Title: Zang Fu Theory, Part 25
Author: Lotus
Email: ladylotusmoon (a) hotmail (o) com
Pairing(s): Sanzo/Hakkai/Gojyo
Rating: R
Warnings: Language, sexual innuendo

Chapter 25: Hakkai surprises Gojyo with a rescue attempt, and Sanzo confronts the mad monk.

 

---


They left me. He left me.

As Gojyo followed the owner down the hallway, vertigo made his stomach flop like he was walking along the edge of a cliff. He still couldn't believe it. Sure, the monk might let him stew in his own juices, particularly now, but Hakkai... Not Hakkai. Leaving Gojyo wasn't the same thing as not coming after him when he went off on his own like a jackass. Gojyo could admit he'd been a jackass more than once on this journey.

Knowing the ikkou had continued without him, that Hakkai had driven off in Jipu and left him behind, hurt worse than Gojyo had ever imagined. Since the beginning, a part of him had always feared that, when the chips were down, Hakkai might choose Sanzo and the mission over him. Gojyo just hadn't realized how completely abandoned he'd feel when it finally happened.

Numbly, he paused as two of the flanking guards slipped in front of him in the narrow corridor and followed the owner out through the back door. A hand shoved him from behind.

"Move it, half-breed," the guard growled.

Unable to muster a retort, Gojyo stepped through the door and into the rear courtyard of the Red Kimono. Red lanterns were strung along the top of the bamboo fence, helping illuminate a pretty little garden. The rhythmic thunk of a
shishi-odoshi echoed the heavy thumping of Gojyo's heart. He felt like he was moving in slow motion.

"Gojyo-san!" A woman's voice called out behind him.

Turning around, Gojyo saw the woman he had just left in his room running barefoot across the courtyard. She collided with his chest and he automatically wrapped his arms around her. He felt something hard press against his stomach and glanced down. She was pushing a
kaiken in a black lacquer sheath under his obi. It was the type of weapon a woman might carry for self-defense or to commit jigai, if she felt death was preferable to whatever fate she believed was about to befall her.

Weapon hidden successfully, she tilted her face up to look at him. "I don't want you to suffer," she whispered.

Her words were like a splash of cold water. Why was he feeling sorry for himself? So they'd left him. And he had a talisman wrapped around his heart. These assholes were supposed to release Kaori after he was "bonded," or whatever, with the fire oni. Then he would be free to fight. It was better to die kicking ass than as some kind of fucking sacrifice. And he sure as hell wasn't going to commit suicide. Screw that shit.

"Thanks, honey." He smiled down at her. "But I'm not planning on letting them barbecue me."

"What do you think you're doing?" the owner demanded, reaching out to grab the girl.

Gojyo stepped to the side, pulling her behind him and pressing her against his back with one arm. With the soft hiss of scraping steel, the closest guard immediately drew his sword and leveled it at Gojyo's throat. It was so close that if Gojyo swallowed, his adam's apple would brush against the tip.

"You dirty half-breed," the guard snarled.

Gojyo recognized the guard as the same one he had taunted earlier outside the bath.

"You deserve to die," the guard said. "All of your kind should die." He spat at Gojyo's feet.

The man's hateful expression transformed into one of surprise as a bright light enveloped him. Gojyo was seized with a strong sense of déjà vu, as if he were a boy again watching his mother fall dead to the ground, when the man collapsed, sword clattering to the ground. Only this time, instead of seeing his brother behind his fallen assailant, when Gojyo looked up, he saw Hakkai standing on the roof. Gojyo blinked, wondering if he was hallucinating, but Hakkai didn't disappear. As Gojyo watched, Hakkai calmly began picking off the yelling guards with precise chi blasts, like a boy frying ants with a magnifying glass.

 

---


When Sanzo reached the small, neglected shrine at the crossroad, a flicker in his peripheral vision made him glance back towards town. About half a mile away, a procession of people approached single-file up the road, their lanterns merging into a giant, glowing serpent winding through the dark fields. He needed to finish this before the townspeople arrived and got in his way.

