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Vindication

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Six

 

Sanzo came back to awareness with a sharp intake of breath and a keen stabbing pain that started at the end of his arm and seemed to blossom into red-hot pain as it traveled up his elbow, past his shoulder and into the center of his being. He'd hit his hand on the stone wall. Maybe made a gesture in the uneasy sleep he'd fallen helplessly into. He thought Gojyo had been here when he'd last been awake. Sitting with his back to the wall on the floor, sulking. Refusing to accept perfectly sound reason. Refusing to accept anything but what his own faulty senses told him. Refusing to see the inherent danger of a youkai that could turn the thoughts of other youkai. It was a powerful creature who could accomplish that. No simple pioneer out to escape persecution in the uncharted west.

Gojyo was an idiot -- but, grudgingly enough, one had to admit he usually possessed enough common sense to see the obvious -- which meant he was spellbound somehow -- which meant Sanzo was going to have to exert no small bit of effort to remedy the situation. No easy thing when it hurt to breath. When it hurt to simply exist.

Sanzo shut his eyes and tried to ignore the multitude of hurts. The little ones were as irksome as the big ones. Impossible to disregard. A few long, even breaths to calm himself, to put himself on a level above the pain where he could function -- he tried to push himself up with his good hand and almost got there despite the blaring ache in his shoulder. Then something sounding very much like bone shifted and stole all breath and all thought and he found himself laying flat on his back again, stars dancing in his vision and the sound of grating bone echoing over and over inside his head.

Ribs. Badly broken ribs. He shuddered and gingerly moved his good hand across his side, feeling for the tender spots. He vaguely recalled the damage being inflicted. He hadn't been all there after a while. A human body wasn't made to endure the strength of a higher level youkai set against it. Not for long, at any rate.

He tried again. This time slower and prepared for the pain. He curled his good arm reflexively about his side as he gained his feet. Stood there swaying while he waited for his vision to level out, then took an experimental step towards the door. What exactly me might do upon opening it hadn't been planned out. He had a primary goal, surely -- how to go about it could most certainly be worked out as he went. If luck was with him.

Of course karma worked in the most irritating ways. It seemed the bit of his attached to his own soul had taken a turn for the worse. He'd no sooner gotten the door open and attempted a laborious step out of it, than a large, overly ripe youkai who'd been sitting against the wall outside it, jerked his heavy browed head up and blinked in surprise at Sanzo's appearance.

The creature's stink was enough to make Sanzo wrinkle his nose in distaste. It was clearly one of the lowest of lower level Youkai, with a ponderous brow and lantern jaw, long sharp ears, one of which looked to have had a bite taken out of it during some drunken brawl or another. The red eyes were small and bovine. Bovine proving an adequate descriptive term, since shirtless, the youkai's manbreasts hung like cow udders above a large and hairy belly.

The youkai scrambled up with ungainly haste and blocked Sanzo's path. It was hard to look down one's nose at a lumbering youkai who topped one's own height by a good half a head, but Sanzo, being Sanzo managed it quite gloriously. If disdain were a weapon, the creature blocking his path would have been a bleeding puddle at his feet.

The youkai actually blanched, skin paling under an oily sheen of filth. Almost he took a step backwards in sheer intimidation, before duty and the simple instincts of a bully reasserted themselves. "You stay, human."

Sanzo lifted a narrow brow. "Who taught you how to speak? The same person who taught you basic hygiene, no?"

The youkai blinked slowly at him. Baffled no doubt by an unfamiliar word. Sanzo sighed, in no mood for this pungent obtrusion.

"Get out of my way, imbecile, before I move you."

"What?" As if the creature couldn't fathom such an obviously inferior physical specimen threatening a Goliath like itself.

"Are you deaf as well? Move! Your fat ass is blocking the whole hall."

"Wha --- fat? You shut up." The youkai howled in indignation. A big hand shot out and caught Sanzo in the shoulder. A healthy Sanzo might have avoided the shove entirely. A barely functional one took it and all the force behind it and staggered back, hitting the open door. He took the impact between the shoulder blades and hissed as it jarred every questionable bone in his body. He uttered something entirely unmonklike under his breath and surged forward, indignation and rage momentarily covering his pain. He balled his good hand and slammed it into the youkai's thick neck. Maybe if the creature had had one or two chins less than it did, the blow might have been more successful. As it was, the youkai gasped, made appropriate choking sounds, even turned a satisfying shade of red before roaring its outrage and charging towards a none too swift of foot monk with outstretched arms.

