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The Road To Hell

by P L Nunn




Seiji worked well under pressure. He had a knack for it. For keeping a cool head under the most diabolical of situations. It was unseemly to raise one's voice. To fly off into a rage. To flounder about hecticly under trying circumstances. Emotional outbursts were not honorable or appropriate.

The thought of one's new car wrapped around a tree, all crumpled and bent, scuffed and probably wounded beyond repair, stressed that behavioral self-imposition to its limits. One tended to worry less about Ryo -- Ryo being stubbornly hard to kill. Especially when Ryo had the discourtesy to hang up in one's ear.

"Is he okay?" Sai asked for what might have been the fourth or fifth time. Seiji hated being harassed with repetitive questions. But Sai was worried and Sai had genuine alarm in his eyes, so Seiji sighed and answered for perhaps the second time.

"He sounded that way." But, not after I get my hands on him. But of course he didn't voice that sentiment.Rowan came downstairs and tossed Sai his jacket. Kento was outside trying to warm up his battered and only sporadically road safe '72 Chevy Malibu. It was the only vehicle left to them, what with the jeep being repaired and --- one hated to dwell on the image -- Seiji's shiny new car a crumpled heap of metal somewhere between here and town.

There was the raucous roar of the big engine finally catching, the painful sound of missing plugs. Then Kento pulled up in front of the steps and they all tromped down to pile in. Sai and Rowan squeezed into the back, Seiji slid into the passenger seat.

Kento gave the car gas and in appreciation it let out a loud backfire. Seiji reached for the seatbelt. One was wary of driving with Kento at the best of times. He tended to ignore things like speed limits and traffic laws. Road signs were more a hindrance to him than anything else.

"What'd he say happened?" Kento wanted to know. "Was it a deer? Its the season and they're all over the roads."

"He was not quite coherent about the details. Something about a light ---'

"A light?" Sai leaned forward from the back. Seiji wished he would put his seatbelt on. He wished all three of them would, having no desire to see any of them decorating the road outside a shattered windshield. At the very least he'd been able to impress upon Ryo the pure common sense of such a contraption, which was probably why Ryo had been in the condition to go traipsing off into the woods after some unspecified 'thing.'

Ryo sincerely annoyed him at times. Other than various Dynasty Warlords and particularly offensive creatures from the nether region -- he had never so consistently had the impulse to slap a person. Ryo's thought patterns were just so unfathomable.

"What kind of light?" Kento asked. "Like the UFO kind of light -- or like tractor trailer coming down the wrong side of the road sort?"

Seiji rolled his eyes and chose not to dignify that question with an answer.

"Oh, god, do you imagine he had a wreck with a truck?" Sai sounded appropriately dismayed. Seiji narrowed his eyes and glared into the twin spotlights illuminating the road. One did not want to dwell on a truck smashing into one's car. One did not wish to dwell on Ryo being inside said car during such a encounter.

"He didn't." Rowan said quietly. "He's okay. Just chill out." Which was all Rowan said, ample indication of how out of place Rowan was feeling just now. Seiji had seen it in his eyes in the kitchen, self-imposed guilt (which was rightly deserved), awkwardness, a heartfelt wish for the dirt not to be aired. Which meant he hadn't admitted his little psychotic incident to Sai.

Onto the highway. There was no traffic. There hardly ever was this far out into the 'boondocks' -- as Rowan liked to call it. Mia's grandfather's cabin, which she graciously let them use. It wasn't as if any of them had acquired real world skills with enough import to go out and land jobs. One could imagine the application now. Experience: Fighting the evil minions of the neither world. Abysmally adept at certain mystical feudal weaponry. High compatibility with either or earth/fire/water/air/spirit. Oh, yes the job offers would be rolling in. As if they could lead such a normal, mundane existence with the things that were drawn to the armors mystically connected to each of them.

Seiji had an inheritance. A trust really. It had opened to him when he'd turned twenty-one. He'd invested the majority -- quite wisely in fact, and had a hefty little nest egg a mere year down the road. They had a few 'things' they'd collected from their various encounters. A few treasures that in the right underworld circles -- one could hardly sell them right out in the open and not have unanswerable questions asked -- gave them a respectable budget. Kento had family, Sai did, Rowan did, to go to in a pinch. Seiji had relatives that he wasn't on easy speaking terms with. Differences of opinion. Ryo didn't have a soul anymore. Other than them and Mia and they weren't the same as blood kin.

