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There were freshly cleared fields, mostly plowed and ready for planting along the road to Ho-goh village. It was a thriving farming community, lands unusually fertile, that supposedly fed a good part of the region. Or it had been, until the farmers and their workers started dying. Murdered, more accurately.
It was why they'd initially come - - flagged down in a neighboring village by a murdered farmer's wife and son who were desperate for the blessing of a priest to send their loved ones on to the next plane. Ho-goh village didn't have one. Hadn't had a monk or even an acolyte for longer than most of its citizen's could remember. Sanzo had gotten a warm, awed welcome. He'd had people groveling in the street before him, had them trying to lay hands on his person, begging for some sort of blessing to lift the curse they all felt had descended upon them.
Sanzo hadn't been pleased. Oh, he'd been jumpy and nervous as hell anytime one of them approached - - wary that they'd try and touch him mostly - - protective of his exaggerated personal space - - fed up at the reverence, when even he wasn't hypocrite enough to believe he deserved it.
He'd been cranky until they put distance between the village and themselves, out to hunt the big bad youkai. That had pissed Gojyo off to no ends. Hunting youkai like animals - - even though he'd done it a hundred times before without it striking any chord of injustice. It was only now, after the incident at the monastery, that it bothered him. It didn't bother Goku and it didn't bother Hakkai and the both of them were full youkai. Why should it irk him? Maybe the monk was right. Maybe Despair had gotten inside his head and twisted his perception - - his logic, and he had yet to get it back on track. Or maybe he was just taking offense finally at a lifetime's worth of bigotry. Goku and Hakkai might be youkai, but they didn't look it. He on the other hand had the signs written all over him. Hair - - eyes. It was hard to mistake the blood that ran through his veins as anything else. He got the dirty looks from both human and youkai. There was only so long a body could ignore it and not snap.
The only good thing about this whole Ho-goh mess was that the humans and the youkai were equally immersed in the garbage. The mayor had hired the youkai and the youkai had gleefully gone about clearing the path for him to - - do whatever it was he'd been planning on doing. Buying up the land for his own uses - - venting some deep seated twisted frustration against farmers in general - - who the hell knew.
They'd find out. Sanzo was damned and determined to find out and Sanzo had just cause to hold a grudge against any youkai they passed on the way. More than just cause.
So back to Ho-goh village in the morning, the four of them bouncing along in the dragon transformed jeep. Past the fields waiting to be planted and the piles of uprooted forest at the edges, waiting to be cut up and carted away.
There was a stone lying at the edge of the road, that the corner of one wheel hit, jouncing them so hard that they had to hold on for dear life. Sanzo ground his teeth and cursed, in no shape for nasty bumps and Hakkai apologized profusely.
"Look at that." Goku said in the midst of the apologies, leaning over the back of his seat. "That looks like a marker stone. Its got writing on it."
Hakkai slowed to a stop, curious. "I don't recall a marker stone along this road."
"Who the fuck cares?" Sanzo was in a foul temper. Sanzo was rubbing his temples like he'd just awoken from a three day binge. There was a red and purple bruise at the edge of one eye, and a faint clawmark scored his cheek from ear to jawline. There were a helluva lot deeper, more serious marks on his body. He dug in his robes and came out with a pack of smokes. Taped one out and planted it between his lips. Fished for a light and started swearing under his breath when he came up empty. Half the little things he kept in his robes had been scattered all over the night dark forest when the youkai had taken him.
Gojyo leaned forward, a match between his fingers. "No need for thanks." He was feeling generous and gracious and knew the combination would irk the hell out of the monk.
Sanzo snatched the match without looking at him, struck it against the dash and held it to the end of his cigarette. One long drag and he sighed, lashes fluttering a little. "I wasn't planning on it."
"What are you leering at, ero-kappa?" Goku demanded.
"None of your fucking business, ape."
"I told you not to call me an ape!"
"Sanzo?" Hakkai was standing by the stone. "Would you come here a moment, please?"
Sanzo vacated the jeep, glaring at the both of them, smoke dangling from his lips and walked back down the road to Hakkai. Goku and Gojyo, not content with each other's company in the back seat, hopped out and followed.
"What is it, Hakkai?" Goku wanted to know.
"I don't think its a road marker." Hakkai said slowly, crouching, laying a hand tentatively on the chipped, dirt darkened stone. It was oblong and crudely carved, about three feet long and crusted with dirt. There were faint symbols carved into it, decorating all sides.
Sanzo frowned, crouching, brushing the fingers of one hand across a line of marks to free them of dirt.
