There were freshly cleared fields, mostly plowed and ready for planting along the road to Ho-goh village. It was a thriving farming community, lands unusually fertile, that supposedly fed a good part of the region. Or it had been, until the farmers and their workers started dying. Murdered, more accurately.
It was why they’d initially come – – flagged down in a neighboring village by a murdered farmer’s wife and son who were desperate for the blessing of a priest to send their loved ones on to the next plane. Ho-goh village didn’t have one. Hadn’t had a monk or even an acolyte for longer than most of its citizen’s could remember. Sanzo had gotten a warm, awed welcome. He’d had people groveling in the street before him, had them trying to lay hands on his person, begging for some sort of blessing to lift the curse they all felt had descended upon them.
Sanzo hadn’t been pleased. Oh, he’d been jumpy and nervous as hell anytime one of them approached – – wary that they’d try and touch him mostly – – protective of his exaggerated personal space – – fed up at the reverence, when even he wasn’t hypocrite enough to believe he deserved it.
He’d been cranky until they put distance between the village and themselves, out to hunt the big bad youkai. That had pissed Gojyo off to no ends. Hunting youkai like animals – – even though he’d done it a hundred times before without it striking any chord of injustice. It was only now, after the incident at the monastery, that it bothered him. It didn’t bother Goku and it didn’t bother Hakkai and the both of them were full youkai. Why should it irk him? Maybe the monk was right. Maybe Despair had gotten inside his head and twisted his perception – – his logic, and he had yet to get it back on track. Or maybe he was just taking offense finally at a lifetime’s worth of bigotry. Goku and Hakkai might be youkai, but they didn’t look it. He on the other hand had the signs written all over him. Hair – – eyes. It was hard to mistake the blood that ran through his veins as anything else. He got the dirty looks from both human and youkai. There was only so long a body could ignore it and not snap.
The only good thing about this whole Ho-goh mess was that the humans and the youkai were equally immersed in the garbage. The mayor had hired the youkai and the youkai had gleefully gone about clearing the path for him to – – do whatever it was he’d been planning on doing. Buying up the land for his own uses – – venting some deep seated twisted frustration against farmers in general – – who the hell knew.
They’d find out. Sanzo was damned and determined to find out and Sanzo had just cause to hold a grudge against any youkai they passed on the way. More than just cause.
So back to Ho-goh village in the morning, the four of them bouncing along in the dragon transformed jeep. Past the fields waiting to be planted and the piles of uprooted forest at the edges, waiting to be cut up and carted away.
There was a stone lying at the edge of the road, that the corner of one wheel hit, jouncing them so hard that they had to hold on for dear life. Sanzo ground his teeth and cursed, in no shape for nasty bumps and Hakkai apologized profusely.
“Look at that.” Goku said in the midst of the apologies, leaning over the back of his seat. “That looks like a marker stone. Its got writing on it.”
Hakkai slowed to a stop, curious. “I don’t recall a marker stone along this road.”
“Who the fuck cares?” Sanzo was in a foul temper. Sanzo was rubbing his temples like he’d just awoken from a three day binge. There was a red and purple bruise at the edge of one eye, and a faint clawmark scored his cheek from ear to jawline. There were a helluva lot deeper, more serious marks on his body. He dug in his robes and came out with a pack of smokes. Taped one out and planted it between his lips. Fished for a light and started swearing under his breath when he came up empty. Half the little things he kept in his robes had been scattered all over the night dark forest when the youkai had taken him.
Gojyo leaned forward, a match between his fingers. “No need for thanks.” He was feeling generous and gracious and knew the combination would irk the hell out of the monk.
Sanzo snatched the match without looking at him, struck it against the dash and held it to the end of his cigarette. One long drag and he sighed, lashes fluttering a little. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
“What are you leering at, ero-kappa?” Goku demanded.
“None of your fucking business, ape.”
“I told you not to call me an ape!”
“Sanzo?” Hakkai was standing by the stone. “Would you come here a moment, please?”
Sanzo vacated the jeep, glaring at the both of them, smoke dangling from his lips and walked back down the road to Hakkai. Goku and Gojyo, not content with each other’s company in the back seat, hopped out and followed.
“What is it, Hakkai?” Goku wanted to know.
“I don’t think its a road marker.” Hakkai said slowly, crouching, laying a hand tentatively on the chipped, dirt darkened stone. It was oblong and crudely carved, about three feet long and crusted with dirt. There were faint symbols carved into it, decorating all sides.
Sanzo frowned, crouching, brushing the fingers of one hand across a line of marks to free them of dirt.
“Is it a burial stone?” Hakkai asked.
“I – – don’t know.” Sanzo admitted, frown deepening. “The stone is so eroded that the writing is hard to read. Maybe.”
“Ah, there is a date – – but, its very old.” Hakkai squinted through his monocle.
“Ha, and I found it. ” Goku crowed. “We’d have passed right by if not for me.”
“Jeep found it you moron.” Goku said. “And they probably just dug it up by accident when they were clearing the fields.”
Which made perfect sense. They’d found it and dragged it off to the side of the road to get it out of the way. With the choice of defiling an accidentally found burial marker or having to plow around it or abandon the field altogether, the practical farmer would chose the former.
“Forget it. Let’s get into town.”
“Its not for you to say.” Goku was feeling argumentative today. He looked to Sanzo for confirmation and the monk ignored him, staring out at the field, sucking on his smoke. The kid was giving Gojyo more of a headache than he’d already been sporting. Blows were going to land and fairly soon, if things kept up as they were.
“He’s probably right.” Hakkai finally said, when Sanzo offered no opinion. “It’s probably nothing. We ought to be on our way. The day’s getting on.”
So they did, piling back into the jeep and continuing down the dirt road to Ho-goh village. When they finally drove into town, every eye they passed lifted to stare, making a body wonder if the whole town had been in on the plot. Or maybe, the people just hadn’t expected them to come back. Hadn’t expected them to do anything but high tail it out of there and forget the people of this village and their problems had ever existed.
