Amber Forest

Chapter 6- The Howling

I feel they’re getting closer

Their howls are sending chills down my spine

And time is running out now

They’re coming down the hills from behind

-Within Temptation, The Howling

Oi… I know he’s supposed to be a nice guy but this is ridiculous. Ridiculous, but oddly… normal. Lying around someone’s den for weeks at a time while flesh knit its leisurely way back together was a pretty good way of getting to know folk.

Kaoru had dropped the hospitable “lets-all-be-nice” act by midafternoon of day one when it became apparent that Yahiko wasn’t going to change his behavior (or misbehavior) for anything.

And Kenshin… Kenshin just kept smiling along, intervening at appropriate moments to keep Kaoru and Yahiko’s brother-sister squabbles from getting too violent. It was weird. Especially how, despite knowing exactly who he was, the dog and tanuki seemingly saw no problem in attacking the Rurouni.

As they were doing now.

“I can’t believe you’re taking his side in this!” Kaoru’s frustrated voice broke through his ponderings, drawing attention back to the present argument.

Kenshin smiled uneasily up into Kaoru’s annoyed muzzle. The she-wolf had him pinned on his back, one sooty forepaw on his chest to keep the red wolf from squirming away.

Sanosuke watched, fascinated. There’s something so wrong about this, and it’s weird because it doesn’t feel weird. The first day? Definitely. The first week? Sure. But now? Kenshin let himself get beat up every day, and it wasn’t really surprising anymore. He can dodge, but he doesn’t. He didn’t fight back either, only offered token struggles to get up every so often.

“Well, Miss Kaoru, Yahiko does have a point, that he does.”

“Hah!” Yahiko blurted, expression turning smug.

“He should start trying out hunts.”

Kaoru shook her head, letting the Rurouni up, but her flattened ears gave testament to her continued annoyance. “I’m not saying he shouldn’t! I just want to know why you think I should be the one to teach him!”

“Wait, what?!” Yahiko backpedaled as Kenshin rose to his diminutive height. “What does this clumsy girl know about hunting?!”

“Why you little…”

“Miss Kaoru is quite an experienced hunter,” Kenshin pointed out calmly, “and, Miss Kaoru, teaching someone will encourage you to closely examine your methods, which will greatly improve them.”

“But Kenshin,” Yahiko whined, “I wanna hunt with you!”

The red-furred wolf shook his head. “Someday we will hunt together,” Kenshin agreed gently with the crestfallen puppy, “but today you hunt with Miss Kaoru.”

“But why?” the kid kept complaining as Kaoru gave up and started herding the puppy out of the den. Kenshin just shook his head, gentle smile firmly in place.

“There will be other hunts, Yahiko.”

The kid gave up with bad grace, allowing Kaoru to push him out of the den with flattened ears.

Sano yawned and stretched, keeping one eye on the red-furred Rurouni who lay down a few feet away.

“That wasn’t real nice of you, Kenshin.” Purple eyes fixed on him, a quizzical smile hovering around a pointed muzzle. “The kid practically worships the ground you walk on.”

The smile faded, violet eyes somber, “This one is aware of that, but it will be better for him to learn from Miss Kaoru, that it will.”

Because you don’t want him getting any more attached to you. Sano’s eyes narrowed as he took in the older wolf. Kenshin was planning to leave, maybe not today, or tomorrow, or even next season, but the Rurouni was ever so delicately holding himself back from being a part of Kaoru and Yahiko’s pack (Sano didn’t count it as his, not yet, but maybe…)

The former fighter-for-hire wasn’t sure Yahiko knew what the Rurouni was doing, but Kaoru did on some level. Sano hadn’t heard much about what had gone on before he’d showed up, but it was easy enough to figure out. Until Kenshin had come into her life, Kaoru had been alone. Most wolves weren’t meant to be alone, and the little missy didn’t seem like one of the few exceptions. The female was worried about Kenshin leaving, as though the red-furred wolf was some sort of charm that kept the rest of them here.

“You planning on going back?” Okay, he wasn’t sure if that confusion was part of Kenshin’s act or if he’d really lost the older wolf. “Wherever you were before the ring.”

