Sango squeezed Miroku's right hand—she was still transfixed with comparing the two men. Miroku's father was several years older, but not many, and his face held a slightly sterner expression. Although at the moment, the man seemed too awe-struck to be stern.
"Miroku," the man breathed.
"Y…yes," Miroku answered softly.
"You were trapped here by the Kazanna?" His father asked stiffly.
"No—another of Naraku's traps. An incarnation." He lifted his hand to study the beads Midoriko had rendered useless. There was nothing but raw, pink skin underneath the rosary now. It was strange to be looking at his palm.
"…is this your wife?" Miroku's father nodded towards Sango. "She is quite the warrior. She managed to stop my father, addled as he has become."
"This is Sango," Miroku drew her closer. The awkwardness in the air was thick. There had been too many years between them. Miroku's scars were still too fresh to accept that he was speaking to the father who had been sucked into his own Wind Tunnel.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Sango." A warm smile tilted the elder monk's lips pleasantly. Sango couldn't help a small smile in return. It was easy to see where Miroku had learned his. It was infectious. "Do you have any children?"
Sango blushed, shaking her head.
"I SAID—UGH!" Kagome's anger nearly shook the walls. She stepped into the room backwards, pointing at the bruised lecher following her. "You are nothing but a dirty old man!"
"But such loveliness!" The man's palms faced upwards, miming the stroking action he so desperately wanted to act onto Kagome's bottom. It was only aggravating the young miko more. As he stepped forward Kagome landed a right-handed punch across his face.
"Father!" Miyatsu's son went forward to stop him from pursuing Kagome further. "Forgive him, milady. He has always had a weakness for beautiful women."
"The longer a human soul remains inside this Jewel, the easier it is to become corrupt. Certain…attributes have a tendency to amplify here." Midoriko stepped forward, eyeing the eldest monk. "Unfortunately, your grandfather has been a prisoner long enough to be affected, not that he was every truly pure."
"Is that my samurai-lady? It has been too long!" Miyatsu grinned widely, stepping beside her. "You have not been to visit me lately. Why—"
"That hand is not to touch me," she warned. "The Kazanna is gone—you have no excuse anymore, Miyatsu."
"Why would I need an excuse with such a figure as yours?"
"Lady Midoriko? Can we find something to eat? You promised we might." Rin's hand hovered over the woman's intimidating knee. "Rin is starting to become hungry."
"There is much that needs to be discussed, but there is a little time to find something." Midoriko touched her head gently. "I am sure the monks have a store of food they would share."
"Father?" Miyatsu was busy digging his finger into his ear. "Father!"
"Pushy, pushy…" the man mumbled, leaving. "I should turn that boy over my knee."
"I require your help. If we are to restore balance to the Jewel in time there is much to be done." Midoriko opened her hands, revealing a glowing light. "With the youkai combining and twisting their powers together, the darkness inside the Jewel is growing. Soon, there will be an imbalance. The Jewel will lose its light and the youkai will no longer be contained."
"You mean those things would be released into the real world?" Kagome blinked.
"Yes. Ancient youkai with great power…with great hunger. When I trapped them, I accepted a great price. Not only my life, but the possibility that they would escape with even greater evil. With every human soul there must be a balance of youki. Now, with all of you trapped here there is a terrible opportunity for them."
"How do we stop it?" Miroku pressed.
"First, I need to find a human boy who continues to evade me."
"Kohaku?" Sango's eyes widened. "He's here too?"
"I do not know his name, but he is in dangerous territory. I believe he is associating with youkai within the Jewel. Something is wrong with him," Midoriko said gently. "And I cannot tell if I will be able to purify it. There is a possibility that he is lost."
Sango swallowed hard, nodding. She dared not think of Kilala. Her friend. Their friend would have helped to take Kohaku back.
"Food!" Rin grinned infectiously as Miyatsu returned with an armful of supplies. Midoriko's face wore a small smile as the young girl raced to help the eldest monk set the packages down safely. It disappeared as she watched the man's hand twitch. She moved forward to grasp his wrist, moving him away from the child without her ever knowing. She also administered a much-deserved blow to the eldest man's skull.
