“We’re here, Kilala” Sango softly announced as the two companions crested the hill and looked out upon the small clearing.
With Kagome’s coming exams, the Inuyasha group had decided to take a short break from hunting the shards. The miko had returned to her own time to cram several weeks of into a few days, Inuyasha and Shippo and taken it upon themselves to stay at the well should she return early, and Miroku had gone to visit his perverse master during the vacation.
Sango and Kilala had also separated from the group, but for a more somber reason. She had requested her friends not ask her destination, and they had hesitantly allowed her leave with only their usual parting farewells. The tajiki did not want the pity-filled expressions she had seen too many times to appear on her friends’ faces, and she knew they would come had she told them of her journey.
Sango had decided to return to her village for a solitary reunion.
After a few days walk she had reached the edge of her family’s ancestral lands and her heart had both lifted and fell at the short distance which remained. Kilala had reacted with an encouraging call and they had moved forward toward the village.
Her sorrow met her at the gates.
The houses, charred from the fire, stood as frozen testaments to the end of her clan. The walls which remained had begun to decay and the roofs which had survived were collapsing upon the houses. The trees from the surrounding forest were beginning to reclaim the land as shoots were scattered about the stone walks which had led to front porches.
The village was silent as the graves which stood at the far end of the fence as the two companions entered through what remained of the front gates. Though the rain had fallen many times since their departure, here and there were still visible the signs of a violent end as dark blood stains littered the wood and rocks.
Sango took in the view, and her heart tightened in sadness as she finally reached the place she had once called home.
The great doors were broken and the shojo screens were now in tatters as she walked up to the rotting structure. Out of habit she left her shoes upon the ground, though her socks were quickly covered in filth as she walked up the weathered steps onto the open porch. She stepped into the main room of the home and found herself not in the comforting home she so fondly remembered, but within a space which no longer held the memories she knew.
The mats were filled with mold spores and a great cloud of dust came up as she stepped along the floor coverings. The walls showed the bugs which had infested the wood and spots of sun drifted into the room through the holes.
As she explored the house, Sango looked at the small details she had noticed as a child and as she found each of her treasured memories her heart grew more at ease. The notch in the main beam stood proudly surrounded by the termite damage, while her favorite screen lay untouched while the others had fallen apart. The sun still showed through the dining room, but now leaves were scattered across the floor and bugs lay dead in the corners.
Everything was changed, and yet not.
Sango soon found her steps directed toward the room she had once shared with her brother, and as she stepped through the tattered screen her sorrow was rekindled.
Two small mats lay in the center of the room, one larger than the other. They had been the sitting mats Kohaku and she had used to discuss the day’s training, and she had forgotten to place them in the closet the day of the village’s silence.
Now they stood as testaments to a time when such trivial chores had been what she had known, and her world had been a daily routine of familial duties. They were the same as the rest of the village; forgotten and slowly withering away against harsh time and change.
Kilala meowed softly as her master merely stood staring at the two mats. Sango was aroused by the concerned tone and she shook her head to calm the youkai’s fears.
“No, it’s okay” she softly answered as she placed her bag on the ground and took her pail in hand. “We should get some water before the sun sets.”
The two lonely warriors took the familiar path down to the stream, though the way was now clouded by weeds and dense brush. They fought their way to the water and, after taking their needed amount, returned back the way they had come as the sun beyond began to set.
“Perhaps tomorrow we will visit their graves” Sango quietly suggested to her companion as they arrived at the large, dark house.
Shadows spread out across the ground as they walked up the steps and toward the room which would be their sleeping quarters. The familiar sights which had before given such comfort were now hidden by the darkness as they passed through the rooms. Sango quickly readied the simple meal of soup as she also lit the andon she had carried in her pack.
The small, paper lamp did little to illuminate the corners of the room, but the flame gave her spirits some comfort as she ate her soup in silence. Kilala appeared to be curled up next to her, but every so often her ears which twitch with awareness.
Her supper was soon finished and Sango spread herself out upon the blanket on the floor. For the longest time she merely stared at the ceiling and listened to the sounds of mice scurrying about beneath the boards and insects crawling along the floor. The musty smell of the mold and decay tickled her nose in a grotesque manner and all about she was reminded of the fallen village.
