Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1439
Disclaimer: This fanfic is based on characters and events from Fushigi Yuugi copyright ©Yuu Watase, Shogakukan, Inc., TV Tokyo, et al. 1995. I have no wish to make profit of any kind off of this piece; it is for reading enjoyment only.

Chichiri craned his neck to look up at the imposing temple before them. It loomed out of the drape of darkness the setting of the sun behind the mountains had lowered on the entire valley. Low, cut-stone steps worn down by ages of use rose up to meet the main entrance from the open, brick-paved courtyard in which he and the other seishi stood. Flanking the massive bronze-trimmed wooden doors stood thick, stone columns sporting the same riotous hues that dominated the rest of the city. Two small torches burned in metal sconces to either side of the entrance, but their glow lit barely more than a few paces in any direction. The building itself soared upward. Its vast, white façade was marred by successions of red-painted, open-work lattice windows and their equally ornate awnings. Diffuse illumination lit each window from within, yet no light from any of them reached any lower than the third story of the building. The waxing crescent moon did little to dispel the shadows rapidly settling into the nooks and corners. Chichiri squinted up through the fading twilight, but he couldn't make out the central tower's spire from where he stood. His smile flattened to a grim line.

“This is where Miaka is?” Chiriko hazarded. A sinisterness lurked in the depths of the darkness and he swallowed. Tucking his hands into the sleeves of his teal coat, he fidgeted with one hem. He took an unconscious step closer to Mitsukake.

Chichiri nodded. When he'd attempted to zero in on Miaka's location at the lover's tower farther down the mountain, he'd only gotten a vague impression of her life force coming from somewhere in the temple's main building. He should have been able to pinpoint the priestess' whereabouts. “I sense Seiryuu life forces, no da,” he said, his brows knitting. The hard-edged malevolence of the dragon-god's power permeated the entire mountainside, and whispering just beneath it was the same unsettling energy he'd experienced on the way back from the market. His jaw tightened. He hadn't been able to sense any of the Seiryuu Seven since they'd escaped from the desert illusion, yet the aura radiating from the complex was so strong there was no way he could have missed it. Could that insidious power be why he couldn't find the Seiryuu presence or clearly feel Miaka's chi now? The flicker of another life force, even fainter than that of the priestess, caught his attention. Cocking his head, his bangs bobbed. “There's someone else, no da. Someone unfamiliar, na no da.”

Next to Tamahome, Tokaki grimaced. “That's Tatara, one of the Byakko Seven, like us.” Turning to Subaru who stood just behind him, the two exchanged a harried look. He returned his glare to the imposing temple. “They're trying to take the Shinzahou away from us by force!”

A bloodthirsty grin split Tasuki's face. His golden eyes and pearly fangs glinted in dusk's last light. Revenge was finally within his grasp. Nuriko's killers were inside the building before him and they wouldn't get away this time. “Meanin' we c'n get th' Shinzahou an' kick some serious fuckin' Seiryuu ass.” He flexed his right hand; his fingers itched to feel the decisive weight of his tessen in his hand. “I can't wait.” A growl of vicious excitement issued from deep within his chest. “Lemme at 'em.”

Chichiri glanced over his shoulder at the redhead just a pace behind him, a furrow digging itself between his brows. He'd heard that same tone in Tasuki's voice before and, just as before, he didn't like it one bit. Chichiri frowned as the younger man flicked his gaze to him. Neither seishi spoke, but it felt to the monk as if Tasuki were daring him to intervene as he had outside the ruined monastery. They stared at each other for a long moment until Chichiri finally turned his focus back to the temple entrance.

“Tasuki, you seem happy about all this,” Chiriko said, looking up at Tasuki with a frown of his own. He fidgeted even harder with his sleeve hem. The look he'd seen pass between the redhead and the monk worried him. The feel of a large hand lighting on his shoulder broke him out of his musing. Chiriko glanced up to see Mitsukake looking down at him. The big healer's face radiated a staunch determination, and Chiriko felt just a bit of his apprehension fade. Giving Mitsukake a nod, he turned his attention back to the challenge before them.

Setting his shoulders, Tamahome too craned his neck to look up at the higher stories of the temple. “Miaka...” he murmured.

Tokaki humphed. “Even now, after I told you to give up on that girl...” He trailed off with a shake of his white head. The gold hoops in his ears swayed with the motion. He let out an exasperated sigh. “You're just as bullheaded as you always have been, ‘Little Ghost.’”

A collective noise of confusion ran through the Suzaku warriors. Heads cocking, they looked back and forth among themselves before turning one by one to look at Tamahome. The fighter whirled to face the old Byakko seishi, mortification and betrayal dueling in his expression.

Tokaki let out a bark of laughter at his pupil's discomfort and smirked. “What? You all want to hear?” The old man crossed his arms over his chest. His tan-colored eyes sparkled with mischief. “Well, back when I first met him, all the kids used to make fun of him and call him that.” He grinned as a flush crept up Tamahome's neck to his ears. Tokaki tapped the center of his forehead with one gnarled finger. “His mark, that character that appears on his forehead, also means ‘spirit,’ or ‘ghost.’”

Tasuki threw back his head and cackled. “‘Ghost?!’ That's scary!” As Tamahome grabbed the lapels on Tasuki's leather coat, the redhead glanced out of the corner of his eye at Chiriko. He'd seen the young scholar's nervous fidgeting and the naked trepidation in his expression. Tasuki didn't know exactly what they would be up against in the temple, and despite his own desire for bloody retribution, he didn't want Chiriko to worry. He flicked his gaze back to the frothing Tamahome, his face not a forearm's length from his own. Maybe watching him flip his lid would cheer the kid up, Tasuki thought. He shot the fighter a smug smirk. “'Ey, Tamahome. Yer forehead 's glowin'. Is yer ‘ghost’ mad?”

Tokaki shook his head. A scowl swallowed his amusement as he watched Tamahome release the still-laughing Tasuki with a light shove and a dirty look. “And back then, all he ever talked about was money, money, money.” The old man huffed and looked away. “That's one thing that's changed with him.” Subaru placed a gentle hand on his arm.

“It hasn't really changed.” Tamahome turned, an almost wistful smile on his lips. “I mean, I still like money. I just...” He paused a moment to look back up at the temple's shadowy façade before returning his focus to Tokaki. “...found something that's worth more to me. Worth more than money. Worth my life, Master.”

In the soft torch glow just barely reaching them, Tasuki's eyes traced the gentle curve of Chichiri's jaw and the sweep of his neck as it disappeared behind the wrinkled kesa draped over his shoulder.

Subaru squeezed her husband's arm. “Tokaki, do you remember?” she said. The old man looked at her, and she cocked her head. “Almost 90 years ago...” Trailing off, her brows drew together as a wry bent seized her lips.

“Yes, of course.” He looked back at Tamahome and shook his head once more. “He'll have nothing but tears when it's all over.” Letting out a sigh, he uncrossed his arms. “Alright, do what you want.”

Tamahome gave his master a short nod and a small smile. “Okay,” he said, turning back to the imposing temple entrance. “Let's go, you guys.”

Tasuki smirked and strode forward. He patted Tamahome on the shoulder as he passed. “You bet, ‘Little Ghost.’” The fighter whirled on Tasuki, giving him another shove and swiping at him with one hand. Tasuki laughed, trying to sidestep Tamahome's assault, but he didn't quite dodge the smack to the back of the head in time. “Ow.” Rubbing at the back of his head, he shot Tamahome a dirty look as he watched him head for the entryway.

Chichiri sighed. They had little time as it was, and even less for the two younger seishis' antics. Still, their argument had managed to dispel the minacious aura that made them all hesitate–if only for a moment–to enter. His gaze found its way once more to Tasuki. He and Tamahome elbowed at each other as they worked to pull open one of the massive doors.

“Chichiri?” Mitsukake looked back over his shoulder at him, his head cocked.

Despite himself and the situation they found themselves walking into, the hint of a smile flitted across the monk's true face. He shook his head and started after the big healer. “I'm right behind you, no da.”

- o - o - o -

The shrill of metal on metal grated in the stillness as the hinges of the heavy, bronzed door protested the group's intrusion. Fanning out a few paces in every direction, the celestial warriors gazed around the vast entry hall. Elaborate, vibrantly colored frescoes depicting fantastic scenes of bodhisattvas communing with depictions of Byakko–in both his tiger and human forms–in the holy kingdom of Shambhala covered many of the plaster-coated stone walls. Magnificent tapestries woven of vivid silk thread hung from still other walls, their subjects varied and wondrous: intricate mandalas representing the cosmic wheel of time, scenes of the Jade Emperor and his court reveling in the heavenly realm, even maps of the twenty-eight lunar mansions with each constellation picked out in delicate silver filament. Geometric patterns in hues similar to those used in the paintings and tapestries adorned every wooden surface, be it a piece of finely carved furniture or sturdy beam or railing. Gleaming highlights danced across innumerable gilded accents as candlelight flickered from myriad worked bronze sconces illuminating the hall.

Almost forgotten as the Shichiseishi gaped at the splendor, the door swung shut behind them with a cavernous boom that echoed through the temple. Tasuki sneered, his fangs glinting at the corners of his mouth. If the Seiryuu hadn't known they were on the monastery grounds before, they did now. At his side, he flexed his hand again and again. He ached to put his tessen to work. He scanned the myriad doorways leading from the entry hall in which the group stood. Nothing moved. As the reverberations faded away into a deafening silence, his expression of bloody anticipation sank into an irritated scowl. Where were the Seiryuu forces they expected to meet?

Next to Tasuki, Chichiri's mask sported an equally grim look. The cold, sharp tang of the dragon-god's energy felt even stronger inside the monastery's walls, as did the malevolent chi underpinning it. Yet, he couldn't sense the life force of any of the monastery's monks. With a complex so large, and a sangha that must number in the hundreds at the very least, there should be some hint of their presence. He turned his attention to a series of carved niches clustered at the far end of the room. A tall bronze statue of a dharmapala inhabited each one, poised to strike with its snarling face and multiple arms wielding all manner of weapons. Khatas of both white and gold, as well as fresh wreaths of flowers, hung from each statue's neck. At their feet, censers smoldered. The hint of incense, spicy and sweet, suffused the air, mingling with the subtle ashiness of soot from the dozens of burning candles. These offerings are recent; someone had to have put them there within the last day. But... His jaw tightened and a worry settled between his brows. Where are they?

Tokaki's head swiveled back and forth for a long time before he finally spoke. “What's going on here?” He sought out Subaru's eyes. The scowl that had dominated his face since before they had entered the monastery had only deepened as he addressed the Suzaku warriors. “There should be thousands of monks here. They play the ritual prayer music every morning and evening.” As he spoke, his voice took on an ever more agitated edge. “Monster attacks closed the temple to visitors, yes, but the new lama and a contingent of monks from this temple came to the Shrine of Byakko in the city to read the sutras during the Chokhor Duchen festival not a fortnight ago. Pilgrims traveled from all over Sairou to attend. The royal family participated in the ceremonies.” The old man shook his head, the hoop earrings he wore bouncing against the sides of his neck. “This makes no sense.”

“It could be a trap,” Mitsukake offered. Chiriko looked up at him, a glimmer of anxiety in his eyes. The big healer kicked himself for worrying the boy even more than when they entered the temple. Mitsukake gave Chiriko as reassuring a nod as he could manage, though it didn't seem to have much of an effect. Chiriko's brows drew even closer together as the concern that sat there spread to the rest of his expression.

Tasuki crossed his arms over his chest. His lips quirked, allowing one pearly fang to poke out at the corner of his lips. “Don' ferget th' Seiryuu are in 'ere somewhere too.”

Tamahome took a deep breath and stepped forward. The hard soles of his boots clicked across the ancient stone tiles. Determination plain on his face, he turned to the group. “It may well be a trap, but we have to do something. Miaka is in danger and we have to find her. Chichiri?” Tamahome looked to the monk. “You said you could feel Miaka's energy coming from this temple. Can you tell where she is?”

