Story 8: The Enemy
Uzuki watched the rocky hills carefully, his eyes scanning for any sign of movement amongst the trees that dotted their crests. The afternoon sun shone down on him brightly from directly overhead, and made the day a deceivingly nice one, the kind that his clan loved to see in their mountainous home of Mutsu. Today though, it was doing nothing to improve his mood.
'God damn that Dengen.' he thought furiously. 'If he tries anything, anything at all, I'll send him straight down to hell's gates!'
The Siberian Husky clenched his jaws tightly together. He was very proud of his home territory, and the idea of someone else claiming that it was rightfully theirs instead made his blood boil. He and his brothers had all but broken their backs to create a peaceful home for themselves and their clan, from fighting local strays to claim it to joining up with the Ohu Army for the now legendary war against Akakabuto, and they more than deserved to reap the rewards for their hard work and sacrifice. Instead though, they had gotten Dengen. The wolf and his pack had shown up seemingly from nowhere a few weeks ago, like leeches crawling out the mud, and Uzuki and the others had hit quite a large snag in their peace. Now he had to resort to guarding the path that led to their main base personally, in case the stubborn Dengen decided that he was sick of running his mouth and wanted some action instead. Uzuki gave the hills another once-over with his hard gaze, and seeing nothing again, snorted loudly.
'Looks like another uneventful day.' he thought. 'How boring.'
The Mutsu general stretched his neck and sat down, intent to rest until something worth his time happened. As he did though, someone padded up next to him, their paws rustling the grass as they moved, and Uzuki recognized one of his brother's subordinates, Sai, when he looked.
"Anything sir?" the Belgian Shepherd asked, following his commander's gaze, and Uzuki shook his head lightly.
"No." he responded, the contempt in his voice obvious. "If Dengen knows what's good for him, he'll stay up in those mountains and leave us alone."
"Somehow I doubt he's that smart." Sai said, scratching at an itch with his hind leg.
The Husky smirked slightly.
"Let's hope so," he said, "I'd love some action right about now."
At those words, there was a loud rustling in the trees on the top of the hill to their left, and both males turned towards it immediately, ears perking up attentively as they looked for the source of the sound. A dozen feet away, another of the Mutsu clan's guards crept closer, and after a few moments of silence, Uzuki called to him, regaining his feet once more.
The dog quickly examined the area and then shook his head.
"No sir." he replied loudly. "False alarm."
Uzuki scowled and then turned and began pacing, walking slowly and wondering what Kisaragi and the rest of his brothers were busy doing.
'Probably something more exiting than this.' he thought ruefully and heard Sai once again fall in step beside him.
"Is it true, sir?" he asked. "That Gin and the Ohu Army are coming here?"
"From what I've heard, yes." he said. "And they should be here soon, maybe today. If only we had a peaceful territory to greet them with."
"Maybe they can get rid of Dengen for us." Sai suggested with a grin and Uzuki huffed irritatedly.
"We're soldiers of Mutsu!" he responded in an insulted sounding voice. "We take care of our own problems! How could we call ourselves real males if we had to rely on our friends to deal with our fights for us?"
"Sir," Sai said, backing up a few steps. "I meant no offense. I just – "
Suddenly, there was a loud, deep growl behind them and a pained yelp followed it, making both dogs whirl around towards it in surprise, wide-eyed and caught off guard. The guard that had spoken before was gone, Uzuki saw immediately, and already others near them were charging into the trees after where he had presumably disappeared to, howling battle yells as they ran. He immediately leapt after them.
"Dengen!" he shouted ferociously. "I'm Uzuki of Mutsu! Come and fight me!"
There was no answer and more yelps and howls of pain pierced the air from right in front of him through the trees, making the Siberian Husky charge past them into the clearing beyond, fangs bared and battle ready. When his gaze fell on his opponent though, he skidded instantly to a halt, his jaw open in shock. He had been wrong. The attacker in front of them wasn't Dengen…it wasn't even canine…and Uzuki was so startled by it's sudden appearance that he barely reacted when Sai came running through the trees past him and got immediately sliced clean in half by one swipe of the creature's great paw, his blood and entrails splattering out onto the dirt as he flopped to the ground and lay still, his dead eyes wide with both pain and surprise. When a second of his troops met the same fate, however, Uzuki snapped back to reality and howled to the remaining soldiers gathered with him.
"Retreat and regroup!" he shouted hoarsely, "Everyone, fall back!"
Dodging another swipe from their opponent, Uzuki grabbed one of his troops by the back of the neck and made an immediate dash through the trees back towards where Kisaragi and the others were resting.
'I have to warn my brother!' he thought urgently. 'Before Gin and the others get here! I have to – '
Suddenly, a tree in front of him came crashing to the ground, and the Mutsu commander skidded to a halt once more as the creature somehow appeared in front of him, roaring angrily in his face as another of his troops stopped nearby as well. Then it's great paw descended once more and Uzuki quickly shoved his packmate out of the way as hard as he could, saving his life but putting himself directly in it's path instead. Moments later, sharp claws tore viciously into his flank and a shockwave of pain hit him all at once, making a loud whine of pain escape his throat as he fell sideways onto the ground near a tall, twisted tree a few feet away.
'Brother,' he thought. 'Brother…"
Then Uzuki of Mutsu knew no more.
Smith sniffed at the air as he and the others rounded a bend in the path, their course taking them closer and closer to the home base of the Mutsu clan with every step they took. They had passed into the neighboring northern territory earlier the previous day, and had quickly managed to remember the route that would lead them to where Kisaragi and his 300 strong subordinates made their home.
'It's a nice day.' the Spaniel thought, feeling the sun warming his back pleasantly. 'Perfect conditions for a reunion of old friends. If only the circumstances were different…'
Smith glanced over his shoulder. Walking silently behind him, an expression on his face that seemed to suggest he wanted to lay down somewhere and die, was Zach, and the Spaniel instantly felt a pang of sympathy for the younger dog as he turned back to the path ahead of him, getting totally ignored by the Malamute in the process. This wasn't abnormal, as Zach had ignored pretty much everyone since they had departed the area around Morioka, and Smith was truly at a loss as to how to help him start the healing process. He had tried enticing him into a few brief hunts, if only to give him some sense of normalcy after what had happened, but Zach had always turned him down with a shake of his head, moving to sit alone at the edge of the group while Gin and the others talked amongst themselves nearby. He wasn't alone in his failure though.
Everyone had tried at one point or another to get the Malamute to talk to them, but no one as of yet had been successful, and eventually they had all decided to give Zach some more time to himself before trying again. No one could blame him for the way he was acting, with even John toning back the smug remarks and insults to a bare minimum, but his behavior still worried them nonetheless. Smith knew what losing a parent felt like, as he had lost both of his when he was very young, but losing literally everything you had left was something that he couldn't even fathom. Sure, Zach still had them, but with his father dead, his only sibling hating his guts, and his own clan not wanting him back, what did he even have left to fight for? It was good that they were all there to watch over him, whether he wanted it or not, but Smith was still anxious over what the future held for his friend…and them. Zach was unpredictable at to say the least, even at his best, and one thing that he knew they were all secretly concerned about was the thought of him reverting back into his 'Mastermind' mentality, and becoming cold and violent once more. At the moment though, what worried him the most was the fact that Zach was refusing to eat anything, and though the Malamute wasn't slowing them down at all because of it, they were all still greatly concerned about his well being, especially in light of his already self-destructive behavior.
'This trip was supposed to be a light-hearted one.' Smith thought ruefully. 'Visit some friends, get away from Gajou for awhile… Why does this shit always seem to happen whenever we start to enjoy ourselves?'
