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The Road To Hell
Again, this tale takes place right after the events of Echo's of Guilt and Flip of the Coin. Echo's is like the prologue so read it first. P.L. N.
"Hey, Sai." Kento was in the middle of gobbing a dollop of glue on a popsickle stick. A half constructed and truth be told -- rather sorry looking popsickle stick ship sat on the kitchen table before him. He held the newly glue smeared stick gingerly in his big fingers, his lower lip caught up in his teeth in concentration.
Sai watched him place the newest timber on the hull before popping the tab on his Pepsi and pulling out a chair to sit down. Morning cast a bright, cheerful light across the kitchen.
"So how long have you been working on this, exactly?" Sai vaguely recalled seeing bits and pieces of the thing lying around for weeks now.
"Ummmmm, I dunno." Kento surveyed his masterpiece from several directions, calculating where to place the next stick. Kento was obviously more interested in his ship than engaging in casual morning conversation. The whole of the house was unusually quiet. Had been for the last day. Sai was beginning to hate it. There was something in the air that was just --- wrong. Ryo had been gone all yesterday, out in the woods practicing or something. He hadn't come back till late and then he had looked so wan that he'd gone right upstairs and into hibernation in his room. Sage who was never talkative to begin with, was downright unapproachable. A body daren't even open their mouths in preparation of a comment to him without receiving that long, cool look that disinvited social interaction. And Rowan ----
Oh, god, Rowan was a disaster. He cringed to think about the looks -- or the non-looks Rowan had been giving him. Rowan was avoiding him like the plague. Rowan hadn't said more than three words to him since -- well, since two nights ago when they had almost come close to sleeping together again and Sai had freaked out. He hadn't meant to. God, he really had not meant to loose it like that, but his head had just been so damned unpredictable since the incident. But the look on Rowan's face -- the hurt -- Sai couldn't get it out of his mind. Rowan was the last person in the world Sai ever wanted to hurt -- but his inability to cope was wounding his erstwhile lover to the quick and he didn't know what to do about it.
He sighed heavily, resting his chin in his palm. The view out the kitchen window was striking. The lake glistened like a jewel, the lush forest surrounding it an exquisite natural sitting. He thought he had seen Rowan head out there this morning. Maybe he was fishing off the pier. Maybe he'd gone walking along one of the trails. Rowan had not seen fit to appraise him of his plans.
He sighed again and this time Kento looked up, thick brows beetling in question. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing." There was a time he could have told Kento anything. A time when they had been the closest of friends -- they still were -- save for just a little under the surface jealousy when it came to what Sai shared with Rowan. Understandable. It had been a equal friendship for a while -- when all they had been was comrades -- then alliances had shifted, certain lines had been drawn. Rowan had suddenly been closer than Kento could ever be able to be. Kento was the odd man out. Doubly so, when Sage and Ryo had formed a pairing. Weird really, that the five of them -- chosen by the armors -- chosen to be the protectors of the world to a certain degree -- would gravitate to each other. One had to speculate in the quiet of one's own mind -- if the armors hadn't had something to do with it. If that thing that they shared that had once been a singularity, had not pulled them together in more ways than one. One couldn't complain. In most cases, one was deliriously happy with the situation.
Only Kento got left out. He worried about Kento a great deal, on that count. Worried that Kento did not have a partner of any sex to share his fears and his dreams and his passions with. He wondered if Kento's jealousies -- which were not openly voiced at all -- concerned more than the sharing of confidences.
"------Something." Sai admitted, wrapping long, slim fingers around the perspiring soda can. "Rowan's not talking to me. I -- I think I really hurt his feelings."
"Well --- well --" How to put it in a manner that protected his own modesty. "The other night -- I sort of-- rebuffed him. I mean it wasn't him I was reacting to -- I just all of a sudden got this entirely creeping feeling and I just couldn't stand to be touched. It wasn't him at all -- but I don't think he understands that."
"What? He doesn't understand about you still being major freaked about that psycho using you for carving practice?"
