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Cruel Intentions

by P L Nunn


Chapter Seven


It wanted him. It came out of the darkness - - it was the darkness - - all grasping tentacles that curled around his body, twining up his legs and around his torso, pinning his arms, slithering around his neck and over his face. He opened his mouth to curse and no sound came - - which was patently infuriating - - and then ceased to be infuriating and became horrifying when the tendrils forced their way past his teeth and down his throat. He surged against them to no avail, strangling, devoured from within by an oppressive, heavy darkness that sought out what bit of light he possessed and tried to suffocate it.

He panicked and it grew stronger, overwhelming his defenses. The fear fed it. He realized that, within the part of his mind that was still rational, still functional within the turmoil. If he was afraid and he panicked, he lost his control. If he lost control, then he was lost. The darkness in and of itself wasn't the problem. It was what hid within it. So he simply needed to keep the light burning. He needed to burn the shadows away and reveal his attacker.

Simple. Sometimes the simple solutions were the best ones. Sometimes all it took was a little discipline . . . Who had told him that?

Komyou? If Komyou had said it, it must be true.

He started reciting a chant in his head. A elementary, meaningless one that soothed his panic and gained him some modicum of control. He drove the panic back, if not all of the fear and with it the darkness receded a little. The tendrils loosened reluctantly and he could breath again . With the pitch blackness gone, there were gray shadows in its wake and in those shadows he saw the outline of figures. Of men sitting in the darkness, their eyes closed, their mouths moving silently in rhythm - - - chanting? Shadows shifted and revealed the curve of bald heads - - of robes - - monks? Sitting around a dark, lifeless stone - - they exuded patience, dedication - - altruism. There was a glint of something he couldn't quite see and blood spattered. One figure crumpled, blood spattered. The other two sat, as if unaware. Another flashing glint of blood-stained metal and the second toppled and then the third, leaking blood that soaked into the earth at the base of the stone - - feeding it - - -

- - - figures shifted in the background, outside the faint ring of illumination, and then the background faded from dim to lighter to light . . . .


. . . . Sanzo came out of it with a gasp that bordered on a snarl, and a sudden, desperate search for his gun. He didn't have it on him. He didn't have his clothes for that matter, nor were they in plain sight.

"They were wet." Hakkai's soft voice came from the hazy light near the window. Hakkai himself was sitting, leg crossed over a knee, in a chair, a tattered book perched on his knee, his finger poised over the part he'd been reading. "They're probably dry by now. I'll have Goku fetch them."

"What time is it?" He couldn't fathom. His head was pounding from the intensity of - - the dream? Had it been a dream? The images were fading. The sensations were, sucked away like water down a drain.

"Afternoon. You slept the night away and most of the morning."

Sanzo frowned, flexing his fingers, feeling the thin strain of a scab trying to form on the back of his hand. Poisoned. It figured. He thought he'd driven out the contamination, but he supposed it had been more than metaphysical.

"Gojyo and Goku went back to the mayor's house last night - - but all the bodies Goku said should have been there were gone. There was nothing at all."

Sanzo lay there, staring at the ceiling, disquieted and peevish because of it. "Well, they didn't get up and move on their own."

"No. Other youkai, perhaps. Or - - -"

Sanzo lifted a brow. "Or?"

"Or they did get up and move on their own."

Sanzo swore under his breath, lifting a hand to his temple to massage away the pounding ache. It was persistent and refused to budge.

"Get me my goddamned clothes."

Hakkai smiled, unperturbable, carefully closing his book and sitting it on the bedside table, before rising to do Sanzo's bidding. "Of course. Do you want breakfast?"

"No. I want a drink. I want a cigarette. Where are my - -"

"On the table. Your matches are damp."


"I'm sure Gojyo has a light. I'll send him up with it and something to drink if you're sure you want it this early."

"No - -" But Hakkai was out the door, purposefully oblivious to Sanzo's objection. He was damn certain he wanted a stiff drink to help drive away the pain behind his eyes - - and equally certain that if he had to deal with any smart remarks from Gojyo that someone was going to die. Or at least experience a great deal of pain.

