AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, this is it. Thanks to all of you who hung in there for the long haul. This is one of the more difficult stories I've had to write, but the good news is that I think I'm done with the serious stuff for a little while. Which of course means that I'll be cranking out some very, very overdue chapters on "The Eva Matrix Regurgitated" (plug, plug) and maybe some more "Inuyasha's Shorts." This is a long chapter, but I didn't want to leave you just hanging there for another ten days.
A BIG tip of the Banpei hat to my good friend Grimtash, who wrote the haiku at the end of this chapter, and did it in less than ten minutes. I swear, he needs to stop wasting his time on livejournals and start posting stories here. Also a somewhat smaller tip to Robert Charette and his superb Battletech novel, Wolves on the Border. If you can find this book, I heartily recommend it, even if you're not a MechWarrior.
I apologize for this chapter being more than a little bittersweet. It is a tragedy, after all. Go and read some stuff under the comedy section, or watch Photon or something after you get done. I apologize in advance for any depression that results, but given the characters and the situations involved in "The Killers and the Killed," this could only end this way, and in fact it was the way I intended it to end from the beginning.
As always, any mistakes are my own, historical or otherwise. And the Inu-tachi, of course, belongs to Rumiko Takahashi. How she can write stuff like this after turning out Ranma I'll never know, but I'm grateful for her genius.
BUTCHERING THE EMPEROR'S JAPANESE DEPT.:
Neko youkai: Cat demon, i.e. Kilala.
Hatamoto: The highest rank a samurai could reach without becoming a lord. A hatamoto was the most trusted of retainers, and alone had unimpeded access to his liege lord without a prior appointment. Hatamoto usually formed part of a lord's inner circle.
Houshi: lower-class monk, i.e. Miroku. Interestingly enough, it appears that the Buddhist order Miroku belongs to actually did engage in the sort of grab-fanny that he does, so Sango actually shouldn't accuse him of being a bad monk. No question that he's a pervert, though.
Taijiya: demon hunter; i.e. Sango.
Shikon no Tama: Jewel of Four Souls. Hey, wait a minute...if you don't know this, you sure you're in the right section?
Miko: shrine maiden; i.e. Kaede, Kikyo, and technically Kagome. See last chapter.
Kanji: Japanese lettering of the oldest style. Modern kanji and the kanji of the Sengoku Jidai differ in phraseology and style enough that Kagome would have a difficult time reading, just as most Americans have a tough time following Benjamin Franklin's writings on occasion.
Koban: a gold piece representing ten koku. A koku was enough rice to feed a normal family for one year.
Kitsune: fox trickster spirit; i.e. Shippo.
Wakizashi: short sword carried by samurai. It was generally used for sticking severed heads on or committing suicide with.
Seppuku: ritual suicide. This meant using a sword to disembowel oneself, by plunging it into the right side of the stomach, drawing it across the navel, and then upwards towards the heart. Also known as hara-kiri (literally, "belly cutting"). Needless to say, this is a particularly brutal way to die (so don't try it at home), though for samurai it was considered an honor and much preferred to living with shame or being captured. Noblewomen were considered samurai as well, but they used the easier method of simply cutting their own throats. Inuyasha fans will recognize that this is what Sango intended to do after she killed Kohaku, to expunge the dishonor the two of them had brought to their family, though Sango is not of noble birth, as she does not have a surname. Incidentally, since Kagome identifies herself as "Kagome Higurashi," the people of the Sengoku Jidai assume that she is a noble.
Kaishaku-nin: a second for seppuku. The second was someone who stood behind the person committing seppuku and chopped off their head before they could dishonor themselves by showing pain. Sometimes the kaishaku would make the strike before the person even stabbed themselves, but many samurai insisted that their kaishaku wait until both cuts were complete. This took a lot of fortitude, and was considered a great show of honor by samurai. It was also a great honor and responsibility to be chosen as a kaishaku, because the kaishaku had to make his first cut flawless or lose honor.
