InuYasha Fan Fiction ❯ Fireside Chats ❯ Epilogue: Full Circle ( Epilogue )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Author's Note: This wasn't the epilogue I'd had in mind, because the epilogue I'd planned probably would've violated all terms of use, by not being story at all. I originally was going to do a list of things that I'd planned to do but didn't pan out, or things that changed. Then I thought about doing some outtakes, but they simply didn't work out. So, finally, I decided to tie up a few loose ends. And here it is. For what it's worth, the setting now is after the end of the anime, after Inuyasha and his group have been to the afterlife to retrieve the last shard, and after the plague of demon rats, and after Inuyasha had to use the last shard to break free of the demon that tried to digest them. If you don't recognize what I'm talking about, you apparently haven't seen the whole series and may be lost. This epilogue takes into assumption that you have seen or are familiar with the ending of the anime. If not, perhaps you shouldn't read any further until you have.

Also, I mention an analgesic that Hiuchimaru calls "boxwood" -- which is not a real herb, if anyone's wondering, it's just me being lazy and making something up. Since he's not human, one can assume that not all herbal treatments that would work on humans will work on him anyway, and his terminology could be different from normal terminology anyway. But in any case, there is no painkilling herb that I know of called boxwood. That's just what he calls the herb he uses. The same can be said for the plant called "liferoot." Also, there is no mountain called Reizan on Hokkaido, but neither is there a mountain on the main island of Japan called Hakureizan, so I don't think I'm being too out of line naming the mountain on Hokkaido however I like.

Disclaimer: Inuyasha does not, never has and sadly never will, belong to me. It belongs to the incomparable Rumiko Takahashi, Shonen Sunday and Sunrise. But I ruthlessly use it because Takahashi-sensei doesn't seem to give a crap what her fans do with the characters. XD If she did care, I would be very sad.


Fireside Chats
Epilogue: Full Circle


The green-eyed demon pressed her hands together over a small handful of grass and flowers. Murmuring a trio of words, she closed her eyes and envisioned the outcome. Pulling her hands apart, she produced a small circlet of flowers woven together with the grass blades.

"Cute trick," her brother said. "Where'd you pick that up?"

"Mother taught me."

He grunted as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His arms were folded inside his sleeves, cradling against his chest something that was immensely precious to him.

"Mmm, Flint," a voice moaned from a few feet away. "I hate to bother you, but could you pass me the medicine bag? I feel awful again."

Hiuchimaru glanced down at his mate, stretched out in the grass next to him, her head pillowed on the flank of her recumbent black horse. Ashita was clutching her abdomen. His brow furrowed in concern, but his sister nonchalantly picked up the small leather bag by his feet and handed it across to Ashita. "Go easy on those painkillers. It's not good for the foal."

Ashita grunted as she took the medicine bag. "Duly noted, but the foal is probably the problem."

"All the same," the green-eyed demon said firmly, "don't take any stupid risks."

Hiuchimaru observed this wordlessly, reflecting idly on the past several months. He was deeply grateful for the safe return of his other living sister, the one who had for at least a hundred and seventy years had gone by the name of Midoriko. She was a part of his family and he was concerned for her, especially since she clearly had changed in the years of her absence. "Greeneyes, this isn't exactly her first time."

"I am fully aware of that," the demon, who called herself Kainashi now, replied. "In fact, it's more like her sixth or seventh. But unless I am much mistaken, she's never had this much trouble or discomfort before. This is considerably higher risk than any she's had before. That brush with death has cost her dearly."

"Hmm." Hiuchimaru looked away deliberately, returning his silent gaze to his son, who was sparring with Koe. It was still clear that the colt had a long way to go to be in her league when it came to hand-to-hand combat, but he had an excellent teacher. Koe had no peer in the entire uma-youkai society when it came to outright tooth-and-claw combat. She had never bothered to learn how to use a sword or knife, because she had no need of them. And, because of her devotion to her sister and, by extension, her sister's children, Koe was committed to teaching her nephew everything she could so that he would be able to defend himself and his family. The colt could not possibly have a better, more dedicated teacher.

"He's talented, you know," Kainashi said after a long pause, watching Opaaru as well. "You've done well with him. He's going to be a mighty youkai when he's grown. He'll probably be greater than any of us. Maybe even greater than our father."

Hiuchimaru smirked. "Careful, Greeneyes. If he hears you, it'll go straight to his little head."

"Oh, too late for that, Flint," Koe said, knocking the colt's feet out from under him. Opaaru went flying backwards, unceremoniously landing in a heap and skidding. "He's already full of himself."

"OW! Auntie, that was a dirty trick!"

"All's fair in a fight, pipsqueak. You were getting sloppy and careless. If I were a real enemy, I'd have your head by now."

Opaaru glared at her as he sat up and rubbed his ankles gingerly. "You keep saying that. Maybe someday you should make good on your threat."

Koe's eyes narrowed. "Don't get cocky, kid. I've been going easy on you. Kuroshima never went this easy on me."

"You were also an adult when he trained you, Koe," Ashita reminded with a soft laugh as she chewed on a leaf. "He didn't have to pull his punches then." She glanced up at her mate, who now knelt beside her, stroking her hair affectionately. "Also, there was no direct blood relation to get in Kuroshima's way."

"Kuroshima didn't give a damn about blood relations," Koe snarled, suddenly angry. "In the end, not even you mattered to him, Ashita."

"Enough, enough," Kainashi said mildly. "What caused the old guardian's death is none of our concern anymore. Let him rest in peace. I'm sure he doesn't think about anyone else anymore, wherever he is."

Ashita was looking away, her eyes vacant. Hiuchimaru frowned with concern, but held his silence.

Koe shook herself like a horse getting up from a good dust-roll. "Come on, kouma, are you going to laze about in the dirt all day?"

Opaaru stood up and dusted off. "If you'd stop tripping me..."

"I keep telling you, all's fair in a fight, you little blockhead! When are you going to listen to me?" Koe snapped. "You need to be prepared for anything, because if you're in a fight for your life, you can't count on your opponent to be fair! You saw what Himawari did to your father, didn't you? She wasn't trying to kill him, but she beat him within an inch of his life!"

Hiuchimaru snorted with laughter; "Hey, now, come on! Give me a little credit! I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and Himawari's ambush broke several of my ribs. You know how debilitating broken ribs are in combat! Not to mention, she's a hell of a lot faster than I am when she's mounted on Shunme!"

"And you still got your ass beat in by a female. One less powerful than you."

"I was protecting all of you, I'll have you know. And no fair calling her less powerful than me: she's stronger, faster and more agile than I am, and every bit as powerful. She's the taiyoukai among us, you know."

"Whatever. Now shut up and let me train your brat here. Come on, runt, you'll never get anywhere if you don't toughen up!"

Kainashi laughed softly as she stood up. "You've got a feisty one there, Grey-eyes. I don't think Father would have let one of his mares talk to him like that."

"Father didn't have other mares. He was a loner. Despite his true form, he really didn't have any of the uma-youkai traits. I don't understand why you seem to forget those kinds of details."

Kainashi shrugged. "I have a lot of blank spaces in my memory, a lot of holes where something has been lost. A side-effect of that accursed mountain, no doubt. I don't even remember what Mother's face looked like, and I know she's only been dead a little over twenty years."

"Twenty-three," Ashita murmured.

Hiuchimaru raised an eyebrow at her. "How do you know that? I don't think I ever told you exactly when my mother died."

Ashita smiled faintly. "You didn't have to. I heard the news. It wasn't long after Kuroshima died; you'd only been here a couple of years when you received word of your mother's death. My father died twenty-five years ago this year, so it's been twenty-five years since you were called here."

"Has it been that long already? Wow."

Ashita shifted, resting her head against her horse's shoulder. The horse grunted and shifted as well to accommodate the change. "You don't even remember when we came into each other's lives, Flint?"

"I just wasn't keeping track of how long it's been. I remember when it happened, just not how long ago." He smirked. "I am older than you, Ashita."

"Not that much older!" she retorted. "And you come from longer-living stock, too."

"My point exactly, love," he said, shifting the weight in his arms.

Ashita snorted; "I meant that your kind are slower to mature because you live longer. Therefore, though you might be thirty or more years older than me chronologically, you're not any older than me in maturity."

"That's brilliant!" Kainashi laughed. "Your mate just called you immature, Grey-eyes!"

"No I didn't!" Ashita responded. "That's not what I -- "

Hiuchimaru shook his head at their antics, and would have said something to it, but just then he thought he heard the squawks of an old friend of his family, a bird youkai called Traveller. He turned around, trying to track the sound. With Mimiko's hearing impaired because of her humanity, he had the sharpest hearing of anyone. And yet, because he wasn't physically within the forest, he had to strain to hear what went on within its boundaries.

Noticing his sudden apprehension, Koe instinctively halted her training of Opaaru, assuming a ready stance, prepared to attack or defend as necessary.

Then, from the trees came a crashing and whup-whuping sound that was strikingly familiar. Traveller erupted from the canopy, barreling out of the trees, screeching his head off and flying as fast as his wings could carry him. Normally, the bird was comical to look at, brightly colored as he was, and his eyes tended to not line up. But his screeches weren't comical at all; he was scared. Something had attacked him.

"Dammit," Hiuchimaru growled in his throat as he wrapped several shields around Mimiko. She was going to have to stay with him, because he didn't want to reveal her right now. He had learned the hard way not to trust anyone that Koe didn't trust, particularly with his adopted daughter in mind. He couldn't trust Kainashi, who had expressed a marked distaste for the hanyou child. And he didn't want Kainashi to know about Mimiko's periodic bouts where her youkai hearing and appearance entirely drained away, leaving her essentially human. If Kainashi knew about these periods and knew when they happened, she could take advantage of that knowledge down the road. He was determined to hide the exact moments from her sight.

"Master! Master!" Traveller squalled, skidding into the leaf-litter and hiding behind Ashita. "Intruders!"

Hiuchimaru swore under his breath and gathered his power beneath his feet. He couldn't shape-shift with Mimiko in his arms, but he could self-levitate and get up to the level that Traveller had been at to see what happened. As he lifted off the ground, he could hear movement within the forest. For a moment, he cursed himself for leaving the borders. While the forest allowed him to exit it now, it wasn't very good about lending him its senses when he wasn't within its boundaries. But then he reminded himself that this forest had held him prisoner for a quarter of a century. He had to make the most of what freedom he could glean from the collapse of White Soul Mountain.

