Story 12: The Broken
There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible, as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.
Kurotora gave a startled grunt as something swatted him in the cheek, rudely interrupting what had been a very relaxing sleep.
"What the – " he growled in irritation. "Watch it!"
"Shh!" the dog responsible hissed. "Shut up, Kuro!"
The dark-furred Kai rose to his feet, stretching his tiny legs as he did.
"You shut up, Chutora!" he retorted. "What'd you kick me for?"
His older brother shushed him again, this time joined by his red-furred counterpart on the left.
"Both of you," the red one said sternly. "Quiet! I know I heard something."
Kurotora reared onto his hind legs and craned his neck to look over the edge of the cardboard box the three of them called home. Beside him, Chutora looked over at his red-furred brother.
"See anything, Aka?" he asked and the other dog shook his head.
"No." he replied bluntly. "But I know it's there."
Kurotora let out a little snort.
"Pfft!" he said. "You're hearing things. Nothin' would mess with us!"
"You mean nothing would mess with me and Akatora." Chutora grinned cheekily. "You are just a little wimp along for the ride."
"Hey, I'm tough!" Kurotora protested with a little growl, sounding put out despite himself.
Chutora laughed, turning to face him.
"Yeah?" he said, then switched to a mocking baby voice. "Does little Kuro need me to get his food again?"
The dark-furred Kai didn't hesitate for a moment. Growling as loudly as he was capable, he tackled his older brother hard, biting him on the side of the neck as he tried to pin him on his back. For his part, Chutora fought back with equal force and the two pups began bouncing off the walls of the box as they rolled around within its confines. Turning in irritation, Akatora rolled his eyes down at them.
"Will you two knock it – WHOA!" he said loudly, letting out a grunt of his own as his feet were knocked out from under him and he landed on his back.
Within seconds of this, he was back on his feet, the anger on his face clearly visible as he opened his mouth to yell at his two younger siblings. He never got the chance. The next thing any of them knew, a large, fast-moving white shape erupted over the side of the box with a high-pitched snarl, sending both Akatora and Chutora flying over the sides and into the underbrush a few feet away. Kurotora though, didn't even have time to move. He managed to register in the few seconds available to him that the newcomer was a large pine marten, an animal he had almost no experience with, before huge slavering jaws shot towards him from above…and all light snuffed out in his right eye.
The pain was unbearable. It was beyond anything the young pup had ever felt before and as the pine marten sunk its teeth deeper into his face, Kurotora screamed. Somewhere in the background, he could hear both Akatora and Chutora shouting out his name, their young voices quivering with terror, and he nearly peed the ground where he sat. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the pine marten was gone. Kurotora had no idea why it had released him, but as soon as it did, he fell to the ground and pawed at his face, tears streaming down his furred cheeks as he did. A new, deeper snarl came to his ears from somewhere out of sight, and he heard the pine marten's own yowls of pain and fear getting fainter and fainter before they were gone altogether. Then the box tipped over and he tumbled out onto the grass and dirt, scrambling to his paws as quickly as he could once he regained his balance. As soon as he had, he looked upon his rescuer. A huge, brown-furred Great Dane loomed over him like a giant, it's eyes showing nothing but concern and kindness despite the fresh blood lining its lips. Kurotora whined, confused and terrified as too many sensations bombarded him at once. Then a deep, rich voice came to his ears.
"Easy…" the voice said, and he felt a warm tongue swipe over his wounded eye. "You're all right. He's gone."
The young Kai dog kept whining, his tears still stubbornly coming despite his attempts to force them back. The Great Dane looked around at them.
"You kids must be tough," he said. "Surviving out here by yourselves. Must be all that Kai dog blood in you."
Then he stood back up as Kurotora got his whimpering under control.
"That eye's gonna scar pretty good." he said, nodding at the dark-furred puppy before chuckling slightly. "But don't worry about it. If anything it'll give you some character."
Kurotora looked up at him in awe, seeing both Akatora and Chutora doing the same a few feet over. Then a human voice echoed suddenly through the trees.
"Ben!" it called, and then let out a loud whistle. "Ben, come!"
The Great Dane turned to them with a smile.
"You're all right." he repeated, then turned away from them slightly. "I'll be back to check on you in a few days. You should be fine 'til then. Look after each other, huh?"
Then he turned and bounded away into the trees, disappearing from view moments later with a flick of his tail. Akatora and Chutora both immediately bounded up to their younger brother.
"Let me see," Chutora demanded, craning his neck. "Let me see!"
Kurotora turned towards him, still trying to get used to seeing out of only his left eye. After a few seconds, his brown-furred older brother laughed excitedly.
"Wicked!" he said with a grin. "No one'll mess with you now, Kuro! You've got a genuine battle scar!"
"Ow!" the younger Kai hissed as his brother prodded it with a paw. "It hurts! How am I supposed to fight with only one eye? I'm dead, Chutora! I can't survive like this!"
"Hey!" his elder brother said, his voice suddenly turning serious. "You can and you will! That adult was right, it just gives you some character. I hope I get a scar one day so I can look that cool!"
"But what if I get into a fight and can't see well?"
"Then I'll be there watching your back." came the answer and Kurotora saw Chutora grin at him again. "Don't worry little brother. You're not going anywhere…and neither am I."
Kurotora smiled back at him happily, the throbbing pain in his face starting to subside a little. A few feet over, Akatora was flipping their box back over and as soon as he had succeeded, a rabbit suddenly hopped into view at the other edge of their clearing. Chutora let out a whoop.
"Guys!" he said. "There's our dinner!"
"After it!" Akatora cried.
They both bounded forward howling battle cries and Kurotora wasted no further time. Sprinting after his brothers and their rapidly departing prey, he felt a smile still plastered on his newly scarred face. Somehow he knew that not only would they be all right, there were great things ahead for them in their future. In the back of his mind, the Great Dane's words played over and over, and as the three of them descended on their kill, he made a note to remember them as long as he lived.
'Look after each other. Look after each other…'
Kurotora yawned widely as he walked, feeling Smith's tail brush his flank lightly as the two walked side by side at the rear of the group. The sun shone down brightly on them from overhead, and in front of them Gin led the way at an easy pace, John and Akame flanking him on either side and matching his steps with their own. It had been over a day and a half since they had left Shikoku, and already the group had made it to the Shiga Prefecture, a small territory well into mainland away from the shore. They were making good time back towards Ohu, and though he was grateful for the couple days of peace they were getting, it was taking him a while to adjust to the newfound quiet amongst their ranks.
Just as Great's had before him, Zach's absence felt somehow like a hole in the group, and every time Kurotora looked over, he half expected to see the Malamute's grinning form walking beside him. That the younger male had only been with them for a little over a year didn't even cross the Kai dog's mind. To him, for some reason, Zach was just one of them, and he felt as though he had always been. Now that he was gone, the noise level in their travels had decreased significantly, and Kurotora almost found himself missing the heated bickering the Malamute used to constantly engage in with John.
For his part, the Shepherd's wounds had healed quickly in the aftermath of their departure, and though he seemed to be back to his normal, arrogant self, a closer look revealed a more subdued dog then normal. This was something that Kurotora didn't expect to see from John, and he wondered silently if the Shepherd felt guilty over what had happened to Zach, particularly since the Malamute's injuries had been sustained while saving his life. For some reason, the dark-furred Kai secretly doubted this, and decided to settle with the explanation that, like him, the Ohu commander simply missed his sparring partner. He smirked. John could act heartless at times and was definitely full of himself, but deep down he knew, despite his battle-hardened exterior, the Shepherd had a soft core. Beside him, Smith raised an eyebrow.
"What are you grinning at?" he asked curiously and Kurotora looked over at him with a snort.
"Your fighting skills." he teased bluntly. "They make me laugh."
Smith scowled at him.
"Yeah?" he said. "Says the guy with a permanent scar on his face."
"Hey," Kurotora replied coolly. "The ladies love this scar. What have you got that can draw 'em in? Huh? How have those floppy ears been doing for you?"
"Ha ha. Fuck you."
In front of them, Akame sighed and glanced at Gin.
"Well," he said, acting as though the two weren't even there. "There goes our peace and quiet."
The Akita chuckled without looking at him.
"We'll stop to rest soon." he said. "We've been going all day anyway. Are there any packs around here that are dangerous?"
"No." the ninja-dog replied simply. "Shiga's a pretty stable territory. Besides, we'll be out of it and into the next one soon so we shouldn't have any problems, leader."
"Good." Gin said, then stretched his legs midstride. "Hopefully everything's still peaceful back home. We could use the rest again after this."
"We would've heard something if it wasn't, Gin." John said reasonably, glaring calculatingly at the trees around them as if he was searching for anything that could be deemed a threat. "You worry too much."
"Hmm, maybe." the Akita replied, then turned to him with a small smile. "But that's better than not worrying at all."
