Blood Call
Chapter Fourteen - Blood Ties

by Talya Firedancer

The daylight was deepening, throwing a riot of shadows in latticework and ridgepoles across the tops of the houses and buildings. One more shadow made a scant difference in the rising dusk, a tiny figure darting through the air almost, it seemed, milk-white masses of ponytails whipping behind her as she leapfrogged in swift jumps from roof to roof. Iryoku narrowed her eyes to gleaming slits, tracking the progress of the smaller youkai, assessing her battle readiness and coming up unsatisfied. There was something about her - uncowed, her cupid's bow of a mouth pursed in determination - that sat uneasily on the other youkai's mind.

Ariodh was different.

Her own fierce determination made a mask of her features as she leapt lightly from the crown of the water tower, where she had crouched with cloak drawn about her, concealing her youki. It was only more reason to destroy the traitoress swiftly, yet in a fashion that would reduce the youkai to a pitiful heap of begging blue eyes and a twisted pile of smoldering steel - Masamune would share in her destruction.

Iryoku's long strides faltered. ...Masamune...? Why did that thought give her pause? Something flickered in the back of her mind, a sensation of control lost and utter fury at being thwarted.

Then her eye caught Ariodh again, moving fast from one building to the next, and she regained focus.

Punishment. The little traitoress had to pay. And now, it was time to send her challenge ringing.


The barbed syllables were infused with as much taunting contempt as challenge, an edge of heavy scorn for such a weakling. Again the thought flitted over her conscious mind, a stone scudding over dark waters - the white-haired youkai was unfit, she was nothing like Self and thus had only two uses - tapping her youki, or her destruction.

The little youkai swung around, her face a mix of conflicting emotions. Shock warred with traces of fear, the blonde was pleased to note. It was good. She was still running scared.

"I-Iryoku?" Ariodh faltered, then fell back into a defensive stance, chin lifted, sword upraised and at the ready. "I should have known you'd come. You're only the prelude to his storm, aren't you?"

"In a fashion," Iryoku returned, her green eyes glinting through with cold blue.

Her conscious mind urged retreat. Ariodh was of a higher class, and her own magics could be crushed or even negated under the onslaught of the burning white soulsword. In addition the smaller youkai's magic was offensive, while her own probability-related youki couldn't be classified as offensive or defensive. To her own surprise she dropped into a braced defensive stance, preparing for Ariodh's charge. Her body was responding to commands she hadn't given. "Come!" she taunted, curving one hand in a mocking gesture to spur her on.

In a flurry of seething white hair and energy the little spitfire launched herself.

Iryoku rolled under the two-handed swipe at the last minute, slight pain flaring in her arm to tell tale that she hadn't missed the blow completely. Blood spurted from the wound and she clapped a hand to it, fingers trickling red. She turned and glared.

Ariodh's jewel-blue eyes were narrowed. "You're no match for me," she said, her voice flat.

Where had the little wretch acquired the confidence to state things this way? Iryoku reeled, mind swimming with anger and hatred. Before, the white-haired creature had been too frightened, fleeing from shadows even, to stand up to Iryoku or any of the other warriors. But now...

"You don't have offensive magic," Ariodh observed, sword raised and burning in her hands, "and if you insist on pressing the matter you're going to get killed."

The blonde ground her teeth together. Once more she was resolved to retreat - however much it galled her, she was outClassed - and for a second time her body assumed a fighting stance.

The castaway bobbed her head once, mouth firming. "Sou ka." Then she closed her eyes briefly and lifted the sword.

Before Iryoku's stunned gaze, the little youkai grew, limbs lengthening and her body shifting in a slow, crystalline ripple of youki that flowed from head to toe. When she opened haunting lapis-blue eyes, the girl was taller than she - tall as Hakamura.

Iryoku was not prepared for the torrent of utter rage, the sheer molten fury that consumed her. With a cry of inarticulate anger, this time she was the one who charged, flinging herself at the upstart bastard of a youkai with the heart-shaped face and endless masses of flowing hair and the sea of age-old despair in her oceanic eyes. "MASAMUNE!" she roared, nearly blinded with rage, something snapping inside, shattering and releasing within.

The white flare of the sword's fire swallowed up her vision.

