It had been over a century since Sesshoumaru had last been so thoroughly disgraced. Kikyou’s seal had been the result of a monstrous lapse in judgment, but at least the woman had been a competent adversary. This… this collar had been placed on him by a withered old crone and held there by the power of a witless slip of a girl who would be fortunate to survive long enough to harness even a fraction of her power.
Sesshoumaru looked down at the beads that hung from his neck. Yes, there was power there. Power enough to withstand his formidable physical strength and his potent youki as well.
Reaching the crest of one of the region’s many hills, he looked back at the sleeping village. His golden eyes narrowed. The old miko was weak in body and power but wise in her craft. Doubtless, she would have hidden the girl behind protective wards. He could break them, of course, but possibly not before the girl could wake and shout her cursed command.
As he weighed his options, there was a movement in the trees above him. A wisp of youki tingled along his senses.
With an effortless leap he was high in the canopy. And, there he found his prey. A flock of crows was roosting high in the boughs of a lightning struck tree. All save one, who watched the village with hungry eyes. But, with one slash of his claws, the youkai hiding among its more mundane brethren was dead.
Landing, Sesshoumaru shook blood from his hand. He frowned. So, lesser youkai were already being drawn to the Shikon no Tama’s power. He had sensed it himself. Inside that girl.
The hanyou looked toward the village again. This could be a nuisance. He needed the collar removed before the foolish girl’s luck ran out, as it inevitably would.
As for the jewel… he saw it clearly now. Even if the Shikon no Tama could grant his wish, it would warp the outcome to its own ends. It was a cursed jewel, not even safe in the hands of a miko. Kikyou was proof of that. The woman had had her flaws, but she had not been mad when he first met her. It was only later, when she had confronted him with ridiculous accusations and ultimately sealed him, that he had realized, too late, that the corrupt jewel had stolen her sanity.
The lesser youkai could have the jewel. He would find another way to achieve his goal. All he desired from this miserable village was his freedom. And, the girl would grant it.
Sesshoumaru turned away. He could smell no more youkai in the forest tonight. There was no need to wait and watch. His opportunity would present itself soon enough. After all, the girl could not hide forever.
As he strode in to the deeper parts of the forest, a bat darted overhead. Hidden in its short fur, a tiny creature watched the hanyou with startled eyes.
“Sesshoumaru-sama’s seal has been broken? I have to tell to Inuyasha-sama!”
“Stay in here?” Kagome jumped to her feet. “But, why? I need to go home!”
Kaede was unmoved. “Yes, if your home is as distant as you describe, it would be wise that you return.” She stood slowly with an audible creaking of weary joints. “However, it is not safe to attempt it yet. Sesshoumaru will be looking for you.”
“Looking for me?” Slowly, Kagome lowered herself back to a sitting position by the fire.
Kaede stepped to the door and drew the reed mat hanging over it aside. “Yes. He’ll want you to remove that rosary I placed on him. Had there been another way…” She frowned as she surveyed the village, letting her eyes linger on a group of men busily repairing one of the homes damaged the previous night by the centipede’s attack. But, aside from the steady progress of repairs, the village was quiet. There was no hint of the hanyou’s powerful youki. “Well, what’s done is done.” With that, she moved back to once more settle herself across the firepit from Kagome.
“But, why would he come after me about the rosary?” Kagome asked. “If he comes, I can just “stay” him again.” She crossed her arms indignantly. “If he leaves, he doesn’t have to worry about it.”
Kaede shook her head. “To Sesshoumaru, such a thing is an affront to his pride. He would kill to be rid of it. Remember that.”
“Kill—!” Kagome paused. Yes, the man she had met last night could kill. Effortlessly. Emotionlessly. “But, just for that?”
“Yes.” Kaede narrowed her single eye. “Fortunately, Sesshoumaru, has some measure of patience. We should be able to form a plan before he resorts to any sort of attacks on the village.”
Kagome paled at the thought. She had seen Sesshoumaru move. Or, more accurately, not seen him. Who knew how many villagers he could slaughter before she could even open her mouth?
Kaede must have seen the horror on her face. She quickly offered a faint smile.
“Calm, child. It has been many years, but the Sesshoumaru I remember was rarely rash.” She looked down. “Though, as my sister learned, he is not always predictable.”
“Who is he?” Kagome asked. “Why was he pinned to the Goshinboku like that? What did he have to do with your sister?”
