Darkest... Before the Dawn
A tiny hand patting her cheek roused Sayo from unconsciousness and she groaned softly as the headache caused by the backlash reasserted itself in her temples. Wincing as the pain spiked with each pat she slowly blinked her eyes open to see who it was.
“Sayo-nee!” Suzume chirped excitedly just inches away from her face. Sayo went cross-eyed for a moment trying to focus on the little girl before the three year old bounced back.
The sound of hurried footsteps closed in from somewhere off to her left. Stifling another groan she slowly started levering herself up.
“Sayo-san!” Hitomi exclaimed in relief as she fell to her knees beside her. “You’re the only one we’ve been able to wake!”
An icy cold chill swept through Sayo. “What do you mean?” she asked once she’d risen to a sitting position. Several aches she hadn’t noticed before made themselves known but she barely felt them when she noticed the destruction surrounding them. Destruction that no one else occupied.
“What happened?” She murmured more to herself than the young girl beside her as she continued to her feet.
“I don’t know…” Hitomi replied shakily. Sayo could hear the tears the she was trying to hold in. “No one else will wake up!”
“Hitomi-neesan!” Ayame suddenly cried out, running in from outside. “Sano-nii coughed!”
The young woman bounded to her feet and was following Ayame out the door before Sayo could even start across the shard littered floor. Grabbing Suzume’s hand before the little girl could follow carelessly, Sayo guided her around the larger pieces of shattered wood. The last thing she remembered was the door exploding. What had happened afterwards?
Several steps later she had the answer to that question as she made her way out into the mid afternoon sunshine and saw the rest of the manor’s occupants scattered in the courtyard. Every single one either unconscious or dead. Her own injuries were immediately forgotten as she let Suzume go and hurried over to the one Hitomi and Ayame were huddled around. She gasped when Sano’s wound came into view and quickly knelt beside him, searching him for signs of life. Ayame had said he’d coughed and from what she could tell he was breathing, shallowly, but thankfully still breathing. However with a wound like that he wasn’t going to survive without help.
“Take the girls inside.” Sayo demanded softly. Much to her relief the young woman didn’t argue and simply dipped her head then rose to do her bidding. A minute later she had collected both girls and were hustling them inside, ignoring their worried protests.
Once they were safely inside Sayo quickly scanned the yard for Megumi and was relieved to find the healer mage laying on her side a handful of feet away. Beside her lay Tomoe also curled on her side but where Megumi seemed to be uninjured Tomoe looked as if she’d been through a fierce battle. The adept mage’s clothes were blackened in spots and her exposed skin was an angry red, some places even blistering as if she’d been burned. A small twinge of fear tightened in Sayo’s chest as she jumped to her feet and hurried over to the two praying that they were alive. As she drew closer she noticed that the Megumi’s hands and forearms were also an angry red.
Dropping to her knees between the pair she searched for signs of life and sagged in relief when she saw both of them breathing. Turning her attention to Megumi she shook the healer mage’s shoulder in an attempt to wake her, not really expecting that it would. By the sounds of it Hitomi and the girls had already tried. When no reaction came she reached for the small pouch containing a variety of herbs and such that Megumi always carried on her. Swiftly undoing the tie she dumped the contents into her lap and searched for the small vial of smelling salts she knew Megumi carried for just this occasion. A faint smile teased Sayo’s lips, she doubted Megumi ever expected to be on the receiving end of the sharp pungent smell.
In a matter of moments she found the vial and undid the stopper, then waved it beneath Megumi’s nose. The healer mage didn’t so much as shift. Sayo frowned as she attempted to rouse her again. She started to panic when several more tries yielded no response at all. Stuffing the other items back into the bag she hastily set it aside and turned to Tomoe to try and rouse her instead. But just as she was about to wave the vial under the adept’s nose a cough came from behind her and she whirled around to see Megumi slowly blinking her eyes open.
Gradually brown eyes focused on her and the healer mage started to lever herself up on shaking arms. “What -” Whatever she was going to say was cut off by a wince and a gasp and Sayo immediately moved to help her take the pressure off her injured arms.
“Careful, your hands and arms are burned pretty bad.”
Megumi gave her a weak smile in thanks as she settled into a sitting position and looked at her trembling hands. “Suzaku.” She murmured, eyeing the reddened skin. “I’m surprised he let us live after Ryujin took us down.”
Sayo stiffened, “Ryujin!”
Megumi nodded. “He’s only one step away from taking Ken-san completely.” She paused as she glanced to Aoshi and Misao laying several feet away. “And now they have Kaoru, the last piece they needed to release him.”
Sayo’s eyes widened in surprise and she glanced to the yard herself again. She hadn’t even noticed that Kaoru was not among them. Any icy cold shiver raced through her body. It had been hours since the attack. For all they knew Takeda could already be at the prison breaking it open.
“I think we still have time.” Megumi said softly, as if she’d somehow read her thoughts.