The Spaniel shook his head. He had to get his mind off of it for a while. It was just too depressing to go around with those thoughts all the time. Beside him, Gin seemed to be doing the same thing, and he found himself glad that the Akita was able to relax a little bit. Before he could think any more though, Kurotora's voice snapped him out of his thoughts.
"Kisaragi is expecting us today, right?" he asked in his gravelly voice and Gin nodded, glancing back over his shoulder at him.
"Yes." he answered, sounding calmer than he probably was. "Hopefully he's doing well when we get there."
"I heard he was thinking about starting a family again." John said from Akame's side to their right and the Kishu nodded, turning to them as well.
"Mmm." he said. "I heard the same. It'll be interesting to see if he actually went through with it."
"With his mate he'd be a fool not to." Kurotora said. "She's choice."
"I'll be sure to tell Amaya you said that, Kuro." Smith teased with a smirk and the Kai dog looked over at him.
"I never said she's better than Amaya." he replied coolly. "Nobody is. Besides, she'd never believe you anyway."
The Spaniel snorted good-naturedly, but Kurotora wasn't finished.
"What about you Smith?" he teased. "You gonna get a girl one of these days?"
"I'm biding my time." came the reply, and the Kai dog snorted.
"Yeah? Well, you better get a move on pal, or all the good ones'll be gone." he said and then nudged Chutora next to him. "Besides, you're missing out. Just wait 'til we get to Kisaragi's base. He probably gets more tail then you've even fantasized about."
In front of them, Akame scowled over his shoulder.
"Couth as always, Kurotora." he said sarcastically and Smith glared over at the other dog, feeling slightly embarrassed.
"Just you wait." he growled irritatedly. "I give you and Amaya 2 years tops before she comes to her senses and drops you like a rock off a cliff."
"You're just jealous." Kurotora grinned and Gin glanced back as well.
"Guys," he chided. "Cool it. We're here."
Turning away from his obnoxious friend, Smith looked up at the path and saw what he had been waiting to see for hours. Through the trees ahead of them, a large rock mound rose out of the earth like an emerging mountain, it's sandy color and rough, almost jagged nature contrasting nicely with the green of the trees that encircled it. A few hundred feet away to the west, a large pit lay like a dried up lakebed, the sight of an important battle only a few years ago, and Smith and the others knew that they had come to the right place. From where they stood, they could see small dens and caves dug into the steeper part of the rock mound, and assumed quickly that Kisaragi and his brothers were inside, an assumption that proved correct when a perimeter guard near the edge of the clearing called out the Mutsu leader's name, his voice laced with veiled excitement upon seeing the Ohu soldiers arrive. Almost immediately, a duo of Siberian Huskies emerged from within the largest of the caves, the lead one's dark brown and cream colored fur giving him away instantly as Kisaragi himself, his brother Hazuki at his side.
"Gin!" the large dog called in greeting, a note of surprise in his voice as he ran quickly down the rock mound's slope to greet them, a number of guards joining them as well.
The Akita gave his friend a warm smile as he ran up, and soon the two groups had come together, their tails wagging happily as they greeted one another. Kisaragi looked around at them, nodding at Akame and John respectfully as he did.
"We were expecting you sooner." he said, a strained note in his voice that made Smith frown in concern.
If Gin had heard it too, he didn't let it show, and nodded apologetically at the Husky.
"We ran into some…problems at the border." he replied. "But at we've arrived now. How are you?"
Kisaragi was silent and exchanged a glance with Hazuki, who shrugged at his brother almost sympathetically.
"He'll find out eventually, Kisaragi." he said, and Gin frowned finally as well, panning his gaze back and forth between them.
"Is everything all right?" he asked, and the Mutsu leader turned back to him after a pause, his look suggesting what his voice confirmed moments later.
"No." he said. "We've had an incident as well. I'm afraid your stay might not be a peaceful one, Gin."
"What happened?" Akame asked, stepping forward, and Kisaragi turned to him.
"Uzuki was attacked the other day while out on patrol." he responded. "He was hurt…badly."
"Who attacked him?" John asked with a steely note in his voice.
"A bear." Kisaragi said, his anger now obvious. "He's a lot like Akakabuto but not as big or strong. My pack calls him 'Masahiro'."
"Figured we might as well put a name to the fat bastard." Hazuki said with a humorless smirk and Gin turned back to Kisaragi.
"How long has he been here?" he asked seriously.
"He just showed up." the Husky said. "At the worst possible time too. He's not even our biggest problem."
When Gin straightened up even more in worry, Kisaragi motioned to them all.
"Come on." he said. "I'll tell you everything inside."
The Akita nodded and they made to follow him, but suddenly Kisaragi stopped, turning back with a confused frown as his eyes went to Gin's right.
"Who's this?" he asked with a gesture of his head and Smith saw that he had noticed Zach.
"This is Zach of Ibaraki." Gin replied, looking at him. "He's a newer member of our pack."
Then he turned his gaze towards Zach.
"Zach," he said. "This is Kisaragi of Mutsu and his brother Hazuki. They're the boss dogs in this territory."
Zach looked up from where his gaze had been on the ground and stared at the two Siberian Huskies, seeming to examine them carefully with his eyes as he did. Both dogs nodded at him in greeting, but after a moment, Zach turned away without so much as word or motion, making Hazuki growl at him angrily.
"Hey!" he snapped. "Show some respect when – "
"We have a lot of things to talk about inside." Gin interrupted quickly with a step forward, looking at both of his Mutsu friends. "Why don't you bring us up to speed on everything in there?"
Kisaragi looked at him and then panned his gaze over to Zach momentarily before nodding and turning to walk away. Smith had seen the look of irritation on the prideful Husky's face and had secretly breathed a sigh of relief when Gin had intervened. Then the group followed them, walking up the side of the rock mound as Gin leaned in and whispered something to Kisaragi, getting a muttered response moments later. In no time at all, they were up in the Mutsu clan's main cave, and Kisaragi very quickly led them to the back, bypassing guards and other pack soldiers as they did. Eventually, he stopped beside the rear wall and Smith heard the others inhale sharply, something he did himself as he saw what they were looking at. Uzuki of Mutsu lay on his side on the den floor, either unconscious or sleeping, and he was not in a good way. 4 or 5 very deep slash marks split their way obscenely down his left side to his stomach, a gathering of leaves and mosses draped over top of them to try and stem the bleeding. He breathed shallowly, and Smith could tell somehow from the angle of his body that something else was definitely wrong as well.
"The wounds nearly killed him." Kisaragi said as Akame moved forward past him to examine the motionless Husky. "When we found him, his intestines were hanging out of one of those cuts. We managed to put them back in but he almost died of blood loss in the process. It'll be months before he even walks again, let alone resumes his duties. I don't even know what to do with him."
"Kisaragi," Gin said gently. "I'm sorry."
The Husky nodded, dropping his worried brother look and turning back to them with a new look of angry determination.
"I'll have no problem killing Masahiro for this." he growled. "I just have to find him. He hides in those mountains up behind this place, or so I'm told. My guards are out looking now. My biggest problem at the moment though, is Dengen."
"Dengen?" Chutora asked with a raised eyebrow and Kisaragi turned to him as they all lay down in a circle by the cave's entrance.
"Dengen's the boss of a wolf pack who lives in the same mountains as Masahiro." he explained. "He and his pack are claiming that Mutsu is rightfully theirs, and that we stole it from them."
John shook his head with a snort and smirked at the Mutsu leader.
"The joys of being a boss dog, huh?" he said and Kisaragi smiled back despite himself.
