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A Season Of Dragons

by P L Nunn


Chapter Eleven


Ryo woke up with a headache that was destined, he was absolutely certain, to get worse, before it ever stood a chance at getting better. It started out with Rowan's none too gentle efforts at waking him up. Rowan's hand on his shoulder shaking and Rowan's loud voice blaring in his ear to 'wake the hell up, you gonna sleep the day away or what, Ryo?'

Ryo's first urge of course, was to lash out in sleep muddled defense against such treatment. But Rowan, being Rowan and suspiciously sharp when it came to avoiding retribution for his little annoyances, stepped back just as Ryo was tensing to strike out and stood there with a satisfied smirk on his face, his arms crossed over a very nice silk robe. Ryo vaguely recalled seeing him and that robe earlier. Very vaguely. He had no memory whatsoever of this room with its stark lines and gray walls. It was a little too fancy and the bed a little too comfortable to be a prison cell. At least he hoped not. He sat up rather quickly, fumbling in his pocket to feel after that all important mystic bauble - - and found it nestled safely where it ought to be.

Oh, and then there was Seiji - - that was the second sign of the headache not going anywhere. Seiji standing with his shoulder to the door, all pale and golden against the black of his own silk robe, with absolutely no expression at all on his face. He could have been watching static on a TV for all the emotion he let slip. Which meant Seiji was in heavy defensive mode and well - - honestly, it was probably against Ryo, who if he recalled correctly hadn't parted company with anything particularly social on his lips. There might even have been a fair number of curses involved.

He winced a little at the memory, still a bit too sleep muddled to build up enough stamina to feel indignant, much less angry.

"Where is this?" He thought it best to get the really important questions out of the way.

"Lazing away in bed, you bum." Rowan quipped. "Jesus, don't you ever learn, Ryo? The armor does not - - repeat - - does not make one invulnerable nor give one inexhaustible energy. Why do you constantly forget that? It's not hard to remember."

"Rowan - -" Ryo glared at him, pushing hair back from his face, and groaning a little when he lifted his arm, shoulders sore from doing just what Rowan had accused him of for too damned long. Not to mention the efforts of a damned lot of dragon men and their house sized beasties.

"We're still enjoying guest rights - if you wanna call them that - under the roof of Sarag'sa. Dinner's in an hour or so. We're all expected. Thanks to a lot of bad planning on our part, you get to play warlord."

"I get to do what?" He stared at Rowan blankly, then past him at Seiji, who had started to frown just a little.

"The hun'ra got the idea back before we parted company and me and Seiji sort of fudged it a little and well - - you've been doing a good job of kicking ass and have made an impression - - so you get to be it. I think if you just kept your mouth shut and looked dangerous, we'd all be better off."

"Looked - - - what - - Rowan, why can't we just leave. I thought the idea was to get through the pass, not stick around and party with the dragonmen here."

"Yeah, well, Sarag'sa's good will has been pretty expensive so far - - if we fuck it up now, so much honest effort will have gone to waste."

Ryo stared. Seiji's eyes narrowed dangerously, glaring daggers at Rowan, who never looked his way. There was most definitely something up between the two of them, but Ryo hadn't the foggiest notion what and he might be able to ferret secrets out of Sai or Kento with a little effort, but there was no way he was up to par with the machinations of Rowan, much less Seiji.

"Are you injured?" Seiji finally asked, the irritation carefully schooled away, his voice soft and moderated.

"Wha - -" Ryo really hadn't expected him to ask. He'd sort of thought after their last parting, to enjoy a nice long silence from Seiji. Seiji was so good at the icy silences - - and this time, well Ryo hadn't exactly been dreading it.

"Your shoulder." Seiji clarified for him.

"My - -? Oh, no. S'fine. Sore is all."

"Well, the baths will help that." Rowan said cheerfully. "And god knows you need one. So let's go, shall we, and get you cleaned up and into something that doesn't smell like three day old road kill, before supper."

There was not much else to do, but go, feeling out of place and still a little distracted. Seiji and Rowan sat on benches along the wall while Ryo slid into wonderfully warm water and immersed himself under the surface. He stayed under long enough for his lungs to burn and the air to be especially welcoming when he came back up and took in a lung full of it. He was mortified when two hun'ra serving girls came in and offered to assist and Rowan, laughing, finally had to send them back out before Ryo would venture close to the edge again.

