Darkest Days

Unexpected Turn of Events

For a long, silent moment Takeda Kanryuu stared in utter disbelief at the small patch of undisturbed ground where the Ancient and her companion had been before letting out a frustrated, bone-chilling growl of rage.

The birds who had settled in the area immediately took flight with terrified squawks as black eyes found and nailed in place one of the two mages who had followed the redhead back. With another chest rumbling snarl Kanryuu launched the charged ball still in his hand directly at the frozen mage; his need to destroy something overpowering all else. A faint, twisted smile pulled at his lips as the man was lifted off his feet and driven violently into a gnarled tree trunk.

“Killing allies will solve nothing.”

Kanryuu scowled and slid a scathing glare to the white-haired man beside him. “Allies like him I don’t need. I’ll get the girl myself.”

A heavy silence was his only answer before his teacher murmured in an icy tone, “Do not attempt to damage the host again.“

The promise of death lacing the words made Kanryuu‘s blood run cold and he found himself once again reminded of just what kind of creature he'd thrown his lot in with. He sneered to cover his unease and tore his attention away from the glaring reddish eyes fixed on him. Cautiously he made his way over to a fallen tree to check the damage to his throbbing chest. “Can you track them?”

A beat of silence passed before Kanryuu felt an incredible force press against his back; the air around him instantly heating and thickening into a syrupy mass, making it hard to breathe. A moment later the sensation vanished as quickly as it had come and his teacher replied, “No. It seems the Ancient didn’t have a target in mind when she activated the spell.”

Kanryuu’s anger spiked again, a snarl of frustration rising within. “Then they’re gone!” He bit out caustically as he carefully eased himself down onto the dead wood. “You have to have an image of whom to or where you are going or you will be lost in nothingness. The girl had no idea what she was doing!”

A shot of pain suddenly radiated out from the jewel in his chest, making his breath seize. Gasping Kanryuu wrenched his tunic and under kimono open to find out just how much damage the brat had done before she’d killed herself.

“I don’t believe they are dead“ his teacher replied. But the statement fell on deaf ears as the jewel suddenly came into view. Kanryuu inhaled sharply and winced as another wave of pain ripped through his torso.

She couldn’t have…

“It would seem the Takeshi children are no longer necessary.” His companion noted nonchalantly.

Kanryuu didn’t bother to reply as he continued to stare in stunned silence at the star-shaped jewel that had been the bane of his existence for the last ten years. The glaringly pristine surface that had once mocked his own attempts to damage was now heavily-webbed with minute spider cracks; the power it had held in check up until now glittering along the tiny pathways.

A maniacal laugh rose up to escape from his throat as the reality of what she had done finally sunk in. Before he could do anything to finish the job himself though his teacher’s hand shot out like a snake and without warning struck the weakened jewel. Kanryuu hissed as the shock of it ripped through his heavily bruised chest, the magically crafted jewel bursting into a thousand tiny blood-covered fragments; unleashing his power in a mind blowing torrent.

Kanryuu went rigid as the potent energy flooded through his veins like a drug and for the first time in ten years he instinctively called lightning out of the clear blue sky above, blasting the only rogue left standing into a pile of ash where he stood agape. Another laugh, hoarse and malevolent, tore from his throat at his accomplishment and he was just about to blast a tree in half for the hell of it when the sense of euphoria was ruthlessly torn to shreds by a soul-searing, breath-stealing heat. The force of the inferno stunning him, ripping the very sound of his triumph from the air.

Gasping and shaking, he tried to wrench himself away from the white hot fire suddenly burning into his chest. Before he could move an inch his teacher’s free hand clamped down onto his shoulder, pinning him place while the other continued to drive raw fire into the hole to cauterize the wound.

Kanryuu bit his tongue to keep from screaming and glared up into the glowing red eyes fixed on him as the creature’s features shifted and flexed, his real form continuously trying to superimpose itself over the shell housing it. Although sickened by the sight, Kanryuu refused to look away, instead gritted his teeth against the pain; waiting for his teacher to finish.

Much to his intense relief a few heart pounding moments later the fire subsided and he was released. Allowing him to slump and drag air into his lungs.

“The girl has done us a favor.“ His teacher murmured impassively as his features settled back into that of the white-haired young man he‘d claimed.

