Sanzo’s head drifted onto Gojyo’s shoulder. He’d been fighting it, Gojyo damn well knew the monk had been struggling to keep conscious and rational and nasty-tempered — but he’d been gradually failing at all three. It was like the heat of his skin ate up all the little idiosyncrasies of his personality and all that got left in the fever’s wake was the stubborn resistance to falling further under. Even that was a losing battle. He was hurt too bad and all Gojyo could do for it was sit there in the shadow of the wooden Buddha and quietly slip an arm around the monk’s shoulders when he slumped, phasing out of consciousness yet again, in support.
He wished Hakkai were here. Vehemently, desperately wished for Hakkai. He didn’t want to be the only witness to Sanzo’s death. Didn’t want that responsibility or that burden — or he thought miserably — that grief to deal with on his own. ‘Course if Despair had his way, he’d probably follow not long after. He wondered if they’d end up in the same place. Wondered if Hakkai and Goku would find the two of them or if their flesh would be torn from their bodies and consumed by the youkai and their striped bones left unrecognizable.
Grisly thought. Hard not to have grisly thoughts in a room full of child corpses. Sanzo had seen them right off. Sanzo had a sight that cut right to the heart of a matter, illusion or no. Gojyo was denser. Had always lacked that certain inexplicable introspective that Sanzo had. That Hakkai had to a degree. Maybe it was the religion. The holier than thou training of the devout — or the enlightened — or just the uniquely lucky who ended up in the right place at the right time to receive the benediction of the gods. Maybe it was something more. Maybe it wasn’t luck on Sanzo’s part. It sure as hell wasn’t piousness. Who knew why the hell the gods had such an interest — it made a body’s head ache to think on it too much.
He lifted a hand to Sanzo’s head, fingers idly stroking sweat dampened hair. Sanzo’s lashes fluttered, thick and gold tipped against flushed cheeks. He murmured something that might have been — sorry. A heartfelt, miserable sorry and Gojyo figured he sure as hell wasn’t talking to him.
“S’okay.” He answered anyway, a whisper because anything louder seemed sacrilege in this place.
Sanzo’s fingers clutched at his shirt. He pressed his face into Gojyo’s shoulder and there was wetness on his lashes.
A name. Gojyo thought he caught a name. Komyou maybe. Sanzo’s old master. His murdered master. There was a guilt there that Gojyo couldn’t begin to interpret. Didn’t want to try really, though he sometimes listened with silent interest as Hakkai tried to reason things out. As if anything Sanzo did could be reduced to simple reason. Sanzo would have kittens if he ever heard the talks they sometimes had about him.
He settled a little, found a more comfortable position with Sanzo’s listless weight against him, and listened for sounds from outside that door. They’d quieted down out there. The mob had been disbanded, though he’d no doubt that Despair had guards out there. Maybe Despair himself was out there, but Gojyo doubted that. Despair would come when the time was right. When he thought they’d stewed long enough. He wouldn’t get bored with the game. Despair was no impatient hunter.
Damn bad luck them coming here. It was Karma flicking her middle-finger at one of them. Sanzo maybe, since he was in the nastier shape. Didn’t matter really, both of them had gotten caught up in it.
He’d tried not looking too closely at the corpses, but something caught his eye amidst the jumble of them near the foot of the dais. A dull glint of metal. He narrowed his eyes and peered through the gloom and thought maybe it was the muzzle of a gun.
Gently, he shifted out from under the monk, god knew he’d had enough practice quietly slipping out of beds without the occupants ever knowing he’d left. Not lately though. Only bed he’d been in, Sanzo’d damn sure known he’d left. Had expedited the departure rather energetically. Which was a shame, really, because when you got right down to it, Sanzo’s bed hadn’t been a bad place to be. One of those few beds that sleeping through till morning might have been okay. Till Sanzo started scorching a body to the bone with his acid wit at any rate.
“What are you doing?” A low- voiced query when he was creeping down the steps to the bodies. Gojyo flinched at that soft sound, his hand jerking back as he reached towards the gun. Sanzo was staring with fever bright eyes.
“I think I see your gun under the pile of — them.” He indicated the horrible jumbled collection of carcasses.
“Careful — they’re not — what they seem.”
“You mean dead?” Gojyo cocked his head. “They look dead. They smell dead.”
“No. They came at me –”
Dubiously, suspiciously Gojyo prodded a stiff leg with his toe. “Are you sure?”
A long pause. An uncertain pause. Sanzo’s head drooped and he shivered. The tremor might have come more from the self-doubt than the injury. “No. Maybe not. Maybe it was what — he wanted me to see.”
