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The Road To Hell

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Nine

 

The couldn't find the inbetweener's village, which was damned annoying since Rowan knew -- just knew -- they had found the exact same trail that Charlotte had led them out of it on. It was as if the whole damned lay of the land shifted at will. Which was probably true. This was hell after all. They walked around for a day hopelessly lost.

Ryo got a little better. Seiji got a little worse.

Ryo roused enough after the rest beyond the river to walk on his own without staggering too much. He was a little more coherent in his descriptions of what had happened. He was very very wary around the subject of Seiji's car, which Rowan had forgotten all about. The strange thing was Seiji didn't even bat an eye at the mention of it. Seiji was too busy staring off into the foliage, normally sharp eyes unfocused. Like he was daydreaming and Seiji was most definitely not a day dreamer. Seiji severely frowned at such things. And he wasn't talking, which in and of itself was not an unusual thing for Seiji, but he usually paid at least a marginal amount of attention to the conversations going on around him, just in case something worth his effort to comment about came up. If he even knew they were talking, Rowan would have been surprised.

So Rowan covertly watched Seiji, worried. Rowan dropped back to ask Kento about the cave and what had happened in it again, out of Seiji and Ryo's earshot both, not wanting to upset Ryo more than he already rightfully was and not wanting Seiji to pick that moment to come back to them and scowl at Rowan accusingly for delving into something he had made clear he did not wish to speak of.

Kento of course, had no new insights. Kento lifted a brow at Rowan's unease over Seiji's abnormal behavior. Kento was not as adept at deciphering Seiji's moods as Rowan. Rowan had always been good at reading Seiji, even better sometimes than Ryo, who was more often than not baffled by Seiji's cool demeanor. Ryo saw everything emotionally. Rowan liked to look at things a bit more clinically. Rowan had Sai to confide in, and Sai loved to play amateur psychiatrist.

"He's just freaked over Ryo is all." Kento gave his opinion. "You know he gets all screwy when he's really worried."

Rowan sniffed at Kento's blunt analyses.

The brush shuffled off the right of the game trail they were following. Rowan's head snapped up, startled at the sound where before there had been silence. Kento started to point towards the sound and rather suddenly there was the shrieking of splintering wood as something large and ungainly lunged out of the wood at them. All Rowan got the chance to really see was patchy feathers amidst scales, snapping jaws at the end of a sharp, twisted beak and talons at the end of small, grasping arms. It looked like a cross between big bird and one of the velocerapters from Jurassic Park. One supposed someone in hell had a warped sense of humor.

Several things happened at once. The thing floundered out into the path making clumsy swipes at them. Seiji snapped out of his daze to jerk Ryo, who was neither armed nor in any shape to dance with the thing, out of the way. Sai, on the other side of the trail drew the bronze knife he'd taken from the Mongols in the swamp, while Kento and Rowan drew their own plundered weapons. The thing made a swipe at Sai, who jumped back and slashed at the hissing beak, but Sai worked better with weapons that had a longer reach and the blade skidded harmlessly off the chitinous maw. He distracted the thing enough for Rowan and Kento to swarm in from behind. Kento struck high, Rowan struck low. Kento's short sword sank into the flesh behind the shoulder. Rowan's just under the ribs. The thing twisted, jerking frantically, swiping Rowan with one of it's small, but sharp talons. He barely felt the sting, too busy twisting the blade up into the rib cage. One of the large legs kicked out and slammed him backwards. He hit the path on his back, minus a lungful of air. Kento was still hacking at the thing, one arm around the elongated bird neck.

Rowan's blade was still stuck in the thing. He cursed, when he had the breath to do so, and jumped back up, ready to leap back into the fray. He was half way there when the thing shuddered, its legs folding under it and crumbled to the ground. Kento let out a war whoop.

Rowan cautiously prodded he thing with his toe.

"What the fuck was that?" Rowan hissed shaking out his bleeding arm. Sai swarmed up to him, wide eyed and concerned, trying to look at the gash and probably probe it, which he had a tendency to want to do to wounds and which Rowan cringed at the thought of.

"Dinner." Kento proclaimed loudly and cheerfully, dripping blood himself, but none of the red on him was his own. Kento reached down and unembedded Rowan's short sword, handing the gory thing back to him.

"All right, but you gotta skin and gut the thing."

"Yuck." Sai crinkled his nose.

