Chapter One - An Unwelcome Rescue
It was that new sense again...the one she had so recently acquired, the one that had started tugging at her shortly after her fifteenth birthday. How it had come about, where it had suddenly come from, she did not know, but it was burning and insistent, alerting her to the nearness of evil. Midoriko rose to her feet, hands caked with dirt from where she had been rummaging in the garden outside her small house. She looked to the west, every nerve tingling and aware. Something invisible tugged at her feet and she found herself hurrying back inside the small wooden house. She grabbed for her bow and quiver of arrows, slinging them hastily over her shoulder before she ran back outside into the dewy morning.
Her sandaled feet seemed to know their own way as they rushed along some instinctive path. Her heart was pounding, the only other sounds the whistling of air soaring past her ears and her feet hitting the soft earth. It seemed even the birds had taken flight, fearful of the strange aura that was permeating the area. Midoriko had no idea what she was running toward, but felt sure it was going to be trouble.
It was the clanging sound of weapons that reached her ears first, violently ringing, unforgiving; obviously being wielded by beings who sincerely meant to use them for all they were worth. She sprinted up a steep embankment and skidded to a halt as she was greeted by the sight of a youkai battle. Tiger demons and...someone else. Midoriko's eyes narrowed as she watched the three tiger youkai descend upon their opponent, a tall demon of undetermined nature. He was rather pale, with long silvery-white hair that trailed to the middle of his back and golden eyes that were narrowed in concentration. He also appeared aptly attired for battle, a glowing green whip dangling from long, sharp fingertips, and he was eyeing his enemies warily, coolly, as though completely unconcerned that he was outnumbered.
From the fatigued look about them and the number of inflicted wounds on all involved, Midoriko judged that this fight must have been going on for quite some time. She watched from her higher vantage point as the silver-haired demon's whip cracked through the air, sending one of his enemies sprawling with a growled curse. He possessed an eerie gracefulness that Midoriko found captivating, and, impressively enough, he seemed able to handle himself well against the other three, despite not being armed with a sword as they were.
Having grown up in a village known for its population of demon exterminators, Midoriko knew better than to stand around and gawk at a youkai battle, but something rooted her to the spot. The white demon was charged on two sides, the third tiger demon coming up from behind to impale him through the back with his blade, shoving it in to the hilt before withdrawing it with a brilliant splatter of blood. Midoriko watched the white demon stiffen from the assault. He then turned with a motion swifter than sight to claw the throat out of his assailant, sending the demon flying backward several feet before whirling to face the other two.
Without thinking, Midoriko raised her bow and reached back for her arrows, firing three in such rapid succession that the tiger youkai, even with their renowned reflexes, never saw them coming. The arrows emitted a fiery purple light as they pierced the demons' flesh, sealing them instantly, their souls eternally trapped within bodies that ceased to function. Senseless, the attackers crashed into their intended victim who had been momentarily distracted by the sudden barrage of arrows, all three dropping to the ground with a gracelessness that defied their nature. A kindness had probably been done for the third tiger youkai who had never risen after his opponent's clawing attack. It looked to Midoriko as though it would have been a mortal wound, anyway.
Half-stumbling, half-sliding down the incline, Midoriko moved hesitantly toward the pile of youkai, wondering from the silence if they had indeed managed to kill their opponent. Why she cared to find out was beyond her, for she had always been told that the most dangerous of demons wore a human form. Even so, her traitorous feet pulled her along, curious, questioning.
With a suddenness that surprised her and a growl that chilled her blood, Midoriko watched as the two inert tiger demons were tossed effortlessly aside, their bodies as limp as wet blankets. The white-haired demon sat up, a feral expression on his face, his pristine white clothing now stained crimson with blood that was emanating from that newly-inflicted chest wound.
Midoriko halted her forward movement when she caught a glimpse of his face; it bore the look of a predator who had been denied his kill...and she had been the one to steal his prey. Wondering at her own stupidity for even involving herself in a youkai matter, Midoriko started to back away as the demon's red-glazed eyes locked onto her. He stood stiffly. Gods, what was I thinkingshe wondered, her panicked heart thumping against her rib cage. Perhaps she had helped the wrong side of this battle….