But she could recall better times when such a night would have been filled with laughter and celebration. A group of tajiki would have returned from a successful hunt and brought their trophy back to the village in a simple but proud procession. The scent of burning andon would have wafted through the air as the adults would have given honor to the great hunters, and children from their bedroom windows would have been swinging bells in their own little celebration.
Sango suddenly stopped her musing as a familiar sound rang in her ears. She raised herself onto her elbows and strained her hearing, wondering if she had merely imagined the sound.
Again it came.
The tiny ding of a single bell again sounded through the suddenly still night.
Kilala had also raised her head and was quietly growling as she looked to the door.
“What is it, Kilala?” Sango asked as she and her youkai stood to their feet.
The chiming seemed to grow dimmer, and she quickly picked up her hiraikotsu which she had wisely brought and ran from the room. The small chime was still weakening as she raced outside the building, but she could still follow the sound as she placed her shoes on and sprinted out among the houses.
Kilala followed at her side in her large form and she was still quietly growling beneath her breath. The two hunters darted amidst the village along a winding path that led them past the graves of the dead and through a little-used gate which led out into the thick forest.
At the edge of the trees, upon a spot overgrown with brush and grass, the sound suddenly stopped.
Sango looked around for any signs of the strange bell sound, but Kilala continued to stare ahead and appeared to be softly hissing at the ground a few yards from where they stood.
“Can you sense something?” Sango asked as she took a step forward.
As she moved ahead the neko youkai suddenly let out a giant yowl and a small light appeared not more than a few feet away. The tajiki readied her hiraikotsu as she awaited an attack, but she was shocked to find a small, old man standing within a small radius of light.
And she could see through his body.
“Down there, youkai” the man commanded in a powerful tone as he scowled at the neko.
With his appearance Kilala had jumped between the stranger and her master, and she was vehemently hissing at the man as he stood unimpressed by her show of loyalty.
“A shame upon our family to hold such a beast” he muttered as his eyes were cast to Sango. “Why do you keep such a creature?” he harshly questioned.
“That is none of your concern” Sango replied as she found her composure. She could not turn from the transparent stranger, but his words brought life to her mind. “What are you? Some sort of youkai?”
The man frowned at her final question.
“Do not insult me” he snapped, but his composure quickly returned. “My name is Arashi, and I was once human like yourself.”
“Once?” she repeated with suspicion as he gave a frustrated sigh.
“My body died several hundred years ago” he explained to the disbelief of his audience.
“Then why are you not at rest?” Sango questioned as Kilala grew restless before her.
“Because there is a curse upon me” he revealed as he suddenly stepped forward.
Kilala let out a giant yell and jumped at the strange to protect her master, and both Sango and herself were shocked as she sailed through the figure. He seemed unaware of the neko’s leap and rushed toward Sango.
The tajiki swung her hiraikotsu to knock the man aside but the bone merely passed through his head and she found herself locked in his grasp as he grabbed her shoulders. She dropped her hiraikotsu as his cold fingers dug into her simple clothing and a chill as cold as ice swept through her body. She struggled to free herself but found his grip to be unbreakable.
The neko youkai swiftly turned and charged toward the man attacking her friend, the flames of her tails high in anger.
“No Kilala!” Sango ordered as she tried to find breath through the cold. She turned her eyes upon the former human who held her in a grip she could not escape. “What do you want?” she asked as she relaxed her body to ease the discomfort.
“Release” he pleaded in a tone weaker than he had held. “We all need release.”
“We?” she questioned, but her query was quickly answered.
The forest was lit with soft light as dozens of people suddenly began to pour forth from the trees. Their faces were filled with sorrow as they silently crowded around the three main characters. Kilala looked about in confusion as she sniffed the air and found nothing to follow, yet her gaze told her these people were present.
Sango, however, noticed in horror that amidst the many strangers she could recognize the residents of her village, from those who had died of natural causes to those who had fallen in battle.
“What magic is this?!” she questioned as the man barked out a cold laugh. “They are dead!”
“It is not magic, but a curse” he explained as his grip tightened upon her arms and she grimaced from the cold chills. “You are the only one who can free us of this hateful promise.”
