Darkest Days

Red Sun Rising

Three days later. 35 miles west of Kiyosu.

The sky was just beginning to lighten to a murky gray when Tomoe and the others followed Akira out of the ominously silent forest surrounding a small secluded valley. Nearly a week before her husband and Azrael had tracked Kanryuu to this point, but the two stayed only long enough to assure themselves that their mark would remain.

Coming to a stop at the top of the gentle rolling hill that led down into the mist enshrouded vale, Tomoe warily eyed the dilapidated roof of the abandoned farm below. It was the only part of Kanryuu’s hideout that was visible in the milky cloud.

It had been ten years since the Takeshi family had stripped Takeda of his power. Azumi and Isao had risked everything to defang the cold-blooded murderer instead of killing him, as Tomoe still believed they should have. And in the end they had paid dearly for that mistake.

Tomoe stifled a weary sigh. Even back then she’d known Takeda Kanryuu was a menace that needed to be destroyed not restrained. It was he who had ruined the relationship between the Tokugawa family and those of magekind who had survived after Sekigahara. And it had almost destroyed them all. So many mages had died during the bakufu’s incursions, her own family among them. It had taken Tomoe and the five mages with her now, years to rekindle the fragile peace between magekind and the shogun after the Takeshi family had dealt with Kanryuu.

Tomoe clenched her fist at the memory but kept a tight hold on her temper. It was time to end what should have been finished back then, before Kanryuu could cause anymore damage. She wouldn’t allow him to regain his power. Not with Ayame and Suzume’s lives at stake. She would see him dead first.

A soft cry from above broke into her thoughts and Tomoe sighed softly as she released and flexed her fingers to get the blood flowing again, grateful for the interruption. Once they finished this, the girls would be safe.

Glancing up into the steadily brightening sky, she smiled as she watched Besshi’s wing sib, Azrael, circle overhead then swoop down to land on her husband’s outstretched arm.

“Are you ready?” Akira asked the black faced, blue eyed hawk as he gently rubbed her head feathers in greeting. Azrael fluttered her wings and gave another cry in assent.

“Do you think he’s still here?” a husky, feminine voice asked from behind.

With one last glance to the still enshrouded cabin, Tomoe turned her back on the valley to face the other four who had accompanied them.

“I intend to check that with Azrael’s help before we strike“ she replied to Megumi’s question. “But I have no doubt that he is still here waiting for the most opportune time to finish what he’s started.“

“We cannot let that happen.“ Sayo remarked softly. Beside her, her brother Shougo nodded his agreement. “He will destroy all we’ve managed to regain“, the tall dark-haired mage added.

A sarcastic snort came from beside the Muyo siblings and Hachiro, the only mage born Sanada in history, gave them all a knowing smirk. “He will do more than that. The shogun’s regents have been nosing around for a way to strengthen the bakufu while Ietsuna is too young to govern himself. If Kanryuu convinces them that he‘s harmless, he could do even more damage.”

“We have to destroy him now before that happens!“ Megumi said sharply, the clear hate in her eyes conveying far more than her words ever could. “He cannot be allowed into the shogun’s confidence again.”

With a sad smile, Tomoe raised a hand to calm the angry young woman. “We will not allow the past to repeat itself. I promise.“

Megumi glared for a moment longer before she sighed heavily and shook her head, “I’m sorry, it’s just…“

Tomoe’s smile softened as the young Takani trailed off, “I know, my friend, I know.“ Of all the mages here with her today, Megumi had suffered the most of them all. Twelve years ago, Kanryuu had personally murdered her entire family right before her eyes and then had tried to kidnap the healing mage for his own personal uses.

“We should begin before we lose our advantage“, Akira pointed out quietly, guiding her attention back to the steadily rising sun. They had at most an hour before the sun crested the horizon and the mist eddying around the deserted farm started evaporating.

With a silent sigh, Tomoe glanced back to her strike team to see if they had any other concerns. Nothing but waiting silence met her inquiry, then Hachiro said, “We’re ready when you are.”

Tomoe inclined her head in understanding and gave her attention to Akira and Azrael. Reaching out a finger, she gently rubbed the blue eyed hawk’s head feathers and murmured, “May I borrow your eyes, my friend?”

Azrael fluttered her wings and let out a soft cry of assent before she fixed bright blue eyes on her in expectation.

