Through the dark rooms he went, seeing the corpses piled and stinking. Hundreds of them, in every chamber and every corridor. Blood everywhere, shit everywhere, and though the bodies were new, everywhere the drone of flies called in by the smell. Dead? All dead?
The castle seemed endless. He could smell no life in it anywhere. *All* dead? It was a nightmare. Bodies hacked. Bodies pinned to the wall with their own weapons. A madman's work.
He turned from a dim corridor into a dimmer room where the torch had all but guttered out, and stopped dead. Something moving in the shadows there. No sense of any life, but the darkness had wavered. He stepped noiselessly forward and saw it again. Leaped onto the thing and struck hard against a solid surface. It was youkai and it was right before him, almost on top of him in fact, but he could feel only smoothness under his hands. Some sort of kekkai barrier stood between them. He stared through the dark at the outline of the thing's spiky hair, its pointed ears, its shadowed eyes looking into his.
"Who are you--" he began, but the youkai had opened its mouth too, mouth moving in the same words even though he heard only his own voice. Coldness wrapped his body. He moved his hand down the surface of the kekkai and the youkai's arm moved too, fingers touching his fingers. Very very slowly his mind consented to recognize the truth. His eyes moved over and looked at the hand that should be his. The nails were thin and black, curved and sharp. A youkai's nails. He put his unfamiliar hand to his ear, saw the sharp point of it before his eyes, felt the sharp point with his fingers. And very slowly drew back, terribly afraid, because this was impossible. This didn't happen. It was a youkai in the mirror reflecting himself. The glass was smeared with something dark below. He looked down. A great black line crossed his belly with blood seeping steadily out. He was cut? But he felt nothing. This was wrong. All wrong. He began to shake. Something terrible had happened. His body gone wrong, its shape turned into a youkai's, his body gone numb so that he couldn't feel even this terrible hole in himself. He fell against the glass and shook. Black darkness was filling his head, panic grabbing him and shaking his world to pieces. He whimpered, groaned, felt everything falling apart in terror.
There was light before his eyes. He looked at it. The reflection of light in the mirror, light coming from a dark figure in the doorway behind him.
"There's one here," a voice said. "Still alive." He watched in the mirror as the figure came towards him. There was another one behind it. Light somehow came with them. He watched the two reflections approach, frozen in his fear, and couldn't move.
"Oi, you!" A man. Not a youkai. "Who did this? Talk, and fast."
"Zenon." A quieter voice. "No need to terrify the creature more than he is. He's hurt." A hand on his shoulder. He cringed but had no choice. There was authority in that touch. He let himself be turned about to face a calm-faced stranger with eyes closed like a blind man's.
"The slow way," the one called Zenon said. He had a patch over one eye, a hard face. "Plenty of time to tell us the whole story before he dies." Zenon's head turned. He was speaking to a third man who'd come up behind them. The newcomer stopped a pace back and looked at him. Huge sword on his shoulder, chains between his wrists.
"Youkai," the man said to him in a voice like brown velvet. "I am the toushin taishi Homura, sent by Heaven to stop the great youkai Hyakugan Maoh from troubling the order of Under Heaven further. But I find the criminal is already dead, and your tribe with him. Who did it?"
He stared in silence. He knew the answer but the answer made no sense.
"Talk, you bastard." It was Zenon. "Or else--" Suddenly there was a rifle aimed at his heart.
"Zenon," the man called Homura said. "Back off. Well?" He put the point of his sword to the ground and leaned forward on it. "Who did this to you?"
Homura blinked. There was something strange about his eyes. One seemed closer than the other. "You cut your own stomach open?"
Did I? He couldn't remember. "I did it," he repeated.
The three of them looked at him. He looked back.
"What's your name?" Zenon asked.
My name... My name is...
"Gonou," he said. "Cho Gonou."