"Hmph," Miyatsu moved away.
"So we are physically here, inside the Jewel?" Miroku asked quietly.
"No. The Jewel isn't a physical realm. It is spiritual." His Oyaji shook his head. "Unfortunately, for Midoriko, Miyatsu and I, our bodies likely no longer exist. My only hope is to return you and your wife to the outside."
"Oyaji, Sango is not my—"
"We are betrothed." Sango blushed, not quite meeting Miroku's eyes. She was grateful that Kagome was not listening, in favor of unpacking the bit of food Miyatsu had retrieved. There were enough confused feelings involved.
"Forgive me." Miroku's Oyaji bowed his head. "But I am glad to hear you have managed to find some happiness in your life."
"Where it was possible," he murmured.
"Miroku has always found small ways to entertain himself." Sango's lip twitched slightly; Miroku was shifting uncomfortably. Her 'betrothed' was adorable, not quite knowing where to look. "I think he takes after the men in his…your family. You should be proud."
Miroku's father nodded absently.
"Miroku?" Kagome ventured closer. "Are you feeling like yourself again?"
"You need not worry, Kagome-sama." Miroku offered her a smile. She returned it until Midoriko's voice sharpened across the room. Miyatsu had wandered near her again.
"Meeting your family makes me appreciate you more, Houshi-sama." Kagome could not resist a giggle at the expression that crossed his face. Sango's hand came up to press against her mouth.
"Where are we going, Lady-sama?" Rin kept hold of Kagome's hand as they followed Midoriko away from the ancient temple. She was the only one who seemed unaffected by their gloomy surroundings, or the growing ugliness of the blood-colored sky.
"To the heart of this plane." Midoriko's hands glowed, and the wall of vines retreated to allow them passage. "It is where the corruption takes hold. Now that I cannot hope for another to purify the Jewel, it will be more difficult."
"And why is that? Why haven't you tried this before?" Kagome frowned.
"There is a great likelihood that we shall fail," Midoriko answered. "The imbalance inside the Jewel makes it almost impossible for us to purify the corruption. But we must try, by facing the source of its dreadful power."
"The Jewel of Four Souls," Rin chimed. "Isn't that right?"
"Yes, child." Midoriko led them through the maze of sickly-colored vines onto a flatter plane, where the ground became dark. Kagome shivered at the menace rising from it the moment her feet crossed it. It was as if the earth beneath their feet despised them, wanted to rend them apart as painfully as possible. The darkness of it made her want to flee.
I wish Inuyasha were here, her heart sighed.
"This is the loneliest place inside the Jewel," Miroku's Oyaji murmured. He walked beside Miroku and Sango, ignoring his father's abstract attempts to lean on his shoulders. "Even the yokai avoid it."
"It's frightening," Sango gripped Miroku's arm tighter.
"Is this the center of the Jewel? This…emptiness?" Kagome called forward.
"No," Midoriko answered. "We have not yet reached that place. It will feel as if your soul is being torn from your body. It will make things very difficult to act."
"How difficult?" Kagome nearly tripped over a mess of plant-vines that shriveled and disappeared. Miroku caught her arm, helping her. "Thank you."
"Midoriko-sama, have I mentioned how lovely your bottom looks? It is quite becoming," Miyatsu grinned. He went unanswered.
"How are we going to help Inuyasha, Miroku? Do you think it's possible?" Kagome blinked, suddenly needing a cheerful word.
"Of course it is, Kagome-sama. Midoriko-sama knows what she is doing. There is no need to be so afraid." Miroku smiled warmly; it lightened Kagome's fear slightly. "Although, I am afraid Sango will never come near me again, after meeting my grandfather."
Sango giggled, stepping around them.
"He was not always this extreme." Miroku's father shook his head. "At least you seem to be wiser with your Sango. Miyatsu once understood modesty and decency."
