Chapter 8: Bones of Contention
Kagome listened as Kaede explained the uses of the items she was carefully tucking into her pack. Here a pouch of herbs good for reducing fever. Here toxic powder that would incapacitate youkai. Kagome was sure she would never remember it all. So, she had grabbed a charred stick from the fire and begun scratching out short notes to herself on strips of her old school uniform. The blouse wasn’t good for anything else now. There had been no way to repair it. Fortunately, Kaede had found her a simple green kosode to wear instead.
Inuyasha entered as she was tying the final shred of cloth onto its appropriate bundle. The girl looked up from her work in time to see the hanyou’s appraising gaze sweep over her. Kagome turned away and focused her attention on checking the supplies in her pack. Inuyasha was probably only going to say something rude. He had been in a terrible mood ever since Masaru refused to tell him where to find someone called Ryuukossei.
But, after looking her up and down, Inuyasha simply grunted. It wasn’t exactly a, “That looks good on you,” but with Inuyasha, silence was probably the highest compliment he would ever offer.
Assured her pack was ready, Kagome stood and pulled it onto her back. “There. That’s everything,” she said.
Inuyasha stared at her. “You’re still wearing those things?” he asked.
The girl blinked and followed his gaze to her feet. He was staring at her battered brown loafers.
“Oh! These?” Kagome tapped the toe of one shoe against the floor. “These are a lot more comfortable than anything in this time.”
“They look funny,” said Inuyasha.
Kagome ignored him. Kaede had also given her a pair of zori sandals that were now stowed away in the pack as well. With luck, she wouldn’t need them anytime soon. She much preferred the loafers.
His inspection of Kagome’s wardrobe completed, Inuyasha turned to Kaede. “Oi, old hag, we’re leaving now.”
Kaede studied the two of them. “Very well. Be careful, the both of you.” As Inuyasha headed for the door, the aging miko let her senses reach out to Kagome one last time. As before, she could detect nothing but health radiating from Kagome’s aura. There was nothing unusual present save for the remaining spell link between her and Inuyasha. The girl had healed completely in just the span of a few days. Again, Kaede could only marvel. Kagome had the potential to be a fine miko. Perhaps they could speak of it later.
“Good-bye, Kaede-bachan.” Waving, Kagome followed Inuyasha.
Shippou met them as they stepped outside. “Miroku’s going to meet us at the gate,” he said.
Inuyasha grunted an acknowledgement.
The little group walked toward the main gate in silence. Around them, daily life in the village continued as usual. They received only a few passing glances.
Kagome looked at the villagers curiously. Kaede had explained that their “mission” was something of a secret. Only a select few knew that Inuyasha was out gathering shards rather than tracking rogue youkai.
The secrecy frightened her a little. Were the shards still so sought after?
She patted the front of her kosode where a small bulge marked the little leather pouch that now hung around her neck. She could see the glow from the Nothing Woman’s shard burning through the material.
Kagome glanced at Inuyasha. There was a glow emanating from his kariginu as well. It looked like he already had two shards. She wondered where he had been keeping them before. Maybe he had left them somewhere in the taijiya village. In the state she was in when they arrived, she wouldn’t have noticed.
Kagome looked up to see Kohaku jogging up to them with Kirara on his shoulder. “Kirara wants to go too,” he explained.
The feline youkai mewled in agreement and hopped to the ground. Kohaku looked from her to Inuyasha. Inuyasha nodded to him as though answering an unvoiced question. Kohaku smiled.
“Thank you,” he said. He then looked between Inuyasha and Kagome. “Good luck, Inuyasha, Kagome-san!” Then, waving, he jogged back the way he had come.
With the boy gone, Inuyasha regarded Kirara. “You healed enough?” he asked.
Kirara trilled, staring at him with her large, red eyes.
The hanyou nodded. “Good.” He cast a sidelong glance at the approaching Miroku. “Unlike the monk here.”
The monk in question was uncharacteristically somber.
“Inuyasha, Kagome-sama.” He greeted them in turn with a wan smile. “I had hoped to join you, but it seems I will have to wait a little longer.”
Kagome was surprised to hear an underlying bitterness in his tone. But, Inuyasha uttered his trademark snort before she could question it.
“If you came now, I’d just be saving your butt all the time,” he said.
