I feel like this first one is a little rough, but I wanted to write something sort of fun and fast-paced. Enjoy.
Quite a Life
"Shit, this sucks." He huffed.
I looked over at him. He had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and I saw beads of sweat forming on his forehead and cheeks. The wind was blowing his hair back in peaceful streams of bright red, and his red eyes were sparks of intensity. His mouth was drawn back, scars shimmering when he spoke. I was getting used to his coarse manner of speaking and his crude behavior.
"Mm. It is rather inconvenient." I said quietly, and I could just barely muster what might be mistaken for a typical smile.
"Inconvenient? Really, Hakkai? That's how you wanna' describe this?" Gojyo mounted a chunky boulder jutting out of the mountain slop, long legs pulling him over it easily.
I jaunted up the boulder myself, but I felt anything but energetic.
"It's cold up here." He complained, pulling his brown jacket a little tighter about himself and taking a sharp drag off his cigarette. "The wind is freezing."
"We're in the mountains—it tends to be colder at this high altitude. Also, generally, one tends to wear warmer clothes when they know they're going to be hiking up into the mountains. Thicker coats are helpful." I smiled politely at him, slipping my hands into my padded, down coat.
Gojyo glared at me. That glare, I was learning, was almost as commonplace as that mischievous grin. I saw it often; mostly when I lectured him or teased him or made a joke at his expense or won playing cards against him…
Come to think of it, I saw that glare when I did most anything. At first, I had thought I was truly annoying him, that he might even be angry with me, but it hadn't taken long to realize Gojyo was fairly laidback. I believe I'd learned that before I was even well enough to move from his bed on my own, and it hadn't changed since. I couldn't begin to imagine what atrocity I'd have to commit in order to honestly upset him.
I was a fairly laidback man myself. Oh, I had my bouts of impatience, certainly, but they were rare, and I was good at saying the right thing at the right time. We could likely go years without me ever actually angering him.
"Even if it were a mild, summer day I wouldn't wanna' do this." He told me brusquely. "Running errands for Sanzo sucks; why did we agree to do another one?"
"Is it really so bad?" I asked absently.
Gojyo was all too willing to explain to me exactly why it really was that bad, but mostly he just complained about Sanzo. They never did get along, since the day they first came face to face, though I couldn't quite understand what it was about each other that disgusted them so much.
Then again, I hadn't known either of them very long. Gojyo and I had known each other approximately five months, and I'd known Sanzo just a little over half that time. I didn't know either of them that well.
Yet here I was, climbing the mountain with one of them, running a potentially hazardous errand for the other. How had my life come to be this way?
It seems like just yesterday I was drinking tea and laughing with Kanan.
It had probably been almost six months since they'd taken her from me. I could hardly stand to think about that blurry stretch of time, and considering the last moment I'd seen her in our home was undeniably painful
To get my mind off it, I focused on the present, even if that meant listening intently to what Gojyo was telling me. "This is only our third mission for Sanzo. The last two set us up pretty well, don't you think?"
"I guess so."
"But the money is dwindling quickly, thanks to your…er…hobbies." I reflected on that a moment. I'd never known anyone with so many irresponsible habits. Gojyo was in an inherent state of drinking, smoking and partying. He made his very living off playing card games, and he went through women like so much toilet paper. If I didn't save away a good portion of my half of the money Sanzo paid us, we'd likely be impoverished more often than not. It wasn't as if Sanzo underpaid us.
"I have very refined tastes." Gojyo answer mildly.
"No one would dare to question that, I assure you."
He frowned at my sarcastic tone.
"At any rate, the money from the last job is running out, and now that there's two of us, it would be unreasonable to think we don't need to come up with some stable form of income. Besides, we don't know when there will be more work to do, and it would be foolish to pass up this opportunity."
"Doing an odd job for Sanzo won't kill us." I added.
It was strange what sort of things could kill a person. Human life was so fragile: everything could be beautiful and simple one moment, and easily be dashed to hell in the next. Someone you loved could be wrenched from your unsuspecting hands in a matter of one lazy, sunny afternoon.
I shook the thought away. Be that as it may, we were not in any danger of dying whilst running an errand for a monk, I had no doubt about that. The last two jobs hadn't been especially complicated. The first was breaking up a gang of thieves which had been robbing temples in the surrounding area, and we'd more or less stumbled into it by mistake. The second had been as easy as walking a few miles to meet an acolyte of a neighboring temple who had a scroll he needed to give to Sanzo. That was something I could have done on my own.
"Yeah, yeah, I guess not." Gojyo relented. "Tell me again though, what exactly is our objective?"
"Were you not paying attention when Sanzo briefed us?" I couldn't help exhaling with some slight exasperation. Gojyo was not an unintelligent person. Granted, he was simpler than a lot of people, but he was cunning in his own way. However, either his attention span was unnaturally short, or he was simply too apathetic to retain information that didn't have anything to do with him personally. Or, I'd thought to myself in the past, he'd just done a lot of heavy drugs in his life.
Who could say? I knew very little about the way Gojyo had lived before we met.
Out of the corner of my eye, I appraised him. He was a somewhat lawless individual. He lived his life, not at all concerned with what society considered acceptable, as best I could tell he either refused to be conscientious, or had no idea how to be, and he was careless, oblivious to daily responsibilities, and almost completely self-absorbed. I even found the way he dressed to be flashy.
At times, I had to admit, it was difficult to be patient with him—he was always trashing the house when I'd just cleaned it, or coming home drunk at some ungodly hour. In fact, even though Gojyo was virtually never annoyed or frustrated with me, it was distressingly easy for him to get under my skin. It was something I had to work on if our relationship as housemates was going to continue smoothly.
"I paid attention. Just tell me again."
"Sanzo wants us to pay a visit to the house on the top of this ridge and investigate-"
"Investigate what? Why the hell'd someone build their house up here anyway?"
"I suppose I shouldn't have used the word house… It's more of a sanctuary—a branch of Chang'an—where acolytes and young monks go to practice and meditate in solitude. Supposedly there are over fifty monks living there now; however, according to Sanzo, they haven't been heard from in several weeks, and the group that normally comes down to gather supplies from the main temple didn't come the other day as scheduled."
"Leme' guess—he wants us to investigate why they haven't be heard from."