Kanryuu scowled. “Yes. But we needed her to help break the seal. She is of no use to us dead.”

A small smile curled the creature’s lips as he stepped away. “As I said before, I don’t believe they are dead. She did not know where she was going but they still landed somewhere north of here.”

That caught Kanryuu off guard and his eyes widened in surprise. ”Impossible!”

“Remember, she is an Ancient. There is much she can do that you cannot.” His teacher remarked acerbically. “Even my kind do not know all there is to know of them, that is why we were so easily trapped by them.”

With a frown, Kanryuu rose, ignoring the insistent throbbing in his chest. “I don’t care what she can do, she and the host will not get away from me a second time.”

A faint “good” was his only answer as his teacher spun on his heel and started walking north.

Scowling blackly, Kanryuu dusted himself off, tugged his under kimono closed and slowly followed in the creature’s footsteps. The sudden urge to give his so called teacher a taste of what he could do now that he was no longer chained flooded through his veins, but he fought it back. It would be suicide to attempt something like that against his kind.

Dragon gods were fickle at best, to go against his companion now would only lead to death and he was far too close to getting what he wanted to lose it all now.

Several years ago a deal had been struck and he fully intended to collect his payment as soon as Ryujin was released.

The wide track leading down the hillside was steeper and more rocky than Kaoru had originally anticipated and she cursed as her foot caught on a raised rock hidden in the knee high grass again, jarring her already battered body. Stumbling a couple of steps, she caught herself before she fell and groaned as her still upset stomach rolled dangerously. With an audible click, she clenched her teeth tight against the urge to vomit and took a couple slow even breaths in an effort to keep her minimal breakfast where it belonged. If this was what happened when someone teleported she would much rather walk to wherever she had to go, because as far as she was concerned this wasn't worth it. Not at all.

A moment later her attention was drawn away from her misery by the warm hand that settled on her shoulder.

"Are you sure you don't want me to carry you? The village is not all that far."

Ignoring the sudden increase in her heartbeat at Kenshin's touch, Kaoru swallowed thickly and gave him a sidelong glance. "You can't. You're only a couple of inches taller than me."

Kenshin scoffed softly at that then smiled as he dropped his hand from her shoulder and took another step towards her. "I have carried you before, Kaoru-dono, and I can do it again if you wish."

Kaoru’s breath caught in her throat as a jolt of unexplained warmth shot through her veins at the reminder. Flushing a deep red in embarrassment, she spluttered, "That was-... I didn't-... … Gah! I can make it down there on my own!" she finally managed as she stepped around him and started down the hill again.

A deep, frustrated sigh came from behind her and then she suddenly found her arm linked neatly through Kenshin's. Nestled tightly against his side. "At least let me help you like this so you won't get hurt again."

Kaoru’s heartbeat jumped at the contact and she immediately tried to pull away to keep him from somehow noticing the effect he was having on her. But much to her dismay Kenshin kept her locked firmly against his side, the hard look in his violet eyes daring her to attempt that again.

A tiny frown tugged at her lips and she glared at him for a moment before she grudgingly huffed, “Fine.”

The gorgeous, relieved smile that lit up Kenshin’s face caught Kaoru completely off guard and she stumbled the first step as he started guiding her down the steep incline towards the handful of huts he had grown up near. With a smirk, Kenshin tossed her a smug see? look that made Kaoru growl at him halfheartedly.

Falling into step beside him, she gave her attention to carefully picking her way through the rock strewn, swaying grass and tried not to think too much about the soothing heat flowing through her clothing from their linked arms and brushing shoulders. It should have been easy considering the fact that she knew they were still in danger even if they had managed to evade Kanryuu for the time being. Despite the fact that she had somehow, unbelievably, managed to land them near Kenshin’s home village and its relative safety she was finding it very hard to keep her attention where it should be now because of that, that feeling of security. Its deceptiveness kept her from thinking about their predicament and instead turned her thoughts to the man beside her.