He flopped back down, running a hand through errant hair, staring intently at the grain in the ceiling boards, trying to force the dregs of the dream back. There had been things in it, he thought, that were important. Things that hinted at more than simple subconscious mental wonderings. Just like it hadn't been simple poison that had taken him out and Hakkai had to know that, since Hakkai had most assuredly tried to ferret out the source of the problem when Sanzo was unconscious. And Hakkai had mentioned it - - which meant that Hakkai hadn't a clue yet and was uneasy about the ignorance. Sanzo hadn't a clue either, which only pissed him off - - other than whatever it was stank of darkness and malignancy and that it had tried to corrupt him and he'd repelled it.

The door banged open, propelled by Gojyo's foot. His hands were full, a half of bottle of whisky in one hand, and the pile of Sanzo's clothing in the other. He nudged the door shut behind him with the same foot and dumped the clothing in the spindly chair by the door, before sauntering over with the bottle and a wry, smug smile on his wide mouth.

"So you finally decided to get your lazy ass out of bed, huh?"

Sanzo narrowed his eyes and pushed himself up, staring balefully at the clothes across the room. Gojyo was not amusing.

"Did you bring a glass?"

The Half-breed smirked and dug in the pocket of his vest, coming up with a shot glass. He tossed it at Sanzo rather abruptly and Sanzo snatched it out of the air with a hissed curse.

"Give me the bottle and get out." Sanzo directed. Gojyo shrugged and handed the bottle over, but he didn't quite catch on to the latter part of the instruction, and flopped down on the end of the bed, barely missing Sanzo's feet. Sanzo drew his legs up, practically shooting bullets with his eyes. Gojyo was mindless of the threat. Gojyo leaned back against the wall, digging in his vest for his crumpled pack of smokes. He tapped one out, and caught it between his lips and sat there, with an elbow on his knee like he was planning on making an afternoon of it.

"What the fuck do you want?"

Gojyo's lips twitched around the smoke and Sanzo narrowed his eyes jealously, scenting the pungent odor of tobacco. Gojyo's eyes fixed on the skin of Sanzo's stomach, visible above the protection of the sheet, and slowly traveled upwards.

"You don't look much worse for wear - - though you were cold as hell - - cold like death - - when I undressed you." Gojyo added with just a hint of a leer.

"You undre - -?"

"You didn't expect the kid would do it, did you? Or would you have preferred it?"

"Oh, fuck off. All I need is you groping me while I'm unconscious."

Gojyo's smile slid deeper into depravity and he leaned forward, pressing against Sanzo's updrawn knees. "Its not like I haven't done it before, huh?"

Oh, that was it. Sanzo shoved Gojyo hard, and the half-breed backed off, laughing. Laughing at him and still not vacating the end of the bed.

"Where is my goddamned, fucking gun . . .?"

"Oh, calm down. Its not like you had any virtue to violate. Its not like Hakkai and the ape weren't here. You think I jumped on a took a ride while they stood back and talked about what the ape was going to have for dinner? Touchy, egotistical bastard, thinking the sight of your cold, corpse-white skin's gonna turn me on."

Sanzo took a breath. And another, fighting for a bit of coherency through the red haze of anger. The gun wasn't in plain sight. The gun was probably in the drawer or in Hakkai's safe keeping.

"I liked you better when you were sulking like a jilted adolescent." Sanzo sneered, for lack of any better weapon. "At least your kept your mouth shut."

"Jilted - -?" Gojyo's eyes narrowed, his mouth flapped open in sudden ire. "What? By you? Like I give a fuck - -"

"Of course not by me, you oaf! That would indicate that fucking you was anything more than a tedious, unpleasant task that needed doing."

Gojyo snapped his mouth shut then, face not skillful enough to hide the hurt. Sanzo had hit the mark there - - insulting Gojyo's self-important bedroom skills. Gojyo had an image of himself that he held onto dearly. The well-crafted armor of a careless, flippant libertine.