"You shouldn't have to guess, you should have paid attention while Sanzo was briefing us."
Gojyo ignored me, as he normally did when I scolded him. "Sounds pretty easy, I guess."
"Yes, depending on why it is that they haven't contacted Chang'an in almost a month."
There was that danger factor again, and climbing this mountain reminded me a lot of what it had been like to infiltrate Hyakugan Maoh's castle. I could almost feel the rain on my skin and taste the blood in the air, the slam of my heart inside my chest. And inside… Inside, so many horrible things awaited.
It took me a moment to realize Gojyo had asked me something else.
"I'm sorry." I looked up at him, only to see he'd gotten several yards ahead of me, "I didn't hear what you said."
"I asked what you think the reason for that is."
"Ah. Well, I suppose it could be a number of things. Sickness, perhaps? It would be a shame to learn that the entire household's been killed by a sudden onslaught of disease, or from bad water."
Fragile human beings, dying from sickness. It really was a wonder how frail we could be. I remembered being severely ill myself, not all that long ago. Before I met Gojyo, of course. Before they took Kanan from me. It had been a fever of some kind, and I hadn't been able to go to the village school to teach. I suppose the students had those few days off as well, seeing how there wasn't anyone to substitute me. I suppose they'd run outside and played in the meadows surrounding our town. In the meanwhile, I'd lain in bed, doing my best to sleep and drinking copious amounts of tea.
Kanan had sat beside me, brow wrinkled with concern, face flushed with love; she'd laid her cool, gentle hand on my forehead and spoken soothingly to me. She'd looked so beautiful then: she'd been healthy and safe and fully in love.
Of course, there are other, more violent manners to die in than sickness.
I closed my eyes a moment and saw a pool of blood stretching around the shapely body of my lover.
I opened them again, looked at Gojyo, but the image of Kanan lying dead at my feet didn't dissolve into reality like I wanted it to.
"Forgive me, I was distracted." I stepped past him, climbing the mountain trail a little more quickly, and suddenly I truly hoped that all the monks at the sanctuary on top of the ridge were all right.
"Man, you sure been bummin' lately." He said, walking closely behind me.
I was so startled by his bluntness, I couldn't help stammering, "I-I don't understand what you mean."
""Bullshit you don't. You've been way too quiet these last four days, and your smile's not as creepy as usual."
It seemed out of character for Gojyo to notice an anomaly in my behavior; was it so severe even he had recognized it? Or was I not giving him enough credit, just assuming he was too wrapped up in his fast-paced life to take notice of mine?
More importantly, it wasn't like him to bring it up. Gojyo was very closed-mouthed when it came to his emotions, and he generally didn't make it a habit to ask about mine. If there was ever anything wrong with him, he didn't go out of his way to make it known to me, and I certainly hadn't expected him to confront me when I was a bit out of sorts.
I knew he was right though. These past four days had been strange. I'd been struck by a stint of serious depression, and as a result, I couldn't function with the same level of feigned pleasantness and serenity that I normally had. This morning I'd even slammed a cupboard door out of pure frustration.
I suppose it would be silly of me to expect him to miss it though.
"I just have a lot on my mind lately. It's nothing serious." I added slowly, "Thank-you though, for your concern."
"I'm more curious than concerned."
Forcibly, I laughed, doing my best to hide how that agitated me. "Yes, I see."
"It's interesting though." He flicked the last stub of his cigarette to the ground and looked at me intently. "You depressed. You get so…weird."
I accepted that without comment. He was probably right about that too. It was almost impossible to be myself when I was feeling this down.
Come to think of it, Kanan had something about it as well, though she was a bit more well-spoken than Gojyo.
I can always tell when you're sad, Gonou…your face gets the most peculiar expression, and you always seem to run out of things to say.
I remembered sitting outside our humble, quiet home. It had been an evening in the spring, the sky in the west was dusky orange with splashes of canary yellow, the air was cool and relaxing, and Kanan had held my hand in hers, spoken with a warm, angelic smile on her lips. Whatever it is that troubles you, Gonou, I urge you to forget it—you're with me now. Let me make you happy.
It was hard to remember now what had troubled me before I'd met Kanan. I suppose…I'd been forced to remember my lonely youth from time to time. Of course, that became less and less frequent as I'd fallen more and more in love with Kanan.
"I'm sorry." I whispered.
"Eh? What for?" Gojyo demanded, drawing me back to the present.
"Oh, it's nothing."
Frowning at me again, he placed a new cigarette in his mouth. In the distance beyond him, I could see the wide, sweeping roof of a simple, wooden pagoda.
"You sure it's nothing?"
I did a double take of him. I don't believe I'd ever heard him use that tone before; it was firm and probing, not a mindless question he'd asked to pass time. It came as such a surprise to me, I couldn't even answer.
"If it's nothing, Hakkai, you're seriously over-reacting. You've been a huge bummer lately, and if I know anything, it's that people don't act like that over nothing."
I snapped, "I apologize if my being a bummer in any way interferes with your reckless partying."
He didn't answer for a second, simply continued hiking steadily toward the wooden pagoda that was emerging from the trees ahead of us. I wondered vaguely if I'd upset him this time. I'd never snapped at him that way before; perhaps it was crossing a line.
After all, it was only a matter of time. Living together, we saw one another every day, without fail, and even if I could go for a time without upsetting him, there was no telling how long we were going to be living side by side this way, and therefore, no predicting how long it would take for us to get on one another's nerves.
He did annoy me at times, though not very severely. I suppose his carelessness and inconsiderate actions occasionally bothered me, but it wasn't so hard really, smiling at him, as though unperturbed, and reminding myself that it was nothing to lose my temper over.
Gojyo might not have that restraint mechanism. He acted so much on impulse and emotion.
To my surprise, he grinned at me suddenly, "Hey, sunshine, take it easy. I didn't mean it like that. You wanna' be depressed, that's your business, but don't waste your time pretending it's not actually a big deal." Unexpectedly, he looped his arm over my shoulders. It was twice as hard to walk with him leaning on me, and I had to stagger over several fist-sized rocks, but it was comforting somehow, and I felt myself relaxing to the touch instinctively.
"You know." He added softly, "You kinda' got a lot to be depressed about."