"Cho Gonou." Homura tried the sound on for size. His eyes didn't match. His eyes were wrong. Everything was wrong here, his own body the wrong shape, a hole in his belly that didn't hurt, these three... beings. Whatever they were. Not human, just as he himself... was... not human--
"Gonou," Homura was saying with an odd gentleness, "you're sure that it wasn't someone else? A youkai- a young-looking youkai- long brown hair and yellow eyes, with fetters on his wrists and ankles? It wasn't him?"
There was an odd buzzing in his head. Not exactly a buzz, but noise, that made it hard to hear what the man was saying, or to hear his own voice when he answered.
"No. I did it."
Homura lifted a disbelieving chin.
"You killed the king and all your fellows?"
Zenon gave an incredulous snort. "Why?" Homura asked.
"Because--" he said, the buzzing thing in his head growing louder, more distracting, more frightening, "Because--"
And then he remembered why.
He screamed. Fire burned through his gut, hideous pain tore at his insides, he hit the floor hard screaming with the pain and the horror and the everything wrong everything gone everything everything everything---
--green lights came bounding at him through the dark and the agony, green shapes of some sort, and somehow... the pain in his body ceased so the howling in his head became clearer Kanan dead Kanan *dead*-- Kanan with his knife in her hand Kanan lying on the ground-- and dead, Kanan dead, Kanan...
"That should seal his wound for the moment," the quiet voice was saying.
"For all the good that does, Shien." Zenon's voice was impatient. "He's crazy. What do we do, Homura? We can't take him back to heaven and we'll never get any sense from him here. Let's just finish the job and tell them we killed the lot."
Gonou looked up. The gun was pointing at him.
"Yes," he said. The only thing left. "Kill me. Please."
Zenon yelped. Homura had moved, almost too swiftly to see, thrusting Zenon's gun aside with his sword. He smiled unkindly at the one-eyed man. "Live with the frustration, Zenon. He stays alive. I'm not claiming another's work as my own."
Zenon spat. "So what do we do with it?" he asked, glaring down at him. "You think you'll ever find out what happened-- from *that*?"
"I can try," Homura said, in a calm voice that held horrors. There was no standing still to see what those might be. He tensed his legs to leap up and run, knowing that the man Zenon would shoot him if he did, and fell back at a blow from Homura's fist. He gagged as the wind left him, coughed and choked and drew air into his gasping lungs. The sword's point was just before his eyes. Flame ran along its blade.
"It burns," Homura said. "Your ear. Your eye. Your nose. Your privates. That's how it will be, youkai. You won't die, no matter how much you wish to. Now talk sense. I'm in no mood for dramatics. Who did this?"
He stared at the flaming sword. He could push himself upon its blade once Homura had begun. "I did."
Homura made a noise of disgust and drew the sword back to thrust.
"Homura." The quiet voice, less quiet now, with an edge in it that made Gonou's hair stand on end. "Look at his aura."
"His--?? Oh," Homura said. His face was still with shock.
Zenon swore, an indescribable obscenity. "Tenpou? Marshal Tenpou? A youkai??"
"Impossible," Shien said, too calmly. "He was to pass his sentence as a man. This can't be him."
"But it is." There was a strange note in Homura's voice. "That's his spirit, as you can see. That's him." He was smiling widely, brilliantly. Satisfaction came off him in waves. "Still the same as ever."
"You're crazy," Zenon said. "How? How could he have turned into... *this*?"
"By killing a thousand youkai," Homura said. Shien drew a sharp breath.
"Hnh?" Zenon asked.
"One who kills a thousand youkai becomes youkai himself."
That stirred something inside him- not a memory, the trace of a memory, something he'd known once. Is that what happened? *Could* that have happened? But here he was, in a youkai body. Incredibly, it must be true. The world was mad, then, as mad as these three strangers. At the thought a great wave of exhaustion took him, and he slumped backwards against the wall. What do I do now?
"That's what happened to Hyakugan Maoh and his men," Homura affirmed. "And that's what happened to this Gonou that Tenpou is now." Homura rested his sword- just a sword, now- across his shoulder, and leaned over to smile into his eyes. "Tenpou," he said lovingly. "I never thought you could fall to a place too low for my hate to reach you. But you have. My thanks, Marshal. The memory of this night will stay my stomach for years to come." He straightened up. "Let's go," he said, as he started for the door.
