This story was written solely for the heck of it, and takes place during no specific time frame of the canon, except Kikyou is still wandering the earth and Kagome's got her bottle of say...five jewel shards. For simplicity's sake, Naraku is currently 'in hiding' so as not to be an active antagonist, and even though I'm completely disregarding time frame details of the manga, I am making this basically manga-only, meaning no details from the anime, or more specifically the movies, exist in this universe. Also, please note that this story does contain sexual content, which has been toned down in this version to meet M/R rating standards. The MA/X rated version of this story can be found on mediaminer.

Extended A/N: Warning: this story is novel length, so do not complain, you have been warned.

I have received a few comments, I'm going to say mostly from random newcomers and not my regular followers, of the supposedly unnecessary length of this story. This story is not concise, nor did I intend it to be, as it is not my style to skip over what I personally feel are necessary descriptions going into the characters' thoughts and feelings. The reason I delve so deeply into Inuyasha and Kagome's thoughts on Kikyou and what have you is because their inner most thoughts and feelings are different in my various stories, and I wanted to illustrate how they feel in this story because to leave such thoughts unsaid is to be left not knowing what is going through their heads. Okay sure, maybe I got a little more wordy than necessary, but this story is my baby and I'm not going to cut my baby's legs off just because some people think she's too tall. Maybe some people like to omit internal monologue and get straight to the action, but that has never, ever been my style and I'm not going to change who I am. I write novels, they just happen to be in fanfiction format. I can understand not expecting to come across a novel when you're just looking for a silly fanfic, but FF does display word-count; it's there for a reason, so you can know what you're getting yourselves into. To my fans, my followers, I know you know I'm a Chatty Cathy, LOL; I've never pretended otherwise and you know you love me for it. You wouldn't have me as a Favorite, otherwise. For those of you who are new to my style and don't like novel length stories, well, if you have too short of an attention span to read the entire thing and will end up skipping paragraphs that probably contain pertinent information then maybe you should just skip the entire story; it would be a lesser disservice to the both of us.


Chapter 1 – Urgent Mission



"Come on guys, just a little bit further. I can hear running water." Inuyasha called over his shoulder as they rounded a bend on the mountain trail.

From his perch on Miroku's shoulder, Shippou snorted.

"Yeah right, knowing his ears, that water could be over a ri away." he grumbled to himself under his breath.

"And yet you thought I wouldn't hear that?" Inuyasha asked dryly without turning around from his place at the front of the line.

Shippou 'eep'ed and slapped both hands over his mouth while Miroku tried not to laugh at the kit's expense.

"Perhaps if you learned to use your own ears more frequently than your mouth, Shippou, you could better ascertain for yourself how far ahead the river lies." the monk stated quietly.

Shippou didn't reply.

Sango and Kagome, who were taking up the rear, turned and smiled at each other with their hands over their mouths, trying not to laugh.

True to Inuyasha's word, the river wasn't all that much further away, as the three humans of the group soon heard its dance as well. Rounding another bend on the mountain trail, they spied down the slope they stood upon and saw the river in all its glory lying at the bottom between the western and eastern ridges, as it carved its way through stone and sand. That would be where they'd make camp.

But as Inuyasha calculated the winding mountain path ahead of them for a moment, while they paused to stand along the edge of a steep cliff overlooking the river, he realized that despite the water's physical nearness Shippou was actually right in that, if they went the long way around, it would probably still be at least another ri's walk before they got down there (approx. 2.44 miles).

The sun was setting faster than he'd like with the western facing mountains, and aside from the kit nobody had uttered a single peep of complaint during the entire walk, knowing they had to reach a body of water because their pouches and Kagome's bottles were all empty, and so for once the hanyou was in a placating mood. Besides, pushing everyone to walk farther than necessary when they were out of water would be highly irresponsible of him, and while he would piss and moan at times that humans were weak, he knew his friends knew that he honestly cared about them.

"What do you guys say to a short cut?" he asked them then, turning to face everyone. "While my feet don't hurt I'm sure yours do, and it ain't like I'm not ready to call it quits for the night."

"Sounds good to me." Kagome agreed right away as she walked past Miroku and Shippou to meet up with Inuyasha.

"What do you say, Kirara?" Sango asked the kitten-sized neko-youkai perched on her shoulder, who answered her mistress by leaping down and transforming at the same time in a brilliant flash of flame that cleared to reveal Kirara's saber form ready and waiting. Turning her head, Kirara gave Sango the best smile she could manage with her feline facial features and roared softly in the equivalent to a meow for a cat that size.

Grinning back, Sango quickly mounted Kirara, followed by Miroku who climbed on behind her while being very careful not to let his hands caress her lovely bottom, lest he be smacked right off of Kirara's back mid-flight. Shippou, eager to get down there, jumped off of Miroku's shoulder while crying out "Finally!" and with a *pop* he began flying down towards the river by himself in his giant pink balloon form.

With Kirara taking to the air next, Kagome and Inuyasha met each other's eyes with a quick smile, and then Kagome turned to maneuver herself behind the hanyou, as he helped hoist her up onto his back, and then they too were off. Even though it was just for the briefest of moments, they both relished the opportunity. Neither of them would ever admit just how much they actually enjoyed traveling that way, Kagome riding on Inuyasha's back. They would each gladly do it much more often than they did, were it not for fear of lacking a proper excuse. It was truly only necessary on certain occasions, after all, such as descending a steep mountain ledge in a single bound. Their trip down was over much too quickly of course, though neither hesitated to separate from one another right away, not as if being in such close contact was awkward but instead because continuing to remain in such close contact for even one lingering second too long would be. Neither knew how the other felt, and so they were terrified of accidentally revealing something they wanted to keep secret.

Setting up camp was a peaceful affair, as Sango began digging out and preparing a firepit while Miroku searched for and gathered dry brush and firewood. Although both the slayer and monk carried on them a flint and fire steel, and Inuyasha could easily get a blaze going using the drilling method with his advanced speed and accuracy, Kagome did the honors with her futuristic, waterproof matches. Why toil over something when the future-born miko's advanced wonders were at their disposal? Collecting water from the river in the metal pot she carried for boiling, Kagome prepared the ramen first, which Inuyasha augmented with fish from the river that Kagome grilled to perfection over the open flame, and then after dinner was served she put another couple of pots of water on to boil for sterilization to replenish their supplies. She figured fish in the water also meant fish poop in the water, and so while it might still be clean enough to drink as it was if the water-to-contaminant ratio was in their favor, why take any chances when they didn't need to?

Going to bed for the night, everyone was lulled into a peaceful sleep by the calming melody of the flowing river, all except for Inuyasha, of course, who stayed awake to keep watch. Nothing happened during the night, and the next morning after a breakfast of more fish everyone packed up and then decided to follow the river's path until they came upon a village or settlement. Following the water, they knew it was only a matter of time before they'd find other humans, and with there having been no sign of Naraku's whereabouts lately they had taken to seeking out towns and villages in areas they hadn't visited before with the hope of the locals having heard about something, anything that seemed out of the ordinary to them.

"Come on, there's fish in this river, so once we get out of the mountains there's bound to be a fishing village somewhere downstream." Inuyasha stated as he led his friends through the trees.

The journey was mostly peaceful, except for a random little mountain oni that tried to attack them for the jewel shards Kagome carried, which was easily dispatched by Inuyasha's claws after it refused to take the hanyou up on his gracious offer of letting it live if it left them alone. Refusing to heed such an obvious warning in its aggressive desire for the jewel shards, Inuyasha had no choice but to put it out of its misery. That happened from time to time, random youkai showing up that had been lured by Kagome's jewel shards, especially now that Naraku had gone into hiding and most lower youkai had come out of hiding as a result, but there was really nothing much that they could do about it outside of defending themselves whenever such attacks did happen. Although Kagome keeping the shards purified did keep most lower youkai away, as many more would be mindlessly drawn to the shards if they were tainted with evil, the gems were still enticing to the few youkai who could sense past their purity to realize just how powerful the crystals actually were, and how powerful they would make them once they possessed them. Truth be told even Inuyasha could smell how tantalizing the jewel shards actually were, although he knew better and didn't have any plans of going anywhere near them. They smelled good, but he thought of them like poisonous berries, which also smelled good, and tasted good, but would kill you in short order if you gave in to their allure. After having experienced first hand what it would truly mean for him to become a full youkai, he didn't want that anymore. It had never been his desire to turn into a bloodthirsty monster, despite having told Miroku once that he'd never claimed to want to be a nice youkai. The truth was, he'd thought for sure that his heart wouldn't change. He'd wanted only to be stronger, like his pure youkai father before him, who had still had a kind heart and had fallen in love with a human woman. Inuyasha wanted to be that kind of pureblooded youkai, not the sadistic butcher he had turned into on rare occasion. If there was even the slightest chance that the jewel would turn him into that...and he knew damn well that the jewel loved to twist and corrupt people's desires and so it was actually pretty damn likely that it would turn him into that...then he wanted absolutely no part of it.

He was just relieved that he hadn't used the jewel to turn himself human.

