Four - 03 - Third Degree
Author: Yuki
Content Rating: T-16
Published: 2011-06-16 21:30:30
Tags: Yu Yu Hakusho, YYH, yuu yuu hakusho, anime, third person, mystery, drama, Botan, Kurama

While Botan is off in Spirit World receiving new orders from King Yama, Kurama finally has an opportunity to confront Amaya alone. Secrets and new questions are revealed, as well as the events from one week prior, when Amaya was forced to do battle with the evil demon Horumon.

Author´s Notes and Disclaimers:

This story takes place after episode 98 of the anime. Yusuke and Hiei are in Demon World, war is looming on the horizon, Koenma is on the run from his father, and the Spirit Detective group is essentially no more.

This is my first Yu Yu Hakusho story. While I will stay true to the original source material, I favor the dub version of the anime, which will be reflected in the characters' dialogue and elsewhere. I hope you enjoy reading.

Chapter 3
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The meeting with Yama was going well, all things considered, or so Botan told herself while her report on the past couple days with Amaya came to a close. Floating on her oar high above the ground helped make facing the massive king far less stressful than last time. The fact that he did not seem displeased by what she told him helped her nerves even more. “And so Kurama and I are going to be continuing Amaya’s training this afternoon. That ends my report.”

Seconds ticked by slowly for Botan as she watched Yama stroke his beard. Waiting for the king’s verdict was always one of the most difficult parts of meeting with him. While she was happy that he had not gotten angry, his expression had been as still as stone the entire time, offering her no hint of what he was thinking. Yama did not so much as twitch when Botan slipped in a mention that Kurama observed that Amaya had no scent, and that the Spirit Detective’s Spirit Energy could only be sensed after it left her body. At least King Yama isn’t angry that Kurama figured out so much about Amaya already.

Yama exhaled deeply, creating a small breeze that brushed back Botan’s hair. “I see,” he said, a note of disapproval in his voice. “I had hoped that you would have better prepared the new Spirit Detective before her first case by now.”

Botan felt the stirrings of panic working its way up her spine. “You’re not sending Amaya out to hunt down demons already are you? I barely had time to tell her about the Spirit Gun!”

Light reflected off the lenses of Yama’s glasses, making it impossible to see his eyes. His voice was almost without emotion, but Botan could imagine an undercurrent of anger behind each word. “You’ve had two days so far. In those two days, how many humans do you think have gone missing in Mushiyori City?”

A horrible chill seized Botan. Her mouth opened, but no words came out.

“The intelligence division has filtered through this data and has found areas that are likely demon hunting grounds,” Yama said. “You are to take the Spirit Detective to those locations and neutralize these rogue demons before they claim more human lives.”

Botan swallowed a lump in her throat. “Y-yes King Yama, Sir. I’ll go and tell her right away.”

“You are dismissed.”

Botan hesitated despite her eagerness to leave. “Your Majesty, before I go, I’d like to ask for a little clarification on something if I may.”

The gaze Yama directed at Botan held traces of suspicion. “What is it?”

Botan straightened up as she gathered her courage. “Since our last talk I’ve been wondering… Just how much am I permitted to tell Kurama about Amaya?” She inwardly winced at her poor phrasing, as last time Yama had explicitly told her not to say anything. “I-I mean I think I should be able to tell him some things, right? I mean he is working with us with your permission after all.”

Yama’s thoughtful hum rumbled through the throne room. He said nothing for a full minute, gazing off into the distance. “The special circumstances surrounding Kurama’s current status does not change the fact that he is a demon, and has performed countless criminal acts in the past. The fact that Koenma pardoned him for his crimes against Spirit World and Human World does not change this.”

Botan bit her lower lip.

“But you have a point,” Yama said. “It would be more beneficial if Kurama were aware of certain things.” Botan felt a surge of hope, which the king squelched with a hard gaze when he focused on her again. “However, it would seem that Kurama has already figured out as much as he needs to know, if your report is as accurate as you say.”

Botan winced, her eyes turning to the floor. “Oh… So, in that case I should just let Kurama figure things out on his own, right?”

“That is more than enough to allow Kurama to do his job.”

An unpleasant silence lingered for half a minute before Botan raised her head again. “What about the others? Genkai and Kuwabara I mean. Genkai could be of great help in training Amaya to be even stronger, and you already gave permission for Kuwabara to help us should he be interested, right?”

Yama readjusted his glasses. “The level of knowledge Kurama currently possesses is more than sufficient for Genkai to train the Spirit Detective, or for Kuwabara to provide assistance. I see no benefit to exposing top secret information when it will do little to help you with the tasks on hand.”

In a strange way, Botan felt relieved. Overall Yama’s reaction had been nowhere near as harsh as she feared it might be, even if what he said was not as positive an answer she would have liked. “I understand, King Yama.”

“And should you be concerned about how much information to relay to my son,” Yama said, “you needn’t worry about it.” He leaned forward, his intense stare boring into Botan as she looked up at him sharply. “I will personally inform him of all that he needs to know upon his return.”

The words were colder than dry ice, chilling Botan to her core. The implied threat sent her imagination running wild with terrifying possibilities. Numbly, she nodded, unable to speak. She could only silently pray that she was worrying too much about Yama. Hopefully, the worst Koenma would receive upon his return was a long round of spankings.

Amaya stretched her arms over her head, mindful of the folding umbrella that dangled from a strap tied to her wrist, as she took a moment to bask in the warm sunlight. She stood on the campus of Meio Private Academy in casual dress, merely one of a few hundred students who had just finished taking a grueling exam. She focused on the hopeful feeling brought by the streaks of light piercing the gray clouds that had stubbornly hung overhead since dawn. The few scattered sunbeams were a far more cheerful sight than the troubled expressions that many of the teenagers around her wore.

Amaya closed her eyes and breathed deep, taking in the smell of damp grass and earth. At least it’s all over but the wait. Nothing to worry about but the results… The sun disappeared behind the clouds again. And my new ‘job.’

Amaya took her time to walk through the campus towards the gates along with the other hopeful junior high students, feeling no particular need to rush. It was late morning and her next round of training was not until that afternoon. The aftermath of yesterday’s training had left her troubled, despite the fact that she recovered completely by the time she woke up that morning. While she felt lingering concern over how exhausted she had been after firing her Spirit Gun, she found the faint soreness it left in her right hand for an hour afterward to be more troubling. I should try to avoid using that ring unless it’s an emergency.

As the crowd thinned around her, Amaya had a better view of the school campus. A plum tree tucked around the back of the administration building caught her eye, as she noticed it was already in full bloom despite being barely the beginning of the season. The beautiful white and pink blossoms tempted her into breaking free from the pack in order to explore the grounds, starting with the tree.

Now that the entrance exam was out of the way, Amaya had a chance to appreciate how exceptionally pleasant Meio was when compared to her current school. The landscaping was much more attractive at Meio, even without considering the lovely plum tree. The buildings were not dull with chipping bricks like Ugetsu, and from what she saw of the interior – both from during her test and photographs in their brochure – the place was even more impressive inside than it was outside. This private high school had an expanded curriculum aimed for teenagers with above average intelligence, sported state of the art equipment, its students were heavily sought after by a wide array of prestigious colleges, and best of all there was no one else from Ugetsu attending. While there was a chance she might not have noticed someone from her school who had attempted the test without teacher sponsorship, she wanted to hold onto the idea that she would never have to see the people at Ugetsu ever again. A fresh start… A place where no one knows anything about ‘Morbid Mamori.’ I hope I make it in.

Amaya let her gaze wander as she strolled her way lazily around campus. She saw students in uniform through some of the classroom windows, but few teachers. Not far away she noticed some teens practicing at the baseball diamond and tennis court. She surmised that due to the entrance exams there were no classes this morning, just club meetings. I wonder if Kurama is here too.

