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The Road To Hell

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Seiji swam up out of whatever dark pit he'd been residing in, through layers of fog and pain and disorientation. The mind might very well have preferred to dwell in lethargy save for the eminent protests of the body.

He hurt. His head felt ready to implode and the inside of his mouth felt like someone had been hard at work with an electric sander. A tooth felt loose. He lay there and idly probed it with his tongue, vaguely amazed to feel the sharp little fingers of agony that seemed to go right to the core of him as it shifted in its socket. He did not relish loosing a tooth. He could not, no matter how hard he tried, dredge up what had happened to loosen it, nor quite where he was or how he had gotten there.

He was on his back, on cool, uneven ground. It was dark and quiet. Peaceful almost, if his head had not been screaming at him in protest. Slowly, because his head hurt too much to do it quickly, he cracked open his lids. There was a ceiling not too far above him. Idly, he mused he might have to slouch if he stood upright. It was that low. It was also thatch. Which realization brought back the place he had been in. The primitive little village populated by those lost souls lucky enough to escape the influence of the poles and their megalomaniacal masters.

An answer to the place, but not to the why of waking up here, with a pounding head and a jaw that felt distinctly dysfunctional. He lifted hand gingerly to touch the side of his face.

His movement prompted a shifting of the shadows by the wall of the very small hut. There were boxes and sacks outlined in darkness. Bunches of reeds and stretched hides left to cure. A storage shack to be sure.

"'Bout time you woke up." A voice out of the myriad collection of shapes. He turned his head and peered through the darkness.

"Rowan?" it hurt to talk. He had to blink back reflexive pain tears at the creaking of his jaw, at the fireworks behind his eyes that accompanied the movement. A little bit of indignation seeped in through the pain. At his confusion, which he hated at the best of times, at Rowan sitting in the shadows watching him, like he was some event waiting to happen.

He pushed himself up, aware of the hurt now and forcing himself to endure it. The world swam a little and he forced himself to endure that too.

"What happened?" he asked slowly, carefully conscious of the tender state of his jaw.

There came a breathless little laugh from Rowan's shadow. Another shifting and Rowan stood, stepped closer so that the dim light that seeped in through the cracks in the reed walls made parts of him discernible.

"What happened? You're askin'me what happened, Seiji? You don't freakin' remember?"

Seiji stared up at him, offense at the tone tempered by just a tad of uncertainty. Just a hint of hallucinatory images of things that might have been nightmare and might have been fantasy. Either way, the visions made him shudder.

"No." He wasn't exactly sure what he was denying.

"No?" Rowan tilted his head. "You broke Sai's wrist. Ryo's not saying what you did to him, but I got a real good imagination, you asshole!"

Seiji blinked at him. He drew a breath and blinked again. Sai? He drew a blank there -- but Ryo.

There were things -- little trinkets of remembered sensation -- of remembered indulgence that came to the surface of his mind. Not his sensation. Not his indulgence. More like the experience of a distant voyeur, aroused by the spectacle, but no part of it.

When had he lost the time? When had control been taken away? He had no earthly notion. Anger rushed in, cold and furious, so intense he ground his teeth and reveled in the pain of an abused jaw. The pain made him focus. The pain made him clear his head of the immediate desire to smash something. Anything.

That bitch. That cold-blooded, deceitful, dishonorable little bitch, who stole his automation -- his identity -- and used it to hurt his friends. Who used it to take what was explicitly his -- his body, his mind, his lover -- and treat them all badly.

"Rowan," he said softly, because he didn't trust his voice above a modulated whisper. "I've made a mistake."


"You made a mistake?" Rowan glared down through the gloom at Seiji. At the moment all he could see was a pale crown of hair. Seiji had his face down, one hand over his eyes, fingers rubbing his temples. The hair spilled over his face, unkempt and tousled, a few bits of stray debris in the shiny stuff. You fuckin' break my Sai's wrist and you say you've made a mistake. Man, you do not know how bad I just want to kick you in the head right now."

Slowly Seiji lifted his head and looked up at him. "You mean you didn't already?"

Pale skin. Faint circles under the blue eyes. A darkening bruise upon the skin of a lean jaw. And anxiety. Honest to God, anxiety in those usually so calm, so carefully indifferent eyes.

"What happened with Sai?"

"What do you mean, what happened with Sai? You broke his --"

"When? How?"

