Chapter 40: Second Blood

"Touga-sama," the soldier saluted crisply, "I bring word ahead of General Akira. Ryukotsussei has a good-sized force hidden not far from here. He believes that the dragon means to trap you between two forces if you approach his palace."

Scowling, Touga narrowed his eyes and motioned for the soldier to follow him. He made his way to the opposite side of the fire to where a table had been placed and covered with documents. Quickly sorting through the mess of parchment he pulled out a map of the northern lands and beckoned the soldier over.

"Where is this army stationed, and what is the terrain?" he asked briskly, watching through still narrowed eyes as the soldier looked the map over and then pointed to a spot about ten ri from their current position.

"They lay in wait here," he said, his finger stabbing the map carefully. He frowned as he considered. "There is an escarpment there where the drop is a good five hundred feet to the plain below to their south, and on the north there is a forest. They are here-" he indicated another point, "settled in between the two in this field."

By this time Atsushi and Tamotsu had joined Touga and the soldier at the table, and there were frowns all around as they took in that there were complications to their original plan, which was to head straight for Ryukotsussei's palace. Sesshoumaru stayed back a little, but listened quite avidly to the discussion, paying very close attention to everything that was said.

Touga looked up at the soldier. "How far away is Akira from joining us?"

"He will arrive within a candlemark, my Lord," the soldier immediately replied.

"Excellent." Touga glanced up at the setting sun and nodded to himself. His thoughts were interrupted by Tamotsu's voice.

"It seems our previous plan will have to be put on hold," he growled. "It would be the grossest mistake to leave an army behind us in unfriendly territory."

"That goes without saying, Tamotsu," Atsushi snapped, irritated at the fact that they were going to have to alter their plans. "The only question is how we are to go about eliminating this force."

Ignoring the squabbling of the two other Lords, Touga continued to frown down at the map as he considered different scenarios. Escarpment... hmmm. If we could somehow maneuver behind them and attack from the north of their position we could pin them between the rock and the hard place they had planned for us. "It could be done," he murmured to himself, "as long as we could take out his sentries so that they are unable to warn anyone. We could come through the woods in small companies and reform here once the sentries were gone," he ran his finger over a symbol on the map, "and then attack at dawn when they would be the most vulnerable."

"Do you know what this force is made up of? Are they dragons or other youkai?" Sesshoumaru asked the soldier suddenly, and Atsushi and Tamotsu fell quiet, listening intently, as was Touga.

"They are mostly low level youkai, my lord," he said, bowing to the heir, "with a few lesser dragons thrown in. General Akira is of the opinion that this is a throw-away force."

"That I can believe," Touga said heavily. The bastard was just that – a bastard, and he didn't care who he destroyed or how many he murdered as long as his desires were fulfilled. He should have been strangled at birth. "But that is not our problem at this time. How many youkai are there?"

"As near as our scouts could tally, about three thousand, my Lord," he answered promptly.

"Hn," Touga grunted absently, thinking over everything carefully. It was certainly doable, but they would have to move silently and quickly to have the upper hand without being forced into a prolonged battle that could give Ryukotsussei time to then corner them with the rest of his armies. He moved his finger slowly from their current position to where the enemy was, noting the rolling hills between them and the opposing force.

He was silent for several minutes as he plotted, ignoring everyone though he was well aware that every eye was plastered to him. Finally, he nodded to himself and his eyes cleared.

"This is what we are going to do," he beckoned Atsushi and Tamotsu over, as well as Masao and Sesshoumaru. "The bulk of the army is going to move to this point here, where this hilly section abuts the plain they are camped on, and hide within the boundaries of the firest. Six thousand of us will then split into small companies and make their way through this section of forest here and meet and regroup here-" he stabbed the map with an elegant finger, "-to await word. Once we are all in place and the sentries dead, we will attack just before dawn when they are at their most vulnerable." He looked up at the soldier. "One more thing. Does Akira know where their guards and sentries are located?"

"Aye, my lord. He thought you might like that information," he grinned, "and so he sent out an entire group of scouts. We canvassed the entire region."

"Show me," Touga returned, also beginning to grin as his excitement grew and his body once more prepared for combat.

The scout soon had every guard position marked on the map, and was then dismissed to get a little rest and food before the order to march came. Touga glanced around at all those gathered with him. "Anyone have anything to add?" he asked, not really expecting anyone to speak up.

"One wonders why Ryukotsussei is wasting his soldiers in such a manner," Sesshoumaru spoke up, meeting his father's questioning eyes. "What was the point of placing such small groups of soldiers here, and there? Did he really think that they would do any good?"

"Ryukotsussei cares not for his soldiers or indeed anyone else but himself. He would have had no qualms throwing away all these soldiers just as he has, whether they did any good or not. But there is also this; I don't believe he has any idea that all three other cardinal lands are involved in this, and certainly no idea of the sheer numbers we have. Perhaps that was why such small forces were stationed in these areas – he might have thought that they would be enough. That lack of knowledge will be his downfall."

"Hn." Sesshoumaru considered his father for a few moments, and then looked away. "Ryukotsussei is an arrogant fool," he finally said.

"There is no arguing that, heir of the West," Tamotsu said in a low, dangerous tone. "But by the time we have finished with him, his arrogance will be broken – as will his hold on his title and lands."

With little else to be said the group dispersed to await the arrival of the last of Touga's forces and the order to march.

Touga, once more alone at the table continued to study the map, his eyes going to the mountains marked starkly on it. The symbol almost seemed ominous, and he couldn't help but hope that Kenichi's wife was correct in the information she had given him about the numbers of her father's conscripts that had been hidden away in those mountains.

