[FFML] [yyh][ry][xover] Youtou Shinnoken Chapter 16: Tactics (Part 2)

Abdiel gabriel_gabdiel at yahoo.com
Fri Mar 28 03:33:51 PDT 2008


"I guess I'm just an old-fashioned sentimentalist at heart. I refuse to
accept a no-win scenario. I hate the thought of a universe without
justice. If the maneuverings of dark powers can't be exposed and
defeated by the pure of heart, then there's no point in anything. I
can't believe that."

(Benjamin Hutchins)


________________________________________________________________________


Youtou Shinnoken
A Yuyu Hakusho/Rurouni Kenshin fic
By Chester Castañeda
chester.castaneda at gmail.com
gabriel_gabdiel at yahoo.com
Original concept by SeventhOne
chadjill at ms3.hinet.net
http://www.fanfiction.net/~abdiel
http://chester-fanfics.livejournal.com/

Iehik and Iehog continue their reign of terror on Botan and Kenshin.
Warning: Lots of flashback scenes. Not for the easily irritated. Also,
anyone who wants to, PLEASE e-mail me; fan response is greatly
appreciated!


________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 16: Tactics (Part 2)
________________________________________________________________________



As Botan slept on the frightening Iehog's shoulder, she continued to
dream of the past...

Kaoru, Kenshin, Kihei and an unseen Botan were walking through town. A
crowd had apparently gathered in the town square, and they were smack-dab
in the middle of it. "Is there some sort of fair or festival going on?"
Botan queried to nobody in particular, and, as expected, got a response
from no one in particular.

"Well... I thought of someone who might be the killer. There's a dojo
called Kiheikan on the outskirts of the neighboring town," Kaoru 
conspiratorially revealed to Kenshin whilst the meek redhead nodded in
contemplation.

Meanwhile, Botan detected a curious look in Kihei's eyes, but quickly
waved it off as her imagination. 'I wonder if 'Kiheikan' is actually 
Kihei's dojo... Nah. That's just silly. Just because my name is 'Botan'
doesn't necessarily mean I'm a botanical expert or anything, so it
doesn't follow that Kiheikan is Kihei's--'

"Kiheikan?" Kenshin thoughtlessly cut off the theoretically nonexistent
ferry-girl, with said imaginary shinigami harrumphing at the rude
interruption.

Kaoru nodded in affirmation. "Yes. Well, at least it used to be a dojo,
but now it's more of a gambling hall, and about two months ago an ex-
samurai took control of it. He's a large man, six shaku, five sun tall."

"Huh?" Botan exclaimed, bewildered. "'Shaku'? 'Sun'? Who uses those
antiquated measuring units anymore? It's not as if we're still living
in the... nineteenth... century... Heh. Um, never mind."

However, to the ferry-girl's surprise, Kaoru huffily answered back, "All
right then, fine! He was one hundred and ninety-five centimeters tall!"

Kihei did a sidelong double-take. "'Centimeters', Miss Kaoru? What are
those? And, um, who are you talking to?"

Irately, Kaoru snapped, "You _still_ don't get it? Mou, then he's six-
seven!"

Kenshin blinked. "Oro? Six-seven? As in six, seven, eight? What exactly
are we counting?"

Kaoru growled irately as both Kihei and Kenshin simultaneously bobbed
their open palms up and down in what they regarded as a calming gesture.
"I think both the vagabond and I understood what you meant by 'shaku'
and 'sun', Miss Kaoru. No need to get worked up about it," Kihei
assured.

Botan just... blinked at the strange turn of events as Botan groused,
"Like I was _saying_ before I was rudely interrupted... the guy is six
shaku, five sun tall, is pretty beefy and muscular, and looks like a
deranged, bearded Oni. Does that ring any bells?"

"Oh ho," Kenshin musingly murmured as he gingerly scratched his sharp,
tapered chin. "Sounds like somebody we know, assuming that the masked
man had a beard."

Botan wanted to add something to that, but she realized by then that
she'd merely just been talking to herself and acting silly all this
time. Except during that one instance where Kaoru Kamiya reacted to
something she said; that freaked her out a bit. 

"Suspicious, isn't it?" Kaoru eagerly responded, quickly forgetting her
exasperation. "Especially since the attacks began two months ago. You
don't meet a swordsman of that size every day. I don't have any proof
yet, so I can't do anything about it, but I know I'm close...!"

Kihei politely cleared his throat to get his mistress's attention. "Miss
Kaoru, there's still preparations to be made for dinner. Shall I...?" He
trailed of and looked meaningfully at the sixteen year old. 

Kaoru smiled at the old man. "Yes, please go ahead. Thank you." Kenshin,
Kaoru, and Botan idly watched the man move through the crowd and leave.

"That's him from last night, isn't it?" Kenshin nonchalantly asked as
his gaze lingered upon the old man's retreating form. 
Kaoru tilted her head to the side, smirked, and shrugged. "Oh, Kihei?
He's my housekeeper. He came soon after my father died. I took care of
him after finding him laying outside the dojo. He worries about a woman 
practicing kenjutsu; he thinks I should stop teaching, sell the dojo and
live in peace." 

Botan sniffed crossly at Kaoru's revelation whilst Kenshin's expression
waxed pensive: The former irritably--and ironically--thought, 'What a 
misogynistic, monkey-faced bigot!' while the latter merely queried, "But
where did he come from?"

"I didn't ask, so I don't know." Kaoru shrugged nonchalantly.

Both Botan and Kenshin gave Kaoru twin stares of disbelief, but only
Kenshin's really counted at that point. "You're pretty trusting," the
vagabond appraised in wonderment.

Kaoru sheepishly scratched her cheek. "Do you think so? It's all right.
Everyone has one or two things about their past they don't want to talk
about. Aren't you the same? Isn't that why you became a vagabond?"

Kenshin looked surprised for a minute, which elicited an inquiring look
from both Botan and Kaoru, then nodded. "Something like that."

Kaoru smiled weakly at Kenshin, then proposed, "A vagabond probably
doesn't have much to spare for an inn, so will you stay at the house?"
She tried to appear nonchalant as she made her generous offer... with
mixed results. Botan could only raise a half-skeptical, half-sympathetic
eyebrow at the pony-tailed, bokuto-swinging, and slightly mortified
girl.

Kenshin returned Kaoru's smile in kind, and reassured, "That's all
right. I have a little business to take care of, so I'll see you
later."

Kaoru let out the breath she didn't realize she was holding, darted her
eyes left and right, then squeaked, "Um, about before..."

"It's already been forgotten," Kenshin smilingly reassured. "I'll see
you."

"W-Wait a minute...!" Kaoru stuttered uncertainly, her hand slightly 
outstretched towards the departing vagabond's direction. If Botan could
gag at the relative cheesiness of the situation, she would. And since
she could, she certainly did.

Kenshin blinked innocently, and then tilted his head in askance. "Is
there something else?"

At that point, Kaoru was unconsciously making a relatively convincing
impersonation of a hangdog, walking-on-eggshells Kenshin. "Er, the other
day, you saved me and I didn't have a word of thanks. Um... sorry about
that."

To the swordswoman's chagrin and the ferry-girl's surprise, Kenshin put
a hand over Kaoru's forehead and quipped, "Do you have a fever or
something?"

Reminiscent of the age-old Japanese tradition of 'Manzai' Standup Comedy
where the straight man 'tsukkomi' throttled the funny man 'boke' in a
series of hilarious exploits and misunderstandings, Kaoru brusquely
throttled Kenshin in blatant, ironic slapstick that she might or might
not have been aware of... or so Botan observed. Actually, the term
'Manzai' was more of an anachronism, though the concept of the
"Japanese Abbot and Costello" act itself dated way back during the
Heian-- 

"Jeez, I'm just trying to apologize!" Kaoru irately cut Botan's mental
outburst off, fuming red and about to go into a verbal tirade of her
own.

"Oh, so you were, tsukkomi-do... I mean, Kaoru-dono." Kenshin shook his
head as if to clear it of its metaphoric cobwebs, blinking a few times
to rid himself of the swirling spots in his eyes. "A vagabond doesn't
worry about little things like that. You don't need to either. I'll see
you later."

As they walked off in different directions, Botan worriedly looked back
and forth at the pair, unsure of which person to follow. Just then,
Kaoru made the decision for her as she did a rather sloppy double take
and idly remarked to herself, "Oh, I forgot to ask about the reverse
blade." She paused. 'I wonder what kind of 'business'...?' she tacked
on as a hasty afterthought as her gaze lingered on Kenshin's retreating
form.

