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Saiyuki: Whose Woods Are These

Title: Whose Woods Are These
Series: Saiyuki
Rating: PG
Pairing: None

Summary: Taking a short cut through a strange wood does not go smoothly.



“It looks real creepy in there,” says Goku from the back seat.

Jeep is stopped at a sharp turn in the narrow mountain road. To the east, the mountain slopes sharply down into a deep valley. To the west sits a dark wood of ancient trees, thick-limbed with huge tangled roots twisting down into the earth like giant swamp-adders. It’s still several hours before noon, but the space under the heavy branches is dark, only moss and a few straggling weeds managing to grow in the shady earth. A crooked wooden post is the only marker of the path that cuts westward through the trees, hardly more than a deer trail.

“Oho, has the little monkey been listening to too many ghost stories?” Gojyo extends his long legs and takes a smug puff of his cig.

Goku gives him an annoyed glance. “I haven’t, you stupid kappa.” He looks back at the woods defiantly. “It just feels creepy.”

“That had better not be laziness talking,” says Sanzo, getting out of the front seat. “It’s a two day walk to the next town through there. The road is a week. We’re going that way even if a ghost comes right out here and bites you in the ass.”

“Hopefully not,” says Hakkai mildly, beginning to unload their baggage. Gojyo joins him, packing the loose tins and canteens away into a backpack.

“Don’t worry; it’d bite Sanzo-sama first. Ghosts can smell frauds a mile away.”

“How about perverts?” growls Sanzo, revolver in one hand and spare ammunition in the other. And then, glancing at Goku, still in the back seat, “Move your ass, monkey.”

Goku, still staring at the trees, startles as he’s called. But jumps down quickly enough and grabs his bag, and one of the spare equipment packs. “Right.”

***

Once inside, they find that the forest is almost as dark as it looked from the road. Some light does filter down through the thick, dull leaves, and once their eyes adjust it’s not dangerously dim. But colour doesn’t register properly, the world bleeding out into a grey-green spectrum. The massive roots have shaped the earth, pushing up hills and digging fens, so that they are constantly climbing over or tumbling down steep inclines.

“Fuck,” says Gojyo, pausing to catch his breath after only two hours of walking, “this is ridiculous. We should have taken the goddamn road. It’s there for a reason.”

“No one wants to hear your whining,” Sanzo informs him curtly, climbing past.

“I must say, it is good exercise,” adds Hakkai, passing him on his other side, Jeep on his shoulder.

“Maybe you’re just going soft,” finishes Goku, scrambling by.

“Yeah. Right. We’ll see who’s laughing after another day of this crap,” mutters Gojyo. No one listens.

***

As night falls and less and less light filters down through the thick canopy, the forest goes from grey to black. Flashlights carve long tunnels of dim light through the trees, but they’re poor at illuminating the deep pits that have formed between the tree bulbs and are now just shadowy maws, waiting to swallow up unwary travellers. Gojyo pitches down into one nearly four feet deep, pack spilling all its contents on the mossy floor while he curses at it and kicks a can into the soft earthen wall.

The other three wait for him to re-pack his backpack, Jeep curled up around Hakkai’s neck in dragon form like a white scarf. “Perhaps we should consider making camp soon,” suggests Hakkai, streaming his torch around into the towering trees on either side of the thin trail. There is space enough between the trees for individual sleepers, but no open clearings that would accommodate all four of them.

From all around them come the sounds of the forest in the evening: strange birds calling to each other, leaves rustling ominously, and the wind whispering in the trees. It’s an eerie, restless sound that pervades the entire atmosphere, constant and inescapable.

“Here?” asks Goku, uncertainly. In the semi-darkness his pupils are saucer-wide, irises just a thin golden ring around them. He peers into the trees, shuddering involuntarily and pulling his cape closer around him.

