Author: Indygodusk PM
Tokio Takagi teaches her students about the world after magic came, but even she can't explain the mysterious deaths plaguing her town. Hajime Saitou knows, but he has his own agenda.Rated: Fiction T - English - Supernatural/Adventure - Saitou - Chapters: 4 - Words: 24,497 - Reviews: 83 - Favs: 50 - Follows: 57 - Updated: 01-26-06 - Published: 10-30-05 - id: 2639703
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and its characters do not belong to me. Oh, the wicked things I'd do with them if they did.
Warning: DARK: This story will contain graphic images of violence.
Edited 05Jan06, thanks to the talented and charming KC Evans.
Chapter 1: Liquid Lights
Night had long ago washed away the last smudges of a disappointing sunset and a drizzling fog the color of yellowed bones hid the moons and stars from the gaze of anyone who might be searching for their comforting radiance. Swathed in fog, houses, trees, and light poles became abstract geometric shapes on a starving painter's canvas. Further obscuring the scenery, beads of moisture flecked the windows. On this night, not even the protection of high walls and stout doors could completely dispel the visceral disquiet caused by the blindfolding of both the heavens and the earth.
Adjusting the sniffling body in her arms, Tokio Takagi took a step away from the hall window and the dismal scene outside. Instead of shutting out the elements, the wavy glass in the windowpane seemed to amplify the unseasonable chill emanating out from the fog's diffuse glow. Not even the cheery red and yellow curtains seemed to help. In the dark they seemed almost gray, an insubstantial barrier to the icy fingers reaching into the room.
Tonight, Tokio had drawn nightmare duty for the youngest residents at the Aizu Academy. Later on in the semester the older children would be given the responsibility. For the first few weeks of school year, however, the teachers liked to keep watch.
Occasionally onerous, but usually uneventful, it was a task she had a lot of experience with. Though she was a teacher now, Tokio had once been a student here herself. She remembered those nights in the past when she'd been forced to leave the warm stolidity of the other teenagers to sleep on a cot nearby the younger children. Some nights, she had wondered if she would have been so weak and weepy if she'd come to live at this school at the age of five. Other nights, she had wondered if she would have been so brave and strong.
Tonight, the warm body cuddled in her arms was Chi'na – petite, five-year-old Chi'na of the licorice braids and chocolate syrup eyes who only a week ago had lost her parents in a boating accident. When her quaking sobs had threatened to wake the other small sleepers, Tokio had taken her out of the dorm room full of cheerful yellow beds, set up to mimic ducks sitting in a row, and into the dimly lit hallway. She had hoped a few minutes at the window would help the child return to sleep. Yet Tokio hadn't reckoned on the weather staying so gloomy. The scene outside the hall window was the last thing to bring comfort to a distraught child.
Gliding along the red-brown floorboards, she tried to step quietly over the rainbow braided rugs on her way past rooms full of sleeping children. Like an octopus, the child had captured Tokio within the circle of her arms and legs, clutching onto folds of fabric and hair tight enough to suffocate if she thrashed too much. A wince escaped Tokio as the child's grip tightened in her hair.
Quickening her step, she saw the doorway to the living room just ahead. It loomed mysteriously in the suffuse light creeping down the hall from the fog-draped windows. For a moment she hesitated. Hearing nothing in the corridor but the sound of the crying child, she shook off her foolish thoughts. Tokio maneuvered the door open with a barely audible creak. Entering, she made her way to the smooth-sailing rocking chair standing sentinel next to the still smoldering fireplace.
"Miss Takagi, I wa- wanna go home," Chi'na sobbed out, clenching her sticky fingers in Tokio's night braid and tugging fretfully. A shudder shook her small frame, either from unhappiness or a chill from the icy draft drifting down the chimney. Supporting Chi'na's body with one arm, Tokio used the other to put several logs on the fire. Then she grabbed a poker and stirred up the coals until the wood caught flame.
"I know, koneko," she sighed soothingly, rubbing her hand in waves up and down the child's narrow back, crinkling and smoothing her pale blue nightgown. "I know."
Sinking into the rocking chair, Tokio rearranged Chi'na's wayward limbs and began singing a soft melody. Sniffling, the child snuggled closer. Slowly the listing to-and-fro combined with the tune to pull her small eyelids closed.
The song had belonged to Tokio's mother, a tune of whimsical animals and gentle spirits, of warm milk and soothing hands. After her song her mother would croon, "Dream well, koneko." Koneko meant kitten in the tongue of her ancestors in Japan, back when Japan was still a nation with one language and magic existed only in bedtime fairytales. "Let the waves of sleep take you. Sleep…" she would breathe, smelling of licorice-peppermint from the tea she loved to drink before going to bed.
