Chapter 1 - Of insecurities and change
The altercation had dragged out long enough for her leg muscles to throb and clench from the constant anticipation of an attack and the need to leap away from harm. Her arms were undergoing sporadic spasms from drawing the bow one too many times. A sudden gust rushed by her side. She jumped, but none too gracefully, landing on an unstable log, her ankle caught in a bramble of dry branches and sent her sprawling face down on the dirt. She was busy trying to regain her senses when that nagging dark presence loomed in her head, a damp, putrid breath at the back of her neck. She rolled, her heart pounding.
Her timing wasn't late, but it was far from perfect. The youkai's pincer came crashing down, and the sharp edge of it sliced a nicely sized gash across her left arm. Cursing, she spared it a glance, and instantly regretted it after seeing the green slime oozing out of the rip in her robes. She scrambled up in haste, taking advantage of the time the youkai needed to pry its front forearm out of the mud. Quickly, she prepared the spell in her head, picturing the symbols mechanically. She was drained, the pool of her reiki feeling rather dilute. If she missed— well, she wouldn't miss.
White, glowing energy hurled itself at the gigantic youkai, forming bright threads akin to a net around it. She pulled back her bow, arrow aimed at the struggling creature's heart. The bowstring snapped back to nick her finger, as the arrow flew true to its course. Glowing with an energy identical to the one of the net, although tinged with an ethereal blue, the shaft buried itself in the creature. With a howl, it disintegrated. Purified.
She heaved a sigh and sank down weakly. She ripped off one sleeve of her destroyed suikan and got to work tying a strip tightly around her right ankle. She used the rest of that sleeve to clean off as much of the green goo as possible and formed a crude bandage. It just wasn't her day. That youkai was ten times stronger than the ones usually found around the village. And she wasn't in top shape either. Somehow, she felt uneasy, as if something was going to happen.
Supporting herself slightly with her bow, she got up carefully from the forest ground. Much to her relief, the injured ankle could walk close to normal with the bandage on. With her mind attuned to any possible new attackers, she made her way slowly back to the village gate.
"Kagome-chan, Kagome-chan!" A familiar shrill greeting tore through the air to assault her ears.
She looked up from the ground, to see a small girl of no more than seven years, fly down the road to meet her. She smiled tiredly and raised her good arm in greeting. Sen was an orphan whose parents both sadly perished during the wave of winter sickness last year. The village had taken it upon themselves to raise her but she took to Kagome the most.
"Hi Sen, how was your day?" She looked down at the little child with a disheveled kimono and tangled hair.
"Very well, Kagome-chan! You'll never guess what Sen found! Come, come, Sen will show you!" A warm, sticky hand latched itself onto her left arm and pulled.
"Sen…" She grimaced. The girl turned to her and seemed to notice for the first time that her left sleeve was ripped and sported a sickly red and green bandage.
"Oh, Kagome-chan! Are you hurt? Were you fighting a youkai again?" Her little hands gripped her arm in a much more gentler way and steered her carefully towards the wooden hut with an herb garden nearby.
"Hai Sen, I was."
"Was it really big? It must be very strong to hurt Kagome-sama. Is it going to be your helper now?" Sen asked her in a hushed voice as they entered the entrance of the hut.
"No. What a strange thing to ask." She pulled the child down to sit with her on the tatami mat. She was fidgeting uncomfortably under her gaze.
"Sen didn't mean to eavesdrop on Nakamura-san!" She explained in a rush, small hands twisting nervously around each other in her lap. "Nakamura-san was saying how there are so many youkai working in Kyo now. Sen was just wondering why Kagome-chan couldn't have a youkai too, to help fight other youkai. Then you wouldn't get hurt all the time!"
Kagome smiled gently in return, reaching out to smooth down the child's unruly bangs to show she was not displeased. Nakamura-san was a travelling merchant whose family lands resided in her village. He would always regale them with tales of the cities he trades at. The children always loved his stories of the grand sights and the newest and latest trends bound to filter down to them at some point. Kagome wondered what these youkai helpers were all about. Maybe the cities were becoming much more progressive in their beliefs. She had always felt distinctly uncomfortable with the duality of the teachings she was once immersed in day and night. How youkai and humans were two sides of a coin, like oil and water never to mix. After all, the land under the kami was so wide and vast, why could there not be a compromise, another way?
