They were half way down the mountain side when the youkai appeared. They crawled out of the shadowy rock like roaches, all gleaming teeth and malicious grins. Gojyo growled and gripped the shaku jou tighter. Gripped Sanzo tighter, wondering if the monk even took note of the presenses. The fact that he was on his feet at all was amazing. Sheer effort of will. But will only went so far.
“Problem here.” He said softly, and Sanzo’s head lifted a bit and he blinked out from under his hair, trying to focus on the movement down slope.
“Yeah.” Gojyo agreed.
“Where did you think you were going, without a proper farewell?” A voice from above. Gojyo whirled, releasing his grip on Sanzo, shoving the monk against the inner wall of the trail and scanning the rocky ledges above them.
There, behind them, maybe fifty yards away, perched Despair. A handful of youkai crouched behind him. “Yeah, well, I never was one for the social graces.” Gojyo shouted, trying to sound casual about it. Trying not to let his voice shake. Trying to get a count on how many of them there were.
“Unpardonable.” Despair said. “I’m afraid I can’t let it slide.”
The corner of Gojyo’s mouth ticked up in a grim smile and he shrugged.. “Oh, well.”
A movement from just below him, a shifting of loose rock and a youkai sprang up, all claws and teeth and attitude. With a snap of his wrist he released the chain and the sharp end of his staff went sailing out, cutting through flesh as easily as a knife through soft butter. The youkai’s howl was cut short. The one behind it got similar treatment and the one beyond that. He backed up, shouldering Sanzo behind him. Got a wall to their backs and a ledge over their heads. A place to defend that wasn’t easily reached from below. God help him when Despair decided to drop in from above. If it weren’t for Sanzo, he might be able to take flight and make it out of here. Might be able to scramble down the rocky slope, cutting a swath for himself to escape through. But it would have to be fast and Sanzo wasn’t up to fast.
“Fuckfuckfuck.” Gojyo swore and took out another youkai. One of them got past him, had its clawed hands on his arm, raking gouges in his flesh. The sound of gunfire deafened him. It blew the youkai backwards on its feet, leaving a bloody mess of its face. He didn’t even turn to look at Sanzo. Didn’t bother to utter thanks – – didn’t have the breath to. There was too much else to occupy his attention.
“What are they all doing up there?” Goku peered past the ivy covered rock he crouched behind and watched the movement up the cliff face. Hakkai was watching too, the both of them sheltered by rock and the shadow both mountainside and monastery cast down upon the slopes below. If was a safe assumption, he thought, that there were very few practicing monks still dwelling within the thick stone walls of the monastery in the company of so many agitated youkai. And there were a great deal of them and none of them of the sort that looked particularly predisposed towards pacifism.
“There’s like hundreds of them.” Goku observed, though personally Hakkai thought that a great exaggeration. At least insofar as the one’s they observed scurrying out the front entrance, and spidering along narrow trails that seemed to lead around the circumference of the mountainous chunk of rock upon which the monastery perched.
“What do’ya think they’re doing?” Goku was having a hard time keeping his voice down in his excitement, thought it was doubtful that any of the youkai heard over the racket they were making on their own. They certainly seemed to be about something, and one could only shudder to imagine what that something might be.
“I don’t know.” Hakkai admitted.
“You think they’re the one’s that guy was talking about. The one’s that have been killing everybody?”
“It seems a good assumption, Goku.”
“We ought to go up there and do something.”
“Probably.” Hakkai agreed. “There seem to be quite a few of them.”
“That’s okay.”Goku grinned, but it melted into a frown as another thought struck. “Do you think Sanzo came this way?”
“Humm.” Hakkai shrugged. “I would expect more dead youkai – – but, its certainly possible.”
“I’m going up.” Goku announced, unswayable determination in his voice.
“I think we should probably wait and see what – – -” He trailed off abruptly as the hollow, distant sound of what could only be gunfire echoed about the slope. Both he and Goku froze, heads cocked, listening for something more. And there – – another series of distant fire.
“Sanzo- -” Goku whispered, white faced. He bounded out from behind their shelter, staff in hand and scrambled like some demented mountain goat up the steep path, forgoing the trail altogether.
Hakkai assumed Goku’s hearing was better than his. He assumed the boy that was not a boy had pinpointed the direction from which those shots had come. He rose to follow, his own pace a bit more restricted, subtly gathering chi as he climbed.
