Disclaimer: I do not own InuYasha or any of the other inhabitants of the fine story of Rumiko's that we all know and love. Kiyoshi, Tomoe, Aikiko, and Sashiko are mine, and I hope you enjoy them as they are encountered.

"That will be enough, Jaken."

The idea of what could happen without a whole Tessaiga weighed heavily on the minds of both InuYasha and Kouga. They had decided that it would be for the best to explain what they had learned to the hanyou rather than keep him in the dark and leave it to chance that he would not be placed into a situation that would cause him to change once more into a purer demonic form. Yet despite what could happen there was the hope that Totousai could indeed fix the shattered blade, and his friends had not abandoned him which meant more than InuYasha could put into words. Kagome had wanted very badly to accompany them on this trip, but it had been decided that she should stay at the Den with Koji since it would be turning cold. Really he wouldn't be in any danger from that, as a hanyou he was far sturdier than a human child would be, but it served as a convenient excuse.

Still it was bittersweet for Kouga to leave his family and pack to travel with his friend, and he found himself looking back over his shoulder at his Mate and son before they would be out of his sight. Something told him that the sooner this trip was over the better, but it was not such a premonition as to tell him just why. He was not the only one looking back, he noted as he turned his face towards the path they would have to take to find Totousai's hidden smithy home. Sashiko had been there to see InuYasha off and even now the half demon that had become such an integral part of his Pack was bearing a braided length of her hair wrapped around his wrist. That would be a potent reminder to the hanyou of what he had waiting for him and what he had to protect, her scent would stay with him as long as he kept that token.

The sky overhead was almost dusky blue, and the air felt heavy to them as they traveled, a herald to a coming storm. There weren't many places on their route to take shelter from a storm, but Kouga had a hope that they might make a ridge of hills on the outskirts of his territory before the clouds would break and deliver their cargo of rain and lightning. Something was still making him uneasy as they traveled; he could not put it into words but he knew that InuYasha was feeling it as well, the both of their gazes roaming constantly over the path they traveled. A sudden spike of youki brought them both to an abrupt halt, InuYasha's hand flexed uselessly over the hilt of his shattered sword, all the pieces were there but they could do nothing for them now. As Kouga tipped his head up to take in the scents coming towards them a low growl came from between his lips and he dropped into a battle crouch, almost alarming his companion.

"I smell neko, Kiyoshi and his child are being pursued in this direction."

There was rage in those golden green eyes beneath auburn bangs as Kiyoshi broke cover and ran towards the pair, surprise was evident on the youkai's face as he saw them waiting and veered his course to come up even with them. His sweet daughter was held tightly to his chest and seemed unharmed as her fists were balled up tight in the crimson silk of her father's haori, her eyes wide as she saw Kouga and InuYasha. Kiyoshi smoothly set her down behind the three of them and then whirled, giving a low coughing growl like a mountain lion back in the direction they had come from before murmuring to his daughter.

"Tomoe, you stay behind us. We won't let anything get to you."

InuYasha stood straighter at that, claws now flexing with purpose. To protect … with or without his Tessaiga it was something in his nature that brought out the best in him when he had something worth protecting near him and Tomoe more than fit the bill. The little neko hanyou's soft assent to her father was a small noise in the background rush, her skin pale beneath her markings which made them brighter, beacons that told of her heritage as much as her mobile auburn ears. Her retractable claws were out now and were wickedly sharp looking, but none of the mismatched trio had any intention of seeing what she might or might not be able to do with them. Kiyoshi's normally silky voice was clipped as he told them about what pursued them, a large force of Naraku's enslaved lower level demons controlled by a young human seeming boy. If he had been alone he would have fought them well enough, but with Tomoe with him he had not wanted to chance the possibility that one of them might get by him to kill her or take her hostage.

His gaze went sidelong towards Kouga as the first wave of demons broke cover and spotted them, the moaning and keening of the near mindless slaves to Naraku piercing to the sensitive ears of the youkai blooded targets before them. Tomoe's breathing sped up and the spike of her scent held fear, which made all three of the males guarding her react with vicious growls and in Kiyoshi's case a deadly sounding hiss of anger towards the seething knot of youkai flesh advancing towards them. InuYasha's sharp golden eyes caught sight of a shadowed figure near the tree line, a figure that appeared to be the young human male that Kiyoshi had mentioned. A slight crease marred InuYasha's brow at the clothing the boy wore, it looked very familiar to the hanyou though it took him a moment to connect the memory to the image. Sango. He realized that the boy wore the uniform of a taijiya, and if these were Naraku's minions then this must be Sango's brother Kohaku. He would keep a weather eye out for that one to move, he had listened carefully to all Sango had told him about what had happened the night her family died.

It was tragic of course, but what had stuck in his mind was the way that she had said Kohaku had been able to take them all out. Even their father, one of the most skilled Taijiya in the history of their village had been taken totally unawares by the swiftness and ferocity of his attack. Part of this could be ascribed to the demon that had taken control of Kohaku he supposed, but what of the rest? Was he truly a prodigy of a slayer who needed the suppression of his morals and gentle nature to realize his full potential? These were questions InuYasha knew he didn't have time to fully contemplate as the battle was literally upon him. But despite this they had made him tense with worry. What other astonishing feats would Kohaku be capable of now that he was Naraku's pet?