"You dare interfere, human brat?" the demon grated at her, his chest heaving, either through pain or suppressed rage, she did not know, but either way the murderous glint in his eyes told her that she had better speak up. She watched as he flexed the lethal-looking claws at the ends of his fingertips.
"I...I was trying to help," she stammered the explanation, barely able to believe what she had just done. It was that damned sense...the one that whispered to her of pending danger, warned of the close proximity of evil, and, apparently, prompted her to defend a demon who should have been no concern of hers. After all, what did demons do except bring misery to humans? Disdain them for existing around them? The villagers would be appalled at what she had just done. In her mind's eye she could see a host of demon exterminators shaking their heads at her in disapproval. Her brother would have demanded to know why she had withheld a fourth arrow. You stupid, stupid girl…
Disdain was definitely what she was seeing in his eyes, almost as though he could hardly bear to look at her. Along with wounded pride, perhaps? But as her head mentally dissected his state of mind, the demon rushed toward her in a blur that her eyes were barely able to register. A strong hand wrapped itself into the worn material of her old kimono, claws grazing against her neck as she suddenly found herself being hauled up to face level. Her feet dangled in the open air as she met his angry gaze, two fiercely red eyes burning into hers. The change was amazing. He had transformed from a calm, composed, almost angelic-looking warrior to a terrifying, wild-eyed devil that looked to be seriously contemplating how best to remove her from existence.
"Learn your place, girl! It's not among youkai," he spoke lowly, in a dangerous tone that seemed incongruous coming from such a young face. "You stupid humans don't have sense enough to know when to mind your own business. It's no wonder your life spans are so pitifully short."
"You were outnumbered..."
"It was certainly no concern of yours." He released her then, and Midoriko was dropped unceremoniously onto her rear. He glared down at her with menacing intent and she nervously recalled the way he had so easily ripped the throat out of the tiger youkai. But the red fury in his eyes suddenly faded as he looked away from her, tilting his head slightly and sniffing at the air.
A blurred movement out of the corner of her eye caused Midoriko to turn her head to watch as another being materialized a few feet away from them. At first he seemed almost god-like, radiating a fierce glow that slowly dissipated until he stood before them, dressed quite similarly to and appearing to be a somewhat older version of the demon she had just attempted to help. This youkai had the same regal bearing, but his face was kinder, not nearly as cold and imperious as the younger demon.
"Sesshoumaru...?" he started to question, frowning with apparent concern at the other's disheveled, blood-soaked form.
"Yes, Father," the younger demon replied, seeming to answer an unasked question, his tone instantly changing from threatening to respectful in his patriarch's presence.
Midoriko rose back to her feet, wondering briefly if it was best to remain still and quiet or to try to flee. She settled for simply watching as the elder demon walked over to inspect the bodies of the fallen tiger youkai. He reached out one claw to touch the feathered shaft of one of the arrows and was rewarded with a shock that prompted him to draw his hand back, a scant look of surprise on his perfect features.
"They've been sealed," he said almost questioningly to Sesshoumaru before his golden eyes locked onto Midoriko with an inscrutable expression, as though judging her soul. She suddenly wished she had followed her instinct to flee as the older demon then rose and moved toward her. Midoriko cast an apprehensive glance up at Sesshoumaru's sullen expression.
"Did you do this, miko?" came the careful question, spoken in a rumbling voice that she could swear was reverberating underneath her feet. Though he did not exude the same feral atmosphere as his son, he was intimidation in pure, physical form; spiked shoulder armor gleamed in the morning light, double-furred pelts fell across both shoulders, and her eyes moved to the swords he wore; three of them, one at his back, two at his side. He was darker-skinned than Sesshoumaru, marked differently. He gave off the feel of a ruler, an aura of unwavering confidence and authority. It made Midoriko feel as though she should answer and be swift about it.