"Licorice-peppermint isn't traditional," Tokio's father would tease, back when he was happy and whole and full of love. "Green tea certainly, black tea too, but licorice-peppermint?" he would shake his head in mock reproach. In reply Tokio's mother would just wave her hand in her usual 'what-do-you-know' gesture and dimple around the rim of her mug.
Tokio's last memory of her mother was of that bedtime ritual – a kiss on her cheek from slightly chapped lips, a whispered "koneko," and a waft of licorice-peppermint.
Chi'na's choppy breaths had finally eased into the susurrations of sleep, but the memories had drowned any impulse Tokio might have had to risk dreaming that night. Shifting to get a little more comfortable, her eyes and ears moved towards the fire. Echoing Chi'na's earlier choked breaths, the fire chugged at the air, slowly, quickly, puffing a rhythm that Tokio couldn't sooth, couldn't stop, couldn't keep, for ears cannot keep flames, nor eyes sparks, nor hands warmth. Fires always die.
Now Tokio remembered why she always avoided this room at night – the fire. Long experience had taught her that being alone with fire and her thoughts only caused her sorrow. But the grief of another child who had lost her parents to the sea, one with Tokio's same licorice hair and chocolate eyes, had distracted her. It surfaced memories she preferred not to visit. Despite the warm feelings that the flood of those memories brought, Tokio hated the pain of knowing that they would never again be more than just that – memories.
Odd, that fire was what reminded her of her mother's death – the currents of flames and logs assuming the form of limbs entangled with tendrils of sleek hair and seaweed. The quick sparks twinkling like tears over a golden-brown iris enlarged by sunlight.
Her mother had loved history, especially the mythology of foreign cultures. She had once told Tokio of Iris, the Greek Goddess of rainbows and messages. Sometimes at night, Tokio imagined that she saw Iris's colors in the fire's flickering hues, and wondered if her vibrant song extended to liquid lights as well. Did rainbows exist in the deep, as she sometimes dreamed on gray nights?
Do you hear Iris Mother? Do you receive my messages in the glow of phosphorescent jelly fish?
"I love you, Mother," Tokio whispered to the flames.
"Miss Takagi?" a groggy voice competed with the echoes of the fire, forcing her lungs to draw in a deep breath.
She realized that she had been squeezing Chi'na too tightly. Relaxing, she smoothed wisps of hair out of the heart-shaped face and cuddled her more gently in her lap. "Shh, koneko, go back to sleep. I've got you, warm and safe. Shhh…."
Condensing moisture from the thick fog dripped off the wind-rustled leaves, sending icy trickles of moisture down Hajime Saitou's neck where he crouched in the branches of an oak tree. Years of training could keep his body from flinching, but it couldn't keep the sour frown from twisting his lips. The dense fog had saturated his clothing hours ago. He'd gotten used to the clammy dampness of the fabric, but each icy trickle from above was an unpredictable nuisance.
What he wouldn't give for a cigarette right now.
For several hours he'd been waiting still and silent above the forest pool. The moonlight glanced off the foggy dew on the ground and highlighted the large tracks, two clawed feet and a smooth hand, glistening silver in the mist. At least a quarter of a meter long, those tracks were his reason for waiting. Unfortunately for the people living in the surrounding towns, they didn't belong to any natural beast of the forest.
Rather, they belonged to a magic-spawned monstrosity. Locked doors, vigilant guards, and skilled huntsman had proved to be completely inadequate protection for a creature this vicious and cunning. A nocturnal hunter of keen intelligence, the monster went for small parties of travelers and isolated farmsteads.
Despite a month long killing spree, few people actually knew of its existence. The order to keep quiet had come from the capital. This had helped to keep the surrounding towns from mass panic, but also made finding the monster more difficult. People had been advised to increase their security, but beyond that the government refused to give out specifics.
Unfortunately, from what he'd been able to tell none of the victims had received a quick death. While the fourteen people killed so far had been fed from, nourishment didn't seem to be the creature's primary reason for slaughter. Some of the bodies only had a couple of bites missing, the rest of their blood and flesh scattered around the scene like moist confetti in some sort of macabre celebration. It seemed that the creature liked to break the limbs of its victims, rendering them immobile, before settling down for a few hours of skinning, evisceration, and torture. None of the heads showed any signs of being gagged, suggesting that the monster delighted in their screaming and had little fear of discovery.
