Gojyo didn’t feel particularly good separating himself from Sanzo– it cut their chances of survival by a damn big percentage without one to watch the other’s back. But the way he saw it, his choices were limited. He didn’t think Despair’s invitation had been optional. As long as it wasn’t an ambush, or a set-up, he figured Sanzo could take care for himself if he kept his back to the wall and the door closed. If not, Gojyo would probably hear the signs of it, even through these stone walls.
“So how long you been here?” He asked, trailing Despair through the halls, trailed in turn by no less than a dozen youkai. The place reeked of too many bodies and too little effort put into maintenance. There was feces on the floor in places, and the smell of urine. Some of the more bestial youkai were little better than animals when it came to things like hygiene.
“Half a year perhaps.” Despair said over his shoulder. “Time ceases to hold meaning after a while.”
Oh. Dismal answer indeed. Gojyo marked the numbers of youkai he passed, trying to get a grasp of what they were up against. Hundreds maybe. More gathered in one place than they’d had the misfortune to face before. More than they could handle for damned sure. Which meant escape was the only reasonable option. They walked by a set of ornate doors, that even some of the youkai shied away from in passing. An old fashioned lock held thick chains about the handles, either barring entrance from without or locking something within. Despair didn’t venture an explanation, so Gojyo threw caution to the winds and asked.
“What’s in there?”
An enigmatic smile over Despair’s broad shoulder. “A shrine. It was the high priest’s sanctuary. Their most sacred place of worship.”
Nothing more informative than that. Gojyo didn’t press. Something cruel and perhaps a little bit mad flickered in Despair’s eyes at the mention of the place. It went away as they passed the room by.
He seemed to forget it entirely as they entered the large chamber that used to serve as the monk’s dining hall. It had seen harsh usage. The hearth at the end of the hall was littered with the remains of spilled food, of spattered grease and perhaps worse things. Something was roasting there now, watched over by a few of the female youkai. A great many others lurked about the chamber, squabbling among themselves, crouching alone in corners, ravenously attacking food and foul smelling home brewed alcohol, even a few couples fornicating on tabletops, or on the floor, egged on by their fellows.
Despair ignored it, waving Gojyo to a place at one of the tables and sitting down at his side.
“Not a particularly — well-behaved — bunch, are they?” Gojyo lifted a brow at the antics of a youkai female in the midst of taking on two grunting youkai males.
Despair beckoned and someone brought them a picture of the brew and a platter of meat amidst various, unidentifiable root vegetables.
“No. Persecution will do that to you.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t experienced it — with your obvious youkai blood?”
“I didn’t think it was that obvious.” Gojyo muttered, sampling the brew and making a face at the sudden, hard bite of the stuff.
Despair lifted a curious brow. “More than you might think — to some. To anyone that’s looking for — the taint — shall we say. Your mother or your father?”
A muscle twitched on Gojyo’s jaw. “Mother.’ He said quietly, and reached for a chunk of something on the platter. Roast pork perhaps. Maybe wild boar. They’d seen a few in the area.
“Is there a story?” there was nothing of disdain in the man’s voice, only mild curiosity. Perhaps even sympathy. Most certainly understanding. It threw Gojyo off his balance. It made old images flash across his mind, hurtful things that he’d rather not dwell on. That he’d rather pass off as inconsequential.
“Not that I care to tell.” He said, pushing the memories back with a grim smile.
“Ah. Pain comes in all forms, does it not?”
“There’s no pain.” The false smile remained. It hardly reached his eyes. He wasn’t as skillful at covering his disillusionment — or his crimes — as Hakkai was. He couldn’t always pretend they never existed and convince himself of the fact. Better to just ignore it. Not to think and not to reminisce.
“And you?’ he asked of Despair, to turn the tide of the conversation. “No offense to your — friends here — but you don’t seem to fit in with this lot.”
“They came because camaraderie lends strength — so many of our less refined brethren are loners — and they make easy targets for our enemies.”
“Enemies being — humans?”
“Yes. Your human blood has allowed you an anonymity among them that most of us haven’t had — at least not in recent years.”
It wasn’t an answer to his question. He licked a smear of grease off his fingers and asked pointedly. “What happened to you?”
“Me? You mean what made me perpetrate such a thing — such a monstrous act against humankind?” Despair laughed bitterly, lifting a sharp nailed hand and waving it around the room in general, then in the general direction of the east. “I came from the east 2 years ago in the false hope that the growing prejudice there would not yet have spread to these remote parts. I wanted my children to grow up with out the hatred, you see. I was quite the peaceful man. Quite the educated one. Violence is a tool best left untouched. That used to be my philosophy. Ironic, no?
