Chapter Four – Hunting the Watcher
"Slow down," Eichiro urged, speaking to the agitated youkai nearly pacing before him. "Tell me again," the headman stood outside his hut, having just finished a big breakfast and still brushing crumbs from his shirt. His daughter, newly ten, appeared from the other side of the door at the sound of his voice.
"What presence Kouga?" She inserted herself into the conversation without qualm. "A person?"
The wolf nodded, swishing his tail. "I think a demon," he said. "Haruaki spoke of someone who's been following Kagome for the last few days."
Mika's face brightened. "Jii-chan?"
Kouga frowned. "He says our scouts couldn't find it, and I want to take a band of hunters and search."
Eichiro brow furrowed. "Of course. I'll assemble the men," he looked up to the sky. "We should also ask Hiro and Kagome to strengthen their barrier. With your clan, Enomoto hasn't needed such strong enchantments around it," he searched the blue expanse spotted with clouds, as if he could see the invisible magic woven over it. "I know it takes a lot from my little brother, but it sounds as if we've grown lax in our peace."
Kouga started to object. "We don't need—."
"Stow your personal feelings," Eichiro cut in. "Hiro's spell kept us safe long before your people arrived. I know you and he have an unspoken feud over who can keep Enomoto and Kagome safer, but put that aside," he eyed the other man knowingly. "We have an enemy watching us, and the less he sees, the better,"
Kouga felt Mika's gaze and nodded, dropping his head. He didn't need the perceptive girl reading his face. "You're right."
Mika stepped from the doorway and looked to her father. "Do you want me to get Sen, Papa? He's in the foothills with the wolf tribe."
Eichiro shook his head. "No. Seeing Ayame is good for him," he turned to Kouga. "But I assume you'll want your two lieutenants with you?"
Mika's features brightened. "I can help you get them!"
Both men shook their heads vigorously, almost in synch; the girl's fondness for youkai males was blatant. Having been the only child in the village until Hisa had made eyes watchful and protecting of her, and Kouga was the first to speak up, his tone deep and paternal.
"That's alright. You should go tell Kagome, while I get Hakkaku and Ginta."
Just their names sent a thrill through her face, and Eichiro and Kouga both blanched.
"But they'll be down at the hunting lodge later, getting ready with everyone else, right?" She asked.
"I'll update your mother while you go let Kagome know," the headman mumbled, struggling with the idea that his daughter was growing up.
Their disquiet wasn't lost on Mika, whose powers of observation had only matured over the years. She nodded demurely, knowing they needed her to. "Okay," she said softly. "But will you tell me before you leave?"
The men exchanged a pained look, and Eichiro stumbled through a nod.
Mika smiled and jumped up to plant a kiss on her father's cheek, who leaned down and accepted it, patting her on the back as if she were still five.
"Go on now," he ushered.
Mika left, walking with lengthy strides no longer limited by a lack of seasons, heading for the hut settled beside the biggest structure in Enomoto. She could hear Kouga and her father continue talking, discussing details they didn't want her privy to, and her smile fell as she crossed the village.
As she neared her destination, a woman holding a small boy with unruly hair appeared, blinking in the morning light. Kagome had exited her home, touting Talon and looking determined. Mika waved as the young mother caught sight of her, and jogged forward, crossing the distance in moments.
"Good morning," Kagome said warmly as the girl stopped at her door. "How are you beautiful?"
Mika pushed down a blush and moved in for a hug. Kagome was the only one in all of Enomoto who didn't make her feel like she was still a child. "I'm good," she spoke against an arm as she was enveloped, and Talon extended his own hands, kissing the top of her head.
"Mi'a!" He cried, elated. One of his favorite people was here, and he reached for her hair. "Up!"
She and Kagome laughed.
Mika opened her arms, and Kagome passed the baby over, knowing his adoration for his big sister.
She took him, and Talon grabbed at her dress, pulling himself up to her face. "Hi!" He beamed, showing fangs.
She rubbed her nose with his, feeling her frustration melt away. "Hi, you."
Kagome put her arm over her shoulder and gave Mika a kiss in nearly the same spot as Talon had. "I'm headed to Hiro's if you want to keep us company."
Mika drew back. "You heard?"
"About my dad wanting to improve the concealment spell?"
Kagome shrugged as they started walking the familiar route to the healing hut. "I thought he might. Last night, Jii-chan said that the strange energy still lingers. I figured it was time to delve back into the spell scrolls."
"Papa and Kouga are going to gather a search party."
Kagome nodded. "I know. I'd like to do my part to help."
