InuYasha Fan Fiction ❯ Possession ❯ ThirtyFour ( Chapter 34 )
[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]
A/N: Hey that wasn't a long wait at all this time. I recently edited all the previous chapters of this story (sorry for those of you that got multiple notifications) and I have to say I'm happy with the results. Thanks again to everyone for their kind reviews and encouragement! I truly appreciate it.
For a very long time, Kagome kept perfectly still and told herself that it was just another nightmare. In her mind, still murky and drifting, she kept seeing him die. Inuyasha standing helpless as a swarm of monsters descended, his body toppling under their mass. She could see him falling, his expression frozen in time, a blank vision of unseen terror.
She screamed, her voice shattering over the hillside, the sound caught like needles in her throat. Then darkness, pain, and a welling sense of dread that left her head aching, her body stiff and cold. Unable to stop herself, she died with him again and again, each time sharper and distinct with the panicked thunder of her pulse.
The dream was so real. As badly as she wanted to wake, her body seemed to be unable to move. Cold had seeped into her muscles, her back and shoulders, until she felt like they had become as stone. So cold, she must have died with him. It must be a nightmare; either that or it was death.
If Inuyasha was truly lost to her now, death might be last thing they could share.
Gradually she became aware that she wasn't dreaming. She was just remembering, staring straight up at the cracked ceiling without seeing it, without even the awareness of what she was looking at or why. The cracks were like a spider's web and her eyelids twitched slightly, following the web back to the center as if somewhere in the image she might find herself.
A shadow passed suddenly over her face and she gasped, throwing out both hands to ward off a blow. The hand paused, retreated, and returned again with a cool, dry touch to her forehead.
“Kagome, can you hear me?”
No, I don't hear a damn thing.
“Kagome, wake up. You need to wake up.”
She rolled her head to the side, gritting her teeth as pain jumped from the back of her skull to her temples. It made her want to retch, but even more…the pain made her furious. The anger gave her strength and her eyes narrowed to slits, and Kagome found a way to force herself to speak.
“You bastard,” she whispered, her lips cracking around the words. Kohaku's face floated sideways, standing out sharp and miserable from the gloomy shadows. It took all of her strength just to move her head, but she managed. Rolling to the side, she put her arms under her body to shift her hips and Kagome forced herself to sit up halfway. It made her feel like a weak invalid and bile stung the back of her throat as she crawled away from Kohaku to lean against the wall.
Her head was still spinning, aching fiercely, but she was able to look around and take stock of her situation. The slanted gray walls, stones that looked like they had piled by a child's careless hand…they must be inside the ruined temple. In the far corner, a single lamp offered meager light for her surroundings and when she turned her face towards the open door, she could see only darkness.
The floor was gritty, filthy and covered with greasy-looking stains. It stank too, like death had come to rest here and left flesh behind to decay. When she raised her hands, she could see her palms were black with whatever had been left behind and her throat convulsed, fighting the urge to vomit.
“What have you done?” she murmured, not looking at the silent Kohaku. “Why, Kohaku? Why did you betray us like this?”
He didn't answer, kept staring at the floor as if the words would be too painful for her to hear. Kagome wiped her dirty hands on her no less filthy hakama and sighed. She wanted to be angry, she wanted to scream and wail and shriek her despair until the rest of this ruin came falling down around her. But she knew if she started, there was a chance she'd never be able to stop.
Inuyasha…his name kept rolling in her mind and if she closed her eyes, she could see his face, the look he'd had just before he'd died. It was so damned unfair, Kagome felt bitterness welling inside her heart and it tasted familiar. Why now, why had she been dragged back to this forgotten life? Why had she seen him again, fell in love with him all over again, if this was how it was going to end?
“I didn't want to betray you.”
She raised her eyes and saw that Kohaku was still staring at the floor. For a moment, she wondered if he'd actually said those words aloud or if it was her battered mind playing tricks on her. Dismissing possible delusions, she decided that she had to talk to him. At least long enough to find out what his motives, and his intentions, truly were.
“You were the one that directed the attacks on the human villages,” she said quietly, not even asking a question, merely stating the fact.
“And you were responsible for the slaughter of the wolf youkai and Sesshomaru's inuyoukai soldiers.”
She found that she was angry after all, and her words started to harden like clay in a hot kiln.
“You control those demons, the ones that ride human bodies and the ones that attacked Inuyasha and I at Kouga's camp.”
He turned to look at her, one dark eye soberly regarding her while the other remained hidden. “Yes. It was no accident that Kouga was attacked after I spoke to Shippou in the forest. He told me right where to find you, but he didn't know what I was going to do.”
“And that thing outside?” Kagome's voice was rising, her tone scratching at him like fingernails on slate. “You did that…to…to…Sango?”
He shuddered, turning away from her again. “It's my fault,” he muttered. “I'll take the blame for everything…even her.”
“You lied to us,” she whispered, as anger made her vision sparkle and helpless tears burned her eyes. “There was no priestess, it was just a trick to get me and Inuyasha to follow you. You never intended to help me, you just wanted us to be distracted and trust you blindly.”
Kohaku reached down, tracing his finger along the dirty temple floor. “It worked,” he said softly, sounding more like an embarrassed boy than a villain. “I had to do it. I never thought I'd have a chance to bring Inuyasha here, but then you came back. It was an opportunity we just couldn't miss.”
Fury drove the weakness from her body, made the splitting pain in her head suddenly disappear. With an inarticulate scream, Kagome threw herself at Kohaku, attacking him with her bare hands. He fended her off easily, finally taking her wrists and pinning them behind her back, holding her tightly as she continued to kick and gouge at him.
“I'm sorry,” Kohaku said, his voice soft in her ear. “I know you don't believe me and I'm not asking you to forgive what I've done. But I am sorry…about everything.”
