CHAPTER ONE

*

The shrine was overgrown with vines and weeds. Sunlight shone through holes in the roof, and rats scuttled across the floor. It had been abandoned for years, ever since the old monk who had tended it had died. Travellers had buried him, but they could not stay to take care of his shrine.

A cloaked figure appeared in the doorway. She was staggering as if she were drunk, clutching at the wall. Her ragged gasps stopped suddenly, and she collapsed to the floor in a heap.

A high wail came from inside the cloak.

*

"Did you hear that?" Kagome asked.

Miroku paused, listening to the still air. Then he shrugged, careful not to drop his armload of sticks. "Not really. What did you hear?" he asked, bending down to gather a handful of dry grass.

"I thought I heard someone crying," Kagome said, staring off into the woods.

"Could you have been hearing Shippo. If Inuyasha hit him-"

"It wasn't Shippo."

Miroku frowned. He set down his bundle of sticks. "Are you sensing the presence of a jewel shard, Kagome?"

Kagome shook her head. They had made camp in the middle of a relatively peaceful forest, about three days from Kaede's village. Inuyasha had caught three rabbits and was just waiting for Kagome and Miroku to return with firewood.

Kagome tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. If she strained, she could hear a distant high, mournful sound. It almost sounded like the wind. But there was a gasp in it that was entirely human. And the air was still. Quiet and soft. There wasn't enough wind to make any sort of noise like that.

"I can still hear it," she said, wincing. "Come on, Miroku. Let's just make sure that things are okay."

She set off into the woods. Miroku followed more slowly, with his cursed hand hanging loosely at his side. If anything unexpected happened, he would tear off the beads. He glanced at the hanging tree branches, at the cloudy skies, listening through the whisper of the wind.

Ducking under a low branch, Kagome strained to hear the crying again. It reminded her of when a stray kitten had gotten lost in the shrine. On her way out to school, she had hard the kitten's crying and had managed to find it. There was an aching, lonely quality to this cry too...

She brushed a branch out of the way, and found herself looking at a small shrine. It was run-down, to say the least. It didn't look like it was going to collapse anytime soon, but the roof was rotting and full of holes, and the door-screen was on the ground, torn apart by rats. Bugs were swarming all over the place.

"I found it," Kagome called. Miroku stumbled out behind her, and hesitated. He couldn't sense any demonic evil inside the shrine -- but that didn't mean that a human might not be inside.

She stepped carefully into the shrine, with one hand on her bow. There was a dark figure crumpled on the floor, not moving. Kagome took a deep breath, grabbed the edge of the cloak, and tore it off.

"It's a woman," she said over her shoulder. "And she's dead."

Miroku stepped inside and winced. The pallor of the woman's face showed that there was no question of her being dead. She was richly dressed, but her clothes were mudstained and torn in many places. Her long black hair was stuck to her bloodstained back, where three broken arrows were jutting.

"Perhaps we-" Miroku began to say. But a high squeal interrupted him.

Kagome knelt and peered under the woman's arm. "Miroku... I think we found out who was crying." She slipped a small bundle from under the dead woman's stiff arm and rested it against her shoulder. A flushed face peeked out at the monk.

"A baby?" Miroku said.

"Poor little guy," Kagome said, patting the baby's back. The baby nuzzled her shoulder. "His mom must have been trying to get to this shrine to hide. Maybe we can find the rest of his family..."

As Kagome shifted the baby in her arms, the blanket fell back. Her gasp drew Miroku out of his reverie. When he saw the baby's face, he moved back in shock. "But he's... that's..."

TO BE CONTINUED