Story 3: The Haunted
John stretched his neck as they kept their pace steady. At the rate they were going, they would reach the next stop on their journey, the Kanagawa Prefecture, very shortly, and he was actually looking forward to getting there. The small territory rested directly against the ocean, and the group of them had been able to smell the salty odor of the sea as soon as they'd gotten close. John had always liked the ocean, and its approaching proximity had improved his mood somewhat, something he was sure Gin and Akame were grateful for. It had been a little less than a week since they left the Ibaraki territory, and though he had made a distinct effort not to, John had found himself in almost immediate conflict with their newest packmate.
In the short time he'd been with them, Zach had switched moods a few times, going from a wounded depression at his father's rejection of him to a sullen anger at the Ohu Soldiers for figuring him out and forcing him to leave his home, something that Gin had quickly and sternly reminded him he had brought upon himself. The Malamute had retaliated for this by switching to a positively infuriating form of sarcasm, driving them all to the limits of their patience with his little offhand comments about them and their actions. This had culminated with John himself whirling around to smack him in the face, claws extended, and send him flying into a tree. Then the Shepherd had nearly driven him off permanently in fury…until Akame and Gin had chastised him quietly for playing right into the Malamute's paws and nearly doing exactly what he had wanted him to do in the first place. This had embarrassed John somewhat, and though Zach had been moved up to the front of the group, where Gin claimed he could keep a better eye on him, he felt like he had been defeated somehow by the other male.
In the past, John would've immediately retaliated for this, having always had problems with his temper, but now that he was one of the leaders of Ohu, he needed to behave more like one, and it was with great difficulty that he let this incident slide. Kurotora helped his mood a little by telling him that if there was trouble, he would use Zach as a living shield, a remark which the Malamute had attempted to respond to, until Akame had bitten him hard on the back of the neck, telling him crossly that he needed to learn respect, and that each time he tried to taunt them from there on, he would get bitten, each time harder than the last. Zach had done it a few more times anyway, probably testing the ninja-dog's resolve, John thought, and had quickly and painfully discovered that the elder canine was true to his word. After this, he had shut up, and they had walked in relative quiet until they reached where they were now. Suddenly, John heard Gin talking, which snapped him out of his thoughts.
"Kurotora, Chutora," the Akita was saying. "You know this pack, right? What kind of welcome should we expect?"
"They're good males, leader." Kurotora responded. "Their boss, Hideo, is an old friend of Akatora's. His cousin Isao was the one who fought and died for us during the war."
"Why didn't he come himself?" John asked and the Kai dog turned to him as they walked.
"He was partially crippled in an accident a few years back." he answered and the Shepherd turned back to the path ahead of him with a nod. "The way I hear it, he knew he wouldn't have been any use to us, so he sent Isao instead."
"That's very kind of him." Gin said. "Maybe this will go well after all."
"Or better than the last one at least." John said, shooting a reproachful glare Zach, who stood silently on Gin's other side.
The Malamute grinned superciliously.
"I know." he said in a fake sympathetic voice. "But wasn't it fun?"
"No." John replied flatly. "It wasn't. And in case you hadn't heard, you lost."
"John…" Gin warned and Zach opened his mouth to say shoot back a retort, but after noticing the glare Akame shot at him, wisely kept his mouth shut.
Then they kept walking, crossing a small stream seconds later and officially entering the Kanagawa Prefecture.
"How do you think Smith, Great, & Wilson are doing over in Shizuoka?" Chutora asked, apparently eager to break the silence.
"Hopefully well," Gin responded from his position up front. "If all goes as it should, we should meet back up with them at the next territory we come to."
"Hey," Zach said suddenly. "You hear that?"
"Shut it." the Kai dog said crossly, then turned back to the others. "Who were they going to give condolences for?"
"I don't remember." the Akita said. "It was someone Great was pretty close to, though, I know that. It only felt right that he give the condolences and not us."
"No seriously," Zach piped up again, "It sounds like someone's right over there."
"I said shut up!" Chutora hissed and John looked at the Malamute.
"Do you really think that you would've heard something we didn't, brat?" he scoffed and Zach gave him a snorting frown.
"Does your ego even fit in this territory?" he retorted sarcastically and Kurotora burst out laughing despite himself as John growled angrily.
He bit at the Malamute's face as he jumped aside with a grin and then squared off to him, his hackles raised.
"That does it!" he snapped. "This time you lose a limb you little – "
"Shh!" Akame said suddenly, interrupting him.
Gin turned to him as the two quarreling dogs quieted down and saw him looking intently at a small grove of trees to their right.
