His name was Ranmyaku, pack-leader, Shoushou of Lord Dogou's Ryouken. And he was bored out of his mind. Still, he knew better than to advertise that little fact, and he kept his head wisely bowed. The white web of whip lines which lined his back was deterrent enough to prevent the braided warrior from testing his lord's displeasure enough.
But, his lord's rages were getting old, and he had better things to do with his day now that his message had been delivered. One of his pack was expecting, and he desperately wanted to return to his mate. Poor blind Kigai who, save but for the Fates, should have been Shoushou; Kigai who was by far and away more qualified for this position than Ranmyaku the Havoc-wrecker.
Ranmyaku sighed softly and licked his scarred muzzle, surreptitiously glancing at the rest of the court. His storm-grey eyes, strange among his kind, calmly weighed the expressions on the faces of Dogou's advisors, seeking those whom he could look to for affinity. Lady Kigakiku--Inukin to Lord Dogou's Inujin and just-heavy with child--caught his eye and gave a subtle roll of her own, expressing her sympathy. Her lithe form was sprawled across the seat, scandalous in any court save that of Dogou's. Kigakiku would have been a scandal anywhere, for her habits of looking, dressing and acting like a male. Still, she hadn't had much of a choice in the matter, having been raised as a male by her widowed Solider-lord father. The long, chestnut hair, which was the pride of her husband, was tied back by a silken white ribbon, and trailed over the edge of the throne's armrest to brush the wooden floor. A pant-clad leg kicked idly at the wooden seat.
The young noble, whose ranting was the source of Ranmyaku's boredom, paced angrily his hand sometimes straying to the hand-held war hammer which bounced along his side, sometimes gesticulating wildly. He was a powerful lord, a true Warlord, well known for his fierce temper. Ranmyaku bore scars enough from his Lord's displeasure as proof of that. Dogou was violent as well, filled with the passion of fire, and just as painful. And stubborn, prideful, impulsive, arrogant, and often times oblivious to the most obvious of facts.
But, he was honorable beyond belief. And he could be gentle as well--so very gentle, and loving to his wife, his two young sons, and to the Ryouken. So often he had bloodied his hands when caring for the wounds inflicted upon his genken, wept tears over the whippings he was forced to give. Ranmyaku could think of no lord that he would rather serve. The loyalty that he felt for his lord went beyond the mere fidelity of a genken for his shuken. This loyalty was that of blood-brothers, the loyalty of a lifetime. Ranmyaku had come into his own beside his lord, been chosen to be the first member of his lords pack, had run and fought and killed beside his lord for as long as he could remember.
Still, his lord could be such an idiot sometimes.
Deciding that he wasn't going to be allowed to leave any time soon, Ranmyaku sighed and collapsed onto the cold floor, sprawling out on his back in a relaxed heap. Chame, second son of Kigakiku and Dogou, giggled from his seat at the second tier on the dais. Kyuukai, the firstborn, elbowed him and glared at him, not wanting to draw their father's attention. His heart shaped face, delicate and pure, was marred by an unusual scowl. Ranmyaku grinned at their antics, then rolled his eyes as Lord Dogou stepped over his collapsed body without pausing in his rant. A low whine escaped his lips. By the Hunt he wished he were gone from this place.
"How can the King expect me to entertain these foreigners?" Dogou growled, chin-length hair--cut to fit under his helmet, but ridiculous out of its short tail--flying about. "I have a war to fight! Damn him!"
"Dearest, perhaps he sent these foreigners to help with the war," Kigakiku suggested, gently interrupting her husband's tirade. Ranmyaku perked his ears up, suddenly taking an interest in the proceedings.
'Foreigners? Foreigners could be interesting.'
Dogou snorted. "Well, I don't care. Damn it, this is my war! I don't need help from anybody."
"Look, love, why don't we just see what these foreigners want, and put them from our minds for now? Perhaps they're just here to record the Ryouken for the Royal archives. Or they could be teachers for Kyuukai and Chame." Kigakiku smiled down at her two boys. "Besides, look at poor Ranmyaku. Your ranting has him bored to tears."
Taking his cue, Ranmyaku propped himself up on his elbows and summoned up his most pitiable face, the same face which had gotten him food from countless inns across the kingdoms, and directed it at Dogou. Dogou glared down at him, a frown on his face.
"What, still here, Ran?"
"Hai. You haven't dismissed me yet, Do-chan." Ranmyaku grinned up at his lord.
"Well, go then. Get back to your pack. I expect each and every one of my genken to represent me well to these foreigners. Whatever they're here for. I won't have you embarrassing me this time."
"Of course, wagakimi." Ranmyaku jumped up and bowed twice, once to his lord and once to his lady, before heading off to the Inuguya and his mate.
'Well, what do you know. Dogou gave me the rest of the day off and he didn't punish me for letting my pups attack Jaken...I bet Kigai and I can think up all sorts of things to occupy our time. Kigai...'
