Though Sesshoumaru had never spent much time in Settsu province, he remembered it as aforested land cradled by mountains with fertile grounds for farming and large flowing rivers with waters as clear as pure springs. He recalled visiting this area with his father once and taking in the sights of massive human palaces and homes being built on riverbanks. Lush gardens had surrounded those homes, filled with flowers, trees, and chiseled statues of all kinds. At the time, he hadn't held much of an opinion of such frivolous architecture, though his father had dubbed the humans' craftsmanship "pleasing to look upon".
Traveling through Settsu in the present day forced Sesshoumaru to question his own memory of it. Since his last visit, things had drastically changed here. War and chaos had been branded into this land with a callousness and cruelty that even someone like Sesshoumaru could not condone. The castles and wooden palaces with their crimson rooftops and finely polished walkways now lay strewn across the land as nothing but piles of ash and rubble. The province was scarred and ravaged, no longer cradled by the mountains but imprisoned by them. Rivers ran red with the blood of those who lived here, and those that could have farmed the land had either fled the war or fallen victim to it.
The Relegation had attacked the majority of the prominent estates and villages in the province, forcing the Miyoshi - the ruling human clan - to fall back west towards the province of Harima in order to seek refuge. Every village from the northeastern border to the south of the province was destroyed. Sites that had once stood as testaments to the Miyoshi's power and grandeur were now nothing more than black spots upon the landscape.
It was in one of these ruins that Sesshoumaru first came across the burned and tattered crest of the rebellion. The symbol took him by surprise. The crest bore a black sakura flower with a golden heraldry symbol representing "steel lightning" at its center. The image tugged on a memory that Sesshoumaru had buried long ago. Something distant, an event taking place centuries ago when his father was still alive.
Days went by as he struggled to remember this important "something", hours of sitting and brooding over a scrap of cloth with the bloodstained crest sown into it. Sesshoumaru tried to cling to this memory and unearth it from the sticky confines of his subconscious with no success. The failure was as frustrating as it was maddening.
How could he, The Great Sesshoumaru, fail to remember something so important, especially when the information he needed was so critical now? Was there a reason he'd shoved this particular memory so far into the depths of his mind?
He moved on to the next village and the next, but no matter how many times Sesshoumaru saw that accursed crest, he could not recall where he'd encountered it before.
By the end of the third day of what he considered to be an aimless trek through the ruined province, Sesshoumaru's blood was aboil with anger. When he arrived in the city of Amaga and witnessed the charred and dark remains of what used to be the abode of one of the West's highest ranking demon vassals, that anger spiked. The beast within his breast stirred to life, crying out for vengeance.
Not for aservant's life, but for Sesshoumaru's pride, which continued to thrash and flail in the darkness as the Relegation's disregard for it carved bloody scars into its core. How dare a human attack demon nobility? How dare a human think so highly of himself that he would threaten the lifestyle of those far above him in worth and station?
Letting out a silent huff of irritation, Sesshoumaru glanced behind him, where the cursed child who was still following him was looking at something with great interest. He cursed. Another element that he held no control over. Damn her!
How Sesshoumaru wished to take his anger out on her. How he wished he could stomp out at least this particular aggravation out of his life. Still, her spell stayed strong. When he looked at her, the beast inside him receded. The anger that stirred up a maelstrom in his thoughts was soothed, and rational thought gained strength and purchase within the pandemonium.
Truth be told, he preferred this peace to the calamity. In the calm, he could think clearly. In dispassion, he could reason. He feared to admit that this child anchored him somehow. To what, he couldn't say, but he wasn't sure he could accept it without a fight.
Thoughts still stormy and demeanor dark and brooding, Sesshoumaru heard the object of his thoughts grunt and wheeze with effort as she set her sights on the wreckage. She pushed away pieces of wooden beams, broken furniture, and shattered glass as though searching for something. He thought she might hurt herself, but the threat didn't deter her.
It took time, but from a great mass of smoking debris, she pulled out what looked like a small half burned frame that held a painting. She stood still for a moment, examining it with a furrowed brow before walking over to Sesshoumaru and holding it up to face him. For his inspection, he supposed, though understanding why was beyond his abilities as always.
