Story 11: The Fighter
John's head snapped to the side as he was hit again. The blow was harder this time and he felt his left eye swell shut as the paw that was responsible repeated the motion again, its owner showing no sympathy whatsoever for the younger dog pinned beneath him. The young Shepherd winced, tasting blood vividly in his mouth. This was the third fight he had picked in the last 5 days, and it was by far the hardest one yet, his latest opponent being a local hunting dog that was supposed to be one of the toughest males in the area. The other two dogs that had provoked his wrath had been dealt with swiftly and severely, both of them having been sent limping for their lives with various permanent wounds. John smirked inwardly as he remembered it, not pitying them in the slightest. That's what they got for messing with him. Still though, this new dog was no novice in battle and as John heard the cheers and howls of the spectators around them watching the show excitedly, he wondered momentarily if he had bitten off more than he could chew. That thought was gone within moments.
'The hell with this.' he thought.
Bringing back his hind leg, John kicked the other male in the groin hard and threw him off by force when he yelped in pain, doing so right as the larger dog's jaws missed his throat by inches. When he landed moments later, John was on him immediately. The young German Shepherd bit and slashed at him again and again, ripping bloody wounds all over his body as he did so. Then he grabbed him by the throat violently and began slamming his head into the concrete beneath him, only stopping when the other dog's blood was spattered everywhere. The older male immediately went limp with dizziness and John growled triumphantly.
'Got you now.' he thought smugly and prepared for the finishing blow.
Suddenly, something hit him in the side with tremendous force and he was sent careening into a nearby building wall, slumping down to the alleyway ground as soon as he had impacted. Shaking his head to clear it, he looked up, expecting to see one of the dog's comrades leaping in to help him. Instead, the last person he expected…or wanted…to see stood over his fallen opponent, who was blinking blood out of his eyes as he tried to regain his feet. It was his father, Will. John growled in annoyance, standing slowly as the older Shepherd jerked the beaten dog beneath him to his paws and tossed him roughly towards the alleyway entrance, glaring death at the other dogs there as he did.
"Get lost!" he snapped at them. "All of you! Don't make me go get someone you'll regret seeing even more than me!"
The group immediately dispersed, disappearing amongst the buildings before the larger male made good on his threat. Once they were gone, Will turned on John, the disgusted scowl on his face growing more pronounced by the moment. Then he yanked him to his feet as well, not saying a word as he half dragged the younger Shepherd back onto the main street. John struggled against his grip.
"Dad," he grunted. "Let go! I can walk by myself!"
"The only thing you can apparently do by yourself is screw up." the other dog hissed angrily. "I stopped by to see how your training was going, but apparently you can't even be bothered to stick with that!"
"I am sticking with it!" John protested, wincing as his father tightened his hold. "I'm the best hunting dog in the area! Nobody can beat me now, Dad!"
Will again said nothing, instead dragging him faster until they reached the home of John's master, at which point he picked him up and threw him hard over the tall fence into the yard, leaping over it himself moments later. John landed with a whine of pain, glaring at his father angrily as soon as his wounded body stopped throbbing.
"Ow!" he yelped. "What the hell?"
"That hurt?" Will asked, glaring at him. "Good. You deserve every bit of it. How many times have I warned you not to pick fights with everyone you see, John? 5, 6 times a week since you were born? Huh?"
"Dad," the young male protested. "This was different! He attacked me!"
"After you provoked him, I'm sure." Will replied, looking at his son as if he were a total stranger.
"He attacked a friend of mine the other day!"
"Don't insult my intelligence, boy!" the older Shepherd snapped. "The only thing you've ever cared about is yourself! As if you would fight for someone else!"
"That's not true!" John said in a hurt voice. "I'm growing stronger! I'm gonna be the greatest hunting dog ever, Dad! No one's gonna look down on John! I'll be just as good as you ever were! And then when I come home, you and Mom will see that I'm a great male!"
"You're not coming home."
John's next protest died in his throat.
"…What?" he asked confusedly.
Will's expression didn't change a bit.
"I've had enough, John." he said. "I'm done. You're old enough now that you should be out on your own anyway, and then you can fight to your heart's content. But I'm not gonna be there to pull you out of the next one."
"Dad…" John said. "What are you saying?"
Will turned and leapt back over the fence to the street, turning back to it as his son walked up to the iron bars.
"This human's your master now, John." he said. "Permanently. From now on, you live with him. If you stick with your training then maybe you'll make something of yourself someday. Otherwise, you're gonna wind up as just another body dead in a gutter somewhere…unmissed. Least of all by me. God knows I've given you enough chances already."
Then he rolled his shoulders and gave John one last long look.
"Good luck, boy." he said. "I hope you do become a good male someday. Until then though, my home is no longer yours. Goodbye."
Then he turned and walked away, never once looking back. John raced to the bars, fury and anguish erupting from him as he shoved his muzzle between two of them.
"Fine!" he shouted. "I'll stay away! I won't even look back! I'll be a better male than you ever were, you asshole! You just watch! My name'll be remembered forever! I'm John! I'M JOHN!"
No one answered. Will was gone. John turned and stormed back over to his kennel, growling angrily as he tried to force back his tears. Why was he acting this way, he wondered. It's not like he and his father had ever gotten along. Maybe him leaving for good was a good thing. It certainly was no big loss for him. John felt tears begin sliding down his furred, bloodied cheeks and dispatched them with a hard shake of his head.
'Don't be weak!' he told himself, listening as the human called Hidetoshi arrived back from wherever he'd been. 'Males don't cry! What kind of male are you anyway?"
Only the wind responded. Everything else was silent. John reversed his ears, his tail drooping as he realized that there was no one who could've answered him even if he had asked the question out loud. He was alone. Turning, he disappeared into the kennel, the light abandoning him as well as he passed the threshold. He intended to stay a good long while within its confines. After all, males didn't let others see them cry.
John rolled his eyes as Smith's stomach growled again, the Spaniel making no effort to cover it up as he licked his chops near the back of the group.
"God, I'm hungry!" he announced and the Shepherd shook his head, exchanging a look with Gin as the Akita glanced back at the black and white dog.
"So we hear." he replied teasingly and Kurotora raised an eyebrow at his friend.
"Are you ever not hungry, Smith?"
"Hey!" the Spaniel said defensively. "That was a long swim! And I haven't eaten in two days! What do you expect?"
The Kai dog looked at him with wide, mocking eyes.
"You haven't eaten in 2 days?" he exclaimed sarcastically. "How will you survive?"
"By hiding my food before it's all given to Akame." Smith grumbled, snorting irritatedly at Kurotora as he did.
The ninja-dog scowled at him from Zach's side, his face seemingly unable to decide whether it wanted to convey amusement or exasperation.
"I'm sorry my life-threatening injuries interfered with your eating schedule, Smith." he deadpanned, and the Spaniel looked away.
"Hmph." he huffed. "Apology accepted."
John chuckled silently as he tuned out Akame's response, hearing scattered laughter from behind him as the human city of Tosa rose up in front of them, its large buildings looking almost picturesque against the nearby sea. The Shepherd squinted as the evening wind teased at his fur, dozens of new scents wafting by his nostrils as he looked around for where Musashi and his fellow fight dogs lived.
"Over there." came a calm voice from beside him and John looked over with a start to see Gin smiling at him knowingly.
The Akita gestured with his head.
"That's where we're going," he said, motioning to a series of buildings on the other side of the city near the arena, which was just barely visible from their position. "Don't you remember?"
John snorted good-naturedly.
"I do now." he replied and Gin chuckled, the two of them starting down the hill as the rest of the pack followed closely in their wake.
Moments later, they had reached the city's main road and John silently examined the route ahead of them. Their journey South was finally about to come to an end, and for this he was secretly disappointed. It had taken them the better part of two weeks to get from Kaisume Dake to the island of Shikoku, and not a lot had happened in that time. Due to Akame's healing wounds from their encounter with Izanagi, John and the others had had to do most of the hunting and scouting themselves, which occasionally had led to bickering, but usually ended up just being more time they had to spend with each other. The day before they had reached the ocean and begun their long swim over, the Shepherd had finally gotten to spend a little time with Gin by himself, hunting with the Akita most of the day and talking about things as friends for once instead of as leaders. All in all, the experience had done him a world of good, and by the time the present day rolled around John could safely say that the only thing he was missing was some action. Now that they were in Musashi's territory though, he knew, that could easily change.
The champion fight dog had retired from the ring after the battle against Akakabuto had come to an end, and had supposedly settled instead for training other young fight dogs to be what he once had been. He certainly hadn't tired of battle though, John knew, as word had reached his ears that the Mastiff had also become the island's chief protector and boss dog since the deaths of Bill and Benizakura during the Ohu army's last 2 wars. Personally, John couldn't imagine retiring from fighting, as to him it was just too much fun, but he still respected his friend's decision. After all, ring fighting was a lot different than being on a true battlefield, and Musashi had been doing it for a long time. Either way, it would still be interesting to see how many fight dogs were left in Shikoku now that the best of them was gone, and John knew that the next few days would at the very least be interesting.
"…the hell are these things?" Chutora's voice sounded and the Shepherd snapped back to reality, his mind focusing once again on the world presently around him.
Glancing back at the older Kai dog, he followed his gaze and immediately saw a strange sight. Plastered on the fences of the buildings they were passing, photos of other dogs beamed at him one after another from multiple pieces of paper, the human markings above and below them meaning nothing to him but making him wary nonetheless.
"They're 'missing posters'." Smith said, answering Chutora's question. "The humans put them up sometimes when their pets disappear. I used to see them occasionally back when I was a pet."
"Are there usually this many of them?" Gin asked with a wary frown, passing a whole row of the flyers on the side of nearby building.
Smith shook his head.
"No." he said bluntly. "This is bizarre."
"Maybe Musashi can shed some light on them when we get there." Akame suggested and Gin nodded, snapping his gaze away from the posters and turning to his friends.
"Maybe." he replied, seemingly putting the new development out of his mind. "But before we get there, I want some fresh kills to present to Musashi and his friends. If we're his guests, the least we can do is be polite."
Kurotora snorted from his brother's side.
"Figures." he said with a smirk. "You're too nice, Gin, you know that?"
"So I've been told." the Akita replied good-naturedly. "But I still want that food."
The younger Kai dog shook his head and glanced around at the others, looking halfway between teasing and weary.
"So," he said sarcastically. "Whose turn is it?"
John grunted lightly and looked over at Gin.
"I'll go." he said and the Ohu leader looked his way. "I could use some exercise before we settle down with Musashi."
Gin looked pleased through his surprise and nodded gratefully at his co-leader.
"Thanks, John." he said, and then glanced around at his other friends. "Zach, why don't you go help him?"
The Malamute stretched himself at Akame's side.
"Can I not and say I did?" he asked and Gin gave him an unamused look.
"Only if I don't say 'That's an order'." he retorted and then paused, waiting a few seconds before adding: "And that's an order."
