Chapter 9: The Only Way
"Only one way to find out!" Yusuke grabbed Kuwabara's arm, practically dragging him out of the room.
"Wait!" Itani's call stopped them. "Let me just print this one thing..." she had turned back to her notes after seeing the figure through the window, searching frantically through them for her notes on the second inscription. She grabbed them and then started clicking at her laptop.
"I don't think now's the time..." Yusuke said urgently.
Itani shook her head, not bothering to swipe at the hair that fell in her eyes, "No, Koenma said the second inscription held the key. What good'll it do to find it if we can't stop it?"
"But you don't know what it means!" Yusuke insisted.
"Then I'll just have to figure it out on the way!" she shot back. And since they really didn't have any other choice, Yusuke stopped arguing.
Grabbing the print out Itani jumped to her feet, "Let's go!"
It had taken some effort to discover the entrance into the tree. They had begun to fear that the monk was somehow using the power sphere to accomplish the trick, when Kuwabara tripped over a low root and half the trunk seemed to disintegrate before their eyes.
What it revealed was a staircase.
It wound steeply downward into nothingness and then leveled out into a tunnel, at the end of which they could see faintly glowing blue light. The entire passage was dark and damp, as it was underground, and Itani found herself increasingly uncomfortable. She hadn't liked dark damp places much since that day in the sewers. It brought back memories. But at least Kurama was here with her this time as he had been that first time. She didn't doubt that he could still protect her.
She had a nasty suspicion that the walls were covered with mold, or something equally distasteful, so she didn't dare reach out to keep herself steady.
Which was probably why she stumbled forward as the tunnel opened into a cave and the floor suddenly took a shard downward turn. Kurama quickly reached out to steady her.
She would have thanked him, but there were more pressing matters at hand.
For example: the monk in the center of the room.
The dark robes immediately gave him away. It was Tao. He was standing, with his back to them, leaning over something. Eerie blue light spilled out around him. Itani nearly shuddered. She had little doubt what that light was.
The monk hadn't noticed them yet, either that or he just didn't care. And – considering how powerful his new toy probably was – that wouldn't be much of a shock to them.
It was Yusuke who finally stepped forward of course. He was nearly boiling with rage. And, they supposed, considering that he was surprisingly calm.
"You b." The detective ground out, causing Tao to turn to them. It was difficult to tell by his expression whether he had been surprised or not, it held the same scowl it had held every time they had seen him. But, he had turned around, that had to mean something...
As he turned he stepped slightly to the side, allowing them an unobstructed view of the source of the eerie glow. It was a small sphere, perhaps a little larger than a tennis ball. And it was hovering above three claw-like stone outcroppings. They were so rough they might have been taken for natural stalactites, except that they were in a perfect equilateral triangle, and each had the exact same curvature – rising almost vertically out of the ground for a few inches and then curving inward at an increasingly steep angle.
"Yusuke-" Kurama warned, but it was too late, the detective had already burst toward the monk, fist raised.
The monk, surprisingly, easily side stepped, and continued to watch Yusuke with that same unreadable look.
Yusuke skidded to a halt several meters past the man, looking startled as he finally overcame the momentum that should have been stopped when he hit the monk. He turned, eyes narrowing.
"Now I know you can't be normal."
Tao didn't respond. Which only made Yusuke angrier.
"Fine – don't talk. That'll make it easier to concentrate on bashing in your face!"
"You're a fool."
It was the first time they had ever heard him speak, and it startled Yusuke into stopping his assault in a dust raising skid.
"What did you say?"
"You," the monk looked at him pointedly, his voice was amazingly low, but far more pleasant than anyone would imagine by observing his demeanor, "are a fool."
"Yeah?" Yusuke didn't appear to be insulted so much as angry, "well, if stopping the bad guys from destroying the planet makes me a fool then I'm a fool!" he snapped.
"Yusuke..." Kurama interceded again.
"Kinda busy right now, Kurama..." Yusuke didn't look at him.