If she weren't, then things could get very messy, indeed.

~oOo~

'Are you nervous, Kagome?' Kirara asked from her spot curled up in her friend's lap.

Kagome sighed and opened her eyes, dropping out of the half-trance she'd been in while trying to meditate.

"Not nervous so much as worried," she replied after a moment, her fingers slowly scratching the purring neko behind the ears. "War is never without massive and sometimes devastating consequences. I fear just how high the cost for this will go – and whether we will even survive it."

The purring kitten nudged her friend's hand comfortingly. 'Do not worry so. I think you will find that the cost you are fretting over will not be as bad as you think. No... there is still much that has to happen and events that have to fall into place before the final confrontations between all those involved can happen. Just concentrate on your opponents in the here and now and push your worries aside.'

She wasn't slow to pick up on Kirara's hint that this war wasn't the end of the matter, and thinking over things she had to admit she understood what she was telling her – after all, there was still Takemaru out there, and she was almost positive that they would be meeting him again. And even if they won this war against Ryukotsussei, that didn't necessarily mean that he himself would be destroyed. He might well get away, only to return and fight another day.

'It never ends, does it? The same events repeat and only the faces and names change.'

'In some ways that is true, Kagome. But eventually the battles will all be done and the final tally between the light and the dark will come. And then we will see what we will see,' she purred, enjoying the rubs and scratches that would soon be ending as night fell and they took to the march once more.

"I hope so," she murmured, her eyes far away as she tried to imagine a world where strife, murder, and war no longer had a hold. It would be so wonderful...

"Izayoi," her husband's deep voice broke into her thoughts and she turned to look up at him, the slowly setting sun lighting his hair and making him glow. He was so beautiful...

She brushed such thoughts away and her eyes sharpened, once more gazing on the here and now. "Yes?"

Touga crouched next to his little wife and looked her over, pleased to see that she looked just fine, not tired at all. She would need that freshness, for there was much to be done this night and there would most likely be no rest for any of them.

"Our original plans to head straight for the bastard's palace have had to be changed." She listened intently as her husband filled her in on current circumstances, and nodded as he finished explaining what was happening.

"Well, it's not as if we did not expect surprises," she sighed and shrugged, "so this really isn't much more than a quick diversion. We will just have to beard the dragon in his den tomorrow night, instead."

Her husband chuckled and ran the back of one hand gently down her cheek. "Aye, you are right about that. And as surprises go it's not too much of a danger, so we should be thankful for that, I suppose."

"When do we leave to attend to this complication?" she asked, smiling up at him.

"We will still be leaving at the same time we originally planned, we will just be taking a slight detour to attend to the hidden enemy forces, that's all." He eyed the darkening sky and took a good sniff of the light evening breeze and stood up, reaching a hand down to assist his wife to her feet and watching absently as she set Kirara down and once more shouldered her bow and quiver and picked up her staff. "General Akira and the last of my forces will arrive momentarily, and once they have joined us we will go."

Kagome nodded and silently fell into step behind her husband as her bodyguards did the same with her, and Touga led them all to the table around which the other Lord's and their seconds were still gathered to await the order to march.

It was literally only a few minutes by Kagome's tally before Touga's final General led the forces under his command into their midst, and within moments he himself was bowing before the Alpha.

"Akira," Touga acknowledged. "I received your report earlier. Is there anything else you have to add?"

"No, my lord, nothing," he answered immediately.

Kagome watched Akira with interest, since he had been out of the citadel and stationed on the border since well before she had arrived there. He was shorter than Touga but slender and she couldn't help but wonder what kind of youkai he was. His hair was white but mixed with a dark gray in places and even some black, and his eyes were a stunning blue, dark around the rim and then crystal blue inside. His eyes were accentuated with black lines, rather like Sesshoumaru's red-lined eyes, and Kagome wondered if he were indeed inu, because the only youkai that she'd seen with such markings, at least around their eyes, were inu.

"How tired are your forces, Akira?" Kagome heard her husband ask, and she pushed all thoughts not related to her current circumstances to the back of her mind, listening silently just as her bodyguards were also doing.

"We are fine, my lord, the march to reach you was not long and so we have barely even warmed up," the male reported, and Touga nodded, pleased. Things were coming together nicely.

"Good. Then head back to your command and await the order to march. It will come momentarily."

Akira nodded and in a blur of movement disappeared, doing as ordered and going back to his place within the gathered forces.

Touga half-turned and glanced at her and her escort appraisingly and then swept up the documents on the table, rolling them and handing them to Shiisaa who was carrying a large pouch that was obviously meant for such things.

That was the first time Kagome had noticed his assistant, but she shook her head at herself after a moment – the inu was healthy and in the prime of his life, with a position that would guarantee that he would almost always be near his master, so she shouldn't be so surprised to see him.

Excitement was once more beginning to cloud the air so thickly that even her human nose could pick it up, not that she could exactly miss the electric feeling coming from all the youkai as they waited for the order to march once more. They knew a fight was coming, and the entire army was looking forward to it with red-rimmed eyes and tight control on their primal natures.

Even she herself, though she hated death and destruction, could not help but shiver with that same excitement. There was such a surge marching at the head of an army that not even a peace-lover like she was could deny it. And while she hated killing, she enjoyed combat and testing herself against another opponent. The only difference between this and her sparring at home and on the shrine was that her opponents this time would be out for her death.

Once again the army formed up behind its leaders, she taking her place with Touga, her escort behind her and Sesshoumaru beside as Atsushi's heir, Kajiko, moved up to stand at the other side of the western heir. Kagome relaxed her tensing muscles and began feeding her energies through her body again just as complete silence fell, and a thin, high, quavering sound split the air. The army gathered itself as that signal sounded and then moved out as one unit. They gathered speed quickly, and once again Kagome fell into that peculiar state where time seemed to slow in direct correlation to her outward speed.