“We haven’t passed anywhere more hospitable in the past half hour. Pressing on further in this darkness seems inadvisable.” Hakkai reaches down to help pull Gojyo out of his pit; the red-head scrambles out on all fours like a dog, hands dark with leaf mould.

“Ch’. Goddamn forest,” spits Gojyo, producing a cigarette and lighting it with a huffing breath.

“I don’t like it here,” says Goku quietly, hands fisted tight in the fabric of his cape. “’S all wrong.”

Hakkai gives him a concerned look. “Wrong how, Goku?”

Goku shakes his head. “Just wrong. Like nails down a chalkboard. It feels… creepy,” he says again, miserably.

Gojyo pockets his lighter and drops his hand on Goku’s head, mussing up his hair. “Look monkey, there’s nothing out there but a long, uncomfortable night full of tree roots. Maybe a boar or two for company.”

Goku pushed his hand away, turning heatedly on his heel. “How would you know, ya pervy kappa? Have you ever been in woods like this?”

“I’ve been in plenty of weird-ass woods,” retorts Gojyo, snappishly. “But woods don’t kill people – that’s up to youkai, and I don’t sense any here. Do you?”

Goku shakes his head reluctantly.

“There you go. Hakkai’s right. Let’s make camp; no point shuffling around in the dark like morons.”

“You’re the only moron here,” breaks in Sanzo unexpectedly. He’s standing with one arm crossed across his stomach supporting the elbow of the other, which is raised to hold a cigarette. The smoke streams upwards in a narrow band that twists like a living thing in the breeze. The end glows red in the darkness. “But he’s right,” he adds, turning to Goku; “there are no youkai here.”

“I know that,” replies Goku, indignantly.

Hakkai turns his flashlight to illuminate the path forward. “Would you feel better if we went further?”

Goku shakes his head adamantly.

“We’re not turning back,” says Sanzo, flatly. “Hakkai’s right. Here’s as good as anyplace to stop. Build a fire if you can – greenwood doesn’t burn well.”

“Maybe you’ll feel better if you pummel a few trees,” suggests Gojyo. He produces the shakujyou and snaps out the sickle; it slices through the air and several branches fall to earth.

“Yeah, maybe,” Goku says doubtfully, and starts collecting the wood.

***

With most of their cooking utensils buried deep in their packs and not enough water to clean them, they settle for eating their dinner cold out of cans.

“Maybe we should tell ghost stories,” says Gojyo, tossing his final emptied can of beans into the pack designated for trash – Sanzo oversees their recycling with the eagle eyes of a hall monitor and metes out punishment for transgressions with the harisen.

Goku shoots him an irritated glare. “’M not afraid of ghosts,” he says firmly.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” interrupts Sanzo. He’s sitting on a fallen log, cigarette in hand and an open flask resting beside his boot. The fires flames paint his golden hair a darker brass.

Hakkai looks up, eyes steady. “You don’t believe a man can be haunted?” His fingers are knit gently together, his legs crossed beneath him.

“By his memories? Of course. By the spirit of a dead human made manifest? No.”

Hakkai’s smile is enigmatic. “I envy your certainty.”

“You believe in ghosts, Hakkai?” asks Goku, eyes wide.

“I believe much in this life is unexplained. And my faith in the omniscience of Heaven is…”

“Weaker than Sanzo’s karaoke skills?” suggests Gojyo. Sanzo kicks a can at his head.

“Not entire,” finishes Hakkai, ignoring the ensuing squabble between Sanzo and Gojyo. “What about you, Goku?”

Goku shakes his head. “I dunno. I don’t think there are any good answers. I guess I think everyone should live this life like it’s all there is.”

“An admirable sentiment.”

“And anyway, I don’t think the woods are haunted. I just think they’re real creepy. I dunno how else to explain it.” He kicks at the earth in irritation, clods of dirt flying into the fire and making it crackle.

“‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’” quotes Hakkai, kindly. “Many things are unexplained, even by math and science.”

