and plotting for the future of the North. No miko, no matter how powerful, could thwart that.
A soldier, older and scarred from the pox, turned his sword on her. “No!” Ryukostokken snarled. White-hot shards flew from his claws and sliced into the male that would have killed the woman. Battle around them began to grow quiet. “Come to me, my priestess,” Ryukostokken demanded. It should have been a demand, a command, but his voice broke somewhere in the middle into a plea. Begging. Arashi could hear it and his stomach turned. Thousands of dragons dead and dying, defeat eminent, and still he lusts for power over a woman. Three other dragons surged behind the miko, forcing her to take a step forward and further separating her from the Western soldiers.
There was a spray of blood and scale-covered bodies fell from the air. With a swirl of youki, the Saidai Mao returned to two legs. His kimono was nearly perfect, his hair smooth as silk. The hard calm of his expression was a sharp contrast to the wild-eyed fury and pleading on Ryukostokken’s face.
“Do not,” said the Killing Perfection flatly.
The miko turned her eyes to him, but still took another step forward. “I have to,” she said. Her voice, too, broke, but with sadness.
“Stop!” It was Ko who cried out, finally struggling against her captor. Arashi paused in his own actions. He had never seen her openly defy Ryukostokken, not in two decades of captivity. “Kagome-san, no!”
“Quiet!” Ryukostokken hissed, shaking the demoness so hard her teeth snapped together. His face turned away from Arashi, toward Sesshomaru. “How does it feel, dog, to know that you have been beaten? Kill every dragon here, and I will still be victorious.” Spit was flying from his mouth as he spoke ever faster, “She would rather lie at my feet than rule at your side.” Sesshomaru’s expression lost its icy façade and grew thunderous. Youki gathered around him, a storm of vengeance, of death, that began to suffocate those nearby. Ryukostokken did not take notice, “The miko is mine. And after I have taken her, all of Japan will be at my rule! No longer last, but first! No longer Saigo Mao, but Saidai – no, Emperor!”
From the corner of his eye, Sesshomaru had seen Kagome break through the lines. The pull of her reiki on his youki was unmistakable, as was the bright blue of her hat. He saw a dragon raise their sword against her, saw that she was unarmed, that she made no move to defend herself. I will not reach her in time. The thought was agonizing and infuriating. He bit and clawed, destroying those that blocked him from protecting his mate. As he neared the ground, he watched Ryukostokken prevent her death. It was only her safety, for that moment, which allowed him the control to take on his smaller form.
Ryukostokken was asking, waiting, for Kagome to come to him. She could not turn back – other dragons had closed the gap behind her, sealing her away from allies. Fear grew inside him, not only for her body, for what harm might be done to her, but for what she would do to herself. He could feel it in her, her reiki growing, preparing. Their enemy had a friend, a female that had saved Kagome, in his grip. Sesshomaru’s intended would never allow another to suffer in her place if she could help it. The scrap of her power under his skin hummed in echo of the weapon she was building within. He could see what she intended to do clearly. She had no blade nor staff, she could not cast her power out for fear of hitting her the wind demoness. She would let the dragon lord touch her. Once Ryukostokken’s claws were on her skin, she would channel all of the power available into his body to purify him. He might kill her in the process. The immense effort could end her life just as easily.
“Do not.” It was the strongest command he could give, and he knew it would not be obeyed. Her blue eyes turned to him, and Sesshomaru cursed himself. He cursed that he had not been stronger, faster. Cursed that he had not already killed the egomaniacal murderer that threatened his mate. Cursed that he had not forced her to stay behind, secure. Cursed that he had not trained her himself, given her more opportunity to defend herself. Cursed that he had fallen in love with a person that would give everything for another. Who would die.
She took a step forward, and his heart shattered in his chest. It was the only explanation for the tearing, agonizing sensation he felt. “I have to,” she said quietly, tears beginning to pool in her eyes.
“Stop! Kagome-san, no!” the wind demoness screamed, and Ryukostokken nearly broke her neck to silence her.
Ryukostokken began to spew vitriol, denigrating Kagome even as he proclaimed his desire to have her. Calling Sesshomaru a weak coward. He obviously believed her to be under the spell of the potion, and Kagome was playing into that to get close enough to act. His youki was rising, swelling, demanding that he slaughter those who might hurt his miko. The power escaped the tight confines he usually kept on it, expanding and intensifying around him. He clenched the muscles of his legs, preparing to pounce. The wind demoness would likely be caught in the attack, and if she died, Kagome would never forgive him. But he would not be able to forgive himself if Ryukostokken hurt her. He would not be able to forgive himself if Kagome had to live with the dragon’s death on her hands.
