(STANDARD FANFIC DISCLAIMERS APPLY)
It was so very easy.
The Japanese had their legends of hungry, blood-sucking ghosts and walking undead but naturally, these creatures were different from her. They fed on their prey and that was it. Dead was dead. The villagers here didn’t need to stake their dead through the heart or do any of the half-dozen rituals observed in countless Eastern European countries to prevent the spread of vampires. Japan had been closed to the rest of the world for centuries. The Western vampire was as alien here as the Western mortal.
Well, perhaps not quite so alien, amended Rhiannon silently, thinking of her former Master. But he would have been careful in disposing of his prey. Vampires, as a rule, made their new "children" carefully. One didn’t become a vampire just by being bitten. The new vampire would need to drink from his or her Master’s blood in order to make the Change. But sometimes, there were exceptions to the rule. Accidents happened.
However, this wasn’t the case here. If anything of the sort had happened somewhere in Japan, it had been stopped long ago. And people would have forgotten about it, closed off to the world as they were.
It was all so perfect. There was nothing to stop her. The fanatic Christian priest would try but she’d already sent him running straight off in the wrong direction. And as for the local vampires here…
Rhiannon had sensed the presences of the others before but the gaki were supremely indifferent to her. As long as they weren’t deprived of their prey, they were quite content to leave her alone. These creatures lived for the Hunger alone—with no other grander visions in mind.
Again, that suited her purposes perfectly. She had no desire to enter yet another battle while she was in the middle of one already. Besides, there was more than enough prey to go around. She wasn’t greedy after all.
She smiled and stroked Yabu’s ashen-white face, seeing that her orange-haired brute was already in the throes of his vampire change. His eyes opened, golden-red, filled with the fire of new Hunger.
"Thirsty…" he rasped.
"Shhh, koiishi," she cooed, stroking his hair. She smiled, thinking of the men that made up his band, all thirty or so of them. More than enough to feed his new-found Thirst. More than enough to make her new coven, her new brood. She would change Yabu and then he would start on the others. It would be quick and easy.
She slid open the door and called out for one of Yabu’s men to come in, noting that her new "child" had quickly given in to the beast raging inside himself. Yes, he is a true Beast, she thought indulgently. No finesse, no sentimental notions of guilt and humanity to stop him.
She watched as Yabu tackled his first prey, easily stifling the scream that would have alerted the rest of the men waiting outside, keeping a discreet distance away from their Master and his mistress.
Her thoughts turned to Kenshin, then, rememebering old, old times. He was the precise opposite of Yabu, a magnificent creature of the night, a true prince of Darkness. But then, she hadn’t chosen Yabu for the vampire nobility, now did she? Changing Kenshin would take more time and needed far more deftness and artistry.
She laughed softly, making Yabu look up from his feeding, his mouth and cheeks smeared with blood. He bared his fangs in a hellish smile, thinking that Rhiannon was watching him with fond approval. She nodded and motioned for him to go on. He did so, with relish.
Oh yes, Rhiannon thought with hungry anticipation. Watching Kenshin make the change would be far, far better than this.
And she hadn’t even bitten him yet.
Saitoh stubbed out what was left of his cigarette under his heel and then promptly lit up another one. He took a deep long drag, savoring it for as long as he could. Hell, it was his last one. The sun would be setting soon and everyone else in town was all set to go home. Saitoh wanted to hurry home himself. It had been a long, rough day.
Rewind. The policeman quietly walked the streets, going over the events of the past few days in his mind. Saitoh hadn’t been able to turn up any leads on the "gaki" case since his last talk with the Battousai at the Akabeko. No one else had seen the slight, red-haired man that Juro had claimed to be the killer. Or if they did, they were not talking. Even if the "gaki" wasn’t Battousai, no sane person would want to give this maniac any reason to go after them.
Juro wasn’t exactly sane, so he didn’t count.
Saitoh would have loved to use this as an excuse to finally settle things with Battousai once and for all. But he wasn’t going to let his personal bias interefere with his work. True, Himura Battousai had been a deadly and skilled assassin but he wasn’t a bloodthirsty maniac like that raving loon Udou Jineh or Shishio Makoto. The redheaded ahou was simply too idealistic and too honorable for that. Himura thought he had been doing the right thing, being true to his ideals. Hell, they weren’t very different from each other after all. It just so happened that they ended up fighting on different sides, believing in different things.
