Second Alliance – Chapter 28

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Chapter 28: The First Message

The room remained silent for several long minutes while Sesshomaru’s audience digested his words. Even summarizing what Kagome had told him of her captivity had stirred his fury again. He used their contemplation to control his own emotions. He doubted any but his mother sensed even a fracture in his cold façade, but he knew that maintaining that demeanor would require his attention. With a traitor still in the West, it was vital that he appear unaffected. If word of Saidai Mao reached Ryustokokken, Sesshomaru wanted the dragon to be enraged that his efforts meant so little to the West. Ryustokokken had a temper, and when it flared he lost reason. Eventually the North and West would battle, and the side with the coolest heads, the side led by logic, strategy, and skill would prevail.

Kagome-sama is most worthy of her title,” Kento said softly, breaking the silence. The blue lines on his forehead creased – concern and consideration emanated from his scent.

Of course,” Hisao stated, as though Kagome’s superiority were so obvious that it was insulting to bring it up. Sesshomaru privately agreed with the sentiment, although it was gratifying to see how far his Captain had reversed his opinion of the miko. “But it could have easily ended much worse.” Hisao flicked his ponytail of black hair over his shoulder. “We should discuss additional plans for protecting her. I suggest we begin with a trained personal guard – I have several who may be positioned as maids and remain with Kagome-sama at all times.”

Kento stood to locate plans for the castle and the grounds surrounding it, and he and Hisao continued offering Sesshomaru options on better defenses. Kimi, seated at his side, poured fresh tea into two cups and sipped hers slowly. The two counselors had begun a review and assessment of every previous attempted assault on the West. They digressed from the topic at hand, but Sesshomaru conceded to allow it for a few moments. He knew what they would have rather been doing – ripping out Ryustokokken’s entrails. That privilege was reserved for Sesshomaru, so they would have settled for tearing apart any dragon, but that, too, could not be. Not at the present. Not without disturbing so many other strategies that had been laid in place to secure victory. They cared for the miko, Sesshomaru knew. They cared for and respected her, and so he allowed them a few moments to bring their own emotions under control before the meeting would have to continue.

He reached for his tea and felt his mother’s youki, a graceful, light brush across his forehead, before it retreated. It had been centuries since she had attempted to comfort him. Centuries since he felt he had needed comforting. The gesture was surprisingly acceptable. His eyes slid to hers and he nodded slightly, in acknowledgment and appreciation.

This One is fond of the Miko no Mao.” Absolute silence met Kimi’s statement. Hisao and Kento turned and stared at her in shock. Sesshomaru let out a small breath of relief into his teacup and held back a smile. It would make Kagome’s transition into her new position easier if she had Kimi’s acceptance. That had been a key component in his plans to secure her as the next Western Lady. Amusement winked in and out of his mother’s scent in a short-lived flash of warmth. “This One shall personally see to her training so that she may defend herself adequately in the future.”

Shock and worry nearly consumed Sesshomaru for a brief moment. He pictured fragile, human, Kagome facing off against his mother. The Lady Kimi with thousands of years of experience in battle and no compunction about an unfair fight. Kagome, who would refuse to use her reiki against someone she valued – someone she felt he valued – even if it would save her life. His mother, who felt it was appropriate to tease her adopted granddaughter with threats of cannibalism. In his mind’s eye he saw his intended bruised and defeated, near tears, and waiting for a mortal blow.

That is not Kagome.

Kagome, despite her reverence for life and reluctance to hurt any living creature, was strong. She was passionate about protecting others and she had grown since he had first met her. She was no longer the child that shrieked and hid behind Inuyasha or the demon-slayer. She was not the naïve girl that believed peace could always be had without violence. Kagome was a woman who had seen and experienced life viscerally. Her loving nature was unchanged, but she was now capable of unflinching justice as well. The image in his mind swiftly changed. Kagome, glowing from exertion and hair curling with moisture, facing her opponent with determination. His mother, smirking with pride and amusement, but ready to concede that the miko had held her own.