Rather than being antagonized, Miroku simply smirked at Inuyasha. “You don’t have to hide it, my friend. I know you’re just pleased to have this time alone with Kagome-sama.”
“I— What?” Inuyasha sputtered, going red in the face.
Kagome felt her own face heat.
“Hey! They won’t be alone,” Shippou piped up. “I’ll be there to make sure Inuyasha doesn’t do something stupid.”
With that, the fox kit leapt to Inuyasha’s shoulder.
“Oi, runt.” Inuyasha looked at him, suddenly stern. “You’ll be staying here with the old hag.”
“What?” Shippou’s tiny claws dug into the fabric of Inuyasha’s kariginu.
“You heard me.”
“No!” Shippou’s fluffy tail bushed out like an angry cat. “I’m coming with you!”
“No, you’re not.” Inuyasha reached to brush the fox off his shoulder.
Shippou immediately sank his teeth into the offending hand. Inuyasha flung him away with a growl.
“Inuyasha!” Kagome glared at the hanyou as she gathered a dizzy Shippou into her arms. “Why can’t Shippou come with us?”
“Because he doesn’t need to!”
“What do you mean he doesn't need to?” Kagome’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
Miroku intervened before the inevitable argument could escalate. “I believe Inuyasha is merely concerned for Shippou’s safety, Kagome-sama. It will be a dangerous journey. Not all youkai mean well like the Nothing Woman.”
Kagome deflated. “Oh.”
Inuyasha uttered a faint grunt.
Sensing that his champion was faltering and his chances dwindling, Shippou lunged for Inuyasha again. He fisted his tiny hands in the heavy fabric of the hanyou’s kariginu and looked up pleadingly.
Hard amber eyes stared back at him.
Shippou gulped and looked away. He had seen that cold glare before. Inuyasha wasn’t playing this time. This wasn’t one of his temper tantrums either. This was serious.
Shippou took a deep breath. He couldn’t back down. Not this time.
Forcing himself to meet Inuyasha’s eyes, Shippou opened his mouth to speak. “This is important to me too, you know,” he said. “I don’t want to just wait here; I want to help.”
There was no response, so Shippou continued.
“I can help protect Kagome. I have my foxfire, and I can transform.” There. He had reminded Inuyasha that he wasn’t just a helpless little kid.
When Inuyasha spoke, his voice was soft and serious. “Your foxfire burns nothing, and you can only hold a transformation for a few minutes.”
Shippou looked down. He had no answer to that.
Inuyasha reached to remove Shippou with hands that were gentle but firm. The kitsune tightened his grip and buried his face against Inuyasha’s chest.
“Please, Inuyasha!” Shippou felt his tiny body tremble with the force of his emotions. “I want to go with you! I want to help bring back Okaa and Otou!” His throat was raw, and his voice broke. “I want to help. I don’t want to be alone again.”
Kagome opened her mouth and then closed it quickly. She glanced at Miroku; he was silent. She bit her lip and looked at Inuyasha. His face was set in that emotionless mask she remembered from the day they had fought at the well. She had been furious with him then. Now, Miroku’s words rang in her ears. Inuyasha was doing this to protect Shippou. For his own good. Had it been the same when he was so harsh with her?
Shippou waited for the inevitable. He had seen how implacable Inuyasha could be when he got this way. He felt the hanyou shift beneath him and tensed. A hand suddenly rested on his head. Fingers twitched in a feather light gesture that might have been a pat. Then, Inuyasha carefully pried him loose and settled him on the ground.
The kitsune kept his head down. He would not cry in front of Inuyasha.
He heard the hanyou take a step away. This was it then.
“Oi, Shippou, you coming?”
Confused, Shippou lifted his head to find Inuyasha standing several feet away, looking back over his shoulder expectantly. Shippou blinked and shifted his gaze to Miroku. The monk merely smiled serenely. Beside him, Kagome was beaming.
With an uncontrollable grin of his own, Shippou raced after Inuyasha.
The moon was reaching its apex in the night sky as a small band of men hurried down the road. Their faces were drawn. Their eyes nervously searched the road ahead and the fields on either side. A heavy hand-drawn cart clattered in their midst. Behind them lay a desecrated grave. Ahead, their lord waited eagerly to receive the illicit cargo they carried.
Only the moon was witness to the grisly errand as they hastily ferried a cart full of human bones across the still countryside.
