"Dead," Kougaiji said.
"Mnh," Dokugakuji affirmed. "All dead."
"All of them?" Yaone asked, trying to keep her voice neutral. "Are there no survivors at all?" though she sensed nothing alive in the great forbidding castle they looked down on from a neighbouring cliff. Death, destruction, and a shock of rage and violence that had reached all the way to Tenjiku. But nothing alive. Not now.
"If there were, we'd have to kill them," Kougaiji said in a voice that left no room for protest.
"Kougaiji-sama..." she said, protesting anyway. Not purely for form's sake. Inside her was an obscure and unhappy mix of feelings that seemed to come down to I don't want to be glad of this.
"Don't worry yourself about it," Dokugaku said kindly. "You know we can't afford what happens when the Centipedes start a blood feud."
She knew that. Every child knew the ferociousness of the Centipede youkai. Clans had been wiped out by the unforgiving fury of that tribe over a minor disagreement between one or two men only. No-one would deliberately go against them unless prepared to be exterminated themselves. But someone, or more likely, something, had done just that.
"But the others," she said. "Whoever they were. What about them?"
"There's that," Kougaiji said, "but the Centipedes come first. There'll be no holding them if the rest of their clan is gone. They'll kill any innocent they find from simple revenge and spite." Kougaiji snapped his fingers. A red serving spirit appeared, youkai bodied but with the beard and quizzical eyes of a dragon. It swooped off at a gesture towards the castle. They saw it make three passes around the towers, a little red streak in the sky, then carefully circle the hill below until it came back to them on the clifftop.
"One," Kougaiji said. "Not a Centipede. One of their victims, maybe." He nodded to the left. "That side, a little below the castle walls." He reached for the earring that opened the doors through space--
And they were standing in the wet dripping woods above a form crouched on the ground. The smell of blood from him was overpowering, both fresh and dried. Hurt, and possibly badly. Kougaiji extended the barrier above them to shelter the prone figure from the pelting rain, as Yaone knelt swiftly by the man's side. She dodged only just in time as he gave an animal-like roar and swiped at her with talons out.
"Take it easy," Dokugaku said, grabbing his arm, and then "HEY---!" as the man attacked him too in his frenzy. Dokugaku blocked the swinging arm and moved swiftly backwards to twist the one he held up behind the man's back. The youkai went on struggling hysterically, seeming not to register the fact that his arm was near breaking point. "Cut it out, we're your friends, you asshole--" It made no difference. The man was insane with fear and pain.
"His stomach's cut open," Yaone said. "We need to immobilize him-- Kougaiji-sa..."
"---rakusha!" Kougaiji's voice finished the spell. He thrust his hand right in front of the man's face, and the body stiffened in paralysis. Dokugaku lowered him to his back so Yaone could make her inspection in the flickering flame of Kou's magelight. She reached into her dimension pocket for pain-killing tinctures and the medicines needed to cleanse the wound, and opened the blood-stained shirt wider to get at the bleeding abdomen.
"Kou..." she heard Dokugakuji's wary voice say as she began her work, and Kougaiji's answering "Mmhh." The skin patterns. None she'd ever seen before, or even heard of. A foreign tribe, could it be? She looked down at the stranger's face. His eyes were pale in the half-light- green maybe, or even that rarest of youkai colours, blue; but just now darkened with pain and fear.
"It's alright," she said to him, smiling. "We're friends. I'm sorry- this will hurt a bit, but afterwards the pain will be easier, and I can clean your wound." The eyes stared at her, animal-like. An animal in torment, past understanding speech, but responding somewhere to the tone of her voice. What horrors had he seen, what tortures had he undergone at the hands of the Centipedes? She thrust the thought from her. It still had power to terrify her. "It's over," she said to him, working carefully to apply the analgesic. A nasty cut- claws had done this, not a clean blade or a knife. "Whatever happened to you, it's over now. They won't hurt you any more." She felt his eyes fixed on her. His hoarse breath was coming easier. Since she'd established this connection to the stranger, tenuous as it was, best that she be the one to question him. "What's your name?" she asked, casually, friendlily, not looking at him.
