The Chronicles of Ohu

Story 2: The Mastermind

"Let's move it!" the heavily scarred Greyhound called as he ran into the canyon entrance. "We'll make quick work of these bastards!"

The dogs that followed him chorused a shout of support and pretty soon the whole army of them had gone a good distance into the narrow ravine. Overhead, he saw one of the human's flying machines roar by and begin circling, but it didn't concern him. After all, there were bigger pursuits to worry about at the moment. As soon as they got a little ways in, the whole group of them came to a halt, their growls echoing off the canyon's rocky walls. On the other side of the gorge, facing them, was another large pack of dogs, over 100 strong, all of them looking equally as bloodthirsty and ready to fight as the Greyhound and his pack were. This was what they were here for. For a minute, they all snarled at each other, shouting curses across the distance as they did. Then the other pack's leader, a Pit Bull mix, stepped forward challengingly.

"This is my territory to claim!" he yelled. "Beat it unless you want us to rip you apart here and now!"
"You couldn't kill us if you tried!" the Greyhound spat. "This place is ours for the taking! After we kill you, we'll make quick work of the weak clan that lives here already and then all this will be mine!"

"Bring it, runt!" the Pit Bull snarled back. "I've defeated opponents that make you look like a 5 day old whelp! I'm grateful to the dog who told us about this place! You and your little band don't stand a chance in here!"

The Greyhound looked startled through his rage as he licked his lips.

"The dog who told you?" he said. "Feh! I'll bet he didn't tell you everything. Our informant was more forthcoming. Apparently, no one ever comes up here. They'll never find what's left of you when we're done!"

The Pit Bull dropped into a battle stance.

"Don't count on it, bastard!" he growled, then turned to his comrades. "Attack!"

And with that, the whole group charged, howling battle cries as they ran at their enemies. The Greyhound's group did the same, and they all readied their fangs to be stained with blood. As he ran, he saw the Pit Bull coming closer and closer. 20 feet. 15 feet. 10 feet. Suddenly, when they were almost close enough to sink their teeth into one another, something fell from up above, landing with a loud 'THUD' right in between them. Skidding to a halt, the Greyhound looked at it in angry surprise, hearing everyone else around him on both sides stop to do the same. It was a large boulder, and as they looked at it, a low, malevolent laugh suddenly echoed through the canyon, seeming to grow louder with each passing second. The Greyhound looked around in irritation.

"What the fuck?" he said, not seeing anything unusual.

"Up here." came a voice, and everyone looked towards its source.

Standing up on the top of the canyon's walls was a large dog, his figure appearing as just a black shadow with the morning sun behind him. As he saw and then looked at him, the Greyhound squinted.

"Who the hell are you?" he snapped. "What do you want?"

"Sorry about the rock," the figure said, his voice dripping with smugness. "My foot slipped. I just wanted to see if you were all actually stupid enough to have listened to me and come here."

The Greyhound let out a grunt of surprise, but the Pit Bull leader suddenly stepped forward.

"You!" he said, sounding furious. "You're the one who directed us here! You told them too? You traitor! When I'm done with them, you're a dead dog!"

The dog on the cliff let out a snorting laugh.

"I highly doubt that." he said. "But feel free to continue your battle if you want. We can wait a while. Can't we guys?"

Suddenly, as if appearing out of thin air, other figures began stepping up to the canyon wall's edge as well, groups of them appearing at once until the entire edge of both sides was lined with them. The Greyhound dropped back into a battle stance as his group and the opposing group turned their attentions to the mysterious newcomers.

"You think you can defeat us?" he growled up at them. "We still have twice your numbers you idiots! Piss off now or you're next!"

"Didn't you wonder," the dog said in a low, triumphant-sounding voice, ignoring him. "Why no one ever comes near this canyon?"

The Greyhound didn't answer and the figure cocked his head.

"No?" he said, then smiled. "Well then, stick around. The answer might just fall out of the sky."

Then the dog and all his companions turned and disappeared from view, the sound of their snickering laughter vanishing with them as the glaring rays of the sun still masked their features, obscuring their real identities to the dogs below. As they watched after them uneasily, one of the Greyhound's subordinates turned to him.

"What now, boss?" he asked.

"I'll tell you what now!" the Pit Bull suddenly yelled and turning fast, grabbed him by the throat.

Then he jerked his head back with a wet ripping sound and a jet of blood shot out of the subordinate's neck, spattering onto the others nearby. As the dog fell down with a choking whine, snarls erupted from everyone else there, and soon the two groups had launched themselves at each other, resuming the battle in a symphony of snapping jaws and ripping flesh. In the midst of it all, the Greyhound and the Pit Bull pulled each other to the ground, slicing bloody slashes in each other as they did. Then the Greyhound knocked the Pit Bull flat onto his back, though, and got his jaws around his neck firmly, positioning himself perfectly for the kill. No sooner had he done this then a noise began to come to his ears, even over the sounds of the fighting. It was a low rumbling sound, and as the Greyhound looked up, the Pit Bull's neck still between his jaws, he froze. Diving quickly towards the ground, it's path making it head right for the canyon, was the human flying machine from earlier. Momentarily caught off guard, he could only watch as the mechanical monster pulled up at last second, making it go directly over the top of the ravine, and the Greyhound saw objects begin coming out of the bottom of it and falling directly into the canyon where they were. The moment they had, his danger senses went wild, but he didn't have a chance to do anything more, as suddenly there was a blinding light, and unbearable pain shot through his whole body. Then the world went black.

Up on the cliff side a short distance away, the dog who had led both groups there watched the events unfold gleefully with his pack, all of them lowering their heads a little to muffle the sound of the explosions coming from the canyon. There were 5 of them in all, and as soon as they happened, the flying machine flew away, banking and disappearing over the mountain back the way it came. Then, body parts began raining down on them, and the dogs began to laugh, their eyes transfixed by the flames now burning where over 200 fellow dogs had just been moments before. Suddenly, a severed head landed only feet away from where the leader of the group stood, and he swiveled his own head towards it. Immediately, he realized that it was the head of the Greyhound pack leader, it's eyes staring straight ahead in shock and it's expression one of intense pain. As more laughter sounded around him, the leader walked up and put his paw on it, turning it so the face was facing him. Once it was, the smug smile from before returned to his muzzle.

"Boy…" he smirked. "You sure showed me. But don't let it depress you, pal. I think you've learned an important lesson from all this."

He leaned in close to the head's single remaining ear and whispered tauntingly:

"We shouldn't try to take what doesn't belong to us."

Then the leader gave the Greyhound's severed head a wink and turning around, kicked it back into the canyon with his hind leg, all of them hearing a series of faint 'THUD's as it landed back where it had started. Once it had, the leader walked back to his subordinates, and the group of them ran quickly away from the canyon, unseen by anyone, leaving nothing but silence in their wake.

