Darkest Days

Hide and Seek

Kaoru had only made it a short ways into the woods when the adrenaline she'd gained at their escape finally gave way beneath a bone deep, energy-sapping exhaustion. Stumbling over an exposed root, she winced as the stitch in her side protested sharply. This wasn't good. They weren't even halfway to the place they needed to be yet. At this rate it would take her forever to reach the small hillock she was aiming for.

Stumbling over another root, she clenched her teeth tight as the cramp painfully constricted her chest again. Jaw muscles taut as she inhaled sharply, Kaoru pressed her forearm against it the best she could without letting go of Ayame and continued to force one foot in front of the other in a broken run.

At least it seemed their escape had gone unnoticed. But she knew it wouldn't take long for Kanryuu to send his hired men into the forest looking for her. In this situation she could take little for granted.

A low lying branch suddenly caught her in the face and Kaoru hissed in pain, finally admitting defeat. She had to catch her breath if but for a moment. With an exhausted sigh, she abruptly dropped down and released Ayame’s legs.

"Are we there, Kaoru-neesan?" The little girl asked as she scrambled off Kaoru’s back.

Kaoru rubbed at the abused cheek and shook her head. "Not yet“, she replied tiredly, falling backwards into a sitting position. “But I need to rest for a minute before we can keep going.”

Ayame nodded and plopped down right beside her, “Okay!“

Kaoru couldn’t help but smile as she wrapped an arm around the little girl. The child’s unwavering disposition bolstered her own flagging spirits. A simple trust shone in that small face, a faith that warmed her.

They were going to be all right. All they needed to do was reach the ruins then wait for nightfall to head for the manor. Maybe they’d get lucky and run across Misao and Suzume somewhere along the way, since now she had no way of tracking her best friend. Her smile faltered at the thought and she exhaled softly. What worried her more though was the possibility that her hotheaded friend would try searching her out and find Kanryuu instead. She hoped and prayed Takeda would simply dump the necklace now that he knew what she was. Because she had no idea just what Misao would do if she ever came within striking distance of the man who had, through the shogun at the time, ordered the slaughter of her entire family.

She grimaced at the thought and released Ayame so she could rise. She really had screwed up there. Maybe, if she was lucky, she’d find Misao first. A sarcastic chuckle burned the back of her throat as she gained her feet and stretched cooling muscles. Now that was pushing it, nightfall was still a long way off and if she kept sitting here thinking about things she couldn’t fix she was going to get caught anyway.

“Is it time to go, Kaoru-neesan?“

Kaoru glanced down with a smile and nodded, “We- “

But she got no further than that when the sound of snapping twigs off in the distance suddenly broke the quiet of the forest. Kaoru’s eyes flew wide and she froze, unable to believe her ears. They couldn’t be on her trail already! But another twig snapping proved her wrong and without another thought, she swung Ayame up into her arms and took off at a dead run again, hoping and praying they’d reach their hiding place before they were spotted. She knew all her hopes were for naught though when the pounding of heavy, booted feet crashing through the bracken picked up at the sound of her own panicked flight.

They weren’t going to make it. They were still too far away.

Scowling at the self-defeating thought, she dug up the last reserves of energy she had, and literally flew through the trees, somehow missing all the grasping roots and low lying limbs as she passed. Her legs, lungs and side burned at the added abuse but she pushed on anyway. No matter what, she snarled mentally, they were going to make it!

The crashing behind her seemed to gain even more momentum and she cursed her luck as her own energy started to wan dangerously. Beyond exhausted, she didn’t even notice as the ground beneath her feet started to gradually rise until it steepened enough to make her stumble and nearly fall to her knees.

Swearing softly under her breath, she threw out her free hand to steady herself on a tree and glanced up. A relieved smile split her face when she saw where they were. If she wasn’t mistaken the ruins were on the top of this rise and just a little bit further into the woods. Taking a precious moment to focus her attention on the source of power she’d been following all along, she grinned wide. It was! She was almost there! With renewed vigor, she started scrambling up the hill the best she could with Ayame in her arms, and was just about halfway up the gentle slope when an arrow suddenly whistled by her head and thudded into the dirt barely three feet in front of her.

With a startled hiss, Kaoru stopped dead and spun around on the leaf strewn slope. A strangled yelp ripped from her throat as her feet suddenly slid out from underneath her and she went down hard; landing on her tailbone. Swallowing a cry of pain, she held Ayame tight and quickly dug in her heels to keep from sliding too far back down the hill as she grabbed a sapling to help halt their fall. Her arm snapped taut painfully, jerking at the shoulder, but it did the trick and she finally managed to stop their descent. Although she soon found that losing ground was the least of her worries.

Wincing slightly at the coarse bark biting into her hand, she hauled herself back up into a sitting position and paled at the sight of the two men now standing at the base of the slope, barely twenty feet away. One, the shorter and cleaner of the two, had another arrow already nocked and drawn, ready to take her in the chest if she so much as moved a finger. While the other, a tall, pock-faced man dressed in tattered hakama and kimono, eyed her with a triumphant grin that set her teeth on edge; his bow dangling negligently from a beefy hand. Their blades forgotten at their hips.

A bitter chuckle of irony itched to be released as she shook her head wearily. Figures. And she was so close. But all wasn’t lost yet.

“It’s no use girl.” The rough looking one said with a sneer. "We'll feather you with arrows if you try to run again. Give us the kid."

Kaoru snorted under her breath, but before she could say anything a frightened whimper came from Ayame and instead she leaned down to nuzzle the little girl's head. "They can try but I promise you they can't hurt me, Ayame-chan," she whispered softly, in an effort to set the little girl at ease. And she was right, these two were obviously not mageborn so there was no way they could stop her. Especially not with the standard issue war arrows she could see filling their quivers.