They traveled across Enomoto, letting the sun warm their shoulders. Talon played with Mika's hair, long enough to extend past her back, and tried to put a lock in his mouth, but she pulled it from his fingers before he had the chance.
"What do you think it is?" Mika hefted the boy higher in her arms.
Kagome stared out across the square, thinking. "I'm not sure," she mused. "It's probably just a wandering demon coming to investigate. It's not everyday humans and wolf youkai coexist."
"I heard Kouga say it was following you."
Kagome waved her away. "He and Haruaki are overreacting."
Talon succeeded in his endeavors, stuffing a handful of black between his lips, and Mika tried not to sigh. "Let go," she said patiently. "It's not for eating."
He fixed her with a sad stare, but she stayed adamant.
"No, sir. Not happening."
The boy spit out his prize, looking crestfallen.
Mika halted and reached up, tickling his side, sending peels of baby laughter into the air. "You can show me you love me without chewing on me."
"No!" He giggled.
Kagome's face crumpled in embarrassment. "Sorry."
"It's okay," she started walking again. "I'm delicious."
The young woman let out a laugh. "He loves you because you never judge him," she had meant the words to come out lightly, but they held a sincerity Mika heard.
She smiled over. "I know what its like be seen as something you're not."
Kagome strolled beside her, quiet for a moment. "Still being treated like you're Hisa's age?" She asked.
The girl lowered her gaze, focusing on the chubby limbs clutched to her chest. "A little," she admitted.
Kagome touched her shoulder, not in a pat like her father, but a consoling stroke. "They'll see," she reassured. "They won't be able to hide from it forever."
The healing hut came into view, and Mika lifted her eyes, taking in its familiar contours. "I hope that day comes soon."
Kagome squeezed her shoulder before letting go. "Don't be in too much of a hurry. Life starts speeding up and getting busy before you even realize it," she turned as the building's hide was drawn back. "Trust me," she nodded to Hiro as he stepped out to meet them. "It likes to complicate things that used to be simple."
Mika looked to her uncle, who's eyes roamed them in feigned-boredom, lingering on Kagome longer than decorum dictated. After five years, he had gotten better at hiding his feelings, but Mika sensed his obsession had only cooled so much, and knew the woman spoke from experience. "I'll try to remember that," she mumbled, bending to put Talon down. The boy clung to her shoulders, unwilling to let go. "No," he refused. "Up."
Kagome moved to take him, but Mika held up a hand.
"Go and strengthen the barrier," she urged. "I'll stay around here and watch Talon."
"No, no," she started. "He'll be fine inside."
"Don't worry," Mika motioned to the benches back by the common. "I'll show him where all the bugs and lizards are."
Kagome looked between the healing hut and her. Hiro crossed his arms on his stoop, wearing an impatient frown, and Mika shooed her away with her hand, already asking Talon if he wanted to see a salamander.
She smiled in thanks and headed towards the healer. As she neared, worry edged his frown.
"Did you sense it?" He asked.
Kagome waited to answer, watching over her shoulder as Mika started back the way they'd come. When she was out of earshot, and consumed with retrieving more of her hair from Talon's determined grasp, she nodded. "It found me in the archery field yesterday."
"Kouga showed up," she continued. "And I lost it."
He stood for a moment, and Kagome could see conflicting emotions on his face. Protectiveness, fear, and annoyance flashed in his features before being squashed down.
"No doubt you were distracted," he said dryly, holding the door open with a lean arm.
Kagome took the step, entering the dark interior of his home. "We were trying to draw it out in the open remember?"
"Close to you in an isolated field far from the village wasn't what I had in mind," Hiro said curtly as he crossed the main room.
Kagome knew he spoke out of concern, but it didn't make it easier trying to tolerate his tone. She followed, aiming for a low work table in the back already covered with quills, empty scrolls, and jars of paint. "How else could we have seen it was clearly following Talon and I?" She sat down on a thin cushion.
Hiro sighed, raking a hand through his mohawk and joining her, folding his long legs to the floor and eyeing the cluttered table. "Putting you at risk is never the way."
Kagome reached for a piece of parchment. "I was fine."
"Because of Kouga?"
She tensed, unable to swallow more of the attitude, and turned her head, indignant. "Yes, of course because of him."
Hiro cringed, regret creasing his features. "Sorry," he dipped fingers into a pot of yellow and began repainting his bare chest. "I'm an ass."
"You are," she watched him, knowing he was about to start his daily chant. Reaching out, she stopped his moving hand mid-character. "I'm okay," she squeezed his wrist. "Really."
He blushed. "I just don't want you to get hurt."
Kagome smiled. "I know."
