Kou was waiting for him when he got back, a subdued tension in his body. The purple eyes widened a little at the look on his face.
"What happened? He wouldn't accept my challenge?"
"He never got to hear it. He's dead."
Kougaiji's face flushed in anger.
"Doku, if you're telling me-"
Dokugakuji raised a hand. "Don't look at me. I wouldn't have taken him out just to save you a single combat. He was dead when I got there."
"Then it's his son I have to--"
"They're all dead, Kou."
"Every man jack of them."
"Search me," Dokugakuji said. "Something went through the place like a ransacking army, only they didn't ransack. Just killed the lot and took off. No looting even- gold plate still on the table, jeweled cups, people dead all round them. Place full of bodies and running in blood, and I mean that literally. Ankle deep in some of the rooms. Tell you, I won't be wearing that pair of boots again." He sat himself down in one of the chairs, ignoring protocol.
"God," Kou said, sounding shaken as he took the other one. "No survivors at all?"
"I found one poor
sod, all cut up and crazy with the pain, but I couldn't get any sense out of
him. All he did was go 'youkai- youkai-' and hunch over and howl. I got him
calmed down some, or thought I did, but then, wham, off he runs like a scared
rabbit. Almost caught him again, but I slipped on some blood-" Doku jerked
a thumb at the bruise starting to purple on his cheek- "went down and lost
him. They'd cut his belly open, the slow way, probably the only reason he was
still alive, and I'll bet you any money he's dead now. Which means we'll never
know what happened there
unless the guys that did it start boasting. But..."
"Indeed," Kou said. "But. What army is there strong enough to take out a whole tribe- and a tribe like that?" His nose wrinkled.
"Mh," Doku said. "It has to be revenge. Who'd they hit on in the last few months? Anyone important?"
"Do they ever? Small towns, ordinary people- our women and a few of the humans'. Farmers. Merchants. No-one powerful enough to lift a hand against them. That's why it had to be me."
Doku shrugged and looked away, not going anywhere near the sore point he'd spent the last four days arguing with Kou about. Let it lie. All water under the bridge now.
"I wonder," Kou was saying. "It's not likely, but could it have been the humans? They can be vicious when they're angry. Maybe- if enough of them came together..."
"No way. They'd have to be three to one, easy, to have had half a chance, and there weren't any human bodies there at all. The bodies I did see, they all wore the centipedes' livery. If you wanna believe it, whoever did this didn't suffer any casualties at all."
"Impossible. Even Nataku was hurt when- Oh."
"Yeah, well. I wasn't here for that. But Nataku walked out on his own two feet, I hear. It could have been him again, after all this time."
"Mmh. If it is, he's changed his style. A lot. No challenge, no formal announcement... And anyway, that man definitely said it was youkai."
what he was saying, over and over when I first found
he was out of his mind. Thought he was a human."
"He thought he was a human. He was crazy. Fear, pain, bit of both?"
"Human? What a strange delusion for a man in fear of his life. That he was being pursued, that there were enemies everywhere- But that he was a human-"
"He was off his rocker," Doku shrugged. "Maybe he always was. The castle loony."
Kou rubbed a finger across his lips, pondering. "What did he say exactly?"
"When I finally got him to stop howling about youkai and talk? He said 'I'm a man.' And I said yeah, I know you are, but he kept going 'I'm a man, I'm a man, make it go away-' He was staring at his hands like he was terrified of them, and I thought it was the blood on them from the rip in his belly. So I said yeah, c'mon I'll get you out of here, get a leech to sew you up, and he started in again 'I'm a man I'm not a youkai, I'm not youkai, make me a man again' and then I realized-- Kou?"
"Make me a man again?"
"Yeah." He looked at Kou's shocked eyes. "That mean something?"
"Maybe. I don't know." Kou sat back in his chair, a line between his eyebrows. "Then what?"
"Well, since he was freaking out over his own fingernails, I pulled out my limiters and put them on him, and that seemed to calm him down. And then he just looks at me- and I'll tell you frankly, it shook me, how he looked at me, like- like I wouldn't ever look at anybody, even that dead bastard back there. And then he ran. Wouldn't have thought he'd be that fast, hurt like he was. And that's all."