Darkless Vasion: Wow, thank you as always. Glad you liked the scene with Kikyo and the arquebus. (Makes you wonder what Kagome could do with modern technology...scary.) Kikyo strikes me as being every inch the traditionalist, so she would not like being able to "feel" the bow.
Ganheim: Sorry 'bout that. Hopefully this wasn't as long a wait. I also promise to get to your new chapters ASAP and leave a review. (For those of you who haven't read Ganheim's works, I recommend them. They're very, very good...pluggity plug plug.)
I Love Kouga: Gee, I think I know who your favorite character is. He gets a bit of the short end here, for which I apologize. Glad you like it.
Grimtash: Well, you'd better like this chapter, considering your contribution. Legend my ass! (In-joke for Azumanga Daioh fans only.)
Hawker-748: I don't know; I think Kagome would be more willing to use a gun if it meant doing more damage to Naraku. Probably a good thing guns are illegal in Japan; it would be a damn short story if Kagome simply brought back a M16 and commenced spraying lead in Naraku's general direction. We'll see if your suspicions are correct.
DogEars: Thanks! I hope it reads like a book. Any more chapters, and it would have been a book.
Thanks again to everyone who reviewed this! (You love me, you really love...well, my stories anyway.)
THEME SONG DEPARTMENT: "Love is Blue" by Paul Mariat, "The Eternal Knot" by Adiemus, "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor, and of course, "Moonlight Shadow" by Missing Heart.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE END OF THE MATTER
Hope you have got your things together
Hope you are quite prepared to die
Looks like we're in for nasty weather
One eye is taken for an eye.
–Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Bad Moon Rising"
"What are they waiting for?" Kentaro Ishikawa asked no one in particular.
What remained of his and Saruji Soryu's battalion was drawn up on the narrow dike between the two rice paddies. Most of their horses were gone, and the rain had finally begun to fall in earnest, turning the battlefield into a muddy charnel house. The fire started by the neko youkai had died away, allowing Ishikawa to rally the survivors, pull them back, and set up a hasty defensive position. Fearing an attack from the wolf youkai, he had ordered his ashigaru spearmen to set their weapons into the ground, forming a steel-tipped hedge. If the youkai wanted to attack, they would have to do it by going over the swampy paddies at the ronin's flanks.
Ishikawa snorted and spit onto the ground as the rain drummed on his helmet, feeling resigned to his own death. He was in a good position, and knew that, against a normal foe, he could hold here until night fell and allowed him to escape to the south. But he was not facing a normal foe.
Noriyuki Fujii hobbled up to him, his leg bandaged where a spear had been thrust through it. It had missed the bone, and two of his men had dragged him away from the battle to tend the wound. It still bled and Fujii was pale from the blood loss, but his katana was firm in his grip. "How are you, my friend?" Ishikawa asked.
"Tolerable, Lord Ishikawa. Tolerable." He looked towards the hill, where wolves moved. "What are they doing?"
"Gathering their dead and ours," Ishikawa sighed. "As soon as they finish, they'll come for us."
"Have you seen Lord Soryu?"
"No, but one of his retainers told me that they surrounded him. Speared him like a tiger in a pit." Ishikawa shook his head. "A bad way to die, but better than we might get."
"What about that bastard Totoroki?"
Ishikawa motioned toward the side of the hill, where figures moved. "They dumped him into the paddy a few minutes ago. He was very dead."
"I can't say as I mourn his passing. And the one called Kagura?"
"With that white kimono, she'd be easy to find, but I haven't seen her since Soryu ordered her forward."
"She abandoned us, then."
"I expect so." Ishikawa hawked and spat. "Of course, now it finally rains." He laughed ironically. "I don't mind dying, but I do mind dying with a runny nose."
Fujii smiled. After a moment, he said, "Lord Ishikawa. Do you think we were betrayed by Lord Naraku from the start?"
