Story 1: The Protector
The forest was nearly pitch black at night. It was so thick and impenetrable that it let in practically no light after a certain point of the day, and as of that moment, that point was rapidly approaching. Sen shot his tongue out and casually slid it over his fangs, still tasting blood on them. That taste made him think back to the fight, and he grinned, remembering how the Terrier they had attacked had begged them not to hurt him. Pleaded. Told them he was just passing through. Makoto had broken his jaw right then and there and Sen torn his tail off just for a laugh, which he gotten when the dog had let out a high-pitched shriek of pain. Next to him, Makoto was clearly thinking about the same thing, but seemed restless, almost like it hadn't been satisfying enough for him. Sen glanced over at the Tosa.
"You know, we're getting pretty close to the Saitama Pack's territory." he said. "Think we should go around?"
"Fuck that." the other dog answered in a gruff voice. "It'll take an extra day. Besides, I'm bored. I need a good fight."
"You just had one!" Sen scoffed.
"What? That back there?" Makoto said. "Tch. That pussy was no challenge at all. He didn't even fight back."
"You messed him up pretty good, though." Sen laughed. "That's not enough for one day?"
Makoto grinned arrogantly and licked lips.
"It's better when they fight back." he responded. "It makes it more satisfying when you hurt 'em."
Sen nodded in agreement, looking around at the trees, and then stopped, doing a double take. Calling for his companion to stop, he gestured with his head.
"Hey, Makoto!" he called quietly. "Check this out!"
Padding back irritatedly, the Tosa walked up beside the mutt and followed his gaze. Then his interest perked. Moving slowly through the trees not more than 50 feet away from them was another dog. Looking closer, they saw that it was a Husky, the curved, fluffy tail giving it away, and that it was young, no more than 1-2 years old. Makoto let out a delighted chuckle.
"What do you know?" he said, looking at Sen with a bloodthirsty grin. "We're gonna get some warm-up practice."
Sen echoed his laugh and followed the bigger dog expectantly as he dashed forward, moving silently behind the trees. When the Husky was close enough, they leapt out in front of him, cutting off his path.
"Where you going, kid?" Makoto drawled, strutting stiff legged around him. "Taking a midnight stroll?"
The Husky didn't answer. He looked gaunt, and despite his youth, his eyes were sunken and tired, and he looked like he hadn't slept in a thousand years.
"Hey!" the Tosa snapped. "You hear me, bitch? This is my territory now! And walking in it without my permission is a punishable offense!"
"Please just let me pass." the Husky said softly, his voice sounding like he had lost the habit of using it. "Just let me keep going and I won't bother you."
Sen lunged out and smacked him in the face with a paw.
"No one said you could talk, bastard!" he hissed and Makoto laughed.
"You know, Sen." he said. "I think we should teach this kid some manners."
"I was just thinking the same thing." Sen responded, moving around to the opposite side of their victim.
The Husky's gaze, which had been on the ground during the whole encounter, panned up and met theirs, and they could both see that he looked terrified.
"Please." he whispered with a quaver in his voice. "You don't know what you're doing. Just leave…"
Makoto lunged and bit him on the back of the neck. Then he threw him to the ground and Sen stomped down on his chest to wind him. The Tosa grinned sadistically down at the younger dog as he let out a wheezing gasp.
"You're going to wish you never met me, boy." he said and Sen laughed.
Suddenly, there was a rustle in the trees above their heads and both dogs looked up fast. Makoto took a few steps away from the other two.
"Oh, you have friends!" he growled, then shouted. "Come on out, you idiots, I can fucking hear you!"
There was no answer and more rustles sounded from different spots all around them. Sen looked around, seeing Makoto getting more and more pissed off by the second.
"What's the matter?" the Tosa yelled. "Too scared to come out and – "
Suddenly, there was movement from his left and Sen heard Makoto start screaming in pain. Looking over at him, the mutt froze in terror. The Tosa's lower jaw dangled from a single side, and the screaming noise he was trying to let out was muffled by the damage that had been done. Then there was a flash to his right and Makoto was on his back, his throat spouting blood from a gaping wound that had suddenly appeared there. Sen turned and ran, leaping around a tree back the way they had come and feeling his heart racing faster than it ever had before.
Immediately, he was hit from the back and felt a splitting pain in his underside before he found himself flying backwards into a tree. When he opened his eyes once more, Sen found that he couldn't move. Looking down at himself, he nearly fainted. His entire underside was split open and his entrails were spilling out onto the ground between his legs. Then he saw the young Husky walking past him once more, the same tired, sad expression on his face, and he let out a whine of fear and pain. The other dog stopped and turned.
"H-Help m-me…" Sen managed to get out.
The Husky shook his head and Sen suddenly saw a tall, looming black figure standing behind him, its blazing, maniacal eyes staring over the young dog's back right at him. Sen saw the Husky's head droop a little.
"I warned you." he whispered.
Then he turned and walked slowly away, and Sen saw the figure leap back into the darkness of the trees like a ghost, leaving him there bleeding heavily. Seconds later, Sen's vision faded entirely, and he died alone, his stunned mind not even able to comprehend the reason why.
Gin sighed, blinking fatigue out of his eyes as he heard John and Kurotora arguing behind him. It was still early in the day and he was tired as it was, but listening to his friends quarrelling after everything this trip was making them go through already was just making it worse. The group of them, all leaders and commanders of the Ohu Army, had left their home in Futago Pass only two weeks ago, traveling south in order to give condolences to the families of those who had died while fighting alongside them during the great battle against Akakabuto.