Chichiri shook his head. His bangs bobbed with the movement. “Something is interfering with my powers, no da. There's so much negative chi here I can't get a sense of her location, no da.” A small sigh escaped him. “I can only feel that she's in this building, na no da.”

Tokaki's scowl took on a menacing quality and he drew both hands into fists at his sides. “Tatara and the Byakko Shinzahou are our biggest priorities. If the Seiryuu forces harm him to get that Shinzahou, Suzano will never forgive us.” Subaru placed a gentle hand on her husband's arm. He glanced down at her. A fraught look passed between the two. His expression never changed, but after a moment his hands slowly unclenched.

Letting out a frustrated grunt, Tamahome frowned. “Alright,” he said, putting both hand on his hips. “We're going to have to split up. This place is huge and we'll never find Miaka if we don't.”

Tasuki caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned toward it. From one of the heretofore empty doorways, a lone figure emerged. The man, head shaven and dressed in a simple robe and kesa, made no move toward the seishi. He merely stood, staring unblinking at the group. The look sent a shiver down Tasuki's spine. “'Ey, guys...”

“What is it, Tasuki?” Chiriko looked over at the older warrior. Following Tasuki's line of sight, he cocked his head. “Is that man a monk?”

“Great,” Tamahome said, turning to look at the reticent figure himself. “Now we can get some answers around here.” With renewed purpose, he strode off across the entry hall toward where the monk stood.

“Wait, Tamahome!” Tokaki made a grab for the fighter's arm but missed by a mere hair's breadth.

“Excuse me!” Tamahome called, ignoring the old man completely. The staccato click of his boot heels echoed off the candlelit walls.

Tokaki let out a growl of frustration. “That idiot.” With a shake of his head, he marched after the younger seishi. Subaru followed closely behind, the hem of her violet dress fluttering with each step.

Even before Tamahome reached the monk, he began his inquiry. “Have you seen a girl come through here? About this tall?” He brought his hand up to the height of his shoulder for emphasis. “Dressed in foreign clothing?”

The holy man's gaze stayed fixed on the approaching Suzaku warrior, but he neither spoke nor moved.

Tokaki finally caught up with his headstrong pupil as both men came to a stop a few paces from the monk. The old man made a slight bow. “Please forgive him, Your Holiness. He's not from Sairou.” Straightening, he smacked Tamahome upside the head with a quick flick of his wrist. “Don't be rude, you fool boy,” he hissed. The fighter shot him a withering look and rubbed at the spot. Ignoring the glare, Tokaki addressed the monk once more. “Your Holiness, Tatara of the Byakko Seven was brought here from the Byakko Shrine along with the Shinzahou as well. Have you seen either of them?”

The monk made no move to reply, continuing to stare straight ahead with glassy, unfocused eyes. It was almost as if he hadn't noticed either celestial warrior at all. Tamahome raised an eyebrow. “Your Holiness? Are you alright?”

The sound of shuffling feet and rustling fabric drew Mitsukake's attention. He glanced across the entry hall from where Tamahome, Tokaki, and Subaru stood. Both of his eyebrows rose. He tapped on Chiriko's small shoulder. “This could be trouble,” he said, his baritone voice not quite a whisper. As if he felt his master's concern, Tama-neko poked his head out of the confines of Mitsukake's borrowed coat and took in the tense scene. Flattening his ears against his head, the little cat wiggled backward as far into the lavender-colored silk as he could, all but disappearing from sight.

The scholar looked up at the big man, a frown on his lips. He watched Mitsukake jerk his chin toward the opposite side of the room and, raising a quizzical eyebrow, followed the healer's indication. A small gasp escaped his lips. He grabbed at the hem of his teal silk sleeve and began fidgeting with it.

From each darkened doorway arrayed along either side of the entry hall, monks dressed in similar robes and kesas to the first man filed out. Row upon row of them entered the room, the newest arrivals pressing those already assembled forward in a slow-moving tide of maroon. The yellowy candlelight from the wall sconces bobbed and bounced in the stir, illuminating their sallow, waxy faces and bald heads with constantly shifting shadows and highlights. Not one man uttered a word.

Tasuki leaned close to Chichiri. Cupping his hand to his mouth, he kept a wary eye on the still-growing horde. “Okay, that's just fuckin' weird,” he said, his voice a low rumble.

Chichiri's scowl took on a tinge of muted alarm. He glanced sidelong at Tasuki, catching the redhead's eye before returning his focus to the monks. “Something feels wrong here, no da.” He swept his gaze around the room. Where there should be a constant warm glow of chi roiling off the dozens of holy men now populating the room, there was only a low pulse of a slithery cold. The feeling was different from the hardness of Seiryuu's energy, though it had the same sinister quality. It reminded him of the ancient malignance that had probed his barriers that afternoon. It set the hairs at the nape of his neck on end.

An eerie silence fell over the hall as the flood of monks finally came to a stop and the shuffling and rustling died away. Tamahome glanced around with a wary eye. Monks, fully a hundred or more of them, crowded the center of the entry hall, driving a wedge between the two groups of seishi. Nothing moved. Even the unconscious sounds made by a throng of people standing together were absent: not a muffled cough, not a whisper of conversation, not even the quiet susurration of breath. He met Tokaki's and Subaru's eyes. Their leery expressions mirrored his own.

Tokaki cleared his throat. He took a small step toward the holy man. “Your Holiness?”

At Tokaki's approach, the monk's still-vacant eyes rolled in their sockets toward the old celestial warrior. The man's gaze focused on some unseen point just through the center of Tokaki's head. “Alms...” the monk intoned. “Alms...”

Startled, Tokaki took a few hasty steps back. Subaru grabbed at his sleeve and squeezed until the color drained from her knuckles. He glanced down at her, apprehension written plain on his features. He flicked his eyes to Tamahome. “What the–”

“Alms...” A guttural rejoinder erupted from the droves of monks, filling the entire hall with a droning chorus. “Alms...”

Across the room, Chichiri took a few small steps back. His brows furrowed almost to the point of becoming one. “This is bad, no da.” Grabbing his prayer beads, Chichiri launched into a series of complex mudras. Under the edge of his breath, Chichiri began to chant, focusing and reinforcing the rising tide of Suzaku's power within him. He channeled his chi into the simple strand of jade. The strange energies, the similarities to the abandoned monastery: it was all connected. He was sure of it now.

Tasuki flicked his gaze to Chichiri. The waves of raw energy cascading off the older warrior sent a shiver down Tasuki's spine. His jaw tightened and he could feel his pulse begin to speed in his veins. “Uh, d’fine ‘bad.’” The few times he'd witnessed Chichiri's powers–in Kutou, just as Nakago prepared to slaughter Miaka, Chichiri, and himself, and again in Eiyou during Miaka's attempted drowning–the situation had always been a matter of life and death. Swallowing the lump of fear that had begun to form in the back of his throat, the redhead turned his attention back to the chanting monks. Following Chichiri's lead, Tasuki took a step back himself. “Like ‘this 's some bad shit’ bad,” he reached for the handle of his tessen, “'r like ‘we're all fucked’ bad?”

The expression on Chichiri's mask hardened. His deft fingers flowed through the ritual gestures even as he addressed the redhead. “These things are not monks, no da. There may be a few monks left, but most of them have been either possessed or replaced by demons, na no da.”

Tasuki jerked his head toward Chichiri. His mouth opened and closed before he managed to find his voice. He turned back to the crush of bodies between him and Tamahome's group. “Fuck.”

Despite his own misgivings and unaware of Chichiri's warning, Tamahome took a deep breath and shook his head. “I have to find her, Master,” he said, shooting Tokaki an apologetic look. The fighter edged a few steps closer to the monk. “Your Holiness?” Swallowing hard, Tamahome reached out a tentative hand toward the man's shoulder. “I need to know if you've seen a girl–”

The rest of Tamahome's sentence died on his lips as the holy man's head snapped to the side and he spasmed as if struck by lightning. “Alms,” he croaked out before an ear-splitting whine replaced the intonation.

“Tamahome!” Chichiri shouted, dropping the silly affectation. “Get away from it! It's a demon!” With a resounding “Da!” he let loose a blast of blinding crimson.

Tokaki grabbed Tamahome's shoulder in a vise-like grip and hauled him back and away from the thrashing monk. The old seishi growled. “So this is why monsters have been appearing around the temple.”

Chaos engulfed the hall as Chichiri's spell radiated through the ranks of demon monks. Shrieks reverberated off painted walls, gilded beams, and bronze statuary. Figures writhed and snarled, growling and groaning in rage and pain. Suzaku's radiance tore away the demons' guises, peeling contorted faces from skulls like rinds from oranges. Beneath, hideous alien visages leered with bulbous, reptilian eyes. The reek of decay swirled through the teeming hall.

“Okay,” Tasuki barked, pulling his tessen in one smooth arc, “time t' go now.” Putting himself between Chichiri, Chiriko, and Mitsukake and the howling masses, he grimaced. His fangs glinted in the candlelight. Raising the diamond fan before him like a shield, he herded the trio toward an unguarded doorway in the far corner of the room.

“But, Tasuki...” Chiriko's head swiveled from Tasuki, to the group's destination, then to Tamahome, Tokaki, and Subaru. Brows drawn, he abandoned his nervous fidgeting to crush his sleeve hem in his fist. “We shouldn't allow ourselves to get separated–”

Tasuki growled, cutting the scholar off. “I know, Chiriko, but we ain't gotta lotta options right now.”

On the other side of the entry hall, Tokaki, Subaru, and Tamahome began their own withdrawal. “Go, go!” the old man hissed, pushing his wife toward a forgotten doorway tucked between two rampant statues of Byakko all the while dragging the young fighter by the arm. Keeping an eye on the demons, Tokaki paused for a mere moment at the threshold as Subaru and Tamahome disappeared through the portal. He turned back toward the fleeing Suzaku. “We'll catch up to you,” he shouted before he too was gone.

Tasuki jerked his head in a nod. Sheathing his weapon, he spun on his heel and waved Chiriko and Mitsukake through the door. “Yah heard 'im, get goin'!” As the scholar and healer stepped through, he stopped in mid-stride. Wait... The pit of his stomach dropped. Where's Chiri? He was certain Chichiri had been behind him but the monk hadn't left with the other two. “Fuck,” he breathed. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of that tell-tale cerulean hair between two dharmapala statues wreathed in bronze flame. Chichiri's lips moved in an unvoiced mantra. Relief and fear warred in Tasuki's chest. Taking one last glance at the roiling crush, he charged toward the man, grabbing the crook of Chichiri's arm before hauling him bodily toward their escape. “C'mon, we gotta go!”

“Tasuki, wait no da,” Chichiri yelped. His concentration broken, the confusion his spell had wrought cleared and the monsters began to regain their purpose. Half of the shambling horde broke away to follow Tokaki's group, howling for blood. As Chichiri stumbled along in the redhead's wake, he watched the remaining demon monks swing their misshapen heads in their direction. The two of them slipped into the darkness beyond the doorway just as the baying began anew.

- o - o - o -

“Alms...”

Tasuki grimaced as the monster shambled past. Putrid saliva dripped steadily from its fanged maw onto the robe and kesa cloaking its hideous, scaly-skinned body. Tasuki forced down a desire to gag as the fetor of spoiled eggs and rotting flesh followed in the thing's wake. “Alms...” it intoned with each scraping step, its voice a hissing-groaning-growling that hurt his ears to hear. Each of its three bloodshot eyes traveled an inhuman circuit around its bulging sockets.

Behind him, Tasuki could hear the soft scuff of Mitsukake's shoes as the healer flattened himself further against the wall. At his side, Chiriko's small hands silently twisted tighter into the leather of his coat. And just over Tasuki's shoulder, warm gusts washed over his ear as Chichiri chanted just under the edge of his breath. Tasuki drew back into the darkness shrouding the doorway until he could barely see around the door jamb and closed his eyes.