"Yes," she replied quickly. "But I am no miko."
The expression did not alter at all save for a blinking of those mesmerizing eyes. "Then how were you able to seal those youkai?"
Midoriko shook her head, loose hair swaying with the movement. "I cannot explain. It is something that I have recently acquired the ability to do. I don't know why. There's no precedent for it in my family or my village."
He appeared curious and thoughtful at her honest explanation, but not threatening. In fact, she could almost swear she was seeing the vaguest hint of a small smile crossing his lips as he added, "You meant to save my son's life."
"I...no, he was doing fine on his own," she stammered quickly, not wishing to make Sesshoumaru any more wrathful. As it was, she noticed that his claws were twitching slightly, as though itching to throttle her for her audacity.
"He is still very young. His skills are excellent, but even he would have had difficulty with those three." He spared his son an affectionate glance and, slightly more confident that the confrontation was at an end, Midoriko relaxed some, feeling her shoulders unknot a bit as Sesshoumaru's father explained regretfully, "It was my own fault. I put him into a difficult position."
Sesshoumaru went visibly rigid as he listened to his father's words, as though they had been a reprimand rather than a veiled apology. She could swear she could hear a low, rumbling growl coming from him.
The elder demon bowed his head to Midoriko and smiled thinly, acutely aware of his son's discomfort. "Young lady, I shall reward your kindness. Few humans would have bothered to interfere. I will remember."
Midoriko mutely shook her head, anxious now to return to her brother, who would surely be home by now, wondering where she was, complaining about the lack of lunch. And just how was she to explain this? She would have to swear Shijin to secrecy or else she would never be able to show her face in the village again. "Please, there's no need, but I must return," she excused herself quickly, feet already treading carefully backward. "I'm...needed elsewhere." With a nervous farewell, she turned and started to walk up the hill toward her home, pausing only to gather her bow and arrows, fully expecting to feel a pair of claws being shoved into her back at any moment.
Inutaisho watched her go, then turned with upraised eyebrows to Sesshoumaru. "She is from that village of youkai exterminators. Interesting."
"Interfering is more accurate. I would not have lost," Sesshoumaru muttered, eyeing the human girl's retreating form. He would absolutely be within his rights to chase the bitch down. How utterly devoid of conscious thought must she be to have done something so ridiculous and infuriating? His blood still boiled from the heated battle, yearning for a kill, his body already working furiously to mend itself. How frustrating.
"You need a sword," his father commented then after a moment of silence.
"I will wait for yours. Until then, what I have will be good enough."
"You'll be waiting a long time, Sesshoumaru," Inutaisho replied smoothly to the usual response, grinning humorously at this boy that took himself so seriously. "And don't look so murderous. There are worse things than being rescued by a pretty little human girl."
"I wasn't rescued."
Midoriko nearly forgot about her strange encounter with the white demon in the months that followed, but, then, she and her village had matters of a much greater concern to contend with, problems that pushed everything else to the back of her mind. For reasons that none of the monks could determine, their village was consistently being attacked by youkai after youkai. The assumption was that the demons intended the destruction of the village, which produced its own army of youkai exterminators who were often called upon to aid other villages with their own demonic battles. Now, though, with this sudden increase in attacks on their own homes, the exterminators worried over leaving the village at all, which led to matters of conscience: To protect their own and allow those calls for help to fall on deaf ears? Or to leave themselves vulnerable in an attempt to aid others?
Midoriko wondered if this was purposeful, a pact among the demons who sought to control the area, a way to keep the exterminators at bay so they could go about their business of destroying the human population around them. It was known fact that they resented sharing with what they declared to be an inferior species; to youkai, humans were nothing more than an unwanted infestation that needed to be eliminated. Yet that did not seem right, either. Though the attacks against Midoriko's village continued to increase, the ones against the neighboring villages were slowly trailing off, as though the exterminators had earned the whole focus of their neighboring demons.
