The morning sun had already begun its long climb up the crystal clear azure sky by the time Megumi finished healing her own wounds. Gingerly she pushed to her feet to begin the arduous task of finding and mending her teammates, silently praying she would find them all alive. A wince touched her face as she gained her full height, gently rubbing the still sore muscles protesting the movement. To be honest she was surprised to still be alive. Takeda had never been one to show mercy much less leave his enemy alive behind him. Why had he allowed it this time?
A faint groan of pain from behind caught Megumi’s attention and she instinctively tensed as a small flame of power surged to life in one hand. Sliding a wary glance over her shoulder, she nearly sighed in relief and let the fireball in her palm fade as she turned around to watch the owner of the voice continue to lever himself up into a sitting position. His right leg lay at an odd angle denoting the reason for the black scowl darkening the fallen Sanada’s face.
“The least they could have done was kill me.” Hachiro grouched irritably as he tried to find a comfortable spot while not disturbing the broken limb. “I’ve never broken anything before this!”
Megumi resisted the urge to roll her eyes, instead shook her head as she cautiously picked her way over the broken ground between them to repair the limb and check him for internal injuries. “Be happy you’re not a horse or I‘d have to kill you where you lay.”
Hachiro glared at her for a moment, then shook his head and chuckled. “You would do it too, wouldn’t you, Megumi-san. I better shut up before you decide I’m close enough to a horse and do me in anyway.”
Megumi simply smiled at that and, cautious of her own aches, slowly knelt down beside him. “Smart man.”
Hachiro smirked at that but said nothing more as she set about poking and prodding his leg to see how bad the damage was. She sighed in relief when all she found was a clean break in the tibia, the larger of the two bones of the lower leg. That would be easily repaired and take very little energy on her part. Pleased, she turned her attention to the more immediate threat and gently placed her hands on either side of his head to begin checking for internal injuries. Quickly scanning his brain and spinal cord for damage, she was relieved to find nothing amiss and moved on to his chest to see if he had any broken ribs that could have pierced his lungs. But a thorough search of his chest cavity yielded nothing more than severe bruising and she finally dropped her hands and settled back.
“As usual. You defy logic.” Megumi noted with a bite, as she tenderly righted his broken leg and began healing. “Even I had four broken ribs and a mild concussion.”
Hachiro shrugged. “Must be the Sanada blood. It takes a lot to slay us.”
Megumi scoffed softly but before she could think of a retort, she heard heavy footfalls coming their way and glanced up to see Shougo limping slowly over the uneven ground with an unmoving Sayo tucked securely against his chest.
Alarmed, Megumi quickly finished with Hachiro and rose to greet them. “Is she alive?”
Shougo nodded tiredly as he closed the last few feet. “Exhaustion.” He explained as he dropped to one knee and gently laid Sayo down. “She protected us both from the worst of the explosions.”
Megumi exhaled silently in relief and knelt down beside the sleeping mage. With quick, sure hands she examined Sayo for injuries and was glad to find nothing but a mild concussion and some heavy bruising in her back and legs. In a matter of moments she had relieved the trauma to the brain but for now left the bruising untreated as she had with herself and Hachiro. She didn’t dare expend any more energy than she absolutely had to. She still had yet to see Tomoe or Akira. The fact they hadn’t seen either yet scared her more than she liked to admit.
“What I want to know is, why are we still alive?“ Hachiro asked in bemusement, as Megumi moved to check Shougo for injuries. “Takeda has never slipped up like this.”
The elder Muyo tried to wave off her concern but Megumi pinned him with a glare that said he would let her do her job or suffer the consequences.
“I don’t know. But I don’t think it was an accident.” She replied as she set to work, healing Shougo’s sprained ankle and the two cracked ribs she found. “For whatever reason he wants us alive.”
Hachiro scoffed and gingerly pushed himself off the ground. “And I plan on making him regret that.”
Megumi smiled hollowly as she finished with Shougo and regained her feet. “We can’t take this lightly. We still have yet to find Tomoe-san and Akira-san.”
“They haven’t shown themselves yet?” Shougo asked in surprise as he rose and collected the still sleeping Sayo to his chest again.