Tomoe smiled. This was the reason she’d chosen Azrael to track Takeda instead of Besshi. Unlike his sister Besshi flat out refused to allow her into his mind at all. Azrael was not as strong a tracker as her brother but she made up for it with her willingness to play host when it was needed. And today that would be invaluable.

Closing her eyes, Tomoe took a moment to ready herself for the link, then reached out and placed the tip of her index finger on Azrael’s head, just above her eyes. At her call a small tendril of power languidly curled around her outstretched hand before she focused it into a needle thin thread. A single thought and she propelled it into Azrael’s brain. The black faced hawk cried out and shuddered at the intrusion but otherwise remained still.

Smiling slightly at Azrael’s unwavering trust, she guided the shaft of light into the raptor’s consciousness and quickly found the segment controlling the bird’s senses. With practiced ease she gently attached the small tendril of power to the main nerve system. She felt herself sway a little bit as the connection was made; her own awareness shifting perspective. And then a moment later, she found herself staring into her own glazed eyes, the clarity with which she could see her own face suddenly making her sick to her stomach.

Quickly dulling the link to blind herself, Tomoe clenched her teeth as she dropped her hand and willed her belly to settle down. She’d never really gotten use to this. Some could do this with ease but she’d never mastered the ability to seamlessly adapt to Azrael’s heightened eyesight. It wouldn’t take long for her adjust though, at least once they were airborne.

She jumped slightly when a warm, calloused hand cupped her cheek. “Are you ready?”

With a smile, Tomoe nodded and leaned into her husband’s soothing touch. “We won’t be long.”

Akira’s hand remained for a moment longer, his thumb gently caressing her cheek before it dropped away.

“It’s time, Azrael.”

A soft cry came in answer and then Tomoe felt a great rush of air as Akira launched the blue eyed hawk into the sky. Waiting for a moment for Azrael to gain some height, she inwardly smiled as an arm wrapped around her waist. Akira never did like it when she did this because there was always the chance she could be blinded if anything happened to Azrael while they were linked.

A tiny twinge of fear curled in her own gut at the thought but she ignored it and opened the link again once she was sure Azrael had fully gained the skies. She gasped softly as the world below came into sharp view, the slowly brightening landscape below a sight she hadn’t seen in quite some time and one she was sure she would never tire of.

But right now she didn’t have time to enjoy the sights. From here she could see the steadily rising sun even more and she mentally urged Azrael to head into the swirling mist below.

Azrael cried out in understanding and immediately dove for the concealing fog. Tomoe clenched her fist and willed her stomach not to rebel as the world rushed up at her at an alarming rate. A moment later everything went white as they vanished into the fog.

Tomoe’s stomach lurched again as Azrael suddenly leveled out and shot through the thick cloud like an arrow. But her unease soon vanished beneath an intense sense of awe at the ease with which the raptor navigated the milky fog. Even though they were sharing the same eyes, Tomoe couldn’t pick out much of anything in the thick cover. Azrael truly was an amazing creature.

A few moments later the raptor banked to the right then slowed and with practiced ease, dropped down onto a limb of the tree that had suddenly materialized before them. Tomoe’s stomach rolled again at the sudden movements and she winced as Azrael let out a triumphant cry, obviously pleased to have reached her destination.

Mentally shushing the excited hawk, she ignored her own upset and quickly fixed her entire attention on the darkened window Azrael had landed beside. Many of the vertical slats had been broken out over the years since the house had been abandoned, giving Tomoe a clean view of the gloomy living quarters within. And much to her intense relief she could clearly make out what looked like four reclining silhouettes scattered around the barren room. The undeniable proof that Kanryuu and his lackeys were still using this as their hideout.

With an inward sigh of relief, Tomoe scanned the lightly snoring occupants hoping to find the one she truly sought. But even with Azrael’s heightened eyesight she couldn’t tell in the dimness which one was Takeda.

A faint, barely discernible shifting of one of the shadows suddenly caught her attention and Tomoe unconsciously tensed as she swung her shared eyes to the one who had moved; anxiously waiting for some other indication that those within were beginning to wake.

Several agonizingly long moments passed with no further movement and she finally let herself begin to relax again. It seemed lady luck was on their side today. If they struck within the next few minutes Kanryuu and his men would have no time to gather themselves, let alone fight back.

