Final Story: The War - Part 7
Part 7: The Mastermind (Reprise)
Zach sprinted through the trees as fast as he could, his breath coming out in wisps in the cold air as snow spattered up in all directions from his rapid footfalls. He was 15 miles or so out from the Ohu-Mutsu border and had been following Draven's trail for the last few hours, his sharp senses able to detect the faintest traces of the Nomad leader and his charges even as the winter storm tried ally with them and mask their trail. The fact that the volatile warlord had not waited for him before moving out did nothing to calm his already frayed nerves, but he soldiered on through the sensation and continued to push himself faster, determined to catch up with them before they had a chance to do any further damage.
Throwing himself into a rushing river, the Malamute kicked his legs furiously and swam to the other side, panting from exertion as he mounted the bank and shook the water from his drenched fur, the bitter winter air stabbing at him in small gusts as he sniffed the ground for any further sign of his quarry. All that greeted him was barren ground. Grunting with a start, Zach frantically weaved back and forth along the riverbank, searching for any trace of Draven or his subordinates and finding nothing despite his every effort. The group had disappeared.
"Shit." he swore under his breath, his eyes darting back and forth as he continued to search for any foreign scents.
Suddenly, he heard a stick snap off to his right and whipped his head in its direction, his keen eyes scanning the snow-covered landscape for any movement. It didn't take him long to find it. No sooner had he looked up than two dogs came stumbling out of the trees down the riverbank, both of them looking like they were trying very hard not to be seen or heard by anyone.
"C'mon!" he heard one hiss at the other. "We need to go if we wanna get out of here while we can."
"I'm coming!" the other whined. "I'm coming!"
"Oi!" Zach called, leaping towards them as he did.
Both dogs froze, their heads whipping in his direction instantly. As their eyes fixed on him, Zach saw a terrified look spread over both their faces and they began to cower. Ducking low to make themselves looks smaller, their tails were tucked so far between their legs that they were practically folding in on themselves and Zach tried hard not to roll his eyes.
"L-Lord Mercy!" the first one said. "We-We were – "
"Where did Draven go?" Zach demanded.
"We d-didn't mean to leave the ranks s-sir, we just – "
"Where did he go, soldier?!"
The first dog cowered even further.
"N-North, sir." he said. "I think they were heading to Yagen Valley in Mutsu."
Zach frowned suspiciously.
"Yagen Valley?" he echoed. "Why would…?"
He shook his head, not having time to dwell on it.
"Thank you." he said and moved to bound away, stopping only after the second dog spoke for the first time to him.
"You're not gonna k-kill us, sir?"
Zach's gaze softened. He gestured the way he came with his head.
"Get outta here." he said calmly. "Go back to your families."
The dogs looked flabbergasted.
Zach paused briefly in midstride.
"Name's Zach." he said over his shoulder. "Don't call me 'Mercy'."
Then he continued his sprint with a renewed sense of determination, his speed increasing with every step as he wracked his brain for some inkling of what Draven was doing in Yagen Valley.
'This is going to be cutting it close.' he thought. 'Very close.'
Then he leaped around a tree trunk and was gone.
Gin had been to Mutsu many times before. In fact, he had wandered around a very large part of it while on his recruiting quest for his father in the war against Akakabuto, and had long been under the impression that he'd seen it all. Now that he and the others were entering the relatively normal looking expanse of Yagen Valley however, he had been forced to admit that there were places he and the others still had no knowledge of. Their intended battlefield seemed unusually devoid of life, save for a few birds chirping in the trees overhead, and though they were gaining rapidly on their retreating quarry, something still felt off deep in the pit of the Ohu leader's stomach. Turning his head slightly, he spoke over his shoulder without looking.
"Kisaragi," he murmured in a low voice, his muscles rippling beneath his silver fur with every step he took. "What is this place? I don't recognize it."
The Husky looked around him suspiciously.
"I'm not entirely sure." he said, looking more disturbed than embarrassed by the revelation. "This area is heavily populated with humans. We've stayed pretty clear of it for the most part."
"Keep on your guard!" John barked sternly to the troops following them. "Get ready to fight or flee at a moment's notice!"
This order kept their numerous subordinates occupied while Gin and the other leaders looked around at the snowy landscape surrounding them. There was still an unearthly stillness permeating the area, and the Akita cursed Draven from the darkest corner of his soul for still managing to remain aloof and mysterious in his movements after all this time. He was used to fighting headstrong opponents, ones who cared little about anything but causing him as much pain as possible so that his home and reputation could be theirs. They were fools and easy to handle. Draven, however, was none of these things, and it was frustrating.
'Father…' he thought in silent determination. 'I'll finish what you started. Your justice will be done.'
Suddenly, as he was snapping back to attention, they turned a corner and gazed upon an open field, its virgin snow looking untouched and unsoiled, very much unlike all the landscape around it. Across from them, seemingly emerging from some sort of canyon…came a large group of dogs, a group whose numbers only grew by the moment. It was another army, and there was only one it could be. The Ohu group came to a halt and Gin stepped forward with John and Akame at his side, all three looking powerful and ready to fight.
'Here we go…' he thought.