"You're making a mistake." The monk continued.
Yusuke cocked a brow, "Right," he drew out the word, as he so often did, "And I want to listen to the psycho monk with the evil sphere why?"
"Yusuke." Kurama had moved so that he was almost between the monk and the spirit detective, "he isn't the one."
Yusuke's gaze darted to him as though he thought the man had gone mad.
"And you think that because?" he asked incredulously, "We just saw him enter a secret chamber and draw power from that thing!"
Kurama shook his head, "No, we just saw someone enter a secret chamber, and Tao trying to suppress the power of that thing."
Yusuke just blinked at him. "How do you know that?" he finally asked.
"Because I could sense his spirit energy attempting to repress the evil." Kurama stated blandly.
"You could?" Yusuke darted a glance to Kuwabara, suddenly realizing that his hot-headed friend hadn't joined him in his assault on the monk. Kuwabara nodded mutely.
Yusuke's stance went from battle ready to uncertain as he ran a hand over his face and then through his hair, making it stand on end.
"I don't... get it." He finally confessed. "If you're trying to stop it, then who-"
"You ask too many questions."
The whole room seemed to still at the addition of this new voice.
"Manoa?" Yusuke frowned, "I'm confused..."
It was unmistakably Manoa who stood at the far end of the cave, his back to another tunnel. But, dimly illuminated by the last reaches of the blue glow, he seemed as though he could have been a creature from another realm. His face was a hard mask, nothing like the friendly face they had grown accustomed to.
"I'm sure you are." He smirked coldly, moving toward them. As he stepped forward the glow of the sphere seemed to flare up.
"No way!" Kuwabara looked quickly between the sphere and the monk. "But, you were so nice! It was the other guy who was creepy!"
Manoa gave a dark chuckle, "Yes. I suppose I was nice." He admitted thoughtfully, "That's why it chose me..."
"Manoa," Kurama watched him carefully, his voice quiet, as though speaking to an angry child, "You don't know what you're doing."
"I know." His head snapped up sharply. "Believe me, I do." He gazed thoughtfully at the sphere, "I always wondered," he said quietly, "what it would be like to have true power. I read everything I could trying to discover where it could be found, studying its effects, but I was too afraid to try... until this came to me."
"You didn't call it then?" Itani asked.
He laughed once more, "No. It called me..." his eyes suddenly lost their hazy quality as he turned around, "You should leave while you still can. I don't see the need to bother with you, you were just curious." His gaze flitted to Itani briefly with a knowing smile, "unless you want to stay."
Itani had felt an instant repulsion, and at the same time a frighteningly magnetic attraction, to the sphere, as if it were called to her and something in her was ready to respond. She wondered if any of the others shared the feeling. And she was intensely glad that Botan was not here. If what the Koenma had said was true...
She was spared Manoa's further attention when his gaze abruptly turned on his brother.
"You however," he said darkly, "You tried to take it from me. You must die." He lunged for Tao, and it was as though Armageddon had come.
Yusuke moved to block the monk's attack even as the sphere's light increased and dozens of small, glowing projectiles shot into the air around them. They were like homing missiles, unshakable as they followed their targets. Kuwabara and Kurama rushed to keep the energy darts from hitting Yusuke as he desperately grappled with the monk. Whatever else the sphere did, it greatly increased his physical abilities, from the looks of the man he shouldn't have been able to defend against a child, let alone an experienced fighter like Yusuke.
Tao had somehow disappeared and Itani was frantically ducking small projectiles. Kurama winced as one got especially close to her and stepped away from his position only long enough to grab her arm and pull her back against him, raising his whip to snap the objects away. Itani buried her face in his chest, clutching his shirt and focusing on following his movements so as not to hinder him quite as much. She had only seen him fight once, but she already knew his acrobatic style and realized he would be at a disadvantage now since he couldn't very well flip in the air while holding her. Still, she could do her best to allow him as much maneuverability with his whip as possible. Kurama, though deep in concentration, did not fail to notice her efforts, and for a moment he smiled.