Zach grinned, and John heard Smith and the Kais laughing at the Akita's teasing.
"Fine," the Malamute conceded, padding up to John's side. "Let's do this fast."
The Shepherd snorted at him with a shake of his head and the two immediately broke away from the others, walking towards the tree line on the Eastern side of the city.
"Try not to slow me down." John said rudely and Zach's expression didn't change.
"Try not to be an ass."
"You really are an annoying bastard, you know that?"
"What can I say? You're a good teacher."
Gin sighed with a headshake of his own, meeting Akame's amused but sympathetic gaze moments later as the two dogs' bickering faded from earshot and Smith turned to Kurotora behind them.
"Two days hunting duty says Zach comes back with a welt on his face." he said and the Kai dog snorted.
"Pfft!" he said. "Three says they both do."
"Come on, guys." Gin said, turning back to their path. "Musashi should be waiting for us. Let's get going."
His packmates gave acknowledging grunts to this and soon the Ohu group had turned and started once more down the main road, disappearing around a curve in it moments later.
"How far in do you think we'll have to go?"
John growled in exasperation, seeing the outskirts of Tosa approaching rapidly. They hadn't even left the city yet and already his patience was being tried.
"Do you ever shut up?" he demanded with an annoyed glance, turning his eyes back to the road moments later.
Zach huffed in irritation.
"Geez." he replied. "Aren't we in a mood."
"Why don't you go hunt over there?"
"Cause it's too much fun annoying you."
John snorted, stretching himself slightly midstride.
"At least you're not being sullen anymore, I'll say that much for you." he said. "Still, I'd rather hunt with Gin."
Zach shot him a frown.
"When was I being sullen?" he asked skeptically.
"When we were passing Ibaraki on the way down here." the Shepherd replied immediately. "You're no fun when you're being a wuss."
The Malamute rolled his shoulders.
"Yeah?" he said. "Well forgive me for not wanting to face my brother again. Not that you would understand how it feels when a family member stabs you in the back."
John bit his tongue, forcing memories of his father to the back of his mind.
"You'd be surprised, kid."
Zach stopped walking and looked over at him.
"Would I?" he asked. "Try me."
"Because it's none of your damn business, that's why." the Shepherd shot back caustically. "I haven't even told Gin, why the hell would I tell you?"
Zach shook his head with a humorless laugh.
"Boy," he said. "You get cranky when things don't go your way! Fine then, don't tell me. You're probably bluffing anyway."
"I'm about 2 seconds from throwing you through that wall." John growled, getting in his face.
Zach snorted, not looking the least bit afraid.
"Oh please." he said. "Your threats are as empty as your head."
Both males shot to attention at once, forgetting their quarrel instantly.
"Who the hell?" John wondered aloud, looking around and seeing nothing.
"HELP ME, PLEASE!"
It had come from an alleyway 50 feet in front of them, and they both immediately ran towards it at full speed, nearly running into another dog as soon as they rounded the corner. Skidding to a halt, they both saw a female Shikoku-ken standing before them, panting frantically as she looked back and forth between the two of them.
"Oh, thank god!" she cried. "Please help me!"
"What is it?" John demanded. "What's wrong?"
She gestured back down the alleyway to a large open doorway at its far end, the sheer size of it suggesting some kind of warehouse or factory.
"My son got attacked by a group of dogs!" she said hysterically. "I couldn't fight them off and – Please come, they're killing him!"
With that, she turned and made a beeline for the entrance, not acknowledging either male as they yelled after her. Then Zach looked at his companion.
"John," he said. "I don't know – "
"Let's go!" the Shepherd demanded, cutting him off and immediately running after her, hearing the Malamute scramble to catch up to him shortly thereafter.
Moments later, they both ran into the lit doorway, looking around for the female as soon as they had.
"Ma'am!" John called. "Where are – "
Suddenly, pain the like of which John had never felt before hit him like a wave all at once. Every muscle in his body seized up and froze and the German Shepherd fell over onto his side twitching with a loud whine of agony. John clenched his eyes shut tightly. It felt like he was getting hit by lightning over and over again, and as soon as the pain seemed to almost subside, it would start up again anew.
"JOHN!" Zach's voice yelled in fear, and the Shepherd opened his eyes weakly in time to see at least 15 dogs attack the Malamute at once, their target doing an admirable job of avoiding the onslaught until another loud 'ZAP' was heard.
Then he too went rigid, falling over onto his side just as John had before him. From where he lay, John could do nothing, and moments later a human emerged from the shadows by the building's interior wall, a Taser in his hand and a grin on his face. At his side stood two more dogs, a brutal looking Rottweiler…and the female Shikoku-ken from the alleyway. On her face was an almost apologetic look and John immediately realized that she had known exactly what was going to happen all along. He growled angrily. They'd been tricked. Forcing himself to his paws with his remaining strength, the Shepherd saw Zach's attackers instantly rush at him, and he readied his fangs determinedly. As the first one lunged at him with a howl, John ducked his bite and slashed him hard across the throat, sending a jet of blood flying into the face of the next dog, who flopped to the ground unconscious after a head-butt between the eyes.
"Hey!" the human with the Taser whooped, shocking Zach again for good measure. "We've got ourselves a fighter, boys!"
Suddenly, the Rottweiler at his side ran forward as well and John was immediately bowled over onto his back, his strength returning too slowly to help him escape. Biting at his opponent desperately, John felt sharp fangs close on his neck with impressive force and all the air in his lungs left him at once, leaving him gasping for breath as he tried to twist himself free. After standing by and watching the two fight for a moment, the human yelled:
The Rottweiler immediately leapt off of John and darted back to his master's side, giving the German Shepherd one last kick in the face for good measure as he did. Then he turned and shot John a smug grin and the Ohu Commander tried again to get to his feet.
"Don't you…know who…you're dealing with…" he slurred angrily. "You – "
John didn't even get to finish his sentence. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground again with something standing on the side of his neck, his body too weak to throw it off. Turning his head as much as he could, John saw another human looming over him, his young face and beady eyes excited and confident as he looked down at his helpless catch. In his hand was a large baseball bat.
"Sorry, tough guy." he said in an almost mocking voice. "But it's lights out for you."
Then he raised the bat and brought it down on the top of John's head as hard as he could. The German Shepherd felt a new wave of pain hit him and lights popped before his eyes. On the second blow, the world went black.
The first sensation that returned to John was smell, and as he slowly regained consciousness, dozens of scents hit him all at once, some foul and all foreign. Where was he?
Whatever surface he was lying on was cold and felt artificial, but there was warmth pressed up against his side, and John wondered silently if its owner was friend or foe.
His hearing and sight returned together a few seconds later, and while the latter was blurry and still correcting itself, the former seemed perfectly fine, and a familiar voice came to his ears immediately.
"John, wake up!"
"Oh, thank god! I thought you'd died on me!"
"Zach?" John asked weakly, trying to sit up.
"Yeah, it's me." came the response, and John felt a paw push him gently back to the ground. "And stay down. You need to recover from that hit. You're lucky your head is so damn hard."
Shaking him off, John rolled into a normal laying position, raising his head a little as he looked around, his vision finally righting itself.
"Where are we?" he asked gruffly and Zach sat down beside him, looking left at something out of John's view.
"In a cage." the Malamute replied. "Other than that, I have no idea. The humans took us here by truck. That's about all I know."
"Well what the hell use are you then?" he teased, then allowed his gaze to soften, finally looking up at his friend. "Are you okay?"
Zach met his gaze, and John saw him nod with a reassuring smile, fresh cuts and scratches adorning his face, neck and chest.
"I'll never go out in a lightning storm again." he said sarcastically. "But yeah, I'll live."
"Good." John said, relieved that they had both survived the encounter.
"I see your friend's awake." came a new voice suddenly, and John immediately turned towards it in surprise. "He looks perfectly fine."
Standing before them was a large Canaan Dog, his face sporting an unreadable expression as his brown eyes scanned them warily. Numerous scars decorated his milky white form and though he seemed unafraid, his demeanor suggested suspicion, and he kept a few feet in between himself and them.
"None of us are gonna be 'perfectly fine' for long if we don't get the hell out of here!" Zach replied irritably. "Which might have already happened if you hadn't stopped me attacking that Rottweiler."
The Canaan narrowed his eyes slightly, and it was only then that John realized how young he was.
"If I hadn't stopped you," he said shortly. "Dante would've torn you apart. That dog's a fucking sadist. He'll take any excuse he can get to hurt you. And there's no way either one of you could've taken him on in the conditions you were in."
"And just who the hell are you?" John asked bluntly, looking the new dog from snout to tail.
The Canaan bowed his head slightly.
"My name's Thrinn." he said simply. "I'm kinda like the boss in here, at least among us prisoners. It's an honor to meet you."
John returned the nod slowly, trying to detect any sign of deceit in the other male's words. Finding none, he relented.
"Is that so?" he said. "Well then, the honor's all mine. Now where are we?"
Thrinn turned and gestured to his right, and John pushed himself slowly to a sitting position.
"If there's a paradise in Shikoku," he rumbled. "Then you're in the place it's furthest from. This is 'Limbo'."
"Limbo?" John asked skeptically, his eyebrow raised.
"That's what we all call it anyway." he said. "If you're looking for an actual location though, then I can't help you. Your guess is as good as mine."
"Why do you call it 'Limbo'?" Zach asked, and Thrinn turned to look at him.
"Because if you don't earn your way out of here, you die." he replied, then frowned slightly. "What are your names, by the way? I never asked."
John started to respond to the question but suddenly Zach cut him off, giving the other dog a fake smile as he did so.
"I'm Riley." he said. "This is my friend James. We were passing through Tosa when we were taken."
"Weren't we all?" he said and then turned away from them with a snort, glancing back over his shoulder as he did. "Well, try not to draw attention to yourself and stay away from the bars. I'll be back in a minute to tell you what you need to know."
Then he turned and disappeared into a crowd of dogs amassing to their right, and John finally realized that they were not at all alone in their newfound captivity. As soon as Thrinn was gone, the Shepherd turned to Zach.
"I assume you have a reason for doing what you just did." he said seriously and the Malamute looked at him.
"Yeah," he said quietly. "Self-preservation. Something seriously bad is going on here, John. You didn't see some of the shit I saw coming in. I have a feeling that if any of these dogs find out who we really are, we'll be in deep trouble."
John snorted softly.
"Lucky for you I think you're right." he said and turned to look at where Thrinn had disappeared to. "Did you find out anything about the bastards that brought us here?"
"No." Zach said with a shake of his head. "And honestly I don't really care. Right now I just want to get back to Gin and the others."
"You read my mind, kid." he agreed and finally looked at their surroundings, taking it all in with a steadily increasing sense of dread.