Akame scanned the landscape ahead as Gin, John and the others began to catch up behind him. They were approaching the Ibaraki prefecture, and after the debacle in Saitama, Akame was being a little more careful. They had never had much contact with the pack that lived here, but the clan's representative during the battle against Akakabuto, a Malamute named Don, had been a valuable ally of theirs. Unlike Saito of Saitama, who had died quickly in one hit, Don had been one of the chief fighters in the battle against Madara and his subordinate bears. He had been one of the ones distracting the monstrous bear while Akame and Gin had made it to a nearby tree with a spear-like branch and had gotten into position to end the battle, and Madara's life. Don had been killed a short time later though, during the battle against Akakabuto himself, while rushing to help protect Ben from the killer bear's claws, and had been torn nearly in half while doing so. With all that had been happening at the time, though, the group hadn't even noticed that he had died, and didn't find out until afterwards when they were taking a head count and their allies were going back to their own territories. They knew that Don's brother Riley had taken leadership of the pack, or so a group of dogs they had encountered along the way had told them, but other than that, they knew little about what to expect. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Akame leaped down off his perch, landing with a grunt in front of John. From beside the German Shepherd, Gin looked at him.

"Anything the matter, Akame?" he asked.

"Nothing, leader." the ninja-dog responded. "All quiet. We should be approaching their territory any minute now."

"We should be on our guard then." John said. "We don't want any more run-ins with crazed assassins."

Gin nodded in agreement, but Akame could see that it was half-hearted.

"Yeah," he said. "We should be ready for anything."

Akame nodded as well, then turned and fell in beside the Akita, seeing Smith back off a little to give him some room. Gin had been a little somber over the last few days, which was the amount of time it had taken them to travel from Saitama to Ibaraki, and Akame suspected he knew why. Heizo… Gin had acted professionally and had performed, at least in Akame's estimation, the only reasonable course of action in stopping the crazed assassin only days ago. The Kishu had been able to tell simply from the dog's behavior that he had been delusional, and given how long it had apparently been going on, challenging that delusion could've made him even more violent, which would've made things far worse. Despite this, Gin had clearly begun feeling a late blooming sense of guilt over having to kill the other dog, and Akame had only realized right there that the young leader had never had to kill another of his own kind before in his life. He had tried to talk to him about it the other night, but Gin had been very tired and Akame had decided to drop the subject until a better chance presented itself. Either way, he had decided, the Akita needed some support to help him get his mind back to where it needed to be, especially seeing as they had many more condolences to give.

Cresting a hill, they came to a stop. The Ibaraki pack's territory lay in front of them, and the scattered forests and rolling hills made for a surprisingly impressive landscape. It would've been almost a mini version of Ohu had it not been for it's location. The prefecture was directly in the middle of the route that traveling dog packs took to get from Northern to Southern Japan and vice versa, and given the nearby mountains and the presence of humans not too far away, they had to go directly through it to ensure the safest route. That meant that whoever lived here had to deal with all kinds of strange dogs throughout the year, some good and some very bad. So far though, it appeared that the Ibarakis had done a fair job of protecting their home, and Akame had never heard of any wars taking place down in this area. Suddenly, the ninja-dog's senses went wild and he stopped dead in his tracks, holding his leg out to stop Gin as well. The Akita looked confused as soon as he did it.

"What is it?" he asked, but Akame didn't even get the chance to answer.

At that moment, a group of dogs leapt up in front of them, having been lying concealed in the tall grass of the hill they were walking on. Dropping immediately into a fighting stance, Akame felt Kurotora and Great leap up beside him, John and Smith standing on Gin's other side as they got ready to protect him. Chutora and Wilson, meanwhile, covered the rear. For their part, the dogs in front of them only growled lightly, and seemed rather to be studying them then moving to attack. Then one of them stepped forward.

"State your name and your business here." he said and Akame was a little surprised to hear the youth in his voice.

Gin stepped forward.

"I'm Gin of Ohu." he said, bowing his head in greeting. "And these are my pack mates. We're looking for Riley of Ibaraki."

The lead dog looked surprised and Akame saw that he was a Malamute like both Don and Riley.

"Ohu?" he exclaimed, "Why are you here?"

"There's something we need to discuss with Riley?" Gin answered. "Do you know him?"

The dog nodded.

"Riley's my father." he said, looking back and forth between Gin and the rest of them. "My name is James. But what do you want with him?"

"That's…something I think we should tell him in person." Gin said and James cocked his head slightly, as if ensuring that he could trust him.

"All right," he said finally. "Follow me. I'll take you to him."

"Thank you." Gin said and the group of them fell in behind James as he and his subordinates turned and walked quickly in the direction the Ohu Army had been heading already.

Riley clenched his eyes shut, the bad news that had just been delivered beginning to sink in.

"God damn it, Don…" he said, his eyes tearing up a little as James's did the same beside him. "I was afraid of this."

"We're very sorry for your loss." Gin said for what seemed already like the trillionth time. "It's my fault. Your brother was trying to help me and one of my pack mates. We owe him a great debt."

"I'm sure it wasn't your fault." Riley answered and Akame saw Gin pause. "My brother was always kind of rash. He rushed into things all the time. Either way, I'm sure he was proud to fight alongside you all."

"Thank you." Gin answered, inclining his head appreciatively.

Then James stepped forward, looking even sadder than his father.

"Where is he buried?" he asked and John looked at him from Gin's side.

"Up in Futago Pass in Ohu with most of the other dead." he said and Gin nodded.

"You're free to come pay your respects to your Uncle whenever you want." he said and the younger Malamute nodded gratefully at him, stepping back beside Riley.

"What's going on?" came a new voice, and everyone turned to see where it had come from.

Another Malamute had stepped out of the trees to their right, Akame saw, and this one looked very similar to James, though slightly older and a tad darker in the fur. His light-brown eyes had black diamond-shaped markings around them, and seemed to somehow give him the look of being intelligent beyond his years. Riley lowered his head a little as he saw him.

"This is Gin of Ohu and his clan." he said, then turned to them and said. "This is Zach, my oldest son and heir."

Gin and the others nodded at the newcomer and Zach in turn nodded back, giving them a friendly smile.

"It's an honor." he said, then repeated. "But what's going on?"

"It's…It's your uncle, Zach." Riley said somberly. "He's dead."

To Akame's surprise, Zach barely reacted at all to this. For a few moments, he just stood there, as if taking it in. Then he sighed deeply, looking at the ground.

"How did it happen?" he asked calmly and Gin looked at him.

"The demon bear Akakabuto killed him." he said, and John quickly added:

"But we returned the favor. Your uncle got the justice he deserved."

Zach's smile returned at this, though it seemed strangely forced to Akame.

"I'm glad." he said. "Now he can rest in peace."

Then he turned to Riley.

"I'm going back out on patrol, Dad," he said. "Just in case 'Mastermind' and his little band decide to take advantage of this and do something. You know they'll find out about it sooner or later."

"That's a good idea." the older Malamute said, looking troubled by this thought. "Why don't you escort Gin and his pack to the Southern border to make sure they get there safely."

Then he gave Gin a slightly apologetic glance.

"Assuming you're leaving immediately that is." he said. "Don't feel as if you have to."

"That's all right." Gin responded. "We've got a long way to go anyway. If I might ask, though, what were you talking about? Who's 'Mastermind'?"

The question was directed at Zach, but it was James who answered.

"That's a good question." he said and Gin looked confused.

"He's a rogue pack leader that's taken up residence in our territory." Riley said before James could elaborate. "Other than that we don't know much about him. Either way, he's no one you need to concern yourself with, Gin."

"'Don't know much' in this case meaning 'practically nothing'." James quipped. "He's vicious though. That much we're sure of."

