"Mara." Keiichi said softly, his eyes never straying from the creature in front of him.

The man didn't know why he was so certain the strange beast was the demon; it certainly shared few resemblances to the woman. The closest creature Keiichi could compare it to was a large lynx. However lynx's didn't have off-colored, black scales that spread up one of their forepaws like a virus. Lynx's didn't have twisted metal sprouting from one of their shoulders like some demented wing, or have smoke constantly rising from their bodies as the ground they sat on grew scorched from an unknown fire. Lynx's weren't surrounded by a cloud of white ash.

And Keiichi had never seen a lynx with red eyes before.

It could have been the eyes that gave her away, he knew. Keiichi was aware of only one person with red slit eyes similar to the creature in front of him, yet at the same time the man knew that wasn't the case.

He simply knew. Knew in that same way he recognized that black monster that had cleaned his wounds as something related to the Daimakaicho. The knowledge was just there.

"Keiichi, I'm only going to tell you this one more time. Get the hell away from that thing." Hotaru's voice was low and cautious, filled with no small amount of fear. It almost made the man laugh, it was so amusing. Here was a man who not a minute prior was fighting Keiichi for the mortal's very existence, yet at the appearance of the demon he'd turned craven.

Didn't the spirit know how harmless Mara was? Sure she was a demon, but she was incompetent. Even a human like Keiichi had been able to stand toe to toe with her before. Besides, even with her slightly-more-intimidating new form, she wasn't really acting aggressively. True, it was a little unnerving with the way she was acting, yet when Keiichi considered the fact that he was 'dead' and talking to the departed spirit of his grandfather, the young man took it all in stride. If anything, perhaps Mara was putting on a new act for his grandfather's sake. His experience with the demon had always shown her to be of the more 'kooky' sort. The man looked over at his grandfather with a smirk. "What's the matter, Gramps?" He teased. "Don't tell me you're afraid of a little kitty cat."

Hotaru didn't even look at Keiichi. His eyes were centered on the lynx. "Keiichi, that is no cat." He said gravely. "You know that. The beast is a demon. If you value your life as much as you claim, you'll separate yourself from it immediately." The man was tense, Keiichi noted. Very tense, as though the spirit was watching Keiichi pet a ravenous lion.

The mortal nodded. "Yeah, she's a demon." He agreed. "But look, she's harmless. It's not like she's trying to attack us or anything. I-we...we've had run-ins with this demon several times in the past." Keiichi continued. "Sometimes she's against us, sometimes she's on our side. The last time I saw her, she was leaning more towards my side of the playing field and something tells me this time hasn't really changed anything." He looked down at the feline, who's ears were erect and alert, one tilted in his direction as though listening to him. The man grinned. "You can relax, Grandpa. Mara isn't going to hurt us."

Hotaru remained skeptical. "How are you so sure of that?" He demanded, keeping his distance from both demon and human. "Would you pet such a creature if it was to appear to you in the wild? Tell me Keiichi, what is preventing that beast from turning around and tearing apart your hand as we speak?"

Keiichi shrugged. "Mara's not a wild animal, Grandpa."

Hotaru eyed the lynx distastefully. "You're right. It's worse."

The comment took him off guard and Keiichi was surprised to feel a swell of anger rise in his chest."Grandpa!" Keiichi snapped. "Yes, Mara's a demon, but she's also a woman. Show some respect." He removed his hand from the lynx's head. "Look, something you learn when you live with a bunch of otherworldly beings is that even if their form isn't human, they're still pretty damned intelligent. And unless you've got some lucky charms in your pockets or the ghost of Freddy Mercury backing you up, she's strong enough to kick your ass without me being able to stop her. Don't try to piss her off, Old Man."

As though his words held some hidden signal the lynx rose suddenly from where it was resting at Keiichi's side. After pressing against Keiichi's legs once more Mara parted in favor of the spirit. Leaving a trail of hissing, cooling glass in its wake, the creature approached Hotaru, causing the spirit to quickly back away. Mara paused, tilting her head to one side before making a noise that sounded like a rather vocal coo and continuing. Hotaru cursed violently, struggling to increase the distance between demon and spirit only for Mara to fall into a trot in response. It was an almost entertaining scene to watch, up to the point where Mara suddenly spat out a ball of fire at Hotaru.

Then it wasn't funny anymore.

Hotaru broke into a sprint, Mara eagerly racing behind him. Another burst of flame exploded from the lynx's maw, and it was only sheer luck that Hotaru slipped in the gravel. The man went down with a grunt and the bright orange fire passed dangerously close to his head. Yet Mara was only starting with the spirit. With a snarl the demon pounced on the man before the elder spirit had a chance to rise, jaws snapping and long, curled claws burying into the man's back.

Hotaru howled in pain, and Keiichi raced towards the two. "Grandpa!" He cried. "Mara, what the hell are you doing? Get off him!"

The lynx looked up at the use of her name, pausing from where she'd been about to bite a chunk out of Hotaru's shoulder. The demon hopped off Hotaru at Keiichi's approach in favor of trotting towards the man. Keiichi froze, eying the beast warily and wondering if she was planning on jumping him next. Instead Mara approached him with a curious purr, pressing against his legs in a manner reminiscent of Welsper's cat-like affections with Belldandy.

Clutching a shoulder stained in red, Hotaru stumbled to his feet. "Keiichi, run!" He cried. "Get away from that thing before you end up more then dead!"

Apparently Mara didn't appreciate the dead man's words, as Keiichi felt the beast bristle against his legs. A soft growl parted the lynx's throat, and Keiichi watched as the creature's fur stood on end. "Shit." He hissed, watching as Mara's ears folded back against her head angrily. Without thinking he lunged, wrapping his arms around the lynx's body and scooping her off the ground.

Keiichi discovered two things at that moment. The first was that a demon that shifted its body into a more beastly representation of itself did not lose its mass. The second was that picking up an angry lynx enticed it to struggle violently. Keiichi strained to hold up a hissing and spitting Mara. The lynx screamed and howled, squirming and lashing out at the man savagely. A luck that shouldn't have existed prevented Keiichi from receiving the worst of scratches, yet the man still cursed each time he felt Mara's claws slice into his forearms.

The lynx's head reigned back, snapping at Keiichi's face in rage. Her breath was scalding it was so hot, and Mara wasn't even trying to roast him as she had Hotaru. The man grunted, pulling back with a grimace. "Mara, what the hell?" He demanded, fighting to maintain his grip on the struggling beast. Face tilted as far away from the angry beast as possible, Keiichi struggled to look back to his grandfather. "Grandpa, now would be a really good time to do something!" He shouted, and Mara shrieked with him, creating a duet of howls from man and beast.

