Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha. I will make no money from this fic; I write for my own enjoyment and the enjoyment of my readers.

WARNING: This story is rated MA for graphic violence, rape (not described explicitly) and character death (also not described explicitly). Please do not read unless you are confident that you can handle the subject matter. This story is very intense.

A/N – This takes place in the later part of the manga, after Kikyou's final death but before Kagome learns from Hitomiko that her spiritual power is being partially sealed, and definitely before Magatsuhi actually seals the power which she had use of previously. Also, Kagome no longer has any jewel shards at this point. I've been using the manga as my canon reference almost exclusively, so this will be a manga-only story.

A Walk Through Hell

In deep darkness, an ancient evil stirred. It did not know how long it had slept; time was an inconsequential thing. It woke when prey wandered into its lair, fed, and then returned to slumber until the next opportunity to quench its insatiable hunger.

Their souls glowed brightly in the creature's eye, inciting a ravenous burn. It was seldom blessed with such a feast. But there was reason for caution. The girl possessing the largest, most brilliant soul, was a miko. The creature had dealt with her kind before. Some were strong, most were not, but long ago one had nearly succeeded in destroying it before eventually succumbing to mortal weakness. This girl, however, was nowhere near the warrior that mighty woman of old had been. Though her spiritual aura was powerful, it was also untested and untrained. She would fall, likely without ever realizing her true peril.

Still, she was a miko and therefore inherently dangerous. She was also the only member of the group who posed any threat at all. She would be the first victim. Alone in the darkness, she would break, granting her soul the most exquisite flavor. And once the miko had been consumed, her companions would likewise be ensnared and devoured. It was clear that these people had formed strong bonds, a fact which would prove to be their undoing. The bonds were strong, but not strong enough to save them. Nevertheless, their desire to save the miko would lead them directly to their own doom.

But first, it was time to make the miko walk through hell.

The storm was both sudden and violent. Appearing out of the northeast, it gave even Inuyasha's sensitive nose no more than ten or fifteen minutes of warning, not nearly enough time to backtrack to the last human settlement they'd visited or seek out a new one. Fortunately, the road on which the group was currently traveling skirted along the base of a small mountain range. Inuyasha led them quickly toward the mountains, seeking and finding shelter in the form of a large, relatively dry cave only a short distance up one of the slopes. As it turned out, the hanyou was the sole member of the group to be touched by the rain, and only because he didn't make it back in time from his solo mission to gather firewood for the evening. Kagome was waiting for him with towels and blankets when he returned, and though he groused that he wasn't a 'weak human' and could handle a little rain, he didn't stop her from fussing over him.

They built the fire near the cave entrance and kept it going long enough to cook a meal from Kagome's supplies and dry Inuyasha's kosode and suikan. Then they put it out, in order to avoid heating the rock above them and letting too much smoke into the cave. The interior of the cave wasn't warm, per se, but it was at least sheltered from the elements. Every one of them had slept in far worse arrangements before. Ensconced in sleeping rolls and blankets, the weary travelers nodded off to sleep one after the other.

Kagome woke with a start, though she couldn't immediately figure out what had roused her. The soft sounds of her friends breathing in their sleep overlaid the pitter-patter of gentle rainfall outside. It sounded like the thunderstorm had long since abated, though the clouds were not yet finished releasing their accumulated moisture. Overall, nothing seemed in the least bit out of the ordinary. Shrugging, she decided that she must have heard an animal in the distance and snuggled back into her sleeping bag to try to catch some more shuteye before the sky started to lighten.

But sleep would not come. Something pulled at her consciousness, nagging her, refusing to let her find peace. Finally she sat up with a scowl, running a hand over her face in frustration. Damn her overactive imagination! She was not in the mood for this. Inuyasha would want them to be on the move bright and early in order to make up for the time the storm had cost them, and if she was tired from lack of sleep, it would make for a most unpleasant day. Speaking of the hanyou, Kagome glanced over to where he had settled the previous evening, and found him still sitting in the exact same position, cross-legged with Tetsusaiga propped up against his shoulder and his arms wrapped around the beloved weapon. She was mildly surprised to see that her movements had not roused him, as he was normally very sensitive to that sort of thing. Rather, he appeared to be genuinely sleeping, though not heavily. The fact that Inuyasha was so relaxed should be proof enough that there was nothing dangerous anywhere near this cave.

