The Bone Eater

-Chapter One-

Between Life and Death

It wasn't anybody's fault.

That was Kagome's thought as she tumbled backwards into the well, the round eye of the sky above her offering a harsh contrast to the darkness that swallowed her whole. Time slowed, an illusion created by encroaching death, and it seemed as if her fall would never end, as if she would be forever trapped within an endless shaft stretching beyond the limits of stone and soil.

Would her corpse reappear in her own time, to shock and horrify her family? Or did she need to be alive for the magic of the well to work? Would she simply disappear forever, lost to friends and family in both times? These thoughts flashed through her mind like lightning, overwhelming and then vanished into the fear that smothered her and threatened to steal her consciousness.

How could anyone have anticipated it? Prevented it? The plot had come from nowhere. Kagome hadn't thought it possible. No one had. Not even Inuyasha, who once might have crawled through the land of the dead on his knees to make it reality. Someone had well and truly resurrected Kikyo, not just trapped a bit of her soul in a clay jar and called it by her name.

She'd felt her resurrection as surely as if she'd physically given birth to Kikyo, days after the rumors had begun. A blinding pain as she sat on the lip of the well, waiting for Inuyasha to return from confirming the rumor that someone was attempting to bring his not-so-former love back to life.

The hanyou had rushed off the moment he'd heard the news, leaving the others in Edo. In a fit of nervousness the current Shikon miko had returned to the place she and Inuyasha had first met, the well that had begun it all, the portal to the crazy feudal adventure that her life had become. She didn't need the stifling reassurances from her friends that all would be well when experience had taught her a different lesson.

And, as she was sitting there doing nothing more than fervently wishing that Inuyasha wouldn't cast her aside when he returned-and return he would, for Kagome was in possession of their collection of jewel shards-it felt like someone had finally succeeded in tearing her soul in twain. Like she was a sheet of flash paper set alight, pain razed her very self in an instant. For a moment there was no sense of being Kagome alone-a glimpse of a foreign landscape, the sense of difference, the sensation of the well beneath her fingers-then the world coalesced into a pain greater than any she'd yet experienced.

She had an enormous soul, as Kanna might testify, with older souls than her own nestling inside the newest one. The largest part belonged to Midoroko, but that was encapsulated in the Jewel, detached from the rest. A significant section had belonged to Kikyo. As much as she might dislike her rival, she hadn't been an unskilled or untalented miko. And when that piece, that part of her was torn away, her scream was so shrill as to be almost inaudible to human ears.

Back bowing, feet leaving the earth, she'd only caught a glimpse of a figure on the fringes of the forest. A figure drawing back a bow as tall as they. And then her chest was sprouting some three and a half feet of ash as an arrow as thick as her index finger hit its target with unerring accuracy and uncanny timing before she'd even had time to take a breath.

Her second scream was silent to her own ears, but she could distinctly hear the sound of her heart, the way it leaped, as if startled, then fell into unnerving silence.

I don't want to die, Kagome thought with the intense, single-minded will that made the curses of dying men legendary. I don't want to die. I want...to live. Around her, unnoticed by the girl whose vision was already fading, the well began to pulse with swirling blue energy. Solidly, steadily, as if it had replaced the heart now gone silent in her chest.

-[A Feudal Fairytale]-

Sesshomaru was displeased when his brother and his pack converged on his fortress, the red-clad hanyou with his arms full of the wench who'd been trailing him around these past few seasons. Apparently someone had tried to do away with the ningen. From what he understood of the hanyou's demands, they'd discovered her half-dead at the bottom of some well.

Raising a brow, he demanded mildly, "How is that this Sesshomaru's concern?" He still wasn't quite certain what use the half-breed got out of the girl, but whether he intended to eat her or bed her, he was under no obligation to provide hospitality to any of them. And the fool should know his temper well enough not to expect anything of him except perhaps doing him the favor of putting him out of the world's misery.

"Bastard," Inuyasha snarled, but the monk pulled him back. Sesshomaru restrained himself from baring his own teeth in return, because everyone in this room knew exactly who that title belonged to.

"Our apologizes, Sesshomaru-sama," the human interjected smoothly. "What Inuyasha meant to ask of you was if our companion might rest in the sanctuary of your fortress while she heals. Kaede-sama, an experienced healer, has done what she can for her, but we were afraid to leave her unguarded while we pursue the enemy that attacked her."

