So I've been sitting on this story for several months now... but I was finally inspired to dig it back out and begin working on it again, so here ya go, yet another new story X'D
Thank you for bearing with me on my slow updates... I've been in the process of finding a new apartment in a new city, transferring jobs, packing, all that fun stuff, so things are kind of hectic and stressful at the moment. Hopefully that will change after this month though, when I'm finally settled back down~
Running. That was all that consumed his mind. Just running. He had to run, had to keep moving. His breath fled in harsh pants, his throat dry. His muscles burned and he thought his legs would give out but still he kept running. Decaying roots from the old trees of the forest snagged at his feet, catching his already tattered pants and ripping them further, but it didn't matter. All around him, the shadows were deep and foreboding. They danced with the swaying branches over head and made it impossible to see just how far until he made it clear of the trees, but even the thought of making it back to his village was lost on him. If he didn't keep running they would catch up.
He didn't know where they were but he knew they wouldn't give up so easily, not against something as easily caught as him. Maybe they had already pulled ahead of him. Maybe he was about to run head first into a trap.
His steps faltered, slowing down. His heart pounded in his chest and in his ears. It leapt to his throat and choked him on the air he tried to breathe in. His panting grew to a desperate pace, panic swelling in his mind. He hadn't seen them run around and in front of him. He couldn't see them anywhere, nor hear them. He couldn't even smell them any longer. But they weren't limited the way he was, they weren't human.
What if they weren't real? What if none of it had happened, if it was all in his head?
Eyes widening, he spun a circle to chance a glance behind him where they should have been. Nothing. The forest was quiet, dead. The leaves barely clung to the branches, orange and yellow and dying. Maybe it really had been in his head. Attempting some semblance of calm, he squeezed his eyes shut and bent at the waist, rested his hands against his knees and desperate to just catch his breath. The material was damp and cold under his palms, but that was from a fall during his terrified run.
He breathed deep the heady scent of the forest, of rich soil and wet bark. Timidly, afraid of what he would find, he opened his eyes and peered down at himself. His eyes widened, fear seizing his heart. The front of his shirt was shredded, the once light colored material soaked through and stained with red. Terror made his hands shake as he ran his fingers across the jagged slashes in his chest. They stung and lit fire behind his eyes. His fingers came away wet and dripping with his blood. Real. The wounds were real. They were real.
A warm scent invaded his senses and drowned out the natural musk of the forest; light and calm, somewhere between vanilla and an old book. It was a calming scent, inviting and soothing, but it was deceiving and also very terrifying. One of them was near, silent and unseen, but where was the other?
Fear made his legs numb but he pushed forward once more, nearly tripping in his haste to flee. He wouldn't make to the forest's edge and no one would come looking for him. His parents would mourn and the elders would speak of the forest and it's monsters claiming another life.
The elders told of times when the village was young and so were the people, of a time when the forest was ancient but alive and welcoming. They spoke of a time when the forest didn't swallow all that entered it, when it was safe in all seasons. They said the gods had been happier then, polite and friendly, when there had still been three of them.
If someone lost their way, the gods were more likely to help them, keep them safe and guide them back, than they were to hurt and consume them. The village had been at peace with it's three protectors. The gods had dwelled at the edge of the forest and sometimes even walked within the village's boundaries. Long ago, the people had praised them, they offered gifts and left food in the temple and all was peaceful.
But things changed. Now the two that remained hid deep within the shadows of the forbidden forest and a visit meant ruination.
A stranger had come to the village, traversing the path that wound it's way through the forest, a path that didn't exist in modern times. This stranger was a conniving man, a heartless and cruel man. He sought power and he corrupted those in charge with his gold and his tales of glory beyond the forest. When next the gods visited, the man and his gathered followers were waiting.
The day had been bright and cheery, the forest alive with the sounds of chirping birds and the buzz of insects. The sun shone high overhead and the villagers had enjoyed the fair weather. When the light breeze had carried familiar, beautiful scents through the streets; the inviting mingle of warm vanilla, vivid orchids and the smell of a storm at sea, all work had ceased and the people eagerly awaited the arrival of their gods.
The first to appear, a wolf as white as the winter it's self stepped from the forest, his coat impeccable and unstained. His size alone proved he could be of no natural origin, his weight rivaling that of a small horse, but it was the beast's eyes that really gave his identity away. Golden fire danced in his orbs, surrounded by the dark of a starless night. His tongue, tainted an odd frostbitten blue, lolled happily from his mouth in true canine fashion as he trotted into view, head held high and proud.
Following shortly behind, a jackal with a coat so brilliant it was nearly golden strode from the forest. His long legs were lean and graceful, his body just as slim but incredibly powerful. His size neared the wolf's, making him dwarf any natural born jackal. He too wore a canine smile, ever light hearted and cheerful. His eyes were a deep, endless brown that shone with intelligence. His pointed ears swiveled about as he neared his fellow god and mate. Ears sliding back in an affectionate gesture, the jackal nosed the underside of the wolf's jaw, earning an equally affectionate lick for his efforts.
Always the last to show himself, the most mysterious of the three finally stalked from the shadows. His coat was so dark that in the sun it shimmered blue over rippling muscle. His body carried the undeniable grace of his feline heritage. Lean and powerful, it spoke of the ease of a kill. The jaguar's eyes were of the purest blue, endless and almost cold, just like the seas. His slim tail trailed behind him as he padded toward his companions, butting his head into first the large wolf and then the jackal in his own display of affection.
Together, as they always were, the three gods strode passed the perimeter of the village and entered it's boundaries. They were welcomed with praise and worship by the happy villagers. As they had done countless times, the three strode through the streets toward the center of town and the temple that had been constructed in their names.
