Final Story: The War - Part 1
Part 1: The Nomads
The island of Kyushu was a windy place. With the exception of Okinawa, it was the furthest South in the country and sat squarely at Japan's southern tip, often being overlooked by those who wandered the inland mains and the forests and mountains that dotted its landscape. As a result, it was quite often regarded in one of two ways: either an unremarkable and undesirable side trip, or a forgotten Eden; a temperate, peaceful place that served as a perfect home to those who lived there. One who thought of it as the latter was local boss dog Henry the Third, and he felt a great rush of pride for his island home every time he explored its confines, not regretting in the slightest that his territory wasn't bigger. Closing his eyes instinctively as he stretched his neck and back, the Fukuoka Prefecture leader lifted his drooping muzzle and breathed in the fall air, a tinge of coldness to the breeze that served as a subtle warning of winter's imminent arrival.
Down away from the hillside where he'd been resting, his packmates and family were conversing with each other merrily, their demeanor almost carefree as they prepared for the afternoon hunt. He smiled lightly to himself. Life had been largely uneventful in the years since the war against Akakabuto had come to an end, and though in his youth he would've despised that, craving action above all else, now he greatly appreciated it. Battle was for other dogs, and he was more than ready to just be a father and teach a new generation of young males and soldiers. Stretching himself once more, the brown-furred mutt walked casually down to his loyal pack, nodding brief greetings at a few before striding up to his mate and gently nuzzling her neck.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, seeing her take her eyes off of their playing pups to turn to him.
"Very." she smiled, returning the affectionate gesture. "I'm glad too. Looks like winter's coming early this year. We may have to stockpile some food for the others."
"I was just about to get Ryota on it." Henry answered. "The sooner this is over with the better as far as I'm concerned."
"Why?" his mate asked with a tilt of her head. "There hasn't been any trouble in the area has there?"
Before the Fukuoka leader could answer, a voice called out his name from behind him, making him glance over his shoulder in reply and turn to greet the voice's owner as they trotted up to him.
"Sir," the dog, his Dalmatian subordinate Ryota, said with a dignified nod. "We've got a couple dogs coming in from the eastern border. They say they want to talk to you."
"Who are they?" Henry asked and the other male shook his head.
"Don't know." he said, turning to walk with him towards the other end of the clearing they were in. "Nobody I've ever seen before, sir. We were gonna turn them away right off the bat, but one of them said he knew you."
"Me?" Henry repeated with a frown and Ryota nodded again.
"Yes sir." he replied. "Says his name's Jacim."
Henry looked at the ground slightly, searching his mind for anyone he'd ever known by that name. It didn't sound familiar to him, but still… He looked up at Ryota.
"How many of them are there?" he asked in a serious tone and the Dalmatian gave him a reassuringly confident smile.
"Just two sir." he said. "If they attack, we can easily take them down."
Henry agreed and gave an affirming nod.
"Bring them over." he said and walked over to where the small group was coming from, a certain power radiating from his every stride that only pack leaders possessed.
From a pathway that led into the more mountainous area of the island, two of his perimeter guards appeared escorting two strangers, both of them walking casually as though nothing terribly important required their attention at the moment. As they came to a stop in front of him, Henry gave them a once-over with his gaze, taking in their scents as the same time with his sensitive nose. Both of the newcomers were male, he could see, and both were quite large. The one that stood on the left was a Norwegian Elkhound, or at least that's what Henry thought he was. His fur was jet black and he stood with the aura of a dog that was no stranger to the harsh ways of the wild. His dark brown eyes held a strange glint in them, and Henry didn't much like the way he appeared to be sizing him up as they studied each other. The other male to his right, however, was something different entirely. He was very tall and had a powerful looking, battle-scarred form that made the Fukuoka leader think that he had almost definitely been a soldier at one point. What breed he was though, was anyone's guess. Though he looked reminiscent of a German Shepherd, in both coloring and body type, his head and face looked almost wolfish, and the broad, almost poisonously saccharine smile he wore seemed to augment his gleaming hazel eyes, making them seem to almost shine in the afternoon light. Henry stood straighter and looked back and forth between the two of them.
