Chapter 16- Gathering
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above
But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
Yumi Komagata was not accustomed to “living rough,” as some of her colleagues referred to it. This was hardly the husky’s fault, as pampered show dogs were not generally given much opportunity to experience anything close to a natural environment. Still, the female dog would have rather died of exposure than even hint to her savior and alpha that she was having trouble in the out-of-doors.
Fortunately she hadn’t needed to; her dear Shishio’s needs had necessitated a shelter where he could recover his strength between campaigns. And only the best would do for the blood-eyed lord of the Northern lands. The cave used as headquarters and base by Shishio’s inner circle was no dwelling scratched out of raw earth. It was old and solid, a cave of stone. The granite walls were pale pink mottled with black and flecked with tiny shards of quartz that glittered like the distant stars. When the sun set, as it was doing now the dying light staggered into the shelter, turning the walls a pulsing red. The effect was as if lord Shishio’s pack had carved out a place for themselves in the beating heart of the mountains of the North.
Yumi sighed into the sunset, jade green eyes sliding shut as something like contentment warmed her from within. The North was all but won, only small pockets of resistance flaring and dying like sparks trying to escape the burning purpose of Shishio’s goals. And after the land was secure they could begin in earnest their design to keep men from encroaching on their space, and word would spread, leading to more followers, more land to fuel her mate’s fires. Yes. It would be glorious.
The red husky opened her eyes once more, turning them instinctively to the wolf that had saved her and claimed her heart.
Of course it was hard not to look at him. Shishio had been a warrior of this land long ago—but his scars were not from wars with other wolves. He had been shot as part of a set-up from his superiors and thrown on a pile of similarly-disposed-of packmates. But the scar from the bullet was lost amid the horrid crisscross of melted flesh and charred fur that had resulted when the humans set the pile ablaze.
It was a miracle that he had survived; it was beyond comprehension that he had grown in strength, as if the hungry flames that had licked at his body had sparked an insatiable desire within his mind.
Currently, her lord was resting, replete from a successful hunt some hours before—but even in rest there was an alertness about him, as even among allies he looked for an ambush.
Sitting at his side was Hoji—Yumi let her eyes skim over him dismissively. The earthy brown and white patched wolf was hunched, glowering out from the stark black patches surrounding his eyes. The target of his look was the Irish Wolfhound Usui, lying some distance away, smiling at the instinctive empty space left to him.
Hoji had argued long and heatedly with his alpha to punish the blind dog for killing their captive Oniwaban several weeks ago.
“It was not expedient,” he had said frostily. “If he must have killed them, he ought to have waited until they were all returned and not have allowed any to escape.”
Shishio had barked a laugh, “Do you suppose our tame Okashira will be able to bite back then? Or that tiny female?”
Hoji shook his head, “You should not underestimate what revenge can render one capable of, my lord Shishio.”
“And you should not underestimate my authority,” Shishio had countered in a pointedly flat tone. “I gave Usui the right to kill who he pleased for joining my cause. That was my word, and that is my final word.”
Hoji had backed off, but his continuing glowers bespoke a deep displeasure with the blind dog. He had little patience for anything that might hinder the rise of his alpha.
Privately, Yumi would have preferred it if her mate had reprimanded Usui somehow, for killing their own followers if nothing else. The blind dog made her uneasy as no other Juppongatana did. Only a few of those lieutenants were in the cave now, and Yumi let her eyes slide away from Hoji to silently count them. Anji the Great Pyrenees lay with his dark eyes closed in meditation, a peaceful, protective bulk against Usui’s madness. Fuji and that funny little rat were taking up a large space toward the back and chatting about something. Or rather, Saizuchi was talking to the dire wolf, to the best of Yumi’s knowledge the large beast never spoke, and never acknowledged anyone but the rat who dictated his every move.
The others were out; Henya would be roosting in a nearby tree for the night, his hawk’s eyes of little use once the sun went down. The gregarious and long-limbed Cho would be making the rounds of the eastern outposts, doubtless hoping for trouble, as long periods without fights tended to sour his temper.
Kamatari, Yumi’s lip curled, would be on patrol, the night being much friendlier to feline eyes. The ingratiating, toadying little—she hated that Shishio had recruited the mountain lion, simply hated it. It wasn’t right. When he was here she had to compete, fiercely, for the attention of her own mate! Surely she deserved better than that.
The final member, Soujiro, was out on a personal scouting mission from Shishio, who used the young coyote-wolf hybrid’s speed to his advantage as his kingdom grew.
