Final Story: The War - Part 5
Part 5: Mercy
Gin clenched his teeth together so hard it hurt, a cold chill sweeping through him as he wracked his brain for some comeback that would sweep away the words John had just uttered. When he could find none, the Akita resorted to stubbornly shaking his head.
"No," he said. "I don't believe it."
"Believe it, Gin." John growled caustically, pacing back and forth at his position across the mountainside clearing they were standing in. "I saw it with my own damn eyes. I fought him. The motherfucker betrayed us."
For a moment after this there was silence, a void of sound only broken by the footsteps and low muttering of their troops joining the post-battle regrouping of their packs around them. Then Smith spoke up.
"But why would Zach do that?" the Spaniel asked in confused concern. "He's not like the Nomads! What reason would he have to betray us?"
"Every reason!" the Shepherd spat in reply, turning to glare at him as the wind toyed with his fur. "Don't you remember what he was when we met him? When we caught him?"
He looked around at the rest of his friends wildly, all of them returning his stare with varying degrees of discomfort.
"A killer!" he finished with a growl. "He was a manipulative little sociopathic killer that we caught red-handed! We should've seen it all along! Of course he'd lie to save his own ass, pretend to be one of us! The bastard played us from the start!"
"I'm not so sure, John." Akame said, frowning in concentration as he sat on his haunches near Kurotora and Hakuro.
"You're not sure?!" John cried, whirling on him incredulously. "What more proof do you need, Akame?"
"I would've known if he was lying to me." the Kishu insisted in a deadly serious tone, though for a moment it sounded to Gin as though he was convincing himself as well as John. "Maybe he could've pulled it off once or twice without me knowing, but lying for years? No. No one is that good."
"They called him 'The Mastermind' for fuck's sake! Now at least I finally see why! We need to hunt him down and kill him before he does any more damage!"
"No." Gin replied shortly, finally speaking up again. "Draven is still the main threat. He's the one we need to kill. If Zach is truly one of them…"
He sighed deeply, feeling everyone's eyes fixed on him.
"…then I want him captured. I want to hear the reason why from his own damn mouth. Until then, only kill him if you have no other choice."
No one replied to this at first, and once more there was silence. That is, until John spoke up once more.
"No Gin." the Shepherd growled defiantly with a shake of his head. "He's mine. I'll hunt him down if it takes me the rest of my god damn life!"
And with that, he turned and stormed out of the clearing, his purposeful strides worrying the Ohu leader greatly as he watched him go. Seconds later Gin followed, his quick pace helping him catch up to his wayward friend a mere few hundred feet into the forest as Akame and the others wisely stayed behind, exchanging uncomfortable glances amongst themselves all the while.
"John." Gin called. "John!"
The Shepherd came to an abrupt halt the second time his name was uttered, whirling to face him atop a rocky crag as soon as he did.
"What?!" he demanded, and Gin nearly pulled back in surprise at the ferocity in his voice.
"John…" he said more quietly, hoping his friend would follow suit and remain calm. "I know you're angry…so am I…but I need you with me on this. We still don't even know what Draven is doing. We can't turn this into a vendetta."
"A vendetta?!" John sputtered, his face going from momentarily calm back to angry again in an instant. "How the hell is this not a vendetta?! We spared that bastard's life despite all he did! Then we let him into our home, near Ben and Cross's kids, near Tesshin…near us! We gave him second chance after second chance and he still turned around and stabbed us in the back the minute we let him go!"
"John – "
"I told you!" the Shepherd ranted loudly. "I said it from the start, back in Ibaraki, that we should've killed him, that he was too dangerous! But you didn't listen to me! You decided to be a bleeding heart, and now look at where we are!"
Gin felt slightly wounded by the remark and wrinkled his nose at his friend.
"You know, John," he said hotly, losing his own temper a little bit. "That's a good idea. Let's look at where we are. We, the mighty Ohu Army, are in hiding, licking our wounds because a dog we don't understand is running around like a maniac killing people!"
John met his gaze defiantly and Gin bristled even further, gesturing back at where the others were sitting.
"I'm not saying that Zach isn't dangerous, that he's not a big problem, I know he is!" he said. "But Kisaragi just lost his entire family because we didn't get Draven! So if you wanna go over there and tell him that Zach's more important than his brothers' killer then you be my guest!"
John's eyes widened slightly at this, and Gin saw his claws grinding the dirt beneath him furiously as he realized the truth in the Akita's words. Gin sighed, regretting snapping at his friend.
"John," he said, walking closer to him. "You've been with me since…forever. I have always been grateful that you were the one watching my back. But we're in trouble here…and I need you."
The Shepherd exhaled deeply, his head lowering slightly as he met Gin's gaze once more.
"We defeated Akakabuto." Gin said matter-of-factly, and then snorted. "Are we really going to let ourselves be defeated by a bunch of delusional pets?"
John smirked at this despite himself, looking slightly ashamed for his earlier behavior.
"Your father would laugh at us in the other world." he remarked and chuckled in agreement.
Then Gin gestured back towards the others.
"C'mon." he said. "Let's get ourselves outta this mess."
Sighing again, John fell in beside him as he began walking and soon they had returned to the clearing, regaining their seats amongst the others as soon as they arrived.
"All right." the Shepherd said loudly as all eyes fixed on him. "What the hell do we do?"
"We need to stop Draven." Kouzou said from his position across from Gin. "He's clearly the big threat here. We should deal with him first."
"But we still need to find them." Akame countered from the Ohu leader's left. "And Draven's the one we know the least about. He's definitely the most dangerous of the three of them, no one here disputes that, but I don't think we understand him enough to fight him."
"Wilson, Kouzou," Gin said, turning his stern gaze towards his two friends. "You two were actually there on the cliffside during the battle. Can you tell us anything about Draven that we don't already know?"
The latter shrugged.
"He hit me from behind as soon as we got up there." the Belgian Shepherd said. "I never even got a look at him."
"He was big." the Collie answered. "And I mean really big. I didn't get a good look at his face either because of the fighting, but judging by his body…I'd say Cross was right. He's definitely a hybrid of some kind."
"My guess is part-Wolf." Kisaragi's voice interrupted and everyone turned to see Musashi escorting him up to the circle.
"Kisaragi," Gin said sympathetically, his expression softening. "I am so sorry – "
"Let's just get the son of a bitch." the Siberian Husky cut him off, managing to get his grief soaked voice under control. "That's what my brothers would've wanted."
"Well said." Kurotora said supportively and Wilson jumped back in.
"He also could take a hit like nobody I've ever seen." he said and the Ohu leader's gaze panned back to him. "Uzuki managed to get a hard bite in on his neck before…"
The Collie glanced almost nervously at Kisaragi before finishing.
"He didn't even react." he said. "I think it hit a nerve cluster too and Draven…he didn't even flinch."