“What, he pulled an illusion over on you?”
“Maybe. Maybe it was magic. I was — distracted — when it happened. Get the gun.”
“Oh, sure — after you tell me its lying under a pile of zombies.”
A sigh. Sanzo looked away, into the shadows behind the Buddha, in no way up for bickering. Gojyo chewed his lip, concerned over that lack of will more than he’d been worried over the fever and the blood. He took the plunge and moved cold, putrid flesh out of the way, snagging the muzzle of the handgun and sliding it towards him. There were two bullets left in the chambers. Sanzo hadn’t even had the chance to empty the gun before Despair had taken him. It spoke well of Despair’s abilities. Gojyo went back and offered the gun to the monk.
“Two rounds left. You got any more on you?”
Sanzo started at the gun. Took it after a moment and let it rest on his lap while he dug a shaking hand into one of the various inner pockets secreted in his robe. Came out with a scant handful of bullets and sat about the task of loading them into the empty chambers. He was doing an awful job of it. His hands weren’t that steady.
“Let me.” Gojyo offered when he’d gotten frustrated watching the battle.
“Fuck off.” A muttered suggestion. Sanzo was sweating.
“Fine. Whatever. Knock yourself out.” Gojyo crossed his arms and looked elsewhere. Stared at the flickering light of the lantern for lack of anything more agreeable to fix his gaze on. The flame gusted this way and that with a steady rhythm. It took him a while to figure out it was caught in the pull of a draft. He let his eyes drift up and around, searching out the grate or window on high that might be the cause. In the shadows he saw nothing. It wasn’t coming from the doors. In fact it seemed to be pulling from the back of the room, as if the Buddha itself were the source.
Curiously, he rose, lifting the lantern stepping over Sanzo into the far recesses of the dais which supported the idol. There. The flame was definitely pulled towards the rear of the statue. But from where? There was nothing that his eye could detect.
“What are you doing?” Sanzo finally had to ask.
“There’s a draft. Which means there’s an opening back here — a duct maybe. A smoke chimney? Would there be a chimney in here?”
Silence. He glanced back at the monk. Sanzo was staring at the light in his hands, eyes deep, shadowed pools. “No.” Softly admitted. “But — this was the high priest’s sanctum — maybe there’s a passage out that was hidden.”
“A secret escape route?” Gojyo lifted a brow. “How many people do you monk’s piss off on a daily basis that he’d need one of those?”
“Shut up, Gojyo and look for a catch — a lever — something that might trigger it open.” He leaned forward, the gun having disappeared into his robes, one hand supporting his weight, the other curled around his mid-section. He offered suggestions and Gojyo explored the Buddha and the wall at its back for a hidden latch.
There. A bit of carving at the back of the Buddha that shifted when he pushed in on it. There was a faint click and a narrow section of the wall hidden in the shadow of the idol swung inwards.
Gojyo crowed in victory, pushing the door further and sticking his head into the pitch black passage beyond it. Narrow and low ceilinged. Even Sanzo would have to crouch. The walls were rough hewn straight from the rock.
“Where do you think it leads?” Gojyo picked up the lantern and reached down to offer the monk a hand up. Sanzo glared at the hand, offended more by the need, Gojyo thought, that the offered assistance. Grudgingly he took it. His palm was damp and hot. He swayed a little when he gained his feet and Gojyo decided to throw caution to the winds and really piss him off by wrapping an arm about his waist.
“I’m fine.” Sanzo lied, glaring, but it hardly held its usual effect when he hadn’t the strength to back it up.
“Sure you are. It’s low as hell, bend your head.”
“I’m not blind.”
He urged Sanzo in first, there was no room to walk two abreast, and followed with the lantern. A long passage. The rock was cool to the touch and perhaps a little moist. “I think they used maybe an already existing tunnel when they made this. Maybe water used to run through here — it might still somewhere, the walls are wet.”
Sanzo didn’t offer an opinion. Sanzo was trying very hard to keep the pace of his passage steady, using the wall as a crutch for balance, straining to see by the light of the lantern behind him. Gojyo kept close at his back, in case he stumbled, occasionally putting a hand on back or arm, which the monk tolerated silently.
It was a long passage. It started sloping down about a five hundred yards in and from there on the floor was a little less smooth and a great deal more treacherous. Sanzo lost his footing once, slipped on an uneven wet patch of rock and went down before Gojyo could steady him. Hit the wall with a thud and sat there curled against it, cursing breathlessly while Gojyo crouched next to him, afraid to touch him, afraid to mention he noticed the pain tears rolling down the monk’s cheeks. The last thing Sanzo would tolerate was sympathy. He’d lash out at that.