A knowing smirk flashed across her lips and without a word, she called up the strongest shield she knew, then bounded to her feet and took off up the hill again. Almost immediately arrows started bouncing off the protection encircling them and she couldn't help but grin as she stumbled up the slope. Idiots. Had they never gone up against a mage before? Or had Kanryuu not bothered to tell them who they were up against?

But her confidence was soon destroyed when a fireball the size of her head suddenly crashed into the shield, nearly knocking her off her feet. Stunned by the sheer force of the impact, Kaoru stumbled sideways as Ayame shrieked in terror; the elemental fire exploding in a brilliant shower of searing heat and golden sparks. Desperately trying to remain on her feet, she hugged Ayame close to try to calm her and strengthened the dangerously wavering shield as much as she could.

Gasping, she lifted her head as the heat dissipated and glanced down to be sure her charge was unharmed. With a scowl she then swung her attention to the right, facing where the strike had come from.

The blood drained from her face when she spotted the dark haired, black clad man standing in the shifting shadows less than ten feet away. Another fireball danced in his hand casting a surreal glow across his well defined features, his black eyes seemingly lit with an internal fire.

Chilled to the bone, Kaoru felt herself begin to shake and she clenched her free hand into a fist to try to stop the trembling. A rogue mage. How could she have missed him! She knew the shield would hold indefinitely against arrows, but there was no way it could withstand against him. His kind were known for playing dirty, plus she just wasn‘t strong enough to hold off one of his caliber.

A sinister smile slowly slid across the mage's colorless lips as if he had somehow read her thoughts, and that was all it took to get her moving again. Strong enough or not she wasn’t about to give up now, not when they were this close to salvation. Taking to her toes, she sprinted up the slope, leaning into her desperate lunge upwards. A half snarled, "Little bitch!" sounded into the forest, the crashing behind her signaling the advance of the two at the bottom of the rise.

Trying to ignore the unbridled fear pounding viciously through her veins, Kaoru focused all of her attention on climbing the bracken strewn hill without losing her footing again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the fireball the mage had been toying with come flying at her. Straining muscles she just barely managed to dodge it as she crested the slope and stumbled onto even ground.

Scrambling to keep her balance without dropping Ayame, she quickly searched the area and nearly cried in relief when she caught sight of the weather beaten remains of the stone pillar that marked the grounds of the millennium old, now buried shrine. Without so much as a backward glance, Kaoru took off at a dead run again aiming for the small hillock she could now see in the middle of a small glade several yards away. She hadn’t gotten very far though when she felt more than saw two more fireballs come flying at her.

She quickly side-stepped behind a tree and successfully avoided one but the second managed to catch her in the shoulder as she passed into the open again, the impact making her stumble hard. A startled cry came from the little girl in her arms and Kaoru clenched her teeth to hold back the cry of pain burning the back of her throat. Swiftly regaining her balance, she ignored the throbbing in her legs and pushed on through the thinning trees. She could now just barely make out the small piece of stone that marked the entrance to the sole remaining room of the long forgotten shrine. Although in truth she didn’t need the marker the Takeshi’s had left, because for some reason she could see the ancient magic that made the entrance blend into the hillside. A magic that even Misao hadn’t been able to see or sense when they‘d visited the day before. But that also meant that the mage following her wouldn‘t be able to see it either, a fact that gave her at least a small measure of hope.

But then Kaoru’s eyes suddenly flew wide in horror and she nearly tripped over her own feet. The mage… following her…

Oh gods, she couldn’t go into the ruins! Not yet! Not while she was still within sight of both the mage and his henchmen! If she did then they’d know exactly where she and Ayame were. And once inside they’d be trapped because there was only one way in and one way out of the small hideaway.

Which meant….

The blood drained from what felt like her entire body and Kaoru suddenly found it very hard to breathe. There was no choice, she had to turn and fight.

Her stomach rolled at the thought and she grimaced as she turned to the left enough to keep them within the tree cover. There was no way she was going to be able to take him on. Not and live through it. As if to prove her thoughts correct she saw another fireball come speeding towards her out of the corner of her eye, far larger and faster than the previous ones. So fast that she could tell that there was no way she was getting out of the way of this one. Bracing for the impact the best she could, she nearly echoed Ayame’s scream as it slammed into them; the force of the elemental fire shattering the shield this time as it shoved her sideways into a thick gnarled tree trunk.

With a pain filled groan, Kaoru shook her head weakly and righted herself then finally took a second to see just how big of a lead she had on her pursuers. She was surprised to see all three of them still several yards away. The two mercenaries were only just reaching the top of the rise, and the mage she noticed seemed to be keeping his distance, instead lurking in the trees far off to her left. For a fleeting moment Kaoru eyed him wondering why he hadn’t rush them yet, but then spun around and ducked behind the tree for cover. What did it matter? With his hesitation, he had just given her the precious seconds she needed to get them to the hillock unseen.

Quickly tossing the hood of her cloak up onto her head, she swiftly wrapped Ayame up again and bent her mind to activating the spell that would make them invisible. A heartbeat later she felt the magic dance over skin and she knew it had worked. Without so much as another breath, Kaoru headed for the hillock again, tiptoeing over the fallen leaves and twigs as silently as she could. But she’d only managed a couple of steps when she felt the shield vanish as it had in the keep.

“You didn’t think I’d fall for that, did you?”

Kaoru froze as her stomach plummeted to the ground. Swinging her head to the right, she shivered at the malicious smirk the mage gave her. Oh gods, he must be a tracker. Only one of his kind would be able to see through the spell… and bring it down.

Her stomach knotted into a rock hard fist and she immediately back-pedaled behind the tree again. Mind racing to find any solution, she scowled fiercely. There truly was no choice, she was going to have to fight him.

