Story 7: The Vengeful
Zach stretched himself as he walked, only half listening to John and Kurotora as they argued over…something. Truth be told, he didn't particularly care what it was, and instead looked around from his position beside Smith at the rear of the group, admiring the scenery as they began to approach the outskirts of the Ohu territory, on their way to the northlands of Mutsu. Just over 2 months had passed since Wilson's departure and the incident at Gajou with Endo, and the time he and the others had spent in Ohu had been surprisingly peaceful, a nice change of pace from the near constant string of fights and bad luck they'd had before that. He had gotten to know his new home very well in that time, and had strengthened the bonds of friendship that he shared with his Ohu Army companions, aiding them in their everyday endeavors, volunteering for guard duty so they could rest, and even playing with Tesshin and the other pups to give their parents some time to themselves. Though in the past he would've loathed doing things like this, he was still making a conscious effort to become a better male, and every time Gin or Akame complimented or thanked him, he felt like he was succeeding. He had done so well, according to Gin, that he had been allowed to accompany the rest of them as they set off again on yet another journey, this one to visit their friends and former comrades from the now legendary war against Akakabuto, and Zach could safely say that he was thrilled to be there.
Gin had made the decision to leave Ohu again only the week before, and though the Malamute had long sensed that his friend had been getting restless, he had been surprised that they had left as quickly as they did. It didn't matter much to him, as he had always enjoyed traveling to other places, but the Akita's insistence on their leaving so swiftly made him wonder if the young leader enjoyed being in Ohu at all, or was secretly a nomad at heart, and preferred seeing all of Japan's wonders instead of settling permanently in one part of it.
"God, Kurotora," John snapped suddenly in front of him, his hackles raised dangerously. "I don't fucking care! The day I want to hear mating tips from you is the day I throw myself off a cliff!"
"Yeah?" the Kai dog replied, looking offended. "Well if you listened for once, you might actually get a mate and not have to rely on others to hear about how it's done!"
Zach rolled his eyes, hearing John whirl around to bite him on the neck hard and throw him to the ground before Gin and Akame broke it up. The Shepherd had been in a bad mood all day, and though he had really wanted to mess with him a little for a few laughs, Akame had all but ordered him not to, reading his intentions perfectly the way he always had before Zach even had a chance to piss the older male off at all. In the end it hadn't mattered, as Kurotora had taken his place instead, and for once he got to watch the show instead of act in it, a feeling that was both strange and amusing. The two Kai dogs had joined back up with them only yesterday, right before they had left for Gin's friend Kisaragi's territory, and had immediately bragged to them all about their respective mates and how happy they were that they had courted them to begin with. Both females were already heavily pregnant, they had discovered, and had wanted to spend the remaining time they had before the birth of their respective litters with their own pack in Niigata, telling both Kurotora and Chutora that they could expect strong healthy pups upon their return to Kai, where they planned to relocate while the two were gone. Now, the 7 of them were traveling once more, and Zach was definitely feeling good about it, despite the tension the day was already bringing. In front of him, John and Kurotora were both shooting each other murderous glares and Gin and Akame, who walked quietly at the front of the group, also looked none too happy, tired, he assumed, of breaking up squabbles between their friends. The Malamute smirked.
"I'm glad we're all having fun." he said sarcastically, nudging Smith with his shoulder as he did, and the Spaniel snickered as John and Akame both looked over their shoulders at him irritatedly.
"Don't push me you little prick." the Shepherd spat. "It's bad enough I have to listen to him without dealing with you too."
"Oh, shut up John, you – " Kurotora started to say but suddenly Gin came to a halt and turned to face them all.
"All right, enough!" he said angrily and then looked around at the small clearing they had stopped in. "Let's rest here for awhile until you two remember how Ohu commanders are supposed to act."
That shut them both up immediately and Zach chuckled to himself as the whole group went and lay down in different locations around the clearing, waiting for everyone to regain their good moods before moving on. He, however, was feeling too restless. Walking to the edge of the tree line, he glanced at Gin as he passed.
"I'll be back, leader." he said. "I'm gonna take a look around."
"Mmm." the Akita grunted with a nod, clearly still annoyed with his other friends. "Be back soon. Hopefully we won't have to be here much longer."
"You underestimate John and Kuro's stubbornness." he said and Gin rolled his eyes.
"That's what I'm afraid of." he responded in a 'Why me?' voice and Zach turned with a smirk and walked off into the trees, padding carefully through the thorny underbrush as he did.
The forest around him had thick foliage lining it's upper layer, and because of this, even though it was a nice, sunny day, it's ground level was bathed in shadow, making it both cooler and harder to see for a great distance in any direction. In any event, he decided, this place would not be too bad to live in or around. The human village of Morioka was nearby somewhere, and if one needed a change of scenery from the darkness of the woods, they would simply have to go down to it and mingle with the pet dogs in their comparatively pampered existence. He, however, preferred the wilderness, and made sure to stick to the forest as he kept walking, hearing leaves crunching under his paws with every footfall. Stepping up to a small stream near a more tightly clumped grove of trees, he leaned down and lapped at the cold water, letting it trickle down his throat as he wondered what this 'Kisaragi' they were going to see must be like. Once he was done, he continued on, smelling the scent of blooming plants and rotting wood around him, the result, he assumed, of the rains that had just passed through the area. Suddenly, something appeared in front of him and he came to a halt, blinking in surprise.
The forest ended around 500 feet away, and beyond that the ground seemed to just drop off into oblivion, the cliff that lay beyond it having to be phenomenally deep given the mountainous area they were passing through. What he was staring at though, was the large human building that sat right on the chasm's edge. It looked like a temple of some sort, and had a slanted roof resting on a wooden structure beneath. Its outer walls seemed to be in relative disrepair, and much of the carvings and markings the humans had made in it had faded with time. In fact the only one he could make out at all was a large sun emblem carved right above what looked to be the entrance, and he assumed that it had been the symbol of whoever had lived there. Cocking his head to study it, he decided that it was an interesting looking place, one that would definitely be fun to check out. But, he remembered, there was no time to explore it, as they had to leave sooner rather than later. Shrugging, Zach turned away from it and walked over to one of the larger trees nearby, lifting his hind leg as he intended to do his business quickly before heading back.
"What are you doing out here?" came an impatient sounding voice suddenly, and Zach looked up to see John striding towards him, his mood apparently improved only slightly from before.
The Malamute grunted in irritation at the interruption.
"Taking a piss." he said. "Wanna watch?"
John snorted, ignoring the jibe, and padded over to the small stream, drinking from it as well as Zach lowered his hind leg behind him. Turning afterwards, he saw that the Shepherd had noticed the old temple as well and nodded at it from where he stood.
"Yeah, I just found that a minute ago." he said. "What do you think it was?"
"It used to be the base of the Hattori ninja clan." John replied in an almost bored voice and Zach blinked in surprise at the swiftness of his answer.
When the Shepherd saw this, he turned and nodded over his shoulder at it.
"Akame told me a while back." he explained. "It's one of my duties as an Ohu commander to know about all the packs who live around here. The Hattoris used to live there. They all got wiped out a few years ago though. This whole area's pretty much vacant."
"Hmm," Zach said, glancing at it with another intrigued look. "Shame. Well, more territory for all of you."
John walked over and leaned against a tree in front of him, looking almost suspiciously at the forest around them.
"Tell me something." he said suddenly and Zach glanced up at him. "Why'd you come with us anyway?"
"Huh?" he said with a frown and John met his gaze.
"On this trip." he clarified. "Why'd you come with us? None of these dogs we're seeing are anyone you know…and half of them are better males than you."
"Maybe I like expanding my collection of allies." he replied, ignoring the insult, and when John scoffed added: "Or maybe I just enjoy your company."
