My first completed fanfic…
Dreams of the Dark
Sango moaned as light penetrated the back of her eyelids. Not yet. Kami-sama, not yet... the thought came unbidden to the forefront of her mind, even as her will determined that it was time for her body to be up and about. Without opening her eyes, she gradually became aware of a plaintive mewing from her lifelong companion, which was interfused with her cheek being gently nudged by a cold nose.
Becoming more aware, Sango realized that she lay on a hard, rocky surface, with a particularly jagged stone pressing firmly into the small of her back. The awkward akimbo position of her arms and legs told her that the nap had been involuntary, and that her other friends were either likewise unconscious or otherwise occupied. A flash of memory: a heavily perspiring monk leaping between the dragon and herself...Houshi-sama!
Her eyes flew open and, ignoring the vehement protestations of her abused musculature, she quickly sat upright. That proved temporarily problematic; the world spun on its axis and her vision was blotted out by spots, causing her to put a hand to her forehead and close her eyes. As the dizziness passed, she hazarded a peek.
The first thing visible was three tons of dead dragon lying but a few yards away. Scavenging birds were already cautiously approaching the massive carcass which lay with its enormous back towards her, while others circled overhead. Otherwise, nothing moved. Where is everyone? She knew they would never voluntarily leave a wounded member of their group behind, yet there was no sign....There! A slight fluttering of green caught her eye, just beyond the beast's tail. Staggering to her feet, she squinted in concentration. An intermittent breeze blew, and the green material responded. That's Kagome's skirt!
"Come on, Kirara!" Slowly weaving her way through the boulders, she managed to make it to her friend's side. Kagome was laying face-down in the gravel, but was groaning and beginning to stir just as Sango reached her. Shippo lay a few feet beyond, head still pillowed against the rock which had rendered him unconscious.
"Kagome-san! Are you all right?" Sango shook her shoulder gently.
Kagome winced and cracked open one eye. "Did anybody get the license plate of that truck?" she muttered, baffling Sango completely. Deciding that the strange words were a side-effect of battle trauma, she put an arm around the younger girl's shoulders and helped her into a sitting position before wobbling over to the quiet kitsune.
"Shippo?" She gently touched the still form. The young kit's eyes flew open at the contact, and they both jumped three feet into the air. Shippo landed on his backside, with a hand on his heaving chest, while Sango again became acutely aware of just how many muscles she'd pulled in the battle.
"Don't scare me like that!" he complained. "I thought you were the dragon, coming for a snack!"
"Not likely." chuckled Sango, relieved that the child-demon appeared relatively unharmed.
Kagome's head suddenly came up, and she glanced wildly around for their dog-eared colleague. Not seeing him in immediate evidence, she took a deep breath and bellowed, "Inuyasha!"
"I'm not deaf, ya know!" came the irritable reply from the far side of the monster.
"Excuse me for being concerned!" Anger forced the fifteen-year-old to her feet more effectively than a cattle prod. "Why don't you get over here and be helpful?"
"Because I can't.", floated back the angry reply. "This stupid beast fell on me!!!"
Sango, Kagome, and Shippo shared alarmed glances, and then limped hurriedly around to the front of the creature. Under other circumstances, the sight that met their eyes would have had them rolling on the ground in laughter. As it was, they were too concerned about the hanyou's well-being to see anything remotely funny about it.
Protruding from beneath the massive bulk of the animal's upper foreleg was Inuyasha's head. From his shoulders down, however, he was completely obscured by dead dragon, effectively pinning his arms to his sides and preventing him from getting the leverage he needed to pry the creature off.
For his part, though careful not to show it, Inuyasha breathed a sigh of relief. Thank Kami they're safe! His last sight of Kagome had been her seemingly lifeless body flying through the air courtesy of a swipe from the dragon's tail. Shippo had been caught with the same blow, but he had still been screaming until silenced by his impact on the rock. Inuyasha had been too busy trying to keep the dragon focused on him to be able to check on his 'shard-detector'. Once he finally managed to deal the death-blow, his haste to reach Kagome's side had resulted in this unexpected incarceration. It seemed like an eternity he struggled to free himself, to no avail, and he had been unacceptably near tears of frustration when his ears pricked to Kagome's voice. As the knot in his stomach unraveled, he managed to seem almost nonchalant as the girls reached him.
Kagome knelt by his side and pushed at the carrion without budging it a millimeter. Sango and Shippo quickly added their strength to the effort, with no better result. Wiping the sweat from her brow, Sango turned to the hanyou. "If we could free your arm, could you do the rest?"
"Hell, yes!" he growled.
"Stand back." Drawing her sword, Sango selected the least-armored region of the limb pinning their friend, and, with several precisely-aimed double-handed hacks, rapidly exposed his right arm to the elbow, at which point he was able to wiggle it loose.
"Iron-reaver Soul-stealer!" The remainder of the cadaver constraining him was quickly shredded, allowing Inuyasha to finally stand on his own two feet.
"Now we just need to find Houshi-sama." The matter-of-fact tone Sango achieved belied her hammering heart.
Kagome's eyes widened and she glanced nervously at the cadaver. "You don't suppose..." her voice trailed off hesitantly.
"No, I don't!" Sango was emphatic. She refused to even consider the possibility of the monk losing his third dimension, so she pointed back to where she had awakened. "I saw him over there just before I was struck down."
They party fanned out, Shippo transforming to search from the air. "I see him!!" exclaimed the fox kit, pointing to the boulders just beyond Sango's earlier resting-place. "He's over there!"
Following the bobbing youkai, they carefully picked their way across the boulder-laden landscape, to a point more than twenty yards away from the battlefield. As with Kagome, the occasional flutter of black and violet material was the only obvious movement from the supine form. Arms outstretched, shakujou several feet beyond him, a splash of crimson could be seen pooling around the matted black hair.
Sango was typically first to the fallen monk's side. He lay unmoving as she knelt and felt for his carotid pulse, relaxing only when it throbbed strong and regular beneath her fingertips. Sighing, she released the breath she had been holding unawares, and closed her eyes in a silent prayer of thanks. She then shook his shoulder gently. "Houshi-sama, wake up... Houshi-sama..." Still no movement from the comatose form. A quick survey revealed no injuries besides a sluggishly-bleeding scalp laceration; he had apparently suffered the same fate as Kagome and Shippo. Note to self: stay the heck away from the tail of a dragon when fighting them! Sango glanced up at the others in concern. "Maybe we should get him to shelter until he awakens? I'd like to warm him up."