As was usual, a feast awaited them and to honor the humans that had gifted such precious things to them, they entered the temple with the intent to fill their bellies and converse with the villagers. But before they could begin, the conniving man that had wormed his way into the village's leaders' good graces revealed himself.
'Grant me wealth.' He had demanded of them. The jackal had chuckled good naturally and refused, claiming that not even the gods could turn nothing into something or lead into gold.
'Give me power, then.' The man had tried again. 'So that I might gain the gold myself.'
Again, the three had refused. The black jaguar told him he was undeserving of power if he could not attain it himself and warned the man of the corruption he would bring upon himself in attempting such an ill-fated thing.
'Then my final offer is that you find me a beautiful woman of nobel birth to marry.' The man thought that if he married into nobility, he could gain both power and wealth.
But yet again, he was refused. The white wolf snarled a laugh, his ears falling back in mirth and his blue tongue curling around sharp fangs. He told the man that no woman would mate with a greedy creature such as himself and that should he manage to force one into it, he would be unhappy and she unfaithful, making all the power and wealth in the world useless in making his life worthwhile.
The man grew angry. 'You have spelled your own doom.' He claimed as he drew a sword from it's scabbard at his side. Around him, men and woman drew their weapons as well while the majority of the villagers looked on in confusion and a growing horror.
The three gods stood; a dark smirk on the wolf's features, a concerned and pitying frown furrowing the jackal's brows, and an outraged snarl on the dark features of the jaguar. The gods quickly shooed the innocent from the temple as the man and his followers surged forward.
In the end, the man and his followers had been slaughtered but at a price. Where once three gods had happily lounged near mounds of food, blood and carnage now soaked the ground and stained golden fur. A mournful howl shattered the silence after the battle and soon, the wolf and his jaguar mate carried their leaner companion between them and helped him hobble from the temple.
A sword jutted from his heaving chest and blood dripped from his chin. His depthless eyes were glazed as he was lain flat in the middle of the street, his mates circling him with pain and desperation in their gazes. The jaguar nudged his rounded snout against the jackal's, a whimper crawling from his throat. The wolf and the feline took turns between comforting their dying companion and standing guard for the next day and night. The villagers wept for their gods but didn't dare draw near as the two remaining grew rife with grief. The moment of the jackal's death was announced by a long, haunting howl that pierced the still night air, a low, equally mournful yowl fleeing the jaguar's throat to mingle with the wolf's despair.
A grave was dug for the enormous, godly jackal but by the time the villagers arrived where the god had died, his body and his mates were gone and nothing would ever be the same. The winds that night had sang of pain, hollow and raw and cold as though the summer was over and the harsher seasons had come early.
It was common knowledge that a god couldn't just die. But it's carrier could, it's body, and if that happened, then the god would be reborn into a different carrier. But no one knew how long that took and the two remaining gods had grown quiet in their pain as they waited for their mate to return to them. Sorrow tainted their spirits and filled their eyes. That sorrow eventually morphed into anger, rage and even hatred. They grew bitter and resentful. They grew cruel just like the man that had broken them.
The temple had remained empty since that day, the names of the gods eventually becoming taboo to even speak, lest they be summoned and doom befell the village. The forest was forbidden and for good reason. They couldn't forgive what had happened. Entering their forest meant death. The two remaining gods did not take kindly to the people that had killed their mate, nor the descendants of those people. They were no longer the kind, gentle creatures they once were, but evil and deadly beasts.
The wolf and the jaguar lost hope of being reunited with their dead mate. They cut off the path that had led in and out of the village, using their power to destroy it and make the forest close it off. They would consume the village one day, destroy everything within and kill all the humans. It was only a matter of time before they lost themselves completely to the darkness that had wrapped around their hearts.
The villagers' only hope rest in that one day soon, before it was too late, a male child would be born and accept the lost god's wondering spirt. If that happened, the parents would be forced to give their child up and hope that the two gods, who's sanity was wavering, would accept the boy, but it would save the lives of many. If a carrier was not found, or the gods did not accept the rebirth, the village would be doomed and the forest would die, taking with it the life of every creature that depended on it and the gods.
Another person had gone missing, a young man whom thought he could save the village. He had unwisely volunteered for what most dreaded. The elders that still lived were growing desperate and any boy that they could even loosely connect to the jackal god was handed over to the forest. His body wouldn't be found. None of the bodies were ever found, destroyed and consumed by the monsters lurking the forest, monsters that had once been regarded as gentle and benign beings.
Ichigo shook his head as he listened to his father relay the news to his mother. To him, it seemed shameful that the elders would so casually toss away any male child's life, but he understood their desperation. Sitting outside, he watched his two younger sisters play in the garden. The blinding light of the setting sun made his unnaturally bright hair glow all the more. A light breeze carried the scent of rain and dark clouds edged on the horizon. A vicious crack of thunder interrupted his sisters' play and had fearful expressions crossing their features. He chuckled as they scurried passed him and into the house.
He hadn't been around when the gods were still three, nor had his parents, but his grandparents had been, though they had been very young. Both were dead now, but he still remembered the tales. His grandmother had only felt sorrow for the cruel gods and he would admit, at least to himself, that she had passed that sentiment on to him.
At 15, nearly sixteen, Ichigo was still young, but he was wise beyond his years, intelligent and always curious to know more. He believed what his grandmother had told him and he held hope that the jackal would return to the mates he had left behind. His father thought him crazy, but the older man was proud of his son and the young man he was becoming. His mother was just like his grandmother had been. She was kind hearted and often told the twins and Ichigo the ancient stories of the gods and the forest they had once loved. She condoned and fed her son's passion and understanding toward the gods, nurturing his caring nature. Together, his parents had raised him into a strong and courageous, yet accepting and kind young man.