"What is it, Akame?" he asked and the ninja dog was silent for a moment.
Then he responded without looking at them.
"I think he's right." he said, referring to Zach. "There's someone over there."
The Malamute shot John a smug look at this, but the Shepherd managed to ignore him and step up beside his two friends. Gin stepped forward, looking at where the trees stopped and the banks of the small stream began.
"Excuse me!" he called. "We're looking for Hideo and his pack! Do you know where we can find them?"
There was no answer at first and the Akita looked at Akame quizzically, as if double-checking that he was right. The Kishu nodded and Gin went to talk again, but suddenly, a dog burst from the trees, moving like he was running for his life, and skidded to a halt abruptly upon seeing them. When they looked at him, Akame and John having quickly dropped into battle crouches around Gin as a precaution, they saw that he was clearly terrified of something, and his head whipped back and forth in fear.
"Oh no…" he said shakily. "Oh fuck, no!"
Gin looked at him in concern.
"Are you all right?" he asked and the dog turned to him, looking nothing short of hysterical.
"Are you real?" he yelled, and Gin blinked in surprise.
"Are you fucking real?" the dog said louder and then turned and screamed over his shoulder. "SHUT UP! Go away!"
Behind him, there was nothing in sight, and the Ohu soldiers looked at one another in confusion, none of them knowing what to say. Then, suddenly, the dog turned and ran off again, and Gin straightened up where he stood.
"Hey!" he barked and they all took off running after him, following him through the trees of the forest that surrounded the stream and past over a mile of terrain before he stopped dead at the edge of another clearing.
As John and the others skidded to a halt as well, they realized that they had stopped at a road, clearly used by the humans for traveling to and from the nearby ocean's shore. Almost immediately, the dog turned and faced them again.
"They won't stop!" he said in a hoarse voice. "They shouldn't even be here! It's impossible! They won't go away!"
"Who?" Gin demanded. "Who's hurting you?"
The dog didn't answer, though, and seemed to be mumbling to himself. As the Akita tried to take a step closer to him, he suddenly looked up and his eyes were blazing.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!" he howled and Gin stopped in his tracks.
Then, suddenly, they all heard a faint rumble, growing closer by the second. The dog looked at them again, a desperate look on his face.
"Get out!" he pleaded. "If you want to live, get out! This place is hell! They never, ever stop!"
With that, he took a step backwards out onto the road and John tensed up at the same time everyone else did.
"What are you doing?" Gin asked anxiously and the dog spoke in a soft voice.
"Making them go away…" he said.
Then, before any of them could react, a truck came speeding around the bend in the road, its momentum clearly telling them that it wasn't going to stop for anything. Gin looked at the dog in alarm.
"NO!" he yelled, but neither he, nor Akame or John had any time to react.
Before any of them could so much as move, the truck hit the dog hard in the middle of the road, sending him flying sideways as if he had been a bullet from a gun. His body was shattered on impact, and he bounced and rolled down the black concrete, getting run over by the truck's back tire before finally coming to rest on his side. Then, as if it hadn't even noticed, the truck sped off, leaving the dog lying dead in a pool of his own blood, his entrails and a leg strewn across the road behind him. For a long while, none of the Ohu dogs even made a sound, all of them too horrified to know what to do. Then, Zach's voice broke the quiet, and it's tone sounded halfway between true shock and mild bemused surprise.
"Huh." he said, and none of them even bothered to respond.
It didn't take long for the group of them to snap back to their senses, and once they had, Gin turned to John.
"Let's go find Hideo's pack." he said urgently and the Shepherd nodded in agreement.
Then the Akita turned and ran back into the forest away from the road, John and Akame at his either side and the others following close behind.
"What the hell was that?" Kurotora asked in a shaken, almost angry sounding voice and John saw Akame glance over his shoulder at him.
"I don't know!" he responded as he ran. "But that dog looked sick! Whatever did that to him could affect Hideo's pack if we don't warn them!"
"Are your trips always this exciting?" Zach asked from where he ran by Chutora and Kurotora looked over at him.
"You'd be surprised." he said and the Malamute gave an almost amused nod, keeping up with the rest of them surprisingly easily.
"Where's Hideo's base, Kais?" John asked from the front and Chutora said:
"It should be right up here!"
Gin sped up their pace upon hearing this and sure enough, they emerged into a clearing seconds later, seeing the Kanagawa pack's home base resting at one end of it. The minute they had, they all came to an abrupt halt, their jaws dropping. Chutora stepped forward, looking even more shocked than before.
