In the darkness it blended with the cliffs surrounding it as if it had risen out of earth itself. Bleak, stark, blocky in its architecture. It had not been built to please any aesthetic. Its lines spoke all of practicality. Of defense from the rugged weather of this wild land; of defense against things less insidious and more malicious in their attacks. Animals, bandits — youkai. Like all such places it was supposed to offer shelter to the weary and respite to the tired and the injured. The torches atop its walls made a heart swell with gratitude for the life that surely thrived within that thick stone boundary.
“It’s a monastery.” Sanzo stated. He leaned a hip against a rock at the bottom of the narrow trail leading up to the dark structure. There was something of victory in his tone. A smug affirmation that he hadn’t yielded to the exhaustion and the dizziness after all and that Gojyo could damn well go straight to hell for even thinking he would.
“Figures.” Gojyo muttered, staring up the treacherous trail. “All’s I need is a bunch of backwoods monks preaching peace and restraint at me.”
Sanzo sniffed. “Wouldn’t matter anyway. You’re irredeemable.”
“Look who’s talking. Its a wonder something off high doesn’t come down and smote you into a puddle of goo for the sacrilege of wearing those robes.”
Sanzo lifted a brow and gave Gojyo that cold little venomous smile he sometimes used. “Wrong religion. And fuck you, too.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Gojyo started up the trail, using the shaku jou as a walking staff to help him up the steep path. Small rocks tumbled back under his feet, rolling back down the path towards Sanzo, who was making a slower, more careful ascent. It was a damned efficient place to defend, he thought, with just the one clear path leading up and the cliffs a sheer face behind it. It wouldn’t take more than a man or two to hold the great wooden doors at the top of the path. Somebody had been thinking strategy at least when they’d built this place.
He stopped at the top and pressed his shoulders against the doors, waiting for Sanzo to complete his climb. The monk took his damned time about it, trying to make his weakness look like leisure. Stubborn.
“So, do we bang on the door or yell or what? You think they’ll let us in in the middle of the night?”
“Of course they’ll let us in.” Sanzo sounded offended that Gojyo even suggest that someone might turn him, Sanzo, out. As if his personality were so sparkling that folks couldn’t wait to get the bitter taste of it.
There was a little bell in the stone arch above the door that Gojyo hadn’t seen. Sanzo reached past his head and rung it. It echoed in the night. They stood there in the dark waiting.
Sanzo let out an agitated breath and rattled the thing again impatiently. “Are they complete morons? They should have someone on watch.”
“Maybe they heard it was you coming?”
“Oh, shut up.” Crossly said. The bell was attacked again.
Gojyo hid a smile. The first one he’d had the energy or the wherewithal to summon since they’d come upon that damned meat locker of a village by the river. Pissing off Sanzo made him happy. It validated his existence sometimes when everything else just seemed destined to go wrong.
“Maybe they’re not home–”
Sanzo swung a glare his way, something nasty on the tip of his tongue. The hinges creaked on the doors before he could foul the air by uttering it. A little disapproving frown touched his lips, which meant whoever was unlucky enough to be answering their late night summons was going to probably regret it.
One of the doors was pulled back just wide enough for a man in a brown robe with the hood pulled up over his head to fight the night’s chill, to peer out at them.
“What do you want?” A hoarse, suspicious voice.
“What do we want? What does it look like we want standing out here in the middle of the night?” Sanzo snapped. “Idiot. We need shelter and food and information if anyone here has half the brain it takes to provide it.”
Oh, in a rare mood indeed. The knock on the head had certainly given Sanzo’s tongue a nice, sharp edge to it. Gojyo sighed and let his eyes travel up the steep walls of the monastery. There were wooden cross beams protruding from the stone at even intervals. All that was really visible of them were dark silhouettes, but oddly enough some of them sported large, lumpy protrusions. Some of those protrusions swung lazily in the night breeze. He took a deep, indrawn breath, even as Sanzo was marching through the gates, and smelled the faint trace of rancid flesh.