Suddenly, the trees belched forth a strange triangular-shaped object, whirling at high speed and arcing through the air with a familiar thumping. A giant boomerang. Hiuchimaru struggled to remember where he'd seen something like that, when suddenly the boomerang's arc brought it directly in line with him. He barely had enough time to swing extra shields around Mimiko before the boomerang struck him in the forehead. His vision swam red and gold and his senses exploded as he lost his grip on his levitation, crashing unceremoniously to the ground. He managed to twist and take the fall himself, cushioning Mimiko from being crushed.

Having struck a target, the boomerang's trajectory was altered, and on its return arc, it slammed into a tree and got hung up in the branches.

"Sango, you missed! You got it caught in the trees!" a young voice sang out cheerily.

"Oh shut up, runt! It hit something!"

"Keh! Sango, are you losing your touch already? I expected you to be good for a few years yet!"

"Zip it, you! I tell you, it hit something! The question is, what happened to the youkai it hit?" A firecat carrying two humans and a kitsune appeared above one of the trees as a red-garbed silver-haired inu-hanyou and his human companion appeared in the branches of another one.

"The youkai it hit now has a screaming headache, thank you very much!" Hiuchimaru yelled crossly, cradling his aching forehead with his free hand. "Why are you always throwing stuff at my head? If you're trying to crack it open, I promise you there's nothing of value inside it!"

"Hiuchimaru, is that you?" the demon-exterminator was the first to speak. She sounded bewildered.

"Last I checked, I was. Holy mother of earth, you got a direct hit. Bugger hurts like hell! Honestly, what's the big rush? Are you being chased?"

"No," Miroku said as the firecat landed nearby and he and Sango got off. "We're just trying to get back to, er, Kagome's home by a certain time."

Inuyasha snorted as he landed next to the firecat. "Keh! And we're chasing a thief who swiped something from us."

Hiuchimaru shifted a bit and made a sound in his throat that sounded like an unusual growl. Slightly alarmed by the growl, Sango bowed in apology. "I'm sorry about the... about Hiraikotsu hitting you; I didn't know it was you."

"Naah, don't worry about him," Koe said, coming up behind Hiuchimaru and thumping him on top of the head. "He's just being peevish. He's perfectly harmless, after all."

"Harmless!" Hiuchimaru grumbled under his breath. "I'll show you harmless!"

"He growls when he's peevish?" Shippo asked.

"Growl?" Koe said curiously.

Hiuchimaru snorted; "I didn't growl!"

"Sounded like it," Shippo said, landing on Sango's shoulder.

"I heard you nickering at the filly," Koe said, swatting Hiuchimaru affectionately. "Were you growling at them too?"

"I didn't growl, dammit! I was trying to calm Mimiko. She got a little spooked."

"I imagine she would," the mare said with a chuckle. "That was a rather abrupt change of events."

"Grey-eyes, who are these people?" Kainashi approached hesitantly. "Since when have you associated with humans? Aside from having your mate breed with one, of course." Her voice still hinted at her intense disgust and disapproval of the circumstances leading up to Mimiko's birth.

"Since they saved my family from a traitorous plot by one of my most trusted clan chiefs," Hiuchimaru snapped. "Now do me a favor, Greeneyes, and get me some boxwood. I can barely see for the pain."

Kainashi hesitated. "I think Ashita used the last of the boxwood I have on hand. If you can wait, I'll go gather some more."

"I need it. This isn't going away on its own."

"I swear, the two of you are going to get addicted to this stuff," Kainashi sighed. "Ashita, I'm going to have to wean you off of it, I think. Boxwood isn't good for foals. Not to mention how it affects liferoot."

"I don't need you to tell me how to take care of myself, dammit," Ashita snapped angrily. "I know what I'm doing. You are the maiden mare here, Kainashi."

Kainashi's eyes closed as she turned toward the forest. "It isn't my fault I cannot create life. I am hard pressed to save it as it is." Then she disappeared into the trees without another word.

"Geez, Flint, she's insufferable lately," Koe complained. "What the hell is wrong with her?"

"How should I know?"

"Um," Miroku said hesitantly. "Who was that? I've never seen her before."

"My other sister," Hiuchimaru said, massaging his aching forehead. "The one we thought was dead. Turns out she was imprisoned within White Soul Mountain, and when it collapsed she managed to escape. She's... she's changed since she was there. She calls herself Kainashi now. I think something terrible happened to her inside that mountain, but she won't say."

"White Soul Mountain? You mean Mount Hakurei?" Kagome asked incredulously. "How'd she survive that? I thought that any demon that went inside the barrier got purified out of existence!"

Hiuchimaru looked at  her quizzically. "Come again?"

"You're talking about Mount Hakurei, right? The mountain that collapsed?"

"Hakurei... yes, I guess that's what the humans call it. The forest called it White Soul Mountain. I guess it's the same thing, though. Yeah, inexplicably, about a month or so after you all left us, the mountain just disappeared. One evening it was there, the next morning it was gone. I lost part of my forest boundaries when it collapsed, but the nexus of power underneath the mountain is gone, so the forest doesn't restrain me anymore. Oh geez, I babble like a fool when I'm in pain." He grimaced, his face contorting up in excruciating agony. "Ashita, did you really use all the boxwood? I could've sworn there were two doses left."

"No." Ashita moaned as she stood up. "But I figured it'd be a good way to get her out of here. I'll take Mimiko now; you've probably scared her half to death."

Hiuchimaru snorted softly even as he shrugged his yukata loose, revealing the toddler clinging to his torso. "She's not trembling. But yeah, take her." He unwrapped the shields from around Mimiko as Ashita approached and plucked the tiny girl up into her arms, murmuring softly and making those same bizarre growling noises. Mimiko grinned at her mother and snuggled close.

"Wait a second," Inuyasha said. "What are you doing? She's human now. You can't just go flaunting her human days around, you idiot!"

Ashita gave him a bland look as she handed a small medicine pouch to her mate. "And if you can tell me when her cycles are just from seeing her as a human once, you're a genius."


"I don't know when your cycles are, but I know you have them, because of your human genetic code. The same is true for her. Her cycles are going to be different than yours. Seeing her human once doesn't mean you automatically know what it will be."

"All I have to do is see what stage the moon is at."

"The moon? What does the moon have to do with anything?" Koe asked, bewildered.

This struck Inuyasha dumb. "What?"

"So your cycles are determined by a certain phase of the moon, then, by your reaction." Hiuchimaru said, chewing on a dark green leaf from a type of plant Kagome was certain she'd never seen before. "Well, hers aren't. Every hanyou is different. That's why we are trying to keep her out of my sister's view when she's human. We don't want her figuring out Mimiko's cycles."

"I can smell the difference," Inuyasha said. "I'm sure you can too. What makes you think your sister won't be able to smell the difference as well?"

"Because she can't. Her sense of smell was impaired a long time ago. She has almost no sense of smell at all. She's been that way for as long as I can remember."

"And we try to hide Mimiko even when she's not human, so that Kainashi won't be able to get an accurate idea of when it happens," Ashita added.

"You don't trust your own sister?" Shippo asked. "Wow. You have a strange family."

Ashita made a startled noise in the back of her throat, and Koe burst out laughing. "Come on, little fox, you saw what his eldest sister tried to do to him!"

Hiuchimaru snorted. "I've learned the hard way what happens when I'm too trusting. I trusted Hekigyoku, and he nearly killed my entire family. I let my guard down around Himawari, and she beat me to a pulp." He glanced over at Koe. "She might not have a very good sense of smell or sense of hearing, but Koe is remarkably adept at reading others. Any time I've disregarded her warnings and her distrust of someone, I've been sorry for it. And now, with Ashita in so precarious a state, I can't afford to make any mistakes. This time, I'm not taking any chances."

"No chances, no chances, whatever you say, boss," a voice sang out as Traveller backwinged in and landed on Hiuchimaru's head. The bird warbled happily and pecked at the demon lord's hair.

Hiuchimaru grunted irritably and swatted at the bird. "Get off me, birdbrain."

"There it is!" Shippo cried just as Inuyasha reacted as well. "Little thief! FOX FIRE!" The kitsune fired a ball of blue flames at the bird.

"ACK! YIKES!" Traveller screeched, just barely missed getting hit with the fox-fire, and executed an agile maneuver that put him directly down the back of Hiuchimaru's yukata. The demon lord yelped in surprise.

"Hey! Get out, you goddamn bird-brained idiot! What the hell!"

The bird responded to the demand by burrowing deeper. "Fox-fire. I hate fox-fire!"

"Opaaru, grab him, will you? I'm liable to rip his beak off if I have to pull him out." Hiuchimaru wrenched open his yukata. Sango noted abstractly that he had a long scar across his torso, curving from his left hip across his stomach and up to his right shoulder in a crescent shape. It was an old scar, easily decades old, but it looked like it had come from a grievous, possibly life-threatening injury. It looked like the forest guardian had been carved open by a scythe or something, though with two healers in his family, it seemed strange that he had received an injury such as this and gone without proper treatment.

Giggling, Opaaru grabbed up the brightly-colored bird. "Silly feather-head! For a bird your age, you're such a coward."

"Good grief, Traveller, you are such a pain in the ass!" Hiuchimaru said crossly as he straightened his yukata and haori. He looked over at Inuyasha, on whose shoulder Shippo now sat. "What the hell is going on anyway? Why are you attacking my retainer anyway?"

"That little thief stole our breakfast!" Shippo said indignantly.

"And our Shikon shard, the one we went literally through Hell and back to get," Inuyasha said with a menacing scowl. "Cough it up, bird, or I'll make turkey-dinner out of you."

Traveller squirmed in Opaaru's hands. Hiuchimaru's expression hardened. "Traveller, do as he says, or I'll rip your wings off. What the hell are you doing mucking around with the Shikon no Tama?"

"How was I supposed to know that's what it was? It was just pretty and shiny!" Traveller whined, squirming harder. Opaaru held the bird out at arm's length, to avoid getting clawed.

"It's probably in his gullet," Koe said, grabbing the beak. Traveller squawked indignantly. "I'll get it. The bird knows what I'll do if he bites me. What does it look like?"

"Like a stone-flower," Sango said. "But be careful touching it. It's a dangerous substance."

Koe pried Traveller's jaws apart and levered the bird's tongue up with her claws. Picking gingerly, she reached into the bird's craw and pulled out the jewel fragment. "Is this what you're looking for?"

