Demon Sword

A Yuyu Hakusho/Rurouni Kenshin Crossover Fan Fiction by Chester Castañeda

Original Concept by Chad Yang

Should Kurama take hold of the Demon Sword and risk letting his youko self take over?

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, Shueisha, Shonen Jump, Viz, Sony Studios, Fuji TV, Studio Gallup, Studio Deen, and ADV. This disclaimer also covers all the other copyrighted material that are far too many to mention here. Don't sue me please, I'm very poor.

Chapter 26: Homework Never Ends (Part 1)

Udo cackled. "Time's up." His veins pulsating as his bloodlust reached its peak, the mad swordsman picked up Officer Hamada's motorcycle, threw it at the nonplussed Kenshin, and sliced through both the vehicle and the man behind it in a fiery, convoluted wreckage of debris, torn ghostly flesh, ectoplasm, plastic, steel, and glass.

Kenshin screamed his voice ragged before it faded into a faint echo.

"Kenshin!" Kurama exclaimed as he slammed his fist on the pavement. He'd been duped again. 'Dammit.'

"KENSHIN!" Botan screamed in a reverberating tone that, to Kurama's ears, sounded like two voices speaking in chorus. Also, the ferry-girl's eyes turned into boat lights of blue and pink, both of which shedding tears for the fallen swordsman.

The fox-demon-turned-human soon had his answer to the Kanji Killer's questions after the sheathed, smoking, and soot-covered Demon Sword clattered to his feet. The instances where Jine and Kenshin dueled were real, while the events Kurama just experienced before the motorcycle was thrown at Kenshin were part of an illusion.

The recuperating spirit guardian had already reached his limit for the day, so now he'd completely run out of energy to manifest himself in human form.

"Kurama is your name, isn't it? Pick that sword up. I want to see how powerful you can get with the Demon Sword in your hands," Udo ordered, the Shimaneki Grass that covered his body earlier now reduced to what appeared to be shriveled bits of corn hair that he shed off like dog fur.

"I don't need to use the Demon Sword to beat you," Kurama declared as he pooled together what was left of his youki resources in order to produce twin Juryo Yozan Ken that he'd deployed previously in his battle against Shinobu Sensui. The Binding Fists of the Demonic Vine clanged mightily against Jine's blade.

"Maybe you're right. But I want to fight you at your strongest, and that sword is designed to bring out the best in you... at least, that's the idea. Anyway, I've changed my mind about you, kiddo. Hell, I'm not even sure you're even a kid. What kind of creature are you?"

Kurama's hairs at the back his neck stood on end upon seeing the leer Udo gave him while he weaved and bobbed away from the oncoming sword strikes. The Kanji Killer was enjoying himself far too much for the redhead's tastes.

"All I know is that you've proven yourself to be quite formidable, and you're a terrifying tactician to boot. If I can't fight Battousai, then I'll settle for the next best thing. If I'm lucky, I may even get to fight the both of you at the same time!"

Two of Kurama's major strategies had already been foiled by Jine. He had many other options available, but he didn't have the demonic energy left to use any of them. His only option now was to wield the Demon Sword and merge with Kenshin's soul.

Should he take hold of the Youtou Shinnoken and once and for all end his charade of pretending to be a real human boy? Was he willing to risk transforming into Youko Kurama the same way Kenshin risked transforming into Battousai whenever worse came to worst?

"You're not as innocent as you look, but you pretend to be so. You're nothing but a snake in the grass when all is said and done," Jine remarked. "You're not as deluded as the Battousai, are you? To you, your humanity is the lie and the darkness within you is the truth. It's written all over your face."

Because he'd already resolved to discard his demon fox self and live out the rest of his human life in peace, Kurama didn't want to risk awakening Youko Kurama through the Demon Sword. He was willing to show hints of his ruthlessness to keep his lie going, but he wasn't prepared to discard his mask altogether.

Did his gratefulness for his mother's love, Koenma's pardons, and the Spirit Detectives' friendship make him feel disgusted over the prospect of murdering the Prince of the Dead and taking over the entirety of the Spirit World (something he would've had no qualms of doing if he were still Youko Kurama)?

He didn't want to lose himself, even though he was merely a pretender living a lie at that point. He didn't want to regress to what he was before he met his human mother and realized fulfillment he never would have imagined as the youko. Power and prestige didn't matter to him any longer.

"A hitokiri will always be a hitokiri. In turn, you can only be who you truly are, whatever you are. There's something hiding inside of you, isn't there? Something sinister," Udo supposed with a chuckle. "It's about time you've stopped lying to yourself and ended your hypocrisy."

Unlike in the poem of Taoist philosopher Zuangzhi that questioned whether a man that dreamed he was a butterfly was actually a butterfly dreaming it was a man, Kurama was perfectly aware that he was a demon fox dreaming he was a human boy.

Most importantly, he didn't want the lie he'd nurtured for over eighteen years to die out and get pushed aside like rubbish once he transformed into his youko self, like an amnesiac whose whole personality changed after regaining all the memories he'd lost.

"I don't particularly approve of your 'beat around the bush' tactics when it comes to combat, but I am impressed with how cold-blooded and calculating you are. You've outsmarted me twice over! The idea of me beating someone as diabolical as you is giving me goose bumps! What are the limits of your cruelty, Kurama?" the Kanji Killer wondered.

Reverting back into the demon fox might not be permanent. It might be something temporary. However, Kurama knew that if he were to become the youko once more, he'd take steps to never let his human mask take over his entire being ever again. His dream had become his reality, and he didn't want to wake up from it.

In time, Kurama might not have a choice on the matter, though.

'Are you afraid to know who you were in your past life?' Kaoru quietly queried with a hint of a sniffle, waking Botan out of her short slumber. 'That fruit of yours maybe our only hope,' she reminded further.

'Of course I'm afraid. I'm petrified. You don't go to the Purgatorial Sector's Elysian Fields for a holiday vacation; you go there to remove painful memories and your whole identity as punishment for your past sins or as a karmic reward for your entire life's suffering.'

