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LVIII

Tenkou's Mercy

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Kaen was running. Demons glared at her from the cliffs, drawing cold shivers down her spine. She hunched over, clutching the two metal objects tighter to her chest. The demons seemed to know that she was on their side. At least, they did not attack her as she slipped beneath their shadow. A party of them moved aside to let her pass.

I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid –

Demons, Kaen reminded herself, were not the cruel men who had hurt her. Demons were just beings under Lord Tenkou's control, and Tenkou had promised to keep her safe.

Tenkou doesn't want to see me dead, because I've helped him. I'm helping him now, by bringing him the objects of power – and he promised me – he promised me that he would help me when I got to the lake, by taking away all my memories, by making Soi vanish forever –

The scepter of Kutou was cold in her grasp, but the mirror was warm. Kaen slid the mirror into her pocket and wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, shivering. She had two of them with her now: the scepter and the mirror. They would be added insurance against Miaka's completing the summoning ceremony.

The others would be missing her soon, but that did not matter – Kaen had a good lead on them, and she had the demons on her side, and by the time they realized what she'd stolen it would be too late; they would not be able to hurt her – she would be safe. Safe with Lord Tenkou. He would keep any of them from harming her.

Nakago wouldn't harm her, either. Nakago was safe now, safe because of Kaen's actions in the forest last night. She recalled the look that had crossed Nakago's eyes after she'd thrown the knife into the forest – his initial shock superseded by blankness as the kudoku took effect.

And then he had stood up (Kaen had backpedaled sharply) and told her in cool, impassive monotone:

"Go to the camp of the Suzaku no miko and tell them Nakago is dead."

The demons were still above her, but Kaen had ceased to notice them. She reached the place where the narrow trail ended and stared at the rock face. Nakago was already bringing Miaka to Tenkou via the water passage. But there were other ways to get to Tenkou's lair, ways that didn't involve getting wet and cold. Tenkou had told her of the secret tunnels, tunnels that would bring her directly to him. Now, Kaen raised her palm to the wall and touched it, about to apply pressure to a part of the rock where a certain symbol was carved –

A noise, somewhere above her.

Kaen froze and yanked her hand away from the rock. The demons were drawing back, hissing – as though in fear or alarm. Why were the demons drawing back? Was it something in the tunnel? Were they afraid? But what could possibly frighten demons?

And then Kaen heard footsteps on the rock, directly behind her. Kaen whirled round – and stared into eyes that were a frightening shade of blue.

Suboshi's clothes were tattered and ripped; his face was bloody; he looked as though he had been the survivor of some kind of attack. His sword was raised to point at Kaen – No, not at me, Kaen thought nervously, not at me, at the demons behind me.

The little girl behind Suboshi did not look much better. Her frayed dress was torn, stained with dirt and possibly blood. She glanced nervously at the demons on the ridge above them and huddled closer to Suboshi.

Suboshi opened his mouth.

"Where's my brother?" he said.

-v-

They were underwater, and Miaka was starting to run out of air. The pain of the initial impact of the water on her skin was overshadowed by the burning sensation of water filling her nostrils. She struggled against Nakago's unyielding grip – he was supposed to be bringing her to Tenkou, not trying to drown her! And yet, he was pulling her deeper underwater, swimming with unperturbed, measured strokes. She opened her stinging eyes, but could see only darkness. Was he trying to kill them both? Miaka opened her mouth to scream, to yell, but her efforts only caused her to inhale more water. Panicking, she tried to throw up a shield, to singe Nakago, but – as had happened last time she had almost drowned, Miaka felt nothing, not even a flicker of power against her skin. She clawed at Nakago – air – she had to get back to the surface – she needed air –

And then, miraculously, there was air – beautiful, cool, life-saving air on her skin. She did not understand how it was possible, but she knew better than to question it; she simply lay on the cool stone floor and gasped as though her life depended on it. The hard rock beneath her face felt like heaven. For a long time she lay against it like a half-drowned animal, occasionally pausing to cough the water from her lungs.