"Normally we just drive off any intruders that enter our territory without permission or try and cause trouble." Zach jumped in. "With him though, it's different. He and his clan moved into our territory but haven't made any moves against us. On the contrary, he's been helping us drive off other packs of rogues. Not that his methods impress me much."

"What do you mean?" Smith asked and the dog's gaze panned to him.

"He may not touch us," Zach said, looking disapproving. "But he's brutal to any invading dogs. He likes leading them into situations where they'll get themselves killed and if that doesn't work, he'll go and finish them off himself. That's why the local dogs nicknamed him 'The Mastermind'. He's pretty much been called that ever since. He's kind of a bastard."

"It's like he gets a kick out of it." James said. "And the best part is, he's so secretive that we have no idea who he is. That's why everyone calls him by his nickname, 'cause no one knows his real one. We've seen his pack a bunch of times, but him…never."

"You sound impressed with him." John observed, raising an eyebrow at the younger brother and James reddened a little, glancing nervously at his father.

"Well…" he said, "I wouldn't say 'impressed'. More 'interested in'."

"Do you need any help with him?" Kurotora asked Riley and the Malamute shook his head.

"Like my son said," he responded. "He doesn't bother us. He also doesn't hurt any local dogs who have nothing to do with our quarrels. Thanks for your offer, but he's no threat to us right now."

"Very well," Gin said, nodding at him. "We should be going. Sorry once again for the loss of your brother."

"Thank you, Gin." Riley said. "We appreciate you telling us in person."

Then he nodded at Zach and the younger Malamute walked up to Gin and the others, pausing and gesturing with his head.

"Follow me." he said and they fell in behind him, allowing him to lead them South once more, towards the opposite border of the territory.

For a while, they walked quietly, the silence being broken by the occasional chatter between Smith and the Kai brothers in the back of the group. Gin had attempted to engage Zach in brief conversations about the area, and the Malamute had obliged with a slightly flattered look, asking them about Ohu in return, a question that John had responded to in a proud sounding voice. Akame had not joined in these exchanges. He stared at Zach's back. Despite his normalness, something felt off about him, and Akame's finely tuned ninja-dog senses had been acting up ever since the elder Malamute brother had made his presence known. He wasn't sure why. After all, Zach seemed like a nice enough kid. Maybe it was the nonchalant way he had reacted to the news of his uncle's death that gave Akame pause. Or maybe it was just the stress of their mission finally getting to him a little. Either way, he felt as if he needed to think about it some more before joining in in any major discussions with the Malamute. Suddenly, their guide came to a stop. He pointed with his muzzle.

"If you head that way, you should be able to leave our territory without any trouble." he said. "I think you're fine either way, but it's best to be careful."

"Agreed." Gin said and Smith said: "Thanks." from behind him.

Zach nodded, then gestured over his head to a set of higher hills and mountains to their left.

"Just as a word of warning, though." he said. "Stay away from the canyons over there in those hills. The humans test their weapons in them sometimes, and not just their guns. It's a dangerous place, especially if you don't know your way around."

"Very well," Gin said. "Thanks for your concern."

Zach nodded at them and then, after bidding them farewell and good luck, turned and left. Immediately, Kurotora turned to Gin.

"What's the next territory, leader?" he asked.

"Hmm. We should probably – " Gin started, but then Akame interrupted.

"If I may, Gin," he said. "I'd like to check out something here first."

Gin looked surprised.

"Of course, Akame." he said, "But what?"

After pausing for a minute, Akame nodded over at the hills with the canyons. John turned to him seconds later.

"Zach just told us they were unsafe." he frowned. "What's so interesting about them?"

"I just want to see something."

"Do you not trust him?" Gin asked, looking a little concerned and Akame looked away.

"I don't know," he said truthfully. "I just have this feeling that something is wrong in this territory. I wanted to see if I was right."

Gin nodded almost immediately.

"I trust your judgment, Akame." he said graciously. "Let's go."

"Let's be quick though." Chutora said nervously. "I'd rather not get shot."

"What's the matter, Tora?" Smith teased. "Do the big, bad humans scare you?"

The Kai dog turned and snapped at him with his jaws and the Setter jumped aside with a laugh, Kurotora joining in as Great grinned next to him. Normally, Akame would've smiled good-naturedly at this too, but at the moment, he was in full ninja-dog mode and led the group quickly to the canyons at Gin and John's sides. Once they got there, everyone had quieted down significantly. The ravine's high walls loomed over them menacingly, and everyone immediately began to feel uneasy just being there. Sniffing at the ground, John looked up with a small growl at his companions.

"You were right, Akame," he said. "Something's not right here. I smell blood all over the place."

"I'm getting a bad feeling about this place. I think something seriously bad happened here." Smith added, looking around as they entered the canyon's entrance.

"And I know what it was." Wilson's voice said and the group nearly ran into him, stopped in the middle of the trail.

When they followed his gaze, the whole group of them went dead silent. In front of them was a bloodbath. The stone walls of the canyon were so covered with blood that they were practically painted red from top to bottom, and canine body parts of all shapes and sizes littered the ground for as far as they could see into the canyon. For a minute, no one said a word, then Kurotora's voice broke the quiet.

"Holy hell…" he said, clearly horrified. "What the fuck happened here?"

"It looks like the humans happened here." Great said intensely. "I can see scorch marks from their weapons on the rocks."

"Zach said they test them up here." Smith pointed out, but Akame shook his head, glancing at his friend.

"This many dogs wouldn't come anywhere near this place if that happened regularly." he said reasonably. "They had to have been lured here…deliberately."

"I find it hard to believe that Riley and his pack didn't know about this, Gin." John said as he turned to the Akita. "These bodies look at least a few days old."

"I agree." Wilson said. "Maybe we should go back."

Gin nodded, looking simultaneously shocked and determined.

"We are going back." he said. "This shouldn't happen anywhere. I want some answers."

And with that, the Ohu group turned around and headed back for the Ibaraki pack's home base, Akame and Gin leading the way.

"What are you talking about?" Riley frowned, looking at them in shock as the daylight behind him began to dim. "What bodies?"

"In the canyons on the border of your territory" Kurotora replied intensely. "There were more corpses than we could count!"

"This happened on your land!" John said in an accusing voice. "How could you not have known about it?"

"I don't know everything that happens in my territory!" Riley said defensively as Gin gave John a warning glare about his temper. "I haven't been leader for long enough to get the process down yet. And besides, we told you about 'Mastermind'. This sounds exactly like the sort of thing he'd do."

"Where are your sons?" Akame asked, meeting his gaze. "Maybe they know something."

"Their both out on patrol." the Malamute answered in an irritated voice. "And don't go harassing them about this!"

"We mean no disrespect, Riley." Gin said in a quieter voice, calming everyone down. "It's just…it was pretty horrifying. I'd like to get to the bottom of it."

Riley lowered his head a little, quieting down as well.

"Of course." he said. "If Mastermind has gotten that out of control, then your help might be invaluable in putting a stop to him. You can stay."

"Thank you." Gin said and glared at Kurotora and John, both of whom looked ready to open their mouths accusingly again.

It was then that Akame heard a new sound, and his ears perked up immediately as he turned his head towards it. Gin noticed instantly.

"What is it, Akame?" he asked and the ninja-dog shushed him.

Listening more closely, he heard faint whimpers and growls coming from the west, the telltale signs of a battle in progress.

"A fight." he said. "This way!"