Earlier, Botan had to reassure the Kaoru inside her mind that Kenshin was probably safe from harm thanks to the Demon Sword's enchantment even though that crazy stunt Jine pulled ensured that he wouldn't be popping up any time soon (barring Kurama himself deciding to take possession of the Reikai Artifact).

There were running out of options.

'Are you afraid of me, then?' Kaoru insisted. 'Of who I am? Of what my connection is to you? Of if I'm connected to you at all?'

'No, of course not. You're a swell girl, if a bit hardheaded and heavy-handed when it comes to Kenshin's Battousai problems. What I'm afraid of is...'

Botan gulped as she caressed the twice-bitten, unidentifiable fruit inside her pants' pocket. From what she'd seen, it didn't suffer from the ravages of oxidation and decomposition at all.

'What I'm afraid of is discovering the truth about what I've done in my past life. What I'm afraid of is losing myself. I am Botan. Who I am now depends on not remembering my past.'

The forbidden fruit had the power to unleash memories of one's past life (or lives) that was originally erased by a soul's stay in purgatory.

Like Kurama and Kenshin before her, she dreaded taking a second bite into that infernal fruit because she was afraid of becoming someone else than who she was right now.

She might've been a blank slate after her soul's trip to the Elysian Fields, but by this time, she had her own life to lead and memories to make. Why fix something that wasn't broken?

'For me to risk remembering everything is to risk losing who I am right now for who I was way back when. And I'm fairly sure I won't like what I'll see.'

She felt like her heart was about to explode out of her chest. She felt like biting the fruit was like biting right into her still-beating heart.

After a long period of deliberation, Kaoru sighed in a way that suggested she had a smile on her face (she was currently "Audio Only") and concluded, 'Then don't bite it. There must be another way to beat Udo's hypnotism.'

Botan released a huge sigh, her shoulders slumping down and her heart slowing its palpitations. 'E-Eh? Are you sure? Don't you want to know whether you popped into existence inside my bead because you're me or because of the side effects of Kenshin's magic sword?'

'That last sentence kind of sounded dirty and wrong.' Kaoru cleared her throat. 'Believe me, I know all about skeletons in the closet. You don't need to expose yours. Besides, I'm sure we can come up with something to get out of this predicament.'

Botan furrowed her eyebrows. She needed to think out of the box some more. Like, thinking out of the sphere. Or thinking out of the cylinder. Or thinking creatively yet doing so in a way that made sense at the same time (she was still working on that one).

Afterwards, she steeled herself, realizing what she must do. She had to take a chance. She had to take a leap of faith.

Kurama's style hadn't changed. He still played the waiting game by using his extreme dodging skills to avoid all of Jine's long-range strikes. However, because Udo never let up on his attack, openings were scant, so the half-youko had to settle for shallow cuts and nicks before using his elbows, forearms, and stiff plant daggers to block and retaliate against his implacable foe.

"More. MORE! I don't believe I'm saying this, but you could even be a match against Battousai himself at this point!" Jine roared under his crimson mask before flicking his tongue and tasting his own sweat and blood that gushed from a nasty cut over both his eyebrows.

For the most part, Kurama had the upper hand in their battle. While Udo had somehow achieved the Younger Toguro's balance of frightening speed and irresistible power, his bull rushes could still be handled with pinpoint plant claw stabs, careful timing, and artful dodging reminiscent of a professional bullfighter.

"I have no idea who you are. I've met you just now. But from those stabs and slices, I can tell that there's more to you than meets the eye," the Kanji Killer hissed, his teeth grit as he willingly exchanged toe-to-toe bombs with the aching half-youko.

However, the counters barely fazed the madman as he walked through strikes in order to land some of his own. Kurama could fire his counterattacks at will, but he had no choice but dart away because of all the speed he was seeing from the unstoppable Udo.

'What more must I do?' Kurama back-flipped away from another blistering combo that would've done damage, only to see the grinning, living corpse before him sway his vein-filled body like a snake and strike with renewed fervor. Why wouldn't he go down? Jine absorbed everything thrown at him like a sponge. Was this another illusion of his as well?

Kurama gasped as he fell for one of Udo's feints. The behind-the-back hand switch slice nearly cut his left hand off. Fortunately, it instead sheared one of the two Binding Demonic Vine Fists he sported.

"Stop placing arbitrary limits unto yourself. You can do a lot better than this. Use that sword and realize your true capabilities! I have no doubt that you're the Demon Sword wielder who'll most likely awaken Himura Battousai's perfect form, the Youkiri Battousai!"

Kurama narrowed his eyes in remembrance of his failure to take control of the sword earlier on before he noticed something different in the Kanji Killer's build for the first time. The ashen warrior had transformed into a mountain of Toguro-like muscle after surviving the assault of the Shimaneki, yet he remained flexible enough to avoid the pinpoint close-range strikes and stabs of the Juryo Yozan Ken.

Working with the knowledge he gained from Kenshin after they temporarily synchronized minds back in the Spirit World, Kurama demanded, "How did you know about the Youtou Shinnoken's powers and the fact that Kenshin is its guardian? Why did you kill the stool pigeon who almost cracked the Shimamura case wide open even though that incident barely had anything do with you at all? Who is that girl you almost killed?"

"Ah. Those questions again. Is that what all this is about?" The Kanji Killer attacked the evasive and nimble Kurama using his tried-and-true Nikaido Heiho combos that actively searched for openings inside his opponent's blocks, keeping the redhead on the permanent defensive.

"I tell you what. You've forced me to use my Evil Eye twice over. In recognition of your efforts, I'll answer your first two questions. In order for me to answer your third question, you'll have to make me deploy my Jagan yet again. I suggest using the Demon Sword this time around," Jine conversed freely amidst the ringing exchange of strikes between steel blade and hardened plant fibers.

