Final Story: The War - Part 2
Part 2: The Boss Dog Council
Winters in Ohu were often harsh. This was a fact of life for the dogs of Futago Pass, and each and every one of them knew that if they were to survive to see Spring, they would have to band together to make sure that everyone was fed and protected adequately. More often than not, the most astute of these dogs were able to tell just by sheer instinct how bad the upcoming season would be, and as Akame of Iga stood atop his cliffside perch, looking down on Gajou with a protector's watchful gaze, his senses told him that this winter would be a bad one indeed. The ninja dog grimaced, a worried frown tracing its way over his lips as a gust of cold mountain wind ruffled his fur.
'We need to hurry.' he thought grimly. 'We're running out of time. This mission will be hard enough as it is. If we have to fight in a blizzard it'll be even worse.'
Still, he knew, there was next to nothing he could do about it, at least not until all of their allies arrived from their respective territories. As it stood now, all were there but one. Kisaragi and the Mutsu four had been the first to arrive, which had been expected given the proximity of their territory to Ohu's borders, but what had surprised him was that Hakuro had arrived soon afterward. Given the ocean crossing that he had to make to get from Hokkaido to Futago Pass, the Husky had made the trip in apparent record time, an achievement that Akame could safely say he and Gin were both silently grateful for. Neither of the two males seemed to have changed much since they'd last seen them, and except for a few years added on to their powerful forms appeared to be exactly the same as before. On top of that, Kisaragi's brother Uzuki appeared to have recovered from the life threatening wounds that he had received during the Ohu Army's last trip to Mutsu, and although he bore some significant new scars from that encounter, he still seemed every bit the warrior he'd always been. This, unfortunately, was in stark contrast to the third and fourth arrivals: Ben and Cross.
Though at one point they had been the pinnacles of strength that the Ohu Army possessed, age it seemed had finally caught up with them, and the Great Dane and Saluki seemed both tired and old to Akame's keen eyes. This saddened him greatly, and gave him an unwanted reminder of his own advancing age, but rather than dwell on it he quickly put it out of his mind. Perhaps his old friends would surprise him. He certainly didn't feel changed much by the years that had passed by. He could still defeat virtually any dog that crossed his path without tiring himself out in the slightest, and this thought was a distinct source of pride for him. After Ben and Cross had settled in, Kurotora had appeared soon after. Akame chuckled to himself silently. The Kai dog hadn't changed one bit since they'd parted ways and arrived with quite a head of steam, immediately taunting both John and Smith about their continuing bachelor statuses and demanding to see Kagetora so that he might "remind the little shit to talk to his family every once in a while" instead of never looking back once he made it as a soldier in Ohu.
After him, the others had arrived one after another. Moss showed up the following day with Jaguar at his side and then Kouzou came right behind him, his warm greeting containing no trace of the taboo subject of Chutora and what had happened the last time their paths had crossed. As they had welcomed him, and a friendly wrestling match between Jaguar and Tesshin broke out, Akame had noticed that Gin seemed much less enthusiastic than he would've expected and made a mental note to himself to keep a closer eye on the Ohu leader over the coming weeks, lest he need more help than normal in performing his duties. Gin had been restless ever since Musashi's startling revelation about "The Nomads", and had taken to pacing along the top of Gajou as he thought about how to handle the situation. Both Akame and John knew better than to interrupt him during these moments, but they both silently understood that the Akita would need them and their experience extensively over the course of the crisis.
Now, as he sat on his cliffside perch awaiting the arrival of Asher of Nagano, Akame thought carefully about what their options were. Hopefully one of their newly arrived allies knew more than they did and could help them in handling "The Nomads" before things got even more out of control than they already were. Suddenly, a voice hailed him, interrupting his thoughts.
"Akame-sama!" it called, and the Kishu looked down in time to see Ikaru staring up at him from the bottom of the ledge. "Asher of Nagano is arriving sir! He'll be on Gajou's main plain in a few minutes!"
"Understood." the ninja-dog answered and immediately leaped to a nearby tree branch, moving from there to two lower perches before finally touching down in the dirt below with a gracefully quiet 'THUMP'.
