Amber Forest

Chapter 22- Reckoning

Oh, to anyone who’s hit their limit

It’s not over yet! Not over yet!

And even when you think you’re finished

It’s not over yet! Not over yet!

- For King and Country, It’s Not Over Yet

For the first time in her life, Misao wasn’t chasing after Aoshi.

No, much better. She was running beside him, stride for stride in step with her beloved Okashira.

Well, almost. He had legs that were much longer than hers after all, so in reality she ran beside him in waves, surging forward to keep pace and falling back when her short legs (why did she have to be so tiny?!) couldn’t keep up, only to surge forward again. It wasn’t the perfect image conjured in her mind when she had dreamed of finding Aoshi again, but it was right, it was real in a way that her fantasies had never been able to touch. He was really with her, really letting her be with him. And, from the ear he kept cocked in her direction, he was making sure she stayed with him.

Misao let herself bask in the warm feeling, letting it chase back the apprehension curling in her stomach. Soon they would face the Juppongatana to give Himura a chance to go after Shishio. She remembered them all vividly, the audience to her great failure, to the captivity that had been used to control her pack. Part of her, a young part that wailed at the loss of the Oniwaban, didn’t want to see any of them again. They were sure to remember her, and she dreaded hearing their taunts with Aoshi there to witness them.

But there was another part, a savage, angry fire that had been shut up in her bones and kindled into new life when Aoshi found her again. Usui. The survivors of the Oniwaban owed the wolfhound. Owed him blood and pain and the nightmare of being paralyzed by fear. So she let Aoshi focus on following Himura, trusting the dark wolf with their direction while the little coyote extended her sense to the utmost, seeking out Juppongatana in the thickening trees.

Distant scents and sounds tugged at her attention, whispering of her allies colliding with the enemy in places she couldn’t see, couldn’t reach to help. And any one of them might not make it out of this fight… Misao pushed fear back, keeping her airways clear by force of will. Himura had trusted the others enough to let them come, so she had to trust that they could fight, his Miss Kaoru and the bratty Yahiko. Something tickled at her nose, tugging at her attention and sending her head craning on her neck to follow it.

Old blood, oily fur. Usui.

“Aoshi-sama!” The dark wolf turned toward her cry, a hint of a question in his icy eyes, and Misao let her expressive face answer his stoic one, only able to give one word in response to his silent query. “Usui.”

The Okashira ducked his head in response, shifting his weight to follow her lead. Misao went streaking across the snow, Aoshi keeping her pace easily, allowing her a slight lead while she followed the bitter tang of her enemy. Dread coiled in Misao’s stomach like a serpent that had been trod upon, the grim specters of her fallen family circling close in her mind. But Aoshi was closer still than their ghosts, and he was trusting her to lead the way to the wolfhound.

The trees grew ever thicker together as they moved into the forest, but still there was no place where the ground was free of a covering of snow. The wind had been harsh, driving snow across the ground and through the trees to land where it might not have touched otherwise and built heavy drifts against the trunks of trees that had dared to stand against the winter. Misao skirted these drifts as best she could—it would be horrible if she got stuck somehow in the deep snow. Not only because it would be embarrassing, but it would take time away from finding the blind dog… and justice had waited long enough.

She almost ran by him, he sat so still in the snow, his grinning, sightless head turned into the breeze. Aoshi’s sharp warning of, “Misao!” came at the same time as her own awareness of the threat, and the coyote threw herself violently to one side to get some distance between herself and the unpredictable dog. Distance that proved to be wise as ivory teeth snapped down on the air where she had been. Misao regained her footing with a scramble, allowing Aoshi to come alongside her, acting as a mental bulwark between her and the foe. Usui straightened lazily, the dark scar tissue coving his eyes bunching in thick lines as he grinned.

“Well, hello there, if it isn’t the frightened one. You seem to have forgotten which way to run.”

Misao bristled, her silver-tan pelt rising in a useless display of anger—it wasn’t as if her enemy could see her trying to make herself more threatening. “I’m not running!” she informed the wolfhound hotly. Doubtless he heard the anger in her voice but ignored it.

“Oh? And what was that charging about you were doing just now?”

“I wasn’t running!” The coyote insisted, struggling to keep from being drawn into a real argument with the abrasively superior Juppongatana. “I was—”

“Misao.” Aoshi’s quiet corrective tone warned that she was in danger of doing just that and Misao choked off her explanation.