They gathered a crowd when they stopped though. People started yammering all at once asking questions, trying to get close enough to Sanzo to bask in the warmth of his holiness.
“Motherfucker – – -!” the curse came spewing out a moment before the gun did.
“Back off!!” Goku was pushing at the wide eyed people, the desperate people who had backed a white around the rim eyed monk against the jeep and hadn’t the slightest notion of how close no few of them were to bullets piercing their flesh. Gojyo caught the gun arm, snaked his fingers around Sanzo’s wrist in the press, gaining a curse and a deadly look.
“Relax. Something’s got them freaked.”
“Get your hands off.”
Gojyo did, because the crowd was giving them a little space, due to the gun and Goku’s protective stance.
“We need your blessing. Help us. You must drive the evil spirits out. Bless our dead.” A dozen voices were raised in supplication. A dozen pleas.
“What evil spirits?” Hakkai wanted to know, attention snared even as Sanzo was brushing past, heading for the doors of the tavern.
“You have more dead?”
Oh, they had a great deal more dead. And not at the hands of youkai. A father had apparently gone mad, and butchered his wife and three children, then killed himself. An old woman, fed up with the drunkenness of her husband had stabbed him while he lay passed out. She’d slit her own wrists afterwards, but her grandchildren had found her before she’d bled out and bound the wounds. She was alive, but barely. A young girl, apparently on her way back from the fields, had been found murdered and raped just outside of town. All of this in the last few days. Too many atrocities for them not to blame evil spirits.
Their desperation was understandable. Their insistence on pinning their salvation on him, just because he wore the robes of a priest was not. If they were that damned dependent on their faith, then why didn’t they have a priest of their own and if they mobbed him again, Sanzo was quite sure someone was going to get hurt. It was bad enough to every had unwanted hands on his person – – but now – – now it made it skin crawl and his vision tunnel and he really hadn’t remembered actually drawing the gun out there. He would have felt remorse for shooting some old woman in the face – – but, on the other hand, the others would have backed off.
“Its very strange.” Hakkai sidled up the bar, having spent time outside with the mulling townsfolk. Goku and Gojyo were at a table behind him, stuffing their faces with noodle soup from the tavern’s small kitchen. Sanzo was happy at the moment with a glass and a bottle of whisky. He’d eat something later when his stomach settled.
“To have so many violent deaths in such a short span. They’re under stress, yes, because of the fear of the youkai and whatever plot the mayor had up his sleeve – – but for them to perpetrate such violence on those closest to them – -? They want you to bless the graves. Would you. It would appease them.”
“Like he cares about these piss ant villagers.” Gojyo said from the table. Sanzo narrowed his eyes, very much wanting to hiss something nasty back, but deciding that silence was both more dignified, as well as hurtful. Gojyo hated to be ignored.
“Fine.” He said to Hakkai. He tossed down the last inch of whiskey in his glass, and pushed away from the bar. “I’ll do it now.”
Goku hastily stuffed the last of his noodles into his mouth and rose, wiping off the juice that had run down his chin with the back of his hand, to pace behind Sanzo. Gojyo followed at a more leisurely pace, pretending nonchalance.
Outside the villagers were waiting like carrion birds ready to pounce on a carcass as soon as the last sign of life departed. But they kept their distance – – Hakkai had probably given them a few helpful, healthful tips when he was out talking with them, about who to put their hands on safely and who not to.
They followed him in a herd down the street towards the end of town where the village burial plot sat behind an old stone building that might once have been a church or a monastery, but was now used as a gathering place for town functions. There were no priests in town – – or in any of the surrounding towns that he’d seen – – to complain of the miss-use. He didn’t particularly care. It was long abandoned and any holy artifacts that might once have graced it either taken away by departing priests or stolen. He had to wonder though, what had happened to make the priests leave this place, the temple had been once prosperous, from the look of the crumbling architecture.
The grave yard boasted too many stones for a town the size of Ho-goh. But the village was an old one and the marks on the stones attested to the many generations buried on the hill. The oldest ones sat nearest the town, while the newer graves ranged up the hill and over the other side. The townsfolk urged him on with their hovering impatience and if he’d had lingered they’d have closed in around him and he wasn’t in the mood for the feel of so many bodies so close again. So he trudged up the hill, following a few of the relatives of the new dead, with Goku on his heels and Hakkai and Gojyo lingering further behind the crowd as Hakkai paused to study this old grave marker or that.
And there they were, a row of fresh new graves with freshly carved stone markers sunk into the newly turned earth. These had been dug within the last few days, but there were others almost as new, dug within the last few weeks. He’d already blessed a few of those, on the first round through Ho-goh.
He said what needed saying, the ritual chants that a body that grew up in a monastery knew by heart almost by the time a body had properly learned to talk. The words came automatically, reflexively – – but it had been a long time since he’d uttered them that he actually believed that any blessing by a simple priest or even a complicated one, would effect the state of a man’s soul. There was faith in the world and the solid concrete things that a body could expect to happen within it and there was faith in the ethereal and all the incorporeal beliefs that entailed and he’d lost his for the latter a long time ago. But he was good at playing the part when it suited him and these townsfolk sank to their knees in silent appreciation as he chanted and added their silent prayers for the passage of their loved ones.
He finished, rose, brushed the dirt of his robes and let Goku clear a passage for him back down the hill. They didn’t follow him this time, clustering nervously about the graves, dispersing in ones and two’s in directions that weren’t on his heels.
“What you’re you looking at?” Goku wanted to know of Hakkai, who hadn’t ever come up the hill to see the fresh graves, but had stayed down near the bottom, looking at some of the very old ones. Gojyo leaned against a scraggly old tree, a cigarette dangling from his lips, eyes half lidded, looking bored.
