I do not own InuYasha or any of the characters created by Rumiko Takahashi

Chapter 312

As Susumu talked with InuYasha, there was a small gasp from the doorway of Kaede's house.

The village guard turned around to see Amaya standing there, holding the doormat in her hand.

"Amaya-chan?" he said. "I didn't know you were following me in." He frowned.

"Youkai?" Amaya said. "A dangerous one? In our village?" Her voice was loud enough to be heard by the people outside, and there was rumble of reaction from the group gathered there.

"Maybe now is not the time to be teasing Susumu," Sora said. "Come on, baby. Let me take you home." Her son began babbling something, nonsense syllables, that faded as the woman headed away from the miko's house.

"I knew something strange was going on," Hisako said. InuYasha's ear flicked as he heard her stomping her walking stick one more time. "But what does this have to do with the peddler?"

"Well, that news will travel quickly," Kaede said. She sighed and put down her teacup.

"We don't know yet for sure if there's one in the village," Kagome said, coloring a little at causing a potential disturbance. "Maybe. We're just getting ready to check to be sure." She looked up at her husband, who gave Amaya a confirming nod. "Hajime-sama for sure has had a run-in with one. But we don't know when it happened. It may be why he's ill."

Tameo pushed into the foyer. "Youkai magic?" He pulled on his beard, noting the scene in front of him, then looked up at the hanyou. "It seems, InuYasha, we have given you more than the usual handful for your first day on the job."

"He's already looking better than when I found him," Amaya said, crossing her arms and hugging herself tightly. "But I found him. Would it affect me?"

"I doubt it, child," Kaede said. "We found . . . a youkai artifact. We removed it, sealed it away, and he immediately started to improve, I think. You should be fine."

Amaya nodded. Sucking on her bottom lip, she pushed past the men and stepped up on the wooden platform and moved near to where the sick man was laying. "Let me help, Miko-sama. I found him. I...I feel . . . well, if the kami led me to him, maybe I should still be helping."

"That is very kind of you, child," Kaede said. She looked at Kagome. "You can help me with caring for Hajime-sama while I send Kagome-chan out to help purify whatever youkai is out there."

The old miko got up, and moved to the back of the house, where a bow and quiver were resting against the wall. She looked up at Kagome. "It was convenient, was it not, that you left these here the last time you used them? One less trip to make today."

"The sooner to get started," Susumu said. "That's a bit of luck. Yasuo's waiting for us so he can do something about that poor animal."

Kagome blushed a little once again, feeling a bit embarrassed as she accepted the bow from Kaede, who gave her an understanding smile. "He's right you know."

"I know . . . " Kagome said, slipping on the quiver.

"Keh," InuYasha said. "Saved us some time. Let's go youkai hunting."

She nodded and shouldered her bow.

Before they could reach the beaten earth of the entryway, Ryota pushed into the house, with Daitaro following closely behind. "A youkai? In the village? Where? Who saw it?"

"No one saw it," Susumu said. "So we're not even sure that's what's happening. Something ripped up one of Toshiro's oxen. Something big."

"I..." Nakao said. The grownups, for the moment, ignored him.

Daitaro grimaced. "It's a sad thing to lose an animal like that. You saw it?"

Susumu nodded.

"But this morning, I . . . " Nakao said.

Susumu patted him on the head. "You can come with us if you like, boy. I have to warn you, though, it's not going to be a pretty sight."

"Youkai attacking cattle has to be big," Daitaro said. He lifted his jug and took a small sip. Letting the bottle go, he wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. "Maybe I should go home and round up that old bull of mine."

Ryota grinned at this one, just a little.

"It doesn't have to be a youkai. It could be wolves," Tameo said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Bad luck for Toshiro. I heard him wondering if he should sell one of his oxen off at the next market day." He frowned. "But I've never heard of wolves coming out of the mountains unless the snow was so bad they were starving."

"Hunting should be good right now," InuYasha said, nodding. "Can't think of any reason they'd be coming down here. Well, maybe one." He looked at Kagome who raised an eyebrow at his suggestion. "No, not even him. There's no way they'd be going after anything in the village."

Daitaro scratched his cheek, trying to understand what the hanyou was talking about, but before he could ask, Susumu shook his head.

"This didn't look like any wolf or dog attack I've ever seen," the village guardsman said. "Whatever did it left deep claw marks. Too large for any wolf." He shrugged. "That's why I came to find InuYasha. He's better at this type of thing than we are."

The hanyou crossed his arms and drew himself up. "Keh."

"Some men are farmers, others hunters," Ryota said, nodding.

"Funny thing though, that poor animal. Its hide's all cut up. Almost more like chicken scratches than anything I've seen any other meat eater do," Susumu said, shrugging.

InuYasha and Kagome exchanged glances.

Nakao, tired of being ignored, pulled on Susumu's sleeve. "But . . . " the boy said. "I saw something this morning. What about what I saw?"

"You saw something today?" Susumu asked.

"He did indeed," Kagome said, "and came straight here to tell us about it. It may well be connected. Even before you came, we were getting ready to investigate. "

Susumu bent forward, and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Well then, Nakao-kun, I think you should definitely go with us. "

"Go?" Nakao asked. He gulped, looking at both InuYasha and Kagome before looking back at the head of the village guard. "Susumu-sama, you think I should go with you?"

