The air shimmered in front of them. That was the best way Hiei could describe it. He had seen the air flicker like that in a summer heat in the city, but never in a cool forest in the early spring. It had never carried the smell of demons before either. He was not a sentimental man, but he was suddenly feeling very homesick for the realm of demons.
Ali squeezed his hand as she walked toward the shimmer. As soon as they reached the fuzzy spot in the air, he knew exactly what it was. He let her lead him through the barrier, wondering all the while if Koenma knew she had such a fearsome talent. It was no wonder they’d had such a hard time tracking her down.
The bend in the barrier between the worlds felt like a curtain. One minute they were on the Ningenkai side of the curtain, the next they were in the Makai. Ali gasped when they were through.
She collapsed to the ground, trembling on her hands and knees, her body convulsing as her demon energy pulsed. “Ali!” She threw her hand back at him to keep him away. For a split second he could have believed she had claws. The longer he stared at her, the less sure he became of what he saw.
She dug her nails into the dirt. They really had become claws. Then her hands were human again. Her gritted teeth grew into fangs for a moment before reverting back. Her hair flickered from brown to silver and back. At one point, she might have had a wolf’s tail and ears, but they disappeared so quickly Hiei wasn’t sure they had been there at all.
“I. Am. Me!” she snarled. The pulsing energy abated and her body ceased its tremors. She remained hunched over on the ground, panting to catch her breath. The wolf was still caged.
Hiei stood rooted to the ground, watching her warily. “If you can’t control your own body here, maybe it wasn’t the wisest plan to come.”
“I’m ok,” she said, sitting up to face him. “It was just a bit shocking.” She gestured widely to indicate their surroundings. “The sky. It’s the same as those memories. I’m sure that’s what they were, now.” Her eyes sharpened as she stared at it. “So this is Makai. I remember-I think I remember this feeling.”
Confident she wasn’t about to collapse again, Hiei inhaled deeply of the air himself now, relishing the feel of the demonic power that surged through him. It had been far too long since he had felt such raw energy. The dragon in his arm tingled with pleasure at being home. “It is something, isn’t it?” he said.
“It is,” she said softly. She was staring at him with a curious look again. She shook her head as she got to her feet. “Well, no time to stand around gawking. We have a mission to accomplish.” She began walking purposefully toward the forest.
“You sure you know where you’re going?” He followed her regardless.
“Not literally,” she admitted. “I couldn’t tell you what this place is or where it is I’m headed, but I can feel Sayuri pulling me. It’s like an instinct. I know I’ll find her at the end of this path.”
Hiei vaguely remembered Sayuri saying something similar to him once. That she was drawn to her sister because fate demanded they reconcile the imbalance of both twins existing in the world when one should have devoured the other in the womb. “One day I will kill that person with my own hands,” she had said. He remembered that now.
He watched Ali’s back as they ventured through the forest. Did she remember the Prophecy too? Was she still resolved not to fight her sister? To fight fate? He wanted to ask her what she planned to do once they found Sayuri, but he wasn’t even sure what he planned to do. Ali had changed in her time in the human world. So had he. What if Sayuri’s own lost memories changed her as much?
That was just like them though, impulsively moving forward without thinking. Just as he was about to raise his concerns anew, Ali stopped. Hiei’s hand flew to his sword as his eyes searched the path ahead for signs of enemies. “They’re here,” she said under her breath.
“Foolish girl,” a reedy voice emanated from the canopy. “You never should have come here.”
“Never should have come!” a second shrill voice cackled. “Foolish!”
“She is ours!”
“Both of them, ours!”
The voices echoed all around them. Hiei couldn’t discern how many. Heat began to fill him as he waited for the attack. This had been a trap from the start and they had taken the bait. He glanced at Ali. She was relaxed, calm even.
No, she looked calm, but there was an edge to her. The taunting voices sluiced off of her. “Where is Sayuri?” she asked in a voice as cold as the snows of his mother’s homeland.
Something fell from the branches and landed on hands and knees in front of them. Hiei’s hand froze above the hilt of his sword as the woman straightened. A mirror reflection of Ali, with darker hair and eyes stared back at them with an amused grin. “I’m right here, sister.” Her voice was as sultry as he remembered.
Ali showed no reaction upon seeing her sister again. Something was wrong. “Sayuri!” she shouted to the trees.
