The Hunter and the Hunted
The word echoed hollowly in Kenshin’s mind as he hurriedly packed the spare clothes he’d gathered from his small chest. Stuffing them into the weatherproof pack already holding the other necessities he and Kaoru would likely need along with her wakizashi, he rose and scanned the room for anything else that might come in handy. Finding nothing he slung the pack on his back and quickly stepped out into the afternoon sunshine again. In the yard Kaoru hadn’t moved a muscle except to curl herself around Tomoe as if she was trying to protect her from whatever had caused the severe damage the adept mage had already suffered. His master stood in front of her guarding them both.
“Go north.” Hiko said as Kenshin came up beside Kaoru. “Even if they come they will expect you to go southwest towards the manor.”
Kenshin frowned as he reached down to grasp Kaoru’s arm, “The manor is where we need to go whether they follow us or not. It‘s the only place she will be safe from what is coming for her.” With an angry grumble that Kenshin couldn’t make out Kaoru resisted his gentle urgings to let go of Tomoe, expression softening he murmured, “Kaoru we have to go. She will be safe with Hiko, I promise.”
“You can turn back later. For now go north.” Hiko pressed in a tone that brooked no argument. Kenshin gave him a probing look but said nothing when he noticed the baleful glare Kaoru had speared him with but before she could voice her angry refusal his master crouched down in front of her.
“Tomoe-san risked her life to warn you of the danger she has already faced. Will you throw away the chance she has given you?”
The glare immediately shifted to Hiko before it melted away to be replaced by a sheepish, if still angry look. “No,” she murmured sullenly. Slowly she began to unfold Tomoe from her chest and Hiko reached out to gather the fallen mage to his own.
“You can help her right?” Kaoru demanded before his master could so much as lay a finger on Tomoe. “She’s not going to die right?”
A faint smile devoid of humor touched Hiko’s lips. “I will do all I can to make sure she survives.”
Kaoru continued to eye him skeptically for a moment longer before she sighed and finally relinquished her hold completely. “I’m going to hold you to that, Hiko-san.“ she muttered with a touch of fire in her sapphire eyes. A true smile creased his master’s face as Tomoe was smoothly transferred between them. The adept mage hadn’t stirred once since she’d passed out but she was still alive; the slow, shallow rise and fall of her chest proved that. Kenshin was sure that was the only thing keeping Kaoru sane at the moment.
“I would expect nothing less.” He said as he rose with Tomoe held securely in his arms and then without another word he vanished into the hut. Kenshin saw the action for the dismissal that it was and as soon as Kaoru gained her feet he motioned for her to the follow him around the hut to the path that would lead towards the hot spring. North as his master had suggested, at least for now.
He was almost around the side of the hut when he realized that Kaoru wasn’t with him. A glance over his shoulder showed him that she was still standing where he’d left her with a slight frown on her face staring at the shadowed doorway Hiko had disappeared into.
“Kaoru-dono?” He called out to catch her attention. Kaoru jumped and with an embarrassed look immediately started towards him. Kenshin smiled to himself and was just about to set off again himself when a teeth jarring crash suddenly split the afternoon air. The earth beneath his feet shivered violently and he spun around to search for the source just in time to see a jagged bolt of lightning slice down from the clear blue sky to slam into the ground beyond the trees, near the village.
The ground shivered again in answer to the assault but Kenshin barely felt it as he shot towards Kaoru. There was only one person that could be and they both knew it. But even knowing that didn’t stop the blue-eyed mage from taking off for the path leading to the village, rage clearly lining every muscle in her body.
Kenshin nearly growled and with one last burst of speed caught her wrist before she could start down the path. “Now is not the time to face him, Kaoru.”
Lightning quick Kaoru spun on him. Her face taut with apprehension “But he’s attacking the village!” she shouted trying to wrench her arm out of his grip. “They can‘t defend themselves against someone like him!“
Kenshin tightened his hold and pulled her towards him until they were nearly nose to nose. “Neither can you.” he stated icily. Kaoru froze at his tone and he almost regretted it. Almost.