They were indeed in a cage, he saw, and a big one. The massive barred cell they were in seemed to stretch from one far wall to the other, and encompassed nearly half of the even larger room in was located in. The floor beneath them varied between cold steel and wet dirt, and continued all the way past a huge set of swinging wooden doors on their left that led somewhere unknown. On the wall in front of them was an imposing metal rack that housed muzzles, chains, and weapons of all sorts, and to its right was another set of doors. This second pair was especially unsettling to John, as it was locked with 3 separate deadbolts and appeared to be electrified, demonstrating clearly that whoever their captors were, they didn't want anyone getting in there…or getting out. Turning his gaze away from it, John looked at their cellmates. There were at least 30 other dogs with them, he saw, and growled under his breath as he recognized a number of them from the "missing" posters in Tosa, now actual flesh and blood instead of just a picture with a face. Right as he finished looking over them, Thrinn emerged from their center.
"All right," he said in a deadly serious tone. "Listen carefully, cause I might only get to say this once. You were brought here because they want you to fight. The humans, that is. They brought you here to battle."
"Fight who?" John asked and the Canaan Dog looked at him with a sigh.
"Us." he said and the Shepherd's eyes widened in confusion.
"What do you mean?" Zach said.
"The dog fighting championships in Tosa were cancelled this year." Thrinn replied. "The real ones that is, in the arena. Our local champion Musashi stepped down from the ring and they couldn't get enough dogs to replace him so they cancelled the championship altogether. About a week later, these bastards started kidnapping us off the street to have a championship of their own. The only difference is…these fights are to the death. They're not controlled like they are in town. These psychos want blood, and a lot of it."
"So stand up to them!" John said crossly. "Join together and fight against them!"
"We can't." the Canaan Dog said. "There are too many humans and they all have guns. We have no choice and neither do you. All you can do is hope they don't make you fight each other. One way or another though…you have to fight."
"Why?" Zach said, and Thrinn gestured to the locked set of doors.
"Cause if you don't, you're taken to 'The Labs'." he said in a subdued voice. "In the ring, you at least have a chance to survive if you're tough. But in there… No one who goes through those doors comes out alive. You fight…or you die."
John tensed up considerably at those words, his every sense on high alert as the full gravity of their situation finally hit him. He looked at Thrinn.
"Why are those dogs helping them do this?" he asked angrily. "What do they get out of it?"
"The satisfaction of watching you suffer." came a smug, high-pitched voice and the Shepherd whipped his gaze towards it, hearing both Zach and Thrinn do the same beside him.
Standing just outside the cage bars was the Rottweiler from before, a toothy grin on his face, and his cruel eyes were fixed right on the group of them. Flanking him on either side were two large mix breeds who looked disgusted by the prisoners in front of them, as if they didn't even consider them fellow dogs. Around him, John heard numerous other prisoners retreat quickly to the back of the cage away from them, and he stood his ground defiantly as Thrinn whispered:
"Don't talk back to them. It'll make things a hundred times worse, believe me."
The Rottweiler smirked.
"Smart boy." he taunted and then looked around at the others in the cage. "To those of you maggots who don't know, my name is Dante. The reason you're here is for a great purpose…to entertain us. You see, our masters are very smart humans. They know that it's the right of every leader to use his subordinates for his own entertainment. And since all your lives now belong to us…you will entertain us. You will march through these doors into our arena and you will shed each other's when told…without question. If you don't, I can and will make your lives a living hell."
To John's right, a young greyhound inched up to the cage bars.
"Please," he begged. "Let us go! My brother is sick! He needs help!"
Dante tilted his head and leaned in.
"What was that?" he asked. "Sorry, I didn't quite hear that. Come a little closer and say it again."
The greyhound cautiously stepped closer to him.
"I said my – "
Suddenly, before John could yell at him to get back, Dante shot his muzzle through the bars and grabbed the young dog by the throat, ripping it out with a sickening tearing noise moments later. Screams and shouts erupted from all around the cage as the greyhound's body immediately slumped to the ground lifeless, and John snarled as Dante stepped back with a smirk.
"You fucking coward!" he yelled, hearing someone sobbing "Brother!" off to his right. "That kid was no threat to you!"
Dante's head swiveled his way and his eyes narrowed on the Shepherd.
"Ah, the new boys…" he chuckled, his supercilious grin making John want to rip his face off. "You haven't been through this before so I'll let you off the hook this time. However…"
He walked right up to the bars and John did as well, feeling the eyes of everyone else there on him as their murderous gazes bore into each other furiously.
"…call me out again and I'll see to it that more innocent people die." the Rottweiler finished. "Right in front of you."
Then he suddenly spit in the Shepherd's face and John stepped back in shocked disgust, launching himself at the bars with a roar of fury moments later, trying to bite and claw at the Rottweiler through the openings. Dante and his subordinates laughed mockingly at him as they stepped back towards the opposing wall and John felt Zach restraining him forcefully as he tried to get at them.
"Stop!" the Malamute hissed. "You can't get to him! It's not worth it anyway!"
"Get off me!" John snarled, throwing him off by force moments later and sending him stumbling sideways into another dog.
Dante smirked again.
"At least one of you is smart enough to know his place." he said and Zach immediately shot him a withering glare, righting himself as he did.
"You misunderstand me." he replied scathingly. "I meant it's not worth it because you're not worth it. You're as sad and pathetic as your entire inbred family. Why should he stoop so low as to waste his time with you?"
Dante stopped laughing instantly and stepped forward with a furious growl as John looked over at his friend in surprise, secretly delighted by the other male's bluntness.
"Say that again!" the Rottweiler threatened with a deadly glare. "Say it to my fucking face you motherfu– "
Suddenly a series of clicks sounded and the locked doors swung open with a 'BANG', two humans walking out at a brisk pace moments later, making all the dogs in the room turn to look at them, and in some cases, scurry out of their line of sight. One of the humans, John could see, was a tall man wearing gloves and carrying a large plastic bag in one hand. The other was shorter with glasses and a white lab coat, a recorder of some kind in his hand as he followed the taller one.
"Dump it into the ocean with the others." he told him in an unconcerned, professional sounding voice. "We'll just have to start over."
"Damn thing's heavy!" the tall man complained, but the man in the white coat ignored him.
Instead, he began speaking into his recorder.
"Personal log," he said. "Dr. Okinawa. September 14, 2002 – "
Suddenly, the plastic bag ripped with a loud tearing noise and John watched in horror as a dismembered dog's body spilled out onto the floor, its decapitated head rolling over to the edge of the cage before coming to rest.
"God damn it." the tall man said, then turned around exasperatedly. "I'll get another bag."
"Hurry up." the man in the white coat ordered, turning back to his recorder as soon as he had. "Progress report number 5. Test subject 116: Deceased."
Then, without another word, he turned and disappeared back through the doors, closing them behind him as he walked. John swallowed hard, willing himself silently not to show fear as Dante and his subordinates shot them one last glare and then followed in the human's wake, slipping through a crack in the door as the tall man reemerged holding a new bag. To his right, Thrinn panned his gaze back to them, and the Shepherd could see both anger and fear in his eyes as he fixed them with a serious look.
"I hope you'll heed my words now," he said quietly. "Because what you just saw is the price of defiance."
Then he turned away, looking back one last time before he was gone.
"Sleep close together." he said. "Rest your heads on each others' backs. If you sleep alone…they'll take you during the night."
Once he was satisfied that they had gotten the message, he quickly padded away, both John and Zach looked after him as he did. Neither was willing yet to meet the other's gaze as they stood in silence and soon all lights in the room went off, bathing the world in darkness. Behind him, John heard Zach give a ragged sigh.
"Oh crap." the Malamute breathed, an almost unnoticeable quaver in his voice that only John detected.
'You're telling me, kid.' the Shepherd thought. 'You're telling me.'
Gin paced back and forth on the building's outer wall, looking occasionally towards the forest with a worried face, his every sense on high alert. Below him in the courtyard, Musashi, Akame, and Smith stood together talking, their voices just barely audible to the Akita, and though he couldn't make out what they were saying for the life of him, he could tell that they were concerned as well. It had been over a day since John and Zach had failed to return from their hunt, and though at first Gin had not been worried, it soon became apparent that something was wrong, and he had taken his fears immediately to Musashi, who knew the area better than he did. The Mastiff had been happy to see them all upon their arrival, and seemed to be in a better state of mind than any of the Ohu group had expected, especially given his recent retirement from the sport he'd known all his life. In fact, to him, fighting was a way of life, and Gin had immediately seen similarities between the muscular brown male and the missing John as the former taught his students various techniques to use against each other in the ring. After Gin had come to him anxious though, Musashi had told him something very disquieting about the rest of Tosa, something that only increased the Akita's concern a hundredfold.
"Dogs have been disappearing around here." the Mastiff had said gravely. "And we don't know why. It's bad enough the humans cancelled the championships this year, and now this happens."
"And no one knows where they're going?" Kurotora had asked uneasily and Musashi shook his large head.
"No." he replied. "And we've tried to find out. I've staked out the borders of the city myself. Nothing. No one sees them or hears from them again. It's like they're vanishing into thin air."
"Gin, this is bad." Smith had said nervously. "If John and Zach aren't back by now, whatever happened to these dogs might have happened to them too."
"Yeah," Chutora nodded in agreement. "Especially with their bickering. They might have attracted the attention of something dangerous."
Gin nodded as well, trying to remain calm and in control.
"Even if they haven't." he ordered. "We have to find them soon, before something does happen to them."
"Gin," Musashi had jumped in. "I'm afraid I can't let you go. You're going to need to stay here. All of you. At least until we know it's safe in the city."
"We can't just sit – " Kurotora had started but Musashi looked at him too.
"I'll send out the fight dogs." he said. "They know this place well. Once we ask around a little, if we still find nothing, then you can join us. Until then though, your safety is my top priority. Please understand."
Then, without waiting for an answer, he had turned and implemented his plan, leaving Gin feeling slightly irritated and left out. He sighed atop the wall. He had never been good at just sitting and waiting, and now that something may have happened to his best friend, he was more anxious than he had been in a long time, especially since Musashi's search had thus far turned up nothing useful at all. Hearing footsteps behind him, Gin glanced over his shoulder and saw Chutora standing there, looking at him with a concerned expression.
"You okay, Gin?" he asked.
The Akita turned back to the city.
"Where the hell are they, Chutora?" he asked. "This isn't like either one of them."
"They're tough, leader." the Kai dog replied. "Wherever they are, they'll be fine."
"I hope so." he said, frowning slightly in worry. "I'm the one who sent them out there. If anything happens to them, it's my fault."
"Gin," Chutora said in exasperation. "Don't do that to yourself. There's no way you could've known this would happen."
"I'm their leader, Chutora." the Akita said, glancing over at him. "It doesn't matter. Anything that happens falls on me."
The Kai dog sat down beside him.
"Have faith, Gin." he said. "They'll be all right. I know it."
Gin smiled slightly, though it was forced.
"I wish I had your confidence." he said. "But thanks."
"Is it John who's worrying you?"