Goku looks at the former teacher, eyes wide. “I thought you thought math solved everything, Hakkai,” he says.

Hakkai chuckles. “Just most things.”

On the other side of the fire, Sanzo breaks out his revolver to end the quarrel with Gojyo in a volley of shots.

***

They sleep in thin sleeping bags on the mossy earth, the trees above them alive with sounds. Owls and foxes, bats and wild cats, snakes and mice, all are out seeking food. There’s a constant rustling in the background: leaves whispering, ancient bows creaking, beasts scurrying.

Goku sits wrapped in his sleeping back, golden eyes watchful as the rest of the group sleeps. After two years in the wilderness they sleep silently, still and motionless in their makeshift beds. No energy to waste on restlessness.

Goku sniffs at the breeze that passes through their half-formed camp; it smells of mildew and rotting leaves and something darker – old blood and bare bones. The scents of death and decay. He hitches the quilted sleeping bag tighter around his shoulders, chin sinking to tuck in against his chest. He looks over to Sanzo, just a dark lump topped by tow-coloured hair glinting in the dying fire’s embers. The priest is sleeping soundly, the deep sounds of his breaths just barely audible. Safe – for the moment.

Goku sighs quietly and hunkers down in the narrow space between two thick tree roots. In the woods behind him a heavy bird takes flight, its wings beating rapidly in the darkness, its call echoing and eerie. Goku’s eyes and diadem gleam a matching gold in what remains of the fire; he sits unblinking, staring out at the darkness.

***

Dawn arrives slowly. It shines a dismal, sorry light on the grey ashes of last night’s fire and the makeshift camp around it. Goku, who never really slept, is the first up. He brushes his teeth and takes a brief trip to relieve himself, then returns expecting to find the others up. But while Sanzo is now rising and pulling on his neatly-folded robes, the other two are still in their sleeping bags, unmoving.

“Pair of lazy assholes,” comments Sanzo, lighting a cigarette. “Oi, Hakkai. Gojyo.”

The lump that is Hakkai moves slowly, the former-preschool teacher drawing in a deep breath and sitting up. He rubs at his good eye, movements slow and lethargic. His face is wan in the unflattering daylight filtering in through the thick canopy, eyes shadowed and skin pale. Beside him Jeep is nudging at his chin as if trying to push him up. “What time is it?” he asks, yawning.

“Past time for us to be going if we want to be out of these goddamn woods before nightfall,” replies Sanzo. “So rise and fucking shine already.” He walks over to Gojyo, still asleep despite the commotion. “Kappa, get your ass in gear,” he snaps, kicking at Gojyo’s leg.

Gojyo gives a muffled groan and rolls over, failing to wake. Sanzo’s eye twitches. Goku hurries over to intervene, kneeling down and shaking Gojyo’s shoulders. “Gojyo. Gojyo!

Finally Gojyo’s eyes slide open fractionally, revealing a sliver of crimson. “’S’a matter?” he mumbles, swatting drunkenly at Goku’s hand.

“You’ve gotta wake up,” says Goku, concern in his voice now.

“Nn.” Gojyo’s eyes slide shut again, his head lolling to the side.

Goku looks up at Sanzo. The priest is standing silhouetted against a column of light falling through the leaves, looking very much his Heaven-Ordained role. His expression is black.

Hakkai has by now struggled to his feet, although his limbs are heavy and his eyes dull. “Gojyo?” he too kneels beside the red-head, reaching out to catch Gojyo’s jaw in his hands and turn his head. “His skin is cold and his pulse is slow,” he says, looking up at Sanzo with concern.

“There’s no way he caught hypothermia out here if he didn’t in the mountains.”

“I agree. And he ate nothing different than any of us last night.” Hakkai pinches the bridge of his nose, his eyes narrowed. “I myself am having a hard time concentrating. It’s as if I’ve been drugged.”

“You said it: we all ate the same food last night. And only Gojyo and I drank,” says Sanzo. He looks at Goku, who’s squatting beside Gojyo. “The monkey and I are both fine.”