Up until now the cloudy bog of her mind had been riddled with memory's pitfalls. Even she herself could not understand why she was doing what she did, not to the point of charging the soulsword-wielding youkai bare-handed.

Now as Hakamura's fetch surged to the fore, seizing unequivocal control, Iryoku had a bare fraction of time for comprehension before she melted away. The offer of power - vengeance - had not been for her. It had been his revenge. The roaring furnace of his mind eclipsed her flickering candle's flame.

"YOU!" he thundered, eyes kindling with a frigid blue witch-light. "You. How DARE you? A thousand years in the belowstairs dungeons aren't good enough for you, misbegotten child!"

The more matured features of this taller, poised Ariodh broke into an expression of childish dismay. "N-nani?" she quavered, that same trace of fear glittering through.

He lifted hands, these smaller fine-boned hands that had belonged to his servant, and they caught fire with a blue flare that leapt up. Its heat could burn to the bone but not this borrowed body - he would throw it, and trap her in its eternal flame.

The fear in her eyes was joined with utter shock. "Masaka!" she gasped, staggering back.

He favored her with a grim lift of the eyebrow, lips pursed in a frown. "Thought you could get away from me?" Blue fire licked up hungrily from one fist, and he pointed it at her. "I'd return from the grave to punish you, with pleasure." An icy grin split borrowed lips. She was frightened. It was a thick rolling wave of fear he could almost savor, lifting a hand to reach out and punish her for presumption.

Then her mouth, that stubborn mouth firmed and the burning sword lifted. "You can't! You can't, you can't I won't let you!" Ariodh cried out, hysterical with the words slurring together. "You can't come back! I won't let you kill anyone else! This stops!"

"I agree completely," Hakamura pronounced in such silken tones that the fear spasmed over her face again. He nearly purred with satisfaction. She might mouth defiant phrases but her heart was still his, encased in the fear that he had ruled her with. "This stops here. But you and your foolish supporters will die."

Gouts of eldritch fire sprang from his fingertips on command to strike unerring for the tall figure of the soulsword youkai. She leapt, surprising him with her agility, and the sudden flash of hatred in her eyes. He'd thought her to be paralyzed in fear, easy prey as always. For a brief second Hakamura was uneasy - his power over this one was grounded in fear - then he dismissed it with a flick of his fingertips, sending crackling azure fire lashing out.

Gripping the burning white metal, Ariodh flung it back in his teeth.

Hakamura leapt back with a curse.

"You won't hurt them!" Ariodh screamed at him, face contorted with fury as she charged with a two-handed, overhand strike.

The fleeting thought crossed him that she would kill him, this second time, this frail youkai body he saw reflected in her eyes. Until he recognized the opening and raised both hands. It looked for a moment as if he were trying to ward off the blow bare-handed, until a daze-brilliant blast flared up from his palms, catching the youkai in mid-leap directly in the chest and face. The sword, lifted as it was above her head, was unable to block or protect.

Hakamura smiled in grim triumph as she hit the rooftop, breathing hard and on her knees.

Ariodh had time to look up, her pupils dilated wide and glazed with shock, the soulsword clattering from numbed hands. Then he broke his long-held habit of not soiling his own hands; he drew back and slugged her in the soft white skin of her throat.

Breath-deprived, she gasped and gagged and he clipped her on the temple. Then he hit her twice more for good measure - these borrowed hands were feminine and delicate. Ariodh slumped to the rooftop, sword wavering then vanished, tendrils of white youki curling around her body then dissipating like smoke. Experimentally he prodded her in the ribs.

He would kill her, of course - he had to. She was showing too much free will and if she discovered her true power, the secret of the exponential youki of Masamune's vanished clan, it would spell death. He couldn't allow it. He knew he had been draining her power for too long not to earn a death warrant if she ever broke free and the only thing that prevented her from lashing out like a wounded animal was fear. So he applied it.

Now she was that wounded animal. He'd put her down.

But first - he closed fingers around a handful of bone-white hair - first, he'd see to the other half of his revenge.

All that they held most dear.

* * *

Kurama hurried up the street, threads of concern reaching up to entangle him as the late noon ripened into dusk. He had been on the streets for hours with no clear-cut idea of where the small hungry youkai had gone; only the vague sense that he should follow any traces of Ariodh's youki.