“No, “Megumi admitted softly, “Which means they are most likely physically unable to come to us.” She refused to put into words her true thoughts. If there was anyone Takeda would feel threatened by in his weakened state it would be those two. He must have been prepared for them from the very start.
A tiny flower of fear tried to blossom at the thought and she viciously stomped it down before setting off for the edge of the forest several yards away. “When we were attacked I saw them both flickering over here for cover. But after that I don‘t know what happened to them.”
“I cannot see either one of them falling to Takeda, especially powerless as he is.” Shougo said as he followed. “They are most likely tracking him and his mages as we speak.”
“I’m with Shougo-san. Tomoe-san and Akira-san aren‘t that easy to take down.“ Hachiro added confidently.
Megumi dipped her head slightly in a halfhearted show of agreement, but held her tongue and simply continued on. Stepping into the shadows of the forest she was careful to watch her step as she slowly navigated the limb strewn ground. She wanted to believe that too but for some reason she couldn’t. At the very least Tomoe would have come to them first to make sure they were all right. She would never leave them before knowing for sure whether they were alive or dead.
Her worst fears were confirmed when she finally caught sight of Akira lying face down in the blood-stained leaves littering the forest floor. Picking up her pace as much as she dared, she tried to ignore the icy chill that swept through her body and raced to his side. This wasn’t right! There was no way he could have been taken down!
Heedless of her own pains, she dropped down beside the fallen man and desperately searched for some sign of life. Megumi started to panic when she found nothing and quickly, but gently turned him over.
Her eyes flew wide and she inhaled sharply as his wounds came into view. Ignoring the little voice insisting there was no hope, she immediately laid her hands on his chest, praying for a heartbeat. She nearly collapsed in relief when she felt a very faint beating beneath her shaking palm. Thank God…
But her relief was short lived as the gravity of his wounds finally sank in. The stab wound in his gut was barely bleeding but she knew that wasn’t because of his body’s natural healing. He had lost too much blood. To be honest she was stunned his heart was still beating. Right now her friend and mentor was walking a very fine line between life and death. The shock and heavy blood loss compounded by the scorch wound in his chest was going to kill him if she didn‘t get him back to the manor quickly. This was way too much for field healing.
“Megumi, over here!“ Hachiro cried out suddenly. “I‘ve found Tomoe-san!”
Megumi’s head snapped up and she swung her attention to Hachiro, who was standing a few yards further into the woods. Her stomach clenched tight in fear at the sight of the Sanada’s deathly pale face. Lurching to her feet she rushed to where he was standing, partially hidden by a large tree. Rounding the gnarled trunk herself, she gasped and fell to her knees. Oh Kami!
Unlike Akira, Tomoe’s entire torso had been charred, the stab wound in her shoulder barely visible in the blackened skin. Swiftly grabbing the fallen woman’s wrist, she checked for a pulse and nearly cried when she felt it. The faint beat, weak but steady, under her thumb confused her with the seriousness of the wounds Tomoe had suffered. Taking a closer look at the stab wound, she immediately understood why Tomoe looked worse than her husband but in truth was far better off. The amateurish and most likely unintentional cauterization of the adept’s shoulder wound had saved her life.
Immensely relieved, Megumi set to work healing the wounds enough to make travel possible for the fallen mage.
“Who could have done this kind of damage to them?” asked Shougo from where he stood sentry beside Akira, “None of the rogue mages could have managed this.”
Megumi swallowed nervously and kept her attention fixed on her work. Shougo didn’t know how right he was. The first thing she had noticed was that the burn wounds both of them had suffered had not been made by elemental fire. Yet, all the remaining mages save for Kaoru were fire based. All but one. And he was supposed to be powerless!
“I don’t know…” Megumi hedged, as she quickly finished with her friend and rose. It would be best to hold her tongue until they could question Tomoe and Akira themselves. But if what she suspected was true, they were all in a world of trouble.
Ignoring the flutter of fear whispering through her chest, Megumi motioned to Hachiro to gather the unconscious adept then headed back to Akira. “Right now that doesn’t matter. We need to get them back to the manor.”
“I don’t think Akira-san will survive the trip.” Shougo pointed out grimly, as she settled beside the deathly pale man.
Megumi didn’t think so either which left her only one option. “I plan to teleport him myself.”
