Legacy of the Cursed Mask: The Wolf-Demon Crisis

Expulsion of Evil

It was over. As Koga sat perched above the cleft, staring down at his human friends and the corpse of Toma's final beast, all he could do was think that it was finally done. It was over.

In his mind, of course, he knew that it was anything but over. The day was far from won. He still needed to secure the leadership of his people, and there was a great deal that still needed to be done to straighten out the mess they were in. But still, they had come this far. And his friends had not paid the price for it. He hadn't led Kagome or anyone else to their deaths. And they had surpassed several important hurdles, not only winning the tournament, but also demonstrating just how worthless Toma's monsters actually were.

Yeah...they did it, Koga muttered inwardly as he studied the bull Sango had decimated. It's flesh already deteriorating as it degenerated into nothing but bone. As he did so, he supposed that he should have been happy, or at least felt some measure of satisfaction. But as he stared down at the decaying corpse, along with the remains of all the other demons his friends had defeated, all he could do was slowly shake his head in slow disbelief at what this nightmare had cost his tribe.

“Seventy-four of our people, countless wolves," Koga muttered from between clenched teeth. "All wasted on those worthless beasts.”

As Koga's heart sank at the thought of everything that had been lost as the result of one person's madness, the very creature responsible was making choked noises of horror and disbelief. "N-no...this can't be happening!" Toma howled in disbelief, his face ashen with shock. "That beast slaughtered twenty-four of my best people! Twenty-four of them! There's no way one human could ever beat it! It's impossible!!"

"Heh! Seeing as it just happened, I'd say it's very possible!" InuYasha grinned dangerously.

"I'll say!" Ayame concurred before looking over at Yorozuko. "Grandfather, the tournament's over. I think it's time to declare the winner."

"Indeed," Yorozuko nodded, his aged eyes narrow and determined as he turned to look at them. "Toma, Koga's chosen warriors have triumphed over your beasts. They did so fighting alone, with no outside assistance. And they won every match. All in accordance with the rules you yourself stipulated for this competition." Clearly savoring this reminder, the aged wolf sat up with a pride and strength that Koga felt as if he could see the years falling away from him. "And as the victor, Koga, I hereby declare you to be the true leader of our tribe."

If Koga thought that Toma couldn't possibly look any more shocked than he already did, he would have been proven wrong when the cruel wolf heard this. "What?!" he rasped out, his left eye twitching and various tics twitching his features. "No...him?! That - that human-loving, weak-minded fool?!" Toma sputtered out, his voice a mix of hateful snarl and incredulous gasp. "He...this can't be...he's -!"

"The rightful leader of our tribe, Toma!" Ayame declared, her lips twisting with barely suppressed loathing and wicked delight. "Which means that you and your followers...are hereby exiled from these mountains!"

"Exiled?!" one of Toma's elbow girls gasped.

"Yeah, that's right! Exiled!" Koga growled irritably, not in the mood for a couple of brainless bitches who had spent every moment they could clinging to a monster such as Toma. "Remember? That was another of your bright ideas! The winner becomes the leader, and the loser and his people take a big hike! As in forever!"

The expressions of both elbow girls went wide with horror as they exchanged a quick look. "Wait a minute!" the second one began, turning ashen as she spoke. "Does that mean - us, too?!"

"Hmph! It probably should!" InuYasha snarled, glaring contemptuously at the two she-wolves. "You've certainly been following him every place he goes!"

Their mouths opening and closing, the elbow girls looked at each other, matching looks of incredulous horror on their faces. "Hey - but - hold on!" the first of them babbled out, her voice choked with desperation. "We weren't really following him! We -!"

"We thought he was gonna win, that's all!" the second girl broke in, glancing between her friend and Koga. "That is - well, we -!"

"So you decided it was better to bend before the wind of adversity than stand tall against it. Is that what you're saying?" Yorozuko gathered, speaking in a low, scolding matter that hit the girls hard.

Working her jaw, trying to come up with some kind of response, the first elbow girl finally sputtered out, "I...we just thought -!"

"Would you two just shut up?!" Toma howled, his furious glare sending the she-wolves recoiling in fear. "What is wrong with you?! How can you side with these weaklings against me?!"

Again, the girls were frozen, but then the second one furrowed her brow and showed some of the backbone a wolf-demon ought to have. "Hey, we might not like what Koga's pushing, but that doesn't mean we're taking the fall with you, pal!" Glancing about uncertainly, she then turned to her friend and grabbed her by the wrist. "C'mon, let's get out of here! Losers give me indigestion!"

The other she-wolf squawked in surprise, and did so even more loudly when her companion pulled her to her feet and dragged her away. Leaving Toma standing there, looking incredulously at after them. "Heh. Looks like they've run off on you," Koga muttered, placing his hands to hips. Deciding to let those two slide, if for no other reason than making Toma look like such an idiot, he went on to say, "And I'd be willing to bet that all your other followers will be switching sides on you just as fast."

"Assuming they haven't done so already!" Ayame chimed in victoriously.

Turning to look back at them, Toma stood there, veins bulging from his forehead, his breathing quick and heavy. But after several seconds, it evened out, and his lips twisted into a sadistic smile. "Oh, they'll come back," he muttered in a hushed, dangerous fashion. "They'll all come back. They'll all be begging for my forgiveness before I'm done...!"

"Aw, gimme a break...!" Koga muttered, his fur bristling with irritation. "And what makes you think that, huh?! In five minutes, you won't be in a position to do much of anything!"

"Wrong. In five minutes, I'll be the master of these people!" Toma grinned, his eyes lighting up with madness. "Everyone in these mountains will live only to sing and praise me! For saving them from the living as pets of humans! And do you know why that is?" He then turned his fevered gaze towards Yorozuko. "Because you're going to declare that round invalid. In fact, you're going to announce that Koga and his little humans tampered with my pets. Slipped them something, some kind of poison." Nodding shakily, he then glanced down to the section just outside the cleft, where Kagome and the other were. "Yes, yes...those human wizards probably cooked up something...some potion or spell to weaken my precious pets before the tournament even began...something to tip the odds in their favor...!"

"They didn't do anything like that, and you know it!" InuYasha growled, rising to his feet. Marching up to Toma, he grabbed hold of his armor and pulled him closer, his free hand cocked and ready to punch him clear off the mountain. "Now either shut up or scurry into whatever hole you came from! Preferably both!"

"That's no way to talk to the new leader of the wolf-demon tribe!" Toma sneered manically. "And I will be the leader of this tribe...if you want there to be any tribe left to lead!"

With this declaration, the moment that Koga and the others had feared and anticipated was upon them. "So, this is what it's come to, huh?" he growled lowly, staring at Toma like he was a piece of dung he had found underfoot. "Ayame and the others told me about what you'd set up, but I didn't want to believe it. That any wolf-demon, even one like you, would threaten the entire tribe just to get what he wants."

Another crazed laugh escaped Toma's lips at this. "So happy to disappoint you, Koga!" he grinned cruelly. "My followers are watching us even now! All I have to do is signal them, and they'll release the rest of my pets! They'll stomp their way through these mountains, and kill everyone in sight!"

"Feh! Like we're actually afraid of those damned things?!" InuYasha snorted. "We've already killed off five of them!"

"Maybe, but there are others! So many others!" Toma grinned wickedly. "Your precious little humans have already exhausted themselves, battling my other pets! Do you honestly think that they'll be capable of fending off the one that remain all at once!"

"Yeah?! And what about your fellow scrawny wolves?!" InuYasha snarled, giving Toma a vehement shake. "Don't you give a damn about any of them?!"

