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The Road To Hell
There was a city in the midst of a desert. It was not hard to find. The serpent led them to it. First forest, then ice, then swamp, then desert and all between one step and the next. It was enough to make a body loose its equilibrium. Sai hated it. Sai was not particularly fond of the short legged, shaggy beast he found himself upon. He did not get along particularly well with horses and horses from hell had a definite sourness of attitude that put him on edge. The thing had already nipped his leg twice. Kento said to just kick it in the nose if it tried it again, but Sai could not quite bring himself to flat out kick an animal in the face. Even if it was a foul-tempered, vicious one.
If the beast hadn't been following the trail of its fellows, Sai was certain he would have been carried off somewhere, totally at the mercy of the thing. As it was, he bounced along behind Rowan, who did not seem to be experiencing the troubles Sai was, and silently preyed they would reach their destination soon.
He tried not to worry about Ryo. He tried to remind himself that Ryo was very good at taking care for himself. Or at least he was when he had his armor --- or maybe he was good at getting out of the trouble that seemed magnetically drawn to him. Or maybe a lot of it was luck. And maybe none of the above applied in this place. Sai let out a breath and drew his leg up out of the stirrup to avoid the sharp yellowed teeth coming for it.
Which was when they saw the outlines of a city on the horizon. And made out a spoke like network of roads leading in. A good deal of people trudged to and from the place. And what a place. It was right out of an Indiana Jones movie, only all brand new and sparkling. Sandstone buildings and tall, hieroglyphic engraved columns. The low hovels of the common folk that sat beneath the shadows of arches and statuary becrying the glory of the gods or their kings.
What the people coming and going from the city were up to was a mystery. All of them carried heavy sacks on their backs or pulled small carts laden with what appeared to be sand into the desert. The one's coming back were empty handed.
"Excuse me. Excuse me, please." Sai stopped a woman by leaning down and waving a hand to get her attention. She turned flat, emotionless eyes up at him. He almost shied away from the total hopelessness of her expression.
"Wh---what is that you are all doing -- if you don't mind my asking?" he stammered, unnerved by her dead stare. Rowan had ridden ahead of him, keeping pace with Seiji, but Kento lingered to hear what she had to say.
"Taking sand to the desert." She replied after a moment.
"Sand to the desert?" He blinked in surprise. "Whatever for? Isn't there enough out there already?"
"The city fills with it every night. If we don't take it out, the desert will consume it. Its the nature of this place."
"And it never stops?"
"This is hell." She said simply, as if that were all the explanation that was needed and then she trudged on, back bent by her load of sand.
"I dislike this place intensely." Sai muttered, urging his horse forward.
"Freaky." Kento agreed.
They made their way through the line of laborers and into the city itself. The streets were filled with people. Those that were not actively working, stood about like aimless automatons. It was terrifying to see so many dead, hopeless stares. Sai had to stop looking. Had to focus on Rowan's back ahead of him. If Ryo was here, how would they find him among so many folk?
Seiji had stopped and was speaking with a native. It gave Sai and Kento the time to catch up. They got there as the man lifted an arm and pointed to a building rising above all the others. A pyramid that loomed over the sandstone dwellings of the city.
"In there?" Sai squeaked, recalling the last Discovery Channel special he had seen on the pyramid's of Egypt. The close little halls, the traps laid by the builders to protect the sanctity of those buried within, the dark little burial rooms. It was a big, glorified crypt and Sai did not like crypts or graveyards or things to do with the dead.
Seiji gave him an impatient look. "If we want to find out anything, he said its where we should go. Its probably where our serpentine guide went."
So they navigated the maze of narrow streets towards the towering pyramid. And the closer they got, the more men they passed that looked as if they extra's straight out of some big budget Hollywood movie. Shaved heads and Egyptian kilts, with bronze swords at their hips and spears in their hands. The regular people shied from them where ever these imperial looking soldiers went. Occasionally one could hear the crack of a whip and a pitiful scream emanating from down some narrow street.
"What business do you have in the square of the gods?" There was a gateway flanked by great stone lions with the heads of men and beyond that lay structures of much more grandeur than those they had passed in the outer city. At the center of this grand courtyard was the pyramid. The guards that blocked their way stared up with kohl rimmed, suspicious eyes.