“Fuck.” He said softly. Fuck. And slipped through the doors after Sanzo.
There were five of them there, monks in their coarse dark robes, all their hoods pulled up against the night. Only five that gathered in the light from the torches inside the gates to welcome them, but there were more in the shadows. More lurking at the edges of his awareness; that his senses had to stretch to discern at all. Which meant Sanzo didn’t see them or hear the slight rustle of their movements or smell the scent of the heavy meal they’d just eaten. Meat. He smelled the traces of cooked meat in the air. Of pork maybe. He wasn’t sure. It was out of place here regardless.
Sanzo was bitching at them and they weren’t doing much answering back, like good little monks who had to be shocked shitless at the sheer audacity of the strangers come knocking at their door and one of them dressed in the garb of a priest of very high standing. Gojyo peered into the shadows of the courtyard, at the wooden scaffolding that ran along the inside of the walls and the possibility of crouched forms up there. He heard the faintest scrape of something metal across something else metal and tightened his fingers on the shaft of the shaku jou.
They were ushering Sanzo towards the doors of the main building across the courtyard. Sanzo didn’t even look back to see if he would follow, either trusting that he would or not giving a damn one way or another. He trotted to catch up, the fluttering in his gut strong enough to make his hands tremble just a little. He wasn’t usually flighty. He’d never backed down from adversity. This whole last damned day had just felt — wrong. Nightmarish almost. Maybe it was making him jump at shadow monsters that didn’t exist. Maybe he was just being a fool and needed Sanzo to tell him as much.
“Hey, wait –”
Sanzo didn’t bother to comply. They opened the doors into the monastery proper and light and warmth spilled out into the night. And the smell of too damned many unwashed bodies mixed with the pungent tang of home brewed liquor and roasting meat. The sound of labored, excited breath and the glinting light of too many sets of red eyes to take proper count of.
Sanzo stopped dead so abruptly the monks behind almost collided with him. In the light, Gojyo saw the dirty, curving nails that adorned the tips of their hands visible from under the cuffs of the robes. Youkai. Everywhere. Growling softly under their breaths — crouching; ready to pounce — staring; waiting for that moment when the prey was ready to bolt and it was time to attack.
Death. They’d walked blindly into death. It adorned the walls around them, adding a bit of gruesome decoration to otherwise stark ornamentation. Hands. Hundreds of them maybe, driven into the walls by spikes. In some of the rigid curled fingers he saw the glitter of dangling beads. Prayer beads. Monks hands.
He saw that subtle movement of Sanzo going for the gun in his robes. Thought that the two or three of them he’d take down before the rest of them swarmed over them like damned black locust wouldn’t make a spit in the bucket. He stepped forward in one long stride, past the tensing youkai in the monk’s robes, and close up behind Sanzo, reaching around him to snag the wrist going for the gun, folding his other arm around him in what might have been casual camaraderie, but in fact took a damn lot of strength to keep the monk from jerking out from under him in indignity/ surprise/ anger.
“Well, this is a helluva lot more interesting than what I was expecting when I walked into this dump.”
“What did you expect?” A voice that sounded of deep earth and cavernous places asked. A man moved into the torch light, and the youkai bodies shifted to let him pass. “Coming in the company of that — double atrocity. Human and holy.”
Sanzo tried to jerk his wrist free, and Gojyo covered the effort of stopping him with a grin, grinding the narrow bones of Sanzo’s wrist together in an attempt to get him to stop; hoping against hopes that he’d look past the indignity and the anger and bend to reason in the face of overwhelming odds.
“Human, yes. Atrocity — more often than not. Holy? Not a chance.”
“Really? And what are you, then?” The man — the youkai with the low, rumbling voice canted his head and waited, an almost pleasant smile on his lips. It didn’t reach his eyes. He was no lower level youkai. Not by a long shot. There were elegant lines to his face. There was a careful, calculated grace to his movements. Not like some of the almost beasts that crouched near him. On a level far above that.
