Queen of the Forest

Disclaimer: Don't own Inuyasha, no way. Please hit the magic blue button!

Chapter 2: Echoes and Hopes

Wind whistled through the branches of a ghostly forest, skeletal trees looming over a sea of ash and stone. Sorrow reigned profound among the scorched wood, a sense of duty never fulfilled; a life never lived as it should have been. This fount of empty promises, once full of vigorous life, lay in tired silence; a shell of what it had been before the fires came and burned away its innocence.

Kikyo knelt amid the ruins of a formerly great oak tree, and let the sad stories of the forest mingle with her own. The pains of betrayal had left their mark on its soul to be certain; the air was filled with suspicion and barely contained icy wrath. Strange kinship seemed to draw her here often, the need to once again know the terrible fate incarnated in the stunted fauna; the fate that she knew would be her own as well. The sun that had filled them with life, that had sustained them for so long, had suddenly grown too bright. Blazing like flame it had hung in the sky, until smaller flames had kindled in the dying grass, burning away all that had once made it so beautiful. Now the trees bent themselves away from the light, hunched and blackened in defiance of their traitorous benefactor. No animals roamed underneath them, no streams flowed through them.

The dead forest trusted nothing.

Now the branches were brittle and their ends sharp with the lust for vengeance. Thorny vines hung everywhere, covering any pleasant place to sit, any stump that could be leaned on, the stones littering the ground were razor-edged with malice. Everything was shriveled and harsh, like old men who had seen more than their share of the world's cruelties. Bitter laughter seemed to ride upon the tentative breeze, filled with mirth at the miseries of those still cursed with living. The forest was filled with hate.

Kikyo knew this place very well. It was in the shade of this once so mighty oak where, so many years ago, she had caught a red-clad hanyou snitching some of her dinner from the fire.

This was where she had met Inuyasha.

As rays of pale sunlight fell into the clearing, Kikyo's thoughts drifted back, so far back… Back to a time when her eyes showed her the better of the world's colors, when her legs would have burned with pain at the thorns she knelt on, when her ears were not so full of lies, when her heart didn't look so much like this forest… When the world was younger, and loss wasn't always on her mind.

To a time when she'd actually had something to lose.

It was all so clear in her mind, like the last fifty years had never happened, like all the horrors of betrayal and death she had seen were some bad dream. The power in the mountains as she stood at their heights, the fresh air of new and far away places filling her lungs, the gentle strength of her love's arms around her…all so real in some corner of her mind. It was a blissful dream, but the truth of her past never ceased to make it a nightmare. She could almost feel the lies strangling her, the happy endings that had never happened leaving a sick pit in her stomach. So often she would wish for the shame and fear to leave, for the terrible dreams to subside; but just as often waking up changed her mind, made her heart plead for the lies to come back.

The waking world was the real nightmare.

At that moment, Kikyo wanted nothing more than to feel tired; blessedly, eternally tired. But she felt nothing save a muted wistfulness echoing through the hollows of her soul, nothing except a feeling of nothingness. A twinge of despair tugged at the Miko. A part of her felt sufficiently alive, but in her sham of a heart she knew she was dead. She had died years ago, because she thought her love had betrayed her, because she hadn't trusted Inuyasha or her own heart enough to see through Naraku's lies. So many years on guard, on the lookout for ambush as she ate slept, bathed…She had had little choice, but it was still true. The inability to trust had been her greatest fault.

And now it was all she was.

In silence, Kikyo looked down at her hands, so deceivingly soft and delicate. She was quite pretty, but she found herself the height of revolting. The body she dwelled in was just an earthen cage keeping her from her rightful rest. This existence was injustice. She had been a good person, why was she trapped in everything she had never wanted to be? Everything she had once been was packed up and shipped out to a girl hundreds of years in the future; to her heiress, as it should be. But she was still here! Kagome got everything, her powers, her body, her love, her very soul…

And Kikyo was left with nothing, only a revenge she knew was wrong and this accursed emptiness.

Kikyo gazed up at the harsh sun, letting it punish her clouded eyes. The moisture that filed them was as close as she would get to the tears she wanted to cry anyway. She was gone from the heart of her heart, and some girl with her face was there instead. She wanted her eyes burnt from their sockets, wanted the heart in her dead chest to stop beating forever to end the torment. All that was in her was nothing, not even enough to make her care. All her cold hands wanted was Inuyasha's throat in their grasp, some way to stop the lies that kept dominion over her fragment of a soul. Had this always been her fate, even when she lay alongside her hanyou in this same forest and dreamt of happiness? It didn't matter; all the hopes she had once clung to were dead, just like the forest was.

Just like she was.

All she was and all that had been hers was gone, and she couldn't even utter a real tear in remembrance.

Emptiness howled like a desert wind inside her, longing for something to stand in its path, for something amidst the desolation to block its way. So alone… When all you lived was a lie, what could you do? If this muted existence was all she had, then all she could do was end it; and that called for Inuyasha's death. But somewhere inside she knew that, no matter what Naraku had told her, to kill Inuyasha would be like plunging a knife into her own breast. To end this death, she had to kill herself, had to sell herself to hell.