"I confronted the Battousai right after he became a shinigami and caretaker of the Demon Sword. I was a fugitive soul straight out of hell, my past memories perfectly intact and my heart brimming with strong feelings of bloodlust and revenge. I've heard rumors about the Demon Sword being originally an artifact from the long-dead Meikai Kingdom that Enma Daio took as part of the spoils of war. I wanted to covet it for myself. It was called the Youtou Shinnoken because it was supposed to increase the powers of demons, not used to slay them. I then took Battousai to the brink before he went to a whole other level and broke my spirit with god-like powers beyond fathoming."

As per usual, even with just one plant weapon left, Kurama managed to defend against Udo's swerving, long-range attacks by blocking with his vine-wrapped right elbow, forearm, and biceps, fighting toe-to-toe with the Kanji Killer with every ounce of physical strength left in his human body.

"As for question number two, I was ordered to finish that piece of trash Oogata off because he's ruining a potential resource for jaki with his impending confession and blackmail. The so-called unrelated case you've been probing? It's not as unrelated to myself or the Chojin as you think. Had that spoiled rich kid gotten away with rape and murder, he would've produced tremendous amounts of negative energy for us. That one Shimamura quintuplet is part of our herd of cattle, so to speak."

Jine reacted in kind to Kurama's economic use of aggression by countering the counters with his switch-hit technique and countless Shin no Ippo flashes, which left the both of them at an impasse full of crossed weapons, stuttered attacks, missed swings, and aborted onslaughts. "I have one question left to answer. Go ahead. Force an answer out of me, kid."

Ducking beneath a wild "Ichi" strike, Kurama crouched low, tensed his leg muscles, and delivered a shuddering right uppercut unto Kurogasa's exposed chest before the swordsman could offset the assault with his own slanted "Hachi" slashes. It barely made the taller man flinch despite the copious spray of red it produced.

"You're almost there. Nothing less than using the powers of the Demon Sword can truly stop me, though. I can hardly wait for you to finally wield that sword; the potential power you'll unleash will be through the roof, I bet!"

To Kurama's chagrin, Jine let himself get pushed back by the force of the counter, ricocheted over the wall, and took full advantage of his weapon's wider striking range when compared to the redhead's. The eighteen-year-old boy retreated immediately, but stumbled on his own aching feet, his body covered in rivulets of perspiration as he slipped down on all fours.

A myriad of questions entered Kurama's mind as he fell. What did the Shimamura case have to do with the Chojin's jaki-gathering scheme? How exactly did the Overfiend's lackeys harvest negative energy from their victims? Why did Kenshin have no memory of fighting the Black Hat Assassin again prior to this fight?

"IT'S TIME TO SEE IF YOU'LL SINK OR SWIM, KURAMA!" Jine screeched, dashing onto the faltering half-demon with murderous intent, his Hei-shaped combination attacks forming into a raging river of dancing steel.

In a heartbeat, Kurama telekinetically undid the straps of the Binding Fist of the Demonic Vine, lassoed it unto the Demon Sword's handle, let the tendrils recoil back into his waiting hand, grabbed hold of the weapon, and blocked the very first strike from Jine's sword that came a hairbreadth of ripping him to shreds. He wasn't even aware of whether that split-second decision was a conscious one on his part or not.

The sword remained in its container, but the force of halting Udo's frenzied momentum came at the price of breaking the wooden surface of the scabbard and exposing part of the Youtou Shinnoken's blade. Thusly, the red strands in front of Kurama's eyes flickered and gleamed with a sheen of silver, his fingernails sharpening into claws then retracting back to their original convex shape.

"Yes, YES! Take off your silly mask and show me your true self! This is the power that nearly destroyed my soul many decades past! Come at me with everything you've got, Youkiri Battousai!"

A burning sensation burst forth from within Kurama's chest, searing his veins, electrifying his nerves, and razing his cells. Underneath his feet, the floor buckled and cracked while miscellaneous debris orbited around him until they crumbled into fine grains of dust. Even the two tall buildings flanking them groaned and quivered from the concussive force unleashed by the youko-wielded Demon Sword.

Kurama's body writhed and squirmed in reaction to the ancient artifact's burst of power, magnifying his energy levels at an exponential rate. From there, he chanced upon his own reflection on Jine's shining blade, seeing something that made his boiling blood turn cold at that moment.

It was as his earlier dream (perhaps it was more of a premonition) with Kuronue and the strange mirror had predicted. He saw a... for lack of a better description... composite image of himself amidst a shimmering halo of light.

It had a wild, red mane with hints of silvery strands. Emerald eyes that glittered with an aura of gold. The determined countenance of a man of indeterminate age struggling with the two halves of his whole persona.

The only difference between his dream self and his current reflection was the look of strife and confusion the latter possessed. Knowing what he knew right then, it was no wonder that he'd look so confused.

In the threshold of past and present, that look encapsulated better than words the strife happening within Kurama ever since that infernal sword awoke the monster inside him that he long ago buried. He was a wolf who deluded himself into thinking he was a sheep; a fox who dreamed he was a man dreaming he was a fox.

"I have nothing to fear as long as I'm alive and I still have my Jagan with me! My destined fight with Battousai has now commenced!" Udo boasted as the combustible yet analogous forces of demonic youki and destructive jaki... as well as the mad swordsman's copious amounts of kenki... pushed the both of them away from each other, their opening salvo ending with a big bang.

A flashback of Shiori Minamino's face as she beckoned Kurama's younger human self to get down from a cherry tree full of blossoms appeared in the redhead's mind, followed by his newer memories of his time spent with his beloved stepbrother and stepfather.

'I don't want to become Youko Kurama anymore. Even though my human life is a lie and I'm not really Minamino Shuichi, that lie has become my truth.'

Another voice, not his own, intimated, 'I cannot kill again. Not right now. Perhaps not even when I finally confront this Chojin character. I have to keep my promise to my deceased wife to never kill. Even now, I choose not to kill unless absolutely necessary in honor of her memory. Turning into the Youkiri Battousai will undo my non-killing vow in a flash.'

'I'm sorry, Kenshin. It's too late. We have no other options left,' Kurama apologized as he started drawing the Youtou Shinnoken out of its sheath, his rose-red hair with silver highlights whitening to its original metallic sheen, his already tall frame growing even larger than before, and even his clothes turning into the same plant-based robe he wore many centuries' past.