For a moment Sano wondered if Kenshin’d answer the same way he did when he was trying to reassure Kaoru, with a smile and ignorant confusion, deflecting the question. But he didn’t. The red wolf was quiet, pensive, staring off toward the entrance of the den.

“No,” violet eyes were grave, “this one would not return…”

“Hey, Kaoru,” Yahiko looked over his shoulder, back the way they had come. Kaoru stopped, waiting for the young dog to turn and face her again. No insults, this must be big.

“Where’d Kenshin come from?”

The slow blink felt strange, so Kaoru tried it again. Still oddly detached. “What do you mean?” her voice sounded funny too, calm, polite.

Yahiko fixed a red-brown gaze on his white paws, scuffing a fallen leaf back and forth between them. “I didn’t mean that, I mean before. He was born wild, right?”

“R-right.” Not that he’s said much about it... “It doesn’t matter where he came from.” Ah, that sounded like her, “He’s with us now.”

Yahiko looked back once more before turning to follow the tanuki once more. Apparently putting it out of his mind.

The female wished she could do the same. Where did he come from? Tae said he was from the north but… Kaoru snorted her opinion of the cat’s reliability. And I can’t just ask him. Kenshin never talks about his past and that’s no accident. Well, that wasn’t quite true. She had tried (unsuccessfully) to grill him on his origin and destination when they first met.

“Sessha left his pack long ago. This one does not think that they would be pleased to see him again.”

But that didn’t make sense. Kaoru didn’t have a lot of practical knowledge on packs (except to know that theirs was very unusual) but Kenshin was valuable. A flat-out amazing fighter, as skilled in bringing down prey alone as a group of wolves working in tandem, careful with young ones and wise enough to know when to fight and when to negotiate. He should have been missed, wherever he came from. Someone should be looking for him, but it had been over a moon since he arrived and the only ones looking for Kenshin had been doing it based on his ties (severed, mangled ties) to the humans.

Nothing about his old territory or allegiances. She had nothing really. No information. Tae would only take a query about the fabled Battousai as invitation to tell the whole story over again. Maybe Sano knows something… The fighter had been traveling for a while; maybe those big snooping ears of his had scooped out something useful.

Kaoru led Yahiko down to the rabbit-warrens, then made the puppy stand aside and watch as the tanuki quickly and efficiently cornered a rabbit away from its burrow and killed it. The she-wolf went a short way off to try and avoid alerting any more of the rabbits and settled in to wait for Yahiko.

The puppy had been abnormally quiet while watching Kaoru’s hunt, brown eyes intense as the akita-mix tried to soak in everything he was being shown.

Now if only he would pay that much attention when we’re trying to teach him about the boundaries! Kaoru sighed, eating her catch absent-mindedly as she thought. Tonight the odd pack was planning on going on a night patrol, Yahiko’s first, since the pup generally seemed to be more active during the day. Maybe he would pay more attention in a different setting. Lost in her musings, the she-wolf finished her meal and settled in for a long day.

Kaoru blinked, surprised to see Yahiko standing in front of her, every line of his growing frame filled with self-assured pleasure, and a fat rabbit dangling from his jaws. With his mouth full, he couldn’t say anything, but his eyes demanded that she say something.

The tanuki paused, wracking her brain. On one side, the kid had done well and should be told so. On the other side, if she told him he might (would) get cocky and become even more of a brat. Where’s my dad when I need him?!

She was taking too long, the puppy was slowly losing his attention demanding pose, the curly tail moving down a fraction, his ears beginning a slow movement toward lying flat. Aw, crap.

“Good job, Yahiko.”

The ears and tail were back up as if they’d never moved, juvenile arrogance lining the kid’s frame. Gingerly he laid down his prize.

“Heh, that was easy! I don’t know why you make such a big deal about it.”

Yup. There was the attitude.

“That’s great,” Kaoru continued as if she hadn’t heard the pup. “Go do it again.”

Sano looked up from his lazy position on the ground as Yahiko and Kaoru made their way back into the clearing by the den. “Ah, the mighty hunter returns.”