Sniffing loudly at this, Toma snarled, "What I care about is the future of this tribe!" Looking out at the masses still standing around the cleft, some praising Sango's victory, others cursing it with every breath they took, the cruel wolf-demon sneered. "Look at them all! So many of them have gone soft and weak, and every day they get weaker! Giving way to other tribes of demons, sinking lower every day!" Then he turned his gaze to Koga, and sneered, "And you...you're the weakest of them all! Losing your heart to a human! Wanting to make friends with them!" Spitting his disgust, Toma wrinkled his nose in disgust before adding, "Better to die a meal for my pets than to live to become pets of humans!"

Heaving a deep breath, Koga shook his head in disgust. "So, it's gonna be like that, huh? Gotta kill the tribe to save the tribe. Is that it?"

"Sacrifices must be made, Koga. They have to be made if I'm going to remake this tribe into the greatness of my image!" Toma sneered before his lips twisted into another cruel grin. "But you don't want that to happen, now do you? No, no, the great Koga doesn't want his fellow weaklings to die!" Chuckling in a crazed fashion, the rabid wolf then grimaced and snarled, "So, what will it be, Koga?! Will you sacrifice your right as leader...for the sake of the tribe?!"

"You're crazy if you think I'd do something like that. Of course, I'm starting to think that you're crazy, anyway," Koga grumbled bitterly, wondering how Toma had kept this increasingly apparent madness out of sight for so long. "And believe me when I say, we're really lucky that I don't have to do anything like that." Then he glanced off to the side and asked, "So? Did you get everything?"

"You bet I did!" Shippo grinned, holding up the strange, metallic eye Kagome had called a video camera up, still aimed at himself, InuYasha, and Toma. "I got everything he said, right here! The whole thing!"

His mouth popping open, Toma narrowed his eyes in confusion. "W-what?!" he sputtered, glancing this way and that. "What is he talking about?! That toy of his?!"

"It's not a toy, Toma," Ayame announced, visibly savoring the moment. "It's your undoing."

Enjoying the befuddlement that spread across Toma's face, Koga leapt towards the little fox-demon. "Alright, then!" he said as he grabbed the kid up. "I think it's time to show everybody here what Toma's really like!"

"Right!" Shippo grinned, clutching the camera to his body. Making certain that nothing happened to it as Koga leapt forth into the air. Bracing himself for landing, making sure to absorb the force of the impact with his Jewel Shard-enhanced legs, lest it transfer up to the fox-demon and his precious cargo. Once on the ground, he dashed over to where Kagome and the others stood, still the center of attention of the many wolf-demons looking down from above.

"So, I take it Toma reacted to his loss as we anticipated?" Miroku asked in a level, almost amused fashion.

"He sure did!" Shippo grinned, holding up the camera. "And the way he went on, it's enough to take him down, once and for all!"

"Good going, Shippo!" Kagome beamed as the little fox held the camera out to Michiru. "Now, to get everyone out there to see it!"

"Are you up for this, Michiru?" Sango asked worriedly even as the Kururugi boy worked the camera. Images flashing about on a tiny panel on its side. "This is the first time you've used this spell, and..."

"I know, I know," Michiru nodded, not wasting a moment. Fully aware that with each moment that passed was another moment Toma had to signal his cronies to release the remaining beasts. "I just have to find the right...here we go!" Heaving a deep breath, the Shikigami User glanced down towards the other end of the cleft. So far, there was no sign of activity, that the monsters were about to be set free. "Okay, here goes...everything! Oh, brightly shining light, assume the guise of my thoughts! Mirage of Light!"

A pentagram spinning into existence at his feet, Michiru was then surrounded by the power of his Light Shikigami as it rose up into the sky above. All around him, he could hear the wolf-demons making noises of surprise and confusion, audibly wondering what the humans were up to now. Their confusion magnified as the dragon of light changed forms, spreading out and becoming a transparent representation of the scene that Shippo had captured with the camera.

"Okay, then," Michiru murmured, glancing up at the massive illusion he had created. As Koga looked up at the gigantic representations of himself, Toma, and the others, the Kururugi boy fiddled with the camera. "Hope you enjoy the show, everyone! Or at least learn from it!"

"What?!" Toma spat out as he looked at the tremendous illusion hovering above the cleft. "But - that's me!"

It sure is, InuYasha thought, smiling despite being confronted with a larger-than-life recreation of what was perhaps the most disgusting wolf-demon to have ever lived. The illusion Michiru had generated was nothing short of perfect, an exact reproduction of the scene that Shippo had recorded. Only a slight transparency of the image betrayed it as an illusion. That, and the fact that the figures being projected by the Kururugi boy's magic were still as statues. But they won't be still for much longer!

As if in response to his thoughts, the illusionary scene before him shuddered, and then began to play itself out again exactly as it had happened originally. Starting with both of Toma's elbow girls taking off, after which the illusory Koga muttered, "Heh. Looks like they've run off on you. And I'd be willing to bet that all your other followers will be switching sides on you just as fast."

"Assuming they haven't done so already!" the illusory Ayame seconded.

His eyes bulging at this, Toma stood stock-still in shock as his illusory counterpart smiled insanely and countered with his low, deadly boasts. "Wait - but this is -?!"

"Sound familiar, rabid wolf?" InuYasha grinned as he watched myriad forms of shock and astonishment play about Toma's face. Things that slowly changed as the scene which had taken place there replayed itself before his eyes.

"That's no way to talk to the new leader of the wolf-demon tribe!" the illusory Toma sneered as the real Toma continued to look on. His entire body shuddering as his other self went on. "And I will be the leader of this tribe...if you want there to be any tribe left to lead!"

It was at that moment that InuYasha could see realization explode within Toma's twisted mind. "No...no!" he howled, rushing up to the edge and looking frantically about at the many wolf-demons watching. "Don't listen to this! It's a trick!"

At other time, InuYasha supposed he would have had had some vicious remark to toss at the rabid wolf-demon, or at the very least, a quick knock on the head. Something. But as he stood there, watching as Toma waved and struggled to draw the attention of his fellow wolf-demons away from his much larger and louder illusory counterpart, he could think of nothing he could do that would add to Toma's plight. So instead, he folded his arms and watched as Toma grew louder and more desperate to overwhelm the illusion with the force of his voice alone.

"So happy to disappoint you, Koga!" the projected Toma grinned.

"Dammit, dammit, no! Shut up!" Toma howled, so red and flustered he looked as if he were about to explode into flames. As he looked wildly about, either looking at the crowd or looking for something to destroy the illusion, he then glanced down into the cleft, and his eyes fixed on the small group below, including Michiru and the camera.

A beat passed as many emotions flitted across Toma's face in rapid succession, everything from confusion to unbridled hatred. But with their passing came a sudden realization, one that sent the wolf-demon's eyes shooting wide open. Before he could make a move, however, InuYasha drew the Tetsusaiga. Startled by the sound of the sword's transformation, the frantic wolf-demon looked up just in time to find the massive fang held up before him, it's edge pressing against his neck.

"Hold it right there, Toma!" InuYasha grinned dangerously, having been amply prepared for such a move. "Why spoil the show now? We're just about to the good part!"

Toma's response was to glower at the half-demon, veins bulging from his forehead and barely coherent growls and snarls tearing free of his lips. All the while his illusory counterpart went on, repeating line for verse everything Toma himself had said before. "Look at them all! So many of them have gone soft and weak, and every day they get weaker! Giving way to other tribes of demons, sinking lower every day!"

As the illusory Toma continued to rant, InuYasha glanced about at the many wolf-demons gathered, listening to their reactions. And despite the fact that he couldn't discern one conversation from another, he could certainly detect the growing anger and disbelief with which they spoke. Things that were brought to a boiling point when they heard the illusory Toma declare, "Better to die a meal for my pets than to live to become pets of humans!"

"What?!" a wolf-demon shrilled, his voice just loud enough for Kagome to hear him over the rising din of indignant voices and the continuing rant of the illusory Toma Michiru was projecting. "Did he just -?!"

"I don't believe this! 'The greatness of my image?!' He really said that?!" another wolf-demon cried, her voice sharp with loathing.