Turning, Sanzo headed toward the hot spring. He smelled it first, like an extinguished match held under his nose, much stronger than in the baths at the inn. A few seconds later, he heard the chanting. He passed through another gate, this one a humble, unpainted, wooden arch, and beheld the infamous hot spring. A circle of lanterns on poles illuminated the clearing, four of them standing in the shallows of the pond, their reflections flickering in the red water like drowned stars.

"A
chinoike jigoku," Sanzo muttered in surprise. A blood pond.

He had only seen one other blood pond. It had been during his early wanderings, when he had been searching for his master's scroll. A monk at the local temple had explained that the red color came from various metals in the mud at the bottom of the pond bubbling up through the boiling water. The blood-colored hot spring had been a curiosity for travelers, but Sanzo had found it unsettling and had quickly moved on.

Unlike at the temple, the area around this blood pond was well-maintained. Shrubs and rocks circled most of the pond, but one side opened on a graveled clearing containing an altar and a small house. A lone monk stood at the altar, facing the pond, and behind him, in neat rows, were dozens of chanting monks. Sanzo frowned as he retrieved the coronet from his sleeve and set it on his head. Gathering all the power and dignity of his office around him like an invisible cloak, Sanzo strode through the group of kneeling monks. The chanting faltered as the startled monks reacted to his passing. By the time Sanzo swept to a halt behind the monk at the altar, the clearing was completely silent.

"You will cease this atrocity immediately!" Sanzo's voice rang out clearly.

He heard gasps from the monks behind him, but the old monk at the altar ignored him, continuing to mix herbs with a mortar and pestle. Sanzo's eyes narrowed when he recognized poppy seeds. A concoction intended to drug Gojyo, no doubt. Fury flared up inside of him, and Sanzo lashed out with his sandaled foot, kicking over the altar. The mortar rolled on its side until it hit a rock, then upended, spilling its contents on the ground.

There were more gasps and murmurs behind him, but Sanzo didn't turn around. The monks posed as much danger to him as a flock of sheep. No, it was the wolf in front of him that he had to take down. The old man lowered his hands and clasped them inside his sleeves. Slowly, he turned around to face Sanzo. Sanzo's nemesis didn't look like an evil monster, gleefully consigning innocent people to a horrible death. He was a shriveled-up, bald, old man like dozens of elder monks Sanzo had dealt with in the past. But Sanzo knew dark, twisted souls could reside within plain vessels. He glimpsed flat anger in the small, yellowed eyes before the monk bowed.

"We are honored by your presence, Genjyo Sanzo," the monk said, straightening. "Since the Chosen One is late, may I assume you have come to offer yourself in his place?"

Sanzo's frown deepened. "I don't have time for games," he growled. "These monks will return to the temple and you will confine yourself to your cell to await trial."

"When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself," the monk said with a smile, revealing stained teeth.

Sanzo's eyebrow jerked up.
Was this old monk going to stand there and quote Buddhist philosophy? Whether it was madness or a delaying tactic, Sanzo would have none of it.

"Fine. If you wish to forego a trial, I shall render judgement now." Widening his stance, Sanzo pressed his palms together and began chanting the words that would awaken the Maten Sutra.

"
On ma ni hatsu mei un..."

The monk withdrew a hand from his sleeve and threw a talisman at Sanzo's face. Sanzo easily ducked the small missive without missing a beat in his chant. The minor attack did, however, divert his attention for the split second it took the monk to throw a second talisman into the blood pool with his other hand. the slip of paper looped over the boiling water, then burst into flames, casting eerie shadows in the steam. Then, as the ash drifted to the surface, the monk spoke two words of power.

Eyes widening, Sanzo felt the zing of chi fly past him, like an invisible arrow, in the direction of the town.
Damn! The mad monk was attempting to trigger the talisman in Gojyo. Sanzo could only hope the kappa was out of range.