Ishikawa considered it. He had been thinking about it before the battle, wondering what the real reasons behind the events at the village had been. It was obvious that Naraku had not told them everything, and Ishikawa was not ready to dismiss the idea that Totoroki and Kagura had deliberately led them into a fight with the wolf youkai.
He was startled out of his thoughts by the cry of one of the ashigaru. "Lord Ishikawa! The monk approaches!"
"I'll go meet him," Ishikawa told Fujii. "If he makes a move to attack, kill him. If he kills me, hold until nightfall and then withdraw to the south as quickly as you can. Wolves are territorial; maybe they won't follow."
"Let me go," Fujii insisted. "My life means nothing. You must report to Lord Arashikaze on what happened here."
"I don't intend to die, and my sword is quicker than yours at the moment, my friend," Ishikawa smiled. "Stay here and wait." Fujii reluctantly nodded, and Ishikawa, one hand on his sword, squeezed between the spear wall and walked out onto the dike to meet the advancing monk, who was also alone.
Miroku watched the ronin walk towards him and forced himself to be calm. He noticed with some relief that the ronin was an older man, and so perhaps he would not be hot-headed; Miroku also recognized him from the village as being one of Soryu's retainers.
The ronin stopped a sword's length away, and Miroku did as well. The houshi bowed first, deeply, and waited until it was returned with equal gravity by the bloodied samurai. "I am Lord Kentaro Ishikawa," the ronin said with a deep, even voice. "Second in command of Lord Arashikaze's regiment, and hatamoto."
Miroku nodded. "I am Miroku, a monk."
"It seems Lord Buddha blessed you today, houshi-san, and turned his head aside for us."
"It appears so, but as a man of peace, I see no reason for the bloodshed to continue."
"A man of peace?" Ishikawa chuckled. "That's blood on your staff, houshi-san. My men's blood."
"You attacked us, Lord Ishikawa. We would not surrender to you any more than you would do so to us now."
"I understand. You also realize that I and Lord Soryu were ordered to hunt you down, kill the wolf demons, and capture you and the taijiya. I still have that duty. If I cannot complete that duty, then I will die–either by wolf claws, your hands, or my own, houshi-san."
Miroku shook his head. "Please, Lord Ishikawa, hear me out. You were hired by a Lord Hitomi, were you not?" At Ishikawa's nod, Miroku continued. "Lord Hitomi and Naraku are the same person. He is a demon, of the worst kind. He sent Totoroki and Kagura with you to slay us, neh? Well, Totoroki is dead, and Kagura abandoned you when she saw the battle turn against you. Naraku has played us all for fools and pawns, Lord Ishikawa."
"Why?" Ishikawa asked simply.
"Because he seeks the Shikon no Tama. So do we–myself, Lady Sango the taijiya, Lord Inuyasha the hanyou, and Lady Kagome the miko. If we gather all the shards and defeat Naraku, we only ask for peace. If Naraku gains the power of the Shikon no Tama, there's no telling what evil he will commit. He used you, Lord Ishikawa–you, your men, Lord Soryu, Lord Arashikaze. Everyone. He is unable to kill us himself, though he has tried on several occasions. So he hired you to do his dirty work for him–to burn Lady Kaede's village and kill all we hold dear."
"All of this over a jewel?" Ishikawa snorted. "Stupid."
Miroku nodded. "I agree completely." He spread his hands in a show of openness. "Lord Ishikawa, I don't desire your surrender, and neither do the wolves." The latter, Miroku reflected, had taken some doing. A lot of the wolf youkai wanted to finish the job and exact revenge for the dozen dead of their tribe that dotted the landscape. Ayame had been one of them, until Miroku had told her that, while she would surely win, it would cost the lives of more of Kouga's tribe for a hollow victory, over ronin who had no idea what was going on. Too many have already died for Naraku's greed, Miroku thought darkly, remembering just how close Sango had come to joining the pile of dead. "All I ask is that you merely allow us to pass."