That is my Kagome.

Mind settled, he set down his cup with a purposeful click of porcelain. “A female guard shall be assigned, for both Rin-yojochan and Kagome-san, until That One has finished her instruction of the Miko no Mao.”

Hisao and Kento nodded their understanding, and Sesshomaru watched from the corner of his eye as Kimi smiled into her cup, “As you wish, my Lord,” she murmured without a hint of condescension, but still managed to convey that the idea had been hers and she felt he was posturing for the benefit of his subordinates. “She will need other partners to round out her training. This One will select them.” Her next words were so low, it was doubtful any but Sesshomaru could hear, “I remember sparring sessions with Inu no Tashio well. They were most…instructive. As I am sure you will be far too busy, I will be certain to find another male so that she is adept with different opponents.”

Sesshomaru ignored his mother, once again trying to needle him into a conversation that was unnecessary and designed for her own amusement. “Kagome-san has gained another ally for the West.” He reviewed what he knew of Ko, and the potential for information from behind enemy lines. As he expected, Kimi expressed a delighted pride in the miko – pleased to have another spy in their arsenal. Kento and Hisao were suitably impressed. “Report to This One on the status of the East.” He split his attention between Kimi’s retelling of all that Inuyasha and Koga had accomplished, and his half-brother’s assumptions as to motivations and potential future moves of their enemy. They were surprisingly astute. Sesshomaru surmised that his sparring and constant besting of the hanyou had finally sunk in and Inuyasha had begun to look a few moves ahead and anticipate his opponent. It had only taken a century or so of attempting to beat sense into his dog-eared head. Sesshomaru considered briefly that perhaps he would have reevaluated his approach if it had gone on another hundred years.

Kento analyzed reports of small uprisings, mob activity and pockets of bandits that were taking advantage of the power vacuum in the East. Several human lords were also attempting to use the disease and incursions by the dragons as an opportunity to gain land – at the expense of weakened youkai holdings and frightened human villages. Travel had become dangerous on the roads north of Kouga’s den and dubious as far south as Hirimoto’s border. Even a few of the human lords on the edge of Hirimoto’s domain were stirring up ideas of war against youkai. At a time when he wished to be concentrating his energy on preparing to meet Ryuustokokken’s army, his focus was drawn to a multitude of small problems that threatened to escalate if they were not dealt with.

The wild youkai would respond to Inuyasha, or if they continued attacking travelers, he would put them down. Sesshomaru had few concerns about that. The humans, however, presented a serious threat to long-term peace. They were not difficult to defeat, even when they collected large armies of trained warriors, but they were a drain on his resources. A few demon warriors would be lost to their sheer numbers if the human lords stood against Sesshomaru and Hirimoto, and every death would be significant after the losses to dragon assassins and the disease.

He reflected again on what Kagome had told him of the growth of the human population. Seven billion in the world, she had said. He believed her, there was no doubt in his mind she told the truth, but the number was still almost incomprehensible to him. A few thousand samurai could result in three or four defeated youkai –even skilled, powerful youkai, of which there were fewer than ever before. Weaker animal and plant form youkai could be killed by smaller bands or even individual humans with disastrous consequences. Sesshomaru had to stop such devastation on demon kind before it happened. There were so many other enemies facing the survival of youkai: disease, dragons, infertility. He would not allow another challenge to be added to that list if it could be avoided. Seven billion. It was a daunting number of enemies.

But a bolstering number of allies.

Kagome made friends even with those who had once sought her death. She had become his ally. Perhaps she was correct. Perhaps, he suppressed a shudder at how she would use such information against him, his mother was correct. She recruited spies from every level and type of youkai and among humans – even the holy. He had stood alone, but Kagome had proven to him that he could be stronger if he accepted assistance from others. His mother showed him that every creature, even a weak human, could be tactically useful. He considered his options in a new light, and determined that as long as he was honest with himself, there was no reason to explain to anyone else how he had come to such conclusions. My actions are my own.

