Safe No More
The following morning Azrael and Tomoe were in the skies at dawn shooting towards Kiyosu and the scorched woodlands Misao had described. Together they rode the thermals, closing the distance as fast as the blue-eyed raptor could take them. But even at her best it still took Azrael over an hour to reach their destination.
As the ancient wood came into view the fear Tomoe had felt the night before came back tenfold. An alarmingly large part had been burned to cinders, the area still smoking slightly where the mage fire had charred even the smallest weed into nothing but a blackened husk.
Tomoe’s stomach rolled with sickening fear and she scrambled to keep her link with Azrael. Oh gods, how many rogue mages did Kanryuu have?! Mentally nudging Azrael towards the trees still untouched, she let the raptor settle down to rest and tried to calm herself down. There was no use getting upset just yet. No matter how many he had, he had to catch them first and she knew neither Kenshin nor Kaoru would be caught so easily.
For a few moments longer she and Azrael rested on the branch before Tomoe silently suggested they begin their search. Azrael immediately cried out in understanding and effortlessly took to the air again, circling the area lazily so Tomoe could judge where to go from here.
On their second pass, a faint trail of residual magic leading away to the northwest caught her attention and she nudged Azrael in that direction. Turning the raptor’s eyes to the ground, she began searching for any clue as to what had happened. It didn’t take long for her to notice the intermittent scorch marks scarring the forest floor.
Turning Azrael to follow, they soon came to edge of the forest, and flew out over a small scrap of grassy land before it too fell away to be replaced by a hundred foot drop that ended in angry white-frothed rapids.
Tomoe mentally gasped as her stomach plummeted to her feet, but the sudden drop didn’t seem to faze Azrael at all. With practiced ease the blue-eyed raptor caught the updrafts coming from below and rode them upwards for a moment before she started spiraling down towards the grassy stretch of land as if she already knew that was their destination.
Calmed by Azrael’s ease, Tomoe shook off her vertigo and turned her attention to the magic saturated ground below, searching for clues as they continued to descend. There was no doubt this was where Kanryuu had caught up with them. Now what she needed to do was figure out if he’d taken them prisoner or if they’d managed to somehow evade the black mage and his lackeys.
The sight of Kaoru’s dolls lying discarded in the tall grass near the cliff edge made Tomoe’s blood run cold and she immediately urged Azrael in that direction. With a small cry her blue-eyed friend broke from the spiral and dove for the fallen dolls. A moment later she landed gracefully beside the charred doll sized to Ayame and Tomoe tried to discount the fact that for this doll to lie where it did, Kaoru must have been on the very edge of the cliff when she‘d lost the precious treasure.
She flat out refused to believe he would chase her over the edge, even if he still had no idea of her true heritage. He may be cold-blooded and heartless but he knew a usable hostage when he saw one. Eying the other doll, she inwardly grimaced, as to Kenshin, she didn’t even want to think about what Kanryuu may have done with him. It was obvious they had met here but that was all.
Taking full control of Azrael’s eyes for a moment, she eyed the Ayame doll critically hoping for some clue as to what had happened to Kaoru even though she knew she would find none. This was a dead end. There was nothing else here to go with. Her best bet now would be to find Takeda and see if he had one or both of them in his grasp. The very possibility made her sick but it was better than the alternative. If either one of them had gone over the edge of that cliff then they were likely dead and she didn’t even want to entertain that thought.
With an inward sigh, Tomoe silently let Azrael know it was time to take their search elsewhere. Azrael cried out in understanding and launched herself from the ground, her smooth wing beats swiftly carrying them into the air and above the trees again. At Tomoe’s urging the black-faced raptor pointed her beak north and took off at a leisurely pace so Tomoe could scan the ground passing beneath their wings. Right now she had to assume Takeda had them, so their best bet was to make sweeping arcs of the area for some clue as to where they had gone.
For the next hour she and Azrael rode the skies hoping for something that would point them in the right direction, their search taking them north all the way to Gifu and south well passed the rapids they‘d encountered earlier.
But with each failed sweep Tomoe lost a little bit more hope that she would find them and had all but given up when she finally spied the man she‘d been searching for farther south than she‘d expected.