“I wish I’d packed a futon.” Kagome stretched her arms over her head, willing the ache in her back to lessen. Three night’s worth of sleeping on the ground and she felt like an old woman. She was stiff and sore, and Inuyasha was utterly unsympathetic.
“Oi, what are you doing back there? Come on!”
Kagome groaned and jogged up to Inuyasha’s side.
“Can’t we ride on Kirara?” she asked.
Kirara lifted her head from a dozing position wrapped around Inuyasha’s neck and trilled curiously.
“No,” said Inuyasha to both Kagome and Kirara. “We might fly over a shard before you sensed it.”
Kagome sighed. “We might as well. We’re just walking around waiting for me to sense something anyway, aren’t we?”
“That means he doesn’t have a better idea,” Shippou confided as he ambled along beside Kagome.
“I had noticed,” she replied.
“Oi!” Inuyasha tossed a glare at them over his shoulder and crossed his arms.
Kagome sighed. Now, he was going to pout. Inuyasha was one of the strangest people she had ever met. One minute he would be deeply serious, discussing matters of life and death, the next he was reduced to a bratty child. She tried not to think too hard about the fact that she was now married to him.
In fact, she was so busy trying to find an alternate topic that she almost walked into Inuyasha when he stopped moving. He stood stiffly in the middle of the trail with his nose in the air.
Kagome was confused at his actions. “Inuyasha?”
“There’s blood on the wind,” said the hanyou. “A lot of it.”
“Blood?” Kagome felt her stomach tighten.
Shippou sniffed the air curiously. His nose wasn’t as sensitive as Inuyasha’s, but he could just make out the metallic tang in the air.
“It’s fresh,” said Inuyasha. He crouched down. “Get on my back.”
Obligingly, Shippou hopped onto his back.
“What th—?” Inuyasha growled. “Shippou! I meant Kagome!”
“Me?” Kagome looked down at the crouching hanyou as Shippou scrambled to his shoulder.
“Yes, you,” said Inuyasha. “Get on.”
Uncertainly, Kagome hiked up her kosode and secured it around her legs so that she was decent. Then, she followed Inuyasha’s terse instructions to settle herself on his back. No sooner had she wrapped her arms around his neck than the hanyou stood and launched himself into the air.
It was like flying. For an instant, Kagome thought they were flying. Then, they returned to the earth. But, only briefly. With just the slightest tensing of his muscles, Inuyasha again catapulted them skyward.
Quickly, Kagome adjusted to the rhythm of Inuyasha’s leaping gait. It was more amazing than frightening. The world was nothing but a blur around them, and at the apex of Inuyasha’s higher jumps she could see over the treetops.
The girl was so enthralled she almost forgot the reason for their sudden side trip. Then, she felt it - the same sensation she had felt from the Nothing Woman.
“It’s another shard!”
“What? You sensed something?” Inuyasha asked.
“Yes.” Kagome nodded even though the silver-haired boy couldn’t see her. “It feels like the Nothing Woman’s shard, and we’re getting closer.”
Inuyasha sped up, reducing the forest around them to a blur.
Kagome gripped the fabric of his kariginu tightly. The wonder was gone. Instead, the sick feeling in her stomach was back.
Then, the blur of trees fell away, and Inuyasha landed on a hill above yet another ruined village. Slowly, Kagome slid from his back and surveyed the damage.
Many of the structures had been reduced to so much kindling. Above the village, a castle rested on the opposite hill. It also bore the scars of an attack, most notably a large hole gouged out of its roof. No one was in sight.
Kagome’s face saddened. This was becoming an unpleasant pattern.
“Is the shard here?” Inuyasha asked, holding his right sleeve up over his nose to shield himself from the overwhelming scent of blood.
“Mmm.” Kagome tried to focus on the indefinable feeling that meant a shard was nearby. She turned away from the village and scanned the forest behind them. “I think it’s out there somewhere.” There was also a strange sense of something emanating from the village, but it wasn’t quite a shard. It was pervasive with no one source. She assumed it must be some remnant of the shard’s power. Like an echo.
“So, the shard’s with the youkai who did this,” said Inuyasha. He put his nose to the wind. “All I can smell is blood,” he muttered. He took a careful sniff. Yes, blood… and something else he couldn’t make out.
“Ah!” Kagome was pointing down into the village excitedly. “Survivors!”
Inuyasha looked where she was pointing. Sure enough, a couple of figures could be seen huddled near one of the less-damaged homes.
