Amber Forest

Chapter 19- The Pup Grows Up

And little people know

When little people fight

We may look easy pickings

But we’ve got some bite

So never kick a dog

Because he’s just a pup

We’ll fight like twenty armies

And we won’t give up

So you’d better run for cover

When the pup grows up!

- Les Miserables, Little People


Yahiko thundered down the slope, a mix of exhilaration and terror speeding his way. No one had suggested that he stay behind this time; everyone was expecting him to do his part to bring down Shishio. It was something he had wanted for such a long time, to be treated as an adult, but now that it was happening he didn’t feel at all ready.

Off to one side, Kaoru dropped back from her charge. Yahiko darted a glance at her and was surprised to see Sano loping towards her. Should I stop…? No. Gotta keep going. Kenshin’s counting on us.

It was a moot point now anyway as the adults’ brief conversation came to an end and they turned back to the work before them. The akita-mix fixed his eyes on the stand of trees where the Juppongatana had waited—the enemy was visible as dark shapes that rapidly gained definition as the two forces raced towards each other. From the corner of his eye the young dog saw Misao nudge Aoshi and the pair streaked together toward a dark lanky figure moving quickly through the snow.

A sudden prickle of fur on the back of his neck was his only warning and Yahiko struggled to leap backwards against his own forward momentum. Something dropped out of the sky, letting out an ear-splitting shriek of disappointment as it missed its target and swooped upwards again.

Is that a hawk? Yahiko tried to divide his attention between the flying attacker and the ground-based threats, but his eyes stubbornly followed the dark shape wheeling in the blue sky. What the heck is a hawk doing working for Shishio?!

Getting an answer seemed unlikely in the extreme, but a second attack was imminent. The hawk stooped, wings folded to arrow through the air and sharp talons outstretched to grab and tear. Yahiko waited, watching the thing approach, tensing in anticipation. The hawk screeched in triumph as he connected with Yahiko’s back, raking bloody lines through spiky fur—but the victory was short lived as the akita-mix wheeled and bit down hard on a black flapping wing.

He shook his head briskly, ripping the bird free of his back. Something snapped and the muscles under his mouth went suddenly slack. The dog released his grip to let the bird tumble to the snow, its head flopping at an unusual angle. Yahiko eyed it warily for another few seconds, making sure the hawk was really dead before raising his head to survey the landscape. Some distance away Sano fought against an orange creature that towered above him, and Kaoru disappeared in thick plumes of disturbed snow as she dodged the creature she fought. Closer to the forest’s edge Kenshin was visible as a flash of red, chasing and being chased by a flicker of gold.

Yahiko couldn’t see the Oniwaban anymore, but that hardly surprised him. They were ninjas after all.

The fringe of the forest loomed a short distance away, startlingly dark against the morning snow. Something moved in the darkness and Yahiko strained his eyes to try and pick out the shape—but soon he didn’t need to, it was coming toward him.

A wolf, as large as Hiko, padded out of the gloom towards him on massive paws. He looked… odd, even considering Yahiko’s admittedly skewed perspective on “normal.” It wasn’t so much the coloring, though that was strange too. Brown fur covered his legs and underbelly, crawling up his body like a rising tide, getting darker and darker until even his muzzle was stained with it. Then right up against the dark a shock of white fur started between the stranger’s eyes and flowed up and over his skull to about the middle of his back. But there was something about that skull, something that wasn’t quite right for a wolf. His muzzle was too thick, and there was hardly any difference in angles between it and the slope of his forehead. Compared to the rest of his oversized body the wolf’s white triangle ears were tiny and didn’t seem to have as much range of motion.

“Who are you?” Yahiko barked out, his natural rough temper lending its weight to the words.

“A rude question for the aggressor to ask.” A high, nasally voice that didn’t match at all with the mammoth wolf answered. “But manners are rarely displayed by ones so young.”

“What…?” It took a long moment of searching for Yahiko to find the voice’s owner. A rat. A fat, sleek rat with tan fur that clung to the wolf’s shoulder with a self-important gleam in its beady eyes.Yahiko gave his head a hard shake and looked again—still there.