Fifteen minutes down the highway. That would have been when Ryo called home to get the order he'd forgotten to take. Fifteen minutes where Seiji sat making himself exude an outward appearance of calm. But the hairs on the back of his hand were prickling and it had nothing to do with the car. It had to do with the fact that even though he knew Ryo could generally take care of himself -- he didn't like the notion of him running after some unidentified thing out in the woods after just surviving a car wreck.

Kento was babbling about something. Seiji could tune him out with a little effort. Sai and Rowan were quiet back there in the dark. Thank god the radio didn't work, for Kento's taste in music was worse than Ryo's.

The headlights chanced upon an unnatural shape at the side of the road. Kento slowed. There were long black skid marks skewering across the lanes and off the highway. Ripped earth along the roadside that ended at the slightly off balance hulk of a familiar automobile shape gone dreadfully bizarre. The passenger door was open, the front end crumpled artfully about the trunk of a large tree. One of the front tires had gone flat. A bit of steam escaped from under the hood. From inside the static, distasteful strains of some inelegant rapper filtered through the speakers.

And not a trace of Ryo.

"At least there's not blood everywhere." Kento put in helpfully, peering through the spiderweb network of cracks in the windshield.

Charming. Seiji leaned in through the passenger side and switched off the CD player.

"So where is he?" Sai circled the car, staring warily out into the dark woods.

How nice to be able to have the answer to that question. How wonderful to have a clue as to what Ryo had been thinking.

"There." Rowan was standing at the edge of the tree line. He lifted a hand and pointed into the night. Seiji followed his finger, expecting to see -- anything. But there was nothing but shadow and trees.

"What?" Kento asked.

"Can't you sense it?"

Seiji closed the gap between them, stretching senses he had been too preoccupied to use before. More the fool he. At least Rowan was using his wits.

He felt it. That innate, subliminal sense they had of the armors. Ryo had summoned his, which was not good. The fact that he'd had to was alarming. But there was also no great expenditure of power in the air. He wasn't actively combating anything. In fact the sense of the armor was somewhat static and entirely passive. An odd flavor to get from it. Most certainly not an usual one.

"Come on." Kento said, plunging forward, shining the beam of his flashlight across the trunks of trees. Sai had a flashlight and the two of them lit the way. There was a downed tree. It lay haphazardly against several of its neighbors, its trunk neatly severed at the base, about hip high. Fresh cut, but apparently burned, not sawed, from the blackened edges.

"Damn." Kento whispered, shining the flashlight beam up along the trunk of the tree.

"Perhaps we ought to armor up." Sai suggested warily.

He got no arguments. It took little effort to summon the sub-armor and with it their perceptions became sharper. The sense of power leakage more concrete. There was the smell of something metallic in the air.

They almost missed the armor entirely, more interested in the mutilation of a few of the nearby trees. Rowan actually stubbed his toe on it, stumbling around the dark without benefit of a flashlight of his own. And he stood staring down at it somewhat shocked, before he got the voice to call the others.

Seiji knelt down and laid his hand on the hilt of the one drawn blade. He had to put forth an effort to calm his breathing. To make his heart beat slow down to a respectable rate. He couldn't quite look up at the others, afraid his eyes would be wide with unvoiced dismay. After few slow blinks he managed to get his expression in order and did look up to see that his three friends had made no such similar efforts. They were gaping down in shock. In disbelief.

"He's -- he's not in there, is he?" Sai said, as if he expected that Ryo's charred, melted remains were stuck inside the shell of the red armor. But, one had to look. One had to prod the helmet aside and peer into the gaping neck hole to see.

No. No grisly remains. It didn't make Seiji feel particularly better. He was having trouble focusing, which irritated him. He could not for the life of him, manage to back away mentally and access the situation. He just kept his hand on the hilt of one of the katanas and thought. Damndamndamndamn--- in a loop that he could not seem to break out of. To close. That was the problem. That was the fear that he constantly fought to avoid. Get too close and things hurt you. Get too close and you became vulnerable. Get too close and your mind shut down when the thing you got close to was threatened. But that wasn't him. That was not Seiji. Seiji didn't have such weaknesses. Seiji strove to avoid them. He took a breath. Convinced himself that this was business -- that this was not a personal devastation and took control of the situation.

