Increase Text Size Decrease Text Size Divider Print This Chapter Divider

Masterful Deceit by Sage McMae

The Pawn Becomes a Queen

The forest is still. A hushed silence lingers over the residents as they await the outcome of this vicious battle. In their world, there are only two sides— that of the hunter and his prey.

In the hunter’s world, such simplicity does not exist. There is no predator and prey, only other predators. The strong survive. The weak die. That is the way things are. That is the way things have always been.

The continent is vast. Dangers lurk within the hallowed halls of a castle just as they linger in the forbidden wood. There is no safe haven, no place that can offer true salvation. Some offer up prayers to their gods but the hunter has never known the old deities to answer.

If Sesshomaru of Saigoku were to speak to them, he’d say the same thing he’s about to say to the kikimora.

“Piss off.”

He swings his sword overhead, aiming for the monster’s neck. One of the beast’s legs knocks him in the torso throwing off the angle of his attack.

Sesshomaru grunts, staggering back and fighting to retain his balance.

The kikimora’s armored exoskeleton makes it difficult to land a penetrating strike, which is why he aimed for the neck. The fleshy part of the monster is a weak point, soft enough for the steel of his blade to slice clean through.

Beady eyes are locked onto Sesshomaru, even though he knows the beast’s vision is impaired. The insectoid relies on its sense of smell to navigate, communicate, and aim.

Sesshomaru rolls to the side. He narrowly avoids being hit with a stream of acid. The kikimora’s ability to spit venom had caught less knowledgeable opponents unaware but not Sesshomaru.

After centuries of training in the Western realm at the School of the Dog, he knows how to incapacitate any monster.

As the kikimora prepares to charge, Sesshomaru dives between the beast’s spider-like legs. It’s head drops as it follows his scent, providing him the perfect opening.

Sesshomaru kneels in the muddy waters of the swamp. He holds his position until the opportune moment. Then he drives the blade straight through the kikimora’s neck, removing its head from its body.

The insectoid lets out one final cry before the severed sections collapse into the murky depths.

Sesshomaru retrieves the head first. The beady eyes are already duller without the light of life. He tosses the remnant to the shore. It rolls a few feet until it stops at the base of a large oak.

His horse, A-Un, snorts at the sight.

“Oh, come on. That is hardly the worst you’ve ever seen,” Sesshomaru retorts.

His stead snorts again, turning away. Evidently, he disagrees.

Sesshomaru scowls. Perhaps the horse would not be so finicky if he knew what they were being paid to kill the kikimora. With the rate A-Un devours apples, Sesshomaru can barely afford decent lodgings for himself, let alone a clean stable for his companion.

With a sigh, he cleans the sides of his blade on the sleeve of his tunic. Tenseiga was gifted to him by Totosai. The swordsmith was an eccentric individual but since Sesshomaru had saved his cow from a barghest, he had been a loyal ally.

Arching his arm overhead, Sesshomaru returns his sword to the scabbard strapped to his back. Only once both his arms are free does he begin the burdensome task of carrying the kikimora’s corpse to shore.

The insectoid is a pest to the average villager, but to those who possess skills in alchemy, it fetches a mighty price. Sesshomaru intends to sell the carcass off to Naraku.

The sorcerer and he have tangoed before but Sesshomaru does not fear the man. Naraku is a shrewd strategist. He is motivated by power, the same as any other human. Sesshomaru may not abide by his tactics but he requires coin and few in the vicinity have enough to spare.

Naraku still owes him from his services in Kashiwa. Back then, the mage convinced the lord of the land that Sesshomaru was unworthy of payment. Before he could raise his blade in retaliation, the guards were upon him. Not wishing to ensure a hanging sentence, Sesshomaru left.

It seems fate has a sense of irony.

Over the years, misfortune has befallen all the lords who employed Naraku. Some say he was cursed for casting Sesshomaru out without payment. Others claim the sorcerer is being punished by the gods for dabbling in the dark arts. Sesshomaru doesn’t believe in superstition. If anyone is at fault for the lords’ accidents, it is Naraku himself.