So why couldn't she sleep? Sometimes thoughts of her companions and their various troubles kept her awake, but that wasn't the case tonight. This was something else. Her skin was somewhat clammy, and no amount of deep breathing would slow her slightly elevated heartbeat. She felt in the most innate manner that something was very wrong here, but all of her senses told her that she was imagining things. Perhaps she was. She did feel fairly warm; maybe she had a mild fever? Removing her pajama bottoms helped her cool down, but not enough. Careful not to disturb Shippou, she sat up and rummaged through her backpack until she found her target—a loose-fitting, yellow short-sleeved blouse which she never wore but which she had packed for just such an occasion. Then she ducked back into the sleeping bag and practically sighed in relief at shedding the hot flannel pajama top. Much more comfortable now, Kagome rolled onto her side and attempted to go back to sleep.

Just as she was beginning to nod off, the feeling of wrongness returned full-force. This time, however, there was a definite directional element which she hadn't felt before. Raising herself onto her elbows, she gazed searchingly toward the back of the cave, the apparent source of the strange sensation. She could definitely see something there, though not with her physical eyes. It was more like her spiritual senses were enabling her to see something through the rock. It was just a vague outline, but certainly not a figment of her imagination.

Deciding to take a closer look, Kagome rolled out of the bag and stood before remembering that all she had on below the waist was her underwear. Flushing, she swiftly slipped on the closest non-flannel article of clothing she could get her hands on, which happened to be her school uniform skirt. The episode left her feeling fairly foolish, but at least none of her companions seemed to have witnessed it, especially the two adult males. She also slipped on her socks and loafers, since the cave floor would be rough on her bare feet. Then she tip-toed past her companions and deeper into the cave. It didn't go much deeper than where Inuyasha sat, maybe another half-dozen meters or so. The nearly full moon outside provided enough light to avoid walking into a wall or tripping on a protrusion of rock, but again, it wasn't what her physical eyes could see that interested her.

A hazy form undulated within the rock, its faint glow pulsing rhythmically, almost like a heartbeat. The best way Kagome could describe it was to say it appeared similar to the amorphous lights she saw behind her eyelids if she looked at something really bright for too long. But it was impossible to tell whether the source was actually deep within the mountain or just on the other side of a thin wall of rock. Nevertheless, there was something deeply seductive about the small wonder, and as its pulse gradually quickened, she found herself staring at it unblinkingly. She leaned forward, eyes misting over, her fingers poised to bestow a loving caress upon the rock from whence the captivating glow emanated.

"What the hell are you doing?"

Those soft-spoken words caused a violent shudder to ripple through Kagome in an instant, from the bottom of her feet to top of her head. She stifled a scream as she spun around to face the intruder, her hand clenched in an angry fist against her chest. She barely restrained her ire, her logical mind grappling with the profoundly irrational nature of her desire to 'osuwari' Inuyasha about a hundred times. For accidentally scaring her? Even on her worst days, she wasn't that temperamental. But though her mind was beginning to recover from its previous befuddlement, she was still not coherent enough to intelligently respond to the hanyou's question or his expectant gaze.

"Wh-what?" she stuttered, earning a frown from her companion, who reached up and held his hand against her forehead for a moment.

"I asked you what the hell you were doing back here," he repeated. "You feel a little warm. Get back to bed and rest. Can't have you getting sick on me."

The surprising heat of Inuyasha's palm against her skin quickly roused Kagome back to full alertness. It wasn't often that he initiated casual physical contact like that. One could say that he'd actually had a purpose, namely gauging her temperature, but it was still a fairly intimate gesture for him. She chalked it up to it being just the two of them here, with no other observers for him to be embarrassed about. His words did rain on her parade a bit, but there hadn't been any real bite to them and she could tell that he was just trying to hide his genuine concern. Earlier in their journey, he probably would have referred to her as his 'shard detector,' which would have hurt to hear. She would have responded with indignant anger as a defense, likely resulting in an 'osuwari' and hard feelings on both sides. So she was very glad that their relationship had evolved to be a little more open now.