"You are not seriously contemplating eating from that?" Seiji looked down at the carcass disdainfully. Ryo sort of leaned against him, looking past his shoulder at the thing.

"Damn right. I killed it." Kento's chest swelled up perceivably.

"We don't have time."

"All we have is time." Kento said. "What else are we gonna do other than wonder around this forest?"

Which was around the exact moment that the brush parted again, this time soundlessly, and a fair number of heavily armed, unfriendly looking natives surged out into the path, bristling with spears and swords and other nastys.

Rowan blinked, mouth open in the process of seconding Kento's opinion for no other reason than to evict an argument out of Seiji.

"Hells bells," a vaguely familiar, wholly patronizing voice said from out of the group that had fast surrounded them. "The lot of you make more noise than a flock of harpies roused from a mating frenzy."

"Oh -- Charlotte!" Sai exclaimed as the woman in question stepped forward, pushing past the threatening ax blade of what looked to be a Viking warrior. "We are ever so happy to see you."

She gave him an arched brow look then glanced over the rest of them casually. She jerked her chin towards Ryo. "That what all the trouble was about?"

"That would be it." Rowan agreed blandly, pressing a hand over his bleeding forearm.

"Yeah and a fat lot of help you were." Kento growled, eyeing her and the lot of her friends with a surly glint in his eyes.

"Please!!" Sai snapped in exasperation. "Can we just possibly not get into a quarrel here? Kento?"

Kento sniffed. Sai gave Rowan a hard look. Rowan smiled at him then at her. "Look, we were even thoughtful enough to provide supper." He indicated the bird/dinosaur thing bleeding at their feet.

Charlotte laughed. "That? You eat that and you'll never eat another meal. Meat's rancid."

"Oh."

Seiji almost looked satisfied at the proclamation. That bit of smugness made Rowan feel a little better. Maybe Kento was right. Maybe it was just Seiji not reacting well to the very real worry about Ryo.


If the village had been one step further than it was, Ryo would not have been capable of making it on his own two feet. He was frankly surprised he'd made it this far. Albeit, with a little occasional help from the others along the way. The strength sort of came and went, but the hurt had come back full force, whatever ointment Anenhotep's servants had put on his wounds having apparently faded. Stubbornness made him ignore the pain, even when it made his vision go screwy and tunnely. Determination made him keep placing one foot in front of the other when all he really wanted to do was beg for a halt and pass out. He refused to give in to the enormity of the situation. He had not given up before this when things looked oh so much grimmer and damned if he would not when Seiji and the guys had gone to so much trouble to find him.

But it did hurt. And all the nasty things Anenhotep and the Servant had said about him being soul poisoned and doomed --- well they scared him. God, it terrified him. And the more he thought about it the worse it got. But Ryo at heart, was nothing if not optimistic. He trusted they could figure out how to get home. He trusted that once there that the armor would help him heal himself. God knew it had healed enough mortal wounds in the past.

He wasn't certain if he liked the inbetweeners. The men looked shifty and unreliable and the woman was somewhat overbearing. She bickered with Rowan, made a lewd proposal to Kento and looked at him like he was something she might have considered eating if the expiration date on the package hadn't been out of date.

"Too bad about the Lythos bite. He looked like a tasty piece." Had been her short opinion on the subject before she'd turned away to leer at Kento. Like Ryo was already dead. Seiji had glared daggers at her. She ignored him.

"It's all right, Ryo." Sai patted his arm comfortingly. "She's just a bit harsh spoken."

"She's a fucking bitch." Rowan muttered.

He wished Sai would stop treating him like he were the victim of an incurable cancer. He hated the looks the lot of them were giving him. He hated the weakness. But there was no denying it. He was so winded from the moderate paced walk here, that he could hardly catch his breath. He lifted his good hand to wipe a few sweat dampened strands of hair from his face. His fingers shook. He clenched them nervously, hardly taking in the details of the small community they entered. Just a collection of huts that he hadn't even realized they were coming up upon. A central area swept free of leaves and forest debris. A fire pit. A swarming, multi-hued collection of men and women. All of them talking at once. Some of them laying curious hands to the strangers among them.

Someone touched Ryo on the back, near the tender flesh of the wounds. It was a shocking, unanticipated stab of pain. He swallowed back a yelp of hurt, and flinched forward. Vision went a little red around the edges.