"It's both of them." Gin said, scanning the forest in the distance with his studying gaze. "I always worry about John and his temper, that one day he'll start a fight he can't win. He's one of the strongest males I've ever known, and he's my best friend, but you know as well as I do that he's not the most patient dog in the world. That worries me. It also reminds me of someone else, too."
"Zach?" Chutora grinned and Gin nodded with a smile.
"Zach." he affirmed and let the smile slide off his muzzle. "Those two are more alike than they realize. That's why they're constantly bickering. It's like every time they're put together they both realize how annoying they themselves can be to live with…and that in turn annoys them."
Chutora laughed, glancing over his shoulder at where the others were still talking.
"Sounds about right, leader." he said, licking his fangs.
Gin nodded courteously.
"Still," he said, worry returning to his face. "If anything happens to them I don't know what I'm gonna do."
"Relax, Gin." Chutora said, glancing at him briefly before turning his gaze back to the city as well. "No one's going anywhere. Not John, not Zach, and not the others. We all plan on sticking around for a good long while…even me."
Gin smirked and was about to respond when he heard a voice call his name from behind. Turning towards it in mild surprise, he saw Akame looking up at him from the courtyard below.
"Gin," he said. "Still nothing from the city. Musashi's agreed to let us go out and help look."
"Good." Gin said with a determined nod. "Cause I was about to go anyway."
Akame smiled knowingly and Gin met his gaze seriously.
"Get everyone ready to go." he ordered. "Let's start searching."
The Kishu nodded and sprang away to tell the others, leaving Gin and Chutora alone once more on the wall where they sat. Finally, Gin stood, the breeze blowing through his fur as he did. It was nearly morning. He looked out at the city of Tosa firmly.
'We're coming John,' he thought. 'Zach. Wherever you are, please stay safe… we're coming…'
Kohei pushed the second door open as the first one closed behind him, feeling his dog Dante trailing closely on his heels as he strode into the laboratory wing of the abandoned complex. Taking another cigarette out of his front pocket, he stuffed it between his teeth and lit it casually as a table came into view in front of him, positioned carefully beside a pair of swinging doors that led into a sterilized morgue of a room, where most of the actual action took place. Standing at the foot of the table was the scientist who ran it, his thick, wire-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose as he scribbled notes furiously in a leather bound notebook, listening to his own voice on a tape recorder as he did. Kohei exhaled a puff of smoke into the air.
'Well, well…' he thought. 'Dr. Okinawa in the flesh. That's twice in one day. It must be a busy week.'
The older man didn't seem to notice him, but Kohei honestly didn't care. As far as he and the others were concerned, the good doctor was a complete basket case. There was little they could do, however, when Okinawa was the one supplying them with a location to stage their dogfights. At any rate though, the small, grey-haired man gave him the creeps.
"Is there something I can do for you, Kohei?"
The younger man looked up in mild surprise, looking at Dr. Okinawa's face even though the elder man had not looked up from his scribbling.
"Just seeing what you're up to, doc." Kohei said. "I always get a good sci-fi story every time I come over here, so…"
"Yes, I'll bet you do." the elder man said, switching off the tape recorder and shoving his pen into the pocket of his white lab coat, which he always wore. "I hear you're having another fight soon."
"Tonight." Kohei responded, blowing more smoke. "Just figuring out the dogs. You coming?"
"I'm afraid I don't have the time."
"What?" the younger man scoffed, not bothering to hide his distain. "More experiments? I swear, doc, if you actually tried fighting these beasts like the rest of us you'd actually make some money for a change. What the hell have you gotten out of this shit except more grey hair?"
Dr. Okinawa stood up straight and looked at him, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
"Pocket change." he said in a calm voice. "That's what you all scam out of each other right now. When this is done though…my work…I'll make 20 times that in one night."
"The loony bin's callin' doc." Kohei said, rubbing Dante behind the ears. "They say you missed your daily meds."
"Can you even imagine how much people would pay for a dog that doesn't feel pain?" the elder man asked seriously. "Ones that are born that way are exceedingly rare, but if a dog can actually be conditioned to not feel pain, imagine the possibilities. You'd make a fortune in the fighting arena, especially in Tosa."
Kohei raised an eyebrow.
"And you expect to make these mongrels not feel pain by…torturing them?" he said sarcastically. "Yeah, that makes sense."
"It all depends on the dog, Kohei." Okinawa replied, not fazed in the slightest. "Some can take the conditioning and others can't. Thus far, I'm still looking for the right one, a dog that possesses certain traits that others…lack."
He looked down at Dante when he said this and the Rottweiler growled warningly at him from his master's side, baring his teeth as he lowered himself into a fighting stance. Kohei rested a hand on the nape of the dog's neck.
"Don't even think about it, doc." he said. "This here's my ace in the hole. He's taking on whichever one of those mutts we kidnapped survives the fights. Sort of a championship round. The last thing I need is to lose my money by having you tear him to pieces."
Okinawa cleaned his glasses, turning back to the table and putting on a set of surgeon's gloves.
"Don't worry, boy." he said. "He's not good enough."
Then he turned to the lab doors.
"I'll be out in a few minutes to select another test subject." he said over his shoulder, no longer looking at the other man. "Make sure one's ready for me."
Then he disappeared into the laboratories and out of sight. Kohei spit his cigarette onto the ground, snuffing it out with his boot as soon as he had.
"Fucking nutjob." he snorted.
Then he turned and walked towards the holding room, grabbing the keys as he unlocked the door and pushed it open, intending to remove the lock from the cage door before heading out for another smoke. Inside the smaller middle room, Dante watched him go, clenching his teeth tightly as he stared at the darkened walls around him. The proximity to the labs unnerved him slightly, but as much as the man in the white coat scared him, he also awed him. No one could cause pain like he did, the black furred dog knew, and he loved to listen to the screams and howls of the human's victims from outside the doorway with his fellow guards, listening to the whir and hum of the tools from inside and trying to identify what they were by sound alone. He smirked as he remembered the man's words.
'I wonder which one he'll select?' he thought brutally. 'Maybe I'll get to see the corpse before those humans dispose of it.'
He stretched himself, suddenly hoping with a grin that it was one of the two new dogs who would be taken, and that thought sent cheerfully violent daydreams surging through his head…at least until a voice broke his concentration.
"Dante," it said. "I quit. I'm done."
He rolled his eyes exasperatedly.
'I swear,' he thought. 'When I'm the leader of Shikoku, the first rule I'm gonna make is that females only speak when spoken to.'
Turning around, he saw the Shikoku-ken standing before him, a darkly determined look on her face.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Kana." he said in his gruff voice. "And more importantly, so is your little brother."
She stormed up to him angrily.
"I have done everything you've asked of me and more!" she hissed at him, snapping her teeth together mere inches from his nose. "These dogs have done nothing to you, Dante! I'm through luring them here for you to hurt!"
"Do you know what they do behind those doors, Kana?" the Rottweiler drawled, looking her right in the eye like a predator eyeing his prey. "I've heard grown males sobbing and howling like newborns when that human brings the needles out."
She cringed slightly, her ears reversing as she remembered the horrible noises. Seeing this, Dante leaned in.
"Imagine then how it would be for a pup." he said. "And all the terrible things they would do."
Then suddenly, he lunged and grabbed her by the throat before she could respond, pinning her to the wall moments later by it as hard as he could.
"You listen to me, you self righteous little bitch," he growled, still looking her in the eye as her hind legs kicked at him furiously and she gasped for air. "You're gonna do exactly what I tell you to, or your brother is going straight to those labs first thing in the morning. You got that? Blink if you understand."
She closed her eyes slowly, straining herself and looking furious as she did. When they reopened again moments later, Dante kept his gaze fixed on hers.
"You belong to me now." he said with a smug grin. "You're mine. If you keep saying otherwise, things will get very, very ugly. Now get the fuck outta my sight!"
Turning, he threw her as hard as he could at the opposite wall, hearing her hit it with a wood-splintering 'CRASH' and then slump to the ground at its base when she had come to rest. Glaring death at him, Kana got to her paws shakily.
"I'll kill you." she threatened. "One day, Dante…I'll kill you."
Then she turned and walked away and the Rottweiler smirked after her, eying her backside hungrily as she limped around a corner and was gone. No sooner had she disappeared though than Desoto, one of his subordinates, strode purposefully into the room.
"What do you want?" he asked bluntly. "More leeway to hurt the prisoners? 'Cause if that's the case then I can happily oblige."
Desoto shook his head, looking strangely excited to the Rottweiler.
"No, Boss." he said. "We just got some news from town. Gin of Ohu's been spotted in Tosa."
Dante stopped dead. Turning, he looked at the other male.
"What did you just say?" he asked.
"I said Gin of Ohu's in Tosa." Desoto repeated, looking him in the eye. "And he's not alone. His entire upper echelon is there too. Musashi seems to have called them in."
"I thought Musashi was gone!" Dante demanded with a growl. "And why the hell is Gin all the way down here in Shikoku?"
"They seem to be looking for someone, Boss." Desoto grinned. "One of Gin's top commanders by the look of it…and you're never gonna guess where our sources think he is…or who."
Dante licked his chops, a bloodthirsty grin of his own spreading over his muzzle as the other male leaned in and whispered the answer. Moments later, he glanced at the door that led to where their captives were being held.
"No shit." he said, chuckling delightedly. "Well now…"
Then he pushed past Desoto and started walking to the door, the other male following him as he did.
"Where are you going, Boss?" Desoto asked and Dante grinned at him lethally.
"We've got a genuine Ohu commander in our cell, Desoto." he said in a mock sweet voice. "The least I can do is say 'hi'."
Then he kept walking and moved towards the doorway once more, the smirk on his face widening as he did. Desoto followed him and they disappeared through it quickly, not turning back once as it swung shut behind them.
John rolled his eyes with a growl, his exasperation growing with every new minute he had to spend in the cage.
"We need to band together and attack!" he said fiercely, facing his fellow prisoners. "If we're gonna die fighting, we might as well die fighting for our freedom!"
"It's suicide." Thrinn replied with a shake of his head. "Waiting it all out is the only – "
"Waiting it out?" John scoffed incredulously. "All that'll come of that is sitting here until we're dragged through those doors and shot! At least if we attack we have a chance! Don't be a coward!"
"Don't you dare call me a coward!" Thrinn threatened, baring his teeth at the other male. "We all know more about this than you do."
"Yeah, pal!" another irritated voice demanded. "Don't go around acting like you know better!"
It took all the willpower John possessed not to tell them who he was. After barely sleeping the previous night for fear of what might happen, the Shepherd's head wound had begun to act up again, and the pain combined with inaction had made him very testy. The fact that this argument had resurfaced again didn't help matters and he was beginning to lose patience with everyone around him. He glared at the crowd of dogs.
"I have fought in wars before," he said, trying to calm himself slightly. "I know what I'm talking about. Just sitting here is the worst thing we can do! Zach, back me up here!"