Just then, in mid-cackle, Jine choked on his spit as, from out of the blue, a dainty hand snatched the Demon Sword right out of the Legendary Youko Kurama's unsteady grasp before it was even pulled out in full, the bindings of the Juryo Yozan Ken relieving its grip over the Rekai artifact with little to no resistance whatsoever.

"You...!" came Kurama's mouth-agape remark. "What are you doing here? You're injured! You should get away from here!"

Natsuki, the girl Udo injured, had recovered and stolen the Demon Sword from Kurama.

"What? NO! Dammit, he was so close! He was almost there! You fucking whore!" Kurama heard the bloodied and crazed Kanji Killer rant and rave just short of stomping his feet around and crying for his milk bottle.

"For the first time in a long, long time, I was about to fight and kill someone worthwhile! Fuck the innocents and fuck the Chojin's jaki-harvesting schemes! Get that sword back to Kurama right now, you bitch!"

"No," was the half-recovered Natsuki's reply to Udo's lividness as she effused herself with a different, subtler, and sharper type of energy compared to reiki or youki. Her aura produced ruts, nicks, and slashes all over the alleyway.

"Like I said before, I refuse to be anyone's victim. I understand almost everything now. I know what jaki is and how Xinhai Feng is using my hate against him to fuel his greed and ambition. I know who I am, and what I'm supposed to do."

Awoken from the nightmare of nearly losing the Kurama he'd become after nearly twenty years of living as a human, the out-of-breath half-youko took a long, good look at the new wielder of the Demon Sword for the first time. He then realized that he had seen Natsuki before they even met at this alley.

No, he wasn't talking about the fact that she was the same Natsuki who helped solve the Shimammura rape-slay case earlier that day (that was how they found Udo and her, after all... by eavesdropping within the Shinjuku Police Station Watergate-Scandal-style using "wiretapped" plants).

He instead referred to the fact that she was the third phantom in his dream a week or so before. The bruised and battered girl in his dreams who cried blood and rubies was her!

"You will tell me what your connection to Xinhai Feng is, even if I have to break every bone in your body to do so." For some reason, Natsuki's voice went deeper than before, although it remained feminine in tone. It was not unlike Kenshin's effeminate voice, actually.

Meanwhile, the Demon-Sword-wielding girl holstered inside her pantsuit's belt her trusty metal cane while the invisible force that covered her from head to toe... her own sword-ki, Kurama realized... neutralized both the jaki emanating from Jine and the negative energy originating from her own seething hatred of Feng Xinhai.

Kurama slumped down to his knees while Natsuki moved forward with the Demon Sword on hand, her swordswoman's presence somehow absorbing and negating any and all sources of spiritual energy for some reason. Who exactly was she? More importantly, who was this Feng Xinhai she was so obsessed about?

"Oho. So Xinhai's little girl has decided to go for a rematch. Do you still think you can take me on? I'll be more than happy to cut off one of Xinhai's major jaki resources," Udo hissed after calming himself down from his earlier tantrum.

Like the blue-haired shinigami he met just now and that pony-tailed girl from a century ago whom Kenshin fancied, this walking jaki repository was blocking his path to attaining the perfect, all-or-nothing death match against the Battousai.

"Fine. Do what you want. Just don't miss." For the first time since the Kanji Killer was discovered, Natsuki smiled a roguish grin. Then, as she unsheathed the weapon, her cat-like eyes gleaming with mischievousness that wasn't there before, a not-so-readily-apparent transformation within her body took place.

The blade of the Demon Sword itself metamorphosed into a curved version of the girl's metal cane. It bore no discernable edges from its front or back side; it had become for all intents and purposes a no-edge "blade" with only its rounded tip as its sharpest point.

"You dare use a toy sword against me? Pray now before I chop all of your limbs off, then!" The fight began as predictably as all the other fights Jine ever engaged in; after all, very few people in the three worlds could keep up with his brand of violence.

As per usual, the aggression that the serial killer swordsman brought to the table reduced his opponent to counterattacking and taking advantage of what little openings he left.

Something was amiss, though. Three minutes passed. Then, six minutes. Then nine. Half an hour. Or maybe it merely felt like half an hour.

Unlike Kenshin and Kurama, who had to fight tooth and nail in order to land a hit, this bitch had no such problem.

Moreover, save for the earlier wounds he inflicted upon her, she didn't even have a scratch on her since regaining her second wind.

Udo hooted and hollered after he tore the upper part of the girl's vest. The long rally he had to endure just to reach and slice the elusive swordswoman's clothing was well worth the mental edge he'd gain from the act.

Knowing her past traumatic history with Xinhai, the distraction would probably reduce the modesty-conscious young woman to tears, or at least turn her into an easier target.

No such thing happened, however. Instead, it was Udo who was left to gawk at the flat-chested "girl" he just undressed as he put two and two together.

Natsuki took full advantage of Jine's distraction through a perplexing hybrid attack that was a mix between a thunderous downward strike from the "Jodan-no-Kamae" stance and a twisting "tsuki" thrust using crisscrossed wrists.

"Kousa Dageki!"

Jine wiped the blood dribbling off of his mouth, nostrils, eyes, and ears as he cried out, "You're really a man all along? What the hell is going on this time?"

"I believe reintroductions are in order. I am Tsukayama Yutaro, son of a former samurai, the past life of Shinkai Natsuki, and ex-coadjutant master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. Nice to meet you."

Yutaro... who looked essentially like the male version of Natsuki... followed up the Cross Strike with stinging potshots from all angles while ducking and slipping away from Udo's sorry attempts at counterattacking.

Earlier on, before Natsuki took the Demon Sword away from Kurama's shaky grasp...

Natsuki's blurry eyes fluttered open. Right beside her was the blue-haired, bat-wielding woman from earlier. Botan was her name, from what she could recall. She sat up straight and groaned from the exertion after becoming aware of the dyed-haired stranger's warm, glowing(?) hands over her stab wound.

'How did she make her hands do that anyway?' Natsuki asked herself.

