[FFML] [fic][yyh][dark] Shonen Chapter 28: Crescendo (Part 2)

Abdiel gabriel_gabdiel at yahoo.com
Tue Jul 15 01:22:58 PDT 2008


Kurama felt large arms close around his torso, pinning his sore arm next
to his body in a massive bear hug. "Got... you," the Tikbalang gasped
out as his pulsing neck's mordant ichor dissolved the blade on his neck.
The rest of the Kusarigama Shokubutsu flopped down beside them like a
limp, dead snake on the ground.

Kurama tried prying himself out of the monster's embrace with his free
hand, but he just couldn't. He was no Yusuke Urameshi; he was nowhere
near powerful enough to break free of the Tikbalang's grip. As the beast
increased the force of the hold, the boy could feel the press of muscles
and power that lay in those huge arms. For the first time since he was
reborn as a human cub, Kurama was helpless in another's grip.

The boy of reflection could hardly believe that Toguro Ani's little
puppet monster could be so strong. Kurama's strength was impressive in
its own unique way, and there probably weren't more than half a dozen
warriors that could match him on that area--plus only a handful had
anywhere near his speed--but the Tikbalang was more than twice as
strong as many of them, and perhaps just as physically strong as the
strongest among them. 

Regaining some of his wind, the Tikbalang neighed for Toguro Ani's sake:
"My horsy is a little too tired to make good of my promise to molest
you, so it looks like I'll just have to make it up to you by breaking
your spine."

The nineteen year old quelled his rising panic, fully aware that the
humanoid bronco was going to make good on his threat. Already the discs
of his spine were threatening to slip out, and he had even more strength
he could bring to bear. He patted his crimson hair in panic, but there
were no plant seeds left in it; he had already used all of them in the
course of the fight. So, left with no other alternative, he lashed out
with his free hand at the only available target: the Tikbalang's large
equine head. 


________________________________________________________________________


Shonen
A Yuyu Hakusho fic
By Chester Castañeda
chester.castaneda at gmail.com
gabriel_gabdiel at yahoo.com
http://www.fanfiction.net/~abdiel 
http://abdiel.florestica.com/
http://chester-fanfics.livejournal.com/

And so the fight between Toguro Ani and Kurama continues.

________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 28: Crescendo (Part 2)
________________________________________________________________________



"So where were we?" Toguro Ani drawled. "Ah, yes; humanity. Have you
ever seen dogs force themselves on other bitches because of their sheer 
horniness? Have you ever seen cats slowly torture other cats just for
fun? Have you ever seen rats have sex with their dead family members?
And, for your information, lemmings don't really commit mass suicide;
only humans do that! Only humanity is capable of such idiotic things." 

Kurama tried everything: He ripped the Tikbalang's healthy mane out by
its roots; he shattered an ear drum with a punch; he pressed on one of
the beast's eyes with his thumb, which earned him a thorough mauling
care of dizzying headbutts; and there was nothing he could do to the
chimera's yapping mouth, even though he really, _really_ wanted to shut
Toguro Ani up for good. Any attempts to break the snout off would simply
result in a retaliatory bite, with the monster possibly laying claim to
a finger while he was at it. He had little doubt the man-horse's
deranged master would enjoy the act, too.

"...Have you ever seen apes eat other apes just to try it out? Have you
ever seen monkeys enslave others of their own kind, treating them like
some sort of subclass commodities? And the humans have the audacity to
call themselves the superior race. Fucking Aryans... HA!"

Drawing breath in was impossible now, and Kurama would have to go with
what oxygen remained in his lungs. He could almost swear that the
Tikbalang was drawing things out for Toguro Ani's benefit, squeezing him
slowly instead of just breaking him in half like a dry twig, doing one
of the demon's most favorite human activities: torture. There was
nothing else he could do, so in desperation Kurama futilely clutched and
grabbed at the burly monster's head yet again, seemingly trying to pry
his foe's face off before it was too late. But it was made of tough
leather and immensely thick, and his strength was already failing; there
was no hope.

"Sensui was right all along; the only way to get rid of racism and all
these other cute eccentricities of humanity is to wipe humans off the
face of this fucking planet! I have absolutely no sympathy for human
beings whatsoever; none. And no matter what kind of problem humans are
facing, whether man-made or otherwise, I always hope it gets _worse_."

But something inside Kurama refused to give up; if for nothing else but
to silence Toguro Ani's maddening blather once and for all. He clutched
and grabbed at the Tikbalang's eyehole for a second time. The beast
bucked and shook the redhead around as it tried shifting his head back,
but another grasp resulted in Kurama's thumb getting in the corner of
it, and the boy refused to lose his purchase on it a second time. 

"You're still going at it? Fucking bitch! Let go or else the Tikbalang
won't! Don't make this any worse, lest you want me to go and kill your
precious fucking family after this fight is over. That's right; the
youko told me where they live, so lay off my monster's face, you fucking
CUNT!" Kurama heard Toguro Ani curse as he tightened his grip and felt a
lower rib go. Still the young man dug in with his thumb, hard enough to
cause it to bleed as it pressed against his nail. Slowly, inexorably, he
felt the monster's eyes give under the pressure even as his torso was
following suit and giving in under the Tikbalang's embrace. It was a
race against time.

"FUCK YOU! Fuck you and your family! I'll rape your mother, castrate
your stepfather and brother, and feed them their own privates! I'll skin
them alive and make myself a funny hat! LET GO, YOU MOTHERFUCKAAARRGGH!"
And then suddenly it gave, and he could feel his thumb press hard
against the eyelid with a soft squish.

Kurama struck true. Toguro howled in shock and anguish as his world
exploded in pain, half of his vision suddenly disappearing into a smear
of deep crimson agony. Reflexive panic flooded both the Tikbalang and
his psychotic master as their hands scrabbled at their face, feeling the
damage that had been done, feeling the blood on their cheeks. "My EYE!"
Toguro shrieked, the disbelief almost greater than the pain. "Fuck, not
again--My EYE!"

The Tikbalang gave a throaty shout and flung Kurama aside like a rag
doll. He continued crying out in pain as he tried to scratch at his
fiery, burning sight, shouting out a variety of curses as he grit his
teeth and used his fingers to finally rip the damaged eyeball out of its
socket and fling it away like a searing piece of brimstone.

Kurama used the ensuing seconds wisely and recovered his footing.
Regaining his breath was more difficult, especially with a broken rib.
Every inhalation was like someone was stabbing at his lung with a hot
poker, and he needed hundreds of tiny breaths to regain one normal one.

Despite the pain, Kurama tried to remain focused on his opponent. If he
ended up in another bear hug, he was finished. If the beast landed one
more solid blow, the outcome might be the same. He was on the verge of
losing a lot more than his life in a death match; he was about to turn
two decades of planning and six hundred years of waiting moot and
pointless. 'I will not let Midori-san down. Or Okaasan. Or Maya-san. Or
Ayame-san, Chiho-san, Shigeru-kun, Taka-kun, and everyone else involved
in this mess, _especially_ Asuka-san.' 

Kurama watched in a haze of pain as the Tikbalang continued to hunch
himself over and play with his face. It was taking him a long time to
recover, unless it was another trap. Kurama was beginning to wonder if
he should try to attack when the Tikbalang finally turned towards his
direction.

Splotches of black crimson dotted the hybrid mutant's face from where
Kurama's thumb and his own fingers dug into the socket of his damaged
eye. His other eye didn't fare so well either, what with the excessive
amount of scathing ichor washing into it every time he blinked, making 
it nearly impossible for him to see. But in between blinks, Kurama saw
something else which surprised and upset him. 

It was the eyeball itself. Whereas before it appeared to be normal, now
the pupil was large and black, nearly taking up the entire orb. He could
barely see any white in it at all, and it was impossible that anything
he did could have caused that sort of reaction. It didn't even look
human, perched there in its socket. It was the dark eye of an animal.