Rowan blinked. Rowan took a step closer to better see what was on Seiji's face. What was brimming in his eyes. "You don't know?"

"Not -- not with Sai."

"Okay." Rowan took a breath. And another. One for calm, one for patience. "You'd just -- finished -- with Ryo, and Sai met you on the way out. He made the mistake of trying to touch you and you took offense. Why don't you recall that, Seiji?"

"Because I didn't do it."

"You -- didn't -- do it? Care to explain that, Seiji?" He crouched, suddenly a little less ready to do damage, interest suddenly and irrevocably pricked.

Seiji looked away. Seiji was thinking up words, searching for the precise to way explain. And having a hard time, which was unlike him.

"The cave?" Rowan prompted, having conjecture of his own.

A slow nod. A careful confirmation. "There was something there. An entity."

"Duh. Tell me something I hadn't already guessed."

A slight narrowing of blue eyes. A tightening of lips. Seiji was not happy with this interview. Rowan could not have cared less.

"Don't pull this shit on me, Seiji. Spill it!"

And so, with precise, modulated words, and a distinct interest in the floor between his legs, Seiji did.

And Rowan crouched, with his hands balled into fists across his knees, and a fair number of colorful, inventive curses running through his head.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, Seiji. How stupid are you?"

Seiji glared at him sullenly, but there was really fairly little argument to contradict that accusation. And what made it even worse was that it wasn't something Seiji would have usually fallen into. Seiji was the last one of the lot of them that Rowan would have guessed to have walked into the dilemma he was now in. That they were all in.

"She have a name?" He asked, when he'd gotten his blatant disgust under control.

Seiji shook his head silently.

"So she knows enough about you and us for that matter to pass as you, but you don't even know her freakin' name?"

Seiji drew his brows. Half the unappreciative glare was solely for Rowan's sarcasm. Half was self-directed.

"She may have had some personal quarrel with Anenhotep. Perhaps when they were both alive."

Rowan lifted both brows and hissed through his teeth. "So that's forever ago, right?"

Seiji shrugged.

"So how we gonna get rid of her?"

A moment of thought. Seiji's fingers traced meaningless patterns in the dirt floor. "She's afraid of us passing through the gate home. She can't pass back to the realm of the living. Simple enough solution if we can get home."

"You sure?"

Seiji's fingers stopped, gold tipped, brown lashes fluttered down.

"Yes." He said finally, and Rowan didn't know whether to believe him or not. God, for all he knew, he could be talking to this body stealing, sex-starved, malicious, ghost girl right now.

"Seiji? What's to stop her from doing it again?"

"Me." Seiji said quietly.

"You? You didn't do so damned well before."

"I won't let my guard down again."

Rowan stared, gauging. On the one hand trusting Seiji, above anyone else he knew, to know the state of his own mind. To know how to control it. On the other, they were still reeling from the damage done by a possessed Seiji, and he hadn't been able to do a damned thing about it. It had taken a log to the jaw to knock him back to his senses.

So to speak.

"We found where the gateway is." He said carefully, just to see what reaction it provoked. Seiji looked up, waiting. No questions, no jumps to conclusions, which was Seiji all around.

"We figure we can open it, if we all focus on making a connection with the armors. We're going to try in the morning."

"The sooner the better." Seiji agreed.

"Yeah. That was kinda my thought, too." He looked down, suddenly at a loss as to how and phrase the next question. "Can I trust you, Seiji. Not to go --- freaky -- again?"

Seiji took a breath. He looked tired. Wan and exhausted and at the edge of his precious control. Slowly he shook his head.

"No."

"Okay." Somehow the answer made him feel better. The answer sat his mind at ease that no one other than Seiji lurked behind those crystalline eyes.

"Tell Sai -- I'm sorry."

"Yeah."

 

He walked outside, ducking to get through the child sized door. Kento stopped his pacing, a large dark shape in the night, who had been there to back Rowan up, had Seiji been -- unreasonable.

"So what?" Kento asked warily, uncomfortable with the whole situation of friends doing injury to friends.

Rowan told him. Kento just blinked at him and whistled.

"Its not too long till dawn. Keep an eye on him. Do not let him walk away from here, okay? Sit on him if you have to. I don't care."

"This blows."

"Tell me. I'm gonna run tell Sai and Ryo what's what. I'll be back."

