A.N: Yes, hello.  It's been a year and half and I finally update this story.  Thank you, reviewers, for all your positive feedback.  I prefer not to explain my absence here.  If you want to know anymore updates, or what I've been really doing with my life, check:   Again, thank you for your patience.

Chapter Nine    

Sanosuke gave the bandage one last tug.  He felt the linen cloth tighten against his palm. 

Perfect.

Donning his black gi, he made his way downstairs.  His footsteps were barely audible against the wooden floor.  The household had long succumbed to the realm of dreams.  He went past Megumi's medical study.  A soft sound of rock grinding against rock emanated from Megumi's office.  The tall man peered in for a moment, meeting the doctor's eyes.  She was awake, as she always was on nights like these, preparing medicinal herbs, preparing for the worst when the three men came home.

The elegant woman said not a word.  Sansuke nodded and continued on his way.

"You're late," a tenor voice murmured. 

"Sorry," the tall man apologized, looking at Battousai and the Okashira.  "Let's go."

            The three men exited the Hiko estate through the back.  A dark dusty road was ahead of them, looming trees surrounding both sides.  They walked on the road, staying close to the right.  At a certain point along the path, Kenshin suddenly turned into the forest, breaking into a lightening speed sprint. 

"Damnit, I wish he would tell me when he does that," the spiky-haired man thought to himself, as he fought his way to keep up with the ex-hitokiri.  He dodged yet another branch. 

            The moonlight streamed through the treetops, casting an eerie glow on the forest floor.  Illuminating, but not enough to expose all the dark shadows.  Battousai leapt across a thick tree root, his senses finely tuned to his surroundings.  He abruptly stopped in the middle of the dense forest.  In a second Aoshi had caught up, standing side by side with the smaller man.  Sanosuke was last. 

            Everything was deathly quiet.  On Kenshin's right he heard a twig snap, his head whipped around immediately to scan the area.  Nothing.  More shadows.

            From out of nowhere a high-pitched scream was let loose.  It was such an agonizing sound, as if someone was being ripped apart alive, and wanted the world to hear her anguished cry.  So powerful, the shrill sound threatened to burst their eardrums. The three young men looked around, startled, confused.  And then the screaming turned into manic laughter, grating laughter that disturbed one's mind.  At first it seemed to be coming from one place, then more voices joined in.  But there appeared to be no figures related to the laughter.  The sound was just everywhere, coming from all four sides, as if it were the trees themselves that were mocking the three people standing there.

            The Okashira reached a slender but calloused hand to one of the twin kodachis that he carried on his back.  His hand touched the hilt, and then all hell broke loose.  Figures rained down on the three men, brandishing various weapons.  Aoshi's instinct kicked in, and he let whoever that was closer, taste the silver edge of his blade.

            They came all at once.  Kenshin felt overwhelmed for a moment.  His katana slashed vertically across someone's abdomen.  Then he stroked up, nearly cutting the figure in half.  The ex-hitokiri immediately sunk the deadly blade into his opponent behind him, before kicking someone in front of him and jumping clear of the dead bodies.  He slashed again, but a ringing clink met his ears, blade against another blade.  He looked up, his first opportunity to view his opponents. 

            But what Battousai was met with, was something straight out of a nightmare.  A ghoulish face with an insane grin, wide red eyes, a dark tongue hanging out.  With the lack of actual light, Kenshin was not sure if this was a mask, or indeed a true face.  The figure cocked his head to the side slowly; eyes still unblinking, wearing the same expression, before leaping back and attacking again.  The man sidestepped the sword coming his way and sunk his katana into the creature's back.

"BEHIND YOU!" a yell came.  Kenshin avoided just in time for a sword to be buried in his back, but could not avoid a scratch on his shoulder blade.  The spiky-haired man grabbed the figure by the back of his shirt.  He turned the figure around and was met with the same grotesque face that his teammate had seen earlier.  The sheer ugliness caught Sano off guard, but he regained his sense and sent a fist smashing into the creature's chest.

            The sound of a deep horn blared in the distance.  The creatures all leapt back and slid back into the shadows, not a sound was heard during their retreat.

"Was that even human?" Sano murmured, rubbing his fist.

            Aoshi picked up something lying on the ground.  He turned it over and sure enough, it was a mask.  "Quite human, barely," the Okashira murmured. 

"Do you like my little play things?" a soft voice interjected.

            Three heads turned up to see a young boy.  Dark red lights had suddenly flared up, strewn in the various trees.  The boy was dressed in what appeared to be a white kimono.  He was small, but had soft feminine features.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" the boy asked, cocking his head to the side.  "You don't like my playthings?  Ryo always says my playthings are a waste of his time.  But I don't think so."

"What are you?" Kenshin murmured, his voice low.

