It was a five to six day flight from the Musashi to the Settsu province, the first stop in investigating the new threat to Sesshoumaru's territories. Sesshoumaru proceeded at a comfortable yet efficient pace. He only landed to briefly rest and hunt, unwilling to waste more time than necessary. He believed - or hoped, perhaps - that his pace and speed of travel would be impossible for the strange child to endure. She moved on foot, after all, and even at a lazy pace, Sesshoumaru flew quicker than the fastest of mounts. However, as each day passed, Sesshoumaru grew more and more concerned, for no matter how far he traveled, the girl always managed to find him and catch up.
The human runt had, in the span of a few short days, become worse than a plague. She was a curse. A nuisance. He held no responsibility for her. Theoretically, he shouldn't care if she was following him. But it wasn't just the fact that she was keeping up that bothered him. It was the fact that she had become a recurring and aberrant presence in his daily life, made all the worse by the knowledge that he was unable to kill her. That stung. That he, Sesshoumaru, was unable to do something meant that he had fallen beneath something. It was a callous on his pride, a stain upon his otherwise flawless notoriety.
Since the night at the lake, he refused to acknowledge her presence, theorizing that she would eventually fall off like a dry scab from a healing wound. Yet, nothing had changed. She followed him with unwavering conviction, her clothes and hair growing dirtier and dirtier with each day. As impossible as it may have seemed, she was still uninjured. She had yet to say anything but his name and a few random words. When she did catch up to him, he watched her warily out of the corner of his eye as he rested, unnerved by her silent and tranquil demeanor, traits that did not belong to a child her age. It seemed that she was content to simply be near him, gazing wordlessly at the sky or walking between trees and rubbing her hands on their bark.
Animals gathered around her. Despite his threatening presence, they were not afraid. She welcomed each visitor with the same unnatural reticence, her expression ever harmonious, ever placid and serene. At some point, Sesshoumaru entertained the idea that she was somehow communicating with these creatures wordlessly. Adding that theory to the rest of the mystery that was her existence daunted him. All of these strange abilities marked her as something other than human, yet she was no demon either. The purity and strength of the spiritual energy about her was so profound that it offended even his sensibilities. Shinto priestesses gifted with powers like the late Kagome's and Kikyo's were few and far between. To see something like this in a child so young...
Are you Kagome? Or are you merely a threat? - he asked no one in particular for what felt like the hundredth time. Are you a danger with that small body and that listless gaze? Should I destroy you before you do any harm? Bold words for ademon who lost all will to kill when he looked into her eyes. That she had such power over him was too infuriating to describe in words. From Sesshoumaru's point of view, there were only two outcomes to this ridiculous scenario. Either the child would eventually succumb to hunger or the elements and die or he would one day be able to overcome whatever spell she'd cast on him and would kill her himself.
On the fifth day after the Jewel ceremony and the final day before his arrival in Settsu province, Sesshoumaru's travels were interrupted with the arrival of one of his retainers. He expected to see Jaken greeting him on the flying two-headed dragon. Instead, a man wearing luxurious white robes trimmed with golden flowers approached him from adistance. His mouth was set in a cunning smile, eyes wide, slanted, and trimmed with long white lashes. His silver hair was complimented by a pair of white ears, and three furry tails trailed behind him in the wind.
A kitsune -Sesshoumaru thought with some displeasure. He motioned for the dragon to land, deferring all greetings and questions until they could speak in a secluded area. When the fox demon dismounted, he immediately bowed low in respect, tugging at his sleeves so they wouldn't drag on the ground. Sesshoumaru dug through his memories, trying to recall if he'd ever met this demon before. It took some time, but he did remember seeing him after the incident with the panther tribe some years ago. On a rare occasion, the servants running his estates sent him reports in person. All those years ago, they'd chosen this demon, who had apparently earned a reliable reputation in his father's service.
"Susumu," he nodded.
"Lord Sesshoumaru," the fox demon breathed euphorically, remaining in a bowed stance. "I am honored beyond words that you remember the name of this lowly servant. I beg you to forgive my rude intrusion; however, there are urgent news of the conflict from the fronts of Settsu and Harima provinces."
"Jaken was ordered to investigate this matter."
"He implored your forgiveness, My Lord, and sent me to report to you in his stead. There have been some...unexpected difficulties and developments." Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed. He shifted his weight between his feet. Kitsune were tricksters and clever liars who fled rather that fought when the situation called for it. He was not comfortable with one carrying out such important orders, nor did he trust his claim of Jaken's request. He'd known the kappa for over one hundred years. No matter the circumstances, he would have personally made the trip to see Sesshoumaru in order to fulfill his orders. Did this mean that his authority was being questioned? Unacceptable.