“He is not alone, Kaoru, and whoever is with him helped him do that to Tomoe.” He continued with a nod towards the hut. “She came here to warn us of them and I’m not about to let her sacrifice be for nothing by letting you put yourself in their hands.”
A look of utter shame and frustration crossed Kaoru’s face before she scowled fiercely and glanced back to the trail again. Another explosion shook the ground and Kenshin decided he’d waited long enough and started hauling her towards the back of the hut. Much to his intense relief she didn’t fight and within moments they were on the path racing for the hot spring and the river beyond. A couple of more explosions followed on the heels of the last but by the time they had reached the pools the forest had gone eerily silent.
Ignoring the sense of foreboding tightening his chest, Kenshin guided them past the pools and onto a little used track that would lead them to the small river. From there they would follow that until he deemed it safe enough to turn back south. He needed to get her to the manor before Takeda found them again. It was the only safe place left for her until the black mage and whoever was with him were dealt with. The only question that remained now was who was strong enough to take them on. Before today he would have said Tomoe but Takeda had already proven that untrue.
The river soon came into view and Kenshin set aside his worry as he slowed and turned them into the trees that hugged the river on this side. Their pace dropped even more as they started picking their way through the heavy undergrowth that flourished along the bank thanks to the wet land and plentiful sunshine. But right now he didn’t care, the river masked any sound they were making which was better than finding an easier route.
They had been fighting their way through the grasping brush for several minutes when Kaoru suddenly tugged on her arm. Surprised that he was still holding onto her, Kenshin immediately released her wrist and was just about to apologize when she grasped his hand before it fell back to his side and gave it a gentle tug to catch his attention. Curious, he stopped and gave her a questioning look.
“We might make better time if we cross the river.” She noted with a quick glance to the far side where a long swath of grassland ran along the water instead of trees. The woodland there stood several paces inland, still shadowed but not nearly as thick with undergrowth as this side.
Eying the area himself he shook his head. The river here was at least chest deep on him, making it about shoulder deep on her and the current was not as gentle as it looked on the surface. They would never make it across.
“It’s calm enough here for me to get us across without going into the water.” Kaoru said as if she’d somehow read his thoughts. Kenshin glanced back to her and felt his throat tighten at the slight smile she was giving him.
Ignoring it the best he could he gave her a skeptical look. “You can take us both?”
Kaoru’s smile widened. “Of course or I wouldn’t have said so. Come on,” she said with a tug on his hand, “It’ll be better than trying to push through this.”
Still not quite believing, Kenshin let her lead him to the water’s edge and watched as she whispered something under her breath, and then stepped out onto the water. The liquid beneath her foot immediately stilled to a smooth sheen and he watched amazed as the stillness continued to grow until she was surrounded by a three foot wide circle of mirrored water. Absently he noticed his scar begin to throb slightly and with his free hand he checked to see if it was bleeding again but there was nothing to feel except for roughened skin.
“Come on.” Kaoru coaxed, tugging his hand as she placed her other foot on the water. “I swear I won’t drop us into the water.”
Kenshin smirked at the grin she gave him and he dropped the hand investigating his cheek then cautiously stepped out onto her magicked platform, half expecting it to crack under his weight. But much to his surprise the surface remained smooth, as if it had been made from wood or stone. Kaoru didn’t give him a chance to study her creation for long though. As soon as he joined her, she set off across the river at an easy walk with his hand still firmly clasped in hers. Each time she placed her foot for the next step the water smoothed to a glass-like surface large enough for them to continue on. They had gotten about halfway across when Kenshin hazarded a cautious glance over his shoulder to see what was happening behind them and wasn’t surprised to see the pathway they had already walked back to its original sluggishly moving state.
With a small shake of his head he turned his attention back to the steadily nearing bank and sneaked a peek at Kaoru out of the corner of his eye. She was… amazing. He never in his life thought he’d be walking on water.
A handful of steps later they stepped from the river and Kaoru immediately headed for the tree cover, pulling him along by the hand she still hadn’t let go of. Once safely under the leaf-heavy limbs, she turned and gave him a wide smile. “That wasn’t so bad was it, and Kanryuu can’t track that so he’ll never know where we went.” Her eyes widened suddenly and her face paled. “Unless the person with him can. I forgot about that one…”
Kenshin shrugged and gave her a reassuring smile. “Even if they can, you were right this will be easier to navigate. It was a good idea.”
