Legacy of the Cursed Mask: The Wolf-Demon Crisis

A New Home

"So Daisuke's on his way here?" Koga asked with barely contained excitement.

Nodding quickly, Michiru confirmed, "Kaname says that she and the others just left with Daisuke. The other Demon Slayers are busy taking care of things at the fort, but he'll be able to negotiate the arrangements for the alliance."

Heaving a deep breath of relief, Koga looked skyward and grinned. "Aw, damn! I can't tell you what a relief that is!"

"I'll say!" Robai agreed, the elderly wolf-demon casting a knowing glance at Koga. "After everything that's happened, I wouldn't have been the least surprised if he wanted to put it off for a day or two. At least long enough to tend to his people."

"Eh, I wasn't too worried about that, old man!" Koga replied with a touch of his usual cocky arrogance. "Don't forget that Daisuke's the one who decided that he wanted to get the alliance all hammered out right away! Besides, he probably doesn't want his people to lose face."

"Lose face?" Kagome repeated, giving the wolf-demon a confused look. Barely able to believe that she was hearing what she was hearing.

It has only been a roughly ten minutes ago that Koga had been on death's door while she, Michiru, and Shippo had been fighting for their lives against Kagura. And it had been even less time since the alpha wolf's transformation into the stronger, faster, crystal-armored warrior that had sent Kagura running for her life. And it couple of minutes since Koga had returned from tracking down his fellow wolf-demons and leading them back to where Kagome and Michiru had been waiting and recovering from their battle.

As a result, Kagome was tired, frazzled, and felt like her brain was coping with an overload of information because everything that had happened, and a power surge on top of everything else. What she wanted more than anything right then and there would be to sit back, relax, and give the world a chance to slow back down to a more comfortable pace. Something which it seemed, unfortunately enough, wouldn't be happening any time soon.

"How could Daisuke lose face for wanting to put his people first?" Kagome wondered incredulously. "They were just attacked by demons, their fort has basically been destroyed and he's lost who knows how many of his people...I sure wouldn't blame him for wanting to postpone this whole thing." Then she folded her arms across her chest and added, "And if you ask me, Koga, that would probably be a good idea."

"No. No way, Kagome. We can't postpone it. Not now," Koga returned, his tone much more serious. "We're too close to making this alliance happen, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna give Naraku or anyone else a chance to screw it up!"

Admiring the wolf-demon's persistence while rolling her eyes at his obstinacy, Kagome decided to try another tact. "But - Koga, Toma's dead! He can't cause any more trouble! And whatever Naraku had planned, we stopped it!" Shaking her head somewhat, she looked the wolf-demon up and down the length of his body. "Besides, look at you! You've got chunks of that crystal growing from your body! And we have no idea what it's doing to you!"

Cocking his head to the side, Koga placed his hand to his forehead, as if massaging a headache, when Ayame spoke up. "You know, Kagome has a point. Maybe it would be best if you were to rest for a while, give Michiru more time to figure out what caused this. And then maybe..."

"No. Not going to happen, Ayame," Koga returned gruffly. "We finalize this alliance here and now. That's my only priority right now! Is that understand?"

Ayame opened her mouth to protest, but before she could force a sound out her throat, Yorozuko intoned, "Leave it be, my granddaughter. Koga is right about this. We must complete that which we set out to do this day."

Her face falling with surprise, Ayame stared incredulously at Yorozuko before protesting. "But - grandfather, why? Daisuke's people are injured and Koga...those crystals, they almost killed him! Who knows what they're doing to him right now?!"

"Hmph! If you ask me, they seem to be bulking him out quite a bit!" Robai commented with a lopsided grin. "And don't tell me that you didn't notice that yourself! I saw you ogling him all the way back here!"

"Robai!" Ayame protested as her cheeks vividly burned.

"Look, I keep telling you, I feel fine! Great! Better than ever!" Koga insisted with an air of rapidly waning patience. Glancing off to his side, he asked, "Besides, Michiru said everything feels fine with me now. Isn't that right?"

His mouth popping slightly open, Michiru glanced between Koga and Kagome upon realizing that he was being put on the spot. After groaning in dismay for a time, he shrugged and admitted, "I...I think so. The energy in the crystals feels stable now. It's like...the purified Shikigami magic in Kagome's arrow somehow...stabilized your body." As Koga turned to shoot Ayame a triumphant look, the Kururugi boy added, "But I can't be sure if that's a lasting cure, or just a temporary fix for it. I'd need a lot more time to study what's going on inside you to be sure, one way or another."

"Yeah, well, you'll have plenty of time to study me or whatever after the meeting," Koga grumbled good-naturedly.

Letting out a heavy groan, Kagome noticed Ayame doing the same when her grandfather glanced her way. "My granddaughter, I understand your concern, but both Koga and Daisuke are doing the right thing. If the alliance is to be accepted by our people, then they cannot allow Toma's interference or Naraku's scheming to delay them."

"But why not?" Shippo wondered, shooting the aged wolf a quizzical look. "Wouldn't your people understand it if they knew the Demon Slayers were attacked?"

"Many would understand, little one. But others would not," Yorozuko explained in a gentle manner. "There could still be those amongst us who remain unconvinced that the Demon Slayers can be the strong allies we know them to be. Which means that they cannot afford to appear weak or vulnerable, no matter the reason. To do so would risk generating doubt and dissension, which we cannot afford."

Again, Ayame looked ready to protest, but this time she was halted by Koga. "Yorozuko's right, Ayame. The instant you start looking weak is the instant somebody decides you're vulnerable. And Daisuke knows that as well. We can't afford to have the Demon Slayers looking like possible targets, especially with the bad hunting and so many of our people hungry."

As Ayame's expression fell even more, Kagome sighed as well as Koga's point became clear. There was still the strong chance that the lingering animosity towards the Slayers, coupled with the critical food situation being endured by the wolf-demons, could ultimately lead to disaster between the two peoples. And that had to be avoided, at all costs. "Alright," she finally conceded with considerable bad grace. "But once this meeting is over and the alliance is settled, I want you to take some time off and get some rest." When Koga looked at her in obvious surprise, the modern girl pressed her advantage. "And I want you to have Michiru, Kaname, and maybe some of the Shikigami Users from the Demon Slayers look you over. Make sure that those crystals don't wind up causing you trouble. Got that?"

Now it was Koga's turn to attempt to protest, and just like Ayame, he was interrupted by another. "That seems most reasonable, young lady," Robai decided with a thoughtful nod. "After all, it's not easy being a full time leader. And we want to make sure that you're in perfect condition, Koga."

"Agreed. I, too, have some concerns about the long-term influence of those crystals," Yorozuko chimed in. "Ayame, perhaps when this is over, you would be willing to tend to Koga? Make sure that he gets plenty of time for rest and recovery?"

"Why...of course, grandfather!" Ayame beamed as she turned from Yorozuko to Koga. "I'll be more than happy to take care of Koga for the next few days."

And beyond, I'm sure! Kagome thought, well aware of the strong emotions that lay behind Ayame's smiling face. Hopefully, you'll be able to use this time to finally make an honest man - wolf-demon - out of Koga! Pausing to wonder what kind of ritual the wolf-demons had in lieu of a wedding, the modern priestess noticed that the alpha wolf was attempting to protest, his mouth opening and closing as half-formed words slipped past his lips. "Now, don't bother trying to argue about your way out of this, Koga!" Kagome told him in a mock-scolding manner. "It's like you said yourself; you can't afford to look weak. Which means that we have to make absolutely certain that those crystals don't wind up causing any problems. Is that understood?"

"But -!" Koga tried again, only for his tongue to fall flat in his mouth when Kagome scowled at him. The two of them looked at each other for a time before the alpha wolf finally deflated. "Okay, okay! I'll be a good little pup and get myself all checked out! You can put away the look now!"

Chuckling at his display of irritation, Kagome couldn't help shake her head in amusement. I swear, if only he was this easy to manage all the time...InuYasha might actually have a reason to be so jealous of him!

As this thought ran its course, Kagome gasped in realization. "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, but...here!" Coming up to the wolf-demon, she reached into her backpacl pocket. After rummaging around it for a moment, she found what she was looking for. "While you were looking for the others, I found these lying on the ground near what was left of the cocoon," she explained, holding out her hand to Koga, revealing the two Sacred Jewel Shards she had recovered. "I guess they must've come off your legs when the cocoon was destroyed."

"Oh, so that's what happened to them!" Koga remarked, studying the glinting fragments.

"Anyway, I thought I'd better give them back to you before InuYasha got back," Kagome explained, not even wanting to imagine the fit the half-demon would have if he actually caught her returning the shards to the demon he apparently viewed as his archrival. "Just do me a favor and don't tell him about this, okay? I don't want to have to deal with him complaining about it."

Koga opened his mouth to say something, but then he closed it and narrowed his eyes at the shards. Several seconds passed as he looked from them to Kagome, then back again. "Koga?" Michiru wondered, clearly as perplexed by the wolf-demon's behavior as Kagome was. "What is it? Is something wrong?"

"Huh? Oh, no. Nothin's wrong," Koga hesitantly replied. "Anyway, um...Kagome, I...I appreciate this, but..."

"But what?" Kagome persisted, unable to understand the wolf-demon's hesitation. "Koga, c'mon! They're your shards! Go on, take 'em!"

"No. They're not my shards. Not anymore." Stunned by this declaration, Kagome could only stand there as Koga took her hand, closed it, and shoved the Jewel Shards away. “I want you to take them."

With this request, Koga threw Kagome's mind into utter chaos. She could practically feel her jaw clattering to the ground as the entire world was tossed on its side. "You - you...what?!"

"You want us...to take your Shards?!" Michiru sputtered out, sounding only slightly less staggered than Kagome was. "Koga, are - are you sure about that?!"

"Yes, I'm sure," Koga nodded before returning his attention to Kagome. "The only reason I held onto these things is because I knew I needed all the power I could get to so that I could deal with Naraku." Then he glanced down at the crystalline structures marking his frame. "But now I have new powers, and besides, if I hold onto the Jewel Shards, Naraku will come after them again," he continued, turning his gaze towards Ayame and the other wolf-demons. "And with my people and the Demon Slayers at risk, I…I can’t afford to keep them any longer."

