Chapter Twelve: Sunrise
The guards' hurried thumping softened when they met the stairs, and they stealthily slipped up them. Their swords in hand, they moved in a single file, their eyes flitting over every dark corner as they searched for glowing red or a flash of silver.
Holding up a fist, Daisuke stopped, and his followers instantly heeded his command. His gaze fixed on the open doorway on the second story, he watched it for a long while. Then he signaled his men to be ready. Quietly, they approached.
At the entryway, he paused again, surveying the room. Other than spilled medicine and fragments of pottery scattered on the floor, nothing seemed out of place.
His eyes narrowed. Draped across a table was an unconscious woman. From where he stood, he could see her face and at once recognized her as the captured priestess. Lord Jianyu had said that she was struck down when she killed Lady Kioshi, but if she were dead, what was she doing here?
Warily, he began to walk towards her. Seeking answers was not his profession, and he had only one order. Leave no intruder alive.
He arrived at her side, the tip of his sword lowered, ready to thrust through her heart.
As still as the dead, she laid before him, and he wondered whether stabbing her was necessary.
Her closed eyes fluttered open, startling him. She stared blankly up at him, and an incoherent word slipped from her lips.
"What?" he whispered.
"Sesshoumaru," she mumbled again.
"Who?" he asked, and then a terrifying realization chilled him through. Her eyes were not in fact looking at him, but above him.
Swallowing, he slowly looked up.
Claws dug into the ceiling, the daiyoukai glared back down at him with blood red eyes. Shavings falling, he released his grip and dropped.
Quickly, Daisuke swung his sword at him in a rising arc, but his fast reflexes were outmatched as the swifter daiyoukai landed on top of him. Crushing him in the sickening snap of bones, Sesshoumaru crouched nimbly on the mangled body that still struggled beneath him. Then in one motion, he ripped the sword away and stabbed Daisuke through the spine, ending his fight.
His gleaming eyes rose to the stunned men still at the doorway, and he slowly stood up. A sinister smirk kinked his lips, and then with slow and deliberate steps, he approached.
Letting out their battle cries, they rallied. Then as one, they plunged forward, their swords brandished out front as they ran. But only an afterimage of blood and silver met them.
His wrist breaking, the outermost men screamed in agony as Sesshoumaru appeared beside him, his sword arm in his hand. Then, the daiyoukai deflected the man's aim, turning his sword towards his comrades, impaling the one beside him through the abdomen. Consumed by their terror, the men turned on him, stabbing him through. The man collapsed, and with a kick, Sesshoumaru sent his body flying into the others. They tumbled into one another, shrieking and flailing wildly as the fell onto the floor. In their panic, their swords sliced lethally into each other.
Leaving them to their terror, Sesshoumaru turned to face the rest, his body hunched and his eyes on fire. A growl grew into a snarl.
The staggered guards stumbled back.
Then, he lunged into them. Flashes of pain seared his arms and chest as their swords sliced into him, but he didn't feel it. There were only his claws and their tender flesh. He tore through their soft bellies. Gushing blood turned into slurry as acid poured from his claws. It dissolved their innards and choked the air. Soon corroding corpses littered the entryway and hall, bubbling black with only their limbs and heads left unscathed.
His chest heaving, Sesshoumaru stood among them, his body painted red and muscles twitching. Bright and green, his youki sizzled across his skin, healing his gashes.
Then he was gone. Making no sound, he headed down the stairs. There was no need for haste. There was nowhere they could run that he couldn't find them. This was a hunt he would savor. And from their deaths, he would take the greatest pleasure. Especially their lord's.
As he crossed the great hall, his crushing youki blew out lamps and fractured statues. Ahead, the heavy doors leading out were sealed. Beyond them, he heard orders given and dozens of racing heartbeats. An army waited for a demon and a demon they would get.
A loud bang met the door and cracks fanned out over the mural carved across its surface.
Quaking where they stood, legions of men waited, the whites of their eyes bright through the holes of their masks. Those in front flinched as another bang struck, prisoners of their heroism as their comrades pressed in behind them.
Then splinters of wood flew as the door exploded.
Brightened by the darkness behind them, fiery eyes glowed and slowly grew as the daiyoukai approached.
Torrents of youki whipped at the warriors, tugging at their bodies and drowning out the commands of their leaders. Then he leapt forward out of the shadows. Transforming in midair, he swelled in size and shape. Red fur coated his body as it stretched and filled out. And his face grew long with a maw lined with sharp teeth. Sliding across the gravel, an enormous dog landed behind the army.
As tall as the pagoda itself, the daiyoukai growled viciously at the masses trembling before him, acid dripping from his jaws. It splashed on the ground, soaking the line of men closest to him. Dissolving in a hiss of green smoke, they melted into puddles of liquefied flesh and bone.