"Yes. That." Sai mumbled, trembling as visions slipped across his memory. Pain, terror, blood. Condemnations that no sane argument could pierce. "Sometimes I can't get it out of my head." He admitted softly.
Kento frowned, reached across the table with his free hand and patted Sai's wrist. "You will. Maybe when all the scars are faded."
"Maybe you ought to do what Mia said and go talk to somebody about it."
"No. I don't need that. I feel so --- stupid for not being able to shake it. I should be stronger than this. Look at all the other things we've faced and none of them made me bat an eye."
"Different things. Difference between work and personal. All the shit we do with the armor -- that's like -- professional. Yeah, professional. With that freak -- it hit you where you lived. Weirded us all out, Sai."
"I know. Rowan blames himself. I wish he wouldn't."
"No he doesn't. He blames Ryo."
Sai blinked. "Why on earth would he blame Ryo?"
"Convenient, I guess. Ryo made him late -- so he wasn't there to keep you out of trouble."
It felt vaguely like someone had hit him in the gut. The notion that not only was this mental stigma he was experiencing hurting Rowan, it was creating friction where no friction had any right existing.
"This -- this is just terrible, Kento."
Kento shrugged. "They'll get over it."
"I have got to go and talk to Rowan."
"Take a rock. It'll take something hard to get through his thick skull."
Sai was coming down the pier. Hands stuffed in the pockets of his cackies, oversized shirt hanging untucked about his hips, all sun touched and soft in the bright morning light. Rowan groaned, having no easy escape, save over the side of the dock and into the water and that was no escape considering Sai was as at home in the water as he was on land.
With fixed concentration Rowan stared at the pages of the book that was propped across his thighs. If he pretending hard enough, it might seem he hadn't even taken note of Sai's approach. Save that Sai stopped right before him, casting him and the book in his shadow and stayed that way silently until Rowan had to look up and acknowledge him.
"Oh, hey, Sai." Maybe if he turned his attention back on the book, Sai would go away. So many mixed emotions flooded in with the mere thought of Sai that Rowan's heart clenched, pounding hurtfully. Regret, hurt, protectiveness, lust, adoration --- shame, fear. Shame over what he'd almost done not too long ago and fear that Sai would despise him for being capable of it.
"What are you reading, Rowan?" A very soft query. Sai's voice never failed to entice him. The flowing English accent, the always present politeness. Rowan tilted the book cover up for him to see.
"Carl Sagen?" Sai lifted a brow.
Rowan shrugged. "I was up for a little mind stretching today."
"Could -- could you maybe take a minute to talk to me? If you're not too into it?" Sai was always respectful of Rowan's literary obsessions.
Rowan felt the trap closing in. He took a breath and folded a corner of his page down, sat the book on his knees and stared up at Sai expectantly. "You wanna talk here?"
"Sure." Sai settled down and sat cross legged across from him. He was nervous. Rowan could tell it from the way he picked absently at a cuticle. A soft fall of brown bangs concealed his eyes as he stared down at his hands.
"About the other night --- I'm really, really sorry, Rowan. I never ---"
"Hey, it's okay. I understand."
Sai looked up at him hopefully. "Do you? You looked so --- bruised and you didn't talk to me at all yesterday. I thought you might have been angry at me."
"Angry at you? Are you crazy? Never."
A small smile curved Sai's lips. "At Ryo then?"
And Rowan's breath froze in his chest. His heart felt like it wanted to jump right up his throat. Oh, god, had Ryo told Sai? Could he blame him if he had? How to explain? I was drunk. I was angry. I wanted somebody to blame. You had made me horny as hell and Goddamnit --- my mind just snapped. But he couldn't say anything for the tightness in his throat.
"Kento told me." Sai said, picking at the hem of his pants leg and Rowan wondered how in hell it had gotten around to Kento. Had Ryo told everybody?
"Kento?" he managed hoarsely.
"He says you blame Ryo because he made you late that night. It's not his fault. It's not your fault. If it's anybody's fault it's mine for being so gullible."
