A quarter of a mile into the overgrown woodland the thick vegetation finally began to thin. Kaoru breathed a silent sigh of relief as she and Kenshin broke out of the grasping bushes into the heavily shadowed, leaf strewn forest.
A soft hiss escaped against her will as one last shorn limb snagged her skin, leaving a nasty red gash in its wake to match the dozen or so she'd already collected. That pain was nothing though compared to the dull ache radiating out from her still tender ribs and the insistent throb of her scorched shoulder that was now causing the wooden doll to weigh heavily in her arms.
Ignoring the persistent aches and pains Kaoru pushed on, following as Kenshin threw a quick glance at her and picked up the pace. His hurried steps silent as he led them further and further into the safety of the trees along a trail she could no longer see.
Kaoru winced as the dead leaves and fallen sticks cracked and crunched loudly beneath her own feet. She had never mastered the art of stealth that Akira-san had tried to drill into her. And she didn’t dare use the trick she’d learned in their training either. She had no idea just how much Tomoe had told the man in front of her, the last thing she needed to do was give herself away.
lightning her steps the best she could on her own, Kaoru hugged her doll tight and tuned her senses to their back trail instead. So far there had been no sound of pursuit but that meant nothing. She knew there was no way Kanryuu was going to let them go. Not as long as he believed they had the girls.
As if to prove her thoughts correct, a soft crackling reached her ears, grabbing her attention. It was then she felt it, the tiny tendrils of super heated air flowing on the wind; a faint tinge of smoke making her nose tickle as it passed.
Suddenly sick, Kaoru spun around and gasped at the truth. The forest behind them, once thick with shadows, was now glowing a bright yellow orange, the elemental flames quickly engulfing the trail they had made through the bracken. Horrified, she watched wide eyed as the fire continued to spread and grow at an alarming rate, consuming the green vegetation with frightening ease as it reached out to either side of them.
Heedless to the danger she and Kenshin now faced Kaoru swallowed down the bile rising in her throat as she stared at the growing inferno. Why! Why would Takeda burn down the forest!? Didn’t he need the girls!?
And then it hit her like a fist in the gut. Yes, he needed them… but he didn’t need them alive. He needed them dead.
Kaoru nearly screamed as a hand suddenly dropped onto her shoulder. Spinning around, she was just about ready to electrocute whoever it was when her eyes landed on Kenshin, the hard look in his eyes stopping her cold.
“We have to go!” he said, with a hasty gesture to the quickly closing escape route. Another few moments and they’d be surrounded.
Kenshin didn’t bother to wait for an answer and simply grabbed her free hand, tugging her along behind him through the small gap in the flames. Kaoru hissed as the magical fire licked across her exposed forearms, singing the hair before they broke though. Once past, Kenshin held her hand tight and picked up his pace. But it didn’t matter because the flames fanned out to either side of them faster than they could run, as if to enclose them again. It was no use, they were going to be trapped.
“Is there anything you can do to stop them?” Kenshin tossed over his shoulder, as they continued running along the only path open to them.
Trying to keep pace, Kaoru swallowed tightly. There was one fire based spell she could try. It wouldn’t stop the mages but it might douse the flames long enough for them to get further ahead. “Th-there is one spell, but I don’t know if it will work against this much fire. I’m not that strong yet. “
Kenshin‘s jaw tightened as he scanned the brightening forest. “Try“ he replied more harshly than she expected, “or we’re not going to make it out of here.”
Kaoru paled at the bleak truth and desperately tried to ignore the fist of dread knotting in her gut. He was right. Kanryuu had every intention of burning them alive.
Swallowing thickly, Kaoru pulled him to a stop and tugged her hand from his. Without a word she turned to face the towering blaze behind them. A sudden surge of fear nearly paralyzed her but she stomped it down and thrust her doll behind her into Kenshin’s hands.
“Step back as far as you can away from the fire and me,” she ordered sternly, the waver in her voice belying her tone. There was a moment’s hesitation and then she felt more than saw the redhead do as she bid. Tossing a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure he was far enough away, Kaoru gave her attention back to the inferno and, with a whispered incantation, activated the spell that would prime her skin as she had done in her fight with the rogue mage.
But this time instead of creating the fire, she would be absorbing it.
Kaoru shivered as the familiar chill raced over her skin and before she could lose her nerve, she lifted her arms and whispered the single word that would call the flames to her. Instantly the mage fire jumped at her, engulfing her in a sweltering cocoon. Behind her she heard a swift inhalation of breath but she ignored it in favor of turning the blistering fire back into energy and feeding it into the ground before it could succeed in turning her into ash.
