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The Road To Hell

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eight

 

The sword was exquisitely balanced. The blade was honed to deadly sharpness. It felt like heaven in his hands.

The sword wasn't the problem. His skill was not the problem. He was extradanarily good at what he did. He might even have been quicker and cannier than the thing he faced. He did not have its strength. Oh, no where near the inhuman strength of the towering half human/half crocodile creature that had probably been fighting duels for the egotistical Pharaoh for millennia here in this place that fancied itself hell. And even the strength he might have worked around, having just a sliver of advantage in the speed arena -- if any of the hits he landed could get through the crocodile skin of the thing.

That was the problem. That was the thing that convinced him early on that this was in no way a fairly balanced contest. He scored a hit and it bounced off skin like leather armor. The thing grazed his arm with its too long blade and he bled until the blood ran down his arm and made his grip on the sword a slick and precarious thing. He blocked an overhead blow and the sheer power of it numbed his arms and shoulders and sent him staggering backwards, head ringing and legs trembling from the impact.

With nothing but the limitations of his own mortal flesh to rely on, this thing -- this animal god out of Egyptian mythology -- would batter him relentlessly into the ground.

It doesn't have to. The contest can be made more even. The sibilant promise flirted at the edge of his awareness. I can grant you power that Sobek can not flinch off like so much vague annoyance. Otherwise he'll destroy you and after you your friends. One by one. Then Anenhotep will have all your souls and you'll not have gained what you came here seeking. But I can give you that which you need to make a difference. All you have to do is ask.

He willed it silent. Vehemently willed it silent, wanting none of its distractions. He had enough with glimpses of Rowan and Sai and Kento forced back to the sidelines by the spears and sword points of the pharaoh's more human guard. God-- and incredible distraction with every time he faced the dais and Ryo slumped against the pharaoh's throne, unconscious still or dazed at the very least and that infuriating little man's finger's in his hair. That just made Seiji seethe. And anger was his enemy.

He infringes on your territory. Take my help.

Shut up.

Clang. Sparks in the space between two blades. Seiji staggered and had to scramble to regain his balance after being slammed off it. The long sword came down and he slipped to the side, preferring to avoid contact entirely than risk completely numbing his arms. One sorely missed the protection of armor and the cushioning strength it lent limbs.

The thing -- Sobek -- came at him with a ferocious, unrelenting attack, like a crocodile swarming out of the shallows after unwary prey. Slam, slam, crash. Seiji went down, palm against the flat of his blade, holding back the weight bearing down upon him. The jaws gleamed dully in the flickering torch light. Saliva dripped down and hit his cheek. Foul, wretched breath.

Somebody cried out. Kento maybe and there was a scuffle on the side lines. No. That wasn't part of the bargain. He had no wish to loose the bet for rule breaking.

With a surge of desperate strength he kicked one of Sobek's legs out from under him and while the thing staggered, rolled to freedom.

He spared a moment to swing a furious glare to his very worried, on the verge of rushing to his aide, comrades.

"Stay out of it." He snapped.

Stay out of it until you're dead, then they'll take their turns. The bothersome little voice taunted. He wished he'd never invited it in. He felt foul every time its voice invaded his thoughts.

Or maybe he won't even kill you. Maybe he'll merely maim you, then his despicable master can have another live toy to play with.

"Shut up." He hissed out loud. But unsettlingly enough the pharaoh echoed the words in his head.

"Don't kill him, Sobek. If he's dead, he'll loose his value."

Take my help. What will it hurt? You've everything to gain.

What would it hurt? Nothing, if the nature of the bargain were not a falsehood. Nothing if he could get past the niggling little voice of doubt inside him that said this thing had been confined for a reason and only his need and his belief that he was smarter than an age old spirit had released it. He did not know if he would be a fool to indebt himself to this thing who's presence clung to him like a shadow, or a fool not to.

Then Sobek came at him in another mad, powerful attack and he stopped thinking about anything but surviving.


Ryo came back to awareness with a start. Startled out of the drifting stupor he'd been caught up in by the sharp clashing of metal upon metal. Familiar sound. Swordplay. Fast and furious.

His hearing served him better than his sight, which was wavery and filled with dark blotches. Or maybe that was merely hair, since he had it in his mouth and sticking to his cheeks. If he'd had the energy to lift a hand and wipe it back he might have said for sure. At the moment it was all he could do to keep from throwing up.