Ranmyaku paused, a slow smile crossing his face. Wanting to look perfect for his mate--despite Kigai's blindness--he crossed to stand in front of one of the few mirrors that lined the castle's halls. The man who looked back at him was strange. Human, and yet not. Canine, and yet not.
He was a genken: a warrior breed with the body of a man crossed with a dog; a face that was neither--muzzled but distinctly human. Aye, definitely human, with human eyes and a human smile--a human smile perched on dog's mouth and under a dog's nose. And a human's head of hair; true, it was thicker than a human's more a mane than hair, really, but still different from that of the rest of his body. Very different, indeed, from the light, white body-fur; a thin layer but thick enough that only the most cursory of clothing was needed. Indeed, he was garbed now in but a weapons' harness that hung over his chest and knee-length pants. But, there was dog in him as well, seen in the pointed ears of a dog swiveling on each side of his head, and his senses bringing him more information than could ever be found with mere human senses. Yet, so was the form of every genken; every warrior trapped somewhere between dog and man, with the soul of both and the form of neither.
And that was the way he liked it. It was more...fun to be a genken, than to be pure human or pure dog. He had tried both, could shift into both at will--a talent of all genken--though the process was painful and tiring. But out of all his forms, the traditional features of the genken were still the most pleasing to him.
But, he was different from the rest of his pack, and it was this difference which had signaled him out to his lord. He was more...fragile, features more pointed, more angular than that of his pack-mates. He was delicate, in a way, and handsome despite his fur-and-canine features. And wild, found masterless, packless and running through the forests as a feral dog with but his brother at his side, until Dogou had captured him and made him loyal. The scars of those old fights could still be seen, faded marks below body-fur.
He touched the reflection with one thin hand, tracing the outline of his body on the smooth glass. And not for the first time he wondered what Kigai saw in him, what beauty kept his mate with him, when the outward form could not be seen and the outward loveliness could not be the draw.
Shaking his head to clear such thoughts, Ranmyaku resumed his rushed pace down the palace corridors. He wanted to be near his mate, now more than ever.
The Inugoya was a chaotic place, filled with howling, barking, shouting, laughing genken. The domain of Dogou's Ryouken was not particularly close to the Inujin's castle, hidden deep within Dogou's park, sheltered from the prying eyes of curious courtiers by a screen of dark trees. It was a perfect place for the savage warrior-breed, a place where they could hunt and drill in all their wild glory. The howling, barking laughter of the Ryouken rang through the forest, haunting the old, moss covered trees and bounced off of the vine blanketed walls of the Inugoya.
Ranmyaku loved that sound, loved to hear his pack have their fun. He lay in sleepy contentment, listening to the heartbeat of his mate, feeling Kigai's breath hit his neck. The weight of Kigai's arm upon his waist brought a warm feeling of security to him.
"Ohyaou, oniichan." Shukuzento, Fukushirei of the Ryouken, popped his head up over the lip from the stair. "There are a few things you need to look at today."
Ranmyaku stretched and made a face at his little brother. "Later, jakutei. Later."
"All right, Ran." Shukuzento turned to head back down into the main part of the Inugoya. He paused and turned just as he was about to disappear, and grinned up at the two genken lying together. "I almost forgot. It's almost time for you to Breed."
Ranmyaku rolled his eyes. "I remember. Go. Make sure that the pack doesn't hurt each other too badly. We must be ready to present ourselves to m'lord Dogou and his guests."
Shukuzento nodded and left. Ranmyaku sighed and closed his eyes, relishing the warmth. The heavy arm around his waist shifted and pulled him closer, a wet nose touching the back of his neck in cold pleasure, a soft mouth dropping gentle kisses on him. Ranmyaku almost purred in response to the feelings, turning over to smile sleepily at his mate.
Kigai was a large man, broad shouldered and stronger than any being should have a right to be, with a pensive mien and gentle ways. He was vastly different from his quicksilver'd mate, slower to act and more thoughtful. He was a simple man, preferring his solarium and plants to the fast paced lifestyle of Ranmyaku. There was a sense of peace to him, a calm that seemed almost unshakeable. His eyes were a deep brown that, though they would not focus, were full of dark wisdom. Strong featured, with a mop of dark black hair, and brown-gold fur which was striped faintly like that of a tiger's, he stirred almost painful love in Ranmyaku's breast. He was honorable, kind, selfless, gentle and shy to the point of painful awkwardness.
But the calm exterior, the quiet strength and thoughtfulness hid a temper more ferocious than Lord Dogou's. Though not easy to awake, this temper made him rash and dangerous, powerful with adrenaline and obstinate beyond belief. He refused to back down, his stamina allowing him to do more than the average man. His sense of honor was almost blinding at times, and too often he grew embarrassed by the acts and words of those around him.