Sayo jumped and turned her attention back to her with a questioning look.
“Kaoru was attacked at the same time we were so I doubt she is any better off.” Megumi explained rubbing her head as if it ached. “Most likely she’s worse since she took Ryujin’s attack directly. I doubt she will wake anytime soon so they will not be able to use her just yet.”
Sayo wasn’t sure she believed that but it really didn’t matter, none of them were ready to face them anyway. All she could do is hope Megumi was right and together the two of them needed to get as many of the others on their feet as they could and head to the prison themselves. Thankfully Akira and Hiko were already there; hopefully they would be enough to keep Takeda and Suzaku at bay.
Her own headache started pricking at her temples again and with a sigh, she set aside her worry and pointed behind Megumi. “Sano needs your help, his wounds are severe.”
Megumi’s eyes flew wide and she spun around and without another word quickly rose and made her way over to the fallen ex-fighter. A moment later an angry hiss spilled into the quiet yard.
“Sayo, please go get me the small red jar in my room.” Megumi all but demanded. “It‘s on my desk.”
Sayo felt the blood drain from her face and she shook her head. “No. You can’t use that! It almost killed you the last time!”
Megumi spun around so quickly that Sayo took a step back in fear. Her heart twisted painfully at the stark fear and panic darkening the healer mage’s eyes.
“I have to or he is going to die!”
“But - “ Sayo started.
“Whatever Ryujin did drained me completely.” Megumi explained in a tight voice. “Without that herb I can’t do anything!”
Sayo’s eyes widened, she wasn’t suffering like that. She still had full use of her own magic. “Can you use me?” She asked suddenly. It would be far better than that herb.
That seemed to catch Megumi off guard and the healer mage gave her an odd look. “You’re not drained?”
Sayo shook her head. “No. It looks like whatever he did didn’t affected me since I was already unconscious.”
For a moment Megumi simply stared at her with a look that said she was weighing something she really didn’t want to before she finally dipped her head in a slight nod. “There is one spell I can use but it‘ll be very painful.”
“Its black magic isn’t it.” Sayo murmured.
Megumi hesitated for a second before she seemed to sag into herself and nodded. Without a word Sayo closed the distance between them and reached out her hand. “Do it.”
Megumi stiffened. “Are you sure?”
Sayo nodded. “It’s either that or you kill yourself with that herb. I can handle it.” She smiled. “Just don’t kill me.”
Megumi gave her a small smile and reached out to clasp her hand. A moment later Sayo felt a surge of lightheadedness steal her energy and she crumbled to her knees beside Sano and then as Megumi had warned, a stomach twisting pain suddenly ripped along every nerve in her body. Sayo clenched her teeth to keep from screaming and watched as the burns on Megumi’s hand began to fade before her very eyes. But soon even that was too much and Sayo finally closed her eyes and focused her entire being on overcoming the pain, continuously telling herself that this was only the beginning. She had to endure long enough to save Sano and get the others back on their feet again.
Hiko and Akira were going to need all the help they could get.
Late afternoon sunshine warmed Kenshin’s scarred cheek as he followed Suzaku and Takeda along the barren track leading north. A still unconscious Kaoru rested on his back, her added weight dragging wearily on his legs. But he refused to allow either one of the others to so much as lay a hand on her. Even Ryujin seemed loathe to allow it and had gone back to being nothing more than an irritant in his head and cheek instead of attempting to gain control of his body. It was either that or the god had overextended himself at the manor, Kenshin wasn’t sure which and to be honest he really didn’t care so long as the god remained silent.
Suzaku and Takeda however were not happy about Kaoru’s continued unresponsiveness. Both were constantly stopping to check and see if she had roused yet. In truth he was starting to get a little worried himself. It had been nearly four hours since the attack on the manor and she had shown no signs of life save for breathing since she’d fallen. It was as if she wasn’t there anymore. The very thought twisted his stomach and he grimaced at the pain. She was there, she had to be or Ryujin would be raging. The god wouldn’t have done anything that would jeopardize his release, no matter how much he hated Kaoru and her kind.
Another half mile passed under Kenshin’s feet before the faintest of groans whispered into his right ear where Kaoru’s head rested. A relieved smile spread across his lips. Slowing somewhat he leaned forward a little to keep her from falling while she shifted. Another groan came, louder this time, as Kaoru lifted her head and Kenshin turned his enough to catch a glimpse of foggy blue eyes blinking owlishly at the light.
Kaoru winced and raised the arm that had been draped over his shoulder to rub at her temple. “What happened?” she mumbled when her eyes met his. Kenshin was about to answer when her eyes shifted over his shoulder to take in her surroundings and stopped on Suzaku and Takeda who had yet to see that she had woken. She froze as understanding flitted across her face.
Kenshin held her a little bit tighter and murmured. “Yes. They have you now. But they don‘t know you’re awake. The longer they stay that way the better.”