"W-What...?" he stammered, and the others didn't respond.
Dead dogs lay scattered around the clearing, some half torn apart and some almost untouched, all in various stages of decomposition. It was Hideo and the Kanagawa clan. John found himself a little repulsed as he looked around at them. It was clear that they had been dead for some time, and the more he looked at their wounds, the more bizarre the situation became. On his right, he saw a dog that appeared to have blinded himself with his own claws, slashing his own eyes out until he bled to death. A few feet away was another one that had no face left, having smashed it into a nearby tree repeatedly until he fractured his skull. Then he heard a moan of shock and looked over to see Chutora and Kurotora standing over something on the other side of the clearing. When he went over himself, he saw another body that he assumed was Hideo himself, his eyes wide open in terror and no apparent wounds on him. He turned to Akame, who had walked up at the same time as him.
"What killed him, Akame?" he asked and the ninja dog shook his head, sniffing at the corpse.
"I don't know." he said. "It doesn't look like he was even touched. It could be a heart attack."
"That doesn't explain the rest of this." Zach said, looking much less enthused by the situation then he had before.
"Oh, now you want to help?" John said, looking at him as though he were a nuisance he had just noticed.
The Malamute gestured to the rest of the clearing with his muzzle.
"Have you seen this shit?" he demanded. "This isn't normal! This guy over here impaled himself on a tree branch…through the fucking ear! Something caused this and I'd rather be safe than dead."
"Of course something caused this!" Kurotora snapped crossly, looking shaken at Hideo's death. "But what?"
"Hold it." Gin said suddenly and they all turned to him. "You smell that?"
Frowning in surprise, John sniffed at the air at the same time the others did, pulling back a little seconds later. There was indeed a strange smell in the air, and it wasn't the stench of the decomposition of the bodies around them. Glancing over at the others, John saw Akame over by one side of the clearing.
"It's coming from this way." he said urgently, looking back at them.
Then he kept walking in that direction and the rest of them followed him, all of them sticking close in case something happened. Eventually, after walking up a steep incline, they came to an open area, and immediately saw something very disturbing in their sight. Down the other side of the incline in a small valley, looking very ominous and threatening despite being at least a mile away, was a human building. Surrounding it on every side were barbed wire fences and inside their perimeter, more dead dogs lay decomposing, some already nothing but bone and shed fur.
"They must have been the guard dogs," Akame said. "That looks like one of those labs humans have where they experiment on animals."
Chutora shook his head in disbelief from a few feet over.
"What the hell happened in this territory?" he said. "I never heard a word from Hideo about there being trouble."
Then John spoke up.
"I don't know, but maybe that has something to do with it."
They all turned and followed his gaze and immediately tensed up when they saw it. In the side of the building there was a gaping hole, and pouring out of it, disappearing as it hit the air outside, was a green gas, its sheer amount suggesting that it was spreading in all directions and permeating every part of the territory around the facility.
"What is that?" Zach asked and Gin shook his head.
"Nothing good…" he said, then turned to the others. "We should get out of this territory fast."
"I agree." he said. "We're putting ourselves in danger just by staying here. We leave on your command, leader."
"Consider it given." Gin said and the group of them turned and walked quickly back down the incline the way they'd come, moving immediately towards the Southern border of the territory.
Suddenly, Kurotora stumbled a little, and John looked back at him in concern as the Kai dog righted his balance.
"Kuro," he said. "You okay?"
"Yeah, keep going." Kurotora said, shaking his head a little. "This smell is just making me a little dizzy."
"Same here." Zach commented from where he stood and John kept his mouth shut, not wanting to admit that he too was feeling a little lightheaded.
Then, the Shepherd turned his attention back to where he was going…and nearly ran right into Gin, who had come to a dead stop in the middle of the path in front of them. Akame skidded to a halt, seeing this.
"Gin," he said. "What is it?"
As John looked at the Akita's face, he grew increasingly concerned. Gin's eyes were wide and shocked and he looked like he had seen a ghost, but at the part of the trees he was looking at, there was nothing. The German Shepherd moved around to Gin's front.
"Gin?" he said. "What's wrong? What are you looking at?"
The young leader seemed to look right past him and when he spoke, his voice was shaky.
"F-Father?" he said softly and the others pulled back in surprise.
"Father?" John barked. "What do you mean – …father."
Then he trailed off, and John felt his breath catch in his throat. Over Gin's shoulder and behind Akame, standing motionless at the tree line on the other edge of their path, was another German Shepherd…one that looked a lot like him. John nearly trembled despite himself.