A growl rumbled from his throat and the ground shuddered with it. Shaken loose by the vibration, tiles slid off the eaves of the buildings and shattered with ringing clatters. Mesmerized by fear, the masks of a hundred warriors stared up at him and the rage that flared around him.
Then with an ear shattering bark, he leapt forward.
Like ragged dolls, guards flew from the force of his impact while others were crushed under his paws. Reaching down into the swarm, he snapped up a few, their screams silenced with the crunch of his jaws. Greedily, he swallowed them down, feeling his power strengthening with every gulp. Their swords resembling tiny needles, some desperately stabbed through his thick fur to prick his flesh. Those who were more daring attempted to climb his legs, trying to find someplace vital to attack. He kicked out, tossing them away, and then snapped up more to gorge on.
With lethal grace, he continued to dance among them, snatching mouthfuls and crushing the rest.
With the tide against them, the remnants of the army began to scatter. Refusing to spare a single life, he ran them down and tortured them for their cowardice. A few hid in the surrounding buildings, but plaster and thatched roofs proved just as deadly as acidic jaws when he trampled their havens.
Soon, only one remained, the one he wanted the most, but Jianyu was nowhere to be found. Senses heightened from feeding, he lifted his gore-crusted head up and scented the air.
Panting heavily, Jianyu dabbed his forehead with a swatch of silk, soaking up his sweat. Ahead of him was the torii gate. Turning to the side, he looked back up at the crest of the stairs he had fled down. The terrified screams of dying men had ended and now the graying night was empty but for an eerie, unnatural silence. Even with his formidable army, an assured victory was lost and precipitated by none other than some priestess. He cursed under his breath. Years of work were gone, and his carefully crafted kingdom had come crumbling down all in one evening.
His gaze turned back down the hillside. Now he stood at the brink of escape and his feet refused to move.
Beyond the magic-imbued torii gate were those they had yet to catch. The forests teemed with angry demons, all waiting to exact revenge. Wise and patient, they had hid themselves from his hunting parties. The shrine itself was the perfect sanctuary. The barrier originating from the gate concealed the base from all who ventured near, preventing ambushes and allowing them to complete their work without constant fear. Their refuge, however, was now being destroyed by that fear and he had a decision to make. Hide here within the confines of the barrier or venture out into the forest and hope that he could survive long enough to reach help. Neither option bode well for him, but he sucked in his breath as he summoned his courage. He had survived worse odds when he had traveled the seas. He wouldn't die here, not when there was so much more to do.
A sharp pain struck his knee, and he yelped as he collapsed. Blood seeped through his expensive robe, flowering into bright designs as it trickled down his leg. Just behind him, he spied tones of red and silver. He sighed.
"Ancient beasts have no place in this world anymore, Prometheus," he growled, his voice raspy with pain. "The gods have condemned you, and it's only a matter of time before you fall like the others."
"That may be. Perhaps we youkai are condemned," Sesshoumaru said coolly.
Passing Jianyu, he headed down the stairs towards the torii gate. Stopping beside one of its large supports, he placed his hands against it and pushed. The wood creaked and whined as it cracked. And then it fell, breaking away from its foundation to leave a splintered stump. The weight too great for the adjacent support, the other side gave in, and the entire gate collapsed with a loud bang. Flickering brilliantly, the magic that emanated from it dissolved, and a gust of wind rushed up the stairs.
Leaves and twigs fluttering past him, Sesshoumaru turned on his heel, his eyes gleaming as he looked back at Jianyu. "Perhaps, the gods do hate us, and so intend our demise. But you are no god, and your death shall come before mine."
The daiyoukai climbed up the stairs, his pace slow and deliberate.
Trembling, Jianyu bit his tongue and closed his eyes.
Licking his lips, time bloated while Jianyu waited. Then he peeked out and found nothing but the rustling forest.
The daiyoukai was gone.
He let out a shuddering sigh which quickly transformed into a delirious smile. Had the beast spared him? The notion of compassion from a demon seemed too farfetched for his mind to comprehend, and he sat stunned for a few moments.
Then his smile faded as he spied a pair red lights glowing from the trees. Burning eyes, they glared at him. Then another set appeared. A galaxy of stars winked along the edge of the woods, followed by twisted growls and yips that drowned the quiet.
"No," he whispered as black shapes slithered out onto the road, heading towards him.
Then his shrill screams split the night.
Stirring with a groan, Kagome woke from an exhausting sleep. Her back and shoulder throbbing, she winced as she sat up. Her fingers fumbled as she slipped them beneath her coat to feel for the bandages that bound around her chest. Her mind hovered in a haze. She was surrounded by crates and bottles in the strange room.
A startled gasp escaped her.
Sesshoumaru stood a few steps away, his eyes menacing as he stared at her.