Of course, Saitoh would be damnned before he’d admit to that. He scowled, brushing away the thought and went back to the case.
During the Bakumatsu no Douran, Saitoh had seen samples of the Battousai’s handiwork many times. But this "gaki" case was different. The way all those men had been killed…it wasn’t the Battousai’s style at all. Foreigners, then Japanese, all found with savage throat wounds, hardly any blood left.
What made Saitoh’s skin crawl was the fact that those wounds weren’t caused by a sword. It was too messy…like something or someone had ripped those throats open with tooth and claw and sucked all the blood away…
"Damn it," he cursed aloud. Since when did HE get an overactive imagination? Shit, if only Himura or any of his friends could see this. He’d never live it down. Not after the way he’d ragged them back at the Akabeko. He knew Himura Battousai wasn’t his prey but he couldn’t resist getting at him. Saitoh noticed that he’d struck a nerve there but then, "Kenshin" was always touchy about his hitokiri past, filled all up with that guilt and regret.
Well, Saitoh couldn’t help but feel guilty when a couple of days later, Battousai had been the one to stumble on the "gaki’s" latest victim. And he’d been with his wife the tanuki girl at the time. Damn. A pregnant woman didn’t have to see THAT.
And just today, Saitoh had been witness to a scene exactly like that one—except that he’d have to multiply it fifteen times over. He took another long drag on his cigarette. Exhaled slowly, letting out the horrors of the day along with the smoke.
If it were only that simple.
The gaki case wasn’t the only one he was working on. The government had come down on the police force like the wrath of Kamisama since that day of the aborted assassination attempt on the English ambassador. Saitoh’s lips twisted in an ironic little smile. Luckily, the Battousai had been around to save the day, plus there was the fact that the ambassador’s girlfriend apparently knew kenjutsu and knew it pretty damn well, if the reports hadn’t exagerrated. Briefly, Saitoh wondered who could have taught her. Japanese kenjutsu masters didn’t exactly go around teaching gai-jin their secrets.
Saitoh had found out that the man behind the assassination attempt was a local bandit chief named Hanada Yabu. A large, hulking, brute of a man whose most striking feature was his bright orange hair. He’d been a major pain in the ass for years, his group mostly preying on travelers on the road. Suddenly, the moron started getting delusions of grandeur, proclaiming himself a patriot with a deep hatred for the "foreign devils polluting the sacred soil of Japan" or some other similar nonsensical crap.
The police had finally found Hanada’s hideout today, along with the dead bodies of probably half the bandit chieftain’s band. All found with their throats ripped apart, all oddly without any blood left in them, except for what little they could find splattered on the ground.
Killed exactly the same way the "gaki" had killed all those foreigners and Japanese.
There’s the reason why your imagination’s running wild, ahou. He thought silently, his blood running cold. It made perfect sense. Hanada was a savage at heart and he had that deep hatred of foreigners to boot. He must be the gaki.
Except what about Juro’s description? Orange hair could be mistaken for red in the poor light but the height and build? Juro wasn’t exactly the most reliable witness in the world but something told Saitoh that his theory was off. The gaki’s victims had started out as foreigners but what about the Japanese? A young man and a drunk? What on earth could they possibly have in common? Did they see something they shouldn’t have?
And if Yabu was the gaki, why would he kill half his men? Had he gone mad? Was there dissension in the ranks so he thought this was fit punishment? And where was he and the rest of his gang anyway? The police had not found any trace of Hanada Yabu or the other men. Not even the barest hint of a trail.
Saitoh rubbed at his temples wearily. Merciful Buddha, what a headache. At least he had the consolation of coming to a nice warm home with a welcoming wife. He grinned. Tokio hadn’t been too happy about his late nights for the past few days but now she could rest easy—he would be early for once and surprise her. And she had a way of stroking away all his tensions with just the barest touch of her hands…
"Hello, Inspector Fujita," came a high, sweet voice.