Perhaps Hiei had a better idea of her whereabouts, but the dark fire demon had flitted off with barely a word but for his intentions of finding Ariodh. Had she really gone on her own to face Hakamura? After the fear and the mask of hard defensiveness she had shown before, he could hardly believe she would do it.

Exasperated, Kurama cast out for Hiei's youki, too. The Jaganshi would be able to cover territory in the city much faster, and on several levels at once - that is, if he hadn't just used his Jagan to find her already.

He hurried around the corner and bumped into someone.

"Ite!" the someone complained, rubbing at his neck. "Hey, watch where you're - oi, Kurama!" Yuusuke finished, his voice ending on a more cheerful note. "What's going on? Why're you in such a hurry?"

"Ariodh's gone," Kurama replied, voice terse.

"No kidding? Ch'! She's our only chance of finding Hakamura before he tries anything else," Yuusuke observed, his animated expression reflecting casual dismay but no real depth of concern.

"That's right," Kurama returned, "so we'd better find her."

"Do you know where Hiei is?" Yuusuke asked.

"Why would *I* know where Hiei is?" Kurama returned, realizing his voice was a little too sharp only after the words had spilled out of his mouth.

"Well, you always seem to know," Yuusuke shrugged, affable.

Kurama smiled faintly. It was true, even before Hiei had come back recently he had made a habit of knowing the fire demon's whereabouts.

"Can't the little shrimp just open his third eye and take a look around?" Yuusuke continued, tilting his head, eyes wide. "I mean, why go to all the bother of chasing around every corner of the city?"

Kurama regarded him through slightly narrowed eyes. He himself had only thought of that in the last ten minutes, yet Yuusuke stumbled on it right away. Sometimes they all underestimated Yuusuke. "Well, I'm not sure where Hiei went," he returned, not being completely honest. He was sure that Hiei had gone after Ariodh. Exactly *where* that was, however, was unknown. He hadn't sensed his lover's ki since Hiei had vanished from the windowsill. "If only Botan were here!" Yuusuke exclaimed, holding up one finger. "With one of those nifty Tantei devices that lets you detect youkai, and other stuff like that!"

Kurama nodded. "Well, I don't have one of those..."

"She likes food, doesn't she?" Yuusuke put forth, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I just came from Keiko's restaurant. Why don't we bait her with ramen or something like that?"

"Good idea!" Kurama conceded gracefully. He should have thought of it himself. Ariodh would be tempted by the odor of steaming-hot ramen, no doubt. "That is, if she hasn't already burst into someone's house and consumed all the edible food." Yuusuke grimaced. "Well, we might hear about it if that happens!"


The sprightly feminine voice called from down the street, and both young men looked up. The blue ponytail of Reikai's ferrygirl helped them pick her out of the crowd instantly as she dashed up wearing civilian clothes - jeans and a red shirt - waving one hand in the air, the other clutching something.

"Konbon wa, Botan," Kurama smiled.

"Botan-chan! Konbon wa!" Yuusuke greeted her, then he looked wary. "Tell me it's good news."

"Good news!" Botan puffed, skidding to a halt. She beamed at them. "Definitely a piece of good news. I think." Her face grew more solemn.

"Well?" Yuusuke prompted.

"We figured out how Hakamura managed to stay alive!" Botan blurted, waving the fist around. "It's very strange, but somehow he managed to cross over into Iryoku's body!"

"That probability bi-uh, I mean witch?" Yuusuke exclaimed, scowling. "How'd he do that?"

"It had something to do with the demon orb," Botan continued. "But anyhow, once we figured that out, we realized she'd probably crossed into Ningenkai because Iryoku isn't an S-class, and she'd be able!"

"So that's how," Kurama said, intent.

"Anyhow, he sent me with a youkai detector so you guys could find Iryoku!" Botan finished with a bob of her head.

"That's good news," Yuusuke decided with a grin. "'Cause then this whole mess will be over, and I won't have to look over my shoulder anymore!"

Botan beamed at him and held up the compass. "You should be able to find her quickly."

"This is definitely good news," Kurama murmured. If Ariodh had gone where Hakamura had, then she wouldn't be able to beat them to the punch by sneaking out early. They were lucky things hadn't gotten worse - that everyone was still okay, even if Kuwabara was wounded. They were long accustomed to close calls but after a year everyone's edge had dulled, including his, with the possible exception of Hiei.