Realization quickly dawned to Kurama in exactly zero point fifty-five
seconds. "So your cowardly master's presence has left you, Tikbalang."
The boy calmly picked up the sickle-less Kusarigama Shokubutsu... now
just a fibrous version of the ball-and-chain... and fell into ready 
stance. "Toguro Ani probably wanted me to finish you off before he
recycles your lifeless corpse into another monster and attacks me from
behind; just like he did to Kuwabara during the Ankoku Bujutsukai, and
to myself using a look-alike corpse of Midori-san; it's his ever-
pathetic modus operandi."

The Tikbalang's head jerked towards Kurama as it snorted in frustrated
anger; there was something savage yet hesitant about the movement, as
though the redhead had just revealed some painful, ugly truth that
even his wild, beastly self understood.

"So you're now just a pawn, Tikbalang; a one-eyed, mindless pawn with
absolutely no recollection of what just happened, what you're doing
here, who I am, and why you're hurting so much right now. A disposable
newborn that Toguro Ani created and manipulated to do his dirty work for
him; something which he just as easily abandoned. You poor, poor
thing..." 

...He understood, but he didn't like hearing it; not one bit. So he
proceeded to try and beat the ugly truth to a pulp up until it didn't
bother him anymore, as was his tendency. Of course, the impossibility of 
destroying such a metaphoric concept escaped the confused and simple-
minded creature. His goal was violence. His essence was killing. That
was what his existence was all about, nothing more.

His first lunge missed. He tried again with the same results. Repeatedly,
Kurama's superior speed effectively negated any advantage he had. Within
minutes, even the desperate rage that had fueled him began to ebb while
his opponent appeared almost as fresh as ever, save for his wincing with
every breath he took.

Kurama waited until the initial onslaught had passed, leaving the waning
Tikbalang even more weakened than before. There were a handful of times
early on when he had come close to hitting him, but now his attacks
seemed ridiculously slow and ponderous. That meant it was time to end
this. Slowly, as Kurama evaded his attacks, he moved him into the proper 
position. Once there, he launched into his final gambit.

"Toguro Ani; I know you can hear me. You have this unrelenting disdain
towards humankind, and yet from what I can see, you're not any worse
than they are. In fact, I daresay it's your human side that made you
become so gutless, unscrupulous, and pathetic. Running away from danger
and coming back only when you have the advantage; no self-respecting
demon would ever do that. So don't you ever, _ever_ dare call yourself
a demon, you piece of human scum."

All the wild bestiality left the Tikbalang in an instant as intelligence
returned to his lone eye. Suddenly he was colder and harder than at any
point Kurama had known him. For the first time, he spoke softly. "You've 
insulted me, Kurama. Don't ever call me that word." His eyes seemed to
change to red. "Fine then; I'll fight you at your level, so we can see
who the _real_ demon is."

As before, when the Toguro-possessed man-horse taunted the boy with
hate-filled slurs against mankind, the repulsive creature lowered his
head and charged quickly at Kurama. All he had to do was connect once
and all that would be left was a bloody smear.

The charge was even faster than before, not giving Kurama enough time to
dive out of the way as he had originally planned. The second boy of
reflection's mind was a whirl as he recalculated the only escape route
left to him, and that was only if the Tikbalang did not expect it.

Had the Tikbalang kept his head up, he would have easily prevented
Kurama from evading, but instead he was barely aware of the boy as he
jumped straight up and out of his line of sight. An instant later, the
beast felt Kurama's hand use his hairy head as a springboard as the boy
removed himself from his charge by going directly over him. The monster
was still in the process of mentally cursing his adversary's agility
when his head impacted directly with one of the cave's concrete-hard
walls. The surrounding wreckage thundered and crumbled to dust with the
explosive impact, creating a second landfall that rivaled the first one
in intensity.

Kurama winced slightly as a huge portion of rock buckled under the force
of the charge. His plan had worked to perfection, and he had won the
match. His own brains would have been splattered across the cave floor
had he hit the wall with such force, or worse, if he had been caught
between the Tikbalang and said wall, but that had not happened. The
taunt had blinded Toguro Ani in rage and made him forget his monster's
position on the field and the possible repercussions of his actions.
Kurama knew from the chimera's previous charge that he could not come
out of it in time before hitting the wall, and it appeared he had not
even tried to slow down when he struck it. It was over.

At least until the Tikbalang pried his head out of the wall. With the
remains of shattered rock falling to the ground, the tenacious hellion
returned to his feet. From the bottom of his spine, Kurama felt a dread
chill travel up its length. If smashing his head at top speed or burying
him under piles and piles of rubble couldn't finish him off, the young
duplicate doubted there was anything else in his assortment of tricks
that could do the job, especially since he had already used up nearly
all of his demon plants... all except one, and the creature seemed
completely unfazed by its effects.

But then Kurama saw how groggy the Tikbalang was, barely able to stand
and with blood streaming down from some huge gash on the top of his
head. Even his eyes seemed more bloodshot than colored with anger. The
impact had taken its toll. Now victory was within reach.

Kurama launched an unmerciful assault upon his opponent, with most of
his spiked, wooden ball's brutal blows targeted at the head and face,
though he would go after another body part whenever the Tikbalang would
focus his defense towards the now-wounded portion of his body. Within
moments, the formerly groggy man-horse was now swaying easily, barely
able to shield any part of his body from his adversary's strikes.

With grim determination, Kurama continued his attack. A critical mistake
was made on the Tikbalang's part as he saw one of his arms fall limp
from blunt force trauma and his other arm cock back to counterattack:
The monster had left his head wide open. Kurama brought his weapon back
for a swing that would land far earlier than the Tikbalang's ponderous
punch.

And then the chimera moved his head forward and into the blow, changing
the point of impact for Kurama. The barbed orb met a skull thicker than
any normal human's prematurely. The maximum force was not behind the
blow due to the shift, but there was enough for the sphere to bounce
back and hit its owner's broken ribs; Kurama felt a spear of pain shoot
from the area and he doubled over.

Quick to take advantage of the maneuver despite the new waves of pain 
coming from his skull, the Tikbalang lashed out with his good arm.
Kurama reacted in time to only take a glancing blow to the face, though
there was enough force behind it to knock him to the ground.

A quick shake of the head momentarily removed the cobwebs from the
Tikbalang's skull. He had to finish the boy off fast. He leaped up into
the air and aimed both of his fists right at Kurama's head, one of the
few basic attacks he still had the strength to execute after the
tremendous beating he had suffered. A flare of youki blazed on the
surface of the reverse centaur's body as Toguro Ani reasserted his
control over the beast.

"Die! Die! DIE!" Toguro Ani's fierce screams tore themselves out of the
Tikbalang's throat as the beast struck repeatedly, impenitently, heaving
his ghastly, bruised, and fiery limbs into the air, whipping them around
his body with ferocious force, and casting them wholesale towards his
prey over and over as they exploded like gunshots upon contact. Kurama 
desperately parried the countless strikes, his arms moaning in agony at
their sheer power.

"DIE! DIE!" A knuckle ripped at Kurama's temple, narrowly missing his
eye. Still, Kurama could see that the Tikbalang's miasmic aura began to
flicker and wane in his effort. The demon was near the end of his rope.

"DIE! Damn you, DIE!" Toguro's dark aura flared with one final surge of
effort. The Tikbalang's fists burned with energy as they plunged down
the surprised half-youko's stomach with deceptive swiftness. He struck
with an explosion of heat and a crack as loud as thunder.

Only Kurama wasn't there when the Tikbalang hit the space which the boy
occupied and disintegrated the surrounding rock into dust, seeming to
disappear at the last instant. Just as the beast's fists recoiled from
the shock of the blow, he felt a blunt object land directly upon his
right ankle, which was solidly braced with the ground. The strike was
enough to break the joint. Unprepared for the pain, he fell to the
ground on his back, holding his ankle as agony and animal instincts
overrode his ability to think, bucking and snorting and writhing like a
spooked, three-legged horse.