"Dad…?" he whispered in disbelief, then said. "Th-That's not possible…"
Suddenly, the other German Shepherd turned and walked back into the trees away from them, disappearing moments later, and John grunted in surprise.
"Wait!" he yelled and ran after him, hearing Gin take off running in the opposite direction as he did.
Then he was out of sight. Zach, meanwhile, looked around at his new companions in increasing confusion. He frowned.
"What the hell is wrong with you people?" he asked and looked over at them, expecting a retort of some kind.
It didn't come and no one was listening. He saw Kurotora and Chutora suddenly running in different directions into the trees as well, both yelling "Brother, wait!" at no one, while Akame leapt clear over him and ran back the way they came, shouting "Kirikaze! Hayato!" like his life depended on it. Zach whipped his head around, realizing that he was now alone.
"WHAT'S GOING ON?" he yelled, but no one was there to answer.
"Wait!" John yelled again as he crashed through the underbrush after the vanishing figure. "Father!"
The Ohu warrior hadn't felt that shaken in a long time. His father, who's name had been Will, had died years ago when John was just out of adolescence, and though the moody German Shepherd had never gotten along with his father that well, he had gone to pay his respects anyway, and had seen his grave personally when he had. That was why it was absolutely impossible for his father to have been standing there, and he found himself wondering who this newcomer was that looked so much like his own flesh and blood. Suddenly, he emerged from the trees he was running through, and nearly ran head-on into the dog he had been chasing, who had come to a stop dead in the middle of his path. John skidded to a halt quickly, stopping mere inches away…and got a good look at him for the first time. When he did, he felt his stunned shock return. There was no imposter in front of him. It was indeed his long dead father, Will. The elder Shepherd looked at him calmly, his expression unreadable.
"Hello, John." he said and his voice sounded strangely distant.
For a moment, John's voice failed him, and he felt embarrassed by his lack of composure in that moment.
"D-Dad…" he said shakily. "How are – You can't possibly be – "
"You see me don't you?" came the answer, and John managed a frown.
"But you're dead." he said, his shock still clearly audible. "I saw your grave."
"You don't look half bad, boy." Will said, seemingly ignoring him as he looked him over. "Your mother would be proud. I, on the other hand, am amazed you're still alive."
John's next question died in his throat.
"What?" he asked, his tone one of confusion.
Will looked him in the eye.
"I figured that temper of yours would've gotten you killed a long time ago." he said in a cold, disapproving voice. "I'm just surprised that it hasn't."
John felt a wounded, indignant anger shoot through him, and he growled slightly. His temper had always been a sore spot between him and his father, and it had led to many unpleasant exchanges in the past.
"Father," he said shakily. "I don't want to do this. Not now. Now tell me how you're here."
Will shook his head, a small knowing smirk appearing on his muzzle.
"You haven't changed a bit, John." he said. "You still have that same arrogant tone in your voice that you did as a pup. I should've known you would never change."
"Dad, shut up." John threatened, feeling very angry and hurt.
"And you wonder why your mother and I were so willing to give you away to that human."
"I don't see any friends with you, boy." Will spat, looking around him. "Or do you even have any? It was always a wonder to me how anyone could even tolerate having you around."
That's what made John snap. With a roar of fury, he lunged at his father, teeth bared and ready to strike…and went clear through him. Suddenly, before he could even begin to fathom what had happened, the ground beneath him was gone and he was falling, a vast, dark blue ocean rising up to meet him from far below. John let out a yelp of fear and grabbed at something that he saw out of the corner of his eye desperately. It was a protruding tree root, and as his jaws closed tightly around it, his body smashed against the rock face that it was jutting out of and he dangled, his paws having absolutely no surface to grab onto.
'SHIT!' he thought as his mind raced. 'What the fuck just happened? I went through him! How the hell is this happening? And where did this cliff come from?"
Suddenly, his mind flashed back to the human building they had just seen as a group and the green gas that had been coming out of it. At the same time, he remembered the behavior of the first dog they'd seen and everything came together in his mind.
'It's not real.' he thought. 'Somehow…it's all in our minds!'
As he thought this, he saw his father's head suddenly look over the edge of the cliff down at him. The elder Shepherd smirked.
"You see?' he said. "There's that temper of yours again. Why don't you save the world a lot of grief, John, and just let go?"
Short of killing his spirit, this insult filled John with a new determination, and he reached and kicked with his hind legs at the nearby rock face, getting a grip after a few failed tries. Then he put his front paws on the root, dug his claws into the cliff side, and kicked off as hard as he could, sailing up and back onto solid ground seconds later. Then, panting slightly, he looked at his father.