Gojyo shot up, pissed off enough now, not to exchange barbs. He stalked for the door, muttering under his breath and it was only after he was out of it, and it had banged shut after him, that Sanzo realized he hadn't left a light for his smoke. Fuck.

Gojyo stalked down the stairs as Goku bounded up, the kid's eyes all alight with happiness, Hakkai, no doubt having broken the news that the monk was awake and snarling again.

"He's up?" Goku bounced like a hyperactive puppy at the prospect of getting his head bitten off by Sanzo.

"Yeah," Gojyo grunted and added, feeling the need to share the wealth. "You better run right up and don't bother knocking, he's rearing to see you."

The kid, of course, didn't suspect a thing. He was, for the most part, an easy mark and he'd no doubt burst into the monk's room and hopefully catch him stark naked, on his way across the room to gather his clothes. Which would embarrass the hell out of the both of them - - the kid being the kid and Sanzo being damned touchy about his personal space and his personal privacy.

Good. The kid deserved it for being so delighted over the mere prospect of Sanzo back among the conscious and Sanzo deserved it for just being Sanzo.

"Asshole." Gojyo muttered on his way down, ego bruised and wanting to take it out on something. Anything. He saw Hakkai near the hearth, speaking with one of the serving girls and stalked over.

"Thanks a fucking lot for sending me up to get my head bitten off."

"Oh, was he in a mood?"

"Was he in a mood? Couldn't you tell when you talked to his sorry ass, or was it just me he felt like chewing out?"

"He's always a little cranky after he's been injured - - -"

"Which is goddamned all the time - - stinking magnet-for-trouble-high-handed-monk."

"- - and I think he woke up with a head ache."

"Good. Wonderful. I hope it eats its way though his skull."

"Umm, well, let's hope not. I was just thinking - -"

"I need to damage something. I really, really need to pound somebody's face in. Can we go looking for those renegade youkai?"

Hakkai blinked at him slowly, which for Hakkai was his look of surprise. You had to really know him to catch it, otherwise, it was the same placid facade that he always wore.

"Well, we could, but I fear it would be a waste of time. I was thinking though, that perhaps we might go and look at the some of the stones that were dug up. Maybe go the farm of the farmer that found the first one. Who knows there might be a youkai or two lurking around there."

Gojyo doubted it, but it seemed as good an escape as any, so they gathered a bit of boxed lunch that Hakkai had gotten from the serving girl, told Goku to tell the monk what they were about and took off out of town in Jeep, following the hand drawn directions the barkeep had given them to the abandoned farm.

By jeep, it was only about a half an hour out from the town, at least the way Hakkai drove, managing to hit at least every other rut at top speed. The farm was little more than a collection of abandoned fields, a shack and a half collapsing barn. They combed the field until they found the shattered bits of what had once been an oblong stone, much the same shape as the one they'd passed on the road on the way to Ho-gah village. Hakkai crouched, turning a good sized chunk in his hands, wiping moist dirt out of the etched runnels of what might have been runes.

"We should have brought Sanzo." Hakkai said. "He has a better sense for these things."

"What things? Broken stone? Mud? He'd just have bitched and complained the whole way. I like him better when he's unconscious, I really do."

Hakkai tilted his head up, a faint curious line between his brows. "He's not so bad, you know that. Sometimes the burden becomes a little too heavy for him, and he has to let off tension."

"Oh, right. The great crusade West. Him the appointed savior of the world and us along to back his sorry ass up, and all that bullshit. Sometimes - - sometimes I just ask myself why I bother. Why I just don't turn around and go home. I don't deserve his shit and neither do you or the kid and we just take it. God, I want to crack his skull sometimes."

"You two have been fighting a lot, lately. More than usual - - and you've been taking it more personally. You didn't used to. You used to shrug it off. You used to laugh at it. What changed?"