Gin had almost grown fully into his role of leader, despite the mere 3 months it had been since the battle's end and his father Riki's death, but nothing had prepared him for the challenge of facing the families of his deceased comrades, and having to tell them of their loved ones' demise. It was especially hard when they had left children behind, and it made him feel even worse to see their reaction to the knowledge that their father or uncle or brother was not coming back. Sometimes, in their grief, they even blamed Gin and the others, and though he was usually more than willing to accept the blame, whether it was actually his fault or not, some of his companions were not so understanding, and it made them quite angry. Kurotora was one of these, and given that they had just left a territory where this had happened, he was going off pretty fiercely at the moment, much to John's chagrin.
"God, Kai!" the German Shepherd was growling in irritation. "Shut up! Between this trip and your babbling it's a wonder one of us hasn't snapped yet!"
"I don't care!" came the snorted answer. "They didn't need to respond like that! We offered our condolences, what more did they want? They should keep in mind that we didn't have to come down here at all!"
"That's enough, Kurotora." Gin said calmly over his shoulder, having become something of an expert in dealing with the younger Kai brother's moodiness. "You should keep in mind that they've lost a loved one. Our suffering is nothing compared to theirs. Getting angry at them won't help a thing."
"That doesn't mean I have to like it, leader." Kurotora responded sullenly, though Gin could tell by his tone of voice that he had silently agreed.
"Where's our next destination, Gin?" Smith asked from behind him, "I'm getting hungry here."
From his position on Gin's right, Akame answered him before Gin could.
"The Saitama Prefecture." the ninja dog said. "And we're only about an hour out. Hold out Smith, we're nearly there."
"It's all right." Gin interrupted, coming to a stop. "A meal might do us some good."
He sniffed at the air, his nose picking up a number of scents as the rest of his friends stopped as well.
"There's a river over there." he said, gesturing with his head. "I'll go catch us some fish."
"Leader, you really don't have to." Chutora told him from his position near his brother. "One of us can go do it instead."
"I got it." he said. "All of you rest a while."
Then he headed off, hearing Chutora quip:
"That's just like you, Smith. How dare you make the leader supply the food? Why don't you just go back to Ohu if you're not going to contribute!"
"Hey! Don't say unnecessary things, Tora!" came the response. "Gin did it because he wanted to! I just..."
As he went out of earshot of them, Gin yawned, stretching his legs a little as he approached the river. Walking up to its banks, he waded carefully into the water, keeping his eyes out for fish. Seeing one, he darted his head into the water and grabbed it in his jaws, tossing it onto the bank once he was sure it was dead. Suddenly, as he turned back to find another, his nose caught a new scent. Blood… Looking around, Gin perked his ears up, checking for anything suspicious. The area was quiet, and he frowned, seeing nothing.
'This journey is starting to get to me.' he thought. 'I'm getting paranoid.'
Shaking his head, he looked down at the river again…and found himself staring at a dead face under the water, its blank eyes wide and terrified as the flowing water washed its blood away down stream. Gin froze, his muscles tensing up as he looked at the corpse. It seemed to have floated down from upstream, getting caught on a rock as it reached the area where he was standing. That was the only way to explain how he hadn't seen or sensed it before. Checking to see if anyone was in sight around the river, Gin reached into the water and grabbed the dog by the back of his neck, yanking him off the rock and onto the shore seconds later. As he did, he heard a voice behind him.
"Gin? What the hell happened?"
Turning, Gin saw Smith standing there, his combined disgusted and startled expression telling him that the Setter had been harassed into coming to help by the others, only to stumble upon Gin's find. The Akita looked back at the corpse.
"I don't know." he said truthfully. "I found him in the water."
"Somebody did a real number on him." Smith said, sniffing it as he walked around it in a circle. "He's split open all the way down the middle."
Suddenly, before Gin could answer, the rest of the Ohu group burst out of the trees, looking ready for a fight.
"What's going on?" John asked intensely. "We heard Smith's yell."
"Scream is more like it." Kurotora teased, apparently having gotten over his earlier anger at least a little.
"Hey!" Smith barked in anger. "It wasn't – "
"Stop." Akame said simply, his voice calm but authoritative. "What happened here?"
"I don't know." Gin responded. "I just pulled him out of the water. It looks like he was killed not too long ago."
"Looks like he pissed someone off pretty good before he went too." Great remarked, looking at the gaping wound in the dog's underside.
"Do you think he's one of the Saitama dogs?" Chutora asked, and Gin shrugged.
"Your guess is as good as mine." he said. "But either way, I think we should get there faster. Maybe they'll know who he is."
"We should bury him." Smith said and Gin nodded at him, watching as he and Great proceeded to dig a grave a few feet away for the dog's body.
Once they were done and the dog was buried, Gin called them all together and they moved out once more, increasing their speed to the territory of the Saitama pack.
"You're kidding!" a dog in the group in front of them yelped. "It's not true!"
"We're very sorry for your loss." Gin said, his head bowed with the others as he faced the group's leader. "You should know that your brother died bravely. We wouldn't have gotten as far as we did without him."
"As expected from Saito!" said another dog. "Even in death he was magnificent!"
Gin bit his tongue, not having the heart to tell them that Saito had died in one hit only seconds after the battle against Madara began, having not even brought down one bear. It had taken longer to get to Saitama then they had expected, and it was now later in the day, but once they had arrived, they had been brought immediately to the territory's boss dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Kouzou. Kouzou had welcomed them warmly, but had been understandably devastated to hear the news of Saito's death, as he was his little brother. And unlike the other dogs standing there, news of his older brother's heroism, false though it was, did little to comfort him, and he turned away from Gin and the others to try and compose himself a little. After a moment, he turned back.