Another wave of nausea struck her like a fist but she pushed it aside and quickly broke Ayame’s death grip on her neck. Setting the terrified little girl on her feet, Kaoru swiftly unclasped her now worthless cloak and swung it from her shoulders to drape it around her ward. At least she could hide Ayame with it.

“Okay honey, I need you to do me a favor. I need you stay hidden behind this tree and don’t make a sound until I come back for you. “

Ayame’s eyes flew wide in terror and she tried to struggle out of the cloak. “No, Kaoru-neesan! You said we were going to the safe place!”

Holding tight to the frightened child, Kaoru forced Ayame to look at her and said, “We are at the safe place but if the bad men see us go in we still won’t be safe.” Ayame’s eyes widened even more in fear and Kaoru loosened her hold enough to hug her. “It’s going to be okay, honey. All I have to do is chase them away, then we can go into the safe place. I promise.”

A couple of sniffles and a weak nod were her only answer and Kaoru immediately set to work forming the cloak’s shield. A moment later she pulled away and smiled at the faint shimmering now marking where Ayame stood. Gripping the little girl’s upper arms, Kaoru pressed her back to the tree and urged her to crouch down between the roots, “Now you have to stay right here, honey.” Another nod came but Kaoru still wasn’t completely convinced that Ayame really understood the gravity of their situation. Breaking through the shield enough to meet the terrified gaze Ayame had fixed on her, she sternly added, “No matter what you might hear Ayame, you are not to move from this spot until I come get you. Do you understand?”

Ayame started to tremble as large tears formed in the corner of her eyes and Kaoru wondered if maybe she’d pushed too hard. But then, much to her intense relief, Ayame hunkered down even more between the roots and gave her a miniscule nod. On impulse, Kaoru dropped a soft kiss on the little girl’s head. “Good. I’ll be back as soon as I‘ve chased them off.”

Then, without another word, Kaoru sprang to her feet and bolted towards the last place she’d seen the mage, searching the thinning trees for some sign of the black clad man while she tapped into the small amount of power she still had. A faint movement caught her attention to her left and with a whispered word she launched a fireball in that direction hoping to take her enemy unawares.

A bone-chilling chuckle suddenly came from right behind her as her fireball crashed harmlessly into a tree and Kaoru had just enough time to spin around before a shot of pure energy crashed into her throwing her several feet back into the woods.

“You’re actually going to fight me?” Came the mage’s surprised inquiry.

Kaoru cried out in agony as she slammed into a tree bone-crushingly hard and crumbled to the ground in a heap. For a brief moment she just sat there wondering if she really was insane for even attempting this. But then Ayame and Suzume’s smiling faces flashed before her eyes and Kaoru shoved the thought from her mind as she pushed to her feet.

“I may be young and inexperienced,” She said softly, as she slowly rose with a barely suppressed groan. Her body aching from the nonstop abuse it had endured so far. “But I’m not going to let you or Takeda have that little girl.”

The mage smirked at her bravado and Kaoru had to resist the urge to throw another fireball at him. It would be nothing but a waste of energy right now when he was expecting it. So instead she pushed her body to the limit and took off through the trees again in an attempt to try to knock him off balance a little bit.

As she had anticipated another sphere of energy chased her through the trees but missed as she suddenly hooked a right to head back towards him; her own hands already pulsing with barely contained power. As soon as he came into sight, Kaoru launched a fireball she knew he would avoid from her right hand but held a fist full of power trapped in her left until she saw him begin to move. Watching him like a hawk, she waited precious seconds to see which way he was going to go then let loose a crackling ball of fire from her left dead into his path. There was no way he could miss this strike.

And he didn’t.

Caught completely off guard, the mage hissed in pain as the ball slammed into his shoulder when he turned to try to avoid the strike, stumbling back as the fire seared through his kimono and skin. For a brief moment Kaoru lost sight of him as her own momentum carried her past him and she immediately slowed as she instinctively called more fire into her hands in preparation of another strike.

But she never got a chance to use it because as soon as she turned to strike again she came face to face with the very angry man she’d hoped to attack. The scent of burnt flesh hanging heavy in the air around him.

“That hurt, bitch.”

And then, before she could even gasp in surprise, he rammed a power filled fist directly into her chest. Kaoru exhaled in a rush as the air was forced from her lungs and she flew backwards out of the trees into the small glade housing the shrine remains. Slamming hard into the unforgiving ground, she inhaled sharply as she skidded a couple of more yards before coming to a stop. For several moments, she simply laid motionless trying to catch her breath and gather her wits again. Faintly she heard a frantic cry of her name but she ignored it and hoped and prayed Ayame would stay hidden. This would all be for nothing if they found her.

But it seemed the mage could care less about Ayame at the moment, because she heard snapping twigs heading her way through the haze of pain and she rolled her head enough to see him making his way out of the forest. Both of his hands already alight and ready to deal the finishing blow.

Beyond exhausted, Kaoru wearily watched him advance and tried to figure out what to do. If she kept going the way she was, he was going to kill her. That she knew without a doubt. She had to do something drastic or it was all over. She was sore tempted to use something besides fire against him but Tomoe had forbidden her to use any of the other four elements she alone could wield unless there was absolutely no other choice.

The mage soon broke out of the cover of the trees into the glade and Kaoru finally started levering herself up. There was one last thing she could do that was fire-based. One last spell that Tomoe had taught her and drilled her in mercilessly mere weeks before she‘d left the manor. If she was lucky it would knock him out long enough for her to deal with the other two and escape into the shrine with Ayame.