And Ranmyaku loved every part of him.
"Mmm. Morning, 'Myaku," Kigai whispered.
"Morning koibito." Ranmyaku kissed him gently. "Feel up to a little work out?"
Kigai smiled softly. "You know I can kick your tail anytime you want."
"Hah! I doubt that!" Ranmyaku gently poked his mate, lips curled back in a smile. Kigai smiled back, lips exposing fangs that were longer than normal.
"If the two of you have finished bickering?" Lord Dogou was grinning in fond amusement as he mounted the stairs. "The foreigners are expected any moment now. I would greatly appreciate it if you would post some of your pack in the shadows to watch them. And I want you two to accompany me in my court--whether as man or canine is entirely up to you." Dogou nodded to them and then turned. Ranmyaku sighed and rolled out of bed, shrinking in size as he fell until he was a thin, savage looking dog, thick, luscious white fur marred by the scars of a hundred, thousand battles. He looked back over his shoulder at Kigai, a low growl rumbling from his throat.
"Fine, fine. I'm changing." Kigai sighed and grimaced, his body reshaping itself into that of a full human, brown eyes filled with pain as he slowly stood, joints aching and skin tingling from the shift. Changing form was an uncomfortable process at best, mildly painful more often than not. Having his fur shink back into his skin and his bones shrink and reform, breaking and remolding themselves into a new shape in less than a second was not Kigai's favorite way to start any day. Stretching to test out then newly formed muscles, Kigiai envied his mate's great adaptablitly, the way he could ignore the change completely, so wonderously at home in all his forms. Setting one thick hand on Ranmyaku's thin back, Kigai smiled and stroked the soft fur. "Come along 'Myaku, take me to court."
Kigai was by no means a helpless individual; in fact he was often more competent than those around him. His blindness was limited only to his eyes; his other senses were by far and away better than even the most wild animals. He could "see" everything with those senses, sensitive even the slightest change in the world around him; it was this sensitivity that made him second only to Ranmyaku in fighting skill--and that was only because Ranmyaku was the best fighter ever recorded. He was the pathfinder, indispensable to Dogou, able to find his way around any obstacle.
However, there was a comforting feeling to having his mate guide him, to know that the man he loved more than anything else wanted to protect him. His hand dropped down to trail along the soft fur of Ranmyaku's back.
"Ho, Kigai." The voice which called out to him was low and velvet, dulcet in tone. It held a smoky quality, dark and seductive and wonderful. The owner of the voice brushed past him, circled him, in a rustle of velvet and the seductive smell of roses. Ranmyaku sneezed at the smell, and Kigai had to fight down a grin.
"Ho, Omoi. How are things?" Kigai bowed slightly.
"Well, thank ye." Dogou's Kataribe smiled and touched his hand. "Lord Dogou has sent me to bid thee hurry. He is most anxious to hear thy opinion of these foreign guests. And, having delivered my message, I shall depart. I shall see thee anon, good Kigai."
"Farewell, Omoi," Kigai called back, knowing as he did that the storyteller had already moved on. Ranmyaku's snort was almost deafening in the white-noise that followed her departure, and Kigai tilted his head down to glare at the dog. "It pays to be nice, 'Myaku."
The dog huffed a sigh and nudged his leg, whining in impatience to reach the throne room. The sharp teeth bit into his pant leg, tugging on the fabric. Kigai smiled and followed his mate's lead, one hand resting on the narrow, furry head.
The two paced in silence, having no need for extraneous words. They were a well matched pair, so close in nearly every aspect, but it was Kigai who noticed their next 'visitor' first.
It was the smell that stopped him, for he knew of only one man who smelled like that, smelled of stale smoke and cheap booze, and days of unwashed sweat and under that the smell of blood and sex. Though he had no hackles in this form, Kigai felt himself tense, felt his lips curl back in a snarl. Beside him Ranmyaku tensed as well, growling low in his throat.
The pair shrank back against the stone walls, waiting for Jaken to pass them by. Kigai hated the Joudai, hated the man who got a sick thrill from the pain of the Ryouken he beat with a thick black whip. Though he could not see the man, Kigai knew that he was large, heavy set like a brick wall, full of cruel smiles and painful clutches, underhanded dealings and cheap drink. The smell was like an affront to his senses, a slap against the sensitive noses of the genken and Jaken knew it well. It brought tears to his blind eyes and Kigai turned away, wishing that the Joudai would leave.
Then his nose caught another smell, almost hidden beneath Jaken's strong odor. It was a wispy smell, one that befit its wispy owner, the smell of salty tears and perfume, of clean laundry and shampoo, of tobacco and a weak willed decisiveness. It was the smell of Ruijaku, the Kapaku of Dogou's father and Dogou's Kyoukan. He was a thin man with long hair, prone to hysterics and dramatics and a wavering, uncertain cowardice. He had been strong, once, but now was nothing more than a sniveling old man, dependent upon his friendship with the underhanded Jaken.
