Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this epic turmoil... especially for the one who finds the strength they need. A nod of recognition is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.
Miroku grimly focused on maintaining the barrier that kept Rin, Shippo, and their two recovering wolf comrades safe, but it was growing more and more difficult to watch from the sidelines as his friends struggled for their lives. Witnessing Sesshoumaru's sacrifice had rattled him enough to weaken his defenses, and as if sensing their increased vulnerability, several of the straggling demon horde swarmed closer. Diving in from all sides, they brushed up against the barrier's shimmering surface, testing its limits.
Jaken helped fend them off, sending gouts of fire into the air with the Staff of Two Heads. His height gave him a slight advantage; the imp was a small target with a clear view of their attackers' unprotected underbellies. Shouting insults as he wielded the nintoujou, Sesshoumaru's retainer singed the fur off a snarling demon with boar's tusks and blistered the skin of a one-eyed serpent.
The beasts came thick and fast, and for several long moments, the monk feared for the little youkai's safety, but help arrived from another quarter. Kohaku had spotted their predicament and, with a shout, came charging in on his two-headed cavalry. Lightning blazed from Ah-Un's mouths, and the few demons that survived the dragon's onslaught scattered.
Ah-Un landed, and when Kohaku dismounted, he reached for the two injured wolves he'd lifted away from the battlefield. At a low whine from the one in the worst shape, Kouga pushed up into a crouch, his tail switching against the ground as he scrutinized his wounded packmates. A low growl rumbled through his chest, but he curbed his frustration when he noted Rin's eyes solemnly fixed on his face. "Look... kid... I'm not going to hurt you," Kouga promised.
She nodded and said, "Sesshoumaru-sama brought Kouga-sama here, so Rin is safe."
He seemed impressed by the childish simplicity of her logic. Glancing towards the sky, he addressed Miroku. "Right... let me out. I've got wounded to tend."
"Me, too," Ginta interjected, scrabbling onto his knees beside his leader.
Kouga huffed and asked, "Sure about that?"
"Don't worry about me," his packmate muttered.
Moving stiffly, Kouga and Ginta hurried to Kohaku's side, and the pack leader gently pulled the battered she-wolf into his arms. She whimpered softly and licked her alpha's hand. Ginta limped to the taijiya's side to check on the wolf-demon Kohaku had already moved to the ground. "He's still breathing," the taijiya said worriedly as he added pressure to a wicked-looking slash on the unconscious wolf's flank.
Ginta gratefully grasped the boy's shoulder and remarked, "His heartbeat's steady; if we patch him up, he'll be good as new in a day or two."
"Oh... that's good," Kohaku murmured.
"Bring them both here," Miroku directed, his eyes darting between the sky and the field below. "I don't want to leave them in the open. Shippo, push the circle wider, then find more bandages." As they rearranged their supplies to make room for more, the monk met Kohaku's concerned gaze and said, "I'll shelter as many as you can bring back."
Kouga carried the she-wolf past Jaken and lay her at Rin's feet. "This is Fuuka. Will you keep an eye on her until I get back?"
Wide brown eyes met piercing blue, then the little girl smiled. "Yes, Kouga-sama!"
Before Miroku could reinstate the barrier, the pack leader leapt clear. Pointing to Kohaku, he ordered, "Bring the rest to Ginta."
Miroku frowned deeply and gently protested, "If you go, you will only reopen your wounds."
With a wave of one hand, Kouga replied, "My pack needs me... and yours too, by the look of it." He bent low, then bounced on the balls of his feet. Through the faint shimmer of the barrier, he quirked his brows at Rin. "Don't worry, kid. That guy will probably be fine."
"Sesshoumaru-sama is strong," she bravely agreed.
Looking away for a moment, he took a long breath before facing her squarely. "This is the first time I've had the chance to apologize to someone I regret killing. For what it's worth, I'm sorry for what my pack did."
The wolf-youkai nodded curtly, then added, "Tell you what. Your Sesshoumaru-sama did me a favor... how about I get down there and return it?" Rin nodded a little uncertainly, and Kouga grinned confidently. "Right... watch and see. I'll get him back for you!"
As the taiyoukai disappeared into the sprawling mass of Naraku's body, a shout rose from the rise above the battlefield, but Kagome couldn't tell if it was in sympathy or alarm. "No!" she exclaimed once more, waiting impatiently for the taiyoukai to tear free. "No," she repeated, more softly but no less earnestly.
All she really wanted to do in that moment was reach Sesshoumaru before he was truly consumed by their enemy, so she started forward, intent on finding him. Emotions welled up only to shatter, forming disjointed pleas. This is wrong! We need him! He can't be gone! Not like this! Warning barks from the wolf pack filled the air as she numbly scanned for signs of struggle, but it wasn't until Inuyasha's voice filtered through that she realized her mistake.