Stealing a glance at the redhead, she swallowed thickly and immediately swung her eyes back to the ground as the strange feeling she still refused to acknowledge tightened her chest again. This couldn’t be happening. She’d known the man for all of a week and a half, there was no way she could have fallen for him that fast. And yet, there was no other way to explain what she felt every time he touched her either. Even in her inexperience she knew that it was more than a crush because she‘d already had one of those when she‘d first met Hachiro three years ago. What she felt towards Kenshin was somehow… different from that time.

A large rock suddenly caught her toe and tripped her again, yanking Kaoru out of her thoughts. Instinctively reaching for Kenshin with her free hand she grimaced as tiny needles of pain shot up her leg. The next instance all thoughts of pain vanished though when she found herself once again held securely in Kenshin’s arms like she had been in the cave.

“Are you okay?” He asked once they had stopped moving.

Beyond embarrassed, Kaoru desperately tried to ignore the concerned look in his eyes and carefully wiggled herself free. “Yes, I just didn’t… see it in time.” she replied lamely when he let her go. Yes, this was definitely different than Hachiro!

“It isn‘t much further.” Kenshin remarked after a moment. “You will be able to rest soon. Unless you wish for me to carry you the rest of the way?”

Kaoru frowned and nailed him with a glare, “I told you I can get there myself.”

Kenshin grinned as if he knew she would answer that way and was reaching out to reclaim her arm when he suddenly stopped and simply stared at her with steadily widening eyes. Confused and just a little bit uncomfortable with his scrutiny, Kaoru was just about to ask what the problem was when he said, “Your eyes.”

Kaoru gave him an odd look. Her eyes? What about them?

And then it hit her. They were still blue! But… these people knew Kenshin, they wouldn’t say anything, would they?

“No, they wouldn’t, but we can’t take the chance.” Kenshin answered.

Kaoru jumped, wondering if she’d said that aloud but the question flew out of her head when Kenshin reached out lightning quick and tugged the dark blue ribbon that she always wore from her hair. Just as quickly he covered her eyes with it.

Suddenly plunged into darkness, Kaoru’s irrational fear of the dark made her heart jump into her throat and she tried to push away from him. Kenshin quickly knotted the ribbon behind her head and caught her hands against his chest before she succeeded.

“We will tell them you’re blind.” Kenshin explained softly. His fingers firmly keeping hers trapped. “It’s the only way to keep us all safe.”

Kaoru fisted her hands in his tunic and desperately tried to calm her thundering heart. He was right but he could have at least warned her what he was going to do.

“I’m sorry.” Kenshin murmured as his hands tightened on hers. “Tomoe told me of your fear and I was afraid you wouldn’t agree if given the choice.”

Kaoru frowned. “I’m not that stubborn,” she replied grumpily as she released his shirt and tugged her hands from his, “I can deal with anything as long as I know it’s the only way.”

A faint chuckle sounded into the quiet. “I believe you could.“ Kenshin easily agreed. “Again, I’m sorry. I should have asked.”

Somewhat mollified, Kaoru ignored the fear still tightening her chest and reached blindly for his arm. “Now that you know that, we should go before someone sees us and wonders what we’re doing.”

Kenshin’s hand caught hers and he threaded her arm through his again. Kaoru immediately reached over and grabbed onto their joined arms with her free hand for more leverage. This was going to be… interesting.

“Just take a step each time I do and we’ll be fine.” Kenshin said as he began to move.

Stumbling the first time, Kaoru listened for each step and slowly figured out the rhythm of his movement until she was walking almost normally, if slowly, beside him. And then, quicker than she had expected, Kenshin leaned in to her ear and whispered, “We’re almost to the first rice field. Meguro-san has already spotted us and is calling the rest of the villagers.

Kaoru gave him a small nod and swallowed nervously. She wasn’t quite sure if she was ready for this or not. She had never really been good with meeting new people thanks to her seclusion and now she had to face them blind on top of it all. Her already sour stomach tightened and Kaoru bit her lip to try to calm herself down again as they came to stop.

Kenshin must have sensed her nervousness because he leaned in again and said, “Don’t worry, for now I will do all the talking.”

Before she had a chance to answer the sound of scuffling came from somewhere in front of her and she jumped as a distinctly masculine, yet youthful voice suddenly called out, “Himura-san! What brings you here after so long?”