Gojyo lifted his head, hoping the light would catch the deep red of his own eyes, hoping the almost unnatural crimson sheen of his hair might be noted. There’d been very few times in his life when he’d been grateful for the taint of youkai blood. Damned few times that’d he’d not cursed the color of his eyes or the hue of his hair.
“What do I look like?” he asked softly.
“You look like your mama spread her legs for any trash that walked by.” One of the others jeered.
“You look like a brethren that’s fallen to bad company.” The higher level youkai said softly, padding forward. His nails were long enough and sharp enough to gut a man. Judging from the decorations, Gojyo guessed he’d done a lot of that. He let go Sanzo’s wrist, reckoning he’d recognized the inherent danger of flying off the handle by now. Figuring that if push came to shove the both of them could take down enough of the youkai to at least make it worth their while before the mob got them. He’d rather not. He’d rather, if his rather’s mattered at all, get out of here alive, Sanzo and all.
He kept his arm draped around Sanzo’s shoulder, leaned there heavily enough that Sanzo had to shift to support the weight. “What? Him?” Gojyo smiled lazily and let the hand that had been on Sanzo’s wrist drift up to his face. He rubbed a knuckle across that smooth white skin and laughed, hoping like hell that Sanzo didn’t decide to shoot him instead of the enemy.
“Low as low can get, but he’s pretty. Can’t argue that. He pays for his keep.”
Which raised a few eyebrows and caused a few jeering chuckles, a few crude words. It rippled back into the depths of that very large temple chamber. How many were here, he couldn’t guess, but he thought they were all of them looking for a little fresh blood. Sanzo hissed under his breath and tensed; pissed off. Oh, very, very pissed off at this point.
“He’s a human priest.” A flat, unarguable statement, considering the obvious facts.
“What? These robes?” He lifted an edge of the sutra adorning the shoulders of Sanzo’s robes. “He stole them off a monk we robbed on the road, maybe a week or so back. Pretty spiffy, huh? The monk didn’t need them anymore.”
The youkai leaned close, he was almost Gojyo’s height, a little broader about the shoulders. A lot older around the eyes. He bent a little to scent Sanzo’s skin, like a big cat sniffing around something it was considering eating. Sanzo didn’t flinch. Just lifted his chin and glared steadily back.
“So you’re a whore and thief? What’s humanity coming to?”
“Don’t youkai ever bathe?” Sanzo asked it softly, wrinkling his nose a little in distaste. “Only a bunch of animals could turn a perfectly good temple into a pigsty.”
That got an outraged reaction from the youkai close enough to hear, which was a damn lot, considering the accuracy of youkai hearing. The higher level one straightened, a strange look on his face and for a moment, Gojyo figured they were gonna have to fight for it. Figured at the very least they were gonna eat Sanzo and thought, surprisingly enough, that it would be a waste and something to avoid if at all possible. But the youkai laughed, loudly and honestly and Gojyo relaxed a little bit.
“If you’re bedding him, you must have perseverance and courage.” The youkai chuckled. Sanzo simmered, casting Gojyo a glare from under his lashes that promised retribution.
“What’s your name, halfling?”
“Sha Gojyo.” He shrugged, stepping away from Sanzo and in front of him, trying to blot the image of priestly robes and indignant, arrogant human from this youkai’s memory. “What’s yours?”
“Humm. Names are such fickle things, don’t you think. You can call me Despair. Welcome to my home, Sha Gojyo.” He pointedly did not include Sanzo in that hospitality.
“Your home? Okay. I would say I like what you’ve done with the place —- but– I gotta admit. It sort of creeps me out. Had a bit of a problem with the former tenants, did you?”
Despair laughed, the white of his impressive array of teeth contrasting sharply with the chocolate of his skin. “Does that bother you, Sha Gojyo?”