Taking the cue Kaoru’s arms immediately wrapped around his neck again and she settle back down with her lips towards his ear as if she was still unconscious. He could feel her rapid heartbeat against his back and he held her a little tighter in an attempt to alleviate her fear. “The others?” She mumbled into his ear.
Kenshin shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. They all went down at the same time you did.”
Kaoru seemed to sag into herself and Kenshin added, “But Suzaku and Takeda left them as they lay so I think they’ll wake like you did.”
Kaoru stiffened. “Suzaku?” She breathed shakily. “Do you mean the god Suzaku?”
Kenshin exhaled softly and nodded. “I believe so although neither has said so. It’s the only explanation for the things I’ve seen him do. I don’t know how but Takeda somehow revived him.”
Kenshin could feel Kaoru start to tremble but before he could say anything more she shifted her left hand until her palm faced the god’s back and he felt her begin to draw on elements all around them. Surprised that he could even sense such a thing he almost didn’t notice the luminescent ball coming to life in her palm. Ryujin immediately roused at the threat and started pushing against his conscience.
However a moment later a hiss of pain whispered into Kenshin’s ear and the glowing sphere sputtered and died. Kenshin nearly sighed in relief when Ryujin settled back down again. An angry growl followed the hiss and Kaoru’s right arm suddenly tightened across his chest before she lifted her left hand so she could see the reason for the failure and revealed the red hand print Suzaku had left on her wrist at the manor.
“Suzaku blocked your use of fire.” He replied to her unspoken question. “He and Ryujin are both afraid of that spell.”
Kaoru’s hand clenched into a white knuckled fist before it went limp and she sighed heavily. “Maybe it’s better this way. At least I won’t be tempted.”
The remark prompted Kenshin to ask, “Tempted to do what?“ He’d been wondering about that spell himself. Tomoe had all but begged Kaoru to use it against him when Ryujin had been in control.
Nothing but silence came in answer and Kenshin turned his head enough to catch the pained look she was giving him. That in itself was answer enough but after a moment she quietly admitted, “To use it against you. Tomoe taught it to me to… kill you… so Ryujin can’t be freed.”
Kenshin sighed softly as Kaoru’s eyes began to water. He had expected as much when Suzaku had named Ryujin as the creature sharing his body. His hope that Tomoe would somehow free him from this nightmare had been weak but it still hurt to find it really was fruitless.
“I can’t use it against you anyway.” Kaoru muttered so softly he almost didn’t hear it. With one hand she scrubbed at her eyes. “I won’t kill you.”
Kenshin smiled half heartedly, “You may have no choice.”
Kaoru nailed him with a glare but before she could say anything another voice cut into their conversation.
“Ah, I see our little Ancient has finally awakened.” Takeda said startling them both.
Kaoru’s eyes flew wide and she swung her attention to the black mage and his companion who were now walking towards them.
“It’s about time. I want to get this done before dark.”
Kenshin released her legs and Kaoru slid off his back to stand on her own. Once she had landed on her feet he kept himself between her and the two advancing on them and slid her wakizashi from where he’d tucked it in his belt into her hand. He’d taken the blade from her while she’d been in his lap and hid it to keep the two mages from taking her last line of defense away.
Shaking fingers gripped the hilt and Kenshin heard cloth rustling as she put it away, hopefully somewhere they wouldn’t see. In a matter of moments the pair had closed the distance and Kanryuu made to walk around him. Kaoru’s free hand suddenly came up and a bolt of lightning shot out of her palm and slammed into the ground at Kanryuu’s feet. “Stay away from me!”
Kanryuu snorted as a wide grin spread across Suzaku‘s lips.
“Your efforts are futile.” The revived god purred. In the next instant Suzaku shot forward and Kenshin felt himself shoved out of the way before he could so much as tense. Stumbling a couple of steps he spun around ready to put himself between Kaoru and Suzaku again but found it was too late. The god was now standing toe to toe with her, both her wrists firmly griped in his hands.
“I admire your need to fight,” The god admitted with a grin. “But it is useless.”
Kaoru scowled blackly and Kenshin saw little flickers of electricity dance across her caged hands. Kanryuu strode past him and grabbed Kaoru’s arm. “That will do nothing to either one of us. Remember, you are only an apprentice mage.”
Kenshin’s eyes narrowed dangerously and he took a step forward. Kanryuu nailed him with a glare and much to Kenshin’s surprise dragged Kaoru over to him.
“Now that you’re awake, you will save us the long walk to Ryujin’s prison.” The black mage said as he forced Kaoru to lay her hand on Kenshin’s shoulder, “Teleport him.”
Sudden understanding dawned on Kaoru’s face and her eyes rounded in horror as she started fighting against his hold. “No! You can‘t make me!”
The smile that slid across Kanryuu’s lips made Kaoru visibly pale and Kenshin desperately tried to think of some way to strike at the black mage to stop him. But before he could so much as move a finger Ryujin roused himself and Kenshin found himself locked in place, unable to move an inch.