“Let’s go,” Inuyasha said. He started down the hill.
Some time later found the little group in the village headman’s house.
“The oni have been plaguing us for months,” Isao, the elderly headman, explained as a girl around Kagome’s age served the travelers a simple meal of fish and rice. “At first, it was just one or two, and they passed over us to attack the castle. But, with the youkai war, our lord had hired many youkai slayers, and they destroyed the oni quickly.”
“Youkai war?” Kagome asked.
From beside her, where he was happily devouring his meal, Shippou whispered, “That’s what humans call the fight with Naraku.”
“Oh.” Kagome took a bite of her fish. She was immediately pleased to find that it was cooked perfectly. Unlike how some people cooked. She glanced to where the girl who had served them stood by the wall, wondering if she had done the cooking.
When she looked back at the headman, Isao had dropped his gaze to the floor. “Soon, it was five oni every night, then ten, then twenty,” he said. “They began stopping in the village to feed before attacking the castle. Night after night.”
Kagome glanced at Inuyasha. There had to be something they could do. But, Inuyasha wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the headman intently. He had barely touched his food.
“Finally,” Isao continued, “our lord hired a mercenary. A man said to be able to kill hundreds of youkai. Two nights ago, he met the oni when they came and completely destroyed them.”
Inuyasha’s frown had deepened. “This man… who is he?” he asked.
The elder shook his head. “I don’t know. At first, I thought he might be the hanyou who serves the taijiya.”
“Hanyou who serves the taijiya?” Kagome looked at Inuyasha curiously.
“Keh,” said Inuyasha. “Obviously, it wasn’t me.”
“Ah!” Isao’s face light up. “So, you are—?”
“Yes,” Inuyasha answered shortly. “Anyway, about this man?”
“Oh, yes.” Isao looked thoughtful. “He appeared human enough, but he possessed a frightening power. That is all I know.”
“So, the village is safe now?” Kagome asked.
“Yes.” The old man nodded, smiling. “We can finally rest easy.”
“Don’t be too sure.” Inuyasha stood in a single fluid motion. “I’m going to look around,” he said as he disappeared out the door.
Once he was gone, Isao addressed Kagome. “So, that is Inuyasha. I’ve heard stories about him. They say he’s served the youkai taijiya for centuries.”
Feeling as though she was expected to confirm or deny this, Kagome fumbled for an answer. “He works with the taijiya, but I’m not really sure how long—” She looked to Shippou for help, but he had discovered Inuyasha’s practically untouched dinner and was focused on devouring it. “I don’t think he’s that old,” Kagome finished lamely.
But, he had said that the miko who sealed her should have taken her to the taijiya instead. He had implied that he was there at the time of her sealing. He had implied that he was alive fifty years ago.
“So,” Isao’s voice startled her out of her thoughts, “are you one of the taijiya as well?”
“Me?” Kagome pointed to herself. “No. I’m just… er…”
“She’s Inuyasha’s new wife,” Shippou put in helpfully around a mouthful of fish.
“Ah.” Isao nodded. “Well, it is getting late. Sakiko will show you to your room.”
At his words, the girl who had served them appeared at his side. “Please follow me,” she said.
As they left the room, Kagome remembered her musings over dinner. “Oh, Sakiko-san, did you prepare our food?” she asked.
Sakiko visibly started and turned slowly to regard Kagome with wary eyes. “Y-yes, I did.”
“It was delicious.” Kagome smiled warmly. “Thank you.”
Shippou nodded in agreement.
“Oh.” Sakiko’s entire body seemed to relax. “It was nothing special. I—” Her eyes brightened. “Would you like me to show you—?”
The elderly headman had appeared in the doorway behind them. He was scowling fiercely. “Don’t bother our guests with such things, girl,” he scolded. “Take them on to their rooms.”
“Oh, she’s not bothering us,” Kagome put in quickly.
But, neither of the villagers paid her any attention.
Sakiko made a jerky motion that seemed to indicate Kagome should follow her and headed on down the corridor. Kagome turned to appeal to Isao but found that he had already ducked back into the room. Quickly, she trotted after Sakiko.
Shippou and Kirara traded a glance and trailed after them.
Moving up alongside Sakiko, Kagome offered her a bright smile. “Maybe you can show me later, Sakiko-san.”