"Was it quick?" he asked and John nodded.
"It happened fast." he said. "I don't think he felt much."
If Kouzou could tell they were still lying, he didn't show it, and he stood a little straighter as he walked back up to them.
"I thank you very much for coming all this way to tell us." he said, looking at Gin. "And you don't have to apologize. I know my brother was happy to help you in your worthy cause."
Gin was caught slightly off guard by the understanding and cordialness of this response and he suddenly found himself liking the other dog very much, grateful to him for the change of pace from the reactions in the other territories they'd been to.
"Thank you." he said. "You have our deepest sympathies."
Kouzou nodded at all of them and then turned away. Before he could leave, though, Gin got his attention once more.
"Forgive me," he said. "But on the way here, we found the body of a dog in the river about an hour away. A mix breed missing an ear. Was he one of yours?"
Kouzou looked exasperated.
"Damn it." he swore and a subordinate to his left turned to him immediately.
"What should we do with this one sir?" he asked and Kouzou glanced at him.
"Send out some scouts and check on it." he said. "Then report back to me."
"There's no need." Gin said before the other dog could respond. "We already buried him. Did you know him?"
Kouzou looked at him.
"His name was Sen." he responded. "He was a stray who lived around this area, sort of a local troublemaker and thug. Honestly, dying might be the best thing for him."
"What did he mean by 'this one'?" Akame asked from Gin's right and the Shepherd's gaze panned to him.
"There's been a number of unexplained deaths in this prefecture recently." he said. "Sen's brings it up to 8…that we know of."
"You can't figure out what's killing them?" the ninja dog asked after a pause and Kouzou shook his head.
"No." he answered. "We find them in different places, in different conditions, and there's never any witnesses. The only thing connecting them is that whoever killed them really seemed to enjoy ripping them to shreds. We found one a few days ago that had no face left at all."
Gin looked concerned by this news.
"How long has this been going on?" he asked.
"About two weeks." Kouzou responded. "I've warned the neighboring packs and had scouts keeping watch, but so far nothing's come of it."
Gin opened his mouth to say something else, but suddenly, another dog burst through the trees to his right, skidding to a halt a few feet from Kouzou.
"Sir!" he said, panting hard as if he had run very fast from wherever he'd come from. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but we've got another one. Sir, you need to see this."
Kouzou growled angrily.
"Son of a bitch!" he hissed and then ran after his subordinate, who had disappeared back into the trees.
Gin quickly leapt after him, hearing John, Akame, and the others right on his tail. At the pace they moved, it didn't take them long to find their destination, and soon they found themselves at the edge of a clearing overlooking another bend in the river, which flowed through most of the Saitama territory. There they found Kouzou and his dogs looking up at a tree near the water. When Gin did the same, he froze. Hanging from the tree, a branch speared through his neck to keep him suspended there, was the body of another dog, a Tosa this time, a gaping wound visible on his neck as his lower jaw dangled from only one side of his mutilated face.
"Damn…" Smith muttered, looking slightly sickened by the sight and Gin saw Kouzou shake his head.
"This bastard's getting bold." he growled. "This one's closer to our home base than any of the others."
Then he turned and looked at them, nodding back over his shoulder at the body.
"This dog's name is Makoto." he said. "He's a former fight dog from Shikoku that got expelled by the others a while back for killing his sparring partner in the ring illegally. After that he came up here. Makoto wasn't just a nasty piece of shit, he was also one of the best fighters in the area. Nobody but the boss dogs messed with him. Whoever had the balls to do that to him, must have some serious fighting skill."
"Does your pack have any enemies that could be targeting you?" Akame asked and the Shepherd shook his head again.
"No." he said. "I mean, of course we have enemies. Who doesn't? But any of ours would just attack us head on, fight it out face to face. None of them would do this, or have the skill to."
As Gin looked at him, he could tell by the dog's demeanor that he was getting worried and that this on top of the news of his brother's death was beginning to overwhelm him a little. Glancing over to his companions, he saw that they had noticed the same thing. John looked back at him as he stared.
"What are you thinking, Gin?" he asked, his expression revealing that he already knew the answer as the others behind him waited for official word.
Gin looked down at the ground, then back at the body.
"I can't just let this be." he said determinedly. "Whoever's doing this needs to be stopped."
John nodded with a small grin as he finished, clearly excited at the change of pace in their trip as the Kai Brothers, Smith, & Great echoed his supporting look. Kouzou, however, didn't agree with their sentiments.
"My pack and I can handle this." he said, though he didn't sound too sure of his own words. "You don't need to stay."
"Clearly you can't because otherwise you would've figured this out already." Kurotora snorted and the Shepherd frowned at him angrily, clearly offended.
"Kurotora, enough!" Gin said in a tone that wasn't to be argued with.
Then he turned back to the Shepherd.
"I don't doubt that you can, Kouzou." he said graciously. "But I ask you to let us stay anyway, at least until this is figured out."
Kouzou looked confused.
"With all respect, Gin." he said. "Why do you care? You don't even know us."
Gin smiled slightly at him.
"We knew your brother." he answered. "He was one of us."
"…Which makes you and your pack our allies." John continued before he could. "And we don't leave our allies standing alone when there's a fight to be had."
Kouzou let out a snort, but his face showed nothing but admiration.
"Then I thank you once again," he chuckled, looking at Makoto's body seconds later. "If only we knew where to start. He never leaves them where they're killed. He always moves them afterwards, which means that we're going to get nothing from here."