Once he was on solid ground he ran quickly to Gajou's front entrance, where Gin, John and Smith all stood awaiting him, their other friends and comrades stacking up behind them to welcome the new arrival as well. Gin glanced at him as he sat down beside him.
"Akame." he greeted with a solemn nod, and the Kishu returned it silently, scenting the air for anything out of the ordinary as he did so.
"You should give 'Ass-er' a piece of your mind for being late, Gin." Kurotora spoke up from behind them in an irritated sounding voice. "This meeting's too important to delay."
The Akita smiled despite himself.
"I'm sure he has a reason, Kuro." he replied dismissively. "Besides, at least he's here now."
At that moment, the police dog and a few of his comrades emerged from the woods that bordered the large clearing they sat in, and Akame immediately sat straight up in surprise upon seeing them, feeling the others beside him do the same. One of the dogs that flanked the German Shepherd, appearing like a ghost from their past, was a long-furred male Collie, his powerful strides helping him easily keep up with the faster dogs that surrounded him. The Kishu recognized him instantly. It was Wilson. A few moments later, the arriving dogs trotted to a halt in front of them and Gin and the others immediately stepped forward in greeting, a delighted but shocked look on the Akita's face as Asher bowed his head apologetically.
"Sorry for the delay, Gin." the police dog said in his deep voice. "We had someone we needed to pick up."
"So I see." the Akita replied, turning immediately to the dog in question as soon as he had. "Wilson… I thought you were gone for good!"
He sounded very pleased to see his old friend and Akame felt a rush of the same happiness fill him as well as the Collie cocked his head slightly in a half-nod.
"I'm not back for good, Gin." he said, his voice having gotten slightly reedier in the years since they'd seen him. "Asher told me what's going on. I'm here to help."
"I thought he might know things we didn't." Asher added, meeting the Akita's gaze as Wilson smiled slightly and did the same.
"It is good to see you though." he said and Gin returned the smile.
"And you." he replied, resting a paw on the Collie's shoulder in a gesture of friendship.
"Gin," John interrupted, looking between his leader and Akame. "We should get started."
"Agreed, leader." the Kishu said and Gin nodded immediately at them both.
"Everyone inside." he called. "We have a lot to talk about."
Then he turned to Tesshin and Ikaru, both of whom stood waiting nearby.
"You two," he ordered sternly. "Get Ken and Kagetora and patrol the forest with some of the guards. Make sure there's no trouble while we discuss this situation. Tesshin's in charge of that so report anything you see to him."
"Yes sir!" both males said instantly and ran off towards the trees, gathering a few dogs standing nearby to help them in their efforts.
Not staying to watch them leave, Gin led the others back inside quickly, walking with a purposeful stride as Smith instructed a few of the guards to keep close watch during the proceedings. Once the whole group had stepped into the cavernous main room of Gajou, they all turned to face one another and sat in a large circle, all eyes on Gin as he stepped forward to look around at them.
"You all know why we're here." the Akita said sternly, the sharp edge to his voice radiating his seriousness to the dogs around him. "Now we need to decide what to do about it. As the strongest boss dogs in this country, it's our job to put a stop to these thugs one way or another. What say you?"
"Let's go wipe 'em out." Kurotora replied tersely. "They're obviously dangerous and won't listen to reason, so…"
"I second that." Hakuro spoke up from where he sat at Musashi's side. "With our combined forces they won't stand a chance."
"We don't know that." Akame said calmly, causing everyone's heads to turn his way. "In fact, we don't seem to know much about them at all. "I think before we do anything we should find out exactly who we're fighting."
"We might not have time." John said from Gin's other side as Kisaragi nodded beside him. "As much sense as that makes, Akame. Besides, I doubt anyone here knows any more than we do."
"I wouldn't say that, John." Asher suddenly spoke up, and the other German Shepherd turned to him quickly, Gin and Akame stepping forward to address him as well.
"Do you know something, Asher?" the Ohu leader asked sternly and the police dog nodded at him, never breaking eye contact.