The girl glanced at her and allowed a faint smile to lift the corners of her lips. “I would like that, Kagome-sama.”
Then, they had reached the simple room that had been prepared for the travelers and, after quietly excusing herself, Sakiko left.
Kagome settled her heavy pack against a wall and debated what to do now. Sleep was out of the question. The day's events had left her wide awake.
Kirara had no such problems. The firecat had settled herself between the three futons laid out for their use and curled into a sleepy ball.
Kagome looked over at Shippou. The kitsune was busily taking inventory of what appeared to be an impressive collection of toys.
“What's all that, Shippou-chan?” Kagome asked, kneeling beside him.
“This,” Shippou said proudly, “is my bag of tricks. I use these for my kitsune magic.” He grinned up at Kagome. “Want to see?”
Kagome nodded quickly.
Beaming, Shippou stood and brandished a little red and green top. “Spinning top!” With a quick tug on its string, he sent the top whirling across the room where it suddenly grew to gigantic proportions.
Kagome watched with wide eyes. Kirara merely opened one eye briefly before curling up tighter with her tails draped over her nose.
After a moment, the top shrank to its original size and slowed to a stop.
“That's amazing, Shippou-chan!” Kagome clapped excitedly.
Shippou beamed and strutted across the room to retrieve the top. “And, that’s just my simplest trick,” he said.
Kagome smiled as she watched him. Then, she stiffened. The vague aura of power she had been feeling in the village had suddenly intensified.
“There's another shard,” she said, looking around as though it might have popped into existence within their room.
“Another shard?” Shippou looked at Kagome in surprise.
Kagome nodded. “Come on, Shippou-chan.” She headed for the door, pausing only briefly to address the now fully awake Kirara. "Please watch my pack, Kirara."
The firecat trilled softly and obediently leapt onto Kagome's bag. She circled once and then curled up into a ball again.
Kagome smiled at her and then moved to slide the shoji door aside.
Leaping lightly from one vantage point to another, Inuyasha circled the village. The ravaged settlement was quiet and dark in the deepening twilight. It felt almost empty, though he had caught glimpses of people moving furtively among the darkened homes. Clearly, the villagers weren’t as at ease as the headman had thought.
Completing his circuit, Inuyasha found only one trail left by the oni. A painfully obvious path of destruction that had clearly been used more than once. So, he turned from the village and instead began picking his way along the swath of devastation that led into the forest. If nothing else, it offered an escape from the nauseating scent of death and blood that permeated the settlement. He hadn’t even been able to force down more than a few mouthfuls of food with that horrible stench surrounding him.
He looked at the sky. Clouds were coming in, bringing with them the scent of rain. Good. Maybe it would wash away the rancid odor.
Resolving to catch something for himself while he was out, Inuyasha paused at the treeline and glanced back at the castle that overlooked the village.
“The oni must have some reason to be interested in it,” the silver-haired boy muttered.
But, Kagome had sensed the shard in the forest, not the castle. So, the oni hadn’t come to steal it. Likely, one of them already had it. For a moment, he considered questioning the aging headman as to whether any seals or shrines had been disturbed or if the local lord had recently come into possession of any strange weapons that might be emanating jyaki. Then, he realized what he was thinking and swore.
He had been working with the taijiya too long. It was no wonder people thought
he was their pet hanyou.
With a growl Inuyasha leapt for the trees.
Kagome felt her way along the engawa circling the headman’s house. Shippou rode on her shoulder using his sharper eyes to guide them. Full dark had fallen, and the moon was lost behind thick clouds. Even Kagome’s nose could detect the scent of rain in the air.
“I wish I had a flashlight,” Kagome muttered, letting her right hand trail along the side of the building to steady her in the all-consuming darkness. Having lived in Tokyo with its perpetual electric lights all her life, it was amazing to her just how dark night was here in the feudal era.
“A what?” Shippou asked, breaking into her thoughts.
“It’s a type of lantern.”
“Oh.” Shippou perked up. “I can make foxfire!” Raising his tiny hand, the little fox produced a ball of blue flame. With a gentle push it floated out of his palm and hovered in front of Kagome.
“That’s perfect!” Kagome exclaimed.
Shippou hopped to the floor. “Just follow me,” he said, puffing his chest out proudly as he led the way.
With the foxfire to guide them the two moved on around the building. As they went, Kagome tried to focus on the echo she had felt earlier. If she could just pin it down.