Gojyo hesitated with a flippant remark. There was something in Hakkai's eyes that hinted that he wasn't as oblivious to what had been going on, as Gojyo might have liked him to be. But then, Hakkai never missed anything. Hakkai might not comment about it, but it didn't mean he hadn't tossed it around in his head and come up with his own conclusions and the thing about Hakkai was, that his conclusions were generally dead on.

"I dunno. What'd you think changed?" Might as well do a little fishing of his own.

Hakkai stood up, wiping his hands on his pants and gave Gojyo that annoyingly insightful look of his that said, don't try and play me, I'm unplayable. "I think that you and Sanzo have been - - ah - - a little closer than either of you would care to let on. More than once."

Great. Gojyo felt his face redden. Felt the flush all the way to his toes and hated it and the embarrassment that came with it as well as the sudden fear of what Hakkai would think of him.

"I'm not one of those you know? That like guys. I love women. I'm all about women. You know that."

"I'm well aware of that. It's possible to occasionally have a taste for both."

"Well, I don't and it's not my fault and it's just the freakiest thing and I sure as hell didn't plan it and there was a lot of booze involved - - -"

"He's got a pretty face." Hakkai said mildly.

Gojyo hesitated in his search for vindication. "Well - - I guess."

"And there's nothing wrong with recognizing that. You see pretty women all the time. They're not uncommon - - though not as many out here where life is harsh. A man with that sort of face is rarer - - so its no crime to appreciate it."

Gojyo shoved his hands in his pockets, mulling that over, thinking that Hakkai was being entirely serious in this, and entirely unjudgemental. No surprise, since Hakkai judged no one harsher than he did himself, so everyone got fair treatment - - at least until they proved they didn't deserve it.

"Okay. I admit it. I like the way he looks. It still doesn't mean I don't want to beat him to a pulp when he gets that attitude."

"Which is another reason, I think, that you - - well, you know."

"Fucked him?" Gojyo said, biting the bullet and getting it right there out in the open. Hakkai's mouth twitched a little, almost frowning, but he saved it and turned his usual smile to Gojyo.

"If that's how you wish to say it, yes. You fucked Sanzo, because it granted you power over him that you had at no other time. You were - - ah - - on top, weren't you?"

"Damn right." Gojyo snapped. If they were going to have this conversation, he was damn sure the facts were going to be stated clearly enough that there was no misunderstanding. And wasn't Hakkai just right on the mark with that last observation. Oh, yeah it had felt good - - it felt good now just recalling - - every time he got between those white thighs and shut Sanzo up - - for a little while, at least - - with the mastery of his body over the monk's. That was as much a turn on as the tight grip of Sanzo's ass around his cock, maybe more if you added in the little gasping sounds that Sanzo would involuntarily make and the slap of Gojyo's balls against his white ass every time he rammed his way home.

He had to catch his breath. Had to stand for a second with his back to Hakkai and his hands on Jeep's hood and fight down the stirring in his pants.

"Okay, so I like the look of his face and I like to get the upper hand now and then - - so I guess that's okay - - Right. That doesn't make me fucked up - - it makes me - - what?" He cast a hopeful glance around to Hakkai.

"It doesn't make you anything. It makes you, you, Gojyo. And I think its okay, because you're getting something you want and Sanzo's getting something he needs, so it works out."

"What's Sanzo getting - - besides eight inches of - - -"

"Gojyo." Hakkai lifted a dubious brow at him. "I've seen you in the bathes and that's crude besides."

Gojyo sniffed, then shrugged. "Okay, seven, but you get the point."

Hakkai got into the driver's side, leaned an arm on the steering wheel and peered up at Gojyo. "Maybe its hard being Sanzo all the time."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Hakkai gave him a cryptic smile. "I'm not Sanzo, so I couldn't really tell you, now could I? Lets go and look at the second stone they found, shall we?"