"Let's stop here, leader." Chutora spoke up from behind them. "Why don't you rest and Smith and I can go hunt for food."
Gin only paused a moment.
"All right." he agreed, trotting to a halt. "We'll be here when you get back."
Nodding, the elder Kai dog gestured to the Spaniel, who had just finished making a face in Kurotora's direction, and began to run off, the other dog tailing him closely as he ran. Suddenly though, they stopped, only having gotten a couple steps. A large shape was weaving in and out of the trees a few hundred feet from their position and seemed to be headed straight for them. From where he had lay down, Kurotora heard his brother's voice speak up again.
"Leader," Chutora said. "We've got company."
Raising his own head, Gin stood at the same time John and Akame did, the former taking a protective step forward to position himself in between Gin and the intruder. It was an unneeded effort. A minute later, a familiar face came trotting out of the underbrush, and they all relaxed their tension.
"Ikaru!" Gin exclaimed in surprise, watching as the Ohu guard padded to a halt. "What are you doing here? Is something wrong in Futago Pass?"
The other male shook his head, panting as he caught his breath.
"No sir," he said, and Kurotora could see that he had a smile on his face. "Gajou is safe. I'm actually here with news from Kai."
Then he looked Kurotora's way as the rest of them straightened up in surprise.
"Good news." he clarified with a grin and the younger Kai brother felt his heart do a backflip.
He stood quickly.
"Ikaru," he demanded, taking a quick step forward. "My pups…are they…"
The other male nodded.
"They're born, sir." he said with a smile. "So are Chutora-san's. You're both fathers."
Kurotora immediately let out a loud bark of joy, practically sending Smith to the ground as he smacked him on the back with a paw.
"Ha ha!" he whooped. "Did you hear that? I'm a god damn father!"
"Congratulations, guys." Gin smiled warmly, watching as Chutora had a similar reaction to his brother a few feet over.
"We've gotta get back there now, leader!" he said excitedly, suddenly looking very antsy. "Shiori'll kill me if I'm not there to help her with them!"
"Yeah, let's go Gin!" Kurotora joined in, looking equally as impatient as the three Ohu leaders nodded knowingly at each other.
A few moments later, Gin turned back to Ikaru.
"Ikaru," he smiled. "Take us to Kai. Best possible speed."
The Ohu guard gave a short nod of his own.
"Yes sir." he replied and immediately took off running back the way he'd come, the Ohu group matching his speed and movements with their own.
Running at Akame's side, Kurotora's thoughts raced a mile a minute.
'I'm a father!' he thought, his head spinning as a new wave of happiness shot through him. 'I have pups! We both have pups! I can't wait to see them!'
Deep down, the prideful Kai was slightly embarrassed by his own childish enthusiasm, but the newfound sense of joy he felt at the sudden news pushed it far to the back of his mind. He was getting a real family of his own. Things were finally starting to look up.
By the time Kai began to make itself visible to them, Kurotora had smelled it coming a mile away. It was the afternoon now, and though they had made incredible time from the Shiga Border to where they currently were, he was not the least bit tired. Some of the others were, of course, but not him. Oh no. He had been looking forward to this for a very long time. When had he last seen this landscape, these trees, these mountains? With a start, he realized that it had been almost 2 years ago, and the day that he, Akatora, and Chutora had left with Ben's platoon to go gather dogs to fight Akakabuto had been the last time he'd walked these grounds. Kurotora sighed inwardly. It was good to be home…
Not much appeared to have changed in the interim, he saw, and the more Ikaru kept running towards the mountainous area a few kilometers in, the more the dark-furred Kai knew exactly where he was going. Chutora seemed to have guessed the same, for right as the group of them wound their way up a narrow cliff side path to the plateau that waited up above, he shot forward into the lead and sprinted full speed towards the caves that lay set into the other side.
"Shiori!" he barked loudly. "Shiori!"
Almost immediately, before Kurotora could call for his own mate, at least 5 dogs came out of nowhere and leapt in front of the entrance to the main cave, barring access to it with warning growls and deadly glares. The loudest of all came from a Spitz that Kurotora recognized as one of his mate's subordinates, as he remembered her from their time back in Niigata. She lowered her head and snarled as the group of them approached.
"Stop where you are!" she thundered, "This territory is off limits to travelers! I suggest you leave while you can!"
"What about expectant fathers?" Chutora grinned as he trotted to a halt casually, looking unafraid of the threat. "Is it off limits to them?"
The Spitz immediately relaxed her posture and looked closer at the newcomers, her eyes widening moments later.
"Chutora-san!" she exclaimed as the other dogs eased up as well. "Kurotora-san! We didn't think you'd get here this fast!"
"Believe me," Smith panted from the back of the group, still trying to catch his breath. "Neither did we."
Kurotora saw Gin, John, and Akame grin at this, and would've himself had he not been so anxious to continue forward.
"Has anything changed?" he demanded. "Let us see them!"
"I…'m not sure that's a good idea." the Spitz said slowly. "Amaya-san has…er…been in a mood today."
As if on cue, a voice emerged from within the cave that Kurotora recognized immediately with a rush of affection.
"Nagisa," it said, sounding tired. "You blockhead! Let them in! They've been away long enough already, don't you think?"
The Spitz rolled her eyes in exasperation at the insult and immediately stood aside, allowing both Kurotora and Chutora to rush on by into the cave as Gin stopped to thank her for standing guard. Letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, Kurotora padded swiftly to the back of the cave…and saw one of the most beautiful sights he'd ever seen. Lying on the ground by the rear wall was Amaya and beside her, Shiori. Both females looked tired but just as gorgeous as he remembered them, and they grinned happily as they saw their mates come up to them from the entrance. It was on the ground next to them though that both brothers' eyes were fixed. Curled into balls near their mothers' feet were 7 small puppies, 4 near Shiori and 3 near Amaya, and their backs rose and fell steadily in sleep as the group of males quietly approached them. Kurotora nearly laughed out loud with joy, feeling Amaya lean over to nose at his cheek as he lay down in front of them and scanned over his children with his good eye.
"What are their names?" he asked, and Amaya snorted.
"And hello to you too." she teased, but then chuckled down at them. "I thought you'd want some say in that."
He nodded gratefully and took in his children's scents, looking them over for a long time before taking his claw and tapping a white furred male with black tiger stripes.
"Harutora." he said confidently, feeling pleased with himself as he moved on to the other two.
Both were also male and resembled each other in many ways, although the bigger and elder of the two had a few extra stripes underneath his eyes. Kurotora tapped him next.
"Kagetora." he said, loving how the name sounded to him.
Finally he tapped the last one.
"Nobutora." he said with a final grin and Amaya nodded in approval, nuzzling him again.
"I like it," she said and John snorted from his position by Gin.
"3 brothers…" he said, sounding amused. "How appropriate."
Over to Kuro's right, Chutora and Shiori were busy admiring their own pups, both looking very content in just watching them for as long as they could. Then Chutora tilted his head slightly.
"Why do these two have floppy ears?" he asked, wrinkling his nose in confusion.
"I was hoping you could tell me." she replied almost teasingly and the brown-furred Kai frowned, looking over at his friends at the same time she did, his scrutinizing gaze focusing on Smith.
"What?" the Spaniel asked, returning the frown, but then took a step back when he saw what was going on. "Hey, don't look at me! You two have no one to blame but yourselves for this!"
A round of laughter erupted from the rest of the Ohu group and Chutora shook his head, turning back to his mate.
"Don't worry, Smith." he teased. "I believe you…for the moment."
"Yeah, I'll bet you do."
"Shouji." Chutora said affectionately, ignoring his friend and nosing one of the pups.
Then he nosed another.
Shiori smiled and did the same to the other two.
"Burukin." she said to the first and then turned to the second. "Dodo."
When Chutora gave her a look, the female Kai held up a paw.
"Hey," she said defensively. "I have my reasons. Besides, if I'm letting you have Shouji, I get Dodo."
He chuckled and nuzzled her.
"Sounds good to me." he said affectionately and she returned the nuzzle, both of them closing their eyes contentedly as they did.
Behind them, Gin smiled and gestured back outside to John, Akame, and Smith and the 4 of them quietly excused themselves and left the 2 couples alone to enjoy the moment. Once they had departed the cave and were out of earshot, Gin turned to them.
"They're obviously not coming back to Gajou with us after this." he said. "So I think we need to talk about leaving them here to start raising their families and head back ourselves."
"I agree." Akame said with a nod. "We have duties back in Ohu and here we would just get in their way. I think we should spend the night and then leave in the morning."
Both John and Smith nodded in agreement at this and Gin did as well, turning to all of them once he had.
"It's settled then." he said. "Rest up until tomorrow and we'll leave at sunrise."
From his position by John, Smith gave a snort.