Send This One’s invitation to the human lords who would benefit most from peace,” he addressed Kento and named five of the more powerful lords that he believed would lose influence if chaos reigned, or worse yet, Ryustokokken. “Consider carefully if you would add others. That One,” he glanced at his mother and felt a flicker of irritation at her quirked brow, “shall provide you with discreet means of sending the messages.” He anticipated the biting and no doubt pointed comment Kimi would be prepared to make and did not give her opportunity to speak. “On the next full moon there shall be a conference, here, of those who will accept. This One will invite them to war.”

We must ascertain and remove all spies in our midst in advance,” Hisao said. True to his practical nature, he accepted Sesshomaru’s revolutionary decision and had already moved on to considering ways to ensure success. Kento smelled of concern and profound contemplation, but he too turned to the next matter at hand. They began an update on the interrogation of staff, and specifically Geiken, and their thoughts on the investigation into the treason. They broke after many hours for nourishment. As Sesshomaru brought down his third kill, finally satiating his hunger and replenishing his reserves of energy, he considered the position of the stars.

The day previous, he had flown swiftly – with Inuyasha running and leaping below him – to arrive at the well before sunset. Although they did not converse a great deal and she dozed on and off, Kagome remained pressed close to him, with Emi tucked between them, warmed by mokomoko and smelling of contentment with only threads of her previous shame tainting the clean scent of cherry wood and magnolias. It was balanced by the faint vapor of passion, and so he too was content for the time being. That composure wore away as they descended at the well where he knew he would be forced to leave her in Inuyasha’s care. He did not wish to be separated from her again, particularly not so soon after her captivity. She seemed to feel the same way, reluctant to unwind mokomoko or let go of her grasp on his armor.

The well lets us stay a couple of days… ” she trailed off. The miko fussed with the pup’s robes and settled her more firmly within his tails.

Inuyasha picked up the thread of conversation as he returned from the village where he had let the old miko know of their arrival, “I have to come back first thing tomorrow. Miroku and Sango have been training with Kuren’s soldiers, and I need to get them in position up north.” His half-brother turned to Kagome, and his expression softened fractionally, although his voice remained gruff. “When you’re all done talkin’ your mama’s ear off, you wait with Kaede until Sango gets back – got it? She and Kirara will fly you West in a few days.” He turned his back then, and Kagome did the same, focusing her gaze on the pup. The hanyou stripped quickly and dumped a pot of scalding water over himself.

His curses drew a frown from the miko. “Not in front of Emi, Inuyasha! We just have to be certain no germs-”

Sesshomaru interrupted her scolding, “When will you return?”

She blinked, and he could almost see her mind shift focus. “I have a few things I need to get, and I should meditate to look for youkai at home, and I need-“

When, Miko?” He pulled up her chin with one claw so that she would have to meet his gaze. Her eyes were so blue, it was like looking directly into the summer sky. Her stomach was rumbling, and he had to clamp down on the urge to feed her. She had promised she would eat on the other side. She bit her bottom lip, gently worrying the plump skin with her teeth.

I suppose I could be back as soon as tomorrow afternoon,” she said softly.

No point in that,” Inuyasha shifted impatiently, settling on the edge of the well naked and dripping. Steam rose from his skin into the chill air. His clothes were left in a neat pile on the ground next to his empty pot. Another full pot and scrubbing cloth were waiting for Kagome. “It will take me a half day at least to get to Sango, and she’ll take nearly two days to get back to Edo. You’ll be safer at home than-“

This One will be here.” Sesshomaru held her gaze, emphasizing his commitment by brushing her hair away from her face and layering his scent on her. “Return swiftly.” Inuyasha had barked in impatience after that, and Kagome uncurled herself and began working on removing her obi and layers of kimono. His half-brother jumped in the well, and blue light and immense power flooded the clearing, making Emi look around wide-eyed.