Yahiko came to a stop, letting the rabbit tumble from his jaws as he sat with a supremely smug expression on his face. Kaoru followed with two more rabbits, dropping them beside Yahiko’s.

“So how’d he do?” Sano pointedly ignored Yahiko’s puffed out chest, making the puppy bristle defensively.

“What do you mean ‘how’d I do?” The dog snarled in annoyance, indicating the rabbits with a jerk of his spiky-furred head.

“And how many of those did you catch, kid?”

Kaoru flopped down on her stomach, putting her forepaws over her ears and sliding them off in a trick she’d learned from Tae that helped to get a lot of the itch out of the triangular appendages.

“Yahiko did very well,” she managed, giving Kenshin a look for saddling her with the puppy for the better part of the day. “Those rabbits are all his.”

“Yeah, and if I don’t like your attitude, I won’t give you one,” Yahiko groused, using his white paws to gather the rabbits closer to his sitting form.

“Yahiko…” Kaoru started with a sigh, wondering if she’d have to get up and resolve the problem. Thankfully, Kenshin was on it.

“This one is glad that you were so successful Yahiko,” and there was the calming smile, moving in to talk the touchy puppy into giving up the food before Sano moved in to just take it. Already full from her own rabbit, Kaoru let herself drift off for a short nap.

Kaoru was woken after about an hour by a gentle nudge on her shoulder. Bleary-eyed, she searched for the obtrusive object responsible. Kenshin was just withdrawing his paw.

“Forgive this one, Miss Kaoru, but we were going to take Yahiko on a night patrol and he was threatening to jump on you.”

Kaoru blinked up at the sheepish red smile for a minute, her brain taking its precious time to work out what the Rurouni had said.

“What…? Oh. Thanks, Kenshin.”

A tinge of relief colored the smile, evidently pleased that the temperamental female hadn’t taken exception to being woken up. Kenshin moved away to where Yahiko was fairly bouncing in place, eager to go out on his first night patrol, and Sano was eyeing the dog as if he was very much considering sitting on him.

Kaoru stood with a yawn and a stretch, giving herself a good shake to try and convince her body that it really was time to wake up now.

The travel order was established without much formality. Noting her half-awake expression, Kenshin took the lead with Yahiko, while Sano and Kaoru moved more slowly at the rear.

The tanuki waited until Kenshin and Yahiko were a good distance ahead before turning to Sagara.

“Hey, Sano?”

The bigger fighter looked back at Kaoru with a smile, “Yeah, missy?”

Kaoru felt herself smile in return. She liked having Sano around; he was easy to talk to and didn’t seem at all interested in giving her orders or moving to take over their odd pack, content to follow Kenshin’s lead. And Kenshin trusted him to follow that lead. I guess that’s what a Beta is like…

“Do you know anything about where Kenshin came from?” Kaoru faltered under the brown stare her question was met with, breaking eye contact and trying to control her flinching ears, “You know, before?”

There was a pause, and for a bad moment the tanuki thought that the hybrid was going to laugh at her. “Ain’t this something you should be asking him?” Sano sounded only mildly curious, but he had a brow raised. She could hear that slanted expression.

The she-wolf clenched her jaw for a moment, looking ahead to where Kenshin was pointing a trail-sign out to Yahiko. Out of earshot. Apparently.

“He… doesn’t talk about it. And I don’t want to bother him.”

Sano snorted good-naturedly, “So you’ll bother me instead, is that it?”

Kaoru rolled her eyes, shaking off her unease with the motion, “I just wanted to know if you’d heard anything. I mean, you’d heard of him.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the fighter muttered, then paused, eyes scanning the canopy overhead with a distant look. “Most of what I heard…” he began slowly, searching out the words, or his memory, “was after he was already in the pens. Life there… it’s like a nightmare, and to hear the other dogs talk, he was like the King of Hell. You fought him, you died, everyone did.” Sano shook his head, ruffling the fur along his back, “Before that… rumors vary, so take it all with a grain of salt, but the only thing that stayed the same in most of them was that the Battousai came from a war-torn pack to the north.”