Ishikawa was silent. If we have been abandoned, then it is still our duty to resist, even if we die. But if we have been duped... "And the wolves agree to this?"
"Not easily, but yes."
"You demand no recompense or vengeance?"
"The youkai have no desire for money, have all the weapons they need, and have all the vengeance they want.."
"And yourself, houshi-san?"
Miroku smiled sadly. "Please, Lord Ishikawa...I am merely a simple monk."
"Of course. Very well, houshi-san, I agree to your terms, but only because my Lord Arashikaze warned us of treachery."
Miroku was taken aback. "Then why..."
"Duty, monk. Duty." He began to return to the other ronin, but Ishikawa stopped for a moment. He hesitated, then reached into his belt and pulled out a single koban. With a flick of the thumb, he sent it spinning towards Miroku, who caught it. "For the taijiya," Ishikawa said. "I'm sure she earned this by slaying the demon Totoroki. He deserved it. What a bastard he was." And Ishikawa walked back to the ronin, laughing uproariously.
"Kagome! Kagome!" Shippo shouted happily as he ran down the hill. He scampered into Kagome's arms as Kouga set her down. "Easy, Shippo, easy...I'm feeling a little delicate at the moment."
"I'm so happy you're okay!" Shippo was crying and laughing at the same time.
Kouga walked forward to where Inuyasha knelt, examining where Naraku's blood had soaked into the ground. It steamed with an acrid smell, and the hanyou knew no grass would ever grow on this site again. "Well, dog boy," Kouga said in his rough voice, "we didn't get him."
"Looks that way," Inuyasha said from the side of his mouth, watching the hill.
Kouga noticed the look. "Hmm, that's Lady Kikyo, neh? I see the resemblance between her and Kagome." He folded his arms across his chest. "Why don't you run to her, Inuyasha, and leave Kagome with someone who doesn't almost get her killed–"
Inuyasha shot to his feet, turned, and smashed a fist into Kouga's mouth, all in one motion. Surprised, Kouga flew backwards. "You don't know shit, Kouga!" Inuyasha snarled, pointing a claw at him. "Don't think you know anything about me and Kagome and Kikyo! You're just a...just a..." Words failed him for a moment, then Inuyasha yelled, "You're just a stupid mangy dog!"
Kouga spit blood onto the ground. "Why, you–"
"Kouga." Kagome's voice stopped him from launching himself at Inuyasha. "He's right. You don't know what's going on." Kagome felt bad for the hurt look on the wolf youkai's face, and knew she had probably hurt him worse than Naraku, with just a few words. Yet it was true–Kouga didn't know what had happened, and she didn't want him involved in this any longer. She gently let Shippo down to the ground, walked over, and helped Kouga to his feet. "This doesn't concern you. Thank you for helping me. You're a good person." She gave him a heartbreakingly chaste peck on the cheek, ignoring sounds of rupture from Inuyasha. "Shippo told me what happened. You need to get back to your tribe. They need you more than we do right now."
Kouga slowly nodded. "You don't need any more help?" he whispered.
"No. I don't think there will be a fight."
"I'm not giving up, you know."
Kagome smiled. "I know."
"See you again." Kouga turned, stuck his tongue out at a fuming Inuyasha, kissed Kagome's cheek, and was gone in a whirlwind.
Inuyasha was instantly by her side. "Kagome! What the hell did you kiss him for? That flea-bitten–I'm going to go jam Tetsusaiga right up his–"
"Inuyasha," Kagome said quietly, a hand on his shoulder, "I think we have other things to be concerned with."
Kikyo and Arashikaze were walking towards them. Instantly, Inuyasha's hands went to the sheathed Tetsusaiga. Arashikaze put up his hands, though they remained close enough that he could still draw his katana if the hanyou charged. He stopped just out of arm's reach and bowed. "Lady Higurashi, Lord Inuyasha, I am Lord Arashikaze Takashi. We have not been formally introduced."