“We came with two other youkai families, my wife and I and our children — she was carrying our third. We had experienced trouble in the mountain crossing and coming upon this monastery seemed a blessing from the gods. One would expect the benevolence of monks to extend to all travelers weary from the road. We were mistaken. They were quite — adamant in their distaste. Quite determined to wash our stain from their doorstep. We were not inclined to force the issue, so we continued on our way, pitiful band that we were. They were hardly content to turn us from their sanctuary. They sent emissaries across the river after us, to the human settlements and those emissaries, carrying the word of god as they did, roused the ire of the settlements. You see, some unfortunate villager had become the victim of a youkai a few weeks before. They of course, placed the blame on us. The monks incited the townsfolk into a frenzy. Mob reasoning took over. They stoned us first, and when we sought to flee, they overcame us. I took a knife in the gut, which saved me from the fires. They thought I was dead, you see. I wasn’t. I saw my friends, my wife and my children — butchered, and then thrown to the flames. It was an act of cowardice, I know, but I crawled away, or I would have been tossed to the fire as well. I stopped being a man of peace that night. Violence was a tool I took up with glee.”
He smiled after that, as if he had not just recounted a tale of gruesome tragedy. Gojyo could only stare, aghast.
“And you’ve been here ever since —? Taking vengeance?”
“Until my soul is at rest — retribution will be mine. Of course, they don’t think we have proper souls — the humans.”
“God.” Gojyo murmured, downing a huge drought of the brew. So they’d stumbled into a little war here. A war between a grieving youkai and the humans who had unwittingly sealed their fate. Blind, prejudiced fools. What did they expect? You commit murder and it damned well might come back and bite you on the ass. He could understand. He could sympathize. After what they’d done, he wasn’t quite certain he cared if Despair had come back and wiped out every holier than thou monk in this place.
“But enough misery for one night.” Despair clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Drink. Eat. The night is still young enough to enjoy, no?”
Sanzo was tired of waiting. It had been three hours at least. The sky outside the tiny window was becoming pale with approaching dawn. Gojyo was either lying drunk somewhere or dead. Either way, Sanzo wasn’t happy with the extended absence. He paced for a while, when sitting on the lumpy bunk became tedious. He adjusted his robes, then pushed them back down when the cloth became a cloying hindrance. He mourned over the lack of even a measly cigarette butt. He’d bet a great deal that one of the youkai had a few smokes on their persons. He’d even be willing to ask nicely if it got him a bit of nicotine.
What in hell was Gojyo doing? He couldn’t even be trusted to go out and gather a little simple information without getting distracted. Sanzo swore under his breath and repeated his circuit of the cubical. Four steps from one wall to the other. The cramped space was making him neurotic. He hated it with a passion. After spending so much time under vast, open skies, he doubted he could ever go back to living within the confines of a place like this and be content with it. He chewed absently at a fingertip, caught himself with a piece of nail in his mouth and spat it out in disgust. It was more the nicotine fit than the confinement, he was certain, but the one only aggravated the other. He had to get out of this tiny room.
He put an ear to the door, listening for sound of movement outside. He thought he heard the faint rumble of snoring. Whoever was out there was fast asleep. He retrieved the gun and secreted it in his robes, then edged the door open mentally urging the hinges not to creak. It lodged halfway open, coming up short against one of two bodies sprawled in the floor outside. There was an empty flagon of something toxic smelling on the floor between them and the sound of their deep slumber filled the hall.
Sanzo stepped cautiously around them and shut the door. Even if they woke up, he doubted the idiots would know he was gone. There was a lassitude to the place that hadn’t been there when they’d first come in. When the night left, so did the youkai’s abandon, so it seemed. Like nocturnal animals, they would crawl into whatever nook or cranny they considered a den and sleep. The floor suited just as well for some. He wished Gojyo had come back — then narrowed his eyes in annoyance for allowing the concern to rear its head. Gojyo deserved whatever he got, for what he’d done to Sanzo. If he happened to be alive and well — then fine — Sanzo wouldn’t turn away someone to watch his back. If not — well, that was karma for you.
He slipped down the hall, keeping close to the wall, staying within the edge of shadow, silent and obscure in his movements. Someone staggered into the hallway ahead of him and he melted back against the wall, hardly breathing. Willing himself to go unnoticed. The youkai never turned his head in Sanzo’s direction. The hall bled out into the wide open space of the main temple, only the statue of Buddha that sat at its back hiding the passage he traveled from the central room. Directly behind the statue was a set of doors. Probably the inner sanctum, which was generally located behind the public one. He had hardly stepped near those doors when the feeling of — atrocity — hit him. It seeped out under those doors like a creeping cloud of malignancy. Reflexively he took a step away from it, pressing his shoulder against the cold stone back of the Buddha. There were chains on the door. And a rusty old lock. He took a breath and stepped up to the door, fingered the lock and sniffed in disdain at anyone hoping to keep a determined person out of that room with such an inadequate thing. He could pick it with his eyes closed.