Somewhat relieved by the thought, she silently let Azrael know that it was time to go. Completely oblivious to the true location of the very much awake and aware former black mage resting directly under the window.

The blue eyed raptor warbled deep in her throat in answer then sprang from the limb, her smooth wing beats swiftly rocketing them into the air. Tomoe smiled to herself and waited until Azrael had guided them out of the thick cloud concealing the hideout before she gave the raptor a loving mental caress in thanks and severed the link.

Almost instantly she found herself back within her own mind and she wobbled slightly in Akira’s arms as a sickening wave of vertigo swept over her. Clenching her teeth tight, she shook her head weakly in an effort to shake off the after effects of the link. She should have waited until they were closer before she cut contact with Azrael.

Once she’d managed to regain her equilibrium, she gently tugged away from Akira and glanced to the rest of their group.

“He’s still here.”

Tomoe almost smiled as a collective sigh of relief whispered into the quiet morning.

“As are the three rogue mages we already knew he‘s using.” She continued. Creasing her eyebrows slightly she glanced to Sayo, “However I saw no sign of the mercenaries you found on your way to the manor.”

Sayo paled at this. “They must be here.”

“Are you sure this was their destination?” Tomoe asked, even though she knew there was very little chance the young telepath was wrong. A fact that made her nervous because that meant they had an unknown in the upcoming strike. They would have to be even more on guard.

“There is no way they could have misled Sayo. She reads the unconscious mind.” Shougo remarked tightly.

Sayo laid a hand on her brother’s arm to soothe him. “I have misread before but this time I am certain they were coming here. Although that was two days ago. Takeda may have already sent them to do his bidding.”

Tomoe absently nodded, not sure if she accepted that herself or not. Up until now he’d left the mercenaries he’d contracted in a small town twenty miles back towards Kiyosu. Kanryuu wouldn‘t have called them here had he not had a use for them. And according to Sayo there had been four of them. Where would they have-?

And then it hit her just as Hachiro piped up, “Leave them to me. I’ll search the perim-”

Suddenly Azrael cut him off with an ear piercing cry of warning, confirming Tomoe’s suspicions. She and the rest immediately went on guard, searching the empty hilltop for some sign of the enemy. But Tomoe knew it was already too late. Four mercenaries… four silhouettes, they had walked into a trap.

Their worst fears were proven correct when, less than a heartbeat later, the world suddenly exploded in a deluge of fire, scattering her team to the four winds. Throwing up a shield to deflect the molten rain shower, Tomoe with Akira right behind her, flickered away from the black cloaked figures materializing all around them and came to rest several feet away just under the leading edge of the trees. The shadows of the forest eaves cloaking them from the enemy.

Akira immediately took up a defensive position behind her, facing the seemingly empty forest as Tomoe spun around to see how the others had faired. She cursed softly under her breath when she saw Sayo and Shougo off to her left now surrounded by three black cloaked figures she recognized as the rogue mages Kanryuu had previously recruited. The protective shield Sayo had thrown up around them was weakening rapidly under the steady barrage of pure energy the three mages were battering it with. It wouldn’t be much longer before it fell and by then Sayo would have no chance.

Unbidden, power surged to life in Tomoe’s hand and without another thought she flung a spear of white hot fire at the closest one in an effort to break their concentration. Praying that the distraction would be long enough for the siblings to break free.

But she had no idea if the bolt struck its target because at that very same moment a pain-filled scream came from her right. Whirling, Tomoe was just in time to see Megumi stumble backwards into Hachiro, who was physically battling another of the cloaked figures. The front of her cloak and kimono had been burnt beyond repair, the exposed flesh beneath blackened and smoking. But before Tomoe could even think to assist her, the young healer mage had already begun to retaliate. Shafts of light exploded from Megumi’s palms, taking her two enemies square in the chest, while simultaneously healing her wounds internally.

Satisfied that Megumi and Hachiro would be able to hold off the other three mages Kanryuu had somehow recruited for a little bit longer, Tomoe glanced back to the Muyo siblings to see if they needed any more assistance. Much to her relief she instead found them now free of Sayo’s shield and holding their own against their attackers, the tiger Shougo had summoned helping to keep the enemy on the defensive.