Kagome didn't say anything to this right away, simply because she could think of nothing to say. The fact was that Koga was right; Naraku would do anything, sacrifice any number of innocents, manipulate and destroy anyone and anything that was luckless to cross his path, all in the name of completing the Shikon Jewel. And as long as Koga held onto them, that made his people a possible target for their monstrous foe.

As soon as this thought ran its course, Kagome sighed and responded, "I understand how you feel, but...don't you think that you're rushing this a bit? You don't even know if these...these new powers are permanent or not!"

"Maybe not, but I'm willing to bet that Michiru or Kaname or one of Daisuke's people will be able to find out for sure while they're busy checking me out," Koga shot back with a knowing look. "Besides, Naraku if Naraku was willing to back Toma, just to get his hands on those Shards, then he's willing to do anything."

"But that might not have anything to do with the Jewel Shards, Koga!" Michiru pointed out as he approached them. "Remember? Kagura said that Naraku sent her capture me and to kill you! She wasn't interested in the Jewel Shards!"

Rolling his head to the side, Koga raised an eyebrow at the Shikigami User. "And you actually expect me to believe that?!" he demanded, almost asking with his tone what kind of an idiot Michiru was. "She just realized that she wouldn't be able to get her grimy mitts on these Shards before the mutt and everybody else came back, and so she wanted to get while the getting was good."

"That might be. But Michiru does have a point," Yorozuko commented, nodding in the Shikigami User's direction. "From what we can tell, Naraku invested a considerable amount of time and effort into helping Toma, including arranging the attack on the Demon Slayers. And that means that he had a vested interest in not only obtaining the Jewel Shards, but also insuring that our alliance with the Demon Slayers failed."

"Maybe, maybe not. But one thing's for sure; no matter what other little schemes he might have had cooking, Naraku will definitely come back looking for those Shards. And with all of you at risk, I simply can't afford to take that chance." Returning his eyes to Kagome, Koga gave her a worried look before going on to say. "So I want you to have them, Kagome, but on one condition.”

Puzzled by this, Kagome frowned before saying, “Of course, Koga. What is it?”

"I don't want you putting yourself in danger because of these Shards, either. So I want you to take them and send them back to where you come from, far away from Naraku,” Koga tersely instructed her. "I don’t know what things are like in your time, but I’m certain that the Shards will be safer there than here."

Once again, Kagome's entire world was sent spinning around her. And this time, she wasn't alone for the ride. A moment after Koga had spoken, the meaning of his words slammed into the Kururugi boy with the force of Kagura's Dance of the Dragon. "In...her time?!" Ginta blurted out. "What's that supposed to mean?!"

"Yeah, what're ya talking about?!" Hakkaku seconded, sounding as flustered and confused as Kagome felt.

"Just something Kagura said before that caught my attention earlier. Something that I've been thinking about for a while now," Koga explained carefully. "Remember, Kagome?"

Another massive shock hit Kagome's mind, one that left her standing on wobbly knees as she stared at Koga. As the other wolf-demons started making noises of confusion, the modern priestess found herself remembering, and understanding what Koga was talking about. "That’s right, I’d almost forgotten," she murmured in a defeated voice. "You heard what Kagura said, didn’t you?”

“I did," Koga nodded slowly. "Kagome, I...I know you got a thing for the mutt, but...I'd like to think that you trust me. So...maybe...?"

It was a reasonable question, Kagome realized. And the truth was, she did trust Koga, for while he was very much rough around the edges, he had proven himself a good person and a valuable ally. But at the same time, he was asking her to divulge one of the closest kept secrets she and her friends had. A secret whose revelation could have devastating consequences.

Glancing over at Michiru, she found herself met by his blue-grey eyes, eyes that were clearly filled with the same thoughts and concerns as she had. Gulping loudly, Kagome looked away from him and again focused on Koga. "Look, it's...it's not that I don't trust you, but..."

"Hey, Kagome! Michiru!" came a loud, boisterous voice. One that very nearly sent Kagome jumping out of her own skin. And at the same time, was rarely so welcome as it was just then. Whipping about, the modern girl watched as InuYasha marched up to them, Kaname sliding off his back. Beyond him, she could see Kirara approaching, as well as a large, silvery bird carrying somebody in its claws. "Damn, am I glad to see you in one piece!"

"Same here, InuYasha!" Kagome immediately responded, turning halfway towards him. As the half-demon started forward, she glanced at Koga out of the corner of her eyes and muttered, "We'll talk about this later. If he finds out that you know..."

Nodding, Koga answered, "Yeah, I get the idea. Why you put up with that jerk is beyond me."

Sometimes, I wonder why I put up with this world, period! Kagome groaned, a throbbing headache taking hold.

Oh, great! The scrawny wolf's out of that damned cocoon for what, about half an hour? And already he's getting on Kagome's nerves! InuYasha fumed as he watched Kikyos reincarnation massage her temple. I swear, why does she put up with him?!

Preparing to give the stupid, arrogant bastard that was the bane of his existence exactly what he deserved, InuYasha was about to start forward when a weary groan caught his sensitive ears. Looking about, he noticed Kaname totter to her side, and immediately grabbed her shoulder. "Hey, are you alright?!"

"Huh? Oh, yes. Sorry, InuYasha," Kaname quickly answered, her cheeks coloring with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. Just a little dizzy, that's all."

InuYasha studied Kaname for a moment. "You probably pushed yourself too hard," he finally decided, glancing from her to Kagome. The modern priestess was approaching the two of them, a worried look on her face. "Hey, Kagome, could you help me out here?"

"Uh, sure!" Kagome replied in a higher-pitched voice than was normal for her. "Why? Is something wrong?"

"Did something happen?" Michiru asked, a similar look of concern on his face. "Kaname, are you alright?!"

"I'm fine. I just got a little dizzy, that's all," Kaname answered, waving aside their concerns.

Nodding to this, Kagome replied, "I'm not surprised. After everything that's happened so far, I feel I could fall asleep without even lying down first." Kaname responded to this with a wan smile, one that was weighed down by a considerable amount of exhaustion. "So...how are you doing otherwise?"

"You didn't get hurt or anything, did you?" Michiru asked, coming up alongside his wearied sibling.

"I'm okay, bro," Kaname assured him with as much energy as she could muster. Which after everything that had happened that day, wasn't a great deal.

No big surprise there. Shikigami or not, she's still only human, InuYasha frowned, thinking back to how hard she had been fighting, both against Toma and at the fort. Besides...she's never had to deal with humans being killed before. Never heard them screaming in pain, fighting for their lives... Recalling how hard such experiences had hit Kagome and Michiru, the half-demon could only look at her, and be grateful that she was holding up as well as she was.

As these thoughts weighed heavily on his mind, InuYasha glanced between the Kururugi twins. "Okay, uh...Michiru? Could you...take Kaname, and..."

Trailing off helplessly, InuYasha was relieved when the Kururugi boy nodded and came up alongside his sister. "C'mon, Kaname," Michiru murmured, placing his arm around her. "Why don't we sit back and relax for a little bit."

A slight, hesitant groan sounding in her throat, Kaname finally sighed and nodded. "I guess I am a little tired. Thanks, bro."

Satisfied that Kaname was being looked after, InuYasha turned his attention to another to another human female. "What about you, Kagome? Are you alright?" the half-demon wondered in a gentle tone. "When I heard about Kagura, I..."

"Don't worry. I got few bumps and bruises, that's all," Kagome reported in a weary, dismissive fashion. "Besides, with the three of us together...it really wasn't that tough."

"That's right, mutt-boy!" came a boisterous voice that frayed InuYasha's nerves every time he heard it. "Kagura took off almost the second I got blasted out of that crappy crystal! Not that I blame her, of course!"

Koga's, short, arrogant, officious declaration instantly caused InuYasha's temper to flare. "Really? And what was it that caused her to take off, scrawny wolf?!" the half-demon sneered as he turned to face Koga. "Your stench or your ugly...huh?!"

His vocal chords utterly failing him, InuYasha found himself staring in shock at Koga, and to the half-demon's dismay, it was obvious that the word 'scrawny' was something that he could no longer be described as. The alpha wolf's muscles were now large and firm, while not so large as to detract from his overall speed. On top of that, sections of crystal now grew from his body like living armor. Damn... he thought, recalling the report Michiru had relayed to them through Kaname. I know he said something had happened to the damned fleabag, but...!

A mocking chuckle broke into InuYasha's thoughts, once again sending his blood into a boil. "What's the matter, little mutt?" Koga asked in disgustingly taunting manner. "Jealous of my new look?" Emitting another mocking laugh, the wolf-demon flexed his right arm, grinning even more at the sizeable bicep this produced. "Of course, it's not like I could blame you, but..."

"Jealous?!" InuYasha snarled, Koga's words very nearly sending plumes of steam erupting from his ears. Balling up his trembling fist, he shot back, "The day I'm ever jealous of a worthless scrap of a wolf like you is the day I -!"

"InuYasha, sit boy!" The half-demon had just enough to freeze up at the tone in Kagome's voice before the Beads of Subjugation kicked in, sending him crashing to the ground.

Stung by the pain of the abrupt crash, as well as the grains of dirt in his eyes, nose, and mouth, InuYasha looked up at Kagome. He opened his mouth to protest when Kaname cried out, "Kagome! What'd you do that for?!"

"That's just what I wanted to know!" InuYasha protested, shooting a killing glare at Kagome.

"In case you've forgotten, InuYasha, we've got more important things to deal with than your attitude problem!" Kagome declared, her arms folded before her chest. Koga promptly started chuckling, which earned him a scowl from the reborn priestess. "And that goes for you, too, Koga!"

While Koga gaped at Kagome with a look of shock adorning his face, another voice chuckled in amusement. "It would seem that the young priestess has equal amounts of power and wisdom," Daisuke commented as he approached the group, Kokoro following a short distance behind. "Even if her methods are a bit...heavy-handed."

Opening her mouth to protest, Kagome's expression suddenly changed from annoyance to surprise. "Wait a minute...how'd you know that...?"