It sounded cruel to say, he knew, considering how he had once been willing to do so for Kikyou's sake, but looking at it logically, Naraku would have still existed regardless, and so assuming he hadn't tricked them right when he had, and he and Kikyou had managed to use the jewel as planned, then even assuming the wish truly had been pure and would have purified the jewel rather than tainting it with some unforeseen dark twist, then Naraku would have merely slaughtered the both of them in his anger, and then he would've be free to reign over the countryside, yes not as physically strong if the jewel were truly gone, but still just as evil as ever, and even more angered for knowing he had lost his chance at the jewel. Who knew how many people he would have slaughtered in his rage? Everyone from Kaede's village would have been a goner, at the very least. And what if turning him human hadn't purified the jewel out of existence? Kikyou had only believed that it would; it had been a good guess but nothing more. What if Naraku had killed them both and then taken possession of the complete Shikon no Tama? After seeing first hand what the dark hanyou was capable of with only a portion of the jewel in his possession, Inuyasha didn't even want to think about what he could, or would do if he ever got a hold of the entire thing.

Then there was the possibility that trying to turn himself human with the thing wouldn't have even been a pure wish to begin with, and who really knew how that could have backfired, Naraku or no Naraku? Yes, it had been an honest sacrifice on his part, but not entirely. Yes, he hated being human, and yes, he had originally wanted to become fully youkai so deciding to turn human instead would have been an incredible sacrifice in that regard. But when it really boiled down to it, he'd hated being hanyou the most, and he'd been looking forward to turning pure anything simply so that he could have a place where he belonged. It hadn't been his first choice, but hey, going that route instead also would have come with the fabulous bonus of a loving wife, so he would be lying if he said the wish hadn't been a teeny bit selfish, at least in part. If it meant gaining Kikyou, then hell yeah he would have done whatever it took to acquire that goal, and that thought could have very easily tainted the jewel. He hadn't wanted to possess her like Onigumi had, he had genuinely loved her and had only wanted her with him for that reason, from the standpoint of feeling love for her in his heart, but nevertheless he had wanted, plain and simple, and had been planning on using his wish on the jewel to acquire what he wanted,and that equated to selfishness, no ands, ifs or buts. Maybe it wasn't really that black and white in real life, but black and white was exactly how the jewel worked; there was no gray area, a wish was either selfish or it wasn't.

Keeping that thought in mind, he also knew that Kikyou's desire to turn him human hadn't really been 100% purehearted, either. Yes, she had loved him, even as a hanyou, though perhaps it was true she would never have permitted herself to be with him as a hanyou because of her miko training. He couldn't read her mind and so he wouldn't pretend to know her opinion when it came to that one minor detail, especially since, when it really boiled down to it, he knew that it didn't even really matter, anyway, because as the Shikon Miko she hadn't been free to be with anyone, youkai blood or no. She had wanted to purify the jewel out of existence to be rid of it, so that she could then choose to put her other miko duties aside and become an ordinary woman, and she had believed that using the jewel to turn him human would be a pure enough task to accomplish her goal. What could be more pure than 'saving' a hanyou, right? Yes, she had offered it to him under the guise of it being her gift to him, her offering him another way out of his life as a hanyou, because she could have never condoned his use of the jewel to become fully youkai, but truly, it had just been a means to an end more than anything else. Even knowing that, even as she'd admitted that the jewel would most likely be gone from such a wish and that it would mean she was free, he had been willing to go through with it, especially for her sake, another sacrifice on his part, perhaps, though it hadn't counterbalanced his own eagerness. He'd wanted her free from the jewel too, after all, so that they could then be together; it had been a win/win situation in his eyes. And whatever her true thoughts on his youkai blood he did believe that she had meant well, that it had come from a place of love, wanting to rid him of his demonic half, thinking to purge him of his taint, and so misguided or not her heart had sort of been in the right place. He would not judge her on any negative feelings she might have had for his youkai blood, since looking past his youkai half to see him as the man he could become had still been more kindness at that time than anyone else had ever thought to offer him after his mother's death, but despite that she had been acting selfishly in wanting to rid herself of her responsibility to the jewel, and that thought, alone, could have very easily tainted the wish. He could have turned into a hundred and fifty year old human and died instantly, or she could have been robbed of her miko powers altogether as another way of becoming 'ordinary' while the jewel simultaneously tainted and then without the ability to purify it all hope would have been lost. And those were just two possible examples...who knew what could have happened, really? Kikyou had thought she'd found the perfect solution, but now looking back on it, he wasn't so sure.

Nobody was perfect, not even Kikyou, and he understood that now.

Of course, Kagome accepted all of him, including his youkai half, and sometimes Inuyasha found himself wishing the two of them could be more than just friends, but he was grateful for her friendship either way. He had the sinking suspicion that, should she truly feel that way about him, that she would be willing to 'be' with him as a hanyou; she'd proven time and time again that his youkai blood, and physical features, were not disgusting to her. But he wouldn't waste time longing for what could never be, and he was truly grateful to have Kagome as a friend. Nobody was perfect, but if he had to pick somebody, then Kagome definitely came the closest. He felt horrible for how he used to insult her back in the beginning, comparing her to her preincarnation, but he knew Kagome knew that he saw her for herself those days, and not as some kind of replacement for or copy of Kikyou. It wasn't Kagome's fault she hadn't been a very good shot with a bow at the beginning, having never fired an arrow before in her life, and all things considered, she'd actually picked it up incredibly fast, perhaps because a part of her soul remembered it from her 'past' life, or perhaps not, but either way, considering Kagome had never had any formal training as a miko, and hadn't even known youkai existed until her fifteenth birthday, he'd say that she was doing pretty damn good so far. But even more important to him than her newfound prowess with a bow, the simple fact that she wanted to be his friend, that she treated him like an equal, meant more to him than anything else ever could. Even when they argued she insulted him like an equal, too, calling him a jerk if he was acting like one but never once slinging any insults that had to do with his appearance or mixed heritage.

Okay sure, she did have the rosary command, but Kagome didn't use the beads to control him, she used them to prevent him from controlling her, or at least that's what she'd used them for for the first couple of months or so. He knew for sure that he would have destroyed the well that one time if it hadn't been for the kotodama, and of course in the very beginning he would have definitely run off with the jewel if she and Kaede hadn't stopped him right when they had, probably immediately turning into a cold-hearted murderer once he'd swallowed the damn thing. Even though he wouldn't have actually killed Kagome to get the jewel from her, there was certainly no guarantee that he wouldn't have turned around and killed her immediately afterwards, once it'd warped his mind, especially since she looked like Kikyou and at that time he'd harbored a speck of hatred for the dead miko. Looking back on it now he shuddered at the very thought, and he shuddered even more to think of what might have possibly happened the first couple of times he'd transformed into a full youkai even without the jewel's assistance, if Kagome hadn't had the beads at those times to subdue him. No...he needed the rosary for those few rare occasions, and truth be told she didn't really abuse the thing all that much otherwise; if he said something totally heartless and she slammed him into the ground for it, well...he had actually been the one to hurt her first, then, and so he supposed he deserved it at those times, too. He was getting better at watching what he said, and so the truth was that she really didn't subdue him very often any more. Sango definitely slapped Miroku more frequently than Kagome osuwari'd him those days.

Besides, putting all that aside, there was also the working hypothesis that it was his magical bond to Kagome via the beads that enabled him to travel through the well to her time, and he definitely didn't want to risk losing his ability to travel through the Bone Eater's well. Maybehe would still be able to travel to Kagome's time escorted, if he went with her, just like how Yura's hairs had managed to slip through with her that one time, but then that would mean he'd be stuck in her time the entire time she needed to be there so that they could then return together, otherwise he'd be stuck on his side unable to retrieve her, forced to wait for her return. And Kagome couldn't go through the well without either him or a jewel shard. What if she ever accidentally went through the well by herself without any shards? Then that'd be it, they'd be screwed! The beads were definitely staying.

Kotodama or no kotodama, he knew that Kagome truly did think of him as an equal and as a friend, and he could honestly admit, at least to himself, that he thought of her the same way. Well, okay, he actually cared about her more deeply than 'just' friends, truth be told he loved her, but it had started out as friendship, and a friendship that he'd been surprised at first to find himself willingly participating in. He had never fully trusted anyone after his mother before meeting Kagome, not even Kikyou, otherwise he wouldn't have so easily believed that she could turn against him as he'd thought she had. There was no point dwelling on the past, though, and Kikyou was his past. He wished that Kagome could be his future, though he wouldn't dwell on the fact that she would be leaving him one day, either. Instead he chose to focus on the here and now, and right now, all he cared about was finding Naraku and killing that bastard. He owed Kikyou at least that much. She had died as a result of his lack of trust in her, and yes, she hadn't trusted him either, and yes, she had attacked him and sealed him to the Goshinboku, but regardless of what anybody else thought on the matter he felt that he at the very least owed it to Kikyou to avenge her death, to make that bastard pay for what he'd done. Maybe Kikyou's death wasn't really his fault, Inuyasha would concede, but still, he could have prevented it if he'd stuck around, staying closer to the village, if he'd been paying attention and had sensed Naraku being born. He should have protected her, and he had failed her, and that was why he blamed himself for her death. He had deserved for her to fire her arrow at him, as payment for his failure, and now that the fates had released him from the prison she had sent him to, in order to earn his freedom that meant he needed to exact his revenge on he who was truly to blame.