"Not anymore," Kagome almost smiled as Miyatsu reached for Midoriko's body.
"It is a shame. Miyatsu was the most renowned and respected monk in the region, when I was young. I lived with my mother, patient as she was, until I came of age. He was a great teacher." Miroku's father sighed, looking sad. "I miss the man that he was. The Jewel has changed him greatly."
"How long have you been here?" Kagome wondered. The man looked to Miroku.
"Eleven years," Miroku answered quietly.
How sad, Kagome thought. She watched both men focus on the path ahead of them instead of the other. She could only imagine how awkward they both felt. Eleven years had passed since they had seen each other; their relationship had ended and yet here they both were, in each other's presence. It didn't help that they Miroku's father was only a few years older, either.
"Miroku, do you think—" Kagome stumbled at the familiar sense that cross her consciousness. She straightened, looking for the source. It was almost too good to be true, to hope—!
"Kagome?" Sango touched her elbow. "Kagome, what is it?"
"Shippo!" Kagome cupped her hands around her mouth. "Miyuki! Kilala!"
"They're here?" A wounded look passed over her friend's expression. "Kagome, even if you could find them, they wouldn't—"
"Miyuki! Shippo!" Kagome yelled for them again. "Kilala! I can feel them—can't you? They're here, Sango! Shippo, Miyuki—answer me!"
"They would not be the creatures you remember." Midoriko had stopped, looking over her shoulder. "Here in the Jewel, your friends—"
"Shippo!" Kagome screamed. "Answer me! It's Kagome!"
A wounded, heart-wrenching howl echoed towards them. It was joined by a second voice, less powerful, but the distinctly-canine voices sang again.
"The youkai will not—" Kagome had already abandoned the path, running towards the apparent source of those voices. "Kagome! You…" Kagome's companions—Sango, Miroku, and Rin—were already following closely on her heels.
"Shippo, Miyuki!" Kagome panted, skidding to a halt. She was surrounded by dark green thistles. The howling had ceased, but it had been replaced with silence. "Kilala? Miyuki? Shippo? Are any of you here?"
Kagome gasped, covering her mouth.
An enormous white hound was curled inside the thorny bushes, watching her with blood-red eyes. The animal's fur was voluminous and puffy underneath the mud. Splotches of blood stained the dog's sides.
Kagome swallowed hard. "M…Miyuki?"
The…puppy whimpered again, lifting its muzzle.
"Oh sweetheart!" Kagome held out her hands. "Come to Kagome. Shippo? Shippo, are you in there too?" A much smaller muzzle showed from Miyuki's side. The fox's fur was a beautiful red, with sharp green eyes. "Come out, children. You'll be safe now."
"Kagome," Sango gasped. She stood frozen at the end of the path, staring at the youkai children's true selves. "Is that…Miyuki? And Shippo?"
Miyuki whined, scooting forward on her belly. Shippo found it much easier to slip between the brambles. The small, fuzzy Shippo stood on his hind legs, pressing them against Kagome's thighs.
"Shippo!" Kagome was in tears, hugging him around the neck. "You recognize me! I'm so glad!" She only cried harder as he began to lick her tears.
Miyuki whined sharply, drawing their attention. New brambles were tangling into her thick, luscious fur. As she scooted closer towards them, more blood stained her coat.
"Miyuki, stop!" Kagome didn't know how, but she would help Miyuki get out of those thorns. She rubbed Shippo's head as she set him back onto his own paws, moving forward. "How did you get caught in there? Were you hiding because you're scared?"
Miyuki whined, pulling herself forward with her front paws. Kagome flinched as more fur began to pull free from her skin, leaving bald patches and scratches.
"Lady Midoriko? Is there any way to free the...girl?" Miroku addressed the approaching priestess.
"They are children?" Midoriko's eyes marveled at Miyuki's size, and Shippo's happiness as he pranced around Kagome's legs. "They seem to recognize her."