A gasp came from behind her before Hachiro shouted, “You can’t Megumi-san!”
“I have no choice!” Megumi retorted hotly. “Akira-san will die if I don’t try!”
A thick silence fell at that and Megumi began mentally preparing herself for the jump. Hachiro was right, it was a dangerous move but she had no choice. In truth Tomoe was the only one who could successfully teleport long distances and even she couldn’t take another with her. But Megumi had been studying and practicing just in case something like this ever happened. She had never gone this far with anything of substance but it didn’t matter, she had to try. She wasn’t going to let Akira die like this if she didn‘t have to.
“Do you have enough energy to attempt this?” Shougo inquired, clearly concerned.
A small humorless smile touched Megumi’s lips as she hauled Akira’s upper body into her lap and silently began to activate the intricate spell. “I hope so.”
And without another word she and Akira shimmered for a brief moment, then were gone leaving Shougo and Hachiro to make their way back on foot with Tomoe and Sayo.
A warm, late morning breeze gently nudged at Kaoru’s back as she leisurely made her way down the well worn path wending its way along the back wall of the keep. Tucking the loose strands of hair framing her face behind her ear, she smiled. It truly had turned out to be a beautiful day. Too beautiful in fact to take the nap she had originally planned on while the girls were at their lessons.
She scoffed softly under her breath, and glanced to the sun to check how much more time she still had. She was surprised to find that it almost midday already. Ayame and Suzume would be done soon. Damn, she’d taken too long enjoying the walk and now she didn’t have the time to finish what she’d set out to do in the first place.
With a frown, she glanced to the tall oak still several feet away that hid the heavily weathered foot and handholds chipped into the wall she‘d originally been aiming for. Should she go anyway just to make sure she knew what she was doing if the time ever came?
She sighed softly and shook her head before reluctantly heading back towards the keep. No, she couldn’t, not today. Dr. Gensai had specifically requested she and Misao be present when the additional guard arrived sometime after lunch so the men would know them for who they really were. A good idea, but still…
A few minutes later, she reached the stables on the far side of the keep and made for the door that led into the keep’s kitchens.
“Hey Sai, did you hear about the weird bird that came into the mews this morning?”
Surprised to hear the falconer‘s apprentice in the stables, Kaoru paused by the door and glanced in.
“How was I suppose to hear about that?” Came the stable boy’s sarcastic reply. “I’ve been stuck in here all day cleaning horse shit thanks to you and your crazy idea of sneaking a ride on the guardians horses!”
Kaoru smiled to herself. She still couldn’t believe those two had taken their stallions out for a joy ride. They were lucky they didn’t get their heads split open, neither horse liked to be handled by anyone but she and Misao. With a chuckle she turned from the door and started for the kitchen entrance again.
“Well you should have seen it. It was the funniest looking hawk I’ve ever seen. A black face and bright blue eyes. It was carrying a piece of cloth but no message so Take-san chased it away.”
That stopped her dead in her tracks. Azrael?!
An icy cold shiver of fear crawled up her spine. There was only one reason Azrael would have come here. Without so much as another breath Kaoru spun around and, within a heartbeat, was standing before the startled boys. “What color was the cloth?“
Both boys mouths dropped open at her seemingly instantaneous arrival but much to her irritation neither seemed able to answer. Kaoru clenched her fists to keep from throttling them and pinned the falconer’s apprentice with a hard glare. “What color was the cloth?!” She demanded, quickly losing her patience.
The young apprentice must have sensed his impending peril because he finally stuttered, “R-red, guardian-san. I-it was red, like blood.”
The blood froze in Kaoru’s veins. Red meant danger and… run! Tomoe had told them to run! Which meant…
A block of lead instantly materialized in Kaoru’s gut as urgent apprehension flooded her mind. She spun around and flew out of the stables, racing for the main hall where she desperately hoped they would all be by now. Shouts of alarm suddenly sounded in the front courtyard of the keep and Kaoru slowed for a brief moment but then decided against investigating. She had no time. She didn’t even know how long it had been since the warning had come so in truth they may already be too late. Swallowing tightly at the thought, Kaoru hoped and prayed that wasn’t the case and picked up her pace. She had to get Misao and the girls and get out of the keep before whoever Tomoe had warned them of struck.