Looking about at the increasingly irate wolf-demons, Kagome smiled at Koga and decided, "Well, I'd say everything's working out. Just like we planned it!"

"Sure does," Koga replied with a wan smile of his own. "I'm just glad you had this...this thing with you. If you hadn't..."

His words trailing off into a weary sigh, Koga lowered his head, as if it were bending beneath some insurmountable weight. Noting the pain in his eyes, Kagome took a step closer and asked, "What is it?"

"Eh...it's nothing, Kagome." Shaking his head, Koga then turned and looked soulfully into her eyes. "I...I just can't believe it took all of this...to make them see what Toma's really like."

"Sometimes, people only see what they want to, Koga," Miroku told him in a sage, comforting manner. "They wanted a quick, easy solution to their problems, so they followed someone who gave them those things." The monk then glanced over at the remains of the newly slain bull-demon, and commented, "However, such so-called solutions generally only serve to make things even worse."

As Koga slowly nodded, Michiru frowned and announced, "Uh, I'm almost to the end of the recording..."

Nodding his acknowledgement, Miroku answered, "Then we better move on to the next stage. Koga, are you ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," Koga responded, pressing his lips together. "Do it, Michiru!"

"Right," Michiru answered before stopping the playback. He then allowed the illusory forms that he had recreated from the video to fade, and in their place he shaped a larger than life illusion of Koga as he was standing before them. "You're on, Koga."

Pausing just long enough to nod ever so slightly, Koga heaved a deep breath and began. "Listen to me, my people! What you have just witnessed is no trick!" he announced, his words echoing forcefully about the cleft. "What you've seen here is the madness of one of our own! Toma may have said that he great plans for our people, but the reality is that his plans are nothing more than pure madness! He's been sacrificing our hopes and our lives, and for what?!" With that, Koga made a show of gesturing down at the ground, an act that his illusory counterpart did in a much bigger way, indicating the remains of the monsters Kagome and the others had destroyed. "For a bunch of mindless monsters that are so easily defeated?! How can something like this ever help the tribe become powerful again when we expend what little food we have just to keep these things full?!"

As Koga spoke, Kagome looked up at the people standing above the cleft. Though it was difficult to pick out any particular face from where she stood, the people there were presently silent, and it seemed as if every eye was now fixed on the massive illusion. All of them watching as it turned about, raised its hand upwards, before lowering it to point at a single figure on the ledge above. "And now this! Now he demands to be made leader of this tribe, or else he unleash his monsters. He'll gladly sacrifice even more of our people, just to get what he wants!" Lowering his arm, Koga then folded his arms across his chest as his illusion self looked down towards Ayame and Yorozuko. "You don't have to take my word for this! Just listen to them!"

"It's true, everyone!" Ayame cried out with all her strength. "Toma's been threatening to unleash his monsters on all of us if we didn't do what he wanted! The whole reason he went along with this tournament is because he thought they couldn't be beaten!"

"My friends, we have been used and deceived by a monster who wanted nothing more than to take everything we hold dear from us, all to benefit himself! A monster who would have gladly wiped out this entire tribe for his own personal glory!" Yorozuko howled, his aged voice stronger and more penetrating than Kagome could remember ever hearing it. "Even now, he's willing to murder and betray us, just to achieve even greater power for himself!"

Studying those up on the ledge, Kagome focused on Toma, who was still held in place by Tetsusaiga's deadly edge. Though it was difficult to make things out from a distance, she could still see the fury, the sheer loathing he was radiating, the frustration as he looked at the wolf-demons surrounding him. Now that they were realizing how little their lives meant to Toma, as well as how utterly his beasts had failed to deliver on the promises he had made, their outrage and disgust found increasing amounts of release in their voices. C'mon, just a bit more! Kagome thought, looking about at the wolf-demons as they hurled insults at their would-be leader, as well as the massive illusion of Koga that was still glaring down at him like a bug to be crushed underfoot. He has to snap and make his move! It's the only way we'll be able to discredit him completely!

As if in response to her thoughts, Koga grinned dangerously and glowered, things that were mimicked by his illusory counterpart and directed squarely at his nemesis. "Do you hear that, Toma?! The wolf-demon tribe won't be bowing and scraping before you anymore! Now that they know what you really are!" he declared, his voice strong and taunting at the same time. "So what do you have to say to that?!"

There was a long, low, silence at this, with even the wolf-demons watching growing quiet, awaiting Toma's words. One in which Kagome could see the cruel wolf lowering his eyes somewhat, his teeth gritted together. "I say..." he began, his voice shaking with pure hate, "that if these people are so stupid to want a weakling like you to lead them...then they deserve to die in pain!!" With this announcement, Toma looked down at the end of the cleft, at the cave where two of his followers stood at the ready. "Unleash my pets! Unleash them all! Do it or I'll kill you myself!!"

Turning to look at the cave, Kagome watched as the wolf-demons there went to work. A moment later, she saw every remaining trail of the black goo catch fire. "Well..." she began, caught between triumph and horror. "Looks like our plan worked!"

"Then let's move!" Koga declared before scooping up Kagome and tossing her on his shoulder. Before she could do more than squawk in protest, the world blurred around her, and before she knew it, she was on the other side of the gate.

"Koga!" Kagome shouted as soon as they had come to a stop. "Put me down! I can move on my own, you know!"

Koga's initial response to this was to grunt loudly before setting her down on her feet. "C'mon, all of you! Move it already!" he demanded, waving for the others to follow. They were already moving to the relative safety of the gate, but not fast enough for the impatient wolf-demon. "We don't have much time!"

As Kagome watched her friend rush towards the gate and safety, she jumped at the sound of one of the other gates in the cleft falling to the ground. We're running out of time! she realized, her jaw clenched as she studied the trails of the flammable black substance that led to the main gate of the cleft, which was only a short distance away from where they stood. The only thing that would stand to keep the demonic beasts enclosed if all the other gates fell.

Which means that we have to make sure that it doesn't fall! Kagome knew, thinking of all their work in planning for this eventuality. And with this in mind, she turned and gritted, "Koga, you know what to do! Get InuYasha, and quick!"

The alpha wolf looked back at her, and seemed ready to protest. But as she continued to glare at him, he sighed and nodded, "Alright! But I'll be back, Kagome!"

"Right! Now go!" Kagome insisted, stepping back from him. Nodding, Koga darted away, spinning into a fast-moving tornado even as her friends arrived and Ginta and Hakkaku closed the gate behind them. Other gates already falling, allowing the rest of the beasts to make their way into the cleft...

"You monster...!" Ayame growled deep in her throat, slowly shaking her head in consummate disgust of Toma. "How can you do this?! How can you condemn your own people to die like this?!"

"I'm not condemning them to anything!" Toma snarled in response, sporting a crazed grin. "If they're so weak that they can't accept a strong leader like me, than they deserve to die!" Then his grin became even crueler as he added, "Only the strong survive, Ayame! Heh heh heh...!"

Wrinkling his nose in disgust, InuYasha had to struggle to keep Tetsusaiga where it was, to keep its blade pressed against Toma's neck, and not allow himself to succumb to temptation. To not let himself twitch the slightest amount needed to end the cruel wolf-demon's worthless life. Hoping to give vent o his frustrations in another manner, the half-demon snarled, "Look, either you keep that damned mouth of yours shut, or I'll close it for you!"

"Ha! You won't do that, half-breed!" Toma sneered. "And do you know why? Because you're weak!" Drawing himself up, he folded his arms before his chest and glared contemptuously at the mammoth blade. "If you really had the strength to do what was necessary, you'd have struck me down immediately!"