Gradually, she became aware of her surroundings, of the fact that they were not entirely alone. They were in some kind of grand stone antechamber, a cavernous room of intricate carvings. Miaka glanced behind her and saw the tunnel through which Nakago and she had just swum, saw light shimmer and flicker off the murky water. Light that seemed to be coming from torches on the walls –

Miaka turned. The cavern was only dimly illuminated, and it seemed to extend forever. Miaka could not see where it ended. She blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the light.

"Good morning, Miaka," said Tenkou.

"I'd say it's around early afternoon, actually," said Miaka, wringing out her skirt as best she could and standing up. "But I guess it's a bit hard to tell time in this cave. Is this where you live? No wonder you look like a cross between a vampire and a corpse. I don't suppose you get much vitamin D this far below ground. Was it really necessary for Nakago to try to drown me just now? Is the only way to get here through underwater tunnels?"

"It is by far the fastest," said Tenkou, "and the surest way of not being followed."

Miaka snuck a glance at Nakago, who appeared almost as wet as she was, though rather less covered in goose-pimples. Nakago regarded her coldly, and she felt her resolve slipping.

"Perfect, isn't he?"

Miaka's eyes darted back toward Tenkou. The demon lord was smiling. The expression gave his features a cruel, almost wolfish look. "I don't think he's perfect at all!" she said, glaring. "You had no right to do this to him."

She glanced at Nakago again, hoping her words might garner some response. Anything was better than the cold, uncaring visage he sported now. But Nakago's face remained impassive. He looked almost bored.

"I had every right," Tenkou said softly. "These are not real people, Miaka."

"Yes they are." Miaka's voice was heated.

"Of course, you would say so," Tenkou said thoughtfully. "You probably even believe it. You fell in love with one of them, didn't you?"

She sucked in a breath, glaring at him. "The person I fell in love with was real," she snapped. "He might not have been from our world, but Tamahome was real."

"You entered the world of the Shijitenchisho through the pages of a book," said Tenkou, ignoring her. "I entered the Shijitenchisho from Earth through a portal, many hundreds of years ago in this world's time, barely a hundred years ago in Earth time. Since I came here, I have seen kingdoms rise and fall, cities built and destroyed, men coming and then leaving this world like the tides. We are not like them, Miaka. We are different, you and I – and Taiitsukun. The gods."

"But we aren't gods," Miaka found herself saying.

"No," said Tenkou grandly, "in this universe, we are something far greater than the gods."

Miaka found herself shying away from this line of talk, as though she feared the insights it might lead to. She drew in a breath. "Where are we?" she asked instead. "Is this another illusion like before, or am I–"

"In my kingdom? Hardly. We are at the barrier between hell and the real world." He paused. "I must thank you, Miaka, for making my task so easy."

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is that you played right into my hands. You kept Nakago alive long enough for the kudoku to take effect, you practically arrived of your own free will on my doorstep, and you permitted yourself to be captured by Nakago and brought to me – I really wonder if there was any way you could have made my task easier." He studied his fingernails. "Possibly by coming with Tomo, that night in the cave. I still need to pay you back for that kick, by the way."

"Why do you want me here so badly?"

"Because you are the key to my freedom." He glanced behind her. "Good heavens, what have we here? One of your friends?"

Miaka turned. Her heart sank. Amiboshi had somehow managed to drag himself through the underwater tunnel and into the cave. He was still alive, though decidedly worse for the wear, and he seemed to be coughing even more lake water from his lungs than Miaka had previously.

Miaka hurried forward, concerned, but Nakago's arm caught her across the chest before she could get more than two paces. She hissed – she would have bruises from their collision later – and tried to duck under his extended limb, but he caught her by the shoulder and drove her to her knees. Pain lanced up her legs, and Miaka yelled. Tenkou was approaching Amiboshi, arm outstretched. Panicking, Miaka raised her hand; a shield blossomed from her fingers to encase Amiboshi in red light –

"Really," Tenkou murmured. "Is that the best you can do?"