 


Sai sat there picking at the ends of the bandages wrapped around his wrist, which was in turn in a sling across his chest. He kept making faces when he twisted the hand, and kept nervously fussing with the damned wrappings anyway. Ryo wanted to yell at him to just leave it alone. Ryo felt worse about Sai's hurt than for his own. He felt more bewildered by Seiji's treatment of Sai, than he did for what Seiji had done to him.

Sometimes Seiji just got freaky when they were alone. Sometimes it was like all the restraint Seiji showed to the world, all the polite attention to honor and social expectation -- well it just had to give, like a geyser releasing built up steam pressure -- and Seiji would get -- creative. Seiji liked to direct the flow of things. Seiji liked to feel he was in control. That was just Seiji. Ryo didn't mind. Well, mostly he didn't.

But Seiji had never hit him. Seiji had never brutally gone about his own satisfaction without a care in the world for Ryo's. Even at his most perverse. Seiji wasn't violent that way. Seiji's violence was confined to the rigid rules of traditional combat. Seiji took those rules very seriously. Seiji did not use his skills or his strength in a dishonorable way.

So Ryo, could not for the life of him, understand why Seiji had done any of the things he had. Rowan's agitated accusations were muddled in his memory. Sai wasn't much for further explanations. Mostly, he thought, because Sai was freaked out, and Sai had suspicions that he was uncertain about. Too uncertain to talk over. At least with Ryo. Sai had whispered a lot with Rowan, when Rowan was wrapping his wrist, and the both of them had cast furtive looks over at Ryo, during said secretive conversation. Annoying as hell. He hated -- he just hated -- being convalescent. It wasn't fair. He wanted to go and talk to Seiji. He wanted to make sure Seiji was all right and Rowan flat out refused, as if Rowan was the guardian of him. Rowan was getting on his nerves. Sai was with his elusive glances and fidgeting. Ryo wanted to be home. He wanted to be cured of this thing that ate at him and he wanted Seiji normal and sane again. If pushed, he would even take them in that order.

"It won't hurt as much if you leave it alone." He finally said to Sai, in response to a little yelp of pain as Sai fiddled a little more than he ought.

"These bandages itch. Its like they're woven with straw."

"But you like shifting bone around?"

Sai gave him a bruised look and he immediately felt sorry for that bit of frustration related sarcasm. "Sorry." He mumbled, and heaved a gusty sigh, running both hands back through his hair.

"S'okay." Sai said and cast him a hesitant smile. "Looks like the lot of us are just not fairing well this little adventure."

No disagreement there. Ryo settled an arm over his eyes, wishing away the throbbing in his temples. He ran his tongue over the swelling of a split lip, and wished that hadn't happened either. Or at the very least to comprehend why.

"Ryo?" Sai scooted closer. Ryo felt the warmth of his presence and the palpable aura of his worry.

"What?" He didn't move his arm.

"There has to be an explanation -- for Seiji and all."

For Seiji and all. He didn't care about all the rest of it. An explanation for Seiji would be more than enough.

"'Course there is." He agreed dutifully, because that was what Sai wanted to hear and accord might make Sai drop the subject.

"Rowan's right, you know. It just wasn't his eyes -- when he was doing this."

Ryo imagined Sai messing with his injured wrist.

"Didn't you notice?"

"I dunno. Maybe." Maybe he had and had ignored it, then after a while the last thing he'd been thinking about was the state of Seiji's eyes, because there had been too much hurt and violation to even look at Seiji.

"Are you really okay?" Sai hesitated with the words. Sai had been wanting to ask them for the longest while.

"Yeah." Although that was a laughable answer. Of course he wasn't okay. He was ripped to shreds from the damn wolves or whatever. The hellish infection was killing him and to top it off, he'd been rather brutally used by Seiji, whom he trusted.

There was a shuffling outside the canvas flaps and both of them started. Rowan pushed the flaps aside and moved in. A preoccupied looking Rowan who worried thoughtfully at the edge of his lower lip.

"Hey." He muttered and flopped down next to Sai. "How's that?" he jerked his chin at Sai's sling.

Sai just looked at him waiting. Ryo did, hardly able to breath.

"Well---" Rowan started. "There's good news and bad news."

"Rowan!" Sai huffed in exasperation. "Don't drag it out!"

"Well, I didn't kill 'im when I hit him. That's good. And you were afraid he wouldn't wake up."

