Just as Rin was contemplating running after what she felt as Sesshomaru's presence, Jaken's voice echoed through the forest. After a great deal of rummaging noises, the small lizard burst forth from the undergrowth, eyes welling with tears.
"Riiiiiiin!" he cried.
"Jaken-sama! What's the matter?" Rin asked in shock as he clung to her kimono.
Jaken sniffed, looking up at her pleadingly. "Rin, Sesshomaru-sama is…he's…ahhh, Riiiiiin! What should we do?"
"Calm down! Did something happen to Sesshomaru-sama?"
Jaken explained that he had seen Sesshomaru bound down the mountain and be struck by a fierce demon with poison abilities like Sesshomaru himself. He had lost Sesshomaru in the woods but followed the trail of Sesshomaru's blood to a mansion where he had seen the great dog demon trapped, the most horrible torture being inflicted on him. It sounded preposterous.
"I don't believe it!" Rin cried, praying it truly was a lie. "Even if he were outnumbered, I can't imagine Sesshomaru-sama being beaten by anyone!"
"One of them was Tamamo-no-mae," Jaken said ruefully. "And old foe of Sesshomaru-sama's and a malicious and powerful shape-shifter. That devil can take the form of anyone. Who knows who he turned into to trick Sesshomaru-sama? But what can we do?! I'm no match for the fox demon, and he's working with someone even more powerful! The mansion was swimming in youki!"
"Rin-chan?" Kagome jogged over, perhaps having heard their raised voices. "Is something wro-egh." She interrupted herself to make a face at Jaken's tear-streaked lizard countenance.
Rin took in a breath and let it out. Though she always feared for her life when interacting with powerful demons, she was much more afraid at that moment of making Sesshomaru hate her more than he already did. But it didn't change what she had to do.
"Jaken-sama. Which way is the mansion?" she asked.
"Eh? Just east of here, but…"
Rin bit her lip, sure that that was where she had felt Sesshomaru's voice coming from just now. Without leaving herself any longer to get nervous, she took off at a run toward wherever Sesshomaru was.
"Rin-chan, where are you going? Ugh. Inuyasha, pay attention! Something's up!"
The voices of her friends faded as Rin ran as fast as her legs would carry her. It was such a relief that whatever else happened now, at least for this moment, she was running toward Sesshomaru-sama and not away from him. She could worry about the consequences later. For now, ahead was Sesshomaru, and that was where she wanted to be.
"Rin, wait!" Jaken finally caught up with her, dodging brambles that Rin was heedlessly scratching her legs on as she went. "We need a plan at least! We can't do anything alone!"
"Stay behind if you're scared, Jaken-sama," Rin told him breathlessly.
"Gah…you…you're the weakest human I know! How can you have no sense of self-preservation?!" Jaken demanded in frustration.
Rin actually laughed a little as she ran. She didn't know either. She had been scared just moments ago. But every step closer to Sesshomaru-sama, the fear was overwhelmed by desire to see him. Even just to be near him. She could figure out the details later.
But when they finally reached the area around the mansion, Jaken physically held her back from bursting in. He pinched her cheeks and stared at her from inches away.
In a barely audible whisper he hissed, "At the very least, we need to observe the state of things before we go barging in."
Rin frowned at him. "Aw wigh'," she managed between her pinched cheeks.
As quietly as possible, the two stayed low and snuck around the mansion walls to the gate. Though it was closed, it was so old and rotten than Rin could easily see the courtyard through the gaps. She gasped as she saw a familiar sight.
"It's Bakusaiga!" she whispered.
Jaken bit his lip with worry. "I knew it…something terrible has happened…Sesshomaru-sama would never normally be disarmed…"
This brief pause in action as they observed this place, which was obviously inhabited by one or more very powerful demons, had sent Rin's heart pounding with anxiety again. She was suddenly conscious that she would be facing demons who had overpowered Sesshomaru-sama. In the normal course of things, she would be wiped out in an instant. It was already hard just being around the miasma leaking out of this mansion. But Jaken's words had given her an idea.
"If Sesshomaru-sama is armed, no one is a match for him," Rin murmured softly.
Jaken nodded. "True…for now we can concentrate on getting his sword to him. Ah, Sesshomaru-sama…I hope his injuries are light…Ah." He stopped as he realized something. "But this is a problem…I don't think I can handle Bakusaiga…without dying. You're even more likely to-AH! RIN!" Jaken hissed in panic.