He took a deep ragged breath. "Gonou," he said, a whisper of sound, as though he had screamed his voice away somewhere. She winced a little, involuntarily. "Cho Gonou."
"*Cho* Gonou?" she echoed, a little puzzled. "That isn't a clan name I'm familiar with." She needed to start cleaning. This would hurt. She went on chatting, to distract and reassure him. "What character do you write it with? The one for mulberry? Or--" what other cho would be suitable? "--the one for cotton?"
"Boar," the voice whispered.
Her hand seemed to stutter. She heard the men's gasps behind her. Automatically she reached to touch his forehead, certain she would find him burning with fever. But his skin was cool. Wet with sweat and the rain from before, but cool. Kougaiji knelt beside her, peering into Gonou's face. Gonou flinched at sight of him and showed the whites of his eyes. Yaone put her hand on his arm to reassure him. "It's all right," she said again. "This is our prince. He won't hurt you." Gonou's eyes went back to Kougaiji's face, the terror only a little abated.
"Friend," Kougaiji said, oddly intense. "Your name is Cho Gonou?"
"Yes," he whispered. The scent of panic rose off his skin. Yaone squeezed his arm again.
"That's a human name," Kougaiji reminded him.
"You're saying you're a human?"
"*Yes.*" A strange insistence there.
"Mad," Dokugaku muttered. "No wonder."
"Mad, maybe," Kougaiji said. "Or maybe not." His face was sombre. "Gonou, tell me the truth, without prevarication. You killed Hyakugan Maoh, yes?" Gonou's eyes were huge, and he nodded his head with the little movement the spell allowed him. Yaone stared. He did? How? Did his madness lend him some abnormal strength? But Kougaiji was continuing, impossibly, "And all his men- it was you that killed them?"
"And you did it alone? No-one aiding you?"
Gonou nodded again.
"Kou, that can't be true," Dokugaku protested.
"Oh, it's true," Kougaiji said. "It has to be true. It's the only way it can have happened."
"Huh?" but Kougaiji was talking to Gonou again.
"Be very careful about your next answer. Did you kill them all? Did you make sure that none were left alive?"
Gonou nodded. "All," he whispered. His face twisted. "Kill me now," he said in his strangled voice. "You can kill me now." He writhed against the restraining spell. Yaone put out an automatic hand to calm him, mind reeling with shock and incredulity.
"No," Kougaiji said. "On the contrary. We are in your debt. I will take you back with me to Tenjiku as my honoured guest, until your wounds are healed-"
"No!!!" Gonou tensed desperately, trying to move, trying to get up. "I won't! I won't go!"
"Be easy." Kougaiji touched a hand to the man's chest. "I won't force you. How bad is his wound?" he asked Yaone.
"I've stopped the bleeding for the moment, but unless it's sutured soon it will start again. I need to close your wound for you," she said to Gonou, "and see that it doesn't infect." Gonou was moving his head back and forth, minisculely, eyes closed in denial. "You'll die otherwise," she insisted. He opened his eyes and looked up at her.
"Let me die," he said. His mouth worked. "Leave me alone and let me die. I don't want--" His voice choked in his throat.
Kougaiji sighed and sat back on his heels, face thoughtful. Dokugakuji hunkered down beside him.
"Look," he said to Gonou, "you've been through shit. You're not thinking straight right now. I been there myself, I know what it's like. You come back with us, get some sleep, get some food in you. I promise it'll look different tomorrow-"
"No," Gonou said.
"We're wasting time," Dokugaku said to Kou. "Let's just take him back."
"We can't," Kougaiji said. "We owe him too much to make him a prisoner, even in kindness. But we owe you too much to let you die either, even if it's what you want." He took gentle hold of Gonou's wrist and bent the arm up so Gonou could see his own hand. "It's this, isn't it? You don't want to live with this?" Gonou's eyes shifted away as if the sight hurt him. "I can give you your old form back- the appearance of it. Real enough that your own senses will believe it."
Gonou drew a deep breath. "You can?"
Kougaiji gestured the bindings from him. Gonou made an effort to sit up, wincing as he moved. Yaone helped him up from behind and let him lie against her chest, supporting his weakened body.