"I was thinking the exact same thing, sister," Botan 'said' to Kaoru as
she quickly shuffled towards Kenshin's direction, arriving just in time
to overhear him 'stage' whisper to himself as well. 'How... convenient!
Either that or the people of nineteenth-century Japan are in dire need
of therapists.'

As such, Botan listened to Kenshin monologue, "This Kiheikan is in the
next town over. No wonder I didn't find anything when I looked around
here."

Botan made a curious humming sound heard by none. "Uh oh. I feel a scene
transition coming," she joked, but much to her surprise, that was what
exactly happened; everything faded to black just as time passed by 
instantaneously. 

Sure enough, later that night, outside the aforementioned Kiheikan,
Kenshin and a faintly disoriented Botan stood in front of the rickety-
old building's unremarkable facade whilst the fierier-haired of the two
continuously... and quite annoyingly... knocked on the large, wooden
door and droned on and on, "Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.
Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse--"

With a muffled expletive followed by an indistinct shout that either
ordered, "Itsumaki, get the door!" or "Tatewaki, mop the floor!"--Botan
mostly surmised it was the 'door' option--an understandably upset
mountain-of-a-man proceeded to open the door and glare at Kenshin. "All
right, what do you want?"

"I'd like to see your leader," Kenshin meekly squeaked in a manner that
reminded Botan of aliens, UFOs, and America's Area 51 for some reason.

The Itsumaki/Tatewaki fellow snapped, "Master Hiruma's out now. Come
back later!" Just as he was about to slam the door shut, a hardly
noticeable smirk that looked more like an innocent smile sneaked into
the corners of the rurouni's lips. "Oh ho, is he called Hiruma?"

The man whom Botan ultimately surmised as too unimportant to even have
a proper name bristled with unbridled anger. "You came here and you
didn't even know that, you little...!"

"No, I was certain he was called the street-killer Battousai," Kenshin
smartly retorted as he unwittingly yet protectively went in front of
the nonexistent Botan and grabbed hold of his sword's hilt. "It looks
as though Kaoru-dono was right," the vagabond quietly muttered.

Another large, unshaven guy entered their line of sight and confirmed
mountain man's true identity by demanding, "What's the problem,
_Nishiwaki_? Who's this shrimp?"

"He's just a rat," Nishiwaki assessed as his enraged stare turned into
something darker and more malicious. Like pheromones to bees, different
fighters of varying builds and armaments followed suit to their
comrade's gut instinct and formed a ring around Kenshin. "He's
finished; that's what he is."

Before Botan could witness what happened next, a cackling, high-pitched
laugh interrupted her dream, and the moment, the memory, was gone. The
scene whirled, and the darkness became complete. She felt herself
falling and, unceremoniously, she woke up.


***


The first coherent thought to enter Botan's mind as she came to was, 'I
can't believe I ate that damn fruit of knowledge! By Enma Daio's beard,
the last thing I need now is... Wait, what was I doing again? Where am
I? Sheesh, I'll be forgetting my head next!' The ferry-girl blinked as
she tried to remember what happened after she saved Keiko from a Fool's
Paradise in Purgatory.

'Oh yeah. I sent Keiko-chan's ghost straight to Yusuke after helping--
well, more like _forcing_--her to get her lost memories back due to the
lotus blossoms; it's 'coz that darn Kugai technique nearly did Yusuke
in, and Keiko's the only one who could wake him up from it. I hope
they're okay. Hmmm... What else? Ah, that's right... I returned to my
body after my astral projection wore off; I can only keep it up for so
long, after all.'

She made a clucking sound with her tongue. 'Well, so much for the rumor
about the fruit of knowledge's ability to cure forgetfulness! Heck, it
seems like I've become even _more_ forgetful than before. My mind's all
fuzzy.' She breathed a sigh of relief, glad that she didn't have to
open the Pandora's box that was her past life. She rubbed her blurry
eyes, focusing them on the ground where a smoldering, bright-red
fireball caught her attention. 'Great! A fire! That's just what I need.
It's so darn cold out here. Brrr.'

Her vision, as well as the haze in her psyche, soon cleared. 'Hey, wait
a minute. That's no fireball. That's... hair!' Her heart skipped a beat
at the sight. "K-Kenshin's hair! I mean, KENSHIN! What the heck are you
doing down there?" she exclaimed. She then faced the opposite direction
and quirked an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Botan? Is that you?" Kenshin's wild, purple eyes widened in shock and
horror. "Botan!" 

But Botan wasn't paying attention to Kenshin's summons, her mind
temporarily lost in its own thoughts. 'Down _there_? Hey, if he's down
there, then what am I doing... up... here...?' Her gaze slowly drifted
upward, towards the most repulsive thing she had ever seen in her entire 
afterlife. She shrieked.

"Er, hi!" Iehog anticlimactically warbled as he waved idly at his cargo,
Botan, and ruined the horrifying effect he had going for him. Not at all
heeding her captor's friendly greeting, the ferry-girl began kicking and
screaming at the hideous beast, shouting, "Let go of me, you overgrown
mutant, scaly, furry, yucky, THINGY! I MEAN IT!"

"Pipe down, bitch. I'll bash your head in again if you don't," Iehog
suddenly raged, the air of his fearsome presence retuning as his deep,
rumbling voice went an octave lower. Botan fell silent instantly; even a
shinigami's fearless attitude towards death buckled under the aura of
primal horror that Iehog generated. She bit her lip; it was all she
could do to keep herself from screaming as feelings of terror and deja
vu engulfed her. 'Wait--Deja vu?'

And for the briefest yet single-most terrifying moment Botan had ever
experienced in recent memory, everything suddenly clicked. Everything
suddenly made sense in her so-called life; her past life in particular,
and reason why she became a ferry-girl--a shinigami--in the first place.

She, who was once upon a time a lost ghost just like Keiko, also went
into the misty middle fork of the Sanzu no Kawa and cleansed her sordid
memories clean of all her past mistakes, of all her sins, of all her
pain, and of all the stupid things she had done out of misery, fear,
confusion, and loneliness, drowning it all into oblivion by means of the 
delectable, hallucinogenic lotus blossoms of the Elysian Fields. It
wasn't her proudest moment, she knew, but she felt it had to be done at
the time.

The Fruit of Knowledge that she had bitten into to keep Keiko from
following her path of forgetful self-indulgence... the copout life she
chose for herself after her own life was turned into shambles... had
finally worked its 'magic' and opened her eyes to the awful, bitter
truth about her previous existence's sins.

She remembered everything. She understood what her dreams of Kenshin,
Kaoru, Kihei, and the fake Battousai all meant, and she hated herself
for discerning it all. 

But why did she do it? Why did she go into the middle fork? Why not opt
to be reunited with her ancestors in the right fork and have her soul
pass on, or at the very least get reincarnated as another person... or
maybe even a slug or bottom-feeding scum, if karma so chose... by
staying in the riverbank? Hell, if she _really_ felt so guilty about her
past actions, then why didn't she simply swim through the bloody left
fork, where she could be punished for _and_ rinsed of her sins
completely?

She knew the answer: It was because she was a coward. She had been hurt,
she had hurt other people, she had been compelled to do things...
terrible things... that she felt were beyond her control, and she made
mistakes, _lots of mistakes_ that went way over her head. She simply
didn't want to get hurt anymore; she wanted to run away from all that
drama by drowning it into nothingness... to forget it ever happened.

Most of all, she just wanted to keep herself from remembering her
skeletons--yes, those damn skeletons--in her proverbial closet. She
wanted to keep them in the back of her head; out of sight, out of mind,
for all time. 

A mocking yet bitter voice started to echo inside the blue-haired girl's
psyche. 'Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so 
vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens your heart and it means
that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up these
defenses, you build this whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt
you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person,
wanders into your stupid life.'

Botan clutched her aching head in frustration. Damn that Fruit of
Knowledge for opening up her own personal Pandora's Box! Damn it to the
River Styx's Left Fork! No amount of fire and brimstone from Level 17
Block 8 of the Corporeal Punishments Sector could ever convey how
intensely she loathed and despised that damned fruit.

'You give them a piece of you. They didn't ask for it. They do something
dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't
your own any more. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you
out and leaves you crying in the darkness, working its way into your
heart.' 

She wanted to cry, and yet she couldn't. She was so, so tired and the
walls were closing in on her and she just hated everything about herself
and her life right now. Even after all this time, after nearly a century
of blissful ignorance, this one event was enough to push her so close to
cracking that it was hard to keep the pieces together.