The attacks were taking a toll on the exterminators. Midoriko knew this first-hand. Her older brother had been among the injured at the end of the last youkai encounter. Even after nearly a week of care from his sister, Shijin was weakening from the effects of the poison that had incapacitated him and two other villagers. As she dunked a wooden bucket into the stream outside their house, absently watching as the water swirled inward to fill it, Midoriko morosely pondered what more she could do for him. Shijin was young and very strong, but everything she did seemed only to prolong the inevitable. It made her feel desperately uneasy, this slow deterioration; it was something she had seen in others before, and he was all she had left now...
Standing with the now-heavier bucket, Midoriko turned, eyes roving to rest on the form of a man that had somehow soundlessly materialized behind her. In her surprise, she gasped and dropped the bucket, but with reflexes that were nothing short of amazing, the demon's hand shot outward, grasping the handle with deceptively refined fingers before it could make contact with the already rain-drenched soil and spill its contents. Blinking in wordless confusion, Midoriko's addled mind prompted her to recognize him as Sesshoumaru's father.
"Forgive me," he requested sincerely, setting the bucket on the sodden ground. "I sometimes forget that human ears are often not adept enough to register the approach of a youkai."
"Why are you here?" she asked nervously, glancing back at the small, clapboard house and belatedly realizing that it was a rather rude greeting on her part, but his arrival had been so completely unexpected that her voice was reacting before her manners.
He graced her with a faint smile, appearing to forgive the lapse in etiquette. "I have a debt to repay, if you recall," he answered her, and she watched with openly wary curiosity as he extended a bundle toward her, one that was rather long and thin, wrapped and tied within some soft black cloth.
Fingers extending, she took the proffered object, eyes flickering up to the demon's face to see if there appeared to be some trick involved, but he watched her impassively, arms hanging loosely at his sides. He prompted her with a gesture to uncover it, and when she did she saw the hilt of a sword encased within a sheath that felt nearly leathery to the touch. It was a rather average-looking sword, but one that looked to be brand new. She tentatively pulled it free from its protective covering, surprised at how feather-light it was despite the obvious quality of its construction. The blade gleamed in the morning sun and Midoriko watched as her reflection looked back at her, unblinking, all dark hair, light brown eyes, and an expression of pure confusion.
"I don't understand..." she began to voice her thoughts, but she was quickly silenced by his interjection.
"I received word of the problems your village has been having with youkai attacks. I thought that this would be a suitable reward."
She became quiet at that, registering faint surprise that someone such as this being would even bother to listen for the petty problems of one human village, particularly when that human village's specialization was the destruction of his own kind. Though, Midoriko could admit, somehow she doubted the exterminators would find it so easy to exterminate this particular youkai. "I don't know how to use a sword," she admitted honestly.
"It will teach you how to wield it properly," came the enigmatic reply, and she found those unnerving eyes leveled on her once more in what looked to be an appraising manner.
"Teach me?" she murmured, eyes reverting back to the weapon as though expecting it to begin speaking to her "How can that be?"
"That is no ordinary sword," he warned her. "It is capable of purifying demons if wielded by the right hand. A strange gift from a youkai to a human, I grant you, but I am confident in your intentions. I am rarely wrong in my judgment of others."
"What makes you think that my hand is the right one?" she questioned, head shaking of its own accord. She had always disliked swords as weapons, which was why she had escaped training to use them in exchange for her bow. Swords tended to be bulky, heavy, and were less accurate in her mind than one of her arrows, which she could place with pinpoint accuracy.
The youkai smiled benignly at her, appearing amused, as though sharing a secret with her. "Because I had it forged for you."
"Oh," Midoriko mumbled stupidly. She frowned in consternation, half of her wanting to return the gift. Things had taken a strange enough turn over the past year without having demons popping up at her home, handing out random enchanted swords in gratitude for something she should have stayed out of in the first place. And since when did a youkai care to express gratitude to a human for anything? she wondered suspiciously, gaze traveling back up to her visitor's disconcertingly handsome face.