Usui inclined his head, sightless gaze directed now toward the black wolf. “Oh, and if it isn’t the quiet one.” His teeth flashed in a grin, “Not that I call you that, Okashira. I wonder if anyone else would if they could hear how loud your heartbeat is. Such a noisy heart you have, former leader. It beats with rage, I think. Hm.” He cocked his head as if to better listen. “Oh yes, rage. For your pack, I see. Terribly sloppy of you, losing so many. They say that you are rather an emotionless wolf… but I can read the truth in your heart.”

“You have much to say,” Aoshi observed tonelessly. “Shall I assume these are meant to be your last words?”

“Bold words from the leader of a dead pack,” Usui countered. “Would you bark so loudly if you knew how quickly they died, I wonder? How hopelessly outmatched they were?”

Misao shuddered, seeing them again, Okina, Shiro, Kuro, Omasu and Okon, charging the evil Juppongatana, then the bloodstained snow and panicked aftermath.

“The frightened one can tell you,” the wolfhound sneered, clearly not missing Misao’s reaction. He turned back to her. “Have you come to leave another of your pack to his death?”

Cold gripped Misao’s heart, spreading quickly to numb her limbs. He wants to kill Aoshi-sama. A fine trembling started in her muscles, an energy so strong she could not keep it from shaking her lithe frame. He wants to kill Aoshi-sama. He had already taken Okina, Okon, Omasu, Shiro and Kuro. Hannya, Beshimi, Hyottoko and Shikijou were likewise gone.

And he wanted to take the last of Misao’s pack.

“Usui Blind-eyes,” her voice sounded strange to her ears, as uncontrollable as her shaking and so, so angry. “You are an enemy and a murderer, and the debt of blood you spilled must be paid.” The coyote’s lips curled back from her almost-delicate fangs. “You killed my family, you bastard!”

Aoshi shifted beside her, preparing to move, and Misao readied herself to follow his lead. If Usui had still possessed visible eyes he would have rolled them.

“That’s what happens in a war.”

The Okashira moved, and Misao’s reply was lost as she followed him. Aoshi pelted straight for Usui, the blind wolfhound still standing loosely, unconcerned by the attack. At the last moment the dark wolf sheared off to one side to circle the tree Usui had his back against. Misao was only a heartbeat behind him, moving in the other direction when he broke away so that there was an Oniwaban on either side of the wolf-killer.

Usui grinned. “I can read your strategy before you even make it! You can’t hide your hearts from me!”

Aoshi ignored the taunt, moving in for a harsh bite at his enemy’s unprotected flank. Misao followed in mirror image of her leader to attack Usui’s other side—at least one of them should get through to draw blood. Should.

Usui shifted, stooping down from his great height in a bizarre and fluid motion. His dark gray body curved, presenting Misao with a wall of dense muscle where a relaxed flank had been and turning his fangs toward Aoshi. The coyote carried through with her attack, but Usui’s sudden readiness resulted in her only striking a glancing blow before retreating.

Aoshi saw his opponent’s gleaming fangs but held true to his own assault. It was a good thing that Misao had retreated—the dark wolf met his enemy’s mocking grin with an implacable charge, crashing into the wolfhound’s stooped form with all his weight and speed. Usui stumbled, and if he had been standing at his full height he would have fallen with the Oniwaban on him in vengeful fury before he could rise again. But the crouching posture he had adopted mitigated this to only a few straggling steps to absorb the force of the blow.

Blood spattered onto the snowbank in fine drops. Panic seized Misao—she couldn’t see who was bleeding, but blood had been on the snow before and she hadn’t done anything to stop the precious spill—she wouldn’t do that again, she couldn’t! The kunoichi attacked recklessly, throwing herself on the hide that had balked her before. She scrabbled for purchase against the oily fur, biting down as hard as she could and tearing at the taut muscle of Usui’s shoulders.

On the other side Aoshi had recovered from Usui’s attack with only a small bite to show for it. The wolfhound shrugged his shoulders as if in annoyance, but chose to keep facing Aoshi rather than turning to deal with Misao. As ferocious as the coyote’s attack was, she was unlikely to cause any serious damage back there. Aoshi hesitated, likely he had meant to draw away after his own attack, but was now unwilling to leave Misao alone against Usui, where the wolfhound might easily choose to deal with the threat that was in reach.