Gin took this in and then turned back to his friends.
"One way or another," he said commandingly, "We need a plan of action before we leave this place. We're not going to go rushing in blindly like last time. We can't underestimate these dogs again."
There was a chorus of agreeing murmurs and nods before Asher spoke up from Gin's right.
"What if we divide into groups and surround the area?" he said. "Make sure they can't escape while we send out scouts to determine their exact location."
"No." Gin replied at once. "It would spread our forces too thin. Besides, if Draven's a former military dog like Ben suggested than he'll know how to get out…and the rest of us would never be able to get there in time if he turned and attacked one of the groups."
Asher clenched his jaws tightly at this, too proud to admit that the Akita was right. A few feet to his right, Kurotora gestured over at the police dog.
"The scouts part of that isn't a bad idea, Gin." he said. "As long as they're not fools, it could help us come up with a plan of attack."
"And what if the Nomads decide to scatter into the mountains and disappear while we're waiting?" the Akita asked his friend. "As much as we need a plan, we need to act now."
"So what do you suggest?" the Kai dog retorted almost accusingly.
"We lure them out."
The voice that answered had been John, not Gin, and all eyes fixed once more on the Shepherd as he sat beside the Ohu leader.
"John?" Gin asked with a small frown and his friend looked over at him seriously.
"Every time we've tried to get to Draven, his two commanders have stood in our way." John said gruffly. "If we take them out first, he'll not only have no protection, he also won't have any way to hide his movements."
"He's right." Akame agreed after a short pause.
"But that leaves us with the same problem." Wilson observed. "How do we find them?"
"We lure them out." John repeated.
"How?" Kisaragi asked.
"A challenge." came the answer.
Asher raised an eyebrow skeptically.
"You think if we challenge them to a fight, their just gonna step out like fools and accept?" he asked in a somewhat condescending tone.
"Not we." the Shepherd replied bluntly, making his displeasure apparent through his abrasive tone. "Me. Zach's gonna stay in hiding unless we give him a reason not to. So is Jacim. If I challenge Zach…alone…then that might lure them both out of hiding long enough for us to take 'em out."
For a minute, silence followed these words. Then Smith exchanged a shocked glance with Kurotora before looking over at John.
"John," he said, and Ohu commander swiveled his head towards him. "That's insane."
"If Zach decides to cut his losses and sics his pack on you, you'd be a dead dog." Hakuro agreed. "Even with your strength."
"It's a risk worth taking." John said determinedly.
"What makes you think he'll even go for it?" Wilson frowned. "He's not gonna step to you just 'cause you demand it."
"That's exactly what he's gonna do."
"John…" Gin began slowly.
"Gin," the Shepherd replied. "Trust me. I know him."
Then he looked around at the others again.
"He's arrogant." John explained and turned his gaze to the ground almost thoughtfully. "…That's why he and I got along so well I think. He knows me well enough to know I'd be furious after discovering him, so a challenge is exactly what he'd expect…but not a duel. He'll be expecting us to come in force. Me going alone would catch both him and Jacim off guard. Zach's pride would bring him out of hiding and Jacim would follow, to look for all of you backing me up…and that's when we'll strike."
Wilson nodded slowly and then looked over at Gin.
"It could work." he said, but the Akita was having none of it.
"No." he said flatly and glared at John. "Even if we managed to corner Jacim, that would still leave you alone against an entire enemy platoon."
"I can hold my own long enough for you to get there." John replied smugly.
"Gin," Akame said quietly. "It's our best shot."
"I agree, Gin." Moss chimed in. "You said yourself that we don't have a lot of time."
A few of the others voiced their support as well and finally Gin lowered his head and clenched his eyes shut in defeat.
"John," he tried softly. "It's suicide."
"I have faith in my friends." the Shepherd said. "And I have faith in you…leader."
Gin met his gaze and sighed deeply, but finally nodded in agreement, bringing the discussion to an end. Seeing this, Kurotora stood back up.
"Right then," he said. "What are we sitting around for? Let's get everybody ready!"
Then he turned and trotted off and the others swiftly followed his example, leaving only Gin, John and Akame remaining in the circle silently. Akame walked around to sit in front of his two best friends as Gin continued to stare at John.
"The plan is good, leader." he said. "But I think I should go instead."
Much to Gin's surprise, John didn't get angry at this.
"It won't work, Akame." the Shepherd replied.
"I trained him, John." the Kishu said. "I know how he fights. I've defeated him twice already…I can do it again."
"And that's exactly why it has to be me." the other male countered. "He's not fool enough to accept a challenge from you with the history you two have. He knows he'll never win…even with Musashi's training added on. He'll sic his pack on you much faster than he will on me."
"But – "
"He's right, Akame." Gin finally said slowly and the Kishu met his gaze. "Besides, I need you here to help us with Jacim."
For a moment Akame was silent, the expression on his face revealing a war between his loyalty to his leader's wishes and his concern for his friend. Finally, he bowed his head ever so slightly.
"As you wish, leader." he said, conceding defeat.
Then, with one last look at John, he turned and moved away towards the rest of their troops, intending to help treat the wounded and gather them together for another battle. When he was out of earshot, Gin turned and met John's gaze intensely. The Shepherd stared back unafraid and unconcerned and Gin finally turned away as well a few seconds later. Then he paused for a moment with his back to his friend.
"Please don't make me regret this, John." he said. "I have faith in you, but still…"
He looked over his shoulder at his childhood companion.
"…don't you dare die."
Meeting the Akita's fierce gaze, John smiled. Then he stood and walked up beside him.
"Wouldn't dream of it, Gin." he said.
Jacim grimaced as he paced back and forth, his jaw aching something fierce as he glanced over at his restless soldiers. The bleeding from his mutilated cheek still hadn't stopped and every time he retraced his steps and paced once more, he saw that the trail of blood that seemed to be following him was growing more defined with every pass. Soon it would be a solid red line marking his movements, and this thought made him even more frustrated.
'Why are we waiting here?!" he thought furiously. 'Now that we have them on the defensive we should attack again and finish them off! Why the hell are we waiting around?!"
His tongue subconsciously licked over the slash in his cheek and he winced openly, his mind compiling various brutal ways he could make Gin suffer for mutilating his face. Before he had a chance to stew in his thoughts any longer though, a voice from behind him interrupted his solitude.
"Lord Jacim? You wanted to see me, sir?"
The Elkhound glanced quickly over his shoulder and saw the tall form of his main subordinate Arata, a Doberman captain of the elite soldiers. He turned the rest of the way and glared dangerously at the other male.
"Where. Is. He? This lingering here is foolish!"
"Sir, Lord Draven left hours ago." came the answer, Arata's nervousness increasing noticeably. "He took 3 of our spies and headed North out of the area. I don't know where he was going."