Her twin took a step toward her, laughing. “Silly, do your eyes not see? I’m right here in front of you, Ali.” Sai reached a slender arm towards her.
Before Hiei could move, Ali sprang into action. A single flash of her blade and the arm ended in a spraying stump. Sayuri shrieked, her face twisting and eyes bulging. Another quick slash and the other woman fell to the forest floor in two pieces. Just like her fight with “him,” Hiei realized and suddenly understood.
Ali’s grip tightened on her sword. Her calm was near to breaking now. Her whole body trembled as though fighting to remain upright. It didn’t matter that the body had been an imposter, she had still killed her sister just now, the one she had sworn to bring home with her.
“It wasn’t her, Ali.” She knew that of course, but Hiei hoped hearing it from someone else would keep her focused.
She nodded as she exhaled slowly. “It’s never that easy,” she said, grinning darkly.
The dying shrieks of the departed demon were picked up by its brethren hiding in the trees. Hiei and Ali tensed as several figures dropped. Yusuke, Kuwabara, and Kurama faced them now. “This just might be too easy though,” Hiei chuckled darkly.
The three fakes spread out and encircled them, forcing Hiei and Ali back-to-back. Yusuke raised his hand, extending an index finger at them. “You don’t think they can use their techniques, do you?” Ali grumbled.
Hiei eyed the other two warily. Kuwabara was holding his fists out in front of him, his stance for powering up his spirit sword, and Kurama was reaching for something behind his neck. “I’d rather not give them the opportunity to enlighten us,” he said brusquely.
Gentle pressure from her back against his was all the signal he needed. They broke apart and lunged at the nearest target. For Hiei, that was Kuwabara. He thought he might enjoy this.
The imposter did an impressive imitation of the fool ginger’s look of fright. His blade hesitated only the barest of moments. He reminded himself that this was not the real Kuwabara. He would not face any repercussions for killing this one. In one swift motion, he beheaded the man. These shapeshifters really were not all that tough.
“Kazuma!” Yukina’s cry pierced his skull as she came running out of the woods. She held the decaying Manawydan in her arms and screamed at him. “Why did you kill him? What did he ever do to you? He was my savior! You murderer!”
Hiei froze with her tirade. No. They might be cut through as easily as paper, but they were tough enough. Their mind games were treacherously disconcerting. He knew it wasn’t really her, but she had said all the right words to cut him. And he would have to kill her if he was going to help Ali rescue Sayuri.
He turned his shock into anger. How dare they use her voice to attack him? He knew what he was. That was precisely why he kept the real Yukina ignorant of his true identity. She did not need a brother with hands as bloody as his. “Yes,” he said harshly. “Killing demons is what I do for a living. You are no exception, you imposter!” he shouted as he ran his blade through his sister’s heart.
Her eyes widened in pain. She clutched at his cloak as she coughed, dark blood staining her pale lips. “Br…brother, why?” she choked.
Hiei forced himself to look away from her as he removed his sword from her chest. He knew she wasn’t the real Yukina, just as he knew he would never be rid of the image in his mind of her dying on his sword. He looked to Ali. A second corpse lay at her feet near the first, and she looked as if she might be sick. They would have to find a way to finish this quickly, or they really would both lose their minds fighting the Manawydans.
He returned to her side. “Can you go on?” It might be time to call a tactical retreat. How many of their friends would they have to kill before this was over?
Ali wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I won’t stop fighting until I have Sayuri back,” she said. She glared at “Kurama” across the clearing. “They’ll run out of bodies to throw at us eventually,” she muttered.
“Is that all we are to you?” Kurama asked. His body shifted. He grew a foot taller and his hair turned a stunning silver. “Disposable pawns?” Fox ears and a tail appeared. He frowned disapprovingly. “I taught you better than that.”
“She was never good at games of strategy,” Sayuri’s voice joined his as another fake appeared behind them. Hiei swallowed a curse.
“I’ll take her this time,” he said. “You take care of him.” Ali nodded. A faint smile of relief tugged at her lips, but Youko would be no easier for her to kill than the others, and there was always the possibility they would face another Sayuri before this marathon battle was over.
Hiei turned his attention to this new Sayuri. How long had it been since he fought the real one? It made no difference. This was not her, and he could kill her just as quickly as the others.
She gazed at him with a slender finger to her cheek, crimson eyes flashing dangerously. “Are you going to kill me, Hiei?”
