The court meeting had been called to an immediate end after Kagome's assignment was given. Miroku had executed a hasty bow before grabbing her arm, nearly dragging her out of the building before any of the courtiers had even gotten to their feet. His expression was drawn tight with agitation.
Sango was waiting for the two outside, having managed to slip out in the midst of all the commotion. Kagome might have found it amusing how closely her expression matched Miroku’s if the both of them combined had not been so fearsome.
As soon as they were far away enough to not be overheard, Sango started in fiercely on her. Miroku aided her with small, sharp commentary here and there.
They pointed out every possible danger of the mission, every flaw in her logic for accepting, and detailed every possible scenario that might end in her gruesome and painful death. Kagome was certain that it was only their extensive training in manners that kept them from degenerating into yelling at her.
By the time the three reached the Tachibana residence they both seemed to have worn themselves out, their admonitions slowing to small comments every now and again. Kagome continued to nod contritely, quietly asking a passing servant to have tea sent to the main dining hall.
Once seated at the long table Miroku and Sango lapsed into stony silence. The tea arrived promptly, and Kagome waited until the two had had a few calming sips before venturing to speak.
"Sango-sama. Miroku-sama. I know you both are not very pleased with what I did-"
Sango snorted, interrupting her. Kagome blinked, astonished at the unladylike gesture.
"Of course we are not pleased," affirmed Miroku, not bothered in the least by Sango's slip in etiquette.
"Well, yes, you have both made that very clear," Kagome tried again. "But…is there any chance that you could bring yourselves to see why I did it?"
"You allowed the future Empress to rile you," Sango said.
"I did not-"
"The Tennō-sama had already decided that you could remain in the court," Miroku interrupted yet again.
"The Tennō-sama backed down as soon as the future Empress began to disagree," Kagome argued, growing slightly irritated. "If I had not done anything she would have sent me home and the Tennō-sama would not have done anything about it. Everything the both of you have done for me would have been meaningless then!"
"It will be far more meaningless if you die!" Sango snapped, slapping her palm down on the table. The teacups rattled. Kagome flinched.
"Now, now. We are all feeling a bit frustrated. Let's try to calm down and speak rationally," Miroku said wearily, pressing a hand to his temple.
Sango frowned at him, but nodded reluctantly. Kagome gazed at him expectantly, hoping he might be able to reason Sango out of her ill humor.
"Alright, then," he continued. "Kagome-chan, I think I can reasonably speak for both myself and Sango-sama when I say that we are feeling more than a little helpless. Now that you have agreed to this mission there is nothing we can do for you, you see.”
“You have given your word to the future Empress before the entire court. There is no way to revoke that without serious consequences. Thus there are only three ways in which all of this can end. You will be victorious and return for training, you will fail and be sent home, or you will…perish."
Sango nodded in grimly in agreement.
"As much as we might want to help, you took it out of our hands, Kagome-chan."
Kagome frowned, her gaze dropping to the mug of tea clasped in her hands.
"I am sorry. I did not mean to distress either of you. But…well, with all due respect, Miroku-sama, why did you bring me here if you did not believe I was capable of doing something like this?" she said softly.
"It's not that I do not believe you capable, Kagome-chan," Miroku sighed, shaking his head. "But I wanted you to have training and…well, I thought things would turn out much differently."
"So you don't believe that there is any chance that I will succeed?" Kagome asked, her heart sinking a little.
"Kagome-chan…" Miroku relented, seeing the crestfallen look on the her face.
"We want to go with you."
Kagome and Miroku turned to look at Sango, wearing matching expressions of surprise.
"But the future Empress said I had to do this alone," Kagome said.
"The future Empress said that you had to take out the nest of youkai alone," Sango pointed out. "So Houshi-sama and I will merely accompany you on the journey. We will only interfere in the extermination if it looks like it will cost you your life. Just so long as you are alive, nothing else matters."
"Sango-sama," was all Kagome could manage, touched.
"The gracious Sango-sama is right," Miroku agreed, throwing the noblewoman an approving glance under which she flushed faintly pink. "As long as you still have your life, we will be able to work something out."
Kagome was quiet. She considered arguing with them. It would be asking far too much for them to take such pains on her behalf, and a close association between the three of them might hurt them in the eyes of the other courtiers. Both, however, looked firm in their resolve.
"Alright, then. Thank you both so very, very much," Kagome said, smiling softly. "Just know that I intend to win, no matter what."
Both of them smiled in return.
"Of course, Kagome-chan."
Once the three of them had reached an understanding, Miroku and Sango wasted no time in getting to work. Together they managed to set up a series of tests to determine the strengths and weaknesses in Kagome’s spiritual abilities.
Of course they could not teach her anything new, as the future Empress had dictated that she must go in with only her current knowledge. That, however, did not prevent them from helping her to refine what skills she did have.
She found it amusing how well Sango and Miroku managed to work together when they were not at odds with one another. She was grateful their efforts, as well, considering that she had had no plan whatsoever behind her acceptance of the future Empress's challenge. Truthfully she had allowed herself to be provoked in some ways.
But Kagome also knew that this challenge might be the only way that the courtiers would ever begin to accept her. She had seen how firmly set against her most of them were, even when the Tennō himself had approved of her staying.
If she could accomplish such a feat as this, though, it would force them to at least allow her to live in relative peace in their midst. Or so Kagome hoped, anyway.
Through the tests they managed to find that her strengths were in her ability to heal and skill with the bow. Unfortunately her healing skills would be useless in this task, as Kagome was incapable of healing her own woulds.
The bow and arrows, however, were an advantage. They allowed her to do damage from a distance, keeping her out of the range of physical blows.
Unfortunately there was also quite a downside to archery. The amount of spiritual energy she could pack into a single arrows was severely limited, and after taking down a few youkai she would surely be discovered by the others and mobbed. Kagome alone would be unable to fire off enough arrows to defend against such a multi-pronged attack.
If she could create a barrier for protection while firing the problem would be solved. Sadly Kagome was horrendous when it came to erecting barriers. The barrier that had saved her village had been made of her power, but had essentially been formed by Kaede. Thus the barrier strategy was a moot point.
