Legacy of the Cursed Mask: The Wolf-Demon Crisis

Troubled Waters

"I can't believe we're still hanging around this damned den of wolves!" InuYasha grumbled sourly, his arms folded across his chest and a vehement look on his face.

Groaning lowly as the half-demon's complaints inspired a mild headache, Kagome placed her hand to her temple before glaring at him. "InuYasha..."

"I just don't believe it!" InuYasha went on, acting as if he hadn't even heard her. Kagome knew this was an act; even as softly as she had spoken, she knew his sensitive ears would easily pick up her words. So she rolled her eyes as he went on to complain, "We come all the way out here, risk our necks for the damn scrawny wolves! We've done every damn thing they've asked us to do and then some! And now we're staying to do even more volunteer work?!"

Groaning heavily as she massaged her now-throbbing head, Kagome thought back to last night when she and the others had made the decision to stay. It had all happened so naturally; they had been enjoying the dinner Ayame had provided them, and they had gotten to talking about the problems facing Koga, with the decline in their food supplies numbering chief amongst their concerns. They had discussed the wolf-demons efforts to find out whatever it was that was causing the animals they fed upon to die, all of which had failed.

Kagome couldn't help but feel bad for her, as well as the honest wolf-demons who simply were trying to get by like Ginta and Hakkuka. During the tournament, it became increasingly obvious that many of the wolf-demons were supporting Toma out of desperation alone. Especially when they began cheering them and Koga after the disaster with the spider-demon. And seeing Ayame sitting on the cave floor, so obviously desperate to help Koga and her people, and so completely without any ideas as to how to do so, had left Kagome wanting nothing more than to do something to ease her burdens. And when she had offered to help her and the other wolf-demons try to solve this problem, it had become obvious that the modern priestess wasn't the only one who wanted to help; Michiru, Kaname, Miroku, Sango, Shippo, all of them had been quick to volunteer whatever aid they could give. Much to InuYasha's consternation.

Wincing as she recalled the look of horror that had spawned on the half-demon's face, as well as the outpouring of complaining that had followed, Kagome groaned and reminded him, "Look, we've already discussed it, okay?! We're just staying here for a few more days. Just to see if we can help Koga and Ayame find some clue as to what's behind all the animals dying around here!" InuYasha's response to this was look away and stick his nose into the air, something that caused Kagome's head to hurt that much more. "Look, it's not like it's any big deal!"

"Not a big deal?!" InuYasha growled irritably. Though he remained on the floor where he sat, the half-demon turned and fixed and incredulously glare on the modern priestess. "In case you've forgotten, Kagome, humans just happen to be one of the things these bastards like to eat! The longer we stay here, the more likely one of these bastards is to try and have you or someone else as lunch!"

Wishing that InuYasha would stop harping on that detail, all the while aware that no one could beat a dead horse like he could, Kagome sighed before trying again. "Look, I know you don't like the wolf-demons, but this is important. Whatever's causing all this death could be big trouble!"

"Yeah, well, Naraku's even bigger trouble!" InuYasha shot back impatiently. "So why aren't we looking for him instead?"

"C'mon, InuYasha. We both know how hard it is to find Naraku when he doesn't want to be found," Kagome reminded him, getting another loud snort for her troubles. "Besides, Sango's still hurting from her battle with the bull, and we can all use a little time off after everything that happened yesterday. The last thing we need is to bump into Naraku right now."

The low, frustrated growl InuYasha responded with was one Kagome recognized as meaning that he had no real comeback for this. "So where is Sango, anyway? Or the others?" InuYasha wondered, glancing about the cave they were in. "I haven't seen them since breakfast!"

"I'm pretty sure that Sango's resting right now," Kagome reported, thinking back to the previous night, when both she and Michiru had used the best of magical and modern healing that they had to offer. Things that had clearly helped her condition, but did nothing to change the fact that it would be a day or so before she was back to full strength. "And Michiru and Kaname went to help Ayame and the other wolf-demons search the area around the mountains. They figured that maybe they could find something with their Shikigami that the wolf-demons haven't."

Groaning deep in his throat, InuYasha shook his head irritably before muttering, "Well...I just hope they find something. The sooner we can get out of here, the better." Kagome struggled to keep from smiling at this, for she knew this was as close as InuYasha would come to a vote of approval in his current mood. "And what about Miroku? What's he doing to help?"

The mention of Miroku instantly foiled Kagome's efforts to keep from smiling. "He's keeping an eye on Sango," she announced, grateful that he was making good on this opportunity. "We figured it would be a good idea to have someone on hand to take care of her. Make sure she doesn't strain herself or anything."

"Great," InuYasha muttered, making it clear that he thought that this was anything but. "So who's keeping an eye on him?"

This question instantly wiped the smile from Kagome's face, mainly because it was a reasonable question. There was no use in saying that Miroku wouldn't take advantage of Sango in her injured state, because they both knew that he would. "Don't worry, Shippo's down there with them, making sure that Miroku stays on his best behavior," Kagome told him, trying to sound upbeat and suspecting that she was less than successful in this. "Besides, Sango can deal with him if he gets out of hand."

This statement resulted in InuYasha chuckled deviously. "Yeah, I know," he grinned, turning to look at the wall in a thoughtful manner. "I wonder how big a beating she'll give him this time?"

Groaning beneath her breath as InuYasha laughed some more, Kagome turned and clenched her fist. C'mon, Miroku! Now's your chance to start straightening things out with Sango! she thought intensely. Michiru's busy, and you've got Shippo around to help make sure that you don't blow it! So go ahead and sweep her off her feet already!

"You know, Shippo, you really don't have to watch me every single moment," Miroku muttered, looking wearily at the little fox-demon. "I'm just sitting here, doing nothing."

"Yeah, and I'm gonna make sure that you keep doing nothing!" Shippo shot back with a mischievous grin.

Miroku blinked a few times before letting out a weary sigh of defeat. There are times when being so well known for my appreciation of the female form has its difficulties, he admitted as he looked over at where Sango lay, clad in her Demon Slayer's garb, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. Especially when being presented with such a perfect opportunity...

Miroku sighed again, because only a short time ago, a perfect opportunity was exactly what he thought he had been presented with. Michiru and Kaname had volunteered to help the wolf-demons search for the cause of their troubles, something the monk had known would take a good deal of time. And to make things even better, when Sango had heard of their decision, she had asked Kirara to aid them. The two-tail was quite fond of Michiru, and was more than willing to help him. And though Michiru had been concerned about Sango's condition, a little convincing on her part eventually assured him that she would be quite fine after a nice breakfast and some rest. As for Kagome, she had chosen to busy herself elsewhere, all of which meant that Miroku would be Sango's designated companion until Michiru returned. Something to which the monk had not objected to in the least.

At the time, however, Miroku had forgotten about one tiny little detail. Until Kagome had reminded him of it by asking Shippo to stay with Sango as well, and make sure that Miroku acted like a gentleman. A task Shippo had eagerly accepted, and was presently carrying out with youthful determination. Something that complicated his current plans, and in more than one way.

Still, this is not entirely unexpected, Miroku thought wearily as he returned his attention to the resting Sango. The Demon Slayer was presently lying back, looking perfectly asleep to the untrained eye. But the monk knew her, knew how perfectly still she could be, resting and yet completely alert. I just have to be a bit more subtle in how I approach this.