"I'm Henry the Third." he said. "The boss dog of this territory. I was told that one of you knew me. What is it you want here?"
The Elkhound nodded immediately at him.
"Please forgive our trespass, my friend." he said in a disarmingly calm, smooth voice. "I'd like to borrow your time for a moment if I could."
Henry frowned, not expecting such cordiality.
"My time?" he repeated blankly. "Are you Jacim?"
The dog inclined his head again.
"Indeed I am." he said and then nodded at the Shepherd-looking dog. "And this is…a comrade of mine. We're travellers of sorts, and we've come looking for strong males to join us in our travels. Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?"
"I'm afraid not." the Fukuoka leader said sternly. "My pack needs all its members for this coming winter and we can't afford to lose any. Now I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"I can respect that." Jacim said, taking a few steps sideways as he lifted his head to look around at the hills and woods around them. "After all, this is quite a beautiful territory. It would be terrible indeed if something were to happen to it."
Then he looked over and saw Henry's mate and pups and his face immediately seemed to light up.
"Oh, forgive me!" he said and the same smile from before returned to his face. "I hadn't realized you had a mate and children here. How truly rude of me not to introduce myself."
And with that, he stepped forward and bowed his front, straightening up again only after saying:
"Jacim of Hiroshima, ma'am. This is quite the beautiful home you have here."
Henry immediately leapt back over his mate's side, getting in between her and the strange dog as his annoyance and unease began slowly to rise.
"You have no business here." Henry said with a warning glare. "Take your friend and leave right now."
"Oh, but I do." came the calm-voiced answer. "You see, recruiting soldiers is my business, and I've found that we have a rather pressing need for strong males to aid us in a very important mission. If you and your pack would oblige…I'm sure I could make it worth your while."
"For the last time," Henry said, his lips lifted into a small growl. "NO. Now I'm not going to tell you again to leave. Do it now or you and I are gonna have a problem."
Jacim sighed in what looked like carefully feigned disappointment.
"Very well." he said, conceding defeat. "Have it your way. We were never here."
Then, as he turned to walk back over to his comrade, he stopped and turned back to Henry.
"Oh, just one more thing though." he said and Henry narrowed his eyes.
"What?" he said in an irritated, deadpan voice.
Jacim leaned in slightly.
"You have a beautiful family." he said. "You should be proud of them."
"Thank you." Henry replied.
"You ever wonder," Jacim said, not even pausing. "What it would be like to watch them die?"
Henry went numb. He quickly looked the other male right in the eyes and saw quickly that Jacim's entire demeanor had changed on a dime. His look had gone from annoyingly friendly to positively predatory, and his eyes stared back with a glare as sharp as a knife. Henry backed up quickly, trying to shove his family back into their den. The Elkhound merely followed them with his eyes, not moving a muscle from where he stood.
"'Cause if you can't show us mercy and compassion in our time of need," he said, keeping his voice in the same calm tone it had been in the whole time. "Then we certainly can't show it to you either…can we brothers?"
As if on cue, dogs suddenly began streaming out of the woods as if they had been watching the whole time, and Henry saw his pack back up into a circle as a group of powerful looking dogs cornered them against a hillside. The Fukuoka leader began to panic. Keeping his gaze on Jacim, he turned his head slightly towards his family.
"Chiyo," he said, trying to keep his voice steady. "Take the kids and get out of here now!"
"But I –"
Chiyo let out a sob and immediately did as he said, grabbing one of their pups in her jaws as she did. Before she could get even 5 steps though, a large shape shot out of a nearby treetop and delivered a devastating blow to the back of her head, making her crumple in midstride and flop to the ground motionless as the pup tumbled from her jaws and rolled to a halt a few feet away, whining in protest at the fall. Then the figure danced away into the shadows of the pack's den and seemed to stand at attention as Henry let out a bark of horror.
"CHIYO!" he shouted and immediately whipped his head around, looking for her attacker.