Birds, rats, is there anything this Shishio guy didn’t try to recruit? The rat, apparently, wasn’t done speaking.

“So it falls to us to teach you some manners, pup. When asking a name, it is customary to first offer your own,” the rat lectured. The dog bristled, spiky fur standing up a little straighter as he did.

“Yahiko Myogin, son of Samurai and member of Kenshin’s pack,” he growled out, tense. “Who are you?”

“Saizuchi of the Juppongatana.” The rat’s front claw released its hold to give the fur on which it rested an absent pat, “This is my partner, Fuji.” Saizuchi’s tiny head tilted to one side, his long whiskers twitching. “I assume this ‘Kenshin’ you claim as an alpha is the Battousai.”

Yahiko eyed the pair warily, Fuji the strange wolf had yet to so much as twitch forward, and his stillness while the rat climbed on him and spoke for (apparently) both of them was making him nervous.

“And if he is?”

“Then I presume he has gone to challenge lord Shishio, which leaves you in the awkward position of fighting for a dead wolf.”

“Kenshin’s not dead!” Yahiko exploded, shifting by angry instinct into a low fighting stance.

The rat may have raised a tiny brow, Fuji didn’t move. “For all intents and purposes he is. Those who stand against lord Shishio do not survive, thus the conditions for the end of his life have been met. I hope you said goodbye, child.” Malicious glee laced Saizuchi’s tone as he explained, Yahiko’s growling mostly drowned it out, but worry for the red wolf wasn’t so easy to quiet.

“You don’t know anything about Kenshin,” the akita-mix challenged, “and if you don’t shut up I’m going to make you shut up!”

A definite snigger from the rat greeted this, “You seem as eager to die as your leader! No one stands against the might of Fuji! He was genetically engineered from your distant ancestors and boasts a strength long since disappeared from your line. And with me by his side, the brains that engineered his escape from the laboratory, the likelihood of your survival drops to below zero percent!” Fuji moved at last, heaving a rumbling sigh and stepping forward, the blunt lines of his face a melancholic contrast to Saizuchi’s manic glee.

Yahiko’s brow crinkled slightly in confusion, stealing force from his snarl. What’s that guy talking about? Ancestors and laboratories… guess he means this Fuji guy was planned out by humans? Like his father, perhaps, bred to be a guard dog. Still, they were in the wild now, what did humans have to do with anything? Besides...

“You already said that Shishio was unbeatable, and now you’re saying that Fuji is too—they can’t both be, and if you’re lying about one then you’re probably lying about both,” Yahiko pointed out. “Which means Kenshin and I will be fine.”

The scowl on Saizuchi’s face was plainly visible and he bared long incisors. “I tried to be kind, you fool, I tried to warn you. On your own head be this folly. Fuji!”

The last word was a sharp command, and now there wasn’t any time for conversation—the hulking wolf charged. He moved faster than Yahiko expected for a creature of that muscle-mass, and the akita-mix scrambled to get clear of that first powerful attack. Fuji turned ponderously to get the dog in his sights once again.

The raised fur on Yahiko’s hackles fairly tingled with its efforts to climb higher—Fuji’s expression was unlike any Yahiko had ever seen on a fighter—the expression of no expression. None. No hostility, or anger, no snarls or determination. Heck, there wasn’t even the psychotic glee that sometimes stole over Sano’s face, or the cool focus of Aoshi. It was almost like Fuji didn’t even see him. As if Yahiko wasn’t quite real. And none of this was helpful because here the ancestral wolf came again.

Again Yahiko retreated, uncertain of his chances in going toe-to-toe with the Juppongatana’s momentum. Of course, he would never win by retreating either. No, bad impatience. Plans were good things. Fuji had a plan… or rather, Saizuchi did. The rat had clamped like a tick onto his friend, clawed feet anchoring him against the rough movements of the wolf. Every now and then Yahiko could hear fragments of whispers, the orders Saizuchi gave to the large creature. Which wasn’t fair, Fuji didn’t have to divide his attention or think for himself—Yahiko frowned, testing that thought as he jumped back to avoid a crushing bite.