Closing her eyes against the intense glare of the flames she focused her entire self on converting the raw fire as fast as she possibly could, hoping that it would be enough to clear a path so they could escape. For several long moments she completely lost herself in the task, pushing herself harder than she ever had before.
And then she felt it, the subtle change indicating she was succeeding. With a huge grin she opened her eyes to see and was surprised to witness the flames on either side gone and those they had just escaped faltering under her spell. She was doing it! A little bit more and they might just be able to get a lead on the enemy again!
If it was possible her grin grew even wider and she redoubled her efforts, transmuting the fire almost before it touched her skin.
But then what she’d feared would happen, did.
The elemental flames she’d been fighting moments before suddenly vanished leaving nothing but a faint scent of smoke in its wake. Kaoru’s eyes flew wide in horror and before she could so much as draw breath to scream ‘Get Down!’, Kenshin crashed into her from behind and they both tumbled forward as the world around them exploded into a roaring firestorm.
Throwing her arms over her head, Kaoru pinched her eyes closed and gasped for breath as the intense heat surrounding them stole the oxygen straight from her lungs. A sickening fear unlike anything she’d ever felt before struck her hard as her world started to narrow.
This was it. They were going to die, just like Kanryuu wanted.
Kaoru went weak in relief when the inferno suddenly died out, nullifying her fears. Greedily sucking in as much air as her lungs could hold, she waited for Kenshin to lift himself off her before pushing herself up from the ground with shaking arms. A moment later she had gained her feet and she turned to glance to the redhead who had saved their lives. She gasped when her eyes fell on the charred remains of the cloak fluttering from his singed shoulders. Before she even knew what she was doing she reached out for him.
“Are you okay!?”
Kenshin gave her a curt nod as he removed the damaged cloak. Grabbing her outstretched hand he tugged her to where he‘d dropped the dolls. “We have to hurry, they know where we are now.”
Kaoru shivered as icy fingers of fear slithered up her spine again. He was right. They must be closer than she’d thought. Accepting the still smoking doll Kenshin thrust at her she whispered, “We‘re not going to make it are we?”
Kenshin immediately stilled, his violet eyes darkening in resolve as he captured her gaze. “I promise you we will get out of this alive.”
Kaoru resisted the urge to snort. She desperately wanted to believe him but deep down she knew there was very little hope. With that many mages plus Kanryuu chasing them down it was only a matter of time before they were caught and killed.
“Trust me, Kaoru, we are going to make it.” Kenshin reiterated softly. With no more warning than a quiet ’Come on’, he grabbed her hand again and took off in the direction they‘d been heading.
Stunned to hear her name fall from his lips, Kaoru barely managed to keep from stumbling over her own feet as he pulled her after him. That had been… unexpected but… nice. A fiery blush heated her cheeks at the thought and she silently berated herself for even thinking about it right now.
Snagging her foot on an exposed tree root, Kaoru stumbled and just barely caught herself from crashing face first into Kenshin’s back. Quickly regaining her balance, she smiled sheepishly at the questioning look the redhead tossed over his shoulder. If she kept that up, they would be caught.
And yet in the end it didn’t seem to matter how hard they tried to escape because in the next instant a wall of fire materialized four feet in front of them, directly in their path. Kenshin swore loudly as he veered to the left to avoid the obstruction taking her along with him. But no sooner had they cleared that one then a second wall, larger and curved this time, sprang up. Kenshin cursed again and just barely managed to dodge it but unfortunately the odd angle he had to use broke them apart and Kaoru had just enough to time to form a shield before she crashed into the searing flames.
With a strangled yelp she bounced back and would have toppled over had Kenshin not caught her around the waist. Mumbling a soft thanks she quickly righted herself and took off running again just as the sound of snapping twigs and crunching leaves reached her ears. Oh gods… they were almost here!
That thought was enough to spur her into an all out sprint. Nimbly dodging the obstructions the unseen mages continued to throw in their path, she ran for all she was worth towards a faint lightning in the trees ahead. Maybe, if they were lucky, it would lead to a way out of this. She was only about twenty yards away from what she hoped would be their salvation when Kenshin suddenly shouted, “No! Don’t go that way!”
Startled, Kaoru slowed somewhat and swung a questioning glance over her shoulder. “Wh-…?