Surprisingly, Hotaru did exactly that. Too bad 'something' involved drawing a naginata from nowhere.

Dark eyes widened. "Holy shit." Keiichi whispered. For a moment his surprise was so great that his grip loosened, causing Mara to slide in the man's grasp. Something sharp sliced into Keiichi's left bicep, and Mara suddenly stiffened against him. Then her struggles grew frantic, her screams louder, forcing Keiichi to drop the lynx before she could damage him further.

The lynx hit the ground running, a yowl escaping her throat as Mara darted several feet away from Keiichi. The man clutched his arm, looking down and seeing a deep red gash in his arm. Yet the wound did not bleed as was the norm, and somehow that was more terrifying than if Mara had been fortunate enough to spill Keiichi's intestines on the ground. Keiichi looked at it worriedly, dark eyes darting back to Mara anxiously.

"What the hell was that?"

Mara bared her teeth at him as Keiichi spoke, belly low to the ground as she hissed at the man. Keiichi barely noticed, his gaze too heavily examining the beast herself to care about the lynx's behavior. He caught a blotch of red on the metal erupting from Mara's shoulder and the man watched in horror as the metal seemed to absorb his blood. The man shuddered, touching his injured arm self-consciously. It didn't even hurt anymore. "What...what is that thing?"

"The creature is cursed." Keiichi jumped, turning to find Hotaru at his side, naginata propped up against his shoulder. When had the spirit even approached? The man was as quiet as death itself. Hotaru pointed back to Mara, and Keiichi followed the man's finger to the metal in the demon's shoulder once more. "Watch, can you see?" The man asked. "It's growing."

Grimacing, Keiichi squinted, focusing on the piece of metal. It did seem a bit larger from before but..."A curse?" He asked.

Hotaru grunted in agreement. "Some sort of magical leech." He commented. "The aura around it is disgusting in comparison to your pet demon, Keiichi. It's feeding off the beast like a parasite, and judging by what I saw just now, I'm guessing it's not only magic it's stealing from its host."

Keiichi looked between the growling Mara and his grandfather. "How can you tell?"

Hotaru's smile was slim and without humor. "I am of the Yomatsu-Ikusa, the Army of the Dead." He confessed, patting the naginata in emphasis. "If there is one thing Ikusa see, it is death. And that parasite is nothing but death to these old eyes, Keiichi." The man glanced over at Keiichi. "Did you think I was trying to warn you away from the creature for no reason?"

Keiichi chose not to respond. I wonder how long she's been like this. He thought. A parasite...is that the thing I saw coming out of her shoulder that night? He thought back to that horrid night in the shrine, with the alien red magic and the screaming, half-mad demon. Belldandy almost died because of that thing. He recalled, hands clenching into fists in anger.

Next to him Hotaru shifted. "You claim to be on familiar terms with the demon, yes?" He asked, sliding into a defensive stance with the naginata held out in front of him. "That she is intelligent?"

Keiichi nodded quietly, causing Hotaru to frown. "When she attacked me, the eyes I saw were those of a hungry beast." He said. "Perhaps that parasite is holding too much an influence on her mind in this world. I don't know why she didn't attack you as she did me; however, we might be able to use that to our advantage."

Mara was backing farther away now, eying Hotaru with the cautious hunger of a puma watching the antlers of a deer. Hotaru followed her with the tip of the naginata, enticing another growl from the demon. Then with a snarl the lynx turned and ran, slipping through a pair of closely placed boulders and disappearing from sight. Keiichi swore. "Mara!" He shouted, moving after the beast only to be stopped by Hotaru. Glancing over at his grandfather anxiously, the man shook his head.

"Don't bother." Hotaru said. "You said that demon was cat-minded, right? Unless you've made it a habit of catching cats, you aren't going to get her, Keiichi. You'd sooner come across a ghoul than you would a cat that doesn't want to be found."

Keiichi followed his grandfather's gaze. For a moment, he thought he saw a flash of glowing red in the shadowy landscape, but it was gone the moment he saw it. The man rubbed his eyes. "So what do we do then?" He asked. "We can't just leave her here like this."

"And I can't simply leave you here with her." Hotaru retorted, fingers drumming the hilt of the naginata in thought. "The best option right now would be to retreat to Yomi and let the others know." The man thought aloud. "A demon so close to the borderlands of the Underworld is dangerous. We'll be lucky if all it does is prey on the ghouls wandering this plane."

"And if it doesn't?"

"Then there will be a demon hunt, followed by a very dead demon once it's captured."

Keiichi looked at his grandfather in alarm. "Grandpa, you can't just-"

"Can't just what, Keiichi?" The man interrupted. "Say nothing and watch as your friend attacks the newly-deceased and their guides?" Hotaru looked over at Keiichi, dark eyes hard. "What if tomorrow Megumi were to die? Little Tanako or your father, Keima?" He demanded. "Would you still have me do nothing while that demon preys on them?" The man's gaze drifted around them, searching for the wayward lynx. "I am Ikusa Keiichi. And as such I have a responsibility to the land and its people to protect it with my soul.

Keiichi grit his teeth. "They aren't going to just suddenly die like that, Grandpa." He growled, hands clenched at his side.

"No, but someone else will." Hotaru responded, shifting his grip on his weapon anxiously. "Are you saying their soul is any less important than the ones of our kin?"

Keiichi said nothing in response.

The two fell into a tense silence. Somewhere in the distance was a moan, disturbingly human until it rose into a shriek that sent shivers down Keiichi's spine. Then came a yowl, a snarl, and the shriek ended abruptly. The young man shifted his weight from one foot to the other restlessly. "What was that?" He asked, gazing into the landscape in the hopes of finding the source of the noise.

Hotaru hushed him. From the direction of the shriek came a vicious scream, and around it more moans arose in answer. The elder spirit swore. "The blasted demon is drawing the attention of the ghouls." He hissed. "If those things gather in a mass..." The man trailed off, turning to look at Keiichi. "How fast can you run?"

"What?"

"How fast can you run?" Hotaru repeated. "Because something tells me we're going to need to test that speed in the next couple of minutes." The man rapped his fingers against the naginata anxiously.

A long groan emerged from behind them, and as one Keiichi and Hotaru wheeled around. The ghoul's flesh hung loosely from its body as it slowly trudged towards them. Its eyes were white and filmy with death and something green and putrid emerged from a hole in its chest. The spirit must have sneaked up on them when the two souls were focused on the demon.

"Holy shit." Keiichi whispered, taking a nervous step back. If not for Hotaru's gesture to halt, the man would have broken into the dead run his grandfather was asking of him prior.