He raised a brow, noting her soot covered hands and elbows. He hadn't really thought about her or looked at her for days as his restlessness to catch up with the Relegation grew. The more destruction he saw, the more focused he became until his determination to end this threat to his lands had drowned out everything. Three days had passed since Susumu's report. Since entering Settsu, his pace had been rigorous, if not grueling, yet the child had somehow kept up. None of her exhaustion showed on her face, though the evidence of it was all too obvious on her body. Still, when she looked up at him, he saw no resentment -no anger, no blame, no concern for her own safety.
"Ocean," she said, pointing to the worn image of waves on the half burned canvas as though nothing was wrong. Her cheekbones were more prominent now, her skin pale and grey. Dark rings circled her eyes, and her lips were chapped with thirst. He turned away from her, the sight of her wasting away somehow distasteful. She followed the angle of his gaze, shuffling along in a half circle to stay in his line of sight.
"Sesshoumaru," she called insistently. "Ocean." She did the same thing two more times before he nearly gave into the urge to fly up into the clouds and leave her behind. Suddenly, though, something clicked. He wasn't sure what it was -the picture of the roiling waves of the sea in the painting or the color of her blue eyes - but the memory he'd been trying to pry out of his stubborn recollections manifested before him in a brilliant flash.
If we don't quell this threat now...
His father's voice floated to him on the wind, entering his mind like cold breath that sent his senses reeling.
If we don't quell this monster now, more than just our lands will be threatened.
More flashes. The golden crest. Different, yet similar. The sakura flower was absent, but the main symbol for "steel lightning" was there, blazing against a backdrop of fire. His father's face was calm, yet his aura pulsed with barely restrained fury. A burning palace in the distance. A torn banner flapping in a violent wind bearing the ancient crest of an old and powerful demon family. Rootftops with broken shingles. A decimated city marketplace around him.
Dimly, Sesshoumaru recognized the place as Osaka. Back then, it had been the largest city in the region, fought over by both demons and humans alike for influence and power.
He snapped out of his semi-trance when he felt a tugging on his robes. Looking down, he met the child's eyes.
"Ocean," she repeated.
That's right - he thought. Osaka is by the ocean.
The moment he made the connection, the child's expression shifted. As though she knew exactly what was in his thoughts, she smiled. Sesshoumaru stood stock still, each beat of his heart a heavy hammer that struck painful vibrations through his rib cage. She'd known, this girl. She'd known exactly what he was looking for.
But, how?He hadn't said a word to her nor shown any sign of what he'd needed to remember. How could she have possibly guessed such a thing? With great effort, he reigned in his shock.
No. Of course it was impossible. This was a coincidence, and that was all.
Sesshoumaru began to walk away when something stopped him. Invisible hands held him back, doubt - and perhaps curiosity - stronger than pride this time. He glanced back at the child, always there, always following him, always calling his name; almost as though she lived for him.
A servant, perhaps. A loyal one. And not just a mere worm to order around, but a creature with powers that could help him with the task at hand. He could use her, for now, and when the time came, he could leave her behind just as easily.
The thought of what he was about to do sent shudders of disgust down his spine, but he did his best to suppress the black emotions swirling in his chest as he stepped towards the girl and wrapped his furry mane around her tiny form. She looked surprised at first, but not afraid. As the fur wrapped around her body, she ran her fingers through it.
"Sesshoumaru," she murmured, brushing her cheek against the brown softness. When he lifted her into the air, their eyes met. As before, waves of purity washed over him. Not threatening or painful, but soothing and quieting, meeting his animosity with gentle resistance. He cursed those eyes - huge and full of knowledge that should not have belonged to a child.
She pointed to her chest and said, "Sesshoumaru hate". Despite the dark observation, her mouth softened into a smile again. "But, Sesshoumaru kind."
The words were powerful enough to pierce even his impervious armor. Again, he found himself thinking that this creature couldn't possibly be human. Humans allowed emotion to rule all they did. If someone slighted or insulted them, they nurtured animus. If someone was cruel to them, they nurtured contempt. If someone showed little to no interest in them or their needs, they went their separate ways. This child defied that every rule.
What am Idoing? - he thought as he lifted the child and pressed her against his side. What the hell am I doing? -he asked himself again as he watched her nuzzle into the warmth of his mane and close her eyes in exhausted sleep.