All canyons had walls, and all walls had ledges, and the canyons of Mutsu's Yagen Valley were no different than any other of its ilk. Standing atop one of these ledges, flanked by a few of his most trusted subordinates and the dogs he called his captives, Draven of Osaka stood like a statue, waiting patiently for something only he knew. Behind him, Tesshin and Ben lay side by side, Ben's mate Cross joining them on the other side of the latter. All three of them were tense and on edge. Tesshin could feel a dull ache in numerous parts of his lithe form as powerful jaws and fangs held him immobile, and he didn't even need to look to know that his 2 elder companions had suffered the same fate. In front of them, Draven had said nothing for quite a while, and seemed to show no signs of impatience as he waited for whatever it was he had brought them here to see. Tesshin assumed it was Gin's arrival and the subsequent fight to the death that would follow, but with enemies this sophisticated and tricky, you never really knew. At this point, the Wolfdog was merely a silhouette, his features obscured by the position of the rising moon behind him in the distant winter sky. Finally, after he could take no more silence, Tesshin fixed his gaze on the back of the Nomad leader's head.
"You can't win, you know." he said, and Draven's ears perked up and reversed to face him. "You have every major boss dog in Japan out for your blood. There's no escaping this."
Draven turned his head slightly, but continued facing away from him.
"Isn't there?" he asked almost matter-of-factly. "It's funny, young one, you said that as if you know what's going on."
"I know this insane ambition of yours is going to earn you nothing." Tesshin retorted. "And our friends are going to fight 'til their last breath to make sure you're brought to justice."
The Nomad leader stood, his gaze both piercing and smug as he turned to face them and swept his eyes across their three still forms. Then he walked up to Tesshin and thrust a paw before the ninja-dog's face, holding it there unmoving as Tesshin glanced up at him in wary confusion.
"Bite it." Draven ordered.
"Bite it." came the same calm order, just a hint of menace lurking underneath. "Snap it off. I know you have the strength. Do it."
Tesshin remained still, knowing that if he made a move, it would be the last thing he ever did. Draven's eyes remained unblinking in their predatory glare.
"Go on." he whispered. "I won't feel it. I haven't felt it for the last 7 years. It's just nothing…numb…like I'm made of rubber. An inanimate, lifeless thing. If I tore you apart right now, runt, you would scream and piss yourself. If you did the same to me…it would be just an inconvenience. That all changes tonight."
"Is your soul so dark that you'd commit mass murder for your own benefit?" Ben asked, taking over the argument for Tesshin. "You and I have lived long enough that we should know better. How is it I can't see and yet you're the one who's blind? Riki and I should have ended you when we had the chance."
"Riki?" Draven chuckled malevolently, ignoring the taunt. "Heh. Isn't it funny…when someone with power dies, they're remembered as though they were a god? I could tell you stories about Riki that would make your skin crawl, and yet…look at how you see him. Maybe his fate will be mine after all."
"Don't count on it. His son will finish what he started."
The Nomad leader padded over to him.
"You don't know what Yagen Valley is…do you Ben?" he smiled, tilting his head at the blind Great Dane.
The elderly Ohu commander was silent and Draven turned back to the ledge.
"I used to come here when I was a military dog." he said. "My comrades and I used to come and…cheat death…here, try to prove which of us was the bravest, the strongest, the most worthy."
He panned his gaze across the snowy valley.
"Just looking at it, you'd never know what it was." he continued before turning back to them. "Cause some things are buried too deep to smell. Some of your friends are bound to be careless, and then…well…we get to watch the fun."
All three of them tensed up further at that.
"What did you do, Draven?" Cross growled and the Nomad commander's smile widened, his eyes panning to watch as Gin and the Ohu Army suddenly came into view on the other side of the open field.
"Let me show you." he said.
Gin lifted his head high and bared his fangs as the Nomad forces squared off to them, hearing his comrades doing the same on all sides of him. Growls sounded from both sides of the field, growing in volume and reaching their greatest pitch as a large male emerged onto the brink of a ledge overlooking the Nomads' position, his confident, smug gaze panning across the Ohu forces before landing on Gin. He was indeed a Kunming Wolf Dog, the Ohu leader saw at long last, and his Shepherdish appearance was pockmarked with scars of all kinds, slashes and stabs and even a few apparent bullet wounds of old. His aura practically resonated great power, but none of it was benevolent. The Akita didn't need longer than a second to know who he was.
"Draven of Osaka!" he called, a sharpness in his voice that resonated authority. "You will surrender…or you will die."
Gin wasn't often that blunt, but his patience with their enemy had long since come and gone and now there were lives on the line. On the ledge above, the Nomad leader smiled widely.
"Gin of Ohu." he said, his voice sounding like he'd lost the habit of using it. "You're a more impressive male than I took you for. Your tenacity in your pursuit of me is something your father would have admired…but you haven't cornered me yet."
"We know what this is about." Gin said in a threatening tone. "And you have to know we'll never let that happen."
"Oh, won't you?" Draven gave a low laugh, meeting Gin's gaze defiantly. "And how do you plan to stop me? I'm sure Zach didn't tell you everything, after all."
Gin paused at that and widened his eyes slightly, a motion that was not lost on Draven.
"Ohhhhhhh…he didn't think I knew." Draven taunted then let out an amused low laugh. "I must admit your ruse was clever. Sending a killer in to fool another killer. I thought it beneath you, Gin."
The Akita remained silent, watching the Nomad leader carefully to make sure they weren't caught off guard.
"Still," Draven drawled, the veiled anger in his voice apparent to those whose ears were keen. "I suppose it was fair play. Zach of Ibaraki…what a naughty boy he is. I don't suppose he's important to you at all, but on the off chance he is, know that I will be personally dealing with him as soon as we part ways here and that I will be using every bit of military training I possess to make him die as agonizingly slow as I possibly can."
This brought a deep-throated growl to Gin's lips and Draven cracked his neck.
"First though," he said, the smile gone from his face. "It's your turn. You will fall like your father did, boy, and then the Ohu Army will be just a memory. Smite the shepherd and the sheep will scatter."
Gin released a ferocious snarl from deep within his broad chest.
"Not this time." he said defiantly. "This time you fail."