“Let me go,” she hissed.
Her body went cold. “Are you going to kill me?”
His hands jerked and the grip on her wrists disappeared. Kagome flung herself away from him, scooting across the floor until her back was against the wall again. Kohaku stayed where he was, looking oddly broken and still. Edging along the wall, she thought she might reach the door. Even if it was dark, there was a chance she could escape him, find a way back to the village maybe. She didn't know what she'd do then…would anyone believe her?
“Don't,” he said, still not looking up. Kagome stopped, only a few feet from the exit. “If you try to run, I'll have to hit you again. I don't want to do that.”
“You're going to kill me anyway!” she said, furious.
“No.” Kohaku stood slowly and went the doorway. Beyond the dingy stone walls, it was dark and quiet as a moonless night. He stared outside for a long moment before raising his hand like he was waving to someone outside…and she saw something move.
An unearthly howl filled the air, making the hair on her neck stand up. It was followed by ragged shrieks and wails, horrifying groans and a slick wet crunching sound that made Kagome think of bones being crushed. Then something heavy slammed into the side of the temple, dust and spiders fell from the ceiling and Kagome swallowed hard when she heard the sound of claws or teeth gnawing on the outside of the building.
“Dear gods,” she whispered.
“They won't come in,” Kohaku said in his dead, emotionless voice. “You don't have to worry about them right now. By daybreak, they should be calmer and we can leave. I'll take you back to the village, you can tell them everything. It…it doesn't matter what happens to me.”
“What about Shiori?” Kagome asked, her voice breaking a little at what the sweet-faced girl would suffer when her husband's betrayal was exposed.
“She doesn't know anything about it,” Kohaku answered. “As long as no one finds out she's a hanyou, she should be safe.”
Annoyed, she got to her feet and grabbed his shoulder. “And that makes it all right for you?” she demanded. “How do you think she's going to feel when she finds out the truth? Do you think that Shiori will be happy to be safe…when she finds out that her husband is a murderer?”
He flinched as if her words had burned him. “I can't do anything about that,” Kohaku said, his voice full of pain. Looking closely at him, she saw that his face was pale, the scars on his cheek stretched tight and beneath the patch that covered his eye, his skin was wet with tears.
Kagome rubbed her eyes, wishing that her headache would go away so she could think clearly. She needed to have her wits about her now or she'd sink into a morass of pain and grief. That wasn't going to be good enough, not this time.
Kohaku admitted his guilt, his betrayal. He said the words like a man with nothing left to lose and nothing left to hope for. She knew the feeling well, that lost sense of emptiness, that bitter realization that she had no control. Inuyasha…she swallowed hard just from thinking his name. Inuyasha had accused Kohaku of hiding something, of being afraid.
I know what a man looks like when he's afraid of the dark, Kohaku. And I've seen you staring at every shadow like you've already seen your own death!
“You haven't said why,” she heard herself murmur.
He stirred, looking up at the sound of her voice. “Why?”
She really needed to be smarter than this. In the past, she'd run blindly from her own pain. Drowning it in sex, ambition, money…none of it had been the answer. Only by facing her fears…and Inuyasha…had she been able to shake off the soul-destroying shame that had consumed her life.
“You lied and betrayed us all,” Kagome told him, fighting to keep the bitterness from echoing her words. “But you say you're sorry and I think you mean it. What happened to you, Kohaku? I think there's a lot you've left out of your story.”
He leaned against the wall, and then slid down until he was squatting at her feet. Kohaku didn't look up, she wondered if he couldn't. It might be too much for him to say and if he had to look in her eyes while he said it, whatever control and reason that were left in this broken young man might evaporate all together.
“I suppose you deserve the truth,” he said at last. “You were there, you saw what happened to my sister.”
She nodded and sat down, tucking her legs under her like a little girl. “I was there. Sango wanted so much to save you, it meant everything.”
“It would have been better if she'd just left me to die.”
“She gave her life for you, Kohaku. I know you must feel like you're to blame…”
“No.” He waved his hand suddenly, as if brushing off the bite of a hundred flies. “She…she didn't…give her life, Kagome. My sister…”
She waited, trying not to listen to the foul sounds outside the building. Kohaku rubbed his hand through his hair and sighed heavily before finally meeting her gaze.
“My sister didn't die in the fire as I told you.”
Her hands went cold, shock made her tremble. “Then that thing…it really is her?”
“We survived the fall,” Kohaku said softly, not answering her question. “In that pit, just above the fire…there was a small ledge, barely wide enough for two people to stand if they were holding each other. Kirara…” He swallowed hard and she saw pain etch his face again. “Her whole body was burned, she had just enough strength to dump us on that ledge before she collapsed. I was burned too, Sango had to hold me tight or I wouldn't have been able to stand.”
“You said you woke in the forest, alone,” Kagome murmured, picturing the brave cat. If the fire had been so intense that she, a fire-youkai, couldn't survive…
“The ledge protected us from the flames,” he said almost as if he could answer her doubts. “But the air was so hot…we couldn't breathe and the fumes were like poison.”
“But you lived.”
He didn't seem to hear her. “I knew we wouldn't survive for more than a few minutes,” he said, his voice so empty that it made her ache. “I held onto Sango, she held onto me. We knew that no one would be able to reach us in time. Even if you knew we were down there…it was already too late.
“There were demons all around us, their faces and eyes were made of fire. I thought that I was dreaming, that they were just another of Naraku's tricks. I didn't care really, I was just so tired. But Sango pushed me behind her, tried to shield me with her own body when they came near. I think she would have fought them, if she could have.”