The Maten Sutra bound the monk, dropping him to his knees and silencing him seconds too late. At the same time, the blood pool exploded upward in a boiling spout of crimson water and steam. Sanzo gagged on the stench of burnt matches and rotten eggs.

 

---


Hakkai crouched in readiness at the edge of the roof, watching the man he recognized from earlier as the owner of the Red Kimono walk to the middle of the courtyard, stop, and turn. Two guards in black kimonos came out, followed by Gojyo and three more guards. Hakkai was relieved that Gojyo was moving under his own power; he had been a little worried that they might have chosen to drug Gojyo, but that didn't appear to be the case. Hakkai waited a few moments to see if any more guards were joining the retinue, but the owner was turning towards the garden-gate again as if everyone was present. The small number of guards indicated that Hakkai's ruse of moving out of the hotel and making a show of leaving town had worked; the townspeople believed the ikkou had left Gojyo behind.

Rising up slightly, Hakkai was preparing to take out the guard closest to Gojyo, when a woman ran out of the building below him.

"Gojyo-san!"

The woman ran into Gojyo's arms. Hakkai hesitated.
Was she the hostage? Had something gone wrong inside with Wan Tu and Goku? The woman and Gojyo whispered to each other while the owner walked back to them, obviously angry.

"What do you think you're doing?" the owner demanded, reaching out to grab the woman.

Gojyo pulled the woman behind himself, shielding her with his own body. The closest guard immediately drew his sword and leveled it at Gojyo's throat.

"You dirty half-breed," the guard snarled, his words carrying clearly in the quiet garden. "You deserve to die. All of your kind should die." He spat at Gojyo's feet.

Cold fury lodged in Hakkai's chest and he calmly rose, summoning a chi ball. He pitched it at the guard threatening Gojyo, careful to angle the hit so the guard would fall backward, pulling his sword away from Gojyo. As the guard cried out and fell, Gojyo's face tilted upwards towards him, but Hakkai didn't have time to spare him more than a glance. He had to ensure that none of the guards ran for help or sent someone to alert the temple. Methodically, he began blasting all of the guards, trying to use enough chi to knock them unconscious without sending them into cardiac arrest.

"Fifty-nine, sixty!"

Goku burst out of the building through the back door, then skidded to a halt as the last guard dropped unconscious to the ground. Goku craned his neck to peer up at the roof.

"Aw, Hakkai," Goku pouted. "You didn't leave any for me."

"You were supposed to count slowly," Hakkai reprimanded.

"Uh, well, there was this running girl..." Goku trailed off, rubbing the back of his head.

Hakkai did a forward flip off the roof, landing in a deep squat. Standing, he adjusted his glasses just in time to see a white blur shoot off the roof, streaking past Gojyo.

"Get it off of me!"

Hakuryu dove at the Red Lantern's owner, flapping his wings in his face. The man batted at the air blindly with one arm and tried to cover his head with the other.

"Hakuryu, get back," Hakkai said calmly, gathering another chi ball.

"I got this one," Gojyo said, winking at Hakkai over his shoulder.

Gojyo stretched out his hand and his
shakujo appeared, the weight making his arm dip slightly. With a flick of his wrist, the chain swung out, wrapping around the owner's legs, then Gojyo jerked back slightly, tightening the chain. The owner fell hard, hit his head on the packed earth, and lay still. Hakuryu immediately flew to Hakkai and settled on his shoulder.

"Well done," Hakkai said to the dragon, patting his talons. He turned to Goku. "Where's Wan Tu?"

"He went out the front with the gir- uh, hostage," Goku answered, thumbing over his shoulder at the building.

"And she would be...?" Hakkai raised an eyebrow at the girl still pressed against Gojyo's back.

"I dunno." Goku shrugged. "I followed her 'cause she was running."