From the moment they'd entered the monastery doors, the tide of demon monks had hounded their every step. He'd burned countless swaths of them with his holy flame, but it made little difference; seemingly hundreds more appeared for every one that fell. Letting out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, Tasuki frowned. He had no clue where in this sprawling labyrinth they were even going anymore. The hordes had managed to cut the four of them off from Tamahome, Tokaki, and Subaru, forcing each group in opposite directions. As they fought and ultimately fled from room to room and floor to floor, there was no sign of Miaka, or the Shinzahous, or even the Seiryuu. Only Chichiri's vague feeling their quarry lay on still higher levels of the monastery gave them any clues at all.

Opening his eyes, Tasuki returned his attention to the corridor. Leaning out just a hair's breadth, he scanned the deathly silent passage. A low sigh of relief dropped from his lips as he let his aching shoulders relax. The monster had disappeared.

“It's gone,” he rumbled, stepping back from the doorway and melting into the gloom hiding the other three seishi. As Mitsukake's big silhouette detached from the wall less than an arm's length away, Tasuki slumped against the cool stone. “Too fuckin' close t' those deadheads in Choukou fer my tastes.” A deep exhalation from the healer punctuated the statement. Tasuki shot a glance in Mitsukake's direction and frowned.

Chiriko released his grip on Tasuki's coat. “Chichiri?” In the dimness, he cocked his head in the direction in which he last saw the monk. “Have you been able to locate Miaka?”

A frustrated sigh met the scholar's question. Chichiri shook his head, bangs bobbing as he did so. “There's such a strong aura of malignance here that I can barely feel her life force, no da.” His brow furrowed unseen. “All I can tell is that she's nearby, likely on this floor, or possibly the next, na no da.”

“Alright then,” Tasuki said, pushing himself off the wall. “She's gotta be around 'ere somewhere.” His tessen clinked in its holster as he adjusted the golden sash across his chest. A faint glint in the dusk revealed one fang peeking out at the corner of his wry lips. “An' let's get th' hell outta here 'fore that thing comes back.” Running a hand through his unruly bangs, Tasuki stepped over the threshold.

Revulsion, thick and caustic, crawled up from the pit of Chichiri's stomach just as the redhead's boot touched the floor. He grabbed for Tasuki's shoulder. “Look ou–”

“Holy fuck!”

A piercing shriek erupted from the twilit doorway. The nightmare visage of the demon monk loomed out of the shadows in front of Tasuki, fetid slaver flying from its gnashing jaws. Acrid and nauseating, the stench of death and brimstone washed over him and roiled into the darkened room. He brought his forearms up to block as distended hands sporting vicious, clawed fingers tore into his coat sleeves. The thing reared back and screamed again, this time an ear-splitting screech that rattled his teeth. From the corner of his eye, he could see Chiriko cower against Mitsukake's side. If he didn't do something, the demon would rip them all apart. Incandescent anger welled up from the deepest pit of his stomach. Tasuki roared, grabbing hold of the monster's robed forearms, and launched his entire weight forward in a bid to prevent the thing's entry into the room. It thrashed and fought his grip like a mad bull. Barely a hand's breadth from his face, knife-like teeth snapped at any part of him they might reach. The hard soles of his boots skidded across the worn stone tile as its hellish strength forced him ever backward. Fangs bared, Tasuki let out a vicious growl. “A li'l help 'ere!”

“Tasuki!” Eyes wide and mouth agape, Chiriko could only watch as the monster began to push its way past the redhead's defense.

“Get back!”

Mitsukake grabbed the boy and hauled him aside as Chichiri surged forward, checking Tasuki's slide back with his body.

The permanently amused look on the monk's face had hardened to a determined frown capped by deeply furrowed brows. Only the fox-eyes of his mask showed any of the item's usual expression. He stretched out one arm, his prayer beads in hand, and thrust them into the monster's torso. “Be gone, demon!” Boundless energy burst from somewhere deep within him, blasting away the darkness with a searing brilliance that made the unholy thing before him writhe. Chichiri's character blazed through the olive linen of his pant leg as Suzaku's radiance coursed through his body and into the jade necklace. Tongues of ethereal, vermilion flame shot from the thing's lidless, unblinking eyes and its gaping mouth. A scream of agony and rancor echoed throughout the temple one last time as the demon vaporized in a shower of sulfurous sparks.

“Ugh!” His chest heaving, Tasuki gasped for breath. He grabbed at the lapel of his coat that sat just above his heart. An involuntary shudder ran down his spine as the anger and adrenaline in his blood ebbed. “I thought my heart was gonna stop there,” he wheezed. Running one hand through his hair, he tangled his fingers tighter in the leather in a vain attempt to stop the thundering. He stared almost unseeing down at the pile of charred robes that smoldered still at his feet.

“Are you alright, Tasuki?”

Chichiri's voice sounded next to Tasuki's ear, shaking him from his musing. Devoid of its usual silly tone, it was soft, softer than Tasuki had heard from the monk in a very long time. Turning toward it, he came face to face with the older man. Illuminated only by the vague half-light coming in through the doorway, Tasuki could barely see him. Yet he was acutely aware of the heat of Chichiri's body against his back and the warm breaths gently ruffling his unruly bangs. The monstrous stench that had pervaded the room fell away and all he could smell was that familiar earthy spice of sandalwood. A thousand butterflies flittered in his stomach as, despite the darkness, Tasuki's gaze flicked to Chichiri's lips before returning to his eyes. It reminded him of that night in the monk's room, the night they'd written the letter.

“Tasuki, no da?” Chichiri's voice came out in a husky whisper instead of the high-pitched silly tone he wanted. His quickening pulse betrayed him yet again as the hint of balsam and leather filled his nose and the warmth of Tasuki's body seeped through the coat between them and into his own. Releasing his hold on the redhead, he took a few steps back. The beads of his necklace clattered softly as he slipped the strand back over his head.

Self-consciousness crept hot up Tasuki's neck and into his cheeks. Even through the gloom, he could feel the expectant stares of the other seishi on him. It made his skin prickle. He cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he said, engrossing himself in examining the gouges in the leather of his sleeves. “I'm fine.”

Rising above the rhythmic huff of anxious breath, a long, shrill howl sounded from somewhere beyond the darkened room. It echoed and re-echoed down the empty corridor until it faded away into an eerie silence.

Chiriko's gaze darted to the half-lit doorway, then to each warrior's silhouette in turn. He fidgeted with the hem of his sleeve. “Did that noise come from this floor?”

Mitsukake leaned around the door jamb and scanned the hallway. Nothing stirred but for the waver and dance of candlelight from ornate bronze sconces lining the carved and painted temple walls. Pulling back into the room, he shook his head.

Chichiri stepped out into the corridor and turned to look back over his shoulder. “We should keep moving, no da. There's no telling when the demons will return, na no da.”

Almost imperceptibly at first, but growing louder with every second, a bass rumble rose from the unnatural stillness left after the last echoes of the howl had dissipated. A tremor ran through the ancient stone, soon becoming a sustained vibration. The light cast from the sconces had ceased to dance and had begun to leap wildly along the walls. Sacred statuary shuddered in their niches while motes of dust dropped from the age-old beams lining the ceiling.

Chiriko grabbed the hem of Mitsukake's coat to steady himself. “Does everyone feel that?”

“What th' fuck's goin' on?” Tasuki walked into the corridor, nearly tripping on his own boots as the floor oscillated beneath him. Bracing himself against the wall, he glanced up and down the passage.

Mitsukake placed a big hand on Chiriko's back and guided the nervous scholar out of the room and into the hallway before moving to follow himself. The ends of his headband juddered against his chest. “Is it an earthquake?”

Tasuki stared into the darkness at the far end of the corridor. The layers of shadow seemed to coalesce and disperse, only to coalesce again as he watched. His brow furrowed. Was the movement a trick of the light? Of his eyes? He shook his head and focused on the shifting gloom once more. A glint from within caught his attention. He squinted even harder, narrowing his eyes to mere slits. Another glint appeared, then another. Just below the incessant din and trembling, a raspy, groaning hiss insinuated itself. It, too, grew in magnitude as the shadows began to roil and writhe. Fuck... A cold lump of dread settled in Tasuki's stomach. “No, worse.”

The curtain of darkness at the end of the corridor drew open and hundreds of slavering demon monks poured forth.

“Alms...”

Wave after wave of the creatures shuffled forward, each nosing at the air with wide nostrils set above their gaping mouths and flexing their clawed fingers. The growling groan of the horde's mindless chant dissolved into a rage-filled shriek as the front line caught sight of the Stars of Suzaku. As one, the flood of demons broke into an ungainly lope, their stained maroon robes like a tide of blood sweeping down the corridor.

Chichiri's eyes widened in horror as perhaps a thousand demons bore down on them, more than they'd encountered even in the temple's entry hall. He shot a frantic glance down the corridor in the opposite direction. The bouncing light from the sconces along the walls was the only movement he could discern for as far as he could see. His brow furrowed. He had no idea where the passage would lead them, but at the moment, they had no options. “This way, no da,” he called. He took a few paces then turned to make sure the others were following. “We can try to lose them in the maze of rooms and corridors, na no da.”

Tasuki took one wobbly step back, then two. The quaking of the floor had found its rhythm and the time-worn stone began to sway as if made of mere sand. Yet, even that wasn't enough to slow the baying mob charging toward them. Shit, shit, shit... “Go,” he commanded, taking a third step. He pulled the gleaming tessen from its holster across his back. “Go! I'll buy us some time!”

Chichiri's lips parted as his stomach attempted to crawl out of his mouth. “Tasuki,” he breathed. At once he was transported to the moonlit gardens of Kutou, watching the redhead fight and bleed to the edge of death to save Miaka. To save him. “Don't do this, no da.” Please...

Mitsukake's gaze flicked for a moment to Chichiri. His brow furrowed, but he gave Tasuki a curt nod. Turning on his heel, he scooped up Chiriko as if he were a mere rag doll. “Sorry about this,” he said and threw the younger seishi over his wide shoulder. Chiriko sputtered helplessly from his perch as Mitsukake hurried past Chichiri and down the hallway, the hem of his lavender-colored coat fluttering in his wake.

Tasuki's lip curled. The words were similar to what Chichiri had said outside that abandoned monastery, and they irritated him just as much now as they had then. His fangs glistened at the corners of his mouth. He wouldn't let the monk fight him this time. “Get th' fuck outta here, Chiri. Now.” His voice was barely more than a vicious growl. “I ain't arguin' with yah.”

Chichiri took a half-step forward. He opened his mouth to speak only to be cut off. “Tas–”

Go! Dammit!” Tasuki roared, shooting a withering glare over his shoulder. His golden eyes flashed beneath his unruly bangs. “Do as I fuckin' say fer once!” He returned his focus to the oncoming horde. “I ain't lettin' anybody else die!”

Chichiri traced the unruly locks of vermilion that trailed over Tasuki's shoulders with his gaze. His brow furrowed and what remained of his perpetual smile flattened to a grim line. He glanced to the approaching wall of demons. Tasuki's gambit was dangerous, and reckless, and utterly like the redhead to propose. Still, it offered them an opportunity that was hard to ignore. Finding the Shinzahous and preventing Seiryuu's summoning had to be their top priority. There was no time left. Damn... Taking a deep breath, he let it out in a long exhale. He dropped the silly tone. “Be careful.” He stared at the redhead's back for a second longer, then turned and sprinted after Mitsukake.

Planting both feet firmly in the center of the corridor, Tasuki took the diamond fan in both hands. He only had to buy a few precious moments. Divine energy channeled through his grasp and into the weapon. He spread the item's ribs just a bit, eliciting dazzling sparks that leapt across its faceted surface. His character flared to life, its glow visible as a faint reddish tinge on the ebon leather of his sleeve. In his chest, his heart pounded out a thunderous tempo. “Alright, yah creepy fucks,” he snarled, his fangs bared. “Eat flames!” Drawing back, he brought the tessen around in a wide arc. “Rekka-shin-en!”