Draven leaned forward over the edge, seemed to raise his hackles, and then stiffened his stance. He looked the Akita right in the eyes.
"Come and get me." he hissed.
Gin and his friends did just that. Across from them, the Nomads charged as well, their feet pounding the snow rapidly as they called out for blood. The war had begun.
"Come on, Daisuke, we don't got a lot of time!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming."
The teenager zipped his coat up as high as it could go as he trotted to catch up with his friends. They had just arrived in the lower part of the Aomori Prefecture and were preparing to watch the eclipse, having driven 2 days to find the best place in the area to see it. Running a hand through his shaggy hair, he looked around at the massing crowd and smirked as he realized that they were not the only ones who had thought of the idea. Numerous tourists and bystanders stood nearby fiddling with their cameras, and joining the throng there stood a group of soldiers who were keeping the peace, keeping curious onlookers out of the military base that was stationed nearby. Looking up, he moved to increase his pace…and saw a familiar face lingering in the crowd nearby.
"Dr. Hidetoshi?" he asked in shock, stopping midstride and making the older man turn in recognition of his voice. "What are you doing here?"
"Daisuke." came the equally as surprised greeting as the man turned to face him. "I should have thought it would be obvious. It's not every day you see a solar eclipse in Japan. How have you been?"
"Can't complain." the teen answered, walking up beside him. "Me and some friends came up here thinking we'd have it all to ourselves."
He gestured at everybody around them.
"Stupid us, right?"
The doctor laughed.
"Well, it was a good thought." he said. "Foolish, but good."
Daisuke moved up alongside him and they both looked up. The moon shone down benevolently overhead like a beacon in the evening sky.
"How long you think?" Daisuke asked and Hidetoshi spared him merely a glance.
"Not long now." he said. "Maybe a couple hours at the most."
Satisfied with this, Daisuke turned his attention back to the people around him…and tuned into a conversation being had by a small group of soldiers off to his left.
"…seems to be moving towards the Yagen field, sir." one was saying to another. "At least 200 dogs, maybe more. What should we do?"
"As soon as they get close enough," the other answered. "Tell whoever's stationed there to open fire. We can't have that field activating. It could cause a chain reaction."
"Yes sir." the first said. "The leaders seem to be an Akita and some big wolf like dog that – "
"I don't care what dogs are leading the group, private." the other cut him off curtly. "Shoot anything that moves. Just don't let them get near that field!"
The first stood at attention and saluted obediently, turning to walk away as Daisuke turned back to Hidetoshi with a look of fear.
"Doctor," he said quietly. "Did that sound like – "
"Gin," his friend answered seriously. "Yes, it did."
"Well, we gotta do something! Come on!"
He moved to run off, but the older man grabbed his arm.
"Wait, Daisuke." he hissed under his breath and the teen looked at him in irritation.
"Doc, we can't just let this happen!" he said and Hidetoshi shook his head.
"We don't have a choice." he said. "Not only will we never get there in time, we won't get anywhere near it because of the soldiers already stationed there. They'd never let us within a mile of it and you know it."
"Sensei," Daisuke said weakly. "It's Gin…"
"I know." Came the answer. "And John is probably with him. We'll just have to trust that they know how to survive by themselves. I'm sorry, Daisuke, but you know I'm right."
The teen did know and that only pained him all the more. Sighing deeply in defeat, he ran a frustrated hand through his hair again, swearing under his breath at the unfairness of it all. Then he turned and looked back at the sky where the eclipse would happen. The moon kept glowing unperturbed.
'Gin.' he thought. 'Please, if that's you…be safe.'
Dozens of miles away, in a forest out of sight, Zach of Ibaraki was unknowingly thinking the same thing, having discovered from a local passerby the same information the human had just received.
"Oh no…" the Malamute breathed, increasing his speed drastically as he bounded away.
It was a good thing he was only minutes away. Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
The enemies charged, their legs pumping as furiously as the blood in their veins, all of them ready and waiting for the collision, for the blood that would start to flow, the screams that would fill the air. Gin's forces came down the middle, Kisaragi's came down the left, and Kouzou's came from the right, all of them howling battle cries as they got closer and closer to the oncoming Nomads. Up on the ledge, where Draven held his captives, the ever wise Ben had just realized himself what Yagen Valley actually was, and fear replaced his burgeoning dementia in spades as he turned his head away and tried to stand up with a desperate "No!". The fangs holding him captive held firm and Draven suddenly stepped in and grabbed him by the back of the neck, wrenching his head back forward and using his paw to force the Great Dane's eyes open, making him endure the pain that had shut them in the first place.
"You will watch this, Ben!" the Nomad leader growled. "Consider it my funeral gift to Riki."
The elderly soldier panted quickly, knowing that despite his strength, he couldn't throw off the immensely strong Wolf dog. Up on the higher sides of the valley's border, Ben could see groups of humans rushing to the edges, slinging their guns from over their shoulders and hurriedly pointing them at the fighters down below. He opened his mouth to scream to Gin, but one of Draven's henchmen bit down on his muzzle, holding it shut with devastating force. He could do nothing. After that, time seemed to move in slow motion. More seconds passed and the soldiers kept charging. On the opposite end of the valley, Zach of Ibaraki arrived at long last, and his bellowed "WAIT!" was drowned out by the ruckus around him as if it hadn't existed at all. The soldiers were almost on top of each other now. Like a wraith next to him, Ben felt Draven lean in close.
"Behold a pale horse…" the Nomad leader whispered in his ear.