Then he was suddenly hit from the front with bone-crunching force, feeling something crack deep within his chest as the impact landed right against his ribcage. Falling onto his back with an involuntary grunt of pain, the Fukuoka leader felt a large paw step almost casually down onto his throat and effectively pin him, the weight behind it ensuring that he would not move easily. When he looked up at its owner, he saw with a thrill of fear and surprise that it was the Shepherd-looking dog, who finally had moved at long last after having remained all but motionless during the entire encounter. The dog seemed to cock his head in curiosity as he looked down at Henry, and after staring at him silently for a long time, he looked up at the shadowed dog in the den entrance.
"Thank you, Mercy." he said in a surprisingly soft-spoken voice that, despite its deep, almost melodic tone, sounded like he had lost the habit of using it. "I appreciate your efforts."
Though he was upside-down to Henry as he looked behind him from his ground position, the shadowed dog merely nodded in reply and then was silent, leaving the Fukuoka leader time to turn his attention back to his immediate captor. The Shepherd-looking dog breathed in deeply and then exhaled after a moment's pause, looking down at him again as he did. He stroked Henry's cheek almost gently with the back of his paw.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked quietly as Henry recoiled from his touch. "No? Well, I know you, brother."
"Wh-Who…are…" Henry gasped, struggling to breathe.
"My name is Draven." the dog said immediately, and rolled his shoulders with a dull crack as he maintained the pressure on Henry's neck. "And having seen you and your pack up close I must confess I'm disappointed."
"Because you don't believe." Draven replied in the same soft-spoken hiss.
Henry frowned in confusion through his gasps for air, still trying unsuccessfully to move the huge male's paw off him.
"What are you t-talking about?" he demanded, struggling to move under the weight.
"Shh…Shh…Shh!" Draven silenced him with an unnerving smile, sounding almost as if he were comforting a frightened child. "No, no, no, you understand me perfectly brother. You don't believe. You sit here and…fester in your little world, never striving to become something greater than what you are…and this is all you'll be."
Henry glared up at him as best he could, beginning to get truly afraid for his pack and family.
"Get out of my territory!" he rasped with an angry, strained growl.
Draven straightened up slightly, looking around him at the dogs that were listening silently to the confrontation.
"Believe me," he said. "I have no intention of staying. None of us do. Better things await those who are worthy…those of us who aren't you. We have other places to go, other people to see, and other worlds to make."
Then he turned and nodded at his subordinates, who immediately and without any hesitation attacked the outnumbered members of the Fukuoka Pack, tearing into them with bloody fervor even as a few unsuccessfully tried to fight back.
"NOOOO!" Henry screamed as shrieks and howls of agony began echoing around the clearing, blood spattering across the dirt as throats ripped and limbs snapped.
Then, as the shadowed dog in the cave grabbed Chiyo and his pups and began dragging them off into the forest kicking and screaming his name, Henry finally fought back. Flailing wildly at Draven's massive form above him, he managed to free his head and immediately bit down on the Shepherd-like dog's front leg as hard as he could, aiming for a nerve cluster right at the joint that he knew would cause unholy pain if punctured. In his mind, he was going through the things he would do to fight off the larger dog when he had regained his feet. If he was lucky, he might be able to move fast enough to save some of his packmates from an untimely demise. He just had to wait for Draven to leap back from the bite and square off to him. Only…Draven didn't leap back. He didn't even move. Henry tried to bite harder, feeling blood oozing from around his teeth as they sunk deeper into the other male's skin. The nerve cluster had been punctured, of that he was positive. And still Draven didn't react. When Henry looked up at him, he saw the same knowing smile that he had been wearing the entire time, and when the Shepherd-like dog spoke, his voice sounded as though nothing at all had happened since the last words he'd spoken.
"That's what we're doing, you see." he said, and then in one rapid motion pulled his paw from Henry's grip, stomped on his neck, and then shoved his front leg down the other male's throat as far as it could go when he cried out, pushing until all air had been cut off from Henry's lungs.
The Fukuoka leader kicked and flailed desperately as he tried to breathe, his eyes wide and terrified. Draven looked up away from him, staring at the sky as the battle noises around them began to silence.
