Legacy of the Cursed Mask: The Wolf-Demon Crisis

Labors of Mercy

"Ohh...how do I let myself get talked into this sort of thing?"

Chuckling at the familiar tone with which his friend grumbled, Miroku responded, "Now, now, Hachi. I know this must be tiring, but what we're doing is important."

"What do you mean we're doing, master?" Hachi whined, too weary to sound especially petulant. "I'm the one carrying all this extra weight! Including you!"

As aggravating as Hachi's complaints were, Miroku was forced to admit that they were valid. It had been a couple days since Daisuke had given the order for the Demon Slayers to abandon their shattered fort, and despite the necessity, it had not been an order that they had been happy about. It was only after a great deal of discussion, logical persuasion, and Daisuke asserting his authority that the mass exodus to the wolf-demon mountains began, and even then, progress was slow. For while the Demon Slayers were as brave and strong a group of humans as the monk could remember seeing, they were still human. And even with the assistance of healing magic and special medicines, the many wounded were drained, and in no condition to travel the distance to the mountains.

While the Demon Slayers had been able to salvage and repair a couple of their carts to help carry their wounded, Kirara and Kokoro were still forced to make multiple trips to and from the caves, carrying those most injured. During this time, Miroku and the rest of the group had worked setting up beds and preparing the caves to receive their new tenants.

While they were doing this, Daisuke and several of the least injured Demon Slayers remained behind at the fort, laying their dead to rest. Fortunately, the number of Slayers killed in the battle was mercifully small, but it was still a difficult thing for them to endure on top of everything else. There next task was to gather together whatever supplies and materials that could be salvaged from the shattered fort, so as to better care for their injured, as well as prepare for the construction of their new fort.

With the considerable distance between the fort and the eastern caves, Miroku had known that it would take a long time to transport whatever supplies has survived on foot, prompting him to search out Hachi for his assistance. And while he certainly didn't regret this decision, he was developing a slight headache from the tanuki's complaints.

"I mean, seriously! You're not even doing anything up there! Just riding me back and forth!" Hachi continued to whine. "Couldn't you have just let me carry the stuff back on my own?"

"No, Hachi. Not when we know that Naraku is trying to ruin this alliance," Miroku explained with all the patience he could muster. "If Kagura or any other flying demons were to show up, you'd be defenseless without someone accompanying you." The tanuki let out a defeated groan, which was a sure sign that he was forced to concede this point. "And we can't afford to let anything happen to any of this," the monk added, glancing back at the large amounts of intact weaponry, as well as raw materials for making more that was their current load. "The Demon Slayers have already lost much of what they had. We don't want them to lose anything else."

"I know, I know..." Hachi replied, his voice showing the strain of his efforts. He may well have said something else, but he instead chose to save his breath for the trip. Which was just fine for Miroku.

The rest of the trip was made in relative silence, with Hachi's exhausted grunts and groans mixing with the sound of the wind and the occasional bird flying past. The wolf-demon mountains growing steadily larger, until at last he could see the sheer wall of rock at the eastern end of them, and more importantly, the caves at the base. "We're almost there, Hachi," Miroku instructed him, surveying the area below. "Take us in."

"Whew...it's about time!" Hachi moaned wearily, lurching in his eagerness to descend. The tanuki lurched somewhat, but after a moment's panic on Miroku's part, evened out his angle of descent. Glancing back at their cargo to make sure that it remained securely in place, the monk sighed as they made their final approach to the grounds just outside the caves, where Demon Slayers were hard at work on building the walls of their new fort.

You have to admire their determination, Miroku thought as he observed their efforts. Almost immediately after the Demon Slayers were safely ensconced in the eastern caves, Daisuke had organized his best people in terms of designing and construction to begin work on their new fort. And those Slayers, despite being physically and emotionally drained, had lost no time in commencing the manufacture of the outer wall of their new home. Of course, it's not like we can blame them. Even after everything that's happened, there's still the chance that...

Frowning, Miroku then shook his head free of that thought. There was no time to be dwelling on what could go wrong. There was only time for making sure that those worst-case scenarios didn't come to pass. Besides, I've got more immediate concerns, he added as he realized that Hachi's approach had not gone unnoticed.

"Greetings, Miroku! Hachi!" one of the Demon Slayers called out as they landed. "Welcome back!"

"Greetings, Hayate," Miroku replied before sliding off of Hachi's back. "How goes the construction efforts?"

Hayate shrugged before replying, "As well as can be expected. The first layer of the southern wall is complete, and we've made good progress on the northern and western sections, but it will be some time before the other layers are in place, to say nothing of the towers."

Nodding, Miroku added, "Be grateful that you have skilled Shikigami Users amongst you. Otherwise, you wouldn't be nearly so far along in the construction."

"Oh, you'll get no argument from me on that count," Hayate assured him in a weary fashion. "So, anyway, Miroku, how goes things at the fort? What do you have for us?"

"Tools, weapons, and some of the bones you had in the storehouses," Miroku reported, glancing in Hachi's direction. "As for the fort, there's really not that much to tell. Daisuke and the others there are still working, salvaging as much as they can."

Nodding, Hayate looked thoughtfully at the shipment, ignoring the exhausted Hachi, who's tongue hung limply from his mouth, stretched out across the ground. "I'll have some of our people bring them in. I don't want to disturb the people working on the walls unless it's absolutely necessary," he replied, glancing over at the Demon Slayers still hard at work erecting the fort. As Miroku nodded his understanding, the Demon Slayer asked, "How much more has Daisuke been able to salvage?"

"Quite a bit, actually. At least in terms of raw materials," Miroku replied, glancing back at the current load they had delivered. "From what I saw, I'd say we'll have to make...three or four trips to get it all here."

A beat passed before the exhausted Hachi was able to react, and when he did, it was something of a spectacle. His bloodshot eyes bulging with horror, gurgles and sputters and other incomprehensible noises slipping free of his mouth as he shuddered. "Th...thr..." he sputtered out, his blobby body quaking with ever-increasing violence. Until at last he convulsed wildly, screaming, "Three or four trips?!!?!" This exclamation used up what little strength he had left, causing his eyes to roll up into their sockets before he keeled over onto his side and exploded into a puff of smoke.

Staring at the reverted tanuki as he lay sprawled out on the ground, Miroku sighed before returning his attention to Hayate. "I'm sorry, but it seems that Hachi's exertions have taken their toll on him."

"Can't say I blame him. I'd be a wreck if I had to do what he's been doing these past few days," Hayate admitted. "I'll send some people to tend to him as well."

"Thank you. I'm sure Hachi will be very appreciative of that," Miroku replied, bowing his head as he did. Returning the gesture, Hayate started off towards the caves, doubtlessly to find people to assist with both Hachi and the shipment.

And I suppose I should really be doing something to help. At least until Hachi's recovered enough to make another run to the fort, Miroku thought, his brows narrowed in consideration. I'm not at all good at carpentry, so I can't see how I can assist in the construction...the injured have all been treated to the best of our ability, so all that we can do for them is wait for them to heal. Frowning somewhat, he glanced off in the distance, in the direction of the fort. And Sango's working with Daisuke to get more salvage ready for transport, so I can't try and smooth things over with her now, he added inwardly before turning back to the caves, where he knew his rival was working feverishly. At least Michiru won't be able to do any more damage, but...

As the monk struggled to come up with some way of being productive, a familiar voice caught his attention. "Hey, Miroku!"

Looking up towards the source, Miroku smiled and responded, "Greetings, Kagome!" The modern priestess giggled before guiding Kirara in for a landing. "I trust that your mission was successful?"

"Gee, what tipped you off?" Kagome wondered as she slid off Kirara's back, being careful to avoid dislodging the two large black bags that were slung about the two-tail's neck. "Fortunately, Wyvern had just sent another big shipment to our place, so I was able to bring back quite a bit."

"So I see," Miroku nodded, glad that his friend had gotten back as quickly. Like the monk, Kagome had little to offer in the way of assistance beyond her healing skills, so once the wounded had been tended to, she had volunteered to return to her world to collect food and medicine. "And how about you, Kirara? Did you have trouble?"

The two-tail let out a dismissive growl even as Kagome smiled and answered, "Are you kidding? Kirara's a rock! I bet she could manage twice this much stuff!"

Nodding to this, Miroku glanced over at Hachi, giving him a wry smile before returning his attention to his friends. "In any case, I suggest we take these back and start passing them out. And the sooner the better."

"Right," Kagome replied, and with that, the three of them started towards the caves. "So, what's been happening while I was gone?"

"Well, as you can see, we've made some progress on construction. The wounded seem to be healing nicely, and looks like none of the damage will be permanent," Miroku reported. "And Michiru is presently working with the other Demon Slayers to help create another set of barrier stones, both for them and the wolf-demons."