They immediately followed him in the direction of the noises and Gin turned to Riley, who had gone with them as well.

"Are either of your sons in this direction?" he asked and Riley shook his head, looking anxious at the thought.

"Who knows?" he said. "It could be either one of them, or neither. When they're out on patrol with their platoons, they disappear for hours, sometimes days. So your guess is as good as mine."

Gin nodded, deciding not to press the matter as Akame increased his speed and the sounds got louder. Suddenly, as they came to a clearing in the trees, they nearly ran into a group of dogs directly in their path. Skidding to a halt, they looked at each of them in turn before Riley stepped forward.

"Ikiru," he said, addressing one of the dogs. "What's going on? Where's James?"

"Mastermind's cornered an invading pack by the cliff over there sir," the floppy-eared mutt responded. "James-san went to flank around the back to surprise him."

"Then why are you here?"

"We're on standby in case reinforcements are needed, Riley-sama"

At that moment, James suddenly burst through the trees in front of them, panting heavily, and ran right up to Ikiru.

"Let's go!" he said. "They're – "

Then he paused, noticing the newcomers.

"Dad?" he said. "Gin-san, what are you doing here?"

"What's going on?" Gin asked, ignoring the question and stepping up to the younger dog's side.

James looked slightly suspicious, but answered him anyway.

"Mastermind saw us coming and made a run for it." he said. "Zach and his group are already in pursuit."

"Then let's go!" John barked. "Lead the way, kid!"

James nodded excitedly and turned, bounding off immediately. The others followed him closely, Gin, Akame, John, and Riley right on his tail. Mere seconds later, it seemed, they entered a large open area…and saw the carnage that had been wrought already. Dogs lay scattered by the edge of a steep drop-off, every one of them covered in blood, entrails, or both, and some with sharpened tree spikes speared right through them.

Gin sniffed at the ground as the rest of his companions looked around. Then he turned to Akame.

"You think these dogs were lured too?" he asked and Akame nodded.

"It looks like they were cornered against the cliff once they were," the ninja-dog said, examining the body of a dog with a tree spike speared straight through his eye. "Then these things were thrown at them. If that didn't work, they were driven off of it."

"This 'Mastermind' has a twisted way of fighting." Kurotora remarked. "It's like he's afraid to face his opponents one on one."

"Fear has nothing to do with it." Akame said. "His tactics are very much like a ninja-dog's. I'm actually impressed."

"Think you can outwit him?" John asked, his voice almost teasing despite the seriousness of the situation.

"Yes." Akame answered bluntly. "I can. I just need time."

"Actually, you might not." Chutora piped up suddenly. "Look!"

The whole group of them turned and, following his gaze, and saw a shadowed figure standing on a rocky outcropping about 50 feet away. The minute he saw the figure, James hissed:

"It's him! It's Mastermind!"

As if on cue, the figure lunged sideways and leapt off the outcropping, already running the second his paws hit the ground.

"After him!" Kurotora yelled and the group shot off in pursuit, Akame and Gin leading the way.

Their target was fast though, and they only gained a little ground, still seeing nothing but his dark silhouette in the dimming light.

"Stop there!" Gin yelled, but Mastermind didn't heed the warning.

Instead, he bolted down a hillside, weaving in and out of rocks and trees before finally vanishing through a gap in between two large protruding roots of a fallen tree. Behind him, Akame and Gin did the same, but found that when they emerged on the other side, their quarry was gone, not even a trace of his scent left anywhere to reveal where he had vanished to. Seconds later, the rest of their group caught up to them and began looking around as they had done.

"Where is he?" Chutora asked Gin and the Akita gave a frustrated look back at the path in front of them.

"We lost him." he said.

Suddenly, another dog ran up behind them and they all turned fast, dropping into battle stances as they did. When they saw who it was, though, they calmed down. Standing there, panting hard like he had just run very fast, was Zach.

"Brother!" James said. "Where were you? I thought you had him!"

Zach shook his head.

"He left me a false trail and lost me a ways back." he said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't worry." Riley said reassuringly to his son. "We didn't do any better."

"So are we going to go find him or just stand here?" Smith asked crossly and Zach shook his head, not even bothering to ask why they had come back.

"No point." he said. "The trees in there get pretty hard to navigate at night. We'd have a hard time finding our way back out, let alone him."

"Very well," Gin said, looking even more frustrated upon hearing this. "Let's head back to your base for the night and get some sleep. We'll track him down tomorrow."

At that, the group turned and followed Riley, who stepped to the front and began leading them back the way they came. As they walked, Akame fell in beside Zach at the rear of the group, the Malamute glancing briefly up at him as he did before turning back to the trail in front of them. The ninja-dog glanced back at him.

"How close did you get to him?" he asked. "Mastermind."

Zach snorted.

"Not close enough." he said. "I always figured he was pretty good, but I didn't expect him to be that good."

"Neither did I." Akame said, still keeping the same calm tone to his voice. "Did you get close enough to see what kind of dog he was."

"Unfortunately not."

"Hmm." the Kishu said. "Never mind, then. I just wanted your opinion. I thought it might be valuable, because to me…his shape looked like a Malamute."

Zach stopped walking instantly and gave him a hard look as Akame did the same, his tail swishing back and forth behind him. For a moment, the two males just stared at each other, neither one backing down or breaking their mutual glare.

"What are you saying?" Zach asked challengingly and Akame turned to face him completely.

"I'm not saying anything right now." he said in a deliberately calm voice. "I'm just expressing my opinion. Forgive me, I meant no disrespect."

Zach said nothing for a moment, then, after looking Akame nose to tail, turned and walked away, striding up next to his brother seconds later. Akame resumed walking as well, and once he had, John and Gin dropped back next to him.

"Is everything all right, Akame?" Gin asked in a low, concerned voice and John chimed in:

"Yeah, what was that about?"

Akame glanced at both his friends.

"Nothing." he said stiffly. "Just a little test."

It didn't take long for the group of them to get back to Riley's main pack area and once they had, it was completely dark out. The Malamute leader had sent a few small groups of his subordinates out to patrol the outer borders of their territory, keeping watch for invaders as the higher-ranking dogs in the pack and the Ohu warriors rested up and discussed what to do about 'Mastermind'. Most of them were just resting though, and on Riley's order, James and Zach had caught some rodents and other small animals for their guests to eat, distributing them as they arrived back. Akame couldn't quite tell if the elder Malamute brother had forgotten yet about their unfriendly exchange only a short time ago, because while his mood seemed greatly improved, he seemed to be deliberately avoiding the ninja-dog's gaze. James, meanwhile, had taken to fooling around with Kurotora and Smith, play fighting with both of them and convincing Zach to reluctantly join in. Gin, John, and Riley smiled at this, and Akame couldn't help but crack a smile himself, though he kept on guard. The whole situation still made him feel uncomfortable, especially with his friends in the direct line of fire if something happened. As they relaxed, he saw Gin look over at Riley, getting his attention as he did. Then the Akita nodded over at the Ibaraki leader's two sons.

"Not to sound intrusive, Riley," he said in a quiet voice, "But Zach and James, did you raise them yourself?"

The Malamute nodded.

"My brother and I both did." he said. "My mate died a long time ago, so we both kind of helped raise them when we could. It got harder once Don left and I became leader, but…we managed."

Gin nodded, looking back at the play-fighting group.