The two men passed by, silent and--for once--without a cruel push for either of the genken. Kigai breathed a sigh of relief as the passed, knowing that it was only by Dogou's will that the two remained alive. There were enough genken injured by the hands of the two men to ensure that their death would be a bloody one indeed. Even with Dogou's decree that no harm should come to them by a genken's act, Ranmyaku was always on the edge, ready to tear their throats out.
Still, as the pair of disguised genken continued their walk down the hall, Kigai wondered what new evil was fermenting in the minds of the cruel men.
The smells that lay in the throne room were a confusing uproar to Ranmyaku's nose, translated into bursts of color. He picked out the scents of his pack easily: ancient grey-furred Shikisha, the oldest pack member and source of all wisdom; clever little Saeru, Shikisha's pride and joy, still green in her first year as a true member of the pack; swift Shunsoku, whip thin and made up entirely of tendons it seemed, the coursing dog of the pack; vicious Toraneko, more cat than dog it often seemed, persistent and obstinate; and his dearest brother, Shukuzento, the silent companion, patient and unshakeable.
They hid amongst the normal people, amongst the plain dogs that curled in heaps in the corners. Each one was ready to attack at the first sign of danger, each one ready to give their life for their lord. Ranmyaku nodded in approval.
Kigai had already moved to his seat, one of great honor and position near the Lord's dais. Ranmyaku curled up at his feat, cool grey eyes surveying the assembled nobles.
The whole court was out today, decked in their finest garb. Ranmyaku picked out his allies from the assembled, gracing each with a stately nod of the head.
There was Tekiji, wife of Jiman, and a none in Dogou's lands came close to her cold business sense. It was no wonder that she had been appointed to the post of Kaikei, for the gold could not be safer than in her hands--better she watched over it, than stole it with her business dealings. Her husband was an acclaimed swordsman, silent and watchful, but deadly enough to be consider as one on par with the pack. It was often speculated how good a Renpoushouhou he made, with such a closed mouth; what advice did he give to Lord Dogou that made him so highly valued in the young lord's eyes? Standing with the two heirs was Shenkensha, the bespectacled Yoyensha. Wise and skilled, despite the youthful face, Shenkensha was adored by young Kyuukai, and if it had not been for his simple ways, many a noble would have been courting his favor; it was never to early to cultivate a friendship with the lord-to-be.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, Ranmyaku turned his attention to the foreigners--though perhaps the title Outlander would have been more appropriate.
There were four of them, two men and two women, two young and two old; and the old man and woman were very old indeed. They were almost withered in appearance, the man's head bald and shiny and the woman crowned with a luxurious shock of white hair. But, the two gave off an aura of great power, more power than any other being that Ranmyaku had ever met. The power was alluring, seductive, and the genken itched to challenge the pair, to test their mettle against his.
So powerful were their auras that they nearly overshadowed their two companions. It was with a great effort that Ranmyaku turned his attention on the two young ones, knowing that Dogou would want a full report.
They were his age in human measurement, which surprised him greatly. Few indeed were warriors young enough to warrant the position of bodyguard at the tender age of sixteen. The female was thin and lithe, with a long hair tied up in buns on each side. She held herself seductively, fulsome attributes prominent and Ranmyaku wondered what magic gave her such pertness. She glowed lavender, her aura strong and bold, pulsing into his nose with an unnerving intensity. She reminded Ranmyaku of a cat and, though much separate from his dog-soul's hated enemy, still caused him to growl.
The male was thin as well, possessing the females same litheness. He too had long hair, a black wave that cascaded down to his waist. He kept his body still, subtle lines almost disappearing in the flowing robes he wore. He wore glasses as well, thick spectacles that perched precariously on his nose. His aura was almost non-existent and Ranmyaku wondered what right he had to claim his position.
"He is subtle, 'Myaku," Kigai whispered, bending low in the act of petting his mate's soft fur. "He holds his power in, nearly hidden. A Jangyiu, here! I had thought that Art had died out."
'You read too much, koi.' Ranmyaku snorted, knowing that his love would pick up the message. Kigai just chuckled, and scratched behind Ranmyaku's ears.
"My Lord Dogou, we would like to thank you for allowing us into your domain," the old woman spoke in a strong, clear voice, husky with age but not weakened by her advanced years. "My companions and I have traveled far to reach here.
"You are welcome, strangers."
Ranmyaku sighed. Dogou was going to be an ass today.
"I apologize, Lord Dogou. I have not yet introduced myself, or my companions. I am Nekai Kenbo, a Keigo of the Nekoin tribe. This is Kelas Sentetsu," the old man bowed, "who is a Keigo as well. My great grand-daughter, Hikyuu and her betrothed, Masurao."