"Oh, you're awake. I thought that picket-fence-toothed psycho got you good," Botan greeted, the soothing heat from her hands producing a... not unpleasant sensation on Natsuki's abdomen, not unlike the benefits garnered from a balm of some sort.

'Maybe this Botan person is using glow-in-the-dark herbal medicine that can be applied on wounds like antiseptic solutions? Or maybe I'm just seeing things? Either way, I must be suffering from some sort of concussion. What's going on anyway?'

In the middle of her quiet reflection, Natsuki heard and saw Botan snap her fingers in front of her face. After a murmured, "Huh?" the leather-clad, "punk rocker" female said, "I asked what your name was. Weren't you listening?"

"Oh, excuse me. N-Natsuki. I'm Shinkai Natsuki. You're Botan, right? I heard your name and your boyfriend's name before I passed out," the half-Chinese girl answered warily before she rifled her brain for more information concerning her present predicament. For some reason or another, her rescuer began chattering and jabbering as well.

"B-Boyfriend? N-Now l-look h-here...!"

The last thing Natsuki remembered was seeing the Kanji Killer reform himself into some sort of blob monster after that long-haired pretty boy chopped him into meaty chunks with a razor whip, which she was sure was some sort of hallucination she had due to blood loss. It was far too ridiculous to be true.

Speaking of which, her mind was still reeling from the Kanji Killer's incomprehensible revelations and confessions. Was the reason behind his crimes something that, if she found out, would've left her screaming forever? Or was she required to be as insane as he was in order to understand his ramblings?

More importantly, could it be that Feng Xinhai, the man she was after, was an actual associate or even superior of Jine Udo? Was "jaki" their codeword for some sort of imaginary reward for their continuous killings, just like with the infamous Zodiac Killer and his nonsensical cipher message about using his victims as his slaves in the afterlife?

It was at that instance that she noticed Botan had stopped speaking and was just staring at her with wide, bright pink or red irises. Was she by any chance an albino woman who dyed her hair an even more ridiculous color than normal? Or were those contact lenses? "Why are you staring at me like that, miss? Is there a problem?"

"N-No. Not at all. I just thought you reminded me of someone I... she... someone an associate of mine knew. You look exactly like him." The punk-looking girl was acting quite weird, or at least weirder than usual, Natsuki deemed.

"Anyway, I know you have a lot of questions and nothing makes sense at the moment. I don't have time to explain. You have to help us. Eat this fruit. It should bring you up to speed."

"W-What?" Natsuki felt her eyebrow twitch upwards after espying the fruit Botan offered to her. It was already half-eaten, she had no idea where the strange lady picked it up or why she wanted to eat at a time like this, and she couldn't even tell if it was edible. "Are you serious? Why would you ask me that right now? What kind of fruit is that?"

Botan bit her pouted lip, closed her eyes, heaved a heavy sigh, and confessed, "It's... it's a fruit that can reveal hidden truths and lost memories. It helped me realize that the maniac over there has been using hypnotism to make this fight longer than it should be."

"Uh, okay then!" With a trembling smile, Natsuki backed away from the blabbering girl while she patted the ground from behind her for any sign of her metal cane. "I have a better idea. While those two are fighting, how about we make a run for it and call the police using the nearest payphone? How does that sound?"

'Or maybe we could get a paddy wagon for you too, while we're at it,' Natsuki appended to herself as she considered her options. Obviously, the girl before her was traumatized over her lover's current predicament to the point of becoming an incoherent mess just short of an emotional breakdown. It could happen to anyone.

"Now, I realize that I sound like a complete whack job right about now, but if you really want a good explanation on what's going on, you'll have to take a bite out this fruit and... Ah, screw it," Botan relented before shoving the food right into Natsuki's waiting, open mouth.

Before Natsuki knew what had happened, she'd already swallowed and nearly choked on a mouthful of the apple/pear/pomegranate/unnamed pomaceous fruit.

"What's the big idea?" she screamed after recovering from being force fed by Botan, but stopped short from socking the bizarre pony-tailed woman after an epiphany hit her with the impact of two colliding freight trains, her questions from earlier on flying across her throbbing brain like high-velocity pieces of wreckage and shrapnel.

She grabbed hold of her right forearm as she felt nerve-damaged numbness from a phantom wound that wasn't there anymore. Memories of her spirit's past depicted a brawny man covered in shadow, his vacuum slash ripping through her past self's right arm and stripping its flesh to the very bone.

"Okay, I'm guessing you understand the situation now. I need you to help out by alerting us whenever Udo is using his hypnotism powers against Kurama or Kenshin. That's his one main advantage right now. The fruit should open your eyes to the truth," Botan outlined, her eyes' irises darting around as she waited for Natsuki's response.

"I understand perfectly, Kaoru-san. Everything is crystal clear to me. Don't worry. I can do something even better than just telling you when the Kanji Killer's Jagan is activated."

"Oh. Well, if you have a better idea... W-What did you just call me?" came Botan's double-take as Natsuki sprung up to her feet before the ferry-girl realized what had happened.

While the two combatants were busy with their not-so-idle banter and furious exchanges, Kurama scampered towards the prostrate, seemingly shell-shocked death goddess and asked, "Botan? What's going on? Who is that girl? Why did she turn into a young man after she unsheathed the Youtou Shinnoken?"

The ferry-girl swayed back and forth while staring at nothing in particular. In due course, she surmised, "I couldn't believe it, Kurama. Out of all the people we could've run, it was Yuta-kun's reincarnation whom we met. I mean, Tsukayama Yutaro's reincarnation. She... or rather he was one of Kaoru-chan's top kendo students and a definite match against her other top student, Myojin Yahiko."

"I don't know who those people are," responded Kurama.

Meanwhile, Kaoru quipped the following interjection with a half-amused smirk, "I guess I was the one who died and made him the boss of my own family school if he's now coadjutant master," in macabre fashion.

"Oooh, good one, Kaoru-chan!" Botan praised her not-alter-ego.

"Kamiya Kasshin Ryu Offensive Ougi: Hawatari!"