Gin turned slightly, stretching his legs.
"I think for now we should rest." he said. "It's almost dusk, and some sleep might do us good."
"And what if this bastard strikes again?" Kouzou asked.
"Then he'll leave a trace behind." Gin answered. "With our two groups combined, someone's bound to see something."
Then he nodded back towards the Saitama home base, and everyone followed him, none of them straying far from each other.
Gin stretched his legs as he lay down, hearing Smith let out a loud yawn as he flopped on the ground as well nearby. This almost immediately caused a spat with Chutora, and the Akita smiled slightly, amazed that the duo still had the energy to argue after the day they'd all had. It was only a half-hearted one, though. After they had arrived back, Kouzou had shown them a place to rest in, near the caves that the Saitama pack called their home base, and had had his hunters bring them something to eat. Gin had tried to dissuade him from doing this, but the Shepherd had done it anyway, clearly wanting to make his now famous guests happy.
Once he had taken his own advice and lay down to give his tired muscles a break though, Gin had started reminiscing back to his other friends, specifically the ones who had died in the war against Akakabuto. This didn't do much for his mood and it didn't take long for the young leader to begin to feel depressed. He had all but lost himself in these thoughts when someone lay down beside him.
"Leader, are you okay?"
Glancing up in surprise, Gin saw Akame looking at him concernedly, his whole body resonating with calmness despite what they were waiting for. Gin nodded with a faint smile.
"Yeah, I'm all right." he said. "I'm just distracted."
"With thoughts of what?" came another voice, and suddenly John was there too, his tail swishing back and forth behind him.
Gin sighed, looking at the ground. After a moment, he answered.
"What about him?" Akame asked.
"I don't know," Gin said, feeling slightly uncomfortable talking about it so openly. "I just…I wish I could've gotten the chance to know him, spend some time with him. I don't know why I'm thinking about it now."
"It makes sense." the ninja dog responded. "All we've seen on this trip are children who've lost their parents and vice versa. You just lost yours too, Gin. It's only natural you'd think of him."
"But why should it matter?" John said. "We all know he'd be proud of you."
"Thanks, John." he said gratefully. "I just wish I didn't miss him so much."
"Missing him just proves you cared about him, leader." Kurotora said from a few feet away, and they realized that he had been listening in. "Trust me, I know. I miss my brother every day."
Gin looked at him.
"Is it getting easier for you?"
Kurotora paused for a moment before answering.
"Yeah." he finally said. "And I don't want it to. The more you remember someone, the more they live on. At least, that's what I believe."
"That's a good thing to believe." Akame said in response and Kurotora gave a half-smile as he rested his head on his paws.
Suddenly, they heard footsteps approaching and Gin lifted his head in curiosity right as a duo of Kouzou's guards emerged from the trees, escorting a third dog between them. They walked straight to Kouzou immediately.
"Boss," one of them said as the Shepherd looked up. "We caught this guy wandering through our territory. He says he wants to talk to you."
When Kouzou looked at the newcomer, a look of surprise spread over his face.
"Ryou!" he said, clearly caught off guard. "What are you doing here?"
The dog, a Husky, looked up at him almost sheepishly.
"Forgive me." he said, his voice sounding to Gin like he'd lost the habit of using it. "I was just passing through. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"I thought you were staying down by Hiroshima." Kouzou said, standing up.
"Not anymore." Ryou said quietly. "I ask politely if I can stay here for one night."
Kouzou tilted his head to the side, regarding him.
"I already have guests, Ryou." he said. "I'll have to think about it."
Listening to the exchange intently, Gin frowned as he looked at Ryou. He was young, the Akita decided, probably only a little younger than him, but his eyes were so tired looking and sunken in that he looked much older than he actually was. He was also very thin, Gin saw, and he found himself wondering concernedly if the young dog was ill with something. This was also what Kouzou was thinking, because seconds later, he said:
"You look awful, Ryou. Are you sick?"
"When's the last time you ate? You're so thin you practically don't exist!"
Gin could tell that the Shepherd had meant it mainly as a lighthearted tease to boost the other dog's spirits, but Ryou didn't react.
"I haven't been hungry lately." he mumbled, looking very sad. "It's a phase, nothing more."
Frowning a little as well, Kouzou cocked an eyebrow. Then he nodded slowly.
"All right." he said. "You can stay for a few nights if you need to. There's some food over there if you want it."
"Thank you, Kouzou-san" came the soft-voiced response, and soon Ryou was on the ground at the edge of the group, facing away from them all, his eyes shut already in sleep.
Keeping his gaze on the Husky, Kouzou walked over to Gin, who leaned in close.
"Who is that?" he asked as the others listened in as well.
"His name's Ryou." Kouzou responded. "He's the son of the former boss dog of a neighboring pack a ways South of here."
"Is his pack friendly?" John asked and Kouzou nodded.
"They were." he said. "They all died a couple years ago, mostly because of humans. Ryou's one of the few who survived. He's been a rogue ever since."
"You think he has something to do with these deaths?" Chutora asked from where he lay near his brother and Kouzou shook his head.
"I doubt it," he said. "He's a pretty normal male, even if he is kind of a loner. I've never seen him look this bad though."
"No kidding." Smith said quietly. "He looks like he hasn't slept or eaten anything in years!"
"That's why I let him stay." he agreed. "Hopefully I can at least convince him to take care of himself a little better."
"That would definitely be good for him." John commented, glancing over at the silent dog's back.
"Even if he has nothing to do with the deaths," Great said reasonably, "He may have heard something about them during his time as a rogue that we didn't."