Gaining her feet with a wince, Kaoru ignored the soul deep fatigue trying to drag her down and warily eyed the still advancing mage as she silently recited the incantation that primed her body for the flood of raw fire she would soon be consume by. A moment later a chill raced over her skin as the first stage took effect and Kaoru smiled tiredly as she whispered the single word that set the spell into motion, igniting the power flowing just beneath her flesh. Heat spilled through her veins as she continued pouring more power into the spell; mentally fanning the flames into a raging inferno until the fire bled from every pore in her body. Within moments her entire body was engulfed in the heatless flames and she smirked as she watched the mage’s eyes grow wide.

He had underestimated her and now he knew it.

Kaoru's smirk grew into a full-fledged grin and before he could so much as blink she sent the flames racing towards him with a single thought; the wall of fire rushing at him flying faster than she'd ever seen him move. If she had calculated right, he wouldn't be able to get out of the way in time, no matter which direction he went.

For a brief, terrifying moment she was afraid he might actually escape the onslaught though when he propelled himself backwards to try to avoid the strike. But then the flames overtook him and she watched as he vanished into the fire, the sheer force of the elemental flames throwing him back into the forest where he slammed into a tree and crumbled to the ground.

A sudden wave of intense relief washed through Kaoru with a fury and she nearly crumbled to her knees as she stared at her downed enemy. It had worked. It had really worked! Elation lit her face, but she had no time to relish her victory because at that very moment two arrows came flying out of the trees, aiming dead at her.

Stunned, she could do nothing but watch as one flew by her head, missing her cheek by mere centimeters. While the other hit; scraping painfully across her left shoulder; cutting through the fabric of her kimono with ease and deep into her flesh.

With a hiss, she slapped a hand to the wound as two more arrows came flying at her, but before she could even think to dodge them they exploded in a bright orange flash of fire and fell from the air in a rain of ash.

"Go find the kid. She's mine."

Kaoru's stomach plummeted to the ground as the angry voice cut into the quiet glade and she swung her attention to the place she'd last seen the mage. She paled even more when she found him very much awake and now standing within the glade again; his clothes tattered and smoking, his flesh singed black.

Oh, gods. This couldn't be happening. That was the best she had!

A tiny malicious smirk curled the edge of the mage's lips and within the blink of an eye he was in front of her, his hand slamming into her chest hard enough to crack ribs. Kaoru gasped in pain as she stumbled back from the force of the blow and with no thought to the consequences of what she was about to do, she called on the lightning buried deep within her and blasted him as hard as she could dead in the chest.

If she could have she would have laughed at the stunned look he gave her as he pitched backwards. But instead she crumbled to her knees as her body finally gave out and, with an exhausted sigh, she hung her head. That was it, that was all she had.

But unfortunately it still wasn't enough.

Out of the corner of her eye Kaoru watched helplessly as the mage rose again and headed towards her, the charred wound in his chest making him wince with each step. She should have used the forbidden magic to begin with, then she might have won. A faint, humorless smile whispered across her lips as the mage grabbed a fist full of hair and hauled her to her feet before shifting his hold to her throat.

"I think Kanryuu might be interested in you, girl." He noted almost casually as he brought them nose to nose, the malicious look in his eyes making Kaoru shiver. "Lightning users alone are all but extinct and you can use both which is even more rare. He will be pleased to find you."

Kaoru went rigid at what he implied. No! She couldn't let Takeda know what she could do! No one was supposed to know!

A shot of adrenalin suddenly raced through her body and she desperately tried to call up enough power to strike at him again. But much to her dismay she found nothing but aching bones. Instead she started wrenching at the hand wrapped around her neck trying to break his tightening grip. Kaoru’s blood ran cold as her captor grinned wide at her futile attempt and then she saw his free hand lift up to knock her unconscious.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the implications of what was about to happen flashed through her mind and before she even realized what she was doing, she grabbed the hilt of the nearly forgotten wakizashi at her hip, thumbing the blade from its sheath. Feeling vaguely disconnected from her actions, she instinctively spun the handle in her palm until the tip was aimed at her attacker and before she could even think about what she was doing she drove the blade into the mage’s side as hard and as far as she possibly could. Sliding between the ribs and piercing his heart.

The man's eyes flew wide as he inhaled sharply and for a brief moment that seemed to last forever he simply stared at her in stunned silence as if surprised that he'd actually fallen to a simple blade. But then, ever so slowly, the grip on her neck loosened and he stumbled off the blade; quickly pressing a hand to his side in a vain attempt to stem the rush of blood pouring from the wound. With a soft exhalation of breath, he dropped to his knees in the puddle of blood forming at his feet and toppled over.

As if his fall was a signal, the world came crashing back into her and Kaoru started to retch as the feel of his blood cooling on her hand finally registered in her mind. Only years of training kept the dirtied wakizashi locked in her fist as she crumbled to her knees and fell forward; just barely catching herself before she went face first into the crimson sprinkled grass. Clenching her teeth tight against the dry heaves wracking her body she desperately tried to blot out the metallic stench hanging heavy in the air around her.

Kaoru-neesan!”

Ayame's terrified shriek was like a bucket of cold water shocking Kaoru out of her misery and she snapped her head up, searching for the little girl. She nearly growled when she saw the smaller of the two mercenaries hauling the now cloakless Ayame out from behind the tree where she'd been hiding. Quickly swiping her hand and wakizashi over the grass to get the worst of the blood off, she jammed the blade into its sheath. A scowl twisted her features as she jumped to her feet and was just about to run after them when an arrow cut through the air right in front of her nose.

Stopped dead, Kaoru’s scowl deepened as she whipped around to face the larger man busy sighting her in again and without thinking, she called on the power she already knew wouldn't answer. But much to her surprise, instead of feeling the emptiness like she had when facing the mage, she felt something deep inside of her answer the summons and took immediate advantage. With a sharp gesture she flung a bolt of lightning dead at him. Then, before she somehow lost the power she‘d found, she rounded on the man still trying to drag Ayame away and lifted her hand; hoping and praying she still had enough to deal with this one too.