"Go, Kagome! Get out of there!"
Tentacles rippled towards her across the ground, twining around her ankles to prevent her retreat. Kagome wriggled and pulled, trying to slip free from flesh that twisted like vines. "I can't!"
"Hang on! I'm coming!" the hanyou hollered, spearing Naraku's ever-shifting form with his sword.
Appendages rose like waves and slapped Inuyasha back, keeping him at bay while the miko was reeled in. Kagome's grip on her bow shifted, and the weapon was plucked from her grasp. Her quiver and arrows went next, and as she was hoisted upwards, she also lost one shoe. Fear redoubled her efforts to escape, but Naraku drew her inexorably closer, smiling down on her the whole time, like a congenial host. "Inuyasha!" she cried out.
"Kagome!" he desperately answered. More tentacles wrapped around his legs, impeding his progress as whip-like strands caught at his arms, twisting them back as they grappled for control of Tetsusaiga. He cursed volubly as rising coils swiftly carried her out of range.
The world turned upside down, and for a little while Kagome wasn't sure which way was up; her long tumble ended with a jarring thud, and for an instant, she thought she was saved. However, her relief died, for the broad chest against which she leaned was bare... and the arms that folded around her were jointed like an insects. "It's all right now, Kagome," Naraku murmured in a parody of reassurance. "You can relax; I've got you."
He caressed every syllable of her name, letting it drop from his lips with an intimacy that made her cringe. Horror robbed her of any response.
"I'll get you out of there, Kagome!" Inuyasha called.
The growled promise reached her ears, but more miasma blackened the sky, weighting the very air with hatred and forcing fear down their throats. "Empty promises," taunted Naraku. "How many have you made, and to how many women?"
"You don't know nothing!"
"I've made you a liar before, and I can do it again," Naraku smoothly replied. "Today, history shall repeat itself
"Hell, yeah! You're gonna die all over again!"
"On the contrary, Inuyasha," their enemy gently chided. "You shall fail, and I will be reborn."
"Not happening," snarled the inu-hanyou.
"Oh, it's already happening. I will succeed where you failed," chuckled Naraku.
Kagome had never been this close to Naraku before. He'd stalked them from a distance, using puppets and pawns to harry their steps, yet he spoke to her as if he knew her. "Take courage, Kagome. We are about to fulfill our destinies." They were soft words, gentle as a lover's, and they made her skin crawl.
Handsome. Confident. Charismatic. He was all of these things, but his deep red eyes served as an unsettling reminder that Naraku's beautiful face was only a figurehead. An eerie cacophony rose on every side—sucking, clicking, grinding. As his malformed body shifted around her, and the sweet smell of decay undercut the spicy scent of the expensive oils he used. Another imperfect mask. If their enemy clung to any shred of his former humanity, it was certainly his vanity.
"Sister! Sister!" shouted Hakkaku. "We're coming! Hang on!"
Kagome planted her hands against Naraku's chest and turned as much as she could to see what was happening. The mohawk-crested wolf demon directed his packmates in a vicious assault, working to free Inuyasha, and they obviously planned to rescue her as well. Hope stirred in her heart as four-legged wolf-youkai charged over the heaving hillocks of Naraku's sprawled form; however, to her utter dismay, the flesh shifted like waves, sometimes swelling to bury an opponent, dragging them under to drown in the amalgam.
All around Kagome, grunts and yelps heralded the end of more lives, and though the carnage deeply disturbed her, she couldn't look away from the many sacrifices being made for her sake. I need to stop them... to stop this! The wolves weren't an unlimited resource, nor were they nameless, faceless minions. These are Kouga's packmates, his family. Kagome may not have known them personally, but that didn't make it any easier to watch them die. In fact, it made her feel worse for never taking the time to get to know them better.
Why are they throwing their lives away to free me? They were dying to reach her—one after the next, sucked down, speared through, or strangled. The answer was simple... and horrible. They were giving everything they had to save her because only she could save them. All of them needed her to purify the Shikon no Tama. In the bleakest of views, her survival was essential; everyone else was expendable... and she couldn't stand it. "No! Stay back!" she screamed.
"That's right, Kagome," Naraku murmured in her ear. "Send them away; you're right where you belong."
Inuyasha snarled as he clawed impotently at his restraints, infuriated by the poisonous words spilling from Naraku's lips. Don't believe that asshole, Kagome, he silently begged. He's filling your head with lies.