"Our little group's getting pretty empty, Gin." he said with an almost regretful note in his voice. "Suddenly I'm feeling like the odd-dog out in this little band of leaders."
The Akita gave him a reassuring smile.
"It is indeed." he agreed, turning to walk back towards the cave. "And for the record Smith, you'll always be an equal in my book."
"Yeah." John snorted as the Spaniel nodded gratefully at Gin. "…Platoon leader Smith, sleeping with a fellow soldier's mate behind his back. The honor in it moves me to tears."
"Oh bite me." Smith retorted as Akame and Gin grinned in front of them, the four of them padding slowly back into the cave's inner sanctum as they did.
Inside, in the company of new life, they would rest from their journey and wait until morning.
Kurotora yawned as his eyes fluttered open, his tired body protesting being disturbed from such a relaxing sleep. Lifting his head slowly, he saw that it was still night, and silently wondered what had awoken him from his slumber. Stretching his legs as he did, the dark-furred Kai dog stood and walked over to the cave entrance, seeing Gin and Akame sleeping peacefully out of the corner of his eye. Outside, a gentle breeze was sweeping by, and the stars above seemed to number in the thousands, complementing the full moon amongst them nicely and adding some pale, ambient light to the whole scene. To Kuro, it looked suitably beautiful.
"Can't sleep either?"
The Kai dog turned his head towards the voice in surprise, though he recognized it immediately. Padding softly up to join him was Chutora, and the brown-furred dog settled onto his haunches beside him without waiting for an answer, as if the question had just been a way to inform him of his presence. Once he had, he too looked up at the nighttime sky with a sigh.
"It's funny." he said when Kurotora didn't say anything immediately. "This is the first time we've been back here since…what happened to Akatora…and it hasn't changed much at all. To me it all still looks the same."
"Yeah," Kurotora agreed with a grunt. "I guess it's only us that time passed for. We've certainly come a long way since then."
Chutora chuckled lightly.
"Tell me about it." he said with a smirk. "Chutora of Kai…and his sons. There's something I thought I'd never live to see."
"Trust me, I know that feeling."
"Actually," the elder Kai teased. "I'm more surprised that you're here than me. The fact that we managed to find someone who can put up with your mood swings is a miracle."
"Screw you." Kurotora grunted sleepily and Chutora chuckled, glancing back at their sleeping families as he did.
"You ready for this?" he asked and the younger Kai didn't even have to ask what he meant.
"Believe it or not," he said thoughtfully. "I think I am."
"Good." Chutora nodded. "So am I. And I think we'd better be, 'cause I think we're finally here to stay. You're not going anywhere this time, little brother…and neither am I."
At that, both brothers exchanged a smile and Chutora gestured with his head.
"We should get some sleep." he said, padding back to Shiori's side and laying down again. "I get the feeling we're both gonna need it. See you tomorrow."
Within moments of this, he had closed his eyes again and was already asleep, leaving Kurotora staring at him silently in the dark cave, alone once more. Then he too went back to his mate's side, still wondering what had woken him up in the first place, and resumed his sleeping position on the floor beside her.
"See you tomorrow." he said, a strange, almost ominous feeling sweeping through him as he let his gaze linger on his brother and his family.
Then he laid his head back down on his paws and put it out of his mind. Moments later, his eyes slid shut again, and sleep reclaimed him.
Smith blinked sleepily as he followed the path away from the cave, the bright morning sunlight stabbing at his eyes violently as he tried to adapt to the new day around him. He had awoken suddenly in the very early morning to a rough tugging on his ears, and had opened his eyes in startled confusion in time to see two of his friends' pups playing tug of war with his head, one ear in each of their mouths, both of them pulling hard on him as if determined to claim him for their own. The deadpan expression that had followed this was apparently enough to elicit a round of laughter from the others, and Chutora had carried both pups outside to go for a walk and let them work off some of their excess energy, inviting the Spaniel to go with him as he did. Smith had accepted this invitation with a shrug, reassuring Gin as they strode past that he would be back in time for them to leave for Ohu. Now, as he followed Chutora along the winding cliff pathway leading deeper into the mountains of Kai, he could safely say that he was looking forward to returning home, and getting some well-earned rest there as well. Right as he finished thinking this, Chutora glanced back at him.
"Geez, Smith." he scoffed. "I haven't heard you this quiet since you fell into that cave back in Mutsu! Wake up and talk or something."
"Says the guy who actually got some sleep." the Spaniel retorted, watching as the Kai dog's two pups tussled on the ground in front of their father. "And doesn't have to walk all the way back to Ohu from here."
"Pfft!" Chutora snorted. "You could complain about anything!"
"Hey, watch it." Smith warned, stepping over a rock as they reached the steepest part of the path. "Or you and I might part ways with a little sparring match instead of a nod."
Chutora let out a bark-like laugh, turning around as he did.
"Anytime you wanna go, Smith, I'm right here." he said almost tauntingly, then pushed his shoulder with a paw. "C'mon! Let's get one last fight in for old time's sake."
"You mean before you're demoted from fierce warrior to wet nurse?"
"You are just asking for a head butt in the jaw." Chutora said, narrowing his eyes with a smirk.
"Oh yeah?" the Spaniel responded. "Well don't let being neutered by fatherhood stop – "
Suddenly, his eyes panned over the Kai dog's left shoulder and he saw a sight that made his blood run cold. In the midst of their friendly argument, the two had forgotten to keep an eye on the playing pups up ahead of them, and now they were rolling perilously close to the edge of the path…and the massive drop that lay just beyond it.
"Tora!" Smith barked in alarm. "TORA!"
The Kai dog had whirled around upon seeing his expression though, and had already bolted off down the path as fast as his legs could carry him, trying desperately to reach his kids as Smith struggled to catch up behind him. What happened next would forever burn itself into Smith's mind, and he would remember it vividly until the day he died. Because the two had reacted so late, the playing pups rolled over the last few inches of the path edge before they could reach them and began to drop off into oblivion. At the last second though, Chutora made a diving lunge and grabbed them both in his jaws as they began to fall, tossing them back to safety over his shoulder with all the strength he possessed. In his desperation however, he had leaped too far and quickly began to plummet himself, not making so much as a sound as he did.
Smith made a diving lunge of his own as soon as he saw it and snapped his jaws desperately at his comrade's hind legs, trying to grab one of them before the unthinkable happened. His jaws closed on empty air. Before his eyes, a momentarily startled expression appeared on Chutora's face, as if he had just realized what was happening, and then he plunged to the forest far below. Up above, Smith could only watch in helpless horror as the brown-furred Kai dog fell faster and faster, smashing multiple times into jutting out pieces of the cliff wall, slowing his momentum with every hit. Right before the bottom though, he began to tumble end over end from the downward force, and was sent careening into a jagged rock head first with an impact that made a sickening 'CRACK' echo off the trees and walls surrounding the area. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Chutora came to rest on the hard forest floor at the bottom of the cliff side, his body motionless as blood began pooling slowly around his broken form. For a moment up above, Smith couldn't even find his voice.
"CH-CHUTORA!" he screamed. "Shit! CHUTORA!"
The Kai Dog didn't respond. He didn't even move. Smith scanned the cliffside frantically with his eyes, looking for any way down at all. Behind him, the pups began whining and yipping, not understanding what was going on, and finally he whirled on them with an angry look.
"Quiet!" he snapped. "Both of you!"
To his surprise, the tiny young dogs did just that, silencing at once and giving him curious looks as if asking 'What did I do wrong?'. Momentarily satisfied, the Spaniel turned back to the cliff to resume his search and check on his gravely injured friend…only to find Chutora slowly regaining his feet, slipping in his own blood and wobbling sickly as he did. Smith could not see his face, for his head was tilted down, but he gave an involuntary laugh of relief, leaning over the edge slightly as he did.
"Oh my god!" he yelled in a shaky voice. "Chutora! Are you okay?"
There was no answer from his friend and up on his cliffside perch, Smith could see him lift his head and start looking around, as if to see where he was and how far he had fallen.
"Chutora!" he shouted. "Up here!"
Then the Kai Dog turned to him finally and Smith's relief died on the spot. His stomach did a backflip. Though Chutora's face was intact, albeit covered in his own blood, the elder Kai brother stared back at him with wide, crazed eyes, the tough but playful spark that always inhabited them having vanished entirely, replaced by a look that was simultaneously psychotic and lifeless and chilled Smith to the bone. Upon seeing him, Chutora's lips lifted in a bloody snarl and Smith took a step back in shock as his friend opened his mouth and let loose what the Spaniel could only later describe as a deranged, blood-curdling shriek, spit flying from his maw as he did. Then, when Smith didn't reply, the Kai dog turned and fled into the woods, his roaring and snarling growing faint and finally disappearing with him as he crashed through the underbrush and out of sight.
"Shit…" Smith breathed in horror. "Oh shit!"