Taking a quick breath, Miroku asked, "How are you doing, Sango? Do you need anything? Some water? Another blanket, perhaps?"

"No, I'm fine," Sango replied, not bothering to open her eyes. "I just need a little rest, that's all." Then she opened her eyes, just the tiniest bit, and smiled. "But thank you, anyway, Miroku."

"It's no problem, really," Miroku replied in a sage, earnest manner. Then he tilted his head to the side and commented in a carefree manner, "You know, I must say, I never thought I'd see this."

"Huh? See what, Miroku?" Shippo asked quizzically.

"This alliance, Shippo," Miroku explained, careful to keep his tone casual. "When Koga announced that he planned to forge an alliance with the Demon Slayers, I have to admit that I...had some very serious doubts about how accepting the wolf-demons would be of such a plan."

A tiny, muted chuckle escaped Sango's lips at this. "Yeah, I know," she admitted, never once opening her eyes. "Especially considering the welcome we got when we first arrived."

Recalling that moment as well, thinking of the ravenous wolf-demons that had come after the group, with the only thing standing between them and murderous horde was Michiru's Protective Light. "I know. And considering the opinion most demons have of humans, Koga's whole plan seemed untenable."

Sango gave a tiny nod to this, and her entire body seemed to tense ever so slightly as she undoubtedly thought of some the previous situations they had encountered that had lent credence to the notion that such an alliance would be impossible, such as the duplicitous bat-demon tribe and their leader, as well the humans they had victimized. Humans that had taken out their frustrations over being predated on by the bat-demons by a little girl who shared the blood of both peoples. "Do you think this can work, Miroku?" the Demon Slayer finally asked. "Is that what you're wondering? If this alliance can really work?"

Miroku let out a tired sigh at this. "I honestly don't know, Sango. It's heartening that the wolf-demons are willing to make the attempt. And assuming that Daisuke does uphold his end of the deal..."

"He will," Sango firmly stated, glancing up at Miroku, her gaze firm and certain. "Daisuke is an honorable man, Miroku. He wouldn't even discuss such an alliance unless he believed he could make it work."

"I believe you, Sango. But that still doesn't mean that there can't be problems," Miroku told her. "After all, we're dealing with two very different peoples, and given the fact that Daisuke's people have likely been called to defend some of the villages against the wolf-demons, there's every chance that there'll be bad blood on both sides. Especially now that Toma and his people wiped out so many villages."

"Huh?!" Shippo started, looking wide-eyed at the monk. "But - that wasn't Koga's fault! He did everything he could to stop them!"

"Yes, I know that. And so do many others," Miroku went on sagely. "But a great many people won't care. It's likely that some on both sides will only be able to see enemies, not allies." Shaking his head sadly, the monk lowered his eyes and added, "We're dealing with two very different peoples, who live in different worlds, have different ways of living. Getting them to bridge the gap that lies between them will be difficult. Maybe even impossible."

After making this statement, Miroku sat and watched as his friends reacted to it. Shippo looked down at the floor, his little face filling with concern. And as for Sango, she had much better control of her emotions, but still, some feelings were visible enough her absolute control. A flicker of worry and concern was seen, along with something else. Something that had nothing to do with the alliance. A pained concern that came straight from the heart.

That's right, Sango, Miroku nodded, knowing exactly what she was thinking of. Of what he had deliberately inspired her to think of while giving voice to a legitimate concern. Michiru may be a good person, but you and he are from very different worlds. He has no real link to this time, or you to his. And while he can be a friend, there's no way he could ever truly be a part of your life. Watching as such thoughts undoubtedly simmered and stewed in her mind, he went on to think, Just let him go. Let him have his life in his world...and you have your life in this world. A life you can spend quite happily...with me.

"I really do appreciate you doing this, Michiru," Ayame beamed, the redhead clinging tightly to Michiru as the two of them flew about on Kirara's back. "Especially after all the trouble we've already put you and your friends through."

"Oh, it's no problem, really," Michiru smiled, glancing over his shoulder at the she-wolf. "Besides, it's not like we're in any real hurry to go anyplace else right now." Then he chuckled and added, "Well, except maybe for InuYasha."

Chuckling as well, Ayama nodded and said, "So I've noticed! Honestly, I've never met anybody who can swear as much as he -!" The redhead was cut off as Kirara suddenly changed course. Being used to this method of travel, Michiru instantly shifted his balance to compensate, but Ayame gasped in surprise and tightened her grip on the Kururugi boy. "Oh!"

Groaning slightly at the increased pressure on his chest, as well as turning red from the awareness that Ayame's considerable assets were being pressed firmly against his back, Michiru glanced back at her. "Uh, Ayame...? Please...not so tight...!" he pleaded weakly, his lungs too compressed to allow him to speak more strongly. "Can't...breathe...!"

"Huh? Oh, sorry!" Ayame blurted, loosening her grip on the Shikigami User just a bit. Enough to allow him to breathe freely again. "I didn't hurt you or anything, did I?"

"No, not really," Michiru replied hesitantly, not wanting to hurt her feelings. "You...surprised me more than anything."

Nodding to this, Ayame sighed, her cheeks coloring slightly. "I'm sorry, really. It's just..." Pausing, she bit the inside of her lip and glanced down at the ground far below. "This whole flying thing..."

Despite the situation, Michiru found himself chuckling at this. "I understand," he said, thinking of the discomfort experienced by Koga during their journey to and from Mount Houoh. Deciding that the alpha wolf would not appreciate his speaking of it, and that he wasn't in any hurry to make an enemy of him, he instead commented, "I guess you're used to keeping your feet on the ground, huh?"

"That's for sure!" Ayame admitted with a bashful look. A light tremor ran through her body as she looked down at the ground. "So...have you or those scouts of yours sensed anything unusual yet? Anything at all?"

Pressing his lips together, Michiru closed his eyes and focused his mind on the senses of his Shikigami, as well as the scouts that he had sent in various directions. "Well...not exactly," he eventually admitted. "That is, my scouts have picked up a lot of demonic energy in this whole area, but since there are so many wolf-demons living here anyway, their own demonic auras disrupt the natural forces in this area. It's making it harder to pick up any other natural disturbances." Opening his eyes again, he glanced back at his companion. "Ayame, about those animals you found dead...you said that they looked strange? That something was wrong with their skin?"

"Uh-huh. Their skin had turned purple, and a lot of their fur had fallen off!" Ayame reported, shuddering as she spoke. "Those that tried eating them said that their meat had become so horrible that they couldn't force themselves to stomach it."

"That doesn't sound like any disease I've ever heard of," Michiru admitted. "And they just died? There wasn't any particular place where they were together? I mean, there isn't a single area where they became sick or anything like that."

"No, nothing like that," Ayame admitted with a shake of her head. "When they started turning up, we would find one of them here or there. We thought it was weird, but we really didn't give any though to it." Heaving a deep breath, she then furrowed brows and added, "But as more and more of them died..." As the redhead trailed off, Michiru found himself more and more concerned. Whatever it was that was killing the animals and people had no readily apparent source, like tainted food or some kind of new demon. As Ayame herself had said earlier, the wolf-demons would likely have found some traces of something like that by now. Which meant that it was something subtle, perhaps something that wouldn't kill them immediately.