“Sanzo — you need my help?” Gojyo finally had to offer, because Sanzo wasn’t making the effort to get up on his own. Because maybe it would spur him into motion even if he rejected it.
Glittering amethyst eyes glowered up at him from under a fringe of half-mast lashes. “No.”
“Suit yourself, but we gotta go. Sooner or later they’ll open those doors and when we’re gone — they’ll figure it out.”
“So go. Nobody’s stopping you.”
Gojyo tilted his head curiously. For a moment he couldn’t comprehend — then the notion that Sanzo was telling him to go on without him. Amazing. Nobility was not one of Sanzo’s traits.
“You’ve got to be fucking with me.” Gojyo laughed, short and bitter. “Since when do you do the grand sacrifice thing?”
“Who the fuck said anything about sacrifice. I’m just tired of hearing your goddamned irritating voice whining at me. Go if you want to, I’ll follow when I’m good and ready.”
Gojyo leaned close, a charming, predatory smile pasted on his lips. “You need to lean on me, fine. Do it and live with it. But I’ll knock your sorry ass out and haul you out over my shoulder before I leave you here alone.”
Sanzo fumed into the face of Gojyo’s determination. The look of utter seriousness on Gojyo’s face made him concede.
It was slower going this time. Sanzo had to lean against the wall and rest frequently. When a patch of weak daylight ahead signaled the end of the tunnel, their elation proved to be short lived.
The tunnel fed out into a narrow ledge over looking an impressive drop down a rocky mountain side. They had come out on the opposite side as the monastery’s entrance. It was the sort of path mountain goats might traverse easily, but not ailing humans. Getting Sanzo down that route was going to be a problem.
Jeep hit a rut so deep it almost popped Goku out of the passenger seat. Hakkai gripped the wheel and sent mental apologies out to Jeep, squinting through the shadows of pre-dusk to try and spot more ruts in the path they were driving along before jeep’s wheels actually encountered them. It wasn’t really a road. It was more of a game trail that might have been trodden down by the passage of animal drawn carts from the tracks. It was barely wide enough for jeep and the continual scrape of branches screeched along the sides, occasionally catching Goku or Hakkai with their whiplash sharp sting. It was either that or walk and jeep didn’t seem to mind and Goku was quite desperately in a hurry to track down Sanzo — so Hakkai humored him. Well, maybe it wasn’t that much of a concession on his part. He felt the urgency in his gut as well. The pressing assurance that something was not quite right somewhere in the world with things that were associated closely with him. Which meant Sanzo and Gojyo since nothing else presently living in the world held that much meaning for him.
“I’m going as fast as I can.” He replied calmly to Goku’s most recent complaint. “Please sit down before a limb smacks you across the face.” He asked without looking at Goku, who was standing with his hands gripping the top of the windshield.
“How do we know we’re going the right way, Hakkai?”
“But — ”
“This way just seemed — the better route to take.”
“You had a feeling, Hakkai?”
He shrugged, thinking that a feeling was as good a way of explaining it to a nervous — in desperate need of assurance — Goku as any. “I had a feeling.”
Goku nodded, lifting an arm to fend off a branch that whipped past the side of jeep. “Okay. I trust your feelings, Hakkai.”
“Do you?” Hakkai lifted a surprised brow, taking his eyes off the path for a brief instance to look to Goku.
Goku nodded sagely. “Course I do. You’re always right and you never have ‘feelings’ that aren’t honest.”
Honest feelings? An odd sentiment coming from Goku. A strangely perceptive one. Hakkai wondered who the not-quite-boy was comparing him with.
He stopped wondering rather abruptly as Jeep’s front wheels struck something he hadn’t been paying attention to lying across the path. The jarring stop was accompanied by a rather violent upset as the front wheels ran up and over a downed tree trunk and the front axle grated on wood when the wheels couldn’t touch ground on the other side. Hakkai and Goku were tossed unceremoniously forward, then slammed just as harshly back.
“Oh — we hit something.” Hakkai was dazed enough to state the painfully obvious.
“Hakkai — there’s something –” Goku was suddenly out of jeep and lunging into the woods. Hakkai blinked. And blinked again when a scream of animal rage tore through the peace of the forest. He took a breath and scrambled out after, pushing his way through bramble and thickly twined undergrowth, guided by the sound of vicious conflict. He smelled blood in the air soon enough and that was as much a guide as the noise.