The three had seemed to reach an impasse for a time after coming to these conclusions. Healing was useless, an attack with arrows alone was improbable at best, and Kagome could not be taught how to create a barrier strong enough to keep youkai out. Two days passed in a stagnant, frustrating manner.
Sango saved them all with a small epiphany.
She caught Kagome in the garden near the koi pond one day, meditating in order to keep from drowning in her anxieties. It took Sango a great deal of searching, walking past the koi pond repeatedly, before she was actually able to spot Kagome who had been sitting there all along in such relaxed state that she had been unnoticeable.
They had never bothered to test Kagome in her meditation skills as none of them had figured them relevant, but quite the opposite proved to be true.
Sango suggested after her discovery that Kagome try an ambush. It would require her getting dangerously close to the heart of the nest, but if she could manage to fire off a few arrows and then quickly slip into a meditative state it might work. It would probably call for a few repetitions of the process and unfailing nerves, but it was not impossible.
For the remaining four days she had before she had to set out, Kagome put every ounce of energy she had into practicing both her meditation and her aim with the bow.
Miroku set up a series of archery targets in Sango's garden, even going so far as to play moving target himself a few times.
Sango did her part by making meditation as difficult as possible for Kagome, tossing her Hiraikotsu near the miko and making a general clamor while the younger girl attempted to concentrate.
Slowly and painstakingly Kagome learned to tune out all distractions and simply slip into non-being.
A few times at night Kagome found herself drawn again to the aura of the Goshinboku. Weary from training but too anxious to sleep, she would creep out and lay in the roots of the tree to draw on its comforting energy. Vaguely she realized that some part of her was hoping for the coarse man to appear again. He never did.
Once, though, just as Kagome was beginning to slip into unconsciousness in the cradle of the twisting roots, she could have sworn she sensed some sort of odd aura hovering above her in the high branches. With a jolt she had jumped up, scanning the dark. A severely sleep deprived mind had her imagining she saw a flash of gold and red, but she could find nothing there upon closer inspection.
The morning of the day before departure found Kagome and Sango packing. It proved to be a bit more difficult than either had anticipated.
Sango, despite being a profoundly sensible woman in many respects, was still a courtier and used to traveling in some style. It took no small amount of persuading on Kagome's part to convince the older woman that three full trunks was most certainly not packing light.
Miroku walked in on them in the midst of this, some sort of scroll in hand. He was frowning, looking vaguely perplexed.
"Is something the matter, Houshi-sama?" asked Sango, putting down the set of hair combs that she had been trying to convince Kagome was essential to their trip.
"Not wrong, I suppose. Just…suspicious," Miroku answered, holding up the scroll.
Sango took it from him and unrolled it. Kagome came to stand behind her, reading over her shoulder.
"What is it?" Kagome asked after a moment of scanning the paper.
She could make out parts of it, but the majority was worded with such stiff formality that it was almost incomprehensible to her.
"The Tennō-sama has decreed that his Majesty will be sending guards to accompany us on the trip," said Sango, frowning as she read through the document a second time.
"Three guards," added Miroku. "Though not for the purpose of aiding us in any way. Rather they are going to monitor us to make certain that everything is done correctly."
"Is that odd?" asked Kagome, not seeing anything terribly strange about it.
"It is unusual that the Tennō-sama would dispatch imperial troops on a mission that is neither official nor a matter of state," Sango explained. "The Tennō-sama could just have Fujiwara troops watch over us if his Majesty is so concerned with us doing things correctly."
"Fujiwara troops?" Kagome echoed.
"Ah, I think we forget that you are unfamiliar with the workings of the court. You have been acclimating yourself to the life and manners quite beautifully, Kagome-chan," Miroku said. Kagome smiled her thanks and waited for him to continue.
"Fujiwara is the clan that the future Empress Kikyou-sama belongs to. They once dominated court life entirely, though their power has…diminished in recent years. But as almost all clans do, they keep their own troops on their lands in case battle is ever necessary. And Sango-sama is quite right, it would be much more sensible for the Tennō-sama to employ them in our guardianship."
"So one can only surmise that his Majesty has taken some sort of special interest in Kagome-chan's situation," Sango said thoughtfully.
They all considered this, drawing out the implications. Kagome was slightly worried, wondering if this kind of attention was something she should want.
Slowly she and Sango resumed packing, the taiji-ya much less argumentative. Miroku helped for a while, making occasional remarks on Sango's many virtues, before he drifted off to make preparations of his own.
The remainder of the day passed in a relatively uneventful manner, but Kagome's sleep that night was a restless one filled with tossing and turning. She had vague dreams of blood and wolves and human birds. A sense of disquiet began to grow in Kagome that would follow her all the next day.
The three were dressed and ready to set out with the rising of the sun the following morning, all of them anxious to be off.
They met up at the eastern entrance of the Suzakumon gate. Miroku ordered a guard there to have three horses readied and saddled with their bags.
"Where are the guards that the Tennō-sama is sending?" asked Kagome as they waited for the guard to return with their horses. There was no one else to be seen besides a few other gate guards.
"I was instructed to simply wait here until they arrive," Miroku replied.
"They did not specify a time?" asked Sango, adjusting a few of the armored plates on her sleek, black taiji-ya uniform. She had opted to wear it rather than a juni-hito, as the rich silks of that luxurious garment seldom proved comfortable on long rides.
Miroku shook his head in the negative. Sango huffed out a small sigh.
"That's troublesome. Hopefully they will not take too long. I want to be off as soon as possible."
Silently Kagome agreed with her friend. Her nerves were fluttering in her stomach like the wings of a small bird.
Shortly the guard arrived with three large, brown horses, each saddled with a few bags. Kagome went over to hers, a big gentle mare, and began to pet it, cooing to it in the silly voice that people tend to lapse in to when speaking to animals.
She fed it the last few pieces of apple left over from her breakfast, wrapped in a little cloth and tucked into the front of her robes. As it chomped them down she continued to talk to it, mostly to distract herself, asking the horse to be careful with her as she was still inexperienced in riding on her own.