“That’s where you are wrong, little Ancient.” The black mage murmured silkily as he forced her fingers to grip Kenshin’s shoulder.
Kaoru’s eyes widened even more and she continued to struggle for a moment longer before she went rigid and screamed, “NO!”
Kenshin’s scar suddenly flared to life with blinding pain and before the last syllable of her refusal had even began to fade the world tilted on its side then with a gut wrenching twist, turned itself inside out. He clenched his teeth as the pain in his cheek spiked to an almost unbearable height.
However in the next instant the pain all but vanished as the world righted itself again and Kenshin stumbled to his knees in a patch of knee high grass, his sight filled with the dancing shadows of swaying tree limbs in the late afternoon sunshine. Beside him Kaoru crumbled to the ground and curled into herself like she had the first time she’d teleported them. Immediately forgetting his own pain he reached out to her. She flinched away from his touch but he refused to give in and attempted to gather her into his arms.
Kanryuu however had other ideas. Kaoru was pulled from his grasp and hauled mercilessly to her feet. A glint of steel caught his attention out of the corner of his eye and before he could even fully register what he’d seen Kaoru was ripped from Kanryuu’s hand and ruthlessly driven backwards into the smooth face of a large stone that dominated the north side of the glade. A shriek of pain tore from Kaoru’s throat and his stomach clenched violently when he saw his very own katana pinning her to the weathered stone. The hilt quivering slightly from the force of the impact where it had impaled her right shoulder.
A resounding crack suddenly rocked the ground beneath his feet and a chest-rumbling roar sounded through the afternoon air, so loud that it seemed to echo off the trees surrounding them.
Kenshin ignored it all and was in front of Kaoru before either Takeda or Suzaku could so much as blink. Wrapping his hands firmly around the hilt, he braced one foot against the stone and using every last bit of strength he had, he wrenched the blade free. Kaoru’s eyes flew wide and she gasped as she stumbled off the rock to crumble to her knees again. For the briefest of moments Kenshin found his attention trapped by the blood she had left behind, the vibrant red tracing the spider cracks the blade had created as everything suddenly became crystal clear.
That was all they needed from her. Her blood to break the seal.
A sense of foreboding spilled through his veins as another roar which seemed far more real than the last rang through the glade, the ground beneath his feet shivering right along with it.
“Kaoru!” A familiar yet unexpected voice suddenly shouted over the roar.
And angry growl came from one of the men behind him and Kenshin spun around, shocked to see Akira and Hiko standing just within the tree line on the other side of the small glade. For a moment time seemed to stand still as Kenshin’s eyes met his master’s across the expanse and in that single moment Kenshin watched resignation darken their familiar depths before they slid to Kanryuu with a look of absolute hate.
“You’re too late.” Kanryuu sneered making time jump forward again. “The seal has been broken.”
Kenshin stiffened but a small smile touched Akira’s lips as Hiko loosened his blade. “No, it has been weakened, not broken. You will need more blood to destroy the seal completely.”
“A trivial matter.” Suzaku noted as he moved to reach for Kaoru again who at some point had risen and was now clutching her injured shoulder. But Kenshin was faster and his katana sang through the air and came to rest against the god’s neck before Suzaku’s fingers could even brush her shoulder.
“You will not touch her again.”
Another angry roar shook the ground beneath his feet and Kenshin felt Ryujin suddenly rise up like a wave of energy and before he even realized what was happening the god wrested control from him and sent him spiraling into a black abyss. The darkness closing in made him panic and he attempted to fight back against the titanic presence now invading his body.
Suzaku smiling was the last thing Kenshin saw as Ryujin forced him all the way back, his words following him into the darkness. “I won’t need to.”
Kaoru watched in horror as Kenshin slipped away, the violet of his eyes fading under the golden hue she had come to hate. A reptilian pupil slid her way and the creature now inhabiting the red head smiled as he swung the katana towards her so fast that she barely had time to stumble back before it split the air where she had been a moment before. A strangled groan tore from her throat as she collided with the stone face of his weakened prison. This was bad. Ryujin was in this world more than he was trapped now.
Swallowing down the fear attempting to choke her she threw up her hands and with a whispered word blasted the advancing god with a gale force wind. Caught off guard Ryujin stumbled backwards into Suzaku.
A fireball the size of Kaoru’s head suddenly sped towards Ryujin from the other side of the glade and the god was forced to jump further away from her. At that moment both Akira and Hiko moved in. Hiko zeroed in on Kanryuu with a look that said he would see the black mage dead before the sun fully set. And Akira placed himself between her and the two gods now rounding on them.
“Go back to the manor, Kaoru.”
Forgetting that he couldn’t see her, Kaoru shook her head. “It won’t matter, the shield is gone.”
Akira stiffened and the look he gave her over his shoulder prompted her to murmur reassuringly, “Kenshin said Tomoe-sama should be fine.”