"When you gonna appreciate the finer pleasures in life, man?" Rowan shook his head and tossed in the sponge himself.

"Shut up, Rowan." Ryo snapped, embarrassed enough to be testy. He cast a surreptitious glance at Seiji, but Seiji wasn't paying him any heed. Seiji was sitting at the end of the bench, his hands on his knees, looking like he'd rather not be here at all. Or perhaps it was merely Ryo's company that he found not to his taste. Ryo chewed on his lip, dwelling on that, as he scrubbed absently at whatever body part got in the way of the sponge.

He finished and rubbed himself dry with the towel Rowan tossed him, then slipped into the robe that Seiji had brought with them. It was blue with silver embroidery and every bit as fine as Rowan's. Ryo didn't like it. Ryo felt uncomfortable in silk and wished for something as plain and homey as cotton or polyester.

"Isn't there a nice pair of trousers or something I can wear?" he asked once, plaintively.

"Deal." Rowan suggested and shooed him out of the steam filled baths ahead of himself and Seiji.

"So, fill me in." Ryo asked, knowing very well it would be Rowan who answered. Rowan told him the essentials. The gatekeeper they'd taken out to gain entrance here. Sarag'sa and his court and his lot of seemingly content human 'servants' Sarag'sa's promise to think about granting them asylum and perhaps even assistance.

"Sooo," he asked when they'd almost reached the room where Rowan promised Sai and Kento were waiting. "have you guys thought any about how we're going to get home?"

Rowan and Seiji exchanged looks. It seemed the perfectly reasonable question had taken the both of them off guard. You'd think that one of the two of them, the both of which liked to portray themselves as ingenious thinkers would have pondered the problem at least a little. Ryo sighed, disappointed.

"You haven't."

"Well, there were sorta other things to occupy the mind." Rowan whined.

"Yeah, like bathhouse girls and feasts and whatnot."

"Among other things. Important negotiator-like things." Rowan shot back.

"I would suppose," Seiji said. "That the way we got here is always a viable option. It just means retracing out steps back the way we came."

"I seem to recall a lot of ne'gal hanging around there." Rowan said.

"And we've got the people they kidnapped from the island to think about. We could probably make it, but if we had to fight our way through an army of dragonmen, we'd lose a lot of them." Ryo reminded them.

Rowan stopped in front of a door and rapped. "Well, that can't be the only gate thing. Hopefully."

"Hopefully it is." Seiji said, dipping his head and frowning, a sure sign that he was engaging in some serious thought. "Do we want multiple gateways into our world that these creatures can use? That could create quite a problem."

Which was a very, very reasonable concern, even if Seiji had come up with it, but Ryo found he couldn't dredge up quite the same amount of resentment with Seiji that he had a few days earlier. Maybe it was an actual large chunk of sleep that had mellowed his mood. Maybe - - maybe it was that little while there on the trail that he'd not been able to get that nagging worry for Seiji out of his head. You worry enough about somebody's safety and it was hard to maintain a righteous distaste for them at the same time. More likely yet, it was his own stupid, inept ability to hold onto grievances for any proper length of time, which always had put him at a great disadvantage with Seiji, who could hold them for years if need be, unless one appeared before him, properly apologetic. Which was just not not not going to happen this time, lack of irritation or not.

The door opened with Sai on the other side. Kento was sitting cross-legged on a big bed behind him. They both were clean, well-rested and well-dressed, which led a body to wonder just how long he'd been asleep. He was almost afraid to ask. Especially with Sai standing there looking him over with a distinct, 'I told you so' look in his green eyes.

"Well there you are." Sai said. "We were beginning to worry. One of the hun'ra servants came by looking for you - - well looking for Seiji, which I thought was very strange, since I didn't think any of these people, much less some ne'gal lord, lowered themselves to talk to us shak'nor's."

"Well, talk's not everything." Rowan muttered and got another hostile glare from Seiji.

"They also," Sai said, looking between Seiji and Rowan warily, "said that they'd send someone round in short order to take us to dinner. I hope we're going to be the guests and not the main course. I really don't trust these ne'gal."

"Well good." Rowan said. "They're not trustworthy as far as I'm concerned and just in case anybody asks," he draped an arm around Sai's shoulders. "You're my shak'nor. Exclusively."

"This is important?" Sai asked.

Rowan smiled, but it was more strained than amused. "Pretty damn, if you ask me."

"No one did." Seiji said dryly, then deftly changed the subject by bringing up the more important matter of how they were going to get home.

