A/N: Sorry this chapter's so short, the next ones are longer, promise! Special thanks to Wenchster and Pointy Objects for reminding me folks are still reading this little tale =).
- CHAPTER SIXTEEN – DUNGEON -
Ayame crouched in the foothills of the Ouja mountain range, flanked by Kouga and Hakkaku. Their four-legged brothers had stayed behind in the forest to watch Shoka's cub, and keep an eye on the lookouts above them. Ayame and Hakkaku had cautioned their leader about journeying forth in broad daylight, but he had been determined, baring teeth and growling for their silence.
The trio crept forward cautiously, ears alert and eyes searching. Ayame led the way, her shoulders bare. She had abandoned her white cloak, knowing it would be easily spotted by the guards on duty, and had rubbed dirt into the light fur around her waist and legs. Kouga and Hakkaku blended in better, clothed in brown and unpolished armor, and stayed close behind her.
The hanyou surveyed the rocks and growing incline ahead. "This way," she whispered, trotting forward and staying low. Light footsteps sounded behind her, full of more youkai stealth than hers.
"How many mutts are watching around this time of day?" Kouga asked.
"I'm not sure," Ayame scanned the sky, too close to the mountain to see much. "It's been years. They might have changed their roster number or rotation schedules since I left."
Her leader scoffed. "Useful as always Ayame."
Her cheeks flushed bright red, and she kept her back to him so he wouldn't see. "There should be a trail up here," she managed. "It only climbs to a low ridge, but there's an overhang that will hide us from sentries looking down."
She felt a touch on her arm and glanced back.
Hakkaku offer a small nod, squeezing her bicep gently. "Sounds good," he said. "Lead the way."
Naraku beamed, watching the monk leave his estate with a large, jingling bag tied at his waist. Midday light streamed in as a servant opened the main doors for him, and he left, walking down the wide steps with an extra bounce in his step.
Naraku was pleased that someone in his employ wasn't afraid of a little conviction. His smile fell as he thought of the two demon slayers who had yet to report back and cleared his throat purposefully. "Kagura," he called. "Come here dear."
The shuffle of cloth sounded behind him, and reluctant steps plodded forward.
The woman stopped beside him, her mouth turned down in a hateful grimace. "I'm not your 'dear'," she spat, watching the column of light thin and disappear as the servant closed the doors, letting angry eyes fall to the faintly-glowing envelope in Naraku's hands.
Without warning, the man closed his fingers into a fist, crushing the white slip, and the scroll within.
The wind witch screamed and dropped to her knees, filling the parlor with high-pitched anguish.
He squeezed harder, and she wailed.
Naraku tilted his head, watching her suffer, and didn't notice a new set of steps echo from the harem.
"No!" A young voice shouted. "Stop it!"
Naraku spun around to see a short form in a checkered kimono skid to a halt. Rin's shoulders heaved as anger sparked in her eyes.
"Leave her alone!" She called. "Right now!"
He loosened his fingers enough so that Kagura's cries could soften to whimpers. "Don't you understand?" He cast his free hand to the hunched form at his feet. "She's a demon. She's evil."
"Youkai aren't evil!" Rin spat back, lifting her chin. "I was raised by one!"
Naraku raised a brow at the amount of speech his new prize was doling. He'd thought her almost mute. "Wasn't a very good protector, were they?" He taunted.
"Lord Sesshomaru is the best," she replied vehemently.
"Oh?" Naraku thought of the envelope in his hands. It sounded like the monk would be returning soon for a second act. "Then why were you near death when my men found you?"
Kagura's pained murmurs quieted, listening carefully for the girl's answer.
"Because," she huffed. "He was… was…," Rin trailed off, going pale.
Naraku's eyes gleamed. "Injured himself?" He supplied, fanning himself with the envelope. "Must be he abandoned you in favor of his own life," he grinned. "Well now you and this creature," he toed Kagura's side. "Belong to me."
Rin started to shake her head, and he held the envelope aloft. "Now, now," he cautioned. "I do what I want with my things," his fingers began to close. "And only obedience will stay my wrath."
Naraku watched the girl's mind work – she was as sharp as Kagome had been, but more subversive in revealing it. Her shoulders sank, and the fight left her face, replaced with a docility she had never offered before, as gullible and kind as his former favorite as well.
"Take out your ponytail," he commanded, deciding to test.
Rin didn't hesitate, yanking out the tie and even tussling her hair together, so that it fell straight and flat past her shoulders.