"I don't need to be introduced to you!" Inuyasha shouted. "After what you did to Kagome..." His voice trailed off as he realized Arashikaze was still holding the bow. Kagome was returning it with equal gravity, and Inuyasha, feeling like a fool, finally did the same. Kagome straightened up, noticing Kikyo staring at her with icy daggers. The undead priestess had not bowed. "Kagome," she said by way of greeting, noticeably leaving off the 'san' honorific.
"Kikyo," Kagome replied, thinking I can be a bitch too.
Arashikaze noticed the two women and could feel the waves of hatred between them. He guessed what the reason was, and returned his full attention to that reason, the hanyou in front of him. "What happened to Lady Kagome was Naraku's doing, not mine."
"You surrounded the village. For all I know, they're all dead."
"The village is intact. A few of the villagers did die, but it was not I that killed them–again, it was Naraku, or possibly his, ah, offspring, the one called Kagura."
"That's not entirely true," Kikyo interrupted. "You are not forgetting Ayane, Lord Arashikaze? And then there is the little matter of the men you sent after the monk and the taijiya."
"Ayane understood why she had to die. Some of my men died from her arrows–and the taijiya's, and Lady Kaede's. Lady Ayane met her end bravely and with honor. I deeply regret her death, but I consider that matter closed."
Inuyasha's fingers went back to Tetsusaiga's hilt. "What if I don't, ronin?"
Arashikaze's eyes were steel. "Stay your hand for now, Lord Inuyasha. Allow me to finish." When Inuyasha had relaxed somewhat, Arashikaze continued to speak. "However, Lady Kikyo is otherwise correct. I did send Lord Soryu out to capture the monk and the demon hunter, and if necessary, to kill any helping them. Which included your wolf youkai friend and his tribe, who Naraku led us to believe had killed more of my men after you escaped."
"Kouga's tribe?" Kagome's eyes widened, seeing in her mind's eye Ginta and Hakkaku, and the others that called her their pack sister. "Oh, no!"
"You bastard," Inuyasha hissed. "If Miroku and Sango are hurt, I'll kill you."
The sudden answer caught Inuyasha off-guard. "What did you say?"
Arashikaze smiled sadly. "If they were hurt, you will have to kill me, I'm afraid." He looked up into the sky. "Hmm. It appears that it will rain. We should retire inside, I think." He nodded at Shippo. "Given how quickly your friend got here, I suspect that you demons have a way to travel quickly. I also suspect that we will have news of the final outcome of the battle by sundown." He motioned towards the hill and the ronin camp. "In the meantime, will you join me for tea?"
Arashikaze was right about the rain, the ability to travel quickly, and that news would come by sundown. The rain broke over the village and the camp with a force that bent the grassblades and threatened to collapse the tent. Inside, Arashikaze alone seemed unbothered by the rain, or the tension in the tent that could be sliced with a knife, since he had insisted Kikyo and Kaede accompany them. It was good to see Kaede again, but Kagome thought the entire two hours they waited, observing the formalities of having tea, as the most surreal she had ever experienced. Even the normally-ebuillent Shippo seemed unnerved. Not helping matters was the news that Kohaku had apparently escaped in the confusion of the battle with Naraku, wounding two ronin as he went. Arashikaze merely shrugged and went back to sipping his tea and discussing current events with his retainer, Yamada.
The rain had lessened to a pleasant drizzle when one of Arashikaze's ronin came into the tent, breathless and slightly pale. "Milord, a youkai approaches!"
Arashikaze set down his tea. "What does it look like?"
"A tiger, milord, with two tails and fiery paws!"
"Kilala," Kagome and Inuyasha said simutaneously. It was Kaede who asked to be excused as they left the tent in a hurry.