Time dragged on slowly as they waited for the guards to arrive, Miroku joining Kagome with the horses as Sango paced about in her agitation. Eventually the three caught the sounds of hooves clattering on the stone walkway, the noise drifting towards them on the chill morning breeze. Three large black horses and their riders came slowly into view.
Miroku and Sango both executed deep bows, Kagome following their example quickly. As they straightened up, the three guards dismounted. Kagome had to bite back an exclamation.
Two of the guards were human and largely unremarkable to her, but the third’s features were strikingly familiar. She stared at him, examining the man from head to toe. But 'man' was not wholly accurate.
The general shape of his features was hard-edged and very similar to the coarse man she had met beneath the Goshinboku, but Kagome was certain that he had been human.
The being before her was most definitely not. Gold slit-pupiled eyes, long silver hair, elongated claws on both hands and bare feet, and a pair of triangular dog ears atop his head set him drastically apart from any human.
Kagome could have pegged him as a youkai with her eyes closed. His aura positively reeked of youki. But something was slightly off about it, though she could not pinpoint what it was.
All of the similarities between the man in front of her and the man beneath the Goshinboku left her to wonder if the two were related somehow. But a human and a youkai related? Was it possible? Kagome thought it would definitely be too forward of her to voice any of this, so she kept quiet.
"Good morning! You are the guards that the Tennō-sama instructed to accompany us?" Miroku said.
The youkai, seemingly the head guard, grunted an assent.
"Well, it is a pleasure to meet all of you. I am Shingon Miroku, a houshi-"
"We-I... I already know who you are, houshi. No need to go through all that introduction crap. Let's just get going," the youkai cut him off roughly.
Kagome was astonished. He spoke just like the coarse man, too.
Miroku looked mildly affronted for a moment, but covered it over with an easy grin.
"Ah, how silly of me. Of course the Tennō-sama would have explained the situation to you. However, his Majesty neglected to inform us of your names."
"Ah. Yeah. I’m...Genji," the youkai said shortly, by way of introduction.
"Genji-sama?" Sango echoed incredulously, obviously fishing for a clan surname.
"Genji is fine," the youkai rebuffed her.
"Zetsubode Hidetaka," said the taller of the two human guards, giving his own name and breaking the awkward silence that followed Genji’s words.
"Uragiri Hideyoshi," offered the other guard.
Sango and Miroku bowed again, but the slight degree of their bow told Kagome that the clans of the guards were minor ones. She mirrored their actions.
"Let's get going already," groused the youkai, moving to mount his horse.
A slight, steady clacking had them all turning to look back down the stone path. Astonishingly it was the future Empress gliding swiftly down the path, her wooden geta causing the noise beneath the hem of her deep red juni-hito. Her face was impassive as ever, but Kagome could sense a certain agitation about her.
"I am afraid that I have thought it over, and I cannot condone such foolhardy and nonsensical conduct, my Lor-" Kikyou began upon reaching the group. Oddly enough, she seemed to be addressing Genji.
"Whether you approve it or not, Fujiwara-sama, this is what the Tennō-sama decreed," Genji cut her off firmly, his expression warning.
Kikyou looked vaguely puzzled for a moment, but seemed to comprehend something as she looked from Miroku to Sango to Kagome. Still she persisted in arguing.
"Even so, I believe leaving the capital like this to be a terrible mistake. There is no reason for you to accompany them. Rather you are needed here to keep order-"
"No more, Fujiwara-sama. The Tennō-sama has taken care of everything. We- I'm going," Genji declared, mounting up. The other two guards followed his lead.
Kagome, Sango, and Miroku remained standing, looking uncertainly at the future Empress as she clutched the trailing fabric of her own sleeves.
"Mount up. We're leaving," ordered Genji, looking purposefully away from Kikyou.
Slowly the three did as commanded, Kagome receiving a help from the Miroku. The guards pulled open the large wooden gates.
"As you will. I will do my duty as future Empress and keep order myself," Kikyou declared. She spun around and headed purposefully back down the path, casting only one lingering glance back at Genji.
"Move out," ordered the youkai, kneeing his horse into a trot after glancing quickly back at Kikyou's retreating form.
He shook his head a bit as if to clear it, and his gaze slid over to consider Kagome as she adjusted herself in her saddle behind him. Kagome's eyes turned up to meet his own by chance, and the youkai turned hastily away.
The rest of the group also spurred their horses into motion. They rode out of the gate and on for a silent stretch of time.
Questions buzzed silently around Sango, Miroku, and Kagome. The other two guards somehow seemed to understand what had gone on between Genji and the future Empress. Every now and again the three cast questioning looks at one another, but Miroku was the first to work up the nerve to ask.
He pulled his horse up beside Genji’s, offering him a small smile. The youkai did not spare him so much as a glance. Miroku cleared his throat, but still Genji ignored him.
"Ah, Genji-sama?" Miroku ventured.
"What?" Genji responded flatly.
"May I inquire as to the relation between yourself and the future Empress?" Miroku said.
"No, you can't inquire. It's none of your business. All you have to worry about is riding until I say we can stop for the night," Genji snapped.
"Ah…alright, then," Miroku submitted, falling back to ride between Kagome and Sango. The three exchanged a look, but no one dared push any furrther. They were left with only their suspicions and guesses.
The rest of the ride that day passed slowly and without event. Miroku, Sango, and Kagome chatted amongst themselves, reviewing the plan for when they arrived at the youkai nest. The two human guards joined in the conversation a few times, giving their own input. Genji, on the other hand, rode ahead of the group the entire time, avoiding talking to anyone.
At sunset the youkai picked out a small clearing in the forest they were riding through, ordering them to stop there for the night. He informed them that it would probably take another day and a half or so to reach Fujiwara lands.
Sango, Miroku and the two human guards went to work setting up camp. Kagome volunteered to go collect fire wood, slinging her bow and arrows over one shoulder before venturing deeper into the woods.