"That you're a priestess?" Daisuke concluded with an amused look. "Lady Kagome, I've long since learned to look beyond the physical world. To see with my heart, and not just my eyes. And while my eyes see a young maiden, my heart can feel the extraordinary spiritual strength dwelling within you." Then the veteran Slayer quirked the corner of his lips and added, "And, of course, during his visits with us, Koga has often mentioned a powerful priestess whose clothes mark her as being a visitor from a foreign land. He's spoken quite fondly of you."

His cheeks coloring somewhat at this, Koga scowled at his friend and groaned, "Aw, Daisuke!"

"And now that I have your attention, my friend, it is time that we spoke," Daisuke commented slyly as he approached the wolf-demon. Looking his friend up and down, the veteran Slayer placed a friendly hand on his shoulder. "It's good to see you up and about. When I heard about what happened, I feared the worst."

"Eh, you don't have to worry about me," Koga grinned, his embarrassment already forgotten. "I'm not the kinda guy that'll lie down and play dead for anybody."

Nodding thoughtfully, Daisuke replied, "That's true, but still, given the events of late, you'll understand my caution." Glancing over Koga's body, the Slayer leader frowned at the various changes to his form. "You've gone through a great transformation, my friend. I can sense the power that now flows through you."

Some of Koga's typical arrogance returning, he smirked and replied, "Yeah, it sure is something else, ain't it?"

"It is. But power isn't always a good thing, especially if you don't understand it," Daisuke cautioned him with a knowing look. "Later on, I suggest that you let some of my people examine you. Just to make sure that..."

"I was already planning doing that," Koga broke in, casting a glance back at Kagome, then his fellow wolf-demons. "Besides, I've already gotten enough nagging about that as it is. I don't need you pitching in as well."

"Just so long as you take care of yourself, Koga. I've already lost too many good friends this day. I wouldn't want to lose you as well." The alpha wolf paused to consider these words, and though he looked like he was going to say something obnoxious, he instead kept his mouth shut and simply nodded. "Also, I must thank you for sending your friends to our aide. You should know that they all fought valiantly on our behalf." Then Daisuke cast a glance at InuYasha, who was already back on his feet. "Including those that you make light of."

Groaning heavily, Koga shook his head before retorting, "Daisuke, you're a great warrior and all, but I'm really not in the mood for one of your lectures! I mean, damn!"

Nodding, Daisuke answered, "I would also like to thank you for sending the additional wolf-demons that you had accompany the others. They also fought well against Naraku's forces." Heaving a heavy breath, the veteran Slayer pressed his lips together. "I'm afraid that they were severely injured. However, I have my best healers tending to their wounds. They should recover soon enough."

"And we thank you for that, Daisuke," Yorozuko interjected, drawing the eyes of Koga and a few others. "It'll do them good to experience human compassion, as well as their healing." The aged wolf seemed to smile slightly before going on to say, "It is one thing to hear tales of something. It is quite another to experience it for one's self."

"That's very true." Then Daisuke heaved a heavy breath, and gave Koga a concerned look. "However, that being said, I'm afraid that there's still a great deal of work ahead of us, my friend. We have much to discuss."

"I know. We have to settle the alliance right away," Koga, finally getting serious. "Now, Robai and Yorozuko and me, we've been talking about some ground rules for how our people will be dealing with each other, and..."

"I'm not talking about the alliance, Koga. At least, not directly," Daisuke informed him. "I'm afraid that we have more...immediate concerns."

"More immediate concerns?!" Koga repeated incredulously. "What's that supposed to mean?!"

"It means that we have some bad news, Koga," Miroku reported, prompting the others to turn towards him. "Although we were successful in driving off Naraku's forces, we weren't able to save the fort itself."

"What?" Koga got out, looking querulously at the monk. "Wait...are you saying..."

Nodding sadly, Sango swallowed, clearing the bile from her throat before explaining, "I'm afraid that...the fort was severely damaged in the battle."

Sitting up at this revelation, Michiru asked, "Really? H-how bad is it, Sango?"

"Bad enough," Sango solemnly responded. "The outer walls were badly burned, and one of the corner towers was completely destroyed."

"Meaning that anything that wants to get in can," Daisuke reported, his voice low and grim. "To make matters worse, all four of the barrier stones that protected the village were destroyed by Naraku's forces."

"What?! For real?!" A moment later, Koga's eyes went wide with realization, then narrowed with hatred. "Aw, dammit! Kagura!!" he spat in a voice dripping with loathing. "You mean she's the one who wiped out your barrier?!"

"No. I'm afraid that our situation is far more sinister than that." With that, Daisuke began to tell them of the events preceding Naraku's attack. How a Demon Slayer standing watch in one of the towers in which the one of barrier stones was housed had alerted them to oncoming demons, and had then proceeded to shatter the stone. "Once the demons had invaded, they lost no time in destroying two more of the stones, and we were forced to destroy the fourth one ourselves."

"So...the fort's completely vulnerable?!" Koga exclaimed, his face falling with shock. When Daisuke nodded, the alpha wolf frowned and asked, "What about this traitor of yours?! I hope you didn't let him get away with what he did!"

"He didn't get away, but it wasn't a Demon Slayer that put an end to him," Daisuke explained in a sour voice. "Less than a minute after he destroyed the stone, the demons were able to destroy the tower he was in. He was killed instantly."

"Wow. Talk about your instant karma!" Hakkaku commented in a wry voice.

"He sure had it coming," Ginta nodded.

"Wait a minute. Are you serious?!" Robai grumbled, arching an eyebrow at the Demon Slayer. "You're telling us that one of your own people decided for no reason whatsoever to set himself and everyone else in your village to be wiped out?!"

Shooting Robai an incredulous look, Koga growled, "Hey, old man! Daisuke wouldn't lie about something that!"

"I wasn't accusing him of lying, stupid!" Robai quickly shot back. "However, given everything Koga's said about you, Daisuke, I would certainly have thought you more intelligent to simply assume this man a traitor and leave it at that! Especially given everything that's been happening?!"

A puzzled sound escaped Koga's mouth, one that was repeated when Daisuke nodded and informed them, "You're right. There is a great deal that is suspicious about this, as well as his actions."

"What do you mean, Daisuke?" Kagome asked slowly.

"To put it simply, while he was not in favor of our impending alliance, before this morning, he had never demonstrated the willingness to carry out such a heinous act. Because if he had, you can rest assured that I would never have allowed him access to the barrier stones," Daisuke tersely explained. "And then there's the timing of it all."

"Agreed. The attacks by both Toma and Naraku's forces...they're simply too well coordinated to be a coincidence," Miroku explained, the wheels in his head clearly turning. "Also, we have to take into account the possibility that Naraku was somehow manipulating the Slayer responsible for this."

"Manipulating?" Ayame frowned. "You mean, Naraku might have made a deal with him like he did with Toma?"

"No, I think it's possible that Naraku did something far subtler. And insidious," Miroku explained, his mind working ever faster. "I think he had Kanna take your companion's soul. Allowing her to control his body."

A tiny gasp and a slight widening of his eyes were the only signs of surprise Daisuke gave. "Naraku commands such demons?"

As Miroku nodded, Kagome frowned and countered, "But, Miroku, that doesn't make any sense! Even if Kanna had taken control of one of the Demon Slayers that way, they'd've noticed something was wrong almost right away!"

Nodding, Shippo piped up, "Yeah! When Kanna takes somebody's soul, they're like zombies! They go like..." The little fox then made his eyes as wide as he could and let his mouth hang open. "You know, like that!"

"I agree that's how Kanna's victims behaved before. But perhaps that's not the case anymore." Leaving Shippo to look questioningly at him, Miroku looked over at the Kururugi twins. "Michiru, in your message to Kaname, you indicated that Kagura had demonstrated new powers in her battle with you?"

Nodding, Michiru replied, "She was able to break through the barrier I'd set up to protect us. She also created a cyclone around that blocked our attacks."

"She did the same with me," Koga added somewhat uncertainly. "But so what? What does that have to do with anything?!"

"A great deal, if I'm correct," Miroku told him. "When Naraku first resurfaced after our last battle with him, he indicated that he had learned some things from Utsugi, who was a Shikigami Master of considerable power. In which case..."

"In which case, it's possible that Kagura and Kanna have learned new techniques based on Utsugi's Shikigami magic," Sango murmured, her voice rising with realization. "Kagura gained new wind-based powers, and Kanna..."

"The increased ability to manipulate a person whose soul she'd captured. To the point where she can make them act completely natural, so much so that they're possession goes completely unnoticed, even by people who know them well," Miroku concluded.

There was a heavy silence as the group considered this. "That's an...interesting theory, Miroku," Daisuke finally decided with a thoughtful look. "But that's all it is; a theory."

"A theory that fits the facts at hand, and is supported by Kagura's own display of new abilities," Miroku countered evenly. "Don't forget, Daisuke, we have battled Naraku and his incarnations several times in the past. We know their powers every bit as well as we do our own. And Kagura has never once displayed abilities such as those she used tonight." Glancing over at Sango, the monk concluded, "The only logical explanation is that she now wields new powers. And if that's the case with her, then there's no reason not to assume that Kanna's powers have also been augmented."

While InuYasha wasn't especially fond of Miroku, he couldn't help but agree with what he was saying. Kagura outright hated Naraku, and wanted more than anything to be free of him, to the point where she had been willing to work with them in order to achieve her goal. And if Naraku was willing to grant her new powers, than he certainly would do the same for Kanna, the one incarnation of his that had proven to be mindlessly loyal to him.

As this thought ran its course, InuYasha watched as Daisuke shifted his eyes in Sango's direction. The woman warrior subtly nodded, to which the veteran Slayer frowned. "Very well. Until we learn otherwise, we will assume that your theory is correct," Daisuke finally decided before turning towards Koga. "And if need be, that will be what we tell your fellow wolf-demons."

"Sounds like a plan to me. But I think it'd be best if they didn't know about that," Koga commented. "We want to give people reasons to accept this alliance, not look at the Demon Slayers like they're weak or incompetent or worse."

"Agreed. However, we seem to be getting away from our current situation," Daisuke noted somberly. "The fact remains that our home was extensively damaged in the battle. Meaning that we are now exceedingly vulnerable."