"Yes it is," Kagome said, holding her hand out. "That's a very important fragment. It's the last known one. This means they're all accounted for. We literally went through Hell and back to get it."

"So you said," Koe said, dropping the fragment into Kagome's hand with a mildly disgusted look. "Ugh. Bird saliva. Traveller, you have the worst breath."

"Through Hell and back? What does that mean?" Opaaru asked as he let go of Traveller, causing the bird to fall into an undignified heap at his feet with a protesting squawk.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Inuyasha said dismissively.

"Try us," Hiuchimaru replied. "Unless you're not comfortable telling us."

Inuyasha raised an eyebrow at him. "I have no reason to tell you anything, baka-uma. Besides, I think we've involved you and your family enough in our problems. If your mate is in such precarious a position, it's best that you forget you ever met us. Our enemy is still at large, and he has a habit of reusing those he's used before."

Ashita leaned against Hiuchimaru, who put an arm around her. "Do you mean that spider demon? The one with the animal pelt body, the terrible eyes and the venomous voice?"

"His name is Naraku, and yes, he is based on a spider demon," Miroku said. "At least, that's what we believe."

There was an uncomfortable silence as Traveller's squawking abruptly stopped. The bird eyed the monk suspiciously. The comical appearance melted away with the seriousness of his expression.

"Okay," Sango said. "I take it this bird knows who Naraku is?"

"Wouldn't surprise me," Hiuchimaru said flippantly, nudging the bird with his foot. "Traveller gets that name for a reason. He's been everywhere his wings can carry him. He's even been to the Continent a few times."

"What do you want with Naraku?" Traveller said coldly, hackles raised and wings unmantled. His voice was high-pitched and parrot-like, but his tone was dead serious, and his avian eyes blazed with intensity.

"What else? To annihilate him!" Inuyasha retorted. "If you're in league with him, I'll take you out too, bird!"

"I'm not in league with him; I'd like to see that bastard taken down too. However, I doubt a hanyou like you could take him."

Inuyasha's eyes narrowed and he curled his fists in aggression. "Who the fuck do you think you are?"

Hiuchimaru frowned; "Wait a minute, Traveller. How do you know about their enemy?"

"Naraku tortured two of your sisters, Master. One of them is dead, and the other one is as good as dead, in spirit anyway. If you weren't the same backwards moron your father was about retribution, you'd be after Naraku too."

"I have no reason to go after Naraku," Hiuchimaru snapped. "He hasn't come after me."

"Aye, you're just as bad as your father in that respect." The bird's voice then changed to a brassy, resonating voice that was surprisingly familiar. "Vengeance doesn't rewrite history. It doesn't bring back the slain. All it does is beget more vengeance and hatred."

Ashita blinked. Koe shook her head slowly. "Every time you do that, Traveller, it still catches me off guard."

"That was..." Ashita breathed. "That was your father's voice, Flint?"

Hiuchimaru, who looked like he'd narrowly escaped having a coronary, advanced swiftly and delivered a stern blow across the parrot's head. "Stop doing that without warning, you little bastard! You about gave me a heart attack!"

"Oh?" the bird said archly. "Are you afraid of your father?"

"Don't make me kick you," Hiuchimaru hissed between clenched jaws. "I'm this close to doing it."

"Leave Traveller alone, Grey-eyes," Kainashi said from the edge of the forest. She held a small basket in one hand and a slim knife, an herbalist's knife, in the other. "You outweigh him by at least a hundred kilos." Traveller catapulted himself off the ground and in three wingstrokes was settling himself on her shoulder.

"He brings it on himself, the little shit," Hiuchimaru growled angrily. "Trying my patience when you know I have a short fuse, one would think you had a death wish, Traveller."

"Whenever I mimic your father, you get aggressive, Master," the bird replied. "Why is that? I thought you held your father in high esteem."

"Is there a reason why we're still here?" Inuyasha interrupted, looking irritably at his companions. Sango was picking pine needles out of the leather handgrips on Hiraikotsu, having retrieved the boomerang with some trouble. "We're just wasting time standing here watching them argue."

Miroku mimed a swat at the hanyou; "A potential lead on Naraku is worth the wasted time, don't you think?"

Kainashi audibly gasped and dropped the basket and knife in her hands. Her eyes grew huge in horror and she started to back away from them, but Traveller pecked her insistently.

Without warning, she slumped to her knees, covering her head with her hands, trembling and whimpering.

"You forced my hand," Traveller said angrily, turning his mismatched gaze to the monk. "I didn't really want to make her relive this, but it appears to me that you don't understand just what kind of monster that Naraku is. When you hear what he's done to her -- " he snapped his wings open in such a way as to indicate the demon he was perched on " -- perhaps you'll understand."

Inuyasha's right hand went to Tetsusaiga's hilt in irritation; "Bird, you're the one who doesn't know what kind of fucking monster Naraku is. That bastard has done far worse things to me than he could ever have done to her!"

"Is that so?" Traveller asked. "Then I ask you this: by what name do you call yourself?"

"Huh? What the fuck does that matter?"

"She calls herself Kainashi."

"Yeah? So?"

"Do you not understand? She calls herself 'worthless.' She changed her name from the name given her by her mother, to a name meaning 'worthless.' Because she believes that is what she is."

The bird ruffled his feathers, visibly puffing up to make himself look almost twice as big. When he opened his beak next, it was not his own voice that came out, but the hypnotic, venomous intonation of Naraku himself. "I cannot let you leave this place alive, but you are worthless to me. As you are now, you are not even worth enough to be added to my new flesh. Your powers of regeneration are useless to me. I will let you live here within this mountain, where you may stew in your despair and your worthlessness, until you resign yourself to your pathetic fate as fodder for my new flesh. Kutabarizokonai, I dub you now."

Kagome noticed that the cadence with which the words were spoken was quite entrancing and deliberate, and to a weak mind, the intonation would be overpowering. She knew Naraku was clever with words, but this surprised even her. Of course, he had convinced a sanctified monk to hold that purity barrier up around the mountain for him. Naraku was adept at convincing others to do his dirty work for him. But this?

While that sounded exactly like Naraku's voice -- and being that this Traveller looked like a type of parrot, he was likely capable of exact mimicry -- Kagome found herself doubting the veracity of the words. Was even Naraku clever and cunning enough to disarm this other demon with just a few sentences? How weak-minded was this Kainashi to begin with, if she could so easily be broken?

To her credit, despite the fact that she was reliving something that was obviously traumatic, Kainashi wasn't crying. She trembled, but her eyes were dry. She looked up at Kagome -- singling Kagome out of all those around her -- and held Kagome's gaze as she spoke. "He wasn't the first to tell me that I'm worthless. I have been called worthless by everyone I know, except for my brother. My own mother threatened to rename me 'Koppa.' My father abandoned my training when he decided I didn't have enough talent to be worth his time. No, Naraku wasn't the first to tell me I'm worthless. But it was enough. And when he started calling me Kutabarizokonai, I couldn't take it anymore."

Hiuchimaru cleared his throat. "Traveller, if you're trying to incite me into fighting this Naraku, you're wasting your time. I have a family to care for, and love my sister though I do, I cannot fight her battles for her. I also rather doubt I have the psychological constitution to combat such a cunning enemy. Can't you get Himawari to fight this battle for you?"

"Do I look like I have a death wish?" Traveller retorted. "Himawari would sooner feed me to her accursed horse than do anything I ask of her! But someone needs to destroy Naraku. He cannot be suffered to continue to exist."

"For that reason alone?" Inuyasha said, slightly incredulous but mostly pissed. "Because he hurt her feelings? Give me a fucking break!" He curled his lips slightly in a canine expression of hostility. "That's mild compared to what Naraku has done to us. I was pinned to a tree for fifty years, thanks to his tricks, and that's the mildest of what he's done to any of us. He also put that hellhole in Miroku's right hand. And in case you think your ego-beating is still worse, think on this: You horse idiots are a family-oriented species. You must understand what it means to lose everyone. Well, Naraku wiped out Sango's entire clan, single-handedly, not out of vengeance or anger, but simply because he could. Even now, he controls her brother and uses Kohaku against her. You can't fucking tell me that Kainashi, or whatever her name is, has had it worse off than anyone else Naraku has toyed with, because there is no comparison. If I'm going to feel sorry for anyone victimized by Naraku, it ain't gonna be some goddamn horse-bitch with self-esteem problems!"

Complete silence befell the group as Traveller stared at the hanyou in frank bewilderment. "Then the rumors are true? About the taijiya? That Naraku was the reason they were wiped out?"

Sango shifted uncomfortably. Kagome put a comforting hand on her arm. Miroku glanced over at her as well, his expression briefly betraying his concern for Sango. The exterminator put on a brave smile for her friends.

Inuyasha folded his arms across his chest. "Kainashi, you're the last of your siblings I've met, and I have to say that if you're letting your bruised ego get the best of you, you really are the weakest of the lot. Your youngest sister was manipulated by Naraku from a distance via Shikon fragments and her own misplaced anger and hatred. She endured a living hell in a slowly rotting body because of Naraku. And your other sister? She took a direct blow from my Wind Scar, and survived, without the aid of a shield. I can only recall two others who have managed to do that. As for your brother, well, I dunno how strong he is, but he's got his head on right. He knows when to back the fuck down and get the fuck out of the way.

"It was your youngest sister who has impressed me the most, because she suffered the most. Next to what Kiniromaru suffered at Naraku's hands, your suffering is trivial, and your reaction is disgusting! If you're so weak-willed that being called 'worthless' by someone as pathetic and cowardly as Naraku can break you, then I should put you out of your misery, because you're doing nothing but causing more misery for everyone around you. Not to mention the fact that you're really pissing me off! "

He put his hand to Tetsusaiga's hilt and drew the blade slowly -- surprisingly slowly. The blade glimmered in the sunlight as he held it to Kainashi's throat.

"Just say the word and I'll end your suffering for you, if you're not strong enough to carry on."

Kainashi's eyes closed and for a moment it looked like she was going to ask for him to carry this through. But then her eyelids flew open to reveal iridescent irises that flamed with hatred and anger. She curled her fists and launched herself directly at Inuyasha, grazing her neck on Tetsusaiga's edge as she did so. She uncurled her right fist and slashed the hanyou across the face.

"You shut your mouth, half-breed. I will not be pitied by such a lowly lifeform!" She snarled savagely as her claws raked his cheeks, drawing blood. "I didn't ask you for help or pity, so just stay out of this! Get out of here before I kill you!"