The rustle of the door covering drew her attention. An old woman called out a soft greeting and stooped stiffly to duck inside the hut.
"Run along and play Sen. Kagome has to rest." The newcomer ushered the child outside with a good natured pat on the head.
"Child, come here." The voice was gentle and comforting, and it reminded Kagome of those nights when she was a small child woken by a nightmare. "Let me tend to you." Obediently, Kagome rearranged herself closer to the banked fire where the older woman was deftly rehydrating a few dry leaves in a small bowl.
No matter that Kagome was now a woman almost beyond marrying age; being addressed like that still brought a certain nostalgic warmth.
"Sen told you about Nakamura-san's return this mornng?" A gentle hand startled her as it moved to undo the makeshift bandage on her arm, and started cleaning it with a rag soaked in hot water.
"Yes she sure did. What is this about youkai helpers?" She hissed as the rag came in contact with raw flesh.
"That," The older woman sighed heavily. "Is an unfortunate development. The signs were there but I had hoped it would not be so."
Kagome's heart sank. She had hoped it would be some sort of peaceful coexistence even though her logic told her there had been no precedent in history. And it wasn't about to start now.
"So what? We're using reiki to enslave now? What about the Balance?" A clean piece of cloth was being wound around her arm. "Are we all just hypocrites?"
"Kagome!" She felt the bandage tighten uncomfortably as Hatsue admonished her before she could let loose her tirade that usually did not end with portraying their village miko in a good light.
Kagome bit her lip and didn't say any more. The argument wouldn't go anywhere, it always ended with Hatsue-obaa-san telling her that she must be careful in words and deeds alike. Silently, she watched the old woman finish binding her wound.
"Obaa-san, I'm going for a walk." As Hatsue turned towards the fire, Kagome stood up carefully, paying extra care to her injured ankle.
"Now child? With those wounds you should be resting."
"I know. I won't be long." She slipped under the doorframe, leaving the Hatsue's heavy sigh behind her.
She breathed in the fresh breeze that brought along the smells of sod and hints of salt, as they weren't too far off from the coast, making her way slowly to the elevated path surrounding the rice paddies. The village men were still hard at work in the late afternoon sun. She continued steadily along the dirt path, letting the wind clear her mind and ruffle her hair that was coming loose from the green tie that bounded it back.
She really ought to be nicer to Hatsue-obaa-san. From what she gathered from the villagers, a young woman gathering berries had found her alone and abandoned beside the dry well. Tucked into the swaddling cloth was a torn piece of parchment with her name. She was no more than a few moons old and they assumed her to be an illegitimate child of some noble, seeing as she was abandoned by someone who could write. The village healer, Hatsue, who had never married, had adopted her and raised her as her own.
Hatsue was a kind lady who cared for her as well as any mother would her child. And because she was the village healer, Kagome learned of the herbal lore and everything regarding remedies and injury treatment at a young age. Her childhood was peaceful and happy, although it never felt has if she belonged completely in that village. Mostly it had to do with her strange arrival the village. If the people knew the parents of the orphan, they'd treat the child nicer in respect for the dead at least, but no one knew hers. And imagination flies wild. Kagome was a very outspoken child when she was younger and it offended many of the adults. Even if she was right, they weren't going to be lectured by a kid. But her life was relatively pleasant, and she stayed under Hatsue's roof until she turned thirteen.
That spring, a miko passed by their village. At the time, all the villagers knew was that she was an esteemed miko who had a considerable amount of influence in the city. Hatsue was summoned to replenish the miko's medicines and Kagome had come along. After all was said and done, the miko chose Kagome and Noriko, the daughter of the wealthiest landowner in the village. They were to study under the miko's care, learning the art of magic and purification to help defend and guide the village. It turns out that Kaede-sama was the high priestess of Kyo and the surrounding domain, and she had became the pupil of a famous priestess.