"Maybe some of the hun'ra wise men know." Kento said. "When we get across the pass to where they have their villages, we can ask."

"I shudder to suggest it, but the ne'gal were the ones using the gate to get slaves - - maybe someone here might know. Maybe that Sarag'sa person?"

Rowan groaned, thumping his head back against the headboard of the bed where he sat next to Sai. "That's probably a damned good suggestion - - but I really, really don't want us to be in debt to him for anything else."

"He seems to like humans." Kento pointed out. "I mean his servants are happy, from what I've heard from the hun'ra - - he's sort of been protecting the pass that would let the other ne'gal run amuck in the hun'ra lands for a long time now. Maybe he's not such a bad guy."

"Maybe pigs will up and fly out of my ass." Rowan said, testily, which made a body wonder what Rowan's beef with Sarag'sa was. Rowan was usually the first of them to suggest a bit of skillful negotiation. Ryo glanced to Seiji, but he had his forehead on his knees, sitting on the floor with his back propped up against the edge of the bed.

"You know, when we do find a way back," Sai said into the speculative silence that Rowan had created. "We ought to leave that awful woman behind."

"What awful woman?" Ryo asked, baffled.

"That's not funny, Sai." Kento groused at the same moment.

"That red-headed floozy who's going to blab to everyone about our armor as soon as we get back." Sai said.

"Ohh, that woman." Rowan said. "You found her. I didn't notice."

"She asked about you." Sai reported archly. "It seems you left an impression with her."

"Yeah, I tend to do that. Thank god she didn't meet Seiji, huh. Then we'd be fighting her off with a stick."

"Not funny and she is going to be a problem." Sai reminded him.

Like they needed one more. Ryo dipped his head, staring at his hands, brown and callused against the silvery cuff of the robe he was wearing. He cast his glance cautiously sideways to the back of Seiji's lowered head. Despite that ingrained little worry over Seiji - - which was still lurking about in the back of Ryo's mind - - despite having all of his friends where he could watch out for them - - It was nice to see that Seiji was being very, very careful around him. Which he generally wasn't. Nice to see those very brief flashes of unease directed towards Ryo, as if Seiji was very uncertain of where he stood. It was terrible, of course to enjoy such a thing, but damned if he hadn't gone through the same doubt countless times, even when they were in good standing, not to feel that a little turnabout was fair play.

There was a rap on the door and a doe-eyed little hun'ra serving girl that couldn't have been more than thirteen on the other side, with a soft smile on her lips and a polite request to follow her to dinner with her lord and master, Sarag'sa.

Wonderful. Ryo stiffened his spine and prepared to plunge into the lions - - or dragon's - - den.

There were too damn many ne'gal for comfort. After going to a great deal of trouble to kill them en masse, walking among them was disconcerting. Ryo kept fighting back the urge to summon the armor. He couldn't keep his fingers from clutching at the warm little stone in his pocket. There were ne'gal of all sorts here, but mostly there were the smaller, more intelligent breed. Like the ones that had seemed to command the large, cumbersome fighters of the enemy. The elite. The nobles, according to Rowan. The one's you had to be really, really wary of, because not only were they tough skinned and powerful, but they were smart.

Ryo figured if they had to make a run for it, on the chance that this turned sour, he'd try and take out Sarag'sa first, Sarag'sa having demonstrated that he had more than physical strength to deal with. None of the ne'gal Ryo had dealt with had exhibited anything like the power that Sarag'sa had and it made him nervous, because if Sarag'sa possessed that sort of power, then there was no doubt that ne'gal on the other side had it as well.

It wasn't that big of a dining hall. Ryo had expected something much grander, or at least more ornate. The ne'gal it seemed weren't into gilded decor, leaning more towards gray and black and heavy stonework. Sort of like a clutch of scaly, reptilian goths.

They sat down at a long, tall table. Perfect height for ne'gal, the smallest of which was a good deal taller than Ryo. Sarag'sa was sort of medium, only towering a head and shoulders over your normal human. His wingspan was just impressive as hell, though he did a good job of keeping the things furled close behind him when he sat, hence not knocking over the hun'ra servants who scurried around the table, making sure everybody was situated and everybody had wine and got servings of this and that.

"Go light on the booze." Rowan leaned close to Ryo to whisper. "Its got a kick and you don't have a head for it."