She was glad to be on her own for a while, clearing her mind and then refilling it with the hum of the nature all around her. She wandered aimlessly, picking up fallen branches here and there. She shivered as a cool wind kicked up, her teeth chattering slightly. Winter was upon them now and the temperature was sinking with the sun.
Kagome was stopped by the sound of splashing. She could sense a river running through the forest, but the noise seemed too loud to be just the trickle of water over rocks. Kagome cautiously wove her way through the trees towards the source.
It was Genji there, sashinuki and karaginu rolled up as he waded around in the river water. A small pile of fish sat on the bank behind him and as she approached his hand jabbed sharply into the flowing water. When he pulled it back out there was a fish speared on the end of his elongated claws.
Kagome hesitated, wondering if she should interrupt. Goodness knew she would probably only get snapped at if she did announce her presence. She turned to walk away. A twig snapped loudly beneath her foot and she froze.
The youkai whipped around, golden eyes scanning the surrounding trees.
Guiltily Kagome crept forward.
"Oh. You," Genji said flatly, his expression relaxing back into the scowl he had worn all day.
He stared expectantly at her. Kagome fidgeted.
"So what the in the seven hells are you doing out here?" Genji snapped at length, impatient.
"Ah…" Kagome said, holding up the bundle of sticks in her arms. "I was just collecting fire wood. I did not mean to interrupt you. I will go back to camp now. "
Kagome bowed hastily and turned to leave, flustered. But darkness had fallen in earnest now and she hesitated, unsure of which way she had come from.
Kagome turned back, both slightly irritated at the address and struck once again by how similar he was to the coarse man beneath the Goshinboku.
"Yes, Genji-sama?" she managed with strained politeness.
He returned his focus to fishing, not bothering to face her as he said, "You don't look too bright to me, so I'd suggest you just wait till I'm done. Then you can follow me back to the camp so you don't get yourself lost and eaten by some wild animal."
Kagome felt a slight tick develop above her left eye at the casual insult.
"No, thank you, Genji-sama. I can find my way back just fine all on my own." Kagome sounded considerably less polite this time.
She turned again to leave, ready to storm off in a huff. The surrounding trees were all blanketed in a thick darkness. She could barely see in front of her.
Kagome glanced between the dark, looming woods and Genji, wondering which was the lesser of the two evils. With a sigh she decided that a little embarrassment and degradation was preferable to death at the fangs of some nocturnal beast.
She sat down quietly on the bank, not saying a word. Genji glanced at her from the corner of his eye, smirking. Kagome scowled at his back.
"Guess you're not as dumb as I thought."
"I suppose not," Kagome bit out.
He speared two fish simultaneously, tossing them back onto the bank amongst the small pile he had already caught.
There was some splashing as he sloshed out of the river and onto the bank. He shook himself like a dog, water droplets flying everywhere.
"Hey!" squeaked Kagome as a few droplets splashed onto her face.
He ignored her, unrolling his sashinuki and karaginu.
"You could apologize," Kagome muttered under her breath.
"I could do alotta things," Genji returned.
Kagome glanced at him, surprised. Those ears were not just for show.
He gathered up the fish that he had caught, bundling them up into the cloth he had laid out beneath them and starting off into the woods without a word. Kagome scowled and jumped up with her bundle of sticks, rushing after him into the dark.
Silence stretched thickly between the two. Kagome soon grew uncomfortable, though he seemed unaffected. He barely even seemed to be aware of her presence.
"You can see where we are going in the dark like this?" Kagome said, to fill the silence.
A grunt was her answer. She took it as a yes.
"That must be useful."
Genji shot her a sideways glance.
"If you're just yapping to hear the sound of your own voice, feel free to shut up."
Kagome only just barely managed to keep herself from dropping her bundle of sticks to hit the man. Her hands flexed almost spasmodically. In the end, no matter how crude, he was a nobleman of some great status. He did not strike her as the type to be forgiving if she stepped out of her place.
"Then how about I ask a question that I actually need an answer to?" Kagome offered sharply.
"Just because you ask doesn't mean I have to answer."
"I know," Kagome said, taking that as permission of a sort. "So you can answer me or not when I ask why exactly the Tennō-sama thought it necessary to send his Majesty's own guards along on this mission."
Genji froze in his tracks, turning to face her fully for the first time. His golden eyes were bright in the darkness as he stared hard at her, searching her face for something. Kagome stared back, uncertain. At length he turned away.
"The Tennō-sama…didn't feel the need to explain to us," Genji said slowly.
Kagome was hardly satisfied with the answer, but saw no point in pursuing it further. They resumed their walk.
"So what in the seven levels of hell made you agree to do this?"
Kagome jumped a bit, surprised at the sound of his voice. She had not expected him to make anything vaguely resembling an attempt at conversation. He certainly did not look very interested in her answer. That, however, might just have been his face. It seemed to be stuck that way.
"The mission, you mean?"
"I did not want to be thrown out of the court before I even got a chance, I suppose," Kagome replied thoughtfully.
"And if you die? Is some fancy life in court with nice clothes and food really worth your life?"
"I do not particularly want to be in court to have a 'fancy life' or anything," Kagome answered, considering this. "I mean, it will be nice to live without having to worry about surviving. But really…there are going to be so many things that I will be able to do if I can be trained in the court. I can help people like the ones in my village. I can finally do something other than feel bad about all the things that I could not do."
"...that’s your reason for coming to court?" he said, disbelief clear in his face as he eyed her.
"Is that so strange?" Kagome said defensively.
"Yeah. It's really strange," he said, though without any real edge to the words. Rather his expression had grown thoughtful, his eyes shuttering as he turned them back to the path before them.
"I suppose I will have to beg your pardon then, Genji-sama," Kagome huffed, nettled by this casual dismissal.
"Nothing for me to pardon," he said. He glanced at her, shaking his head.
Kagome frowned, deciding that perhaps it would be best to simply ignore him from here on out.
They reached the camp and Genji stopped short on the fringe of it. Kagome looked at him for a moment before moving to walk past.