"Fuck --" Sanzo managed to get out before the youkai swept him off his feet and back into the room, the both of them crashing soundly to the floor. With no less than three hundred pounds of youkai on top and the unforgiving stone of the monastery floor beneath, Sanzo quite predictably found himself at a rather painful disadvantage. His head hit the floor, the youkai crashed down upon his ribs and vision went spiraling down a deep dark pit.

He came back not long after, with the youkai crawling to his knees over him, snarling in his face -- which bared impressive yellowed teeth -- and generally giving the impression that it was considering gutting him on the spot. Reflexively he went for the gun that should have been secreted in his robes, then recalled its loss. He didn't even have the presence of the sutra to aid in ridding himself of this slavering youkai.

And he accused Gojyo of being an idiot. He was as big a one for venturing out unarmed. Of course he had the excuse of not quite thinking straight when he'd lurched up out of that narrow and uncomfortable bunk.

He turned his head looking for a weapon of any sort within arm's reach. Saw just out reach, the remnants of the table Gojyo had shattered to make splints for his fingers. A shard of wood might be of use -- if he could reach it.

"Get off!" he hissed, bucking at the oppressive weight even as he tried to squirm towards the wooden wreckage. The youkai slammed a hand down in the center of his chest, robbing him of even more air and pinning him like a butterfly to a board. It hurt. It was mortifying -- to be in this position with such a lumbering, brutish youkai.

It leaned close, giving Sanzo a taste of its putrid breath. He almost fainted from the stench of it. Or perhaps it was the weight pressing down upon his ribs. Either way his vision went swimmy and his head spun at an alarming rate.

"You -- smell good." The observation caught him off guard. The notion that the youkai could smell anything over its own aroma was staggering. And then the even more worrisome thought struck of whether he smelled good in the sense of "something roasting over the spit" smelled good, or in the more appalling sense of "something this thing had the inclination to poke its no doubt dirty, no doubt easily excited prick into" smelled good. From the pressure of the youkai's crotch against his thigh, he had the sinking sensation that it was the later.

"Not -- in your -- fucking -- dreams." He ground out and made a concerted effort towards the ruins of the table.

 

*

 

Gojyo came to the entrance to the shrine the first time and passed it by with an aversion that was almost palpable. The second time he hovered near the chained doors, his heart beating so hard in his chest that it felt like some wild thing trying its hand at escape. He had to bolt or vomit up the contents of his stomach right there on the floor before those hideous doors. He lurked about in the main temple after that, stepping warily past youkai sprawled out in the light of mid-day. He'd had to wait till the last of them had passed out again from a night of diversion. He hadn't seen Despair at all. Not that he'd spent a great deal of time among them. Just long enough to grab a portion of meat and drink and heavy bread to take back to the cell and a listing Sanzo.

Sanzo wasn't in the best of shapes. Sanzo was fevered and broken and in the shittiest of shitty moods. Gojyo had never been so glad to see unconsciousness take a body as he had Sanzo last night. Sanzo didn't need a gun when his tongue could punch holes in a body just as easily as one of his bullets.

He understood, maybe a little bit, the vicious mood. Sanzo was feeling helpless and didn't like it. Sanzo despised not having control of the world around him. Hakkai could sit and theorize on the reasons why. Hakkai liked playing out the whys and wherefores of people's thinking. He liked validating Sanzo and Sanzo's rational and their own baffling loyalty in doggedly following on his heels.

The way Gojyo saw it, if somebody was being an ass, they were being an ass and he couldn't care less if they'd had a fucked up childhood, or some complex or another or were holding on to this monumental guilt that they couldn't ever let go that made them what they were. He had all of that and he wasn't such an asshole. At least not all the time.

Fucking high handed monk -- telling him he was being blindsided, when it was probably Sanzo's own acerbic pessimism that was making him see the worst in Despair's motives.

Oops. There he went again, justifying a man he'd hardly known a day. Ready to overlook all the slaughtered humans in the village and the bonepile in the monastery just because Despair was on a crusade against bigotry. Gojyo ran a hand over his face and found he was sweating. Found strands of long hair sticking to damp skin and pushed them back in irritation; jerked off his bandanna and used it to wipe his face, then pulled the annoying hair back into a tail at his neck to keep it in line.

Okay. He was ready again. Back behind the Buddha to the deathly quiet hall before the shrine. He hesitated at the chains on the door handles, then shook his head and set about picking the lock.

Click. The ancient lock snapped open. A slither of chain, which he caught before it could hit the floor and make a noise. A breath and he pushed one of the doors inward. Into darkness. The torches were out. The place was as black as a crypt, which thought didn't make him feel any better about intruding upon it. He grabbed a oil lantern from its hook down the hall, fished out his lighter and lit the wick. Thusly armed with light, he stepped into the shrine.