Darn. I forgot to ask Touga about that... although now's really not the time to be wondering about such things, I suppose. I can ask that question another time.

And as the greatly enlarged army surged forward Kagome kept careful pace, throwing such useless questions and wonderings aside as she instead turned her mind to the two dragonesses who were her main opponents.

She needed a plan... some way to pull them in and then destroy them, and so far she hadn't really come up with anything concrete, merely vague ideas.

So how do I go about lulling them into a false sense of confidence, enough so that they either remain in, or return to, their more vulnerable separate forms?

~oOo~

Ryukotsussei growled with irritation, tapping clawed fingers on the hardwood desk he was sitting at as another forewarning of danger skittered down his spine. He was almost positive that the dog was on his way to make war against him in his lands. So far he had not received word from his forces that were stationed at the border, and although that could be because there was simply nothing to report, he was certain it was instead because the damned canine had already eliminated those forces, leaving no one behind to report to him.

He could always go and look for himself, but then he would be in danger, a lone dragon against an army. His forces were still in the middle of forming here around his palace, and so he wasn't even really ready for a battle, though they should all be in place by the morning.

Even worse, that fool first wife of his along with that misbegotten rat that was his heir were still not back in the palace; instead they were with her clan, and even though said clan was moving to stand under his banner as was their duty, they were keeping her and the brat safely away from him just in case what Kenichi had written in those letters of his was actually true.

That meant that all he could do was hope that the bastard and his mother ended up being killed in the war that was coming, along with all his other useless spawn.

However, that left him considering his own safety.

He could hardly wait to go up against Touga and once and for all destroy that dog, but if things did go ill for him, he needed an escape... some way to spirit himself away if the danger grew too great.

It didn't take much thinking at all to decide on the manner of said escape, and within moments he was heading out of his study, going down into the dark shadows that lay in the lower areas of his palace. Before long he was alone, no servants or sentries anywhere near, and with a furtive glance around he tapped out a complicated pattern on the odd stone wall he'd stopped before.

The wall wavered for a moment and then faded for several seconds during which he slipped quickly inside before making sure the wall reappeared in place as it was supposed to do. Satisfied that the spell was still working as it was supposed to, Ryukotsussei followed the new passageway he was in to a seeming dead-end. Once again he tapped out a series of strikes with claw-tipped fingers and smiled wickedly, pleased when that wall, too, wavered for a few seconds, just long enough for him to slip through and then reappeared in place behind him.

As the wall regained its solid state he turned and surveyed the room before him. Waving a casual hand and muttering a short set of words, he lit the candles placed at different intervals and hissed, pleased to see that this secret of his had not somehow been ferreted out by that damned traitor Kenichi.

The centerpiece of this tiny room was a tall, polished piece of glass framed in dark, plain wood. Currently, the piece was dark, simply reflecting the room it was in and nothing more. It was time to change that.

He had prepared this room long ago, when he had first skirmished with the Western Lord. As angry as the fact made him, it was really up in the air who was the stronger between them, and having always had a craven care for his own carcass he had decided that just in case, it would be wise to have an out, a way of escape that Touga could not track him through.

This sheet of glass, so pure it almost looked liquid, was his answer to that need.

There was a place high in the mountains that lay at the northern edges of his lands that had been his place of refuge in centuries past. It had a mirror that was just as perfect inside it, one that he'd used to scry his enemies through ages ago when he was younger and not yet the lord of the North. With that mirror there, and this one here, he only had to link the two to have that perfect escape, because once he reached the other side all he had to do was shatter the mirror there once he was through – and Touga would be confounded, unable to track him any further.

And while the dog cursed him up one side and down the other, he could regain his strength in secret and then reappear to challenge the bastard again when he was ready.

But the magic needed for such a thing took no little time and effort, and so he needed to get on it now, because he could almost feel time trickling away and the feeling was making his fangs itch.

Folding his large frame into a cross-legged position before the darkened mirror, he studied its purity and beauty for a time, admiring the absolutely flawless reflection of himself and his surroundings that was reflecting darkly within it. After a little while he let his eyes fall closed and focused on that image, making sure that it was a perfect match for what he'd spent several quarter-marks staring at. Once it was, he unleashed his youki, funneling it through the mirror in his mind along the very delicate pathways of the glass, and thus into the mirror in front of him. The mirror itself guided his power as it began to glow softly with the same purple as his youki did, and slowly, oh, so slowly, he began to overlay the picture of his hidden room in his mountain hideaway onto the picture of the room he was currently in beneath his palace.

It was slow going, because if he forced the magic too harshly the mirror could shatter, and if he didn't get the image of his destination exact then the mirror would open into nothingness, rendering him null and void forever. It took a delicate hand to work with mirrors in such a manner and that was why this kind of magic was practiced by very few, because there were not many that had not only the power, but the patience and the fine hand that it took to work with the glass.

Most would probably find it highly surprising, with his temperament, that he was one of those few. And it was true that he was not a patient being – for most things. But when it came to magic, and especially the glass magic and the kind of patience and perfection that was required to wield it he had all the patience in the world – because it was useful magic, magic that could save his life one day. And anything that could save his life was something that was worth being patient for.

It didn't hurt that being dragon, mirrors and their magic came more naturally to him than most other breeds of youkai. After all, the only ones capable of making mirrors of the quality needed for such a purpose as he was putting this one to, were dragons. That was why dragon-made mirrors were much sought after commodities, and highly expensive, to boot.