Jacim straightened up in surprise, a vaguely impressed look spreading over his face. He snorted almost unnoticeably, his anger abating.
"He actually did it…" he whispered, turning away to face the forest once more as Arata cocked his head slightly.
"M-My Lord?" he said, sounding as though he was choosing his words carefully. "Where was Lord Draven going?"
The Elkhound glanced back at him instantly.
"Never you mind." he replied curtly. "Did you gather the rest of our soldiers together?"
"Yes sir. As per Lord Mercy's orders."
The former Police dog's eyes narrowed slightly.
"Good." he said calculatingly. "Now get back there and keep them from doing anything they shouldn't be doing. I'll be watching."
Arata tensed visibly and bowed low to the ground before turning and springing away back to where the others lingered. Jacim turned away and looked into the forest once more. He remembered witnessing the tail end of their leader's conversation with that blasted Mercy, and his inner senses had seesawed back and forth between glee and disgust at the mere sight of it.
"Gather everyone together to march North on my command." Draven ordered in a completely calm voice, sounding for all the world like the vicious, self-ordered beating he had just received at the hands of one of his commanders had never even happened. "Have them ready by the time I return."
Mercy tilted his head, not bothering to acknowledge the order.
"And where are you going, my lord?" he asked in his smooth voice.
Draven slowly turned around on the spot and seemed to consider him for a moment. Then he stepped towards him and looked him in the eye.
"If I told you, Mercy," he said softly, the menace in his voice palpable. "It wouldn't be a surprise."
The Nomad commander didn't respond and Draven took another step forward, leaning in close so that their foreheads were pressed together and lifting a paw to rest firmly on the back of the other male's neck.
"Your curiosity as to my movements and plans is flattering, brother." he practically whispered. "But it's beginning to concern me greatly. Now it's time I did my part in the war effort, and I need you here – "
Jacim watched as the Nomad leader shifted his head and slid his tongue slowly up Mercy's neck, his grip on the Malamute vice-like and his piercing eyes fixed squarely on him.
" – doing what your told and nothing more." the Shepherd looking dog continued, sliding their faces against each other in a nuzzle before resuming their original posture. "In other words, Mercy…your duty. I have every faith that you can do that, brother…because if you can't – "
Mercy seemed to tense as Draven's muzzle moved to his sole remaining ear.
" – then I'm going to drag you into those woods, bend you over a log, and you're going to see a side of me you'll wish you never had."
The Nomad commander stayed stock still, only his eyes moving even an inch as Draven pulled away and turned back to the forest, his back to him once more.
"I do hope I've made myself clear on this, Mercy." he said in the same calm voice as before. "Now do your job."
Jacim shuddered inwardly. It was common knowledge amongst the higher-ranking soldiers that Draven would occasionally target other males when he seemed to get sick of physically brutalizing the few females that were members of their clan. The punishment he doled out during these sessions tended to happen on a horribly intimate level, and nearly everyone dreaded it to the point of not even speaking about it aloud. The Elkhound managed to push this mental image to the back of his mind. That of course made another thought spring to mind. Why had Mercy even bothered provoking Draven's wrath by asking him directly? Was it really that important that he know every detail of the Nomad leader's plan?
True, he himself had toyed with the idea of doing exactly what Mercy had done and just asking Draven outright what their future held in store, but he wasn't foolish or reckless enough to actually do it. Draven was nicknamed "Angel of Death" for a reason after all. But Mercy…even he was rarely ever that much of a fool. Granted, Jacim admitted, he wasn't the most unbiased observer, as he had never really trusted the Malamute from the 1st day he'd joined the clan. Despite that, his suspicion had ramped up in the last few months, in no small part due to his counterpart's great intelligence and the sheer number of dogs that had seemed to escape or slip through their grasp under his watch. He couldn't be sure of his facts though. Maybe he was just being spiteful. After all, the Malamute had shown quite clearly that he was capable of chilling brutality when the situation called for it. Their former captain Wataru, who admittedly had been something of a loose cannon, could testify to that first hand…or at least he could have if Mercy hadn't basically tortured him to death in front of a howling and screaming crowd. Jacim snorted. "Mercy" indeed…
The Elkhound looked around. Where was the bastard anyway? After he and Draven had done their little dance and the Nomad leader had departed, Mercy had retired somewhere into the forest with a subordinate or 3 and hadn't been seen since. He looked over at their massing soldiers, who seemed to be nervously chattering amongst themselves. There was no one there to miss him. He cracked his neck, watching as the red line on the ground grew finally to be solid and completely unbroken. It was time to pay his fellow leader a little visit.
'Who knows,' Jacim thought viciously as he set off further into the trees, scenting the wind as he searched for a trail. 'Maybe I'll finally get to wipe that smug smirk off his face once and for all.'
Then he sauntered through the underbrush and out of sight.
Tesshin stood atop Gajou, casting his intense young gaze back and forth as the wind toyed with his grey fur and more and more dogs began to gather on the plain down below, most of them refugees fleeing the fighting down south. They had begged him to let them take shelter in Paradise's safe confines, pleaded with him, and though he had not let them set foot inside Gajou itself, he had allowed them to shelter themselves outside of it for a day or so before they moved on. Ben had endorsed this move when the Koga had asked for his guidance, but his compatriots Ken and Kagetora had expressed reservations about his decision, and Tesshin himself was unsure if he had made the right call.
"Contemplating where you're gonna sleep when you're in charge of this place?" came a sudden voice and Tesshin's ears perked up upon hearing it.
"Kagetora." he greeted calmly, watching as the young Kai Dog strolled casually up next to him.
"The perimeter sweep is done." the younger male said. "And I can report a sad lack of action on all sides."
"Good." Tesshin replied, then raised an eyebrow at him. "And who says I'm going to be the boss one day?"
Kagetora snorted at his expression.
"Oh, come on, 'Little Brother'." he said. "Everyone knows that you're the one Gin has his eye on. Not to mention that training you had last month with John and Akame. It's a matter of when, not if."
"You talk too much, Kagetora." the ninja dog said with a semi-irritated huff. "Gin will make his decision when he chooses and I'll accept whatever it is…and don't call me 'Little Brother'."
"Why not?" came a second voice and Tesshin turned to see Ken striding up as well. "You're smaller than us aren't you? Well…me anyway. Kage, you're still a dwarf."
"Ken," came the sarcasm laced reply. "Everyone is smaller than you."
The Great Dane rounded on him with an offended expression.
"What is that supposed to mean?!" he howled and Tesshin glanced over his shoulder at them crossly.
"Would you both please be quiet?" he demanded. "I'm trying to think."
Kagetora rolled his eyes, watching as a new group of dogs arrived down below.