Nothing. Dark walls and shadows. The looming form of the idol at the end. The indistinct skeleton form of the long dead monk crucified upon it. Sanzo was full of shit. There were no children. There were no multitude of innocent corpses. He took a breath in relief-- pulling musty, stale air into his lungs. Coughed as if he'd drawn in something foul and felt unwanted bile rise in the back of his throat. His eyes watered of their own accord and he wiped at them absently.

There, by the dais before the alter, lying catty cornered on the steps leading up to the Buddha, was the shaku jou. He strode forward, grabbed it up and felt better with the heft of the shaft firmly in hand. Felt better at the weight of it and the glint of the sharp edge of the blade in the flickering light.

There was no sign of the gun. It would have been less obvious in the shadows anyway. Maybe Despair had it. If so, Sanzo could fucking ask for it back himself. Gojyo had done more than enough breaking in here on this fool's errand. Sanzo had just had one too many knocks on the head of late, that was all. Not that Sanzo would believe that. Not that Sanzo wasn't going to bitch him up and down for not seeing what Sanzo had wanted him to see.

He cast a look up to the sunken corpse on the idol. It had probably been a shrunken old man to begin with -- now it was almost mummified. The eye holes were deep, dark pits that seemed trained upon him. He took an uneasy step backwards and his foot hit something that shouldn't have been there. He'd certainly seen no obstructions on the floor on the way in. He looked down, searching for the thing that had almost tripped him. Focusing on something that physically his body knew was there. This time he saw it. A foot. A sprawled, skinny limb with pale, stained skin. The leg was attached to a body, lying with the stiffness of the long dead against another small form. And that one was lying against another. They cropped up like nightmares out of the shadows, as if a mist were dissolving and revealing the gruesome collection of them. He blinked in utter, profound shock, hands gone numb, mind following suit as the sight and smell and impact of what lay piled against the walls of this shrine hit him. As what had been so cleverly hidden from him before became painfully clear now -- and all because a bit of clumsiness on his part. All because his mind had been perfectly content to believe the fallacy until his body stumbled upon the physical evidence of what the illusion was hiding.

He didn't even know he'd begun cursing until the sound of it was loud enough to echo off the walls of the shrine. The wavering reflection of his own voice brought him back to his senses. Made him take a sudden hard look around the room in estimation of how many small bodies were here. Made his lip curl in anger -- both at the culprit of such a mass murder of innocents and at himself for being blind to it. He tightened his grip on the staff and stalked for the door, vision tunneling -- half following the reflex instinct to hunt down Despair and call him out for this -- half just needing to get out and into air that didn't hold the stench of so much death.

The youkai that saw him outside the doors wasn't despair. It was an over muscled thug with a sloping cranium and curving, sharp claws. Claws no doubt that had tasted a good deal of innocent blood. Maybe even tasted the flesh of some of those kids in the shrine.

"What were you doing in there. Nobodies allowed in there, half-breed." It came at him, indignant at his intrusion, loud enough to cause a stirring in the outer temple. Gojyo grinned humorously and took of his head. A harsh, smooth swing and the chain whipped out with its deadly blade at the end and sheared through flesh and bone. The youkai didn't even get the chance to scream. The ones creeping out from behind the great Buddha to see what the disturbance was did. Loud and enraged they made a disorganized rush at him.

Gojyo smiled again, this time falling into the fervor of battle that always made his blood sing and his body fly high--like he was in the arms of a drug. Blood spurted. Flesh severed. Life ceased to be.

But in the end there were too many of them. He knew there were more than he could deal with one on one. Those he took out in the hall were only the fore runners. When sanity returned he turned tail and bolted when he had the chance back to the room with Sanzo, figuring that broken or not, the monk better be capable of flight, because once the full contingent of this place was roused the two of them weren't going to stand a chance in any hell he cared to contemplate.

The door was open when he came pounding down the hall, he took the turn into it full tilt and skidded to a shocked halt three steps into the chamber.

"What the fuck -- -?"

"Shut -- the hell -- up." Sanzo was having a hard time breathing. Sanzo was on the floor with a copiously bleeding, mammothly proportioned youkai sprawled across his legs. There was a nasty shard of wood protruding from one of the youkai's eye sockets. The youkai's filthy pants were half way down his flabby legs, revealing a none- to- appealing rear end.

"Goddamn, what were you doing?" Gojyo gasped.

Sanzo's eyed narrowed. A faint, furious flush rose across his pale cheeks. A vein began thrumming in agitation in his temple. "You -- stupid -- fucking -- asshole -- get him off of me?!!"