"Rowan." Sai hissed and cast a wary glance at Ryo, who struggled up to stare wide-eyed at the both of them.

"Jesus, Rowan, what'd you hit him with?"

Rowan shrugged and neglected to answer, saying instead. "Here's some more good news. Seiji didn't do any of this. Not that it isn't his fault when you get right down to it."

Ryo blinked. "Rowan, if you don't explain that, like right now, I'm gonna kill you."

"Rowan," Sai said slowly. "I distinctly recall it being Seiji who -- umm -- did this."

"Nope, Seiji wasn't home at the time. He's got a hitchhiker."

"Goddamnit, Rowan!!" Rowan's convoluted, colorful attempts at explanation were going to drive Ryo crazy.

"Okay already. After you dragged me out of the river, Sai, and him and Kento went up to that cave that had Charlotte so freaked -- well there was something trapped in there that he agreed to get out for exchange for help if we needed it. Which explains him going super-Seiji when he cut that Crocodile thingie in two. This thing gave him a boost or something -- he doesn't really remember it too clearly -- and in return it wanted to sort of experience the world through a living, breathing body, since it hadn't had one in forever. Sort of a reminiscing over what it had lost, sort of deal. Only it got kinda carried away. She actually."

"She?" A very wide eyed Sai asked.

"Some chick from a long, long time ago. He says he thinks she had something to do with Anenhotep back when they were both alive. Anyways he says once she got in control, she didn't want to give it up and went sort of wild. But he thinks when we cross back over to our world, that he'll be rid of her."

"Oh. Well, that's good, then." Sai nodded, looking relieved. "You can't imagine how happy I am that it wasn't Seiji who did all this."

Ryo blinked at him. Ryo blinked at Rowan, dumbfounded. Happy that it wasn't Seiji was not exactly what he was feeling at the moment.

"Some --- chick?" He tried very hard to keep his voice from breaking. He tried to keep from strangling Rowan, who was being annoyingly blasé about the whole thing.

"Well, yeah."

"You're saying it wasn't really Seiji, who came in here and ---" he couldn't quite finish it. He could not quite stop from turning pink cheeked at the notion. Anger had not yet entered the equation, overwhelmed by incredulity and embarrassment.

"Oh. Uh, yeah, I guess that's what I'm saying. Sorry, buddy."

"Why?" Ryo blurted, putting every bit of his confusion into that one word.

"Well, geeze, man, I guess it had been like a really long time."

Ryo growled.

Sai gave Rowan an admonishing look and a hard, "Rowan!"

At which point, Rowan shrugged and began an insincere, absent minded apology, very obviously distracted by other more pressing issues.

He did not get very far. The door flap was thrust back and a man Ryo didn't know, backed by the woman, Charlotte intruded into the small space.

"Locksley!" Rowan brightened immediately, standing up so fast he jostled Sai, who'd scooted up close to his side, rather rudely away.

Sai muttered something under his breath about Rowan and hopeless infatuations.

"There is trouble and it is all on account of you." Charlotte hissed. The man, Locksley slashed a hand at her for silence and she grudgingly stood back, glowering under her brows at them nonetheless.

"What trouble?" Rowan and Sai asked almost simultaneously.

"Forces from the eastern pole, have crossed over into the inbetweens. The dog warriors who ran to serve the new eastern master after the Khans were ousted."

"Oh no." Sai stood up. It took a little effort with his arm in a sling. "You mean Tulpa's men?"

"That's what he means." Charlotte snapped.

Ryo took a breath, memory of the small, leathery soldiers that had pursued him through Tulpa's domain coming back. Dog warriors was as good as description as any. Not the smartest or the most skilled bunch in the world, but sometimes the lack of brains and skills could be made up by numbers.

"How many?" He asked, other concerns shifting to the background to make room for a more immediate problem.

"Over a hundred men." Locksley said. "They're coming here. As if they're drawn to us."

"Not to you." Ryo said softly. "To us." Tulpa had means -- even in death. He was not a creature to ever underestimate.

"He's right." Rowan said. "We gotta get the hell outta here. There's no waiting 'till morning."

"Our thoughts exactly." Charlotte said.