She stopped cold when she saw the worried look darkening Kenshin’s normally peaceful face and without another word tried to turn from the path. She hissed in irritation when she was immediately stopped by a wall of searing, white hot fire. Stumbling back from wall, she spun around to try the other way only to find her escape stopped again. It seemed Kanryuu didn’t want them to change course which meant he knew what was coming too. They were being herded.
With a fierce growl, she ignored the nauseating trepidation churning in her stomach and pushed on towards the light, now more afraid than hopeful. What could possibly be waiting for them there? It soon became glaringly obvious what they were being pushed towards when the sound of rushing water broke the quiet of the forest.
A river! But… if that was the case then she and Kenshin could escape!
Heartened by the thought, she sped up a little and in a matter of moments broke out of the trees into a wide grassy stretch of land. All hope of escape instantly fled her mind when she saw the world simply disappear a hundred feet away. A cliff…
But... maybe the drop was one they could handle. A tiny flame of hope rekindled at the thought and she continued on, racing across the small meadow. A few moments later, she reached the edge and swore as her stomach plummeted to her feet; the sight of the eighty foot drop leading to the thrashing, white water below crushing all hope. They were doomed.
“I didn’t realize until it was too late.” Kenshin murmured apologetically as he came up beside her, “I’m sorry.”
Kaoru swallowed down the thick knot of fear threatening to choke her and gave him a weak smile, “It’s not your fault. Kanryuu knew what he was doing.”
The sound of their pursuers closing in soon overrode the rapids below and they spun around just in time to see the first mage exit the tree line. Acting on pure instinct, Kaoru called up the strongest shield she could muster and shoved it out with all the strength she had, pushing him back as she encased the grassy expanse in the translucent protection. She knew it wouldn’t last long but she couldn’t just give up. She wasn’t ready to die yet.
The mage scowled viciously as he stumbled back and then he started trying to break through the shield with fist sized balls of raw energy. Wincing as each strike hit, Kaoru staunchly held it steady, refusing to give an inch. She knew it was a lost cause when five more mages soon joined the one… followed by Kanryuu.
Kaoru swallowed nervously and desperately tried to keep from trembling as the black mage came to a stop directly across from her. With his soulless black eyes pinning her to the spot he waved off the attacking mage before giving her his full attention.
“Your shield only delays the inevitable.” he stated coldly as he took in the bundles still clutched in her and Kenshin’s arms. “Hand over the brats or die with them.”
Kaoru stiffened in surprise. He hasn’t figured it out yet! A sideways glance to Kenshin showed he was just as surprised as she was. But any hope that blossomed quickly vanished under the undeniable truth. It didn’t matter if he knew or not, if they refused he‘d kill them, and if they handed over the dolls she was sure he would kill them in sheer spite. There was no way out of this save death, either by Kanryuu’s hands or the raging waters below.
With an exhausted sigh, Kaoru sagged imperceptibly and chuckled hopelessly. Even with her ability to harness all the elements she couldn’t save them. It was true she had the ability, but she’d had no formal training in any but fire because there was no one left who knew how. Not even Tomoe-sama. Everything she had learned about the other four was from the handful of books the Yukishiro family had managed to salvage ages ago, and out of that she had learned very little she could use as an apprentice mage.
And nothing that would get them both out of this.
The faint click of a loosened katana caught her attention and Kaoru glanced to her companion out of the corner of her eye. She froze at the stony look on the redhead’s face. Wha-?
Her unvoiced question was answered a heartbeat later when an angry hiss cut the warm afternoon air.
“Where are they?!”
Kaoru’s blood turned to ice. Oh, gods…he’d figured it out. Swinging her attention back to the black mage still outside her shield she flinched back from the furious black eyes boring into hers.
“Tell me now, girl. Where are the Takeshi brats?” Kanryuu ground out between clenched teeth.
Kaoru started to tremble again and clutched the doll hard to her chest. “Th-The”
“You’re too late Takeda.” Kenshin cut in smoothly, the faint tinge of humor in his voice surprising her. “They’re already at the Yukishiro manor.”
Kaoru’s eyes widened slightly at the lie, and then she almost smiled when she realized what Kenshin was doing. They may have failed, but if Kanryuu believed the girls were already beyond his reach then they might still be able to save them.
If it was possible Kanryuu’s face darkened even more and before either of them could so much as blink the black mage bellowed in rage and with frightening force slammed power engulfed fists directly into the shield.
An ear piercing scream ripped from Kaoru's throat and she grabbed her head as white hot agony suddenly tore through her mind, the rush of raw power Kanryuu was shoving into her shield expanding it to the breaking point, before it exploded. The sheer force of the blast knocked into her like a fist and she pitched backwards, over the edge.
