Cat and Mouse
Tomoe watched in silence as the five she’d called to her study filed in one by one. To her left Akira sat just as silent, the obvious tension in his shoulders belying the mask of calm on his face.
Shougo and Sayo were the first to enter, settling side by side in two of the chairs arranged before her desk. They were followed by Hachiro who took a seat directly across from where she sat behind her desk. Megumi came next, with Sano not far behind her, and settled in beside the Sanada.
“Are Aoshi-san and Misao-chan coming?” Sano asked as he entered, one hand poised on the door.
With an inaudible sigh, Tomoe shook her head no and the ex-fighter slid the door closed with a soft click before taking the last seat beside Megumi. Uttering a single word under her breath Tomoe effortlessly wrapped a cloaking spell around the room, sealing it from listening ears then gave her attention to the assembled mages. She wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the startled looks they were all giving her.
“Why did you do that?” Megumi asked evenly although Tomoe could hear the uneasy edge in her friend’s voice.
Tomoe met the hard, questioning look Megumi was giving her then let eyes drift to each of the others before bluntly replying, “For now we must treat Shinomori-san as our enemy.”
The air in the room suddenly thickened as everyone stiffened. “What?! Why?! What did he do?!” Hachiro demanded angrily.
“It isn’t what he’s done,” Tomoe explained wearily, “but what he‘s been sent to find. “ Several eyebrows rose at that and she rubbed at the headache trying to form between her eyes. “The shogun’s regents know about Kaoru somehow and they have sent him to find her.”
A collective gasp filled the room.
“But… how can they know? She‘s been here her whole life!” Sayo all but shouted, surprising everyone.
Sighing softly, Tomoe shook her head. “I have no idea. But until he leaves we have to be extra careful when speaking about Kaoru.”
“What exactly did he say?” Hachiro pressed, obviously still skeptical that his friend would be a danger to them.
An empty smile touched Tomoe’s lips as she looked at the Sanada. “Last night he asked me directly if I had ever heard of the girl child born with blue eyes and if so where he might find her.”
The rest inhaled sharply as Hachiro’s eyes widened in surprise.
“However, right now he is the least of our worries.” Tomoe continued before any of them tried to press for more information.
“What about Misao?” Megumi asked with a pointed look, “Now that she knows, won‘t she tell Aoshi-san?”
Tomoe stiffened minutely, this was the one question she’d hoped to avoid. But since it was asked, she had no choice but to answer. Choosing her words carefully she replied, “She can’t. She has been… sworn to secrecy.” Hopefully none of them would read any further into that because in essence it was true… just not in the way a mage of their standing would do it.
But she should have known better, especially with Megumi in the room. The healer mage’s eyes narrowed before she said, “You didn’t use that spell on her, did you?”
Tomoe frowned at her tone and simply inclined her. “I had no choice. She knows too much now and I can’t risk her slipping up.”
“She’s right, Megumi.” Akira murmured, speaking up before the healer mage could retort. “Black magic or not, it’s the only way to keep Misao silent. Unethical it may be but we cannot run the risk all the same.”
Megumi scowled but said nothing more. Tomoe glanced to the rest of them and was sad to see they were all just as ill at ease as Megumi. Hardening herself against their disapproval she pushed on with the real reason they were all here.
“As I said before right now the regents and Shinomori-san are the least of our worries.” She remarked curtly. “Takeda has also found out about Kaoru and is currently hunting her and Kenshin down several miles south of Kiyosu. We need to figure out how to find them first and get them home.”
That caught their attention and all five of them swung widened eyes to her.
“Kanryuu knows?” Sayo murmured softly before any of the others could respond.
“Yes,” Tomoe replied more calmly than she felt. “I have sent Besshi to find Kaoru with a note telling her to make for Mihama, but I don’t know when or if he will be able to find her.”
“What about Azrael?” Shougo asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier to find her that way?”
Tomoe winced as her chest constricted painfully. The grief of loss was still raw. Swallowing tightly, she gave her attention to the elder Muyo and murmured, “I’ve already tried. Azrael was killed this morning by Kanryuu when we came across him in our search.” Faint gasps came from Megumi and Sayo but Tomoe ignored them and pushed on. “He knew I was with her and told me outright before he killed Azrael that he had discovered Kaoru’s secret, so he will try even harder to find her before we do and he has a head start.”