There was the scent of power, but it was weakening. He concentrated and tried to track it to its source. There, right above and beyond them. Nothing that was visible to the human eye, but he felt it.

"Its a portal." He said quietly.

"What? Where?" Kento spun, looking around in surprise.

"His armor's still feeding it to an extent. Keeping it open."

"But not by much." Rowan observed. "It's closing fast."

"Would our armors feed it? Stretch it open wider?" Sai contemplated.

"Nothing to do, but try." Kento announced and cried out the words to summon the armor of Hardrock. Seiji swore softly, as irritated by Kento's impulsiveness as he tended to be at Ryo's.

"Damn it, Kento. We don't know what will happen." He hissed, whispering as if there were something lurking about to overhear.

"I think -- its doing the trick." Rowan said, looking over Seiji's head. And indeed the before invisible rent was now a faintly pulsing line.

"Might as well give it some more juice." Rowan sighed, and called up his own armor. Which left Sai and Seiji to summon their own, the addition of which had the portal gaping big enough for a horse to pass through. Only it was black on the other side. No definition of space or place at all. Just a rip in space, glowing about the edges with utter blackness beyond. Seiji didn't trust portals with no indication of what lay further on.

"What do we do?" Sai was the first to break the silence. "Do you think he passed through this?"

"Well, he's not here." Kento observed.

"If he did, he did it without his armor or his weapons." Rowan made an even more dire observation.

"Do we dare follow?" Sai.

"What choice do we have?" Rowan.

"I'm for it." Kento's brash declaration.

Seiji didn't say a thing. He stepped forward and into the pulsing rip, vaguely heard Sai call out to him from behind, then there was nothing but a silence so profound it threatened to shatter his eardrums. A blackness so dense he felt his retina's burning. A nothingness so complete his senses were stretched to the breaking point from digesting it all. Time stretched on forever.

He took a breath and there was no air to fill his lungs. One step. A handful of heartbeats and he stumbled to his knees, rolled to his side, gasping in renewed sensation, blinking up at a starless, twilight sky. Wet, prickly grass scratched his skin. Crisp, cold air made him reflexively curl up and shiver. Bringing a knee up and turning to his side was the only thing that saved a delicate portion of his anatomy serious injury when Kento came crashing down on top of him.

It still knocked the breath out of him. He lay there gasping after air as Kento struggled to right himself and ended up with one heavy elbow on Seiji's chest, staring with wide, stunned eyes across a landscape that Seiji had yet to get a good look at. Then something hit Kento from behind and sent him sprawling back across Seiji. That something started cursing in a Rowan-like way. Another part of that something murmured gentle British flavored words designed to calm.

"Holy shit." Kento gasped.

"Get off, you oaf." Seiji managed to get the breath to hiss. And Kento attempted to straighten himself. Sat up, broad tan shoulders bereft of armor. In fact all of his broad tan body was bereft of everything. Just as Seiji's paler, slimmer one was as naked as the day it was born. He blinked down at himself -- over at Sai and Rowan who were equally dumbfounded at the curious lack of armor, clothing or anything else designed to preserve a body's modesty.

"Oh -- my -- Gawd!!" Rowan's exclamation made Seiji scramble up, regardless of dignity or gracefulness. He knelt in tall, dew moist grass on the summit of a low hill, staring down at a valley dotted with copses of forest. That was hardly the most amazing thing. The most amazing thing was what he had assumed was a cloud covered twilight sky was in reality a shimmering veil of pulsing --- energy? That curved down over the horizon and neatly created a rippling barrier right down the middle of the valley. He twisted his neck around, following the line of the thing in the other direction. The curve down was vaguely apparent, but distance devoured the place where it ended.

"Where are we?" Sai asked, he was crouching behind Rowan, leaning on Rowan's shoulder. Rowan was flat on his stomach in the grass.

"Well it sure as hell ain't Kan ---"

"Don't even say it." Kento smacked the back of Rowan's head with an open palm.

"Oouch." Rowan glared at Kento reproachfully. "Well, its true. It ain't Kansas and we ain't got any clothes on. And its damned cold and this grass itches my ---"

"Oh my, we're not alone." Sai cut him off, pointing down the hill towards the nearest little upgrowth of trees. A group of dark figures were moving stealthily up the hill towards them.