Kagome turned back to him.
"Pick your fish."
He held out the bundle to her.
Kagome blinked at him, feeling that this might be some odd peace offering. He looked less surly, anyway.
She picked a fish.
They all ate before going to sleep. Kagome noticed when Genji crept out beyond the fringe of the camp to sleep. He seemed to prefer being away from the group as much as possible. She wondered at the odd tendency.
Kagome awoke in the middle of the night, finding she needed to relieve herself. She extricated herself from her futon near the fire, careful not to rouse Sango where she slept nearby.
She crept lightly around the edge of the camp, looking for a large bush or some other sort of covering that might offer privacy. She found one and promptly froze.
There were voices coming from the other side.
Kagome crouched down and listened carefully. A few moments of listening told her it was the two human guards. But what were they doing up at that hour?
"So we're agreed, then?" whispered one guard. "We'll do it when we reach the Fujiwara lands?"
"Yeah," replied the other guard. "Then it can be dismissed as the Fujiwara stirring up trouble. They're in a position to do it, and they certainly have motive. It'll be perfect."
"It has to be done," said the other guard. "I mean, a hanyou? It's ridiculous. It can't be tolerated."
"Yeah," agreed the other guard.
The two fell silent for a stretch. Kagome took the opportunity to creep away unnoticed. She went and tended to her business in the woods before returning to her futon.
She lay awake for a time, wondering what the guards had been talking about. It had sounded suspicious at the very least.
She wondered if she should inform Sango and Miroku of what she had overheard. Quick on the heels of that thought was the question of whether or not Genji was involved in the seeming plot. He had been sent with the two, after all.
Kagome decided it would be best to say nothing until she understood more. There was no need to cast unnecessary doubt on Genji if he were not involved. She did not know for certain that what the guards were doing was bad, either. She resolved to watch over the two on her own for a while.
The group rose early the next morning and ate before cleaning up the camp. They mounted up and continued their journey east.
That day's ride was unremarkable, with only an occasional attempt at groping from Miroku toward Sango and a few barked orders from Genji.
Kagome spent the day watching the two human guards, though with little in the way of answers or results. The only thing she really learned was that Genji generally avoided too much involvement with the two humans, though they seemed keep a rather keen eye on him.
At night they settled in a forest clearing again for the night. Genji went off to fish and Kagome followed after him, not quite certain of her own motive.
Surprisingly he tolerated her presence on the bank as he fished. He did not speak to her or do anything to overtly acknowledge her presence, but he did not order her to go away, either.
They ate, slept, and set out again the next morning for the final leg of their journey. In the late afternoon Genji informed them that they were only a short ways away. He told Kagome that they could either continue straight on to the nest or stop for a time at the Fujiwara residence to rest.
Kagome opted to head straight for the nest. She did not feel entirely prepared, but more than anything she wanted to get it all over with.
They rode on towards the nest.
As they drew closer to the nest Kagome began to feel faintly ill. The aura of the youkai was large and filled with a good amount of malice. The sheer force of it told Kagome that the number of youkai in the nest might be somewhere up in the fifties. She shuddered slightly.
"You sure you wanna do this? Whatever your intentions might be, this is all still looking pretty idiotic to me."
Kagome jumped, torn abruptly from her darker thoughts. She had not noticed Genji dropping back to ride beside her.
"I…I'm not backing down," Kagome said with more certainty than she felt.
"You're scared shitless," said Genji bluntly.
Kagome frowned at him.
"I am scared. But that doesn't have to stop me. Sometimes you just have to be scared and do it anyway, right?"
Genji took a long look at her, seeming to consider this. He shook his head.
"Maybe I am," Kagome murmured, more to herself than to him.
"If you…if you need any help or if you get in trouble…"
He trailed off, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Kagome smiled faintly.
"I know. All I have to do is call and Miroku-sama and Sango-sama will come to help me."
Genji shot her an incredulous look.
"By the kami, you really are an idiot," he snapped, spurring his horse to ride ahead of her again.
"We are here," called Miroku from the front of the group.
Kagome nudged her horse up to where he, Sango, and the two human guards had stopped. Genji was apart from the group and off to the side, fuming over something or other.
"This is the edge of their territory," Miroku clarified. "Their aura solidifies and permeates this area. My guess is that the nest is somewhere up in the cliff side there."
Miroku pointed to a relatively small, sharply sheared cliff face looming a short way off in the distance.
"I guess that's where I am headed, then," Kagome said, nudging her horse forward.
"Kagome-chan, wait. We need to-" Sango said, reaching out a hand as if to restrain her.
"It's best that you all stay here," Kagome called back, kneeing her horse into quick trot. "If I get in trouble I'll head straight back here for help."
"Kagome-chan, I do not believe that to be wise. What if-" Miroku tried to argue.
"Please just stay here, all of you," Kagome called back, cutting him off. "If you're with me I'm afraid you'll be too tempted to jump in unnecessarily. Don't worry, I'll be fine. Just…believe in me a little bit!"
"I'll be back in a little while! Wait there for me!"
Kagome spurred her horse into a gallop, ignoring their calls. Thankfully they seemed to reluctantly respect her wishes, as no one came after her. She secured the quiver and bow on her shoulder as she rode, comforted by their weight on her back.
After galloping for a distance, Kagome stopped her horse in a thick clump of trees. She dismounted, taking the horse's reins and looping them loosely around a tree trunk.
In the cover of the trees the horse would not become a target for the youkai and could run if anything happened to come after it. She cooed to it for a few moments, thanking it for taking her all that way and assuring it she would definitely be back.
Ever so slowly and cautiously, Kagome crept around the edges of the trees. She was careful to keep just inside the shadows. She was very near to the cliff now.
She edged her way along the cliff face, looking for a path to climb up and taking great pains to remain calm enough to suppress her aura. She found a precarious little ledge trail and began her climb.
Kagome had to cling to the cliff side to keep her balance on the narrow ledge, grasping at whatever protruding stones she could get her hands on. The climb was slow and tedious, but she was very careful to quiet her nerves enough to keep from being detected.
