Sesshoumaru was stunned. But, to admit to such would have been far too degrading. That he stood still, unable to move, hardly capable of thinking past his own shock, was already bad enough, but his frustration escalated when he couldn't regain his composure for several moments.
The child's unnatural azure gaze ensnared him. When she stumbled towards him and gripped one of his pant legs, he didn't know how to react. The very idea that flames had given birth to aliving being who bore the priestess' features immobilized him. Reincarnation?Rebirth? It was possible, perhaps, if the Jewel was involved. But, so quickly?
While he contemplated the situation, the girl showed no fear. His very aura should have intimidated and frightened her, yet she displayed no sign of such emotion. In fact, her features remained as calm as the surface of a lake, the only ripples present in the furrow of her brow.
Such an expression does not belong on the face of a child - he thought. If she is a child at all.
As though sensing him direct his brooding in her direction, she craned her neck to look up at him.
"What are you?" he asked, his voice belying the trepidation he felt. The moment the question left his lips, he regretted voicing it. Did this creature even understand speech? So far, he'd only heard her utter his name. That was a mystery in and of itself. How would she know such things? Did this mean that this was some kind of reincarnation of the priestess after all?
"What are you?" he repeated. Again, the girl didn't reply. If her eyes could have been windows, they would have shown him a star scape that led deep into her soul. Unnerving, this. Anomalous. None he knew displayed their hearts and true selves so openly for fear of their enemies. Children - human and demon alike - were taught from an early age to mask their feelings. This child, however, seemed pure. Untapped. Untouched. A blank canvas of flesh and blood.
"...maru..." she mumbled, tugging on his clothes. The action returned his attention to her.
Do you have a name? Are you human? How did you emerge from that fire?
Most importantly - are you the priestess?
No. This wouldn't do. Not at all. What interest could a child possibly hold for him? Standing here, drawn into her gaze and spellbound by her very existence, reminded him of those moments when his brother allowed raw emotion to deform his face and of every time he abandoned his demon pride to show concern for a human.
Ridiculous. Unseemly. Yet here he was, captivated himself by this.../thing./
Letting out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, Sesshoumaru pulled himself from the child's grip, smoothed his face into a mask of firm indifference, turned on his heel, and walked away.
"Sesshoumaru," the girl murmured. This time, he hardened his resolve, and no matter how much his curiosity beckoned him to turn around, he did not. To erase all temptation, he took to the sky, allowing the crisp air to clear his head. A thousand more questions had been set aflame within his mind; it took all of his self-discipline not to dwell on them.
Getting mixed up in the affairs of mortals would not do. If that child was indeed a form of the priestess, then her instincts would lead her to safety. If she was simply a human child- as illogical as that seemed - then nature would dictate if she was meant to live or not. And the fire? Well, he supposed that that wasn't the strangest thing he'd seen the Shikon no Tama conjure.
It took some time, but eventually the rugged peaks of his restlessness smoothed out into serenity. He pushed the incident to the back of his thoughts, wanting to focus on more pressing matters than dwelling on the existence of a useless creature. Stopping by his brother's forest to witness the ceremony of the Jewel had been a detour from the route of his usual patrol. It was time for him to resume his duties before he began the lengthy journey to his home.
Even though Naraku was long dead, there was still unfinished business to take care of in his territories - rowdy demons, rising rebellions, and general malcontent. Such things were easy to put down; the trouble was that sending vassals to carry out such missions only resulted in a waste of time and loss of servants. The only way to ensure the completion and efficiency of the tasks at hand was to perform them in person.
He had come to terms - over many years - that his life would be much like his father's. Home was a notion he would have to eventually discard. His lineage required an heir. Perhaps one day, he would choose a female from the nobility of the East or North to be his mate. She would become a symbol of his bloodline, one that remained at his estates and oversaw the business of his household while ensuring the continued cooperation of both clans. They would couple until an heir could be produced, and he would likely never see her again.
It was a fate he was quite content to accept. Companionship was the last thing he needed, for his own company was superior and far more pleasant than another's. Time moved slowly for his kind, and Sesshoumaru was more than comfortable witnessing it pass alone.
Over the years, seasons changed in the blink of an eye, sculpting new features upon the familiar landscape of the country. Villages either withered away or became towns. Roads were worn down or rebuilt. Humans lived and died within a bubble of relative ignorance to the complexities of demon laws and societies. But, for all their might and posturing, demons were slowly being hunted to extinction. Whether by their own foolishness or by the hand of the quickly growing human species, they would one day fade from knowledge and memory.
Wandering this ever-changing world gave Sesshoumaru new insights. He yearned to learn as much as he could, to ensure that his bloodline would survive the test of time and immortality. He enjoyed the peace and quiet of going where and doing as he wished. There was afreedom in this sort of life that he would have had to give up had he chosen to stay and rule his estates. As it was, there were plenty of underlings that could manage the task quite well.