"Back off." Seiji's low, dangerous growl, and Seiji's very careful arm circling him protectively. For a moment he sagged against that welcome support, trying to regain his breath and his capacity for equilibrium.

"Charlotte, where can I take him?"

She murmured something in answer. Must have motioned for them to follow, for Seiji got him walking.

"My hut." She said curtly, pulling back the leather flap that served as a door. "He won't last long. Might as well go in a decent bed, huh?"

Ryo blinked at her owlishly, astonished that she could be so cavalier about it. So coldly matter of fact. But then she was already dead.

"Shut the fuck up." Seiji hissed at her. Seiji never cursed. It shocked Ryo to no ends. She shrugged and left them.

Seiji was shaking. Ryo could feel it through his hands and the arm that supported him. Seiji let him sit down on the low, fur covered pallet on his own, and Ryo reached out to grab his wrist before he could pull back.

"It'll be okay, Seiji." He promised, making himself believe it. "We'll get home and you'll just dump me in a volcano somewhere and it'll all be okay. Don't worry."

Seiji blinked down at him slowly. Looked down at Ryo's hand on his wrist and sank to sit beside him on the pallet.

Very carefully he said. "The next time you wreck my car in the middle of the night and go chasing after some unknown thing in the woods -- I'm going to kill you. Understand?"

It was too seriously said for Ryo to do anything but nod slowly. Seiji sighed, reached out with both hands and cupped Ryo's face, pressing his lips against his forehead.

"Sorry about the car, Seiji." Very small voice.

"I forgive you." Murmured absently.

Seiji pressed his head against his shoulder. Seiji's hand carefully stroked his back, well away from the wounds. It was nice. The first nice thing he had felt in a long time. He might have drifted asleep leaning there, but Seiji scooted deeper onto the pallet and lay them both down, very wary of Ryo's hurts. It was still comfortable. It was more than comfortable. He drifted with Seiji's smell in his nostrils and Seiji's warmth against his side, only vaguely aware of Seiji's eyes focused on the thatch roof, and Seiji's breathing gone shallow and uneven.

He didn't know how long they'd lain there, when Seiji shifted suddenly, pulling his arm out from under Ryo's shoulders, half sitting up to look down at him, a curious expression on his face. Fuzzily, Ryo blinked up at him.

"Seiji?" he asked, because Seiji looked distressed. Worried. There was a faint line between those elegant blonde brows. "Wha's wrong, Seiji?" his voice slurred a little with interrupted sleep.

Seiji reached down and touched his face. Fingers slipped into his hair, testing its texture, as if Seiji had never felt it before. For a moment there was something in those blue eyes that was --- not Seiji. Not any expression he knew Seiji to wear. A curiosity. A -- hunger?

It just struck him, in the shadows of the hut, with those long fingers sliding down his neck to rest against his pulse, that it wasn't even Seiji sitting over him. That it was some stranger with old, old eyes. And he had to blink to clear his own vision and convince himself otherwise.

Then abruptly Seiji snatched his fingers away as if he'd been burnt. And all the strangeness evaporated from his eyes and they were just Seiji's eyes again, only now they were wide and filled with what Ryo tentatively thought might have been horror. And for the life of him he couldn't understand what had brought that expression about.

"Seiji---?"

"Shut up, Ryo." Seiji hissed at him, scrambling backwards in a most unSeiji-like fashion off the pallet. Then he was flinging the flap aside and stalking out of the tiny hut. And Ryo was left wondering what the hell had just happened.


God. God. His hands were shaking. Badly. When he clenched his fists the tremors seemed to seep into his bones. An insidious and indignant intrusion upon his self-control, which he despised. Much like the thing lurking at the corner of his awareness. The former had come upon him with no prompting whatsoever. The latter was wholly a product of his own stupidity.

Seiji had never, in all his life, been one for self-incrimination. It was not in his nature. But the names he hissed under his breath as he swept past the rough fortifications of the village and out into the relative quiet of the surrounding forest were directed solely and unflatteringly inwards. Which in itself was alarming. Fits of blind temper were not his fashion.

He stopped by a stream where the village obviously got its water supply if the well worn path leading to its shallow banks was any indication. He took a breath for calm. Took another to try and clear his head of all the obstacles placed there by anger and --- he dared to admit it -- fear. He could not deal with this problem without a clear head. He could not find a solution without a mind free of frustration.