"Ichigo, dear, come in before it begins raining at least." His mother called from the door as he climbed to his feet, features split into a pleased smile. She understood her son better than most and knew the storm would make him adventurous, as they always did and had since he was small. It was like the natural energy in the air lent him energy and called to him, beckoning him to explore.
"I will!" Ichigo turned to wave over his shoulder at her. Lightening lit up the darkening horizon and while the rest of the villagers were seeking the cover of their homes, he was walking toward the coming storm.
He had been like that since he was but a small child. The natural born fear of a powerful and violent storm was missing. Instead, they fascinated him and drew him in. Nature's raw power was invigorating and liberating to him. There was something wild and free about it, something that man couldn't control nor tame.
The breeze picked up and pushed his orange locks away from his face. Ichigo smiled into the wind and closed his eyes as he breathed deep the scent of rain and wet earth. He let his feet guide him through the deserted paths and roads of the village. Even without looking, he knew where he would end up. Every time a storm would hit, he ultimately found himself hovering near the old temple. The village had grown since the old days, not by much, but it was enough to push the columned building toward the edge so that it was no longer the center of the village, no longer the heart of their community.
Ichigo thought it tragic that something so beautiful was left empty and lifeless. Perhaps if the villagers had continued to praise their nearly fallen gods, the Winter wolf and the Autumn jaguar would not have fallen into such deep despair, if they had had someone to help them as they had always helped the villagers. Their Summer had been taken from them, it seemed only natural that they would be bitter and cold without the warmth of the jackal. Even Mother Spring could only do so much in warming them. Her powers were limited to cycling the seasons that her children, the gods, had been created after. But Summer was missing and the forest couldn't flourish without his season of growing.
Fall was upon them now and it showed. The rain grew colder and more often, the leaves of the trees began withering and turning colors. The jaguar had always been known for his fierceness, even when he was kind and now was no different. He killed off the plant life and the animals that wouldn't be able to survive through winter. The leaves and less hardy plants withered quicker each year, the brilliant colors of fall looking less and less beautiful and yet his season grew ever more harsh.
Winter would bring snow. So much snow. Nearly enough to bury the village in. It always did, at least as long as Ichigo could remember. His parents said it had steadily gotten worse through out the generations. Personally, Ichigo thought the winter just as beautiful as the other seasons, but it was a cruel one, ruled by a god just as cold. The Winter wolf, much like his jaguar mate, allowed his season to become harsh and unforgiving. What the jaguar didn't kill off, the wolf would. Only the strong and the prepared survived through the winter.
In the spring, Mother nature would attempt to bring all back to life. The trees would bloom and the grass would turn green. The earth would be rich and fertile and the crops would grow. But without her child, the jackal of Summer, her power could only extend so far. Summers were supposed to be for growing and tending the plants, but it was becoming hard to keep the crops alive. The jackal had died and so had the summer.
And then the cycle started over again as the bitter and heartbroken gods slowly killed off their beloved forest and the village they had once protected.
Ichigo found himself seated on the stairs of the temple as he watched the storm approach, his heart heavy with his thoughts. Thunder boomed and interrupted the silence and lightening flashed through the sky. Ichigo smirked at the violent display. It would seem the gods were particularly unhappy this night.
A rather forceful gust of wind whipped at his shirt and he frowned as he lifted his face to the sky. The smell of the rain had changed. It still smelled of rain, but it smelled... deeper, more powerful. Soon enough, Ichigo's frown turned into a wide eyed look of surprise and slight fear. Carried along with the smell of the fresh seas, a warm vanilla could be found. The gods, both of them, were drawing near with the storm.
Leaping to his feet, Ichigo charged down the stairs of the temple and fled down the street back toward his home and family. His younger sisters had already fled inside, his parents with them so his family would be fine, but now he had himself to worry about and he stood on the other side of the village.
The dark clouds rolled overhead, moving with an unnatural speed that matched the swiftness of the creatures running at the heart of the storm. The thunder grew louder, the lightening brighter and more persistent. The storm clouds finally broke as they blackened out the last lingering rays of sun, showering the village in a heavy rain. Ichigo was drenched in seconds as he raced down the street.
White flashed in the dark, a big creature trotting between the buildings with silent grace. Ichigo skidded to a halt on the wet ground, his deep, brown eyes wide as he searched through the dark and tried to penetrate the rain. There was no mistaking the size of the creature that had run in front of him. Something brushed across the backs of his legs, long and slim and furred. He swallowed as he slowly spun. Nearly falling backward in his surprise, Ichigo came face to face with brilliant, cold blue eyes.
The jaguar had shown himself, the god known for his mystery and power. His dark coat made him match the dark night with seamless perfection but his eyes shone and cut through the rain. They were fevered and seething but there was intelligence and even curiosity in their depths, hidden deep inside the beast.
Breath coming at a quickened pace, Ichigo fought to keep calm as he slowly took a step back. He didn't dare flee nor turn his back on the creature. There would be no point in such an effort, but standing so close made his heart pound in his chest and ache against his ribs. For all the animal rage that boiled in those blue eyes, so too did a resignation, defeat. They were flat in a lifeless way, like he was nothing more than a shell.
Nearly silent footsteps from behind him cut through the pounding rain and made him freeze in his tracks. The rain didn't let up. It soaked his clothing and made his bright hair dark, nearly red. Water tracked over his face and arms in rivulets, chilled by the cooling season. He shivered but he didn't know if it was a trembling from the cold or the powerful creatures stalking around him.