            The boy pouted sensually.  "That is not a nice thing to ask.  Ryo…they do not appreciate my playthings!"

"I told you it would be a waste of time.  But you're too spoiled to even bother listening to me," a deep voice murmured.  A figure appeared next to the boy, a man with shorter dark hair, a silver circlet around his forehead.

            The three men recognized the circlet immediately.  "Aren't you supposed to be dead?" Sano asked.  The circlet signified the high priest, the power behind the Underground.  In their last mission they had killed the high priest.  The high priest had been scoring various Japanese villages for virgin boys to sacrifice.  Each boy who was "chosen", had their house torched to the ground and their family slaughtered. 

"Do I even resemble the last High Priest, the old geezer?" the man asked, sliding an arm around the boy's waist, bringing him closer.  "You killed my elder, but that did not mean you eliminated me."

"Delusional psychos," Battousai muttered under his breath.  He kept a wary eye on the two.  "What are you doing this time, sacrificing lambs?"

            Sudden laughter came from the boy's mouth.  "You're such a silly man.  Ryo, I am tired.  I don't want to deal with these things anymore.  Can we go to bed?"

"Impatient one, shush," the man silenced the boy with a kiss.  His gaze returned to the three men standing in front of him.  "Bear in mind this is not the Underground that you have dealt with before, little men.  A year has past, things have changed, and order has changed.  I don't like it when fools come lurking around in things that they have no knowledge of.  Where they attempt to understand, but fail miserably.  These are not the same people you knew, the same foolish people who believed sacrificing boys would appease the dark ones."

"We probably would not bother you, if you would keep your activities to yourself.  But you always insist on burning down houses, killing people, and that, we cannot overlook," Kenshin answered.

"Such righteous creatures you are," the man's lips curled into a smirk.  "You come here tonight to see if you can find anything that will lead you to us.  But that, little men, is completely futile.  We come and go as we please."  The dark-haired man snapped his fingers once, and figures appeared in the trees.  

            The three men glanced at one another. 

            The dark-haired man snapped his fingers again and the figures vanished.  "I can kill you when I want.  But Taki here insists we do not.  He has a liking for one of you, so he has decided to let you live."

"I wish to feed on one of you.  Feel your strength coursing through my veins…" the boy murmured. 

"That is enough, Taki!" the man snapped.

"If you so find us irritating, why don't you just kill us?" Sanosuke drawled as he tugged on a piece of linen wrap.

            The boy stared at Sanosuke intensely.  "Because I won't let him.  Now if you please excuse me, I want to go to bed.  And you're detaining Ryo from going with me.  Tonight was just a night for me to play.  Perhaps next time we meet I will be stronger, I will be ready." 

            With that the lights extinguished.  The three men blinked a few times to adjust their eyes back to the darkness.

"Head back."

            When the young men reached the road, they fell back to a walk. 

"That was a waste of time," Sano snorted.  "Psychos."

"Actually," the Okashira started, "the boy did yield some information.  We know the Underground is not in full power, and the high priest does not hold the same kind of power that he did last time."

            The auburn-haired man nodded.  "The Underground before was just one of those bizarre groups that supposedly practiced dark magic, along with other criminal activities.  We underestimated them last year, and that nearly cost us Megumi's life.  It will be different this time."

"Yes.  A year can be a long time, after all.  Things can change a lot in a year's time," Aoshi stated.  He glanced at his smaller friend.  Sometimes even a few mere months can change something, or rather someone.  

***********************************************

            Was she floating?  Kaoru could not tell.  She was surrounded by blackness, perhaps she was standing, and perhaps she was suspended.  The girl tried to move her arm, but she could not.  She tried forcing her leg to move, but that limb remained immobile too.  The idea of her body being out of her own control suddenly hit Kaoru. Prickles of fear began to form in the back of her mind.  She was frozen in a pit of darkness.

"So how does it feel, to be so feeble?" a voice crooned into her right ear.  The girl felt warm breath against her ear.  The voice was soft and silky smooth.  She wanted to turn her head, but she was immobile. "You can't do anything can you?"

            Someone sniffed the other side of her neck.  The voice moved to her left side.  "I can smell your fear.  Your ki is strong, but your fear threatens to overwhelm it."

            Kaoru tried to speak, but her mouth could only form the words, no sound came out of her vocal cords.

            A throaty laugh, distinctly masculine, boyish, "You see?  You're paralyzed, my dear.  You can't do anything when you're here."

            It seemed as if Kaoru was left alone for a moment.  The entity had left.  But soon she felt breath against her right ear again.  "You're probably wondering why you are here, instead of off in some abstract dream that we humans always have.  You are Battousai's woman."  It was not a question, but a statement of fact that the voice spoke of.  "But you know, he will not always be yours to hold and love."