The knowledge that a demon attended Meio felt surreal to Amaya, particularly because she was still eager to attend the private academy despite that fact. A guilty part of her was relieved that she and Kurama would not be in the same grade. The misunderstanding from the previous day still made heat rush to her cheeks every time she thought about it, and she was not quite used to the idea that demons had the capacity for good outside of television shows and romance novels. I guess if I can believe a Grim Reaper chose me to save the world from demonic invasion with the help of my new super dimensional shield and magic gun powers, then I guess it shouldn’t be too hard to accept that supernatural beings that are supposed to be evil aren’t all bad. Maybe he was converted to the good guys’ side somehow? I should ask Botan about it later…

Amaya scanned the sports fields through chain link fences as she passed them by, but none of the students running around possessed shockingly red hair. Do demons even play sports? She turned her attention back to the main building, focusing on the students that flittered in and out of view through the windows. Should I be looking for him? He’s trying to blend in, so maybe it’d be weird for him if I suddenly pop in… But it’d rude not to say hi if he’s here, right? It’s not like I’m going around screaming that there’s a demon running around in the school…

A small shudder rippled through Amaya’s body as memories of her encounter with Horumon flashed through her mind. She rubbed her arms to alleviate the sudden chill that encompassed her when she recalled just how close to death she had come.

Can demons really be good? The question kicked Amaya’s imagination into overdrive, painting an image of Kurama performing the same violent acts as Horumon, only with Meio as the site of the carnage rather than Ugetsu. She could hear her own desperate screams echoing through the empty hallways as the demon pursued her, covered in human blood, taunting her with promises of what he would do once he caught her.

Amaya’s expression twisted in displeasure before she slapped her cheeks with both hands smartly. She flinched at the impact, and then cringed as her umbrella swung up to smack her jaw. She rubbed her chin as she instinctively looked around for any sign that someone might have seen what just happened, her cheeks pink from more than just the impact of her palms. She only felt marginally relieved by the fact that she did not spy anyone in the immediate vicinity.

The sight of pink and white blossoms hanging in a plum tree up ahead served as something pleasant for Amaya to focus on instead of conjured images involving blood, death, and evil demons. She slowed to a halt, growing chagrined when she realized that she had been so lost in her thoughts that she wound up back behind the administration building. She shook her head, half to clear her mind of chaotic thoughts, and half out of disgust for how she let her imagination get so grossly carried away. Kurama has been nothing but nice and polite since I met him, plus he’s a friend of Botan’s and he’s helping me so I won’t get killed if… when I have to fight again. Just because he’s a demon doesn’t mean he’s evil. Demons can’t help being born demons anymore than a human can help being born being able to see ghosts and demons, right?

Amaya sighed as she brushed back the thick bangs that fell over her face and looked towards the sky through the branches of the plum tree. I’m such a hypocrite. I feel like I should find Kurama just so I can apologize again.

The wind gently toyed with Amaya’s hair and plucked petals free from the plum blossoms, causing the petals to drift down around her like snow. She tried to clear her mind as she breathed in the scent of flowers and surveyed the peaceful schoolyard between scattered petals. She clenched her fist around the handle of her umbrella before holding it above her heart. No way. I’ve had enough being pathetic. I’m sick of constantly apologizing This is my brand new start. No more Morbid Mamori. No more driving myself crazy with worry that a ghost or a demon is going to pop up and hurt someone unless I do something that winds up getting me in trouble or humiliated. The world is depending on me to be better than this, and I have a good demon and a Grim Reaper on my side to help me learn how to be strong.

Amaya thrust her umbrella upwards, pointing the tip towards the high branches of the tree. I swear by this plum tree that if I get into Meio I will find a way to have a normal life and be a good… no, great Spirit Detective. If Kurama can be a demon while fighting demons and can still attend this place like any other teenager, then so can I. I swear, I’m going to be the most normal girl this school has ever seen and make lots of friends!

In that moment, the sky appeared brighter and the sun felt warmer on Amaya’s skin as she felt awash with self-confidence. For the span of a heartbeat, she felt sure that she could keep her resolution.

The pleasant feeling disappeared completely after the moment ended, when Amaya heard someone call her name in an inquisitive manner from directly behind her, and she realized that she was standing in a silly pose. She failed to stifle a yelp as she whipped around so quickly that her bound hair lightly slapped her cheek before it hung over her shoulder like a cloak. Her pinked cheeks turned red when she saw Kurama standing less than a meter away from her. From the look on his face, she deduced that she had startled him with her reaction, but not as much as he surprised her.

Kurama recovered far more quickly than the new Spirit Detective, a hesitant smile tugging at his lips. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“K-Kura–” Amaya almost bit her tongue when she remembered that she was not supposed to use his real name at Meio. “I-I mean Shuichi.” Her cheeks burned hotter as she realized that using Kurama’s first name could suggest a familiarity with him that he might not appreciate. “Er, no, wait, I mean Mr. Minamino… Ah, I mean Upperclassman Minamino…” She winced before her voice dipped lower, almost to a whisper. “Wait, I should only call you that if I make it in, shouldn’t I?”

A breathy chuckle from Kurama brought Amaya’s rambling to a stop. “Shuichi is fine.” He smiled a little more to help put the flustered girl at ease. “Would you mind if I called you by your first name as well?”

Amaya tried to will away the heat from her cheeks as she brushed her hair back over her shoulder. “N-no, I don’t mind.”

“I noticed you walking around campus,” Kurama said. He gestured towards the upper windows of the main building to indicate where he was when he spotted her. “Are you looking for something?”

“Yes,” Amaya said, then flinched at her automatic response. “Sort of. I mean… I was taking a look around, and, well, I was wondering if I should stop by and see you since I was here already.”

“I’m glad you did,” Kurama said.

Amaya blinked before her eyes widened a fraction. “You are?”

Kurama’s smile grew more charming. “Since we’re going to be working together, I believe that it would benefit us both if we got to know each other better.”

Amaya fidgeted with her choker. “Oh, right. Of course.” She glanced around, and though no one else seemed to be nearby, she felt slightly ill at ease. “Maybe we should go someplace where your classmates won’t hear us talking.”

Kurama nodded and allowed Amaya to lead the way as they left the school grounds. He could not have created a more perfect opportunity to privately learn more about the Spirit Detective had he arranged it himself. Now all he had to do was consider the right questions to ask without raising Amaya’s suspicions. Reading her body language was child’s play, but the inability to detect changes in her scent or Spirit Energy was a hindrance, as both helped indicate more subtle changes in mood. She was nervous, that much was obvious. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell if the reason why she blushed so much was mere embarrassment as a result of her actions, or the early signs of a growing infatuation towards him. Given his experience with teenage girls, he would not have been surprised if it was the latter, despite the initial misunderstanding from their first meeting. If she were developing a crush on him, it would be that much easier to learn more about her, including whatever secrets lay in her file that Yama did not want him to know about. However, exploiting such emotions was blatant cruelty. He had no reason to treat her as he might an enemy and, despite the threat of war in Demon World looming on the horizon, such measures were unnecessary at this time.

Once Kurama could no longer sense any humans within earshot, he decided to resume their conversation. “Is there anything you wanted to ask me?”

Amaya stopped dead in her tracks and glanced back at Kurama. She turned, toying with the charm attached to her choker, as he came to a halt in front of her. At first, she was unable to articulate a response, half forming words before changing her mind about using them. Finally, she breathed in deep to help clear her mind and forced herself to look up into the fox demon’s eyes, refusing to psyche herself out. “I do have a few questions, but some of them might be a bit, ah, personal. You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to, alright?”

Kurama nodded. “That sounds fair. Feel free to do the same when it’s my turn to ask.”