"I see." he said. "That's admirable."

Riley nodded in thanks, and Gin went to say something else, but didn't get the chance, because at that moment, Zach walked over and lay down by the two of them. Once he had, he looked at the Ohu leader curiously.

"Can I ask you a question, Gin?" he asked and Gin nodded at him.

"We've heard that your father Riki used some kind of special fighting move that only he could do." he said. "What was it?"

"The Zetsu Tenrou Battouga." Gin said, looking nostalgic at the mention of his legendary father's name. "He learned it from a wolf. It's the move that I used to kill Akakabuto."

"Then you know how to do it as well?" Zach said, his eyes widening a little as an excited look spread over his face. "Amazing… Think you could teach me?"

Gin laughed.

"Sorry." he said, shaking his head. "It's not something that just anyone can learn. None of my friends are able to do it either."

Zach shrugged good-naturedly and looked at James.

"Well, I tried." he said and John snorted slightly, looking bored.

"You're going to have to do better than that if you want to convince the leader of things, kid." he said and Zach raised an eyebrow.

"Oh?" he replied teasingly. "Well, how about you teach us some moves then, tough guy? You know, if you have any."

John gave him a livid glare and leapt to his feet instantly with a small growl.

"Don't you look down on me, brat!" he snapped, though it didn't have too much real anger behind it. "I could wipe the ground with you in a fight!"

"Think so, huh?" Zach grinned, baiting the Shepherd perfectly. "Prove it then."

"Fine, prepare yourself!" John barked and jumped backwards into a battle stance, watching as the younger Malamute did the same, both dogs beginning to circle each other almost immediately.

Gin smiled and shook his head and was about to tell them both to knock it off and calm down a little when something burst out of the trees with a snarl. It was an invading dog of some kind and as it lunged, it flew right at Riley, who was totally unprepared.

"Die, bastard!" the dog screamed, but didn't get anything else out, as Gin moved like a bullet and grabbed him by the neck before he could reach his target.

Then he threw him hard into a nearby tree, the strength of the throw making the wood splinter slightly. Suddenly, though, other dogs came out from the same spot behind him, howling battle cries, and everyone leapt to their paws, John and Zach abandoning their fight to leap into the fray. Kurotora and Chutora slashed right and left at the attackers, landing every hit and sending blood flying through the air, while Akame did the same nearby, moving back and forth between different targets and not even getting hit once as he did, his speed and agility unmatched by the hapless invaders. Eventually, as Riley joined the fight alongside Gin, showing off his own impressive fighting skills, the attackers realized that they were hopelessly outmatched and decided to turn and run, yelping as they retreated into the darkness of the trees. Zach immediately leapt after them, turning to his brother as he did.

"James!" he barked commandingly, "You're with me! Dad, stay with Gin and the others!"

Then, as Riley yelled after him, both Malamute brothers leapt after the fleeing dogs. Akame, John, & Gin quickly leapt after them as well, the latter giving Smith and the Kais a nod to tell them to guard Riley as they left. Once they were in the forest, Akame immediately took to the treetops to avoid being seen, and Gin and John stayed on ground level, running off after James quickly. Akame, though, immediately took off in the direction that Zach had gone, hearing the noises the elder Malamute brother was making as he crashed through the underbrush. After a minute, the ninja-dog got Zach in his sights and slowed his pace, making himself as invisible as possible as he watched his target. Suddenly, as Zach caught up with one of the fleeing dogs, another shape flew in from the side and crashed into him hard, sending the elder Malamute brother rolling sideways with a grunt of pain upon impact. Akame saw this and quickly leapt to the other dog's aid, landing in between him and the snarling attacker and dissuading a second assault as he squared off to him. Once he had, he froze. The attacker was far enough away that he still couldn't make out any features, but when he saw him, Akame immediately recognized the shape, having seen it before. It was 'Mastermind'! The rogue leader immediately grabbed the dog Zach had been chasing and leapt away into the dark once more, ignoring Akame's shout of "Stop!" as he did. The ninja-dog tried to follow, but eventually lost him again and growled in frustration as he heard Zach pad up next to him, wincing a little from the earlier hit.

"Still think I'm him?" he said sarcastically and for the first time in a long time, Akame found that he had nothing at all to say.

"So it's not him?" Gin said as they walked. "Are you sure?"

"He was with me when we saw him," Akame said, "It can't be."

"And James was with us when we saw him the first time," John chimed in. "So it can't be him either. Terrific."

Akame nodded, clenching his fangs tightly in frustration as the three of them moved back towards Smith and the others. He had met back up with John and Gin only minutes ago, and the three had decided to head back to the others to regroup and rethink their strategy. Zach had gone to find James, and after he had left, Akame had explained the encounter to his two best friends.

"I don't understand." he said in his calm voice. "I was sure it was him."

"We're all wrong sometimes, Akame." John said reassuringly as the ninja-dog looked at him. "Even you."

"Mmm." Akame said in agreement. "But my instincts have never been this off before. None of this makes sense, and that makes me uncomfortable."

"Try not thinking about it for a while." Gin suggested, glancing supportively at his white-furred friend. "Who knows, maybe the answer'll just hit you out of the blue."

Akame nodded again and looked ahead, resuming his walk back towards the Ibaraki clan's home base silently. Suddenly, as if it were fate, a thought occurred to Akame that he hadn't considered before and he stopped dead in his tracks. Confused, Gin and John stopped as well, looking back at him.

"Akame," Gin asked in concern. "What is it?"

For a moment, the Kishu didn't answer, but then he looked at them with a determined glare and a small growl.

"I know what's going on." he said, and they gave him startled looks.

"You do?" John said, his eyebrow raised skeptically. "What then?"

"Not yet," the ninja-dog answered. "Not until I'm positive. Leader, John, go to the cliff where we first saw Mastermind and wait there. Make sure you're not seen. I have an idea."

The two of them nodded and ran off immediately, leaving Akame alone. As soon as he was, he turned and ran towards the cliff as well, eventually breaking off from his friends' path and heading back to the tree root that Mastermind had disappeared through the first time they'd chased him only hours ago. Moving as silently as possible, Akame slipped through it and continued further on, moving around a large tree trunk and larger boulder that lay in his path. Almost the second he had, he came face to face with the entrance to a cave, hidden in the rock face behind the trees and underbrush of the forest. As he listened, Akame heard voices emanating from within it, and he silently slipped inside as well. Immediately, he noticed that the light was just as dim in there as in the forest, and he moved even more carefully, scanning the dark for any sign of movement or watching eyes. Finally, he got to a corner and stopped, hearing the voices clear as day and realizing that they must be directly on the other side. Then one voice called for the others to shut up and Akame listened, hearing a faint growl as did.

"Do you know how you even got into this territory?" the voice asked someone and Akame realized that it was his target…'Mastermind'.

"Fuck you, motherfucker!" came a second pained voice, and the ninja-dog realized that they had a captive.

'Shit.' he thought, but Mastermind spoke again and he was ripped out of his thoughts.

"I'll take that as a 'no'." came his taunting, yet angry voice. "Well, I'll tell you anyway. You got in here because I ordered the guards to let you in. We knew you were there. If I didn't leave you alone though, how would I have been able to discover your real intentions? And now, unfortunately for you, I know what they are…and you're in a deep load of shit, pal."