"If their youki is not fully developed, perhaps the Jewel does not control them." Miroku smiled. He stepped forward, holding out his hands calmly. "Miyuki? Can you understand me, little one?"
Miyuki barked, shifting forward.
"Shippo!" Sango dropped to her knees to greet the fully transformed kitsune. "I am happy that you are both safe. Have you seen Kilala? Is she here too?"
The fox's muzzle swung from side to side.
Miyuki barked again, whining in pain. She was desperately pulling forward to no avail. The thorns held her too tightly in their sharp grasp. She whined at Kagome, laying her head on her paws.
"You poor baby," Kagome bit her lip. "Don't be scared, Miyuki! We'll get you out of there."
"And how do you suggest we do so? We have no tools for cutting, and those vines are filled with poison." Miroku's father frowned. "We do not even have access to flammable materials—"
"Out of my way, son!" Miyatsu snorted, brushing past the young man. "I still know a few things you don't, even if you won't admit it!"
"Father? Father! Don't—"
Power crackled around Miyatsu's hands as they closed around a section of the brambles. Miyuki whined keenly as the thorns began to retreat in the face of the monk's abilities. Miroku began to chuckle as Miyuki's large, white body began to wiggle without the hindrance of the vines.
"Wow!" Kagome clapped her hands together. "That was amazing!"
"Anything for a lovely lady." Miyatsu waggled his eyebrows, looking at Kagome's pajama-covered legs. "I would happily accept a token of your appreciation, if…"
"She would have been more impressed if you hadn't started speaking," Miroku's Oyaji groaned.
Miyuki stood up, shocking them all.
The small, adorable inuyoukai girl's transformed body stood taller than Miyatsu—the tallest of them, by at least a meter. Kagome couldn't resist the tinge of fear as the girl freed herself from the remaining brambles, bending her head forward. She immediately felt guilty as Miyuki whined, pushing her muzzle gently against her chest.
Shippo rubbed against Miyuki's matted fur, tail twitching.
"Don't be afraid," Kagome whispered. Her mind was comparing every detail of this Miyuki to the transformed Sesshomaru who had almost killed her in his father's grave. The fur—where it was still clean—was as soft as she had ever imagined dog fur could be. The girl…dog's face was puppyish, with round cheeks and large pleading eyes. Kagome let her fingers trail back to touch her furry ears.
"They have kept their minds," Sango exhaled. "The Jewel must have forced them to transform."
"We're not going to leave you alone," Kagome promised the children. Miyuki's enormous head partially rested on her shoulder while Shippo curled against her legs. "You're not alone now. Everything is going to be fine."
"Can we take them with us?" Miroku's heart ached to see Kagome's pain.
"If your theory is correct, and they are too young for the Jewel's aura to control them…" Midoriko frowned. "It is possible that they could still be turned against us. The effects might be delayed, but…"
"That's Miyuki! And Shippo!" Rin grasped Miroku's robes. "They wouldn't hurt us, would they Houshi-sama? Miyuki barked, swinging her head. She lowered her head towards Rin. The human girl gasped in delight as she let the white dog nuzzle against her softly. "I am happy to see you too."
Sango and Miroku indulged their curiosity, touching her fur cautiously.
"Wow." Sango's lips turned upwards at the softness of the girl's fur.
"Have you ever seen Sesshomaru transform?" Miroku whispered conspiratorially. He was in awe of the little youkai girl's size. It was staggering to consider her father's.
"No—but Kagome has. She said he was enormous." Sango pulled a clump of matted hair from Miyuki's side. She winced at the mass of thorns, mud, and leaves. "Now I can honestly visualize it."
Miyuki barked, backing away from them. She turned towards the path at the same time as Shippo, baring her teeth. Their respective fur hackled unpleasantly, causing them all to stir. Something was wrong.
A figure hobbled down the path, using a crutch to support himself. The bruised, battered figure lifted his face, smiling at them weakly. The short, thin boy fell forward onto the littered path. He did not seem to be breathing.
"Kohaku!" Sango raced forward before Miroku could stop her, towards her brother.