A heavy silence fell on them, one that was eventually broken when Kagome asked, "Well...can't you fix the fort? Replace the barrier stones, and...?"

"We could, given enough time," Daisuke acknowledged, the tone of his voice making it clear that it wasn't that simple. Something he confirmed when he looked squarely at Kagome, and added, "However, time is something we don't have much of. Once the other tribes of demons in the area learn how vulnerable we are, they will lose no time in moving against us."

"And that won't take long, I'm afraid," Yorozuko interjected. "The tiger-demons, boar-demons, bat-demons, and all the others have ample reason to hate Daisuke and his people. And given that we've already established that the assault on the fort was orchestrated by Naraku..."

"Then all he has to do is spread the word that the Slayers' fort has been trashed, and they'll be all over them," InuYasha muttered hatefully, feeling his blood burn with hatred with the foul monstrosity that was their nemesis.

"Agreed. And with our losses and injuries, I can't see how we can possibly stand up against them for long," Daisuke admitted, clenching his fists. "Making matters worse that we lost much of our supplies in the battle. Food, medicine, weapons..." Heaving a deep breath, the veteran looked squarely at Koga before saying, "All we have left are what little we had stored in the caves beneath the fort, and that won't last long. Not if we have to defend ourselves from the other tribes in the area."

Nodding his understanding, Koga told him, "Hey, no problem, Daisuke! We'll help you through this! You just tell me what you need, and -!"

"That won't work, you idiot!" Robai shouted. Jolted by this, Koga turned towards the elderly wolf-demon, who rolled his eyes incredulously. "Didn't you just say that we want our people to see the Slayers as being strong? Not like easy meat?!"

Wincing at this, Koga then growled, "Then what are we supposed to do?! Just sit back and watch as the Slayers get massacred by all the other tribes?! Tribes that have been trying to wipe us out?!"

"Of course not, Koga," Ayame told him in far more gentle fashion. "He's just saying that...we need to find another way of doing this."

"And we have to do in a way that allows the Demon Slayers to retain their reputation. One that allows them to remain strong in the eyes of our people," Yorozuko intoned evenly. "Otherwise, this alliance will never survive."

Blinking a few times, Koga then growled lowly before placing his hand to his head. "I don't believe this," he muttered sourly, pinching the bridge of his nose. "We've come all this way, only to stopped by this?!"

"We're not stopped, Koga," Daisuke broke in, his voice intense and powerful. "I don't care what the odds are, I'm not going to give up, not so long as one of my people looks to me for guidance." When Koga met his gaze, the veteran Slayer continued, "We know what the problem is. All we have to do now is find a solution."

"Well, if anybody's got any ideas, now's the time," InuYasha growled lowly. "Because Naraku sure isn't going to sit back and wait until we're ready for him."

His features twisting into a contemptuous snarl, Koga looked as if he was going to say something stupid to the half-demon. But even as InuYasha was readying himself for yet another war of insults, the idiot wolf gritted his teeth before turning away. "Okay, so what we do? What do your people need, Daisuke?"

"A defensible shelter," Daisuke immediately answered. "The caves under the fort won't protect us for long. We need a safe, secure location where we can allow our wounded to heal, as well as create a new set of barrier stones. Once we have those, we can either effect repairs on the fort, or begin construction of a new one somewhere else."

"Alright, alright. So...where could we find a place like that?" Koga wondered.

"Another set of caves?" Hakkaku suggested hopefully.

"None nearby, I'm afraid. At least, none that are available," Daisuke reported. "The nearest suitable caves are the home of a tribe of bat-demons. And they won't be willing to help us."

While Hakkaku was groaning in defeat, Shippo wondered, "What about your old fort, Sango? That's still standing, right?"

"That's right, but it's too small. Much smaller than Daisuke's fort," Sango gently countered. "On top of that, it's too far away. I don't see how we could transport everybody there. Not before the other demon tribes start coming after them."

"So what we need is a shelter that can be readily defended from marauding demons and other possible enemies, that is both nearby and not already occupied," Miroku gathered, nodding thoughtfully as he did so. "Can anybody think of something like that?"

One by one, each of them there looked from one from the other, searching their faces for any possibilities, anything that could help them overcome the odds set against them. Until a voice of hope was heard in the form of Ayame calling out, "I have an idea!"

As Koga whipped about to face the redhead, followed shortly by everyone else there, Daisuke asked, "And what would that be?"

Instead of answering right away, Ayame turned to Yorozuko and asked, "Grandpa, do you remember the eastern caves?"

"You mean the caves at the far end of our mountains?" Yorozuko gathered, to which Ayame nodded. "Of course. But what about them?"

"Well...they're empty, aren't they?" Ayame prodded hopefully. "None of our people use them, right?"

"To my knowledge, that is correct." Then Yorozuko frowned slightly before asking, "Ayame...are you suggesting...?"

"Wait a minute!" InuYasha broke in, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Are you crazy or just stupid?!" When Ayame and Yorozuko simply looked at him, the half-demon snorted incredulously. "You're actually suggesting the Demon Slayers actually move in with you mangy wolves?!"

Stung by this insinuation, Ayame groaned before answering, "Well...they wouldn't actually be moving in with us."

"Indeed. The eastern caves are located at the far end of the mountains, far from the caves that we use," Yorozuko explained. "They lie at the base of a sheer cliff, and they don't lead to the rest of the caves in the mountains. We don't use them, simply because they are so difficult to access from the caves that we do use."

"That still makes them damned easy to get to for any scrawny wolf with an empty stomach!" InuYasha protested, focusing on Yorozuko.

"A valid point, InuYasha. But at the same time, the eastern caves are still considered to be part of our territory. And thus, the Slayers wouldn't have to worry about the other tribes in the area. That is, unless they're willing to risk an all-out war with our people over them," Yorozuko keenly countered. "I admit that it's not an ideal solution, but it is a feasible one."

"And what about making sure that the Demon Slayers don't come off as being weak?!" InuYasha tried again, unable to see why they didn't realize that what they were considering could only end in disaster. "If they show up, begging for shelter from you scrawny wolves, they might as well dunk themselves in sauce and put themselves out to roast!"

"Nobody's going to be begging from anyone, you smart-mouthed young pup!" Robai countered easily. "All we have to do is put it in the right perspective!"

"The right perspective?!" InuYasha repeated, feeling as if he were either losing his mind, or was the only sane person remaining in a world filled with idiots. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?!"

The only answer he got to this was a cunning smile from Yorozuko. "We came here to negotiate the exact terms of our alliance, didn't we?" the aged wolf finally said. "As such, Koga...perhaps you had some concerns regarding the distance between the Demon Slayers' home, and our own?"

"I did?" Koga asked, a blank look on his face. A beat passed as he and Yorozuko studied each other, and then suddenly the alpha wolf's face lit up with comprehension. "Oh, riiiight...!" Glancing between the two wolf-demons, wondering what the hell Yorozuko meant, InuYasha then watched as Koga turned to Daisuke and commented, "After all, what good does it do us to have allies who can't get to us when we need them?"

"Something that works both ways," Daisuke retorted, seeming to have picked up on whatever Yorozuko had said without speaking. "After all, as fast you wolf-demons might be, there are other tribes that are even faster, and can attack from the air."

Snorting loudly at this, Koga then countered, "Oh, yeah? And what about our plans to trade with each other? It doesn't do us any good if we have to cover for you when you're shipping weapons to us!"

"That sounds more like an excuse to me," Daisuke countered, his amused expression at odds with his irritated voice. "Besides, I have less faith in the wolf-demons' ability to make good on your promises! Or have you forgotten about the furs and demon bones that you agreed to share with us as a part of our agreement?"

"I've forgotten nothing of the sort!" Koga sneered, his voice broken up by a momentary giggle. "But I do think that you'd have an easier time making good on your promise if your people lived...closer to us."

Pulling back in faux shock, Daisuke then demanded, "Move my people?! Just to make things more convenient for yours?!"

"Why not? From what I've heard, there's nothing left of that fort of yours but a pile of ash!" Koga sneered in a taunting voice that was too amused to be taken seriously. "Besides, those caves are big and spacious! Plenty of room for your people to move on in, until you can get around to building a new fort."

Sporting a badly suppressed smirk, Daisuke wondered, "And what's to stop your people from treating those caves as a your own personal pantry?"

"Simple. The area surrounding the eastern caves is a wide open space. No cover, no place to hide for miles around them," Koga explained, his expression growing less serious. "Even the blindest Slayer amongst you could spot one of us trying to slip in there! Heck, if you wanted to, you could even booby-trap the area! Fill the entire area with deathtraps, if that helps you sleep better!" Then he cocked his head to the side, and added, "That should give you plenty of time to whip up more of those fancy barrier stones of yours!"

"Oh, really?" Daisuke muttered in an almost laughing voice. "And do I have your word that your people will not interfere with us, should I agree to this request? Because if I see any wolf-demons in the area while we are in the process of moving, I will not hesitate to attack them."

"Are you saying that I can't control my own people?!" Koga demanded in mock horror. "If they're so stupid as to come around when I tell them not to, then they deserve to be blown to hell!"

"That's good, because that is exactly where we will send them if we have to!" Daisuke told him, this statement punctuated by a few more giggles.

"Are you saying that you accept my terms?" Koga inquired, barely getting his words out from between the biggest grin InuYasha could recall seeing.

"Only out of convenience, Koga. Don't delude yourself into thinking otherwise!" Daisuke declared, his own perfectly controlled exterior faltering more and more. "And one more thing! I don't want to see a single wolf-demon anywhere near the eastern caves until our new fort is complete! Because if I do, I will have no choice but to assume that they are there with hostile intent!"

"Oh, yeah?! And what if we want to contact you, huh?!" Koga countered, laughing as he did. "I'm not going to all this trouble for the fun of it!"

"If you wish to communicate with us, send Ayame, or appoint a designated messenger of some kind!" Daisuke sneered, the ire in his voice and the smirk he wore at war with each other. "I'm sure you can find someone to do the job, assuming you're not up to the task!"

"Not up to the task?!" Koga chuckled, rolling his eyes as he did so. "The day I'm not up to the task is the I -!"