Suddenly, the ground shook with a deafening 'BOOM', the impact knocking virtually every dog in the area off his feet as a massive explosion erupted in the valley from underneath Kouzou's front line. The Shepherd himself was gone, vanished in a massive fireball along with 20 of his fellow soldiers. Off to his left, Gin leapt back to his paws with a look of horror, all his friends mirroring his expression nearby.
"What – " he breathed.
Then another explosion went up from under Hakuro's forces, sending the three-legged husky and at least 5 of his followers flying into the air with yelps of pain before they landed in a heap and another 15 or so exploded into a shower of gore and limbs. Gin felt fear seize him. Yagen Valley wasn't just an empty meadow. It was a minefield…
Suddenly, a gun went off from somewhere nearby and one of the Ohu leader's subordinates dropped where he stood, blood exploding out of the back of his head as he crumpled into a heap. Then more shots joined the din.
"GIN!" came a shout and suddenly the Akita was thrown aside, his widened eyes managing to get a glimpse of Asher's muscular form before the police dog took the bullet meant for him, his head whipping back in a fountain of blood before he landed limp on his back…and moved no more. Gin looked wildly at his friends around him.
"FALL BACK!" he screamed as loudly as he could, his blood burning with hate as he caught a glimpse of Draven's glaring form atop the cliffside crag he currently occupied.
No one argued with him. Dogs from both sides abandoned their fight in terror and ran together away from the field, a few explosions erupting every now and then and compelling them to move faster. Shots rang out from all sides now, but strangely not many of them seemed to land their mark. Skidding to a halt, Gin looked back to make sure everyone was still with them that was alive.
"Gin!" Akame hissed. "Look!"
The Akita followed his gaze and saw up on the valley borders a sight that sent his heart racing. The humans' guns that had been firing hadn't been firing at them, for at that moment, a dog the Akita recognized as a large Malamute with one ear had barreled into the nearest of the bipeds and knocked him sideways, the gun falling out of his hands as he did. Then the dog lunged and grabbed the next one by the throat, tearing it out in one vicious motion as the others nearby panicked and trained their guns on him instead, firing indiscriminately as he leapt behind the first human he'd hit and used him as a living shield. Then the volley of bullets hit a lull, and the dog turned and bounded away out of sight, isolated machine gun bursts firing into the forest after him. The delay had been small, but it had bought them enough time to get away intact, and as Gin grabbed the lingering Kurotora and half threw him to safety, he made a mental note to himself to thank Zach profusely if they all survived this. Adding to this sentiment, up on the cliffside, Draven looked livid at this turn of events, his face twisted into a hideous snarl of fury and his eyes darting back and forth amongst all of them as if he couldn't decide who he wanted to kill more.
Ahead of Gin, the Nomad leader's subordinates had seemed to come to their senses and turned with snarls to engage the Ohu forces in battle, a feat they accomplished quickly as the Akita's friends turned to accommodate them, making it so a running, bloody skirmish was being fought as they all moved to flee. Across the valley from them, Draven turned and grabbed Ben by the head, yanking him to his feet with a growl as Cross fought against her captors to get to her mate. The Wolf dog glared over at his subordinates.
"Get them up!" he roared with thinly veiled malice, watching as the human soldiers that would have completed his plan at long last charged instead into the forest after the traitor Mercy. "We need to finish this now! We're running out of time!"
"What are your orders, my lord?" one of his dogs asked and Draven looked over at him ferociously.
"Take these three and follow me!" he said. "We're moving out!"
Then he looked down at Tesshin and the ninja dog could see the desperation in his eyes.
"There's only one place this can end now." he said.
Gin looked around in a frenzy as he ran, ducking an attacking soldier's bite and leveling him with a devastating slash across the throat as John grabbed the one lunging at his back and slammed him into the ground hard enough to nearly shake it underneath them, the dog's muffled scream of pain cutting off short as the Shepherd snapped his neck with a wet 'CRACK' moments later.
"Where's Draven?" he asked intensely and Gin spared him only a glance.
"I don't know!" he replied loudly. "But if he fled, there's only one place he'll go!"
"Gajou." Akame jumped in, his white-furred front spattered with blood from their opponents.
This didn't surprise Gin in the slightest. Despite Akame's kindness, the ninja-dog was brutally efficient when it came to battle.
"Exactly." the Ohu leader said. "He's out of time and he knows it. He expected us all to die on that field. The fact that we didn't left him with no backup plan and very little time to accomplish it. If I were him, I'd head to Gajou to finish it all there."
Suddenly, Musashi leapt in to join them, Hakuro and Smith at his side.
"Gin," the fight dog said. "The eclipse is almost here. We need to move now if we're gonna beat Draven back to Gajou!"
"I know!" the Akita replied with a brief nod. "And he has a head start on us already, so we need to go!"
Then he looked around at his gathered friends.
"Back to Gajou!" he barked sternly. "Let's find Draven before he gets to our home!"
All his friends nodded and scattered in random directions, some of them lunging back into the fighting as others disappeared into the trees in search of their quarry. Gin himself could hear John and Akame tailing him loyally as they weaved their way through the trees and smelled out Draven's scent in the snow covered Japanese wilderness. The Ohu leader steeled his will. They would not fail this time. Not while he still drew breath.
Draven charged forward quickly, his heavy paws crunching in the snow coating the ground as he forced his muscular bulk to move as rapidly as he was able, a steady growl emanating from his chest as he half dragged the semi-conscious Ben behind him. Further back, his subordinates were doing all they could to contain Cross and Tesshin, the latter fighting them at every opportunity even as he was held steady by over 6 dogs at once. The Nomad leader hissed and panted, seeing his destination off in the distance like a beacon taunting him as the moon began to move into place overhead. Wait! He looked up and nearly panicked. The eclipse had nearly begun! He was out of time! Whirling around and slamming Ben into a submission position, he looked deeper into the forest and dimly heard the chaos in in the direction they'd come from, its slowly increasing volume meaning that Gin and his little band were catching up, and would long before they reached Gajou. Letting out a scream of rage, he turned and kicked Tesshin in the head as hard as he could with his hind leg, feeling no satisfaction at all as blood erupted out of the ninja-dog's nose and he crumpled into the snow with a grunt of pain. His mind racing at a mile a minute, Draven glared over at his patiently waiting subordinates.
