Amber Forest

Chapter 23- Collision

What is it really, what’s going on here?

You’ve got your system for total control

Now is there anybody out there?

Now watch us suffer ‘cause we can’t go

What is it really that is in your head?

What little life that you had just died

I’m gonna be the one that’s takin’ over

Now this is what it’s like when worlds collide!

-When Worlds Collide, Powerman 5000

The sun climbed steadily to its zenith, where it hung suspended for a breathless moment over all the wintry lands of the North. Motionless the sun might be, but Sano paced a short circuit by the forest’s edge. The fight was there, he could feel it, the blood in his veins burning for a chance to go and see what he might do. One paw lifted, ready to cross his boundary of trodden-down snow in search of the battle. A pained yelp drew it back before he could disturb the pristine flakes beyond his boundary.

“Stop fidgeting!” Megumi’s voice scolded, the irritation in the words dwarfed by concern for her patient.

“If you didn’t keep hurting me, I wouldn’t fidget!”

Sano glanced back over his shoulder at the pair he was ostensibly keeping watch over. Yahiko lay in the snow at Megumi’s feet while the doctor worked on the torn flesh of his flank. The young dog scowled and his ears lay flat on his skull in a clear sign of pain-induced irritability, but he kept very still as Megumi worked. None of the others were in view, the Missy had disappeared into the woods sometime while he was fighting, and Sano had lost track of their other comrades long before, leaving only he, the fox, and Yahiko. The kid wasn’t up to another fight, and Sano wasn’t such a heel that he would leave the non-combatant doc with only her patient for protection.

It’s not fair that I don’t even get to see Shishio, the thought still came mulishly. I’m the one who got mauled by Saito so you’d think that would earn me some consideration, but no, that bastard made me miss everything! Though without Megumi he probably really would have missed everything, either too weak to make the trip or too, -ahem- navigationally challenged to get here on time. Another startled curse burst from Yahiko and Sano sighed. Guess I have to leave it all up to you, Kenshin.

Kenshin left Soujiro behind, following the beta’s trail back the way he had come. It wasn’t certain that Soujiro had come straight from his master’s side, but there was little point in casting about blindly. Soon enough a faint scent came to him, one that raised his hackles and set his instincts to nervous mutterings, wanting to flee even as he knew he was on the right path. Old smoke, charred flesh, the lingering traces of fire, enough to worry any wild thing.

They said Shishio was burned… how badly, this one wonders, if the smell of smoke lingers so close still?

The answer was not long in coming, as Shishio was making no effort to hide himself. The trees had opened around a rocky outcropping, boulders shattered by time and the elements. At the top of this heap sat a grotesque wolf with patchy fur unable to cover his fire-ravaged frame. Burned brown skin showed through wide gaps of the remains of an off-white undercoat. The creature at his side was a perfect contrast to the war-ravaged alpha, an exceptionally beautiful dog, not one strand of her lush coat out of place. The alphas, Shishio and Yumi.

Shishio grinned down at the new arrival, blood-red eyes seeming wider than was normal since they were unframed by fur.

“At last, the predecessor I’ve heard so much about.” He cocked his head, displaying ears that had been gnawed to ragged edges by tongues of flame. “You’re late.”

“This one was delayed by entertaining your Juppongatana.”

“Well, you’ve got to let the underlings have their fun,” Shishio arched one furred brow at Kenshin, “Though I am still disappointed, Battousai, that it took you so long to get past them. This may not be the challenge I was hoping for.”

Kenshin stood firm, expression not altering at all. “This one is not here for your enjoyment, Shishio.”

“I suppose not,” the burned alpha stood, the motion smooth despite his scarred frame. “I’ll just have to find a way to enjoy myself regardless.”

Kenshin hesitated a moment, looking up at Shishio’s companion, but she showed no sign of moving, even with the worry flooding her eyes. Those eyes did not shift to meet Kenshin’s own, remaining locked on her mate. Her mouth opened as if to call out some warning or plea for caution, but she closed it again without uttering a sound.