The Ikusa lowered his weapon, slowly maneuvering in front of Keiichi. "Keep quiet and don't move." Hotaru advised. "They're drawn by motion and sound."

The rotting soul whimpered, reminding Keiichi of a lost child as it lumbered towards Hotaru. The spirit held steady, and when the ghoul came within range Hotaru struck with a quick thrust. The weapon's blade pierced the flesh like paper. Hotaru sliced down at an angle, and with the cry of a scared child the dead soul dropped. It's dying cries sent shivers down Keiichi's spine.

When the ghoul finally fell silent Hotaru approached it, naginata once more resting against a shoulder. The Ikusa kneeled at the carcass's feet, rummaging around before finally pulling something shiny from the corpse. The man pocketed the object before Keiichi could get a good look at it before rising to his feet once more. "Come on." Hotaru said. "We need to move before-"

The spirit was cut off by the sounds of more moans, groans, and the all too familiar sound of a feline's scream. Keiichi and Hotaru had just enough time to share a look of horror before turning to the source, finding a pack of the monstrosities racing towards them. When one of the ghouls strayed from the rest, a burst of flame appeared from behind it, cutting it off and returning it to the others. Keiichi caught sight of Mara acting as the source of the fires before disappearing once more amongst the many rotting souls.

Hotaru's jaw dropped. "What. The. Fuck." He said before grabbing Keiichi by the wrist, turning, and bolting with the younger man away from the stampede. "Is that thing a cat or a damned sheep dog?" The Ikusa snarled as they ran. "Because right now, if I didn't know any better, I'd swear that crazy demon was herding those things towards us!"

Racing desperately after the older soul before he could be dragged behind the man, Keiichi cried, "How the hell does that work?" The younger man demanded. "I thought you said Mara wasn't thinking right! How can someone who thinks she's a cat act like a freaking Shepherd?"

Horatu didn't have a chance to respond before one of the leading ghouls suddenly lunged at the duo. Keiichi slid out of the staggering creature's incoming path, his grandfather countering with a blow to the head with the butt of his weapon. Yet where the creature dropped even more swarmed, their moans escalating with those behind them into a cacophony of madness.

Releasing Keiichi, Hotaru turned to face the many monsters, backpeddeling madly as the Ikusa brought first one, then another ghoul down. Their cries were of a man murdered in his sleep, a woman struck down in violence. Yet still more came, deterred not in the slightest by the fall of their own. Overwhelmed, Hotaru turned and ran, racing after Keiichi only to find himself face to face with Mara. Having darted ahead of the ghouls and in-between the gap made by Hotaru and Keiichi, the ash-covered lynx demon spat a burst of flame at the Ikusa.

With a shout Hotaru fell back, dropping his weapon in favor of shielding himself from Mara's flames. The ghouls at his back wasted no time in his sudden retreat, and before the man could think to divert away from either oppositions he was engulfed in a wave of moaning, putrid flesh. The man fought his way through the mass to no avail. The many limbs of the rotting spirits pulled him down until naught was seen of Hotaru amongst the monstrosities.

And through it all, the lynx watched in silence. When Hotaru was no more, another burst of flame escaped Mara's maw, warding away the ghouls from coming any closer before turning towards the direction Keiichi had run off in.

The new soul was no where in sight, having vanished upon his separation from the elder spirit. Yet the mortal's scent was thick in the air, providing all the trail the demon needed to find the human. Scenting the air, the demon began to make its way towards the man.

That was until a large bang suddenly erupted behind the lynx, scaring the demon half to death.

Instinctively the creature bolted, running away from the source of the sound with fur and tail puffed out. Looking twice as large and fluffy as was the norm for the demon, the lynx bolted behind a boulder. And found itself face to face with Keiichi, who'd chosen that exact rock to hide behind.

If Keiichi noticed the lynx he said nothing, too preoccupied with trying to peer over the rock without exposing himself too heavily. "What the hell was that?" He muttered to himself. "Some new boss monster?" The man could see nothing but ghouls from his vantage point, several of which were laying on the ground; killed by Hotaru before the other had pulled the elder soul under.

Another bang caused Mara to jump, pressing against Keiichi as the man dropped back against the boulder once more. The spirit looked down at the demon in surprise. "When did you get here?" He whispered before shaking his head. "Guess it doesn't matter now, but I'm still blaming this all on you this time, Mara. What made you think drawing those things attentions was a good idea?"

Mara didn't respond, merely pressed closer against Keiichi's body, trembling.

Another loud bang echoed throughout the valley, causing Keiichi to cover his head as though fearing an attack. "What the hell is that?!" He demanded. After a moment's hesitation the soul rolled to his knees, rising to peer once more above the boulder. Black brows furrowed together in confusion. Were his eyes playing tricks on him, or were there more bodies on the ground then before? "What the..." The man trailed off as one of the monstrosities began drifting from its colleagues, clutching a head that looked to have been bashed in with a mallet.

Dark eyes trailed the frail form, watching as it swayed from side to side like a drunkard. It moans were different, ones of pain over the more common groans shared by its companions. "Wait a second..." Keiichi mumbled, squinting at the ghoul. It looked like...why did it...was the thing's head bubbling? The flesh and exposed tissue looked like it was boiling, the flesh rising and falling as though controlled by some sort of inner gas. Disturbingly entranced, Keiichi watched as the bubbles seemed to grow, multiply, until-

BANG!

Keiichi screamed, turning and bolting behind his shelter once more. "Th-that thing! It just...it's head just!" The man clutched his head and closed his eyes, shivering. Yet still he could see the ghoul falling to its knees, headless. "That ghoul's head just exploded." He whispered.

BANG!

The man flinched, sliding to his rump and drawing his legs up to his chest. "That thing's head exploded." He repeated. "This...this is just like that fungus..." The dark haired, newly-deceased soul mumbled. "Like the caterpillars granny was always eating...mummified and dead with ruptured heads and fungus growing out of 'em." Keiichi's eyes grew dark at the horrid memory. "Like science class...freakin' fungus infecting a bug and taking it over and turning it into a zombie...only larger, with people."

Something so warm it was almost hot pressed against his leg. Keiichi looked down, finding Mara to be the source. The demon's fur was still bristled, the lynx staring at him with wide, frightened red eyes. Another explosion caused the creature to sink low to the ground, ears pressed flat atop her skull as Mara looked around anxiously. The soul stared, the behavior so different from the lynx of five minutes ago it was almost scary. And yet it seemed so much like Mara that...