A large, white wolf edged around him, ignoring him as though he wasn't there, one muscled shoulder brushing against Ichigo's. A blue tongue peeked from between parted lips to graze the feline's muzzle as the wolf turned to stand beside his companion and face Ichigo. The two sat, their cunning eyes never leaving his form. Sorrow swirled in their gazes, pain enough to drown in, even after all this time. But there was none of the madness the elders spoke of, none of the mindless killing intent that should have been in both blue and golden orbs.
Ichigo glanced passed them, to the temple before casting his eyes around him. He stood where their mate had taken his last breath and Ichigo fell to his knees as an overwhelming pain bloomed in his chest and stole his breath. His very heart hurt and he clutched at his chest through his shirt, looking up at the large and deadly animals before him. He could feel their pain, could feel the jackal's pain, both physical and emotional.
"I-I'm sorry..." He whispered, head tilted back to look into their eyes. Rain water streamed through their fur, following the curves of their features. It dripped from their jaws and streaked below their brightly colored eyes. He didn't know why he felt the need to apologize for what had happened to the gods, he didn't know if that was even what he was apologizing for, but he did realize they weren't the monsters everyone thought. They simply bled for their lost mate. They mourned.
The jaguar butted his big head lightly against the wolf's as they turned away from Ichigo. With slow, heavy steps, they disappeared into the night as silently and unexpectedly as they had shown themselves. When next the lightening flashed over head and turned the dark streets into day, not a trace of the two remaining god's was to be found.
"Ichigo? Ichigo!" His father raced up behind him nearly a half hour later, the unrelenting rain soaking through his clothing and making his dark hair fall in his face. Ichigo had yet to find the strength to stand from his place in the middle of the muddy road. He stared at the place the gods had disappeared but his eyes only saw shining, golden fur, stained through with red as the jackal lay in the road. His chest burned under his hand, his heart heavy and pounding.
"Ichigo, my son, what happened? Are you alright?" Isshin pulled his boy, soaked through and shivering, from the ground, his wife at his side with fear and worry in her eyes. A worried gasp fell from his mother's lips and Ichigo collapsed in the older man's hold, falling against his father to be supported by him.
As Isshin hefted him up to begin carrying his trembling son home, Ichigo spoke before blackness consumed him. "They bleed for me."
Two days later, the storm finally broke. Brilliant, late morning light spilled in through the bedroom window and splashed across equally vivid orange hair. The birds that had yet to migrate away for the cold seasons chirped happily outside and the sound of two girls playing in the garden drifted on the breeze.
Ichigo stretched his arms above his head and yawned, relishing the warmth of the unnaturally clear day. Climbing from his bed, he turned to glance out the window and into the backyard, a smile on his face as he watched Karin splash through the puddles still sitting in the damp earth, Yuzu reading quietly near by. Glancing further out, his father and mother were tending the last of the season's plants.
A frown found his face before he realized how late it was. Cursing, Ichigo scrambled about his room for his work clothing. Throwing on a pair of old, stained up pants and a short sleeved top that had once upon a time been a solid color, he flew down the stairs and rushed out the door, a light shiver running up his spine with the cold chill of the season's air.
Karin and Yuzu both froze, dropping what they were doing as he flew out the back door and ran passed them. His parents paused as well, looking up with varying degrees of surprise and worry in their expressions.
Fearing he was about to be scolded for his laziness, Ichigo scurried to their sides to begin apologizing. "Sorry, mother, father! I didn't mean to over sleep. You should have woken me up..."
Neither parent said a word as Masaki pulled him closer, looking with wide eyes at her son. She looked as though she hadn't slept in days, with dark marks under her eyes and her features a bit drawn. "Ichigo, dear... you're awake..."
Ichigo frowned, looking passed her to his father in confusion. Isshin shook his head, looking just as surprised. "Son, how are you feeling?" Brushing his boy's hair out of the way, he laid his hand over Ichigo's forehead.
"I-I feel fine... I don't understand, what's going on?" Ichigo looked between his parents, then over his shoulder to where Karin and Yuzu still watched him.
"Ichi-nii... You fainted during the storm..." Yuzu's quiet voice informed him, tentative as she and her twin moved closer. "Papa found you in the street by the old temple."
"You've been asleep for nearly two days." Isshin's deep voice was quiet as he carefully watched his son. The boy seemed fine. He didn't have a fever, his eyes were clear and he looked well rested. He also looked rather confused.
"But I... What?" Ichigo frowned before his eyes slowly widened and he stuttered over what to say or think. Vivid, cunning blue and fiery, swirling gold flashed in his mind's eye. "I-I thought that a dream..."
"What happened, Ichigo? During the storm, who was bleeding?" His mother's voice was full of concern and care. "We searched, but we couldn't find anyone..."
Ichigo understood their fear. They were afraid they would be receiving word that the gods had claimed another victim, that the wolf and the jaguar were the reason no one was found.
"No one. Uh, there was only me out there." He frowned as he struggled to put the pieces of his muddled memory into place. His hand rose as the memory of pain flashed through his mind. Patting at his chest, he searched the place over his heart where fire had erupted in the middle of the rain. It was almost tender, but not painful, not like it had been in the presence of the Winter wolf and Autumn jaguar.
"Uh, I'm going to sound crazy..." Ichigo mumbled to his parents, still frowning down at his feet in thought. "But I think they were there..."
"Ichigo, son, that's impossible." Isshin shook his head, his demeanor full of concern and confusion. His son couldn't have meant the gods. The gods didn't visit and not destroy anything. "They don't just leave people alive..."