Goku was too damned cheerful. Some irritatingly awed village goodwife had brought an offering to the revered holy priest - - she'd worded it just like, only her voice had trembled on each syllable as if she were speaking the gods themselves - - who had blessed their dead and would surely exercise the evil from this poor town. The offering had been a pot of noodles and pork and mixed vegetables which Goku had latched onto with possessive glee. And once the word got round that the one goodwife had been trying to get in good with the revered holy priest - - oh, then all the others had to try and squirm their family's way into his good graces. The offerings poured in. Goku was in heaven. Goku was dancing from delight.

Sanzo sat in his room and smoked and finished a quarter of the bottle of booze that Gojyo had brought up and refused to step foot back downstairs, wary of being cornered by a mob of desperately appreciative townsfolk, or having to deal with Goku's effervescence. Sanzo didn't deal well with effervescence when he was in a shitty mood.

It was only made worse by the fact that Hakkai and Gojyo had decided to take off without consulting him. They'd been gone all afternoon and it was getting on towards dusk and there was no sign of them. To check out the runestones, so Goku had reported back. As if broken wards would be of any help. As if they expected the root of the evil to be so plainly evident.

But then, Hakkai wasn't generally a fool, and Sanzo was realistic enough to know that he wasn't in the most open-minded of moods at the moment and so was prepared to reserve judgment for a wasted day, until they got back and reported what they'd been doing all day.

"Sanzo, someone brought in a beefstew with rice and fried vegetables, do you want some?" Goku stuck his head in the door.

"No." Sanzo said, flicking ashes in the tin tray on the bed between his feet. "Don't these idiots know that monks don't eat meat?" he muttered.

"But, you eat meat all the time." Goku exclaimed, as if Sanzo hadn't been aware of it.

"Shut up. Go eat it yourself."

There was very little argument to that. Goku pulled the door shut and retreated downstairs, the center of his own donated feast.

He was down to his last smoke. Which meant he'd have to go downstairs to acquire another pack. He sucked the last dregs of tobacco into his lungs from the one he was working on, then stubbed it out in the tray. He'd wasted the whole afternoon here and for what? Nothing. Hakkai and Gojyo on their own little expedition and himself cloistered up in this room because - - because he didn't like this village. He didn't like the people and he didn't like - - he shook his head, a vague uneasiness prickling his skin as he tried to pinpoint just what it was that spooked him so much about this place. The obvious things didn't bother him. He'd witnessed worse acts of violence. He'd encountered other evil in other places that went beyond the scope of human understanding. There was something else here - - something that got under his skin and eroded his nerves. He ought to go back to the mayor's house and see if traces of it were still there - - would have any other time - - any other place - - but he hesitated here and now. He couldn't quite make himself walk out that door and back onto those muddy dirt streets.

So why the hell was that? It occurred to him that whatever it was that was seeping into the foundation of this town and the surrounding area - - whatever it was that those destroyed wards had very likely been holding in check - - was playing with his head. It had gotten a foothold and he hadn't quite been able to shake it loose.

That notion annoyed him, made him surge up from where he'd been slouching on the bed and pace the floor. Made him goddamned well want to stalk out of this room and onto the streets of this cursed village and dare whatever it was to make another try at him.

But he'd settle, he thought irritably, for another pack of smokes. He hadn't bothered with his priestly robes all day, content to wallow in his funk in the high necked shirt he wore under them and loose, comfortable jeans. He had no intention of pulling on the robes just to walk downstairs and impress the natives.

"Good evening most honored - -"

"Don't." Sanzo held up a hand to forestall the complements and halt the little serving girl in mid bow. She still didn't have the nerve to look him in the eye. She did feel the need to mention, though, that there was a full room in the tavern below and wouldn't they all be pleased to see him.

"Wonderful. Is there anyplace else around here that I can get a pack of cigarettes?"

Ummm - - well - - master Chun'rei, who ran the bathhouse across the street sold cigarettes, though her own master sold them for cheaper.

The notion of a decent bath wasn't unpleasant. All they had were cramped half barrels here.

Was there a back entrance to the tavern, by chance?

Why yes. She could show him. But not until he went back for his gun, shoving it in the waist band of his jeans, and enough small coin to buy a few packs of smokes and an hour at the bathhouse.