No sooner had she thought of the dear boy then he trotted into the cave, the red light dimming as the sunset began to fade. He was a handsome creature, even caught between two species as he was. He was small for a wolf, yet larger than a coyote, his lean form built for a speed that he used to disastrous effect. His fur was mostly white with markings the golden-tan color her humans had called champagne along his back and dusted lightly across his face. Along the back of his neck, where a collar would have lain was a band of fur that was silvery-gray instead. Of course, currently that fur was all in disarray thanks to his swift journey. Yumi rolled her eyes in exasperation.
The young beta moved into the cave with a jaunty stride and a friendly smile that didn’t fully reach his slate blue eyes. He was never without the smile, and his tail tended to wag slightly whenever he stopped moving. He came to where Shishio and Yumi lay, and his scarred master looked up to hear his report.
“Hello, master Shishio,” he greeted cheerfully, “Miss Yumi.”
“Soujiro,” Shishio acknowledged with a smile of his own. Yumi sighed, eying the younger creature critically.
“You look like you were dragged backwards up a pine tree. Come here.” The coyote-wolf hybrid suffered himself to be fussed over with customary good grace, addressing his alpha as Yumi began the meticulous task of setting his fur to rights again.
“Things are going well to the west,” he reported. “The commander there has recruited three more stray dogs and they’ve moved the camp farther out to expand the territory. We’re still having some trouble to the North, though. Mister Jarl has sent some of his better fighters ahead to try and get a handle on the situation.”
“The coward doesn’t want to go himself,” Shishio’s lip curled. “He ought to have taken the whole group if anyone was going to go at all.”
“Considering the area I’m not sure that’s wise, lord Shishio,” Hoji interjected. “The Northern Mountain is famous for returning trespassers with slashed throats. The land may not be worth the cost to the army.”
Shishio growled lightly, “I rule the North now, Hoji. Not some old legend.”
The patchy wolf ducked his head in submission.
“Ah, yes,” Soujiro continued, smile never faltering. “There is also news to the south. Apparently Mister Saito has returned.”
“I knew it wouldn’t take him long to track down that mad wolf,” Shishio mused. “I suppose we’ll have to redouble our efforts to find him.” A gleam of anticipation sparked in his eyes, and Soujiro’s head bobbed easily in agreement.
“He attacked Mister Senkaku’s posting,” he reported, “and Mister Senkaku is dead. But he wasn’t alone.”
Yumi paused in her ministrations, looking up, “But that old nuisance always works alone.”
Soujiro shrugged easily, as if discussing something of no more importance than the weather. “The survivors claimed to have been attacked by a red wolf with a cross-shaped scar on the left side of his face. Mister Saito called him Battousai.”
Shishio straightened, the dull red of his eyes seeming brighter and bloodier at the words. “Battousai? Saito found the hitokiri?”
“Apparently so. You seem happy, master Shishio,” Soujiro beamed, as if pleased that his leader was pleased.
Shishio’s answering grin had fangs in it. “I never dreamed that my revolution would call back the Isshin Shishi’s bloodiest specter. Doubtless he’s here for the land again, I’m quite eager to meet him.”
“Imagine,” Hoji’s voice was calculating, “imagine how many would flock to your cause, lord Shishio, when they learned that you killed the hitokiri Battousai.”
Yumi wanted to smile along with them, but sudden foreboding gripped her bones. The bloodiest killer of the revolution… he was here, and he had already set himself against her mate.
Sano had an itch in his feet—one that had nothing to do with fleas and everything to do with an angry desire to just leave. It had been over a week since that crazy bastard Saito had torn him up and left their little almost-pack in splinters. Kenshin had left without a word to anyone but the Missy—which Sano was trying really hard not to understand, because he wanted to be mad at the crimson wolf, to blame him for just blowing out of their lives without so much as a goodbye.
The problem was he had been denning with a very practical vixen who liked to point out that Sano had only been semi-conscious by the time she started treating his injuries, and he probably wouldn’t have remembered a goodbye had Kenshin stopped to give one. And if he had to be honest, he would rather say his goodbyes to a pretty female than a buddy too.
Of course, the Missy and the Kid had been gone for four days now—with any luck they were closing in on Kenshin—and Sano was more than ready to follow their example. Now if only he could convince his doctor of that…
“You still aren’t fully recovered,” Takani snapped in annoyance. Sano had been surprised when he had finally broken through the vixen’s veneer of perfection, though perhaps with everyone else gone, she simply wasn’t bothering to keep up her untouchable façade.
“I can walk at least,” he tried to sound persuasive, but it still came out annoyed. “I’ll just finish healing on the way.”