Yes, earn his freedom. He didn't want to die, although he'd been honest when he'd told Kagome that he had to risk his life for Kikyou's sake. Risk his life, because he might very well die trying to defeat Naraku, but if that should be the case then so be it, he would deserve death as punishment for his second failure. But he no longer planned on sacrificing himself to Kikyou like an offering, for her to drag him with her into Hell as her own means of revenge. Actually, he had never planned on doing that in the first place; she had cast a spell on him at that time, although he wouldn't blame her for that either because at that time she had still been under the impression that he had honestly been the one to kill her, that he had betrayed her, that the entire thing had been a trick and his talk of his love for her all lies. He couldn't blame her spirit for harboring such hatred under those circumstances. Yes, he had told Kaede once that he would follow Kikyou into Hell if that was her wish, but he'd mostly been speaking from his grief and guilt at that moment, although truth be told if Kikyou still up and demanded his death as the only way to appease her soul he would probably do it; his honor simply wouldn't let him ignore the responsibility, not to keep a promise, but to end Kikyou's suffering, whatever the cost. He wouldn't do it if it meant walking away from a future with Kagome, but that was just a pipe dream, anyway, since he knew she'd be leaving him one day, and so then what would he have to lose? Oh yeah, his own life. He didn't want to die, and he knew that Kagome didn't want him to die, either, so he'd do whatever he could to live for her sake, if he could, loneliness or no. Fortunately, now that Kikyou knew the truth about Naraku, she had since told him that while her hatred for him still existed within her, because she had died with those feelings in her heart and therefore as the specter she was those feelings could not go away, she still knew logically that he was not to blame, and that she would no longer act upon her misguided feelings of hatred towards him. She would not drag him with her into Hell, because she had only wanted his death for hers when she had honestly believed him to be her murderer. It was now Naraku's death that she wanted, and she would work with Inuyasha as an ally towards that goal. She had also since apologized for her apparent betrayal in attacking Kagome that one time, stealing her jewel shards and giving them to Naraku, but she'd explained that she had done that because she believed the only way to kill Naraku would be to purify both him and the sacred jewel together. It was a good plan and likely still the only way to rid the world of both of them, she had just not realized how much more powerful possessing that much of the jewel would make Naraku in the mean time, and how much more destruction he could cause as a result.

Kikyou definitely wasn't perfect, and Inuyasha had taken her down from her pedestal in his mind a long time ago.

But even though he no longer loved her like he used to that didn't mean he suddenly hated her, and so he would go to speak with her whenever she summoned him. Those days all they spoke about were ideas of how to defeat Naraku and where to possibly find his hiding place. In fact right now he knew that Kikyou was scouring a different part of the countryside; they had formulated a plan to split up and check in two different directions. She would not seek him out again until she had news, although occasionally she would send a single shinidamachuu to see if they had discovered anything. Inuyasha had since informed the rest of the Inu-tachi of this arrangement, and so they all knew that a single shinidamachuu appearing was not a summons from Kikyou but merely an inquiry on their status. Without walking away from the others Inuyasha would simply tell the soul collector whatever information they had, if any, and it would then fly off to relay the news to its mistress. The last time had been just a couple of days ago, and so they knew they wouldn't be seeing another soul collector for at least a couple of weeks, unless Kikyou herself had word of Naraku and sought them out because of it.

Of course, it had been awkward for Kagome when Inuyasha had first told them about his and Kikyou's arrangement, using her soul collectors as messengers of a sort, but whether she liked it or not it was admittedly a good idea, because it enabled Kikyou to keep searching in her own area without having to take the time to venture to them just to risk finding out they had no information either. A shinidamachuu might be a literal shining reminder of the undead miko and everything she represented, but at least it was not the undead miko herself, and so Kagome would much rather deal with a soul collector checking up on them a couple of times a month than the woman who owned Inuyasha's heart.

Watching the hanyou who was walking just a few paces ahead of her, Kagome sighed quietly, her thoughts drifting to a couple of days ago, when the latest shinidamachuu had graced them with its presence. She supposed it wasn't so bad, the arrangement Inuyasha and Kikyou had made. Despite her personal feelings where the undead miko was concerned, Kagome was smart enough to know that they needed all the help against Naraku they could get, and truth be told, she was really over her jealousy of Kikyou those days anyway, for the most part at least, knowing that she couldn't compete with her predecessor for Inuyasha's affection; she just didn't care for the constant reminder of that fact. She knew that Inuyasha cared for her as a friend, though; she knew she wasn't just his 'shard detector'. They'd undeniably grown much closer than the strained partnership they had forged at the very beginning, and for that she was definitely grateful. He'd even told her to her face once that he enjoyed her company, that he felt happy and lighthearted in her presence, and that admittance alone meant more to Kagome than anything. Yes, he had decided that his obligation to Kikyou had to come first, but he hadn't cast her aside because of that; when she had asked him if he would let her stay he had allowed it, and honestly, he had looked more than a little relieved. It warmed her heart to know that even though he wasn't in love with her, even though that privilege belonged to Kikyou, Inuyasha did still love her as a friend and wanted her in his life in that capacity. Above all else, Kagome wanted Inuyasha to be happy, and she was very glad that she could give that to him. She didn't know if he knew her feelings for him went beyond friendship or not, although she doubted it, but she did know that it didn't really matter since he didn't feel the same way, but that was all right with her. If you truly loved something, then let it go, right? So she would let him go, so to speak, go to meet up and speak with Kikyou whenever she came around. He would always come back to her afterwards, and that little truth gave Kagome areason to smile, thinking again on that expression from her time. At least she did have Inuyasha's friendship; that part of him did belong to her.

Suddenly, Miroku stopped walking, pulling both the hanyou and miko out of their respective wandering thoughts.

"What is it, Houshi-sama?" Sango asked.

"I feel a demonic aura approaching our location." Miroku spoke up once he was certain his feeling was correct. He thought the aura might be familiar to him, but it was still too far away to be certain.

Inuyasha sniffed the air at the monk's words and Kagome tried to see if she could sense any jewel shards, but whatever was approaching them was apparently downwind and didn't have any shards in its possession. Kagome thought she might actually feel a demonic aura getting closer, if she really concentrated, but Miroku was far more sensitive to detecting that sort of thing than she was with her very limited amount of spiritual training, at least when the aura wasn't tainted with jyaki. She could easily sense and recognize Inuyasha's aura, of course, but his youki was exceptionally strong and after having spent so much time with him she had simply learned the feel of his aura all on her own. She really couldn't feel weaker auras all that well like Miroku could, only stronger ones, though heck, even Sango could sense strong demonic auras, as that had been a standard part of taijiya training, to become sensitive to the feel of demonic energy even without possessing spiritual reiki, and the slayer felt no such negativity on the approach, either.

Just because whatever was approaching them didn't feel tainted with jyaki, though, that wasn't to say they needn't keep their guard up. After all, that yama-oni from before hadn't had a very strong or evil aura, either, having been a lowly, relatively harmless thing – at least to skilled fighters like them – that had been lured to them by Kagome's jewel shards.

Heck, even little Shippou had been after my shards in the beginning, and he's not in the least bit evil ... Kagome thought, as she tightened her grip on her bow but did not yet draw an arrow. She didn't want to waste any if whatever it was was weak enough for Inuyasha to easily dispatch on his own.

Fortunately, as soon as the approaching youkai got close enough for Miroku to recognize its particular youki signature, the holy man exhaled in relief, a gesture that quickly put everyone else at ease as well as Kagome relaxed her grip on her bow and Inuyasha released Tessaiga's hilt.

"It's just Hachi." the monk stated, cluing everyone else in.

Although knowing who it was was calming, in a sense, because everyone knew they certainly had nothing to fear from Miroku's long time tanuki companion, the houshi was still worried over what it could possibly be that had caused Hachimon to seek them out like this. They didn't have very long to wait to find out, as a giant flying raccoon tail, or at least that's what Kagome thought he kind of looked like, quickly appeared above them from over the eastern mountain ridge. Coming in for a landing, Hachi got as close to the trees as he could before with a *pop* he turned back into his tanuki form, landing on his feet from the twenty-foot drop with an "Oomph."

"Keh, nice of you to drop in." Inuyasha joked at the fat raccoon-dog's expense, having picked up the modern slang from his time with Kagome.

Ignoring the quip, Hachi stood hunched over for a moment with his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. Inuyasha just shook his head; the sorry excuse for a canine could certainly stand to lose a few pounds. However, the hanyou was very aware that Hachimon wouldn't have traveled all the way out there unless it was important, so as Miroku asked his friend what was the matter and if something had happened to Mushin Inuyasha cocked both ears forward to catch the tanuki's answer.

Still a bit winded from his journey, as it had taken him a few days to search out and find a lingering trace of Miroku's aura and then catch up with them, Hachi quickly explained to Miroku and the others that while Mushin himself and the temple were unharmed, there was a terrible evil aura that had started infiltrating the local village that rested at the base of the mountain where the temple resided. Nobody had started acting completely possessed, yet, although it did seem to be affecting the villagers as it was putting everyone into a negative frame of mind. Everyone was still themselves and knew who they were and knew who their neighbors were and seemed to have control over their own minds and bodies, but yet, fights had been breaking out, and men who had been friends since childhood were suddenly declaring hatred on one another for no apparent reason. Mushin had discovered this effect quickly, when he had ventured into the village with concern upon first sensing the evil aura, only to be met with uncharacteristic skepticism whenever he tried to tell anyone that their village was under attack. "Go home old man." had been most people's responses to his concerned words, and trying to slap an ofuda on one individual had actually resulted in that man taking a swing at the monk, although he'd successfully blocked the man's hit with his shakujou. The villager had then pealed the ofuda off of himself in disgust and stomped away, completely unaffected by Mushin's efforts. The situation was so confounding that Mushin had even, temporarily, given up his saké, and you knew something bad was going on when Mushin decided he had to stay sober in order to deal with it. The monk didn't know what to make of what was going on, although it didn't feel like Naraku to him, as Mushin was familiar with the feel of the dark hanyou's jyaki from his experience tending to Miroku and his late father's wind tunnels.