Was that an advantage? Fuji didn’t decide what to do himself so he couldn’t anticipate—the rat might have a plan, but he still had to relay that to his partner. And that took time. It took time to decipher those commands and act on them too—a delay a quick dog could probably use to his advantage.

Fuji was charging again, but this time Yahiko waited, waited, waited until he could practically feel his opponent’s hot breath blasting down on him in advance of the fangs. Now!

The akita-mix slipped to one side, doing his best to mimic how Kenshin moved, dodging attacks by a whisker’s breadth. He had probably done it a little too early, but it worked, Fuji’s momentum had him thundering past, just like the first time, and when he turned it would be slow.

Yahiko rushed to close the distance before that turn could begin, ready to target a hind leg, dark against the backdrop of snow. What happened next just shouldn’t have.

Fuji wheeled, kicking up a spray of snow in a turn that went against everything Yahiko had seen in their fight so far, and Yahiko hadn’t even heard Saizuchi give the command to turn. But he could hear him now a high, vicious snigger as Yahiko’s momentum carried him forward toward impassive eyes—and implacable fangs. He had just enough time to protect his throat by ducking his head before impact.

The teeth were almost an afterthought, tearing through the loose skin of his scruff, the real damage came after. Yahiko saw dark paws tense to spring and muscle slammed into him like a boulder pried free in an avalanche. Air evacuated his lungs as ribs creaked warningly against the impact. His paws left the earth to follow the path of least resistance, the force of the blow sending him into the air before gravity yanked him back down with a malicious chuckle.

Impact. And no more air for his lungs to lose. For a crucial moment Yahiko struggled with instincts torn between refilling his battered lungs and getting back to his paws before—

A heavy paw planted itself on his stomach and thick jaws tore into his side—

Pain

Pain

Pain

PAIN.

Yahiko wasn’t thinking anymore, not even a little, he writhed, twisting like a mad beast, uncaring of further injury as long as it got him away now. It was the only thing that mattered, the only thing that ever could—stop the pain. Stop the fangs splashing his blood out over the snow.

A wordless roar tore itself from his throat, spilling out over fangs that turned and latched on to the upper shoulder of his enemy—a shallow bite at the wrong angle to deal real damage, but hard to ignore for any creature. Fuji made a noise, it rumbled through Yahiko’s teeth as it shook his opponent’s throat, a grumble of annoyance. The great wolf drew back, shaking his head from side to side.Yahiko locked his jaw and held on, letting the resulting pull drag him to his feet. Saizuchi was a scolding presence on Fuji’s shoulder, almost nose to nose with Yahiko. Yammering about strength working with intelligence in deadly concert—

“Shut up,” Yahiko croaked, sliding free of Fuji in a desperate scramble as his jaw opened. “Just shut up. That wasn’t you. That was nothing to do with you.” He eyed the almost-motionless wolf. “That was Fuji.”

“Fuji does as I tell him—” the rat shrilled. Yahiko cut him off.

“When he’s got time, sure. But you can’t move fast enough to stay alive if you’re always listening to someone else. Sometimes you just have to move.” Narrowed brown eyes met Fuji’s dark ones. “That’s your game, isn’t it? You let opponents think they’re fighting the rat, and they are, but you count on them forgetting you can make your own decisions. And it’s easy, because he,” Yahiko glared at the rat, “tells everyone that you can’t.”

Fuji was actually looking and him now, a fixed stare that could have matched Aoshi for inscrutability. But still… something had shifted, as if the Juppongatana no longer saw an obstacle, but an opponent. Yahiko’s side was a bloody mess, his scruff stinging from the early bites and his bones aching from taking Fuji’s weight full-force. But he sees me. It still felt like a victory.

The ancestral wolf’s head tilted fractionally to one side, but it was more than enough for Saizuchi to feel. “You don’t know anything about us!” The rat’s voice was tight with temper. “Fuji!”

That cry of command again, but Fuji didn’t charge, instead he began to circle towards Yahiko, moving at an easy trot. Instinctively the dog moved, falling into the arc to keep Fuji more or less the same distance away from him. It was only after he did so that he realized the direction of their circle kept his injuries on the inside, closer to further attack. The limited amount of blood that had already clotted in Fuji’s fur was a stark reminder of just who had the advantage. Saizuchi’s chosen shoulder was now outside the circle, but his whispers had increased in pitch and urgency, a clear sign of anxiety even if Yahiko couldn’t confirm the emotion with his eyes.

