Author's Note: Ran across this sucker while cleaning out my notebooks and typed it up. Prof. Toby, if you're reading this, I sincerely apologize – yes, these were my "notes" during that one religion lecture. But hey, I got most of the main points down…right? ^_~ For everyone else, there were a few liberties taken with the mythology here – too bad :P




Stepping Stones

It is time, my lord.

Leathery voices, rasping at the edges of his consciousness.

Tiny claws, prickling at his cooling body.

Very well.

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The scene opened before him in a heartbeat, a hauntingly familiar nightmare. Golden eyes flashed indignantly, but there was no help for it…like all others, he would be making this journey alone. It made a crazy sort of sense, he mused as he picked his way through the first of the rocky outcroppings. Born alone. Die alone.

And yet, he recalled that somewhere in between he had gained companions.

Once the little one was gone (he'd always thought of her as such, though she had grown quickly) even his primal will to live had faded. She had never mated, never given him any grandchildren to watch after, so it was no surprise he had soon followed in her footsteps. Even Jaken had left him, returned to the earth by a chance encounter with a hungry snake, and not even Tenseiga could do anything with what was left. There was simply nothing left to live for up above. And so, it was not a noble opponent that had taken his head, but a simple dragon—powerful enough and ambitious enough to live in the world the dog had forsaken. Tenseiga had not saved him then, as it had saved him so many other times…its power had faded, once the little one died. The dragon was probably still desecrating his flesh-body.

There was still a part of him that seethed about that.

Yet, vengeful rage or no, this was hell, and the rules applied differently. He had always known the day would come, and he had never made a show of fighting it—his kind belonged there, after all. So now he followed a lesser demon, one of the messengers his Tenseiga had once cut through so easily, and the dog demon Sesshoumaru descended into hell.

The very earth—rather, the surface he was walking on, he loathed to call it earth—split around him in great yawning chasms. He tried not to look, but curiosity got the better of him; a few cursory glances of the boiling lava convinced him to place his attention elsewhere. Minor demons chattered mindlessly at his feet; great oni roared at his passing. They hated their earth-walking brethren, the hell-bound did--they would probably boil him in his own blood just for the insult. A few of them had been following him since he entered the lower realms, eagerly awaiting his judgment.

But he could not regret his time roaming free any more than he could regret his own errant life – what else could he have done? He wondered idly if he'd see his father again, working down in the pits…or perhaps they would burn together. It would be a small sort of comfort.

That prickling feeling again, deep within his chest. He told himself he had no regrets, but something was still squirming inside.

They came upon the chamber finally, that final destination where all wandering souls go, and Sesshoumaru found himself loathing it even more than he had initially expected. Enma, the Ruler of Hell, was waiting at the end of it, swelling over his throne like a bloated pig perched on a king's throne. His eyes were red, but cold as polished silver…they shimmered like lava rocks caught in the middle of an explosion.

They lit upon him.

"Sesshoumaru, son of Inutaishou son of Inu-oh, last of the earth-walking dog servants." the list-guardian called, announcing his time of judgment.

The crowd hissed and cackled, but did not touch.

He stepped forward with as much strength as he could muster under the circumstances, desperately trying to cleanse himself of any contrary thoughts. It would fail regardless, for the hell king's eyes pierced through thoughts and soul alike, but it never hurt to make a good last impression.

The hell king said nothing, but gestured slightly to the ogre servants surrounding him. Arms as thick as tree trunks shot forward and knocked Sesshoumaru to his knees, crushing the bones in his legs with one blow. His back crackled sickeningly, and King Enma's hand moved forward into his chest.

It hurt, worse than even his admittedly slow death had, and the hell ruler took his time extracting the soul as befits any great indifferent entity. With excruciating slowness, the hell king finally withdrew his hand, crushing something small in his fleshy hand.