Trust -untainted and unspoiled - for a demon who threatened her and bore her little but antipathy. In the curve of those long lashes and the graceful dip of her cheek, Sesshoumaru couldn't help but see the priestess illuminated by moonlight. He saw her ivory skin; saw the eyes that could have been portals to another world, a place he longed to find yet couldn't hope to understand. He saw the mystery that was Kagome, and found himself wondering if he would ever see her again.
This child is a tool - his rationale insisted. Sesshoumaru clenched his teeth and gazed towards the horizon, to the south where Osaka and possibly more answers awaited him. If he thought further on his actions and intentions, he would regret them all and leave the child behind. Since that could jeopardize his mission, he tightened his hold on her and took to the sky.
The trip did not last long - half a day at most. By the time they reached the borders of the city, the sun was preparing to set. Sesshoumaru passed by the front gates, heading straight for a separate entrance used by demon nobility to move in and out of Osaka without commotion. Although humans knew and accepted the existence of demons, it was only the echelons of nobility that knew of their entrenchment in politics and matters involving the governing of the land. To his surprise, Susumu greeted him there. Sesshoumaru wasn't pleased to see the kitsune again, but when Jaken ran out to greet him next, he was somewhat appeased.
"My Lord!" the kappa croaked in joy, his cheeks filling with color and his eyes glistening with tears. He dropped to the ground, prostrating himself -expensive clothes and all - in the dirt. "My Lord, I am so relieved to see you here! So much has happened! So much!"
"You will explain everything you know," Sesshoumaru commanded.
"Of course, My Lord!" It took time for the kappa to gather himself. He stood and dusted off his clothes then straightened his back and the Staff of Two Heads in his webbed hand. "Susumu told me that he'd reported everything to you a few days ago, but we were hoping to see you much sooner. We didn't know where you might go, and didn't know where to look. This one," he glared at the kitsune, "suggested that you might visit Osaka since it is one of the only large towns that hasn't been ransacked by that human filth, Katashi." His face melted into a look of discomfort and distress. "May this lowly one ask why Your Lordship is here?"
"There is information here that could be of use."
Susumu and Jaken waited for him to elaborate, and when he didn't, Jaken bowed again.
"M-My Lord...if I might ask one more question..." he trailed off, and Sesshoumaru noticed him staring at the child that he held against his side. An idea came to him, then.
"Susumu," he called. The kitsune's ears perked up. Unwrapping the child from his hold, Sesshoumaru tossed her unconscious form in Susumu's direction. The demon caught her by instinct and was about to drop her with a horrified look on his face when Sesshoumaru stopped him cold - "See that she is fed, bathed, and dressed. She is not to be harmed. You will bring her out when it is done."
"What?" The kitsune looked shell-shocked, his jaw slack and his narrow violet eyes wide. The fur on his tails stood on end, and his skin crawled with goosebumps. His hands shook; he looked torn between dropping her and obeying his lord's command. "B-But..." he sputtered.
"Of course, My Lord!" Jaken cut in. He waddled over to the kitsune and bashed him in the side with his staff. "Get moving," he hissed. The two disappeared past the ornate gates into the shadows. Sesshoumaru followed, using the discrete entrance to enter the higher levels of the city inaccessible to humans. He passed by several teahouses famed for their geiko of incomparable beauty and traveled to a building where Osaka's records were kept. Tomes upon tomes lined the walls of this hall, and the glass ceiling reached so high that it gave an illusion of an open sky. Wasting no time, Sesshoumaru began to sift through records of the city's history as was written from the perspective of his kind.
If we don't quell this monster now, my son...
Sesshoumaru barely recalled it, but his father had said that to him over three centuries ago. It was in the days when they still traveled together on occasion. The powerful InuTaisho had, in those times, been convinced that his son would take over his role without protest. Back then, Sesshoumaru might have done so with pride. Once, he'd respected his father more than anything. His power was immense; his will unbreakable. Together, they'd lain waste to armies of humans and demons, ruling the West with iron claws and unshakable resolve.
Until that woman came...
But Sesshoumaru didn't want to think on that now. What mattered in this moment was the human Katashi and the Relegation. What connection did they have with the symbol of steel lightning? And Osaka. What role did this city play in all of this?