"Huh?" Miaka, still anchored uncomfortably by Nakago's harsh grip, stared at Tenkou in bewilderment.

Tenkou smiled. He shattered the shield protecting Amiboshi with a cool flourish. Miaka watched, unspeaking, as fragments of red light sparkled and dissipated.

"So much power," said Tenkou, "but still so little understanding of how to use it. Nakago taught you some things – I suppose we can't blame him for you not reaching your full potential, he was rather preoccupied with the kudoku in his last days, after all."

The cavern floor was trembling. Miaka ignored the small earthquake and glared at Tenkou. But before Miaka could offer an acerbic retort, Amiboshi stood up and scrambled to his feet, flute in hand. "Let Miaka go," said Amiboshi quietly. As he raised the flute to his lips, Miaka saw the blood dripping from his right hand and remembered the arrow wound. The arrow was gone now, but he still held the flute gingerly.

Baka! thought Miaka, rather uncharitably. You don't even know if your powers are working.

"Well isn't this precious," Tenkou said calmly. "A hero, come to champion the cause of the Priestess of Suzaku. You have no shortage of heroes, I understand." He shrugged and waved a hand. "Very well, the boy has been valiant enough to make it this far. It would be rude not to honor him by hearing his performance."

Amiboshi put the flute to his lips and began to play.

In spite of Amiboshi's wound, in spite of the blood that continued to trickle down the back of Amiboshi's right hand, Miaka thought that it was the saddest, most entrancing song she had ever heard. Amiboshi played of forests and fields and the way the sky looked just before sunset. He played of autumns and fall rains, of the ocean obscured on a misty morning, of the leaves curling up to die in a frost. He played of heroes and unfulfilled journeys, of loss and longing, of life's final fade to gray, when there is no breath to sustain it.

Miaka listened. When at last the song trailed toward its inevitable confusion, Miaka had tears in her eyes. She could only watch, dazed, as Amiboshi lowered his flute to stare at Tenkou.

"An enchanting song," said Tenkou.

Miaka blinked.

"Not for you, it seems." Amiboshi looked unsurprised, if not mildly saddened.

"What can I say? I was never very fond of music."

"Then kill me," Amiboshi said, "and be done with it."

"No, that would be quite a waste. And yet, since you asked me so nicely –"

There was a snap that echoed throughout the cave. Amiboshi cried out. The sound jerked Miaka out of the remaining vestiges of her daze. Miaka screamed. Amiboshi, very pale, was staring at his wrist, which was suddenly bent at sharp angles to his arm, in a way that no wrist should ever physically be bent.

"There," Tenkou said merrily. "I won't kill you outright, but a broken wrist will be just as good for now, hmm? And will take your mind off that vile arrow wound."

"Stop it!" Miaka screamed. "Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!" He should never have followed me. Why are men so stupid? Miaka buried her nails into Nakago's side, clawing at the place where she had wounded him with Tomo's sword. He shifted marginally, but just enough; Miaka managed to wrest a hand free. A ball of chi formed in her palm, and she hurled it at Tenkou with all the rage and fury and hatred she could muster.

He deflected it with a laugh. "Slightly better," he said, "but only slightly."

The realization that he had been tormenting Amiboshi just to test Miaka's powers brought a sick feeling to her stomach. "You're despicable," she whispered.

"I already told you," said Tenkou, "that characters in a book are not real people."

"You say that to justify your own sick desires," Miaka spat.

"I say it because it's true."

He seemed to be growing bored of the conversation, for Miaka saw him turn away. Miaka hesitated, wondering if she ought to try, again, to broach the subject of why he had wanted her down here so badly.