Moments later, she bounded into the kitchens leaving the sounds behind and swiftly navigated the corridors to the main hall of the keep where the girls had decided they wanted to take lunch today. Reaching the chamber, she threw open the doors and thanked whoever was listening when she saw Misao, the girls and Dr. Gensai, along with several others she didn’t recognize staring at her in varying degrees of alarm.
“Misao! We - “
But that was as far as she got when an arrow came whistling out of nowhere and, with a sickening thud, embedded itself into Dr. Gensai’s chest. The world seemed to stop, the harsh sound of her own breath and heartbeat loud in her ears as Kaoru helplessly watched the elderly man she’d grown to love as a grandfather lurch in his seat. Shock on his face his fingers lifted and plucked weakly at the shaft that pulsated several times to the heart it pierced. With an unheard exhalation he toppled over, the light in his eyes fading like the setting sun.
And then Ayame screamed. Time leapt forward again and the room erupted into chaos.
As one Dr. Gensai’s guests surged to their feet and Kaoru swore as the sea of people came rushing towards her, trying to get away from the heavily armed men now flooding into the hall from the servant’s entrance across the chamber. She did her best to ignore the screams of pain as many of them fell under blade and arrow, skirting around the throng before they could trap her in the entrance. An arrow whizzed past her head as she broke out of the crowd and Kaoru flinched as it thudded into the wall.
With a whispered spell, she quickly erected a simple shield to deflect two more arrows intent on turning her into a pin cushion and sprinted for the upturned table Misao had hidden behind with the girls. Another arrow chased her down the chamber and Kaoru cursed her inability to retaliate as she dodged to the side. But she couldn’t take the risk, none of the attackers were mage born which meant this might not be Kanryuu. If they weren’t his and she used the craft she’d give herself away.
Misao must have felt the same way because she stayed low until she saw Kaoru coming. With a meaningful glance to the men rushing down the hall towards her, Misao flicked her eyes to the small door in the back of the hall that led to a maze of corridors. Passages that one could easily get lost in if they didn‘t know the way. It was the perfect escape route.
Grasping at this flicker of hope, Kaoru gave her best friend a tiny nod of understanding and put on one last burst of speed as Misao grabbed Suzume and bolted for the door. Just as her braid vanished from sight Kaoru reached Ayame and she swooped down to grab the little girl. Lifting the child to her chest, Kaoru straightened as she bolted after Misao when three burly men suddenly came out of nowhere, blocking her escape.
Cursing viciously under her breath, Kaoru whirled around without missing a step and just barely managed to dodge another man’s grab for her as she vaulted over the table. With speed born of desperation, she skirted several more grasping hands and raced down the center of the hall aiming for the main doors.
An angry growl tore through the overrun room. “Don’t let them get away, you worthless rats! Takeda will have our heads if they escape!”
Kaoru gasped and nearly lost her footing on a downed guest’s outstretched arm as the name slammed into her ears. And then she knew true fear when she felt the shield Sayo had constructed to keep out unknown mages shiver violently, then explode. A groan of pain ripped from her throat as her own connection to the shield backlashed, the mental agony it caused nearly driving her to her knees.
By sheer force of will Kaoru managed to stay on her feet as a wave of nausea ripped through her gut. Swiftly finding a path over and around the dead and dying lying in front of the doors she tried not to hear the groans of pain or see the glassy eyed stares of those who had already succumbed. Her own misery was instantly forgotten though when a frightened whimper reached her ears and she glanced down to see Ayame’s eyes rounded in horror. Kaoru hissed softly and tucked the little girl’s head snuggly against her shoulder to keep her from seeing any more.
“It’s going to be okay honey, I promise,” she whispered as convincingly as she could. But even she wasn’t so sure they were going to get out of here anymore as the heavy tread of booted feet steadily closed in from behind.
Plus Kanryuu was coming… and he wasn’t alone.
That thought was enough to make her stomach roll again in fear and she stumbled over the last few bodies before finally breaking out of the hall into the wide walkway. A discouraged hiss broke from her as she was brought to a dead stop at the sight of the line of rough looking men blocking the doorway to her right… her only means of escape. Deep down she knew it had been a long shot but that didn’t lessen the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that nearly stole her breath away.