Shishio approached, his voice filled with the easy confidence of a lifelong fighter. “Are you sure you want to begin, injured as you are?” As if in answer to the burned wolf’s attention Kenshin’s injuries gave at dull throb of protest. As if it would be as simple as turning to leave. Things had gone too far for a respite.

“This one could ask the same of you,” Kenshin pointed out. Shishio paused, as if he truly hadn’t thought of himself as injured, before continuing his approach with a smile.

“Then it would seem we are both too stubborn to withdraw. Good.”

Kenshin gave a short, sharp shake of his head, negating the statement. “It would be best if there was no fighting. Shishio, your polices as alpha place the lives of your subordinates and your neighbors in jeopardy, and cannot be ignored. If you would but change them—”

“My policies?” Shishio interrupted, mirth gone and a hint of disgust curling his lips. “You talk like one of those Isshin Shishi higher-ups who thought to slay me without ever soiling their own fangs. My polices… the truth, I think you mean. A truth you ought to know well, my blood-soaked predecessor. The strong live and the weak die, those with power take that which they want. It has always been so. Or would you deny that you survive on the deaths of those weaker than yourself?”

“This one would choose to differentiate between prey and wolves,” Kenshin shot back, the line of fur along his spine slowly rising. “You are oversimplifying the nature of the world.”

“And you are overcomplicating. I am disappointed. I gathered from your message that you didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to believe that the Battousai could be so weak-minded. I’ll put an end to you here and now, while your legend can still be of service.”

“This one will not lay down his life for the sake of the world you would build.” Kenshin shifted, lowering his center of gravity, legs braced in preparation of sudden movement.

Shishio tossed his head, the blood-red iris of his eye rolling in the over-exposed white. “You say that as if you have any choice, Battousai!”

The northern alpha exploded into movement, launching himself toward Kenshin, his patchwork fur giving a clear display of the powerful muscles working on that frame. Kenshin pushed himself forward in answer, colliding with Shishio in a rush of fur and flame-touched skin.

The force of it jarred him—although not much taller, Shishio was more muscular than he—but Kenshin held his ground, head rearing back to strike at his foe, scoring the undefended shoulder. Shishio raised himself to his hind legs, wrapping his front paws around Kenshin’s neck in a pinning hold. The red wolf just had time to duck his head to protect his throat when the fangs closed down on his already wounded shoulder.

Shishio ravaged the flesh and muscles, digging deeper into the damaged tissue. Kenshin sidestepped, trying to break the hold and dart away—Shishio followed, grinding down into the meat of Kenshin’s shoulder. The pain burned along nerve endings, scorching and blistering its way through the red wolf.

Steeling himself against the sensation Kenshin turned his head at an awkward angle, ready to bite down on one of the legs that pinned him and braced his foe. Shishio gave a vicious twist of his own head before the bite could land, pushing off from Kenshin with a powerful shove. There was a horrible tearing sensation and Kenshin staggered, leg reluctant to take his weight given the bloody void Shishio’s fangs had carved into it. The red wolf looked up in time to see the muscles of Shishio’s throat move as he swallowed.

Realization hit a second later like a blow to his stomach, leaving the red wolf feeling sick. Shishio grinned, muzzle slick and red with a coating of blood.

“I told you, the weak exist to nourish the strong.”

“That’s disgusting!” the exclamation burst through the moment and Kenshin’s gaze darted to one side to pin down the speaker. Misao, Aoshi and Saito had arrived, apparently just running up in time to see… that. Misao, having expressed her opinion, looked positively nauseated and hung back nervously. Aoshi didn’t allow anything as easily readable to show in his expression, though he did offer the red wolf a nod of greeting. Saito had one brow raised, though Kenshin suspected that was directed toward him, and the lip that slightly curled in censure was for Shishio.

“What a bitter taste,” Shishio mused; seeming not to care that he was now outnumbered. “Reluctant to do me any good in any way, I see.”

Kenshin grit his teeth in response, holding back the angry words that ached to escape him. It was what Shishio was waiting for, outcry of shock and anger to knock his opponent’s focus awry. The damage dealt to his shoulder was manageable, however severe, it was Shishio had done that leant the greatest dread to his attack.