"Making better worlds…" he whispered, almost to himself.
Beneath him, Henry choked further on his paw, feeling his vision fading as blood began filling his mouth. He tried to cry out, but all that emerged was a muffled cough. Draven took notice.
"Shh…" he whispered softly, staring directly into Henry's terrified eyes. "Be still, brother. That's weakness leaving your body."
Then, as Henry the Third took a final gasp and died there alone, the sky began to lightly snow, covering the massacre scene and the tracks of the invaders as they left, their path taking them North towards the territory of Ohu, and the great army that supposedly resided there.
…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! CHU – "
"-TORA!" Smith blurted out, sitting up with a sudden gasp.
No one answered him. Gajou was as silent as it had been when he'd first closed his eyes. The Spaniel sighed, looking around him at the empty cave. It felt too…vacant without the respect-demanding forms of Gin, John, and Akame wandering around its rocky halls, and though there was a part of the Ohu soldier that felt almost as if it all belonged to him, there was another, larger part that just felt lonely, a state of mind that had been plaguing him disturbingly often lately. Stretching his back, he stood up and shook the dirt from his fur, hearing the voices of the stone fortress's guards talking in the distance from somewhere outside.
'Maybe I'll join them in a bit,' he thought. 'It must be nearly midday by now anyway. Time for me to get out and make an appearance at least.'
With that thought lodging itself in his mind, Smith stepped out into the afternoon sun. It was a nice day, he saw, and the breeze was surprisingly warm for late fall as it teased at his fur and rustled the rapidly changing leaves of the trees decorating Futago Pass, the changing season adding reds and browns to their already impressive array of colors. Breathing in the scent of home, Smith started down the side of Gajou, stepping from rock to rock carefully as he began to head towards the river canyon off to his left, intending to get a much-needed drink from the cold waters that flowed through it. All the while, his mind continued to wander.
'Why is that nightmare still bothering me?' he wondered solemnly, a frown creasing his furred brow. 'It's been nearly 2 years since Chutora's death. Why can't I get him out of my head?'
"Uncle Smith!" a voice called, breaking him out of his reverie and interrupting his thoughts.
The Spaniel glanced over his shoulder at the dog who'd hailed him, and quickly saw Ben trotting up to him, Kurotora at his side.
'No.' he corrected himself silently, looking closer. 'It's Ken and Kagetora. God they look like their fathers.'
"Uncle Smith," Ken repeated in his deep but young voice. "Perimeter report. Nothing happening at the South or East borders."
"Nothing up North either." Kagetora chimed in, a roughness to his tone that immediately reactivated the nostalgic feelings in the Spaniel. "It's as boring as this blockhead whenever girls are around."
He had gestured at the taller Ken with his head when he said it and the Great Dane snorted in irritation.
"At least I don't drive 'em off in 2 seconds flat with my constant boasting." he retorted and Kagetora's ears reversed in displeasure.
"Pff!" he laughed. "I don't need to boast pal. I got – "
"What's the Western border look like?" Smith interrupted, giving them a stern look and both young males snapped immediately to attention.
"The West?" Ken repeated. "Oh, uh…"
"It's fine." came a third voice and Tesshin trotted up from behind him, stopping at his side as soon as he had reached him. "All quiet, sir."
"Chibi–niichan," Kagetora greeted with a roll of his eyes. "How nice of you to join us. Any sign of the leader or the others up there in that tree of yours?"
"Not that I've seen." Tesshin replied, hiding his displeasure well. "And don't call me that."
Smith took this in as Kagetora began talking again, and the Spaniel looked the young Koga dog from nose to tail as he did so. In the years since they had taken him in and he had changed his name, 'Chibi' had grown into a fine young adult. His once brown fur had aged into a spotted silvery-gray, and his sleek but muscular physique would be the envy of other males for miles around. Add to that his kind heart and sense of professionalism and Smith could see the making of a future boss dog before his eyes. The same could be said in many ways about Ken and Kagetora, and right as the Spaniel looked back up at them, the former spoke up once more.