“Okay,” Amaya said. She went silent for few moments to choose her first question with care. “You said earlier that your body was human. Well, I’ve seen demons in human form before, but they always have something weird about them, like transparent fangs or horns no one else can see.” She illustrated her comment by holding up her index fingers up against her head to pantomime horns. She quickly lowered her hands when she realized such a visual was unnecessary. “I don’t see anything like that on you. In fact… if you hadn’t said anything I wouldn’t have thought you were a demon at all. You just feel a little different from a normal person.”

Kurama cocked his head ever so slightly, his curiosity piqued by the vague description. “Different? In what way?”

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Amaya said. “It’s not like what I feel when I see a ghost or other demons. It’s just…” Her voice tapered off on an awkward note before she gave the redhead a helpless shrug.

Kurama tucked that bit of information away for later. He would address such a distinction again when Amaya had more training in how to use her spiritual awareness. “Most demons aren’t born with a human appearance, so in order to blend in with humans they need to disguise or transform themselves. Lower class demons typically don’t have enough power to completely hide their true nature from those with a high level of spiritual awareness.”

Amaya’s eyes widened. “So you’re a high class demon?”

“Yes,” Kurama said, “but that’s not why I have a human body.” He felt a faint note of nostalgia as he recalled the first time he had a chance to talk with Yusuke alone, and how he told the former Spirit Detective of his unique circumstances. Of course, his reasons for telling Yusuke of something so personal were noticeably more dire than leverage to coax information from someone. “Originally, I was a yoko, a spirit fox that became a demon after living hundreds of years. I made sport of breaking codes and disarming seals and locks. Stealing ancient treasures in particular was my most favored sport. However, sixteen years ago I made a careless mistake and was badly injured by a powerful hunter. I would have died had I not spent the last of my power to go to Human World with only a spirit body and possessed a human woman, allowing me to be reborn as her son, Shuichi. I originally intended to stay for ten years, just long enough to recover my demonic powers, then vanish without a trace.”

Amaya stared at Kurama, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open. He waited patiently for her to comment, but eventually decided that she required some prompting first. “Does that upset you?”

An embarrassed flush bloomed on Amaya’s cheeks when she realized that she had been rudely gawking at Kurama. “No! No… Just, I guess I wasn’t expecting you to be so… upfront about all that.” She gave a small, awkward smile. “Not a lot of people would admit they used to be a thief or that they’ve possessed people… or been pretty much killed and had to be reborn.”

A nervous chuckle escaped Amaya, as she desperately thought of how to make up for being so impolite and somehow lighten the mood a bit. She recalled her earlier fear that the fox demon was a potential killer and felt her mortification increase slightly. The longer she tried to think of something to say, the more tense she became, until finally she forced out the first semi-decent thought she could create. “Though that is a lot better than you saying you used to go around killing people and that you tried to kill the old Spirit Detective but wound up having a change of heart because he was so charismatic or because he showed you of the power of love or something like that.”

Kurama chuckled, as he was no stranger to such stories. He had seen such things happen in person. Hiei’s change in attitude towards Yusuke was one of the first of many former enemies who became allies of the previous Spirit Detective. “Perhaps, but that first part has happened to a few people I know. Yusuke had quite an effect on people. As for the power of love…” His amused smile turned a touch more wistful as he imagined his mother Shiori’s kindly face smiling at him. “I suppose I must admit that love was what convinced me to remain in Human World as Shuichi Minamino, though it was not Yusuke who convinced me that love exists.”

“It was your mother, right?”

The question felt the same as an electric shock to Kurama, his surprise evident on his face, as he looked at Amaya in a more critical light. “Yes, that’s right,” he said slowly. “How did you know?”

Amaya fairly beamed at Kurama, both relieved and thrilled by her correct assumption. “Lucky guess.” Her posture grew more at ease, the earlier embarrassment fading thanks to the warmth of cherished memories. “My mother was the first one to show me that love exists too. She was the first person to really look at me as if I existed, as if I had some worth as a human being. She and my father took me in when I was nothing, no one. They gave me a name, a home, and all the love I could ever ask for…”

Kurama gave Amaya a moment more to reminisce before he redirected her focus. “Took you in?”

“I’m adopted,” Amaya said. A beat later, she felt a familiar sense of anxiousness that came whenever she informed anyone of that fact. She knew that it was unlikely Kurama would judge her harshly as others had done in the past, given his own circumstances, but she could not resist the need to search his expression for any sign of disapproval. She felt quite silly when all she saw was open curiosity, and silently chastised herself before she told her story. “I was probably somewhere around four years old when I first met my mother, though I can’t say for sure how old I was. I went into her restaurant, the Gold Phoenix, to escape a terrible storm and get some food. She said she took one look at me and it broke her heart. I was skin and bones, completely filthy, and wearing rags I stole or found in the trash.” The corner of her mouth tugged upwards into a lopsided smile as she let out a humorless chuckle. “So I guess you’re not the only one who used to be a thief.”

Kurama’s look was one of sympathy. “I take it something happened to separate you from your original family.”

Amaya rolled her shoulders back as she shook her head, her bangs falling across her face. “I really have no idea. I don’t remember much of anything before I met my mother… Just wandering the streets and being no one.”

Amaya combed back her bangs with a smile filled with self-depreciating humor. “Actually, I expected to be thrown out of the restaurant like every other place I went to, but my mother invited me in, gave me a big meal, and just… talked to me.” Her smile slowly grew more genuine. “She didn’t see through me like I wasn’t even there like everyone else did. When she found out I had no family or any idea who I was, she took me home with her. She and my father decided to adopt me. They both gave me a name, and even a birthday.” Her eyes grew distant and fond. “The day my adoption was made official they threw me a huge party and made it my fifth birthday, and so many of my new relatives came to welcome me into the family. It was the happiest day of my life.”

The warm smile Kurama gave Amaya was genuine. “That sounds wonderful. I’m happy that you were so fortunate as to find such a loving home.”

Amaya’s expression was dreamy, as she remained immersed in pleasant memories of her family. “Yeah, I am… And because of me, Mama and Papa decided to adopt other children who needed homes too, so I have two little sisters and a younger brother. We’re all very happy.”

“Are they aware of your supernatural abilities?”

It was as if Kurama had thrown a bucket of ice water on Amaya. Her body tensed so quickly that her muscles twitched and her expression contorted into an unpleasant grimace. “Kind of…,” she said slowly. “My mother and father don’t believe in the supernatural, so they thought I was just playing pretend when I was little and, um…” She hesitated for a moment, her hand swaying back and forth in front of her in a meaningless gesture. “When I got older I decided to stop talking about it so I wouldn’t worry them.”

Kurama felt certain that was more to the issue than Amaya was willing to let on. Tempted though he was to probe deeper on the topic, he knew it was best to put her more at ease about the subject first. The trick was coming up with a way to accomplish such a task. “I see.”

Amaya did her best to erase the distasteful expression from her face. “What about you? Have you ever told your mother that you’re demon?”

“No,” Kurama said, “and I never intend to.”

The fact that Kurama answered without the slightest bit of hesitation with an underlining edge to his voice made Amaya feel discomfited. It seemed that the subject was an unpleasant one for both of them to consider. “Yeah… I guess I’d be scared to know how my parents would react if I told them I was a demon… or fighting them.”

Kurama did not want to discuss the matter further. If there was something important to be learned from the full reason why Amaya did not wish to discuss the supernatural with her parents, he would find out about it later, when the subject did not skirt too closely to his concerns towards Shiori. There were plenty of other questions for him to ask the Spirit Detective. “Do you ever wonder about your birth parents? Perhaps they had a similar ability to sense the supernatural.”

Amaya’s brow scrunched up as her eyes drifted towards the heavens. “Not… really?” She looked back at Kurama as she traced where her choker met her neck. “I know it’s weird, but I can’t say I honestly care about knowing who I was before. I have my mother, father, sisters, and brother. I don’t really feel like I need anything more than that.”