"Tesshin, you need to lighten up." he said. "Everything is fine. There's been no word of danger from down South, we're well guarded, and the leader would have warned us if something had happened. Nothing's gonna happen. And believe me, I want something to happen. We Kai Dogs weren't born to sit around like this!"
The Koga didn't reply for a moment.
"I feel uneasy." he said finally. "My senses are telling me that something is wrong."
He grunted in frustration.
"But I can't see what it is!"
"Well, let us know if you figure it out." Ken said lazily, turning to walk away. "We'll be hunting for some food for my parents in the mean time."
Kagetora gave Tesshin a shrug and then turned to follow his friend, their voices disappearing as they leaped back down the side of Gajou and out of earshot. Tesshin sighed, tilting his head to the side slightly as he studied the group of refugees that had just arrived. One of them was very tall and looked pretty beat up, he saw and he turned his head once more to the Southern horizon.
'Leader' he thought warily, his mind swimming with worry. 'I hope I'm doing the right thing. I can't shake this feeling. Please hurry back.'
The dogs below huddled in groups as they shuffled around nervously, their voices carrying softly around the great stone fortress that was Gajou. Up above, Tesshin of Koga sat like a silent guardian, and remained where he was until night fell.
John walked soundlessly through the dimming forest, his gait slow and deliberate and his ears erect and listening for any sign of movement, his soldier's senses on high alert. This was enemy territory, he knew, and every minute he spent here was another one he spent in mortal danger. The Shepherd nearly smirked at that thought. So much the better… He had left Gin and the others a little less than half an hour ago, and had seen them observing his departure with silent looks of concern and nods of trusting encouragement, both of which had been greatly appreciated on his part, much as he would never admit it.
He knew that his friends were set to follow him covertly once he reached a certain distance, and he trusted them enough not to be spotted and ruin the whole plan. Until that time though, he was completely on his own, and his thoughts departed his brothers in arms and turned their attentions to another target…one that made him positively tremble with rage and bitterness. Zach… His ex-comrade would pay dearly for betraying them. That he swore. His mind raced with various brutal ways he could make the traitorous Malamute suffer and with each subsequent one that came he felt more and more morally justified. After all, this was a matter of justice!
But still, he knew, there was that one irritating sliver of doubt in the back of his brain, that one loyal part of him that didn't want to believe that his friend had turned his back on them, after all they had been through together. After all, why would someone save someone else's life from near certain death and then turn around and try and kill them a few years later? It made no logical sense. These thoughts came and went as he walked, and the trees seemed to stare down at him mockingly as he passed by. His mind continued to wander as the Nomads remained elusive, and soon memories began to come back as well.
…"I'm not so sure I made the right choice." Tesshin lamented, toying with a dead mouse that was to be his dinner as it lay between his front paws.
John watched as Zach sat down beside him, young Ken and Kagetora joining them eagerly as well a few moments later as they all sat within Gajou.
"Choice on what, kid?" the Malamute asked and Tesshin glanced up at him.
"My name." he said almost guiltily. "I – I'm just not sure it fits me."
"What's wrong with 'Tesshin'?" he asked. "That's an honorable name. I told you the story behind it already, and it definitely fits you. I see nothing wrong with it."
"Yeah," John chimed in lazily, gnawing on a piece of boar that he had decided to wolf down. "It could be worse, kid. You're name could be 'Zach'."
The Malamute shot the Ohu commander a deadpan glare at this before turning back to Tesshin a few moments later, an almost cheeky looking grin forming on his muzzle.
"Trust me, Tesshin." he reassured. "The name you chose is perfect. It suits you well. You're right to be concerned though, this is important. Your name should suit you if you're a real male. Take Akame-san for example. His name means 'Red Eye'. Fits him right?"
The young male nodded after a moment, looking a little more confident.
"Or take him." Zach nodded sideways at John, who perked his ears up immediately, smelling an insult coming from a mile away.
"His name is English." he said, still smiling down at them. "It means 'stuck-up', 'egomaniacal', 'conceited', or 'insufferable to be around'."
He had barely finished his sentence when John lunged and tackled him to the ground hard. They rolled immediately into the cave wall and began biting at each other as Tesshin and the other young dogs laughed uproariously, forcing Akame and Gin to leap over from the stone fortress's entrance to intercept them. Both leaders had exasperated yet amused looks on their faces, and had clearly overheard the whole exchange.
"All right, knock it off!" Gin barked commandingly as Akame tried to get between them. "Break it up, both of you!"
John instantly leapt out of the fight and landed on his paws gracefully, kicking Zach to the ground almost as an afterthought.
"Sorry, Gin." he said. "Just making sure we all know our place."
Zach spat a little blood onto the ground and pushed himself back to his feet, turning to Tesshin as he did.
"There is some speculation though," he said, as if nothing had happened. "As to whether it could also mean 'wimp', or 'hits like a girl'."
John shot him a death glare at this and Akame chuckled, shaking his head as he restrained the German Shepard and pushed him away towards Gajou's entrance.
"It's a wonder either one of you ever commanded anything." he chided. "Behaving like pups all the time."
"Yeah?" John scowled as they walked away. "Well, old habits die hard."
"Look at it this way, Akame." Zach said, stretching his neck as he did. "Someday we'll look back on this and laugh."
The ninja dog snorted, clearly doubting this, and John echoed the noise as Kurotora and Smith strode in from outside.
"Every time I look back at you I laugh." the Shepherd said. "Usually in a mocking tone of voice. This won't bring anything new."
Gin laughed despite himself, turning to his friend in mild irritation as he did.
"John!" he exclaimed and Zach whirled on the Ohu Commander.
"Yeah?" he scoffed, puffing himself up a little as he did. "Well you wouldn't laugh so much if you had my view when we travel, you smug bastard. If anything, you should pity me for having to be forced to stare at your ass all day!"
"Tch!" John smirked, rolling his shoulders as he did. "I'm John of Ohu, kid. You should feel lucky you get to stare at my ass."
Kurotora and Smith immediately burst out laughing and Zach wrinkled his nose irritatedly at his comrade as Akame just shook his head, Gin chuckling as well beside him.
"God, you two deserve each other." the ninja dog said in exasperation and then turned away, leaving the group to disperse one at a time as the two males turned and met gazes once more.
Then Zach gave a sarcastic bow to John and strode away out the entrance, leaving John to smirk after him triumphantly, his food waiting back where he'd left it as he stretched his back and mentally prepared insults for their next little encounter…
John came to a stop instantly as he reached a small clearing in the thick foliage, his ears reversing slightly as two dogs approached him noiselessly from behind, both of them seeming to have come out of nowhere. Keeping his back to them, he remained still as a gruff voice spoke.
"This area is off limits to travellers." it said, and John heard that it was the dog on his left. "You shouldn't have strayed here."
John glanced over his shoulder, a fire in his eyes that hadn't been there minutes before.