"Never," he said angrily. "My friends need me. Gin needs me. And you're not my father."
Will frowned as an evil smile crept across his muzzle.
"Fool." he said. "I'm exactly who you think I am."
John, however, wasn't listening, and had already run off back the way he'd come, away from the cliff his father had led him to.
'We have to get out of here.' he thought fearfully. 'These visions drove Hideo and his clan mad. I have to find the others and we have got to get out of this place!'
'They're dead! How could they be here? It's impossible!'
These thoughts flashed repeatedly through Akame's head as he ran, and he looked around him in desperation as he lost sight of his two former ninja clan subordinates. The powerful, dependable Kirikaze, who could've been the Iga clan leader one day, and the shy, gentle Hayato, who had been no great warrior, but Akame had loved him almost most of all. Their appearance to him had come as such a total shock that he had temporarily forgotten about Gin and John and their own bizarre behavior right before his departure from the rest of them. At this point though, they were no longer his priority, and he continued to chase the white furred backsides of his two former comrades into the trees, watching as they suddenly disappeared right as he approached a clearing that they had passed through earlier. Akame skidded to a halt, his head whipping around.
"Kirikaze!" he yelled. "Hayato! Where are you?"
There was no answer.
"Kirikaze!" he shouted louder. "Haya– "
Suddenly, he stopped in mid-word. The two of them had walked out from behind a nearby tree, both looking unscathed and not a day older than he had last known them. Akame felt himself trembling as they walked slowly towards him.
"Boss…" Kirikaze said, his voice almost ethereal sounding. "I'm glad to see you."
"I'm glad you're alive." Hayato said, his tail wagging slightly. "We both really wanted to see you again."
Akame felt joy enter him the like of which he hadn't felt in a long time.
"How are you here?" he said, unable to contain his laugh of happiness. "How are you still alive?"
Kirikaze smiled at him.
"We're not." he said. "We're both dead and rotting."
Akame felt all the happiness in him die on the spot. A frown formed on his muzzle and he looked back and forth between them.
"Wh-What?" he stammered and Kirikaze took a step towards him.
"I said." he replied slowly, his voice now ice cold and malevolent sounding. "We're dead…and rotten."
"And it's all thanks to you, Akame-san." Hayato said, still wearing the same smile as before, only now it looked nothing short of creepy to Akame.
The elder ninja-dog took a step backwards, a sudden fear entering him.
"Then how are –? You can't be – " he said and Kirikaze cut him off.
"Do you know how it feels to die, sir?" he asked and Akame couldn't find the words to respond. "It hurts. It hurts so much."
"I was afraid, Boss." Hayato said, and his face now looked sad. "I died afraid, alone, and in pain…and you didn't save me."
Akame clenched his eyes shut, shaking his head and turning his face to the ground.
"This can't be real." he said to himself. "It can't be…"
"Why didn't you save me, Boss?" Hayato asked with a whimper and Akame felt tears begin sliding down his cheeks.
He didn't even get a chance to respond before Kirikaze jumped in as well.
"So you do have a heart." he snorted, his voice almost taunting. "Imagine that."
Akame's eyes went wide, and he suddenly realized what was going on, despite how badly the comment had stung him.
'That gas.' he thought. 'It's that gas! It's messing with our heads, playing on our fears! That's what happened to that first dog we saw! That's what happened to everyone in this territory! Shit! We have to get out of here!'
Akame turned, and he immediately began running back towards where their group had parted ways. Suddenly, though, Kirikaze and Hayato were running on either side of him, passing clear through trees as he went around them. No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't block them out.
"Don't leave us, Boss!" Hayato pleaded. "Not again!"
"You were responsible for our safety." Kirikaze said viciously from his other side. "You failed us. You failed us all."
Akame closed his eyes again, trying desperately to close them out, but suddenly ran right into a tree and fell back with a painful 'THUD', his forehead bleeding. Groaning slightly, he pushed himself shakily to his paws, and once he had gotten his bearings, after pausing for a minute to calm himself a little, he began walking forward in a determined, deliberate saunter.
"I'm Akame of Iga." he said aloud to himself, trying to keep his mind in the present. "I have a duty to my friends."
"Was bringing Kurojaki to justice really worth our lives?" Kirikaze asked, reappearing beside him. "Was it worth everything that happened?"
"The first law of the ninja-dog," Akame said, trying to ignore their voices. "Is to always put your mission first."
"I called for you." Hayato's voice said from beside him. "I begged you to come. You abandoned me, boss!"