He grinned when he said this and the Shepherd smirked back at him.
"Well, I guess I can't blame you there." he said smugly and Zach snorted good-naturedly.
"All right," he chuckled. "Nose down, Captain Arrogance. I'm just saying that – "
THUNK! John suddenly let out a bellow of pain and Zach jumped visibly as he heard it, taking a step backward in surprise. Moments later, he saw why. A sharp, thin tree branch jutted out of the Shepherd's side around his stomach area and a thin trail of blood streamed down from where it had entered the brown and black furred dog's flesh. Zach whipped his head back and forth.
"Where the fuck did that come from?" he barked intensely and John didn't answer.
Wincing visibly and growling at the effort, he twisted himself and reached back with his head, biting down on the end of the stick and yanking it out of him with a quick jerk of his neck. Then he tossed it aside and looked around furiously at the dim forest that surrounded them.
"Where are you, you fucking coward?" he snapped. "Come out and fight!"
There was no answer and the Shepherd winced again as he tried to take a step, Zach stopping him with a paw as soon as he had.
"Let me see." he said seriously and lowered his head to the wound, John grimacing down at him as he did.
During the 2 months he had spent in Gajou, Akame had taught him the basics of treating battlefield wounds, a skill that he had specifically requested to learn, as it would be greatly useful in the long run. He still knew very little about it, but he knew enough at least to deal with wounds like these by himself, and after studying it for a moment, he glanced back up at John.
"Looks like it hit a nerve cluster." he said and the Shepherd growled in annoyance, still seeing no one as he glanced around them. "It's probably gonna hurt to walk for a while. Hold still."
Reaching out with his muzzle to stem the bleeding, he saw John jerk away with a grimace of near disgust.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Cleaning your wound."
"Tch! You think I want your tongue all over me? Think again." John said and Zach scowled at him in annoyance.
"Can you clean it yourself?" he asked scathingly.
"I don't need to. I've been hurt worse than this and survived."
The Malamute got immediately in the other male's face.
"I realize you're stronger and higher ranked than me," he said in an almost threatening voice. "And I realize we don't always get along. But for once in your stubborn, smug little existence…shut up and let me help you."
John stared at him for a second, the look on his face suggesting he had half a mind to smack him for his disrespect, but then rolled his eyes with a growl and submitted, looking pointedly forward to search for their attacker as Zach began sliding his tongue gently over the wound, cleaning the blood away from it.
"It won't do any good."
Both males whipped their heads towards where the voice had come from and immediately saw a shadowed figure standing on a low branch in a nearby tree, his silhouetted head looking right at them. John took an angry step forward.
"Did you throw that?" he demanded furiously. "Answer me!"
There was no response and Zach stepped up as well, glaring cautiously at the stranger.
"If you came to pick a fight," he said in a calm, threatening voice. "Then you chose the wrong dogs to mess with, pal. Do you even know who we are?"
The dog looked down at them unfazed.
"I know exactly who you are." he said in a low, hate-filled voice. "And you brought this on yourself. Everything that happens from here on in is your fault. Remember that."
Then he turned and sprang away and both males let out grunts of surprise and anger, their heads darting left and right to see where he had gone.
"Hey!" John shouted. "Get back here, bastard! We're not finished!"
Their attacker though, was gone, and Zach turned to his comrade.
"Let's get back to the others." he suggested with an angry scowl. "He might target them next."
"I know!" John snapped as if it was obvious. "I'm not a leader of Ohu without reason! Once we rendezvous with them we'll – "
Suddenly, he trailed off and Zach looked up at him with a frown. This frown quickly became concern. The Shepherd was making a strange noise with his throat, one that suggested he was having trouble breathing, and Zach took a step forward.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "You okay?"
John choked harder and suddenly, before Zach could even react, his eyes rolled back up into his head and he flopped over onto his side in the dirt, shaking violently in a seizure as soon as he landed.
"John!" he shouted and leapt over to him, hearing the Shepherd gasping and choking wildly for air as he continued to shake harder by the second.
Zach raised his head towards where the others were.
"AKAME!" he bellowed as loudly as he could. "GIN!"
Seconds later, the entire Ohu group erupted out of the trees at top speed, Gin at the front, a serious and powerful expression on his face as he looked around for the fight that he assumed was happening. When he and the others saw their comrades though, his eyes went wide and he was at Zach's side before the Malamute could even blink.
"John!" he yelled in alarm and both he and Chutora quickly tried to hold the Shepherd down to keep him from thrashing even more.
"What happened?" Akame demanded urgently to Zach and the Malamute nodded quickly over at the branch that had been used as a weapon.
"Some dog came out of nowhere and threw that thing at him." he replied and the ninja-dog leapt over to it, sniffing at it immediately as he examined it.
Then he got a startled look on his face and quickly darted over to the stream, vanishing from their view a moment later as he searched around for something. Gin looked at Zach.
"What did this dog look like?" he asked angrily and Zach shook his head.
"I didn't see him too well." he said. "And John collapsed before we could go after him."
The Shepherd was swiftly suffocating though and choked audibly again as they talked, making Gin shout Akame's name into the forest desperately seconds later.
"Come on, John!" Kurotora half-begged, forgetting their fight from earlier. "Stay with us! Breathe!"
Suddenly, Akame was beside them again and he tossed a plant of some kind onto the ground beside John's muzzle.
"Open his mouth." he commanded and Smith and Gin quickly did what he said, forcing the Shepherd's jaws apart immediately.
Akame then shoved the plant down his friend's throat with a paw and proceeded to bite down on his muzzle to hold it shut, knocking Gin and Smith aside as he did. For a few moments, John thrashed even more, but finally, practically at a moment's notice, he ceased moving altogether, his whole body going limp in unconsciousness as Akame released his hold and rolled him onto his back, putting an ear near his mouth to listen for breath. Everyone held theirs as he did and finally the ninja-dog sighed with relief, nodding at them moment later that everything was fine.
"He's all right." he said. "We got to him just in time."
"What the hell was that?" Smith asked fearfully and Akame gave him a worried look.
"Poison." he said. "The end of that branch is smothered in it. It's a lot like the one I used on all of you, the one that made Ben go blind. This one's even more potent though. That plant I gave him was the same one I used to treat all of you."
"So this was deliberate?" Gin growled in angry disbelief and the ninja-dog nodded.
"Yes." he said and his gaze went to John. "Someone tried to kill him."
Zach said nothing, and looked down at the unmoving body of his friend, his mind racing as it tried to figure out how their previously peaceful day had gone so horribly, terribly wrong.
The attacker stepped silently into the run down building, not making a sound as he slipped past the outer threshold and into the dank corridor that led to where his leader was waiting. He could hear his claws clicking on the rotting wooden floor beneath him as he walked, and silently wondered deep down how the structure was even still standing, as assaulted by mold and time as it was. The light was dim everywhere inside, the humans' design preventing it from reaching the interior almost at all, but he could still see the silhouettes of the others as they awaited news of his mission, so few of them left as there were. Reaching the end of the corridor, he nosed open a large door, ignoring the loud creaking protest it made at the motion, and strode without a word up to another dog, whose tall form was virtually undetectable near the corner shrine where he sat. As the attacker approached, he looked up, only his eyes visible in the dark.
"Is it done?" he asked, "Did you deliver our message?"
"Do they know we're here?"
The tall dog looked back at the wall he had been staring at before.
"Good," he said quietly. "Make sure they don't find out. I'm sending Sid and his little band to meet them in battle when they come looking. None of their lives matter anyway, so they can keep them busy for a while. Meanwhile…you deliver our second message."
The attacker cocked his head.