"If your explanation doesn't satisfy This Sesshoumaru..." he left the threat hanging in the air, satisfied when the kitsune visibly cowered at the tone of his voice.
"This humble servant exists only to venerate and serve you, My Lord," Susumu rushed to say. "My life is yours to do with as My Lord wishes." Somewhat soothed by this shallow pandering, Sesshoumaru gestured for the kitsune to proceed. Relative stranger he might be, but at least he knew his place. "We investigated the rumors as you commanded, My Lord, and found that the rebellion is more organized than we could have imagined. It is led by a single man - one who calls himself Katashi."
"A human, then..."
Susumu nodded. "We believe he has origins with the Ouchi Clan."
The neighboring human clan, is it? They are well aware of our claim to the Saigoku region. They wouldn't dare interfere. He must be acting alone.
"This one is strong," the kitsune continued. "He is powerful of will and a master tactician. His army and his followers have grown quickly. They now call themselves the Relegation and even have their own crest. They leave their standard in every village they burn."
A challenge? - Sesshoumaru mused. But to whom? Or perhaps a warning, though this man's actions seem utterly preposterous. If he is from Ouchi, then he knows of our strength. He can't imagine that the greater demons will allow him to do as he pleases.
"None yet, My Lord, but something drives this man past mortal limits. Whispers say he cannot be killed, and there are witnesses who have seen him carrying what can only be a demonic halberd. Envoys sent to negotiate from the North have all been killed, and these were no lower demons." Susumu frowned, his narrow eyes opening to reveal violet orbs. The ears atop his head lowered back. "Master Saorabi's son, Ahie, is dead."
So, not only has this vermin blatantly challenged the only natural authority in the West, but he now has the heir of the North's blood on his hands. Sesshoumaru felt no pity for the Lord of the North. Clearly, his son had been a weakling. To be killed by human hands was the highest dishonor for a demon of any station. Worse for one of noble birth and blood. However, this human, Katashi, warranted further investigation. A human that could kill a Daiyoukai's son singlehandedly could not be allowed to roam free.
"Gather more information," he commanded. "This Sesshoumaru will arrive in Settsu by tomorrow."
"As you say, My Lord," the kitsune bowed once more. "We will do our best to uncover the motive behind these attacks."
"It may not matter," Sesshoumaru countered. "Their deaths will soon come by This Sesshoumaru's hand." Susumu raised his head and smiled, his ears perking up once more.
"Indeed, My Lord."
"And what of the Chukogu region?"
"There is unrest, especially after the recent battles the humans have waged upon each other. The Ouchi clan continues to passively disobey our envoys. They bring in trade from the Continent, even weapons that are strange and mystical. With that trade come missionaries who deny the Shinto religion and undermine our very existence in the eyes of humans."
"Yamaguchi castle is close to the border of the Estates."
"The Ouchi Clan base? My Lord has considered destroying them, then? It would be a fine warning." Before Sesshoumaru could reply, he heard an all too familiar rustling in the trees. Susumu started, immediately drawing his katana and preparing for combat."Who's there?" he demanded. After a moment, a figure clad in a filthy white yukata emerged from the shadows. Sesshoumaru's blue-eyed and raven-haired curse stumbled from the shrubbery, more twigs and leaves hanging in her hair. His irritation was short lived. After all, he'd decided that this situation would resolve itself one way or another. The kitsune, however, was unprepared. Surprise and confusion were written all over his face. Curious as to how she would affect the fox, Sesshoumaru observed his servant in silence, allowing this to play out as it would.
"Sesshoumaru," the child called as always, seeming oblivious to the presence of the other demon beside him. Sesshoumaru's attention was momentarily redirected when he saw aspot of blood on the child's sleeve. So, she could be injured after all. Was she human, then? If she continued to insist on following him, would she eventually die as he suspected? Taking a silent breath, he tried to smell the injury, yet when he did, he discovered that the crimson stain was residue from some sort of forest berry. The annoyance he felt at that nearly rivaled another mysterious feeling - was it...relief?
"M-My Lord..." Sesshoumaru refocused his attention on Susumu. The kitsune's ears were pricked back, his tails swishing irritably. His white fur stood on end. The hand on his sword was firm, but there was no way that he could conceal his trembling. Interesting. The child padded towards them. When she was several meters away, Susumu took a few steps back. "What is it?" he bit out.