Don’t let it get to you, the red wolf reprimanded himself sternly, watching his opponent steadily. The burned wolf, in contrast, now shifted his attention to the newcomers.

“Ah, Aoshi Shinomori and Hajime Saito. How thoughtful of all my obstacles to line up for my convenience.” A grin wrinkled his charred skin. “Wait your turn, gentlemen, wait your turn. The Battousai goes first.”

A barely audible sigh seemed to come from Yumi, relieved, as if her mate’s word was all that was required to control the battle. Aoshi looked to Kenshin, a hint of a question in his gaze. A grimace tugged at Kenshin’s expression in return, but he gave a slight shake of his head. After all of Shishio’s words confusing prey and wolves, even victory would feel hollow if we were to fell Shishio as anything other than an alpha in a duel. Foolishness, the red wolf wanted to berate himself, giving respect to someone like him. But then, his master had always called him an idiot.

The interlude was over and the two fighters took up a wary circle, taking more care with their next attacks. Shishio feinted inward, the savage grin on his face belied by the calculation in his eyes. Kenshin read the hesitance in the movement and did not flinch. The circle picked up speed, Kenshin straining against the weakness in his leg from Shishio’s bite. It would be unlikely at best that he could gain his best speed on that leg. Still, even at his slowest, the red wolf was faster than most.

Shishio broke their continuous arc—not a feint this time—with a lunge, low and quick as a striking snake. Kenshin kicked off the snow, springing with his hind legs to glide over the attack. Landing, he pivoted as quickly as his shoulder would allow and fell on Shishio’s flank as the other turned.

The burned flesh was unevenly textured, thick and corded with scar tissue in some places, delicate and thin as paper in others, and it tore strangely and deeply under Kenshin’s fangs. The fire had done a heavy work on Shishio’s form, now any attack that reached him went deep. But the alpha was resilient—Kenshin felt the beginnings of fangs closing on his scruff and abandoned his own attack for retreat, pulling away from the potential injury.

Shishio held himself as though insensible to the pain. Maybe he is, Kenshin thought, circling once more, maybe the fires so ravaged him that he is always in pain, and thus, does not heed it. An interesting idea, but one the red wolf wasn’t sure he could use. We rely on pain to tell us when we’re in danger, when we need to pull back and heal. But if he is always in pain… He never stops, never knows when he has overreached himself because the pain never changes. There can’t be any surrender if he doesn’t know when to stop.

An uncomfortable thought for the Rurouni, the impossibility of surrender. But the Rurouni had been the Battousai, just as the Battousai had become the Rurouni. The wanderer knew how to kill, and the killer knew how to seek peace. And he had come to the North to do both.

“Is that all, Battousai?” Shishio called, “I hoped for more.”

“This one takes no pleasure in fighting as you do, Shishio,” Kenshin responded, subtly shifting his weight, “and yet this battle is unavoidable.”

Shishio approached at a run, focused on his crimson challenger and long-since ready to put an end to this fight. Yes, an end. The world around him seemed to slow. Kenshin turned, divorced even from the pain as he presented Shishio the curve of his flank.

Vulnerability, unable to see his opponent’s approach, but his ears had never failed him. Wheeling with all of the speed he could muster to strike—Shishio stumbled, crashed to the ground, a long bloody gash across his shoulder and chest giving the reason for his fall. He struggled to rise, scrabbling against the snow, but seemed, for the moment, unable to regain his footing.

The red wolf sprang towards Shishio—it was almost over, he could almost rest, give himself up to the oblivion that called to him of healing—but the forgotten Yumi was faster.

The husky threw herself between the two wolves, guarding Shishio even while her ears lay flat to her skull in terror. Kenshin could not have been more swiftly halted if he had stepped into a steel-jawed trap. His mind balked, the memory of black fur, white snow and red blood too strong, too close for mere recollection.