That hesitation cost him.

The Juppongatana, as if smelling his uncertainty, lunged for the Okashira, his blinded eyes above a gaping maw almost seeming to smile as he approached. The sudden jarring motion of his charge was enough to shake Misao free, and she watched in horror as Usui bit down on the side of Aoshi’s neck.

The leader’s thick ruff and the rushed angle of the bite were all that spared him a permanent end. But the blind Juppongatana was preparing to shift his grip to pierce anew, and deeper. Misao could see the muscles that had denied her purchase shifting under the dark gray coat and could read what would happen there as clearly as Usui apparently could. No, no, no! She couldn’t let it happen, but he had shrugged off her attack so easily earlier, as if she didn’t pose any threat and so he need not spend any time on her. He was crazy and evil, but he was strong and strength to strength she just couldn’t measure up.

But… that’s not how the Oniwaban are supposed to fight… we’re supposed to be smarter, pitting our strength against their weakness.

She might not deal him a fatal blow, but she could certainly manage a crippling one.

Misao came in hard and fast just as Usui began to shift his grip, biting down with all her strength on the wolfhound’s long bony foreleg. Something under her jaws cracked and Usui howled in rage—her timing had been perfect, the Juppongatana’s unwitting response to his pain allowing Aoshi to pull back out of range without further injury. Misao followed suit, disengaging and moving to circle back to Aoshi’s side—the clash of closing jaws sped her on her way before she even registered the pain of Usui’s retaliatory bite on her back leg.

She made it to Aoshi and shuddered next to him in the snow. Too close. Too close. Usui had almost taker her most important person, the very last one. And again it would have been her fault.

“So the coward finds her bite.” Usui sneered, one paw held mostly off the ground, though the break was not visible. “A pity it will do you no good! I have been driven to the brink of death itself by Shishio and have gained power—the power to read your hearts!”

“No, you haven’t.” It was hard to tell, given Aoshi’s customary lack of inflection, but Misao thought he sounded almost… bored. “If you knew hearts as well as you claim, you would not call Misao’s cowardly.” Icy green eyes bored into sightless scar tissue. “All you have are your ears—though it is a wonder you can use them to hear over your own boasting.”

Usui snarled terribly, the face that smiled with such malice now contorted in fury. “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Aoshi didn’t answer, his expression icy and remote, the Okashira long since ready to avenge his pack. The lack of response seemed to enrage Usui even further, and with a howl he sprang at the pair. Misao and Aoshi retreated, untouchable as moonlight, even injured as they were—the wolfhound’s fury at being slighted was making him careless. The leg Misao had fractured wrenched violently to one side as Usui landed on it, turning his blow aside and making him stagger to regain his balance.

“I see more than anyone with eyes!” He called, spinning around and lashing out as Misao passed by him. The coyote felt her heart speed up as she threw her weight to one side to dodge. Usui seemed not to notice, planting his feet and casting his head about as if he actually were trying to use his eyes… but there was only scar tissue there.

Aoshi picked up his pace, beginning to circle the wolfhound in a wide arc. Misao caught his eyes and followed, moving in the opposite direction. Usui was smiling now, the expression crazed in the midst of his anger as he ranted.

“Shishio thinks I’m beaten, that I’ll never have my revenge—but he doesn’t see the viper he has coiled around his neck! No one sees. But I hear his heart, and only one thing stirs it!”

Misao reached her top speed, barely hearing Usui’s taunts now, her mind was locked in a cool, clear place where the only thing that mattered was moving in step with her leader. The black wolf angled in sharply toward the Juppongatana and Misao followed a heartbeat behind.

Usui must have heard their thudding paws and righteous hearts and realized his peril, his head came up to meet it—but Aoshi and Misao were on him within seconds of each other, each carving a diagonal path into the wolfhound’s neck, one on each side as they crossed before him. A spray of crimson greeted their efforts, severed arteries and veins emptying their contents. Usui’s legs buckled in seconds, his anger bleeding away with the rest of him.

“Hah,” he gasped out, “Ha, I can see… I can see…” The sightless eyes could not close, but the breath left his body with a rattle, and did not re-enter it.