"Is it a burial stone?" Hakkai asked.
"I - - don't know." Sanzo admitted, frown deepening. "The stone is so eroded that the writing is hard to read. Maybe."
"Ah, there is a date - - but, its very old." Hakkai squinted through his monocle.
"Ha, and I found it. " Goku crowed. "We'd have passed right by if not for me."
"Jeep found it you moron." Goku said. "And they probably just dug it up by accident when they were clearing the fields."
Which made perfect sense. They'd found it and dragged it off to the side of the road to get it out of the way. With the choice of defiling an accidentally found burial marker or having to plow around it or abandon the field altogether, the practical farmer would chose the former.
"Forget it. Let's get into town."
"Its not for you to say." Goku was feeling argumentative today. He looked to Sanzo for confirmation and the monk ignored him, staring out at the field, sucking on his smoke. The kid was giving Gojyo more of a headache than he'd already been sporting. Blows were going to land and fairly soon, if things kept up as they were.
"He's probably right." Hakkai finally said, when Sanzo offered no opinion. "It's probably nothing. We ought to be on our way. The day's getting on."
So they did, piling back into the jeep and continuing down the dirt road to Ho-goh village. When they finally drove into town, every eye they passed lifted to stare, making a body wonder if the whole town had been in on the plot. Or maybe, the people just hadn't expected them to come back. Hadn't expected them to do anything but high tail it out of there and forget the people of this village and their problems had ever existed.
They gathered a crowd when they stopped though. People started yammering all at once asking questions, trying to get close enough to Sanzo to bask in the warmth of his holiness.
"Motherfucker - - -!" the curse came spewing out a moment before the gun did.
"Back off!!" Goku was pushing at the wide eyed people, the desperate people who had backed a white around the rim eyed monk against the jeep and hadn't the slightest notion of how close no few of them were to bullets piercing their flesh. Gojyo caught the gun arm, snaked his fingers around Sanzo's wrist in the press, gaining a curse and a deadly look.
"Relax. Something's got them freaked."
"Get your hands off."
Gojyo did, because the crowd was giving them a little space, due to the gun and Goku's protective stance.
"We need your blessing. Help us. You must drive the evil spirits out. Bless our dead." A dozen voices were raised in supplication. A dozen pleas.
"What evil spirits?" Hakkai wanted to know, attention snared even as Sanzo was brushing past, heading for the doors of the tavern.
"You have more dead?"
Oh, they had a great deal more dead. And not at the hands of youkai. A father had apparently gone mad, and butchered his wife and three children, then killed himself. An old woman, fed up with the drunkenness of her husband had stabbed him while he lay passed out. She'd slit her own wrists afterwards, but her grandchildren had found her before she'd bled out and bound the wounds. She was alive, but barely. A young girl, apparently on her way back from the fields, had been found murdered and raped just outside of town. All of this in the last few days. Too many atrocities for them not to blame evil spirits.
Their desperation was understandable. Their insistence on pinning their salvation on him, just because he wore the robes of a priest was not. If they were that damned dependent on their faith, then why didn't they have a priest of their own and if they mobbed him again, Sanzo was quite sure someone was going to get hurt. It was bad enough to every had unwanted hands on his person - - but now - - now it made it skin crawl and his vision tunnel and he really hadn't remembered actually drawing the gun out there. He would have felt remorse for shooting some old woman in the face - - but, on the other hand, the others would have backed off.
"Its very strange." Hakkai sidled up the bar, having spent time outside with the mulling townsfolk. Goku and Gojyo were at a table behind him, stuffing their faces with noodle soup from the tavern's small kitchen. Sanzo was happy at the moment with a glass and a bottle of whisky. He'd eat something later when his stomach settled.
"To have so many violent deaths in such a short span. They're under stress, yes, because of the fear of the youkai and whatever plot the mayor had up his sleeve - - but for them to perpetrate such violence on those closest to them - -? They want you to bless the graves. Would you. It would appease them."
"Like he cares about these piss ant villagers." Gojyo said from the table. Sanzo narrowed his eyes, very much wanting to hiss something nasty back, but deciding that silence was both more dignified, as well as hurtful. Gojyo hated to be ignored.
"Fine." He said to Hakkai. He tossed down the last inch of whiskey in his glass, and pushed away from the bar. "I'll do it now."
Goku hastily stuffed the last of his noodles into his mouth and rose, wiping off the juice that had run down his chin with the back of his hand, to pace behind Sanzo. Gojyo followed at a more leisurely pace, pretending nonchalance.