But pain was a part of his life. It only took him a moment to force the 
sensations from his mind and reorganize his thoughts. Even with a broken
ankle, there was still an outside chance he could win, somehow. He
turned his head to see where his opponent was--just in time to behold
Kurama at the end of his ten-meter run, launching his weighty timber
mace forward and directly into his face. His head snapped back from the
telling blow, and for the first time since the fight started,
unconsciousness followed.

Kurama ran back and prepared to deliver another blow if it should prove
necessary. The mace strike would have killed almost any normal man _or_
demon, but the Tikbalang could hardly be considered normal. He warily
watched the beast's chest rise and fall, even if the creature's eyes
were closed. The man-horse was tricky, and it might have been another
subterfuge to lower his guard.

However, after thirty seconds of his opponent lying motionless, Kurama
finally lowered his guard, dropping his vine-and-wooden-ball down on the
ground before his body followed suit.

His ribs and spine hurt more than ever. The last blow the Tikbalang had
landed on his face was starting to swell up, and Kurama was certain he
would lose the vision in his eye soon. Then he would have to wait for
the swelling to go down before he could see clearly again. His shoulder
still ached from its first blow, and he was completely exhausted. Never
had he fought so long and hard save for his battle with Karasu, and
there he _at least_ had his youko self's much needed assistance. Much to
his surprise, the hard-earned victory didn't give him the satisfaction
he would have thought it should. 'Winning doesn't matter. Toguro Ani is
merely a stumbling block towards the road to my death scene.'

But something was amiss; just as Kurama began to turn towards the egress
of the pit, eager to see how his fellow reflections fared against the
rest of Toguro Ani's lackeys, his muscles suddenly tensed and his body
ceased movement. 'What...?'

"Got... you... again," the Tikbalang rasped, smiling a demented hyena's
sneer as he grabbed the dazed redhead into a second embrace; or rather,
Toguro Ani rasped as he completely took over his beastly steed's head,
an insane glint on his minion's lone eye. Kurama had no leverage this
time; both his arms were now pinned inside the deadly bear hug. He was
trapped.

"The irony is simply delicious! Delicious, I say! Can you taste it? CAN
YOU? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! After all your hard work, after everything you've
gone through, you're still going to die, you stupid, self-aggrandizing
DICKHEAD!!!"

Kurama burbled as the throttling grip gradually became tighter. His
whispered and strained cries were inaudible even to himself, his
consciousness wavering between darkness and light. His body felt like
lead, and his lungs seemed to have shrunk to nothing, as if they were
being crushed by an anvil. He felt as if he was burning from the inside
out.

"You thought you had everything figured out. You thought you can stop me
from ruining your precious plans and from taking my revenge. Well, score
another one for the bad guys, 'coz I won't let some dead bitch from six 
centuries ago take away what's rightfully mine! Yes, Kurama; your life,
your soul, your dignity, and your sanity are all mine! Mine!! MINE!!!
BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!"

The fear came in torrents now. The sheer terror of being conscious of
his own impending death was something he had always expected he would
experience, but he still dreaded it all the same. The young man spent 
horrifying seconds gasping for air, each breath more painful than the
last. The world shivered and lost color as he was deprived of precious
oxygen, his pupils rolling up so high that only the whites of his eyes
were visible. 

At the moment, it looked like Kurama's best bet to win would be if the
reverse centaur had a sudden heart attack from all of the effort he
had been exerting. 'Damn. There has got to be a way make the Sardinian
Plant's poison work on that monster!'

Kurama had found the stray bits of plant material... mostly leaves from
the aforementioned toxic plant... in his pocket during the initial parts
of his fight with the Tikbalang; although the twigs of the Baobab Shrub
were strangely missing. Nevertheless, since the boy had picked those two 
knickknacks up way back in Chiho Sasae's version of the Land of Oz, he
decided to use the one he had at hand to aid his fight: He reckoned that
the Sardinian Plant's poison should be far more effective in this place
than his regular arsenal of shokubutsu since it actually _originated_
inside the Dream World.

Except that wasn't the case. Kurama had already stuck the youki-enhanced
leaves down the Tikbalang's throat the first time the equine monster
cackled his harsh, cacophonic laughter, but the effects of the so-far
innocuous plant had been negligible at best. The creature's constitution
and resistance to pain was no short than legendary at that point.

Still...

"This is strangely appropriate, don't you think? Seeing you helpless, as
good as dead, all your precious logic and cunning wasted upon the sheer 
inevitability of my strength and power overcoming you in the end," he
chuckled. "And here your are, on the verge of giving back what wasn't
yours in the first place, and I ruined it for you! Your decades of
waiting, planning, training, and suffering was about to end, and in just
a few minutes, I shattered your dreams! ME! I did what no one else
could, and I--"

"...D-Don't see the point of my dream. Do y-you--?" Kurama gurgled
rhetorically, his voice as dry as a twig in June. At that very moment,
the boy's green eyes spoke volumes that his asphyxiated throat could
not: 'If my dream was this fragile--if it could be destroyed this
easily, stolen and taken for granted so effortlessly--then what _good_
was it? If everything I worked for could be taken away just like that,
then what was the _point_? What does it _mean_?'

Toguro Ani nodded breathlessly after the redhead allowed him to read his
mind, his single eye brimming with barely contained excitement. Seeing
such feelings of nihilism and despair in any of his victims thrilled the
demon to no end. "Well... what's your answer? What was the point of your
dream? What does it all mean?"

Teary-eyed and quickly expiring, Kurama smirked. 'Nothing; absolutely
nothing at all.'

At first there was silence as Toguro Ani let the weighty words sink in.
Then, all of a sudden, he laughed; it was an unbidden ripple of piercing
mirth that sounded like the dissonant howl of demented souls; a crazed,
warbling cackle that stretched on for much longer than should have been
possible without needing breath; an ugly sound. "BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA--!!!"

Then the laughter stopped. The man-horse's grip on Kurama slacked before
he himself fell on his knees and slumped his shoulders down. There, on
the stallion's face, frozen forever amidst gurgling chuckles, was a
rictus, maddened, and sardonic smile. Finally, after all this time, the 
Tikbalang was dead; the Sardinian Plant's poison had at last taken
effect, killing the monster with Fatal Hilarity.

So the Tikbalang died with a 'sardonic' smile on his face... Sardonic;
this word was supposed to come from the name of a poisonous plant in the
island of Sardinia. The plant, known to Romans as _herba Sardonia_,
contorted the face of its victim into a grim laugh (_risus sardonicus_)
that became fixed at death. A sardonic smile or laugh, therefore, had no
joy in it, only scorn and bitterness.

After taking his time to recover from his many injuries--about twenty
minutes' worth--Kurama crawled over his enemy's still form to make sure
that he was truly deceased. He afterwards stared into the man-horse's
unseeing eye and lectured, "'For those who feel, life is a tragedy. For
those who think, life is a comedy'," wincing as he felt his ribs twinge
again. "So which one do you think your brief life was, oh mighty
Tikbalang?"


***


Slow, reluctant rise out of comforting darkness. Unwilling awakening to
dull throbbing pain lurking within her skull. Queasy, empty feeling in
the stomach. General sensation of body weariness and irritating tingly 
sensitivity of the skin. Foul, pasty taste to the mouth, tongue feeling 
unpleasantly thick. Tentative opening of one eye... then immediate
squeezing shut, despite the relative darkness of the surroundings.

Midori Ohya drifted in a dark sea somewhere below the reach of her
consciousness, oblivious to the passage of time. She was in a strange
nether zone between dreaming and lucidity, unwilling to move towards
awakening for fear of what she might find there.