"What -- god, he's heavy!! -- did you do?" Gojyo grunted and managed to roll the youkai over and off of Sanzo, revealing rumbled. bloodstained robes pushed up enough to reveal long, pale legs. Sanzo glared and adjusted the robes.

"You ass --"

"Yeah, you mentioned that." Gojyo latched hold of the monk's arm and hauled him up. "Listen, we gotta go and now."

"Did you get my gun?"

"No-- we don't have time --"

"The fuck we don't. Why do you have blood on you?"

"Because I've been killing youkai. Now we really need to go." He yanked on Sanzo's arm and the monk staggered, balance and strength elusive things. An angry hiss, which Gojyo didn't have the time or the inclination to answer with an apology. He kept his fingers tight around Sanzo's arm and hauled his complaining self out into the hall and as fast as he could manage to get the monk to move towards the only exit he knew of.

They came upon the first signs of his carnage half way there, and the first live opposition. A trio of youkai armed with clubs and hand axes. Gojyo just let Sanzo go and lunged forward, slashing out with the shaku jou so the chain sailed forth and caught two in one swipe. He slammed the butt end of the thing up under the third one's jaw and heard breaking bone and splintering teeth. The youkai might not have been dead, but it went down like stone in water.

Sanzo was leaning precariously against the wall when he went back for him. Paler than normal and covered with a thin sheen of sweat. His good hand curled around his ribs protectively, A little bead of blood colored the corner of his lips.

Gojyo didn't have time to ask. Not with the sound of footsteps and rattling weapons coming down the hall towards them. He shoved his free hand under Sanzo's arm and around his back, got him off the wall and moving towards the main temple and the doors out of this place. Almost got there before the youkai poured out of the body of the temple at them, blocking the route to freedom. Down the hall on the otherside a dark flood of more of them came. Which left the unlocked doors of the shrine behind them.

Fucking lousy choice for an escape route. Back right into the gaping mouth of a tomb with no easy out once they were in it. Nothing to do though, with Sanzo coughing up blood and listing on his feet but retreat into that darkness and slam the doors shut, using the shaku jou to bolt it until he found the bolt meant to rest within the four slots along the inside of the door. A damn secure method of locking this room from within. He wondered if Despair had added that little touch or if it had already been there.

They pounded on the doors from outside. Ruthless -- mindless in their assault on it. He wondered if Despair were out there. Wondered if Despair had some method more insidious than brute strength to get at them. Or maybe he didn't need to do anything at all. Maybe he'd just let them rot in here with the rest of the lost souls.

"Fuck." He whispered, cursing himself for backing them into this hopeless corner. Cursing himself for not using his head when that first youkai had discovered him and talking his way out of it, rather than setting the lot of them on their heels.

"What have you done?"

Gojyo turned, a sharp retort trembling on his lips. It died there, smothered by the blood trickling down Sanzo's chin and the disembodied look in his eyes. He'd sank to his knees on the floor between the rows of bodies. There was bafflement in his eyes. Honest to god bewilderment that one just didn't get to see in Genjo Sanzo's eyes all that often, if at all. A damn good indication that he was slipping into something that Gojyo might not be able to bring him out of. Hakkai -- maybe. If they ever got the chance to see him again. If they both didn't die here.

"I Fucked up." He answered and dropped into a crouch before the monk. Reached out and caught Sanzo's jaw and tilted his face to the side so he could see the blood. "Coughing up blood?"

Sanzo blinked at him, trying to focus. He was hot and clammy to the touch. "Am I?"

"Yeah. I think so." Gojyo sighed, casting a wary look about in the flickering light of the lantern he'd left burning on his hasty first exit of this place. A dozen -- two dozen faces twisted in varying degrees of death peered back at him. He shuddered and rose, feeling the bile at the back of his throat again.

"C'mon. Let's move to the back."

Sanzo didn't acknowledge that, so Gojyo pulled him up, more deliberately this time, careful of broken bones and damaged bleeding things inside of frail flesh. He let Sanzo slide down into the corner between Buddha and back wall, and went to cut down the old monk and toss the light body into the shadows with the rest of the corpses. He retrieved the lantern and sat it close by, then settled down next to Sanzo to listen to the sounds of the youkai working to get into this chamber. After a while the banging on the door stopped. There was the sound of chains rattling and he shut his eyes, figuring somebody had decided to lock them in. Wonderful.

 

**

 

"Look!! Look!! We can cross there!!" Goku bounded over the charred timbers that made up what was left of the narrow bridge they'd come to many miles up the river.

