Remnants : Part Four
When Sai woke up it was someplace warm and shadowy that smelled faintly of lamp oil, old incense, and tatami mats. His armor was gone and he was lying across a futon, his torso a white swath of bandages. Someone was in the room with him, his presence an almost-familiar shadow on Sai's mind.
"Good," he said. "It will be easier if you are awake."
Sai shuddered, on old instinct. He knew that Naaza was no longer his enemy, but Sai had precious few memories of the Doku Masho that did not involve his own imminent death. Sai tried to go up to his elbows, winced as pain shot across his abdomen, and fell back down again.
Naaza might have arched an eyebrow at him, if he had them. "I do not think so highly of this new fine armor of yours, Torrent, if it cannot even be trusted to keep your entrails inside your belly."
"It was a lucky shot," Sai hissed, trying not to recoil as Nazaa bent over him, drawing his bare hand over the bandages. The warlord was dressed in kimono, and the sight of his unarmored fingers and throat was almost indecent. "Where are my friends?" It took a conscious effort on his part not to ask, What have you done with them?
"In council with Lady Kayura," Naaza replied. "You may join them when I'm done knitting you whole again."
"You?" Sai stammered, unable to keep the incredulous tone out of his voice. He got no further as a cry of pain sounded from the opposite corner of the room. Naaza rushed over without any explanation, and the crisp silk pleats of his hakama rustled as he knelt down by the other bed. The lantern closest to him sprang to life, and Sai flinched not for his own wounds, but for what the magical flame revealed.
The warlord of illusion lay sprawled in the opposite futon, his cobweb-pale hair matted with blood, his body more bandages than skin. The blood had soaked through most of them, their crimson patterns a terrible history of the injuries beneath. Rajura's face was drawn taut with pain, sweat made a thin sheen on his lip and wet the lashes of his one good eye. Naaza put the back of his hand to his comrade's forehead, and swore with a phrase so archaic that Sai barely understood it to be Japanese.
"Fetch Halo to me," he said, and Sai blinked, wondering if Naaza was speaking to him. Before he could ask, a tiny light appeared in the center of the room and zipped away through one of the closed paper doors.
A moment later there was the padding of tabi-clad footsteps in the hall, and Sage pushed back the door. He too had traded his armor for more traditional Japanese garb, though it was simpler than Naaza's. From the look on his face, he had understood the urgency of the message. Sage spared Sai a quick, reassuring smile, and hurried to Rajura's bedside.
"He has gotten worse," Naaza said, in flat tones that belied the weight of his words. "He is slipping away, and not bothering to fight it. Hold him together for me, if you can."
"I understand," Sage said, and Sai forgot the sting of his own cut as he watched the strange juxtaposition of Sage and their former enemies. Sage put a hand to Rajura's forehead, and on his own the mark of his virtue stirred. He closed his eyes, eyebrows drawn in concentration. There was a vague humming in the air, like the air before a thunderstorm, and Sai knew that at that moment Sage's innate grace was the only thing holding Rajura's soul inside his mutilated body. Naaza drew the snake-hilted blade he wore at his side, and rested the tip against Rajura's parted lips. A shining drop of liquid coalesced on the point and fell, but Rajura's breath snagged in his throat and he did not swallow it. It slid down over his cheek and was wasted, staining a brighter spot in his hair.
"He is too weak," Naaza said, and there was something stricken in his voice, like disbelief. "He cannot manage so delicate a draught."
"Can you dilute it? In a cup of water, or--" Sage reached for the sake bottle resting on the tray at Rajura's bedside, and his oath was almost a match for Naaza's earlier one. "Empty."
"Let me," Sai said, before he even realized he had shoved himself up, staggering over to them and reaching for the bottle. "Sage."
Sage pressed the bottle into Sai's shaking hand, and somewhere under the pain and urgency Sai felt a flicker of admiration for the fine craftsmanship of the pottery. Rajura convulsed under Sage's hands, and Naaza said, "Hurry, Torrent!" The light of Rajura's virtue shone weakly on his forehead, as an ember starved of oxygen and soon to extinguish.