But his first question gnawed at her. What the hell was she doing back here? Letting some mysterious glowing light hypnotize her? That sounded about right. A glance over her shoulder confirmed what she already suspected, that the light was gone. Sighing miserably, she put her hand to her own forehead. Maybe I really am seeing things. At this point, she honestly hoped so. Having a mild hallucination due to a fever was preferable to the alternative, that some strange entity was out to get them. Didn't they run into enough trouble already?

"Oi, Kagome. You okay?"

She must have seemed quite out of it, as Inuyasha stood glaring at her with his arms crossed over his chest, no longer even bothering to try to conceal his concern. She smiled and opened her mouth to reassure him, but a sudden sense of vertigo had her world spinning around her and caused her to stumble backward. Inuyasha reached out to steady her, but she was already lurching uncontrollably toward a moderate, headache-inducing collision with the back wall of the cave.

Or at least, that's what should have happened. Instead, she felt only an inescapable void behind her, destroying what little balance she still possessed as she flailed her arms futilely for purchase. She met Inuyasha's alarmed golden gaze for a fraction of a second before her feet backpedaled into empty air, and she toppled into the abyss. As utter blackness rose up around her on all sides, she stared hopefully at the rapidly shrinking opening above her, praying to see a flash of red and silver silhouetted against the moonlight. Then the wall closed, blocking out all light and quashing even that humble hope. She was alone, falling, in absolute darkness. Her consciousness wavered, and she absently wondered if she would pass out and never wake again. But then her faculties returned to her, leaving only a rush of adrenaline, and pure panic coursing through her veins.

Her petrified scream was cut off by sudden immersion in shockingly cold water. A strong current pulled her sideways, disorienting her as she sank deeper. She didn't snap out of her stunned stupor until her feet finally touched solid riverbed. Already critically low on air, she pushed off the bottom and kicked desperately toward the surface. It seemed to take an inordinately long time, but in reality it was probably only a couple seconds and a span of three or four meters. Finally breaking the surface and inhaling that first blessed breath of air was an incredible experience, at least until the rushing water pulled her under again. She kicked to the surface once more, a much shorter distance this time, and tried to make sense of her volatile surroundings.

She was obviously in a subterranean river running beneath the mountains. She was truly lucky to have landed here rather than on hard rock, but Kagome didn't feel very fortunate to be borne irresistibly along in this place where no light could penetrate. Or at least, no light visible to the human eye. She ardently wished that were not the case, as being able to see where she was going and what was around her would make this miserable experience much less terrifying. As it was, she could only rely on her ears to tell her if there were any sharp rocks or waterfalls ahead. Not that her eyesight would necessarily allow her to avoid any such obstacles; moving in any direction except the one dictated by the river was going to be challenging indeed. She didn't dare try to swim to one side in search of a bank. She had no idea how wide the river was, and if she exhausted herself fighting the current only to run into an unclimbable cave wall, the results could be disastrous. And even if she did manage to pull herself onto dry land, what then? She would still be stuck in pitch blackness, probably with whatever enemy had caused her to tumble into this cavern in the first place.

The bottom line: she feared the darkness more than she feared this river. There was a good chance that the waters would carry her free of the mountain, to a place where she could actually see and defend herself, and more easily link up with her friends. It seemed like her best option. There were dangers of course, chief among them the possibility of the aforementioned obstacles injuring or even killing her. The temperature of the water was also a factor, though it was not as cold as she originally thought and she knew she could stand it for some time. Given the dangers associated with attempting to exit the river and find a way out by land, she decided to take a chance and see where it carried her.

Within a few minutes, the river confirmed her choice to be a good one, so far at least. The current slowed noticeably, though it still moved at a fairly rapid pace. The limited information her auditory senses could ascertain indicated that the span had widened as well. She took an experimental duck below the surface and found that the bottom was now only a half meter below her feet. The change in circumstances having taken the edge off of her panic, she concentrated on floating in the current, using as little energy as possible. It was still hard work, but she found that with a full lungful of air her body was somewhat buoyant. She also wasn't a teenage lump of baby fat anymore; she had some lean muscle to her now, courtesy of months of journeying through feudal Japan. Still, she hoped she wouldn't have to keep this up for more than a few hours.

