Amber Forest

Interlude- What Came Before

If you want to get out alive

Oh, run for your life

If you want to get out alive

Oh, run for your life…

-Three Days Grace, Get Out Alive

Okon and Omasu had tried to keep her spirits up, the big-sisters recognizing the crippling anguish riddling the young coyote. They had tried, but when this was all her fault, there wasn’t much that they could do. She was supposed to be an Oniwaban, a creature of mists, lady of shadows—and she had been caught. Now half her family had been sent out on a mission without honor, and the other half were captives. Relentlessly determined captives (because even being divided couldn’t kill that Oniwaban spirit) but still captives.

What made it worse was that Gramps hadn’t blamed Misao for being caught. In some ways the coyote wished that he would—because at least then she could apologize, could work to make it better—but Okina wouldn’t accept her apologies, shrugging them off with a kindly smile and troubled mutters about the nature of Shishio’s pack. Every discarded apology felt like an untreated wound.

“I wonder how Aoshi-sama and the others are doing?” Omasu kept her voice low, trying to avoid the attention of those of Shishio’s followers keeping watch on the Oniwaban.

Okina matched her tone, glancing at Misao when she noticeably came to attention at the mention of her beloved leader. “I don’t know, but I’m sure that they’re fine. Hoji, if not Shishio himself, seems to be the sort of wolf who wants to know what all of his underlings are doing. I’m sure if anything happened, a report would have been sent back by now.”

Kuro growled in annoyance, “Hoji and that Kanryuu they sent our leader off with are branches of the same tree. Power-hungry manipulators who don’t bloody their own fangs.”

“Perhaps…” Gramps hesitated, his brow furrowing.

What is it? Misao wondered, before the wolf looked over to their captors—captors, she could now see, that were muttering amongst themselves in a ripple that was spreading toward the small knot of ninjas.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Okon answered, her pale face serious, “Misao, get behind us.” The coyote opened her mouth to protest, but the rest of the Oniwaban had already rearranged their positions to block her from the coming disturbance.

“What’s he doing here?” the whisper took Misao by surprise before she realized that it was coming from one of the guard dogs. And another, and another, until the question hung uneasily in the air, like heavy icicles waiting to fall. The last of the dogs parted, and Misao peered around Shiro’s warm bulk to try and get a look.

It was one of Shishio’s lieutenants, his Juppongatana. The coyote held back a shiver—she hated this one, a blind wolfhound that positively reeked of blood, as if he had somehow purposefully worked it into each dark gray curl of his coat. Usui, he was called.

He grinned as if he could see them, braced against his arrival. Of course he couldn’t, not with eyes like that, clogged to permanent blindness by thick gray scar tissue. Misao didn’t find it reassuring that his grin seemed to be full of fangs.

“Oh? Here they are, all that’s left of the vaunted Oniwaban,” he cocked his head, presenting them with one floppy ear, “but such fear in your hearts. They race so quickly. It’s almost as if,” the smile was back, “they know that they’re prey.”

Misao frowned, she couldn’t possibly have heard that right—but panic was spreading among their guards, one particularly foolish Labrador daring to raise his voice.

“Lord Usui, Lord Shishio has said he wants to keep the Oniwaban captive.”

“Oh?” the wolfhound’s dark head swung around to pinpoint the speaker with eerie accuracy, “are you saying that you will keep me entertained?”

The hapless lab took an uneasy step back—and the scene dissolved into chaos. Usui was on the outspoken dog in an instant, crimson spray turning those ill-considered words into the last ones that would ever be spoken. The other guards yelped, scrambling back from their crazed leader as he turned on those nearest his victim, fangs finding vital veins without fail.

“He’s insane,” Shiro breathed, horrified. Usui paused in his destruction to face them again,

“Not insane,” he corrected, “enlightened. I see all, even into your hearts. Such despair,” his muzzle split in a bloody grin, “such fear.” He began pacing forward slowly, “Oh, but you are angry too, aren’t you? Especially you, old soldier. I think you don’t like that I killed these guards.”

“You say that you are not mad,” there was no laughter in Gramps voice, “yet the slaughter of your own allies reeks of insanity.”

“What’s a few pawns, more or less?” Usui countered, “when clearly they are worth so little.” He raised his head as if surveying Shishio’s trembling soldiers, caught between their fear of death and fear of the punishment for their desertion. “Look at them, what does it matter if they die? Ten, twenty, even fifty, if I kill them then I am the better fighter and my skills take their place.” The wolfhound shrugged. “It’s more work for me, but as I’ve said, I’m bored.

There was no trace of the affable grandfather in Okina now, Misao knew, taking in the wolf’s rigid frame and raised hackles. This was the old Beta of the Oniwaban, the only one who had stood on equal footing with his alpha.

“Then you are a fool as well as mad. A true leader knows the value of all his followers. Such is the true strength of the Oniwaban.”