"A nuisance," Sesshoumaru replied.
"There's a strong spiritual aura around it, yet it doesn't smell human..." He looked around. "Where did it come from?" Suddenly, the girl's gaze swiveled from Sesshoumaru to the kitsune. She blinked as though seeing him for the first time. Once. Twice. Then -
"Fox..." she breathed, her voice small and lilting. The kitsune's face paled. She stepped closer to him; not even Susumu's battle-ready stance fazed her. Blue eyes followed the movements of his tails, a trance-like fog falling over her expression."Fox..." It was one of the only words aside from his name that Sesshoumaru had heard her say in five days. He wondered - very briefly - if he should intervene, but this scene was proving to be interesting on a number of levels. Why was Susumu so intimidated? The way he was backing up, despite being an armed opponent against a child that barely reached to his knees, was absurd. Yet there was real fear in his eyes. Real panic. Then it clicked. Would he swing that sword? Would he try to cut her down? A part of him wanted to know -wanted to see if she /could /be killed.
"M-My Lord..." the kitsune stuttered. "My Lord, is this creature in your service?"
"This Sesshoumaru makes no habit of keeping vermin as pets," he answered.
"T-Then..." The girl shuffled closer and closer. As soon as she was within the proper distance, Susumu cut outwards in a brilliant silver arc. Sesshoumaru heard the edge of the blade slice through the air. This is it - he thought. Yet just as the sword would have severed the child's head from her shoulders, the blade stopped as though possessing a will of its own. With sharp and rapt attention, Sesshoumaru observed as Susumu's violet eyes lost their focus. His slitted pupils dilated. As seconds ticked by, beads of sweat gathered on his skin. He looked petrified, his muscles rigid, his pallor intensifying, and his sword arm quivering. A beat, then he dropped to one knee, gasping for breath as though he'd just been drowning. The blade clattered harmlessly to the earthen ground. The girl, undaunted, continued to move to her original destination, stopping right in front of the kneeling demon. When he looked up at her, his eyes were still unfocused, but the expression on his face was one of anger.
"Monster," he snarled, his face now on the right level to glare into her eyes. "Just what /are /you?How can you -"
"Fox," the girl cut in. Susumu's words ground to a halt when the child reached up and touched his ears. Despite the fact that he was clearly perturbed by her actions, Sesshoumaru theorized that he was still somehow immobilized. The girl's hands gently caressed the fur of his ears, then stroked through his bangs, then finally moved to cup his face. "Fox...sad," she said, tilting her head to the side like a curious bird. His eyes squeezed shut, and Sesshoumaru finally understood why he was so afraid. He thought the child wanted to purify him. He supposed it might have been possible. He still had no idea just how powerful this girl was. However, he had yet to see her harm a single living thing. As though sensing that his thoughts were directed at her, the girl turned back to him, still petting the top of the kitsune's head.
As I suspected. She is a threat. If she can immobilize demons with a mere glance, then allowing her to live would be a mistake. Just as before, however, he couldn't muster asingle spark of killing intent. It was as though she'd bound his desires somehow. He took a step forward, raising his hand. In that moment, Susumu regained his senses. He shoved the girl back full force, knocking her violently into the ground.
"Get away from me, /monster/," he hissed. Grabbing his sword from the ground, he leaped backwards to stand beside Sesshoumaru. "My Lord..."
Yes. I know. We need to slay it. But that seems to be impossible. He followed the child's movements as she regained her footing, noted the way that she winced when stepping on her left foot. Susumu hadn't used any restraint. She was hurt and dazed. Perhaps now was the time to strike. Rubbing at a bit of grime on her cheek, the girl looked up at him again. Confusion. Surprise. She hadn't expected this. Damn this thing and its lack of common sense.
"...maru?" she mumbled. Would she cry? Somehow, the mental picture didn't quite fit. He raised his hand farther.
"Don't worry, My Lord," Susumu cut in. "Allow this humble servant to take care of this pest for you."
"Leave," Sesshoumaru snapped.
"You have orders to carry out, do you not?"
"Leave." Susumu cringed and sheathed his sword.