The Malamute glanced at him for a second, but then looked away.
"Where would we go, John?" he asked in a solemn voice. "Getting out of this cage is easy enough, especially now that that human unlocked it, but where the hell would we go after that? All those doors are locked…and that's not even mentioning the fact that we don't know where we are. We need a plan."
The Shepherd growled at him.
"What, you too?" he said incredulously. "What happened to your pride, all of you? If we don't act, then – "
Suddenly, his head wound flared up again and John winced hard, collapsing onto his stomach moments later with a paw between his ears. Zach walked up to him immediately.
"You know me better than that." he said in a mildly irritated voice. "But I know that you're smart enough to know we can't just rush out without a plan. I agree with what you're saying…but not yet."
"What I know," John hissed rudely, clutching at his head. "Is that I'm apparently the only one with the balls to do anything around here! If I knew you were gonna be this useless, I would've had Gin leave you in Ibaraki where you belong!"
Zach shook his head, not looking hugely offended by his friend's assertion.
"It's a wonder you're not surrounded by friends." he said sarcastically. "What with that charming personality of yours."
John glared death at him out of the corner of his eye.
"Zach," he threatened. "I swear to god, I'm gonna bite you on the– "
"Wait!" Thrinn suddenly cut him off, looking suddenly suspicious. "Zach? I thought you said your name was 'Riley'!"
John's eyes widened as he realized his mistake, and he mentally kicked himself for making such a stupid error. Before anyone could say another word though, the door with the two locks on it swung open with a 'BANG' and Dante entered the room, tailed by two huge subordinates as he passed the threshold. The whole place immediately went silent and dogs backed away from the cage bars quickly as the Rottweiler sauntered up, a furious but triumphant look on his face that made John very nervous. The guard dog panned his gaze left to right silently, the two subordinates standing at the ready just behind him, looking positively bloodthirsty in their demeanor. Then Dante smirked.
"So which one of you is it?" he asked, his voice eerily calm. "Which one of you is John of Ohu?"
John froze where he lay, his whole body tensing up instantly. How the hell had he been found out? Around him, no one said a word, and Dante took a step forward.
"Don't wanna talk, John?" he spat. "You fucking coward. Let's try again. Which one of you…is it?"
Again there was silence around the room and Dante walked up to the cage bars.
"Jooooohhnnny…" he said in a thoroughly mocking sing-song voice. "Why don't you come out and plaaaaaaaaay?"
Then he cracked his neck.
"Or else I'll have to kill every last dog in here 'til I find you." he finished malevolently.
John felt his blood boil. Despite the great pain and weakness still shooting through him, it took all the effort he possessed not to dart up and attack the Rottweiler on the spot. Still, John was no fool. He knew that if he got caught in his condition, he would probably not survive whatever hell the evil dog and his henchmen would deal out. He gritted his fangs.
'Shit!' he thought. 'What the hell do I do? I can't die here! I need to get back to Gin and the others!'
Dante nodded from where he stood with a little shrug.
"OK." he said. "Have it your way."
Then suddenly, he reached through the bars of the cage and grabbed a young Borzoi by the throat before anyone could react, much as he had done the first time John had seen him after their initial fight. And just like then, with one hard jerk of the Rottweiler's head the young dog's life came to an end, blood spurting everywhere he fell over onto his side, twitching and convulsing in his final death throes. John inhaled sharply and there was a chorus of whimpers and yells around the room as Dante licked the blood off his fangs and backed up a few steps, still looking angry.
"You mutts have 5 seconds to tell me which one of you is John or I will slaughter everyone in this room. 1…2…3…"
John sighed deeply. There was no other choice now. He started to stand shakily when suddenly – "
The Shepherd grunted softly in surprise and looked towards the voice that had spoken. Standing beside him, looking equally as determined as he was, was Zach. The Malamute glared at Dante and took a step forward.
"I'm John." he repeated. "If you deal with anyone, you deal with me."
John forced himself to his feet with a growl.
"Zach," he said loudly. "What the hell are you doing?"
Then he looked at Dante as well.
"I'm John of – "
"Zach, you don't have to protect me from this bastard." Zach said, cutting him off. "Let me handle this."
John was momentarily speechless. He glared at his friend.
"What?" he snapped. "You idiot! What are you thinking – "
Zach ignored him and started to walk forward towards the cage door, but John immediately reached out and grabbed him by the neck.
"Zach," he growled in a dead serious tone. "Don't you dare go out there for me!"
The Malamute turned and looked at him for a moment without saying a word. Then he gave his friend a small smile, unseen by anyone but the two of them.
"Goodbye, John." he whispered.
Then he turned and jerked out of the Shepherd's grasp, walking calmly the rest of the way to the cage door seconds later. Dante looked at his subordinates and growled.
"Take him!" he hissed, yanking the door open with his jaws, and John struggled mightily to force his legs to work right, watching as the Rottweiler's two huge subordinates grabbed Zach by the neck hard, dragging him along between them as soon as they had.
"Zach!" John shouted hoarsely, finally leaping up to the bars. "God damn it, I'm John! I'M JOHN!"
Dante didn't listen to him at all and Zach grinned back at the Shepherd as he was being dragged away.
"Do me a favor, Zach," he said, meeting John's gaze. "Tell Gin…tell the others…it was an honor."
"Zach, don't do this!" John begged, looking uncharacteristically vulnerable. "Please…"
"Shut the fuck up!" Dante snarled, snapping at the bars as the door with the locks swung open a second time.
Out of it walked the man in the white coat and he looked upon the scene with a completely uninterested expression, as if he'd seen it a hundred times before.
"Hmm…" he said, looking at Zach. "You must be the one Kohei left for me. You look promising enough."
He reached out and grabbed the Malamute by the scruff of the neck with a vice-like grip, locking the cage door behind him as he turned. Then he dragged him back through the doorway and closed that door behind him as well, Dante and his troops following in his wake as he did. Moments later, they were out of sight. Back in the cage, John stared at the door in horror as the room around him became eerily silent, feeling the eyes of Thrinn and the other prisoners boring into him as he stood motionless by the bars. That, however, was all he could do. Zach was gone.
Kana hid herself back in the shadows as she listened, her sensitive ears picking up every subtle movement that went on around her. In the large arena area of the complex, she could hear the humans setting up for the fights that would happen later that night, getting things ready for when groups of cheering men could watch two dogs rip each other to shreds for entertainment. Even the thought made her sick. She was no stranger to violence, having had to shed more than a little blood to protect her brother while they travelled down to Shikoku to start a new life together, but the way these humans and their dogs relished in it disgusted her. That, however, was just the arena. The laboratory at the other end of the complex was a different story altogether. It was a thousand times worse.
She had never been in there personally, but she had heard the screams and howls from behind its doors many times now, and she was getting tired of doing nothing to help. That's where she was now, staring at those doors and wondering if her brother was somewhere back in there. She had just seen Dante and that human in the white coat drag another dog through the swinging doors and disappear from her view, and though Dante had emerged moments later with a delighted, smug look on his face, Kana knew that what was about to take place in there would be anything but pleasant. Seeing Dante walk away, she inched closer to the door and leapt up on a wooden table near it, straining her neck as she looked inside through a window. Her breath immediately caught in her throat. The Malamute she had helped lure there lay strapped to a metal table in the center of the room, his mobility pretty much gone as the white-coated human bustled around at the counters and tables surrounding him. Kana gripped the table hard with her claws.
'So this is John of Ohu?' she wondered aloud. 'He doesn't look at all like I pictured him.'
She suspected that the famous Ohu warrior had turned himself in to protect his friend in the cage, and she knew that he wouldn't last very long inside that laboratory if something wasn't done. No one ever did. Kana reversed her ears. She couldn't go against Dante, she couldn't. Her brother would die. Still…this dog had helped defeat Akakabuto, and was a genuine hero among dogs. Not only that, he seemed like a decent person, which in her experience was a rarity for males to say the least. Could she really sit there and just let him die? She had heard too many deaths already, had caused too many. Suddenly, there was a voice from within the lab and she snapped out of her thoughts, listening with bated breath.
"Personal log: Dr. Okinawa." the voice said, and she realized that the human was talking into his tape recorder. "September 15th, 2002. Test subject number 117, report number 1. Subject is an Alaskan Malamute, male, approximately 3-4 years of age."
He put the recorder down on a tabletop. Then he picked up a hypodermic syringe from nearby and flicked it, making sure the yellowish liquid inside came out of the needlepoint. This done, he leaned over and injected the Malamute in the shoulder, tossing the syringe back on the counter as soon as he was done.
"Administering 1 CC of Quinuclidinyl Benzilate for conditioning test number 1." the human said in an emotionless voice. "Compound amplifies pain receptors in the muscles and makes even the slightest pinprick feel as though you're being stabbed."
Then Kana saw him take a power drill off of another table and move over to the Malamute, pushing his glasses back up his nose. She heard the dog growl at him, and he ran a hand lightly through its neck fur.
"Don't worry." the man in the white coat said to the Malamute. "The pain is for a purpose. You and I are gonna make history, I know it. And once we're done, your pain will be gone entirely."
Then she heard the drill begin to whir menacingly and the human smiled.
"Here's to history." he said.
Kana clenched her eyes shut and looked away as quickly as she could, trying not to listen as a horrible screaming began sounding from within the laboratory moments later. She trembled, collapsing partially against the wall as tears streamed down her face. This was her fault… All this was her fault. This couldn't be allowed to continue. Taking a deep breath, Kana made up her mind. Someone had to know what was happening in this place, and she knew who to tell. Standing up straight and clenching her jaw determinedly, Kana slunk quietly to the other side of the room, and disappeared out the door.
John paced back and forth in his cage furiously, glancing over at the doorway where Zach had been taken and occasionally letting loose a deep throated growl under his breath. He felt like an idiot. As a leader of Ohu, it was his job to be leading the fight against their enemies, not letting other people take punishment intended for him. It was bad enough that anyone had to suffer that fate, but a friend of his no less… Some leader he was. Everyone had heard Zach's howl of agony from behind the walls, and though it had been faint, John had instantly been able to tell what it was. This had resulted in him launching himself at the bars of the cage in desperation, trying to use his considerable strength and size to break them in any way he could so he could rescue his comrade and get the hell out of there. Unfortunately, he had had no such luck, and had been left with little else but a bruised shoulder and bloodied forehead. Suddenly, he nearly ran into someone, and saw Thrinn standing in his path when he looked up in irritation.
"What the hell do you want?" he snapped, unconcerned with being cordial.
Thrinn didn't seem to mind his rudeness, and instead looked almost awed.
"Are you really…John of Ohu?" the Canaan Dog asked. "Was what you said true?"
"Of course I am!" John replied impatiently. "Not that that means shit right now!"
Thrinn looked down at the ground, his expression suggesting he was trying to process the sudden surprise.
"Wow…" he muttered. "Okay, um… Look, you need to calm down before the humans hear you and come back in here."