"Really?" Kagome replied, raising a questioning eyebrow. "But...wait, I thought they didn't have enough supplies to make even one stone!"

"That's right, the Slayers didn't," Miroku replied with a knowing look. "However, it turned out at the wolf-demons did..."

"Are you all ready?" inquired the woman at the far end of the cavern they were in. A look of concentration permanently inscribed on her face.

"Ready," Michiru answered, knowing that he didn't match the woman's intensity in either voice or appearance. But he was ready to do his part, nonetheless, and as the other three Shikigami Users present echoed his sentiment, he knew that he wasn't alone in this.

"Very well, then," the woman nodded before her entire body tensed. "Oh, her me now, spirits of nature! Lend us your strength!"

"Force of nature, heed my call!" Michiru invoked, a pentagram spinning into existence at his feet.

"I summon thee now, oh Shikigami!" invoked one of the Demon Slayers. One by one, mystical light spilled forth from each of the five Shikigami Users gathered together there, light that rose up from them and took the form of their respective Light Shikigami. Michiru's dragon rose up to join a female figure like that of a goddess, a shining wolf with a burning disk on its back, a brilliant phoenix with a golden orb floating above its head, and a white tiger with a glyph of some kind on its forehead. The five different Light Shikigami, each infused with the collective power of the other Shikigami wielded by their summoners, hovered over a magical glyph the leader of this unlikely group had inscribed on the floor, and at the center of that was five stones, each of them made of a craggy blue crystal.

"Spirits of the Light, we call upon you in our hour of need!" the woman at the far end invoked in a voice that exuded strength. "Infuse these stones with your shining light, cleanse them of their cruel powers, and transform them into our salvation!" Shuddering at her voice, a voice that seemed to flow through him and into the spirit familiars that were his to command, Michiru looked up and watched as the five Light Shikigami shot down into the five stones at the exact same moment. Feeling his own magic meld with them, the Kururugi boy watched as the stones slowly lit up, their shining radiance slowly filling the room.

C'mon, stay focused! Michiru thought, feeling the flow of his own magic as it meshed with those of the others there. Whatever you do, don't blow! Not after what happened last time! Wincing at the thought of this, the Kururugi boy almost lost concentration as the image of that disaster floated about in his mind. But then he gritted his teeth and redoubled his concentration. And slowly, inexorably, the stone into which he was channeling his power lifted up off the ground, in perfect synch with the other four.

Sweat rolling down his brow, Michiru didn't dare blink as the spell they were weaving reached its climax. The five stones spun about, moving faster and faster, their light growing ever more intense, until at last it seemed to explode, filling the entire chamber with blinding radiance. Unable to help himself, the Kururugi boy shielded his face, able to see the bones of his arms in the intense light.

Finally, several seconds later, the light subsided, allowing him to lower his arms and open his eyes once more. For a moment, Michiru's overloaded eyes could see very little, except for a steady, rhythmically pulsating light, as well as several blurred shapes around him. Shapes that slowly resolved into people as his eyes adjusted to the renewed darkness.

"It...is done," came the voice of the woman that had orchestrated the spell. And as Michiru's vision continued to sharpen, he saw that she was right. The five stones that had once been at the center of the room were gone, having been melted into a single crystallized rock. The newly formed crystal was only slightly bigger than one of the original five crystal stones, but glowed much more brilliantly as it hovered above the ground. And more importantly, Michiru could sense the power that radiated from it. Power far more intense than even that of the five original stones combined.

"Well done, all of you," the woman added, smiling at each of them. Then her eyes settled on the person to her right. "Go find Choza. Tell him that we've finished the fourth barrier stone."

"Right away, Haruna," the Slayer replied, bowing his head before leaving to carry out her orders.

Pausing to watch him depart, Haruna then turned and told them, "Why don't you go and have some rest? We still have several more stones to forge, including those for the wolf-demons." The three of them nodded, but as they turned to leave, she added, "Not you, Michiru." Letting out a sharp gasp, Michiru turned to face Haruna, and froze when he saw the intensity in her gaze. "I'd like to speak with you for a bit. If that's alright."

Getting the feeling that her last sentence was offered simply to keep words from sounding like the order he knew it to be, Michiru hesitated for a moment before answering, "Uh, sure. Of course, uh...not a problem."

With a polite smile, Haruna gestured to him, saying, "Walk with me." She then turned about and started forward, and knowing what was expected of him, Michiru was quick to follow. As the two Shikigami Users left the crystallized rock behind, the Demon Slayer turned and eyed him. "You were nervous back there."

Gulping loudly, Michiru returned her gaze. She was an attractive woman of about ten years his senior, her hair cut short in a practical fashion, and she was dressed in flowing robes. But what really captured his attention was her eyes, which had an intensity all their own. "Well...yeah."

"You were worried about what happened last time," Haruna murmured, clearly not asking a question. When Michiru nodded, she asked, "Why is that?"

Frowning somewhat, Michiru blinked a few times before answering, "Well...you saw what happened! I thought I'd killed us all!"

An amused chuckle sounding in her throat, Haruna shook her head answered, "We were in no danger, Michiru. Nor was what happened your fault." The Kururugi boy opened his mouth to protest, but before he could say a word, she shot him a look that stilled his tongue before it could even move. "You know as well as I do that it's not always ease to mesh the powers of the spirits with others, especially complete strangers."

"But...nothing happened the other times," Michiru lamely protested. "Besides, if I hadn't lost my concentration, then those stones wouldn't have been destroyed, and -!"

"You wouldn't have lost concentration if your fox-demon friend hadn't barged in, calling for your attention," Haruna told him in a somewhat laughing manner. "And as for the stones, it was no great loss."

"No great loss?!" Michiru repeated in a more despairing fashion. "We've already gone through half of them, just to make the barrier stones we already have! And I know you're planning on give whatever extra stones we make to the wolf-demons, and -!"

"Calm down, Michiru. Don't forget that we now have the four stones we need to insure our protection," Haruna told him, still speaking in that same even tone of voice. "Besides, we don't specifically need these poisonous stones as raw material. While the magic inherent to them does make it easier to forge them into barrier stones, we can use the raw elements of nature in our works."

Nodding, Michiru answered, "I know all that. But it's faster and easier to use Naraku's stones, and with all the problems you've had..."

"We need a new barrier to protect us. That's true. But we already have everything we need to create that, Michiru, and with the stones that are left, we'll be able to craft several spare stones, as well as ones to give to the wolf-demons," Haruna went on. "Once that is done, we will have not only reassured the wolf-demons of our value as allies, but we will be protecting them and ourselves. Allowing us the time to craft whatever we need once the poisonous stones have been converted." When Michiru didn't say anything to this, she gave him a rare smile and added, "Besides, you were the one who suggested using the poison stones to forge new barrier rocks in the first place. So without you, we wouldn't be nearly so far along in preparing out defenses."

"It's no big deal," Michiru replied dismissively. "I mean...anybody else could have thought of it."

"Perhaps. But it wasn't anybody else who thought of it. It was you," Haruna pointed out. "And who knows how much time would have been lost before someone else suggested using the stones thusly?" Michiru didn't say anything to this. He simply walked along in silence, his gaze falling to the floor. "You are still quite young, and have a great deal more to experience before you reach your full potential," she went on to say. "You need not - should not - feel any guilt."

Exhaling lowly, Michiru shrugged before answering, "I dunno...maybe."

The two of them walked in silence for a time. When Haruna broke the silence, it was to say, "Michiru, there's something I've been wanting to ask you." When he looked up at her, the Demon Slayer asked, "Have you ever been to Kururugi Village?"

Startled by this unexpected question, Michiru froze momentarily before replying, "Well...yeah. Why?"

"Your Shikigami, Michiru. Their forms and the style of the magic you practice are the same as those practiced by the priests and priestesses of the Kururugi Shrine." Having said that, Haruna frowned as she looked him over. "However, these clothes of yours...I've never seen anything like them before in these lands. And your behaviors, the way you speak..."

"Oh, yeah! That!" Michiru replied, understanding Haruna's confusion. Almost laughing as his cheeks colored, he ran his fingers through his hair as he struggled to compose a believable response. "Well, you see...my ancestors originally came from Kururugi Village. But...later on, they left there, and..."

Studying him as he trailed off, Haruna frowned slightly before asking, "Then, your ancestors...they traveled to other lands?"

Blinking a few times, Michiru quickly flashed back to his father's comments about adventuring in other worlds. "They sure did. In fact my father...he did a lot of traveling himself."