Blue eyes sought out a scarlet figure, patiently listening to a nosy puppy’s endless stream of questions. “Do you believe it?” Her second question was quieter than her first.

Sano exhaled. “Yeah. Kenshin’s not the first from the pens I’ve had to fight,” the hybrid shrugged, “Stuff happens, dogs get loose. But those dogs… there’s something… broken about them,” he tried to explain in halting terms, “Something wrong with the way that they think. Those dogs see you, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, they’re after you fast and hard and they don’t stop.” A flinty look came into hazel eyes, “It’s like they don’t know any of the rules on how to live with anybody else, or they’ve had them beaten out of them.

“You lose a fight with one of those freaks and it’s over. They don’t recognize submission or surrender, show ’em your belly and you’re gonna get it ripped out.” A heavy sigh,

“Kenshin’s not like that. He..”

“Doesn’t want to fight,” Kaoru filled in softly, Sano nodded,

“Yeah, but more than that. He knows the rules on how packs live together.” The hybrid shrugged again, “I don’t think that’s anything you don’t already know.”

“Probably not,” Kaoru agreed, “but thanks.” It always goes back to the north…

“Could you two move any slower?” Yahiko’s voice came back to the pair, tinged with the impatience of the young.

The tanuki looked up; Yahiko was scowling, shifting with the need to move on, Kenshin stood quietly to one side, that enigmatic smile masking his expression.

“We’re coming,” Kaoru snapped back at the pup, trotting to catch up to Kenshin and Yahiko, “Not all of us need to go charging around all the time.”

That, of course, brought an indignant rebuttal and a surly question about the quality of Kaoru’s looks, launching the female and the puppy into a familiar argument.

The unusual pack was crossing the northeast corner of the territory when they heard the howling. By unspoken agreement, the group came to a halt on a small natural plateau where the ground had leveled off and the trees didn’t grow so close.

“What’s that?” Yahiko twisted his head this way and that, triangular ears moving independently of each other to try and collect the sounds more effectively. “I can’t quite make out what they’re saying…” The effort on his young face was plain, well mixed with the frustration of almost… there…

“They’re howling,” Kaoru replied absently, trying to focus on the soul-tingling sounds on the night wind. “There’s a trick to listening to it.”
“It’s an older way of talking,” Kenshin elaborated, “more idea and feeling than words.” The red wolf fell silent, listening, and Kaoru took up the instruction once more.

“Usually, we use howling as an affirmation of our territory—we are here, this is ours—that sort of thing.” Her ears twitched, shying away from listening for a second before returning to their posts. “But that’s not what they’re doing…”

The sound rose and fell in eerie waves, multiple voices giving cry to one thought.

“Intruder… enemy…” Sano picked out easily, a humorless grin appearing and disappearing rapidly. “I’ve heard that before. Usually about me.”

“Something… black?” Yahiko ventured, face screwed up in intense concentration.

“A description-name,” Kenshin clarified, lip curling as if tasting the name. “Kurogasa… one who wears black on his head?”

The next message needed no translation, a sharp cry and splintering of voices into individual fears. Danger! Murderer!

“We’ve got to get over there!” Kaoru shifted, only just holding herself back from a headlong sprint into Uramura’s territory. The tanuki locked gazes with her companions, lingering on Sano’s brown eyes.

The hazel hybrid cocked a brow at her, “No need for the look, Missy, I’m with you.”

Yahiko would come no matter what, so that left… Kenshin.

The red wolf still stood, every muscle locked in place, intent for any communication after that terrified wail. Only the wind through the trees answered. It makes you wonder, Kaoru shuddered, if there’s anyone left to save.

“I know we aren’t supposed to trespass, but the Uramura’s are good neighbors and…” Kaoru trailed off at the decision already etched into somber violet eyes.

“That they stopped to warn rather than flee…” Kenshin shook his head, stepping out of his locked position fluidly to move down the incline, “Whatever hunts them does not mean to stop at their territory, that it does not.”