John looked him in the eye defiantly.
"Let 'em!" he barked. "Maybe then they'll open that door and we'll have a chance to attack!"
"If they open that door, they're gonna shock you and take you to the arena to fight." Thrinn replied. "And that won't help your friend one bit. Our best option is to lay low."
John turned on the other dog angrily, getting in his face before he could stop himself.
"When are you mongrels gonna grow a backbone and fight for your lives?" he demanded. "Huh? Cause the fact that you're still in here tells me that laying low isn't doing much for you right now."
"And your strategy will, will it?" Thrinn said sarcastically, wrinkling his muzzle in irritation.
John looked him up and down.
"It's better than just sitting here." he said, and before Thrinn could reply the arena door swung open and in walked Dante and two humans, one of which had a muzzle and a leash.
The moment John saw this, he forgot about Thrinn and stormed up to the bars with a furious snarl.
"You!" he spat, glaring straight at Dante with his teeth bared. "Get in here and fight like a real male! Stop hiding behind those humans!"
"Or what?" he grinned. "You'll curse me to death? Careful, Zach…we wouldn't want to end up like dear John, would we?"
"I am John, you stupid prick!" the Shepherd snarled. "And if you hurt one more hair on his head I swear to god I'll break you in half!"
"Sure you will." Dante scoffed, but then one of the humans' laughter cut them both off.
"Hey, check this one out Kohei!" he said, gesturing to John. "It's that dog from earlier! He's got some fight left in him!"
The other human followed his gaze and nodded, chomping down on his cigarette.
"Good." he said. "Let's take him for the match. I'll shock him, you get the muzzle on."
"Maybe we should let him and Dante fight it out." the first human said. "They seem to want to as it is."
"If he lives long enough," Kohei said, "Sure. Until then though, just let 'em bark 'til they're blue in the face. Get out of here! Go!"
The last words had been spoken to Dante, who turned and shot another smug grin at John before disappearing back through the door. John followed him with his gaze, feeling the hackles on the back of his neck standing straight up in anger. Suddenly, pain shot through him and his muscles seized up just like before, making him fall over onto his side moments later helplessly. Letting out a yelp of pain despite himself, John felt a strong hand yank him through the suddenly open cell door before he could recover from the Taser shock. Then a muzzle was shoved over his nose and mouth and John immediately tried to fight off his captors, thrashing left and right in an unsuccessful attempt to throw them off.
"Take these two to the arena." Kohei said, and John watched as another dog from his cell was also dragged out. "Everybody's already waiting."
"Got it." the first human said, and John felt himself getting dragged forcefully towards the doorway.
Glancing back, he looked right at Thrinn.
"When I come back," he said. "You better figure out where your priorities lie. And what kind of male you want to be."
Thrinn snorted humorlessly.
"If you come back." he said.
John narrowed his gaze determinedly.
"I'm John of Ohu, pal." he said. "I don't lose. Ever."
Then the doors shut between them and John found himself in a much larger room, a makeshift arena made out of what looked like an old warehouse storage area. Around the center fight ring where he stood were wooden walls and dozens of cheering humans standing behind them, all of them gesturing and pointing at the two future combatants. Looking around, John also saw three sets of doors, one he'd just come out of, another leading to what he assumed were the labs, and a third set leading to somewhere unknown, possibly the outside world. Still, he had no time to dwell on it, as his muzzle was suddenly removed and he was manhandled into facing his opponent, a tough but nervous looking Great Dane who bore scars from previous fights. John looked him in the eye.
"We can refuse to do this." he said so the other male could hear him. "Real males don't have to fight unless they choose to."
"Shut up!" the Great Dane said in a shaky voice. "You're trying to distract me!"
"I don't want to hurt you." John said in a more insistent voice. "Our one true enemy is them, not each other. We should work together."
Suddenly there was a gunshot and John found that the human holding him had released his grip, and the leash that was around his neck. He knew immediately what was coming. Dodging sideways on instinct, he narrowly avoided the Great Dane's jaws, which snapped down where his face had been moments before with deadly force. The Shepherd leapt backwards, getting some distance.
"I said I don't want to hurt you!" he yelled, but the other dog wasn't listening.
He whirled around and charged again, and this time John had nowhere else to run to. He took the hit head on and found himself thrown back into the wooden barrier, the other male's fangs tearing at his neck and shoulder savagely as he did. A cheer went up from the humans and John jerked himself free as quickly as possible, smashing his opponent across the muzzle as hard as he could with a paw and sending him falling backwards onto his side. Then he got distance again.
"Listen to me!" he snapped. "You're letting them dictate your fate! Stand up and show them you won't take this! You're not their plaything!"
The Great Dane lunged at him with a furious snarl of his own, and John could delay no longer. He charged as well, his shoulder lowered, and the two came together in the center of the ring with bone crunching force, the Great Dane falling painfully onto his back as John wrapped his jaws around his opponent's throat and pinned him. Then he growled.
"This fight is over." he said. "Don't get back up or I'll put you down again."
"Kill him!" a voice called suddenly and John looked towards it in surprise, seeing a familiar face instantly.
He felt hatred rise in him like bile. Dante stood by the lab wing doorway, surrounded by his subordinates, a knowing look plastered on his face. Then the Rottweiler gestured to the fallen Great Dane.
"I said kill him!" he repeated. "He lost! Don't be a coward now, Zach."
John looked down at his opponent, who was trembling with terrified eyes beneath him, and then back at his enemy. Then he released his grip and stood, stepping over the other dog towards Dante as he did.
"No." he said defiantly. "That's not what a real male would do. And the only coward I see here is you, bastard. Unless you wanna come out here and fight me right now."
For a moment, the Rottweiler looked as though he might do just that. Then suddenly John heard a deafening 'BOOM' from right behind him and he whirled around in shock, his ears ringing painfully as he did. What he saw horrified him. The human with the cigarette in his mouth stood over the Great Dane with a rifle in his hands, the barrel smoking and a spent shell on the ground. The Great Dane himself was dead, blood and brain matter spattered out onto the dirt from where the bullet had shattered his skull at close range. John howled in fury.
"COWARD!" he yelled and tried to launch himself at the human, not caring for the moment that he was armed and had a lot of help.
Before he could get far though, strong arms wrapped around his throat and the muzzle was back on, his attempts at biting unsuccessful through his efforts to right his breathing. The human looked amused.
"We got our winner here!" he called to the other humans. "Any of you who bet on him come collect your money at the front! We'll be…"
After that his voice cut off, as John was dragged back into the holding room and tossed unceremoniously back in his cage, slashing the human handling him across the arm when he took his muzzle off. The human stumbled back furiously, cradling his wounded appendage.
"You son of a bitch!" he yelled, "I oughta – "
Suddenly, Thrinn and the other dogs stepped forward with an almost unanimous growl of their own, standing beside John and protecting him as the human retreated a step in surprise. Then he angrily sheathed the knife he had taken out.
"Fine." he muttered. "You filthy beasts aren't worth it anyway."
Moments later, he had vanished back through the doors and was gone. John immediately stood back up, his movements slow and deliberate as his eyes adjusted to the now dimmer light in the cage. Thrinn looked at him.
"The dog you fought," he said. "Tsuda. Is he…?"
John looked at him apologetically.
"Dead." he said. "I'm sorry. It wasn't me."
A gasping cry was heard from the back of the group, and John saw a female Great Dane collapse sobbing by the back wall, the other dogs nearby trying futilely to comfort her. Feeling a lump rise in his throat, the Shepherd saw Thrinn let out a heavy sigh.
"We heard the shot." he said. "It's not your fault."
Then he turned to the rest of the group.
"Everyone," he called. "Get some sleep! It's nearly dark."
No one argued and the prisoner dogs dispersed to different corners of the cage, with only John and Thrinn remaining where they were. Finally, Thrinn too laid down where he was standing and closed his eyes, curling himself into a ball as he did. John watched this silently, then looked up at the darkness above him, a dull ache in his shoulder from where the Great Dane had bitten him.
'Gin…' he thought. 'Where are you? I can't do this by myself.'
Then John sat down and remained where he was, allowing the dim light to fade around him until there was nothing left but darkness, darkness and the sound of breathing.
Musashi growled tensely as he padded his way down another back street, his claws clicking on the pavement beneath him as he did. Every sense in the Mastiff was on high alert for danger, and though he was relatively unconcerned for his own safety, he was becoming more and more concerned for John's.
'What the hell is going on here?' he thought angrily. 'These dogs have to be going somewhere! A male like John doesn't just vanish like this! What is going on in my territory?'
To his right, he heard Smith walking nervously and glanced over at the Spaniel to make sure that he was all right. Musashi felt very guilty. He had been looking forward to seeing his comrades in arms again after so long a time, and had dedicated himself to making Tosa a safe and pleasant place for their stay. Then the disappearances started happening. At first he had thought nothing of it, having had numerous other things on his mind, but when they started becoming more and more prevalent he had taken notice. The fact that there were still no witnesses to any of the disappearances concerned him, but it also told him that whatever was happening was happening at night. That's why he was hoping now for some clue that could help them. Anything…
"There's nothing down here, either." Smith announced to him, sniffing at the ground a few feet in front of him. "I don't smell either of their scents and there's no signs of a struggle."
"There never is." Musashi replied, looking around at the dark building walls around them. "Let's move on."
Smith nodded and followed him, the two of them walking back out onto the main road near the Eastern border of the city.
"So why'd you retire from the ring?" Smith asked. "You were the best there was."
Musashi glanced over at him.
"It was just time." he said, looking contemplative. "I'm not as young as I used to be, and…I got beaten a couple months ago."
Smith looked startled.
"You got beaten?" he exclaimed and the Mastiff snorted.
"Not by much," he said, "But yeah. It was a good fight. I'm not ashamed I lost."
The Spaniel shook his head.
"He must've been quite an opponent to beat you." he said and Musashi grinned.
"Thanks." he said, grateful for the compliment. "He was. If I was gonna pass on my torch to anyone, it would be him. He actually reminded me a lot of myself when I was at my best. Name's Toube. He's a good kid."
"Hey, you're not out of it yet." Smith said in a good-natured voice. "Stick with us and you'll get all the fighting you wa– "
The Spaniel stopped as his friend did, frowning at him as he did so.
Another dog had just stepped out of an alleyway up ahead, a female Shikoku-ken by the look of it, and had immediately frozen when she'd seen them. Musashi lifted his head, his senses telling him that something was wrong.
"Hey!" he called, and the female's head moved slightly. "What are you doing out this late? Who are you?"
Then he tensed his legs, fully ready to chase the dog when she turned and ran. To his surprise though, she instead walked towards them, stopping nervously when she was only about 5-10 feet away.
"A-Are you Musashi?" she asked in a low voice, her eyes darting around as if looking for something.
"Yes." the Mastiff replied warily, frowning in confusion. "Who are you, young lady?"