Then he turned and fled quickly back towards the den, shouting at the pups to follow as he did. To his great relief, they did just that, and when he ran full speed up to the den a few minutes later, they were not far behind him and scampered inside to their mother, yipping the whole way. Outside though, Smith was greeted immediately by Gin, John, Akame, and Kurotora, all of whom looked concerned and confused as he skidded to a halt.
"Smith?" the Akita asked in a stern tone. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"We heard your shouting all the way from here." Akame added, stepping up beside Gin as he did.
"Gin…" the Spaniel replied, panting from his run. "There's been an accident!"
The Ohu leader seemed to pale beneath his fur and Smith could tell that these were the exact words he had feared he would hear, and the last ones he wanted to.
"What accident?" Kurotora said in a voice devoid of strength. "Where the hell is my brother?"
"Show me." Gin demanded, cutting off the Spaniel's response. "Smith, SHOW ME!"
The older dog nodded frantically and immediately sprinted back towards the cliffside path, the others following closely behind as Kurotora shouted at Amaya to stay inside the den with their pups. During this, they ran faster than Smith could ever remember them running as a group, all of them staying right with him as he leapt around trees and back onto the rocky pathway he had been on only minutes before. By the time they reached the spot where Chutora had fallen, he was panting a mile a minute, his lungs burning for air as he stopped by the cliff's edge. Talking quickly, he told them what had happened and pointed to where the Kai dog had fallen, all of them rushing to the edge with him as soon as he had. Chutora's blood still sat pooled where he'd landed, and it's scent wafted sickeningly up to the Ohu dogs at the top of the cliff, its implications working on all their nerves as they turned to Smith quickly.
"And he just ran off?" Gin asked in a dead serious tone.
"Yeah," he said. "Into those trees. You should've seen his face, Gin. He looked…out of his mind."
"Why didn't you fucking grab him when he fell?" Kurotora shouted angrily, a scared note in his voice that amplified the Spaniel's guilt. "You were close enough you should've had him!"
"I was focusing on the pups!" Smith said defensively. "It all happened so fast!"
"Yeah, well – "
"Enough!" Akame snapped. "We need to get down there to find him…quickly!"
"There might be a path back near the den where we first arrived!" John said gruffly, taking the initiative and running off towards it as soon as the words had left his mouth.
Seeing this, the others immediately followed him, Smith trailing them in last, his eyes trying not to look at the spot on the ground far below where his friend had landed, where his blood soaked slowly into the ground beneath.
Maim. Slay. Attack. Kill.
Must kill. It's my way. Must kill. It's my way. Must kill. It's my way…
My head is killing me.
Where am I? What's happened? Who am I? Why does my head hurt so much?
The sound of footsteps rustled through the trees as the Kai dog stood there panting, his forehead pressed up against the trunk of a nearby tree. Blood trickled and streamed down the crevices in the bark, pooling at his feet as a low rumbling growl escaped steadily from the ravages of his throat. The sunny day seemed to mock him with its beauty, its rays of light stabbing at his widened feral eyes as he turned his head towards the noise.
No No No No No NO NO NO NO!
Intruders must die! They must ALL die! No one may enter but Kais! All intruders are FOOD. I can't think straight. Why the fuck does my head hurt so much?
Another dog suddenly stepped into the clearing from the shadows of the trees on the opposite side, his ears and body straightening up in surprise as he laid eyes on the Kai dog.
"Excuse me," he said, his voice full of youth and a calm sense of caution. "Are you in charge here? My family and I want to ask permission to pass through this territory."
Kill. Kill. Kill…
The newcomer was a Golden Retriever, and his tail lowered in respect for the Kai dog as a female of his kind and 2 bouncing pups came up alongside him, all of them staring at the strange Kai dog expectantly as if waiting for an answer.
"We don't mean to trespass." the male said. "We just want safe passage. Is that okay with you if we pass on through?"
Squeal and squirm and scream and snap and squish –
"Hello?" the retriever asked a little louder. "Can you hear me?"
A steady, low growl greeted his ears and the female turned to her mate.
"Sweetheart," she said nervously. "Let's just go. We're bothering him."
"But I don't want to be uncourteous – "
Must kill. It's my way. Must kill. It's my way.
"Jasper, he looks sick. Let's go!"
"All right, all right! We'll go. Help me get the kids."
"Dad," one of the pups squeaked. "Is that guy sick? He smells funny."
"Vincent, behave yourself." the female scolded. "This isn't our territory. We have to be respectful."
"Thank you anyway." the male retriever, Jasper, said to the Kai dog. "We'll be on our way."
The growling continued and the Retriever frowned. The Kai dog's eyes looked almost crossed-eyed and vacant, as if there were nothing behind them.
"Hey, are you sure you're ok – "
The attack happened without warning. Before the sentence had even left his mouth, the Kai dog had launched himself across the distance between them and knocked him to the ground with a demonic sounding snarl. Then he began ravaging his face and neck, blood and tissue flying everywhere as the Retriever tried futilely to defend himself.
You must die. This land must be purged. This is KAI dog land. Only I can be here. You're intruders. You must all die.
The female screamed in terrified horror as the Kai dog bit deeply into her mate's neck with a 'SNAP' and his head separated from his body, rolling a few feet away as fountains of blood began spurting everywhere from the severed stump.
Don't cry. You're next. You and your spawn shall join him in hell.
Must kill. Must kill. Must kill. Must kill. Must kill.
Then the Kai dog lunged at her too, blood dripping morbidly from his fur as his razor sharp fangs aimed at the screaming female and her whining, trembling pups. It took less than 30 seconds for them to get ripped to pieces entirely, their cries persisting all the way to the end. When it was all over an eerie silence fell over the clearing, the Kai dog still standing over their bodies as blood dripped from his brown fur onto the dirt below. Then, without a word, he turned and headed further into the trees, his instincts telling him that it was time to head home to his den…to his family.
'Kill.' Chutora thought, right before he vanished into the shadows. 'Kill…'
Kurotora paced back and forth worriedly as darkness began to fall on Kai. His fear and doubt seemed to grow with each passing minute, and the lack of action from the others did nothing to assuage him at all. The group had spent hours trying to track Chutora down, fanning out to virtually every corner of the forest in an effort to pick up his trail, but had had no luck in finding him. Not even Smith's sensitive nose had detected any trace of him, and that very fact was increasing the younger Kai brother's worry a hundredfold as the waning hours of the day seemed to roll by unconcerned. Smith… Kurotora growled angrily under his breath. If the incompetent fool had actually caught his brother, as any of them would've done for him, then they wouldn't be in this situation in the first place!
'That's not fair.' part of his subconscious scolded him in the back of his mind. 'Smith and Chutora are practically best friends. Blaming him for what was clearly an accident is just wrong.'
'I don't fucking care!' the other, stronger part snapped back. 'This is his fault. It's both of their faults! What the hell were they thinking being anywhere near that cliff?'
"Kurotora, if you keep pacing like that, you're going to wear a hole in the floor." John's voice sounded suddenly and the Kai dog snorted scathingly.
"Bite me, John!" he spat. "Maybe you can just fucking sit there and do nothing, but I sure as hell can't."
"Bite you?" the Shepherd scoffed in mild irritation. "Kuro, you need to calm down. We'll find him."
"Don't tell me to calm down!" the Kai dog hissed. "If you assholes spent half as much time looking as you do doing nothing, we would've found him by now!"
"Kurotora, stop it!" Amaya's voice snapped as John bristled angrily. "This isn't their fault and you know it! Now, there's no reason to fear the worst yet, so we all should stay calm and think this through."
By her side, Shiori lay trembling slightly, her fear resonating more than anyone else's there as her sister tried futilely to comfort her. Before any of them could say another word though, Akame spoke up from his position by the door.
"She's right." he said sagely. "We need to think this through carefully. Once Gin and Nagisa get back from their search we'll think of a plan to find him as quickly as possible."
Then the ninja dog turned to Smith, who sat quietly on the other side of the door opposite him.
"Smith," he said. "Tell us again. After Chutora fell, did he say or do anything that suggested where he was going?"
The Spaniel seemed to think for a minute, and then shook his head slightly.
"No." he said almost gently. "No. He just…shrieked up at me and then ran off into the trees. I was astounded that he was even still alive after a hit like the one he took so..."
"What exactly did he hit on the rock?" John asked. "His side? His back?"
"His head." the Spaniel replied in a subdued voice. "Hard. I heard the crack all the way from up top."
The room went silent at that and Kurotora stopped in mid-stride, his heart pounding relentlessly in his chest and his fear shifting into overdrive as he tried to process what he just heard. Behind him, Smith turned back to Akame.
"What if…" he said hesitantly, and it sounded like he was trying to choose his words with great care. "What if the damage is permanent? I mean…you guys didn't see his face."
"We shouldn't get into 'what ifs' right now, Smith." the Kishu said softly. "That won't get us anywhere."