"I see. That explains much," Haruna nodded thoughtfully. "The reason I ask, Michiru, is because I had several scrolls containing much knowledge on how to use the power of the Shikigami. Scrolls drawn from many different schools of magic."

"Really?" Michiru asked, suddenly curious.

"Yes. Unfortunately, several of them were destroyed in the battle at the fort. Including the scrolls containing secrets kept within the Kururugi Shrine." Pressing her lips together in an uneasy frown, Haruna considered the Kururugi boy for a time. "However, you practice their magic, Michiru. Your Shikigami are proof of that. So...I was wondering...is it possible that you have any if their scrolls with you? Anything detailing the spells of the Kururugi Shrine?"

Blinking a few times, Michiru answered, "Well, yeah! Sure! I have stuff like that in my backpack!"

"Would you be so kind as to lend it to me?" Haruna asked hopefully. "I would only need it long enough for me to copy the contents into fresh scrolls."

Nodding, Michiru then answer, "No problem! If you like, I could get it for you right now!"

Haruna's face then broke into the broadest, brightest smile he had seen from her. "That would be most appreciated, Michiru. Let's go get it together."

"Okay," Michiru nodded with an easy smile of his own as they set off.

In almost no time at all, they had reached the section of the caves where Michiru and the others had set up their sleeping bags and other materials. "There we are!" the Kururugi boy beamed as he spotted his bag. "Here, I'll -!"

"Michiru! Michiru! Guess what!" came a familiar voice. One that nearly sent the Shikigami User leaping right out of his skin.

"Auugh!" Michiru cried out as he whirled about to face the voice's owner. "Shippo!" Heaving rapid, heavy breaths, the Kururugi boy stared at the little fox, his shock quickly turning to annoyance. "I told you not to do that! Don't you remember what happened last time?!"

"I'm sorry I scared you, really!" Shippo promptly apologized. "But they need some help outside. Miroku just got back with bringing back some supplies, and Hayate's getting people together to help bring it all in!"

"Ah, excellent! And with the new forge nearly completed as well," Haruna remarked with considerable satisfaction. "We better go assist them, then."

"That's okay, Haruna. I can go help," Michiru told her. "Why don't you get started on making those copies you were talking about?"

Blinking a few times as the Kururugi boy started forward, Haruna simply stood there. "Well, thank you, but...!"

Following her eyes as she looked from him and his backpack, Michiru smiled. "It's okay," he told her as he picked it up and handed the entire pack to her. "Just take whatever you need." As Haruna numbly accepted the bad, he paused to asked, "Just do me a favor and put everything back where it belongs when you're done, okay?"

"Well...certainly," Haruna nodded, seemingly surprised by the sudden turnaround.

Nodding his response, Michiru glanced down at his fox-demon friend. "Let's go, Shippo. I'm sure there's a lot more work ahead of us!"

"That's for sure!" Shippo replied jovially, and with that, the two of them departed.

"You ready, InuYasha?" Kaname asked, waving at the half-demon.

"Just say the word, you two!" InuYasha grinned, the Tetsusaiga held at the ready.

Nodding, Kaname glanced over at the Demon Slayer that was working with them. Pausing to nod at Kaname, he then looked towards InuYasha and called out, "Alright, then! On my mark...now!"

"You got it! Wind Scar!" InuYasha growled, raising the heirloom blade up overhead before smashing into the ground. The blast he unleashed roared towards the two Shikigami Users in almost as straight line.

"Now, Kaname!" the Demon Slayer told her. "Come forth, servant of the deep earth!"

"Oh, towering green wood!" Kaname invoked, a pentagram spinning into existence at her feet. Watching as the Demon Slayer's body lit up, a magical glyph appearing at his own feet, the two of them looked each other in the eyes before concluding, "Bring your powers together, to forge the wall of protection!" With this invocation, the snake that was her Wood Shikigami flew forth, mingling with the power of the Wind Scar, and was then joined by the mole that was the Demon Slayer's Earth Shikigami. As the two familiar spirits infused their power in the demonic blast ripping through the ground, the Wind Scar shifted from a brilliant yellow to a luminous blue. The blast also narrowed, focusing into a straight line that extended for a considerable distance before finally tapering off. Leaving behind a deep groove in the earth that shined a deep, brilliant blue.

Silence fell on the three of them as they stood there and watched. As they did so, a low, distant rumbling was felt moving through the ground, steadily growing in intensity. The debris left in the wake of the Wind Scar trembled violently, until at last a massive vine erupted from the groove, quickly rising to tower above the three of them. This was soon followed by the appearance of another vine, and then another, and then even more, all of them growing along the path carved by the Tetsusaiga.

As the rapidly grew, sending out tendrils that interwove with those of their neighbors, the pulverized earth surrounding them lit up with even greater light. Chunks of rock, pebbles, and dirt all began to gravitate to the vines, slowly covering them in their entirety. "Well done, you two," the Demon Slayer beamed as the rocks fused the plants, rapidly fossilizing them. "At this rate, we'll have the base of the fort's walls done before the day is out."

"I sure hope so," InuYasha muttered, hefting the Tetsusaiga over his shoulder. "Because you still got a lot of work ahead of you before you can get away with calling this place a fort."

"True, but at least we're making good progress," the Demon Slayer remarked. "Let's get to work on the next segment."

Kaname nodded to this, but even as they started forward, they were stopped when a voice called out, "Jou! Jou, come quick!"

"Huh?" the Demon Slayer frowned, turning to meet his compatriot. "What is it? Is something wrong?"

"No! We've got good news!" the new Slayer smiled happily. "I just heard! The fourth barrier stone is finally ready!"

"Really?!" Jou breathed, a grin curling his lips.

Nodding quickly, the new Demon Slayer informed them, "Hayate has ordered us to begin work on temporary shrines for the stones! He wants them in place and ready for activation as soon as possible!"

"Heh. Sounds like a good idea to me!" InuYasha decided with mild snort.

"It sounds like one to me, too," Jou chimed in as he turned to them. "Listen, I better get going. I know Hayate well enough to know that he won't be happy if we keep him waiting!"

Nodding quickly, Kaname asked, "Do you want us to come help, too?"

"Thanks, but that's alright. It shouldn't take too long to put them together," Jou replied with a friendly smile. "Besides, it takes a lot of precision to make the shrines so that they can shape the power of the barrier stones. And...no offense, you two, but..."

"In other words, we don't know how to do it, and ya don't want to waste time in showing us how," InuYasha muttered, his free hand on his hip and his eyes narrowed just enough to make it clear what he thought of Jou's statement. "Is that about right?"

"As you may recall, we don't have any time to waste. We need to get the barrier stones in place right away," the newcomer Demon Slayer intoned. "Jou..."

Glancing between his fellow Demon Slayer and the others, Jou finally shrugged. "I'm sorry." When InuYasha snorted, he cocked his head in the direction of the caves. "Listen, why don't you go back and get some rest. You've earned that much, at least."

"Hmph. Whatever," InuYasha muttered, sheathing the Tetsusaiga as the two Demon Slayers departed.

Looking from the departing figures to the half-demon, Kaname shook her head and told him, "You didn't have to be that way, you know. Jou was only trying to be nice about it."

"Nice about what?!" InuYasha muttered crossly. "He basically said that you were too stupid to help them make their damn shrines." Blinking rapidly, Kaname was about to protest that this wasn't what they had said when the half-demon snorted and added, "I bet you know way more about Shikigami magic than he does."

Taken aback by this declaration, at this simple statement of faith, Kaname's momentary ire faded. "Maybe," she conceded, her cheeks coloring. "But he does have more experience in using Shikigami to do things like build stuff and make tools and shrines and that sort of thing." InuYasha snorted at this, looking off to the side as he folded his arms across his chest. "Besides, I wouldn't mind taking a break. Would you?"

Growling in his throat, InuYasha finally muttered, "Eh, I guess not." Then he glanced at her and asked, "Are you hungry?"

"Well..." Kaname started, pausing to take stock. "A little, I guess."

"Good! So am I!" InuYasha replied, his expression softening as he started forward. "So while those guys are busting their butts, putting together those shrines of theirs, we can kick back, relax, and have some noodles for lunch!" Chuckling at this, the half-demon glanced down at Kaname and asked, "Uh, we do still have some noodles left, don't we?"

Surprised by this sudden mood whiplash, Kaname required a moment to consider her answer. "Um...we should," she murmured as she tried to recall their exact food situation. "I think there's still a couple cups left in my backpack."

"Great!" InuYasha, all smiles as he walked alongside of her.

As the two of them made their way back to the caves, Kaname found herself frowning in thought. InuYasha was mad because he thought Jou didn't think I was able to help, she mused, glancing up at the half-demon. And right now, he seems...pretty happy about sharing lunch with me. So...does that mean that he...he likes me? That...?