“Why? They’re dead. They can’t do anything for anybody anymore.”
“No.” Hakkai agreed pleasantly. “But, it is the same date as the stone marker we found along the road.”
Sanzo lifted a brow, not quite ready to show an interest in anything that didn’t involve a few good shots of booze, a decent smoke and the killing of the remaining youkai under the employment of the late Ho-goh mayor. Things didn’t necessarily even have to proceed in that order. He could be flexible when the situation demanded it.
“There are quite a lot of them.” Hakkai said softly, standing, running one hand through his hair in a nervous gesture as his gaze flickered down the row of markers.
“Oh, make him happy, Sanzo, take a look.” Gojyo suggested.
Sanzo frowned, reluctant at the moment to follow any suggestion made by Gojyo, but Hakkai had that look on his face that suggested discomfort and Hakkai wasn’t generally unnerved, so Sanzo slipped between two grave markers and joined Hakkai on the front side, where the writing was visible.
They were old. About ninety years to the day, almost. And there were a great many of them from the same year. Sanzo narrowed his eyes looking a little closer, then walking slowly down the row – – not only the same year, but the same few weeks. There were stones that marked the deaths of whole families – – and all on the same date. He’d just blessed a set of graves with similar statistics.
Something cold whisked past his head, fluttering the hair at the back of his neck. He shivered, lifting a hand to the back of his neck – – then hesitated, frowning when he noticed Hakkai rubbing his arms, as if he’d taken a sudden chill. Goku and Gojyo were oblivious.
“Those graves were blessed, monk.” A watery voice proceeded the figure of a bent old man, creeping slowly past the shadow of the old monastery and into the burial ground. Two other equally ancient men, hobbled along behind him, slow and careful and tedious in their movements. Perhaps they’d come with the others to see the blessing of the dead, but had not been able to navigate the hill to the new graves, so had stayed, leaning against the support of stone walls, for the others to return. Perhaps they merely haunted the graveyard in preparation for their own, no doubt soon, retirement here.
“But none after. Not until you came this past week.”
“Yeah?” Gojyo flicked ash onto the ground. “The three of you old geezers look like you might be old enough to have known some of the folk under these stones.”
One of the old men snorted, coughing up flem and spitting it to the ground not far from Gojyo’s ash. “That was my sister – – the marker the boy there is leaning on.”
Goku looked abashed, rapidly removing his hip from the stone.
“So many dead, in such a short period of time. What happened?” Hakkai asked.
The old men stood there, leaning on their canes, bent backed and wrinkled like a trio of old vultures. “I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning, boy – – you expect me to remember what happened neigh a century ago?”
The others muttered their agreement, feigning senility, but there was something in their eyes that spoke differently. Something that said, they knew exactly what had happened ninety years past. They turned then, without further comment and began the slow shuffled back towards town.
“They’re lying.” Hakkai said quietly.
“Hunh.” Sanzo fished for his pack of cigarettes.
“Why would they lie?” Hakkai murmured, more to himself than any of them.
“There’s like twenty or thirty markers here and all from the same damn week. Maybe they’re like really old, crusty serial killers.” Gojyo suggested.
“You think?” Goku stared after the old men, wide-eyed.
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe you better not sleep while you’re in this town, huh ape?”
“Hey, I told you not to call me that. Sanzo, tell him not to call me that.”
Sanzo ignored the plea, brushing past Hakkai and back towards town. Had he left his smokes on the bar? Damn this town and its problems anyway, to cause so much trouble. If anyone had touched those cigarettes, they were dead men. Of course, the way things were going, he might not have to lift a finger to have the deed done. There were corpses popping up all over.
Hakkai was distracted. He was thinking deep thoughts and not paying much attention to the world at large. Still he was better company than the monk in a snit. He was better company than the monk in a good mood, truth be known. He never went out of his way to hurt a man’s feelings or mortally wound an ego, or physically injure a body. He was considerate and introspective and willing to lend a hand or an opinion if need be and you never had to put up your guard in his company. In fact you could let all the guards down and be assured that you’d get no jibbing, no insults and damned certainly no acerbic remarks about the state of your mentality.
Gojyo still stared after Sanzo when they parted ways, the monk heading back to the tavern to procure lodging, with Goku on his heels – – while Gojyo had opted for the less abusive company of Hakkai – – who had declared that he’d like to go and see the old woman who had survived her murderous bout of madness only two days past.
He must be, Gojyo decided, shaking his head in disgust, a closet glutton for punishment. No other explanation for actively pursuing something as poisonous as the monk. Sanzo wasn’t that good a lay. No way, no how was he worth all the pain and the frustration. No body was. Unless – – well – – unless a man let his other head do the thinking and the prospects of that other head had been few and far between for too long of a time – – then well – – then sometimes any amount of abuse seemed a likely price to pay for a decent fuck.
Gojyo sighed, steering Hakkai away from a muddy pothole in the road. Hakkai murmured a reflexive gratitude. They’d asked directions to the house of the old woman who’d murdered her husband, then tried take her own life. They’d been told she was at the cottage of her daughter on the far side of town. Which meant traveling two streets over to the last line of houses before the village gave way to the plowed fields of crops that these folks made their livelihood from. The streets were muddy from all the rain, and their boots were caked in the stuff by the time they found the little house, with its rickety fence and its small portion of land out front crowded with vegetable gardens.
“What are you gonna say?” Gojyo wanted to know. “They might not be so willing to let a stranger just come in and talk to their dying granny. Their crazy, dying granny.”
“We can ask nicely.” Hakkai said, brushing a hand through his hair and adjusting his monocle. He knocked on the door. A middle aged woman opened it. She was dour faced and tired, with flour on her apron and in her graying hair. Probably in the midst of dinner preparation. Probably not happy at all to have the two of them at her doorstep.