Fire erupted from the fan like a scorching geyser, engulfing the leading edge of the demon flood like so much dry tinder. Dirty robes and disheveled kesas caught with disturbing ease, enveloping each monster in a pyre of its own making. The reek of burning flesh and ichor clawed at Tasuki's nose and throat. In front of him, scores of creatures shrieked and writhed in the purifying flames. Yet, even as the things died by the droves, still more pushed forward and into the burgeoning conflagration, only to be themselves consumed. Sheathing the now-dormant tessen, he grimaced as the carnage soon became self-sustaining, racing through the tightly packed ranks like wildfire.

Ominous pops and creaks drew Tasuki's attention upward. Overhead, flames blistered the painted surfaces and charred the ancient wood of immense beams supporting the corridor's ceiling. “Ah fuck...” Something exploded, raining embers and ash on both him and the rapidly cremating demon horde. Instinctively he shielded his face with his forearms, only to realize a vein of long-solidified resin in one of the rough hewn joists had burst from the heat. His eyes widened. He'd seen enough burning logs in his time to know what that meant. He scanned the massive granite blocks composing the ceiling. If the timbers failed, the entire corridor would collapse. And there was nothing he could do about it except run. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Turning, he tore off down the hallway away from the gorging inferno.

- o - o - o -

“In here, no da,” Chichiri said, motioning Mitsukake and a now-ambulatory Chiriko toward a sconce-flanked doorway. As the two seishi moved past him to enter, he looked back the way they had come. The noise of the screeching horde had long since faded to silence and they had seen no other demons in their retreat. Gnawing worry creased the brow of his mask. Tasuki...

Chichiri could feel the warmth of Tasuki's life force pulsing faintly at the back of his consciousness, but the sensation did little to assuage his concern. Tasuki was alive, but that was all he could tell. As with Miaka and Tamahome and his group, Chichiri couldn't discern the redhead's exact location or if he was in trouble or injured. If Tasuki's plan had failed... In his mind's eye, Chichiri could still see Tasuki standing alone against that snarling multitude, his shoulders set, his knuckles white on the glittering hilt of his tessen. The younger man's words echoed in his head: Go! Dammit! Do as I fuckin' say fer once! I ain't lettin' anybody else die!” Chichiri's jaw tightened.

Chiriko frowned at Chichiri's haunted expression. He, too, shot a glance down the quiet corridor behind them, but said nothing. As he continued on, he noticed Mitsukake pause at the threshold. Curiosity slowed the scholar's pace, but with a shake of his head, he decided to leave the two men to talk and moved deeper into the softly illuminated room.

Heavy bronze sconces flickered along the walls, throwing cascades of light and shadow across the tall, grid-like bookcases dominating the space. Each shelf held clusters of dozens of manuscripts, each bundled in its own colorful silk wrappings. Chiriko stopped and cocked his head. He had never seen books stored in such a way before, though he had read a treatise on the preservation of religious texts in the four kingdoms years earlier that mentioned Sairou's custom of printing sutras on long sheaves of paper from bronze plates. Foundries, sanctioned by the royal family and run by individual monasteries, would painstakingly sculpt molds of each text that were then cast and used to print copies that were distributed across the kingdom. It was a much more efficient way to circulate knowledge than the handwritten works produced in Kounan, he thought. Tucking the idea away for future reference, he continued his examination. Thick wooden columns covered with geometric patterns in the same reds, blues, yellows, and whites as he'd seen elsewhere in the temple fairly bowed under the weight of myriad khatas, all in the same raucous hues. Supported by the massive pillars, each coffer of the painted ceiling sported an elegant bronze chandelier bristling with half-melted tapers.

At the entry, Mitsukake studied Chichiri for a long moment. The monk's entire being thrummed with anxiety as the man held silent vigil in the empty hallway. Mitsukake frowned. He'd heard the desperation in Chichiri's voice when Tasuki volunteered to hold the demons at bay.

Tama-neko cautiously poked his furry head from the safety of Mitsukake's coat. The subtle tensing of his master's body was different from the panicked sprint of only moments before. He glanced up at the two warriors, his watchful gaze scrutinizing the naked anxiety in both men's expressions. The waves of concern rolling off Chichiri in particular made the little cat's ears droop.

Glancing back the way they had come, Mitsukake let out a barely audible sigh. “Tasuki will be fine,” he said as he returned his focus to Chichiri. He placed a gentle hand on the monk's shoulder. “He's too stubborn to die.” Mitsukake watched the ghost of a smile touch Chichiri's lips before vanishing just as quickly as it appeared. He gave the older seishi's shoulder a compassionate squeeze and headed through the doorway.

“...to me this...”

Snippets of a muffled conversation floated to Chiriko's ears. Brows furrowing, he stopped and cocked his head.

“...serious doubts about...”

The voice had a familiar lilt to it, but he couldn't place it. Chiriko glanced across the room to the entrance and watched Mitsukake and Chichiri enter. Both men were silent as they stepped over the threshold. Who can it be if the speaker is neither of them? he thought. Quirking his lips, he strained to make out more.

“...do you think I...”

“...are you talking about?!”

Chiriko blinked. A new voice–obviously agitated, if he'd heard correctly–joined the heretofore one-sided discussion. The new speaker had a distinctly higher pitch than the first, despite shouting their reply. “A woman?” he murmured under his breath. Chiriko took a few steps forward at a time as he scanned the bookcase-covered walls. If he could just ascertain the speakers' location, maybe he, Mitsukake, and Chichiri could find Tamahome, Tokaki, and Subaru, or even Miaka.

Chiriko hummed in thought. A dull golden glint caught his attention and he craned his head back to find the source. His eyebrows rose. How had he missed it? The wooden racking comprising the bookcases didn't rise all the way to the ceiling. A stripe of painted but otherwise bare wall lay just above the height of the shelving. At intervals along this uncovered area, elaborate grilles overlaid what looked to be small airways to the room on the other side of the wall. The light from the chandeliers bounced off their stamped bronze surfaces as an unfelt draft played with the flames. Perhaps the conversation is coming from the adjacent room?

“...the Shinzahou back...”

Chiriko's eyes went wide. Had he heard correctly? “The Shinzahou,” he breathed. Had he stumbled upon the whereabouts of one of the missing Shinzahous? Could it be just on the other side of the wall? They had to investigate. He spun on his heel back toward the entrance to the room. “Mitsukake, Chichiri, come quickly.” Flapping his arms, he beckoned to the healer and the monk. “Quickly. I may have found something.”

Sharing a look, both warriors hastened to join the scholar.

“What is it, Chiriko no da?” Chichiri cocked his head. His long bangs bobbed with the movement.

Chiriko placed a hand on one of the ancient wooden beams holding up the bookcase. “I believe one of the Shinzahous may be in the room beyond this wall.”

Chichiri's eyebrows rose. “The Shinzahou, no da? Are you sure, na no da?”

Tucking his hands into his voluminous sleeves, Chiriko nodded. “As I was looking around the room, I began to hear snippets of a conversation coming from somewhere deeper in the monastery. There were two distinct voices, and they seemed to be engaged in an argument. One of the speakers specifically mentioned a Shinzahou.”

“Hmm...” Chichiri's brow creased. If one of the Shinzahous was nearby, they had to make an effort to obtain it. Ignoring this opportunity, and leaving it potentially in the hands of the Seiryuu wasn't an option. Still, they had come to the monastery to find Miaka. Even if they were to take possession of one of the two Shinzahous, without the priestess it would be useless. And, in the interim, Tamahome and his group had disappeared, and Tasuki... The already subdued smile on his mask fell even further to a faint curving of his lips.

Mitsukake frowned himself at the dour look on Chichiri's face. He glanced down at the young scholar. “Do you know who was arguing, Chiriko?” Taking the opportunity, Tama-neko climbed up the big healer's arm to perch on his wide shoulder. The cat's brown-tipped tail swished back and forth like a pendulum as he watched the conversation unfold.

Inside his coat sleeve, Chiriko began fidgeting with its hem. “I'm sorry,” he said, tracing the worn stone tiling of the floor with his eyes. “I couldn't make out who was speaking.”

Chichiri took a deep breath. “We need to find out what's going on, no da.” The monk took a few steps back toward the center of the room. His head swiveled as he scrutinized the thickly laden shelves lining the walls. “Is there a way to get into the next room from this one, na no da?”

“There doesn't seem to be a door or passage,” Chiriko watched Chichiri take a handful of distracted steps to the man's left, then to his right, “but I did observe a series of grille-covered air shafts above the bookcases that may provide at least a glimpse.”

Chichiri stopped and craned his head back. Lips quirking, he considered the openings for a few beats before turning his gaze to the empty doorway leading into the room. Another moment passed before he finally returned his attention to Chiriko and Mitsukake. “Using my magic to get there would be simple, but we don't know who or what might be waiting on the other side of the wall, no da.” A small sigh escaped him. “I still can't make out specific life forces or anyone's whereabouts, na no da.”

Chiriko cocked his head as he took in the extensive network of shelving and its painted façade. The bookcases, with their niches occupied by the bound sutras, seemed as if a system of extremely deep, interconnected ladders already. And the shelves don't appear much farther apart than the rungs of a ladder either, he thought. “Perhaps,” Chiriko said, looking up at the two taller seishi, “one of us could use the bookcase itself to climb up and confirm the situation.”

Chichiri quirked his lips. “Mitsukake and I run the risk of bringing the whole thing down if we tried to climb it, no da.” He shook his head. “It would never support our weight, na no da.”

Mitsukake, too, glanced up at the towering bank of bookshelves. An eyebrow rose as he scrutinized the integrity of the wood. Heretofore unnoticed knots and slight imperfections glared from beneath the bright paint on the hand-cut uprights. The shelves themselves bowed under centuries of holding the weight of their silk-wrapped charges. He looked down at Chiriko and placed a big hand on the scholar's shoulder. “He's right. You'll need to go.”

“Me?” Chiriko looked to Mitsukake's hand for a long moment before turning his gaze to the bookcase. “I don't know...” He began to fidget with the hem of his sleeve.

Brows furrowing, Chichiri frowned. “Chiriko, please, no da. We don't have time, na no da.”

Mitsukake gently squeezed the younger seishi's arm, willing as much sympathy into his touch as he could. “You'll be fine. I'll be right here.” A savage hiss issued from Tama-neko's throat. Back arching and tail bristling, he dug his claws into Mitsukake's flesh. The healer winced. “What? Tama?”

The stench of death and the roil of vile magic washed over them then, turning Chichiri's stomach. Bringing his hand to his nose to block the reek, he staggered back a step. “What-” he began, only to be cut off. His eyes widened as he watched the air between the three seishi warp and shimmer with a sickening yellow ocher. Hideous, spidery legs, each capped by wicked claws, pushed forth from the rift. Taking his prayer beads in hand, he gritted his teeth.

Tama-neko let out a raspy growl, his tiny fangs bared. Ears flat, the cat flexed his claws, pushing them deeper into the muscle on which he stood.

Terror shot through Chiriko as the monster's torso began to emerge. Spikes of ragged bone burst from the thing's emaciated chest. Its puce-hued skin, leathery and scaled and stretched taut over an alien form, glistened with fetid ichor. A strangled scream ripped from Chiriko's throat. He reeled backward into the solid wall-like form of Mitsukake.

The big healer inhaled sharply, his expression shifting from horror to determination in a mere second. He pushed Chiriko toward the bookcase before placing himself between the materializing creature and the scholar. “Go!” With a startled screech, Tama-neko dove under the collar of both Mitsukake's coat and robe and down the man's back, leaving terrified claw marks in his wake.

Chiriko's eyes darted from the bookcase to Mitsukake and back again, his mouth gaping. Crushing his sleeve hem in his fist, he shrunk against the wooden racking. “I-I-”

A piercing shriek split the air as the demon's misshapen head appeared from the void. Its bulbous, bloodshot eyes rolled toward the young scholar.

“Climb, Chiriko!” Mitsukake commanded as the monster dragged itself into existence.

The big man's shout drove him to action and Chiriko scrambled upward, his heart pounding.