The fox bristled, her normally-elegant tail thickened to twice its normal size. “You suffered major trauma,” she snarled, “how long will it take to get that through your thick skull?”
“Our friends may be in trouble,” he countered, “get that through that lump of ice you call a heart!”
The vixen’s ears pinned themselves flat to her skull and suddenly Sano wasn’t so sure that it was a good thing there were no witnesses around for this little fight.
“How dare you suggest I don’t care what happens to Sir Ken and the others. I only stayed behind to save your miserable life—”
“Then come with me,” the hybrid cut her off before she could work herself up into a rage.
“What?” She had heard him, but obviously didn’t believe her ears.
“Come with me,” he said again, impatiently. “You can make sure I don’t kill myself getting there and we’ll have a doc nearby if any of the others need one.”
The vixen frowned, but didn’t look ready to peel the skin off his bones anymore. “What about Tsubame?”
Sano shrugged, the half-healed gash in his side giving a subtle ache as he did so. “I don’t really think she should come, she’s not really interested in fighting and it will probably be dangerous.”
Megumi arched a brow and gave him a dry look, “I’m not interested in fighting or danger either.”
“But you already said that you wanted to go, and I can look after at least one noncombatant. I’m sure Tae will keep an eye on her if we ask.”
Takani shook her head wryly, “Tae would adopt her given half the opportunity. We would probably come back to find she had taught Tsubame to climb trees.” The amusement faded as she moved to the next point. “What about the territory? Who will guard it when we’re gone?”
Sano exhaled slowly through his nose, “I’ll ask Katsu to look after the place. Town is more his speed these days, but he used to be a pack dog same as me. He’ll know what to look out for.”
Silence filled the small den, and while Sano could see the black fox working through the information, he couldn’t see her conclusion. “So what do you say? I’m going to go north regardless, if you want to go at all, it’ll be safer to go with me than alone.”
Megumi snorted, a surprisingly unladylike sound, “From what I’ve heard, if you didn’t have someone along to keep you on the right path you would never get there.” Sano scowled but held his tongue, it was probably true anyway. “I’ll come to keep you from killing yourself, and to help Sir Ken however I can. But let’s get this straight right now, Sanosuke Sagara. On this trip, I own you. If I tell you to stop and rest—no matter how important you think moving on is—you stop. You eat the herbs I prescribe without complaining and you tell me at once if your wounds reopen or start feeling hot and achy.”
Sano ground his teeth a little, his insubordinate nature already on edge and they hadn’t even started their journey yet. “Same thing,” he finally managed mulishly. “I can only protect you as much as you’ll let me, so if I tell you to be quiet so I can listen, you better shut up. If I tell you to hide, you better get lost and not come back until I call you. Understand?”
The hybrid and the vixen eyed each other in mutual annoyance, neither willing to be the first to acknowledge the other’s terms.
“Well,” Sano finally said to break the moment, “I need to go tell Katsu the news.”
“I’ll tell Tae and Tsubame.”
“Good, I’ll meet you back here and we can go after those idiots who think they can do this without us.”
Kenshin had worried about travelling with Miss Misao. Not through any real concern for her welfare, she had shown yesterday that she was capable of holding her own in a fight, and not because she was poor company, since her stories and observations were a nice break from solitude. No, his worry had been that some of that conversation might draw some of Shishio’s pack to them as they crept northward through the heart of the territory.
Shishio had to know he was here by now thanks to Senkaku’s followers, but Kenshin would rather not leave a trail of encounters leading straight to the foothills of his master’s mountain. Convincing the older wolf to let them stay would be hard enough without that complication.
As it turned out he had only had to gently mention his concerns to Misao before being told indignantly that she was an Oniwaban and could sneak perfectly well. Perhaps she made more noise than a stalking hitokiri ought to, but at least her pelt tended to blend into the pattern of snow and shadows, while his remained a lurid bloodstain on the landscape, so they were fairly balanced when it came to stealth.
Despite his worry it had been relatively easy to work their way through the territory—Kenshin surmised from the lack of encounters that Shishio believed the heart of the North wholly conquered and was focusing his troops on the borders as he expanded the territory. It was perhaps an arrogant position to have taken, as it ignored the possibility of someone sneaking past (or breaking through) the sentry patrols and moving unmolested in the territory proper, as they were doing now. Though the red wolf tried not to question his luck too closely, it tended to be a shy creature and he didn’t want to lose its company.
The mountain loomed nearer and nearer as the pair travelled, devouring the horizon with a greedy appetite and leaving little for the distant range of mountains further North.
“So who is this Hiko character?” Misao finally broke her silence and Kenshin heaved a quiet sigh. He couldn’t really blame her curiosity; it wasn’t as if he had taken the time to explain where they were going earlier.