Finally Kagome found what she had been hoping for. It was a small ledge, just big enough for Kagome to sit down on. Below it she could see a large, dark opening that, judging from the feel of its aura, led into the youkai nest.
Kagome sat down on the ledge, resting her back against the cliff face and bringing her quiver of arrows into her lap for easier access. Notching one arrow, she slipped into the deepest meditative peace that she could manage, pulling the solid essence of the cliff face in through her back as she rested against it.
Her eyes remained open, watching and waiting. It was high noon and Kagome had not yet seen any of the youkai emerge. Most likely they had gone out to hunt for food. It was only a matter of time until they returned.
Her guess proved to be more than accurate. In a matter of several moments the air all around her was filled with horrendous shrieking, some garbled cross between a human scream and a hawk's cry. Round, winged bodies were swooping down out of the sky towards the nest entrance.
Kagome managed to keep her composure despite the horrible noise. Sango had made more noise when throwing Hiraikotsu, so Kagome could manage it. What she saw as the youkai drew closer, however, nearly unnerved her entirely.
The youkai were large, with spherical feathered bodies like those of some grotesquely bloated bird. Wings and taloned feet connected to this body, as well as a semblance of a human torso that protruded from atop it. The human face was monstrously distorted. But such an appearance was no more than she had expected.
What Kagome had not counted on were the meals they carried back with them from hunting. Mangled human corpses hung from their claws, intestines spilling forth and heads missing where they had been torn from shoulders. A few of the corpses seemed to be of other youkai, as well. Some kind of wolf youkai, if Kagome were to guess.
Kagome nearly lost her focus at the sight of such gore. For a moment panic spiked within her. A few of the bird youkai turned to her abruptly, spotting her for the first time. She drew a deep breath and slowed her heart forcefully, slipping back into a state of non-being.
The youkai that had spotted her now swerved in confusion at her sudden disappearance. The whole flock had arrived, numbering somewhere in the fifties at her best estimate. The group swooped and whirled about the entrance, disoriented by the confusion of their fellows.
Kagome saw her chance clearly. There were several birds lined up in her range just beneath her. It would have to be quick, but she could do it.
Kagome slipped out of meditation and the birds all turned to her immediately, shrieking. She aimed and paused for an agonizingly long moment, imbuing the arrow with her power. She fired.
Four of the youkai disintegrated, caught in the direct line of fire. Three more wailed loudly and began to drop, burned by the purification light. The rest of the horde halted for a moment, dipping and whirling wildly in their agitation and surprise.
Kagome cursed mentally. She had hoped to take down at least ten of the birds with that shot. She had not packed enough energy into her arrow in her haste to fire.
Time was of the essence and she leaned back against the cliff, imposing blankness on her mind. The youkai began to regroup.
Once again the birds had lost all traces of her, but now that they had seen her clearly they began to swarm around Kagome's perch on the ledge. A few even came close enough for their breath to fan over her skin, reeking of blood and human flesh. Only just barely did she manage to tamp down her gag reflex.
More than making her uncomfortable, however, the birds' closeness prevented her from being able to line up a good shot. The arrow would have maximum impact at such a close range, but would limit her to targeting at most two birds. The rest would be upon her so fast that she would not have time to scream.
Ever so slowly Kagome got to her feet, careful no to accidentally touch any of the youkai. They may not be able to see, sense, or smell her, but they would certainly be able feel her if she bumped them.
She edged her way along the cliff face, absorbing the cliff's steadiness through her flattened palms. Keeping a sharp eye on the flock, she made certain that none of them made any moves to follow. Slowly she managed to climb to a slightly higher, even smaller ledge.
Kagome barely had room to stand on the ledge and was concerned that it might give beneath her weight, but she could see no alternatives nearby. Besides that it was an excellent position from which to shoot down at least seven more of the youkai, still swarming around the ledge she had originally been on.
Kagome found a precarious balance, notching another arrow. She took a few moments to line up a perfect shot. Taking a deep breath, she dropped her guard and fired. The twang of the bow string was loud in her ears.
Thirteen youkai disintegrated in a flash of blue. Four more shrieked and fell. The rest of the flock erupted into a chaotic mess, shrieking and diving. Kagome gave a little jump of joy at her success.
A jump of joy that sent the fragile ledge beneath her crumbling.
Kagome screamed as she went tumbling down the cliff face, scraping against rocks and protruding edges on the way. She scrabbled wildly for a purchase amongst the rocks to halt her descent to the distant ground. Her hands bled with the effort, but she could not manage to get hold of anything solid as she rolled and twisted helplessly downward.
Two large, taloned feet saved her, but Kagome's relief was fleeting. The largest of the birds had her in its clutches.
Sore and bleeding, Kagome struggled desperately against the hold. She knew she would rather fall to her death than face whatever the bird youkai might do to her. But both her arms and legs were pinned tightly and all of her flailing was to no avail.
The bird flew through the midst of the group, squawking and showing off its prize. Kagome's heart began to hammer when as it glided down through the dark entrance to the nest. She knew very well how slim her chances of ever emerging from the lair again were.
The large bird tossed Kagome roughly down and she rolled like a rag doll, stopping only when she hit a wall. Quickly she scrambled to her feet, backing herself into a tight corner and summoning up every last bit of spiritual energy she had.
The large bird crowed its triumph loudly, the rest of the flock alighting behind him in the nest.
"Stupid little human," it sneered. "You really think that there is any chance of escape now? We will make you pay for what you did to our kinsmen."
"They deserved it for devouring all of those poor people," Kagome said, muscles tensing and hands glowing as they began to approach.
There was no question in her mind as to whether or not she could beat them and escape. She simply did not have enough spiritual training to take out so many alone.
That did not mean, however, that she was simply going to lie down and die. She thought of Souta and Mama and Jii-chan and Sango and Miroku and even Genji.
If she went out, she went out fighting.
The first bird reached her, talons arching down to slash at her. Kagome just barely managed to dodge, thrusting her glowing palm up against the bird's gut while it was still off balance. It shrieked and stumbled back against its fellows, a dark palm print burned into its stomach.