Misao shuddered with exertion and receding adrenaline. It was done… well, at least this part. There was still Shishio to deal with, wherever he had gotten to.

Too bad, I’d really like to curl up next to Aoshi-sama and just sleep for a week. She glanced over to her leader, staring at Usui’s form and breathing slowly and deeply through his nose. Misao faltered a half-step closer.

“How is it?” her voice was small, ashamed, and her eyes were caught by the deep injury to the black wolf’s neck. Aoshi’s eyes pulled slowly away from his fallen foe to look at his little follower.

“It will heal.”

“I’m sorry! That was my fault, I wasn’t thinking,” the apology burst out before Misao could think of how to refine it, to make it sound less childish and desperate.

“Rage is a powerful motivator, but uncontrolled it delivers you into the power of your enemy.” The dark wolf’s expression softened, taking any possible sting out of his instruction. “I am pleased that you are all right.”

Misao’s ears flushed and half flattened, torn between being giddy and being embarrassed. “Ah, anyway,” she coughed against the bubble of emotion caught in her throat, “we should probably try to catch up to Himura—who knows what trouble he’s getting into by himself.”

“Indeed.” Was it her imagination, or was there a tiny smile on Aoshi’s face? The dark wolf started off and Misao scrambled to keep up, trying to keep her eyes fixed on the vanished expression, in case he displayed any other trace of emotion.

A tremendous crashing sound interrupted her perusal and the Oniwaban exchanged tense looks before speeding off in the direction of the sound. Misao now kept pace with Aoshi easily despite her injury—blood loss slowed him, the realization eating into Misao’s lingering relief with quiet anxiety. Thicker and thicker the forest pressed, dark fir trees pushing back daylight in a shadowy canopy. Another crashing sound came—something large carving a path through the forest the hard way. The sound oriented the pair, and using it as a guide the quickly followed it to its source.

Two great shapes clashed in the woods, a familiar steel gray wolf and a massive white dog. The crashing had been caused by their struggle, but it was nearly over now. The wolf, Saito, shifted his weight backwards onto his hind legs, then sprang forward, uncoiling as he came into a long fanged shape. The white dog seemed to recognize the motion, the blood marring his fur giving testimony to similar hits already taken.

Still, the knowledge didn’t help him—Saito was too close and too fast, giving no time for his opponent to turn the blow aside. It slammed into him and he was forced backwards, another red stain appearing to mat the long white fur.

Misao’s mouth went dry, her tongue shriveled and useless. It wasn’t that odd to see the Juppongatana, today of all days when she and her allies had sought them out, but she hadn’t looked for this one. Anji.

“Don’t,” her voice was a breathy squeak, no more than a mouse buried deep under snow might make. But it was enough. Aoshi turned away from the fight to look at her, taking in the half-panicked expression on her face. Worry for the enemy.

I must be going insane.

“Saito.” The Okashira’s voice cut across the space between them and the fight, which was drawing to a close. The Shinsengumi’s fangs arced for Anji’s throat, and the white dog closed his eyes. At his fellow northerner’s call, however, the dire charge slowed, then stopped.

“Shinomori,” Saito’s dark amber eyes regarded the black wolf, skimming over the coyote at his side before apparently dismissing her as not important enough to greet. “Why are you interrupting me?”

A flash of anger warmed Misao’s blood at her ally’s (loosely termed!) characteristic contempt for her. It loosened her muscles and gave her back the voice that had hidden.

“How about because that dog saved me?” And Saito didn’t get to judge her for that, he hadn’t been there that night. Still his lip curled, displeased, as Anji shifted to a more stable position on his wide paws.

“And that earns him a pass, does it?”

“It gives him a chance to withdraw,” Misao retorted almost before she had time to think. The crumpled form of Senkaku came to her and cold crept back into her limbs. Himura had said that he would have been allowed to flee from Saito—but would the gray wolf really allow it? Himura, she had already noticed, had a somewhat-alarming tendency to see the world as if it were as honorable as he was.

“Or do you not intend to allow him to surrender?”

Aoshi stirred beside her, adding his quiet voice to her argument. “Remember that you are not alone in the North, Saito. The Oniwaban do not welcome neighbors without honor.”

“All two of you.” Saito replied dryly, one brow arched in long-suffering superiority. “Perhaps the Oniwaban would have done better to leave fewer enemies at their backs than to let their judgment be ruled by children.”