"They aren't the monsters you think they are. They hurt and their humanity bleeds with their lose." He snapped, unnaturally angry at the accusation. He was used to his father's line of thinking. It was the same opinion most of the villagers held and he usually just brushed it off, but this time was different. It just rubbed in the wrong way, especially coming from his own father. It was almost offensive in a way that seemed far more personal than it should have.
His parents stood as if frozen, puzzled expressions on their features. After several long moments, his mother finally reached out to her son. She ran her fingers tenderly though orange locks and a gentle, reassuring smile played across her kind features.
"Ichigo, dear, perhaps you should go back inside and rest a bit longer..." She bid him in a quite voice. No one had known what was wrong with their beloved son. Her husband, one of the village's best versed in medical knowledge, hadn't been able to find anything wrong with him. It had seemed as though he simply slept, a deep sleep, but still natural. Yet, despite all their efforts, they hadn't been able to wake him. He had slept for the rest of the night they found him, as well as another entire day and night.
Thoroughly confused and still unsure if what he had seen had indeed been a dream or not, Ichigo stared between his parents, but at his mother's worried tone and expression and his father's seeming agreement, the orange haired boy had little choice in the matter. Reluctantly, he nodded his agreement and stepped closer to wrap his arms around his mother. She hugged him back, ruffling his hair in motherly affection before releasing him and, after insuring that he would be alright on his own, allowing him to return to the house.
Their twin daughters followed closely behind their older brother and Masaki turned back toward Isshin, her hand covering her trembling lips. "Oh Isshin..." She whispered.
The older man dropped the gardening tool he'd been holding, letting it thump to the ground as he stepped closer to his wife and hugged her close. "He'll be fine, Masaki..."
"We can't let them take him...if the elders find out he thinks he saw them during the storm..." She shook her head and buried her face in her husband's chest.
"They're not going to take him. He was delusional, there's no proof that they were around him or anywhere near the village." His tone was hard, determined but as he hugged his worried wife close, his voice dropped to a whisper. "I wont let them sacrifice our son."
Crouched in the taller plants not so very far from the two adults and safely down wind so that their unique scents were hidden, a large, dark head shifted toward the side slightly. Keen ears swiveled to take in the humans' words before blue eyes shifted away from the scene to lock with the gold on black of his mate.
As the two humans turned toward their home, huddled close to one another, two enormous creatures stood, one of white, the other of black. Without a sound, they stalked off through the drying plants and vanished into the dying forest.
Later that night, as the village once more grew quiet and the last light was doused within his home, Ichigo slipped from his bed. He buried his nose in the crease of the book he'd been reading, smiling as he inhaled the unique, calming scent before he closed it and placed it on it's shelf but a frown quickly found his features and he ran a hand through his vivid hair as he crossed his room. Quietly, carefully, he tiptoed his way down the stairs. The last one at the bottom usually creaked, so he skipped it and landed lightly on his toes upon the wood of his hallway floor. Freezing in place, he listened for any sign that anyone stirred. Nothing but silence found it's way back to him.
Slipping from the house, he pulled his coat close about his lean figure and disappeared into the dark. He lurked the streets, quickly making his way back to the temple but he found nothing. He lifted his face toward the sky, inhaling deep the smell of the village and the muted smell of the surrounding forest but there was no trace of stormy seas or calming vanilla. Nothing.
His brow creased, he wondered what he hoped to gain by finding them. Why would they show themselves to him again? Why had they at all? Shaking his head, he replayed the images he had seen, the sounds and the smells of the dying jackal and his worried, mournful mates. The scenes were so real, so intense, like he had been standing there watching it all unfold, like memories that were left unfaded by time.
His hand found it's way back to his chest as his feet carried him back toward his home. He winced at the tender sting and let his hand fall back to his side, shaking his head. Walking around the back of the house, Ichigo looked out at his family's small field and the garden. Perhaps his father had been right... Maybe he hadn't seen them at all and it had been a dream. But something twinged in his chest and his heart felt heavy just thinking it.
He turned to head back inside, his mind racing with curiosity and questions. Just before he got to the back door, he stepped in a hole, water soaking the bottom of his pants. Cursing quietly at his luck, he lifted his foot to scowl down at the offending puddle when he froze. Below his foot, the indentation of a large paw was pressed into the soft earth. Little pin pricks showed where claws had settled in the mud. The print was nearly as long as his shoe and much wider, the weight of the creature enough to sink it several inches into the ground.
Ichigo spun about to search the direction the print pointed. His deep, brown eyes scanned the dark horizon, lighting on every tree, every plant, and obstacle he could see. Nothing moved and no flash of vivid color looked back at him. Orange brows furrowed as Ichigo took one last look at the paw print before scraping his foot across it to smear it enough to be unrecognizable. When it appeared to be nothing but another hole dug by his sister, he pulled the backdoor open. With one last glance around, he disappeared inside.
His night would be a restless one, filled with tossing and turning as violent visions flashed before his mind's eye. In his dreams, his breaths came out as shallow pants, each one more painful than the last. Golden fur was streaked with red as a puddle of his own blood grew below his weakening body. He could hear them slowly circling him from nearby. They whined in distress, sounds neither of them made very often, sounds that broke his heart. The scent of blood filled his nose but he could still detect the comforting scent of vanilla and fresh rain and the mingling smells made a small smile curl his features. He closed his eyes as a warm snout nuzzled affectionately, worriedly against his own.
Ichigo jerked awake as a mournful howl ripped through the predawn air. Jolting upright in bed, a frightened sound escaped him. The moon still shone high overhead in the night sky, the sun just beginning to color the horizon with brilliant purples and oranges. Panting and covered in sweat Ichigo looked around with wide eyes, clutching at his shirt in the effort to slow his wild heartbeat. Nothing stirred in the deep shadows of his room and his home was quiet.