“Stop! Please stop!” Yumi begged, still terrified despite Kenshin’s aborted charge. For a moment all that could be heard were the harsh panting breaths of the two wolves, wounded and exhausted. “You don’t have to kill him,” Yumi continued tearfully, “you don’t have to. We’ll go, we’ll leave the North, you’ll never see us again, just please.”

Shishio’s face was impassive behind his mate, blood red eyes sliding from her to Kenshin without giving hint to his thoughts. Still, Kenshin hesitated, adrenaline beginning to recede, leaving his injuries sharp and fresh. The husky’s green eyes implored him and the red wolf shifted to answer, not quite sure what he would say—blood sprayed across his face and agony bit into his neck.

Only Shishio’s own injuries prevented the bite from being instantly fatal. Kenshin jumped back, tossing his head to throw off his weakened attacker and was left staring in horror at a too-familiar scene.

Yumi had collapsed, breaths faltering as her life poured out from a deep gash in her neck, one that seemed to have caught her jugular by chance as Shishio’s fangs passed through her, seeking his enemy. Shishio stepped back to her side, hovering over her, but his attention remained fixed on his challenger. The red wolf’s limbs trembled with effort and blood loss and he staggered, only just catching himself.

“What have you done?” His voice quaked, though whether that was a result of his shuddering body or his flayed emotions the wolf could not say. “What have you done, Shishio?!”

The burned wolf looked at him as though he were crazy. “What have I done?”

“You attacked your own mate!”

Shishio bared his teeth, “Because she is my mate, I know her best. This is what she wanted.” Impossibly, the grotesque lines of his face softened and almost against his will turned to look at the beautiful dying female. “I gave you what you wanted.”

For a moment it seemed that Yumi was too far gone to offer any reply, but with a rattling breath she rallied her strength to raise her head, meeting Shishio’s caress. “You heard me…” tears slipped down her face, diluting the spilled blood, but she was smiling in the midst of both. “You heard me.”

“Of course I did.” Shishio answered quietly.

“I’m… so happy. I… helped, didn’t I, Lord Shishio? I helped you fight the Battousai.” She gave a breathless chuckle and Shishio had to shift position to hold her face close own, as she had no more strength to hold it up. “Beat him, Lord Shishio. For me? ...I love you.” The burned wolf gave a sighing exhale even as Yumi did, but the husky didn’t inhale when he did, and Shishio allowed her head to sink back onto the snow.

Tremors continued to wrack Kenshin’s frame as the burned wolf returned his gaze to his opponent, though the red wolf could now discern that the origin partly lay in almost helpless rage. Shishio’s frame trembled as well, apparently from the strain of his injuries, but his gaze was steady.

“You would sacrifice your own mate for a chance at victory…” Kenshin made no attempt to mask the disgust and horror in his tone, there was no point in wasting energy on charades.

“I granted her desire in allowing her to become part of my strength.”

“Surely she desired to live!”

Shishio snarled at this response, pain and wrath contorting his expression even further, “There is no time now for such talk, Battousai. I will make an end to you as she wished!”

The burned wolf staggered, only held upright by the stiffness of his forelegs. His hind legs sank to the snow. Kenshin wavered, the warm anger that had kept him upright bleeding away from the fresh wound in his neck. He found himself on the snow without any memory of collapsing—were his wounds that bad? Dimly the wolf realized that his blood loss had long since approached dangerous levels and only his will had kept him from succumbing to it. Will that was faltering, fracturing at the sight of a female spread out on the snow, her blood on her lover’s fangs.

The wolf was dissolving with every faltering beat of his heart, sounds and shapes distorted in a lingering blackness that grew and grew, as if glutting itself on the blood he spilled.

“So falls…” Shishio’s voice faded into obscurity, though Kenshin tried to claw his way back up to attention. But there was nothing for him to seize hold of.

“What’s your name?” Master? The Northern wolf’s voice continued as if he answered now as he had back then. “That’s a weak name. You’ll never survive your bad luck with a name that weak. From now on, you’re Kenshin.”