            Appearing in front of her was Kenshin, suspended, shirtless.  His hands were tied to something with thin wires.  They cut into his wrist, letting out crimson drops of blood.  His body was also crisscrossed with wires, all cutting into his naked flesh, leaving long red marks.  The ex-hitokiri's head was sagging to the side; his hair unbound, wild, spilling across his chest and his back.

            A figure in a white kimono materialized in front of Kenshin's body.  The figure bent its head to lap at a cut. 

"Delicious," the voice was beside Kaoru's ear again.  "I believe you understand how Battousai tastes.  You know how he smells, how he moves above you when he's showing you his love…"

            Kaoru watched the scene in front of her, watching the figure clad in white meticulously trace the lines of the ex-hitokiri's lean body with slender fingers. 

"Do you know what Battousai is able to give me?"

            The girl did not understand.

"I'm sure you recognize a human's lust for power, for control," the voice stated.  "That is what he can give me, that is what he will give me.  Once everything is established, once I grow stronger, Battousai will bring out something far beyond our realm of normalcy and comprehension.  You will no longer be able to tame Battousai."

"Why are you telling me this?" her thoughts suddenly were amplified ten-fold into the void of blackness. 

"I want to tell you the future.  You and I are both alike in a way.  You seek to tame Battousai.  You do not realize it.  But you do. You seek to tame him, to help him find inner peace.  I seek to tame Battousai, but in a different sort of way.  I seek to release him from his frustrations, allow him to be his true ruthless self.  I want to tell you that when I have your body strewn out on the floor, blood splashed everywhere…that Battousai will be mine.  At that instant he will be mine to take…"

            As the words come from out from the voice, the picture in front of Kaoru changed to exactly what the entity was describing.  She saw her body on the floor.  Only her face remained intact, strangely untouched.  Everything else was mutilated to a point of no recognition.  Blood painted the walls, blood painted the floors…nothing was left unstained.  Kaoru's heart clenched at the ghastly sight, her heart pounded.  What was this thing that was telling her everything?

            Suddenly the white clad figure appeared in front of her.  It lifted its head, only for Kaoru to see it was a young boy, beautiful, but a boy.  The voice that had been by her ear was now coming from the boy.  "When I am ready, I will take you.  When you are gone, Battousai will be mine.  Good night, dear heart, sweet dreams…" he murmured mockingly.

            And she woke up…with the words still ringing in her mind.  She surveyed the setting around her.  It was still her bedroom, their bedroom.  She curled up further underneath the covers.  What was it that she dreamed of?

******************************************************

A rather disturbing dream had haunted Hiko Seijiro tonight.  The 13th master of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, as well as a distinguished potter, could not go back to sleep after he had woken from the nightmare.  The well-muscles man brooded on his futon for a few moments, before leaving his bed and making his way downstairs. 

"Hiko-sama," a voice murmured.

"Megumi-san," Hiko greeted as he paused midway in the hall.  "Why are you up so late?"

"Preparing medication," the lady answered simply.  "I always fear for the worst."

             Hiko half-smiled.  "You should learn to be more confident in the boys."

"I know," she sighed.  The two heard the door creak open from the back.  "I think they are home."

"Hey Megumi," Kenshin greeted.  "Gyah…hello Shishou.  Why are you up?"  The ex-hitokiri was not used to seeing his master's big form waiting for them in the pre-dawn hours of the night.  Usually he expected them after breakfast the day after.

"Just checking up on you bakas," the man said gruffly.  "Anything tonight?"

"Underground is not at full strength.  There have been a few changes in their structure in the past year.  It appears as if the hierarchy has become more complex.  What they are doing, we do not know right now.  I will send out some Oniwanbanshu tomorrow to continue scouting for anything else," Aoshi reported.

            Hiko nodded.  "Hmmph.  Not bad."  He eyed each young man critically.  "Doesn't appear as if you have been injured too much.  Get Megumi-san to bandage you up and go to bed.  I'm heading off myself.  No meeting after breakfast tomorrow.  Get some sleep and rest up."

"Hai."

******************************************************    

Kenshin slid open the door, and entered his room.  He saw Kaoru sitting up on their futon, the blankets pooled around her waist. 

"Why aren't you a sleep?"

"No reason," she answered, not looking at him.  He walked around until he was in front of her.  He noticed a katana by her side.  She was fingering the top part, the blunt part, of the blade.  Her eyes were gazing off somewhere in the distance.

"Are you all right?" he murmured, sliding off his clothes. 

"Yes," her eyes focused back on him.  "Are you all right?  Did anything happen tonight that was bizarre?"

"More strange than usual, yes."  He slipped underneath the cover, puling her down with him.  He spooned her body up against his.  "Why do you ask?"

"No reason."

            The ex-hitokiri knew there had to be a reason for Kaoru's sudden curiosity.  But it was late and he was tired.  He would try again in the morning.