It will come to us… hung in the air, unspoken. Kaoru struggled to swallow past a hideous lump in her throat, watching as Yahiko gave a convulsive shudder, ears flat to his skull, but stubbornly standing straight despite it all. Sano cocked his head to one side, coolly observing again. Kenshin glanced back at the small pack,

“We should hurry.”

The run north to Uramura’s territory was swift and breathless; part of Kaoru was in awe at how quickly they fell into a seamless formation, Kenshin ahead, Sano just behind, Kaoru and Yahiko keeping up the rear. Is this what running in a pack is like? The world felt strangely… complete, right, even though they were racing toward an unknown danger. Kenshin set the pace, mixing ground-eating runs with brisk walks to keep up their strength to face whatever awaited them in the strange territory, even Yahiko was keeping up well.

They approached the edge of her territory, and the no-man’s-land that lay between it and the Uramura pack. Sano and Kenshin crossed the boundary line without even slowing, probably, Kaoru reflected sourly, because they were used to slipping between territories. Yahiko followed without problem, still unconvinced as to the seriousness of trespassing, which left only Kaoru, crossing over into the narrow stretch of land between the two territories which belonged to neither side, then over into her neighbor’s land with a shudder.

The Uramura’s had been great neighbors in her father’s day, which meant that neither side had trespassed on the others territory. She’d never actually met the wolves that comprised the pack, only heard them in the howls they sent back and forth. But still, they were a link to the time she’d shared with her father, a set of familiar voices that stretched back into her earliest memories. The horrible silence after the distressed howl rose in her mind again, and Kaoru picked up her pace, closing the distance her hesitation had made.

In front, Kenshin’s muzzle lifted ever so slightly, seeking out the scent of the wolves that called this territory home. Now their path changed, veering away from true north to the northwest. I hope it’s not too far... Howls could carry for many miles. If the Uramura pack had been deep within the heart of their territory for the howling, then Kaoru’s small pack would never reach them in time.

The ground rose beneath their footpaws in a gentle slope, the earliest beginnings of the mountain range that crossed the Uramura’s territory. Yahiko was beginning to tire now, stumbling in his run and breath becoming ragged around the edges, but this time Kenshin didn’t slow. His dark red ears were pricked forward, listening to something just over the next rise. Straining, Kaoru caught the sound too. A low chuckle. Evil, the thought rose in her mind like a chilling mist, the laughter ominous as a viper in her path. Weak noises of movement followed the soul-chilling sound, a low whine, and the horrible rattle of a creature’s last breath.

Kenshin and Sano burst over the top of the ridge in a single leap, Kaoru and Yahiko scrambling behind.

The sight that awaited them made Kaoru move to shield Yahiko’s gaze, but the puppy dodged her abortive attempt to stand beside her, eyes wide in the small face, ears flat to his skull.

The rise had hidden a small clearing from view, exactly the kind of plateau that Kaoru herself used when howling. On the ground, flung like storm-tossed debris, was the Uramura pack. Blood, there’s so much… the coppery stench of it clogged her nostrils as the red of it clogged her eyes.

The alpha male and his mate lay side by side, the male’s eyes glazed over in death, the red spilling from his throat offering up the cause of his demise. The female was still alive, barely, the light of her eyes fading even as Kaoru watched, her entire body was contorted to an unnatural angle, spine snapped in half by strong jaws. There, a young male whose face was a ruin and whose chest no longer rose or fell, there a battle-scarred female who wouldn’t live to turn these injuries into scars, half-curled around a small… Kaoru choked back a plaintive whine, valiantly trying not to be sick. Is there… anyone left to save…?

Movement broke Kaoru free of her shock, wide blue eyes trying to seek out a survivor. A dark shape separated from the trees encircling the clearing, moving forward slowly. Unease coiled to a hard knot in Kaoru’s stomach, the hairs along her spine standing on end, nose still overpowered by the stench of blood.

Moonlight seemed to quail away from the creature, shuddering against illuminating that form for as long as possible… until there was simply no choice.

The wolf was tall, shoulders rising above Sano’s even, a muscular frame masked by thick fur in the colors of a traditional wolf writ dark. The top of his head looked like a black cap, covered in startlingly dark fur. But the most bizarre were his eyes.