“I don’t think it’s strange at all to feel content with your life as it is,” Kurama said. Though he meant his words, it still struck him as unusual that Amaya held neither concern nor curiosity towards the blank spot of her past. If anything, she appeared to find the idea unpleasant, given her vaguely nauseated expression.

“I know it seems kind of suspicious that I don’t remember anything before I met my family,” Amaya said. “Or about why I have the ability to see ghosts or demons to begin with…” Her words tapered off as a rogue thought came to her, eliciting an amused giggle that she stifled with her hand. “Actually, now that I think of it, this feels like the plot to a video game or TV show.” She stretched her arms out in front of her, meeting her index fingers with the thumbs of her opposite hand to form a rectangle that she centered on Kurama. She lowered her voice in her best attempt to imitate movie trailer narrators, though it made her words sound more gravelly than dramatic. “The story begins with our hero, a girl with a missing past and mysterious supernatural abilities, being charged with saving the world after defeating an evil menace using the new powers that conveniently appeared at the last second to save her life. Now the past she has forgotten is coming back to turn her world upside-down and…” Her words tapered off when she noticed the amused smile the demon fox sent her way. She quickly lowered her hands and coughed to clear her throat, trying to will away her faint blush. “Or something like that.”

Kurama felt he had a fair understanding of Amaya’s personality by now, at least when she stopped acting so self-conscious. It was something of a relief to know that she was self-aware enough to realize that the circumstances of her past were suspicious, even if she did not wish to dwell on them. “I suppose that set up does sound familiar.”

“Anyway,” Amaya said, “I’m more focused on the present and the future than I am on the past. How about you?”

“I feel the same,” Kurama said before he let out a rueful chuckle. “Though I’ve found that often the past comes back to haunt you whether you wish it or not.” He noticed Amaya’s inquisitive look and cut off whatever question she was planning to ask. “It’s nothing you need to worry about.”

Amaya rubbed the red line on wrist that had formed beneath the plastic strap of her umbrella. “I guess that’s what happens after living for centuries, huh? What about your life now as Shuichi? Do you like being a human?”

Kurama smiled, pleased to be asked a question that was easy to answer. “Yes, very much. I intend to do everything in my power to preserve my life as Shuichi Minamino and live here in Human World peacefully.”

“Me too,” Amaya said. She extended her right index finger and thumb as she considered the fact that it was her task to ensure that both their lives would remain peaceful. “You knew the previous Spirit Detective right?” She glanced back up at Kurama’s face. “Could you tell me about him? I mean… how did he handle the job?”

Kurama rubbed his chin as a quiet hum rumbled in his throat. There was so much he could say about Yusuke that it was hard to summarize the former Spirit Detective with just a few words. It was not difficult to deduce why Amaya would ask about him. “Yusuke Urameshi is one of the most unique humans I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. His strength and courage are matched only by his noble spirit. Were he the type to hesitate to act on his sense of what is right, I doubt I would be alive today.”

“Really?” Amaya felt her stomach twist in knots as Kurama nodded. She thought back to her encounter with Horumon and the strength the demon possessed. If he was a low-level demon and Kurama was a high-level one, yet Yusuke was strong enough to save Kurama’s life… “So he was good at fighting, right?”

It was painfully easy for Kurama to deduce that Amaya was feeling overwhelmed by Yusuke’s legacy. “Yes, though I’m sure much of his fighting instincts were initially cumulated over his years of getting into street brawls with his peers.” He was pleased to see the shock snap the Spirit Detective out of her gloomy thoughts, causing her to stare at him with wide eyes instead. “Yusuke has his flaws, just like everyone else. You need not worry about comparing yourself to him. Just trust your instincts. I’m sure that will be more than enough to make you a fine Spirit Detective.”

Despite the confidence Kurama displayed, Amaya had a hard time returning the feeling. “You really think so?” She watched the fox demon nod before her gaze dropped to her right hand. She rubbed the area that ached after she fired the Spirit Gun, wondering if it really would get easier over time.

Kurama considered the gesture and hazarded to guess its significance. “Are you concerned about what happened yesterday?”

Amaya flinched faintly, proving Kurama’s supposition to be accurate. “A little, but, well…” She exhaled loudly, her shoulders slumping. “I don’t mean to complain or be ungrateful, but I just don’t understand why someone like me is the best candidate for Spirit Detective. Yusuke was a fighter even before he became detective, right?” She made a sweeping gesture to her side, causing the umbrella to swing upwards and slap her wrist. She winced but otherwise ignored the small sting of pain. “There has to be thousands of people who know how to fight demons already… People who really are like the heroes in video games or TV shows, who don’t hesitate to charge into things. Someone like me who runs away and can only make shields is supposed to stay back and protect the weak while the real heroes fight, right?”

Briefly, Kurama wished Botan were present. Although the Grim Reaper would have complicated matters, she was much better suited to give pep talks than he was. “As I said before, you should not compare yourself to Yusuke or any other Spirit Detective that has come before you. Though I can imagine that being given such responsibility while so woefully unprepared must be a terrible burden, I’m sure King Yama did not select you for the task for frivolous reasons.”

The corners of Amaya’s mouth raised in what looked more like a grimace than a grin. “Because I defeated Horumon, right?” The faux smile slipped away. “I only managed to kill him because I got insanely lucky. I might’ve saved Fukui because I killed that de… murderer on accident, but if I just figured out how to make shields sooner, then Mr. Abe…” The black haired girl forced herself to stop, as she realized that she was going on a tirade. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and counted backwards from ten, her hand on her forehead, before she let out her captive breath in a deep sigh. “But I’m sure you already know all about that, right?” She peeked through her fingers at Kurama. “Just what about me running for my life seemed like I’m anything but lucky to have survived at all?”

“I’m afraid I wouldn’t know,” Kurama said. “The recording of that battle appears to be privileged information that I lack the clearance to access.”

For a moment, all Amaya could do was stare at Kurama. “Wait… So you didn’t even know what I could do before we met yesterday?”

“Correct.” Kurama said nothing further, waiting to see what Amaya would do with this knowledge.

Amaya had assumed that because Botan and Kurama were friends and working together, it meant that they both must have known everything about her. Apparently, she had been mistaken. She recalled her first meeting with Botan, and how the reaper said that the file Spirit World had compiled about her was classified, with only Botan and Yama allowed access to its contents. The Spirit Detective felt a bit sheepish for not realizing this sooner, particularly before she embarrassed herself by complaining to someone who had no idea what she was talking about.

The situation bothered Amaya too much to concentrate on considering how she could discreetly change the topic. She wondered if she should ask Botan why Kurama was not privy to such information, then realized the obvious answer – it was a matter of privacy. Just because the king of Spirit World and her guide knew more than she felt comfortable with, that did not mean that they would give out information to everyone that might work with her.

The question became then whether Amaya should tell Kurama or let the subject drop. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she wanted to tell him about what happened. Since the incident, a part of her had been dying to talk it through with someone who would not treat her as though she was a liar or crazy. Decision made, she took the time to choose her words with care, speaking in a halting voice. “I guess… I could tell you what happened. If you want to hear it I mean.”

Kurama downplayed his curiosity and gave Amaya a faint smile in the hopes of better coaxing her into giving him the information he sought. “If you wouldn’t mind telling me.”

Amaya breathed deep as she recalled the terrible memories that had haunted her. “It happened over a week ago… the day before everything returned to normal.”

Something was wrong with the world or Amaya Mamori. It started with a thickening in the air that drew insects out of season. They were not ordinary bugs. These creatures were transparent, like ghosts, with bodies deformed beyond anything found in the natural world. By the time the sky was locked in an eternal sunset, the city was completely infested, but no one else noticed the insects even if their body was covered in a writhing mass of twitching, crawling bugs.