The hanyou brought up Tetsusaiga in time to deflect a blow, but his range was limited by the endless twisting tentacles. When a rigid spine rose up and took aim for his unguarded side, Inuyasha braced for the inevitable impact, but just then, Kouga entered the fray feet first. He jammed one heel into the oncoming spike, knocking it from its course before landing beside Inuyasha. "What're you doing here?" the hanyou demanded ungraciously.
"Hey, Mutt-Face," replied the wolf with a cocky grin. "I came down here to haul you and your sorry ass out of trouble."
"You ain't up for this," snapped Inuyasha, eyeing the wolf demon's blood-streaked clothing.
Kouga spun and kicked upwards, shattering a set of pincers that lunged their way. "Wanna bet?" he challenged. The pack leader turned his attention to the snarl of flesh anchoring Inuyasha, tearing through it with his claws.
Wrenching free, the hanyou grunted his thanks, then lofted his gleaming blade. "Keh... see if you can keep up."
While Naraku used Kagome as a shield, Inuyasha couldn't use the Wind Scar, but that didn't stop him from laying about with his sword; and the removal of Kouga's shards may have slowed him down a little, but he'd healed enough to make a nuisance of himself. Since the two of them were fighting for Kagome instead of over her, they made a surprisingly good team.
"Where's that brother of yours?" Kouga asked as hook-like appendages slashed through the space he'd occupied a moment before.
"In there somewhere," Inuyasha replied, nodding towards their foe.
"Been there, done that."
Working in tandem, they hacked away at Naraku's defenses, searching for weak links. Their opponent was nothing more than the sum of his parts, held together by hatred and fear. Though they were able to damage portions, Naraku simply cast off his disappointments, bringing new pieces into play. We ain't doing much, but at least we're pissing him off.
Red eyes narrowed in irritation as their enemy adjusted his plans to accommodate the new player. "I should have killed you when I had the opportunity," Naraku remarked in disdain.
"You're the one who said I was indigestible," countered Kouga as he narrowly avoided evisceration.
Inuyasha skipped out of the path of a lumbering blow, only to step into the path of a second strike; Kagome screamed a warning, and Kouga spun in time to intercept, slicing through the spear of flesh with his sword. "You actually use that thing?" Inuyasha muttered once he put himself at Kouga's back.
"It's not just for show!" boasted the wolf.
With every renewed charge, they made headway towards Kagome, but Naraku took obvious pleasure in demonstrating that their progress was an exercise in futility. He gave them ground, and then he took it away, sending them back to square one.
A rain of energy bolts seared through the air as Ah-Un passed low overhead, briefly distracting Naraku. Kouga saw his opening and leapt towards Kagome, but their enemy was waiting. Like a cat toying with a mouse, he batted the wolf into the air, then swatted him down, driving him into the unforgiving ground. Kouga pushed himself onto his forearms and drew up one knee as he wiped blood from the corner of his mouth. His tail lashed, and cold fury burned in his blue eyes.
The hair raised on the back of Inuyasha's neck as red skimmed across the wolf-youkai's eyes. Although he held onto his human form, Kouga's youki spiked, and his face twisted with a feral snarl as he regained his feet. He better not do something stupid just because he's riled. With a worried glance at Kagome, the hanyou called, "Don't do anything half-assed, idiot!"
"Don't talk to me about halves, mutt," Kouga replied roughly.
The inu-hanyou, who'd kept his position by driving Tetsusaiga into Naraku's heaving bulk, gritted his teeth and snapped his attention back to their mutual foe. Plenty of time to teach him a lesson after we get Kagome out of there.
Naraku slashed out at Kouga once more, but he planted his hand on the ground and brought his leg around, snapping off the appendage with a sickening crunch. Inuyasha knew beyond a shadow of doubt that the wolf had never looked on him with such hatred; he fought like the demon he was.
Although his lungs were burning from the weight of the miasma in the atmosphere, Inuyasha drove himself to continue. Tightening his hold on Tetsusaiga's hilt, he charged back into the fray without grace or caution. Can't let that idiot wolf get all the glory.
Kagome tried to tear herself away, but the set of knobby insect legs pinned her against the bare chest at her back. "Struggle if you must, but you'll only injure yourself," Naraku warned. She glanced at him over her shoulder, and red eyes confidently met her gaze—challenging her, laughing at her, accusing her. "You're not much of a consolation prize. You're nothing like her."
A memory prodded at her, a rumor from fifty years ago, information Miroku had passed along. Onigumo, the thief who became Naraku, had desired Kikyou. It was like a slap in the face, having the same old thing thrust upon her again. Kikyou is the one he sees. Kikyou is the one he wants. Frowning deeply, she said, "I'm not her. You killed her."
"And yet you came back," he rejoined, hungrily searching her countenance. "I don't know whether to thank you... or to hate you." His voice dropped lower and he murmured, "You brought this on me."