Kagome remembered reading somewhere that it was unsafe to move an unconscious man. "No, that might hurt him. We should set up camp right here for tonight." She glanced back in the direction of their recently-defeated foe. "I think we're far enough away from the carcass that the scavengers will leave us alone."
Inuyasha growled under his breath. "I'll guarantee it!" He glanced meaningfully at Tetsusaiga.
"Thanks, Inuyasha. You're the best!" Kagome gratefully replied.
The group began to get organized for what promised to be a long evening. A fire was made, water obtained, dinner cooked and eaten in relative silence, while Sango attentively saw to their injured comrade. Concern became outright worry as he continued to lie inert.
"Sango, you should eat something." Kagome interrupted her hundredth pulse check with a bowl of ramen in an outstretched hand. "You won't do him any good if you get ill yourself."
Sango took the offering half-heartedly, and managed to choke down a few mouthfuls. Steeling her voice, she asked, "Why doesn't he awaken?" The tremulous crack at the end of the question gave her away, and she blushed in mortification.
Kagome pretended not to notice. "I wish I knew..." she replied sadly. Just then, as if knowing he was the focus of attention, a small moan escaped the monk's lips.
Sango was at his side instantly, and placed a hand on his forehead. "Houshi-sama?" she whispered hesitantly. "Houshi-sama, are you all right? Please wake up..."
For his part, Miroku felt as if he were swimming upwards through a thick miasma. His head throbbed horribly, and every muscle in his body screamed from the recent abuse. It was difficult to leave the blanket-like security of unconsciousness, but Sango's palpable fear could not be ignored, nor could her request. With great effort, he slowly forced open his eyes and turned his head toward the sound of the demon-slayer's voice. "Sango..." he managed to croak.
She grasped his hand and squeezed as if his life depended on it. "Houshi-sama, I was so worried!" Relief fairly dripped from her voice, and her unusual pronoun choice made him smile fondly. The rest of the group gathered rapidly at her words, eager to welcome their Buddhist monk back to the fold.
"Miroku! You're OK!" cried Shippo, fairly bouncing with enthusiasm.
"How do you feel, Miroku-san?" inquired Kagome solicitously.
"Water?" he asked hoarsely.
"Here you go." Kagome supported his head and brought a cup to his lips. He gulped greedily, then sighed contentedly and closed his eyes, leaning back into her support as she lowered him to the blanket.
"Welcome back, bouzu." commented Inuyasha gruffly with a flip of his head. It wouldn't do to let anyone know that he'd been concerned. "Get a good night's sleep - we'll be moving first thing in the morning."
Eyes still closed, Miroku smiled wryly. "Sure, Inuyasha. I'll be ready."
Sango, sitting quietly to the side, suddenly realized what had been bothering her. Always before, whenever the monk had been ill, he managed to grope either her or Kagome within a few seconds of regaining consciousness. This time he hadn't even tried. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, as she decided to risk her dignity and test the hypothesis that he might be more severely injured than he was letting on. Dampening a small piece of cloth, she placed it on his forehead, in the process managing to bring her breasts within two inches of his nose. He sighed in contentment and murmured "Thank you, Sango." without twitching a muscle. Sango shot a concerned glance at Kagome, who met her gaze with equal consternation. Sitting back out of danger, she asked as nonchalantly as she could manage, "Houshi-sama, are you truly well?"
The monk opened his eyes and stared straight up at the twilight sky, uncharacteristically silent. Then, in a small, almost unrecognizable voice, he replied, "No, I don't believe that I am."
Inuyasha grunted in disbelief; the lengths this guy would go to cop a feel..."I'll bet. What's wrong with you, then?"
Without turning his head, Miroku replied, "I can't see."
The niggling in Sango's gut exploded into full-scale panic. "What do you mean, Houshi?"
"I mean that I am blind." The monk fell silent, apparently lost in his own thoughts.
While Sango and Kagome stared at him in shock, Shippo was less easily convinced. The small kitsune's eyes reflected a suspicion that this was some elaborate ploy on the monk's part, and action quickly followed thought. Sneaking up to Miroku's face, he waved a hand in front of the still-staring eyes; when nothing happened, he threw a phantom punch towards the injured man's nose, stopping just before hitting it.
Miroku didn't even blink.
Inuyasha's eyebrow raised as Shippo sat with a thud. "So it's true..." he murmured.
Kagome, while grateful for the confirmation, was still angry at the kitsune. "Shippo!" she admonished. Her heart softened at his little-boy-lost look; unshed tears were welling in his eyes. He cares about the monk, like we all do. I guess he just didn't want to believe it. Kagome bundled the little one into her arms, where he still valiantly suppressed his sniffling.
"Why'd ja say you'd be ready to travel tomorrow, then?" Inuyasha reacted with typical belligerence.
Miroku closed his eyes and sighed. "I'll travel, just...not very quickly. Besides, this is likely only temporary; perhaps by the morrow I will be perfectly well." In a firmer, dismissive tone, he continued, "I'm very tired, though, and would like to get some sleep before the day actually breaks."
"Sure.", "No problem.", "Sorry, Houshi-sama." echoed rapidly in his ears, followed by the sounds of everyone moving off. Despite his own whirling thoughts, the murmuring conversation by the fire was soporific, and he was soon no longer shamming sleep.
He awoke several hours later, feeling somewhat improved. His head was only throbbing at a dull pulse, and his muscles felt as if they might actually allow movement. This was all to the best, as his bladder was sending signals that required his immediate attention. He was momentarily disconcerted by the obscurity that greeted his wide-open eyes, until he remembered. Now what? he thought. Maybe if I just pretend that it's a really dark night....
Suppressing a groan, he rolled onto his knees. Feeling the ground near his blanket, he finally located his shakujou to use as a walking-stick and pulled himself to a standing position. Tentatively he felt the ground in front of him with the shakujou and began to shuffle forward.
"Where do you think you're going?" Inuyasha's growl in his ear nearly made him jump out of his skin. That hanyou was quiet when he wanted to be!