"You can show us where you saw it," Kagome said. "After that . . . "

"You're not afraid, are you, boy?" Ryota asked.

"Don't ask stupid questions, Ryota," Hisako said, standing in the doorway. She had a wicked smile on her face. "Didn't you run in here like the youkai was after you?"

"Uh," the man said. Daitaro snickered.

"Look," Susumu said. "It'd be useful if you showed us where you saw whatever it was you saw." He looked up at Ryota. "If you're too nervous after that, Ryota can walk you to your okaasan's house."

Ryota gulped.

"He never met a roof beam he was afraid to walk on, but something like this . . . " Daitaro whispered to Tameo.

"We all have our limits, cousin," the headman said.

"And while we're walking," Susumu said, "You can tell us all about it."

Nakao nodded.

Suddenly, Hajime, almost forgotten in the negotiation, let out an incredibly loud snore, then turned over in his sleep. "Stupid bird," he muttered, talking in his sleep. "Get out of here. Don't you see the hunters?"

His snoring resumed.

As the people in the house exchanged glances at that odd event, Kaede put her hands on her hip. "Enough, all of you. I have a sick man to attend to. It's time to get started with whatever you are going to do."

Susumu bowed to the old miko. "I'll get them out of your hair, Kaede-obaasan. You heard her. Let's go."

One by one, the group filed out, Susumu in the lead. Kagome was the last to head out.

Kaede stopped her just before she headed out of the door. "Be careful, child. I'm still not sure what's going on. Stay alert. And don't let anybody touch any feathers." She pressed a bag into the young miko's hand. It looked like it was made of silk, and designs like the ones on Miroku's ofuda had been painted on the surface. "Put any that you find in this. I would hate to see a rash of fevers like our friend has had here."

Kagome took the bag and tucked it into her sleeve. Giving the old miko a nod and a smile, she headed out to join the others.

While the motley group of visitors filed out of Kaede's hut and began to make their way to the far side of the village, two others walked in the mountains to the east of the village, a hard two days' march for the people of Kaede's village, but not nearly as far for the two travelers.

There was a crash in the woods as a large red shape hopped out of a great pine tree and landed on the ground in front of them.

"Who dares walk in my mountains without my leave?" the shape said. It stood up, a good eleven feet tall, with flaming red eyes and a grinning mouth marked by long fangs. He carried a massive club over one shoulder and had horns like a great ox sprouting out of his forehead. With a quick flick of his wrist, he pounded the ground with his club, knocking the smaller of the two travelers off his feet as the earth quaked with the impact. "This is my mountain, and I am its king! Nobody walks here unless I say so."

The little traveler picked himself up, leaning on his staff, adjusted his hat and moved towards the youkai. "Stupid oni!" he said, tapping his staff on the ground. "Do you not know who stands before you?"

"I see lunch," the oni said. "You for appetizer, and him, well, he's the right size for a main course."

The taller of the two travelers rested his hand lightly on the hilt of his sword. His face was unreadable, showing no fear nor even much interest at the words the oni spoke.

"You fool," the little traveler said. His green fingers gripped the staff he was carrying more tightly. "Sesshoumaru-sama doesn't need to ask permission from the likes of you."

The oni's eyes grew big for a moment, then his smirk returned. He squatted down. "So this is the mighty Sesshoumaru-sama. Funny, I always thought he'd be bigger than that. I heard that he was getting soft. Maybe I - "

Whatever the oni was going to say was interrupted by a flash and the fact his head separated from his body. It took his body several moments to realize that, not until the red jet squirting out of its neck had begun to ease and his body collapsed onto the ground.

Sesshoumaru flicked the blood off of his blade and resheathed it. "Come, Jaken."

A few minutes later the two sat on the grounds of a mountain meadow. The country was high here; most of the trees were pines and other evergreens. At one point, perhaps before the oni moved in, woodcutters had been busy here, creating the opening. A few stumps and slash from their work showed their progress, but now, outside of the small creatures who peeked from the trees surrounding the meadow, and then who dashed to safety, there were no other beings for long miles around.

The sky overhead was filling quickly with billowing clouds, and rain would be falling before the evening on the ground where the two were resting, but the clouds were not yet dense enough to block the view of one person who was looking up and watching them drift by.

Something crossed Jaken's field of view, something unexpected, like a dark shadow. His eyes narrowed a little as he watched. Pushing back his too small eboshi hat, he pointed with a green finger.

"Look, Sesshoumaru-sama," Jaken said. "Do you see that?" He scratched his head. "It's not a tengu. Big as one, though."

Sesshoumaru looked up. Overhead, a large bird flew. It was an odd looking bird, gray and mostly eagle-shaped, with bright, yellow feathers in its tail.

His face remained as stoic as ever, but his eyes narrowed as he watched the bird in flight. "Hnn."

"What is it, Dono?" Jaken said. "Is it a youkai?"

"Yosuzume." Sesshoumaru stood up. A small breeze played with his bangs as he looked up at the bird which made a long, lazy circle around and headed back to the west. He started moving in the same general direction.