As he had been talking, Rin was already wiggling her way inside the gate. By the time Jaken reached out to stop her, her ankle – the last part of her outside – had slipped through and she was out of reach. Rin kept close to the wall as she watched out for any enemies. The sword was in the middle of the courtyard, though. There was no other way but to run out and get it.
Though her heart was pounding with fear by now, she knew what she had to do and couldn't wait. She looked around once more to make sure there was no one in sight, and then darted out.
"Rin! Just touching the hilt will be deadly to y-" Jaken began, but then he gasped as Rin yanked the large sword from the gravel and tucked it under her arm. "Eh? You're not dead?"
Rin turned and gave Jaken a thumb's up, which even to her seemed out of place. She blushed and returned to the shadows of the wall, dragging Bakusaiga behind her. She didn't know why Jaken thought it would kill her, or why it didn't, but on the contrary she felt much better while holding Bakusaiga than she had moments ago.
She realized the miasma had been making it painful to breathe and even see. But now, with Bakusaiga held close, she was able to see a broken door at the other end of the courtyard. She swallowed, thinking of the force it had taken to blast it apart like that, and what such a force would do to her body. But when she thought that even now, Sesshomaru-sama might be in pain, it didn't seem as important.
She dragged the sword over to the nearest porch, where she quickly wrapped it in a rotten old tatami matt to make it easier to carry. Then she ran as quickly and quietly as possible over to the broken door. She peered up inside the hole, but could not see anything but black. This early in the day, that fact in itself was frightening. She knew it was the work of a powerful demon. But that was almost certainly where Sesshomaru was. So she clutched Bakusaiga to her chest, jumped up on the porch and scuttered through the door.
Unfortunately, the deeper she ventured into the mansion, the more the fear started to sink in. She could barely see anything. She tried to shuffle along the walls, but with this miasma clouding her senses, enemies could be inches away and she wouldn't know it. She was only conscious of her own loud heartbeat and the heavy weight in her arms of Bakusaiga.
Finally, she could see a light at the end of a hall. And distantly, she heard the sickening sounds of heavy objects impacting flesh, and laughter. Her stomach twisted at the thought that right now, Sesshomaru was in pain, unable to move. Her soft footsteps along the old wood grew hurried.
But as she drew closer, suddenly the sounds stopped. She held her breath as a spike of fear rose that she had been discovered. But instead of the enemy coming after her, she heard the sound of a shoji screen being closed. And then a heavy thud, like a sack of rocks dropping. Her heart pounded as her worst fears rose up, closing her throat. She ran down the hall and toward the faint light.
When she rounded the corner, her heart stopped. There, lying in a heap on the floor as she had feared, was an very still Sesshomaru. For a moment, she couldn't move. She couldn't bear the reality that he might be…so she couldn't even bring herself to check. But heartache broke through her fear. She ran to him, stumbling and dropping Bakusaiga beside him as she knelt over him.
"Sesshomaru-sama!" she cried, with difficulty managing to roll him over onto his back. Though she could see no injuries, he was pale and would not move or open his eyes. "Sesshomaru-sama, please! Please wake up!"
For several, heart-wrenching seconds, he still did not move. Then, as if in pain, his face tensed. Rin could not stop tears from flowing, just at this slight movement that proved he was alive. She pulled him closer, resting his head on her lap, brushing his hair from his face to better examine it and try to revive him.
"Sesshomaru-sama…it's all right," Rin told him, praying he would open his eyes and be his normal, overbearing self. "I've brought your sword. We can get out of this place. You just have to hang in a little more."
At last, and seeming to struggle, Sesshomaru was able to open his eyes. They remained unfocused on the darkness around them for a moment. Then they turned to Rin. Sesshomaru's eyes fluttered and for a moment, Rin felt her heart nearly break from looking at him. She had never seen such a vulnerable expression on his face before. And though she dared not hope to believe it, she was sure there was affection in it too.
"Rin," said Sesshomaru softly. She had never heard him use such a gentle voice. His brows drew together with pain. He closed his eyes again, this time seemingly with frustration. "I thought I sent you away."
Rin almost choked with pain as she was reminded of what happened yesterday. Her hands, which had been holding Sesshomaru's face, began to shake and she removed them from touching him. "Yes…I'm sorry, Sesshomaru-sama. I…couldn't bear to think you might be hurt…"
Sesshomaru sighed. "Do you know why I sent you away?"
Rin bit her lip until it bled. She was sure she did. But she couldn't bring herself to say it out loud.
As he looked up at her now, frustration flickered behind Sesshomaru's yellow eyes. "I cannot abide the presence of humans," he said.