“What promise?” Sango asked in confusion as his words made little sense to her.
“The promise we made during our lives” he began as his hands began to loosen upon her shoulders. His face showed the wear of the centuries as he shook his head. “It was for the good of the village that we made this promise, but now we cannot rid ourselves of it!”
“You are making no sense!” Sango yelled in frustration as the man grimaced.
“Then listen well” he suddenly calmly commanded as he let go and stepped back. Sango rubbed her arms and nodded for him to continue. “This happened during the youth of the village. We had been ordered by one of our first clients to rid a large area of a powerful youkai, and with arrogance we foolishly accepted the mission. The journey was long but finally we managed to track the beast and meet him in open battle.
And then we knew our folly, for he was stronger than we could handle.”
He shook his head in sorrow, but continued his tale.
“The youkai destroyed most of us without effort, and what few remained were too injured to fight” he explained as he lowered his head in shame. “Our leader could think of nothing else but to barter with the monster but at the first the beast would take nothing we had to offer, until one final, desperate suggestion was made.
In exchange for our lives, we would give the daughter of the clan leader’s family to the youkai.”
Sango drew back in disgust at the retelling of their cowardice, and Arashi showed a hint of a smile as he understood her emotions.
“We would have given our souls to the beast in exchange for our lives had we been able” the old man admitted. “But his interest was great and the oath was given upon the mixing of blood between our leader and the beast. The youkai would have it no other way.”
Sango’s hands were coiled into fists at her sides as she shook with the story of her ancestors. She could hardly believe whether the tale was slander or true, but the ghostly group which stood around her held testament to its certainty.
“And what did you do to the daughter?” she asked in a voice which trembled.
“We were to meet the lord at the site of the blood-oath” the ghost explained as he seemed to ponder his memories. “But his never showed. We simply returned to the village and blessed our good fortune.”
“But the oath still existed” Sango deduced and the man nodded.
“As we died we became as you see us, spirits trapped to the village” he admitted with a heavy sigh. “We cannot leave without fulfilling the oath.” His eyes then turned hard and he looked to Sango. “The oath given by your ancestor.”
“My ancestor?” she softly repeated in disbelief as she shook her head.
“Your clan has always held the title of leader, correct?” he spoke aloud without expecting an answer. “And with you as the last of our village, we have come to show you your duty to your people” he spoke as the rest slowly nodded in agreement. “You must offer your services to the house of the youkai, or we will never find rest.”
“How can I believe this?” Sango questioned in suspicion as she slowly reached down and took her hiraikotsu in hand. The slain villagers, the unbelievable story, she could not trust such foolish tales. “What if you’re lying me?” she asked as she raised her weapon in readiness.
“I am afraid not, my child” a person suddenly spoke from the crowd of people.
Sango’s eyes widened at the sound of the voice as a figure stepped from the throng. Tears filled her eyes as she tentatively moved forward.
“F...father?” she asked as she watched the figure of her father smile at her word.
“I am afraid so” he replied as he moved to stand not more than a few feet from his child. “And I am also afraid that Arashi speaks the truth.”
Sango barely heard what her father spoke as she reached a shaking hand toward his transparent figure. Her father whom she had never expected to see again, the man who she had always looked up to, was here before her eyes.
“Is it...is it really you?” she begged to know as she took a step forward.
As she moved his figure flickered, as did all the group surrounding Kilala and her. She looked around in confusion as their forms slowly began to fade from her sight, and she frantically turned to her father.
“What’s happening?!” she exclaimed as her father smiled sadly.
“We have little time here in the living world” he explained as he held up a hand in a farewell gesture. “But please remember what you have been told tonight. We wait for your decision with hopeful hearts.”
Her father’s outline was barely visible as she spoke, and Sango rushed forward to grasp his hand. She could only catch air, however, as his figure seemed to flicker against the wind and she found herself moving through where he had stood.For a single moment, though, Sango felt his presence and a sense of warmth washed over her as she was comforted by his lingering spirit. But the joy did not last long. What remained of her father slowly faded into the void of death and she was again left alone and isolated on that night of cursed spirits.