The mage has barricaded himself in the small town of Buzen. It’s a southern village, hardly worth noting but it happens to be on Sesshomaru’s path to return to the north. When he recognized Naraku was near, he took the job to kill the kikimora.

Why do twice the work when he can be paid twice for the same monster?

The mayor of Buzen will pay him for killing the beast and Naraku will compensate Sesshomaru for the parts, especially the creature’s venom glands.

If the next lord that Naraku chooses to serve dies of poisoning, Sesshomaru’s suspicions regarding the mage will be confirmed.

He heaves the kikimora carcass over his shoulders and carries it over to where A-Un is tethered. His stead takes several steps away from the foul-smelling insectoid, shaking his head and neighing in discontent.

“Want to eat?” Sesshomaru grumbles.

The horse neighs.

“Then get over it,” Sesshomaru tells him.

He drapes the beast's corpse over A-Un's back. Using his sleeping blanket, Sesshomaru wraps the monster up. The sight and stench don't bother him— these things rarely do —but he has grown weary of hearing village women scream when they catch sight of his latest kill. It is far better to hide the monster than suffer the infernal shrieking. 

A twig snaps to his right. Sesshomaru turns, prepared to use a spell if another kikimora has surfaced. His swift reflexes are a valuable skill but they are not necessary to battle this voyeur.

The botchling shuffles forward, his head craning as he inspects the dead kikimora. No doubt the beast has been terrifying the tiny monster for some time. Sesshomaru is surprised the kikimora didn’t eat it.

“If you wish to keep your head, I suggest you leave,” he advises the grotesque critter.

It opens its mouth to respond in a raspy voice, “You saved me! Before you arrived, the beast was about to consume me.”

“As was its right,” Sesshomaru responds flatly.

He resumes tying up the kikimora, ignoring the ugly creature. It is at least an hour’s ride to Buzen. By the time he arrives, Sesshomaru will have just enough time to receive payment from the mayor and grab a meal before dusk falls.

Night is the best time to travel. With his heightened senses, he can navigate A-Un through along the lesser-traveled roads to reach his destination quicker.

Knotting the last rope around the carcass, he mounts his steed.

“Witcher, wait!”

“Get out of my way,” he orders the botchling.

The creature flings itself onto the ground. “I owe you my life.”

“There is no life to be owed. You are the result of a life that never began,” Sesshomaru reminds him.

“Take me with you,” the pitiful creature pleads. “I can be of assistance.”

“You will be a nuisance. I will not have you leeching off any of the village women. Besides, I travel alone,” Sesshomaru refuses.

He clicks his tongue and steers A-Un away from the swamp.

“I won’t! I swear I will not dishonor you,” the botchling insists, scrambling to keep up. “I will use my powers only to assist you on your journey.”

“I said no,” Sesshomaru snaps.

He brings A-Un to a canter, satisfied when he notes the botchling can’t keep up.

It would be a kindness to kill him and put the beast out of his misery. Living in the swamp, with no source of sustenance, is a painful existence— if it can even be called that. The cursed creature is worth no more than the pound of rotting flesh covering it.

Sesshomaru shakes his head. No monster is without its purpose, even the grotesque ones. Perhaps the botchling can be saved but finding his family will take time.

Delaying delivery to Naraku isn’t a thought Sesshomaru wishes to entertain. With each passing hour, the potency of the kikimora’s parts lessens. Sorcerers tend to appreciate fresh ingredients. Stale organs work but they do not offer the same level of results.

He glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, the dark form is rushing along behind them. The bulbous, bobbing head is the only thing Sesshomaru can see over the thick grass.

“Whoa.” 

A-Un halts.

Buzen has a small population. Identifying the botchling’s family shouldn’t be too difficult and burying the tiny creature won’t take more than a few minutes. Sesshomaru can spare the time to ensure the monster no longer suffers. Maybe he can convince the family that a lubberkin is a far better option to have.

The only issue is the ritual. It must be done by someone of elven blood. Since the Great Cleansing, elves and half-breeds have been outcast from society. Those in Buzen may very well treat an elf the same way they did the kikimora.