Resisting the urge to take a step back, she gripped Kenshin’s arm tight enough to make her knuckles ache and was grateful when Kenshin gave her hand a reassuring squeeze as the sound of several more footsteps came hurrying their way.

“Seiji! Leave them alone!” A brusque female admonished before Kenshin had a chance to answer. And then Kaoru heard a gentle slap she was sure must have landed on the young man’s head. Beside her Kenshin chuckled and Kaoru smiled weakly, somewhat calmed by the familiar family antics.

“Its fine, Aiko-dono.” He assured her as a faint ‘ow!’ came from the abused man. “My wife and I are traveling and she wanted to visit where I hailed from since we were so close. I hope we aren’t intruding.”

Kaoru stiffened and her eyes flew wide under the ribbon as she swung her head in the general direction of Kenshin’s voice. “Whose wh-!”

“Of course you’re not intruding, Kenshin,” An elderly voice replied, cutting her off. “You’re family. Hiko-san would never forgive us if we turned you away.”

Several other voices murmured their agreement but Kaoru barely heard them over the rapid beating of her heart. What was he saying! She hadn’t agreed to be anyone’s wife!

She nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt Kenshin’s lips brush against her ear. His breath warm. “They are very traditional here,” he whispered so softly she almost didn’t hear him over the mutterings of the others. “They won’t let you stay with me otherwise.”

Kaoru grimaced and swallowed thickly to calm her roiling belly. It was bad enough they had to lie about her eyes, now they had lie about that too? But, deep down she knew if they were as he said, then he was probably right and the last thing she wanted was to be separated from him here. Stifling the part of her that still riled against the deceit she finally nodded slightly, to show she understood.

Kenshin‘s relief was palpable and Kaoru smirked. Good, it was nice to know she wasn’t the only one on edge.

“Excuse me sir, is your wife blind?” A young, girlish voice suddenly asked.

A gasp quickly followed by a scandalized “Fuyu-chan!” came but Kaoru could almost feel everyone perking up hoping for an answer to the child‘s question.

Kenshin didn’t miss a beat and with a soft squeeze to her hand he replied, “Yes, she had an accident that took her eyesight a couple of months ago.” Several inhaled breaths came in answer and Kaoru felt every single one like a fist in the gut. She hated lying almost as much as she did the dark, especially when they were deceiving people who seemed to know Kenshin so well.

Crumbling under the guilty feeling swimming through her chest she was just about to pull the ribbon from her eyes and tell them the truth when Kenshin locked her hand in his.

“Do you mind if we rest before we continue introductions? It‘s been a long journey and I believe my wife is tired.”

Kaoru scowled and tugged on her hand but before she could say anything the brusque woman exclaimed, “Of course!” We need to get back to the fields anyway. Come on everyone, Kenshin-san and his wife won’t be leaving anytime soon. We can talk to them later.”

Kaoru’s skin crawled at being called wife again as several of the villagers grumbled their disappointment and then the sound of shuffling feet filled the warm afternoon air as the crowd dispersed.

“I‘m sorry.“ Kenshin murmured softly into her ear as he started guiding her along the pathway behind the rest of the villagers. “It really is better this way.”

Kaoru inwardly frowned, “I know..” she muttered wearily, “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Kenshin seemed to relax at that. “Meguro-san,” he called out suddenly. “Is my master here?”

Ahead of them one set of retreating footsteps stopped before the elderly voice she‘d heard earlier answered, “No, but he should return within a day or two.”

Kenshin dipped his head in acknowledgement and lead Kaoru from that path onto a rougher patch of ground. “Up this trail a ways is my master’s hut.” He said in explanation as he led her on. “No villagers come up here so you’ll be able to go without the ribbon.”

Kaoru smiled, somewhat relieved, and turned her attention to cautiously feeling her way along the path. She had no idea how long they walked but after what seemed like forever Kenshin finally pulled her to a stop. “We’re here.”

A moment later gentle hands untied the ribbon and Kaoru squinted her eyes closed to keep from being blinded as the soft material fell from her face. Bright light immediately illuminated her closed lids and she gave them a quick rub out of habit before slowly blinking them open. Cautiously blinking as she took in where she had been led to. What she found though was not exactly what she had expected given what she’d seen of the rest of the village from the hill.