"My pack started sending in spies to infiltrate "The Nomads" as soon as we found out about them." he replied, gesturing at Musashi with his head as he did. "None of them got very far, but a few of them found out some crucial details before they died."
Gin straightened up a little as he heard this and exchanged a glance with John, Kisaragi voicing what they both were thinking seconds later.
"Well done!" the Husky said in an impressed sounding voice and Asher nodded appreciatively at him.
"I hope it's enough." he said solemnly. "I lost some of my best dogs finding it out. These bastards are brutal."
"Let's hear it then," John said, gesturing with his head to the center of the circle. "What do you know?"
Asher only paused for a moment before stepping forward to address them all.
"First of all, they're not a military pack or army." he said, looking around him to meet all of their gazes. "They're a cult. Near as we can tell, they seem to believe that only certain dogs can get into the next world, or Heaven or Paradise or whatever you wanna call it, and the way to become one of those dogs is to rule over all the other packs in the country."
"How original." Kurotora snorted sarcastically and Asher smirked slightly as Musashi did the same a few dogs over.
"It's a load of shit." he said bluntly. "Most of the followers probably believe it, and are probably willing to die for it, but I guarantee you the leaders don't believe a word of it. They're sociopaths…manipulative, charismatic…they just want as much power for themselves as possible. They couldn't care less about any 'Heaven'."
"And they're willing to kill anybody in their way to get it." Kouzou said, shaking his head slightly as he did.
Asher nodded again.
"Exactly." he said.
Then Gin got his attention with a flick of his muzzle.
"What do we know about them?" he asked. "The leaders."
The police dog faced him directly.
"There's three of them." he said, cutting to the chase immediately. "Not one like most packs. On top of that, they all go by nicknames instead of their real ones…but we managed to identify two of them."
"And they are?" Akame said.
Asher turned and made three distinct paw prints in the dirt littering Gajou's stony floor. Then he looked back at the leaders of Ohu.
"The pet dogs down south have taken to calling them "The Killer Angels"." he said. "Mainly because of the whole cult thing and their complete disregard for innocent life."
He gestured roughly to the first paw print.
"The one we've managed to figure out the most about is this guy." he said sternly. "His name's Jacim of Hiroshima. They call him "Angel of Wrath", supposedly due to his temper."
Musashi frowned slightly where he sat, looking up at Gin a moment later.
"Why do I know that name?" he asked to no one in particular and Asher glanced over at him.
"He used to be a police dog in his home territory." he said. "A highly decorated one too. The humans actually threw him a celebration once for saving the lives of two children."
"What happened?" Hakuro asked with a tilt of his head and Asher shrugged.
"Nobody knows." he replied. "A couple years ago, for no apparent reason, he just snapped. Killed his whole family and 13 of his former comrades before escaping into the mountains. We've been looking for him ever since."
"Well, I guess you found him." Smith quipped from where he was leaning against the wall and the German Shepherd snorted.
"So it would seem." he said. "But as dangerous as he is, he's nothing compared to this next guy…at least from what we're hearing."
He motioned to the middle paw print as he said it and looked back at Gin.
"This one is Draven of Osaka." he said. "They call him the "Angel of Death". He seems to be "The Nomads" grand leader, or at least their equivalent of a boss dog. Other than that, we don't know much about him."
"Draven?!" Wilson said, stepping forward in shock. "You're sure?"
"A hundred percent." Asher nodded and Gin looked at his comrade.
"Why, Wilson?" he said. "You know him?"
The collie only paused for a moment.
"Not personally," he said. "But I know of him. He was notorious back in the day."
"Indeed," Ben said, speaking up from Cross's side with a disturbed look on his face. "He was one of your father's main rivals, Gin."
This drew a series of gasps from all the other dogs there and then Kurotora spoke up as Gin looked momentarily stunned.
"Wait!" he said in a sharp voice. "This bastard knew The Boss?"
"Oh yeah." Ben replied, holding the first word slightly for emphasis. "They hated each other. Killing Akakabuto was Riki's main goal so they never actually fought, but I guarantee that if he had survived the war, hunting Draven down would've been the next thing he did."
"What's he look like?" John asked with a serious glare and Ben shook his head.