Naraku's beam returned, and he tucked the enclosed scroll in a front pocket of his chest. "Good girl."
A wheezed huff sounded from the floor. "Sesshomaru will kill you," Kagura mumbled. "I've known him a long time. If this girl is the ward I've heard spoken of on the wind, when he discovers you've captured both of us, he'll slice off your limbs piece by piece, letting you die slowly and painfully."
Naraku sighed. "You don't learn as quickly as Rin does," he withdrew the envelope and threw it to the ground, smashing it under his heel.
The girl rushed forward as Kagura doubled over, screeching in agony. Tears burst from her eyes, streaking her face as she sobbed and screamed.
"If you threaten me again witch," Naraku muttered. "I'll kill you. I want Kagome back, but I won't tolerate any more of your idle, empty threats," he ground his heel back and forth. "Understand?"
Inu-Yasha worked not to explode into swears. It was taking a lot of effort. Shippo stood before him, giving his report of what had transpired in the training hall, shifting in embarrassment and shame. They stood before one of the treasure vaults, manned by Isato and another reptilian hanyou. Ren had taken the children when Shippo had requested an audience, and young chatter rose from far down the tunnel as they left, pelting him with questions about what they could pick out. The koumori had asked to take them to the tailoring chamber for new clothes – ironically-named because the garments housed within were all stolen, old, and ill-fitting - and Inu-Yasha had agreed with an absent nod, consumed with the look of dread in the kitsune's face.
"Tell me again," Inu-Yasha said curtly. "She's alright?"
Shippo nodded, staring at his feet as he felt his tokage brothers look on. "They each tried to take a weapon, but Kagome and I stopped them."
"She helped?" Inu-Yasha scrutinized the other man. "How?"
"She picked up that bow in the Old Weapons Hall and hit the female hunter in the face."
"A bow?" Inu-Yasha's brow furrowed as he thought. "I don't remember seeing…," he abruptly stopped and paled.
Shippo risked a glance up. "It was just some black one made of a dark wood. It had a matching quiver though, shiny and onyx."
Inu-Yasha grabbed the kitsune by the shoulders, eyes wide. "She touched it?!"
Shippo was too surprised to shrug off his hands. "She fired it," he answered. "So what?"
Inu-Yasha tossed him aside, casting a wild glance to the guards, before sprinting in the opposite direction the children had wandered down.
Shippo watched his leader leave with thundering steps, dropping his mouth. "What—?" He looked for clarification, but Isato just shrugged.
"I have no idea kid," he offered. "But I suggest you find that weapon. Whatever gets the boss worked up like that can't be good."
Despite her claims of being done with guard duty, Kagome kept the bow and its handsome quiver, and trailed after Miroku and the hunters. They left the training hall and made their way down a new tunnel she had yet to explore. It was cold and full of damp air, and they descended down an incline into the heart of the mountain.
"Where are you taking us hanyou?" Kohaku spoke for his usually vocal sister, who was still nursing her swollen lip. "Finally ready to show your colors and be done with this charade, finishing us off in some shadowed corner?"
Miroku sighed. "I wish," he cast a hopeful look at Kagome, who shook her head vigorously.
"No. We aren't the monsters they say we are," she said. "We won't kill them."
Miroku didn't like her verdict, but felt a surprisingly warm appreciation for her use of 'we'. She didn't see their divide anymore and had somehow become an Ouja, without ceremony or conscious effort. The first human member to ever be his sister.
Miroku nodded. "Of course," he acknowledged, taking the lead. Maybe her show of unity emboldened him, or maybe he was just feeling cocky, but he gave his back to the siblings as he strode forward.
Kagome walked briskly to keep up, and they traveled in silence, Sango glaring sullenly at the purple robes swishing ahead of her, and Kohaku darting furtive looks between their jailors.
The tunnel grew colder and damper as they continued on, and Kagome could see up ahead that the lights burning along the walls abruptly stopped. Beyond their final rigging was pitch black.
"Miroku?" She called.
He led them closer to the darkness. "Don't worry. There's a stockpile of torches. We just don't have any set into the walls down here."
"Why not?" Sango managed to ask, wincing from the movement.
Miroku glanced back at her. "It takes a team of men on almost constant duty to keep all the passages lit throughout our mountain. We don't use this area, so we don't bother maintaining its light."
Kagome stepped to Sango's side, winded from their fast pace. "Where are we going?"
Miroku turned forward. "The Ouja dungeons."