“Seijiro Hiko. He’s a lone wolf and a deadly fighter, perhaps more perilous than anyone living,” he told her quietly, keeping his ears pricked for any sign of sentries. “He was also this one’s master.”
“Master?” Misao echoed curiously. The red wolf inclined his head to one side as he elaborated.
“He found this one as a pup and trained me to survive. He was my teacher until this one left the mountain.”
“Oh, okay. Kinda like Gramps and the other Oniwaban were to me,” Misao nodded slowly, letting the information settle in her mind. “I guess I’m just surprised because I never called any of them ‘master.’”
Kenshin winced, a tell-tale flinch of his ears from their alert position. “Master Hiko is… traditional,” he tried diplomatically, then sighed and added honestly, “and a bit arrogant.”
As they drew nearer to the mountain their stealth began to be tested more seriously. Hiko’s mountain represented the Northern border of the territory Shishio had been able to claim, so there would be patrols.
Still, Kenshin was surprised at the ease with which they crossed the invisible line of the territory and began to make their way up the snowy foothills of the mountain that had been his childhood home. Misao seemed a bit nervous about her surroundings and disinclined to talk. Kenshin himself found himself almost wishing that Saito had offered to let the pair of them stay at his den, if only to put off what would almost certainly be an awkward reunion. He hadn’t spoken to his master since the day he had defied him and run off to help the Isshin Shishi. Hiko might be a recluse, but Kenshin found it very hard to imagine that he hadn’t found out what his errant student had been up to in the intervening years.
They moved farther up the mountain, coming out of a snow-dusted pine forest and into a brief clearing where the sky was visibly darkening as the sun gave up trying to bring warmth to the snowbound world. Kenshin’s steps slowed unconsciously. There was a figure in the snow ahead of them. Even if the wind rolling down the mountain hadn’t been bringing his scent Kenshin could never have mistaken the wolf.
Master… he’s still so big… For a moment the former hitokiri was a frozen pup again, trembling and miserable in blood-stained snow, staring up at the stranger who had come too late to save Miss Kasumi, Miss Akane and Miss Sakura. A giant of a wolf, implacable as the mountain on which they stood, his gaze like granite even when facing the carnage.
A fine tremor wracked Kenshin’s body, drawing him back into the present. The lone wolf Seijiro Hiko had not moved nearer, though he had to have seen the two pilgrims making their way towards him. A small part of Kenshin, a bruised bit that had never gotten over quarrelling with the being nearest to a father in his life, wondered with dread if his master intended to act as if he had no idea or memory of who his errant pupil was. The part of him he sometimes considered Battousai, who attacked enemies like Saito regardless of the danger, moved him to strike first.
“Hello, Master,” he called with respect, attempting to force the other wolf to choose quickly whether or not he would acknowledge the bond. Miss Misao looked from him to Hiko in rapid movements, curiosity plain on her open face, her ears straining to hear the next word and obviously frustrated by the knowledge that she shouldn’t interrupt.
Hiko didn’t verbally answer the call; instead he strode toward the pair with deliberate slowness. Hiko was a large wolf, well-muscled and tall with an intimidating aura that hung around him making him seem more massive still. His fur was thick and hung a little longer than was usual, adding to the impression of size. He had dull brown markings on his face and down his back, over a white underbelly and legs. Just ahead of his shoulders, on either side of his throat were twin patches of rusty-red fur; the only real claim to color the northern wolf could make excepting his deep blue eyes. Cold and fathomless as the darkest part of a mountain lake, where an unwary creature might fall in and drown.
As Hiko approached Kenshin ducked his head respectfully out of habit, this wolf had been his first teacher, his first alpha, though he had hardly realized it at the time.
“It’s you.” Hiko’s voice was dry, one brow arched, “So what brings my idiot apprentice back here?”
The red wolf fought against the relief that tried to rise at Hiko’s choice of words, the arrogant wolf could still force them to leave. “There is trouble in the North, Master. Trouble this one could not ignore.” Too late he heard the ghost of the old argument in his words and winced. Hiko ignored the motion,
“There’s always trouble in the North, idiot,” he said, “there’s no point in running yourself ragged to fight the spirit of the land.”
“Hey!” Miss Misao’s voice spilled free, indignant, “Who gave you the right to talk like that? Sitting up here all comfortable while the rest of us are fighting like mad just to survive—”
“Leave,” Hiko said pointedly, continuing before Kenshin could truly worry that he meant them to go. “No one’s making you stay in this icy place. If it’s too dangerous for your blood, leave.”