Sango, Miroku, and Kilala were all a little worse for wear, but not more so than Noriaki Fujii, who was helped down by Miroku and solemnly kissed the ground. Sango carefully and tearfully embraced Kagome and then Inuyasha, while Miroku exchanged shoulder squeezes with the hanyou, then gently hugged Kagome. She yelped a little when she felt the monk's hand wander over her bottom. "Why did you do that?" she whispered to him, afraid to make a scene.
"Because you expected me to," Miroku answered with a wink. "How did you get through the well?"
Kagome pointed to her yellow backpack, which she had carried out of the tent. "The Shikon jewel shards. We tried everything, and then I remembered how powerful youkai get when they have them. I figured, if it worked for them, why not for us? I touched them to Tetsusaiga and it turned purple. Inuyasha just slammed it down using the Wind Scar in the well on my side of it, and next thing you know, we were through. So simple we never thought about it before."
"We'll have to keep that one in mind."
"What's he doing here?" Inuyasha said, pointing at the bloodied Fujii.
"His leg was in a bad way, so we decided it might be a good way to mend things if Kikyo could care for him," Sango explained. "And we thought it would be better if Fujii reported to Arashikaze what happened rather than us, since he might not believe Mir–Houshi-sama and I." She wondered if she had covered actually using Miroku's name quickly enough, but one look at Kagome's face told her that, after this was all over, there would be questions. Quickly, Sango went on to explain that Kouga had returned, and that Miroku and Ayame had convinced him to return to the mountains rather than attempt to finish off Ishikawa's ronin. Sango did not feel like explaining that Kouga had only been mollified when Miroku had promised to let Arashikaze know that the ronin leader's days were numbered. On the spot, Kouga had sworn revenge, and Ayame, far from trying to dissuade her chief, had agreed completely. Ishikawa had agreed to let Fujii go with Miroku and Sango, but that had taken some doing as well. Sango had worried that Fujii might try to kill them both and himself in the process, but the wounded ronin had simply mumbled over and over how he had always dreamed to fly like the birds. Sango smiled wanly at that; with his report delivered to Arashikaze, Fujii was now giddily recounting his experience. Arashikaze laughed heartily when he was finished, then ordered him to go lie down and wait for Kikyo to see to him. Once Fujii was gone, Kagome noticed that Arashikaze became very somber. He came over to the group.
"Fujii-san has told me what happened. It seems that your side won, Lord Inuyasha, and your friends are mostly unharmed." He bowed slightly to Miroku and Sango. "Thank you for bringing him back. Not only have you fufilled his dreams, you've also allowed him to live long enough to tell his grandchildren."
"It is Buddha's way to show mercy to the wounded," Miroku said.
"It is indeed, houshi-sama. Unfortunately, it is not generally the way of the samurai." He sighed. "I suppose that the wolf youkai's chief has sworn vengeance on me and my family for eternity."
"How did Fujii-san know that?" Sango asked.
"He didn't. I assumed it. I know pride when I see it, and this Kouga seems to have it in abundance. You should warn him of it, Lady Kagome, before it kills him."
Inuyasha put his hands on his hips. "So, looks like you get to live, Lord Arashikaze."
Arashikaze sniffed a laugh. "No, Lord Inuyasha, I'm afraid not."
"What?" Kagome and Inuyasha exclaimed at the same time.
"You are a warrior, Lord Inuyasha. You should know that I cannot live with this shame. Therefore, I intend to commit seppuku at dusk. That should sate your wolf friend's thirst for vengeance."
"But...why?" Kagome asked. "It wasn't your fault!"
"It is my fault, Lady Kagome," Arashikaze replied. "I allowed myself to be duped by Naraku, and sent my men to die rather than heed the warnings of Lady Kikyo and my own conscience. The actions of Lady Ayane, Lord Inuyasha's protection of you, the willingness of the villagers to fight an impossible battle–those are selfless actions. Naraku never showed more than the bare minimum of respect and propriety, and for that alone I should have suspected his motives."