Inuyasha kept his cool, though he was clearly stunned by the mood swing. "You think you can kill me, Kainashi? Even Naraku can't kill me. Nor can Sesshomaru. I may not be immortal, I may not even be full youkai, but I'm as close to unkillable as you'll find! If you're going to make a threat, you better be prepared to back it the fuck up!"

"That's enough!" Hiuchimaru appeared between the two of them, pushing them both apart. "This is asinine! There is absolutely no reason for you two to be at each other's throats like this. Now stop!"

Kainashi let out a feral roar of outrage and punched both fists into her brother's torso, sending him reeling back. "YOU STAY OUT OF THIS!"

Inuyasha growled in the back of his throat and pushed Kagome away; "Kirara, you watch over them. I don't trust this idiot horse-bitch not to hurt them."

Kirara roared her agreement and braced herself, her tails erect.

"This is annoying," Koe said with a shake of her head. "These fugues of hers are tiresome."

"She is Flint's sister, though," Ashita said. "He's sacrificed a lot to learn her fate. And given that he hasn't been on good terms with Himawari for the past couple of years, I think...."

"Flint's just too goddamn tolerant of her behavior, is the problem!" Koe retorted. "He's got no backbone with her! With either of his sisters! He let Himawari beat him to a bloody pulp, and he's letting Kainashi slap him around! This isn't the Hiuchimaru I'm used to, dammit!"

"Just let her threaten Mama, though," Opaaru said, "and you'll see he's not a pushover, Auntie."

"I never said he was a pushover, but he's taking too many punches for no good reason. She goes into these furious rages every day and pounds on him, and he never does anything to stop her. You'd think he was afraid she'd break! There's no damned reason for him to treat her like that!"

"There's a good reason, and it's one I don't think you'll understand," Ashita said tiredly, sinking to her knees. "Flint is letting her beat on him because she can't hurt him, and it helps her ease her anger. Kuroshima used to do it to you, though you didn't realize it. You never gave Kuroshima the credit he deserved. In his own way, he cared for you, and cared about you. In his own way, he loved you."

"Stop lecturing me, Ashita," Koe snorted.

Kagome narrowed her eyes when she noticed Ashita clutch at her chest in pain. I thought I healed that wound, but it looks like it's still giving her trouble.

"Oh no," Ashita moaned, slumping forward until her forehead rested on the ground, both arms crossing her chest. "Not again, not now, not so soon!"

In her concern, Kagome forgot Inuyasha's warnings and darted across the path of the tangling youkai, skidding to a stop beside Ashita. "Ashita, what's wrong?"

The moment her fingers connected with the mare, she felt something lance through her, a sort of power she couldn't describe. It seemed to burn to the touch, burn the nerves in her fingers, though there was no visible damage. Her hand tingled afterwards. Momentarily, Kagome saw a gargantuan forest fire in her mind, the trees around her engulfed in huge tongues of flame, filling the starless night sky with smoke... Then something, a hostile presence that seemed to be feeding off Ashita's life energy, turned to her and demanded to know who she was.

Just as suddenly, the rapport was lost.

What was that?

"Flint," Ashita said, her breathing labored and coming in ragged gasps. "There's going to be a forest fire, started by lightning. I can't tell you where, because it's in the middle of the forest -- I can't see any landmarks. But I can tell you about when. It's at midnight... and I see the first sliver of the moon."

"That means it's tomorrow at midnight, since tonight will be the new moon," Opaaru said, before getting shushed by his aunt.

"How extensive is the damage, Ashita?" Hiuchimaru knelt in front of her, gathering her into his arms.

"A wide area, but... not out of control, that I can see. But it's... if you're not careful, it could take out your whole forest, it's wild enough to do that. Oh god, I hate these visions!" Ashita coughed and heaved as if retching.

"You stupid, no-good shit-for-brains!" Kainashi hissed angrily as she approached. "Brainless idiot, you're a hopeless lost cause!"

"Why you--!" Koe snarled, her posture changing to one of high aggression. Hiuchimaru was faster, though.

"Dammit, Midoriko, would you put a cork in it? You're not helping with this verbal abuse!"

Kainashi crossed her arms stubbornly. "And what do you plan to do when my supply of liferoot is exhausted? It's all I can do to keep her alive for the duration of this... this..." She seemed at loss for words for a moment, her mouth working soundlessly. "That plant was beyond rare, you know. When that mountain went down, so did the native habitat of the liferoot. All I have are my preserved stores of it. When the mountain collapsed, I had nearly a two year supply of it. I'm down to less than half that now. Every one of these little episodes requires a dose I would have otherwise given to her as a supplement, you know. That shortens considerably the amount of time she has left to live at this rate."

"You condescending bitch!" Koe exploded. "You know she has no control over these visions! Yet you talk to her like she's doing it on purpose! If I didn't think that Flint would stop me, I'd pound you into the ground until you couldn't get up again, and don't you dare think I can't do it!"

"The one you should be yelling at isn't me," Kainashi snapped. "It's him." She pointed accusingly at Hiuchimaru. "You, Grey-eyes, should have known better, given her condition. If you had waited, if the puncture had been properly treated beforehand, she wouldn't be in this vulnerable state. You knew about the puncture in her heart, and yet you still..." She fisted her claws. "You've pitted me in a losing battle trying to save her. If Father were still alive, perhaps his talent would have been enough. And then again, maybe not." She looked away, her eyes closing. "Regardless, you of all people should have known better, Grey-eyes."

Hiuchimaru remained silent through the whole tirade, but he didn't look like someone who'd just gotten a severe dressing-down. His expression was carefully neutral.

Kagome gingerly touched Ashita's shoulder, bracing herself for another shock, but nothing happened. "Ashita? Is there something wrong with you? Just now, when I touched you, I think I might have seen what you saw. And I felt another presence. Something... I don't know... parasitic."

"Parasitic?!" Ashita sputtered. Koe's jaw dropped in disbelief.

"Parasitic, eh?" Kainashi looked at Kagome with an appraising eye. "I think I like you more, priestess. You are very perceptive. Parasite is a very good description of what plagues her. It's a life-form that is leeching her life-force from her, mercilessly. With that wound to her heart, she can't maintain her life-force power like a normal youkai, so she's already compromised, and now this. And even better is that that parasite was put there by none other than her own mate."

"Kainashi!" Koe roared, lunging for the green-eyed demon. "I'll rip you apart, you worthless pile of horseshit!"

"STOP IT THIS INSTANT, KOE!" Hiuchimaru's voice boomed like a clap of thunder, and Koe froze in her tracks. The outburst brought all attention to him, and even Opaaru looked intimidated by his father's sudden show of anger.

"Stop this nonsense," the hogosha youkai continued in a brassy, multi-tonal voice. He raised his eyes to Koe, and Kagome noticed a significant change in them; they were shimmering and iridescent rather than their usual stone-gray. It was eerily reminiscent of Nijimaru's eyes, or Kiniromaru's eyes when she had been mad with pain. "I will not tolerate one more outburst from any of you! This is not the time or place for this!"

Koe backed away, her eyes widened. She was clearly submitting, by the look of surprise -- bordering on horror -- on her face. Kainashi didn't look quite as convinced, but she held her tongue and proceeded to fish around in a small pouch belted at her waist, presumably a pouch full of medicinal herbs. As she searched, Traveller hopped onto her shoulder again, curiously resting his beak on her head in a bizarre display of affection.

Kagome turned to Ashita; "This parasite... I can probably get rid of it for you."

Ashita gasped in horror and threw her arms out, hitting Kagome in the shoulders and sending her reeling back. "You stay away from me, if that's what you mean to do!"

"Parasite," Hiuchimaru snorted. "I suppose I can see your point, since parasites live and grow off a host. However, they are unwanted, unwelcome passengers.  This is not the case."

Kagome blinked, trying to figure out what they were talking about.

Hiuchimaru eyed her pointedly after a moment. "What I am saying is, she is not 'infected' with a malicious parasite. She is in-foal."

"In-foal?" Inuyasha repeated, the meaning of the phrase completely lost on him. Meanwhile, Kagome worked her mind around the term and realized what they were saying.

"Oh. My. God." She clapped her hands over her mouth in horror as her face flushed bright red. Immediately, she dropped into a groveling bow. "I'm so sorry, Ashita! I didn't mean to offend you!"

Miroku looked like he'd been hit upside the head with his own staff as he came to the realization of what was going on.

"What the hell?" Inuyasha griped. "What's going on? What's this bullshit about parasites and in-foals?"

"I think that Hiuchimaru is saying that Ashita is pregnant," Sango said in a low voice to Inuyasha.

"Baka-brained broodmares," Kainashi said acidly as she pulled a strange brown plant from her pouch and held it up to the sunlight. "I really shouldn't give this to you, Ashita. Not with boxwood fresh in your system. Such a waste of a perfectly good full dose." She sighed. "Oh well, can't be helped."

The green-eyed mare then clenched the plant in her fist tightly, and her hand glowed a strange blue-green for about five seconds. Then she approached Ashita and knelt down next to her brother. Ashita sighed and tipped her head back, as if exposing her throat to Kainashi. Kainashi, for her part, rolled the crushed plant into a ball and stuck it none-too-gently into Ashita's mouth.

"And you call yourself worthless," Hiuchimaru said finally. "Perhaps now you understand why I refuse to call you by such a name. Without you, she would have died some time ago."

Kainashi sighed. "And yet I can't heal her. I can only postpone the inevitable, in the hopes that this foal will make it through. The location of that puncture is such that all the liferoot in the world can't fully restore her."

Hiuchimaru sighed as well. "Hekigyoku was a marksman with a bow and arrow. It's pure dumb luck that he didn't hit her square in the heart. I can only assume that he meant to hit her directly in the heart. He was a traitor, but he did love Ashita, and resented me because of it. I can't imagine that he would have wanted Ashita to suffer physically. Otherwise, why would he have used his best arrows?"

Kagome trembled. "You mean... I wasn't able to...?" Tears pooled in her eyes. I thought I saved her! "I wasn't able to save you, Ashita?"

"It's alright," Ashita said gently. "I still have time. You gave me that, Kagome. I still have time to raise my foals and produce one last one."

"I don't understand how this works," Miroku said, kneeling beside Kagome. "I thought Kagome fixed the injury?"