Other voices jeered him on and Akame realized that the rogue pack leader had quite a few subordinates at his beck and call. Then the captive dog spoke again.

"You'll never get me to talk!" he snarled. "You and your whole fucking clan can go to hell!"

"I'm going to tell you a story," Mastermind said, ignoring him as Akame listened intently from where he stood concealed. "About 2 years ago or so, a group of rogue dogs, like you, came into my pack's territory without permission. Their purpose, as I understand it, was to take our land for themselves, and depose us by force if they had to. So, they attacked my home and took us all captive. I was just a kid at the time, maybe…5-6 months old. They had wanted to beat my uncle into submission and make him surrender the land to them, but since they messed up their timing and he wasn't there, they had to settle for the second best option: My mother."

Akame felt a sense of dread fill him as he listened to the rogue leader's story, but his attention was on his voice instead.

'I knew it!' the ninja-dog thought to himself as he heard it. 'He's tried to mask it, but that's definitely his voice!'

Mastermind meanwhile, kept talking.

"They tortured her." he said, "They…did things to her…and all the while, I was sitting there watching, being held immobile by a dog twice my size and strength. Every time they tried to get her to call for my uncle to come, she refused. They told her that if she did they might let me live to be their slave, but she still refused. Eventually, they realized that she wasn't going to cooperate and they killed her…right in front of me. Before they could touch me, though, my uncle and father came back with a couple neighboring packs and counterattacked them. They killed most of them of course, but the leader slipped away. No one could find him. Fast-forward a couple of years, though, and I found out where he had run to. So one day, when I finally couldn't take it anymore, I tracked him down and confronted him. I…told him who I was, what he had done to my mom, and what it had done to my father and me. Then I knocked him onto his back and drove my claws into his eyes as hard as I possibly could, and he let out this…shriek, this…high-pitched scream of pain that sounded like it should've come from a crying female pup, and all I could think of as he died was…justice. It took him almost 30 whole seconds to bleed to death."

Akame was horrified, and had to stifle a gasp so that he wouldn't be detected. Luckily, none of the dogs heard anything, and he remained unobserved.

"I'm telling you this," Mastermind said to the dog on the ground, "Because that is nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you for trying to kill Riley of Ibaraki. Dogs like you who hurt others for their own gain or pleasure disgust me, so you better pray that your god has mercy…'cause I don't."
Then Akame heard a loud scream of agony and a loud cheer went up from dogs inside. Knowing that he needed to do something, the ninja-dog darted out from his hiding place and lunged at the rogue leader, his speed taking him past all the subordinates before they even realized what had happened. Clenching his teeth tightly in preparation, Akame crashed into Mastermind hard with his shoulder, sending him flying into the cave's rear wall with an audible grunt of surprise. As he landed, the ninja-dog slashed him across the shoulder with his fangs, drawing blood upon impact.

'That way I'll be able to prove it later.' he thought.

Knowing that he had no time to linger, though, he quickly grabbed the captive dog, whose ear had been torn clean off, by the neck and threw him over his shoulder. Then Akame ran full speed back out the entrance, hearing the subordinates' cries behind him of:

"Stop him! Grab him!"

As he reentered the forest and jumped back through the tree root, Akame heard the dogs exit the cave and begin pursuing him, so he vaulted up into the trees and began leaping from branch to branch, a technique he had all but perfected over the years of ninja training. This quickly led him back to the cliff side, where Gin and John were waiting. They jumped to meet him instantly as he arrived.

"Akame!" Gin said, then gasped as he saw the dog his friend was carrying. "What happened?"

"Get ready!" the ninja-dog responded, and at that moment, the rogue pack emerged from the trees as well, looking angry and ready to fight.

At the front was the dog known as 'Mastermind' and as he saw all three of them, he skidded to a grinding halt, finally seeing the trap he had walked right into.

"Shit!" they heard him exclaim and then he ran, heading right back towards where Riley and the rest of their friends were waiting.

Akame, Gin, and John were already in pursuit, though, and they knocked his subordinates out of the way and closed the gap quickly, taking only seconds to catch up to their target. Right as Mastermind burst into the main base area of the Ibaraki clan, Akame lunged out of the tree he had leapt up into, his teeth bared, and tackled the surprised killer at the same time Gin did, sending the three of them crashing to the ground with a painful 'THUD'. At first, Mastermind put up a bit of a fight, trying to throw them off, but didn't stand a chance alone against the other two males, and once John and Kurotora leapt into the fray, the rogue leader was pinned almost instantly. Once he was, they saw a familiar face beneath them.

"What's going on?" Riley yelled in alarm, running up to the combatants. "What in the world is – "

Then he saw who they had pinned.

"J-James?" he said in astonishment, then looked at Gin and repeated. "What's going on?"

"I'd like to know that too." Kurotora said as he pinned James's hind legs.

"Say hello to 'The Mastermind'." growled Akame. "At least…the first one."

James growled beneath them.

"Get off me!" he hissed.

"I don't understand." John said, looking at Akame in confusion as Riley looked shocked. "He was with us when we saw 'Mastermind' the first time!"

"But Zach wasn't." Akame answered, his expression almost triumphant as he looked back at the Shepherd.

"But you said he was with you when you saw him the second time!"

"He was." the Kishu said. "But James wasn't. And that was their game."

A look of dawning realization spread over the Ohu soldiers' faces, and Gin stared down at the captive young Malamute.

"They were working together!" he said, looking almost impressed in spite of himself.

"Exactly." Akame said as Riley's face went slack in horror. "But James here was just the decoy. Zach's the real 'Mastermind'. He's the one killing the invading dogs."

"Are you sure?" Gin asked and Akame nodded.

"I slashed the shoulder of the real one." he said. "James doesn't have any in his."

"James…" Riley said, slumping to his stomach. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything Dad," the young Malamute pleaded. "I swear!"

"You just protected your brother." Akame said sternly down at him. "And that I understand. But what he's doing is wrong and you know it! Now where is he?"

"I don't know!" James insisted, suddenly looking afraid of the Ohu soldiers. "Zach just told me to give him a head start and ran off! He said killing them was the only way to protect our family! He said it was us or them!"

"James!" Riley barked. "That's not the way it works! That makes you as bad as them!"

"Why?" James growled in genuine confusion. "Our pack's been protected, hasn't it?"

Upon hearing this, Gin glared right at Riley and stepped off of the subdued James.

"Where would he go, Riley?" he asked intensely and the Ibaraki leader looked away uncomfortably, clearly caught off guard by the question.

"I…don't know." he mumbled.

John and Akame stepped up to Gin's side at that, the former growling as Chutora and Smith took their places.

"Yes you do!" the German Shepherd snapped. "You're just trying to protect him like James was. You already failed him once, Riley, don't do it again by letting this continue!"

"I loved him!" Riley snapped back, looking offended. "I taught him how to take care of himself since he was a pup!"

"But you weren't a father to him." Akame scolded, and Riley's ears drooped. "Just showing love to your children isn't enough. You need to show them right from wrong, and be there for them when they're having trouble. Because you were too busy becoming the leader, you didn't keep track of your sons. Now one of them has a warped sense of the world and the other is completely out of control. You need to tell us where Zach is, now."

"Please…" Riley pleaded, his crushed gaze showing them that he knew the ninja-dog was right. "He's my son."