Gojyo shrugged, flicking a hand towards the shadowed walls and their grisly ornamentation. “Not particularly. I’ve seen worse. Bloodier at any rate — practiced upon those who deserved it.”
“Deserve?” Despair’s amusement withered up. His red eyes turned hard. “What an ironic word, that. Retribution, retaliation, revenge — they all have such a fond place in my heart. Funny that humans came up with them all, isn’t it?”
“You’ve got a problem with humans?”
Despair canted his head, giving Gojyo a level, gauging stare. The room rustled with anticipation. The youkai hung on the every word of this man — this youkai — this Despair. Gojyo could understand it. There was a charisma about him. An underlying fire that intrigued even him.
“A problem? A problem? That’s such a polite way of putting it. Such a civilized way. Are you a civilized being, Sha Gojyo?”
“When I have to be.” Gojyo said, backing the words with a grim smile and a shifting of the shaku jou. The grin came back to Despair’s face. He draped an arm around Gojyo’s shoulders in a friendly way and glanced across him to Sanzo with a glint of dangerous speculation in his eye.
“We’ve come to a parting of ways, humanity and I.”
“Meaning, you did what?” Sanzo, being the supremely moronic, intelligent human-being that he was, asked in that dry, superior tone he used with those he felt were below him. In other words, most everyone he crossed paths with.
Despair’s eyes narrowed. The claws bit into Gojyo’s shoulders. Anger surged around them like some sort of infected boil about to burst from the pressure. With a surge of panic fueled by adrenaline and fear, Gojyo lunged out from under Despair’s arm, smashing his fist out in a back handed blow that caught Sanzo flat against the side of the head. The monk spun backwards in a flurry of robes and fluttering sutra — hit the floor at the feet of the surrounding youkai, who howled in glee and shoved him forward again, where he sprawled on hands and knees.
“Goddamned you, you worthless whore!! I’ve told you to keep your fucking mouth shut around your betters.” He took a breath, casting one last disapproving glare at Sanzo before turning to give Despair an apologetic shrug. “He’s an imbecile. Ignore him.”
He was going to die for this one way or another, that was plainly clear from the burning blue scowl that Sanzo shot up at him from under overly long, disarrayed golden hair. At least it had mollified Despair and fed the bloodlust of the youkai mob. They had been entertained and for the moment, the violence satisfied them.
He jerked Sanzo up, noting the monk reflexively had to brace his feet for balance– figuring that the blow had to have rattled his already fuzzy head. Served him right for looking to start trouble where they most definitely did not need it.
Despair leaned close to Sanzo, close enough so that his breath shifted stray stands of hair. Sanzo lifted his chin and glared back, all bluster and fearlessness despite the fact that the youkai outweighed him by close to a hundred pounds and had half a head’s height on him.
“Shall I tell you all the things I’ve done — or perhaps it would be more entertaining to show you. Human filth.”
Sanzo’s lips pulled back in a mirthless smile. He folded his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his robes as if he were bored by all of this. “You call me filth? You can’t even take out your garbage. You live in like animals. You mimic civility, but you keep these dogs at your feet. Is it pleasing to have such a dirty little kingdom to lord over? Does it fulfill your sense of — importance?”
Shit. Gojyo swallowed, feeling his face go a little pale. Expecting erupting violence at any moment. Despair placed one clawed hand on Sanzo’s shoulder, slowly raking the nails down the silken cloth of the embroidered sutra around his shoulders. Sanzo didn’t flinch.
“For a whore and thief, you have a highhanded way of talking, little man.”
“So do you, for a youkai.”
This was leading nowhere and fast. Gojyo had the sick little feeling in his gut again. Any headway he’d made with Despair, Sanzo was quickly destroying. Hitting the monk again, harder and maybe repeatedly seemed like a good option.