“If you continue to hide the real Sayuri from me, then yes.” He brought his sword up to his shoulder. He would finish it with one strike, just as he had with Yukina. His knuckles whitened from his grip.
She laughed, a light airy sound like wind chimes made from bones of defeated enemies. She had enjoyed making trophies, once. “I can be real enough for you, Hiei.” Her sultry grin turned sinister. “You were always mine, after all.”
“I belong to no one,” he snarled, launching himself at her. To his surprise, this one dodged. He skidded to a halt before he could thrust his blade into a tree but not before she kicked him in the back. He fell into a flip and spun to face her once again. “So, you can fight,” he said.
Sayuri took a defensive stance and grinned as she beckoned him to try again. “Of course I can fight,” she crooned. “How many times have we sparred?”
“We have never sparred,” he insisted. There was something suggestive about the way she said the word. “And this will be our only battle. You will not survive this.”
“We shall see, won’t we?” She leapt towards him with claws outstretched. He blocked her attack and slashed at her with his sword. She spun away from him. As they battled each other, attacking and falling apart, Hiei glanced past her to see if Ali was having better luck. She was locked in much the same dance with Youko, but she at least seemed to be gaining ground. “Ah ah, no wandering eyes now,” Sayuri snarled before slamming a fist in his chest and sending him halfway across the clearing.
Hiei felt a need to cough to get air back into his lungs, but he would not give Sayuri the satisfaction. He really needed to stop thinking of her as Sayuri, too. It was only getting in his way. And regardless of their previous relationship, she had started this fight. He saw all his battles through to the end. This would be no different.
The only problem was he didn’t know how to catch her off guard. She seemed to read his every move before he made it. Sayuri had been good, but even she was not psychic.
He was a fool. This was not Sayuri. This was a Manawydan. A powerfully psychic creature. He really was going soft if he could forget something so simple all because he faced a former partner. He removed the bandage sealing his Jagan eye.
Sayuri’s mellifluous laughter held a note of anxiety. “Do you really think that will help you here?”
Hiei smirked. “I do.” The Jagan might not be able to penetrate the Manawydan’s mental defenses, they were much too strong, but it would reinforce his own enough to level the playing field. And it gave him access to far greater power to wield against her.
He left the seal on his arm in place, but he channeled the fire through his body all the same. He could direct it into his blade as he had at the Dark Tournament. It still felt dirty using the same paltry trick as that dumbass Kuwabara used, but it would be unexpected enough to kill the imposter he fought.
“You cannot save her,” Sayuri growled. “The Prophecy will be fulfilled!”
“I don’t care about that right now,” Hiei said as his sword became engulfed in flames. “Right now, I just want to kill you and get the real Sayuri back!” He was at her side in a heartbeat. His Sword of the Darkness Flame cleaved her torso in two and incinerated the pieces. It was an effort to withdraw the flames back into his body, but he succeeded.
Ali knelt over the other body, her sword still in its chest where she had driven it in. She breathed raggedly, and Hiei became aware of his own labored breathing. He hoped they would not have to fight too many more of the creatures. He had little confidence they would come out the victors if this went on.
“How did you know? The first one?” he asked.
“She couldn’t know me by this name,” she breathed. He offered her a hand and she grasped it shakily. “There are only two left now. They took Sayuri and kept running while we fought these.”
He didn’t question how she knew. If she said she could sense them, he believed her. “Can you go on?” he asked her again.
She shook her head. “I have to. I’m afraid I’ll lose them if we retreat now. I’m not sure how, but I know if I don’t get her here, she’ll be out of my reach forever.”
Hiei nodded. He would go where she went, after all. He owed her that much, though she would never know it if he had his say. He was a cursed child, but that was nothing compared to being a child of Prophecy. “Then we shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
Ali almost smiled at that. Her face remained a mask of solemnness, but a small light shone behind eyes that glittered like silver. “Let’s go,” she said, those eyes pointedly avoiding the scaly corpses littering the clearing.
The trail led them out of the forest onto a rocky plain. It was perfectly flat for a battlefield. There would be no more hiding and ambushing here. He could make out three figures in the distance, two standing and one on the ground. Ali spotted them too. She quickened her pace.
Once again he found himself a fool, this time for believing an open plain meant no ambush. As they closed the distance and came close enough to see their enemies, they halted midstride. They faced their own doppelgangers.