This one and the one in his hideaway had been created by him, and had taken several years to finish. He hated that he might possibly have to destroy one of the pair, but that was a good part of why he'd created them to begin with and so what would happen would happen. If it saved his life then so be it.

He was perfectly still for several marks as he built the picture of the other room in the mirror bit by tiny bit, until finally the glowing mirror was reflecting another place entirely and not the room it stood in any longer. Once the picture was perfect in his mind he opened his eyes and looked at the mirror, and sighed, relieved – he'd done it right and the mirror was reflecting the chosen destination, which meant that the mirrors were now linked. If he ever needed to escape his palace he now had the way to do so, and he allowed the magic to settle and his youki to fall back into his body as he stood and stretched, allowing the magic of the mirror to fade and sleep until it was needed. Immediately the picture in it reverted to its actual surroundings and once again glimmered darkly in the starkly-lit hidden room below his palace as though it were exactly what it seemed to be – nothing more than a highly polished and beautiful mirror.

Ryukotsussei inhaled and then let it out, releasing his tension with it, and then stood up with one final look at the mirror innocently reflecting the sparse candle-light before turning on his heel and allowing the candles to go out as he tapped the wall in the required pattern to open it again.

As he headed for the upper portions of his palace once more, he set that matter aside and ordered a passing servant to have his General and Koume and Kotake meet him in his throne room.

It was time to make some battle plans against the dog he was absolutely certain was bearing down on him with every second that passed.

~oOo~

The youkai sentry growled subsonically with irritation as he stood watch hidden in the tall, golden grasses that swayed restlessly in the evening breeze. The only other sounds besides the wind in the grass was the occasional light clank of his metal-clad armor, and frankly, he was ready to fall asleep with the boredom. That fool dragon Captain was crazy – there wasn't no huge army of raving savages led by a bloodthirsty dog out here – there wasn't anything out here.

He was still thinking that when he was grabbed from behind and his throat was slit. His killer didn't even bother watching his face freeze in shock as he died, simply wiping the blood off his knife with a savage grin before disappearing into the dark as a single flash of light echoing off his sword gave the signal that this sentry was now dead to those waiting for such a sign.

That's two down, Arata thought as that same savage grin widened for a moment before disappearing as he targeted his next victim. Only four more to go for my assignment.

Touga's army had reached the site of the next battle halfway to midnight, and he had decided to wait until just at midnight to send out his hand-selected group of assassins. That way, the sentries would be halfway into their shift on watch and tired and bored by this time, making it easier for his people.

Of course, those he had picked for this particular detail could have handled their opponents easily even if they'd been fresh and wide-awake – that was why Touga had picked them. He, Kenji, Kenichi, and several other kitsune and even a few earth and air elementals had been chosen because sneaking up on opponents was par-for-the-trade with kitsune, and elementals were also able to move unseen when needed, as well. And so a small group of youkai plied their trade in the darkness of the night and destroyed all the sentries of the hidden army, and all without their enemies even knowing they were there.

Arata moved swiftly and unseen across the hilly savannah, little thrills of excitement firing his blood and heightening his proximity to his primal youkai nature. For him, especially, being who he was and the uses that Touga had made of him over the years, assassinating these fools was too easy and a total thrill. It allowed him to stretch his legs, so to speak, and with yet another, even more savage grin, another sentry fell to his blade without even making a sound.

Like Kenji, who was halfway around the other side of the so-called 'army' they were going to be eliminating within a few hours, he had been trained into his kitsune strengths even more than other kitsune due to their status as nobles under Touga's command. They needed to be as advanced in their power as they could be so as to be able to serve the Western Lord as fully as possible.

And while technically Kenji outranked him, as his family was older and more powerful than his was, he'd never let that bother him; all that meant was that the slightly older kitsune would be stuck with the unpleasant duties were something to go wrong and Touga were to die. He didn't envy anyone that would be stuck dealing with Sesshoumaru – or who might be in line to rule the West if those ahead of him fell. While Touga had never said it officially, Arata was no fool, and he'd already surmised what the line of succession would be should those things go wrong, and Kenji would be third in line. The kitsune shuddered. Better him than me. I've no desire to rule anything but my own nature.

Slipping into his fox form between one breath and the next he trotted carefully along in a direct line from his last victim towards his next, his fangs flashing in the night as his grin remained even in his true form. His assignment would soon be completed, and then it would be back into his place in the army just waiting to pounce and destroy those that lay in wait here.

On with the entertainment!

~oOo~

Kenji, also in a much smaller version of his true form, lay hidden in the tall grasses just feet away from his next assigned target, his own fangs bared – but in an irritated snarl. Despite the fact that there was only supposed to be one guard at each point, this one contained two, and now he had to decide how to best go about killing two beings so that neither would have a chance to sound an alarm.

The low-bred creatures before him were oni, so they were not very intelligent. But they were rather large, and with even bigger mouths. Which was proven by the argument that they were having.

Well, all that bellowing and grunting would certainly hide any noise he could possibly make, that was for certain, but he still needed to decide how to destroy his opponents, because they would still see him, even if they couldn't hear him.

His memories flashed back, then, to one of his last training sessions with his elderly sensei. While most kitsune had some kind of multiplying illusion in their repertoire, his teacher had actually been able to split himself into many, and he had taught Kenji that skill. That, it appeared, was going to come in handy tonight, because he couldn't see any other way past these two. If they'd been mute then it wouldn't have been a problem, but since they most obviously weren't, different methods were called for.