"I didn't," Kagome argued. "I'm not her!"
"You are here," he went on, ignoring her protests. "You came back to me, brought me the Shikon no Tama. You've been searching for me, pursuing me. Whether you acknowledge it or not, Kagome, I am your destiny; this is our fate."
He could be so convincing, but he couldn't be right. They weren't the fated ones. Naraku had never loved Kikyou. Kagome doubted he was capable of love any longer, neither as a man, nor as a person. On the verge of death, he'd thrown away his humanity, driven by base desires. All that remained was a twisted thing, and his wishes were being warped by the very Jewel that promised to make them come true.
"You're wrong," she retorted, letting him see her distaste and her disdain. Again, she twisted away from him, scraping away a layer of skin in her bid for freedom. For a moment, Kagome thought she might slip free, but Naraku only loosened his grasp in order to turn her in his embrace. Finding herself face-to-face with a nightmare, she redoubled her efforts, on the verge of panic.
Gentle fingers pushed into her hair, tightening suddenly as he forced her to look at him. "Now, Kagome," he tenderly scolded. "You'll only worry them, filling the air with the scent of your blood." She choked on her retort when he brought his other hand up to stroke her face, for as his fingers trailed down her throat towards her chest, elongated claws sliced delicately across bare skin, drawing blood with each tender stroke. Gazing intently into her widening eyes, he whispered, "And your fear."
He's trying to hurt them through me! Anger stirred, a fury that would have been impotent if it weren't for the surge of spiritual power that swirled up like rosy flames.
Instantly, his fingers closed around her throat and dark energy roared around her. "None of that," he said with saccharine sweetness. "It would be dangerous for your friends."
A sharp cry of pain came from the direction of her would-be rescuers, and Naraku turned her enough to see Kouga hauling Inuyasha off what looked like a giant thorn that simply melted back into the amalgam as soon as the hanyou was pulled free.
"Inuyasha!" she cried.
"Very dangerous," Naraku murmured, chuckling darkly as the inu-hanyou clutched his gut and spat blood.
Kagome stared in abject dismay as the implications quenched her ire. If I try to purify him, he's done toying with them. If I retaliate, they're dead. She was sure things couldn't get any worse when blood-slicked fingertips slipped under the collar of her shirt, boldly questing.
"What have we here?" Naraku inquired, affecting surprise as he withdrew the small vial of shards. The tiny, pink fragments rattled against the sides of the jar, reacting to the presence of the rest of the Shikon no Tama. "Such a generous gift. I should reward you!" he exclaimed mockingly. "Which one shall I kill last?"
She gritted her teeth, refusing to answer as he poured the contents of the jar into the palm of one hand.
"You can tell me," he coaxed. "Will it be Inuyasha? Or do you prefer the wolf?"
"It's not like that!"
"Ah! So it's the older brother after all?" he inquired lightly. "For shame, Kagome. Stringing along so many males."
"Don't talk that way about my friends!" she snapped.
For an instant, Naraku looked surprised, but not by her. His gaze flicked towards the sky where a white feather hovered in the distance. Sneering at it, he said, "Don't play at innocence. A woman's heart is a fickle thing."
"You don't know anything about my heart!"
With a smirk, he replied, "On the contrary, your heart is bared before me. It is a traitorous thing, but I shall soon hold it in my hand." Thus saying, he pressed the shards one-by-one into his skin. The flesh molded around each piece, drawing them deeper, and she could 'see' them being carried into his body where they joined the nearly-completed sphere.
"What are you planning to do with the Jewel?" she whispered.
Raising his brows, he inquired, "Why do you want the Jewel, Kagome?"
"I want to make things right," she answered in a low voice.
"So do I," he replied. "We both want the same thing!"
"You want to reshape this world... to put everything back to the way it should be," he supplied. "You want reality to match your expectations, and in that, we are exactly the same."
"N-no!" she asserted once more. Kagome was dimly aware of Inuyasha's voice thundering through the haze, but his words were drowned out by Naraku's reassurances—promises wrapped up in lies, truth twisted into pretty patterns. They wound around her like spider's silk, trapping her heart and filling it with doubts.
Suddenly a zing of youki from deep within the dark hanyou's bulk stung her senses. It only took a moment to assign a name to that cold fury. Sesshoumaru-sama! Her eyes widened, then narrowed as she glared at Naraku. "Sesshoumaru-sama is still alive!" she exclaimed, appalled that she'd believed her captor for even a moment.
"Yes... your precious taiyoukai is trying to rear his pretty head," he admitted. "Does that please you?"
Reaching out from within, she found the Western Lord, his tightly coiled energy bright as a beacon somewhere beneath her. Kagome renewed her struggles, vehemently declaring, "You can't contain him!"