Of course, he mused wryly, Hiei would no doubt say his edge had been dulled by the mere virtue of falling for Kurama.

Botan held up the small compass-like device in her hand, peering at it with an intent puckered frown. Her eyes rounded. "No way!"

"What? What is it?" Yuusuke crowded her elbow.

"I'm detecting an S-Class youkai!" Botan exclaimed. "Hakamura must have manifested already..."

Kurama had a sinking feeling. "Botan, can you detect any youkai that might be in that S-Class's vicinity?"

Botan turned a puzzled glance on him. "Sure, Kurama. Why?"

"Because Ariodh went missing a few hours back!" Kurama told her. "I think she might have decided to go after Hakamura, herself."

"Ano baka!" Yuusuke scowled. "Isn't dying once enough for her?"

Kurama and Botan gave him level, bland stares.

Yuusuke flushed. ", I mean..."

Botan cleared her throat and turned her attention back to the compass. "I can also detect another youki, but it's very faint..." She turned a worried expression on them. "Kurama, do you think it could be Ariodh?"

"Just point us in the right direction, and we'll find out," Kurama replied with determination.

"Yosh'!" Yuusuke smacked his fist into his palm. "Iku zo!"

* * *

Keiko dragged the third and fourth trash bags out to the alley dumpster and brushed at her forehead with the back of her wrist. The day was getting hot and the trash seemed to keep piling up by the back door with no one to take it out. "That baka..." Keiko scolded her absent fiance. "Always running out when there are chores to do! Moo~ou!" She folded her arms and considered the fact that she hadn't had a break all morning.

Then her expression softened as she reflected back on his peculiar behavior earlier that day. He was a good man - most times - and she could count on him. Especially when he *wasn't* working on a case.

Keiko was tempted to blame the Reikai for taking up a prominent role in her love's life again, but she knew better. Once again there was a fire in Yuusuke's eye, and that special jaunty spring to his step that meant he felt happy and challenged all at once. He had a place in the Reikai Tantei that pushed him to the edge of his abilities.

Sometimes past them, and she worried at that. But hopefully Koenma wouldn't *always* throw the near-insurmountable problems at Yuusuke, now that he was to be married.

Married. A dreamy smile crossed Keiko's face. Every girl dreamed of her wedding day; planned it in advance and wrought out every meticulous detail for years before its actual inception. But Keiko knew she would be happy even if she and Yuusuke were married in a simple civil court, with all their friends attending the reception.

Yes, even Koenma.

The thought made her giggle, the little demi-god trooping in sucking on his pacifier and wearing his dignity like a cloak.

Then Keiko sighed and squared her shoulders. It wasn't time yet for her break and she shouldn't dawdle performing a few chores.

Focused completely on the door, Keiko failed to notice the lengthening shadow that dropped from above. She barely had time for a terrified squeak before the darkness claimed her, velvety sable shot through with thick cobalt sparks.

* * *

Kuwabara was at the height of bliss.

Ever since first seeing her delicate face on the TV screen of Koenma's briefing tape, ever since he had sensed the red thread of fate that connected their destinies, Kuwabara Kazuma had known that his life's ultimate goal would be to surrender his life before this dainty Ice Fairy's feet. To marry her, of course, was the sweetest-ever method of that surrender.

Her heart-shaped face crinkled up when she smiled sweetly at him. Kuwabara could only admire her in a dazed sort of stupefaction. He was tongue-tied as usual, and instead of attempting mangled endearments he chose to remain silent.

"Thank you for helping me with the gardening tools, Kazuma-san," Yukina thanked him, touching his arm lightly.

Kuwabara could feel his face turning brick red. "Iiiiiee! Yukina-san! It was nothing at all! Really, nothing!"

"Would you like some tea?" she smiled, drifting towards the temple. He followed, perfectly content to do so for the rest of his life.

"Let me help you!"

"Oh no, that's fine," Yukina demurred. "I'll make the tea, and you should rest, Kazuma-san. You've been up and about all day, and you'll strain yourself."

"The ardor I feel in your presence sends fire coursing through my veins," Kuwabara avowed, moving to take one of her small hands.