Sango and Kagome both sagged a bit at that last bit of information, unsure if they were relieved or disappointed. On the one hand it would have been horrible to hear that Naraku was in the process of doing something wicked to the local villagers near Mushin's temple, but on the other hand they would have relished in the opportunity to face off against the dark hanyou if he had truly come out of hiding. Even if it were a trap specifically designed to lure them into his snare they would've gladly obeyed Naraku's summons in an attempt at eradicating the dark hanyou once and for all. As it was, though, they knew they still had to go in and investigate, no matter what. Even ignoring the slim possibility that Naraku might actually still be involved somehow, if he had merely enlisted the aid of something else that possessed a different type aura and therefore Mushin had not recognized the signature of Naraku's jyaki simply because the dark hanyou himself wasn't there, they still had to go check it out regardless because they would never turn down any request for aid from a village in need, and especially not when it was the village that sat at the base of the mountain that housed Mushin's Buddhist temple, where Miroku had grown up. Even though Miroku's family had not originally been from that village, and he himself had never lived there, instead always living with Mushin in the temple, he still considered that village to be a home of sorts. It was where he would go as a young monk in training to beg for money for the temple, and where he and Mushin would acquire their food and any other items they needed. Even though when the temple had been in its prime they would receive visitors from all over the region, it was only those local villagers that now kept the place from completely falling apart. It was their temple, in a way, and now, they were in trouble. Yes, it was possible that it actually was a trap of Naraku's, so they would not dismiss that possibility and allow themselves to be caught by surprise, even though it was just as likely that Naraku was not involved at all and it was something else entirely, but either way, they would do whatever they could to help the local villagers, first and foremost. If Mushin had sent Hachimon to search for them, then that alone was testament to the fact that the situation was more serious than what the aging holy man could handle on his own. Yes, they would definitely go help Mushin's villagers, without delay. Even Inuyasha didn't protest.

"Keh, you up for the return journey, old man?" he asked the tanuki with a surprisingly compassionate edge to his voice.

Hachi bristled in the face of the hanyou's supposed pity, as Inuyasha had known he would, hiding a secret smirk as the raccoon-dog, looking totally insulted, said "Of course! I'm not some weakling!"

With no clearing large enough for Hachi to stretch out on the ground in his transformed state for the others to climb on board he leaped up through the trees until with one final jump he cleared their tops and transformed back into his transportation mode mid-air. Miroku, Sango and Shippou quickly reached Hachi via Kirara, who landed on Hachi's back and allowed her passengers to dismount before then transforming herself back into her kitten form, while Kagome and Inuyasha reached Hachi via the same method the tanuki had taken to gain his altitude. With the situation so serious the hanyou and miko didn't even allow themselves their usual second of enjoyment regarding the physical contact; their thoughts were focused solely on needing to get to that village and finding out what was going on.

With everyone settled on his back and secure enough in their balance that they were in no danger of falling off, Hachi quickly lifted himself higher into the sky and took off towards the east, towards Mushin's temple. Even at his top speed it would take them a few hours to get there; Hachi just prayed that they weren't too late, since it had actually taken him a few days to find them, not having known for sure where the Inu-tachi was located and having had to search them out via mental probing, as he knew well the feel of Miroku's reiki from their years of close friendship.

To occupy themselves during the flight, everyone engaged in conversation regarding what could possibly be happening in the village, discussing all of the various possibilities and what different types of youkai, ghosts or other phenomenon could cause this reaction in normal humans. Since Mushin had remained unaffected himself even while in the heart of the village, it was safe to assume that whatever it was could not affect his mind because of his holy powers. Hachi also told them that he too had gone into the village to investigate, incognito of course as most people would automatically react negatively to a youkai walking amongst them, and whatever was affecting the villagers had not bothered him either. This meant that the Inu-tachi believed they should all be relatively safe from whatever it was that was going on, as the only one among them with no youki or reiki was Sango, and having undergone years of intense taijiya training she was fairly resilient herself when it came to most types of demonic possessions or mental suggestions. She wasn't impervious, but she would do her best to keep her wits about her, and Kagome stated in that moment that she believed that even just knowing the facts going in would be a big help for the slayer, because even if she started to feel a little cranky or bitchy for no apparent reason she should at least be able to tell herself that it was just a result of whatever it was that was affecting everybody and therefore do her best to ignore it.

Inuyasha wanted to make a joke about PMS, but quickly thought better of it, keeping his thoughts to himself. While he knew that no matter how hot headed she could get at times Kagome would never be stupid enough to say 'it' while they were all riding high up in the air on Hachimon, he also knew that he'd be in for it as soon as they touched down, from both women.

About an hour or so into the flight Inuyasha was pulled from their back and forth hypotheses as an unexpected and disturbing scent reached his nose, and he quickly told his companions, "Hey, I smell human blood, a lot of it."

Alarmed, everyone immediately peered over the edge of Hachi's body, checking out the landscape below, but there was nothing that seemed out of the ordinary...yet. Then the sound of bloodcurdling screams reached the youkai's ears, and Shippou suddenly gasped and cowered into Sango's embrace while Inuyasha's ears flattened to his head. Kirara was instantly on high alert as she glanced around nervously while everyone also felt Hachi's muscles tense up underneath them.

"What is it?" Kagome asked hesitantly, not sure she wanted to know the answer.

"Somebody's getting butchered somewhere. I can smell oni too now." Inuyasha reluctantly stated.

"I believe it is coming from that direction..." Miroku stated while pointing in the direction in which they were headed, as he could now feel a faint but evil demonic aura, which was getting stronger by the minute.

"We need to check it out." Sango insisted, rubbing Shippou's head in the hopes of calming the boy.

"But Mushin-sama said very specifically to bring you back without delay!" Hachi protested adamantly. "Who knows how worse the situation has gotten in the last few days?"

Everyone felt torn. So okay sure, there was a village somewhere down below being attacked at that present moment, but that happened all the time, right? It was the Warring States era, after all, so if it wasn't a youkai it was a gang of human bandits, or soldiers, or something. The Inu-tachi tried their best to help people in need, but they couldn't be everywhere at once, and they were already heading towards a village that was under some sort of an attack. Hachi was right, who knew how much worse it'd gotten in the last few days? What if the villagers were about to start killing each other? What if they already had?! No...they couldn't dawdle, they had to get to Mushin's as quickly as possible...and yet, that just seemed so heartless. They couldn't just ignore these other villagers, either. What to do...what to do...

Then Kagome gasped, and called out "I sense a jewel shard!"

Miroku and Sango's eyes widened.

Furrowing her brow, the miko concentrated and added, "But, it doesn't really feel all that tainted."

"Keh...that explains that, then." Inuyasha stated. "Probably one of the humans has it, and that oni is going crazy trying to find it."

Kagome worried her lower lip at that, wanting to agree with Sango that they needed to check the situation out, especially since there was a jewel shard involved, and yet a part of her also still kind of agreed with Hachi in that they had to get to Mushin's ASAP. Yes there were people in trouble here, but they were already traveling to help other people in trouble, and they didn't know for certain that the situation at Mushin's village hadn't escalated dramatically in the last few days. It was quite possible there could be no time to lose, and that stopping here, while saving lives, could mean deaths over there that wouldn't have occurred otherwise. But Kagome felt extra responsible for these villagers because there was a jewel shard involved. In a roundabout way, it was her fault they were being attacked right now. That oni could very well have never bothered them if it hadn't been for her accidentally shattering the jewel. She tried not to dwell on the guilt she felt for that act, since a few select positives had come about from her having shattered the jewel, as well, such as her developing friendship with Inuyasha throughout their mission to collect the shards, but besides all that, there were people being killed right now, and yet...the situation at Mushin's could also possibly be life or death...or it also might not be. What should they do? What if they left these villagers to fend for themselves and then got to Mushin's and the situation wasn't all that serious yet? Then they would have condemned these innocent people to a needless death. Could they really gamble with people's lives like that? But wouldn't hoping that the situation at Mushin's was mild enough that they could stop here be gambling with their lives, instead? Gah!

Easily reading Kagome's inner turmoil on her face, when the unfortunate village came into view as they flew by overhead Miroku ordered Hachi to at least slow down for a moment so that they could better assess the situation from the air. If it appeared as if everyone had already perished and that all that would be left for them to do now was to kill the attacking youkai and take care of the dead, then Miroku would agree with Hachi that continuing onward towards Mushin's village without delay was more important. Even knowing there was a jewel shard involved somehow, he felt an incredible drive from deep within him to get to his aging sensei as quickly as possible and make sure that he was still all right and that whatever was happening in the village had not yet affected him. Taking care of the dead was not more important that saving lives, if everyone at this village had already fallen.

As they observed the scene unfolding below them, however, everyone cringed to realize that there were in fact quite a number of villagers still alive, as everyone ran everywhere, trying to avoid the rampaging oni that seemed hell bent on destroying every single structure it could get its hands on. It was definitely looking for the jewel shard, apparently too weak to sense its precise location. There were quite a few bodies lying about, but it looked like the number of living still greatly outweighed the number of fallen.