Sanzo shook off the lethargy that seemed determined to take root inside his skull and focused on the turmoil that Gojyo was just barely managing to keep at bay. Gojyo was blood spattered. Sanzo was by association, though rather less gory with it. Gojyo was out of breath and staggering, and though the bodies of the enemy littered the ground around them – – in pieces and segments for the part – – he was beginning to lose ground. He was beginning to shed a good deal of his own blood and starting to be not quite so accurate with the business end of the shaku jou.
Sanzo lifted the gun and shot a slavering youkai that slipped past Gojyo’s notice and came at him. Waited till the thing was close enough to smell, before he shot it, not quite trusting his aim at the moment for further targets. He had to use both hands to lift the gun and the thing was a grinning, dead weight dragging down at his arms. No use to waste bullets when his aim was so tremulous. He hadn’t seen Despair. He wanted to see Despair and put a bullet between his eyes. Wanted that particular execution on his hands rather badly. But Despair hadn’t shown himself in the confusion, preferring it seemed to stand by and let his followers sacrifice themselves for the cause. Sanzo rather thought, that when Gojyo went down under them from sheer exhaustion and he was out of bullets, that the master of this murderous cult would then deign to make an appearance. He’d save a bullet for that. At least one.
Gojyo slipped, boot heel skidding on wet blood and went backwards. He cursed as he toppled. The youkai that leapt for his throat screamed with bloodlust, its weight on his chest taking Gojyo to the ground with considerably more force than he would have hit with. His head hit with a thunk about two feet from Sanzo’s sandal. His eyes went glazed and dim for a moment and the youkai on his chest glared up into Sanzo’s eyes, momentarily forgetting the enemy under him in favor of the one facing him.
Sanzo braced his arm upon a knee and pulled the trigger in the youkai’s face.
Click went the gun. No ensuing expulsion of bullet followed. Nothing but a the sickening hollow sound of an empty chamber. Fuck.
The youkai lunged at him. He kicked it square in the throat and sent it backwards, gagging.
“Gojyo, get up.” He commanded, shoving the last of his bullets into the chamber and kicking at his fallen comrade’s shoulder with less force, but more urgency than he’d used with the youkai. Gojyo groaned. Gojyo threw an arm over his face and tried to roll to his side.
“Wha’ time is it?” Gojyo slurred.
“Time to fucking get up, idiot.” Sanzo snapped.
Gojyo tried. Got an elbow under him before a youkai dropped down from above and planted a foot in his face. He went down again and Sanzo lifted the gun, snarling, fired a bullet point blank into a smiling youkai face and blinked in frustration and shock when it – – just missed.
Despair stood there, that smug, orator’s smile still on his lips. “You don’t learn very well, do you, human?” he asked.
Sanzo ground his teeth and fired again, just to prove Despair’s point. Of course the bullet was deflected away. He cursed, not quite certain who the blasphemy was directed him. Himself, Despair, Gojyo or the gods for their infernal sense of humor.
“Its time for retribution.” Despair said softly, curling his clawed hands in anticipation of handing it out.
“Goddamn you – – no!” Gojyo staggered up, holding onto his staff for support, blood rolling down his chin from nose and mouth. “You’ve had your vengeance. You’ve had more than your share. All you’re doing now is making youkai seem more the monster’s in human eyes. You’re not helping anything. They’re dead! Your family is dead and gone and there’s nothing you can do about it. Give it up.”
Despair tilted his head at him and there was a vague amused tolerance in his eyes. Mad, Sanzo thought. So far into mad that there was no coming back and Gojyo was a fool to even attempt reason.
“I have no control over what human eyes see. I can shut them all for eternity so that they see nothing, though.”
“Why? Why bother? You’re not a freakin’ animal like most of the one’s that follow you. You’re smart. You could almost pass – -”
“For human? Like you. How many people have spit at your feet only suspecting you carry youkai blood? How many slurs against your ancestry to you hear everyday? Nothing I ever do will make a difference in how much human’s despise us. Nothing you do will. Isn’t that right?” he turned and looked at Sanzo.
Sanzo glared back.
“A youkai’s a youkai and we’re all filthy beasts, isn’t that right, human? How much better the world would be if we were all gone.”
“When you’re dead it will be.” Sanzo hissed.
“When I’m gone, there will just be another.”
“Hopefully, he’ll be easier to kill.”
Despair laughed and Sanzo felt the hair at the back of his neck stand on end. Felt the singular sensation of power being gathered. Dark, static power that seemed to cast Despair in a nimbus of black light. There was great power inside Despair and Sanzo wondered if it had been there before he’d gone mad, or if the madness had opened channels that no sane mind could tap.
“Gojyo! Now. Do something now! He’s going to cast a spell.”