She could feel herself being swept along towards awakening, as if she
were caught in a strong current. She could sense that she was rising up
from the blackness deep inside her, towards the light and the pain that
awaited her outside of this limbo. She was powerless to stop it now,
helpless in the grip of inertia. 

Midori willed her eyes to fly wide open, but her body still felt like
lead; fright, alarm, and a whole other menagerie of feelings and
emotions engulfed her as she woke up from her weird--for lack of a
better, descriptive term--dream. Or was she still dreaming...?

Unfortunately, the young girl awoke _into_ a dream instead of waking up
_from_ a dream; her most recent dream inside a symbolic looking glass,
in particular. 'Shigeru-kun's dream...'

Midori's head swam. Auburn hair clung to her face, obscuring her eyes
and confusing her vision as a hot, unseen wind tugged at it in every
which way. She looked up through the fog in front of her and squinted at
the blurry nothingness; she soon realized that her glasses were missing.
Not that she ever really needed them to see, but they were gone
nonetheless. 

Her heart pounded feverishly in her breast, her pulse racing like a
demented dervish, but it eventually slowed as she willed herself to
relax. The Invisible Girl let out a cathartic breath to further calm her
frayed nerves and palpitating heart. 

She eventually realized that she was, at the moment, acutely aware of
every sensation that touched her body, tactile or otherwise. She could
feel the warmth and humidity of the air draping over her face, the
sweat even warmer on her forehead. The thing she was lying on felt
rough, rigid, sharp, and pointed, scratching the back of her skirt and
causing a minor irritation at the center of her back. Actually, the
feeling was kind of reminiscent of touching the spiny legs of a
centipede or cockroach...

"KYAAAH!" Midori cried out as the revolting mental image made her lose
her balance, flop out of her vine-wrapped cocoon, and land on the cold
floor into a wobbly crouch. Hyperventilating, she steadied herself,
looked around, inched away from the bed of thorns (which she swore was
made of creepy, crawly bugs because of her nearsightedness and lack of
spectacles) and took stock of her circumstances and current whereabouts. 

Tired, confused, and in a great deal of soreness, Midori managed to
lever herself up onto her hands and knees, and then to her feet. There
was a burst of light reflecting from the high ceilings of what appeared
to be a cave, as far as Midori's limited sight could tell. Where exactly
was she? 

She gulped down a wave of dizziness, reaching out to steady herself
against the back of a nearby boulder. Then it passed, but she still felt
weak as she slowly moved forward, fighting off the feeling of dread that
kept threatening to engulf her.

The light, slowly pulsating in cadence with Midori's heartbeat, revealed
things that answered most of the young woman's questions yet gave birth
to new ones. She was in a cave; the Irima Cave. She went there with the
boy of reflection. But where was the boy of reflection now? Looking at
the ragged state of her school uniform and the underground river just
below her, she vaguely recalled struggling against horrible mutant
babies, then hearing voices in her head soon after--what happened to
them? More importantly, what happened to her?

Nodding to herself, the Invisible Girl took a step forward and breathed.
When she did, her world erupted into a white, screaming mass of pain.
Her stomach and insides burned with liquid fire. The dull ache in her
legs was actually an intense agony distributed over several fractions
of a second. The skin underneath her tattered clothes felt as if it were
being rubbed raw. She again fell to her knees, which throbbed with such
pressure they could have been hearts themselves.

There was a soft rumble that shook the vicinity, and she grimaced in
discomfort. Her forehead thumped like a fourth heart in cadence with
the one inside her chest and the ones inside her knees as the chaotic
strands of agony tried to ground themselves inside her mind. 

Then, abruptly, the ground gave way under her feet. A strangled yelp
escaped from Midori's lips and she fell down, down a long shaft that
ended with a shock of water, icy and penetrating like death. Her head
sank quickly beneath the surface, and the fire was there in the middle:
golden, deep warm, and yet filled with blue sorrow. 'The third pillar
of light...!'

She thrashed wildly with her arms and legs, and by some miracle she
managed to bob her face above the water. She again spotted the gilded
column of luminosity, and instinctively used it as a compass to guide
herself to the riverbank.

She pulled herself up with all her might, but the water clung to her,
made her heavy, and dragged her down like tar. Her hands slipped over
the ledge covering the shallow end of the river and she went under. Her
legs kicked violently under the surface as the water strangely burned
her, her extremities frozen numb, and the golden pilaster of flame in
this abominable river deafened her with a million haunting voices that
shrieked death and sadness at her. And, all the while, Midori's screams
and the roar of the fire overhead filled her ears with the need to break
free.

She tried again, pumping her anesthetized legs feverishly until they
found purchase on solid ground. Thankfully, the water was no longer deep
from where she was floating, and she could almost waddle to the bank
from there on end. Midori was nearly within reach of her ticket out of
the murky depths when, unexpectedly, a figure as large as a man emerged
from a place beyond the metaphysical fire and stepped atop the ledge
just above her. 

Midori stopped cold from her ascent, fearful of the dreadful stranger.
She then heard the man's voice, and all her worries were dispelled in an
instant. Letting out the breath she didn't know she was holding, she
excitedly called out to the young man; she knew him! He was going to
help! "Minamino-kun!"

They clasped hands, and the fourteen year old pulled the damp and sodden
older girl up onto dry land before they altogether collapsed in a tired,
boneless heap. For the longest time they just lay there, dripping wet
with sweat, blood, and water, their chests heaving and their eyes
squeezed shut, letting their mutual fatigue and agony wash over them
amidst the hot solar winds of the third pillar of light. 

Using all of his remaining strength, Kurama staggered towards Midori's
prone form, barely able to make it to his feet without the use of his
scarred legs and worn-out arms. He stopped once he made it to her side.
He fell to his knees as his vision floated out of focus and he nearly
passed out a second time. It took several moments before enough of the 
pain subsided that he could think once again.

Midori's eyes fluttered open, and then she sneezed lightly. She rubbed
her nose and crossed her arms for warmth; the hot winds that surrounded
them felt blisteringly cold on her damp skin. She eventually noticed the
young man kneeling beside her. She smiled at him, then pouted curiously.

"M-Minamino-kun...? Is that really you?" Midori squinted her eyes and
tilted her head inquiringly as she inspected the ostensibly younger boy
further. "I'm sorry, but you look sort of... different. I remember you
being taller than me. And what have you done to your hair? It's so
short! It looks good on you, though."

Kurama chuckled weakly at Midori's antics, relieved that his... or
rather, his older self's... classmate was doing all right. In fact, the
mousy girl kind of reminded him of his good friend Maya, somewhat. He
grit his teeth to a pained smile as he bore through his mounting agony, 
clutching the gaping hole in his chest as the Manananggal's frightful
blob of caustic ichor continued to eat through his skin, muscles,
tendons, and bones. Soon, it will reach his heart, lungs, stomach, and
other vital organs, and then... who knew?

"Oh my gosh, Minamino-kun! You're hurt! You need to go to a doctor or 
something!" Midori blubbered, completely forgetting herself and their
current state of affairs. There was no doctor to be found in this
Dream World, and the Kurama in front of her wasn't really Kurama; just
one of his supposed reflections. And as for her, she--

Images began to flood the bemused young girl's mind... familiar, yet
also beyond her comprehension. Wings and claws, blood and death, hatred
and despair, hope and faith, innocence and guilt--these phantom mirages
came in pairs both visual and visceral, confusing yet logical; her
present condition was not unlike an infant's first wake in the world as
it looked around in an altogether alien environment, trying to make
sense of it all.

Kurama's breath was becoming shallower and shallower by the second.
Still, he was glad that he was able to save the Invisible Girl, which
gave him great hope that he could do the same for Asuka Matsui. He just
wished that the rest of his reflections fared better than he did, or
else it was indeed game over for all of them. 