"If you must know, I need to urinate, and I prefer not to do it on my blanket." He kept his voice low as well, hoping no one else would become aware of his problem.
"This way." With a surprisingly gentle touch, Inuyasha grasped his elbow and maneuvered him behind some nearby boulders. After he finished, the half-demon helped him back to his mat, made certain he was comfortable, then seemingly disappeared.
Is this the way it's going to be for the rest of my life? Miroku was desolate, though appreciative of the help. I guess the kazaana consuming me would be a blessing in that case. His thoughts continued along the same vein until exhaustion overcame him, and he slept.
The next morning dawned grey and chill, and travel preparations were made in relative silence as Miroku slumbered. The group lingered over a breakfast of ramen as they discussed their next move.
"We should go to Kaede. She'll know what to do." Shippo had an unshakable belief in the miko's powers.
Kagome tried to caution him. "I don't know that she'll be able to help; even in my day traumatic blindness either gets better on its own or not at all. Even when it does improve, it's not always perfect."
"Do you have a better idea?" despite his tone, Kagome got the feeling that Inuyasha was truly curious.
She replied thoughtfully, "No, I don't. Even if there's nothing she can do, Miroku can rest there with Kaede caring for him while we continue to look for more jewel shards."
"Sounds like a plan to me." Inuyasha was satisfied that their main mission wouldn't be too long postponed.
"Would anyone care to hear my opinion?" Kagome started at the voice immediately behind them. How did he move so quietly when he can't see? she thought wildly.
"Miroku-san!" she exclaimed. "I didn't hear you get up. Would you like some breakfast?"
"Thank you, no." he replied coldly. "Nor do I need a 'caretaker' for my condition. I will either improve or I will learn to manage on my own; either way, I will find and defeat Naraku!" He appeared as angry as they had ever seen him.
"Please, Houshi-sama. We meant no ill-will. If your blindness is going to improve, then it makes no sense to become more severely injured in the meantime." Sango's words penetrated his fury as no other could. "Please sit, and have some ramen...."
Taking a deep breath, he visibly calmed. Feeling his way toward her with his Shakujou, he was soon seated and eating as well. No one commented on his visibly decreased appetite, for fear of further insulting their friend.
Miroku himself finally broke the silence. "After careful consideration, I accede to the wisdom of your words. Perhaps Kaede has knowledge that your time has forgotten, Kagome." He didn't add that it would also give him a relatively secure locale from which to learn to deal with his disability should it become permanent.
Kagome began considering logistics. "If Miroku, Shippo, and Sango travel with Kirara, and I with Inuyasha, I think we can make it in three or four days."
"Then let us get started." Miroku set aside the tea Sango had handed him and began to rise.
"Sit and finish, Houshi-sama." Sango pleaded. "You'll need your strength for the journey, and to heal."
Miroku nodded in quiet compliance, then appeared to resume his unwanted meal. Camp was quickly broken, and Sango brought Kirara to the now-dead campfire. Inuyasha helped the monk mount up behind the taijiya, which he managed with his usual grace. Carefully locking his Shakujou in front of Sango's waist, he waited for her usual admonition against misbehavior.
He was not disappointed. Sango had already realized that the more normally they acted, the more comfortable the monk became. "Houshi, please don't consider your lack of sight an excuse for wandering hands! If you think your head hurts now..." the warning tone of her voice completed the threat.
Damn, I hadn't thought of that! Miroku mentally slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand, then grinned. Still, no reason he couldn't use it later...
They had gotten a slow start, but it was still late afternoon when Miroku suddenly sagged against Sango's back. Despite some forced banter early in the trip, he had soon fallen uncharacteristically silent, leaving Shippo and Sango to do most of the talking. The taijiya had noticed the slow increase of weight against her back for some time now, but this sudden relaxation boded ill. Shippo barely caught the Shakujou before it plummeted to the forest below, while Sango steadied the monk himself.
"Inuyasha!" she cried to the oblivious red streak. "We need to find someplace to rest! Something's wrong with Houshi-sama!"
Inuyasha and Kagome looked upwards simultaneously, to see the black-robed form leaning forward, eyes closed, arms dangling at his sides. Shippo pointed toward their left, his sharp eyes having noted a darker shadow against the green backdrop. "I think I see a building!" he cried. "Over there!"
Inuyasha nodded, and picked up speed without comment. Kagome, on his back, simply held on for dear life and hoped Miroku hadn't taken a turn for the worse.
The abandoned structure stood surrounded by decaying trees, as if its own desolation had permeated its environs to such a degree that nothing verdant could survive. The once-protective wall was extant only as scattered piles of rubble, while its gate-stones stood at reckless angles, the lentil long-ago demolished to dust. The building itself contained numerous sizable holes in the walls which belied the presence of any caretakers for at least several decades. Still, the roof was mostly intact, and there seemed to be internal rooms that promised some shelter. Kirara lit gently in the deserted courtyard just as the hanyou and his cargo arrived, clearing the strewn boulders at the entrance in a single bound. Kagome was off his back before he had completely skidded to a stop, and they both ran to help Sango lower the monk from Kirara's back. As his sandals touched the earth, the previously slack-faced young man raised his head, sightless eyes slitted in pain.
"Inuyasha?" the low, hesitant voice was disconcerting to the half-demon. He didn't think about it much, but sometime during their travels together he had come to rely on the monk's stalwart back-up, often against impossible odds. To see him so helpless was...uncomfortable.
"Yeah?" was all he could manage, but it was enough. He swung Miroku's left arm over his shoulders and started into the ruins, in search of shelter for the night.
Kagome, Sango, and the others hurried on ahead, seeking a small, defensible room where the gang could bed down. Inuyasha followed more slowly, Miroku leaning heavily on him for support.
"We're coming to a few more stairs. Think you can make it?"
Panting, Miroku could only manage a nod. Sweat beaded his forehead as if he had only just finished a battle, and his muscles trembled from exertion. Noting all this, Inuyasha slowed their pace even further.
"OK, now up....and again...one more....There, we made it."
Sango appeared from around the corner. "We've found a good spot. This way." Spying the tension on Miroku's face, she went to the side opposite Inuyasha. "Houshi-sama, as long as your other hand is safely occupied, why don't you give me this one?" So saying, she took his cursed hand and gently wrapped it over her shoulders, then matched her pace to match theirs.