Hakkai sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered constructing stratagems when the members of the ikkou seemed so fond of improvising.

Banishing the
shakujo, Gojyo pulled the girl around to face him.

"You better go back inside," he told her. "Take the money and get outta here."

The woman nodded. Rising up on her toes, she kissed Gojyo lightly on the lips. Hakkai felt a twinge of jealousy.
How many women had Gojyo been with at this establishment? Turning around, she started walking back to the Red Kimono, picking her way around unconscious guards. When she reached Hakkai, she paused.

"We didn't have sex," she stated firmly before moving on.

Hakkai blinked, uncertain why the young lady had felt the need to clarify that point with him. He wondered if his control had slipped, allowing some of his jealousy to show on his face. Laughing, Gojyo jogged over to Hakkai and Goku. He grabbed them both in a big bear hug, sending Hakuryu spiraling skyward with a squawk of protest.

"You came back!" Gojyo enthused, grinning widely.

"Duh, of course." Goku wrinkled his nose at him. "And you call me a dumbass."

"Honestly, Gojyo," Hakkai said in a mildly reproving tone. He had been perfectly clear at their last parting that he was returning to take care of the situation. He peered at Gojyo's face more closely. Always handsome, Gojyo seemed more exotic than usual, more... erotic.

"Are you wearing make-up?" Hakkai asked.

"Uh, yeah." Gojyo touched his face and came away with a smudge of bronze on his fingertips.

"It's quite... striking," Hakkai murmured.

"Yeah?" Gojyo's libido responded to the compliment, and his voice came out husky. He stared down into Hakkai's eyes and smiled slowly. Hakkai flushed at the sensual shift in Gojyo's manner and looked away.

"It is kinda pretty," Goku piped up, innocently breaking the tension.

"Thanks, monkey." Giving them both a hard squeeze, Gojyo released Goku, keeping an arm slung around Hakkai's shoulders.

The three of them turned together, crossing the dark garden to the gate. When they drew close to the owner, sprawled on the ground, Hakkai heard a moan. He turned and pulled a piece of rope out of Goku's pack and squatted next to the reviving man. None of the guards Hakkai had blasted were moving yet. While he quickly but thoroughly secured the owner, Hakkai divided his attention between Gojyo and the dark sky.
Had Sanzo succeeded? Was Gojyo truly safe?

Finishing, Hakkai rose and Gojyo immediately threw his arm around his shoulders again. As they walked towards the gate, Goku regaled them with the dramatic story of the hostage's rescue.

Hakkai knew the moment it happened. Gojyo's breath hitched, and Hakkai felt the lean body pressed against his side stiffen, the arm around his shoulders jerk.

"Gojyo!" Goku cried out, but Hakkai didn't look at him.

Instead, Hakkai followed Gojyo to the ground, cradling his head in the crook of his arm.

"Fuck," Gojyo gritted out through clenched teeth. "Hurts."

"I know." Hakkai brushed the hair back from Gojyo's sweaty forehead. His own heart was pounding so hard it felt like his ribs would break under the strain.

"If the talisman is activated," Sanzo said. "It will siphon off Gojyo's own life force to complete its task. If you attempt to interfere, your chi will only strengthen it."

"Hakkai!" Goku dropped onto his knees on the other side of Gojyo. "Do something!"

"I can't." Hakkai was surprised at how steady his own voice sounded.

Hakkai kept his eyes locked with Gojyo's. The hand gripping his sleeve convulsed, and Gojyo's eyes glazed over, becoming unfocused. Gojyo's hand dropped away, and the light behind the crimson eyes flickered and went out.

"Nooo!" With an anguished cry, Goku threw himself across Gojyo, crying against his abdomen.

Ignoring the icy fist clenching his own heart, Hakkai checked the pulse in Gojyo's neck. Nothing. Taking off his glasses, Hakkai held one of the lenses under Gojyo's nose. The glass remained clear and unfogged by breath. Hakkai folded his glasses and tucked them inside his tunic while Goku continued to cry.