He halted after three steps. The others hadn't moved. They were both still looking at him where he crouched against the wall. Homura didn't turn around. "Have you two some cause for dissatisfaction?" he asked, in a polite tone that made Gonou's skin crawl.
"You can't leave him like that," Zenon said, shoulders hunched, though he was eying Homura's back askance. "He was a good soldier and a good officer. He doesn't deserve this. Kill him now. Let him get back into a decent shape."
"He can live out his natural span in the form he's earned for himself." Homura looked over his shoulder, and his smile was unlovely. "It will ease his karma for the next time."
"His natural span is only a few hours," Shien said neutrally, "once the wards weaken and his wound begins to bleed again."
Good, Gonou thought, as Homura said, "Then let him spend them crawling to his death in that stinking body. I won't dirty *my* karma by getting involved."
"God damn it, Homura--" Zenon began, but Shien put a restraining hand on his arm.
"You said he was beneath your hatred now," he remarked. Homura swung completely about.
"I did." An unchancy smile that dared Shien to say more.
"And your pity?"
"Were you ever able to pity the Marshal when he was alive? Even at the end? Will you ever have a chance to pity him again, when he's reborn?"
"What of it?" Homura asked, eyes fixed on Shien.
"You're more generous than I, Homura, if you can keep from helping him now when he's too weak to refuse you. I could not do as much for one who never had any need of me- who never so much as noted my existence. I would make him feel my pity to the full. I think I may do it anyway, even without your leave."
"Indeed." Homura cocked his head to one side. "I never knew that about you."
"One can hardly complain of another's self-sufficiency."
"Annh," Homura nodded. He too turned to look at Gonou. "It's tempting. But still I'll have no hand in killing him. Fate and karma decide how he'll die, and I won't be the tool of either one of those."
"Since he will die in any case," Shien said, "let him die as a man. Give him back his human form. A last kindness. It will do you good to hear thanks from the mouth of Konzen's friend."
Gonou's head came up, sudden hope beginning. "You can do that?"
They started slightly, as if they'd forgotten he could talk.
"It's possible--" Homura began.
"Do it. I beg you. Free me from-- from this." With difficulty he raised a leaden hand to show the bestial claws.
"It's something the youkai do to themselves. *You* could never manage it. Do you even know how to focus your spirit, let alone concentrate it into an object to bind your power?"
All he could do was stare.
"Of course not." He peered closer at Gonou. "You haven't spirit enough left in you to make an object from in the first place. We'd have to use someone else's and then shape it to your soul. Not the easiest magic in the world." Homura turned to Shien with a smile that boded no good. "You know what that means. Can you do it? Does your resentment stretch so far?"
"Alone, perhaps not. With help--" He looked towards the man Zenon. "With you two helping me, yes." Zenon turned his head sharply away, shoulders hunched.
"You ask Zenon to help you in that?" Homura was smiling broadly in some obscure delight.
Gonou grappled his will and forced his weakened body to move. He managed to sit up and put both hands on the floor. "Please," he said. "Whatever needs to be done, I'll do it. Let me die as myself. I beg you." He bent his forehead towards the ground.
"Don't *do* that!!" Zenon snarled. "It's disgusting. Alright. Alright, Homura. I'll do it."
"Zenon." Homura was laughing.
"That might be me some day," Zenon said. There was an odd little silence, broken at last by Homura's deep 'Annh.'
"Very well." Homura looked down at Gonou. "Get him up and against the wall." Shien and Zenon pulled him to his feet, a dead weight, and turned him to face the mirror. Gonou leaned against it, braced on his forearms, willing his legs not to give way. Then Shien's hands were in front of him, undoing his belt. He started.