Into the purpling afternoon, via a rickety stair that lead to the tavern's back alley. Across the street to the local bathhouse, with its one dog faced girl to help a body with the task. The owner's daughter, who was thankfully silent and efficient at her task, which meant far more to Sanzo than a pretty face or shapely form. He sat, after an initial scrubbing, in a large wooden vat filled with warm water. It felt very, very nice. Relaxing enough to make him lay back his head and sigh in pleasure and remember fondly the fortunate times when he'd been able to enjoy a proper bath every day. Perhaps the lack of them contributed to a body's short temper. Filthy skin and filthy clothing could only be endured for so long. So he soaked and sucked on a cigarette, and listened to the rain hitting the tin roof overhead and for a few brief minutes allowed himself not to dwell on the mission or the present difficulties or the annoyances of the road. It wasn't often he allowed himself such respite. Goku could probably have come blundering in, having discovered his disappearance and frantic to find him and he might not have bitten the boy's head off. Maybe.

When the water turned tepid, he abandoned it, drying himself with the threadbare towels and slipping distastefully back into clothes that hadn't seen washing in far too long. He checked the gun, as he always did, before slipping it into his waistband, and stuffed the pack of smokes and fresh matches safely into his pocket to keep them safe from the rain.

It was full dark by the time he stepped out of the bathhouse, and the rain was a steady downpour, dripping in rivulets off the corners of the canvas overhang that protected the porch. The distance from one side of the road to the other, seemed inordinately long with the daunting barrier of rain and no doubt ankle deep mud to contend with. He despised the feel of wet jeans.

"You'll be soaked to the bone, two steps out." A voice said from the darkness. The whispery, paper thin voice of an old woman. Sanzo resisted the urge to reach for the gun, turning instead to peer into the shadows to spy out the bearer of such obvious information.

An old woman hobbled forth. Thin and sagging and decrepit, her face deeply lined - - more than deeply lined, for some of the crevices were the puckered trails of gashes, of fresh wounds inflicted on to thin, old flesh. Sanzo recognized this old woman, having seen her only a few days before, lying at death's door in the house of her daughter after killing her husband and trying to kill herself.

He let his hand slid around to the cool grip of the pistol. "Shouldn't you be home, in bed, old mother? Don't you have a daughter who'll be worried?" He rather hoped she did at any rate, and hadn't gone on yet another spree and killed what was left of her family.

"Concern?" she asked. "For someone other than yourself, priest? Uncharacteristic of you, isn't it?"

Sanzo's eyes narrowed. He slipped the gun out and held it in the darkness behind the cover of his hip. "I think I prefer the rain to this conversation."

"You would. Its the nature of your ilk, isn't it? To flee. But even flight is a deception with you. Everything is a deception."

She didn't smell like blood. She didn't exude evil - - he still wanted to bring the gun up and put a bullet between her eyes. His hand shook with the want. He shook his head and started towards the edge of the canopy and her small, withered hand caught at his elbow.

"Don't go, priest - - don't you want to hear the truth? Don't you want all the lies revealed?"

"Get your hand off - -" he jerked his arm and she jerked back with the strength of a man full grown and slammed him back against the wall. The breath left him - - he brought the gun up regardless and she backhanded him hard enough that he saw stars in the blackness and his legs threatened to give way beneath him. She leaned against him, her spidering fingers on his face and her dry lips near his own.

"Its all lies. All that garbage about the light and the divine will and the sanctimonious crap your kind spews forth trying to bend the world to your will. You know it, deep down, pitiful excuse of a priest that you are. You know it's a waste of time . . ."

"Get - - the fuck - - off me!" He snarled, gathering his wits, gathering his strength to push her off, but she clutched him all the harder, fingers biting into his cheeks, shriveled lips pressing over his own, cutting off the curse and blanketing him with revulsion as her wet tongue forced its way inside his mouth.