A look of relief softened his face then vanished a heartbeat later as Suzaku and Ryujin both moved in faster than either one of them thought possible. Akira just barely missed having his head taken off by the blade still in Kenshin’s hand and dodged to the side only to have Suzaku follow him.
Leaving Kaoru alone and cornered against the stone prison facing the hated eyes in the face she loved. A nasty grin twisted Kenshin’s handsome face and Ryujin drove the blade at her with such speed that it clipped her right shoulder as she ducked and dove away from the smooth stone, nearly colliding with Kanryuu as he stumbled back from Hiko’s ruthless onslaught. The black mage was sending bolt after bolt of lightning at the swordsman as he advanced but each one was intercepted before it could ever make contact by a slightly glowing blade moving so fast that it could barely be seen. Fast enough that between each bolt Hiko was biting into Kanryuu himself.
Twisting away from their battle, she caught herself on the ground and cried out as twin shots of pain ripped through her shoulders. Tumbling into a roll she winced as each turn renewed the agony of her wounds until she finally came to rest at the edge of the glade. But less than a heartbeat later she was back on her feet before she could succumb to the pain and immediately regretted her quick recovery when a luminescent ball of pure energy suddenly slammed into her side throwing her into the trees.
Her breath left her in a great whoosh as she crashed into the unforgiving ground and for a moment she laid there gasping for air until she finally had enough to push herself to her feet again. She nearly gave up when she saw Ryujin barely three feet from where she stood.
“Do not fight me.” He growled in a strange guttural voice that still held touches of Kenshin‘s smooth timbre.
And that was enough to remind her that she couldn’t give up. This wasn’t completely Ryujin, Kenshin was still in there somewhere. But how was she suppose to do this with Ryujin now even more in this world? She’d never even figured out how to do it before!
In the blink of an eye Ryujin was beside her, his hand locking onto her arm with a bone crushing grip that soon began to burn as the hand began to glow. Kaoru went rigid and let out an ear piercing scream as white hot fire lanced along every nerve in her body. A heartbeat later she went limp as the fire faded away and Ryujin started dragging her unresisting body back into the glade towards the prison.
Still physically stunned from the attack, Kaoru could do nothing but stumble after him as he hauled her across the uneven ground. Absently she noted that Akira wasn’t having any better luck against Suzaku. Even in her numbed state she could see the blood and burns dotting several areas of his body; his clothes torn and blackened. He was on his feet but Kaoru could tell it was taking all he had to stay that way.
All thoughts of Akira flew out of her mind as she was thrown at the dull grey wall of the prison. Her foot caught on something on the ground and she stumbled face first into the solid stone. With a groan of pain she managed to catch herself before she hit and glanced to the ground to see what she’d tripped on.
A human skull, bleached white from years of exposure, lay half buried in the knee high grass, it‘s empty eyes seeming to stare straight at her. Kaoru’s stomach flipped and she used what strength she had to spin around and without thinking slammed her back against the wall.
And that seemed to be all Ryujin had been waiting for because in the next instant the glint of steel caught Kaoru’s attention and before she could even think to move the katana she’d forgotten he had, came flying towards her with frightening speed.
At that moment Kaoru saw her death in his reptilian eyes and knew they had lost.
But what she didn’t expect was the flash of violet that suddenly shot through the eyes staring her down and the blade shifted to the right to knick her on the side of her neck instead of embedding in her throat where it had originally been aiming. Stunned Kaoru instinctively flinched away from the chips of stone that sprayed the side of her face.
It only took her a second to gather her wits again and she dove away from the embedded blade. Once deeming herself far enough away she spun around and glanced quickly to the god desperately hoping she’d find Kenshin back in control again. But it wasn’t to be and she stumbled back even more when she met the fierce golden eyes glaring at her. With a howl of rage Ryujin wrenched the blade free of the stone and before she could so much as gasp locked a hand around her upper arm again.
Kaoru felt her feet lifted off the ground and without thinking she slammed earth enhanced fists into the redhead’s chest. The sound of cracking bones filled her ears as the hand holding her suddenly let go and she watched in horror as blood sprayed from Kenshin’s mouth.
Oh gods, she hadn’t meant to do that! Not to him!
Ryujin stumbled back from the unexpected attack and Kaoru felt a small measure of relief that Kenshin wasn’t in possession at the moment. But too much damage to his body would kill him if he returned and that scared her half to death.
Kaoru stilled. Not if… when. She couldn’t give up on him yet.
The red head’s face twisted with pure hatred and Ryujin rushed at her only to freeze after two steps and a moment later Kaoru understood why. Across the glade behind him a large area began to shimmer at the edge of the tree line before it coalesced into two women she hadn’t even dared hope would come.
Tomoe and Megumi both stumbled forward once they materialized, showing her weariness, but Tomoe quickly recovered and taking in the entire scene in one glance, shouted, “Akira!”