Keiichi laughed. It came out hysteric, causing Mara to jump. "This dying shit is for the birds, let me tell you." The student said, forcefully ignoring the way his voice wavered. A hand reached out to pet the lynx, mildly surprised when the demon didn't automatically wheel around to claw or bite him. "These things-these ghouls, they kind of remind me of a biology class I had to take." He began, smoothing down the puffed up fur of the nervous demon. "There was this fungus-I forgot the exact name-that infects bugs and turns them into zombies." The man felt another burst of laughter bubble in the back of his throat. He swallowed it back down. "The fungus makes 'em act all weird, making the zombie do things it wouldn't do normally, like an ant leaving its colony or something. And when it's fully mature and the ant dies, the fungus sprouts from its body so it can release its spores and start the whole thing over again."

Slowly Mara calmed beneath his hands, fur smoothing out once more. She wasn't trembling as badly either. Dimly Keiichi wondered if maybe she was seeking comfort in his words. It certainly looked like the lynx was listening to him. "Do you think those guys are releasing spores when their heads explode?"

A pair of tufted ears swiveled towards him attentively. "I really hope not." Keiichi continued, drawing his had away from the beast. It was white with ash. "I don't want to turn into a zombie and have my head filled with spores. I need to get back to Belldandy." The soul stared at the demon. The lynx stared back. "Do you guys get infected with zombie spores like us?" He asked.

Mara tilted her head to one side but said nothing. It never occurred to Keiichi that the demon might not be able to understand him in her current state.

Bang!

The lynx's ears went back towards the sound. This time; however, the demon didn't cower at the explosion, instead looking up at Keiichi expectantly. "What, don't tell me you're expecting me to stop all this." Keiichi muttered. Mara continued to stare. "It's not like I was the one who brought all these things here in the first place! You go stop them! Go and roast them so they stop spreading spores everywhere!" He cried.

Unfortunately, like most cats, telling a lynx to do anything was liable to be ignored, in which case the ash-covered beast did nothing. Keiichi flung his hands into the air in frustration. "I'm going to turn into a ghoul because of you." He accused. "My body's gonna fill with mycelia, my heads gonna fill with spores and then bang! My head's gonna explode because of you." The man eyed the chunk of metal protruding from the demon's back. "Then you're probably gonna roll around on my corpse and absorb whatever's left for that metal parasite thing you've got sprouting from your back, only you won't realize your doing it because that damned metal is like the fungus and is controlling your mind." He waved his fingers around in front of the lynx's face, causing Mara to lay her ears back and draw away from him in irritation. The man was rambling, he knew, yet somehow talking to the lynx, even if it was unlikely the demon understood him, made Keiichi feel a bit calmer.

Gravel shifted to the left of the boulder and Keiichi froze, fearful of another ghoul. Mara circled around behind him with a soft warning growl. When he looked at the beast, the man saw fire dancing in the demon's jaws. Slowly Keiichi moved to his knees, tense and ready to leap should the ghoul stumble across their hiding grounds.

Yet rather than a fungus filled fatality stumbling across the duo's path, instead Hotaru emerged, scratched and bruised but alive. The man stared at his grandson, who in turn stared back cautiously. "What the hell are you doing you dolt?" Hotaru demanded. "I could hear your howling from where the ghouls were attempting to devour me!" He snapped. "Are you trying to get killed or are you just stupid, Boy?"

Mara hissed at Hotaru, and Keiichi found himself of a like mindedness. "Did they bite you?" He asked instead, carefully observing Hotaru's open cuts for anything that might have gotten in the wounds. "Did you inhale any of the spores? Were you infected?" The younger spirit rested a hand on the demon's head, hopefully silently begging the beast not to unleash any flames at his grandfather. At least until he knew for certain if Hotaru was infected or not. If he was, the man was free game.

Hotaru stared at Keiichi in confusion. "Boy, I just escaped a pack of hungry ghouls who wanted nothing more than to eat me alive." He said. "Of course I was bitten. Now what's all this nonsense of spores and infections?"

"Their heads were exploding." Keiichi explained. "Some of the ghouls would leave the bundle trying to eat you and...yeah, their head blew up like a squished grape." The man blinked and grimaced. "...I'm never going to be able to look at grapes the same way again now..."

Across from him Hotaru nodded slowly, eying Keiichi as though the man was mad. "Yes...their heads did explode Keiichi...but I've yet to see what this has to do with spores or infections."

"You've never seen a zombie movie, have you?"

"A what?" The fact that Hotaru had died during the second world war and probably didn't even know what a 'zombie movie' was never popped into Keiichi's head.

Switching tactics, Keiichi said, "They were infected with something. Something that caused their heads to explode. Whatever it was that caused the explosions probably got into the air or could be passed through saliva into an open wound, and I don't want you going all 'ghoul-zombie' on me and having your head explode." The man eyed Hotaru cautiously, who in turn stared at Keiichi in shock.

Then the man burst into laughter. "Keiichi, we're dead. There are no infections in this world. The ghouls are ghouls because they were never properly guided to their respective underworld, which is what I'm trying to prevent from happening to you."

Hotaru's words did little to reassure Keiichi. "Then why the hell are their heads exploding!?" As though hearing his words, somewhere behind them another ghoul went bang. Keiichi flinched. Hotaru winced. Mara's ears went back.

"That's because-" The man paused mid-sentence before shaking his head. "No, forget it. That's none of your concern. Just know that the worst that will happen from a ghouls head exploding is-"

A ghoul popped around the corner behind Keiichi with a moan. "Get down!" Hotaru shouted, grabbing Keiichi and yanking him forward, sending the youth to the ground. Mara wheeled around and spat out the flames residing withing her throat, yet even as the fire began to bath the ghoul, it's head suddenly exploded. The proximity and the suddenness of the explosion caused the lynx to shriek in fear, and fur bristled once more the demon bolted from the boulder, little more than a flaming blur of fur and ash.

Stunned, Keiichi stayed where he'd fallen, staring at his grandfather with wide eyes. Then it began raining gore on his head. Somewhere, deep within his mind, a small piece of Keiichi began doing a panicked dance trying to rid himself of the chunks of tissue, bone, and brain matter. The rest of his mind was focused more heavily on Hotaru himself.

"It's you." Keiichi whispered, causing the elder spirit to stare down at him. "You're the cause of it, aren't you? The heads exploding-you're making their heads explode!"

Hotaru held it peace for only a moment, his expression warring with various emotions that Keiichi found he greatly disliked. "...And if I am?"

"If you are? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Keiichi demanded, his voice cracking in agitation as he scrambled to his feet. "You just made a ghoul's head explode! By staring at it! Have you always been able to do this or is this some new power you get after dying!?"