Wards meant to protect against demons, which Amaya learned to create from one of her books on the supernatural, kept the alien insects at bay. She wrote the protective symbols on the inside of clothing tags to protect her family, disguised talismans written on small strips of paper with cloth covers to make them look like good luck charms for exams to aid her friends, and hid far more protective talismans among her possessions and throughout her home. The strange insects avoided the talismans as though repelled, and when touched by the charms, energy shaped like small bolts of blue lightning would strike the bugs, bursting them apart violently before their remains disappeared into nothing.

Unfortunately, the protective talismans did not spare Amaya from watching the infestation grow worse with each passing day. Every class was torture, forcing her to sit still, regardless of how witnessing the insects cling and creep across the bodies of her classmates and teachers made her skin crawl. Ignoring something that was everywhere was impossible. She tried to make class more bearable with her talismans, but only her friends – who did not share the same homeroom with her – would accept her charms, and those she hid in the classroom were swiftly found by her peers and thrown away.

Everything came to a head on the day one of the insects crawled into a classmate’s mouth during lunch. Amaya had been too slow to warn the victim and was unable to come up with an explanation for why she shouted while jumping up from her desk so quickly that she knocked over the chair with a clatter, drawing everyone’s attention. It was all she could do not to throw up after seeing the disgusting creature be willingly consumed by an unsuspecting victim.

At the opposite end of the room near the door, Izumi Fukui, a short, thin girl with long luxurious black hair highlighted with streaks of pink, red, and purple, stared at Amaya as if the blue-eyed girl were a sideshow attraction. Every other student wore similar expressions on their faces, but they were not caught in a fit of subtle, uncontrollable twitching like Izumi. She was a pretty girl, but her beauty was tarnished as her eyes turned from brown to a bright, glowing red and the color disappeared from her skin before it shifted to a noxious pale blue. She let out a nasal laugh once the transformation was complete. “What’s wrong, Morbid Mamori?” Her voice, normally high-pitched, had a gravelly undercurrent to it that worsened Amaya’s nausea. “Did you see a ghost?”

Laughter bubbled up from the rest of the class, followed by whispers that echoed the insulting moniker. Amaya ignored them, focusing completely on Izumi. The now red-eyed girl rose unsteadily, her body faintly shuddering with each small movement. Everyone overlooked Izumi’s behavior, even when she picked up a knife from her lunch, holding the blade the wrong way. Their gazes were away from her, directed exclusively towards Morbid Mamori.

Amaya took deep gulps of air as she tried to get her nausea under control. The urge to come up with an excuse to deflect the attention of her classmates faded as adrenaline flooded her system. The way Izumi looked, moved, and sounded held a sense of wrongness that reminded Amaya of the uncanny valley. The fact that Izumi seemed more like an animated corpse paled in comparison to a far more intangible feeling that made Amaya’s senses scream of the danger. It was if Izumi now radiated malevolence, the promise of pain and death oozing from every pore of her altered body. The horror that Izumi had been transformed into something inhuman by one of the ghostly insects barely had time to sink in before Amaya saw the possessed girl raise the knife up above a classmate’s head and realized what Izumi, or rather the insect, intended to do.

Amaya screamed as she lunged for Izumi, toppling over desks and chairs to make it across the classroom to reach the possessed girl in time. “Look out!” She grabbed Izumi’s arm just as the blue-skinned girl brought the knife down. The blade nicked Amaya’s school uniform, slicing a thin line through the material, as the surprisingly intense force of Izumi’s swing nearly sent Amaya to her knees. The talisman hidden within the charm tied to Amaya’s wrist crackled and shot miniature bolts of energy into Izumi’s face, making the red-eyed girl shriek and stagger back. Izumi dropped the knife and toppled back onto her chair before crashing to the floor, slipping from Amaya’s grip. The blue of Izumi’s skin faded in seconds, along with the red from her eyes, as she coughed up smoke and the burnt remains of the insect that had entered her before it disappeared into nothing.

With the threat over, Amaya noticed how quiet the classroom had become. Everyone was gawking at her. She could feel their stares burning into her back. She was painfully aware how it must have appeared to eyes that witnessed only her actions and nothing of Izumi’s possession. She dared to turn around, seeking out some small sign that anyone might have noticed something odd about Izumi’s behavior, but there was no friendly face to be found among the sea of accusing eyes. The only explanation she could think to give was weak. “There… there was a bug.”

No one believed her. Amaya did not expect them to. The teachers were disappointed in her behavior, but lenient only due to her excellent grades and attendance. The faculty was willing to write off the incident as a result of being overwhelmed by stress brought upon by rigorous studying for entrance exams. She had to suffer through a stern lecture about what constituted as proper behavior for a student of Ugetsu Junior High, deliver a formal apology to Izumi in front of the entire class, and thoroughly clean the mess she made in the classroom, both after lunch and when classes ended for the day.

Cleaning the entire classroom alone took Amaya hours. Izumi and her friends had taken it upon themselves to make her task even more difficult before they left by “accidentally” spilling paint they supposedly borrowed from the art club all over a few desks and the floor after the teacher departed for the day. The group of girls did not even bother to hide their giggles when they left. By the time Amaya finished, her fingers itched from the cleaner and reeked of chemicals and artificial lemon.

As much as Amaya hated to be stuck in the classroom, she lingered after her punishment was finished. She leaned against the windows overlooking the back of the school and turned her eyes skyward. The black clouds that blocked out the sun appeared to ooze red light like blood, and rumbled with lightning that never touched ground. Towards the horizon, instead of the sunset, shadows shaped like grasping hands reached blindly towards the heavens, radiating a golden light. These hands appeared as the sun began to set, disappearing when the red-tinged sunlight came back with the dawn. At night, the hands were silhouettes of black against a starless night, only visible by the strange light that surrounded them.

“I can’t live like this,” Amaya whispered as she closed her eyes. Reality had changed, growing increasingly terrifying by the day. Everyone around her had noticed her escalation in anxiety, but not the reason why. None of them had the slightest suspicion that anything was wrong with the world. The worst part was that she could not tell them the reason for her distress. They would never believe her. Being the only person who could see, hear, and even feel strange things no one else could… Was that not the very definition of insanity? “What am I going to do?”

Amaya wiped away the dampness from her eyes, only to make her eyes sting and tear up even more due to the cleaner fumes that clung to her fingers. As she furiously wiped at her face with the ribbon hanging from her collar, she suddenly felt glad she was likely the last one left in the entire building. If any of her classmates saw her sniffling so miserably, they would have jumped at the chance to taunt and laugh at her.

When her eyes were clear again, Amaya looked back outside, seeking answers that she doubted would ever come. Movement out of the corner of her eye caused her to look down to see two people near one of the windows two floors below. Anger flowed hot through her veins like magma when she instantly recognized one of them as Izumi. The other person was a tall man with brown hair gelled into spikes who wore a leather jacket covered in belts, a matching set of pants, and a pair of dark shades. Even without the cliché bad biker outfit to tip her off, Amaya felt certain that this man was trouble.

Amaya had no intention of finding out what the pair intended to do by breaking into the school after hours, yet she found herself hesitating to grab her school bag and race for the front doors. Something about the man’s appearance bothered her. To her growing horror, it dawned on her that the man’s hair was not spiky – he had horns sticking out of his head. She covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. A demon!

Before Amaya could back away from the window, the demon tilted his head upwards in her direction. He lowered his shades and winked one glowing red eye at her before gesturing at her with one crooked finger.

Amaya pushed herself away from the glass and out of the demon’s view, heart pounding, as a million thoughts raced through her mind at lightning speed. The demon knew she was there. Why was Izumi with him? Were they working together? If they could not pry open a window, they were likely to break one in order to get inside. Did Izumi bring the demon here because of Amaya? Did this have anything to do with the insect possessing Izumi earlier? Was Izumi working with demons now because of that insect and was bringing one to kill her?