"Oh dear..." Sango voiced, unconsciously reaching for the strap of Hiraikotsu that was snug across her shoulder. "Okay, we have to help them." she stated with conviction. Her taijiya training would not permit her to let these innocents suffer on a gamble that the other situation was just as dire when it might not be. They were right here, right now, and those people right below them needed their help.

"But Mushin-sama said-!" Hachi started to protest again, only to be interrupted by Inuyasha.

"Feh, okay, we'll do this." he started, flashing Kagome a look to let her know that by 'we' he meant her and himself, before then directing his attention to Miroku, Sango, Shippou and Kirara. "You lot keep headin' towards that village, they really might need you without delay. Me 'n' Kagome can handle this guy ourselves; he's big 'n' ugly but not all that powerful. I know my way to Mushin's from here so we'll meet up with you guys as soon as we can. In the meantime, it sounds like their problem ain't somethin' I can help with, anyway. Can't go blasting the warped villagers with Tessaiga. They need you, Houshi..." Inuyasha addressed Miroku specifically, looking him in the eye, "...and these guys down below need me 'n' Kagome."

That Inuyasha had so confidently mentioned the two of them as a fighting pair, Kagome's heart swelled with pride. Miroku immediately nodded his agreement that it seemed the best solution, under the circumstances, and Sango also agreed that if Kagome and Inuyasha were going to take care of this oni that she could then go on with Miroku. She was sure that the two of them together could probably take care of whatever ghost or youkai was behind the attack on Mushin's village, just as she knew that that oni down below wasn't toopowerful for the hanyou and miko to bring down on their own. Kagome had over half a quiver of arrows, and truth be told, Inuyasha could probably handle the oni all by himself, so having Kagome as backup was definitely all the help he needed. Under the circumstances, splitting up was definitely the best solution.

"Agreed. Be careful, my friends. See you soon." Miroku stated, before telling Hachi to lower himself closer to the ground until they were at an altitude that Inuyasha could safely jump from with Kagome on his back.

Once they were low enough the hanyou and miko were off, literally, and then Hachi quickly lifted himself back up and continued onward at top speed, not even allowing Miroku and Sango a second to watch as Inuyasha and Kagome came in for their landing, although they were not worried. They knew that their friends could take care of themselves. Immediately, their focus was back on Mushin's village and what could possibly be happening to the locals there. It would still take them a few hours to reach the village, so they would try their best to go over all of the possibilities so that by the time they got there they'd already have a working plan of attack in mind to diagnose and treat the problem. Sango and Miroku's goal was to already have whatever was the culprit, if not already fully dealt with, then at least already identified with a plan in the works for how to deal with it once their friends arrived. It would probably take Inuyasha and Kagome over a full day to catch up to them, assuming they stopped for the night, and assuming the hanyou ran with the miko on his back the rest of the time. Inuyasha's top traveling speed was honestly not as fast as Hachi's top speed during flight, and having to run over uneven mountainous terrain would make it take longer than flying through the air even if he could travel at the same speed. Still, the hanyou was way faster than a human – or mortal dog, for that matter – and because of his demonic endurance he could also maintain his top long distance speed almost indefinitely, never slowing over a long period of time. Presumably he was capable of eventually tiring out simply from running, while possessing no battle wounds, but none of his friends had yet to witness the phenomenon. He could of course sprint at faster bursts of speed than his long distance running speed, any living creature could, and if he tried to push that speed for too long he might very well overexert himself, but being canine he was designed for long distance running and they knew he would settle into the best speed to get him and Kagome there as quickly as possible without it putting him at risk of tiring out.

They were grateful for their friend's demonic endurance. While they hoped that whatever was happening at Mushin's village would turn out to be something they could handle on their own, they still wanted their friends to join them there as quickly as possible just in case they did end up needing Inuyasha and Kagome's help. Hopefully dealing with that oni would not be too time consuming.


Bracing for impact, Inuyasha landed running, and Kagome was not jarred too badly, having become fully accustomed to hanyou-back-riding during times of extreme stress by that point. The local villagers that were in the nearby area where they descended immediately gave them a wide birth, having noticed that they'd jumped down from some sort of giant flying youkai. At first they were terrified of Kagome and Inuyasha's appearance, and rightfully so. How often did superheros actually come to the rescue? Surely this demonic man and his strangely dressed companion were additional villains, right?

The villagers were quickly proven wrong when Kagome, without hesitation, notched and fired an arrow that sailed with bright purifying light to hit the lumbering forest oni square in the shoulder, impairing the use of its left arm.

Inuyasha could hear gasped exclamations of astonishment and praise from the villagers, things like "She's a miko!" and "Praise the kami!" As was often the case whenever dealing with humans that were under attack from some type of youkai that trumped him in the 'ugly monster' department, Inuyasha's slightly inhuman appearance in comparison was immediately disregarded by the locals, except for the fact that being youkai meant that he had special powers, which they were actually grateful for if they knew he was on their side. Fortunately, whenever people saw he and Kagome together, it was much more frequently decided by the locals that he must be a good guy for being with her – even if they believed so because they saw and recognized the beads he wore and correctly assumed it meant she held a magic spell over him – rather than them automatically assuming her a kuromiko for associating with youkai. No kuromiko could fire a purifying arrow.

"Please help us!" a random village woman begged, actually meeting Inuyasha's eyes, and he offered her his best reassuring smile, keeping his mouth closed so as not to spook her by baring his fangs.

"That's why we're here." he told her then, before quickly barking out orders for everyone to get back, out of the way. It briefly flashed through his mind that his friendship with Kagome really had changed him, because the old him honestly never used to give a rat's ass about helping random humans. What had they ever done for him, right? And although he would have volunteered to fight this particular oni anyway since there was a jewel shard somewhere within the village, despite the shard he honestly, truly felt the desire to help these people, and it was a warm, inviting feeling. It reminded him of his youthful innocence, when his mother had still been alive, and how he had used to view the world before learning it was full of assholes.

Shaking it off, he went to join Kagome, who had a bead drawn on the oni with her next arrow, though it hadn't yet tried to attack her, apparently sizing her up. It could undoubtedly sense the jewel shards she carried, but now that it'd also had a taste of her purifying powers it was most likely trying to decide whether or not they were worth the risk.

It was a very tempting risk, though, and the forest oni, which sort of looked like a brown Stay Puff Marshmellow Man with tree bark for skin and glowing red eyes, was clearly about to make a go for them. Kagome wasn't afraid, having known that firing at the thing would make her an immediate target. Her goal had been achieved with that arrow in that the oni had stopped its ransacking of the village, now focusing all of its attention solely on her, and so the surviving villagers were all able to successfully get out of the way now, running to someplace far behind where she and Inuyasha stood. She wasn't worried for her own safety with her hanyou guardian standing proudly beside her. Now it was just a matter of how best to deal with the oni without causing even more damage to the village than what had already been done.

Thinking about it, Inuyasha didn't want to blast it right where they stood, as there were a few relatively undamaged buildings behind the oni that would be completely destroyed if he unleashed a Kaze no Kizu at that angle. They needed to get the oni away from the village and out towards the forest if he was going to use an attack that strong. He might not need to, though. The beast's youki didn't feel all that powerful, so since it hadn't successfully gotten a hold of that village's jewel shard yet he might be able to do away with it without using such a powerful attack.

"Where's the shard?" he asked Kagome quietly, who mentally scanned for the crystal's current whereabouts without taking her eyes off of the beast she still held in stalemate.

"Somewhere behind us, I think one of the villagers has it on his or her person, because its position has changed while I've stood still."

Inuyasha nodded his understanding, deciding they could deal with that as an afterthought once the oni was taken care of.

"Hey, ugly!" he shouted at the beast then, quickly earning the tree-ogre's attention. "Leave these people alone, you bastard! You want jewel shards? We've got plenty! You can feel 'em, can't you? So come and get 'em if you think you can!"

Enraged by the hanyou's taunting, as Inuyasha had known the pea-brained monster would be, the mori-oni charged without hesitation, and Kagome merely stood her ground, unafraid, as Inuyasha readied himself to strike. Smirking, the hanyou quickly drew and transformed Tessaiga in a single fluid motion, an act which earned even more shocked gasps of awe from their audience though he paid the villagers no mind. While he couldn't unleash a blast as powerful as the Kaze no Kizu with those buildings in its path, that didn't mean he couldn't slash at the monster with Tessaiga itself, which he did with vigor as it charged right for him, aiming a swing with its right arm that was so powerful it would have probably knocked Inuyasha's head clean off his shoulders, provided the oni had actually made contact. Inuyasha dodged easily, and then brought Tessaiga up through its immobilized left arm, cleanly removing the limb in a move he remembered from having done it once before on a youkai that had been much larger and much more powerful.

Heh, this guy is nothing compared to fighting Sesshoumaru, and if I can do that and live then I could probably defeat this guy with my eyes closed...

Inuyasha knew not to get too smug or overly confident, though; he'd seen that become the fatal move of countless enemies over the years. In the brief moment that the oni was distracted he quickly distanced himself from Kagome, believing he would be the beast's main target now as it should seek him out in a fit of rage for taking its arm. If so he would lure it into the woods and then obliterate it once it was safe to unleash a Kaze no Kizu, no fooling around. If it chose to go after Kagome instead then he wouldn't hesitate to attack it from behind with a technique that wouldn't put Kagome in danger. For either scenario he had a plan.