“I can’t explain it. I haven’t noticed anything in the air or water either.” Hakkai pulls back his hand and slaps Gojyo’s cheek, hard.

Gojyo’s eyes flicker open, his face contorting in pain. “The hell?” he demands, words slightly slurred. He looks up at Hakkai. “Hakkai?”

“It’s time to wake up,” says Hakkai, in a voice meant for 5 year-olds. “Don’t fall asleep again. Are you listening?”

“Yes mother,” drawls Gojyo tiredly, rolling his eyes. He sits up and rubs his forehead. “Fuck, I feel messed up.” He looks over to Hakkai, then up to Sanzo. “What’s going on?”

“We don’t know,” replies Hakkai. “You and I both seem affected, as if by some sort of drug.”

Goku looks around, arms crossed tightly over his chest. “It’s this place. It doesn’t want us here. We shouldn’t be here –”

“Enough,” barks Sanzo, crossing over to his bedroll and quickly packing up. “There’s nothing evil in this forest, no waiting malignity. If you two are suffering from something, there’s no opportunity for aid out here. So pick up the pace and stow the whining.”

“Maa, Sanzo-sama, so sympathetic,” mutters Gojyo, staggering to his feet.

Slowly, Hakkai and Gojyo moving with leaden limbs, they pack up the camp site and pick up the trail west again.

***

“Sanzo…” Goku’s voice is cautious, calling up from the end of their straggling line. Sanzo’s in the lead, with neither the patience nor the interest to slow his pace. Hakkai and Gojyo are struggling along, both too focused on walking in straight lines to keep up a conversation; Jeep is flying between them like a harried retriever, trying to urge them both onwards. Goku’s hanging back at the tail of the line keeping an eye on them. Every now and then he catches Gojyo as he staggers, points the red-head in the right direction. He’s also carrying Gojyo’s spare pack.

“Let me guess,” replies Sanzo dryly without looking back. “You’re hungry?”

“Well, yeah, but… I smell something. Something bad.”

Sanzo does look back now, eyes sharp. “Bad how?”

“Like corpses. I smelled it last night, but I thought it was just an animal or something. But it’s not. It’s worse.”

Sanzo stops and the other three catch up, gathering under an immense oak tree covered in lichen and moss. The grey growth hangs from the gnarled branches like matted hair, dirty and unkempt. There’s a thick smell of damp earth and decomposition, but Goku’s nose is twitching. “It’s real bad, Sanzo,” he says, quietly.

Without warning the Smith & Wesson is in Sanzo’s hand, snub-nosed revolver glinting in the dim light. “Where?” His voice is low, gruff.

Goku points. “Close by.”

“I’ll go see. You stay here with these two,” he says, thumbing at Gojyo and Hakkai.

Although the path they’ve been following through the woods barely deserves the name, there is a beaten track to guide them. As Sanzo makes his way into the brush there’s no trail to follow, just slippery moss on the side of treacherous slopes and dark trees reaching upwards to obscure the sun. It grows noticeably darker and he slows his pace, gun ready in his hand.

About half a mile from the path is a pit. It’s deep but not wide, trees gathered around it like looming guardians. Apart from the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, it’s dead silent.

Sanzo treads over to the side of the pit and looks down. His frown deepens.

Inside are dozens of youkai in various states of decomposition. Some still have flesh showing tattoos and pointed ears. Many are skeletons. There are no animals feeding on the rotting remains; there’s not a single living thing in sight, except for the trees.

Sanzo stands by the pit for less than a minute before turning and walking back to the path in even, measured steps.

Goku’s waiting for his return, back tense and eyes watchful. Beside him both Hakkai and Gojyo have sat down; Hakkai is also watching for Sanzo’s return, but Gojyo has leant up against the tree beside him and is slipping into sleep.

“Sanzo?”