When he did return, it was only to check upon the state of things or to appoint new retainers. Unfortunately, with Naraku on the loose, he had not had time to see his estates in many years. Despite his hesitation, he now had no choice but to ascertain their fate.
When the trees began to thin out beneath him, Sesshoumaru decided to return to ground. As soon as his feet touched the earth, he realized he had neither eaten nor rested in some time. His nose picked up a multitude of nearby scents: humans, fields, leaves, dry bark, a few lower demons, and - he frowned - the stench of pigs. Something else was there too, perhaps something that could be hunted. Was it a deer? Perhaps astrong and proud stag that could provide some short-lived amusement and achase?
Interested, he followed the trail, periodically pausing to give his supposed prey a chance to get ahead. Stalking his potential victims was a pleasure he could not forgo, no matter the level of his hunger. Some of his kind hunted humans for this purpose, but he'd never enjoyed the taste of human blood. Consuming it felt much like drinking stale river water. Peasants, commoners, and even most human nobility tasted too much of greed and toxic darkness. Rumor was that noble and pure maidens were free of such taint. Some even claimed that their flesh could increase a demon's strength.
He had no need to tear through such a maiden's veins in a pathetic scramble for added power. No. If at all possible, he wanted to avoid humanity entirely. Irritated that he'd allowed his thoughts to wander, Sesshoumaru focused all of his attention on the stag once more.
As he pursued the beast through the lush woods, the curtains of the forest parted before him. He moved at alazy pace at first, but when the scent of fear reached him, his heartbeat quickened. That scent was irresistible. As was the tang of adrenaline. The beast had sensed his presence and was now running madly for its life. Sesshoumaru followed, still holding back, still taking pleasure in tormenting the creature and rejoicing as it sank further and further into helpless terror. Another deer joined the first, then another, until four stags were running from him in earnest.
Sesshoumaru allowed all surface thought to disappear. Like mist, it faded into nothingness, leaving behind only primal instinct. He floated through the trees and branches, not a single piece of foliage touching him. Silent. Deadly. An inevitable and perfect doom to any that stood in his way.
Eyes blazing red and claws glowing with acidic poison, the demon caught up to the beasts, his chest rumbling with a growl of satisfaction. The first two stags stood no chance. Sesshoumaru pounced on both with lithe and deadly grace, tearing into flesh and bone. The animals bellowed as their heads were severed and their bodies torn asunder, thick dark blood spraying in fountains towards the sky. In seconds, the ground was soaked through. Sesshoumaru licked his claws, thrilling at the taste of hot blood spiced with fear and panic.
Immediately, he tore after the next victims, catching up to the third stag in mere moments. Again, he pounced. Again, he spilled its blood. This one was larger than the first. Older. Knowledge and experience surged through its sinews. Knowing he could still catch the last of them even if he took time to feast here, Sesshoumaru did not hesitate. He ripped his prey wide open and devoured the stag's heart, relishing in the feeling of bones snapping beneath his bare hands.
He stayed no longer than necessary. The thought of prey escaping him did not sit well with his pride. Leaving the lifeless corpse behind, he chased after the faint trail of the last stag's scent.
So engaged in the hunt was he that he hardly noticed the sun setting. It was only when he came to the edge of a riverbank and saw the moon reflected in the water that he realized how late it had gotten. He expected to find the last of his victims thrashing in the torrents of the river to escape with its life and cracked his knuckles in anticipation.
What he saw instead stole his very breath.
Ribbons of moonlight fluttered over the magnificent antlers of one of the largest stags he'd ever encountered in this forest. His instincts had been on the mark. This animal had seen many seasons. Its blood would taste finer than aged wine. But what truly caught Sesshoumaru's attention was the figure that stood next to it, a female human child with raven hair and a white yukata.
Her clothing was in tatters. There were twigs and dead leaves in her hair. Mud covered her legs all the way up to her knees. Crystal clear blue eyes stared up at him with unnatural sentience for someone of her age, the gaze immobilizing him.
The name came unbidden to his thoughts, though he still couldn't rationalize how such a thing was possible. The stag lowered its proud head, suddenly no longer tense or afraid, almost as though Sesshoumaru's presence was nothing more than a passing breeze. Its eyes closed as small pale hands caressed its snout and whispered something into its ear. The animal snorted softly and and rubbed its nose against waves of dark hair. It pawed the ground of the riverbank, upturning pebbles and stones. The child's blue eyes returned to face the demon's, small frail arms coming up to embrace the stag's head in a gesture of protective determination.
"Sesshoumaru," the child whispered.
How? How did you follow me? How did you find me? How did a helpless child survive this forest? How is any of this possible?