But at that moment, they were interrupted. A clattering of feet on rocks heralded the arrival of multiple newcomers. They came from the opposite side of the cave, not from the watery entrance that Miaka had believed – until now – to be the only way in. The cave has a back door. I wonder where it leads to. She saw a figure step out from the hole in the wall. For a moment, the shadows obscured Miaka's view, and she could make out only the woman's silhouette. So familiar. Just like – hang on –

"Kaen?" Miaka exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

Kaen seemed determined to not meet her eyes. Amiboshi shot Miaka a pained look across the cavern, a look full of meaning.

Oh, thought Miaka. Of course. Kaen had lied to them. Last night she had claimed - falsely - that Nakago was dead. And now, here was further proof of her treachery; Kaen was in this cave, right now, approaching Tenkou, and carrying – Miaka's insides gave a lurch – what seemed to be the scepter of Kutou and the mirror of Sairou. Miaka knew she ought to have been horrified; instead, she found herself mildly annoyed. Her wild accusations the previous night had actually been right? Was the universe playing some kind of perverse joke on her?

Kaen spoke to Tenkou, but her words were too quiet to hear. Whatever she had to say seemed to please Tenkou, however, for he let out a slight laugh.

"The scepter and the mirror and the sword – well done, indeed."

"But my lord, Soi's come back." Miaka heard the words this time, though Kaen spoke very softly. "She lied to me – she said she was gone for good – and then she came back –"

What is she talking about? Miaka wondered.

"It just goes to show," said Tenkou softly, "that Taiitsukun's creatures are not to be trusted. They only make false promises to further their own interests. Would you like to be rid of Soi forever?"

"Yes," whispered Kaen, not lifting her head.

Tenkou made a snatching motion with his right hand. Kaen let out a gasp of what seemed to be pain. A second later, a glass bottle appeared before them, containing a glittering point of white light. Tenkou caught it. He held it out to Kaen, who reached out, tentatively, to take the bottle.

"What –"

"Soi's soul," said Tenkou. "You wanted it removed from your body, did you not?"

Kaen stared at the glowing glass orb in front of her. (Miaka stared too, brought out of her misery by her fascination at the sight of the swirling white mist). "What will happen to her?" Kaen asked.

"She will provide fine entertainment for later," said Tenkou.

"And my memories?" Kaen whispered.

"Have patience. The memories you retain now are not Soi's but your own – You have spent many of your waking hours as Kaen pondering Soi's memories that they have become, shall we say, incorporated into your conscious mind. I will remove those memories when I return.

"But on to happier topics! It seems my dear Kaen has brought us a guest. Come now, boy, step out of the shadows; do not be shy –"

And then Miaka saw the other person who had entered the room with Kaen. She noticed him at about the same time as Amiboshi did. Amiboshi shouted his brother's name gladly (Miaka was surprised that he was still conscious, let alone capable of shouting) and hurried forward.

Suboshi looked furious, but at the sight of Amiboshi, his own eyes lit up. Miaka could tell from the look on his face that his relief at the sight of his brother was decidedly not for show. He has an odd way of showing it though. Because, just as soon as the relief had flashed across Suboshi's face, it was abruptly replaced with a furious scowl. "You idiot!" Miaka heard him shout. "Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you. Do you know how hard it was for me to find you? What happened to your hand?"

Tenkou steepled his fingers together. "As touching as I find this sweet scene – two brothers, torn apart by a shipwreck, reuniting at long last – I'm afraid I'll have to interrupt you."

"Huh?" Suboshi whirled to glare at the demon lord. "Who the hell are you?"

"The Lord of Hell," said Tenkou coolly.

"So that means that Kaen –" Suboshi turned. "Conveniently left out the fact that you were bringing us to Tenkou, when you said you'd take us to Amiboshi, didn't you? I knew you were acting fishy –"

"Us?" Tenkou repeated silkily. Suboshi glared at him. Kaen said, trembling:

"There was a little girl, a girl who came with him, but she vanished into the caves –"

"I told her to hide," Suboshi said, with a glare in Kaen's direction, "because I didn't trust you."