'It hurts. Not just in the imagination, not just in the mind. It's a soul
hurt, a body hurt... gets inside you and rips you apart pain. I hate
love.' So, in order to cope for this 'soul hurt', her mind started to
suppress her bad memories once more, forcing them back into its dark,
septic recesses before it corroded her sanity any further. She grabbed
hold of her head as she let out a silent scream. 

Botan winced as a fresh wave of panic engulfed her. Though she had
finally managed to wake up from her unblocked stream of horrible past
memories, Iehog's fearsome presence... coupled with the Fruit of
Knowledge's continuous attempts to nullify the Elysian Field's decades
of handiwork... kept on scrambling her already shaky thought processes.
Still, she persevered. 

A muffled grunt that demanded to be released as an agonized howl rose
from Botan's throat as she struggled to escape Iehog's grasp; for some
reason, touching any part of the loathsome beast was like plunging into
a lake of congealed nightmares. The seemingly Frankenstein-made ogre
filled her with unspeakable revulsion which clawed and ripped at her
insides and loathing that stretched far beyond the limits of reason.
 
"Iehog. Release her." The unsaid threat behind the swordsman's voice was
readily apparent, a hint of golden fire slipping into his indigo eyes
after he saw Iehog's inexplicable waves of terror render the ferry-girl 
completely paralyzed... or so he assumed, anyway. The person he had a
psychic bond with was _Yusuke_, not Botan, after all. 

"Long time, no see, Mister Guardian of the Demon's Sword," Iehog
remarked mockingly as he lifted the trembling Botan up on his bulging
shoulders. "Don't you think so, big brother?"

"Indeed, it's been a while, Himura Kenshin. Or should I say 'Himura
Battousai?'" Iehik asked as he cackled gleefully. "The time has come,
Iehog! The time has finally come! He shall now get his comeuppance!" 

"Yeah, and he'll get what's coming to him too!" Iehog proudly flexed 
both his scaly, reptilian arm and his furrier left arm. "Hot damn, big
brother! Just look at me now. I'm a STUD! That scrawny little runt
doesn't stand a chance!"

"Now, now, Iehog; we've already underestimated Battousai once before,
and we can easily see that, at this point, he's still very much capable
of handling Genbu-sama at the very least. Don't take him too lightly,
brother," Iehik lightly admonished his titanic sibling.

Kenshin gingerly got up to his feet, his eyebrows furrowed in slight
consternation. "You've underestimated me before? But I've never fought
you before, even after we've first met in the Sealing Cave."

Iehik choked back another peal of trite, hackneyed, and megalomaniacal
laughter. "Ah, but of course. You have no idea just how intertwined our
fates truly are. Well, I really can't blame you; after being stuck in a
cave for several decades, even the sharp mind of a forever-earthbound
ghost such as yourself can start to play tricks on him."

"My memory is just fine, thank you. What I don't understand is why you
two have such a vendetta against me," Kenshin surmised as he kept his
eyes trained on Botan's lithe, shivering form as Iehog kept her captive
in a fireman's carry of sorts. "More to the point, I'm not exactly sure
what is it you intend to do with me in the first place. At first you
came into the Sealing Cave to merely steal the Demon's Sword and
increase your power, but now you're attempting some sort of pithy,
cockamamie scheme to... what? Kill me?" 

"Kill you? Please," Iehik snorted as he waved off Kenshin's assessment
with a chubby, clawed paw. The wizened demon's jaundiced eyes afterwards
lit up in comprehension and understanding. "Oh. I see. You haven't the
slightest idea what you really are, have you? You also don't know why
your soul had been transferred into that cursed sword, and why you've
been awakened _now_ of all times."

The portly demon mockingly wiped off a fake, crocodile tear beneath his
left eye. "You don't know who you really are, save for some vague
memories from your past life; oh, you poor thing! I bet you don't even
know why the Demon's Sword had been put to 'sleep' the Sealing Cave in
the first place!" 

For the first time in a long time... even when disregarding the fact
that he had technically been slumbering in a cave for the past few years
or so... Kenshin had no ready answer, query, or pontification to the
allegations hurled at him. He was at a loss for words, more so than when
Genbu ridiculed him for being a mere ghost stuck in figurative limbo,
because he knew deep down inside that Iehik was telling the truth. 

Kenshin Himura was a man lost in time. To him, days had no meaning. He
would have wasted away, if not for the fact that he was already dead yet
'living' inside some sort of magical artifact, pursued by man and demon
alike. Nevertheless, in partial disbelief of the supposed truth, the
swordsman challenged Iehik's contention by demanding, "How can you two
D-Level youkai possibly know who or what I am? Why should I trust you?"

"I admit, we _mere_ Class-D demons have been leading a largely nomadic
existence throughout all our lives, straying to and fro from Makai to
Ningenkai in pointless abandon," Iehik snorted derisively as he made his
feelings known about Kenshin's purported use of 'D-Class' as a 'racial'
slur of sorts. "Still, one way or another, we somehow kept getting
sucked into this Youtou Shinnoken business over and over again, whether
we wanted to or not. Hell, if I didn't know any better, I'd say all this 
hullabaloo about that damned cursed weapon had something to do with...
our fates, or even our destinies, almost."

Iehik's eyes waned into thin slits of cunning, intelligence, and out-of-
place wistfulness as he resumed his lengthy, raspy diatribe, not caring
in the least that he was giving his injured quarry ample time to
recuperate while he rambled on and on; his soliloquy was something which
he felt he had to get out of his chest, as though by talking about it,
he'd somehow make sense of everything in his life. 

"It became our passion, Iehog and I, to find more and more about the
Legendary yet Infamous 'Demon's Sword'... to the point where we actually
became experts on the subject. For example, did you know that once upon
a time your sword actually had a nobler purpose than to simply increase
the power of any demon who gets a hold of it? It was supposed to be a
'zanpakuto', a demon-cutting sword reserved for the very best of the
Spirit World's Shinigami and Bouetai; that was, until it fell into the
wrong hands and earned an entirely different reputation altogether. And
thus the Demon's Sword, from merely being a sword that slew demons, took
on a whole different purpose and became a sword used _by_ demons! Oh, if
you only knew about the countless, senseless massacres committed through
that sword of yours!"

Kenshin was definitely taken aback by _that_; he always had an inkling
suspicion that the reason behind his sword's sealing was far less
righteous than Koenma would purport. Though the details surrounding the
events after his death were a bit blurry, he was fairly sure that the
Spirit World Prince had no intention of creating an artifact using his 
swordsman's soul for the sole purpose of mindless violence. Unbidden, a
shadowy memory from his past was unlocked inside his mind--


***


Sitting on a high chair within the confines of what seemed to be the 
administrative office of a person with a high-ranking position was Lord
Koema: the acting Administrator for the Spirit World. He was the one
who decides where the spirits of the dead go; and he was damn good at
the job, too. Case in point was this one very special case he had during
the latter parts of the year eighteen seventy-eight:

"Himura Kenshin. For all the murders, assassinations, and crimes against 
humanity that you've committed in your lifetime, I, Koenma Daio, shall
now sentence you to an eternity of suffering in Level 16, Block 1 of the 
Corporeal Punishments Sector: You and all the rest of the Sinners of
Violence shall be boiled in Phlegethon, the River of Blood found in the 
entranceway of the River Styx's Left Fork," the diminutive prince stated
with uncertain finality after retrieving and carefully reviewing the
former vagabond's file from the Book of Fate itself.

The recently deceased Kenshin accepted his sentence in all humility, his
head bowed down low on the ground in utter acquiescence; in his mind, it
was fitting for a man who made it rain blood to be _boiled_ in a river
of blood as castigation for all his crimes. There was a twisted but apt
irony to the punishment, when one thought about it. 

Koenma cleared his throat, his eyes twinkling impishly for some reason. 
"HOWEVER, since you've done quite a lot to atone for many of your past
sins--your ten-year sabbatical where you vowed never to murder again
and the resulting good deeds you've done during and after that period,
in particular--I've decided to, well, _lighten_ your sentence a bit.
It's only fair." The toddler got up from his desk and started to
deliberately pace around the stooping, bemused Kenshin. "Your new
sentence: an eternity of community service by becoming the guardian of
a newly-forged, demon-slaying Reikai Artifact, the Youtou Shinnoken."

Kenshin's head shot up in astonishment at the surprising turn of events.
"Oro? A-Are you sure about that, Lord Koenma? I mean, my non-killing vow
doesn't really change the fact that I've murdered countless of husbands,
fathers, sons, brothers, fiances...." The former hitokiri's voice
faltered as he bit his lip in remembrance of Akira Kiyosato, Tomoe
Yukishiro, and Enishi Yukishiro. 

