CHAPTER ONE

*

Kagome felt that something was wrong, the moment she stepped out of the well. She paused with one leg still resting on the wooden framework. The sun was shining, birds were singing. But a cold knot was forming in her stomach.

That was unusual in itself. Kaede's village had once been overrun with demons, but with the shattering of the Shikon jewel, most of them had wandered away to look for the shards. Kaede and her fellow villagers were enjoying more peace than they had since the priestess Kikyo had been killed, fifty years before.

Inuyasha was the one source of mayhem. He tended to get a little hyper when she was missing. But she had never felt this sense of... sense of something just being horribly WRONG. It was kind of like the feeling she had had when the resurrected Kikyo arrived at the poison imp's cave, or when Naraku was near. But this feeling was even stronger.

She wandered onto the forest paths to Kaede's village, with her heavy backpack dragging on her shoulders. When the thick leaves rustled, she halted. But there was no flicker of white and red in the trees.

I wonder where he is, Kagome thought, frowning. Usually Inuyasha was itching for her returns from her own era. As much as he hated to admit it, she knew that he missed her when she wasn't there. He sometimes picked her up at home. And sometimes he was just hanging out in the clearing near the well, being crabby.

As time went on, she noticed something. There was a weird, sulfurous smell in the air. Kagome sucked in a breath, and coughed into her sleeve. The smell reminded her of something in the past -- something bad. It made the hair on the back of her neck prickle unpleasantly, but she couldn't remember what it made her think of.

Then it came back to her with a jolt. It was THAT smell. The same sort of smell after Naraku's poisonous vapors had dissipated...

Oh no, she thought. And I was away for almost three days!

She ran into the woods, but stopped as she saw a robed figure in the shadows under a spreading tree. Her breath caught, and for a moment she almost ran. Then the figure turned toward her, and she saw that there was no baboon mask. It was Miroku. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was leaning heavily on his staff.

"What's wrong?" Kagome asked hesitantly.

Miroku avoided her eyes. "Come with me, Kagome. I have something to tell you."

Kagome felt queasy just hearing that phrase. Nothing good ever came after it. It was a buffer before bad news, a few precious seconds to cling to before the other shoe dropped. She clutched at her backpack's straps. "What is it? What's happened?"

Miroku said nothing. Kagome had the feeling he wanted to speak to her, but was having trouble finding the words.

"Miroku," she said in a low voice. "What - what happened while I was gone?"

"I'm afraid," Miroku said quietly, "that I can't say it. Better you hear it from Sango and Kaede."

He led her along the path in silence, with his head bowed. Kagome felt sick at hearing that. What could be so awful that Miroku couldn't bring himself to tell her what it was? And if Naraku had been there...

The heavy, gnawing feeling grew worse as Kagome came through the village. Some of the roofs had been blasted off in a tangle of splinters and straw. Wounded people lay on pallets in the street, with bloodstained bandages wound around their heads and chests. One man, a bandage pressed over his eye, raised a trembling hand as the two went by. Miroku murmured a prayer for the man's well-being in an absent voice.

"I'm sorry for you, my lady," the man said in a raspy voice.

Sorry for me? Kagome thought with a shock. He just lost an eye. But he's sorry for ME?

Her hand clenched into a fist as she followed the monk. Her nails bit into her skin. When they came to Kaede's hut, Miroku sat down in the doorway and rested his face on his knees. He looked tired and miserable. But Kagome couldn't bring herself to ask what was wrong. Because whatever it was, it was too terrible for him to say. Too terrible for her to get the words out of her mouth.

She turned around as Kaede stepped out into the sunlight. The old woman looked even more aged, with dark shadows under her one eye and deeper lines on her face. "Kagome," she said quietly. "Ye must be strong when I tell ye of what has happened. Inuyasha... is dead."

TO BE CONTINUED