“You have nowhere to run, girl. Hand over the kid and we might let you live.”
Kaoru scowled blackly and threw a glare over her shoulder at the man she assumed was the leader of this band of murderers. Then without a word, she spun around on light feet and bolted for the set of stairs at the other end of the walkway that led to the second level of the keep. This wasn’t over yet! If she could get them to her room she could arm herself and hide. Then try to somehow get out of the keep without Kanryuu and his mages noticing.
She swallowed back a humorless chuckle at the absurd thought, there was no way she was getting out of here without him knowing. Powerless or no he was still way out of her league.
Taking the steps two at a time, she reached the landing in a matter of moments and sprinted down the blessedly empty hall that ran the width of the keep. Shouts of surprise and anger chased her down the hall, soon followed by the sound of several feet pounding across the floor below but by that time Kaoru had reached the hallway her room was located in.
She slowed enough to round the corner and raced to the last door. Flinging it open with her free hand, she dashed into her room and tried to set Ayame down so she could collect what she needed. But the traumatized little girl was having none of it and instead clung to her neck and shouted, “No! Don’t leave me!”
Kaoru swallowed a sigh and gently untangled Ayame’s arms from around her neck. Firmly lifting her chin, she gave the terrified little girl the calmest look she could. "I'm not going to leave you. Didn't Tomoe-sama set me to be your guardian?"
Ayame nibbled on her bottom lip and nodded. Kaoru could tell she was trying to keep from crying. "Then there is no way I'm going to leave without you. But I need to collect a couple of things that will help me get us out of here."
Ayame’s chin trembled and Kaoru was sure she wasn’t going to give in. But then she hesitantly took a miniscule step back. Relieved, Kaoru immediately jumped into action and spun around, rushing to the simple rosewood armoire against the far wall that held her clothes. Flinging the doors open, she reached in to the right and grabbed her blade then jammed it into her hakama belt. Now feeling a little bit safer, she spun back around and scanned the room. What else would they need?
She was jolted from her perusal when the sound of heavy footsteps pounding down the far hall reached her ears. They were closing in fast. Immediately giving up the search, Kaoru grabbed her cloak from the back of the chair in front of her desk and flung it onto her shoulders. Then leaned down and gathered Ayame into her arms again.
She scowled when she felt the tremors now wracking the little girl's body and cursed Kanryuu to the deepest pits of hell for what he‘d done to these girls. Snuggling Ayame tight to her chest, she leaned down and whispered, "Ayame I need you to do something for me. I need you to snuggle as tight against me as you can and not make a sound, can you do that?"
With tears shimmering in the corner of her eyes, Ayame nodded, "Kaoru-neesan where's Ojii-san and Suzume? Are they okay?"
Kaoru‘s stomach hit the floor. Oh kami, not now. Desperately trying to ignore the footsteps still closing in quickly, Kaoru swallowed thickly and murmured, "Yes, honey, they’re just fine. Suzume is with Misao going somewhere safe too, remember?”
The half-lie tasted bitter on her tongue and Kaoru silently cursed Kanryuu again for stealing Dr. Gensai away from them. Anxiously waiting for Ayame to ask about her grandfather again, she was relieved when instead the tremors wracking the little girl’s body lessened somewhat. And then Kaoru heard the first sniffles as she finally gave into the tears that she‘d staunchly held back until now. Hugging her close, Kaoru kissed her softly on the forehead, "Okay, sweetie, I need you to hug me tight now and don't make a sound."
A slight nod was her only answer as the little girl’s arms snaked around her neck, the sniffles instantly muffled by her kimono. Kaoru didn’t waste another moment. Wrapping the girl tight in the cloak, she immediately stilled her mind and silently called on the power swimming through her veins. Slowly she felt it rise up, answering her summons and she focused on taking the space around her and turning it into itself then folded it out to wrap around them disguising their presence. Casting a quick glance to the mirror above the desk to see if she’d succeeded, she hissed in irritation. Damn, she'd forgotten the hood.
Dropping the spell, she flung her hood up and focused her mind again. Her heart began pounding madly against her ribs when she heard her pursuers’ heavy footsteps in the hall, followed by doors crashing open as they searched. They must not have noticed her door was already open, but that didn‘t mean they wouldn‘t.