Noriko and Kagome stayed in Kyo for five years and in the forests outside of the city, they practiced their spells and archery. But when their training came up, only one could be chosen to assume the position of village priestess back home. In all aspects, they were equally matched, both excelled in archery and magic. Foolishly, Kagome thought she had one up on Noriko, because it was she who stayed by Kaede's side the most, listening to her teachings about life and justice. But when the high-priestess announced her choice, it was not Kagome. She tried to bear it with grace, but eventually, on the night before they left for home, she asked Kaede for a reason as to why she was less suitable to be a priestess. The only answer she got was: "Child, it is as it should be. In spite of all my careful detachment, I still adore you too much."
She had never figured out what her teacher meant by that.
When the two girls returned to their village, Noriko was received with a big welcome, because everyone assumed she would be the perfect choice and indeed she was chosen. She was now the village priestess and possessed the right to wear the traditional robes of red and white. And Kagome became the 'shrine-maiden', a catch-all title for a girl who did everything that the priestess didn't want to do around the temple. Kagome wouldn't have minded so much if Noriko became a good priestess, who upheld all the values she was taught. Kagome only pretended to be ignorant of all the secret bribes she received. And the person who protected the village and destroyed the demons was she, not Noriko.
The only thing that plagued her most was a constant question of what she lacked; in strength, in character, in will? What made her not good enough? She didn't care for the title or the fame, but she wanted to know why.
Kagome sighed heavily, trying to dispel the same thoughts she'd been mulling in since her return to the village, it was a resentment she knew she needed to put to rest somehow. Thoughts like these never brought any good. Shielding her dark eyes from the setting sun, her gaze went to the fields below her, in the valley where the men were slowly trudging home to their wives. And behind them, odd creatures with bizarre coloured fur and sharp horns followed, with tethers made out of shining rope. A binding spell woven into normal cord. Youkai.
She felt her stomach drop at the sight. Sen's innocent words from earlier in the day suddenly made ominous sense. Noriko, if nothing, was a trend chaser. And a fast one at that.
It was nearly dark when she trudged wearily into the warm hut. A thick stew was cooking over the small fire. Sen was already asleep under a pile of blankets in her corner. Hatsue looked up as Kagome settled herself close to the fire and warmed her hands.
"Thought things through?" She inquired quietly, while ladling out a large portion into a bowl. "You must eat more tonight." Gesturing to her wounded body.
"Oh, it almost slipped my mind," She got up hastily and went digging on her shelf to produce a letter written on fine paper. "Nakamura-san passed by when you were gone. He said to give you this letter. Someone in Kyo asked him to bring it to you."
Kagome put down her bowl and reached for the letter. Flipping to the front of the unadorned envelope, she saw her name written in definite, refined strokes of a brush. It couldn't be. She tore it open and unfolded the parchment. It held only two lines and was not signed, but she knew for certain who it was. She had spent years diligently copying out formulas written in this script.
"What is it, child?" Hatsue asked her worriedly after seeing the surprise on her face.
"Obaa-san, Kaede-sama wants me to make a trip to the city."
Kagome forcefully expelled the air from her lungs and then inhaled again, but failed to keep her breath steady. The air moved in shakily once more as it weaved around her heightened nerves. Again, she tried to go back to a moving meditation as she focused on her steps, one foot in front of the other, her footfalls producing a rhythmic thud on the wooden planks of the bridge. What on earth was wrong with her? She was such a mess and was only becoming more unravelled as she got closer and closer to the city's outer border. Once she crossed the bridge fully, she would be in Kyo land. Provided it would still be half a day travel to the city proper; the farmland and forests claimed by the city was vast.
Many thoughts chased themselves around her head, amongst them was a replay of her farewell at the village. Hatsue-obaa-san had heavy brows when she saw Kagome off but no matter how hard she tried prying, the old woman insisted she was not worried. Kagome, on the other hand was. She could see all the different scenarios of youkai attacking the village without her there. Hatsue, had read her mind and reassured her that although Noriko did not like to sully her own hands, she did invariably possess reiki and the training to protect the village if need be.