Like a slow acting poison, or a poison that requires multiple doses in order to be lethal, kinda like on murder mystery shows, the Kururugi boy thought, considering the many favorite plot devices of the writers of such shows. So...if whatever's causing the problem is something like that...then where would the animals come into contact with something that could have a poison in it?

It didn't take long for Michiru to ponder this question, at which he looked back at Ayame and asked, "Have your people checked the water around here? Rivers and ponds, that sort of thing?"

"Huh? Well, yeah! Of course we have!" Ayame replied in a quizzical voice. "But...there's nothing wrong with them! If there was, we'd have noticed it by now! After all, we have to drink the same water!"

Michiru knew this to be true. The wolf-demons had to use the same water as the mortal people and animals in the area. But at the same time, he had learned the hard way that poisons and other things that could leave a human sick had no effect on demons. "Maybe, but I'd still like to take a closer look," he finally decided in a low voice, opening his mind to the senses of his Water Shikigami. After locating what felt like a good-sized pond nearby, he stroked Kirara's head and pointed in the pond's direction. "That way, girl!" The two-tail replied with a friendly growl and shot forward, something that had Ayame cry out in distress and grab Michiru tightly again. "Oof! Ayame!"

"Sorry!" Ayame yipped in response, instantly loosening her grip somewhat. A few seconds passed as Michiru could practically hear the wolf-demon's heartbeat slowly settling. "I still don't know what you hope to find, though."

"Well, I guess if we knew what we're looking for...your people wouldn't be in so much trouble," Michiru commented needlessly. "And anyway, at least you'll have a chance to get your feet back on the ground."

"I won't argue with that," Ayame replied, sounding a bit more eager than she had probably intended.

Smiling at the she-wolf's nervousness, Michiru decided to shift his attention to business before he started laughing. "In the meantime, I better contact Kaname. See if she or the others have found anything on the ground." Then he sighed, his urge to laugh dead as he added, "Assuming she's not still mad at me."

"Huh?" Ayame started, sounding more surprised than nervous now. "What do you mean? Did something happen?"

"Well...it's a long story," Michiru responded, not sure if he wanted to discuss such matters with Ayame, given his lack of familiarity with her. Especially as he thought back to the look of scorn and disappointment Kaname had sent his way after he had accidentally blasted InuYasha right into the toad-demon's mouth the previous night. "Anyway, with everything's that been happening, I haven't really had a chance to sit down and talk with her about it. I mean, I've wanted to, but..."

Letting out a low sigh, Ayame nodded and answered, "I know. It's not always easy to deal with family, is it?"

Making a quizzical sound in his throat, Michiru glanced back at Ayame. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, it's nothing, really," Ayame replied with a wry curl to her lip. "It's just...I have a cousin. She's nice enough to her mother and to grandpa, but to anybody else..." Rolling her eyes slightly, she shook her head and added, "I've lost count of the number of arguments I've had with her. And for the most ridiculous reasons!"

"Really?" Michiru replied, raising an eyebrow at this.

"Really," Ayame grumbled good-naturedly. "In fact, before all this went down, she was all for supporting Toma. Not because she actually believed in his cause or anything," she added quickly. "It was more to spite me and Koga than anything else."

"Wow," Michiru murmured sympathetically. "Can't be easy, huh?"

"No, it sure isn't," Ayame admitted in a tired fashion, one that betrayed a lengthy history that was far from pleasant. But before either one of them could say anything more on the subject, the she-wolf pointed ahead. "Look! There's a small lake just ahead!"

"I see it," Michiru replied, mentally reaching out to his scouts. Directing a small group to search for Kaname and her group, he gently nudged Kirara on with his knees. "Take us down, girl." The two-tail growled gently in response, and gently angled herself for a descent, moving slowly enough not to cause Ayame undue distress.

The instant they landed, Ayame virtually leapt off Kirara's back, very nearly sending Michiru crashing down in the process. As the Kururugi boy tottered over, windmilling his arms ineffectually, the she-wolf realized her error and quickly assisted him. "Oops, sorry!" Ayame apologized as she braced Michiru up. "I guess I was...in a bit of a hurry to get down."

"Oh, that's okay," Michiru replied easily as his cheeks burned from both the humilation of being placed in this predicament, as well as the fact that his face was hovering right above Ayame's considerable assets. Averting his eyes and hoping that she didn't notice, he swung his leg up over Kirara's back, and with Ayame's assistance, as well as a bit of bumbling, managed to set both feet on the ground. "Thanks."

"No problem," Ayame smiled pleasantly. Then she looked over at the lake and shrugged. "Well, here we are."

"Yeah," Michiru replied absently as he opened his mind to his Water Shikigami.

Watching as he furrowed his brows in concentration, Ayame sighed and shrugged. "I really don't know what you hope to find here," she admitted in a polite, yet somewhat condescending manner, like she was humoring a small child more than anything else. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with the water, anybody can see that! I mean, look!" Gesturing towards the clear, clean, pristine surface of the water, Ayame then swung her gaze about at the surrounding woods. Huge, strong trees towered over them in every direction, providing ample shade for them to enjoy. Then she gestured at the water itself again, and added, "Besides, see all those fish? If there was something dangerous in the water, do you really think there'd be so many fish in there?"

"No, I wouldn't," Michiru frowned, his voice low and grim as he processed what the magical senses of his Shikigami were telling him. For a long time, he kept looking into the lake, at the fish that were visibly swimming before him, all the while he processed what his Shikigami were telling him. And no matter how long he did so, the things told him by his spirit familiars led him to one conclusion, over and over again. "But, Ayame...those fish..."

"What about them?" Ayame frowned, more confused than anything else as she cocked her head to the side. "What? What is it?"

"Those fish...they aren't swimming on their own, Ayame." Gulping loudly, Michiru looked up into her eyes, practically feeling his face pale as he reported, "The fish - everything in this lake - it's all dead."

"Dead?!" Kaname blurted, her eyes going wide with shock. Then they narrowed somewhat suspiciously as she did a metaphoric double-take on what she had been told. "Wh-what do you mean dead?!"

It's just what I told you, Kaname! Michiru reported, his voice being conveyed by the scout that she now held in her hand. I've already checked the lake three times! And according to my Shikigami, the fish and everything else in there are dead!

Her disbelief sounding in her throat, Kaname shook her head once before retorting, "But how's that even possible?!" A beat passed as she sensed her brother about to respond, but then she cut him off. "I mean,
I know about all that stuff that happened at the castle with the samurai and everything, but why would anybody want to animate a bunch of dead fish?!"

To make it look like nothing's wrong in the water, Michiru answered instantly. According to my Water Shikigami, there's something down at the bottom of the lake. Ayame and I are going to try and see if we can at least get a look at it. There was a pause before he spoke again, this time in a more somber, gentle manner. While we're doing that, could you check out some of the water sources in the area? Please? Letting out a low sigh, Kaname looked about at her companions. Ginta and Hakkaku were looking at her querulously, clearly confused by they had heard so far. This could be our first lead, and...

"Alright, alright! I get the big picture, bro!" Kaname exclaimed impatiently. Wincing at her own tone of voice, she considered apologizing to Michiru for a moment, but then sighed instead before opening her mind to the senses of her Shikigami. "I'm sensing what feels like a pond or something nearby. We'll check it out and let you know what we find."