"Get Zach out here." he demanded. "Now."
"Never heard of him." the other dog replied, his voice higher and younger than the first. "I'm not sure I like your attitude, bastard."
John turned around slowly, his eyes never leaving them.
"I'm going to give you to the count of 5." he threatened. "Or neither of you will live to see the sun rise."
"Bastard!" the first dog yelled, clearly enraged. "Tear his throat out!"
Then they both lunged simultaneously, howls baying from their throats as their legs carried them forward. Moments later there was a wet ripping sound, and both dogs flopped to the ground with muffled screams beside each other, one of them twitching in his death throes as blood erupted from his mangled neck. John turned back to his path, licking the gore off his fangs and not saying another word. At least, he didn't until he realized that his two victims hadn't been alone. All around him, dogs began emerging from the trees and encircling the clearing, some of them large and intimidating looking and others small and more suited for scouting or spying. Either way, there were a lot of them. The Shepherd lowered his head as growling rumbled from various points around him. Gin and the others had predicted right. He was badly outnumbered. He stood up straight defiantly.
"Bring out Zach!" he thundered. "Now!"
No one answered and John stepped forward challengingly.
"NOW!" he said.
"Never heard of him." came a familiar reply, and John saw a Greyhound step forward, fresh scars adorning every part of his lithe form. "But you're about to regret that you came here, brother."
"Mercy, damn it!" John shouted at him, ignoring the threat. "Get 'Mercy' out here! This is between me and him!"
"No one sees Lord Mercy. You can deal with us."
John felt his frustration beginning to grow, but breathed deeply to keep his anger under control.
"Tell him John would like a word." he said and the Greyhound seemed to scoff at him, cocking his head slightly as he did so.
"You're hardly in a position to be making – " he began.
"Tell him that if he doesn't get his ass out here in the next 30 seconds" John said, cutting him off. "Then I'm going to kill my way through this forest until I get to him…and I don't care how many of you there are."
He looked around at them as he said this last part and the growls seemed to grow in volume, the likelihood of a fight growing by the second. John steeled himself for the first wave of enemies.
"You shouldn't have come here, John."
The Shepherd's breath caught in his throat upon hearing the familiar voice, and he swung his gaze instantly up to the tree it had sounded from, his eyes landing on a large figure perched on a branch overlooking the scene. John's eyes narrowed, his every pore filling to the brim with hate. Zach of Ibaraki lay with one paw draped over the other on the edge of the branch, his aura exuding a dizzying combination of triumphant pride, fatigue and…was that sadness? John gripped the ground hard with his claws, his hackles raised to full height. Though his scars were all still in place, the Malamute's voice had deepened, and John wondered how it was that he had not picked up on that before when Zach had briefly visited them in Gajou. After a long period of silence, Zach seemed to smirk.
"So what now?" he asked. "Are we just gonna sit here and glare at each other until one of us drops dead?"
John wrinkled his muzzle in a silent growl.
"Come down here and we'll see which one of us drops first…brother." he replied, lacing the last word with a heavy dose of sarcasm as he did.
Zach stood up on the branch, turning his eyes to the sky as he utilized the balancing skills Akame had taught him so long ago.
"I knew you would come sooner or later." he said. "You're actually later than I expected. I just never thought you'd be alone. I think you're letting your ego get the best of you again…John."
"I would've come sooner if I thought you were even remotely worth my time." the Shepherd spat and Zach raised an eyebrow, looking back down at him.
"Well gosh, John." he said. "You sure know how to butter a dog up."
"Well, well, well, what have we here?"
John glared over at the new interrupter and felt his anger war with a pleased sense of triumph. Jacim of Hiroshima had emerged from the trees behind the gathered dogs and was looking at John with a bloodthirsty eye, his tongue running over his lips as he stood there powerfully. Then he turned to the tree as well.
"I hope I'm not interrupting, Mercy." he simpered in a thoroughly mocking voice. "It's just that I heard about what happened with Draven and I thought I'd check on you…you know, see if you were still licking your wounds."
Zach was silent for a moment. Then he cracked his neck and nodded at John.
"He might not have come alone." he said. "Why don't you make yourself useful for once, Jacim, and go hunt down his comrades."
"Oh, that's cute. You think you can give me an order."
"Would it help if I said 'pretty please'?" Zach asked and Jacim snorted, turning his gaze to John.
"You wait 'til I get back." he said. "Then we're gonna find out together how high your threshold for pain is."
John glared back at him defiantly as the Elkhound turned and vanished into the forest once more, about half the dogs gathered there following him away in the direction the Shepherd had come. The ones remaining recircled John, and then Zach leapt out of the tree, landing with a dull 'THUD' seconds later. His gaze never left his former friend.
"Out of respect for what we once had," Zach said quietly. "I'm going to let you leave, John. I just needed to wait for Jacim to go before I told you."
There was an immediate protest from some of the dogs gathered around, but Zach straightened up instantly.
"Silence!" he snapped. "Remember who you're talking to."
This shut everyone up on the spot, and John turned to the crowd a second later, glancing around at them.
"I don't know what this dog has told you," he called. "But he's not who you think he is! He's no angel or god or anything of the sort! His name is Zach of Ibaraki! He's a lowlife thug who lies with every breath that comes out of his mouth."
Then he looked back at Zach, and a particularly painful look passed between them.
"…He's not your friend." John finished and the Malamute was silent for a time.
Then he seemed to gather himself and proceeded to give a subtlely smug look over at his subordinates, a smirk on his muzzle as he did. The moment he had, a wave of laughter echoed around the group, and a few isolated calls of "Heretic!" sounded from various points around them. Zach shook his head slowly.
"John," he said with a quietly mocking smile. "You never cease to amaze – "
John wasn't quite sure what it was that pushed him over the edge, but before the Malamute could finish his sentence, he suddenly lunged forward with a howl of rage and tackled him backwards, his jaws wrapping around the other male's neck and biting down hard as he did. Unprepared for such a brazen attack, Zach choked mightily as blood oozed from around John's fangs, and he only got free after smacking the Shepherd in the eyes and twisting himself out of the Ohu Commander's vice-like grip. Then he rolled to his feet and was immediately on the defensive. John had lunged forward again and began biting at his face with all his strength, hits that slashed only air as Zach dodged and weaved like a pro, pausing only once to land a head-butt between John's eyes that split both their foreheads open and sent blood streaming down their faces. John staggered a step, stunned long enough for Zach to leap out of range and take a fighting stance across the clearing. Then they circled.
"John," Zach said, his whole body tense as he ignored the wounds he had received already. "You do not want to do this with me."
The Shepherd lifted his lips higher so that his bloodstained fangs glinted in the dim light. He posture was stiff legged and his powerful form was challenging.
"Oh yes I do." he replied. "You're about to be in a world of pain, you traitor."