There was a moment of stillness then, the sounds drowned out in the gravity of the situation as the roiling demons hesitated. There was a flash of silver in the shadows then, light glinting off of the metal poison mask that Kohaku wore as he moved with the fluid grace of something that had once been human but was now something else entirely. That move signaled the beginning of the attack and the first few moments were harrowing indeed for the trio as they sought to hold back the tide of snapping jaws and slicing claws. Singly not a one of these youkai would be a match even for the delicate hanyou they protected, but en mass like this they were giving them serious trouble. Soon the ground before them was slick with spilled blood and gobbets of flesh, the youkai almost disintegrating from the power of the attacks unleashed against them.

But even with their strength and superior fighting skills they were taking random hits, simply because there were just too many. InuYasha inwardly seethed because if his Tessaiga had been whole he could have taken out the lot of them including the animated dead Kohaku with but a few sweeps of his Wind Scar. Never one to waste opportunity though he at least was using his wounds to power his Hijin Kesso, or Blades of Blood attack. He felt a build-up of power to his right as his latest slew of sickle-curved red youki sliced through a section of the attackers, and he was surprised to see Kohaku suddenly stiffen and then launch himself behind a stout tree completely hiding himself behind the thick trunk. Before he could even turn his head enough to see what Kiyoshi was doing over there it was already too late to advise him to stop.

There was a pulse that filled the clearing with heavy foreboding and InuYasha suddenly felt himself grabbed by the back of his kosode and slung backwards towards another tree which allowed him to see Kouga whirl, grab Tomoe and run with her in the same direction in which he had just thrown InuYasha. He wasn't sure himself what Kiyoshi was up to but he knew deep down that it would be very, very bad to be caught in its wake. The pulse of power came again and all three of them found their gazes drawn and held by the sight before them. The son of the Great Cat did not transform, though with the amount of power he'd gathered it would not have been unreasonable to think that was what he was aiming to do. He had become suspended in mid air, a good three feet of darkness swirling with his youki between himself and the ground. An unseen breeze lifted his long auburn locks straight up behind him in a silken swirl, and he held his hands stiffly before him, a ball of glowing energy growing between his palms. The colors were vibrant, gold and green like his eyes and magenta like his stripes, whirling faster and faster until he shouted in a voice that held an echo of the power of his father.

"I curse you, Naraku! Fool that would take that which belongs to a cat, find only the betrayal you deserve from what you desire most!"

It had long been said that only an idiot would willingly torment a cat. They never forget and rarely forgive, each slight building upon the last until the cat grows angry enough to curse its tormentor. Perhaps it was the dire nature of the confrontation that had been the last straw for Kiyoshi, or perhaps he had finally let loose the deep grief he had over the death of his mate, but whatever it was the wash of power released when he let go of that orb of youki energy was enough to make the hairs on the back of InuYasha's neck stand up and Kouga release a low impressed whistle. The blood soaked grass was flattened in the direction it had gone, presumably the curse would find Naraku where they themselves had not been able to. A side effect of that wash of power caused all the lesser youkai in its path to disintegrate, and the rest fled with the interruption of the control that Naraku had held them under. They could not find Kohaku, but as InuYasha had figured the boy was smart enough to have escaped when he realized just what was happening.

As for Kiyoshi himself, he dropped back to the solid ground beneath him heavily and crouched there panting; it would be several minutes before even Tomoe was brave enough to approach him. At the touch of her little hand on his shoulder and her soft cry of "Father!" both InuYasha and Kouga came to help him to his feet. An expenditure of power that intense had clearly taken something vital out of him and it concerned all of them that the proud Cat had allowed them to help him away from the blood soaked ground to someplace drier. When Kiyoshi had finally recovered himself enough to speak above a whisper he explained what he had done to them.

"All cats can curse, it is part of our Power. But what I released just now should only have been given as a death bed curse. Not even Naraku will be able to escape its effects."

He paused for a good long moment, his hand a bit shaky as he smoothed his clawed fingertips over Tomoe's long hair.

"It cost me, though. But if that cost will ensure his defeat and the destruction of his plots, it will be worth it."

He refused to explain further, and instead walked quietly with them as they continued their journey towards where they would find Totousai's lair. He seemed subdued but more than that, he seemed less than what he was, and Kouga at least thought he knew what the cost had been to deliver that ultimate curse. Kiyoshi had given up that part of himself that made him a Tai-youkai, the part of himself that let him tap into the deeper forces of his youki. He wouldn't dare ask to confirm it, not wanting the kind of confrontation that sort of question would beg for, but his instincts were telling him that it was true. No youkai less than his own rank might be able to sense the change, but the reality was that Kiyoshi had sacrificed something that was a part of the very fiber of his being in his desire to stop the evil that confronted them. Kouga only hoped that should the time come for he himself to do the same that he would be able to with as much dignity as Kiyoshi now showed.

Elsewhere:

It was literally miles from the scene of the bloody battle in the clearing, a quiet place that had once housed a very noble family with a lineage that stretched back to nearly the time that humans had begun to populate this area in numbers that would eventually threaten the balance of power there between youkai and men. The castle with its gorgeous lacquer work and rich Shoji screens framed with wood polished so much that it glowed with a warm burnish was still beautiful despite the fact that it seemed deserted. No insects hummed in the courtyard gardens, no birds flew to break the still air, there were no domestic sounds of servants cleaning and cooking, nor were there sounds of guards on duty or soldiers training. The absence of such lent almost a chill to the otherwise warm air, that stillness that spoke of death instead of life.