"Wait a minute -- Kento told you I was mad at Ryo because of that?"
"And that's all he told you?"
Again a nod, but a more cautious one. Rowan felt a surge of relief, but it was tinged with guilt. Almost it would have been better to admit it to Sai. To face his condemnation or his benediction and get it over with.
"Rowan, I don't want to be the cause of strife in this house. Please don't make me be."
"You're not gullible."
Sai blinked at him. Rowan leaned forward and touched his cheek. Soft skin, softer hair that brushed his knuckles as Sai tilted his head in towards his hand.
"I love you, Rowan." Lips brushed his palm. "Please don't ever think otherwise."
There was really nothing he could say to that, with a lump in his throat and guilt scrambling around inside his heart. Somehow he managed a 'me too, Sai.'
There was a scorched smell coming from the kitchen. Rather like someone had been attempting to cook some decidedly uncooperative skunk and left it on the grill for far too long. Sai's pained voice could be heard, accompanied by his rapid footsteps towards the room from which the nefarious odor emanated.
"You were supposed to watch it."
"I was -- but X-Files was on." Kento sounded very, very apologetic. Ryo paused in the back door way, in the small pantry that led into the kitchen and laid down his pair of practice katana's. There was a grotto on the other side of the lake that he liked to use for working out. There was a dead tree as wide around as a healthy cow that had been systematically chopped to bits during his exercises. He'd been particularly energetic about it the last few days and would have to spend extra care honing the edges back onto the blades this evening.
He walked into the kitchen, ran a hand through his pony tail to free it of errant fall leaves and forest debris, then wrinkled his nose as a more potent whiff of the botched food hit him.
"God, what was that?" he complained and Sai and Kento looked up from where they were hovering over the stove top. Sai had a picture of water in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other.
"He was supposed to stir the stew and turn it down when it started boiling. But he got sidetracked by the telly." Sai reported, blowing a strand of hair out of his eyes with an exasperated huff. Kento shifted, shamefaced.
"Venison stew." He said mournfully. "But like it was the X-Files with the werewolf. You know the one where the rancher's son gets bitten by the Indian who's a werewolf? That one is a classic."
"Well this is ruined. I can't save it." Sai said. "Might as well dump it."
"What are you doing in here?" Seiji strolled into the kitchen with a vague air of disdain. As if they'd polluted the air on purpose, merely to impose upon him.
"Oh, burned supper." Sai sighed and gestured with the spoon at the pot.
"Not the deer Rowan shot." Seiji's lip curled a little.
"Well, part of it."
"I don't eat deer."
"Who said you had to?" Ryo muttered, miffed because Seiji had been acting like he was some sort of prince since the other night. Seiji would have accepted a capitulation on Ryo's part. Oh, he most certainly would have graciously -- if not condescendingly -- accepted any efforts Ryo made towards truce. Only Ryo was tired to being the one who always gave in first. He was tired of letting Seiji -- or anyone else for that matter -- harass him into accepting responsibility for something that he just wasn't to blame for. He had come to that conclusion yesterday, working himself into exhaustion out in the woods and had horned it to a fine edge today.
It still didn't mean he could quite meet Seiji's ice blue gaze, when that sanguinary attention was turned his way. Seiji didn't say a thing. He didn't have to. Just a slight twitch of one arched golden brown brow that spoke volumes. Sai and Kento looked between them, then at each other.
"They're fighting again." Kento finally decided and turned his attention back to the mess in the kettle.
"Kento." Sai admonished.
"We're not." Ryo said.
Seiji did not second that opinion. Seiji glided past and took a wine glass from the cabinet, then poured himself a half glass full of the expensive white wine he liked from the refrigerator. He paid Ryo no more heed than he might a broom in the corner. Ryo ground his teeth, determined not to be irritated by Seiji's deliberate snub. Seiji knew -- he just knew -- how to annoy him.
Seiji leaned against the counter and sipped at his wine.