"You don't know what pain is, John."
"Don't you dare lecture me! Just keep your mouth shut and show me what Musashi taught you."
The Shepherd launched himself forward with a snarl and Zach did the same, both of them coming together in midair in a bone crunching collision of bodies. Then fangs met flesh and paws rocketed into ribcages as both males landed in a writhing tangle of limbs, their respectable battle skills making them more than a match for one another as the dogs surrounding them shouted and howled in delight. Finally, John smashed his paw into the Malamute's face three times in a hard stomp and grabbed him by the shoulder with his jaws, feeling Zach's sharp fangs penetrate the same point on him as well. Then he leapt to his paws, picked the other male clear up off the ground in an impressive display of strength, and threw him hard at a nearby tree, sending the Nomad Commander's subordinates scattering to either side out of the way as Zach's fangs tore fresh slashes in his shoulder. It didn't end at all how he wanted it to. Zach grabbed a branch in midair and in an equally impressive display of agility, swung around it and used the tree's trunk as a base to spring himself off of, sending him flying back at John. Then he grabbed the Shepherd by the back of the neck and flipped him head over heels, slamming him down on a tree root on the back of his head as hard as he could.
The hit sent John's vision into a dizzy tailspin, making everything blurry as his head throbbed in pain. It didn't deter him one bit. Leaping to his paws with a roar, he grabbed Zach by the hind leg as he started to leap away and yanked him back to the ground, scrambling onto his back moments later and biting down on the back of his neck as hard as he could, wrapping his forelegs around the Malamute's torso to pin his legs to his underside. Zach let out an agonized growl of pain and tried to flip them with his hind legs as John's grip held tight. The Shepherd was having none of this. Keeping Zach's forelegs immobilized with his own, John lifted his head and began slamming the Malamute's face into the hard earth over and over again, getting harder and harder as he kept going.
"John – "
"Get offa – "
SLAM! SLAM! SLAM!
Blood spattered on the dirt and on John's face, and soon some dogs had seen enough.
"Boss!" three dogs chorused and lunged at John from multiple sides, coming to the aid of their leader to save him from his attacker.
The Ohu commander released his grip and swung around in one fluid motion, tearing the throat out of one and breaking the neck of another before slamming his lifeless body into the third in midair, sending them flying backwards into the crowd. Their distraction, however, had given Zach enough time to turn the tables. Leaping back to his paws with blood streaming copiously down his head and face, the Malamute kicked John in the nose as hard as he could, sending him flying backwards into a tree to land in a heap. Then he was on him before he could get back to his feet, shooting his jaws in and wrapping them tightly around the brown and black furred dog's throat. John felt fangs tear into his neck and reacted on instinct, hugging the other male's head to him tightly with his front legs and kicking him in the stomach. Zach grimaced with a grunt and stomped down on his former friend's groin, making John snarl in pain despite himself.
"You never could leave well enough alone, could you?" Zach growled, panting from exertion as John's hind legs tangled with his, both of them trying to claw and kick the other.
John hissed, keeping his grip firm.
"I'll break you in two!" he snarled back.
Zach lifted him up a little and slammed him down into a rock a few feet to their left. The impact had no effect and neither combatant gave up any ground. Zach glared up at him as best he could.
"I don't know why you're taking this so personally, John." he said through a mouthful of fur and flesh. "It's just something that happened. I was blind, but now…I see."
John didn't see the change in his opponent's leg stance until it was too late, distracted as he was, and moments later Zach lifted him up and threw him into a stumble, twisting out of his grip as he did. Then he lunged forward with both paws and drove his claws into the Shepherd's eyes with a deep and powerful thrust of his front legs, kicking him to the ground with his hind ones as the momentum carried him back atop him. John yelped in pain despite himself and began clawing at his eyes, shaking his head to get his wounded vision back.
"You fucking bastard!" he snarled. "I'll get you for this!"
Then Zach was on him again and slashed repeatedly at his neck and shoulders, the screams of the crowd getting louder with every hit. John threw him off and missed a couple hard bites before faking one to his neck and slashing him across the chest. Then he hit the Malamute's side…then his back…then his legs… All the while, Zach was laying into him with all his strength, and soon both males were bleeding all over their powerful bodies, spatters of blood covering the clearing everywhere. Despite this, neither of them had landed a critical hit. John smashed him across the muzzle with his paw.
"Why did you betray us?!" he demanded ferociously. "What did we do that was so wrong?"
Zach ducked a second hit and head-butted him in the jaw again.
"You think you know so much?!" he hissed. "You think everything's clear to you, John?! You're as blind as a day old whelp!"
The next traded blows made both of them stagger slightly.
"We spared your miserable life!" John shouted.
"And I saved yours!" Zach thundered back. "We owe each other nothing!"
Suddenly, an uproar sounded in the distance and both dogs whipped their gazes towards it, John's expression changing to one of triumph. It was Gin and his attack group. The plan had worked! To his surprise though, when he looked at Zach, the Malamute didn't look at all concerned. Instead, a smile had appeared on his muzzle and he looked thoroughly pleased with himself, if only for a few moments before it faded once more.
"It sounds like Jacim won't be joining our little dance after all." he said smoothly in a voice heavily laced with sarcasm. "What a terrible shame."
John shook his head in disbelief.
"You sick fuck!" he howled, and lunged forward once more.
Across from him, Zach did the same. The fight was still not over.
Gin leaped between and around opponents as Kurotora, Moss, Hakuro, Kisaragi and the others dove into the fight with a palpable vigor, thoroughly intending to avenge the deaths of their friends and brothers in arms. The ambush had worked like a charm and now enemy troops seemed to be falling everywhere at once, making it very clear very quickly that they had been caught completely off guard. The Akita whipped his head around to survey the battle, listening as the dog he'd just slashed across the throat crumpled to the ground lifelessly. Suddenly, a commotion sounded to his right and he looked over long enough to see Asher stagger backwards from the lunging Jacim, Smith taking over his fighting position and dueling fiercely with the Elkhound moments later. He raced over to help.
"Concentrate on the leader!" he yelled to his friends. "Get Jacim! Get Jacim!"
Akame and Kouzou looked up from where they were fighting and obeyed their leader's command, converging on the increasingly trapped Nomad commander as the evil dog's subordinates scrambled to help him. The more they swarmed in though, the more they were held off by the superior fighting skills of the Ohu soldiers, with Hakuro, Moss, and Kisaragi in particular bringing them down in droves, working together as they did. Gin leapt into the air moments later with a shout, watching as Moss grabbed one of his attackers by the head and threw him hard into a group of Nomad fighters running into the fray, all of them either crumpling or flying backwards from the devastating impact. Then the Akita focused his lunge solely on Jacim, who had just kicked Kurotora over a small drop behind a tree. Gin steeled his will.