"I never met him." he said and Cross spoke up from his side.
"It was rumored that he was some sort of hybrid or mix breed." she said. "But once we started gathering soldiers to fight Akakabuto, I never heard him mentioned again, not even by Riki."
"Wilson?" Gin asked and the Collie shrugged.
"Your guess is as good as mine." he said. "I know he was infamous on the battlefield for being able to take any hit and still remain standing. He used to be a military dog of some kind I think. That's all I know."
"He must be getting old by now if he knew your father, Gin." John said and the Akita nodded, looking troubled by the news.
Then he gestured at the last paw print.
"Who's the third one?" he asked, his eyes narrowing slightly as he looked at Asher.
The police dog paused, exchanging a glance with Musashi and Hakuro as he did.
"We don't know." he admitted. "They call him "Angel of Mercy" but…he's much more secretive than the others. No one's even gotten a look at him so far as we know. We're not even sure what breed he is."
"No one knows anything?" Kurotora said skeptically. "At all?"
Asher shook his head.
"All anyone could tell us was that he was big and unpredictable." he said gravely. "They apparently call him "Mercy" because he lets some of his pack's victims live. There's no pattern to it though, he seems to choose arbitrarily."
"That's not good." Akame muttered and Gin glanced at him.
The Kishu met his gaze.
"Violent is bad enough." he said. "But unpredictable and violent is much worse. If we can't predict his movements, than he could be harder to fight than the other two."
Gin considered this for a moment, and then turned back to his comrades as Asher stepped back to rejoin the circle and sat down once more. The Akita looked around at them.
"I think the choice here is pretty clear." he said in a very leader-like tone. "These dogs need to be stopped, no matter who they are. I know where I stand…and I'd like you all with me."
Across from him, Kurotora gave a half smirk.
"Bring it on." he said and Hakuro grinned toothily beside him.
"Ha ha!" he laughed, as if the thought of there even being another option was ridiculous. "Of course! What's another war between friends?"
Then Kisaragi and Musashi nodded supportively as well while Wilson, Kouzou and Asher only paused momentarily before doing the same, shooting each other supportive glances as they did. Finally, Gin looked at Smith, John and Akame, all of whom echoed their comrades' sentiments and met the Ohu leader's gaze.
"Always." John said.
"I'm there." Smith added.
"Waiting for your orders, leader." Akame said with a smile of his own.
Gin returned it. Then he gave a serious look.
"Gather as many strong males from your packs as you can." he said. "We'll need all the help we can get if we want to end this war as quickly as possible. Once we have enough, we move out immediately and we find these bastards. Then we take them down. I absolutely won't let them just do as they please. …Let's do this."
And with that the group of males dispersed, most of them walking out into the waning sunlight to send word back to their comrades of the decision that had been made. The others went to Gin and immediately tried to talk to him, an action that they were forced to wait on when the Akita stepped forward towards the far wall.
"Ben," he said, stopping in front of his old friend.
"Cross, I'd like you to look after Gajou with some of the younger
soldiers while we're gone. This place needs to be protected and I trust
you both with that above anyone else."
"Of course, Gin." Cross replied and Ben nodded at her side.
Then he got the younger male's attention with a flick of his head.
"Gin," he said, and the Akita met his gaze at the same time John and Akame did. "A word of advice: be very careful with Draven. I may not know much about him, but I know for a fact that he can be an extremely dangerous dog. Your father feared what he was capable of. That if nothing else should tell you to watch your back."
Gin exchanged a tense glance with John and Akame, and then looked Ben in his blind eyes and nodded solemnly.
"I will." he said. "Thank you, Ben."
Then he and his two companions turned and headed for Gajou's entrance, watching as Smith began to gather the stone fortress's guards to him to deliver news of the group's decision. Gin glanced at his friends.
"Akame," he said. "John, go gather Tesshin and the other younger males and bring them back here. We need to move fast before "The Nomads" have a chance to do more damage. I'm gonna be here helping Smith organize the troops we already have."
Akame nodded at the younger male, seeing John do the same opposite him, and then turned and immediately sprang into the trees that made up the forest around Gajou, the smell of pine and cold air mixing in with their subordinates' scents as he dodged and weaved between the trunks.