I wanted to close my eyes and shut out those words. I wanted to block out the memories, forget the murders I'd committed in Hyakugan Maoh's castle. Wipe the image of Kanan killing herself completely from my mind. Still, I knew I never could, and I knew that it was plenty of reason for me to fall into an intermittent crevice of self-pity.
I answered him before I could even take into account what I was doing, "Truthfully, I've been thinking a lot lately about my past. Not just what happened in Hyakugan Maoh's castle…but life before that."
"Y'mean, life with Kanan?"
I marked the delicate tone he used, though I likely shouldn't have been startled by it. I'd told him the very barest details about Kanan, but I hadn't been able to hide how much she had meant to me. He knew she was dead, and he knew how that ate at me.
"I think of how it used to be—I'm only torturing myself, but I can't help it—I think of how we lived, in our little house, with our simple lives, with so little to sustain ourselves on. And then, when I think of the way she was, and I recall the way she smiled at me, or the sound of her voice, I'm forced to realize just how deep the wound runs."
Gojyo didn't answer or look at me, and I wondered if he was even listening now.
It didn't matter. I needed to say this out loud, I needed to sort through the thoughts outside of my own head.
"Sometimes, when I wake up, late at night, or early in the morning, I can't help but think I'll turn over and she'll be lying right beside me. Sometimes, I even wonder if maybe this isn't all a dream. I tell myself that I might wake up some day, and none of this will be real, and Kanan will be there, waiting for me, just the way she used to."
"I get what you mean." He said quietly.
"It's foolish, and I know that. I know now, better than ever, that I can't go back to the way things were. I know it isn't a dream or an illusion: she really is dead, and the things I had before are gone forever. No matter what I do, I cannot get that old life back."
So much as saying those words was terrible. She was gone. Dead. Just another fragile human; and now I didn't have so much as my own humanity to comfort me. I was a shape-shifting monster, a dark force that could snuff any feeble, human life at any given second, the very enemy I had sworn to destroy. What sort of horrible joke was that? The life I'd loved when I was human was out of reach to me now, and it was more than I could bear.
Rather than waking up from this nightmare and finding Kanan smiling into my face, I had to face the fact that she was dead, every single day. I might never overcome that. I might slip deeper and deeper into the well of my own depression and sadness, and perhaps some day, I'd be incapable of coming back. Maybe it had already begun. I'd relinquished my anger now, told myself it was over, reminded myself that my revenge had done nothing but made things even worse, and now I had to shoulder that guilt for the rest of my life. But without the anger there to guard me, nothing remained by my sorrow, and for the rest of my lonely existence, I'd likely have my sadness and regrets constantly weighing me down.
Nothing in life seems quite worth while now, Kanan. I don't have you to rush home to every day. I don't have you depending on me. No one is.
It struck me that I had no purpose whatsoever.
As if to remind me that he was still there, Gojyo punched my shoulder lightly, a lingering, affectionate gesture that slid off my arm, seeming to say so many things I couldn't even begin to wonder what they all were, and when I looked at him, mouth threatening to fall open from bewilderment, he was smiling at me in a way that was utterly lacking in travesty or mischief, and there was a rare sort of empathy in his eyes. Not pity or charity, just unadulterated commiseration. He didn't say a word, and I felt a warming light of gratitude welling up within me.
"Anyway." I looked straight ahead again as we approached the sanctuary, "It's no use wallowing in it now. We have something rather important to address before hand."
"No worries, man. Nobody around here's judging you. Hell, let's grab a couple beers on the way home and talk about it."
I laughed. It seemed like the first time I'd laughed in days, "That's quite a generous offer, Gojyo. I never realized you were so sensitive."
"Yeah. On second thought, let's skip the talk and just get the drinks. You can drown your sorrows in some sake if you want."
That made me laugh too, and then we were in front of the sanctuary, and I had to stop.
It wasn't very large. Just three stories high, and probably only barely big enough to house fifty people. Still, it was clean: the walkway was scrubbed spotless, the stone steps swept, windows sparkling, grass and surrounding vegetation trimmed and well-kept. It was quiet too. I listened closely for voices, but the only thing to be heard was the relaxed jingle of the wind chimes hung above the front door, and the birds twittering in the background. Somewhere around the corner of the building, I heard running water. Probably a fountain or a small stream.
My breath hitched. What was that foreboding sense in the air I felt?
"This place is quiet." Gojyo murmured. "Way, way too quiet."
"I think you're right. You'd think we'd see or hear some sort of activity, considering how many people allegedly live here." I stared hard at one of the windows, half-expecting some figure to appear on the other side of the glass, but nothing moved, and the windows were darkened by shadows.
Gojyo finished his cigarette and started another. "This's supposed to be easy though, right?"
"The other two certainly were." The second errand had been so simple I could have done it all by myself. Why didn't I? After all, Gojyo seemed to hate doing favors for Sanzo, and I suspected that walking all day just to meet a monk and receive a scroll was little more than a waste of his time.
Then again, he hadn't decided to stay home. He'd complained the whole time, but he had not said he wished he'd stayed home. And in truth, I was glad he'd come with me. I guess I had wanted him too.
Even now, it was good to have him standing beside me, facing the same conundrum and asking the same questions. When I was alone, it was all too easy for the painful memories and the dreadful feelings to sneak in and take hold. Somehow, having Gojyo with me eased my loneliness and my misery.
I wondered if he even knew that.
"Whatever." He shrugged and exhaled a stream of white smoke from his nose, "Let's check it out so we can go home and report to Sanzo."
"By all means…"
We approached the sanctuary, walking nearly in sync, and climbed the steps to the broad, wooden terrace. There were a few mats laid out there and a modest jar of flowers, but I still didn't see any sign of life. When I leaned forward to peer through the window, I saw nothing but an empty corridor beyond the immaculate glass.
Gojyo thumped loudly on the flimsy door, "Hell-lo? Anybody in there? Open up, baldies."
"Gojyo, be respectful."
"Hmph. Nobody's answering anyway. Oy! Didn't'cha' hear me? I said let us in!"
Slowly, the door crept open, as if controlled by some unseen hand, welcoming us into the darkness beyond.
We stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway, my hair standing on end, Gojyo still frozen in mid-knock, but no one appeared to speak to us, and an unearthly silence filled the air.
"Did…the door open on its own?" Gojyo asked finally.