Gojyo blinked, startled out of a haze of misery. Perhaps even entangled in that power Despair seemed to have to charm youkai minds.
Two more bullets left. He fired off one – – more in hopes of distraction than penetration. Despair growled and swung about to slash at him. He lifted the arm with the gun to fend it off, felt claws tear through the cloth of his robes and rake the flesh underneath. Tried to catch hold of Despair’s wrist and throw the youkai off balance, but he was too weak from Despair’s earlier attentions to quite manage it.
Gojyo had better luck. Gojyo stuck from behind and the blade at the end of the shaku jou’s chain did not veer harmlessly away. It stuck home, slicing through flesh and bone, sheering through Despair’s left shoulder. The youkai screamed, spinning and letting loose the spell he’d been building. The backwash of energy hit Gojyo and sent him spiraling over the edge of the rocky slope.
“See what you made me do?’ Despair turned back to Sanzo, dripping blood, his arm half hanging from the bulk of his torso. He hardly seemed to notice. He went down to one knee, close enough to Sanzo to make him press back into the rock behind him, Lunged out with his good arm and caught Sanzo’s throat, nails biting into flesh, pulling him forward so that they were nose to nose. “I wanted to teach him the error of his ways and now I can’t. Horrid, horrid human.”
There was an echoing sound of concussion below. Screams drifted up the slope. Turmoil seemed to have erupted where none was expected. Despair frowned, distracted. Sanzo pressed the muzzle of the gun into his gut and pulled the trigger. The bullet whizzed out the other side, ricocheting off a jutting rock once before disappearing. Despair blinked, fingers tightening about Sanzo’s throat. “I should have killed you the first time you opened your filthy human mouth.”
“Yeah – -” Sanzo gasped. ” — looks like – – I beat you to it – -”
He shoved and Despair toppled backwards, hand curling about the hole in his gut. Leaking blood all over the ground. Sanzo was covered with it. It drenched the front of his robes, hot and sticky and wet. He almost gagged at the feel of it, the weight of it pulling him down. Stubbornly he fought against the disorientation, managing to secret the gun in his robes and teeter to his feet. He was none to steady when he reached them. His head swam alarmingly and for a long moment he had to stand with his hand on the rock wall, trying to keep the blackness at bay. He took a step, and another past Despair’s shuddering form. Almost had a third under his belt when Despair snagged his ankle.
It was too much. His balance wasn’t up to dealing with the interference. With a curse he felt himself falling.
“Hello? Are you awake, again?” Sanzo blinked and looked up at Hakkai’s upside down face. Hakkai was frowning. Hakkai was dirt smudged and tired looking. Hakkai was alive. This last registered with a bit of surprise. No more surprise, of course, than the fact that he shared that condition.
He didn’t ask the obvious question of where he was – – merely took a moment to see the gray stone walls and the stark architecture to know that he was back under the roof of the monastery.
“Goku and Gojyo are okay.” Hakkai informed him when he didn’t immediately ask. Not terribly surprising there. Goku tended towards indestructibility and Gojyo had the luck of the damned. He supposed he did, after a fashion.
“Despair?” he asked and his voice sounded dry and weak. He hated the sound of it and narrowed his eyes in irritation.
Hakkai sighed and crouched by the narrow monk’s bunk he lay upon. “Dead. Gojyo did it just before we got up the trail to where you were.”
“I don’t remember.”
“No. You were unconscious.” Hakkai agreed. He absently smoothed the blanket next to him. “He was very upset. He won’t talk much about what happened here. Though – – from the bodies – – its rather obvious. All the children – -” Hakkai stopped, looking up at the tiny square of a window, his mouth a firm line, his eyes distant. “We thought about digging graves – – but there are just too many – – a funeral pyre would probably be best. We were waiting for you to wake up – – for last rites.”
“Okay.” He shoved himself up and made it on the first try. He was sore and tired, but the major hurts had dissipated. Hakkai at work. Hakkai and his deceptively gentle healing touch.
He had on a loose monk’s robe, but it wasn’t his own. It was coarse and scratchy against the bare skin underneath, but at least it wasn’t bloody. He was amazed they’d found an intact one amongst the disaster the youkai had made of this temple.
An open courtyard in the center of the monastery. An appalling large stack of neatly placed bodies, some barely more than bones. The stench was terrible. Goku and Gojyo had cloth over the lower portion of their faces. Hakkai offered Sanzo a length of it, but he turned it down. His eyes watered from the smell. Goku bounded towards him, suddenly infused with zeal that had been gone from his gaze but a moment before.