Sighing, Kagome returned her thoughts to the present and to her rapidly approaching destination. Nakamura-san had parted with her at the last major intersection, his caravan of goods headed further north, leaving Kagome to make the rest of the trip on foot to Kyo. It was a long but pleasant journey. She'd always loved the land around here, mountainous and heavily forested. She had spent long years wandering and exploring in the rare time she had off from her studies. What bothered her is why Kaede-sama would send for her now, after no correspondence for years? And what made it so important that she had to be told in person without a hint in an unsigned letter? And to be perfectly honest, Kagome was a bit surprised. Why her and not Noriko? Although somewhat self-deprecating, the day her teacher deemed her unworthy to be the village miko, she had thought she had outlived her use. She was a humble village herbalist who happened to have some modest reiki at her disposal, what possible use would the head priestess of Kyo have for her now?
It was early afternoon when she passed the main gate of the city. She'd made good time thanks to her anxiety killing her appetite. Aside from a couple of short breaks to hydrate, she'd been walking non stop. Swallowing past the tightness in her chest, Kagome quickly navigated her way on the quickest route to Tenrinji, the main shrine of the city, set on one of the two crests the made up the hilly terrain of Kyo. The city had changed dramatically in her absence, so she was pleased she could still find her way.
The long flight of steps leading from the first torii was achingly familiar, the same stippled pattern of sunlight filtering through the grove of towering, solemn trees lining the path up to the shrine. It was largely deserted though, her only company the series of moss covered tōrō bordering the steps. The shrine was usually much busier in the afternoons, but perhaps it was market day.
Breathing slightly faster, Kagome shifted the weight of her travel pack on her shoulders as she arrived at the inner courtyard. Making her way to the temizuya, she carefully rinsed her hands and mouth in the practiced steps that always brought calm to her mind. Straightening, she spotted a young acolyte diligently sweeping under a nearby tree.
"Good afternoon, excuse me." Kagome greeted the young boy as she walked towards him. "I'm here for an attendance with Kaede-sama. She is expecting me."
The boy's eyes darted up to quickly assess her and Kagome fought the ridiculous urge to smooth down the wrinkles in her green hakama in response to the weird expression on the child's face. Before she could take a closer look though, the boy had adverted his eyes to the ground again.
"Please follow me." He whispered.
To be honest, Kagome knew the layout of the shrine like the back of her hand. It was once her old stomping grounds after all. So many hours crammed in the inner rooms learning the teachings, meditating, observing prayers. As the acolyte lead her along the engawa, further and further away from the main courts, she become a bit unsettled.
"Has the head-priestess court moved?" She inquired politely, hoping to come off as mindless small talk.
The boy gave her another strange glance but quickly avoided eye contact again.
"This way. Kaede-sama tends the archives."
Kagome felt her eyebrows raise incredulously but bit her tongue before she said anything stupid. The old archives were stores of scrolls and manuscripts usually meticulously maintained by the archivist. Why would the head-priestess need to do it herself?
They had stopped in front of a small wooden building, visibly older and less well maintained than the rest of the shrine. She bowed to the acolyte in front of the still closed shoji doors before he retreated back the way they came. Without paying formal greetings or even announcing her. What was going on?
Kagome removed her shoes and carefully drew back the entrance doors, trying to slide the screens open without making a racket. Inside, the room smelled musty with the scent of aged papers. Dust flecks drifted in the beams of sun streaming in from a far window.
"Um… hello?" Her voice cracked embarrassingly with nerves. "Kaede-sama?"
There was muffled shuffle in the room beyond the entrance area, and a soft tap of a brush being set down on the table. Kagome held her breath, but simultaneously annoyed at her anxiety about seeing her teacher again after years apart. Still, that day she said good bye and the desperate way she had begged for the reason she was not chosen was still fresh in her memory.
"Kagome. Child, come here." Her voice was calming and slow, and so familiar. The gentle eyes of her teacher, set in a face lined with age and the small smile.
Taking a few long strides, she reached the old woman who had emerged behind a screen. And, though perhaps not proper etiquette, she found herself wrapping her arms around Kaede's shoulders in heartfelt greeting.