“You were right. There’s an open grave of youkai back there. Dozens of them. Most of them have been there for months or years.”

“Only youkai?” asks Hakkai, blinking at Sanzo tiredly.

“Didn’t see any humans.”

“So something in these woods is killing youkai,” says Goku.

“Probably. Although there weren’t any obvious signs of injuries. Not that there was much left to go by. It was as if they had just…”

“Fallen asleep?” finishes Goku. He looks to Gojyo and Hakkai; Gojyo is slumped to one side and Hakkai is beginning to nod. “Hey! Wake up! Hakkai – Gojyo!”

“We’re more than halfway through the woods. We have no choice but to keep going,” says Sanzo. He strides over and gives Gojyo a hard shake. “Oi, kappa! Wake up!”

Gojyo groans, shoulder slipping and face rubbing against the tree’s rough bark. He blinks, catching himself. His head is low, lank hair slipping over his face. “Wha’s happening?” he slurs, reaching out to splay one hand against the tree, stopping himself from slipping further to the ground.

“We’re leaving,” says Sanzo. “Because none of you bastards are going to end up in that pit. So let’s go.” He reaches down and fists his hand in Gojyo’s collar, dragging the taller man up to his feet.

Beside him, Goku has managed to chivvy Hakkai into standing, although he looks unsteady, eyes unfocused. Jeep is mewling at him, licking his cheek.

They go.

***

An hour later, they haven’t made much progress. Sanzo and Goku are actively supporting Hakkai and Gojyo, who are stumbling like drunkards, hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. They’ve taken several spills into the sharp dips between the trees, Sanzo ripping his palms open in one of them, Gojyo twisting his wrist in another.

“Sanzo?” Goku, bent low under Gojyo’s weight, looks over at the priest. Sanzo grunts. “I think I’m starting to feel funny.”

“Define funny.”

“Dizzy. Tired. My head’s all fuzzy.”

“Don’t you dare catch whatever these two have, Goku. I’m not carrying all three of you out of here on my back.”

“Okay Sanzo,” he says tiredly, head nodding.

Sanzo looks over, violet eyes sharp. “I mean it Goku. Hold it together.”

“Mn.”

***

After another hour Gojyo collapses entirely, spilling down to the ground and taking Goku down with him. He doesn’t catch himself, doesn’t even twitch as he hits the ground. After a moment Goku crawls out from under the red-head’s weight, then lies curled on the dank, dark earth. His eyes are closed, face damp with sweat.

Sanzo, supporting the half-conscious Hakkai, stops and looks down. “Get up, Goku.”

Goku’s eyes slide open. He doesn’t move otherwise, breathing hard. “Can’t.”

“It wasn’t a request: Get. Up.”

Slowly, like a sprout growing towards the sun, Goku pulls himself to his hands and knees, then up shakily to his feet. His stance is wide, his balance precarious. He looks like a young foal on his feet for the first time, barely able to remain upright.

“Good. Come here and help Hakkai.” Sanzo’s speaking slowly as if addressing a child. Goku steps carefully over.

Hakkai’s drooping against Sanzo, his head resting against Sanzo’s shoulder, his eyes only half-open. He tries to rouse himself as Goku grabs hold of his arm and slips himself under Hakkai’s shoulder, but barely manages to hold himself up for the time it takes for Sanzo to transfer his weight to Goku.

Unencumbered, the priest walks over to Gojyo. “Kappa. Kappa! Gojyo!

On the ground, Gojyo doesn’t move. Sanzo squats down and slaps his face, hard: nothing. Gojyo remains stretched out on the dark earth, his long red hair like a crimson pool beneath his head. Sanzo sighs. “It would be you, shitty kappa.” He grabs Gojyo’s wrist and, shifting his weight and rising, pulls the taller and heavier man onto his shoulders. “Fuck I need a smoke,” he mutters to himself. And then, turning to Goku, “Let’s go.”