Kaede sighed. “It concerns the Shikon no Tama.” She turned a piercing gaze on Kagome. “What do you know of it? Mistress Centipede seemed to believe it was in your possession.”
“But, I don’t have it!” Kagome fisted her hands around the hem of her skirt. “The only thing I know about it is from my Ji-chan’s stories.” In a quieter voice she added, “And, I didn’t really listen to him.”
Kaede studied her a moment and then cleared her throat to speak. “The Shikon no Tama is a jewel which possesses incredible power. That power draws youkai and even humans with darkness in their hearts. Because of her powers as a miko the jewel was entrusted to my sister, Kikyou, in the hope that she could purify it.”
Kaede stared into the fire. “I was very young then, but I remember well the first time I saw Sesshoumaru. Many youkai came to steal the jewel, but only Sesshoumaru came to the gate of the shrine itself and ordered Kikyou to give him the Shikon no Tama.”
“He thought she would just give it to him?” Kagome asked. Talk about nerve.
“Sesshoumaru is the eldest son of a great youkai and a human noblewoman of considerable standing,” Kaede answered. “It is even said his mother came from a family with ties to the Imperial Court. They say the story of her defying her family in favor of a youkai is a scandal they still whisper about at the Court.” Kaede shook her head. “Whatever the truth may be, Sesshoumaru is unused to being defied. His lineage aside, he’s powerful in his own right.”
“So, what did Kikyou do?”
“My sister refused him, but he returned again and again. They fought many times.” Kaede looked thoughtful. “It became something of a routine. I feared him at first, but Sesshoumaru never attacked the village. He focused solely on Kikyou.” The elderly miko’s face darkened. “Until that last time.”
“You mean he finally attacked the village?” Kagome was torn between the detached fascination of an audience member hearing a great story and the horror that Kaede’s words were all too real.
“Yes.” Something in Kaede’s face became distant. “He attacked without warning, slaughtering many in their beds. When Kikyou confronted him, he mortally wounded her and stole the Shikon no Tama. So, with the last of her strength, Kikyou fired the arrow that sealed Sesshoumaru to the tree.” Kaede sat back a bit, watching smoke from the fire curl toward the ceiling. “That was fifty years ago now.”
“How horrible,” Kagome breathed. Hesitantly, she asked her next question. “So, what will Sesshoumaru do now?”
“I cannot say.” Kaede’s face was grim. “But, we have some time yet.” She straightened. “Let us use it well. What do you know about forming barriers?”
“What do you mean you haven’t completed the pearl?”
The screech echoed across the formerly placid lake, causing the large youkai on the receiving end of it to wince.
“It has only been fifty years,” he explained, warily peering out of the enormous clamshell that served as his home. “I told your master before that it would take a hundred.”
The already livid kappa standing on the shore before him did not take the explanation well.
“Didn’t he tell you to finish it in half the time?” he demanded, waving the gnarled staff in his hands.
The large youkai shrugged. “It’s impossible.”
The kappa exploded, gesturing wildly with his staff. “Do you have any idea what that brat will do to me if I return without the pearl?” He flailed uselessly at the air. “There must be something you can do!”
“It’s impossible,” the large youkai repeated. “Come back in another fifty years.” That said, he allowed the clamshell to close.
“Oi!” The kappa beat on the underside of the sealed shell with his staff. “Come back out here! This isn’t over!”
His only answer was a soft burbling as the huge clamshell began to slip back into the lake.
“O—oi! You can’t do this! He’ll be furious!”
Still vainly trying to pound the sinking shell with his staff, the kappa over-balanced and tumbled face-first into the water. Sputtering, he flailed his way back to the shore.
“I’m going to die,” he moaned as he collapsed against the muddy bank. “Killed by that terrible brat.” His eyes rolled skyward. “Sesshoumaru-sama, how could you leave your faithful Jaken like this?”
As he lay there, a voice reached his ears.
“Gamyou, gamyou.” A tiny creature alighted on his beaked nose. “Ah, Jaken,” it began, “I have news.”
Jaken’s eyes crossed as he tried to focus on the diminutive figure. “Myouga, is it?”
The creature - upon closer inspection, a flea dressed in his own miniature clothes - nodded. “This probably interests you too – Sesshoumaru-sama has been unsealed.”
Jaken stared. “Sesshoumaru-sama is—?” His eyes began to leak over-sized tears. “Sesshoumaru-sama! At last!”