Kagome's throat was dry, her eyes were aching and she could almost see Sango, defiant to the end and defending her brother against hopeless odds. The image was so vivid, the scarlet of the fire, Sango's long hair…her eyes wide and fierce as she challenged the very demons that had come to seal her death.
His head dropped forward and Kohaku folded his arms across his knees. When he spoke again, he sounded like a little boy, the same child she'd met so very long ago.
“They asked her what she'd give to save my life. She said she'd give anything, anything at all, even her own life if it would save mine. But they didn't want it, they wanted something more.”
Almost sinking in on himself, Kohaku hid his face on his arms. “Kagome…do you know how Naraku was born?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “A bandit named Onigumo offered his soul to a host of demons. They devoured him and his wicked soul became Naraku's heart.”
“He called himself a hanyou, a half-demon, because of that human soul,” Kohaku muttered. “But it wasn't exactly true. His soul was human and corrupt, but his body was filled with demons. He became one with them, and the human that had been Onigumo was swallowed up.”
“No,” Kagome breathed, suddenly understanding what Kohaku was trying to say.
“You saw it for yourself, Kagome. What you saw outside was what is left of my sister. Sango offered them her soul; she knew how Naraku had become what he was. Her only demand was that they carry me out of the fire.”
He went silent again, the minutes stretching out like hours until Kagome had to bite her lips to keep from screaming. The horror of what Sango had done was still sinking in, her mind and heart rejecting Kohaku's words as if that would keep the brutal truth from her reality. She had grieved for Sango, wept for her. And been overjoyed when she'd found that Kohaku had survived.
“So Sango…like Naraku…only…”
“It didn't work.” Kohaku's voice was muffled, his face still hidden, still hiding from what he needed to say. “Onigumo was an evil man, his soul was just as corrupt and rotten as the life he'd lived. But my sister sacrificed herself for me, just as she would have sacrificed herself for anyone she loved. She was like that.”
Reaching out, she put her hands on either side of Kohaku's face and made him look at her. “She was like that because she cared,” Kagome said firmly. “Your life was more than worth any sacrifice to Sango.”
He looked shocked; as if her words were the last thing he'd thought to hear. She could see him trying to reject them, sink back in to the self-loathing and blame. “You said it didn't work,” she said, gentle in spite of her firm grip. “Tell me what that has to do with right now.”
“She's falling apart,” Kohaku whispered. “They can't hold the body together, they can't do anything to make themselves whole. The demons have gone insane, attacking each other, trying to fight or run away. But they're trapped and the more they try to get free, the worse the pain becomes.”
Kagome sucked in her breath with a long hiss and let her hands drop to her lap. So that was it…Sango's soul hadn't been wicked or corrupt and it had been useless to them. Desperate and greedy, they held onto her physical form because it was the only thing that kept them from disappearing. But no human body could withstand something like that, no human soul…
A single human soul, trapped among monsters, overwhelmed by grief and terror!
She wanted to be sick on the floor; she wanted to pound her fists against the stone until she bled. The horror was too much and Kagome realized that she'd started to rock back and forth, her arms clenched around her body as if she were the one who was being torn apart. It wasn't until Kohaku touched her shoulder that she came back to herself and met his gaze with fierce eyes.
“Sango is the soul is trapped within them, isn't it?” He nodded and Kagome clenched her fists. “You let me think it was Midoriko, you let me think that you needed me to free her! Why? Did you think I wouldn't help you if I knew it was Sango?”
The angrier she became, the more Kohaku seemed to recover himself to answer her questions directly. “I knew you'd help if you could,” he said, very quiet now. “But there was nothing you could do. Her soul is bound to them, twisted inside them. If you could save her, I would have begged you for help the minute I saw you!”
He shrugged her hand away when she tried to touch him, looking cold and collected once again. His grief for his sister had opened him momentarily, brought her right to the root of his painful secrets. But he hadn't revealed anything more of his motives than she'd already guessed.
“It's not you,” Kohaku said as if to hammer the point home. “Human souls are worthless to it. It's the souls of demons that feed it, their spiritual energy, and their hatred. In order for it to survive, it needs fresh demon souls constantly.”
“And that's why you've been hunting them,” Kagome bit out. “You destroy their bodies and it consumes their souls. But…Inuyasha was…”
Kohaku met her eyes without flinching. “Not a hanyou anymore. The stronger the youkai, the better the meal, I suppose.”
She slapped him, unable to help herself. Moments ago, she'd felt every bit of his pain, now she wanted Kohaku to feel hers. “Bastard,” she rasped in fury. “You brought Inuyasha here just to murder him, to feed him to that abomination!”
He rubbed his face and looked away again. “I didn't have a choice, Kagome. Just like you didn't have a choice, but I'm not blaming you for my mistakes. I know what Inuyasha did to you, and what he did to a lot of innocent people. Didn't he deserve what he got?”
No, her heart wailed. He wasn't that monster anymore!
Stepping towards the open door, she stared out into the darkness. “Maybe he did deserve it for what he did in the past,” she said, her voice shaking. “But it wasn't for you to decide, Kohaku! With everything you've done to keep that…that…abomination alive, how are you any better?”
She felt his hand on her arm. “I'm not,” he whispered. “It would have killed Shiori and all the people who had treated me so kindly. Five years ago…it came to me and demanded my help. Until then,” his voice dropped to a rough mutter. “I thought I'd dreamed about what really happened to my sister. I told myself that she'd saved me, had Kirara take me to safety. It was what I wanted to believe.”
Kagome looked over her shoulder at him. “So you killed to feed it. And you trained others to help you, giving them the excuse of protecting their loved ones from demons. How long were you planning on doing this, how long until it couldn't be satisfied by only demons?”
“You felt my sister's pain,” Kohaku answered steadily. “You think I could leave her like that, tormented and in agony? I do what it wants to protect my family, but the only way to destroy it…”
Turning around, they were standing very close, almost embracing each other.