Kaoru’s cheeks quickly regained their color, and then some, at his praise and Kenshin found his hard-earned distance crumbling under those crystal clear blue eyes. The desires he’d managed to bury earlier started clawing their way back to the surface, but thankfully before he could give in and pull her into his arms like he wanted to she turned to the shadowed forest and asked, “So where to now?”
With effort Kenshin forced himself to reclaim his hand and tried to ignore the touch of sadness that crossed her face as he took a step back.
“Since we’re on this side of the river, there’s an old abandoned hut a few miles from here that we can hide in for tonight.”
Kaoru dipped her head in understanding although the disheartened look still remained. Stomping down the part of him that wanted to make that look go away, Kenshin turned north leading them further into the forest at a quick walk. Now was not the time to be giving in to his irrational side. Not with Takeda and whoever he was working with hunting them again.
Behind him the soft snap and crunch of fallen twigs and leaves was his only indication that Kaoru was following, but it was enough and he picked up his pace a little. It would most likely take them the rest of the day to reach the hut Meguro-san and his wife had once lived in.
Now all he could do is hope that Takeda never found their trail.
The village of Jouden lay quiet except for the occasional sniffle or cough and Kanryuu sneered as he eyed the remaining inhabitants grouped before him with disdain. A small trail of smoke, carried on the lazy afternoon breeze like a banner, drifted through the space between he and the villagers and he let his attention wander to the smoldering ruin that had once been one of the handful of huts dotting this small mountain valley. Suzaku stood not far away with his arms crossed over his chest, his attention focused solely on the forest beyond as if he was searching or waiting for something.
A muffled cry came from one of the children in the group and Kanryuu shifted his attention back to the bedraggled residents and continued his interrogation.
“You can’t hide them forever.” He remarked coldly as his eyes drifted over each of them in turn. “If someone doesn’t tell me where they are, I’ll kill one of you at a time until one of you does.”
Nothing but silence and angry glares met his threat and he took a step towards one of the women holding a sniveling child and reached for the brat. “Shall I start with the children then?”
“No!” The woman screamed clutching the brat to her chest. A chilling smile twisted Kanryuu’s lips as he wrapped his hand around the child’s frail arm.
“They went south, down the river!“ A fierce eyed, heavyset woman suddenly exclaimed from behind the pair.
“Aiko!” A male voice shouted reproachfully, lending weight to the confession.
With an oily smile Kanryuu released the child. “See, that wasn’t so hard.”
The woman, Aiko, scowled blackly at him through the blood on her face but Kanryuu ignored it and walked to where Suzaku still stood completely motionless.
“They went south.” He said as he came up beside the tall, white haired god.
Suzaku shifted an eye to him. “The woman lies,” he stated calmly. “Her heartbeat is elevated.”
A sharp inhalation of breath behind him proved Suzaku’s words and Kanryuu flashed his teeth in anger as he spun around to go back and drag the truth out of the insolent wench, or kill her, whichever came first. But he’d only managed one step when Suzaku suddenly stiffened and swung his head to the north. “There. She has woven.”
Then, without another word, the revived god took off into the forest. Kanryuu growled under his breath and with one last glare to the huddled villagers quickly followed in Suzaku’s footsteps. To his relief the undergrowth was sparse allowing them easy passage and within minutes they broke out into a small open area with a single hut nestled against the trees on the far side. Suzaku paid it no mind and sped around the empty structure, continuing on along a path that had been hidden by the hut.
For half an hour Kanryuu followed as Suzaku tracked the unseen thread along various paths leading north until they finally came upon the sluggishly moving river the village woman must have been referring to earlier. The tiny animal track they’d been following faded into the thick underbrush choking a stand of trees hugging the river and they were forced to a slow walk.
They had only gone another handful of yards or so into the tangled mess when Suzaku suddenly shifted direction and cut to the river’s edge. Surprised, Kanryuu stumbled after him, cursing as several broken limbs snagged at his exposed skin.