Stunned, Kaoru simply stared into Kanryuu's steadily widening black eyes as she hung, momentarily suspended in the gentle air currents above the river, the world around her oddly silent as if time had stopped completely. And then Kanryuu muttered two words that made Kaoru's blood run cold as she began to drop towards the raging waters below.
Kaoru gasped in horror as she fell out of sight. …No…
Time reasserted itself as a chilling mist wrenched her back to her immediate danger, Kanryuu’s discovery was quickly forgotten as she desperately called up the only air spell she knew. Thickening the air beneath her as fast as she could, she hoped and prayed it would be enough to cushion the impact but unfortunately by the time the air had solidified enough to slow her down she was only ten feet above the water’s white frothed surface.
Thrusting aside the fear that rushed through her veins, Kaoru sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening and took a deep breath seconds before plunging feet first into the raging water. The shock of the impact made her gasp and she just barely managed to drag in another quick breath before she was sucked underneath the surface. Tumbling head over feet, she tried to ignore the burning in her lungs and frantically tried to make for the surface, swimming as hard as she could towards the light. But the current refused to let her loose and she quickly lost the strength to fight as she continued to tumble like a rag doll, the sharp rocks cutting into her flesh as she scraped by them.
Desperation was beginning to claw within her mind when her head suddenly slammed hard into something solid. And then she knew no more as her world faded to black.
From his perch on the cliff’s edge, Kenshin watched in stunned silence as Kaoru plummeted to the raging water below and vanished beneath the roiling surface. The shimmering of her deep sapphire eyes still lingering in his sight.
A maniacal laugh tore Kenshin’s attention away from the river and he swung an enraged glare at Takeda, wondering what the hell was so funny. He was surprised to find the black mage’s eyes were fixed on him instead of where Kaoru had vanished. Then he noticed just where the black mage’s crazed eyes were trained to and he covered his scarred cheek. Kanryuu’s eyes slid to his after that and Kenshin felt a chill sweep through his body as the man laughed even harder.
Beyond confused, Kenshin shook off the sense of foreboding that spilled though his veins and turned his attention back to what was far more important right now. With one last glance back to Takeda he dropped the doll, palmed his sheathed blade and with a deep breath, dove over the edge after Kaoru.
The clattering of horses hooves accented the creak of ungreased wheels in the mid afternoon sun as Misao, Aoshi and Hachiro made their way along the traffic filled road leading west away from Kiyosu. Behind Misao the girls lay sleeping in the bed of the wagon Sae and Tae had commissioned for their trip beneath the cloaks that hid their presence. They blended well with the returning farmers and for that Misao was grateful, but knowing that did nothing to lessen her tightly coiled nerves.
Nerves that were about to break thanks to the stretch of forest they were currently passing. She could feel it, the residual magic still lingering in the scorched wood. This was where Kanryuu must have caught up with Kaoru. A sickening dread curled in her stomach at the thought. If that man had so much as laid a finger on Kaoru nothing would stop her from hunting him down and killing him, or die trying.
“Calm down, Misao. There is nothing we can do.” Hachiro said, as he rode up beside where she was driving the wagon. “Our task is to make sure the Takeshi children reach the manor safely.”
Misao turned a glare on the Sanada and growled, “I know.”
Hachiro watched her for a moment longer then gave her an understanding nod and dropped back to ride behind the wagon beside Aoshi again.
With a sigh Misao turned her attention back to the road. It had come as quite a surprise when the Sanada had shown up on the Akabeko’s doorstep early this morning with the news they had all been desperately waiting for. According to Hachiro, Tomoe and the others were injured, but fine. The reason there had been no contact was because Tomoe hadn’t wanted to run the risk of Takeda locating them through the missive.
Misao smiled half-heartedly, unfortunately her teacher had no idea that Kanryuu had already found them. Hachiro hadn’t been happy to find that they had set a plan into motion themselves thanks to Takeda’s discovery, but by the time he’d gotten there it was too late. Himura and Kaoru had been gone for hours already. To be honest, Misao was more concerned about how Tomoe-sama was going to take the news that Kaoru had made herself into a target. For some reason that she didn’t know their teacher was extra careful when it came to her best friend‘s safety.
Misao stifled another sigh and shifted her sore backside in an attempt to find a comfortable spot again. Her mentor would know soon enough though. With Hachiro helping them they would now reach the manor hours before they would have had it been just she and Aoshi, because the Sanada had the ability to ‘bend distance‘. To be honest she had no idea what exactly he did but that didn’t matter right now, because with him doing whatever he was doing they would reach the manor by nightfall instead of the following morning like they’d planned.