Midori clutched her aching head in fear, frustration, and anger. She
remembered everything. She understood what all the images in her mind
meant, and she hated herself for discerning it all. 

Kurama's plight drove a spear through Midori's mind, making things clear
to her for a second time. The horrible, terrible memories buried in the
surface of her consciousness--fairly recent ones that explained her
current situation--came back to haunt the recently revived girl with a 
vengeance. She watched, transfixed in traumatic revulsion, the virtual
car wreck of her own recollection. She was supposed to be dead, because
Kurama killed her, but it didn't end there, because Toguro Ani used her
corpse for his dastardly purposes, turning it into a dismembered, undead
harpy.

And then there were the dirty memories; the unspeakable ones which made
a part of her mind scream forevermore. He raped her; Toguro Ani had
raped her heart and soul.

Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of inner horror from an
unending nightmare, Midori's mind blanked out. She dropped to one knee,
all her strength draining away like water through a fissure. Her vision
blurred even further, and she felt as if she were about to faint. She
couldn't think anymore, because it hurt too much to remember. She was
already teetering on the edge of sanity, and she had nothing left in
her to resist going over it.

The formerly bespectacled girl did not feel the claws of the Tiyanaks,
the Manananggal, or even Toguro Ani himself dig into her, as she had
expected she would. Instead, she felt Kurama's arm around her shoulders,
and heard his gentle voice in her ear. "It's okay, Midori-san. You're
safe now."

Midori collapsed in Kurama's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. She trembled
and wept, a release from the horror of the nightmare which she had just
experienced. Her body was racked with the sobs--they seemed to tear
themselves out of her lungs, burning like sandpaper on their way out of
her throat.

Kurama held his older self's friend--his future friend--for a long, long
while, until finally her convulsive sobbing tapered off. He lifted the
older woman to her feet, wincing at the effort, then turned to the
sounds of battle from the distance with a grave expression on his face.

"H-How did you...?" Midori tentatively started to ask Kurama in between
sobs, but the boy merely put his finger on her lips to silence her; he
knew what she was about to ask.

'I used the Rose Whips to put together your severed body, but it was
actually the seed of reanimation that revived you; the same Valerian
seed which the Youko used to reanimate Urameshi Yusuke's dead heart
during their fight. You should know; you were there.' the fourteen-year-
old boy of reflection telepathically communicated as he leaned against a
nearby wall; at that point, he hadn't the energy left to speak or stand.

"Urameshi... Yusuke? Oh, yes. The Phoenix. He's your friend, right? I
remember him now. This was during the time when the Silver Fox trapped
me inside the Janen Ju." Midori's eyes brightened as an idea suddenly
occurred to her. "That's it! We can use your seed of reanimation to heal
your injuries and revive your other reflections! Then you can combine
your forces to stop the Abomination and the Silver Fox once and for all!
What do you think, Minamino-kun?" 

Just then, a silken darkness draped over Kurama's consciousness before
his shoulders slumped and his eyes closed for one last time. 

"Minamino-kun?!"


***


There were many advantages to being in a place just beyond the reach of 
mortal reality. A nice, quiet pocket dimension where you could put your
feet up, relax, and read the morning paper definitely had its perks;
that was, if you didn't mind reading the paper in an underground cavern
that seemed to be made up of ash, brimstone, and porous rocks glowing an
unholy red. But at least it was quiet. Then again, this silence also
depended on its current occupants, who were presently anything but.

Kurama stood trembling at the entrance of the huge gaping black cave at
the top of a jagged cliff... a cave within the Irima Cave, a veritable
labyrinth of endless tunnels... his body tensed in a ready stance, his
hands clutching his Rose Whip. His body was covered with purpling
bruises and scrapes. There was a bleeding gash on his right cheek just
below his eye. His mass of crimson hair was a tangled, matted mess. The 
abominable monster was currently regenerating himself after being cut
into a million pieces and melted into goop by the Demon Realm Bow Weed,
so the boy at least had a few more minutes of respite. 

Kurama sat rock still, looking at the nothingness. His head spun with 
thoughts. Horrified thoughts, calculating thoughts, fears and hopes...
and questions. Far too many questions.

Two gleaming blood-red eyes, each the size of a human head, blinked open
in the blackness. The dark scarlet glow from the eyes illuminated the
cave, revealing a hint of black, scaly skin and thigh-sized teeth. A low
snarl caused the ground to tremble, and Kurama was showered with rocks
and dirt from the cave ceiling.

The Kapre bellowed back to life; its aura didn't just increase as it
awakened from its temporary death--it exploded like a psychic blast. 

The black-skinned creature of death seemed to grow as it lumbered
towards the sixteen year old in deliberate sluggishness, swelling with
darkness and thrashing about as if caught in the grips of some chaotic
wind. Its crimson eyes burned with the fury of hellfire, zeroing in on
Kurama with their hideous glare. The sheer power that pulsed from the
monster beggared the imagination.

Kurama's brief reprieve abruptly ended, his sullen thoughts put to rest
for another time as he again went through the motions of what promised
to be an eternity of conflict; a fate which he had previously relegated
Toguro Ani to, but was now experiencing firsthand. 

Thrust. Parry. Slash. Feint. Attack. Dodge. Counterattack. Continuous
revival. Undying perseverance. The irresistible force and the immovable
object colliding against each other over and over until both defied
every last known law of physics and exploded inward, imploded outward,
and disintegrated the totality of their metaphoric mass into utter
nothingness. This infinite fight was truly a piece of exquisite
insanity; an exercise in futility; pure, incurable madness.

The redhead shook his head clear of his nihilistic musings and regarded
the overwhelming figure of the approaching black beast with increasing
anticipation, knowing full well that he could not afford to succumb to
the growing abyss of hopelessness in his heart. He had an apprehensive
feeling about the fates of his fellow reflections--What if he was the
last of them? If he was defeated right then and there, what then? He
grit his teeth and continued the fight with that in mind.

The Tournament Fighting Kurama and his massive adversary eventually
stumbled into a part of the tunnel that was no mere pit, but a seeming
battle arena for people to fight with one another. One continuous wall
fourteen feet high formed a circle that surrounded the area. Twenty feet
up, elaborate stalactite spikes that were at least a foot long before
they tapered to sharpened points were affixed in the wall about twenty
feet apart at regular intervals. 

The floor was composed of almost white sand, about an inch deep, with
hard stone lying underneath. There was not enough of the substance to
slow a fighter down, unless they were careless. One brief moment of
inattention could cause a fighter to lose his balance or miss a step,
and that could be the end. There was also the potential to use the loose
substance as a weapon, should one have the opportunity.

This place wasn't exactly like the arenas found in the Ankoku Bujutsukai
or the Makai Tournament, but it was more or less close enough to pass
for any of them. To have such a portentous room constructed accidentally
by nature's hand was truly a marvel to behold... or perhaps not, as this
version of the Cave of Irima mostly stemmed from whimsical imaginings of
the human mind.

Even as Kurama's heightened senses recoiled from the bombardment of
various stimuli, the Kapre approached with a purposeful, deliberate step
that made his presence known above everything else. The teenager tensed
up slightly as the whole area rumbled; it never hurt to be too cautious
in a place where, or against an opponent whom, everything was an
unknown.

The aura of absolute terror that throbbed from the Kapre's body dwarfed
the power of anything Kurama felt from it before, setting his every
nerve burning with the primal need to flee for his life. Unthinkable
energy emanated from its enormous dark-shrouded body, an aura of raw
strength that froze the boy's breath in his lungs every time he looked
at it. It seemed less like a single being now, and more like some moving
portal rent in the fabric of space, through which one horror after
another streamed in an endless onslaught. 