When he paused, obviously expected a response, Sesshomaru remained silent. He had no wish to house the hanyou's miko for an undetermined length of time as his incompetent pack pursued some shadowy enemy. He'd taken note of how long it was taking them to gather the scattered shards of the jewel and found himself less than impressed. Given the state of the ningen, if they did not wish to leave her unguarded while she yet lived, they might simply put off their journey for a few days and then leave her when she was dead.

He was about to suggest as much when the monk cleared his throat. "We believe the attack to be part of a larger plot."

Sesshomaru still failed to see how this concerned him. But he did see an opening to taunt the hanyou, which he quickly exploited. "And where were you, Inuyasha, while your ningen was attacked?"

The hanyou simultaneously snarled and flushed. Once again the monk intervened. "He was taking care of another matter," he said, but there was look in his eyes that said he was displeased by Inuyasha's incompetence as well. He waved a hand to indicate another human, this one clad in traditional miko garb. The girl, who looked remarkably similar to the one now collapsed in the hanyou's arms, inclined her head slightly.

It took a moment for him to remember who the girl was. He hadn't smelled her scent in some fifty years and he'd hardly taken much note of it at that time. But her presence roused his interest, primarily because he knew her best through her collaboration with a hanyou that managed to be even more foul than his half-brother.

"This Sesshomaru thought he might need remind you that dragging in dead things is behavior for pups, but it appears you have found someone both foolish and powerful enough to resurrect the long dead. This Sesshomaru is curious as to why you have not destroyed it yet."

The miko tensed, though it would not make a difference if she defended herself against him or not. His half-brother's outrage was amusing, but he had not been in jest when he'd proposed destroying the resurrected creature. To raise a being so that even the taint of the dead did not linger meant that there was a fearsome creature loose in his lands, one that had some purpose in bringing her back. The most obvious suspect was Naraku and yet the foolish whelp was allowing the miko to travel with him-it was a wonder that Inuyasha had not died long ago through his own stupidy.

The easiest way to assure that his agenda was not realized would be to destroy his creation. But logic had never swayed the hanyou before, so it was too much to hope that it would now.

As the monk continued to babble some explanation that he half-listened to, he returned his attention to the other female. He was aware of her name, as the others certainly shouted it often enough, but names were something reserved for those whom one interacted with beyond their role and station in life. "Miko" was her profession, no matter how inept she appeared, "ningen" her race, so that was his mode of address when he was forced to interact with her at all. He had never understood why she should be outraged over either appellation.

Her scent was almost overwhelmed by the smell of sickness, the natural scent of mortality edging toward that of decay. He would guess she was fevered and wondered, idly, why they'd chosen to move her. Ningen tended to be fragile, after all, and even he could barely hear her fluttering heartbeat. Again, he thought it would be better had they simply waited for her to die, rather than trying to foist the blame for her unavoidable demise onto him.

With resignation, he realized the hanyou might never let him hear the end of it if he allowed one of Inuyasha's females to die on his doorstep. He might be forced to kill the hanyou just to keep him silent, after all the trouble he'd gone to spare him. After all, it was not as if he would actually have to see the ningen while she was in residence. Scenting her again, he assessed that within a week, she would be dead and he free of any further obligation.

"Jaken," Sesshomaru said abruptly, interrupting the monk, "Show them to the healing rooms. Inform Hoshiko that the girl will be in her charge. And then escort them out of my fortress."

Jaken bowed, then rubbed his webbed hands together worriedly. "But sire, Hoshiko hasn't been in service to the healing rooms for some time." A sidelong glance at the ningen by the kappa revealed that his thoughts were in accord with his lord's-the girl was already marked by death.

"Then she will certainly have enough time to care for a single human girl," Sesshomaru said dismissively.

-[A Feudal Fairytale]-

The Hoshiko in question received the kappa's command with no little grumbling. The female inuyokai had served in the healing rooms for a long time before her mate had successfully bred her and once her pup had been whelped she'd expected to take a good fifty or sixty years in raising him, but now it seemed that after only eleven she was being called back.