Jine reeled at Yutaro's back-to-back usage of the two-part Kamiya Kasshin Ryu Ougi, with none of his "Ichi", "Hachi", and "Ju" strikes entering the female-to-male-transformed warrior's impregnable defense.

While Kurama was content with playing mind games, placing traps, and somersaulting away from harm and Kenshin was prone to overwhelming opponents with his speed and by exploiting weaknesses, Yutaro took his defensive game to a whole other level.

"You're the kind of opponent I hate the most."

"Buddy, I'm the kind of opponent most people hate. Catch me if you can."

None of Udo's thousands of strikes did significant damage to Xinhai's jaki source. Every time he lunged, Yutaro had enough flexibility in him to avoid the strikes from the waist up.

Even when cornered, Jine couldn't touch the boy thanks to his footwork. Every time the relatively older swordsman lunged, the bi-gender kendo master countered with the knee-buckling Kousa Dageki or the onslaught-neutralizing Kamiya Kasshin Ryu Succession Techniques.

"He's barely nicked or slashed by Jine at all," Kurama observed as he shook his head to seemingly clear it. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Jine could still get a few strikes in, but for the most part, this 'Yuta-kun' of yours is fighting the perfect fight."

"That's why he's called a 'Pretty Boy' in our kendo school. Few people could touch him because of his superb defense. Of course, Yahiko never did stop calling him 'Cat Eyes' either," Kaoru couldn't help but reminisce as she took over Botan's body without meaning to.

"Natsuki was doing just as fine against Jine when we got here. Now that she has merged her talent with the experience of her past self, she's virtually untouchable," Kurama ultimately concluded while he took advantage of the reprieve by resting his body in anticipation for the inevitable finale.

Even though Yutaro was as sparse on the offensive output department as Kurama was, he more than made up for it with the accuracy of his shots. He practically landed at will on Jine, such that even though the swordsman made little to no unforced errors, Tsukayama's ability to create attack opportunities while defending at the same time made the fight almost seem unfair.

"Don't even think about using your Jagan. Your illusions won't work against me. I've just recently eaten the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and I know the truth behind your power," Yutaro warned after taking another "Hei" combo apart with his well-timed and superiorly leveraged Kousa Dageki.

"You ate what? What the hell are you talking about?" To Jine's chagrin, even the Shin no Ippo had little to no effect against the elusive, defense-minded Yutaro.

Udo's face and exposed flesh turning into minced meat from the sheer volume of accurate punishment he was taking while few of his strikes landed on the girl-turned-boy.

"Thanks to the forbidden fruit, I also know that you can only use that hypnotic power on others three times a day. You've all but depleted your share of jaki from the Chojin, and you're now running on the fumes of your own self-hypnosis. Your time is almost up. You have no chance of winning against me with your simpleminded and crude sword style."

In fairness to both Kurama and Kenshin, they'd probably softened up Jine enough for Yutaro to dance around him in circles. They also provided the boy with the wounds on Udo's body that he could exploit over and over again with machine-like precision.

Then again, while both Kurama and Kenshin had certain advantages against Udo's style, at least Jine had a fighting chance against them. Stylistically speaking, Yutaro's defense-laden, counterstrike-heavy Kamiya Kasshin Ryu was the worst possible match for the former Black Hat Assassin's uncompromising Nikaido Heiho.

From the corner of Jine's puffy eyes, he felt what he supposed was movement from Kurama and the shinigami reincarnation of Battousai's girlfriend.

They were closing in on him, and the annoying little bug that didn't even have the courtesy of finishing him off exposed the one weakness of the Nikaido Heiho's new ultimate attack, the Jagan. He only had one shot left.

The kid gloves were off, then. However, instead of finding a power boost, Udo opted for a simpler method of winning. "You've impressed me. Nothing I do is working, and all of your shots are landing against me. I am at a loss for words, my dear. Who knew? Who knew that fucking your daddy will make you this strong? I didn't!"

Those were simple words. Ridiculous words. Hurtful words. To Yutaro's credit, he gave them little mind as he plowed through the faltering swordsman's offensive with perfect, compact shots that battered and jarred Jine's brain from within his skull in ways that would've left him permanently brain damaged was he not already an undead zombie living off humanity's sins.

Nonetheless, the words still made Yutaro, or perhaps the Natsuki within him, hesitate. It was just for a fraction of a second... just enough time for a wince or an eye blink to occur... but it was hesitation on his part all the same.

People should never, ever hesitate when fighting against someone like Jine Udo. A quick stab to Yutaro's foot followed by Jine stomping on the same foot kept the boy in place. From there, Kurogasa sliced his victim's chest and threw him aside. Fortunately for the stunned reincarnation of Kaoru's former student, his arteries were missed by a hairbreadth.

"You're hard to pin down, kiddo. Your defense is quite frightening too. But you know what? All it takes is one shot to end you. Goodbye," the real Kanji Killer snarled before raising his sword to finish the job.

"Think fast," Kurama whispered from beside Udo before repeatedly stabbing the serial killer with what was left of his Juryo Yozan Ken. "I guess you were right. I'm not as innocent as Kenshin or as honorable as Kuronue. I do backstab people. In my defense, they usually deserve it."

As Jine wondered who exactly Kuronue was while falling face first to the ground, the whole scene before Kurama changed once more like a jump cut used on video edits.

The half-youko gulped, fully tasting the rusty tang from the tip his tongue to the back of his throat as he stared at two mirror replicas of Yutaro Tsukayama.

"There are two Yutaros...?" Kurama whispered to himself.

"Oh shit. He's using his hypnotism against you, isn't he?"

"Dammit. What now?"

"Don't do anything, Mister Redhead! I have things under control!"

"Yeah, let me handle this, sir. You should be able to tell from my fighting style which one of us is the true Tsukayama Yutaro."

"No, that's not true. Your hypnotism can still make it look like you're using Kamiya Kasshin Ryu even though you're really not!"

"You have a good point. We have no choice. Mister Redhead, you'll have to bring us both down. It's the safest way to apprehend the Kanji Killer."