"But it might help us figure out what to do." the Spaniel countered in the same quiet tone. "If that damage is permanent than he's never gonna have a normal life. Not like that. We need to figure out how to handle this quickly, because if we can't fix this, then…then he might be as good as gone."
That was the last straw for Kurotora. Turning with a full-throated snarl, he launched himself across the room at the Spaniel, smashing him into the cave wall moments later with a resounding 'THUD' and sending him flying to ground. Then he grabbed him by the neck and started slamming him repeatedly into the den floor, not caring for the moment that Smith had been completely and utterly unprepared for the attack and thus could only kick at him vainly in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge him from his dominant perch. In truth, Kurotora was scared. Despite how angry he had gotten at Smith over the years, he had never wanted to physically hurt him during any of their numerous arguments and fights. After all, they were friends. This time though, the Spaniel had said the wrong thing at the wrong time. The ominous implication of his brother's head injury had slithered its way into the Kai dog's brain the second the words had left Smith's mouth, and every worst case scenario that he could think of immediately joined it, rooting themselves in his subconscious and taunting him incessantly, making him even more afraid than before. Now that he had attacked and couldn't take it back, he simply had no will to stop himself. Fortunately, Akame had far more self-control. Moving like a white missile, the ninja dog grabbed Kurotora's scruff in a vice-like grip and threw him hard into the opposing wall, standing in between him and Smith as soon as he had.
"Enough!" he bellowed loudly, shooting an angry look back and forth at both of them. "We can't afford this right now!"
Smith staggered to his feet as soon as this was said, a thick trail of blood streaming down his fur from his neck and temple. He shot Kurotora a withering glare.
"You weren't there." he spat in a low tone. "I know what I'm talking about better than you."
"I don't care who was where!" the Kai dog yelled back, John getting in front of him too. "You let him fall! You didn't catch him!"
"You don't think I tried?" Smith shouted furiously. "He's one of my best friends, you son-of-a-bitch!"
"All I know is that you're here and he's not!" Kurotora retorted. "You fill in the blanks!"
Smith shook his head, biting his lower lip hard in anger.
"You know, I feel really bad for those kids." he said gesturing over at the frightened pups before he could stop himself. "Regardless of what happened to Chutora, they've gotta put up with you for the rest of their lives. That's punishment enough as far as I'm concerned."
Kurotora roared in fury and lunged at him again, only getting about a foot before John grabbed him hard and held him back by force, his powerful jaws keeping the enraged Kai dog at bay. Akame did the same with Smith, and was about to say something else before another voice beat him to the punch.
"Stop it now!"
Everyone did just that and turned to face Gin as he walked slowly into the cave, his brown eyes shining with disappointment as he looked around at his friends. Once he'd reached their center, he stopped and looked over at Kurotora.
"I know you're worried." he said calmly, but with a deadly undertone. "So is everyone else. But what happened is no one's fault and you know it. I won't have you starting fights within this pack, you understand me?"
The Kai dog didn't meet his gaze, but nodded silently anyway, not watching as the Akita's glare turned on Smith.
"As for you," Gin said coldly, his eyes practically radiating displeasure. "That last remark was unfair and uncalled for. Don't let me hear you say something like that to one of your comrades again or you and I are going to have a problem. Do you understand?"
Smith looked ashamed of himself and nodded as well, turning his wounded gaze outside the den as Gin straightened up where he stood.
"Good." he said, acknowledging both of their answers before turning to the others. "Now instead of sitting here and getting at each other's throats, we should all be out looking for Chutora. We haven't found anything yet, but we're narrowing down our search area. If we all went out at once and worked together, we might find him faster."
"I agree, leader." Akame said, nodding to him as he released his grip on Smith. "He can't have gotten far with the injuries he must have received, so if we all go out as a group we should find him quickly."
"Let's go then!" John barked, letting go of Kurotora. "Doing nothing's not gonna get us anywhere!"
Gin allowed himself a small smile at his friend's eagerness and then turned and sprinted back out of the cave, followed closely by both the Shepherd and Akame. At the rear, Smith and Kurotora shot each other an angry look and then followed, the latter stopping to turn back to his family a few steps later.
"Amaya," he said in a subdued voice. "Stay here with the pups. We'll be back at some point."
"All right." the female Kai replied, sounding a little uneasy at everything she had just witnessed. "But be careful will you, Kuro?"
The dark-furred male smirked despite himself.
"I'll try." he said, and then added in a soft voice. "I love you."
She smiled gently at him.
"I know." she said. "Now go find your brother."
He nodded, then took a deep, ragged breath and sprinted off after his friends, disappearing around the bend and out of sight moments later.
"Chutora! God damn it! CHUTORA!"
Kurotora swore under his breath as silence was his answer again, his 5th sweep of the Eastern tier of their territory being as devastatingly unproductive as the last 4. It had begun to rain heavily in the last hour of his search, and though the storm above was diminishing his senses somewhat, he could hear the faint cries of his friends off in the distance as they yelled the same name, their tones telling him that they too were coming up empty as well. The younger Kai brother was beginning to get truly scared.
'Where the hell did you go, Chutora?' he wondered. 'Akame was right. You can't have wandered too far in your condition!'
Scenting the dank air, the dark furred Kai walked slowly in a circle, trying to pick up any trace of his brother's scent left amongst the water soaking the forest around him. There was Gin, he smelled…John…Akame…Smith…who the hell is that? Stopping in mid turn, he sniffed more deeply at the air and then frowned. The coppery scent of blood had teased at his nose, and with it a couple of other scents, one of which seemed almost familiar to him. Starting forward at a slow trot, he cautiously followed the smell of blood, hearing the voices of a few of the others getting closer as he did, and let it lead him through a tightly clumped grove of evergreens into a small clearing amongst the trees. The gap in the woods was only a few miles from where Chutora's fall had taken place and the moment Kurotora entered it, he came to a dead stop. On the ground at the far end was nothing short of a bloodbath. A family of what he guessed had once been golden retrievers lay strewn across the wet, pine needle covered dirt, their body parts laying in pools of blood and rainwater and scattered amongst one another so thoroughly that he was actually at a loss as to where one dog ended and another began. Standing over them, scanning the scene with expressions of combined horror and anger, were two dogs, and the moment Kurotora came to a stop one of them looked over at him with a snarl.
"Bastard!" one, the smaller of the two, spat angrily. "Come back to finish the job? You'll pay for this, you evil piece of shit!"
Kurotora felt his lips lift in a growl of his own.
"This is my territory!" he said dangerously. "What the hell are you doing in it? And what the fuck happened here?"
"I'll give you territory!" the first dog hissed and immediately made a move towards him, causing the prideful Kai dog to drop instantly into a battle stance.
As it turned out, it was a pointless action. The moment the smaller dog made his move, the larger one grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and restrained him, tossing him roughly a few feet behind him as soon as he had a good grip. Then he stepped in between them and gave Kurotora a hard, wide-eyed look.
"Kurotora?" he asked in a gruff voice. "Is that you?"
This got the Kai dog's attention, and he looked harder at his new opponent, struggling to see him clearly through the rain and growing darkness. The dog was a Belgian Shepherd, he saw, and was staring at him with a look of recognition that piqued Kurotora's curiosity in a big way. After a few moments, he smelled the same familiar scent from earlier on the dog and realized with a start who it was.
"Kouzou!" he barked, straightening up in wide-eyed surprise. "What are you doing here? And is that – "
"Ryou!" a new voice exclaimed and suddenly John was there, Gin, Akame, and Smith arriving as well on either side. "Is that you? Christ, kid, you're like a different dog altogether!"
Looking closer, Kurotora saw that the Shepherd was right. The dog he had almost fought with was indeed Ryou, and the Husky had filled out significantly since they'd seen him last. He was both taller and more muscular than he had once been and had a few battle scars on his chest that hadn't been there before. In truth, if John hadn't pointed out who he was, Kurotora doubted that he would have recognized him at all. Both dogs stepped forward to greet them.
"Gin!" Kouzou said, his tail wagging behind him. "I didn't know you all were in this area! It's been more than a year since you left Saitama!"
"A year and 2 months." Gin said with a small smile. "I know. What are you doing here, Kouzou? This isn't part of your territory."
"No, but these dogs were part of my pack." the Belgian Shepherd said, turning and walking back over to the dismembered bodies behind him. "We were following them to give them a message before they left. Instead we found this."
Gin frowned seriously and walked up beside him, Kurotora and the others joining him as he did.
"His name was Jasper." Ryou said in a subdued voice, gesturing to the largest of the bodies. "He and his family joined the pack after you all left. They were just…normal, friendly dogs. He was a good friend of mine."
Kouzou, meanwhile, glanced sideways at Gin.
"This is like Heizo all over again." he said and the Akita didn't reply, leaning down to sniff cautiously at the corpses instead as water dripped from his silvery fur.