"Munchkins?" Kento suggested hopefully.

"I don't think so, Dorothy." Rowan said, getting up and dusting himself off.

"Down." Seiji hissed.

Rowan cast him a doubtful look. "They're heading in this direction, Seiji. Its pretty obvious they've spotted us."

Seiji opened his mouth, shut it abruptly. Rowan was right of course. It wasn't as if they could blend in with the odd, bluish twilight, not with the lot of them stark naked and pale.

And just to make things better Kento, who was squinting down the hill, observed. "Hey guys, looks like they're armed. We might get a fight after all."

An overwhelming sensation of being swept up into a maelstrom of unearthly attributes. Shock and a little fear at the total loss of control. And then just when it seemed to be over, when he landed in a place of shadows and moist, moldy smells, the shadows rushed in upon him and there was pain of a more mundane sort and back into darkness.

Ryo didn't know for how long. It seemed like forever. He came out of it sluggishly, drawn by the insistent ache in his back and shoulders, the dull, sharp pain in his wrists. He tried to get his feet under him, instinctively trying to take his weight off of his arms and found himself in a precarious position. A most distressing position, stretched between two bound iron posts, his wrists lacerated by manacles and blood trailing slowly down his arms, dripping laboriously from his elbow. He stared up in horror at the post on his left. At the thick chain attached to the iron bracelet about his wrist. Four links between him and the post. Four on the other side. There was another set of manacles dangling free about two feet under the set he was imprisoned by. The right height for a child maybe. There were the stains of dried blood on the posts.

"Oh, god." He whispered and even that small exclamation seemed to go on forever into the gloom that surrounded him on all sides. He pulled a little hysterically at the chains and it hurt. Streaks of pain went up his arms and he had to shut his eyes and grind his teeth to keep from making a noise. Whoever had put him here would not get that satisfaction out of him.

It occurred to him, as fresh blood leaked out from beneath the bands of iron about his wrists, that he was devoid of armor. Any armor. He looked down and discovered himself at a great, great disadvantage. He bit his lip on a little sob of dismay. Drew in a lungful of air and tried to get his nerves under control. Terrible, terrible thing to wake up and find one's self naked and chained. Optimism tended to become a bit strained at such times. Perhaps, he thought, rather too late for the wisdom to do him any good, Seiji had been right in telling him to wait for them.

For a long while, nothing happened. No shift in the faint light that seemed to illuminate the posts and nothing more. No noise, but his own uneven breath. It smelled like rust. The floor felt like scarred, pitted metal beneath his bare feet. It was cold. The air was cold. He shifted repeatedly, trying to gain some comfort and found none. There was no way to be comfortable chained as he was.

The fear rose up again and he drowned it out with stubbornness and belligerence. "Whoever you are --- you won't get away with this." He cried out. Stupid thing to say, since the deed had already been achieved. But it bolstered his self-confidence. He thought about the armor. Concentrated on summoning it and found the place where it usually resided in his awareness --- just void. Empty. As if no place had ever existed.

"Where is this?" He cried and his voice broke a little.

"Where do you think it is?" A sibilant voice crept around him. It slithered in like a shadow, creeping along the floor, around the dark edges of the illumination. Ryo started, tossing his head desperately to see the mouth it came from. All he saw was sinuous shadow flirting at the edges of his vision.

"Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

"I tooold you, pretty boy, I am merely a servant." The darkness thickened, and a man sized, swaying form shifted out of it and into the faint light of Ryo's space. It brushed against his back and this time there was more solidity to it. It felt --- distasteful. Loathsome. Of decay and wretchedness, if a thing could feel of wretchedness. Ryo shied away from it, trying to twist and see it.

"What do you hope to gain?"

"Gain? Why the benediction of my dread master."

"Which is who?"

A hissing laughter. "Oh, you'll find out soon enough. He's been waiting for you. He is so pleased that you have come here."

"Here? Where's here?"

"The place you sent him of course. Not a place of the living. You might call it hell."

Ryo shuddered, glancing about the darkness frantically. "Hell?" Small voice. He couldn't help it.