“Tell me how to kill it,” she whispered.
Shippou was pissed. By the time Shiori had managed to wring the full story out of Natsu, it was full dark. Of course the man would use that as an excuse not to leave. That had meant one more uncomfortable night in the youkai hunters' village, feeling the distrustful eyes of the humans watching him every time he so much as reached up to scratch his nose.
As it turned out, Natsu didn't know as much as they'd hoped.
“Hells above!” the scarred man thundered at tiny Shiori. “I don't know why he's doing it. I only know where he goes, not why!”
Shiori growled at him and for a long moment, Shippou wondered if some of her hyakki bat heritage was going to make itself shown. Her violet eyes sparkled in the light of her cooking fire, the angry way she slung rice into boiling water made Rin's eyes go wide. Hot water splashed the burning embers and made a hiss that was half threat and half innocent steam.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she scolded and Natsu had to duck as the radish she was chopping suddenly flew across the room. “If you knew Kohaku was up to something dangerous, why didn't you come to me?”
“Everything's dangerous,” the man said, slinking against the wall as if he'd rather be facing those dangerous things instead of a furious girl-woman. “He kept it from you for your own good, Shiori! You know you don't like talk about killin' and such…”
Sighing in disgust, Shiori began putting the vegetables in a pot to simmer. Rin had offered to help prepare the meal, but one look in Shiori's eyes had made her retreat. She sat as close to Shippou's side as she could manage, hugging her knees and watching the delicate hanyou girl tear strips out of the big man.
“If my mother were here, she'd box your ears for this, Natsu.”
“Shiori…” Natsu picked restlessly at a tear in his sleeve. He didn't like being reminded of how much he owed her, and her kindly mother. But he owed more loyalty to Kohaku. The last thing he wanted was for the boss to find out he'd spilled his guts. He supposed it was a long time coming, Shiori being no fool and Kohaku acting more desperate and pushed than ever.
He jerked in surprise when Rin addressed him, her tone polite enough for a demon's wench…or whatever she was. Kohaku had told him that it was a damned good thing Kaede-sama had intervened. If Rin had been hurt, there would have been no stopping the entire inuyoukai army from taking vengeance.
“Yeah,” he said warily.
Rin smiled brightly; ready to coax words from this man if it meant getting closer to the truth. She remembered what he'd done and what he'd said…telling her he was going to cut out Shippou's tongue…but now she couldn't help but pity him. His past, his deference to Shiori and his loyalty to Kohaku didn't make him an evil man in her eyes.
“Do you know what Kohaku wanted with Kagome and Inuyasha?” she asked directly. He flushed and ducked his head, but she kept her smile and her tone light, as if she were only asking about his preference for vegetables instead of rice.
“You must know something, he trusted you enough to take you to his secret place. But there is no priestess there, so why would he take Kagome to see someone who doesn't exist.”
“Ain't about the woman,” Natsu said gruffly. “It's about that damned dog.”
“Inuyasha?” Shippou stared at Natsu accusingly. “What about him? If Kohaku wanted to use him against Sesshomaru, he didn't have to work this hard.”
Natsu chuckled suddenly, shaking his head. “You some kinda fool, boy?” he sneered. “Don't you know what we do with demons, thought you woulda remembered better than that!”
“I don't believe it's just because he's a youkai,” Shiori said flatly, although her cheeks were stained red by now. “He…he doesn't hate all youkai. He just wants to protect the people of this village.”
Shrugging, Natsu didn't meet her eyes. “I don't know what it is,” he said at last. “I just know I ain't going anywhere near it.”
Shippou's lip curled. “Coward.”
Natsu glared at him. “You don't know what you're talking about, brat. That thing…it stinks of evil. And whatever it is, Kohaku is trying to put an end to it. That boy might have his own way of doing things, but he ain't about to sit on his ass when people are dying around him!”
“Did he need Inuyasha to help him?” Rin asked quietly. She nudged Shippou with her elbow, silently asking him to keep his tongue. “You knew it was about him, he was angry that you hadn't kept Inuyasha from leaving.”
She pursued him like the sole voice of reason. “This evil…it's the same presence we felt before. Kohaku knew more than he told Kagome, he knew where to find it.” She paused, then met Shippou's eyes and pressed her lips into a bitter line.
“He was using it. He used it to attack Inuyasha.”
There was a clatter and they turned to look at Shiori. The bowl she'd been hold was broken on the floor, crushed like her belief in her husband. “Using that thing to drive youkai from the forest,” she whispered. “So they'd attack, so that our people would be forced to kill them, hunt them down. Even if they were innocent, like Kouga's wolves or the inuyoukai from the West.”
Natsu looked abashed, trying to avoid her accusing gaze. “Shiori…”
“It's true, isn't it?” Rin and Shippou glanced at each other when Kohaku's pregnant wife went to kneel beside Natsu. “He set them on this village last night,” she said, her heart breaking. “So that no one would notice what he was doing, so that he'd have a chance to separate Inuyasha and Kagome from the rest of us. He even poisoned Shippou to keep him from being able to fight…”
She shuddered. “How many died in the forest?”
Dropping his head, Natsu stared at the floor. “The mercenaries, deserters most likely. The ones he kept away from the men that have wives and children here. He tried to send them back, but they didn't leave. Too fired up, too eager to kill. Men like that…I don't know, Shiori.”
Rin cleared her throat. “You think that Inuyasha was his target the whole time? Natsu, if there's anything you can tell us…about Inuyasha…or Kagome.”
“He wouldn't hurt that woman,” Natsu muttered. “He just said…he had to do this. There wasn't no other way to kill this thing before he couldn't control it anymore. No one was ever gonna be safe unless he could destroy it, but…the only way…”
Natsu rubbed his neck, meeting the girl's eyes and too ashamed to face Shiori now.