The moment he had though, he straightened up quickly in shock and then leaned in and sniffed again, immediately looking Kurotora's way once he had. The Kai dog frowned at this and for a moment, it seemed as though the Ohu leader was at a loss for what to do. Eventually though, he turned back to the newcomers.
"Kouzou," he said in an almost shaky voice. "I think we should talk about this somewhere else. There's been an…incident…that my pack needs to deal with right now."
Kurotora maintained his frown. His friend was hiding something, he could tell, and it had to do with him. He'd be damned if he didn't figure out what it was. Growling under his breath, the prideful Kai dog stepped forward to one of the corpses and leaned in to sniff at it as well.
"Kuro, don't – !" Gin's protesting voice started to say, but it was too late.
Chutora's scent wafted up sickeningly to his sensitive nose from the ruins of the dog's body, and Kurotora froze where he stood, straightening up more slowly than Gin had before him. For a long time, he said nothing. Then he clenched his jaws together so tightly his teeth began to hurt.
"No." he said simply in his gravelly voice. "No, I don't believe it."
"Kuro – "
"My brother is not a killer!" the Kai dog insisted stubbornly, moving to another body and sniffing at that one too.
When that didn't get him the result he wanted, he moved on yet again, circling the killing scene almost 3 times before finally facing his friends with an angry look.
"Chutora wouldn't do this!" he yelled. "He's not that kind of male and you all damn well know it!"
The rest of the group looked at each other uncomfortably, their eyes wandering down to their paws as soon as they had broken their mutual glances. Behind them, Kouzou looked taken aback.
"Ch-Chutora did this?" he asked in a quiet voice and Kurotora immediately glared at him.
"No!" he barked simply, the anger in his voice still very much there.
A few moments later, Akame looked over at the Belgian Shepherd.
"Chutora had an accident earlier today and hit his head in the process." he said gravely. "Judging from this and everything else we've heard…it sounds like that blow may have caused a personality change."
"How?" John asked warily from his position by Gin.
"I don't know." the Kishu answered. "But I've seen it happen before. Severe enough head injuries can cause everything to go haywire. A dog might not recognize his friends or family, turn violent, not remember his own name…his whole personality could change entirely. If Chutora really did hit his head hard enough in that fall…he could have done this."
Kurotora's face slackened, and he seemed to be struggling to come up with an alternate scenario in his head. When that failed, he settled for looking at Akame pleadingly.
"B-But you can fix it, right?" he demanded. "Even if this was him, and I don't think it fucking was, you can still fix him…right Akame?"
The Kishu looked at him sympathetically.
"Kurotora," he said hesitantly. "I…"
"Can you fix it?"
Akame and Gin exchanged a look and the ninja dog sighed.
"I won't know until I examine him." he said, and Kurotora had this nagging suspicion that he was being told what he wanted to hear. "Maybe, maybe not."
"Well, we can't examine him 'til we catch him." John said. "Now where would he go from here?"
"Impossible to tell." Akame replied and Kurotora sighed in disgust, looking at the ground as Smith turned to Gin across from him.
"Gin," the Spaniel said. "What are we gonna do when we do catch him? I mean, he's not gonna come quietly and we can't kill him!"
"We'll figure that out when we find him, Smith." The Akita responded but then Kouzou cut in as well.
"He has a point, Gin." the Belgian Shepherd said. "If he's that badly damaged, then you may have to use deadly force just to get him under control."
"Kouzou," Gin said in a deliberately calm voice. "I know you're concerned but this is an internal matter. Please stay out of it."
"It stopped being an internal matter when your packmate butchered 4 of mine." the elder dog retorted in an equally calm voice. "Now I appreciate that you're in a terrible situation, and I still owe you all for helping my pack before…but regardless of who he is, Chutora killed 4 of my dogs and he's going to have to answer for that."
Gin seemed to grimace where he sat and John immediately turned his ears forward challengingly.
"Hey!" he barked sternly. "Back off!"
Kouzou immediately said something else, but whatever it was, Kurotora didn't hear. While the conversation had been taking place, he had been sorting through his own chaotic thoughts and trying desperately to figure out where his wounded brother would go. And right as John had made his displeasure known, that's when the Kai dog's eye had fallen on one of the dead pups. He had stiffened immediately and looked at its mutilated corpse more closely, his one good eye widening in horror as he suddenly realized what direction it had led Chutora in after the murders were over.
"Oh my god…" he breathed.
What the elder Kai brother had killed was a family. That fact alone would've put that very concept into his brother's damaged mind, no matter what state it was in. He would've left this place thinking about that very subject. And families meant dens…families meant home.
"He's going back to the den…" he said aloud in slowly increasing horror as the argument around him persisted. "Gin, he's going back to the den!"
Then, as the Akita turned away from the argument to acknowledge him, Kurotora turned and ran full speed away from his friends, pumping his legs hard as he heard them struggle to chase after him, trying desperately to get back to his family before the unthinkable happened.
Amaya flinched as another bolt of lightning split the sky, it's brief but intense illumination allowing her to see the almost palpable worry on her sister's face for a split second before they were plunged into darkness in the cave again. She could feel her pups nursing at her belly as she lay there, but for the moment, she wasn't thinking of them. A feeling a dread had been sitting like a weight in the back of her mind ever since Kurotora and his friends had left to go searching for Chutora, and short of being able to shake it, it had seemed to grow stronger as the night grew blacker and the rain kept falling around them.
"Wh-What if he – " Shiori suddenly started in a shaky voice but Amaya immediately cut her off.
"Hush!" the female Kai barked softly to her sister. "Kuro and the others will find him. Have a little faith, Shiori."
"But he's been gone almost a day now, Amaya." the younger female protested. "What if they can't find him?"
"Shiori," Amaya snapped. "Shut up!"
The younger Kai silenced immediately with a wounded look and the pups began to whine at the loud noise, making both females lean down to calm them with soothing licks. Amaya looked at her sister.
"I'm sorry, Shiori." she said quietly. "It's just that…I feel like something's wrong…and I don't know what it is. I have a really bad feeling."
"Wrong how?" Shiori asked quaveringly. "Does it have to do with Chutora?"
"I don't know," Amaya replied. "I – "
was another flash of lightning and Amaya stood up quickly. She could've
sworn she had seen movement outside the cave, but when she looked
again, there was nothing there. Still though, the feeling persisted,
growing stronger by the minute. Finally, she could take it no longer.
"Nagisa!" she called and the Spitz was immediately by her side.
"Yes, Ma'am?" she asked.
Amaya looked at her seriously.
"Round up your guards and take all of our pups down to shelter in the valley." she said. "Quickly."
Nagisa looked confused.
"You want me to take them out in this storm, Amaya-san?" she asked incredulously and the female Kai growled at her.
"NOW, Nagisa!" she snapped and the Spitz nodded immediately, rounding up her nearby guards quickly once she did.
Then they gathered up all the whining, protesting pups and disappeared out the entrance with them, vanishing around the bend and out of sight moments later. Shiori turned to her sister in shock once she had.
"Amaya," she said loudly. "What are you doing? They can't be out in this storm!"
"Shiori – " the elder female started to say, but then stopped in mid-sentence.
A series of lightning flashes had just occurred outside the den, and their light had revealed a shadowed figured moving slowly towards the entrance, stumbling slightly as if sickened and disoriented. Amaya's ears perked up instantly and her lips lifted slightly in the beginnings of a growl. Her danger senses were screaming full bore at her but as much as she wanted to take action, something held her back. A few moments later, when the figure finally padded slowly and deliberately into the den entrance did she understand what it was. His scent revealed him for who he was.
"Chutora!" Shiori cried in delight, and immediately rushed to her mate's side, nuzzling his chest and neck as soon as she had. "Where were you, you idiot? I was so worried!"
Then though, a bolt of lightning, brighter than the others, lanced across the night sky and Amaya finally saw her brother-in-law's face clearly. Her blood ran cold. On either side of his muzzle were two wide, terrifyingly lifeless eyes, their glints reflecting the same amount of light as the ones coming off his fangs, which were bared wide in a noiseless snarl underneath lifted lips dripping spit and blood. In fact, the whole front of the male Kai's body was covered in the coppery smelling liquid, and it took only a few seconds for Amaya to realize what was going to happen. It was a few seconds too long. Moving faster than she had ever seen him move, Chutora suddenly grabbed Shiori by the back of the neck and wrenched her head hard to the right, making a sickening wet 'SNAP' echo off the cave walls. Moments later, the younger female Kai slumped to the ground motionless.
"SHIORI!" Amaya screamed in horror.
Then Chutora was on her too. As she was bowled over onto her back and bloody fangs tore at her in a frenzy, all she could think about was Kurotora, and how happy she could've been raising a family of her own.
'Kurotora…' she thought with her last bit of strength. 'Kurotora, my love…'
Then the world went away, and everything was silent.