"Give me that female and hold Ben!" he growled. "We can't drag all three of them! We're out of time!"
"What of this one my lord?" a Tosa asked, blood seeping out from around his death grip on Tesshin's neck.
"Kill him!" Draven hissed back, throwing Cross onto her back at his feet. "I'll deal with her! I'm not giving Gin the time he needs to stop us!"
Then he turned and stomped down hard on Cross's face, the Saluki's lip splitting and her eye swelling up almost instantly as his heavy weight came down upon her like a mountain. Hearing her cry of pain and shock, Tesshin and Ben fought back harder, the former's exertions sounding like strained growls and grunts as he fought against the many fangs that held him.
"G-Get off her y-…you coward…!" he rasped out through the stranglehold on his throat.
The Tosa holding him growled deeply and tightened his grip, then chuckled sadistically as a second Nomad bit down on the Koga's groin. Tesshin let out a yell of pain despite himself and thrashed even harder, getting nowhere despite his best efforts.
"Don't fight it, brother." the Tosa hissed, grunting himself as he and the others struggled to control the powerful ninja-dog. "It'll all be over soon."
Right nearby, Draven hit Cross again, slashing her across the other side of the face with his fangs before sinking them into her exposed throat. She coughed and gasped for breath, kicking at him hard as he lifted her front up into the air and then stood on her hind legs, further immobilizing her. It was useless. He was just too strong. None of the hits she did land seemed to bother him in the slightest. Cross began to see black at the edge of her vision. That's when Draven spoke.
"I heard you were a great warrior once." he said in a low, malevolent rumble. "Let me give you a death befitting the useless thing you've become."
He tightened his grip further. Nearby, Ben thrashed like a demon against his captors.
"No!" he gasped, getting nowhere through their greater numbers. "Cross!"
Draven was not to be dissuaded by his pleas. Raising up onto his hind legs, the Nomad leader moved to smash her back down and snap her neck, while his subordinates positioned themselves to tear Tesshin's throat out a few feet away. Suddenly however, a large figure erupted from the underbrush nearby like a rocket and tackled Draven from behind with a devastating force, sending them both rolling into the snow and Cross tumbling out of the Nomad leader's reach, gasping and coughing for breath all the while. With a snarl of fury, Draven whirled around and slashed at the newcomer, but the other dog was already in motion. Grabbing a sharpened stick in his jaws, he leapt over to the dogs holding Tesshin and in one fluid motion stabbed it as hard as he could into the Tosa's eye socket, a sickening squish sounding as soon as contact was made. The dog shrieked in pain and let go of Tesshin's throat, his motion allowing the newcomer to grab his tongue from in between his open jaws and tear it out with a wet rip, the Nomad's screams becoming muffled with blood immediately after. Then the area became chaos.
Draven shot back to his paws as the intruder brutalized the other dogs holding Tesshin, tearing one's throat clean out and then loosening another's sudden hold on him by snapping his hind leg like a twig and then dislocating his jaw when he screamed in pain. The ninja-dog did the rest, grabbing one of the remaining subordinates with his now free hind legs and hurling them to the ground, crushing his skull with a swift bite as soon as the rest of his torso became free. Then he leapt back to his paws as well, the growl born of his throat one of pure anger. Before he could do anything though, Draven leapt in and sent both him and the newcomer staggering with separate rapid blows, both of them regaining their feet moments later well out of his reach. It was at that moment that both Tesshin and Draven realized who had interfered.
The exclamations were uttered simultaneously, one in surprise, the other in rage, and though the Malamute looked over and met Draven's gaze, his voice was directed at Tesshin when he spoke.
"Get Ben and Cross and get out of here." he said.
The ninja-dog didn't move, noting with horror widened eyes that the Malamute had been shot several times, his wounds dripping blood into the snow even as they stood there at that moment.
"No." he replied, moving up beside him. "I'll stay and fight with you. Ben, take Cross and get back to – "
Suddenly though, Zach whirled around and grabbed him by the side of the neck, throwing him hard at Ben seconds later and causing both of them to nearly collapse back into the snow.
"DO WHAT I SAY!" he bellowed, his voice laced heavily with pain. "You get them to safety and I'll buy you as much time as I can!"
"You won't last 5 minutes with those wounds!" Tesshin shot back loudly. "Zach, I can help you!"
The Malamute spared him a momentary glance.
"Help them." he said. "If any of you die here, I'll never be able to look Gin in the face. Now go!"
For a moment, Tesshin was frozen to the spot, caught between his duty and his desire to help his friend. Finally, the former won the battle. Turning to Ben and Cross, he jerked his head back towards Gajou.
"C'mon!" he said with an almost unnoticeable quaver in his voice. "Let's go, now!"
The two elder dogs looked back and forth between their younger counterparts for a moment or two but then turned and ran off towards where Tesshin had gestured, their speed surprising for ones of their age and condition. As Tesshin himself moved to follow though, he heard Zach's voice one more time.
The ninja-dog stopped and glanced back at his one time friend. Zach gave him a smiling nod, his face still spattered with blood.
"Be good." he said simply.