Huffing and puffing, the botchling arrives at his side.

“What is your name?” Sesshomaru asks.

“Jaken.”

"I will take you to your home, Jaken. If we can find an elf to complete the ritual, you can exist there as a guardian," he explains.

“Thank you, Witcher! You are most generous and wise.”

“If you harm a single person in that town, I will kill you. Understand?”

Jaken squirms but nods.

“Try to keep up.”

Those are the last words Sesshomaru mutters before A-Un breaks into a trot. 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Riding into town always earns him a few curious glances and Buzen is no exception. If it's not his striking golden eyes, silver-white hair, or the imposing steel blade fixed to his back, it's the monsters he brings.

The kikimora is certainly large but it is Jaken who has gotten the people's attention. The botchling shuffles forward, keeping his head down and his yellowish eyes on the ground. He is far timider than any botchling Sesshomaru has come into contact with before. He almost feels bad for the creature.

Almost.

“Stay with A-Un,” he instructs as he dismounts.

“Yes, of course,” Jaken replies with a bow.

Sesshomaru strolls into the tavern. It is a central location in town that serves as his meeting place for the mayor. There is the added benefit of ale but payment must be dispensed first.

“Ah, so you’ve returned,” the old man remarks as Sesshomaru enters.

Several heads turn but no one speaks save the mayor.

“One kikimora,” Sesshomaru mutters, placing the insectoid’s severed head in front of the mayor.

The man shoved his chair back as his face twists with revulsion. “Get that thing out of here!”

“Payment is due,” Sesshomaru reminds him.

“Yes, yes,” the man grumbles, waving a hand at the head.

With a sigh, Sesshomaru bags the kikimora and ties the sack to his belt.

The mayor produces several coins of varying worth.

Sesshomaru doesn’t bother to thank him as he collects his fee. There is no need for formalities when the man clearly has no further use for him. Considering the mayor’s reaction, Sesshomaru doubts any elves have passed through Buzen.

It’s not a good day for Jaken.

Shaking his head, he crosses the tavern to the bar. The empty stool on the end gives him a clear view of the exit and keeps the village residences at a distance.

He orders an ale. The bartender raises a brow but returns with a frothy mug. Sesshomaru slides a coin across the wooden counter.

Hushed whispers and wary gazes are upon him. To others, the attention would be unsettling but he has grown used to their treatment. His mutations keep him living on the outskirts of society— neither human nor monster but somewhere in between.

Sesshomaru stares at the ale, hoping it doesn’t taste like piss water. The only thing worse than shitty people is shitty ale.

As he raises his mug, he becomes aware of one onlooker in particular.

A woman dressed in a scarlet and cream-colored frock sits at the opposite end of the bar. Her black hair is pulled back into a high bun by a jade pin with feathers. She has a pair of matching jade earrings that dangle from her pale skin.

Her presence in the tavern is unusual though not as strange as her attention on him.

“I haven’t come across a Witcher in some time,” the woman comments off-handedly.

Sesshomaru says nothing. In his experience, the greatest threat to the continent is neither half-breed nor beast, but human.

Yet, he suspects, this woman is more than she appears.

The air of confidence she wraps around herself is as thick as a fine fur coat. Either she is someone of extreme wealth, extreme power, or a combination of both. In any case, he is not interested in playing her games. All Sesshomaru is interested in is his flagon of ale, delivering the kikimora to Naraku, procuring a hot bath, and finding a quiet place to rest— in that exact order. 

“Is it true you are unable to feel? I’ve heard Witchers are born without the capacity for emotion,” the woman states, her crimson eyes scanning his form as if she can deduce the answer merely from looking. 

Once again, he does not respond. 

She grins. “It must be liberating.” 

He downs the remainder of his mug and hails the bartender. The porous man ignores him. Sesshomaru frowns.

“Another round for my friend,” the woman says demurely.

The bartender glances between them, then hastily fills a fresh mug for Sesshomaru.

He raises it to the woman in thanks and resumes drinking in silence.