'Something's still not right.' the ninja dog thought to himself. 'There's something we're not seeing. I should stay close to Gin. We all need to be on high alert, now more than ever. I'm not losing any friends…not this time.'
Clenching his jaw determinedly, the Kishu sprang upward and felt his paws touch the rough wood of the branches that loomed over him, their contours, knots, and textures scraping at his paw pads as he bounded from tree to tree, doubling his speed as he kept up his pursuit of his friends' sons and their group. There was still some time left in the day. If they were lucky, they would be ready to move out by tomorrow night. With that goal in mind, Akame of Iga steeled himself to his task, and dashed away.
Humans were strange creatures. Draven tilted his head slightly as this thought slithered through his brain yet again, his eyes narrowing into a frown as he considered the body before him. At 8600 acres, the Aokigahara Forest was perfect to hide out in for a while, if only to ensure that no one had caught onto them yet. "Sea of Trees" he had heard it called, and the name was certainly appropriate given its sheer vastness. What he hadn't expected though, were the bodies. All human, some fresh, and some mere skeletons, the dead seemed to be hidden amongst the trees like little shrines to the afterlife, and as Draven realized that each one had died by his or her own hand, he found himself wondering further. Stalking up to the specimen in front of him, he leaned in and sniffed slightly at the rubbery flesh, the stench of decay floating back to him almost teasingly as he leaned his forehead against the corpse's.
"How did it feel?" he whispered softly, the breeze blowing gently through the trees as he silenced once more like he was waiting for an answer.
None came. Draven smiled and pulled back, straightening up as he did so.
"It's strange," he said, raising his voice as soon as he realized that he was no longer alone. "They say these woods are evil."
Then his smile widened to a toothy grin, his curling lips suggesting that he was thoroughly pleased with himself.
"But how evil can they be when angels walk among them?" he smirked. "Don't you agree, Mercy?"
He didn't acknowledge the other male's presence in any other way as he said it, but the shape in the shadows of a low hanging tree branch emerged into the light anyway, resting his head on his paw lazily as he draped it over the side of his cylindrical wooden perch.
"I see your senses are as sharp as ever, my lord." Mercy said. "I'm quite sure I didn't make a sound."
"You didn't. I just smelled your stink is all."
"Mercy me." Draven heard the other male say in his calm, smug voice and the Shepherd-looking dog smirked again with a snort. Then he cracked his neck.
"Is there something you want, Mercy?" he asked. "Or did you come simply to push your luck?"
"I came to let you know that the others are almost ready." came the answer, the other male not sounding intimidated in the slightest by the vague threat. "I'm heading out to scout our next target while the newcomers are being…initiated."
Draven paused for a moment, then resumed studying the dead body before him.
"Make it fast," he said smoothly. "We may have to push up our timetable."
"As you wish."
Then Mercy dropped down from his perch and padded away into the forest, his path taking him dangerously close to another dog that was slowly weaving his way through the trees, his gaze fixing on his fellow leader like a predator as they slid by each other without changing course.
"Crawling back into hiding, Mercy?" the newcomer spat quietly. "At least your cowardice is predictable."
"Hello, Jacim." came the nonchalant answer, the voice's owner stopping abruptly in his tracks as he spoke.
The Elkhound narrowed his eyes, a smirk tracing his lips.
"What's the matter, boy?" he taunted. "You sound hurt. Did I insult you?"
Mercy snorted as he glanced over his shoulder.
"For you to insult me," he replied in the same calm voice. "I would first have to value your opinion."
Then he gestured with his head.
"The boss is over there." he said. "He probably already knows you're here."
Jacim glanced towards where the other male had pointed and then flicked his head with a scowl.
"Get outta my fucking sight." he hissed in a low voice.
Mercy simply grinned toothily.
"Is that fear I hear in your voice, Jacim?" he taunted back. "Good. That'd be the first thing to ever come out of you that's justified."
The Elkhound looked him directly in the eyes, a dangerous look on his face.
"Any time you want to challenge me, boy," he growled. "I'm available. Then you'll see how afraid I really am."