"And I promise you we'll bring him in alive." Gin said, taking command of the conversation once more. "I promise you. But you have to tell us where he is, Riley. Now."

Riley let out a ragged, defeated sigh. Then, after a minute's silence, he spoke.

"…There's a mountain pass near the Northern border of our territory." he said softly. "He goes there sometimes to be alone and think."

Gin immediately turned to his comrades holding James.

"Smith," he said. "You and the others keep James here and make sure he doesn't escape. Akame, John and I will go get Zach."

"Of course, Gin." the Setter said, "But be careful!"

Gin nodded gratefully, and then did the same to John and Akame. They needed no further encouragement. Seconds later, the three of them had run off, disappearing almost instantly from sight.

It took the three leaders of Ohu almost half an hour to reach the pass that Riley had spoken of, but while they were running, Akame explaining in the meantime to his comrades what he had heard in the cave, they had realized that Zach was not too far ahead of them, and had decided not to rest. Now, as they entered the pass, John turned to Gin and bowed his head a little.

"Gin," he said, "If Zach doesn't listen, we may have to kill him. I'll be the one to do it if you want."

"No John." the Akita said immediately, looking determined. "He needs a role model, not an executioner. I intend to keep my promise to Riley. No one else dies because of this."

John looked surprised, but didn't say anything else and Akame knew that their leader was thinking once more back to Heizo, and what he had done before. They had no more time to dwell on it though, because suddenly they spotted someone ahead of them, walking quickly through the pass in the same direction they were going. It was Zach. Seeing this, and not waiting for the Malamute to notice them, Akame put on a burst of speed and ran up the side of a hill to his right, getting as close as possible to his target without being detected. Then he kicked off from the ground and lunged hard at the elder Malamute's back the same way he had done to James. Just as before, it hit perfectly, and the two canines' bodies collided hard as Akame grabbed the surprised dog by the scruff of the neck with his jaws and threw him to the ground with all his strength. Smacking the dirt hard and grunting at the impact, Zach rolled 3 times from the momentum and then leaped to his paws, coming to rest facing the ninja-dog. As their eyes met, both dogs growled, but then Zach stopped, looking as if he had just noticed who they were.

"Akame?" he said in a surprised voice. "Why are you here?"

Akame maintained his growl as he heard John and Gin step up behind him.

"Drop the act." he hissed at the Malamute. "You know exactly why we're here."

Zach frowned, a fresh slash mark clearly visible on his right shoulder.

"Actually, I don't." he responded flatly. "But feel free to fill me in anytime you want. An explanation for that body slam would be nice, too."

"We caught James." Akame said, keeping his gaze locked with the younger dog's. "Our friends are holding him back at your father's main base."

Zach tensed up immediately and Akame knew that he was getting somewhere.

"Yeah, you expected him to get away, didn't you?" John said triumphantly from behind him. "But he didn't, and now we know the truth."

Zach looked livid.

"You attacked my brother?" he growled. "How dare you!"

"He's not hurt," Gin said. "But he could have been, just for trying to protect you and your secret, for pretending to be you while you and your group of vigilantes killed all those dogs!"

Zach's eyes widened and he looked shocked.

"H-He's Mastermind?" he stammered. "That's impossible! You have to have – "

Suddenly, Akame stamped his paw down hard, making everyone stop to look at him. As they did, Gin and John were shocked to see the anger on their normally stoic friend's face.

"Don't. play. me!" he said in a deadly voice, telling the Malamute clearly that he was no longer messing around. "I'm Akame of Iga. My pack and I were fooling our enemies with this type of deception before you were even born! Too many dogs have died here just to slake your bloodlust and I am sick of your games. So drop the act, NOW!"

For a moment, Zach just stared at the ninja-dog. Then they saw a knowing smile slowly spread across his muzzle, and Gin felt a chill go through him as he finally saw the proof that Akame had been right all along. The elder Malamute brother snorted.

"Well, I have to admit, I'm impressed." he said. "You really are as good as your reputations. How'd you figure it out?"

"I know when I'm being lied to." Akame said simply. "And I trust my instincts. That's how a ninja-dog survives."

"Well," Zach said, glaring at him and stretching his neck. "You'll forgive me if I don't congratulate you on becoming an incredible thorn in my side."

"This stops here." Akame responded sternly.

"They had it coming." Zach said as if reading their thoughts. "They invaded our territory, threatened my home and pack, and were there for no reason other than to fight and hurt others. They reaped what they sowed."

"This wasn't just about protecting your clan and you know it!" Gin said angrily, stepping up beside Akame. "You did it to get back at them for your mother's death! That's why you acted so cruelly, enjoyed hurting them so much!"

"They came into my home and killed someone I loved!" Zach shouted with an equally angry growl. "Just because they could! They killed her in front of me just because they wanted to provoke my Uncle and get our territory! Why shouldn't I return the favor? It shows them that if you prey on the innocent while underestimating them, you'll die the way you lived!"

"Listen to yourself!" Gin said incredulously, shaking his head. "You sound just as bad as them!"

"I protected my home!"

"You took it too far." John finally added, glaring at him as well. "And now you're going to stop…willingly or unwillingly."

Zach lowered his head, dropping into a battle crouch.

"Think so do you?" he said as they did the same. "Try and make me then!"

"Why do you think we're here?" Gin finished, but then Akame looked at him.

"Gin," he said in a respectful yet quietly angry voice. "Let me do this. I started this, let me finish it."

Gin looked surprised, but nodded and stepped back out of the way with John as Akame squared himself off to Zach. The younger dog narrowed his eyes immediately.

"Don't underestimate me, Akame." he said. "You may be a legend, but I'm not a dog to be trifled with."

"I'm not." the Kishu responded intensely. "I've seen what you're capable of, Zach. Refocused, you could be a great male. But for now, you're just an opponent, and a worthy one in my eyes."

"Thanks Akame," the Malamute responded, not breaking his gaze. "I'm almost flattered."

On the last word, he suddenly lunged sideways at a tree and kicked off from it, flying at the ninja-dog seconds later at an impressive speed. Seeing him coming, Akame dodged quickly, making his jaws snap shut on empty air. Then he lunged back at him, faking a bite and smacking him hard across the face with his paw, claws extended. As his head snapped sideways and blood flew from his mouth, Zach leaped backwards out of his stumble, suddenly on the defense as Akame bit at him left and right, only landing a few glancing blows as the Malamute ducked and dodged almost every one, using his impressive speed to his advantage. Then suddenly, Zach threw dirt into the older dog's eyes and used the moment's distraction to knock him clean off his feet, diving onto him seconds later, teeth aiming for the ninja-dog's jugular. Akame was a master fighter though, and used the Malamute's own momentum and his hind legs to flip him so they were switched, making it so he was suddenly the one on top, Zach's neck between his jaws. The younger dog thrashed left and right as he tried to get free, eventually grabbing Akame's ear in his teeth just by sheer luck and biting hard, drawing blood.

Akame grimaced in pain, but kept his grip firm, trying to get a good stance on the ground to end the fight once and for all. He could have ripped Zach's throat out completely had he wanted, but Gin's words flashed through his mind, and he too was determined to end the fight with both of them still breathing. Suddenly, Zach wrapped his hind legs around Akame's midsection and rolled them, getting a foothold on the ground almost the second they landed and kicking off hard with his powerful legs, sending then flying into a tree trunk and making Akame take most of the blow. As the Kishu's grip loosened on his neck at the sudden impact, Zach twisted free and kicked him hard in the muzzle, cutting a large slash in his opponent's face and making the seasoned ninja-dog taste fresh blood in his mouth as he fell back onto his side.