Sesshomaru won’t linger long. The ale will hold him over until he can find lodgings. Naraku may have coin but he will not offer to host a Witcher. Even if he did, Sesshomaru would decline. He trusts the mage as much as he trusts everyone else.

Not at all.

The woman rises and relocates to the seat next to him.

“Now that your business with the mayor is complete, perhaps you’d be willing to entertain an offer?” she prompts.

Sesshomaru knows where this is going. She isn’t the first woman to approach him with such a request and she won’t be the last.

“I’m not a mercenary,” he tells her. “If you have husband troubles, I suggest Lady Belladonna.”

The woman flips open a fan to hide her mouth as she laughs. “You assume incorrectly. My issue is not with my husband. I am unbound.”

“Congratulations,” he grunts.

“I need you to kill my master.”

“So you are bound,” Sesshomaru counters.

“In a manner of speaking,” she confirms. The woman holds out her hand. “I’m Kagura.”

Sesshomaru’s gaze flickers from his ale to her hand. He shakes his head and pushes away from the bar. “I’m on my way out of town.”

He leaves the ale and the conniving woman. Neither is worth the trouble. Besides, he should be on his way.

“I’m a prisoner.”

Sesshomaru pauses.

Kagura appears at his side. “I can’t leave this place— not while he remains in his tower. He has a barrier spell on me.”

She rolls up her sleeves, baring her wrists to Sesshomaru. Interwoven blue and purple lines mark her skin like decorative shackles.

“I can command anyone in Buzen, get you all the coin you desire. All I ask in return is that you free me,” Kagura pleads.

Sesshomaru glares at her markings. "You entered an agreement with him and, now that you know the true cost, you want out. That's not my mess to deal with. It's yours."

“I didn’t know what I was agreeing to!”

“Not my problem.” He continues toward A-Un and Jaken. Kagura chases after him.

The botchling is watching their exchange with piqued interest.

“He’s evil. He has my sister enslaved with magic. I can’t help her like this. I need to be free to leave Buzen. I know that if I can get her out, I can break his hold on her,” Kagura explains.

“Why can’t you use your own magic against him?” Sesshomaru inquires, eyeing her fan.

When she opened it, he recognized the runes painted on the paper— protection, power, and prosperity.

“He’s my creator. No action I take will ever be enough to defeat him,” she confesses.

Sesshomaru sighs. The botchling was supposed to be the only monster he saved today.

He ties the bagged kikimora head to one of its legs. “Where is your master now?”

“He lives in a tower just outside of town.”

Sesshomaru freezes with recognition. “I’m not a sword for hire.”

“But you are a Witcher. You vanquish monsters and rid the continent of evil,” Kagura insists.

“Evil has many forms. Not all of them are monsters.”

“Naraku is,” she states. “He’s the worst you’ve ever encountered.”

“Agree to disagree,” Sesshomaru says as he swings his leg over A-Un and settles into the saddle.

Kagura stands in the street, her crimson eyes watching him as he rides off.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Witcher, if I may, that mage is an untrustworthy human. You were right to ignore her request. She would only lead you to certain doom,” Jaken says.

Sesshomaru doesn’t respond. With each step A-Un takes out of Buzen, he comes closer to collecting Naraku’s debt. Payment should be enough to satisfy him yet his ears ring with Kagura’s plea.

Families are separated across the continent. Her intent to save her sister is the same as many others. War has torn the land apart, causing turmoil that extends far beyond the battlefields. For tacticians, like Naraku who wait in the wings to claim power, they see opportunity in the chaos. Sesshomaru only sees an endless cycle of death and destruction.

There was a time when the mages were held to a code. They were to conduct themselves with integrity and offer moral judgment. Such practices have fallen by the wayside. There is no honor in how Naraku operates. He doesn't possess an ounce of kindness. He is made of the want for power and the need for control.

Kagura was correct to call him evil. He is a monster unlike any Sesshomaru has dealt with.

When he reaches the tower, Sesshomaru rides around the building several times. The stone structure appears abandoned. There is no door for entry nor a window for light. He frowns.