"Maybe it's because I'm not mageborn," Sano piped up suddenly, "but I don't get why Takeda wants Kaoru anyway. From what little bit I know she can't break open the jewel imprisoning his power so why bother chasing her when he should be here trying to get Ayame and Suzume."
For a brief moment silence was his answer and then Sayo's eyes widened in horror. "You don't think he's trying to release Ryuujin, do you?"
Tomoe shook her head. "He can't. When the Ancients sealed the dragon god away, they destroyed his corporal body. He cannot come back into this plane without a host for him to inhabit and there is no way for a host to exist because it is impossible for the dragon god to access anyone in this world to create the imprint that is needed to start the shift. Most likely he is after her abilities, as a black mage he has ways of drawing on them against her will."
The tension Sayo’s question had caused dissipated somewhat and Tomoe glanced to Hachiro. "How long would it take for you to take three of us to the river west of Mihama?"
Hachiro’s eyebrows rose slightly in surprise before he gave her a thoughtful look, "This side of the river right?" When Tomoe nodded he said, "Probably about four hours, why? We going?"
Tomoe inwardly smiled at his poorly contained eagerness. “Yes. Myself, Shougo and Akira will accompany you to the area near the cave my family used fifteen years ago. I think Kenshin and Kaoru may have spent the night there since Kanryuu wasn’t too far south of that location.”
Shougo and Hachiro dipped their heads in acknowledgement and Tomoe turned her attention to Sayo, “I need you to stay here to repair the shield if anything should happen.” Sayo simply nodded and Tomoe finally turned her attention to Megumi who already had a black look fixed on her.
“You, my friend, need more rest,” She said in a tone that brooked no argument. “Sano, I trust you will make sure she gets it?”
Sano grinned and gave her a sly wink, “Of course I will.”
Megumi scowled and opened her mouth to protest but stopped when Tomoe held up a hand. “I know you would rather be with us but we can’t risk all of us again. If we all go there will be no one left to protect the girls should something happen to the four of us. I need you here with Misao and Sayo in case something goes wrong.”
With a hard glare, Megumi snapped her mouth shut and Tomoe inwardly smiled. “Misao and the young woman Sayo and Shougo brought this morning will keep the girls entertained. For now I don’t think Takeda will bother with them so things should remain relatively quiet here.”
“Do you really think you’ll fall to Kanryuu?” Sayo asked quietly, concern evident.
Tomoe ignored the sinking feeling in her gut and smiled half-heartedly, “I don’t know… but it took several rogue mages to burn that forest and I have no doubt they are all in the same area searching for Kaoru.”
With a soft sigh, Sayo shook her head. “How did it get to this?”
Through my own mistakes, Tomoe thought darkly to herself.
“It doesn’t matter how this happened.” Akira said as he slid his hand across the desk to squeeze Tomoe’s reassuringly. “All that matters is we find Kaoru and Himura-san before Takeda does.”
Everyone nodded their agreement and finally began to rise.
“Hachiro, can you be ready in fifteen minutes?” Tomoe asked, as she pulled down the cloaking spell enfolding the room.
The dark-haired Sanada gave her a playful grin. “I can be ready in five.” With that he turned and tossed over his shoulder, “I’ll be in the courtyard waiting,” as he headed out of the study. The rest soon followed, with Megumi giving her one last scowl before she vanished from the room.
When they were gone, Tomoe sighed tiredly and sagged into her chair. “I wish there was some way I could just magic her back here.”
Akira chuckled softly and coaxed her out of her chair. “Don’t forget that this time we’re not going in blind, and maybe we’ll even be able to end this before it goes any further. Remember,” he continued as he entwined his fingers around hers and started guiding her from the room. “Kanryuu is still extremely handicapped. It doesn’t matter how many rogues he has in his pocket. It doesn’t change the fact that he is still not up to full power yet.”
For a moment Tomoe mulled over his words and then a small smile slowly tugged at her lips. He was right, this had given them another chance to strike at Kanryuu before he figured out another way to free his power completely. A chance they desperately needed but one they wouldn’t take unless they had already found Kaoru. Her young ward’s safety would remain their first priority no matter what.