Rin's body felt heavy as tears dripped down her face against her will. She didn't want to burden Sesshomaru with her feelings. But hearing those words from him, it was impossible not to be devastated.
And yet, after several seconds of unexpected silence, when she was brave enough to glance at his face, wondering why he had stopped, she gasped as she saw it was streaked with pain while looking at her. She could tell from his eyes that she was the one causing that pain. But why? Surely he felt only hatred for her, as for all humans. Seeing that expression on the face of the one she loved sealed her fate; no matter what happened now, she would never be able to forget him.
"To feel anything but disgust for a human…that is the greatest injury to my pride," he went on, softly. "I could not keep you with me. If I did…your sweetness would break me completely." He shifted his body closer and held her around her waist, curling up in her lap like a pet dog. "I cannot…I must not…Rin…help me. Do not make me waver. Leave me."
A different kind of tears, hotter than before, were dripping down Rin's face now. With trembling hands, she stroked Sesshomaru's hair, holding him close. "I'm sorry, Sesshomaru-sama. If I hear such words from you, I don't think I can ever leave you."
Sesshomaru looked up at her, and though there was betrayal in his face, there was also immense relief. He raised a hand, but instead of stroking her hair as he had done many times before, he pressed his thumb to her cheek to wipe away her tears. It was a sweet gesture, but somehow – despite her elation at his affection – that simple gesture sent a cold feeling through Rin's body.
Rin swallowed. She wasn't sure what it meant, but something in that gesture had been unnatural. Why? What was this sense of unease? Unsure of what to do now, hesitantly she murmured, "Sesshomaru-sama?" Rather than answer, Sesshomaru merely closed his eyes and nuzzled her leg. Rin's heart felt like it might explode, but the cold feeling she'd had a moment ago was only growing stronger. "Is it okay to leave, without worrying about the demons that did this to you?"
The dog demon nodded a little. "If I have you, that's all that matters."
At that, cold dread hit Rin's entire body. She couldn't see how, but she knew for sure now that the person curled up against her was not Sesshomaru-sama. Or else someone else was forcing him to say these things. The one thing Sesshomaru would never do was forgive someone who injured his pride. No matter how pleased Rin might be by this fantasy, in which he only cared about her, it wasn't the real Sesshomaru. And that meant that it wasn't the one she loved.
Her mind quickly went over possible ways to escape. This was the worst situation for her. She was enclosed in her enemy's arms, her only weapon – Bakusaiga, on the floor behind her – enormous and almost too heavy for her to carry in her arms, much less swing with any precision. Moreover, if this were someone else using Sesshomaru-sama's body, even if she were able to fight him, she did not want to hurt Sesshomaru's body. And even for Sesshomaru, she wasn't sure what the touch of Bakusaiga's blade would do to him.
But she realized something after realizing how she had caught this imposter. If it were Sesshomaru's body, she was certain he would much rather it was destroyed than usurped by anyone else. She prayed that if it really were him, he would be able to stop the poison before it killed him. And she trusted that he could.
So as not to arouse suspicion, she stroked his hair gently with one hand as she carefully reached behind her with the other. "Okay, Sesshomaru-sama. Let's go," she said.
Just as she saw he was about to open his eyes again, Rin grabbed Bakusaiga's hilt and wildly dragged it in front of her as she leapt back.
"AAahhh!" came a scream from Sesshomaru as a deep green gash appeared over his hand. He was on his feet in a moment, watching in shock as the poison spread up his arm. "Rrrrgh!" he cried, grabbing a dagger from his boot – which Rin had never seen him use before – and without hesitation, slicing off his own arm at the elbow.
The limb fell with a thud to the tatami matts and began to dissolve with the poison. But not before it shifted into an entirely different shape. No longer the arm of a dog demon. But the paw of a fox.
Sesshomaru rounded a glare on her, dripping with malice. Rin gasped as she saw his eyes had changed shape to the slanted ones of a fox, and behind him a fox's tail swished angrily. "You scum. Urchin. You dirty little rat," said Sesshomaru, in an androgynous voice that was not his own. "You've maimed me! My beautiful body! How dare you?! No slow death will satisfy me! I'll tear your limbs off and eat them in front of you!"
Rin shut her eyes and raised Bakusaiga protectively over herself, but she could barely keep it held aloft. The fox slammed its paw into her shoulder and the next thing she knew, her left side was on fire with pain and her vision went dark. As she blinked her eyes open in shock, she coughed through dust and wood splinters falling on her. But as she desperately tried to move out of the way of the next strike, she realized that somehow Bakusaiga had protected her from the worst of the impact.