'Let this work!' he thought. 'We need this! Just let this work!'
Right before he reached his target, Jacim looked up at him. The look in his eyes was one of mild surprise and sudden realization, as if it had never even occurred to him that he was capable of being defeated. Moments later, Gin landed his hit, wrapping his jaws tightly around his opponent's exposed throat and biting down as hard as he possibly could. A sickening wet 'CRACK' sounded and blood instantly poured into his mouth in a torrent, a sensation Gin ignored as he pulled Jacim to the ground and Moss instantly leapt on him as well, grabbing both of the evil Elkhound's hind legs in his jaws and snapping them clean in two with another hard bite. Jacim's scream was muffled by the gargling of blood in his mouth from his mutilated throat, and when he finally came to rest, he was motionless on his side and still as the grave. 'Angel of Wrath' had been stopped.
Behind the panting Gin, Akame and Kurotora stepped up and took their positions powerfully, all three of them glaring down at their shallowly breathing enemy as Hakuro and the others began to finish off the scattered and confused remaining Nomad subordinates. Gin glanced back over his shoulder.
"Give them a chance to surrender." he bellowed sternly, making sure the fallen Jacim could hear him. "They're leaderless now…and we're not cold-blooded killers."
Then he stepped forward with his two friends, hearing the others beginning to gather up behind him as well and loomed over Jacim, whose side was heaving mightily as he struggled to breathe. Gin narrowed his eyes.
"I would tell you that you brought this on yourself," he said to the glaring Jacim. "And that your fate here is justice in its purest form…but you're a police dog, and you know that already. At least you would've, once upon a time."
Jacim chuckled, coughing up blood weakly as he did. Then he met the Akita's gaze.
"Y-You always w-were…a conceited pr-prick." he rasped from his ruined throat.
Gin growled and leaned in closer.
"How could a dog kill his own children?" he spat, the disgust in his voice undisguised. "His own mate? You manipulated all these dogs into blindly following you and slaughtered them ruthlessly when they didn't. How can you live with the things you've done?"
Jacim snorted as best he could.
"My f-family was mine…to do with wh-what I pleased." he said. "And these mongrels…didn't matter. They were n-nothing when…I found them… It was only f-fitting they died the same…"
Gin had never been so sickened by another dog in his life. Standing up straight, he saw similar expressions on the faces of his friends and he clenched his jaws tightly.
"There's nothing you can do to make up for the things you've done." he said. "As much as I dislike it, death is the only punishment that fits your crimes. I hope the faces of those you hurt torment you wherever you go from here."
Jacim seemed to roll his eyes, though Gin couldn't tell if it was genuine or a result of the pain he was in. As the pool of blood around his body began to grow in size and the light in the Elkhound's eyes began to fade, he grinned up at the Ohu soldiers malevolently.
"Don't…gloat just…y-yet…" he breathed as blood seeped through his fangs and slid down his lips. "You m-may have…defeated me…but I ha-have one l-last secret…to confide…"
He looked Gin in the eyes.
Gin felt his whole body tense up. He could feel it in his every pore. Something was very wrong.
John panted hard as another hit landed, the numb feeling beginning to spread across his whole battered body as the battle continued on. Despite his superior fighting skills, he and Zach appeared to be evenly matched, and he wondered if his own fury was interfering with his ability to fight effectively. That thought lasted only a few moments though, as Zach's head came back around and tore another slash across his forehead with its razor sharp fangs, it's owner deftly dodging aside as John made to strike back.
"Why are you still here, John?" Zach questioned through his own panting, his one eye nearly swollen shut from repeated hits. "It sounds like Gin and the others finished their little fight with Jacim. It's too quiet now. Maybe you should go and see if they need help."
John didn't answer and dove at him, spit and blood flying as he aimed a bite at the Malamute's eyes and their fangs clashed against each other instead. Zach dodged aside again right afterwards and fixed his fierce glare on the other male.
"I mean it John." he said. "Run away. Like you said, don't waste your time on me."
"Shut up and fight." the Shepherd spat back.
"Why do you want this so badly?"
"Because you deserve to die."
Zach cocked his head almost teasingly.
"Is that it?" he asked. "Really? Or is there another reason behind it all? Do I make you weak in the loins, John?"
That's what finally made the Ohu Commander go ballistic. Lunging forward with a terrifying roar, he put his full weight into tackling Zach to the ground, negating his attempt at a dodge, and then grabbed him by the throat and shook him from side to side as hard as he could, charging over to a nearby rock as soon as he had. Then he began smashing his former comrade's head against the rock's jagged edge over and over again with his full strength, his fury seeming to surprise even Zach himself.
"J-John – " he nearly shouted and kicked the Shepherd in the underside, trying to pull his head close to him again and nullify the attack.
It did nothing. John kept slamming him into the rock again and again, ignoring the damage it was doing to his own battered body, until finally throwing him onto his back in the dirt and thrusting both his large paws into the Malamute's throat, putting his full weight into them seconds later. Zach's eyes went wide and he choked, his hind legs trying to grab John's midsection and roll them but unable to get a grip. John glared murderously right into his eyes as he did it, his gaze unblinking as Zach's tongue began to loll out of his maw.
"J-J-Jo-hn…" he gasped out, but the Shepherd kept his hold, fully intending to watch him suffocate beneath his own two paws.
Gasping out another desperate breath of air, Zach finally clenched his eyes shut in pain and craned his neck as best he could towards his subordinates.
"G-Get h-him…!" he managed to get out.
With cries of "Boss!" and "Mercy-san!", the Nomad soldiers immediately rushed forward and laid into the Shepherd, biting him on the back, sides, tail, and legs as they tried to get him off their commander. At first, John ignored them altogether, taking the pain of their assaults as he continued to focus on Zach, but eventually they became too much for him and he let go long enough to throw some of them off and get knocked to the ground on his side. Then they dove on him. Slashing left and right, John managed to kill some of his attackers with his fangs, but their sheer numbers overwhelmed him and he continued to get held down and bitten, some of the dogs screaming "Heretic!" at the top of their lungs as they stomped on him as well. For his part, Zach had staggered to his feet, gasping for air as he stumbled out of range and glared over at John hatefully. Then, finally, he shook his head and let his chin droop to his heaving chest, his eyes closing as blood dripped from his fur into a pool at his feet.
"Buy me some time to go." he rasped to his subordinates. "Then let him go and flee into the woods."
"Let him go?!" the greyhound from earlier cried. "Sir, we should kill him! He's a non-believer! How can you let him live?!"
"You heard me!" Zach thundered, his voice sounding demonic through his damaged windpipe.
Then he took a deep breath and spoke softly once more.
"Now see that it's done." he said quietly and turned away, loping slowly towards the trees away from everyone else.
