Chapter Twelve
 

He had wondered where his captain was going in the dead of the night. And intuition more than curiosity had made him follow. Now here he was, stumbling in the dark, cursing under his breath. His shoulder ached. He tried not to jostle that arm too much.

Rukawa looked up at the moon, and shuddered at her pale, pale face. And then he looked up as the sounds of swords clanged, not too far away from where he was, a glimmer of steel in the gloom.
 

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Maki stifled the urge to draw his sword and strike at the figure as it emerged out of the darkness with uncontrolled, desperate speed. He could hear the band of soldiers shuffling behind him, wondering what they were doing out in the dark, in the cold, and longing to get the job over and done with. However, his thoughts were less than focused on that now.

The figure plowed through the last of the underbrush and then fell at his feet. For a moment he was too surprised to react, until he noticed who it was.

Black robes were slashed so badly that the manís entire upper body was left bare, but the amount of blood that streaked and wreathed his skin like a shroud was enough to make his eyes narrow. A slim bandage had been wound about his arm, but now all that was left were rags. Black hair spilled out onto the ground, encrusted with dark red liquid that had begun to pool.

He dropped to his knees and lifted the wounded man, wincing at the rush of blood that dripped onto his wrist guards and armor even as he turned and nodded silently to the second-in-command of the troop to advance and attack.

And then he looked down, meeting a dazed blue gaze murky with pain. His heart clenched.

It was you. It was you all along.
 

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Kogure watched as the soldiers infiltrated the forests, and then his gaze shifted to the captain, who knelt there cradling the broken body. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a movement, and spun around.

In the distance, atop the low hill, two figures stood. Even through the black of night, he knew their malevolent nature, and he welcomed them, as though they were old friends. Berserk laughter welled up in his throat.
 

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"We misssssed one," Ryota remarked as they glanced down. The men were combing the forests now, with torches that lit up the advantageous dark. Ryota, being a creature of the deep, was at a considerable disadvantage with fire combat, and neither him nor Mitsui had a liking to be seen, if only for the protection of their elusive reputation, and thus they had had to retreat.

"He ssssslashed me a few timesssss. That rrrrridiculous chain. And they esssscaped, too. How infurrrriating."

Mitsui nodded absentmindedly in agreement, but a small smile spread out on his face. "Itís all right," he murmured, looking down at a speck deep in the forest. "Itís not over yet."
 

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Rukawa had watched from the shadows as his captain had gone forward, but his gaze never wavered from the slim figure behind Maki even when another man burst out from the opposite end of the clearing.

He noted the upswept brows, the brown tousled locks that framed a strong face, and the hands most of all. He remembered these hands well, remembered the touch of the sword-callused skin on his flesh, and remembered the strength of those delicate fingers as they wrapped about his shoulder. And he was powerless to move, even when unseeing copper eyes turned in his direction.