Using the lull to her advantage, Tomoe quickly scanned the faces of the mages harrying her group and tensed when she could find no sign of the mastermind behind the trap. This didn‘t bode well. Even powerless Kanryuu was still someone they couldn’t take lightly. He’d been the strongest of their kind and not all of that had been due to his immense power. He’d also excelled in his use of something he’d called alchemy. A magicless power that could be almost as destructive as the inherent power they shared.

An abrupt, ground shaking blast from the battlefield ripped Tomoe from her apprehension. Her eyes flew wide in horror as she watched her four friends thrown in all directions like discarded rag dolls. The six they’d been fighting now standing clear of the destruction.

Pure instinct drove her next move as Tomoe threw up her hands and hastily formed cushions of air beneath the four of them in a desperate attempt to slow their fall. But a moment later another explosion rocked the world around her and she lost her concentration, the invisible pillows vanishing as quickly as they’d come.

Screams of pain filled the air as they all hit the ground and Tomoe was just about to rush the battlefield when a pain filled hiss erupted from right behind her. Stopped dead, she spun around just in time to see the one she’d been searching for removing a long, lethal blade from her husband’s gut. Horror and cold rage gripped a hold of her as blood stained his torso.


A grunt of pain was her only answer as the blade slipped free. With grim determination darkening his face, Akira drove a power engulfed fist into Kanryuu’s chest, sending the black mage flying back into the trees before he stumbled to his knees.

Ignoring the nearly overwhelming urge to help her husband, Tomoe took the advantage Akira had just given her. Without a second thought she flickered to where Kanryuu had landed several yards away, her hand already pulsing with barely contained power.

But she never got a chance to use it because at the exact same moment she materialized in front of him, Kanryuu did the impossible and let loose a crackling sphere of electricity directly into her unprotected chest.

A strangled scream ripped from her throat as the black tainted ball crashed into her and she flew backwards from the force of the blow. She cried out again as she slammed bone crushingly hard into a thick gnarled tree trunk, the impact bending her spine to the breaking point.

Breath knocked from her, Tomoe crumbled to the ground in a heap and simply laid there unable to do anything but try to breathe. Gasping desperately as it became a chore. Only the searing pain in her chest kept her from falling into unconsciousness and with every last bit of will power she had began to lever herself up. She’d only managed to get a foot off the ground though when a blade was ruthlessly driven through her shoulder, pinning her in place. The shock driving her to inhale sharply.

“I don’t think so bitch.” A deep voice she didn’t recognize growled from just above her.

Tomoe hissed as her vision darkened dangerously. Clenching her teeth tight, she blinked several times and desperately tried to will the pain away. She gasped loudly when the blade was jarred suddenly, the sensation nearly driving her into unconsciousness. Tomoe’s eyesight blurred briefly before the one who had stabbed her thudded into a heap beside her, a gaping hole in his chest.

Before she could even gather the strength to glance over her shoulder to see who her savior was, a bolt of lightning sped past her head and slammed into whoever it was. A faint grunt came from behind her just as she heard the person collapse to the forest floor.

“Your husband is a tenacious one, isn’t he?” Kanryuu remarked casually, as his booted feet came to a stop in front of her.

Tomoe’s blood froze in her veins. Akira…

“No need to worry. He’s not dead yet.” Kanryuu assured her, as he took another step closer. Without a word of warning he grabbed the sword and yanked it out of her shoulder. “I suppose we don’t need that anymore.“

Tomoe cried out and fell back to the leaf strewn ground, the mind-numbing pain radiating out from the wound pulsing with her heartbeat. If this kept up she’d end up dead herself. For a long moment she laid there, trying to gather the energy to lift herself up as her blood seeped soundlessly into the dirt; the wound in her chest calling attention to itself again.

The thought of how she had come by the dull throb pounding in her chest caught at her, pulling her up from the blackness that threatened at the edges of her mind. Slowly but steadily Tomoe levered herself up until she was resting against the trunk of the tree that had nearly broken her back.

“How?” She croaked softy as she weakly motioned to the blackened wound in her chest.

Kanryuu gave her a long sideways look as he cleaned the blade and re-sheathed it, then chuckled low in his throat and crouched down before her. With a smile that set her teeth on edge, he tugged his kimono open to reveal the source of his returned power.