Saitoh stifled an oath and whirled around, one hand already on the hilt of his sword. He was startled to find a very young, foreign girl standing behind him. He would have thought her a boy in those Western men’s clothing, the trousers and the long black coat easily hiding any curves she might have. But that high, clear voice had given her away. She had already moved in response to his sudden movement, one hand poised above the hilt of a katana that had been previously hidden beneath the folds of her coat, her stance altering in a pose Saitoh was all too familiar with…
Battou-jutsu? She knows battou-jutsu?
"Easy there, Inspector!" she said, amusement coloring her voice. "I’m a friend, not an enemy." She relaxed her pose, her delicate little face lightening up with a sweet, charming smile.
"Who are you?" he growled. No one, and no one had managed to sneak up on him like that since he’d been a green, wet-behind-the-ears boy. Realization suddenly hit him, making him almost lose his grip on his sword. It couldn’t be…
"I am Countess Rosscraft, J. Isabel Draven," she said, bowing slightly in greeting. "I am a friend of Ambassador Huntington. I was sent here to aid you in your case."
Oh, ye suffering gods. The Ambassador’s girlfriend. The gai-jin girl who knows kenjutsu. Saitoh fought the urge to mimic a certain redhaired rurouni and say "Orororooo…" Now, he understood that the Battousai’s TOTALLY ridiculous and seemingly out-of-character expression of dismay/panic/embarassment/confusion etc. wasn’t an act after all. Too many shocks. Too many. Even he had difficulty taking that in all at once. With an effort, he managed to maintain his poise and keep his expression neutral. After all, he had a reputation to maintain.
"Countess," he said shortly, returning the bow. The last thing he needed was to be the cause of a major international incident, though he resented the implication that the Japanese police were not up to the job at hand. He knew his men’s limits for what they were but he still resented the foreigners’ condescencion.
"Please forgive me for my earlier rudeness, Isaberu-sama," Saitoh began, his tone courteous and polite. "We appreciate your help but we already have this case well in hand. Please tell the Ambassador and the rest of the foreign community that they have nothing to worry about."
She sighed softly. "My presence here was not meant to be offensive, Inspector. I have…certain knowledge about cases that resemble the one you’re handling right now."
"Certain knowledge?" He echoed suspiciously. Saitoh narrowed his amber eyes at the girl. What did she know about this case that he didn’t? "Have there been attempts on the ambassador’s life before?"
"Not just that." Her blue-gray eyes narrowed grimly, making her rather childish face look older. Oddly enough, Saitoh was reminded of Battousai.
A child’s face hiding the killer beneath it…hiding so much more…
"I am talking about the so-called gaki case you’ve been handling," Isabel was saying. "This killer has taken out foreigners as well as Japanese. And now I believe that the man who tried to kill the ambassador may just well be tied up with this case too. We’ve just heard what happened when your police force found the man’s hideout."
Saitoh hid his surprise. Now how the hell had she managed to find THAT one out so soon? Plus, she had immediately found the connection between the gaki and Hanada Yabu cases.
"You seem to have a very impressive intelligence network to get that sort of information so soon," he observed dryly.
The corners of her mouth quirked in a wry little smile. "Why, thank you, Inspector Fujita." She paused for a moment, taking out her watch from its pocket and studying the time. She sighed again. "I’m very sorry, Inspector but I need to see Hanada Yabu’s hideout now. This is very important. Please, would you take me there?" She held up a hand to forestall his protest just as a horse-drawn carriage turned a corner and clattered up to them. "Since you’re going to be a little late, I will be very glad to take you home and give my apologies to your wife. Fair enough?"
So young and so self-possessed. She reminded him so much of the tanuki and weasel girls that Saitoh fought the urge to prick that cool composure and see the fireworks explode. He was going to get in trouble with his wife because of her and Saitoh would have loved to have some payback at the English girl’s expense but--
She’s English aristocracy, ahou. Can’t have that now or we might just cause a war…
Tokio was going to have to be mad for one more day. Maybe he could manage to bring home something to appease her and Tokio was too damn adorable when she was pissed… Saitoh hid the amused smirk forming on his lips and gave the only answer he could give to such a gracious request.
"As you wish, Isaberu-sama."
It was a deceptively short ride.