He was slumped against a chair with grotesquely carved legs. Recalling how he'd gotten there was difficult. There were presenses at his back and on his other side. Guarded, tense presenses. He could feel that without even looking at them. Something slipped into his hair. A hand that stroked downwards towards his neck. He flinched forward reflexively to avoid it and the fingers tightened, curling in the long strands at his neck and pulling him back, lifting his face where he hadn't the stamina to do it himself. Anenhotep leaned over the arm of his throne and stared down at him, black eyes fevered with excitement. The sound of clashing metal was a discordant rhythm in the background. He jerked his eyes forward and gasped.

No, no, no. Seiji what are you doing?

"Is he honorable?" Anenhotep asked in a whispery hiss, eyes flickering back to what was going on before him. "Will he abide by the pact he made me?"

Ryo didn't want to tear his eyes away, but did momentarily to glare up at the pharaoh of the southern pole. "I will kill you if you hurt -- any of them."

Anenhotep laughed. "I'm already dead, you twit. And you will be shortly, so believe me when I say that I've no intention of wasting precious life when I have it in my grasp. The fact that he -- and probably the rest of them -- from the look of things, are willing to give up so much for you is --- curious."

"They're my friends." Ryo hissed, lifting a hand to try and pry the repulsive fingers out of his hair. A spear butt came down between his shoulders from behind for the impertinence. He gasped for breath, vision exploding with pain, and pressed his face against the cold stone of the throne.

"They can't beat Sobek. He's not in the least restrained by -- human limitations." Anenhotep purred, hand drifting down to stroke Ryo's back, nails scraping lightly across the skin that wasn't marred by lythos marks. He shivered, head still swimming too badly to flinch out from under that touch, wetness born of frustration and fear forming at the corners of his eyes.

"Ah, look, he has him now." Anenhotep smiled in satisfaction.

Ryo was almost afraid to look. He couldn't make himself not.

Seiji was down. Not a good position for a swordsman. Sobek was crouched over him, superior position. Superior strength. Bad place to get out of. Seiji was never at his best in close quarters. Not with his weapon of choice, which required space to maneuver. He heard Kento yelling encouragement. Saw them in his peripheral vision straining to get closer but not forcing the issue. Seiji had told them not to. Seiji was a fool who had too damned much arrogance for his own good. And if Seiji died because of him --- god, he couldn't even imagine the guilt filled void such a thing would create. Only Anenhotep didn't want Seiji or the others dead. He wanted them alive. He wanted more toys for his twisted amusement.

Of a sudden, Sobek roared, and twisted backwards, as if Seiji had gotten in a critical hit. The creature staggered to the side, favoring its right side. Seiji rolled to his feet, a fall of pale hair obscuring half his face, one ice blue eye glaring out at his opponent. The sword he held came up, and he danced in, a slicing arc aimed at Sobek's belly. The creature blocked the strike and came back with one of its own. Seiji met it and blades rebounded. And rather suddenly Seiji just seemed to emanate --- something. Some indefinable power that was as foreign and as alien as the creature he fought. It was as if he'd gotten his wind back and then some It was Seiji's speed and Seiji's exquisitely precise style, but it almost seemed as if he were charged with something other than his own stamina. It almost seemed for a moment as if there were something or someone else interposed over Seiji's physical form.

Then Seiji stepped in, faster than even Ryo could follow and the blade struck home. A swipe across Sobek's chest before the creature could get its guard up. A blow so hard that the sound of metal shattering broke through the expectant silence of the hall. The blade broke against the leather hard skin of the Pharaoh's guardian. Seiji jumped back, holding the jagged end of the sword, breathing hard, eyes fixed on Sobek.

Sobek stepped towards him, long sword held at ready. Another step and one thick knee folded unexpectedly. A gurgling sound came from the long, many toothed snout. A wetness began to seep from a diagonal line that ran from shoulder to just under the lowest rib. And then, rather surprisingly, the upper half of Sobek's body teetered, and with a resounding crack of spine toppled backwards, hitting the blood spattered floor. The rest of the torso stood for a moment longer, legs twitching, before it fell forwards at Seiji's feet.

Seiji stood there with his head tilted, a vague satisfied look in his eyes, perfect lips curved upwards in a smile that was not quite one Ryo had seen on Seiji's face before.

The room was filled with astonished silence. Then Kento's joyful bellow broke the spell, and a hundred whispered exclamations of disbelief and horror drifted through the air. Anenhotep shot to his feet, fists clenched at his sides, a hiss of outrage escaping through his teeth.

"You ---- dare--" He might have been spitting acid for all the poison that seeped out of his tone.

Seiji's head tilted a little more. The smile turned mocking. "A bargain's a bargain, Akhenaten -- oh, Anenhotep -- that's what you like to be called now, isn't it? Will you dishonor your word -- such that it is, Heretic King?"