The small pathway leading out to the forest was still slick when Kaoru eased her way out onto the narrow scrap of land behind Kenshin. The slight incline in the path towards the river had already had her grasping what she could of the wall behind her with white-knuckled fingers before she carefully slid out onto the path completely.
Pausing for a moment to make sure she wasn’t going repeat her earlier mistake, Kaoru cautiously shuffled one foot sideways followed by the other and crept after Kenshin as fast as she dared. Each tiny slip made her heart jump into her throat but somehow she managed to make it all the way to where Kenshin now stood motionless, eyeing the forest beyond.
“Are the one’s surrounding us still unaware of our movements?” He asked softly over his shoulder.
Kaoru froze and swallowed thickly, he wanted her to do that now. She winced as her belly knotted with tension. Of course he did, the last thing they needed was to come face to face with them now when they were so vulnerable.
When she didn’t answer, Kenshin glanced at her with an eyebrow raised in question and she gave him a weak smile. Then, without a word, she locked her knees to keep from falling and pressed her palms flat to the rocky wall behind her. Whispering a single word she called the earth magic to her finger tips then sent it out in all directions, searching for the ripples of power signifying the passage of mages. It didn’t take long for her to find the four she‘d sensed earlier. Two, she noted, had come together about a half mile north of them, while another was now nearly due east from where they were, and the last was about a half mile south of them but moving slowly towards them along the river bank. And if she wasn’t mistaken Kanryuu was still a half mile further south than that one, although still moving directly towards them.
But thankfully none of the rogues in the area seemed to have any idea where she and Kenshin were, or that they were even moving. With a genuine smile, Kaoru let the tendrils of power go and opened her eyes, “They still don’t know. Three are half a mile north and south of us, but there is one east of us. Will that be a problem?”
Kenshin’s brow creased for a moment before he sighed and glanced back out to the forest. “We will deal with him if he finds us.” He said, as he silently stepped from the cover of the path. “For now we simply have to run and hope we remain undetected.”
Kaoru swallowed tightly and nodded as Kenshin moved out of her way and she stepped from the path before her nerves could get the better of her. As soon as she was free Kenshin motioned to the east and silently began making his way deeper into the shadowed woodland. Taking a moment to form a cushion of air beneath each foot to quiet her movements, Kaoru silently took off after him, matching his lope with ease. She knew it was risk to use magic right now if the mages surrounding them were trackers but she really had no choice. There was no way she could move as silently as the man in front of her over the bracken strewn forest floor.
Ignoring the persistent, niggling doubt still tingling in her chest, she gave her full attention to keeping pace with Kenshin. They were several yards into the trees before the redhead took a moment to glance over his shoulder to check on her and she smiled at the surprised look that flew across his face at finding her so close. Must be her stealth trick was working. At his questioning look, she pointed to her feet, which were floating about an inch off the ground. Kenshin's eyebrows shot into his bangs and he gave her the oddest look before he turned his attention back to the forest ahead of them.
Kaoru grinned to herself as they continued silently winding their way through the trees. She had to admit it was kind of nice not to have to hide what she could do from him anymore. Not to mention with this trick keeping her as quiet as him they might actually make it out of this alive.
One mile, and then two, smoothly and silently passed beneath their feet before Kaoru slowly began to tire. The aches and injuries she’d collected over the last few days began pricking at her limbs again, sapping what bit of energy she‘d regained overnight. Ignoring them the best she could, she dropped her feet closer to the ground and reached out for the earth magic to check on the mage in this area again.
An icy chill swept through her body and she nearly stumbled to her knees at what she found. Oh, gods… they were coming! All of them! They must have all been trackers! And with the use of her stealth spell she had led them straight to her and Kenshin!
Suddenly sick, Kaoru dropped the spell on her feet completely and started mentally preparing herself for their arrival. She was just about to call out to Kenshin to tell him, when he suddenly materialized right in front of her with a concerned look.
“What is it?” He asked quietly.
“They’re coming…“ She muttered shakily. “I led them straight to us!”
Kenshin shook his head as he simultaneously loosened his katana and scanned the forest for the enemy. “This isn’t your fault. I didn’t honestly expect us to get this far without a fight.” Tossing a quick glance at her he asked, “How many?”