Feeling tears welling in his eyes, Tesshin of Koga returned the nod and then bounded away, his course taking him out of sight within seconds of his departure. Then Zach turned back to the glowering Draven, who looked beside himself at this new turn of events. The Wolfdog cracked his neck.
"You fucking traitor…" he spat. "I have half a mind to wait 'til this is over and then burn you alive in front of your friends."
Zach smirked, his wounds still bleeding.
"That hurts my feelings…brother." he taunted and a wide grin spread over Draven's face.
"I'm gonna enjoy this." he said, then turned to his subordinates. "Kill him. Then go get Ben back. I want a sacrifice for the end of this journey."
The whole group of them surged forward at once and Zach leapt aside, slashing left and right at them and landing a few good hits before he was overpowered, 4 dogs coming down on him at once and biting him savagely, their fangs twisting and tearing at his already weakened form as each dog he threw off was replaced by another. Feeling one of them bite down on one of his bullet wounds, the Malamute screamed in pain and twisted enough to smack him in the eye, biting down on his muzzle moments later with a pain-crazed look and ripping half the flesh off of it in two hard jerks, exposing bone and gore as the dog pawed at his face in agony. Then he managed to throw himself aside away from his attackers, one side of his body already covered in blood as Draven strutted around in front of him.
"Ooo, you don't look too good, Mercy." the Nomad leader taunted as Zach struggled back to his feet. "Maybe you oughta sit down!"
With that, he lunged forward and kicked the other male down onto his side with all his strength, grabbing him by the hind leg moments later and swinging him headfirst into the nearby trunk of a tree, making his head split open between his ears and blood embed itself in the bark. Zach grunted in pain and kicked wildly at Draven's face, managing to connect hard enough to loosen the other male's grip and get him thrown aside. Then he landed in the snow with a small whine of pain, his tortured body begging him to stop and his pride overruling it every time. Draven advanced on him slowly.
"You have thwarted me at every turn, you miserable little fuck!" he hissed.
"Heh…" Zach wheezed. "You sh-should've killed me when you…had the chance."
Draven stopped in his tracks and seemed to nod, his face twisted into a grimace of fury.
"You're right." he said, his eyes blazing. "I should have. At least Jacim was fucked up enough that I could convince him that this whole charade would get him his family back. But you…there was always something about you that didn't belong, something…off. At least now I know what it is…Zach."
Zach forced himself slowly to his feet and looked over at the Nomad leader. He could feel his strength waning.
"I thought Jacim killed his family." he said, trying to stall for time. "Why would he want them back?"
"Why?" Draven repeated with a scoff. "Who knows? He was a broken dog, sadistic one minute and sorry the next. He didn't know what the hell he wanted…I could tell all along. That's what made him so easy to manipulate. Maybe he wanted to own them again, dominate them the way he used to. I don't care either way. The only thing he owns now is whatever patch of dirt Gin buried his useless carcass in."
Then he stepped up to the Malamute.
"Much like the one," he said, his rage returning. "That I'm about to give you."
He lunged forward, his teeth flashing in the dimming light. Zach turned and lunged as well, trying mightily to ignore his possibly mortal wounds. Moments later, blood spattered across the virgin snow.
Gin ducked another bite and grabbed the offending dog with his powerful jaws, not even bothering to slow down as he turned and flipped him over his shoulder, slamming him down onto his head with enough force to knock him out cold. Then he kept running. Directly to his left, he could see both Akame and Kurotora fighting ferociously, the former using tree trunks like springboards to land numerous savage hits on enemy soldiers and the latter fighting like a berserker, tackling two dogs at once and allowing himself to get buried under a snarling, bloody pile just for the sake of having multiple targets to rip up in a short span of time. Suddenly, another obstacle!
Gin leapt over three attackers in one bound and twisted himself to flip over a pile of thrashing combatants directly beyond them, landing effortlessly on all four paws as Hakuro grabbed a dog moving to cut the Ohu leader off and tore his throat out in an eruption of blood. Gin didn't pause to thank him.
"Keep moving!" he shouted to his friends. "We have to get to Draven!"
"We'll get you there!" Kisaragi bellowed back from behind him. "Just worry about yourself!"
"Yeah, Gin!" Moss agreed from the left. "Don't stop for anything! We'll take care of these hoodlums! Draven's all yours!"
The Akita nearly grinned, his faith in his friends strengthened in the thrill of battle. Then he saw movement up ahead. Way up in front of them all, John had managed to run into stiffer resistance, his unstoppable charge finally having been slowed enough for Gin to see his muscular form again. And boy was it a sight to see. The Shepherd was apparently royally pissed, Gin saw, and the more he watched him get attacked by 4 and 5 dogs at once, the more he almost felt bad for their opponents. Ducking a slash at his face, John grabbed an attacker out of midair and swung him left and right like a weapon, leveling his other opponents all at once before breaking the first dog's neck with a audible 'SNAP'. Then he charged forward once more.
After that, more dogs fell before him with broken limbs and tattered throats, their bodies tumbling and sprawling into the snow in various states of disrepair as John kept on moving without a single pause. Gin smiled as he ran. The Shepherd was still one hell of a warrior after all this time. Then, suddenly, John stopped. From where he was rapidly catching up, Gin saw him lower his head and sniff at the ground. The Akita dodged around a bush, leveling a charging Nomad with a head-butt and not pausing to watch him crumple in a motionless heap.
"John!" he called. "What is it?!"
The Shepherd raised his head and seemed to be looking deeper into the forest. He looked back at Gin momentarily.
"It's Draven!" he shouted. "He's heading – "
Pausing in midsentence, he ducked an ambush attack from behind and grabbed the attacker out of the air as he passed, slamming him into the ground hard enough to take the wind clean out of him and then slashing both his throat and stomach open wide, blood spurting out of both the moment he did.