Anenhotep sputtered. He stepped forward, shaking with indignation. "Who are you to speak so to me? How dare you call me by a name I disavowed? A name that exists no more?"

"The duel was won. Will the bargain be honored? Or will everyone here know you for a liar?" Seiji insisted, speaking with a strange familiarity, as if he knew more of Anenhotep than he had any right to.

The pharaoh sputtered. He whirled and jerked Ryo up. A hand in his hair, a hand under his arm kept him on his feet when all the world spun alarmingly. The pharaoh's breath against his face made him wish he were back on the floor and out of such close proximity.

"Take him. He's soul poisoned anyway. What use to me beyond a few days amusement? Take joy over watching him die."

And with that, he was thrust forward. He stumbled down the steps, bound hands preventing him from gaining any semblance of balance. Seiji lunged forward, caught him and staggered a little under his weight, glared over his shoulder at the furious pharaoh, even as he used the remaining stump of his sword to slice through the leather binding Ryo's wrists.

"If you are not gone from my pole by the end of this cycle then all bets are off and you are all trespassers in my realm and will be treated as such." And with that he spun, stalking away into the darkness behind the dais, taking his personal guard with him.

Ryo's legs gave out and Seiji took them both down to the floor in a controlled decent. Ryo pulled back a little to look at him, the beginnings of shock, relief, pain, dizziness, joy making the whole of his body quake in reaction. Seiji blinked at him. Oddly curious. Oddly -- unfamiliar speculation in those pale blue eyes. Then he blinked again and shook his head and an expression Ryo knew filled his face. Worry and a little disapproval and righteously earned exhaustion.

"Seiji. You came. You came." Ryo couldn't stop shaking. He dug his fingers into Seiji's shirt, pressing into the flesh beneath.

"You thought I wouldn't?" Soft question in his hair. Seiji's labored breath warm against his temple. Seiji's arms hugging him painfully close.

"How?"

Seiji didn't answer. Seiji was too busy breathing.

"Gawd! Gawd Seiji, that was awesome!! Ryo, you okay?" Rowan skidding to the ground beside them, on his knees and wrapping his arms around the both of them. And Kento and Sai behind him, all asking questions at once that Seiji refused to answer and Ryo didn't know how to. He could not at the moment, do more than lay against Seiji, trying to ignore the hurt and the dizziness.

"Guys, guys, we have to get out of here." Sai was hovering. Sai was casting nervous glances to the mulling courtiers and the remaining guards. "You heard what he said."

"Yeah, c'mon." Rowan pushed himself to his feet, and reached down to urge Seiji and Ryo up. Seiji made an effort. Ryo knew -- just knew he wasn't getting there by himself. Kento hauled him up with a hand under his arm and he stood there swaying until Kento wrapped an arm about him to shore him up.

"Shit, man, are you gonna make it?"

Frightening question. Terrifying question. He wished he knew.

"Come on." Sai was urging them all into movement. "Oh, please, please let them give us the horses back."

It seemed they knew the way out. Ryo hadn't the foggiest notion. A great deal of things were slipping in and out of memory. He went away for a little space of time, just slumped against Kento, and then Rowan was shaking him back to awareness, muttering softly.

"C'mon, buddy. You gotta stay with us just a little bit, 'kay? Ryo?"

He nodded blearily. And Rowan looked over his head at Kento with a worried frown.

Rowan and Sai argued in the shadows with indistinct Egyptians for the release of their horses. Seiji stood off the side, a little away from them all, hidden in silence.

"Kento -- what's wrong with Seiji?" he murmured, because he didn't know if there was something that had happened that he wasn't aware of.

Kento shrugged. "Don't know. He's been freaky since that cave?"

Which was baffling and which Kento did not go into detail over. Kento was side tracked by the issue of the horses. But Rowan and Sai got their way. And with a echoing clomp of hooves a group of shaggy, stout horses were led out of a side passage. Four horses, which was just as well, since Ryo had no illusions about his ability to stay atop one on his own.

"Here, give him to me." The first thing Seiji had said since the bloody throne room floor. Seiji held out a hand to Kento, asking for Ryo. Kento boosted him up and he wrapped his arms around Seiji's waist and rested against Seiji's warmth, glad to be off his feet.

The horse jerked into motion and he tightened his hold, suddenly bereft of equilibrium. He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the close shifting walls of the tunnel. Then they were out and into a city that he had only vague shifting recollections of. And Sai and Rowan were arguing over which way was out. Sai won the argument. Sai ended up being right.