"That would be a bit fantastical, don't you think? Not to mention unnerving."
He took a cautious step ahead of me into the sanctuary, and I followed.
Inside was a simple, tidy hallway running in three directions. The right and left hallways looked as if they ran the perimeter of the building, but the one in front of us led deeper into the sanctuary, deeper into the dark, where not so much as a candle was lit. The silence prevailed, even with our shoes making empty, heavy sounds against the bamboo floor.
We proceeded with the slightest of glances over our shoulders, marched straight down the hall and into the shadows.
"Hello?" I called. "Is anyone home?"
Somewhere far ahead of us, I thought I heard a faint cough.
"Hey!" Gojyo fairly shouted, "Somebody better answer!"
I nudged him with my elbow, "We don't mean to intrude—Genjyo Sanzo from Keiun sent us…"
Still nothing. The hallway widened gradually, and we were standing in what seemed to be a main lobby where the floors were tiled with crisp, pale stones and red tapestries were hung from all four corners of the room. In the center, a golden Buddha twice my size sat with open palms, but the torches were unlit, and I didn't detect so much as a waft of incense.
"The place looks utterly abandoned." I whispered, and by this time I was feeling nervous.
Gojyo was stark still beside me.
"I wonder where on earth everyone would have gone."
Above us, I could see all the way up to the third story, but the higher floors were equally quiet. No torches, no candles, no monks.
"'Kai." Gojyo bumped me with his shoulder, "What's that over there?"
I looked at where he was pointing to, a corner of the room that was almost black from shadow, and I could just barely make out something…. Streaks. Thick, ragged streaks of some liquid.
My heart caught in my throat. Blood. I knew it all too well—the uneven smears of blood on the floor, as if someone had dragged a body there. I'd seen it far too much.
I thought I saw a glimmer of something there, moved a step or two closer until I could see a shapeless lump huddled there in the corner as well, and then I began to feel a little afraid.
Gojyo lit his lighter, holding it out in front of him to illuminate the space.
I gasped and took a sudden step backwards into him.
A crowd of bodies had been piled there, just out of the sunlight, perhaps to slow down the decomposing process. Torn and mutilated, some with limbs ripped off, others torn completely in two, frozen as if still running, faces gaping and staring and fixed in horror, eyes wide, mouths stiff. Their robes and their bald heads were speckled and stained with blood.
"Holy shit." Gojyo breathed.
I clenched my fists, remembering vividly the warm stickiness of blood on my hands, the horrors of my memories flooding in, showing me murder after senseless murder. Outside I thought I heard the violent sound of rain battering against the roof, and far away, a terrified, feminine voice screamed my old name.
I almost fell into Gojyo, and he barely managed to catch me, "Woah. You okay, man?"
"I…there are so many of them…"
"Yeah…but not fifty. Wonder where the rest of 'em are."
It looked to me that there was a mere fifteen to twenty monks heaped up there. Fifteen to twenty monks who's been alive and well just a few, short weeks ago. Fifteen to twenty monks who'd had their lives suddenly and brutally taken away from them, likely without provocation.
"What happened to them?" I choked.
Behind us, a thick, ugly voice crooned, "Humans. So little. So fragile."
We both turned, Gojyo holding his lighter up like a beacon.
A man was there. He was approximately the same size as the Buddha statue to our right, built like a tank with a thick, hairy chest, squat legs, bulky arms and a lumpy head. His ears were long and sharp—one was any way, the other looked like it had been chewed off—his eyes a dull yellow, and his face was heavily bearded with the same black, matted hair that covered his arms and chest. A soiled, brown loincloth was his only article of clothing, but he was wearing a hideously stupid, sadistic grin, long, cruel fangs protruding from behind his fat, brown lips. There was gore in his beard, crimson caked around his mouth, and his arms, from fingertip to elbow, were saturated in partially dried blood. To my horror, I saw that he was holding a human arm in one hand, and it looked as if he'd already taken several bites out of the bicep. He was just a few feet from us, and I hadn't even heard him approaching.
"Shit!" It was Gojyo's turn to leap back, slamming into me harshly. "Who in the hell?"
"It appears to be some sort of…ogre." I said grimly.
"What is it doing here?"
"Fragile. Little. Humans." The ogre chanted deeply. His yellow eyes were glimmering with brutality and hunger. "Fragile. Little. Humans. Tasty. So Tasty."
I couldn't quite hold back a disgusted smile of my own, "It seems to have come here to feast."
"Tasty humans." The ogre laughed repulsively, advancing on us.
"So does that means all the monks are dead?"
"It stands to reason that if they were still alive they would have gone to Chang'an to report what happened here. So yes. That seems very likely." I drew away from the ogre, watching it warily as it took another cumbersome step in our direction.
"What'dya' wanna' do about it?"
The ogre lunged suddenly, howling with laughter.
I leapt out of the way, dodging him just in time.
One filthy, giant hand found a fistful of Gojyo's long hair, even as he was jumping back
"Son of a-"
and flung him across the room with a jerky twist of his barrel-like torso.
Gojyo crashed through the wall on the other side of the room in an explosion of bamboo and disappeared.
"Gojyo!" I started to run after him, but the ogre was quick to interfere. He made a grab at me as well, but I was fast enough to jump up, evade the gnarled, bloody hand, spring off his shoulder and keep right on running. Fortunately the beast wasn't smart enough to figure out what had happened and took a moment to understand that he hadn't caught me.
I jumped through the ragged hole in the wall and arrived beside Gojyo, just as he was sitting up, coughing and sputtering. "Are you all right?"
"Shit. That thing's…faster than it looks."
"Ogre's are never very intelligent, but they tend to be incredibly powerful." I turned to watch as the ogre, having realized that we were behind him, dropped the human arm and began to march toward us steadily.
Suddenly, I felt nervous. I hadn't been counting on coming up here to fight; at the very most, I'd thought I might have to sip tea and make polite conversation with monks—the most strenuous part of my day was supposed to be convincing Gojyo to be civilized—and now I was in danger of being eaten by an ogre.
Well, I wasn't really, if I thought about it. Chances were, I was strong enough and fast enough to either kill the ogre, or at the very least race back down the mountain. Instinct said try to kill it; after all, it had slaughtered and eaten a slough of human beings, and for some reason, I simply couldn't turn a blind eye to that.