Rowan slung the quiver of arrows over his shoulder, grabbed the bow -- the very nice bow Robin of Locksley had loaned him -- and looked around for his scattered friends. Sai was helping Ryo as much as he was able. Ryo was stubbornly shaking off efforts of assist, even though his legs were trembling under him. Rowan wished the inbetweeners had horses, because Ryo wasn't up to long, fast travel, and his refusal to admit it would be the death of him.

Almost two hours to the hill and the gateway. And according to Locksley, the chances of them reaching it, before Tulpa's men did were slim at best, which meant no doddering. Which meant they might have a fight on their hands if luck was against them, that they were in no wise prepared to undertake. Not with Ryo good as crippled and Sai's broken wrist. Sai's coordination did not extend to his left hand, despite all efforts otherwise. He might as well just stand there and bitch at them as attempt to defend himself with a weapon in his left.

And then there was Seiji, who Rowan didn't know what to do about. Seiji himself had said, don't trust me. Which put them in a bind, because with two of their number not up to fighting prime, they needed Seiji, who was goddamned more efficient than either Rowan or Kento with the bladed weapons the inbetweeners offered.

He stalked up to Seiji, who had appeared out of the darkness at Kento's side, and glared into passive blue eyes. Seiji didn't even blink at him. Seiji didn't even glance past him at Sai and Ryo, when they came up, though he thought he detected a slight twitch of a muscle in that pale, lean jaw.

"You still in control there, buddy?"

An inclination of the head. Rowan believed him. No female -- denied any physical contact with the rest of the world for eons could be that detached. No female who had just had a wild ride with Ryo -- or any male for that matter -- could have managed to ignore his existence the way Seiji did when he was in a bout of honor related self-incrimination. This was Seiji.

"Kento tell you?"

Another nod.

"We gotta go, now. If they reach us before we reach the gate -- we're in trouble."

"Then we need to move fast."

"Yeah." He took a breath and shoved the battered short sword he'd been loaned into Seiji's hands. "Here." You can use it better'n I can."

Then he swung around, motioning to Sai with a jerk of his head, caught a gawking Ryo under the arm and got him moving as well.

"Is he --okay?" Ryo asked under his breath, wanting to look back -- that was very clear -- but fighting the urge.

"Think so. Hope so." Rowan answered. Seiji was following. Kento was. A good many of the inbetweeners were as well. Locksley and Charlotte and a half dozen men. Back up to help them or a force to make damned certain they got themselves well and away from inbetweener territory? Either way, their presence was appreciated, even if it wouldn't be much against a hundred Mongol dog soldiers out for their hides.

Out of the little community, with the shadowed figures of the remaining inbetweener's gathered to watch them on their way. Rowan wanted to range. It was his nature. He needed distance to be effective with his weapon of choice. Not a whole hell of a lot an archer could do in close quarters. Too many things held him close. Uncertainty over Seiji. A not quite complete confidence in the inbetweeners, who were, after all soul's doomed to hell for likely leading less than honest mortal lives.

So he stuck close. The inbetweeners moved fast, not allowing time for dalliance. Kento and Sai helped Ryo when he faltered. Seiji kept to himself, silent and unreadable and definitely not in a social frame of mind.

They were almost there, if Rowan remembered the lay of the land correctly, when one of the inbetweener's outrunners came trotting out of the woods towards them.

"Band of horsemen just over the rise to the north. Heading the same way we are."

Rowan muttered a curse.

"These are our woods, not theirs." Charlotte said. "We know the secrets. We could lead them a merry chase?"

Rowan was surprised she offered. She had never stuck him as philantropic. Locksley nodded agreement.

"Its not far to your hill and your mystic gateway. We'll distract them as long as we can. Go!"

"Thank you." Sai said. "For everything."

Then they were off, and crashing through shadowed forest towards a hill Rowan only half recalled the location off. The bramble parted. The dark indigo sky loomed overhead, starless and foreboding. And under it, was the gentle swell of the hillock.

"That's it?" Ryo gasped. Kento had an arm about his waist, shoring him up.

"Yep." Kento beamed, then the look faltered and he glanced to Sai. "It is, isn't it?"

Sai nodded. Rowan was already trotting up the slope. The others followed, Seiji bringing up a silent rear.

"If you concentrate, you can feel the influence of the armors on the other side." Rowan said without turning. Standing there with his eyes shut trying to locate the unique essence of that power that was intimately connected to him. He heard the faint sounds of the others collecting on the hill around him.