"…So Hajime and the others are back already?" he said. "Did they get what they needed down South?"
"Where are they?"
"In the corner." the tall dog said. "Dump them right at his feet."
The attacker stepped forward.
"Sir," he said in an almost angry voice. "We have him within our grasp. He's outnumbered, they all are. Let me kill him. Just say the word and it'll be done."
The tall dog's head turned towards him.
"Kill him?" he repeated, as if the thought had never crossed his mind. "No…I don't want him dead."
"But why?" the attacker demanded. "We could finally take what's rightfully ours! No one would begrudge us. We could – "
"No one," the tall dog said dangerously. "Is to kill him, unless I specifically order them to."
The attacker's look of frustration and anger was hidden by the moldy darkness around them, but the tall dog turned towards him anyway as if he'd seen, standing slowly as he faced him head on for the first time.
"Dead dogs, Mitsuto," he said in a quiet voice filled to the brim with hatred and bitterness. "Can't feel pain. Dead dogs can't feel sorrow. And for him, that just won't do…am I clear?"
"I want him to suffer, Mitsuo," the tall dog said, lying down again. "Deliver the next message. Now."
Then the attacker turned and left, leaving the tall dog alone in the corner near the shrine, where still no light shone at all.
"Tell me again." Gin said, his eyes narrowed in anger as he looked at Zach. "What did he say?"
"I told you." the Malamute answered, an exasperated tone to his voice. "He told us 'You brought this on yourself. Everything that happens from here on in is your fault.'"
"And that's it, nothing else?"
"No. Then he ran away like a little coward."
Gin sat back on his haunches, exchanging a serious look with Akame that suggested he was both furious and worried about the attack, the fact that it was so close to their home territory being no small reason for this. Akame looked down at the ground in front of him.
"So it's an attack on us." he said, his normal calm voice laced with thoughtfulness. "Someone wants to challenge us for Paradise."
"That'd be my guess." Kurotora said from his position over by Smith and Chutora. "So how about we don't disappoint them and go send them back to whatever shithole they crawled out of."
"I second that." Chutora growled and Smith cocked his head.
"But who could it have been?" he asked contemplatively. "The only dogs that live around here are the pets down in Morioka. None of them would be fool enough to mess with us."
Gin looked back at the others, a determined glint in his eye.
"I won't let this attack go unpunished." he said in a nearly threatening voice. "Whoever they are, if it's a fight they want, then that's what they'll get. Right now though, we need to get John to safer ground. We'll search for whoever's responsible for this when that's done."
The others nodded and Zach looked over at the Shepherd, who lay unconscious on his side over by Gin and Akame, having still not awakened after the attack, a testament to the damage the poison and its antidote caused. Then everyone stood and quickly made to leave, Akame heaving John's limp form onto his back once they had. Zach walked over to them as well, and as soon as they were all prepared, Gin set off at a swift pace, trying to distance them from the area and the unknown dogs that lurked within it, waiting possibly to attack them at the first chance they got. From there, they moved further North and to the West, rapidly approaching the borders of Kisaragi's territory of Mutsu, and all the great soldiers and fighters that it held in its midst. They were still at least a half-day's journey from it though, Zach knew, and Gin and Akame began searching for a defensible area to rest in, an area that they didn't find for another hour. It was a small plateau that they eventually decided on, surrounded on all sides by the same forest they had been traveling in ever since their departure from Gajou, and despite its size, it gave them the high ground, and therefore an advantage if there was an attack. Once they were all there, the two leaders motioned for a halt, Akame letting John slide gently off his back as he did. Then Gin turned to the others.
"Now," he said determinedly. "Let's go find out who did this. Smith, Zach, you stay here and guard John. Akame, Kurotora, Chutora, come with me."
No sooner had the words left his mouth than Gin turned and ran quickly back the way they'd come, the Kai brothers immediately following Akame as the ninja-dog bounded after him, his powerful legs taking him high up into the treetops of the forest around them in a series of spectacular leaps. Then they were gone. Zach stared after them as they left, wrinkling his nose in irritation at being left behind. Many things made him angry, but none so much as someone hurting his friends or family, and the thought of not being there to deliver some well deserved payback to them made him feel more than a little put out. No sooner had he thought this though, then Smith spoke up from where he sat.
"Don't worry," the Spaniel said suddenly as if reading his mind. "He does it to me all the time."
Zach snorted slightly, smirking at him as he went and sat by John.
"How do you stand it?" he asked and Smith chuckled his thin, high-pitched laugh.
"By remembering that he's the soudaisho," he said. "And that he's only doing what he thinks is right."
Zach nodded, shrugging a little.
"I guess you're right," he said. "Besides, it must be tough getting challenged every time you turn around. You guys have it worse than we did back in Ibaraki."
Smith nodded, scanning the trees with his eyes.
"Tell me about it." he half groaned. "We knew we would have to deal with challenges after Akakabuto's defeat, but…I don't think anyone thought it would be this bad. Paradise is practically becoming a burden to us."
"Well," the Malamute said with another grin. "You can count on my help either way. Giving greedy, violent dogs a dose of reality used to be my specialty."
Smith laughed, the atmosphere already considerably lightened from before despite what was going on.
"We'll keep that in mind." he said. "For now though, I'll watch this side and you take the other. Keep on your guard."
Zach nodded and perked his ears up to listen for anything out of the ordinary. Regardless of whether he had wanted to go with Gin or not, he was going to take the defense of his comrade seriously, and nothing was going to get by him if he had anything to say about it. Suddenly, his senses began sending him mixed signals, and he knew immediately that something wasn't right.
"Zach," Smith called from over his shoulder and the Malamute cocked his head, scanning the treetops with wary eyes.
"What?" he called.
There was no answer from the Spaniel. In fact, after a few moments of silence, Zach realized that it had become much quieter than before. Frowning, he turned to look at his friend.
"Smith," he said. "What – "
He didn't get any more out. The second his eyes fixed on where Smith had been standing, they managed to register his limp form lying on the ground motionless before something hit him hard in the face and everything went black.
Gin looked left and right as he and the others reached the spot where John's attack had taken place, his youthful but wise eyes searching for any sign of the dogs responsible for the near murder of his best friend.
"Akame?" he asked, glancing expectantly at his white-furred companion.
The ninja-dog lowered his head to the dirt, sniffing at it briefly before raising himself again.
"I have a trail." he announced powerfully, "But…"
"But?" Chutora repeated curiously.
"Zach's description sounded like a ninja-dog." he said with a frown, sounding like he was talking more to himself than them. "Only they would know about the poison that was used on John."
"So?" Kurotora scoffed.
"So," Akame said patiently. "These scents aren't ninjas. They wouldn't leave a trail this easy to find. Whoever this is, they're heading towards Morioka."
"Could they be just passersby?" Gin asked and Akame shook his head.
"The trail is fresh," he said. "I'd say they were here around the same time as the attack. At the very least they must've seen who it was."
"Let's go then," the Akita ordered, accepting his friend's analysis, and the 4 dogs took off running again towards the nearby village, their powerful bounds bringing their destination closer with every stride.
As a result, it didn't take them long to reach the outskirts of Morioka, and once they had, Gin warily scanned the sleepy little village carefully, looking for any sign of the dogs that had run back to it. It seemed bizarrely quiet, he thought, and the lack of any human presence told him that Morioka's inhabitants must have been off hunting or tending to something on the other side of town. His senses, however, also told him that trouble of some kind was stirring, and sure enough, as soon as they entered the village's main street, a small Corgi came timidly up to the fence of a nearby yard.
"Hey!" he hissed. "Psst!"
The Ohu group looked over at him as they heard his call, and Gin silently padded over to the fence, exchanging a glance with Chutora as he did.