“That Inuyasha…he had to die.”
Long after Kohaku had gone silent, but long before the frenzy outside started to quiet, Kagome huddled in a corner of the ruined temple…trying to organize her thoughts. And keep herself from the panic that gnawed at her heart every time she thought about Inuyasha.
She was tired, bone tired actually. Weary from the soles of her feet to the top of her head. They'd forced themselves to a brutal march to get here and she had to admit it had been days since she'd gotten much sleep. Not to mention that the previous night, she'd certainly not rested when she'd been with Inuyasha.
But it was more than that. Right now she could feel herself just giving up inside. Learning the true fate of Sango and Kohaku had broken her heart, losing Inuyasha…after she'd given her heart to him all over again…left her with a burning numbness that seemed to chill her very blood.
What did it matter anymore? She'd lost him, she'd never go home again, never be able to put the pieces back into place. It was a sadistic hand of fate that had guided her to this place and Kagome was far too exhausted to even feel bitter about it. Her life on the other side of the well had been the real nightmare and she knew, deep inside her battered heart…that she wouldn't be able to become that woman again.
“What am I supposed to do?” she whispered, barely moving her lips as she pressed her forehead to her knees. Tears she couldn't feel slid from her eyes, but she didn't really weep, badly as she needed to. Kagome knew that she'd come to a place where she was finally, truly lost.
Tell me how to kill it…
She hadn't known what she was asking. Kohaku flinched and turned away, trying to avoid her in the confined space. He paced back and forth, rubbing his face with his hands until she wondered if he was trying to erase his own shame. She appreciated the futile effort just the same, understanding exactly how it felt to be so lost that even your own skin feels drenched in betrayal.
“I wasn't planning on telling you anything,” he confessed. Kagome met his gaze steadily, urging him to continue. “I'd been beating my head against a wall, trying to find a way to get you out of the way, but I knew he'd never follow me unless you were there.”
“If you're trying to make me forget what I asked, you're going the wrong way,” she said, her tone thinly veiled contempt. “Reminding me that you used me…that he died because he wouldn't leave me…isn't going to work.”
Kohaku glared at her. “Just leave it alone,” he muttered. “Let me finish it, Kagome. I said I'd take you back to the village, you'll be safe from it there.”
“No,” she told him in a hard voice that had made men cower. “You said you'd take me back, but you aren't going to stay and face what you've done. You never intended to go home after this, did you? You're just going to leave me to break your wife's heart!”
“I have to kill it!” Kohaku shouted. “I can't leave Sango like this!” He took a deep breath and leveled an accusing glare at Kagome. “I thought you of all people would understand that.”
“Why?” She was ready to make demands, as long as they were trapped in here together, he couldn't get away from her questions, from his guilt. He'd used her, used Inuyasha's love for her, as the weapon to betray and deceive them both.
The hell she'd let him off easy!
“Let's review,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm as she started to mock him by pacing the floor just as he had. “You were forced to help it, I understand that. I can even understand why you deceived Shiori and the other youkai hunters of your village and also why you couldn't tell anyone what really happened to your sister.”
Kagome took a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming herself. “Explain to me why it had to be Inuyasha? Why was he the prize you were willing to sacrifice everything for? What made his…his death so important to your plan?”
“Not his death,” Kohaku murmured. “He was stronger than other youkai, much stronger. His youki, his hanyou past, his daiyoukai bloodline…it made him exactly what they want…what they need.”
Distracted, Kohaku stared at the dark doorway. “Especially the fact that he'd used the Shikon no Tama…they could still taste that jewel's corruption even if they didn't have its power.”
Curling her lips into a sneer, Kagome stopped her restless pacing and snapped her fingers under Kohaku's nose. “I asked you why,” she said coldly. “Not why they wanted him, but why you went along with it. If you didn't feed that thing…”
“I can't kill it as it is,” Kohaku said bitterly. “Remember Naraku? Remember how his body would break apart, but every time he would survive? It wasn't until you were able to destroy his heart that his body became vulnerable.”
“I didn't,” she began, remembering how Kikyou had sacrificed herself to destroy Naraku.
Kohaku waved his hand, still twitching restlessly as if insects were gnawing at his flesh. “This thing doesn't have Naraku's power, but it doesn't have his weakness either. I can tear at it all day and it won't make a difference. It won't die; it just goes wild from its own pain and hatred. Stalking the forest, killing and devouring anything or anyone it finds.”
“You said human souls were worthless to it,” she murmured. “Why attack them?”
He looked over at her, his expression bleak. “What would you do, Kagome? What would you do if you were trapped, insane, in terror and agony? It lashes out like a child, but it's a vicious monster of a child just the same.”
Pained, she closed her eyes. “That's why you won't leave it.” She finally understood. Kohaku's love for his sister wouldn't let him leave her like this, not part of a bloodthirsty horde. And innocent people would suffer greatly from what was allowed to ravage unchecked. Suddenly she could understand his position to help it destroy youkai instead…if there was way to end it for good.
But he still hadn't answered her, not really. “So what will it do now?”
She swallowed hard; Inuyasha would want her to be strong. “Now that it has what it wanted.”
“It needed the souls of demons to help keep its body together,” Kohaku said, his voice filled with regret. “But if I could find it a better body, a stronger body, it could become whole again. Unlike Naraku, it won't be able to continuously rebuild that body. Instead of becoming its heart, Sango's soul will just be absorbed into the mass of them.”
Kagome was horrified. “Why would you want that?”
Smiling bitterly, Kohaku shook his head at her misunderstanding. “Because then when it dies, so will she. Death is the only peace I can give her now.”