She heaved a sigh. Was there any avoiding that now? Was there any hope of salvation for her now, any chance at escaping an eternal furnace? So much of her had been good before, couldn't that goodness save her now? But no, her innocence had left her the first time she died, fifty years ago. All that could have saved her was all that Kagome was, and should have been all that Kikyo has been, if life was fair.

But fair had died long before Kikyo had.

Kagome had a clean and kind heart; one not scarred by great responsibility as Kikyo's had been. Her eyes were never sad, but always full of a hope she didn't even understand. Her hands were still soft enough to comfort; her lips still young enough to loose laughter. Maybe her shot with a bow wasn't as accurate, maybe her legs couldn't take her for miles without wear, but her heart could sustain her all her life. Her life, her path, had molded her into something Kikyo could never have become, and it made Kikyo's heart ache. Kagome was more than the better part of what she had been, Kikyo less than the worst, nothing but bloodlust and sorrow. She wanted so badly to hate Kagome, for being what was lost to her forever, for stealing the heart that had been hers, but she knew how much good it would do. She was dead; all she could do was want.

She wanted Inuyasha, but in her state could never have him back; she wanted to die, but the only way she could was by killing him; she wanted peace, but now it was lost to her forever. In every human heart there are such longings, but Kikyo's heart was nothing but these needs and aches.

What had she ever done to deserve this?

Impossibly acute pain and bitter sorrow beat into her back, crushing her into the charred ground. Despair drove her face into the ashes. Without purpose, without feeling, what was the point? She might as well lie in the dirt until time stopped; at least that would stall burning in hellfire for a while.

The twisted, stunted trees leered over Kikyo's racking body, offering her some shelter from the piercing light of the sun. She took a slight comfort in their sparse shade, and slowly began to relax under the protection of her bent brethren. The embrace of the scorched earth was almost like that of a mother, deeply saddened. Kikyo buried her face in the sterile soils of the forest, seeking out the only consolation the world could offer its broken child.

In this state, she barely noticed when the music started to play.

Sluggishly, low chords pierced through the scorched forest walls, crawling along on the quiet breeze to dance about her back. Though the song was slow, there was no sorrow in it, only a dreamlike wonder Kikyo faintly remembered from her childhood; an eternity ago now… It was the feeling of cool waters on your skin when you swam in the river, the mischievous power you felt when your mother yelled for you to come inside and you pretended not to hear, the warmth of the sun in the evening hours when light was just bidding the Earth farewell…all just a dream now, but still real in her tired ears.

Wistful hope rang in the Miko's ears as dream flooded her conscientiousness.

The world she then entered was muted and still, like a painting long abandoned in some artist's attic, began as something beautiful, but never completed, barely alive. A motionless field of dead grass lay before her, from one horizon to another nothing but silent death. The sky above her was cloudless, and seemed constantly to be changing, though not in any visible way. Kikyo glanced up at the flutter of a bird's wings, but saw only shadows, tossed about by the wind like the pieces of nothing they were. The dim light of the dream world seemed made by a cloaked sun; there, but faint. The occasional tawny-leafed tree stood as tall as it could stretch itself, reaching for the faded light that sustained it. Incompleteness hung over the place like a tattered gray veil, and forlorn longing clogged Kikyo's lungs.

In this shell of a place, the music was all the louder.

The hopeful tune widened out, expanding into an ocean of promises characterized by a lightly flowing melody. The vastness of the world, both its lies and most beautiful truths, swam through Kikyo's thoughts. This was the feeling she had yearned for, what she had hoped to achieve by walking the ancient places of the earth, by reaching into the ground and the skies and the seas; all she had wanted was this answer. She should've felt joy, the greatest satisfaction and fulfillment that she'd found what she had searched for so hard, but those dreams were still in a time when cool winds still pushed at her back, or at least when she could feel them, when she was still alive. She shut her eyes as the chorus thinned into a soft yet determined minor; a path chosen, a fate decided.

The single line playing was dazzling beautiful, but terribly lonely as well. Hints of quiet remorse tinged the music, longing for more to its song, but dutifully continued on, living without. As time wore on, strong, low harmonies entered the music, supporting the tentatively firm soloist. With dutiful certainty they followed, growing all the while in number until a full orchestration backed the original melody. The beauty in it made Kikyo feel alive, though she knew she was not, a lie. In the awe of the song of her life, she couldn't make herself care.

Nor could she open her eyes long enough to see the silent shadow of a woman that was slowly approaching her.

As the mysterious watcher drew closer, her appearance became more and more unlike any woman Kikyo had ever encountered. She was garbed in an ebony kimono, dark but with an otherworldly sheen. The shadowy outlines of trees graced her obi. A mantle that looked much like a forlorn rain cloud settled about her humbly set shoulders. But under all the humility of her body and simplicity of her garb lay a great and incomprehensible confidence, a higher purpose that made her slightly bent back seem gracefully straight. There was something about the woman that seemed to defy the reality in which she supposedly existed.