"So -- what do we do for supper?" Kento had forgotten any disharmony in light of the threat of no food. One could almost see the panic in his eyes.
"What's wrong with supper?" Rowan staggered into the kitchen, an armload of laundry in his arms and stopped dead in his tracks upon seeing the gathering. Ryo looked out the window, not certain he could meet Rowan's eyes. He had not seen hide nor hair of Rowan since --- since Rowan had voiced his anger two nights past.
"Kento forgot to stir." Sai explained.
"X-Files." Kento said.
"Oh." Rowan grunted softly and slipped into the pantry where the washer was. One could hear him moving around in there, opening the door of the machine, stuffing clothing in, regardless of color or fabric. Then he was done and striding back through the kitchen, face expressionless, seemingly intent on making a bee line out.
Idly, Seiji chose that moment to push off from the counter. Their paths intersected. Rowan had to stop or collide with Seiji. Seiji paused, the stem of the glass held delicately between two fingers, his eyes gone feline and predatory and just damned scary dangerous. Rowan's eyes locked on his. Rowan's lips pressed tight together and there was an unspoken exchange that Sai and Kento just blinked at, and Ryo felt his face going hot because of. Damn Seiji anyway for being such a bastard and then choosing to confront Rowan in his own indubitable method. Like he needed Seiji to defend him.
"Stop it." He hissed, barely above a whisper.
"Rowan? Sage?" Sai stepped forward uncertainly.
"What the hell is up with all of you guys?" Kento snapped in exasperation. "I'm hungry, Damnit! I say somebody goes out for pizza. Who else want's pizza?"
Seiji's perfect lips twitched up in a lazy smile. He stepped forward, as if he'd never lost his stride and said. "Pizza sounds good."
"I'll go." Ryo offered. God, he would be so dreadfully happy to escape, take the thirty minute drive into town and let himself breath again.
"All right then," Kento nodded in satisfaction. "Now, I want the works with extra sausage, and a meat lovers -- what do you guys want?"
Out of the house and into the blessedly cool air of night. He'd had to talk to Seiji anyway, asking to borrow the keys to Seiji's car since the jeep was in the shop. Seiji just dropped the keys into his hand without a word and went to refill his wine glass. Good. Ryo hoped Seiji got good and drunk by the time he got back. Not that Seiji generally drank to inebriation, but one could always wish.
The headlights cut through the darkness. There was hardly a glimmer of moon light, the sky thick with clouds and the air heavy with eminent rain. The road out to the main highway was bumpy with ruts. He took it slower in the car than he would have with the jeep. Scrape an axle on a rut and put the thing out of alignment and Seiji would kill him. The thing being new and shinny and upholstered in leather -- it got more affection from Seiji than Ryo generally did. He probably told it he loved it repeatedly while shining the rims or polishing its blue-silver surface with a shamey.
Ryo sniffed at the thought, then had to laugh at the mental picture. He turned the CD player on, and immediately the soft strains of windpipe chimes filled the space. He grimaced and searched around for one of his CD's that he knew was mixed in with Seiji's eclectic collection.
Kid Rock. His newest interest, which drove Seiji absolutely bonkers. He hated it. The fact that he allowed it in his car was amazing. With the soothing sound of Japanese windchimes banished and the car filled with the raucous poetry of a white boy wishing he were black, Ryo felt his tension drain.
The smooth paved surface of the highway reached, he revved he powerful engine, skidded the tires just enough to make himself feel better and headed towards town. At the halfway mark he picked up Seiji's cell phone to call in the order. They'd worked out the perfect timing, or Kento had -- when to place the order and have the pizza's hot out of the oven by the time they got there to pick them up. He had the number half dialed and was fumbling for the list of what to order, when he realized the scrap of paper Kento had scribbled the order on was not in his pocket. It was probably right on the table where Kento had written it.
Damn. That meant a call back to the house with the possibility of Rowan or Seiji picking up the phone. Of course dealing with Kento's disappointment if he didn't get whatever flavor he was favoring this month was just as unattractive. With a sigh, he disconnected and dialed the house.