Sesshoumaru could barely watch as the king withdrew his set of golden scales, uncurling massively fat fingers one by one in the practiced motion of ritual. Like a fine performer, the hell king slid the fluttering, battered soul onto the judging spot, and the dog demon did cringe at that—at its homely appearance. It was motley and battered, spotted with countless stains, and he knew without asking that it was beyond recovery. Still, his eyes were glued with a horrid sort of fascination as the balances tilted, swooped lower, dragging his mocking soul into the flaming ground. The hell king said nothing, his red eyes wild and pensive.

"Punishment." he finally pronounced, and Sesshoumaru swallowed hard. The din around him increased a thousand fold, wild cheering of hell-beasts ready for earth-kin flesh to tear. The pain in his legs only echoed the ache in his soul, already sliding toward the edge of the balance to rejoin the rest of his astral body.

"But…"

A single syllable, slicing through the noise as cleanly as a knife, and the entire realm froze in its wake.

"There is another matter to attend to."

"Y-yes, my lord?" Sesshoumaru asked after a long pause, realizing his input was requested.

"There was a human child, was there not?" The hell king asked impassively, but the faintest quaver in his voice betrayed some emotion. "What was her name?"

"Rin." Sesshoumaru looked up only slightly, not daring to hope…

"Do not be so foolish." the hell guardian intoned. "You of all creatures should know that her rescue alone could not absolve your guilt. But there is something else…" King Enma grunted, and moved his hands in a smooth, circular gesture.

"Look."

The layers of hell parted, and Sesshoumaru's vision swam crazily. Disconcerting as always, the lower regions rearranged themselves in a heartbeat, folding inward to focus on a small stream at the very edge of reality. On an even smaller figure, wading in the current.

Rin, as he best remembered her – a young, human child – was dipping her hands in the grayed, lonely waters. Fishing, he thought with a smile he was powerless to stop, fishing in the most barren streams in the entire world. Oh, Rin…

She smiled too, and for an instant he thought she was grinning back at him, but her attention was focused on the rock in her hand…a perfectly smooth pebble. Gray, like everything else surrounding her. Still smiling, the woman-child he loved so dearly dashed to the shoreline, placing her pebble on top of a pile too regular to be natural.

"She is in the river of lost children," King Enma rumbled, and Sesshoumaru's eyes widened. The river-prison for innocents, children who died young and blameless—trapped between heaven and hell. Why he whispered desperately, trying to force his mouth to form words. Rin continued her fishing, oblivious to his half-formed cries of protest, searching single-mindedly for another rock to add to her collection.

"She has accepted you as her father." the hell king added, those hideous eyes watching the girl's progress. "She is building you a cairn."

"No, Rin…" it was barely a whisper, but his panic echoed loudly through what passed for the air in the nether realms. His despair was tangible, rattling his battered soul; it shook Enma's judgment scales until the attending ogres had to repress it. Rin ignored him, stubbornly refusing to hear his pleas, and turned back to add another stone to her pyramidal pile.

"She has taken you as her father, and now she is bound to you for at least three incarnations, though the heavens did not wish her to go." the hell king continued. "She should be burned for defying us."

"No…" Sesshoumaru whispered again, suddenly noticing the strange shape behind her…the ominous, hulking shape of a hell-beast, bone-crushing club in hand. Run, Rin! he silently urged her. The ox-headed animal raised its weapon soundlessly, and the dog demon shuddered in anticipation of its contact.

The ox-beast swung its club, and shattered Rin's rock pile. Pebbles went flying in all directions, most of them slipping back into the turbulent waters. Rin scowled, but she did not cry.

"Meanie!" the girl chirped instead, sticking her tongue out as she used to do to Jaken. The ox beast grunted, and moved on its way.

Before Sesshoumaru had fully recovered, she was already back to the river.

"She prays for you." King Enma intoned as she dipped her hands back into the frigid waters. "She builds tribute cairns pleading for your redemption, despite the futility of her actions."