Mercy's smile didn't wane, and he winked as he turned and leapt away into the darkness of the forest, still wearing the same expression as before. Jacim watched him go for only a moment, resuming his path shortly afterward with a pronounced glower on his face. Mere moments later, he came across the dog he was looking for.
"Lord Draven," he said, not bothering with any pleasantries. "We may have a problem."
"Do we now?" came the reply. "And what might that be?"
"Gin of Ohu's called all his allies to him." the Elkhound said. "One of our scouts has reported seeing all the major boss dogs from across Japan massing in Futago Pass. They're definitely planning some sort of counter strike."
Draven shifted his head only a little, his gaze panning thoughtfully down to the dirt and moss covered ground beneath his feet. After a few moments of silence, Jacim stepped forward a few paces.
"Sir?" he repeated. "What are your orders?"
Draven finally turned to him and looked him in the eyes.
"Gin of Ohu," he said. "Is a product of Tokobu Valley up North. If I'm not too much mistaken…he still has family there."
Jacim's eyes widened slightly in mild surprise, though he tried to keep it off his face as much as possible in front of the older male.
"You want us to kill his family?" he clarified. "Are you sure that's wise, my lord? After all, a male of his stature might come to defend them personally. And where would we be if he discovered us?"
Draven walked right up to the Elkhound silently, his face not giving away any sort of emotion as he did. When he was only inches away, he spoke once more.
"His mother, Fuji, and his two bastard brothers still live there." the Nomad leader drawled. "I want you to go there personally and slay them all. Do you understand me, commander? If Gin wants to stick his nose in my business like his father used to…I'll rip it right off his face. Now do it."
Then he turned back to the body and Jacim stared warily at his back for a few seconds.
"And what of his friends?" the Elkhound asked. "These are powerful males. You really think this will deter them enough?"
Draven smiled without looking at him.
"Have a little faith, Jacim." he said. "The bigger they are…the harder they fall."
The Elkhound snorted with a ghost of a grin and then turned and departed as well, leaving Draven of Osaka to sit there alone in the depths of Aokigahara Forest, considering the body before him.
'Maybe I'll gather a few of these before I head back to the others.' he thought with sadistic glee. 'After all, they must be starving by now.'
Then he turned and was gone.
Gin breathed the cool night air in deeply as he sat atop Gajou, letting it chill his lungs as he kept his troubled gaze fixed on the stars that twinkled serenely above his head. Many different thoughts cascaded through his brain at once, each vying with the others for the honor of being what was foremost on his mind as his comrades slept peacefully inside the rocky structure's confines. To any outsider looking upon the scene, it must have looked as though nothing at all was wrong, and it was just another end to another day in Paradise. The Akita grimaced at that thought. How long had it been since he'd been able to just enjoy the day? To run through the fields and forests of Futago Pass and reap the rewards of the struggles that he'd faced? Too long, he decided, far too long. Still though, that was the price of leadership, and some threats were too great to ignore, especially when every sense in his body was screaming at him to take a stand and make the lands safe again. That however, was not what was foremost on his mind, and as he fixed his eyes on a particularly bright star in the Northern sky his thoughts strayed once again back to the subject they had been fixated on all night. Gin sighed deeply, wanting very much to be free of worry so that he could sleep.
"You okay, Gin?"
Pricking his ears up at the sudden voice, the Ohu leader glanced over his shoulder in time to see John stride up and sit beside him, the concerned look on his face a marked difference from the soldier toughness that usually adorned it.
"Oh," Gin said, turning back to the stars after their eyes met for a few moments. "John, it's you."
Then he settled in again.
"I'm fine." he said. "I just…have some things on my mind."
"Things about your father?"
Gin turned back to him, somewhat surprised. For some reason, despite the years he'd known the Shepherd, it always caught him off guard when John was able to read him so quickly. With Akame, he had come to expect it constantly, but John was different. Sometimes, Gin mused, he forgot how well his friend really knew him. Not knowing how else to react, the Akita smiled slightly.
"Yes." he said, feeling slightly liberated for admitting it. "I just…I always thought of my father as this peerless leader – "
"He was." John said bluntly and Gin kept going.