Her heart beating that much faster as her train of thought neared its conclusion, that same train was suddenly derailed when Kaname lurched forward. Completely off-balance, she returned to the real world just in time to realize that she was going to wind up crashing fast down into the dirt.

Just as suddenly as she found herself doomed, Kaname was rescued from her impending crash when a strong set of hands wrapped about her shoulders. "Hey, are you alright?" InuYasha wondered as he steadied her, easily putting her back on her feet. "What happened?!"

"Huh? Oh, sorry, InuYasha!" Kaname got out, her heart still beating a bit faster after her near spill. "I...I guess I got distracted, and..."

"Well, do me a favor, and be more careful, alright?" InuYasha muttered gruffly as he turned to face her. "The last thing you need to do is wind up hurting yourself, okay?"

"Alright. Sorry about that," Kaname returned somewhat shakily. "Uh..." she began again, smiling weakly. "Thanks for...uh..."

"Hey, don't mention it," InuYasha told her with an easy smile. "Now, c'mon! Let's go eat before something else hap-!"

"InuYasha!" came a familiar voice. One that had both Shikigami User and half-demon freezing in place before looking up towards the speaker.

"Kagome?!" InuYasha started, his mouth popping open as the raven-haired girl approached. "Wh-when did you -?!"

"I just got back a few minutes ago," Kagome replied, her brows furrowed somewhat as she approached. "So...what have you two been doing?"

Kaname and InuYasha just stood there, staring blankly at Kagome before slowly turning to look at each other. Then the half-demon's eyes drifted down to his hands, which were still about Kaname's shoulders. A strangled gasp sounding in his throat, he released her as if suddenly realizing he was about to burn his hands. "H-hey, we weren't doing anything, okay?!"

Nodding quickly, Kaname seconded, "That's right. You see, I tripped, and InuYasha caught me! That's all!"

"And if you're wondering what we were doing before that, we just spent half the day helping build this fort!" InuYasha grated impatiently. "We were just heading back to have something to eat, okay?!"

"Oh, really?" Kagome returned, her voice still holding an edge of menace to it. Several seconds passed as she shifted her gaze from InuYasha to Kaname, at which her eyes subtly narrowed. The Kururugi girl winced at the sight of the baleful eyes, eyes that were laden with suspicion. But then Kagome looked back at InuYasha, and her expression shifted to a pleasant smile. "Well, you're in luck then! I just brought back a fresh supply of food for us!"

"That's right," came another voice, one that startled Kaname into looking for its source. Then she noticed Miroku coming up alongside of Kagome, wearing his usual expression of a penitent monk. "We just finished distributing some of it those Slayers in most need of food, but we still have plenty left for ourselves."

Pausing to consider this, InuYasha let out a low sigh of relief. "Well, there's some good news!"

"Indeed. Now we don't have to worry about using up what food the Demon Slayers have left," Miroku agreed in a cheerful manner.

"Right. Now, c'mon, InuYasha!" Kagome encouraged him even as she came up and grabbed him by the arm. The half-demon sounded his surprise as he was pulled off-balance, forcing him to start forward lest he land on the ground face first. "Let's have something nice to eat! I brought plenty of canned meat and vegetables, so I can whip up a nice lunch for all of us!"

"Hey, now - wait a second!" InuYasha protested to no avail, Kagome turning a deaf ear to him.

After watching this for a moment, Kaname frowned and started after them. Why was she so upset just now? she wondered as Kagome continued to basically manhandle InuYasha. I tripped, that's all! It's not like we actually did anything! Why did she act like it was something else? Her eyes focusing on the half-demon, the Kururugi girl's frown deepened. And...why didn't she believe him when he said that we'd been working? Doesn't she trust him?

As these questions assailed her, Kaname thought back to her brother's tales regarding InuYasha and the others, including the messy situation that involved the half-demon, Kagome, and Kikyo. I know how that must bug her, knowing that InuYasha still loves Kikyo and everything, but...why would she act this way? Unless...does she think I was putting the moves on him? As the Shikigami User considered this, she found herself torn. On the one hand, she knew full well that InuYasha and Kagome did not enjoy the smoothest of relationships, one that was marred at times by jealousy on both ends. But at the same time, she couldn't think of a single thing that could have been considered suspicious or illicit about what they had been doing. And why would she think that, anyway? I mean...I do like InuYasha, but...we weren't holding each other or kissing or anything like that! So why? Her eyes narrowing as she looked at the reborn priestess, Kaname thought with a hint of anger, Doesn't she trust him? Or me?

This unsettling thought in mind, Kaname continued onwards, feeling her insides twist about. As the five of them approached the entrance to the eastern caves, she noticed a couple of Demon Slayers approach, led by Hayate. "Hello, Lady Kagome. Everyone."

Releasing her hold on InuYasha, Kagome beamed and answer, "Hi there, Hayate! How're things going?"

"Better, now," Hayate answered without missing a beat. "As you may have heard, we just completed another barrier stone. Once we set up shrines to hold them, we'll be able to project a barrier around the entire fort."

"That's great!" Kagome beamed happily. "I hope you don't have to, though!"

"As do we," remarked another Demon Slayer. "By the way, thanks for bringing us those supplies. We really did need them."

"It's no problem. I'm only sorry that I couldn't get you more," Kagome replied somewhat sadly.

"No, no. It's quite alright. We're grateful for everything you and your friends have done for us," another Demon Slayer assured them.

Nodding to this, Hayate reported, "Lady Kagome, there's something I need to tell you." The modern priestess frowned slightly, cocking her head to the side. "Shortly after you left for your home, Koga came here looking for you."

"He did?" Kagome asked, her smile failing somewhat. "Why? Was something wrong?"

"No, he didn't say if anything was wrong," Hayate assured her. "He did tell us to tell that there was something important that he needed to discuss with you as soon as you got back."

Kagome's face promptly fell at this, leaving her to groan heavily as he brought her hand to her temple. "Aw, damn!" InuYasha grumbled irritably. "Why can't that damned wolf just get lost and stay there?!"

"InuYasha..." Kagome groaned, opening her eyes just wide enough to shoot him a lethal glare. While the half-demon was recoiling, a drop of sweat rolling down the side of his head, the raven-haired girl turned back to Hayate and asked, "I don't suppose he mentioned any particular time that I had to go see him, did he?"

"No," Hayate confirmed. "Only that he wanted to see you when you returned."

Nodding to this, Kagome sighed and muttered, "Well, at least I can have lunch with all of you."

His eyes bulging at this, InuYasha spat, "What?! You mean you're gonna see that scrawny -?!" Kagome whipped about to face the half-demon before he could complete this sentence, wearing such a scary expression that it wasn't just InuYasha, but everyone else that recoiled in fear.

"Let's just have lunch already, okay?" Kagome grumbled in a low, unhappy voice before starting into the caves.

As Miroku followed her, Kaname turned to InuYasha and asked, "What was all that about?"

"Hmph! You got me!" InuYasha snorted, quickly regaining his usual temperament. "I'll never get what she sees in that scrawny wolf."

Nodding to this, Kaname watched as the half-demon marched forward, a heavy scowl on his face. Just before he entered the caves, she got out, "Say...InuYasha?"

"Yeah, what is it?" InuYasha asked as he turned to give her a grumpy look.

Faced this expression, Kaname simply froze, her mind completely empty. Wh-what...why did I...what was I going to say to him?! she asked of herself. I mean - I just opened my mouth and - I wasn't even thinking! I -! Her train of thought degenerating into a hopeless jumble, the Shikigami User then looked up at the half-demon. Seeing the impatient look he had, she realized that she was waiting for her to say something. But...what should I...?

Confused and embarrassed and with absolutely no idea of what she could or should say, Kaname swallowed loudly before sputtering out, "I...I was just thinking...that maybe..."

"Yeah?" InuYasha prompted her with growing impatience.

Started by this curt response, Kaname found her mind suddenly sparked into activity, at which she asked, "Maybe next time...I could make lunch for us."

His impatient frown turning to a look of surprise, InuYasha studied the Kururugi girl for a moment. "Well...okay," he finally replied. "Sure. That'd be fine." Then he gave a helpless shrug and added, "If you really want to."

A smile of relief spreading across her face, Kaname returned, "Okay. Thanks."

"What are you thanking me for?" InuYasha wondered with a snort and a wry smile. "Now, c'mon. Let's get something to eat already!" Nodding her agreement, Kaname came up alongside the half-demon, and the two of them entered the caves together.