Blackness swept up and over him. Filled him and sent him reeling into a pit that spiraled down down down into turmoil. He ceased to be in the here and now - - struggling instead in the grip of something wholly someplace else. It seeped into his mind, invaded his thoughts and tried to corrupt him with its foulness. Images/memories/sensations of terror and blood and lust and death . . .

. . . all the horror/pleasure/abomination that the darkness offered and promised and threatened. It wanted to consume him and possess him and mutilate whatever it was that was left of him - - or free him from his misconceptions. One or the other. Tempting to give in to it, just to stop the conflicting notions - - perhaps this was how it snared all its victims - - by the promise of all the dark things that the human soul craved and was denied by the lies of those that advocated the light. So alluring.

But no. That wasn't right, was it? The darkness dwelled within souls, just as the light did - - it was no greater or weaker unless a body allowed it to be. It was just easier sometimes to get lost down a darker trail - - easier to give into whims and desires and let them overtake you - - let them distract you from more important things. It took more discipline to walk the lighter path. More denial.

What do you know of denial?

A great deal.

You deny yourself nothing. You flaunt rebellion in the face of your holy ordinance.

Laws were made by stodgy old men - - they're not necessarily the way to enlightenment.

You don't want to be enlightened.

. . . . . .

You spit in the face of their so called enlightenment.

How do you know?

Do you think your gods don't know your true heart? Do you think they aren't laughing at your pitiful struggle to do their deeds? Do you think they didn't plan it from the very start - - to use you despite of how weak you were? Do you think Komyou wasn't a willing pawn to put you on the road to your destruction?

Shut up. Don't say His name.

They lied to you. They've always lied to you. He lied to you. He let you shoulder the pain and the responsibility - - and the guilt. No decrepit priest who blindly believed in the lies of the light could have served their purposes. They needed a twisted one, with one foot in the darkness. He let you believe it was all your fault . . . they did . . . and you still follow them. Foolfoolfoolfool. You're their puppet. You have no power to stop them from pulling your strings - - - unless you stop fighting and let the blackness inside - - let it empower you - - -

Shutup! Shutup! Fuckfuck - - - FUCK!!

He was screaming, inarticulate and mindless, pulling at incorporeal hair, clawing with incorporeal nails at the tendrils that encircled him. It wanted to dishearten him and all it did was infuriate him. It wanted to confuse him and all it did was make him damned and determined to escape the sibilant voice that invaded his mind.

There was the muffled crack of a gun and numbly he felt the recoil as his elbow smashed into the wooden wall at his back. The old woman staggered back, taking a few strands of his hair with her as she fell, her body a crumpled heap half under the canvas overhand, half out of it. Her face was twisted, skin taught and waxen, her eyes wide and staring and blank. Not the face of an old woman caught by death. The face of something by far more terrible.

Sanzo slid the rest of the way down the wall, hands shaking, gun clutched tight between them, staring blindly at the corpse, watching the face change and relax, the skin loosing its tautness and collapsing back into flaccid wrinkles. The girl from the bathhouse and her father scampered out into the night, summoned by the noise of the gun. They stopped, frozen at the sight of the body at the edge of their porch - - of him sitting there stupidly with the gun between his legs.

They were talking to him, asking him questions and he couldn't quite hear the words, his head still ringing with echoes of that place he'd been sucked into.

People were coming out from the tavern across the street. Goku among them, sloshing through the mud with a wide eyed look that grew grimmer and dangerous as someone realized that the old woman had been shot and stares that were less reverent and more accusatory turned towards Sanzo. Goku shoved someone back, who tried to get into Sanzo's face. Words were exchanged.

It was all lies. All contrived to make him doubt. Doubt would kill him. Doubt would make him weak and then it would get a foothold. Komyou had never - - - would never have allowed the gods to use him in such a way. Komyou would never have allowed Sanzo to believe - - - to carry around so much - - - guilt. Never. Lies. Lies.

But, somewhere inside him a seed of doubt had been planted and its tiny roots struggled for a foothold. Sanzo felt sick. He leaned to the side and retched, even while the crowd was mulling in horrified fascination around the old woman's body and Goku was defending him staunchly.