The slightly bruised and bleeding teenager braced himself, flapped his
enormous butterfly wings--the Fuyouka no Makai Shokubutsu he had used
during the final battles against Sensui--rose into the air, and swooped
down towards the smoking mass of a giant with a wooden lance made of
high-grade Hydra Bamboo which continued to lengthen and thicken every
time it was torn apart, just like the mythological beast Kurama named it
from.

In his earlier fights with the Kapre, the creature simply changed its
form to adapt to its enemy. This time, though, at the advanced stages of
its genetic metamorphosis, it didn't just stop at one mutation--it
adapted on the fly, generating a never-ending quantity of new and deadly 
transformations to attack its prey: a horrible cross between Toguro
Ototo and Kuro Momotaro. 

But for every attack, Kurama had devised a counter. However, he was
running out of plants to counter with. And, unluckily for him, neither
the Baobab twigs nor the Sardinian Plant leaves were on his person; the
Ozite artifacts probably went to any one of his three other brother
clones.

So far, Kurama had already tried nearly everything in his arsenal on the
ever-resilient behemoth: the Bara Shibenjin, the Kagon Retsuzanshi, the
Fuuka Enbujin, the Shimaneki Sou, the Shoku Yo Shokubutsu, the Kyuketsu
Shokubutsu, the Juryo Yozan Ken, the Okunenju Ueki, the Tsukeyaki Grass
Blade, the Makai Ojiki Sou, and even his most notorious Plant Weapon,
the Janen Ju. Still, the relentless dark goliath would not go down. 

In fact, just like the Hydra Bamboo that Kurama was currently goring the
Kapre with, the gargantuan beast kept getting tougher and tougher as the
battle progressed. And, every time the redhead killed it, it grew immune
to whatever it was that destroyed it in the first place. The Rose Whip,
the Plant Claw, the Grass Blade, the Rose Whiplash, the Okunenju Roots,
and the Rose Petal Waltz could now hardly scratch its tough, rhinoceros
buckskin; the Death Grass had as much effect on it as a fungal/bacterial 
outgrowth; the Death Tree served as a hearty snack the second time it
was used; the Vampire Plant actually wilted and died when it tried to
suck the monster's bloody ichor again; the Sinning Tree served as a nice
decorative hat on its head; and the Demon Realm Bow Weed he used just
now had prompted the Kapre to mutate its constitution into an extremely
dense form which his Hydra Bamboo Lance could barely penetrate.

The leviathan continued its advance like some sort of earthbound titan,
a living force of nature, a demon more terrible than Kurama's worst
nightmares; it had more power than the fourth boy of reflection could
ever hope to contain for any length of time without burning out, or
perhaps exploding like a human bomb.

'It's always pressing closer,' Kurama thought morosely; he had no idea
what sort of deadly attacks would greet him if he allowed the Kapre to
narrow the gap between the two of them. Fortunately, his butterfly wings
and his long bamboo pole would allow him to strike from a safe distance
without having to linger within the beast's killing range. 

He would, however, need to get in close for a very dangerous moment if
he had any intention of actually ending the battle. 'Here goes...' he
thought, girding himself. 

The young Minamino charged his battle aura, focusing intense heat on one
hand and biting cold on the other whilst infusing his bamboo with an
antipode of demonic ki that made it grow a few more layers in thickness
without sacrificing its incredible flexibility. He threw himself towards
the Kapre, every sense alive to the possibility of attack. The creature 
responded by extending a trio of hideous grasping arms that grew out of
its main body like limbs from some diseased tree, sprouting hideous
clusters of thorns along their length even as they grew. These plant-
like members probably resulted from the Kapre assimilating unto itself a
sizeable amount of Kurama's shokubutsu; at any rate, the teenaged ghost
fighter swooped and spun, weaving his way between the attacking branch-
arms until he was in range to execute his next strike.

The lance of bamboo struck true as it immediately grew into numerous
other offshoots which skewered the dense stomach of the Kapre like an
overstuffed pincushion. The feverish assault launched the goliath's
massive body into the stalactite-filled cave ceiling, adding even more
stab-related injuries to its person. 

Something afterwards crashed into the ground behind Kurama.

The doppelganger spun, peering through the twisting clouds of billowing
dust kicked up by the whirlwind of activity. A long cord of armored
flesh lanced down from above, stabbing into the ground with a hideous
splay of spines. The limb was segmented, like some absurd centipede,
with serrated edges protruding from each of its innumerable joints. The
moment Kurama spotted it, half a dozen more of the chitin-covered
tentacles speared into the ground around him, all emerging from the
black mass of the dangling Kapre.

'It's anchoring itself!' Kurama thought--but it was more than that. The
segmented arms continued to hurtle down from the creature on top of him,
forming a razor-edged cage around him. 

Kurama looked up and, to his horror, saw the colossal beast pull itself
back to the earth along the path of the tentacles, splintering the
numerous spears of bamboo in its belly like so many withered pieces of
brushwood. It launched more and more of its limbs, piercing the air
around them and securing themselves in the ground.

Even though Kurama managed to dodge and twist his glider out of the
descending arms' way, all it took was a single glancing blow from one of
them to destroy his hollow javelin and fragile butterfly wings, forcing
him to crash-land right inside his enormous opponent's deadly trap.

Kurama gingerly got up from the indentation he made on the sandy floor
and grasped his ripped shoulder; the pain was incredible, worse than he
had imagined. Blackness surged on the edges of his vision, but he forced
himself to remain conscious. He could feel his blood running down his
arm, past his hand, and trickling off his fingers in a slick and steady
stream. He could hear his heart pounding in cadence with the falling
centipede appendages, growing louder in his ears. 

'Surrounded!' Kurama reflected anxiously. In just a few more seconds, he
wouldn't have any room to dodge, and one of the Kapre's anchor-arms
would pin him right into the ground. He saw no opening, no way to evade,
no spot in the ever-thickening forest of death around him that he could
throw himself through to escape the prison...

Each breath came in a ragged wheeze now, and Kurama felt his knees
beginning to tremble with weakness. Drops of blood from the other cuts
inflicted on him by the monster splattered on the ground as he moved.
His heart palpitated erratically with each distressed beat. He hadn't
taken a truly serious wound yet, but he could still feel the strength
seeping out of his body. All those high-octane incursions which he
unleashed upon the Kapre were beginning to take their toll. He couldn't
hope to hold out for much longer at this pace...

Just then, in the middle of certain death, Kurama cringed as he felt a
cold, familiar presence reassert itself inside the aberrant arena like
an elegy from a discordant violin. A thick mass of dark mist steadily
flowed down the ground towards him. The fourth reflection watched the
shadowy mass rapidly approach and, finally, while the unforgiving,
chitinous deathtrap continued to narrow down on its victim, the fog
coalesced into the misty yet distinctive form of the Silver Fox, his
amber eyes glowing in the retreating darkness.

To Kurama's surprise, Youko Kurama began to clap softly behind him in
apparent admiration of the Kapre's grisly handiwork. "That's it, Toguro
Ani. Kill them all. Rid me of the virus that is Minamino Shuichi once
and for all," Youko Kurama silkily commanded. "I saw all your other
fights; once you finish that Minamino clone off, there'll only be one
left. Just one more."

The Kapre begrudgingly grunted its assent, then snidely sneered, "ONCE
I'M THROUGH WITH ALL THE MINAMINOS, YOU'RE THE NEXT ONE TO DIE, SILVER
FOX," as it horrifyingly grinned with putrefying, tome-sized teeth.

Youko Kurama's lips curled with the exact same feral smirk as his amber
eyes gleamed with cold expectation. "I'll be looking forward to it. Now
don't waste time and kill the abomination."

"I am also part of the abomination. Kill me as well." 