There it was. And, there, fainter. And, there. As she had noticed before, it was everywhere. There was no single source.
Shippou looked up at her, worried by her silence. “What is it, Kagome?”
“The shard,” she said. “It’s… it’s like it’s in several places at once.”
Shippou cocked his head. “Several places?” Then, his eyes widened. “Someone broke it even more?” he wailed. “But, that will make it even harder to find all the pieces!” Then, the kitsune’s eyes rounded with horror. “What if they ground it up?”
Kagome blinked. Then, realization set in. “Shippou-chan, that’s it!” She snatched the child up to hold him at eye level. “That’s why I can barely feel the second shard! Someone’s broken it up!” She settled the kitsune back on the floor. “But, why?”
Shippou started to answer, but stopped when he caught sight of a light rounding the corner of the house. Kagome followed his gaze.
As they watched, Sakiko appeared around the corner. She was carrying a small lantern. Seeing Kagome and Shippou bathed in the eerie bobbing light cast by the foxfire, she froze. A little gasp escaped her lips.
“It’s just us, Sakiko-san,” said Kagome, waving.
Shippou quickly dropped his concentration and let the blue fire fade away.
“Oh.” Sakiko crept a little closer. “I… Isao-san sent me for you.” She bowed quickly. “He apologizes that it’s so late, but we have a visitor who wishes to speak with you.”
“With us?” Kagome frowned in confusion.
“Yes.” Sakiko bobbed her head. “When he heard that the youkai taijiya had sent someone, he became very excited about speaking with you.”
“He probably wants us to exterminate a dangerous youkai somewhere,” Shippou whispered.
“Oh.” Kagome doubted Inuyasha would be happy with the idea of a detour. But, if this man needed help, she could at least hear him out.
Kagome looked back at Sakiko. “Alright. We’ll speak with your visitor.”
Inuyasha crouched to sniff the ground several times. There was no question about it; the oni's trail ended here. Inuyasha scowled. He had backtracked the trail from the village, hoping to find a den of some sort. Instead, the trail had ended abruptly in this muddy little clearing. The destruction came to a sudden end, as did the scent trail.
Inuyasha glanced at the sky, now roiling with dark clouds his keen eyes could just make out. “But, if they could fly, why land here?” Why not swoop down on the village itself?
He bent to sniff the ground again, moving in a careful circle. There was something else to the scent. Something hidden under the overwhelming stench of rotting blood. Something familiar.
“If you're looking for the oni, the trail stops here.”
Inuyasha leapt to his feet and spun around, swearing to himself.
The intruder was a young man wearing expensive armor and a cocky smirk. A monstrous sword was slung casually over his shoulder.
‘I didn't smell anyone coming because of this stench,’ Inuyasha thought to himself. Aloud, he snarled, “Who are you?”
“Bankotsu,” answered the man. “The local lord hired me to take care of his youkai problems.” In one smooth motion he swung his massive sword around to point it at Inuyasha. “Does that include you?”
“Keh.” Inuyasha crossed his arms, indicating he didn't intend to fight. “I'm just passing through.”
“Eh?” Bankotsu’s smirk widened. “What do you want with oni then? Don’t tell me some of you youkai actually like to eat those things?”
“That’s disgusting!” Inuyasha spat.
Bankotsu shrugged. “I thought so.” Something dark glittered in his eyes. “Well, whatever you’re here for, let’s see if you put up a better fight than those oni.”
With that, he lunged, swinging his sword down for a crushing blow. Above,
the sky split with a roar.
As Sakiko led Kagome and Shippou along the corridor, the sound of rain drumming on the roof became audible.
Kagome glanced upward. “I hope Inuyasha hurries back,” she murmured. “He’s going to be soaked.”
“And, then, he’ll stink like wet dog,” Shippou added.
“Wet dog?” Kagome gave the little fox a disbelieving look. “He smells like wet dog?”
“What else would he smell like?” Shippou cocked his head. “He’s a dog.”
Kagome sighed. Great. Her new husband smelled like wet dog. Well, at least his ears were cute all the same.
‘What? Where did that come from?’ Kagome shook her head to clear away such thoughts. Instead, she focused on the aura of the shard echo. It was strengthening.