Before Saitou was done it would know fear. Even if only for a split second before he destroyed it utterly. Justice would be served and evil eliminated.
While he had seen a lot of death during his young life, it had taken more control than he cared to admit to keep from vomiting at his first scene. For some reason the image of the dead woman's somehow pristine yellow hair ribbon holding her blood blackened hair away from a disturbingly mutilated face kept appearing each time he closed his eyes. It was only discipline that had allowed him to sleep the next day – discipline and the knowledge that he would be the hand of justice for that woman and the other victims.
Whether the creature had appeared because of wild magic or been released by someone with a malignant design, he didn't know. Others had the priority to find that out. His job for right now was to simply track the creature down and kill it before it slaughtered anyone else.
Sweeping his eyes around the fog-draped pool, he saw the second moon cresting over the trees. The extra light would make it easier to see the creature's approach, but it would also make it easier to be seen. There was little he could do about it now. He'd just have to trust that his high hiding spot was well concealed in the fog.
Saitou frowned. He hated trusting something as fickle as luck. Checking to ensure the clearing still looked empty, he began to softly chant. Soon his form blurred into the bark of the tree. When nothing stirred, he whispered a few more words and made a complicated gesture towards his face. He felt a few seconds of burning pain as molecules rearranged. Then the pain subsided and his senses heightened. Across the clearing he heard the sharp crack of opening wings breaking a dive, followed by the smell of a small rodent being eaten. In the split-second it had taken him to recognize the owl, his heartbeat had jumped and his adrenaline had surged.
His now enhanced vision examined the clearing again. The tracks below were from late this morning. After a fruitless search for a lair, he'd decided to gamble that the killer had holed up somewhere close by and would return for a drink of water before moving on. If he was wrong, it could mean another death this night. Just in case he had several patrols circling the area. However, he had little confidence that they would find it. He was too practical to hope.
A faint rustle reached his hyper-sensitive ears, snapping his eyes to the edge of the clearing below. He licked his lips in anticipation. It didn't sound like a bird. Keeping his breathing slow and shallow, he fingered the trigger of his rifle with one hand and the hilt of his sword with the other.
Many magic creatures had proven themselves impervious to bullets, but for a subset of that group bullets could do temporary damage. The short time required to regenerate a blown off limb had tipped the balance of battle in his favor more than once. The weapon he truly depended on, however, was his rune-etched nihontou. Imbued with eldritch fire, it sliced through flesh both earthly and enchanted.
Straining his eyes through the thickening fog, he was finally able to make out a large shadow stalking along the edge of the trees. When it stepped out of the shadows and into the yellowed moonlight, Saitou felt savage pleasure course through his body. He'd guessed right – the monster had returned.
Its two meter tall hunchbacked form seemed to be covered with glistening black scales that sucked in the light instead of reflecting it. The darkness was interrupted by splotches of paler white markings along its chest and flank. The shadows and fog kept him from identifying any coloration more specific. It paced towards the water on two clawed feet, occasionally bringing a knuckle down to add a burst of momentum and speed. Its path would bring it only a few meters away from his tree. Beneath a shallow forehead, bulbous eyes cautiously surveyed the foggy clearing.
Opening its wide-lipped mouth and flicking out its tongue, it tasted the air for other predators and for prey. Right now the faint breeze was in Saitou's favor. However, if the wind shifted he would loose any hope of a surprise attack. The moonlight glinting off its double row of shark-like teeth matched the broken-off teeth found still embedded in the flesh of its victims. With its scales and long tongue, the monster reminded him of a large black lizard - a malignant lizard that would soon be very dead.
Rolling silently onto the balls of his feet on the slick tree branch, Saitou carefully aimed his gun at the creature's head. Then, quietly releasing his breath, he squeezed down on the trigger, peppering its body with bullets. While the last bullet was still in the air he leapt down from his perch and drew his sword to deliver his gatotsu nishiki attack. At the same time he quickly thumbed on the safety, releasing the gun to swing behind him on its strap.
Whipping around lightning-quick, the Black Lizard intercepted his falling diagonal slash with a clawed hand that caused him to fly backwards. The bullets hadn't seemed to phase it at all; unfortunately it was one of those creatures impervious to earthly weapons. Saitou skidded back to land in a crouch and quickly assessed his options. Too caught up in the fight to feel fear, he sprang back up and slashed at its legs, attempting to hamstring it. Dodging Saitou's blade in a swirl of fog, the black lizard scuttled to the right.