It made a sick kind of sense. To free his sister's tormented soul, he had to kill the beast, the monster that had tried unsuccessfully to join with her. For that to happen, Kohaku had needed to make it stronger, more powerful so that it would be able to hold its ragged physical form. That Inuyasha's soul, in fact his very flesh, had needed to be consumed in order to accomplish this made Kagome more than a little nauseated.
“I think you're forgetting something,” she said miserably.
Kohaku looked at her, but kept silent with her words hanging between them like a shadow. When he didn't ask, she cleared her throat and wished again that her head would stop pounding, her legs would stop shaking, and her tired body would just collapse before she had to tell him why his plan was so doomed to fail.
“You're forgetting why Inuyasha used the jewel,” she said softly. “He went insane from it, yes. But he also became so much more powerful, a pureblooded daiyoukai like Sesshomaru. What if you can't destroy it?”
An evil monster like Naraku, so full of hate and cruelty, but with the strength of Inuyasha or Sesshomaru…it might be almost impossible to kill.
“I've thought of that,” Kohaku said. Kagome's heart chilled at the dead tone of his voice, like that of a man who'd already murdered his own future. “Why do you think I directed it towards strong youkai like Kouga and Sesshomaru? They were forced to become allies in order to fight off the attacks. I already know that I probably won't be able to kill this thing alone.”
That he'd planned ahead even for this took her breath away. “Are you saying you deliberately attacked them so they'd have to join forces, so they'd need each other to keep their territories safe?”
“I considered the possibility that I'd need them later,” he said simply. “Even if I hadn't been able to get to Inuyasha himself, I had to plan ahead. I couldn't ignore the possibility that it would turn on me, that I might die before I could finish it off. If that happened…”
Kagome sighed heavily. “And you knew that if you approached either of them, they wouldn't believe you.”
At the very best, Sesshomaru would have dismissed the youkai hunters purely out of dislike. Kouga, on the other hand, wouldn't have been willing to risk his limited resources to eliminate what hadn't threatened him. By attacking them both over and over, slaughtering their people without cause or remorse, Kohaku had made possible an uneasy alliance and implausible truce between the most powerful youkai left alive.
“And now, with you here, it's finally come together,” Kohaku said. “You will return to the village, Kagome. You will be the one to tell Shippou and Rin what I've done and why. Together, they will be able to persuade Sesshomaru and Kouga to hunt this monster down, no matter the cost.”
Sadly, she shook her head. Not to deny his words, but to deny the finality of what he'd done. He'd as good as murdered Inuyasha, but her heart was breaking for them all now. Even for Kohaku, who had orchestrated his own death with the precision of a master strategist.
And for Shiori, whose child would grow up thinking that his or her father had been a murderer and a liar.
She couldn't help but pity him, just as she couldn't help but grieve for what she'd lost, what they all had lost. Instead of hatred, she felt her heart overwhelmed by a need for solace, desire to right what had gone so wrong. Kohaku's choices were made by desperation and now they walked together on the same dark path of ruin and redemption. She knew where that path would lead.
No wonder she pitied them all.
Wandering in the dark forest, she was searching for him. The branches seemed to close in around her body, the leaves were tipped with silver. Kagome didn't remember how she'd gotten separated from the others, but it was a frightening thing to be alone.
Inuyasha, where are you? Sango, Miroku…why did you leave me alone?
It was cold, she kept rubbing her arms to drive away the numbness. It didn't seem right for the air to be so chilly, the trees looked lush as spring, but their bright green color had the sheen of ice. And when she walked, her feet sank into the muck and sticky mud squished between her toes.
She didn't know when she'd lost her shoes and socks either…Mama was going to be upset if she couldn't bring her things home…
Kagome stopped, suddenly breathing hard. She didn't know where she was, or how she'd gotten there. But she remembered one thing and without thinking, her hand went to her red school tie. Decisive this time, she yanked it off and let the scarlet fabric flutter to the ground, finally disappearing into the shadows.
“I'm not fifteen anymore,” she whispered as the forest went dark around her. “You're going to have to do better than that if you want to scare me!”
Like a door had been slammed shut in her mind, Kagome found herself in a different place. This time gray mist swept across her legs and she could feel the heaviness of her hakama weighing on her hips. Dressed as a priestess again, she was somehow not surprised.
Did you want to see him?
Her mouth went dry and Kagome found herself watching Inuyasha. She could see him surrounded by lush forest, birds cheeping sleepily on a warm afternoon. The sunlight glistened on his bare shoulders, the strong curve of his back. She could see him, but he wasn't looking at her. Instead all of his attention was for the woman in his arms.
Was this a memory?
They made love slowly, languidly as if they didn't have a care in the world. Kagome's lip was caught between her teeth, hearing gasp, hearing his voice as it called out in passion. The long slender legs wrapped over his hips could have been hers, the pale hands that clasped his arms could have belonged to anyone. The woman's face was hidden by Inuyasha's long hair, as if by a bridal veil on a passionate wedding night.
It wasn't her face and Kagome's throat tightened. No, Inuyasha hadn't shown her such tenderness back then. It wasn't until she'd returned and faced the man that he had become…the Inuyasha of her past hadn't been gentle at all.
“That's not me,” she said quietly, speaking almost in a whisper. Her heart wasn't moved as she stared down at Kikyou's face, her usually pale features flushed, her arms clutching Inuyasha tightly. She watched them for a few moments longer, wistful almost, of the gentle, passionate embrace. Then Kagome planted her hands on her hips and stared up at a sparkling blue sky.
“You're going to have to do a lot better than that,” she said, as if a conversation with the unseen had become unremarkable. “I'm over it. I'm not her and she's not me. He loved us both, and you know what?”