Ryo sat about two chairs down from the head of the table, between Rowan and Kento. They'd placed Seiji and Sai further down, as befitted their status, Ryo assumed, as shak'natari. Sai didn't look happy over the sleight. Seiji didn't seem to have an opinion at all, face very neutral, body movement down to the bare minimum. That was Seiji on the defensive all round, which meant he could have been pissed and hiding it or he could have been worried and wanted to hide that equally well. There was a very faint bruise on his face, almost hidden by his hair. Ryo hadn't noticed it before, or maybe Seiji had just kept it angled away. Seiji's fair skin bruised easily, all it took really was fingers pressing too hard, much less being on the receiving end of a good hit. He wondered how Seiji had gotten it.

"Ryo?" Rowan caught his attention with a kick to his ankle under the table. Ryo blinked, shaken out of his Seiji appraisal and turned wide eyes to Rowan. Rowan had a strained smile on his face, he inclined his head towards the ne'gal lord. "Lord Sarag'sa asked if the accommodations were suitable."

Ryo blinked again, caught off guard and wondering why the hell anybody cared. A bed was a bed was a bed, and as long as enemies weren't coming at you in your sleep, one was as good as another.

"Uhh, fine, I guess."

"After days on the trail, they are very much appreciated." Rowan added on to his answer. Ryo scowled a little, and sipped at the wine Rowan had warned him about. It didn't taste like wine, unless you counted the really, really cheap stuff that Kento sometimes brought home that tasted more like thick kool-aid than anything else, which suited Ryo fine, because he never had had much of a taste for alcohol, preferring sweet drinks by far. Given the choice, he'd take a Pepsi over a glass of fine wine any day of the week. Seiji always rolled his eyes at him and emitted long suffering sighs at his backwardness, but he never pushed it and - - come to think of it, would get downright snide to anyone that happened to chide Ryo for his lack of social drinking skills. Ryo really did want to know where Seiji had gotten that bruise. There was a scrape as well, under his hair on his right temple. He noted it when Seiji dipped his head to pick at something on his plate.

"Oww." He got another kick under the table. He knew there'd been talk going on around him in-between the clatter of utensils and the sound of food being consumed, but he honestly hadn't been paying it a lot of heed.

"Isn't that right, most esteemed kan'tara?" Rowan looked like he wanted to bang Ryo's forehead against the tabletop.

"Oh, um, yes. That's right." Ryo hoped he wasn't agreeing to anything too horrible or embarrassing. A body had to trust Rowan in these things. At least when lives were on the line.

Sarag'sa was looking at him. The ne'gal prince had unnerving, golden eyes. Like a poisonous snake.

"You are most unusual for hun'ra." Sarag'sa said, directly to him. The ne'gal prince sat with his long nailed fingers steepled thoughtfully before him, his servants having cleared away his plate, leaving only a large goblet for wine. "I have never seen or heard of the like. Such powers. Such fine, fine weapons that even ne'gal smiths would be hard pressed to forge."

Ha. As if they could even come close. Sarag'sa irked Ryo. Just the smug look on his face, the way he talked down to the hun'ra even though he claimed to be so generous with them. He very well might have saved their lives - - his own included - - but there was still something about him that rubbed Ryo the wrong way.

"We're not hun'ra we're humans, which is what all the hun'ra were before they were kidnapped however many years ago from their own world and dragged here to be slaves for a bunch of bastards too lazy to do their own grunt work."

Rowan groaned softly beside him, an utterly dismayed look flashing across his face, it was accompanied by a collective holding of breaths over Ryo's bluntness and Sarag'sa's reaction to it. Ryo personally didn't give a shit whether the ne'gal jumped up in outrage and wanted to throw down. He was game for it.

But Sarag'sa did no such thing. Sarag'sa laughed, the lines of his face holding genuine amusement. "I would suppose." The dragon lord said, still chuckling. "That that is an adequately accurate assessment of what transpired - - all those many years ago. No doubt, my brethren across the mountains have gotten lazy again, without their army of hun'ra slaves, which is why they have made raids into hun'ra lands."

"Are you familiar," Seiji's soft voice made Ryo flinch. He hadn't uttered a sound since they'd left the room to come here. "With the gates your people used to take the hun'ra in the first place? My lord." He added that last honorarian as an afterthought. You couldn't have pulled a 'my lord' out of Ryo's mouth with a pair of pliers.