The cause of such was almost innocuous if you did not know what it was. About a foot deep in most places along the ground was a roiling, soft looking cloud that almost seemed like low clinging fog save for the smell. It was dark in color and when it swirled it would go from deep rich purple to black, and when clean breeze touched it there would be spots that would clear for a moment to reveal what lay beneath. This was Naraku's miasma, and it covered all that should be alive in this castle ... that was not. Most of the humans were naught but bones dressed in the clothing they had died in, in the same positions that they had fallen once overcome with the poison. There was something poignant about them, and even Kagura secretly felt sorry for them even as she knew she was also jealous of them. They were dead, and Naraku could not hurt them anymore.

Just ahead of her walked the Void youkai Kanna, her footsteps silent on the pavers as she moved. She seemed to truly belong here in this almost ghostly realm with her pale skin and white clothing and hair, a specter that Kagura might have pitied as well if she were not so thoroughly loyal to their master and creator Naraku. Kagura was pulled from her thoughts as Kanna's emotionless voice came softly to her delicately pointed ears.

"Something is coming for Naraku."

Kagura blinked, sooty lashes hiding the excitement that suddenly sparked in her ruby colored eyes.

"What is it, Kanna?"

The Void youkai paused, turning her bone framed mirror in her tiny hands until she could gaze into its depths. She was silent for so long that Kagura began to think that she would not tell her what she knew and she had moved up to see if she could look for herself when that eerie voice came again, just as softly.

"It is power, and he will not be able to resist it."

This surprised the Wind Sorceress and she did not bother to try and hide that surprise at Kanna's words, nor the surprise she felt when Kanna suddenly reached forward and in a manner far more hurried than she had ever seen her move urged her to stand against the wall at her side. It was a good thing too, because nearly the moment that her layered kimono had settled once more at her calves from her quick steps to the side a large glowing orb of powerful youki swept by the pair of them and Kagura had no trouble feeling the deep malevolence that was held within it. Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes went wide as she looked down at the youkai next to her. Had that orb struck them it most likely would have disintegrated them on the spot, or harmed them irreparably.

"That is going after Naraku?"

She already knew the answer to that deep within somehow. Naraku's sins it seemed, were coming home finally to roost. Though she did have to wonder as they began to quickly follow the orb if they would be lucky enough to find him dead once they arrived where he waited for them, and how angry he would be that they had been unable to warn him of its coming. It did not once occur to her that Kanna might have known early enough to do so, and had simply chosen to step aside rather than interfere.

Later:

They still had some distance to go before they reached their goal, but Kouga had decided it was best for them to stop and rest for awhile at a traveler's campsite they had found off of the path. It had been well used in the past by both humans and youkai surprisingly, as both kinds of scent hung around the things that had been used most often, notably the cooking pit. He had made eye contact with InuYasha and he was certain that they both felt that Kiyoshi needed a rest if he was going to be able to protect Tomoe long enough to get her someplace safe. Kiyoshi sat near the fire now in a light doze while Tomoe made them all something to eat, claiming that it would help to have something to keep her busy. She was a surprisingly decent cook, though she blushed when they praised her skills.

The fates were kind to them and they actually had a rather peaceful night of sleep, but come morning trouble found them once more. InuYasha's brother Sesshoumaru had been out hunting wolves, and none could say who was more surprised that he would find his younger brother keeping company with one. Despite his weakness Kiyoshi had sensed him a hair faster than Kouga, suddenly straightening from his near indolent recline near the morning fire with a very serious expression on his handsome face. He seemed paler than usual as he turned a bit to see Kouga rise to his feet and cross his arms, and he let his mouth tip up in a sort of smile when InuYasha's expression went stiff as he recognized the aura and power of his brother coming their way. A pair of terrified wolves broke cover first, panting hard as they ran and the slaver from their jaws had matted their fur around the muzzles. Dark eyes rolled in sheer terror as they sensed Kouga before them, recognizing him as Yourouzoku and thus marginally safer than what pursued them.

With submissive whines they cast themselves on the ground before him, collapsed in exhaustion and shaking with fear. Kouga growled low in his chest, these were not his wolves but wolves that had come with the Northern Tribe when they had come down to parlay with his group. He had no idea why they were being pursued, or more to the point why they were not dead. A youkai with the sort of power that the one that pursued them carried was certainly a tai-youkai and if he wanted them caught he could have killed them along with their companions. Kouga's dark brows rose at the thought and he whispered low.

"These idiots led him right to us, he's going to think they're ours."

InuYasha swore fervently at that revelation. As if his brother didn't already hate his guts because he had the audacity to survive childbirth, he would now most likely lay at their doorstep whatever sin these wolves had committed against him. Kouga crouched down before the ragged pair of what had once been fine healthy wolves, and asked them what they had done to get in this much trouble. He swore himself after they had related their story as best they could in whines and tired yips; as far as they were concerned they had done nothing wrong, they had gone hunting and eaten and then went back to join their group to go home to the mountains. Then came the tallest youkai they had ever seen, a big dog demon whose very aura caused at least one wolf to drop dead in fear. A few of the Yourouzoku who had been leading the group had escaped, but only a few. It would be impossible for anyone to recognize what was left of the ones that did not.

After Kouga tersely related what he'd learned InuYasha kept shaking his head.

"I don't get it. Why the hell would Sesshoumaru give a stinkin' damn what these wolves hunted?"

Kouga shrugged before asking them exactly what they had hunted and eaten, and his shocked expression let InuYasha at least guess what had happened. He was still confused, his brother hated humans even more than he hated him! Kouga was absolutely furious that the Northern Wolves had allowed this to happen even after his warning and he didn't care that the village must have been outside of the boundaries of his territory. It was close enough that it still served as an insult to him and he growled under his breath to his companions just before Sesshoumaru himself appeared in the clearing.

"If we live through this, I am hunting those wolves down and making them pay."