Kaen flinched.

"How long have you been working for Tenkou?" Miaka asked Kaen. She was surprised to find that she was not angry. Instead, she felt rather sad. "Why did you say you had killed Nakago when he wasn't really dead?"

"He did not deserve an honorable death," Kaen said, finally looking at her. "I thought it would hurt Nakago the most to see himself like this, because this is what he feared the most."

"Clever Kaen," said Tenkou. He turned toward Suboshi, who was starting toward him, and immobilized him with a glare. "Tie up the brothers Boshi, if you would be so kind," said Tenkou silkily. "They will make excellent entertainment for later."

"You know what would make excellent entertainment?" Miaka snapped. "Your head on a pike."

Tenkou shrugged. "I don't see what would be so entertaining about having carrion crows ripping apart my flesh, personally, but we already know what a morbid sense of humor you have." And before Miaka had time to contemplate the irony of this remark, Tenkou went on: "Is that the sword of Konan I see? Excellent."

He reached forward to draw the blade from its scabbard, but then drew his hand back with a sharp hiss.

"Yeah," said Suboshi, almost jeering. "I'd be careful touching that, if I were you. It doesn't really like being fondled by ugly, nasty creatures like – NNGH!"

"Twin brothers," Tenkou said softly, "with broken wrists. How very symmetrical. I can see we are going to have fun later, but I fear it will have to wait until I've achieved my goal of world conquest. So I shall have to disappoint you.

"Now, Miaka," he said, and she gulped. "It is time for you to help me break free of this prison."

"And what," she said coldly, "makes you think that I will ever be inclined to help you?"

"I said nothing about helping me willingly," said Tenkou, shrugging. "I use 'help' in merely the general sense of the word - as in, you will be of assistance to me whether it pleases you or not." He paused. "I suppose you have noticed that despite the fact that your god is sealed, your power is practically unaffected?"

Miaka's eyes narrowed.

Tenkou smiled coolly. "Your power was never given to you by the gods – nor even by Taiitsukun."

"Then what –"

"I told you, Miaka." His voice was almost impatient."In this universe, the people from Earth are special. We live longer – and we are far more powerful, and the longer we live, the more powerful we become."

Miaka wanted to tune out his words. She could not trust anything he said – he was the enemy – she had no desire to fall into one of his traps, would be better off by ignoring him. But she could not deny that his words made a perverse kind of sense, that his explanation perfectly filled the gaps that had been left in her own, somewhat crude, understanding of the inner workings of the world of the book. Like the reason Miaka had full possession of her powers, while her seishi had none. And the way Taiitsukun, and Tenkou, had been able to gain so much power.

And yet, they were not all-powerful – certainly not Tenkou at this moment, or why else would he still be residing in this place – on the border between his realm and the world? Miaka's eyes narrowed. "You've lived here forever and you're still not powerful enough to break free of this prison."

"No," he said. "That is where you come in, my dear Yuuki. You are also from Earth – and so, you have the same special sort of power not granted by the gods. I cannot free myself – no – but the cumulative sum of our powers will be enough to free me from this prison. That is why I have brought you here, Miaka."

"You can't," she said. "I won't let you."

"I would like to see you try and stop me," he said. "I suppose by this point you are familiar with the many different forms of chi transfer? Skin-to-skin, mouth-to-mouth – those are the more innocent ways, although they suffer in terms of efficacy. Of course, there are other ways. If I wanted all your chi, I could devour your uncooked flesh, which I have always found to be somewhat messy and inefficient. I could also stab you directly through the heart with a weapon of power like this sword, and suck your power through it. Magical objects tend to channel energy quite well – but I suppose you've discovered this already, when you used the scepter of Kutou to heal Soi so handily." He smiled thinly, shrugging. "There is also the Bochuu-Jutsu technique, which has the benefit of leaving the victim alive."