"We've lost a friend and were told this was the place to inquire as to his whereabouts." Seiji said without hesitation, staring down with a cold, superior gaze. "You may direct us to the same party that you sent the reptilian creature that passed before us."
The guards blinked in uncertainty. Sai did, exchanging gazes with Kento, who mouthed the words holy shit, and looked back towards Seiji, hovering somewhere between shock at his presumption and awe at the incredible way he managed to pull it off. The guards sort of stammered and conferred among themselves, then the senior squared his shoulders and attempted to take back some measure of authority.
"You will be escorted to an audience with one of the royal visors, who will hear your petition and weigh it."
Seiji shrugged, making a small motion of acceptance with his hand. And into the square of the gods they went.
Seiji had a headache. He had entertained it since leaving the cave of the entity outside the ice river. It made him testy and short tempered and not much willing to engage in the conversation Rowan seemed determined to plague him with. Kento and Sai had long since fallen back, wary of his mood and his sharp tongue. Rowan had thicker skin. Rowan had pestered him about the thing in the cave until Seiji wished he had never taken steps to elevate the tension between them. Rowan wanted him to explain things he did not wish to dwell on. For if he dwelled on them, he might have second thoughts and if he had second thoughts he might very well deprive them of the only edge they had in this place. This hell. He wished Rowan would go back and ride with Sai. He made the suggestion repeatedly and Rowan repeatedly ignored him, those blue gray eyes of his going more and more inquisitive, the harder Seiji tried to ignore him.
Then they found the city and Rowan had other things to occupy his attention. And then they were taken through the dark, torch lit tunnel that led into the bowels of the pyramid and the lot of them shared an unease. Sai's was palpable. Enough so that Rowan finally did go back and with whispered words tried to convince Sai that they were not descending into the depths of a tomb. He hoped.
Hope was the operent word here. One hoped this was not a dead end. One hoped they were not walking into a trap. One fervently hoped that Ryo would be found within these thick stone walls, alive and unhurt.
But at the end of the tunnel they were faced with a great deal of guards, all stonily silent and ominous, and they were firmly requested to dismount. The horses were taken away, through a passage that smelled of straw and animals, the sound of their hooves echoing eerily through the corridors.
"I don't like this." Sai whispered to the air in general, when they were all clustered together, waiting to be led further into the gloom. He leaned forward against Seiji's arm and hissed at Seiji in particular. "Seiji, if he's not here, how are we going to find our way out."
"The same way we came in." Rowan assured him.
"He's here." Seiji said, suddenly very sure of that fact. Suddenly very certain that Ryo had passed this very way. He had an uneasy flash of feeling in his head/heart of Ryo scared. Of Ryo in pain. Of Ryo wanting very badly to be home and safe. Seiji had to shake his head to chase it away, for it made his hands shake and his heart beat a little erratically and those were not emotions or feelings he wanted to show in this place. Weakness of any kind was not a thing to garner respect.
"I still have a very bad feeling." Sai was murmuring. "I wish I had my armor."
"Yeah, wouldn't that be trick." Kento said, sounding not at all apprehensive, sounding in fact, rather eager to proceed. "But these guys are all little, we can still kick ass."
"We're rather outnumbered, Kento." Sai said dourly.
"Shush." Rowan whispered, as a row of guards and robed, bewigged figure approached and gestured for them to follow.
Down another tunnel, down twisting, slanting corridors until a great open chamber was reached. A glorious, high ceilinged room, with richly decorated columns, garlands of gauzy silk hanging between them, with a great sunken floor, surrounding at all four corners by towering statues of mythical creatures. There was the distinct smell of blood in this room. And in places on the sunken floor, there were large dark smears. A good many people stood around the edges of the steps, all of them silent and staring at the newcomers. Some gazes traveled back up to the end of the chamber where a high dais stood. Upon a ridiculously overdone throne sat a small man wearing a patently false beard and wig. His robes glittered with gold and gems and in his hand was a staff encrusted with the same valuables. At his side, cowering on the floor at his feet was the same smarmy reptile creature they had followed from the swamps.
"What now?" The nasal voice of the man on the throne drifted across the vastness of the chamber.
"My most wondrous, most esteemed pharaoh, these foreigners request an audience."