"Dengen says that if we don't leave he'll use force to make us leave." he said, the anger in his voice unmistakable. "I'm perfectly ready to just fight him one-on-one and scatter his little pack of mongrels, but they know the mountains really well, better than us actually. We have to wait until the bastard shows his face before we have it out once and for all. Until then, I've had to send most of our females and elders elsewhere so they'll be safe."
"Do you need our help?" Gin asked with a glance, and Kisaragi nodded almost immediately.
"We'll handle Dengen ourselves," he said. "So don't concern yourselves with him. Masahiro though…we'd be glad for the help, especially since you and John are both former bear hounds."
"Oh, I hunted a lot more than bear." John said in a smug voice. "But that's what I'm best at. Sounds like fun."
Kisaragi smirked at him again.
"Good to see you haven't changed." he said in a teasing voice. "Now, how about we – "
Suddenly, one of the Mutsu leader's subordinates came sprinting into the cave from the outside.
"Kisaragi-san!" he said. "News from the mountain pass, sir. Dengen and his pack have been spotted. He's calling you out to fight, sir."
The Husky and the Ohu Dogs all immediately leapt to their feet.
"Good!" Kisaragi said. "It's about time!"
Then he turned to Gin.
"You're welcome to join us, Gin." he said. "But this fight is between me and him. Don't interfere."
"Wouldn't dream of it." the Akita answered with a courteous nod and then looked at the others. "Come on guys! Let's go help him drive these wolves off."
"Let's do it!" Kurotora whooped excitedly and Smith shook his head with a grin as Gin turned to Zach.
"Zach," he said. "You stay here and help them look after Uzuki. Make sure his wounds don't get infected."
The Malamute gave him a look that was halfway between an irritated glare and a sad look of understanding, as if he had been expecting this.
"You don't trust me to kill the enemy in this state, Gin?" he asked in a quiet voice and the Akita looked him in the eye.
"No Zach," he replied calmly. "I don't trust you won't let them kill you."
For a moment after this, there was an uncomfortable silence from everyone nearby before Gin finally turned and gestured to the others.
"Let's go!" he ordered and took off after the departing Kisaragi, who had paused to wait for them just outside the cave entrance.
Moments later, they were all running together, and the Mutsu leader looked over at Gin as they all began heading towards their destination.
"What's with that guy, Gin?" he asked, a confused frown plastered on his face as he nodded back at the cave. "What's his story?"
The Akita sighed slightly as he met his gaze, leaping over a large boulder in his path with ease.
"He's been through a lot recently." he answered, hearing John and Hazuki keeping pace right behind him. "The battlefield isn't the place for him right now. Bringing him along would just make this fight even more unpredictable. It's a shame too. He's a good fighter."
"What happened to him?" Kisaragi asked, his tongue lolling slightly out of his mouth as he ran.
"It's a long story."
"We've got a couple minutes 'til we get there." the Husky answered. "And once we do, there's not gonna be much talking going on. Tell me."
Gin looked at him for a second, then turned back to the path in front of him.
"All right." he said. "Here's what happened…"
Smith looked around them as they walked slowly forward into Mutsu's northern pass, seeing loose rocks and small plants jutting out of the rough canyon walls that lined them on either side. The place looked perfect for an ambush, and he listened carefully to hear any sign of hidden movement, hearing Akame doing the same beside him.
"These walls don't look stable." the Kishu said in a calm but serious voice. "This isn't a good place to fight."
"We'll have to deal with it." Kisaragi said. "He's coming."
"Watch for ambushes from the top of the cliff." John warned. "If there's one thing I learned from Zach, it's that these canyons have all kinds of ways to kill you."
"This isn't Ibaraki." Kurotora replied, walking up next to Gin. "We've got home field advantage here."
Gin though, disagreed.
"John's right, Kuro." he said, narrowing his eyes as he looked for any sign of their enemy. "We shouldn't be overconfident. Keep looking for them."
"You can stop your search!" came a loud voice, and all of their heads whipped immediately towards it, the whole group of them stopping in their tracks as they did.
Almost immediately, Smith saw where the voice had come from. Standing about 30 feet away, flanked by a good 20-25 subordinates, was a large wolf, his dark grey fur covered with what the Spaniel guessed were clan symbols, written in what looked like blood with his own claws. Kisaragi growled as the Ohu and Mutsu soldiers dropped into battle stances.
"Get out of my territory, Dengen!" the Husky warned. "I've had about enough of you!"
"Mutsu is ours!" the wolf countered, his own troops also fight ready. "It's been ours for generations! You and your pathetic little band stole it from us! I'm just here to take it back."
"Bastard!" Hazuki snarled. "We've lived here for years! How dare you get so arrogant?"
"Arrogant?" the wolf scoffed. "You're ones to talk! But enough of this! You have 10 seconds to take your dogs and leave or we'll stain this ground with your blood!"
Then Gin stepped forward, his muzzle twisted into an angry growl.
"We're Kisaragi's friends!" he said loudly. "I'm Gin of Ohu! If you fight with him, you fight us too!"
"And that's not something you want to do, Lobo." John finished in a taunting voice, licking his lips in excitedly.
Dengen was beside himself.
"GO!" he bellowed to his soldiers, and across from them, Gin and Kisaragi did the same.
With that, the two groups launched themselves forward, coming together mere seconds later in a painful series of crunching collisions, head-butting each other in the face at top speed and sending bodies flying to the dirt below. Then, combatants from each side dove onto their respective fallen enemies and went for the throat immediately, and soon the whole pass had descended into bloody chaos, as the fight raged furiously. Snarling and writhing in the dirt, John and one of the wolves ripped at each others flesh with a terrifying ferocity, neither seeming to care as blood went flying from both of them and flesh got slashed open wide. A few feet over, Akame was doing the same, double teaming a hapless wolf with Chutora and hurling his limp form into one of his comrades before slashing the throat out of another who was trying to ambush Gin, sending him twitching lifelessly to the ground below. Beside the Akita, Kisaragi and Dengen bit at each other furiously, tearing bloody bits out of each others' shoulders as they reared up on their hind legs and then pulled one another to the ground again, slamming each others' heads into nearby rocks at every chance they got.
As for Smith, he felt like a platoon leader again. Though he didn't enjoy fighting as much as some of his friends did, he was quite good at it when he wanted to be, and had actually gotten his position in Riki's army by single-handedly defending a hapless female stray against a large group of thugs that were trying to gang rape her. Riki, who had been passing by at the time, had seen this and leapt in to help, inviting him to join his pack immediately after, impressed with what he had seen. Now, he was relying on some of those old tricks, jamming a claw into an opponent's eye after his ear was grabbed, and then ripping his throat out as soon as he pulled back with a scream of pain. Next came a large brute of a wolf who had ganged up on Kurotora with two of his comrades, smashing the Kai dog's face into the canyon wall and then shaking him side to side hard before he could recover. Leaping on his back, Smith quickly grabbed him by the ear and yanked at it hard, tearing it clean off in the process, and giving the bloodied Kurotora a chance to kill his other 2 attackers when they stopped to look. Chutora then flew in from the side and killed the large wolf and Kurotora glanced briefly at Smith as he regained his feet, panting hard.
"Thanks, Smith." he said and then leapt back into the battle.
The Spaniel was pleased to hear this, and moved to join him, but suddenly found himself tackled at top speed by another of Dengen's troops, who bit immediately at his neck as they flew backwards towards the bottom of the canyon wall. Smith grappled with him to keep his throat protected, but as soon as they landed together in a fighting heap, Smith knew that something was wrong. The ground beneath them seemed to be crumbling and falling away, and before he even knew what was happening, he and the wolf were plummeting into darkness, the sounds of the battle fading away as they fell deeper down into nothingness.