“Good day, ma’am,” Hakkai inclined his head politely. “My name is Cho Hakkai and this is my friend Sha Go – – -”
“Oh, my, you’re friends with that priest, aren’t you?” She clasped her flour covered hands over her ample bosom, beaming at them as if they’d been somehow sanctified by mere association with Sanzo. Gojyo rolled his eyes in annoyance and kept his mouth shut, deciding that making a nasty remark about the divinity of the priest in question would only hurt their chances of getting in to see the old lady.
“He blessed my father’s grave – – my son told me. I would have come – – but, well, we don’t want to leave mother alone. But, we’re so grateful. So very, very grateful that he came.”
“He was happy to do it, I assure you.” Hakkai lied with that benevolent smile that hid whatever it was he honestly felt. “We were wondering, if we might not have a word with your mother. If she’s up to it.”
“With mother?” the woman frowned. “Why?”
“Well – – if she’s been touched by evil spirits – -” Hakkai came up with the excuse so glibly that was hardly a drawn breath between her question and his answer. ” – – then we need to ascertain if they’re still lingering so that we might get our priest to come and banish them.”
Priest was a key word with her. Her eyes widened in righteous concern and she ushered them in with a flutter of her hands and a babble of gratitude. Gojyo personally thought the chances of them getting Sanzo here, even if the old woman were levitating a foot off her bed and speaking in Tongues, was slim at best, but this was Hakkai’s game, so he went along with it, shoving hands in pockets and fighting the urge to reach for a smoke.
The old woman was a small, shriveled figure in the bed. The window was open to let the smell of old person and sickness dissipate in the fresh air. She was a tiny thing. Maybe not as old as those three old men that had ambushed them in the grave yard, but ancient all the same. There were ugly, red cuts on her face, mixed in with the deep wrinkles. Self-inflicted maybe, when she’d tried to kill herself. She was sleeping, but her daughter gently touched her shoulder to wake her.
“These men are friends of the priest, mama.” The woman said. “They’ve come to see you. Maybe the priest will come.”
The old woman’s rheumy eyes shifted past her daughter, fixing on them. On Hakkai, then on Gojyo. They were confused and weak, the eyes of a woman who didn’t quite have all her wits about her. But she didn’t look mad, or dangerous – – or possessed by demons.
“Hello there.” Hakkai said, crouching by the bed, putting himself eye level with the old woman. “My name is Cho Hakkai.”
She just stared at him.
“I’m here to talk to you about what happened a few nights ago. Do you remember it?”
The old woman blinked. Silent.
“She hasn’t spoken since.” The daughter said. “The evil spirits possessed her, just like they possessed Xie Binlang when he murdered his family the very same night.”
“May we speak to her alone, for a moment?” Hakkai asked. The woman chewed her lips, but nodded, afraid of offending them and loosing her chance to be belittled by Sanzo. She left and Hakkai leaned his elbows on the edge of the bed.
“I understand that you don’t want to remember what happened. That you don’t want your family to know – – but if you were possessed by evil spirits, then it wasn’t your fault. Sometimes even the best of us can be afflicted by powerful, dark forces – – but I really think that if we knew a little more of what happened to you – – then we might be able to drive these forces away. Will you help me? You daughter doesn’t have to know what we’ve talked of, if you don’t want her to.”
“It was red. Like blood.” The old woman murmured.
“The world. Everything. All tinged in blood with black at the edges. I don’t remember – – that night. Just the blood – – in my eyes.”
“Didn’t you feel anything? Anger, dread, hatred, fear – – anything?”
She blinked and focused on him, clarity finally entering her eyes. “I felt – – will the priest come? Will the priest drive the evil out?”
“If he can. But we need to know what the evil is for him to do that.”
“No fear. There was no fear. But there was – – anger – – and revenge – – I wanted revenge.”
“Against your husband?”
“No. Against – – them. But they’re all dead now.” She faltered, confused.
“Who them?” Gojyo asked, feeling a little line of goosepimples pop up along his spine. He hated this supernatural shit. Just hated it.
“Send the priest here. I’ll tell the priest.” She said and this time her voice held more strength. Her eyes regained that momentary glint of intellect, but there was something else behind them that made Hakkai stand up and take a step backwards. But the look faded and the confusion returned. Her head lolled and she slipped into a doze.
“Will you come back with the priest?” the daughter wanted to know when they left.
“Perhaps.” Hakkai said, that false smile plastered on his lips.
“What the fuck was that?” Gojyo hissed when they’d passed the front gate. “She gave me the chills. You think she is possessed by evil spirits or something?”
“I don’t know. I think something touched her. I don’t think she did what she did on her own. I think she’s alive only because of luck and her own inability to finish the job, quite frankly. Maybe we should get Sanzo to come and take a look at her. He’s very good a picking up on things like this.”
“He’s worried about finding those youkai that got away and that’s all he’s worried about.” Gojyo said.
“Maybe it all ties together. It must.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I’d like to talk to those old men – – I got the feeling they knew things as well – – but I also got the feeling that they weren’t inclined to talk.”
Gojyo shrugged. “So let me talk to them. A bottle of whisky, a few hands of cards – – I’ll open them up.”
* * *
It was late afternoon by the time Sanzo had had enough alcohol and enough nicotine in his system to get his nerves back under tight reign. He hated the fact that he needed the drink and a pack and a half of cigarettes to keep his hands from shaking noticeably. Despised the weakness in himself and the notion that others might have noticed. He wanted to smack Goku repeatedly for hovering – – for not having the sense to realize that Sanzo was out of sorts and for sticking his nose into Sanzo’s personal space in what was all too obviously protective concern. At least Hakkai had the sense to keep his distance – – and Gojyo was playing very cool and very distant – – which suited Sanzo fine, because he wasn’t up to dealing with that particular entanglement, even if he’d gotten himself into it pretty much on his own – – for the most part.