"I can," Kougaiji affirmed. "You could do it yourself when you're stronger, though it's beyond you now. But I need to be at home for it--"
"No," Gonou said.
"I understand," Kougaiji said carefully, "that you must have good reason not to want to be among us. I don't expect your friendship after what you've been through. But we're not all like them. We suffered from them too. I can bring you ease, if you'll bear being a few days in my castle. Will you?"
Gonou looked at him a long moment. "I see," he said in his hoarse whisper. "Thank you. But no."
He will die, Yaone thought. She could feel the will to it inside him, terribly steady, even in his weakness. She looked at Kougaiji and saw that he saw it too. Useless to take him home and tend him. He would simply wait until they let him go and then he would die.
"But if I did it here," Kougaiji asked, "that you could accept?" Gonou's eyes moved away and he nodded.
"Very well," Kougaiji said. There was some thought in his mind. Yaone could see it moving indistinctly, without being able to guess what it was. "We'll do it then."
"It?" Dokugaku said, clearly as confused by this conversation as Yaone had been.
"Make him a limiter. No, a set of limiters." His mouth flattened. "Only a stubborn bastard could do what he did, but limiting the soul-strength of a stubborn bastard is going to be work."
"Kou, maybe I'm missing something. Of all the things we could be doing for him, mind telling me why making fecking limiters comes at the top of the list?"
Kougaiji looked at him in surprise. "He told you. He's a human. He needs his proper body back." Dokugakuji stared. Yaone stared.
"Pardon?" Dokugakuji said.
"The human who kills a thousand youkai becomes youkai," Kougaiji said impatiently. "Everyone knows that."
Dokugaku swallowed hard. "Yeah but- everyone doesn't know it's true. You're serious?" He looked at Gonou. "You were a man? A human man, I mean?"
"Yes," Gonou said. Yaone felt the hairs rising on the nape of her neck. A human who killed a thousand youkai- the human who killed the tribe of Hyakugan Maoh, that had terrorized the world for centuries. A human who could do that.The thought was terrifying. And how odd, that nothing of it was written in his spirit. But at precisely the same time her mind was thinking in professional detachment We have to suppress power like *that*? That will require the highest level of limiter there is. Kougaiji-sama can't do it here- it takes weeks. And there's no other power available in enough quantity that- and suddenly realized that in fact there was. And blushed.
"Uh- Kougaiji-sama," she said. "Um- well, in a word- how? He's so weak--"
"Fortunately some instincts are stronger than the body's strength. That's what we'll have to use."
"Look, Kou," Dokugakuji said. "I know I'm just the strong arm around here, but what's so tough about making a set of limiters for someone? You just think them onto him, don't you?"
"Ordinary ki won't work here. He isn't an ordinary youkai. We have to use something much stronger and more basic, like his yang energy. Your male energy," Kougaiji added to Gonou in explanation. "Call it up, and call it up in enough quantity that it will restrain even a spirit like yours, and then give it a physical form."
Gonou nodded, but Yaone wasn't certain he understood completely. Dokugakuji was saying, "I hope that doesn't mean what I think it means?"
"It does. Your male energy," he said to Gonou, and touched his talon briefly to the fly of Gonou's pants. "This. That's what's required. Will you let me do that to you? Or will you come back with us and give me the time to use your spirit-strength instead?"
Yaone heard Gonou catch his breath where he lay against her chest. Felt the shrinking within him. Coming from Hyakugan Maoh's castle... and what could have brought him there but the abduction and rape of the woman he loved? Her face creased in distress. Kougaiji was acting for the man's good in thus coercing him to be sensible, but Kougaiji was being merciless nonetheless.
"I'll do it," Gonou said. "Here." An odd tone, flat and without inflection, that made Yaone's hair crisp on her neck again.
"And be my enemy ever after," Kougaiji said, not a question.
"And thank you for letting me die as a man."
They stared at each other for a long moment. Kougaiji loosed an exasperated breath, but Yaone could tell he was beaten. "Only one with your resolve could do what you did. I should have expected it." He looked away. "Don't take this amiss, human. I do what's needed to give you what you want, no more, and I intend you only good."
"Yes," Gonou said. "I see you do."