"SMITH!" Kurotora yelled fearfully, seeing his friend vanish into the large hole that had just opened up.
Over to his right, Gin had seen it too and bellowed at the top of his lungs:
"Smith! Everyone! Stop the fight! Stop fighting!"
The battles came to a halt as bloodied combatants threw each other off and stumbled back, looking over at the Akita in confusion as they did. For his part, Gin was already rushing over to the gaping new opening, which seemed to have been exposed when Smith and his opponent had landed on it. Akame, John and the others were already standing at its edge, as was Dengen, who, to their great surprise, stared down into the blackness with them with a look of fear on his face.
"Kizoku!" he screamed into the dark chasm. "Kizoku answer me!"
"Smith!" John yelled. "Are you all right?"
There was no answer from down in the hole, and Chutora looked quickly at Kisaragi.
"Where the hell did this thing come from?" he snapped and the Husky shook his head.
"I have no idea." he said. "This pass has always been unstable, but never like this."
"We gotta go in and get him!" Kurotora said impatiently and moved to jump in too.
"Wait!" Akame said quickly and grabbed him by the tail, yanking him backwards roughly seconds later.
The Kai dog was very displeased and whirled on his friend angrily.
"What are you playing at, Akame?" he yelled. "Smith could be hurt!"
"And we're going to join him if we blindly jump into that pit." the Kishu said in a patient voice. "We have no idea how deep it is."
"He's right, boss." came a new voice, and they all quickly realized that it was one of Dengen's soldiers talking to his leader. "That must lead down into the caves beneath these mountains. That drop could be over 40 feet. We can't follow."
Dengen turned and snarled at him angrily.
"Those caves are where that man-eater makes his lair." the alpha wolf snapped. "I am not leaving my brother down in there with him!"
Kisaragi turned to his enemy with a look of alarm.
"Masahiro?" he said. "That's where he's coming from?"
Dengen didn't even need to ask who 'Masahiro' was.
"This fight is on hold." he said, glaring at them. "I'm saving my brother and then we'll finish this. In the meantime, you stay out of my way!"
Then, without another word, he and his pack turned and ran off, disappearing over the hill in the pass moments later. As soon as they were gone, Chutora turned to Gin.
"What now, leader?" he asked, but Kisaragi answered for him.
"I don't know another way down in there." he said. "We need to figure this out back at my base, Gin."
"I agree." the Akita said, looking reluctant despite it. "We're gonna need all the help your pack can give us if we're going to save Smith from this."
Kurotora turned to the Ohu leader in protest.
"Gin, we can't just leave him down there!" he said and Gin looked at him immediately.
"We have no choice, Kurotora." he said, the great worry in his voice evident. "Believe me, I don't like it any more than you do. But there's nothing we can do right now. Smith's on his own."
The Kai dog's shoulders slumped defeatedly, and the whole group looked at the gaping hole that their friend had disappeared into, seeing nothing emerge from it as they turned and left. Just silence. Silence and darkness.
Smith's entire body ached something fierce, his head throbbing painfully like something was trying to bore its way out from within it. Wincing as his eyes fluttered open, he moved his legs one by one to make sure they still worked before carefully standing up, feeling cuts and bruises aching on his sides and back as he did. That, however, was the extent of his injury. All in all, the Spaniel knew, he had been lucky. Raising his head higher, Smith looked around. Wherever he had ended up, it was dark, and as his eyes had yet to adjust to the dim light, there was very little that he could see clearly. Looking up, he saw a small amount leaking in from a hole in the ceiling far above him, and immediately realized that it was too high to climb back up. The Spaniel scowled.
'Great.' he thought in annoyance. 'So not only do I feel like I got hit by a car, I'm stuck down here. Terrific.'
Deciding that sitting there was the worst possible thing he could do, Smith turned and began walking slowly forward in the first direction he turned to, hoping that he could at least get a grip on the geography around him before attempting an escape back to Gin and the others. Suddenly though, his foot hit something large right in his path and the Spaniel nearly fell flat on his face. Before he could, however, he was hit hard in the chest and stumbled backwards into a sitting position, his every sense on high alert.
"Get away from me, bastard!" came a fierce but nervous sounding growl. "I'll kill you!"
Standing quickly and lowering himself into a battle stance, Smith squinted into the darkness as hard as he could, mentally willing his eyes to adjust and allow him to see clearly. When they did, aided by the small amount of light shining in from up above, he found himself face to face with a wolf, his long, light grey fur making him easier to see in the darkness than one of his black-furred kin would've been. Smith saw quickly that the other canine's fangs were bared, and his hackles were raised high in warning as an angry, constant growl escaped his lips. His amber eyes were fixed right onto Smith's. Realizing that it was one of Dengen's troops, the one he had been fighting with most probably, Smith settled back down onto his haunches, keeping his guard up and his eyes on the wolf as he did. Fighting was the last thing that he could afford in his current predicament, and for a moment, he was silent, thinking of ways to possibly diffuse the situation before the two of them ended up going for each other's throats again. Finally, he said on the only thing he could think of.
"My name is Smith." he said calmly. "What's your name?"
"Shut up!" came the curt reply. "I don't talk to enemies!"
"The fight's over, pal." Smith said. "Killing each other now would be pointless."
"It's my duty as a soldier." the wolf said sharply, running his tongue over his fangs. "Don't try and talk your way out of this!"
Smith sighed exasperatedly, looking around him a little now that his eyes had adjusted. They appeared to be in some sort of large cave, it's cavernous appearance telling him that it probably had been there for ages without being discovered.
"Well," he said. "Whether you like me or not, it looks like we're stuck down here."
"My brother will come get me out." the wolf said, and Smith only then heard the youth in his voice. "He always does. That's why he's the alpha. And I'll have your corpse to present to him when he does!"
Suddenly, he stood up quickly and tried to lunge at Smith, making the Spaniel shoot back to his feet and ready himself for a new battle. Before he had even made a move yet though, the wolf let out a shout of pain and slumped back down to the stone floor, whining pitiably as he did. Frowning warily, Smith saw him favoring both his right front and left hind legs, his eyes closed tightly in silent agony as he tried licking at the former uselessly. Seconds later, Smith saw why. Jutting out through the skin and fur on the wolf's front leg, surrounded by blood and looking grotesque, was part of a bone, its end sharp where it had broken away from its owner's skeleton beneath when he had smashed into the hard ground at high speed. As if that wasn't bad enough, his hind leg looked twisted, and Smith knew immediately that the injured canine wasn't going to be walking anywhere.
"Shit." the Spaniel swore, and the wolf glared up at him with bared teeth.
"W-What do you care?" he snapped. "You're an enemy of my clan!"
"For the last time," Smith said exasperatedly. "The fight is over. And I care because I don't know this area that well, which means that you're the only one who might knows how to get the hell out of here."
"So you can't walk." Smith said, looking him in the eyes. "Which means that I'm gonna have to carry you."
"Don't you lay one claw on me, you filthy mutt!" the wolf snapped and Smith shrugged.
"Fine." he said, and started to walk away. "I'll risk it by myself. Have fun dying here alone."
There was a moment of silence, and then the wolf's voice broke it.
"Wait!" he grumbled, and Smith turned around to see his gaze met with a confused one. "Why would you help me? Our packs just tried to kill each other."
"I told you." Smith said. "I don't know the way out of here…and I'm not in the business of letting people suffer, no matter who they are."
For a moment, the wolf looked at him in suspicion mixed with near fascination, as if he had never met anyone like him before. Then Smith held out a paw.
"Smith." he said, and the wolf snorted slightly.
Then he reached out and lightly smacked the Spaniel's paw with his own, finishing the greeting.