" – and it… I just never thought of him as having a rival." he said. "To me, nobody could rival him."
"You could." John said quietly and Gin's smile widened.
He gave a touched, appreciative nod and John turned to look at the sky as well.
"All dogs have enemies, Gin." he said. "Especially dogs as great as your father. Having enemies means you stood up for something. It's a good thing."
"I guess so." Gin replied, then snorted amusedly. "After all, I seem to recall you and I not seeing eye to eye, John. Once upon a time."
The Shepherd snorted with a grin.
"My point exactly," he smirked with a self-important swagger. "Besides, maybe Ben's going senile. Having faced Riki in battle once, I somehow doubt this Draven fuck could've lasted any length of time against him either."
"I wouldn't underestimate him, John." came another voice suddenly. "You know that's never a good practice for a leader to start."
Both males turned at once and saw Akame ascend the last few rocks up to them, the same stoic look on his face that seemed to be plastered there on a regular basis. John snorted again.
"Thanks for the tip." he said sarcastically. "And for the record, neither is being a buzzkill."
The Kishu chuckled at the playful insult.
"It was my pet name back home in Iga." he smiled, then turned to Gin. "Everything all right?"
The Akita nodded reassuringly.
"Yeah." he said. "Just clearing my mind."
Suddenly, John nudged his shoulder with a paw.
"Gin," he said, and it was the suddenly tense tone in his voice that made the Ohu leader turn to see what the matter was.
As soon as he had, he followed the Shepherd's gaze down Gajou's side to the edge of the forest that surrounded the stone fortress on three sides. There, at its border to the South, stood two dogs. Gin frowned and took a step forward at the same time Akame did, both of them trying to get a better look. One, it seemed, was a Tosa, though they couldn't make out who. The other though, was partially in shadow, and couldn't be seen very well from their distance. They appeared to be quietly talking with one another.
"Is that Musashi?" John asked warily, finally recognizing him. "Who the hell's he talking to at this time of night?"
"Maybe one of his troops." Gin replied, an uncertain note in his voice that clearly displayed doubt at his own words. "Let's go check it out."
At that, the three leaders quickly leapt down the boulders of Gajou to the plain at the bottom, breaking into a quick jog as soon as their feet touched ground. Moments later, they trotted up to the duo.
"Musashi," Gin hailed his friend, making the Tosa turn in clear surprise. "What's going on?"
The fight dog scanned the three leaders with his gaze before turning to Gin apologetically.
"I didn't realize you were awake, Gin." he said. "I'm sorry if I woke you."
"No," the Akita said dismissively. "It wasn't you. I couldn't sleep. Why are you out here?"
"I'm…" the Tosa paused. "Getting a progress report from down South."
"On "The Nomads"? Any word?"
"Just one." the other dog replied instead. "Hello."
Gin froze instantly. Familiarity hit him like a lightning bolt as the voice died away and he straightened up in surprise at the same time John and Akame did beside him. Then the dog stepped more into the light from the shadows he'd been standing in. Gin heard John suck in a sharp breath.
"Zach!" he exclaimed in a shocked voice and the dog smiled widely.
There was no mistaking it. Standing before them, panning his warm gaze from one to the other every few seconds, was Zach of Ibaraki. Gin stepped forward with a shocked look of his own, feeling a smile spreading over his muzzle at the sight of their old friend.
"Zach!" he echoed, looking the Malamute up and down. "What are you doing here? I thought you weren't coming back!"
Zach looked at the ground almost guiltily.
"I'm not." he said softly. "It's just that I promised Musashi I'd update him on what was happening down in Shikoku. I came to keep that promise."
Gin sighed with an almost proud nod, marveling at how much the other male had changed. The Malamute had grown even taller in the years they'd been apart, and now was built more like a fighter than he'd ever been before, a result of his training with Musashi most probably, Gin told himself. Scars decorated his lithe, powerful form like battlefield trophies and through his intact right eye, a particularly deep one traced its way diagonally down his face to just above his upper lip, a reminder of what he and John had gone through all those months ago. Still though, he had the same fire and playfulness in his eyes that had always been there, and though a hint of sadness now joined it, he still seemed to be the same Zach he'd always been. As the Akita thought this, John and Akame stepped up to the Malamute simultaneously, both of their tails wagging slightly in happiness at seeing him again.