She had no idea how long it actually took to reach the outside world, as it was impossible to keep track of time. But that beautiful moon surrounded by twinkling stars was one of the most glorious sights she had ever beheld. It illuminated a sandy riverbank off to her right, which she immediately began paddling toward. The swim was grueling, an exercise in endurance, and she was panting heavily by the time her feet finally found purchase on the soft riverbed below. She crawled slowly onto the bank on her hands and knees, then flopped over onto her back, her lungs heaving with exertion. As her heartbeat and breathing slowed to normal, she felt fatigue settle over her, and allowed herself to slip into an exhausted sleep.

It happened so fast. One moment he was talking to Kagome, trying to figure out whether there was something wrong with her without revealing his concern. In the next, she stumbled and he reached out to steady her. He would have caught her, but at the last instant she seemed to fall back with unnatural speed, as if pulled by some unseen force, and his fingers closed around empty air. His eyes widened in alarm as a great black abyss opened behind her, its foul presence swelling across the cave wall. Their gazes met ever so briefly, and he saw the fear in her eyes as she tumbled over the precipice. And finally, just as quickly as it appeared, the mysterious abyss began to fade, seeming to recede into itself from the edges to the center.

Enhanced reflexes or no, if there had been any hint of hesitation in Inuyasha, his attempted pursuit would have ended in a swift and painful collision with a solid cave wall. Fortunately, the hanyou did not allow himself to ponder his actions for even a moment. Something had taken Kagome away from him. And no matter the destination, whether it be hell or some kind of hell on earth, he would follow.

Inuyasha charged headlong into the void, barely slipping all of his body inside before the entrance closed behind him. He found himself floating in empty space, which nevertheless contained breathable air. Still, he could immediately tell that his presence was not part of their mysterious enemy's plan. The air around him heated in fury, a malevolent aura crackling angrily against his skin, attempting to drive him back. But the realization that their adversary feared him only strengthened his resolve to push through the resistance. Whoever or whatever this thing was, it wanted to isolate Kagome and deal with her while she was alone. He wasn't going to let that happen.

"You hear me, you bastard! You wanna get to Kagome, you gotta go through me first!"

The enemy redoubled its efforts, but Inuyasha held firm. There was nothing to stand on in this strange space, but the strength of an iron will provided all the foothold he needed. Then, abruptly, the great force applied by the foreign aura changed direction entirely. Perhaps their adversary had realized that attempting to push him back was futile. Instead, what felt like an impenetrable wall of energy slammed into Inuyasha from the side. Caught off guard, the hanyou could muster no resistance as he was driven along against his will, away from Kagome. Gravity returned in a rush, sending him plummeting into the real world once more. He blinked several times before realizing that there was nothing wrong with his vision. As sharp as his eyesight was, even he couldn't see in total darkness. He doubted that this cavern had ever seen the light of day. His consciousness wavered for a moment as he fell, but the spell passed quickly. After that, there was nothing to do except right himself in mid-air, bend his knees, and pray that he didn't land on something sharp.

Only years of practice at landing from great heights saved his body from significant damage during the jarring impact. He managed to lurch into a roll, further dissipating his momentum. When he finally stopped moving, he stood gingerly and performed a quick mental inventory to make sure he didn't have any broken bones. Fortunately he did not, but that still left him standing in total darkness with no idea where Kagome was or how to get to her. The air smelled stale, as though decades had passed with little to no circulation. Most importantly, Kagome's scent was nowhere to be found. He had to move on, but that meant walking until he hit a wall, and then feeling his way around until he came across a tunnel. In other words, a big waste of time, time which Kagome might not have. Damn, where's that fox runt when you need him? Shippou would likely be quivering in fear inside his suikan right now, but his kitsune-bi would at least provide some light.

Thinking of Shippou gave Inuyasha an idea. He couldn't manipulate his youki at will like the kitsune or his half-brother could, but his youki did manifest itself in some of his attacks. He didn't dare employ Hijin Ketsusou lest he accidentally start a cave in, but a slash of Sankon Tetsusou into empty air might provide fleeting illumination. It wasn't much, as it turned out, but it was enough for the sharp-eyed hanyou to catch a glimpse of his surroundings. After repeating the attack a few times in all directions, he could conclusively state both that he was in some kind of cavern, and that there was only one tunnel leading out. The ceiling was made of solid rock, so he had undoubtedly fallen through the same type of portal that Kagome had been pulled through. One could say that they had also fallen right into the enemy's trap, but he wasn't even supposed to have made it this far, and that was an encouraging thought. He had to find Kagome, and then they could defeat this bastard together. Until then…be safe, Kagome.