But it seemed her raised hand was threat enough because the man paled, eyes widened in terror, and immediately released Ayame. The sound of his now panicked flight through the trees headed back towards the keep. If she’d had the strength to Kaoru would have chuckled at his spinelessness, but instead she sighed tiredly and crouched down as Ayame raced towards her.

A moment later the little girl launched herself into Kaoru’s awaiting arms and it took everything she had to keep from falling backwards as Ayame buried her face in her shoulder and started to sob. Ignoring the throbbing pain in her shoulder, Kaoru rubbed her back soothingly as she slowly rose to her feet and made her way back to the tree Ayame had hid behind to collect her cloak.

Once she had the cloak in hand, she checked to make sure the archer was definitely out before she headed back to the glade and their hiding place. She had just broken out of the trees again when Ayame’s sobs began to lessen and she hugged the little girl tightly.

“It’s going to be okay, honey.” She whispered, as she passed the fallen mage and continued on to the hillock; ignoring the sick feeling curling in her stomach at the sight of her first kill. “Now we just have to hide until dark and then we’ll set out to see Tomoe-sama, okay?”

Ayame sniffled and nodded weakly as Kaoru stopped before the hidden entrance. With one last reassuring hug Kaoru set the little girl down so they could enter the waist high opening leading into the enchanted room none but a chosen few had visited in nearly a thousand years.

“Come on, kiddo, we have to hide before that guy tells the rest of his friends where we are.” She coaxed when Ayame made no move to enter. She had no doubt that Kanryuu would be here soon and there was no way she could deal with him now.

Ayame simply nodded and Kaoru’s heart clenched when she saw the haunted look in the little girl’s eyes before she vanished into the room. This was too much for a five year old to handle. Way too much.

With a bone weary sigh Kaoru felt what little bit of energy she’d managed to hold on to vanish and she followed Ayame into the dim chamber. Once inside she waited a moment for her eyes to adjust then settled down on the top step of the stairs Isao-san had built, her back to the wall so she could still see beyond the ancient magic shielding them. Reaching down she gathered Ayame into her arms. They may be safe in here but she wanted to be able to see danger coming if it did somehow find them.

Now all she needed to do was stay awake until sunset and all would be well. And that, she was afraid, was going to be the hardest part.


Takeda Kanryuu couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was he really surrounded by idiots? First they lose one in the city and now this?

Leveling a baleful glare on the quivering pile of flesh at his feet, he bit back a frustrated growl. “Are you trying to tell me that some weak little apprentice mage somehow managed to kill Raijin?”

The pale-faced mercenary kept his attention trained on the floor and dipped his head once.

At his wits end, Kanryuu balled his hand into a power-filled fist and slammed it as hard as he could into the mercenary’s head, not caring whether he killed the worthless maggot or not.

Then, before the man even hit the floor, he spoke the single word that would send him to Raijin’s side. For one gut wrenching moment the world seemed to turn inside out and then he was standing in what seemed to be a small glade of what he assumed to be the forest behind the keep.

Glancing down to his feet he scowled darkly at the undeniable evidence proving the mercenary's words true and toed the unmoving mage. Raijin lay burned and battered in a pool of his own blood, the still seeping wound in his side the obvious cause of the mage’s death.

He had severely underestimated Yukishiro Tomoe. He hadn’t expected nor been prepared for mageborn guardians. And now thanks to her interference he had lost the chance to get his hands on those girls today. Right now he had no choice but to leave Kiyosu empty-handed because the additional guard he'd delayed would be arriving within the next couple of hours. And if he stayed he ran the risk of alerting the shogun's regents of his involvement in the attack. Not something he was willing to do while trying to ingratiate himself into their good graces.

Kanryuu nearly snarled as a sudden surge of unbridled rage exploded through his veins and he sent a searing bolt of lightning into the body at his feet. Thanks to that bitch this had all been for nothing!

A faint noise that sounded suspiciously like a strangled gasp suddenly cut through his anger and Kanryuu spun around with narrowed eyes searching for the source of the sound. Catching sight of the hillock he hadn’t noticed until now, he searched the forest beyond for any sign of his elusive prey and slowly made his way across the sun-filled glade. He frowned when he found nothing out of the ordinary in the trees. Turning his attention to the strange mound, he slowly circled it inspecting closely for any indication that someone had been hiding there within the last few moments or so. But much to his irritation he found nothing but undisturbed shin high grass and he started to think that maybe he'd been hearing things.

But no sooner had the thought crossed his mind then he heard a rustling in the forest behind him and he snapped his head around hoping to find the kid and her guardian.

He scowled blackly when he instead caught sight of the other mercenary he'd sent after the brat, who was just beginning to rise from where he must have landed, felled by a girl half his size. Without a second thought, Kanryuu flung a bolt of lightning dead at the incompetent fool to finish him off. He had no use for idiots. Next time he would take matters into his own hands from the very start.

Quickly scanning the area one more time before he jumped back to the keep, he smiled. And there would be a next time because now that they knew they were no longer safe in Kiyosu, they would have no choice but to leave. And he had every intention of catching them as soon as they did.


Late afternoon had come and gone by the time Kenshin and Aoshi left the elderly farmer at his family’s home. Politely declining to take a meal there, they made their way through the quiet streets of Kiyosu towards the keep. A frown touched his face as the fact there was no one out and about surrounded them. Something had happened. The sense of foreboding that had been dogging Kenshin all day seemed to intensify with each step closer to the unmanned gates still several yards away and he absently picked up his pace till he was near running.

Something was wrong. He could feel it deep in his bones.