“That is part of the problem, Master,” Kenshin moved slightly in front of Misao, symbolically and physically blocking her retort. “The violence is no longer confined to the Northern reaches, it spreads like a disease.”
“And you’re the wolf to contain it, I suppose?” Hiko drawled, clearly unimpressed.
“This one… I must do what I can,” Kenshin answered firmly, “to ignore those in need of my help would be contrary to all that I believe in.”
Hiko sighed. “Idiot.” The word was barely a puff of air, borne away quickly by the wind. He continued, louder, “That still doesn’t tell me why you’re here. Or for that matter, who the shrimp is.” He jerked his head to roughly indicate Miss Misao, who bristled at both the insult and the Master’s apparent dismissal of her.
“I’m Misao Makimachi of the Oniwaban,” she cried hotly, the pride in her voice as she identified her pack unmistakable.
“Seijiro Hiko,” he identified himself dryly, “of no one.” Misao’s ears went back a little, betraying her uncertainty at his limited response.
“Miss Misao is an ally, that she is,” Kenshin interjected smoothly. “We seek a place to rest and plan how to stop Shishio.”
“The burned one. I know of him. He’s been building a huge pack for himself.”
“A pack he has encouraged to attack humans,” Kenshin pointed
out. “If they begin to suspect they are being targeted, they will retaliate
against us all.”
“It’s possible,” Hiko acknowledged. Kenshin kept his expression firmly in check. If he relaxed or looked pleased that his master was acknowledging his way of thinking then the older wolf would change his mind just to be contrary. If he lost his temper and pushed his argument, the other would just laugh. The red wolf had almost forgotten how delicate it was trying to talk his Master into anything.
“So you decided to come here,” Hiko returned to the part of the conversation that concerned him. “Why is that? Why not any of your allies in the valley?” There was a bite to the words and Kenshin clenched his teeth before responding in a clipped tone.
“There are none left, Master.”
“Oh?” Hiko’s voice was a study in scorn. “When you left it was to establish a ruling pack, wasn’t it? Was your determination not enough to achieve the goal?”
“That’s not fair!” Misao exploded from behind him. Kenshin was surprised to find that he had almost forgotten the presence of the coyote he was so focused on his Master. “Red didn’t have any control over what happened, going away or the Isshin Shishi breaking up, so don’t you try to blame him for it!”
“He never should have gotten involved,” Hiko said firmly. “What happened would have happened with or without him. And what have you done for yourself by it?” He swung his head back around to pierce Kenshin with his demanding gaze. “What did you accomplish by serving those wolves in the valley?”
“I…” he had learned to kill his own kind, had lost years of his life to even more senseless violence at the whims of men and had now returned to the bloody North, sacrificing the brief happiness he had known in order to fight in a war that wasn’t his… again.
I just wanted to help… Grief and doubt numbed his mind to the point he could almost see pity in Hiko’s eyes, and surely that was an illusion. His Master was waiting for an answer he didn’t have, or couldn’t give.
Sky blue eyes formed in his mind’s eye, framed by a mask of dark gray fur on a face that seemed annoyed and cheerful at the same time. Kenshin, you idiot. The memory of her voice cleared his mind.
“I wanted to protect the happiness of those I met. I want it still,” the words came out, no longer hampered by the lump blocking his throat. “Shishio has not contented himself with the Northern lands, he seeks to swallow up all territories under his name. If nothing else,” he concluded quietly, “my time as a hitokiri has equipped me to deal with his threat.”
Hiko studied his former student for a long moment, silent. Misao shifted her weight from paw to paw behind the red wolf, but didn’t speak again. “You can stay here and plan,” he said at length. “You can even tell me some of what’s happened to you since you left. Though,” he added dismissively, “I can’t imagine it’s very interesting. Your little friend can stay too,” he nodded at Misao, “provided she doesn’t make herself too annoying.”
Kenshin breathed out a sigh of relief, counting on Misao’s indignant splutter to mask the sound. “Thank you, Master,” he replied, ducking his head graciously.
“Hmph,” Hiko snorted, “you don’t need to sound so surprised, there isn’t a more kind-hearted master around than I am.”
The red wolf winced involuntarily, mind flashing back to some of his extreme “survival training” as a pup. “Of course, Master.”
Hiko shrugged, “I suppose you’ll be wanting to rest out of the wind.” He turned, setting off through the snow without further explanation. “If you can’t keep up I’m not coming back to get you.”