"Maybe my parents know." he suggested, looking at Smith for support. "Just because they moved back with my Dad's old owner doesn't mean they cut themselves off from all you old guys right?"
Smith felt a rush of irritation at being called an 'old guy', but managed to push it down.
"Gin and the others are over in the Iwate Prefecture dealing with something." he stated in a tone that clearly told the three younger dogs that it wasn't their place to inquire further. "They'll be back when they're back."
"Another challenge?" Kagetora scoffed. "What is that, the 3rd one this year? How are they dealing with it this time, Uncle Smith?"
"The same way they always deal with it." Smith replied, turning to resume his walk toward the river canyon.
"Which is?" Ken called after him and the Spaniel paused, glancing over his shoulder at the three youngsters as he seemed to think about his answer carefully.
Then he gave a humorless smirk and met their gazes.
"Diplomatically." he said.
Gin grunted as his head-butt landed dead on, splitting his opponent's forehead open and sending blood streaming down through his fur. The Mountain Dog stumbled, a furious snarl escaping his lips as the Ohu leader trotted aside, looking thoroughly bored by what would be his 2nd fight that day.
"…f-fuckin' kill you." he slurred. "You cocksucker… I'll stomp your face in you – "
Gin sighed, rolling his eyes in irritation as his challenger's rant continued. Over on either side of them, watching the fight with rapt interest, were the Mountain Dog's subordinates, all of them yelling things at the two battling males every few seconds.
"Kill him, boss!" one shouted over the din of the others. "Teach him a lesson!"
"Yeah, do it boss!" another agreed, looking pleased by the blood that spattered the ground around them, not seeming to realize that all of it came from his own leader.
Then the Mountain dog lunged again, his teeth ready to strike as they aimed at Gin's throat. Almost casually, the Akita sidestepped the attack and leveled him with a hard kick to the face, making an "Ooooh!" erupt out of all the dogs around them as soon as he had. Watching as his opponent once again staggered to his paws, the Akita shot an annoyed look over at John and Akame, who were sitting over by the path they had taken to get there, both of them patiently waiting for the duel to be over and looking unconcerned for his safety.
"Just kick his ass, Gin, and let's get out of here!" John called with a bored look of his own. "We have better things to do than this!"
"I agree, leader." Akame said in his smooth, calm voice. "We should start heading back."
Taking this in, Gin turned back the Mountain Dog.
"I'm through playing games with you, Katashi." he said. "I'm giving you one last chance to stop this."
"You wait 'til I get my claws in you, you stuck up prick!" the other dog snarled, seemingly ignoring him. "I'm gonna take my sweet time ripping you to pieces – "
Gin gave an exasperated grunt.
"I don't have time for this." he said.
" – and bury you somewhere where I can come and piss on your grave every day and – "
Suddenly, the Ohu leader shot forward like a bullet and grabbed the larger dog by the back of the neck, jumping high into the air as soon as he had and bringing Katashi with him. Then, before the Mountain Dog could say another word, Gin twisted in midair and smashed him into the ground headfirst, a sickening 'SNAP' echoing across the clearing as his life ended in the breaking of his neck. Then he stood back up to his full height as Katashi's body went limp as a rag doll and his subordinates took a few tentative steps away from the sight, some of them quivering slightly where they stood. Gin took a step of his own towards them, panning his gaze from left to right.
"Don't make me come back down here." he threatened in a calm voice that dripped with power. "I may not like to kill, but should any of you ever attack my messengers again, then I will not hesitate to use deadly force again. Do you understand me?"
Instead of answering, the dogs began to scatter, one of them shouting "RUN!" to the others as they did, and soon they had all vanished into the trees. Gin sighed, turning immediately to walk back over to his friends as soon as he had. Once he had reached them, Akame nodded at him and both he and John stood up, falling in alongside their leader as he began heading back down the path that led towards Futago Pass.
"You okay Gin?" John asked, noticing the troubled look on his friend's face.
The Akita didn't look at him.