“So, Aniki-sama is unsealed, is he?”
There was a rush of wind, and Jaken and Myouga looked up as a shadow fell over them.
Fangs glinted in a wicked smile. “Then, I should pay him a visit.”
It had been nearly two days, and Sesshoumaru had long since re-familiarized himself with the land around the little village. It was obvious that time had passed while he was sealed, but nothing of importance had changed. Humans and animals alike had lived and died and birthed new generations who went about life just as their predecessors had. Life continued unchanged.
Bored with such mundane affairs, Sesshoumaru turned his attention again to the only mortals he was concerned with presently. The old miko and the girl had not emerged from their refuge since the night he was freed. Villagers regularly brought the pair food and whatever else the old woman required. Surely the miko knew such a frail supply line and equally frail structure would not protect her and her charge.
Well, whatever the old miko intended, it was time to end this charade.
Sesshoumaru began to angle his path toward the village. As he reached the more well-travelled footpaths that surrounded the settlement, he became aware of an oppressive silence. There was no more birdsong. The forest was quiet.
A shimmer in the trees ahead drew his eyes. Sesshoumaru stopped and watched as a cloud of moths flitted in the sunlight. Abruptly, one of them stilled. And, fell apart in two neat halves. Several of its fellows met the same fate.
‘Another youkai after the jewel? Hmph.’
Carefully, Sesshoumaru reached out a hand. He felt tiny wires brush along his skin. So, the net was all around him. He closed his fist around the wires and pulled. With a crack, the top of a tree to his right tore free and crashed to the forest floor.
A woman’s laughter filled the ensuing silence. “So, you can see them? Or are you just guessing?”
Sesshoumaru turned his head to find a woman balanced lightly in the air. She stood, poised on the balls of her feet. Balancing on more of those wires no doubt. As he watched, her ruby lips curled in a smile.
“You have such pretty silver hair. May I add it to my collection?”
Sesshoumaru sneered. “You—”
He broke off as invisible cords suddenly appeared around his throat.
“Are you sure it’s safe for you to go out?” Kagome watched Kaede from the doorway to the hut.
The elderly miko turned back to her. “Whether it is or not, I need to tend to Hina-san’s daughter. This sudden illness may be nothing more than the heat, but it is unwise to ignore such things. Stay inside until I return and do not come out.” Kaede’s face hardened. “No matter what happens.”
Then, Kaede turned to follow the waiting Hina, leaving Kagome alone.
Kagome released a deep breath and stepped back into the small room that served as Kaede’s home. She looked around for something to do. Unfortunately, Kaede’s hut was as spartan as it was medieval. It held only a few precious basic necessities and Kaede’s collection of medicinal plants. After nearly two days confined to the hut, there weren’t even chores to do. Kaede had long since tended to everything in and around attempting to teach Kagome to use her innate miko abilities.
Kagome sighed. That effort wasn’t going well.
They had focused solely on teaching her to form a barrier just big enough for herself. A barrier she would have to hold all the way to the well.
Currently, she could form a weak shield that lasted maybe five seconds. If she counted quickly.
With a moan Kagome slumped to the floor on the blankets Kaede had loaned her.
“I’m going to be stuck here forever!”
But, no sooner had the idea occurred than she rejected it and sat up quickly.
“No! I’m going to get home. I have to!”
Clapping her hands together, Kagome got back to her feet.
“Maybe if I just ran to the well now?” She stepped toward the door. “It’s not like anyone’s seen Sesshoumaru…”
She could almost hear Kaede’s response to that.
Spinning around, she addressed the empty room. “Well, if he was around, he would have shown up by now, right?”
Her imaginary Kaede had no answer to that.
“Ha!” Kagome pointed triumphantly toward the place by the firepit where Kaede usually sat. “See?”
After a moment, her arm dropped.
“I’ve been in here too long,” she muttered.
There was a shuffle at the door behind her.
“Oh, Kaede-bachan,” Kagome turned, “I was just—” Her voice trailed off as she met a collection of grim-faced village men. “I… If you’re looking for Kaede-bachan, she went to see Hina-san.”
The men didn’t answer. They stared at her with vacant, empty eyes.
“I…” Words froze in Kagome’s throat as she realized a critical detail. The men were floating. “Wh—what’s going on?” she managed, backing away.
As one, the men lunged forward.
To Be Continued...