Cracking and scraping against the ancient tiles, the monstrous beast lashed its spiked tail with an inhuman strength. Stone fractured under its assault, each hit throwing up bits of rock and dust. Rearing up on its spindly hind limbs, the demon shrieked again, slaver dripping from its gnashing fangs. It swiped its front razor-clawed spider-legs at Mitsukake's face, missing by a mere hair's breadth. The healer flinched but held his ground. His chest heaving with each ragged breath, Mitsukake dropped into a fighting stance. “Chichiri, I could use some help,” he grunted. The monster thrashed its tail once more, this time just above his head and perilously close to the shelving. His jaw tightened. If the bookcases took a direct hit from one of the thing's attacks... Mitsukake flicked his gaze to where Chichiri stood just behind the creature. The monk's eyes were shut tight in concentration and a barely audible incantation fell from his lips. The thing hissed and snarled, drawing Mitsukake's attention back to the horror before him. “Any time now, Chichiri.”

Chichiri focused on the cool celadon and carmine jade of his prayer beads. Warm vermilion light overspread his mind's eye and he could feel his character mark burn once more. A torrent of pure energy poured into him, filling him and surrounding him with Suzaku's divine will. His eyes snapped open and with a loud slap, he brought his hands together. The hideous thing roared as its infernal form went rigid. “Now, Mitsukake!” he cried, dropping the silly tone.

The big healer grimaced and surged forward, the ends of his headband fluttering. Pulling back a meaty fist, he drove it home into the creature's distended jaw. The impact hurtled the thing off its feet with a bone-crunching thud. It slid head first across the worn stone and into one of the painted pillars in the center of the room, coming to a stop in a heap at its base. Above, the bronze chandeliers juddered on their chains from the force. Candlelight jumped and flickered wildly across the walls and ceiling.

Pain sparked through his fist and Mitsukake drew a sharp breath. His punch hadn't come without consequence. Glancing down at his bloodied knuckles, he flexed his hand. No bones seemed to be broken, but he would have bruised and swollen fingers for a few days until he could use his powers on himself. “Where did that come from?”

Chichiri watched the downed monster twitch once, then twice. It was only a matter of time before it regrouped and came at them again. His mask echoed the grim expression on his true face. “I'm betting from whatever is behind this wall, no da.” Turning his attention to the racking for a moment, he looked back at Mitsukake. “And I don't think that was only one either, na no da.”

Humming in acknowledgment, Mitsukake looked at the dazed creature. His jaw tightened. “How are you doing, Chiriko?” he asked, craning his neck to see the scholar halfway to the top of the shelving.

“I-I'm alright.” Chiriko swallowed hard and attempted to bring his breathing back under control. Once more, the helpless, unmoored feeling that foretold the loss of his powers lurked at the edges of his rational mind. He couldn't allow the debilitating fear to overcome him. Focusing on the thready pulsation of Suzaku's energy through his mark, Chiriko shoved the thoughts aside. With a small sigh, he leaned his forehead against the dusty edge of a shelf. “I really don't think I'm suited for this sort of endeavor.”

“You're doing fine,” Mitsukake said, the ghost of a smile touching his lips. “Keep climbing.”

A muffled screech asserted itself over the quiet scuff of Chiriko's shoes against the racking and its attendant creaking under his slight weight as he ascended. All three seishi froze at the unearthly sound.

The scholar blanched. “W-was that–”

Chichiri's gaze snapped to the demon. From the corner of his eye, he could see Mitsukake do the same. The thing was beginning to stir, but it hadn't been the source. “Chiriko, you need to hurry, no da,” Chichiri said, cutting Chiriko off. The disquieting energy permeating the monastery settled about the monk like the coils of a great serpent. He shuddered at the malignant touch. More of the creatures had been summoned forth, he could feel it, and it was only a matter of time before the three of them were embattled once more. Chichiri glanced past the monstrosity toward the room's only doorway. His brows furrowed. “We have to get out of here as soon as possible, na no da.”

“A-alright, I'll try.” Taking a deep breath, Chiriko forced himself to ignore the dread that pooled in the pit of his stomach and continued up the shelving as fast as he dared. Each movement elicited a plaintive squeal as the ancient wooden tenons strained in their mortises. The heavy puffing of his own breath in his ears and the whisper of his robes as he moved did little to mask the howls and screams that filtered through the bronze grating some ways above his head.

Snippets of what he assumed had to be the same conversation he'd heard minutes earlier floated to Chiriko's ears as the inhuman noises subsided. A new speaker had seemingly joined the original two.

“...won't allow you...”

The voice possessed the higher-pitched, almost nasal quality of a child, but the severe tone of the person's words belied a decidedly unchildlike authority.

“...demons will stop...”

The speaker let out a faint laugh that was drowned out by renewed baying a moment later. A shiver crawled up Chiriko's spine and he tightened his grip on the delicately patterned wood. The sinisterness of that simple sound set his teeth on edge in a way the monstrous growls and snarls did not. He swallowed hard in an attempt to dislodge the lump of anxiety that lodged in his throat, and scrambled up the last few shelves.

Hoisting himself onto the dust-covered top of the racking, Chiriko crawled through the thick coating of grime, clearing a spotty swath with the hems of his robe and coat in his haste. He wove his fingers through the bronze grille overlaying the turquoise-hued limewashed wall and pulled himself to standing. Patting the dirt from clothing and hands, the scholar looked around. The stone ceiling with its rough hewn joists loomed just a hair's breadth from his outstretched fingertips. A fresh breeze washed over him from the ventilation shaft to the next room ahead and to his left. He scuffed the toe of his shoe against the wood, drawing a crude arc in the dust. Given the age of the shelves themselves, the narrowness of the planks composing the surface on which he stood, and the limited space between said surface and ceiling, he had to agree that Chichiri's assessment that he was the only seishi who could fit had been correct.

Chiriko glanced down over the edge of the bookcase and into the room below. The floor seemed li distant from his vantage point. His gaze fell on the grotesque heap of spiked limbs and bruise-hued hide that was the demon. He could feel the frozen prick of a million needles of ice in the pit of his stomach. At the base of the room's central pillar, the creature shuddered and writhed, whether in anger or pain he couldn't discern. Tearing his eyes away, he placed his free hand on the cool surface of the grating and took a breath to calm his thrumming pulse. Chichiri and Mitsukake had entrusted him with this task. He couldn't allow fear to prevent its completion. With hesitant steps, Chiriko shuffled toward the airway.

At ground level, the disoriented beast let out a furious roar. Struggling to right itself, its gangly legs and knife-clawed fingers scraped and scratched at the worn stone tile in an effort to find some purchase. “Get ready, no da,” Chichiri warned as the familiar virulent nausea invaded his stomach. He tightened his grip on his prayer beads. The air began to ripple and stretch as multiple rifts coalesced around the flailing monster. A stench like that of sulfur and rotting flesh poured from the myriad breaches and clawed at Chichiri's nose. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mitsukake take up a fighting stance. The big healer's jaw set in grim determination. Catching Chichiri's look, Mitsukake gave the monk a solemn nod before the two men returned their attention to the incoming threat.

Chiriko's heart skipped a beat at the ghastly sound. He shrunk against the wall, one small hand tangled in the silk lapel of his coat while the other worried at the hem of one sleeve. Below, a hellscape greeted him. Dozens of demons, each more hideous than the last, tore their way into existence just as before. The dread and helplessness that heralded the fizzling of his mark returned, this time much more powerfully. Unable to see either warrior from his position, he called out, alarm lacing his tone. “Chichiri! Mitsukake! Are you both alright?”

With a hissing shriek not unlike the sound of stone drawn against stone, the original creature rose up on its segmented, spindly legs and charged. The reptilian irises of its inhuman eyes narrowed to jet black slits against its jaundiced sclerae. Bilious slaver flew from its fanged maw.

Heart pounding against his ribs, Mitsukake swallowed as the thing bore down on them. Adrenaline flooded into his system and he flexed his injured hand. The pain barely registered. Even the sting of the scratches Tama-neko inflicted felt duller than before. Time seemed to slow as he watched the demon skitter-sprint through the maze of opening portals and materializing beasts, its bony, wicked tail whipping about with each stride. Mitsukake gave the monk a sidelong glance. “We can't handle this many, Chichiri.”

Chichiri gritted his teeth. “I know, no da.” Neither man's power lent itself to fending off hordes of attackers, and with the malign force interfering with his ability to sense chi or home in on it, he couldn't teleport the three of them away with any accuracy either. Under the circumstances, the best he could do, Chichiri thought, was to keep the creatures at a distance. Both hands flowed through a complex series of mudras as he channeled his energy through the jade strand. The character on his knee flared to life. “Chiriko!” he yelled, dropping the silly tone. “Keep going! We have to know if the Shinzahou is in that room!” Divine radiance coruscated from him, tugging at his kesa and the olive fabric of his pants to reveal the contours of his body underneath. His ponytail lashed against his back. With one last gesture, Chichiri waved a hand in a wide arc before him. A barrier of celadon light rose from the ancient stone floor less than two paces from Mitsukake and himself.

At Chichiri's shout, Chiriko closed his eyes and fought to regain his composure. The screeching maelstrom below faded into the background as he concentrated on the cool air entering his lungs and inflating his chest. Each deep inhalation calmed the terror that seized him. Each exhalation slowed the panicked race of his heart beat by beat. As the adrenaline ebbed, the tension in his muscles relaxed, leaving behind a tremor that traveled his entire body. He gritted his teeth to stifle their soft chattering. I must prevail in this task. They are counting on me. Slowly, he prised open his white-knuckled fist and released his wrinkled and abused lapel. The warmth of his character, stabilized and fully emblazoned on his skin, buoyed his confidence. Taking one final deep breath, Chiriko opened his eyes. He swallowed hard and edged forward the few short paces to the air shaft, his shoes making little noise in the dust.

Mitsukake staggered back a step as the demon collided with the barrier. The infernal thing let out a piercing shriek as its emaciated, bony form caromed off the shimmering wall of light. It reared up as it had during its original attack and shook its nose-less, distended head. The hairs at the nape of Mitsukake's neck rose as he watched putrid saliva fly from the thing's gnashing maw. It splattered in foul streaks of purple-black on the soft green of the barrier in front of him. The creature screamed again and lurched forward. Razor-sharp claws and knife-like talons tore at the energy field as it lashed with the vicious spike on its tail. Each impact sent a ripple across the shield's surface. Mitsukake flinched with each hit, the ends of his headbands juddering against his chest. He cast a wary eye past the raging monster to the dozens of demons rapidly filling the large room.

Next to the big healer, Chichiri clutched his prayer beads between steepled hands. Piercing howls and bloodthirsty screams reverberated throughout the hall as the newly summoned fiends caught sight of their confederate. Wave after wave surged against the barrier, joining the first's rabid assault. Frenzied blow after frenzied blow rained down upon the shield until it undulated like the surface of a lake in a downpour. A bead of sweat rolled down his pale cheek. The monsters shoved and swiped at one another to get closer, sometimes scrapping more with each other than trying to reach their prey. If he allowed the creatures to overrun their position, the three seishi would be torn apart. Kutou would summon the dragon-god, invading Kounan and killing countless more. He couldn't let that happen. Screwing his eyes shut against the siege, Chichiri began once more to chant. Barely audible words fell from his lips only to be swallowed by the furious din. Divine power welled from the depths of his being. The gentle green light of the barrier expanded outward and upward, driving the shrieking multitude back like a plow through soft earth. He squeezed his hands together around the jade strand until he could no longer feel the smooth, round beads grinding into his palms. Exertion creased the brow of his mask. Please, Suzaku, he thought, let it be enough.

Above, Chiriko leaned around the edge of the nearest airway and peered through the bronze grating. The adjoining room was vast, several times the size of the one which he occupied. What looked to be some type of granite tile, at least a pace square, lined the floor. Along each soaring wall stood simple boxy columns decorated in the same raucous, colorful style as the rest of the monastery. A continuous mural ran the entire perimeter of the space just above the columns. Chiriko could discern depictions of Byakko and the Jade Emperor in the sprawling painting, but the nuance of the scenes eluded him.