The warriors nodded their heads stiffly, eyes surreptitiously searching the room. Ranmyaku allowed himself a grin. They were right to be wary. At a single command, his pack would be at their throats before they could manage to raise even a cursory defense.
"Well, Nekoin-jin, what business do you have with me?"
"Lord Dogou," this was the old man speaking, his voice as strong and commanding as the old woman's had been, "we desire to improve our stock. Your dogs are renowned through out the Kingdoms as equal to none in strength, speed and intelligence. We ask that you stud your pack leader to our bitch."
Dogou let out a deep breath, staring at the strangers in disbelief. "This is a great thing you ask, Kelas-san."
"I do not understand, Lord. It is a simple thing, is it not? You merely let your pack leader into the same dog run as our bitch and then take him away when his work is finished." The old man watched Dogou's face as he spoke, words losing some of their strength as Dogou grew ever darker.
"It is not so simple, Kelas-san. There are things beyond your knowledge to consider."
"We shall pay you well, Lord."
"No!" Kigakiku laid a gentle hand on her husband's arm, and Dogou leaned back into his throne with a heavy sigh. "I am sorry for losing my temper. Come, my servants shall show you where you may stay. See me again in a few days and I shall have an answer. In the mean time, enjoy yourselves! The Harvest is very soon and there are great festivities to partake of." Dogou waved a hand and four servants slipped discreetly out of the crowd to touch the stranger's shoulders, leading them away. "The audience is over. Please, go about your business." He turned and looked at Ranmyaku, jerking his head slightly.
Ranmyaku sighed and signaled to his pack. Sometimes a genken's work was never done.
"Well?" Dogou put his legs up onto the table, and immediately had them pushed off by Kigakiku. He glared at his wife but kept his feet down. "Report."
"They are very powerful, my lord. I can feel their auras even in this form. The male's a Jangyiu, if that tells you anything, and I'm almost certain that the female possess some form of magical or arcane power. The old ones could give even 'Myaku a run for his money." Ranmyaku barked and whined and Kigai rolled his sightless eyes. "And 'Myaku says that he could so take the old people. You can't, you know. You really can't." Ranmyaku huffed and barked again, this time nipping Kigai gently. "He also says that he 'saw' a cat aura around the female." Kigai turned his eyes on Dogou, face serious and grave. "M'lord, I must advise for caution when dealing with these strangers. The young bodyguards may be more than a match for many of the pack, and I'm afraid that even 'Myaku and myself couldn't handle the old ones. Please, try with all your might not to anger them."
"So we can't assassinate them. Well, I won't breed Ran to their bitch. I can't, damn it!"
"I'll say you can't," Kigakiku said. "You promised that I could breed Ranmyaku to one of my bitches this year."
"I did?" Dogou looked at his wife in confusion. "When did I say that?"
"Last year at the breeding, that's when. I have your oath on that."
"But koishii, I can't! Not this year, anyway. You heard what Omoi said about Ran's whelps this year! They'd be blessed by the Gods! They may even help to win the war!" Dogou pleaded with his wife.
"Too bad, Dogou. You promised. I get him this year."
"But--but--darling, you can't have him. I need him." Kigakiku shook her head, adamantly refusing. "Damn it, I promised before I heard Omoi's prophecy!"
"He's mine, Dogou. I don't care what you do with me, but I need his bloodline in my pack."
Dogou sighed, burying his face in his hands. "I don't believe this. My own wife is against me. I can't let those strangers breed, I can't piss them off, the one person I thought closest in my heart turns on me...You know, this whole problem would be solved if Ranmyaku would just mate with all three bitches."
Kigai shook his head sternly, frowning at Dogou. "No. You know the arrangement. We have had this contract for as long as 'Myaku bred. He mates with one bitch and one bitch only, or none at all. He may be loyal to you, wagakimi, but he is not that loyal. He stays here only by his will and not yours."
"Don't threaten me, Kigai. I may not like to see any of my dogs in pain, but I won't hesitate to have you whipped if you show me cause."
"Of course, m'lord. I merely warn." Kigai bowed his head slightly. "If that is all, my mate and I would like to return to the Inugoya."
"Yes, yes, leave. Go, fight, hunt, have fun. Abandon me in my time of need." Dogou glared at them as the left, envying them and resenting them for that envy. His eyes focused on Ranmyaku's white form, glare intensifying. "You baka. This is all your fault, Ran."
Ranmyaku glanced back, then up at his mate. He shrugged and continued to walk away.
It wasn't until two days later that the deaths started. At first they looked like accidents. When Shikisha died during the hunt, it was put down to her great age and weak heart; the strain had been too much for the poor elder.
When Saeru died a day later, it was harder to attribute to an accident. She was too good of a fighter to meet the end she had, gored to death and left with her insides scattered about her. It had taken hours to find enough of her to bury her.
After Toraneko drowned, the genken began to murmur amongst themselves, worried and angry but not afraid. Not yet. Fear would come later.