A snarl twisting his lips, InuYasha had to struggle even more to keep his rage in check, rage that had been spurred on by the mention of the hated word 'half-breed'. He ached so much to give Toma the death he deserved, but at the same time, he knew he couldn't. They had already discussed it, and they couldn't take the chance of killing him, of making a martyr out of him, especially with Koga's place in the wolf-demon tribe still uncertain. His punishment was to be exile, as agreed upon in regards to the tournament, not death. But still, InuYasha couldn't help but glare in loathing at the twisted, smug look on Toma's face, and want nothing more than to obliterate it utterly.

Dammit! What's taking you so long, scrawny wolf?! InuYasha demanded, forcing himself to look down into the cleft, at the fire moving up the many lines of black goo, at the monsters that were already making their way to the main gate and freedom. I can't leave until you get here! That'd be like asking this bastard to start taking hostages!

Thinking evil thoughts about the worthless waste of fur that they had gone through so much to help, InuYasha's ears then pricked at the familiar sound of a tornado drawing closer. And he wasn't the only one to hear it; both Ayame and Yorozuko looked up, with the redheaded she-wolf grinning in delight. "Koga!"

"I'm here, Ayame!" Koga announced as the tornado dissipated.

"It's about time, scrawny wolf!" InuYasha snarled even as Koga came up behind Toma and grabbed him, forcing his arms behind his back. Once satisfied that the rabid wolf-demon was of no immediate threat, he leapt into the air. "Now, to take care of business!"

Landing in the cleft, InuYasha quickly glanced off to his side. The many beasts were closing in on his position, and a couple had already taken notice of his presence, and were giving voice to cries of rage and hunger. But they were still a distance away, and so he turned his attention away from them.

When he and the others had discussed how best to shut down Toma's creatures if they were all released, they had talked about many possibilities, everything from sending loyal wolf-demons to immobilize Toma's troops to destroying the cave from which the many trails of black gunk emerged during the tournament itself. InuYasha had been in favor of simply destroying the cave early, but Kagome and others were quick to remind him of the situation they were stuck in. They had to do more than win the tournament; they also had to expose Toma for the bastard he was. And that meant that meant waiting until he made his move before they could make theirs. That meant waiting until after the tournament to deal with the threat the monsters posed.

At this, InuYasha had wanted to just blast away at the mindless beasts with the Tetsusaiga until each and every one of them was dead, but again he was overruled. Unleashing the full power of the heirloom blade in such a situation would almost certainly have meant injury and possibly death to the watching wolf-demons. Which meant that their best bet would be to make sure that they remained contained in the event Toma had them freed. And the best chance they had of that was to destroy the trail of black gunk that led from the cave to the main gate.

Keeping track of the encroaching horde of monsters with his ears, InuYasha visually scanned the walls of the cleft, searching for the one trail of black gunk that led to the main gate. Fortunately, the black substance Toma and his followers had used was easy to spot against the light brown stone of the cleft. In a few seconds, InuYasha spotted the trail of goo, and grinned dangerously as he raised his sword overhead. "You're not beating us that easy, Toma! Wind Scar!" Swinging the Tetsusaiga with all his strength, the half-demon loosed its power across the cleft, just ahead at of where the fire that was eating its way up the trail. Smashing apart the ground, the Wind Scar slammed into the wall, shattering both it and the trail of black gunk.

"Heh! That got it!" InuYasha grinned as he observed his handiwork. Fortunately enough, the force of the Wind Scar had not ignited whatever foul substance Toma had used. The unbroken part of the trail wasn't burning. "Now all we have to do is get all these scrawny wolves outta here, and we can -!"

"InuYasha!" His ears pricking at the sound of Kagome's voice, the half-demon quickly looked over his shoulder. The modern priestess was jumping up and down from behind the gate, pointing off to his left as his other friends also called out for his attention. "Look! There's another line leading to the gate!"

What?! InuYasha shouted inwardly before turning to follow Kagome's outstretched finger. Sure enough, there was another trail of black gunk, fire burning up it towards the main gate. Grunting in frustration, the silver-maned warrior was about to raise the Tetsusaiga once more, but then a deep shadow fell upon him, and he realized he was out of time.

"Reeaarggh!" roared a massive mantis-demon as it raised it scythe-like forearm above its head, ready to bring it down squarely upon InuYasha's own. Without any time to dodge, the half-demon brought up the Tetsusaiga and intercepted the blow. Grunting with the effort of keeping the mantis at bay, he then glanced off to his side, and saw a hideous beetle-demon of some kind scurrying in close, its mandibles rapidly opening and closing as it drew in towards him. Just before it take a bite out of him, InuYasha threw himself backwards, rolling through the air to land on his feet.

"InuYasha!" the half-demon heard one of his friends cry out, but amidst the many shrieks and roars of the approaching monsters, he couldn't tell which one of them had called out to him. All he knew that he was currently outnumbered, and with a glance at the burning trail of black gunk, that he was running out of time.

"InuYasha!" Kaname cried out despairingly. "Quick! Use the Tetsusaiga! Blast those things apart!"

"But he can't!" Hakkaku protested.

Nodding quickly, Ginta pointed up to the edge of the cleft. "There are still people up there! If he starts using that sword of his -!"

Wincing at this implication, Kaname again swung about to look at the struggling half-demon. "But...we have to do something!"

"And we will!" Sango announced in a dangerous tone. "Michiru, Kagome! Do you think you can hit those demons without hitting InuYasha?"

A beat passed as Michiru and Kagome glanced at each other. "Sure can!" the Kururugi boy replied, drawing forth his sword and several cards.

"Right!" Kagome seconded, taking aim with one of her Sacred Arrows. Without another word, she loosed one of them, sending it flying towards a twisted mass of tentacles that was closing in on InuYasha. The arrow struck dead center, blasting apart many of the tentacles and sending the creature recoiling in pain.

"Blue Sky Blades!" Michiru invoked as he swung his sword, sending crescent blades of air flying out past the gate. Roaring through the air, the magical blades slashed a couple of the demons that were bearing down on InuYasha, sending gouts of blood rising up into the sky.

Satisfied with their efforts, Sango then turned to Kaname. "Kaname, let's go!" she ordered, gesturing for the Shikigami User to follow. Not waiting for Kaname to respond, the Demon Slayer made her way over to the far side of the main gate,. Listening to the Kururugi girl's approaching footsteps, Sango surveyed the mounts that held the gate in place, as well as the trails of black goo that linked them all together. "Now, listen, we have to do something to keep this gate in place!"

"Huh?! But - Sango!" Kaname immediately protested with a distressed look. "Ayame already said that water won't put the fire out! And -!"

"I know, but do you think you can do something to keep the gate in place, even if the mounts go?" Sango asked, glancing at the fire that was steadily growing closer. "If InuYasha can't cut off the fire in time, than we have to have something to keep those things in there until the wolf-demons are clear!" Kaname opened her mouth, clearly about to protest, but the warrior woman held up her hand. "We just need a little time! Not much; just a few seconds or so! Nothing more! Okay?"

Her mouth slowly opening and closing, Kaname glanced from Sango to the mounts to the closing flame and back again, her features riddled in uncertainly. But then her lips pressed together, and she heaved a deep breath. "Well...I could try," she finally said before focusing on the gate. "Green Wood Snare!" With this invocation, a pentagram spun into existence at her feet, releasing her Wood Shikigami into the stone. A few moments passed, then several sections of stone exploded, and magical vines pushed their way into the light and began wrapping about the gate.

Satisfied with this, Sango nodded. "Good work, Kaname," she told her friend before glancing over at the line of black gunk that served as a fuse. "And from the looks of it, you were just in time!"

Picking up on the Demon Slayer's words, Kaname looked about and gasped when she saw the fire closing in on them. "Oh, no! Ice Crystal!" Holding out her hand, the Kururugi girl sent a wave of freezing cold towards the rail of black goo. As a result of her spell, a huge patch of ice formed on top of it, just before the flame reached it.