A malicious grin passed between the other Ali and Hiei. The real Ali paled.
“It’s a shame you fought so hard just to come and die here,” the fake Ali crooned.
Hiei’s stomach turned as a sneer tugged at the lips of his double’s face. He had never made such a cruel face, had he? “One way or another, you will kill each other.”
A snarl emanated from Ali’s throat. “Not if we kill you first!” She lunged at her double. The other Hiei intercepted her and she grunted in shock.
“Ali!” He couldn’t let her fight him again. He moved without thought. And came face to face with her other.
“I’m right here, Hiei.” Her smirk was nearly as suggestive as Sayuri’s had been. What did these Manawydans believe his relationship was to these women? The fake Ali’s eyes glittered mischievously. “You remember more than you let on. Pity you won’t get the chance to tell her.”
He fought her off with effort, to little avail. Every time he was able to break free of her, she locked swords with him again a heartbeat later. He tried to catch a glimpse of the real Ali while he tangled with her double, but the Manawydans were adept at blocking them from each other. Sayuri was still unconscious on the ground between them, though.
Not-Ali laughed. “Yes, now that would be interesting.” Hiei scowled at her while bolstering his mental defenses yet again. “You could take the twin and run. I might even let you just to see the other one break. Then again,” she slashed at him with the sword that was somehow identical to Ali’s, “she’ll break either way.”
Hiei frowned at her. “You don’t know her half as well as you think,” he said. “You failed to break her before, and that was your fatal mistake.” Ali was as irritating as Yusuke in that she always came back stronger and faster. He lashed out at this one in an all-out attack, pushing her back despite her blocking and parrying all of his blows. She was fast, but not as fast as Ali. “You should have killed her.”
“No.” The double’s voice was bone chillingly cold. “We cannot kill them.” Her mouth turned down in a pitying frown. “And you cannot protect them.”
Hiei narrowed his eyes at her. That didn’t make any sense. “You want them dead so badly, but you can’t kill them yourselves?”
“She is already too powerful for us,” she muttered. “We must break them before they can break the worlds.”
Hiei lobbed a ball of fire at her. “I’ll kill you before you get that chance.”
She flipped away from the blast, landing nimbly on her toes. “Could you though?” Her body flickered for a moment. “Kill the woman with this face?” Her hair and eyes were shimmering silver as she spoke.
He blinked and she was the Ali he knew. Dusty brown hair and blue eyes too wise for her apparent age. But the fake had done her job. He gaped as the words echoed in his mind, bouncing off memories that were slowly coming unsealed.
Ali—no, not Ali, she had been someone else before—had spoken those words to him the first time he’d run into her, a lifetime ago. He’d mistaken her for Sayuri until the cowl of her cloak had fallen and revealed the difference in their coloring. A short, heated argument had passed between them, and she had laughed when he threatened her. Her question rang fresh in his head now, and he knew the answer.
He couldn’t then, and he couldn’t now. He had already killed several of his allies today, imposters every single one, but he would remember their deaths by his hand. Even Sayuri, a woman he might have loved. But he could not kill Ali, imposter or no. It was not a matter of conviction or strength of heart either. He simply didn’t have the right.
This had been a fool’s errand from the start. He couldn’t believe they had fallen so deeply into such an obvious trap. If there was one thing he hated more than being underestimated, it was underestimating his own enemies. They had the perfect strategy to unbalance and hinder him and Ali and neither of them had common sense enough to wait. Well, if he was going to die, he could accept it if it was her.
As he resigned himself to her final blow, she cried out in shock, a red-gold light blossoming in her chest. Her body flickered rapidly as she collapsed to the ground. Hiei looked up to behind where she had been standing.
The real Ali stood stern-faced and solid as an oak, her spirit bow shining brilliantly in her hands. There were several new gashes in her clothes and cuts on her face, but she was still standing. His other was smoldering in a burnt heap off to one side of her. “Does that count as suicide?” she asked.
Hiei shook his head as he sheathed his sword. “It counts as another defeated enemy for you. Not that anyone is counting,” he added hastily as he realized her body count was higher than his this afternoon.
He didn’t think she took any notice of it. She was already striding toward Sayuri’s crumpled form on the ground several paces away. He hurried after her. She turned her sister onto her back and put her head to Sayuri’s chest. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she smiled at him. “She’s alive.”