Stomping down the sudden surge of panic that exploded through her entire body, Kaoru took a deep calming breath and bent the power around her again. A hair rising, tickling sensation whispered through her body again as the shield formed; hiding them both away from prying eyes. Glancing into the mirror again, she smiled in satisfaction. There was nothing but a slight shimmering where she and Ayame stood. Now all she needed was a clear exit and Kanryuu to remain ignorant of her ability.
A moment later a cry went up about her open door and Kaoru ducked behind the privacy screen situated in the corner of the room beside the door. Tucking herself into the very corner of the room, she hoped and prayed her luck held out and they’d go unnoticed. “Not a peep now, okay honey.” She whispered softly into Ayame’s ear. Her only answer was a miniscule nod and a slight tightening of the five year old’s arms.
Then, less than a heartbeat later, the room was flooded with their pursuers. But instead of bypassing the seemingly empty room as they had before, they set to work destroying her room searching everywhere for any sign of her and Ayame. A knot of fear fisted in her gut and she hugged Ayame even tighter. Please, please, please let them be satisfied and leave. Her frayed nerves couldn’t take much more of this.
"Where the hell did they go?!" One of the men suddenly shouted from right in front of the screen.
Kaoru nearly yelped in surprise. Slapping her free hand over her mouth, she watched his shadow begin to move away and then the screen was suddenly thrown to the side and she found herself staring into the stony black gaze of a heavily scarred, grisly looking man. A thin stream of sweat ran down her back as every muscle in her body went rigid. For one agonizingly long moment Kaoru simply stared into the man’s eyes, praying to every god she could think of that the shield would hold. Because if it didn’t they were both dead.
The steely eyed man scowled blackly at the call, then spun around to see what his man wanted. Kaoru clenched her teeth against the sigh that tried to escape and sagged in relief as he walked away. Curious to see what could possibly have caught their attention, she leaned over enough to see past the retreating captain and nearly gasped when she saw the winged amulet Tomoe had given her swinging from the subordinate’s beefy fist. Suddenly sick, she started to shake as the blood drained from her cheeks. Oh god how could she have forgotten that! She had just given herself away! Unless, by some stroke of luck they didn’t know what it was or who it was from. However the next statement shattered that hope.
"So that Yukishiro bitch is in on it.” The captain growled as he grabbed the amulet. “The boss is going to want to know about this." Turning to the rest of his men, he angrily bit out, "She's a craft user. We're not going to be able to find her."
Then with a vicious snarl, he fisted his hand around the amulet and stalked from the room, his men quickly following. Kaoru let out the breath she hadn’t realized she'd been holding and buried her nose in Ayame's hair, trying to fight back the tears stinging her eyes. How could she be so stupid, now Kanryuu would know what she was. She’d never get out of here at this rate.
Taking a deep breath, Kaoru exhaled slowly in an effort to calm her shaking and swallowed back the tears burning her eyes. There was nothing she could do about it now. One way or another she would get them out. With one more steadying breath, she hesitantly made her way to the door and peeked out to make sure the coast was clear.
"Are the bad men gone Kaoru-neesan?"
Kaoru smiled weakly, "Yes honey, but we still have to get out of the keep so I need you to be very quiet. Okay?"
Ayame nodded and snuggled into her neck again. Tightening her hold on the little girl, Kaoru dug up the courage to keep going and silently stepped from the room. On light feet, she glided soundlessly down the hallways, intensely aware of every little sound. A few moments later she found herself at the head of the stairs again. Not for the first time, she wished this level had another exit, but unfortunately it didn’t. Every nerve in her body was coiled tight as she listened intently for any sign of life below. Muffled voices could be heard coming from the direction of the main hall but as far as she could tell there was nothing but silence from the walkway she had to transverse.
Stomping down the part of her that still wanted to run and hide, Kaoru held Ayame close and cautiously slipped down the steps on silent feet before she lost her nerve. A relieved sigh spilled from her lips when she reached the ground floor and saw it free of people. Now all she needed to do was get past the hall and she just might make it out of here. Heartened by the thought, she slowly put one foot in front of the other aiming for the entryway directly across from her that would eventually lead to either the front of the keep or back towards the kitchens.