Yukina giggled. "Oh, Kazuma-san," she huffed.

Kuwabara's cheeks flushed red. He could hear the affection in her tone now - she loved him, she loved him! his mind caroled - and she hadn't removed her hand from his.

They rounded the corner of the main building and were heading for the entrance when Kuwabara grated to a halt, pulling Yukina to a stop beside him. His senses were jangling an alert and that made him instantly wary - no lesser powers could get past Genkai's warded grounds.

"Kazuma-san?" Yukina said in confusion.

"Yukina-san, get behind me," Kuwabara told her, his face pulling downward into grim lines.

A shadow appeared on the ground; it lengthened and grew and

Kuwabara clenched his good hand, reiki spurting up into his sword of pure energy. With his other arm he pushed Yukina behind him despite her protests.

A body thudded to the ground.

Yukina screamed and Kuwabara leapt back, stunned. Then he recognized the masses of white hair, although it took him a moment to process the lengthened limbs and more mature-looking creature as the Ariodh he had seen that morning.

"A-Ariodh-san!" Yukina choked, moving to dart over to the youkai who lay still on the ground, her face stained with thin rivulets of blood. She did not appear to be breathing.

Kuwabara held her back. "No, Yukina-san!" he said tensely. "With my reikan I sense a terrible, powerful presence - it must be Hakamura! Stay next to me and I'll do my best to protect you." Although, he continued in his own thoughts, with his wound hardly healed he would not be much good to her.

His mouth firmed. He could NOT fail Yukina-san! Absolutely not!

"No, Kazuma-san, you can't!" the ice maiden clutched at his arm, face distressed. She cast her imploring crimson eyes up at him. "You're barely healed; we should wait for Yuusuke and the others-"

Kuwabara began to shake his head when he was cut off by vicious laughter.

"Your fate was sealed when you opposed me," a husky alto rasped out, sounding warped by cruelty and ill-use. "And now, like HER, you shall die!"

Kuwabara was still trying to push Yukina towards the temple when the shadow-wreathed figure who had spoken emerged from the woods that flanked the temple steps. He gasped in shock, echoed by the slender Koorime beside him.

"You - !" he stabbed a finger towards the blonde figure of the probability youkai. "But I thought-"

"Keiko-san!" Yukina screamed.

Kuwabara's eyes focused on the limp figure of the brown-haired girl, slung like a sack of meal under the blonde youkai's arm. Iryoku leveled hard blue eyes on him that glittered with hatred. He blinked and scratched his head. Hadn't her eyes been green?

"What have you done with Keiko-chan!?" Kuwabara blustered. "If you've harmed her-"

"If I've harmed her, what?" the youkai taunted him, tossing Keiko's unconscious form to the ground beside Ariodh. "You can do nothing, human! Ryuji already half-killed you...and now, I've come to finish off the job."

"Yukina-san, please hurry and get inside the temple," Kuwabara told her hoarsely.

"Not without you!" The set of her mouth was stubborn.

"What, going to deprive your beloved the honor of dying first?" Iryoku jeered.

His vision became red-tinged as anger flamed up to seize his body. "Don't you touch Yukina-san!" he shouted, voice thickening with rage. "You'll have to go through ME, first!"

"With pleasure," the creature sniffed, prodding the fallen Ariodh in the ribs, half-turning with a flirt of short blonde locks...

...and in the next instant she was leaping for him, crossing the nice comfortable space between them with her wide blue eyes snapping sparks. Kuwabara wrenched up the reiken to meet her lunge then cringed - she'd blow it up in his face again; he just knew it.

His jaw dropped as the youkai seized his reiken in both hands that dripped with bluish fire.

"Die," the creature grated in his face, shoving his own reiken towards his face.

"Y-you can't do that!" Kuwabara yelled at her. "Your powers-"

"Oh, I'm afraid there's been a change of tenancy," the blonde youkai purred at him, her face twisting into an expression of cruel anticipation as she bent the reiken ever-closer. Cobalt flames dripped from her fingertips, and where they fell against him it writhed and burned.

He was still trying to understand that remark and wrench away from the pain of the blue fires with Yukina's voice drowning out all other sound as she screamed his name. Eyes narrow, he made the reiken vanish abruptly and the youkai tumbled towards him, then went for his throat with claws of fire.