Kurotora nearly tripped over a log as he reached the cliffside path that led to the den, his lungs burning from the long run he had just taken to get to where he was. In the forest behind him, he could hear the sounds of the others as they struggled to catch up, startled as they'd been by his sudden departure, but he had absolutely no patience to wait. Feeling his claws gripping the wet gravel beneath him, he sprinted up the path as fast as he could move, rainwater blinding his vision as he got closer and closer to where his family awaited him.
"AMAYA!" he shouted as he got closer to the top. "Amaya, are you there?"
There was no answer and he rounded the bend at a full run, sprinting towards the den entrance as soon as it came into view. Suddenly though, a figure emerged from it confines and the dark-furred Kai dog came to a grinding halt. His heart leapt into his throat and his next words died swiftly on his tongue. It was Chutora, and the blood that clearly covered him did not do any favors for Kurotora's fragile state of mind. At that moment though, he had no time to think about it.
"Ch-Chutora!" he yelled in a far less powerful voice. "Stop!"
The elder Kai dog didn't even break stride. Increasing his pace, Chutora moved instead directly towards his brother, his wide, feral eyes visible even in the dim light.
"Where's Amaya?" Kurotora said frantically. "Where are my kids? AMAYA!"
The first blow came as a complete shock to him. As soon as Chutora reached his position and Kurotora turned to face him, the brown-furred Kai dog immediately tackled him hard from the front, his razor sharp fangs sinking deep into his brother's shoulder and neck as he did. Kurotora fell onto his back with a yelp of surprise, throwing his elder sibling off only after gouging him in the eye with his claw. Then he stumbled back.
"Chutora!" he shouted. "It's me! Kurotora! I'm your brother!"
The elder Kai didn't listen for moment. Letting out the deranged shriek that Smith had described, he launched himself at his darker-furred opponent with a terrifying ferocity, making Kurotora stand there in horror as he finally saw that his friends had been right all along. Before Chutora could reach him though, a black and white shape came flying in from the side and barreled into the deranged dog as hard as it could, sending them both rolling away in the rain-soaked dirt as a result. It was Smith. Kurotora snapped out of his reverie long enough to see the two males come together with twin snarls and begin savagely ripping at each other as soon as they had, their brutality echoing mortal enemies instead of close friends. Then he too launched himself into the fray, jumping on Chutora's thrashing form and getting slashed across the stomach as he tried to get his brother away from the bleeding Smith. Before he could though, the Spaniel was smacked hard across the face and went down, making Kurotora panic and fight harder, ripping Chutora's legs out from under him and kicking him away from his friend with a pained grunt. That's when the others arrived.
John and Gin immediately leapt on Chutora with devastating force and Akame attacked from behind, all of them being hit by indiscriminate slashes and bites from the Kai dog as they dragged him shrieking and snarling to the ground. Then Kurotora himself leapt back into the fight alongside Smith and helped to subdue their crazed comrade, immobilizing his legs as their friends pinned the rest of him down, making the final result look more like a writhing pile of limbs and heads then anything else. Throughout it all, Chutora growled and screamed, never once uttering a coherent word as he tried everything in his power to get free and resume the attack, something the others dissuaded him from doing by force. Finally, Akame bit down on the Kai dog's throat hard and cut off his airway, holding his powerful grip until the thrashing stopped and Chutora was unconscious. For the moment it seemed, he was under control. Kurotora immediately untangled himself from the pile and ran at the den.
"Amaya!" he yelled. "Answer me! Amaya!"
There was no answer and the moment he entered the cave, the smell of blood assaulted his nostrils, making him move faster…until he saw what was inside.
"NO!" he screamed in an unusually high-pitched voice. "NOOO! FUCK! NOOOOOOOO!"
Amaya lay dead near the back wall of the cave, her face and throat torn to ribbons and leaking blood like a faucet all over the stone floor. Beside her was the broken form of Shiori, who had been savaged all over by someone's fangs until she was virtually unrecognizable. Falling onto his stomach in front of them, the Kai dog gasped and trembled, gagging a few times before finally stumbling to throw up in the corner of the room, trying as hard as he could not to look at his mate's body. Then he felt a tentative paw rest on his shoulder. Whirling around with a growl, he bit hard at the face of whoever it was…and found himself pressed up against the wall in a fierce embrace. It was Gin who had come to comfort him and behind him, standing in front of the others, were Nagisa and all 7 of the puppies, the whole group having obviously just arrived back from wherever they'd been. The young dogs all sat in a row, their views of the carnage blocked by Kouzou and Ryou, and looked up at their father and uncle inquisitively, as if asking him what they were supposed to do now. That was the last straw for Kurotora. Clenching his remaining eye shut, he collapsed into Gin's hug and started to sob, the Akita holding him tightly with one front leg and not letting him go. Behind him, the others all kept their distance and looked on the scene in saddened silence, the happiness of the day before seeming like a distant memory in their minds.
The silence that seemed to fall over Kai was suffocating. In the aftermath of the deaths of Amaya and Shiori, Kouzou and Ryou had sympathetically bid them farewell, and the weary, saddened group had moved to an alternate location, so as not to give the grieving Kurotora a constant reminder of the fate of his mate and her sister. Chutora was being kept in a near catatonic state by Akame, powerful herbs working on his system as Gin and the others waited patiently for any news on his condition, and if it could be reversed. Smith listened to everything around him closely as he lay by the wall of their new base, his gaze falling sympathetically on Kurotora as he played half-heartedly with the pups, who scampered around as if nothing was wrong at all. By the entrance of the cave, Gin and John sat talking in low voices, their body languages conveying the tenseness of the scene well despite their attempts to hide it. Smith rested his head on his front legs.
How had everything gone so suddenly wrong? It was only 2 days ago that everyone was happy and ready to start a new chapter of their lives, but through one careless moment that chapter was now destroyed. Chutora's fall played over and over again in his head like a skipping record, and he constantly wondered now whether he could've caught him. Maybe if he'd moved a little faster. Maybe if he hadn't delayed that 1 more second. The Spaniel shook his head. This was all so wrong. Hadn't they been through enough already? Suddenly, Akame came out of the back room in the cave, separated from the outer, larger one by a small opening in the rock. It was in there that Chutora lay out of everyone's sight, and as the Kishu walked past him, Smith could see a moistness around his eyes that told him everything he needed to know. The Spaniel clenched his eyes shut tightly in sadness. Moments later, Akame joined Gin and John, and as Kurotora walked up to them and the Kishu started to speak, every word he uttered Smith somehow knew he was going to say.
"Akame," Kurotora asked in a stiff but concerned voice. "How is he?"
The Kishu sighed deeply.
"He…" he said softly, and it sounded to Smith as though he was choosing his words carefully. "He has severe brain damage from hitting his head on the rock. The herbs I've been giving him were a last-ditch effort to try and repair some of that damage. It's not working."
The dark-furred Kai took a deep, ragged breath in frustration.
"Okay." he said, taking it all in. "So…So what now? What's the next step?"
Akame and Gin exchanged a saddened glance.
"There...is no next step, Kurotora." the Kishu said in the same soft voice. "The damage is irreversible. There's…There's nothing I can do."
Kurotora opened his mouth and then closed it again. His eyes darted back and forth on the ground between his friend's paws and it seemed to Smith as though he were trying to process what he'd just heard.
"Are you telling me he's gonna stay that way forever?" he asked in a quavering voice. "Is that what you're saying to me?"
"…Yes." Akame answered quietly. "His personality is completely gone, he'll be a danger to anyone around him, and after a while he'll have a hard time feeding himself or even going to the bathroom. You'll pretty much have to keep him in the state he's in now for the rest of his life."
Kurotora looked completely lost, like he didn't even know what to do anymore.
"Th-There has to be something, Akame." he said desperately. "Please…"
"There isn't." the Kishu said, and Smith heard his voice crack a little. "Kuro, I'm so sorry…"
The Kai dog turned away and clenched his eye shut, struggling to keep his emotions in check as Gin took a tentative step forward.
"This is your decision, Kurotora." he said gently. "Whatever you want to do, we'll respect."
The dark-furred canine swallowed hard and turned back to them, only speaking after a long pause.
"My brother, he…" he said hoarsely. "He's a warrior of Ohu, of Kai. We grew up together. And I know…I know that he wouldn't ever want to live…like this."
All 3 of them flinched slightly at this, but it was clearly the answer they had been expecting.
"All right." Akame said. "I know of some other plants I could use, Kurotora, if you want. It would be painless – "
"No." the Kai dog cut him off, his voice sounding hollow. "I'll do it. Just…Just give me a few minutes."
Then he turned and walked back to his children, the three leaders watching him as he left. As soon as he was out of earshot, John turned to Gin.
"Gin, we can't let him do this." he whispered intensely. "I've never seen him so broken before."
