Legacy of the Cursed Mask: The Wolf-Demon Crisis

Return to Tsuzumi Village

"So you were each able to awaken a new Shikigami?" Sango asked, an excited smile on her face.

Feeling almost giddy to see her looking so pleased, especially about something he had done, Michiru nodded. "That's right, Sango," he reported, glancing over at Kaname, who wore a similar look of delight. "I have to admit, when the Shikigami Users here said they sensed a new Shikigami awakening in us, I couldn't believe it."

"I was pretty surprised, too," Kaname admitted as she skipped along the caverns that were the Demon Slayers' current dwelling. "I mean, I know the Shikigami Users here are more experienced than we are, but...I didn't realize they could sense stuff like that!"

"Well, Haruna mentioned that the reason they were able to sense it was because they sensed something strange about your spells," Sango reminded them both. "I guess they must've sensed something like what happened with your Ice Shikigami, only...not as obvious."

His cheeks coloring at the reminder of this embarrassing personal disaster, Michiru managed a weak laugh before saying, "Well, anyway, the Slayers were somehow able to wake them without them causing a whole lot of chaos in the process. Which is just fine by me!"

This statement elicited a girlish tittering from Sango. "Don't tell me you're still upset about what happened back then?" the Demon Slayer asked in an almost teasing fashion. "That was a long time ago, Michiru. And you've both come so far since then!"

"We know, Sango," Kaname quickly assured her. "My bro just doesn't like thinking about stuff like that."

"Like you do?" Michiru quickly reported, giving his sibling a raised eyebrow. When she simply laughed in response, the male twin shook his head. "So, anyway, Sango...we're really heading towards Tsuzumi Village?"

Nodding, Sango answered, "As near as we can tell, it's the closest village that might have what we need." Then her smile faded somewhat as she admitted, "I'm not sure how we're going to pay for what we need, but..."

"Don't worry, Sango," Michiru told her, placing his hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure we'll find some way of helping Daisuke and all the others."

Blinking a few times, the Demon Slayer smiled and bowed her head in gratitude. Before she could say anything, however, Kaname piped up, "Uh, by the way, Sango...how are we going to get to Tsuzumi Village? There's no way Kirara can carry us all."

A beat passed before Sango answered, "We're going to be riding Hachi there."

As one, the twins stopped in their tracks, their eyes bulging as they looked at the woman warrior. "Hachi?!" they both cried out in disbelief. "But Sango, that's crazy!" Kaname protested. "When you all got back from the fort earlier, Hachi crashed right into the ground! He was so wiped out that he couldn't even move!"

"That's right," Michiru seconded. "I saw a bunch of Demon Slayers taking care of him. He looked like he was barely alive!"

"I understand that Hachi's been doing a lot lately, you two. Believe me, I do. But we can't afford to put this off," Sango reminded them. Then she gave them an optimistic smile and added, "Besides, Miroku said that Hachi's feeling better now, and that he wouldn't have trouble taking us to Tsuzumi Village."

Before either twin could say anything to this, a voice raised in consummate horror shrieked, "WWWWhhhhaaattt?!!?!"

Stunned by the force of the cry as it echoed through the caves, the three of them exchanged glances. Immediately recognizing the voice, the twins looked at Sango, who let out a frustrated sigh before adding, "Of course, Miroku says a lot of things." Somehow managing to say that many of them weren't exactly true without actually saying it, the Demon Slayer accelerated. "C'mon, you two. Let's see what that pervert's up to this time."

Frowning at the weary resignation with which Sango had spoken, Michiru looked at Kaname, who shrugged in return before starting after their friend. The male twin was quick to follow, and before long, the three of them had reached the courtyard of the new fort, where they were treated to an unwelcome spectacle.

"Is this some kind of a joke, master?!" Hachi whined pathetically, the tanuki on his hands and knees as he looked at Miroku. Sweat stained his fur, and his eyes were bloodshot with weariness. "You actually want me to take you to Tsuzumi Villaga?! As in right now?!"

"I'm afraid this isn't a joke, Hachi," Miroku informed, apparently unconcerned with the tanuki's condition. Off to the sides, InuYasha and Kagome looked on, with the half-demon looking none too happy, but showing no signs that he intended to interfere. "Both the Demon Slayers and the wolf-demons are in immediate need of food. We have to depart right away."

"What about me?! I'm in immediate need of food! And drink! And sleep!" Hachi pleaded, his voice shrill with desperation. "I've carrying people and bones and bits and pieces of junk and all kinds of other stuff for days now!" Shaking his head as he looked from one face to another, desperately look for some measure of sympathy. "Are you sure this can’t wait for a day or two, master?"

"No, Hachi, I’m afraid this can’t wait," Miroku replied reasonably, smiling his perfect smile. "The longer we wait, the greater the chance that the alliance will fail."

"Which means that the wolf-demons and Demon Slayers will go to war against each other!" Kagome added, her voice one of concern. "We can't let that happen."

"I know, Kagome! And it's not like I want it to, but - Tsuzumi Village?!" Bringing his paws together in a position of prayer, Hachi looked squarely at Miroku and asked, "Isn’t there anyplace closer?!"

"Afraid not. You can thank Toma for that one!" InuYasha growled irritably.

As Hachi opened his mouth to say something, Michiru looked about at his friends before focusing on the one most responsible for this situation. "Miroku, what's going on here?" he asked, frowning intently as he approached the monk. "What are -?"

"Ah, I see Sango managed to track you two down," Miroku smiled as he briskly turned to look at them. "And you're just in time, too! We'll be leaving shortly, so..."

"Leaving?!" Kaname protested, looking from the monk to Hachi and back again. "Miroku, are you serious?! Hachi looks like he can barely move!"

"That's for sure!" Hachi whined desperately, looking at Kaname and Michiru like they had descended from heaven. "I've been going full-out these past few days! I can't even transform anymore, let alone fly anybody anyplace!"

"Now, Hachi, I'm sure if you put your mind to it, you'll be able to pull it off," Miroku went on, still smiling piously. "Besides, time is of the essence here. Once we get where we're going, you'll be able to eat and rest to your heart's content." Then the monk moved closer and bent down to look the tanuki in the eyes. "Now, come on, Hachi. We’d best get a move on."

