It was hot. The air hung like a thick, wet blanket, smothering her. Even the silk curtains made the barest of ripples as the carriage rumbled along. Izayoi sighed and tried to edge away from her little sister's heat. It was impossible to sleep this night. She wasn't sure how her sisters managed it. Never before had they traveled at night. But brother was anxious to get to their new castle and was pushing everyone extra hard. Truthfully, Izayoi didn't mind the journey. She had never seen the world outside her walls. She had never realized how big and interesting it was. There were so many new stories to be heard out here. Stories that her nurse wouldn't even consider telling. Nurse liked to tell the tales about little girls who always did what they were told and got good husbands. Those stories were good enough, but they always turned out the same way and there was so much else to hear. Stories about found loves, mystical omens and, her favorite, youkai. The eight-year-old sighed, clasping her hands together under her chin. Youkai...deliciously evil monsters who roamed the dark and scary places. Creatures so dangerous, that only the bravest of people had a chance against them.

          Izayoi pushed back the silk curtain. The moonlight shone in full, making it easy to see the woman walking a few feet away. Her hair hung in a dark heavy braid down her back and her age lined face was serious. She looked like any other woman, except that she wore armor and carried a heavy wooden staff. She was something Brother called a taijya. A youkai exterminator. A woman with hundreds of stories to tell. As if sensing Izayoi's thoughts, the woman turned her head to look at the girl. A smile lit the woman's eyes.

          "What are you doing up, hime-sama? It's late."

          "I can't sleep," Izayoi said, with a small sigh. Then she perked up, smiling brilliantly. "But perhaps if you told one of your stories, taijya-san!" The woman chuckled and shook her head.

          "You well know what your brother thinks of my tales. I think you should try sleeping on your own."

          "Oh, please!" Izayoi said, clasping her hands together. "Brother wouldn't mind if it was just one to help me get to sleep. I promise after that I won't ask for any more."

          "Very well," the woman said with another small chuckle. Izayoi sat up and pulled herself to sit on the edge of the carriage.

          "And perhaps if I walk with you as well? I would so love to stretch my legs."

          The woman's strong arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her from the carriage, then deposited her gently on the ground. Izayoi smiled up at her gratefully. She was full of too much energy to just sit inside the carriage.

          "I promise you won't get in any trouble," Izayoi said, patting the woman's hand comfortingly. "Brother will understand."

          "I know. Believe me, if you didn't have Okata-sama wrapped around your little fist, I wouldn't have even bothered."    

          Izayoi cocked her head. What did the woman mean by that? She didn't have anything wrapped around her fist, let alone something of her brothers. The taijya offered no explanation and instead patted her hair lightly.

          "So, which tale would you like to hear?" the woman asked. Izayoi pondered this for a moment. The tale of the bat demon was enough to give her chills. Then of course there was the one about the possessed manure pile, which she was sure taijya-san had made up for the fun of it. She'd heard all of them before. What she really wanted was something no one had ever heard. Something special. Something that was just her own.

          "Tell a story about me and my hero," she said, looking up into the taijya's face. The woman raised an eyebrow.

          "Your hero?"

          "Yes! All ladies are supposed to have a hero," Izayoi said with a definite nod. "They come when things are really bad and save the lady from death...and then they fall in love." She sighed gustily, pressing both hands to her heart. For some reason, the taijya seemed amused by this.

          "And let me guess, they live happily ever after."

          "Of course not!" Izayoi said with a surprised blink. How could such a good storyteller not know how the ending should go? "The lady and her hero may love each other, but can never be together because he is a lower station. The lady has a duty to marry someone else...but the two pine for one another, sending each other wonderful poems by the moonlight. Then the hero dies through some bitter struggle and the lady grieves and dies soon after giving birth to a strong healthy son."

          "And that's what you want, is it?" the taijya asked. She seemed sad for some reason. Without thinking, Izayoi grabbed her rough hand and clenched it tightly.

          "That's what every lady wants. But excuse me, I have upset you. I didn't mean to..."

          "I know," the woman said with a soft smile. "You're just a young thing. You don't even know what love is...and I hope that you never will."

          "I will. I have to, you see. I'm a lady. It's what makes ladies extra special."

          "And who told you this?"

          "Nurse. She's the one who told us we would find a hero." Izayoi clasped her hands together and twirled about in the road, letting her hair fly about her dramatically. "I know exactly how I will meet my hero."

          "Oh yes?" the taijya was back to sounding amused again and Izayoi was glad.