"Kizoku." he said with quiet reluctance.
Smith smirked and walked over to him, crouching as low as he could to allow the wolf to slide carefully onto his back, both of them grunting from the effort as he stood once more soon after.
"God," Smith exclaimed, glancing up at his new companion in teasing irritation. "How much do you weigh?"
"Shut it!" Kizoku said defensively. "I'm all muscle. Besides, it'll be good for you. You're pretty scrawny looking."
Smith rolled his eyes.
"Great." he said. "John 2.0. Now which way do we go?"
"Uh…" the wolf replied uncertainly, sniffing at the air momentarily.
Then he looked to their right.
"That way." he said confidently, pointing with his muzzle as he did, and Smith nodded, setting off quickly at a slow, careful pace.
Moments later, with both of their senses on high alert, he found a passageway, turning into it as soon as he had. Then they were gone.
Gin grimaced in frustration as he paced back and forth, straining his mind to think of some way they could get to Smith, some avenue they could take short of jumping blindly down the same hole and having no way back out themselves. They had arrived back at the Mutsu clan's home base only a short time ago, and had been greeted immediately by the fourth of Kisaragi's brothers, the fascinated, anxious Minazuki, who bombarded his older sibling with questions as they approached and then fell in beside them concernedly when he got the cold, hard truth in response. This was in great contrast to the coldly indifferent Zach, who had been sitting perched at the cave's entrance behind where Minazuki had been. As soon as the group had looked his way, he had nodded back over his shoulder into it, the look on his face suggesting he truly didn't care what their current state was.
"Uzuki's sleeping." he had said in a flat, low voice. "We redressed his wounds while you were gone. He should improve given time."
"Good," Gin replied. "Any other news?"
"No." the Malamute had said with a shake of his head. "I'll be outside if you need me."
And without another word, he had turned and disappeared out the entrance, the Akita's sympathetic but frustrated gaze following him momentarily as he did. Almost as soon as he had looked though, he turned away. Smith's current situation demanded his full attention, and he couldn't afford to focus on Zach for any length of time. Kisaragi had sent out virtually all of his troops to scour the landscape, looking for any kind of secondary entrance to the caves that they had missed during their time living there, and Gin and the others had been left to come up with ideas of their own, none of which had proven fruitful. It had been nearly evening when they had arrived back though, and in virtually no time at all it seemed, the day had given way to night, the stars above twinkling down at them almost teasingly, making the Akita even more anxious than he had been before. As it stood at that moment, Akame and Kurotora had left to go relieve Hazuki and Minazuki in their search, and both John and Chutora had decided to try and get some rest, at least until it was their turn to do the same. Gin gripped the stone floor hard with his claws. He couldn't just sit here! There had to be something they could do!
At that moment though, something caught the Ohu leader's gaze, and a few feet over, he saw Kisaragi pad silently out into the cool night air, his thick fur being ruffled by the wind blowing across the cave entrance as he did. Beyond him, sitting alone at the edge of a slope in the rocky mound and staring up at the sky above him, was Zach, and Gin saw the Mutsu leader walk towards the other male silently, his footfalls quiet enough to avoid waking anyone sleeping inside. His youthful curiosity getting the better of him, Gin followed after his friend and departed the den as well, emerging out into the darkness only partially before he lay down near the cave entrance, perking his keen ears forward to hear what they were saying. For his part, Kisaragi said nothing as he walked up beside Zach, sitting down next to him as the Malamute acknowledged his presence with only a sigh, telling the Husky that his scent had been recognized and that it would his job to break the ice if he wished to talk. A few seconds later, Kisaragi did just that.
"Peaceful isn't it?" he said, looking up at the stars as well. "These are the kinds of nights that soldiers like us fight for, hoping we can make a better life for ourselves, for our families. The only problem is, once they arrive we don't know what to do with ourselves. It gets too peaceful."
Then he looked at the younger dog.
"Dogs like us were made for war." he said. "That's what we are, what we do. We accept the responsibilities that come with it…and the losses. You accept them and move on. Otherwise it destroys you."
Zach glanced over at him, looking him up and down for a moment before turning back to the sky, a tired look on his face.
"I think it destroyed me a long time ago." he said quietly. "I've got nothing left. If I was made for anything, I was made for death. That's all I've ever brought to anyone."
"Self pity doesn't become a soldier of Ohu." Kisaragi said disapprovingly. "Especially not one standing shoulder to shoulder with dogs like them."
He nodded back at the cave as he said it and Zach glared at him with the beginnings of a growl forming on his muzzle.
"Have you ever caused the death of your own father?" he asked scathingly. "Your own clan? I swore an oath to defend my family and get them your 'better life'. Know what they got instead? Decapitated. Now my clan is in ruins and the last family I have hates my guts…and it's entirely my fault. Don't mock what you don't understand."
Kisaragi turned away, looking forward once more.
"No," he said after a pause. "I never caused the death of my father."
"I didn't think so."
"…I caused the death of my sons."
Gin saw the two males turn and look at each other and he held his breath silently, waiting to see what would come next. Kisaragi held his gaze firmly, keeping his voice in the same quiet tone it had been in the whole time.
"Gin told me what happened to you." he said. "And why. But as much as I feel sorry for you, you should know that you're not the only person who's ever failed someone. Do you know how he and I met?"
"I took his pack hostage and threw them in a pit so they would surrender to me or starve." the Husky said in a stern voice. "Then I attacked one of his comrades, a great male named Terry, and slashed out his eye so he would be blind and helpless to my power. Only after that did Gin and his friends show up and fight us, my brothers and I. While we were busy trying to kill each other…I left my two young sons alone without protection. By the time I found out that we were actually supposed to be on the same side, Akakabuto's henchmen had murdered Terry and both my sons. My mate wouldn't look at me for weeks, even after the war was over. Trust me, Zach…I know how you feel."
The Malamute was silent, and turned away to stare at the ground, looking as if he was slightly embarrassed as he did. Kisaragi kept going.
"Guilt is one of the most powerful enemies soldiers like us have to face." he said. "Especially if we do something wrong. And I won't lie to you, kid, it never really goes away."
Gin sighed lightly where he lay, looking briefly down at his paws and thinking sadly of his father Riki's fate as he realized how right the Husky was. Kisaragi, however, wasn't finished, so he quickly listened back in.
"Conquering that guilt," the Husky said. "Or letting it consume you, is one of the tests of being a male. And if you're the kind of dog I think you are, you'll do the former."
For a long time, Zach said nothing and continued to sit where he was, looking as if he were thinking things over carefully before responding. Then, right as Gin had started to think that he had chosen to ignore the Husky's words of wisdom, he turned with a sigh and faced him completely.
"Where did Smith disappear to again?" he asked, and Gin felt strangely relieved that Zach had, in fact, noticed the Spaniel's absence.
"In a series of caves under those mountains." Kisaragi answered, nodding over his shoulder at them in the dim light. "The entrance we found already is in the northern pass."
Zach nodded, and then stood up, his gaze going to where the Husky had indicated.
"Tell Gin that I'll be back when I find something." he said, and walked off past the older male, nearly vanishing into the dark before pausing and turning back one more time.
"Kisaragi." he called.
The Husky turned and looked at him again, and Zach let a ghost of a smile slide over his muzzle for a brief moment as their gazes met.
"Thanks." he said. "For the pep talk."
Then he turned and was gone, and Gin stood as well, having never respected his Mutsu comrade more than he did at that moment. Then, with his own mind put at ease somewhat, Gin of Ohu turned and padded back into the den, intending to lie down with John and Chutora and get some sleep as well.