"I'm just sick of this, John." he said. "Every year it's the same thing. One challenger after another. Just once I wish they would leave us in peace."
"It should die down now that winter's approaching." Akame said and Gin glanced at him.
"I just don't understand what they get out of it." he said. "Don't they have better things to do then travelling hundreds of miles just to pick a fight?"
"They feel entitled." the Kishu replied sagely. "They see what you have and think that they deserve the same, consequences be damned."
"Yeah," John scoffed in agreement. "Never mind that they didn't do a thing to earn it like we did, never mind that they're screwing their own packmates over by only thinking of themselves. Oh well, at least we get to rest after this. I could use a bath."
"You don't say?" Gin said with a teasing smile and John pushed him lightly with a paw.
"Hey, you're no field of flowers either, pal." he grinned and the Akita chuckled, his spirits lifted somewhat as Akame cracked a smile as well.
"C'mon." he said. "Let's get outta here."
And with that, the three males sprinted off down the wooded path, their road taking them through the fields and hills of Iwate, across the Kitakami River, and back to the sanctuary that was their home of Futago Pass. Gin felt his mind wandering as they ran. Much had changed in the 2 years since Chutora's death, he knew, and the more he looked back on it, the more he wondered where all that time had gone. Ohu still looked the same as it always had, and except for a couple of newcomers and old friends departing for a new chapter of their lives, the same people still haunted its canyons and woods. Gin himself had grown taller in that time, and his muscular silver body was beginning to resemble his father Riki in every way except color. Indeed, he was broader in the chest, wiser in the gaze, and more powerful physically than he'd ever been. He was certainly no longer the pup he had once been. Gin of Ohu had grown up. And he was not alone.
John had not changed much in the years between, even with middle age now approaching for him, and he still looked and acted exactly as he always had. If anything, time had made him more warrior-like and ornery then he ever had been, and though he was older, he had not lost anything on the battlefield at all, a fate that Gin hoped awaited him when he reached his friend's age in a few more years. To his left, Akame was much the same, and though he was beginning to slow down a little as he edged ever closer to the dusk of his life, he too had lost none of his strength. Of course, slow for Akame was like top speed for most dogs half his age, and the Kishu's ninja-dog instincts were as keen as ever, his calm, calculating gaze scanning the landscape as they ran, keeping an eye out for danger even then. Gin leaped over a fallen tree with ease as they rounded a corner, and almost immediately saw the Northern Alps come into view in the distance, a sure sign that they would reach their destination within a few hours time. He wanted to talk to Smith about increasing border patrols when he got there and made a mental note to himself to do just that. Gin frowned slightly as he thought this. The Spaniel had seemed troubled lately, by what he didn't know, and he wondered if there was any way he could worm the truth out of him during their little talk. Ever since Chutora's death, Smith had lost a good deal of his once customary humor, and Gin had easily been able to tell that the Kai dog's demise had scarred him most deeply of all, even after all this time. He had long regretted the words he'd said to Smith in the immediate aftermath of what had happened, but had been too preoccupied and embarrassed to say he was sorry.
'Still,' the Akita thought. 'Maybe I can finally make some headway on that in the next few days.'
The late Kai dog's surviving brother, Kurotora, had only stopped by to visit once since they'd parted ways, and Gin had been pleasantly surprised to see him doing quite well. He had leapt into the responsibility of raising 7 puppies on his own with a vigor that was very unlike him, and by the time Gin and the others had seen them again, the young dogs were already nearly a year old, and all good males by the look of it. One of them, Kuro's eldest son Kagetora, was a commander of the perimeter guards back in Ohu, and Gin constantly marveled how much like his father he was in every way. His constant shadow, Ben and Cross's pup Ken, was his co-commander, and the Great Dane mix had grown up quite admirably as well despite his occasionally rough and combative nature, a trait he shared with his Kai dog best friend. There was also the matter of his obliviousness towards what had happened with his family. Gin grimaced as he remembered.