"I don't believe this!!" InuYasha howled, unable to take any of more of the idiocy being displayed before him. As the others turned to face him, the half-demon glared at the two morons that were supposed to be the leaders of their respective peoples. "You mean you actually expect people to believe this pile of crap?!"

"Hey, back off, mutt!" Koga sneered, his good mood instantly broken. "It's not like we have a lot of options here, okay?!"

Nodding, Daisuke seconded, "Agreed. If my people are going to have any chance of survival, then we have to move to a secure location, and quickly. One that is easily defended, and is unlikely to be attacked at least until we have recovered and are ready for battle once more. And these caves would seem to be our only option."

"That may be, but InuYasha does have a point," Michiru commented worriedly. "Do you really think you can convince the wolf-demons that you're moving because of the alliance, and not...?"

Studying Michiru as he trailed off, Daisuke heaved a deep breath before admitting, "It's not a matter of whether or not we think we can do this, my friend. We have to convince the wolf-demons that we're moving of our own volition, not our vulnerability." The cannon-wielder then turned to Koga and declared, "And we can't waste time trying to come up with something more effective. The sooner we start moving our people, the better, before our enemies start coming after us."

"Right," Koga concurred. "Now all we need is an audience for our little performance!"

"We already have one of those. What we need is to rehearse this little act of ours before we perform for them." Then Daisuke gave a wry smile and shot a knowing glance at Koga out of the corner of his eyes. "I don't think we'll be able to convince them if we're smirking halfway through the play."

"That's for sure," Kagome commented with an impish smile. "Besides, I'm pretty sure we can spare an hour or two for practice."

"That sounds about right," Daisuke agreed before returning his focus to Koga. "And while we're doing that, why don't you show me these caves of yours?" The alpha wolf shot his friend a confused look, to which the veteran warrior responded, "If I'm going to tell my people that the eastern caves will be a safe place for us to live, then I have to know this for myself. See them for myself." The veteran Slayer's expression sharpened, like a sword that was being held at the ready. "I won't advocate this place as a new home for our people. Not unless I'm certain that it truly can behome."

His brows furrowing, Koga glared at Daisuke for a time, as if insulted by his request. But within moments, he sighed wearily before replying, "Eh, I guess I can't blame ya for feeling that way. Truth be told...I guess if I was in your position, I'd be doing the same thing."

"I know that you would. We have to be responsible, Koga. For it's not just our lives that are affected by the decisions we make." As the alpha wolf nodded, Daisuke smiled and looked back towards his partner. "Come, Kokoro. Let's go with Koga, and investigate these caves." The silvery phoenix gave an affirmative squawk and flapped his powerful wings, easily rising into the air. "Sango, do me a favor and keep an eye on things here. If anything happens while we're away, I expect you and Kirara to take care of it."

"Of course," Sango replied with Kirara seconding this with a determined meow.

Smiling in a nostalgic manner, Daisuke looked for a long time. "I swear, you've grown up so much since I last saw you," he commented as Kokoro hovered overhead, grabbing hold of a set of straps on the veteran Slayer's uniform. "I look forward to our time together, Sango. I'm sure that we have much to catch up on."

"I know," Sango replied as Kokoro lifted the veteran Slayer up into the air. "Be careful, Daisuke."

The Slayer's leader nodded, and looked up at his partner. "Onward, Kokoro," Daisuke instructed the silvery phoenix. "I'm sure Koga will have no trouble catching up with us."

"Catching up?!" Koga repeated incredulously as Kokoro lifted his partner up and away from them. "Don't kid yourself, Daisuke! You're the one who's gonna have trouble catching up once I leave you in my dust!" Then turned towards Robai and declared, "Hey, keep an eye on things for me, old man! I'll be back once I'm done showing Daisuke around the caves...and force-feeding him and that bird of his some humility!"

"Alright! But do us a favor and don't make him choke on his own pride!" Robai snorted laughingly. "That's a prickly meal if there ever was one, and some folks have slit their own throats rather than try and choke it down!"

Koga just laughed at that. "Don't worry! I won't embarrass him too much!" the scrawny wolf boasted as he turned towards Kagome. "Well, I'll be seeing you all later! Bye!"

InuYasha growled, and was fully prepared to shred some of the scrawny wolf's overinflated ego with a few scathing remarks. But even as he opened his mouth, Koga seemed to blur and a rush of wind surrounded him. The sudden gust caused the half-demon to blink automatically. Then a forceful gale was heard, and when InuYasha opened his eyes, Koga had already disappeared. "What the- ?!" was all he had time to blurt out before air rushed in to fill the vacuum the wolf-demon had left in his passing, very nearly knocking him over in the process.

As InuYasha forced himself to remain on his feet, he heard Kagome making sounds of resistance as well. Looking over at her, the half-demon was met with an apologetic smile as she commented, "Well...we did warn you that Koga had...changed a bit, right?"

Growling deep in his throat, InuYasha looked from her to the trail that Koga had left with his passing. "Yeah, well...figures he'd be even better at running away!" he sneered in a dismissive voice that even he could recognize as being of the 'sour grapes' variety. When Kagome chuckled at this, a sound that stung the half-demon, he snorted loudly before deciding, "Anyway, I don't see what you're so happy about! It's not like this crazy plan of theirs is gonna work!"

Her amusement cut short, Kagome rolled her eyes grumbling, "Look, I know you're not happy about this, InuYasha, but we don't have any other choice!" Then she snorted loudly and added, "Besides, it's not like you had any better ideas!"

"Anything would be better than this one!" InuYasha declared vehemently. "They really think they can sweet-talk those scrawny wolves into this?! Yeah, right! As if!" Turning away and sticking his nose into the air, the half-demon concluded, "There's no way they'll ever be able to pull this one off! It's just not happening! And that's that!"

"There you go, my friend," beamed a petite human. "You should be feeling better any moment now."

"Uh, yeah," answered Yagura, one of the few surviving followers of Toma. A wolf-demon who could only sit and watch as the strange human who called herself Kei finished applying a strange smelling salve to his wounds. Wounds that already felt much better as the medicine did its work. "Er...thank you. The pain's already going away."

Nodding, Kei told him, "That's good. Now, just let me finish bandaging you up. We don't want your injuries to become infected." Sounds of agreement escaping his lips, Yagura simply sat back and watched as the human went about her work. Her tender skin mercifully soft to his tormented form.

Humans. As long as Yagura could remember, humans for the most part had been nothing more than simple prey to him, along with the other wolf-demons of his tribe. They stalked them as they worked their simple little fields, tending their beasts of burden, and slaying both people and animals with equal pleasure, indulging in the taste of their flesh. Ignoring their screams and pleadings for mercy, with some of his friends savoring the fear the wolf-demons inspired in their prey. At other times, they had been their enemies, usually in the form of Demon Slayers, fighting to deny them their right to hunt, to eat. To survive.

And on that very day, on two separate occasions, Yagura had seen humans smiling kindly at him. First the Shikigami User with her strange clothes and forgiving heart, and now this strange creature, whose gentle eyes seemed to see through things. Like she could see straight into the depths of his soul, and see everything that he was. And he could tell by her scent that she felt no fear, no hatred of his kind. Only a simple, tender kindness...and mercy.

As amazing as this was for him, this was made even more incredible by the fact that Yagura wasn't alone in receiving such kindness. As he rested in the caves that were hidden beneath the Demon Slayer fort, human warriors and wolf-demons were being treated for their injuries, treatment that was doled out to them in equal amounts. All around him, his friends and companions that had been exiled along with Toma were getting their wounds bandaged up, receiving words of kindness and reassurance from spiritualists, Shikigami Users, and even humans who seemed to possess no powers of their own. Many of them injured themselves, but not letting this stop them from helping those in need.

Still struggling to comprehend this, Yagura was brought back to the present when Kei announced, "There. All done." Startled, the wolf-demon looked down at his bandaged arm even as the spiritualist gently secured it in place. "Now, I want you to take it easy, and give yourself a chance to heal." Yagura numbly nodded to this. "Listen, I still have others that I have to tend to, but if you need any help, please, let me know."

Somewhat disappointed that he would no longer be enjoying the gentle woman's attention, Yagura replied, "Uh...of course. No problem." Kei rewarded him with another of her smiles before standing. Without another word, she started away, already searching for someone else in need of her aid.

As he watched the spiritualist continue her work, Yagura was stung by a grating voice sneering, "Gee, why don't you take her as your mate, while you're at it!"

"Kuroda!" growled another of his fellows.

"Well, look at him, Baki!" Kuroda growled back. "He was staring at that human like a lovelorn little puppy!"

His cheeks coloring somewhat, Yugara shot back, "I was not!" Despite himself, he then glanced over at Kei, who was still tending to the wounded, then forced himself to look down at the stone ground he sat on. "I was just..."

"Just what? Seeking the hand of a human?!" Kuroda hissed mockingly. "A nice little human who'll be worn out and decrepit in a few short years?!"

Wincing at this thought, at the idea of Kei old and tired, Yugura was mercifully freed of that image when Baki growled, "Cut it out, Kuroda! This isn't the time for that!" Then he cocked his head to the side and added, "Besides, wolf-demons aren't so long-lived that we can look down on the humans like that, or have you forgotten?!"

This certainly set Kuroda back, and with good reason. Though strong and swift as the wolves they fought alongside of and lived with, wolf-demons did still age like mortal creatures. They didn't enjoy the century-spanning longevity that some of the more powerful demons had been blessed with. Their lifespans, while fairly long, were still close to those of humans. "Maybe so," Kuroda finally muttered, "but she's still not one of us! Any other time, she'd try to kill you where you stand!"

"Oh, shut up!" Yagura muttered sourly. "She's not our enemy!"

"Isn't she?!" Kuroda growled before glancing at the humans as they continued their work. "She's a Demon Slayer, Yagura! How many times have we fought them when we were hunting, huh?!"

"Hunting humans!" Yagura shot back, unable to take any more of this. "We may have just been hunting, but we were still hunting their people!" Sniffing loudly, he then added, "What, are you saying that humans can't protect their own people from being eaten?!"