I'm not human anymore. My life doesn't bear that same fragility.
However, being a monster meant being stronger than most people, and that seemed to indicate that I should be defending those less capable than I was.
Gojyo got to his feet. I was impressed by his tenacity, but I wondered if he was up to this. Being fully youkai naturally meant I was stronger than he was—by how much, I wasn't sure—and I'd never seen him in a full-blown fight, so I had no way to gage what his skill level was. He might just get himself killed.
There wasn't any time to tell him to go home though; the ogre charged us abruptly, barreling straight toward us like an oncoming elephant, hands reaching out greedily.
I readied myself.
Gojyo shoved past me.
"Wait!" I clawed at his coat sleeve and missed.
Regardless, he ran straight at the ogre, fearlessly as far as I could tell, and when he was only just out of arm's reach, he jumped up and kicked the ogre in the face with a skull-cracking snap. The ogre flew backward, hit the floor hard, and slid a ways, knocking over a cluster of tall, ornate vases lined up on either side of the Buddha statue.
Gojyo landed lithely, raking hair out of his eyes and saluting with his middle finger, "Don't fuckin' touch my hair."
I stepped up next to him, "Then, I take it you're prepared to fight it?"
"We came to find out what's going on up here, didn't we?" Gojyo gave me a look that I thought was semi-surprised, like he wasn't expecting me to be reluctant. Then again, for a man who'd charged into the fight head first, reluctance was probably odd in most situations. "Dunno' about you, but I could definitely use the exercise—I'm gonna' get fat eating your damn home cooked meals, if I don't watch it."
I laughed, wondering how he always managed to relate everything back to his concern with physical appearance. "Nonsense. I believe putting on a little weight would do you some good."
Gojyo cocked his head to look at me, as if the thought had never even crossed his mind, "Really? You think so?"
"You are tragically skinny, my friend. It's lucky I showed up when I did."
The ogre was standing again, swaying a little and holding his head. I heard him roaring painfully, "Kill! Kill! Kill you, filthy humans! Eat your hearts! Crunch your bones!"
He came at me first, swinging one sledge hammer-sized fist at my head. I ducked under him, popped up and elbowed him in the stomach, doubling him over.
Angrier than ever, the ogre made another grab at Gojyo.
This time he was ready for it though, and he slipped out of the way, smooth as water, "Speaking of weight, this guy sure is a fat ass. Guess that comes from eating about thirty people, huh?" He hauled off and punched the ogre in the jaw.
The ogre tilted severely to the side, almost falling on his face, managed to catch himself just in time, and came back, roaring even angrier than before.
"Now, now. It's rude to make personal comments, you know." I felt long, jagged fingernails whistle past me as the ogre attacked again, gave him a swift uppercut to the chin that had him lifting off the ground a couple of feet a second or two.
"Ha! And saying 'you're tragically skinny' isn't a personal comment?" Gojyo jumped forward; it looked like has going to heel stomp the ogre's skull, hopefully crushing it like a melon, but the ogre rolled out of the way just in time, and Gojyo landed right where his head had been mere seconds ago, staggered, stumbled and fell right into me.
We collided with a mix of startled cries and landed in a disorganized jumble on the recently-waxed floor.
The ogre was laughing hysterically at us.
Frantically, I scrambled to disentangle myself from Gojyo and tried to get up, but I wasn't fast enough, and the ogre grabbed my arm harshly, lifting me into the air, high above his head.
He threw me as if I were some sort of rag doll, and I found myself flying across the room at an astounding speed, smashed hard against the railing on the second floor. The balusters splintered, and the fine, red wood scattered across the floor, raining down on the ground level. Pain lashed through my head and down my spine in quick, sharp spikes.
Rubbing my head, I struggled to get up, had to hold on to a nearby column for support. That landing really hurt.
Below me, I heard the ogre laughing wildly, looked down just in time to see him dig his claws into the wooden column below me and begin climbing, ripping out chunks of wood with his long, dirty nails as he went. Before I knew it, he had reached the top and was towering over me monstrously, grinning and laughing with that strange mixture of brutality and stupidity. His shadow was cast over me as he stood there, hands reaching out, aching to break my bones, and he seemed the perfect image of an absolute beast, ruled by hunger and instinct.
I prepared to defend myself regardless, clenching my fists and getting into stance.
He swung a punch and it whistled by, dangerously close to my face. I ducked under the next one and had to back away from the one after that. The Ogre was roaring with anger, came at me with both hands, as if he wanted to rip me limb from limb. I darted to the side, found myself pressed up against a wooden column, and for a frightening moment, as the ogre stood over me, laughing in triumph, I almost thought I might not make it.
"Watch it!" Gojyo came out of nowhere, slamming as hard as he could against the ogre with his shoulder.
The ogre, being caught off guard, let out a startled yelp, then, arms flailing helplessly, fell backwards over the railing, ripping even more of it down. I heard him land harshly on the smooth, tiled floor below us.
Gojyo and I flung ourselves against the banister to look down to where the ogre was sprawled on the stone, scattered pieces of the railing shivering around him. A second passed, and then he twitched and roared again, getting painfully and slowly to his feet.
"Shit." Gojyo panted. "He ain't dead? I almost killed myself running up those goddamn stairs."
"I think it will take a bit more than a thirty foot fall to kill him." I mused.
"Well then let's start taking this seriously, okay?"
"Oh? Forgive me, I was trying to restrain myself so you could keep up."
"Ha ha, very funny, Hakkai."
Below us, I heard another outraged roar, followed by a crunch that sounded a lot like someone stomping dried bones under their heel.
I looked down again to see the orge digging his claws into another column. With a ferocious, yellow grin, he tore away a piece of red-painted wood the size of my skull.
"Son of a bitch. What's he doin'?"
"I'm a little reluctant to find out."
This time, the ogre wrapped his giant, hairy arms all away around the beam and began to pull. He pulled and pulled, and after a few moments, I heard the wood began to crack, and then the floor under my feet started shifting. With one tremendous wrench, the ogre tore the column away, along with a chunk of the floor we were standing on, and the railing we were holding on to.
Gojyo and I both sprang back just in the nick of time to avoid falling that same thirty feet to the ground floor. I slammed hard against the wall, Gojyo slipping beside me.