"But…but…!" Hachi sputtered, looking more miserable by the moment.

Shaking his head in disbelief at the callousness being displayed himher, Michiru opened his mouth to protest, and was peripherally aware of Kaname doing the same thing. But before they could do so, several veins bulged from Miroku's foreheadfore head. "Excuse me, but...are you…talking back to me?" In an instant, Miroku's appearance as a monk in service to Buddha fell away, revealing a face filled with anger and contempt. A face that caused Hachi to cringe in terror as Miroku raised his staff, then brought it down on the tanuki's head. "How can you be so unreasonable after all I’ve done for you?! One mission of mercy, that is all! I! Ask!!"

Gasping in horror as the monk continued raining blows upon Hachi’s head, the Kururugi twins leapt forward. "Miroku, stop it!" Michiru shouted, grabbing the staff just as it swung down to strike the tanuki again. "What do you think you're doing?!" Yanking the monk's staff away, Michiru tossed it aside as he glared furiously at the disgrace in service to Buddha. "Hachi's exhausted and you're treating him like this?!"

"Yeah! How can you be so cruel?!" Kaname cried out, eyes blazing with horror as she fell to her knees by Hachi's side. "Hachi really has been working hard, helping us with the Demon Slayers! He's worked himself into the ground! And if you weren't such a jerk and a pervert, you'd see that he was worn out!" Shaking her head as she surveyed the huge lumps forming on the tanuki’s head, she then looked up and asked, "Are you sure we have to go right now?! Can't we wait a little while? At least long enough for Hachi to rest up a bit?"

"Hachi's been resting, Kaname! And besides, there's no time!" Kagome informed her. "Even after we get to Tsuzumi Village, we have to ask about where we can find food to trade for, find some way to trade for it, and all of that is going to take time! Maybe days!"

"Well, we're not going to be able to get to Tsuzumi Village by beating Hachi up!" Michiru intoned stonily. "What, would you beat up Kirara if she was tired and couldn't fly?!"

Off to the side, Sango winced at this, and lowered her eyes in shame. "Of course not!" Kagome protested, drawing Michiru's attention back to her. "But that's Kirara! She's a rock! She never complains about anything!" The reborn priestess then glanced at the tanuki, and smiled coolly. "But Hachi, he's always like this. He just needs a little prodding, that’s all."

"A little prodding?!" Kaname cried out in disbelief. "That's what you call this?!"

"Of course," Miroku assured her as he went to pick up his staff. "Trust me, Kaname. It just…looks worse than it is."

Groaning heavily, Hachi gingerly massaged the lumps on his head. "That’s easy for you to say…" he moaned, tears falling from his eyes.

Shaking her head in dismay, Kaname wrapped her arms about Hachi. "A little prodding, huh? You’re just being a big bully!" the Kururugi muttered as she pulled the tanuki closer to her. "You poor thing..."

Watching his sister comfort the bludgeoned tanuki, Michiru sighed and looked up at his friends. "Sango, InuYasha...are you sure we have to go today? Hachi, he..."

The half-demon growled deep in his throat as he studied Hachi. As for Sango, she opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. "I..." she tried again, looking from Michiru to Hachi and back. "I...I'm sorry, but...I don't know...what else..."

As Michiru looked at Sango, he sighed in sympathy. She obviously wasn't happy about this, but at the same time, she felt trapped. Trapped by the need to help these people, so much like the ones Naraku had taken from her. And as he looked down at Hachi, he knew that they were right. He was their only hope of getting all of them to Tsuzumi Village fast enough in order to get what they needed. "It's okay, Sango," Michiru replied with a nod. "I know what we can do."

Sango looked up sharply in surprise, but Michiru didn't say anything else. Instead, he knelt down next to his sister, placing his hand on her shoulder as he looked at the tanuki she was cradling. "Hachi, I know you’ve been doing a lot, and I’m really sorry that we’ve been such a burden for you," the Kururugi boy assured him. "But, we really do need your help. If we don’t get those supplies soon, both the wolf-demons and the Demon Slayers will starve."

"I…I know that, but…" Hachi grimaced, guilt filling his features. "But…with all the flying, and the transforming…I just can't do it anymore, and..."

"I understand. But maybe there's something we can do to help," Kaname murmured, running her hand through Hachi’s fur. Then, with a wondrous smile, she added, "First, let's see if I can help you feel better." A quizzical sound echoing in his throat, Hachi pulled back slightly as a pentagram spun into existence at Kaname's feet. "Oh, mighty flowing river, give me your blessing! Great River Blessing!!"

With this invocation, the fish that was her Water Shikigami sprang up from the pentagram, turning into a wave of magic that rained down on Hachi. "There," Kaname smiled as the lumps slowly receded. "Does that feel any better?"

"Wow...it sure does…" Hachi murmured, smiling as he felt at his head. "Thanks, Kaname." Then his smile failed as he lowered his eyes. "But...I'm still too tired to..."

"Don't worry. We can fix that, too," Kaname assured him. As Hachi looked up in surprise, she looked at Michiru. "What do you think, bro? Green Wood Resurgence?"

"Green Wood Resurgence...times two," Michiru corrected her, indicating the number with his fingers. As the others looked own, the twins smiled as pentagrams appeared beneath them both. "Oh, towering, green wood!" they spoke as one, "lend us your strength! Green Wood Resurgence!!" With this incantation, both their Wood Shikigami appeared, rising up above Hachi and exploding into twin waves of warm, green light.

"Huh?! Wha-?!" Hachi started. But as the magic took hold, he practically glowed within its warmth as the magic restored his energy. "Wh-whoa!"

The spell running it's course, Michiru let out a tired breath from the exertion. It was clear that Kaname was similarly affected, but she still smiled and asked, "So...you feel any better now?"

"Better?!" Hachi gasped as he leapt to his feet. "This is unbelievable! I feel terrific!!" Smiling broadly, the tanuki danced a little jig, spinning about in place before turning back to the twins. "Thank you! Thank you both!"

"I'm glad to hear that," Michiru told him earnestly. "So, do you feel strong enough to make the trip now? Or do you need a little more rest before we go?"

Kagome's eyes went wide at this. But before she could say or do anything, Hachi exclaimed, "Not a problem, you two! I feel like I could make two trips to Tsuzumi Village!" Then he glanced at Miroku, a glance that held a trace of ire before adding, "Besides, I don't think I have time to rest. As everyone keeps reminding me...it's important."