A sudden wave of relief spilled through Tomoe’s veins and she immediately pointed out the tiny clearing to Azrael. The blue-eyed raptor cried out in understanding and dove for the trees ringing the clearing. Tomoe winced at the piercing shriek and prayed Takeda would think nothing of it as they winged in to land on a branch high in an oak tree, directly behind where Kanryuu sat facing the small fire in the center of the clearing. And the very first thing Tomoe noticed was that the black mage was alone.
Completely and utterly alone.
Which meant Kenshin and Kaoru were still safe. Or dead, her mind supplied, stomping out the tiny bit of hope she’d garnered from the sight. But she still flat out refused to believe that. Why would he be here if that was true. If anything he’d be heading for the manor now that he knew Kenshin and Kaoru had been nothing but decoys.
The arrival of two rogue mages a moment later pulled her attention away from the questions and she quieted her mind to listen in to the conversation.
For a long moment silence reigned in the clearing and then one of the rogues, a man of average height with dark hair and eyes said, “We’ve searched all along the riverbank. There is still no sign.”
From her perch behind him, Tomoe saw Takeda’s shoulders tense. “Both sides?”
The second rogue, taller than the other but just as non-descript, nodded. “If they survived the fall, the rain most likely washed away any evidence of their exit of the river. They could be anywhere.”
Tomoe’s heart dropped to her stomach. If they survived the fall… Oh, gods… Did that mean?…
Azrael suddenly warbled deep in her throat and fluttered her wings agitatedly as if she‘d sensed her mistress’ distress. Takeda froze at the disturbance and Tomoe forced the bird to still, silently praying the black mage would ignore them.
Several agonizingly long moments passed before Kanryuu seemed to relax again and gave his attention back to the pair across the fire.
“Keep looking.” He stated curtly. “I have no doubt they survived.”
Both mages gave him a disbelieving look but dipped their heads in understanding and spun around retreating in the same direction they’d come.
“Is this necessary?” A gravely, disembodied voice asked once the men had disappeared. “The girl and her companion are most likely dead. We will have to find another way.”
Tomoe mentally jumped at the unexpected voice and Azrael let out a strangled squawk channeling her surprise. Quickly shushing the raptor, she took control of Azrael’s eyes and searched for the source of the voice.
She stilled when a white-haired, black clad man about a foot taller than herself stepped from the shadows of the forest to her right and came to stand beside the fire. Eyeing the newcomer through Azrael’s eyes, Tomoe took in the slight stoop of his shoulders, the pale skin of his hands and face almost translucent in the morning sunshine. But what she found truly disconcerting was the deep set, glittering, reddish-brown eyes watching Kanryuu held a look that Tomoe could only describe as piercing, as if he could actually see into Takeda‘s soul.
Tomoe shuddered at the thought. This was no ordinary man. That much she could tell. But what struck her even harder was the fact that this man was no mage either. He was something entirely different.
“As I said before,” Kanryuu replied in an irritated voice, “the girl is alive.”
The white-haired man slowly shook his head, obviously not believing it possible, but Kanryuu didn’t see because by then the black mage had slowly started turning his attention behind him, murmuring, “I have no doubt about that because she‘s…”
Tomoe’s breath caught in her throat as Kanryuu paused and searched the trees until he finally found Azrael deep in the shadows. “A blue-eyed Ancient,” he finished with a smile, “right, Yukishiro-san?”
Shocked to the very core of her being, Tomoe gasped as Kanryuu lifted his hand, her only warning before she saw the single bolt of lightning cutting through the air a heartbeat before it slammed into Azrael’s chest.
Letting out a heart-wrenching scream, Tomoe felt Azrael cry out in agony as she wrenched herself away from the bird. Tumbling backwards off the window seat in her study, she hit the hardwood floor with bone-cracking force and burst into tears.
“Tomoe!” Akira exclaimed as he dove to his knees beside her, gathering her up in his arms.
“He knows…” she gasped between sobs. “Oh gods, he knows about Kaoru…!“
Akira stiffened for a split second before he started rocking her back and forth, but she barely felt it in her misery and terror. Azrael was dead and Kaoru…
She didn’t even want to think about what might happen to Kaoru now.
Kanryuu prodded the strange looking hawk corpse with his toe and smiled as he turned to face his white-haired, alchemy teacher. “I know where they are.”
The ageless man’s eyes narrowed, “You’re sure he is what we think he is?”
Kanryuu’s smile grew deadly, “Oh yes, and he has no idea. None whatsoever.”
By the time Kenshin woke that morning, the roaring fire had burned down to nothing but softly glowing embers; the subdued light barely enough to illuminate the black-walled cave.