The wind shifted then and Kouga caught Sesshoumaru's scent, the tai-youkai was doing nothing to conceal his coming. Normally Kouga would have sneered a bit at the tactical error – but when a being who was as powerful as Sesshoumaru let his enemies know it was him coming after them it could assure his victory out of fear alone. The Yourouzoku Prince straightened again and allowed his arms to cross over his chest once more. He looked striking and fearless in that pose, radiating confidence from the flippant way his ponytail moved in the wind down to the set of his feet firmly on the ground in a non-combat stance. Even if inwardly he was not sure that even the three of them together could take down the demon one would never have guessed by his demeanor. At his side InuYasha cracked his knuckles in anticipation of the fight, though that was more of a worry to Kouga than anything. What would happen if Sesshoumaru pushed InuYasha into a corner his youkai blood didn't think he could get out of? It didn't bear thinking on, yet it could very well happen.

Kiyoshi was in the midst of picking up Tomoe to get her as much out of danger as he could when Sesshoumaru appeared. He was picture perfect, looking like the stoic lord he was, yet anything with youkai blood and senses knew that the calm looking tai-youkai was pissed at something. Why else allow his youki to build so strongly, why else could they hear an almost subsonic growl come from him when he spotted the two wolves he'd been following cowering there on the ground before Kouga? The pair rolled to their backs before the Yourouzoku Prince, pleading with their submission to him that he protect them and keep the dog demon away, and Sesshoumaru ... when he saw this display a very small smile came to his lips. InuYasha's eyes widened when he saw that, and his voice came low but very clear.

"Oh, shit."

Kouga's eyebrow raised at that, and he let his gaze go to InuYasha for one moment, golden eyes wide as they met his. Kiyoshi tucked Tomoe behind a tree and stepped forward, his hands low and open as he moved out in front of the group though not blocking Kouga's direct view of Sesshoumaru.

"Lord Sesshoumaru, it is an honor. How may we assist you this fine morning?"

InuYasha's laugh was sudden and almost sounded sick; he knew that the only thing Sesshoumaru would want would be very detrimental to their continued health. He just hoped that Tomoe had the sense to run away while she could, they were not terribly far from Kouga's den and she might just be able to make there safely if Sesshoumaru decided not to pursue her as well. An almost thoughtful look crossed the features of his brother, almost as if he were considering the words and looking for hidden meanings. He surely recognized Kiyoshi, hell the jerk probably could sense that Kiyoshi wasn't all there, so to speak. Sesshoumaru lifted his hand, a slight move of his elegant fingers had the tips glowing green either in anticipation of his poison or his youki whip.

"You may die."

It took the three of them a moment to realize that his words were actually a response to Kiyoshi's question and not just a random threat. InuYasha hotly asserted that they had nothing to do with whatever had pissed him off and gotten his fundoshi in a wad, which if the circumstance had been any different would have had Kouga laughing right along with Kiyoshi who just couldn't seem to help himself. Kouga let out a gusty sigh then, and despite the brightness of the early morning sun shadows began to swirl around the clearing and both of his companions abruptly stepped away from him as they began their rush to the Yourouzoku Prince. Sesshoumaru paused a moment, it seemed then that he almost recognized the power before him, that he might have felt it before though he had not apparently at the time cared enough to investigate. It came to him then that he had indeed sensed Kouga before; the night that he had almost killed InuYasha and taken Tessaiga from him. This then was that tai-youkai, and somehow this annoyed Sesshoumaru even more than he already was.

"Look, I'm just as pissed as you about what these wolves did, but they aren't part of my pack. Let me take care of their punishment, as it is my orders that their leader disobeyed."

It was Kouga's last shot at reasoning with Sesshoumaru, but he knew it was futile. The dog demon was legendary for being both an immovable object and an unstoppable force, once Sesshoumaru decided something precious little could sway him from his course. He had not stopped his own transformation for this very reason, his brilliant blue eyes bleeding into solid glowing shapes as the shadows did their work and added to his bulk, and inside he let go of the gates that held his power and kept him in the form he'd been born to. To InuYasha it was just as amazing this time as it had been the very first time he'd seen him release into the giant wolf, the wind from his transformation blowing hard enough that he and Kiyoshi staggered back several more paces. A pulse of power heralded the completed process, and above them stood the black furred wolf, the lion-like ruff around his shoulders and neck rippling in the breeze as he threw back his head and howled. Even though it was day and wolves for the most part were more active at night his howl was answered by any that were in hearing range, an eerie chorus there in the golden sunlight of the morning.

Sesshoumaru stared dispassionately as the wolf showed his new form, silently assessing the power of the other tai-youkai. It was possible that even now he could annihilate the Yourouzoku and his companions; especially since his idiot brother had been the subject of a certain rumor Sesshoumaru had overheard. Yet deep within Sesshoumaru felt the pull of challenge, the curiosity and novelty of finding another youkai that might be able to match him in combat in his true form was a potent lure to the competitive youkai. Very few there were that even presented any sort of threat to his person, and for a very brief moment the dog youkai allowed himself to feel the thrill of this situation. If he slew him now he would never know which of them was better, and of course why would Sesshoumaru ever deny himself anything he wanted?