Kuwabara ducked and summoned up two reiken, one for each fist. He whirled to face her again.

A taunting smile curved the youkai's lips. "You're a fool. But I'll cripple you first, so that you can watch your little maiden die before your eyes before I kill you."

"You won't lay a finger on Yukina-san so long as my body contains breath and spirit!" Kuwabara swore, and charged her.

Iryoku sniffed, avoided his lunge with cat-like speed, and her hands blazed with the strange eldritch fire - the flames that she should not be able to summon.

"KAZUMA-SAN!!" Yukina shrieked, her eyes wide and horrified. Kuwabara collapsed to his knees. His shirt was badly singed and his head still rang with the blow. The next strike would knock him out - he wasn't even half-healed, and his reiki was so weak...

Then he glanced over at Yukina-san, and drew his determination from her white face and trembling lips.

With a grunt, he used his reiken to pry himself off the ground to his feet. "You haven't killed me yet."

The youkai's eyes were dark, lifeless blue stones. Her hands were wreathed in living flame. "Wait."

She struck again.

* * *

Hiei paused, crouching on the highest vantage point this district of the city had to offer. His sable cloak licked around his ankles, tugged in fitful gusts by the wind. It was getting later, and there were still no tangible traces of Ariodh's passage. Some distinctive youki left a definite signature from time to time, a mental 'tang' of sorts and he had searched nearly the entire city. At one spot he almost thought he had felt her ki.

The search was rendered difficult by the fact that if Ariodh was probably aware of that, and since she was long-used to hiding she had probably taken steps to shelter her youki from leaving its mark.

But why would she be so determined to hide from him? If she were on a hunt for Hakamura, however, it all made sense. A grim sort of sense that Hiei did not like one bit. She would have to shield herself to approach and surprise him.

They had caught Hakamura off-guard once before, and it had been that combined with luck and his and Ariodh's dual strike that had finished the bastard off. Hiei was too used to shrewdly assessing his opponents to think that Hakamura would be so easily defeated a second time, especially having come back from the grave.

That in itself was still something of a puzzle.

Hiei jerked off the warded strip and sent out his third eye once more, searching... He had done so several times already, coming up with nothing. But then, there was still the nagging certainty that if Ariodh were using her powers to avoid scrutiny, she would be difficult to discern. Some spells could even divert a Jagan's searching stare. Masamune had probably known a few of those spells.

He was on the verge of giving up in disgust and returning to Kurama's apartment, or simply seeking the fox out. He wasn't fond of fruitless errands and this appeared to be a fool's one.


The blast caught him off-guard; brutal in its intensity he was staggered. His third eye was still open and he shut it and tied the ward with shaking hands, grateful there was no one around to see the momentary weakness.


Hiei's crimson eyes flew open, hard determination burning in their depths. It was rare approaching never that he had had the opportunity to feel the mind-touch of his sister, and each time was like a fresh blow on the open wound of bald facts: he would never be able to tell her. Despite all Kurama's heavy hintings, he was bound by obligation.

She was in distress!

The slight dark shape was already in motion, hopping from building to building with such swift facility he was nothing more than a flicker, an instant's inky blot before he was vanished and crouching on the next perch. If Yukina was in distress, it likely meant that Genkai's temple was under attack. Hiei gritted his teeth. That could only mean one thing.

Hakamura had shown at last.

Hiei paused briefly from the viewpoint of the highest tree lining Genkai's property to assess the situation. His sister was huddled near the temple steps, hand clutched to her mouth in dismay.

Kuwabara was sprawled bonelessly in the dirt, reiken still clutched in his fist and Hiei spared an instant to grudgingly admit to himself that he couldn't be all bad if he was willing to defend Yukina with his life, wounded as he was. Then his eyes traveled over the temple grounds and widened in shock - Ariodh, in her larger form, lay on her side half-covered in tangles of milk-white hair and blood. Not far from her was Keiko, Urameshi's girl, also unconscious.

An oath escaped his lips as he focused on the figure who was the key player in this unraveling bloodbath.


How could the one woman cause this kind of damage? With nothing more offensive than her probability magic... Hiei's eyes narrowed in suspicion as he studied her more closely. There was something off about her aura, as if two youkai had been jammed into one body.