"Yaone, you'll have to leave us," Kougaiji began, but Gonou said at once, "No," and grasped her arm. Kougaiji's startled eyes consulted hers.
"I'm trained," she said calmly. "I can restrain my yin energy so it doesn't interfere."
"As you will," Kougaiji said, leaving it at that, for which she was grateful. I'm a professional. A healer and a herbalist. Healing leaves no room for inconvenient modesty. Certainly not if Gonou himself wanted her to stay.
"Is it really alright?" she asked him in a low voice.
"Yes," he said. "Don't go." Something moved in his voice. She thought it was fear, and then wasn't certain.
"How is the pain?" Kougaiji asked. "Do you want more drugs?"
"It's alright," Gonou whispered. "No thank you."
"Mh. Good. The more aware you are, the better. And one thing more. The yang energy must stay in your body if I'm to use its power. Try to keep yourself from the final release. I don't expect it will be hard for one as determined as yourself," he said matter-of-factly, "but these things are always chancy. Tell me if it feels about to get beyond your control."
"Very well. With your leave-" He began unfastening Gonou's belt. Gonou drew a sharp breath and then consciously relaxed in her arms. Yaone recollected herself and closed her eyes. Thought of her father in his stillroom, showing her the various dried herbs, making her memorize their properties. I am my father. I am a healer and a herbalist. I am the trained eye and the trained hand and the careful mind and the certain spirit. Whatever was bright and positive in her she drew to the top of her consciousness: felt herself becoming settled and detached and steady. She opened her eyes again. Gonou's breathing was going rapid and a little jerky. She flicked a glance to where Kougaiji was crouched by the man's thighs, long hands weaving in circular motions up and about his organ. Half-erect only. Pain or the damage to his spirit, one or the other dampening his body's reflexes.
"Mhh," Kougaiji said at last, dissatisfied, and started to lower his head.
"Hey, do you mind?" Dokugaku said, in a that's-my-job tone. Kougaiji shifted obediently out of the way and let Dokugaku take his place. Yaone registered satisfaction. She'd always wondered what the men did on the nights when Kougaiji asked for bed-service from Dokugaku, and always felt a small chagrin that Dokugaku could guess pretty accurately what she and Kougaiji did on the nights when he asked bed-service from her. So now she knew. Though of course this didn't answer the question Do they--
Gonou gasped aloud. She mentally clucked her tongue at herself. To business. Gonou's face was twisted. This might be sex, but was clearly far from pleasure for him. She held him harder, and he turned his face and buried it against her breast. His breath was hot on her skin and his face wet with sweat or tears. Something contracted inside her, suddenly and unexpected. A kind of enormous pity. He had freed them all from a chronic curse, so old and settled no-one had seen a way of ever being rid of it. Had freed her personally from a recurring nightmare- the thing that might have happened to her, the thing that was happening *right now this very minute* to some other woman. He had done the impossible and paid for it with everything he had. The woman he must have loved, his humanity, his life. It was clear now that only someone prepared to lose all could have prevailed in the end against that demon tribe. And did he even know that he would lose everything when he first set out to get her back from them?
She reached her arm about him and held him close, breathing into the matted dark hair that smelled of blood. She looked at the elegant line of his ear, at the one eye squeezed tight. The rest of him was pressed tightly against her skin, against her breast, and she was aware all of a sudden of a stirring in her own body, very far down-- She thought in dismay No, I can't, I mustn't-- concentrated on her breathing, pulled her mind away from her body and its female response, strove for an image of yang energy to focus on--
Gonou moved in her arms, lifted his head from between her breasts and looked up at her. The sexual energy of him caught at her, the pain and blood and arousal. Called to her, pulled a response out of her as she fought desperately to keep it down. Vaguely she heard Dokugaku's satisfied 'Anh!' and Kougaiji's low chanting voice while her eyes stared into Gonou's huge ones through the darkness. It's working, he has the energy now, he just needs to hold it long enough to catch and form it and the other half of her mind, the most immediate one, thought Kiss him, put your mouth on his, put your body to his--
She mustn't and she knew she mustn't, but she'd forgotten why. She clung to the sound of Kougaiji's voice instead. Made herself hear the words of the spell, ancient and intricate, forming a pattern that followed other lines than the ones she was most used to. A different way of thinking, one with its own logic, straight lines and sharp turns, not the twisty bending mazes coiled round and round about themselves that were in her own blood. Her mind detached from her body and she knew a moment's relief, that she hadn't contaminated the spell or ruined it completely. Gonou's eyes had closed, his mouth was opening, she could feel his body beginning to stretch out as she held him. Then in an instant it was all changed. Gonou's eyes flew open in bewilderment and he went loose in her arms, even as Kougaiji's triumphant voice spoke the last words of the spell.