Amaya slapped her cheeks repeatedly in an effort to put a halt to her chaotic thought process. Get a grip on yourself! You killed that bug and Fukui’s skin isn’t blue anymore. Fukui can’t see demons, ghosts, and crap like that. She can’t know he’s a demon. He must look like some biker from a bar to her. She doesn’t know she’s in danger.

The knowledge weighed on Amaya, feeling akin to a lump of iron in her stomach. Izumi was the last person in the world who would believe anything Amaya told her. Even if there was someone left in the building at this hour that did not hate Amaya, she doubted that person would believe in demons either. Calling the police was pointless for that very reason, and they likely would arrive too late even if she came up with a convincing excuse that did not involve mentioning killer demons. If she ran downstairs to save Izumi, she would just be exposing herself to danger. The demon could kill Amaya, and if she survived, she would likely get into further trouble, maybe even arrested for assault if Izumi was injured.

Amaya fled for the stairs, bag clutched tightly with both hands. In her mind she replayed memories of every nasty trick and name Izumi inflicted upon her. Izumi had tripped Amaya down these very stairs on three separate occasions. It was because of Izumi that the entire school called Amaya “Morbid Mamori,” among other things. Izumi was the culprit behind the lies about Amaya scrawled on the bathroom walls. Izumi stole from Amaya’s bag, put nasty surprises in Amaya’s locker and lunches, and wrote vile insults on Amaya’s desk at least twice a week. Izumi had gone as far as attempting to convince the faculty to expel Amaya from school due to the very rumors she started. More unforgivably, Izumi made it her mission to ruin Amaya’s friendships with slander and succeeded more than once. Izumi ensured that being nice to “Morbid Mamori” was akin to social suicide at Ugetsu Junior High. Amaya had little doubt that Izumi would leave her to die at the hands of a demon and laugh at her funeral because she was stupid enough to come save the girl whose mission in life was to make her completely miserable.

Despite knowing all this, Amaya still found herself on the ground floor, racing not for the front doors, but the classroom she saw Izumi and the demon trying to break into. As much as Amaya hated Izumi, as well as she knew that she was setting herself up for something terrible, she was also absolutely certain that she would never forgive herself if she simply stood by and allowed someone to die, even if that person was Izumi. I’m so stupid! I’m going to get myself killed!

Amaya flung the classroom’s sliding door open as quickly as she could, practically throwing it off the rails as it clattered hard against the wall. “Fukui!” The excuse she invented to convince Izumi to leave with her fled her mind as the thick air of the classroom hit her full in the face. A pungent musk assaulted her sense of smell, sending her reeling back. She found the scent hard to describe, yet strangely familiar. In the second it took to identify what it was, she noticed the state of Izumi and the demon. Her jaw went slack.

Izumi moaned as she lay on the teacher’s desk, arching upwards into the demonic biker’s hands. Her clothes were mostly scattered across the floor, with only her underwear left to spare any sense of modesty she had left. She did not notice Amaya’s interruption, her eyes glazed as she stared off into space, her expression skewed in rapture that was visible to the blue-eyed girl despite the distance between them and the dim lighting of the classroom.

The illicit scene was the last thing Amaya expected to see when she confronted Izumi and the demon. She stood frozen, fighting her instinctive urge to flee from the demon and the scandalous moment he and Izumi shared, as she struggled to cope with this unforeseen turn of events.

The demon ran his long tongue along Izumi’s face. His tongue grew in length with each passing moment, slithering down her shoulder like a snake. He looked up at Amaya and curved his mouth upward in an unnaturally rubbery smile, flashing white teeth that might have appeared perfectly even had there not been a transparent overlay of much longer and more deadly looking teeth on top of it. He rolled his tongue back into his mouth so that he could speak in a throaty purr. “Join us, Little Girl. There’s always room for one more.”

The smell grew stronger and with it Amaya’s discomfort. The room felt far too stuffy and warm, the thick air rolling out into the hallway through the doorway in waves, as if the musk had a life of its own and was attempting to ensnare her as well. Maybe that strange air was why it was suddenly so hard for her to think, rather than simply the shock of seeing Izumi cavorting with a demon. She knew that she had to do something quickly before the demon did something far worse than… apparently have consensual, if sickening, relations with Izumi.

Somehow, Amaya managed to force herself to speak, though her voice kept cracking. “F… Fukui. C-come he-here.”

The demon extended his finger towards Amaya. “No, you come. Here.” When he drew his finger back, Amaya felt as though something hooked itself into her midsection and forced her forward two steps. The talisman on her wrist sparked and struck the thin line of red energy that Amaya failed to notice earlier, severing the connection it had to her stomach. The demon frowned and rose up, removing his hands from Izumi’s body despite the enraptured girl’s complaints.

When Amaya saw the demon turn towards her, she gave up fighting the urge to flee and ran from the classroom as fast as she could go. She fumbled through her bag to find her cell phone. Her reasons for not using it to call the police seemed infinitely foolish as she ran from the perverted demon. It did not matter if she had no idea how to get the police down to the school in a hurry or to take the threat seriously. She needed help and she needed it now.

Amaya scooped out her phone and began to dial when she collided with someone emerging from the teacher’s lounge. She fell to the ground and hit her shoulder hard while her bag and cell phone skidded across the floor in separate directions.

The man Amaya ran into merely staggered back a couple steps, despite his advanced age, thanks to his excessive girth. He readjusted the displaced black toupee on his head then straightened the lapel of his tweed jacket as he gave Amaya a reproachful look. “What are you doing here? Don’t you know the school is closed to students at this hour?”

Amaya lunged for her fallen cell phone, which rested just behind the man, but he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her upward onto her feet. She recognized him one of the school’s history teachers – Nobusuke Abe. “Police! Call the police!”

Nobusuke frowned at Amaya, but did not let go even when she struggled to grab her cell phone. “The police? What for?”

Amaya practically bit her tongue to stop herself from screaming in hysterics that a demon was after her. She fumbled for something, anything that she might say to get him to believe her that they were in serious danger, and surprised herself when she came up with the answer almost immediately. “There’s a rapist after me! He’s got Fukui! We have to get out of here and call the police!”

A spray of red blinded Amaya. She covered her face and fumbled back, escaping Nobusuke’s grip as it finally went slack. The heel of her shoe skidded across something slick and she fell hard onto her back, stunning her for a moment as the wind rushed out of her chest. Once she regained her wits, she swabbed viciously at her eyes to clear them, only to regret her action a moment later. A scream tore from her throat when she saw Nobusuke’s head resting beside her right arm, while his body lay sprawled to her left.

The demon, who she would later know as Horumon, stood not far behind Amaya. He clucked his tongue and wagged his fingers at her. Claws stretched out from the tips of each finger, each the size and shape of a rapier, and dripping with a fresh coat of blood. “Naughty, naughty, Little Girl. You shouldn’t call people names if you expect them to treat you nice. Now I’ll have to punish you for being so naughty.

Amaya could feel another scream building at the back of her throat as she scrabbled away from Nobusuke’s corpse and the growing pool of blood. Her eyes darted around to relocate her cell phone, but she quickly gave it up for lost as Horumon drew ever closer. She clamored to her feet, nearly tumbling over herself in her haste to flee the demon, who further mocked her by pursuing her at a leisurely pace.

Horumon let out a derisive snort as he watched Amaya’s frantic movements. “What? What kind of self-respecting Japanese schoolgirl wears shorts underneath her skirt? That just totally kills the fantasy.”

For a brief instant, Amaya thought of a retort she could make involving modesty and boys with cameras, but the words would not form. Fear stole her voice and drove her on to run from Horumon without daring to look back.

Horumon’s mocking laughter echoed unnaturally off the walls, the sound ringing in Amaya’s ears. “Let’s take care of that, shall we? Come on back to me, Little Girl. I promise we’ll all have a real good time.”