Sai reached out to his element and found it floating loose in the air around them, tricking in a spring outside in a neglected garden. He called it to him, drawing it down into the belly of the vessel. Urgency made him clumsy, and water splashed over his fingertips before he realized he had summoned enough. "Here." He held it out, and Naaza dolled out a portion of his toxin into it, tinting the water the color of cherry blossoms. He tipped the bottle back to the wounded warlord's lips and Rajura coughed once but drank it, his throat moving, eye moving restlessly under his eyelid. Closer now, Sai could see that the cobweb-patch had been ripped away, and the Gen Masho's most noticeable feature was a pale twist of ugly, ancient scar, marring his otherwise fine features.
Rajura choked on the last sip, spilling it, but Naaza was satisfied.
"Let him sleep, now. That will do."
Sage lowered Rajura back down. The warlord's breathing was less labored, his chest rising and falling smoothly. His virtue kanji glowed brightly and then subsided, the thin hand clenched on the coverlet relaxed. Sai was surprised to find pity in his heart, and then was ashamed that it had taken him so long.
"Alone he stood against countless foes," Naaza said, with something like admiration, "Spinning out countless illusions, pretending he had taken no blows, granting our forces an escape. Idiot." He looked up at Sai, his slit-pupiled eyes sharp. "Like you, Torrent! Standing in your condition! I've kept enough men from the gates of hell today."
"He's got a point," Sage said, and he looped Sai's arm around his shoulder. "You're not missing anything," Sage explained, helping him back to the futon. "Ryou's been telling Lady Kayura what's happened to us since the Netherworld gates closed, is all."
"You can join the conversation soon enough," Naaza said, studying the tip of his blade. Sai wondered if he would have to swallow a dose of Naaza's poison as well, and his stomach heaved at the thought. But the warlord of autumn only laid his weapon across Sai's bandages, and the purple gleam of his venom soaked through, seeking the deep cut across Sai's ribs. Sai was braced for that familiar, burning pain, the sickly-sweet cloying of poison. He did not expect the gentle suffusion of warmth, followed by an itchy tingling. Naaza made a grunt of satisfaction, and sliced cleanly through Sai's bandages. Nothing remained of the wound but a thin, pink line of scar.
Sai stared at it, and then at Naaza, in unconcealed wonder. "Th--thank you."
"Better a soldier to stand and fight than a corpse to be burned," Naaza said, shrugging off Sai's gratitude. "Go. I must tend to Rajura. And don't go poking at it!"
Sai put his hand down immediately.
Sage held out the garments that had been left out for Sai, and though Sai could have summoned the clothes he had been wearing before he armored, it only seemed polite to dress properly for the Netherworld. They left Naaza at Rajura's bedside and padded down the halls through the castle that had once been Arago's, Sai fussing with the ties of his haori.
"Kento will be glad to see you," Sage said. "You gave us all a turn, you know."
"Sorry," Sai said, ruefully. "I guess I'm not as sharp as I used to be."
"We're all rusty," Sage said, and Sai was grateful for that, even if he knew that Sage was not even dulled, much less rusty. "But we can't let that slow us down, right? Not in front of them."
Sai laughed, glancing back the way they had come, still amazed at the changes time and freedom had wrought in his old adversary. "Right. I'm not sure I could live with myself, otherwise."
It was a mark of Kento's concern how fast he got up to meet them at the door. Devotion was one thing, but there were platters of grilled fish and hot sake in the offing at Kayura's council, and the warrior of Hardrock had not touched any of his yet.
"Damn, you gave me a scare," Kento said, taking Sai by the shoulders as Sage settled back on the cushion next to Rowen.
"I'm fine," Sai said, batting at Kento's hands, not wanting to be fussed over with the eyes of so many--especially Anubis and Kayura--on him. "More a blow to my pride than anything."
"How fares Rajura?" Kayura asked Sage, doing her old opponent the honor of warming his sake with a refill. "Will he survive?"