Flopping back to his mattress, Ichigo winced as the place over his chest burned with the movement. He blew out a strained sigh as the sharp flash of pain subsided and carefully began pulling his shirt over his head. Sitting back up, he looked down to find the area over his heart irritated and bruised. Beneath the discoloration, his once sun kissed skin showed a fresh, pink scar where none had been before. Frowning in his confusion, Ichigo ran his fingers over the raised mark, a breath hissing between his teeth as pain once more flared through the area.
A second howl shattered the silence and echoed through the streets. Brown eyes widened in the dark of his bedroom as Ichigo froze, knowing he wasn't dreaming this time. He heard as his parents awakened in their room, his father climbing from his bed to hurry down the hall.
Isshin first peeked into the girls' room to find them clinging to one another but unharmed. Dread filled his stomach as he rushed to his son's room but he found Ichigo mostly unharmed as well.
Ichigo stood in the center of his room, clad in only his sleep pants. His hand was pressed over his chest, a wince straining his boyish features. His wide, pained brown eyes landed on Isshin as his father rushed into the room. Behind his father, he could hear his sisters' light footsteps as they crept into their parents' room to hide with their mother. Another howl sounded through the village, hollow and cold. He watched out of the corner of his eye, through the window, as the lights in their neighbors' houses began turning on and the village stirred.
"Father-" Ichigo began, confused and unsure, a bit of fear bubbling up in his belly as well. He had no idea what was going on and his chest burned, his heart pounding solidly against his ribcage like a rabbit attempting to escape a trap and stealing his breath away. His father cut his inquiry off with one of his own.
"Ichigo, what happened? Are you ok?" He flipped the light on as he rushed to his boy. Below Ichigo's palm, a trickle of red smeared across his chest and dripped down his abdomen. He pulled Ichigo's hand away to inspect the wound. It hadn't been there when he had found the boy outside in the storm but the bruising around it suggested it had been there long before then.
Ichigo looked back to his chest as his father knelt before him and pulled his bloodied hand away. He stuttered over his words as he watched more blood seep from the half healed wound, a gash that had only moments ago been a freshly healed scar and the day before that, nothing at all. He stood rooted to the floor as his father tried to question what had happened and wiped away the blood to get a better look. He didn't hear a word as a yelp and snarl rang through the streets with the sound of shouting voices.
His heart in his throat, Ichigo jolted from his place and ran passed his father, leaving the older man scrambling after him and calling his name. He ignored his father and rushed down the stairs, leaping the last half to land in a crouch at the bottom. Hardly slowing, his bare feet slid on the wood of the floor as he took off through the house to the front door that would lead out into the streets.
He threw the door open as deep, vicious snarling rumbled from a muscled chest. Even in the deep shadows, his eyes landed on a sleek, black shape in the middle of the street. The Autumn jaguar's head was lowered, his shoulders heaving with his aggression as his tail whipped at the air behind him in obvious outrage. His black ears were tucked back and his bright eyes spoke of threat.
Huddled behind the large cat, the Winter wolf bared massive fangs toward one of the villagers crowding the street near by, his ears pinned back and his golden eyes aflame. One foreleg was pulled up, taking the weight off it as red slowly stained the white fur of his shoulder, his tail tucked between his back legs.
The sight made Ichigo's heart ache. The gods had been reduced to animals in their search and now they were being treated like animals, like monsters, when all they wanted was to find the jackal. He rushed into the street as Isshin came up behind him.
"Ichigo!" Isshin made a grab for his son but the boy was swifter and darted away from him with silent steps and ease. He followed behind, disregarding the two hulking creatures taking up the middle of the street nearly in front of his house as worry for his child took precedence in his mind. To his horror, Ichigo ran toward the gods, placing himself between them and the gathering villagers, most of which brandished some type of weapon.
"Stop! Leave them alone and go back to your homes!" Ichigo bid of them, hands held before him and his back turned toward the unnatural creatures. Both beasts ceased in their snarling, their cunning eyes narrowing as they watched the curious human before them. He bled and his life blood smelled of the summer, of the light scent of orchids on a warm breeze. The scent calmed them and intrigued them. The jaguar sat, letting his slim tail cease it's agitated motions and curl around his feet as his remaining mate hobbled a step forward, his head tilted in curiosity and fangs once more hidden.
Standing before Ichigo, the villagers began whispering as they tried to decide what to do. Fear made their grips tight around the handles of their weapons but it also kept them rooted to their places in the silent hope that the gods would simply turn and leave. The beasts before them were undeniably powerful and would bring death if they chose to attack.
"Ichigo." Isshin snagged his boy and pulled him close, his eyes trained on the massive animals sitting in the road. "What are you doing? Get back inside."
"No, father." Ichigo spun to his dad, eyes wide in his desperation to make the people leave the creatures alone. The wound in his chest was forgotten, even as drops of blood streaked his torso. The pain was lost to him as his heart began feeling heavy with sorrow and dread. "This was all theirs once and to them, it still is. They're gods and they're lawless. They're only searching. They don't mean any harm."
Ichigo turned toward the gods, his brown eyes filled with a compassion the two had not known in a very long time. "Please..." He whispered, barely loud enough for his father standing right next to him to hear. "Please leave before they do something stupid..."
A dark, feline head tilted to the side, blue eyes scanning the orange haired boy. The wolf hobbled a step closer still, edging around his feline companion, his own eyes danced with heated chaos. When he opened his massive jaws, blue tongue flashing between his white fangs, none of the villagers had been expecting the quiet, distorted voice that came from the beast and a collective gasp fell from the people.