And somewhere between the gates of the city an a indeterminate spot in the desert, he phased out again. This time, there was nothing they could do to wake him up.


They had to stop, which worried the hell out of all of them with the sky fast turning dark outside the great curving dome that encapsulated the whole of this place. But it was either that or loose Ryo off the back of Seiji's horse. Ryo who was pale as death and streaked with his own blood, shoulder and arm and one side of his back marred with nasty looking, inflamed scratch and bite marks.

Rowan frowned over them as he was helping Seiji reposition Ryo in front of Seiji, so Seiji could hold him in place. He thought about what Charlotte had said about the bites of certain animals in this place that were sure death to the victim. He thought about what the pharaoh had said about Ryo being soul poisoned and shuddered. What if he was? What if they had been too late getting here to save him and this place sucked him down anyway? He met Seiji's eyes over Ryo's listing head, voicing an unspoken worry. Seiji drew a shaky breath, trying hard to hold onto calm, but unease showed in his eyes and there was a little tremor in his hand. A scared Seiji, then, to show so much sentiment. A very scared, distressed Seiji. He wondered if it were all for Ryo. He wondered what the hell it was he had seen, or thought he had seen right before Seiji had done the impossible and cleaved the damned big crocodile he was fighting in two.

"Rowan, please, we don't have much time." Which was Sai on the back of his prancing mount. He complied, swinging up into the saddle of his own horse.

The pace was fast, so there was not much to be accomplished in the way of conversation. The horses -- being creatures of hell -- managed to keep it without breaking down. Rowan didn't trust the pharaoh's word that there would be no pursuit. He kept looking over his shoulder to see if there were sign of it behind them. If there was, he couldn't see it in the falling darkness.

Then there was the hazy edge of the desert before them. The deceptively solid barrier that separated one pole from the next. The horses plunged through without hesitation and they were treading upon grassland and the air was cooler and fresher smelling. God, he hoped this was an inbetween place and not some other pole where a dictator who thought himself god would try and sweep them up into his power. At the very least, it wasn't the swamp.

"We made it. We made it!!" Kento whooped, wheeling his horse and throwing back a triumphant middle finger towards the recently departed desert.

"Are we safe here?" Sai wondered.

"According to what Charlotte said." Kento said.

"Then we ought to see to Ryo."

"We ought to try and make it back to Locksley's camp." Rowan said. "We don't know shit about dealing with --- what's wrong with him."

"Rowan's right." Seiji said quietly, shifting a little under Ryo's weight. "We need them to help us."

"You okay?" Rowan asked. "You need a break? Need somebody else to take him?"

A negative shake of Seiji's head. A little possessive tightening of his arms.

Eventually they had to stop, on the other side of the ice river, which god only knew how they'd managed to find again. The horses couldn't cross. Rowan didn't want to cross, a sudden bout of all too vivid recollection of how cold that river was washing over him. Seiji gave into the wisdom of giving Ryo to Kento, who seemed destined to cart his friends around in the vicinity of this miserable river. And on the other side, once beyond the numbing cold, with no recourse of travel but their own two feet, they came to the unanimous decision to stop and take a little well earned rest. It gave them the chance to look over Ryo's wounds. The chance to try and rouse him, which they managed to some degree. But he was disoriented enough that they got little meaningful information from him. Babblings about Tulpa and snakes. And when he drifted back off, Kento began complaining about how long it had been since he'd had a decent meal and suggested he go out and catch something, which started a quiet, good natured bickering between them.

"So, how did you know all that about that king or whatever?" Rowan posed the question softly, sitting across from Seiji. Seiji's hand paused momentarily in its rhythmic stroking of Ryo's hair. The one visible eye narrowed slightly. Then thick lashes fluttered down hiding whatever expression had graced it.

"Does it matter?"

Rowan tapped a thumbnail absently against his teeth, curiosity obtaining a little spike of uncertainty. And that could have been as much transferred emotion as real, for when Seiji looked back up there was a flash of it in his eyes. But one could never really tell with Seiji.

"I dunno. Just wondering, is all. That a problem?"

The hand began moving again. "No. Go to sleep, Rowan. We don't have much time to waste."

Which only made sense. Which was only truth. Slowly, Rowan nodded. Sai came over and settled down beside him on soft, pine tag cushioned ground. He wrapped his arms about him, pulling him close, resting his chin on Sai's shoulder and felt Sai relax, easily willing to fall into slumber. Rowan was not so willing. It was more than Ryo. Rowan felt cold and wasn't certain why.

 

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