Amaya tried to tune out Horumon’s voice and focused all her energy on reaching the rear exit, which was the closest way out of the building. She did not slow down as she drove her elbow into the door to force it open, only to collide hard against it instead. She staggered back due to the jolt of pain that shot from her elbow to her hand and shoulder, cradling her damaged arm. Hysteria hit her as she realized the rear exit was locked for the night, nearly causing her to forget that she did not need a key to unlock it. She reached for the lock, but a sudden flash of movement forced her to draw her hand back quickly before five long and deadly claws raked against the door, destroying the locking mechanism so that the door would no longer open. She turned, knowing that she would find the demon looming over her with a repugnant smirk plastered on his face.

“Now then,” Horomon said. “Where were we?” There was less than an arm’s length separating him from Amaya, but she knew that could change at any time. His gaze roved across her body as if he were trying to devour her with just his eyes, focusing primarily on her chest. “Down south might be a disappointment, but up north you know what a man wants. You must have drunk a lot of milk to get a nice pair like that. I’ll bet the boys around here can’t get enough of them.”

Amaya burned from anger, shame, and something she refused to contemplate. Despite the sharp horns, fangs, and claws, Horumon was a demon whose affinity was sex. His human appearance was masculine and handsome, and he had a velvet voice to attract women. However, Amaya knew it was not these features that drew his prey, but the pungent scent of sex that oozed from every pore. She realized that pheromones, likely supernaturally enhanced, were the reason why his presence made it difficult to think, even to run away. She squeezed her injured elbow as hard as she could, focusing on the pain to keep her grounded, as she sought some means of escape before all hope was lost.

“Seems a shame to cover them up like that,” Horumon said. A quick swipe of a single claw split her blouse and the ribbon down the middle, stopping just short of her crossed arms, to expose her cleavage and the top of her bra.

Amaya acted part on instinct and part from quick thinking. She cupped the talisman in her palm and slapped it across Horumon’s face, aiming for his eyes. He did not block her blow, likely assuming that the attack would be ineffective, only to howl in agony as the energy of the protective charm seared his flesh.

Amaya did not stop to see how much damage the talisman caused. The second after she struck, she was running, ducking under Horumon’s arms to avoid his terrible claws, and racing for the main entrance. She avoided the puddle of blood as best she could before hopping over what she forced herself to think of debris while praying she would not fall again. A rumbling started back the way she came, hitting her as the roar of an inhuman beast that rattled her bones as she reached the entryway.

The exit was just in sight when a shriek of metal to her right set off every instinctive alarm Amaya had, pushing her to dive for the entrance just before the lockers came crashing down around her. She hit the floor hard, skidding to a stop against the front doors, and saw all of the lockers sliced neatly in twain, their upper halves scattered apart everywhere along with countless shoes and other knickknacks students kept squirreled away inside the lockers. Horumon stood at the center of the carnage, the left half of his face black, centered on the burnt ruin of his eye. The murderous expression that distorted his face to unnatural proportions filled Amaya with more fear than the realization that, had she not dodged his attack, his claws would have diced the upper half of her body into various sized pieces like the lockers.

“I’m through playing nice,” Horumon said. All of the allure and innuendo were gone from his words, leaving behind a rough voice that sounded as though he was speaking through a throat filled with gravel. “I’m going to make you scream.” He spread his claws apart like a fan. “And bleed.” He stepped on one of the lockers, crushing it flat beneath his boot. “And beg.”

Amaya groped for purchase as she tried to get to her feet before Horumon’s next attack. One hand clutched at the door while another snatched up a fallen umbrella, which she used to push herself up quickly. The demon waited for her to be standing again before lashing out with his foot, kicking her in the stomach and sending her hurtling backwards out through the doors. It was a small mercy for Amaya that the front entrance was still unlocked when she flew through it, but the momentum carried her to the stone stairs on the other side. The edges of each step dug into her with every collision, as she tumbled to the ground.

Amaya had only a vague sense of the passage of time, as she lay unmoving on the concrete path at the base of the stairs. Somehow, she managed to keep hold of the umbrella, though it did little to shield her from the repeated impacts. Everything hurt. Her mouth was full of liquid that tasted like copper, which she spat onto the ground between ragged breaths.

Twisted laughter reminded Amaya of the immediate danger, and somehow she forced herself to roll onto her side. She tried to use the umbrella to prop her body up but Horumon stomped his boot on her back, knocking the air from her lungs as he crushed her against the ground with force that was just short of cracking her ribs. Her chest strained to take in air, each breath sending a fresh wave of agony through her battered body.

“You know,” Horumon said, his tone casual despite the harshness of his voice, “I like you. I do. Oh, not your personality. Of course not. That needs a little work. I like your jugs. I’m sure I could do great things with them… after a little more tenderizing.” He raised his foot and delivered a swift kick to Amaya’s side, sending her painfully rolling off the path and into the grass. His mocking laughter followed her.

A dark haze clouded Amaya’s mind that had nothing to do with Horumon’s supernaturally enhanced pheromones. Instinctively she wanted to retreat from the torment her body was suffering due to the repeated injuries, but she knew that if she did then she would die a slow and agonizing death at the hands of a demon. She focused on the protective talisman, which had some point became sandwiched between her hand and the hilt of the umbrella. The talisman hurt Horumon, significantly damaged him. It was her only hope.

Amaya recalled the passages of the book she read to make the talisman. Will would make the protective charm stronger, the book said. If she could focus enough to will the talisman to become a mighty shield to protect her from another attack, then maybe she would survive.

Horumon approached with measured steps, drawing out the suffering of his prey. “You know, I’m not such a bad guy. Really. If you beg me sweetly enough, then maybe I’ll treat you real nice, like your friend. I promise you’ll feel really good before I’m through.” His laughter was cruel, proving his words nothing more than lies.

Amaya acted without thinking when Horumon’s hand reached for her, opening the umbrella with the press of a button to form a makeshift barrier between them. She did not expect it to last longer than a nanosecond against the demon’s strength and sharp claws. However, the rubber tips glowed a brilliant blue and crackled with energy that spread to reach the other points, forming a circle that expanded into a light blue dome that covered the entirety of the umbrella. When Horumon’s hand came down, the umbrella fell from Amaya’s hand, but it remained undamaged thanks to the shield encasing it.

Horumon stared at the barrier that separated him from his prey, too startled by its presence to do much else. “What the hell?”

Amaya forced her body to move, knowing she had only one chance to retaliate. She snatched up the umbrella and thrust it in Horumon’s face to both distract and prevent him from seeing her movements. She drew back her hand that clutched the charm in a death grip, and then threw it forward with all her might at the only vulnerable spot within reach, praying that the talisman would cause the same amount of damage there that the charm did to his face despite her fingers and his pants preventing direct contact.

The scream that erupted from Horumon was deafening and high-pitched as Amaya’s fist struck home between his legs. The talisman, powered by her will and Spirit Energy, created far more damage than a mere impact, which sent the demon to his knees. Instinctively he reached down to protect the damaged area, striking the umbrella and knocking it and the girl who held it in a death grip back.

Tragically, Horumon forgot to retract his claws before clutching his crotch.

Despite everything Amaya suffered, a thin laugh tinged with hysteria escaped her when she saw the damage Horumon inflicted upon himself. Her inappropriate giggles did not last long, breaking off into harsh coughs that reminded her that she was still trapped in the midst of a life and death struggle.

Now that Horumon was on the ground, Amaya had the opportunity to strike. She brought the umbrella down around his head, closing it as best she could while he was still stunned. To her relief, the shield altered its shape along with the umbrella, changing from a half circle to a more oval shape. She risked removing the charm from her wrist and tied it around the demon’s neck tightly, praying that between the shield covering his head and the talisman bound tightly to his throat that he might be unable to breathe and thus choke to death.