"She extracted the arrow and repaired the damage to the physical muscle," Hiuchimaru said. "But there's another 'heart' there, if you will, in all youkai. Our life-force energy resides in a pocket, usually located around the physical heart. Damage to that 'heart' can be fatal. If there is a big enough rupture, the life-force can't be maintained. In her case, the rupture is small, but it leaks constantly. Think of it like a punctured lung. No matter how hard it tries, air still escapes it, and it can't work efficiently. If the puncture is big enough, the lung collapses and is unusable."

Kainashi ran her fingers through her hair. "This plant, called liferoot, is an extremely rare plant that is highly poisonous to humans but to upper-level youkai, those with human-like forms, it can be a powerful healing plant. It boosts the life-force's regenerative capacities, particular in the heart area, where the life. Unfortunately, the plant is most potent when it is fresh out of the ground. It loses potency over time. The only places I've seen this plant growing are on a mountain on Hokkaido, which is very difficult to get to and quite zealously guarded by some tyrannical youkai, and Mt Hakurei. Since the mountain collapsed, all I have are these preserved ones."

"So," Miroku said, starting to comprehend, "you give her this plant in regular doses to heal the injury?"

"No," Kainashi shook her head. "Rather, I give it to her in regular doses to prevent the injury from deteriorating and the rupture from widening. The more she uses this power for these visions, the more strain it puts on her 'heart' and on the life-force flowing through her. It's bad enough already, but with a foal developing in her womb, that's also taxing her life-force quite heavily. Which is why I say you're a fool, Grey-eyes. You should have known better than to get her in-foal when she's in this kind of condition."

"Ahem," Miroku said. "You know, they say it takes two to tango."


"In other words, I imagine this was a mutual decision. I don't see Hiuchimaru forcing his mate to do anything. So this was either an accident or a mutual decision."

"Wasn't an accident," Kainashi snorted. "Not with our family history. There's a reason why Himawari is over a hundred and fifty years older than me, and why I'm a hundred years older than Grey-eyes, who's three-quarters of a century older than Kiniroko. And why only one of the four of us has actually procreated. No, this was no accident. When fertility is as low as our kind seem to be plagued with, foals are born of exhausting preparation. I'm rather stunned, frankly, that you succeeded in conceiving again this soon after your first one, Gray-eyes. It took our mother a century and a half to get in-foal again after Himawari."

"That," Hiuchimaru said irritably, "is immaterial. The monk is right, it was a mutual decision. And it wasn't my idea. I would've been content with only Opaaru to carry on my lineage, but Ashita insisted."

"Such is the fertility legacy of the infamous Meuma of the Eien no Mori," Kainashi sneered. "That crazy broad is still dropping foals, I think. She could repopulate the whole of Japan by herself with just a few males, I'll wager. I hear her daughters are every bit as fecund."

Ashita shifted in her mate's embrace and stretched her arms experimentally. "It's not that simple, Kainashi. Koe is one of Meuma's foals, and she is as barren as you."

"Is she? Or is it that the only male she's bred with has such low fertility as to be sterile?"

"I will remind you," Hiuchimaru growled, "which of us has procreated. Who the hell are you to criticize my fertility?"

"Good grief, give it a rest!" a voice called from overhead. "You two are at it again? Don't you ever stop?"

Sango trembled when she heard that voice. It took her a moment to recognize it, but when she did recognize it, her blood ran cold with memory. From over the trees of the nearby forest appeared the flaming form of a moderate-sized youba,  a fiery-white horse-like apparition whose mane and tail flickered as though they were flames themselves.

The speaker was Himawari, the oldest of the uma-youkai siblings, and the most dangerous. She had flipped out at Hiuchimaru and beaten him severely, breaking several of his ribs and running him ragged in her outrage. It had taken Inuyasha's Wind Scar to knock her out of the fight, and she had taken a nearly direct blow from the attack, and had survived with largely superficial injuries. She was beyond tough, but she despised humans, and her distinct hatred for the taijiya made her doubly perilous for Sango.

Inuyasha's grip on Tetsusaiga tightened momentarily, and the blade began to glimmer with diamond crystals. "Her again, eh?"

"Ah, you again?" Traveller squawked, echoing Inuyasha's sentiment but with a healthy dose of fear and apprehension.

Himawari smirked and reached back, looking like she was reaching for a weapon in her belt. Inuyasha, remembering their last encounter, decided to get the jump on her. He leaped upward, banking off Kirara to give himself some arc, and fired off his newest attack. "ADAMANT BARRAGE!"

Himawari yelped in surprise and, with lightning-fast reflexes, leaped off Shunme to avoid the attack. Shunme, for his part, canceled his levitation and plummeted several feet before recovering his flight, in order to dodge being impaled. Himawari, meanwhile, grabbed two of the diamond spears out of the air as they passed her. Banking off a tree-trunk, she launched herself straight at Inuyasha, and her speed was such that she caught him entirely off-guard. The taiyoukai mare body-slammed him to the ground, and she crossed the two diamond spears at his throat.

"Oi, half-breed," she snarled, "I didn't come here for a fight. I came here as a favor to my sister, but if you insist on attacking me, I won't hold back. And just so you know, you won't be getting the upper hand on me again like you did last time. That same trick won't work on me a second time." She twirled the diamond spears in her hands and pressed them against Inuyasha's throat aggressively. "So, what's it going to be? You wanna fight me? You won't come out so nicely as you did last time, I guarantee you."

"Stop it," Hiuchimaru snapped. "I'm tired of this fighting. Knock it off!"

Inuyasha brought an arm up and pushed Himawari off him. "You leave my friends alone, and I'll leave you alone."

Himawari narrowed her eyes at him and twirled the diamond spears again in her hands, before she hurled them into the ground like a pair of spikes. She tossed her head like a horse and reached back into a pouch belted at her hips.

"Kainashi," she said, eyeing her sister, "here. This is for you. Rumor reached me that you need more of this. I harvested what I could while we were on Hokkaido." She tossed a small leather pouch to Kainashi. "Enmaku said he's pretty certain there's some of that on a mountain on the continent, so I'm going to investigate. He saw it last time he and the runt went there for her training."

Kainashi opened the pouch and pulled out what was inside, and her green eyes grew huge. "This is... this is liferoot! You were able to get to the sacred mountain Reizan?"

Himawari scoffed and puffed out her chest. "Of course. I think you'll find it'll last you at least six months, which is about how long it'll be before I can get back to Hokkaido for another harvest. But be careful with it, Enmaku and I both incurred some injuries getting that. That mountain is becoming bloody dangerous. It's teeming with youba now that Entei is gone. They started gathering when he got sealed, but now that he's completely gone, they've really gone crazy."

"How did you know about this?" Hiuchimaru asked, suspicious. "How did you know where to look for it?"

"Huh? Just who exactly do you think you're talking to?" Himawari arched an eyebrow at him. "Who do you think first showed that plant to Kainashi? If anyone can find liferoot, it's me!"

"Why are you doing this?" Koe asked, her voice laced with suspicion even heavier than Hiuchimaru's. "Last time you were here, you were ready to kill us all."

"I was not. I was angry and I let my temper get the better of me. And no thanks to that runt of Enmaku's, I've been swimming in guilt lately, so I thought I'd try to recompense for it. I can see you're really grateful, too."

Ashita tensed. "Runt? You mean his daughter Yume?"

"Yeah, you know her, eh?"

"Of course I know her. I'm her mother," Ashita murmured, her hands trembling as she gripped her mate's clothing. "He took her away from me when she was only a few months old. Said I was a bad influence."

"Eh?" Himawari's light-grey eyes widened. "Oh, that explains his bitterness!"


"No wonder Enmaku denounces you so vehemently, Ashita. He probably felt threatened by you. He keeps going on and on about what a fraud you and Koe are, something that has never sat right with me. I know that Koe's voice is far-reaching, and I've never known her to claim it to reach to the land of the dead, but I wouldn't be surprised if it can. That was Kuroshima that said that, if I recall correctly. And I've been around prescient youkai before. You're not the only one with a vision toward the future. It's more of a curse than a blessing."

Ashita heaved a sigh; "You could say that. Flint, I think I can stand now. I feel a lot better now." Hiuchimaru nodded silently and stood up, helping her to her feet. Mimiko still clung to her mother's torso, tucked in between the silk of Ashita's kimono and the cotton yukata underneath.

"Phew," Himawari said with a wrinkle of her nose. "Wind changes are ill blessings sometimes. So, your spawn is human now, eh?"

Hiuchimaru narrowed his eyes, and he brought his hands together in a bizarre hand-gesture, activating a shield around his mate. "Back off," he growled. "You come within ten feet of her, and I'll rip you to pieces."

"I'd like to see you try, Grey-eyes." Himawari rotated her shoulders idly as if trying to work out some kinks in her joints. "You don't have what it takes to kill me. You're too soft. You might be strong enough in power and body, but you could never harden your heart enough to kill me."

"Didn't say I'd kill you, did I. I said I'll rip you to pieces, and I mean it. It would be meaningless to kill you."

"So what is Yume doing that's making you 'swim in guilt' as you say?" Koe interrupted.

"She projects dreams," Himawari said. "Hence her name. Apparently Father is pissed with me. He's been pestering her relentlessly, and she's been projecting onto me." She shifted uncomfortably. "There's nothing like getting dressed down by a dead old man when you're trying to sleep. Pretty hard to get any rest that way."

"I wonder what his spirit looks like now," Kainashi said with a chuckle. "Vain old bastard that he was, you'd never guess he was mere decades away from dying of old age. And if I recall correctly, he always changed his hair-color to match his favorite mount."

Himawari snorted. "His name meant Rainbow. You think he wasn't infatuated with color and vanity? Remember, he named himself."

Kainashi stiffened. "No, I don't remember that. I barely remember what he looked like, except that he had rainbow eyes and could mold his appearance subtly to disguise his age."

Finally, Hiuchimaru succumbed to his anger and drew his blade, striking a spark as he did so, but managing to contain it. "Himawari, I don't know why you're still here, but considering your previous actions, I'll thank you to get away from my family. Now. I'm not in the mood to put up with you."

"Aww, so I'm not part of your family anymore, eh? And you're never in the mood to deal with me. Well, whatever. I have bigger and better things to do. Just don't you forget who's got your back, Grey-eyes! You think I don't know what Kainashi's using that liferoot for? She doesn't need it herself, so it's for one of you clowns, and I can guarantee it ain't that little spawn. Liferoot would kill her. I can guess who is using it. It doesn't take much brain exercise. Shunme!" She looked up over her head for her mount. The youba swung down to hover right over her and she leaped up onto his back. "Let's go. We've got a long trip ahead of us. Oh, and Kowairo!" She looked down. The bird, Traveller, responded with a start. "Watch over my sister, or I'll have to pluck your feathers. Ja na!" With a cocky salute, she and Shunme rose up and zoomed off over the trees, out of sight.