“Is your pack so much greater, Saito?” the black wolf gave no indication of the wrath Misao now felt, his voice was as cool as ever. “Even if we are few, the Oniwaban know much—and the remnants of the Shinsengumi fell to Shishio just as those of the Isshin Shishi did.”

A thin smile appeared on Saito’s muzzle, a razor-edged smile, betraying a mind that found no real humor in the Okashira’s words. He took a step back, inclining his head toward the silent Anji, mockingly inviting Misao to speak. The coyote swallowed hard, and forced herself a few steps closer to the behemoth, stopping well out of range. He was almost a perfect opposite to her strengths, she was slight and quick, he was large and powerful. She could lead the Great Pyrenees on a merry chase if she must, but his mass would overwhelm her if he ever caught ahold of her.

Still, she didn’t think he would attack. Probably.

His dark eyes were calm, almost like Aoshi’s calm, and found hers without reservation. “I remember you,” the deep voice began, “you’re the survivor.”

“I—yes, I am.” She hadn’t thought of herself like that before, as the last, certainly, or as the youngest, the weakest, the most frightened, or simply as the one who was left alive. But… the survivor. It sounded almost like he was commending her, like it was through some skill of her own that she had escaped death and not his crucially timed appearance. “You saved me that night, you said that Shishio gave you power over life and death. Why?”

“Because it was my condition for joining him.”

“No, I meant…” Misao backtracked to clarify, “why did you save me?”

Anji raised his head slightly, until he was no longer looking at her but somewhere over her shoulder—and yet, much, much farther away, into a place he could no longer reach.

“You reminded me of someone. Someone… young. Sometimes,” his voice dropped along with his gaze back to her face, her features, clearly not the ones he was longing to see, “sometimes it is not possible to save all of those who deserve saving.”

And you thought that teaming up with Shishio was the way to do it? The question burned her tongue, but she kept it between her teeth. She didn’t want the herding dog on the defensive or to justify whatever choices he had made in his loss. She wanted him to leave. Leave and survive.

“This is your chance, Anji. Shishio’s falling today, there are a lot of angry folks here to make sure of it. You don’t have to die for somebody like him. You can go, go and find someone else to protect.” The words tumbled out quickly, and then Misao had to hold her breath to hold in more words—a veritable barrage bent on pestering the white dog into flight.

“Do you think it is so easy to find ones worthy of protection?” Anji’s voice held a faintly bitter, jaded tone. While Misao fumbled for an answer, Aoshi stepped forward.

“You find what you are looking for. You sought revenge and found blood, but if you look for a new cause you will find it. Or is your determination so weak?”

Anji’s eyes glinted in the feeble sunlight, and he drew himself up to stand tall despite his injuries. “Do not doubt my will, Northern wolf.”

“Then take your chance,” Misao urged again. “Leave this land and live.”

The white dog hesitated for a long, long moment. Then he spoke, slowly, haltingly, as if even the time he had already taken was not enough to choose his words. “I will withdraw, as you wish, but there are those among the Juppongatana I would seek out before departing. They are not all such poor company as Usui. Indeed, some of them might even be worth saving.”

Saito stirred, “If you gather your comrades against me and mine,” he warned, “nothing will stop me from killing you. You’ve spent your chance.”

“Use it well,” Aoshi added on to Saito’s warning, softening it slightly. Anji’s broad head dipped in acknowledgement, and then he turned and walked away, a white shape disappearing into a white world. Saito released a sigh that was half a growl.

“I’m going after Shishio. He’s not going to do any of us a favor and kill himself.”

Usui opened eyes that had long been sightless and was met by the appearance of a dark and sinister forest. The trees were blighted, twisted things, barren of leaves to show plainly their myriad branches like hooked claws, dragging at a blood-red sky.

So he had come to the Dark Forest at last.

Desolate howls and shrieking, painful whimpers echoed in the wood, hinting at other denizens. The wolfhound’s folded ears twitched, following some sound from the other side. He had always heard more than those he had lived with, now his ears followed pawsteps moving through the snowy wood he had left behind, so different from the one he now stood in.

Quiet steps, methodical steps, steps that led a heart choked by rage to bloody, bloody vengeance.

On the other side of Hell, Usui grinned and licked his chops, waiting for new arrivals…

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