Seiji wasn't quite looking at Sarag'sa, his head tilted just so, that his hair fell to shield his eyes. His hands were very still before him, fingers laced around the stem of his goblet. Wary as hell, Ryo thought. And lacking that certain aura of confidence that was generally so integral to Seiji's demeanor. It had been a long time since he'd paid so much attention to the small Seijism's, but he thought that just maybe that confidence had been absent a very long time. At the very least since Egypt and just perhaps - - even before that. It had maybe been wavering a little ever since their oh, so cheerful trip to hell.

Sarag'sa leaned back in his chair, eyes glued on Seiji even though Seiji wasn't looking up at him. The ne'gal prince pursed his wide lips, thoughtful.

"I know of these portals."

"There's more than one?" Rowan chirped up, disgruntlement over Ryo's lack of tack washed away by the sudden excitement over possible information to help them home.

"There were." Sarag'sa agreed. "Why do you inquire about such things?" he was still staring at Seiji, directing his question there instead of Rowan.

Seiji considered, fingers finally moving on the goblet, rotating the stem between them. Finally he did look up, meeting the ne'gal's golden eyes.

"We have a vested interest, since those portals lead to the world of all hun'ra's origins."

"Ah." Sarag'sa's lips pulled back in a smile that was anything but pleasant. "Yet one more thing to bargain for then, humm shak'natari?"

Seiji didn't bat an eye. Rowan did, letting out a harsh breath between his teeth, hand squeezing tight around his goblet. Okay. There was definitely something up. Ryo might be a bit slow on the uptake on some things, but he wasn't stupid. He glanced to Kento, who shrugged, just as lost as he was, then down to Sai, who had an odd look on his face, like he was doing a better job of piecing things together and coming up with answers than Ryo was.

Sarag'sa rose, a signal that the dinner was official over. The ne'gal at table rose with him, moving to relax on ledges cushioned with pillows against the walls, or stand in small groups to cautiously talk about their strange guests out of easy earshot.

Ryo was damned and determined to get Rowan aside and beat an explanation out of him if necessary, but he sort of got off track when Sarag'sa strolled up to where Seiji and Sai were still lingering by the table and casually laid a long nailed hand on Seiji's shoulder, but not friend like - - not a clapping of a palm on a body's shoulder, and then removing it in due course, but rather a slide of big fingers across Seiji's shoulder and down his arm, curling around his elbow and urging him to step away from Sai. He bent down and said something in Seiji's ear, to which Seiji didn't respond. Seiji just stood there, staring straight ahead, expressionless, not rejecting the familiar hand on his arm, when Seiji hated to be touched by casual acquaintances - - hell, Seiji hated to be touched by intimate ones in public.

It was bizarre enough to make the hackles stand up on the back of Ryo's neck. His fingers curled of their own accord and he'd taken one reflexive step that way when Seiji's eyes fixed on him. Just all of a sudden Seiji was noticing him and maybe noticing the direction Ryo's feet were taking him and maybe thinking that unpolitically correct things were about to take place.

Seiji's mouth twisted up in a faint parody of a smile and he gracefully shrugged out of Sarag'sa's grasp, nodding and saying something that made the ne'gal lord incline his head in satisfaction and Sai edge closer to try and overhear. Whatever it was, Sarag'sa moved away, trailed by one of his dragon guardsmen and a servant as he left the dining hall. Sai must not have heard, because it was clear he was trying to grill Seiji about the exchange, but Seiji wasn't paying his questions much heed and that if nothing else was true to form.

"How long do we have'ta stay here?" Kento sidled up to Ryo. Ryo shrugged, not up on the social niceties practiced in ne'gal pseudo-courts.

"The food was good and all." Kento went on. "But hanging around all these dragon guys is freakin' me out. I keep expecting them to attack."

"Yeah." Ryo agreed, his own eyes flittering around the room to the handful of ne'gal that were still there. Left to watch over them, he supposed, because they sure weren't talking to them. Only Sarag'sa had lowered himself to actually speak to them. The rest merely watched, like predators gauging prey.

"Well, Seiji's leaving - - so maybe its okay to go." Kento pointed out and Ryo swung his gaze back around to track Seiji. He'd left Sai's and was heading for the hall. One of the hun'ra servants inclined their head to him and padded off a few steps ahead of him, like he'd been waiting for him.

It was all too strange. Ryo's gut was twisting and clenching like it was just starting to think about expelling supper.