Outside the villagers were waiting like carrion birds ready to pounce on a carcass as soon as the last sign of life departed. But they kept their distance - - Hakkai had probably given them a few helpful, healthful tips when he was out talking with them, about who to put their hands on safely and who not to.
They followed him in a herd down the street towards the end of town where the village burial plot sat behind an old stone building that might once have been a church or a monastery, but was now used as a gathering place for town functions. There were no priests in town - - or in any of the surrounding towns that he'd seen - - to complain of the miss-use. He didn't particularly care. It was long abandoned and any holy artifacts that might once have graced it either taken away by departing priests or stolen. He had to wonder though, what had happened to make the priests leave this place, the temple had been once prosperous, from the look of the crumbling architecture.
The grave yard boasted too many stones for a town the size of Ho-goh. But the village was an old one and the marks on the stones attested to the many generations buried on the hill. The oldest ones sat nearest the town, while the newer graves ranged up the hill and over the other side. The townsfolk urged him on with their hovering impatience and if he'd had lingered they'd have closed in around him and he wasn't in the mood for the feel of so many bodies so close again. So he trudged up the hill, following a few of the relatives of the new dead, with Goku on his heels and Hakkai and Gojyo lingering further behind the crowd as Hakkai paused to study this old grave marker or that.
And there they were, a row of fresh new graves with freshly carved stone markers sunk into the newly turned earth. These had been dug within the last few days, but there were others almost as new, dug within the last few weeks. He'd already blessed a few of those, on the first round through Ho-goh.
He said what needed saying, the ritual chants that a body that grew up in a monastery knew by heart almost by the time a body had properly learned to talk. The words came automatically, reflexively - - but it had been a long time since he'd uttered them that he actually believed that any blessing by a simple priest or even a complicated one, would effect the state of a man's soul. There was faith in the world and the solid concrete things that a body could expect to happen within it and there was faith in the ethereal and all the incorporeal beliefs that entailed and he'd lost his for the latter a long time ago. But he was good at playing the part when it suited him and these townsfolk sank to their knees in silent appreciation as he chanted and added their silent prayers for the passage of their loved ones.
He finished, rose, brushed the dirt of his robes and let Goku clear a passage for him back down the hill. They didn't follow him this time, clustering nervously about the graves, dispersing in ones and two's in directions that weren't on his heels.
"What you're you looking at?" Goku wanted to know of Hakkai, who hadn't ever come up the hill to see the fresh graves, but had stayed down near the bottom, looking at some of the very old ones. Gojyo leaned against a scraggly old tree, a cigarette dangling from his lips, eyes half lidded, looking bored.
"Why? They're dead. They can't do anything for anybody anymore."
"No." Hakkai agreed pleasantly. "But, it is the same date as the stone marker we found along the road."
Sanzo lifted a brow, not quite ready to show an interest in anything that didn't involve a few good shots of booze, a decent smoke and the killing of the remaining youkai under the employment of the late Ho-goh mayor. Things didn't necessarily even have to proceed in that order. He could be flexible when the situation demanded it.
"There are quite a lot of them." Hakkai said softly, standing, running one hand through his hair in a nervous gesture as his gaze flickered down the row of markers.
"Oh, make him happy, Sanzo, take a look." Gojyo suggested.
Sanzo frowned, reluctant at the moment to follow any suggestion made by Gojyo, but Hakkai had that look on his face that suggested discomfort and Hakkai wasn't generally unnerved, so Sanzo slipped between two grave markers and joined Hakkai on the front side, where the writing was visible.
They were old. About ninety years to the day, almost. And there were a great many of them from the same year. Sanzo narrowed his eyes looking a little closer, then walking slowly down the row - - not only the same year, but the same few weeks. There were stones that marked the deaths of whole families - - and all on the same date. He'd just blessed a set of graves with similar statistics.
Something cold whisked past his head, fluttering the hair at the back of his neck. He shivered, lifting a hand to the back of his neck - - then hesitated, frowning when he noticed Hakkai rubbing his arms, as if he'd taken a sudden chill. Goku and Gojyo were oblivious.
"Those graves were blessed, monk." A watery voice proceeded the figure of a bent old man, creeping slowly past the shadow of the old monastery and into the burial ground. Two other equally ancient men, hobbled along behind him, slow and careful and tedious in their movements. Perhaps they'd come with the others to see the blessing of the dead, but had not been able to navigate the hill to the new graves, so had stayed, leaning against the support of stone walls, for the others to return. Perhaps they merely haunted the graveyard in preparation for their own, no doubt soon, retirement here.