"You need to get out of here!" the dog begged in a frightened voice as soon as he approached. "If Sid sees you he'll kill you!"
"Sid?" Kurotora repeated in a skeptical voice and the small dog nodded.
"He's a local stray that's taken over the town!" he said. "I just saw him down the road a minute ago. He's gathered a ton of his subordinates to him for some reason. If they see you, they'll attack!"
"Did they just come out of those woods within the last hour?" Gin asked in a stern tone and the dog nodded, looking around himself nervously.
"Yeah," he said, but then calmed himself a little. "Look…I know who you are. We pet dogs owe you a great debt for killing Akakabuto. I just wanted to warn you that you're walking into trouble."
"Thank you." Gin said with a gracious nod. "But we can take care of ourselves. Besides, we need to have a word with this 'Sid'."
The group looked up as one in surprise and immediately laid eyes on a large pack of dogs coming down the street towards them, a brutal-looking Great Dane at their head. Gin could tell instantly that these were the dogs the Corgi had spoken of, and the bloodthirsty look they had about them told him just as quickly that the next few moments were going to be anything but peaceful. The Corgi gave them a frightened look from the other side of his fence.
"Like I said." he whispered quickly before darting back to the safety of his owner's home.
Gin, however, turned and walked towards the group determinedly, not seeming to care that it outnumbered theirs by about 4 to 1. The Great Dane stopped when his pack was about 15 feet away, a leering, toothy grin on his muzzle.
"Who the hell gave you permission to come into my territory?" he said rudely and Kurotora growled.
"This whole area belongs to Gin of Ohu!" he snapped. "Which is who you happen to be talking to, so learn some respect bastard!"
The Great Dane, Sid, bared his teeth.
"I don't give a shit who you are!" he said aggressively. "You come in here without my permission, I get to kill you! And guess what? You're here without my permission."
Gin stepped forward, looking uncharacteristically angry.
"One of my packmates was just attacked in the woods back there not too long ago." he said dangerously. "He nearly died. We have no quarrel with you, but we know that you were there. All we want to know is who attacked him. That's it. Then we'll leave. Do you know who it was?"
"I'll tell you what," Sid sneered as some of his packmates laughed tauntingly. "Become my subordinates and maybe I'll tell you."
"Don't hold your breath, asshole." Chutora snorted and Sid snarled in anger, looking almost taken aback by their complete lack of fear of him.
"How dare you talk to me that way!" he yelled, and then looked at his subordinates furiously. "Kill them!"
At that, the whole ragtag pack, which consisted mainly of strays and pet dogs, some formidable looking and some downright mangy, charged the outnumbered Ohu group, howling and snarling battle cries as they ran. Gin, meanwhile, had had enough. He turned to the others with an angry glare.
"Do it!" he barked and all four of them lunged forward as well, each readying his fangs for combat.
"This is what I've been waiting for, leader!" Kurotora whooped and as soon as the two groups came together, blood flying through the air as Gin's sharp fangs tore through a nearby dog's flesh like butter, he grabbed a Pit Bull mix by the neck and slammed him hard into a nearby wall, tearing his throat out in one swift motion seconds later with a sickening rip.
A few feet over, Akame leapt left and right, dodging bites and slashes with lightning speed and returning them with even greater force, sending their recipients hobbling away with gaping wounds and broken limbs. Gin himself couldn't even be touched, and the more Sid's group tried to get a hold of him, the worse it went for them. Throwing one opponent over to the waiting Chutora, who slashed his throat out instantly, the Akita ducked a bite at his face and head-butted its deliverer hard, hearing a loud 'CRACK' and a muffled yell as the dog's lower jaw broke from the impact. Then he grabbed him by the side of the neck and swung him around in an arc at his comrades, sending 5 or 6 flying backwards into nearby walls and fences. It was very clear that despite being outnumbered, the Ohu Army easily outclassed the non-soldier dogs, and in virtually no time at all, the other group was scattering madly to get away, dropping one by one if they got near their opponents. Finally, sporting a deep, bloody slash across his furred cheek, Sid turned and ran as well, stumbling as he darted into an alley and disappeared amongst the buildings. Akame at first tried to give chase, but when he saw that the Great Dane was gone, the ninja-dog turned and leapt on one of his nearby subordinates instead, a heavily scarred Labrador that choked mightily as he was bowled over onto his back and the Kishu's razor-sharp teeth sunk deep into his throat.
"Don't kill me, please!" he begged and Gin stalked up powerfully, glaring down at him with the Kai brothers at each of his sides.
"I told you." he said. "We're not here to kill you. You brought that fight on yourselves. But now that we have you, you're going to tell me who attacked John right now."
"I don't know!" the dog rasped through Akame's grip. "Some Hokkaido-ken! There's a whole group of 'em that lives in those woods! He looked like one of those ninja-dog bastards!"
"Why did they try and kill him?" Gin demanded. "Are they planning to challenge us for Ohu?"
The dog looked genuinely surprised.
"You?" he croaked, gasping for air as he did. "You have nothing to do with it. Neither does your territory."
Gin pulled back in confused surprise and exchanged a glance with Kurotora, who looked just as lost as he was. Then he looked back down at their captive.
"What do you mean?" he asked and the Labrador looked up at him, breathing a little easier as Akame loosened his grip a little.
"Look," he said in a desperate sounding voice. "The Boss just told me that they ordered him to gather everybody and attack you. He said we could do whatever we wanted to you. They knew you'd come here. They didn't want you anyway."
"Who are they after?" Kurotora snapped urgently and the dog panned his gaze to him.
"Some Malamute." he said. "They said he was traveling with you. That's all I know, I swear!"
Gin felt a rush of fear go through him and he met Akame's gaze as the ninja-dog released the Labrador, who quickly scampered away.
"Zach." he said in realization and Akame nodded, looking greatly concerned as he did.
"Maybe that poisoned branch wasn't aimed at John." he said and the Akita turned to Kurotora and Chutora.
"Back to the others!" he barked urgently. "Quickly!"
The two Kais nodded and immediately ran after him as he took off like a shot, the whole group keeping pace with him as he reentered the woods and wove back through the trees towards where they'd left Zach, John, and Smith, his powerful legs pumping furiously as he struggled to get back to them as quickly as possible. A little less than 5 minutes later, they approached the plateau where their friends were waiting, and as soon as they were close enough, Gin and the others leapt up onto it, the Akita's head whipping around quickly as he looked for any sign of his friends.
"John!" he yelled. "Smith! Zach!"
When no one answered though, he looked closer and his eyes focused on a limp form lying at the near edge of the plateau. It was John, he saw, and he didn't appear to have been moved or touched from when Gin had last seen him. Stuck into the ground near his head though, was another sharp branch, much like the one that had nearly killed him before, and for a moment, Gin panicked, smelling poison on it clearly and thinking that the Shepherd had been stabbed again and died before they could get back to him. Then, however, he saw his friend's side rising and falling in a clear sign of life, and breathed a heavy sigh of relief, turning to Akame as he did. The ninja-dog, however, was around 10 feet away to his left. When he met Gin's gaze, his face looked serious.
"Leader," he said. "Smith is gone. There's a trail of blood over here."
"John seems to be all right." the Akita responded. "They must have left him with this poisoned branch as a taunt instead of taking him too."
Before Akame could say anything more though, another voice beat him to it.
Gin looked over at Kurotora as he heard him, the atypical shakiness of his friend's voice greatly concerning him as he walked quickly over and joined him at the opposite end of the plateau. When he strode up beside him though, he saw the Kai dog looking down at something on the ground and followed his gaze immediately, dreading what he'd find. As soon as he did see it, he froze. Behind him, he heard Akame and Chutora come up as well, and their own silences told him more than any horrified words ever could.