He settled for inserting the shaku jou between them, giving Sanzo a reprimanding stare and saying. “Shut up. I’ll deal with you later.” As if he were used to dealing out punishment for bad behavior. Sanzo lifted a brow at him. Despair did. He got a shoulder between them, a more substantial buffer than the shaku jou by far.
“Listen. We didn’t come here looking for trouble. I don’t care what you’re doing here, or what grievances you have with humans. I’m sure they’re justified. All we wanted was a place to rest. I understand if you’ve got things going on here that prevent that. We’ll be more than happy to leave you to them and be on our way.”
“I wouldn’t hear of it.” Despair said, smiling again. “I’d never turn a brethren away. Even one with a bit of human mixed into his heritage. You have a place to stay here, out of the weather.” He waved a hand around the room. “Pick a spot and its yours.”
Damn. Not what he wanted in the least. He most certainly not want to lay down among this lot of murdering youkai.
“No offense, but —” He thought fast and hard and came up with the most obvious need to not accept the offer. ” — we were looking for a bit more privacy, if you catch my drift. We can find it out in the forest.”
Despair looked past him to Sanzo, who Gojyo was certain had a most unpleasant expression on his face. “Oh, I think I do understand. Does he shut up when you have his legs in the air, or does it take pressing his face into a mattress to close that mouth?”
Gojyo thought answering that query was a death wish waiting to happen. He smiled weakly and shrugged. His back itched from the visual daggers being plunged into it.
“I have room for you. The man who used to use it — well, he lost his head. His hands are up there though, if you’re interested.”
“Ummm, no. Thanks. That’s very generous of you, but I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“I insist that you do.”
And that was that. Despair sent one of the youkai to led the way into the depths of the monastery. The lumbering thing might just have well have been a normal man, with thick brows and small squinty eyes. Only his pointed ears and red eyes gave him away. His hair was black enough to hide any tell tail shade of red. In that respect he was luckier than Gojyo. Others lurked behind them, curious or suspicious. There were too damn many of them. At the back of the main hall, where the icon of Buddha used to sit, there was a monstrous pile of bones, stripped clean of flesh. All the former occupants of the monastery might have been jumbled there for all he knew.
The big youkai pushed ahead of all the trailing ones, and grinned down at Sanzo. “Pretty hair. Never seen such hair.” He said and reached out to touch it. Sanzo growled and slapped the hand away.
“I’ll rip it off, if it touches me.”
The youkai snickered, not taking him seriously. “Pretty, for a thief in monk’s clothing.”
Back the fuck off.” Gojyo tilted the shaku jou towards the youkai’s face. Thick lips pulled back to reveal sharp, yellow teeth.
The youkai opened the thick wooden door of a small, sparse, monk’s cell. Four stone walls. A bed with a tiny window over it. Too small for a man to squeeze through. A spindly table with a broken basin on it. Chips of the pottery were scattered on the floor. There was nothing more to it. Sanzo stood in the hall staring in, not moving, lip curled in distaste. The youkai stared at him. Gojyo ground his teeth and gave him a shove forward with his shoulder. He followed and slammed the door in the youkai’s face.
Gojyo pressed his back against the door with an audible sigh of relief. He shut his eyes for one brief moment, thinking he had escaped the immediate danger only to be attacked brutally from an unexpected front.
“You stupid, half-breed, son-of a bitch, asshole!”
Sanzo’s hand connected solidly with the side of his head. Sanzo’s very pissed off countenance was inches from his face. “How dare you say I was a — a –”
“Whore?” Gojyo suggested since Sanzo’s vocabulary, brutally impressive most of the time, seemed to be deficit when it came to applying certain words to himself.
The hand lifted for another swing and Gojyo ducked away and retreated into the little room. The stone walls were thick enough to protect against eavesdropping from the outside, but one had to be wary of what or who might be lurking outside that window. He made a shushing noise and indicated the window. Sanzo glared that way and narrowed his eyes.
“Fuck you and fuck them.” He said, but it was in a considerably softer tone of voice.