Tomoe inhaled sharply as her eyes flew wide, the blood draining from her face at the sight of the fist sized, star shaped jewel embedded in the black mage’s chest. The very same jewel Azumi and Isao had crafted and imprisoned Kanryuu’s power in over ten years ago. Another chuckle spilled into the ominously silent forest and Tomoe watched in horror as the sick looking purple and black power within the jewel responded; swirling lazily with his mirth.

"I see you recognize my bane." Kanryuu purred with a smirk as he tugged his kimono back in place. "Although it would seem it has turned out to be more of a curse to the Takeshi family than to me."

Still stunned, Tomoe said nothing as tiny fingers of fear slowly curled around her belly, the pain forgotten in her growing trepidation. They were in far more trouble than she could ever have imagined. None of them had foreseen this, not even Azumi and Isao.

"They should have destroyed it once they had seal my power in it,“ Kanryuu continued when she remained silent. "But thanks to their compassion, they didn’t. Which gave me an opportunity to regain what they had stolen. Not one of their smartest moves.”

“Although,” He muttered with a scowl, “I’m still rather irritated to find that I can only touch a small amount of my power, even with the jewel implanted in my chest."

Tomoe frowned and murmured, "You shouldn't even be able to touch that much." The jewel was supposed to be impenetrable even if the seal had been partially released with Azumi and Isao's deaths. It wasn’t suppose to release any power until all four of the Takeshi were removed.

"True enough,” Kanryuu conceded easily, with a smile that made her blood run cold. "But, I've never been one to let something like that stop me. Once I realized that a portion of my power had been somewhat freed by killing Isao and Azumi, I knew that if I tried hard enough I'd find a way to harness that small amount." With a wave of his hand in front of his chest, he shrugged. "And I did. By grafting the jewel to my ribcage and linking my blood to it, I can now call on that little bit of power at will. Although I will no longer need to rely on such archaic sciences once I finish off the Takeshi family."

Tomoe scowled as her protective instinct roared to life at the confirmation of her fears and she glared hard at him, disgusted by the ease with which he could speak of killing Ayame and Suzume. The man truly was a monster. One they had all severely underestimated.

"I'm not going to let you anywhere near those two little girls, Takeda." She warned.

Kanryuu chuckled at that and shook his head as he rose to tower over her. "How do you plan to stop me?" He asked in a patronizing tone, clearly amused by her empty blustering. "With the six of you injured here, there is no one left to stop me from storming the keep and taking what I want."

Tomoe unconsciously stiffened at the threat and immediately regretted the sudden movement, her wounds vehemently protesting the abuse. She hissed as her vision swam dangerously and she had to wait a few moments for her eyes to clear again before she gingerly forced her muscles to relax. He was right, there was no way she could reach the keep in the shape she was in. But she still had her own secret card to play. One Takeda hopefully knew nothing about.

"The keep is heavily guarded by both man and magic." Tomoe remarked more calmly than she felt, testing to see if he somehow knew about Kaoru and Misao.

Kanryuu smirked. "Guards can be bought, or in this case replaced," he replied off handedly. "As to the shields, even with my limited use of the craft I'm sure they will no longer be a problem."

Tomoe froze. Replaced? What did he mean by replaced?

And then it dawned on her and she winced as the fist in her gut clenched tight. The extra guard she’d requested from the shogun was suppose to arrive in Kiyosu sometime later today. Then that meant the reason he’d gathered the mercenaries was…

“I see you’ve realized your mistake.” Kanryuu said as he glanced to canopy of leaves above them. “It’s just about sunrise, they should be at the keep by the midday meal if they set out now as I‘ve instructed them to.” Dropping his attention back to her, he smiled. “To be honest I’m surprised you left their safety to human guards. But who am I to complain.”

Tomoe all of a sudden found it very hard to breathe. Any relief she may have felt at finding out her secret was safe was ruthlessly swept away by the undeniable truth that neither Kaoru nor Misao could handle Kanryuu in his current state. They were sitting ducks… all of them.

“There is no need to worry,“ The black mage said softly misreading the sickly pallor of her skin. “I will make sure their deaths are as quick as possible.”

And then, before she could so much as draw breath to curse him to hell, Kanryuu ignited his hand and slammed it palm first against the stab wound in her shoulder. Tomoe screamed as his tainted power savagely tore into her already damaged flesh. Skin sizzled and burned beneath the onslaught. Desperately trying to remain conscious she weakly tried to pull herself away but found she could do nothing but fight off the blackness closing in on all sides.