"It has to run its course." Sanzo lit a cigarette, sitting on the edge of the hotel bed while Hakkai hastily packed their things. "Without life or chi the talisman will disintegrate."

"So I have to let Gojyo die," Hakkai said.

The purple eyes watched him narrowly through the rising tendril of smoke.

"Yes."

 

---


Screams from behind him alerted Sanzo that the townspeople had arrived. With a tug of chi, Sanzo recalled the sutra to him and it settled over his shoulders. Red-tinged mist rained down on Sanzo from the erupting pond, burning his eyes.

"Damn!"

Sanzo wiped his face with his sleeve, but the damage was done. Blinking furiously against the stinging pain, all Sanzo could see were tear-blurred shapes of color. Half-blind, he faced a flaming figure wrapped in a swirling column of hissing steam. Trying not to choke on the foul, fetid air, Sanzo took a long, shallow breath and centered himself. Time seemed to stretch and pull, the sounds of the crowd fading as the world fell away.

Just like the time he had faced the rampaging bear that had entered the Kinzan temple compound, Sanzo created a space inside the world. In this space, the only creatures that existed were himself and the fire oni. The only sounds that permeated the space were his own steady breathing, the hiss of steam and the soft patter of the wet mist falling.

The fire oni came into clearer focus once Sanzo began observing it with more than his eyes. He sensed no malice or evil, just hunger.

"Return to your home beneath the water," Sanzo said. "Draw energy from the deep earth. There is nothing for you outside your home except your own destruction."

Sanzo and the fire oni faced each other in silence, time meaningless. Slowly, the fire oni began sinking into the water. Sanzo's shoulders drooped as tension released, and he became aware of his surroundings again: the murmuring crowd, his stinging eyes and burned face.

"No!"

The mad monk ran past Sanzo with a speed belying his age. Sanzo snatched at his sleeve, but the monk kept going, splashing into the shallows.

"Stop, you damned idiot!" Sanzo called after him.

 

---


"Move away, Goku," Hakkai said tersely.

He couldn't spare an explanation for Goku's puzzled, tear-stained face. Pinching Gojyo's nose closed, Hakkai tilted back his head slightly and breathed into his mouth. He repeated this twice, then straightened and laced his hands together. Pressing his palm to Gojyo's chest, he pushed down three times. Pulse check. Nothing. Breath check. Nothing. Bending down, Hakkai breathed into Gojyo's mouth again. Breath, push, check. Breath, push, check. Hakkai grew light-headed from sharing his breath. His back and shoulders ached. Breath, push, check. Breath, push, check.

The night warped into a long tunnel with Gojyo's lifeless body at the end of it. There was nothing else. Hakkai's blood roared in his ears like the ocean, but he didn't even consider stopping. How long had Hakkai been attempting to resuscitate Gojyo? It felt like hours. The only sounds in the dark garden were his own harsh breathing and the slow
thunk, thunk, thunk of the shishi-odoshi.

When Gojyo came back, it was undramatic. One moment his body was lifeless and still, the next, his chest was rising with breath. Relief crashed through Hakkai so violently, his body started to shake. Ignoring the trembling, Hakkai tried to take Gojyo's pulse in his wrist. Long fingers curled around his hand. Hakkai looked down at a pair of crimson eyes struggling to focus on him.

"You did it!" Goku threw his arms around Gojyo's neck and awkwardly hugged him.

Gojyo patted Goku's back and turned his head to look at Hakkai over Goku's shoulder.

"What happened?" Gojyo asked, his voice raspy and thick.

"The talisman activated," Hakkai said.

"No." Gojyo cleared his throat. "I meant to your hand."

Glancing down, Hakkai realized Gojyo was rubbing his thumb over the two barely-healed puncture marks.

"Snake bite," Hakkai answered automatically.