"But it doesn't make any sense..." Kagome felt Inuyasha's hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, and saw in his eyes that he understood Arashikaze's reasoning. One look at Sango and Miroku saw that they too understood.
At that moment, Kagome knew she would never be truly at home in the Sengoku Jidai, never quite understand fully these people that were her closest friends.
Arashikaze shook his head at her sadly, then turned to Inuyasha. "Since Kouga is not here, will you be my kaishaku-nin, my second? You seemed skilled with that sword."
Inuyasha looked down at Tetsusaiga. He had never used it to kill a human being before. He knew why Arashikaze had asked him–of all the people in their little group, he and Sango were the only ones skilled with a sword, and a samurai would not ask a woman to be their second. Besides Kouga, it had been he who had nearly lost the most from the battle. It was a great honor to be even considered to be a kaishaku, though he knew Kagome would probably not see it as such. So much had changed between her time and his; he wondered for the hundreth time in the past few days if he could ever feel at home in the future. At last, Inuyasha nodded and then bowed to Arashikaze, properly this time. "I would be honored."
"Thank you. It will be dark soon, and I see no reason to wait." Arashikaze looked up at the sky. "I wish it would quit raining, but I suppose a man cannot choose his own karma."
The drizzle caused the torches set up in the half-darkness to snap and hiss, but none of the ronin drawn up in the muddy field seemed to notice. Umbrellas had been provided for Kikyo, Kaede, and Kagome, but Kaede and Kikyo had refused and knelt at the head of the gathering, alongside Sango, Fujii and Yamada. Both of them wore clean miko robes. Kagome had only accepted the offer at Miroku's insistence, as she was not fully healed and didn't need to catch pneumonia.
In front of the gathered ronin, on a patch of grass, was a few thin tatami mats and a white cushion, covered until the ceremony began. To the left of the cushion, also covered, was a writing kit, with a brush, ricepaper, and an ink block. Behind the cushion was a stand that held Arashikaze's katana; next to the stand, Inuyasha waited with more patience than Kagome had ever seen him use.
From a tent to the right, Arashikaze stepped out. He wore a white kimono. He walked slowly to the tatami mats and knelt on the cushion. He returned his command's deep bow, then reached over and uncovered the writing kit. He studied the ricepaper for a moment, then quickly wrote bold kanji characters on it. Nodding his satisfaction, he set the paper aside, covered it again, and waited.
Sango, her black catsuit cleaned and repaired, stood and uncovered another bundle at the front of the tatamis. She hobbled forward, keeping the pain off her face in respect to her former foe, and set a tray before Arashikaze. They exchanged bows, then the ronin filled the small cup with a flask of warmed sake. He drained it in the required four sips, then put it back. Sango bowed and returned to her seat.
Next, Yamada, who was doing his best not to cry, got up and walked into the tent. He reappeared a moment later, with another tray in his hands. This one held Arashikaze's wakizashi, wrapped tightly in paper, with only a few inches of brilliant steel showing at the point. He set it before Arashikaze, bowed, then knelt behind his commander.
Arashikaze looked at the sword for a long moment, then resolutely picked it up. He raised his eyes to his men before him. "For what has happened here in the past few days, and for the deaths of thirty of my men, twelve of the wolf youkai, and those villagers that have died, I take full responsibility and will commit seppuku. I ask your forgiveness, and thank you for your long service under my command. Lord Fujii is in command until Lord Ishikawa returns. He will take command of the Storm. I expect you to serve him with the same loyalty and honor that you have shown me." His gaze settled on Kagome, then Kikyo, Kaede, and Sango. "For those that I have caused harm, I also ask your forgiveness. Convey to Lord Kouga what has happened here." He bowed deeply once more and had it returned. When he had straightened, he shrugged off his kimono. "Lord Inuyasha. Are you ready?"
"Yes, sir," Inuyasha replied.