“Where are you going, Sanzo?” Goku was damned and determined to dog his heels.
“None of your business. Go find something to eat.”
Goku’s eyes flickered back to the tap room, full of people come home from a day’s work, full of talk and the clatter of dishes and the aroma of food. Goku had already had his dinner – – his and most of Sanzo’s – – but Goku’s stomach rarely, if ever felt itself full.
“You gonna come and eat, too.”
“I’ve already eaten.”
“Not much – – just beer and half a bowl of noodles and you left everything else – – -”
“Shut up. Who asked you to be my dietitian.”
Goku blinked. “Your what – -?”
“Never mind. Go play cards with Gojyo.”
“I don’t want to play cards with him. He cheats.”
Sanzo shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe you just suck at it. Leave me alone.”
“Where you going?”
Sanzo sighed. Goku was like a dog who might circle around a bone, distracted by other things, but never quite let it out of his sight. He might as well tell, since his chances of shaking Goku were close to nil. If the boy hadn’t been drawn off by the lure of food, then there would be no getting rid of him, short of shooting him.
“I’m going to the mayor’s house.”
“Oh. But he’s dead.”
Sanzo shook his head, frustrated and brushed past, not willing to go so far to explain things step by step. People’s heads turned when he passed, eyes watching him with unguarded curiosity – – reverence – – respect – – desperation. God, but he hated this town. He ought to just say the fuck with it and get back on the road west. The mayor was dead, the majority of the youkai in his employ were – – let the townsfolk deal with the rest. Let them work out their own mass psychosis.
Only Sanzo couldn’t get the face of that one youkai out of his head. Couldn’t get the voice or the feel of the bastard’s hands on his skin out of his head. He needed – – truly, deeply needed to put a bullet between that particular youkai’s eyes.
So it was off to the mayor’s house to see what he could find. The man had had an aide, that might have known things. With his employer dead and the right persuasion, the man would be willing to share those things.
He walked through the streets, avoiding the worst muddy patches, with Goku stomping through the muck on his heels, oblivious to the mess and the caked mud on his shoes. The few townsfolk out in the twilight hour between afternoon and full darkness stopped what they were doing to watch Sanzo pass. He ground his teeth and dug in his robes for a smoke. One cigarette left in the pack. He should have gotten a new pack before he’d left. He could always send Goku back for one and it would serve the twin purpose of gaining the much craved nicotine and getting the kid out of his hair for a little while. Maybe he would, once he reached the house and took stock of the situation.
He took a deep drag off the smoke and let the drug work its subtle magic. He ought not be this jumpy. Really he shouldn’t be. He’d had the shit kicked out of him good and proper by youkai before and it hadn’t affected him. Hadn’t made his hands shake and his heart pound when he found himself in the midst of a crowd. Just because some dumbass local laid hands on him trying to beg attention, it oughtn’t to be punishable by a bullet in the head and for a second there this morning, things had been headed that way. He would have blown some dumb fuck’s head off in a blind fit of panic if Gojyo hadn’t caught his gun arm and distracted him from the path of destruction. Damned if Genjo Sanzo ever got that freaked, that lost his hold on reason and acted out of blind panic.
Maybe it was more than the near rape. Maybe there was something to these suspicions that Hakkai had.
The mayor’s house wasn’t that much bigger than some of the others on the prosperous side of town. It was at the end of the street, with a good sized yard and a metal fence surrounding the grounds. There was a big back yard with ornamental trees mixed in with fruit bearing ones. The mayor owned an orchard just outside of town as well, and supposedly a small winery. The house was dark now, unoccupied, it seemed.
Sanzo didn’t bother to knock. He tried the front door, and found it locked, so made his way around the back until he discovered an unlocked entrance.
“We’re going inside? But, nobodies home.” Goku whined, nervous over the intrusion, eyes flickering to the shadows the trees made.
“Stay out here and watch then.” Sanzo said, before slipping inside, which of course, Goku ignored, shuffling in after Sanzo and standing in a dark, empty kitchen, rolling Nyoibou in its bo form between his fingers.
“Put that away, before you knock something over.” Sanzo snapped, nervous himself of a sudden and for no obvious reason. Every youkai in the region could be hiding in this house and he’d be overjoyed to find them – – but he damned sure wouldn’t be fidgety over it.
Goku, surprisingly enough, shook his head, refusing. “No. I don’t like this house. We should go.”
Sanzo opened his mouth. Shut it and refused to argue the point. Guided by the remaining light of day that seeped through the windows, he made his way to the mayor’s study, the room in which they’d met and discussed the problem the townsfolk had brought to their attention. At the time, the man had been all for their aide, but then for him to have shown reluctance to accept outside help would have seemed suspicious. Easier to welcome them with open arms and send assassins after them as soon as they’d turned their backs.
Sanzo lit an oil lantern and sat down at the desk, rifling through papers, looking in desk drawers. There were no deeds to the farms of the murdered farmers – – no sign of profit from the deaths. There was a map though, depicting the area, and its surrounding counties. There were five marks over random spots. He wasn’t familiar enough with the topography of the area to have any inkling of where those spots might physically be, though one seemed to be just west of Ho-gah, one east, one north and two south.
“What are you doing here?”
Goku jumped, whirling before Sanzo’s eyes could adjust to the shadows beyond the door, and smashing a body into the wall outside the study door. There was a shocked, choking sound and the flutter of useless struggle.
Sanzo rose, moving around the desk, pulling the gun from his robes and moving into the shadows beyond the light of the lantern to see what Goku had cornered. It was a man, not quite young, not quite old, thin and raw boned, with the look of a rodent at the end of a sharp stick. Sanzo recognized him as the mayor’s aide/servant/secretary. The thin man hardly seemed to warrant the wild eyed look in Goku’s eyes, or the low growl coming from his throat.