Kenshin squeezed his eyes shut; for him to have died so early, when he
still had so much to atone for--Dammit. "I cannot accept such a fate--
not in good conscience, at the very least. Please, do reconsider...!"

The centuries-old child silenced Kenshin by simply grabbing hold of the
swordsman's shoulder and squeezing it tight. "You're a good man, Himura
Kenshin-san, and an even nobler spirit. I can't just mercilessly throw
you into Phlegethon, knowing all the good you've done for the sake of
your own salvation. I've made up my mind. Guardianship of the Demon's
Sword is now your ultimate fate; the eternal symbol of your penitence."

Koenma nodded to himself, let go of Kenshin, and was about to make his
way back to his desk when he dramatically pivoted on his tiny little
boots in mid-step, did a perfect one-eighty turn, and performed a cheesy
yet strangely impressive spit-take.

"NEVERTHELESS, since your soul is currently in between salvation and
damnation, tainting its future vessel--the Demon's Sword--with sin and
murder, even that of demons, will condemn your spirit to the Lowest
Ranks of Hell far worse than Phlegethon or good ol' Fire and Brimstone."
The metaphorical youngster paused as he readjusted the pacifier in his
mouth. "And if that happens, the Hitokiri Battousai will probably take
over, and it's good-bye to the noble Himura Kenshin as he is replaced by
a madman who helps wreak havoc on the world."


***


Kenshin shook his head to clear his mind of the flashback. "Um, what
was that again, Iehik-dono?"

"How rude! Blanking out like that when someone's talking to you!
Honestly!" Iehik harrumphed jokingly, and then grinned a fanged,
sinister smile. "Judging from your worried expression, I gather that you
now understand the gravity of your situation. The Demon's Sword is a
highly-corruptible loose canon of a Reikai Artifact, even more so than
the Legendary Orb of Baast, the Mirror of Forlorn Hope, or the Shadow
Sword of Demonic Transformation. That ruthless side of yourself, the
notorious Hitokiri Battousai, was the very thing that made the sword
grow to be so unpredictable; _he_ and his murderous nature is the reason
why the sword was sealed in a cave for Kami-sama-knows-how-long." 

Iehik began pacing in a manner eerily similar to how Koenma paced during
the trial of Kenshin's soul. "Can you still keep up, son? Iehog and I,
by now, have become renowned experts on all things regarding the Demon's 
Sword... which was why Chojin-sama specifically hired us to find and
retrieve it. We were supposed to steal the sword and do with it as we
pleased; and, I admit, the promise of increased power backed by the
Overfiend's unlimited resources was sorely tempting. Still, though that
plan didn't exactly 'pan out', we still managed to stay in the big
picture somehow."

Iehik gestured his chubby little hands in wide arcs to help demonstrate
his point. "Do you get it now, spirit? We're merely completing our
current mission for the Chojin--and our own life's mission as well--by
getting a hold of that damned sword of yours, by hook or by crook. We
don't need to kill you; all we really need to do is damn your pathetic
soul by corrupting your sword in every way possible. That is our sole
purpose in life, our ultimate DESTINY!"

Iehog frowned at Iehik apprehensively upon deciphering his older
brother's rants and raves. "WHAT? That's IT? That's our sole purpose in
life? To corrupt some wimpy-looking samurai to hell? That... that SUCKS,
big brother!"
 
"Now, now, little brother: there are worse fates than _this_. Ours is
but a lonely one shaped by revenge and unrequited anger, is all," Iehik
articulated, nodding sagely to himself as he waved a clawed finger at
his frustrated sibling. "Oh, by the way, Battousai-sama, we just saw
your policeman friend arrive a short while ago. Seeing your current
state right now, I'd say it's safe to assume that you two have already
met."

The demon sniggered heartily. "You've now been severely weakened by
fairly powerful beings, and your half-demon 'host' seems to have run out
of power to keep your corporeal form intact. All these little things
will make our job so much easier, and our revenge so much sweeter."

"Revenge? From what? From escaping your grasp and keeping the Demon's
Sword away from your grubby little demon hands? Then it's Yusuke-dono
whom you should take revenge on, not me," Kenshin reasoned, thoroughly
confused by the shorter demon's constant edification and desultory
dialogue.

"Well, you're wrong about that," Iehik smirked as he shook his head and
sniffed arrogantly at the redheaded ghost, his tone like that of a man
speaking to a child who had totally missed the point. "You really don't 
understand a thing, Himura Kenshin. Aren't you wondering why I'm so
familiar with you now of all times, while during the time we met at the
Sealing Cave, I acted as if I didn't even know you at all? It's fate! I
remember you now! You are my closure, my loose end, my final frontier!
Ah, but you still don't understand, do you? Very well. It doesn't matter
whether you know the truth or not. What's important is that we finish
our mission, and fulfill our destiny. IEHOG!"

"YES, ANIKI!"  Iehog, under normal circumstances, was already quite the
terrifyingly hideous creature from the get-go. Today, he had somehow
managed to surpass even that. While he wasn't as Brobdingnagian as an
ougi-powered, super-sized Genbu, the transformed Iehog was nonetheless
intimidating in his own right... perhaps even more so.

With uncharacteristic, genteel soberness, Iehik relayed, "I understand
your hesitation, Iehog. I agree, this fate of ours could have been
better. Imagine, all this time, we've been nothing but mere pawns to the
Chojin's and Battousai's machinations. Still, let's make it good. For
old time's sake, go beat that damn ghost to an ectoplasmic pulp. Even
though it may seem meaningless, let's make our destiny worthwhile by
giving it our all, little brother."

Whatever lingering doubt Iehog had in him a minute ago was soon
forgotten as he let out a hearty roar of approval to his older sibling's
simple request. The beastly creature unceremoniously put the paralyzed,
semiconscious Botan down beside Iehik before shambling towards Kenshin's
semi-healed form with premeditated leisure, his sharp teeth exposed in
cold anticipation as his bestial feet rumbled on the ground with the
inevitability of a funeral bell. 

Kenshin got a closer, more abhorrent view of the 'new-and-improved'
Iehog: the youkai's ponderous head was now joined directly to his torso
with no discernible neck to interfere with all the muscle and fur. His
massive, scaly, and draconic right arm glinted in the twilight; it was
solid iron, and curved gracefully along the slope of his broad shoulders
before curling up into needle-sharp points. Its right arm, on the other
hand, was composed of black and white zebra stripes that ended with a
massive, bear-like paw.

'There's something strangely familiar about these body parts that
Iehog's currently sporting,' Kenshin mused as he boldly stared straight
up at the ominous apparition. 'I wonder...?'

"Like what you see, samurai boy? Well, how about I _show_ you what this
hot stud of a body can do!" With that said, a subtler yet more alarming 
transformation happened to Iehog: 'He' became an 'It'--a complete
personification of a greater, terrible force of nature waiting to be
unleashed into the world. Every last vestige of him that was Iehog was
blown away like a dry summer leaf in the midst of an overpowering
hurricane of ferocity.

It did not talk any further as it continued to advance on Kenshin at the
same even pace. Its gait was strange and unsettling, an eerie amble
which hinted at a skeleton horribly warped and twisted beneath the
hodgepodge of animal parts. It was as foreboding as a ghost, drearier
than midnight, and it moved with a terrible sort of determination.
Kenshin felt his blood drain from his face, but he held his ground as
the being approached.  

Iehog then closed the distance between itself and Kenshin with a sudden
burst of blinding speed, lashing out at the swordsman's head. Even with
his lightning reflexes, Kenshin barely managed to evade the attack. The
thing's strike had come almost too fast for him to see, and that little
detail didn't bode well for him at all. 'I'm still terribly weak; there
isn't one bit of kenki left in me!'

Kenshin was bleeding from where Iehog had hit him, but not badly. It had
struck him with its scaly dragon's claw covered with small sharp studs--
conversely, the former vagabond's wound stung and burned badly, as if he
were just struck by a nest of angry scorpions. 'Iehog's grown strong.
And he seriously wants to kill me. These demonic brothers have really
outdone themselves this time.'

Iehog attacked with a ferocity which was hideous to behold. It lashed
out at the ex-rurouni with wickedly keen claws, slicing towards him with
blows too fast for the normal human eye to follow. Kenshin winced as he
dodged frantically and tried to counterattack. Small cuts and wounds
were already blossoming across his arms and legs where he failed to
completely evade Iehog's strikes. It wouldn't be long before it really
landed a fatal blow.