A second set of talons raked across the Kagome’s left shoulder, tearing robe and flesh. Kagome screamed and struck out blindly with another glowing fist. Somehow it made contact and the bird ducked back.
Kagome backed further into the tight corner, clutching at her bleeding shoulder. Her left arm had lost all sensation, so despite having managed to hold on to her weapons during her fall down the cliff face it seemed unlikely that she would be able to use them. She was shaking all over, tired already from the effort of summoning up her powers directly without the use of a chant or medium.
Desperately Kagome wished for her friends. They had insisted upon coming with her to prevent this exact scenario, and she had been foolish enough to force them to stay behind. Inwardly she cursed herself.
She looked up just in time to see the largest bird's talons descending upon her head. She closed her eyes in anticipation of the death blow, her mind flashing briefly to an image of the sakura trees behind Sango's residence with Sango, Miroku, Mama, Souta, and Jii-chan all sitting beneath them in the bright light of spring.
The moments stretched on and Kagome felt no pain. She cracked one eye open. Her small sliver of vision was filled with jet black and fuzzy brown. Kagome opened her eyes fully.
There was a man-no, most definitely not a 'man'. He was a youkai for certain, as his aura proudly announced to anyone capable of reading it. Dressed in an assortment of furs and dark armor plates with long, pitch black hair tied in up in a high tail, the man was broad backed and lean muscled as he held back the large bird's talons. Vaguely Kagome noticed a brown tail and connected him to the wolf youkai she had seen dangling from the claws of the birds earlier.
"Oi, woman," the youkai in front of her called, casting a glance at her over his shoulder. His face was hard-edged, his eyes the blue of a river covered in frost.
"Yes?" Kagome managed, dazed at his sudden appearance. Where had he even come from? How had he gotten in front of her so quickly?
"You're the one that piled up those nasty bird carcasses at the bottom of the cliff?" he asked, thrusting the bird whose clawed foot he had been holding away from him. The bird flew backwards, knocking away some of the others surrounding her as well.
"Yes," Kagome replied automatically, staring wonderingly at where the bird had landed.
The wolf youkai smirked.
"Then you and me've got a common goal," he said. "Think you can get up? We're not quite done yet."
The bird youkai were regrouping now, closing in on the pair once more. The wolf crouched down slightly, readying for a fight.
Slowly Kagome managed to climb to her feet, gripping the wall with her good arm for support. Her left shoulder throbbed and blood poured sluggishly from the wound, but she gritted her teeth against the pain.
"What do I need to do to?" Kagome asked.
"A fighter, huh? Not too shabby for a tiny little human," the wolf youkai said approvingly. "I can make enough room for you to do it, but you're gonna need to be able to fire those arrows of yours. Think you can?"
He dodged a taloned foot in mid-sentence, ducking beneath it before planting his fist in the bird's gut. More claws came at him from the left, but a swift, sharp extension of his left leg sent the bird stumbling away.
"I'll do it," Kagome declared firmly, her desire to live fueling her with the strength to do just about anything at that point. She wanted to live to see that scene beneath the sakura tree.
"Alright, then. Here we go."
The wolf youkai began to move his legs so rapidly that cloud of dirt arose around him, expanding to fill the entire cave. It developed quickly into a swirling mass surrounding his form. He darted forward into the group of birds, running circles around them and drawing them into the air vacuum he had created in the small cave.
Kagome lifted her bow, ignoring the screaming protests of her shoulder and the long tendrils of her own dark hair whipping manically all about her face. She planted her feet firmly to keep from being sucked in, though the wolf youkai had moved to the opposite edge of the cave to keep the pull on her from becoming too great.
She drew an arrow from her quiver and notched it, taking her time to pack in as much spiritual power as she could. She aimed at the sides of the vortex, careful to avoid the area where she estimated the wolf to be. She let the arrow fly.
Fifteen of the youkai downed in a flash or pearlescent light. The others screamed in outrage, trying in vain to escape the pull of the vortex and get at her. A few of the smarter ones swooped in towards the center of the swirling column of wind, aiming for the wolf.
Kagome quickly notched another arrow and fired, taking out the ones after going after her youkai savior. Blood loss quickly worked to numb the pain in her shoulder and she slipped into an unthinking rhythm of notch, hold, and release.
Notch, hold, release.
Notch, hold, release.
Notch, hold, release.
The cave was filled with the death cries of the birds, echoing hauntingly within the stone walls.
Kagome had already notched and fired another arrow into the dirt floor of the cave by the time she realized that all of the bird youkai were gone. The bow fell from her limp hands as the wolf youkai slowed to a stop, the windstorm slowly dissipating at his halt.
"Damn, woman!" he exclaimed, whistling low as he looked around at the ashes coating the cave floor and walls. "I didn't honestly think you could do it before dying from blood loss, let alone do that quick. By the kami, you've got some damn kinda power!"
His words fell on deaf ears as Kagome slipped down to lean against the cave wall, exhausted and trembling all over.
It occurred to her suddenly that she had just failed in her mission by accepting the wolf's aid. Kagome began to cry quietly.
"Wh-what? Why are you crying, woman? You just took out an entire nest of human eating youkai! You won! You ain't even dead!"
He edged uncertainly toward her, at a loss at the sight of her tears.
"My name's Kagome, not 'woman'!" she sniffled. "And I didn't win. I broke the rules so now I have to go home and my village will starve!"
He stared blankly at her.
Kagome just nodded, not particularly answering any question. Her head was beginning to feel as if it might simply float away from her body at any moment.
"You might've lost too much blood, wom- I mean, Kagome," the youkai said, coming forward to kneel in front of the girl.
"Yeah," Kagome agreed faintly. "Do you think I'll die? I don't really want to die. Even if I failed, I still need to be there to help my village…"
"You're pretty loyal, huh?" the wolf remarked, looking contemplatively at the rapidly fading woman. "I like that. Whatta y'say I save your life?"
"Sounds good," Kagome muttered, slipping into unconsciousness at last.