There, right in the middle of the heated action, stood the youngest and
smallest of the four reflections--their ten-year-old young brother had
somehow managed to survive the onslaught of zombies, and was now
playacting as the littlest martyr in true Shuichi Minamino fashion

The Silver Fox whirled his head towards the origin of the new voice;
there was something swift and savage in the movement. "YOU! You're
supposed to be dead! I saw the Aswang stab and kill you with my own
eyes!" came Youko Kurama's enraged shout as his face contorted in
exasperation and disbelief, tendrils of his haunting youki permeating
into the air like tongues of an artic inferno.

"It did, but I was able to eat a Valerian Plant just as I was about to
expire," the youngest mirror image made clear to his older and more
powerful alter ego as he hobbled in between him and his trapped sibling.
"And here I am: The abomination. There're not just two, but three more
of us that you and your lackey have to kill."

"LACKEY?!" the true abomination roared and rumbled at the ten-year-old
Minamino, distracting itself from its task of finishing off the sixteen-
year-old Minamino.

"Annoying cockroach; I'll kill you myself," the youko avowed in cold
fury as his clawed fingers trembled at the thought of bathing themselves
in dirty human blood.

"Leave the kid alone!" the older Kurama cried distraughtly as he
helplessly watched the youko charge at the defenseless little boy, his
survival instincts mingling with his protective nature as he himself
sprung into action.

Everything happened in just under a minute, but it took all that time
for the tournament fighter to fully react to what was going on in front
of him, and he cursed himself for it. He fumbled for the remnants of the
bamboo lance, his hands atypically trembling and clumsy with utter,
searing panic, but eventually he calmed down enough to wedge it into the
last few falling arms needed to complete the cage, freeing himself from
the ghastly prison. 

"I was the one who denied your existence during my fight with Shigure!
I was the one who, in the middle of battle, changed back into this human 
form after accidentally transforming into you, Youko Kurama! I'm the one
who truly deserves your retribution!" the adolescent Kurama called out
in reminder as he blocked the Silver Fox's blindingly quick claw strikes
with a whirling bamboo shield. Splinters flew in all directions as the
kitsune cut through the constantly growing plant weapon with razor-keen
malice.

The youko narrowed his golden eyes at the teenager after hearing the
ardent declaration and spat, "Human." The word was said with such malice
that Kurama reflexively winced; it was stated in such a way that it
seemed like the speaker was addressing a lowly and disgusting insect.
Most of all, there was just the slightest hint of betrayal in the
kitsune's voice; the fourth reflection had apparently hit a nerve.

Whilst the Kapre towered over all the Kuramas like a meters-high Wicker
Man, its anthropoid limbs serving as its conical base, Youko Kurama and
the teenaged Kurama ardently fought tooth and nail over the youngest
Kurama's life. Then, to the surprise of both combatants, the young boy
calmly started to make his way towards the suspended goliath. 

"What are you doing? Where are you going?" Kurama worriedly demanded to
his juvenile counterpart as he suddenly realized, much to his dismay,
how the whole situation had deteriorated around him. 

"An abomination like me needs to be purged from existence... or so the 
youko wishes; why don't I humor him?" the little boy answered oddly, 
mysteriously, sauntering towards the misshapen mammoth as though stuck
in a deep hypnotic trance.

"Don't speak such nonsense! Run away from here, Kurama!" the distracted
sixteen year old exclaimed to the younger boy as his Hydra Bamboo lance
splintered into even smaller chips and sawdust care of Youko Kurama's
intense barrage. "Don't do this! You may soon be our only hope, the last
of the reflections--!"

A wet splashing noise was heard by all, followed by a frightening howl
full of shattered glass. 

"Give him a break, human. At least the little abomination understands
the situation better than his abominable big brother. Don't you see? You
and all your other selves are nothing but second-rate, trying hard,
copycats!" the tenacious Youko Kurama drolly observed the obvious, or
perhaps not so obvious, after he nonchalantly severed Kurama's right arm
cleanly off its socket, right through the very bone. 

The young man grasped what remained of his arm with his other arm; the
pain was incredible, far worse than he could ever imagine. Blackness
surged on the edges of his vision, but he forced himself to remain
conscious. He could feel his blood running down from his stump of an
arm, past his torso, and trickling off his legs in a thick and steady
stream. "Y-Youko...!"

"Let me explain: your 'parent,' Minamino Shuichi, is essentially just a
watered-down version of myself, so each and every one of you disgusting
Minamino clones is an extra notch lower to me than he is. Remember, a
copy is always inferior to the original, and the copy of a copy even
more so; there are no exceptions to this rule," the Silver Fox haughtily
preached, working himself up to a storm as his victim went into shock
because of blood loss.

"...Case in point, every time Minamino fights, he almost always gets
into these desperate life-or-death situations whereby his chances for
survival is fifty-fifty at best. It was only through inheriting _my_
cunning and genius did he manage to survive the Ankoku Bujutsukai,
Sensui's machinations, and the resurgence of Meikai. How pathetic
indeed--Oh, quit your blubbering and take that little flesh wound like a
man!" Youko Kurama chidingly admonished as he kicked the already injured
Kurama in the gut, adding insult and further injury to injury.

The pale-faced Kurama groaned as he went down like a ton of bricks, his
intact arm and lone, trembling hand reaching out for the diminishing
figure of the dazed Minamino child. "No! NO! You're not an abomination!
You shouldn't say such things!"

The child was just three feet away from the Kapre's nearest anchor-arms
when the turned sideways to address his fallen comrade. "Why shouldn't
I? It's true what the Silver Fox says, and there's no reason for him to
lie. We really are just mere copies of him; parasites that subsist on
his and Asuka-san's life force; viruses both carbon-based and silicon-
based... or malware, at the very least," the toddler droned on, his
pedantic rant making him sound like a child suffering from Asperger's
Syndrome. "We are a paradox, an enigma, a contradiction, and a sin
against nature. The youko was right; he must be rid of us once and for
all." 

'No! You're both wrong!' Kurama dazedly thought, feeling slightly faint
and nonplussed by the gruesome turn of events. Behind him, Youko Kurama
watched the ten-year-old boy from the corner of his eye, his face
scrunching into a bothered frown that didn't quite reach his mouth.

Little Kurama's own look was very grave, like someone lost far away.
"This is the only way," the child reasoned as he slowly raised his arms
towards the cagey giant like an infant gesturing his mother to cradle
him in a loving embrace--it was indeed inapt and inappropriate body
language for the young boy to show to the brobdingnagian titan, to say
the least.

"HOW CUTE," the Kapre mockingly cooed as it made one of its many limbs
retract from the ground and, moving with a velocity that was terrible to
behold for things of such immensity, cast it wholesale towards its prey
with enough force to completely crush the luckless kid's spindly legs.
"I HATE CUTE. STILL, YOU'RE A VERY GOOD BOY... SO I'LL DO YOU THE FAVOR
OF MAKING YOU MEET YOUR MAKER!"

The redheaded child bit his lip and smothered his shriek of agony until
it altogether died in his throat. Then, with tears of pain and a glint
of purpose in his evergreen eyes, he turned towards his older self and
rasped, "P-Please take care of my sheep, kind sir. Use the muzzle you've
made for him so that I can make him only eat bushes that are not
rosebushes. It's for my rose's protection, you see; she's a very proud
but fragile flower..."

"ENOUGH OF THIS INNUENDO GIBBERISH ABOUT BUSHES AND FLOWERS! IT'S TIME
FOR ME TO FEAST!" the Kapre roared as it swooped down from its lofty
perch high above the ground upon bended anchor-arms, caught the toddler
in between its massive jaws, and tore the hapless boy apart through
severe mastication. 

Around the dark corners of the aberrant coliseum, the surviving Kurama
froze and stared bewilderedly at the sickening spectacle before him,
feeling as though he hadn't blinked in years. He simply couldn't tear
his jade eyes away from the horror that unfolded--didn't want to look
away for even a second as the scene played out upon his transfixed, doe-
eyed stare.