Her lips curved in a mocking smile. “I'm glad that he loved her. I'm not that jealous, insecure little girl anymore. That he loved her does not mean that he loves me less.”
There was a long silence, the air heavy and cool as it brushed over her cheeks and played with the ends of her hair. Kagome waited, watching passively as the sky paled and the trees darkened and the images of Inuyasha and Kikyou faded away like mist on glass.
“You've grown, Kagome. I am impressed.”
Miroku's voice didn't make her jump, tense as she was, but it sent an almost shiver down her back just the same. Like the ghost of a lover, his voice was bittersweet and clung to the back of her throat like unshed tears.
“I'm not here to impress anyone.” She knew if she turned around, he wouldn't be there…not really. She was inside the hallucination this time, not looking at it from a place where reality was firm beneath her feet. Kagome had had her share of dreams and nightmares, the waking ones that sent her pulse soaring, the dark ones of night that made her beg for consciousness.
She was dreaming even now, but this time she'd come for answers.
“We are all a dream within a dream,” Miroku whispered from behind. A warm hand touched her shoulder, stroked her hair from her throat. “Have you come here because you've given up?”
She closed her eyes. “I haven't come here to play dead.”
“Are you asking for forgiveness?”
Hands slipped from her shoulders, caressed their way up the sides of her face until they rested over her eyes. Blinded for so many years, Kagome knew better than to be afraid of what she couldn't see. Colors danced in the darkness, a pulsing light that echoed her own heartbeat. Kagome inhaled and tasted wildflowers, sun and water, earth and salt. Against her trembling lips, one of his fingers traced the kanji of her name, Inuyasha's name, and one that was not so familiar.
“I know who you are,” she murmured.
Turning around, Kagome opened her eyes.
A tiny woman, wizened by age and her face creased by many years. Her long hair, white as snow, trailed from her shoulders to pool around her feet. Her eyes were very dark, alive almost, and when she smiled…Kagome had the overwhelming urge to kneel down and rest her head in the old woman's lap.
And found herself doing exactly that.
The woman smelled of flowers and rain, not at all what she'd expected. Her hand on Kagome's hair was light and frail, as if it had never known hardship, fought battles, or held a sword. She understood at last, it was never about righteous conflict or power. It wasn't for the sake of innocents or the destiny of a warrior maiden who had sacrificed everything for what she believed in.
There was no hatred, no attrition between a priestess and a host of demons. Their souls had tangled together in an undulating dance of darkness and light, the absolute corruption of the first demon meeting the absolute purity of one single human's soul. It wasn't about an endless battle.
It was about balance. It was the Shikon no Tama.
“So you've been inside me this whole time,” she whispered.
Consciousness returned slowly this time and she felt remarkably rested. A sense of peace settled over her, a timelessness that wasn't alarmed or ashamed of the mistakes she'd made in the past. Even the air smelled fresher and when she turned her head, she saw that she was alone. The doorway of the fallen down temple was several shades lighter, as if the sky had grudgingly given over from darkness to the promise of dawn.
Kohaku was nowhere to be seen and Kagome took that to mean that the danger must have passed. He'd said that the demons would be calmer by dawn, exhausted perhaps, from their orgy of bloodlust. She felt much calmer herself, all the grief and anger had been washed away, replaced by a sound sense of duty.
She knew what needed to be done. She would help Kohaku kill this thing that had taken his sister and that had now taken Inuyasha. After that…she didn't know what would happen. Kagome knew that she could flail and weep, fearful of the future and refuse to face the fact that he was gone…forever.
Could she forgive Kohaku for what he had done…she wasn't sure she wanted to even consider it right now. Her heart was horrified by his soul-wrenching manipulation, but it was also sadly touched by his naked desperation. She had been able to escape from her own nightmare, at least physically. But Kohaku had lived within his own hell, facing the monster that had consumed his sister, tasting his own helplessness and defeat until it was more than he could stand.
What would she have become if she'd stayed on this side of the well? Would she have become an ultimate victim, staring with blank eyes at Inuyasha's atrocities until something inside her finally snapped? Would she have gone to any length, committed her own version of his crimes, in a futile effort to save him or at least join him in his damned descent?
Or would she have found another way and tried to heal him. Would she have found a way to bring him back to his own soul and if so…what would she have been willing to sacrifice for his redemption? Would her body had held together long enough to see him sane, or would he have completely given over to madness once he'd stood over her corpse?
Those were the kinds of choices that Kohaku had faced.
The time for choices was over, it was time to act. Kagome stood up and stretched, working the kinks out of her shoulders. Sleeping on a hard stone floor had made her body ache, but she was already focusing past the pain. She twisted her filthy hair into a knot at the back of her neck and pulled her clothing into place before stepping to the doorway.
They'd had passed a spring on the way to the temple, she remembered because she'd slipped on the soft ground, heard the faint burble of a nearby stream. Then Inuyasha had helped her to her feet, his hands like a warm promise on hers and just for a moment, he'd stolen a quick embrace…
I'm not going to think about that, she told herself as her throat tightened. Right now, she just wanted some water so she could wash her hands and face. She wanted to do something, anything that would make this level of sacrifice have some meaning. Kohaku was prepared to give his life, but in the back of her mind, Kagome wasn't sure she was going to let him do it.
It would be better if he lived with his mistakes and his crimes, but she didn't wish it upon him for revenge. She wanted him to grow past this, be a father to his child and a husband to his wife. There had been enough death, enough heartbreak and anger. And damn it, she needed to have an ending to it for herself.
The right ending this time, nothing else would do. It might not be a storybook ending, one with a prince and a princess living happily ever after, but one with resolution, hard lessons learned and sacrifices made…but for the right reasons, for the right outcome. If she could have that, she might have some kind of peace.