"Thanks, Hachi!" Kaname grinned, giving Hachi a massive bear hug. "And don't worry! As soon as we get there, we'll see if we can find someplace for you to eat and rest up."

Watching as Hachi returned Kaname's embrace, Michiru smiled before looking over at Sango. The Demon Slayer met his gaze and returned his smile with a sad, satisfied look in her eyes. Bowing his head slightly to her, he then turned to Miroku and arched an eyebrow at him. "See, Miroku?" he began, speaking a bit smugly. "You don't have to be a bully to get what you want."

"Yes, well, not all of us are Shikigami Users, you know," Miroku retorted with barely concealed venom. "Some of us have to simply...make do with what works for them."

"Maybe, but it sure is a nice to have someone who doesn’t have to beat the crap out of someone to get her way…" InuYasha noted, arms folded behind his head.

A gasp of shock escaping her lips, Kagome countered, "And what’s that supposed to mean?!"

"Just what it sounds like!" InuYasha countered, whipping about to look Kagome right in the eye.

Groaning inwardly, Michiru was certain that InuYasha was about to be sent crashing into the ground. But before Kagome could say the magic word that was his bane, he noticed another group approaching them. "Hey, there, Kagome!"

"Huh?" Kagome started as she and the other turned to watch Koga, Daisuke, Haruna, and two others approach. "Oh, hello there!"

"I see you're all ready to go," Daisuke noted as he and the others approached. "And I see Hachi is doing much better now."

"Sure am!" Hachi grinned happily as he gestured at the twins. "You should have seen it! Michiru and Kaname just cast some kind of spell, and bam! I felt good as new!"

"I don't doubt it, my friend," Haruna commented as she glanced at the twins. "As I've said before, the power of the spirits flows very strongly in their family."

Nodding to this, Sango cocked her head to the side and looked at the other two with them. "So, Daisuke...I take it that these are the representatives?"

"Indeed, they are," Daisuke responded before turning to the youth behind him. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet Jiro."

"Believe me, the pleasure is all mine," Jiro smiled even as the group studied him. He was a lanky boy of about their age, with a wide smile and wild-looking hair who carried a three-sectioned staff. "It’s really great to meet you people. Daisuke’s told me all sorts of things about you!"

"Thanks. It’s nice to meet you, too, Jiro," Kagome smiled, before turning to look at Koga and his companion. "And who’s that, Koga?"

"This is Azusa, and she’ll be representing the wolf-demons, along with myself," Koga explained. Then, narrowing his eyes at the wolf-girl, he gestured for her to come forward. "Well, c’mon, already! Introduce yourself!"

"Why should I?! You already told them my name!" Azusa growled unhappily. She was redheaded wolf, with a full figure and a pretty face that was currently pouting. "And it's not like I'm interested in learning theirs!"

Groaning his ire, Koga furrowed his brows at the redhead before telling her, "It's what's known as being polite, Azusa. You know, one of those things that Ayame's been trying to teach you for I don't know how long?"

"Why should I bother being polite to a bunch of humans and a half-breed freak like him?!" Azusa sneered, jerking her thumb at InuYasha. Glancing over at his friend just long enough to see the veins bulging from his forehead, Michiru looked back at the redhead as she shook her head and grumbled, "And I still don't understand why that old fart of a grandpa insists that I have to do this! Traipsing off to some human village…what a waste of time!"

Raising his eyes skywards, Koga then returned his attention to the group with a nervous smile. "She’s Ayame’s cousin, and…well, their grandfather thought it would be a good idea for her to get to know humans better."

"Her...cousin?" Michiru repeated warily as his eyes shifted to the girl in question.

"Yeah, that's right, you stupid little human!" Azusa sneered nastily. "What, you have a problem with that?!"

Wincing as he recalled Ayame talking about her cousin, making it clear just how argumentative she was, Michiru decided it would be best to avoid starting a fight if at all possible. "Uh, no. It's just that...Ayame told me she had a cousin, so..."

"Hmph! Whatever!" Azusa sneered as Michiru trailed off. Then she folded her arms across her chest and shot Koga a nasty glare. "Anyway, loser, I already know everything I need to know about humans! What I don’t understand is why we’re pandering to them with this stupid alliance!"

"Grr! Watch that lip, bitch, or I’m going to make you eat it!" InuYasha growled, raising his fist at the arrogant redhead.

"Just try it, you albino wimp!" Azusa shot back.

"Azusa, cut it out! You’re being obnoxious!" Koga lectured her.

"I’m being obnoxious?! You’re the one who spurned my cousin for some human witch!" the redhead growled unhappily. "How could you do something like that?!"

"Hey, watch it!" Koga growled before returning his attention to the others. "Sorry about that, Kagome, but…she takes some…getting used to."

"Yeah, I’m getting that idea," Kagome noted sourly, placing her hands to her hips as shot a nasty look at Azusa. "Anyway, the sooner we get going, the better!"

"No. No way in hell I'm going anywhere with this stuck-up little bitch! Not a chance in hell!" InuYasha snarled hatefully. "And what'd you say before?! That you were coming along, too?!"

"Yeah, that's right," Koga grumbled less than enthusiastically. "When Yorozuko said he wanted Azusa to go, Ayame and I decided that it'd be best if I came along to keep an eye on her." Then he gave her a nasty look and added, "And to stop her from making a mess of things once we get where we're going!"

"What?! You mean stop you from turning the wolf-demons into a bunch of simpering weaklings like them?!" Azusa demanded, jerking her head in the direction of InuYasha and the others.. "I'd be doing us all a favor, if you ask me!"

"Well nobody asked you!" Koga declared wearily. "You shut your mouth, or I swear, I'll shut it for you!"

"Just try it, you worthless -!" Azusa tried again, only to be cut off when Koga reached out and planted his hand over her mouth.

The redhead successfully muzzled, Daisuke and some of the others let out a heavy sigh of relief. "Thank you, Koga," the veteran Slayer told him. "I'd have done that myself, but I was worried that might be a violation of our alliance."

"Heh! As if!" Koga replied with a roll of his eyes. "Next time she sounds off when you're around, feel free to blast her with your Hand of Fate! I'll throw you a banquet feast in gratitude!"