"C'mon." He urged Kento over towards Rowan, who was talking to a hun'ra servant who was dressed like maybe he had a little status among Sarag'sa's working class. Ryo waited a polite moment, before butting into Rowan's sentence-in-progress.

"Seiji left. We ought to go to."

Rowan blinked and looked past Ryo's shoulder, scanning the room as if he doubted Ryo's estimation of Seiji's departure. "Well - - damn." Rowan didn't look happy. Rowan looked apprehensive and was doing a damned crappy job of hiding it, which set off Ryo's warning sirons two fold.

"We'll catch up with him at the room." Kento was trying to be helpful, but even he had a look of uncertainty in his eyes.

Ryo caught Rowan's arm and bodily pulled him away from the hun'ra, heading past the speculative glances of the ne'gal and towards the end of the hall. Questions were put off as the little hun'ra girl who'd led them here scurried up, asking if they were returning to their rooms and stating that she would escort them back. Like they couldn't be trusted to wonder the halls alone - - or were too stupid to find their own way back. Well, the halls had been long and there had been more than a few turns, so maybe that latter option wasn't all offended pride talking.

Seiji wasn't there when they reached the one room, so Ryo promptly started marching down the hall towards the other one. He wasn't there either.

"Where's he at, Rowan?" Ryo demanded as soon as they caught up to him.

"Bathes maybe?" Kento ventured.

Maybe. Seiji liked bathes a great deal.

"Rowan?" he looked for confirmation, Rowan seeming to have the hang of this place. Rowan seeming to know things that he didn't and Rowan not seeming to want to share.

"I dunno - - maybe so." Rowan looked away when he said it, the lie so crystal in his voice that even Ryo caught it.

"Rowan?" Sai tugged at his sleeve, trying to get him to meet his eyes. Sai was so much better at reading Rowan than the rest of them and Sai was beginning to look very, very worried. "Rowan what's the matter?"

And Rowan, with a great heaving sigh, told them. Granted, it was a truncated version of events, but it made Sai's eyes widen in dismay and Kento's cheeks to pinken and Ryo - - well Ryo started to get a red film of haze around the edges of his vision and a coiling tight knot of anger somewhere between his gut and his heart. It almost hurt it was so intense and he began hearing only about half of what Rowan was saying, Rowan interspersing the grim details with his attempts to explain away the unexplainable.

"Ryo!!" Sai's hands were on his arm and his own hands were clenched in the lapels of Rowan's robes, Rowan himself having been forced back against the wall, a distinctly uneasy look in his eyes.

"Listen, Ryo. Just calm down. Nobody likes it, Seiji included but and damn sure not me - - but it did get us Sarag'sa help when - - -"

"Where?" Ryo cut him off with a twisting of his hands in Rowan's robe.

"Ryo . . ." Rowan kept trying to avoid the issue. The red around the edges of Ryo's vision was creeping in towards the center.

Damn Seiji. Damn Seiji. Damn Seiji. He yanked Rowan forward and slammed him backwards against the wall and yelled. "Where the fuck are they, Rowan?"

Rowan gasped, the air knocked out of him and Sai's fingers were suddenly trying to grasp the slick surface of the sub-armor reflexively summoned in the midst of Ryo's rage.

"I don't know." Rowan breathed, trying to catch his breath. A very anxious Rowan, at considerably more risk now than he had been a few moments ago. "I was never invited."

"Ryo, let him go." That was Sai, at the edge of Ryo's awareness, with enough warning in his voice to suggest that if Ryo didn't comply, there was going to be more than one of them armored up. Ryo did, whirling away from the three of them and going to the door, flinging it open with enough fervor to make the hinges quake in their moorings and stalking out. He didn't need Rowan to tell him where Seiji was. He could feel Seiji, if he tried hard enough, when he had the concrete armor of Wildfire to lend him strength. He could always feel Seiji to some extent or another when he was encased in Wildfire, as if the connection between them was so much stronger than the connection he felt towards Kento or Sai or Rowan. It was probably even stronger on the other end of that connection, Seiji being more sensitive to such things than any of them. And maybe that awareness alerted Seiji to something, because Ryo felt a shift of 'attention' his way. An awareness laced with apprehension as if all Seiji could sense of Ryo was white hot anger. Then the Seiji-sense backed off, like a blind being drawn on sunlight and Ryo lost the scent of him - - but it was too late to throw him off the track. He already knew the direction and there were tiny slices of light still seeping through the blinds, beyond Seiji's control to completely shut out.