Unfortunately, this spell didn't enjoy the same success as her previous one. The swiftly moving flames were burning intensely, melting the ice before it even came in contact with it. And true to Ayame's words, the resulting flow of water didn't so much as slow the flame down. It simply chewed through the ice like it wasn't even there, and before Kaname had the chance to try another spell, it burned its way to the mounts holding the gate in place, and with a spray of sparks, completely incinerated them.

While Kagome, Shippo, Ginta and Hakkaku gasped at the resulting shower of sparks, Sango raised her arm to shield her eyes even as she watched the result of the mounts' destruction. In almost no time at all, the black substance had burned away, scorching metal and rock alike. Before the fire had burnt away all its available fuel, the gate wobbled ominously, creaking back and forth.

To Sango's considerable relief, however, the vines Kaname had conjured up held, and that combined with the remaining mounts on the other side insured that the gate stayed in place, at least for the time being. But it won't last long if those demons get this far! she realized, her features tensing as she looked out into the cleft. "InuYasha, the mounts have been destroyed! Get back here! Quickly!"

"And what do you think I'm trying to do?!" InuYasha demanded crossly as he wrestled with a massive, one-eyed humanoid demon, all the while keeping the rest of the demons at bay with the threat of his blade. "Dammit! Just how much longer until those stupid wolves are gone, anyway?!"

"Hurry, everyone!" Ayame called out, waving for her people to follow her. "We have to get clear of here! Quickly!"

As Koga stood by watching, the wolf-demons surrounding the cleft did as ordered. He wasn't entirely certain if it was because of Ayame's urging or their instincts for self-preservation kicking in, but they were certainly moving as if their lives depended on it. Which he knew that they likely did. We have to get everyone clear of here before they can destroy those beasts! the alpha wolf knew, recalling what had happened with the spider-demon Kaname had destroyed. We can't afford to have anyone die...or to give them any cause to turn on us!

Shaking his head somewhat, Koga couldn't help but loathe this particular aspect of being leader of the wolf-demon tribe, or being an authority figure at all. So much of his role revolved around keeping face, at being the strong figure of authority. Allowing anything to detract from his air of strength and conviction, lest he send out signals to potential challengers that the time was right to bring him down. And allowing any wolf-demons to die unnecessarily that day was just the kind of thing that he couldn't afford to have happen. Despite the fact that it was putting his friends at risk.

As his thoughts ran this uncomfortable gamut, a cruel, familiar laugh brought Koga back to the present. "Koga, you truly are pathetic!" Toma grinned hatefully. "You even suppress your own allies to keep from putting all those weaklings at risk! No wonder our blood has gone so thin!"

Glaring dangerously at this challenger for his role as leader and thinking he alone was an excellent reason to want nothing to do with it, Koga bristled and shot back, "Yeah, well, unlike some people I could mention, I feel like these people are my responsibility! Not a bunch of disposable slaves to do whatever I want!"

"Well, after today, they'll be nothing more than meat!" Toma shot back, chuckling remorselessly as the wolf-demons continued to flee the area. "There's nowhere they can hide from my pets, and you know it!"

"Who says they'll have to?" Koga grinned dangerously before looking down into the cleft below. InuYasha was still restraining his sword, not using the immense power the alpha wolf knew that it possessed. The others were supporting him from the relative safety of the other side of the entrance gate, and they had succeeded in keeping the main gate from falling. However, the demonic beasts that had chosen to ignore the half-demon were presently within striking distance of the gate, and were bellowing their rage and impatience for freedom.

C'mon, Kagome, all of you! Koga growled inwardly, glancing about the area. The vast majority of the wolf-demons there had gotten a fair distance away. But several of the children and elderly, including Yorozuko, were still close, being aided by other wolf-demons. Just hold for a little bit longer, okay?!

This was easier said than done, Koga knew. Before his eyes, a loathsome toad-demon leapt in at InuYasha. The half-demon, already occupied by so many opponents and denied the full use of his sword, quickly found the hideous amphibian's long, sticky tongue wrapped about his upper body, including his arms. "What the -?!" the half-demon bellowed before being yanked up off his feet and drawn in towards the hideous amphibian's immense mouth.

"InuYasha!" came a female cry of protest. Koga couldn't tell who had cried out; it hadn't sounded like his Kagome. But he wasn't given time enough to consider the matter as the half-demon addressed his opponent. Before he found himself as dinner for the hungry toad, he held out his sword, using the force with which he was being pulled in to bury the blade into the roof of the toad's jaw. The repugnant amphibian shrieked in pain at this, but refused to be dissuaded. Instead, it sent its tongue flying out again with InuYasha still wrapped up in it. He maintained his grip on the sword, pulling it out in the process, but the toad then began whipping him into the ground, all the while the other demons started jumping at him, determined to take this tasty morsel for themselves.

"Dammit, that does it!" Koga growled, realizing that they were out of time. There were still a few wolf-demons nearby, but they couldn't afford to wait any longer. "Kagome!" he howled, cupping his free hand to his mouth. "Everybody's clear! So tell the mutt he can stop getting his ass kicked!"

"Hmph! So you're still deluded enough to think that your little humans and a half-breed freak can beat all my pets?" Toma sneered, arching his head back so he could look down his nose at Koga. "If I were you, Koga, I'd run for my life like the rest of those cowards. Not that it'd do you any good!"

Choking down the desire to end this monster's life, yet another of the thorns protruding from the title of leader, Koga growled and retorted, "Fat chance of that, bastard. Because I want to be right here when each and every last one of your pets dies screaming." Before Toma could up with something to say to this, he pulled the rabid wolf in a bit closer, and muttered, "Besides, I've got you here to play my shield, so it's not like I'm in any danger."

Taking some pleasure in the way this caused some of the arrogance to drain from Toma's eyes, he returned his attention to the situation below.

"Everybody's clear, sis!" Ginta reported hurriedly.

"That's right!" Hakkaku added, pointing up towards where Koga stood, Toma still his captive. "Now you can whatever attacks you want to finish them off!"

Sighing impatiently, Kagome retorted, "Right. After we help InuYasha!" As her wolf-demon friends recoiled from her ire, the modern priestess returned her attention to the situation at hand. The majority of Toma's beasts had already reached the gates, and were presently trying to batter them down. Kaname was working on keeping them in place, but Kagome knew that she couldn't do so indefinitely. Which meant that they had to get InuYasha free, and as quickly as possible. "So, does anybody have any ideas on how we can do that?!"

"I'm not sure, Kagome!" Miroku admitted as he pitched a sutra talisman at one of the beasts. "I don't think we can hit that toad-demon without hitting InuYasha as well!"

Clenching her jaw, Kagome looked out into the cleft, and found herself agreeing with the monk's assessment. The hateful toad was flailing InuYasha about this way and that, too fast for them to possibly be able to attack without risk to their friend. But even as she thought this, Michiru grated his teeth, and commented, "Well...there is one possibility!"

"What do you mean?" Kagome wondered. "Do you have some kind of weakening spell that you could use or something?"

"Not exactly!" Michiru replied grimly as he held up his sword and pointed it squarely at the toad-demon. "Brace yourself, InuYasha! Prominence of Flame!"

"Wha -?!" Kagome squawked, initially convinced that she hadn't heard what she thought she had heard. She was proven wrong a moment later as a stream of molten death erupted from the tip of the wooden blade and shot straight and true at the toad-demon's mouth. Upon seeing the bolt of destruction heading straight towards it, it instinctively recoiled, yanking InuYasha into the path of the blast.

Time seemed to slow down as InuYasha tumbled uncontrollably through the air, turning so that he seemed to be looking right at them at the exact moment Michiru's attack hit him. The half-demon cried out as the force of the blast sent him flying right into the toad's mouth. Her mind emptied by the horror of this moment, Kagome felt her mouth open to five voice to this horror. Only to be cut off when another voice shrieked, "No! InuYasha!" Gasping at this, Kagome looked about to see Kaname rushing up to them, her face a picture of horror as she flung herself to the entrance gate. "InuYasha!" she cried out again as the toad struggled with a mouthful of fiery half-demon. Steam poured out of non-existent ears as it hopped madly about, motions that Kaname seemed to mirror as she turned about to face her brother. "Michiru, how could - you killed him!"