A wildly lashing claw forced Amaya to throw herself backwards, away from Horumon, though not unscathed. The tip of one of the claws drew a line of pain along the side of her neck, adding more blood to her uniform to join the stains made earlier from Nobusuke’s death. She pressed her hand against the wound to staunch the blood loss as she crawled backwards, away from the thrashing, shrieking demon.

The shield did not change shape, though logic indicated that it should have opened up easily to allow Horumon to escape. The tips remained closely together, drawing a glowing ring at the edge of the dome that was too small for him to move his head through. The end of the shield just barely covered where Amaya tied the charm to his throat, preventing him from removing it as it charred his skin and filled the air with a repugnant smell of burnt, spoiled meat stored inside of a filthy restroom.

As Amaya watched Horumon howl and attack the shield in a desperate effort to shatter it, she mused that his actions were very foolish. If the barrier disappeared then there would be nothing to shield his head from his claws. The result would be much like the self-inflicted wound to his crotch. A part of her wished for it to happen.

The light of the shield disappeared and Amaya heard a sound that reminded her of skewering fruit for kabobs, accompanied by the cracking noise of both umbrella and bone breaking. Horumon’s body twitched, but they were small, involuntary movements. He would never move his body again thanks to the claws buried deeply through the umbrella and its contents.

Everything was silent and still, save for Amaya’s labored breathing. At first, she did not know how to deal with what just happened. The demon that attacked her, who tried to rape and kill her, was dead. He died in the exact way she wished. She half expected him to suddenly jump up and reveal that it was all a cruel joke, or that he would suddenly come back to life despite the perforations to his brain, and attack her like a monster from a horror movie. It was possible that he was waiting for the second she turned her back on him.

Amaya spent much of her remaining strength to stand, hunched and unsteady. Somehow, she managed to walk without her feet collapsing underneath her. God… please… please just let it all be over.

Unthinkingly, Amaya’s eyes turned heavenward, and for the first time in days, she saw the stars. The sky was finally clear again of both clouds and insects.

Amaya paused to take in a breath then let it out slowly. “I didn’t want to go back and look for my cell phone with Mr. Abe’s body there, so I found a phone booth and called an ambulance. I played up that I was in shock about the whole thing and just told the police that a male assailant attacked the school with a bladed weapon.” She rubbed her throat where the claw had sliced her, which lay hidden beneath her choker. The wound was gone, but the memory lingered.

Amaya cleared her throat before continuing, as she was not used to talking for so long. “The news talked about it as if Horumon was just some deranged psychopath with a katana who committed suicide after attacking two unnamed students and killing a teacher. I have no idea how much they could really see of what happened.” The corner of her mouth twisted, as though she tasted something unpleasant. “Fukui was so spaced out from that gas attack he used that she didn’t remember anything. I don’t know what she told the police, but when classes started up again, she made up a bunch of nonsense about what happened that was based off of a lot of different movies, which always ended with her being the one to convince ‘Mr. Samurai’ to commit ritual suicide to preserve his honor or hers, depending on the telling.”

Judging by the expression Amaya wore, Kurama suspected that the tales Izumi wove did not paint the Spirit Detective in a positive light. “That sounds like quite an ordeal,” he said, his tone sympathetic. “I can understand why you would feel reluctant to fight again after coming so close to death.”

Amaya tucked her arms against her chest and nodded. “I know King Yama chose me to be Spirit Detective… I know that pretty much means I’m destined to be a great warrior for good or something like that… but if I didn’t make that charm… If I didn’t discover the power of Territory… If I didn’t luck out over and over again that night, I wouldn’t be a fighter or a detective – I’d just be dead!

“But you survived,” Kurama said gently. “Luck plays a part in all our lives, and between that and your quick thinking, you managed to save two lives that day. You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the significance of what you did.”

Amaya brushed her hand across her face then raked back her bangs as she considered Kurama’s words. “Sorry,” she said, her voice quiet. “I shouldn’t be complaining to you like this. We barely know each other and I’m just dumping all this drama on you.” She managed a weak smile. “I guess this is just really the first chance I’ve had to talk to anyone about that night or just, well, anything supernatural… without being afraid that they’ll think I’m completely insane.”

“It’s quite alright,” Kurama said. “I can understand the frustration of being unable to discuss certain matters with anyone, particularly a subject of pressing importance.”

Amaya smiled more easily as Kurama did. “Thank you for listening, and for being so understanding. You really are such a great guy.”

Though Kurama was no stranger to flattery, he enjoyed it all the same, and chuckled softly. He only felt the faintest traces of guilt that his interest in listening to Amaya talk about herself was not for her sake, but because he needed information Yama was determined he not uncover. Such an emotion was easy to dismiss in light of the circumstances. “Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far.”

“I would,” Amaya said, “and did.” She took a step forward, her eyes determined and her smile bright. “I’m really glad to have met you, and Botan.” Her expression faltered faintly. “I’ll admit I’m scared about fighting demons again, and I don’t know why King Yama thinks I’m the right person…” She managed to strengthen her smile. “But I’m very happy that I’m not alone anymore.”

The direction their conversation had taken was a touch more personal than Kurama intended it to go, but it benefitted him in a number of ways to have Amaya be more at ease in his presence. “You needn’t worry. Given what you’ve told me, I’m sure that all you need is experience in order to improve your skills. I’m sure you’ll fulfill King Yama’s expectations perfectly.”

Amaya felt hesitant to believe Kurama’s words, but her worries did not erase the smile on her face this time. “You think so?”

“Of course,” Kurama said.

Amaya sighed and closed her eyes, her posture growing relaxed, as she held her hand over her heart. “Wow… I can’t believe how relieved I’m feeling right now.” Her voice held an undercurrent of laughter as she looked to Kurama again. “I guess I really needed to get all that off my chest.” Her smile broadened. “I promise, I’ll do my best, and try to believe in myself like you, Botan, and King Yama believe in me.”

“I’m glad I could be of assistance,” Kurama said. “I’m sure they’ll be pleased to hear that as well.” He took the agreeable silence they shared as an opportunity to evaluate the conversation thus far. Amaya was rather forthcoming about everything, likely due to the repression she faced towards her spiritual side for so long. Now that he had earned what seemed to be no small amount of trust, he had the opportunity to probe more deeply. He simply needed to choose what to ask next, and which questions were best left for a later time, so as not to ruin everything by causing the dark haired girl to grow suspicious of his intentions.

The opportunity vanished before Kurama could make his decision, as he sensed the presence of a familiar energy approaching their location rapidly. He looked towards the sky as Botan flew towards them on her oar at top speed. Upon her approach, he saw the worried look on her face, and all the warmth of his conversation with Amaya and plans of prying for further information faded.

Amaya noticed Kurama’s sudden inattention and followed his gaze to find what he was looking at. Her eyes widened as she spotted Botan seconds before the reaper landed lightly in front of them. “Botan! Good afternoon.”

Botan grimaced and made her oar disappear with the flick of her wrist. “Not so good I’m afraid. It seems we’ve already got a case on our hands. Demons are snatching up people in various parts of the city and we need to stop them before anyone else gets taken.”

Amaya felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. For a moment, she remembered the story she just finished telling to Kurama, and instinctively glanced at the redhead, who met her gaze briefly.

“We can take care of them,” Kurama said as much to Amaya as he did to Botan.

Amaya steeled her nerves, reminding herself that she now had people who truly believed in her, including in the parts of her that she had once been frightened to show. She was not alone anymore. She was going to be a better person, a stronger person, because this too was her brand new start. She needed to step up and be the hero that everyone was depending on her to become. “R-right.”

Amaya turned her gaze back to Botan and did her best to feel as confident as she somehow made her voice sound. “Let’s go.”

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Chapter 3
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