"The second law of the ninja dog – "
"LOOK AT ME!" Kirikaze screamed suddenly in his ear. "LOOK WHAT YOU DID!"
" – is to remain faithful to your clan and comrades."
Akame snapped back to the present instantly. The yell had come from nearby, and he had recognized it instantly. He felt panic seize him.
"Gin!" he yelled, his eyes going wide.
Then he took off like a shot, running towards his friend's voice, hoping that nothing horrible had happened. Beside him, Kirikaze and Hayato ran as well, their continued presence making the ninja-dog's already frayed nerves keep unraveling.
"Uh oh, Boss." Kirikaze said, his voice dripping with contempt. "Sounds like you failed someone else too."
John's head whipped back and forth quickly as he ran. He had already gotten back to the spot where they had split up and had been dismayed to find that everyone else had scattered as well, all of them running in different directions and making his job even harder than it needed to be. Thinking quickly though, he had found Gin's scent with his powerful sense of smell and followed it, hoping it would lead him to his friend. This had worked up until had come to a stream and lost the scent, realizing that Gin, in his delirium, had walked into the water and allowed it to wash away his trail with it as it flowed away through the forest. Unable to find it again after that, John had decided to go back towards where they'd entered the territory to begin with, hoping that no one had been lured towards the building that was causing all this madness. Either way, he knew, he had to work fast. If the effects of the gas got any worse, they could all end up like Hideo and his pack, victims of their own delusions. His own seemed impossible to escape, and the harder he tried, the more he saw his father at every turn, continually taunting him as he began getting desperate in his search. John looked around again, growling more with each step.
'Where the hell is everyone?' he thought. 'They have to around here somewhere?'
Suddenly, he picked up a new scent and stopped in his tracks. Sniffing at it again, he frowned slightly. It was Zach's scent, and it very recent. John snorted.
'Terrific.' he thought sarcastically. 'Of all people I find him. Well…he is our responsibility I guess, and it's better than finding no one.'
"If he pisses you off, why don't you just kill him, son?" Will's voice said smirkingly from behind him as if reading his mind. "You know you want to. Besides, it would be par for the course in John-land."
"Fuck you." John spat back, and sprinting forward, began following the trail, which took him past the human lab building and back towards the road where the first dog was killed in front of them.
Eventually, it entered his sights and he saw someone walking right at it, stumbling slightly and shaking his head as if trying to clear it.
"Zach!" he yelled, recognizing him, but the Malamute didn't hear him.
John ran towards him again, and as soon as he did, he saw movement on his left, further down on the road from where they were. Glancing to see what it was, he saw immediately that it was a car, it's speed making it hard to follow as it disappeared and reappeared in his view a couple times from behind trees and rocks. What he could tell though, was that it was heading right for where Zach was walking. He ran faster.
"Zach!" he shouted again. "Look out!"
If the young Malamute heard him that time, he still didn't acknowledge him, and he stumbled out onto the black concrete of the road before John could stop him. Then the car came flying around the same corner that the first one had, and John panicked, putting on a sudden burst of speed. What happened next surprised even him. Jumping into the air, John lunged and tackled the Malamute before the car could hit him, sending the two of them rolling down the slope on the other side into the trees, coming to rest with the German Shepherd on top, pinning the younger dog on his back by the shoulders. Then John looked down at him.
"Zach!" he said, but the Malamute was looking right past him, and John saw tear streaks beneath his eyes.
"No…" he mumbled. "It's not my fault…I did what I thought was right…"
"Zach!" he barked urgently, shaking him a little. "Snap out of it!"
The younger dog finally saw him then and looked up at him, but was still clearly under the gas's influence.
"I-I can't c-concentrate." Zach responded, clenching his eyes shut and shaking his head hard. "They just – they won't – SHUT UP!"
The last words he screamed at an empty clearing to the side and John shook him harder, realizing that he must have been seeing his father and younger brother.
"Listen to me," he demanded. "They are not real! Don't listen to them! They. Are. Not. Real!"
"Of course we are." Will taunted from beside them, but John kept his focus on Zach.
"No…" the younger dog moaned. "They won't shut up! They're talking in my head a-and – "
Suddenly, John reared back and smacked Zach across the face with his paw hard, making the Malamute's head snap sideways before he looked back at him in shock, his eyes a little clearer somehow. John pinned him fully again.
"You feel that?" he snapped, looking Zach right in the eyes. "That was real! That was something I've wanted to do to you for the past week and it was real! They aren't real! They're an illusion, a hallucination! You hear me? Don't listen to anything they say!"