"Naaza seems to think so," Sage answered, accepting his saucer with a bow. "What did he do to receive such damage?"
"Rajura has become reckless, I fear," Kayura said, putting the serving bottle aside and folding her hands tightly in her layered kimono.
"Really?" Kento settled down to his dinner at last. "Doesn't sound like the Rajura I know."
"He was not always like this," Anubis said, his scowl puckering the scar on his cheek. "But ever since Sh'ten--" His fist curled on his knee, and he said nothing further. Kayura looked as if she would speak, but there was something insurmountable in Anubis' face, and she frowned at her rice, instead.
In the awkward pause, Sage lifted his sake saucer again and said, "This is a fine vintage."
Anubis' expression cleared. "You think so, Halo? I supervised the brewing myself."
"Probably had peasants spitting chewed-up rice into a vat," Kento muttered to Sai, over his chopsticks.
"Now that Sai's here, maybe we can get some questions answered," Ryou said, shoving his empty plate aside and putting his elbow down on the lacquered dinner tray. In spite of his dubious manners, the ancient mode of dress suited him better than Sai would have expected. He had a brief flash of almost-memory; Ryou in the same position, one arm tucked into the loose sleeve of a red kimono, unkempt hair twisted into a rakish topknot, double katana thrust into his belt like an afterthought. Sai looked at his friends, dressed in silk like the samurai of antiquity, and wondered how long they had all truly known one another. He gave a mental apology to the elegantly arranged fish on his platter, and realized belatedly that he was starving.
"When did this start?" Ryou continued. "Have you been fighting all this time?"
Kayura shook her head, and looked up at the staff of the Ancients, which rested upright in a bracket on the wall behind her. "For nearly ten years of your time, we were at peace. Humans like us who had been under Arago's sway for centuries came back to their senses. Rather than return to a world that had forgotten them, they remained here in the City of Dreams. For our part, we did not desire the empire Arago built, we only wished to live in peace. But to suddenly parcel up the Netherworld again would lead to disputes and fighting among demon and human alike. For the sake of insuring peace, we did not allow the empire to dissolve immediately into separate kingdoms. We thought it best for the rulers to petition for their dominions, and to draw the boundaries anew as independent states, but all under a central government here."
Sage was nodding agreement, and Rowen had his chin in his hand, studying Kayura thoughtfully. "A miniature shogunate, then," the archer said. "Makes pretty good sense, but I bet the netherworld warlords didn't take to it right off."
Kayura made a dismissive gesture. "There was some small dissent among the demon warlords that Arago ruled, but the might of the Masho was enough to quell them and most submitted without further complaint."
Anubis shifted his weight on his cushion, eyes alight with fierce pride. "We can be very persuasive," he purred.
Sage took a discreet sip of sake and made no comment.
"Okay," Ryou said, and Sai could sense his impatience, "if everything was so great, where did this army come from?"
Kayura's eyebrows drew up into a delicate ink-scribble of concern. "We... don't know."
"You mean you don't even know who you're fighting?" Rowen blurted, sparing Ryou the trouble of doing it instead. "And you've been doing this for ten years?"
"Time does not run here as it does in your world, Strata." Anubis made a curt gesture at the trees in the garden outside, which were coated in snow and ice even though it was only early fall in the human world. "The fighting has been going for as long as the fighting has been going. That is the only measure here of any importance."
"Yeah, I noticed that," Kento said. "Like it was springtime here before, but it was springtime in our world, but now it's the middle of wintertime--"
Sai saw the pained look on Kayura's face, and elbowed Kento in the ribs before he could say anything further.
"We're not here to chat about the weather, Kento." Ryou was glowering. "I want to know more about this army, where they're coming from, who's commanding them, all of it."
"A fine list," Anubis snorted. "Do you think we have not been desperate to find out the same?"
"There is no commander or general that we can discover," Kayura said. "We have discussed this at length, and have concluded that several of the old demon lords must have joined forces in secret. If we knew which it was, we could stop them, but as we don't--"
"It would be quicker to simply kill them all--" Anubis grumbled, but the look Kayura shot him was enough to make him fall silent.