"But none after. Not until you came this past week."
"Yeah?" Gojyo flicked ash onto the ground. "The three of you old geezers look like you might be old enough to have known some of the folk under these stones."
One of the old men snorted, coughing up flem and spitting it to the ground not far from Gojyo's ash. "That was my sister - - the marker the boy there is leaning on."
Goku looked abashed, rapidly removing his hip from the stone.
"So many dead, in such a short period of time. What happened?" Hakkai asked.
The old men stood there, leaning on their canes, bent backed and wrinkled like a trio of old vultures. "I can't recall what I had for breakfast this morning, boy - - you expect me to remember what happened neigh a century ago?"
The others muttered their agreement, feigning senility, but there was something in their eyes that spoke differently. Something that said, they knew exactly what had happened ninety years past. They turned then, without further comment and began the slow shuffled back towards town.
"They're lying." Hakkai said quietly.
"Hunh." Sanzo fished for his pack of cigarettes.
"Why would they lie?" Hakkai murmured, more to himself than any of them.
"There's like twenty or thirty markers here and all from the same damn week. Maybe they're like really old, crusty serial killers." Gojyo suggested.
"You think?" Goku stared after the old men, wide-eyed.
"Yeah, maybe. Maybe you better not sleep while you're in this town, huh ape?"
"Hey, I told you not to call me that. Sanzo, tell him not to call me that."
Sanzo ignored the plea, brushing past Hakkai and back towards town. Had he left his smokes on the bar? Damn this town and its problems anyway, to cause so much trouble. If anyone had touched those cigarettes, they were dead men. Of course, the way things were going, he might not have to lift a finger to have the deed done. There were corpses popping up all over.
Hakkai was distracted. He was thinking deep thoughts and not paying much attention to the world at large. Still he was better company than the monk in a snit. He was better company than the monk in a good mood, truth be known. He never went out of his way to hurt a man's feelings or mortally wound an ego, or physically injure a body. He was considerate and introspective and willing to lend a hand or an opinion if need be and you never had to put up your guard in his company. In fact you could let all the guards down and be assured that you'd get no jibbing, no insults and damned certainly no acerbic remarks about the state of your mentality.
Gojyo still stared after Sanzo when they parted ways, the monk heading back to the tavern to procure lodging, with Goku on his heels - - while Gojyo had opted for the less abusive company of Hakkai - - who had declared that he'd like to go and see the old woman who had survived her murderous bout of madness only two days past.
He must be, Gojyo decided, shaking his head in disgust, a closet glutton for punishment. No other explanation for actively pursuing something as poisonous as the monk. Sanzo wasn't that good a lay. No way, no how was he worth all the pain and the frustration. No body was. Unless - - well - - unless a man let his other head do the thinking and the prospects of that other head had been few and far between for too long of a time - - then well - - then sometimes any amount of abuse seemed a likely price to pay for a decent fuck.
Gojyo sighed, steering Hakkai away from a muddy pothole in the road. Hakkai murmured a reflexive gratitude. They'd asked directions to the house of the old woman who'd murdered her husband, then tried take her own life. They'd been told she was at the cottage of her daughter on the far side of town. Which meant traveling two streets over to the last line of houses before the village gave way to the plowed fields of crops that these folks made their livelihood from. The streets were muddy from all the rain, and their boots were caked in the stuff by the time they found the little house, with its rickety fence and its small portion of land out front crowded with vegetable gardens.
"What are you gonna say?" Gojyo wanted to know. "They might not be so willing to let a stranger just come in and talk to their dying granny. Their crazy, dying granny."
"We can ask nicely." Hakkai said, brushing a hand through his hair and adjusting his monocle. He knocked on the door. A middle aged woman opened it. She was dour faced and tired, with flour on her apron and in her graying hair. Probably in the midst of dinner preparation. Probably not happy at all to have the two of them at her doorstep.
"Good day, ma'am," Hakkai inclined his head politely. "My name is Cho Hakkai and this is my friend Sha Go - - -"
"Oh, my, you're friends with that priest, aren't you?" She clasped her flour covered hands over her ample bosom, beaming at them as if they'd been somehow sanctified by mere association with Sanzo. Gojyo rolled his eyes in annoyance and kept his mouth shut, deciding that making a nasty remark about the divinity of the priest in question would only hurt their chances of getting in to see the old lady.
"He blessed my father's grave - - my son told me. I would have come - - but, well, we don't want to leave mother alone. But, we're so grateful. So very, very grateful that he came."