Akira danced away from Suzaku who was poised to strike and glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Tomoe toss a blade at him. One that Kaoru recognized as a blade her family had forged centuries ago.
A surge of hope spilled through her veins as Akira picked the blade out of the air and spun around, impaling the god before he could let loose the killing strike filling his hands. Time seemed to stand still as small drops of blood dripped from the tip of the blade and Kaoru held her breath wondering if it was really going to work.
A howl of pain suddenly shredded the silence as Suzaku expanded beyond the confines of the body housing him, twisting savagely as if he was trying to tear himself off the blade. With one last otherworldly shriek he exploded with an ear shattering detonation, the concussion of it hitting Kaoru directly in the chest. She cried out as she backpedaled to keep her balance, the soul searing pain suddenly ripping through her left wrist bringing tears to her eyes.
Wrenching the injured arm into her line of sight she half expected to see it on fire. Instead she found the brand Suzaku had burned onto her arm, the one to seal her use of fire, fading away along with the pain. An icy chill swept through her body as realization hit her like a fist. She was free.
Another shriek of rage snapped Kaoru out of her stunned reverie and Ryujin shot towards her with the katana raised again, clearly intent on impaling her as his brother had just been. Pure instinct called a fireball to her fingers but she held it tight, refusing to attack the god’s borrowed body again and dove to the side to avoid the strike.
Dousing her flame filled hand, she spun around to face him again just in time to see the blade arcing through the air in a sweep that would split her in half. Her eyes widened in terror and she took a single step back as her right hand wrapped around the hilt of her wakizashi and with one fluid motion she unsheathed the blade and blocked his strike with her steel protected forearm.
Kaoru’s knees buckled at the shock of the blow, a groan escaping her clenched teeth as he pressed his full weight against the connected blades. She glared into the blazing gold eyes begging for her death and held as steady as she could. She couldn’t let him get that thing anywhere near her or it was all over.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the bright blue glow enveloping her wakizashi and she slid her eyes back to Kenshin. She was somewhat surprised to see blood beginning to pool along the scale encrusted flesh of his cheek, until she remembered that she had seen this very same thing happen before when she'd awoken at the Akabeko what seemed like forever ago.
Something tugged at her memory as she stared at the scales covering his left cheek, the red of his blood stark against the shimmering blue. But whatever it was vanished in the next instant when Ryujin suddenly pitched forward so violently that Kaoru lost her footing and tumbled backwards into his stone faced prison. An angry snarl tore from Ryujin’s throat and he spun around as two more fireballs sped towards him. It was then Kaoru noticed the heavy damage to Kenshin’s back.
Sudden understanding made her blood run cold. They were trying to kill him! But they weren’t touching Ryujin and Tomoe knew it! They couldn’t, only she could! If they damaged Kenshin’s body too bad he would die when he gained control again!
Sickening panic thrummed through her veins and she was just about to shout at them to stop when she felt all the elements rise up as if she’d called them herself and blend together to make the hated weave she had all but forgotten burst to life in her left hand.
Stunned Kaoru stared at it for a moment wondering how it could possibly happen and then Megumi’s voice seemed to whisper directly in her ear.
“There is no other way, Kaoru. Do it now while we have him occupied.”
Her hand moved of its own accord and Kaoru stared at it horrified as she fought to keep the spell from leaving her fingers. It was then she felt the small tendrils of power invading her mind and realized that Megumi was doing the exact same thing to her that Kanryuu had done when he’d forced her to bring Kenshin here.
Rage like nothing she had ever felt before roared to life in her veins and she screamed, “No!”
Desperately trying to douse the spell, she nailed the three standing on the other side of the glade with a hate filled glare. She softened slightly when she saw Tomoe on her knees with her head bowed as if she was completely drained until she realized that she had felt this very same invasion back at the manor and the voice had been Tomoe’s not Megumi’s.
Her anger flared to new heights at both of their betrayals and with a vicious growl she shouted, “You cannot make me do this!”
As if sensing the threat Ryujin spun around and Kaoru took a step back as her eyes fell on the blue scaled cheek again. In that moment it finally dawned on her what had been tugging at her memory.
The mage forged blades wouldn’t kill Ryujin but they would separate his essence from his body.
For a split second her eyes dropped to the wakizashi in her right hand and then back to the scale encrusted scar.
His essence… from… his body. It wasn’t his body yet but… a piece of him was in there. The piece that had to be removed for Kenshin to survive. Kaoru’s breath caught in her throat as a knee weakening surge of hope suddenly spilled through her veins and she barely noticed the shower of sparks rain down all around them from the fireballs Akira and Megumi were launching at Ryujin.
The god’s face darkened with unbridled hate at the continued attacks but instead of turning on the ones attacking him Ryujin roared and flew forward with her death clearly written in his reptilian eyes.