It was on the tenth day of Karitoru that all pretense that the deaths were accidental was dropped. For it was on the tenth day of Karitoru, that the pups were discovered. Every young genken, from the new born to those almost old enough to join the pack, were found slain and skinned, their little bodies lying in neglected heaps where they had been casually tossed aside by their butchers.
The Inugoya was immediately on the defensive, wary and angry, and most of all thirsting for revenge. Perhaps that was why the killer began to work his--its--foul deeds upon Dogou's Kyuchuu.
Ranmyaku knew that he should have been worried then, knew that he should have been expecting something. But he was too preoccupied with his pack, with mourning for the lost pups. He ordered the Inugoya to be locked against his lord, to be barred against the cries for help, for protection against this unknown evil that stalked Dogou's castle, killing unchecked.
But Ranmyaku had his own problems, for the attacks did not stop. There was not a day that did not pass without one more of his pack disappearing, without one of his pack slipping into the oblivion of death.
Shunsoku, Takeya, Iki, Tanki, Seikyuu, Futeki, even his own brother Shukuzento....the list of the dead grew ever longer, those who lived ever smaller, ever fearful. And Ranmyaku could do nothing to help them, couldn't find the killer of his children.
It wasn't until the twenty-fifth day of Katori that Ranmyaku finally snapped. He knew, much later, that he should have been prepared. After all, they were the only two left, the only breaths left in the empty husk of the Inugoya. But knowing that and being prepared were entirely different.
He smelled the blood long before he saw it, the evil coppery scent wafting down the spiraled stair. Hastening his steps, muzzle crinkling back in an unsure whine, Ranmyaku loped up the steps, fear increasing as he climbed ever higher, saw the specks of red which dotted the stairs.
"Wagakoro?" Ranmyaku called out as he rushed ever upwards. "My love? My heart? Kigai?" At the silence he ran faster, fear giving him new strength.
He was sprinting by the time he reached their chamber and found Kigai's body, lying forlornly upon their bed, sliced open from stem to stern, beautiful eyes slashed and face and form defiled.
"No...NO!" Ranmyaku backed away from the sight, bile rising in his throat, mind warping as it tried to escape the reality that faced him. "KIGAI!'
Mad with grief, insane with rage, Ranmyaku turned and sprinted down the stairs. He could smell his love's blood, taste it in the air and it served only to further enrage him. He loped through the now silent halls of the Inugoya, easily crossing the dying land around him, soul focused on finding his mate's killer.
He did not know what a sight he presented when he barged into Dogou's keep, eyes white and blazing, lips pulled back to expose his sharp teeth and his jowls flexed with thick white foam. He didn't know how many nobles he frightened with his savage appearance, sinewy muscles rolling and surging as he followed the scent of blood. He did not know and he did not care, for his ties to the humans of this keep had been shattered by Kigai's death. He paid no attention to Dogou's startled exclamation when he entered the Great Hall, or to Kigakiku's sudden rush to push her brood behind her throne. It did not matter to him, now. Nothing mattered to him now.
He was hunting for revenge.
It didn't surprise him to find the smell of his mate's blood upon the hands of Jaken, strong on his whip and clothes. He advanced on them, growling deep and angry, stalking them with ears lowered and eyes wild. Foam flew from his muzzle, streaked down his taunt neck.
"Ran! What are you doing?" The voice was distant and powerless, unfamiliar to the enraged genken's ears.
"N-now Ranmyaku, I d-don't know what--" Jaken broke off his protests and swallowed, eyes filled with fear.
"Mikuya. Slaughterer of defenseless pups." Ranmyaku continued his slow stalk forward. "Hakaisha!"
"Wh-what are you talking about?" Jaken stammered.
"Killer!" Snarling, howling, Ranmyaku launched himself at his quarry, shifting as he did until his jaws were stronger, teeth sharper, song for blood more powerful and then he felt the greasy, sweating flesh between his teeth, assaulting his senses, and he bit down, tearing, savaging, destroying the thing before him. The tang of blood was heady and he ripped himself away from Jaken's throat, spilling the blood of the destroyer of his Heart on the stone floor.
He stepped back, panting hard, eyes flicking over the fallen form to make sure that his mate's murderer was truly dead. Satisfied that the butcher was indeed gone, he turned away from the carcass, revenge satisfied.
That was when the whip was wrapped around his throat.
Ranmyaku yelped as he was pulled up onto his back legs, scrabbling at the air in front of him as he slowly choked, dancing at the uneasy purchase he had upon the ground. Whining, gasping for as much air as possible, he twisted and turned, lunging forward, jumping and straining as he tried to free himself from the choke hold. His eyes rolled in his head as each breath became harder to find, each rasping, rattling gasp of sweet air harder to come by.