"What - but - no, I didn't - I -!" Michiru sputtered out helplessly in the face of his outraged sibling. Before he could attempt to mount any further defense, the toad screeched in such sheer agony as to draw all their eyes to it. It's skin turning a bright, burning red, the hideous creature flung itself onto its back and proceeded to roll about, screaming helplessly as the other beasts paused to watch in confusion.

The toad's torment seeming to reach its peak, it let go with one final sustained shriek. Its body shaking like jelly before a brilliant light shown from within, causing it to explode into a fountain of blood and gore. And from this perverse gusher leapt forth a familiar figure, his sword gleaming with the same light that had spelt the toad's demise.

"InuYasha!" Kagome and Kaname cried out as one as the half-demon descended towards them, trailing streamers of gunk. But despite this, as well as the repugnant stench that now clung to him, the modern priestess couldn't help but be relieved as he came to land before them. "You're all right!"

Turning to face the horde of beasts, Tetsusaiga held at the ready, InuYasha looked over his shoulder at them. "Heh! Of course I'm alright! What, you actually thought that stupid toad could finish me off?" he wondered in a derisive manner. "So, are we ready to take these thing down or what?!"

Kagome gave a quick nod to this before saying, "All the wolf-demons are clear! It's now or never!"

"Heh! About time!" Grinning dangerously, InuYasha turned even more to look at the male Kururugi twin. "You ready, Michiru?"

"Ready!" Michiru responded, bringing his hands together. "Kaname, you better cast your Protective Light! Just in case!"

Kaname looked ready to protest, but as the power of Michiru's Shikigami rose up, she let out and angry huff and instead focused on her own power. As her Light Shikigami emerged to envelop them in a protective field, Michiru was summoning his full power, reciting the incantation, "Forces of nature, heed my call! Unleash your power, Shikigami!"

Grinning as Michiru sent his Light Shikigami rising into the air, carrying with it aspects of the power of all his other Shikigami, InuYasha leapt up as well. "This is it!!" he growled as the massive dragon of light opened its mouth wide and engulfed him, suffusing him and the Tetsusaiga with all the powers of nature. Glaring down at the hateful beasts that remained below, the half-demon savored the looks and noises of confusion they emitted as he hovered overhead. "Take this, you bastards! Backlash Wave!" Striking with his sword, InuYasha grinned at the resulting rushing of wind as a mammoth cyclone of light appeared, accompanied by a crackling of lightning, and shot down towards Toma's remaining beasts.

The demonic monsters had just enough time to let out a collective scream of hate and fear before the devastating tempest came crashing down upon them. Screams that were immediately replaced by the sound of complete annihilation, with solid rock being torn apart, of flesh and blood being utterly pulverized. The sheer force of the blast washed through the cleft, carrying with waves of pure power that blasted down the main gate, and threatened to do the same to Kagome and the others. The only thing keeping them from being bowled over and worse was Kaname, who groaned with the effort of maintaining her Protective Light against the magical maelstrom.

After what felt like an eternity, but was likely only a few seconds, the roaring vortex finally expended itself, dissipating into nothingness. Leaving behind a huge crater in the cleft, as well bits and pieces of shattered bones and broken shells. All that remained of Toma's beasts.

As Kagome and the others took in the destruction they had unleashed, InuYasha came down from his leap. "Heh! That takes care of those damned things!"

"Sure does," Kagome agreed, smiling dangerously as she looked up at the top of the cleft, where two wolf-demons still stood watching. "Looks like Toma's not going to be threatening anyone again anytime soon."

"No...m-my pets...!" Toma rasped out, his voice low with horrified awe. "Th-this can't - it's impossible!"

Not even bothering to point out that it was very possible, Koga hauled Toma up off his feet. "Well, looks like you're all out of pet monsters to throw around," he snarled as he pivoted about and hurled his defeated rival to the ground. "I'd say that you've just run out of options. And time!"

Propping himself up on his elbows, Toma hatefully growled, "You...this isn't the end of this!"

"Wrong, Toma! This is the end! The end of all the lies, the manipulations, the threats and the scheming!" Koga declared, glaring down at his defeated enemy like he was a lump of dung on the bottom of his foot. "You've had your time, and it's over!" Heaving a deep breath, he projected his voice to make sure that everyone who remained nearby could still hear him. "And as the new leader of the wolf-demon tribe, I declare that you and all your followers are now banished from this tribe and these mountains! You will have until the sun shines directly overhead to leave this place forever. And if you or any of your kind are seen here after that time, you will be immediately executed! Is that clear?!"

Veins bulging from his forehead, Toma growled, "What's clear is that you are a weak fool, Koga! Even now, you're unwilling to deal with me directly!" Snorting loudly, the rogue wolf gave a cruel grin before adding, "If our roles were reversed, you can be sure that's a mistake that I wouldn't make!"

For a short time, Koga glared at his fallen foe. And as he did, a deadly curl graced his lips. "Heh. Kill you, Toma?" he muttered with deceptive gentleness. "I can't believe you honestly think that I'd let you off that easily." Pausing to savor the look of confusion this statement inspired in his foe, the alpha wolf narrowed his eyes and explained it to him. "You see, you're the one who sold those followers of yours on those damned beasts. You're the one who's been getting them killed. And you're the one who decided that the loser of this tournament would be banished. Which means that, because of you, all those wolf-demons who were stupid enough to throw in with you are going to be outcasts. And who do you think they're going to blame for all that?"

Toma's response to this was to growl in defiance, but Koga didn't care. All he could do was picture the eventual results of such a situation, something he summed up by saying, "You've enjoyed making Ayame and all the others afraid. Well, now we'll see how much you like it being scared, being unable to sleep because every single wolf-demon around you wants nothing more than to kill you as slowly and painfully as possible." Giving this a moment to sink in, Koga straightened up and observed the many emotions flickering across Toma's eyes. "Enjoy the rest of your life while you can, Toma. Because you can be sure that it won't be a long one."

"Damn you, Koga...!" Toma snarled out from between clenched teeth.

"You damned yourself, Toma!" Then Koga snorted loudly and snarled, "Now get the hell out of my sight! Or do you need to lose an arm or leg before you realize that I'm serious?!"

To his credit, Toma didn't need that kind of convincing. Instead, the rogue wolf scrambled to his feet, his face still twisted with hate. "This isn't over, Koga!" he growled feverishly. "I will see this tribe in hell before I let them live as the pets of humans!"

"Oh, just shut up and get lost!" Koga growled, having had his fill of the monster that had plagued his tribe. And so he stood there, watching him until he finally turned and slowly skulked away. Making certain not to turn his eyes away until Toma had finally disappeared from sight. And it was only then that he turned and looked down at his friends below. All of them tired, filthy...and glad to be alive and victorious.

"Thank you, Kagome, all of you," Koga smiled. Then, speaking so lowly so as to be sure that no one could hear him, he added, "Even you, little mutt..."

The next couple hours in the wolf-demon mountains could only described as a form of controlled chaos. Wolf-demons loyal to Yorozuko and Ayame went through every single cave, every place they could think of that could hide a wolf-demon, searching for Toma's followers. They enjoyed considerable assistance in this from the bulk of the wolf-demon tribe, for while the majority still weren't enthused about Koga's plans, they were now openly furious at Toma and his followers at the way they had been manipulated. One by one, every wolf-demon loyal to the rogue had been tracked down and dragged kicking and screaming away from the mountains.

As this went on, InuYasha and the others were escorted down to one of the caves near Yorozuko's chamber. There they were allowed to rest, with his human friends tumbling to sleep almost immediately after lying down on the straw bedding on the floor. And it was there that the half-demon kept watch over them, not willing to take the chance of some vengeance-driven follower of Toma's slipping past the other wolf-demons, intent on taking revenge on at least one wolf-demon before being exiled from the mountains.