The smoky, tobacco-smelling blast furnace inside the Kapre's funneled
throat filled its chosen hors d'oeuvres with a grilled, ashen taste,
just the way the golliwog liked it. By the time the abhorrence was done
gobbling up the littlest Minamino doppelganger, all that was left of him
were small bits of bone. "HMMM... I SEE; THIS LONG BEEF TASTES MORE LIKE
CHICKEN! CHILDREN, THE ULTIMATE WHITE MEAT! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!"

...And with just that, everything Kurama had left was gone. It took a
full minute for him to realize the full ramifications of his younger 
counterpart's actions. With a heavy heart, he howled in grief and
frustration as he leaned against a nearby rock, his chest heaving with
silent sobs. He then knelt on the ground, his arms outstretched, his
back arched. He squeezed his eyes shut with all his might, his mouth
gaping wide in a silent scream. For a seemingly infinite moment, he was
simply frozen in a world of unbelievable shock and disbelief. 'What a
waste,' he thought miserably. 'What a damn waste. Why, Kurama? Why?'

At the back of his mind, a dark, horrible voice answered, 'Some people
say that suicide is the coward's way out. I say they've never been at
the bottom of that pit. When you're down there, you're empty. The only
thing that you have in your gut is a searing pain you can't get rid of,
like someone stabbed you and twisted, like you're choking on something
hot, like... it's difficult to describe. But no matter how simple
another alternative may seem, to the person that has reached that moment
of despair... to them, there are no other alternatives.'

'Well, there's nothing you could have done to stop him,' another voice
in Kurama's mind soothed, trying in vain to ease his guilty conscience
by making up some sobering rationalizations, 'The strain must have
gotten into your child self's head, and he just snapped. He was
distracted! Depressed beyond reason because he... you'd just abandoned
your mother and your friends for a quest to search for your human self's
original soul! That, coupled with the facts that he nearly died from
fighting against a whole legion of zombies, most of your fellow
reflections are dead or dying, and Midori was just recently transformed
into a mutant harpy must have broken his mind! He wasn't thinking
straight! Miserable, beyond reasoning, his childish feelings getting the
better of him, he came out of nowhere and he... he...!'

Kurama felt the tears brim and slide down his cheeks, and put his face
in his remaining hand. 'HE SACRIFICED HIMSELF FOR ME, AND I COULDN'T DO
A THING TO STOP HIM! Goddammit, no! He was just standing there a few
minutes ago, going on and on about how he was an abomination and a sin
against nature--saying utter nonsense--and then, in the blink of an eye,
it was all over. He's now gone. The child inside me is dead, and I feel
empty. Stupid, stupid, stupid Kurama!' At that point, the redhead didn't
know if he was cursing the child or himself.

Dammit, he couldn't see.

Kurama had to stop there, his fruitless diatribe dying inside the very
corners of his anguished mind. The name, as well as his reasons and
resolve, felt hollow in the face of this terrible event that just took
place. A part of him screamed that his earlier justifications for the
young Kurama's demise made him sound like a coward in denial. But that
didn't sound quite right either.

Nonetheless, it didn't change the fact that his counterpart's life had
just been extinguished by the Kapre's voluminous appetite. And here
words fail. Kurama wanted to scream, yell, cry, rip things apart like
the way he sliced through Gama's body with his Rose Whip way back in the
Middle Rounds of the Dark Martial Arts Tournament... but he couldn't for
any number of reasons--it simply wouldn't do him any good. He'd already 
sacrificed so much, burned so many bridges, and endangered too many
lives including his own to fall short of his lofty goals of karmic and
spiritual retribution. Yet here he was, fighting tooth and nail over a
losing battle that promised him a pyrrhic victory at best. To think, all
his hard work and effort was about to be rendered nil by the ludicrous
ambitions of demons and monsters. Failure: for when one's best just
wasn't good enough. 

'That's enough of that; what's done is done. Let me just salvage
whatever it is I can in this horrid situation and move forward,' Kurama
sternly admonished himself as he wiped at his face and tried to get his
emotions in check. 'Though there was nothing I could have done to stop
little Kurama, I have to wonder why he did what he did. Perhaps the
little boy committed suicide to aid me in my deadlocked battle instead
of doing it for some other senseless reason beyond fathoming?'

That sounded a bit more reasonable to Kurama. The way the young boy
moved towards the Kapre with unremitting resolve suggested premeditation
instead of mere madness, he reckoned. 'In his last moments, it felt as
if Kurama was trying to tell me something. Let's see; he said something
about sheep and bushes that aren't rosebushes...'

Just then, Youko Kurama unexpectedly clasped his hand onto the startled
redhead's shoulder with unnerving and inapt familiarity, rousing the
handicapped teenager from the turmoil of his inner thoughts. "Life can
be such a bitch, right? Still, you have to consider the possibility that
God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all likelihood, he hates
you. This is not the worst thing that can happen, I'm just telling you
the cold, hard facts. You're now in too deep, human, and even God is on
my side."

Kurama afterwards heard a rumble from behind him and stiffened. His
throat thickened as he looked over his shoulder, and he swallowed hard.

Squelching sounds and foul odors filled the air, choking Kurama with
their overpowering presence. Just a few yards from him, the Kapre's 
counterweight tentacles crawled and crept towards one other like
countless centipedes the size of locomotives, coiling unto themselves
and coalescing into a tangled, pulsating mass of putrid bodily fluids
and organic matter. 

The Silver Fox smirked as he let go of his human counterpart and backed
away slowly from the approaching onslaught of slavering death. "What
can I say?" he shrugged laughingly, "The weaker makes the other stronger
by being weak. And you're now next on the menu, you poor unfortunate
soul."

The ginormous Kapre cackled madly, acid dripping from its fangs as hell
and pandemonium rose into the air next to it. It subsequently moved one
of its long, beefy arms in a swift arc, faster than its ponderous size
would suggest; before the young man realized what was happening, the
hellion snatched him up, holding him tightly in one gigantic hand. He
struggled against its grip, but in vain.

"DO YOU SEE, HUMAN?" the Kapre thundered as it leered at its captive
with unmistakable malice. "THERE SHALL BE NO ESCAPE FOR YOU--NO HEROIC
LAST-MINUTE STRUGGLE. YOU SHALL DIE, AND YOUR ENTIRE PATHETIC QUEST WILL
DIE WITH YOU," the brute crooned, then held the fourth reflection closer
to its heaving bosom, its fist tightening around him painfully.

With his innards about to be forced out of his body like toothpaste
from a flimsy tube, Kurama shut his eyes and braced himself with the
serene calm found before the onset of a hurricane. After all, every man
had to go through his own personal hell to reach his blissful paradise.


***


To be Continued...

Next: The Silver Fox and the Boy of Reflection, together again.

Author's Note: As a small by the way, the creatures featured in
this arc are creatures of Southeast Asian Mythology. Why'd I use
them instead of Japanese Mythology creatures like the kappa, the
kitsune, the oni, the yurei, and some such? Well, simply put, it's
always best to work with what you know. ;)

Send all C&C, flames, death threats, etc. to me at either
gabriel_gabdiel at yahoo.com or chester.castaneda at gmail.com;
whichever suits your fancy.

Note that I put in the title _Shonen_ not _Shonen-Ai_. Shonen-Ai 
(male-male relationship) and yaoi are just not my cup of tea. This 
is dedicated to Chimamire Kitsune for giving me the inspiration to 
write this fic... Wherever you are, this is for you.

Disclaimer: Yuyu Hakusho is the rightful property of Yoshihiro
Togashi, Shueisha, Fuji TV and St. Pierrot. This fic therefore
also belongs to Yoshihiro Togashi, Shueisha, Fuji TV and St.
Pierrot.

Walang takot; sa bangis ng kalaban di umuurong,
Abdiel

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