Hanada Yabu and his gang of thieves made their hideout in the nearby forest. They moved every few days or so, using their intimate knowledge of the forest to confuse the police. The bandits had a perfect base, close enough to the town and the roads so they had no difficulty finding prey and yet the forest was large and dense enough to help hide them from the authorities.
In fact, the only reason this particular hideout had been found was because of the carrion birds hovering over the place, wanting to get at the dead thieves.
The carriage waited for them by the road while they made the rest of the way on foot. The sun was already setting so they brought along lanterns to find their way back after it got dark.
"We won’t stay long," Isabel had said. "We don’t want to hang around here after dark."
"Of course," Saitoh had said drily. "What do you expect to find here anyway…Isaberu-sama?" He remembered to add the honorific just in time. Hard to maintain cool formality when the lady in question looked so much like a younger sister to the tanuki and weasel girls.
Isabel hadn’t answered him and Saitoh didn’t press her. Personally, he was beginning to think that this was an enormous waste of time. Still, the Ambassador had entrusted her with this mission and she HAD managed to hold her own against a bunch of cutthroats. Most women would have just screamed and fainted. This little gai-jin girl had the guts to face down experienced swordsmen. Saitoh knew that Hanada Yabu’s men were thugs but they were pretty damn skilled. Many of them were ronin, samurai who’d lost their masters in the last war.
In fact, Saitoh was curious about her. What was she going to do when she got to the hideout? And more importantly, just how good a swordsman was she?
Saitoh caught sight of the little bandits’ hut and stopped. Isabel came to stand beside him.
"Is this it?" she asked.
He nodded, wanting to see what she would do next.
Isabel boldly strode forward to the middle of the clearing. The place was empty now; the bodies had been buried and everything had been cleared. But Saitoh imagined that he could still smell the blood…
He shook his head. Enough of that nonsense.
Isabel stood straight and still in front of the hut, hardly moving at all. Saitoh frowned. What on earth was she doing? He began to move towards her and that was when he heard it.
She was singing.
What the hell is this?
It wasn’t very loud and he couldn’t make out the words. Just a strange, haunting little melody that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and goosebumps rise on his arms. He shivered and then caught his breath as he realized the power…the chi that was surrounding her.
Saitoh had always been able to sense chi—sword-ki in particular. It was a sixth sense of sorts, an ability cultivated in the best of swordsmen. A sword master had to have that ability or he wouldn’t be a master—he would be dead. Battousai had that ability. Shishio Makoto had it. So did Aoshi Shinomori, the Okashira of the Oniwanbanshuu. But what Saitoh now felt from Isabel…
This was beyond ordinary battle chi. It was something entirely different. The power surrounded the young girl in an aura of pale blue light. A light breeze began to blow, setting up a whirlwind of leaves and dust, completely surrounding her.
Then the mist crept in.
It was the only way Saitoh could describe it. The mist began to literally creep into the clearing, extending pale smoky tendrils like some sort of weird fantastic creature. The sky darkened and Saitoh realized abruptly that the sun had already set. The night had come upon them with surprising and ominous swiftness.
Saitoh heard the all too familiar rasp of a sword sliding out of its sheath and saw that Isabel had drawn her katana. He immediately copied her, every instinct within him screaming danger. He scanned the clearing, all too aware that the fog and the darkness had provided whoever was out there with the perfect cover.
Battousai stepped out of the mist.
At any other time, Saitoh would have actually been relieved to see the little redhead. But Saitoh’s uneasiness had only increased a thousandfold. Battousai looked strange. He was dressed entirely in black and his long red hair was unbound, flowing wild and free down his back.
Then, Battousai looked at them and both Saitoh and Isabel gasped. The rurouni’s normally violet eyes had turned to that all-too-ominously familiar amber shade. But instead of rage, the golden eyes reflected a dark and terrible hunger…
Gaki. Saitoh’s mind whispered and the former Shinsengumi captain recoiled at the notion. Not possible, that can’t be Battousai, could it? Saitoh had seen the hitokiri at his worst during the Bakumatsu no Douran and he’d never seen Battousai look that way. Not even as he cut down his enemies with that characteristic and deadly swiftness, not giving them the time to scream.
"Kenshin?" Isabel asked warily.