Several agonizing long minutes later Kanryuu finally seemed to be satisfied and he withdrew his hand. “I can’t have you following me.” He said simply in explanation and then in the next instant he was gone.

Tomoe sighed in exhaustion and sagged bonelessly against the tree trunk, surprised that he'd even left her alive at all. Perhaps he thought she would die of her wounds, a slow painful death in the middle of nowhere. But right now that was the least of her worries. She needed to warn the girls to get out of the keep or they'd have no chance. And thankfully she still had one last member of their party that could still reach them.

Dredging up the last little bit of strength she had, Tomoe mentally cried for Azrael, hoping and praying the bird was still in the area.

While she waited for the hawk to respond, she tugged a loose piece of cloth from her shredded white under kimono and held it against her shoulder wound for a moment before pulling it away to see if she was still bleeding. She smiled faintly in relief when she saw the bit of red dotting the dirty material. Pushing the piece into the wound again, she flex her shoulder a couple of times to force enough blood out to soak the scrap, then squeezed out the access and waited for Azrael to come.

She didn't have to wait long. A few moments later the black faced hawk winged in low between the tree trunks and with a shrill cry, gracefully dropped down at her feet. A genuine smile touched Tomoe's lips as she reached out and offered the waiting bird the blood soaked cloth. Azrael eyed it curiously for a minute before she warbled deep in her throat and lifted a clawed foot to gingerly accept the scrap.

Tomoe’s smile widened as Azrael grasped it delicately but firmly, and she whispered, "Kiyosu".

The blue eyed raptor dipped her head in a human like show of understanding then cried out one last time and took wing, quickly vanishing into the trees again.

With a bone deep sigh of relief, Tomoe finally let herself relax as she felt more than saw the sun finally break over the horizon. Azrael may not be trained to specifically find Kaoru or Misao, but she was still a good enough messenger bird to find her way to Kiyosu's mews. And from there the rest she would have to leave in the hands of fate.

Kaoru sighed softly as she silently padded down the eastern porch of the keep with a steaming cup of freshly brewed jasmine tea. It wasn't even sunrise yet and she was already out of bed, something was seriously wrong with this picture.

A wry smile whispered across her lips as she came to the section of the porch that Ayame had sworn was the best place to watch the sunrise, and settled down next to one of the roof support columns. Normally she wasn't a morning person but thanks to her agitation and lack of sleep at the manor all those days ago her sleeping schedule had been completely knocked out of whack. Of course it didn't help that she had dropped from exhaustion and then promptly slept for almost seventeen hours straight when she and Misao had first arrived here either.

Kaoru's face flamed red in embarrassment again at the memory and she quickly set about cooling her steaming tea. Some guardian she was. Kanryuu could have come at anytime that day and she never would have known it.

Sobered by the thought, Kaoru absently continued to blow on the tea and glanced out over the well tended, gently rolling hill that led to the wall surrounding the keep. A top the stone barricade two guards were currently standing watch. At least it wasn't just her and Misao. The girls were also being protected by some twenty guardsmen who constantly patrolled the area around the keep, and according to Gensai-sensei that number was suppose to double sometime today. Not to mention the intricate shield Sayo-sama had constructed, somewhat like the one protecting the manor.

And yet, for some reason Kaoru had the distinct feeling that wasn't going to be enough. Why she felt that way she couldn't say. But ever since they'd arrived, or been awake in her case, she'd been on edge. As if she unconsciously knew something was going to happen but not what or when. An itch that couldn’t be found.

Exhaling softly, Kaoru shook her head and gave her attention to the steadily brightening sky beyond the guards. It was times like these that she wished she was one of those witches in the storybooks she'd read as a child that could use a crystal ball to see into the future. She snickered at the thought and finally took a sip of her partially cooled tea.

A purr of contentment vibrated deep within her chest as the slightly bitter yet smooth flavor filled her mouth. Maybe being up this early wasn't so bad after all. It wasn't very often she could indulge in a cup of her favorite tea with no interruptions. Now all she needed was for the sun to rise in a blaze of glory and her morning would be complete.