Under other circumstances, the hormonally-challenged young man might have tried to take advantage of the situation; as it stood now, he was merely grateful for the extra support. "Thank you, Sango-san." he murmured.
After what seemed an eternity, they managed to reach their destination, where Kagome already had a small fire going and was boiling water. Miroku thankfully leaned his back against a cool stone wall, then slid down until he was seated at its base. He closed his eyes and concentrated on taking slow, even breaths.
"Here's your Shakujou" quietly offered a wide-eyed Shippo, placing it in the monk's left hand.
"Thank you, Shippo-chan" The corner of Miroku's mouth turned up slightly. "I feel incomplete without it."
"You're welcome!" Shippo visibly brightened at the thought that he had helped in his way. He turned back towards the fire with a grin.
Breathe in.....breathe out....in......out.....Buddha, why am I so exhausted?...In....out....in....After all, I've not done anything today but ride on Kirara.....out....Everything hurts, as well...in....but pain is just an illusion of our physical bodies.....out.....just breathe.....
His pseudo-meditation was interrupted by the gentle voice of the taijiya, "I have brought you some food, Houshi-sama."
He opened his eyes before he remembered that it made no difference. "Thank you, Sango." He took the bowl she placed in his hands, but made no effort to actually eat. Sango studied him for some time; she was quite concerned, and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. He started slightly, as if he had forgotten that she was there.
"It will be all right, Houshi. Kaede-sama will help you to see again."
Miroku dredged up a smile for her. "I'm certain she will, Sango. However, until then, I am a handicap to this team. I endanger your lives and allow Naraku more time to acquire Shikon shards unopposed!"
"Houshi-sama." Sango had no idea what to say. Her strongest urge was to gather the distraught man in her arms, hold him to her chest, and rock him to sleep like a little boy. However, it was impossible. There was no way she could do that without seriously endangering her modesty, given the monk's known lecherous nature. Still, at a loss for words, she settled for silently sitting, side by side, radiating support. She could feel the tension gradually drain from his back, until he finally leaned over and rested his head on her shoulder. Her eyes widened, both at the unaccustomed contact, but also on the realization that Miroku's hands, both of them, had behaved themselves admirably all day, and were at that moment sitting clasped in his lap. She smiled gently and rested her cheek on the top of his head, allowing her eyes to slide shut after a few minutes.
Kagome watched the silent tableau for a few minutes before turning to Inuyasha and Shippo, both of whom were consuming dinner at an astonishing speed. After Shippo had finished and crawled off to bed, Kagome finally spoke. "Inuyasha." she whispered, trying not to awaken their friends, "Do you think Miroku-sama will be OK?"
Inuyasha looked up consideringly. While still chewing, he replied, "I don't know. I think it's more than the blindness, but I'm not sure."
Kagome pursed her lips, but declined to reprimand him for speaking with his mouth full. In this time, you were lucky to fill your mouth; all other considerations were secondary. As for that...she retrieved Miroku's uneaten dinner from where he had set it aside, and proffered it to the hanyou. No need to let good food go to waste. He only momentarily looked at her in surprise, before taking the bowl and practically inhaling it. Shippo and Kirara had curled together on a blanket and were already fast asleep. Kagome rose again, picked up Sango's coverlet, and gently draped it over both her and Miroku. Turning back to Inuyasha, she stretched, yawned, and stated, "Well, tomorrow's going to be a long day. I think I'll turn in."
Inuyasha didn't even look up from his bowl, as he continued to inhale astounding quantities of foodstuffs. "Sure." he mumbled around a mouthful of rice. "Whatever." he waved her off toward the sleeping kitsune. "I'll be up for a while."
Keeping watch she mentally finished the sentence for him. As always. She could remember innumerable instances of waking in the night, only to see his amber eyes glowing in the darkness as he guarded their group. She'd have thought that youkai didn't need as much sleep as humans except Kirara slept as much as Sango, and Shippo seemed to sleep all the time! She mentally shrugged; whatever the reason, it made her feel secure and warm deep inside. Laying next to Shippo, she was asleep in moments.
Around midnight a wind swept through the structure, whistling in the eaves and rustling the clothing of the sleepers. Inuyasha was on his feet in an instant, Tetsusaiga in hand, ready for anything. Kagome opened sleep-shrouded eyes, then sat up on an elbow. "What is it, Inuyasha?"
"Can't you feel it?" Miroku had struggled to his feet, and now held his shakujou at the ready in both hands, back to the wall.
Kagome shuddered, rousing. She realized that it was the pervasive feeling of dread that had actually awakened her, not the wind.
"Something's coming." muttered Inuyasha under his breath, heading for the doorway to the large hall just outside in an attempt to intercept it.
As quickly as that, it was there. Multi-tentacled, it stood about 12 feet high and had three eyes in a triangle in the center of its face. Octopus-like, its bulbous head sat on a massive pile of fluid limbs which were capable of movement in any direction. Its color flowed and shifted to a degree where one was unsure if it was violet or orange. The massive undulating limbs glinted with metallic scales, causing what little moonlight there was present to fractionate and scatter about the hall, giving it a surreal quality, and it moved at a speed that belied its size. Unfortunately, it was moving directly towards their shelter. Tetsusaiga flamed to life as the hanyou rushed to greet it.
Kagome and Sango were quick to follow, protecting the doorway itself. Kagome notched an arrow as the taijiya hefted her Hiraikotsu. Miroku, refusing to stand aside while his friends fought, kept his right hand on the wall and shuffled around until he could feel the entranceway. He stood unnoticed behind the two girls, unsure of how he could be of best use, but ready to try.
Inuyasha called out, "Who are you and what do you want?" Tetsusaiga he held directly in front of himself, ready to attack at a moment's notice.
The creature didn't reply; in fact, it made no sound other than a faint burbling noise from its movement. However, it didn't slow down, either.
"All right, you were warned! Tetsusaiga!" The sword leapt forward, biting into the nearest tentacle. But instead of bleeding, oozing, or wincing away in pain, it continued its forward progression as if nothing had happened. In fact, it seemed to flow over and through the demon sword as if it were made of liquid. Inuyasha was momentarily stunned as the beast appeared oblivious to his attack.