Moments later, he and Aoshi reached the partially ajar gate and with more force than was necessary Kenshin shoved it open to reveal a sight he had hoped he wouldn’t see. The courtyard beyond was alive with activity as a string of men dressed in the shogun’s colors carried bodies from the keep; laying them with utmost care in a neat line to the right of the main doors.

Suddenly sick, Kenshin hurried to where the bodies were being laid out and anxiously searched for any or all of the remaining Takeshi family members. A heartfelt sigh of relief escape his lips when he found none of them among the men and women lying in the fading sunlight.

At that moment two men stepped from the keep with another body between them that they added to the growing line and Kenshin stopped the one dressed in the Takeshi family’s colors before he could follow his partner back into the keep. “Take-san, what happened here?”

The head falconer let out a bone weary sigh and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I don’t know. I was in town buying feed for the birds and when I came back everyone was dead.“

Kenshin felt his stomach plummet to his feet. “What of Ayame and Suzume and their caretakers? Gensai-sensei? Are they among the dead too?”

A stricken look passed over the middle aged man’s face and Kenshin’s blood went cold. “I don’t know but they say the worst is in the main hall. I- I haven’t been there myself.”

Kenshin ignored the fist of fear knotting in his gut and without another word took off into the keep; quickly navigating the maze of hallways that led to the main hall. Within moments he was striding into the wide walkway the main hall emptied into with Aoshi following close behind. Almost immediately the stench of blood and death assaulted his nose and he covered it with his sleeve as he stepped aside to let a pair of guards by with the body of a middle aged woman he remembered seeing during his last visit several months ago.

Scowling at the senseless death, Kenshin prepared himself for the worst and stepped into the partially cleared hall. The first thing he noticed was the small pools of blood dotting the floor right in front of the doors and he carefully picked his way past the congealing mess. Quickly scanning the rest of the room for the Takeshi family, he felt a tiny shred of hope start to blossom in his chest when at first he found nothing but friends of the family. But then he finally caught sight of Dr. Gensai and he paled as he shot to the back of the room where the elderly man lay on his side in a pool of his own blood. He knew there was no hope though as soon as he reached the ashen faced man and saw the wound in his chest. The older man had likely died moments after the blow.

Biting back a growl, Kenshin swore bitterly under his breath. If only he’d gotten here sooner he may have been able to stop this from happening. But there was nothing he could do about it now. All he could hope was that the guardians Tomoe had sent had been able to protect Ayame and Suzume. At the thought of the two little girls, Kenshin turned his attention from the dead and started searching for clues to what may have happened to the guardians and their charges.

A faint twinkling caught his attention as he scanned the area near the small door at the back of the hall and he stepped around Dr. Gensai to get a better look. What he found made his blood run cold again.

With a sigh, he leaned down and carefully lifted the small wing-shaped pendant, frowning at the misshapen wings. The once pristine set of wings were now bent almost all the way into the center of the pendant. But what he truly found odd was it looked as if the wings had been softened by an intense heat before they were bent in, no stress marks or cracks in the shiny metal marred its surface.

Kenshin exhaled softly and shook his head as he fisted his hand around the ruined pendant. But all that really didn’t matter, because now he had evidence that something had happened to at least one of Tomoe’s apprentice mages. As he had feared, they’d been too late.

Suddenly a fist-sized fireball came flying out of nowhere and sped past his nose, so close that he felt the heat of its passing. Startled he back stepped as an angry shriek tore through the silence of the room.

Where is she!?”

Stunned, Kenshin spun around to face his attacker and immediately had to dodge another attack as the diminutive young woman standing in the doorway flung another fireball at him, shouting “What the hell did you do with Kaoru!?”

Kenshin’s eyes flew wide and he muttered, “Kaoru…?” at the exact same moment that his companion called out, “Misao?”

The irritated young woman froze at the name and Kenshin would have chuckled at the stunned look on the angry, green-eyed mage's face if the situation wasn’t so serious.

Then, much to his surprise, said girl's expression did a complete roundabout and she grinned wide and exclaimed, “Aoshi-sama! What are you doing here!?”

A faint smile touched his usually stoic companion's face before Aoshi smoothly replied, “I could ask the same of you.”

If it was possible Misao’s grin grew even wider and she rushed into the room, avoiding the devastation on the floor with ease. “Tomoe-sama sent me and my best friend, Kaoru, to be Suzume and Ayame’s guardians.” she answered easily, coming up to stand beside Aoshi. But then she must have remembered why they were all there and her grin vanished as she rounded on Kenshin with narrowed eyes. "Who are you anyway? And where is Kaoru?!"

Kenshin blinked, surprised to find himself still a suspect. "Yukishiro-san asked me to come and assist you two, should the need arise," he calmly replied. "As to your friend Kaoru, she was already gone when we arrived. All I found was this on the floor," he finished as he held out the damaged pendant.

Misao paled at the sight of the ruined wings and took the amulet gently from his outstretched hand. "Then where is she? Tae-san said Takeda doesn't have her and if she wasn't captured then where did she go?"

"Takeda Kanryuu did this?" Aoshi asked suddenly, ignoring her questions.

Misao's face darkened. "I didn't personally see him but Tae-san and Sae-san's informant told me it was him. He had another mage with him who took down the shield." she replied, the hard edge in her voice a far cry from her earlier chipperness.

Aoshi's face darkened at the information but before either of them could continue with their conversation, Kenshin asked, "Where are the girls?"

Misao glanced at him and sighed. "Suzume's with me at the safe house in the city, but Ayame was with Kaoru. We both ran when the keep was attacked and I thought Kaoru was right behind me but for some reason she wasn't, and she never showed up at the Akabeko."