Laughing and howling, the ogre began to swing the column he was holding around and around like it was little more than a normal bo staff. "Humans. Stupid humans. Little humans. Tasty humans."
There was a gut-wrenching impact as he smashed his new weapon against another one of the columns, and then a second snap, like someone's femur breaking. The floor shuddered again and more wood exploded, falling back to the first story.
"We'd better get back down there." I tugged Gojyo's coat sleeve as I began to run. "Or else he'll tear this whole place down."
The stairs were a mere hundred feet away. A simple dash. We could make it, and when we got down there again, we could kill this creature and go report what we'd learned to Sanzo.
I was almost to the stairs when the ground in front of me crumbled in a violent spray of chunks of wood and splinters.
Screaming, I stopped as quickly as I could, shoes sliding on the finely polished floor, nearly lost my balance and tumbled through the hole the ogre had made.
"Fuck!" Gojyo as well skittered to a halt, fighting to stay upright on the edge of the drop.
I managed to snag his jacket seconds before he fell head first to the stone floor beneath us.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck."
We backed away. I analyzed the hole now between us and the stairs. It wasn't very large. In fact, both of us could probably jump it.
Under my feet, the floor tipped and slanted, forcing us close to the edge.
"Goddammit!" Gojyo sprang back, landing on the part of the floor that was still stable.
I started to follow. The floor collapsed under me, and I found myself free falling quite suddenly, clawing at the air in all futility.
A thirty foot drop didn't sound like much. Looking down at it didn't feel so bad either. Never the less, I knew that when I hit that solid, stone floor, it was going to hurt. I might even break one of my legs, and that would make fighting off an ogre next to impossible.
Gojyo snatched me out of mid air, his hand closing around my wrist.
A ragged scream tore from my lungs, but then I was swinging there, drifting back and forth like a stretch of thread, heart beating so quickly I thought it might burst.
Beneath me, the ogre roared in frustration, took a swing at me, and, shockingly, missed.
Frantically, I looked up into Gojyo's face, "Pull me up!"
"Workin' on it." He snapped.
It took all I had to stay calm. There was nothing to grab onto. No hand holds, no foot holds, just empty air and the jagged, splintered edge of the floor Gojyo was leaning over. I couldn't even help him pull me up.
It felt like it took forever. My heart kept pounding, and the ogre kept roaring and shouting and cursing and taking swings at me. He busted up more of the floor, and I began to fear that we'd both fall before Gojyo could pull me up.
Somehow he did it though. He heaved me up far enough that I could get a grip on the floor with my free hand, and then he fisted his own hand in the back of my coat, pulling me up onto the floor until my knees were the only things still dangling over the edge.
"C'mon!" Gojyo jerked me to my feet, and we began to run, in spite of my shakiness. I struggled to focus, doing my best not to let the noodly feeling in my legs get the best of me.
All around us now the floor was breaking and crumbling and falling in a rain of thick splinters. The ogre was ripping down column after column, the floor collapsing just inches behind our heels as we ran.
"Hakkai!" Gojyo leapt easily over an overturned vase the size of his torso as it fell into his path. "What should we do?"
"Going down is no longer an option, unless we want to do it the hard way."
"I'm afraid we have no choice."
We were quickly approaching the next staircase. Beyond that, I saw that the floor had already fallen in from the added strain. In another couple of moments, the stairs were going to collapse as well.
"We'd better hurry." I mumbled, catching the edge of the railing and swinging myself up onto the steps.
Side by side, we raced up the stairs, and I didn't have to look back to know that they too were crumbling right behind us.
When we just a few steps from the top, the ogre suddenly leapt down from above us, holding what little was left of his column. He was grinning like he'd just swallowed a huge chocolate cake. Or someone's intestines.
Gojyo and I both lurched to a halt.
"How in the world did he-?"
No time. The staircase was falling right behind us.
The ogre was reaching out with his greasy, greedy fingers. "Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. Humans." He laughed again.
The step I was standing on buckled.
Nowhere to go.
We were looking at a sixty foot drop now. It still wouldn't kill us, I didn't think, but it would certainly cause some damage.
Gritting my teeth, I shoved Gojyo forward, "Go!"
"Where?" He demanded, but he scrambled up the last few steps just the same.
The ogre saw him coming and opened his arms to catch him.
Gojyo feinted left, dodged suddenly to the right and managed to slip around him.
I took advantage of the ogre's confusion and ducked under him as well.
We sprinted down the hall, racing toward the next flight of stairs.
Now it felt like the whole building was falling in around us. There was a deep rumbling that filled the air, and everything was shaking.
"How're we gonna' get out of here?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that—this place likely won't be standing in another ten minutes."
The orge was right behind us. I heard his giant feet slapping on the polished wood, and his guttural, fiendish voice was screaming loudly.
We were almost to the next flight of stairs. Perhaps on the third floor we'd find an exit of some sort. At least a balcony. I'd even settle for a window.
As we were starting up the steps however, the ogre slammed against two of the support beams the kept the stairs up, and they collapsed right in front of us before I could so much as set one foot on the first step.
We backed away, watching as the ogre advanced toward us again.
"Shit. I ain't dyin' here." Gojyo snarled.
"Hush. No one's dying here."
Except maybe that thing.
"Come on." I started running again, past the staircase this time leaping over holes in the floor and dodging debris that was raining down from above. I tore through the first door I came to, looking around quickly for any means of escape.
It appeared to be some sort of wash room. There was a large, stone pool in the middle of the room that had already been filled with water, as if someone had been planning to take a bath. The walls were drenched in blood, and I choked on the horrible scent of a decomposing corpse. A young acolyte was halfway in the pool, lying face down, and the water had a dusky red hue.
"Gross." Gojyo coughed.
I slammed the door behind us, shutting out the ogre seconds before he followed us into the room.
"That won't hold him for more than a second." I said, skirting the edge of the pool and turning down corner where there was another, smaller room. There was a humble, bamboo table there, an overturned basin of water, and, much to my relief, a small window.
"Shit, Hakkai. The floor's fallin'."
I could feel it too. That rumbling and shuddering. I could hear it, cracking and splintering. It was only a matter of minutes now before the roof caved in on us, and then we would certainly die.
"We have to get out of here." I said, mostly to myself. "Once we're out, we can deal with the ogre."