"Maybe," Kouzou agreed. "Good luck getting him to tell you though. Ryou's not the talkative type."
"I'll see if I can get him to open up." Gin said and stood up, walking silently over to the resting young dog as the others all watched.
When he was beside him, Ryou's head raised quickly and Gin smiled at him disarmingly.
"Sorry," he said kindly. "I didn't mean to startle you. You mind if I sit here?"
Ryou glanced around, as if reassuring himself that it wasn't a trick, and then nodded shyly. Lying on his stomach, Gin tossed a small piece of food to the other dog.
"In case you change your mind and get hungry." he said when Ryou looked at him confusedly. "I'm Gin, leader of Ohu."
Ryou's eyes suddenly widened with excitement.
"You're from Ohu?" he asked and Gin nodded.
"Yeah." he said. "Why? Have you heard of us?"
"Who hasn't?" Ryou said in his soft voice. "I've heard dozens of other dogs talk about you guys on my travels! I always kinda wanted to meet all of you. Is it true you killed that bear? Akakabuta?"
Gin laughed good-naturedly.
"Akakabuto." he corrected. "And yes, I did. But it wasn't just me. Everyone being there is what defeated him."
"I'd love to see Futago Pass one day." came the response and Gin nudged him with a paw.
"Why don't you?" he asked. "We wouldn't mind if you visited."
Ryou suddenly looked nervous.
"I…" he said, glancing up at the trees above them. "I just…can't."
Gin noticed this and changed track instantly.
"Ryou," he said. "I don't know if Kouzou told you yet, but there's been some deaths in this area recently. As a rogue, you must hear a lot that we don't, so…I was wondering if you'd heard anything about it."
Ryou tensed up and Gin knew he was getting somewhere. The husky looked away from him.
"Yeah." he said, fidgeting with a paw. "There's been deaths down South too. I don't even know how many. It's not just around here."
"Do you know what's causing them, Ryou?" the Akita asked, trying not to sound too intimidating.
Now the other dog looked very uncomfortable and didn't answer, giving a small shrug that suggested he knew more than he was saying. Before Gin could say anything else though, a loud scream of pain shattered the silence. Everyone was on their feet instantly and Gin saw Kouzou's head whip towards where it had come from.
"This way!" he cried and leapt off after it, John, Akame, and the Kais right behind him.
"Oh no." Ryou moaned and Gin took note of this, but did not show that he had heard.
"Stay here!" he yelled to everyone else. "Smith, look after them!"
"Yes, leader!" the Setter responded and Gin quickly caught up to them, leaping up beside John only seconds later.
Stopping for a moment to sniff at the ground, Kouzou suddenly veered right and they almost immediately came to a halt by a large rock. Lying at the base of it was the body of a dog, one of the Saitama pack's perimeter guards, and his throat had been torn out so completely that they could see the bone of his spine through his wound. Kouzou snarled in anger.
"Where are you, you bastard?" he yelled at the dark, but before anything else could happen, Gin saw Akame stiffen up.
He and John both noticed instantly.
"What is it, Akame?" John asked and the ninja dog turned his head slightly, a look of alarm on his face.
Then he looked at them intensely.
"It's a diversion." he said and then turned and darted back through the trees, yelling: "Get back to the others!"
A few hundred yards away, Smith stood staring into the darkness, looking intently in the direction Gin and the others had gone, trying to see anything unusual. Wilson was beside him and he heard the Collie say:
"No." he responded. "Which figures."
Suddenly, he heard a growl, and turned to see one of Kouzou's pack mates advancing on Ryou.
"That's it!" he was yelling. "I've had enough! What do you have to do with this, runt? Spit it out!"
"You don't understand – " Ryou tried to say, but the dog suddenly charged and knocked him onto his back with a 'THUD'.
"Answer me!" he barked and Smith leapt over instantly, getting in between him and the younger dog.
"That's enough!" he said. "Stand down!"
"Screw you pal!" the other dog said, clearly angry and frightened. "This isn't even your territory! Now get out of my way!"
Then he tried to push past him, but Smith stood his ground with a growl.
"I said BACK OFF!" he spat, and before the other dog, a mutt of some kind, could respond, they heard a rustle in the trees above them.
Looking up in surprise, Smith frowned. There was no wind that could've caused it, and he could see nothing there once again, but then Ryou stood, and when the Setter looked at him, he could see that the Husky looked scared.
"Wait!" he yelled up at the branches above them. "He didn't mean it! He's scared, just leave him alone!"
Smith's frown intensified at this bizarre behavior, but then there was a louder rustle.
"HEIZO!" Ryou screamed loudly, and suddenly something shot out of the trees right above Smith's head.
He heard a sickening 'CRUNCH' and a spray of blood hit him in the face as the mutt dropped to the ground in front of him. Then, before he knew what was happening, Smith found himself flying across the clearing, and he registered that his chest hurt like a bitch only seconds before he hit a tree hard, coming to rest on his stomach.
"Smith!" he heard Wilson yell in alarm, but his eyes went immediately back to Ryou, and what he saw sent a chill through his whole body.
The younger dog lay unmoving on the ground where he had been, his limpness suggesting that he had been knocked unconscious, and standing over him, his form little more than a silhouette in the dim light, stood a much larger dog. His shape appeared to be similar to that of Ryou upon first glance, but when his gaze suddenly panned over and locked with Smith's, the setter saw a pair of blazing, murderous eyes staring back at him, a cold, lifeless, calculating look emanating from every single inch of them. For a moment, Smith just stared, caught entirely off guard, but then the figure picked up Ryou in its jaws and threw him over its back, disappearing back into the trees seconds later as Smith yelled:
Suddenly, though, Akame, Gin and the others who had followed Kouzou ran past him at full speed, most of them dashing immediately after the fleeing killer. Seeing the state of his friend though, Gin skidded to a halt along with Chutora.