Now he could see shapes out of the darkness, the swirling snow that danced through memory and his master’s dark blue eyes. “What do you think you can do in that valley, besides get caught up in a war that isn’t yours? Go then! I knew that you were unlucky, but you truly are an idiot.”

“Have you ever killed another wolf?” Katsura’s voice, the Isshin Shishi alpha’s voice slightly suspicious, but his level eyes still looking for an answer. “Do you think you could?” Death, in answer to the question, blooming flowers of blood streaking across the North, a perverse garden with a coppery stench.

“You have made it rain blood…” A black wolf with black eyes lightly ringed by white fur—Tomoe. She looked at him as she had that first night, inscrutable and mysterious and faintly sad.

“Sister!” A white wolf bounded up out of the darkness to stand beside her. Enishi grinned up at his beloved sister, the dark patches of fur around his gray eyes bunching as he looked to her in adoration. But, as it had during their first meeting, that head turned to catch sight of him and he muzzle creased in a silent snarl.

The images lost coherency, coming too fast to be fully understood, the voices growing distant. Tomoe’s black form stretched out on the snow, smiling at last.

Blood and straw and angry dog after angry dog. Izuka’s face leering at him behind bars—“I guess we’ll call you Battousai the man-slayer…”

Flickers of faces like the final faltering embers of a fire. Yahiko. Sano. Megumi. Tsubame. Tae. Kaoru.

"I can't hold a space this big all on my own, I need help. Yours, maybe. If you wanted to stay, that is. I wouldn't mind."

"Yahiko Myogin, I'm the son of Samurai, so watch who you're pushing, ugly!"

"Talk is cheap. All these words about you being such a good guy… I'm gonna see for myself just what you're living for. So, guess you can't go off somewhere without my say-so, huh, Kenshin?"

Then even those were gone.

Breath came shallowly to his lungs, but it didn’t hurt. Pain was so distant now, its call turned into the distant sigh of wind across a dark forest. All around him his lifeblood seeped from his tired body, intent on staining the ground with the colors he had borne all his life.

I’m dying… a thought, oddly peaceful despite its message. Kenshin felt a smile flicker at the edges of his mind, but by now was too distant to tell if it had reached his battered body. …again.

He and Death had chased one another all his life, in still midnight and hot noontide, through snow and rain, sun and shade. He had brushed Death’s icy pelt before, but never had it felt so near. So this is Death in truth.

But that was all right. He had done enough; anyone would agree he had done enough. Shishio’s forces were in shambles, and what remained of the northern packs had time to recover. They would not fall again, especially with Saito nearby.

Kenshin’s vision was blurring rapidly, sliding in and out of focus. Sometimes he thought he could see Shishio, struggling to his feet, but the shape was so dark it was hard to tell.

A good death, he reminded himself, and I am… so… tired…

“When we go home, we’re going to sleep for a week.”

Miss Kaoru? That had to be her, that fond exasperation… he could see her now, as he had seen her this morning, pale gray fur glowing softly in the rosy light of dawn, sky-blue eyes hesitant, filled with anxiety and hope.

“You are coming home, aren’t you, Kenshin? We can all go back together.”

“To… gether…” the red wolf breathed against the chill snow. He had promised, hadn’t he? He couldn’t care if such a future was impossible, not then. Not when he’d had the power to bring a smile back to those blue, blue eyes.

“You idiot!” That was his master, determined to berate him even as he died, “Happiness isn’t so simple.”

If he didn’t come back… Kaoru would be sad. That was… wrong, when he had wanted so badly to see her smile. It was wrong to take that away from her.

His body was starting to hurt now, pain sensing his escape and trying to goad him back into death’s embrace. But pain was just pain. And that smile…

“I have,” his voice rasped from his throat, punctuated by breaths that grew in depth, “No reason to die.”

The crimson wolf tensed, abused muscles coming under his control once more as he separated himself from the blood-splattered snow. “I said,” his eyes focused slowly on his ravaged opponent, “we’d go home together.”

Kenshin Himura raised his head, defiant, as death slunk back into the shadows and red eyes regarded him.

“You are no reason for me to break my word.”