She’d only made it three steps into the walkway though when she was stopped dead in her tracks by a sudden roar of anger exploding from the hall.
“That bitch will not get away with this. I will have those girls!"
Kaoru‘s eyes flew wide and she shivered at the absolute malice dripping from the voice. Fighting the sudden explosion of fear ripping through her veins, she focused her entire attention on the entryway and forced her legs to move again. She could do this, freedom was only a couple of hallways away.
Unconsciously holding her breath, Kaoru quickened her steps as much as she dared and silently tiptoed closer and closer towards salvation. Within moments she had come up even with the main hall doors and she smiled, she was halfway there.
"Raijin, nullify every spell in the keep now!"
Kaoru froze in her tracks and gasped as her shield instantly dissolved, leaving her exposed to those in the hall. Stunned, she swung her head around and paled as her eyes clashed with the malevolent brown gaze leveled on her. The scowling, black haired man staring at her from the other side of the room was one she had never seen before but still knew on sight.
Oh gods, this couldn’t be happening.
Without so much as another breath, Kaoru jumped into action and sprinted for the entryway. She was too close to getting Ayame out of here to give up now. Once past the opening, she hung a right and, with a short incantation, activated the charms filled with her essence that were set in various places throughout the keep. To those who were mageborn it would now seem as if she was everywhere at once. This Raijin person wouldn’t be able to figure out which way she’d gone. At least for a little while. She was sure it wouldn’t take long for Kanryuu’s mage to see through her deception but hopefully by then she’d be clear of the keep.
In a matter of minutes she had weaved her way back to the kitchens with no one the wiser and found them blissfully empty. The kitchen staff must have run off when the band of mercenaries had first attacked because there was no sign of friend or foe, dead or alive.
Swiftly covering the distance to the closed door she‘d entered through earlier, she tucked herself up against the wall and gently nudged it open with her foot. A light scuffling reached her ears through the crack and Kaoru hugged Ayame tight to her chest then leaned over far enough to scan the yard. To her left, she saw a heavily armed mountain of a man trudging out of the stable yard, presumably heading back to the main gate. With a quick glance to her right, she realized that he must have been the cause of the noise because as far as she could tell the rest of the yard was otherwise unoccupied.
With more patience than she actually had, Kaoru waited another minute or so to make sure the yard beyond would remain empty. When no other sign of life presented itself, she leaned down and whispered, “Okay, honey, were on the home stretch now. So keep quiet for just a little bit longer.”
Once again a slight nod was her only answer and Kaoru smiled softly as she called up a shield to hide them from view again. She was truly surprised at how well Ayame was handling all of this so far. It was almost as if the little girl instinctively knew just how much danger they were in.
The tingling feeling flowed through her body again as the shield took hold and with one last steadying breath Kaoru finally stepped from her hiding place. Scanning both ways again, she debated on which way to go then headed towards the stables and the back of the keep. Most likely the main gate was being held by the enemy. But she was sure they had no idea there was somewhere else they could run to and hide.
Crossing the pebble strewn yard as quietly as possible, she soon came to the back end of the stables and leaned against the wall to try to gather what courage she could for the next part. But she’d barely had time to get settled when the heavy tread of booted feet suddenly sounded to her right.
“Takeda’s going to have our heads for letting those two get away.”
Startled, Kaoru slowly slid her eyes in the speaker’s direction. She felt a cold sweat break out across her brow when she saw two grisly looking men armed with swords, steadily make their way across the yard from the main gates. Heading directly for her.
“I almost had her but then the little bitch scorched my hand. She’s a craft user so he can’t hold it against us.” The other one replied gruffly. “He can go into town and find that screaming brat himself!”
His companion snorted at that as they came up even with her, the man closest to her passing barely a foot away from where she stood frozen. Then they moved on, hooking a right to swing around the back of the keep.
“Heh, you tell ‘im that. If we’re lucky the boss got the other kid. Maybe he …”
And that was the last Kaoru heard as they wandered further away. A sudden wave of intense relief weakened her knees and she leaned heavily against the weatherworn wood of the stables. Misao and Suzume had made it into town. She must be heading for the safe house down by the market. For a brief moment Kaoru toyed with the idea of heading there herself but then decided against it. Her safest bet was still getting over the back wall and finding her way back to the place Dr. Gensai had shown them yesterday.