"Kowairo?" Opaaru repeated the name awkwardly. "Voice mimicry?"

"I hate that name," Traveller muttered. "Your grandsire gave it to me, Opaaru. I wasn't out of the egg but half a year when he gave it to me, and it stuck. I prefer my name of Traveller."

"Which grandsire?" Opaaru tipped his head. "I have two, you know. Of course, I never met either one."

"My father," Hiuchimaru said. "Traveller was a retainer of Nijimaru's long before he was ever mine or Midori's. Opaaru, you've met Nijimaru, you just don't remember him; you were quite young, not much older than Mimiko is now. And, Traveller, he gave you that name for a reason: because you can mimic voices, to such a precise degree. He didn't mean anything untoward by it."

Kainashi was looking bewilderedly at the small pouch in her hand. "I can't believe Himawari did that for... for us... Father must really be a fearsome beast in the afterlife if he's intimidated her enough to do that. I hope he doesn't get angry with me and do something like that to me!"

"You give her far too little credit, Greeneyes," Hiuchimaru said as he sheathed Kiribitou and flipped a latch on the scabbard. "She's unstable with her moods, but when she feels charitable enough, she'll go to the ends of the earth for someone, just to be nice. My main concern with her around my family is how swiftly her moods can change from benign to violent. I'm not as concerned about Koe and Opaaru as I am about Ashita and Mimiko." He turned slightly, eyeing Koe as he did. "Now do you see what I mean when I say Himawari is better than me? There's no way in hell I could have dodged those... whatever they were. Nevermind grab a pair of them and go on the offense. If she weren't so unstable and arrogant, I think you'd do well to spar with her. I think you could learn a few things from her."

Ashita heaved a gusty sigh. "Our lives have become far too interesting, you know that, Flint? Bleh!"

"There's a saying on the Continent," Traveller said brightly. "They say it's a curse: May your life be interesting."

Opaaru rolled his eyes and hurled a rock at the bird. Traveller managed to see the rock coming and just barely dodged it with a loud squawk of indignation. However, his squawk startled Kainashi, who peevishly swatted the bird off her shoulder with a loud slap, sending the parrot-like youkai into a nearby sapling.

Koe languidly stretched her arms and back, yawning as she did. Her ability to change moods as a situation required was impressive -- she went from easy-going and laid back to hostile and defensive in an eyeblink if a threat emerged, but once that threat was gone, she relaxed again. Hiuchimaru chuckled a bit at her mannerisms and turned to his visitors.

"Where are you headed? I assume you're just passing through."

"A village on the outskirts of Edo," Miroku replied. "We're kind of running out of time too; we want to be there by nightfall, and it's a long way."

"How long will it take you?"

"A good six hours or so."

"Edo, eh?" The forest guardian glanced off to the southwest, the general direction of Edo. "Well, if you can spare a little time to rest, give me about half an hour to recover my strength, I can give you a ride at least half the way in about an hour or less. Can't guarantee to be able to go any further than that, but I can at least get you about half the way there in less than half the time it would take you to get that far."

"And why would you do that for us, baka-uma?" Inuyasha's eyes narrowed slightly.

"Er," Hiuchimaru clearly wasn't expecting that question. "Two reasons: one, because you are friends and I can probably help you out; and two, because I'd like to know just how far from the forest I can go before it yanks back on the leash. I know I can get to the outskirts of the Niji no Mori, which is about halfway between here and Edo."

Kirara purred at the suggestion, a clear indication of her fatigue after several days of hard travel and battle. Inuyasha glanced at the firecat and sighed. "Yeah, I suppose it can't hurt."

"What is this, anyway?" Ashita's brow folded up in concentration as she moved her hand to hover just inches from Kagome's face. "That has to be the weirdest barrier I've ever seen, and I can't believe I never noticed it before. Flint, have you seen this?"

"What, the way time moves around her? Yeah. Pretty impressive, isn't it?"

"Impressive?" Ashita raised an eyebrow at her mate. "Hardly. It means she's not from this dimension, or time period. She's... oh my, yikes." Ashita withdrew her hand, pressing it instead against her forehead. "Oh there goes the liferoot again, giving me strange visions. I hate when it does that."

Kainashi snorted. "A plant as strong as liferoot has side effects, of course. It's trying to repair your heart of power; of course it's going to trigger stuff, especially when you have too much boxwood in your system already."

"Eww!" Opaaru clapped his hands over his face. "What is that awful smell?"

Hiuchimaru grimaced, as did Ashita. Shippo and Kirara both looked slightly disgusted. Shippo covered his face with his little paws, and Kirara's ears swept back into a feline expression of annoyance.

Kagome looked over at Inuyasha in bewilderment; he normally had the sharpest sense of smell and responded first to weird scents. Why wasn't he...? Oh no! I forgot! It's the new moon tonight, which means he's already losing his enhanced senses!

Apparently, Kagome wasn't the only one to notice this. Koe crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes; "Oi, why aren't you reacting? Don't you have the bloodhound nose of your group?"

"Why aren't you reacting? You're a horse demon, aren't you?" Inuyasha retorted, caught off guard by the unexpected twist.

Koe snorted. "Are you serious? Haven't we already established that I have a lousy sense of smell and hearing? That's partly why I'm unofficially ostracized from the main herds, why I have to tag along with my sister and her family: because I'm considered useless to most herds. My sense of smell is no better than a human's, and my hearing is no better except at close range."

"I see," Ashita said, her expression becoming more and more grave. "That explains quite a bit."

"What?" Kagome felt her throat go dry. She had a sinking feeling she knew what Ashita was talking about, though.

"My Sight is fragile," the mare said by way of reply. "But there are some things it can always pick up. Immutable things. Things that happen regularly, regardless of circumstances. I can tell you exactly when the sun will rise tomorrow, or the next day, or the next... in fact, I can tell you the exact time of sunrise or sunset for any date in the future. I can tell you exactly when the next solar or lunar eclipse will happen. Or meteor showers. Events that happen at exact times, and are independent of mitigating circumstances, I can see those. Events that are triggered by these cosmic events are, likewise, something of an open book to me. The trick is, in most cases I don't bother to notice them unless they're within 24 hours of occurring."

Inuyasha's eyes narrowed. "So you're saying that you can see..."

"In your case? Yes."

"Huh?" Shippo tilted his head, hands still over his nose.

Inuyasha reacted in typical fashion, and Kagome just barely caught on to what he was planning to do in time to stop him. When the hanyou crouched to lunge at Ashita, Kagome barked out a sharp "SIT BOY!" to stop him.

Slam! Inuyasha went nose-first into the ground.

"Why you... who's side are you on, anyway?" he raged from the dent he'd made in the ground.

"Don't you lay a finger on her," Kagome snapped, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Hiuchimaru had moved to stand in front of his mate, his claws extended and his right hand hovering over Kiribitou's hilt. Koe was likewise poised to attack or defend. "You are such a moron, Inuyasha. How can you even think of attacking her?!"

"Dammit, she's going to blab my most guarded secret, and you're on her side? What the hell?!"

"Did I even say anything about 'blabbing' it?" Ashita frowned. "I could tell from the outset today what it was. But you'll notice I never said anything about it earlier? Just as I won't tell you when Mimiko's cycles occur, so will I also not reveal your own triggers."

"What was that?" Opaaru's eyes had grown huge as he stared at Inuyasha, still prone on the ground. He looked over at Kagome. "How did you do that?"

"It's an incantation that an old priestess gave me, to control him. He tends to get a little out of hand."

"Bah, that smell is getting worse," Hiuchimaru grumbled, covering his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his kimono. "Whatever it is, it's getting closer."

"Oh my," Koe added. "Now I can smell it. It smells like..."

"Horses," Shippo said. "It smells like stinky, sweaty horses."

"Well," Opaaru admitted, "I smell horses, but I also smell... dragon droppings. It smells like horses who've rolled in dragon droppings!"

"I know this smell," Ashita said, her face going a shade paler. "It's... it's Meuma's herd."

"Figures," Kainashi said with a flick of her hand, tossing something over her shoulder.. "She's the only mare crazy enough to go near a dragon's valley."

"Meuma? You don't say?" Koe snarled. "I got a few things I could say to her, but I think I'll let my claws do the talking for me."

"No you won't," Hiuchimaru retorted severely. "You'll leave her alone, is what you'll do. I'll just steer her clear of the forest. She's no longer a herd-mare for the Eien no Mori."

"Too late," Kainashi said, glancing over her shoulder. "I can hear the horses. They're about half a kilometer a way. Running at full gallop. Like they're being chased or something."

Hiuchimaru cursed blackly and made a gesture with his hands, like he was indicating something should open, and then shut. "Ashita, you take the foals and get into the forest. Koe, you go with her. Greeneyes, you're staying here with me."

Ashita climbed onto her black horse, Opaara got onto his large bay gelding, and Koe shooed a few other horses along behind them as they fled into the forest. Once they'd passed the boundary, Hiuchimaru made another gesture, and a noticeable barrier activated.

"Is that really necessary, Grey-eyes?" Kainashi crossed her arms. "This is just the Meuma. I mean, those are her daughters, after all. You think she'd actually try to kill them?"

"If she smells Mimiko, she will."

"Huh," Kainashi said. "You want me to take her out? I can. She's getting on in years, she can't be as fast as she was. Certainly can't be anything like Himawari."

"No reason to kill her."

"Suit yourself, Grey-eyes."

What approached was about two dozen lathered horses of varying colors and sizes, guided by a quartet of uma-youkai. The leader of the quartet was a buxom, hard-faced female with a very equine countenance. She bore a striking resemblance to Koe, but her features were much more prominently equine than even Koe's were. A mane of glorious, fiery red-gold hair cascaded unbound from  her scalp. She rode an iron gray cob, looking for all the world like an amazon on a warhorse.

Hiuchimaru stepped into the pathway, blocking the road. Kagome randomly got a mental image of him standing on a bridge, holding a staff and proclaiming "You cannot pass!"

I knew I shouldn't have gone to the movies with Yuka and Eri last time I was home. Oh man, that movie is going to be haunting me.

"You may not pass," Hiuchimaru said, to Kagome's endless amusement. Inuyasha glared at her with his "what-the-fuck-is-so-damned-funny?" expression.