"It's his decision, John." the Akita replied in an equally soft voice. "We have to respect that."
"Gin, his mate just died." the Shepherd insisted. "That's gonna be hard enough for him to deal with. If he puts Chutora down himself, he'll have to live with those images the rest of his life. The guilt alone would kill him."
The Akita was silent for a moment, but then shook his head again.
"It's not our call." he said stubbornly and John didn't pursue it further, leaning back to sit in his original position once more.
Smith glanced over at Kurotora from where he lay. John was right, he thought. There's no way his friend would survive having to do that. He was destroyed enough emotionally as it was. Maybe he could talk Gin into Akame doing it instead, for Kurotora's sake. No. If John had failed, then there was certainly no way the Akita would listen to him instead. And Akame, he knew, would go along with whatever plan Gin decided he wanted to honor. There was no way of stopping this. Unless… The Spaniel shook his head hard.
'No…' he thought. 'I can't. I just can't. I…'
But when he looked over at Kurotora again, nosing gently at his tiny pups with a sad, teary-eyed smile, he knew what he had to do. Standing up slowly, Smith moved like a shadow into the back cave, glancing once over his shoulder to make sure that no one had seen him. Once inside, he saw Chutora lying near the back wall, his eyes closed and his side rising and falling slowly as if he were sleeping. Immediately, Smith moved towards him. His legs felt like lead weights with each step he took, and when he arrived at his friend's side and looked down at him, he almost turned and ran back out of the room. Something unspoken kept him there though, and when he looked at Chutora's sleeping face, he hated himself more than he ever had before.
"I know you can't hear me." he said softly to his friend. "And I know you wouldn't understand if you could. But I wanted you to know…I'm sorry. I should've caught you. I should've been faster. And because we were both fools, now you're gone."
He paused, glancing again over his shoulder. Then he turned back and continued.
"Your brother's about to come in here and end your suffering." he said. "But that's gonna kill him and I can't let that happen, no matter what Gin says. I hope one day that you both can forgive me, because no matter what happens…you're my friend. I wanted you to know that, Chutora."
The brown-furred Kai dog didn't reply, and Smith stepped forward with a noiseless sigh, clamping his jaws down tightly on the limp dog's throat as he did. Then he took one last look at his friend's face.
"God forgive me." he whispered.
Then he bit down as hard as he could on the Kai dog's windpipe. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then though, Chutora gagged in his sleep and started thrashing his legs, kicking out at his unseen attacker to try and dislodge his grip on him. Smith held firm. A flying paw hit him in the eye hard and he could feel it start to swell, but still he kept his grip where it was. After a minute or so of thrashing, Chutora started to cease his movements and the sounds of his growled gasps for air began to subside. Finally, as Smith tightened his hold, his movements stopped altogether and his body went limp as a rag doll. It was two full minutes after this that the Spaniel finally released his bite and stood back up. The dog that lay beneath him was still and silent as the grave. Chutora of Kai was dead. Rolling him gently back into his previous position, Smith then turned and exited the cave with a stiff stride, walking right past the unsuspecting John and Akame and out the front entrance of the cave. Once outside, he stumbled over to a nearby bush and vomited into the underbrush, breathing heavily once he had.
"Smith? You okay?"
The Spaniel stiffened visibly at the voice. He had recognized it immediately and when he turned to its owner, he tried desperately to not to look him in the face out of shame.
"Yeah, Gin." he replied in a hoarse whisper. "I'm fine."
The Akita gave him a suspicious look but before he could say anything, there was an uproar from within the cave. Turning his head quickly, Gin saw Akame run out to him with a grave expression.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Gin," the Kishu replied. "Chutora's dead. It looks like he just stopped breathing somehow. Kurotora's a mess."
Gin seemed to pale beneath his fur and then immediately looked right at Smith, his horrified expression shaming the Spaniel more than any words ever could. Akame frowned slightly and leaned in closer.
"Leader." he said. "Do you want me to take charge inside?"
Gin didn't respond for a moment and kept his gaze on Smith. Then he nodded.
"Yes, Akame." he said voice that seemed forcefully calm. "Please do that."
The Kishu nodded and ran back into the cave, disappearing from sight seconds later. The moment he had, Gin walked forward with a furious look and grabbed Smith roughly by the side of the neck with his jaws, nearly dragging him away from the cave until they were well out of earshot of any of the others. Then the Akita threw his friend hard into a nearby tree and immediately got in his face.
"Tell me you didn't." he said in a voice that practically dripped with anger. "You look me in the eye right now and you tell me you didn't."
Smith clenched his eyes shut and looked at the ground.
"Gin…" he said. "I…"
"What the hell is wrong with you?" the Akita screamed. "Have you lost your goddamn mind?"
"I couldn't let him suffer."
"THAT WASN'T YOUR CHOICE TO MAKE!"
"IT WASN'T YOURS EITHER!"
Both of them silenced instantly. For a minute, they stared at each other, panting hard. Finally, Smith's posture slumped, and he gave Gin a defeated look.
"John was right." he said softly. "Killing Chutora would've killed Kurotora. He would've lost all will to live. I had already killed one of them by not reacting in time. I wasn't going to let that happen again."
Gin's eyes widened and when he spoke, it was only after a very long pause and a tired sigh.
"You listen to me," he said, walking right up to Smith's face. "And you listen to me right now. What happened to Chutora was not your fault. You hear me? It wasn't your fault."
"I didn't catch him…"
"You tried." Gin said. "And that's what matters, Smith. What you just did in there…I'm going to have a hard time forgiving you for. But I'm going to try as hard as I can because I see in your eyes that you meant well. I'm also going to keep the truth from Kuro, because I know for a fact that he would never forgive you. But what I am NOT going to do…is stand here and watch you destroy yourself with guilt because of something that was not your fault."
Smith didn't even know what to say, and stubbornly tried to hold back his tears as he heard Gin's words. Then, off in the distance, someone started howling. Soon other voices joined in, and both males realized that it was their comrades back at the cave howling in Chutora's memory. Gin looked his friend in the eye.
"Lift your voice, Smith." he said. "Regardless of what happens from here, for the moment at least…we agree on something."
Then he lifted his head and howled as well, Smith joining in a few moments later. Their calls carried for miles, lilting on the breeze over Kai and eulogizing a friend gone too soon.
"Kurotora, are you sure about this?"
"Yes," the sole remaining Kai brother answered in a determined voice. "It's the only way."
He looked over at his puppies, tussling with each other in the bright morning sunlight.
"They can't ever know what he did." he said. "I won't have them growing up with that on their consciences. My brother's legacy will not be as a killer."
"This still seems a little extreme, Kuro."
"I mean it." the Kai dog said in a determined voice. "No one is to speak of Chutora again. Not to them, not to anyone. If anyone says a word about him it'll be me. To the rest of the world…it'll be as though he never existed."
"He's still their father. What if they ask about him when they're older?"
"I'll tell them what he was like." came the answer. "But not about this. We're the only ones that will ever know the truth. This is my decision, and I'm asking you to respect it."
Gin sighed as the remembered exchange went through his head again, his friend's request proving harder to accept than he had thought. It had only been that morning that Kurotora had made the unusual request of them, and now that they had decided to stay for a few weeks and help support him in his newfound single-parent role, they had no choice but to accept his strange way of protecting his children, no matter what they thought of it. The Akita felt the afternoon breeze tease at his fur as he sat on the cliffside overlooking Kai, and the myriad of thoughts that ran through his head all seemed strangely nostalgic, something he never would've suspected of someone so young.
It had only dawned on him that day how much things had truly changed for the Ohu Army in the few years since the great battle against Akakabuto had come to an end. They had seemed so many then, so fearsome and indestructible. But now they were so very few, and so fragile. Great…Bill…Wilson…Zach…Chutora… All of them were gone in one way or another, and with Kurotora leaving for good to raise his family, his once numerous group of friends had dwindled down to only 3. The Akita shook his head. He couldn't dwell on the past. However much he missed his friends, however much he wished for things to be the way they used to be, he was still the leader of Ohu, and he had a pack to lead back home. Things would certainly be different in Ohu from then on, but they would have to adapt and face it together…because he was damn well not going to let one more friend slip away from his grasp. They had survived their darkest hour mostly intact, and that meant that they could weather any storm. He breathed in the afternoon air. There was no sign of any inclement weather on the horizon, or any danger to threaten them. The skies from now on seemed clear.
"Gin," John's irritated voice called. "Can you help me out here? I fucking hate kids!"
Gin chuckled to himself and stood. The sun shone brightly in the sky over Kai and his friends would be out hunting pretty soon, catching food for 7 hungry new mouths.
'It would be pretty inconsiderate of me not to help them out.' he thought.
And with that, he turned and bounded away, vanishing over a hill as he sprinted back to where his friends were, where the family who needed him waited patiently for his return.