"Now there's a tempting offer," Daisuke admitted as Azusa struggled to free herself, struggling frantically as she clawed at Koga's forearm.

"Whatever! That still doesn't change the fact that there's no way I'm riding anywhere with that damned little bitch!" InuYasha snarled irritably. "Forget it! It ain't happening!"

"InuYasha," Kagome and Kaname spoke, the former irritably, the latter somewhat worriedly.

Snorting a laugh, Koga replied, "Can't say I blame you, for once. But lucky you, you don't have to travel with her." As InuYasha frowned his confusion, the alpha wolf turned to Kagome and explained, "And, no offense, Kagome, but after my last round of flying, I think I'd just as soon keep my feet on the ground from now on."

Visibly perplexed by this declaration, Kagome frowned and asked, "Then...what are you going to do? Carry her to Tsuzumi Village?!"

"In a word, yes." Her eyes bulging at this, Azusa froze in surprise. Giving Koga just the chance he needed to wrap one of his arms about her waist and sling her over his shoulder. "Daisuke, tell Ayame that I'm taking good care of her cousin." Then Koga winked at Kagome and said, "I'll be waiting for you at Tsuzumi Village, Kagome!"

"You damned coward! Let me down! Let me down this second, you -!" Azusa screeched just as Koga blurred and disappeared from sight. The slipstream he generated carrying whatever caustic remarks the redhead was issuing away from everybody's ears.

As they all looked in the direction Koga had disappeared in, InuYasha sighed and muttered, "Well...at least we won't have to deal with them until we get to the village." Shaking his head slowly, the half-demon muttered. "Unbelievable. Two wolf-demons that are worse than Koga. It's not right...it's just..."

Smiling despite everything, Michiru watched as his friend continued to dazedly mutter beneath his breath. As InuYasha staggered a short distance away, Daisuke approached and bowed his head politely. "Sango, everyone, I want to take this moment to thank each and every one of you for the kindness and courage you had shown both our peoples over the course of these trying events," the veteran warrior told in a gentle voice. "And I also want to assure you that, while you are gone, we will be working to find another way to help both our peoples." Then he frowned and told them, "However, I won't lie to you. You people are very likely our best chance of preventing this alliance from turning into an utter disaster. Maybe the spirits look on you all with favor."

"We'll do everything we can, Daisuke," Sango answered resolutely. "You can be sure of that."

As the veteran Slayer nodded, Haruna stepped forward. "In the event that we don't meet again, Michiru, I wanted to thank you for letting borrow those texts of yours."

"Oh, it was no trouble," Michiru told her. "So...you got everything copied down and safe someplace?"."

"Certainly. Even as we speak, our best Shikigami Users are making further copies of those texts, duplicating them in exact detail so that they can study them more thoroughly." An excited smile split her face as Haruna added, "You know, the spells and other techniques in your materials are much more advanced than those detailed in the scrolls I lost. Clearly, your family has refined them considerably."

A noise of hesitation echoing his throat, Michiru considered the matter. Obviously, his ancestors had made some considerable refinements to the ancient arts over the centuries. "Well..." he struggled, trying to come up with a plausible way to explain this. "As I said, my family...did get around."

"That much is obvious," Haruna agreed. "I'm looking forward to experimenting with the many spells and secrets you've shared with us. The possibilities...well, I'll be honest. I'm staggered just imagining the things we could do with this knowledge." She opened her mouth to speak again, but instead paused to breathe, to rein herself in. "And for this great gift, I cannot thank you enough."

"Uh...you're welcome," was all Michiru could think to say to this. As Haruna bowed her head, he found himself wondering just how many advances his family had made in wielding the power of the Shikigami. "Uh, just...do me a favor, okay? Don't let any of the stuff I gave you get it out beyond this alliance. My dad told me that some spells are really dangerous, and..."

"You need not worry about that, my friend," Haruna assured him, her voice level once more. "I know full well how dangerous knowledge can be, especially in the hands of those who would abuse it. We will be very careful."

"Good, thanks," Michiru replied, his concerns abated. The last thing he wanted was for the Kururugi Shrine to get hold of their spells that were five hundred years more advance. As the possible consequences of this action ran through his mind, he shook his head and thought, I really should've thought of that before I let Haruna look at that book...still, I guess I can trust the Slayers to be discreet about this.

Hoping that he was right about that, Michiru was brought back to the present when Kagome announced, "Well, anyway, thanks for all that. But I think we better get going now."

"Yes, of course," Daisuke replied before turning to the youth he was sending to join them. "Jiro, remember that while you are out there, you will be acting as a representative of our people, of our very way of life. As such, people will you as an example of our strength and discipline."

"I understand, Daisuke," Jiro replied with a quick bow of his head. "And don't worry, I won't disappoint you."

"I never thought that you would," Daisuke assured him. "Now, you best be on your way. Every second counts my friends."

"Understood," Sango tersely answered. "Hachi, can you please transform now?"

"Not problem, Sango!" Hachi responded, glancing at the Kururugi twins before placing a leaf on his head. A moment later, he exploded into a cloud of smoke. When the smoke faded, the tanuki had transformed into an enormous blob with a crude, human face. "Climb aboard, everyone!"

"Thanks, Hachi!" Kaname replied as she started climbing on his back. "C'mon, bro!"

Nodding, Michiru followed his sister's example, and quickly scrambled up the blobby flesh, Hachi aiding in this by making his body just solid enough to be readily ascended. As soon as the two of them were on top, the Kururugi boy turned about to look at the others below. As he did so, Sango came forward and started climbing. As he watched her, Michiru was struck an impulse, and before he knew what he was doing, offered his hand to her. "Here, let me help you."

Looking up at the proffered hand, Sango seemed to consider it for a moment before giving him a warm look. "Thanks," she answered warmly, taking Michiru’s hand in her own. Again marveling at how soft and smooth her skin was, Michiru made sure that he had a firm grip before he gently pulled. The Demon Slayer effortlessly made her way up Hachi's side, but just as she made it to the top, the Kururugi boy felt his balance shift on the blobby surface. Crying out in dismay, Michiru fell on his back, and Sango, her hand still in his, gasped as she fell down on top of him.