Shishio smiled a terrible smile, “A pity that the future is not yours to decide.”

“Nor yours,” Kenshin countered, rallying his strength. “You are not the only one with promises to keep!” With an effort of will Kenshin flung himself forward, Shishio moving to meet him with bared teeth.

The alpha and the Battousai crashed together, both too exhausted for finesse, kept fighting by stubbornness alone. The impact carried them up to their hind legs, forepaws locked around each other, holding the enemy in place as their heads twisted, trying to angle past opposing fangs for a final bite. Kenshin strained, pushing himself forward, trying to knock Shishio off-balance, but the burned wolf was heavier, and catching on to Kenshin’s tactic began to do likewise.

The red wolf grit his teeth against Shishio’s oncoming grin of triumph, the strain in his limbs warning him that he could not resist his foe’s pressure for long. Rather than stumble back the red wolf twisted to one side, shoving at Shishio with his front paws to break the other’s hold and give him greater freedom to move. Shishio stumbled, falling forward onto all fours while Kenshin continued his twist to land moving, circling to angle for another attack.

Shishio hurled himself into an arc to avoid the assault, the rough motion causing his damaged skin to split in several places that were untouched by fangs. His mouth was open wide and a ribbon of saliva clung to his fangs, glinting in the light, but the unexpected pain as his body betrayed him stole precious slivers of his speed. It was the best opportunity Kenshin would get.

His leap wasn’t as graceful as it usually was, but he rose as high as he ever had, the inverted crescent of a red moon. Then there was only gravity, air howling past his ears as the ground shrieked to reclaim him and Shishio, turning uselessly in an attack that would never land. Front paws came down first, stunning his opponent, then the jaws on the back of the neck—bone splintered—snapped, and Shishio crumpled to the ground.

Kenshin followed the burned wolf down, Forgot to plan for a landing… idiot… and lay in the snow, struggling to regain his breath. Everything hurt, but the cold bite of the snow made it a clean hurt somehow. Something that would heal. And Shishio wasn’t moving. Would never move again.

It was over.


It took time for something like strength to come back to the red wolf, allowing his vision to clear and even, ambitiously, for him to stand.

Kenshin braced himself awkwardly, locking his legs to hold his body up when it desperately wanted to collapse. It was over.

To one side Misao peered around Aoshi’s form at the bodies of Shishio and Yumi, her eyes wide, but a flicker of relief growing in them.

It was over.

The wind rose in a sudden flurry, and the fell away, as if the Northern territory heaved sigh. He had survived, and so had Saito, Aoshi and Misao… Kenshin didn’t really make a conscious decision to howl, his muzzle simply rose and let out a call, a question, to weave through the winter air.

Fallen foe, days of peace, pack-together?

Misao’s voice rose to join his first, rose and rose, the eerie notes of her coyote’s howl high and shivering in the air, though they seemed to quake with nothing more sinister than relieved laughter. Aoshi’s voice was lower, an anchor to the high notes of his packmate, the call bringing to mind long winters nights in snow-draped woods, moon and stars and an endless darkness between them.

Saito did not howl, although he did deign to bark, a short, sharp noise that was more command than query.

But Kenshin’s ears were tuned for voices farther away.

Pack-together? Will be, want to be. Pack-together?

An answering chorus sounded from the way they had come—had it only been that morning? And Kenshin blinked in surprise—Sano’s tenor tones were foremost, as rough around the edges and loud as the hybrid himself. When on earth had he arrived? Though perhaps it was foolish to think that Sano could be kept away from a fight, any fight. Knowing his voice made it easier to recognize Megumi’s—the fox was seldom heard to raise her voice in such a fashion, and it sounded quite as alien as Misao’s distinctive howl and for much the same reason.

Climbing steadily and stubbornly in waves came Yahiko’s young call, rising to an almost adult timbre before falling as the young dog struggled to catch his breath. From farther away a short deep howl echoed back to the red wolf—Hiko, as brief and to the point as ever. Still the sounds of the howls lingered in the air.

Fallen foes. Days of peace. Pack-together. Will be, want to be, pack-together.