The whites were gone, irrevocably gone, replaced by black. The blood vessels in his eyes had burst long ago, the fresh red dulled to night; only the iris seemed to retain color, pupiless teal marbles lit by a maniacal inner fire. It was like looking into the eyes of madness itself.

A low rumble came from Sano’s chest, his spiky-furred head low and the tips of his fangs just visible. “Who the hell are you?”

The stranger moved around the clearing rather than into it, approaching the small pack in an arc. “And here they are… more worthless insects with no lives…” that villainous chuckle rose in the air again, Kaoru wanted to shake herself free of the sound, as if it were some sort of clinging ooze weighing her down, but she didn’t dare move and draw the wolf’s attention. “Good… stay and play won’t you?” the wolf grinned, mouth opening to reveal pointed teeth, “It isn’t any fun if you run away.”

"Kenshin,” Kaoru found herself whispering, ears almost flat to her skull, “his head…”

“This one sees it, Miss Kaoru,” Kenshin answered equally quietly, eyeing the black fur that spread from the stranger’s ear tips to just above his brows. “ ‘One who wears black on his head’… Kurogasa.”

“Oh?” Kurogasa raised a brow, “Someone heard that little message they stopped to send? It’s not the most impressive nickname, but I’ll take it.”

“You’ll take it?” Sano snarled, “Why the hell did you kill them you bastard?!”

“Why?” Kurogasa dropped his smile for a moment, staring at Sano with those weird eyes, “It’s natural for the weak to be killed by the strong. What about you?” That smile, slow and chilling as poison in the veins crept back across Kurogasa’s muzzle, “Are you strong or weak?”

Kenshin shifted suddenly, blocking Kaoru’s (and from his indignant yelp, Yahiko’s too) view of the stranger. The echo of… something washed over the shielded pair, chilling and cold, but broken by the bulwark of Kenshin’s warm red body.

Sano made a strangled noise. The fighter stood stiffly, body vibrating, muscles visibly quivering under his fur and skin, but he stayed locked in the same standing position. He forced his jaw open as if against a heavy weight.

“What… did you do?”

He’s trying to move, Kaoru realized in shock, but he… can’t?!

“Shino Ippo—The spell of Frozen Terror,” Kenshin’s voice, hard, as it rarely was. The Rurouni moved and Kaoru could see Kurogasa again, his constant smile fading slightly. “And now I know your true identity, Jineh Udo, rogue Mibu!”

The smile was gone, teal eyes staring at Kenshin, mind working through the fog of insanity with visible effort.

“It can’t be… crimson soul… branded face…” the fangs returned, sinister in their glee, “All you’re missing are the eyes of a murderer, Hitokiri Battousai!”

Kenshin’s face could have been carved from stone, utterly impassive in the face of Jineh’s manic glee.

“Ha ha ha ha ha!” The strange wolf shook with the force of his laughter, pinning Kenshin with one crazed eye. “Ha ha! I never thought that it was true! So! The greatest warrior of the Revolution is really here!”

Kenshin flinched, just noticeably, eyes narrowing into a fierce glare.

The Revolution? That guy’s not talking about Kenshin’s time with the humans. What’s going on? And… did Kenshin’s eyes just turn blue?

“That confirms it,” Kenshin said quietly, gaze never leaving the blood-flecked face of the killer. “In the North, this one had heard of a wolf who fought on the side of Mibu, a crazed slayer of friend and enemy alike. Banished from Mibu’s ranks for his bloodlust.”

“Banished?” Kurogasa laughed, “No, those fools tried to kill me!” The fanged grin never faltered, “But you know what that was like, Battousai. The alphas of those packs were too weak to do their own fighting. That’s why beasts like you and I are necessary.”

“Jineh Udo,” Kenshin’s voice overrode the mad wolf’s, “Why have you come here?”

Jineh cocked his head to one side, exposed fangs gleaming in the starlight, “Battousai,” he drew out the name, savoring it, savoring the flinch that steeled Kenshin’s features into something sharper, blue eyes pale and hard. “Do you know what happened when you disappeared?” he barked a laugh, answering his own question, “Of course not, you were gone!