Misao made her way along the lower slopes of the Northern Mountain. She had felt it best to leave the two males to talk privately once they reached Hiko’s cave, though neither had asked for such consideration. Like they need to, the coyote rolled her eyes, I mean, we’ve got a certified lone wolf who took in a kid—as a student, not a son—who grew up to be the most lethal fighter the North has ever seen. Yeah, I’m seeing a few things they might need to talk about without my being around.
A frown creased her brow, At least, Red probably would prefer a private conversation. I get the feeling that Hiko character doesn’t care who hears him. Misao grumbled a little to herself as she thought of the older wolf’s manners—or lack of the same. Then again, if he cared about being social he probably wouldn’t be a lone wolf. Regardless, she didn’t need to hear him chewing out her new friend. (And who knew, maybe Himura would actually fight back if she wasn’t there.) Regardless, it never hurt to be aware of your surroundings.
Though the young coyote had lived in the North all her life, she had never ventured past the foothills of the Northern Mountain, in keeping with her promise to Okina. She was glad to see that her puppy-hood suppositions of piles of dogs’ bones, deer taller than trees, or rivers of blood were false—the mountain was almost superlatively ordinary. The snow glowed dimly in the moonlight, providing little resistance to her paws. Though the mountain had been proclaimed safe numerous times, it still made the young female uneasy that she was leaving a clear trail of pawprints behind her.
Turning, she doubled back on her own footprints and changed direction, letting her mind fall into an abstract pattern as she tried to confuse her trail. It was a skill that had been taught to her as a game by Hannya, and often had the effect of calming her mind. Three paces right, two back, leap forward, pace a circle, cross your trail, her mind whispered instructions as the coyote wrote an incomprehensible message on the snow with her paws.
“What a funny little dance,” a rough voice interrupted Misao’s motions and she spun in a flurry of snow to face the intruder. She had been so worried about someone coming upon her trail that she had given no care to someone coming upon her.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! It was four dogs, big, with thick jowls and shaggy coats. Saint Bernard, she thought the breed was called, and these four were alike enough to be brothers.
“Maybe we should bring her back to dance for lord Shishio,” one suggested, and that answered the unspoken question as to whether they were Shishio’s goons or not.
“We ought to break one of her little legs, Nito,” another said, only distinguishable from Nito by the presence of one black ear as opposed to two brown. “See how well she dances then.” The thought of the female scrabbling through the snow with a broken limb proved hilarious to the four.
Misao retreated a step, the ridge of fur along her spine rising in response to her hostility. She as reasonably certain that if she ran she could make it back to Red and Hiko without being caught—these four seemed to be built for power rather than speed—but the idea rankled. Himura wouldn’t say anything of it, but if Hiko had to stir so much as a whisker on her behalf then she would never hear the end of it. And… she hadn’t come all this way to watch others take back her homeland.
“You’re trespassing,” she warned the laughing dogs, the sound of her own angry voice giving her confidence in its strength. “You better leave this mountain while you still can.”
The dog that had wanted her to “dance” for Shishio scowled. “All of this land belongs to the great lord Shishio,” he growled, “and as his lieutenants we go where we please in his name.”
Misao felt her lip curl in skeptical derision, “You four aren’t his lieutenants. I’m sure I’ve never even heard of you.”
“How dare you!” Nito’s near-twin responded, “We are the greatest of his servants! The mighty brothers Abu, Kuma, Nito and Ryu!”
The thought of running from these self-important fools was by now thoroughly abhorrent to Misao. “You’re just as foolish as your master,” the Oniwaban bit out scornfully, “taking fame that isn’t yours as he takes land that isn’t his!”
“No one insults lord Shishio!” Four muzzles wrinkled in heavy snarls and eight pinkish eyes narrowed in hate. “Meeting him is too good for you—you die here!”
Oh, great plan Makimachi!
The four heavy dogs charged towards her, their large paws kicking up plumes of snow that glittered in the starlight. Misao moved to meet them, shearing off at the last moment to try and hit the rightmost of her attackers. It half worked.
Her fangs were able to seize the dog’s ear as she went, tearing at the delicate appendage savagely, but the four were not unused to fighting together and used their numbers to their advantage. The remaining three were already moving to surround her so that by the time she had released her prize and was prepared to retreat, there was nowhere to go.
Gotta fight, and keep fighting, the coyote ordered herself over the yawing pit of terror that was splitting her heart, I’ll die for sure if I surrender, but if I fight the others may hear me and come to help. The trained portion of her brain noted that this was unlikely, in her quest to give the males privacy and to confuse her trail she had wandered farther than she had intended.
But if she had ignored her training by refusing to run she could ignore it a little longer.