"Is there another safe house or something like it that she could have gone to?" Kenshin pressed, now becoming even more worried. He couldn't let Takeda Kanryuu of all people get his hands on either one of them.

Misao frowned and shook her head. "Gensai-sensei only told us about the Akabeko."

Kenshin exhaled softly and tried to remember if he'd ever heard Azumi, Isao or Dr. Gensai mention anywhere else she might have run to.

"Wait! That's right!" Misao suddenly shouted, startling him from his thoughts. "There's this place out in the woods that Dr. Gensai showed us yesterday. It was a room of some sort, buried in the ground that was supposed to be a part of an ancient shrine or something.”

Kenshin immediately recognized the description. Isao-san had once shown him that very place during an earlier visit to the keep.

“The entrance to it is hidden by some kind of magic even I couldn't see or feel,” Misao continued excitedly, “But if you know how to get inside then no one would be able to see you. I bet she took Ayame there." Then, before he or Aoshi could react in any way, the young mage spun around to head for the door. “I’m going to go find her.”

“No.” Kenshin instantly threw out a hand to grab her shoulder before she could take a step. “We can’t leave Suzume without your protection. You should go back to the Akabeko.”

In the blink of an eye, Misao spun on him and growled, “I’m not going to leave Kaoru out there with Kanryuu on the loose! She‘s my best friend!”

Kenshin weathered her outburst then nodded in understanding. “I won’t either. But for now it would be better for you to go back to Suzume.”

Misao scowled blackly and looked ready to continue arguing when Aoshi spoke up. “Kanryuu may no longer be in Kiyosu, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t set people to take advantage of any lapse in the child’s protection.”

Misao cut him an icy glare as her face darkened even more and for a moment, Kenshin thought she would ignore Aoshi‘s warning. But then she finally sighed and gave in, “Fine. I’ll go back, but you guys have to go look then.”

Kenshin swallowed a sigh of relief. “It won’t take both of us,” he said, as he started for the doorway. “I know the place. If she’s there I’ll bring her back to the Akabeko. You two take care of Suzume and wait for me there.”

Then, before either could argue, he headed out of the hall into the silent corridors. It didn’t take him long to make his way out of the keep and across the neatly trimmed lawns to the great oak against the back wall. Striding into the shade of the sprawling tree, he was just about to begin climbing the makeshift ladder when he noticed the dark grey scuff marks leading up the wall. Marks that could only have been made by hard soled boots. Proof that if she had come this way she hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Kenshin’s stomach twisted painfully as he quickly scaled the wall and dropped down to the other side. As soon as his feet touched the ground he took off into the darkening forest at a ground eating lope. He still couldn’t believe Tomoe had risked Kaoru like this? Who knew what would happen if Takeda Kanryuu ever got his hands on her. In truth he’d never actually met the girl thanks to his inability to cross the shield protecting the Yukishiro manor. But he knew from what Tomoe had confided in him over the years that the young woman was nothing like the rest of the mages. She was in a class all her own. Tomoe must have been desperate to send her here where she would be easily seen by someone like Kanryuu.

The land began to rise under his feet and Kenshin shook off the thoughts as he slowed and turned his attention to the gentle slope leading away from him. His blood turned to ice in his veins when he spotted the arrow shaft sticking out of the ground about halfway up. They had caught up to her here.

Without so much as another breath, Kenshin sprinted up the hill afraid of what he might find when he reached the top. Eyes scanning the ground as he went, searching for any sign or clue, as he reached the summit. Much to his intense relief he found nothing but trampled ground and he followed the wide path the men had broken in the underbrush, heading towards the small glade he could now see several yards away. Within moments he broke out of the forest and was stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of the burned and battered man lying motionless in the space between him and the hillock he‘d been aiming for.

Quickly scanning the area to make sure he was alone, Kenshin cautiously made his way towards the downed man; his senses tuned to catch anything out of the ordinary. A moment later he reached the man’s side and knelt down to test for a pulse even though he knew there was no chance.

As he had expected he found none and instead turned his attention to the wounds that had led to the man’s death. It was then that he caught sight of the tiny circular mark at the base of the man’s neck, where it met his left shoulder. Pulling the man’s shirt back enough to see the full tattoo Kenshin frowned. This was no ordinary man, he was a mage. A rather high ranking one too if that mark was what he thought it was. Shifting his attention to the mage’s torso, he shook his head in wonder. And if the scorch and burn wounds were telling the truth, Kaoru had taken on this mage, and beaten him. Although he had a sneaking suspicion that the killing blow had come from the stab wound in the mage’s side and not any of the magical attacks marking his body.

Ken-niiii!“

Kenshin nearly jumped out of his skin as the familiar name echoed throughout the quiet glade and he whipped his head up to find the source of the call. His eyes flew wide as Ayame suddenly burst from the hillock and raced towards him as if the dragon god himself was hot on her heels. A sudden wave of intense relief washed though him and he quickly stepped over the body of the mage just in time to catch the little girl as she launched herself into his arms.

“Kaoru-neesan won’t wake up, Ken-nii!” She cried as soon as he had a hold of her, the clear terror in her face making him pause. “She said if she fell asleep that I had to wake her up but she won‘t wake up! “

Kenshin tried to ignore the sinking feeling settling into the pit of his stomach and soothingly rubbed her back in an effort to calm her down as he started for the hillock housing the ancient room. “I’m sure Kaoru-neesan is just really tired and can‘t wake up,” he assured her; hoping and praying they weren’t just empty words.

“But the bad men hurt her a lot.” Ayame muttered in disbelief, as huge tears welled in the corner of her eyes. “She was bleeding too.”