“She wove the spell here.” Suzaku noted eying the water slowly rolling by inches away from his booted feet, then moved his attention out over the green hued expanse. “And continued across the water. They are on the other side.”
Kanryuu stiffened and gave his companion an odd look. “They crossed?”
The grin Suzaku gave him made his blood run cold. “I told you there is much you do not know about her kind. Do not underestimate her or you will die.”
Kanryuu scowled blackly at the warning and turned his attention to the far bank. There was no way a little apprentice mage could kill him now that he had his own power back. No matter what she could do. She was nothing but a flea biting at his heels and she would die as soon as she had served her purpose.
A moment later the crushing pressure he had come to associate with Suzaku’s magic use flooded the area around them and Kanryuu grabbed onto a sapling and locked his knees to keep from being pushed to the ground by the incredible weight. A tiny finger of fear curled around his stomach as the pressure continued to increase to an almost unbearable level and he started to panic wondering if the god had forgotten he was there. The question became moot when a bone chilling roar of rage suddenly shredded the silence and the pressure immediately vanished leaving Kanryuu scrambling for balance before he went face first into the water.
“This body is worthless!”
Kanryuu cringed away from the savage growl and almost hoped he had been forgotten. He had no idea what the irate god had attempted to do but he had come too far to die now.
However, much to his surprise Suzaku turned to him a moment later, completely composed, and calmly said, “We must find a way across the river quickly. I want to be on the other side by nightfall.”
Caught flat footed, Kanryuu’s mouth dropped open in surprise and he simply nodded but Suzaku had already turned away by then and began slicing a path through the heavy undergrowth, still aiming north. A quick glance to the sun showed the black mage they only had an hour or two left before dusk which wouldn’t leave them much time, and they still had no idea what direction they went when they’d crossed.
Kanryuu frowned. At this rate they would lose what ground they had managed to gain. Unless the girl was careless enough to give them another thread to follow.
By the time Kenshin and Kaoru reached the abandoned hut, the sun had dipped completely out of sight; leaving behind nothing but burning hues of orange and red on the horizon to light the deepening dusk.
Exhausted from trying to walk as silently as Kenshin without using magic, Kaoru gratefully stumbled onto the dilapidated porch and sagged against a weatherworn wall with a sigh as her companion vanished inside to check to make sure the hut was stable enough to spend the night in. A steady breeze carrying the chill of oncoming night blew down the length of the porch making her shiver and she hugged her arms around herself in an effort to keep warm.
The faint tread of booted feet announced the redhead’s return to the doorway and Kaoru glanced to him hopefully.
Kenshin smiled. “There is a hole in the roof against the back wall but other than that it looks sturdy enough. We should be safe in here tonight.”
Kaoru sighed in relief and followed as Kenshin turned back inside and disappeared to the left. Stepping across the worn threshold of the door, she stopped long enough to let her eyes adjust to the shadowy interior then made her way to where Kenshin was brushing debris from a corner where two solid walls met. A single slatless window in the center of the opposite wall was the only other point of entry save for the shoji less door.
“Should I gather wood for a fire?” Kaoru asked glancing back to Kenshin. The fire pit in the center of the hut still looked intact and usable.
Kenshin shook his head. “I think it would be best if we went without one tonight. We don’t know if we’re being followed and if we are we don’t want to give ourselves away.”
Kaoru saw the wisdom of his words but that didn’t stop her from shivering anyway as a small gust of wind snuck in the wide open door to tease the hem of her borrowed hakama. No fire was going to make for a cold night.
As if he had somehow read her thoughts, or more likely seen the shiver, Kenshin turned to the bag he’d brought and fished out a rolled bundle that was soon shaken out into a thin blanket big enough for two. Kaoru smiled gratefully when he handed it to her and he motioned for her to sit in the cleaned area.
Tossing the blanket over her shoulders, she settled against the wall with her shoulder tucked into the corner. “Do you think he’s following us?” she asked as Kenshin bent over the bag again.
“I have no doubt.” Kenshin murmured after a moment. Settling back on his heels he offered her a wrapped object that once unraveled revealed a battered rice ball. Kaoru’s belly gurgled hungrily and she eagerly bit into the sticky mass.