Zach looked conflicted and his eyes darted back and forth as he took in the Shepherd's words. John grabbed his head with both paws and turned it to face him forcibly.
"Do you hear me?" he demanded. "Don't listen to them! Nod if you understand!"
Zach paused for a second, then nodded quickly, looking very shaken by everything that was happening.
"Good." John said, releasing his pin and getting off him. "Now you listen, kid. We have to get Gin and the others and get out of here fast, but I can't do that alone. I need you to watch my back and not let this gas affect me, and I'll do the same for you. But you'd better be ready, because this won't be easy."
As Zach looked at him, John saw Will walk around behind him, an almost triumphant smirk on his face.
"You want to tell him how much he reminds you of yourself, John," he asked. "Or should I?"
John gripped the ground hard in fury with his claws, and kept his eyes fixed on Zach's as the Malamute stared at him, looking half surprised, and half in awe at his words.
"Why me?" he asked.
"Because I don't know where anyone else is, and you're all I've got." John responded, not having time to mince words. "And because somewhere beneath that irritating as fuck exterior of yours, there's a real male, and I need him right now."
Zach broke their met gaze and stared down at the ground, looking as if he were contemplating the Shepherd's words. Seeing this, John spoke again.
"Show me." he said, and the Malamute looked at him again. "Show me right now that you're worthy to stand with us, to be a soldier of Ohu."
Zach gaped at him for a second, then got a more determined look on his face and rose to his feet, wincing a little from the fall as he did. He smirked slightly at John as he did.
"Your ego is showing again." he teased and the Shepherd snorted.
"I'll bite you for that remark later." he said, allowing a small grin to creep across his muzzle. "For now, let's go."
Zach nodded, then John saw him turn and look back at the empty clearing he had yelled at moments before.
"I'm sorry." he said softly.
Then he turned and followed John and they both ran off together, back to where the others needed their help.
For a minute or two after he ran away from where he had been, Akame wasn't sure where Gin's voice had come from. There was no scent trail that he could follow, and the Akita hadn't made any other sounds since the one that he'd heard, so all Akame had to go on was his own eyesight. He was very worried for his friend, fearing what could've happened to him under the influence of the gas, and the more he didn't find him, the more desperate he got. Skidding to a halt amongst a group of trees, Akame looked around him, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
"Gin!" he yelled. "Gin!"
"A-Akame?" came a faint return voice, and Akame shot off towards it, realizing instantly that it was Gin.
A few hundred feet later, the ninja-dog saw the Akita, off near a grove on his left, leaning his forehead against a tree. He immediately ran over to him, stopping when he was right beside him.
"Gin!" he said. "Are you okay?"
The Akita glanced at him, and Akame could see that he was trembling slightly.
"Akame?" he responded. "Wh-Why are – Don't say that! Please don't!"
He had turned and shouted at the empty space to his right before he could even finish his thought, and Akame knew that he needed to act fast.
"Leader," he said, "There's no one there."
"I-I know…" Gin responded shakily. "But he – they – "
Suddenly, he growled and turned his whole head away from Akame and yelled hoarsely:
"That's not true! I wanted to save you, father!"
Akame pulled back a little with a look of shock.
'He's seeing Riki!' he thought, 'This could be harder than I thought.'
He pushed his friend away from the tree a little and jumped in front of him, putting a paw on his shoulder as he forced him to look at him.
"Gin," he said. "You have to fight it! Your father isn't there!"
"How is this – this happening?" Gin asked, clearly trying not to listen to the hallucinations as he did.
"It's that gas!" Akame answered, staring right back at him and trying to ignore Kirikaze and Hayato right next to him. "From the human building. It's causing this! I think it's bringing our own guilt to life, our own fears! It's making us face them in the form of the people we want to see the most. But you have to fight it!"
Gin shook his head hard and took a deep breath. Then he closed his eyes.
"I am the leader of Ohu." he said, his voice nearly breaking anyway. "I have a responsibility to my friends…No…I had to kill him…"
Then Akame saw a tear trace its way down the younger dog's cheek and he realized that not only must Riki still have been taunting him, he was still reliving the guilt of killing Heizo the assassin only a short time ago. Akame leaned his head against the Akita's in a rare display of physical comfort and held him in place with his front leg, making sure that he didn't go anywhere.
"Gin," he said gently. "Whatever your father is saying to you, don't listen to any of it. It isn't him. You are one of the greatest leaders I have ever known, and I know that your father would be proud of you. And as for what happened with Heizo, you had no choice. You hear me? You had no other choice."