The Saint Bernards’ snarls now appeared to be ghoulish smiles at her position. Misao jumped and spun, trying to avoid their attacks as they snapped at her wherever she didn’t face them—and she could only face one at a time. There was no chance to retaliate, and though she had avoided major injury thus far, she would eventually tire and then… The coyote turned her involuntary shudder into an instinctive side-step to avoid crushing fangs. The side-step served her well in avoiding Nito’s fangs, but doomed her by driving her straight into Kuma’s waiting bite.
Teeth clamped down as promised on her left hind leg and Misao lost all reason. She became a wild thing, twisting in Kuma’s grip, causing herself injury, but insensible to it as she rained furious bites down on whatever body pressed too close. Her heart pounded in fear of the moment that Kuma would tighten his hold, snap her bone and render her lame. But the dog seemed to be savoring his victory regardless of the injury she dealt to his brothers, drawing out his moment of power, as if he felt her helpless panic and relished it.
A frustrated cry tore loose from the young Oniwaban’s throat as a Shishio’s follower twisted his head to yank her off balance, she staggered, trying to avoid going down into the snow, trying to keep any more of her legs from being captured by the three remaining antagonists.
For a moment she thought the cry was hers—but words, ever her companions, had deserted her and her cry had been wordless. The brothers had no reason to complain despite their myriad of small injuries, their victory was all but assured, so who—
A dark shape glided across the snow so silently that it didn’t seem real—but its impact with Kuma was very real. The shock of it vibrated up Misao’s leg as the dark shape fell upon the dog savagely, knocking his own balance off. Crimson bloomed on white and brown fur as the unfortunate dog released the coyote to turn toward his attacker. He fell a second later, another crimson bloom on his throat.
And now she could see, oh, she could see—“Aoshi-sama!”
It was him, the dark shape, deadly and graceful and already moving to the surprised survivors. Aoshi-sama! And now she wasn’t alone, now she was with her leader.
So the best of the Oniwaban and the last of the Oniwaban went to war.
It surprised her, how easily she fell into step with her alpha, but she hardly had the space of thought to wonder about it. Aoshi-sama attacked from the left, she came in low from the right and the target they had selected fell. She darted around another, harrying him with little attacks while he was half-mad with pain and fury—then at some invisible signal leapt back as Aoshi-sama pressed the attack and the brute that had been braced against a lighter weight fell.
Another down. Last one, turning to run—? No, a ruse, they had killed his brothers after all and he was furious, was it Nito or his twin—? Charging toward the dog directly in Aoshi-sama’s wake, knowing that his own approach rendered her invisible, the smaller threat, the silver shadow. Her alpha leapt over the dog’s head at the last moment and he jerked up his head to follow the dark wolf, to keep him in sight—and his white underjaw was exposed to Misao, following her leader. Another bite ended it.
And then she was just there, trembling from adrenaline and emotion, staring at the one she had sought for so long. Even her leg left off hurting for the moment.
Aoshi-sama straightened from his landing, turning slowly, regally to regard her. Others might have missed it, but she knew him too well, saw at once the relief in his eyes before he swept it back behind the emotionless leader’s façade. He inclined his head, perhaps was about to speak, but the coyote didn’t care.
The distance between the pair evaporated and she shoved her head onto his chest under his chin, determined to hear the reassuring pulse of his heartbeat telling her he was really here, she wasn’t alone. This close she heard him swallow his words in surprise, she was probably being too forward but he was all she had left and she didn’t care—
Slowly, as if unsure he would be welcome, her leader lowered his head until it rested more securely on the top of hers, tucking her in closer to him than she had managed on her own.
“Misao…” his voice was quiet, but she could hear it so clearly, clear as his heartbeat beneath her ear. “I am glad that you are alright.”
Misao buried her face deeper in the soft dark fur, letting Aoshi-sama’s scent calm her, “I looked for you,” her own voice was muffled but she refused to move. “I wanted to find you so badly…” She swallowed hard against a whine that tried to fill her throat, “The others are dead, they’re all dead…” And she was crying cold tears into his warm chest, hating herself for every drop but unable to halt them.
“I know,” her leader’s voice soothed her with its own sadness, “I came to save them and came too late… but I heard that you might have survived and I knew I had to find you.”
“I’m sorry you had to save me,” the female whispered, “I should have followed the training and run when I saw I was outnumbered. I was stupid, again.”
The pressure holding her to Aoshi-sama increased for a moment, “I am almost glad you did not, for it meant I was able to find you sooner.” The pressure eased, “Regardless, outnumbered does not always mean outmatched, little kunoichi.”