The oni howled in agony as it clutched the stump where its left arm had once been, and was just about to go after Inuyasha once it gathered its wits, but then Kagome suddenly called out "Hey! These are what you want, aren't they?" as she held up her bottle of jewel shards in her right hand, having slipped the chain from around her neck, and the oni immediately turned and rushed towards her instead with an almost blind lust for the crystals, thoughts of revenge against the hanyou instantly forgotten.

Removing the shards from around her neck had disarmed Kagome in a sense, as she held both her bow and the arrow in her left hand together, the shaft of the arrow resting parallel to the bow, like gripping a pair of sticks, but she wasn't worried because she knew she could arm herself again very quickly. She had only wanted to distract the oni so that Inuyasha could land another strike, which he quickly attempted in that moment by launching himself at the oni from behind. Swinging Tessaiga towards the beast's neck, Inuyasha's plan was to decapitate it, but relatively weak in the youki department or not, the oni quickly proved more stalwart than originally anticipated when his sword unexpectedly bounced off of the monster's thick and scaly hide without even making a dent. Apparently, it had only been Kagome's purifying arrow to its shoulder that had enabled Inuyasha to sever that arm. Taking it down really would be a team effort.

As Inuyasha fell backwards from the reflected energy of his failed strike the beast completely ignored him, still headed straight for Kagome and her jewel shards, but by the time Inuyasha shouted "Fuck! Kagome, look out!" she was already re-nocking her arrow, the shards tucked into her skirt pocket for the time being.

Crap! she thought in a near panic, neither of them having anticipated that its hide would be too tough for Tessaiga's blade since Inuyasha had already severed its arm.

She too quickly realized that it had to have been her previous arrow that had made the difference, weakening that part of the oni's body. Releasing her second arrow in that moment, she didn't have enough time to aim properly, but with the giant beastly youkai closing in on her so rapidly she didn't really need to worry about her aim all that much; she was guaranteed to hit it somewhere. Her arrow struck its belly with only a few short feet to spare between them, exploding with a bright blast of light, and the oni curled in on itself, howling in pain as it hunched over into a ball and reached for the damage with its right hand, as if about to coddle the wound before suddenly thinking better of it and pulling its hand back away, probably realizing it shouldn't touch the wound for fear that lingering holy energy would only end up crippling its hand as well. It needed its hand; it wanted to crush the life out of the miko with its remaining hand, feeling her blood ooze between its fingers before throwing her lifeless body aside and claiming her jewel shards for itself.

Inuyasha wouldn't give it the chance. Unhesitatingly, he rushed the beast while it was still hunched over, and while gripping Tessaiga in only his right hand he swung up at its belly with an uppercut from his left, shouting "Sankon Tessou!" His youki blades struck true, causing the oni to rear back up straight on its hindlegs with a howl of pain, its crimson eyes blazing of hatred and promises of death.

Kagome had long since gotten out of the way, the miko having scurried backwards by a couple dozen feet immediately after her second arrow had hit its belly, and so now as she watched the oni roar in unimaginable pain as Inuyasha's blades of youki tore through its weakened flesh, she found herself actually feeling sorry for the beast, but only in that she wanted to hurry up and put it out of its misery, to end its suffering.

Notching her third arrow, then, she called out to Inuyasha, "Let's try that again!" and then she fired, her aim true as she struck the beast in the throat. Her arrow disintigratd into dust on impact just as the first two had, the youkai's hide apparently so thick that without proper training on how to channel her powers better it was all she could to to blast away its outermost layers of armor-like skin, but that was enough.

Making a gasping, gargling noise, the oni instincitively reached for its throat, not pulling its hand back away quick enough that time as its palm started sizzling from the residual traces of her miko energy. That caused it to yank its hand back away from its throat quickly, just in time for Inuyasha to shout "Tessaiga!" as he came in from the side, the oni having been completely distracted in its pain and anger. Its crazy, evil red eyes opened wide to realize it was about to die just before Inuyasha's blade made contact, and thanks to Kagome's arrow weakening that part of the beast's body, he was now able to cleanly slice through the oni's neck, its head falling to the ground with a loud thud.

Thank goodness it hadn't already gotten a hold of that jewel shard... Kagome thought in relief, knowing their battle would have only just been getting started if it had, because something as trivial as decapitation wouldn't have brought down a shard-enhanced oni.

She didn't even want to think about how much more powerful it would have become had it had a jewel shard. She and Inuyasha would have probably needed to combine one of her arrows with his Kaze no Kizu regardless of whatever empty structures stood in the path of destruction; if they'd had an opening to make the shot without any villagers in the way then saving lives was definitely more important than saving buildings. Fortunately that hadn't been an issue, and they had managed to do both, taking the beast down without causing any more damage to the village.

The villagers immediately cheered, though their joyous cries were understandably short-lived as the true depth of what all had happened sank in. There were quite a few bodies still lying wherever those poor souls had fallen, and feeling a bit awkward, Inuyasha almost wished Miroku was with them for this part, though he would do his best to muddle through.

"We need to burn its head, just in case." he instructed first and foremost, gesturing to the fallen oni, and a few of the stronger village men immediately ran off to collect firewood and scrap boards and whatever else they could find to construct a makeshift pyre for the task. They would not dishonor their dead by using their actual funeral pyre, which would also be getting a lot of use, unfortunately.

"Miko-sama..." a few of the villagers murmured as they humbly approached Kagome with their thanks. "Please, will you offer us a blessing for our loved ones?"

Kagome was surprised, never having been asked to do such a thing before, although she had heard Miroku do it more times than she'd like to recall and knew that it was something she could do. She wanted to, if it would help put these people's minds at rest, not to mention the souls of the deceased who probably did need somebody to pray over them after such a tragic way their lives had ended.

Glancing Inuyasha's way with questioning eyes, hesitant to say anything if he wanted them to just get the shard and get on the road, she was relieved and offered him a small smile in thanks when he nodded his head in the affirmative in answer to her silent plea.

"While you do that, I'll go bury its body deep in the woods somewhere. I'll be right back, be careful while I'm gone."

Kagome nodded her understanding, her eyes shining with gratitude as she then let the villagers lead her to where they were gathering up all of their dead so that she could perform their last rights. Inuyasha was a little apprehensive about leaving Kagome alone in their ranks, but honestly, he sensed no malice from anyone present, not even from whoever it was that carried a jewel shard. Kagome herself had even said that that shard didn't feel very tainted, and so most likely one of the people had just randomly come across it and picked it up, and even if they did know what it was they probably hadn't used it for much of anything. They had probably thought it would bring their village good luck.

Yeah right... Inuyasha snorted, knowing those blasted shards were nothing but bad news.

Grabbing the dead oni by its feet he quickly dragged it off into the forest, using his top speed to put as much distance between it and the villagers in the shortest amount of time as possible. He then attempted hacking it to pieces, but even dead its hide was still too thick for him to cut through in any place not significantly weakened by Kagome's purifying energy. Quickly changing tactics he put his speed to use once more and dug like one would expect a person who was half canine might be able to dig, piles of dirt flying up between his legs as he hunched over. It only took him a few brief minutes to create a hole large enough to dump the oni's body into, and then he covered it back up. Even if carrion youkai were still drawn to its stink, it was plenty far enough away from the village that they shouldn't be a problem.

With that task accomplished he quickly turned tail and ran back to the village again at his top speed, and was pleased by the sight that greeted him when he returned, the oni's head burning in a roaring fire that created large plumes of black smoke while on the other end of the village Kagome spoke the words she recalled Miroku reciting on many past occasions as the unlit funeral pyre held all of the fallen. Inuyasha paid his own respects by staying clear, not wanting to risk tainting the holy ritual with his presence. Even though he was a good man, he was half youkai, and Inuyasha understood that there were certain things that youkai just could not do; blessing the dead was one of them.

His ears turned just in time to warn him that somebody was coming up behind him before he felt a village man clasp his shoulder lightly.

"Thank you, Youkai-sama, for fighting on the side of good and saving our village."

Stunned speechless, Inuyasha's eyes said it all as he turned to stare at the villager, who accurately suspected the inu-hanyou was not all that used to receiving his own personal praise. The man continued.

"I cannot speak for the prejudice of others, but you and your miko will always be welcome here."

It quickly dawned on Inuyasha based on the way he was dressed, not to mention his mannerisms, that this older gentleman was the headman of the village.

"Th-thank you." he managed to get out, blushing slightly as the human man only grinned at him.

"You are quite welcome, as it is us who thank you, and always shall. Might you and your companion grace us with your presence for a feast tonight in your honor?"

Humbled, part of Inuyasha wanted to accept, simply for the sake of actually feeling welcomed somewhere for once, but he knew they couldn't dawdle with the unknowns that still lingered regarding whatever evil forces were at play in Mushin's village.

"It would be an honor, but I'm afraid we can't, 'cause we were on our way with our friends to another village in need when we saw you guys under attack."

The headman nodded his understanding, having witnessed the way Inuyasha and Kagome had literally dropped from the sky. "And so sending your companions to continue onward in the mission you had already been embarked upon, you and the miko diverged and opted to save us when you did not have to. We are truly in your debt." the headman stated then, asking, "Might we at least know your names, so that we may sing of your praises during tonight's celebration?"