“Your strength amounts to nothing, old geezer!” Usui returned and charged the small protective knot.

“Now!” Okina barked the command, moving forward with surprising speed for his age. Outstripping him, Okon and Omasu sheared off to the left, Kuro and Shiro to the right. This was their strength, their partnership, neither pair needed to say anything to the other, experience and the bond between them was their guide.

Misao faltered for a step, stumbling after Okina, out of sync with the others, lacking a partner, lacking their experience. But there has to be a way I can help without getting in the way!

Okon and Omasu leapt in from the left, what would only be a harrying attack, the females lighter frames and greater speed making them excellent for distraction as the muscle of Shiro and Kuro moved in from the right. That was how it was supposed to work, how it had worked a million times before.

Usui turned his head and seemed to pluck Okon out of the air with a hideous crunch. Her scream was short lived.

Misao’s stumbling run came to a halt as she trembled, staring. That… that couldn’t be possible. That was Okon, and Okon was alive, she wasn’t dead, how could someone who was alive one minute be dead the next and—!

Omasu howled with grief and fury at the loss of her sister, sinking her fangs into Usui’s hind leg with a savagery usually absent from the gentle ninja. The blind dog ignored her, turning now to Kuro, to Shiro, still approaching from the right.

Get over there.

A flash of fangs.

Get over there.

A splash of blood.

Get the hell over there Makimachi! That’s your family!

The males were down by the time Misao had managed to push back her fear enough to move. Almost casually Usui turned to deal with the she-wolf still clamped to his leg, displaying no more effort than if he bit at a flea. He looked up into Okina’s quiet horror, his shaking fury.

“Your turn, old soldier. This shock hasn’t done your heart any good, has it? I’ll send you after those subordinates you knew so well.”

Okina’s answering growl was swift, the movement that followed equally so. Usui stepped back as Okina flashed around him in quick steps and surprisingly agile leaps—Misao recognized the strategy her grandfather adapted when facing Aoshi-sama as she prepared to join him in his assault. Okina rained down blows, bite marks beginning to pepper Usui’s flanks and shoulders—but the dog’s eerie grin never wavered, his sightless eye sockets turned to follow the elderly Oniwaban’s every move.

Misao scrambled to keep up, weaving herself into her grandfather’s pattern with an effort. It was difficult, while she had fought with Gramps almost daily, she rarely fought alongside him. Usui sighed, sounding almost bored as he faced the two of them. He crouched, moving for the first time since the fight had begun into a position that Misao could recognize as being engaged in a fight.

Okina leapt in for another bite—Usui twisted his head around to allow his jaws to close on the soft skin under the old wolf’s jaw. He opened his mouth and the wolf toppled, breath a rattling gasp as crimson stained the snow.

Misao froze, paralyzed.

“Gramps? Gramps?!” Everyone, everyone was gone, their blood on the snow all around her.

“Oh?” Usui’s voice came, cutting through the fog in her brain, inescapable, tormenting her. “Still one left, the most scared of the lot. The clumsy one. The others at least had experience, grace, what do you have?”

Sightless eyes peered into her soul, unimpressed with what they found. “You were the one who got captured first, right? Ah, yes, you were, thank you for telling me. Are you really an Oniwaban, I wonder?”

Misao couldn’t move, staring up at the dark figure towering over her. The most afraid. How could he know that—was that why he had left her for last, killing her family first?

“Hmmm,” the wolfhound mused aloud, “I suppose the rest of your pack will have to be killed once they discover what’s happened. Thankfully, you’re all so very disposable.”

No! Not Aoshi-sama!

A flash of anger thawed her muscles—

“Usui, stop your madness.”

The new voice seized them up again. The wolfhound frowned and turned his head to face a giant white dog with heavy black rings around his eyes.

“Don’t interfere, Anji,” Usui warned, sounding annoyed. “Remember that as a Juppongatana I have the right to kill as I please.”

Anji moved forward, implacable as a glacier, “As you ought to remember that my conditions for joining were the rights of life and death. I say that she lives.” Anji stopped inches away, not flinching in the face of his insane comrade. “Do you contest my ruling?”

Silence crept into the bloody snow, the guards having fled as their terror finally won out. Misao couldn’t even tremble anymore, every muscle was wound so tight.

After long minutes Usui turned and walked away without another word. The darkness around Anji’s eyes turned to Misao.

“I have decreed that you will live,” the Great Pyrenees told her, “Go and seek your fate in a kinder place.” Then he too left.

Scarcely daring to believe it Misao wasted valuable time staring at her dead family on the snow before she was able to turn and run.

Run through the cold and the trees and she had to be sneaky, had to be swift, had to marry the two in her bones like never before. Following the tug in her soul that whispered Aoshi is this way, because she had to get through, hadto tell her leader of treachery and pain, pain that she couldn’t dwell on because it would threaten her mission, and the mission was the only thing that would keep her alive.

I need to find Aoshi-sama!

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