"Oh my god…" he breathed, his stomach doing a near backflip as he realized that what he was looking at was in fact real.
Zach lay on his side on the plateau ground, unconscious and seemingly only mildly injured from a bloody welt above his left eye, where Gin suspected he had been hit to knock him out. Surrounding his limp form though, placed at almost identical intervals to form a circle around his body, were 7 decapitated heads, all of dogs, and all with their eyes pried open in eternal death stares to glare at him as he lay motionless in their center. What horrified Gin the most though, was that he recognized them, particularly the one directly in front of Zach's face, the first one the Malamute would see when he awoke. Behind him, Chutora broke the silence.
"Who the hell are these guys?" he asked in a quiet, shaky voice and Gin knew immediately that he hadn't meant the dead dogs in front of them.
He didn't answer though, and turned to Akame quickly.
"Akame," he said in the strongest tone he could muster. "We need to get Zach out of here now. We can't let him see – "
Suddenly though, as if it was all a cruel game, Zach let out a pained moan and began to awaken, his eyes fluttering open before any of them realized it was happening.
"Ohhhhhh…" he groaned. "Smith… What?"
Gin panicked, rushing forward at the same time Akame did. They both quickly pulled the Malamute to his feet, the other dog letting out a surprised yelp as he felt it, and began half-dragging him away from the area, helping support him as he struggled momentarily to regain his footing.
"Gin?" Zach asked in shocked surprise. "Akame? What are you – What the hell's going on?"
"Zach," the Akita started. "Why don't you come over here and – "
"I'm fine." the Malamute said irritatedly, trying unsuccessfully to shrug him off. "Why are you pulling me over here? What the hell…happened?"
Gin felt him stop resisting them as his voice trailed off and nearly winced as he looked sideways and saw Zach's gaze fixed over his shoulder on the heads, Kurotora and Chutora's attempts to block his view coming too little too late. His eyes shot instantly to the head that Gin had recognized the most and he saw the Malamute's eyes widen in horror, his muscles tensing up completely as he seemed to pale beneath his fur. When he spoke, his voice was weak and almost child-like, the confusion in it making Gin's sympathy and pity for him hit a whole new level.
"D-Dad…?" Zach said in a trembling voice and then started shaking his head slowly, as if not believing it was actually real.
Gin wished he had been faster to get him out of there. The severed head of Riley of Ibaraki sat just in front of where Zach had lay, flanked by others from his pack, some of which Gin remembered from when they had stopped there all those months ago. His eyes, like all the others, were wide and blankly staring, and Zach's legs nearly gave way beneath him as he let out a moan of disbelief, struggling immediately against his friends' grips as he tried to get over to the remains of his former comrades.
"No!" he screamed as Gin and Akame struggled to restrain him. "NO! FATHER! OH SHIT, NO! NO!"
Gin immediately knocked him to the ground hard, forcing his head to turn away from the grisly sight as he, Akame, and Kurotora pinned him down, none of them knowing what to say, or how long they would have to remain there until he calmed. It didn't matter either way to Gin. As far as he was concerned, the situation needed careful examining, as it had just gotten far, far worse than it had been before.
The cave walls were wet and dripping, glistening in the dim light as groundwater trickled down from the dirt and stone above their heads, sliding through the jagged cracks and into little pools at their feet, which meant that they all had to watch where they stepped. Despite this, the cave was more than suitable to rest in, and rest and calm was exactly what the Ohu Army needed at that moment, if only to cool their heads for a minute or two. Gin glanced over at John, who still was asleep, as he sat in its center, waiting for Akame to ensure that no one had followed them or was watching to see what they did next. The young leader was almost positive that their enemies hadn't tailed them, but after what had happened, he wasn't taking any chances.
After hastily burying the heads, they had found the cave while moving to safer ground, and had quickly ducked inside, fighting the almost overwhelming desire to go searching for the missing, and possible hurt, Smith, in favor of first figuring out what the hell was going on. A few feet away from the Akita, sitting together and talking in quieter voices than he was used to hearing from them, were Kurotora and Chutora, their faces simultaneously worried and angry, a look, he assumed, he was wearing as well. Though he was very anxious about Smith, as the Spaniel was one of his closest friends in the world, he was almost more worried about Zach, who had calmed down much faster than Gin had expected him to, following them willingly instead of having to be knocked and carried by force. He hadn't said a word the entire time, and as the Akita glanced over at him, sitting by the opposite wall, looking out at the world with a blank, unblinking stare, he realized that nothing had changed in the time since they'd arrived. He sighed lightly, looking back at the ground between his front paws. He knew what losing a father felt like, how much it hurt, and was greatly concerned by the Malamute's reaction to it all. The other male hadn't shed so much as a single tear over the incident, and now appeared to be nearly catatonic, barely acknowledging the existence of his friends or the world around him as he sat in his spot away from the rest of them. Suddenly, Akame walked back over and Gin snapped out of his reverie, gesturing to him with his head and walking over to the Kai brothers by the wall. Then Gin looked at the Kishu.
"Anything?" he asked and Akame shook his head.
"No." he said. "We definitely weren't followed."
"Good." he responded with a relieved sigh and Kurotora looked at him.
"Leader," he said. "We need to find Smith. God knows what these bastards are doing to him."
"We don't even know who they are, Kuro." Chutora reminded his brother and the younger Kai frowned in annoyance.
"So we figure it out." he said. "It can't be that hard. That subordinate of Sid's in Morioka said that they're Hokkaido-kens, and we know they're ninjas. That's gotta narrow it down a lot."
"There aren't any ninja clans in this area." Akame replied. "At least not anymore. And even if there were, why would they want to hurt Zach?"
"Whoever they are," Gin said. "They definitely have a deep grudge against him."
Akame nodded in agreement and Kurotora met his gaze confusedly.
"But why not just kill him then?" he asked. "Why all…that?"
"They want him to suffer," Akame explained in a quiet voice. "Killing him is one thing. But decapitating his father and friends and then sending him their heads is something else entirely. That's cruelty to a level I haven't seen since Kurojaki. It's psychological warfare. Whatever this is about, it's personal."
"Maybe is has to do with when he was 'The Mastermind'." Chutora suggested and Gin nodded in agreement.
"It has to." he said. "But given how many dogs he killed, it could be anything."
"Leader," Kurotora said. "What are we gonna do?"
Gin sighed deeply, mentally weighing his options.
"Search the woods for Smith." he said. "That's all we can do. If we don't find him soon, we're going to have to call for backup from Ohu, and maybe Mutsu as well."
"What about him?" the Kai dog added and Gin followed his gaze to Zach, who still hadn't moved from his spot.
"I don't know." he admitted, feeling a strange rush of guilt upon even looking at his friend.
Kurotora met his gaze concernedly.
"Gin," he said quietly. "I'm worried about him. He hasn't cried once since we found his father's head. He's barely reacted at all."
Part of Gin was surprised that the younger Kai brother was even capable of that kind of empathy, but before he could answer, Chutora beat him to it.
"Maybe he just deals with it differently." he suggested and Gin shook his head.
"No." he said. "Nobody can deal with something that traumatic this calmly. I'm worried about him too. I think he's still in shock, but…if he doesn't let it out then sooner or later he's gonna blow. That's the last thing we need right now, especially given what he's capable of."
"If I may, Leader." Akame interrupted. "I think the safest thing right now would be to leave him here to look after John while we search for Smith."
"I was thinking that too." he said. "Either way, we should start our search now before – "
Suddenly, they heard a stirring coming from behind them and all turned in surprise, seeing a long overdue sight once they did.
"John!" Gin exclaimed in a relieved tone. "You're awake!"