Blushing again, Inuyasha managed to mutter, "Uh...yeah, sure, I guess. My name's Inuyasha, and she's Kagome." he stated, pointing towards the future-born miko who was just finishing up her prayer. With her standing and backing away from the pyre, it was then lit, and it did not take long for the dead bodies to ignite, sending their pacified souls into the next life.

"Come..." the headman stated then, as he headed towards Kagome, indicating to Inuyasha that it was now okay for him to approach as well.

"Kagome-sama, our many thanks once again." the headman stated as he drew near, and she blinked in surprise for a brief moment in response, since everyone had only been calling her 'Miko-sama' and she had not yet thought to introduce herself.

Kagome was surprised that Inuyasha had apparently told the headman their names, but she was surprised in a good way, because it meant that he had obviously been talking with the man, and regardless of whatever it was they had been discussing she was happy to know that he had been comfortable enough to actually talk civilly with the man while she finished performing the last rights of the fallen.

"It was my honor to do whatever I could for your fallen brethren. I only wish that circumstances had permitted us to stumble upon your village even sooner."

"Far better that you stumbled upon us when you did than not at all." the headman countered, offering Kagome a respectful bow that she returned. "I attempted to invite you both to stay for a feast to be held tonight in your honor, but your companion here informed me that we were an unexpected stop whilst you had already been en route to another village that is also in need of your aid, and as such we shall delay your departure no longer. Please, know that you and Inuyasha-sama will always be welcome among us."

"Thank you very much, that is very kind of you." Kagome stated sincerely, adding, "Yes, I'm afraid that we must be going, however before we depart there is one other matter to which we must attend."

Inuyasha smirked to himself to hear Kagome speak so formally, really taking the role of miko seriously. He was proud of her.

"And what might that be?" the headman asked politely, ready and willing to aid Kagome with anything he could.

She explained to him quickly about the presence she felt of a sacred jewel shard, elaborating that she sincerely believed that the shard's presence was the sole reason for the oni's attack, and that if whomever was in possession of it did retain it, it would certainly only mean additional youkai attacks in the future. Removing her bottle of shards from her skirt pocket and hanging them back around her neck, she let the headman see her small collection as she stated that it was her solemn duty to collect and purify the jewel shards.

He did not question her, taking her account on faith that she truly was on a holy mission to restore the sacred jewel. Kagome did not need to explain how she had been born with the Shikon no Tama in her body or how she was actually the one who had accidentally shattered it in the first place. The simple fact that she possessed five shards, all sparkling brightly with their purity, was the only proof the headman needed to know that she spoke the truth. He had not been aware that there was a jewel shard within his village, and had no idea who possessed it, but he gave Kagome permission in that moment to approach the individual and claim the crystal, as she explained to him that a village wide search or interrogation would not be required as she could easily sense its location. For that he was relieved; they had been through enough already.

With both Inuyasha and the village headman accompanying Kagome, she made a bee-line towards the pull she could feel of the jewel shard's power, bowing her head lightly in appreciation to whomever bowed her way as she passed. Approaching the man that had the jewel shard he greeted them politely, in no way acting like he had anything to hide.

"I must ask that you please relinquish claim of the Shikon no Kakera." Kagome stated with as much mix of sternness and politeness she felt could be mixed together, holding out her right hand in anticipation with an unwavering look in her eyes. She was just grateful that Inuyasha had not spoken up before her and demanded the jewel fragment in an even harsher fashion.

"Shikon no Kakera?" the man asked in return, sounding truly perplexed.

"Don't play dumb." Inuyasha started then, though at Kagome's look he quickly bit his tongue and let her do the rest of the talking. These people were on good terms with him, and contrary to popular believe he would like to keep it that way.

"I'm afraid I truly don't..." the village man started, before pausing mid-sentence as his eyes suddenly opened wide as if in dawning. "I...I found this alongside the road during my last trek into market." he stated then, reaching into his robe for a folded up piece of carrying cloth. "I-I d-didn't know it was a f-fragm-ment of the Sh-shikon no Tama." he elaborated with a shaky voice, as if suddenly realizing the attack on his village had been his fault.

Kagome accepted the folded piece of cloth, reaching for it with her left hand to open it and reveal the jewel shard. It was not overly tainted, but not pure either, pulsing with a pastel grayish-orchid hue. She then picked up the crystal, which instantly purified at her touch, and handing the man back his carrying cloth, she added the shard to her bottle.

"I should have known...I knew it was magic..." the man explained. "When I had first spotted it, I didn't know what it was. I had thought that it was perhaps a piece of adamant from the nearby mountains, but as soon as I picked it up the pain in my knees went away; I hadn't felt so strong or healthy in years." Looking incredibly guilty he insisted, "But I did not realize it was actually a shard of the Shikon no Tama. I have heard many rumors during my times at market of how youkai from all over went crazy to seek those jewel fragments when the Shikon no Tama mysteriously reappeared and shattered; I never would have kept it and brought it home had I known, I swear it."

His eyes went back and forth between Kagome's and his headman's, remorseful, and desperate for them to believe him; his words were honest.

"We all make mistakes." Kagome stated softly with a solemn, understanding gaze, believing the man's words were true. If he had been consciously using the shard as anything more than an actual medicinal crystal then it would have become far more tainted than it had. Fortunately, it had not spoken to any greed within the man beyond him merely wanting to feel well again, he had not used it to become powerful.

Turning and gazing at all of the death and destruction his possession of that shard had caused, the villager in question murmured a quiet "May the kami forgive me..."

Neither the villager nor his headman knew that Kagome's thoughts were echoing along similar lines, the miko feeling just as guilty and responsible, though Inuyasha could easily read it in her eyes.

"Hey..." he spoke up then, hoping to pull her out of her funk. If he could go back in time to when he'd used to throw the shattering of the jewel in her face and kick his own ass he would, as she gazed up at him with pain-filled eyes in that moment.

Fortunately the two village men believed her expression stemmed only from her place of compassion, of being so empathetic towards their loss.

"We really do need to get going. What if the others need us?"

"Yes...yes absolutely." Kagome stated then, snapping herself out of it at Inuyasha's reminder.

Flashing her hanyou companion a look that spoke of her deeper thanks, she turned to greet the village headman.

"We really must be going now, our friends are dealing with a mysterious evil presence at a village that resides to the east of here." she stated, pointing briefly in the direction they planned on heading. "Our apologies that we cannot stay for tonight's feast."

"Think nothing of it Kagome-sama, Inuyasha-sama..." the headman stated, addressing Kagome before turning his head to address Inuyasha as well, the hanyou still mildly in shock to hear a human man add such an honorific to his name. "We shall forever be in your debt. You, as well as your other companions who are not with you here at this time, shall always be welcomed as honored guests among us."

Bowing one more time, Kagome then quickly retrieved her backpack and quiver from where she had sat them to not be hindered by their presence as she knelt and performed the last rights of the fallen. Then, making sure both items were adjusted properly on her back, bow gripped firmly in hand, she headed out of the village towards the east with Inuyasha walking proudly beside her, as an equal. Whatever the villagers thought of them, it was enough to know that they respected her as a powerful miko, and Inuyasha too as a powerful being fighting for the side of good. It was only too bad they had not arrived sooner in order to save anyone from falling at the hands of that oni. Still, the headman was right, Kagome knew. It was far better that they had arrived when they had than not at all. If it hadn't been for Hachi showing up to fetch them right when he had, if it hadn't been for their precise location at that time, and the path back to Mushin's that had taken them directly over this village...heck, if it hadn't been for that evil presence invading Mushin's village in the first place, then most likely all of those villagers would have been killed. Even if the oni would have left them alone after finding the shard, who knew how many more deaths there would have been before it'd found it? It was funny how the universe worked at times, the threat of evil they needed to deal with over at Mushin's directly resulting in saving these other villagers' lives.

Kagome sighed, content that something positive had come from something negative.

Once they rounded a corner and were hidden by the nearby forest, no longer in plain sight of the villagers, Kagome mounted Inuyasha's back and they were off, racing through the trees. They had a lot of ground to cover before nightfall.


"Okay, we'll stop here for the night." Inuyasha stated as the twilight sky started getting too dark for Kagome to see where they were going.

Not that the miko needed to see where they were going, per se, since she trusted Inuyasha and could in actuality just close her eyes and enjoy riding on his back all night long, but as she had logically pointed out, she would become more of a hindrance than an aid to him if they continued onward into the night and another youkai decided to jump them when she couldn't really see all that well. Twice since leaving the village they had run into lowly little forest youkai seeking them out for her jewel shards. One had been a lizard-type thing that hadn't listened to reason and had had to be dealt with, while the other, kind of rabbit-ish creature had frightened more easily and taken off as soon as Inuyasha had transformed Tessaiga. Still, even though the only things that had been approaching them so far were all very weak animal-ish youkai that Inuyasha could easily take care of all on his own, you never knew when a more beastly oni or akuma might come out of the woodwork. It would be far better for them to be camped out and prepared, in a safe location where nothing could sneak up on them, with their weapons at the ready, with a roaring fire enabling Kagome to see better. Inuyasha hadn't even argued. As soon as the miko had brought it up, a little after sunset, he'd readily agreed and had immediately started searching for the perfect place to make camp.