The first thing he saw when he reached the source was Goku wreaking havoc, his knobbed staff out and making a difference against malleable flesh. The second thing he put together was that the flesh in question was youkai in nature. The third telling fact was the source of the blood. Human blood. There were three men — or the assorted parts of three men scattered about this gruesome little section of wood. There was a fourth, bleeding copiously from what looked like a hunk of flesh torn out of his side by youkai teeth. This one held a long handled ax, though he seemed to weak to wield it. The youkai were more interested in Goku than the surviving human. There were maybe eight of them left and another six on the ground. The human men might have taken out some, but Hakkai had the feeling that Goku had already accounted for a good many.
What had started this conflict he had no idea, but he knew an underdog when he saw one, and that lone human, bleeding out against a tree was most definitely at a disadvantage.
A youkai noticed him, and with a rumbling roar charged, claw-like nails extended, blood smeared face twisted into a mask of mindless rage. He stood there calmly, gathering chi — building the energy of self that came so naturally to him now that he was youkai. He extended an arm, palm forward when his attacker was less than a yard away and released the chi in a wave of concussive force. The youkai was slammed backwards, the wave of chi-fueled energy taking out two more of his fellows and sending the lot of them into the tangled mass of the wood. Sickening thuds as bodies hit stubbornly immovable objects could be heard.
Goku finished the rest. Quickly, efficiently, savagely. His breathing was hardly out of rhythm when he’d finished, but his eyes were a bit distant, a bit wild with the excitement of the conflict. His hands were white knuckled about the shaft of his staff. Sometimes it took him a few minutes to wind down — to return from the high of battle. Hakkai left him standing amidst the remains of the youkai and went to see about the surviving human man.
“Hello there.” He smiled and held his hands out wide when the man lifted the ax, wide-eyed at his approach. “We’re not here to hurt you. See, no weapons.”
The man’s eyes shifted, hesitated on Goku, who was scratching his head and looking about the woods as if he’d woken up from some sort of daze.
“You’re humans.” The man didn’t quite ask it, so Hakkai didn’t bother to correct the statement. “They came out of nowhere. Caught us unawares and — and those stinking youkai bastards — those stinking killers.” Tears streaked a dirt and blood grimed face. The ax dropped from fingers too weak to hold it.
“Let me help you.” Hakkai knelt, pulling the ragged cloth back from the man’s bleeding side. “Oh, not so bad. Not so bad at all.” Hakkai soothed, lying hands upon the man, focusing his chi just enough to stop the bleeding — taking the hurt momentarily inside himself and lending his strength to heal it. Not so laborious a task. The man had lost a great deal of blood, but it wouldn’t kill him if he could find his way to a safer place.
“Do you live around here? Is your home close by?”
“No. From across the river. No one lives here anymore. They’re all dead. Murdered by those bastards up at the monastery.”
Hakkai blinked. “The people at the monastery murdered someone? Monks?”
“Not monks. Youkai. Been there for almost a year — they’ve killed everyone on this side of the river — and now — now they’re making forays onto the other side. We came to see how many — to kill those we could — but we didn’t get very far.”
“There are youkai living in a monastery?” Goku asked, coming up soundlessly behind Hakkai. “What about the monks? What happened to them?”
“Dead. Butchered, just like everyone else.” The man sobbed, reduced to gasping breaths and tears as some terrible memory momentarily crippled his mind. “They – – they got my boy.” He finally managed to get out. “Came across the river one night and took my boy. The bastards — the dirty, stinking bastards – -” it broke up after that. Fury and grief and pain all mixed to steal the man’s rationality. Hakkai understood enough.
“You need to go back home, now.” Hakkai said gently, an oh so realistic smile on his lips — when all he was feeling was jittering dread in the pit of his stomach. “You can’t do anything for anyone if you’re dead, now can you? Go back and we’ll go look for your son.”
“Don’t matter,” the man sobbed. “He’s dead. They kill them all.”
“Why?” Goku asked, a haunted, whispered question.
“Do they need a reason? Stinkin’ youkai. I wish they were all dead. All of ’em.”
Goku swallowed and looked to Hakkai. Hakkai kept the smile fixed and helped the man to his feet. “Go back home. No use to die today.”
They asked where the monastery was and he told them. Sketchy directions at best, then he staggered off into the woods, back towards the river.
“Is Sanzo there, do you think?” Goku asked, when the man had gone. Wide-eyed and frightened at the thought, clutching his staff as if he expected another enemy to jump out at them from the woods.
Hakkai sighed and the smile faltered a bit.
“With our luck – – -“