He felt the blackness descend, but still he fought, still he writhed in his captors grip, ignorant of the screams that went on about him, of the argument that raged over his head. All that mattered now was breathing, was staying alive a little while longer. But he was growing so weak, so powerless, his energy destroyed by his hunt for Kigai's killer.
'Oh Kigai...I'm coming, love. I'm coming.'
His tongue was choking him now, swollen and flopping about. He had stopped struggling, and hung limply, body weight choking him further. His eyes were beginning to close, the world before him swam in and out of focus. Tears dripped from his eyes, as he wept at so ignoble a defeat.
Then the whip was suddenly gone and he crashed onto the hard floor to lie panting and heaving, head light as oxygen suddenly rushed to his trembling muscles. He turned his head slowly, mindful of the bleeding, stripped ring of flesh that now circled his throat, to stare behind at the no longer wispy Ruijaku; the once-weak man looked fierce again, Jaken's black bull-whip held tautly in his hands. Ranmyaku could almost respect the sudden change in the man.
"Jiman, cage him."
The silent swordsman nodded sharply and motioned with his head at Omoi. "Assist me, sister."
The two stepped forward, one chanting softly under her breath, the other gesturing with smooth, clean motions. Ranmyaku watched, breathing too hard to do anything, helpless as they wove their spell about him, trapped him beneath a blue dome of arcane magic. He pulled himself upright on shaking legs, stood stiff-legged and huffing, glaring at the two magic users.
"How long must we hold him, lord?" Omoi asked in her sultry voice.
"Until we can figure out what's happened, why he attacked so." Dogou leaned forward in his throne, eyes sad. "Can he change? Can he take his true form?"
Jiman shook his head with the same, sharp movement he always used. "He must stay as he is, or the cage will not hold."
"Understood. Ruijaku, take some men and find Kigai. Question--" Dogou broke off suddenly as Ranmyaku howled, low and pitiful at his dead mate's name. Glaring at the captive genken, Dogou continued. "Question him--question every genken you can find about why this happened."
Ranmyaku howled again, grief finally coming, an emptiness overwhelming him at the loss of his mate. Since he could not weep, he howled instead, tremulous and mourning, filled with the grief, the despair that consumed him now.
Dogou glared at his genken. "And somebody shut that damn dog up!"
Later, long after all but Omoi and Jiman had left the Great Hall, Dogou approached him, face sad. The captive genken had long stopped his howling, throat too raw to continue to express his grief. He pushed himself up on still weak paws, teeth bared at his lord. Dogou stretched out a hand, wanting to pet the bereaved warrior, but stopped by the blue dome.
"Ran, I'm so sorry. I...I didn't know that things were so bad. Please understand that I was ignorant of it all." Ranmyaku turned his back on the lord. Dogou sighed. "We...we buried Kigai," Ranmyaku shuddered at the name, trying to cry but unable to, "next to the pond. Right where the two of you used to sit." Ranmyaku refused to acknowledge his lord; it would take more than sorry words to regain the genken's loyalty. Dogou sighed again. "I-I just thought that you should know that. I am so very sorry for you, Ran. So very sorry indeed. Kigai was a great man; a great genken and he--all of them--shall be missed terribly."
Ranmyaku lowered his head, body still shaking with grief. Then he realized that this wasn't his doing but the floors.
Confused, he looked up, testing the air for some cause, some reason for this trembling. That was when he heard the voice.
It was dark and full of evil, an ancient wrong that should never have seen the light. It spoke dark words, twisted, shrieking sounds never meant to be heard by one who followed the light. It was pure evil, pure hatred, the sound of souls screaming from hell. Worse, the owner of the voice was well known to Ranmyaku, to the frightened Dogou, for the owner was only a six year old boy; the Dark-speaker was Chame.
The Jinan stood ringed in darkness, pure and complete. He stood tall and strong, a foul wind whipping at his hair and clothes, arms raised toward the sky, body pulsing with arcane energy. He was a frightening sight, too small, too young to call down such power. It shouldn't have been possibly; he shouldn't even be standing after wielding such energies. Yet stood he did, and his voice was strong and vibrant as he called down more destruction.
Ranmyaku danced on the shaking floor, body moving by reflex rather than thought, mind too trapped by the voice to think. He watched with distant interest as cracks began to spread, fissures erupting outward in the rock like jagged maws; found it only mildly disconcerting to note the cracks that spread out beneath him, opening suddenly into a black chasm into which he dropped, falling deeper and deeper until suddenly he could no longer hear the frightening voice, and his mind returned and he crashed against the thick stone floor of the pantry. He felt his ribs crack, his shoulder shatter; better, he felt the magic which had trapped him lift.
Shifting, growing into his proper form, ignoring the ripping as his broken ribs scraped and punctured things deep with in him, Ranmyaku stood. Each breath brought blood to his throat, the tangy liquid staining his lips and dripping down from his muzzle; but he couldn't think about that now. He had to reach that place the point where pain disappeared, where everything disappeared and that mattered was battle. He had to reach it, had to push past the crippling agony before everything was over, before Chame killed them all.