Four rings and Kento picked up with a smirking; "You forgot the order."
"I forgot the order." He agreed.
"The works, extra sausage. A meat lovers. One plain, extra cheese. One ham and pineapple -- with extra sardines for Sai ---"
He could hear Sai's yelp of disgust in the background. Kento chuckled.
"Just kidding. Oh and Sage wants a Greek salad. Got that?"
"Got it. Got -----" he paused, a glimmer of light catching his attention. Something sharp and intense burned in the darkness ahead. At first he thought it was perhaps a truck coming towards him with its highbeams on. But it was coming at an angle downwards and it was coming damned fast.
"What ----?" He exclaimed a heartbeat before it veered sharply into the road before the car, blinding him. He threw up a hand and cut the wheel to the right, slamming on the breaks.
The squeal of tires, a screeching sound of impact that he heard before he felt and even then the only thing he could think of, over and over was 'Seiji's going to kill me. Seiji's going to kill me.'
He sat stunned, fighting for breath past the constriction the seatbelt had made around his mid-section. There was a steady clicking sound, a hiss of escaping steam. Maybe it was the engine trying to retain its life. Maybe it was the CD player skipping. There was the tinny babble of a voice screaming at him from the floor of the passenger side.
Carefully, he pried his hands from the steering wheel and took stock of himself. His shoulder hurt, where he'd slammed forward and into the restraint of the seatbelt. There was a little trickle of blood running down beside his eye. He lifted his hand and gingerly felt a cut above his eyebrow. His head had glanced off the steering wheel or maybe the rearview mirror. In the haphazard glow of one headlight he saw the badly scraped trunk of a respectable tree beyond the crumpled hood of Seiji's new car.
"Ohmygod." He whispered. He was still being yelled at from the floor board. He glanced down dazedly at the cell phone, which had been tossed there instead of through the fractured windshield. With an effort, he undid the seatbelt and leaned across the gearshift to retrieve the phone.
"Godamnit, Ryo, are you okay?" Not Kento at all. Seiji's very agitated voice. Ryo blinked.
"Ummm, yeah. I think so." He could not quite bring himself to admit yet that he'd killed Seiji's car. But of course it would have to be said.
He thought that over, trying to sort it out himself. Maybe if he got out of the stifling interior of the wreckage. The driver's side door was jammed shut He crawled across to the passenger door and had to kick it open to get out. Seiji was complaining all the while over the phone. He put the phone back to his ear, staring in dismay at the totaled front end of the sport sedan.
"Seiji --- your car --- I'm soooo sorry."
There was a pause. A long, pregnant pause where only the soft sound of Seiji's breath was audible. Then a long exasperated breath. "Where are you?"
"There was this light --- I don't know where it came from ---" Then he shut up, staring into the gray area of the wood illuminated by the one still shining headlight. Something luminescent and large shifted among the trees. Something that made the fine hairs on the back of his arms stand up. Almost it might have been a figure on a horse or some horse like thing, but it was skewered and distorted and he could not get a proper look at it for the trees. A hundred possibilities went through his head. Creatures of the Dynasty -- but no, there was no more Dynasty -- other things out of the netherworld that had reason to hold grudges.
"Seiji --" he said softly into the mouthpiece. "--There's something out in the woods. I'm gonna go look."
"What!!?? Don't you dare. Where the hell are you? On the highway? Just wait for us to get there, okay? Ryo? Ryo?"
Ryo snapped the phone shut. Tossed it into the passenger seat of the car and drifted towards where he had seen the shape. He thought about summoning armor, but would feel awfully stupid if it turned out to be a deer or something equally inoffensive.
The light from the headlight flickered out. He stopped in his tracks, hissing through his teeth in irritation. Darkness everywhere. Maybe he would feel better if he summoned his armor.
He lost sight of it a dozen steps into the forest off the side of the road. Another few steps and what scant light the night had afforded was swallowed up by the trees. There was a quivery, uncertain flutter in the pit of his stomach, which might have been reaction from the accident or might have been his sixth sense telling him something was wrong. He was probably alive today for listening to that niggling little warning.