" – this way into the trees!" he continued as if nothing had happened. "And he's not alone!"
"Who's with him?!"
Another Nomad duo went down for the count.
"Ben, Cross, and Tesshin…" John said, a determined look passing over his slashed and blood-spattered face. "Not to mention a fuck ton of subordinates! Wait!"
He sniffed the snow again.
"I've got Zach's scent here too!" he said, looking over his shoulder at his best friend. "He must have gotten a head start on us in going after 'em!"
"Follow them!" Gin ordered, finally reaching his side. "I'll head back to Gajou and cut them off. One way or another, this ends tonight!"
John nodded resolutely and moved to bound off.
"John!" Gin stopped him with a shout, making the Shepherd pause and look over his shoulder at him.
The Akita leveled him with a serious stare.
The Shepherd smiled back at him, the emotion behind it genuine.
"You too." he replied.
Then they both charged off separate ways into the trees, pursuing their quarry at all costs.
Zach gasped weakly as he tumbled into the snow again, his whole body trembling with shockwave after shockwave of sheer pain. He had managed to hit Draven a few times during their fight, leaving visible wounds on his shoulder and muzzle, but had thus far done little to no damage. This was not surprising to him. He was just too weak. Gasping for breath, which had become harder and harder for him to take in, he got to his paws long enough for the Nomad leader's subordinates to come down on him again, ripping at what little untouched flesh he had left and making lose strength even faster. Erupting up from the bottom of their pile with a furious roar of determination, he grabbed one dog and just barely managed to swing him around in an arc, leveling the rest and allowing him stumble to a few of them and end their lives with swift bites to the neck. The victory, however, didn't last long. Before he could do anything else Draven himself was there, and it wasn't long until he was taking hit after hit, the Wolf dog's fangs slashing his face and chest back and forth with repeated hard strikes, blood spattering everything around them as he stumbled. Finally he was thrown onto his back with a savage uppercut, the blow of which had been delivered by the Nomad's swinging head. His chest heaving desperately for breath, Zach blinked blood out of his eyes and looked up at Draven's face, which looked merciless and not pained in the slightest.
"How does it feel?" the Nomad leader asked. "The pain. It must be excruciating…or so I'm told."
Zach didn't bother responding, knowing that he had very little strength left as it was. Draven looked around him at the dimming woods.
"It's getting dark," he said. "Almost time now, Zach. Hati will shine down on my triumph by the end of this night…but he won't shine down on you."
Zach breathed heavily, trying to move but finding that his body would no longer obey.
"Go ahead and kill me." he said defiantly. "My soul already belongs to Gin…to Ohu. I'll walk these lands long after you fade into memory. You'll get nothing from this, Draven."
"Won't I?" came the answer. "Well…I guess we'll have to wait and see."
Then he padded over to a nearby tree and grabbed a particularly sharp spike of a branch in his jaws, breaking it off with little effort and walking back to where he'd been before. Draven loomed over his fallen opponent, casting a baleful glare down at him with the tree spike in his jaws.
"Rest now, brother." he said, his voice calm despite everything. "This is the story of how you failed."
Zach felt a grin spread over his muzzle, a replacement for the fear that he curiously lacked at that moment.
"I heard that one already." he smirked weakly. "I wasn't impressed. This is the story of how you ate a dick."
Draven's eyes widened and then he smiled as well, a thin, rage-filled expression that contained no mirth at all. Then, just as suddenly, he twisted his head and stabbed the tree spike down into his opponent with all his strength. Then he pulled it out and brought it down again…and again…and again…and again…
John clenched his fangs together tightly as he sprinted through the trees, his path and strong legs bringing him ever closer to his quarry. The scents he had smelled had been recent, and he suspected that Draven and his prisoners/pursuer only had a little bit of distance on him, a thought that made his blood burn with determination and battle lust. He knew that defeating Draven was Gin's job and Gin's job alone, but good god he hoped that he had a chance to fight the Nomad leader. The things he would do to the bastard would make most civilized dogs cringe.
'Hey,' he smirked to himself, leaping around a dead tree. 'No one ever said I had to be heroic all the time.'
He increased his speed, bounding up a small cliffside and down past a small stream before leveling out at a point where the trees seemed to thin. Then suddenly he paused, his muscles freezing up and his ears standing erect. There was an aura in the air that was evil. It smelled of death and malice, and he felt a wary chill go through him as the scent of fresh blood came to his nose. Deciding to be stealthier, he crouched slightly and trotted forward once more, looking around with piercing eyes for any sign of his enemy.
"Come on…" he muttered, gritting his teeth. "Come on, you fuckin' prick, where are you?"
He sniffed the air again, turning in a circle and scrutinizing the forest around him carefully.
"Figures your too god damn scared to fight…"
He froze. His eyes had come to rest on a small clearing to his left, half obscured by a large, gnarled tree. Littering its ground, over a dozen bodies lay motionless and in various states of disrepair, their blood staining the snow around them obscene shades of red and brown. Though he acknowledged these dead, it was one figure in particular that John stared at in silence, his breath caught in his throat and refusing to emerge. The figure was motionless like the others, but seemed isolated from them somehow, as if he hadn't been permitted to die in their presence. The smell of blood filled the air.
John didn't know why, but something told him that this fallen soldier was familiar to him, and he rushed forward towards him with a fear that he very rarely possessed, hoping deep in his heart that it was not Ben or Cross. It was only when he got close did he recognize who it actually was.
"Zach!" he gasped and dashed up to the other male's side, skidding to a halt beside him moments later.