He moved through the tunnel as quickly as he dared, utilizing controlled bursts of youki to illuminate the way forward and then darting across that distance in the dark before repeating the process. He suffered more than a few bumps and bruises, but he paid them no need. It seemed to take hours, as the tunnel wound its way through the mountain, never traveling in one direction for long. He seemed to choose a dead end almost every time the path split, further stoking his burgeoning frustration. But eventually his nose caught the first trace of hope—the pungent scent of a colony of bats up ahead. Soon there was enough natural light to see by, and moments later Inuyasha sprinted underneath the bustling colony and burst into the sunlight, shielding his face at its brightness. The sun was only just beginning to peek over the eastern horizon, but after being in the dark for so long his eyes needed some time to adjust.

Once they did, he gazed out over a great valley, dominated by a lush green plain spotted with small groves of trees. From his vantage point several hundred meters above the valley floor, Inuyasha could see what appeared to be a human settlement off to the northeast, about a day's walk from his current position. A river flowed past the settlement, its northerly path tracing all the way from the mountain range, where it seemed to emerge from a giant hole in the rock. Inuyasha immediately decided to work his way along the slopes until he reached the source of the river. If water could exit the mountain there, then he could probably enter. It seemed as good a place as any to start his search for Kagome, and if he spotted any other cave entrances along the way, he could check them out as well. Hopefully she had somehow managed to find a way out of the mountain, but if not he had no problem going in after her.

Hang on, Kagome. I'm coming.

Kagome woke with a groan, wet and shivering on the riverbank. She peeled her cheek away from the dirt underneath her and lurched gingerly to her feet, grimacing as her body protested every movement. Her sore muscles were feeling every moment of their nighttime exertions, but at least she was alive. And she could see! Day had not yet broken, but the pre-dawn light cast the eastern sky in a beautiful glow. Once the sun came up, her clothes would dry and she would warm up. In the meantime, she would try to figure out where she was and what to do now. Picking her way somewhat clumsily up the bank, she stepped up onto solid, grass-covered earth and was met by a positively breathtaking sight.

A verdant valley stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with forests here and there. The river flowed to the north and disappeared over the horizon, though from her vantage point that was only a handful of kilometers away at most. Behind her the mountains loomed, the cavern from which the river flowed appearing as a great maw in the rock. She had absolutely no intention of going back there. Part of her wanted to just sit on the riverbank and wait for rescue, but she felt very exposed out here by herself. She had nothing with her except the clothes on her back, which didn't exactly cover her very well, consisting in grand total of underwear, her school uniform skirt, and a thin short-sleeved blouse. She didn't even have a bra, having gone to bed without one. She at least had socks and loafers, but those were waterlogged now.

Overall, she wasn't exactly well prepared for inclement weather or a significant drop in temperature. Nor did she have any shelter or food. Her friends might not have any idea that she made it out of the mountains, so it could be a while before they thought to look in the valley behind the peaks. In the worst case, she could be out here for a few days, which was a truly scary thought considering all of the unknowns surrounding her. One thing she did know was that her friends would find her eventually. She also had easy access to a source of fresh water, which was always the top priority for surviving in the wilderness. She didn't like drinking water without boiling it first, but she didn't have any choice. At least it was flowing rather than stagnant.

Those two certainties made her feel much better about her situation. Since human settlements in this time period tended to cluster around dependable water sources, she could also assume that there was a village on one of the banks of this river, probably within walking distance. Given the unattractive alternative, Kagome decided to hike downstream and see what she could find. Locating a village meant shelter and food, as well as protection from wild animals and youkai. She could defend herself against the latter, but if a pack of wolves or another non-youkai predator found her, she was as good as kibble. Humans could be distrustful of outsiders, but if she came across a village the chances were good that at least one person would be kind enough or feel enough pity to give her a meal and a place to stay. People also tended to be reverent toward miko, so she could play that card if necessary. And if her friends did come looking for her, they would probably stop at any settlements they spotted from the air to ask if anyone had seen her.