Sanzo put a hand on Goku’s arm and leaned over his shoulder, staring the late mayor’s aide in the eye.
“He won’t be coming back, you know. Your employer. He was in bed with the wrong people and now he’s dead because of it. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
If it was possible, the man’s eyes went rounder, bulging out of his thin face. Even Sanzo could smell the fear sweat on him. Goku’s nose was wrinkled in distaste. The boy pulled his arm back and stepped away, coming to the conclusion that the late mayor’s aide was shaking too badly in fear to make any successful, daring attack against them.
“Didn’t you?” Sanzo repeated.
“He’s dead?” the man stammered. “Did you – -”
Sanzo shrugged. “I didn’t get the chance. One of his youkai did it. I’d like to find that youkai. Very much so. Any notions on where they might be?”
The man shook his head, but his eyes held the truth.
“Now both of us know that the mayor was too fat and lazy to carry his own messages and he certainly wouldn’t want them here – – and his son was useless and stupid – – and dead also, by the way – – so someone had to do his negotiations for him. Was that someone you?”
The little man sobbed, eyes flickering down the hall and towards possible escape. “You don’t understand . . . You can’t understand . . .”
“Its not what – – what you think – – I can’t – -”
“You can and you don’t know what I think.” He slipped his hand around the cool grip of the pistol within his robes, impatient enough to implement something a little more persuasive than his scowl. He rested the weight of the gun on the thin man’s chest, the muzzle tilted upwards, not bothering to repeat his question. Just staring. Cold and capable.
“Sanzo – -” Goku was shifting from foot to foot, liking the situation even less now that deadly threat had been brought into play.
“Go outside.” Sanzo suggested, because he was a distraction and he might be damned good at killing youkai and damned efficient, but when it came to cowering humans – – Sanzo might be willing to get a little blood on his hands or a great deal if it was warranted – – but Goku awash in the same just didn’t sit right with him.
“But, I don’t think – -”
“I’ll be out in a second.” It was final, the sharp note in his voice. Goku winced and backed a step away.
“Okay – – But I’m just gonna be on the porch.”
“Please – -” the thin man whined. “- -you don’t understand. If I tell you – – it will know.”
“Tell me wha – -” Sanzo hesitated in his question, canting his head a little to the side in query. “It? Not they?”
The thin man squeezed his eyes shut, tears leaking out from beneath his lashes, trailing down the creases of his face. “I tried to tell him – – I tried – – but who was I to tell him anything? Oh, god, what have we done?” He ground his palms into his eyes, doubling over in what might have been grief or fear or pain. Sanzo pulled back a step, wary – – suspicious of a sudden of the shadows of the house when he hadn’t had a care for them before.
“Tell me.” He demanded and the man jerked his head up in a panic and whispered, NO, a moment before he made a dash for the small door at the back.
Out into the shadows of the orchards beyond the house and Sanzo swore and followed, not bothering to call for Goku’s assistance. Not wanting it. Where in hell the little man thought he was running to, in this desolate place, Sanzo had no earthly notion. Why he felt the need to, was another mystery, since his boss was dead and no longer a threat – – who really cared if he spilled the beans?
A hundred yards out and the little man stopped. Just stopped dead and stood in the inky, spiderwebby shadows cast by the trees and stood with his back to Sanzo, his arms held rigid at his sides, his fists clenched at the ends of them.
“You really want to know, priest?” the whisper drifted back to him, and almost – – almost it seemed to emanate from the bent trees themselves. Sanzo’s finger twitched on the trigger. Unease mixed with the wind that swept in from the north.
“Tell him, then.” The mayor’s aide said and shadows shifted out of the trees. Sanzo turned and fired into the darkness without even getting a clear view of the body that hurled itself at him. It might have been human for all he knew, but then again, human attackers never made the hair on the back of his neck stand up so in alarm.
The sound of the impact of bullet tearing into flesh coincided with the crack of the gun. He spun and fired into the undulating shadows on the other side of the row of trees. There was an aborted cry of pain this time as the bullet hit flesh and bone and the faint glow of youkai eyes. There were more of them, seeping out of the darkness and then a joyous bellowed battle cry and a flash of movement past his position that barreled into the darkness like tsunami into the fragile huts of a seaside village.
Goku, who hadn’t gone as far away as Sanzo had wished. A bit of luck that – – if a man allowed himself to believe there was such a thing. It distracted the youkai and let Sanzo focus on the mayor’s aide, who still stood with his back to the turmoil. Sanzo padded up to him, avoiding a body that skidded limply across his path, casting an annoyed glare in Goku’s direction for almost hitting him with his cast-offs. Maybe it hadn’t been the mayor all along – – who was the power behind this.
Sanzo reached out a hand and the little man spun before his fingers touched cloth.
“Sanctimonious liar!” the man screamed. “You’re all liars!”
Sanzo blinked, taken aback more by the change in the man’s face than his words. The humanity had fled. Drained away and left in its wake something far less – – or more than mere mortal man. The skin had stretched tight across the bones of the face, making it appear rubbery and slick, making it seem as if it might split at any moment by the pressure of the bone underneath. And the eyes bulged, all black, the white eaten up by the darkness. Sanzo had gotten nothing but fear from him before. Nothing but the stench of mortal fear and mortal presence – – the presence that hit him now liked to steal his breath from his chest. Putrid and angry and huge. And black. Like the earth under a hundred thousand tons of dirt and rock and bone was black. And old – – and eminently evil.
“God . . .” He raised the gun reflexively and got off one shot before the man’s hand shot out and nails that had grown thick and jagged sliced into the side of Sanzo’s hand. It was just a shallow scratch – – just a scrape across the back of his hand – – but it throbbed like acid had been poured over his hand and was spreading up the small veins of his hand and up his arm.