Instead of a hut surrounded by gardens and paddies, she found a small clearing completely enclosed by trees save for the small track that led back they way they had come. And directly across from where they stood, backed up against a wall of trees was what she would call a cottage, not a hut. The walls were solidly built with a thick, well kept thatch roof and a low, clean porch lining the front.

“You live here?“ She asked, glancing to the redhead beside her.

Kenshin smirked. “I did, until I was about your age and then I struck out on my own.“ He replied as he took her hand and led her across the clearing towards the closed door. “Although my master keeps a futon for me for whenever I’m passing by.”

Kaoru murmured a barely audible ‘ah’ as she stepped up onto the porch. Kenshin slid the door back silently and led her into the murky interior then dropped her hand to grab a bucket from beside the door. “I’ll go get some water.” Then before she could so much as ask where, he was gone.

With a shrug, Kaoru turned her attention back to the interior. It was clean but sparsely furnished; the lone piece of furniture was a three legged stool that sat on the far side of the fire pit which dominated the center of the raised floor. The corner to her right held an assortment of sake bottles and two shelves holding an array of grey but sturdy dishes and cookware. The corner to her left though was what really caught her attention, there she found neatly folded futons and blankets that were looking far too inviting right at the moment.

It only took her a minute to give into temptation. Working her boots off, she padded over to the bedding in sock feet and sank down with a gratefully sigh to lean against the pile. Now that all the excitement was over she was starting to feel the effects of all that had happened in the past couple of hours. If this kept up she didn’t know how much longer she was going to be able to stand it. It had been days since she’d felt… normal. A wave of exhaustion suddenly swept over her and her eyes dropped closed of their own accord as she sagged heavily against the soft stack. This was more comfortable than she thought it would be.

And that’s how Kenshin found her ten minutes later when he returned with the freshly filled bucket. Smiling to himself he silently set the bucket beside the fire pit and padded softly over to the exhausted mage. He wasn’t surprised to find her sound asleep. According to Tomoe teleporting was taxing for a seasoned mage, he couldn’t imagine how tiring it must have been for Kaoru. He wouldn’t be surprised if she slept the rest of the day away.

A faint sigh sounded into the quiet hut and he winced as Kaoru curled even more into the odd angle she’d fallen asleep in. She was going to end up with all sorts of knotted muscles if she stayed like that. Eyeing the pile she was nestled against he reached over and gently eased the top blanket out from behind her then laid it out before removing his blade and settling down beside her. With careful hands he gently guided her down until she was curled against his leg with her head resting in his lap. A soft sigh came as she shifted to make herself comfortable and then the hut went silent again.

Kenshin smiled and absently started running his fingers through her hair as he rested his head back against the stack. He was now beginning to see what it was that had made Tomoe give up her life at the tender age of fifteen to care for and raise this young woman. Kaoru was… special. That was really the only way he could describe her. He had never met anyone, especially a mage, who was so normal and yet so… extraordinary. So far she’d managed to surprise him at every turn.

His smile softened as he glanced to her sleeping profile. But what surprised him the most right now was his reaction to her. It had been years since he’d felt anything towards anyone and he didn’t know what to think of the feelings this eighteen year old had managed to awaken in him in the last week and a half. Feelings he had thought long dead since he’d let Tomoe go all those years ago.

A hollow chuckle whispered past his lips as he continued to trail his fingers through her silky mane. Tomoe would probably kill him for even thinking of Kaoru the way he was now and to be honest he really couldn’t blame her. Eleven years was a pretty wide stretch between them. She had barely seen the world, and he had seen too much.

Another sigh slipped past his lips and he shook his head. He wasn’t sure what do about his growing feelings but one thing he did know is that if Takeda tried to take her away from him again, the black mage would sorely regret his mistake. He may not have gone up against a black mage before but for her he would find a way to kill Kanryuu if he had to.

A jaw cracking yawn broke him from his thoughts and for the first time he felt just how tired he was after this morning’s run-in. He could use a nap himself but even here he didn’t feel completely safe. However his body had other ideas and after a couple of more yawns he finally allowed himself to doze lightly while he waited for Kaoru to wake. It wasn’t long though before he unwittingly slipped into a heavier sleep, his hand stilling in Kaoru’s hair.