Fuji shifted, breaking the pattern to attack and Yahiko let himself jump to one side in reaction. Pain was a too-close memory, spurring him away from the jaws that had brought it. Not a bad thing, if it kept him from racking up more injuries, but not anything that would necessarily help him cause any either. The Juppongatana turned smoothly to follow Yahiko’s retreat, eyes locked unswervingly on the dog. Yahiko allowed himself to back up a further two steps before steeling his nerves and rushing forward. He skirted the edge of Fuji’s approach, twisting to avoid the teeth that followed him even as he tried to land a bite on the wolf’s flank. It was only a glancing blow—to stay in range longer was to risk further injury—but the small victory soothed the persistent fear in the back of Yahiko’s mind into something quieter.

“Fuji, now!” the rat’s insistent shriek brought it roaring to life again and Yahiko’s paws shoved hard against the earth to propel himself away from the coming catastrophe. No good. The jaws that had savaged his hide broke it once again, clamping down on one hind leg just before he was out of range.

The sudden, jerking halt nearly made him lose his balance and he scrabbled desperately to keep it. The heavy Juppongatana pivoted, sending Yahiko skidding across the snow a short distance, his legs locked in a desperate attempt to not wind up on the ground once more. His claws scraped through churned up snow, searching for purchase and just barely finding it.

Position secure for the moment Yahiko looked up frantically to see where this new location had brought him in relation to Fuji. The ancestral wolf was bearing down on him again, the intent to ram Yahiko to the ground once more obvious in the broad lines of his face. Not again!

There was no time or space to dodge, he would never get out of range in time and it would only sacrifice his footing. And he couldn’t take another attack like that. The akita-mix braced himself, but not for impact. As Fuji thundered ever nearer he dug his paws into the snow and propelled himself forward.

Faint surprise registered on Fuji’s face for a moment, but no concern—his greater mass and momentum would win out in a head-to-head encounter. Still, Yahiko came nearer, showing no signs of wavering, ears pressed flat to his skull. Time shuddered by oddly— it had been only seconds since Yahiko saw Fuji’s approaching attack, yet the adrenaline coursing through him seemed to slow the world, allowing him to notice and factor in the little things.

Saizuchi’s wide-eyed grin at being partners with such a powerful creature.

Angry voices raised in the distance.

The exact way the muscles in his legs expanded and contracted to push against the earth, racing the steady pulse of his heartbeat.

Fuji’s stunned expression when, just before impact, Yahiko latched on to the top of his attacker’s muzzle and wrenched his body violently to one side.

The world whited out for a moment as a fresh wave of agony ripped into Yahiko’s injured flank. He clung on, fighting against the roaring in his ears blocking out the world as much as he fought against Fuji, and reluctantly it began to recede. The effects were all he could have hoped for. Fuji’s body might be a mass that would laugh at any attempt by Yahiko to change its trajectory—his head on the other hand… It was snapped to one side, following the path of the dog’s weight. The body it was attached to stumbled, surprise doing what weight alone could not.

The Juppongatana might be faster than Yahiko had initially given him credit for, but Fuji wasn’t created to execute tight turns at high speed. His hind legs slipped out from under him and the front legs skidded, unable to correct the stumble. Yahiko released his death-grip on the other canine’s muzzle with a gasp, scrambling to find his own footing before he was tangled with his foe and trapped on the ground.

The thud the wolf made as he crashed to the ground made Yahiko’s bones shake as the shock of the impact traveled through the ground and up his legs. But only up his legs, he had managed to stay upright. Fuji tensed and Yahiko dove for the submission hold, fangs pressed warningly against the pulsing jugular and one paw planted firmly on Fuji’s neck to help hold the titan down.

“You lose.” Yahiko growled out menacingly.

“Inconceivable!” a high voice shrilled. “Fuji and I are an army of destruction!”

Damn, I was kinda hoping that he would have been crushed in the fall.