“I’m sure she’s okay, kiddo. Tomoe-san told me she‘s a tough cookie.“ Kenshin said reassuringly as he quickly covered the last few feet to the stone marking the entrance to the enchanted room. Kneeling down in front of the seemingly unbroken hillside, Kenshin set Ayame on her feet and reached a hand out as if he was attempting to touch the hill. He inwardly smiled as his hand instead vanished into the grassy hillside. Glancing to Ayame, he smiled, “I’ll be right back. So don’t move.”

The little girl simply nodded and Kenshin turned his attention back to the shield and leaned forward, letting the spell swallow him as he made his way into the room. He’d only managed to get his upper body into the entrance though when he was brought up short by the sight of the young woman he’d come to find leaning precariously against the wall along the top step; very much alive but clearly unconscious.

Somewhat relieved, Kenshin shifted himself enough so that he was sitting on his hip within the confines of the entrance and turned his attention to figuring out how to get her out of here without disturbing her too much. But then the curiosity he’d held off for years got the better of him and he slowly reached out to place his fingers on her far cheek to turn her face towards him. The urge to take his first look at the girl Tomoe had given her freedom up for too much to ignore.

But he never got the chance to finish the move because at the exact same moment his fingers came into contact with Kaoru's soft flesh, a triumphant roar ripped through his mind; the sheer force of the primal call making him go rigid in surprise. Then, almost as quickly as it had come, the roar suddenly faded out and Kenshin slumped heavily against the opposite wall and simply stared at the young woman still sleeping peacefully across from him. What the hell…?!

“Ken-nii?”

Kenshin started at the call and wearily shook his head to clear his mind. He had never, in all of his years traveling, run across a sound quite like that. Looking down at his hand he pondered. It had been almost terrifying in its ferocity. With a sigh he glanced over his shoulder where he could see Ayame just beyond the shield looking at the hill anxiously. He’d have to figure it out later. Right now he had more important things to worry about.

“I’m okay, Ayame-chan,” he called out before she had a chance to get scared. “I’ll be out with Kaoru-neesan in just a minute.”

“Oh…okay…” Came Ayame’s reply and Kenshin smiled as he worked himself back up into a crouch then reached out to gather the sleeping mage to his chest, half expecting something else to happen. Hesitantly touching her again, he scoffed at himself when nothing did, and gently eased her upper body towards him until he had all but pulled her into his lap and then slowly started backing out of the small opening into the fading sunlight.

In a matter of moments he had guided Kaoru out of the bespelled hill and he gently laid her down so he could check her for injuries. Ayame immediately plopped down on the other side of her and hesitantly reached out to touch Kaoru's bangs.

"Is Kaoru-neesan okay, Ken-nii?"

Kenshin gave the little girl the best smile he could and nodded, "She's going to be just fine once we get her back to town. But first I need to check to make sure it's safe for me to carry her."

Ayame's eyes brightened and Kenshin hoped he wasn't lying as he set to work checking the young woman for injuries. But he soon found that his worry was unfounded, at least partially. Outwardly she didn't seem to have suffered nearly as bad as he'd feared she would against a high ranking mage. As far as he could tell the only flesh wound she had taken was a nasty gash across her upper left arm that had already begun to close, although it would likely need to be reopened and stitched later. That wound must be what Ayame had been talking about when she'd said Kaoru was bleeding.

His eyebrows creased slightly as he scanned her again, more closely this time. Other than that he couldn't see anything that would be life threatening, leaving the only reason for her unconsciousness to be exhaustion which made him feel a whole lot better. But that didn't mean she didn't have internal injuries. Unfortunately he couldn't tell that without her conscious so he would simply have to be extra careful carrying her.

Satisfied that it was fairly safe to move her, Kenshin removed the blood-stained wakizashi at her hip and tucked it into his own belt next his sword. Then he slowly slid his arms beneath her shoulders and knees and gently lifted her to his chest; being careful not to jostle her too much as he cradled her in his arms and stood.

"Okay kiddo. Time to go." he said, as he adjusted Kaoru so her head fell softly against his shoulder. The scent of jasmine filled his nose as her forehead came to rest against the side of his neck, and he smiled as the pleasant scent overcame the smell of blood and burnt cloth lingering around her.

"Are we going back to see Ojii-san now?" Ayame asked innocently as she jumped to her feet. "He was hurt real bad too, but if Kaoru-neesan's okay then he must be too."

Kenshin inwardly winced as his chest tighten painfully. “No sprite. We’re going to see Tae-san right now,” he replied, in a light voice as he started across the glade towards the keep. Hoping she’d accept that and let the matter drop. He didn’t think he was the best person to break that kind of news to the already fragile five year old. The little girl’s world was destroyed enough as it was. Best to get her somewhere safe and with others they knew before dealing with the aftermath of the day.

“Tae-san!” Ayame piped up excitedly as she took off after him, clearly forgetting about her grandfather for the time being. “Oh, I can’t wait to see her!”

Kenshin breathed a silent sigh of relief as he turned his attention to leading them out of the forest; only half listening as she continued to chatter on about anything and everything now that she felt safe.

Carefully picking his way through the trees and over fallen limbs, Kenshin had only made it about halfway back to the keep when he finally noticed that the ever present throbbing in his scarred cheek that he had grown accustomed to over the last few days was gone. Startled, he immediately flexed the left side of his face to make sure he wasn’t mistaken and tried to think back to the last time he remembered feeling it. But the best he could come up with was during his search for the two now with him.

And then it dawned on him and he glanced to the young woman sleeping in his arms. No, the very last time had could remember was mere moments before he’d been assaulted by the soul shaking roar when he’d touched her. Absently tightening his hold on Kaoru, he frowned as the sense of foreboding he thought gone came back tenfold.

Something very strange had happened today. What it was he couldn’t say, but deep down he knew that whatever it was had everything to do with the girl in his arms.

But what he didn’t realize was that it had everything to do with him too.


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