Slowly slinking backwards out of sight of the two arguing oni, Kenji sat up when he was far enough away that he wouldn't be seen and sat down, his tongue hanging out in a slight pant. Dropping back into his humanoid form he crouched and concentrated, drawing his youki up and away from his body as he became blurry around the edges, and when the blur faded there were two kitsune crouching in the grass watching their opponents argue. The two kitsune looked at each other before slipping back into their fox skins with laughing, panting faces and then sprang in perfect unison at their opponents, ending the argument and their opponent's lives with ripped out throats and pooling blood. Sitting down for a moment afterward, both kitsune licked the blood from their jaws with relish, and then after also cleaning it off bloody paws the two kitsune became one once more and disappeared into the sighing grasses.

He tilted his head into the breeze and sniffed deeply as he ran, easily scenting the blood on the air from the other positions, and he could only be glad that the army they were slowly denuding of its warning system was made up of dragons and low level youkai such as boars and insect youkai – none of them had very good senses of smell. If they had been any other kind of youkai this foray wouldn't have been nearly as easy as it was turning out to be, and he was well aware that the next army they faced would not be in any way easy. While a great many of Ryukotsussei's soldiers - and he used the term lightly - were nothing more than more low-level vermin with little combat skills, there would be a great many of them, and that could be a problem.

Still, he was youkai, and youkai were born and bred to the fight. While the higher youkai like kitsune and inu and neko, especially, were not usually indiscriminate killers like the vermin of the youkai world and they could live quite easily in peace, they could also take the kill at the drop of a hat, and doing so did not bother them. Like the attack of Leiko, Masao's former mate upon Izayoi had come with no warning, any youkai could do the same just as quickly with no remorse. Izayoi was different, of course, with her warm heart. She did not like the kill, unlike youkai, but she was still very capable of doing so if called upon for whatever reason, and that was just another thing he adored about her. But he also loved her soft heart and empathic nature – it made her who she was, and he didn't find her lack of that killing instinct that was so strong within a youkai a true lack in any way. There were youkai without count, but only one Izayoi, and even now, sometimes he wished that he had met her in a different way and that she hadn't been bound to the fate that she was, because he would have mated her in a heartbeat if she hadn't been.

But he couldn't really regret the place she did have in his life – he could only hope to one day be lucky enough to find a mate that was Izayoi's equal, because Arata had been right – he was notoriously picky and hard to please.

As his next victim came into sight he set aside those thoughts and continued in his job of shedding blood for the Western Lord – and Izayoi, because every kill made the world that much safer for his lady, and he wanted her to be safe forever.

If he could take the burden the kami had placed on her on his own shoulders instead he would, and gladly. But since he could not he would do the next best thing, which was stand by her and watch her back.

Another flash in the night and almost silent gurgle, and another opponent fell dead, its body hidden from sight by the high, sibilantly swaying grasses.

He wondered idly how his sister was faring in her assignment as he sniffed out his next victim.

~oOo~

Nami was doing fine, as a matter of fact, her only injury a tiny scratch on one arm that hadn't even been received in a fight with her victim, instead having come as the odd-looking and rather small dragon had fallen into a puddle of his own blood, catching one of his claws on her forearm. It would be healed in minutes, and truth be told, she'd barely even felt it when it had happened.

In her true form she trotted slowly on toward her next and final opponent, stopping well away from the youkai and sitting down to decide how to go about taking him down. This sentry was not going to be as easy as her others had been, because he was a higher-level bat youkai and not quite as stupid as the others in this misbegotten army were.

She panted silently as she considered the problem, her tongue lolling out of her mouth as she enjoyed the cool air of the night. And then her fox grin widened and she smiled – a smile that stayed on her face even as she blurred and shifted back into her humanoid form. Giving it a seductive edge, the beautiful kitsune slunk close to her victim with well-hidden disgust and cast her glamour on the male the moment his widening eyes landed on her and his eyes flashed red at the signals she was giving off.

Fading in and out of his sight and promising things with her eyes that would have hypnotized the most hardened woman-hater, Nami curled her finger and beckoned the now almost salivating male to come to her. He blinked, a confused look forming on his face for just a second as his senses tried to warn him, but the kitsune female simply strengthened her glamour and after a moment the male's eyes fell blank again, and she knew he was only focused on her and that he'd completely forgotten his purpose in being out here in the first place.

The moment that he pounced on her and took her to the ground was his last on earth; blue-foxfire surrounded him and before he could even make a sound he was dead, burned to ash within a matter of the blink of an eye. With a pleased, vixenish grin Nami flipped lightly back to her feet and straightened her uniform before disappearing back towards the army and her lord to report her successful completion of her assignment.

Males. Always thinking with the wrong head, she laughed to herself with satisfaction. That other head of theirs is always their fatal flaw. Makes me glad I was born female!

~oOo~

Kenichi floated silently in the slightly breezy air, studying his final opponent. He had been given the most delicate part of the entire operation – this particular sentry was actually posted within visual distance of the enemy encampment, and while he was actually crouched in the grasses and out-of-sight of anyone else while staying down, all it would take was him standing up to blow Touga's entire plan.

But when Touga had been stuck on this sentry and who would have the best chance of taking him out without anyone realizing it, he had taken his lord aside and in low-tones that no one else could overhear, explained about the new way to kill that he'd come up with on he and his wife's desperate dash for the Western borders and safety. His lord had been very pleased and quite impressed with said accidentally discovered skill, and had given him the assignment without any further ado.