Hotaru raised an eyebrow. "Keiichi, do you honestly think I'd have had this power in the living world?" He asked.

Keiichi ran his hands through his hair. It was wet and slimy from blood and tissue. "I don't know what to think anymore." He muttered. "When were you going to tell me you could do something like that? It's something I'd have really liked to know when we were having a fist fight a little while ago; 'oh yeah, by the way Keiichi, watch yourself or I might just blow up you fucking head!'"

Hotaru scowled. "It wasn't as though I was going to blow your head up, Keiichi."

Keiichi wasn't convinced. "Really, is that so?" He demanded. "And what would have happened if Mara hadn't interrupted us and I'd won? You wouldn't have left me on that rock; you'd have blown my head up and dragged my dead corpse back with you!"

The man sighed in exasperation, looking to the ground and then back to Hotaru. "Can I do this? Make peoples heads explode and everything? Or is it because you're a...what did you call it, an Ikusa?" Keiichi looked down at the body at his feet. "...Can they do it do?" He asked lowly.

"No." Hotaru replied softly. "Their minds degenerate the longer they roam, leaving them incapable of accessing that ability." The man hesitated. "...However, anyone who has passed from the living to the underworld is capable of utilizing such an ability. A human is limited to the handicaps he places on his own mind while alive; however, when the soul passes on it once more reawakens to its past incarnations, allowing it access to that part of the mind that is so often locked away."

"And that takes the form of head-expodies." Keiichi concluded.

He earned an odd look from Hotaru. "Among other things, I suppose."

Dark brows furrowed together in thought. "Then...how come you didn't use that trick on Mara?" Realization of what he'd just asked dawned on Keiichi's face. "Don't get me wrong," He added hastily. "I'm glad you didn't blow up her head, really, thank you for not blowing up Mara's head, but even still..." The man trailed off.

Hotaru frowned. "Mara. The demon, right?" At Keiichi's nod the elder spirit continued. "It is precisely because that creature is a demon that I couldn't blow up her head." He admitted. "Believe me, I tried." The man muttered under his breath. "But demons and gods are above us. Even the highest spirit is less than the weakest demon. Our abilities only affect those beneath us, which says the same for gods and demons both." The man shuddered self-consciously. "That is one reason why that demon worries me so much. One with so much power and no control is a deadly threat in the Underworld borderlands."

"And you just scared the shit out of her after she'd started to calm down!" Keiichi cried. "If you hadn't decided to go freaking 'head-explody' so close to her, Mara would still be here and I might have found a way to rouse her!"

"And you would have done this how?" Hotaru countered. "The way I found the both of you showed no improvement on the demon's end. If anything her madness seemed to have spread to you as well with the way you were screaming like a loon."

This time Keiichi could think of no retort. How would he have brought a half-mad demon back to her senses? The man's eyes narrowed and Keiichi rubbed his chin in thought. What could possibly affect a first-class demon so intensely that it would bring back her sanity?

The answer hit him like a horseshoe. Keiichi looked at his grandfather, eyes bright. "You wouldn't happen to have anything you consider lucky on you, would you?"


Ten minutes later found Keiichi slowly walking towards the many ghouls Mara had somehow gathered. The many spirits had yet to disperse, moaning and groaning and trudging aimlessly around each other. It reminded Keiichi of some of the old zombie movies he used to watch with Megumi when they were both kids. The movies were in black and white and had some terrible dubs, but back then they were utterly terrifying to a couple of pre-teens. "At least they're slow-moving zombies and not fast moving zombies." Keiichi muttered to himself. "Otherwise this stupid idea really would be suicidal."

In hindsight, the plan sounded better in his head then it did now. Probably because he was the one risking his soul to do it. Thus far none of the ghouls seemed to notice him, lending some truth to Hotaru's earlier claims of 'when in Rome, act like the Romans'. It didn't stop Keiichi's heart from ramming in his chest like a jackhammer or prevent the man from jumping any time one of the ghouls started coming towards him.

The man moaned for effect, causing several of the ghouls to groan back as though in welcome. One of the rotting spirits came close enough to brush him, causing Keiichi's skin to crawl. Yet the ghoul did nothing but moan at the man as though he were a rude pedestrian. I can't believe this is working. Keiichi thought, letting out another groan as his eyes darted around him. Now all we need is Mara to appear again and...the lynx was no where in sight. At least no where he could see given the surrounding darkness and murky mist. The ghouls weren't helping his line of sight much either.

A ghoul moaned at him. Keiichi moaned back. I really hope she's watching me. He thought grimly. Otherwise I'll have risked my soul for nothing. The man swallowed a hysteric laugh. Belldandy would beat the shit out of me if she know what I was about to do. He thought. The things I do for love!

The man let his gaze wander, finding himself in the heart of the pack of ghouls. Mara, you better be watching me. He thought, swallowing a bundle of nerves. There were butterflies in his stomach and his heart was pounding a steady beat in his ears. The lump in his throat wouldn't go away and his mouth felt as dry as sandpaper. Come on Keiichi, you can do this. He encouraged himself. "For Belldandy." He said quietly, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. The man released it slowly before opening them once more, steel in his gaze.

"For Belldandy!" He howled, before bolting into a dead run within the mass of rotting spirits. The ghouls moaned, turning their full attention to the young man as though in confusion. The newly-deceased spirit made it past four of the spirits before the ghouls began to realize prey was in their midst, but when they finally did, the mass of ghouls suddenly grew deadly. One snagged his arm, causing Keiichi to spin right into the oncoming grasp of another. A ghoul with a slit throat was attached to Keiichi's shoulder, its teeth black and broken and it moved to bite him.

Bang!

The ghoul, headless, fell to the ground. Around him its brethren groaned angrily, the ones who'd managed to grab him moving closer with a vengeance. Yet more explosions followed the first, and Keiichi once more found him running free. "Mara!" He screamed, no longer fighting to hold off the terror that now engulfed him. "Mara, I need you!" He cried, dodging and darting around one ghoul after another, with many more exploding before him. "You came here for a reason, remember!" He shouted into the crowd. "You came for me! You could have killed me twice over by now, but you didn't!" He hollered. "Even when I hurt you, you didn't kill me like you tried Hotaru!" A wall of rotting flesh and gnashing teeth appeared in front of him, forcing Keiichi to bolt to the right. It sent him deeper into the nest of ghouls and around him the explosions became more frequent. "You even tried to protect me from one of these ghouls!" The man continued.

A ghoul stepped into his path. Startled by the sudden appearance, Keiichi quickly turned back the way he came only to trip across over the body of one of the new carcasses. The man went down with a shout and his world was blotted out with gray flesh, dead faces, and misshapen fingers all grasping for him. Unable to stand once more, Keiichi began to crawl, maneuvering through whatever openings he came across and ignoring the hands that clawed at his body.