Shhh, it’s okay. Nothing here will hurt you,” she whispered to the pup. Even as she undressed and folded her clothes neatly beside Inuyasha’s, she kept her gaze on the little one and a firm smile on her face. Sesshomaru felt a familiar heat pooling in his belly as she removed her last scraps of clothing and her blush rose. A less familiar heat built in his chest as well when she spoke, “Be a good girl for Sesshomaru-sama, Emi-chan. I’ll be back soon with a special treat for you, if you will eat well and not cry for him, okay?” The little pup was already beginning to sniffle, seeming to understand that her maternal figure would be leaving again, but she did not break into the shrill cries that the daiyoukai had feared.

Kagome scrubbed her skin with hot water until she was pink all over, and Sesshomaru knew he should look away – for the sake of his control if for no other reason – but he could not. She was beautiful. She hugged her body awkwardly to both hide her nudity and ease her shivers. Her neck and face were dusted pink in embarrassment. His tails shifted Emi to the side almost unconsciously. He could think of nothing but holding her close and keeping her with him. Her lower lip was tortured between her teeth again, and he had to bite back a growl.

It is too cold for her, she must go. She will be fine. And when she returns, I will make her mine.

His self-assurances did little to calm the uproar of his instincts or the barely contained surge of youki that demanded he refuse her the freedom to leave. He knew that she had to return to her family’s shrine, knew that the information she would gain while in her own time could be vital to the upcoming war. Still, he was selfish. In this, where she was concerned, he wanted to be selfish. She draped her scrubbing cloth over the edge of the well to make a thin cushion and gingerly threw one leg over the wide lip. Positioned so, he could not help the erotic images that flooded his mind. Not her impending departure, the proximity of the pup, or the threat of war could have kept him from stepping closer and envying – with every fiber in his being – the simple wooden board that she straddled.

He leaned down, gently gripping her arm with one hand and cupping her cheek with the other. Sesshomaru released a small measure of youki to warm her and ease her trembling. He pressed their foreheads together, breathing in her scent and summoning the control he needed to let her go. Magnolias and cherry wood. “I will be waiting,” he reiterated in a rough voice. He brushed his nose down her cheekbone until their lips met briefly. With an effort of will that he was sure proved his superiority to all other creatures, Sesshomaru pulled back before he could ravish her mouth and draw her to the ground. She sighed, eyes slightly glazed and breath coming hard.

After a long moment, she blinked as if remembering where she was, and shook her head. She gave Emi a last peck on the cheek and brought her other leg over the edge of the well, giving Sesshomaru a uniquely agonizing view of moist pink skin and dark hair. Sesshomaru thought she would follow Inuyasha then. She surprised him by gripping a handful of his obi and yanking hard. Her strength was nothing to him, but he allowed himself to be pulled down out of curiosity. And perhaps a desire to delay her departure further. She stared into his eyes, face pink with embarrassment and warm, minty breath puffing against his mouth.

Oh, hell,” she muttered, more to herself than him, he assumed, “If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave…” She pressed her mouth to his, soft, sweet lips with gentle pressure. She had not initiated intimacies between them before. His surprise and pleasure were genuine – but both escalated when her tongue darted out to trace the seam of his lips. He sank one hand into her hair and wrapped the other around her back, pulling her up and closer to his chest while he opened his mouth in invitation. She was hesitant, but took advantage, her tongue sliding against his before she surged forward with a moan. Their teeth clinked together and embarrassment rose higher in her scent, fighting with the spicy lust that infused the air around her. She pulled away, and he nipped at her lower lip, lapping at the impression his teeth had made and the faint bruising that would keep them swollen and inviting for several hours. “I-I-” she swallowed, heavily, her eyes closed. “I have to go, before the sun sets.” It was almost completely below the horizon, so he released her.

She dropped into the open well, and he watched as halfway down her pale skin was enveloped in blue light. His chest felt tight and his eyes hot when the power winked out and she was no longer in his time. The pup whimpered softly, and Sesshomaru loosed a rumble to settle her concerns.