"And here I thought I'd gotten rid of you for good." the Shepherd teased, making Zach flick his sole remaining ear in his direction.
The Malamute grinned and placed a paw on his shoulder in a friendly gesture, one that John returned moments later.
"Karma's a bitch, ain't it?" he said and then smirked. "Wanna hug?"
"Only if you admit I'm better than you." he said and Zach's grin widened.
"So 'no' then." he retorted and then turned to the last remaining member of the trio. "Sir."
He had nodded respectfully at Akame as he said it, and the Kishu stopped visually inspecting his former student long enough to return it.
"It's good to see you, Zach." he said. "How have you been?"
This made the Malamute pause.
"I'm…" he said. "Good. Musashi's been very kind and I settled in well. The only real black spot is this whole "Nomad" thing."
"We could really use your help, Zach." Gin said, meeting his gaze. "Everyone else is already gathered."
"…I can't, Gin."
"Why the hell not?" John demanded and Zach looked at him calmly.
"I have another assignment." he said.
"What assignment?" Akame asked, cocking his head and Musashi jumped back in.
"Gathering pet dogs together for a resistance." he said. "They're the ones "The Nomads" are starting to target."
"If I can get enough of them to join the fight against them," Zach chimed in. "Then our chances of beating these thugs go way up."
"There's other dogs that could do that instead of you." he said. "I'd prefer it if – "
"Gin." the Malamute interrupted, looking at him apologetically but firmly. "I can't. I'm sorry. There's reasons other than the one I told you as well. I have…someone waiting for me back in Shikoku."
"Is this person the reason you decided to stay?" Akame asked slyly and Zach nodded with a ghost of a smile.
"You're my brothers," he said, "You always will be. But at least for now…I can't stay."
Gin sighed, trying not to display his disappointment.
"I understand." he said.
The Malamute looked at him as soon as he said it.
"I actually have to head out right now." he said, then frowned seriously, "But I did see something on the way up here you should probably know about."
Gin and Akame exchanged a glance.
"Like what?" the Akita asked warily and the Malamute met his gaze.
"When I was coming up a little ways South of here in the Akita Prefecture," he said. "I saw a group of dogs that looked like seriously bad news heading Northwest towards the sea."
"Northwest?" Akame repeated with a frown.
"Yeah." Zach nodded. "And they looked a hell of a lot like "Nomads". I could be wrong though. They looked more like they were going towards Tokobu Valley than up here. Still, I figured you should know either way."
Gin froze, his eyes widening as he looked at Zach in sudden fear.
"T-Tokobu Valley?" he echoed and the Malamute nodded.
As soon as he did though, Zach turned slightly and made to leave.
"I'm sorry I couldn't stay longer." he said with a look of genuine regret. "Tell Kuro, Chutora and Smith I said 'hi'."
Then he smiled warmly at Gin.
"You'll see me again." he said. "I promise. Good luck…leader."
Then he turned and sprang off into the woods, disappearing from view moments later. Gin didn't even have the voice to call anything after him, despite his happiness at seeing his old friend apparently doing well. His mind was too fixed on what Zach had said. Swallowing hard to fix his suddenly dry mouth, Gin turned to John, who had a similarly fearful look on his face. Akame and Musashi immediately picked up on it, turning to their friends instantly once they had.
"What is it?" Akame asked concernedly. "Gin, what's wrong?"
The Akita looked at him slowly, worry etched into every inch of his face.
"Ben said Draven was my father's enemy." he said softly. "Which means that he would know where my father came from, and what his life used to be before he was the leader of the Ohu Army."
"So?" Musashi asked with a frown.
"So," Gin replied. "My family lives in Tokobu Valley. My mother and brothers…and Daisuke."
"So does my former Master." John added.
Gin nodded, the night suddenly feeling much colder to him than it had before.
"They're headed right at them." he said.