Chapter One
This is the dry river.

Here nothing changes except to die, and nothing dies to be born again, and nothing lives in the sere waste and the blowing sand. The wind comes from the east and goes to the west, but it brings no life from the east, and it takes only emptiness to the west. There are people who cover their eyes when that wind blows past, so as not to see the nothingness that flies upon it, and there are others who block their ears so that they will hear the drumming of their blood and the beating of their heart, rather than the dead silence which rides upon its wings.

This is the dry river. If you follow it into the rocks, you will find the wellspring of the death which will not die.

It flows through mortal lands when it is called, but ordinary words do not suffice, and the incantations of sorcerers fail to compel it. The dry river comes only to a very particular cry from the heart, when the mourner looks around her and says, let me live my life in this despair, and let me have neither death nor birth, but let me simply exist, and give me dust to eat, let desert be my habitation, and let neither sun nor moon rise to watch me as I crawl upriver to the silence.

Sometimes this may be a sorcerer, of course, or a priest, or a youkai, or simply a normal human being. It is rarely a child, for few children understand enough to make the full refusal of change and to wholly seek despair, and an understanding of the bargain is necessary.

But when the dry river hears a call and bends its course to answer, it takes no heed as to who else may wander across its path. It is a generous host. It brooks no refusal.

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Sanzou stared at the village which they were approaching, his eyes squinted against the dust on the wind. There was a bitter, persistent undertone to the air, and it seemed to carry grit and sand with an unnatural malice. Goku alternated complaints about it with pleas for food. It was almost a relief when Gojyo started to argue with him again, and he could shut the two up with applied force majeure.

Hakkai was tactfully ignoring the whimpers from the back seat. "We don't actually need food," he stated, "but if we don't stop here, it'll be a while before we can pick up anything elsewhere."

"We do need food!" Goku wailed. "I'm hungry!"

"I need cigarettes," Gojyo put in helpfully. "Unless Sanzou-sama feels like donating some of his to mortify his flesh . . ."

"Asshole," Sanzou muttered, weighing up the annoyance of a delay here against the persistent annoyance of complaints for the next couple of days. The delay won, barely. Part of the back of his mind tried to point out that any delays in small villages kept on inevitably leading to major complications and frequently to painful encounters with youkai or worse. He ignored it. "Fine. We stop here. But only for an hour. Food and shopping. That's all."

"Maa, of course," Hakkai said cheerfully. "If you give me the credit card, I'll see to getting everything we need."

Gojyo leaned over from the back seat, his crimson hair falling to lie on Sanzou's robe like a streak of blood. "You won't forget the cigarettes, Hakkai?"

"Do I ever?"

Gojyo grinned lazily, then recoiled with an oath as Sanzou brought the fan down on his head. "Yeah, yeah, and you'd better get some more beer for the monk here, looks like he's drying out . . ."

As they approached the town more closely, Sanzou noted that the shutters were drawn against the heat of the day, and that only a few people moved slowly through the streets, their gait halting and their clothes drab. The wind had slowed now, and no longer plagued him with dust and sand. A thin flute was playing somewhere in the distance, the tune vaguely reminiscent of something he'd once heard at the temple where he was raised, though he couldn't remember precisely what.

At least it wasn't raining.

"This looks like the inn," Hakkai remarked, coming to a halt outside a battered building with a dust-spattered sign and a part-open front door. "If you all wait here, I'll go and do the shopping, and Goku can have some food." He smiled at the boy in the back seat.

Sanzou stepped out of the jeep without replying. There was something in this place which suited his current mood; an arid bitterness of spirit, and a dry solitude which perfectly fitted his wish to be free of pestering arguments, annoying squabbles, and missions that tightened around him like fetters. Even Goku's solicitude and affection seemed to tire him today. Hopefully the stupid monkey would keep quiet while he ate.

He was aware that Goku and Gojyo were following him inside, but he ignored them, striding over to a side table in the dimly-lit room and lighting another cigarette as he sat down. The place was empty apart from the innkeeper in the corner. Probably it was too early for the serious drinking to start, and too late for anyone to come here for lunch.

It was astonishing how easy it was not to care.

Goku was rattling off a list of dishes which he wanted. The innkeeper was old and dry, face drained of energy and seamed with wrinkles, his eyes sharp but distracted. Gojyo seemed, for a wonder, to have realized that Sanzou wanted privacy, and flopped down at another table, stretching out his legs and crossing his ankles. "And beer," he interrupted Goku's monologue. "Plenty of beer."

Specks of dust descended in a long continuous spiral through a beam of light that came through a chink in the shuttered window. They seemed to fall forever, turning and spiralling in a slow unthinking cadence.

Silence curled in the air and spread slowly through the room like a living thing.

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And outside, a wind blew across the desert, and sifted dust and sand into a set of jeep tracks which vanished into nothingness.

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