A couple of hours later the unmistakable clearing of someone’s throat jolted Kenshin awake with a start. Instinctively he grabbed for his katana as his eyes flew open, immediately focusing on the towering silhouette in the doorway.

“It seems the rumors are true, you did find yourself a woman.”

Kenshin’s hand froze an inch from the well worn sheath as his panic turned into surprise and he tried not to frown at the teasing tone of the all too familiar voice.

“It isn’t what you think,” he replied quietly as the surge of adrenaline ebbed in his veins. Gently lifting Kaoru’s head from his lap so he could ease out from under her, he grabbed another blanket with his free hand and pooled it on the floor before carefully laying her back down. Smiling softly he gently removed a lock of hair from her face that had fallen during the shift. She hadn’t so much as twitched through the whole exchange, she really must be dead tired.

A faint snort came from his master as Kenshin rose and then the tall man stepped back out the door into the fading daylight, obviously expecting him to follow. With one last glance to Kaoru, he swallowed a weary sigh and padded softly from the hut; sliding the door closed behind him with a soft click.

Once outside, he made his way across the clearing to where the great Hiko Seijuro, master of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, sat on one of the two boulders near the path leading to the village. The ever present sake jug resting on his mentor’s leg. Claiming the other one for himself, Kenshin fixed his attention on his teacher and simply said, “That’s Kaoru.”

As he had expected that caught his master completely off guard and the swordsman nailed him with a hard look. “The Yukishiro family’s Kaoru?”

When Kenshin nodded, Hiko frowned. “Why is she with you and not still behind the shield?”

Kenshin passed a hand wearily over his face, “Tomoe sent her and another to Kiyosu to be Ayame and Suzume’s guardians, but things went bad and in the end we were separated from the rest. Right now I’m trying to get her back to the manor before Takeda Kanryuu can get his hands on her.”

The frown on his master’s face quickly morphed into a scowl at the name. “What does that snake have to do with this?”

Kenshin exhaled tiredly and glanced back to the hut. “He somehow found a way to release his power and is now hunting Kaoru for what she can do…for what she is.”

Hiko’s eyes narrowed at the leading answer but before his master could voice his irritation, Kenshin replied, “Kaoru is an Ancient, she can wield all the elements.”

For a long moment Hiko eyed him skeptically before stating, “That‘s impossible. They‘re all dead.”

Kenshin smirked, “Not dead, missing. But not even that anymore.” With a shrug, he eyed the hut, “When she wakes you will see the truth in her deep blue eyes. She is what I say she is.”

“Blue? Is that why the villagers think she’s blind?”

Kenshin nodded. “The fewer people who know the better. It’s the only way to keep her safe until I can get her home.”

Hiko inclined his head in understanding and finally took a drink of the sake resting on his leg. “True,” he agreed once he’d swallowed, “but that doesn’t explain why she is suddenly your wife. Or is that wishful thinking?”

Kenshin felt his face redden against his will and frowned. “It was the only way to ensure the villagers would let her stay here with me.”

His master gave him a disbelieving smirk that made Kenshin’s face redden even more but before he could say anything else in his defense Hiko suddenly grabbed his face and angled it towards the sky. There was a scowl on the older man’s face.

“What’s wrong with your scar? Why is it scaly and blue?”

Kenshin winced as a shot of pain pinched his neck and he reached up to run his finger along the scar as Hiko let him go. “I don’t know. It’s been acting strangely ever since I met Kaoru. Sometimes there’s a roaring in my head and it throbs like it‘s freshly made. And other times it splits open and bleeds like it did today when Kaoru teleported us. It wasn’t until then that I noticed the rough edges.”

Sighing softly, he shrugged and dropped his hand. “Once I reach the manor I intend to speak with Megumi-dono to find out if she knows what could be happening. “

Seemingly satisfied, Hiko nodded and rose. “Does Yukishiro-san know you’re here with her charge?”

Kenshin shook his head. “No, Kaoru and I don’t have any way of contacting her.”

A small smile touched his master’s lips and then without a word he headed for the hut, silently slipping inside. Surprised, Kenshin was just about to follow him to find out what he was doing when he appeared again, exiting just as quietly as he’d entered, and walked back to where Kenshin was still seated.