“Fuckfuckfuck – -” he staggered back a step, refusing to let go the gun, shaking the arm out desperately. The blackness was trying to seep into him. It had its hooks into him, he felt it in the numbness at the tips of his fingers and the excruciating agony just beyond – – felt it creeping up his arm and into his veins, spreading out to pollute his flesh.
“Sanzo! Sanzo!” he heard Goku crying and looked up at the towering form of the mayor’s aide – – towering? When had the little man begun to tower? Oh, it was him. He’d fallen to his knees, cradling the hand with the gun in his lap. He saw the overwhelming darkness that shadowed the little man – – saw it seeping up out of the earth, its tendrils firmly hooked in human flesh – – though strangely enough, it seemed to have no attachment to the last of the youkai that were fleeing, either from Goku’s efforts or fear of this evil that had sprang up in the orchard.
“Sanzo – – what’s wrong?” Goku was hardly out of breath. Goku was staring at him and not at the enveloping evil that surrounding the mayor’s aide. It was as if he didn’t even see it. How could he not.
“Back – – the fuck off.” Sanzo ground out, shutting his eyes and reaching for that place of calm where he could find a way to fight this. It was the same, he thought, with growing dread, as the thing in the cabin that had possessed the very dead body of the mayor. It would have killed him then, if it could have. He still wasn’t sure why it hadn’t. He hadn’t had the sutra then. He did now. He clasped both hands around the gun, and began chanting. Began to pull the power of that ancient sutra that had been passed on to him from whatever reservoir it rested. It was no easy thing. It took concentration and will and belief. The first was greatly shaken from the pain in his hand and arm and the seeping blackness – – the second he had in abundance – – the third – – well belief was a touchy thing – – a shifting thing. Sometimes Genjo Sanzo didn’t think he truly believed in anything. But he believed in the power of the meten sutra and he believed that if he could just get his hand to work again that the bullets in his gun could finish off mortal flesh – – if it was mortal anymore.
A root broke up from out of the earth near him, twisting towards him with malevolent intent. Goku hissed and smashed it with the end of his bo until it was nothing but mashed splinters.
The sutra began to flutter at Sanzo’s neck with the sound of a hundred sheets flapping on the line during a windy day. With a surge of power that pulled at the air around him, at the very core of him – – it blossomed forth with a dozen tendrils of silk and ink and energy. He lost track of Goku. Lost track of everything but the draw of power – – the link the sutra had with his soul that used him as a conduit for its power in this world. Or was it the other way around? Was it the conduit for him to draw that power from somewhere or somewhen else. Sometimes the issue got clouded. Sometimes a body lost track of who was using who – – but he trusted it nonetheless – – because he’d trusted the man who’d worn it before him.
It surged out regardless and the darkness receded, burned by the glare. It just left and the body of the mayor’s aide crumpled, a puppet with its strings cut. The night was still dark and humid, but that was all it was. And there really hadn’t even been a fight. Not on anything other than the physical level. It had been just too damned easy.
“I told you I didn’t like this place.” Goku was crouching over the body, prodding it with his bo – – fearless in the face of an obvious bad situation. One just did not get face to face with recently possessed bodies.
“Would you get the fuck away from that?”
“Why – – he’s not alive. No breath. No heartbe – -”
“I don’t give a fuck. Step away, you moron.”
“I’m not the one that wanted to come out here all alone.” Goku muttered, but looked away when Sanzo cast him a look. “What was that anyway? What was with his face and where’d all those youkai come from – – and the trees were acting funny, too. Did you see the trees acting funny?”
“You didn’t see anything else?” Sanzo cast him a wary glance.
“Not really. I was busy, sorta.” Goku shrugged. “I mean he looked pretty scary with his eyes all black and all – -”
Sanzo narrowed his eyes. “Didn’t you feel it? The – – foulness – – in the air?”
Goku shrugged. “Yeah, well – – there was a stench – – was that from him?”
Sanzo transferred the gun from one hand to the other, and rubbed the hand with the cut against his robes. It wasn’t bleeding much, but the cut still throbbed. The corruption was gone though – – he hoped – – driven away by the power of the sutra. What had truly happened – – what that thing had been, he hadn’t the slightest notion – – other than evil. Of that he was certain.
“You okay, Sanzo?” Goku peered down at his hand. Sanzo slipped it inside the sleeve of his robe and refused to comment.
Gojyo was only a little drunk. Not so bad that he was seeing double or making a fool of himself or ready to pass out – – just a bit buzzed and feeling good about it. Hakkai wasn’t drunk at all, which was just par for the course, since Hakkai had an unnatural tolerance for things that made normal folk loose their grasp on sobriety. A damned irritating trait if you were playing games of chance with him for actual money. At least if he weren’t on your side.
He was this evening – – though it hardly mattered since they were playing for peanuts and pennies. Literally. The other players had little enough to wager, being jobless and ancient and more interested in a round or two than real coin.
Gojyo had lured the three old coots in from their perch outside the tavern with the promise of free beer and supper and a hand or two of cards. They’d ambled in, rheumy eyed and decrepit and settled their old bones into chairs, eyeing him and Hakkai like vultures waiting for their first bit of rancid meat. They played at being doddering old men, but there was something sharp in their eyes that hinted at more.
So they plied them with beer and meaningless chatter – – the former of which was received much heartier than the latter. They had no doubt had decades and decades to gain a head for the stuff, for they downed the golden brew with hardly a pause for breath and seemed none the less coherent for it. Gojyo thought he might have been the only one of the lot of them that was drunk at the table. But he was a pleasant drunk and an amenable one that they seemed to have more of an affinity for than Hakkai’s strange sobriety. He got them to engage in a bit of gossip, knowing well that very few old, old folks could resist in spreading tales. He didn’t so much inquire about the uneasy things they’d been saying at the cemetery as ask about when the most recent trouble had started here.
The first death had been a farmer. He’d been turning over land for new fields all the week before. As honest a man as ever there was and one night after a hard days work, he’d simply gone home and hung himself in his barn.