She was aware of the reason, given that her mate had recently and intentionally given offence to one of the Southern Lord's retainers. While he'd needed to be reminded of his place, it still hadn't been Matsu's role to remind him of that. Though, if he was only assigning her a single charge, Sesshomaru-sama hadn't been totally displeased. It was even a ningen, which meant it might well die before too long. And the sheer curiosity of a ningen other than her lord's ward residing in the fortress as a patient enough to rouse her curiosity.

Pulling up her long honey-blonde hair, Hoshiko changed into something she wouldn't mind burning after her assignment was over to rid it of the ningen stench. Just as she was about to leave her rooms, Hide barreled in, wrapping himself in her hakama.

"Whatcha doin' 'ka-san?" he demanded.

Hoshiko rapped her offspring gently on the head as she un-entangled herself. "Breathe when you speak, Hide. And finish your words," she chided. Though small for his age, Hide was full of energy and insatiable curiosity, which meant looking after him in the Western Fortress was a full time occupation in and of itself. It sometimes seemed like if she took her eyes off of him for only a few moments she found herself apologizing to someone for something.

She just didn't have enough youki to discipline him properly, it seemed. And, well, if she could get him to address his father properly instead of calling him 'Mattun,' she'd be satisfied.

Instead of being dissuaded, Hide simply dug his sharp little dewclaws into the fabric of her hakama and peered up at her with wide brown eyes. "Where are you going, ka-san? Can I come?"

"I'm going to go look over a patient."

"What's that?"

"Someone who's sick," Hoshiko explained as she carefully pried the little fingers away. It was sturdy cloth and wouldn't rip that easily, but it was better to break the habit before Hide got his little paws into someone's expensive and delicate fabrics.

"Who is it?"

Hoshiko sighed. Sometimes she missed the cute pup who couldn't speak the human tongue. Ever since he'd managed to keep a human transformation last fall he'd been an unstoppable force, though he often slipped into his dog form when his attention wandered.

"It's some ningen. A girl, I think."

Hide wrinkled up his nose. "Why is there a ningen? Is someone going to eat her?"

"Alright, that's enough questions," she scolded him. "I have to go see about her. I doubt Sesshomaru-sama will be pleased if I let her die on her first day here."

-[A Feudal Fairytale]-

Given what she'd heard about ningens in general and from her own limited experience with the short-lived creatures, Hoshiko was rather surprised that the girl was alive at all. She'd been around hiyoukai who radiated less heat. Barking instructions to the apprentices, Hoshiko had basins of cool water brought to her. Stripping the girl with brisk efficiency, Hoshiko bathed her and rebound the bandages on her chest, inspecting her wound as she did so. All the while, the girl mumbled on and on, sometimes jerking restlessly, and once she cried out.

Pulling an eyelid open, she observed the girl's unfocused pupils. "You're hallucinating," she informed the ningen. Hoshiko frowned. The girl apparently had a god of luck on her side, because the arrow had come within a paper's width of being instantly fatal, even to a lesser youkai. It was an ugly wound, but there hadn't been any undue redness or discoloration to indicate infection had set in, though the fever indicated that some malaise was already at work. Hoshiko did not know how to treat ningen illnesses and she doubted that she would respond as an inu would to the treatments she was familiar with.

Curiously Hoshiko scented her breath, then brought her nose back over the area of the wound. The girl's ningen scent was confusing her nose, being both more and less complex than that of a youkai. The salt of sweat, the sharp, metallic scent of pain, the other, expected smells that accompanied an illness so serious that it left the patient bedridden, the lingering scent of the herbs that the ningen healer had used to treat her wounds. She catalogued each of these, but while she memorized the herbs, she was still left with little option but to look over her as best she could and see if time would see her dead or alive.

"Well, it looks like you aren't going to be going anywhere for a while, even if you manage to survive," she informed her charge. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to bringing my son with me from now on. I'll try to keep him out of your hair, but I make no promises."

-[A Feudal Fairytale]-

When she heard the sharp little yelp of pain, Hoshiko bounded into the healing room, expecting that Hide had somehow injured himself in a room nearly bare of anything to actually hurt himself on, short of running headlong into a wall. What she saw brought her up short.

Hide had apparently crawled onto the futon to examine the ningen again, but he was now lying very still on his back, head carefully tilted to expose his throat. The ningen held herself above him on arms that were only slightly unsteady. She was panting from exertion or fever, her eyes unfocused as she stared blankly down at the pup. It was the most conscious Hoshiko had yet seen her, but it was obvious that her consciousness was still entangled in her fever-dreams.