"Strike cleanly. And get Naraku."
Kagome saw the blade glint in the pale light thrown by the torches as Arashikaze picked it up. Next to her, Miroku had closed his eyes and chanted sutras, praying. As the ronin lord raised the sword towards his bared stomach, she saw Inuyasha unsheath Tetsusaiga. For an instant, it was the old, worn katana, then it shimmered to its full size, several square feet of glowing blade. As Arashikaze plunged the blade into his side, she forced herself to watch, even as Arashikaze calmly made two cuts across his belly and Tetsusaiga fell cleanly. Only after that did she allow herself to cry.
Three hours later, the ronin were gone. They had packed up and left in the drizzle, leaving their wounded in Kikyo's care for now. Neither side had said much after Arashikaze's death; there wasn't much to say. The village was unnaturally quiet and somber.
Inuyasha sat in his tree, oblivious to the misty rain that plastered his white hair around his head and shoulders and caused his ears to droop comically. Tetsusaiga, cleaned of Arashikaze's blood, was cradled in his arms and he was, uncharacteristically, lost in thought.
"Inuyasha!" Kagome called out.
Stupid girl, he thought. She's going to get sick again, running around in that damn little outfit of hers. Well, at least she didn't osuwari me out of the tree this time. He leapt down. "You should be inside."
"You missed dinner." Kagome held a steaming plate of food, helpfully covered by a straw hat. She was covered by a robe that looked like she had borrowed from Kaede, so at least she was dry, and the Goshimboku did a good job of keeping the rain out.
"None of us were. Not even Shippo." Arashikaze had insisted that the kitsune watch the seppuku ceremony. Shippo had not cried before or afterwards. Kagome set the food aside and leaned against the tree. "Arashikaze left his swords to Shippo. He said that Shippo had proved himself to be samurai. I guess he didn't have any family to leave them to. That's sad."
Inuyasha leaned next to her, and she snuggled against him for warmth. He didn't mind. "Did you read his death haiku?"
Wordlessly, he pulled it from the sleeve of his hakama and handed to her. The old-style kanji was not easy for her to read, but she managed to puzzle it out:
A long path ridden
The fields slicked with blooded fate
Cruel rain wipes it clean.
Kagome felt the tears coming and angrily brushed them away, returning the parchment to Inuyasha. "Dammit," she struggled out. "It was all for nothing, Inuyasha. We didn't even get a jewel shard out of it. A lot of people that could have been our friends are dead, and Kouga lost a lot of his tribe." She snorted derisively. "You didn't even get a thanks, hello, or...or...a 'fuck you' from Kikyo!" Kagome stamped her foot. "The least she could have done was acknowledge your presence!"
Inuyasha had been thinking about that one. Actually, Kikyo had acknowledged him, when they were preparing for the ceremony. She had walked towards him, and her normal glacial exterior had melted somewhat, just for him and him alone. She had given him the old shy smile that invariably set his heart hammering in his chest, then lightly touched his cheek in passing. But the hand had been ice cold. He shut that away; the last thing he wanted now was an argument with Kagome. "I don't want to talk about it," he said honestly. "Not right now." Kagome's fury evaporated, for which she was somewhat glad; one part of her was very happy that Kikyo hadn't talked to Inuyasha.
"Besides, we did get something out of all this crap."
"We're still alive."
Kagome considered that for a moment. "Well, I suppose that is something. The village is still there too. That's good."
Inuyasha put a hand out. "Hey, I think the rain stopped." He stepped out from under the shelter of the big tree. "Huh, how about that."
Kagome followed him and saw what he was looking at. In the distance, over the mountains, the sun had broken through for one brief, shining moment before it would descend into darkness. She put her arms around Inuyasha and hugged him, watching the sunset. They were silent for a long moment, then she spoke. "You're right. It wasn't for nothing."
"This is not the end, or even the beginning of the end. It is, however, the end of the beginning."