The Shepherd's eyes had fluttered open only seconds ago, and he shook his head slightly as he pushed himself from his side to his stomach, raising his front a little to look at his friends as he did. Akame looked the other male over quickly, as if ensuring that he was okay.
"How do you feel?" he asked and John scowled slightly.
"Like I did after I got my ass kicked by Riki." he said bluntly and Gin smirked, strangely appreciative of the humor at that moment. "What happened?"
"The branch that stabbed you was poisoned." the Kishu responded. "You nearly died. If Zach hadn't been there to call for help so quickly, you would have."
John snorted, taking this news in stride.
"Poison, huh?" he said. "I knew that bastard was a fucking coward. I assume Zach's okay then."
Gin and the others exchanged uneasy glances.
"Physically maybe." Chutora responded and John raised an eyebrow.
"I miss something?" he asked and Gin nodded down at him uncomfortably.
He then proceeded to bring the Shepherd up to speed on everything that had happened in his absence, from Smith's abduction to the grisly fate of Zach's father and former comrades. By the time he was done, John looked just as shocked as they had been.
"They did what?" he exclaimed. "Why?"
Kurotora shrugged and Gin stood at the same time the Shepherd did.
"We don't know." he said, "But we were about to start searching for Smith anyway. You ready?"
John snorted, looking half-insulted at the implication that he ever wasn't ready.
"Feh!" he said. "Of course I'm ready! They're not gonna put down John of Ohu with one hit. I wouldn't be worthy to call myself a leader."
Then the Shepherd's ears perked up and his head panned left and right as its owner looked around the cave.
"Where is Zach, anyway?" he asked. "He need some time alone? Not that I'd blame him if he did."
Gin frowned in confusion and looked around to where Zach was sitting…and saw only an empty spot on the ground where he had been before. Leaping to his feet in alarm, he saw Akame do the same next to him, both of them looking around urgently for any sign of the Malamute. He was nowhere in sight.
"Shit!" the Kishu swore and Kurotora appeared at his side at the cave entrance.
"Where the hell could he have gone?" he asked and Chutora glanced at him from his other side.
"How did he get away from us so quick?" he wondered aloud and Akame glanced at him from near the wall.
"He's fast when he wants to be." he replied. "The question is: where is he going?"
"Probably to hunt down the bastards responsible for all this." John said, a newly rejuvenated look on his face. "We should go after him."
Gin nodded quickly in agreement.
"Everyone," he said. "Let's go! If the trails separate, you keep searching the woods for Smith and his attackers. I'll look for Zach. Remember, whoever these dogs are, if they're this violent than they probably can't be reasoned with. If they don't surrender, then for the sake of peace…they need to die."
"Gladly," Kurotora said with a cocky grin. "Well said, leader."
Gin didn't acknowledge the compliment and instead took off running back towards the forest.
"Let's move!" he shouted over his shoulder and the others chorused a "Yes!" after him, all of them following in his wake and leaving the cave behind.
"Please sir! Don't kill me! D-Don't – "
The dog's words were cut off in a scream of pain as Sid's fangs tore through his throat, his lifeless body flying sideways into the wall of the abandoned hunting shack they were inside, away from where anyone in Morioka could hear. The Great Dane was in a rage, his tongue occasionally licking at the painful wound in his cheek that Gin's fangs had torn during their fight not too long ago. Now, his subordinates all scattered, fearful of his wrath at their failure as blood dripped down the fur around his muzzle.
"Damn those Ohu shits!" he snarled. "No one does that to me in my own territory! No one!"
He turned to a nearby group, which cowered at the glare he gave them.
"Gather everyone together!" he yelled. "We're gonna find that bastard Gin and make him regret this!"
"B-But sir!" a nearby mutt said shakily, sporting some still-bleeding wounds of his own. "They're the Ohu Army! We can't beat them!"
"Shut up!" Sid screamed. "Do it or I'll hunt down your fucking families! Now go!"
The others cowered back even further, and turned to run out of the room immediately in fear. Suddenly though, a new, deadlier voice made itself known.
"No." it said. "Don't go. I have a bone to pick with you first."
The dogs all stopped in their tracks, and Sid whirled towards the sound, glaring angrily at the shape standing in the doorway as soon as he saw it.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked furiously. "How dare you override my orders! You much have a death wish, bastard!"
The dog padded slowly into the room and as soon as he was in a better light, Sid could see that it was a large Malamute, the one that had been traveling with Gin. A truly bloodthirsty look was on his face as he scanned the room with his eyes, and before anyone could say anything else, he panned his gaze to the group of subordinates by the opposite door.
"Answer me truthfully and I'll let you live." he said in a low, threatening voice. "Is he Sid?"
He nodded at the Great Dane in question and for a moment, the other dogs looked unsure of what to do. Then one nodded timidly. The Malamute turned and glared murderously at Sid.
"Get out." he said to the others without looking at them. "Come back and you're dead."
They all quickly ran from the shack, and Sid snarled angrily at the dog. Having his authority usurped was more than he could stand. Teeth bared, he lunged at the dog, thinking of how sweet it would taste when it lay at his feet, bleeding onto the floor from its torn throat. Suddenly, the dog was gone, and Sid felt a sharp, explosive pain erupt in his face as all sight snuffed out in his left eye. Letting out a loud whine, he fell to the ground and clawed at his face, swearing at the dog in between his yells.
"Ahhhh!" he screamed. "You bastard! You – "
He was cut off as the Malamute hit him hard from the side and rolled him forcibly onto his back, stamping a paw down on his throat as he did and cutting off all his air in the process. When he looked up in fear, the dog was looming over him, a vindictive look in his eyes. Then he leaned in close to Sid's face.
"Here's how the immediate future is going to go for you." he whispered, the furious quaver in his voice unmistakable. "You're going to tell me who it was that killed my father. If you do, I'll kill you quickly. If you don't, I'm going to take my sweet time ripping you limb from limb. Then, you are going to crawl into a corner somewhere, and spend the last few moments of your pitiful life in utter agony and shame, wishing you had never met me."
Then he put his muzzle close to the Great Dane's ear.
"Now…" he said softly. "Who was it?"
Sid bared his fangs at him defiantly.
"Fuck you." he said.
The Malamute looked him right in the eyes, and his look suggested somehow that he had expected this response.
"Wrong answer." he said.
In the forest around the hunting shack, Mitsuo heard shrieks of pain begin erupting from inside crumbling building, and turned to his leader, who stood only a few feet away.
"It's him, sir." he said, and the tall dog nodded, turning to head back to the temple in the woods.
"I know." he responded. "Let him come…let him come."
Gin sniffed at the ground, getting traces of Zach's scent here and there as he made his way back towards the woods away from Morioka. His instincts had led him back to the human village, where the same Corgi from before had told him of the hunting shack where Sid's hideout was…and where he had sent Zach only a short time ago when he'd come asking. The Akita suspected that the Malamute must have overheard Sid's name when Kurotora had mentioned it back in the cave, and increased his pace once more, seeing no trace of his friend as he looked around.
"Zach!" he called. "Zach, answer me! That's an order!"
There was no response, but right as he was about to turn in another direction, he saw it through the trees. The hunting shack was run down and decrepit, crumbling in parts and covered with moss, but canine scents were all over it, and as Gin stepped into the clearing that surrounded it, he was on high alert, every muscle tense as he prepared for a possible attack.
"Zach?" he called again in a wary voice, looking for any sign of movement as he awaited an answer.
The voice that did respond, however, was not the one he had been expecting.
The Akita glanced over at the opposite side of the clearing and saw John trotting out of the trees, looking just as surprised to see him as Gin was.
"John!" he called back, walking quickly up to him. "I thought you were looking for Smith."