"I can, and I have," Naraku argued. "Like a fool, he threw his life away for chattel like you, but no matter. I will benefit from what strength he has."
"Sesshoumaru-sama is stronger than you could ever hope to be!" Kagome snarled. "You're nothing compared to him!"
"You dare to say such a thing when I've already defeated him?" he inquired in a hard voice. "I can end his existence at any time."
And just like that, the pulse of youki within him ebbed alarmingly. Kagome gasped in disbelief over how quickly he quelled Sesshoumaru. Why doesn't he fight back... transform... tear free?
"He's gone, Kagome. Give in."
Naraku tilted his head to one side, and with one devastating smile, he almost convinced her. After all, what was the use in trying against a foe who was strong enough to defeat Sesshoumaru?
"Now, where were we?" he mused aloud. His expression brightened, and he cheerfully said, "Oh, yes... one last shard." Kagome stopped breathing as Naraku held her gaze while lifting one hand over his head. "There it is," he said conversationally, and with a twist, she could feel it zipping towards them.
"Kohaku... no!" Sango's scream rent the air, and someone was falling.
A single shard, as precious as the life it had maintained, dropped into Naraku's palm. "No," Kagome echoed, tears welling.
Hiraikotsu wheeled past, shearing several appendages before whirling back into the sky to be caught by a warrior with overly bright eyes. Sango's whole being vibrated with hatred... and grief. "How could you?" she demanded, her voice high and hard.
"I only took back that which I gave," Naraku answered with a shrug. "His life was mine to do with as I pleased."
"You're horrible!" Kagome accused.
Naraku spared her a glace. "I haven't even begun to show you horror."
Kouga leapt to catch the limp figure that slid from Ah-Un's saddle, then carried him over to where he'd propped Inuyasha. At the sight of Kohaku's pale face, the hanyou swore softly between wheezing breaths.
"Don't bleed out," groused the wolf youkai.
"Ain't planning to," the hanyou muttered, but his scowl hardly lasted long enough to count.
With a wary glance around the field of battle, Kouga made up his mind. "I'm taking the kid to the monk. The kitsune has supplies for tending wounds."
Inuyasha stared at him blankly. "He's dead, idiot."
The wolf youkai rolled his eyes. "Your wounds, mutt. I can see your innards, and that's never a good sign. Let's go."
Blue eyes narrowed. "Your color's bad, your breathing's shallow, and your blood's all up in my fur instead of where it belongs."
"I ain't leaving Kagome," Inuyasha argued, batting grumpily at Kouga's hands. "She needs me."
"If that were the case," the wolf haughtily retorted, "I'm betting she'd prefer a live mutt to a dead one." Looking over his options, he bent over Kohaku and deftly removed the green sash that was knotted around his waist. Pulling it free, he turned to the hanyou and started wrapping.
Inuyasha ignored the treatment, his ears straining towards Kagome, who hung limply in Naraku's grasp. "Why the hell doesn't she purify his ass?" he grumbled, reaching down to touch the hilt of his brother's discarded sword. "This is taking too long!"
"How fast do you heal?" Kouga asked worriedly.
"What the hell! Did you hear that?" Inuyasha demanded, ignoring the wolf's concern. Clutching at his side as he fought to fill his lungs, he bellowed, "Kagome! Don't listen to his crap! You listen to me!"
She turned enough to give them a glimpse of her wan face, and Kouga realized the hanyou was right not to leave her... not now. Despair was plain on her face, so out of place on the woman he'd long hoped to make his own.
Inuyasha held her gaze with fierce intensity. "I'm the one who's fighting by your side, and I'm the one who's fucking gonna get back to your side!"
Kagome's surprise was apparent, and Kouga could hear her murmur, "Inuyasha?"
Drawing another ragged breath, Inuyasha exclaimed, "Don't forget what you're supposed to do, Kagome! Do what you can do, damn it!"
To Kouga's amazement, the mutt's words were enough to snap the miko out of her funk. Her shoulders straightened. Her chin came up. Her eyes flashed. The determined light in her eyes spoke of resolve.
"Finally," Inuyasha muttered, looking relieved.
As the wolf tightened the last knot on his makeshift bandage, he asked, "What?"
Gingerly testing his limits, he replied. "Kagome just remembered what she already knows."
"Kagome," Naraku soothed. "Dear, sweet, innocent Kagome... you're not a killer, are you?" Her lip curled, but his patronization continued. "Such a pure soul! You hesitate to end a life, even mine!"
"Don't be so sure!" she hissed.
He patted her head, and smiled condescendingly in the face of her outrage. "You have fire, but none of the cool detachment required to kill."