The explosions had stopped, Hotaru no longer able to see Keiichi and properly defend him. It served to only increase Keiichi's panic, and for the first time since the idea had popped into his head Keiichi was afraid he was going to die. "Well here I am!" He screamed desperately, voice drowning amongst the many voices of the ghouls. "Here I am, and I'm in danger again! Mara, I'm summoning you with everything I have; save me!"

It was then that the world seemed to suddenly grow quiet. The ghouls stopped howling, their movements grew muffled, and even Keiichi's panicked breaths seemed to suddenly grow mute. Oh shit. Keiichi thought, watching as a spark of red flickered above the heads of the many ghouls.

I think it worked.

More sparks began to appear overhead, unknown or ignored by the monstrosities baring down on him. Yet for all his danger Keiichi found his eyes drawn to the flashes of light that danced across the sky. Then one of those sparks ignited, and the world erupted into flames. Fire consumed the torsos of those around him and Keiichi curled into a ball on the ground, covering his body as best he could from the flames. I did it. He thought, sweating. I summoned her. And now I'm going to die because of it.

The dying cries of those around him were a hideous choir of pain and despair mixed with the steady drumbeat of bodies falling to the ground. Yet even as he watched, no burning body touched his own. No flames, no fire licked his flesh. Keiichi remained unharmed as those around him dropped as blackened corpses.

It was too much.

After everything he'd gone through, this newest deed proved too much for Keiichi's frail mentality to handle, and the man closed his eyes and covered his ears, desperate to deny his senses what he was experiencing. Yet even still he could smell the scent of charred flesh, taste the singed bodies of those around him, and by the gods he just wanted it all to stop! This was a really stupid, suicidal idea. He thought morosely.

The screams began to subside. Something hot nudged him, and against his better judgment Keiichi slowly opened his eyes. A pair of burning orbs stared into his, and for a moment Keiichi saw more then the lynx those eyes belonged to. I know this. He thought. I don't know where, but somehow I know this. The fire was Mara, her eyes little more than a pair of sparks that flashed in the darkness of the Underworld. All of it, the flames, the fires, everything that consumed the ghouls around him was nothing but an incarnation of Mara herself.

Without realizing what he was doing the man reached out to the eyes, touching the flames and feeling hot fur in place of searing heat. And just like that, Mara was once more the lynx from before, leaning into his touch with a content purr. His fear dying away, Keiichi felt himself smile, his other hand moving to scratch at the demon's ears, her chin, at the tufts of fur at the side of the lynx's cheeks.

So this is what it's like to touch fire without fear of being burned. He thought absentmindedly. The demon pressed close to him, rubbing against Keiichi as though Mara was little more than a friendly house cat. For once, Keiichi took it all in stride, wrapping an arm around the demon torso and being mindful of the twisted metal erupting from the creature's shoulder blade. The fur was hot; hot in the same way a heated blanket was when left on too long. Mara didn't seem to mind the attention, something that surprised the man. "You really did come." He told her, not bothering to hide the bafflement in his voice. "So you can understand me then?"

Mara didn't respond in any way that could have signaled she understood him. Keiichi's smile faded somewhat. "Then why did you come for me?" He asked her, gaining nothing but a headbutt from the lynx instead. Keiichi smirked. "I guess I'm gonna have to help you remember, huh?" He asked her, gaining a curious chirp from the demon.

Keeping one arm around the demon's body, Keiichi moved his other hand to one of his pockets, rummaging around before coming out with a cloth. "I really don't want to do this considering how nice your being..." He told her. "But I've got to repay you for saving me, so..." The man scrunched the cloth into a ball. Holding Mara firmly against him, Keiichi struck. "Wake up!" He cried, pressing the wadded cloth against the demons flesh.

Lightning danced across the lynx's body and Mara yowled in pain. The demon fought to escape Keiichi's grasp to no avail. The sparks hurt, stinging and biting into Keiichi's flesh just as the did the demon's. Keiichi grit his teeth and bore through it; however, hoisting the mad-demon into his lap and holding Mara all the tighter.

The lynx screamed at him, struggling desperately. Keiichi in turn let the cloth fall onto the twisted bit of metal, and then Mara really did scream; a horrid sound that sound like it escaped a woman's throat over a feline's. The lynx burst into flame; one that burned him and quickly devoured the cloth. Keiichi released her then, lest he risk being scalded too badly by the fires. The man backpeddled, rapidly moving away from the demon before Mara could think to retaliate. Yet all too quickly it showed there to be no need for the act. Upon release the demon collapsed, the flames that bathed her body extinguishing before Keiichi's very eyes.

Shaking, Keiichi rose to his feet, slowly backing away from the now-unconscious demon in favor of Hotaru. His grandfather was waiting for him as the younger spirit approached. "I-I think it might have worked." Keiichi said warily, his gaze resting heavily on the still form of Mara.

"You think?" Hotaru challenged.

Keiichi nodded his head. "Like I said before, Mara's really allergic to good luck charms. I don't know why, but I've seen some that are strong enough to cause memory loss in her...or regain that lost memory if used correctly against her." He looked at his hands, black with soot. "Hopefully it'll be the former and she'll wake up." He wiped his hands on his pants, grimacing when the soot only smeared against his jeans rather than fully coming off like he'd hoped.

"And if it doesn't?"

"Then I'm all out of ideas." Keiichi admitted.

Hotaru frowned. "I see." He grumbled, eying Mara's limp form with distaste. "What of my handkerchief?" He asked, turning his dark gaze back to Keiichi.

The man avoided his gaze. "Yeah...about that..." He mumbled. "Mara...kind of...incinerated it." Keiichi scratched the back of his head nervously.

Hotaru's eyes widened. "She did what?" He demanded, dark eyes shifting in between Keiichi and Mara. "Son of a...I'm going to kill the both of you!" He snapped.

Keiichi jumped. "Don't blow my head up!" He cried.

Hotaru grabbed the man by the collar. "You stupid idiot!" He cried. "Your grandmother gave me that handkerchief! It was the only memento I had of her prior to driving a fucking plane into a goddamned warship! And your pet demon incinerated it!? Which one of y'all wants to cease to exist first?"

The younger spirit took a step back. "I'm sorry!" Keiichi cried. "She didn't do that last time."

"I don't care what she did last time. I care about what she did this time!" Hotaru retorted, taking two steps forward for every one step Keiichi took back. Another backstep and Keiichi was off in a run, Hotaru hot on his heels.