"I'm saying that you shouldn't be so sweet on them," Kuroda growled, his eyes shifting from Yagura to the Demon Slayers working nearby. "They're still human, after all."

Responding with a heavy frown, Yagura then glanced over at the humans there. It was true that he had seen several ugly looks directed at himself and the other wolf-demons. But that had been all they had been subjected to. "Maybe, but they didn't have to treat our wounds!" he muttered, surveying the other wolf-demons there. "I mean, look at Seta over there! He couldn't even move when the battle was over! And they brought him down, possibly even saved his life!"

"That's right!" Baki wondered with growing annoyance. "Besides, if you hate them so much, then why are you here?! You didn't have to come here and fight with us! You could've just run away!"

"And where would I have run to, you idiot?!" Kuroda shot back. "We're exiles, remember?! We go back to the mountains, we're dead! Go to another tribe? Also dead!" Exhaling sharply, the hateful wolf-demon sat back against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. "The only ones we can count on are ourselves, thanks to that bastard, Toma!"

Shuddering at the mention of that name, Yagura heaved a heavy sigh as he found himself thinking back to another time. A time when Toma wasn't a name he associated with a nightmare, a beast that would gladly destroy everything in order to get what he wanted. He had been just another wolf-demon.

But at the same time, Toma had been a different breed of wolf-demon. They had all known that the tribe was facing serious problems; animals falling sick, other tribes attempting to stake a claim to their territory. All of these things that the elders had no solution to, something that Toma constantly called them on. His frequent lectures of their tribal leaders as being ineffectual and unwilling to take action on behalf of their tribe quickly became the stuff of gossip, and later on, of legend.

Yagura hadn't intentionally sought Toma out, like many of his kin had. He had listened to the tales of Toma's plans to revitalize their tribe in passing, interested but not really impressed with them. After all, it was one thing to say that one had a bold plan of action; it was quite another to actually act on it, to make it work. To really make a difference. However, one of his friends, a lively youth by the name of Mizuki, had done so, and had been impressed by Toma's bold speeches, his determination. Impressed enough that he had pleaded for Yagura to come with him, to attend a meeting being held by Toma and those loyal to him. A chance for him to explain his goals for their people, as well as his plans to make them strong once again. And Yagura, after much pestering and pleading from his friend, had eventually decided to humor him.

That had soon proven to be the worst mistake of his life. For on that night, he and the others had gone to the eastern caves, where the meeting was being held. There they would have the benefit of privacy, and wouldn't risk being overheard by anyone else. This alone should have tipped Yagura off that something was wrong, but it didn't. He simply never imagined that any wolf-demon would turn against the tribe. Would actually do the things that Toma had done. That one of his people could ever be so utterly insane.

But over the course of the meeting, it quickly became clear that Toma was indeed mad, or at least not quite sane. He had bragged and boasted about the need for brutality, for the wolf-demons to become so powerful so as to crush all the other tribes out there. He had condemned Koga's plans for alliance, of pandering those inferior to them, and gone on about his plans to gather the deadly beasts that he would then break to his will. To terrorize everyone, including their own people, into submission.

Mizuki had been horrified when Toma revealed his true colors, and Yagura had been sickened. He had wanted to leave that den of nightmares, but before he could, another of his people had called Toma out for the monster he was. That he was sickened and disgusted and he would have no further part of this madness. That he was going to the elders that very night, to have them put an end to Toma and his schemes.

Yagura had been silently cheering for his fellow wolf-demon that night, cheering him for having the courage to say the things that he wasn't.

But then Toma responded to his challengers words...by laughing.

It had been a quiet laughter at first, a low, minimal thing that Yagura didn't notice right away. But in almost no time at all, it had built up into a hideous, mocking laugh of pure insanity. One that had stilled the tongue of the one who had challenged him, and had frozen every other wolf-demon there, including Yagura and Mizuki. And thus they all watched as Toma's body exploded with muscle and fur, becoming a lethal titan that towered above them all.

Frozen with horror at the animalistic savagery that had warped Toma's face, every wolf-demon there had stood frozen with horror, helpless to do anything but watch as the silver-furred beast had leapt up at the lone wolf-demon that had challenged him. Before he even had a chance to move, Toma had grabbed him by the neck, lifting up off the ground, laughing in triumph. And thus his challenger became the first victim of Toma's insatiable hunger for power, killed when Toma bit down on his neck, and drained the life and strength from his body.

I never even knew his name, Yagura thought somberly. In fact...no one there new his name, either... As he sat there, looking back at the past, he couldn't help but feel bad for that. Someone should have known what his name was. Someone should have remembered him as something more than a victim. As the drained husk he became, smashed to pieces when Toma tossed him down before them.

"You see that?! That is the fate of all who defy me! And it is the fate of everyone who attempts to deny me leadership of the wolf-demons, the opportunity to remake our people in the greatness of my image!" Toma cackled in Yagura's mind. "Now, either you serve me as my followers, or as my muscle, sinew, and bone! But make no mistake, you will serve me!"

Shuddering as Toma's hateful laugh continued to echo through his mind, Yagura thought forward to what happened next. Over the next several days, he had been sorely tempted to warn the elders of Toma's madness, to tell them of the monstrous power he now wielded. And he may well have, if not for Mizuki's insistence. Where there had once been bravery and eagerness, now there was only pessimism and fear. Fear of doing anything that would bring Toma's wrath down upon them.

It was a fear that he soon learned was justified when another of their number disappeared one day.

At first, it had seemed like nothing major. One of their fellows had gotten lost, possibly attacked by demons from a rival tribe. Something that, while tragic, was far from uncommon. And so Yagura had basically ignored it, until Toma once again summoned them for a meeting at the eastern caves. And when they arrived, they all witnessed the shriveled remains of their fellow wolf-demon, hanging limply from Toma's hand.

"Ha ha ha! Do you see this fool?! He thought he could betray me to the decrepit weaklings who call themselves our elders!" Toma once again jeered, still alive in Yagura's memories. "But there is no escaping my eyes, fools! I am the master of you all! I am the one who chooses whether you live...or die!"

Again, the laughter of Toma the beast burned in Yagura's mind, calling forth all the times when Toma had demonstrated his power, forcing them time and time again to risk their lives for his benefit. To sacrifice themselves to capture the horrid monsters he intended to fight on his behalf, and to be absorbed into his body when their usefulness came to an end. A fate that was shared by every wolf-demon that had fallen in his service.

The same fate that was suffered by Mizuki.

A tear running down his cheeks, Yagura recalled the moment of his friend's death as clearly as the day it happened. They had been fighting a lizard-demon, one of the monsters fielded in the disastrous tournament, straining to get the ropes around the horrible monster so that he could be brought back to the mountains. As usual, Toma had commanded from a distance, unwilling to suffer any injury on their behalf. Making it clear that they served him, not the other way around. And so they had fought to reign in the monstrous demon, with Mizuki working to get a noose around his huge, snapping jaws. His brave friend got in closer, his rope at the ready, and then...

No! No, don't remember that! Yagura cried out in protest, digging his claws into his scalp. Remember Mizuki's life, not his death! Forcing his eyes shut, so that they could no longer look inwards, he heaved several exhausted breaths before letting his gaze fall to the ground. And be thankful that...that he died quickly, painlessly. Another tear rolled down his cheek as he sniffed loudly and thought, Died a better death than Toma would have given him...

"Is something wrong?" came a now-familiar voice, one that snapped him back to the real world and prompted him to look up.

Kei was standing before him again. The kindly spiritualist was looking at him in concern as she knelt down before him. "I'm sorry if I'm intruding, but...did something happen? You look upset about something."

Unsure of what to say, Yagura lost himself in those kindly eyes for a moment before lowering his gaze again. "Just thinking about...old friends," he finally said, his voice low and trembling. "People that aren't...with us anymore."

Blinking a few times, Kei then nodded sadly. "I'm sorry. I know hard that can be," she told him earnestly, a sadness appearing in her own eyes. A sadness that mirrored his own. "Would you like to talk about it, or -?"

"Kei, over here!" came the voice of another Slayer. "We need some help here! This wolf's bleeding like a stuck pig!"

"Coming!" Kei replied, instantly rising to her feet. As she darted away, she glanced over her shoulder at Yagura and whispered just loud enough for him to hear, "We'll talk later."

I hope so, Yagura thought as Kei once again returned to her duties. I truly do hope so.

As he watched her continue in her duties, Kuroda again groaned. "I don't believe this! Why don't you ask her to be your mate and get it over with?!"

"Kuroda, enough!" Baki protested.

"Well, look at him!" Kuroda countered, gesturing at Yagura. "It's obvious that's what he's thinking!"

Shaking his head in disdain, the irritable wolf-demon snorted and made a show of averting his eyes. And as he did so, Yagura looked at him for a time. And as he did so, some of the pain and uncertainty faded to the background of his mind, allowing him to say, "No, it's not. But...do you want to know what I was thinking?"

A quizzical noise sounded in Kuroda's throat as Baki looked at him and replied, "Well...sure. What is it?"

Heaving a deep breath, Yagura returned his eyes to the laboring Demon Slayers, and stated, "I was just thinking that...these Demon Slayers...they truly are a strong people."

Both Baki and Kuroda's faces turned to expressions of surprise as they looked from their friend to each other and back again. "Are you kidding me?!" Kuroda demanded. "Humans?! Strong?! Are you serious?!"

Nodding, Yagura continued to look at the Slayers for the longest time before saying, "Yes, I am. I'm very serious, Kuroda." Then he shot them both a sideways look, and added, "And you know something else? I think that, in a way, it's because they are human that they have to be strong."

Gasps of disbelief escaping his lips. Kuroda swung his head this way and that as Baki asked, "What do you mean, Yagura?"

"Look at them, Baki," Yagura told him as he again focused his attention on the Slayers. "I mean...really, look at them. They're human, and yet...they're not afraid."

"Not afraid?" Baki wondered as Kuroda slowly focused on the two of them again. "What's that got to do with this?"