"Oh!" Kaname gaped as Sango came to lay sprawled on Michiru. "Ar-are you two alright?"

Quickly recovering, Sango lifted herself up just enough to turn towards Kaname. "I'm fine," the Demon Slayer reported. "Michiru?"

"Uh..." Michiru stalled as he looked into Sango's eyes, and once again he was aware of many things. Of how very, very close she was to him, her face just a few inches away, and her fine body was pretty much draped on his. He could feel her considerable bust pressed against his own chest, her legs nestled on his. And on an almost subconscious level, he knew that all he would have to was wrap his arms about her, and he could draw her lips to his own.

As these thoughts inspired a multitude of images that fluttered through his mind, Michiru gulped loudly, his cheeks burning with embarrassment and shame. "Uh..." he tried again as he tried to shove the thoughts to the side. "I...I'm alright. I...just lost my balance, that's all."

Nodding to this, Sango slid off of him. "I'm sorry," she told him as she took his hands.

"No, it’s alright," Michiru smiled easily as he returned to the seated position, averting his eyes as he continued to try and quash his baser impulses. "I...I didn't mean to..."

"I know. It's okay," Sango assured him as she seated herself, keeping his hand in her own.

As the two of them shifted about to make themselves more comfortable, Michiru glanced down at the others as they started to board as well. He looked from one friendly face to another, until his eyes met a face that wasn't the least bit friendly.

Miroku was standing there, glowering at the two of them. The monk's normally pious expression having faded, and in its stead was a dark, angry glower. His right hand was clenched about his staff, and his left hand had balled up into a fist, and was twitching ominously. As if it were eager to lash out of its own accord, to strike Michiru down.

An instant later, this face was gone, and Miroku's normal expression was back in place. "Well, then, let's go!" the monk announced briskly as he climbed aboard. "Next stop, Tsuzumi Village!"

"Right!" Hachi agreed as the monk took his place. But as the transformed tanuki lifted off the ground, Michiru frowned unhappily. He wanted to believe that he had just been imagining what he had seen. That his mind was playing tricks on him.

But he couldn't. Michiru knew that the anger he had seen twisting Miroku's face was very, very real. And with a sinking stomach, he realized that it wouldn't be long before things came to a head between them.

"Wow...that's amazing," Jiro breathed, shaking his head slowly in mild disbelief. "So...you really defeated Ryokoutsei? All by yourself?!"

"Well...not exactly by myself," InuYasha replied, deciding to be generous with the praise. "I mean, the rest of the gang covered me until I managed to get my sword working right again." Then he grinned dangerously and added, "But once my Tetsusaiga was back up to speed, that damned monster went down! And I do mean down!"

"That's right," Kagome nodded in agreement. Then she gave InuYasha a look and added, "And thanks for much for remembering that we were there as well."

Snorting loudly, InuYasha retorted, "Oh, yeah, I remember. Despite me telling you that I didn't want any of you around there."

"Hey, we were worried about you!" Shippo quickly protested. "I don't know why, considering what a jerk you are!"

InuYasha opened his mouth to say something in return, but before he could, Jiro broke in. "That's...incredible. I've heard stories about Ryokoutsei, you see. And the fact that you were able to defeat him..." he commented, still shaking his head in disbelief. "You people really have lived, that's for sure."

With a low chuckle, InuYasha sat back on the transformed Hachi. For a long trip, this one was actually turning out to be not too bad. It was fairly relaxing, with the members of the group conversing quietly amongst themselves, the weather was good for flying, with clear skies and gentle breezes. And as for Jiro, the youthful Slayer had turned out to be pretty decent company. Apparently, he had heard quite a few stories about him and the rest of the group, and had quickly wanted to hear more. And so they had passed the time telling him stories about their various exploits. Just when they would finish with one tale, the adventurous Demon Slayer would insist that they would begin another.

And best of all, we don't have any stinking wolf-demons around to bug us! InuYasha thought with a wry grin. A grin that faded slightly as he reminded himself, Well, at least until we reach Tsuzumi Village, that is.

As if he were reading his thoughts, Miroku spoke up. "Say, Kagome? Is the compass still tracking Koga?"

"Sure is!" Kagome reported, holding up the glowing artifact for all of them to see. "And from what I can tell, he's already reached the village."

"You sure about that?" Jiro wondered as InuYasha snorted disinterestedly.

"Pretty sure," Kagome reported as she studied the compass. "It feels like he's more-or-less stopped wherever he is. And since he's somewhere ahead of us..."

"Then it would make sense that he's already reached the village, and is waiting for us to arrive," Miroku confirmed. "Still, it is impressive. Koga was never this fast before, even with his Jewel Shards. That crystal carapace of his certainly has augmented his powers substantially."

"Yeah, whatever," InuYasha muttered, wanting to forestall any further discussion of the scrawny wolf. "What I want to know is what the hell that old wolf Yorozuko was thinking when he decided to have that whiny little nightmare come with us?"

"You mean Azusa?" Shippo wondered.

Turning to glare at the little fox, InuYasha derisively asked, "Did you notice any other whiny nightmares?" Rolling his eyes at the stupidity of that question, the half-demon muttered, "I swear, Koga better keep that bitch out of my face, or I'll make her eat my Tetsusaiga."

"She does have an attitude," Michiru admitted, which was about as close to a bad thing he had ever heard the Shikigami User say about someone else, save for Naraku. "Still, this might be interesting. I mean, it’s sure been a while since I’ve been to Tsuzumi Village."

"What’s it like there, anyway, bro?" Kaname wondered in a genuinely curious voice.

"Oh, it’s a pretty small village," Michiru commented in an easy manner. "Mostly farming and fishing…a pretty quiet place, with lots of fields and flowers." Then his eyes lit up with excitement as he added, "Oh, and they have this drum festival there every now and again. Things got pretty lively there when we competed in it!"

"I know," Sango nodded with a happy look to her face. "That sure was a lot of fun." Then she leaned in closer to Michiru and added, "Of course, we never could have won without your coaching!"

Confronted by Sango's face being less than six inches from his own, Michiru started rubbing the back of his head as his cheeks burned. "Uh, well..."

Chuckling at the sight of the two of them together, so obviously in love that it was almost scary, InuYasha then frowned when they were brought out of their moment by Miroku making a show of clearing his throat. "Anyway, it shouldn't be much longer until we get there," the monk announced, trying to keep his voice controlled. "Then you can see the village yourself, Kaname."