Going about setting up said camp in that moment, Kagome tried to squash the butterflies suddenly trying to break free from her stomach. What was the matter with her? It wasn't like she'd never camped out alone with Inuyasha before, just the two of them. They had started out on this whole dang journey all alone just the two of them! Though...then again, she hadn't yet been in love with the guy at that time. Digging out and preparing a firepit while Inuyasha went into the nearby woods to collect dry brush and firewood, the hanyou promising to stay within hearing and scent range, Kagome slowed her breathing and tried again to calm her nerves.

Gah! I'm such a teenager! the miko mentally scolded herself. Sometimes it was hard to remember that she was only fifteen; she felt so much older at times from everything she'd seen and done over the last few months.

Get a grip, Kagome, it's just Inuyasha ... she told herself, as if trying to reassure herself that the boy wouldn't 'try' anything while the two of them were alone.

Though, on the other hand, maybe that was the problem. A large part of Kagome honestly wouldn't mind it if he did try something, although she knew it was a foolish pipe dream that would never come to pass. But she definitely didn't think she was nervous over the slim possibility that he just might actually come on to her, even if it was a purely physical attraction since she knew he loved Kikyou. Yes, that would break her heart, a bit, though she couldn't really, honestly say if she would turn him down or not, and therein lied the actual problem. Kagome was worried that she might try something, even inadvertently. She would have to make doubly sure to act perfectly natural and not say or do anything that could possibly be taken the wrong way, or the right way, which would be very wrong of her to do. She needed to act just the same as she would if the others were there with them, and not allow her mind to trick her into taking advantage of the fact that they were actually all alone.

Her mental lecturing worked, and so by the time Inuyasha returned with the firewood Kagome had successfully calmed her frantic nerves, and as he watched her start the fire with her matchsticks he pretended that he hadn't noticed just how flustered she'd momentarily been. Inuyasha had absolutely no idea what had really been bothering her and so he assumed that Kagome's unease was probably a combination of her fearing something big might attack them while it was just the two of them, plus also worrying about their friends and hoping that they were okay, because it did kind of suck being separated when they knew the others could possibly be facing off against a formidable foe right at that moment and there was nothing they could do to help them.

Whatever had been bothering her, specifically, she was clearly over it now as she smiled his way peacefully while filling her metal pot with water from one of her bottles, preparing to make ramen. Inuyasha would leave her alone to her thoughts, then, because if she wanted to talk about it then she would, plain and simple, and he sure as hell wouldn't ask her to talk about whatever had been bothering her without her volunteering the information all on her own. That would only be asking for trouble, if she ever started asking him what was bothering him on any of the many times when he didn't want to talk about it. Kagome always seemed to be able to tell whenever he just needed a moment to himself, to sort out his thoughts in private, and she respected that about him and always left him alone to do his thinking in peace at those times, so he would grant her that same favor now.

While they waited for the water to boil, to fill the silence, Kagome engaged Inuyasha in a reprise conversation about what he thought they might be facing off against once they got to Mushin's tomorrow afternoon, unknowingly confirming in the hanyou's mind that that had been what had been troubling her before.

Admitting that he actually had no idea what could be behind that evil aura, that there were really several different possibilities, he swore that he would run them all morning long tomorrow, just as he had done all that evening after leaving the village, in order to get them to Mushin's temple as quickly as possible. Hopefully whatever was going on, their friends were safe for the time being. Even if Sango could theoretically be at risk of whatever it was, Inuyasha knew that, drunkard or not, Mushin was a fairly powerful monk, and that rundown or not that temple of his was still holy ground. There was no way whatever evil aura was hovering over the village could touch anyone inside that temple. Of that he was certain. Especially not with Miroku there to help reinforce whatever wards Mushin kept up around the place. No, their friends were definitely safe for tonight, he just couldn't say the same thing about the villagers with any confidence.

Once the water came to a boil Kagome poured it into their ramen cups, and for the next minute or so they waited in companionable silence, neither of them able to think of anything else to talk about. It wasn't really an awkward silence, though. They didn't need to talk about anything, they both quickly found, as they ate their meal in silence and then Kagome prepared to try to go to bed for the night, even though she wasn't sure how much sleep she'd actually be able to get. Voicing that mild concern out loud as she laid out her sleeping bag, even though she had more or less just been mumbling to herself, she was surprised but also touched by Inuyasha's unexpected response.

"At least try to get some sleep. You need your rest; I don't want you not your best tomorrow because you're too tired."

He had said similar things in the past, of course, but originally such a comment from him would have been riddled with insults, that she needed her sleep to not be weak and useless the next day, or that he didn't want to have to carry her ass around everywhere if she were too tired to walk, or that he didn't want to have to come to her rescue if she was too tired to defend herself properly. This time, he had phrased it as if he actually did care, which she knew he did, which was what made the words that much more special to her. He honestly, truly was her friend now, and he could show, at least whenever the two of them were alone, that he cared about her as a friend.

She smiled.

"You need your rest too, you know." Kagome pointed out softly then, and he scoffed, turning his head away so that she wouldn't see his light blush as he sat on a low tree branch above her.

"It's just the two of us, so I definitely gotta stay up and keep watch. I'll be fine."

Inuyasha did have a point about it being just the two of them, and she also knew that he probably really would be all right without the sleep, but still...

"Okay, well...just as soon as all this craziness with Mushin-sama's village is taken care of, we should probably stay at the temple for a day or two, so that you can get at least one good's night sleep to recharge. You can't stay awake forever."


Smiling to herself again at that, because she knew the sound meant that he would comply, a pajama-clad Kagome settled down and closed her eyes, then, planning on listening to her friend's advice and at least try to get as much sleep as possible. Worrying about tomorrow would do her no good, she knew. She would be at her best fully rested, and so therefore in order to best be prepared for whatever lay ahead of them, she needed to not worry about it now so that she could fall asleep. She wasn't sure how well her brain would actually obey such a command, but it was worth a shot.


Half a day's journey away, also settling into bed for the night, Miroku and Sango rested in the same room as one another at the temple, a privacy screen separating their bedrolls. Shippou and Kirara were cuddled together in the far corner of Sango's side of the room.

When the remainder of the Inu-tachi had first arrived that afternoon they had immediately noticed that it had been just as Hachi had relayed it, feeling an incredible sensation of evil as they'd strolled through the town at the base of the mountain in tremendous concern to observe the way everyone seemed so very angry and hostile. Meeting up with Mushin soon afterwards they'd then learned from the aging monk that things had indeed been getting steadily worse over the last few days. He had been spending the majority of his time within the heart of the village, only making the trek to and from his temple to eat and sleep for the night as that was his residence and nobody was presently in a charitable enough mood to allow him temporary room and board elsewhere, otherwise he had considered it his duty to keep an eye on the villagers and hope that his prayers might at least be slowing the progress of whatever it was that was going on. That and the blessings he had secretly been placing on people's houses.

There had thankfully been no deaths, yet, but fighting amongst the villagers was becoming a much more regular occurrence, and much more violent than just two drunk men throwing fists at one another. Several serious injuries had already resulted from massive brawls between individual families, and even as Mushin would tend to their broken bones or other injuries – since the village healer did not care to do so – he would receive harsh words from even the injured themselves while he worked, from men and women alike who had been nothing but kind to him in the past. Fortunately, because he would not rise to their baiting, nobody was being especially vicious towards Mushin directly outside of speaking cruelly; it was as if amongst the villagers themselves it would start as harsh words, but then because each party involved felt such inner hatred it would quickly escalate into physical violence as a result. Mushin no longer tried exorcising anyone with his ofuda, he no longer gave them any reason to attack him personally, remaining docile and apologetic even as they insulted him, and so they would huff in indignation and anger but not strike him. He only hoped Miroku could figure out what was causing this behavior before the scattered and fairly isolated fights among three or four individuals at a time escalated into one massive, village-wide riot.

Everyone could feel the incredible evilness of the demonic aura that had permeated the entire area, although Miroku did believe he agreed with his sensei, it did not feel like Naraku's doing. Most likely it was an energy-based youkai that fed off of human emotions. But before they could fully hope to locate and destroy it, they had to first determine whether or not this entity was thriving off of the villagers' feelings of hostility, and was actually inducing those feelings in them in order to relish in the result, or if it was instead consuming all of their positive feelings, feeding off of their kindness and compassion, and thereby leaving nothing but their own naturally occurring negative emotions to flourish unchecked in its wake.

After a good night's sleep and quick breakfast, Miroku and the others would venture back into the village tomorrow morning and see if they could determine with any finality whether or not the villagers seemed to be under the direct influence of the evil aura itself, or whether or not that aura was more likely just a byproduct of whatever else was going on. If the youkai involved was pumping the villagers up with artificial hostility then he should be able to sense that, and Sango had a few taijiya tricks up her sleeves that might help break them from the spell, if that were the case. Otherwise, if he could feel no magic polluting their souls, then the determination would most likely be that their feelings of kindness and love were being consumed, in which case top priority would become finding and killing the youkai rather than trying to break or block the spell.

It was also possible that the dark aura wasn't the result of a youkai that fed off of emotions, and that there was some other kind of evilness in the area and the aura itself was affecting the villagers in such a negative fashion as a side effect, but Miroku strongly believed that they were looking at some type of an emotion-eater. It was just a matter of determining which kind. Hopefully they'd find out tomorrow morning, so that by the time Kagome and Inuyasha arrived, which would probably be somewhere around midday or early afternoon, they would already have a game plan in motion for how to best deal with whatever type of youkai was behind this. Tomorrow would tell.