"Smith!" he called in concern. "Are you – "
"I'm fine!" the Setter responded. "Go!"
Gin needed no more persuasion. He and Chutora immediately leapt after the others and Gin put on a burst of speed, moving quickly up to where he was level with John. Above him, he saw Akame leaping from branch to branch with astonishing grace, and before they even got 100 more feet, the ninja dog lunged, his teeth bared as he aimed for a dark figure that Gin only noticed in that instant. He knew immediately that the hit was good though, because the killer's figure flew sideways into a tree, a smaller form detaching from him and falling off to the side as he did. As Gin raced to catch it, doing so moments later, he saw the intruder ricochet off another tree and fly back at Akame, and soon the two dogs were locked in combat, snarling loudly as they ripped and slashed at each other in midair. Below, John and Kurotora waited for their quarry to fall so they could join in the fight, but instead it was Akame who fell to the ground, twisting at the last second to land perfectly on his paws as the attacker fled, disappearing back into the darkness of the trees.
"That way!" Gin heard Kurotora yell and they started to run off after it.
"Wait!" he yelled at his friends, Kouzou coming up beside him. "Nobody follow him!"
They all skidded to a halt in confusion and Kurotora turned back angrily.
"Why the hell not?" he asked, but it was Akame who answered.
"Whoever that is is highly trained." he said intensely, panting as a few of his battle wounds seeped blood through his white fur. "We can't afford to get separated."
Kurotora grunted dejectedly, knowing that he was right, but then Kouzou looked down at the form on the ground with a small growl. It was Ryou, and the Shepherd glared at him.
"Let's find out what's going on." he said and picked up the younger male. "Follow me."
Gin didn't argue, understanding the other dog's anger, and the Ohu soldiers followed Kouzou quickly until he reached the river, and the large waterfall that was situated in the middle of it. Without warning, Kouzou suddenly leaped at the middle of the falls and disappeared through it, not emerging after he did. His voice, however, did.
"There's a cave behind the waterfall!" he called. "Leap through it!"
Looking at each other in surprise, Gin and the others did just that, landing on flat ground only moments later. Then they looked around. They were in a small cave, hidden from view by the rushing water, and the roar of the waterfall over the entrance dissuaded anyone who might have wanted to listen in from outside. Gin nodded in approval.
"This is perfect." he said, seeing John nod in agreement beside him.
Kouzou nodded as well.
"I come here sometimes to think." he said simply, then turned and nudged Ryou's still form with his paw.
After a few seconds, the Husky let out a moan, and then his eyes opened slowly. Almost immediately, his head shot up in alarm, but Gin and Kouzou held him down with their paws so he couldn't stand.
"Relax." Gin said. "You're safe."
"For the moment, anyway." Kouzou said, clearly not happy. "But that can change very quickly, Ryou…if you don't tell me what the fuck is going on in my territory."
The Husky looked down at the stone floor, his face almost ashamed.
"I-It's a long story." he said and John growled slightly.
"Shorten it." he said bluntly. "And tell us anyway."
Ryou looked up and studied them for a moment, then nodded slowly, looking tired and defeated. Kouzou stepped up to him.
"First of all," he said. "Who the hell is that, and why is he killing my dogs?"
He nodded outside when he said it, and Ryou met his gaze.
"His name is Heizo." he said quietly. "And he was…doing it for me. He killed them because of me."
Akame gave a start as soon as he said it.
"Heizo?" he said, sounding almost incredulous. "As in Heizo the assassin?"
Ryou nodded without looking at him and Gin looked over at his friend.
"Who is he, Akame?" he asked and the ninja dog looked at him.
"He's one of the most talented assassin dogs in all of Japan." he said with a frown. "My clan and I had to deal with him a few times during the war against Koga. But how do you know him, kid?"
Ryou clenched his eyes shut. Then after a moment, he looked up at Akame.
"I know him because he killed my parents." he said softly.
For a moment, there was silence in the cave, only the sound of the waterfall breaking it. Then Kouzou looked down at him in shock, his anger gone.
"He killed your parents?" he repeated. "Are you sure, Ryou?"
"I watched him do it." came the answer and Gin lay down in front of him so that they were on eye level.
"Then why is he here now?" he asked. "And why is he following you?"
Ryou sighed, a lone tear sliding unnoticed down his furred cheek. He looked at the Akita.
"I wish I knew." he said miserably. "Ever since that day…when they died…he hasn't left me alone. He's followed me from one end of this country to the other and nothing I say or do can get him to leave. I can't understand it. Even when he kills these other dogs, it's always only the ones who quarrel with me…or fight with me or hurt me. Even when it's only a misunderstanding, he'll kill them…before I can say anything."
He looked at Kouzou.
"That's why I'm always alone." he said. "Because I don't want people to get hurt."
Gin looked at him sympathetically, suddenly feeling very sorry for him, but John cocked his head to the side and looked almost angry.
"Have you tried fighting him off?" he asked, sounding slightly disapproving. "Standing up for yourself?"
Ryou looked at him hatefully.
"3 times." he answered with a small growl. "He always just dodges everything and refuses to hit me back. My dad never taught me how to fight…no one did. So you tell me: he's a professional assassin. What kind of chance do you think a dog like me has against him in a fight?"