Mama will return? she questioned in the inu language.

Soon, he had responded in kind. His words and soothing sounds had calmed the pup, but did little to ease his own tension. He had held the little youkai close and formed his energy sphere, wishing he could have transported Kagome in the same manner and gained additional time with her. Unfortunately, he was not certain a human could safely travel at such speeds.

Shaking off the memory and the strange hollow feeling it inspired, he saved a generous portion of venison from his kill and returned to his smaller form. He threw the carcass far into the forest for scavengers and returned to the castle with the meat. It should have been eaten raw – would have been healthier that way for a growing inu – but the pup blanched at the sight of blood. He felt a bemused sort of pleasure at the thought that although they were not related, Kagome and the pup seemed to have a great deal in common. He sent the meat to the kitchens with instructions to feed the young in his pack, bathed and changed clothes. He was anxious to return to the well, although there were hours remaining until his miko would arrive; there was considerable time yet until even his half-brother would return.

He paused in the private reception room, constructed for her, and focused his senses on the pups. His eyes drifted across her desk and belongings as he listened to the soft, even breathing of Rin; sensed the concentrated youki of Shippo; smelled the heavy, deep scent of Nankae’s sleep; brushed his energy comfortingly along Emi’s light, tense dozing. He was satisfied that the smallest pup, although clearly not happy, was willing to sleep and eat with the other young ones until Kagome returned.

His gaze landed on the open screen to his study after he assured himself that all was well in his pack. On his writing table he could see the wrapped bundle he had placed there days ago – prior to Kagome’s capture. In it was the hofuna kin gift he had prepared for her family. He had intended to send it with Inuyasha when his half-brother next returned to her time – along with his proposal, but had not had the opportunity to do so. Although they might have ended up receiving it after he had already mated Kagome, he justified the breach in ceremony with the knowledge that they would always be receiving it after the fact – considering the time travel.

He had not intended to travel to Edo until just before noon, and then await her return. However, Inuyasha would come through the well at dawn, and he could certainly deliver such an important package before heading north. Decision made, Sesshomaru knelt before his desk and quickly inked a meticulous note for her family. He folded and sealed it as soon as it was dry and slipped it into the small ceramic box along with the gift.

Sesshomaru walked through the palace, searching out Kento to notify him of the earlier than planned departure before entering the woods and using his orb to travel from there. He arrived mere moments before the well lit up with power and a naked hanyou jumped through into the early morning light. Inuyasha froze, the smell of tension and surprise sleeting off of him, before visibly shaking off his concern and reaching for his clothes.

She ain’t coming for hours yet,” he said gruffly. “Everybody on that side is still asleep. Ya wasted your own time.” He turned to face the daiyoukai as he tied his pants and sorted out his shirt and the fire rat. Their shared history made it difficult for Sesshomaru to depend on his half-brother for such an important – such a personally important – task, but there was little he could do to change that.

You are able to use the well freely during this time,” he phrased it as a statement, but in truth he did not know for certain. He had guessed as much, from what Kagome had told him of recent trips to her home, but he needed verification.

Inuyasha’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, so?”

You will deliver something to the head of the Higurashi family.” He purposefully left that statement vague. Kagome spoken as though her mother was in charge of their household, but he knew that her grandfather was alive and living with them. It was puzzling.

Mrs. Higurashi will be up soon to start breakfast, but I ain’t your pack mule. Send Kagome with it when she gets here if-“

This One would prefer to present it directly to the Lady, as tradition dictates.” He pulled the small box from his sleeve, loosened the leather wrapping, and held it out to Inuyasha, whose eyes widened fractionally. “As that is not possible, you shall do so, as my closest male relative.” The use of a personal pronoun caught the hanyou’s attention, as it was intended to. Sesshomaru continued, “I am trusting you with my honor in this.” He stared into his brother’s eyes and considered how he might go forward if Inuyasha refused. He could beat the younger demon into compliance, but there was no assurance of what he would do once he reached the other side of the well. Willing assistance is paramount.