Alright. But keep my scout with you, Michiru told her, showing no anger at her earlier curt response. That way, we'll be able to stay in touch, in case anything happens.

Unable to dispute the logic of her brother's suggestion, Kaname nodded and sighed. "Okay. I just hope nothing does happen," she muttered lowly before breaking off contact with her brother. As soon as she did, the scout in her hand reverted to the form of a card.

As she took the card and placed it in her vest pocket, Ginta and Hakkaku looked at her worriedly. "So...what was that all about?" Hakkaku wondered nervously. "Somebody's reanimating dead fish?!"

"According to my brother, they are," Kaname muttered uncertainly, still unable to wrap her mind around that concept. Not wasting words, she quickly explained what Michiru had told her, as well as his instructions. "Anyway, we might as well check out that pond. It's not like we've had any luck so far."

The two wolf-demons exchanged glances before Ginta declared, "Okay, but I sure hope Michiru's wrong about this!"

"Yeah! I mean, what if something's really wrong with the water?!" Shuddering at his own words, Hakkaku grimaced and added, "We could all be poisoned or something and not even know it!"

"Ugh! Don't say that!" Ginta returned worriedly. "Just thinking about it makes me feel all creepy!"

Sighing as the two wolf-demons made myriad noises of disgust, Kaname shook her head and told them, "Well, we won't know for sure until we check it out. So we better get going."

"Huh? Oh right!" Hakkaku piped up, blinking a few times in surprise before starting forward. "Well, what are you waiting for, Ginta? Get a move on!"

"Wha - but, hey! Hold on a second!" Ginta protested before moving to catch up. And with that, the unlikely threesome were on their way.

As they traveled, Kaname found herself frowning, her conversation with Michiru replaying in her mind. And as it did so, she couldn't help but feel a little guilty over the way she had acted towards her brother. The harsh and impatient way she had spoken dug into her heart. I've never acted that way with him before. Even when he was being so secretive about what happened at the Doll Fesitival, she lamented, thinking of all the times she had been frustrated by his increasing secrecy, her foiled attempts to reach him and get him to be her brother again. But even as she thought about this, the emotions that were at the heart of her ire returned to her, deepening her frown. But...still...he almost killed InuYasha yesterday! He didn't even think about what he was doing! He just opened fire, and...! As this thought ran its course, the Kururugi girl found herself flashing back to that moment when InuYasha had been struck by the force of Michiru's spell, and subsequently sent flying straight into the toad-demon's mouth. He didn't even try to weaken the thing with Great River Attrition or anything like that! He just... Shuddering at this, Kaname then sighed as her ire found another direction. Of course...it's not like I did anything to help, either. But...still...

Slowly but surely, Kaname's concerns and confusions piled up on her, prompting her to think of other times, such as the day she had learned of her powers, when Michiru had very nearly killed one of her attackers in his race to rescue her. And though she knew that Miroku had provoked him, there was no doubt that her brother's actions during their sparring session had been disproportionate to say the least. Has he really changed that much? she found herself wondering at one point, a pit forming in her stomach. I knew he'd changed, but...or...is it just me? And as that thought ran its course, she lowered her head as another concern registered with her. And...what about me? Will I start doing crazy stuff like that as well?

Another weary sigh escaping her lips, Kaname wrestled with this question until she heard Hakkaku sniffing at the air. "We're almost there," the mohawked wolf-demon announced, taking another sniff. "I can smell the water now."

"So can I," Ginta chimed in, sniffing as well. "I don't smell anything wrong with it, though."

"I know, but we better check it out anyway," Kaname replied. Grateful for this distraction from her concerns, she broke into a quick dash.

Less than a minute later, she and the others arrived at the pond she had sensed. It was a good-sized one, though a long from being even a small lake, and was at the center of a small grove of trees and bushes. Kaname stood there for several seconds, looking into the clear, blue water, as well as the perfectly healthy plants that surrounded it. "Well, everything looks fine to me," Hakkaku announced, putting the Shikigami User's thoughts into words. "And it sure smells alright, too."

"Yeah, I know," Ginta agreed, taking another sniff of the air. "What do you think, Kaname? Do you sense anything in the water?"

"Not yet, but...give me a moment." With that, Kaname gazed down into the water, and then closed her eyes in concentration. Shutting out everything except the sensory perceptions of her Shikigami, and allowing them to fill her with their awareness. In her mind, she could feel the wind blowing gently about, as well as the nearby trees taking in the sunlight, trees that felt strong and healthy, unlike those that had been afflicted by the demonic grass. And she could also feel the water in the pond, water that felt as cool and clear as it looked, water that was flowing...

"Wait," Kaname frowned, focusing on the flow of the water. "There's...something at the bottom of the pond."

"Really?" Ginta piped up before glancing down into the pond. "I don't see anything."

"Yeah, me neither!" Hakkaku seconded.

Opening her eyes, Kaname again looked into the water, right in the direction she sensed the abnormality from. And like her wolf-demon companions, she couldn't see anything unusual. "I know, but...it's right down there," she told them, pointing in the direction of the disturbance. "I can feel a...a void in the water."

"A void?" Hakkaku echoed in confusion.

"I mean, I can sense water around something down there. I can't sense what that thing is or what it's made of or anything, but...there's definitely something down there!" Kaname explained, growing more concerned.

"Is it something small?" Ginta wondered, kneeling down to get a better look. "Something we can't see from here?"

Kaname gave a quick shake of her head at this. "No. It feels like it's pretty big. Like..." Pausing, she held out her hands before her to give an approximation of size, "about this big."

Furrowing his brow as he took in the indicated size, Hakkaku then looked back to the pond. "But...if it's that big, then how come...?"

"I don't know," Kaname responded, genuinely puzzled. For a moment, she considered what to do before finally reaching into her pocket and retrieving her brother's card. "Bro, can you hear me?"

Loud and clear, Kaname, Michiru replied almost immediately. Have you found anything?

"Maybe. We just got to a small pond, and...I'm sensing...well, I don't know what it is, but there's something down there. Something we can't see," Kaname reported in an even manner, her annoyance forgotten. "What about you? Are you and Ayame having any luck?"

Kinda. I'm using my Flowing Great River so we can reach the thing, but we're taking it slowly, Michiru explained in a low, terse voice. If this whatever-it-is is what's making the animals sick, then we can't take any chances.

"Right, good idea," Kaname admitted with a quick nod. Grateful that her brother was acting more like his normally level-headed self, she once again turned her attention to the strange void she sensed. "Well, this pond is pretty small. We might be able to get to the thing on our end before you reach yours."

There was a brief pause before Mcihiru answered, Just be careful, Kaname. I've got a bad feeling about this.

"You're not alone, bro. And don't worry; we'll be careful," Kaname answered before breaking off contact. Pausing just long enough to put her card back in her pocket, she glanced back at her companions. "Okay. Let's see if we can get a look at this thing," she murmured even as she focused her thoughts. A pentagram appearing at her feet, she summoned the power of her Water Shikigami with the invocation, "Oh, mighty flowing river, abandon your current form! Flowing Great River!"