That had been the beginning. After that the madness had spread and a quiet area that had not seen violence – – at least not amongst its own folk, for many years, began to become soaked with blood.
“It was the marker he dug up.” One of the old men said softly, hands trembling as he sorted cards.
“Marker?” Hakkai asked.
And the three of them paused in what they were doing, in what seemed a collective moment of silence, then the most talkative of them smiled his yellow, gap-toothed smile and shrugged.
“They’ve been finding them, you know. Been digging them up and smashing them to bits. Men put markers places for reasons. You break too many of them and things get unbalanced.”
Gojyo blinked, fighting past the wash of alcohol to comprehend what the old coot was saying.
“Like gravestone markers?” He asked. Was his voice really that slurred.
“You might say that.”
“Who’s breaking them?” Hakkai wanted to know. Good question. Hakkai always asked the good questions.
“The mayor – – he had an interest. Haven’t seen him around today.” One old man remarked.
Nor were they likely to. Not unless something dragged his bloated corpse back into town. Damn deceiving bastard. It just figured he was into something darker than trying to draw them off some land grabbing scheme.
“We saw one on the side of the road outside of town.” Hakkai said. “It looked to be very old. I couldn’t understand the writing.”
“Another one, huh? Did the priest see it?”
They all looked up at that, expectant, rheumy eyes glittering. They were all just too damned interested in the monk – – the people of this town. It made Gojyo edgy. It made him think they were better off just packing up and leaving, because he had a bad feeling and a lot of it centered around Sanzo. Not that he was feeling at all protective – – not him. Not towards that cold bastard. Let the kid run around watching his back, Sha Gojyo had better things to do. Still, whatever Sanzo got himself into, Gojyo would eventually have to risk life and limb trying to help him get out of. They all would and there was no arguing that.
“Why do you care what he saw?” Gojyo asked, frowning, leaning forward just a little.
“Just thought he’d have an interest, is all. Those stones were holy – – once upon a time.”
“Holy my ass.” Gojyo sneered, oh, well and truly reeling now. He was going to have such a hangover.
Hakkai’s mouth tightened. His hand snaked over and caught Gojyo’s wrist. “Gojyo – – I think it’s time to go.”
“Wha – -? Why?”
“We need to go.” Hakkai hauled him up and propelled him towards the door.
“What the fuck – -?”
“Something’s wrong.” Hakkai hissed.
“Oh, great. That jus’ figures. Where?”
“I don’t know.” Hakkai paused in the street, feet straddling a mud puddle, hair beginning to plaster to his head from the mist. “I just feel – – something.”
Gojyo turned, looking into the darkness. He trusted Hakkai’s intuition. Whatever it was, this wrongness that Hakkai felt, whereever it was – – a body just knew that Sanzo was neck deep in it.
“Come on.” Hakkai started up the street. Gojyo staggered behind him, running both hands through his hair, letting the cold mist hit his face, trying to clear his head. He was almost lucid by the time they heard the gunshots. Thin and distant they echoed from the very edge of town.
They started running, listening for the hint of more. Listening for anything that would give a clue as to where they needed to go. But there were no more and by the time they were getting their bearings and trying to figure out where to check first, Sanzo and Goku appeared out of the darkness from up the street. The kid openly clutching his bo and the monk walking sedately behind him with his hands hidden inside the folds of his sleeves.
“What happened?” Gojyo demanded and got a burst of babbled explanation from Goku. Sanzo didn’t say a thing. Sanzo had a frown that was a little stranger than his normal scowl on his lips. His eyes under the dripping fringe of his hair were unreadable.
They trudged back towards the inn through the darkness and the mist, Hakkai telling what they’d found out, about the markers and the deaths and the mayor’s possible involvement in both.
“Wardstones.” Hakkai surmised finally, quietly. “They said they were holy, which meant at some point priests placed them here to guard against something.”
“They don’t seem to be doing that great of a job.” Gojyo muttered.
“If there were a set – – a certain number, placed in a certain order – – or in a certain pattern – -” Sanzo said softly, sounding almost out of breath. ” – – then when the first one was broken – – their power might have weakened enough to – -” the monk faltered, foot on the first step of the porch fronting the inn. He swayed, putting out his hands for balance, staring with wide, surprised eyes at the ground beneath his sandals. “Oh – – fuck – -”
It was like somebody cut his strings. His legs just gave out and he started to crumple. Would have hit the porch hard if not for Goku’s fast reflexes. The kid caught him around the waist and shored him up long enough to Gojyo to get a shoulder under his other arm.
“Sanzo? Sanzo? Wake up!” Goku was demanding, trying to ease the monk down on the porch, at cross purposes with Gojyo who wanted off the street and the sight of all the monk-groupies who had way too keen of an interest in their priest.
“Get him inside, Damnit.” He had the height to outmaneuver the kid when it came to lugging unconscious bodies about. Hakkai was in agreement. Hakkai bustled in before them, smiling that false smile of his and proclaiming to the interested faces that turned their way when Goku and Gojyo hauled the priest inside.
“A little too much to drink. We’ll all have hangovers in the morning.’
Which was a damned flimsy excuse, but who really gave a damn what a bunch of villagers thought anyway. They got him upstairs and onto a bed, Hakkai already reaching for his limp arm before they’d even settled him.
“What happened to him? where did he get this?” there was a slash on the back of one hand. It was red and inflamed and body could just guess, without even touching it, that the hand exuded heat.
Goku gaped at the wound. “I don’t know. I didn’t see him get hit – – he didn’t say anything – – that guy must have done it. Is it poison?”
Hakkai shut his eyes, Sanzo’s hand cradled in both of his, focusing chi – – doing that thing he did that made hurts better and soothed grievous ills. “No.’ He said softly, without opening his eyes. “Not poison. Poison I could deal with. This is just – – dark.”