‘We’re getting closer,’ she thought. ‘Does someone here have the shard? But then, why couldn’t I feel it before?’ Her eyes widened in sudden realization. ‘That’s right! I finally felt the shard just before Sakiko came to tell us about their visitor. So… He must have the rest of the shard!’
They had reached the large room where they had been served dinner. At a gesture from Sakiko, Kagome stepped inside with Shippou at her heels. They found Isao seated to one side of a squat little man with over-large, bulging eyes. The headman gestured to Kagome as she entered.
“This is the wife of the hanyou Inuyasha, Kotatsu-sama.”
The little man, Kotatsu, smiled at this. It was a thin smile that only briefly twitched the corners of his lips. “Ah, it is a pleasure to meet you, taijiya-san,” he said.
“Oh, I’m just—”
But, before Kagome could correct him, Kotatsu had jumped up and was waving for her to sit.
“Please, please have a seat, taijiya-san.”
Startled by his frantic manner, Kagome sat. The man immediately sat as well. Shippou opted to hide behind Kagome.
“Er, what was it you wished to speak with me about?” Kagome asked.
“Have the taijiya come to exterminate the oni?”
Kagome blinked at the abruptness of the question. “Well,” she began, “if the oni attack again, we’ll do whatever we can. But, I thought the lord had already hired a man—”
“Oh, yes, yes,” Kotatsu cut her off, “but, the taijiya sent you and the hanyou?”
Kagome shook her head. “We were just passing by.”
“Oh, oh.” Kotatsu rocked back, visibly relaxing. “Well, it’s… good that you came anyway.”
Unsure what else to say, Kagome nodded.
Suddenly more cheerful, Kotatsu moved to pull two scrolls from a pack at his side. “I am Kotatsu,” he introduced himself. “I work as a painter in the capitol.”
“Oh.” Kagome wondered if he expected her to have heard of him.
But, he continued on without looking at her.
“I paint scenes of Hell.”
With a deft flick, Kotatsu unrolled both scrolls. The long skeins of paper came to a stop just in front of Kagome.
The girl recoiled. Before her lay scene after scene of monstrous oni, grinning over the mutilated bodies of tortured men. Behind her, Kagome could feel Shippou trembling.
The wind and rain outside intensified, thundering against the roof.
“Fascinating, isn’t it?” Kotatsu had eyes only for his creations. “I spent some years seeking out the aftermath of recent battles to perfect my art. And, on one such battlefield, I found something incredible.”
The little man produced a fresh scroll and a container of ink. Retrieving a brush from his pack as well, he began to draw in quick, sure strokes.
“Let me show you.”
“Idiot!” Inuyasha swung the Tessaiga around to block a fresh attack from Bankotsu. “I don’t want to fight you!”
“Too bad!” Bankotsu leapt back to avoid a sweep of the Tessaiga meant to knock him off his feet. He was not a big man, but he wielded his giant halberd as easily as Inuyasha handled his own Tessaiga. And, with far greater familiarity.
The hanyou swore and clawed wet hair out of his eyes.
Bankotsu smirked. “Tired already?”
“Ha!” Inuyasha leapt into the air and brought the Tessaiga down with devastating force.
Bankotsu blocked the attack without flinching. “Is that it?”
Inuyasha jumped away, snarling.
He had curbed his superhuman strength at first, unwilling to slaughter the human without reason. But, Bankotsu had almost overpowered his weakened strikes in seconds. Now, he was fighting at full force, and still the human met him blow for blow.
“What are you?” Inuyasha demanded, lunging at the man again.
“Hmph. Thinking I’m some kind of youkai?” Bankotsu ducked under Inuyasha’s swing and slammed his halberd into the ground. “I’m human, idiot!”
The force of the blow blasted a crater into the sodden earth, throwing a cascade of mud into Inuyasha’s face.
“Gah!” Blinded, the hanyou was thrown backward, skidding across the muddy clearing.
Bankotsu rushed forward. “Don’t compare me to whatever weaklings you’ve been fighting!”
Inuyasha struggled to maintain his balance. Bankotsu was coming; he could smell the man's battlelust even over the rain. He swiped his sleeve across his face, trying to clear his eyes. No good! Gauging the distance on scent alone, Inuyasha drew the Tessaiga up and—
Metal sang against metal.
Blinking furiously, Inuyasha opened watery eyes to smirk at the blurry image of his opponent's face.
“Is that it?” he asked.
Bankotsu smiled back. “Not even close.”