Misao’s smile at the sideways compliment was watery but genuine and she slowly pulled back to look at her leader. The black wolf was leaner than she remembered, having obviously run himself hard to try and get back North in time. Guiltily she wondered if she had somehow passed the Okashira on her way south, leaving him to search the territory for a follower that had already left.
There was also a hardness, a sense of ill-use in his gaze which she could easily identify. Vengeance.
“We’re going after Shishio’s pack,” it wasn’t a guess; it was a statement seeking confirmation from her leader. Now that she had him back, she would follow him anywhere.
“The fight will be a dangerous one,” the Okashira inclined his head, allowing her the choice, though she could read in his haunted eyes what it cost him to allow her to be in danger.
“Yes,” she agreed, “but we are the Oniwaban, and we can do it. And,” she rushed on, realizing that Shinomori might not know the extent of her activities, “we aren’t alone. I’ve been traveling with Kenshin Himura; he has a grudge against Shishio too.”
Aoshi’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly, an expression of true shock for him, and Misao continued. “He’s a little farther up the mountain and is making plans for the fight.”
“So the Battousai has come home.” Shinomori eyed the female, “did he bring the southern pack with him?”
Misao shook her head. “He thought it was too dangerous for them, but he’s formed an alliance with Saito from the Shinsengumi and if he has his way the old wolf who owns this territory will join us too.”
“Considering the wolf’s reputation,” Aoshi said dryly, “that would be a feat indeed.” Teal eyes swept the carcasses littering the snow. “Although the knowledge the Shishio will not respect his boundaries may sway him.”
“Do you want to go and see them?” Misao asked hesitantly, realizing that she had just sort of assumed that Aoshi-sama would join forces with Himura—though since they had fought before this was hardly certain. The Okashira nodded gravely,
“I must pay my respects, and we ought to share information if any sort of tenable plan is to be made.”
Relief chased the last of the adrenaline from Misao’s system, and it was with a light heart but a limping step that she turned to guide her alpha back to their allies.
Megumi darted beneath the overhang, dark paws scrabbling at packed earth to flesh out the meager shelter a little more. Something bumped into her, jarring her shoulder against the wall, bristling she turned to glare at the spiky-furred brown half-breed now sharing space with her.
Sano grinned, sharp teeth glinting rakishly to match the twinkle in his eyes, “Cozy in here, kitsune,” turning, he ignored the vixen’s indignant splutter in favor of examining the sleet which was rapidly becoming heavier. Megumi snorted, having to press herself against the wall to avoid contact with her companion. Oblivious to her position, Sanosuke sat, massive frame taking up much of the entrance. “Well, I don’t want to walk in that,” he rumbled out in a lazy drawl, peering out from beneath the overhang at the sky. Megumi rolled her eyes, “How very brave of you,” she remarked dryly, finding herself observing the back of the half-wolf. That black marking- the only black on his frame… Sir Ken had said it meant “evil” in one of the human languages. The vixen wrinkled her nose; certainly the wet dog smell he was emitting at the moment fell under the category of evil.
Curling up, the fox faced the wall and yawned, “If we aren’t moving, I’m taking a nap.” Ignoring Sanosuke’s jibe about being lazy, the vixen closed her eyes and drifted off as she felt a warm weight settle at her back.
She awoke decidedly uncomfortable. During her sleep, the black fox had been slowly pushed against the dirt wall of the overhang, and was now jammed uncomfortably between the earth and the warm furry bulk of Sano at her back. Squirming, Megumi was able to catch a glimpse of the hybrid; he lay back to back with her, face out toward the open woods and his even breathing telling the story of his slumber.
Males, she grumbled, trying to push so that she was no longer crushed, Give them a field mouse and they’ll take a waterfowl. Neither of which would keep this bottomless pit fed. Irritably, Megumi won a few inches of space and used them to roll over. Now that she wasn’t craning her neck at an impossible angle she could see the sleet had stopped.
“Sano,” she nudged him with a paw, the fighter grunted and seemed to press a little closer to the ground, “Sanosuke!” the vixen shouted, kicking out at his black-marked back with her hind legs.
The hybrid came to with a yelp, half on his feet before rounding on the black fox with a furrowed brow and a snappish, “What?!”
“It’s stopped sleeting,” Megumi informed him archly, keeping her expression cool as she gazed back up into that annoyed face. That annoyed… wet face. Suspicion bloomed and Megumi glanced at the entrance, then her companion again, rapidly doing the math and feeling her ears heat as she began to realize. The shelter had been too small, especially with the rain blowing in. Sanosuke was still dotted with water, the parts of them facing the elements soaked, and she was perfectly dry. Idiot…