“Takeda wants you and he will not stop until he has you.” He continued as he settled in beside her and unwrapped his own.
Kaoru swallowed her first bite and sagged wearily against the wall. “If that’s true, what are we suppose to do? We can’t run forever.”
Kenshin did the same and replied, “You won’t have to. I’m taking you home.”
Kaoru’s hand stilled halfway to her mouth. Home? Did he mean the manor? The thought was enough to dampen her appetite and the hand holding the half eaten rice ball dropped into her lap. If he took her home, she would never see him again. He couldn’t cross the shield and once inside she knew Tomoe-sama wouldn’t let her back out until Takeda was dealt with. If that was even possible anymore!
“I don’t want to go home.” Kaoru suddenly heard herself say before she could stop herself. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kenshin’s hand stop just short of his mouth.
“Why?” He asked softly as the rice ball settled into his lap untouched. “Behind the shield is the safest place for you.”
Kaoru was immensely grateful for the heavy shadows obscuring their faces because she felt her cheeks heat up. Did she dare say it? It was obvious he didn’t feel the same way about her. Even if she wanted to believe the soft smiles and gentle touches meant otherwise.
“Because you can’t enter.” She blurted out before she lost her nerve completely. Much to her dismay nothing but silence came in answer and she was starting to think she had gone too far when a soft sigh whispered into the space between them.
“It is true that I cannot cross the barrier,” Kenshin murmured quietly. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t come out to see me when I visit you.”
For a long moment Kaoru simply stared at the redhead in the growing gloom wondering if she‘d heard him right. Did that mean…? She jumped when a warm hand found its way under the one resting in her lap and lifted the rice ball.
“Eat. We have a long road ahead of us.”
Still a little off kilter, Kaoru did what he said without thinking and tried to quiet the part of her that was squealing in glee. Maybe she really wasn’t the only one wanting to be more than just friends. Why would he bother to come visit her otherwise? Three bites later the rice ball was nothing but a memory and she felt exhaustion settle over her like a soft blanket pushing the thoughts from her mind. Hiding a yawn behind her hand she sagged even more against the wall and was surprised when Kenshin reached over and guided her to his shoulder.
“You sleep first. I will keep watch.”
Warmed by the gesture, Kaoru swallowed another yawn and righted herself long enough to silently offer him the other half of the blanket which he took and pulled around his shoulders so they were wrapped together in it’s cozy warmth. Once he had made himself comfortable again Kaoru reclaimed his shoulder before he could renege the offer and settled in to try to catch a little sleep.
A tiny smile touched her lips. She didn’t know how much sleep she was going to be able to get like this but it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t exchange his shoulder for all the pillows in the world.
It was nearly two hours after dark when the first of Megumi’s patients finally began to stir and she rose from where she’d been resting against the wall of the hut and settled down beside Tomoe, waiting for her friend to open her eyes.
A faint groan, barely audible above the singing higurashi, escaped the older woman’s lips and then dark eyes fluttered open, squinting against the light of the lantern Hiko-san had suspended from the beam in the center of the room.
“Don’t move just yet.” Megumi advised gently holding her friend’s shoulder down. “I was only able to start the healing on your ribs. They are still extremely fragile.”
Tomoe frowned. “Where am I?“ She murmured scratchily as she shifted slightly.
“You’re in Hiko-san’s hut in Jouden.” Megumi replied keeping her hand firm on her friend’s shoulder.
Recognition dawned in Tomoe’s eyes before it was replaced with confusion. “Then, how are you here?”
Once she was sure Tomoe wouldn’t ignore the warning Megumi released her and settled back with a sigh, “Sayo sent me to find you when she felt Shougo die. She was afraid all of you might have been killed or too injured to seek help.”
Tomoe gasped softly and Megumi immediately regretted her thoughtlessness. She’d forgotten that Tomoe had been friends with the Muyo family their entire life. Shougo and Sayo were like siblings to her and now she had lost another brother. She should have broken that to her a little bit more gently.
“I’m sorry.” Megumi murmured ashamed. But before she could say anything more Tomoe’s eyes shot wide and she struggled to sit up. “Akira!”