"Itani," she looked up into concerned emerald eyes, "You shouldn't be here. You need to go."
She shook her head, "Koenma said-"
"I know," he cut her off gently, eyes narrowing as he concentrated on thwarting a few more projectiles, "but we need you to figure out that inscription."
She shook her head, "I already did, that's what the printout was, but I can't figure out what it means! It makes no sense." She flinched and drew more tightly against him as a sphere got very close.
"Look at it again," he urged, "you'll do it. But you can't do it here."
She looked back into his eyes and realized that he was very anxious – and he was also right. Neither of them could do their job like this. Nodding she disentangled her arms from his torso and prepared to run. He held her gaze for a moment before giving her a light shove.
She ducked and ran, not sure where she was heading, but as she passed one of the tunnels – she wasn't sure which – a hand shot out and pulled her inside. She nearly screamed, but then realized that it was Tao.
"Thank you!" she whispered, and she could have sworn he almost gave her a sad smile. She drew her notes out of her shirt and began to scan them hurriedly, having a bit of difficulty in the dim light. The answer had to be here!
But it just looked like a bunch of nonsense. The first part was a warning, followed by a few stanzas of what looked like poetry. The bottom was just a tumble of symbols the matrix hadn't been able to translate. It was maddening. She squinted at the symbols in the dark, a nagging feeling at the back of her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, wrinkling the bridge of her nose – she was missing something.
Tao leaned over her, apparently tired of watching the fight, or perhaps just curious.
"Why is there a spell on that?" he asked.
She looked at him blankly.
"A spell," he pointed at the poetry, "that's the pattern of old Shinto spells.
Itani just blinked. He was a history scholar as well? But he didn't seem the type. Actually, he seemed more the type than his brother, and it wasn't as though either of them had much else to do out here. She realized he was still staring at her, and shook herself from her daze.
"You're sure it's a spell?"
He nodded, "a binding spell, I'm fairly certain."
"Binding spell?" that sounded hopeful. Now if only she could figure out what the rest said. She'd hate to accidentally bind the wrong thing. "How do binding spells work, exactly?" she asked. She winced as a particularly large projectile was sliced in half by Kurama's whip and exploded into violent light. She glanced up to see that Yusuke had been thrown across the room.
"They don't all work the same." She looked crestfallen so he hastened to continue, "but, there's usually some sort of instruction." He offered.
Well, that would explain the scribbles on the bottom of the page. But they didn't mean anything to her. Why didn't this stuff come with little pictures? Like the manual for her VCR?
Itani suddenly stopped in her tracks, eyes scanning her notes rapidly as comprehension dawned – little pictures! "I think I've got this!"
Kurama threw a look at her from over his shoulder, moving closer, though still lashing out with his rose whip, "What is it?"
"I translated the second set of writing just before Yusuke brought Botan in. But it didn't make any sense." Her excitement was rising. "But what if it isn't supposed to make sense?"
He eyed her curiously and she gripped the page tightly, "I don't think its words at all. This bottom part, I think it's a kind of symbolic diagram." She pointed, "See these symbols?" she turned to Tao, "I think they represent the four sealers. And the last one represents the vessel of power. If we position ourselves like this... and then we chant the inscription!"
It was a better suggestion than anyone else had to make, so Kurama figured it was worth an attempt.
"But how do we get him to remain still?" he called, hoping Manoa wouldn't hear. Of course, that meant Yusuke and Kuwabara were in the dark as well.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder, "Leave that to me." Tao said grimly.
Kurama nodded, briefly wondering when the man had moved up beside him. But then, he clearly had some sort of spirit energy.
"Good luck." It was the only hopeful thing they had ever heard the sullen monk say.
"What do you think he'll do?" Itani asked anxiously.
Kurama shook his head, "I've no idea," then he held out his free hand, she stepped forward to take it. "Are you ready?"
She nodded, casting a glance at the others. "We need to tell them what to do."