“Are you lost?”

He turns to find a young girl in a white dress staring at him.

“I’ve come to sell this to your master,” Sesshomaru tells her, patting the kikimora corpse.

The girl's eyes are completely black, making her seem docile and innocent. Sesshomaru has seen monsters cloak themselves in illusion. He takes nothing at face value.

“Sesshomaru of Saigoku,” she says his name in an even tone. There is no inflection in her voice— no way to read her mood.

He nods in confirmation.

“Naraku has been expecting you,” the girl informs him.

She walks to the tower and steps through the stone wall.

Another illusion.

Sesshomaru alights. “Stay,” he orders A-Un and Jaken. Then, he follows the girl through the wall.

He finds himself in an empty corridor. The girl has gone. All he can see is an endless hallway lit by mounted torches.

“Sesshomaru,” an arrogant voice greets him. Naraku steps out of the shadows, moving to stand in front of him. “How long has it been? Half a century? More?”

“Not long enough,” Sesshomaru murmurs.

Naraku smirks. “Kanna mentions you’ve brought me something.”

“A kikimora, freshly slain in the swamp,” Sesshomaru reveals.

“My stores are fully stocked but I’m sure we can come to some form of arrangement,” Naraku says.

“I’m here to deliver the corpse. That’s it,” Sesshomaru states firmly.

“Come. Let me at least provide you with a meal as compensation for the journey,” Naraku offers.

He leads Sesshomaru down the corridor until they reach the third door. Naraku opens the chamber, gesturing for Sesshomaru to pass in front of him.

Inside, Kanna is placing a steaming bowl of stew on a table facing a lit hearth. She bows to Naraku and exits the room.

“Please,” Naraku waves to the empty seat by the meal.

Sesshomaru sits down, scanning the broth for signs that it has been tampered with.

“It’s not poisoned,” Naraku assures him. “I have no reason to kill you.”

“No?” Sesshomaru quips.

“I have a need for your particular talents. One of my protégés has recently become unruly. Her antics have been disruptive to the others under my care. I would appreciate it if you could deal with her,” Naraku explains.

“Funny. She said you were the problematic one. She approached me about killing you,” Sesshomaru shares.

“You turned her down,” Naraku surmises.

“I’m a Witcher, not an assassin.”

“Sometimes they are the same thing,” his host counters.

“Sometimes your pawn turns into a queen,” Sesshomaru retorts.

Naraku chuckles darkly. “Indeed.”

Sesshomaru tentatively spoons the stew into his mouth. The broth is well seasoned. Chunks of potatoes, diced root vegetables, and meat fill the bowl. It is a filling meal full of sustenance and warmth.

There is no illusion here. Naraku is persuading him to accept the job.

Witchers have few comforts due to living their life on the road. Having a full belly is one of them. He’s appealing to Sesshomaru’s most basic needs.

Briefly, he wonders if this is how Kagura and Kanna came to be in his employ. Did Naraku come across them after the last siege— starving and homeless in the streets? Did he offer them shelter, food, and purpose? People have given their lives for far less.

“Would you like another? I can have Kanna refill your bowl,” Naraku offers.

“I should be on my way,” Sesshomaru says, excusing himself from the table.

Naraku rises with him. “Kagura?”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her. I’m not a sword for hire.”

“Must we part as enemies, Sesshomaru?” Naraku questions.

“That is your choice to make,” Sesshomaru answers.

He swings the door open and strolls out of the chamber. Counting his steps, he arrives at approximately the same place where he entered the tower. As Sesshomaru places his hand on the stone, he feels a presence.

“I doubt you care for my opinion but out of the two of them, I think Kagura’s concern is genuine, at least where it concerns you. Do with that as you wish,” he tells Kanna.

The girl doesn’t reply.

Sesshomaru walks out of the tower and doesn’t look back.

 

INUYASHA © Rumiko Takahashi/Shogakukan • Yomiuri TV • Sunrise 2000
No money is being made from the creation or viewing of content on this site, which is strictly for personal, non-commercial use, in accordance with the copyright.