He gulped as he finally took note of the hall's occupants. Demons, some multi-limbed like the ones assailing his fellow seishi and others dual-headed and bipedal, charged toward a beleaguered dark-haired figure only to be cut down in short order by what appeared to be some sort of plant weapon. Behind the ever-replenishing host, a young blonde girl in a brown skirt and jacket similar to Miaka's stood watching the fight. That must be the Priestess of Seiryuu, Chiriko thought. The girl clutched something small and round to her chest. What is she holding? He squinted through the grille. The yellowy torchlight illuminating the space glinted off what looked to be embossing on the object's surface. A mirror? Why would she have– His eyes went wide. The Shinzahou!

“So, Tatara of the Byakko Seven, how do you like my little pets?”

The voice drew Chiriko's gaze from the priestess and the holy relic and to the child a few paces from her. His brow furrowed. This is the speaker I overheard before? The boy, legs crossed in the lotus position, hovered about chest height above the floor. Bald and adorned in elaborate gold and gemstone jewelry, including a large gilded oval sporting a cabochon of ruby affixed to his forehead, the boy's garb was markedly different from the robes and kesas worn by the human guises of the demons inhabiting the monastery. If not for the bronze prayer wheel in the boy's small hand, Chiriko could swear that the child's loose green robe and short orange pants denoted him as a religious adherent from the lands to the south of Sairou. The embossed cylinder of the prayer wheel spun and the demons ceased their attack.

“Not so easy to defeat, are they?” A pernicious smile split the boy's round face.

Several paces from the floating child, Tatara crouched in a loose fighting stance. Chiriko could see the man's body tremble even as the whip-like vines he commanded kept up a sturdy defense. “I won't let you use the Shinzahou for such a purpose,” he said. His soft-spoken words were labored and heavy with fatigue. “Return it to your friend this instant.” Chiriko's brow rose as the dark-haired seishi seemed to address the girl. The scholar knew that the Seiryuu priestess had been one of Miaka's intimates in their world, but did she still consider her so? Even as opposed as they were?

“Ignore this distraction, Lady Yui, and proceed to the ceremony site.” The boy looked up at the airshaft and Chiriko's stomach leapt into his mouth. Reptilian eyes stared back, their pupil-slits narrowing with a cold malice. “He and the others that stand in your way will be dealt with in due time.” A strangled gasp tore from Chiriko's throat and he dodged out of sight.

At the foot of the bookcases, Mitsukake shuffled back one half-step at a time, until his heel bumped into the lowest shelf. He pressed his back firmly against the solid racking. Seemingly determined to make up for the ground lost due to the shield's expansion, the demons redoubled their efforts. Dismay rose like a steadily creeping tide as Mitsukake watched the monstrous creatures hurl themselves at the barrier. Reinforcements shrieked into existence almost minute by minute. In his coat, Tama-neko tucked himself into a tight, quivering ball. The rampage of the sickness demon's reanimated victims through Choukou didn't even compare to the dread he felt now. Teeth and fangs and claws gnashed and tore and slashed in an orgy of inhuman brutality. The hideous din of screams and howls and roars echoed off every surface in the room and sent a chill up his spine. And only a wildly undulating curtain of light held them at bay. He swallowed hard and hazarded a glance at Chichiri.

The monk reeled under the savagery of the onslaught. He could feel the balefulness of the newly arrived demons' energy as it was subsumed by the roiling swarm. The sensation riled his stomach and settled on his shoulders like so many ingots of lead. Chichiri's overwrought muscles ached in protest beneath the fiends' ferocious assault. The seething maelstrom of hatred and hostility underpinning it was like nothing he'd ever experienced. Even the crushing weight of Seiryuu's will that he'd labored under at the shrine in Kutou hadn't felt so noxious. The character mark on his knee burned from the sheer volume of raw power coursing through him. He couldn't maintain this level of exertion forever.

Flattening himself against the wall next to the bronze grate, Chiriko's heart pounded in his thin chest. The sight of those disturbing eyes and the malice behind them refused to leave his head. It was obvious by the deference the boy showed to the Priestess that he was a member of the Seiryuu Seven. Still, what exactly had he witnessed? Was the child indeed a demon? Chiriko had never come across any information that seishi of any of the four gods were anything other than human. Extremely powerful humans, but humans nonetheless. And yet, there was that bestial hulk of a man who had killed Nuriko in Hokkan. He cocked his head. Could the boy be possessed somehow? But wouldn't his status as a celestial warrior give the child some protection against spiritual attacks of that sort? He shook his head, his sandy blond hair fluttering with the vigor of it. No, no, that isn't important right now, Chiriko reminded himself. He knelt in the dust and cupped both hands to his mouth. “Chichiri! Mitsukake!” he called down over the edge. “I was correct! I've located one of the Shinzahous!”

Chichiri's eyes popped open and the chant stuttered on his lips. The barrier wavered with the stumble. Both men flinched as the horde, sensing weakness, began a renewed push. Chichiri jerked his chin in Mitsukake's direction and resumed his recitation.

Mitsukake gave the monk a firm but unnoticed nod. Tearing his gaze from the monsters, he looked up. The top half of the scholar's face peered down at him from the top of the bookcases. “That's great, Chiriko.” The big man glanced back toward the baying multitudes. If Chiriko climbed down now, he'd be an easy target. At least the boy was out of immediate danger at the top of the shelving. Mitsukake put as reassuring a smile on his face as he could muster then returned his attention to Chiriko. “Stay up there for now. We'll try to find a way out.”

As the younger seishi pulled back out of sight, the healer's smile evaporated like a wisp of smoke in the breeze. He again looked to Chichiri. “Is there a way out?” he asked, his deep baritone putting voice to what he suspected the monk had already realized. The stiffening of Chichiri's shoulders at his words confirmed his fears. A haunted scowl overtook Mitsukake's features as he took a makeshift seat on the edge of a dusty shelf. He placed a gentle hand on the warm, trembling lump beneath the silk of his coat and looked out on the raging siege.

Cold sweat beaded on Chichiri's pale forehead and ran in rivulets down the back of his neck. They couldn't afford to let the Shinzahou slip through their hands again. But what could he do? Shrieking death stood between them and the door. And, even if the room had another exit, the unrelenting attack took all of his concentration to repel. There was no way out, and he was beginning to tire. He closed his eyes and tried to choke down the familiar, caustic taste of failure. Once more, his underestimation of the enemy would end up killing those closest to him, including himself this time. Unbidden, that same image, of Tasuki facing down the horde of demon monks alone, floated again across Chichiri's mind's eye. Go! Dammit! Do as I fuckin' say fer once! I ain't lettin' anybody else die!” His heart ached. Tasuki...

A guttural roar rose from the chaos and split the din.

“Rekka-shin-en!”

Chichiri's heart skipped in his chest as the pulse of a familiar life force brushed against the back of his mind. His eyes flew open. Before him, geysers of searing flame swept through the writhing horde. Distended, leathery hide blistered and popped in the intense heat, the whistle of blood erupting from burning bodies as purple-black steam providing a hideous counterpoint to the agonized shrieking. The inferno raced through the tightly packed ranks like a swirling holocaust. Fully engulfed demons bucked and spasmed, setting other beasts alight with nothing more than a touch or a stray spark. The stench of brimstone and half-melted necrotic flesh sloughing from bone choked the air.

He could feel the hairs on his arms singeing as he sought to shield himself from the conflagration licking at the barrier. Frantic demons scrambled atop the heaps of the dead or dying that began to accumulate around the base of the shield in a bid to get above the slaughter, only to set themselves on fire in the process. Claws and talons gouged and ripped at the barrier as the creatures attempted to flee. The curtain of light trembled with each crazed assault. Shrill, inhuman screams of rage and pain turned to death rattles as the writhing monsters vaporized in showers of blue-white sparks. Smoldering red and orange embers glowed through the sooty black smoke rising from the half-cremated carcasses littering the floor. Snowy ash, kicked up by stampeding claws and borne into the air by the scorching heat, whirled above the carnage like a Hokkan blizzard.

As the last few monsters fell and the last shrieks faded away, Chichiri dispelled the incantation. Smoke, ash, and the fetor of sulfur, burning flesh, and ichor rushed into the void left by the barrier. He squinted into the now-silent killing field just beyond where the pale green glow had been. His gaze darted to every glimmer that he could see through the murk, searching for that telltale vermilion. Almost imperceptible at first, the crunch and snap of charcoal underfoot punctuated the cadence of boot heels against stone that echoed off the unseen walls. As the sound moved closer, the dark silhouette of a man coalesced behind the churning veil of smoke.

“Tasuki,” Chichiri breathed.

Unruly hair falling over his nose, Tasuki stepped out of the haze not two paces from the monk. In his hand, the edges of the diamond tessen glittered with tiny sparks of divine flame. He caught Chichiri's wide-eyed gaze and met it with an expression of apprehension and relief in equal measure. A pronounced frown on his lips, Tasuki's fangs glinted at the corners of his mouth. “What th' fuck happened in 'ere? Are yah alright?”

Chichiri's heart leapt with elation even as the myriad butterflies pervading his stomach took wing en masse. The perpetual mirth of his mask hid most of the hot crimson flush that spread across his true face and down his neck at the redhead's words, but a faint pink blush managed to seep through the item's magic. He swallowed hard and willed his composure to return. “We're fine, no da.” Slipping his prayer beads back over his head, Chichiri turned his attention to returning the feeling to his abused hands.

Tasuki's brows furrowed as he studied the monk for a long moment.

Above, Chiriko peered down on the scene. His eyes lit up. “Tasuki!” he cried, and began a hasty descent from the top of the shelving.

Tasuki glanced up at the voice and cocked his head. “Eh? Chiriko?”

Sensing the change in the room's atmosphere, Tama-neko peeked out from his hiding spot in Mitsukake's coat. His ears swiveled as he cautiously pushed his furry head farther beyond the edge of the lavender silk. Finding the danger had passed, at least temporarily, he let out a subdued meow and climbed up the big man's arm to perch once more on his shoulder.

Giving the little cat a scratch behind the ears, Mitsukake smiled to himself at Chichiri's feigned nonchalance. “We're glad that you're alright, Tasuki.”

Tasuki grunted in acknowledgment and sheathed his weapon. He watched Chiriko pick his way down the creaky racking for a moment before turning his focus back to the healer. “What're you guys doin' in 'ere anyway?” He glanced around the nearly destroyed room. His lips quirked. “Yer lucky I found'ja. Yer sittin' ducks in 'ere with only one door t' th' place.”

“We've confirmed the whereabouts of one of the Shinzahous,” Chiriko cut in as he reached the base of the shelving. He took a moment to smooth out the wrinkled hems of his robes before once again tucking his hands into his voluminous sleeves.

“Yah found one o' th' Shinzahous?” Tasuki's eyebrows shot toward his hairline. “What're we waitin' for then? Let's get that thing.” He turned and took a handful of steps in the direction of the room's exit before he realized he wasn't being followed. Looking back, he glanced between Mitsukake and Chiriko. Neither seishi replied nor did they seem to him to be particularly concerned. Tasuki scowled.

“We can't just chase around blindly, no da,” Chichiri said, finally joining the conversation. He watched the irritated redhead returned to his original position. “Not only do we have to retrieve the Shinzahou, we still have to find Miaka and the others, no da. To do that, we need to know what we're up against first, na no da.” He turned to Chiriko. “What did you find out, no da?”

“A large hall lies on the other side of the wall. The Priestess of Seiryuu is there, along with one of her seishi and Tatara, the Byakko warrior Tokaki mentioned.”

Mitsukake crossed his arms over his broad chest. On his shoulder, Tama-neko shifted but resettled quickly. “What about Miaka or Tamahome?”

His lips taking on a wry bent, Chiriko shook his head. “Unfortunately, I didn't observe anyone other than those three individuals.”