He stared down at her curled fingers for a moment, and she could almost see his wordless thoughts. This was their friendship, full of short tempers and awkward silences, and she pulled her arm back, knowing the contact needed to end.
Hiro kept his eyes on his now empty wrist. "We should have told the wolves you could sense this presence," he said quietly. "The more who know you're in danger, the safer you'll be."
She turned back to the table. "They know now," she grabbed a blank scroll and a well of ink. "But they'll need our help keeping it out of Enomoto."
Hiro nodded, lifting his head. "Pass me the jar of red."
Kagome obliged, and the two got to work.
Kouga left the village behind, walking with swift steps. Once he had entered the tree line, he sped to a run, letting pines and fir grow to a green blur, nimbly dodging fallen trunks and upraised roots. It felt good to use his legs without having to keep a human's pace – though he respected his peers during hunting expeditions, he missed using the full range of his powers, and he let his tail fly behind him as he jumped a set of broken boulders.
The morning was young and still cool. Kouga heard the scurry of small animals rushing to hide and the annoyed chirp of birds startled from their roosts. Racing past, he bounded up one of the hills surrounding Enomoto, cresting its rise in moments. Looking back, he could see the tops of thatched roofs beyond the forest and searched their lines without realizing, looking for Kagome and Talon.
He found his son crawling under benches with Mika, and even from a distance, could tell the boy was already covered in dirt. Kouga smiled, knowing his wife must be nearby, and continued on, heading for his clan's encampment.
The comforting smell of his kin filled the air as he drew near a shallow cave in the side of the next hill. Wolves lay around it, gnawing on bones and tussling with each other. Through the trees, he heard the trotting steps of Haruaki approach, and slowed, sniffing others with him. A grin split his face as he caught Ginta, Sen, and Ayame's scents.
The band burst out from a wall of dense pine trunks, save Sen. Haruaki and Ginta bowed low, while Ayame leapt forward, arms outstretched.
"Kouga!" Her smile put his to shame, and he caught her as she claimed a hug, filling his chest with white pelts and red hair.
"You've been gone so long!" Green eyes stared up at him, delight sparking their depths. "I'd almost forgotten what you look like!"
He laughed and hugged her back. "It's good to see you Ayame," he said warmly.
The girl blushed and leaned in to tighten her embrace.
A last figure stumbled through the trees, panting heavily. Sen, red-faced and sweating, bent and palmed his thighs.
"You… guys…," he spoke through wheezing inhales. "Run… way… too fast."
Ayame's smile dimmed slightly, and she withdrew. "Sorry," her tail swished behind her, and Kouga arched a brow.
He knew when the important women in his life lied. Why wouldn't she be sorry to have left him behind? Sen was a suitor in the coveted quest of becoming her mate – whether he realized the full ramifications of his affections or not.
"We just got excited," Ayame was unaware of her tail's reveal. "You've kept Lord Kouga from us for a long time."
Sen nodded, still gasping for breath. "I… won't… steal him away… like that again."
Haruaki lifted his head, speaking in low, apologetic growls. About last night my lord—.
"It's alright," Kouga answered in human words for Sen's benefit. "You can make it right by notifying the pack and making sure they stay vigilant," his gaze traveled to the wolves lolling about the cave entrance. "I want them on guard at all times."
Haruaki bowed again. Of course. He started to leave, but Kouga held up a hand, allowing him to stay; there was time to tell the others.
Ginta grinned at his leader. "You hardly smell like yourself sir. You're covered in human," his grin grew. "How is Nee-chan by the way?" He sniffed near Kouga's shoulder. "She seems happy with you."
Kouga's smile fell, and he flicked the other youkai a warning look. "Are you commenting on my wife's scent?"
Watching Ginta cringe, he missed the pained look that flashed across Ayame's face.
"My apologies," the man palmed his armored chest, echoing Haruaki in another bow.
Kouga continued to glower, showing he was not impressed.
Sen was oblivious to the hierarchal assertion. "Why are you here?" He straightened from his labored crouch. "Is something wrong?"
Kouga moved his eyes to his fragile, flawed friend, trying not to let thoughts of Reina show. Sen had betrayed a close friend and the woman at his side, still acted as if he hadn't, and seemed to have no remorse for such duplicity. "Something is hunting Talon and Kagome," he managed. "It's been lurking around the village."
Sen's jaw fell.
"I'm here to gather Ginta and Hakkaku and find it."
Ginta had deflated at over-stepping his bounds, but his chest re-puffed at this news. "You can count on us sir! We won't let you down!"
Sen sent a look to Ayame. "I'd like to help to."