Heh. What's the matter Miroku? InuYasha thought, his nose picking up the scents of anger and annoyance radiating from the monk. Finally figuring out that it's not you that Sango's interested in? Is that it?

As the half-demon smirked at the barely controlled annoyance that was flickering across Miroku's face, he became aware of someone else whose scent made it clear that she wasn't pleased by the close proximity of the Kururugi boy and warrior woman. "In face, from the look of things, I'd say we're almost there already," Kagome announced, pointing towards one of the mountains. "See that? Once we're past those waterfalls, we'll be right on top of the village!"

"Huh? Oh, you're right!" Michiru announce, looking in the direction indicated. "Those falls feed into the one right next to the village."

Nodding, Kagome turned her eyes to ground. "Let's see...we should be seeing itthe village right about…huh?!"

Startled by the confused astonishment in that last word, InuYasha shot up to the seat position. "What is it, Kagome?" Sango wondered as she came alongside their friend. As the Demon Slayer leaned fowards, her eyes all but popped out of their sockets. "What in the -?!"

"What is it?!" InuYasha growled as he and the others struggled for a better look. "What's happening?!" No one answered his question, but as Hachi continued to close in on Tsuzumi Village, the half-demon could see what had them both gasping in surprise, prompting him to do so himself.

The tiny, peaceful village they had seen and visited in the past was gone. In its place stood a bustling city, larger even than Kasasagi Town. Many new buildings had been built, and old ones had been scrapped or renovated. The streets were filled with people, merchants, travelers, priests, and tourists. And though the fields and the drum from the competition remained intact, several huge houses and even a proper Feudal manor were taking shape.

"You call that a quiet little village?" Kaname demanded as they drew closer.

"But…it wasn’t anything like this before!" Michiru protested, shaking his head in disbelief. "How…what the…?!"

"I don’t know," Miroku admitted as he helped survey the transformed village. "But the first thing we need to do is track down Koga and Azusa. Since they arrived here before us, they might have a better idea of what's going on than we do."

"Hmph! Fat chance of that!" InuYasha sneered, still taken aback by the transformed village.

"I can't believe you, Koga! You have some nerve, pulling what you did on me!" Azusa decreed as she stood against the tree, her arms folded across her chest. "I swear, as soon as we back home, I'm going to kick grandpa'sYorozuko's tail in for talking me into this! And then I'm going to kick your tail for hauling me around like a sack of garbage!"

"Feh! Like you even could!" Koga sneered derisively, wishing not for the first time that he had had the foresight to gag and bind Azusa so that he would be spared the agony of listening to her mouth off. "Now shut up already! I've already got a headache from having to listen to you all the way here! I don't need you making it any worse!"

"Hmph! More like those dumb crystals of yours are squeezing what little brains you got left in your head out of existence!" Azusa sneered obnoxiously. "Not that you had much to begin with!"

Shaking his head at this, Koga groaned inwardly, How did I let Yorozuko talk me into this?! How could he not see that having Azusa along for this could only be trouble?! This was his main reason for deciding to carry Azusa to the village, rather than riding Hachi. Granted, he wasn't eager to go flying again, but he was even less eager to have her push one of his friends off of the transformed tanuki while they were still in the air and splatter them all over the place. Of course, if I'd been really, smart about it, I would have just left here there while I had a chance. Bringing his palm to his forehead, the alpha wolf added, Maybe she's right about these crystals screwing up my brains...!

In Koga's mind, this seemed as likely a possibility as any for agreeing to a suggestion that he and Ayame had both known to be disastrous. When Yorozuko had first suggesting bring Azusa along for the negotiations, they had both been quick to declare this to be an exceptionally bad idea. Getting the supplies they so desperately needed would be tricky enough without such a loose cannon along for the trip, and Azusa had long since made it clear that she hated the alliance, hated pandering to so-called inferiors. And most of all, she hated Koga for advocating all these things.

All she has to do is eat a human or two, and boom! Either the alliance will be over, or I'll have to kill one of my own kind as a traitor! And that's the last thing I need right now! Koga groaned, letting his hand fall to his side as he looked up from the wall of sheer rock he was standing against, right near the boundary of the village they had come to. C'mon, Kagome! What's taking you? I can't take much more of this brat!

An instant later, his question was answered when a very welcome voice was heard crying out, "Koga!"

"Kagome?" Koga started, standing up straight and swinging his gaze about. "Kagome, where are you?"

"Right here!" Kagome called out, this time more clearly. Turning to follow the voice, Koga very nearly swooned in relief when he saw Hachi floating down in his transformed state. The humans he now knew to be from the future near the front of the flying blob as he landed. "Whew! I'm sure glad we found you!"

"I'm sure glad you found me!" Koga confessed as the small group slid off of Hachi's back. "I swear, I thought my head was going to fall off before you even got here!"

"Hmph! That wouldn't be any big loss!" Azusa sneered nastily. "It's not like you actually use it!"

Casting a glance at the irate she-wolf, Koga rolled his eyes for what felt like the hundredth time before returning his gaze to Kagome. "See what I mean?"

Nodding quickly, Kagome replied, "Yeah, I got the idea."

"Anyway, have you seen this place?!" Koga asked, eager to get away from the subject of Azusa. Glancing in the direction of the village, the alpha wolf added, "It's gotten at least twice as big as the last time I was in the area! At least!"

"Yeah, we noticed, scrawny wolf! In case you've forgotten, we do have eyes that actually work!" InuYasha sneered grumpily.

"We did notice, Koga," Miroku seconded in a more polite voice as he approached. "But I must admit to being surprised. There was no indication of any large construction projects going on the last time we were in this area." Focusing his eyes on the alpha wolf, the monk asked, "Do you have any ideas what the reason for this might be?"

"Me? Not a clue," Koga admitted, glancing over at his whiny burden. "Considering the ruckus she was causing, I decided it'd be better to stay here and just wait for the rest of you to show up."

"I see," Kagome nodded, glancing at Azusa as well. When the redheaded nightmare snorted and looked away, the futuristic girl sighed and studied the village. "Well, I guess the only thing to do right now is to go ahead and look around. See what we can find out."