There was silence. Kou's chin was on his fist, fingers covering his mouth, and he was frowning ferociously.
"It makes no sense," he said at last.
"Tell me about it."
"No. No, I mean- You've never heard? Maybe not. It's fairly arcane. A sorcerer would know of it but-"
"Mh? Ahh. Suman'. It's an old belief, that the human who kills a thousand youkai becomes youkai himself."
Doku digested that for a moment. "That's crazy."
"Humans can't become youkai."
"And anyway, one human alone couldn't--" He fell silent.
"Couldn't take out a thousand ferocious youkai whom the youkai themselves fear. No."
"Kou-- it's not possible."
"No. Can you think of another answer?"
He chewed the inside of his mouth. "No, but I'm not buying that one. I'll believe Nataku came back sooner."
"Heaven's champion comes with no announcement and no authority, and just slaughters every man in the castle."
"Easier than believing a guy- a human guy- did it all by himself. And then turned into a full-fledged youkai."
"You saw him--"
"I saw him. He was youkai all the way. Nothing human about him- or even half-human either."
"How would you know?"
"Just trust me. I know."
"Look, Kou, be reasonable-"
"I'm being reasonable. A youkai who thinks he was once human. A good thousand youkai dead. It could happen, in a special case. A man who could turn into a youkai wouldn't be an ordinary man to start with."
"He looked pretty ordinary to me. A good size when he was normal, but limited, he was just this short skinny guy."
"Who looked at you like he hated your guts."
Doku didn't answer. It'd been more than that, even, but he didn't have the words for it.
"He's dead," he said instead.
"He'd better be. Because if I'm right- do we want something like that loose in the world?"
"Hmnh." That cut in the stomach- the light had been bad, but it must've been deep, given how much blood was on the guy. "If he *was* human... I'm not saying he was, that's crazy, but *if* he was-- he wouldn't know how to shortcut. He'd have to get down the mountain on his own steam, and the nearest village is an hour away. He wouldn't make it, not in that rain. Even an ordinary youkai'd have trouble. He's dead. You can bet on it."
"Good," Kou said neutrally.
"Anyway," Doku said, shoving all this foolishness aside and getting back to facts, "however it happened, that bunch in the east's been taken care of, kit and kaboodle. Better than we could have hoped for, even." He got up and stretched. "A lot of people will be sleeping better at night, for sure." He grinned down at Kou. "I'll let you tell Yaone yourself."
Kou shot him a glance, annoyance mixed with unwilling amusement. "Stop treating me like your little brother," he said, and then, "Doku?"
"Unh- nothing." Doku smoothed his face out. Just a little shock, being reminded so suddenly. Gojou. Wonder where Gojou is now? And shoved that thought away too. That was over and done, another world and another life and another him, and no point thinking about it. He shook himself. "I'm for a bath and some clean clothes. You won't need me for a bit?"
"Any time. Is what I'm here for."
"Mh. By the way, Doku--"
Doku didn't like the sound of that, or the light in Kou's eyes either. "What is it?"
"You really went only to deliver my challenge to Hyakugan Maoh, and that was all?"
Doku cracked his knuckles, playing for time.
"Dokugakuji?" Kou prompted.
"Look, Kou- what does it matter now, what I might have been thinking when I went there? So maybe I had some funny ideas in my head. You know I never liked the idea of you taking him on..." He stopped. Kou was looking bleak.
"If you'd tried for him yourself- even if you'd succeeded- you wouldn't have come back. I would have been very..." Kou stopped. "Annoyed," he finished.
"Yeah, I know. So that's why I don't listen to the funny ideas in my head." He looked at Kou with transparent sincerity, and Kou looked back at him, dark-eyed, clearly uncertain whether to believe him or not. "Cause I wouldn't, you know, want you to be... annoyed." They looked at each other still. "Really," he said.
"Ah, good," Kou said, relaxing a little, and the purple eyes looked away at last. "Enjoy your bath."
"Thanks." He waved and walked out of the room.