He frowned, "Do we all have to say the spell?"
She shook her head, "I don't think so. The last symbol looks similar to the kanji for spell caster or holy man. I think only that person has to say the spell."
"Can you do it?"
She nodded once more.
"Good." He gave her hand a squeeze. "Better get ready then." He pulled her over to Yusuke and whispered something to the other man. Yusuke gave a terse nod and appeared to brace himself. Manoa eyed him suspiciously, while Kurama hurried to relay instruction to Kuwabara – they'd only have one chance at this.
They took their positions, Kurama fairly close to Itani as projectiles were still homing in on them, but he was ready to spring to his place when the time came. He nodded to Yusuke.
With a shout of effort Yusuke allowed his spirit energy to flare and encompass the room. Manoa flinched only momentarily, but the projectiles vanished, and the sphere pulsed as though angry. Manoa sneered at what he perceived to be Yusuke's failed attempt and stepped closer to the detective, effectively placing himself in the center of the box they had formed. At that moment Tao sprang forward, wrapping his arms and his spirit energy around his brother, halting his progress.
"Now!" he yelled.
Kurama, Yusuke, and Kuwabara focused their spirit energy on Manoa, hoping that the addition of Tao's energy would make up for Itani's lack of spirit power. The original sealers had all been spirit warriors after all. When Kurama nodded that they were ready Itani unfolded her notes and began to read the spell.
Manoa gave a cry of pure rage, attempting to break free of his brother. But the combined weight of spirit energy holding him down was too much. Slowly he crumpled to the ground, a long wisp of blue/black smoke seemingly being pulled from his body and back toward the sphere.
It was working.
The light of the sphere began to pulsate rapidly, seeking escape, but it was trapped by the words of the spell.
"I don't know what to do next!" Itani yelled, "We don't have the tablet!"
"You don't need it." Tao had lowered his brother's limp body to the floor and was now standing beside her. "We can dispel it without a vessel!"
"What?" they had to shout to be heard, for a roar like that of a terrible storm had filled the cavern.
"We can dispel it!" he said again, "but the girl will have to do it."
"What?" four shouts assaulted him, but he ignored them.
"Trust me." He held Itani's gaze and she nodded hesitantly. He actually smiled, in a reassuring way. "You'll need to send your energy into it during the chant." He told her.
She shook her head wildly, "I can't!" she protested, "I don't have any!"
He gave her a curious look, as though he was surprised by the statement, but seemed to accept it. "Then you can use some of mine. I'll channel it through you."
"Then why can't you do it?"
"It's a miko spell," he told her, "only a woman can perform it."
She looked at him, wide-eyed, and nodded slowly, "Okay." She visibly braced herself. He moved around behind her, placing his arms along hers, holding the backs of her hands in his palms and urging her to splay her fingers toward the sphere.
"Breath." He whispered in her ear, his face pressed close, "just breath, do as I say."
She squeezed her eyes shut, throwing a desperate glance at Kurama before drawing a deep breath. She could do this, she had to.
She was barely conscious of the man behind her. All she knew was that a feeling of indescribable warmth and peace settled over her and she was speaking – saying something in a tongue she couldn't understand, but she didn't much care at that moment. There was a bright light, but somehow it didn't hurt their eyes. The room fell silent. And then – utter darkness.
Which meant the sphere... was gone.
She felt a moment of intense relief as she heard Tao whisper that she had done it, and then she slumped against him, unconscious.
Kurama, who had been close by, held out his arms, indicating that he would take Itani, presumably so that Tao could check on his brother.
Manoa was struggling to rise. "What... happened?" he asked weakly.
Tao reached him and held out a hand to help him up, then offered himself as support once the second monk was standing.
"You nearly caused the end of the world! That's what happened!" Yusuke shouted.
The monk looked confused, his gaze drifting from the Spirit Detective, to his brother, to the stone pillars that had sustained the sphere.
"I never meant to hurt anyone." He whispered.