The hand containing the weave moved against her will and Kaoru used every last bit of strength she had to keep the ball from being released and flipped the wakizashi so the dull edge was flush against her forearm again, waiting for him to come within striking distance. Her injured shoulder ached from the pressure she was putting on the hilt but she ignored it and braced herself for the hit she could see coming. Ryujin had the katana held low as if he intended to slice her from hip to hip.
At the last minute Kaoru moved to the right in an attempt to lessen the damage he would inflict and brought her wakizashi up ready to strike. She cried out as the katana bit deep into her hip and she continued to spin away to keep him from actually slicing her in half and aimed her own attack at his bleeding cheek. The blade blazed to life as it neared and Kaoru drove her arm forward until the edge of the wakizashi connected with his cheek just above his jaw. With a silent prayer to the gods that this would work, she pressed hard enough to cut into the scales and sliced upwards intersecting his original scar almost dead center where she was sure the piece of Ryujin must be.
A howl of rage and agony unlike anything she’d ever heard before exploded from Kenshin’s throat and Ryujin flew back away from her as a small piece of glittering blue erupted from his cheek. Kaoru screamed as the blade in his hand was wrenched out of her side. Crumbling against the stone prison she slid down to sit hard on the ground, the blood flowing to quickly soak the ground at the base of the prison.
With an exhausted sigh, she glanced to Kenshin who had collapsed in a heap several yards away before turning her weakening attention to unraveling the hated weave. But before she could even begin to reverse the blending of elements the ground shuddered violently and then the stone at her back suddenly split down the middle right behind her, showering her with tiny shards of razor sharp shrapnel.
Ducking away from the worst of the shards she froze when a roar of triumph shrieked into the glade from above her head a moment before a giant blue stream of glittering essence erupted from the opened prison. Kaoru watched in horror as it zeroed in on Kenshin and without so much as another thought she thrust the hand still containing the weave up into the flowing river that was Ryujin.
Searing pain ripped down her arm and she screamed even as she released the weave. As soon as the spell left her fingers she wrenched her arm out of the essence, fully expecting to see it flayed to the bone but instead she found angry red, blistering skin as if she’d thrust it into a raging inferno. Cradling it gently against her chest she hoped and prayed it wasn’t for nothing.
A split second later another shriek rang out so loud that Kaoru had to slap her hands over her ears despite her burns and she nearly jumped out of her skin when the shimmering river above her head suddenly contracted into a giant ball in the middle of the glade with her weave locked in the middle. With a chest shaking thump it exploded in a brilliant white light; every single shred of the god vaporizing in that one instant.
Stunned Kaoru simply stared at the fading light. It worked… it had really worked!
A moment later Kaoru stiffened and she quickly dropped her eyes to Kenshin and nearly cried in relief when she saw him shakily pushing himself into a sitting position, his violet eyes blinking owlishly as if he‘d just woken up. She was on her feet and across the space separating them before she even realized she had moved and, completely forgetting about her own severe injuries, dropped to her knees and flung her arms around him as tears spilled from her eyes.
“Thank kami…” was all she could manage to say, holding him as tight as her injured arms would let her. That had been close… too close.
A heartbeat later Kenshin’s arms encircled her just as tightly and she gasped when his enthusiastic hug pulled at her wounded hip. He immediately released her and held her at arm’s length. Kaoru tried to smile as violet eyes inspected every inch visible but found she couldn’t when a sudden feeling of heaviness sapped her remaining energy and she leaned against his hands exhausted, her adrenaline depleted. She was so tired…
Kaoru slowly blinked open eyes that she hadn’t realized had closed and looked at Kenshin wondering why he sounded so frantic. But for some reason she couldn’t focus on his face and after a moment she finally gave up. Now that she knew he was alive and safe she could slip into the comforting darkness without worry.
She would see him again soon.
Early morning sunshine was just beginning to warm Kenshin’s back when he turned onto the familiar dirt track leading to the Yukishiro manor. His pace picked up slightly in anticipation. It had been over a week since the day Kaoru had collapsed half dead in his arms and he was getting a little antsy not seeing her for so long. Tomoe had sent Besshi with a note three days ago assuring him that she was recovering quickly but Kenshin wanted to see for himself.
He couldn’t remember much of what Ryujin had done to her while the god had been in control, but he’d seen the injuries when Megumi had healed what she could right there in the glade before she and Tomoe whisked her off to the manor to complete the healing. It made him sick to think that his own hands had done that to her. He wouldn’t even carry the katana anymore, he had commissioned a new blade when he’d stopped in Kiyosu that was supposed to be done in a month. One that had the edge on the inward curve, not outward. The sword smith had been skeptical at first, sakabatous were unheard of but he had insisted and the aged man had finally given in, calling it a challenge.
A faint smile curled the edge of his lips. He could only guess what his master would say when he saw his new choice of weapon. Hiko would most likely scoff at the thought of a blade that couldn’t kill, at least not easily. But it was something he felt he had to do. Kaoru had almost died by his blade, he would never let that happen again. The possibility was slim with Suzaku and Ryujin’s destruction and Kanryuu’s death at Hiko’s hands but he didn’t want to take the chance it could somehow happen again.