Kagome gasped, and reflexively loosed an arrow. Streaking with a fiery brilliance, gathering momentum as it flew, it struck squarely in the center of the bulbous head.
That got a reaction. An enormous maw appeared just below the injury, briefly exposing them to the sight of pointed, rotting teeth dripping slime, as the creature bellowed in pain. Its forward progress slowed only momentarily, however, and it soon resumed its purposeful approach.
"Hiraikotsu!" cried Sango, hurling her weapon. It had no more effect than had Tetsusaiga. As she caught it, she ordered, "Everyone out of there! Shippo, you guide Miroku!" The last thing they needed was to be trapped in a room with only one exit. It was great for defense when your defenses worked, but a death-trap if they did not. Clearly, theirs did not.
Miroku managed to stay against the wall and move off toward the right, with Shippo firmly holding one hand. "Shippo, what does it look like?" he asked, as Kagome released another arrow. This time it struck the uppermost eye, and the demon writhed and screamed.
"That must've hurt!" yelled Kagome, notching another. "Aim for the eyes, everyone!"
"Excuse me, Houshi-sama, but could I have some ofuda?" Sango asked breathlessly, as Shippo described the beast to him. "Thanks!" she cried, taking the papers he had produced from hidden pockets within his robe and applying them quickly to her bone boomerang.
Miroku's brow crinkled in concentration. "That sounds familiar..." he muttered. Another ear-splitting scream emanated from the beast, as Sango's weapon now became effective. Only Inuyasha seemed to have no ability to injure it as of yet.
"Iron-reaver, soul-stealer!" Giving up on his sword for the time being, the half-demon resorted to his claws. The flesh of their adversary merely flowed around the potential slashes, melding together seamlessly as the claws passed through. Inuyasha was getting frustrated.
"I think only magic can hurt it!" cried Kagome, loosing another shaft.
"Good magic!" added Sango, as her blessing-covered Hiraikotsu found its mark again.
Kagome suddenly looked confused. "Hey, where's it going?" The creature had changed course in a purposeful manner, not so much to avoid their weapons, but seemingly going toward something...something moving.
"Houshi-sama!" cried Sango, running to intercede between the beast and its apparent prey.
"Ai-ai-eee!!!" cried Shippo, as the apparition loomed closer. To the young kitsune's credit, though, he stood stalwartly by the monk's side, despite his obvious terror.
"What is it Shippo? What's happening?!" Despite his blindness, Miroku could tell that the battle was moving inexplicably in their direction, and that Sango at least believed that he was in danger.
The kitsune could only stammer, "It...it's coming..."
"Get out of here, Shippo!" Miroku grasped the hand holding his and used it to toss the youngster as far away in the opposite direction as he felt he safely could. Turning back towards the melee, he made certain his back was to the wall and his shakujou was held in front of his chest. Being unable to aim defensive blows, he did the only thing he could think of; he threw up a shield spell.
Sango had not quite reached the creature before it hit the pale blue glow of the monk's protective ward and recoiled in agony. She began to strike repeatedly from close range with her ofuda-covered Hiraikotsu as Kagome continued to rain arrows upon it.
"Yes!" Kagome exulted as a second eye was struck.
"Good job, Kagome!" cheered Shippo from the sidelines, as the creature screamed in anger and pain.
Inuyasha was beside himself. Here he was, the best fighter they had, and he was being completely ignored! There had to be something he could do to make his sword work! His eyes narrowed as he studied Sango's weapon in flight; maybe one of those spells would help Tetsusaiga.
Instantly, he was at Miroku's side. "Hey bouzu, let me have one of those papers!" Miroku startled, not hearing him approach, and the shield faltered for a moment. Unfortunately, the creature sensed the opportunity, and lunged forward.
In a heartbeat, Inuyasha had the monk over his shoulder and had leapt away. The shakujou clattered noisily to the tile just as the demon's bulk struck the spot where they had been standing only moments before.
It was as if the gates of hell had opened, releasing the screams of the tormented souls. Everyone clapped their hands to their ears reflexively; Kagome cracked open an eye, realizing that the demon was at a disadvantage. Pointedly ignoring the cacophony, she drew back her bow and let fly. Sango, picking up the cue, did likewise.
The weapons struck almost simultaneously, with spectacular results. The monstrosity literally exploded into thousands of tiny shards, which turned to dust as they sped away from the center of the cataclysm. All that remained was a slightly-singed shakujou smoking quietly on the floor.
"Wow." the kitsune's mouth hung open in amazement.
"What was that thing, anyway?" asked Kagome of no one in particular.
"I've never seen anything like it." Sango knelt in the ash and retrieved Miroku's weapon.
"Inuyasha..." the monk began warningly. The half-demon had apparently forgotten the young man still slung over his shoulder.
"Feh." Surprisingly, rather than dropping him unceremoniously on the ground, he actually set Miroku back on his feet. Even Miroku looked astounded, but had the wisdom not to comment on his good fortune.
"Here you go, Houshi-sama" breathed Sango as she placed his shakujou in his hand. "This was clearly what destroyed the monster."
He nodded contemplatively as she guided him back towards their shelter, the others trailing behind. "Sango, I know you said that we were camped in a bunch of ruins, but is there any possibility that this was once a temple?"
Sango gasped and looked quickly around at their surroundings. The layout of the chambers suddenly took on new meaning. "Yes, Houshi-sama, I think it must have been! How stupid of me not to have seen it before!"
By now they had reached their sleeping-quarters and had begun to settle down. The fire, just dying embers, was fanned back to flames and some smaller logs added.
"Do you know what that was, Miroku-san?" asked Kagome
"I think I do." he sat cross-legged near the fire, his eyes closed. "There is a legend about a group of monks who began to dabble in the black arts, increasing the prosperity of their temple and that of the lands surrounding it. However, time passed and they grew ever more skilled, but more greedy. One day, in their pride and avarice, they summoned a beast from the depth of Hades that their enchantments could not contain. It scattered through them as if they were paper, wiping out the entire sect and bringing desolation to the lands outside. However, not only could it not find its way back to whence it came, it also seemed to be trapped on the temple grounds. In its rage it destroyed the temple, and in its subsequent boredom it killed anyone who dared stray onto the property. Assuming that this is the temple in question, I suspect I would have provided the most attractive target, explaining why it seemed to focus its attack on me."