“How does it feel, dog, to know that you have been beaten? Kill every dragon here, and I will still be victorious.” Fighting had ceased completely in the space around them, and was only heard distantly on the edges of the field. Those dragons that had a good view of their lord shifted uncomfortably. It was obvious to them the day was lost, and any who declared otherwise was a fool or a madman. “She would rather lie at my feet than rule at your side.” The white dragon on the ground stood, weaponless, his wounds beginning to heal. “The miko is mine. And after I have taken her, all of Japan will be at my rule! No longer last, but first! No longer Saigo Mao, but Saidai – no, Emperor!”
His exalted shout was abruptly cut off, a blade protruding through his chest. Sesshomaru blinked. Ryukostokken looked down, seeming just as confused as everyone around him. He let go of the wind demoness to clutch his hand to the wound. Furious dawning realization grew and with it his youki – lashing out around him. “Traitor!” he screamed.
A shorter dragon stepped around Ryukostokken, grabbing the lord’s sword arm by the wrist. His skin was the same dark grey as the Northern lord, his black hair worn long and tied back. His eyes were hard, and so dark the pupil was indistinguishable from the iris. Sesshomaru breathed deeply, sorting through the scents of war. There was a thread of similarity between the two. Sulphur. A flaky, metallic mica. His eyes narrowed and he gripped the hilt of Bakusaiga, prepared to kill either dragon.
“I should have left you to rot, half-breed whore’s son!” Ryukostokken screamed, blood bubbling from his mouth and bursting to fleck onto the other dragon’s sleeve. “You bring dishonor to the North, Arashi!”
“Never, Saigo Mao.” The shorter, younger dragon straightened his sleeves, as though murdering his lord was simply a distasteful task that was now complete. “I have done exactly as I said I would.” He glanced up, and Sesshomaru watched the cold gaze shared by the two men. “Natsou attempted to flee the battle, so I made certain he was dead.” Sesshomaru was not aware of the actual words which must have been spoken, but Natsou had certainly been killed. Arashi leaned closer, his own youki rising as he spoke. It grew harder and more threatening, pressing against Sesshomaru’s own power. “You have met both sons of the dead dog on the battlefield. The miko has run toward you, calling your name. I have brought your enemy before you. I have secured an army to bring swords at your back. And the North, as I swore to you so long ago, is still in the hands of the line of Ryukotsusei.” There was a long pause, and both armies seemed to hold their breath, waiting. The captain, Sou, was the first to react. He fell to his knees, bowing low.
“Arashi-sama.” He declared his allegiance with a simple title of respect. Sesshomaru watched as other dragons followed suit, slowing gaining momentum until nearly two-thirds of the northern soldiers on the field were bowed in fealty. If not for his inu hearing, Sesshomaru would not have caught Arashi’s last words, whispered in Ryukostokken’s ear.
“Just as I promised, Father.”
With a roar filled with pain and the blood in his lungs, Ryukostokken surged forward, towards the dragon that had just claimed the right to one of the four Cardinal Lands. The struggle was brief. Ryukostokken was older and mortally wounded, and Arashi had taken precautions to keep him from his sword. There was a snarl from the two males, and then a swirl of blue silk and wind.
The sound, wet and under pressure, preceded Ryukostokken’s head falling from his shoulders. Shortly thereafter, his body followed. The wind demoness turned, her breath coming hard and her cheeks red with anger, and spit on the body. The blades of air she had summoned whirled around her for a moment, before settling back into the cool twilight breeze.
“Well,” Kimi’s voice drew everyone’s eye. The dowager Western Lady stood at the edge of the clearing, close enough to Kagome to whisk her away from danger if necessary. Behind her was an open pathway among the dragons. Those that had not parted at the mere sight of her had sutras plastered on their faces. A line of monks followed her quietly. She continued, one brow raised and a short sword gesturing vaguely at the decapitated lord and the two that had murdered him, “That was certainly dramatic.”
Kagome sat by Inuyasha’s side and tended to his wounds, despite his objections. His forces had been outnumbered two to one when they attacked the rear Northern guard. Although he had lost only a few of his soldiers, his own leg had been severed in the fight. Kagome tried not to let her tears well up again, but she was just so grateful that he wasn’t dead.
“Ow, would you watch what you’re doing!”