"Of a sorts. There are all manner of hells, are there not? All manner of places where the souls of the dead migrate. Are impisoned. Some are I daresay, more wholesome than others. This one has not seen sweet living flesh in sooooo very long. There are so many here, that have an interest in you, my looovley."

It coiled around his leg and what might have been an arm -- or a tentacle, slipped up his thigh, grazing his shirking sex and up to caress his stomach. He moaned in complete revulsion, the strength of the thing wrapped about his legs keeping him from twisting away.

"Its never happened here before. The drawing of the living across the boundary of life and death. The master is the first to achieve such a thing. But he could not have you know, had you not supplied him with a power source on the side of the living."

"Oh god." The armor. Of course, the armor. The whole thing in the woods had been to get him to summon the armor of Wildfire. "Why didn't it come with me?" he figured it wouldn't hurt to ask.

The solid strength of the thing coiled around his back, then up around his chest and he found himself staring at a face that drew in darkness like a sponge. Faint, shifting features could be made out in the shifting shadow. Oblong, slit pupiled eyes. A wide, flat mouth. A darting, thick purple tongue. A handsbreath away and the tongue flicked out and tested the skin of Ryo's cheek. He jerked his head back.

"Why? Because it is not of this plane. It is of that other realm. It cannot exist here. I would never have thought living flesh could, until now. How sweet you are."

The gaping mouth swooped down on him, the thick tongue forced it way past lips and clenched teeth. It filled his mouth, drove down his throat, gagging him, swelling like some grotesque phallus once it was inside him. A horrible parody of a kiss and a rape all in one. He couldn't breath. He was choking -- being devoured. The taste made him want to vomit.

Then it pulled back, still wrapped around him, the disgusting tongue licking the saliva it had left off of his face. Ryo choked, coughing and heaving, wishing he would throw up on the damned thing.

"So very sweet. Like nectar."

"Get the fuck off of me." He hissed.

"Such language." It chided and unwound from him. It slithered back into the shadows. "Perhaps we'll wait until you have manners before the master comes to see you. How long will that be, do you suppose?"

Ryo was shaking. He couldn't control it. He shut his eyes and cursed. It made him feel better to utter the obscenities, just in case the Servant was still in hearing range.

But nothing responded. The silence was back. And for a very long time, it was all he had to keep him company.

"Sonuvabitch. . ." Rowan muttered under his breath as no less than eight, armed, dangerous looking warriors spread out and circled their position on the hill top. Leather armor on some of them. Bits and pieces of headier stuff on others. A metal gauntlet here, a bit of chainmail there. A helmet or two of varying styles. An odd mish mash of cultures and time periods. But the weapons looked deadly enough. There were a nice collection of them.

Sword, ax, spear. Curved scimitar. A thick stick with spikes protruding from the ends. One of them had a long bow across his back.

"What 'ave we 'ere? Newbies. Skinny bunch. 'Cept for that one." A rather muscular, plain faced woman canted her head, eyeing the lot of them with unflagging scrutiny. It was enough to make a man just shrivel up and wish to sink into the earth.

He felt Sai move a little closer behind him, felt a light, nervous touch on his elbow. Sai was great in a fight with armor and all, but somehow Rowan doubted he would be of much use when he was more worried about his modesty than his life.

"Might be spies from one of the Poles. Don't many newbies land in the Overlap by chance alone." A large, pot bellied man waved his spiked club threateningly. "Best to send 'em back on their way."

"Excuse me." Rowan cut in, since no one else was attempting to negotiate. "But, what exactly are you talking about? We're not spies for anybody and other than here where is there to go?"

The motley crew surrounding them exchanged looks. "Only place to go is back the way you come. Put a blade through you now and you'll just turn up someplace else. Be somebody else's problem."

"Oh no, I don't think so." Rowan held up his hands. "That just does not sound like an idea we can live with."

Which got a round of laughter from the strangers. "Listen to that talk." The woman sneered. "They are newbies if they still think they can live with anything."

"What do you mean by that?" Sai asked from behind the shield of Rowan.

"Don't you know it yet, boy?" A tall, raw boned man with a neatly trimmed beard and bow on his back, said. "You're dead. You're all dead."