He found a tool, among the items he had secreted away within the folds of his robes, and in short order had triggered the catch on the lock. He let the chain slide to the floor, and dropped the lock on top them. The first thing that hit him when he pulled open one of the doors was the smell. Rancid. Decaying. Terrible. Almost he retreated, not eager to see what produced such an odor. Yet, relatively certain he knew. There were a set of oil lamps burning. The light was still dim enough so that at first glance, while his eyes were still unaccustomed to the shadows, all he saw were shapes. Small, lanky shapes piled along the walls, with only a path through them towards the far end of the small temple. Lamps at the end, revealed with their flickering light, that which was nailed to the wooden statue of Buddha over the alter. The shriveled, dried remains of a man in the tattered robes of a high priest.
He’d been dead for a very long time. Many, many months at the least. He had not died a peaceful death. Or from the looks of his remains, a painless one. Sanzo had seen worse, but someone had taken the time and the effort to keep this corpse from rotting away. It looked as if the internal organs had been scooped out. God knew what the shriveled things in bowls atop the alter were. He wondered if it had happened when the man had still be alive. Then he noticed what before had only been shapeless shadows in the dark. What had been piled against the walls of this shrine and arranged like broken dolls, one atop another, atop another.
Children. Human children. More than he could easily count. Infants to teenagers, and even what appeared to be a blood crusted half developed fetus or two, lay in various stages of decomposition, their gangly limbs sprawled under and about each other in some grisly masquerade of camaraderie. The fresher ones stared sightlessly with sunken, glazed eyes, young, innocent mouths slack in death. It explained why there had been no children amongst the corpses in the village they’d passed getting here. They had all been brought here.
“God.” He breathed and took a staggering step backwards, upsetting one of the bowls on the alter and spilling its dried contents onto the floor next to his sandals. He fumbled for the gun out of sheer desperation, revulsion, horror of what was in this temple. There were no enemies in sight, but the evil of the place — of the deeds done that had come to rest here — were like weights that dragged him down. He was sensitive at the worst of times to such things — to such aura’s of calamity or spiritual devastation. What dwelled here was a mass of malcontent. A overwhelming sentiment of dismay and grief and pain. And hate. Pure, venomous hatred. It was stronger by far than the lamenting spirits of the dead.
“You tread where you should not.” A whisper soft voice from the shadows of the door.
Sanzo brought the gun up, rock steady despite his disconcertion. A broad, dark figure separated itself from the shadows. The face was still veiled by darkness, but Sanzo knew who it was. A subdued throb of — something emanated from the man.
“There was nothing left of them, you know, but ashes. So I made a shrine to them with other flesh.” The eyes glowed dull red. Despair stepped over a gangly limb in his advance down the narrow path.
“You sick fuck.” Sanzo hissed and squeezed the trigger.
A hand lifted, and the bullet ricocheted against the wall to the left. Again he fired and the bullet veered away from Despair as if it had developed an aversion to the space the youkai stood within.
“You’re not welcome here, human.” Despair whispered. His lips pulled back in a humorless grin. Something dry rustled behind Sanzo. A tug on his robes and he looked down in horror. An empty eyed, child-corpse trying to wrap herself about his leg. Another — so badly decomposed that he left bits and pieces of himself smeared across Sanzo’s robes pulled at his arm. The gun went off, in a panic, shattering the shoulder of one of his small assailants. The one body tumbled back and another took its place. He stepped back and his sandal slid on the shriveled organ he’d spilled onto the floor. One leg went out from under him and his knee hit the stone. They were over him then, crawling, clawing, pulling, smothering. He cried out in pure hysteria at being buried under them, and thrashed about wildly. Small limbs were brittle enough to snap. Shrunken bodies slight enough to fling off. He came up out of the pile like a drowning man reaching the surface of water.
Despair was there and Despair’s huge fist crashing down, backed by all his rage and all his boiling hatred and maybe something more. Sanzo didn’t have the luxury of the time to figure that out.
Sanzo ceased to see after that. Ceased to care what putrefying horror crawled over his skin. It was better not knowing anyway.
Gojyo came awake by degrees. Painful, sluggish degrees, punctuated by a pounding head and a mouth that tasted of old shoes. There was sunlight streaming down on his face and a hard, grainy surface under his cheek. The sunlight was what had roused him. Consciousness came against his will. He groaned and blinked grit out of his eyes. Lay there, patently disoriented and still thoroughly immersed in the effects of the home grown brew he’d imbibed last night. He pushed himself up and groaned again, back protesting from a night — or a morning — spent slumped over a table, drunk off his ass and paying for it now. Goddamned but that brew had a nasty kick. He staggered over a body in his attempts at getting up, made it halfway across the room before the urge to pee hit him so hard it almost made him double over. The room was filled with slumbering bodies. The smell was horrific. It seemed no one else had bothered to take themselves elsewhere when the need to urinate or worse had come over them. Some of them hadn’t even moved from their drunken sprawl. Gojyo couldn’t quite bring himself to follow suit. There was a broken door off to the side with a patch of sunlight shining through. A small walled courtyard, just as littered with stinking youkai bodies as the dining hall. At least there was grass and a convenient tree to spatter with his stream of whiz.