"Kaede-sama!" Kagome's voice was muffled in the fabric of her teacher's robes.
"It is good to see you." Kaede smoothed her hand down the back of Kagome's head to pat her back gently. "I had no doubts you would understand my letter."
"Wait actually," She drew back with furrowed eyebrows. "I don't understand at all. I knew your script, so I knew I had to come but…"
The old priestess interrupted her ramble with a raised hand.
"I will explain. Let's have some tea shall we?"
She knew the measured sequence of the tea ceremony, the importance, the ritual behind it but man, can her teacher move any slower? Kagome was naturally an emotion driven girl and this moment was taking all she has to not demand answers outright, tea be damned. Maybe it was just as well that she wasn't a miko; she would've been rubbish at all the ceremonies. Kagome watched quietly as her teacher set each piece of delicate pottery in its accustomed place, wizened hands gliding through each step of the traditional ritual. Utimately, she couldn't help her fingers from fidgeting in her lap, as if she'd instantly reversed three years of her life, feeling very much the part of an inpatient pupil again rather than the grown woman she'd become.
"Firstly, you should know, I'm no longer head priestess." Kaede dropped that bit of news serenely, raising her cup of tea to her lips for her first sip.
"What— you what?!" Kagome on the other hand almost spilled all of hers, the vessel dropping back to the wooden table with a clunk, sloshing a bit of tea over the lip. "But how—"
"It was deemed that I was no longer suitable for the position."
That was preposterous! Head priestesses, once selected by the Kami were to serve up till the moment they return to the gods. That was the way it has always been. All of a sudden, Kagome's eyes sharpened on the duller, coarser weave of the fabric of Kaede's robes. Miko robes yes, but no longer the material that denoted a higher esteem.
"But Kaede-sama! No mortal can do that!" She exclaimed, getting more indignant by the minute and truthfully, kind of irritated at her teacher's apparent nonchalance.
"As it was," Her dark eyes rose up to meet Kagome's, serious and intent. "I returned back to the residence in the forest, surely you remember your home here? My intent was to focus on our medicine stores and of course, with the growing season coming, there are many herbs that may be amenable to cultivating. That way, we would be less dependent on our foraging fortunes. Alas, it has not been a moon before my services are once more required here at the shrine."
She waved her hand to gesture at the surrounding shelves of scrolls.
"And that is where you come in Kagome."
"I still don't understand, what is it you want me to do for you?" She sputtered, mind not catching up at all to the turn of events Kaede had just explained to her.
"The apothecary and the garden cannot be unattended. You of all people should know we need a trusted stockpile of medicines for a city this size."
"But, surely there are tenant farmers—"
"Farmers are not herbalists. Hatsue-san has trained you all your life."
"You sent for me after all this time to grow plants?!" She asked again, exasperated and frankly, a little disappointed.
"Kagome." Kaede cut her off, her voice quiet but stern. "Trust me."
Her wizened hands grasped her own tightly and Kagome looked again into her face. The expression Kaede now wore was uncharacteristically grave and held a hard urgency. And suddenly, there wasn't any argument to make. Her teacher's mind was set. Whatever it was, there wasn't going to be an explanation. At least not right now. And her teacher was more serious than she ever remembered her being. She would have to wait it out or try and find more clues.
Defeated, she bowed slightly.
A/N: There you have it! First chapter of a long conceived story that's been lurking about in the back of my head for the better part of a decade. As you will soon see, it is a personal challenge to write my version of a classic fanfiction trope. One I've always found equal parts guiltily fascinating and cringe-y. Feel free to guess as the story unfolds :)
I will need a little time setting up this AU but fear not, our beloved hanyou should make his appearance soon!
Also, this story will not follow strict Shinto traditions; the main religion in this world will be an adapted version to fit. Nor will it be historically accurate. My apologies.
As always, constructive criticism is much appreciated (I don't have a beta). I love knowing that people are actually reading my work! Traffic stats are just not the same.
Disclaimer: I do not own Inuyasha. However this plot, the exact sequence of words and any original characters described therein, I reserve all rights to.