          "I will be all alone in a dark scary place." She stopped twirling and started to pretend she was in that spooky place. Maybe a giant forest or an enchanted castle. "Suddenly I'll be attacked by a vicious youkai!"

          "And what does it look like, Izayoi-sama?" asked a different voice. The girl blinked, a little startled at being interrupted, and suddenly noticed her brother's men had come closer to watch her. She nodded her head to welcome them, even as tried to imagine a fierce enough youkai to impress.

          "It would be as tall as…as a horse! With fangs as long as a sword and dripping with poison." She gestured with her arms on how the creature should look and several of the men chuckled.

          "And he'll come at me with glowing red eyes and laugh meanly and say: 'I want to taste your blood, little girl'." For the youkai's voice she tried to make it rough and mean. It must have worked because some of the men clapped.

          "And what about your hero?" the taijya said. Izayoi thought for a second. That was another tough one. Suddenly the rest of the story came to her.

          "There will be a flash of white light and the youkai will be driven back. Behind him will be my hero, glowing like he was lit by a thousand lanterns. He will smile and say-"

          "It's time you were in bed, imp." This unexpected voice bought a wave of laughter. Izayoi blushed and turned to look up at her big brother. He was sitting astride his large horse, trying to give her a stern look. She could tell he wasn't really mad because the corner of his mouth was smiling. Izayoi folded her hands in front of her and tried to look innocent.

          "Forgive me. I know I should have been sleeping, big brother, but I couldn't. I'm just so excited about seeing our new castle tomorrow."

          "You wanted a story and you well know it," he said, but he didn't sound angry at all. Izayoi smiled. Brother was rarely angry with her.

          "She tells a story well, Okata-sama," said one of the men.

          "Be that as it may, it is still her bed time. And in case you have forgotten, we are still in dangerous territory. We might be safe from youkai attack, but there is no telling what kind of thieves are on the road."

          "Can't I stay up a little longer, big brother?" Izayoi asked, falling back and clinging to the taijya's arm. "She's going to be gone in the morning and I do want to hear one last story." 

          "No, Izayoi-chan." Immediately after, his face softened. "But perhaps the taijya could give you something to remember her by."

          "I think I might have something," the taijya said. "With your permission, my lord."

          Brother nodded. The taijya pulled a small cloth bag from her belt and handed it to Izayoi. The girl opened it and blinked at what she saw. It was a long, rectangular piece of paper with some squiggles on it.

          "Ofuda," the taijya explained. "A monk gave it to me." The woman rolled her eyes. "Kami-sama only knows why."

          "What does it do?" Izayoi asked, turning the strange object over and over in her hands.

          "Supposedly there's a spell on it. It has the power to repel evil. Although I'm not sure how strong it is, it'll likely kill any youkai you'll ever face."

          "But don't you need it?"

          "I don't need that kind of magic to fight evil," the taijya said, straightening proudly. "And anyway, the ofuda probably has only one good use in it. That gives your hero plenty of time to rush in and save you."

          Izayoi clutched the talisman to her and bowed. Completely overwhelmed by this gift. Never had she thought that the woman liked her enough to give her something of this much importance.

          "Thank you so much. I will…" she trailed off as the bushes by the side of the road rustled softly. A man holding a bow stepped from the shade of the trees. Her heart jumped as his eyes met hers. Then the world seemed to slow down. An arrow suddenly appeared in the man's bow and he aimed the weapon right at her.

          "Izayoi!" Brother yelled. The bowman jerked the weapon up and there was a sharp twang. Izayoi whirled to follow the path of the arrow and stared uncomprehendingly as it slammed into her brother, just below his left shoulder. His eyes widened, hands letting go of the reins as he fell back. He fell from the horse and tumbled to the ground, a dark red pool seeping up around him. There was a long silence then. A silence that seemed to last forever.

          "Bastard!" The yell of one of her brother's men bought time crashing back down on her. The bowmen fitted another arrow to the string but before he could fire the taijya moved in front of him with incredible speed and smashed the staff across his head. Almost at the same moment, men burst screaming from between the trees. The ragged swords they waved flashed in the moonlight. One of them flew at the taijya, swinging the sword at her head. The woman ducked and slammed the butt of her staff into the man's chin, sending him flying. Izayoi stared at everything, clutching the ofuda close to her chest. How could this be happening?! Nothing like this was supposed to happen! They were supposed to go to the castle tomorrow.