The wolf youkai grinned roguishly.
"Alright, then. But it's gonna cost ya."
Without further ado he scooped the woman up carefully, dashing off with her.
Kagome was warm. Oddly warm for someone who was either dead or in the process of dying. Maybe her soul had reunited with the elements once again, as all souls did in death. Maybe she had become fire. Or perhaps she had joined with a hot spring. A hot spring would be lovely.
But if she had returned to nature, why did she still retain her own individual consciousness?
Slowly Kagome opened her eyes, discovering that she did in fact still have eyes and a body. The stone roof of a cave, lit orange by the glow of flames, slowly came into focus.
A fur blanket was what was keeping her warm, draped carefully over her form. Mindful of her injured left shoulder, she sat up.
Kagome bit down hard on her tongue to keep from crying out.
She was in a large, dark cave full of wolves, both of the animal and youkai variety. They were littered all across the floor, dozing in the warmth of the fire. There were several that were merely an arm’s length away.
Kagome's mind began working furiously to recall how she had gotten there. It was fuzzy, but she could just recall the wolf youkai she had met saying something about saving her. So then this was his clan and he was the one who had wrapped her shoulder. Taking off her karaginu and chest bindings in order to so, she realized suddenly.
She flushed a violent red, mortification welling up. How much had he seen?
The padding of feet echoed through the cave and Kagome turned towards the source, praying that it would not wake any of the wolves around her.
It was the man she had met in the bird youkai nest, emerging from some deeper part of the cave. He broke into a wide grin at the sight of her, coming to kneel down beside the nest of furs she was wrapped in.
"Finally awake, huh? You've been out cold since noon," he said. "You should be fine, though. Seems like we got it wrapped before you lost too much blood. How's it feel?"
"It's alright," Kagome answered slowly, thrown off by the familiarity with which he spoke to her. "Were you…the one who wrapped my shoulder?"
"Of course," he responded, chest puffing out with pride.
Kagome flushed again.
"You didn't…see anything, did you?" Kagome murmured.
The wolf youkai looked confused for a moment, but comprehension dawned on him and he grinned more widely than ever.
"You mean your breasts? Yeah, I saw. Nice pair, too. Don't look so embarrassed, Kagome! It's only right that as your-"
"It is not 'only right'!" snapped Kagome, so much blood rushing to her head that she thought it might burst. “There's nothing right about it! I want my karaginu back!"
"It's a little torn-"
"I want it back now!" Kagome demanded fiercely.
"Feisty woman, huh?" said the wolf, looking oddly pleased at this.
He rose and went back into the depths of the cave, returning with Kagome's torn and bloodied karaginu. She forced him to turn around before she slipped it back on under the cover of the fur blankets.
Fully clothed, she slipped out from beneath the furs and began making her way toward the cave's exit, picking carefully around sleeping wolves.
"Oi, Kagome! Where are you going?" the wolf called after her.
"I need to leave now. I have people that are probably worried about me. Thank you for your help, sir," Kagome said stiffly, continuing on her way.
Suddenly the wolf was at her side. Kagome jumped, surprised once more at his soundless speed.
Without so much as a word he swept her up into his arms.
"No more of that 'sir' crap. The name's Kouga, Lord of the Eastern Wolf Youkai Tribe. It's a name you won't soon be forgetting," said the wolf, carrying her out through the entrance into the night air.
They were on a long, flat ledge now, the jagged stone illuminated by the soft glow of a crescent moon. Apparently the wolf den was carved into the side of a mountain.
Kagome struggled and squirmed until Kouga set her down. She glowered at him before turning to search for some way down off the mountain.
Any climbing would probably be excruciating with her shoulder in such poor condition, but even that was preferable to further humiliation. Besides, she needed to get back to her companions as soon as possible. Surely they would be looking for her.
"Whoa, there! I only took you out here so you could get a bit of air and cool off. There ain't no way I'm letting you just leave like that. Besides, you have no clue where we are," Kouga pointed out, coming up to stand beside her.
Kagome scowled at him, but silently conceded that he was right. She had absolutely no idea where she was, or even if she was still on Fujiwara lands.
"You have to let me go back to my companions," Kagome said, a hint of pleading in her tone. "I mean, they have to be worried about me. And besides…I-I saved you, too! You said you needed my purification powers back in the bird youkai nest-my arrows!"
"You're right," Kouga allowed. "That flock of bastards has been picking off members of my tribe for months now, and hundreds more were killed trying to take them out. You could even dismember the fucking things and they would still heal. There was some kinda weird jyaki around them. Your arrows were the first thing that I ever saw that could take them out."
"So you'll take me back to my companions?" Kagome said hopefully, storing the information about the bird youkai away in the back of her mind for later examination. She had noticed something odd about their jyaki.
"Not quite," said Kouga. "You saved me once. I saved you twice. Once in the cave and twice with the bandages. You still owe me and I ain't letting you go until you've paid your debt."
"Paid my debt?" echoed Kagome, filled suddenly with trepidation.
Kouga advanced on her slowly, elongated canines glinting in the light of the moon.
"That's right. And I know just how you can do it."
"By warding your cave to keep out other youkai?" Kagome suggested desperately, not liking the look in his eyes at all.
"Not quite," Kouga said, chuckling.
"Then what would you like? Sewing? Cooking? I can do a lot of useful little things like that."
Kagome's back hit the mountain side and she realized that she had been backing away from the wolf's advances. Kouga loomed right in front of her, backlit by the moon as his eyes met hers.
"You're going to be my woman," he declared, advancing the final step to wrap his arms about her.
"What?" Kagome squeaked, her mind going blank with shock. She could not even struggle against his hold.
"You'll be my mate. With your powers and mine together, we'll dominate even beyond the eastern lands," Kouga said, clearly proud of himself for thinking up something so clever.
Kouga and Kagome turned at the unexpected sound of a new voice.
Standing on the edge opposite the pair and framed by the crescent moon was Genji, watching with wide golden eyes as Kouga and Kagome embraced.
"What in the seven hells?"