There were ne'gal at the door. Two of them. Most certainly Sarag'sa's lair then, to be guarded so. They were the big ones, heavy and wingless and powerful. But slow. Ryo had killed a fair number of their contemporaries already. He knew he could take them out if he had to with a few quick slices of his swords. He summoned those swords with a thought and the full armor came with it. The ne'gal at the door widened their slitted eyes and bellowed out warnings that echoed down the hall and certainly through the doors they guarded.

They charged at him and Ryo drew one of his swords with every intention of slicing through thick ne'gal hide, Kento rushed past him, slamming full body into the ne'gal and crashing it back against the wall. Kento in armor, the same as Sai and Rowan were, backing Ryo up on the other front, preventing the other ne'gal to get at him. Or maybe, preventing him from taking its head from its shoulders. Either way, it left the doors unattended.

Ryo shoved them open and strode in and was confronted by towering columns, cold gray stone made colder by the unrestricted night air coming in from the open span of ceiling overhead. And Sarag'sa and Seiji.

Ryo's eyes focused on them magnetically, drawn to the bronze of the ne'gal's hide and the pale gold of Seiji's hair. Seiji wasn't looking at him.. Sarag'sa was. They stood a body length away from a broad, black draped bed, facing him, Seiji standing before the ne'gal framed by half unfurled wings and damned tall dragon prince. Sarag'sa had one hand firmly on Seiji's shoulder, fingers shifting the collar of the robe away to lay on bare skin. Seiji's robe was not firmly done. It gaped open above the sash at his waist, revealing a strip of pale, pale chest. Ryo stared at it. At the fall of Seiji's hair, which was all he could see of Seiji's face, save the tight set of his mouth.

The bottom dropped out. For a split instant he was floundering, bereft of solid reality to anchor him. Reason, patience and understanding went spiraling into that uncertain place, and anger, jealousy and hurt came rushing in to take their place. The air wavered around him, hot enough to burn skin not intimately protected by the power of Wildfire.

"Get your hands off him." He growled and shifted forward, balancing on the balls of his feet, ready to pounce and slice through flesh and bone and wing. Small blue white flames danced along the edge of his blade without him ever actually calling them up.

Sarag'sa titled his head and smiled. Actually smiled in the face of Ryo's rage, which made it all the more dreadful, but he pushed Seiji forward a step and took his hand from his shoulder. Seiji's face had taken on a frozen void of emotion. His eyes seemed to look right through Ryo, as if he refused to register his existence here in the midst of this embarrassing situation.

"Do we have a misunderstanding?" Sarag'sa purred, not looking threatened at all. He held up one hand, a casual motion and Ryo peripherally realized that ne'gal warriors had come at the summons of the door guards.

Ryo ground his teeth, wanting violence. Wanting to take out all the jumbled painful things coiling inside him out on someone. There was no misunderstanding. Everyone here knew exactly what they were about.

"I am at fault." Seiji said quietly, but it was directed at Sarag'sa only. Seiji inclined his head, a graceful courtesy. "I did not make things clear."

Seiji bowed his head again, stiff and formal, then spun on his heel and walked towards the door. He passed Ryo without a glance and navigated his way through the crowded ne'gal as if they were no threat at all.

Sarag'sa kept staring at Ryo and his drawn sword. It was either fight or put it up. Rowan and Sai and Kento were behind him and they'd back him up if regardless of what they thought about the situation, but that still wouldn't help the hun'ra and the captured humans from the island that were as good as hostages somewhere below. The image of the little girl flashed before Ryo's eyes - - of her at the mercy of a towering ne'gal assassin. He shuddered, anger going tighter and hotter at the threat that made him shift his grip on the hilt of his katana and slide it back into its sheath on his back.

He heard the minute sounds of weapons relaxing behind him. He ought to say something - - anything - - but any words that came out of his mouth now would be nothing but incoherent anger and that would not benefit the hostages below. He met Sarag'sa eyes, unflinching, hating the smug amusement reflected there, then turned and hissed to Rowan,

"Tell him we're leaving - - all of us." Then stalked out, trusting Rowan to find the words and to negotiate the hun'ra's passage out of this dreadful place. There was only one thing on Ryo's mind then, when he'd cleared the array of ne'gal guards surrounding Sarag'sa's rooms and that was to find Seiji and release that miasma of anger boiling inside him on a source that wouldn't cost him innocent lives.



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