He was determined not to fail him or the rest of the army, and so he studied the situation carefully, taking note of his victim's behavior, the way the breeze was blowing, and even how fast. Once he'd made sure he had it all fixed in his mind he allowed the moving air to pull his almost completely invisible body slowly towards the guard. The air quickly had him out from under the trees, and it didn't take but a few moments to be hovering over the bored and muttering youkai. His only worry was the instant he had to reform – that was when he was most vulnerable, because he had to reconstitute himself in order to take ahold of his victim so that he could then dissipate him into nothingness.

Waiting, silently hovering over the sleepy youkai as he waited for the best moment to strike, he watched the male's eyes begin to droop. In the moment his eyes finally closed he struck, reforming faster than he ever had and wrapping his essence around the stunned male before once more dissipating, the youkai's frightened scream never making it out of his throat before he was dead.

He floated back to the cover of the trees and reformed his human guise and knelt there in the darkness, panting harshly. That had been a huge rush, the fear of discovery and thereby failure actually frightening him. Never before had so much ridden on his success or failure, and it took a few seconds for his heart to slow to its proper pace. Once it had he crouched and sped away, heading back to his comrades-in-arms.

Now let's just hope all the others were just as successful!

~oOo~

Eyes glowing in the dark Touga watched and waited with his entirely silent army for dawn with barely held excitement. His blood was burning within him at the blood scent trailing along the cool breeze from the dead sentries, and his barely leashed feral nature was frothing at the mouth to taste that blood.

But he wasn't daiyoukai for nothing and so he held himself still, counting down the time to the dawn with absolute attention. So far all those he had sent out to kill the sentries had returned – except Kenichi, and with no way to actually smell the air elemental unless he wished to be identified, he wouldn't even know he was on his way back until the male reformed before him. The only thing he could be sure of was that so far none of his assassins had been caught, since there had been no outcry from any sentry and the enemy army was still mostly silent and asleep.

He was fairly certain that Kenichi's late return was because of that last guard that was posted so close to the enemy army. The elemental would be absolutely certain he could take out the youkai silently before striking – he was well aware of what rode on his success. With the others all returned safely after successful completion of his orders, the tension in the air around the six thousand warriors at his back was rising, and he grunted out a muttered curse.

"Come on, Kenichi. Dawn is fast approaching," he mumbled under his breath, eyes still pealed in the direction the elemental would most likely be returning from. By his count there was only about one mark until the enemy army would begin the switching out of the guards – which meant that it was about to be crunch time. There was only a small window of time still available for the missing Kenichi to finish off his final opponent and return.

He flicked a quick glance back at a silent Izayoi, a just as silent Kirara in her battle form crouched protectively in front of her companion. He touched their bond, wondering how she was holding up under the tension and was pleased to see that she was relatively calm and collected, slender fingers slowly caressing her bow in a manner which recalled to him other things she'd caressed just so. He was forced to push aside such thoughts with a low, subsonic growl as the missing elemental suddenly appeared before him.

"My lord," he reported breathlessly, "it's done."

"Then it's time," Touga responded, a fierce grin flashing deadly fangs in the pre-dawn air. He motioned to Atsushi, who lifted his fingers to his lips and once more sent out the high-pitched, wavering call to move – and with a sudden silent speed that only a youkai army could call upon the six thousand beings following the Inu no Taisho flowed over the hill they'd hidden behind that lay just inside the field the enemy army was encamped in, breaking upon the shocked and dismayed army like a wave upon the shore.

The sound of first impact was an awesome, stunningly loud clash as Touga wielded Tessaiga in battle for the first time, sending the blades bright power against their enemies. Behind him came Atsushi and Tamotsu, the wolves spreading over the field in rapid counterpoint to the flashes of youki from the Western Lord's blade. Even Sesshoumaru, his own sword flashing out in great arcs to take his enemies heads, however, wasn't prepared for what happened as his father's bride fired her first arrow into the battle.

The brightly glowing arrow swept across the field like thunder, lighting up the sky for miles as one entire section of the armed males before them just disappeared into the explosion of reiki as the arrow landed amongst them, and a terrified moan came from many throats as the enemy youkai tried to flee the sudden rush of deadly purifying energy.

The field of battle became instantly even more chaotic as the frightened vermin tried to flee and those in command of this force tried to rally them, for the most part unsuccessfully. The backlash following Kagome's arrow brought a great roar of victory and excitement from Touga's army, and those participating in this battle loosed their bestial natures, reddened eyes spilling bloody light across the ground in counterpoint to the darker crimson blood that was quickly slicking the grasses beneath their trampling feet.

Youkai of every imaginable species and some even unimaginable were soon represented on that field as the clashing, screaming, and snarling created a din that was punctuated every so often by that same, thundering roar of Kagome's hama no ya streaking over the battlefield, arrows that she sent out at every available opportunity – whenever the personal opponents dissipated for a few moments. In between she simply fought with her staff, the length of it glowing just as blindingly pink as her arrows. Very few enemies actually took her on willingly, only those forced by the tides of battle into her space, most of the lower youkai there frightened by the bright strength of her purifying power. Not to mention the terror of those surrounding her, her guards and a full-grown nekomata in her impressive battle form.

Touga was quite pleased with how her perimeter guards were holding up in battle, as he took a moment to swipe the seat from his brow and swing Tessaiga to rid it of some of the blood dripping from it. His gaze took in the field and he grinned, pleased – his forces had totally overwhelmed those that had been hiding here and his army, blooded and fully into the fight were wiping out those that still survived with joyous abandon. And then the tides of battle swept back over him, and he went head on at his next opponent, his worries for his wife much calmed.

Silver hair glinting in the slowly fading starlight as dawn began to lighten the sky, Sesshoumaru for once allowed a tight grin to pass across his face as the fierce joy of battle sent his blood through his veins in powerful pulses. He had actually found an opponent that was a higher level youkai rather than the scum the army opposing them had been mostly made up of, and was enjoying an actual fight rather than a slash-and-kill, which was what most of this particular battle had so far been.