“It was a nightmare. The war ground to a standstill. The leaders of Mibu were gone; the phantom fang of the Ishin Shishi was gone… One wolf,” he shot Kenshin a pointed look, “one small wolf vanishes, and the bloodiest war I’d dreamed of fighting in stops.

“Do you know what that means, Battousai?” Jineh didn’t give Kenshin a chance to respond, “It means that you were the soul of that battle, the true heart of that glorious slaughter. And when you vanished, it was over. I’ve always regretted… not being able to fight you then. The era’s avatar of murder!”

Kaoru could see it this time, Jineh’s eyes widening to almost absurd proportions, pupiless teal orbs motionless in a sea of darkness, a flash of strange light, when all the world seemed distorted and wrong, chilling cold that swept past Kaoru and Yahiko with icy fangs but was focused only on…Kenshin!

For a moment the former manslayer froze like Sano, still immobile beside him. Then, with a sharp exhalation, the crimson frame relaxed.

“Shino Ippo projects the fear of being prey into your opponent,” Kenshin said quietly, not taking his eyes off the strange wolf. “If one can see past the terror to the path of escape it will not hold him.”

“Easily said, Battousai,” Jineh’s smile never wavered, “but few are those who can actually do it!”

Wind whipped across the plateau, momentarily alleviating the stench of blood all around them, Kenshin hesitated, frowning.

“Well there’s one more here who can!” Sano snarled, throwing off the paralysis with a fierce twist of his head, wrenching his body out of the immobility and into a sprint at the crazed wolf.

Kenshin’s eyes went wide in horror. “No, Sano! You mustn’t touch him!” The former fighter-for-hire looked back at the red wolf, attack faltering.

Jineh seized upon the moment of inattention, closing the distance between himself and Sano, fanged maw open and slavering.

“Crap!” the hybrid backpedaled, managing to get away from the attack, just barely. “What gives, Kenshin?!”

The manslayer stepped forward, coming between the intruder and Sano, steely blue eyes fixed on Jineh.

“He’s ill.” The foaming sickness. Rabies, the humans called it. “He has the madness.” And he knows it.

Kenshin could hear Sano recoil with a muttered curse. The madness, the disease that infected with a bite, bleeding poison into the veins, corrupting minds to senseless slaughter, lost in a fever of heat and thirst and endless fear, destined to die in agony after turning on those closest to them.

Jineh’s grin grew wider still. “So you noticed, Battousai.” Adding the hostility induced by the disease to a mind already enamored of slaughter… And sessha was called a demon.

“You cloak yourself in the stench of blood to hide your true danger…” steel-blue eyes narrowed “Does your depravity know no bounds?”

“Hide?” Jineh laughed, “I’m not hiding anything. The smell of blood follows me as it always has, as it always will.” Words breathed with the solemn reverence of a prayer, “Hitokiri wa hitokiri, Battousai.”

“Enough!” Kenshin snarled, leaping forward, into the danger posed by fangs and disease. Kaoru choked back a scream of terror at his carelessness, her frame shaking with nervous energy. He must have a reason, he must!

Jineh moved away from the attack in a carelessly quick jump, turning to the offensive. Aiming low, the enemy wolf snapped at Kenshin’s footpaws, Kenshin took to the air in the crescent-moon jump he had used against Sano so effectively. Jineh wasn’t there when the red wolf came down with punishing force.

So fast! Is he faster than Kenshin?

Kurogasa turned in the middle of his retreat, coming back in for a lightning-fast attack in the millisecond where Kenshin was recovering his footing from his landing. Fangs flashed in the cool moonlight, moving down with inexorable swiftness.

No!” Kaoru couldn’t help the scream this time, it tore free as Kenshin winced, ripping his bloody shoulder free of the jaws that held it.

Jineh was no longer smiling, muzzle stained as red as Kenshin’s fur. “This isn’t any fun Battousai… right now killing you would be as easy as killing that female over there.”