As if on cue, I heard the beast burst through the door, howling with outrage, and then there was a slosh of water as he, no doubt, stormed right through the bloody pool.
"Right." Gojyo pressed in a little closer to me, "So we're going on that window, right?"
I appraised the window again, quickly. It was very small. My shoulders might not fit through it. But it was the only hope we had.
Gojyo didn't wait for my answer. He lifted the basin and threw it through the window; shards of thick glass flew everywhere, landing on the floor like hard rain.
He shoved me toward it. "You go first. If I get stuck we're both fucked."
I felt that strange warmth well up inside me again, but I didn't have time to dwell on it.
The ogre stuck his hideous face around the corner and then he barreled down the hallway toward us.
"Hakkai!" Gojyo pushed me again.
"Yes. Of course." I mounted the window sill, twisting so my shoulders were more vertical than horizontal, and shoved my way through. I felt a piece of glass slash my upper arm as I did so, but ignored it.
Around me, the mountains were beautiful, the ground a long ways down, and I could feel the whole sanctuary trembling, as if on the very verge of collapse. But where to go?
Beneath me was a second window. It was a long shot, but perhaps I could jump down onto that ledge. But then, where would Gojyo go?
I turned to have a word with him. "Gojyo, I-"
The ogre hit him full force, knocking him back against the wall and grabbing at his throat, teeth gnashing inches from his face, and Gojyo did his best to hold him back, shoving his hand against the ogre's neck and kicking him hard a couple times. "Just go!" he choked.
The ogre tightened his grip. I saw his claws sinking into Gojyo's flesh.
Barely thinking about it, I slid back down from the window sill and picked up the humble, wooden table. It was a bit heavier than it looked, fortunately for us. With all my might, I lifted it above my head and brought it down on the ogre's skull. The table blew apart into a million pieces.
The ogre screamed and stumbled back, holding his monstrous head.
Gojyo stumbled back too, nearly falling, scrabbling to keep on his feet. He rubbed his neck, "I told ya'…to get outta' here…"
"There's nowhere to go." I told him severely.
"Bull…shit. Fine." He shouldered past me. "I'll go first."
He climbed lithely onto the window sill, "Hold that thing off."
The ogre was still staggering a bit, blood streaming from its ear, but it looked like it was getting its head together, coming toward me.
"You'd better hurry." I told Gojyo.
He'd already slipped through the window and was standing tediously on the ledge outside, clinging to the wall.
I took a step back, groping around for a weapon. My hand found a shard of glass as thick as my palm and as long as my middle finger. I watched and waited.
The ogre was stomping toward me.
He was just a few feet away.
But he wasn't close enough.
Finally, he lunged.
He slammed against me; I smelled his putrid breath pouring over my face.
I jammed the shard of glass into his eye. Hot blood showered over me, getting in my hair and spraying across my nose.
The ogre howled, clawing at his eye.
I kicked him back, and then hoisted myself up and out the window to stand beside Gojyo. "Haven't you figured it out yet?"
"I was waiting for you!" He snapped. His hair was flying back in the wind and he looked very warrior-like in that moment.
I felt somewhat warrior like myself.
But the building was crumbling around us. Even as we stood there, a piece of the roof fell, nearly hitting me in the head, and somewhere far away I heard the ring of even more glass and stone breaking. We only had a couple minutes left by now.
"That cart down there." He pointed.
There was a small cart, likely used for transporting food. I couldn't tell if it were meant to be hooked to an animal or if it were something you pushed, but either way, it wasn't very big. Also, it was several feet away, and there was a chance that if we jumped we'd miss it. In fact, the only thing even remotely promising about the cart was that the back was loaded up with a pile of hay.
"Gojyo, if we miss we're going to snap both our legs and be killed for sure."
"If we don't jump." I mused, "We're going to fall anyway, I suppose…"
The wall buckled. I felt it falling in, the terrifying feeling of my whole body swaying backward.
Inside, the ogre roared, and then there was a sickening crunch as he put his fist through the wall and tore a huge chunk out of it.
Gojyo screamed. Afraid or just startled, I couldn't tell. I felt like screaming too though.
The ogre punched another hole through the wall.
The wind blew my hair.
I felt the ledge we were standing on starting to give.
"Let's jump." I said. "We have no choice."
"Right. You first."
"No. On three."
The ogre burst through the wall, leaping onto the ledge with us, clearly oblivious to the fact that it was too tiny to even begin to support his weight. He was screaming something I couldn't make out.
The ledge gave out and began to fall.
"Three!" I shouted.
I sprang just in time, jumped just as far as I could, and then I was falling for the second time, tumbling through the air, arms flailing, legs kicking wildly. I thought for sure I was going to hit the ground.
I landed hard in the pile of hay. It wasn't as soft as it had looked from the window ledge, but it was much better than slamming against the stone-hard ground. I hit with an oomph and got the wind knocked out of me. Gojyo landed on top of me just a split second later, his elbow hitting me in the eye.
And the ogre landed on the ground just behind us, rolled a bit, and slammed into the back of the cart.
I felt the wheels jerk loose. The cart began to roll. Slowly at first, but we were on a steep hill after all, and the force of gravity was pulling us down, causing us to roll faster and faster over the side of the ridge.
We both scrambled to sit up, hay flying everywhere. I looked over my shoulder, saw the ogre jump to his feet and come racing after us. Just behind him, the sanctuary was sagging, falling apart in one dramatic moment. I watched with wide eyes as it fell in like a house of cards.
"Fuck!" Gojyo screamed.
We were jolting along down the ridge now, flying over rocks and bouncing off boulders, barely missing trees. I ducked under a branch, barely avoiding getting struck in the face. I clutched the edges of the cart.
"Hakkai! What now?"
"Why don't you come up with something for a change?"
"I was the one who said we should jump into the cart!"
"This was a horrible idea!" Another branch zipped past me, and I felt it scrape my cheek. "It doesn't count!"
"That thing is gaining on us!"
That was true, I saw. The ogre was just a few yards from the cart, getting closer and closer.
We slammed against a tree and caught some air going over a boulder. For a moment, we were suspended in the sky, cart and all, hay whipping away behind us.
Gojyo shook my shoulder.
Up ahead there was the sudden, sheer drop off of a cliff.