"You are a strange girl...ah...?" he prompted for her name and she gave it to him.
"Midoriko. You possess an ability generally held by trained mikos, yet you are not one. You have powers that you do not appear to realize, but I can tell you that they are quite evident to youkai. The day you helped my son, his desire to kill you was still strong even after he knew that you meant no harm to him. He resisted, but he could instinctively sense that you were a possible threat to him. I feel the same, though I am not as...hostile...as Sesshoumaru tends to be."
Midoriko frowned deeply then. His words were giving her a deep feeling of unease, and she did what she could to refute them. "That is ridiculous. I just happen to be good with a bow. I've practiced for years, but I'm not even one of the exterminators." Finished with this bizarre encounter, she tried to hand the sword back to him. "If you're looking for someone to use this thing properly then I would suggest you wait and speak to my brother."
"That sword will prove the things I have said," the demon replied seriously, gesturing to the weapon with one clawed finger but refusing to accept it from her extended hands. "You have a lot of unfulfilled potential, and your village will need you now that its exterminators are being targeted by vengeful youkai."
Midoriko regarded him with open suspicion, everything that she had ever been taught about youkai surfacing within her, telling her not to believe his words, not to trust him, but there was something else about this youkai, something inherent about him that seemed to argue against distrust. It was instinct versus mind, and she wasn't sure which one to heed. "If what you say is true, then why would you arm me with a weapon that can destroy your own kind?"
"The mindless youkai who attack your village are no concern of mine. They exist for the purpose of wreaking destruction. They are a nuisance. Obliterate them to your heart's content and you will hear nothing from me or the more civilized of the youkai." He stopped and looked at her seriously then, tone radiating stern admonition. "However, I will warn you; that sword is bound to eventually attract the attention of stronger youkai than what your village is accustomed to fighting. You will have to be prepared for them. Until then, protect your people, Midoriko."
She was stunned silent at his words, turning the sword over in her hands as if looking for some sign of magical ability to become glaringly obvious within the blade. Her thoughts churned fiercely inside her head, pondering his words, but he was not like any other demon she had ever encountered. He spoke of her village as though it were a child that needed to be tended to, not something that offended him for its very existence. She had always been one to trust her instincts.
His eye contact with her broke then and swerved toward the house, wind sweeping through the silence that descended. Finally, he looked toward her again, expression unreadable. "There is a very ill man inside your home," he stated what his senses told him.
She nodded hesitantly, faintly surprised by the turn in conversation. "Yes. My brother. He was poisoned during the last demon attack. It is some sort of venom we haven't encountered before, and so we're not sure how to treat it."
"I'll send what he needs," came the softly-voiced promise, and his expression lightened some as he witnessed her obvious relief.
"There are others in the village, too. Two of them. We---"
"I'll send enough," he agreed. "And now my debt is repaid, young Midoriko."
Her eyes settled on his back as he turned away, preparing to leave, but her voice stopped him almost before she realized she had spoken. "Excuse me, but I don't even know your name. You never---"
"Inutaisho," came the name, expressed as he paused in his departure to glance over his shoulder at her with faint humor. "It does surprise me that you live in this village and do not know. The naivete of youth and inexperience, I suppose. Something tells me your brother would need no introduction," he said in a tone that suggested he was teasing her.
Inutaisho, she repeated silently, feeling suddenly stupid. Dog demon. The leader of the dog demons. Was there a more renowned youkai in western Japan? She doubted it, and that only increased her feeling of foolishness.
"Ah, and Midoriko..." his voice reached her ears once more, and she glanced up at him, expectant.
"When Sesshoumaru arrives with the medicine for your brother, I must ask, though admittedly difficult it may be, for you to restrain yourself from attempting to purify him."
She blinked at the request, for such a thing had not even entered her mind. She was still not even certain she would be able to use the weapon properly. In fact, the thought of possessing it at all made her nervous. "Will it work against him?"
He smiled again, obviously amused as he answered, "Eventually, when you are stronger, perhaps. But until then, it'll just make him mad."