Kaoru swallowed tightly and murmured, “All four of them, they must all be trackers.”
Kenshin tensed somewhat at that. “How soon will they arrive?”
Kaoru was just about to tell him the first one was almost on top of them already when a fireball the size of her head came barreling out of the trees, aiming dead at them. Shoving Kenshin out of the way, she flung herself back to avoid the strike then swung around to retaliate with a fist full of electricity. But she never got a chance to unleash it because somehow Kenshin disappeared from beside her to reappear right behind the rogue mage twenty feet away, his blade already slicing through the air as it cut a deadly arc towards the mage’s back.
Kaoru watched in stunned amazement as the blade bit into the mage’s shoulder before the man even realized Kenshin was near. With a furious growl the mage wrenched himself free of the blade and spun around, launching a fireball dead into Kenshin’s face.
Kaoru’s breath caught in her throat and she was moving almost before the fire had left the mage‘s hand, her own still crackling and ready to attack once she was sure she wouldn’t hit Kenshin. But it seemed her assistance wasn’t needed this time either because with speed she didn’t even know existed Kenshin dodged the strike, then vanished from sight all together. A heartbeat later the redhead suddenly materialized in the space between her and the rogue, effectively blocking the strike the mage had launched at her while she‘d been preoccupied.
For a long moment silence reigned, then the mage’s eyes narrowed in recognition as he leveled a hard glare on the redhead in front of her. “You’re the one they call the mage killer.”
Kenshin’s shoulders stiffened at the appellation. “I only kill those who give me no choice.“ He replied icily. “But to answer your question, yes, I can and will kill mages when I must.”
A sneer twisted the dark-haired man’s lips as both hands took on an orange radiance, “Against one you might succeed, but I think you may have trouble against all four of us.”
And then as if his words had summoned them, the two she’d felt to the north and the one that had been to the south walked out of the shadows on either side of them, their fists already glowing a bright orange.
Kaoru paled and started to shake as Kenshin took a step back towards her, now even more on guard. All that was missing was Takeda but thankfully as far as she could tell he was still unaware that his mages had found them.
“How many can you take?” Kenshin all but whispered to her over his shoulder.
Kaoru swallowed thickly, “…One… maybe two if I‘m lucky.”
A miniscule nod was her only answer before Kenshin took off towards the two who had just arrived from the north leaving her with the two still spread out. Doing her best to ignore the sickening fear twisting her gut, Kaoru immediately ducked behind a tree for protection and launched a fist of electricity toward the two remaining mages hoping to knock them off guard.
But unfortunately neither man seemed fazed by her use of lightning and easily evaded the strike, fanning out to either side of her. Kaoru scowled darkly and dashed to another, larger tree further away to give herself some time to think. Of course they wouldn’t be surprised, they had both seen her on the cliff, if they knew what her eye color meant then they knew what she could do.
Although, even if they did know about her abilities it was impossible for them to have ever experienced anything but fire and possibly lightning, if they‘d ever gone against Takeda. A faint smile slowly replaced the scowl, which meant she still had an advantage of surprise on her side.
Heartened by the thought, Kaoru decided it was time to put some of her other knowledge to work. Quickly noting where both men were she placed her hands firmly on the tree trunk keeping her hidden and whispered a short incantation under her breath that would link her directly to the world beneath her feet.
Almost immediately the root system crisscrossing the area all three of them were in came into sharp relief in her mind. Within moments she had pinpointed the roots beneath the mages feet and with lightning speed she thrust the sinewy ropes up from the ground and wrapped them around both men in a crushing grip. Shouts of surprise and pain filled the air but Kaoru had no time to revel in her accomplishment because she already knew her strength in earth magic would only hold this type of spell for a minute or two at best.
With that fact spurring her on, she sprinted to the one closest to her and without a thought ruthlessly drove a crackling sphere of electricity directly into the mage’s unprotected torso. A howl of rage and agony ripped from the man’s throat as he threw his head back, thrashing against his root bindings in vain to escape. Kaoru grimly pushed the blasting heat through the cloth of his tunic and into his chest, filling the electrified air with black smoke. The scent of seared flesh assaulted her nose and choked her throat. Stumbling back Kaoru finally released the sphere, trying to inhale clear air and force the bile rising to settle.