"As you command, My Lord." He made his way over to Sesshoumaru's flying dragon, mounted it, and urged it into motion. The kitsune disappeared with a flap of the dragon's great wings, taking to the sky without further word of complaint. Sesshoumaru thought he might have imagined it, but he guessed that the kitsune was grateful for the reprieve. His servant's cowardice chafed. To know that such craven demons called themselves his retainers was to feel the sting of dishonor. The knowledge that such a demon's name would be associated with his own weighed heavily upon him. At least, until a small weight bumping into his leg tore him from his dark thoughts. He looked down to see that the girl had run over to him, clutching at his pant leg much like she had on a few occasions past. He felt her quivering. What was she doing? Seeking protection? Surely not from /him/. Then again, time and experience had proven that this girl didn't have a shred of common sense when it came to danger.
Just like he had before, Sesshoumaru stepped out of her grip and moved on. He didn't have to look back at her to know that she was limping. Somehow, the knowledge that she /could /be injured was comforting, in its own way. It meant that once Sesshoumaru could figure out how to break the odd spell she'd woven over him, he would be able to take her life as he once wished to do. That realization returned some power into his hands. If there was something he hated, it was being unable to hold absolute reign over anything. Despite this temporary set back and the curse that was this paradoxical child, he was still in control. His ego set at ease with this notion, he put all consideration of her to the back of his mind. At this point, she'd once again become as insignificant as the grass beneath his feet.
He continued his path towards the Settsu province. Here, the thick forests had thinned out to give way to luscious fields that had not yet seen the grizzled touch of autumn. The wind toyed with the knee-length grass, its invisible yet tangible fingers caressing and weaving between the long strands. He told himself that he chose to walk now because he wanted to take in the last breaths of summer and to make sure that he learned the lay of the land as he had been unable to do in the years that Naraku had wreaked havoc upon the countryside. Certainly, it was not because he wondered if the child could keep up with him on an injured foot. Certainly, it was not because he thought that she might lose track of him if she couldn't move as quickly as before.
They reached the border of Settsu well before sunset, stopping by a secluded riverbank while Sesshoumaru thought of how to proceed. There was much to consider now that Susumu had delivered his report. Was the best course of action punishing the entire Ouchi Clan? Or was it better to go after this Relegation and the man who led it? Rumor said he couldn't be killed, but legends had a way of turning to dust when tested by someone with enough power to destroy them. In this realm and in this land, he, the Great Sesshoumaru, was one with such might and the only one who could make claim to true immortality. Subconsciously, his hand brushed against the Bakusaiga. This sword, alone, was proof enough that he had surpassed his mighty father. Anyone who challenged him would pay dearly.
The sound of splashing caught his attention. He glanced towards the riverbank and saw that the girl was shucking off her yukata and wading into the shallow end of the water. Though it was summer, the water was still frigid, yet the child didn't even flinch when she dipped her body into it up to her neck. Sesshoumaru watched as she rubbed the dirt and debris of travel from herself. She picked out the dead leaves and twigs from her hair and ducked underwater to weave out the tangles in it. When she stepped back out, she pulled on her clothes, but not before Sesshoumaru saw how thin and scrawny she was. The thought of her methods of survival hadn't really troubled him up until now. He'd chalked it up to her supernatural abilities. Seeing the ribs clearly defined on her torso, however, reminded him of the first time he'd seen her after the ceremony. Her full rosy cheeks and glimmering pale skin were now replaced with a grey tinge. Her cheekbones looked prominent, and now that he could see beneath her clothing, he noticed multiple scratches and bruises discoloring the skin of her legs.
She's barefoot -was his stray thought. So, following him /was /taking a toll on her. Why, then, was she persisting? They'd passed numerous villages during the past five days where she could have gone to take shelter. Resentful of his inability to get this creature out of his mind and out of his life, Sesshoumaru perched upon a nearby rock. He attempted to check the direction of his musings, knowing that it was crucial that he come up with a plan of action to deal with the Relegation and the threats it presented. Not only that, but if foreign influence wasn't stymied now, the way of life for demon nobility would be threatened. That particular problem wasn't his alone, but there /was /something he could do about it. Now that the Lord of the North had lost his only son, Sesshoumaru knew that he would come to him with an offer of alliance. Once, the North had been on good terms with his father, but many years had passed since his death. Things were different now, and the North hadn't been of much assistance during Naraku's rampage.
With humans fighting tooth and nail for power and control over the provinces, there was little room for error now. Damn Saorabi and his indecisiveness. If he chose to hesitate when it came to leadership, then he was not fit to be an ally of the West. Besides, Sesshoumaru needed no alliance to take care of a minor uprising in his own lands. He would find this human, and he would deal with him in a most painful and most satisfying way. Without looking to see if the child was following him, Sesshoumaru once more set off towards the heart of Settsu. By morning, he would be in place to start his search.
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