Frowning slightly, Yagura turned towards the other, his brows furrowed. "Isn't obvious, you two? These Slayers, they don't have to do what they do. They don't have to go out and fight demons for the sake of others. With the powers and skills they have, they could do pretty much whatever they wanted. Be monks or priests, healers, farmers, miners...whatever they decided to do with their lives." Then he looked back at the Slayers, his eyes once again finding Kei as she offered one of his fellows her kindness. "And yet, they choose to fight to protect those in need. They have made themselves hated and loathed by demons far and wide, targets for extermination. What does that say to you?"

A beat passed before Kuroda shrugged. "That they're fools who don't care whether they live or die?"

Disappointed but unsurprised, Yagura frowned somewhat before retorting, "Well, that's not what it says to me. The truth, I think they're among the strongest, bravest people I've ever seen."

"Because...they fight demons?" Baki asked uncertainly.

"Because they fight for something they care for. They fight for the safety of their people, when it would be easier for them to do anything else," Yagura clarified. The other two wolf-demons simply sat there, looking at him in confusion before turning their eyes to the Demon Slayers. "They've decided that the lives of everyone, not just their own, are fighting for and protecting. That the wellbeing of everyone is more important than their own personal safety." Leaning forward, Yagura brought his hands together, his fingers meshing as he continued to watch them. "You know, I wish that I had even a bit of the courage they have. I wish had that kind of determination before, when Toma had gathered us together."

"If you had, you'd be dead," Kuroda instantly retorted. "Toma would have killed you before you even knew what happened."

"Maybe," Yagura conceded, his thoughts again drifting back to Mizuki. To the kind friend that had been sacrificed on the altar of Toma's ambition. "And maybe it would have saved a lot of lives."

Neither Kuroda or Baki had anything to say to this, something that suited Yugara just fine. He wasn't in the mood to argue his point. Too much for him to try and express, thoughts and feelings he had no words to express. And too many memories of fear and desperation that he wanted to chase away so that he would never have to feel them again. So many things, so much that he had had to live with, all while telling himself that he just wanted to survive, to...

"WHAT?!!?!" sounded a powerful, booming voice. One that echoed throughout the small caves that the Demon Slayers were using as shelter, drilling into Yagura's brain with such intensity that it every nerve in his body crackled with shock, sending him from a seated position to almost jumping into the roof. And he wasn't the only one to react this way; every other wolf-demon present and even several of the Demon Slayers were jolted by the powerful voice. "Are you serious, Koga?!!?!"

His entire body shaking with the shock, Yagura looked wildly about, soon meeting the eyes of Baki and Kuroda, the latter of which demanded, "Wh-what was that?!"

Yagura opened his mouth to admit that he didn't know, but he stopped himself when he heard a much quieter voice intoning, "Daisuke, not so loud! We don't need anybody hearing this!"

"Daisuke?" Baki repeated perplexedly. "The Demon Slayers' leader?"

"Something's happening outside," Kuroda muttered warily, glancing up the passage that led to the surface. As if to confirm his statement, several other voices were heard. They were too soft to make out what was being said, but it was clear that heated words were being exchanged.

"Yeah, but what?" Yagura wondered, looking at the entrance as well.

A beat passed as the three wolf-demons looked at each other before Baki frowned and decided, "Let's find out."

"What?!" Kuroda gaped as his friend rose to his feet. "What are you doing?!"

"Isn't obvious?" Baki snapped back as the voices continued. "Somebody's obviously mad about something, and I want to know what!"

Watching in silence, Yagura almost laughed at the look of horror that sprouted on Kuroda's face. "Are you crazy?! What if somebody sees you?!"

"Why should I care? I don't see anyone trying to keep us here, do you?" Baki replied, jerking a thumb at the Demon Slayers. True to his word, they were still absorbed in their labors, working to heal the wounded. "Besides, it's not like I'm asking you to come with me!"

Kuroda's mouth popped open, but Yagura cut him off and decided, "Maybe not, but I'll come with you, just the same." When the naysayer of the trio turned his incredulous gaze upon him, Yagura explained, "Whatever it is they're talking sounds important."

"No arguments here. C'mon," Baki answered, waving for them to join him as he started up the tunnel. Yagura was quick to follow, and after a moment's grumbling, Kuroda stomped his way up after them.

Before long, the three of them reached the mouth of the cave, which was presently sealed by a heavy door crafted from metal and stone. After a moment's study, Yagura decided, "Okay, we should be able to crack it open. At least enough so that we can hear them clearly."

"Well, if you're so curious about what they're chatting about, why don't you just head out and ask them?" Kuroda grumbled as he folded his arms.

"Because we don't want them to shut up about it as soon as they see us!" Baki countered, receiving another obnoxious snort for his trouble. "Now, c'mon, Yagura. Lend me a hand here." Nodding quickly, Yagura came up alongside his friend, the two of them moving to the heavy bolt mounted on the door. Earlier, the bolt had been extended into the wall of the cave, helping to insure that it couldn't be opened easily. But now that the battle was over and people were coming in and out of the caves, the door was left unlocked, making it easy for the two wolf-demons to pull it open.

"Careful! Not too far!" Kuroda instructed them as they pulled. "We don't anybody seeing...!"

"Shhh! Be quiet!" Baki hissed, raising his finger to his mouth. When Kuroda heeded his advice, he narrowed his eyes in concentration, studying the slightly cracked open door. "Listen!"

The three wolf-demons didn't even breathe as they eyes the crack. A crack through which they could hear someone declaring, "I can't believe you're doing this to me, Koga! To us all!"

"What, you mean doing you the biggest favor of your lives?" Koga retorted, sounding almost amused by the Demon Slayer's ire.

Glancing about at each other, the three wolf-demons then bent down next to the slight opening so they could peer out into the courtyard of the shattered fort. "What favor?! Forcing us to abandon our home?!" declared a Demon Slayer who was armed with a strange bow. "I thought you came to help us!"

"And I am!" Koga decreed easily. "I mean, c'mon, you guys! I thought it'd be obvious that this fort is a lost cause! All it would take is somebody sneezing to finish it off!"

"And as I've already told you, Koga, we are quite capable of making full repairs to our home," came the stern voice that they immediately recognized as the one that had sent them jumping out of their skins. "This isn't the first time the fort has been damaged in battle."

"Maybe, but it's definitely going to be the last!" Koga declared, the wolf-demon leader standing just within sight of them, wearing some kind of strange armor. "This place wouldn't survive a spring rainstorm, much less another battle!" He then gave a loud snort before adding, "And once the other tribes find out just how bad off you are, they'll be all over you in seconds."

"Which is precisely why I asked for your assistance in defending our home! Not abandoning it!" Daisuke shot back, his voice low and dangerous like an earthquake. "A small force - a dozen at the most - is all we'd need! Just until the repairs are completed!"

"And how long will that take? A year or two?" Koga shot back in as snide a voice as Yagura could remember hearing. "Look, if it were just the fort that was trashed, then maybe - maybe - I could see you being able to whip it back into shape! But your people are exhausted! Half of them are injured, and the other half are running themselves ragged taking care of them! And you honestly expect them to be able to fix this place up while fending off attacks from every demon with a grudge against you?! Dream on!"

Daisuke furrowed his brows in a dangerous manner. "Don't underestimate myself or my people, Koga," the Demon Slayer rumbled, prompting Baki to gulp nervously. "That's a mistake many other demons have made, and one they didn't live long enough to repeat."

"Hey, I'm not saying that you're not all great warriors and all! I wouldn't have bothered with this alliance if you weren't!" Koga declared, sounding almost insulted. "But you gotta face facts! You're biting off way more than you chew this time around! It's time to cut your losses and bug outta here!"

"And retreat to these eastern caves of yours, Koga?" demanded the other Demon Slayer there. "And become what? Second-class wolf-demons? Or a small feast for your people?"

"Hey, it's like I told you! The eastern caves are pretty much isolated from the rest of the mountains! You'd have them all to yourselves!" Koga immediately countered. "If you don't believe me, just ask Daisuke! We just got done taking a quick tour of them!"

"It's true. From what I saw, the eastern caves are well isolated." Then Daisuke added in a low voice, "However, I did see signs that wolf-demons have been using them. And fairly recently."

Thinking back to the horrific meetings held in those caves by Toma, which had been largely so that he could remind them that he had the power and they didn't, Yagura shuddered as Koga countered, "Eh, it was probably just some young pups looking for a secret place to hang out." Then he chuckled and added, "Or maybe lovers looking for a little privacy!" Again, Yagura shuddered, the very idea of mating in such tainted grounds repugnant in the extreme. "But it's no big deal. Besides, once you're all moved in, you won't have any trouble keeping out any uninvited guests."

"The caves would be easy to defend from possible attackers," Daisuke reluctantly admitted. "That being said, Koga, I'm not willing to simply abandon this place. This has been the home of my people for several generations, and has withstood battle after battle."

"Hey, I know all that! And believe it or not, I do understand why you want to stick it out here! But face it, Daisuke! You're not safe here!" Koga insisted, glaring deeply into the Demon Slayer's eyes. "It's time to get your people out of here. It's your only choice."

Daisuke didn't say anything to this. He simply stood there in silent thought, while the other Demon Slayer there looked back and forth between him and Koga, before finally blurting out, "Don't do this, Daisuke! If we give into the wolf-demons on this, they will own us!"

"Hey, knock it off! You might not believe it, but I'm only doing what's best for both our peoples!" Koga protested, placing his hands to his hips. "After all, it's not like you'd be any help to us if you were all dead!" His eyes narrowing into slits, the alpha wolf stepped closer to Koga and growled, "And believe me, you will die if you stay here!"

Again, Daisuke's answer was silence. He simply stood there for the longest time, his eyes going from Koga to his fellow Demon Slayer to the fort that was their home. Then finally, he looked hard at Koga, shaking his head slowly as he muttered, "You have a great deal of nerve, putting me in this position! Refusing to help us unless we comply with your wishes...!"

With a casual shrug, Koga smirked and countered, "Just trying to motivate you into doing what's right for your people!"

"And while we clearly have differing views on what's best for my people...it seems I have little choice in the matter." The other Slayer there opened his mouth to protest, but was cut off by a gesture from Daisuke. "I know how you feel about this, Sanzo. But as Koga pointed out, we have many enemies will come hunting, once they learn of our situation." The lead Slayer narrowed his eyes menacingly at Koga before adding, "And we've already lost enough of our people today. I won't risk their lives needlessly."