Maybe a little cruel, but any charitable thoughts about the rat vanished when the tan creature crawled over to Yahiko’s paw and started biting at it savagely with his sharp incisors. The instinct to shake off the diminutive attacker or, even better, kill it with one well-placed bite, was overwhelming, but Yahiko sat on the impulse.

Saizuchi couldn’t kill him from down there, and clearly wasn’t brave enough to draw near Yahiko’s throat and thus his teeth. But if the akita-mix moved, Fuji might get up, and the big wolf certainly could kill him.

“Tell your buddy to cut it out,” the dog ground out between teeth that longed to crunch into the rat. “He’s got to be at least a little important to you if you’re still with him, so I’d like to not have to kill him. But if he keeps biting I make no promises.”

Fuji’s dark body shifted, and Yahiko tensed, ready to bite if he had to despite the yawing pit of nausea that had lurched into being in his gut. Damn it, he didn’t want to kill Fuji.

“Saizuchi,” the wolf’s deep rumble was calm despite his position. “We’ve lost. Don’t shame yourself.”

Life is not shameful!” The rat blazed back at him. A sigh shuddered across the large frame.

“We are not humans. Wolves do not need to kill their fallen foes. Are dogs so different?”

Yahiko hesitated, memories of the last pinned fighter he had released rearing an ugly head. Rai had gone on to try and kill him when his back was turned. Did he really trust Fuji not to do the same? And even if I don’t, do I expect to just stand here until somebody else shows up? I need to move, one way or the other, and there’s only one way that I’ll be able to live with myself, even if it is only for five minutes.

“No.” Yahiko answered, slowly pulling back. “We’re not.”

Saizuchi scampered to his customary place, anxiously parting Fuji’s fur with his clever paws to see if there was any damage while the wolf slowly got to his feet. Yahiko watched tensely for any sign that he would have to leap away to dodge an attack. Fuji plainly noticed this and shook his head slowly.

“No more fighting,” he insisted. “It would not be honorable.”

“And what’s a guy with honor doing in Shishio’s pack?” Yahiko demanded. “Haven’t you seen what he’s been doing? Building a super-pack like this, going after more and more territory, it’s crazy!”

The rat sniffed. “Lord Shishio intends to wage war against humanity itself; the side effects are necessary sacrifices to achieve that goal.” Beady eyes glittered. “Where else can we strike a blow of vengeance against the humans for what they’ve done to us?”

Now it was Yahiko’s turn to shake his head. “But you can’t get revenge on humans, even if you could find the right ones in the first place. All Shishio is going to do is get everybody following him and a bunch of innocent bystanders killed when they retaliate. I was born by a town—you don’t think every now and again there wasn’t some crazy dog who decided it would be good to go after people? It always ended up the same, with him dead and any dogs that happened to be around him dead. You can’t get revenge on humans. The best thing you can do is go enjoy your freedom. Live your life, find a pack somewhere that you fit into, that likes you for more than your muscle.”

“And you don’t think that Shishio’s pack is such a place?” the rat asked wryly.

Yahiko allowed one fang to show in a half-snarl. “Shishio’s pack isn’t an option. It’s getting shut down today.

Fuji’s gaze was thoughtful, but it was hard to get a read on whether or not he agreed with Yahiko or Saizuchi. The rat hesitated. “Perhaps it would be wise to… consider our options. If the alpha is the strongest in a pack…”

And I was stronger than they expected, Kenshin might just win against the guy they think is invincible. Yahiko fought back a grin, he didn’t want t the pair to think he was laughing at them. Fuji inclined his head.

“We will withdraw to confer. It would be dishonorable to interfere further with this struggle.”

As if the bad guys have any honor—oh what the heck, I trusted him this far. And I’m not in much shape to argue. The odd pair turned and melted into the snow-shrouded gloom of the forest. Yahiko’s legs trembled with exhaustion as adrenaline drained from his system. I hurt everywhere.

Surely it wouldn’t hurt to sit down, just for a minute? Get his breath back before seeing how everyone was doing. Maybe see if Sano had won his fight, and let Megumi fuss over him, if she wasn’t too busy scalping the fighter.

Ow…

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