“Akira-san gave this to me a long time ago in case I ever needed their help.” He said as he produced a small wing-shaped pendant just like the one Tomoe had given Kaoru. “You simply need to hold it firmly in your hand and think of either him or Tomoe-san. All it does is let them know who and where you are but that should be enough for now.”

And then before Kenshin could so much as say thank you, Hiko dropped it into his hand and headed for the path leading to the village. “I’ll go ask Aiko-san if she has a spare futon for our guest, unless of course you wish to share yours with her.” He tossed over his shoulder with a sly grin.

Kenshin’s face flamed bright red again, sending the aged swordsman into a bout of hearty laughter as he disappeared around the bend in the trail. Kenshin scowled and glared down the now empty pathway. Of all the places Kaoru could magic him to, why did it have to be here.

At the thought, his scowl faded somewhat and he rose and headed for the hut. To be honest, that was the biggest mystery of all. How had Kaoru managed to get them here to begin with when she hadn’t even meant to teleport in the first place? Even he knew it was impossible for a mage to jump blind but somehow that was exactly what Kaoru had done. How she had chosen this place, even if randomly, was an even bigger mystery that had Kenshin thoroughly perplexed. It was too odd to be coincidental. The only explanation he could figure was she had somehow picked it out of his mind. But that was impossible, even the Ancients couldn’t read minds. With a tired sigh he shook his head, it would probably be best to leave that question alone until he could speak with Tomoe, if anyone would know it would be her.

Stepping up onto the porch he stopped just outside of the door and turned to face the empty yard as he tightened his fist around the pendant. Easily calling up an image of Tomoe, he smiled as a soothing warmth suddenly filled his occupied hand. The magic immediately sensing and reacting to his wish. A moment later the warmth vanished and he tucked the spent pendant into his sleeve then proceeded into the darkened hut. There, if that worked Tomoe would at least know he and Kaoru were safe… for now at least.

Several miles away, in the place where Kaoru and Kenshin had met Kanryuu, Tomoe, Akira, Shougo and Hachiro were searching for some clue as to what had happened to the mage and her guardian when Tomoe suddenly felt a tug on her subconscious as if someone was calling out to her.

Curious, she closed her eyes and focused on the feeling and was surprised when an image of Kenshin, standing on a porch in the mountain village he grew up in, slowly materialized in her mind. A joyous, relieved smile spread across her face when she realized what was happening. In the next instant the image faded leaving her feeling more at ease than she had since Kaoru had left for Kiyosu.

“They’re in Jouden with Hiko-san.” She said as she turned to her husband who was eyeing a patch of bloody ground a couple of feet away.

Akira straightened, clearly surprised. “How did they get there? It’s impossible to get from here to eight miles northeast of Kiyosu in a single afternoon. Not unless…”

Tomoe nodded when he trailed off. Her mind already considering the possibilities and ensuing questions of her own. “I think our ward has stumbled into teleporting. But I don’t see how she could have - “

“Hey guys…?” Hachiro suddenly called out, the tightness of his voice catching their attention. “I think we may have a really big problem…”

Surprised by the Sanada’s tone, Tomoe tried to ignore the faint twinge of fear it caused and quickly made her way to where he was standing, staring at the ground beside a fallen tree. Reaching the mage’s side she eyed the ground at his feet wondering what it was that had caught his attention and frowned when she found nothing. She was just about to ask the Sanada what the problem was when a gentle breeze swayed the leaves above her head, allowing a thin shaft of sunlight to break through the canopy and illuminate the glittering diamonds dotting the forest floor.

A faint snapping of twigs came from the direction Shougo had taken signaling his return but she ignored him as she slowly crouched down to carefully lift a pebble sized piece of the shimmering crystal. An icy chill swept through her body and she nearly choked when she saw the dried blood dotting the smooth surface.

“Is that what I think it is?” Hachiro asked as he crouched down beside her.

Suddenly sick, Tomoe could only nod. There was no doubt about it; she could still feel a faint imprint of the magic it had once housed.

He had done it. Takeda had released his power.

And he was still one step ahead of them where Kaoru was concerned.

Sickened further, she turned widened eyes to her companions, voice choked with apprehension, “We have to hurry.”

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