"The attacks are sporadic, and vicious." Kayura said. "For some time, there will be nothing. Then we will be overwhelmed all at once. Today was exceptionally brutal; before the warlords and I were enough to subdue them. I don't understand why all at once the enemy has become stronger."
"We'll do whatever we can to help," Ryou said, "but it would be easier if we knew who or what we were actually fighting."
"I had hoped you would be able to help me discover that," Kayura said, bowing to Ryou in thanks. "The Jewel of Life contains the thoughts and hearts of many generations of my people. It was entrusted to your care, but if you will lend me the jewel, I can search with its powers to unravel the secret. May I see it?"
The five warriors exchanged a glance that required no telepathy.
The most powerful relic in the history of the ancients was, at that moment, hanging off of Yuli's cell phone, along with a tiny ultraman figure whose eyes lit up when you squeezed him. Yuli had not been extremely comfortable with the selected hiding place of the jewel, thinking maybe a box somewhere would be better, and then only if there weren't any underwater temples to be leased at reasonable rates for eternity. It had generally been decided, however, that the jewel was better kept close by at all times. When he was a child, Yuli had worn the jewel tucked carefully inside his shirt, but as he had gotten older that habit had prompted strange, vivid dreams that he could never remember on waking.
But Rowen had suggested the phone dangle idea, since Yuli was never without it, and it made the jewel just look like a cheap good luck charm. Yuli thought it was better than just carrying the jewel in his pocket, where it looked like something of importance and could more easily be lost, but sometimes he had the dreams anyway. He was prone enough to premonitions that he could dismiss them, but they still prompted an uneasiness, as though he was poised on a tall diving board above a sea of fog.
At that moment, however, the dream Yuli was having did not involve anything more mystical than a shopping mall that was sort of like an amusement park but also a chocolate factory, and Angelina Jolie. He was just getting to the good bits, which focused on those tomb-raider-esque shorts and a vat of coconut filling, when an insistent pinging noise broke through his pleasantly-occupied REM.
Yuli. Mia. Anybody home?
Yuli snorted in his sleep, batting at the annoying tiny Rowen in scuba gear who had just poked his head out of the sea of coconut, solely to ruin Yuli's fun. Laura Croft was getting pouty. "G'fzz. Wuh."
Yuli fell through a sudden hole in his dream, and landed, with a jerk, back in his chair in the study. "Ow! Dammit..."
You were asleep, weren't you. Rowen's voice said, through the laptop. Keira?
"Angelina," Yuli said, and grinned at Rowen's whistle of sympathy.
Sorry to intrude on your nap time, kid, but duty calls. Can you drive down to the spring by the highway? The Saranbo place. Mia'll know it. And bring the Jewel.
"The Jewel?" Yuli yawned. "What for? You guys in trouble?"
Trouble? Rowen repeated, and even the little wiggling line of his voice graph looked shifty. No, of course not! We just needed the jewel for um. The armor thing. You know.
"Uh-huh." Yuli said. "The armor thing."
Okay fine we're in trouble but don't tell Mia. Ryou will eat me for making her worry.
Yuli glanced up at the doorway where Mia was standing, hand on her hip, one eyebrow arched.
"I won't tell her," Yuli said, grinning.
Good. Somebody'll be there to get the jewel from you so you can just drop it off and head back to the house and wait--v
Mia made a tiny snort of disgust, and inspected the rack of antique weapons for a nice-looking naginata.
...so make it snappy. Got that?
Yuli pointed at the katana mounted above a tassled gilt helmet and Mia got it down for him. Yuli mouthed a 'thanks' at her that Rowen wouldn't hear. "Don't worry, we got it."
Great. Thanks, bud. I'm out.
The speaker crackled again and was silent. "All set?" Yuli asked.
White Blaze trotted in the door, his ageless eyes expectant, and Mia slid the sword to him across the desk, and her smile was grim. "All set."