'My goodness, Iehog's mind has completely been taken over by the demonic
body parts he'd just absorbed,' Kenshin deduced in growing concern. Like
before, though Iehog could never be anything more than an exceptionally
strong Class-D youkai without it, the Body Absorption technique that
Randou taught him put him in another class altogether. He could increase
his base power tenfold, perhaps even a hundredfold, by the sheer virtue
of that simple yet deadly tactic. 'I've got to find a way to counter
these unnatural advantages of his somehow.'

Breathless and acting entirely on instinct, Kenshin rolled away from
Iehog as it leaped towards him. The monster slashed through the space
which the former vagabond had occupied a split-second before, burying
his hand like a spiked mallet in the caking ground, right through the
spirit guardian's afterimage.

Finally, Kenshin found an opening in the being's relentless offense.
"RYU SON SEN!" The redheaded ghost blurred into a flash of blazing
luminosity as he did a complete three-sixty degree turn to add extra
momentum to his powerful strike, intending to end the fight early by
brusquely decapitating his horrid opponent. Unfortunately, due to
extenuating circumstances beyond his control, he hesitated ever so
slightly with his attack as Koenma's century-old warning came back to
haunt him with inopportune vengeance. 

"Tainting the Demon's Sword with sin and murder, even that of demons,
will condemn your spirit to the Lowest Ranks of Hell far worse than
Phlegethon or good ol' Fire and Brimstone. And if that happens, the
Hitokiri Battousai will probably take over, and it's good-bye to the
noble Himura Kenshin as he is replaced by a madman who helps wreak havoc
on the world."

The split-second of distraction was all Iehog needed. It swatted Kenshin 
with a backhanded blow from his draconic arm that connected solidly to
his ribs. Spinning like a top, the redheaded ghost saw the world as
nothing more than a swirl of color and motion as he flew out of control.
He noisily tumbled across the devastated landscape as consecutive cries
of pain unwillingly escaped his gurgling throat.

Kenshin lay unmoving on the ground for quite sometime, his myriad of
past injuries reopened by his recent exertion whilst fresh new wounds
added to his growing pains; Fujita's stab to his chest, the numerous
bruises he obtained through his bond with Yusuke, the re-torn shoulder
wound he got from Randou's Rei-Gan; they all tormented him with their 
shuddering howl of dissonant anguish. 

"Kenshin!" Suddenly, Botan's eyes went wide with horror at the sight of
what lay before them, her nightmarish past quickly drowned out by a far
more pressing, imminent danger. "Oh no. Oh God, please," she croaked,
her throat constricting. "KENSHIN!"

"BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! What are you going to do now, Battousai?
You can't kill my brother, can you? You're too afraid of having your
hitokiri self take over! But Iehog can certainly 'kill' _you_; in fact,
whatever it is you do in this fight, you'll still lose! The Catch-22 is
in our favor now. I had it all planned from the very start: WE CAN'T
LOSE!" Iehik hooted and hollered in uncontainable excitement. "IEHOG,
finish Battousai off so that we can finally get that damned Demon's
Sword and corrupt it ALREADY!"

Iehog rumbled in concurrence to its brother's orders before it galloped
straight towards its hapless target, its horrible arms cocked back and
ready to strike. 

"Wake up, Kenshin! WAKE UP! Oh God, please...." The injured ghost
blinked: It was Botan's voice. The hazy image in front of him was
definitely her--she with the shiny, sky-blue hair that looked like an
icy aurora borealis to his blurry eyes.

Unfortunately, Kenshin's lovely hallucination was suddenly eclipsed by
a hurtling, hulking Iehog as the monster stampeded straight towards him;
all the same, the revived ghost somehow managed to summon enough sword-
ki to meet the charge with a rising Ryu Sho Sen of his own that took
them both backwards.

Kenshin stumbled to his feet and backed away slightly as the swirling
vapors of Iehog's shouki-powered aura took on the form of a myriad of
demons and wraiths, stretching their arms out hungrily. 'Dammit, I
can't kill him. If I kill Iehog, then Iehik and his supposed master,
the Chojin, would get exactly what they want: the Corruption of the
Demon's Sword. But what must I do to survive this fight?' 

Something crunched in the thing's chest as Kenshin wailed on it fixedly
with the Dragon Nest Dodge. He pushed off and out of the way as it
slashed towards him. The ghostly guardian did a back flip and landed,
only to see his foe rising once more and moving to attack.

'What does it take to stop Iehog just short of killing him?' Kenshin
thought desperately as he dashed forward once more, feeling as if this
battle were merely a repeat of his recent fight with Fujita. He gathered
his depleted energy, launching into another ferocious series of Ryu Sou
Sen strikes as his waning swordsman's presence flickered around him. He
hammered on the emotionless monster, batting aside its reaching claws as
he pressed on his attack. "Fall," he commanded, but the thing did not
heed his order.

Kenshin Himura always had superhuman tenacity in a fight, but he was up
against a being which somehow embodied tenacity in its very nature. He
let up for a fraction of a second, just enough to regain his footing,
and that was all that Iehog needed. With an inarticulate roar, the beast
opened its humongous maw and unleashed a steady stream of black, jaki
fire that blasted Kenshin clear off of his feet. 

'A-An energy blast...?' Kenshin dazedly pondered before he fell on the
ground in a boneless, muddy heap, shivering at the sheer intensity of
the negative energy that burned through his ethereal skin. 

Despite her understandable fears and reservations for Kenshin's safety,
Botan's eyes sparkled in animated comprehension once she started putting
two and two together in regards to Iehog's newfound power. "KENSHIN!
That was the Mei-Kou-Shou-Kai-Ha! That was Byakko's attack, remember?"
she eagerly called out to the prone guardian ghost.

"Wha--HEY! Shut up, you BITCH! You're ruining all our plans!" Iehik
sputtered, surprised that the shinigami was able to figure things out so 
quickly. He desperately tried to grab hold of the impertinent wench,
doing all that he could to silence her, but seeing that he was at least
a foot shorter than the ferry-girl, his awkward attempts at maintaining
the status quo were all for naught.

"I remember now! Before these creeps knocked me out cold, they were
scoping out the carcasses of Seiryu and Byakko after that weird cop
killed them. That coward Iehog is simply borrowing those two dead
Shisejyu's abilities while passing them off as his own! HEY! You did NOT
just TOUCH my BUTT, you PERVERT! KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF, YOU DARN,
LECHEROUS MONKEY!" Botan revealed before she started repeatedly whacking
the troll-like Iehik with the business end of her boat paddle in
righteous indignation.

"Mei-Kou-Shou-Kai-Ha, hmmm? I see." Kenshin nodded to himself in mute
understanding: This time, he knew what to do. His only hope now, he
reckoned, was to go on the offensive and build up the pressure. He
roared with primal rage, his aura flaring anew, and pressed the attack
as the thing worked its way towards him again.

Without wasting his breath to broadcast the name of his technique,
Kenshin immediately launched into the Sou Ryu Sen, purposely pounding
his foe twice with the two-part battou-jutsu strike. The thing staggered
under the combined assault, giving ground under the fury of Kenshin's
onslaught. Kenshin could feel parts of Iehog crack and buckle beneath
its furry, scaly armor where he connected solidly.  

The ruthless brute lashed out defensively, cutting a deep gash in
Kenshin's right arm at mid-strike. It followed with a backhanded blow
that caught the swordsman on the head, breaking the rhythm of his attack
and sending him staggering backwards. Kenshin tried to counter with a
quick Ryu Kan Sen, but was met with another bone-jarring blow on the
chest. He flew backwards like a rag doll, slamming into a tree and
shattering the wood with the force of his impact.

That was exactly what happened, except for the whole 'flung like a rag
doll whilst shattering wood' part: Kenshin had already faded like the
ghost that he was by the time the abomination started the rest of his
counterstrike. Taking advantage of Iehog's momentary confusion, Kenshin
crouched low and dove into the youkai's abdomen, cutting precise spots
on its exposed underbelly with surgical precision. 

Iehog exploded in a blast of black, acidic ichor and swirling debris
that sent a fountain of loose dirt and demon blood from the cracked
ground below them, and the youkai was forced back a few steps. Kenshin
shifted his grip on his sword, wielding the magical katana like a spear
and thrusting its uppermost tip into the monster's temple with all his
might. 'Careful, careful: Don't put it in too deep,' he reminded
himself.
 
Iehog shook its mane and roared a throaty bellow that caused even more
dirt to shake loose and tumble onto the former vagabond. Its previously
unseeing eyes afterwards blinked back into self-awareness; Iehog knelt
in the crater made by the impact of the explosive rupture of his blood
vessels, his arms outstretched, his back arched. He squeezed his eyes
shut with all his might, his mouth gaping wide in a silent scream. Every
one of his muscles strained to its limit as his body tried to remember
how to be a living, thinking, sentient organism. For a seemingly
infinite moment, he was simply frozen in a world of unbelievable shock
and agony.  