"Did we request an audience?" Kento whispered and Seiji stepped back, short and sharply onto his foot to shut him up.
"More foreigners? Am I besieged with foreign devils? Is this some curse? What do these want?"
"It seems, my beloved pharaoh, that they wish the same thing the other's came for."
"Really? Really! How tiresome. And from whose pole do you venture? And on whose authority am I to quiver in respect of this time?"
"No ones." Seiji said, just loud enough for his voice to carry. Just loud enough to make the pharaoh lean forward to hear. "We come on our own authority seeking only what belongs to us."
"Belongs to you?" The pharaoh stood, waving his arms out to take in the entirety of the chamber. "Everything in this pole belongs to me. Every soul, every grain of sand. Every breath the dead take into their lungs. You belonged to me when you stepped across the border into my region."
"Perhaps," Seiji inclined his head, not of a mind to engage in argument with a megalomaniac. "But when we leave we will cease to be so. In the meanwhile, we are looking for a friend. A friend that the creature at your feet was also seeking."
The pharaoh brought a hand to his chin, rubbing under the beard, a slight smile playing about his lips. "Ah, yes, that one. I am familiar. Quite a shame, really, that We will not have the time to fully appreciate the charms of a living creature."
Seiji almost allowed emotion to cross his face. He fought it back and stepped carefully forward, sensing the others slowly following. What did he mean ' no time --' ?
"All we want, is our friend." He said, keeping neutrality in his tone.
"He belongs to me." The pharaoh's black eyes bored down at him. Seiji thought Sai was right. If they had the armor, they would rip through all the guards and just take Ryo. But, ifs were dangerous. They prevented a body from fully contemplating the hard realization of facts.
"No." Seiji disagreed with the man who would be a god. Hands went to swords. Spears were shifted dangerously. The pharaoh scowled, stepped down off the dais in anger and onto the stained tiles of the sunken floor.
"You dare to say such a thing to Us, impudent dead soul?"
"We're not dead, buddy." Kento's voice spoke up from behind Seiji. The pharaoh froze, staring. He took another step, and his hand drifted out, as if he were feeling the warmth of a fire. He blinked, slow comprehension dawning in his eyes.
"By all the gods -- so you are not. This is a day of days indeed."
He stepped close to Seiji, looking him and down, moving beyond him to look at the others. Kento puffed up and glowered. Sai and Rowan were smart enough to offer no disrespect.
"Oh, my, the scent of life is so sweet. And so much of it and vibrant with health. The gods smile upon me, surely to gift me with such prizes."
"The gods have nothing to do with this." Seiji said softly, voice carrying no further than those closest to him. "And you'll find us difficult prizes at best. Where is our friend?"
"Ah, you deny me and make demands of me in the same breath. The audacity."
Seiji contemplated snatching the pharaoh and threatening to snap his skinny neck if Ryo were not produced, but doubted any permanent ability to inflict harm to a being already long dead. He flexed his fingers minutely at his sides to fight the urge.
Of a sudden the pharaoh strode back towards his throne, snapping his fingers and ordering one of the many servants hovering around it.
"Go and have Sobek fetch my new toy."
The pharaoh settled back into the embrace of his throne. The crowd of decorated onlookers shifted, chancing his sudden shift in mood to whisper among themselves. A long plumed bird wondered across the sunken floor, trailing tail feathers, unnoticed by everyone.
"So what do we do if he does have Ryo?" Rowan whispered.
"Grab him and run." Kento offered.
"That might not be so easy as it sounds." Sai said softly, tugging at Seiji's sleeve to garner his attention. "Seiji--?"
But Seiji could only half hear the whispered tones of his friends. Something else hammered in his head, insistent and alluring. There was a sense of familiarity with this Pharaoh who ruled the northern pole. A sense of old, old animosity. A name came to mind. Anenhotep. Akenaten before he had claimed the former title. Anenhotep IV. A swarm of emotions, visions, long past words zipped behind his eyes at hyper speed. Not his memories. With a hiss of indrawn breath, a touch of panic -- he forced them out. Not too hard to rid himself of them. But it had been an unwanted and uninvited invasion and it went against a bargain he had made.
Liar. He thought, angrily, coldly. A vague sense of denial drifted back, but nothing stronger. He hardly noticed the movement beyond the throne. A parting of sycophants, and the emergence of a towering, dark figure with the face of a predatory reptile and the body of a over-developed man. And Ryo.