'Just a little--there.'
Mind protected by a narrow purpose, Ranmyaku loped up the stairs, launching himself at the thick hatch that kept him trapped below. Again and again he hit the stubborn wood, pushing and straining, knowing that he ruptured more and more with each movement. But he had to get through, had to reach the source of this chaos.
Finally, the hatch gave way, opening so suddenly that it spilled the genken out upon the rubble strewn floor. Afraid--more afraid that he had ever been before--Ranmyaku ran through the destroyed halls, clambered over huge piles of rubble and squeezed and scraped his way past the blocked passageways. He was a bloody mess by the time he reached the Great Hall, pelt half gone, his own blood dripping from his mouth in long streams; but at least he was alive. That was far more than he could say for the rest of the castle. He had found so many bodies--so many bodies trapped beneath stone, crushed by one of their own line...
The Great Hall was the worst, for it was clear of the rubble that marked the rest of the keep. Those who lay dead here had died by magic, a more gruesome and painful death than any the other members of the castle had suffered.
Ranmyaku poked through the remains, tallying up the kills. The royal family was by far the most gruesome--turned inside out, flayed, drawn and quartered and torn apart by some unknown force...their mingled blood collected in a black pool. Their bodies lay together, even the betraying Chame, who had apparently collapsed after killing the rest of his family. Ranmyaku growled and kicked the tiny body away. It had no place next to the rest of them.
Ruijaku had been skinned with the bull whip he carried while in the middle of prayer, the tears of his latest weeping bout still shining on his face. Shenkensha had been impaled upon his own staff. Tekiji had her scales wrapped about her throat, the abacus she used to tally expenses sticking from her heart.
Even the foreigners were there, standing back to back and looking almost alive. But as Ranmyaku touched them, they crumbled beneath his fingers, collapsing into a mingled pile of grey ash.
Ranmyaku shook his head slowly. He needed to bury the bodies, burn Chame's foul form, clean himself up. But he had slipped from that special spot, returned to the real world of pain and anguish and he suddenly felt as though he could go no further, take no more. Even when he heard the stirring, feared that it was a minion of the Dark come to make sure all were dead, he was too tired to move, to tired to check.
It was with great relief indeed that he saw the noise had been caused by Jiman and Omoi, the weary magi making their own way into the room of death.
"Ho, Ranmyaku," Omoi gasped out, robes ragged and face shining with sweat. "We have a favor to beg of thee."
"Speak, Omoi, but hurry. I don't think I can keep standing much longer." Ranmyaku coughed, hard, blood spraying from his lips. He smiled darkly. "It seems I am not long for this world as well."
"Then we shall be brief." Jiman straightened as much as he could, leaning heavily on his sword. His face was pale as well, and though he tried to hide it, fear leaked out from his eyes. "You must kill us. We were hit by the recoil of the Bringer's Dark Magic and it shall be but a few more minutes before we too are possessed by Dark Madness. We must die before that happens."
Ranmyaku shook his head. "Not until you do something for me first."
"Yes, anything, good genken. Ye must kill us." Omoi swallowed. "I feel the Madness approach. Hurry, good Ranmyaku! Hurry!"
"Bind my souls to those here, as you have bound my soul to those of my pack. If I can not have vengeance now, than I must be reborn to seek vengeance then."
"You ask a hard task, but we shall do it." Jiman was trembling, now, suffering from the strain of holding back his madness. "Come sister, we must work quickly."
Omoi nodded and spoke softly, voice mingling with her brothers. "By the Light and the Gods, bind the souls of those killed here to that of this genken. Vengeance shall be his; vengeance must be his."
Omoi sighed and sagged. "There. 'Tis done. But the act has drained much from me. I can not--" she broke off as an insane laugh bubbled from her lips, rich but fearful, full of dark mania.
Ranmyaku dashed forward and grabbed her head twisting her neck sharply, snapping the delicate human bones. Turning on Jiman he repeated his act, nodding in silent acknowledgement of the whispered "Thank you". Their bodies hit the ground one after the other and Ranmyaku stepped back, sickened by all the death around him. This was the death of chaos, lacking in the purity of purpose. He had to get away, leave this place of decay.
Limping slowly from the room, he made his way across the desolate lawns to what was left of the Inugoya. He shuffled slowly to the pond, making his way around the lip to his mate's grave. Groaning, gasping in pain, he lowered himself to the newly tilled earth.
'I just need to rest. Five minutes, then I'll go back and bury the bodies. Five minutes...' His tired eyes closed, his labored breathing grew slower, slower, his great heart failing. As oblivion closed in around him, one thought echoed through his mind: 'Kigai...Wagakoro...My mate...Now and forever...'