"Who the hell are you to tell me where I may and may not go, you suckling?" the lead mare -- Meuma, apparently -- snapped peevishly. "Where the hell's Kuroshima? Damned idiot's letting new-weaned runts strut around like they own the place."

"You have been gone for a while, haven't you?" Kainashi deadpanned. "Kuroshima's been dead for a long time. This 'new-weaned runt' is his successor."

The lead mare glared at Kainashi, trying to intimidate her, but Kainashi was having none of it. "You're joking, right? While I can believe that Kuroshima has carked it, you don't seriously expect me to believe that this colt is the new guardian of this idiotic forest, do you?"

"Not new," Hiuchimaru replied, crossing his arms. "I've been here a quarter of a century already. I'm not as young as I look."

Meuma scoffed. "You call yourself the guardian of the Eien no Mori, and yet you're standing outside its boundaries. Don't make me laugh. No guardian of that forest has ever been able to leave its borders once they take the post."

"Feel free to try me," Hiuchimaru answered. "If you're challenging me, I'll let you. You're not entering my forest."

"Meuma," the male in her group said to the lead mare, "we can't stand around here all day!"

Meuma glowered. "Well, we can't go back, and apparently we can't go forward, because this runt won't let us. What do you suggest we do, Rengoku? Fly?"

"Pay toll or whatever to get passage through, and the fuck with your goddamn pride, you crazy mare," the stallion retorted. "We've got a pack of pissed-off ookami-youkai on our asses, and these horses are about to drop. What do you suggest we do? Stand around and get blindsided?"

A hand came to Inuyasha's shoulder, gaining his attention.

"I think it's wisest if we retreat to the forest edge too," Miroku said. "We don't want to get caught up in this. We have nothing to do with it, but standing around here like this is just asking to get caught in the crossfire."

"Why don't we just blow this place? We got no reason to hang around."

"Well, Kirara's exhausted, and  Hiuchimaru offered to give us a ride at least half the distance. And you... you've got to be tired." The monk left it at that, choosing not to even say what everyone knew; with his monthly transformation a mere five or six hours away, Inuyasha was rapidly losing all his youkai enhancements, including his incredible stamina. Even though as a human Inuyasha had more strength and stamina than just about any human Miroku had ever met, the fact remained that without his youkai abilities, he tired much more easily than usual.

"Fucking hell," the hanyou sighed. "I hate this. I really, really fucking hate this." Nevertheless, he cooperated, and followed his friends over to where the resident uma-youkai were gathered just inside the forest boundary.

Koe was furious beyond belief. She was clinging to a nearby tree, her claws gouging the bark right off the sturdy trunk.

"Damn him, I swear, just give me thirty seconds to show her what I think of her!" the mare grumbled. "She fucking abandoned me!"

Ashita was sitting propped up against the same tree, looking at her sister with a mixture of tolerance and annoyance. "Koe, that was a long, long time ago, and I've told you before that Meuma is known for doing that. She did that with me, as a matter of fact."

"No, she left you with your father. She abandoned me with a creepy forest guardian who was going to kill me in five minutes if you hadn't shown up."

Ashita sighed heavily; "There you go again. Same old argument. I'm not in the mood for this. I don't like it when you talk badly about my father. I know you didn't like him, but I loved him dearly." She looked out at where her mate stood motionlessly in the road, refusing to allow Meuma's herd to pass into the Eien no Mori.

"Unless I miss my guess," Traveller said from his perch over their heads. "That stallion that's with them is none other than Rengoku."

"Rengoku?" Opaaru looked up at the bird. "Who's that?"

"Koe's sire," the bird drawled. "Not sure what all he can do, but he's got quite a reputation all over the country."

"Ugh," Ashita held her hand over her mouth and nose. "I thought I caught a whiff of it, but now I'm sure. That horrible stink we thought was Meuma's herd, that smells like dragon excreta, is actually still moving. It's wolves. There are ookami-youkai headed this way. Probably chasing Meuma's herd."

Kagome shook her head when she felt her friends' eyes on her. "Not Koga. Or if it is, he's lost all his jewel shards. The only jewel shard I can sense at all is this one right here," she tapped the little glass bottle she kept the fragment in whenever possible. "I'm pretty sure it's not Koga."

"Good," Inuyasha snorted. "Last thing I want is that stinking wolf-cub hanging around."

"There they are," Koe said, her eyes pinned to a spot on the horizon. "Looks like there's about a dozen or so of them. That's quite a pack for around here. Wonder what Flint's going to do about them?"

Ashita chuckled... and it wasn't a nice chuckle. "Too bad we aren't omnivorous, eh, Koe? I think we'll be seeing some roasted wolf here in about ten minutes."

"Is that precognizant?" Miroku asked. "Do you see it coming?"

"Of course not," Ashita retorted. "Too close in time. I've never been able to foresee something that close to happening. My visions are always at least twelve hours away. But it doesn't take a lot of brain-work to know what Flint is going to do. He's got a nasty, nasty scar on his torso -- front and back -- from a pack of ookami-youkai, and thus he doesn't suffer them in his presence at all. Any wolves foolish enough to get within range of him are going to be killed."

"And here I thought he preached about the uselessness of vengeance," Inuyasha spat. "Fucking hypocrite."

"Hey," Ashita said angrily, looking up at him but remaining seated. "Don't talk about him like you know what he thinks. This isn't out of vengeance that he does that. Those wolves are dangerous, and he gives them ample opportunity to escape. He'll usually even warn them. He's doing it right now, though I'm guessing you can't hear it; he does it subsonic. If they get within range, he blasts them. He views them as a major threat to the survival of his family and forest. If he takes some satisfaction out of frying the wolves to a crisp, well, who the hell are you to judge him for it?"

Inuyasha held her gaze firmly, refusing to submit by looking away, but his silence was enough admission on his part that he knew he'd erred. After almost a full sixty seconds of a stare-down, Ashita looked away, though the tilt of her chin was not of submission, but of finality. She was done with the conversation.

Opaaru leaped from his horse's back onto a tree branch and shinnied his way up to a higher one. His mother looked up at him, slightly alarmed. "What are you doing, Opaaru?"

"I want to see what he's gonna do. He won't teach me that technique!"

"Ever think that there's a reason for it, runt?" Koe growled. "You're too young to be messing with demonfire."

Shippo, who was perched on Kagome's shoulder, snickered at that.

Kainashi ducked down just as Hiuchimaru leaped upward, spinning into a transformation, scaring off half of Meuma's herd as he did so.

"Aww, darn," Opaaru said disappointedly. "He's going to do it that way, huh? Figures. He won't show me how to transform either."

"You're too young!" Ashita snapped. "Now get down from of there, before you get hurt!"

The colt monkeyed his way down the tree trunk to the ground, while out in the clearing beyond the forest, the giant spirit horse unleashed a barrage of blue demonfire. As Ashita had said, the wolves had ample opportunity to escape, but didn't, and they paid the highest price possible.

"Oh no," Koe said softly as she watched. "Flint, for the love of God, no, don't -- " She dug her claws deeper into the wood of the tree. "Please don't!"

Too late, though, apparently; a couple of Meuma's horses got caught in the crossfire, and Hiuchimaru ruthlessly cut them down with his demonfire. The horses screamed even as the living breath was seared out of them. Kagome ground her jaws in agitation; she'd heard rabbits scream in snares before, but this sound was a whole new level of wrong.

"I'll scratch him good for that, Ashita," Koe said, glancing at her sister. "Scratch him up on arm and down the other."

"Mmm," Ashita replied tensely. "Bite him while you're at it. I'd bite him myself, but he'd probably think it was foreplay. God, I hate it when he gets rough like that. He knows how uma-youkai react to a horse dying like that!"

Finally, the melee ended. Meuma started to rant at Hiuchimaru for the deaths of some of her horses, but the spirit horse just stamped a foot angrily and glared at her. Finally, the mare thought better of making too much of a fuss and she and her herd beat a hasty retreat.

"Flint, I'm gonna kick your ass from here to Hokkaido for that!" Koe yelled. "You goddamn, senseless, bugger-brained asshole! And, Ashita's going to help me, too! So you just prepare yourself to be completely black and blue!"

Kainashi snorted with laughter. "I'm not a part of this, but I'll witness."

The spirit horse folded himself down until he was curled up on the ground like a foal. I'm sorry. I had no other choice. I didn't want to hit them, but they got in the way. In any case, I think that we should get going, if I am going to convey our friends any distance. Now is as good a time as any.


Ashita, you and the filly are coming with me. You'll be safest that way. Koe, you stay here with Greeneyes and Opaaru. The rest of you, the horse turned its shimmering gray eyes to Inuyasha and his friends, if you're going to take me up on the offer, now is the time to get aboard. I'm not going to have the energy to return to this form again for another couple of hours once I switch out.

Inuyasha turned to his friends; "So, we can go now, yes? I really want to be far away from that accursed mountain. That's got nothing but bad memories for me."

Miroku sighed. "One track mind. I should have known better than to expect anything else of you." He turned to his female companions. "Well, ladies, shall we go?"

Abruptly, Shippo leaped from Kagome's shoulder to land on Opaaru's.

"Oi, squirt, we're leaving. What the hell? You staying here?"

"No," Shippo said, scrambling across the colt's shoulders. "I just wanted to say goodbye, since you're too proud to." The the kitsune wrapped his tiny arms around the young uma-youkai's neck in an impromptu hug. "We'll meet again, Opaaru! When we both grow up into great youkai, we'll meet again. That's a promise!"

The colt giggled and rubbed Shippo's furry head. "I look forward to it! I can't wait to see what a real kitsune adult looks like. And if Father never teaches me how to use demonfire, perhaps you can."

"Hmph! Kitsune fire can't be used by you crazy horses!" Shippo was grinning. "And when I'm grown up, I'll show you that it's nothing to laugh at either! I'm just too small to do much with it; my papa used to be even better with his kitsune fire than your father is with his whatever-kind-of-demonfire!"

The kitsune leaped onto Koe's shoulders, rubbing against her in a manner that reminded Kagome starkly of her cat begging for scraps. Koe smiled and pet the little fox without comment.

All while this was happening, Ashita had climbed up onto the spirit horse's back and was now perched on its withers, lacing her fingers in the flaxen mane. Her daughter still clung to her torso like a baby monkey.

Good god, Kagome thought, I need to not think about my zoology homework so much! I'm reading all kinds of strange descriptions into stuff!