Rowan blinked. He felt Sai clutch at his arm. Slowly he glanced around to catch Kento and Seiji's expressions. Kento's was grim and fixed, waiting for the moment that violence would erupt. Seiji's was -- well it was just Seiji. Unreadable and unfathomable. But Rowan thought there was a little tenseness there, from the slow clenching of his fists and the way his gaze carefully roved over the lot of the group threatening them.

"I think --" Seiji said slowly. "-- that you are mistaken."

More laughter. The pot bellied man jabbed his club towards Seiji. Seiji stepped aside, smoothly, effortlessly, and one second the man was holding his club and the next it was on the ground between them. Rowan hadn't even seen Seiji hit the man's wrist. The woman cried out in anger and went to back up her comrade. A few of the others did. Kento let out a battle yell and stupidly charged forward, weoponless and vulnerable and not nearly so deft as Seiji at sheer speed and grace.

The woman screamed. Kento howled as somebody scored a cut across his arm and somebody else screeched as he smashed a big fist into their face. Seiji came up with a sword relieved from the woman, who was on her rump in the grass. It had all happened rather quickly.

"Wait a minute. Wait, all of you." The man with the neat beard and the bow was weeding in-between them, pulling his men back, shaking a warning finger at Seiji who held his stolen blade with a great deal more finesse than the woman had. He tilted his head and waited.

Rowan decided he liked the man with the beard and bow. Maybe it was professional courtesy. Archers just tended to get on his good side.

"Kento." He grasped hold of Kento's shoulder and pulled him back. "This is not a fight we can win and even if we do, what have we gained? Nada. A little tact please. Seiji I know you're freaked about Ryo but ---"

"I am not freaked about Ryo." Seiji hissed and glared. Way too swift of a denial there. Rowan lifted a brow, but turned his attention quickly back to the archer to hide it. He was already on Seiji's bad side. No reason to worsen it.

"Listen --" he spread his hands in a gesture of peace. "--We're at a bit of a disadvantage here. Where ever here is."

"Here is one of the Overlaps." The archer said warily.

"Overlap?" Sai asked hesitantly.

"They're spies." The pot bellied man growled. "Send 'em back to their master." He made a grab for his weapon, but Kento beat him to it, snatching up the club and grinning over it at the glowering man.

"Go ahead and try to take it."

"Harry, stop!" the archer snapped. "What if they're telling the truth?"

"Truth. Lies. We're not telling you anything, because we don't know anything." Rowan said in exasperation.

"You know, there is something -- odd about them." Another of the men spoke up. The woman climbed to her feet, wiping smudge of dirt from her cheek. She smeared it more than anything else.

"What do you think, Charlotte?" the archer asked, as if her opinion mattered more than the rest of them.

"Well, this one's damned pretty." The woman said, giving Seiji the once over. Then her gaze roved over to Kento and she grinned. "But this one's got the better weapon." Then she shrugged. "It's your call Locksley, you've got the better feeling for this sort of thing."

The archer, Locksley, stared scrutinizingly at Rowan and Sai. Suddenly he reached out and gripped Rowan's shoulder. Not hard enough to hurt, just enough to startle. Rowan took a breath, but held a hand up to stop Kento's advance.

"Bloody mother of ---" he drew his hand back slowly, staring at the flesh of his palm as if Rowan had stained it. Wide green eyes lifted back up to meet Rowan's eyes. "You are alive."

"No. That's impossible." A chorus of murmurs rose up from the group around them.

"Well, we are." Kento assured them all loudly. "Uh, aren't you guys?"

Silence. Every face around them turned grim.

"My friends --" Locksley said. "--You are obviously very far from where you should be. Very far. There are no living souls here. Don't you know that this is hell?"


It was a terribly embarrassing journey, a terribly incoherent one what with the mind trying to absorb the notion that the body was indeed walking in the fields of hell. At least that's what some of them called it. Others had other names. The fat, bearded man called it perdition. The woman, Charlotte the Red seemed to be her full title, called it the Abyss.

Seiji scoffed at the notion. Rowan just got that wary, quizzical look on his face that developed when he was intrigued with a idea. Kento merely looked wary and belligerent, reserving opinions for later. Sai wished he had clothes. He very badly wished he had at least a little something to preserve modesty. Hands hardly seemed adequate. No one seemed inclined to loan even a scrap of clothing.