The sound swelled and then broke as Kenshin cut off, violet eyes wide.

Where is Kaoru?

Kaoru lifted her head, feeling cold and stiff where she lay in the snow, but the sound coming to her brought a small bloom of warmth. Howling, her pack was alive and calling to each other. Is it really over? Can we go home now?

With an effort, the she-wolf pushed herself to her paws, wincing as her barely-crusted over injuries pulled, threatening to bleed again. The tanuki raised her head to give voice to a call over her own—

Something snapped, close, too close, and Kaoru froze.

Her first thought was that Kamatari had regained consciousness, but the great cat still lay in a tawny heap a short distance away. Not Kamatari, and she could hear all of her allies in the howl—none of them were close to her.

Another snap, then the steady crunch of unquiet footsteps through snow, the owner making no attempt to mask his presence beyond the natural muffling of the icy flakes. Kaoru shifted, willing the life to flow back into her stiff limbs and wondering with dread if she would be able to make it to her allies if it proved to be an enemy.

The sounds came from the deeper forest, and the shape of a wolf followed them through the trees, the mottled brown and white of his pelt helping to break up his form against the snow piled landscape.

A stranger, another of the Juppongatana? Somehow facing two of the elite lieutenants in short succession didn’t feel quite fair. I guess that’s what we get for being outnumbered. Damn.

The stranger’s black-ringed eyes lit on her and he smiled, an enigmatic yet pleased smile that didn’t reach his gray gaze. “Here you are,” the words breathed out of that smile, though like the smile, they seemed meant more for the wolf himself for all that they were directed towards her. Still he had spoken as though he expected to find her, her specifically…

The wolf charged her.

Caught off guard despite herself Kaoru scrambled to dodge, not trusting her battered body’s ability to take many more hits. In the distance the pack’s howls splintered and broke. She escaped the attack by mere inches, more by throwing herself gracelessly to one side than by finesse. Her wounds, having once warned her, began to bleed again at the motion.

The strange wolf’s momentum carried him past her, burying his form in a deep snow drift, the powdery whiteness stealing him from sight. Kaoru shifted uneasily, gathering herself to break and run for help—even Yahiko would have checked his charge better only three weeks after coming off the streets, it seemed impossible that the Juppongatana were less skilled than a half-starved puppy.

Is he really…?

“Who are you?” The challenge in her voice sounded strong, at least.

The patchy wolf stood and turned back to her. His movements were calm now, deliberate instead of wild and he shook himself briskly as he climbed free of the drift. The snow seemed to dust his form, lightening his pelt even as that which he had touched darkened with brown smears.

The strange wolf shook the color off his pelt, staining the snow with the dirt that had been masking fur that was pure white. Pure white except for a black patch around each eye that seemed to give him a permanently dark expression.

I don’t understand… that much dirt… was he disguising himself? Why? Kaoru didn’t like how the stranger looked at her from those dark eyes, as if he didn’t see her at all.

“Who…?” The challenge was less strong now, and Kaoru grit her teeth to hold herself together against the uncertainty.

The smile that he gave her was pleasant, there weren’t even any teeth in the smile, no obvious threat… but still something in it reminded her of the madness in Jineh’s gaping grin.

“That’s right,” his voice was polite, cheerful, to match his smile. “We haven’t been introduced at all. You would have heard of me as Hoji,” he named the noncombatant of the Juppongatana with an apologetic smile. “But I’m afraid that’s not my name.”

So, yes. A disguise, but for whose benefit…? Kaoru surreptitiously eased a step back from the white wolf, who either didn’t notice her retreat or wasn’t concerned by it.

“Who are you?” Kaoru’s voice sounded sharp as shattered quartz compared to his cheerful politeness, but she didn’t care. The wolf’s smile never faltered.

“My name is Enishi, little sister.” Enishi…? I’ve heard that name before… Last night, had it only been last night? Tomoe’s brother? “I have nothing against you personally,” the voice never wavered, but his expression morphed sincere and polite regret, “but I think I have finally found the best way to make that murderer suffer.”

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