John didn't answer, knowing that the younger dog had a point, and Gin jumped in, hoping to end an argument before it started.
"But why is he so interested in you?" he wondered aloud again and then suddenly Akame sat down beside him, regarding the Husky thoughtfully.
"I might have an idea." he said. "But it's just a theory."
All heads turned towards him.
"It's all we have right now Akame, so spit it out." Kurotora said from behind him and the ninja dog kept his eyes on Ryou.
"Heizo's a husky too." he said. "In fact, kid, you look a lot like him."
Ryou looked surprised, and Gin frowned as he looked at his friend.
"You think it's a bond between the breed?" he asked skeptically and Akame turned to him.
"No." he said. "I think Heizo sees himself in Ryou. That's why he hasn't killed him. From what Ryou has told us, it sounds like he's trying to protect him."
This seemed to further confuse the others, and Chutora stepped forward from the back of the group.
"But he's an assassin." he said. "That makes it sound like he has feelings for the kid."
"So?" Kouzou said, a little more harshly than he'd meant.
"So," the Kai dog continued irritatedly. "Assassins don't have feelings. They're cold bastards. That's the only way they can do their jobs, especially the good ones."
"They're still dogs." Akame said in response. "Even the ones that are real monsters like Heizo."
"So how do we catch this fucker?" John growled, sounding eager to fight.
For a minute, there was silence as everyone thought about it. Then a shy sounding voice broke the quiet.
"We use a lure."
The group looked down at Ryou in surprise and when he looked up, they saw a determination in his eyes that none of them had seen there before.
"I can get him to come out." he said and Kouzou looked at him in concern.
"Ryou, that's putting yourself directly in harm's way." he said. "Are you sure about this?"
The husky looked at him.
"I won't go the rest of my life with Heizo stalking me everywhere I go." he growled. "If this will make him leave, then I'll do it. And with all of you here, it might just work."
After a second, Kouzou nodded, understanding his feelings, and John grinned slightly.
"Well said, kid!" he said. "You may be a soldier yet."
Ryou smiled despite himself and Gin stood up.
"All right, everyone." he said in a commanding voice. "Here's what we'll do…"
The mood of the group was tense as they walked, every one of them glancing around themselves to look for movement without making it too obvious that they were waiting for something. They moved in a circle as they headed into the forest away from the river, leaving no side unprotected as Ryou walked right in the center of it, keeping his gaze on the ground as his ears twitched back and forth, listening carefully to every sound that entered them. None of them said a word, but then suddenly, Ryou stopped in his tracks, freezing up completely. Gin did the same and glanced at him without moving his head.
"Is it him?" he asked in a quiet voice and Ryou nodded without looking at him.
"Yeah." he said. "He's here."
Suddenly, a shape burst out of the trees above them and landed on its feet about 15 feet away, facing them as it did. John and Kouzou immediately pushed Ryou to the ground and stood over him as Gin stepped to the front of the group with Akame at his side. He glared angrily at the figure and watched as the figure glared right back. It was Heizo. As he looked at him, Gin saw that Akame had been right. The older Husky did indeed look almost identical to Ryou, and except for the numerous scars that adorned his powerful form, he could've been his older brother. Heizo took a step forward.
"That kid is mine." he said, his voice low and deadly sounding.
"That kid," Gin responded with equal power. "Is under the protection of the Ohu Army. He doesn't belong to you."
The assassin's eyes narrowed.
"This doesn't concern you." he hissed. "Give him back or I'll kill you all and they'll never find your corpses."
John and Kurotora growled.
"We're not like the other dogs you've faced, bastard." the Shepherd said in a voice that wasn't to be argued with. "Underestimate us, and it's the end of the road for you."
Heizo stretched his neck, looking angry as he glared right at Ryou.
"I protected you, you ungrateful little runt." he growled. "And this is how you repay me."
Ryou shot to his feet with a snarl, suddenly showing more power than he ever had before.
"All you ever cared about was lessening your own guilt!" he spat as Akame and Kurotora held him back. "You killed everyone I came across, friend or foe, just so you could live with yourself after killing my mom and dad! Don't you dare make this my fault!"
"So…" came the response. "That's how it's going to be, is it?"
No one responded and suddenly, before anyone could react, Heizo shot back up into the trees with fearsome speed and Gin and the others immediately leapt into action.
"Kouzou!" he shouted. "Get Ryou back to Smith and the others! We'll deal with him!"
"Got it!" the Shepherd shouted back, but Gin and his companions were already on Heizo's tail.
Akame and Gin matched the assassin's speed easily as they entered the trees as well, leaping from branch to branch and keeping him in their sights as John and the Kai brothers stayed on the ground, making sure that he didn't escape that way. None of them could get close enough to attack him though, and the chase continued as it was, neither side gaining any ground. Suddenly, though, they reached the river once more, and they realized that it had looped around from where they had been and now cut off their path. Seeing Heizo come to a halt abruptly, Gin watched as he leapt sideways and vanished into the trees in front of him. Nodding quickly at Akame, the two friends jumped to the ground and landed next to John, looking up as they realized that the assassin was trapped in the treetops, unable to move without being seen. They glared into the darkness carefully.
"You didn't plan any of this, did you?" Gin growled to the unseen killer. "You never meant to become that kid's protector. You were just there to kill his parents that day!"
No one answered and the Akita continued.
"But something went wrong, didn't it, Heizo?" he said. "The killing itself went perfectly until you discovered that one minor detail you'd overlooked…they had a son."
"And he saw you, didn't he?" Akame chimed in, continuing to look for movement amongst the trees. "He saw what you did and you couldn't kill him, because you were reminded of yourself when you were young."