"We don' take orders from pitiful humans." The wolf's voice seemed to flow forth on a gust of wintery wind. His tone was lilting and distorted in a chilling way, befitting of the god of Winter.
"I-I wasn't trying to order you..." Ichigo told him, forcing words passed his astonishment. No one had heard the gods speak since their Summer had been taken away generations ago. "I was only asking...so that no one would get hurt..."
The jaguar let out a low rumble, somewhere between amused and thoughtful, almost a growl but not quiet. His blue eyes were calculating, his stare a commanding one. When he spoke, his voice was deep and rich like waves in a cooling sea.
"Ever the peace keeper." Was all he said as he stood, his slim tail flicking out behind him. He rubbed his head against the wolf's thickly furred neck on his way passed and together they turned to head back toward the forest, their steps silent and graceful, even as the wolf limped. They disappeared before they crossed the tree line as the sun began climbing into the sky.
The gathered villagers remained silent as all eyes fell on Ichigo. Behind the boy, the rising sun's rays created a halo and made his fiery hair seem almost golden. His eyes were deep and knowing beyond his young age and drying blood smeared his bare chest. The gods had spoken to no one in generations, falling silent after their mate had been taken from them, yet they spoke to Ichigo.
Before anyone could react and before anything could be said, Isshin took his son's hand and led him back to the house. "Come, Ichigo..."
Ichigo allowed himself to be led into his home. His mother and sisters were waiting, worried expressions on their features. They had seen through the window what had transpired and Ichigo knew that, though he didn't know how he knew. As his heart beat began to slow to a more normal and less frantic pace, a dull ache settled in his chest once more and he winced as he rubbed over the gash that was once more beginning to mend. By the time Isshin had finished cleaning the blood from his boy's skin, the mark was nothing more than a scar again, raw and bruised but healed over.
"F-father..." Ichigo looked up and found his father's gaze. Just as confused and frightened as everyone else, his soft brown eyes were wide, his orange brows drawn together. Contrary to how he had appeared the day before, he now looked worn out and tired, like something was drawing the energy from him. He grasped his father's shirt to help steady himself as he forced his breathing to come in deep, even breaths. "What's happening to me?"
Isshin could only shake his head as he pulled his son close. "I won't let anything happen to you..."
A few hours later saw Ichigo sleeping fitfully in his bed as the sun rose higher into the early morning sky, wrapped in his blankets as he shivered. Isshin descended the stairs back to the main level of his house, leaving his twin daughters sitting in their big brother's room. The sound of his wife's voice drifted to him as she addressed someone other than himself. Frowning, he made his way back toward the front of the house. His heart leapt to his throat as he rounded the doorway to find one of the village's councilmen standing in his entryway.
"You can leave." He said as he neared his wife, crossing his arms over his burly chest and looking far more frightening than he usually did. He knew what the unexpected visit was about but he refused to give up his son. They would have to kill him before one of his children were given to the forest.
"Good morning to you as well, Mr. Kurosaki." The man said in a tight voice. "I'm sure you've figured out what my visit is about, so I won't waste any more time. Your boy's display was quite interesting this morning. Even more interesting; he got them to speak and even leave. We would like you and your son to attend the next council meeting, later tonight, where more on this matter will undoubtedly be discussed."
Isshin said nothing as he stared the man down before he nodded his head in a single, quick motion, accepting the invitation. He had little choice in the matter and should Ichigo have been awake, he knew his son would have agreed to attend.
"Where is he now, if I may ask?" The man inquired.
Isshin's eyes narrowed suspiciously, in no mood for anyones games. Nothing good ever came out of dealing and associating with the once worshiped and now deranged gods. The last thing he had expected was for his son to be connected to them somehow. And he could no longer deny that the boy was. Something was going on with his child. "He sleeps. He has been...unwell these past few days."
"Good bye, then, Mr. Kurosaki. We will see you later this night." The man turned and let himself out, leaving Isshin to glare from behind him.
Later that afternoon, Ichigo groaned as he rolled out of bed. His feet hit the floor of his bedroom without a sound but he stood hunched over and leaning against the mattress as he crossed his arm over his abdomen and let his hand settle over his heart. Each breath felt like fire, leaving him confused, scared and sore.
He looked up to see Karin and Yuzu watching him from where they sat in the middle of his room, quietly playing while they had kept watch over him as he slept. He could practically smell their uncertainty and worry and he slowly straightened as he let a strained smile cross his features.
"I'm fine." He told them before they asked. Karin jumped up from the floor and raced out of the room. Ichigo heard her quiet footsteps hurrying down the stairs to find their parents. They sounded almost too loud in his skull. Yuzu got up in less of a rush and walked up to him, taking his hand as she led him toward the door.
"Papa wants to talk to you. I think it's about the man that came and was asking about you earlier."
Ichigo frowned and bent slightly to pick her up, resting the small girl on his hip to carry her down the stairs. She smiled and gladly clung to him for the ride, though it was a bit slower and more careful than it normally was. When they made it to the bottom, Ichigo was met by his parents and his other sister. He put Yuzu down and stood in silence as his father informed him of what was going on, an uncomfortable knot forming in the pit of his belly. Everything about the up coming meeting sounded foreboding.
"If you do not wish to go, I will go and inform them, son, don't push yourself." Isshin told his boy, hoping and wishing Ichigo would agree to stay behind and let his father speak for him, but he knew the stubborn young man would never sit by. He was too much like Isshin himself was.