"I didn't mean to kill him." Gin responded in an equally soft tone. "He wasn't like Gaia or Sniper or Shuga. I didn't have to kill him…"
"Gin," Akame said again. "I know it's hard, but you can't save everyone. You just can't."
As he talked, Akame looked over and saw Hayato and Kirikaze standing a few feet away, now just staring at him instead of taunting, a sad look on the former's face. Then he kept going.
"Believe me," the ninja-dog said, feeling his own eyes begin to water again. "I wish you could. But that just isn't the way the world works."
After a pause, he heard Gin say.
Then he pulled back a little, getting a better look at him as he did.
"Then we need to find John and the others and get out of here now." he said and Gin stood up straighter, nodding after shaking his head again.
"Let's…" he said, pausing for a moment to think. "Let's head back to that clearing where we all split up in the first place. Maybe they're there already."
Akame nodded at him, then turned and began to move off in that direction, feeling Gin right beside him as he did. He glanced over at him in concern as they ran.
"You okay, Gin?" he asked and the Akita looked over at him with a slightly forced smile.
"I will be." he responded and Akame, though not entirely convinced, felt relieved anyway.
At the speed they were going, it didn't take them long to get back to the original clearing where all the trouble had begun, and once they had, they trotted to a halt. Akame was about to ask Gin what his orders were when he heard:
Turning immediately towards it, the Kishu saw John emerge from the trees on the clearing's other side, flanked by Zach, Kurotora, and Chutora, all of them looking a little ragged but still in one piece. Gin's face seemed to light up a little as he saw them.
"John!" he said. "You're all okay?"
John didn't answer, but Kurotora said in a hoarse voice.
"None of us will be okay if we don't get out of this hell hole fast!"
"Agreed." the Akita said. "And now that we're all here, we're going to make a run for the Southern border. But while we run we stick together. Concentrate on each other and the path in front of you. If someone starts to lag behind, we all slow down together and help them."
They all turned their heads towards Zach as he said this, but the Malamute shook his head once.
"Don't worry about me." he said. "I can keep up easily. Worry about yourselves."
This seemed to satisfy the rest of them and they turned to Gin, who motioned for them to come up next to him. When they were, he said:
At this, they all broke into a run, and began jumping around trees and over small bushes in their path, occasionally glancing over at each other to make sure the others were still okay. It didn't take long, though, for Akame to sense another presence beside him once more, and glancing over, he saw exactly who he expected to.
"Leaving us behind again, are you boss?" Kirikaze said. "I never should've trusted you!"
"Don't leave us, Akame-san!" Hayato whimpered. "Please don't leave again!"
Akame clenched his jaw tightly as he tried to contain his emotions, but then he looked over at Kirikaze.
"You were right." he said and the other ninja-dog met his gaze. "I did fail you. That war was never a life I wanted for either of you. But I swear to you this…I won't fail them."
Kirikaze said nothing, and Akame turned to Hayato.
"Goodbye." he said.
Then he kept running with Gin and the others, glancing over his shoulder long enough to see that both Kirikaze and Hayato had vanished, and the woods were once again empty. After a little while longer, they arrived at the Southern border of the Kanagawa territory, all of them coming to a stop as they did, most of them panting a little from the effort of the long run. Then Kurotora looked up at them.
"He's gone." he said, and his voice sounded relieved. "They're gone."
"We're out of range of the gas." John said, looking like a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. "I think we should be fine now."
"Send word to every pack you can." Gin said to them from his position. "Avoid this territory at all costs. No one is to come near it again."
"Yes leader." Chutora said and John walked up to Gin's side from where he had been.
"Where to now, Gin?" he asked and Gin looked at him.
"We should meet up with Smith, Great, and Wilson in Yamanashi." he said. "We'll figure out where to go from there."
John nodded and started to turn and walk off, pausing for a moment though when he saw Gin turn back to look one last time at the Kanagawa territory.
"Bye Dad." the Akita said softly, and John looked down at the ground, not wanting to intrude and thinking of his own father for a final time as well.
Then Gin turned and kept going on their path, heading into the Yamanashi territory as he did, and the others followed close behind. As they did, John glanced over at Zach, who was walking beside him on his right.
"You still want to go home, kid?" he asked and the Malamute looked up at him, his face appearing to be halfway between the defiantness of before and a new look of near admiration.
"I…" he said, then paused, making John turn his full attention to him. "I…don't know."
John smirked at him.
"Good answer." he said kindly, then turned back to the path, leaving Kanagawa behind him once and for all.