He spun and something whizzed by his head. Something that made his skin tingle and his ears ring. Faint light and a splintering of wood. In the darkness he heard the creaking shriek of a tree toppling. The same something or a similar one came at him from an upward angle. He dove, rolling, as worried about the tree falling on him as he was for whatever had cut into it. He was up and pelting into the woods, searching for the source of the attack, looking for that faint luminescent glow, the whispery sound movement. He rebounded off a tree and skinned the palm of his hand on the rough bark.
"To hell with that." He muttered, and with a practiced concentration summoned the sub-armor. It coalesced around his body like a second skin, bringing with it an infusion of vitality and spirit that always left him with an adrenaline high.
"Who are you?" he called a challenge into the darkness. Nothing answered. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He had no idea whether it was deeper into the woods, or back towards the road. He took off towards it without a second thought ---
--- and the same blinding light that had driven him off the road came out of nowhere and slashed him across the chest. It effectively knocked the breath out of him, armor or no. He went skidding across leaves and forest debris, came up hard against the trunk of an unforgiving tree. Leaves showered down around him. He shook his head to clear it, and blinked up at the ponderous shape of a black, red eyed steed and the shadowy form of its rider. He could not make out the details. It was as if there were no details, just the faintly glimmering outline of a black shape. The eyes of the horse -- if it were a horse -- were the only detail he could see. Then a sword, or a scythe or an ax -- he damn well couldn't make it out, swooped down towards his head, bringing with it the same tingling energy that had been thrown at him before. He let out a yelp and rolled. Practically into the legs of the horse thing, which took immediate offense and reared. A hoof caught Ryo's shoulder. He felt muffled impact, but not enough to slow him. He sprang up, made a grab for where the leg of the rider should be and his hand passed into something insubstantial and static.
The weapon came down, caught him in the same shoulder the horse had clipped and this time it did hurt. He got flung back into the dirt. Had debris in his eyes and mouth from the impact and scrambled up spitting dirt and mulch.
"Fine. Fine. You want to play rough. I can play rough." He was talking more to himself that his attacker, who had not uttered a sound -- not even a snort or whinny from the horse -- since he'd appeared.
He cried out the ritual words that would summon the armor of Wildfire. The air swirled with currents of energy around him and that great and ancient armor found its way to its current wielder. And laughter echoed in the night dark forest. Snickering, delighted laughter. A shadow slithered out of the darkness that was the horse and rider, almost as if indeed a part of its shadow had gained life of its own.
'Such a good boy. Such a considerate boy, to give us the power we need for the doorway back.'
"What ---?" With a smooth motion Ryo had a katana drawn. The gleaming tip pointed rock steady at the wavering shadow from whence the disembodied voice had come. "What are you? What do you want?"
'I? I'm merely the errand boy. A lowly servant. Cannot you feel my humbleness? Look --look there'
What might have been an arm lifted and gestured over Ryo's right shoulder. A trick he thought. An old trick to boot. He ground his teeth and glared stubbornly forward. "Do you think I'm stupid?"
'No. I think you're alive. Wonderfully, deliciously alive. Its been so very long since the fragrance of living flesh passed my way.'
"Yuch. What do you want?"
'Oh? Didn't I answer that. I'm here to send you to hell, Ryo of Wildfire. Someone there wants to see you.'
There was a crackle and a flare of light behind Ryo. He whirled then, but it was too late. He felt the draw of energy from his armor, as if something were sucking the life-force from it to create something else. That something was behind him. A slice of brightness that swooped down over him like a mouth, gobbling him up and swallowing him, then sucking in the shadow shapes that had drawn him here.
And then it was gone and the forest was back to silent darkness. All that was left -- in a jumbled pile on the ground -- was the shell of Ryo's armor, two vastly powerful katana's and the residue energy trail still leaking from armor to the rent in reality that had sucked up its wearer.
To be continued . . .
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