John let out a howl of fury, flailing left and right for all he was worth but achieving nothing despite his legendary strength. His energy began to wane.
"You coward!" the Shepherd raged. "Get back here and fight!"
Zach kept walking away and did nothing to acknowledge him. He didn't even look back.
"Look at me, you fucking traitor! Look at me!"
There was still no reaction and John finally lost what little composure he had left.
"I WAS YOUR FRIEND!" he screamed, feeling the Nomad soldiers still biting into him viciously. "YOUR FRIEND!"
Zach stopped dead in his tracks. For a brief moment, John thought he was going to turn around and attack again. But then he stopped thrashing in confusion. Zach had glanced over his shoulder just the slightest bit, but even from his position on the ground John could see the vaguely hurt look on his face, as if he had suddenly realized what he was doing and regained his soul once more. Then, however, the Malamute turned away and vanished quickly into the trees, John's chances of winning the battle vanishing with him. Once he was gone, the Greyhound leaned in close to his ear.
"You're lucky he showed you mercy." he hissed angrily. "If it were up to me, you would've died tonight!"
Then, as if by an unspoken command, he and all the other subordinates let loose their holds on him, fleeing into the woods after their commander as soon as they had. Soon, John was alone. For a while, he sat there in silence, panting exhaustedly and letting his numerous bloody wounds argue with his attempts at catching his breath. Then he stood slowly, his legs trembling slightly as he did, and padded away himself, his path taking him towards Gin and the others. He never once looked back.
"What about Draven?" Gin demanded, his breath catching in his throat as he glared down at the mortally wounded Jacim.
The Elkhound seemed to sense his unease and gave a lopsided grin.
"D-Did you…ever wonder…" he slurred. "Where he we-went…after the battle?"
Kurotora leaned in closer with a ferocious look on his face.
"Where is he you piece of shit?!" he snarled with a low growl. "For that matter, what the hell is he?"
Jacim looked triumphant as his breathing got shorter.
"H-He's…a…K-Kunming Wolfdog…" came the answer. "Not that…it'll do you any…good. And as…for where he is, ask…your friend…Ben…"
"Ben?" Akame said immediately, the tension in his voice rising dramatically. "Why Ben?! Where did he go?!"
"Ask…B-Ben…" Jacim repeated softly. "After all…th-they should…be t-together…now…"
Gin's stomach fell to his feet as Jacim let out a low, malevolent-sounding laugh. Then the Elkhound made a weak choking noise and his head fell back into the dirt lifelessly, his vacant eyes staring ahead of him with a mixture of glee and vague surprise as his body went rigid and then relaxed. Then he was still. "Angel of Wrath" was dead.
For a moment, everyone was silent. Then all eyes turned to Gin of Ohu, who lifted his head and stared straight ahead in shock into the forest.
"Gin…!" one of his friends breathed.
Gin knew how he felt. He said nothing, Jacim's final words hitting him like a hammer to the face.
'Oh god…' he thought. 'He's in Gajou! Oh my god…'
Ben yawned widely, stretching his hind legs with a pair of cracks as he lay inside Gajou. A storm was coming soon to Futago Pass, he could tell, and he was worried about the refugees that were resting a short distance away outside the stone fortress's walls. Part of him wanted to offer them shelter, but that decision no longer rested with him. Tesshin had made the call to leave them outside away from the confines of the Ohu Army's home base and truth be told, Ben considered the decision a good one. He was getting soft in his old age, he thought, and duty needed to come first…especially these days.
Somewhere outside, Cross hunted for his food, and the old Great Dane felt a twinge of guilt strike him. His blindness was a constant companion now, it had been for many years, and he had grown used to living life around its disabling limits. He hated, however, having to make others do things for him, things that any male should be able to do for himself. Getting food to survive was one of those things, and though Cross did the job enthusiastically and wouldn't hear a word of self pity from him, he felt truly bad making her do the hunting to keep him alive. Ben shook his head. It was too late for those thoughts, and he needed to remain on alert. That night had already fallen made little difference to him. After all, it was always night to him now. Someone needed to be ready in case something happened at a moment's notice. Such was the life of a soldier…even an aging former one. Then he heard heavy footsteps, and recognized the scent as its owner came within range.
"Cross," he greeted with a smile. "Thank you. I'm sorry for making you do this all the time."
Expecting to hear her cheerful reply of "Don't give me that, Ben! You know I love doing it!", he was instead surprised to hear nothing but a loud 'THUMP', as if she had just collapsed to the ground where she stood.
"Cross?" he asked in concern. "Are you all right? Cross?!"
Then another scent caught his nose.
'Is that…Tesshin?' he wondered.
'THUMP' came the second noise, same as the first, and that's when Ben began to realize that something was wrong.
"Is someone there?" he demanded in a fiercer voice, reverting into soldier mode as the scent of blood reached his nose, followed by another he didn't recognize. "Who are you?"
"Shh." came the smooth sounding reply, the voice belonging to a male that Ben didn't know. "They're sleeping, brother. Best not wake them, or I'll be forced to introduce them to a…deeper kind of slumber."
"Who are you, young one?" Ben repeated, tensing up as he dropped into a fighting stance.
"Young?" the voice echoed almost amusedly. "I haven't been young for a long time. Just like you, Ben. Just like you…"
"What is it you want?" Ben asked, remaining on high alert. "How dare you attack us in our home!"
"We're both old soldiers, Ben." the voice said. "Don't get self-righteous. We both know that you could no more stop me than Gin could…than Riki could."
That's when it all connected in Ben's mind and he took a step back in shock.
"Draven!" he exclaimed, growling as soon as he had.
"You sound afraid, brother." the Nomad leader said. "That's all right. It's not a sin to be afraid, especially when your opponent is me."
"You won't get away with this!"
"Oh, I really think I will."
Then another voice broke the quiet. Ben recognized it as one of the refugees that had arrived just that day.
"Sir," it said. "The other dogs outside are beginning to wake up."
Ben could almost sense the Shepherd-like dog's smile.
"Move outside then." Draven replied. "When you're in their camp…kill everyone you see."
"NO!" Ben shouted and lunged forward blindly at the Nomad leader.
Instead of landing the blow, he found himself thrown back into Gajou's inner wall, a paw pressing into his throat and holding him in place.
"Don't tempt me, Ben." Draven hissed, his voice sharp and cold. "I've waited too long for this to have you stand in my way. Riki's dead and gone…don't make me send you to him."
"You won't get away with this!" Ben growled back. "Gin will stop you!"
Once again, Draven seemed to grin.
"Oh, Ben…" the Nomad leader said, his tone sounding like he was talking to a child. "He can't stop us all."
Then suddenly Ben felt a sharp pain erupt across his forehead, sending his head rocketing back into the hard stone wall that made up Gajou. Then consciousness left him. Ben of Ohu knew know more.