"He was happy to do it, I assure you." Hakkai lied with that benevolent smile that hid whatever it was he honestly felt. "We were wondering, if we might not have a word with your mother. If she's up to it."
"With mother?" the woman frowned. "Why?"
"Well - - if she's been touched by evil spirits - -" Hakkai came up with the excuse so glibly that was hardly a drawn breath between her question and his answer. " - - then we need to ascertain if they're still lingering so that we might get our priest to come and banish them."
Priest was a key word with her. Her eyes widened in righteous concern and she ushered them in with a flutter of her hands and a babble of gratitude. Gojyo personally thought the chances of them getting Sanzo here, even if the old woman were levitating a foot off her bed and speaking in Tongues, was slim at best, but this was Hakkai's game, so he went along with it, shoving hands in pockets and fighting the urge to reach for a smoke.
The old woman was a small, shriveled figure in the bed. The window was open to let the smell of old person and sickness dissipate in the fresh air. She was a tiny thing. Maybe not as old as those three old men that had ambushed them in the grave yard, but ancient all the same. There were ugly, red cuts on her face, mixed in with the deep wrinkles. Self-inflicted maybe, when she'd tried to kill herself. She was sleeping, but her daughter gently touched her shoulder to wake her.
"These men are friends of the priest, mama." The woman said. "They've come to see you. Maybe the priest will come."
The old woman's rheumy eyes shifted past her daughter, fixing on them. On Hakkai, then on Gojyo. They were confused and weak, the eyes of a woman who didn't quite have all her wits about her. But she didn't look mad, or dangerous - - or possessed by demons.
"Hello there." Hakkai said, crouching by the bed, putting himself eye level with the old woman. "My name is Cho Hakkai."
She just stared at him.
"I'm here to talk to you about what happened a few nights ago. Do you remember it?"
The old woman blinked. Silent.
"She hasn't spoken since." The daughter said. "The evil spirits possessed her, just like they possessed Xie Binlang when he murdered his family the very same night."
"May we speak to her alone, for a moment?" Hakkai asked. The woman chewed her lips, but nodded, afraid of offending them and loosing her chance to be belittled by Sanzo. She left and Hakkai leaned his elbows on the edge of the bed.
"I understand that you don't want to remember what happened. That you don't want your family to know - - but if you were possessed by evil spirits, then it wasn't your fault. Sometimes even the best of us can be afflicted by powerful, dark forces - - but I really think that if we knew a little more of what happened to you - - then we might be able to drive these forces away. Will you help me? You daughter doesn't have to know what we've talked of, if you don't want her to."
"It was red. Like blood." The old woman murmured.
"The world. Everything. All tinged in blood with black at the edges. I don't remember - - that night. Just the blood - - in my eyes."
"Didn't you feel anything? Anger, dread, hatred, fear - - anything?"
She blinked and focused on him, clarity finally entering her eyes. "I felt - - will the priest come? Will the priest drive the evil out?"
"If he can. But we need to know what the evil is for him to do that."
"No fear. There was no fear. But there was - - anger - - and revenge - - I wanted revenge."
"Against your husband?"
"No. Against - - them. But they're all dead now." She faltered, confused.
"Who them?" Gojyo asked, feeling a little line of goosepimples pop up along his spine. He hated this supernatural shit. Just hated it.
"Send the priest here. I'll tell the priest." She said and this time her voice held more strength. Her eyes regained that momentary glint of intellect, but there was something else behind them that made Hakkai stand up and take a step backwards. But the look faded and the confusion returned. Her head lolled and she slipped into a doze.
"Will you come back with the priest?" the daughter wanted to know when they left.
"Perhaps." Hakkai said, that false smile plastered on his lips.
"What the fuck was that?" Gojyo hissed when they'd passed the front gate. "She gave me the chills. You think she is possessed by evil spirits or something?"
"I don't know. I think something touched her. I don't think she did what she did on her own. I think she's alive only because of luck and her own inability to finish the job, quite frankly. Maybe we should get Sanzo to come and take a look at her. He's very good a picking up on things like this."
"He's worried about finding those youkai that got away and that's all he's worried about." Gojyo said.
"Maybe it all ties together. It must."
"So what do we do now?"
"I'd like to talk to those old men - - I got the feeling they knew things as well - - but I also got the feeling that they weren't inclined to talk."
Gojyo shrugged. "So let me talk to them. A bottle of whisky, a few hands of cards - - I'll open them up."
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