          "Hime-sama, run!" The taijya's barked command shattered her paralyzing fear. Izayoi shrieked and bolted, running instinctively toward her brother, only to stop short with a startled sob when she saw him lying there. She fell to her knees,

slamming her eyes shut and clutching her hands together tightly. Her heart was thumping so loud she could barely hear anything else. There was no where to run. No one who could protect her. Everything was so frightening and she didn't know what to do. Where was her hero?

          "Retreat!" a man yelled. "Grab whatever you can of value and let's go!"  Izayoi gasped. Was it her hero who was making them run? She opened her eyes. One of the men with ragged blades was standing, back turned, not a few feet away. He was looming over Brother, sword drawn.

          "Leave my brother alone!" she cried. The man whirled, sword raised. Then on seeing her, relaxed. A scary grin spread across his face.

          "You look valuable, little girl," he said. Izayoi yelped and scrambled to her feet, prepared to run. Before she could, the man lunged at her, hand curled into a fist. Izayoi doubled over as the fist slammed into her stomach. The next thing she knew, she was lost in a breathless world of black.

~~~

          The youkai flew through the night, a warm wind shifting through his hair. The full moon was large in the sky, washing everything in a pale light. He offered the white orb a rueful smile. At one time, its radiance alone would be enough to tingle his blood. Now he felt nothing. The wildness of youth had long since left him. Many things had left him. Friends and littermates had long since fallen. It was no wonder that most youkai didn't live past adolescence. There wasn't much of a point. It was better to die young and in a blaze of passion then old, empty and bored. Fortunately, although he was very old and pretty much empty, he wasn't completely bored… Not yet, at any rate.

          Inutaisho stopped where he was, hovering high above the trees, and fanned out his senses. Finding nothing, he sighed in irritation. Where the hell was that whelp? He lowered himself, hoping to catch at least a hint of the scent if he was closer to the tree line. The wind was still, offering no assistance. Finally, just as he was about to give up and go searching, a soft, barely tangible breeze bought the scent to him. Inutaisho sighed again, folded his arms and dropped his head back. The scent was so far away. If that pup didn't learn to fly soon, Inutaisho was going to beat his head in out of pure frustration.

          With a resigned air, the youkai lord did a lazy backflip then glided down among the trees. He alighted on one with a particularly large branch, and settled himself on it, crossing his arms behind his head. It was going to be quite a wait. But if the centuries had taught Inutaisho one thing, it was patience. He could wait for very long time if he chose to. What was really pathetic was that the pup was probably pushing himself to his limit. Inutaisho could just picture the whelp bounding from branch to branch like a squirrel in heat, using all his senses to track a father who was no longer in the sky. The thought made Inutaisho chuckle. If there was one thing that Sesshou-chan was good for, it was a laugh… which was probably why Inutaisho had taken him in.

          Inuyoukai males rarely took part in pup rearing. Now Inutaisho knew why. Pups were the most insufferable things. So whiny, so needy. He'd been told that Sesshou-chan was far more reserved then other pups his age. That was one thing Inutaisho couldn't believe. The first twenty years or so was nothing but: 'I want milk!' and 'Can we go back home now?'. Now it was the slightly more annoying liturgy of: 'Teach me how to…' and, his absolute favorite: 'Why?'

          But despite all of his incessant questioning, Sesshou-chan was highly amusing. He was clumsy and had barely any hunting skills to speak of. He was so behind his peers it was laughable. But there was potential there as well…or at least there at had better be.

          Inutaisho shifted into a more comfortable position and closed his eyes, but kept his senses open. He only vaguely paid attention to the movements of the forest around him. Rabbits, mice and kami knew what else scuttled around in the underbrush. The scent of a tanuki youkai flickered into his senses, then abruptly flickered back out again. Then, distantly, was the heady scent of blood. Inutaisho sat up, scanning the dark forest for the source. He couldn't see anything yet, but he could just about hear the tromping of feet over fallen leaves.

          The scent came steadily closer and Inutaisho grinned as he finally identified it. Human blood. Even better, the blood scent was coming from the human's themselves. Humans that had just killed were likely to put up a decent fight, or as decent as humans could get anyway. The small band, numbering about eight by the smell of them, stopped a few miles away. Tonight's hunting lesson was going to be fun.