The female looked at him, and when a momentary streak of light passed over her face, he could see that she not only looked scared of something, she bore scars from what had to be some pretty serious wounds. Despite them, she also was quite beautiful.
"My name is Kana." she said, her voice growing slightly more confident. "And I have a message…for Gin of Ohu."
Musashi and Smith glanced at each other, and Smith narrowed his eyes at her.
"How did you know he was here?" he asked slowly and Musashi nodded.
"What's the message?" came a sudden voice, and then Gin himself was beside them, Akame flanking him, both of them having leapt off the roof of a nearby building.
The Akita looked at her expectantly and Kana stared back at him with a heavy sigh.
"It's about your friends." she said. "John and Zach."
The whole group perked up at once and Gin stepped forward determinedly, his eyes widening as he did.
"What about them?" he demanded. "Are they all right?"
She shook her head slowly.
"No…" she said. "They need help badly. They're in an abandoned complex in the mountains up the road. Humans took them there to take part in underground fights. If you want to save them, you need help and you need to hurry."
The group looked shocked and Musashi stepped up beside Gin.
"Is that what's been happening to all the missing dogs?" he asked. "How do you know this?"
She looked away guiltily and sighed.
"Because I'm the one that lured them to get captured." she said.
No one said a word and Gin stepped forward again, looking silently furious.
"Then why are you helping us now?" he asked quietly and Kana met his angry gaze.
"Because they have my brother," she said. "And this has all gone way too far."
Gin studied her for a long moment, and then exchanged a glance with both Akame and Musashi, each of whom nodded back at him. Then he did the same at her.
"All right." he said. "Tell me everything."
Kana closed her eyes and straightened up, meeting the Akita's gaze once more as she reopened them.
"Okay," she said and then took a deep breath. "Here's what happened…"
John examined the doorway carefully through the cage bars as he leaned against them, hoping to god that his idea would work. He was so used to Akame coming up with the intricate battle plans that he had taken the mundane task for granted, and now that he had to do it for himself, it was harder than he had thought.
'Still,' he thought, 'This one might just work. If we're fast, aggressive, and really lucky, we might just escape this alive.'
As soon as this thought left his mind, he felt a presence right behind him and knew immediately that it was Thrinn without even looking. The Canaan dog gestured to him with his head.
"The others are ready." he said and John nodded.
"Good." he replied and turned to follow the other male, seeing the rest of the numerous prisoner dogs staring at him expectantly almost as soon as he did.
Thrinn himself went to join them and before John knew it, every eye was on him. After first glancing around to make sure they were alone, he scanned them with his eyes.
"By now, most of you probably know who I am." he said, keeping his voice low. "And I know some of you. But that doesn't matter right now. What matters is that if we don't get out of here soon, we're all going to die."
No one answered him and John knew that none of them could dispute his words.
"Now I've come up with a plan that's dangerous, but might work, and if you all help me – " he continued.
"If we resist the humans, we'll be killed!" a voice cut him off. "We should stay here and wait!"
"Wait for what?" John replied, stepping forward. "You think they're just gonna let you go even if you win those fights? Your own leader said it himself. If you don't fight…you will die."
A nervous murmur went through the dogs at this and then Thrinn suddenly stepped forward to John's side.
"He's right." the Canaan dog said and John looked at him in mild surprise. "This may be our one chance to get away from here alive. We should take it."
"But Boss – "
"I have a plan." John said, interrupting the dog who'd spoken. "But it won't work unless we work together. If we wait until after the next fight, when the human is putting the winning dog back in here, if we charge the door together, we can force it open and escape through the arena, through the doors in there. Most of the humans should be gone by then. We'll have a chance."
"What chance do we have?" another dog asked and John stood up taller.
"If we stand together like true warriors," he said. "We have every chance in the world. These bastards made one grave mistake when they did all this to us: the most dangerous opponent you'll ever face…is the one with nothing left to lose."
Then he looked at them all.
"Are you with me?"
For a moment, the group looked unsure. Then, slowly, one by one, they all stepped forward with determined looks and nodded. John gave a satisfied smirk.
"Good!" he said enthusiastically. "Then get ready."
As soon as they began to disperse, the Shepherd gestured to Thrinn with his head, making the Canaan dog walk back over to him curiously. Then John looked at him.
"When we set this plan into motion," he said quietly. "I want you to lead those dogs out through the arena to safety."
"Why?" Thrinn frowned, and John turned back to the door he'd been examining.
"Just do it." he said.
Thrinn stared at his back, straightening up as he realized why the Ohu commander was stepping aside to give him leadership.
"You're going to the labs, aren't you?" he said and John only paused a moment.
"John-sama," he said, sounding like he was choosing his words carefully. "I know you're worried about your friend – "
"I'm not leaving him behind." John replied, cutting him off. "And that's that."
"You can't get through those doors! It's impossible!"
"John, please." Thrinn almost begged. "If you stay behind, they'll corner you in there and you'll never get out alive!"
The Shepherd whirled on him.
"I am not leaving him behind." he said more angrily.
Then he sighed and calmed down a little, sitting down by the bars moments later, looking halfway between guilty and determined. After a long pause, he kept going.
"It's funny." he said, staring straight ahead. "A year ago I would've been first in line to put that son-of-a-bitch in his grave. Now, he's one of my closest friends. How's that for strange?"
"You know what one of the last things I said to him was?" John asked, turning to look at him. "I called him 'useless'. I said it to his face and he still lied to save my life. He's in there maybe dying because of me…because I was weak. I'm never gonna forgive myself if he dies."
Then he shook his head as if clearing a thought from it.
"I'm not leaving him." he said and turned back to the door, telling Thrinn that the discussion was over.
Suddenly, the arena door flew open as it had a hundred times before, and the two humans from the previous day walked in, this time holding two muzzles and leashes. Behind them came Dante, and both he and John growled the minute they saw each other. The human in front immediately looked at the other one.
"Which ones, Kohei?" he asked and the other human gestured to John.
"Take the Shepherd again," he said. "He's tough. The guys seemed to like him, too."
"And the other?"
"The white one next to him." Kohei said, readying his Taser. "He won his first fight too. Should be interesting to see the two of 'em go at it."
Then the cage door opened and the first human walked in, Kohei giving him room by fending off the growling other dogs with his Taser. Neither John nor Thrinn resisted. Instead, they stared at each other intensely and allowed themselves to be muzzled and led out of the cell, their path taking them to the arena moments later. As soon as they were inside, John looked around. Around 15-20 humans stood around the barriers waiting for the fight to begin, and the dirty battleground had been cleaned of blood from what had happened the day before. John felt himself get half-dragged over to one side of the arena, and then forcibly turned to face Thrinn, who stared back at him with an almost undetectably nervous look on his face. Suddenly, right as both of their muzzles were removed, another human walked up to Kohei, whispering something in his ear as he did. Both John and Thrinn gave each other a confused look at this, glancing back at the exchange warily as soon as they had. Then Kohei nodded and turned to the crowd.
"Listen up!" he called. "We've got something special before the fight! Our resident mad-scientist wants us to help him condition his newest experiment, so you guys are gonna get a two on one match first! How's that sound?"
There was a roar of approval from the other humans and John saw Thrinn get pushed and shoved over beside him, both of them being turned to face the lab doors as soon as he was.
"What the hell's going on?" John demanded, leaning in close to the other male's ear.
Thrinn shook his head nervously.
"I don't know." he said. "They've never done this before. What is this, Dante?"
The Rottweiler smirked from his position by the far wall, not saying a word as his subordinates did the same at his side. Before John could yell at him though, the laboratory door suddenly swung open and the man in the white coat emerged with a notepad, scribbling in it hurriedly as he did. Behind him came another younger human, and being dragged behind them…John's stomach did a backflip…was the limp body of a dog, a visible trail of blood staining the dirt in his wake. Once they got to the other side of the arena, the younger human untied a leash from the dog's neck and stepped behind the barriers, the man in white doing the same beside him. As soon as they had, Kohei stepped out as well, and then there was a gunshot as both John and Thrinn were released from their leashes and holds. John ran forward immediately, getting to the injured dog's side in only 3 bounds. Once he was there, he skidded to an abrupt halt, Thrinn staying behind him further back.
It was as he feared. On the ground in front of him lay Zach, and he was truly a sight to behold. One of the Malamute's ears had been cut off, John could see, and he had a stitched-up slash tracing diagonally through his closed right eye. All over the rest of his body, including on his face and neck, were deep stab, slash, and burn marks, all of them slowly leaking blood onto the ground beneath him and pooling in the dirt that covered it. On top of that, at least 3 of his legs had been broken, and John doubted heavily that he could even stand up. All in all, he looked almost unrecognizable. The Shepherd's jaw dropped in horror, his shocked eyes scanning his friend's tortured body quickly as the humans around them began to jeer angrily for the lack of action. Suddenly, Zach's good eye fluttered open a crack and immediately looked at John, an almost unnoticeable smile spreading over its owner's face immediately afterwards.
"John…" Zach breathed weakly. "You're okay…"
John didn't respond, still too shocked to know what to do. Behind him, he heard the human Kohei's voice ring out angrily.
"Attack, you stupid mutts!" he yelled. "Kill him!"
Clenching his jaws silently in fury, John immediately moved forward towards his fallen comrade, looking as if he was going to do just that. At the last second though, he stepped over the Malamute instead and turned around to face the humans, standing over his friend's body protectively as Thrinn gasped softly in shock. More jeers rang out and Kohei straightened up angrily, picking up a rifle from nearby and raising it to his shoulder so John could see.
"Attack him!" he yelled again, but John stayed where he was, glaring defiantly back at the human without moving a muscle.
Kohei suddenly pulled the trigger, a familiar loud 'BOOM' sounding as he shot the ground next to the Shepherd in an effort to scare him.
"I said attack him!" he repeated and John felt Zach stir slightly beneath him.
"John…" the Malamute slurred. "Get out of here… Save yourself…"
"Shut up." the Shepherd replied.
Then John looked down at him determinedly.
"We die together," he said. "Or not at all. I will not leave a fallen comrade."
Zach looked shocked for a split second, but then closed his eye again as Kohei raised the rifle once more and Dante suddenly leapt into the arena, his subordinates flanking him as a look of rage formed on his face.
"Do what you're told, Zach, you bastard!" he snarled. "How dare you disobey an order! I'll kill John right now, I swear to god!"
For once, John didn't growl at him, and instead smirked with a quietly mocking snort, seeing Thrinn sneak back into the cage room out of the corner of his eye.
"You idiot…" he said and Dante practically trembled in fury.
Then John glared right into his eyes.
Dante opened his mouth to respond, looking as though he was about to disbelieve him again. Then, however, he paused and looked closer at both John and Zach, the latter of whom had reopened his eye and met the Rottweiler's gaze as well, a look of quiet triumph on his face as he did. When Dante spoke again, his voice trembled with anger.