Megumi cursed and held her down to keep her doing more damage. “He’s alive,” she said as she moved to the side enough to reveal her other patient still sleeping on the futon behind her. “He’s lucky the Muyo family is linked like they are or he’d be dead this time. He‘s the reason I can’t fully heal you yet.”
The pain in Tomoe’s chest was enough to clear the fog from her mind and she snapped her attention to her husband, drinking in his now healed features as if she hadn‘t seen him in ages. A single tear slipped from the corner of her eye and she sighed in relief before murmuring, “Thank you.”
Megumi scoffed. “I really wish you two would quit doing things like this. I don‘t know how much more I can take.”
Tomoe gave her friend a crooked smile and gingerly touched her bandaged chest to assess the damage. To be honest she was surprised to be alive after the crushing blow Kanryuu had given her. “I can’t guarantee that.” She replied softly, wincing at the shot of pain her gentle inspection caused. “Things are worse than I had originally thought.”
“What do you mean worse?” Megumi question with a sharp look.
Tomoe stifled a sigh and turned her attention to the shadowed roof. “Sayo was right, Kanryuu is trying to release Ryujin.“ A knot of fear tightened in her throat but she swallowed it down the best she could and forced out the rest of the truth. “There is a host.”
Megumi gasped. “But that’s impossible!”
“I thought so too,” Tomoe said, glancing back to her friend with a weary smile. “But today I saw the impossible traveling with Kanryuu so I have no choice but to believe.”
At Megumi’s odd look she murmured, “Suzaku has been revived. He‘s the one who did that to Akira.” She left out the part about him using Enishi’s body, she didn’t think she could give voice to that without breaking down.
Megumi jerked as if she’d been physically struck. With a groan Tomoe forced herself into a sitting position and grabbed the healer mage’s arm to steady her. She looked like she was ready to be sick.
“I-i-impossible.” The healer mage stammered weakly. She did however manage a reproachful look for Tomoe’s seated position in her shock which didn’t surprise the injured mage. Tomoe released her and tried to find a more comfortable position.
“I have no doubt he is who Takeda claims.” Tomoe replied with a hollow smile. “And we don’t even know who the host is. For all we know they could already have them.”
If it was possible Megumi’s face paled even more but before she could say anything the shoji leading outside slid open to reveal the owner of the hut and Hiko stepped in.
“So it was a god that did that to the village.” The tall swordsman remarked as he slid the door closed and settled down in front of it. “I’m surprised it’s still standing if that’s the case.”
Tomoe stiffened and immediately regretted the unconscious reaction when her injuries screamed in agony. Swallowing a cry of pain she shifted a little to relieve her damaged chest. “What happened to the village?” she asked once the pain had dulled some.
“It was attacked by Takeda and this god you mentioned, shortly after you arrived.” Hiko replied in a deep no nonsense voice. “A couple of huts were destroyed, along with a handful of the paddies.”
“There were also… casualties.” Megumi added softly. “I wasn’t in time for them.”
A block of lead settled into the pit of Tomoe’s stomach and she murmured, “Who?”
“Meguro-san and his wife.” Hiko answered quickly enough but Tomoe heard the pause that followed and she waited for him to continue. When he didn’t she pressed him further, now fearing the worst. “Who else Hiko-san?”
The master swordsman held her gaze but remained silent for a moment more and Tomoe found herself desperately praying that it wasn’t Kenshin or Kaoru. She didn’t think she could take hearing that.
“Fuyu-chan,” Hiko finally said with a sigh. “She was stuck by lightning.”
An anguished cry tore from Tomoe’s throat but a tiny part of her was relieved not to hear him name one of the two she had feared most. Sniffling back the tears stinging her eyes, she murmured, “I’m sorry.”
Hiko simply shook his head as if to say she didn’t have anything to apologize for. “There is nothing to be done about it now.”
Tomoe sagged tiredly and sighed. “No, there isn’t.”
“So what do we do now?” Megumi asked. Tomoe heard the tightness in her friend’s voice and knew the healer mage was simply trying to steer the conversation away from what Tomoe was sure she saw as a failing on her part.