Smith glared into the darkness in front of him, making sure to watch his step as he navigated his way through the swiftly narrowing passageway. He silently thanked his luck that his eyes had readjusted, as the little light that he and his companion had had in the original cave was now completely gone, and he was having to use the rest of his senses extensively just to avoid walking off another steep drop. He panted, coming to a stop as they came to a fork in the path.
"Which way?" he asked, glancing up at Kizoku, who had said very little since they'd initiated their uneasy truce.
"Left." the wolf said, sounding unsure of himself. "I think."
"Hey!" Kizoku snapped defensively. "It's not like I come down here on a regular basis! I'm playing this from memory."
Smith shook his head in irritation, setting off again.
"Well I hope you're right." the Spaniel said. "Otherwise we're in trouble."
"Hmph. We'll be fine."
Smith glanced back at his passenger, stepping around a large rock in his path.
"So," he said. "You're Dengen's brother, huh?"
"Yeah." Kizoku said, sounding proud. "We grew up in these mountains. Since he took over, the pack's as strong as it's ever been. He's a great leader for this territory."
"And what makes you think he owns this territory?" Smith asked and Kizoku's gaze narrowed down at him.
"We've lived in these mountains for years!" he snapped angrily. "My pack has been here longer than you mutts! Mutsu is ours!"
Smith stopped right as they entered another cave.
"Kisaragi and his clan have lived here for years too!" he shot back loudly, his temper getting the best of him. "You've left each other alone all this time! Just because you say something is yours doesn't make it yours."
"You – " he started, but then suddenly, a loud rumble echoed off the walls of the cave they had just walked into, which was slightly better lit than the other and only marginally smaller.
Both canines froze abruptly, abandoning their argument as they perked their ears up and listened to it.
"What the hell was that?" Smith muttered nervously and Kizoku lowered his head a little from his position atop him, his aura now just as uneasy as his companion's.
"There can't be anyone else down here." he murmured, frowning as he tried to see more clearly in the dark. "These caves are virtually inaccessible. Unless…"
"Unless what?" Smith demanded. "We are alone down here, right?"
Suddenly, Kizoku's eyes went wider, and his hackles raised as his fear levels increased even more.
"Oh shit." he swore quietly, and then turned to Smith. "We have to move now!"
"It's that man-eater!" the wolf said. "We must be near his lair!"
"Man-eater?" Smith repeated confusedly, but then felt a chill rush down his spine as he realized what the other canine meant. "Wait. That bear that Kisaragi talked about? Masahiro?"
Kizoku frowned through his nervousness.
"I don't know where the hell you got that name," he said. "But yeah, that's him. Now move your ass! We gotta get outta here before he smells us."
Smith grimaced angrily at the wolf's rudeness, not wanting to growl and give their position away, but did as his companion suggested anyway and silently crept forward, moving along the nearest wall of their new cave until another opening presented itself.
"Through here." Kizoku whispered as soon as they found it. "I think this is how we get to the surface."
The Spaniel didn't acknowledge him, but turned into the opening anyway…and felt his paw step down into something that wasn't ground. Smith froze, closing his eyes in dread. Whatever it was he was standing in was soft, wet, and slimy, and his keen sense of smell had just begun being bombarded with new scents, the strongest of which were blood and bear. Above him, Kizoku suddenly spoke again.
"Smith…" the wolf said, sounding sickened. "Don't look down."
Smith, however, had already done just that, and almost immediately yanked his paw back with an exclamation of disgust. Lying on the ground where his foot had been were the mutilated and half-eaten remains of a dog, it's body torn in half and it's stench rife with decay. Where its face had once been was now just a gaping hole, filled with blood, brain matter, fragments of its destroyed skull…and an almost perfect imprint of Smith's front paw. The Spaniel retreated a few steps, swearing to himself and feeling sick, but before he could say anything else, the rumble from before sounded again from right in front of them. He and Kizoku both immediately looked towards the sound, and saw two angry, golden eyes staring hungrily back at them from no more than 10 feet away, their size suggesting that their owner was quite large.
"Shit." Smith said, seeing the situation clearly for the first time.
It was Masahiro. Short of being an escape route, they had apparently stumbled into the killer bear's main lair, and it was littered from front to back with the bodies of both dogs and humans, the former outnumbering the latter. Masahiro himself, Smith saw, was an Asian black bear, and a large one at that. He had a crescent shaped marking on his chest right below his neck, which was characteristic of his species, and large sickle-shaped claws that looked perfect for tearing into things with ease. A number of Akakabuto's followers had been just like him, he remembered, but few had been as large as this. Masahiro had nothing on Akakabuto himself, but Smith could still see clearly that he was capable of being very deadly to anyone who was unfortunate enough to come across him, like all of the bodies that lay dead in his lair…like them.
"Go! GO!" Kizoku shouted, but Smith was already in motion, his strong legs pumping furiously as he ran blindly back into the larger cave that the bear's lair connected to, hearing a roar of fury sound behind them and a series of heavy footfalls follow it.
Quickly bringing his keen senses up to full power, he sniffed at the air and almost immediately identified a second passage branching off in front of them. Not caring where it led to, as long as it was away from there, Smith turned into it quickly and kept running, Kizoku's weight on his back beginning to hurt his stamina. The wolf, meanwhile, was not keeping quiet.
"Faster, god damn it!" he shouted. "Faster! He's right behind us!"
"Shut up!" Smith snapped in furious exasperation. "I'm working on it!"
Suddenly, something hit him from behind them, knocking him clear off his feet as he tried to make a jump over a chasm that had suddenly appeared in front of them. Landing hard on his side, Smith slid over to the edge of another drop, this one much steeper and more dangerous looking, hearing Kizoku's terrified yelp as he fell off the Spaniel's back and went plummeting over the edge, well on his way to an untimely death. Smith, however, reacted quickly and grabbed him with his jaws as he fell, nearly getting pulled over himself as the wolf smacked against the underground cliff's descending face. Smith dug his claws into the rock and dirt beneath him as he kept his grip firm on his companion. He could see Kizoku's good hind leg kicking at the rock face beneath it desperately, trying to get a grip as well and help propel him back to safety. Unfortunately, he couldn't quite do it, and soon the wolf's face turned even more alarmed.
"Smith!" he yelped. "Behind you!"
The Spaniel glanced over his shoulder in dread, not moving his head for fear of losing his hold. Behind him, raised up onto his hind legs and looking downright terrifying, was Masahiro. The bear roared furiously and Smith's mind raced as he tried to think of a way out of their situation. Fighting their enemy straight on was looking like a very real possibility, and that was something that neither one of them could afford. Kizoku was useless in his current state, and Smith, though he had fought bears before, had never successfully fought one this large, having been injured in the battle against Madara before the final fight against Akakabuto had ever even happened. And even there, he had had dozens of powerful comrades fighting alongside him. Here, he was completely alone.
'I'm not dying here!' he thought determinedly. 'I will not die here!'
With a loud grunt of exertion, the Spaniel yanked hard on Kizoku and threw him high into the air, catching him almost perfectly on his back as he turned and immediately took off further down the path they were on, dodging a deadly paw swipe from Masahiro as he did. Then they just kept running, Smith beginning to pant with fatigue as they did.
'We have to hurry.' he thought with a clench of his jaws. 'We can't keep this up much longer.'