A bit later that afternoon, Kagome and a small group of Demon Slayers led by a spiritualist by the name of Kei made their way from the fledgling fort to the section of the mountains where the wolf-demons made their home. Despite the curious gazes shot given them by several passing wolf-demons and the wolves that were their companions, the group traveled until they reached the cave that Kagome recognized as being Yorozuko's home.

As had happened when they had first arrived at the mountains, a small group of wolf-demons emerged from the caves. "Greetings, Lady Kagome! Demon Slayers!" announced the leader of the welcoming party. "We've been expecting you."

Politely bowing her head as the wolf-demons approached, Kei responded, "Hello, Yagura."

The lead wolf-demon froze at this, looking at Kei in clear surprise. "You...remembered me?"

"Of course," Kei replied in a pleasant manner. "And I'm glad to see that you're feeling better. I was worried."

"Uh...you were?" Yagura started, clearly excited by this. Then one of the other wolf-demons made cleared his throat rather loudly, causing the lead wolf to wince. "Er, that is...!" he tried again, his cheeks coloring, "Uh...Koga, he...when he heard that...you were coming, he asked that we escort you to him."

In other words, those weren't just curious wolf-demons we saw on the way here, Kagome thought, inwardly kicking herself for this oversight. Heck, they probably smelled us coming from a mile away!

As she thought this, Kagome glanced over at Kei. The spiritualist gave her a sideways glance, then nodded before returning his attention to the wolf-demons. "Then, please, take us to him."

"Right away!" Yagura answered with a bow of his head. Gesturing for them to follow, the wolf-demon started forward. A moment later, the small group of humans were right behind him, maintaining a polite distance as they followed them into the caves.

As they journeyed towards Yorozuko's chamber, Kei slowly pulled up alongside of Yagura. "How are your friends doing?" When the wolf-demon shot her a puzzled look, she elaborated with, "The others who fought alongside us at the fort. How are they doing?"

His mouth popping open as his eyes lit up with comprehension, Yagura promptly answered, "They're all recovered, Kei. Uh...thanks to you and the other Slayers, of course." The spiritualist bowed her head politely to this. "And, there's something that I...I've been wanting to know."

"What's that?" Kagome wondered.

"Uh...well, you see...you heard about what...happened to us because of Toma, right? About us being...exiled?" Yagura asked, his shame and humiliation clear in his voice. The two girls nodded, making sounds of confirmation, to which the lead wolf-demon squirmed somewhat before saying, "Well, it's just that...I heard that...your leader, Daisuke? That...he was the one who demanded that we be allowed to return to the tribe."

"He did," Kei answered simply. "When Daisuke had heard about how Toma had forced you and the others to follow him, he was...upset with Koga about his decision to banish you. And given your selflessness in helping to defend ourselves against Naraku's forces, he formally requested that the exile lifted when we finalized our alliance." Then she frowned slightly before asking, "Why do you ask?"

"Because...that makes it twice that your people have saved us, Kei," Yagura explained, his voice cracking slightly beneath the weight of intense emotion. "After Toma lost the tournament, we...I never thought I would ever see this place again. Ever be able to come home, to see my family...and it's not just me. Sora, he...his mate is expecting their first pup, and Baki, he..." His voice giving out, unable to convey what he felt, the lead wolf-demon shook his head and let out a heavy sigh. "When Koga announced that we were going to be able to go home...we can never thank you or your people enough for that Kei. Ever."

Smiling pleasantly, the spiritualist bowed her head somewhat before telling him, "You don't have to thank us, Yagura. You all risked your lives fighting for us. And that's something we don't forget. Ever."

Nodding to this, Yagura looked about as close to tears as any demon Kagome had ever seen. But even as he prepared to speak again, the same wolf-demon that had cleared his throat before said, "Uh...we're almost there?"

"Hmm? Oh, right," Yagura started, glancing back at other wolf-demon. Within seconds, Yagura had cleared his throat and straightened himself, enough so that he looked fully alert and at the ready when the group arrived in the central chamber. It looked much like it had before, except now it was Koga who was sitting where Zorozuko had once been. "Koga, we've brought the emissaries from the Demon Slayers, as you requested."

"So I noticed," Koga responded in a terse fashion. The alpha wolf looked pretty much as he had the last time Kagome had seen him. The crystalline carapace that now adorned his body shown just as brightly and perfectly as it did the night he had emerged from the cocoon. She also noticed, with considerable dismay, that the injury he had suffered at Daisuke's hand remained.

As she took noticed of this, Kagome was brought back to the present when Koga grinned and added, "Why, hello there, Kagome! I was wondering when you'd get back!" Cocking his head to the side, he then asked, "I take it you got my message?"

"That's right," Kagome nodded. "You...wanted to talk to me about something?"

"I did. But, uh...that can wait for now," Koga assured her. With a mild grunt of effort, the alpha wolf slid off the ledge and landed on the ground before them. "Right now, I'm interested in hearing what brings the rest of you here."

"We've come because you asked to be kept apprised as to our current status," Kei replied before taking a step forward. "As of this afternoon, the fort's outer wall is nearing completion. We expect to have it finished within five days at the most. Furthermore, we've finished production of four barrier stones, and are currently forging more of them for your people to use."

"Excellent!" Koga grinned, clearly pleased. "So how long until our stones are ready?"

"The first one should be completed some time tonight. The rest of them will need a few more days to complete, however," Kei explained. "I should also inform you that our new forge has been completed, and with the materials we've salvaged from our original fort, we'll be able to begin construction of new weapons, tools, and armors for both our peoples."

Grinning happily at this, Koga glanced at the other wolf-demons present. "Ha, this just gets better and better!" he declared, his face one big grin. "And what perfect timing, too! You see, Ayame and several others have been gathering up the remains of Toma's monsters these past few days. You can pick them up on the way back home."

"We'd be glad to. And we thank you for these supplies," Kei responded, still speaking in that same, polite tone. "When we have produced a suitable number of arms and tools, we will send them to you."

"Wow, this is turning into a day for great news, isn't it?" Koga commented, his grin growing that much more. "Will there be anything else?"

"Just one more thing. You should know that, in order to shape the power of the barrier stones in order to create a barrier that enclosed a defined region, you need specially designed shrines to house them," Kei informed him. "We are building those even as we speak. However, we would like to survey the area, so we can choose the best locations for the shrines to be placed."

Koga considered this for a moment before nodding. "Fair enough. But I'd like to talk with Yorozuko and Robai about how big an area we wish to have protected. Once that's done, you can start surveying the area."

"Agreed. However, I feel I should remind you that, the larger the area you want protected, the more stones it will take to create the barrier," Kei told him. "And therefore, the longer it will take for us to forge them."

"Understood," Koga responded. "So...will there be anything else?"

"Just one more thing." With that, Kei glanced down at Koga's abdomen, at the spot where Daisuke had connected with his Hand of Fate. As Kagome looked at it, she grimaced, for in the days since she had last seen Koga, what had once been a large, red welt had turned into an even larger, swollen bruise. "I see that your injury hasn't healed yet," she continued, the corner of her lip curling ever so slightly. "Would you like for me to tend to it while I'm here?"

Wincing somewhat at this, Koga's pompous grin rapidly deflated, becoming little more than very sheepish smile. "Eh...thanks, but...that's okay," Koga replied, a drop of sweat rolling down the side of his head as waved aside her concerns. "It just...looks worse than it is, really." Shifting about nervously, Koga quickly changed the subject. "Hey, Yagura! Why don't you and your buddies take our allies to Ayame so they can collect the stuff she's got for them."

"Right away, Koga," Yagura replied, snapping to attention.

Yagura turned to leave, but was stopped when Koga added, "Oh, and one more thing. I'm pretty sure that Ayame's gathered up quite a bit of junk and whatever, so why don't you all help them carry it all back home?"

Whipping about to look at Koga, Yagura stared stupefied at him for a moment. "You...want us to...?"

"Hey, do I have to repeat myself here?!" Koga broke in with a voice that Kagome recognized as being mock-scolding. "I'm telling you to help our allies out here! Is that really so hard for you to understand?!"

"Uh, no! Of course not!" Yagura responded, his voice rising as he stood ramrod straight. "We'll be happy to assist them in any way, Koga! You can count on that!"

"Great! Then why don't you get started?!" Koga asked derisively.

"Uh, sure! Right away!" With that, Yagura quickly turned and started out of the caves. Before he could get very far, though, he paused and looked back at Kei. "Um...this way, Kei."

"Of course," Kei replied with a definite smile. This wasn't lost on Yagura, whose cheeks colored somewhat as he started forward, the Demon Slayer right behind him.

As Kagome considered if she should follow or not, Koga quickly negated that possibility. "Eh, hold up, Kagome," the alpha wolf told her as he came up alongside of her. "There's still something that I need to talk to you about." Then he looked up at the wolf-demons and Demon Slayers that were still there, having paused to look back at them. "The rest of you can go on ahead. No offense, but what I got to say...it's kind of sensitive."