"No shit?" Gojyo craned his head a bit to examine Hakkai's hand. "You okay, man?"

For a moment, Hakkai just stared at Gojyo, dumbfounded. When the laughter rose up, Hakkai dropped his head, but there was no containing it.

"Ah, ha ha."

The laughter choked him, making his eyes water. He thought he was doing an admirable job of not sounding hysterical. Gojyo wiped at the corner of Hakkai's eye with a thumb. Hakkai looked down, again, into Gojyo's eyes and realized he'd asked the absurd question on purpose, to break the tension. Hakkai smiled at him. Gojyo's willingness to play the fool for the sake of others was one of his more endearing, and misunderstood, qualities.

"Aren't we supposed to be saving the monk's skinny ass?" Gojyo asked.

"Sanzo!" Goku jumped to his feet. "C'mon, guys!"

"You go ahead, Goku." Hakkai waved his hand. "We'll follow."

Goku didn't require further encouragement. He bolted through the back gate, and took off down the dark alley at a run. Hakkai wasn't sure how Goku knew which direction to go, but when it came to finding Sanzo, Goku had unerring instincts.

With a groan, Gojyo started to sit up. Hakkai slipped an arm behind his back and helped him up. Shifting to a squat, Hakkai slung Gojyo's arm around his neck and stood, pulling Gojyo up with him. Gojyo leaned heavily against his side. Hakkai frowned. Even through the layers of clothing, he should be able to feel Gojyo's body heat. Where Gojyo's sleeve rode up and bare skin touched Hakkai's neck, Gojyo felt cool and clammy.

Gripping the wrist hanging from his neck more firmly, Hakkai started channeling chi into Gojyo. The wrist twisted out of his hand and Gojyo brushed his knuckles against Hakkai's cheek.

"You don't have to do that," Gojyo said. "I'm good."

"We don't know what's waiting at the temple," Hakkai protested.

"All the more reason for you to conserve your chi."

"Gojyo-" Hakkai broke off mid-sentence as Gojyo's hand drifted over the back of his neck and a finger traced down his spine.

"If it'll make you feel better," Gojyo whispered in his ear. "You can give me a full physical later."

Hakkai jumped when Gojyo firmly squeezed his buttocks. When Hakkai's groin tingled, he told himself they were both reacting to the near-death experience. Concluding that if Gojyo could grope him, he could walk unassisted, Hakkai disentangled himself from Gojyo's long arms.

"This is not appropriate," Hakkai murmured, walking towards the gate.

"Not... what the fuck?" Gojyo's long stride caught him up to Hakkai. "Did the monk say something else to you?"

"No." Hakkai didn't look at Gojyo as they walked down the dark alleyway. "We'll discuss it later, Gojyo."

"That's what you say when I've fucked up," Gojyo said quietly. Gojyo brushed Hakkai's arm. "Did I do something wrong, Hakkai?"

The hesitant hurt in Gojyo's voice made Hakkai stop. It had begun already. He had truly hoped not to directly address the... personal issues until after the current crises was over. Turning, Hakkai cupped the side of Gojyo's face. The crimson eyes, made more vivid and cat-like with the skillful application of the make-up, met his with uncertainty.

"You haven't done anything," Hakkai assured him. "It's me."

"Y'know, that's what chicks say when they break up with you," Gojyo joked, his lopsided smile transparently false.

"Let us finish this fire oni business," Hakkai said gently. "And then we'll talk. Please, Gojyo."

A heartbeat, then Gojyo let out a dramatic sigh. "Okay, man," Gojyo agreed.

He kissed Hakkai on the top of his head and they resumed walking down the alley. Hakkai was relieved at the short reprieve he'd been granted, but he knew the worst was yet to come.

When they reached the end of the alley, Hakkai hesitated. Something was wrong. He realized the sounds of the festival were gone; the crowd must have started the trek to the temple.

"Hakuryu!" Hakkai called out. "Transform, please."