A sick lump settled in the pit of Kagome's stomach, for she feared he was right. Unless one of her friends could find a way through their enemies defenses, she would have to be the one to do something. I can't sit back and wait to be rescued. Not this time. She was at the very heart of this battle, and she might feel powerless, but that didn't mean she was. Maybe if I'm careful...? Please, don't notice.
Closing her eyes, she sought the tainted jewel that Sesshoumaru had insisted was their ultimate goal. Naraku is just an obstacle. Ignore him and focus on the Shikon no Tama! Searching her soul, Kagome caught a responding echo within Naraku's body. As always, the Jewel called to her, begging for her to find it. There!
A spark of power, undimmed and undarkened, whispered to her, but his voice in her ear was so hard to blot out. "You want me. You need me. Accept the inevitable, Kagome. Accept me."
She couldn't kindle her powers against him, for at the first sting of purity, he would turn on her and her friends, but she could try influencing the Jewel itself. Carefully, oh, so carefully, she encouraged the dim flecks of purity that stirred closer than expected. It's his heart! Or at least, he keeps it where his heart used to be! With an ironic smile, Kagome relaxed in her enemy's hold, startling them both by laying her head against his chest.
For an instant, his silver-tongued litany trailed off, but then Naraku murmured, "Wise choice, Kagome," and petted her hair as he preened.
Nestling into the parody of an embrace, she ignored his caresses, listening for the light that licked against his darkness, meddling with the balance of power, gaining greater influence. Possession of the Shikon no Tama was their mutual goal, but control might be enough. I'll steal it away from him without ever touching it... right out from under his nose!
Suddenly, Naraku's barrier faltered, then failed altogether, and the distant voices of her friends immediately sounded louder, nearer. A hoarse shout that had to be Hakkaku accompanied the growls of wolves, and a blast of electric heat fell from dragon maws, filling the air around her with the stink of burned flesh. Kagome could feel Naraku's snarl, for she still rested against his naked chest, clinging to her connection with the Shikon no Tama.
"Stop!" he demanded, wrapping his fingers around her arms and trying to force her away. "Stop this instant, or your friends will suffer!"
Kagome held on tight, blotting out all but the fear in his voice. This was what Inuyasha meant! This was the thing only she could do... had always been able to do! She could purify the Jewel of Four Souls.
Moments later, a feline scream rattled her concentration, and she opened her eyes in time to see Sango slide from Kirara's back, her brother's chain-sickle upraised. Dropping from above with an enraged howl, the taijiya drove the weapon into Naraku's back, but he showed little sign of pain. Annoyance flashed across his handsome face as Sango turned the curved blade and ripped upwards intent on snapping his spine.
It didn't work. Their enemy might maintain the trappings of humanity, but his anatomy had been vastly altered, so she only managed to crack the dark hanyou's veneer. "That won't kill me," he mocked as fragments of his back and shoulder came away. There was neither blood nor bone, only writhing flesh within an empty shell, and he laughed at her. "Ah, Sango. My condolences for your loss. Or should I say losses? There have been so many."
"You will pay for them this day," she vowed.
"On the contrary," he smoothly returned. "I will add to them until you have nothing left."
Kirara's roar of pain punctuated his promise, and he looked pointed off to one side, obviously intending Sango to follow his gaze as he leered upon the suffering of her faithful companion. However, the taijiya only winced and urgently whispered, "Where, Kagome-chan? Show me where!"
Despite everything, Sango was tenaciously sticking to the plan, and Kagome gratefully followed her lead. Under the hand that still rested lightly against Naraku's skin, light bloomed, the suffusing glow of purity betraying the Jewel's location, but the taijiya only shook her head. Miroku might have been able to see its aura, but Sango couldn't.
Just then, Inuyasha's voice rang out, his ragged bellow describing some rather creative methods of dismemberment. Naraku answered him with a lofty sneer, and with a jolt, Kagome realized that the injured hanyou was providing what cover he could. "His heart," Kagome mouthed over the ruckus, covertly pointing.
Naraku's gaze swung back towards her, then to Sango, clearly impatient with their inattentiveness. Fine tendrils of flesh rose like fresh grass all around the taijiya's boots, which had found purchase in the ridges of scales below his torso. Even as she brought back her brother's sickle for another blow, they raced up her legs and wound around her arms. The weapon was plucked from her hands, and with a disdainful smirk, Naraku turned his back on her, dismissing her with a genteel toss of dark curls. Leveling his gaze on Kagome, he murmured, "I'm disappointed in you, and yet I cannot say I'm surprised. You'll pay dearly for your pitiful attempt at deception."