The green glow faded from his deft fingertips and he stepped forward a few paces almost faster than the eye could follow. A growl rose within his throat as his eyes shifted from purest gold to crimson red, the growl becoming a snarl as his features began to elongate, the precursor to his own change. Instead of shadow a ball of purest youki surrounded him, swirling madly as it grew to accommodate his gigantic true form. Others might have felt that since he was missing a limb that transforming this way would put him at a larger disadvantage, but those that he was facing now knew better. If anything the loss had forced him to become an even better fighter than before; he no longer toyed with his prey, he attacked in the most ruthless, vicious, and efficient way possible. His own growl filled the air now as the youki bubble shredded around him to reveal his pure white furred form, the vivid stripes and crescent moon of his markings brilliant in contrast.

Kiyoshi had never seen Sesshoumaru in his natural form, and inwardly he was impressed. He did not show it however, in his eyes there was no need to encourage Sesshoumaru to show off. Really that's what he felt the inu-youkai was doing, trying to impress upon them perhaps how futile their resolve to stand against him truly was. There seemed to be an eagerness to him that had not been apparent before, and if Kiyoshi didn't know better he would have thought that there was a bit of playfulness to the youkai's stance as well. He is enjoying this, the neko-youkai thought, and shook his head slightly. Anything that brought the dour brother of InuYasha enjoyment was bound to be bad and painful for someone else.

Unfortunately in their case that 'someone else' was Kouga and if Kouga fell, so would the rest of them. Kiyoshi glanced sidelong to InuYasha and caught his gaze, wordlessly asking if he thought the Prince could take his brother. The hanyou shrugged helplessly and gave a slight negative shake of his head, but there was a spark of potential hope in his large golden eyes. So that no was more likely a maybe. Kiyoshi knew that he himself was no match for either of the tai-youkai before him – not now, after what he had done in his rage and need for revenge. He had paid a terrible price, but if what he had done would let someone, anyone deal Naraku a fatal blow it would be well worth it.

Tomoe growled a little and her tiny retractable claws kneaded his hand with pinpricks as she watched the two giant canines warily circle one another. InuYasha looked back at her and made a protective little sound in his throat, a sort of soft 'chuff' to tell the girl that no matter what would happen that he would do his best to keep her safe. He opened his mouth to tell her something when Sesshoumaru growled, a deep and loud sound that shook the clearing and made them all stumble. Kouga however stood firm and snarled, his dark furred lip rising up and exposing his shining white teeth. He was not impressed with Sesshoumaru's display and shook himself to make his black fur ripple.

Sesshoumaru tossed his head a little and began circling Kouga again, moving faster and with more nimble grace than anything missing one leg should ever possess. There was a sudden pause and InuYasha saw a ripple move through his brother's shoulders just the instant before he jumped up to pounce at Kouga, and his golden eyes widened. He had realized by watching his brother move that somehow his youki was powerful enough to sort of act like an invisible leg, supporting his brother as he fought so that he could act as if he were uninjured. He wondered if it was something Sesshoumaru was even aware of, and he marveled just a bit. He also realized something he would never admit out loud – he admired his older brother. Others would have allowed such a disfiguring injury to make them bitter and if they had the power they would take out that bitterness on the world. Not his brother. He might be a total asshole in InuYasha's eyes, but he had not changed how he treated the youkai and humans he came across.

It did not make him nice, or kind, or gentle. But it did make InuYasha respect him in a way he never had before. He blamed no one for his condition but himself, and apparently he saw no weakness in it. Of course his vicious nature came to the fore in combat, and he had no trouble expressing that in nearly acrobatic ways that inventively used his liability. He was not the only one whose attacks were effective however, as the blood spattering the clearing testified. Both tai-youkai had blood wetting their fur and Sesshoumaru's eyes held a bit of maddened glee. Kiyoshi had been right, he truly was enjoying himself on a level that surprised even him. It had been a very long time indeed since anyone had given him a challenge, and had Kouga had the sort of training that the inu-youkai had growing up he might have even surpassed him. He had the speed and instincts it took, but Sesshoumaru exceeded him where it counted, in experience.

InuYasha would have never thought he would have a reason to thank Naraku, not ever. Yet had the hanyou in his rage at being cursed not sent an attack when he did, the outcome of the battle between Sesshoumaru and Kouga would have been far different. It had become clear that no matter how bravely and boldly the Yourouzoku Prince fought that he simply did not have whatever it took to take down his foe, and that he would most likely die trying and hope his companions could run far and fast enough to escape the aftermath. Perhaps if it had been Kagome and Koji that he was trying to protect things might have been different. Perhaps. But at that moment Naraku effectively ended the current matter by sending a group of his mid-level youkai hordes led by Kagura and Kohaku; Kanna was there with her mirror to show him the results. For once her pristine white robes were besmirched with what looked like burn marks, and Kagura herself looked as if she might have come directly from a beating to face them. In his fury it seemed that he had struck at those closest to him first and then sent them out as almost an afterthought.

Kagura's beautiful ruby eyes widened as they came upon the clearing, lowering her floating feather down enough to let Kanna and Kohaku out before soaring overhead to get the best view of the combat going on below. She like many others had never seen a full out battle between two tai-youkai and she found herself both frightened and exhilarated, a strange feeling of excitement she had never felt before swirling within her. She could see who was on the defensive in this battle and that surprised her too, and for a moment she let her guards down and let the auras below wash over her. Kouga's was strong, filled with determination and raw power, but Sesshoumaru ... she had never felt anything like it. He was so strong, he was strong enough to defeat anything, he – he could be the one that could defeat Naraku and save her. She smiled beatifically then for a moment, her eyes warming and softening, thinking of the freedom that would be hers when Sesshoumaru killed Naraku. In that moment she was truly beautiful, thinking that no one saw her and her dreams of freedom.