There was no still answer.
"You know we're right, Heizo." Gin called. "Don't try to hide from it, from us."
After a moment, there was finally a response.
"He wasn't supposed to be there!" came Heizo's voice and all of their heads whipped in the direction it had come from. "The dogs who hired me told me that his parents were newly mated, that they had no children. I didn't know what to do!"
"So you decided to atone for what you'd done by becoming his guardian?" Gin said, noticing the slight change in tone in the assassin's voice.
"Except you did it too well didn't you?" John finally added. "You protected him so completely that you denied him the chance to have a life of his own. Think about it, Heizo! That kid is growing up. How's he ever going to become a real male if all you do is fight his battles for him?"
"That's none of your business."
"So what was your plan then?" Akame asked pointedly. "To follow him around his whole life, killing anyone he quarreled with, anyone who looked at him the wrong way? You had to know that sooner or later it would come to an end!"
"He's all I have left!" the assassin growled back. "And if you want him for yourself, you'll have to kill me!"
"Oh, we will." Gin said. "I don't want to Heizo, I really don't. I'm hoping you'll see reason and surrender. But your protection is terrorizing him. If you go near him again, we'll have no choice."
"The only one with no choice is me, Gin." Heizo said and Gin was momentarily startled by the use of his name.
Suddenly, though, Heizo emerged from the tree in front of them like a bullet, lunging directly at him, teeth bared and ready to fight. Gin, however, was not famous for his speed without reason. Darting sideways out of the way, he grabbed the assassin's hind leg in his teeth and threw him at Kurotora, who tried to get his jaws around his throat. Heizo twisted in midair and avoided it though, and soon, the Kai dog was on the ground on his back, a fresh slash across his chest. Chutora tried to jump to his brother's aid, but achieved the same result, and Heizo leapt back to get some distance on his opponents. Then John was there. The two dogs bit at each other's faces and necks fast and hard, and the sound of their snaps on empty air were broken only by their chorus of snarls. While they fought, Akame managed to grab the assassin by the back of the neck and slam him into the ground with bone crushing force, momentarily stunning him.
Heizo quickly leapt to his paws again, though, dodging a bite from Gin, and leveled the ninja dog with a hind leg kick to the jaw. When John and Kurotora came to his rescue, he traded blows with both of them, each of them grunting as blood flew through the air at the impact points. Then Gin saw his chance. As Heizo tried to take to the air again, he lunged from below and went straight for the assassin's throat. Seeing this, Heizo twisted and smacked him hard across the face with his paw, making the Akita suddenly taste fresh blood in his mouth, but he smacked it aside and powered right through it, finding his mark seconds later. Feeling the flesh of the Husky's throat between his jaws, Gin bit down hard and twisted himself, making his body spin fast and turning his fangs into even deadlier weapons then before. Blood spattered out and Heizo let out an involuntary whine of pain and surprise as the Akita's teeth found his jugular and severed it cleanly, ending the assassin's reign of terror…and his life. Seconds later, the two landed with simultaneous, painful 'THUD's, and Gin quickly tore himself free of his opponent, leaping back next to John and Akame to survey his work.
"Well done, leader!" Kurotora said, licking his lips. "He got what he deserved!"
"I warned him." Gin said, not looking quite as thrilled at his actions. "I told him not to attack."
"And he disobeyed." Akame said, looking at him reassuringly. "You did what needed to be done Gin. And this territory's a safer place for it."
"Besides," John said, agreeing with the ninja dog. "Now Ryou can have his life back, finally."
Gin nodded at that thought and smiled at his two friends gratefully.
"Let's go tell him then." he said, and they turned and walked away, leaving Heizo the assassin lying where he'd fallen.
"You're sure?" Kouzou asked, facing the warriors of Ohu as they stood across from him in the clearing by their base caves. "He's really dead?"
"I had no choice." he said. "He attacked us rather than surrender."
"I'm not blaming you." Kouzou said. "You've done us a great favor. More lives could've been lost if he wasn't stopped, including more of my pack mates. My pack and I are in your debt."
"Consider us even." Gin said with a smile, thinking of the Shepherd's dead brother Saito.
Then he nodded over his shoulder back at the forest.
"We left his body back there by the river." the Akita said, "You should probably give him a proper burial at some point."
"We will." Kouzou said. "Thank you."
Beside him, Ryou was looking like he didn't quite believe it.
"He's…gone?" he said with a small, incredulous laugh. "I…I…"
"Now you can become the male you were meant to be," John told him with a slightly teasing grin. "And actually talk to people for a change."
Ryou smiled back at him, looking like he didn't quite know how to express how grateful he was.
"I…" he said again, then gave up trying. "Thank you, so much!"
"What's to become of you now?" Gin asked, turning to the Husky. "Back to wandering?"
"Actually," Ryou said. "Kouzou's offered to let me join his pack. At least until I can take care of myself a little better."
"Hey," the Shepherd smiled, his tongue lolling out the side of his muzzle. "With a little work, Ryou, I think can lead your own pack one day."
They all laughed and Akame turned to Gin.
"We should go, leader." he said and Gin nodded, looking at the two of them one more time.
"Good luck to you both." he said to them. "If you ever need our help again, just let us know."
Kouzou nodded, happy with the way it had all gone, and then watched as the warriors of Ohu turned and walked away, each of them looking every bit like their reputations as they disappeared through the trees. Then the Shepherd turned to Ryou, who was looking after them with intense admiration, and smiled at him.
"Come on, Ryou." he said. "It's time you trained a little. Let's get started."