Her unease was quickly forgotten though when something suddenly crashed through the trees behind her. On guard and glancing over her shoulder to find out what it was, she was surprised to see one of the mages Kenshin had taken on lying in a broken heap at the base of a large tree. Blood stains darkening his face, forearms and chest. A heartbeat later Kenshin shot past her with the other mage hot on his heels.
At that moment the roots holding her own enemy gave way, sinking back into the ground, and the mage dropped unconscious to the ground to join his partner in a bloody mass. That meant they had managed to take two down so far. A faint smile touched her lips, they might get out of this yet.
That thought was quickly shredded though as a large ball of pure energy suddenly slammed into her back, knocking her face first into the ground beside the bleeding mage. Stunned for a moment by the impact she lay still, trying to fend off the nausea twisting her gut from the searing pain ripping through her back. Gasping to regain her breath and control Kaoru grit her teeth as she tried in vain to focus her mind.
Steeling herself against the agony, she groaned softly and slowly began pushing herself back to her feet. She should have known better than to let her guard down with the other mage now free from the roots. A familiar pulse of power suddenly radiated out from the man as he closed in but Kaoru couldn’t clear her mind enough to figure out what it was.
“You might as well stay down there until Kanryuu arrives.” The mage advised her calmly as he came to stand over her hunched form. “He should be here soon.”
A small tendril of fear curled in her gut at the name but instead of giving in to it, she scowled and continued to rise anyway. She wasn’t going to be here when he arrived, she’d make damn sure of that.
As if he had somehow read her thoughts the mage locked her arm in a crushing grip as soon as she had gained her feet. Snarling angrily under her breath, she shot him a scathing glare and was just about to teach him that grabbing her like that was a very bad idea when the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves reached her ears.
“There’s no use fighting” a smirk, “He’s here.”
A heartbeat later Kaoru froze as the familiar aura of the one advancing suddenly washed over her confirming the mage’s words. Swallowing down the panic climbing into her throat she slowly scanned the area hoping and praying her senses were wrong even though she knew there was no possible way.
“Did you honestly believe you could escape me, girl?” A silky voice asked in obvious amusement, and then the black mage stepped from the shadows in front of her with a gleeful smile on his face.
The blood drained from Kaoru’s cheeks and she clenched her fists to keep from shaking. Oh gods, this was bad… this was really really bad.
“Where is her companion?”
Kaoru jumped at the gravely voice and she noticed the tall, deathly pale, white-haired man who had followed Kanryuu out of the shadows. His burning red eyes fixed on the man beside her. She was surprised to feel the hold on her arm slacken somewhat and the hand start to tremble slightly.
“G-Gorou is dealing with him right now. He should subdue him s-soon.”
Kaoru swallowed thickly as Kanryuu glanced to the two fallen mages.
“I believe he may need some assistance dealing with the mage killer.” The black mage noted casually as he looked to the rogue still holding her. “You may leave her with me now.”
Kaoru’s heart jumped into her throat and she almost grabbed the mage to keep him from going anywhere, the lesser of evils facing her, but before she could give into her irrational desire the man was gone. Swallowing around the lump trying to choke her, she stomped down the nearly crippling fear tightening her chest and gave the black mage a defiant look.
“I’m not going to help you so you might as well leave me alone.” She stated tightly, her voice barely above a whisper as she struggled to keep it from belying her dread.
A hollow chuckle spilled from Kanryuu’s smirking lips and he took a step towards her. “You will help us whether you want to or not, Ancient-san…” And then in the blink of an eye, the black mage had his hand fisted in her hair, pulling tautly against her scalp to immobilize her. He peered down into her face as she regained her precarious balance, the proximity of his dark pleasured expression at her dilemma overwhelmed her senses, “Don’t forget, girl, no matter what elements you wield you are still only an apprentice mage. There is no way you can take on the likes of me.“
Kaoru cried out as his hold tightened even more, the pain of her scalp blending with her wounds to wrack at her. Driven by pure instinct to survive, she called on the earth to enhance her strike and rammed a hardened fist directly into his chest as hard as she possibly could. A pain-filled hiss of surprise erupted from Kanryuu’s lips as his ribs gave under the pressure, cracking sounds filled the air as his hand loosened enough for Kaoru to wrench herself free and stumble back a couple of steps. She faced him, watching as his eyes narrowed and he pressed a hand briefly to his damaged ribs.