Damn...what a day, InuYasha thought wearily as he looked at his slumbering friends. Weary with relief that each and every one of them had come through the day intact. True, Sango had suffered injuries that had required some healing magic before she was able to fall asleep, and each of the others had picked up his or her share of bumps and bruises, whether during the tournament or in the subsequent battle right afterwards, but these minor annoyances. Certainly a much better outcome than InuYasha could have hoped for, all things considered.

Damn that Toma for putting them through this! InuYasha thought angrily, his claws digging into his hands as he clenched his fists. I swear, if I ever see him again, I'll make him eat my Tetsusaiga for all of this! His blood burning again at the thought of the rogue wolf, the half-demon was soon brought out of his ire by the sound of gentle approaching footsteps. A warning growl escaping his lips, he rose to his feet and took hold of Tetsusaiga's hilt. But even as he looked out into the tunnel that led to their chamber, he caught sight of a familiar silhouette who already had her hands up.

"It's okay, InuYasha!" Ayame called out as she approached. "It's just me."

"What are you doing here?" InuYasha wondered as she approached. "What, did something happen out there, or -?"

"No, not exactly," Ayame explained in a gentle voice. "You see, Grandfather says that Koga should make a speech to the people. To help explain to them why this alliance Koga wants is so necessary to us. To settle any lingering doubts any of the others might still have."

"Hmph. It'll take more than a pretty speech to do all that," InuYasha snorted before relaxing somewhat. "So what does that have to do with you being down here?"

A look of shame ghosting her features, Ayame let out a weary sigh before explaining, "He decided that it would be best if your human friends also appeared. To support Koga."

His eyes expanding, InuYasha's mild irritability immediately blossomed into full-fledged annoyance. "What?!" he growled, only to glance back at his friends, immediately concerned that he had woken them needlessly.

"I know, I understand that they need their rest, especially after everything that's happened," Ayame told him even as he satisfied himself that they were still asleep. "But...if Koga's going to make this alliance work, than he needs the other wolf-demons to support it. And Grandfather feels that it would be best if they were there while Koga was speaking."

Not even bothering to mention that he didn't think this alliance had a chance in hell of working anyway, InuYasha growled, "Oh, so it's not enough that they managed to outfight those damn demons, huh?! Now they have to get out and look pretty for all a bunch of scrawny wolves who were too stupid to see Toma for the bastard he is?!"

This harsh statement caused Ayame to recoil, and InuYasha found himself feeling a trace of guilt at this. But this was nothing compared to the concern he felt for his friends, the only thing he had that even came close to being a family in this life. And they had already risked and done far more than anybody had a right to ask of them. The last thing he wanted was them to be pushed around even more, and for something as stupid as this.

To his surprise, however, Ayame nodded sadly. "Look, I'm sorry! They've already done so much, and..." A wad of bile formed in her throat at this, leaving her to swallow loudly before shaking her head in dismay. "But...my people, they'll be expecting them to appear for the speech. And if they don't see them there, it could start them asking questions about Koga. And we can't afford that right now. Not when we're so close!" As InuYasha growled lowly beneath his breath, the redhead sighed miserably. "Look, I promise, it won't be long. They just have to show up and stand behind Koga for a little while," she explained in a pleading fashion. "And in the mean time, I'll have some food prepared for dinner. As soon as the speech is over, they'll be free to eat and relax as much as they want."

For a long time, InuYasha considered what to say. There was a part of him that wanted to tell Ayame what she could do with her concerns about the wolf-demons, especially after everything that had happened. But even as he considered that, he couldn't help but admit that she had a valid point. If Koga was to successfully take the reins of the wolf-demons, than he couldn't afford to show any weakness, especially now. And that meant that those who symbolized his power couldn't be seen as weak or vulnerable, either. Especially since we're still in the middle of scrawny wolf territory, InuYasha thought bitterly as he glanced back at his friends. Aw, dammit...

Wondering not for the first time what had possessed them to insist on coming to this wretched place, InuYasha clenched his fists. "They show up for the speech. They don't do any fancy tricks, nothing like that. They show, then they go eat and rest. Is that clear?"

"Yes, of course," Ayame nodded, torn between relief and guilt as she made her way over to where Kagome lay. Telling himself that his friends would have to wake up in order to eat anyway, InuYasha stood by and watched as the redhead gently stirred the humans back to the waking world.

"Huh...who's there?" Kagome groaned as she slowly woke up. "InuYasha, is that...?" Then she rubbed her eyes and sat up, and saw the person responsible rousing Michiru. "Ayame?"

"Hi, Kagome," Ayame smiled sadly as Michiru groaned in exhaustion. "I'm sorry to wake you, but something's come up."

Kagome let out a confused squawk at this before glancing over at InuYasha. "Oh, you can't wait to hear this one!" he muttered as Ayame proceeded to wake up the rest of the group. "I told ya we shoulda stayed clear of this den of wolves..."

Ignoring InuYasha's words, something she did all too frequently, Kagome instead focused on Ayame. Fortunately, it wasn't long before she had roused the others, at which she quickly explained why she had come. "It won't be long, I promise," she quickly assured them. "And as soon as we're done, you'll be able to have dinner, and get some more rest."

Kaname let out a weary groan at this, running her hand through her untidy hair. "Well...okay, I guess."

"Ugh...I guess if it's that important, then..." Kagome issued, sounding considerably less enthusiastic than she had when she had originally agreed to help Koga.

"It could well be," Miroku commented, sounding somewhat more awake and alert. "More than ever, Koga has to maintain a strong front for the wolf-demons. Especially with the food supplies here so low."

"Exactly!" Ayame told them. "Until we can find out what's causing the problems, we have to do whatever we can to keep the peoples' hopes alive. And maintain their faith in Koga."

InuYasha was sorely tempted to comment that this faith was badly misplaced. But even as he thought this, he noted the grumpy look Kagome wore, one that she frequently got when she was short on sleep, and decided not to risk getting sat. Instead, he stood by and watched as his friends got to their feet. Though his concerns mounted when Sango groaned in pain. "Sango?" Michiru got out, his weariness forgotten as he made his way over to her. "Sango, what is it? Your wound still bothering you?"

"Uh...it's okay, Michiru. Nothing to worry about," Sango quickly replied, forcing herself into a standing position and her hand away from her injury. "I...I'll be fine soon. I promise."

Michiru opened his mouth to say something, but Miroku broke in and said, "Excuse me, but it would be best not to keep Koga waiting. The sooner we appear, the sooner he can address the wolf-demons." Then the monk turned towards Sango and added, "And once that's done, we'll be free to tend to our wounds and other needs."

"Yeah. So let's just do it and get it over with," InuYasha decided, folding his arms behind his head.

Nodding to this, Kagome sighed and turned towards the redheaded she-wolf. "Then...lead the way, Ayame."

"Right," Ayame nodded, and with that, she began leading the unlikely group into the tunnel. InuYasha was about to follow, but then he realized that there was something wrong. At first, he wasn't sure what it was, but then he noticed a tiny little bundle of fur that was currently curled up in the straw, still dead to the world.

"Grr...!" InuYasha grumbled as he marched over to where Shippo lay dreaming and grabbed him up by the scruff of his neck. "Hey! What're you doing, sleeping at a time like this?!"

"Huh...wha...?!" Shippo got out drowsily. Already in a bad mood, the half-demon gave the little fox a quick shaking, which had the effect of making it seem as if his eyes were dancing about his face. After a few seconds of this, he stopped and hefted Shippo up so that they were face-to-face. "InuYasha?! Hey, what'd you do that for?!"