Awakening to the sound of screams and yells was not a pleasant way to regain consciousness, Mara discovered. Body throbbing, the demon opened one red eye to a dark and bleary world. Dimly the entity tried to recall what had led her to such a world, yet only a sullen growl stirred her mind. Tufted ears twitched, following the direction of the sounds before Mara bothered to look to its source. What she saw made the demon blink. It took her a long moment to recognize Keiichi. It took her even longer to realize the man chasing him was not Keiichi.

Mind murky with shadows, explosions, and fire, the lynx slowly picked herself off the ground, panting lightly. The demon stared at her paws, wondering when she'd shifted. A single thought came in response. Keiichi. The demon stood, disliking the ache that permeated throughout her body. I need to...Keiichi. What was it that she'd come after him for?

Skuld. Something about Skuld. The child's pleading echoed withing Mara's skull, causing the feline to lay her ears back in annoyance. Keiichi had done something to upset Skuld; enough so that she'd crossed into his unconscious to retrieve him in vengeance.

Yet that did not explain why she'd shifted upon entering his subconscious. Nor why her body pained her so or why she could not recall what had lead the demon there in the first place.

And it certainly didn't explain why a spirit was chasing Keiichi around or why the man in question was sprouting some nonsense about his head exploding. The beast shook herself, sending a fresh cloud of ash into the air. It was time to see what this idiot was doing.

With a soft grunt the demon took off after the two spirits in a sprint. Kicking up dirt and debris, Mara easily gained on the two men with her long strides, coming to race alongside the older spirit with a snarl. The man yelped when she bore her fangs at him, immediately diverting away from Keiichi in a desperate bid to escape the lynx. The one perpetrator gone, Mara focused her attention on Keiichi, who'd come to look back at her with wide, alarmed eyes. That's right, you better run. Mara thought, a growl emitting from her throat as she snapped at him. Fire licked at her jaws and Keiichi's expression grew more panicked, much to the demon's glee.

The man swore violently. "Grandpa, I think she remembers!" The man shouted, confusing the demon.

From somewhere behind her another voice rose; the man who'd been chasing Keiichi, if Mara had to guess. "You act like that's a bad thing!" He snapped. "Wasn't that what you were intending to do when you let her INCINERATE MY HANDKERCHIEF!?"

"Yes!" Keiichi retorted. "Because now she's pissed and she's gonna burn me to a crisp!"

"Good!"

"You're an asshole, Old Man!"

You two dolts fight more than a pair of siblings. Mara projected in amusement.

Keiichi yelped as though Mara physically struck him. "I'm hearing voices now!" He howled in panic, clutching his head wildly. "I've got a demon in my head and my dead grandfather is going to blow it up!"

Of all the...Mara's ears went back in annoyance, the amusement dying as quickly as it had manifested. Belldandy really hooked herself something with this idiot. She thought mildly. I wonder...was it his stupidity that she was attracted to or did she actually see something worth pursuing in this knucklehead?

Keiichi stiffened as the thought reached his mind. "Hey!" He shouted. "I heard th-" Mara pounced, knocking the man to the ground. The man hit the earth with a grunt and with it Mara made herself comfortable on his back, moving just close enough to give the man an impressive view of her fangs. Keiichi's time with the Norns had jaded his sense of respectful fear of demons in Mara's eyes, and it was about time to remind him of his place.

"Grandma, what big teeth you have." Keiichi said lamely, spitting out a couple of pebbles that had managed to maneuver their way into his mouth upon kissing the ground.

Well that certainly didn't go as hoped.

Mara bristled and hissed at him. Since when did you become such a smartass? She demanded.

Keiichi looked up at her with one large dark eye. "Oh I don't know, probably around the time that I realized I was dead, there are zombie spirits in the afterlife that try to eat you, and that you gain the power to blow heads up with your mind. After a while you just start to say 'fuck it' and go with it. When did you become a lynx with an identity crisis?"

Mara lifted her head away from his faced, clearly unamused. She became even less amused when the blade of a naginata came crashing down on her head.

The demon twitched before slowly turning her head to the spirit connected to the butt end of the naginata. The metal was beginning to grow red-hot from the heat of her body and the wooden pole was blackening, looking close to igniting. Mara regarded the man with the same unamused cat expression she'd gifted Keiichi with. You broke him, didn't you?

The man, so similar to Keiichi in appearance, blinked. "Wha?" The man's jaw dropped.

The lynx tilted her head, batting the weapon off her skull with one large paw. Perhaps too startled at the sudden voice in his head, the man didn't even react when the demon then snapped at the weapon, catching the blade in her mouth and biting the heated metal. When Mara finally released it, the blade was little more than a piece of twisted metal reminiscent of the hunk of steel sprouting from her own shoulder.

Mara returned her attention to Keiichi. A little stressed, I take it?

Keiichi's smile was strained. "Could you guess?"

The demon sneezed and shook herself before rising and hopping off Keiichi's back. The man slowly picked himself up, and as he did Mara examined their surroundings. What are you even doing here? Mara asked, transmitting the thought to both men and holding a sadistic glee at how the two spirits twitched or flinched at the act. Either of you? One is a spirit wandering around a man's subconscious and the other is a man bordering...death...The demon trailed off, and with it, the dormant memories of what had lead Mara to the borderland returned.

The demon froze.

Then wheeled on Keiichi with a yowl. You idiot! Mara screamed. Who said you could die!? The demon demanded. Do you know how much trouble you've caused me? The lynx growled, baring her teeth in rage. Do you have any idea what I had to do in order to get here? The demon released a heavy, frustrated sigh. We're going back. Now. Before your body starts to rot or that one comes back for Skuld.

Keiichi backed up, holding his hands in front of him as though to ward off an attack. "Wow, wow." He said. "Slow down. What's all this about Skuld? You can bring me back?"

"No, that shouldn't be right. There are only a handful of demons that have the ability to bring someone back from the dead."

Mara looked over her shoulder, sending an annoyed back at the invading spirit. You think I don't know that? She snapped. We're in the borderlands of Keiichi's mindscape, an area any minor nightmare can enter, let alone a Dreamwalker like myself. The demon snorted. From here, it's a simple matter of guiding Keiichi's spirit back to his body and 'poof', no more corpse. The lynx looked at the man in disdain. I'm a demon. I cheat. And since it obviously looks like you haven't done your job, I'll take full advantage of it.

The demon returned her attention to Keiichi. Skuld is exactly where I left her; guarding both out bodies in the tiny cell all of us are locked in. And hopefully that's where she'll stay until we can return. There are some rather unfavorable characters who've been eying her like a slab of meat since the lot of us were captured and I want to return before any of those demons discover I'm out.