“Quit being such a baby,” she responded, although she did her best to be gentler. So many had died. Hitashimashita had been immolated, along with many other tree youkai. Most of the monks they had been sheltering inhaled too much smoke to survive. Ayame had been pinned under a dragon she killed; the weight had broken her back. It might have killed her, if Hirimoto’s physician had not been nearby. It would take years for her to be able to walk again. Date had only a few minor wounds, but his samurai and ninja had taken a heavy toll. A new friendship had been forged there between the eagles and the humans. Tsukahara had sacrificed himself to save the lord’s life. Date had left the field with promises to secure a peace with demons in his lands, but only time would tell where that gambler was concerned.
“It will grow back, Inuyasha.” Sesshomaru’s cool voice interrupted her thoughts and she turned to see him enter the tent. Warm light from the lamp on a nearby table lit his eyes with a soft glow. It was mirrored and amplified in her chest. There had been more than one moment during the battle where she thought she had lost him. More than once where she thought her own life was over. She didn’t bother trying to contain herself.
“Sesshomaru,” she exclaimed, jumping up and throwing her arms around his waist. He smelled stale. Like blood and sweat and something that might have been wet seaweed – but she tried not to examine that too closely. His clothes didn’t look any worse for wear, the advantage of Aki’s workmanship and a little magic, but his face showed his tiredness. “I have been waiting for you, where have you been?”
“Keh,” Inuyasha grumped. “I’m the one missing a leg here. How come he gets all the attention?”
“Be grateful it was not your sword hand, brother.” Kagome grimaced at the reminder of Sesshomaru’s lost limb.
“Eh, I doubt I’m gonna use my youki to forge a new – shoe, or whatever, to grow it back though, so fuck off.”
“Inuyasha,” Kagome scolded, hiding her laugh behind her hand.
“You are strong enough,” Sesshomaru said, easily ignoring the embarrassed shock on Inuyasha’s face. “It is possible. Although waiting a century for it to regrow may be preferable to wasting power on a…shoe.” He looked pointedly at Inuyasha’s bare feet. The hanyou opened his mouth to retort, and Kagome stepped in to prevent the argument from continuing.
“How did the negotiations go?” She led Sesshomaru over to their futon, drawing back the curtain so that Inuyasha could still see them from his makeshift pallet near the desk.
“Better than anticipated.” He rolled his head slightly, from side to side, as though trying to loosen some muscle knot. Kagome could imagine his discomfort; she felt like she had been through the workout from hell. And then hit by a truck. She poured a cup of tea, grateful that she had found time in the hours since the battle and looking after the wounded to wash and change. Sesshomaru was even more fastidious than she was, he was probably eager for a bath.
“Egg was by earlier,” Inuyasha mentioned. “Said Tuso asked permission from that Arashi guy to stay in the East.”
“Yes. It would seem you have a dedicated following among Natsou’s former soldiers. He specifically asked if he and his men could swear allegiance to you.” Sesshomaru sipped his tea calmly, but Inuyasha sat up straight as if he had been stabbed.
“What! I don’t want vassals!” He sputtered, red-faced, “I’m no lord!”
“In point of fact,” Kagome answered, smiling, “You are. Your mother was nobility. Your father was the Lord of the West. That makes you like a prince, or…” she glanced at Sesshomaru for conformation, “something.”
“Indeed.” Sesshomaru turned his most serious gaze on his half-brother and straightened his posture. “This Sesshomaru is most grateful for your assistance, Tashio Inuyasha, and most honored to name you as pack.” He nodded his head, the closest Kagome had ever seen him come to bowing to anyone. Inuyasha just sat there, mouth gaping like a fish. “Of course, you will need to establish a House,” Sesshomaru continued. Kagome could hear the lighter note in his voice that signaled teasing. She frowned at him, trying to let him know to be nice. “The House of the Dog in a Tree? Or perhaps, The House of the Well? The House of Falling Over One’s Own Sword? The House of Ill Manners? The House of-”
“I’m sure he can come up with something on his own, Sesshomaru,” Kagome said with a quelling glance. The daiyoukai had obviously been saving those up for a while. How strange, she thought, to hear such normal, sibling teasing from those two. “I found Miroku a tent near the water,” she tried to deflect the conversation.
“He okay?” Inuyasha asked.
“He’s fine,” Kagome assured him, “Still scrubbing off all that paint. But he’ll be a lot better once he and Sango get a chance to talk, I’m sure.”