With this spell, the fish that was her Water Shikigami shot into the pond, linking it to Kaname. She then formed a picture in her mind, a picture the water slowly emulated. "Kaname, what are you -?" Hakkaku started to ask, only to be hushed when a fissure appeared in the pond's surface. The fissure slowly widened, effectively creating two waterfalls that were moving away from each other.

"Whoa!" Ginta gaped as the fissure deepened, reaching down to the floor of the pond. "I didn't know you could do that, Kaname!"

"Well...it's my first time," Kaname admitted from between clenched teeth. What she didn't bother to mention was that it was also proving to be a lot more difficult than she had anticipated. The walls of water she had created were far from stable, and the further the corridor went and the wider it became, the more difficult it became to maintain it. "C'mon...just a bit more," she pleaded of herself as she held her arms up and forward, as if she were physically working to hold the two walls in place. A strain that felt more physical with each passing moment. And became more intense as she made the corridor longer and longer, pushing into the very center of the pond, until...

"Hey! Look!" Hakkaku cried out, very nearly shattering Kaname's concentration. Looking up from her endeavors and coming very close to yelling at the wolf-demon for ruining them, she suffered another blow to her focus when she saw him pointing towards the very end of the corridor. "There's something down there!"

"Wow! You were right, Kaname!" Ginta seconded as he came up alongside her, his mouth hanging open in surprise. "There is something down there!"

"Yeah..." Kaname grated, gratification warring with strain, and strain slowly winning. Realizing that she had to do something fast, lest the corridor collapse and she be forced to go through this all over again, she summoned forth the power of another Shikigami. "And now...Ice Crystal!" she cried out, her Ice Shikigami rising up at her command. Her power divided between the two different familiars, the walls she had fought so hard to maintain wobbled like gelatin for a moment, but this lasted only until her Ice magic flew into them, freezing them solid. Within seconds, the effect had spread throughout the walls of the corridor, rendering them solid ice for what Kaname hoped would be a good long while.

Letting go a heavy sigh as she allowed her Flowing Great River to dissipate, Kaname slumped forward. "Whew...that did it," she breathed heavily, placing her hands on her knees in order to keep from collapsing headfirst into the ground. "I can't believe how hard that was..."

"Well, at least it worked!" Hakkaku grinned eagerly. "C'mon, Ginta! Let's go grab that thing and get it out of there before the ice melts!"

"Sure thing!" Ginta agreed, already moving forward.

Watching the two wolf-demons sprint forward, Kaname thought of assuring them that the ice wouldn't melt for some time. But even as thought this, she frowned as she thought of how ardently the water had resisted her magic. And while it was true that she had never tried anything of that sort before, she couldn't help but feel that there was something wrong with that. "Okay," she finally muttered, forcing the word up through a strained throat. "Just be careful, you two! We don't know what that thing is!"

"We'll be careful!" Hakkaku quickly assured her as he and Ginta made their way down the corridor. Taking care not to slip on the patches of ice that had formed on the ground, the wolf-demon pair soon arrived at the object that had been hidden beneath the water's surface. The two of them looked at it for a time, slowly circling it as if to figure out the best way of handling it. Then, after exchanging a look, they shrugged and knelt down on either side of it, and slowly placed their hands under it. Pausing for a moment, as if to satisfy themselves that the thing wasn't going to burn their hands off or anything of that nature, they then lifted it up out of the frozen soil, and began carefully marching it back towards the shore.

As she watched, Kaname found herself half-expecting the object being brought up to her to explode into a million pieces, or release some kind of noxious miasma, or do some other horrible thing that she couldn't even imagine. Which left her that much more relieved when her wolf-demon friends arrived on the shore, their prize intact and apparently benign. "Well, here it is, Kaname!" Hakkaku announced as they held it up between them.

Nodding, Ginta then frowned slightly before adding, "Yeah, but...what is it?"

Exhaling lowly, Kaname just stood there, looking at the object in question before finally admitting, "I have no idea." Heaving a deep breath, she forced herself to stand back up, taking an awkward step backwards in order to stead herself, and decided, "Let's get it back to the mountains for now. Maybe someone back there will have an idea of what it is."

"Right!" the two wolf-demons replied, eagerly starting forward with their unusual prize in hand.

"So, this is what you found, huh?" Yorozuko muttered thoughtfully as he studied the peculiar objects that were currently sitting on the ground before him. "And you think that these things are the cause of our problems?"

"That's right," Michiru nodded, glancing down at the two objects that they had labored so diligently to retrieve and bring back to the cave that was the Yorozuko's chamber, where he and the rest of their group, along with te wolf-demons he knew by name were gathered to study their find. The stones were made of some kind of craggy, aqua blue crystal, and where about the size of a beach ball. "After we found these things, Ayame and I did a sweep of the other ponds and lakes in the area. And from what I can tell, they're in everything except for the rivers and creeks." Heaving a deep breath, he narrowed his eyes at the objects in question. "Also, when Ayame and I got this one out of the lake, all the fish stopped moving and started rotting away!"

"It's just like what's been happening with all the animals, Grandpa! Their scales started falling out, and their bodies turned purple!" Ayame reported, her voice trembling with disgust. "They've been dead all this time! These stones, whatever they are...they were just making it look they were still alive! To keep us from finding them!"

"I don't believe this," Koga muttered, his voice low with disgust as he glared at the apparent culprits in their situation. "I must've searched forest a hundred times by now, and I never even noticed them! I just blew right by the water, not even thinking to check it out, or anything!"

Snorting loudly, InuYasha his arms folded as he leaned against the gave walls. "Heh, no surprise there, you scrawny wolf! Thinking isn't something you do a lot of!"

"InuYasha..." Kagome muttered, shooting him a disapproving glare before returning her gaze to Koga. "Look, it's not your fault! It's like they said!" Gesturing over at Ayame, the Kururugi twins, and Ginta and Hakkaku, she then gave the alpha wolf a look of purest sympathy. "Nobody could see the crystals while they were in the water! Or smell them or anything else!" When this failed to soothe Koga, she shrugged and glanced down at the stones, adding, "And their aura...it's really faint...so..."

"I know. I couldn't even sense their auras with all the demonic energy in the area," Michiru ruefully admitted. "Even when we got to the lake, it just...blended in. I couldn't sense the stone itself until I was right next to it."

Nodding slowly to himself, Miroku tightened his grip on his staff as he muttered, "The demonic aura possessed by these objects is faint. Faint enough to go unnoticed, even in an extensive search." His eyes narrowing sharply, he then looked over at Koga. "And if the aura was such that it altered the water, made it poisonous to mortal creatures..."

"That must be why I had such a hard time manipulating the water back there," Kaname piped up, her voice low with dread awe. "The demonic aura must've been messing up the water!"

"Yeah, it makes sense," Michiru commented, thinking of his own difficulties in manipulating the water. After failing to create a corridor through the lake such as the one Kaname had made, he had been forced to ride Kirara out to the center of the lake, and using his Wind Shikigami to create a whirlpool that reached to the lake's floor. "If the demonic aura was corrupting the water, then..."

"Uh, hold on a sec." Glancing down, Michiru found Shippo looking nervously at the stones from Kagome's side. "If those stones made the water poisonous, and we've all been drinking it, doesn't that mean that we'll get sick as well?!"