Feeling confident in her decision, Kagome walked back down the bank and settled on some rocks to wait for the sun to rise. She also removed her socks and shoes and laid them on another rock, knowing from experience that trekking around before drying them would be very bad for her feet. Still shivering, but feeling optimistic about her chances of getting out of this mess alive, she settled in to wait.

A couple hours later, she was ready to go. The sun had mostly dried all of her clothes, especially her socks. Her shoes were still a little damp, but they would have to do. Climbing back up to the valley floor, she set off on her journey.

The sun was almost halfway to its apex by the time Inuyasha finally made it down to the river. He had stopped along the way to investigate a few tunnels, and had explored each one carefully, but none had seemed promising. His instincts still pointed to the river as his best hope for finding Kagome. He was disappointed to not discover her scent on immediate bank, but it was possible that she had emerged further downstream. He decided to thoroughly search along the bank for a significant distance, then cross the span and work his way back along the other bank. If that revealed nothing, he would head upriver and try his luck inside the mountain.

He gave up on the west bank after about a kilometer, then crossed the river. It was too wide to leap in a single bound, so he had to swim part of the way. He wasn't excited about it, especially in water this temperature, but he had always been a fairly decent natural swimmer courtesy of his inu heritage. If anyone said that to his face, however—or made fun of his doggy paddle—there would be hell to pay. He shook himself dry as best he could on the east bank, then climbed up to the valley floor.

He nearly cried out in relief upon detecting Kagome's scent, and inhaled several deep lungfuls just to savor her sweet natural fragrance. Then he got to work. Her scent trailed along the riverbank in both directions. He suspected that she was moving downstream, but he traced her path back upstream just to make certain. Sure enough, he found where she had climbed out of the river, and where she had slept. He was momentarily irritated that she hadn't just stayed put and waited for him, but from her perspective, her decision was understandable. She probably wasn't even aware that he had managed to fight his way through the portal right after her, and she couldn't possibly have known that their enemy had somehow caused him to emerge from the mountain several kilometers away from her. She was likely looking for a human settlement, which was a smart move. If she kept going she would in fact come across one later today or early tomorrow, but he planned on catching up with her long before then.

Even tracking her scent, he could move much more swiftly than human walking speed. He ran for ten minutes or so, surely gaining on her rapidly. Suddenly a cacophony of other scents assaulted his nose, and Kagome's scent trail ended abruptly. Skidding to a halt, he quickly backtracked as a cold knot of dread settled in his stomach.

Humans. Lots of them, all sweaty, dirty, and male. Bandits most likely. Inuyasha scrambled around, rapidly gathering olfactory information as he tried not to think about what these men would likely do to a pretty young girl like Kagome. The tale of their scents provided some clarity. There were two trails left by the men, both at an angle to the course of the river. They had come to drink and then departed, apparently running into Kagome through some really terrible luck on her part. On neither trail could he detect any trace of the miko's scent, so they had obviously not carried her with them when they left.

Moving closer to the riverbank, Inuyasha spotted a collection of footsteps and scents moving down to the water, which this time did include Kagome's. He tracked her to the river, his nostrils flaring at the increasing levels of fear in her scent. Then he followed her along the bank to a couple of rocks set in the surf, where her trail abruptly ended. Here her fear was more intense, as though she had hidden behind the rocks, desperate to avoid detection.

It was obvious what had happened. While walking on the valley floor along the bank, Kagome had spotted the bandits in time to run and hide in the best place she could find. Maybe the bandits had seen her from far off, or maybe not. In any case, they came to the river and then left without her. They hadn't even followed her to her hiding place. But then, why did her scent trail suddenly stop? Why hadn't she waited until the bandits left and then continued on her way? Because they saw her, his mind supplied. He turned and gazed out across the rushing water. You dove into the river, didn't you, Kagome? You chose to swim for the other side rather than be captured by these guys. He felt a swell of pride at her intelligence. She must have known that the bandits wouldn't swim after her without first taking off their heavy armour. Many people in this era couldn't swim at all, and with this river not being fordable by horses, there was a good chance the humans would decide that she wasn't worth the effort.