Someone did see her though, and not someone that would report what he had seen to Naraku. Kohaku chose that moment to unleash the horde however, and the thought of what he had seen would be pushed aside for now. The fighting tai-youkai sensed the threat at roughly the same instant, Kouga's jaws releasing Sesshoumaru's foreleg and Sesshoumaru's teeth slipping from the dense muscle just below Kouga's neck and they both growled with vicious warning. Despite the lack of speech what they meant was painfully clear. How dare they interrupt us! Kouga shook himself and blood droplets sprayed the clearing, and Sesshoumaru's jaws began to drip, the droplets smoking where they hit the ground. InuYasha pulled Tomoe back farther so she would not be exposed to the poison gases released from this. He and Kiyoshi made a wary team guarding her after InuYasha put her up on a tree branch and assured her once again that they would protect her.

These youkai were higher in power and stature than the mindless group from the night before, but none of them were even as powerful as InuYasha. If not for their sheer numbers it would have been beyond foolish to send them at the beleaguered group even with the more powerful Kagura and Kanna as backup. Sesshoumaru shook himself once, the bright youki swirled around him again and he transformed back into his humanoid form. There was nothing in his expression that indicated what he was thinking, but his actions were very clear. He did not think of the horde and their wranglers as threat enough to deserve his attentions while in his true form. Kagura gasped when she saw the finished result of his transformation, this was the closest she had ever been to Sesshoumaru in the flesh and she felt an almost painful throb in her chest where her heart should be. He was utterly magnificent, pale perfection and she wiped her hands over the dark marks on her face where Naraku had struck her.

She gasped again when she looked up because there he was, filling her vision and standing on a cloud of his own demonic aura. The fleeting thought came then, and she almost smiled in relief. It's over. I am dead, he will kill me and I will be freed by the youkai I love. That startled her as well. How could she love Sesshoumaru when she did not know him, and she did not posses a heart? Bitterness filled her a moment, because Naraku literally held her heart in his hands. But she exhaled slowly and let her eyes fill with the wonder she felt at simply looking at Sesshoumaru, her fan firmly closed and loosely held in her hand. What surprised her was what she saw when she dared meet his gaze, apparently he had noted her bruises and the fine trembling of her hands in her lap. His golden eyes asked the question. Naraku? Kagura nodded slightly and then held her breath. She had betrayed Naraku! But she didn't care, Sesshoumaru was now going to kill her and worrying about Naraku would finally be done.

She sat proudly on her feather then like a Lady, and though she held her head demurely she did not take her ruby gaze from the tai-youkai's face. She wanted him to be the very last thing she saw. Kagura managed not to flinch when he lifted his hand in indolent fashion and took her fan from fingers that loosened in absolute compliance; she didn't understand why he simply set it next to her in her feather until she realized he had lifted his hand again, a single clawed fingertip resting on her chin so that he could move her face as he chose. She knew that he hated her Master, who had interfered with him a time too many and had tried to force Sesshoumaru to ally himself with him against his half-brother InuYasha. It suddenly came to her then that she was not dying, and her brows lifted infinitesimally as she looked at the face of her deliverer. He was ... counting.

It astonished her, stole her breath. He was counting the bruises on her exposed skin, as if making a mental note. Why did he care? There was a sudden sharp sting at her now bare shoulder, her lips parted in surprise as her wind swirled around them, making the heavy wave of his silver hair draw over her where she sat. There was a brief touch of something hot and wet there, and then the stinging was gone but for a faint ghost of sensation. Then came the whisper so low as to make her wonder if she had heard it at all.

"You were his. You are mine."

She tried to speak, to explain to him that Naraku would kill her, that he held her beating heart literally in his hands. There would be no salvation from this, she would die. But then, had she not been resigned to that just a moment prior, welcoming the clean death at Sesshoumaru's hands over the sort of death Naraku would give her? Her eyes caught the movement when his hand dropped back to his side, a brush of his fingertips to the hilt of his sword, the Tenseiga. What did that mean? He did not answer but simply pointed back the way he had come in a very clear order. He meant for her to retreat and go back to the companions that she knew were often with him. Bravery she did not know she had rose up then and she nodded, bowing as she sat to him and giving herself over to his authority. She would die for this, but she would die belonging to Sesshoumaru.

Her gaze caught Kanna then, and her eyes widened as the ghostly void youkai deliberately turned her mirror towards where Kouga had transformed back and was now battling the youkai that had managed to get past the poison trench that Sesshoumaru's spit had made in the clearing. On whim she put her fingertips to her lips and then blew the kiss to the youkai that looked like a child, and then she obeyed Sesshoumaru's command and left. It was frightening and freeing all at once, and if she paid the ultimate price for it – well, nothing worth having came easy she supposed. She was certain that he would know she had defected, his Saimiyosho would report to him in the end far more accurately than Kanna. Those damned Hell Wasps were the perfect spies if one could interpret what they saw, and Naraku was one of the few that could. That they also could render Miroku's Kazaana useless as a combat weapon was simply a bonus.

On the ground InuYasha saw Kagura leave after his brother had floated up to confront her and he wondered what scary thing his brother had said to make her flee. It didn't make any damn sense, why didn't that jerk just kill her? It wasn't like him to hesitate to kill anything that got in his path, history had shown that again and again. He also knew that Kouga would be pissed that she had gotten away, since she had been the one to control the wolven corpses that had attacked them on the night that he almost died. They had talked about it and it was plain that Naraku controlled her, so perhaps it was not entirely fair to lay her actions at her feet. He had after all created her, shaped her powers if not her personality. Or rather he had taken the raw materials and with the power of a large shard of the Sacred Jewel he had created these incarnations. This did not change the vows made to destroy what he used, to limit his ability to plot while he was hidden and safe.