That’s your bride price, right?” Sesshomaru gave a brief nod at his brother’s question, although it seemed unnecessary as the box was decorated with images and characters that declared it as such. Sesshomaru felt confident the artist who had worked the symbols for the Higurashi shrine into the design had performed his task with excellence. Inuyasha shook his head. “Can’t do it.” Irritation bordering on anger flushed Sesshomaru’s veins and curled his free hand into a fist.

You wish to prevent This One’s mating?” He did not bare his teeth as he wanted to, but he could feel the pressure building up behind his cold mask. The inuhanyou would swiftly learn where Sesshomaru’s patience ended if he continued to refuse.

Keh,” Inuyasha snorted and rolled his eyes. “If you want to draw blood, you can sure as hell try, but that ain’t gonna fix your problem. I can take that through, but the Higurashi’s won’t be able to spend it.”

Sesshomaru found himself at a loss. Inuyasha smelled of the truth. The truth and a strange vanilla and herb scent that clung lightly to his hair. A tiny frown marred the skin between his brows, and he was forced to admit, painfully admit, that he needed the hanyou’s assistance and his knowledge of Kagome’s time. He lifted the lid and displayed the contents. “Do they not accept such things in her time?”

Holy shit,” Inuyasha exclaimed in a strangled voice. “The wenc – er,“ something in Sesshomaru’s face or scent must have warned him, as he changed his choice of words quickly, “ah, Kagome, is great and all, but that’s – that’s – well, it’s worth a fuckload, even in her time,” he finally exploded. Although Sesshomaru found much to be desired with his vocabulary, at least his sibling was becoming more coherent.

It will suffice, then?” he asked coolly.

You could buy Kagome and all her dopey friends for that, but you can’t send it through with me.” Sesshomaru felt ready to rip off one furry ear and speak directly into it. Perhaps if Inuyasha was forced to listen more closely, he would speak more sense. Thankfully – or unfortunately, the long-suffering part of his mind insisted- that did not become necessary. “The problem is that if I take it through, it won’t be old enough,” Inuyasha added hastily. “Kagome says they have a way to tell how old something is, a special test. If I take that through, it will only be as old as it is right now and when the Higurashi’s try to spend it, people will wonder where they got it. They can’t exactly say their demon son-in-law is a Lord, much less explain the well, now can they?”

That made Sesshomaru pause. He needed Kagome’s family to receive the gift, but he did not feel it truly met the requirements of the youkai mating ritual if it could not make the Higurashi’s more prosperous. He considered the problem carefully, ignoring his half-brother’s impatient shifting. The solution seemed simple, but once again, he would have to rely on Inuyasha to confirm it.

The Goshinboku is still living in her time.”

Yeah,” Inuyasha answered slowly. His silver hair slid over his red haori and Sesshomaru was reminded suddenly of their father. “The God Tree is just at the edge of the shrine grounds. It’s bigger than now.”

By how much?” Sesshomaru studied the tree at the edge of the clearing and considered Inuyasha’s gestures. His arms crated a circle to show the diameter of the trunk.

They put a little fence around it too,” the hanyou added as an afterthought. “About eight feet away, in a square.” Sesshomaru weighed the gift in his hand carefully and considered the condition of heirlooms in the West. They had many, many objects that were more than five hundred years old. He was satisfied that his gift would endure. He carefully withdrew the letter he had written for Kagome’s family and closed up the box, re-wrapping it in the leather. He held the sealed paper out to Inuyasha.

Deliver this instead. And tell Higurashi -” He stopped suddenly, not knowing the woman’s name. His future mother-in-law.

Gen,” Inuyasha supplied.