This dragon appeared to have been the commander of this force, and a ranked warrior within Ryukotsussei's army, meaning that he had at least passable skill with his weapon. That was just fine with the Western Heir – while simply shredding enemies with his claws was certainly acceptable, Sesshoumaru was a true warrior born and bred and he lived to test his skills against the strongest opponents.

While this particular enemy couldn't be described in such a manner, he was the strongest here on the field so far, and Sesshoumaru was perfectly happy to take what he could get.

The dragon male, already aware that he had lost this battle was nonetheless determined to die here with the rest of what forces he'd had – defeat for any reason brought you nothing but a bloody death at Ryukotsussei's claws, and a clean death in battle was a much preferred death by any youkai. When he came face to face with Sesshoumaru, he knew he'd found that death, and raised his bloody katana to the Western Heir in a deadly salute.

Without any words the two engaged, swords screaming as they clashed time and again, the two spinning round each other and moving almost faster than the human eye could see as they danced their deadly dance. Katana flicking in and out with speed the dragon could not match, it wasn't long before first blood had been drawn, and the battle continued, Sesshoumaru twirling the hilt of his sword almost lazily as he changed a swing mid-way through in order to confuse and defeat his opponent. It worked, and he didn't even blink as his sword sank into the dragon's chest, smoothly impaling his heart and killing him instantly.

He didn't even pause as his next opponent was almost pushed into him by the fighting going on all over the plain, using glowing claws to gut the snake and then rip his head off in a finishing move that flowed gracefully from beginning to end.

There was a piercing snarl followed by a bellowing roar and suddenly those still in humanoid form raced to get away from the dog and boar suddenly revealed in their midst. Satori, coming against a huge boar with already bloody tusks arced up and into her true form, matching and even overtaking the other's size as she immediately went for the throat of the blustering boar. The clash as the two bodies met was titanic, and beings all over the field paused in their fights to watch the beautiful silver inuyoukai female tearing great rents in her opponent.

Kagome, swinging her staff in a deadly arc and ramming it into her opponent's face, cracking the bone and flooding it with purifying energy in the same moment glanced up at the massive yet dainty Satori and shook her head at the loud snarls, wiping a bit of blood that had splattered from somewhere on her cheek off. She looked around intently, trying to see what she could of what was left of the enemy, but the field was still too chaotic to tell much of any losses they'd suffered, though she was able to tell that they had definitely won the battle.

Her guards were still pretty much close by, forming a loose perimeter around her so as not to get caught in any attacks by accident. Kirara crouched snarling at her feet, warning any that thought to approach to find another target – not that any enemies were all that eager to face such a powerful miko, anyway.

"Looks as though this one is just about wrapped up," came a female voice that was vaguely familiar, and Kagome looked over her shoulder and met Kajiko's assessing gaze. She watched for a moment as the female firebird studied Satori's fight, and then chuckled, but didn't say anything more on the subject.

"Yes, that's what I had thought, as well," Kagome replied, taking the moment to brush an errant lock back over her shoulder and straighten her chihaya. Just as she moved to turn her head back around she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and without missing a beat flared her reiki into her staff again and reversed it, striking out behind Kajiko before the firebird could even blink. There was no mistaking the grunt of pain that came then, followed by a scream as the creature that had tried to sneak attack the Southern Heiress dissolved, and Kajiko's brow rose in surprise.

"Not that I wasn't aware of the little cretin," she said drolly, "and could have taken him out easily enough, but I'm definitely surprised at how fast you just moved. Even I barely saw that strike," she finished, approval clear in her voice.

This really being the first time Kagome had spoken to the firebird, she wasn't sure what to make of her too much yet, though she certainly could appreciate her seemingly dry, ironic sense of humor.

She lowered her staff as Kenji and Mine moved closer to her, the fighting on this side of the field, at least, mostly over, and gave a small smile to the female. "I do my best," she replied demurely, then turned her attention to Kenji as he inquired into her state of health. "I'm fine, Kenji," her smile widened, "barely a scratch on me. How are you, and you, Mine?" she asked, looking around and trying to find Nami.

Kenji shook his head at her with a return smile. "I'm fine, as well, my Lady."

Mine, on the other hand, had received a small puncture wound when one opponent had slipped a long knife through her guard and managed to sink it a few inches in before dying on an angry dragon's claws, and she blushed sheepishly as she admitted to her injury when Kagome turned her inquiring glance on her. It didn't take but a few seconds for the little miko to heal the already half-healed injury the rest of the way, and Mine breathed out, her expression easing.

Before she could say anything Nami appeared before them in her true form, her fur flecked with blood and a vixenish grin openly showing deadly fangs. She sat down in front of her lady and then her power whirled around her like a cyclone, and when it faded she was back in her human form and looking none the worse for wear.

"Well, that was mildly entertaining," she drawled laughingly. "I can only hope that the opponents we will be facing when we get to the Northern palace will be a little more... hmm, what's the word I'm looking for? Competent, perhaps? Interesting?"

Lighthearted banter broke out around Kagome then, but she was not really paying attention. As the sun rose and the battlefield became visible to her in its entirety she was able to make out more detail about how the fight had gone for them. As the din died down, the last opponents falling to claw and sword, Touga's army began regrouping - and the numbers looked encouraging. As near as she could tell, they hadn't lost more than a hundred or two. And while her heart bled for those that had died, she couldn't help but also feel glad that it wasn't worse – because it could have been. It would be, when they finally faced the dragon lord.