Gojyo gave him a grin, kneeling on the bed to look out into the night. There was nothing on the other side but darkness.
“Listen, if they’d thought you really were a monk, we’d both probably be dead now. It’s bad enough you’re full human. We can only be thankful that you make a damn poor example of both.”
Sanzo opened his mouth for what most likely would have been another colorful denunciation. Gojyo held up a hand and reminded him.
“Did you see that collection of hands? Did you see the bone pile? They’ve taken out this whole monastery, they’ve taken out the town down the hill and probably did the one by the river and who the hell knows what else. They’ve got a real problem with human’s in general and monks in particular. Wouldn’t you rather be a live whore than a dead monk?”
“You said I robbed the robes off a body, damn you.”
“How else were we gonna explain it.”
“You didn’t have to say I was a whore, you ass.”
“Give me a better excuse to keep you around.”
“Well, that’s the general idea, Sanzo.”
Sanzo dug in his robes for his pack of cigarettes. Pulled out the empty box and stared at it like it contained crawling maggots instead of tobacco dust. He glowered and crumpled it, letting it drop from his shaking hand. The fact that he was trembling was testament to just how pissed off he was. Sanzo had a calm head for danger. He took a meditative breath, lowering his lashes for a moment while he breathed, then slitted them open and gave Gojyo a long, narrow look. “I suppose you think there’s going to be sex involved in this?”
Gojyo lifted a brow. “Well — it’s not like we haven’t — you know — before.”
“I was drunk.” Sanzo stated flatly. “Very drunk.”
“Yeah, well — so was I. And you weren’t the best lay I’d ever had, let me tell you.”
“Humph. I thought you didn’t remember.”
“Yeah, well — they can smell it, you know?”
“Sex. If we come out of here not smelling of it, they’re gonna wonder if I was just all talk.”
“You are just all talk. Demon’s can smell sex?”
“Yeah, just like they can smell humans and smell fear. I told them we needed a private room for — ”
“Fucking.” Sanzo supplied dryly.
“Yeah. And if they don’t think we did — well, they’re gonna think less of me.”
“Like the big one said, they ain’t ever seen hair the color of gold before. They thought you was real pretty for a human parading around in monk’s robes. If I can’t handle you, maybe five or six or ten of them can, hummm?”
Sanzo narrowed his eyes, thinking.
“If the monkey-boy and Hakkai were here, maybe we could handle this better. As is we’re seriously outgunned.” Gojyo reasoned.
“I’m not drunk enough to fuck you”
“Damnit, you fucking block-headed monk, if I was just looking for a convenient lay, there are plenty of demon chicks out there that are softer, sweeter– and a whole lot more attractive to me than a stubborn, obnoxious, self-righteous monk. The only thing you’ve got on them – – you are tighter.”
Sanzo drew an offended breath. Sanzo had the gun out of his robes before Gojyo realized he was going for it, and had it pressed under Gojyo’s chin before he could scramble off the bed to find cover.
“I ought to kill you,”
“Yeah, go for it. See how far it gets you, hypocritical shit.”
Sanzo leaned closer. “Don’t think this is going to become a habit.”
The gun slid down, trailing along the skin of Gojyo’s chest. He pushed Gojyo backwards. Hard. Knelt there straddling him with the gun lying on his chest, glaring. Gojyo tried not to grin. Tried to keep his face as serious as possible until Sanzo took his finger off the trigger. For some reason, caught in the middle of this damned gory monastery with blood-thirsty, psychotic youkai on a crusade against humanity, he was amused. With a pissed off, occasionally blood-thirsty, occasionally psychotic monk sitting on his groin, he really ought not find anything funny.
But he did. He was just damned amused. Among other things, one of which Sanzo presently felt. He lifted one fine golden brow in question.
Gojyo shrugged as well as he could resting under Sanzo’s weight. “I didn’t say I didn’t wanna fuck you. I just said you were hard to get along with the rest of the time.”
The other brow rose.