“Hey, Sanzo, you okay? You looked really bad before – – but not so bad now? You okay?”
Sanzo waved a hand at him to shut up. Gojyo wouldn’t look at him at all, hunched in a corner of the courtyard next to the wood he and Goku had been splintering for the funeral pyre. There were youkai bodies mixed in with the human ones. Sanzo curled his lip a little.
“Don’t tell me Despair’s in there too.”
“Why?” Gojyo asked sullenly, without looking up. “Youkai don’t deserve a proper send off as much as humans?”
“Not mass murdering ones.”
“We left him up on the mountain.” Hakkai interposed. “It was hard enough getting you down.”
He took a breath. Felt the bile gathering at the back of his throat and said. “Lets get this over with.”
Odd. That’s how it had felt when he’d delivered the killing stroke to Despair. Distant and hazy, as if someone else were doing it. Of course, it had to be done. Of course, he’d saved countless lives doing it. It wasn’t like the bullet Sanzo had put through him wouldn’t have killed him anyway. Just slower and more painfully. Gojyo had been doing him a mercy. He still couldn’t get the words out of his head. The ideal behind the vengeance, even if the vengeance itself did not appeal to him.
Sanzo didn’t have a clue. All he had was anger and self-righteousness and pre-conceived prejudices. Hakkai barely conceived, because no one ever looked at him and thought he was anything more than human. Goku – – Goku was naive. Goku thought about the here and now and not much else. He looked like a boy and acted like one and no one ever thought differently. Gojyo had seen prejudice and he’d seen hate. From both sides. It hurt. It was nice to pretend it didn’t. It was nice t pretend nothing mattered. But he could understand how a man might react when that breaking point came.
He listened to Sanzo chant his mantra for the dead, knowing the monk didn’t really mean it for the youkai interspersed in that pile. Knowing in his gut that Sanzo was glad they were dead, whether they’d committed atrocities or not. He’d as much as said it. Or had Despair said it for him? Hard to distinguish now. It wasn’t like the monk would clarify it for him.
There were tears on his cheeks when he lit that fire. For all of them on that terrible pyre. When they left, it was still burning. The monastery was silent and cold though, all the youkai having long since fled once their master was dead. Who knew, without Despair, most of them might never have become the murderers. Monsters.
Sanzo was complaining of the bloodstains that hadn’t completely washed out of his robes, though Goku had spent a good hour scrubbing at them while the monk had been out. He was bitching about a few splotches on the sutra.
“Who the fuck cares?” Gojyo had to finally shout, annoyed at the very sound of Sanzo’s voice.
Sanzo whipped around and glared, halfway down that steep path leading up to the monastery that they’d climbed in relative cooperation days past. “What is your problem?”
“You are. Fuckin’ high and mighty monk — just like the ones that caused all this to begin with.”
“No one caused this but that madman Despair and I am not getting into this with you again, just because he messed with your head and you’re too dull-witted to realize it.”
“What, because I’m half youkai?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up.” Sanzo started back down the path, where Jeep patiently waited on level ground.
“You shut up.” God, the intelligence of his replies was starting to rival Goku.
“You can walk, you know.” Sanzo snarled.
“You can go and – -”
Goku shouldered his way between them, holding out a battered package of what looked to be cigarettes. “Here, Sanzo, look what I found in the main hall.”
It was a desperate attempt at détente. Sanzo and Gojyo stared at the half empty package with equal amounts of greed. Sanzo made a grab for it. Gojyo beat him to the punch, swiping the pack out of Goku’s hand and stepping backwards a pace to keep it safe.
The gun came out a moment later, aimed with all seriousness at Gojyo’s head. Sanzo didn’t say a word. Didn’t have to.
“What, gonna shoot me over a pack of cigarettes?” Gojyo asked, casually tapping one out and placing it between his lips.
“I’m gonna shoot you, because you’re a fucking thick-skulled, screw-up.”
Gojyo sniffed and tossed the pack at Sanzo. “Fine. Whatever.” And walked past. Didn’t look back. Didn’t care to see if the gun followed him. Didn’t really matter. He got into Jeep and lit his cigarette, sucking in the nicotine, holding it in his lungs like a lover.
Maybe he was still seeing things that weren’t there. Maybe Despair’s ghost would haunt him for a long time. It didn’t make Sanzo any less of an insensitive ass. It didn’t make the hollow place inside Gojyo any less prominent. Getting back on the road again would help. Getting away from here would.
Who knew, he might even get over his disgust with Sanzo, if the mantra seemed to be the law that governed his particular world had any hand in things. Anything could happen and probably would.