Miroku and Sango bowed their gratitude to Opaaru and Koe. Kagome did as well, but as she turned, she found herself almost toe-to-toe with Kainashi.

"Here," the green-eyed mare said, holding out a small handful of plants. "I've heard these work really good on humans. Crush them and use them in a poultice, and they work wonders on aching muscles. They don't work for shit on youkai, but they do work on the horses, and Traveller says that some of the humans around here use them. Consider this my thanks for your help with my brother's family. My brother is all I have left right now, until I find myself again."

"Uh," Kagome said intelligently, taking the plants slowly. "Er, thanks.... er...."

"Midoriko," the mare said with a smile when she saw Kagome searching for a name. "I think I'll revert to it. Your friend is right. I'm from noble stock; if I can be broken by someone as lame as Naraku, then I really am worthless and not worth my heritage." The mare looked over at Inuyasha. "Inuyasha, was it? Someday, perhaps, when I find myself, we can fight properly. I'd like to test my skills against those diamonds of yours."

"Good fucking luck," Inuyasha snarked. "But I'll keep it in mind. C'mon, Kagome, Miroku, Sango, runt, let's go!"



For an hour and a half, they soared over Japan's countryside, ticking off the miles effortlessly. Kagome noticed that Miroku had lapsed into his old habits, and was actually hitting on Ashita. The mare, however, was oblivious to the advances. She seemed to be enjoying the flight, and was idly plaiting her mate's mane.

After the first half hour, though, the mare started to wise up to what the monk was doing, and when she figured it out, she threatened him with her claws. Inuyasha, knowing that the monk had brought it on himself, just laughed when Miroku tried to appeal to him for help.

"Ashita?" Kagome asked as the flight progressed. "Can I ask you something?"


"Does it bother you? The wound, I mean?"

"It hurts, yes, but I live with it."

"I'm sorry I wasn't able to fix it for you."

Ashita snorted softly. "You gave me a precious gift, Kagome. You gave me time. I couldn't ask for anything more than that. I have time to prepare my family for when I leave them. And I have time to give Flint one more foal."

Even if that foal is costing you your life sooner than we'd like? Hiuchimaru turned his great head to eye her gravely. I really didn't want that, you know. I'd rather have you than another foal, if this other foal means you die. I thought you understood that.

"I'm not going anywhere yet, you worry-wort," she giggled and thumped the big chestnut neck. "And your sister is with us to help now."

Such as that can be, the horse said. We can't presume that Himawari will ever do that again, you know. Even if she does find liferoot on the continent, I think she was using it herself.

"Oh my god," Ashita said softly, looking down. "Is that.... is that the Niji no Mori?"

What stretched out below them was the desolate remains of a pillaged and burned out forest. Tree carcasses lay everywhere, some burned, some just carved up. It was a far cry from the majestic forest Kagome remembered from just over seven or eight months ago.

Yes. What's left of it. Father's death really doomed it. There's a small part of it that's untouched, the part that's ruled by a very old magnolia tree, but the rest of it is destroyed. Father chose his successor poorly.

"Who was his successor?" Ashita's face looked almost pained as she observed the remains of a once-powerful youkai forest.

My sister. Kiniroko. She wanted no part of being a hogosha youkai, I think. But she had the talent. She would have made a good one, if she had only opened herself up to it. But she was... narrowminded. Or so I gather from the gossipmongering trees.

"If I recall correctly," Miroku pondered, "she said she was too hateful to be a good one. She had too many grudges she couldn't give up."

Very strange, given how close she was to Father. I'd've thought Father's teachings would reach her a little more deeply than that. More so than Midoriko or Himawari, since Mother died when Kiniroko was so young. I guess she must have inherited Mother's stupid pride.

The pace began to slow.

It appears this is my limit. The forest is starting to tug back on my reins. I can't go much further.

"We thank you," Miroku said solemnly. "You've cut more than half out of our journey. We should have no trouble getting to Kaede's village by sundown."

The spirit horse's flaming hooves touched down on the ground. No sooner had the group gotten off than the youkai spun down into his humanoid form, and sank to one knee. "Oh, whoa... that took more out of me than I expected."

Ashita put an arm around her mate. "We can walk back, I think. At least until you get your strength back."

"We'll have to." The hogosha youkai coughed heavily and took several deep, gasping breaths.

Sango approached the forest guardian and bowed. "Again, thank you for your hospitality, however brief it was."

"Naah, don't mention it. I would hardly call that hospitality. But you are welcome, nevertheless. Take care of yourselves, all of you. I don't know who this Naraku is that you seek, but I can imagine he's not someone to trifle with."

"You don't need to tell us that, baka-uma." Inuyasha grumbled.

"But, if we ever meet again, I do hope it's under better circumstances than what we've had so far," Sango added quickly. "These haven't exactly been friendly conditions."

Ashita's face became somber. "I have the feeling we won't ever meet again. I can't explain how I know this, since I usually can't see that far out, but..."

Miroku bowed before the mare; "I apologize if I offended you earlier. I didn't mean anything untoward by it. Take care of yourself, since we probably won't see you again. Er, I hope your foal is born healthy and strong."

"C'mon, you guys, let's get going." Inuyasha said "We're burning daylight, as Kagome would say." He crouched down, to allow Kagome to clamber onto his back. Shippo perched in Kagome's hair, waving enthusiastically to the two youkai behind them. Miroku and Sango climbed aboard Kirara and followed as Inuyasha launched off.

"So," Hiuchimaru said, "why did he try to attack you earlier?"

"Because I know when his human cycles are. But I'm not going to tell you, because it's none of your business," Ashita combed her fingers through her mate's hair affectionately. "Just as I didn't tell them about Mimiko's cycles, so I won't reveal his cycles to anyone. I know them because they're dictated by the moon, and I can see the phases of the moon."

"You're a good person, Ashita. Much too good a person." Hiuchimaru heaved himself to his feet. "Let's go home."

THE END. (no, really!)


Original characters and the origins of their names:
Nijimaru: (male) hogosha taiyoukai guardian of Niji no Mori. His true form is a large chestnut spirit-horse. Deceased (killed by Sesshomaru). His name means "Rainbow Circle" and refers primarily to his eye color.
Saoirse: (female) uma-youkai leader of a herd patrolling the Niji no Mori; originated far to the west of Japan (on "the Main Land" near Europe). Deceased (killed by the taijiya). Name origin: "saoirse" is the Gaelic word for "freedom" and since Saoirse is from the continent, it seems more appropriate.
Himawari (born Hanako): (female) daughter of Nijimaru and Saoirse. Transient uma-taiyoukai. She has an affinity with plants and nature, and often serves as a messenger of sorts. Her name means "sunflower" (which was Saoirse's favorite flower)
Kainashi (born Midoriko): (female) second daughter of Nijimaru and Saoirse. She is a healer and herbalist. Her self-appointed name means "worthless" and is indicative of her ongoing identity and self-esteem crises.
Hiuchimaru (born Hai'iro): (male) son of Nijimaru and Saoirse. Guardian of the Eien no Mori at the base of Mt Hakurei. His name means "flint circle" and refers to his supremacy over flint; this also gives rise to his nickname of "Flint" amongst his family. (His birth name of Hai'iro -- "gray" -- refers to the color of his eyes)
Kiniromaru (born Kiniroko): (female) daughter of Nijimaru and Saoirse; leader of a band of uma-youkai patrolling the Niji no Mori. Deceased (killed by Inuyasha). Her name means "golden circle"
Opaaru: (male) juvenile uma-youkai; son of Hiuchimaru and Ashita. The only offspring of Hiuchimaru. His name means Opal, referring to his eyes.
Ashita (born Moriko): (female) hogosha/uma-youkai; ancestral ruler of the Eien no Mori, daughter of the previous guardian; formal mate of Hiuchimaru and mother of Opaaru; she is faintly precognizant and can see possible futures up to 48 hours in advance. Her name literally means "tomorrow"
Koe (born Manatsu): (female) younger half-sister of Ashita; she has a particularly powerful voice and can sometimes speak to souls in other dimensions or time periods. Her name literally means "voice"
Mimiko: (female) hanyou daughter of Ashita and a human monk, formally adopted by Hiuchimaru. Her name literally means "ears"
Kuroshima: (male) previous guardian of the Eien no Mori; Ashita's sire. Deceased (cause of death undisclosed). His name means "black island" but isn't indicative of anything about him..
Meuma (birth name unknown): (female) once-dominant female uma-youkai in the Eien no Mori. Mother of Ashita and Koe. Her name is her title as lead mare of the herd. ("meuma" means female horse, or mare)
Rengoku: (male) a consort of Meuma. Sire of Koe. His name means "purgatory"
Enmaku: (male) a male uma-youkai from the mainland; current mate of Himawari; sire of Ashita's daughter Yume. His name means "smokescreen"
Yume: (female) a juvenile uma-youkai; daughter of Ashita and Enmaku; still follows her father and his current mate because she hasn't learned how to protect herself. Her name means "dream"
Shunme: (male) Himawari's youba partner. His name means "swift horse"
Kiribitou: (no gender) Hiuchimaru's demonblade, made of flint and infused with the malevolent soul of a fire elemental. Its name roughly means "flint-spark sword"
Traveller (also known as Kowairo): (male) transient bird youkai with an uncanny ability to mimic any sound he's ever heard and remembers. An old friend of Nijimaru, and by extension, of Kainashi and Hiuchimaru. His Japanese name of Kowairo means "vocal mimicry"

ashita - "tomorrow" or the near future
enmaku - "smokescreen"
hai'iro - "gray color"
hana - "flower"
himawari - "sunflower"
hiuchi - "flint"
"ja na" - a colloquial way of saying "goodbye"
kainashi - "worthless; useless; hopeless"
kin'iro - "golden color"
-ko - (feminine suffix)
koe - "voice"
koppa - a worthless thing or person
kouma - "colt" or "filly" (basically, baby horse)
kowairo - "vocal mimicry" (a voice that imitates)
kuro - "black"
kutabarizokonai - "worthless" (of a person); somebody who wouldn't be missed if they died
-maru - "circle" (also, a masculine suffix)
meuma - "mare" (female horse)
mimi - "ear(s)"
mori - "forest"
nee-chan - "older sister" (familiar; used to address)
niji - "rainbow"
ookami - "wolf"
reizan - "sacred mountain"
rengoku - "purgatory"
shima - "island"
taijiya - "demon exterminator" (roughly)
uma - "horse"
yume - "dream" or "vision"