He acted as if he was back in control, but Kagome knew it was a front. More than half the taint had already been purged from the Shikon no Tama, giving her the upper hand. If only I knew what to do with it, she moaned inwardly. A dull flash of metal caught her eye as Sango deployed the blade she kept hidden in her sleeve and grimly sawed through her stays. Once she was freed enough to draw the sword at her waist, her dark eyes flashed to Kagome's, silently begging for understanding.
It took several precious seconds for her to understand. The angle was bad. Even now, Naraku was using her as a shield, but the miko grasped what was needed and nodded her consent. Inuyasha would have balked. Kouga would have argued. Miroku would have looked for another way. But Sango's eyes glittered as she plunged her blade through Naraku's back.
He craned his neck and drawled, "You're as imaginative as Inuyasha, trying the same, tired tactic over and over." A wavering appendage delivered a glancing blow to the back of Sango's head, but she only grunted adjusted her grip. With arms made strong by the weight of Hiraikotsu, she angled the weapon and heaved, tearing through tough hide with sickening pops and cracks of whatever framework held Naraku together. With a slur against her morals, he bucked and buffeted her. "Give up, little fool! Your entire village was not match for me. What do you think you can accomplish alone?"
"I won't listen to you or your lies," Sango growled.
"You're going to fail!" he taunted.
"You're going to die," she retorted with harsh finality,
Her sword was slicked with ichor as she carved a gaping cavity in the place where ribs should have been. "Do you think that's where I keep my heart?" Naraku goaded. "My life cannot be so easily ended!"
"I know your heart isn't here," Sango replied through gritted teeth. "If you ever had one."
The hacking and sawing sounded awful, and Kagome felt increasingly pale as she struggled to do her part. For the moment, Naraku had forgotten her, so she tried to concentrate on the Shikon no Tama. As control of its powers slipped steadily from their enemy's grasp, his whole body shuddered, responding more and more sluggishly as he fought off the erratic rushes of Kouga's pack and intermittent bursts of dazzling power from Ah-Un's direction.
Finally, Naraku seemed to register Kagome's role in his difficulties. Jerking her hair to make her meet his gaze, his face contorted with hatred. "None of that," he reminded, and his hand fumbled for her throat.
Sango gave his hair a yank and demanded, "Let her go!"
"What... her?" Naraku laughed. "You already sacrificed her in your personal bid for revenge... or did you think this was mine?" He dramatically lifted a hand stained red by Kagome's blood.
The taijiya's expression hardened. "I know exactly what I'm doing."
"Oh?" he invited. "And what precisely do you think you can do?"
"My part!" she snarled, driving her hand into the wound she'd created and tearing loose her pound of flesh. Sango held aloft the newly-purified Shikon no Tama, and for those with the senses to see it, its perfect sphere glowed brightly against miasma-thick skies.
Naraku lurched for her, but Hakkaku was already hauling Sango up by her armpits, dragging her back towards safety. As more distance was put between Naraku and the Jewel, a tremor quaked through his many limbs, sending his mismatched body into convulsions.
Kagome retched as the sickly-sweet smell of decay billowed up around her, another sign that Naraku was being betrayed by his own flesh. Without the power of the Shikon no Tama, the bonds that held him together seemed to be deteriorating. "You traitor!" he railed, his voice high and hysterical. "Why do you deny me again!"
His hands tightened around her throat, and the insect-legs threatened to crush the breath from her lungs. Ribs creaked, and her mouth opened, reaching for her next breath without finding air. Dimly, she heard Kouga shouting her name, but she couldn't answer. Spots appeared before her eyes, and only one thought filled her mind. I want to live!
Power burst from her hands, sending three of the spiny limbs spinning, and she was able to drag in several grateful breaths. Naraku hardly seemed to notice the loss, for he was fending off attackers... and himself as well. Odd bits of his body reared up, lashing out at their head. Red eyes flashed murderously as he discarded the rebellious upstarts. His grip on Kagome slackened, and she tumbled free, sprawling backwards on a patch of scaly skin.
"Kagome!" Inuyasha called, his voice rough with worry. "You okay?"
"Inuyasha!" she answered, twisting around to locate her battle partner.
He staggered forward, and with a curse, Kouga shoved up under his arm and barked out, "We're coming!"
Holding on for dear life, Kagome watched in horrified fascination as Naraku's body ripped itself apart. It was as if pieces of the assemblage were seeking independence before welcoming death, for once free, they collapsed in on themselves.
Kagome fumbled to her hands and knees, whimpering when her movements pulled painfully on the shallow wound just below her collar bone. Sango's sword hadn't done any real damage, but the miko's shirt clung damply to blood-streaked skin. Pressing her hand over the injury, she looked for her rescuers but couldn't see them. Naraku laughed darkly, and she glanced fearfully over her shoulder. "Where do you think you're going?" he inquired, his former sweetness gone flat. "I won't let you go. Not to him. Not to anyone else!"