"Oh yeah!" Kento exclaimed. "I can sense it. It's like its through a fog or something."

"We almost had it, just Rowan and I, when we were here earlier." Sai said softly. "We need to concentrate. To clear our minds of everything but creating a pathway back to the place the armors exist in."

"Okay." Kento nodded.

Ryo nodded silently, lashes flickering down over his eyes.

"I -- can't." Seiji said quietly, from Rowan's left. Rowan swung his head around to look at him. There was a look of concentration on Seiji's face, a look of intense -- focus.

"Why?"

"She doesn't want to go." Seiji said simply. "I can't keep her at bay and focus on the armor at the same time."

"Well -- fuck." Rowan growled.

"Just do it without me." Seiji directed. "You can."

Maybe, but damned sure not as easily. Of the lot of them Seiji had the most mental control. The most powerful voice when it came to transcendental meditation. In that department, one of Seiji was worth a Kento and Ryo and possibly even a Rowan put together.

"Fuck. Fuck." Rowan shut his eyes and doubled up his efforts.

It was considerably harder, doing this under pressure, than it had been relaxing with Sai on their backs on this hillside. Mediation and extreme urgency were not good bedpartners. But Kento and Ryo made it easier.

It was still like trudging through wet concrete. He took a breath and imagined it was swirling currents of cloud decorated air instead.

Something shimmered over their heads. A faintly familiar shimmering with darkness on the other side. Rowan blinked and held his breath, afraid it would disappear.

There was a scream from down the hill. A hoarse, angry battlecry followed by a chorus of others. Rowan snapped his head around, wide-eyed, staring down the slope at a clustered mass of riders. Riders that were fast sorting themselves out and kicking their horses up the hill.

"Kento!" He cried. "Go, go, go."

He pulled an arrow out of the quiver and nocked it; let it fly all in one smooth motion. A horseman went down. Kento was scrambling up behind him, caught Ryo by the scruff of the neck and the back of the trousers and just hurled him the six foot distance from ground to the hovering, insubstantial gateway. Ryo disappeared, swallowed by the thing.

Another arrow loosed. Another rider down, his rolling body making the horse of the man behind him stumble and crash down in a tangle of human and equine limbs.

Sai went next. He yelped in distress when Kento grabbed him, protesting both the method and the notion of leaving before his comrades. Kento wasn't paying much heed. Kento flung him through.

Another arrow. The leaders were almost upon them.

"Seiji next!" he cried, fearing that somehow the thing inside Seiji would take control and refuse to take the offered escape, leaving Seiji stranded here.

"No." Seiji evaded Kento's grasp, stepping down the hill in a smooth, practiced motion and gutting the horseman who threatened to ride Rowan down. The man toppled, but the rest of them were on them, swarming.

Rowan swung with the bow, slamming an unfortunate horse in the face and causing it to rear up and topple its rider.

The man behind him was luckier. His horse jumped the tangle and his sword sliced down and crashed into Rowan's raised bow. The supple wood was no match for the strength of the bow. The blade sliced through and bit into Rowan's shoulder. Lodged there, until the man yanked it out.

Rowan didn't quite scream, but some sort of pained noise emitted from his throat. He went down to one knee, vision tunneling, arm gone numb. Kento yanked the rider off his horse from behind. Rowan didn't see what he did to him.

Rowan was toppling forward. Somebody caught him. Somebody held him, close and blocked an attack. He felt the impact of sword upon sword.

"Kento!! Help me." That was Seiji. A frantic, distressed Seiji, who was trying to get him to his feet and couldn't do it and defend at the same time.

Then a second set of hands yanked him up, jerked him ungently out of Seiji's grasp and heaved him up and through the air. He forgot all about the gate. He thought he was going to hit ground at the end of this short flight and the notion of falling on the blossoming ocean of pain that was his shoulder was terrifying.

He didn't feel the impact. He blacked out before he hit and came to a moment after, gasping for breath, with hands on him, turning him over. Armored hands pressing against his cheeks and Sai's tearfully happy face looming over his.

Sai in armor. Sai who ripped his helmet off and flung it casually away, and who was babbling unintelligible things in his excitement. Rowan lay for a second, stunned, then he scrambled up, one hand going to his shoulder, reflexively feeling for a wound that had cut to the bone. It wasn't there. The arm was whole. Both of Sai's hands were waving about energetically in his agitation. Ryo was on his feet, armored, a sword in one hand and his helmet in the other, staring at the shimmering gateway.