Seiji blinked back into sharp awareness. Focused completely upon the dazed, drifting expression on Ryo's face. The series of inflamed gashes down his arm and across his shoulder. Ryo did not notice them. His eyes were directed floorward, as if he had a need to clearly see where he placed his feet, his uninjured arm tight in the grip of the grotesque thing that escorted him. He looked --- bruised. Bruised and demoralized.
Seiji's lips tightened, a cold core of anger forming in his gut. He didn't say a thing. He could not make himself at the moment, utter a coherent word.
Sai did. Stepping past him a little and crying out Ryo's name.
Rowan and Kento crowded forward too, past Seiji who stood rooted to the spot. Not too far. Guards shifted weapons to warn against that. Ryo blinked slowly, and looked up. It took him a moment to find them, then a second, surprised series of blinks before realization hit and hope flooded his face. He made a move forward and was brought up short by the grip on his arm.
The pharaoh -- Anenhotep -- laughed. He extended a hand, the back of his knuckles grazed Ryo's side. "This is quite a popular creature, to have so many come seeking it."
"Let him go." Rowan cried.
Anenhotep merely canted his head to one side, gesturing for the thing who commanded Ryo to move closer. He did, close enough for the pharaoh to run a hand up Ryo's arm and along his back. Ryo glared indignity, flinching from the touch, but the crocodile thing held him steady.
"No. I don't think so." Pharaoh said. "I rather like him."
"Don't touch him." It came out a hiss. A vehement, barely controllable angry demand. Seiji hardly ever lost control of his rages. They were collected and internal, things he used for his own benefit when they came upon him. Not like Ryo or Kento who flared into useless anger, made fools of themselves in their rages and accomplished nothing. And here he was, speaking an ultimatum in anger that would only serve to put them all at a disadvantage.
Pharaoh lifted a brow. Ryo stared at him, large eyed, worried -- and soundlessly mouthed his name.
"Offer them the sssame bargain you offered me, oh great one." The serpent at Pharaoh's feet hissed.
"No!" Ryo cried, but the pharaoh's look turned speculative.
"What bargain?" Rowan demanded.
"Why a contest." The pharaoh smiled. "You win and you are free to go and take this one with you."
"And if we don't win?" Seiji asked softly, stepping up next to Rowan, tearing his eyes away from Ryo and fixing them upon the man who sat the throne.
"Don't even ask." Ryo cried, trying to wrench his arm out of the crocodile creature's grasp. "Its rigged."
The pharaoh turned an annoyed look his way, waved a negligent hand and the reptile headed sentinel casually slapped one huge hand across the side of Ryo's head. He made a pained sound of protest even as his legs folded under him.
"Son of a bitch." Kento roared and surged forward. Seiji caught his arm, stopping his momentum.
"No." He whispered. "We can't win this way, Kento."
Kento swung angry, frustrated eyes to him, silently begging to be allowed to perpetrate some damage for the insult done Ryo.
"If you loose --" Anenhotep leaned forward. "-- Then your soul belongs to me. In your case living souls with living body's attached."
"I don't like that bargain at all." Sai hissed.
"It fucking blows." Rowan muttered in agreement.
Seiji said nothing. Ryo didn't like it either. Ryo had said it was rigged, which did not necessarily mean it was unwinnable. Depending what the contest was.
"What contest?" he asked.
"The simplest of contests. Face my champion in battle and win." Pharaoh indicated the crocodile man.
"That's a very large creature." Sai stated the obvious. "Has very large teeth."
"It doesn't look that fast." Kento said.
"It looks fast as hell." Rowan disagreed.
"What weapons?" Seiji inquired.
"Why anything you chose." Pharaoh graciously proclaimed.
"No, no, I don't like this." Sai pulled Kento back to confer with the rest of them. "Ryo said it was rigged."
"Yeah, well Ryo looks like he's already had his brains rattled one too many times." Kento was not willing to come down easily from his adrenaline rush.
"So what other options?" Rowan asked reasonably.
"There are none." Seiji said quietly, and didn't quite know where that firm assurance came from. Sai opened his mouth to protest. Seiji slipped around him.
"All right. I accept."
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