As soon as he had, he let out a gasp of horror, his eyes as wide as moons. Zach's side rose and fell shallowly, and as his half-lidded eyes panned over to where the noise had come from, John saw a ghost of a smile spread weakly across his face.
"J…John…" he breathed almost inaudibly.
The Shepherd didn't answer, collapsing into the snow at his side. That the Malamute was still alive at all was incredible. He was covered with fight wounds from head to toe, and the numerous holes in his stomach and side told a vivid story of how he had been stabbed repeatedly with what seemed to have been a broken branch. Other smaller holes near those differed slightly, and John could tell that they were gunshot wounds easily from his time as a hunting dog. He managed to count 3 of these before he stopped and clenched his eyes shut in horror, his stunned mind not even knowing what to think.
"Oh Jesus…" he said shakily, only one thought getting through to him at all.
The wounds were unquestionably mortal. Zach was going to die. Perhaps seeing his face, Zach smiled weakly, blood seeping out from the corners of his mouth.
"L…Long time, no…see…" he said softly and John couldn't bring himself to quip back.
He pulled himself closer and draped his front leg over the Malamute's ravaged side, his paw trying futilely to stem the bleeding.
"H-Hang in there, kid." he said, his voice trembling slightly. "Help's on the way."
"…And how…would they h-help…me…John…?"
John stumbled over his words, feeling tears welling up in his eyes and not caring in the least bit how 'un-male-like' he was being.
"I – I just…" he sputtered, then turned back to the forest. "AKAME! AKAME, GET OVER HERE! HURRY!"
"Shut up!" the Shepherd snapped, then softened his tone in a heartbeat. "Try not to move."
"…it's all right…
"No it's not." John replied, meeting his gaze sadly. "I should've been here. You shouldn't have had to fight him alone."
Zach smiled up at him weakly, his tail wagging slightly despite all his injuries.
"…I'm not alone now."
That did it. John felt tears begin sliding down his face and he swallowed his warrior pride, laying his head down on his friend's side comfortingly as he accepted once and for all that there was truly nothing that could be done. Suddenly, a noise sounded from somewhere close behind him and he almost whirled with a snarl, but then a voice accompanied it and he recognized instantly who it was.
"John!" Akame said quickly, intense concern lacing his normally stoic voice. "Are you all right? I heard your – "
At that moment though, he saw what was going on and the sentence died in his mouth, his body tensing just as John's had. The Shepherd glanced back at his friend and saw the ninja-dog staring down at Zach's broken form with shocked, widened eyes of his own, his expression revealing more emotion in one look then in all the years John had known him. Then their gazes met. John shook his head sadly, clearly understanding the unasked question and Akame's eyes clenched shut in a slow wince, their owner holding them that way for a moment before moving hesitantly around to Zach's front and sitting down as well. Akame looked his one time student over and sighed heavily.
"Oh no…" he said softly and Zach's eyes fluttered back open from where they'd briefly closed.
The moment he saw Akame, a new weak smile formed on his face.
"Hey…" he breathed. "…the gang's all…here…huh…?"
The ninja-dog rested a paw on the Malamute's side comfortingly.
"Zach," he said. "I'm so sorry… I – "
"No." the Ohu spy said as forcefully as he could manage, hacking out a bloody cough immediately afterwards. "…It was…my decision. Go after Draven… I didn't b-buy Ben…and…the others much of…a head start…"
Then he looked up at them as best he could.
"I'm…" he wheezed. "S-Sorry I…couldn't…stop him. I…tried…"
"No," John replied gently. "You did great, kid."
Akame nodded and leaned in a little closer.
"I'm proud of you." he said softly, tears forming in his eyes as well. "You rest now, okay? Get some sleep."
"…It was…an honor…Akame of Iga…"
"The honor was mine." Akame replied, his voice shaking through his sadness. "Zach of Ohu."
Then he turned and met John's gaze. The Shepherd gestured into the trees.
"Go." he said. "Gin will need you. I'll catch up."
Akame nodded and took a deep breath. Then he turned and ran off into the trees like a bullet, never once looking back as he did. For his part, John shifted his position and slid himself closer to Zach's rapidly stilling form, letting the Malamute's head rest on his front legs and then lowering his own head down onto his friend's neck comfortingly. Zach spoke softly, his breaths becoming more and more labored.
"Y-You should…go too…John."
"Nah," John said. "I think I'll stay with you."
"Who knows?" the Shepherd smirked through his tears. "I might just have to convince Riki and the others not to kick you out of the next world. If you were this annoying to me, then they might be pissed I sent you to 'em."
Zach seemed to smile widely, not having the strength left to laugh.
"…Arrogant asshole…" he said.
"Sarcastic bastard." John replied fondly.
Zach sighed, closing his eyes as he did.
"Remember…John?" he asked so softly that it was barely audible. "…When you…asked me…if I st-still…wanted…to go…home? Way…back when…we…met?"
"I think…I'm ready…to go home…now…"
John clenched his own eyes shut.
"Go get 'em." he whispered back. "I'll be right behind."
Then, just as John finished speaking, Zach took one last grating breath and died quietly in his arms. The clearing was silent once more. His whole body trembling with sobs, John hugged the Malamute to him tightly with his front legs, only letting go when he had gotten a hold of himself a little some time later. Once he had, he stood back up, looking off in the direction of Gajou with renewed determination.
'You better hope to god Gin kills you, Draven.' he thought brutally, the winter wind toying with his blood soaked fur. 'Cause if he doesn't, I guarantee you you'll die much slower at my fangs. You wanna know what pain is? Allow me to introduce you.'
He leaned down and heaved Zach's body onto his back, only moving when his passenger was firmly in place. Then he headed for home.