The mercenary leapt away.
Inuyasha watched him as he blinked the last of the mud from his eyes. “I guess that old man back at the village wasn't just telling stories about your strength,” he allowed.
”Eh?” Bankotsu frowned.
“The old man at the village,” Inuyasha repeated. “He told us how the lord hired you to take care of the oni.”
Bankotsu regarded him as though he were crazy. “The village?” he asked. “Everyone in the village is dead! Even at that castle it's just the lord, some guards and his daughter. The oni killed everyone else.”
Inuyasha's eyes widened. “What?”
Blood. The entire village reeked of blood. Even the headman’s house was saturated with it.
Inuyasha turned and started to race back the way he came. As he leapt over the first fallen tree, there was a roar of sound. Before he could react, a rush of wind sent him tumbling through the air. Broken branches tore at his face as he landed hard on his stomach in a spray of mud.
“Oi!” A heavy body landed on the log nearest him. “We’re not done yet.”
Forcing himself up, Inuyasha met Bankotsu’s smirk with a snarl.
Kagome watched Kotatsu paint with a growing sense of nervousness she could not explain. Something was wrong. Kotatsu's behavior, his horrifying ink paintings. It was all wrong. She wanted to excuse herself, grab Shippou, Sakiko and Isao and put as much distance between them and this room as she could.
‘But, I need to locate that shard,’ she reminded herself.
Taking a deep breath, she focused on the elusive shard. Its aura was all around her. But, it was strongest at—
Kagome's eyes landed on Kotatsu's container of ink.
‘The ink?’ Kagome studied the little bamboo cylinder.
At Kotatsu's words, Kagome swung her gaze back to his painting.
“It's me!” She couldn't stop the words from tumbling out of her mouth.
The little painter had created a faithful likeness of her down to the simple pattern on her kosode. It was only missing her eyes.
“Now, for the final touch,” said Kotatsu. Excitedly, he waved a hand toward her.
Did he mean for her to come closer?
Before Kagome could question him, strong hands descended on her shoulders and propelled her forward. Startled, she whipped her head around to find the headman gripping her from behind.
He didn’t answer. His face was empty, devoid of emotion.
Kagome turned back to Kotatsu. “What is—?”
The words stuck in her throat.
The painting was moving. It shifted, arms reaching upward. Slowly, they rose from the paper, rounding into solid forms. Stark black outlines took on the color and shades of living flesh.
With horror, Kagome realized that the hands were reaching for her.
She tried to jerk away, but the headman’s grip was like steel.
“Isao-san!” Kagome glared at Kotatsu. “What did you do to him?”
The little man laughed. “I created him. A perfect replica.” He gestured at the grasping painting. “Just as she will be – once she devours your liver.”
“My liver…” Kagome stared at him, uncomprehending.
One of the painting’s hands curled around her left wrist. Looking down, Kagome found the painting staring back at her with hungry, crimson eyes. She opened her mouth to scream.
Blue fire shot past Kagome to knock the hand away. The painted Kagome shrieked in rage and pain as her paper form ignited.
Isao added his own howl as a second burst of fire caught him in the back. Feeling his grip loosen, Kagome twisted free and scrambled away.
“Kagome!” Shippou rushed to her.
“Shippou-chan!” Kagome scooped the little kitsune into her arms and lunged for the doorway. Kotatsu was screeching with rage, but Kagome had eyes only for the exit. Throwing the shoji open, she nearly collided with Sakiko. Kagome immediately grabbed the other girl’s wrist. “Sakiko-san, we have to go!”
“There’s no time!” Ignoring the confusion plain in the other girl’s face, Kagome pulled Sakiko with her down the corridor. Her eyes searched wildly for an exit.
Wait! Kirara was back in their room. How would she know—?
Her flight was brought up short when Sakiko suddenly dug her feet in and pulled them to a stop.
“Sakiko,” Kagome turned to her quickly, “we have to get out of here! That man is—”
Something in Sakiko’s face stopped her.
Sakiko glanced back the way they had come. “There’s time.” She turned back to Kagome. “I have time.” She reached for Kagome.
“Sakiko-san,” Kagome started, “what are you—?” The words stuck in her throat.
Sakiko’s eyes were red.
“I’m so hungry,” the girl whispered.
To Be Continued...
Notes: I really didn't intend for this to come out near Halloween. But,