          Not a moment later, his pup came into smell, followed closely after by the sound of him crashing through the trees with all the grace of a wild boar. Inutaisho's grin widened and he leapt from his perch. The youkai lord jumped lightly among the branches to meet the whelp, moving with a silent, deadly grace that had been refined over centuries. Sesshou-chan appeared in the distance, seeming so intent on his running, he didn't notice his father bearing down on him. Pity, that, the mature youkai thought with a grin. Finally, the pup seemed to notice him. But it was too late. Inutaisho landed on the branch his son was on and smoothly kicked his feet out from under him. The pup yelped and tumbled back, landing unceremoniously in a bush.

          "Very graceful," Inutaisho said with a laugh, crouching to get a better view. "Tell me, are you clumsy on purpose or do you just do it to amuse me?" 

          The whelp scowled, slicing away the bush with his claws. When he was free, he stood and looked up, the expression on his face unreadable. The pup was frustrated…and something else too. Not that it really mattered.

          "You left me," Sesshou-chan said accusingly. Inutaisho stood, folding his arms.

          "It should not have taken you all afternoon to defeat those youkai. There were only five of them."

          "You didn't tell me they spit poison," the whelp muttered, mimicking his father's pose. Inutaisho rolled his eyes in irritation. Here it came. The absolute worst thing about pup rearing. Explaining. Why couldn't pups be born with everything they needed to know? It would make them far easier to deal with.

          "I shouldn't have had to tell you. You have a nose, learn how to use it."

          "I did use it," Sesshou-chan said, a low growl rising in his throat. Inutaisho narrowed his eyes. It wasn't quite a challenge…but too much to let the whelp get away with. He jumped down, snatched Sesshou-chan up by the scruff of the neck, and slammed him into a tree. The adolescent slumped to the ground, bowing his head and exposing the back of his neck in supplication. 

          "Come!" Inutaisho barked, and immediately jumped up into the trees. To his credit, Sesshou-chan was quickly behind him. He paused on the branch he had last sat. His son quickly joined him, keeping himself at a low, respectful, crouch.

          "What do you smell?" Inutaisho asked, gesturing out to the open forest. The pup hesitated a moment, head cocked. Then a small scowl broke out across his features.

          "Humans," he said, twisting his mouth as if he'd just tasted something vile.

          "Don't tell me that's all," Inutaisho said, raising an eyebrow. The hesitation was longer this time and the youkai lord sighed impatiently. Sesshou-chan cast him a sideways glance, nervousness creeping into his scent. The pup leaned forward, audibly sniffing. Inutaisho resisted the urge to boot him off the branch and instead, leaned back and folded his arms.

          "I smell…an owl?" Sesshou-chan said after a while.

          "Damnit, pup! Where you weaned yesterday?" Inutaisho growled, smacking the young one upside the head and nearly knocking him from the tree. "Concentrate on the humans! They're in sweat and dried blood. They haven't even lit up any campfires. Now what do you think that means, little idiot?"

          "They're on the run," Sesshou-chan said, understanding finally dawning. The pup stood, flexing his claws. "And these are what I'm supposed to hunt?"

          "You'll never learn if you don't step up from low level youkai."

          Sesshou-chan responded to this by closing his eyes and flicking a few strands of white hair behind his shoulder.

          "Humans are hardly what I would call a step up, Chichi-ue."

          Inutaisho snorted. Pretentious little shit. The respectful title was the only thing that kept the pup from being slammed into another tree.

          "Just because they don't have claws or fangs doesn't mean they're an easy kill. Humans are unpredictable and can be as tricky as kitsune."

          "Any youkai that is tricked by a human is no youkai at all," the pup said. 

          "It's your pelt, runt," Inutaisho said with a grin. Sesshou-chan stiffened, teeth clenching and hand curling up into a fist. Blood welled up from where the claws sliced, but the pup didn't even seem to notice. Inutaisho laughed. It was just so easy. He jumped lightly to the ground and started walking toward the human camp. This should be interesting.

---

Notes: Eh… this chapter was originally gonna be longer, but I decided against it. Split it in two. ^_~ Easier to digest that way, ya? Also, methinks I might have spelled taijya wrong. 0o Anyone gotta correction?

Translation Notes:

Kami-sama= god(s)

Chichi-ue= An uberly respectful and uberly archaic way of saying Father.    

Hime-sama=Princess. In this case it means the daughter of a clan leader.

Update Information: I am not promising rapid updates, but I am promising updates. With college, work, other fics and real life looming on the horizon, I don't have a lot of time. I do however promise that I won't drop this fic or any other fic. Expect a continuation and an ending… It just might take me a while to get there.

Side Note: To all those seeing the Author Alert! And thinking, W00t! This is Child's Eyes or W00t! This is To Meet Again… or Whatever… I will update them when I fall into touch with that particular fandom. ^.^ But this is probably the last new fanfic for a while as I believe I've covered all my fan bases…