The brows of Chichiri's mask furrowed, giving the only clue to the concern on his true face. That there hadn't been any sign of their fellow warriors, their allies, or their priestess in all the time they had been battling demon monks and other infernal horrors worried him. Redirecting the conversation, Chichiri continued. “You said you found one of the Shinzahous, no da.”

Chiriko nodded, his topknot bobbing with the movement. “The Priestess has what I believe is the Byakko Shinzahou in her possession. Tatara is attempting to retrieve it while also preventing the Priestess from reaching the site of the summoning ceremony.” Inside his sleeve, he began to fidget with a hem. “He is currently engaged in a pitched battle with myriad demons conjured by the Star of Seiryuu.” A frown crept onto his face as Chiriko remembered the boy's reptilian eyes and the malignance of his stare. The cold, lost feeling of his powers flickering returned to haunt the edges of his mind. He pushed the image and the fear it kindled within him aside. “I couldn't ascertain the ritual's location, but I'm confident that it's in this temple.”

Chichiri took a deep breath and let it out as a long sigh. “We need to find the others, but getting that Shinzahou has to be our top priority, no da. We have to stop Seiryuu from being summoned at all costs, no da.”

“Then we should split up,” Mitsukake said, rising from his place to standing. On his shoulder, Tama-neko's tail swished back and forth as if in anticipation.

Chichiri's perpetual smile dipped into a frown. He didn't particularly relish the idea of once again dividing their forces in the face of a superior enemy. Each time the members of the Suzaku Shichiseishi had been separated, someone or something had seized the opportunity to attack: in Kounan, in Kutou, in Hokkan, and if they weren't careful, here in Sairou. Too many had suffered or died due to his choices. He dug his fingernails into his palm until his knuckles turned white and he could no longer feel the sting. Still, Chichiri thought, if there was a chance to wrest a Shinzahou back from the enemy, they had to take it. They had no choice. “Alright, no da,” he said, finally releasing his almost masochistic grip. Feeling throbbed its way back into his fingers. “Mitsukake and I will look for a way into the next room while Chiriko and Tasuki focus on Miaka, no da. Once that's done, we all converge on the Shinzahou, na no da.”

A menacing growl bubbled up from deep within Tasuki's chest. “Lemme go after th' Shinzahou. I wanna shot at those Seiryuu fuckers.”

Chichiri shook his head. “No, we aren't here for revenge, no da. Miaka is the key to stopping the Priestess of Seiryuu from going through with the ceremony, no da. We have to find her as soon as possible, na no da.”

Tasuki's lips curled to reveal his fangs. He took a half-step toward the monk. “It ain't just revenge,” he snarled. “Yah know my fire 's th' best weapon 'gainst these demon things. I fuckin' proved that.” Swinging his arm in a wide arc, he gestured to the surrounding devastation. “An' Chiriko jus' said they're crawlin' all over where th' Shinzahou is.”

Seeing the irritation beginning to creep into Chichiri's mirthful expression, Chiriko looked up at each of the three older men in turn before settling his gaze on the monk. “I must agree with Tasuki on this point, Chichiri.” Just as he opened his mouth to protest, Chiriko held up a small hand. “Given the offensive capabilities of his tessen, Tasuki would be much better suited to confronting the demons summoned by the Star of Seiryuu and preventing the priestess from reaching the ceremony site. As I have seen the room, I can assist with locating it.”

Tasuki crossed his arms over his coat-clad chest, yet said nothing. The expression of surly outrage he'd donned only a moment before faded to a stern and resolute sobriety.

Chichiri's brows furrowed. He didn't want to admit it, but he knew Chiriko was right; Tasuki's divine fire was indeed remarkably effective against the infernal monsters they'd faced thus far and Chiriko had been the only one of them who had seen the Shinzahou and the Priestess firsthand. So many times they had been here, staring each other down in a test of wills: one baying for blood and vengeance and the other trying desperately to prevent it. Once more, the image of Tasuki's solid back standing between him and the demon horde flashed in his mind's eye. He met the redhead's gaze evenly, his mask betraying none of the disquiet on his true face. Chichiri sighed, finally breaking the tense, minutes-long stalemate. “Fine, no da.” He turned his gaze from Tasuki to Chiriko. “But don't be reckless, no da. We don't know what that Seiryuu warrior can do besides summoning demons, no da.”

Chiriko nodded. “Of course.”

Tasuki let a low growl escape his throat. Chichiri's eyes again met his. “Those fuckers won't get a chance t' do anythin' else.”

“If we're decided, we should go,” Mitsukake said. Chichiri jerked his attention to the big healer, his bangs bobbing with the movement. The monk gave Mitsukake an awkward nod and both men started for the exit. Tasuki scowled as he watched the older man walk away but followed without a word.

Chiriko frowned as he picked his way through the burned carcasses and piles of smoldering ashes. He could still feel the sputtering sensation lurking at the edge of his consciousness. The increasingly frequent faltering of his mark scared him. Should he lose control of his powers while engaged in battle, there was no telling what could happen. His fingers worried his sleeve until he was certain the silk weave would wear away to nothing. He didn't want to burden the others at such a crucial juncture for their mission, but he had to inform someone before it was too late. Still, he felt uncomfortable about disclosing his predicament to any of the others. With so much of importance hinging on the success of their mission, how could he admit that he was soon to become a liability to their cause? Ahead of him, the rest of the seishi had exited the nearly destroyed library and were awaiting him at the threshold. Chiriko took a deep breath and, setting his jaw, hastened his pace.

- o - o - o -

“Rekka-shin-en!” Tasuki bellowed, letting loose a torrent of flame. Demon monks screeched and screamed as their ratty robes became their pyres. The reek of sulfur and necrotic flesh hung like a pall over the hallway he and Chiriko traveled.

Wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, Tasuki glanced down at the tangle of smoldering bodies he'd just torched. He let out a low whistle. “Damn, there 're a lot o' these bastards 'round this joint.” Glancing over his shoulder, he turned his attention to Chiriko. “Yah sure yah know how t' get t' where th' Shinzahou is from 'ere?”

“I can't be completely certain as I haven't studied the monastery's layout, but I believe so,” the scholar replied. He tucked his hands into the sleeves of his teal silk coat. “Each floor seems to be arranged just as the one below it. As such, right now we should be due east of the library where we fought the summoned demons. So, if we continue down this corridor and take our next right, our path should lead us straight to it.”

Tasuki shrugged. “If yah say so.”

The pair trekked on down the candlelit hallway, past yet more gilded alcoves harboring fierce multi-headed and multi-limbed statuary. The scent of stagnant dust mingled with the ashy tang of burned wood and cloth. Almost none of the gentle breeze that had entered the building with them reached this far into the maze of rooms and corridors. In the distance, inhuman monstrosities howled.

Taking hold of one abused hem, Chiriko's brows furrowed. The intermittent muffled shrieking only served to reinforce the fizzle-y feeling that crept ever closer to his cognizant mind. He watched Tasuki's back as the redhead strode across the time-worn stone tile, pausing for only a moment to peer through doorways and down adjoining halls before continuing. I must say something, he thought, before it's too late. Clearing his throat, he spoke. “Tasuki?”

“Eh?” Tasuki glanced back over his shoulder at the scholar. “Whatcha need, Chiriko?”

“I'm certain that you have witnessed instances where my faculties seem to degenerate to those of a young child.” Chiriko slowed his pace until he had stopped walking altogether.

“Yeah. When yer character mark disappears, right? Whatta 'bout it?” Tasuki turned around to face the young scholar when he realized he hadn't heard Chiriko's footsteps behind him for a long moment. He cocked his head.

Under the redhead's scrutinizing gaze, Chiriko worried the hem of his sleeve. “I...” Dropping his eyes to the floor, he began again. “My character mark is fading again, Tasuki. When it disappears, I won't be able to help you or the others to regain the Shinzahou or stop the summoning when it happens. Instead I'll become a liability.” His voice quavered. “I've already caused one summoning ceremony to fail because of it; I'm terrified it will occur again.” He scuffed the toe of his shoe across the ancient stone.

Taking a step closer to the boy, Tasuki's brows furrowed. “What're yah talkin' 'bout? You didn' mess up th' summonin' ceremony. It was all th' fuckin' Seiryuu and that Amiboshi guy.”

“You're wrong,” Chiriko shot back. He looked up, his green eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I lied about my studies preventing me from coming to the capital after Miaka's arrival. At that time, my mark had faded completely and when I was informed of my duty as one of the Stars of Suzaku, I panicked. My personality completely changes when I lose my mark. I purposely stayed away and prevented the summoning ceremony from succeeding. If I had been able to control my powers–”

Quirking his lips, Tasuki's fangs poked out of the corners of his mouth. “Nope, don't buy it,” he said, cutting the young scholar off. “It ain't yer fault, Chiriko. An' yer not weak. Yah saved 'r asses when Amiboshi was 'bout t' kill us. No one ‘weak’ could do that.”

“But I was only able to save you all because my character returned–”

Tasuki shook his head. “Chiriko, yer you no matter if yah've got yer mark 'r not. An' if yah lose it again, it don't matter.” He gave the boy one of his signature cocky grins. “I'll protect yah, no matter what. So don' worry 'bout it anymore. It'll be fine.”

Brows drawing together, Chiriko frowned. “I hope you're right, Tasuki.”

The redhead jabbed a thumb into his chest as he drew up to his full height. “Damn straight I am.” He beckoned Chiriko over. “Come on, we'll cover more ground if yah lemme carry yah. An' it'll be safer if yer mark does disappear. All yah gotta do 's hold on t' me.”

Nothing Tasuki had said really assuaged Chiriko's doubts, but he didn't really have a choice anymore. His powers continued to sputter. It was only a matter of minutes before he would again be adrift, he could feel it. He would have to trust that Tasuki was correct. He sighed. “Alright.” He allowed himself to be hoisted onto Tasuki's back and wrapped his small arms around the older man's neck.

With a bit of maneuvering, Tasuki shifted Chiriko's slight weight to his left side in an effort to keep his dominant hand–and his weapon–free. “Ready?” He took a few steps to make sure the scholar's position was stable. “Next right, right?” Behind him, Chiriko hummed a quiet noise of assent.

Hard-soled boots clicking across the tiled floor, Tasuki continued down the corridor. The nearly constant howling had ceased and it set the redhead on edge. Ahead lay the adjoining hallway. Cautiously, Tasuki sidled up to peek around the frescoed corner. Just as he poked his head out, he ran face-first into a wall with a teeth-rattling smack. “OW!” Reeling back, he rubbed at his forehead with his coat-clad forearm.

“Ow! What the hell?!” the wall retorted.

Pulling his arm away from his face, Tasuki's eyes widened. “Tama?” Not a pace in front of him, Tamahome stood, doubled over and with his head cradled in both hands. At the sound of Tasuki's voice, the fighter looked up.

“Tasuki?”

Tasuki grinned, headache forgotten. “Tama! 'Ey, we've been lookin' for yah.”

Hand massaging a spot in the center of his forehead, a look of confusion flitted across Tamahome's face for just a moment until he saw Chiriko peer around Tasuki's fiery mane. He let out a sigh rife with both relief and frustration. “I'm glad I finally found someone.”

“Eh?” Tasuki cocked his head. “Wait.” He scanned up and down the corridor several times before turning back to Tamahome. “Where're th' geezers? I thought they were s'posed t' be with you.”

Tamahome shrugged, throwing up his hands as he did so. “I have no idea. We got separated after the monks came after us.” He looked away, running a hand through his navy hair. “They'll be fine,” he said, almost more to himself than to the other seishi. After a moment, Tamahome shook his head. Fixing Tasuki with a determined look, he continued. “But never mind that. I know where Miaka is.”

The redhead spluttered. “Yah found Miaka?!”

“It was just for a second, but I felt her chi.” Intense concentration furrowed Tamahome's brow. His mouth took on a wry bent. Almost as if he were attempting to see through the raucously painted walls, he scrutinized first one end of the corridor and then the other. A long moment passed in tense silence. Finally, he frowned and let the inspection drop. “I know she's close.”