In its moment of distraction Saitou fell into his gatotsu stance – leading with his right foot, he held the hilt of his nihontou in his left hand and poised his right above the tip of the blade. A second later the Black Lizard rushed him with its razor-sharp claws extended. Calculating the position of its four limbs, he deftly avoided their attack and stabbed hard into its chest, scoring a deep wound.
As it roared in pain and rage, Saitou saw something from the corner of his eye. A sharp blackness sped towards his face. Saitou's frantic twist wasn't enough to completely dodge the serrated tail that was, until now, hidden in the fog. While he avoided having his throat ripped out, the sharp tip still managed to shred his forehead. Growling, Saitou's head throbbed in pain as blood dripped into his eyes, obscuring his vision.
Throwing a backhanded slash at the Black Lizard's flank, he scored only a shallow slice. It was enough, however, to keep it from immediately advancing and tearing out his throat. Rolling to the edge of the pond, Saitou placed the water at his back and swiped a hand across his face to clear away the blood. Ruthlessly he suppressed his momentary panic. As a Mirror, hunter, and warrior of justice, he would not back down.
From the center of the clearing the Black Lizard, holding one hand to the chest-wound dribbling black blood, hissed at Saitou in rage.
Raising his sword, Saitou assumed his gatotsu stance again and advanced. The snarling monster raced to meet him. Black talons skittered against his blade and broke past, slicing across his chest. Ignoring the stinging pain, he continued pressing his attack.
Parrying its claws up and to the side, he released his right hand and aimed a vicious punch at the stab-wound on its chest. A screech of pain blasted Saitou's magic-heightened ears. He winced and stumbled back.
Despite the pain, its bulging eyes watched Saitou cunningly. It was planning something. Instinct made Saitou dodge left. The sharp tines of the Black Lizard's tail slashed through the space where he'd been standing only seconds before. Pivoting on his heels, Saitou brought his nihontou around and down, severing the lethally barbed tail from its body in a spray of blood. He was prepared this time for its shrill cry and didn't flinch.
It dodged his next slash and responded with a lighting-swift kick to his side. The force of the blow lifted him up and flung him across the clearing. Adrenalin allowed him to somewhat control his landing, but the fall had knocked the breath from his body. Resisting the deadly impulse to curl up on the ground, Saitou staggered to his feet. Sweat and blood matted his hair to the sides of his face. His entire body ached. Even so, he knew that showing weakness would mean death.
Flicking blood off the edge of his blade, Saitou smirked mockingly. Their eyes clashed across the clearing and the Black Lizard snarled. Then, in a move completely unexpected, it turned and swiftly ran off into the fog-shrouded forest.
Saitou swore viciously and swiped the blood out of his eyes. Forcing his pain down, he raced after the quickly disappearing shadow. Jumping over a fallen tree, he stumbled on a rock he hadn't seen. Blood once again blurred his vision. Growling, he grabbed a strip of cloth from a pouch at his waist and awkwardly tied it around his head while still running.
Away from the open clearing and reflective water of the pond, he felt like he was at the bottom of a lake trying to see through murky water. The only light to be found under the forest canopy at all was the sickly yellow glow emanating from the fog. Such light obscured more than it illuminated. Despite his best efforts, Saitou lost the black monstrosity between the fog threaded trees.
Although he hadn't seen any sign of the creature for several minutes, he refused to give up. Angrily he sheathed his nihontou. It was time to change his strategy. Stopping his loping run between the trees, he cocked his head and listened for any sound of the fleeing monster. Saitou knew sound echoed strangely in fog. Yet being unable to see much beyond the trunks of the nearest trees gave him no other option. He had to try his other senses.
Concentrating, he could make out the sound of muted crackling, as if something was walking through a clearing filled with fallen leaves. Turning in a circle, he did his best to pinpoint the sound. Then he loped silently towards it.
When he heard the sound getting louder he slowed down and palmed the hilt of his sword. The footsteps were coming down the animal track in his direction. Saitou hid himself against the trunk of a tree and waited. It sounded like the noise was still several minutes away.
Surprisingly, only a few seconds later Saitou saw the shape of a head appear out of the fog. Preparing to draw his sword, he noticed another head join the first. Bitter invectives welled up in his throat. Grinding his teeth in anger, the hunter released his fierce grip on his sword. Then he whistled to let the patrolmen know he was there. It wouldn't do to be mistaken for the black lizard in the dark fog and shot by his own men.
Wishing again that he had a cigarette, Saitou stepped out onto the trail. They would continue to search, but in his gut he knew they wouldn't find the black scaled creature again that night.