The girl met his asking gaze. "You don't need my permission," she said lightly. "Because I'm going too."
Sen's eyes bugged. "B-But you never come down to the village."
"My queen is in trouble," she said sharply. "I want to help keep her from harm."
Kouga nodded in approval. "Excellent," gratitude and regard filled his gaze. "Thank you."
Ayame's blush returned, and she ducked her head.
Sen was still too full of surprise to notice.
"Come," Kouga started forward. "We need to find Hakkaku, and tell the others to stay alert. The more time we waste, the closer this stranger gets to completing his agenda."
Haruaki led the group, and they made their way towards the cave.
Inu-Yasha crouched among a field of tall reeds behind the healing hut. Small, dog ears twitched and swiveled in his disheveled hair as he strained to pick out the conversation through thick, dirt walls.
Strings of sentences came to him, broken by low tones.
"Don't forget the yellow."
"Finish that scroll before you judge woman."
Kagome murmured back, and Inu-Yasha leaned forward, pressing his nose through thick stalks. A man answered, and the miko suddenly grew loud.
"You want me to do what?!"
"You know your power has surpassed mine."
"No," Kagome's voice filled with trepidation. "I can't!"
More murmurs sounded, murky and undecipherable, and Inu-Yasha scowled at his weak ears; despite what Tessaiga had gifted him, he was still just a hanyou.
"I'm not parading around without a shirt!" Her words were indignant.
"All they have to be is visible!" The man replied – the human healer. "We could paint them on your face and arms."
"How will I look to Talon? Those designs could scare him."
Inu-Yasha growled as their talk descended to whispers. From his side, he knew the sword was about to speak.
Its words filled his head, even though he'd been careful not to touch its hilt. She's grown strong, it said. You should kill her now.
He shook his head, moving the reeds that hid him. "I can't," he spoke through clenched teeth. "I'd have to face the healer as well."
He's nothing. I almost killed him once. We can do it again.
"No," Inu-Yasha refused. "Not now."
Tessaiga didn't answer, and Inu-Yasha sat back on his heels, waiting. After several minutes of missed exchange in the hut, his ears perked. Two people approached, one toddling on shaky, assisted steps, and he peeked through the reeds, seeing a young girl and a dark-haired boy make their way to the building's stoop. Inu-Yasha found himself examining the child with an interest that far surpassed Tessaiga's orders of surveillance.
He was around ten months old and matched his two targets in everyway. Pointed ears, fangs, and the smell of wolf marked him as a hanyou, but intelligent eyes and a kind mouth reminded him of a girl he'd once known. There was a spark in those eyes, a wit just waiting for the capacity for speech, and Inu-Yasha watched him walk towards the hut, holding the girl's thumb in a grasping hand. Determination filled his brow as he focused on moving his feet, and Inu-Yasha turned to the human who guided him. She was older, but still young. Her features seemed familiar, and he had a sudden glimpse of a shale gravestone and a warm palm in his. Did he know this girl's name?
He shook his head, trying to make sense of the jumbled thoughts filling his brain. He heard a baby's cry, and a comforting hand on his shoulder. Soulful eyes telling him that he need not be defined by the burden at his hip. What was this? A memory? Of when?
Inu-Yasha glanced to the boy again. Were these from his birth? How did he know about that time?
The sword had kept quiet, but returned now with a vengeance. Take the baby! Its voice was savage. You'll lure her away with him!
"What?" Inu-Yasha hissed.
He's unprotected! Strike down the female he walks with and grab him before the priestess even realizes!
Inu-Yasha shook his head, rustling the reeds framing him. "I won't!"
"Mika!" A high voice called from beyond the field. Talon's ears quivered, and he pulled one of his hands free, pointing beyond the healing hut. "No!"
The girl followed his arm, seeing only stalks moving in the breeze. "That's right. You can't go beyond—."
"No!" He shouted, fear splotching his cheeks with red as he pushed his finger harder through the air, trying to make her understand. "No!"
Quick steps came from inside the hut; Kagome appeared, flinging the hide back, Hiro right behind her.
She rushed off the stoop. "What's wrong?"
"NO!" Talon screamed, looking from his mother, to Mika, to the field.
Kagome picked him up, searching his face. His lower lip trembled, and she turned to the field as Hiro joined her.
"What is it?" He followed her gaze, scanning the area, taking in familiar stalks of wheat, green and drying in the summer sun.
"We were just coming to see you," Mika started. "I don't know what's gotten into him."
Kagome held up a hand. "It's alright," her voice was distracted as she squinted into the reeds.
From behind their wall, Inu-Yasha froze as blue-gray eyes fell on him and widened in disbelief.