If they could eliminate his incarnations then perhaps he would come out into the open and attack with his own hands or close enough by to be caught in the act. Then they could deal with the hanyou once and for all. InuYasha's mind was whirling even as he fought, he could not figure out what Sesshoumaru was plotting but at least he wasn't attacking them now, he seemed to be contenting himself with the wholesale slaughter of Naraku's minions. He might never admit it out loud, but he was secretly impressed by how elegantly his brother attacked and wished that by comparison he did not seem so clumsy. He honestly was not; he had had over fifty years of practice on his attacks and while they might seem rash they were actually well plotted despite his temper. Yet in comparison to his elder brother he was slow and ungainly. He paused for a moment to flick goo and youkai blood from his thick claws and considered that he was being a bit unfair to himself. A grin surfaced as he leapt into the battle once more. He might be slow and ungainly compared to Sesshoumaru, but compared to him these full-blooded youkai were worse than even a weak human!

Kiyoshi was winded, and for a moment cursed about it sub-vocally. He had no one to blame but himself for his current state, and despite his training and skills was constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed. He realized then that Naraku apparently knew who had cursed him and that this attack was meant to kill him. That it embroiled other enemies of the evil hanyou was merely a lucky coincidence, and if he were to remove himself from the battle that the horde would most likely follow. Blood sprayed in a fine mist around him as he shredded those foolish enough to come close, but he knew that it would only be a matter of time before one of them got lucky. He knew what he had to do, as his sharp eyes scanned the clearing. It was not that he didn't think that those gathered could win, not at all. It was that he knew the longer the battle went on, the more likely there would be someone hurt, and the weakest being there was Tomoe.

Her blood gave her the potential to be strong just as InuYasha was strong. But she was still just a child even by human standards and had not had the training in her powers and in combat that she would eventually need. His father he knew had been teaching her things in the guises of games, just as he had taught his son. But she could not possibly know enough, not yet. Kouga had to live, without him Kagome and Koji did not have the protection they would need to survive and he had promised his dying wife to protect the hanyou child – even though at the time he thought she had meant their daughter Tomoe. She had seen something about Koji, something important, and he knew it was fate when he had first realized what she had been asking him. InuYasha was the one that Kiyoshi realized would step into his own place; he would continue the Vow and he would also protect Tomoe. So he turned and gazed upon his beloved daughter, watched her eyes grow wide as she realized what he meant to do.

He turned away before her tears could change his mind, raising his voice up with the vestiges of his youki so that it would carry.

"InuYasha, I give my Vow to you, and ask that you also protect Tomoe. Lord Sesshoumaru, on my Father's Name I swear that we had no hand in what was done to anger you, so I ask that you shift your wrath to its rightful target. Kouga – be strong. Farewell, my friends."

He whirled, gathering the rest of his youki to power his strides and dashed from the clearing. Perhaps he would live through this but he rather thought not. He had felt the Afterworld closely once he had given up his power and what should have been his deathbed curse. He almost wished that he could see his Father once more, to see if he were proud of what he had done. At least he had gotten to tell Tomoe how much she was loved, which was more than he had sometimes thought he would be allowed. The anguish in her voice as she called after him tore at his heart, but he knew that this was something that he must do.

The moment he had run the youkai that had been fighting the others milled about for a moment, and that indecision cost many of them their lives, especially the group that had surrounded Sesshoumaru. But Naraku's orders were clear and Kiyoshi had been right, it was he that was the true target of the attack and after a few heartbeats Kanna was urging them on after the fleeing tai-youkai. More of them fell in huge swaths as they moved to pursue the neko, as none of the group there would hesitate to attack them as they ran. But enough began to get by that InuYasha felt his heart sink. It was only a matter of time now, and he knew it. Kiyoshi was not truly a friend, but he was someone that he knew and secretly InuYasha adored his hanyou daughter. Golden eyes sought her out where she clung to the branch she had been placed upon, she stayed as ordered though her shaking form made InuYasha's own heart clench in shared emotion.

He had never known his Father, but he remembered how he had felt when his Mother died. They would not abandon Kiyoshi even though he had fled to draw off the waves of attackers; but InuYasha knew that he was already as good as dead in the condition he was in. He destroyed as many as he could but soon enough the clearing was empty of the lesser youkai. Kouga had already gone after them and he moved to follow, but he had been slow enough to catch a very interesting conversation between Sesshoumaru and Kanna. The Void youkai's voice was eerie and chilling, quiet like the grave, and Sesshoumaru's was equally chill but for very different reasons.

"Naraku will kill Kagura, once he knows she betrayed him."

"She could not betray him as she is not his. She is mine."

"Nevertheless, Lord Sesshoumaru. Nevertheless."

There had been a pause then, and InuYasha had stopped to look back, and he saw his brother smile. It was not the small smile that he would often get before killing something, it was for him a wide and joyful smile. But his voice did not change one iota in inflection or tone.

"Tell your hanyou master that should he kill what belongs to me, that I will destroy him."

Kanna did not smile in return, but there was something about her that seemed as if she might just before she gave a slight bow to the tai-youkai before her.

"I will do as you request, Lord Sesshoumaru."