"The next village we come to, we ought to mention that the monster is gone, so that they can re-establish the monastery." Kagome was ever practical.
"I'm not certain that they could ever eradicate the evil of this place, but at least they have the option to try." Miroku yawned mightily. "Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll get a few more minutes sleep before we head out for the day." So saying, he curled up near the fire, wrapping his kesa tightly around himself, and was soon softly snoring.
Sango drew up her knees and rested her chin on them as she stared at the recumbent form. Kagome nudged her gently. "He'll be all right, you'll see. Even if he never recovers his sight, he'll manage."
Sango just nodded mutely, unable to squeeze words past the lump in her throat.
The next morning Miroku awoke before anyone and instinctively opened his eyes. To his elation, light was visible. Not much, admittedly, but enough to discern faint shadows where the walls and doorway were, as well as the smoldering embers of the night's fire. Vague, shadowy forms lying about the room were obviously his traveling companions; not that he could tell who was who, but at least he wouldn't trip over them on his way to perform morning absolutions. A grin spread ear to ear; who'd have thought that seeing a red and white splash of color would be so gratifying!
As he rose and wrapped his kesa about himself, Inuyasha was instantly alert. He didn't move until Miroku began heading for the door, at which point he was suddenly at his side. "Hey, bouzu, where do ya think you're going?"
Miroku straightened and stared in the direction of the white lump that he felt certain was Inuyasha's head. "Haven't we had this conversation before?" he asked. "Same place as last time, only now..." he paused for effect, "I think I can manage on my own."
The dog-demon's eyebrows raised. "So, your sight back?"
"Just a little." admitted Miroku. "But at least that's better than yesterday! Mostly I just see fuzzy shapes and shadows..."
"Then at least let me make sure you don't fall down and break your fool neck, or I'll never hear the end of it!"
Miroku saw the sense in that, and allowed Inuyasha to escort him outside. A good thing in retrospect, as he did trip several times, and was saved once from tumbling down a flight of stairs by the steadying hand on his elbow. By the time they returned to the sleeping alcove, it felt as if he had run thirty miles. They were greeted to the smell of fresh stew wafting through the door before they entered; the small cook-fire in the center of the room appeared as a somewhat brighter patch in the shadowy murk that surrounded him, so he moved gingerly towards it.
"Miroku-sama!" chirped Kagome. "How are you feeling today?"
"Better." he groaned, sitting heavily. "I think you are right about my sight returning; I can make out a little light and a few shapes this morning."
"That's wonderful, Houshi-sama!" Sango settled next to him and handed him a bowl of the soup. Placing a finger next to her chin, she continued, "Still, I'd feel better if Kaede examined you..."
Kagome nodded emphatically, and for once, Inuyasha didn't argue.
Miroku, embarrassed by their concern, stared in the general direction of the bowl in his hands, managing to get a good whiff of the savory contents in the process. Until that moment he had not realized how hungry he was. Ignoring his normal table-manners, he raised the bowl to his lips and drank it as quickly as its temperature would allow. Sango lowered her eyes, smiling. It was good to see his appetite returning after a day-and-a-half of not eating. He finished without comment as the usual morning small-talk continued around him. His stomach began to radiate heat and comfort to the rest of his body, and he sighed contentedly.
"What do you think, Miroku-sama?" asked Kagome.
The monk blinked in surprise. He had been completely oblivious to the ongoing conversation. Gathering his wits quickly, he solemnly stared at the shadow he felt most likely hers. "I apologize, Kagome-san; what was the question?"
"Oi, bouzu, pay attention!" Inuyasha didn't quite manage to sound disgusted; he was pleased that the monk was improving as well.
"I was wondering whether we should try to make it over Mount Fugishi today, or should we plan to stop near its base?"
"Why don't we see how we feel when we get there?" he suggested.
Cleanup was rapid, and they were soon on their way. Miroku had quite a bit more energy, and even managed to grope Sango after they were on Kirara and in flight. Sango, worried about potentially exacerbating his injuries, restrained herself to giving him a verbal dressing-down rather than actually striking him, which he mentally noted for future reference.
Still, traveling managed to rapidly sap his reserves, and he was grateful that evening when they spotted the small village at the base of the mountain. Alighting softly just as the running hanyou appeared from the forest, Kirara transformed to her smaller form and jumped onto Sango's shoulder.
"Do you suppose they have an inn here?" Kagome peered uncertainly at the small cluster of domiciles.
"Feh. I doubt it." Inuyasha crossed his arms.
Miroku, who had been leaning heavily on his shakujou, straightened. "If you will direct me to the landowner's home, perhaps...."
"You can't see your own hand in front of your face, much less a hovering 'black cloud'!" snarled Inuyasha, who had never cared much for the deception.
Kagome pointed towards the nearest cottage, which appeared small, but well-kept. "Why don't we ask there?" Without waiting for comment, and before she could lose her nerve, she strode up and knocked purposefully on the doorframe.
The fabric covering the door pulled aside and a friendly elderly woman peered nearsightedly up at her. "May I help you?"
"Yes, please, ma'am." Kagome was at her most polite. "I'm traveling with my friends and we won't be able to cross the mountain before dark. Is there somewhere in town that might take us in for the night?"
The woman squinted doubtfully at the group. "Is that a houshi?" she asked, catching sight of Miroku.
"Yes ma'am, and he's been injured. We're trying to get back to our village and a healer that might be able to help him."
The grandmother broke into a smile. "I know the perfect place for you to stay. Lord Morou's household has been plagued with a troubled spirit for some time now; I'm certain that he would happily provide room and board for any help the monk could give." So saying, she snatched a cane from beside the doorway and hobbled out to the path. "Follow me, please."
Kagome gestured to the group, and they straggled along behind their willing guide towards the far edge of town.
Lord Morou's home was large, but not ostentatious. While the travelers waited in the courtyard, the elderly woman went to introduce the group and present their request to the master of the house, who, it turned out, was more than happy to offer his hospitality.
They were escorted first to their sleeping quarters, where they could clean up, then to the main hall for dinner. There, they were presented to Lord Morou.
"It is my pleasure to welcome you into my home." The man appeared to be in his mid-fifties, and fit for his age. His neatly-combed hair was graying at the temples, and his kindly, lined face reflected no malice or suspicion. "Please, sit and partake of what small pleasures we can offer in my modest dwelling." While gesturing to them all, he appeared to be addressing Miroku specifically, presuming the holy man to be in charge of the vagabonds.