Kagome sucked in an involuntary gasp at this. One that did not go unnoticed by Kei, who frowned and asked, "Kagome? Is something wrong?"

"Hmm?" Kagome started as she met the Demon Slayer's gaze. Acting on impulse, she smiled her biggest, fakest smile, waving both hands before her as she sputtered out, "Oh, no, I'm fine, Kei! Just fine!" Letting out an equally fake giggle, she glanced at the alpha wolf before adding, "Just...go on ahead! I'll catch up with you soon enough! Promise!"

Kei stood there, studying the both of them for a time before finally nodding. "Very well. We'll meet you down near the edge of the mountains where we first arrived. Agreed?"

"Okay. That shouldn't be a problem," Kagome replied before again looking at the person putting her in this position. "Right, Koga?"

"Certainly. This won't take long," Koga assured them. "And after we're done, I'll personally see you all get back together again. Sound good?"

Kei considered the alpha wolf for a time before glancing over at Kagome. The raven-haired nodded once, which the spiritualist promptly returned. "Alright. We'll see you then." With that, she turned back to Yagura, and smiled once again. "After you."

"Right," Yagura nodded, and with a smile of his own, started forward again.

Once the chamber was empty save for Kagome and Koga, the alpha would chuckled happily. "Heh heh, he sure has the hots for her!"

A startled noise sounding in her throat, Kagome turned to Koga. "Huh?"

"Yagura! He's got his eye on that Demon Slayer, Kei!" Koga explained, folding his arms across his chest. "He's been going on about her ever since he got back home!"

"He has?!" Kagome gaped, turning to look down the passage the others had gone down. As she did so, she thought back to before, and furrowed her brow in consideration. "Well...he did seem pretty happy to see her when we got here..."

"Happy? That's putting it mildly, Kagome! Trust me on that!" Koga grinned, folding his arms behind his head. "Not that I mind that, of course! Frankly, I think a little mingling between our peoples is a great thing. It'll help make this alliance last." Then he gave her one of his patented looks of desire before adding, "Besides, you and I know both know that relationships between humans and demons happen, right?"

Not even wanting to go there at the moment, Kagome sweat-dropped and quickly changed the subject. "By the way, Koga...why didn't you let Kei look at that thing?" He gave her a puzzled look, at which she pointed at the massive bruise marking his abdomen. "I mean, look at it! Doesn't that hurt?"

Glancing down at the swollen bruise, Koga gave a dismissive wave. "Eh, don't worry about it, Kagome! It's no big deal!"

"No big deal?! It's huge, Koga!" Kagome protested, marching up to him. "I swear, it's gotten twice as big since I last saw you!"

"Don't worry about! Believe it or not, it's actually getting better," Koga assured her.

Her mouth popping open, Kagome pointed at this hideous mark. "You call that getting better?!"

Giving her a wry look, Koga countered, "Heh. If you think this is bad, you shoulda seen it the day after I got hammered!" Snorting loudly, he eyes the injury before deciding, "Daisuke sure hasn't lost his touch, that's for sure!"

"Maybe, but...I still think you should get it looked at," Kagome insisted. "I'm sure the Demon Slayers can spare someone to..."

"No. Right now, it's important that they keep doing what they're doing. Preparing their fort, taking care of their people, that sort of thing!" Koga promptly countered. "Just in case..."

Not liking the way he said that, Kagome asked, "Koga...what's happening? Are you having more problems?"

Snorting lightly, Koga replied, "Nope. The same old problems...but getting worse." Kagome opened her mouth to say something else, but then the alpha wolf waved her off. "We can deal with it later." Then he looked squarely at her, and with a heavy, authoritative voice she rarely heard out of him, he told her, "Right now, there's something else I need to talk to you about. Something important."

This declaration settling on Kagome's shoulders like lead bricks, she sighed heavily. She had known this moment was coming for some time now, since he had given her his Sacred Jewel Shards. And it had been a moment that she had wanted to put off for as long as possible, which was one of her motivations in returning home to fetch additional supplies. But there was no putting it off any longer. All she could do was play with the hand she had been dealt, and hope everything worked alright.

Even as she thought this, Koga began the conversation that she had been dreading for days. "Now, here's the thing. I knew right from the day I first met you that you weren't from around here." Smirking, he gestured at her clothes and added, "I mean, let's face it, none of the villagers I'd seen before wore anything like that outfit."

"Koga..." Kagome started, only to be brought up short when he held his hand out to her.

"Just...tell me the truth, Kagome," Koga asked her, his voice begging her in a way she wouldn't have imagined before. "Is it true? What Kagura said?" Stepping closer to her, he seemed to tower over her as he asked, "Are you and the others...from another time?"

Her lips parting, Kagome just stood there, considering what to say or do. Half-notions of lying to Koga or giving him an omitted version of her story came and were promptly dismissed. Until at last she had no choice but to nod and admit. "It's true. But...not all of us are...you know?"

Nodding quickly, Koga replied, "Let me guess. Michiru and Kaname?" Now it was Kagome who nodded, prompting the alpha wolf to sigh. "Yeah, I figured. They wear the same kind of clothes as you, after all." His brows furrowing, he added, "And then we have Kagura's little comment about them being Utsugi's descendants..."

"Koha, please, I hope you don't blame them for what Utsugi did," Kagome pleaded. "Besides, before Utsugi's mask was destroyed, we...we didn't even know what he looked like! Let alone that he..."

“Don't worry, Kagome. I don't blame either of the twins for what that bastard did," Koga assured her. He was about to continue, but then a look of realization shaded his face, at which he asked, "Uh, that reminds me...whatever happened to him, anyway? Did you and the mutt take care of him, or...?"

"You don't have to worry about Utsugi, Koga," Kagome told him, thinking back to the events that took place just outside Kururugi Village. Of the gentle, brave human being he had become just before his death, one that wanted only to die with the soul of the woman he loved. The person they had buried as a hero for sacrificing himself to stop Naraku. "He...he's dead, now. He...Naraku killed him."

"Ha! Well, good riddance, then!" Koga grinned, snickering in delight. "Serves the bastard right for what he did!"

Stung by this, Kagome was sorely tempted to tell give Koga both barrels for his condescending comment. But even as she felt this, she realized that she honestly couldn't blame him for feeling that way. He hadn't been there at the final battle with Utsugi. He didn't know him for what he truly was. Besides, there's no getting around the fact that he was working with Naraku, she reminded himself. And he did attack...and kill...a lot of Koga's friends back then.

Unwilling to speak of Utsugi just then, Kagome sighed and tried to get back on subject. "Anyway, Koga...is that it? You just...wanted me to tell you that...we're...?"

His pleased expression fading, Koga placed his hands to his hips. "Not exactly, Kagome. There's...one other thing I wanted to ask you," he admitted hesitantly. "Why...didn't you tell me about this?"

"Why?" Kagome repeated blankly.

"Is it because you...you didn't trust me?" Koga wondered, sounding despondent as he voiced that possibility. "I mean, if that's it, then...I...I thought that..." Trailing as his emotions got the better of him, he shook his head before blurting, "Dammit, Kagome, I've...I've done everything I can to help you! I never told anybody about the mutt's secret! I -!"

"No, Koga! That's...that's not it." Heaving a deep breath, Kagome paused to organize her thoughts. To make sure that she said this in just the right way, lest she damage a friendship she wanted to keep. "It's...well, actually, I had several reasons for...not telling you." The alpha wolf frowned somewhat, his crystal carapace flashing brighter. "For starters...I didn't even know how to tell you! I mean...just go up to you and say, 'Hey, guess what, Koga! I'm from the future!' I mean...how would you react to that? How would anybody?!"

Rumbling in his throat, Koga considered this for a moment before answering, "Well...yeah, I guess you gotta point there."

"Besides, Koga...we - that is, me, InuYasha, and the others - we all decided a long time ago not to tell anybody about...where I or the Kururugis are from, or how we get from our time to this one, or anything else. Not if we could avoid it. It'd be too dangerous," Kagome explained.

"Dangerous? Dangerous how?" Koga frowned uncertainly.

Pausing to consider her next statement, Kagome sighed and decided that it would be best to simply lay all her cards out on the table. "You see...near my home, in my time, there's a well called the Bone-Eater's Well. It exists in this time as well, and it's be going through it that we can go between the two times," she explained carefully, making certain not to let it slip where the Well was located in this world. "Now, most people can't use the Well themselves, but some demons have been able to corrupt the Well, and use its power to attack my time. In fact, when I first came here, it was because a demon came out of the Well and dragged me back here!"