"No, I want to go." Ichigo's brows furrowed with determination as he turned to go back up the stairs and prepare for the council meeting, where he would ultimately be forced to speak in front of the village's leaders and the most powerful men and women that lived amongst them. He fully intended to defend the gods, the only problem was that he didn't know how to do that or even what would be asked of him. He feared that he would be sent into the forest, that he would be the next male child sent to a grisly fate but that fear didn't run so deep as he knew it should have. He was more afraid of being taken from his family than he was of facing the gods and potentially being devoured.
When that evening and the time of the council meeting finally arrived, Ichigo and Isshin left their home, dressed in their best. They bid Masaki and the girls stay home and walked across the village. Doing his best to ignore the slowly building burn in his chest, Ichigo squared his shoulders and prepared to face whatever he would be up against, knowing it would be concerning the blood thirsty wolf and jaguar. Beside him, Isshin walked quietly with pride in his heart for the young man his boy was becoming, even though he feared what the council members and elders would say.
"How are you feeling, Ichigo?" The elder Kurosaki asked quietly as they neared the village meeting hall. He didn't know what was wrong with his son, but he hadn't been lying when he told the councilman earlier that Ichigo had been unwell lately. Ichigo hid it well, but Isshin was still his father and nothing escaped a parent's eye when it concerned a child.
"I'm fine." Ichigo told the older man, though he knew his father wouldn't believe him.
"You don't have to hide these things from me, Ichigo, I'm your father-"
"Really, I'm fine." Ichigo repeated, his voice a bit more forceful. How was he supposed to tell his father that his chest ached and each breath felt like a blade cutting across the bone of his ribcage, or that his heart pounded too fast to be normal? How was he supposed to tell the older man that he could hear the quiet whispers about him as they walked through the doors or that he could smell the fear, trepidation, even anger and confusion that wafted from the council members and gathered citizens? How about that, even though he had only seen them for the first time a few days ago and only just learned that they could speak, he missed the jaguar and the wolf like he had known them forever, or that he was confused on whether they searched for him or for the jackal, even though he knew the tales by heart? How was he supposed tell his father that he was scared?
So Ichigo said nothing and looked the picture of calm and confident as he and his father took their seats at the front of the room, facing the council and their backs to the group of gathered citizens. Almost right away the room erupted with voices, with questions. Ichigo flinched as the noise level rose, making the pounding of his heart rise with it like a caged animal.
'What's going on?' 'I heard what happened, is he going to be the next sacrifice?' 'Why did they speak to him?' 'Why is he getting a council meeting when the others didn't?' Somewhere near the back of the gathered people, a woman cried about how the gods had stolen her child, her tears smelling salty to Ichigo as they streaked down her face. Some of the voices were loud, some quiet. They layered over top of one another as people voiced their thoughts and opinions and still others sat in silence. But Ichigo heard them all and his brows furrowed as he listened to the villagers' confusion. Beside him, his father stiffened in a protective way, preparing to get his son out of the meeting hall if things got out of hand.
A single voice stood out among the others, a single question directed to him that finally made Ichigo react. 'why were you spared by the monsters?'
Ichigo stood from his seat and spun to pin the noisy crowd with his deep, serene brown gaze. Everyone fell silent at his commanding presence, everyone's attention directed to the boy that was not quite as he seemed, not any longer.
"They are not monsters." Ichigo said in a quiet voice, volume not needed in the now silent hall.
"If not, then why do they kill like monsters?" The woman in the back stood, her voice raw from her emotions. "Why do they kill the children we try to gift to them for their lost mate's soul?"
She had hardly finished speaking when Ichigo began, cutting her off. "We insult them."
He didn't bother raising his voice to match the woman's outraged tone. He spoke the truth and he knew it, but he didn't know where the words came from and they flowed forth as though from his very heart. "We insult them and offend them. They are gods, the jackal is a god, yet you think that just any human male will do as his carrier. You insult them with your selfish thoughts of superiority and you disgust them with the ease with which you throw your children away. Children are supposed to be cherished above even your own lives yet you throw them to a pair of gods that have never asked for a sacrifice. The Winter wolf and Autumn jaguar have become the creatures you see them as and you give them no reason to change. Your fear pushed them away when they grieved, when they were at their lowest. Now you ask them to show compassion and humanity but you yourselves do not show these things. Why would they spare a life you so willingly throw away? Are they not doing as you ask? Taking the sacrifices you throw at their feet?"
The hall was quiet as Ichigo spoke through a sneer. Even his father at his side was left silent. One hand braced the orange haired young man against the back of his chair while the other had found it's way to his burning chest once more as fire ignited below his flesh. He trembled but he refused to sit down as everyone stared at him like he was no longer the strange boy they had invited into the meeting hall earlier that morning, but something more.
His gaze slowly panned around the room, brown almost flashing gold in the lighting as he seethed with an unnatural defensiveness. He dared anyone, anyone at all, to refute what he said and when it became apparent that no one had anything to say, he finally retook his seat and turned his commanding gaze upon the elders and the council at the front of the hall.
They too were silent as they looked upon the boy that had spoken to the gods, a young man that had survived an encounter with them and was undeniably linked with the once worshiped creatures.
After minutes had passed, time dragging on in a tensed, disbelieving hush, the silence was finally shattered. Like Mother Nature couldn't remain silent, like she was giving voice for her children, thunder rolled through the evening sky. A chilled breeze, as frigid as the Autumn god's gaze, whipped through the streets and alleys of the village with a low whistle. The storm would bring a bitter rain and the breeze smelled of power.
So what do you think? Like the idea and where it's heading?
Oh! And I'm sure at least a few of you remember the birthday picture Storm drew for me in October? Well that was Shiro from this AU, hence the lovely fluffy tail~