"You need our spirit," Homura said. "This is the fastest way of giving it to you. Do not complain of this, Tenpou. You wanted it." Gonou's mind could not take in what he meant. Only when Homura grasped his naked hips in his strong hands did he begin to suspect, and then it was too late. The first thrust into him made him cry out before he could stop himself. After that he closed his throat and refused to make another sound. It was horror beyond horror and humiliation such as he had never imagined. But right before his eyes, half an inch away, was the dark face of a youkai, its eyes huge in pain and its jaw clamped shut. When that was gone- if that was gone- he could let the horror tear him apart and go screaming to his longed-for death.
Homura took a long time about it. Gonou knew that because Zenon after him was quick and fast and touched him no more than was necessary. By that time Gonou's eyes were closed and he was panting hoarsely, forehead pressed tight against the glass. Shien's cold hands were laid on his buttocks. Shien's quiet voice spoke in his ear.
"Tenpou. Marshal Tenpou. This will be the end of it. Help me as much as you can. Focus yourself. Focus your mind. Think of the body you had, the body you want for yourself. Remember it clearly-" Burning pain where he had been burned before, but he did as he was told. Drew himself somehow out of the world of insult and horror, made a space in it where-- he was with Kanan, holding her hand in his own human hand, holding her soft body with his human arms, lying beside her in the tumbled bed, palm to palm with her hand laid on his, their fingers almost of a length, her nails a little smaller and rounder than his square ridged ones, and he bent his fingers and slid them between hers...
And at that he screamed, and went on screaming, because the memory hurt and Kanan's face hurt and the knowledge hurt that this would never be again. He screamed without noise and fell into darkness, fell to the ground in a broken heap, his hands over his weeping face. His hands were soft. He took them away. They were his own hands. And all he could think was Let me die.
"Satisfied, Shien?" Homura asked with a strange note in his voice. "Do you know what karma you've bought for yourself with this piece of work?"
"Doubtless I will find out in the course of time."
"Not in his lifetime," Zenon snorted. "Homura, this place stinks. Let's get out of here."
"It stinks indeed." Homura turned away. "No need to leave it standing. Destroy it. Let the world witness the wrath of Heaven and tremble," he added sardonically.
"Going to bury him inside?" Zenon asked.
"No. There won't be anything left but the earth it's built on. This castle smells of death and worse than death. Bring down the lightning and burn the stones of it to ash and it'll smell better. In a hundred years. Maybe."
"Came to battle a mighty youkai and didn't get to," Zenon's voice grinned. "Poor toushin."
"We've both been denied our pleasure this evening," Homura said. "I can do this myself if you don't want to help."
"Oh, I'm with you. Shien?"
"I'll take the Marshal outside first. Some clean place where he can die in peace. Will you wait for me?"
"If you're not too long."
"I won't be. Come, Marshal Tenpou." A hand under his shoulder pulling him up, and suddenly the ground vanished from under him. Reappeared again, out in the dark night full of the drum of rain. He was wet through in a second and leaning dizzily on Shien, because otherwise the force of the rain would have driven him to the ground.
"Is this the end?" he asked the blind face. "Will it be over soon? Please..." let it be over soon...
"No. Your body is weak and your soul is in shock, but under that-- your spirit is still the Marshal's. I felt him when I was within you-" the thin lips smiled dryly- "and so did Homura, no doubt. Somehow I don't think Tenpou is ready to give up the fight just yet."
This meant nothing. The rain fell, and the gash in his stomach was beginning to pain him again, remote and obscurely. His life would wash away in the rain and the blood running from him, and he welcomed the thought of that dissolution. But Shien was still talking.
"The wards will last another hour or so. Fate and karma, or you yourself, will decide what happens to you in that time. We may meet again while you are still Gonou. Or we will meet when you are someone else. But since I am a prudent man..." He put his fingertips, fingers that were still cold and dry, to Gonou's forehead, blocking his sight with his hand, and said "Forget. You remember nothing of us. Your name is Cho Gonou, and you slew a thousand youkai, and became youkai yourself. All that keeps you in your human shape and your sane mind are the cuffs on your ear. Do not take them off. Now go."
And then Gonou was stumbling down the path in the dark rain, having forgotten that he had ever had anything to forget.