"Be careful --" Hakkai warned, but might as well have been talking to empty air for all the heed Goku paid him.

It was not a very encouraging bridge. It had been burned or blown up some while back judging from the look of it. Jagged rails of wood reached towards each other from the two severed ends, leaving a healthy gap between them. It creaked alarmingly when Goku scampered out upon it and Hakkai couldn't swear to it, but it very likely might have swayed precariously as well.

A very, very unencouraging bridge.

"Goku, I don't think this is safe. . . ."

"Didn't say it was safe." Goku stood at the very edge, balancing on the skeletal remains of the bridges framework. "But we can jump this. I can jump this easy."

Hakkai edged out a little, peering down at very dark water below. A good distance below. They'd come into the mountains and the river was a chasm far below the trail they were following. Jeep drifted overhead, floating in air currents, sailing around and under the suspect bridge, graceful as a feather falling.

Falling. Hakkai forced himself to look up from the drop. Thought that there certainly had to be an easier, safer way across. It was just a matter of convincing Goku of that.

"I really don't think we should --" he started reasonably.

"Why not?" Goku hopped around and whined at him. "Its not like they're gonna have left any bridges whole. This is the third one we've passed that's been like this. We've gotta get across, Hakkai. We've gotta find Sanzo."

"I know. Really, I do. But we won't be of any use to anyone if we fall to our deaths risking something like this."

Goku set his jaw. His great amber eyes turned stubborn. Hakkai sighed and thought there was really no talking him out of something when he got that look. All the childish naiveté was gone and replaced by plain, simple resolve. It was times like these, with an expression like the one he wore now, that one had to remember that Goku was no teenager. That Goku had been around a very long time indeed. And right now, Goku had a mission and that was to find Sanzo.

"I'm gonna try it."

"Could we please at least wait until it's lighter?"

Goku didn't answer. Goku just bunched up his muscles, took one step and launched himself off the very end of the beam he was balanced on.

Hakkai held his breath --

-- Let it go with a relieved sigh when Goku landed with all the agility of a smug cat on the end of a charred and blackened beam. He spun, with a flare of arms and a triumphant smile to beckon Hakkai.

"See? It's easy." To which tongue wagging taunt to the gods, the unstable beam gave way and dumped Goku towards the river. Hakkai let out a startled cry. Goku wailed and flailed and his short cloak snagged on a jutting metal bolt and brought his fall to an abrupt and jarring halt.

There wasn't a lot for him to grab hold of. All his twisting and turning was doing was ripping the fabric that had saved his life.

"Don't move! Stop moving!!" Hakkai cried desperately.

Goku stared up at him in a panic, eyes saucer-wide and frightened.

Hakkai couldn't make that jump. He knew he couldn't make that jump. He backed up almost to the base of the bridge and launched himself at a dead run towards the otherside regardless.

He just missed the end of the furthest beam. Caught it with outstretched hands and ripped nails trying to hold on and gain purchase. He hung there for a breathless moment after he'd gotten a firm hold, trying to settle his stomach. Jeep fluttered about him in distress, making shrill angry noises. Hakkai hut his eyes for a moment to calm himself, to get ahold of his hammering heart, then set about carefully finding footing on the wood work underneath him. In the dark it was treacherous going. The ineffectual pull of small dragon jaws on the shoulder of his shirt was encouraging, if not actually helpful in the physical sense.

"I'm okay. I'm okay." He assured the little dragon when he'd found a stable ledge. Jeep warbled uncertainly, in no way assured of such a thing, when humans launched themselves into the air and plummeted like stones.

Hakkai climbed down and latched onto the Goku's collar, hauling him up with a grunt.

"It wasn't my fault." Goku muttered, embarrassed and more than dexterous enough to scramble up the framework of the bridge once a handhold had been achieved. Hakkai made slower work of it, eventually joining his pacing, agitated companion on stable ground.

"The beam broke!"

"I saw it."

"I told you I could make and I did and it wasn't my fault that --"

"Its quite all right." Hakkai smiled placatingly, placing a hand on Goku's shoulder. "No harm done. And we're across the river. I don't know if you could have gotten me across if you hadn't fell." His expression grew more cheerful.

Goku's darkened, accompanied by the stain of flushed cheeks. "I didn't fall." He grumbled. "The bridge broke."

"Of course. Regardless, now we're that much closer to finding Sanzo and Gojyo."

Goku's head tilted and lightening fast his embarrassment dissipated, replaced by excitement. "Which way should we go?"

"Well, we've walked quite a ways upstream-- maybe we should walk back down towards where we last saw them and start from there?"

As long as they were taking action, Goku was game.

 

 

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