"I am," the Shepherd replied, glancing at the shack as he did. "I was searching this area. Akame's taking the treetops and the Kais are over there."
He had nodded over his shoulder as he said it and suddenly sniffed at the air.
"I smell blood, Gin." he said. "A lot of it."
"I know." the Akita answered, having scented it long ago, and then gestured to him. "Let's go. Quickly."
John nodded and, moving at a brisk but careful pace, the pair walked around to the shack's front entrance, which now was only a doorless frame that invited anyone in who wanted to come past it's threshold. Inside it was dark, and it was only after he heard a low, pained moan that Gin rushed into it, fully ready to fight if need be. What he saw instead made his jaw drop in shock for the second time that day. Two severed legs and a tail lay on the middle of the floor inside the shack, looking like they had been ripped forcefully off their owner and then tossed aside. The dog they belonged to dangled right above them from a rusty meat hook nailed into the ceiling, something Gin suspected the humans had used to store their kills after hunts. He saw immediately that it was Sid, and though he had thought before that the brutal hooligan deserved to be punished, what Zach had done was, in his eyes, going way too far. The meat hook was speared through the Great Dane's lower jaw, and he dangled from it above a pool of his own blood, the red liquid dripping steadily from the stumps that used to be his legs and tail. Truthfully, Gin was amazed he was still alive, and knew that he had to act fast, as the mortally wounded dog would be dead within moments in his condition. Ignoring John's gasp of "Holy shit…" behind him, Gin leapt up on a nearby shelf and forcibly yanked the hook out of the rotting wood that held it, thankful that it had been as easy as it was. Then, as John removed it from the trembling Sid's jaw, he leaned in close to the dying dog.
"The dog that did this to you." he said quietly. "Where did you send him? I promise you I'll end your suffering, but you need to tell me where he went. Where is it?"
Sid choked a little, coughing up blood as he stared at the wall through half closed eyes.
"…Temple…" he managed weakly. "…in woods…sun carving…Hattori…"
Then, before he could say any more, a shudder went through his tortured body and his head dropped lifelessly to the dirt floor. He was dead. Gin and John stood at the same time and the Shepherd looked at Gin intensely, as if he'd had a great revelation.
"I know where that is!" he said. "Zach and I found it the other day before I was attacked. But I thought the Hattori ninja clan was wiped out!"
"That's what Akame said." Gin agreed. "How could they have anything to do with this?"
Then, he got a revelation of his own and looked at his best friend.
"Wait." he said. "How exactly were they wiped out?"
"I don't know." he said. "Akame just said they were. Why?"
"If I remember right," Gin replied intensely. "He told me that they just vanished, that they had left to go somewhere as a pack and never came back. What if…they went to Ibaraki?"
John straightened up in realization.
"That would explain their grudge against Zach," he said after a pause, looking almost disappointed that he hadn't thought of it first. "If he killed most of them as 'Mastermind', then these ones must be the remnants of the clan. They blame him for what happened to their comrades, so they're taking revenge."
"And at the same time, they're attacking us for taking him in." Gin finished with a nod. "Akame was right. It's psychological warfare. Come on!"
John didn't even bother to respond and the two sprinted out of the shack and back into the woods as quickly as their legs could take them, intent on finding the others and then getting to their destination to end the madness once and for all.
Zach felt hollow as he stood facing the temple, getting the distinct sense as he stared at it that it was glaring back at him, judging him for the sins of his past. A million different emotions were running through his head at once, and as the blood from his gore-soaked fur dripped into a pool at his feet, he readied himself for combat. Disgust at himself for what he had done to Sid warred with guilt and sorrow over his father's fate, and as he prepared to enter the building, he clenched his eyes shut and tried to dismiss them from his mind.
'Father,' he thought. 'I've failed you. I wasn't there to protect you because of what I did. Please forgive this fool one last evil deed to avenge you. Then rest in peace.'
Then, taking a deep, furious breath, he stalked forward up the creaking, wooden stairs and nosed open the great door to the temple, silence awaiting him from inside as he did. Only once he was safely past its threshold did its inhabitants make themselves known.
"I've been waiting for you to come." came a voice from the darkness, and Zach's ears perked up at once. "We have some things to settle, you and I."
"Well, here I am bastard." the Malamute responded. "And once this is done, you're gonna wish to god you'd never provoked me, never hurt my family and friends."
"I provoked you?" the voice scoffed, and Zach could hear as he walked down a large narrow hallway, lined with wooden partitions on either side, that it was in a new location. "I thought that in your code, revenge was justified. It is in mine. And given your crime against my flesh and blood, you deserve everything you get boy."
"My crime?" Zach frowned, looking left and right for the voice's source. "What the hell did I ever do to you? Who are you for that matter?"
"My name is Tetsu." the voice responded. "Leader of the Hattori Ninja Dogs. And as for what you did…just listen closely."
Suddenly, Zach saw a flash out of the corner of his eye and something barreled into him hard from the side, sending him flying through one of the wooden partitions and into the room beyond it, scattering splinters everywhere as he landed. Remembering his training though, he leapt immediately back to his paws, but the dog was already gone, having disappeared into the dim light and many obstacles the temple had to offer.
"This place is full of ghosts." Tetsu said from wherever he was. "If you listen maybe you'll hear them. I do. Maybe they'll tell you about the final journey of my clan, and of the dog they ran into where they went…little 'Mastermind' of Ibaraki."
Before Zach could open his mouth, something long and sharp, a broken wooden beam, he assumed, swung from out of the dark and sliced him up the cheek, making him cry out in pain long enough to get grabbed by the hind leg and thrown sideways through another wooden divider, back into the hallway he had been in in the first place. Zach shook his head and stood, blood streaming down the side of his face.
"Come out here and fight, you coward!" he yelled. "I'll even take your subordinates at this point if it'll get me to you!"
"The few comrades you left me with are off dealing with your friends." Tetsu responded from a new location. "We won't be bothered here."
"I never killed your comrades!" Zach shouted. "The dogs I killed in Ibaraki were thugs, violent hooligans at best. There were no ninjas there. The dogs I killed deserved it!"
Though once he would have meant this sincerely, Zach now said it only to provoke the ninja dog leader out of hiding, a plan that worked almost too well. His newly tuned instincts went wild, having gotten the feel of the temple down a little better, but Tetsu was far more skilled than him, and when he hit him from the front with a snarl of fury, clamping his jaws down on the Malamute's throat like a vice as he did, Zach couldn't stop him. The impact bowled him over onto his back, and he quickly grabbed the other dog by the shoulders with his front legs and dragged him with him, sending them both rolling into a nearby room. Tetsu, however, was in a rage of his own.
Jerking his head sideways, he ripped a chunk of flesh from Zach's neck and then went to work on him as they stumbled over each other's legs, slashing him left and right across the face and chest with his razor sharp fangs and dodging any return hits the Malamute tried to send his way. Aware that he was losing, Zach decided desperately to change the game. Faking a lunge at Tetsu's face, he instead threw a wooden shard at his legs and grabbed him by the neck as he jumped to avoid it. Then, before the ninja-dog could counter him, he tackled him backwards into what looked like a small shrine and began slamming the Hokkaido-ken's face down on the edge of a wooden stare, shaking him left and right violently and biting down on him as hard as he could, thinking of his father as blood streamed from around his teeth. Suddenly though, Tetsu pushed off from the floor with great force and sent them careening into the nearby wall, where an ancient collection of knives and swords hung like forgotten relics. As they hit it, he twisted at the last second, and Zach let out a whine of great pain as he felt their sharp metal points stab into his back, sliding off them onto the floor moments later. Then Tetsu stood over him panting, bleeding from a wound below his right eye.