She knew it.

A wry smile broke out on her face as a certain presence made itself known behind her, and she sighed. "I'm unharmed, Touga, so don't let your imagination get carried away," she chuckled as her husband's arms came around her and he buried his face in her neck, inhaling deeply to make sure she was not hiding anything from him – and to calm down from the fight, as well.

"Good," he sighed after a moment, loosing his hold a little so she could turn around to face him. When she did, he met her gaze, his eyes drifting over her face slowly and noting the slight shadows under her eyes. "You are tired," he stated, his narrowing eyes daring her to deny it.

"Yes, a little," she replied softly, but shook her head as he opened his mouth to speak. "Don't, Touga. I will rest after I have seen to those that need healed." Her expression became solemn, then. "Do we have any idea of how many losses we suffered?" she asked quietly.

"Not as many as you might think, my love," Touga answered back, letting his wife step away. He turned and beckoned her to follow him across the field to where the leaders of the army were gathering. "And about to be even less," he added, to Kagome's confusion.

"Less?" she queried, mystified, having forgotten about Tenseiga since she'd never actually seen the blade in action – at least in this life.

Her husband glanced at her over his shoulder and chuckled at her adorable look of confusion. "Yes, Kagome, less. You will see what I mean shortly."

Shrugging the matter off after a moment more, Kagome quickly had the word out that she was available to heal those in need, and once again a line formed, keeping her quite busy. Touga watched her with a far away smile for a few moments as she got to work, and then sighed again and turned to face the other two lords.

"We should get our dead gathered for the funeral pyre," Atsushi said, getting ready to order a detail to do just that.

"Yes, the dead need to be gathered, but put a hold on the funeral pyre – we might not need to make it as big as it might look like right now," Touga interrupted. "Have our fallen laid out in rows of one hundred, and then you will see what I mean by my words," he added, grinning at everyone's suspicious looks.

"What are you up to, Touga?" Tamotsu growled, eyeing his Western counterpart with a little irritation.

"As I said a few minutes ago to my beautiful wife, you will see shortly. As soon as all our dead are gathered and laid out as I requested, I promise you will understand."

"Hm," the wolf lord grunted, eyes narrowed, but he said no more, and Atsushi soon had a detail set doing just what Touga had said to do, laying their dead out in neat rows of a hundred each.

As it turned out, Kagome was relatively close in her estimations, there being two hundred and sixty-two dead from the combined armies, and it didn't take long at all for the bodies to be neatly laid in just over two and a half rows.

Touga watched those assigned to the task work with a careful eye, and when the last body was laid down and those still living had stepped aside, he nodded to himself, paying no attention to the silence that had fallen over the gathered youkai.

With a great sigh, he drew Tenseiga. "Carry out my will, Tenseiga," he murmured, and obediently the fang began to glow, brighter and brighter as the power gathered; when the messengers of the underworld were revealed in its cyan light he swung, and those watching were left in awe at the power of the Inu no Taisho as those that had been dead began to stir.

Touga did not stop, however, and moved on to the next row, doing the same for those dead as he had for the first group, and then for the sixty-two dead in the final row. When Tenseiga fell silent he rotated his shoulders under his armor, a bit tired himself, and then sheathed the now quiescent sword.

There was a profound silence on the field as all those who had witnessed Touga's power over death stared in stunned shock – who was this youkai that he had the power to return life to the dead, and so many all at once, no less? None but one of the kami had ever been able to do such a thing!

Those who had been returned to life were also silent, though their eyes were haunted a little with what had happened to them on the other side, now carrying knowledge that none living usually did. To have another chance at life was a blessing that none of them had been expecting, and as each one climbed to their feet again, they bowed deeply in awe at the majesty and power of the Lord of the West.

Atsushi was the first to break the silence; with a huge grin, he slapped Touga on the back and shook his head. "And now we have no worries! No matter how many we lose in battle, you can simply return them, which is something that Ryukotsussei cannot do. Our army may as well be infinite!"

Touga shook his head, his face and voice cautionary, making the other lord frown. "No, Atsushi. I can only return a being once to life – after that Tenseiga cannot save them again. I am not a deity, after all. And even with this power, not all souls will respond to return again, as you can see," he pointed out, drawing Atsushi's eyes to the fact that six youkai had failed to rise. "Those who did not return had already accepted their deaths and dissipated into eternity. So you see... do not be arrogant in thinking such things, for it will be your downfall. Only the kami themselves can return a being to life repeatedly, should they so choose to do so, of course."

"Still," Tamotsu growled, "even that much is a mercy we would not otherwise have. I can only hope that I do not end up needing such mercy myself, however," he noted, his own eyes not missing the expressions in the eyes of those who'd been returned to life.

"As do we all, Tamotsu," Touga grunted, before giving orders that the six that had remained dead be burned. He looked around the field thoughtfully, and was pleased to see that they would be able to rejoin the rest of their forces hidden within the boundaries of the forest behind them within a few marks. While it was rather annoying to be forced to break ranks in such a manner, for safety's sake as well as secrecy's, it was necessary. It would not do, of course, to let Ryukotsussei know they were coming, after all. And while the sun passed slowly overhead the army could rest – for the last time in the foreseeable future.

From here on out there would be no more rest until the enemy had been thoroughly defeated.

I will have Izayoi sleep once we make it back to the others. I only hope it's enough, the once more worried inuyoukai thought as the smell of burning flesh began to inundate his sensitive nose and the smoke from the pyre rose into the sky, leaving a bleary haze to cover the sun.

~oOo~

A/N: Hope everyone enjoys the opening moves in the war with the dragons, and Happy New Year to all!

Amber