A tiny twinge of pain in his chest pulled him from his thoughts and he rubbed his bandaged ribs lightly, reminded that he wasn’t fully healed himself. Against his wishes Megumi had done what she could before she’d left with Kaoru and the rest had been left up to a helpful elderly woman that lived on a small farm two miles south of the cursed wood. Akira and Hiko had taken him there pleading for help once Tomoe and Megumi had left with Kaoru. The kindly matron had quickly taken him in, doing what she could for his ribs and burns.
Assured that he was in good hands, Akira and Hiko had left early the next morning, one for the manor and the other back to Jouden to assist in the rebuild after Kanryuu's attack. He himself had itched at his own delay but had accepted the need. He'd only allow himself to stay two days though before he too had been on the road to the manor.
And now he was less than a mile away from setting his mind at ease.
The thought was enough to make him smile and he felt the freshly healed skin of his left cheek stretch slightly. Lifting a hand to his scarred cheek he wondered again about the strangest of his wounds that had healed virtually overnight. The scales that had once covered his entire cheek had surprisingly fallen away as they made their way to the farm, and the cut that had ended it all had scabbed over for all of one day before it too fell away to revel freshly healed, yet scarred flesh. He’d been able to see it once in the small mirror the kindly matron had let him borrow. The single line that had run down his face his entire life was now intersected by another running from just below his cheek bone to just above his jaw creating an X on his left cheek.
Rounding a bend in the track, thoughts of his scar quickly faded when he saw the manor sitting quietly in the rising sun. His pace picked up a little more at the sight. He had to admit that it was little odd to come around that corner and not see the mountain he had known for so long. A part of him was glad that the shield was gone though because now there was nothing that could permanently separate him from Kaoru.
He eyed the marks Ryujin’s attack had left on the slate grey walls as he neared and wondered how it had withstood such abuse. Most places, even those made of stone, would have crumbled under their attack and yet these walls had remained standing.
A handful of strides later Kenshin stepped through the shattered gate and the question flew out of his head when he caught sight of the dark-haired young woman sitting with Ayame on a set of steps off to his right.
“Ken-nii!” The little girl exclaimed excitedly as she bounced to her feet and sprinted towards him.
Kaoru’s head snapped around at Ayame’s shout and Kenshin smiled as she too jumped to her feet and started towards him. Her advance was far slower though and Kenshin sensed a hesitance in her approach. A small sliver of fear curled in his belly. She didn’t hate him did she?
Ayame’s arrival grabbed his attention and he caught her as she launched herself into his arms. “Kaoru-neesan said you might be here today! I can‘t believe she was right!”
Kenshin smiled and was just about to turn his eyes to where Kaoru was steadily closing the distance when Ayame suddenly patted his cheek, “You have another line on your face!” And without missing a beat she put herself in his line of sight and asked, “Why?”
Kenshin grinned at her innocent curiosity and glanced to Kaoru who had finally reached them. “Because Kaoru-neesan refused to give up on me,“ he replied smoothly.
Ayame gave him an odd look and he had a feeling she didn’t really understand. But before he could explain she wiggled out of his arms and dropped to the ground. “I don’t get it but I’m gonna go tell Tomoe-sama you really came!”
And with that she spun around and took off for the newly made door. Kenshin watched her go for a moment before he turned his eyes on the one he had truly come to see. Kaoru stood a couple of feet away from him with a small smile on her face, all evidence of the horrible battle she'd been through gone from her pale skin.
Her smile widened slightly when their eyes met and she said, "When I told her you might be here today she made me come out and wait with her. I was afraid I was going to have to sit out here all day."
Kenshin‘s earlier worry evaporated under that smile and he took a step towards her. “How did you know?”
Kaoru shrugged as a faint blush dusted her cheeks. “I don’t know. I just kind of knew you were near. So… um… would you like to come in and have some breakfast? I don‘t think it‘s cleaned up yet.” And then before he could answer she threw up her hands and hurriedly added. “Not that I mean you have to stay or anything if you have somewhere else to go.”
Kenshin smiled at her babbling and decided to set her completely at ease. Closing the distance between them in two strides he gently cradled her cheeks with his hands and kissed her soundly. Kaoru gasped softly and froze for a split second before she melted into him as if she had been waiting for this as long as he had.
Relishing the feel of her soft lips beneath his he trailed his thumb across her cheek and inwardly smiled when she shivered and slipped her arms around him. A moment later he reluctantly broke the kiss and leaned back enough to meet her glittering sapphire eyes.
“I’m not going anywhere without you again. I hope you don‘t mind.”
The bright smile Kaoru gave him in answer was all he needed. She still wanted him even after everything she had been through because of him. And he had no intention of letting her get away no matter what anyone said.
Not now or ever.
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