The dragon flew in low to hover over the ground in front of them. Hakkai squinted against the flash of light and his skin goosebumped in the backwash of chi as Hakuryu became Jipu. Hakkai climbed into the driver's side and shifted into gear. Gojyo jumped into the passenger's seat on his left.

"Cool," Gojyo enthused. "Shotgun!"

Hakkai shook his head even as he smiled back. Moments ago, the man laughing next to him had been dead; before that, he had believed he'd been facing a horrible death alone, abandoned by his friends. Now he was happy because he got to ride in the front seat.

"Hold on," Hakkai warned before flooring the gas pedal.

Jipu shot forward into the darkness.

 

---


The fire oni's descent stopped and Sanzo sensed its focus shifting to the old monk. The old monk spread his arms wide.

"I summoned you," he said. "You are mine to command. Bond with me and give your blessings to this town!"

The monk waded deeper into the scalding water, and this time Sanzo made no move to stop him. The mad monk was clearly beyond saving. Sanzo held out an arm and gestured to the crowd of townspeople and monks in case there were any more supreme idiots among their ranks.

"Stay back," Sanzo commanded.

The monk had waded in about waist-deep, four or five yards away from the fire oni, when the fire ball struck him in the chest. Sanzo didn't know which was more chillingly gruesome: watching a man burn to death standing in the middle of water, or hearing him laugh as he burned. Once, during a thunderstorm, Sanzo had seen a sparking ball of lightning run along the edge of a roof and down a rain chain. That image came to him as the oni released a second fireball, not through the air, but along the surface of the water. The flame was colored an unnaturally bright blue at the center and cherry-red at the edges. It left a steaming wake as it sizzled across the bloody water. Just before hitting the monk, it split in two and encircled him, the two balls spinning around his burning torso faster and faster, raising a wall of crimson steam.

When the monk was completely obscured from sight, the laughter turned at last to screams, then fell silent. A breeze blew across the blood pond, dispersing the steam like rotten silk pulled apart by invisible fingers.

The old monk was gone. For a moment, Sanzo thought he glimpsed a scrap of orange robe, but it disappeared in a red ripple before he could be certain. The fire oni shifted, and Sanzo felt its attention settle on him. Sanzo projected authoritative calm even as he prepared to call the Maten Sutra.

"Only your destruction," Sanzo repeated firmly.

Sanzo sensed hesitation. Then the fire oni began sinking again into the water. It wasn't until the oni had disappeared completely from sight and the last ripple had broken on the shore, that Sanzo relaxed. He turned around. The crowd had dispersed somewhat, and the remaining spectators wore expressions of terror and shock. Some of the monks were praying; children and women were crying. Off in the darkness beyond the illumination of the lanterns and moonlight, Sanzo heard the sounds of retching.

"He was the last Chosen One," Sanzo said, loudly enough to be heard over the weeping and praying. "Go home."

The crowd began breaking up and people started walking back towards town. Sanzo strode over to the cluster of monks, which was considerably smaller in number than it had been when he'd first entered the clearing. Some of them had undoubtedly run away, but it wasn't his job to chase them down in the dark woods, like farm animals that had fled in fear during a storm. For whatever wrongs they may have committed, karma would find them, either in this life or the next. It was not his concern.

When Sanzo stopped in front of the monks, the ones who were still standing dropped to their knees, several prostrating themselves.

"Forgive us."

"Have mercy."

"Save us, honorable Genjyo Sanzo-sama."

"Be quiet!" Sanzo snapped. He nudged the closest monk on the shoulder with his foot. "You. Prepare a room for me at the temple. I'll need writing supplies."

Not waiting for a response, Sanzo turned and started walking towards the temple. The ikkou would meet him there. As he walked, Sanzo fished his cigarettes out of his sleeve. He took a long drag, clearing the metallic taste of the blood pond out of his mouth. Glancing up at the half-eaten moon, he wondered if Gojyo had survived.

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