Then, his lungs remembered how to breathe, and his heart began to beat
once again. Iehog tried to double over, clutch his chest and hack
violently. Well, one out of three wasn't so bad. After recovering from
his wheezing fit, he stammered, "B-Brother! I can't move! What has that
wimpy samurai done to MEEE?!" His entire body was, apparently, paralyzed
from the neck down, though he technically still didn't have a neck. 

"It's Demon Anatomy 101, Iehog-dono," Kenshin elucidated as he wiped the 
nonexistent sweat off of his brow. "Chimeras such as yourself usually
make use of special connective tissue that can make all sorts of body
parts from different species work as a cohesive unit, even though they
shouldn't otherwise. By severing these connections and doing a quick
lobotomy of your frontal lobe, I can render your Body Absorption
technique moot and void. Your body now perceives your Shisejyu limbs as
foreign bodies, and it's now trying its best to 'expel' them out of your 
system."

"B-But that's not FAIR! How can you possibly know about Demon Anatomy? I
was already kicking your ass and then some, and now you pull something
like _this_? YOU CHEATER!" Iehog whined pathetically as he struggled to
make his chimerical body move in futility. 

"I'm not the Guardian of the Demon's Sword for nothing, y'know. Though
my memory is a bit rusty, I can still remember a thing or two about how
to disable and immobilize demons with as little effort as possible."
Kenshin sighed and allowed himself to relax. Thanks to Botan's quick
thinking and proper understanding of the situation, he was able to get
through Iehik and Iehog's little mind trap without further consequence.

"YES! You did it, Kenshin! You beat Iehog!" Botan applauded the former
manslayer after dispatching the shorter Iehik with a quick swing of her
wooden oar. "BANZAI! We make such a great team, you and I. Say, weren't
you and the Demon's Sword supposed to be a Reikai Artifact used by us
shinigami? Well, I'm a shinigami too, so maybe I can fool around with
your sword sometime! Uh, wait, that didn't come out quite right--"

Kenshin smiled, turned, and opened his mouth to say something in
response to Botan's good cheer when the air was split by a blood-
curdling scream. It was a primal sound, a cry of pure anguish that 
seemed to carry on for an eternity before it was suddenly cut short.

"You've meddled in our affairs for the last time, _shinigami_," Iehik
gravely informed the shell-shocked Botan as he used his psychic powers
to simulate some sort of Kanashibari mind-breaking technique upon her
person. "It's about time you made yourself useful and serve your true
purpose for being here; as _bait_." 

Botan's ki turned dark. The air grew cold around her as her body
desperately tried to fill the void in her soul with warmth and prana
from her environment. There were some voids that couldn't be filled,
however; some problems that kept returning after they were solved;
second chances to make a bad decision.

"BOTAN!!!"


***


Botan drifted in a dark sea somewhere below the reach of 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. 

Unfortunately, the shinigami awoke _into_ a dream instead of waking up
_from_ a dream; her most recent dream inside her symbolic looking glass,
in particular. With neither controversy nor disputation in the way,
Botan could easily see that the strange, raven-haired, pony-tailed Kendo
girl dressed in a hakama had finally returned inside her family dojo,
casually minding her own business.

The ferry-girl stared, perhaps even ogled, at the strangely foggy scene
before her. The aforementioned girl Botan espied was currently reading a
newspaper as a warm cup of tea simmered beside her. Without warning, the
cup suddenly cracked: a recognizable sign of a bad omen.

Kaoru. Yes, Kaoru Kamiya was the girl's name, Botan wordlessly confirmed
to herself; though for some strange reason, an unexpected vision of
unbearably cute, shape-shifting raccoons filled her mind's eye. How
peculiar. 'Who is this girl anyway? Was she one of the countless lost
souls I've ferried across the Sanzu no Kawa while working as a novice
ferry-girl a century ago? Hmmm. No, that can't be right. I was still
recovering in the Elysian Fields during that time, and I'd only really
started my duties some fifty, at most sixty, years ago, so I couldn't
have met her before then! Still--'

Botan derailed her mental tirade as Kaoru looked down at the broken cup
in noticeable concern. "Uh-oh. The cup just cracked by itself," the
raven-haired girl affirmed the obvious whilst the blue-haired girl
could only raise a blase eyebrow at her ancient counterpart's...
unnerving nonchalance. 

"Miss Kaoru," Kihei suddenly beckoned, startling both the visible Kaoru
and the invisible Botan into jumping in flabbergasted unison.

Just as Botan fruitlessly swung her wooden oar at Kihei's head in
reflexive fury, the paddle passing through the old man as if it weren't
there at all, Kaoru stuttered, "Y-You startled me, Kihei!" her mouth
agape as her trembling left hand went over her palpitating chest. "What
is it? What do you want?" 

Kihei chortled softly as he held up a piece of paper in front of the
Kendo master. "Actually, it's about the sale of the dojo." Upon closer
inspection, Botan observed that the paper was actually a deed of sale. 

Kaoru exhaled laboriously; she'd already had this conversation with
Kihei before. Patiently, she clarified, "Kihei, I've said before that I
don't intend to sell the dojo--"

"Actually, the papers are already being settled," Kihei cut Kaoru off
brusquely as his artificially congenial and self-satisfied smirk nearly
split his face in half. 

The intense look in Kihei's eyes startled Kaoru, and she found herself 
taken aback by her manservant's unexpected forwardness and gumption. A
look of uncertainty and betrayal slowly marred on her lovely features as
she quietly queried, "Kihei?"

"I just need your seal," Kihei insisted as he continued waving the deed
in front of Kaoru's face. As if on cue, the large, beefy 'Battousai'
swordsman from before, as well as a group of other random thugs and
fighters, appeared in the door behind him. "...And then the property
will be ours!"

"You traitorous old FART! You sold her out!" Botan growled angrily at
the arrogant old-timer as she forgot herself, her albino-pink eyes
flaring in seething rage. "After everything she's done for you? Dammit,
you're no better than that big-headed Iehik snake--!" 

The shinigami stopped herself cold, feeling as if she were on the verge
of an epiphany of sorts. But she had no time to think; things were
happening way too fast for her to fully comprehend the reality behind
the dire turn of events.

"You...!" Kaoru shouted as she got up from her seating position,
immediately recognizing the humongous leader of the sword-wielding gang
of swarthy ruffians.

All eyes turned to see the figure that had emerged from the shadows. He
was a huge man, six-seven in height and at least two hundred pounds of
muscle. He had massive arms and tree trunk-sized legs that almost looked
pudgy in comparison with the rest of his body. Half of his chest was
bared, and the two girls could see a huge set of pectorals with a number
of jagged scars over them. He wore a mask that covered most of his face,
the same mask he sported during the first time he, Kaoru, Kenshin, and
Botan met.

"The head of the Kiheikan, Hiruma Gohei: My younger brother," Kihei
introduced with a hint of pride in his voice as his sibling took off
the aforesaid mask, revealing himself to be bearded hoodlum who was as
ugly and fearsome as sin itself.

"Son of a gun; I was right. Kiheikan really is owned by Kihei... kind
of," Botan numbly mused to herself as Kaoru turned and snatched up the
wooden sword from the rack behind them. 

"Oh please. Let's be civilized about this," Iehik rationalized affably
to the now-armed Kaoru. "I really don't like this kind of thing. I'd
rather do it legally, but you were close to discovering my brother's
true identity. Playing the good-tempered old man to gain the trust of a
woman living alone all went according to plan, but even though you
turned out to be a good-natured sap, you were still stubborn about
kenjutsu."

"Kihei," Kaoru whispered, which prompted Botan to give the distressed
girl a weird look.

"So then I used my brother to stir up some trouble and dishonor the name
of the school. The fame of Hitokiri Battousai was just what we needed.
Although the presence, or even existence, of the legendary manslayer was 
unbelievable, stories of his incomparable strength have been told for
years. Thanks to him, we have the events of the past two months.
According to my calculations, the government policies of 'culture and 
enlightenment' and 'westernization' should have increased the land
value by five or six times. A kenjutsu dojo is simply a waste of space."

"Kihei..." Kaoru reiterated, which compelled Botan to scream, "Oh, for
the love of...! JUST WHAP THE OLD GUY WITH YOUR BOKUTOU AND BE DONE WITH
IT, OKAY!?"