Gin sniffed at the ground as he walked, feeling his frustration growing as he searched more and more desperately for an opening to the caves. He had hoped somewhere deep down that Smith would find his own way out and essentially rescue himself, but had had no such luck, and now the Ohu leader was beginning to get very worried about his friend. At the moment, he and the others were down in a heavily forested area to the Southwest of the pass where they had fought, and were busy fanning out in all directions as they hunted feverishly for the secondary entrance to the caverns below. They had seen Dengen and his clan wandering nearby not too long ago, and the wolf's behavior had told them that he too had come up empty in his search, something that did not help their morale. Over to Gin's right, Akame stood high on a branch in a tall tree, his piercing red eyes scanning the landscape for any possible sign of what they were looking for. Gin swore silently to himself.
'It has to be here somewhere!' he thought. 'There has to be another way in!'
Suddenly, his ears perked up high, having heard what sounded like a faint, furious roar, and not one emitted by a dog.
"Akame," he started urgently, his every sense on high alert. "Did you – "
"I heard it too!" the Kishu replied, his head whipping around more quickly as he looked for its source.
"Chutora," Gin called quickly to his friend, who stood off to the left of him. "Go get Kisaragi and everyone you can! Tell him Masahiro's in the area!"
"Yes, leader!" the Kai dog replied and immediately ran off, leaving Gin to turn back to his search as John ran up as well, tailed by a number of Kisaragi's subordinates.
"Gin," he said, "What's going on?"
The Akita opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, someone else came trotting up out of the trees calling his name. When he turned to see who it was, he was greatly surprised to find himself staring at Zach, and only paid full attention when he saw that the Malamute was gesturing to him and the others with his head.
"Gin," the other male called, sounding a little better than before but still not completely normal. "I think I found a way inside those caves of yours."
"You did?" Kurotora said as Akame leapt out of his tree and back to ground level. "Well done, Zach!"
"Where is it?" John demanded and the Malamute turned slightly.
"This way." he said and made to run off, the others following him instantly.
Gin however, quickly stopped them.
"Wait!" he barked and they all turned to him in confusion.
"What is it, leader?" Akame asked with a frown and Gin met his gaze.
"If Masahiro's near here," he said. "Then he might be down in those caves with Smith. We should get more help in case we have to fight him."
"Chutora should be back soon with Kisaragi and the others." the Kishu pointed out and Gin shook his head with a sly look.
"I know." he said. "But there's someone else who could help as well."
The group looked confused for a moment by this, but quickly realized what he meant, and pulled back almost as one in skeptical surprise.
"You can't be serious!" John exclaimed, and Gin turned to him with a small grin.
"Just leave it to me." he said. "Go with Zach, all of you. I'll meet up with you in a few minutes."
Though they still looked unsure, the others all nodded and took off running after the Malamute when he turned and sprang away, leaving Gin by himself amongst the trees. Then the Ohu leader turned and was gone as well.
Smith swore again, panting heavily. His legs burned constantly now from the effort of running, and he realized quickly that he couldn't go much further without rest. Turning the corner into yet another, smaller cavern, he immediately stumbled to the nearest wall and flopped down onto the ground, letting Kizoku slide off his back as they took a moment to gather their energy. Through a few tricky maneuvers and a lot of sprinting, the two had managed to lose Masahiro for the moment, but both knew that the blood from their wounds would eventually lead the bear right to them. It was only a matter of time. As he kept panting, trying to catch his breath, Smith turned to his wolf companion, who looked to be trembling a little as he winced and attempted to rest his badly injured leg.
"How are you doing over there?" he asked and Kizoku gave him a tired look.
"I've seen better days." he said sarcastically, and Smith was impressed by the strength in his voice despite his heavily weakened appearance.
"Think we're almost to the surface?"
"God I hope so."
Smith laughed a little at this and to his surprise, Kizoku did as well, one of the first times he had been even remotely pleasant around his fellow canine. Then, however, the wolf turned to him again.
"Can I ask you something?" he said and Smith glanced at him.
"Shoot." he replied.
"Why did you save me back there?"
Smith was silent, and looked over at him in mild confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"Back at that cliff." Kizoku clarified. "You could've let me fall, but you didn't. You caught me and pulled me up. Why?"
Smith sighed a little, finally getting some of his breath back.
"I still need your help to get out of here." he said. "And I'm long past the point of wanting to see you die."
Kizoku shook his head almost amusedly.
"You dogs are strange." he said and Smith smirked.
"We pride ourselves on it." he said teasingly, but then turned serious again. "Besides, you don't seem like a bad guy, Kizoku. Paranoid and mistrustful maybe, but…not bad. Believe me, I've met bad wolves before. My clan warred with a real nasty piece of work named Gaia a while back. You're definitely not like him."
Kizoku turned to him incredulously.
"Wait," he said. "You were the ones who got rid of the Empire Soldiers?"
Smith nodded, surprised that he had heard of them, and the wolf laughed, still looking like he was in extreme pain.
"Son of a bitch." he said. "All that fighting we did and you were a great male the whole time. That figures."
"What's that mean?" the Spaniel asked, clearly confused and Kizoku turned to him again.
"Gaia and the Empire Soldiers were infamous amongst our kind." he said. "He was a fucking disgrace as far as I'm concerned. We were all relieved when he died. Did you know a wolf named Reima?"
Smith nodded again, looking slightly nostalgic at the mention of his pack's dead former comrade.
"Yeah," he said. "He was a good male."
Kizoku gave an approving look, clearly impressed at this.
"I always admired him." he said, then tilted his head slightly. "You know Smith? You're not too bad after all."
This made them both laugh, but then a sound came to Smith's ears. Water… Standing up with a small frown, he walked forward a few steps and almost immediately came across the source of the noise. An underground stream flowed in front of him, cutting through the rock and forming a deceptively large passageway off to their right. Smith felt his breath catch in his throat.
"This is it…" he said. "This is it!"
"What are you blabbering on about?" Kizoku asked and the Spaniel turned to him.
"There's a stream over here." he said excitedly. "If we follow where it's going it might lead us out of here!"
This thought seemed to reenergize the badly injured wolf.
"Let's do it then!" he growled, trying to push himself to his feet.
Seeing this, Smith immediately darted over and crouched beside him, allowing the wolf to hoist himself onto his back once more and shifting his position as soon as he had so that they were both comfortable. Then he started to walk forward towards the new opening, eager to get the hell out of there and back to Gin and the others. Suddenly though, an ear-splitting roar sounded from right behind them and Smith felt a sharp pain in his flank as he was smacked hard and sent flying across the cave, hitting the opposite wall with a painful crash and slumping to the ground as Kizoku landed by the stream, growling painfully as he broke his fall with his twisted leg. Stunned by the blow, Smith pushed himself up a little, raising his head in time to see Masahiro advancing on him quickly, a bloodthirsty look in his beady golden eyes that chilled the Spaniel to the bone. The next thing he knew, the bear's jaws were snapping at him, aimed right at his face, and Smith knew that he couldn't dodge in time. Then though, right as he was convinced it was all over, something came flying in from the side and grabbed the large bear by the hind leg, its momentum making the huge animal lose its balance and fall down onto its side. It was Kizoku, Smith saw, and the wolf howled in agony as he landed on his other bad leg and tried to scurry aside out of reach, tears of pain in his eyes as he did.
Masahiro turned and roared at him furiously, charging at him seconds later with his massive teeth bared as soon as he had regained his feet. Smith, however, was already on the move, and darted in and grabbed the other canine by the neck before swinging him onto his back and rushing away down the corridor that the stream had cut, hoping against hope that it didn't lead to a dead end. As it turned out, the passageway wasn't long at all, and in what seemed like mere seconds, Smith could see the end of it…and the waterfall that it led to. Above it, light shone in from a large gap in the rocks, and the Spaniel saw quickly that the outside world was indeed very close by, but inaccessible from there. Cursing their bad luck, he immediately began looking for an alternate way, hearing the furious Masahiro closing the gap behind them second by second. Suddenly, he heard Kizoku call his name.