Seiji and Kento. Shit.

He took a step that way and a body hurtled through out of thin air. Hit Ryo who was standing right before the gate way and slammed him backwards with the impact. It would have been worse if it had been Kento. Body and armor merged, and Seiji untangled himself as gracefully as possible, considering. Then he had to lay low, and take Ryo with him when Kento did come sailing through, one flash of big, naked Kento body, then the shell of the armor on the ground dissipated and reformed around him a second before he slammed into the pinetag coated earth.

"Close it! Close it!" Seiji scrambled to his feet, stabbing a finger at the gateway.

"How?" Rowan cried.

"Cut the power feed." Seiji snapped and let his armor melt away and stood there, surprisingly enough in the same clothes they had left home in, which one supposed went to the same place the armor came from when vanquished by the armor. The mechanics of that had never been particularly figured out.

Rowan let his armor fade. The others did. And not a heartbeat after the last armor had gone, the gateway flickered and disappeared.

"Holy shit." Kento said.

There was a moment of appreciative silence after that declaration.

"Is everybody --okay?" Sai asked, flexing his wrist in amazement.

"Yeah." Rowan said, just as baffled. "Ryo?"

"I dunno." Ryo was rubbing the shoulder where the worst of the lythos marks had been. He pushed his shirt aside a little to reveal blemish free skin. He shook his head, baffled. "Just feel a little -- weird, is all. Nothing like before."

"Seiji?"

Seiji was staring at Ryo, and stopped the moment Rowan said his name. He shrugged. "Fine."

"No passengers?"

Seiji started to respond. Hesitated a beat, as if he were running a mental check, then slowly nodded. "Not that I am aware of."

"Oh, that's reassuring." Rowan mumbled. Seiji ignored that sentiment and marched past him.

"Where are you going?"

"To see if the car's still there."

"Oh."

The car was. Both of them. The one had stopped smoking. Seiji glared at it balefully, and reached into the passenger side to get the phone Ryo had dropped there forever ago.

Dawn was causing the horizon to blush. God, they hadn't even been gone from this realm for a night. Hours at best.

"What are you doing?" Sai asked Seiji, who was dialing a number.

Seiji lifted a brow at him. "Reporting the accident."

"Oh."

Practical. After all that and still practical. One had to think about things like insurance and whatnot. Which meant they had to wait for the police, despite how tired they all were. Which meant Rowan and Sai took over the back seat of Kento's car and drowsed, while Kento, who had way too much goddamned energy sniffed around the wreck, and Ryo tried to get up the nerve to talk to Seiji. Which Seiji was having none of, and Ryo ended up slumped in the passenger seat of the Chevy, silently sulking.

"Is he mad about the car or what?" He finally demanded of Rowan and Sai.

"Umm, he's probably just freaked about -- getting used by that thing back there." Sai explained.

"Well, then why won't he talk to me? He won't even look at me."

"Maybe he's embarrassed?" Sai suggested. "You know about what he -- uh -- she did using his body."

Ryo settled deeper into the seat and Rowan could imagine the blush staining his cheeks.

"Well he broke your wrist and he'll look at you."

"Uhhh --" Sai didn't have an answer for that.

"Just chill out," Rowan suggested. "He's not mad at you. He's mad at himself."

He wasn't certain how much better that made Ryo feel. He wasn't certain if Ryo was one hundred percent okay. The rest of them were, but Ryo's wounds had been more than physical. And he still complained of feeling a bit off. They'd have to look into that. But tomorrow. After twenty-four hours straight sleep. After everybody had had a chance to get their heads together.

The police showed. Took required statements. Ryo got a ticket for reckless driving, which he just looked at mournfully, biting his tongue to keep from blurting out what had really driven him from the road. The police promised to send a tow truck for the wreck, and released the lot of them to go home.

The house was nothing if not ordinary. A dark and peaceful retreat from hell and like places. They slouched in and fell into respective beds -- well Rowan fell into Sai's -- and promptly drifted in to sleep.

And when morning came the sky was endless and filled with blue and white with not a trace of lavender. It banished thoughts of darker places. They had taken the Road to Hell and back again and survived the process. It was enough to make the day a rather optimistic one.

 

The end of Road to Hell

 

 

 

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