Nodding his agreement, Miroku went on to say, "Fortunately, we know some of the people here, having made friends with them during our previous visits. Perhaps they'll be willing to explain what's happened, as well as help us find ways to barter for the food we need."

"Sounds like a good idea," Koga answered. "But, uh...if it's all the same to you, I think it'd be better if I went along. To explain our situation to these friends of yours." Quickly glancing at Azusa out of the corner, not wanting to be forced to spend any more time alone with her, he then added, "After all, as leader of the wolf-demon tribe, these negotiations are my responsibility, and..."

"Oh, please! You couldn't lead a flock of sheep, you gutless wonder!" Azusa sneered in as grating a manner as possible.

Glancing over at Azusa, Kagome then looked at Koga, her smile making it clear that she knew what he was really asking for. "Okay then," she finally decided. "How about this? Jiro, you and Miroku stay here and keep an eye on Azusa for us. The rest of us will start looking around the village."

"Of course," Jiro responded as Miroku bowed his head.

Disregarding the loud snort Azusa sounded at this, Kagome added, "We'll start by looking around Densuke's old place. If he’s still there, he might be able to help us."

"Densuke?" Kaname asked querulously. "You mean the guy who let you stay with him that one time?"

"That's right," Michiru confirmed. "He was also in charge of the drum contest we won. I’m sure he’d be willing to help us out."

"Really?" Koga asked, feeling a bit more optimistic. "Well, in that case, what are we waiting for? Let’s go have a talk with him!"

As the group made their way through the transformed Tsuzumi Village, Kagome could scarcely believe her eyes as she took in the many changes the simple feudal village had gone through since their last visit. Every where they went, there were people hard at work. Laboring on buildings under construction, hawking merchandise to people passing by, hauling merchandise along the roads, tending to restaurants and other places of business. "This is crazy!" she finally commented as they made their way towards what had once been the outskirts of the village. "This place is even busier than Kasasagi Town!"

"Yeah, I know! Tell me about it!" InuYasha remarked, his hands folded behind his head as he glanced about the area. "There sure are a lot of people here."

"And a lot of restaurants, too!" Hachi noted, sniffing at the many aromas wafting around the village. "How about we stop for something? I could sure use a bite to eat!"

"Maybe later," Kagome muttered, not wanting to be distracted from her immediate goal. "Right now, we have to find Densuke, see what's up."

This assessment was met by a whine of impatient hunger. "Aw, c'mon, Kagome!" Hachi pleaded incessantly. "The master said that I would be free to eat up and everything once we got here!"

"And you will! After we have a better idea of what's going on!" Kagome retorted impatiently. "Besides, I thought Michiru and Kaname already juiced you up!"

A disbelieving gasp escaped Michiru's throat at this. "Wait, Kagome, you don't understand," the Kururugi boy began, sounding mildly exasperated. "Green Wood Resurgence is basically a short-term power boost. It's no substitute for food or sleep!"

Nodding in agreement, Kaname added, "Besides, I don't see why we all have to go meet with Densuke. I mean, I could take Hachi to an inn, or just whip up some cups of noodles or something."

Turning to look at the Kururugi twins, Kagome brought her hand to her throbbing temples. "Look, I understand that you're worried about Hachi, but something really strange is going on here! And until we figure out what that is, I don't want us splitting up any more than we absolutely have to." When Hachi responded to her declaration with a groan of patented misery. "Besides, we're not far from Densuke's place. It won't take us long to stop in and see if he knows what's going on!"

"That's assuming he's even home," Jiro pointed out.

"Well, if he's not home, then we'll stop by a restaurant, have something to eat, and then we'll go looking for him!" InuYasha decided with a grin. "Doesn't that sound fair, Kagome?"

Kagome wanted to say that it wasn't about being fair. She wanted to remind everyone that they had more important things to worry about then Hachi's or anybody else's stomach. The lives of both the Demon Slayers and the wolf-demons hinged upon them getting the vital food and medicine they needed as quickly as possible. And until they found a solid lead on that, then there was no time to waste on stopping at fancy restaurants or anything like that.

But even as she thought this, Kagome realized there was no point in it. InuYasha thought with his stomach first, his attitude second, and with his head last. Let's face it, we're talking about the same guy who decided he wanted to stop for something to eat right next to a battlefield, corpses and skeletons and all! she thought sourly, the memory of that incident fresh in her mind. Then she glanced at the Kururugi twins, and her foul mood softened with a touch of sympathy. And they wouldn't get it, either. They haven't been with us nearly as long as the rest of us. They both get so caught up on everybody's else's feelings that they can't focus on what's really important.

Thinking back to when Michiru had gone off on his own to search for Utsugi, all because he was thinking more of their feelings than what was really practical, Kagome shook her head. Besides, they were ready to scrap the entire trip here, all because of Hachi exaggerating how tired he was! If it weren't for that spell of theirs, we'd probably still be stuck there arguing while everybody's starving! Then she narrowed her eyes at the male twin. And what's with Michiru, anyway? We'd never beat Kirara if she acted like she couldn't help! Then her ire faded slightly, and she reminded herself, I mean, okay, he hasn't been here for as long as the rest of us., I think he met Hachi like, once, the last time he was here. So he doesn't know him like the rest of us. Then her eyes lowered to the little tanuki, who was still muttering almost silently to himself. He's almost as big a complainer and a coward as Myoga is! So of course we have to prod him sometimes! Honestly, we're not bullying him!

Shaking her head at this, Kagome sighed and studied the large group of people that were following her. I'm starting to wish it were just the five of us again, she thought somberly, recalling how much simpler it was when it was just her, InuYasha, Shippo, Miroku, and Sango. A small group that was on the verge of family, a group that sometimes had its problems and arguments, but was otherwise inseparable. It was so much easier backsimpler then. Just us and the search for Naraku. We all knew what we had to do, we all...

"Look," Sango spoke up, snapping Kagome back to the present. The Demon Slayer was pointing ahead, saying, "Isn't that Densuke's place right there?"

Looking about, Kagome followed Sango's outstretched finger. "Yeah, that's it, alright," InuYasha confirmed after taking a few sniffs. "I recognize the scent of the place."