The twin Yutaros (both of whom sported the same wounds inflicted by Jine) talked among themselves for a few more minutes while Kurama waited for any slipups he could use to his advantage.

So far, the well-hidden Jine didn't say anything that would expose his charade, but for all intents and purposes, he'd just rebutted Kurama's earlier retort with his own roundabout, 'Now it's your turn to think fast.'

Botan would have none of that bullshit... and neither would Kaoru. "Kurama, let's bite this apple-like thingy together! This is the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and it'll be able to reveal to us the whole truth!"

"Don't, Kurama! It's a trap! This is all part of Jine's illusion so that you'd strike down one of your allies because of a convoluted gambit! Let me handle this!"

"Think about this logically, Kurama! Jine only uses the Jagan whenever his life is in danger! He doesn't have the capability to make complex illusions because of the limited number of times he can use his Evil Eye!"

Thusly, Kurama attacked the Yutaro who last spoke. "Nice try. It took Botan all this time to figure out a way to use that fruit without her eating it herself. She should've been more hesitant about eating it than you portrayed! Also, Natsuki was unconscious the first few times you used your hypnotism. The only ones aware of your tendencies when using your powers is me... and you, Jine."

In an instant, the illusory Botan disappeared from view while both Kurama and Yutaro converged on the faker.

Reassured that the true Jine had been exposed, Yutaro drew out his metal cane (so that he'd have the Demon Sword on his right hand and his weapon of choice on his left hand) and duel-wielded these weapons in order to produce a much more devastating attack.

"Mugen Dai no...!" Yutaro chanted.

"Ankoku-Raijin-Ken!" a voice from above hollered. A single arrow formed out of pure golden light pierced through Yutaro's midsection before landing on the ground and bursting into a crackling streak of seizure-inducing, white-hot energy.

Meanwhile, like someone who had been shocked with ten defibrillators, the muscles of Yutaro's borrowed, transformed body tensed up and flung itself up into the air chest first, which cause his reincarnation's heart to temporarily stop beating for a scary ten seconds. A feeling of numbness then washed over the young man's frame before his mind blacked out in shock and exhaustion altogether.

Dueling, repetitive screams of "Y-Yutaro!" and "Yuta-kun!" resonated within the limited space of the alley. Neither Kurama nor Botan paid particular attention to Jine at that point.

The superheated air exploded with even greater force than Kurama's earlier sword clash with Udo, the thunderous sonic boom flinging the nearby garbage bin twenty feet into the air and hurting everyone's eardrums.

A minute later, the Demon Sword clattered on the ground, and a smoking and partially immolated Natsuki was left to collapse in a boneless heap, her irises hidden behind the folds of her flapping eyelids, the whites of her eyes exposed.

A few more lightning projectiles rained down the alleyway, which forced Kurama to grab hold of Natsuki and the Youtou Shinnoken, call out Botan to fly away on her oar, and run out into the open street so as to avoid being overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg of jaki and youki.

Because of all the confusion, Kurama didn't even realize that what he'd been avoiding all this time... brandishing the unsheathed Demon Sword... had finally happened without him even noticing.

Atop one of the two buildings in the Skyscraper District that flanked the alleyway where Kurama, Botan, and Natsuki confronted the infamous Kanji Killer...

The fresh, unmistakable stench of ozone filled the air from where Suzaku stood. Sure enough, climbing at the side of the building while using his chipped and battered sword as his own personal grappling hook or crampon was the man of the hour: Jine Udo. "Suzaku? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Isn't it obvious, human? I saved your life." The blond, bushy-haired man with red-tipped hair antennae replied, his face exhibiting a knowing, tight-lipped smirk, a raised eyebrow, and an implied snort.

"You'd save me? Even after what I did to your... pet bird?" the gasping and panting Jine asked Suzaku before guffawing with a Cheshire Cat grin. "Oh wait, I know the answer to that question. It's because she didn't really matter to you in the least and you want to keep me alive so that I can take her place as your minion of sorts... Isn't that right, demon?"

Instead of replying, Suzaku challenged, "And what about you? I've asked around in regards to how you died in your first life. The Chojin tells me that the circumstances surrounding our deaths are similar, yet different. I too kidnapped the beloved of the man who ultimately won against me. However, your kidnapping of Battousai's woman was done in order to make him angrier and stronger. I have to ask, why would you do something as stupid as that? Why would you goad a lion with a piece of meat when you could use it to distract him and stab him in the back instead?"

Udo spat, "Don't you dare compare yourself to me! The only thing I thirst for is the thrill of the fight. I could've killed Battousai as soon as I laid my eyes on him because of his unwillingness to release his killer instinct. But what would be the point of that? What would I gain from killing someone at their weakest? I'm no coward. You're the one who's deluded, youkai."

Suzaku smirked. "That's the difference between you and me. I am not blinded by my thirst for power. I was born with power, and I know how to best use it. You're nothing more than the afternoon sun's reflection on a pond, pretending to be the sun itself. Even if I told you my plans, you'd still go ahead with your own plans. That's how predictable you are."

The last surviving Shisejyu leader harrumphed once he discovered that Jine had long ago left.

A little while later, in the early hours of the morning, Botan flew around the cool night sky, searching for her lost companion (and one other stranger who ended up as one of Kaoru and Kenshin's old friends).

Within the always bustling streets of the Skyscraper District, Botan eventually found the people she was looking for huddled underneath the warmth of a radiator located within the roof of a building.

"K-Kurama?" Botan asked the large, white-haired man before her in a quiet voice, her shoulders hunched forward and her chin nearly touching the base of her boat paddle just short of bowing in reverence. "A-Are you... Y-Youko Kurama?"

"I used to just be called Kurama by the people within my guild of thieves," the tall, silvery-haired, narrow-eyed, and supple-mouthed kitsune youkai sniggered. "The 'youko' part of my name was implied."

At his feet, surrounded in a cocoon of actual healing herbs (as opposed to imaginary, rationalized ones) lay a sleeping Natsuki Shinkai. Inside his belt was the sheathed Youtou Shinnoken, which meant that he was powered up enough by the artifact to not need drawing it out to maintain his demonic form.