"Cell?" Dark brows furrowed together in confusion. "Wait Mara, what are you talking about? What cell? Why are we locked up? Who are you talking about?"

Mara regarded Keiichi with careful red eyes. Boy...how much do you remember since that night in the shrine?

Keiichi ran a hand through his hair. "Not much..." He admitted. "I-I remember the battle. The one with the demons fighting the demons who'd been attacking the Valkyries and us, and then one of those demons going for Belldandy..." The man shook his head. "Everything else became a blur after that. Except for the monster that I kept thinking was Hild." Mara froze at the man's words, and as he continued speaking, the lynx's fur began to bristle in alarm. "She-it-whatever-was going to kill me. I remember that because I could hear it in my head. The...the thing pitied me. It was angry with the people I was with for leaving me as I was rather then simply taking my life and ending my suffering." The man grimaced. "I remember being afraid. Terrified. I thought for sure my life was going to end. I pleaded with it. Begged it not to kill me. And for whatever reason it listened. But anything after that..." The man shook his head.

A creature you thought was the Daimakaicho? Mara asked, red eyes large and dilated. A large black beast? She asked. Do you know the color of its mane?

"Silver, maybe white." Keiichi confirmed. "With too many glowing red eyes and a huge mouth with lots of teeth."

Ignorant of her own acts the demon crept back, belly low to the ground and ears flat against her head. Impossible. She thought. That thing should have been...we made sure it was...

"Mara, are you okay?"

The demon blinked, looking up at Keiichi in alarm. We need to go back. If I'd known that was still...And I left the girl alone with it!

"What are you-"

Skuld is in danger! Mara interrupted with a shriek. The girl is in danger...and so are we if we don't return to the physical world soon.

Keiichi was silent, staring at the lynx in surprise. Then his gaze hardened into determination. "Then let's go." He said. "I wasn't planning on sticking around here long anyways."

"That might be a problem."

Together Mara and Keiichi turned to the older spirit. The man regarded them both with a frown. "I came here to take Keiichi back with me." He explained. "And had you come here peacefully Demon, I might have been able to let you leave with Keiichi without any hassle." Hotaru directed his gaze to his ruined naginata before closing his eyes with a sigh. "However, when you came here you created mischief amongst the ghouls in these borderlands like some lesser spirit." Hotaru shook his head. "You forced me to call it in, and..."

Off in the distance, the deep, bellowing sounds of horagai rang forth, rising in pitch before dropping into a deep bellow once more. "Well...I was ordered to bring you back with me Keiichi." The man patted his side. Like magic a new naginata appeared in a flash of light, just as the ruined one dissolved into nothing at his feet. "Whether you agreed to it or not."

Mara bared her teeth at the spirit. Fool. You dare challenge me? She demanded. I am Demon First-Class Femme Mara. By the power vested in me by the Serpent Below, you shall leave Keiichi with me! The demon proclaimed.

Yet Hotaru shook his head slowly, eyes centered on Mara. "No." He said. "There is only one woman who I answer two, be she demon, god, or otherwise, and you are not her. That woman's orders was to ensure Keiichi's safe journey into Yomi without the interference of any demons, even if the demon was the Daimakaicho herself."

Red eyes narrowed and flashed with rage. Your master sent you to your doom, Boy. She warned. I won't spare you because you seem to know Keiichi. I'll send your head back to Izanami in a basket if that's what I need to do to take Keiichi back where he belongs.

The horns were getting louder. In the distance and through the mist, foxfire began to appear; clustered and glowing a bright greenish-blue. "If that's what needs to be done in order to ensure Keiichi's safe travels, then so be it." Hotaru said. "I recognized your rank as soon as I saw you, Demon, and don't think my Lady hasn't prepared for you. You'll have your hands full enough just dealing with an army of Ikusa, let alone returning Keiichi to the physical plane."

The man swung his weapon down, letting it halt an inch from Mara's nose. The metal sparked, and a bolt of electricity reached out to bite the demon's snout. Mara snarled in rage and pain, backing away from the blade with a growl. Hotaru held his place. "And thanks to my good-willed grandson, I now know the means with which to defeat you." A cloth was tied to the weapon; a hanky perhaps, or maybe a handkerchief.

"Grandpa, what are you doing?" Keiichi demanded. "This is ridiculous! A minute ago you were helping be bring Mara back to her senses so this kind of thing wouldn't happen. What's wrong with you?" He demanded, moving towards Hotaru only to be stopped by Mara's warning growl.

"Keiichi, shut your mouth and get over here. I'm not risking you as collateral." The man said gruffly.

"I..." The man trailed off, his gaze torn between the demonic lynx positioning herself between him and Hotaru and his grandfather. Skuld's in danger. He reminded himself with a frown. The man shook his head. "No...no Grandpa. I'm staying with Mara on this one. I need to go back."

Hotaru' eyes widened in shock. "You'd choose a demon over your own?"

Keiichi's smile was slim. "You said it yourself, Gramps. I'm an anomaly. I don't belong here because I've spent to much time around Gods and Demons and because of that I don't belong here. Well, if what you said about Belldandy not being able to reach me is true, then I guess I'll have to throw myself in with the demon who knows her instead."

Hotaru grimaced. "Damned fool-boy really is just like his mother." He grumbled. "Too strong willed for his own good, going off with troublemakers that will only lead to hard times down the road."

"You leave that for me to decide, Old Man."

The horagai were dreadful moans now. The foxfire had given form to distant, humanoid silhouettes; unnaturally tall and rail thin, all holding long polearms ranging from spears to naginata to nagamaki. Large, triangular straw hats hid their faces, and as the Yomotsu Ikusa grew visible, so too did their graying flesh and plated armor. Strange, archaic symbols ran up and down their limbs like tattoos, their gait as crazed and unsteady as any ghouls.

"I see." Hotaru murmured, a shadow descending upon his body. "I see...Then if you will not walk by my side through the Gates of Yomi," his form seemed to stretch, lengthen, and compress, becoming like those slowly approaching the demon and spirit.

"Than you shall walk behind me through the Gates of Yomi in chains."


Comments of a Madwoman: I wrote most of this story when I was sicker then a dog. I forgot how good soup was when you're sick. The 'head-explody in the afterlife' idea is owned by Jhonen Vasquez in JTHM,borrowed by The Simpsons, and reinterpreted by me. Anyways, I tried to make this a semi-realistic scenario in regards to a dead japanese army, however if there are any experts out there who see I've made a royal mess of things, by all means feel free to speak up and let me know. Happy failed Mayan Apocalypse!

Special thanks to Will for proofreading this chapter and providing a sanity check for me.