After spending several hours searching for answers in tomes and scrolls, Sesshoumaru found nothing. His mind in black disquietude, he left the building feeling as though he'd taken two steps backwards after taking a step forward. He was so agitated that he almost failed to smell the presence of the girl until she was right in front of him.
The building he'd come out of was connected to another by a rope bridge, one in aseries of many that tethered a string of buildings together hidden behind abarrier that human eyes could not see. These buildings displayed the same architectural elements as the rest of the city, but they were cleaner, almost as though time did not touch them.
When Sesshoumaru walked out onto the bridge, he saw the girl running towards him. The dirt and filth was gone from her face. Her hair trailed behind her like adark banner in the wind. Some color had returned to her cheeks, complimenting the white yukata and black hakama pants she'd been given to wear. Her feet were wrapped in sturdy sandals suitable for travel, though the skin there was wrapped with heavy bandaging.
The change was drastic, but Sesshoumaru couldn't say he wasn't pleased to see it. Jaken had done his job, though Sesshoumaru imagined the kappa was bursting to know why he had been ordered to perform it.
"Sesshoumaru!" the girl called in that sweet airy voice, and the moment that he looked into those vast sapphire eyes, all his anxiousness vanished. She pointed towards the edge of the city, where the human-built harbor housed an entire fleet of merchant ships of every size and shape. Men unloaded large crates and barrels full of goods and spices. Seagulls cried of their greed and hunger to the fishermen below as waves gently lapped against the pale sandy shore.
"Ocean pretty," the girl said, a wistful tone in her words. As he watched the dark horizon, the clamor of the seagulls and groaning of docked ships faded.
Why should we not claim that power, father? It is wasted on human filth.
In his mind, a powerful voice rumbled beside him in response, full of strength and experience.
Sesshoumaru...To use that power is to be cursed. That is the only fate of the one who wields it. It must be broken. It must be destroyed along with the one who has sacrificed himself to bear it.
Sesshoumaru's breath caught in his throat. It was as though he'd returned to that day.
Memories floated up from the depths of his mind, debris from a ship that time had wrecked upon the rocky shallows of his ruefulness and disappointment. He and his father had been here, in Osaka, observing the humans blundering through their ignorant lives as one might observe the crawling of ants upon a dung hill. They'd been discussing a situation similar to this one, only in that century, there was no Relegation.
Sesshoumaru could not recall the name of the armies that sought to wipe out all rule in the country, but he did remember that, just as now, there was a single man who led them. After listening to InuTaisho's reply to his question, Sesshoumaru had been disappointed in his father for what he perceived as weakness.
A power had lain before them, ripe for the taking. Yet the mighty InuTaisho had chosen to destroy it rather than take hold of it. He'd asked Sesshoumaru to fight beside him, but his son had had no desire to go against his personal ambitions and beliefs. It was the first time they'd disagreed on anything - the first crack in their bond. Less than a week after that conversation, Osaka was razed to the ground by the one who wielded this strange power.
Suddenly, the picture of the peaceful harbor turned into a vivid painting of people running for their lives. Sesshoumaru saw fire annihilating homes of stone and earth. Ships sank, burning, into the water, fire spreading to the harbor and laying waste to the vulnerable wood. In the center of the chaos stood a massive stone, unnaturally smooth on one face.
How had he not noticed it before? Carved upon it were symbols in a language he did not recognize. A man dressed in heavy armor was there, kneeling beside it, his hands raised in supplication. In his fists, he held an enormous halberd, the veins on his arms bulging and glowing a vile emerald. As the man reached out to touch the stone, Sesshoumaru heard his father's mighty roar.
That sound echoed in his ears even as Sesshoumaru felt the now too familiar tugging on his clothes pulling back into the present.
"Sesshoumaru," the child whispered. He scowled down at her innocent face, still trapped in the whirlwind of his memories. "Stone," she pressed, making a shape in the air. "Find stone." Sesshoumaru clenched his fists at his sides and knelt beside her.
"Was that you?" he asked quietly, the hum of his voice sharp enough to cut through steel. "Are you responsible for that vision?"
The girl tilted her head to the side, her large eyes so intense that he couldn't look away. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, the deep-throated bellow of a warhorn ripped through the silence between them. Sesshoumaru stood and looked down to the city below where people were gathering in mass in the center of the marketplace.