Ben and Cross had departed Gajou for good a few months after they had returned from what had happened in Kai, and though they had left Ken behind to train to become a soldier, they had taken their other two pups, George and Miney, with them to raise at their new home. Since then, Ken had had no contact with his family, and thus had no way of knowing that Miney, his little sister, had drowned in a river less than a year later, her body being swept away by an unusually swift current and deposited lifeless on the riverbank a few miles downstream. Adding to the family's misery, George had never returned from the trip that Miney had been following him on, and thus Ben and Cross had, in one day, lost 2 of their 3 children. Both of them had been understandably devastated, and the whole Ohu pack had tried to be there for them during that difficult time, even organizing search parties to look for George, but it had helped little. Though they were doing somewhat better now, they had asked Gin and the others not to tell Ken what had happened to his siblings, for fear of disrupting his training and goal of becoming an Ohu soldier. This was a decision that Gin wasn't sure he agreed with, but respected nonetheless, as it was not his place to tell his friends how to raise their children. Even so, he secretly dreaded the day when he or one of the others would have to tell Ken what had become of his family. The Akita shook his head. Now was not the time to dwell on such things.
For the next 3-4 hours, the three Ohu leaders ran, stopping only occasionally to rest and get a drink from a nearby river or stream. Then, right as evening was beginning to set in, they made it back to their destination, the towering figure of Gajou seeming to welcome them home by blocking the setting sun from shining directly in their eyes. This had the effect of giving it an eerie orange outline, and combined with the reds and greens of the rapidly falling leaves around them, it made Futago Pass look like a brilliant palate of colors to their tired eyes. As soon as the trio approached, they could see the guards standing at attention and bowing their heads dutifully in respect to them and their ranks, something that always gave Gin a rush of pride and embarrassment, as if he didn't deserve the honor somehow. Standing in the entrance was none other than Smith, and Gin smiled as they trotted up to him.
"Smith," he greeted with a nod. "Is everything all right here?"
Smith gave what looked a shrug.
"Here, yeah." he said. "Elsewhere…that's a little harder to say."
Gin sighed, sensing another trip rapidly approaching in his near future.
"What now?" he asked as Akame and John stepped up beside him.
"I'm not sure I'm the right dog to ask about that." the Spaniel said, and then looked over his shoulder into the cave opening.
As soon as he did, another old friend emerged from the shadows, his long strides allowing him to reach Smith's side in only a few steps. Gin let out a grunt of surprise.
"Musashi!" he exclaimed as John and Akame exchanged a shocked look. "What are you doing here? I didn't know you were coming!"
"Apologies, Gin." the Tosa said with a little bow of his head. "I didn't get a chance to let you know ahead of time. Something's come up down South that you should know about."
"What's happened?" the Akita asked warily, silently dreading the answer, and Musashi and Smith glanced at each other.
"That's something I think I should tell you inside." he said and Gin nodded, gesturing with his paw for his old fight dog companion to lead the way.
Beside him, John spoke up as Smith fell in beside Akame in the rear.
"How's Shikoku been, Musashi?" he asked. "We haven't seen you since what happened 2 years ago."
"It's been relatively quiet up until recently." came the appreciative sounding answer. "I've actually been enjoying retirement more than I thought I would."
"Feh!" the Shepherd scoffed. "I could never retire. I'd go stir-crazy if I was forced to settle down."
"It's not the torture you think it is, John." Musashi said with a smile. "Plus I get to train the new generation of fight dogs. It's fun seeing them make waves of their own in the arena…even the ones I'd rather not teach at all."
"Yeah," John smirked. "Speaking of nuisances, how's Zach doing? He ever change his mind about coming back?"
Musashi seemed to think for a moment, but then shook his head.
"No." he said somewhat uncomfortably, and Gin thought he saw an almost hurt look pass over John's face. "And I've never been able to figure out why. We get along just fine, but he still seems…distant somehow. Actually the day I told him he was well enough to go, he stopped by my master's house and asked me to train him as a fight dog."
All three of them paused momentarily in their stride.
"Zach?" Akame said skeptically, raising an eyebrow. "That doesn't much like the dog I know."