They had demanded their weapons back, when they had decided to take them to the place where they dwelled. Seiji had given up the sword wordlessly. Kento had growled and turned the spiked club over with ill-concealed displeasure. But no further harm was offered.

They led them down the hill, away from the odd, shimmering veil that dropped over the valley. There were more forests on the other side of the hill. Rowan asked if the sky was always like this -- purplish and dark -- because of the veil. No, the one called Locksley answered. It got lighter, but it was never as bright as the sun might make it. He said this wistfully, as if he hadn't seen the light of the sun in a very long time.

Sai didn't think he had. Rowan, leaning very close to Sai during the walk through the woods, whispered excitedly that he thought this Locksley might be the famous one of out legend and literature.

"Oh, Rowan, I think you're romanticizing." Sai whispered back.

"No. No. I don't think so. I'm gonna ask him."

"Rowan, no. Its just not proper to go up to a man and ask if he's a figure out of fable."

"Why not?"

"Well it just isn't."

"What if he is?"

"Then he is. But really, if he did exist, wouldn't he have been a bandit and a thief?"

"But the steal from the rich give to the poor type."

"A bandit is a bandit." Sai reminded him. "People were still hurt."

"Hummmm. Maybe that's why he ended up in hell."

"What are you two whispering about?" Kento wanted to know.

"Rowan thinks their leader is Robin Hood."

"Really?" Both Kento's brows rose appreciatively. "That's cool. That chick is really wielding me out. She keeps looking at my -- well you know."

Sai and Rowan both reflexively looked down at the part in question.

"Well damn, Kento," Rowan grinned at him. "It is sort of abnormal."

Sai had the good grace to blush. Kento glowered. "Fuck off, Rowan."

"Not with anything that size." Rowan cheerfully retorted.

"Guys. Please." Sai waved them both into quieter tones. Kento's voice tended to carry. Their guides were looking at them curiously. Seiji had cast a dark look back at them from where he walked ahead. Seiji was not being particularly friendly to anyone at the moment. Seiji could have frozen lava in his present state. But Seiji was worried and Seiji didn't like being worried. Seiji didn't like admitting a lot of things. Kento and Rowan, and even Ryo a good deal of the time saw the ice and the stand-offishness and thought Seiji was just being a son of a bitch, or Seiji just didn't care. Or Seiji thought he was better than the rest of the world -- which sometimes, one had to admit, he probably did. But Sai thought it was a shield. Sai thought, from bits and pieces of conversation that Seiji had let slip over the years, that Seiji had endured pain during his life that Seiji did not wish to repeat. Pain -- either emotional or physical tended to make a body build up shields. How well Sai knew that. He couldn't seem to tear down the ones he had erected to protect himself from the memory of what had happened to him only a few short weeks past.

He shivered as a thought occurred to him. If this was hell, what if the madman that had tried to destroy him had ended up here? Terrible, terrible thought. But then that thought was chased away as the smell of smoke and roasting meat; the sound of a conglomeration of voices drifted out of the trees. The forest broke and within a great clearing there had sprung up a rustic little village. Wood and thatch huts, sat in a circle around a central open area. A great fire pit dominated that. There was a palisade of sorts around the whole thing, sharpened sticks lashed together that might serve to keep out invaders that were not too intent upon entry. Perhaps it was only there to keep animal predators away, though they had seen no animals in the forest, nor heard any. Did animals go to hell or did hell have its own brand of wildlife?

"Well looks like we're going to get to be the center of attention." Rowan observed, staring up at the perhaps thirty or more people that had gathered in the clearing to watch their approach. Sai groaned and repositioned his hands. There were a lot of women there.

"Rowan." He hissed. "Just stand in front of me, okay?"

Rowan cast him an amused glance. Rowan seemed way to comfortable naked. In front of women of all things. Rowan claimed to have had considerable experience with women before he'd settled on Sai. Of course one could not take everything Rowan said at face value. Rowan tended to exaggerate. Sai thought maybe Rowan had experimented with one woman. At least he'd heard the name a girl who had gone to the same middle school as Rowan, mentioned on more than one occasion.

The term newbies was whispered throughout the clearing. Some kind soul -- thank god -- thought to bring out blankets for them to wrap about their shoulders. Sai took his with a heartfelt thanks. The man that handed it to him looked at him like he was a rabid animal.

"Not very friendly looking are they?" Kento muttered.