"Hmph! It turns out that the scrawny wolf is making a big speech, and that he can't do it without the others backing him up!" InuYasha snarled as he turned and started into the tunnel. "Anyway, we're having dinner after that, so I thought you wouldn't want to sleep through that! Satisfied?!"

"Well, you coulda found a gentler way to wake me up!" Shippo grumbled with as much dignity as he could muster. "Now put me down! I can walk on my own feet! This is embarrassing!"

"Whatever you say," InuYasha muttered, and without another word, he dropped the fox-demon, letting him fall to the ground.

Bouncing up after the impact, Shippo squawked indignantly before landing again. "Hey! Why'd you do that?!" InuYasha didn't bother answering, and instead snorted loudly. Leaving the little fox-demon to grumble beneath his breath and hurry to catch up.

Following the scent of his friends, InuYasha and Shippo soon arrived on the peak of one of the mountains, one that loomed above most of the caverns. "Whoa!" the little fox gasped as he looked this way and that. "What a view! Wow!"

"Yeah, it's a good view," InuYasha conceded as he glanced down below and scowled. "Too bad there ain't nothing worth looking at." That said, he continued forward. Not bothering look down at the multitudes of wolves and wolf-demons that had gathered below. All of the looking intently at the cliff that was his destination.

A short distance ahead, Koga was smiling and greeting the human members of the group. "Thanks for coming, everybody," he spoke earnestly, for once not focusing exclusively on Kagome. "Look, I know I've been asking a lot of you lately, but...I really do appreciate it."

"As do we all," Yorozuko seconded, while Ayame, Robai, Ginta and Hakkaku made various gestures of agreement. "There were times that I thought that we would never be rid of Toma and his beasts." The aged white wolf than bowed his head low. "For these things, we will never be able to thank you enough.

"Oh, it's okay. Really!" Kagome told him, holding up her hands in protest as her cheeks colored. Then she glanced down at the crowds below, and added, "Uh...so...I think they're waiting."

"Huh? Oh, right," Koga responded, looking rather sheepish. To his credit, the alpha wolf managed to pull himself together, and after looking at his fellow wolf-demons and receiving looks of support in return, he heaved a deep breath. "Well...here goes." With that, he marched out onto the edge of the cliff, going into full view of the wolf-demons below. As InuYasha's human friends followed, moving just close enough to be seen, a round of loud cheering rose up from the crowd below.

While InuYasha was thinking that Koga didn't need Kagome or the others to be there nearly as much as Ayame had claimed, the alpha wolf began to speak to the people below. “My people, today you have seen the folly of the vision that Toma had intended to be our future,” he intoned, his words quickly quelling the crowds. “You’ve seen that the brute strength of even the largest demons cannot overcome those who’ve strove to be stronger, to better themselves in new ways. This is why we can no longer allow ourselves to run wild, thinking of humans as simple prey. If we do, we will continue to lose out to those who learn from the past, to those who grow in strength and wisdom at every turn.”

As the wolf-demons listened to his words, Koga pulled back, allowing them a better look at the five humans who had triumphed that day. “This is a truth that my friends here have shown me. Though human, there are few demons that can challenge their strength. This is because they’ve discovered a different kind of strength, and we must learn of it as well, if we want to survive, to prosper.” There was a pause as Koga took a deep breath. “Now, there may be those of you who feel as Toma did, that by forming this alliance, we become the pets of humans. But that’s not what this is about. This alliance is about learning from fellow warriors, warriors who have their own kind of strength. This alliance is about sharing our own unique strength with them, and them sharing with us. We will always be wolf-demons, always be proud warriors. But now we have to be more than that, much more than what we were before.”

With this, Koga stepped aside, allowing Robai to the front. “Fellow wolf-demons, the time has come for us to grow up! Our true leader has shown us the path we must take, and we will take it. Instead of giving into fear and mindless aggression, we will act with wisdom and patience. Instead of trying to deal with our problems with brute strength alone, we will learn and adapt, and find new, better ways to solve our problems!" The elderly wolf-demon than chuckled deep in his throat. "And soon, very soon, we will learn many new things from our fellow warriors. Word has already been sent to our future allies, and soon, we will meet with them to plant the seeds of our future, a new age of prosperity for all our people!”

Nodding to this, Koga again took the front position. "My people...there's a lot of work ahead of us. We have many problems, problems that we have to find the solutions to if we're to survive. But if we can stand together, and rise above our differences, I know that there are no challenges that we cannot conquer! For our future!"

"For our future!" the wolf-demons below cried out in response. This line was repeated several times, amidst other cries of delight and celebration.

Apparently satisfied that he had said everything he needed to say, Koga gave his people one last look before retreating from view. "Well, I have to give you this much, scrawny wolf; you sure can give a pretty speech," InuYasha sniped as he came up to them. "You better be able to back it up, though!"

"Huh! Tell me about it!" Koga growled, glancing over his shoulder at the point where he had stood seconds ago.

"And what was that about sending a message to the Demon Slayers?" Sango wondered with a slight frown. "Have you been in contact with Daisuke?"

"Well, yeah. Every day, pretty much," Koga replied with a good-natured smile. "Daisuke has this pet bird, a silvery phoenix called Kokoro. He's been acting as a messenger between us."

Her mouth popping open in surprise, Sango smiled before bringing her hand to her forehead. "Of course! Kokoro! How could I have forgotten about him?!" Shaking her head with muted embarrassment, the Demon Slayer turned towards her friends. "Kokoro is the companion of Daisuke and his family, sort of like how Kirara is for me and my family."

As Kirara seconded this with a tiny mew, Koga nodded and added, "Yeah, and he's been a big help in keeping Daisuke up to date on everything that's been happening! We've already sent him with a message to let him know about our winning the tournament and everything!"

"I see. In which case, it shouldn't be long before you and he will be able to meet, and finalize the arrangement for the alliance," Miroku commented in a thoughtful manner. "But what about Toma? Did you mention him in your message?"

"Sure did. I'm not sure how much trouble he'll be able to cause, if any. Still, I wouldn't put it past him to at least try and screw things up," Koga grumbled sourly. "But don't worry. I’ve already warned Daisuke to be on the lookout for Toma and his followers. If those jerks try anything, I told Daisuke he can do whatever is necessary to deal with them.” Then his lips curled into a smile and he added, "Still, I don't think it'll be a problem."

“I agree,” Sango seconded. “I know Daisuke well enough to know he’d never let a few renegade wolf-demons get the better of him.”

"And while we're waiting to hear from him, we can start dealing with our other problems," Ayame chimed in. "Like finding out why all the animals have been dying around here."

"Agreed. The food shortage is a critical matter," Yorozuko declared in a voice of sage authority. "We have to find the cause of the problem, and quickly. Before the peoples' faith gives way to discontent."

"Not to mention before we all starve to death!" Robai commented darkly.

"Hey! We can worry about all that later!" Koga informed them in a stern manner. "Right now, I'd say we all owe you people a lot! Starting with filling meal and a good night's rest!"

"Heh! First smart thing I've heard out of you today, scrawny wolf!" InuYasha growled, his stomach seconding this with rumbles of hunger.

Rolling his eyes to this, Koga turned towards the lone she-wolf present and said, "Say, Ayame, there's a few thing I still need to talk to your grandpa about. Do you think you could show Kagome and the others to where they can eat and stuff?"

"Of course. I was already planning on doing that, anyway," Ayame beamed in response. With that, she turned and started forward. "Right this way, everyone!"

As Ayame took the lead, InuYasha paused to watch his friends start after her before glancing back at Koga. The obnoxious wolf-demon was already deep in conversation with Yorozuko and Robai about matters pertaining to their current situation, things that the half-demon barely noted. All that really mattered was that their mission had been completed. Toma was defeated, and Koga could do whatever he had to straighten out his tribe.

So maybe now we can finally get out of this stinking den of wolves! InuYasha thought with a bit of hope as he started after his friends. It's about time we started looking for Naraku again! We've wasted enough time here as it is!

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