There was a deal.

He slowly exhaled, not certain if that had been a memory of a conversation that had probably taken place wholly within his head, or if it had been whispered to him in the here and now. Either way, he wanted the presence gone and the bargain void.

Bargain's a bargain.

Again with the whispery taunt. It wasn't as clear as it had been before. As if it were muffled by clouds or distance or his own determination not to acknowledge it.

Stupid. Abysmally stupid what he had done. If it had even been all his notion to begin with. As if something else hadn't swayed his readiness to agree to such a risky proposition. Of course if he hadn't accepted the help during the duel, nothing ever would have come of it. He would not have been indebted. He'd be dead. Or indebted in another fashion to Anenhotep and his friends more than likely with him. So not completely without benefit the pact he had struck. Only he had not fully realized the extent of the fulfillment.

The blank periods worried him. The periods where he was vaguely aware of what he was doing, as if watching through a dream were unsettling. When he fought out of that cloud to find his hands on Ryo and speculation that was not his own shifting through his head --- that was beyond any bargain he had made.

He wanted the thing he had unwisely picked-up gone. He thought he could force it out. It was nothing more than the echo of a ghost after all. A disembodied soul with no real claim on physical reality.

He sank down, his back against a smooth barked tree, his feet inches from the pebbly bank of the stream. He shut his eyes, trying to will himself into a place of pure calm. A place where he had complete control of his spirit and his mind and his body.

There was a vague sense of alarm from something that was not quite him as he sank towards that serenity. There was a sense of divided personality, a sense of betrayal and desperation. Of yearning for --- what? Everything. Everything that had been denied for longer than he could possibly imagine.

You promised. Something railed at him. You took my help and now you try and avoid the payment.

You had your payment. He kept his breathing even, his eyes shut. You've seen the world through me, now go away and leave me in peace.

Not so easy as that. Not so trivial a payment. You can't force me out so soon.

A muscle twitched in irritation. He couldn't stop it. He couldn't quite stop the thing eeling around in his head. That impotentness offended him.

A little longer. It purred, soft and enticing. He thought that whatever it had been -- or whoever -- that it had been very adept at getting its way.

He opened his eyes in frustration and hissed. "Don't even think about my friends."

There was a drifting amusement. But you think about him all the time.

Sudden anger rushed in, chasing out the calm.

"Hey, Seiji."

He blinked and spun, disoriented by the intrusion of a very real voice in the midst of his mental dialogue. It was Rowan, sauntering down the trail, his thumbs hooked in his belt, a vaguely smug look on his face, as if he found it amusing he had taken Seiji by surprise.

Seiji glared, and Rowan's lips curved up into a grin. He jerked his head back towards the village.

"C'mon, we're getting together to do some serious brainstorming about how to get back home. We need your input."

Reasonable request. He took a breath to compose himself, then nodded. Followed Rowan back to the village and towards the hut Charlotte had let him use for Ryo. He didn't particularly wish to see Ryo at the moment. Not with the realization that his -- preoccupation with Ryo had sparked an interest in the presence lurking in his head.

He stepped inside anyway, because Rowan was holding the flap aside for him and not to have would have made him seem the fool. And Seiji so hated to be associated with fools. Being one was quite unnerving.

Kento and Sai were already there. Kento on the floor with a jug of what smelled to be wine in his lap and bowl of stew cradled in his hands. Sai leaned against the side of the pallet and Ryo sat upon it, propped against the side of the hut. He had a look in those wide blue eyes of his that Seiji normally found silently satisfying. Uncertainty and just a little bit of expectation. He didn't understand why Seiji had taken off earlier. He didn't know if he had done anything wrong, which was pure Ryo, who would always assume he had blundered somehow before trying to place the blame elsewhere. That guileless capacity to accept culpability never ceased to just make Seiji --- hot.

So he looked elsewhere. At Kento shoveling stew into his mouth with a crudely carved wooden spoon. At Sai, who leaned forward to allow Rowan to scoot in behind him, the two of them making a comfortable place for themselves at the corner of fur draped pallet and wall. Which meant Seiji either sat on the floor or found a place on the pallet at the opposite end from Ryo.

He sat on the pallet.

"Want some stew, Seiji?" Kento said. "They got a kettle of it outside over the fire."

"You wanted to talk. Let's talk." It came out shorter than he'd meant it.