Kenshin instinctively moved to block Kaoru from Jineh’s gaze. The murderous wolf didn’t seem to notice, his lip curled in disgust as he looked at Kenshin, “This isn’t the avatar of murder I’ve longed to fight! Where is the killer that froze the blood of Mibu? Peace has made you soft!” Jineh took a step forward, then shook his head. For the first time Kaoru noticed that sometime during the fight, Kenshin had taken off the tip of his opponent’s left ear.

“It would be a waste to kill you now.” Jineh said, almost to himself, “I’ll give you a chance, Battousai, to find the murderer within you,” a bloody, macabre smile stretched slowly across Kurogasa’s muzzle again, “Find that blood-stained soul… before I find you again!” Jineh dissolved into the darkness of the forest behind him.

Kenshin took a step forward as if to chase down the murderer, stopped short with a sigh. For a moment, the clearing was frozen.

“Kenshin!” Kaoru shook off her paralysis, moving to stand beside the Rurouni, looking at the bloody mess of his shoulder, “What were you thinking? The madness…” Horror closed her throat, but Kenshin turned to her with a gentle smile.

“There are some small benefits to being caged by the humans, Miss Kaoru. They have developed a prevention to the madness. Still,” he caught her eye with his (violet again, thank goodness), “it is possible for you to catch it from this one, so you mustn’t touch me.”

Kaoru eyed Kenshin’s shoulder, the wound just begging to be cleaned out. “For how long?” If you say “forever” Kenshin, so help me, I will feed you your ears.

“It should be safe after two weeks or so.” Kenshin replied with a weak smile, one that faded as he turned to observe the forest Jineh had disappeared into, “Assuming this one is given a few weeks.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Sano’s voice was gruff, moving to stand alongside the rest of the pack, “That guy is crazy, Kenshin!”

The red wolf bowed his head in acknowledgement, “This one cannot say for sure if it was the sickness which caused him to act this way, sessha never met him before.”

“But… you’ve heard of him.” Kaoru offered hesitantly. Kenshin’s eyes slid closed.

“Jineh Udo was a wolf in the service of the Mibu pack, while this one was warring with them on behalf of the Ishin Shishi pack. This one knew enough to count him as an enemy.” Violet eyes opened, regarded the woods for another moment before turning to face the concerned faces surrounding him.

“Sessha would suggest returning to the territory. It is likely that Jineh is finding his way there as we speak.”

“It’s not fair!” Yahiko howled, pacing the length of the den furiously. Kaoru bit back an anxious growl, Does he think I don’t know that?

Fair, it most certainly was not. Kenshin and Sano out combing the territory for any sign of Jineh, and Kenshin had used the voice on Kaoru, that weird mix of persuasion, order and pleading to ask the female to wait in the den with Yahiko.

Puppy duty, that’s all I’m good for it seems. Yahiko certainly didn’t need to be out there where he could conceivably get in that mad killer’s way, but Kaoru was suspicious that Kenshin was using the puppy as an excuse to keep her out of harm’s way as well.

I’m not a housepet, Kenshin! This is my territory too!

But the decision made sense… So she had smiled and ordered the other half of her pack to come home safe. As if just saying it would work some magic to bring the pair back alright.

Dragging herself back from her thoughts with a supreme effort, Kaoru looked up to check on Yahiko. The puppy was still grumbling steadily, pacing back and forth, too wound up to even think of stopping. That wouldn’t do.

“Hey, brat!”

“I am not a brat!

“Come over here, I’ve got a job for us while we wait.”

Yahiko crossed the den, looking at her suspiciously. “I thought Kenshin asked us not to leave the den.”

The tanuki pushed herself to her paws, “And we aren’t. But I’ve been meaning to do this ever since that thing with Gohei. We’re going to dig out that back door.”


Kaoru half-shrugged, making her way over to the tiny hole Yahiko had squeezed out of during that debacle. “It does no good if no one can get out by it,” the she-wolf pointed out, “I really should have done this a long time ago, but now is as good a time as any. We aren’t going anywhere for a while.”

And besides, the tanuki thought as she got to work on the half-collapsed tunnel, it ought to tire you out enough that you forget to worry.

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