"You lying little bastard…" he said, glaring at Zach furiously. "You LYING LITTLE BASTARD!"
Then he lunged forward with a furious snarl and John did the same, the two of them readying their fangs for combat. Moments later, they came together with almost simultaneous grunts and the blood began to fly. Dodging Dante's vicious bite at his face, John slashed the Rottweiler across the throat as hard as he could and then head-butted him between the eyes, causing him to stumble backwards as blood started pouring out of the newly formed wound. Before he could keep going though, the evil dog's henchmen all attacked him at once and John found himself on his back, fangs tearing into him from every side.
Everyone froze and John did as well, recognizing the sudden bark instantly. Turning with an overjoyed smile, he looked towards the arena's outer door…and saw Gin standing in it's entrance, the wrathful look on his face so pronounced that John was momentarily startled into inaction. The Akita glared death at everyone inside.
"Get away from them." he hissed dangerously.
Then the Ohu leader let out a battle howl and charged into the room, dozens and dozens of other dogs pouring in behind him as the humans began shouting in terror and scattering like ants. John saw Kohei raise his rifle and attempt to shoot down the Akita, but then Musashi was there, and the human disappeared under a pile of snarling bodies, an agonized scream following in his wake moments later.
Suddenly, John was smacked hard across the face, falling onto his side painfully as Dante moved in for another hit, this time landing a head-butt to the Shepherd's nose and sending blood streaming down his snout. John snarled furiously. That was officially the last straw. Seeing Kurotora and Smith attacking the Rottweiler's subordinates out of the corner of his eye, John shot to his paws and bowled Dante onto his back with a snarl born straight of hell, ignoring the other dog's startled expression as he did. Then he began ravaging any part of him he could reach. Slashing back and forth, he ripped at the Rottweiler's eyes and cheeks, his nose and chin, tearing chunks out of him at a time until finally finishing him off with a savage bite to the throat, chomping down as hard as he could until he heard a 'CRUNCH' and Dante's gargled choking ceased altogether. Then he released his grip, stepping off of the dead dog as Akame leapt up to him.
"John!" the Kishu yelled. "Are you okay?"
"I am now!" the Shepherd answered, smiling in genuine relief. "Thanks for the great timing, Akame!"
The Kishu nodded at him with a relieved smile of his own.
"He's over – " John started, but then froze as he saw that the Malamute was gone.
Whipping his head around frantically, he gasped as he saw the man in the white coat dragging the limp dog by the hind leg back into the laboratories, disappearing through the doorway seconds later.
"No!" John shouted and ran at it, Akame doing the same beside him, having seen it too.
Immediately though, they were cut off by more enemy fighters and had to pull up, stopping to deal with them as Gin, Musashi and the others pushed forward to their location. John gritted his fangs.
'Damn it!' he thought angrily.
Zach growled quietly to himself as he lay on the lab table, white-hot pain shooting through his entire body. He could feel a dull numbness slowly spreading through him, and every time he moved he lost more and more feeling in his extremities. In the back of his mind, he wondered how Gin, John and the others were doing, and hoped that his friends would survive their battle intact. Suddenly, the door to the lab flew open with a 'BANG' and the man in the white coat stormed in from where he had vanished to, looking very hurried as he did. Rushing over to his table, he quickly picked up his tape recorder and began smashing it on the floor, only stopping when it lay useless in pieces. Then he stood up and looked over at Zach.
"Looks like you and me won't be finishing our little project." he said. "After all this, the police are bound to show up. I'm going to have to start all over."
He shook his head.
"It's too bad. You had potential."
Suddenly, he pulled a long, jagged knife from out of his coat and walked over to the table, grabbing Zach by the head as he did. Then he raised the knife high into air, aiming the point at the helpless dog's throat.
"Test subject 117," he said as if reading into the recorder. "Deceased."
Zach gazed up at him serenely and did not make a sound, accepting his own impending death. Then, however, the lab door flew open again and both looked up immediately, Zach craning his neck as best he could. That was all they had time to do. Before either could do anything, a white, blood-spattered shape that Zach recognized as Akame barreled into the human scientist, a hideous snarl erupting from him as they both fell backwards with a crash, the knife sliding away across the floor as a result. Behind Akame came John and the rest of the group, and from the other doorway came Thrinn and all the prisoner dogs, groups of them streaming in at a time as Zach watched in awe. Then they immediately laid into the doomed human, biting him all over his body and dragging him out the door screaming seconds later, disappearing from view almost as soon as they had arrived. Not bothering to stop them, Gin and the others rushed over to Zach's side, crowding around the table as soon as they got there.
"Oh my god." Kurotora said in a disgusted sounding voice as he saw the Malamute's state and Zach chuckled weakly.
"Sexy, huh?" he said and John immediately cut off the Kai dog's response.
"Zach," he growled in concern. "Are you all right?"
The younger male breathed heavily as Akame and Gin began licking his wounds, Musashi doing the same a few feet over.
"I've had better weeks," he said in the same soft voice. "How are you?"
"Me?" the Shepherd scoffed. "Pfft! I'm fine. I'm always fine. You're the one we need to worry about right now!"
"Didn't know you…cared…John…"
"I don't." John replied with a toothy grin. "But who am I gonna fight with if you up and die on me?"
Zach chuckled softly and Smith shook his head from where he stood.
"Boy," he quipped, trying to break the tension. "You can really feel the love in here."
"All right, later!" Gin said sternly, though he had to stifle a grin himself. "Let's get him the hell out of here and go…quickly!"
The others immediately nodded in agreement and the Akita leapt to join Chutora in getting the Malamute's limp form onto Musashi's broad back. Once this was done, he turned to his friends.
"Let's go!" he said and the others let out barks of support.
Then the group turned and charged out of the room, leaving 'Limbo' behind altogether moments later. As they ran off into the forest back towards Tosa, John looked back at the hidden building, Akame running at his side.
'Good riddance,' he thought brutally. 'Good riddance…'
"I'm truly sorry about all this, Gin. This should've been a pleasant visit."
John looked up as Musashi stood before the Akita, a guilty look on his weathered face, and his head bowed slightly in shame. They had arrived back in Tosa a little less than 5 hours ago, and already things were starting to be set right again. Thrinn and the other kidnapped dogs had all dispersed to go back to their homes, and John had personally thanked the Canaan dog for all he had done to help while they were in captivity. On top of that, Dante and the rest of his subordinates had all been killed during the battle, so there were no tricky issues of punishment to be dealt with for Musashi in its aftermath. Most of the humans had gotten away, a fact that made John angry, but there were simply some things that needed to be dealt with by others. For the moment, he was simply happy that they had all escaped with their lives. Over by Musashi, Gin nodded back graciously.
"It's not your fault, Musashi." he said. "There's no way you could've known. Just like there's no way I could've. I wish we could've spent more time visiting each other instead of all this."
"Agreed." the Mastiff said with a nod, some of his guilt sliding away. "Maybe next time I'll have to come to you instead."
The two males shared a chuckle and then Gin looked over his friend's shoulder, seeing Kana sitting solemnly by two other fight dogs.
"What's gonna happen to her?" he asked and Musashi followed his gaze, sighing a moment later.
"She's going to stay here with us." he said. "Both to atone for what she helped do and because she has nowhere else to go."
"And her brother?"
Musashi shook his head.
"Dead." he said. "He was probably killed a long time ago. They were lying to her to get her to do they wanted."
Gin shook his head as well. How truly pointless it had all been. Then John saw him blink and turn back to Musashi.
"Well," he said, glancing at Akame as he did. "We should be going. It's a long journey back to Ohu from here."
"Indeed." Musashi agreed. "You gonna say goodbye to Zach before you go?"
Behind Gin, Smith gave a start, exchanging a confused look with the Kai brothers next to him.
"Goodbye?" he repeated, then looked at Gin and Akame. "He's not coming with us?"
Akame shook his head.
"He can't." he said in a calm, almost sad-sounding voice. "That human really did a number on him. Given the condition he's in, if we move him very far he'll die."
"He's going to stay with Musashi until he heals." Gin added, looking reassuringly at his friends. "Then he'll meet us back in Ohu when he's ready."
Kurotora let out a light snort.
"That could take months." he said and Gin nodded in agreement.
"Don't sound so thrilled, Kuro." came a quiet voice. "You know you'll miss me."
The group all looked towards it at once and saw Zach perched on the back of one of Musashi's fight dogs, a tired look on his newly scarred face and a smirk on his muzzle. The Kai dog let out a laugh.
"How are you feeling?" he asked and the Malamute stretched his neck slowly.
"Like I could take on the world." he said teasingly. "So you better watch out."
"We'll meet you back in Ohu when you're ready." Gin said, stepping up to his comrade with Akame and John at his side. "I'm sorry we can't stay, but we have responsibilities back home."
Then he cocked his head with a concerned look, his eyes softening considerably.
"Try to get some rest, Zach." he said. "You need it."
The Malamute raised an eyebrow.
"You really trust me enough to leave me alone like this?" he asked. "I thought I was your prisoner."
"You haven't been our prisoner for a long time, Zach." Akame said with a small smile. "And you do have our trust…all of it. It's been an honor."
Zach returned the smile.
"The honor was mine, sir." he said and John smirked as Gin and Akame nodded graciously.
"Besides," he said. "If you cause any trouble, we know where you'll be. You'll have to make a hobble for the border."
The Malamute's gaze panned over to him and he snorted amusedly.
"Don't count on it." he said. "I'll be long gone. I'll be able to smell you coming a territory away."
John chuckled and noticed out of the corner of his eye that Gin and Akame had retreated back to the others and were watching the exchange patiently. He knew immediately that they were waiting for him. Looking Zach in the eye, he gave his friend a nod.
"About what you did," he said. "…Thanks. You're an idiot, but you probably saved my life."
Zach looked him up and down.
"You saved my life." he responded. "Consider us even."
Then after a pause, he added:
"And by 'consider us even', I mean: 'mine was more heroic than yours, so I now totally own your ass'."
John snorted and met the Malamute's gaze.
Then the Shepherd turned away with a grin, glancing over his shoulder and giving the younger male a nod.
"See you 'round, kid." he said, his voice warmer and friendlier than it had been in a long time.
Then, without waiting for a response, John of Ohu finished his walk back to his friends and followed them down Tosa's main street, disappearing from sight along with them as soon as they rounded a curve in the road. Once they were gone, Zach felt someone pad up next to him, hearing Musashi begin barking orders somewhere in the background. When he turned his head to look, he saw the female Shikoku-ken standing beside him, her face slightly awed through her sadness.
"They seem like good dogs." she said, her head bowed slightly. "All of them."
He nodded in agreement.
"They are." he said quietly. "Trust me."
"You're lucky to have them as friends."
Then she turned and looked him in the eye, an almost shy smile forming on her muzzle.
"I'm Kana." she said and he nodded, a tired smile tracing across his lips as well.
"It's nice to meet you, Kana." he said. "I'm Zach."