Despite being dressed neatly in his silk, armor, and swords, his blood-drenched skin and sticky tendrils of hair brought the night's events roiling to the forefront of her mind. Nausea overwhelmed her and the room began to spin. Her hand found her forehead and she cradled it gently. The ruthless hunters and their divine purpose, Inuyasha's death and the feel of the needle piercing through Kioshi's heart. It all churned together until hopelessness corroded her stomach.
Then amid all the pain and confusion, there was Sesshoumaru, bringing reason with his cruelty. Neither evil nor good, he offered her a path that divided no one, but by life or death. She had chosen it. Embraced it. And she hoped that she would soon pay for it.
"Why am I alive?" she asked.
He remained silent.
"Why did you save me? I should be dead, and I know that they didn't dress my wounds.
"You swore to kill me."
"I had questions," he replied finally.
"I don't understand."
"I swore to kill you," he explained, "I'm still tempted to do so. Your ignorance and misguided justice have inflicted more pain and humiliation upon me than any other person. Your death seems required. Yet, even as this is certain, you freed me. Why?"
Speechless for a moment, she sat on the table perplexed.
"Why?" she repeated.
"Yes. Why free the one who has promised to kill you? You slew one of your own kind and severed my binds at the risk of your life, so that I would have the opportunity to survive. Why did you do that?"
"Because, it was right."
"You told me that there was no way to choose between youkai and humans. That both are equally flawed and neither side is better than the other. That the only way to choose without bias was to judge everyone equally. To be willing to save or kill someone no matter who or what they are."
"And you killed," he concluded.
"She was going to cut out your liver again. They were going to use your body to harvest parts over and over. They even…" She stifled a sob. "They even fed you him, thinking it would keep you alive longer. I just couldn't let them do it anymore. No one deserves it. No matter the reason."
"Are you satisfied? Are you going to kill me now?"
His eyes narrowed.
"I was ready to die then," she explained. "I had hoped you would. I'm still ready."
A long silence passed as he examined her resolve, seeing what she was really asking for.
Then he snorted and reached for Kioshi's dagger secured in his sash. He turned it over in his palm and tossed it to her.
She caught it and looked up at him.
"I'm not a tool," he vowed, "And enough have died by my hand tonight. If this world is unbearable, then make your own future, through death or life."
Swallowing, her gaze fell to the dagger, torn again with indecision.
"The world however," he added, walking towards an oil lamp on the wall, "Needs wisdom, and it would be a pity if the deaths of this night were wasted with only one to remember them."
"I didn't know it was him," she blurted out. "On my foot, I didn't know."
"I know that now."
He yanked the lamp free and poured the oil over the nearest table. Considering the flickering wick for a moment, he then set it to the spilt oil and the wood flared up in a blaze. Swiftly, he ripped out another lamp and set fire to another corner.
Wordlessly, she slid off the table and followed his example. Together, they doused the room with flames.
Filling up with smoke, the air grew gray and thick. The gorging fire licked the ceiling as it swelled, turning into a fiery torrent. Mesmerized by it, she ignored how its heat baked her skin, her mind too absorbed by its loud crackling. Something tugged at her sleeve and she blinked back to reality.
"We must go," Sesshoumaru advised, wooden beams creaking above them.
And together they fled the pagoda.
Out into the yellow light of dawn, they escaped. When they were a safe distance away, they turned around to watch. Black smoke billowed out its windows. On the roof, streams of tiles fell, chiming as they struck the ground. Then with a loud whine, the eaves tumbled down and the roof caved in. Crashing and crumbling, the pagoda collapsed.
In silence, they watched the pyre burn until only wisps of smoke remained. Behind them, the sun peeked above the horizon, burning away the dark night with the warmth of its light. Turning to the side, she let its rays bathe her face, and her hand slipped into her sleeve to feel for the oily bandage. Something to bury.
"I thought this night would never end," she said aloud, squeezing it as she thought about firerat fur. "For however long I live, I know that I'll be grieving him. But I think I'll remember this sunrise before anything else about this night. To fill in the hole he leaves with peace and hope."
"Sunrise?" he replied, sorrow in his voice, "When the sun touches the horizon, sunrise and sunset can often only be determined by direction. Is it in the east or is it in the west? Our world is changing. For you, for humanity, it may be the east, but for youkaikind, this sun only sets."
Desperately, she wanted to object, to argue for the hope she needed to believe in. Instead, she remained silent and he walked away, heading towards the sun, his once proud shoulders bowed.
Devour Prometheus at its core is about when ecological collapse meets social stratification. It's about the extinction event that was Naraku, and a silent war that's speeding the inevitable along. But it's also about how we assign the status of 'other' to people to justify our actions, actions that can be just as cruel as what we accuse them of doing. And strangely, this story feels more pertinent every day that passes as we find new ways to divide our communities to justify abuse. To justify how we use them up and consume them.