Hiding a yawn behind his hand, he slowly blinked his eyes into clarity then rolled his head to the side so he could glance across the fire pit to check on his companion. He smiled to himself when he saw Kaoru curled away from him, sound asleep again. Good, she’d taken his advice. She desperately needed the energy renewing rest after her hours of unconsciousness.
Stifling another yawn, he methodically stretched his limbs into full wakefulness and finally sat up to greet the morning. If his internal clock was right it had to be about three hours after sunrise. A quick glance to the ivy shrouded entrance showed that it was indeed light out now which meant they had made it through the night undiscovered.
His smile returned, more relieved this time, as he placed a couple of dry logs on the fire. To be honest he hadn’t been completely sure of their safety. True it had been fifteen years since the Yukishiros had used this cave, but that didn’t mean it had been forgotten by their enemies.
With an inaudible sigh, he pulled out the small soup pan he carried and rose to make his way to the very back of the cavern where a small spring fed into a shallow pool before it vanished beneath the rock again and into the river. There was no use worrying about it, if they were found they would fight. It was all they could do.
Filling the pan, Kenshin returned to his makeshift bed and set to work preparing a thin soup with the taro root and berries he’d scavenged. Once he had the mixture heating on the logs, he wrapped the handful of nuts in a large leaf he’d collected for the task and buried them near the glowing embers underneath.
Giving the soup a stir, he smiled in satisfaction and moved back to rest against the wall. All that was left now was to wait for Kaoru to wake. With a soft sigh, he settled his head back against the rough rock and turned his attention to the predicament he’d managed to put them in. Maybe by the time Kaoru woke he’d have some idea of how to get them safely out of this mess.
A half an hour later a soft sigh spilled into the quiet, rousing him from his thoughts, and Kenshin glanced to Kaoru as she slowly rolled over to face the fire. A faint frown creased her brow at the bright light and he inwardly smiled as she threw an arm over her eyes.
Another minute of silence followed, but it seemed her attempt to block out the light had done little to halt her waking. With another barely audible sigh, she lifted the arm and slowly slid open sleep foggy blue eyes; blinking a couple of times to adjust them before she finally found him across the fire.
Grinning at her owl-eyed look, Kenshin murmured, “Good morning.”
Kaoru simply stared at him for a long moment before she blinked again and mumbled “G’morning” before she rolled over onto her back.
Kenshin swallowed a chuckle as he swirled the simmering pot between them. Must be she wasn’t much of a morning person.
“What time is it?” She asked softly.
“I think it’s about three and a half hours after sunrise, but I haven‘t gone outside to check yet.”
That seemed to surprise her and she turned much more alert eyes to him. “Really? Then… we made it?”
Kenshin smirked at that, “Did you really have so little faith in my assurances?”
A faint blush, barely visible in the flickering firelight, stained her cheeks before she scowled at him. “Well, it’s not like I know you very well!” She bit out grumpily as she slowly started to rise. “How was I to know you knew what you were talking about?”
A poorly hidden wince made him flinch in sympathy. She really had taken a beating these last few days. “Point taken.” He conceded to keep the peace.
Kaoru smirked in triumph as she settled against the wall, but it disappeared beneath a jaw cracking yawn and Kenshin gave her a crooked grin. “Not much of a morning person, are you?”
The glare she nailed him with was frosty and Kenshin smiled sheepishly, “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to make fun.”
Kaoru huffed irritably. “Normally I’m not this tired, but I can’t help it after yesterday.”
“You’re right.” Kenshin agreed, “I’m sorry.“ Leaning forward to swirl the contents of the pan one last time, he lifted it from the fire and set it on the cave floor. With a branch he then dug out the leaf-wrapped nuts to cool. “Are you hungry?”
A faint grumbling came from across the fire before Kaoru could answer and Kenshin grinned as he dug out the earthenware bowls Tae had given him. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he murmured as he poured out half of the soup.
Offering it to her over the fire, he tried not to smile at the angry blush burning her cheeks. For a moment Kaoru glared at him as if she knew what he was doing, then finally gave in and took the bowl. “Thanks.”
Kenshin inwardly chuckled and poured out the rest for himself as she blew on the steaming mixture and started to sip. Mirroring her actions, he was surprised to find the soup more flavorful than he’d expected.
“It’s good.” Kaoru murmured suddenly, voicing his thoughts. “What’s in it?”