In fact, not unlike Kurama's aura when the Youko side struggled to take control.

"Hakamura," he hissed, unsheathing his katana.

With a soft thud he descended to the turf and felt a flare of relief welling up from Yukina.

"Hiei-san!" the Koorime cried, sounding frightened and tremendously relieved all at once. "Oh, please help us!"

Hiei gave a curt nod as he faced off with the blonde witch-woman. Her figure and face might belong to the youkai known as Iryoku, he noted, but her gem-hard blue eyes were entirely Hakamura's.

"This ends," he informed her curtly, assuming a stance of readiness. Every muscle thrummed with the awaiting, prelude to the strike.

Laughter welled up from the feminine throat, harsh and queer. "You think that you can defeat me!?" came the short bark, Hakamura's tones assuming dominance over the former body's owner. "You? A mere slip of a man-child? I am an S-Class!" This pronounced in ringing tones.

Hiei gave the creature a flash of fang. "Doesn't matter."

"I haven't used a fraction of my power yet," the humorless laughing eyes promised. Dark blue fire licked up, dancing around the slim female body. Hiei shifted and gave up ground to avoid a whip of it as it lashed out and struck at him. "And I won't even need the greater part to finish you off."

Hiei's grip on his sword was steady. "Don't be too sure of that." Pride and towering overconfidence had been half the downfall of many of his opponents. He had been the other half, of course.

And besides...Hakamura knew nothing of Kokoryuha.

"Hiei-san, please be careful!" Yukina begged him. There were tears in her voice, and that gave him pause. His life was worth that much to her?

"Come!" Hakamura taunted, the fires shifting around his borrowed body like a living, restless thing.

Hiei made no verbal reply. He set himself and charged.

* * *

"Kurama! Yuusuke!" Botan cried out, stopping all at once.

"Nani?" Yuusuke demanded, hopping from one foot to another in his impatience for action. He jogged back to where she had stopped and peered over her shoulder.

"The youki-detector is registering signs of another youkai in the vicinity of the first - a fire demon!"

"Hiei," Kurama nodded shortly, green eyes intent and fixed on a faraway point.

"Let's hurry, then," Yuusuke urged, catching Botan's arm and dragging her with him, ignoring the squeak the ferrygirl released.

Kurama kept pace easily beside him. "Can't let the shrimp have all the fun!"

As they continued to run in the direction Botan pinpointed for them, a growing unease was breeding in Yuusuke's middle.

"Kurama," he puffed, casting a worried glance at his companion, "the direction-"

"It's Genkai's temple," Kurama agreed with a tense expression. "All the more reason to hurry, Yuusuke."

"Hai!" They upped their pace a notch, which resulted in Botan becoming red-faced in her efforts to keep up. Finally she pulled out her oar and flew beside them. They would have to hurry, Yuusuke mused, if for no other reason than to prevent another scolding if the place got trashed. Again.

They flew up the temple steps as Yuusuke felt that sick sensation increasing. He remembered all-too-well what Yakumo had done, on the steps of this very temple, with Keiko right before his eyes flung like a rag doll. No more people would be hurt! He vowed it silently, his black eyes snapping with anger. What good was he if he couldn't protect his friends, and those he loved?

The two boys burst onto the top of the stairs, coming to a brief halt. Botan hauled up short on her oar, between them. The blue-haired ferrygirl voiced a choked, cut-off scream before she clapped both hands to her mouth.

"KEIKO!" Yuusuke shouted, anguished beyond all reason. No - how - she had been in the ramen shop when he left her! Why was she here, sprawled on the ground with her slack face and limp hands reaching out for nothing? He ground his teeth together and searched for the bastard who had done this. "Keiko..."

Beside him, Kurama's throat released an involuntary, disbelieving noise. Yuusuke spared a brief glance for him, then did a double-take. The red-haired boy's face had drained completely white. "...Hiei..." he whispered, sounding stunned.

The sight of the black-cloaked youkai was enough to make even Yuusuke stare in horror. A vague part of his mind noted that Yukina was screaming, and couldn't seem to stop. Hiei was on his knees in the dust of the temple yard, his eyes wide and unseeing as the length of his own sword protruded, gleaming-dark with blood, from his chest. And looming behind him with the hilt clutched in both hands was the laughing blonde Iryoku.

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