He staggered back into the dining hall, knowing that he ought to be somewhere else and not a the moment able to reason out where or why. He pressed his shoulder against the wall and leaned there as dizziness assaulted him.
Goddamned if that poison didn’t have a kick! He shut his eyes to stave off the swaying of the floor. The darkness was quite welcome. It surged up and over him and he sank gratefully back down into oblivion.
The inside of a palm connected solidly with Sanzo’s face. It stung enough to jar him into awareness. He hissed and jerked backwards only to come up short, detained by the cords biting into his outstretched arms. His shoulders hurt abominably, having supported his weight for who knew how long. His knees did, from pressing into the stone of the alter. Something crunched, dry and brittle at his back and he looked up into the shadowed face of the Buddha and under that the long dead corpse of the priest that had been crucified upon it. He tried to pull forward, away from the feel of mummified flesh at his back, but his kneeling position, arms stretched out taught to either side of his head, prevented much freedom of movement.
He was in the temple still and all the horrible faces of the dead children seemed to gaze up at him in their various degrees of decay. Despair stood before him, all the elegant lines of his face not able to hide the taint of madness.
“You defile this sacred place, with your humanity.” A whispered mantra, as if Despair were quoting scripture.
“Me?” Sanzo laughed. “You miserable lunatic — look around you, you’ve defiled everything you’ve touched. Look what you’ve done. You’re worse than a rabid animal and ought to be treated as such —”
He got a fist against the side of the head for that sentiment. He smashed back into the corpse behind him and a brittle leg bone snapped sending the limb clattering down to the alter beside him.
“Don’t –” Another blow that cracked his head back into the stone. “–Open –” A backhanded fist that smashed his lip against his teeth and made his mouth well with blood. “– your dirty –” A booted foot in his stomach that stole all his breath away. “– mouth.”
As if he could after that. As if anything were possible but hanging there trying to breath, with blood dripping down his chin and running down the back of his neck from the reopened lump on the back of his head.
“I don’t debate with humans.” Despair caught a fistful of his hair and yanked Sanzo’s head back. “I kill humans. And for much much less than the crime of corrupting my shrine. Do you know how long it will take to wash your stench from here?”
“I don’t know.” Sanzo ground out between blood stained teeth, jerking his head upwards towards the monk’s corpse. “As long as it took to wash his stench away?”
“I said to shut up!” A knee slammed up, catching him in the side, crashing into ribs with enough impact to make something snap. The sickening sound of bones cracking made him fainter than the pain of the actual injury. He uttered an involuntary sound of pain and hated himself for it when he saw the satisfaction in Despair’s red eyes.
“Sick — fucking — bastard.” He was having trouble breathing. The broken ribs and the weight bearing down on his shoulders was compressing his lungs and choking off his air. “Where’s Gojyo?” he asked, because it finally occurred to him that Gojyo had left with this madman and here the madman appeared with no Gojyo in sight.
“Does it make a difference?” Despair wiped a bead of blood off Sanzo’s lower lip and casually licked it off his finger.
“No. Just want to know where I stand.” Which wasn’t true, really, no matter how pissed he was at Gojyo’s absence. He didn’t want Gojyo dead. A little nausea rolled in his gut at the developing suspicion that he might be.
“Ah. How human of you. What a caring creature you are.” Despair grasped his jaw and tilted his face up. “Pretty. You look better in blood.”
He lapped a trail of it off Sanzo’s chin, and Sanzo shuddered and jerked back out of his grip.
“Not only insane — but perverted as well.” Sanzo hissed.
Despair laughed. “Oh, but you are one to talk –” he tilted his head curiously. “But I’d told you not to talk, didn’t I?” I think I’ll break a bone every time you open your mouth.” He slid a hand up Sanzo’s arm and caught his right wrist, with a snarl and a grunt of effort he twisted the hand sharply backwards. The bone snapped. Sanzo’s hold on steadfastness did. He cried out, seeing all manner of dancing bright lights.
“Was that one word, or three?” A finger snapped back.
Sanzo desperately tried to catch his breath, desperately tried to keep his weight off that raw, flaring center of pain at the end of his arm.
“And I have no interest in using you in that manner.” Despair’s voice oozed past the thudding of blood in his ears. “I merely want to inflict proper punishment for your crimes. Screams don’t count, by the way.”