Gasping, and nearly feral with desperation, she spat, “I said I will not help you!”
Kanryuu’s face blackened with rage and he moved to grab her again but stopped suddenly and out of the corner of her eye she immediately saw why. Kenshin, red-hair loosened and trailing behind him like a banner, was racing towards them with frightening speed, his blade raised and glinting menacingly as it caught tiny shafts of light in his advance.
A surge of relief spilled through Kaoru’s veins only to be wiped out a moment later when she felt more than saw the deadly ball of electricity spark to life in Kanryuu’s hand. Taking a precious moment to look at the pulsing purple sphere, she felt her stomach twist into a rock hard fist at the sheer intensity of it. If that hit Kenshin he’d be done.
The world seemed to slow to a crawl as Kaoru watched the black mage’s hand begin to lift and with speed she didn’t even know she possessed she took off towards Kenshin to knock him out of the path of the strike, desperately wishing they were anywhere but here. She couldn’t watch him die. She wouldn’t watch him die!
A split second later she collided with the redhead, expecting to tumble back into the trees. But what she hadn’t counted on was the way the world suddenly turned itself inside out and for one gut-wrenching moment she felt like they were suspended in empty space before they finally crashed to the unforgiving ground.
A grunt of pain ripped from Kaoru’s throat and she rolled away from Kenshin as a sickening wave of nausea tore through her gut. Closing her eyes, she clenched her teeth against the convulsions and lay absolutely still hoping that would be enough to calm her raging stomach. She had no idea how long she laid like that but eventually the nausea and disorientation passed enough for her to finally be able to check on Kanryuu’s whereabouts.
Slowly sliding her eyes open, she hissed as unadulterated sunlight immediately pierced her mind and with a groan she snapped them back closed again. For a long moment she watched the tiny pinpricks of light dance across her eyelids before it finally dawned on her. Sunlight…? Wait… how was that possible? They had been deep in the forest where there had been very little light.
A gentle touch on her forehead made her jump and she slowly opened her eyes again half afraid she might find Kanryuu hovering above her. But much to her intense relief, she instead found Kenshin gazing at her with a worried look; the left side of his face darkened with smeared blood.
“Are you okay?” He asked as he trailed his finger along her hairline again.
Kaoru gave him a half smile and slowly started pushing herself up. “Better than you, I think.“ However in the next instant she had to rethink that when her head started to spin and her belly decided to rebel again. “Okay… maybe not….” she conceded thickly as she lay back down again. If this kept up Kanryuu really would get her.
At the thought, a shot of adrenalin surged through her veins and she mumbled, “What happened? Where‘s Kanryuu?”
“To be honest, I’m not really sure,” Kenshin admitted as he settled down beside her and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, “but if I had to guess, I’d say you teleported us away from him.”
That announcement was enough to startle her out of her misery for a moment and Kaoru bolted upright before she even realized what she was doing and immediately regretted it when the world tilted precariously; her stomach pitching right along with it. Grabbing onto Kenshin for support, she gritted her teeth and waited for the sickness and vertigo to subside again. This was really getting to be a reoccurring annoyance these days, she reflected grimly.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, her body settled down again and she cautiously turned her attention to the world around them to see if what he’d said could possibly be true.
And what she found stunned her even more.
The forest they had been traveling in just a few short minutes ago had completely vanished to be replaced by a small hillside meadow, the long green grass carpeting the land around them swaying gently in the cool later summer breeze. Beyond the meadow another forest marched away in all directions save for the wide track that cut down the hillside where it led to several rectangular patches of rice paddies that seemingly connected the handful of huts dotting the valley floor below.
All of a sudden, Kaoru felt lightheaded and she paled as the sheer enormity of what she’d unwittingly done hit her square in the face. Kenshin was right, the only way for them to move from where they had been to this meadow was by teleporting. There was no other explanation. But, in order for her to do something like that she’d have to be an adept and she was nowhere near that level as a mage. Not even close! But then how could she have done this? How!
And then another, more immediate concern suddenly grabbed her attention, and with slightly wild eyes, she turned back to the smiling redhead beside her and murmured, “Where are we?”