Blinking a few times, Kagome soon realized that the two of them were correct. "Wow...it all looks so different," she murmured as she looked about the surrounding buildings, half of which were changed in some way or just flat-out replaced. "What's been going on around here?!"

"Let's find out," Michiru commented as he started towards the house where they had stayed some time ago. "Densuke?" Michiru called out as the rest of them caught up. Pausing to knock on the wall, he tried again. "Are you here?"

"Well, somebody is!" Koga stated firmly as he studied the tiny abode. "I can hear him moving around in there."

A moment later, Koga was proven to be correct."Yes, I’m here. Who is it?" came a tired voice from within the house, followed shortly by its owner. As he emerged from the door, the familiar villager looked at his visitors with an expression of surprise. "What? Oh, my friends! It’s you!"

"Hello, Densuke!" Kagome called out as she surveyed their friend. He looked almost the same as he had during the Drum Festival. A little more tired, with unsightly bags under his eyes, but otherwise just fine. "How’ve you been?"

Shrugging, Densuke managed a grin. "Fine, I suppose, all things considered," he confessed in a weary voice. "Say, I see you’ve brought some more friends with you this time!"

"Uh, yeah!" Michiru responded, gesturing towards his sibling. "This is my sister, Kaname. And over there is Hachi, and Koga."

"I see. A pleasure to meet you, my dear," Densuke commented, to which Kaname bowed her head politely. "And a tanuki, and…a wolf-demon?"

"That’s right," Koga grinned, straightening like he was posing for the entire world, his crystal carapace seeming to light up for emphasis. Then he frowned and asked, "You don't have a problem with that?"

Densuke calmly shook his head to this. "Demons don’t really bother me. Unless they’re trying to eat me."

"That’s understandable," Kaname smiled easily. "Being eaten isn’t something anyone wants to happen to them."

Ignoring the snort of a chuckle that was InuYasha's response to this comment, Kagome focused on the matter at hand. "Sorry to bother you, Densuke, but...we came here on important business. But when we saw..." Trailing off, she instead turned and gestured at the sprawling city that Tsuzumi Village had become. "How did everything change around here so much?"

Sighing, Densuke answered, "Well, that’s a long story. But…what are all of you doing here? What kind of business brought you here?"

"That’s also a long story," Kagome smiled ruefully.

"Well, in that case, why don’t you come in and tell it to me," Densuke responded easily, gesturing for them to enter his home. "I'll make us some tea, and we can discuss our respective situations."

"Thank you," Kagome replied with a bow of her head. Grateful that some things didn't change.

"And that's about the size of it," Koga concluded, a cup of tea in hand. "The new Demon Slayer fort is up and should be secure, but unless we can get some fresh supplies to hold us over for the time being, I don't see how we're going to be able to make this alliance last."

"My word…" Densuke goggled, shaking his head in amazement. "I’ve heard of humans and demons working together in the past, and even seen them traveling together…but this…!"

"And that’s why we’re here, Densuke," Kagome explained. "Most of the Demon Slayers' money and supplies were destroyed, but they are making more right now. And so we were hoping we could find some way of trading for at least some of what we need."

"I see. A most astonishing story," Densuke nodded before pausing for a sip of his tea. "Well, I don’t know about the actual trading, but I don’t think you’ll have any trouble finding what you need. Tsuzumi Village has recently become a village of excesses, as you can plainly see."

"Yeah, about that," InuYasha started. "How’d all this happen, anyway?"

"Well, about two months ago, an old mansomeone found a large amount of gold in the caves just outside the village," Densuke explained, looking down at the ground.

"Gold?!" Michiru gaped, his eyes going wide. "Did you say...gold? In the caves?!"

Nodding, Densuke continued, "A lot of people here thought he was crazy, or least getting there. Even his son and daughter-in-law were getting worried." Smiling to himself, the villager sighed before adding, "Imagine everybody's surprise when, one day, from out of the blue, he came out of the caves with a wagon filled with gold."

"Really?" Michiru asked, drawing a couple confused glances.

"Oh, yes," Densuke confirmed, not seeming to take notice of his guest's unusual interest. "Just like that, he and his little family were rich. And when word got out about the gold, more and more people came looking for their share of the wealth. Then more traders and merchants started coming here, and…"

"We get the idea," Sango nodded, glancing out the door of the tiny abode. "That would sure explain the village's sudden prosperity."

Again, Densuke nodded, before letting out a low, weary sigh. "I suppose it’s a good thing, but with all the work going on, day and night, not to mention the crowds…I’m exhausted, trying to keep up with it all!"

As Kagome looked at him in pure sympathy, Michiru was shaking his head in slowly disbelief. "I still can't believe it," he muttered to himself. "That old man...he really did it. He found his pot of gold."

Now more eyes turned towards the Kururugi boy. "Bro, what are you talking about?"

"You...you sound as if you know him," Densuke thoughtfully mused.

"Uh...well, the thing is...I might," Michiru admitted.

Of all the things Kagome could have imagined Michiru saying, this had not even come close to being one of them. "Really?!" she gasped in shock. "But - how?!"

"Well, uh..." Michiru fumbled, looking from one face to another. "Eh...it's like this." Then he turned towards Sango and asked, "Do you remember when we were the first time, and I'd gone into the caves?"

Nodding, Sango answered, "Yes, you were looking for Kohaku."

"Well, before Kagura showed up, I ran into this old man who was digging away in the caves," Michiru explained before turning towards Densuke. "After I collapsed the roof on Kagura, we went looking to make sure that he wasn't hurt, but we didn't see him anywhere. I just assumed that he'd taken the other cave out of there, and..."

"Wait a second. You collapsed the roof of the cave?!" Densuke demanded, his mouth popping open in surprise. "That was you?!"

Taken aback by the villager's interest, Michiru's mouth opened and closed a couple times before he nervously replied, "Well, that is, I didn't collapse it on him! I just wanted to - well, the thing is -!"

Rising to his feet, Densuke waved his hands negation. "No, no, my friends! I'm not upset with you! Not at all!" he explained, much to their surprise. "In fact...come on! We have to get going!"

"Go?!" InuYasha demanded as Densuke made his way over to Michiru and aided the surprised boy to his feet. "Go where?!"

"To see Kaito. The man you met down there," Densuke explained hurriedly. "Because if I'm right, you won't have any trouble trading for what you need!"

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