Yusuke snorted and Kurama sent him a warning glance.
The monk appeared to be lost in memory, "One day," his voice was so quiet that all but Kurama had to strain to hear, "I felt something calling to me. I found the entrance, and the cave. It was so beautiful, like something out of legend. I wanted to know what it was. So I touched it." He shuddered, "It was like being burned alive, I imagine... hot, and yet cold. But it felt wonderfully, terrifyingly empowering." His head dropped the light going out of his eyes. "It was eating my soul." He said bleakly, "and once it had begun I couldn't stop it – because something in me liked it."
It was a sobering thought, that one could enjoy the very thing they knew beyond all doubt was destroying them and all they loved.
"I'm sorry." He whispered brokenly.
Yusuke didn't seem inclined to care much, but Kurama shook his head. He had been thinking about the stone claws and it had occurred to him that the gathering spell must have been cast on the stone claws, that was what had summoned the energy, not the monk. If the monk hadn't been so pure... the sphere would not have taken him. Now that its evil influence was gone, he was no danger – except, perhaps, to himself in his grief. But Tao would see to that. Manoa would recover... eventually.
Kurama shifted Itani in his arms, holding her bridal style.
"We should check on Botan." He reminded them.
The other two men nodded and turned to go. Kurama cast a last glance back at the two monks before following. Manoa was slumped against his brother, head hung, silent tears streaming down his face. And Tao just held him, one arm wrapped around his torso, offering his support. His face was grim, but, for the first time since they had arrived, his eyes held hope.
They would recover. Both of them.
It was a very long walk back to Genkai's shrine. Botan had recovered fairly quickly, and was her old self by the time they reached the outskirts of the city. But Itani was another matter. Whatever Tao had helped her do had taken a serious toll. She was simply too exhausted to even wake. Kurama rejected the other men's offers to carry her.
She moaned and he shifted her gently in his arms, looking down at her face and thinking how much it would hurt to lose her. He couldn't love her – he couldn't. And yet...
:I hardly know her: he reminded himself, hoping to end the argument. Even considering the many conversations they had shared over the last month it was true. But another voice spoke up in his mind, throwing him into conflict once more.
:Yes: it agreed, :but an experience like this brings people together, reveals true character, both strength and weakness – and you've shared two...:
He shook the thought firmly away, focusing on his steps. It didn't matter what he felt for her – nothing could ever come of it. He couldn't allow it to - for both their sakes. And if he couldn't control his emotions he'd just have to stay away from her. But, looking down at her once more, he realized that would not be easy to do. He'd become too accustomed to her presence. He needed it...
But it was the only way...
When they reached the shrine he refused to let Genkai or Yukina take her from him, but carried her to her room himself, laying her down on her bed and pulling the blankets up around her. He studied her only a moment before turning to leave. Outside he nearly ran into Botan.
"Sorry," he murmured absently, still deep in conflicted thoughts.
"She's a wonderful person isn't she?" the deity asked casually.
Kurama shook his head, trying to dislodge the image of a sleeping blue-haired woman. "Who is?"
"Itani of course!" Botan smiled slyly.
"Yes." He agreed casually, finally looking up at his unwelcome companion, "she showed amazing stamina, intelligence and courage on this mission. We couldn't have done this without her."
Botan rolled her eyes, "Kurama." She shook her head, "Silly boys."
Kurama turned to look at her, clear green eyes calm, almost serene. "Perhaps." He agreed mildly. Sticking his hands loosely in his pockets he strolled away, headed for home.
With an exasperated sigh Botan shook her head once more. "Why are boys so silly?" she voiced aloud though no one was left to hear her.
A/N: Ta daa! Okay... so, I'm fairly certain you've all (all three of you) abandoned this story, because I've had no reviews in the last chapter or two. But that's okay... If you were reading still... this was the end. Truth be told, this isn't my favortie story... but it is necessary to get to the one I want to write so... here it is. Hope someone out there liked it. Au revoir