A heavy moment of silence fell upon the group, one that froze Michiru in place as the implications of the fox-demons words struck home. "What?!" Koga howled, his eyes ballooning with horror as he looked over at Kagome. "Aw, damn! I - I didn't even - Kagome, I -!"

"Now, now, hold on, Koga!" Kagome quickly broke in, waving her hands before her. Glancing this way and that at her friends, her face took on a somewhat nervous cast as she said, "I mean, we haven't noticed anything wrong, and...well, we all feel fine...right?"

Sango nodded to this as she gazed down at the stones. "As weak as this demonic aura is, it would probably take a long time of consistently using the water before we would notice any symptoms," the Demon Slayer commented in an easy fashion. "Remember, whoever came up with these stones didn't want them to be found. And if the animals started dying immediately after drinking from one of the lakes or ponds, your people would have noticed it. Right, Ayame?"

As Ayame made a noise of confirmation, Koga growled deep in his throat before turning from Kagome back to the stones. "Whoever came up with these stones?" he echoed bitterly. "I think it's pretty damn obvious who cooked these damn things up!"

A beat passed before Ayame frowned. "Toma?"

"Who else could it have been?!" Koga snarled hatefully. "He threatened to have the entire tribe wiped out unless he was made leader! Do you really think he wouldn't do something like this?!"

"That maybe true, Koga! But right now, we have no proof that Toma's responsible for this!" Robai cautioned him in a voice of sage wisdom. "And making baseless accusations now would -!"

"Baseless accusations?!" InuYasha sneered derisively. "Yeah, right!"

"InuYasha!" Kagome immediately protested.

"Hey, don't get me wrong! I don't like admitting it, but for once, the scrawny wolf is right!" InuYasha muttered vehemently. "First that bastard put those rocks in place to make all the animals sick, then he uses the mess they make to try and get himself made the boss of this stinking pack of wolves!" Giving a loud snort, the half-demon glared at her out of the corner of his eye. "He probably figured that once Koga was given the boot, he could get rid of the stones and be a big hero for solving everybody's problems!"

"That could well be, InuYasha," Miroku admitted. "But even if Toma were responsible for putting the stones in place, where did he get them?" The half-demon raised an eyebrow at this, prompting the monk to turn towards the wolf-demons. "According to Ginta and Hakkaku, Toma's rise to power came some time after the problems with the wolf-demons began, correct?"

"That is correct, monk," Yorozuko responded, nodding slightly as he spoke. "Before the food shortage, he had few to call his allies. Mostly wild youths who were dissatisfied with the tribe as a whole, for whatever reasons." Then the aged wolf looked down at the crystalline stones on the floor. "And it is doubtful that they, or any other wolf-demon, would have the knowledge or the skill to forge things such as these."

Nodding to this, Miroku frowned and returned his attention to InuYasha. "Also, we have to take into account the fact that the poisoning of the animals has put the entire tribe in danger. Even with their removal, it will take time for the local wildlife to recover. Making it all that much more unlikely that any wolf-demon would be willing to endanger their food supply, simply to help Toma fulfill his ambitions." When the half-demon answered with a loud snort, the monk went on to say, "Which means that we must consider the possibility that someone else created these crystals. Someone outside the wolf-demon tribe."

"But - who would do something like that?" Ayame wondered, glancing at the stones and then at her fellow wolf-demons. "Another tribe?"

"Anything's possible, I suppose," Robai muttered lowly. "But possibilities and maybes and what-not don't do us any good. What we need is to find out for sure if it was Toma or somebody else who made these things! And the sooner, the better!"

His brows furrowed, Koga considered the old wolf-demon for a moment. "Well, the first thing we have to do is to get these damned rocks out of our water! Starting right now!" the alpha wolf announced with heavy authority in his voice. "Ginta! Hakkaku! Go round up every able-bodied wolf-demon you can find! Tell them we've found the cause -!"

"Tell them that we found what may be responsible for our current situation," Yorozuko broke in. When Koga turned to give him a surprised look, the white wolf arched a bushy eyebrow at him. "Though these stones are almost certainly the cause of our problems, there's always the chance that there may be something else, some other factor in this that we haven't found just yet."

"And what kind of 'factor' could that be?!" Koga demanded incredulously.

"I don't know. But still, there remains a chance that these stones aren't the only culprits in our woes. Especially if your friends are correct, and Toma was not responsible for them," Yorozuko explained in a sage manner. "Koga, you are our leader now, but there is still a great deal that you need to learn about being a leader."

"That's for sure!" Robai chimed in a mock-scolding manner. "And one of things happens to be avoid making accusations you can't back up! Do you have any idea how foolish you would look if you declared that Toma was the culprit, only to find out that there's someone else out there responsible for this?!"

Koga's mouth popped open at this, a protest on the tip of his tongue. But even as he about to give voice to it, his eyes went wide, and his attempt at a retort sputtered out into a host of unintelligible noises. His face turning to one of uncertainty, he began muttering beneath his breath as he lowered his gaze somewhat. Finally, after glancing back up at Robai, he gave one final growl before declaring, "Alright, fine then. Just tell them about these stones, and that we need to find them and get them out of the water as quickly as possible."

"Right, Koga!" Ginta and Hakkaku responded as one.

"And be sure to tell them that it was our human allies that discovered them," Koga added after a beat. Then he glanced at Robai and asked, "That is, unless you've got a problem with that, old man?"

"None whatsoever!" Robai wryly chuckled. "Nothing wrong with giving credit where credit is due, after all!"

Nodding to this, Koga glanced at Ginta and Hakkaku. "In that case, you better get going! The sooner we get these damned rocks out of the water, the better I'll feel!"

"No arguments here!" Ginta declared, with Hakkaku nodding his agreement before the two of them turned and started out on their assigned task.

Once they had left, Koga sighed and brought his hand to his forehead. "Michiru, everyone...I really have to thank you for this," he told them in a weary voice. "If you hadn't thought to check the water, we might never have found these miserable stones."

"It's no problem, Koga," Michiru responded easily. When a dismissive snort punctuated his words, he glanced over at InuYasha, who was making a point of averting his eyes. "Besides, these stones are dangerous. Not just to the wolf-demons, but to everything that lives in this area."

"No arguments here," Ayame commented in a low voice. Heaving a deep breath, the redhead studied the humans for a time, seeming to age before their eyes. "Look, I know we've already asked you to a great deal for us, but..." The redhead paused as InuYasha growled disgustedly in his throat, and took a deep breath as Kagome shot him a killing glare. "Do you think you could go help the others with tracking down these crystal stones? I mean...we have no real way of detecting them on our own, so..."

Knowing exactly how his friend would feel about this, Michiru glanced apologetically in InuYasha's direction before saying, "Sure, no problem. With all of us working together, it probably shouldn't take too long to get them all."

Nodding to this, Koga looked like he was about to say something to this. But even as he opened his mouth to speak, the sound of approached footsteps echoed through the chamber. As he and a few others turned to look, another wolf-demon appeared. "Hey, what the -?!" the alpha wolf sputtered out, only for his eyes to go wide with recognition. "Raido?!"

"Koga! Ayame! I'm sorry to barge in like this, but its important!" Raido announced as he approached his leader. "Kokoro has just returned! He's brought a message from the Demon Slayers!"