Kikyo wanted badly to see the face of such a woman, but an unexplainable mist veiled it.

The sun seemed to be setting behind her, waning with her every movement, and in her wake white flowers grew from the brambles. Her approach was slow, but her steps were not sluggish. Every footfall held a conviction that Kikyo had never felt, like the woman held some knowledge that she never could. Strength and power fell off her in waves like she had never before seen; yet something about her beautiful visitor felt familiar…

Her silent watcher came to a halt two feet from her face. Oddly, Kikyo felt no discomfort at the nearness, only an overpowering curiosity.

At long last she was standing face to face with her, wishing with all of her to reach out and see what it was that lay in the heart of this amazing stranger. Such childish desperation for answers filled her; years of training in the art of calm burning away as she gazed into the fog that hid her companion's face. The robed stranger seemed to personify the questions lying in the depths of her heart, and despite the foolery of it, Kikyo couldn't bring herself to look away. But staring gave her no answers. She opened her mouth to speak, but the woman held up an elegantly pale hand. For a moment, there was naught but lukewarm silence between them, but finally the watcher chose to speak.

"I am the life and the death that roams amidst the trees of the world; both the shadow in the darkest of their corners and the searing light above them on the brightest of their days. I come only to those who interrupt my peace, and you are one such." Stern surety rang in the chime of her voice, self-assurance filling the space between them. There was no boredom in her tone, only complete confidence in what she was doing. Her eyes seemed to look right through Kikyo, and with a tilted head she confirmed this. "You have a yearning. Voice it." Her tone left no room for anything but honest obedience.

The bluntness with which she was addressed threw Kikyo back a little, but in the midst of confusion she managed to find her voice. Some questions had been drifting through her mind, but which to ask?

With some struggle, the Miko raised her voice.

"What is this place? Why do I meet you in this waste?"

The woman looked at her with lofty curiosity.

"Follow."

Kikyo felt she had no choice but to follow in her companion's gliding footsteps.

As they went on, Kikyo saw the fading twilight of the world shrinking back, until they came upon a great, blackened pit. The place stank of loneliness, but barely poking above the ground were some tentative plants, a smidgen of moss here and there. The woman lifted an elegant hand to encompass the whole area.

"The forest is life and death at its finest, as you can here see. Exquisite death lies in its poisons, right alongside the luscious life of its glade; both perfect opposites, both the cancellation of each other, yet still in a tolerant coexistence. Though life holds back death and death crushes life, all that dies gives way to new life, and all that lives will one day die. Life and death are not enemies as you might think; it is unwise to try and give primitive concepts human attributes. Here, in this place, death is the herald of a new life." She paused for a moment. "As to your previous question, I find it helpful to meet ones such as yourself on familiar turf. Though this place is only a metaphor of its true nature, it is a place you know very well."

Kikyo did have to quietly admit that something about the great pit with its feeble vegetation rang a bell, though she couldn't quite place it.

"Enough lectures on philosophy: what is this place minus the 'metaphor'?"

For a moment the woman looked at her in curious silence

"Where you meet me is in your own heart."

Kikyo jerked terribly. This was what she looked like inside, this dim lit emptiness. But wasn't this what she had expected? Why would a lifeless wreck like her be any different? Perhaps she had taken Inuyasha's foolish insistence that she was as she had been too seriously. When had she become so naïve? This was all she was, and she was a cursed fool for having thought anything else.

The woman examined Kikyo's clenched fists with little surprise. Beneath her shroud, a slight smile formed.

"Peace is what you need little lost one, peace. Do not be so foolish as to refuse it when it is offered. I cannot give you what you need, only show you where to find it."

Kikyo showed no sign of comprehension, nor that she noted the woman's words at all. With a sigh, her companion cradled her head in her hands.

"Look up at me now. When you cannot see yourself from your end, a visit to the other side of the mirror will do you good."

Obediently, Kikyo gazed into the twilight veil that hid the face of her guide through her heart and saw a near duplicate of her own.

Kagome.

Though questions swarmed her thoughts and swam in her eyes, the woman didn't seem to give a care. With naught but a shrouded smile, she faded into nothing, once again one with her forest.

Confusion reigned and cold seeped into Kikyo's bones as the dream left her…

Her breathing was ragged when she pulled her face from the ashes, and no doubt ailed her as to whether there was any truth in her ordeal. The woman had been cryptically clear: now was the time to find her dear mirror image, and see what meanings there could be in the mysterious ramblings of her dreams.

But as Kikyo drew herself up from the blackened earth, she knew it wasn't curiosity or vengeance that drove her to seek out the girl she least wanted to see. It was something she was now unfamiliar with, something she thought a terrible living death had driven from her heart. She wasn't sure what to call it, but she was sure that she had been told she had some chance of finding peace at last.

She thought the feeling was hope.