And nothing less would honor her memory of Inuyasha. Not for the boy that had lost himself and not even for the man who wanted to atone for his unremembered past…but for the person he had been born to be. Strong and honest, quick-tempered perhaps, but also protective of those weaker than himself and inside…as tender and loving as any woman could have wanted.
Outside, the sky was becoming lighter, a pale gray that was only just tinged by the pinkish color of dawn. With a sigh, she headed down the hill and towards the edge of the forest. She wondered again why Kohaku wasn't waiting outside. He'd promised to take her back to the village, but he couldn't know that she had decided to help him. She supposed that he had his own inner demons to face, coping with his decisions and actions.
She wasn't going to help him because of pity, or because she wanted to make herself feel better. She was going to do it for Inuyasha…because that was what he would have wanted. For her to be strong, for her to be brave and also for her to right what had gone wrong.
As she entered the forest, she thought she heard her name. Kagome turned around and eyed the brush warily, not sure what to do. It had been so faint…
She knelt beside the stream, finding the water cold and pure as fresh snow. Bathing her hands, her wrists, all the way up her arms…the dirt and grime peeled away until she could see her skin turning pink. Her face was next, her neck, the curve of her throat. Without soap or even a rag to use for washing, she rubbed and scrubbed with her fingers until her cheeks started to tingle like new love's first blush.
Listen to me…Kagome….
Suddenly dizzy, she sat back on her heels and stared at the water. Memories of her strange dreams flooded her mind and she needed a few moments to sort it out. The smell of rain and wildflowers haunted her and Kagome felt a tear slip down her cheek. Midoriko…what was it that she'd said?
Trust in yourself, Kagome. Trust him as well. When the time comes, you'll know what you need to do.
“I will trust myself,” she whispered. That Midoriko had revealed herself at last, that the ancient priestess had chosen Kagome as the hiding place for her soul and her power…she'd been given a great gift of trust. She understood instinctively what that meant…she must protect that pure soul.
Only with Midoriko's spiritual strength would they be able to put an end to the madness and evil that had tormented those she loved.
Resolved, she got to her feet and dried her hands on the cleanest part of her hakama. She was ready for this, she had to be.
But she still felt uneasy, as if something was not right. No, as if something was very wrong. Worried, she looked around at the quiet forest and wished that she could hear the sound of a bird, or even the creak of a cricket. It was too quiet, as if even the trees were holding their breath…waiting…
She'd go back to the temple, but Kagome resolved to not set foot inside. She'd wait for Kohaku, talk to him about his plan. Maybe she could make him see reason, see that he didn't have to die to get the help they were going to need. Kagome had thought hard about it, she knew that Kouga and Ayame would be willing to listen once they knew the truth. If they heard it from her, if she was resolved enough, they might be able to get past the crimes that Kohaku had committed.
It wouldn't be that simple for Sesshomaru…she knew he was going to be livid over Inuyasha's death. But still, she thought he might listen to her. Against the odds, she had gotten him to hear her before. Perhaps she'd be able to convince him, with Rin's help, to lay aside his vengeance…at least until their immediate threat had been resolved.
The branches and brush of the wild forest seemed thicker and Kagome couldn't remember how she'd gotten to the stream. It was as if her mind was playing tricks on her, telling her to turn this way or that, until she suddenly felt so confused that she knew she'd lost her way. Refusing to panic, she began to search for the stream again, thinking to follow it.
Nothing looked familiar and Kagome stamped her foot in frustration. She felt like a fool, getting herself lost at such a time. Grumbling a bit, she shoved her way through the thick brush as if mere vegetation didn't have the right to confound her. There was so much at stake, so much she needed to do. It was really a bit ridiculous that she couldn't even…
Kagome cried out as she stumbled, her ankle turned and she went down with an undignified thump. Groaning to herself, she felt useless, foolish, and worst of all…helpless. Now wasn't the time to break down and cry though. It looked like she was going to be limping around in circles until she either found her way, or Kohaku came in search of her. She hoped he'd search for her and not just assume that she'd run off like a scared rabbit.
Struggling, she managed to pull herself up again and was reaching for the nearest branch when a hand caught her elbow. Kagome yelped as she was suddenly lifted, swung around and set down again in one swift movement. Hard arms encircled her, pulled her into an embrace so tight that she couldn't breathe.
“Found you,” he whispered in her ear.
Kagome gasped, twisting in his arms until she could face him. He let her struggle uselessly, smiling against the back of her neck until at last, he let her go. She staggered backwards, almost falling again when her weak ankle didn't want to support her. She'd twisted it once before already, but this time she couldn't even feel pain…she was too shocked.
“Inuyasha?” she whispered, not believing what she was seeing.
He licked his lips, his eyes like burning sulfur. “Thought you could run away from me,” he said, his voice sounding oddly strained. “Already told you I'd kill us both before I'd let you go.”
Her stomach lurched at the look in his eyes and she backed away from him. “I saw you die.”
Mouth twisting into a distorted smile, he looked wild. His hair was a bloodstained tangle, his haori looked like it had been gnawed by rats and the sleeves were shredded. She could see blood and scratches on his arms, at some point he must have tried to fend them off, fight to survive.
“You're not Inuyasha,” she whispered.
But if I could find it a better body, a stronger body, it could become whole again…
Kohaku's words came back to her and Kagome felt her knees suddenly give way. Quick as violence, sure as death, he was on her, shoving her hard against the nearest tree and his breath like hot murder against her throat.
His hands were on her body now, rough and demanding. It made her sick and Kagome shook with anger, knowing that Inuyasha must have resisted, must have fought back against them this time. Knowing what would happen, knowing what he was about to become, he would have fought with every last ounce of his being and to the very last shred of his soul.
One look into his burning mad eyes told her that he hadn't won.
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