For the first time, Sesshoumaru noticed the other creatures surrounding his beloved 'daughter'; the hordes of other children hunting through the turgid waters, fighting for pebbles. All of them building memorials to their loved ones, and all of those being torn down in turn; the hell-beasts swarmed to dash their hopes as quickly as the children could build them.

"Most unusual," the hell guardian continued, "that she would forsake even her own salvation for your worthless hide." He motioned slightly toward the holy men wandering the river banks, comforting weeping children. Sesshoumaru watched, dumbfounded, as Rin ignored them all in turn, pushing back into the stream. One monk, suspiciously resembling the pet monk his half-breed brother had always kept around, waded out to follow her. She smiled at him happily but shook her head, forsaking him for the soulless waters…and the pebbles that lay under them.

The emissaries of heaven did not ask her again, and they soon departed with other children in tow.

"I imagine she will tire of it eventually." King Enma droned, "but the question is what to do if she doesn't."

"M-my lord?" Sesshoumaru asked, half-formed fears flitting about in his mind.

"As she is bound to you, you are also bound to her. Watch." the hell master's red eyes flickered to the golden scales. At first, Sesshoumaru didn't see anything at all--and then, ever-so-slightly, they quivered, and the balance shifted upward. Sesshoumaru whipped his head back to the river scene, only to catch the back of Rin's wet head. A new stone lay fresh upon the soil, the start of her newest monument.

"Her devotion is buying your salvation." King Enma said gently, a slight note of softness entering his gravely voice. "And we must decide what do with it."

"We?" Sesshoumaru couldn't help asking. There was no leeway in the Great King's judgment, he knew for sure – king and peasant alike were equal before the Measurer of Transgressions. And yet…

"You must choose, too, whether you will waste her gift." the hell king warned, and his gigantic face twisted into a grimace. "You must bear your Punishments well, and you must not live as you have before, or you both will fall in the darkness beyond saving."

"I will." the dog demon bowed as best as his severed spine would allow him. His soul finally toppled off the golden scales and crawled back into him, radiating pain from the inside out.

King Enma clapped his massive hands once, and the atmosphere rearranged again. Rin disappeared, and a giant mirror appeared in her stead, flickering thousands of images as shadows around the fallen dog demon.

"You were human once, I see." the hell master mentioned, watching the Mirror of Past Incarnations. "Human once, but that position is too high for you now. Yet…I can give you something else, if you are still willing after the Punishment."

For Rin…

Sesshoumaru nodded wordlessly.

"So be it."

The king waved dismissively, and the teeming hordes ripped him limb from limb, chucking the pieces into the living fire.


It may have been an eternity later, or perhaps only a second, but eventually the hot fires cooled and the pain began to dim to the point where he could think again. A thousand decapitations later, he was still mostly lucid, though the hell-beasts hated him for it. He didn't mind, not even when they added vivisection to his torture…because he was concentrating on something else.

And when the time came for the hags of destiny to administer the mind-numbing elixir, he tried valiantly to hold out. He held the slippery liquid in his mouth for longer than any creature ever had, trying to fight its power—trying to retain his memories. But as with everyone, he too eventually swallowed, and the demon prince Sesshoumaru, lord of the Western lands, was finally no more.

And yet, one thing remained.


An indeterminable amount of time later, halfway across the world, a small creature awoke from another uneasy dream. It didn't dwell on it, for that was not what its kind was wont to do, but it did pause in its waking to wonder at the new scent floating over it. It was dark, save for the patches of light coming through the slits in the world's ceiling. And the noise...such a familiar, happy noise…

"Look, mama!"

A small girl child pulled the bow off her "Christmas present" – a tiny animal carrier – and lifted the pure white puppy out. Still sleepy, the young animal stretched back against her hands. Golden eyes opened…straight into familiar, whimsical brown ones.

He remembered.

The puppy whined and licked her hand frantically, and the little girl squealed happily. "Thank you, mama!" she cried, hugging her pet closely, and her laughter made him shake to the very core.

And then, he remembered the hell king's final words.

Think of this…as a stepping stone.




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