"You honor us with your generosity." Miroku masked his exhaustion with a veneer of civility that would make a royal courtier jealous.
"Not completely." chuckled the gentleman. Kagome instantly liked him. "To be honest, I am hoping that you will be able to aid me, as well."
Miroku assumed his most 'serene but attentive' look as servants began placing an astounding variety of foodstuffs before the assemblage. "I would be honored to provide whatever humble service I am able." He bowed his head respectfully.
Their host was clearly pleased with his manners, Kagome noted. Glancing around the table, she hoped that Shippo and Inuyasha behaved themselves half as well. Beyond shoveling food into their faces almost as fast as it was presented, they didn't seem particularly inclined to cause trouble. Her attention returned to Lord Morou, as he began his tale.
"A number of years ago, when I was but a young man, a beautiful woman named Ganeia was among the servants of my father's household. She was primarily employed in the kitchen, and for serving meals, but everyone knew that it was only a matter of time until some handsome young man came along and made her his bride."
"The woman in charge of the female servants, Yanta, was strict, and tended to mete out punishment far beyond what was necessary for a given transgression. She was particularly fond of having a woman given bamboo cane lashes on her bare back, in full view of all the male members of the household." Miroku frowned at this, and Sango gasped and raised a hand to her mouth in shock. How would one stand the shame?
Their host had the good grace to look somewhat embarrassed. "Please understand, I was young, and knew no other way. Her opinion was that it set an example for the others, and thus promoted the smooth running of the household. The servant, though, often never overcame the disgrace." He cleared his throat, and continued. "Ganeia was not only beautiful, but carried out her responsibilities to an exemplary degree. Yanta was quite pleased with the girl's work, and often held her up as an example of good behavior. To her credit, Ganeia was never prideful, but many of the other girls resented her anyway."
"One young lady in particular was consumed by jealousy. Ranna was about the same age, and lovely in her own right, but even at fifteen her face was twisting from her ugly thoughts. The more Ganeia was praised, the more Ranna hated her. Unfortunately for Ganeia, her comeliness predictably caught the eye of a young, handsome farmer who, while not rich, would certainly provide a comfortable, secure home for a wife and family. The courtship continued apace, and it became clear that Ganeia's father approved of her suitor's prospects and would likely give permission for the union."
"Ranna was beside herself. She had been enamored of that very young man for a number of years, but he had perceived her flawed character, and would have nothing to do with her. 'If I can't have him, she certainly shall not!' decided the envious witch. That very night, she apparently slipped into the kitchen and removed one of my father's six prized ceramic plates. The next day, when Ganeia went to serve breakfast, she discovered the theft. She counted over and over, but kept finding only five. As she was responsible for that region of the kitchen, Yanta decreed that Ganeia was to be punished the next morning by public flogging. Rather than face the humiliation, she threw herself into the well that night and drowned. The plate and the culprit were discovered not too long thereafter, but the damage was done."
"Ever since, on a nightly basis, Ganeia's unquiet spirit appears near the well, wailing and counting invisible plates. She reaches five, then breaks into clamorous lamentation. This repeats over and over, until she fades away, awaiting the next night."
The group had been spellbound by the tale, and were silent for a moment following its conclusion. Miroku finally spoke, "That is one of the saddest accounts I have ever heard. We are obliged to help her soul find its rest. May I ask, sir, what measures have been taken so far?"
The Lord sighed. "We brought her body from the well, and buried it on sacred ground. We have made a small shrine over her grave, and offerings and prayers for her spirit are still given on a daily basis." He paused a moment, then looked to the houshi. "We have had a number of holy men here in the past, and have even sent for a few; they have blessed the well, applied ofuda, resealed the grave, and even tried speaking to the apparition, all to no avail. I will not hold it against you if you are no more successful; even without our 'problem', a man such as yourself shall always find an open door here."
Miroku bowed in respect. "It is seldom that a wanderer receives such hospitality. Many blessings on you and your household."
Kagome stared at him, wide-eyed. This was how she had imagined a monk behaving! It suddenly dawned on her that, despite his baser behavior, Miroku had to be extremely well-educated for his day, and had been through quite rigorous training to be allowed to wear the robes that were so much a part of him. Perhaps Mushin had been a bad influence, but there had been no one else...
Their meal completed, Miroku rose and addressed the master of the house again. "If you would be so kind as to have someone escort me to this well?"
"Certainly, holy one." He gestured to one of the servers. "Solon will show you the way."
The monk turned an unfocussed gaze towards Inuyasha, "As this is an exorcism, you, Shippo, and Kirara might find it physically uncomfortable. It would be best if you stay here."
"I shall accompany you, Houshi-sama." Sango spoke in a voice that brooked no argument. Miroku merely nodded assent, and the pair followed the manservant in silence. Sango placed a guiding hand on his elbow as Inuyasha had earlier, and kept up a low, running commentary in regards to steps, rails, inclines, and any other hazards to ambulation. The sun had set much earlier, and Miroku found himself once again completely blind in the poor light. Fortunately, they were soon at the well, where the servant bowed and hurriedly excused himself.
The well itself was sturdy and cared for. Several small offerings of wildflowers lay to one side, leaning against the solid wooden wall. Multiple ofuda of varying ages were visible on all four sides, and a rosary was draped from a small hook above the flowers. Sango described this to the young monk as he seated himself cross-legged on the grass in front.
"It sounds as if all normal methods for release have failed. Allow me to contemplate the situation as we await the spirit's arrival." He closed essentially sightless eyes and fell silent.
Sango sat near him, making no further sound. The fate of the young woman pulled at her heart; she fervently hoped that Miroku would be able to help her pass onto the next life.
They did not have long to wait. Less than thirty minutes had elapsed before a wailing arose from deep within the well and rapidly ascended.
Sango, following Miroku's lead, stood and faced the well. Presently, the ghostly form of a young, beautiful woman appeared, wringing her hands. Raising the right one and pointing at an invisible cabinet, she began, "One....two...three..."
"Ganeia, we are here to help you." Miroku addressed the air in front of him. "You were innocent, and all blame has fallen from your shoulders..."