Then the Malamute made a run for it, sprinting further into the pass as fast as he could manage in an attempt to get away. Akame, though, was much faster and was back on his paws again before Zach could even take 5 strides. He bolted down the pathway like lightning after his opponent, and lunged with all his strength as soon as he could, tackling him once more and sending them both rolling in a tangle of limbs further down the pass. Zach whirled around in response and tried to slash him across the face with his fangs, but Akame ducked the blow and kicked the Malamute as hard as he could in the stomach with his hind legs, winding him completely and giving him the opening he needed. Knocking him onto his back again, Akame shot his jaws right for the younger dog's throat, getting no resistance from the still stunned Malamute. Finally, once Zach's neck was firmly between his jaws again, Akame felt his paws get a good grip on the ground beneath them and he let loose his finishing move. Shifting his weight from his front to his hind legs, the ninja-dog swung around, making Zach's whole body go with him, and slammed the Malamute's head into a large, nearby rock as hard as he could. Blood exploded from the impact point, and Zach let out a surprised, pained grunt as he felt the hit, his eyes going wide. Then he went limp and lay still, Akame releasing his grip and jumping back as he did. The fight was over. Seeing this, Gin and John stepped forward, both looking pleased with the outcome.

"Impressive Akame." John said with a grin. "As always."

Akame nodded, panting slightly, then looked at Gin.

"No one else dies." he said and the Akita nodded with a grateful smile.

"Let's get him back to the others," he said and picked up the bleeding Malamute, throwing him over his back.

Then the three dogs headed back the way they'd come.

"I'm very sorry about everything that's happened." Riley said as the soldiers of Ohu stood in front of him. "I'll be talking to all my sons' subordinates about it after you leave. I promise you that I'll work to make this as right as I can."

Gin nodded kindly, recognizing the sincerity of his apology.

"I'm sure you will, Riley." he said.

He, John, and Akame had arrived back only a short time ago carrying the unconscious Zach, and had immediately been greeted by the others and Riley, who had been very concerned about the well-being of his eldest son. After cleaning the blood off of Zach's head wound a little, he had then helped them all wake him up and it had taken a minute to subdue him, his reaction being one of anger after realizing that he had lost the fight with Akame. The elder Malamute brother had finally calmed down upon seeing where he was though, and reluctantly allowed Chutora and Great to hold him in place as Gin and the others talked to his father. Beside the Ibaraki leader, James sat with a guilty expression, having gotten a good talking to from his father and the other Ohu soldiers who'd stayed at the base while the three leaders hunted down his brother. Now, Gin and his troupe were getting ready to depart Ibaraki once and for all, ready to move on to the next territory, but there were a few things that the Ohu leader wanted to address first. He looked at Riley with a patient, yet serious look.

"We may send a messenger back down here in a few months to see how things are going." he said. "In that time, you must do what you feel is right for James. After all, he's your son, and we're letting him stay in your care, despite what he helped do. Maybe now he can become the dog you meant him to be."

"He will." Riley said, and looked down at his younger son sternly.

James shrunk back a little, but gave a small, sheepish smile nonetheless.

"Yes father." he said, and Gin and Riley both nodded in approval.

Then everyone's gaze panned to the captive Zach, and any smiles that were on their muzzles faded instantly. The Malamute snorted slightly as they stared at him.

"Is this the part where I promise I'll be a good boy and you leave?" he asked sarcastically. "Because if it is, don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Gin shook his head as he looked at him and then walked up until he was right in front of him.

"I wish we could, Zach." he said in a quiet but harsh voice, glaring right into the Malamute's eyes only inches from his face. "I really do. If I could have things the way I want them, I would leave you here with your family, and we would go on our way. But I can't, and I won't, and the reason for that is very unfortunate, but very simple: I don't trust you. I know you and I are going to have a difficult time accepting each other and getting along, to say nothing of you and the rest of my pack, but we're going to have to do it somehow, because until I feel I can trust you to be left alone without causing the needless deaths of others, you will stay with us…where I can keep my eye on you. Hopefully we can both become better males for it along the way."

Zach looked thunderstruck, and it was clear to everyone that this was the last thing he had expected.

"Y-You can't just…keep me!" he said in a shocked voice. "You have no right! This isn't even your territory!"

"But it is mine."

Zach's head swiveled towards the owner of the voice and Riley stepped forward, looking at his eldest son with a sad, but determined gaze.

"Zach," he said, trying to sound gentle. "Gin and I talked it over while you were unconscious, and we've both agreed that the best thing for you right now is to go with them. They can help you more than I can, son."

"You can't do this!" Zach stammered. "I protected this place! It's my home!"

"And no one is more thankful for it than me." Riley said, sounding even sadder than before. "But by doing that, you've become the very thing you were fighting against. I know that that's my fault, Zach…because I wasn't there for you, but the fact remains that you're not the dog you used to be, and I don't know how to fix that."

He walked up to his stunned older son and put a comforting paw on his shoulder.

"I love you, Zach." he said. "And I always will… but right now the person you need to be saved from the most is yourself, and I don't know how to do that."

"B-But they do? Their leader is practically my age! Father, please!"

"Yes," Riley said, looking tearfully at Gin. "I think they do. And I hope that before I die, they can return you to me as the good dog you once were. Once that happens, Zach, you'll be welcome to come back home. Until then, though, for your brother's sake if no other…you'll have to go with them."

For a moment, Zach stood completely still, clearly at a total loss for words, and Gin thought he saw a tear slide down the Malamute's furred cheek as Riley stepped back beside James, who nodded a goodbye at his brother before looking back at the ground. Then, Zach let out a faint growl, his eyes wet and trembling in fury.

"Fine then." he said, glaring at them both. "Send me away. See what fucking happens, Dad. They'll overrun the whole territory and you'll end up wishing I was still here, but FINE! I'LL FUCKING GO! You're both dead to me!"

Then he turned and stormed off, allowing Chutora and Great to guard him closely as he did. Gin felt a stab of pity for the Malamute as he stared after him, despite what he'd done, but he pushed it back and turned his head back to the tear-streaked Riley.

"We'll take care of him." he said. "You have my word."

"Thank you." Riley said. "Good luck to you, Gin."

"And you." Gin replied, then turned to his comrades.

"Guys," he said. "Let's go."

The soldiers of Ohu all responded with grunts or calls of support for their leader, and they resumed their course South, leaving the territory of Ibaraki behind them quickly. Once they were out of sight once and for all of Riley, James and their home base, Akame walked up beside the angry, miserable-looking Zach.

"You may not think so right now." he said in his calm voice. "But we're doing this for your own good. We don't have to be enemies anymore. I hope you learn to accept us as teachers…as friends."

Zach glared over at him furiously, his look suggesting that he would've liked nothing more than to hurt the ninja-dog as badly as he possibly could. Then he turned back to the path ahead.

"Go to hell." he spat in a quiet, shaky voice and Akame sighed.

Then he turned back to their track as well.

"I never said it would be easy." he replied softly, then sped up, walking up beside Gin and John at the front of the group, leaving the Malamute alone with his thoughts as they vanished over a hill.

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