"They think you're spies." The woman Charlotte the red commented. "Still haven't made up me own mind on that score."

"No offense, but why would anyone want to spy on this little hole in the wall?" Rowan asked, looking doubtfully about the little shanty village.

"Because we're outside their power." Charlotte said. "Cause the powers that be 'are' the powers that be due to the fact that they're all a bunch of power hungry -- murdering bastards that can't stand the fact that there's folks that don't bow down to them."

"Hummm, that sounds familiar." Sai said.

"Scary familiar. Who are the powers that be?" Rowan asked.

Charlotte shrugged and waved them deeper into the village. "In due time. First off lets get you boys some clothes. Not --" she added with a lecherous leer. "-- that I personally wouldn't rather see you without. Been a while since such a nice lookin' lot come through here." She gave Kento an especially lurid leer. He ducked his head and hurried after Seiji who was following Locksley into one of the huts.

They got clothes. A victory in itself. And while they were sorting through the mish mash collection of cast offs and rags, Locksley and Charlotte answered a few of their numerous questions.

"If this is hell, where are all the pointy tailed devils and fire pits and tortured souls?"

"Who says we're not tortured?" Charlotte gave Rowan an arch look.

"You've been reading too much Dante." She added with a toss of her head. "Don't believe everything you hear. And there are demons, trust me."

"So you guys are really dead?" Kento asked. He was pulling on a pair of too short leather trousers. Charlotte was watching him with interest.

"For a very long time." Locksley agreed. "But time here is not what it was in the realm of the living."

"You're Robin Hood, aren't you." Rowan just had to ask it. Sai gave him a disappointed look. Locksley rolled his eyes.

"I think it took a writer to pin that name upon me. As I said, don't believe everything you read."

"Oh, this is so awesome." Rowan was practically jumping up and down. "You are like one of my heroes, man."

"Excuse me, but we've a purpose here." Seiji's voice broke through Rowan's jubilation. Seiji had managed predictably to find the best garments, and fit them together in a most dashing manner. He was pulling on short fingerless gloves under a long sleeved black shirt over which he had buttoned a short green vest. Soft forest green trousers and knee high calfskin boots made up the ensemble. The whole thing brought out the gold of his hair and vivid blue ice of his eyes. Sometimes Seiji just looked too damn attractive for anyone's good. Charlotte was certainly blinking at him. The best Sai could find was an oversized scratchy woolen tunic that made him look like a little boy in his father's shirt and a clingy pair of tanned leather breaches that were much too tight in certain places. At least the shirt hung down far enough to hide any embarrassing bulges.

"What purpose?" Locksley asked suspiciously.

"We've lost a friend. He's somewhere here, pulled through from the other side."

"A live friend?" Charlotte asked.

"He better be." Kento said.

"How did you get here from the land of the living?"

"A portal. Something lured him to it we believe and pulled him through. We followed." Seiji.

"The power to open such a doorway -- I did not know it existed." Locksley marveled.

"Quite a few incredible things have begun to happen since the new master took over the eastern Pole. Didn't think anyone was powerful enough to send the Khan's packing." Charlotte sniffed. "They're all over the Overlaps now, causing mischief. Buch of stinking bastards."

"The Khans?" Sai asked.

"As in Ghangis and his nasty little collection of relatives. Figures that a bastard like that would be the only one to end up in the same place as his family. Course with a family like his, it was probably more punishment than anything else."

"What are the Poles?" Rowan.

"There are four of them. East, south, north, west. Each is a sphere of power. Of influence if you will. Each is governed by a master. If you live within the Poles, you're influenced by the master's will. You're influenced by the atmosphere of the Pole. Now in the places where the Poles overlap, there is no influence. Its free land and there's nothing the masters can do to sway a man to their way. They hate that. They can't stand us being out here."

"So, weird shit started happening since this new master kicked the Khans out of their Pole?" Rowan theorized. "So maybe he had something to do with Ryo being snatched?"

"Most of the masters have held power for --- forever. For thousands of years. The longer they sit a Pole, the more powerful they become. But this new one -- he's been here a year maybe and he overthrows an established power in a matter of weeks. He came with power already. We don't go near the Eastern Pole if we can help it anymore."

"What's his name?" Seiji asked softly.

"They call him Lord Tulpa."



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