The counting continued, unheeding of his words. "Five....aaieeeeeeeee!!!!!" The screech was near-deafening, and Sango covered her ears to blunt it. Miroku held his position with effort, trying to appease the spirit. No wonder they want to be rid of her! How could anyone ever sleep?
"Ganeia, prayers are sent daily for your safe passage to the other side."
"You are an innocent! You were unjustly accused!"
"Depart to your well-deserved reward!"
"Five....AIEEEEEEEE!!!" If anything, the second scream was even louder than the first, and Miroku winced in pain. This was getting nowhere, and had almost certainly been done by other priests in the past. Think, Miroku, think! You're missing something!
"The plate was found; it had been stolen by Ranna to disgrace you. It is no longer missing."
The young monk's eyes widened in sudden enlightenment as his last words echoed in his brain. Surely it can't be that easy!....
Sango covered her ears again in anticipation, but, in the short pause before the wailing commenced, Miroku suddenly shouted, "Six!"
Dead, startled eyes turned towards the monk, apparently noticing him for the first time. Her form coalesced into a slightly more solid substance, causing Sango to gasp; she had been truly very beautiful. The ghost bowed deeply, almost touching her forehead to the ground, "Thank you, kind sir, for finding my master's plate and restoring my honor." As she stood again, she became more and more insubstantial, until she vanished altogether.
Miroku, who had been strung tight as Kagome's bowstring, sagged with relief. Sango quickly moved to support him and keep him from falling; beads of sweat stood out on his face, but his smile was one of relief. "Has she gone on?" he asked the demon-huntress.
"Yes." she replied succinctly. "She appeared....content."
The lack of noise roused the locals as no amount of ghostly gnashing of teeth could, and the couple soon found themselves surrounded by grateful villagers. As Sango and Miroku made their way through the crowd, they were presently greeted by Lord Morou himself. "Thank you for your help this night, oh holy one. Thank you for helping a good woman find peace."
Miroku was almost dead on his feet, but managed to hold together with Sango's support. "It was my honor, sir. Please continue your prayers for her soul, that it may ultimately achieve its long-awaited reward."
The lord smiled. "It will be as you say." With a gesture, the crowd parted, and the monk and his escort made their way slowly back inside the house.
Sango managed to find their sleeping quarters with little difficulty; fortunately the walk was a short one, for Miroku's energy seemed to have fled with the ghost. By the time they reached the others, she was practically carrying him.
Kagome opened the door, saw Miroku's state, then rapidly got her shoulders under his other arm to help maneuver him to a futon. He no sooner lay down than he was fast asleep. Shippo brought over a blanket and covered the exhausted man.
"So, how'd it go?" Kagome could barely contain her curiosity.
"He did it." Sango couldn't have been prouder. "Ganeia is at peace."
"That bouzu? How'd he manage it?" Inuyasha was disbelieving.
Sango took umbrage at the tone of voice. "I'll let houshi-sama fill in the details." she replied, drawing herself up stiffly. "I'm sure the nuances are too complicated for a mere layperson like myself."
Kagome smiled affectionately, then moved over to where Shippo still stood, contemplating the monk. The small kitsune looked up at her in wonder. "He really is a priest, isn't he?" Somehow the thought had never occurred to him.
She scooped him up and gave him a hug. "Yes, Shippo, he really is."
The remainder of the night passed uneventfully, and the group slept. They were awakened the next morning by a polite tapping at their door. Pulling her yukata tighter, Sango rose and slid open the screen. Before her stood three serving girls with trays overflowing with food. The eldest spoke. "Our Master bids you good morning, and asks that you partake of these small offerings, if they please your honored selves."
Somewhat overwhelmed, Sango stuttered, "Yes, thank you." as she stood aside and let them enter. Inuyasha's eyes lit up at the sight of all the delicacies, and it was all Kagome could do to control him until the girls had deposited their trays and bowed themselves out of the room. Once they were gone, however, he and Shippo began eating as if they hadn't seen food in days, despite the impromptu banquet of the evening before.
Shaking herself out of her fascinated stare, Kagome chuckled. "Sango, you'd better eat. I'll go wake Miroku-sama before everything vanishes!" So saying, she went to the corner where the monk still slumbered.
He looks so peaceful when he's asleep! Kagome paused. It almost seemed a shame to wake him, but the two youkai vacuum-cleaners would make short work of breakfast, and he needed to keep his energy up. She gently shook his shoulder.
Miroku gradually became aware of someone trying to get his attention. Slowly opening his eyes, he was pleasantly surprised by the blurry, but identifiable, face of Kagome peering into his own. Smiling, he said, "Kagome-san! How pleasant to see you!"
Kagome squealed with delight. "You can see me?"
"Well, you are quite blurry around the edges, but yes, you are certainly Kagome-sama."
Within moments, even Shippo had forgotten about their breakfast and was crowding around the monk, insisting on being identified. As he correctly named them one by one, his smile grew wider and wider, until it looked like it would split his face in two. "At this rate, I should be back to normal in a couple of days."
"That's great, Houshi-sama!" Sango was ecstatic, but practical. "Now, come eat so you can keep up your strength." So saying, she grabbed his hand and led him unresisting to their morning repast. She seated him next to her, then leaned forward into the melee of Inuyasha's and Shippo's resumed feeding frenzy to extricate some breakfast for the monk. Miroku's impossible smile got, if anything, even larger as he took this golden opportunity to fondle her shapely backside.
Sango's eyes flew open in shock, then clenched tightly shut, along with her fists. Whirling suddenly, she faced a grinning monk who clearly expected her to slap him into tomorrow. With incredible self-control, she managed to restrain herself. "Houshi-sama, I don't want to worsen your injuries, but if you do not remove your hand this instant, I will remove it for you!"
Miroku snatched his hand away and shrugged his shoulders in a 'Who me?' fashion as he tried to look as innocent as possible. Everyone else froze, watching the scene play out.
They sat immobile for a seeming eternity until Kagome couldn't take it anymore, and literally began laughing so hard that she started rolling on the ground in her mirth. Inuyasha, at first dumbfounded, couldn't help but join in, and Shippo's pealing laughter soon accompanied them. Presently even Miroku and Sango found themselves giggling, and for the first time since their fight with the dragon, all seemed right with the world.