An extensive, palpable silence hung across the table as Gohei lumbered
over Kaoru's direction with an almost loping gait until he was standing
no more than three feet away from her. "My brother says your motto is
'the sword that protects life'?" He looked down at the girl, enough
disdain shining in his two eyes for any four men. "Interesting. But here
the only one to protect is yourself."

Botan shuddered for a moment, a sudden memory of the monstrous Iehog's
vacant and predatory eyes bubbling to the surface of her mind. This man
was like that, only perhaps worse. For a mere human, there wasn't the
faintest hint of compassion in his eyes: All they held was hunger and
rage. Still, regardless of the imminent danger, the emboldened Kaoru
remained where she was, her sword ready and waiting.

"If you won't come to me, I'll go to you," Gohei avowed as he drew his
own blade out.

Botan could barely move--not that it would have made a difference or 
anything--completely distracted by an unfathomable feeling of faint
remembrance within her. There was something about the Hiruma Brothers,
something besides the larger brother's fearsome countenance, that had
snagged her interest. There was something familiar about them. But she
was _absolutely_ certain she had never seen them before. Gohei was the
sort of person you met once and remembered to your dying day. Kihei
was, well, Kihei. What was it about the pair that was striking such a
familiar chord in her mind?

Kaoru lunged forward, but Gohei blocked her strike with his bare hand.
Leering at his hapless adversary, the large man bellowed, "Just like I
thought; a woman who believes this crap can't possibly fight." He
pushed Kaoru and the wooden sword away, took hold of his own steel
sword, and sliced downward.

Botan distraughtly attempted to impede Gohei and Kihei's invasive
rampage, but she knew deep down that her actions were all for nothing.
This vision before her was but a mere memory, a shade of the past that
was presently replaying itself inside her mind, and trying to interfere
with its proceedings was as pointless as attempting to change the
result of a videotaped sports event by the force of one's own will.
Even a death goddess like herself was helpless in this sort of
situation.

Kaoru instinctively blocked the strike with her bokutou, which broke in
half. Gohei then picked her up by the front of her shirt, snarling, "My
goal is VIOLENCE! My essence is KILLING! That's what kenjutsu is all
ABOUT!"

One out of a million; those were the chances people had for a 'knight in
shining armor' to rescue them from extreme peril. Botan knew this from
experience: Out of nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and
ninety-nine people, only one of them had a chance of not ending up like
Kitty Genovese. And with Kaoru currently outnumbered by a gang of
morally bankrupt and sadistic men--the ferry-girl would rather not think
about it. Human Nature was frightening to behold when given free reign
to do anything it desired.

Like a sniveling rat, Kihei breathlessly took hold of Kaoru's thumb,
nicked it with a small knife, and pressed it to the deed. "That's it.
The land is ours. The Kamiya Kasshin School is NO MORE!"

"Someone do something! ANYBODY! God, please--!" Botan frantically
screamed her head off, hurriedly turning from side to side as she
desperately looked for somebody who could help. Now, of all times, she
really wished Yusuke Urameshi were there. He might be an idiot, but he
was a super-powerful and tenacious idiot that had impeccable timing when
it came to this sort of thing. Unfortunately, there were no Yusukes,
Kuwabaras, Kuramas, or Hieis there. Only... "Dammit, Kenshin! You better
come in here NOW! Please... GODAMMIT!"

Just then, amidst a proverbial, dramatic hymn that couldn't possibly be
heard by anyone present, the mountain-of-a-man Nishiwaki appeared in the
Kamiya Dojo's doorway; not exactly the person Botan was looking for. 
'DAMMIT!' she cursed.

"Huh? Nishiwaki? What're you doing here?" the slightly vexed Gohei
demanded, caught completely unaware by his subordinate's unexpected
visit. "Did something happen in Kiheikan? Hey, what's wrong with you?
Speak up, man!"

"...Strong! S-So strong...!" Nishiwaki mumbled before he shuddered and
collapsed like a prostitute's flimsy robe, revealing the red-haired,
cross-scarred vagabond from behind him.

"The... The rurouni!" Kaoru and Botan both gasped in relieved chorus, as
though the weight of the world was suddenly lifted from their shoulders.

Kenshin turned towards the girls and scratched the back of his head
shamefacedly. "I'm sorry I'm late. I heard the whole story from him."

"You again," Gohei spat as he callously tossed Kaoru aside and leveled
his sword at the diminutive wanderer. "Seeing as how wimpy-looking you
are, you're probably with the girl on this 'sword that protects life'
thing."

"No," Kenshin declared austerely. "A sword is a weapon. Kenjutsu is the
art of killing. Whatever pretty words you use to speak of it, this is
its true nature. What Kaoru-dono says are the words of one who has never
dirtied her hands; an idealistic joke."

"You..." Kaoru started, bristling with halfhearted displeasure as Botan
attempted to calm her down in trademark Kenshin fashion--right down to
the reassuring hand gestures--even though it was all probably in vain
anyway; the ferry-girl would go crazy if didn't at least _pretend_ that
the people around her could see her.

"But... I like Kaoru-dono's idealism better than its true nature. If one
can ask so much, I want the world to accept this joke as its true
nature," Kenshin justified further, allaying the annoyed Kaoru's hot
temper and making the harried Botan wistfully smile.

"Urk. How lame. You guys make me sick." Gohei rolled his eyes, turned,
then asked his older sibling for advice. "Brother, you don't care if I
kill him, do you?"

Kihei harrumphed. "No. He's in our way. Have your men kill him by
inches."

"Well, you heard the man! Go on, get him!" Gohei more cooed than howled;
subsequently, his collection of thugs and gangsters did just that,
moving en masse towards Kenshin with conceited insouciance, feeling
completely secure in their superior numbers and perceived sword skills. 

"Run for it! You have no chance against them all!" Kaoru worriedly
called out to Kenshin while Botan did the exact opposite and screeched,
"KICK THEIR BUTTS, Kenshin! Make 'em run back to their mommas!"

"I don't want to cause a lot of unnecessary injuries. All those who
don't like visiting the doctor should retreat now," Kenshin warned,
though it was completely understandable why the hooligans in front of
him didn't back down a single inch. A short, boyish-looking man with an
effeminate voice and disarmingly genial demeanor was currently claiming
that he could take them all down with his blunted little sword; a
yapping Chihuahua could probably look more dangerous than him. 

"There aren't going to be any injuries! Just one death!" one of the men
retorted, thus setting up another cosmic instance of irony.

Kenshin blurred and moved like a whirlwind through the group, taking
down everyone in his way. Like the steady flow of a river against rocks
that found themselves stranded in the middle of its torrential current,
the number of blows added up and wore the men down. Large purple bruises
formed on the part of their chests that were bared. Welts had formed on
their arms from the number of times Kenshin had sneaked a blow in when
they tried to hit him with one of their own. Even their legs were
starting to go limp from the number of times Kenshin struck them.

What was even more amazing was that everything happened in the span of
a few seconds. "H-He's taking out four or five with each strike! Is...
is it sorcery?" Kihei hissed, acting as if he were experiencing a live
birth in reverse.

'No, it's not sorcery. It's speed!' Kaoru and Botan simultaneously
appraised, the latter more certain of Kenshin's mind-boggling abilities
than the former.

'The speed of the sword, the speed of his body, the speed of reading his 
opponent's moves--he's using them to bring down as many as he can with
the least possible movements! Who is this guy?' Gohei reflected ex post
facto; an eye blink later, and every last one of the Kiheikan's elite
fighters had been laid out on the floor.

"I forgot to say one thing," Kenshin said as he quietly replaced his
sword into its scabbard; "Hitokiri Battousai's style of fighting is not
that of the Kamiya Kasshin School. It's an old style of kenjutsu which
arose in the Sengoku era, designed to face many opponents at once. The
name is Hiten Mitsurugi. And without the reverse blade, it is slaughter
with deadly swiftness."

Kaoru knees buckled underneath her as she whispered, "No... So you're
the Hitokiri Battousai... Wait, so I was right from the very start?
Huh."

"Interesting! You were hiding your strength the other night!" Gohei
salivated like a rabid dog, feeling strangely exhilarated by Kenshin's
revelation.

Kenshin flinched at Gohei's sordid display of enthusiasm, closed his
eyes, then shook his head sadly. "I'm not like you. I don't like
violence. But now I regret that I did not destroy you that night."

"You've got guts, but that's just plain arrogant." Gohei raised his
sword high. "The world doesn't need two Battousais! The name should
belong to ME!!!"

Just as Gohei was about to strike, his target seemed to disappear into
thin air. From on top of him, the younger Hiruma heard a voice say, "Up
here." The muscular swordsman froze in terror--and then the world
went spinning as a heavy weight crashed into his back and into the
floor. Before he could even exhale, much less scream, and in a lesser
extent look up, Battousai dealt him a powerful blow from above, smashing
him through the dojo's wooden boards in anticlimactic agony.