Not knowing what else to do, Botan touched down on the roof deck of the building and investigated the situation further with more questions. "Does Kurama... I mean, your other self, Minamino Shuichi... Is he aware of... you?"

"There is no Minamino Shuichi. There is only Kurama. The Kurama you talk of is still me, except I'm living within the shell of a human cub."

"I... I see. Why do you act so different around each other, then? Like separate personalities, almost."

"A youko cannot experience the world the same way a human would, and vice-versa, even if he's the same person in either instances. It's like asking a blind man how he feels about color, or teaching a dog the concept of war. These foreign concepts of humanity, although I can describe them, are beyond my concern or understanding."

Botan almost dropped the Demon Sword after the youko threw it back at her.

"I wanted to pull the wool over my other self's eyes and use that Reikai artifact to escape this dreary existence. He wouldn't let me. He knew me too well, and I him. So I'll let him enjoy his time as a human being. The fact of the matter is that a human's lifetime is but a passing moment to a centuries-old kitsune like me. I don't mind waiting. I'll let my 'human' self indulge himself for a little while longer."

It was a good thing that Kenshin managed to pony up enough kenki and reiki to manifest at that instant, because he appeared just in time to grab hold of Botan and keep her from throttling the smug Youko Kurama.

"Botan, no! You're no match against him!"

"Do you think this is some sort of game? Something to distract your boredom? You almost killed Koenma-sama even though he's the one who's responsible for you not landing in Spirit World jail... or worse!"

"Don't blame the scorpion for stinging or the wolf for biting. I am who I am, and my other self will only last as long as Minamino Shuichi lives. Regardless, I'm pretty sure the Spirit World is too enamored with my human self to actual kill him over my actions as a youko. I was presented an opportunity and I took it. There's nothing more to it than that."

Eventually, Botan relaxed enough for Kenshin to let go of her, which prompted the spirit guardian to tell the demon fox, "Thank you for saving Shinkai Natsuki's life. Although you claim that you cannot grasp how your human self thinks, I have a feeling you at least understand his feelings."



"You might not be so lucky the next time a demon takes possession of your sword. Don't let your guard down."

And with that, the youko leapt away from the trio with the intention of spending the next few hours scheming about what he'd do fifty or so years later, when he could finally lay Shuichi Minamino to rest.

From a nearby building's parking lot, a shadowy figure emerged. He'd been following the action the best he could with his binoculars and his Honda Accord Compact. After everything was said and done, he discovered something quite important out of all these momentous events.

'So there are demons out there who can unleash the Youkiri Battousai from the Youtou Shinnoken.' He lit up his Shinsei-brand cigarette, its faint, orange light reflecting upon his collection of setaceous hair bangs. 'There's hope for you yet, Battousai.'

Three weeks after the attack at Genkai's temple, in the Spirit World...

Keiko Yukimura recalled the events leading to her rescue care of Botan.

"The river was as big as the sea. It was so big that I thought the Sanzu no Kawa should instead be called the Sea of Three Crossings. Also, I didn't want to go back to my ancestors, so..."

Keiko grasped her head as an onset of a splitting spiritual headache assaulted her ghostly senses.

"Ayame-san kept changing the subject every time I brought up the middle fork, so I decided that that's where you were located, Koenma-sama. I didn't know what I was thinking, but I did know that I didn't want to die. I didn't want to lose my life, my family, my friends, Yu... Everyone. So I jumped out of the river and grabbed hold of Ayame-san's paddle, begging her to take me to the Hall of Judgment so that I could plead my case."

"You jumped? But no soul could possibly jump up like a dolphin from the powerful currents of the Sanzu no Kawa!" Koenma exclaimed, summarily concluding that Keiko was probably confused because of the lotus blossoms' residual effects.

"...Unless that soul happened to have immense willpower. It has happened before, my lord. It's unusual for humans to have enough willpower to defy the flow of the Sanzu no Kawa, but it's not impossible, especially if their feelings over their unfinished business are particularly strong," Ayame matter-of-factly pointed out, to which Koenma could only slump his shoulders in tacit response.

"For example, Sayaka here had such tremendous spiritual powers that she managed to stay earthbound for quite sometime, blasting Yusuke away with Rei-Gan-worthy energy beams when he tried to help deliver her soul to Reikai!"

"Is that true, Sayaka-chan?" Keiko inquired, unaware of the details behind Yusuke's adventures as a barely dead ghost.

Sayaka nodded, but then giggled. "Because Yusuke-niichan managed to save my soul before it became too corrupt, I didn't need to go to the Purgatorial Sector for long! The Spirit World let me keep my memories intact and, as atonement for my sins, made me go through on-the-job training as a spirit guide. Everything worked out okay in the end!" she cheered.

"So how did you manage to subdue her?" Keiko asked with a raised eyebrow and a smile she couldn't hide. After all, the mere thought of the great Sarayashiki delinquent and Makai demon spawn known as Yusuke Urameshi getting blasted away by the ghost of a little girl was too much for her sides to bear.

"Er, ask me later. We're getting sidetracked." Yusuke pulled at his collar and sweated profusely, recalling how he put Sayaka on his lap and spanked her silly. At the moment, the aforementioned little girl pouted and glared at him. "Please continue, Ayame, er, san."

"There's not much left to say. After Yukimura-san took and steered my flying boat paddle towards the middle fork, she plunged into the waters. The River Styx let her have what she wanted. As punishment for her insubordination, the currents let her go straight into that misty area of the Elysian Fields even though she wasn't supposed to go there earlier on," Ayame revealed, which made Koenma flinch and scowl from behind his overly large pacifier.

"I guess that was when I saw the forest of pink from beyond the hazy fog. My memories from that point on are a little fuzzy, but that may just be because of the lotus blossoms I eventually ate."

Keiko's eyes darted to and fro across the room. She couldn't meet anybody's gaze. She bowed deeply, feeling as though she'd committed a grave sin of sorts.

To Be Continued...

Next: The quest to awaken Keiko.

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