"My comrades were passing through your territory to get to Shikoku." he said brutally as Zach heard the telltale sounds of another fight beginning outside, and knew immediately that Gin and the others had arrived and were engaging the Hokkaido-ken's subordinates. "My mate and young son were with them. They got caught up by accident in one of your twisted little ambushes and you dropped a fucking cliffside on them! My son was only 6 months old! 6 MONTHS OLD!"
The rush of shock that Zach felt at this revelation was more painful than the knives that had cut him and he shook his head in disbelief.
"No…" he said, dropping his guard for a moment. "I only killed bad dogs. I never killed any innocents."
"My life fell apart after they died!" Tetsu continued as if he hadn't even spoken. "Only 5 of us were left, and we didn't know what to do. Now there's only 4. You robbed me of everything I had! I could've done the same to you and killed that little bastard brother of yours too, but I wanted you both to feel what I felt when I had to mourn my own flesh and blood! You say you only killed bad dogs? I'd love to see what dogs were worse than you. What makes you any fucking different from them?"
"I – I've changed. I didn't mean…"
"You didn't mean it?" Tetsu howled. "Of course you fucking meant it!"
With that, he grabbed Zach again and hurled him as hard as he could at a nearby window, sending his already bloodied body smashing through it and onto the ledge beyond, a ledge that ended at the steep cliff Zach had seen before when they had first arrived in the area. Trembling and bleeding from all over, he pushed himself to a laying position. Somehow, though he didn't want to believe it, he knew that what the ninja dog was saying was 100% true. He saw the Hokkaido-ken stalking slowly towards him from the rear of the temple, and the loathing on the other male's face only made him hate himself even more for what he had inadvertently done. Suddenly, before either could say another word to each other, Gin, John, Akame, and the others came sprinting out from the inside of the temple, each sporting fresh wounds but determined looks on their faces. Running alongside them, looking angry but relatively unharmed, was Smith, and Zach felt a momentary rush of relief that his friend was all right, assumedly having been found restrained somewhere inside. Gin saw the situation and made an immediate move to lunge at Tetsu's back, but Zach suddenly sat up a little taller.
"No!" he yelled. "Wait, Gin!"
The Akita stopped in confusion, and Kurotora looked at Zach like he had grown a second head.
"What do mean 'wait'?" he demanded. "This bastard deserves to be punished! We've already dealt with his friends, now let's take care of him!"
Zach looked at Tetsu, who was ignoring the Ohu soldiers entirely, and let out a deep, ragged sigh. Then he rolled onto his back and exposed his throat to the other male.
"Kill me." he said and the others let out gasps of shock.
"Zach," John growled. "What are you saying?"
The Malamute kept his gaze fixed on Tetsu's.
"If my death will bring you any peace" he said softly. "Then I offer it to you…as payment for what I did. I never meant to hurt your family, I swear it. I'm so sorry."
Tetsu shook his head, snorting slightly as he did.
"If I wanted you dead," he said, walking slowly past him as he lay there. "I would've killed you a long time ago. No…I want you to live, and remember every day for the rest of your miserable life what you did, what you are…what you always will be."
Then he stepped up to the cliff's edge and Zach stood up quickly at the same time Gin stepped forward in alarm.
"What are you – " he started, and Tetsu looked back at him one more time, a few tears streaming down his furred cheek as he did.
"You live with it." he said.
Then he stepped forward and dropped out of sight over the edge, no one anywhere near close enough to grab him. Moments later, there was silence. Standing behind, Gin looked worriedly at Zach, who stood for a long time staring at the cliff's edge, his back turned to them. Then, without a word to his friends, the Malamute turned and walked back the way he'd come, head low and eyes on the ground as he took stumbling steps back through the temple and into the forest beyond it, never looking back once as he did. Gin turned and exchanged a concerned glance with Akame. Then he looked at Smith.
"Smith," he said. "Are you all right?"
The Spaniel nodded.
"Yeah," he said quietly, staring after Zach. "They just knocked me out."
Gin nodded and then turned to Akame and John.
"Go back to where our trail was when we first came here." he said in a low voice. "I'll meet up with you later."
Then, seeing the Kishu nod at him, he turned and bounded after Zach, catching up to him in almost no time at all. As he did, he matched the Malamute's pace, keeping his eyes on the heavily wounded other dog as he continued to move slowly through the trees around them. Neither said a word to each other, and eventually, after walking for a little bit, they arrived back at the plateau from earlier, where Gin and the others had buried Zach's father and friends. As soon as he was on it, Zach limped up to the mound where they rested eternally and came to a halt. Then, finally reaching his breaking point, he collapsed to the ground on top it and began to sob, draping his leg over his muzzle in a pitiful attempt to hide it.
Sighing deeply, and feeling tears welling in his own eyes, Gin silently padded over and laid down next to him, resting his head gently on the back of the other male's neck and holding him close with his front leg. That was all that needed to be said. For a long while, the two lay there, and Gin waited patiently for his emotionally damaged friend to calm down, wondering silently if he would ever be the same again once he had.
Gin stood at the edge of the group, watching silently as Kurotora and Chutora both drifted off to sleep, their bodies curled into balls as they tried to keep themselves warm from the cool night wind. A day had passed and they were right at the edge of the Mutsu territory, having put some distance between where they had been and where they were now. Gin himself, meanwhile, had a lot of thoughts running through his mind. It had taken a long time for Zach to calm down enough to leave, and once he had, nobody knew what to say to him, none of them wanting to intrude too closely on a pain as deep as his. The Akita was exhausted, having kept watch over the Malamute all day to ensure that he didn't try something crazy like killing himself, and now that it was night, he was looking forward to finally getting some rest. All that was needed was one last report from Akame. As if on cue, the Kishu leapt out of a treetop to his left and landed beside him gracefully, John padding up next to Gin from the other side. The Ohu leader looked worriedly at him.
"What's the word?" he asked and Akame looked at him with a weary, sad gaze.
"Our scout just sent word from Ibaraki." he responded quietly. "James is all right. He's taken over command of the pack. Despite his age and lack of experience, they seem to be doing well, especially under the circumstances. He might actually be a good leader."
"And Zach?" Gin asked, cocking his head slightly, and Akame shook his with a ragged sigh.
"No." he said. "He wants nothing to do with him. I think he blames him for their father's death. Told us to tell him to never come back."
Gin clenched his eyes shut sadly, nodding once he had.
"All right." he sighed and John looked at him.
"What should we do with him, Gin?" he asked and the Akita looked over at the sleeping Malamute, who was tossing and turning as he lay by Chutora a few feet away, his wounds already on the mend.
"We'll take him in." Gin said. "I can't just kick him out after everything he's been through with us. Hopefully we can get him back to how he was before all this happened."
"Leader," Akame said, interrupting. "You should get some sleep. We'll arrive at Kisaragi's home base by tomorrow. We can figure out the rest of this then."
Gin nodded again, grateful for the suggestion and John looked at Akame.
"You too, Akame." he said, and the ninja dog met his gaze. "I'll take the first watch. I slept enough recently as it is."
Akame looked for a moment like he had a mind to object, but agreed anyway and lay down beside Gin, both of them already asleep mere moments after they'd closed their eyes. Once they had, John looked around at their surroundings, making sure this time that they had no more unexpected surprises to disturb them. As he did this, he caught sight of Zach turning in his sleep again and frowned slightly, watching him for a moment as he did it. Then, after making sure that his friends were really asleep, the prideful German Shepherd padded silently over and rested a paw gently on the Malamute's shoulder, watching as his movement stopped almost instantly and his sleep became peaceful once more. Satisfied, John walked back over to the other edge of the group and settled down without a word, intending to keep a close watch on his friends until they all woke up in the morning.