Battousai’s lips curved in a cold, chilling smile and for the first time, Saitoh noticed that the cross-scar on the redhead’s cheek was gone. Battousai raised his hand—
And everything suddenly exploded in a fiery blaze of light. Saitoh couldn’t suppress a cry of pain as he threw up his hands to cover his eyes. He heard Isabel scream—
"Saitoh! Look out!"
Saitoh didn’t even have the time to wonder how Isabel found out his real name. His eyes flew open just in time to see the flash of Isabel’s sword as she stepped in front of him. Something rolled at his feet and he froze for a moment.
It was the head of one of Yabu’s dead thieves.
In fact, they were now surrounded by all of the murdered thieves that Saitoh had just seen that very day. All traces of their wounds and injuries were gone. Instead, their eyes were glowing with a feral red light. He looked for Battousai but the hitokiri was gone.
Leaving them with a bunch of supposedly dead men.
Then, one of the thieves bared long, glittering white fangs in a hideous grin.
"No, Saitoh Hajime," said Isabel grimly, startling him. "Vampires."
She slept so peacefully, one hand pressed against her gently rounded belly, cradling the precious life within. Kenshin might have been content to stay and watch her like that forever.
And in my dream, I almost turned on you as well, love…
Kenshin was afraid to sleep now. This time, the dream and the reality had come far too close to be coincidence. The man had been a real, breathing human being, not just a figment of his wildly fevered imagination. In his dream, Kenshin had killed him by draining him of his blood.
And the next day, he and Kaoru had stumbled on the body.
Once you’ve tasted the blood of your prey, there’s no turning back. You have to keep on killing to feed the Hunger…
Kenshin shivered. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears to stop that strange new voice in his head. This is crazy. This is all nonsense. I won’t listen!
For beyond death and rebirth, there are ties that cannot be broken…
Memories that refuse to be forgotten…
The nightmares of the past several nights flashed in his mind. Every death for the past twenty years, every face twisted in its last agony, the flash of his sword and the blood falling like rain…
Paths that remain the same…
And through it all, the Battousai, his shadow-self, smiling in unholy delight.
I’ve tried to protect you from the nightmares….bloodlust, berserker furies, not us, Kenshin. Never us.
This isn’t me! Kenshin screamed soundlessly. This isn’t me!
Kaoru reached out to him, her blue eyes filled with love.
And then, those eyes changed to black and he saw her fall, her blood staining the snow…and his own hands.
Kenshin’s eyes snapped open. He saw Kaoru and with relief, realized that she was still fast asleep.
Kenshin slipped from their futon and ran silently from the room, fleeing the memories, leaving the past behind. He passed through the suddenly endless corridors of their home, twisting and ducking through the halls, not bothering to wonder why everything here seemed so strange and familiar at the same time.
He suddenly found himself standing outside in the dark and empty streets. Something moved in the shadows and he called out.
The shadows moved and Kenshin could have sworn that he saw…and heard the rustle of great dark wings.
Someone stepped out of the shadows and Kenshin found himself reaching for his sword. But the sakabatou wasn’t there.
"Kenshin. We need to talk."
The voice was the very same one that had spoken at the Akabeko. The voice that had been whispering to him about hunger, death and rebirth…
Kenshin looked up and with shock, saw that he was looking at himself. A Kenshin dressed entirely in black, his long red hair unbound and blood trickling down one corner of his mouth. The eyes were golden, bright with an emotion Kenshin could only describe as hunger…
"Battousai?" he found himself whispering, naming the dark shadow twin that had been following him for over ten years.
The other shook his head. A tear slipped from one golden eye and slid down a cheek that bore no cross-scar at all. Kenshin could sense the overwhelming sadness there. A sorrow and remorse that was a heavier burden than the one he bore for over ten years.
"No," answered the other. "I…am Kenshin as well. It is time for you to remember."
And then, Himura Kenshin woke up.
UP NEXT: Saitoh and Isabel kick some vampire ass. Father Rosetti receives some very welcome visitors. Rhiannon does her Bela Lugosi Dracula routine. And—what in the merry hell is a Revenant?
A hint of things to come: ("Who Wants To Live Forever?" by Queen, Highlander OST)
There’s no time for us,
There’s no place for us.
What is this thing that builds our dreams,
And slips away from us?
Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to live forever?
…Who dares to love forever?
Our love must die!