She was happy about that but also apprehensive. That meant she would have to face Tomoe-sama that much sooner.
The afternoon light was slowly fading towards evening when Tomoe finally cut the link to Azrael, who now sat perched above the window in her study. With a tired sigh, she gratefully sagged against the wall for a minute, happy to be back in her own body. Ignoring the sickening apprehension that tightened in her chest she turned to Akira who sat across from her waiting for her return.
“I can’t find her.” She murmured as she pushed off the wall and rose shakily to walk off the disorientation that came from such a long connection to the raptor. “I saw Hachiro and Misao on the road with the girls and Shinomori-san. But there’s no sign of Kaoru anywhere. “
Akira was on his feet a moment later and caught her elbow as she began to topple over. “I’m sure she’s fine. If she’s not with them then she must be with Himura-san right?”
Tomoe frowned as she rubbed the small ache trying to form above her eyes, “I hope so. But why are Kaoru and Kenshin missing and Misao being escorted by Shinomori? I didn’t even know he was in Kiyosu.”
Akira sighed and continued to lead her around the room. “We won’t know the answer to that until they arrive. Misao will fill us in on what has transpired since the attack.”
Tomoe gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes and was just about to agree when her study door suddenly crashed open to reveal the only non mageborn resident of the manor.
“She’s awake!” Sagara Sanosuke exclaimed before he vanished from sight again.
Tomoe’s eyes flew wide as a sudden surge of hope nearly stole her breath away. Taking off after the dark haired fighter as best she could, she raced towards the opposite end of the manor where the sleeping quarters were located. Megumi was the only one still not fully healed from their ordeal. Thanks to the healer mage’s idiotic plan to jump Akira back to the manor, she had all but killed herself.
From what Sano had told them upon their arrival, Megumi had suddenly popped up in the middle of the courtyard that day, bleeding from her ears, with a nearly dead Akira held in a death grip in her arms. But she had been alive and awake and had refused Sano’s help, instead ingesting a dangerous rare herb that would temporarily spike her waning magical strength. And then she had proceeded to heal Akira using both magic and her innate knowledge of herbal medicine until there was no chance he would die before promptly collapsing herself.
By the time Tomoe, Hachiro, Shougo and Sayo had arrived Sano had been an absolute wreck while Akira laid in bed quite alive and fast regaining his strength. To be honest, Tomoe had held out very little hope that Megumi would survive that kind of strain. She knew from experience it was extremely taxing to jump one, let alone two. Even she herself couldn’t jump with another person yet somehow Megumi had succeeded, and she would be forever grateful to the healer for saving her husband’s life.
Moments later Tomoe and Akira entered the room where Megumi had been placed. Tomoe grinned wide at the sight of the deathly pale, yet quite alive young woman sitting up in the bed. Without a word she rushed to the side of the bed and gently hugged the mage.
“Don’t ever do that again!” She admonished gently. “You scared the life out of me!”
A soft sigh came from the awakened mage. “Trust me, I don’t plan to,” she replied softly, as she weakly returned the hug. “But at least it looks like it was worth it.”
Tomoe gave a miniscule nod at that. “Thank you, my friend, for saving his life,” she whispered into Megumi’s ear before she pulled back to stand beside Akira, giving Sano room to sit beside the healer’s bed again.
“What of Kaoru, Misao and the girls?” Megumi asked in a scratchy voice. “Did Takeda get them?”
Tomoe shook her head. “No, he didn’t get the girls. They are on their way here as we speak.”
Then before Megumi could ask about Kaoru and Misao again, she gave her friend the best smile she could and excused herself under the pretense of preparing a meal for the awakened mage. Taking the cue, Akira murmured a thank you for his life and followed in her footsteps.
They were halfway down the hall before Tomoe finally muttered, “I didn’t want to worry her about Kaoru just yet.” in explanation
Akira grasped her hand gently and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “With your training and Himura-san watching her back I have no doubt Kaoru will make it back to us.”
Tomoe gave him a half-hearted nod in agreement. She desperately wanted to believe that too, but deep down she knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. Not with Takeda on the loose. All she could hope was that the black mage wouldn’t find out the truth about Kaoru because if he did he wouldn’t stop until he got his hands on her.
And if he succeeded, it would be the end of the peace Kaoru’s ancestors had fought so hard to gain.
A fragile peace that now rested on her small shoulders.