"I knew I could trust you to be...reasonable," Koga grinned triumphantly. "I'll send some people out tomorrow, and -!"

"No. If we are to be forced to leave our home, then we will do so on our power," Daisuke broke in vehemently. "It's bad enough that you've put us in this position, Koga. At least let my people keep a measure of their dignity."

Now it was Koga who was silent, but only for a moment. "Hey, if that's the way you want, then fine by me!" the alpha wolf finally replied. "I'll let you handle the arrangements yourself. Just be sure to let us know when you start moving in, okay?"

As Daisuke nodded his assent, Yagura couldn't help but feel bad for the Demon Slayer leader. Making the Slayers leave their home...how can Koga take advantage of them this way?! After everything they've been through!

As if in response to Yagura's distress, Daisuke's glare sharpened tenfold. "Just don't expect me to forget this, Koga. And while you claim that you are acting in our best interests, there's no escaping the fact that you are manipulating me. Using our vulnerability in order to get what you want."

"What I want is you people safe and sound, Daisuke," Koga retorted somewhat huffily. "Besides, having you living nearby will work out much better for both our peoples! Trust me, you're gonna thank me for this one of these days!"

"Perhaps," Daisuke acknowledged grudgingly. "But on this day, I will give you this one warning. I will tolerate no attempts to exploit my people for your own ends, Koga. Under this alliance, both peoples will be treated as equals. Forget this even once, and I will personally make you suffer for your arrogance."

Shivering at the tone with which the Demon Slayer spoke, Yagura almost passed out when Koga snorted and rolled his eyes. "Aw, c'mon, Daisuke! You couldn't take me on the best day of your life!"

With this declaration, the alpha wolf threw a quick punch at Daisuke's abdomen. The Demon Slayer didn't even attempt to dodge the blow. He simply stood there as Koga's fist struck home...at which a brief flash of light was seen, and was then accompanied by the scent of burning flesh.

"Agh! What the -?!" Koga gasped, only to be cut off when Daisuke reached out and grabbed him by the face.

As Koga's skin visibly burned at the Demon Slayer's touch, Daisuke yanked him closer and looked him in the eyes. "Now listen to me, Koga," he grated in a low, dangerous voice that chilled Yagura just to hear. "I have considered you my friend and my ally for a long time now. That is the only reason I don't kill you where you stand for this." As the alpha wolf wrapped his hands about Daisuke's wrist, trying to dislodge his grip in spite of his hands burning as well, the Demon Slayer tightened his grip and snarled, "You may have forced my hand this day, but don't you dare confuse my resolve to protect my people for cowardice! Or weakness!" With this statement, Daisuke drew back his free hand and balled it up into a fist.

"Now...learn why I am known as Daisuke of the Hand of Fate!" Daisuke snarled, his fist lighting up, the air swirling about it just before he fired it off into Koga's stomach from just a few inches away. The result was instantaneous; Koga's eyes comically ballooned out of their sockets as he hung there for second, just before he was sent flying out of sight so fast that the air seemed to snap in his wake.

"Wh...what the -?!" Kuroda babbled out as Baki hovered nearby, making incomprehensible noises.

As for Yagura, he simply stood there, his eyes and mouth wide open as Daisuke shook the hand he had been holding Koga by, sending bits and flecks of burnt skin floating down to the ground. "Alert the others. Inform them that...after surveying the fort's structure, we have decided that, under the circumstances, we have no choice but to abandon the fort." Glancing off in the direction of the flattened wolf-demon, he added, "And tell them that Koga has...graciously offered the use of a series of caves, where we can rest and build a new home for our people."

"What?!" Sanzo snapped disbelievingly. "But Daisuke, after what he -?!"

"We need to make this alliance work, Sanzo. Especially if we're going to be living in wolf-demon territory," Daisuke sternly reminded him. "We can't afford to let hatred and suspicion poison the minds of our people." Sanzo blinked a few times, but then finally nodded. "Get the others. We need to start making preparations for the journey ahead." Then Daisuke cocked his head in Koga's direction, and smirked wickedly before adding, "And get that mangy mutt out of my sight. I'm not in the mood to deal with him right now."

"Yes, sir," Sanzo answered before starting away to carry out his assigned task.

As he did so, Yagura and the others shrank back from the door before Daisuke or anyone else out there could spot them. As he focused on Kuroda and Baki, Yagura saw that he was not the only one affected by the Demon Slayer's performance. Kuroda was visibly shaking, while Baki's face had gone ashen. "You know..." Baki gulped as he looked at his fellows, "I'm starting to wonder if we're the ones who need the Demon Slayers, and not the other way around!"

Yagura noted that, for once, Kuroda had nothing to say to this.

"Aw...damn!" Koga growled later that evening, the alpha wolf massaging an angry red welt on his abdomen. "Daisuke, I know that you had to make that last punch look good, but did you really have to make it that believable?!"

As Miroku looked on, Daisuke gave a quiet laugh before taking a sip of his tea. Several hours had passed since the staged confrontation, time in which night had shrouded the countryside. The group, including Daisuke and Koga, had gathered together a short distance away from the Demon Slayer fort so that they could share a simple repast of noodles and tea, as well as discuss their current plans.

"You're not a very good actor, Koga," Daisuke commented in an easy manner. "And for that matter, neither am I. And with so much depending on our little performance, I had to make it as believable as I could."

"So you brought out your Hand of Fate and all the rest of it?!" Koga grimaced, wincing as he moved the wrong way. "The last time you used that one me, it took me half a month to recover from it!"

"Consider yourself lucky," Daisuke smiled wryly. "You're the first demon to have lived to experience it twice."

Koga looked ready to say something to this, but then Miroku broke in. "Excuse me, but are you both certain that your plan worked?" the monk wondered, glancing between the two of them. "You're sure that you were seen by the wolf-demons?"

Giving a wry curl of his lip, Koga reported, "Oh, yeah! We had three of them watching from the door to the cave! I smelled them the instant they cracked the door open!"

"Several of the people working in the caves reported them as well," Daisuke confirmed. "And they seemed to have been...quite impressed."

"They're not the only ones," Kagome commented, shaking her head as she looked at Daisuke. "When you hit Koga like that...how'd you do that, anyway?! I thought Sango said that you didn't have any special powers!"

"That's right. And I don't." Casting a glance at Michiru and Kaname, Daisuke explained, "You see, some bloodlines have special gifts, such as your friends over there. They're born with a natural ability, such as the power of the Shikigami, or your own spiritual gifts, Lady Kagome. But the power that lies at the heart of it all, the power that gives rise to these talents, that resides within us all. And it is possible, with time and training, to take that basic gift and hone it, refine it." Pausing, the Demon Slayer returned his focus to her. "What you saw wasn't a special power, Kagome. Just the result of a lot of hard work." Then he quirked his lip and added, "Besides, you don't live and work and train with spiritualists and Shikigami Users and so many others for as many years as I have without picking up a few tricks."

"And as soon as those guys get back to the mountains, they're gonna start telling everybody about what they saw," Koga commented, wincing as he moved. "And once I get back and start showing off this big ugly thing that Daisuke gave me, that'll show everybody that the Demon Slayers aren't a bunch of pushovers."

As Daisuke nodded to this, Ayame frowned and asked, "Koga...are you sure about this? Lifting the exile on Toma's followers?" When the alpha wolf turned and looked at her, she brought up her clenched fists and added, "I mean, after everything they've done -!"

"What they've done is fought for our sakes, Ayame. As well as suffered inordinate cruelty at Toma's hands," Daisuke countered in a deceptively mild voice. "I had Kei attending to several of the wolf-demons. And her special gifts allowed her to see much of their suffering." Turning to face his fellow leader, he added, "It's as I told Koga. They regret everything they did under Toma's rule, and are grateful to be free of him. They deserve another chance."

"And they'll get it. Just as soon as we get them back home," Koga assured him.

Nodding, Sango commented, "And speaking of which...we better get some sleep. We're gonna need our rest if we're going to help everyone get to the eastern caves."

"Yeah. And we better be ready," InuYasha gruffly chimed in. "We still don't know what Naraku's up to. And you can bet it won't be good!"

"That goes without saying, InuYasha," Miroku nodded as he rose up. "We can only hope that we have some time before he makes his next move."

Naraku was smiling.

Kagura hated it when Naraku smiled. She hated everything about the creature that had spawned her, breathed life into her. She hated the way he held her heart, denied her the freedom she so yearned for. She hated the way he so delighted in reminding her that he was her master, in rubbing in her failed attempt at rebellion on Asagiri Island. She hated his cold, cruel ways. But she hated his smile above all. It was a smile that said that he believed himself invincible, that he was all-powerful. A smile that said that he another of his devious schemes in the offing.

And she especially hated the fact that he was smiling about her being defeated.

“So, it would seem that Utsugi's descendant has grown even more powerful than I had anticipated,” Naraku oozed, his body a mass of poison and a mind that hungered to inflict power upon himself and pain on all else that lived. Though his appearance was that of nobleman with long, dark hair, his blood-red eyes betrayed the evil that seethed within him. “And now that his sister has arrived...it would seem that everything is falling into place.”

"I don't see how," Kagura grumbled. “Thanks to their meddling, not only was Toma defeated, but the wolf-demons are still pursuing their alliance with the Demon Slayers! And now that miserable wolf Koga has these new powers -!”

“True. But ultimately, their interference changes nothing,” Naraku smiled cruelly. “For now, we will simply observe them, and be ready for their next move. With food in such short supply, they will have to do something in order to feed both peoples. And when they make their move, I want you to be ready to follow InuYasha and his friends. I have something planned for them, and we must be ready for the right moment.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Kagura snorted irritably.

Snickering at her obvious disdain, Naraku added, “Oh, and one other thing. When the time is right, I will send Kohaku to you…as well as him.”

Frowning, Kagura stared at Naraku. “Him?”

“Your new brother,” Naraku spoke, his voice dancing quietly across the floor of this place he had made his home. Where, in the shadows of that terrible place, a new evil waited, waited to make itself known...

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