"Really?!" Koga gaped, taken aback by this statement.

"That's right," Kagome continued. "Also, when Michiru first came here, it was because he was dragged her by one of Utsugi's spells. And we think Utsugi somehow used the magic of the Well to make it happen."

Letting out a low, gusty sigh, Koga shook his head before admitting, "Well, I can see why you'd want to keep something like that a secret. But...you know me, Kagome! I'd never try and do something nasty with this Well of yours!"

"I know that, Koga!" Kagome quickly assured him. "But even so, we don't want to take any chances! One slip of the tongue, and half the people in this time will be in on our little secret!" When Koga didn't look convinced, she quickly wracked her brain and came up with a good example of what she meant. "I mean - when you started talking about it before, Ginta, Hakkaku...they all heard you! Now, I know that was an accident, and they wouldn't do anything to hurt us, but if that sort of thing can happen once, then it can happen again."

"Eh...yeah, okay. Good point," Koga replied with a quick nod. "And don't worry, Kagome. I promise I'll keep your secret."

Heaving a deep breath of relief, Kagome beamed and replied, "Thanks, Koga. I really do appreciate it." When he gave her a dopey smile in return, she asked, "So...what are you going to tell Ginta and Hakkaku?"

"Those two? Nothing! Not with mouths like theirs!" Koga retorted with a roll of his eyes. Lightheaded with relief, Kagome soon found herself chuckling rather loudly at this. "Anyway, Kagome...I don't suppose you could...tell me what things are like. You know...in your time?"

"I can do better than that, Koga," Kagome replied with an impish look. "Sometime when you have the chance, I can take you through the Well, and then you can see for yourself!"

"Really?" Koga started, to which Kagome quickly nodded. "Well, in that case, I guess it's not a matter of 'if', but 'when'!"

And hopefully, 'when' is going to be a long time from now! Kagome thought hopefully.

"And now that that's settled, how about we go track down Kei and the others?" Koga asked, wrapping his arm about Kagome's shoulders. "Not that I want you to go so soon, but...well, with everything that's happening..."

"I know. Being the leader is a full-time job, after all!" Kagome commented in a teasing manner.

"Heh! Ain't that the truth?" Koga replied as the two of them started on their way.

Grunting with effort, Sango made her way through the courtyard of the ruined fort. Exhaustion hung about her like a shroud of chainmail, bogging her down as she carried her burden of demon bones and whatever bits of clothing and other materials. Exhaustion borne of more than the physical exertions she had put forth these past few days.

After the majority of the Demon Slayers had been evacuated to the eastern caves, Sango had returned with Daisuke and several of his finest Demon Slayers, working to scavenge whatever they could from the decimated fort. A task that was significantly less difficult for her than duty she and the others had taken upon themselves; given the Slayers who had fallen in battle a proper burial in the courtyard.

As she made her way past the graves she and the others had dug, Sango couldn't help but glance at them, thinking of how she and the others had laid the bodies in each open grave, and then proceeded to bury them in the earth. And as she did so, she couldn't help but remember that, not all that long ago, they had been living, breathing human beings, each of them with hopes and dreams of their own. Brave warriors, so much like her own friends and family. The people InuYasha and the others had given a decent burial.

If only we had gotten there a bit sooner! Sango thought as she studied the graves, each of them marked with the weapons the dead had wielded in life. If we had just defeated Toma sooner...or if Koga hadn't...!

As these thoughts built up, the woman warrior winced and forced them out of her mind. One of the first lessons Sango had learned was that she couldn't allow herself to fill her mind with 'ifs' or 'maybes' or any of those other vague, self-recriminations. Because the instant she started to doubt herself was the instant she lost a major battle.

Of course...it's never that easy, Sango knew, forcing herself to look ahead. And...at least we were able to save...most of them. Which wasn't an ideal situation, she knew. But in the world they lived in, 'ideal' was an abstract concept that very rarely became reality.

This heavy thoughts swirling about in her mind, Sango approached the part of the courtyard that had become their dumping grounds for the raw materials she and the others had salvaged. As she did so, she spotted a couple figures standing nearby, dumping loads of their own onto the pile. A pile that she noticed was much smaller than the previous ones.

"Is that all you were able to find, Sango?" Daisuke wondered as she approached, idly rotating his left shoulder.

"Pretty much," Sango answered as she deposited her contribution to the growing pile. "There're still a few bits and pieces, but they're in bad shape. I'm not sure if we can use them."

Nodding to this, Daisuke answered, "I think that we've gotten just about everything we can get out of this place." Then he turned to the Demon Slayer next to him. "What about the others, Izumi? How are they doing?

"Better. They're all pretty much recovered from that skirmish with the bat-demons," Izumi reported evenly. "But I'd rather they didn't go into battle again anytime soon. Magical healing does have its limits."

"So you keep reminding me," Daisuke replied with a wry smile. A smile that promptly disappeared as he added, "And it doesn't help when you have to be healed every single day."

"I know," Sango grimly agreed. In the days since the fort had been evacuated, news of the tremendous battle fought there had spread almost instantly. As a result, several groups of demons from the local tribes had come hunting there, looking for the chance to settle old scores they had with Daisuke's people. "And the attacks have been coming more and more frequently."

"Agreed," Daisuke acknowledged. He then glanced at the small pile of salvaged materials, then at Izumi. "Go to the others and tell them to be ready. When Miroku and Hachi return, we'll load up whatever we have, and then we'll pull out.

"Right, Daisuke," Izumi nodded before turning to implement his orders.

As the other Demon Slayer disappeared, Daisuke sighed before glancing about at the shattered fort. "I never thought it would come to this, Sango," he admitted, many memories and emotions visible in his eyes. "We've had our share of rough battles, but...I never thought we would ever have to leave this place. Not in my lifetime, anyway."

"I know, Daisuke," Sango told him. Placing her hand on his shoulder, she tried to convey as much comfort as she could. "I know how much this hurts. For all of us."

Nodding, Daisuke placed his hand on Sango's. "Yes, you do," he replied, his voice heavy and old in a way she had never heard before. "You've had to bear up under an enormous burden, my friend." The two of them turned to look at each other, both seeing the pain in each other's eyes. "When you told me about happened to your father and the others..."

"I know," Sango replied, thinking back to the time spent there at the fort. Time in which she had been able to explain to Daisuke how she, her father, and Kohaku had been led to Naraku's castle, and everything had happened there. The horror of watching her little brother made into a puppet on Naraku's strings, a puppet he had happily used to attack her and the others. The agony of being struck down by the guards in residence there, the shock she had felt in finding that she had been buried alive. And the hatred that had burned through her veins when she had learned that everything she had loved in life had been taken from her. "Daisuke, I..."

Nodding slowly, Daisuke brought his hand to her cheek. "I know, Sango. I know how hard it's been for you."

"Thank you," Sango replied, lowering her gaze somewhat. "Daisuke...what are you going to do about the fort once we leave? Are you...going to burn it, or..."

"We'll leave it as it is. To keep watch over the bodies of our comrades," Daisuke answered as he turned and looked about the familiar walls. Walls that he could likely see as they were before, when this place had been their home, not a shattered ruin. "It was their home in life. Now it will shelter them in death."

"I see," Sango answered, finding herself agreeing with the veteran warrior. Pausing to study the many graves, she sighed and said, "Daisuke, I'm really sorry. I... "

Holding up his hand, Daisuke placed his fingers to her lips. "It's alright, Sango. I understand," he told her in a gentle fashion. "It's not easy, going through you did. To feel alone, even when you aren't." His expression softening, the veteran warrior then added, "Just remember that you aren't alone, my friend. And that you are always welcome amongst us."

Sniffing loudly, Sango nodded, and smiled. "Thanks, Daisuke."

Nodding, Daisuke looked off into the distance. "Now, to wait for the monk to come. We still have a great deal of work ahead of us." Then, just beneath his breath, he added, "And a major crisis that we still need to deal with."

Aw, damn! I'm getting sick to death of these stupid mountains! InuYasha fumed as he made his way through the caves for what felt like the hundredth time already. At this rate, I'm going to be smelling these scrawny wolves for at least a week even after we leave!

The day had done fairly smoothly up until then. InuYasha, along with Michiru and Kaname, had been working hard on both building the fort's outer wall, as well as refining more of the barrier stones, when Miroku and Hachi had returned from yet another run to the abandoned fort. When they had landed, the tanuki promptly reverting his original form upon landing, Daisuke had quickly taken charge, and decided that he wanted to see Koga about something.