Sesshomaru picked up where he had left off, completely undeterred. “There is also the matter of a mate. I have received an offer, but if you have another in mind – perhaps an elemental?” The lord’s eyes cut slyly to the side, and then his tiny smile fell away. Inuyasha was stiff, no longer blushing or riled up.
“If you mean Niji,” he said flatly, “she’s dead. Took the blow for me after I lost my leg.”
There was a long pause. Kagome felt her tears welling again. She hadn’t known the Niji that Sesshomaru mentioned, but she had obviously been admired by Inuyasha. It pained her to think he had lost one of the few friends he had. “She will be remembered with honor,” Sesshomaru finally stated.
“Yeah. She will.” Inuyasha slowly lowered himself back to the pile of blankets Kagome had laid out for him. “So,” he said, after a few minutes of no sound but Sesshomaru’s quiet sips of tea. “You made a treaty with that sneaky bastard then?”
“Yes.” Kagome wrapped her own hands around a tea cup, trying to determine how she felt about that. The end of war was a good thing, but she had also recognized Arashi as the youkai that had abducted her. “There will be sanctions, which the Cardinal Lords will decided. A counsel of all daiyoukai will be called to discuss the matter, but I believe, in the end, he will be named as the Northern Lord.”
“Even if he’s hanyou?” Inuyasha pointed out shrewdly.
“He has the power, and the bloodline. The dragons follow him.” Sesshomaru narrowed his eyes. “As long as he keeps the peace, I will support his claim.”
“And Hirimoto, is he…” Kagome couldn’t finish the thought, is he okay. Of course not. The death of his sister’s murderer did not bring her back. Vengeance didn’t end pain.
Sesshomaru held her tighter. “He will return to the South. He has given Kimi his proxy in the peace negotiations. He will…I believe he will become who he once was. With time.” It was a small thing, but Kagome heard the guilt in his voice. It had not been easy for him to order Hirimoto to leave his dead unburied, but the burden was not Sesshomaru’s alone. She returned his embrace, and silence resumed in the tent for a while.
“Ko won’t…I mean, she left right away, I can’t blame her, but…” Kagome’s voice drifted off, unsure what she wanted to ask. The wind demoness had seized her hand tightly – as soon as Sesshomaru had allowed her to leave his side – after it was over. She had thanked Kagome, for what exactly, the miko wasn’t sure, and promised that they would see each other again. And then she was gone. Flying high and fast and with a look on her face that made Kagome cry in earnest, just remembering it.
“None will sanction her for the death of Ryukostokken.” Sesshomaru so often seemed to know what she intended to say.
“Hard to,” Inuyasha snorted, “fucker would have died soon anyhow. Arashi has good aim.”
“And she is welcome in the West, as often and long as you would like,” Sesshomaru continued softly to Kagome. He held out his cup for more tea. “The remaining dragons have all either pledged loyalty to Arashi or fled north. He has sworn to track down those that left and deal with them. Arashi will be extremely busy for the next few months.”
“That’s when the lords will meet again?” Kagome waited for Sesshomaru’s nod. It felt surreal still: that it was over, that they were safe. She wanted to go to the shrine immediately and see the children, hug them, but she knew she need time to reorient herself, to settle her emotions. That, and she remembered the legend of the shrine. The goddess had not come until the next morning to open the gates. Suddenly, Kagome laughed. Outside, she could hear the fires and loud conversations of a few thousand soldiers who were drinking and celebrating their victory. Weapons clashed together occasionally in cheers, and a few wolves had taken up howling along to a kitsune song.
“What is so funny?” Inuyasha asked sleepily, turning down the lamp before laying flat again.
“It’s the legend,” she managed to say between chuckles. Sesshomaru pulled her back against his chest, and she relaxed there, still smiling from her realization. “The monks cowered inside the Inawashiro temple all day and night while they listened to the terrible sounds of the battle. Get it?” She used her thumb to gesture to the tent flap and grinned up at Sesshomaru. “All night? Sounds like a pretty ferocious battle to me.”
“Hn.” Whether Sesshomaru was agreeing or not, she wasn’t sure, but she didn’t much care as he pulled her down to lay beside him on their futon. She wrapped her arm over his chest and squeezed.
Inuyasha’s rough mumble came from the semi-darkness, “House of the New Moon.” Kagome felt Sesshomaru’s nod, and then his youki reaching out to rest first on Inuyasha, then to blanket her. Mokomoko pulled tight around her. He was hers. They were safe. Only the future was before them.