"It's over," she insisted. "Can't you see it's useless? Just let it end!"
"Never," he swore. "It never ends. Over and over. Again and again. You're fated to come back to me, Kagome."
"I won't! I never did!"
"Stay," he demanded, looming closer as he reached to caress her cheek. "I would have you stay."
"Don't touch her!" Inuyasha snarled, blindsiding Naraku.
Kagome's relief was short-lived, for the twitching flesh beneath her softened, and sneaky tendrils coiled around her ankles, tugging insistently until her feet were enclosed by a living quagmire. She was being dragged down. Two strong arms hooked under hers, and a familiar voice muttered, "Gotcha."
"Kouga!" she whispered gratefully. She was still waist deep in disgustingness, but he kept her from sinking further.
The silver-haired hanyou planted himself between them and their enemy before dropping to one knee, propping himself up with the sword in his hand. Panting heavily, he growled, "This ends here! You're dead!"
"Far from it," Naraku confidently countered. "You cannot defeat me. You've never been able to defeat me!"
Inuyasha pushed to his feet, shoulders straightening as he gripped his weapon. "The only reason you've been a pain to kill is because you never faced us. We've always been more than enough to put you down." Taking a step towards the bane of all their lives, he accused, "That's why you run. That's why you hide... coward."
Naraku sneered, "You've fallen into my trap. You're nothing but prey,"
"You're the one who's trapped, asshole." The inu-hanyou countered, coiling to spring. "No incarnations. No demon horde. No puppets. No barriers. No Jewel. NO MORE!" On that final roar, he sprang forward, slashing down.
At first, Kagome couldn't understand why Tetsusaiga hadn't transformed, but then she realized that Inuyasha wasn't wielding his father's fang. Bakusaiga! The slender blade with its elegant etchings cleaved Naraku clear through, setting off the chain reaction of destruction that was the blade's special ability. "Is he... dead?" she whispered, unsure because it had happened so quickly.
"Yup," Kouga affirmed.
"It's really over?" she begged.
The wolf-youkai snorted, saying, "Not by a long shot." At her questioning glance, he bluntly explained, "It's over for him. Not for us. Lots left for us to do." An enormous shudder rattled through the monster they rode, a death rattle that sent Inuyasha to his knees. "Damn... Mutt-face is on his last leg. I better get him outta here."
"Wh-what?" Kagome asked, automatically reaching for Kouga the moment he let her go.
"He's got you, and I'm backing down. I've pissed off that dog enough already."
"Wh-what?" she repeated, scrabbling for a handhold as she slipped deeper.
Apparently oblivious to her predicament, Kouga eased Inuyasha off of his vanquished opponent and gruffly remarked, "He won't get any deader just because you die on top of him, Dog Breath."
"Idiot," the hanyou weakly slurred.
"Come on," Kouga said longsufferingly, hauling Inuyasha into his arms. "I'll have Hakkaku put your guts back where they belong. He's pretty good at that."
"K'gome," Inuyasha protested, rolling his eyes her way.
"In way better shape than you," the wolf bluntly informed him. "She's safe."
"We did it."
"Bastard's hella crazy," he muttered, managing a smirk.
"Who're you calling a bastard?" demanded Kouga.
"My brother, idiot."
"And you just killed...?" the wolf prompted.
With a short laugh, Kouga looked Kagome's way, and said, "Still has wits enough to keep his pet names straight. I think he'll pull through!"
"Save it or I might think twice about saving you," the wolf youkai goaded. With a curt nod to a speechless Kagome, he leapt clear, leaving her alone. Or... not? Her eyes widened when something closed around her ankle, the firm hold different from the undulating swamp of roiling parts. A hand. It steadied her, keeping her above the morass as Naraku's remains sagged and sank around her. Kagome's heart leapt as another hand closed around her opposite knee, and the first hand slid up along her thigh. Sure hands, guiding her descent, assuring her she wasn't alone. Long fingers gripped her hip, turning her and pulling her securely against an armored chest. Shrugging clear of the worst of the decay, he opened his eyes, then sneezed delicately.
The taiyoukai looked much worse for wear after his captivity within Naraku's bowels. Hair, fur, and silk were daubed with dank-smelling smears and muddy clumps, and his youki was so dim, she hardly believed the evidence of her eyes. Staring into the calm face of the demon who held her safe in his arms, Kagome breathed, "Sesshoumaru-sama?"
A brow quirked, and he replied, "Hnn."
End Note: Posted on August 19, 2011. 6,983 words.