His mouth popping open, Koga stared at the wolf-demon. "He has?!" he gaped, to which the messenger nodded quickly. "Is he at the usual place?" The newcomer again nodded, to which the alpha wolf turned and said, "Uh, listen, I gotta go and check this out! You all...do whatever it is you want, and I'll be back as soon as possible!"

"Can I go with you, Koga?" Sango suddenly spoke up. As Michiru and Koga turned to look at her, the Demon Slayer smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, but...it's been a long time since I've seen Kokoro. And he and Daisuke...they were good friends of my family, and..."

"Hey, you don't have to explain anything! Of course you can come!" Koga replied in an easy manner. "I bet he'll be thrilled to see you as well! You being a Demon Slayer yourself and all!" Without further ado, the alpha wolf confidently started forward. A moment later, Sango moved to follow, an eagerness and lightness to her step that Michiru had only seen before, after Naraku's apparent death on Asagiri Island. During the time when she had Kohaku had been a family again.

Guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's probably been a long time since she's seen another Demon Slayer, or this Kokoro, Michiru thought, immediately curious about this creature, as well as Daisuke and his fellow Demon Slayers. For a moment, he considered joining Sango and Koga, and find out what message Kokoro was carrying firsthand. But after a moment's consideration, he decided against it. Given how closely Sango kept her emotions, it was likely that she wouldn't feel comfortable with too many witnesses to her reunion with her friend. Besides, it's not like I have any real reason to join them. Koga has to get this message, so he has to go. Heaving a sigh, the Kururugi looked away from Sango and turned towards the rest of his friends. Besides, we have our own work to do right now...

"I really appreciate this, Koga," Sango commented as she followed the wolf-demon, moving steadily up the mountain. "I know you're busy with everything that's happening, and..."

"Hey, like I said, it's no problem, Sango!" Koga replied with an easy smile. "I bet it's been a while since you and Kokoro have seen each other!"

That's for sure, Sango thought, a sad smile playing about her lips. The truth was, she hadn't seen Daisuke, Kokoro, or anyone from his village for well over a year before the destruction of her home. It wasn't that she hadn't wanted to visit; the problem was that making such a trip was difficult, even with the aid of Kirara and Kororo, and would require several days at least simply to travel in one direction. And the life of a Demon Slayer often didn't allow for such things; as soon as she was of age, Sango spent much of her time on missions to hiring villages, and the time when she wasn't actively in battle, she spent training for it. And then there were the people of her own village, people with whom she was good friends with as well. People to whom she had her own responsibilities to, such as bringing in money, as well as pieces of demonic bone and shell they could fashion tools and weapons from.

After the destruction of her home and the loss of her friends and family, Sango knew she could have likely found time to travel to Daisuke's village, either with InuYasha and the others or by herself. But even though she could have, she didn't. She couldn't bring herself to travel there, to tell them that everyone from her home had died. She had a difficult enough time dealing with the loss of everyone she had known and loved as it was; to give voice to their fates was a burden she couldn't bear. Also, she knew that if she had told Daisuke of what had happened, that Naraku had been the cause of their fellow Slayers, he would likely have gotten involved in the hunt for the malevolent beast that was their bane. And she couldn't risk that. She couldn't risk getting anyone else mixed up in this nightmarish war with Naraku. She couldn't risk anyone else dying because of her.

But what about now? Sango thought, her reasons for avoiding contact rising up even as they made their way up the mountain. Daisuke had likely already learned of the destruction of her village, and could well believe that she herself was dead as well. The thought of revealing that she was alive and well after all this time caused her stomach to twist about uneasily. She couldn't even begin to imagine the reaction Daisuke would have to this, as well as her making a point of not telling him about what happened sooner.

For a moment, Sango considered telling Koga she had changed her mind, and avoid contact with Kokoro. But a moment later, she rejected this idea. Even though she had wanted to protect Daisuke and his people, he still deserved the truth. And with them now in such close proximity to him and his village, with no sign of Naraku in recent times and no urgent mission on the horizon, there really was no legitimate excuse for her not to make time to travel to his village, to let him know the truth.

It made sense, Sango decided. Even though she had the best of intentions, a lie by omission remained a lie. Besides, he deserves to know. They all deserve to...

"Hey! There you are!" Koga spoke up enthusiastically. Snapped from her thoughts, Sango looked up and watched the wolf-demon disappear around a section of rock. With this realization, she decided to hurry up, so as to not give her self-doubts another chance to encroach on her. A moment later, she had caught up with the wolf-demon...and froze at what she saw.

"Kokoro..." Sango breathed as she took in the creature perched before her. Daisuke's companion was a majestic bird, similar in body structure to a phoenix. His majestic wings were furled against his body, but it was clear to see just how large they would be when spread to their full width. His tail was like a tapestry of feathers spilling forth behind him, and his plumage had the same sheen as silver. His legs and beak seemed to be made of burnished armor.

"Good to see you back here!" Koga grinned as he made his way up to the metallic phoenix, who offered a friendly squawk. "I hear you have something for - huh?" Breaking off, the alpha wolf took a step back when Kokoro gave a puzzled squawk. Then, as the silvery bird trained his eyes on Sango, he squawked again, that much more loudly, before rushing up to her, making various noises of surprise and pleasure.

Despite all her worries and concerns, Sango laughed at the eager bird. "Hello, Kokoro. It's been a while, hasn't it?" Kokoro responded with a series of chirps and tweets that were completely unintelligible, but at the same time, the Demon Slayer could sense the emotions with which the sounds were made. Emotions to which she responded to by saying, "I take it you heard about what happened to our village, didn't you?" Bobbing his head, the metallic phoenix than cocked his head to the side in a questioning fashion. "I'm sorry. But...a lot's happened since then. It's...a long story." Kokoro issued another series of tweets, as well as long, low whistle of sadness. "Yes, I know. I thought about coming to see you and Daisuke a lot. Really. But..." Heaving a heavy sigh, the Demon Slayer shook her head before adding, "like I said. A lot's been happening, and..."

Giving voice to a concerned squawk, Kokoro cocked his head to the side as the pain of everything that Sango had been through rose up, causing a wad of bile to form in her throat. "I'm sorry," she murmured, shaking her head sadly. "It's just...there's so much that I want to say, but...I couldn't find a way to say it." Letting out a tired sigh that had a bit of a hoarse laugh to it, she just stood there for a time, looking into Kokoro's eyes. Eyes that were so filled with concern and confusion at the pain that she knew was showing for all the world to see. And as she did so, she knew that she couldn't talk of that pain now. Not when she knew that she would have to explain what happened to Daisuke as well. She didn't want to have to bring back all that agony more than once in so short a time. So ultimately, all she said was, "I promise, I'll explain everything soon. To you and Daisuke." The metal bird issued a few tweets at this before Sango sighed and asked, "So...you have something for Koga?"

Drawing back at the sudden shift in subject, Kokoro narrowed his eyes at her. Seeming to say with his face that her story better be worth the wait, he then bent his head down to his right leg, which had a scroll securely bound to it. At the touch of his beak, the cords that held it in place untied themselves and fell way, allowing the silvery phoenix to lift it up and present it to Koga. "Heh! I was wondering when you two would remember I was here," the wolf-demon commented as he unfurled the scroll. "Now, let's see..."