Bitterly he thought that it would not have the same problem finding a victim. He had let it get away, and that meant that as soon as the sun burned off the fog, his men would have to start scouring for fresh bodies.
Tokio's heavy-lidded eyes opened wide in surprise when she heard the door creak open. The late hour combined with the warmth from the fire and the child in her arms had been successfully sucking her down into sleep, despite her earlier dark thoughts. Turning her head as far as she could without disturbing the sleeping child, she saw blue eyes and a fluff of brownish-black bangs peaking around the door frame. She could also see small fingers curled around the edge of the door. The rest of the child's body and identity remained hidden.
Smiling encouragingly, Tokio waited for the child to build up enough courage to enter the room. "Hello?"
Finally, the door creaked open enough to reveal the pale, drawn face of a small girl. One hand clutched the door while the other fiddled with the belt of the yellow robe she wore over her sleeping clothes.
"Miss Takagi, can I sit in here with you for a while?" the child asked in a subdued voice.
Tokio felt her brows draw together in concern. "Of course you can, sweetheart. Why don't you come and sit on the couch next to our chair," she invited, freeing an arm from Chi'na to rub the girl's shoulder when she crawled up and leaned against the couch's armrest.
"Kaoru, why did you wander all of the way up here? Won't your parents be worried about you?" she asked. Kaoru's parents were also teachers here and had their quarters one floor down.
Biting her lip, Kaoru looked down at her lap. "I didn't want to wake them up. I'm eight now and I don't want Tou-san to think I'm too weak to learn kendo," Kaoru explained.
Moving her hand in soothing circles along the side of Kaoru's tense back, Tokio had to shake her head at the girl. "Your father adores you. I'm sure that he would never think you are weak." Kaoru sighed, but seemed unconvinced.
"Do you want to tell me the problem? I'm a pretty good listener," Tokio offered as she adjusted the little girl sleeping on her lap.
Kaoru looked at her from the corner of her eye for a silent moment before coming to a decision. "I had a … nightmare."
"What about, koneko?" prompted Tokio gently after no more was forthcoming.
"Blood… there was a little boy and he was crying blood." After this confession, Kaoru's bottom lip started to quiver.
Tokio's heart started to ache. She never could stand the lip quiver. Putting her arms beneath the still sleeping Chi'na's back and legs, Tokio stood up and moved to the couch next to Kaoru.
"Oh koneko, that's terrible." Placing an arm around Kaoru's shoulders, Tokio gently drew her over until she was resting against her side. Chi'na's feet shifted over to rest on Kaoru's legs, but the other child didn't seem to mind.
"It was only a dream; you're safe now. Everything's going to be okay. Just sit here with Chi'na and me for a little while, alright? When you feel better we'll walk you back to your room. Okay?" consoled Tokio.
After a little shuddering sigh, Kaoru replied, "Okay," before snuggling closer into Tokio's side.
Cuddling the two girls lovingly to her chest, Tokio began to softly sing her mother's song, a melody of whimsical animals and gentle spirits.
On the far edge of the forest there stood a small yellow farmhouse. Still a few hours from dawn, the house was hidden from the light of the moons and stars by the drizzling fog. The few travelers who ever passed by the farm this early in the morning were used to hearing the chime of the wife's bell as she called her family in for breakfast and seeing the young son laughing delightedly as he helped his father feed the chickens.
That dark morning the dismal weather kept any chance travelers away. If it hadn't, they might have noticed something far different that day. They might have heard the chilling sound of masculine screams from a voice gone hoarse from hours of use.
And they might have seen the decapitated head of a small boy staring glassily from a doorway, his face marked with claw marks from eye to chin in a bloody parody of tear-tracts.
TO BE CONTINUED
Koneko – kitten
Nihontou – Japanese katana/sword, 26-30 inches long
Gatotsu Nishiki – (Fang Point Second Stance) Air to ground attack where the nihontou is thrust diagonally from above.
Gatotsu Ishiki – (Fang Point First Stance) Also called the Hiratsuki Gatotsu, the targets are the usually the chest, neck, shoulders, and head.
Gatotsu – (Fang Point) Not really a technique but more a way of standing and holding the Nihontou. Leading with the right foot, the stance itself is done by holding the blade by the hilt in the left hand, and poising the right hand above the tip of the blade. It can be refined for different situations.
Tou-san – father
Kendo – The Japanese martial art of fencing or swordsmanship
Thanks to the Kenshin site "Let it Burn" for information on Saitou's fighting techniques.
Thanks for sticking it out to the end, despite the darker aspects. Please review and tell me what you think!