Miaka felt herself going pale. "Over my dead –"

"If I had more time I might try it," Tenkou said, sweeping a hand across Miaka's cheek in a mockery of tenderness, "but I'm afraid that will have to wait for later. As it is, there is an easier way to siphon off your powers that will also leave you alive and is far more expedient. All I require is your blood. Just a little."

He reached forward and, pulling out a knife, made a long, diagonal slash across Miaka's wrist. Miaka gasped at the cold sting of the blade on her skin. The nerves in her arm flared up in pain. She tried to squirm away, but Nakago was still holding her in his inexorable grip, and she found she couldn't move.

"Stop it," she said, but she might as well have been telling the earth to stop revolving around the sun. She heard Amiboshi's horrified yell, but for her part, Miaka could only watch as Tenkou leaned down – closer – closer – till his lips were flush against the wound –

There was a faint buzzing sound and a light appeared around her. Miaka watched, a little dazed, as it enveloped her, growing strong and green and vibrant. Tenkou took a step back. For the first time, he studied Miaka's neck, which bore the necklace of the Emperor of Hokkan.

"Ah," Tenkou said, "I see. The necklace protects you against magical assault. Very clever. I suppose that is why I have had such difficulty invading your mind these last few days."

Was that what the necklace of Hokkan did? Miaka remembered the night before, when she had awoken from her nightmare to find that someone had removed the beads from her neck and placed them in her pocket. It was around my neck before that, while I was on the boat, and I didn't have dreams about Tenkou on those nights –

Tenkou nodded slightly, but not to her. Miaka felt Nakago shift behind her, and she felt his fingers deftly undo the clasp that held the necklace shut. Blankly, Miaka watched the necklace fall to the ground like a limp, discarded piece of clothing.

Her arm was still bleeding.

"Shall we continue?" said Tenkou.

And he lowered his face, once more, to the wound.

"Stop it," Miaka said, more desperately now, but she was paralyzed, incapable of enforcing her wishes, and Tenkou didn't move.

It started slowly, with the feeling of weakening in her arms and lower extremities; then the feeling intensified until Miaka almost wanted to scream. She felt as though her powers were being pulled away in a firm, inexorable grip, leeched out little by little. She fought against it, trying to hold onto her power with all her will – but Tenkou was older, and much, much stronger. It was not a question of power, but a question of will. Miaka might have been determined, but Tenkou was a black cloud of rage and hatred and fury, fury at being trapped underground for so long, fury at being held captive. He would be free – there was no negotiation about this matter – he would escape and go on to wreak his revenge upon the four kingdoms and beyond –

No, Miaka thought, no, this isn't happening – stop it, they're my powers, you can't take them –

But it was watching the waters rush out of a shattered dam; no matter what she did, how she struggled, how she tried to stem the flow, she felt her powers flee her, leaving her weak and numb and entirely empty.

"Crude," said Tenkou, straightening and wiping the excess blood from his mouth, "but ultimately effective."

Miaka stared at him. She felt dizzy, weak, unable to move. She reached for her powers, but felt nothing.

"Farewell," said Tenkou, "When I return, the entire world in my hands, and the gods will be under my control. And all thanks to you, my dear Miko."

"No," she whispered, but he only laughed. Trembling, Miaka watched him vanish through the side door through which Kaen had emerged. Miaka felt her eyes blurring with something that might have been tears. She slumped in Nakago's grip and closed her eyes, hardly caring that her head had come to rest on Nakago's shoulder.

She had failed.

-v-

Author's note: ...Vampire much?

Exams are over! Which means I have a bit of a breather and time to post. And what a fun post this was… heh heh heh…

Review please…? It makes me happy to have your guys' feedback – not to mention helps me get through writing more difficult sections. Even if it's just 'This is crap!' or 'This makes no sense!' I want to know, so that the stories I write in the future will be better! :)

Questions (from you):

None?

Questions (for you):

Is there too much going on in this chapter? Did everything that happened make sense? Is everyone just waiting till the story is finished to read this? :)