Kenshin shrugged. “Just a bit if taro root and some berries I found yesterday.”
“Well, this is still better than anything I’ve ever cooked,” Kaoru said with a wry smile before she took another long draw.
Although he was curious, Kenshin prudently held his tongue and instead tucked into the meal himself. A companionable silence fell between them as they ate and Kenshin let his mind wander back to their dilemma. As far as he could tell, the only choice they really had was to make a run for the small village south of Kiyosu, some twelve miles east of here. Once there they could blend in with the travelers heading north and make their way back towards Kiyosu and then on to the manor.
But the real trick was to reach the village without Kanryuu and his lackeys being any the wiser. No easy task when they didn’t even know where the black mage and his rogues were lurking. Although, the morning before Kaoru had somehow known when Takeda was on their trail. Maybe there was some way she could do that again.
A faint slurping sound pulled his attention back to her and he smiled as she let out a sated sigh and set down the empty bowl. “That was delicious.”
Quickly finishing his own bowl, he set it aside and offered her a couple of the now cooled nuts and her sheathed blade to crack them with. He almost laughed at the startled look she gave him as she reached out for the blade. “I can‘t believe I didn’t lose that!”
“I get the feeling it doesn’t want to be lost.” Kenshin replied softly as she took it. “It was tangled in your hakama ties when I found you.”
Kaoru gave him an odd look before she shrugged. “Could be,” she said as she set to work on the nuts. “Tomoe-sama said it’s a strange blade.”
Kenshin smiled, not surprised to hear that considering his reaction to it, and made quick work of his own nuts using the now empty pan.
“So, have any idea how we’re getting to the manor yet?” Kaoru asked once she’d polished off her share.
With a nod Kenshin finished off his own and said, “I do, but first I need to know if you can sense where Kanryuu is, like you did yesterday?”
Kaoru seemed taken aback by the question, and even a little ill at ease. Giving her a reassuring smile, Kenshin repeated, “I promise your secrets are safe with me.”
“I believe you, it’s just… hard to break old habits.” Kaoru explained with a faint smile. “Tomoe-sama never really let me use the other elements much because no one else knew about me. But you know, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”
And then before he could even think of a reply she turned her attention to the wall behind her and with a deep breath reached out and laid her palm flat against the black stone. Kenshin cocked an eyebrow, eyeing her confused for a moment before he realized what she was doing.
A minute or two passed in silence and then Kaoru suddenly cursed, “Gah! What’s wrong! I can’t feel anything!”
Kenshin jumped at her outburst and stared at her as she glared at the wall. “Maybe because of the ward?“ he ventured softly, eyeing the black stone.
Kaoru started and swung a blank look at him as if she had no idea what he was talking about, and then it suddenly faded beneath a sheepish smile. “Umm… yeah, that could do it.” She replied weakly. “Sorry.”
Kenshin grinned and shook his head as he rose. “No need to be. Let’s try it outside the cave.”
Kaoru sat in embarrassed silence for a moment longer before she rose and followed him to the ivy concealed entrance. Reaching out, Kenshin was just about to gently tug open the door of vegetation when she suddenly blurted, “Wait! Is it safe?”
Kenshin smirked. “As safe as can be, right now” he replied as he pulled back enough of the ivy for Kaoru to see the river lazily passing by a foot beyond where he stood.
Kaoru’s eyes rounded in surprise. “Then, how did we get here?” she murmured so quietly he almost didn’t catch it.
“There’s a pathway that leads back out to the forest,” Kenshin explained, pointing to the small path leading away to the left.
“Oh..” Kaoru muttered abashed. “Well, I guess I just need to go out there then.”
Kenshin nodded and was just about to warn her to be careful on the slippery, rain soaked grass when Kaoru walked passed him and without so much as a backward glance, side-stepped out onto the moist pathway before he could even open his mouth. Surprised, Kenshin held his breath hoping she had somehow stepped right. But unfortunately it wasn’t to be as her foot suddenly shot out from under her and, with a loud gasp, she started plummeting towards the sluggishly moving river.
Kenshin’s instincts kicked in before his mind could fully process what was happening and with lightning fast reflexes he grabbed Kaoru’s arm before her foot could so much as touch the water, swinging her up into his arms. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the handful of ivy he’d been holding back cascade by them to fall in a tattered heap at their feet.