It was such a peculiar pose for a ningen to assume that it never occurred to Hoshiko to attack her for threatening her pup.

Moving carefully toward the bed, she slowly moved her hand in front of Kagome's eyes. When they began to track it after a long moment, she said in a controlled voice, "Get off the bed, Hide." Her pup scrambled out of the way. "Are you hurt?" she asked him.

"Kagome bit my ear," he snuffled.

Hoshiko blinked and turned to him, uncertain that she'd heard right. "Show me," she demanded. "Is that her name?" she asked him.

Hide nodded and obediently came closer. Sure enough, there was a perfect imprint of teeth, quickly turning red, along the edge of his ear. "Jaken said so. I didn't mean to bother Kagome," Hide apologized.

"I'm sure she wouldn't mind if she was feeling better, but Kagome's very ill," Hoshiko said slowly. She'd never heard of ningen disciplining their offspring like that and she was almost certain that Kagome had been cowing her pup into submission when she'd come in the door.

A soft thump drew her attention back to the futom, where Kagome had collapsed. Stomping over to the bed and swiftly kneeling, Hoshiko pressed the back of her hand to the girl's flushed forehead and pulled up an eyelid. A narrow slit of a pupil rolled toward her in an eye gone completely crimson.

A long, pained whine escaped human lips, then the whine turned to a screech as Kagome arched backward, hands grasping futilely at the ground, delicate human nails splitting as claws emerged, lips stretching over teeth too large for a human mouth, jaw and spine elongating, the changes so numerous and quick that it was over in the space of several heartbeats. It was an exhausted youkai that collapsed on the futon again, not a ningen girl.

Hoshiko realized immediately that she wasn't a beast-type demon, for she mingled bits and pieces too freely, but neither was she of a kind she would have expected a ningen to become. And Kagome had not died-that was a very important fact, for while it was not unknown for ningen's spirits to become youkai of many types, such an abrupt transformation while still alive generally occurred only as an act of will among very evil ningen. And Hoshiko did not think that Sesshomaru-sama would allow anyone capable of such evil into his fortress. In fact, she now recalled Jaken muttering that the girl was supposed to be a miko of some importance.

But while she could not explain why she had become youkai, the fact remained that she had. And her transformation had not healed her in the least, the stress of the process apparently compounding her exhaustion, for she was nearly comatose as Hoshiko, after ordering Hide sternly to leave the room, inspected her patient in bemusement.

The inuyoukai ran her hand over a fine-boned, horse-like muzzle. Clouded, striking blue eyes peered at her as she pulled back dark lids, but they responded only sluggishly to the light. Swept-back horns jutted from the youkai's skull just behind her ears, making gentle crescent moon shapes on either side of her head, the hollows facing inward before the horns curled back out again. Her lower jaw, however, was constructed like a dog's and she had the grasping, tearing teeth of a carnivore.

Her shoulder would hit roughly below a ningen male's breastbone, Hoshiko estimated. A stiff ruff of fur began between her horns, thick until it hit her at her withers, where it trailed to a ridge that traced the length of her spine until it hit her prehensile tail, which was furred like a long-haired dog's, in contrast to the horse-like pelt that covered her lithe frame. Her body was rather doglike, but the front of her forelegs were scaled like a bird's and her legs terminated in the great grasping claws of a ryuu. There were smaller spurs of horn at the base of her neck and at the joint on her forelegs.

"What a mess you are," Hoshiko muttered, picking up one of her clawed 'hands' and spreading the four scaled toes, pressing on the softer pad in the 'palm'. But strange as her transformation was, it remained a boon to Hoshiko, for she knew how to treat youkai, even youkai as odd as this one. "Now, the question becomes, is this your body or is your body elsewhere? But of course you wouldn't know, even if you were awake," she murmured. "You'd think you were a little ningen. But if I had to guess-you aren't the spirit of an animal. Something else then. A tree? But no-trees generally manifest themselves as birds and snakes."

Hoshiko tilted her head to one side. "Ningen-that must be important. What makes most ningen youkai? Death. And where did you almost die? A well. So, let us start there."