"Sanzo. Sanzo, what happened? Are you okay? Did you just barf?"

"Send someone to her daughter's house." He said.

When they heard that, the crowd broke into a frightened murmur, recalling all too well what this same old woman had done only days before.

Had she gone mad again? Had demon's possessed her? Had she attacked the priest, in her dementia?

Sanzo pushed himself up, batting away Goku's offered hand, ignoring the faces of the townsfolk - - figuring they were smart enough not to get in his way with the gun out in plain view. Figuring if they did, Goku would take care of it before he had to shoot one of them.

He didn't want to shoot another one. Another ignorant bystander that hadn't had the strength to deny all the things the darkness said/promised/threatened.

He hesitated, caught by the bent backed shapes of the three old men, caught by the too wise looks in their eyes. Not insane, not possessed - - just rueful and discerning, as if they knew something he didn't. He shook his head and passed them by.

Two steps out and he was soaked. She'd been right about that, at any rate. What else? His fingers tightened on the grip of the gun.

Lights in the street cut through the rain and the darkness, the rumbling sound of a motor and Jeep pulled up, spewing mud from wide tires. Hakkai stopped with the lights still on, and the both of them got out, staring at the crowd and at Sanzo in the middle of the street, gun in hand.

"What happened?" Gojyo demanded, looking around for enemies in the rain.

"Sanzo?" Hakkai asked.

He didn't answer. Just walked past and into the tavern, ignoring the cheerful hearth and the tap room and heading for the stairs. It was a long time before any of them came up. He found he didn't really care what they'd been about, whether it be finding another massacre at the old woman's daughter's house or calming the wild speculation of the crowd. He couldn't get the notion out of his head that the stuff of his nightmares had been nothing more than a careful plan. A choreographed dance to set him on a path of the god's choosing.

But no. No, no, no. It had only been a well crafted lie to shake him. Whatever it was - - the thing that dwelled in the darkness - - it was empathic enough to know his greatest fears and his most grievous doubts - - and exploit them. And Genjo Sanzo would not be exploited. He would not be led or used or manipulated - - -

"Goddamn you." He whispered and for a brief moment, was honestly uncertain who it was that he cursed.

The door burst open and three wet bodies crowded in, spewing droplets here and there, creating more puddles on the floor.

"Her daughter and her family are dead." Hakkai said quietly.

"Its not a pretty sight." Gojyo added morosely. "She make a move on you?"

"Sanzo, why didn't you tell me you were going out?" Goku whined. "You could have told me."

Sanzo waved a hand sharply, his look quieting Goku.

"What happened?" Hakkai asked.

He shook his head, not wanting to hash it out now. Not wanting to open it back up in his head, not when his hands were still shaking. "She attacked me. She was possessed. I shot her. Where the fuck were you?"

Hakkai hesitated, casting a glance at Gojyo as if the two of them had secrets - - as if they were trying to hide something from him - - but no. That was just his nerves getting the better of him. It was him seeing shadows within shadows, within shadows.

"We were out all day tracking down runes." Hakkai said. "We found six of them."

"Did it make a goddamned bit of difference? Seeing them?" Sanzo snapped.

Hakkai shrugged. "I wanted to see."

"We got stuck ten miles out of Ho'gah when the rain kicked in." Gojyo said. "Hung around a little farmstead for a while hoping it would let up, but - - " he shrugged. "- - it didn't, so we came back anyways."

"What happened this time, Sanzo?" Hakkai wanted to know details. Sanzo didn't want to give them. He didn't need Hakkai trying to analyze it. Him. He needed to drive it out of his thoughts, not bring it back to the surface. He glanced under his lashes at Gojyo, leaning on the door, standing in a puddle of his own making and thought that there was a better recourse than whisky if he wanted to drive those insidious thoughts out of his mind.

Gojyo didn't want to get into his head, just his body, which suited Sanzo perfectly - - he didn't need a shrink - - he needed a hard enough fuck to make everything else fade away - - at least for a time.



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