"How do we make this thing stop?"
"I-I'm not sure we can…" I stuttered.
"Shit. Shit! There's no telling how far a fall that is!"
"Just hold on-"
The cart lurched one last time, flying up over a smooth boulder that was rather like a ramp, and we were launched out into space, both our bodies ejected out of the cart and hanging in the air, falling so slowly, it almost felt as if I wasn't falling at all.
How perfectly blue the sky was. And the scenery. All around me I saw vivid, forest green and colored splashes of flowers. Below us though….
I was afraid to look down.
Screaming and clawing at one another, we fell and fell and fell and
My body hit water, hard, but it too was better than hitting the ground. For a second, my head was submerged and I was sucking in a lungful of water. I touched the bottom of the river and propelled myself back up, slung my head back as I surfaced again, throwing my wet hair back and forth.
It was a river we'd landed in. Fairly wide, but not all that deep. The current was quick, carrying me down stream steadily.
A few feet away, Gojyo came up for air, crimson hair slung across his face, sputtering and cursing.
I didn't see the ogre anywhere. It would have to be incredibly stupid to leap over the edge of a cliff just to follow us into the river. Good riddance.
Now, of course, we had a different problem.
"Swim for the shore!" I was already churning my arms and kicking my legs, doing my best to get to shallow water.
However, the current was a little stronger than I'd first assessed it to be, and getting to shore proved to be a daunting task. At one point, I managed to grab hold of a log that was jutting out over the river, but when Gojyo drifted by and grabbed onto my coat, the log snapped and the three of us continued down river, bobbing in the rapids and being pulled under occasionally. Before long, I began to feel tired. I draped my arms over the log, and so did he, and we got carried along like that for a while.
The further we went, the wilder the river became, slinging us back and forth, slamming us against rocks, dragging us down and spinning us around. I got mouthful after mouthful of dirty river water, and I was freezing cold.
"Dammit." Gojyo groaned, "I can't believe what a shitty day this is."
Ahead of us, I recognized the thunderous sound of a waterfall, and a deep one at that. "It's about to get worse." I warned him.
"What? Oh, shit!" He held onto the log with one arm and did his best to swim back up against the stream. "Oh shit!"
It was no use. In another ten seconds, we were going to go over that water fall and possibly get dashed against the rocks at the bottom.
For some reason, I felt the inexplicable urge to laugh. "My, this certainly turned out to be much more interesting than I expected."
"Screw. You. Hakkai."
"Well, I suppose there's no sense in fighting it. Just close your eyes and hope for the best."
"Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shiiiiiiiiit!"
The river flung us out over the edge of the waterfall, and then we were plummeting yet again. I lost my grip on the log and it hovered beside me. Gojyo was screaming. I couldn't even find the voice to scream. I just wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh.
When we hit the bottom, I was shocked to have survived, and as I surfaced once more, swam for the shore, and dragged myself up out of the pool, I felt unbelievably relieved.
Wouldn't that be something… I thought as I trudged up onto the shore, dripping wet and shivering. My coat had been ripped right along the shoulder and now the right arm of it was falling off. Just as well. It wasn't a coat I had liked very much to begin with.
Wouldn't that be something to tell Kanan?
I wondered if she would have been afraid to hear such a story, or if she would have laughed, like me.
I suppose I'll never get the opportunity to find out now.
Behind me, Gojyo came up, gasping and choking. "H-Hakkai! Hey! Help!"
I turned to smile at him, "Are you tired of swimming?" Then offered him my hand.
I dragged him out of the water, and we both made our way up away from the river, collapsed on a patch of grass a safe distance from the water's edge, and fell onto our backs, breathing hard.
Gojyo spread his arms open wide, "Holy fuckin' shit."
"That was insanity. What're you laughin' for?"
"Oh, it's nothing. Nothing."
"It ain't nothing." He scowled at me.
"You. You were just so funny."
"Me? How the hell was I funny?"
All I could do was laugh even more.
"We almost died!" he reminded me.
I chuckled. "Yes, yes, I know."
"Shit." He sat up straight, "What do you think happened to the troll?"
"The ogre. And I'm not sure. I don't believe it fell in the river with us, so I suspect it's miles behind us now."
"Great. Good. I don't wanna' deal with that thing anymore." He stood up, legs almost giving out.
"Hm. You likely could have killed it, you know. You're stronger than I thought you were."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. I just wasn't sure you were going to make it back there." I stood up, grinning all the more. My legs felt weak as well, but more than anything, I was just glad to be alive.
"Yeah, well keep that in mind. Gojyo's a lean, mean sonnova bitch."
We began to walk, and I was still laughing.
"How're we gonna' explain tearing that sanctuary down to Sanzo?"
"Well, we didn't necessarily tear it down…"
"He's gonna' be pissed anyway."
"Are you afraid of Sanzo?"
"Hell no! I ain't scared of that bastard! But he might not pay us."
"Oh, I think he will. After all, we did find out what he wanted us to find out."
Gojyo ran his fingers through his hair and lit a cigarette. "Guess so."
"I believe I can talk him into giving us at least some of our due money."
"My half at least." I teased.
"Goddamn. I think I liked it better when you were bummin'."
"Ah, yes. That. In all the excitement, I seem to have forgotten what I was depressed about."
Gojyo snorted, "Somethin' about your old life, I think."
"Hm." I looked up at the sky and pondered that a moment. Kanan was dead, my old village destroyed by my own two hands, and I had no friends, no family, and nothing to live for. My old life was more than gone. It had been destroyed.
In my old life, I never would have been climbing a god forsaken mountain on the whim of a Sanzo priest. I likely never would have had to fight a ogre either; nor would I have almost died in a collapsing building. I certainly wouldn't have sped down a hill in a hand cart or drifted for miles down a raging river with a chain-smoking child of taboo. Instead, I would have been home with Kanan, or else playing with my students this afternoon.
It wasn't that the old life was really so much better, I supposed. I mean, of course, I would always miss Kanan, and I would grieve her death for years to come. But that didn't mean I should stop living. Right?
I laughed again, and Gojyo looked at me, startled. "What's wrong with you?"
"Well, it looks as if I have quite a strange, new life."
"Man, I never realized what an optimist you are."
"Let's go home." I suggested, "I think I want that drink you promised me."