Tell Higurashi Gen where I have left this.” Sesshomaru turned to walk to the God tree, but stopped only a few feet away. It occurred to him that this task was the first time he had ever needed his half-brother to behave as pack; and that he had never taken the time, nor had the patience, to teach the younger youkai what that entailed. Again he felt a twinge of regret and blamed Kagome for feelings that had never bothered him before his life became entangled with hers. What he knew he should say was physically painful for him, “Please.” He continued on his way, but noted carefully that he had stumbled upon a solution to Inuyasha’s constantly brash mouth when the hanyou fell silent. A happy accident.

The brothers did not speak again until Inuyasha had disappeared down the well and returned many long minutes later. The hanyou shouted unasked for advice as he ran from Sesshomaru’s questions. Perhaps having a sibling is less of a burden than previously considered. Not a boon, but not an ill fortune either.


Find the half-breed, or it will be your heart This One eats, instead of his.”

Ko kept her head bowed low, but considered Ryustokokken’s orders to Wei carefully. The Dragon Lord was irritated, but not furious. She doubted he intended to kill his most trusted spy. However, he had been inconstant since the miko’s escape. His mood, which had always been prone to sudden change, vacillated between fury, irritation, and a contemplative sort of calm that was unusual for him. It was the calm that concerned her the most. Ryustokokken’s temper was legendary and predictable. If he continued to hold his emotions in check, it would become very difficult to predict his actions. That could prove deadly to Ko.

She had taken the Dragon Lord on an aerial tour of his troops and now she waited, head down and youki pulled in tight to make herself as unobtrusive as possible. Her constant presence in the Northern Palace and Ryustokokken’s treatment of her worked to her advantage. He rarely noticed her unless he wanted something, and he always underestimated her. It had taken Ko decades, but she had proven to herself that his dominance over her body did not dictate dominance over her mind. She would not obey him out of blind fear. Kagome had been an inspiration to her; more than merely enduring, she could and would defy the one who had killed the rest of her clan and held her prisoner for so long.

Gather the bodies of the tree youkai. Deliver them to the border between the Western Lands and the Forest.” The vicious smile in Ryustokokken’s voice was clearly heard. “The trees will begin to doubt that the dog can protect them. They will blame him for these deaths.”

Does my Lord require anything else?” Wei’s obsequious tone made Ko want to sneer, but she held her position.

The human corpses will be sent to Western villages. And bring This One the witch. A particular brew is needed for the miko, and the half-breed will have the remaining Western traitor ensure it is delivered.”

She will be most closely guarded, Denka-ue. Will the traitor-“

This One will not be thwarted!” Ryustokokken’s snarl echoed on the stone walls and she listened to Wei drop to the floor and grovel. “The traitor was well chosen and has ready access to the private chambers of the dog. She will be mine.”

Yes, of course, Denka-ue.” Wei bowed and scraped his way out of the room, snapping an order at Ko to do the same. She moved awkwardly, her broken body still recovering from Ryustokokken’s treatment and the injury purposefully emphasized by a hunched posture and slight limp. As soon as she was alone in a rear corridor, she searched with her youki for any other creatures nearby. Finding none, she banished the fog from her eyes and hurried towards the inner courtyard. It was deserted in the early evening, but a volcanic shaft that billowed steam and sulphur into the air kept the space warm. Trees, stunted by the noxious fumes, grew twisted and sickly in the few unpaved portions of the yard. The sky overhead was clear, and quickly darkening from twilight to a deep winter night.

She pulled a rubbery, brownish-green leaf from the nearest tree and whispered over it, willing a small portion of her energy into it. Within moments, a blackened leaf rose on the breeze. It curled lazily and drifted in the air, slowly rising into the night to be carried on silent currents to a destination she had never seen. Her lips moved in prayer, but Ko allowed no sound to betray her.

Find the miko. Find her and warn her of the danger that is to come. Her eyes turned upward, green depths reflecting the first stars to become visible before she reluctantly summoned the fog that would hide her sight. Please let her be safe.

Chapter 29: Paving the Road to Hell

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