She had been absolutely right on all counts. But Inuyasha's fleeting relief gave way to a renewed sense of urgency. There might be more than one group of bandits roaming around, and Kagome was vulnerable to human enemies by herself. They had dodged catastrophe this time, but next time they might not be so fortunate.

He swam back across the river as quickly as he could, his heart in his throat. It took some rather frantic searching, but he was finally able to locate Kagome's scent as it emerged from the water. From there, her trail moved onto the valley floor and continued downstream. She had apparently escaped her brush with the bandits no worse for wear. He would track her down in short order, and there would be no more close calls.

It was not to be.

"Shit! No, Kagome! Kagome!"

No one answered him. Again, the scents told the whole story. This time, Kagome hadn't been fast enough to elude her attackers. They had captured her and borne her across the plain to the northwest. Men, horses…and one small human girl, caught in the middle. The scent of her fear and despair boiled his blood. These bastards would pay dearly.

Hours passed. Through the heat of the day and into the early evening hours, Inuyasha ran. As the sun started to sink below the western horizon, he wondered not for the first time why he hadn't caught up to his quarry yet. Even with him having to follow a scent trail, it shouldn't have taken this long. Either those bandits had excellent horses, or they'd enjoyed more of a head start than he originally thought. An underlying sensation of wrongness pricked at his consciousness, but he ignored it. Of course this was wrong; this entire situation was fucked up to begin with.

As day transitioned into night, he crested a rise and finally spotted his target laid out before him. It was a military style encampment, large enough to house two or three hundred men. But these were no soldiers. The tents were too disordered, the sounds of drinking and merrymaking too pronounced. That, and no horn or shout sounded from an alert watchmen as he approached. Still, this force was too large to be simple bandits. They were probably mercenaries for hire, which in Inuyasha's experience were usually just as rotten. And Kagome had been alone with them for an undetermined amount of time.

He had to resist the urge to storm in like a hurricane and start tearing shit to pieces. That would likely result in the entire camp grabbing weapons and engaging him together, and quite possibly a hostage situation as well. No, the far better course was to sneak in and try to rescue Kagome as quietly as possible. Most of the men were gathered around the various fires, so there was plenty of room to stealthily make his way through the shadows. He headed for the largest tent in the camp, reasoning that the leaders would probably be there. And if you were a mercenary bringing spoils of war back to your camp, you had best bring it to your leaders right away or suffer the consequences.

That hypothesis proved correct. But nothing could have prepared Inuyasha for the scents which assailed him as he approached the leaders' tent. He staggered, grabbing onto the nearest tent rope for support as his other hand clutched at his chest, right above his hemorrhaging heart.

Blood. So much blood, all of it Kagome's. Lingering male lust and bodily fluids, which turned his stomach in revulsion. And most damning of all, the faint but irrevocable scent which made him want to tear into his gut and spill his entrails onto the dirt. Death.

He shook violently as he crept closer to the tent, the bile rising, burning his throat raw. He hesitated for a moment on the precipice, feeling as though his sanity was slipping away. Denial was an ugly thing, seductive and inviting, but he refused to sink into its deceptively warm embrace. This wasn't a dream he was suddenly going to wake from. Reality began and ended with what he was going to find inside this tent. He couldn't deny it, no matter how much he wanted to.

His eyes confirmed what his nose had already informed him. He sank to his knees and heaved the contents of his stomach onto the ground, over and over again until his entire esophagus smoldered in pain. Then he crawled to her side, her vacant, lifeless eyes boring into his very soul. He closed them, granting her the peace which cruel fate had denied her. He also closed her parted lips, running the pad of his thumb along one of the broken, bleeding petals. Slicing through the rope which bound her hands to a stake set in the ground above her head, he moved her arms to rest against her midsection. Then he pulled what was left of her torn and tattered clothing away from her skin, and gently wrapped her in his suikan. Finally, he bent low, and bestowed a loving kiss upon her forehead.

Odd that there were no tears. He would have expected to cry over her, just as she had cried over him in the past when she believed him dead. Instead, he felt nothing. Perhaps it was better that way. The dead did not feel anything, after all. He and Kagome were still the same. He had lived for her, and now, he had died with her.

"How's that for a shitty job? The bosses get to have all the fun, and we have to clean up the m—oi! Who the hell are you?!"