For several stunned seconds neither of them moved as shock and adrenaline hammered through their veins, their hearts pounding almost as one. And then slowly, the world started moving again and Kenshin chuckled as he held her a little tighter. This woman was going to give him a heart attack yet.
Another few more moments passed without a sound from Kaoru and he loosened his hold enough to see her beet red face and was once again struck by the remarkably beautiful gemstone blue of her eyes.
Shaking it off the best he could, he asked, “Are you alright?”
Kaoru blinked, then scowled. “You could have at least told me it was wet out there!” She grouched as she tried to wiggle out of his arms.
With a smile, Kenshin reluctantly released her and was just about to point out that she hadn’t given him time when she suddenly grabbed his chin and angled his left cheek towards the sunlight streaming in through the torn doorway. Her fingers warm against his skin.
“Did you know your scar is turning blue?”
Caught completely off guard by the question Kenshin immediately touched the scar with his fingertips as if he could somehow feel the color change.
“Blue?” He murmured, confused.
Kaoru nodded and turned his head a little bit more. “Yeah, blue. It’s still reddish down the middle but the outside is blue. Do you want to see?”
Kenshin arched an eyebrow, wondering how that would be possible, but before he could voice the question Kaoru released him then knelt down in the opening he’d accidentally created in the ivy screen and touched her finger to the water. Almost instantly a small section of the water stilled into a mirror and Kenshin eyed her in wonder for a moment before he bent down and angled his face enough to see.
It was true, even in the greenish hued water he could see the faint bluish tinge to the flesh directly around his scar. Running a finger along the ridge he frowned. What could have caused that?
“Wonder what did that?” Kaoru mused, voicing his thoughts again.
“I have no idea.“ Kenshin replied with a shrug, his brows drawn down in puzzlement, as he settled back on his heels. “I’ll have to ask Megumi-dono if she’s ever seen anything like this when we reach the manor.”
Kaoru smiled and let the mirror go. ““You’re right, she’ll probably know. But first we need to get there and we can‘t do that without knowing where Takeda is. I think this time I‘ll just reach out from here though.” She said wryly as she rose and leaned out enough to lay her hand flat on the exposed stone of the cliff face.
Kenshin smiled but said nothing as he rose and instead watched for any sign that she might fall again. Several quiet moments passed as Kaoru did whatever she was doing and then she suddenly tensed and yanked her hand back. Her expression strained.
“He’s coming.” She muttered tightly, her earlier humor gone. With wide frightened eyes she turned to him. “He’s south of here but he’s coming back this way. I think he‘s figured out where we are.”
Kenshin fought to keep his own face composed and asked, “What about the others? Could you sense them?”
Kaoru nodded as the panicked look in her eyes intensified. “Two are by the river farther south than Kanryuu, and the other four are in the woods all around us. If any of them are trackers we’re dead.“
Kenshin tried to think of something to say that would calm her down but there was nothing. She was right, if any of them were trackers they’d never make it.
“So what’s the plan?” Kaoru asked crisply as she spun around and hurried back into the cave.
Following in her footsteps, Kenshin quickly set to work collecting all of his things up and packing them away. “From here we head to Mihama. Once there we disguise ourselves as a married couple and head north again with the rest of the late summer travelers.”
A loud clattering suddenly echoed through the cavern as the earthenware bowl Kaoru had been picking up dropped back to the floor.
Kenshin, managing to keep his face straight as her cheeks reddened, calmly retrieved the bowl himself. “For now let’s just worry about getting to Mihama safely without Kanryuu knowing. When we get there we can figure out if there‘s another way.”
Kaoru nodded emphatically. “That sounds like a much better idea to me,” she quickly agreed, looking anywhere but at him.
Kenshin smiled to himself and headed to the small spring to rinse their breakfast dishes so he could pack them away. Unfortunately he already knew there was no other way for them to make it back to the manor. Not unless they split up and there was no way he would allow that.
With a sigh he hastily swiped the dishes clean, then returned to the fire with a pan full of water and doused the flames before he wiped the pan clean with the corner of his shirt and tucked it away along with the bowls. Kaoru stood off to the side, already fully dressed with her small packs securely strapped to her hip alongside her wakizashi.
All that was left now was for him to do the same and they could get out of here, and he had a feeling it would be none too soon. Kaoru was right, there was only one reason Takeda would be coming this way without the other two mages.
He knew where they were.
Which meant they had to run, and they had to do so now.