"You hurt he moved onto a new teacher, Akame?" Smith teased and the Kishu snorted with a smile.
"Not exactly." he replied. "I like Zach a lot, but he wasn't exactly the greatest student I've ever had."
"And how did that training go?" Gin asked, an amused note to his voice.
"That guy has balls, I'll say that for him." the Tosa said in an almost impressed sounding voice. "He was taking on healthy opponents when he was still hobbling around on two legs. Actually won a number of his fights that way too. I had to step in and tell him to stop a few times before he hurt himself all over again."
"Damned fool." Smith remarked.
"Good male." John countered. "People who back down are cowards."
"That was always his argument when I stepped in." Musashi smirked. "Usually laced with a healthy dose of sarcasm."
"That sounds like Zach." Akame said with a smile of his own and Gin echoed his expression.
"But he still won't come back?" he said and Musashi nodded at him almost apologetically.
he said as they settled down in the main chamber of Gajou. "And I asked
him repeatedly why. He would never give me a straight answer as to what
the problem was. Either way, he's not the reason I'm here."
"And what is?" Akame asked calmly.
Musashi looked over at him with a grave expression.
"The Nomads." he said simply.
The three Ohu leaders all frowned.
"Who?" John asked and Musashi sighed.
"About a year ago," he said. "I started getting reports from across the water that some of our neighboring territories were losing contact with some of their allies. At first I thought it was nothing, but then messenger after messenger from up North kept saying the same thing: that they couldn't reach a number of the boss dogs of the Southern territories. A few of them even claimed to have been met by dogs they didn't recognize, dogs who said that everything was all right and that the boss dog they were trying to see was sick or had left on a mission somewhere. Finally I sent some of my fight dogs to check it out."
"What did they find?" Gin asked warily.
don't know." Musashi said. "They never came back. Three days ago I
found their bodies floating in the bay, mutilated beyond recognition."
The Akita stiffened slightly, greatly disturbed by this news. John took a step forward, fully invested in the conversation.
"Who did it?" he asked and Musashi panned his gaze to meet his eyes.
"They're called "The Nomads"," he repeated. "And near as we can tell…they've already taken over most of the Southern territories of Japan."
"What?!" Gin exclaimed, leaping to his feet. "Musashi, are you serious?!"
The Tosa nodded.
"Very." he replied. "I've had my subordinates spreading a warning about them while I came up here to see you."
"Have you coordinated a counterstrike with our allies down south?" Akame asked. "Daimon – "
"Dead." Musashi interrupted in a low voice.
Akame paused for a moment, caught off guard.
"Raou?" he continued.
"Henry the Third?!"
"Killed a week ago." the Tosa said, looking deadly serious. "Along with most of his pack. And the worst part is, not only do they seem to be making their way North, they have multiple leaders…and we don't know who they are."
John immediately turned to Gin.
"Gin," he said gruffly. "We have to warn everyone!"
The Akita, however, was way ahead of him.
"Smith." he said quickly, turning to the Spaniel. "Get Ikaru and the other messengers and send them out to our remaining allies quickly. I want them all to get themselves here as fast as they can."
"Who should I send them to?" Smith questioned and Gin met his gaze seriously.
"Everyone." he said. "Kurotora, Moss, Hakuro, Kisaragi, Ben, Cross, Asher of Nagano, Kouzou of Saitama…everyone. Get them here. Now."
Smith nodded emphatically and darted off to carry out his leader's orders, Gin watching him go for a moment before turning back to his 3 remaining companions.
"Musashi," he asked gravely. "I trust your judgment. Truthfully…how dangerous is this pack?"
Musashi seemed bathed in shadow as the sun descended below the horizon off in the distance once and for all, but Gin could still see the worried look on his face as clear as day.
"Very." he said simply and the Akita nodded.
Then he turned and looked outside as the moon began to shine brightly in the sky above, their once peaceful future having given way to doubt and danger, and quite possibly…bloodshed.
'Here we go again.' Gin of Ohu thought, sighing as he saw his pack's messengers departing swiftly to gather their old friends and allies. 'Here we go again…'