It came to InuYasha then that Kagura was not the only one of Naraku's incarnations that was plotting against him, and he wondered if they had been given the resolve to do so as a part of the curse that Kiyoshi had cast against him. Kanna knew that in his rage that Sesshoumaru had taken something of his Naraku would most likely do exactly what Sesshoumaru had sent warning that he not do. Sesshoumaru also knew this, and InuYasha realized that was why he had smiled as he had. Naraku did not have the icy control that would be needed to resist and his actions would set him against Sesshoumaru who was not known for his compassionate treatment of enemies. He was allowing Kanna to use him to destroy her Master, though InuYasha had to wonder if there was more to it than that. He shook off his dazed wonderment and stopped his headlong rush to follow Kouga.

It had come to him then that he couldn't just go and help in the fight. If he did Tomoe would be unprotected and he certainly couldn't trust his brother to do it for him. With Kanna still nearby there was also no telling if she would leave the child safely there or if there were orders to harm her as well to get revenge on her father. He wiped his face as free of blood as he could with the sleeve of his haori before going to the tree. Again he felt her misery as she looked down at him with her tear streaked face, and that shared emotion had his voice gentler than it normally was.

"Come down, Tomoe. I've got to get you away from here. Your father wouldn't want you still in danger."

With a shaky nod she moved and dropped from the tree, once her feet hit the ground she launched herself at InuYasha and clung to his chest. Her tears had stopped but her shaking had not, and as gently as he could manage he wrapped his arms around her. He shot a glare at his brother to see what that jerk was up to, but Sesshoumaru had left the clearing on his own business now that Kanna had left as well. He would simply have to trust that Kouga could keep himself alive and would meet up with them again at Totousai's, and once his Tessaiga was fixed Naraku would have hell to pay for every tear this precious child shed.

Kouga came back to them before they reached Totousai's lair, and his expression was grim enough that InuYasha's own ears flattened even to his silver hair. Tomoe's expression had been hopeful for a heartbreaking instant as she sat up straighter near the fire, her lovely golden green eyes wide as she looked for her Father. Her auburn ears sank down as Kouga came to sit near her, and he gently took her tiny hands in his as he told her what had happened. He didn't even wince when in her grief her retractable claws came out and dug into his fingers, and her sobs made him sigh gently. InuYasha patted her back awkwardly as she cried, and the look Kouga gave him told him that he had left out details to spare the girl. He would get the full story later he was sure, but for now they both took turns comforting the orphaned neko hanyou.

It was a very subdued group that came over the hill on the semi-hidden trail to Totousai's lair. It had taken a lot of combined cursing and hollering to get the blacksmith youkai to come out, even though by this time the ever helpful but cowardly Myouga had managed to find his way back to them and he had assured them that Totousai was indeed there. Once he had come out he had seemed overjoyed to see InuYasha and had babbled something about being glad to see him and not his brother again. This joy had become grief filled wailing however once InuYasha had shown him the reason for their visit. Even Tomoe had laughed when the old youkai had bonked the inu-hanyou over the head with his mallet. Once the histrionics were over though, he gave a thoughtful look at the shattered pieces of what he called his greatest masterwork as a smith. It was in those quiet moments that they all realized that while he might act senile that it was just an act and the mind behind those bulging eyes was sharp as one of his creations.

He had taken a fang from InuYasha's mouth to use as raw materials for his reforging and assured them it would be no less than three days until it was repaired. The old youkai had looked nervously at the sky the entire time they spoke and gladly retreated back into his bone surrounded cave once they were done, muttering something about Sesshoumaru that was far from flattering. When Kouga had canted his head in question towards InuYasha he shrugged by way of reply, the smith had not been forthcoming about anything but the sword. His unease however had put Kouga's back up, and he kept patrolling the area they settled down in for the wait as if anticipating another attack. This in turn made InuYasha nervous, and he never let Tomoe out of his sight for more time than was necessary for the child to relieve herself decently.

As promised on the third day the smith emerged with the repaired sword, much to the relief of InuYasha. He barely listened to the smith as he took the sword back, brandishing it a little before sheathing it firmly. It felt good to have the weight of the repaired Tessaiga at his hip but the real cause for happiness was knowing that now his youkai blood would be under control and he would not end up slaughtering those he loved in a frenzy. Later on he would reflect that perhaps he should have paid more attention to what was told to him as it would have saved him both time and annoyance. Sesshoumaru had still not made any sort of reappearance despite Totousai's continued yammering about him, so they prepared themselves to head home the next morning. Kouga graciously extended his protection to the smith for his work, telling him that should he wish he could accompany them back to the Den if he should wish it.

Little did they realize what such an offer would lead to. Sesshoumaru had actually believed that Totousai would rather die than acquiesce to his demands that he forge a sword for him and instead of coming back to confront him he had gone straight to looking for Kaijinbo. That evil former apprentice to Totousai had gleefully accepted Sesshoumaru's commission to forge him a blade from the remains of Naraku's incarnation, seemingly moreso because it held the potential to destroy what Totousai so valued. Yet the rumors of this swirled in the youkai world, that Kaijinbo was forging evil again – rumors that Totousai heard and believed. He knew that his former apprentice would no doubt come to kill him to best quench his evil blade in blood, so he packed what he could not bear to part with and taking his cow Momo he set off in the direction he knew that Kouga and InuYasha had come from.

"Well Momo, this is a fine mess we've gotten into."

A/N:

Oh its been just forever since I updated this story! I'm sorry its taken so long, and you have all been so patient. I wasn't really happy with how short this battle with Sesshoumaru and Kouga was, but there will be at least one more confrontation between the two before this story is over and hopefully that one will turn out more like I plotted it. I was sad to see Kiyoshi leave us, but at least he died bravely! I knew it was coming on the outline, but part of me hoped that he'd somehow be wily enough to out think me once more.

Thank you all again for sticking with me!