“I guess the next step we should take is to see if we can find the host.“ Tomoe replied, glancing to Hiko she asked, “Kenshin and Kaoru are safe?”
Hiko inclined his head, “I sent them north and he intends to turn back towards the manor when he deems it safe.” The dark haired swordsman gave her a knowing smirk. “He will not let anything happen to that young woman. That I can promise you.”
A small smile touched Tomoe’s lips. “I know.”
Beside her Megumi removed and rewet the cloth resting on Akira‘s forehead. “How are we going to find this host?”
“I don’t know,” Tomoe admitted softly. “It’s going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. The only defining mark the host would have is a scar since Ryujin would have needed to implant a piece of himself into the person as a type of claim on the body.“ She exhaled tiredly and shook her head. “But the scar could be anywhere on the body, we would have to search every person alive to find the host, which is impossible.”
It took Tomoe a moment to realize that Megumi had gone completely still at the explanation and she watched curiously as the healer mage glanced to Hiko. Glancing to the elder swordsman herself, Tomoe found him stone faced but his eyes held the look of a man who had figured something out he wished he hadn’t.
Before she could question the look he asked, “Would the scar be discolored and scaly?”
Tomoe felt a fist of fear knot in her chest. “It could,” she replied hesitantly, “Why?”
Megumi dropped the bowl of dirty water she’d been in the process of lifting and Tomoe snapped her attention to the startled mage as liquid sloshed over the side to soak into the edge of Akira’s futon. The knot of fear turned into a rock when the healer mage finally turned saddened eyes on her.
“Because according to Hiko-san, Ken-san’s scar has started turning scaly and blue.”
Tomoe felt the floor fall out from beneath her and she swung her attention to Hiko for confirmation. The dark haired swordsman gave her the briefest of nods and Tomoe felt like she’d been punched in the gut.
No… that wasn’t possible. She and Kenshin had been friends for years! There was no way he could be the host without her knowing it! None! As far as she knew he’d never even been close to the cursed wood hiding Ryujin’s prison.
And then an image of the bleached bones she’d found there years ago floated through her mind and she swallowed thickly as her eyes found Hiko’s again. “Where did you say you found Kenshin when he was a child?” She murmured weakly, half afraid of the answer yet already knowing what it would be.
“At a farm about twenty miles north of Toyama.”
The confirmation was like a knife to the heart and Tomoe sagged numbly. Now she understood why Kenshin couldn’t cross the shield protecting her home. For a reason she had never understood her ancestor had taken great pains to assure that the shield could never be penetrated by a god should any ever be resurrected. Somehow she must have known Ryujin wouldn’t sit idly by while the world continued to turn without him.
But why did he have to choose Kenshin.
Tomoe exhaled heavily and winced as her ribs protested the abuse. The why of it really didn’t matter. What did was the fact that he and Kaoru were together, which was dangerous for more reasons than she wanted to think about.
“You said they were going north?” She inquired.
Hiko nodded. “But I don’t know how far they will go before they turn back.”
“Is there any way you can track them?” Megumi asked.
Tomoe shook her head. “Not without Akira. The spell on Kaoru’s eyes has been broken and she lost the pendant I gave her.” She smiled ruefully, “And I’ve never been able to track Kenshin. Only Besshi can find him when I need him.”
“They have the pendant you gave me.” Hiko said as soon as she‘d finished.
Tomoe swung widened eyes to him, a glimmer of hope flickering. “They do? If they have that then I can find them. The sooner I get her away from him the better.”
Hiko stiffened minutely and Tomoe immediately wished she hadn’t said that last sentence.
“Why do they need to be separated?” He demanded as his face hardened.
Tomoe met his hard look with as calm a one as she could muster. “Because we have to stop what has already started to grow between them or she won’t be able to do what she has to do.”
“And what is it she has to do, Tomoe?” Megumi pressed tightly. She looked nearly as angry as Hiko.
Tomoe smiled sadly at her friend before she glanced back to Hiko and said, “To keep Ryujin from being unleashed on the world again… Kaoru will have to kill Kenshin. It‘s most likely the very reason she was born.”