Unable to do anything else, she decided to trust Bakusaiga again. She let out a cry of exertion and swung the great sword once again toward the fox demon. Now knowing the danger, it dodged easily. This time it used Sesshomaru's foot to stomp Rin's wrists into the ground. She cried out, fearing they would break, but held on to Bakusaiga's hilt for dear life.
Rin gasped as she heard Jaken's voice, and suddenly a column of flame burst through the wall outside the room they were in. The fox had to jump backward out of the way, and Rin quickly dragged the sword back with her away from him. Jaken ran inside, coming to stand in front of Rin with his staff raised.
"Not one more step closer, Tamamo-no-mae!" he shouted.
Rin sometimes forgot how brave Jaken could be. She sighed with relief, though she quickly remembered his warning about not being strong enough to take on Tamamo-no-mae. But maybe together…
The fox demon tilted Sesshomaru's head at the appearance of the lizard demon. "What's this? Another irritating bug for me to squash? And what's more, one without memories of anyone dear. Useless."
It raised Sesshomaru's hand high, and fox claws – glowing with purple poison – appeared at his fingertips.
"Jaken-sama!" Rin cried.
Jaken ducked the paw once and then sent the demon back with a blast of fire. "Rin, go!" he told her, shoving her toward the next set of doors. "If Sesshomaru-sama is free, we can all get out of this! Hurry!"
Rin sobbed, knowing he had already shown his only attack and it was only a matter of time before one of those strikes landed. But he was right. If Sesshomaru were free, they might still all escape. Though it tore her apart to leave him, she dragged Bakusaiga toward the door.
"Please don't die, Jaken-sama!" she cried.
"I don't intend to. Whoa now, back up, trickster!" he barked as Tamamo-no-mae tried to stop Rin. He blasted him back with a wave of fire that singed the edges of Rin's hair as she ran.
"Little mud fish…I'll tear you to pieces," Rin heard the fox hiss as she ran.
But after only a moment, she realized she was in total darkness. She couldn't see anything at all. Her senses were filled with the sound of her own ragged breathing, and she was suddenly filled with terror at the presence she felt so close. It was here. Whatever demon was casting this whole mansion in youki, it was in this room.
She was trying to decide what to do when a soft chuckle rose from the recesses of the room behind her. She whirled around, pointing Bakusaiga in the direction of the voice.
"So fiery. Would you like to play a game, human?"
The voice was indistinct. The more it spoke, the less Rin was sure about where it was coming from. It seemed to be somehow inhabiting the darkness all around her. She swallowed her fear, trying to focus on holding up Bakusaiga, which was not easy.
"It's very easy. There is only one rule. If you show exhaustion in any way, I'll eat you."
Rin's heart hammered in her ears. She knew at once that there was nowhere to escape in this room, surrounded in this demon's essence.
"You don't look very sleepy. That's good. But be careful. If you trip or fall. Even if you drop that sword. You're mine. Ready to play?"
Rin tried to control her breathing. And the longer she paused, the more another emotion rose up beyond the fear; rage at the person who had hurt Sesshomaru. "I don't play games. Where is Sesshomaru-sama?"
"Of course you can see him if you win the game. I'm not a monster," said the demon, though it followed this with a very unconvincing chuckle.
Rin's jaw tightened. "If there's only one rule, then how do I win? Stay alert forever?"
Suddenly, Rin was conscious of two glassy eyes just inches away beside her. They were fixed in the skeletal head of a dog demon, covered in patchy black fur but without any flesh over the bone. It tilted its head and grinned at her.
"Or you could kill me," it said. Rin gasped and recoiled. It chuckled again, sending shivers down her spine. "Think you can do it, little human?"
Rin's fingers tightened around Bakusaiga's hilt as she desperately tried to calm her racing thoughts. Only once in her life had she felt fear like this. It was when she was very small. And a wolf was eating her. Suddenly she could not remember how she had ever stopped being afraid of wolves and dogs. They haunted her nightmares almost as often as the faces of her dead parents. Teeth specially made for pulling off flesh and crunching into bone. Hungry eyes. Legs that could outrun hers every time. Even the course fur soaked with her own blood. Everything about them made her so afraid she could barely breathe.
She felt herself stepping back without meaning to. Suddenly, the skeletal dog's face, with its bulging black eyes, filled her vision. "Careful," it whispered. "Don't trip."
Rin was so scared she wanted to cry. Sesshomaru-sama! she pleaded wordlessly. I don't want to die. Please help…