A moment later her wish was granted and the sun finally began coming into view above the wooded horizon far off in the distance. But instead of brightening the landscape like she expected it to, it painted everything within sight a dark, sickly red.

Startled, Kaoru's breath caught in her throat as the blood seemed to drain from her entire body. An internal chill swept through her and she shivered as the tea cup slipped from numb fingers to clatter soundlessly to the grass at her feet.

For several long moments, Kaoru simply stared openmouthed in stunned silence as the blood red orb continued to slowly rise into the sky. The diseased light setting her to insides churning in a nauseous roil.

Red sun rising. Blood would be spilled today.

Kaoru clenched her teeth to keep her stomach from rebelling and shivered again as the age old saying rose up from the very depths of her mind. And then, right before her eyes, the sickly color vanished as if it had never been. Kaoru had to suddenly squint to keep from being blinded as the bright yellow sphere instantly bathed the world with its usual brilliance.

Blinking rapidly to clear the dots now swimming through her vision, Kaoru fisted her hands to stop them from shaking and shook her head. Impossible. She must have been seeing things because there was no way the sun would glow red like that. Absolutely none. It was just... impossible.

"Good morning, Kaoru-san."

Kaoru let out a strangled yelp and nearly jumped out of her skin at the unexpected voice. Swinging her attention over her shoulder she paled at the sight of Dr. Gensai.

"Are you okay?" He asked, giving her an odd look.

Counting to ten in her head in an effort to calm herself back down, she dug up the best smile she could and nodded weakly, "I'm fine. Did you happen to see the sunrise this morning?"

Dr. Gensai continued to watch her for a minute before a small smile graced his lips and with a nod he glanced to the partially risen sun. "Quite a beautiful one this morning, wasn't it? One of the brightest I've seen in ages."

Kaoru sagged in relief as all the tension flowed out of her in a rush and she smiled weakly as she hummed an affirmation. So it had all been in her mind. Maybe she should take a nap later this morning when the girls were at their lessons. Hopefully if she caught up on some sleep her mind wouldn’t play nasty tricks on her like that because she wasn‘t sure if she could take that again or not. But she had to admit she was extremely happy to find out that‘s all it had been.

With a soft sigh, Kaoru bent down to retrieve her fallen cup before standing to face the elderly doctor. "Shall we go have breakfast, Gensai-sensei?"

Dr. Gensai gave her a grandfatherly smile and turned to head back towards the main doors leading into the keep. "If you don't mind an old man as company then I would be delighted to."

Kaoru smirked and quickly matched his step. "Old man? But I was sure you were only a year or two older than me..." She replied playfully.

Her adopted grandfather chuckled under his breath at that but remained quiet as they made their way into the keep and towards the small dining room where the family took their meals. Bolstered by the silent but steady presence beside her, Kaoru couldn't help but grin to herself as her earlier fears continued to seep away.

Today was going to be a good day.

Kenshin turned his back on the now brightly glowing sunshine and tried to ignore the sense of foreboding tightening his chest as the memory of the blood stained sun he’d just witnessed continued to play through his mind. If that omen meant what he thought it meant, they needed to get to Kiyosu and they needed to do it quickly.

“Are you ready, Himura-san?“

Kenshin glanced to the aged rice farmer he and Aoshi had hitched a ride with the morning before and nodded. “How much longer do you think it will take to reach Kiyosu?“ He asked as he jumped into the back of the partially filled wagon and found a seat beside Aoshi.

The wagon jolted forward as soon as he sat down and the old man replied, “We should reach the city by early evening at the latest.”

Kenshin inclined his head in thanks then turned his attention back to the steadily brightening sky as they started down the rutted road again. So far he and Aoshi had made excellent time thanks to the elderly farmer’s kindness. They’d come some thirty miles since yesterday morning and now they would reach Kiyosu a day or more earlier than he’d originally expected to. And yet now, after witnessing the prophetic sunrise this morning, he wasn’t so sure it was going to be enough.

Shifting around slightly to get more comfortable, Kenshin wearily leaned his head back against one of the rice sacks and absently rubbed his scarred cheek to sooth the ever present throb. Right now, there was nothing he could do about it. All he could do was hope that whatever danger Tomoe’s apprentices faced would be something they could handle, at least until he and Aoshi finally reached the keep.

And yet deep down he knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. Nothing ever was.

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