So many questions, yet his self-respect would not allow him to ask them. He was above such things and above admitting to the fact that this being utterly and completely mystified him.
His heart still pounded with the excitement of the hunt. A red haze lingered over his vision. The stag's scent sang to him, but the child's helplessness and purity was far more tempting. Had he not possessed such an aversion to human blood, he would have slaughtered her on the spot. As it was, he simply wanted her gone.
"Move aside," he commanded. She shook her head. His eyes narrowed and his voice lowered to a dangerous pitch. "That was not a request."
Step by step, he approached her, expecting the animal beside her to flee. Yet, it did not move. Sesshoumaru stepped onto the river bank, feeling soft dirt and loose stones shifting beneath his boots.
"I will cut you down," he told her. The stag's large glassy gaze met his own. Within, Sesshoumaru saw his blurred and distorted reflection. His hands and face were bestrewn with blood, painting a picture of ferocity and ruthlessness. But, neither the child nor the buck flinched away. Despite his threats, the girl and her charge stood their ground.
Just like before, she had to crane her neck to look all the way up at him. Conviction, pure and raw, gave her courage sanctuary, flashing in her icy gaze. She meant to protect this animal, though logical reasons for her actions eluded him. What could she gain from this? What reason would she have to risk her life to shield this creature?
All around him, the sounds of the forest faded away. His tense poison-covered hand lowered to his side, the claws retracting to their normal length.
"Leave," he ground out.
A spark of anger ignited in his chest. Sesshoumaru knelt down before her, running a single claw down the side of her face. Gently. Carefully. It would have been too easy to pierce her skin. Then again, why not just kill her? Why not just finish the sacrifice that she, herself, had started in the clearing? It would be so simple. Just one flick of his wrist and she would be splayed open from nose to navel. Her feeble bones would shatter like glass, as would that doll-like absence of emotion on her face. No more trouble; no more curiosity; no more wondering. As though sensing his intent, the stag gave an angry snort and stomped its hooves. Sesshoumaru met this threat unflinchingly.
"Leave or you, too, will be destroyed." His less patient side dictated that he make good on his threat. After all, what was one animal's life in comparison to his great pride?Would he let this beast escape on the whim of a girl?
When the animal lowered its head in preparation of a strike, the child pattered over to Sesshoumaru and stood in front of him, her arms spread out and her back facing him. His eyes examined that small back, the shoulder blades that looked no more sturdy than eggshells. He couldn't see the expression she showed the animal, but the stag immediately calmed. When she shook her head in a firm gesture of denial, her hair released a cloud of a scent he'd never smelled before. It was sweet and delicate, like crimson amaryllis flowers in the prime of spring. Giving Sesshoumaru one last wary glance, the stag moved around them and retreated into the darkness.
After some time passed and she did not budge, Sesshoumaru called forth poison to his claws. The wind shifted through her hair, giving him another glimpse of her thin neck.
Like eggshells - he mused. Vulnerable. Soft. Perhaps this once, he could make an exception. Perhaps this once, human blood wouldn't taste so -
His thoughts ground to a halt when the child turned around to face him. Her apathetic face transformed. Instead of a blank and expressionless look, the corners of her lips tipped up into a barely perceptible smile. This irritated him, for it meant that she didn't take any of his threats seriously. His jaw clenched. He was ready to melt her with his poison when something cold pressed against his face.
Immediately, the haze of blood lust left his vision; he realized that her small hand was touching his left cheek. The other hand joined it, brushing against the right side of his face. Tiny fingers traced the dark stripes there.
"Sesshoumaru..." Her azure eyes softened. "Sesshoumaru...kind."
Hers was not a child's voice; it was the sound of summer rain, the rustling of an autumn breeze. He not only heard it; he felt it, too. Slowly, his hand lowered once more. He recalled how the stag had nuzzled against her, recalled the serenity and peace in its expression. With each second that passed, the restlessness within his own heart receded. He was nothing like the stag, yet the comparison was inevitable. With a single touch, with a mere gesture, this girl had driven back the beast within his soul.
For the first time in his life, Sesshoumaru was afraid. The emotion felt like venom, eating and chewing through his awareness, threatening the foundations of his perceptions of the world. For that, the girl deserved to die. She was an anomaly of nature, and she threatened much. If she could so easily unbalance a demon of /his /stature, then she could do so for others. Should she rejoin her human brethren, she could be a potent weapon against many a demon.
She had to die. Tonight. Yet Sesshoumaru could no sooner strike her down than he could harm himself. Peace, clear and true, bound his actions. His heart felt light. His soul felt disjointed from the demonic shadow that had been his ever-present companion since his birth. He stood and stepped away from her, shaken and disturbed. For reasons he would never understand, he let her live that night.
He walked away from her - again -hoping that this time, she would not return.
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