And that would have been just fine with me! If he wants to waste his time with the scrawny wolf, then good for him! InuYasha fumed irritably, glancing over at Daisuke, who was walking alongside another Demon Slayer, a woman by the name of Haruna. But why the hell did he have to insist that we come along as well?!

Shaking his head in barely restrained aggravation, the half-demon was momentarily snapped from his musings when Kagome told him, "C'mon, InuYasha! Settle down, already!"

"Why should I?" InuYasha shot back impatiently. "What I'm even doing here, anyway?! I'd rather be back at the fort, actually doing something! Not wasting time with that arrogant ass, Koga!"

"Come on, InuYasha," Daisuke told him earnestly. "I know you don't like Koga, but we do have important matters to discuss."

"So? Go ahead and discuss them!" InuYasha retorted irritably. "I don't see what you have to drag me along for this!"

Cocking her head to the side, Kagome retorted, "Because if we left you and behind and then came and told you what we'd decided to do without asking your opinion, you'd be even madder than you are right now! Satisfied?"

Snorting loudly, InuYasha stuck his nose up and looked away, unwilling to justify this remark with an intelligible response. It was just as well, because seconds later, the group arrived in Yorozuko's chamber, where Koga, Ayame, Robai, and Yorozuko were all waiting for them. "Hey, there, Daisuke! Welcome back!" the head fleabag grinned as soon as they entered. "Glad to see you're still in one piece!"

"And I'm glad to see that you're healing nicely," Daisuke replied, glancing down at the wolf-demon's stomach. "It looks you're recovering a lot faster than you did the last time."

"Eh, yeah. Sure does, huh?" Koga answered somewhat sheepishly. "Guess the new powers are making a pretty big difference. Wouldn't you say?" When Daisuke simply nodded, the alpha wolf pulled back somewhat and surveyed their group. "Say, uh...by the way, where're the twins? And that little fox of yours?"

"Michiru and Kaname are back at the fort, working with some of our own Shikigami Users," Haruna reported in an even tone. "Apparently, they noticed growing abnormalities in the twins' spells that would indicate that a new Shikigami is about to awaken."

"A new Shikigami?!" InuYasha grinned excitedly. "Are you sure?!"

"Not yet, but we should be soon," Haruna replied. "My colleagues are running tests on them right now, to confirm if new Shikigami are stirring in them, and what form these spirits may take." Turning towards the alpha wolf, the Shikigami User explained, "The awakening of new Shikigami can be a difficult experience, Koga. Especially if the person wielding it have a great deal of magical power, as is often the case of those descended from the priests and priestesses of the Kururugi Shrine. And unless it's handled properly, the awakening Shikigami are a potential threat to both the wielders and anyone nearby."

"Hmph! Tell me about it!" Kagome seconded, clearly recalling the disaster that had taken place when the Kururugis' Ice Shikigami had first manifested. "Anyway, as for Shippo, he decided to stay behind and keep them company."

Nodding to this, Robai commented, "Well, that's all well and good and whatever, but, uh...as I recall, we have some more immediate matters that we need to talk about."

"That is correct," Daisuke confirmed with a glance at the elderly wolf-demon. "We recently completed the salvaging of our old home, Koga. And our people have begun production of new tools and weapons for both our peoples to use." As the alpha wolf nodded to this, the veteran Slayer sighed wearily. "However, are supplies of food and medicine are now dangerously low, and I have to be honest, we need those supplies, and badly. Despite the knowledge and healing powers of many of our members, if we don’t get fresh supplies, and quickly, people will start dying.”

“Our own situation is similarly dire,” Yorozuko somberly reported. "Even with the removal of the crystal stones from the water, the animal life in the forest will take a long time to recover. Our hunters are consistently bringing back smaller catches. We need food, and soon.”

"If we're gonna turn this situation around, we have to do it fast," Koga growled unhappily. "Otherwise, plenty of people here are going to start forgetting that you're our allies."

Snorting a laugh, InuYasha shot a poisonous glare at Koga and sneered, "Well, gee, isn't that a surprise!"

"InuYasha, behave yourself!" Kagome sniped, placing her hands to her hips. "We knew that there might be problems when the Demon Slayers moved to the caves! But like we keep telling you, we didn't have a lot of choice!"

"And that's why we've been working full time in establishing our new home, as well as readying our defenses; in case the worst came to the worst," Daisuke reminded him in a stern voice that left no room for misinterpretation. "However, even our strongest defenses won't save us from starvation. Not unless we find another solution."

"Exactly. We need a fresh supply of food and medicine, and the sooner, the better,” Koga growled unhappily, his new crystals seeming to shimmer in agreement. “The problem is, how do we get it?”

"I'm not sure," Haruna admitted. "We do have spells that would allow us to quickly grow plants, but those aren't suitable for establishing a lasting crop. The more a plant is forced to grow through magic, the more likely it is to die quickly."

"And that wouldn't satisfy our people, either," Ayame frowned worriedly. "We need meat, not just plants."

Heaving a heavy sigh, Sango pressed her lips together before saying, "Which means our only chance to get what we need is to go to village, and try and buy or trade for what we need. That’s what my people did when supplies ran short.”

"Unfortunately, that's not an option for us," Yorozuko intoned grimly. "Toma has already annihilated all the remaining villages near us. There's nothing to help us in any of them now."

“Which means we’ll have to go someplace further away,” Miroku suggested, his eyes narrowed in thought. “As I recall, Tsuzumi Village is relatively near, and with all the crops and fishing done there, they regularly have ample supplies of food and medicine.”

Nodding his head, Daisuke crossed his arms. “I’ve heard similarly, Miroku, but there is a problem with that. Even if the villagers were willing to part with what we needed, how would we pay for it? We also lost all of our money, and we have little in the way of tradable goods at the moment.”

“Maybe there’s something we can do,” Kagome suggested. "Maybe we can come up with something, do something that the villagers would be willing to pay for.”

“It’s certainly possible,” Sango agreed. "Besides, maybe we can offer our services to them. Demon Slayers are always in demand.”

"That sounds like an idea," InuYasha decided, silently thinking that it was made even better by the prospect of leaving these stinking mountains behind them. Sneering at Koga, he added, "A lot better than just sitting around, waiting for some idiot wolf to decide to start having humans for lunch again."

“InuYasha...!” Kagome grated. When he turned to face her, InuYasha cringed at the lethal glare she gave him.

Even as he was anticipating the dread word that would send him crashing face-first into solid rock, InuYasha was saved by the unlikeliest of people. “Now, now, Kagome,” Robai smiled reassuringly, quickly soothing her rage. “It’s not as if we haven’t done anything to earn such scorn.”

"In any case, as much as I'd love to watch you take the mutt down again, we don't got a lotta time here," Koga admitted. "So, how long until we can get going?"

"If necessary, we can leave this afternoon," Miroku assured him. "I'll go get Hachi, and..."

"Hachi?" Daisuke started, raising an eyebrow at the monk. "Miroku, if you're depending on Hachi for transportation, then you're going to have to wait at least a day for him to recover. He's exhausted as it is, and a trip like this..."

"Don't worry, Daisuke. Hachi may complain a great deal, but I've known him for a long time," Miroku quickly assured him. "It may require some motivation, but I'm sure we count on him to help us out here."

In other words, you're beat the little idiot up until he breaks his back to do whatever you want, InuYasha groaned inwardly to the tune of rolling his eyes. Damn, why he puts up with you...

"Besides, we can't afford to waste any time. Tired or not, we have to get going right away," Koga declared. "Both our peoples are depending on us. We can't let them down."

Pausing to study the wolf-demon, Daisuke sighed and nodded. "You're right, of course. We can't afford any delays," he finally admitted. "However, may I make a suggestion?" Koga nodded quickly in response, to which Daisuke began. "It might be wise if we to have representatives of both our peoples join in this venture."

"Representatives?" Kagome repeated querulously.

"If we are going to be making connections with outside villages, it would be good for people to learn to see wolf-demons as something other than enemies," Daisuke quickly explained. "And in any case, such representatives would help prove the worth of this alliance to those who have any…lingering doubts about it.”

“Right, good idea,” Koga nodded. “We’ll go round up somebody from our tribe, and you…”

“I already have someone in mind. A young man by the name of Jiro. He’s a solid Demon Slayer in his own right, and has quite the taste for adventure,” Daisuke smiled warmly. “He would seem perfect for such an excursion."

Nodding, Sango decided, "Then let's get going. And let's be sure to keep an eye out for Naraku. He has to know how critical our situation is."

"So if he wants to screw up this alliance, then this is his last chance to do it," Koga agreed. "Alright, let's get going! We'll meet at the Demon Slayer fort before the setting of the sun." Sucking in a deep breath, his crystals flashing in response, he added, "And hope to hell that we aren't already too late..."

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