Gonou heaved a great sigh and looked dumbly over at Kougaiji, who held something invisible in the palm of his hand.
"Here," Dokugakuji said. Gonou's weight shifted in Yaone's arms as Dokugaku lifted his lower body and got his pants back up to his waist. Kougaiji came and knelt by them. Carefully he pressed the small pieces of silvery metal about Gonou's ear. One, two, on the upper edge. The third just above the lobe. The body in Yaone's arms moved indescribably, and she was holding a man. A human man, smaller than the youkai had been, with the naked and child-like look all human faces have. Gonou raised his hand and looked at it without expression. The three of them looked at Cho Gonou in his true form and said nothing.
At last Gonou looked up at Kougaiji. "Thank you," he said. He moved to sit up. "I must be going--"
"There's nowhere to go, here," Kougaiji said. "Yaone, give him something that will kill the pain for another hour or so."
"Thank you, I don't--"
"Listen, Gonou-kun," Dokugaku said, putting a heavy hand on the top of Gonou's head. "You owe us. So shut up and do what our Prince tells you to, just for once. OK?" He gave Gonou his best 'don't argue with your older brother' smile, and Gonou blinked in surprise. Yaone took advantage of this to put the vial in his hand.
"Just swallow," she said cheerfully, and rather to her own surprise, Gonou did.
"Now," Kougaiji said. "We will take you out of these mountains down to a village of men--"
"No!" Gonou said at once. "I have to go back--" He turned his face to where the castle was and started scrabbling to his feet.
"Tchah!" Kougaiji exclaimed, finally out of patience. His hand went to his earring as he caught their eyes. Yaone took hold of Gonou's arm and saw that Dokugaku had him on the other side, just as Kougaiji turned his earring and took them all away--
--to a quiet stretch of land under trees, where lights from a village shone at a distance through the trunks. The fierce mountain rain was only a heavy shower here.
"No," Gonou moaned, falling to his knees in the grass. "I have to go back for her- she's in the castle, take me back, please, I beg you--"
"There's no-one left alive in Hyakugan Maoh's castle," Kougaiji told him.
"I know," Gonou whispered. "I have to go back for her." He looked up at Kougaiji, pleading.
"Then find one of your kind to sew you back together so you can do it," Kougaiji said. No softness or kindness there. Yaone opened her mouth in protest, but Dokugaku touched her arm, shaking his head minutely. She bit her lip and looked at Gonou, who was pulling himself slowly to his feet. The cut in his abdomen had begun to bleed a little from the movement. He gave Kougaiji a look, like the bottom of a well, cold and still, and Yaone shivered.
"You have my thanks still," Gonou said, and at that simply turned and began stumbling off in the direction of the lights. He was ten paces away when the red power rings from Kougaiji's upraised hand caught him and circled him in their net. He stood for a moment, swaying a little, as they vibrated about his head. Then they vanished and he was walking again, but differently. They watched him out of sight.
"A spell of forgetting?" Yaone asked at last.
"Good idea," Dokugaku nodded.
"Was that... really necessary?" she asked, a little sadly. "He'll be dead soon." I'd have liked him to remember us.
"I wouldn't bet on it," Dokugaku said. "He's got something to live for now." He cocked his head at the silent Kougaiji. "I just hope it was a good idea, giving it to him."
"We're in his debt," Kougaiji said without expression. "I told him I wouldn't let him die, and I keep my word."
"Mhh," Dokugaku agreed. They waited.
"I hope it was a good idea too," Kougaiji said at last. He turned. "Let's go home."