Pearly fangs glinted at the corners of Tasuki's bloodthirsty grin. “What th' fuck 'er we waitin' for?! Let's go!” He struck off down the hall, determined footfalls punctuating his long strides. In his hand, the diamond fan's faceted surface glittered in the wash of candlelight illuminating his way.

With a groan, Tamahome followed.

- o - o - o -

“Do you even know where you're going, Tasuki?” Tamahome hissed as he poked his head out of a doorway after the third group of monk-guised demons passed out of sight.

A low growl met the accusation. “'Ey, don' blame me, blame those creepy fucks roamin' 'round this place.”

On Tasuki's back, Chiriko whimpered. An involuntary shudder ran through his small frame and he tightened his hold on the older man's neck. He squeezed his eyes shut, doing his best to hide his face in the shock of red hair.

Patting the boy's arm, Tasuki's lips quirked into a lopsided smile. “'S okay, Chiriko. I got'cha,” he said, his words barely audible.

Tamahome took a tentative step into the corridor. “I think they're finally gone.” He watched Tasuki emerge from the room in which they had hidden. Crossing his arms over his chest, Tamahome let out an irked huff. “We're supposed to be looking for Miaka. Where the hell are you going, Tasuki?”

Tasuki scowled himself. “Yah said yah felt 'er chi, but Chichiri's been tryin' t' track 'er chi through this whole damn place since we got 'ere an' nothin'. But, jus' 'fore this, Chiriko got eyes on th' Priestess of Seiryuu an' th' Byakko Shinzahou, an' they're real close t' 'ere.”

“Yui...” Tamahome's eyes narrowed. “Alright. And?”

Tasuki's lip curled in annoyance, revealing one of his fangs. “'And,'” the redhead drawled, “you know Miaka. She'll be goin' after th' Shinzahou an' that other girl too. We head there an' we're gonna find 'er.”

“Okay, let's get going.” Tamahome hiked a thumb over his shoulder. “When I felt it, it seemed like Miaka's chi was coming from that direction. Where is the Shinzahou supposed to be?”

“Chiriko said t' keep goin' straight after we came 'round that corner where me an' 'im ran inta yah, so,” Tasuki said, glancing over his shoulder and jerking his chin, “that way.” Movement in the periphery of his vision caught his attention, and he did a double take. “What th' fuck?” At his words, both Tamahome and Chiriko turned to follow Tasuki's sightline.

At the far end of the passage, almost obscured by the lingering cloud of incense rising toward the ancient beamed ceiling and the glinting gold leaf-trimmed statuary looming from either wall, a pair of legs kicked out from a niche. A pair of decidedly human legs, wearing a pair of familiar black shoes and short white socks.

Tasuki gaped. “Holy shit, is 'at Miaka?!”

“I'm coming, Miaka!” Tamahome took off at a dead sprint toward the scene. The pound of his boots against the ancient stone tile punctuated his bellow.

“Wait! Tama!” Tasuki snarled and lunged after the fighter.

Divine speed bringing him abreast of Tamahome in a few strides, Tasuki tightened his grip on the tessen. Ahead of them, he could see Miaka thrash wildly in the niche. Tasuki's eyes widened in horror. Arms and legs flew in all directions, and only some of them belonged to the priestess. The squealing scrape of stone on metal reverberated around the corridor as blood red hands and limbs fought to hold the squirming girl fast. He didn't know how, but the statue had come alive and was moving on its own. First, demons an' now statues... “Fuck,” he breathed.

“Tasuki!” Navy hair fluttering, Tamahome shot a glance at the redhead. “Use your fire!”

“Right!” Channeling Suzaku's power through his hand and into the weapon, Tasuki focused the sparks leaping among the fan's ribs into a single point. He grimaced. If he didn't concentrate, he could hit not only the statue, but Miaka as well. He flicked his wrist and let the gout of flame roar toward its target. “Rekka-” On Tasuki's back, Chiriko let out a panicked shriek and began hugging himself even more tightly to the older man. “Shin-” Small arms tightened like a vise around his neck, and Tasuki choked on the last syllable of the incantation. “En-uugh!”

The statue burst, spraying pulverized plaster dust, chunks of bronze and stone, and guttering bits of burning filigree into the center of the hallway. Miaka shielded her face from the hail of debris as she fell from the now-destroyed niche. Tamahome sprang forward, stretching out his arms to scoop her up before she hit the ground.

Tasuki scrabbled at Chiriko's garrote-like grip. “What're yah doin', Chiriko?! Leggo o' my neck! I can't breathe!” he croaked. White stars began to flash in his vision. It reminded him too much of that night in Kutou. He dropped to one knee. Grabbing the boy's wrists, he pulled Chiriko's arms away enough to shrug him off his back and safely to the ground. With a sniffle, Chiriko clung to Tasuki's long leather coat, and Tasuki's hand went to his neck. Lungs heaving in the spicy, incense-laden air, he massaged his aching windpipe. Once he had managed to catch his breath, Tasuki sheathed his now-dormant weapon. He pushed himself back to his feet with a grunt and turned back to the matter at hand. On the floor a few paces away, he watched Miaka shove at Tamahome's chest, eyes averted and a pronounced frown on her lips.

“Miaka,” Tamahome said, his voice fraught with regret, “I'm sorry I didn't tell you why I...wanted to break up. When I heard that you could never come back here after Suzaku was summoned, it was too much, and I... I just didn't want to believe it.” He shook his head. “Maybe I'm a coward, thinking that giving you up now would make it hurt less when it happens, but... That's why I did it.”

Tasuki glanced back down the corridor the way they had come, brows furrowed. It was hard–nearly impossible–for him to really understand, but he felt a sort of sympathy for, a kinship, with Miaka in that moment. Tamahome's brutal rejection of her and their relationship over the past few days had been difficult to watch. He couldn't blame her for being hurt and angry; he was going through the same thing with Chichiri. And just as he was still struggling with everything that had passed between him and Chichiri since that night in Hokkan, Tasuki knew Tamahome's apology would take time for her to accept. His lips took on a wry bent. Chiri... Whether Chichiri's reasons for pushing him away were similar to Tamahome's, Tasuki had no idea. Perhaps he would never know. Still, he had to believe that by the end of this journey, after Suzaku had been summoned and Kutou repelled, the monk would finally be ready to listen and, maybe, finally, concur.

Taking a deep breath, Tasuki put the thoughts aside and returned his focus to the priestess and his fellow warrior. As he did, his stomach pitched. Tamahome placed a gentle hand on Miaka's cheek, turning her to face him. The fighter leaned in, capturing her lips in a passionate kiss.

A thick sense of embarrassment, a not-insignificant strain of jealousy, and a hint of arousal that he would never admit to flooded Tasuki's system at the sight. A furious crimson flushed his honey-hued skin all the way to his ears. Slapping a hand over Chiriko's eyes, he hurriedly looked away.

“If we had kissed on top of that tower, exactly when the sun set, we could never be separated again. Isn't that what the local legend foretells?”

Tasuki hazarded a peek when Tamahome resumed speaking. The fighter held Miaka in a tight embrace, almost entirely obscuring her small frame from view. Tasuki let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding and uncovered Chiriko's face. The scholar whined and tugged at his coat but said nothing.

“This isn't the top of that tower, and the sun may have set a long time ago, but I swear, no matter what they say, if there's even the tiniest chance for us to alter our supposed destiny, I will do everything in my power to do it.”

A sonorous boom shook the corridor. Four pairs of eyes darted in the direction of the sound. Tasuki tensed, his hand moving instinctively for the tessen's grip just over his shoulder. He could feel Chiriko shrink against him. Flecks of painted plaster and motes of dust rained from the ancient ceiling.

Tamahome opened his mouth to speak, but was promptly cut off by a wild-eyed Miaka tugging at his silk sleeve. “What? Miaka?” She jabbed a finger toward the end of the hall, then gestured at her throat, then once more down the passageway.

Tasuki's face scrunched in confusion. The girl hadn't made one sound yet, despite the vehemence of her pantomime. “Miaka, 's there somethin' wrong with yer voice? What 'appened?” At his words, the priestess nodded with such force that Tasuki could swear he heard her chin smack against her chest. Desperately she repeated her gestures, all the while yanking with increasing strength on Tamahome's clothes.

A look of understanding dawned across Tamahome's face. “Yui! Yui's near here, right?!” he cried. Miaka's head was again a blur of flying hair. She turned and began to run, Tamahome not a step behind.

Grabbing Chiriko's hand, Tasuki took off after them.

 


Glossary of Terms for Chapter 12

Sangha → Sanskrit for “community, assembly, or company,” it most often refers to the monastic community of Buddhist monks and nuns
Bodhisattva → a being in Buddhist canon who has attained enlightenment, and has forgone the cycle of reincarnation to help other sentient beings attain enlightenment
Shambhala → in the Kalachakra tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, it is a mythical kingdom ruled by Maitreya, the future Buddha, who will–when the world descends into war and greed, and all is lost–lead a vast army to vanquish the “dark forces” and usher in a golden age; in Buddhism more broadly, it is seen as a “pure land,” a celestial realm wherein a buddha or bodhisattva resides

Dharmapala → a being in Buddhist canon charged with the defense of dharma–cosmic law and order–as well as the teachings of the Buddha; similar to bodhisattvas, they help sentient beings to enlightenment by averting inner and outer obstacles that prevent practitioners from attaining enlightenment
Khata → in Tibetan Buddhism, a traditional ceremonial scarf representing purity and compassion; it is worn or presented at ceremonial occasions, such as births, funerals, weddings, and the arrival and departure of guests
Lama → the title of a teacher of the Dharma in Tibetan Buddhism; also used generally to refer to Tibetan or Mongolian Buddhist monks
Chokhor Duchen → also called “The Festival of the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma;” one of the four holiest days in Tibetan Buddhism, it commemorates the anniversary of when the Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) first began to teach the Dharma after attaining enlightenment
Sutra → religious texts considered to be the collected teachings of the Buddha; while these texts are often a record of the historical Buddha's oral teachings, others are teachings of the Buddha's disciples, or wisdom shared by rishis (seers or sages who through intense meditation realized truths and eternal knowledge then wrote that knowledge into hymns) and devas (spiritual beings who live on different planes and are themselves at some point on the path of reincarnation)
Mortise and Tenon → a furniture making technique in which a projection (tenon) is added to a piece of wood, generally at a corner or other intersection, to fit into a corresponding hole (mortise), locking the pieces together much like a jigsaw puzzle and without nails or other fasteners
Limewash → a type of paint composed of slaked lime that is usually applied to porous stone or concrete surfaces; pigment can be added and the color is built up with successive coats
Sclera → the white, dense connective tissue covering the eyeball; plural: scleras or sclerae

Jade Emperor in Shambhala → Being a Japanese work interpreting Chinese mythology, astrology, and religion, FY synthesizes a lot of concepts into one story. The beast gods are of Taoist origin, representing four of the Taoist elements. Taiitsukun, who is really the Jade Emperor, is also Taoist. These concepts have been blended with folk beliefs and Buddhism to create what is often called Chinese Buddhism. This fusion was then introduced to Japan and there blended with Shintoism to create Japanese Buddhism. This is why Chichiri can be a Buddhist monk using a Japanese Buddhist staff, taught by the supreme deity of Taoism, and wielding the power of a Taoist beast god. And with Sairou's not-insignificant resemblance to Tibet, yet another layer is laid on top. Byakko, a Taoist concept, is worshiped in Sairou and the seishi there use his powers, but there is also a monastery filled with monks who, in the anime, are depicted in the maroon robes of Tibetan Buddhism, led by Miboshi inhabiting the body of the young head monk who is depicted as looking similar to Budai, a figure prominent in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto (even some art of Hindu swamis), and holding a Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel. Given that backdrop, I decided to lean into this mash-up by having the temple in the capital be decorated with figures and images from Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and Taoism.



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