Decision made, Kaoru leaned forward and scanned the well tended lawns leading to the back wall for any sign of the enemy. She could see a couple of men standing guard on the wall to her right several hundred yards away, but from here she couldn’t tell if they were the keep’s guards or Kanryuu‘s men. In all honesty it really didn’t matter. Her own target, the huge sprawling oak she‘d been heading for earlier, lay almost directly across from where she stood. Other than those two she saw no sign of any other people on or near the wall. Must be Takeda figured she’d head for the main or side gate and had set all his men to intercept her there. He would soon find that to be his biggest mistake.
With an evil smirk, Kaoru gathered every last bit of courage she could muster and hugged Ayame tight then took off at a dead run for the tree hiding their means of escape. Quickly closing the distance, Kaoru sped into the shadows of the tree and stopped behind the massive trunk where it stood a mere five feet away from the wall.
Panting heavily, she slumped against the massive trunk to catch her breath. Now all she needed to do was use the nearly undetectable ladder chipped into the wall in front of her and she and Ayame would be home free.
All of a sudden Kaoru’s body went weak as the adrenaline that had driven her this far evaporated under the knowledge that their escape was finally at hand. With a bone weary sigh, she dropped the shield and slid down until she was crouching with Ayame in her lap; the hilt of her blade digging painfully into her ribs.
“Are you okay, Kaoru-neesan?” Ayame asked worriedly in a small voice.
Kaoru smiled as she adjusted the short sword and finally unwrapped the little girl enough to see her face. “Yes, honey. I’m just a little tired.” With a nod towards the wall she murmured, “Our secret place is just over that wall and a little ways into the forest. Are you ready to go?”
Ayame’s face brightened and she nodded, “The bad men won’t find us right Kaoru-neesan?”
“Not if I can help it.” Kaoru assured her as she finished disentangling the little girl and set her on her feet between the tree roots. “But first we have to get there and in order to do that I need you to ride on my back until we get to the other side of the wall. Can you do that?”
Ayame nodded enthusiastically, “Daddy always gave me piggy back rides.”
Immediately a shadow passed over the little girl’s face and Kaoru cursed Kanryuu for what seemed like the hundredth time. He really did deserve to die for what he’d done. And he would if she had anything to say about it.
“Well, then I think we better go before the bad men find us.” Kaoru said brightly in an effort to get Ayame’s mind off the loss. “Are you ready for that piggy back ride?”
The shadows instantly vanished and Kaoru smiled wistfully as she turned to present her back to the eager little girl. Ayame took immediate advantage and crawled up onto her. As soon as Ayame had settled herself Kaoru stood, pulling her short legs around in front and said, “I’m not going to be able to hold on to you because I have to climb the wall. So hold on tight.”
“Okay!” Ayame chirped brightly as her arms and legs tightened.
Kaoru took a second to situate the hilt of her blade so it wouldn’t hinder her or Ayame, then stepped up and grasped the first hand hold. She winced as the rough stone bit into her unprotected fingers but she forced the pain from her mind and quickly reached for the next, then the next and scaled the wall. Reaching the top, she gently eased herself onto her hands and knees along the top of the wall, then dropped soundlessly to the leaf strewn ground on the other side.
That was it, they were free!
A sudden rush of exhilaration nearly stole her breath away and she smiled wide as she gripped Ayame’s legs and took off at a light run, following her senses to the place that even now she could feel deep in the forest.
But little did Kaoru know, her escape hadn’t gone completely unnoticed.
From an upper level window of the keep, Takeda Kanryuu watched with narrowed eyes as his prey vanished into the shadows of the forest.
“Follow her.” He said to the two men standing behind him, waiting patiently for instruction. They nodded as one and quickly left the room. Turning to the mage also awaiting his command, he continued, “She will tire quickly. Alert me as soon as she stops.”
The mage dropped a hasty bow and headed out of the room to regroup with the mercenary soldiers who had just left. With a tiny smirk, Kanryuu turned back to the open window and stared at the last spot he’d seen the little mage and her ward.
She could run but she couldn‘t hide. No matter how hard she tried.