Inuyasha dazedly turned his head toward the entrance to the tent, staring blankly at the two men who had just entered. Both of them drew their swords.

"Speak, asshole. Before we cut out your tongue and feed it to you."

"Hey, look at the ears. That thing's a half-breed."

"Heh, really? What, did you come to eat the girl?" the first one asked.

The other one chuckled. "Nah, I think he wants to fuck her instead. Made her up all nice. Looks like he really cared," he mocked.

"Tch, well go ahead then, don't let us stop you. She's probably still warm!"

As the mercenaries descended into laughter, Inuyasha's muddled mind attempted to comprehend their words. They want me to eat her? To…fuck her? His entire body seized as a brutal tremor tore through him, an unspeakable image of Kagome, crying as she was bound and used against her will. Is that…what her final moments were like? His lips drew back in a silent snarl. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. With each pulse, it sent heat coursing through his bloodstream. His extremities tingled, as though they had fallen asleep and were now regaining sensation. Where once there was only death, now there was something akin to life.

A dark sensation stirred within his chest. Black, yet white-hot at the same time, it revitalized him, sustained him. Pure and unadulterated, it drove him to stand, when he had thought to never rise again. It enticed him, coaxed him toward an evil deed which he had sworn never again to commit. Perhaps a part of him should have resisted, but he was dead, after all. And the dead did not feel anything. This vengeful thirst for blood which gripped him now was not truly life, but in that moment he simply could not bring himself to care. Those bastards were still laughing…

They never knew what hit them. With a single swipe of his claws, it was done. And as their heads and bodies collapsed separately to the ground, Inuyasha studied his hands. This wasn't nearly enough blood. He wanted to saturate himself with it, to permanently dye his skin crimson. He exited the tent without a glance back, leaving the last of his human heart behind, along with the woman who had captured it. It occurred to him that he still felt like a hanyou physically. He probably was; his claws had not lengthened and his youki was not elevated. But inside, all that remained was a desire to kill. And he could not see any reason to deny himself that simple satisfaction.

The mercenaries never stood a chance. He was a blur of motion, nothing more than a lethal apparition to their eyes. His claws rent flesh, severing heads and limbs with reckless abandon, ripping through tough armour as though it was made of paper. Those who thought to resist saw their swords snapped, their bows splintered before their own grisly ends came upon them. Others cowered, paralyzed with abject terror, and were slain without mercy. Through it all, their crimson bane employed no youki, savoring the tactile pleasure of slaughtering each of them with his bare claws. Those who were fortunate enough to be on the outskirts of the massacre mounted horses and attempted to escape. After sending every last soul remaining in camp to hell, the monster eyed the fleeing mercenaries greedily as they rode away. None would escape. All would perish by his claws.

Every. Last. One.

He received an unexpected surprise as he closed in on his final victim. This man rode a strong horse and wore the finest clothing and armour, signifying his status as a leader. And he still smelled of Kagome.

Before his end, this man wished he had never been born. The monster made certain of it. He inflicted torments which made a lifetime of the bastard's evil deeds seem like child's play. Hell must have felt like a dip in a warm spring, when he was finally allowed to leave the world of the living. The night was no longer young by the time the pitiful human's soul passed on.

Inuyasha sat there for a long time, contemplating his actions beside the body of a man he had murdered in most brutal fashion. He had deserved it, as had most of his comrades deserved what they received this evening. Most, but not all. With the clarity of hindsight, he remembered the few who had perhaps not yet earned a bloody demise. There had been some young boys, servants or trainees most likely, responsible for cleaning the camp and tending to the fighting men. Innocents.

Still, he could not honestly say that he regretted his actions. He could not say that he felt anything at all. There was no point in remorse, and he had already reached his capacity for self-loathing. Kagome was still dead, rendering his gory revenge as hollow as the withered shell of his heart.

So what did he do now? Was there any point in rising from this field? A voice whispered to him in the darkness, though he couldn't tell if it came from without or within. Not that it mattered. The message was simple: lie down and go to sleep, and feel no more pain. It was the single most irresistibly seductive proposal he had ever heard.

Somewhere in the heart of feudal Japan, a hanyou lay down in a field and closed his eyes.