"Smith!" the wolf said sharply. "There!"
The Spaniel followed where his passenger's muzzle was pointing and gasped as he saw a ledge on the wall above the waterfall, one from which escape was a definite possibility. It looked like a very difficult jump to make to get to it, especially with someone on his back, but at that moment, he knew, they didn't have much of a choice. Steeling his will, Smith pumped his legs as fast as they would move and saw the waterfall's edge approaching quickly as he prepared himself. Then, he reached it and kicked off as hard as he could as soon as his feet were planted, reaching for the ledge with his front legs as Kizoku clung to him for dear life. It wasn't enough. Smith saw his paws miss its edge by inches, and then felt fear clutch him as he and his wolf passenger began to plummet, presumably to their deaths at the bottom of the steep waterfall and wherever it led to. Suddenly though, something grabbed his front paw hard, and he felt his downward momentum cease as he swung forward and hit the rock face under the ledge. Looking up in shock, he saw the last face he had expected to see.
"Zach?" he exclaimed and the Malamute nodded slightly, tightening his hold as he did.
Next to him stood Akame, and the two dogs exchanged a nod as the Kishu reached down and carefully grabbed Kizoku by his good front paw, yanking him up and to safety as Zach did the same to Smith, all of them leaping up to the main ground above it as soon as they had. They were out. Breathing a sigh of relief, Smith squinted as the bright light of day blinded him momentarily, but then found himself immediately surrounded by his friends, all of whom looked elated to see him and were clambering to see if he was still in one piece.
"Smith!" Kurotora exclaimed, looking him over as he did. "Are you all right?"
"I am now." came the tired response, and then the Spaniel looked over at Zach.
"Thanks for the catch." he said with a smile and the Malamute nodded at him again.
"Nice jump." he replied simply and a few of the others chuckled around him.
Then Smith saw someone standing behind Gin, and pulled up in surprise as he recognized Dengen and his whole pack, all of whom were greeting Kizoku enthusiastically as he limped over to them with Akame's help.
"Brother!" the alpha wolf exclaimed in a pleased voice. "You're alive!"
"Yeah." Kizoku said exhaustedly, and then gestured over to Smith. "And I have him to thank for it."
Dengen followed his gaze in surprise and then briefly exchanged glances with his sibling before padding over to the Ohu group and walking up to Smith, who stood a little straighter as he approached. Then, to his great surprise, the wolf leader bowed to him, making everyone there grunt in equal shock. Afterwards, he looked Smith in the eye.
"Thank you." he said. "For saving my brother. This doesn't mean that I respect or trust you mutts but…it definitely helps. Thank you."
Smith nodded at him as well, and was about to open his mouth to reply when suddenly the rock wall to his right seemed to explode outward like a bomb. Dogs scattered in all directions as the huge form of Masahiro emerged from the dust with a snarl, grabbing one of Kisaragi's subordinates and biting his head clean off as he did. Leaping back in shock, Gin and Kisaragi quickly took command of their respective packs, Dengen doing the same nearby.
"Everyone get clear!" the Akita bellowed. "Don't attack him until I say!"
"Soldiers of Mutsu," Kisaragi shouted. "Get ready!"
Masahiro roared at them, rearing up onto his hind legs as if he were daring them to attack him, and for a moment, no one moved. Then, John faked a move forward and the bear swung a paw at him, missing his head by mere inches. That though, gave Gin and the others their chance.
"NOW!" the Ohu leader shouted and leapt forward like a bullet, Kisaragi and the others doing the same beside him, all of them latching onto various parts of the huge animal seconds later and biting down as hard as they could.
Dengen and his pack were right behind them and quickly joined in, aiming their attacks at his legs and stomach and trying to knock him down onto his back. Masahiro flailed left and right with his claws, slashing one of the wolves' stomachs open and nicking Hazuki on his hind leg as he dodged aside. Then he bit desperately at Zach, who had broken a branch off a nearby tree and stabbed him in the side with it, but the Malamute was too fast and leapt away to safety as the rampaging bear did everything he could to get his attackers off him. As soon as he could, Gin released his grip and leapt clear as well, squaring himself off to his opponent as both Smith and Chutora made another move towards Masahiro.
"Everyone!" he shouted. "Move!"
Then the Akita sprinted right at the huge bear, moving at nearly top speed as he did, and jumped high into the air right as he was about to reach him. Masahiro saw him coming and tried to slash at him with his claws, but it was too late. Gin pitched forward in midair and began spinning like a saw blade, the concentration on his face evident as he bellowed out his attack's name.
"ZETSU TENROU BATTOUGA!"
As soon as they heard those words, the warriors of both Ohu and Mutsu immediately dodged clear, and Gin landed his hit hard. Blood sprayed everywhere as one of Masahiro's front legs went flying, completely severed in the attack, and his neck was torn clear to the bone, making him slump to the ground lifeless and twitch for a moment before he lay still once and for all. The battle was over. Over by Zach, who looked nothing short of dumbfounded, Kurotora let out a whooping laugh.
"Ha ha!" he exclaimed. "Just as amazing as before leader! He got what he deserved!"
"Well done Gin!" Kisaragi echoed. "My pack is indebted to you for this."
Then Dengen walked over, and Smith could see the satisfied expressions on some of the others' faces as they saw the look of incredulousness in the wolf's eyes.
"Impressive," he conceded. "Very impressive."
Then he turned to Kisaragi, who was busy licking blood off his lips.
"After this," he said, sounding slightly unsure of himself. "I suppose it would be in both of our best interests if we…negotiated. Called a truce to talk things over."
The Mutsu leader nodded.
"Very well." he said. "A truce it is. I look forward to our next meeting."
The two canines nodded at each other, and then Dengen turned and called to his pack.
"Come on!" he said. "We're moving out!"
The other wolves immediately followed him, but Kizoku limped over to Smith, being steadied by one of his packmates as he did. Once they were face to face, the wolf smiled at the Spaniel, doing an admirable job of hiding the pain he was still in.
"Thanks again, Smith." he said. "For everything. You dogs aren't half bad after all."
Smith grinned at him.
"We aim to please." he said teasingly and then nodded at the wolf. "Take care of yourself, Kizoku."
"And you." the wolf replied.
Then he and his comrade turned and carefully followed after their departing pack, disappearing through the trees and out of sight moments later. Once they were gone, Kisaragi turned to Gin with a smirk.
"Well," he said. "I was just going to sit around with you guys and talk about old times when you arrived. After this though, I think I owe you a feast."
"You don't have to trouble yourself, Kisaragi," he said. "It's the least we could do for a friend."
Kurotora snorted, glancing over at the Akita as he did.
"The hell he shouldn't!" he said. "I'm fucking hungry! Let's kill ourselves a boar and go eat!"
The whole group of them laughed at this and Smith grinned happily, elated that everything had worked out for once. Then they all started walking back towards the Mutsu clan's base, and as they did, Smith fell in beside Zach at the rear of the group, watching as John and Kurotora joked around with each other in front of him. As they did, he turned to the Malamute.
"How are you holding up?" he asked and Zach raised an eyebrow.
"You just went through all that and you're concerned about me?" he said in a subtly amused voice and Smith shrugged.
"Hey," he said. "Just cause I had a long couple days doesn't mean I'm not still worried about you guys. So again…you okay?"
Zach paused for a moment, and then met his gaze with an almost unnoticeable smile.
"Not yet." he said. "But I think I will be."
Smith returned the smile, turning back to the path ahead of him.
"Good enough," he said, hearing his stomach growl as he thought of the meal that awaited them. "That's good enough for me."