"My Lord!" The door to the adjacent building burst open. Jaken soared through it with bizarre agility, his green skin as grey as stone. Susumu followed on his heels, looking far less panicked. Sesshoumaru didn't miss the distrusting and disgusted look he gave the child beside him.
"My Lord, there has been news!" Jaken gestured a webbed hand towards the town below.
A man dressed in the royal purple and gold robes of an official accompanied by alarge group of samurai in full armor rode through the crowd on a muscled war stallions, kicking up a cloud of brown dust. Heedless of his surroundings, he showed no sign of caring whether the men and women in his way managed to scramble out of the street in time to avoid being trampled. Upon reaching the center of the marketplace, he dismounted and, with a flourish that could only be attributed to man who saw himself above others, he stepped up onto a rickety wooden crier's platform and unfurled a large scroll.
"We bring grave news from the front," he said in a booming voice. "Lord Miyoshi Nagayoshi, our respected and esteemed daimyo, has been assassinated during his attempted escape to our allies in Harima province."
The crowd gasped. Some women whimpered in fear. Other men gave cries of outrage.
"Our scouts report that the Relegation has set its sights upon the capital of Hineji as their next target. Lord Miyoshi's son, Lord Kazunari, has sent out a call to arms to avenge his father and to prevent further destruction and murder. Every man able to wield a sword must join with us and ride swiftly to the capital in Harima to defend it from the Relegation's advance!"
At this command, mayhem broke out. Some rushed to volunteer while others tried to run. Those who attempted to escape were immediately cut down or shot by the samurai wielding bows and arrows. They did not even dismount from their horses to do so.
This development pleased Sesshoumaru. Whatever good or ill this man's announcement brought to the citizens of Osaka was not his problem, but he had/ /just revealed the Relegation's course. His destination was set, then, and having a new step in his plan was more comforting and reassuring than anything.
"My Lord," Susumu began, his voice low and subservient. "I assume that you will wish to leave right away."
"And...the child? What is to be done with it in your absence?"
Both the kitsune and the kappa couldn't hide their hostility towards the girl, Susumu more than the latter.
"Fox!" the girl cried out as though she'd just now noticed his presence. Sesshoumaru folded his arms across his chest. How anyone could be so oblivious of their surroundings baffled him. The girl lunged for one of Susumu's swishing tails, and judging by the kitsune's look of horror and dread, this was not the first time she'd displayed such an inclination.
"Don't touch me," Susumu hissed. Ignoring his command - or was it a plea for mercy? - the girl bounced upwards, her arms spread wide and a look of pure bliss on her face in anticipation of capturing one of the kitsune's furry appendages. Sesshoumaru used his mane to catch her in mid-air, squeezing her tightly in an attempt to earn her obedience with a display of strength. She winced and cried out in pain, a sound that instantly turned into an enraptured giggle.
"This child knows something of all this," Sesshoumaru said, doing his best to ignore the girl's outrageous behavior. "She will be coming."
"There has been word from the Lord of the North," Jaken revealed. "What shall I tell his emissaries while My Lordship is gone?"
"Tell them not to interfere. If they get in the way of This Sesshoumaru's hunt, they will not be shown clemency, alliance or not." Both the kappa and kitsune bowed to their master before making a hasty departure. Sesshoumaru tucked his mane - and the girl with it - against his side. He glowered down at her, but as always, no matter what he did, she was not intimidated in the least.
"Sesshoumaru," she smiled. "Sesshoumaru want find stone."
"What do you know of it?" In response, she wriggled her arms free of his hold and made a spherical shape in the air with her hands.
"Stone," she said, then pointed at herself. "Stone...here..." Her hands rested over her heart.
"You can sense its presence," he guessed. She nodded vigorously.
And if Katashi is looking for the stone, then I will find him there - Sesshoumaru thought with more than a small dose of anticipation. I will not stop until I smear his corpse into the ground. Father once sought to destroy the artifact he seeks. Perhaps he even feared it being misused, but I - as the son that has surpassed him in every way - fear nothing.
With those thoughts in mind, Sesshoumaru left the turmoiled city of Osaka behind, his eyes looking forward towards righteous vengeance.
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