"What's it say?" Sango wondered, edging over to get a better view of what was written. To her surprise, however, there was no message inscribed on the scroll. Instead, there was a magical sigil emblazoned on the parchment, like a more complex version of the pentagrams used in Michiru and Kaname's Shikigami magic. "What the...what is that?"

"It's how Daisuke and I have been sending messages," Koga replied. Then, with an almost embarrassed smile, he explained, "You see...the thing is..."

A beat passed as Sango realized what the wolf-demon was trying to say. "You can't read?"

"Nope. In fact, I don't think that any wolf-demon can," Koga admitted with more than a hint of humiliation. "Anyway, Daisuke and his people...they came up with a way for us to keep in touch, and..." Pausing, the wolf-demon studied Sango for a moment before shrugging and saying, "Aw, hell. Why don't I just show you how it works? It'll be less of a headache."

Nodding to this, the Demon Slayer stood back and watched as Koga returned his attention to the scroll in his hands. Kneeling down, he placed the scroll flat on the ground, and then placed the palm of his right hand on the sigil at the center of it. The instant he did so, the magic circle lit up, causing the air to swirl about them, like a tornado reduced to a gentle, circular breeze.

"Hello, there, Koga," came a distorted voice, one that Sango immediately recognized as belonging to Daisuke. "I'm glad to hear of your success with the tournament, as well as deposing of Toma. I'm grateful that you could find warriors strong enough to assist you, and your people." There was a pause at this, and the disembodied voice created by the magically animated wind took on a heavy caste. "I'm only sorry that I was unable - unwilling - to assist you in that myself. The only thing I can say is that I felt that the risks of such an expedition made it untenable, especially given the contempt your people held you in, and ask your forgiveness."

"Heh! You don't have to worry, Daisuke!" Koga muttered in a wry fashion. "After everything Toma and his idiots pulled, I wouldn't have blamed anybody for not wanting to come anywhere near here!"

"I have to admit to be curious about the warriors you found to battle on your behalf," Daisuke's voice continued even as Koga spoke. "I know you said that they were powerful fighters in their own respect, but even so, they must be very brave to risk their lives in this way." This statement was punctuated by a mild chuckle, which was followed by the comment, "Either that, or very foolish."

There are times I'd have to say both, Sango thought, recalling some of the insanity she and her friends had been party to.

"In any case, I'm thankful that you've succeeded in securing the leadership of your people, my friend," Daisuke's voice continued, still speaking in the pleasant, even manner that Sango remembered. "And given what you've told me, the time is now to begin the final arrangements pertaining to our alliance." Koga's eyes went wide at this, as if he weren't expecting his fellow leader to move so quickly. "It's best that we don't waste any time in setting the alliance, Koga. Despite everything, there are still some amongst my people who have concerns about allying themselves with demons. And from what you've told me, there are many wolf-demons who feel similarly about us."

"You got that one right," Koga muttered sourly.

"If this alliance is going to work, we need to have both our peoples learning to work together, and more importantly, believing that such an alliance can last. And we have to do it quickly, before doubt and fear sets in," Daisuke explained, an edge of concern to his voice. "As such, I propose that we meet tomorrow at the field that lies between our respective homes. The one with marked by the three boulders." Koga quickly nodded to this, making it clear that he knew what Daisuke was speaking about. "We will each bring whatever people we feel necessary to negotiate the terms of the alliance. We want to make sure that everything is spelled out accurately, so that there are no mishaps later on."

"No arguments here," Koga nodded.

"Also, I would like it if you were to bring the warriors who fought in the tournament," Daisuke added, a bit of humor to his words. "A little extra security wouldn't hurt, and I have to admit to being curious about a group that would fight against such overwhelming odds." Again chuckling in a warm fashion, the proud Demon Slayer sighed and concluded, "In any case, I ask that you respond as quickly as possible. Good luck, my friend. I hope to see you again soon."

At these words, the winds swirling around Koga faded away, as did the light of the magic circle that had stirred them into activity. The resulting silence didn't last long, as the wolf-demon leader grinned and stood. "Damn, it feels like everything's finally coming together!" he announced, holding the expended scroll and looking at it like it was made of gold. "I better get a message ready for him right away!"

"Do you want me to tell Ayame and the others about this?" Sango wondered.

"No, no! I'll be taking care of that myself! I want to be the one to give them the good news." Then Koga shot Sango a wry look and told her, "If you want to help, you can tell the little mutt that he's going to be sticking around here for a while longer!"

Wincing at the thought of this particular burden, Sango then sighed and replied, "Okay, then." Hoping that the admission that she wanted to go see her friend again would help salve the half-demon's impatience, but not too optimistic about that, the woman warrior looked over at Kokoro and added, "Besides, I wouldn't miss this meeting for anything. I've got a lot of explaining to do."

Kokoro's response was a gentle nod and a single squawk, one that made it clear that he eagerly awaited this explanation himself.

"I don't believe this..." came a voice from off to the side. One of many voices, many irritations that Toma had been forced to tolerate. "I just can't believe this is happening..."

"Yeah, well, it's happening!" came another, less patient voice. "So do me a favor and shut up about it!"

"Hey! Don't tell me to shut up!" retorted the first speaker. "What gives you the right to tell me to do anything, anyway?!"

"My fangs and claws, that's what!" snapped the second one. "You've been moaning and complaining about this ever since we got banished! Now shut up before I make you!"

"You and what pack?!" snarled the first one. Barely paying attention, Toma glared at them out of the corner of his eyes, watching as the two wolf-demons stood and snarled hatefully at each other. "I'll complain all I want, you got that?!"

"Oh, and what have you got to complain about, anyway?!" a third weakling spoke up in a voice choked with misery. "Thanks to those humans, I lost my mate and my pups! She was expecting when all of this happened?!" Sucking in a furious sob, he shook his head and muttered, "My pups...and I'll never even have the chance to see them, or hold them, or, or -!"

"Yeah, well, boo-hoo!" the second weakling shot back. "You're not the only one who was forced to leave his mate, you know! In fact -!"

"Will you all be silent?!" Toma snarled, shooting them a killing glare. "The last thing I need to deal with is your pathetic whining!"

To their credit, the three simpering wimps were smarter than they were strong. Each of them shut up instantly, rather than tempt Toma's wrath, though they continued to glare at each other, and at him. The same way each of his exiled followers had been doing for the past day, since they had been cast from their rightful home.

Toma simply snorted at this. He honestly didn't give a damn about what those idiots said or did, anyway. All that mattered was that they obeyed his commands. The weak obey the strong. That was the way the world worked. And if they ever forgot this very basic rule of life, than he would kill them without mercy.

Just as I will kill you, Koga! You and your filthy little humans! Toma thought, a wicked smile curling his lips as he looked back at the mountains that would one day soon be his to rule once more. In fact, I think I'll make you watch as I kill your so-called champions, one by one, before finally finishing you off! With a cruel chuckle, he imagined the pleading, despairing looks on the five worthless humans who had dared forget their place in the world, and had actually had the gall to try and defy a superior wolf-demon such as himself. By tomorrow night, I'll have everything I need to take back control of the wolf-demon tribe, and remake it in my image! And your Demon Slayer friends will be nothing more than fresh meat!

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