Kento lifted both brows. "What the hell's your problem?"

He would not stoop to trading insults with Kento.

"Please." Sai's voice dripped with exasperation. "Could we possibly get together and have a conversation without bickering? Would that be just too bazaar to ask of everyone?"

Seiji looked at his dirt grimed nails silently. Kento laughed.

"I'll give it a shot." Rowan said. "Might as well get down to it. How do we get home?"

"Ohhh, the million dollar question." Kento mumbled as he was cleaning his bowl, scraping out the last traces of moisture with his fingers. One hated to imagine what germ laden grime was lurking about hell.

"Well, easiest answer would be the same way we got here." Sai said thoughtfully.

"We can't. There was a gate. We didn't open it." Rowan shot back.

"Tulpa opened it." Kento said.

"Nooooo -- not exactly." Ryo said slowly, chewing on his own undoubtedly filthy nail. "Tulpa's servant did. That snaky thing. And he couldn't do it until I summoned the armor of Wildfire."

Seiji stared at him. They all did, while he silently dredged up recollection of that particular night.

"It said something like -- I gave it the power to create a doorway back. Or something."

"The armor was fueling it." Rowan said thoughtfully. "That's how we got here. Your armor was still there in the woods, feeding power into the gate and when we armored up, it started sucking power out of ours."

"I wonder," Seiji said. "If they're still feeding it?"

"After all this time?" Sai asked dubiously.

"Five armors ----" Seiji trailed off.

"We could always go and ask Tulpa how its done." Kento said.

"Yeah, why don't you get right on that, Kento." Rowan suggested.

"You know," Sai cut in. "If the gate was still around, wouldn't it make sense that it would be in the same place. That hill where we appeared here? Maybe if we went back there, we might be able to find something?"

"Well, that would make sense, but we went through the same gate Ryo did, and he didn't land there, did you?" Rowan countered, glancing at Ryo for confirmation.

Ryo gave him a blank, apologetic shrug. "I dunno, Rowan I sorta woke up in Tulpa's dungeon. But -- I think I was there for a while before that."

"Why do you say that?" Seiji asked. Ryo shrugged, absently rubbing his wrists, which were red and the very many scrapes and cuts just starting to scab over."

"I -- I think maybe I'd hung there a while --- at least it felt like it. Maybe a day or two."

"Are you sure?"

"No."

"And how long between the time you woke up and the time we got you out of Anenhotep's pole?"

"Ummm ---"

Seiji could see the struggle to calculate those none too lucid days in Ryo's eyes.

"Maybe four or five."

"There's no way." Rowan burst out. "Five days after he woke up. A few days before. We were hot on his trail and it did not take us a week to track him down."

"Not if time doesn't work the same here as it does in the mortal realm."

Rowan stared at him. Rowan's eyes got bright with sudden inspiration. "And if it doesn't -- if a few minutes there equals a couple of days passing here ---"

"--then the armor very well might still be powering the gate from the other side back home!" Sai finished in excitement.

"Lets go and take a look see where we popped out." Rowan said thoughtfully. "See if anything strikes a chord."

"And if nothing does?" Seiji asked.

"Then we haven't wasted that much time. Its not that far if memory serves. I'll get the wicked witch of the seas to take us out there. That'll get her off Kento's back for a while, huh buddy?" Rowan grinned at Kento. Kento glared back

"Animal magnetism." Kento grumbled.

"Yeah, right." Rowan laughed. "Me and Sai'll go, 'kay?"

"Yeah, whatever." Kento agreed.

Seiji nodded, distracted by a distant, evasive panic that was not his own -- a forming fear that when he left the thing clinging to him would be stranded without form or physical senses. It would in essence be blind, deaf and dumb to the world.

Seiji pushed the thoughts away, and for a moment blinked in disorientation when his mind was suddenly his own again. Sai was already on his feet, dusting off his trousers. He and Rowan were discussing how to talk Charlotte into taking them back to the place they had first come into this realm at. Kento was muttering something about a third or fourth helping of stew. Ryo was looking at him, as if he expected something to be said.

Seiji turned his back and slipped out of the hut before Sai and Rowan. There was nothing to be said and no explanation that Seiji felt inclined to offer. He was not of a mind to announce his foolish choice to one and all. One could hope -- one could fervently hope -- that crossing the dimensional gateway and going back home would solve the problem with none the wiser.

 

 

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