"I have no fondness for the name of Battousai. But I will not pass it on
to a man like you." Kenshin turned his attentions towards Kihei. "You're
the only one left. As the mastermind of this plot, your punishment
should be more severe. The edge of the reverse blade," he flipped the
sakabatou around, "Shall we try it?"

Kihei fainted; Kenshin then took the deed from the old man's grubby,
wrinkled hands and tore it up. "Like all tricksters, he seems to have a
coward's nature." The vagabond afterwards gulped, steeled himself, and
faced the bewildered Kaoru Kamiya. 

"I'm sorry, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said softly in the hopes that it would
settle Kaoru down, his tone full of sincere regret and guilt. "I didn't
want to deceive or hide from you. My... true identity was just something
I didn't want to talk about if I could." Hearing her lack of a response,
he turned and slid the door leading outside open. "Excuse me."

Kaoru waited for all of five seconds before she stammered, "Wait... w-
wait... WAIT ONE MINUTE!"

Kenshin did a hesitant double-take. "Oro?" 

Strangely enough, Kaoru's attention wasn't directed on Kenshin at all;
it was currently aimed at absolute nothingness, on something that wasn't 
supposed to exist in that plain of reality in the first place; i.e., the
self-proclaimed "Loveliest Death Angel of All the Spirit World," Botan.
"Hey, you! Blue-haired girl... Yeah, I'm talking to you, pink eyes!"

Pink Eyes blinked soundly, then sweatdropped: Trite and hackneyed as
these actions were, blinking and dropping sweat were exactly what Botan
did at the time. "Whaa?" she mouthed before she let out a panicked squeal
as Kaoru took hold of her wooden oar and pointed it at her neck. "Huh?
HUH? Y-You can SEE me, K-K-Kaoru... san?!"

"Oh-ho! So you thought you can hide from me, eh? Little Miss Pink and
Blue..." Kaoru accused as she slithered her way into Botan's personal
space with a disturbing cackle, wielding the awkward-looking boat paddle
like a long, wooden version of a naginata. "But you CAN'T! No, no, no,
no... No. Don't speak, _listen_," the relatively younger girl shushed
after spotting a flicker of resistance in the aged shinigami's eyes.
"I've been watching you, and I've seen some fairly disturbing stuff from
you and your 'exchanges' with the vagabond, you li'l harlot!"

"...Stuff? 'Exchanges'? _H-Harlot_?" Botan squeaked incredulously just
as Kenshin slid the dojo door shut and apprehensively made his way
towards the mentally 'unhinged' Kaoru. Of course, it was only natural
that it was now _his_ turn to sweatdrop; it just wouldn't be proper
otherwise. "Er, Kaoru-dono... Who are you talking to? And, um, maybe you
should get some rest; it's been a long day."

Kaoru took one look at Botan, then at Kenshin, then at Botan again, then
put a dainty hand over her mouth to hide her laugh. In a singsong voice,
she related, "I knew what you did during the time Kenshin first got to
see Modern-Day Tokyo; it was real cute, the whole 'Welcome back home,
Kenshin!' thing... but that shtick should have been mine, and _you_
totally ripped it off, you flirtatious TROLLOP!" She moved in closer,
which prompted Botan to move back a couple of more inches. "I've had
this funny feeling about you two from the get go, and let me just say
this outright; FORGET IT! Hands off _my_ KENSHIN!"

"Um, when did you find out about my name? I haven't given it to you
yet," Kenshin ventured curiously, going into full 'peacemaker' mode as
Kaoru continued to close in on the empty space in front of her; the
empty, embarrassed, and furiously blushing space, to be exact.

"Eh? EHHH?" Botan reacted most interestingly to Kaoru's words, her pale
face shifting to variegating shades of red; from embarrassed pink, to
fuming scarlet, to indignant burgundy. "I-It's not like that at all! I
mean, H-Himura-san's a nice guy and stuff, b-but... I don't think of him
_that_ way! NO! Nah-uh. An affair between a ferry-girl and an earthbound
spirit simply won't cut it in Reikai!"

Kaoru stared at Botan with half-lidded eyes. "So he's 'Himura-san' now,
isn't he? Well, _Kenshin_ already has enough ex-girlfriend issues as is,
and I for one have no intention of becoming his Yukishiro Tomoe number
two!" she imparted as she tossed her pony-tailed hair to the side and
thrust her finger in front of the ferry-girl's nose.

"...." Kenshin elucidated, floored and nonplussed by the non-sequitur
mention of his former fiancee.

"I don't even know what you're talking about!" Botan protested as she
did her best to keep her distance from the sword--well, paddle--wielding
madwoman. 'This isn't happening! I must be going crazy! Just who is this
girl anyway? What does she have to do with my life? Why am I remembering
her memories, and dreaming her dreams? She couldn't possibly be part of
my repressed past; she just couldn't!'

Kaoru flicked the tip of Botan's nose with the finger she used to
silence her. "Pay attention, sister. Listen and listen well: The only
way I can possibly forgive you for your trespasses and out-and-out
flirting with _my_ Kenshin is for you to...." And so Kaoru Kamiya
dispatched her final ultimatum on the cowed shinigami.

Botan couldn't believe her ears. "Huh? Come again? I didn't catch that
last part--Oh, and the first part too." And so Kaoru Kamiya leisurely
repeated what she just said syllable-per-syllable, leaving no room for 
doubt and confusion on Botan's part.

The ferry-girl tilted her head to the side as she clumsily shifted on
her sandaled feet. "Oh, is that all? I'd ask why, but... Eh. Whatever."
The death goddess shrugged, coughed primly, inhaled, then incessantly
chanted, "Iehikiehikiehikiehikiehikiehikiehikiehik...!" over and over
again.

"Now say the name of that other guy; the big, bulky demon that can merge
with other monsters." Not bothering to ask Kaoru how she knew of Iehog,
Botan merely complied to the girl's wishes, renewing her mantra with a
fresh peal of "Iehogiehogiehogiehogiehogiehogiehogiehogiehogiehog--"

"LOUDER! I can't HEAR YOU!" Kaoru commanded, her arms crossed in defiant
audaciousness.

"IEHIKIEHIKIEHIKIEHIKIEHIKIEHIKIHEIKIHEIKIHEIKIHEIKIHEIKIHEIKIHEI!!!"
Botan squeezed her eyes shut, screeched her throat ragged, hacked like a
cat, doubled back, and resumed, "IEHOGIEHOGIEHOGIEHOGOHEIGOHEIGOHEIGO... 
Goheiehog. G-Gohei... Iehog. Kihei... Iehik. Gohei. Kihei. Iehog. Iehik.
GOHEI. KIHEI. Oh my God...!"

Botan's pinkish eyes widened in sublime, uplifting comprehension as her
long-awaited epiphany finally happened. "Those bumbling idiot demons
whom Kenshin fought _are_ Hiruma Gohei and Hiruma Kihei! GOHEI AND KIHEI
ARE IEHOG AND IEHIK!!!"


***


To be Continued...


Next: The Final Fight continues.

Author's note: C-Flat. (Heehee. That pun always gets me.)

Iehik: I am... a plot point. A plot point!

Iehog: So am I, big brother! So am I!

The thing with this fic is that I wanted a challenge. I wanted to
see if I could pull it off and have it still be as good. I've read
a hundred crossovers in the past and quite a few of them were
simply amazing. I want _that_ piece of the pie; I'm just trying to
write a good story, based on what I know. Have I succeeded in
doing so? You tell me. Drop me a line sometime to let me know.

As a little by-the-way, check this link out; it's a conceptual
design for Iehog's fused form by yours truly:

http://www.deviantart.com/deviation/10121059

Wheee! ^_^ And if you can check out the date it was published,
it's been _years_ since I first dreamed up of the (rather
unimaginative) fusion Iehog had with the remnants of the Shisejyu
as masterminded by his ever-brainy brother, Iehik. So for all of
you haters who think that a super-powered Iehog couldn't possibly
be powerful enough to take on Kenshin, then take a good look at
the picture. As one deviant artist commented, "Okay now this dude
kicks some serious ass." His words, not mine.

Disclaimer: Yuyu Hakusho is the rightful property of Yoshihiro
Togashi, Shueisha, Fuji TV and St. Pierrot. Rurouni Kenshin is the
rightful property of Nobuhiro Watsuki and Sony. Don't sue us
please, we are very poor.

Paalam!
Abdiel

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