***

They struggle along through the dark woods, their boots skidding on slick moss and sinking into damp earth. The trees cast crooked shadows over them, ancient limbs twisting and creaking overhead.

The forest is beginning to darken, sun setting somewhere beyond the trees, when Goku falls. He’s stumbled dozens of times, has struggled on and on, but this time his foot skids out from under him and he can’t catch himself. He goes down hard, Hakkai mostly unconscious and nothing but a further weight, and doesn’t rise.

“Goku,” says Sanzo, voice hoarse. Sweat is running down his face, his brows very narrow. He’s trembling from Gojyo’s weight on his shoulders, unable to stop in case he can’t start again. “Get up.”

Goku doesn’t answer.

“Goku,” says Sanzo again, more sharply.

Goku remains still, heaped on the ground, his limbs intertwined with Hakkai’s and his cheek pressed into the dirt.

“Damn it, monkey. Wake up!

No response.

For a moment Sanzo stands, staring down at him. Then, a tight hiss of pain slipping through his teeth, he drops to his knees and releases Gojyo. The red-head tumbles to the ground, unconscious and unmoving beside the other two youkai.

“You complete and utter bastards,” hisses Sanzo, very out of breath.

Jeep, who had been nuzzling Hakkai’s face, looks up and chirrups. His tiny face is long with concern, his brows slanted downwards over red eyes. His tiny claws are dug into Hakkai’s shirt, his wings half-spread to cover his master.

There’s no way a jeep could fit through the narrow tracks between the trees. The steep rises and dips filling the space between trees are too sharp for the truck to pass without immediately skidding down into one and becoming inexorably stuck. And Jeep in his dragon form is far too small to carry out even Goku.

“Can you go and scout out how far we are from the exit?”

The little dragon nods. “Kyu!” He takes off, flapping awkwardly through the low-hanging branches and slowly disappearing into the darkness.

Sanzo looks at his three companions, lying heaped on the ground like a child’s abandoned toys. Eventually he rises and pulls them to lie apart, limbs neat and faces turned skywards. Gojyo and Hakkai he moves mechanically, gripping them by their shoulders and yanking them into something resembling straightness. Goku he picks up with greater hair; he brushes the dirt from Goku’s cheek with his thumb, runs his hand over the younger man’s silken hair.

But Goku’s golden eyes remain closed, his breathing quiet and steady. Sanzo lays him down beside the other two, the three of them no longer like discarded dolls, but like corpses.

Frowning, Sanzo steps back into the shadow of a tall beach tree and pulls out his gun. Then he sits down to wait.

***

He hears their assailant first: the snuffling of a dog and the whisper of cloth. She comes in buttery candlelight, a lantern in one hand and a shining knife in the other.

Watching from behind the tree, Sanzo can she she’s a young woman dressed as a priestess or shaman, her skirt leaf-green and her dudou shirt cream with green embroidery; her feet are bare. Long colourful ribbons trail from the hems of her dudou and from her upswept hair; thin gold bracelets adorn her wrists and ankles. The dog beside her is tall and hairy, clearly built for the mountains.

She stops in front of the three unconscious youkai and looks down, her face grave. The dog is whining, his hackles raised, and she pats its head absently even as she steps forward with the knife.

Sanzo moves out from behind the tree, revolver pointed straight at her head. “That’s far enough.”

Her eyes snap up to meet his. Her face is the shape of a watermelon seed, her eyes like almonds. They’re wide with fear, but she doesn’t step back. “Why have you travelled here with these beasts?” she asks, gesturing angrily to the bodies before her. “You are not one of them.”

“It’s too long a story to tell,” replies Sanzo. “Why do you want to kill them?”

“They come here to destroy my people. Ever since two years ago, every beast to enter the forest has come only with rage and bloodlust. We are few; we cannot fight them.”

“So you put them to sleep and dispose of their corpses. Is that it?”

Her lip curls, her eyes hard now. “It is not wrong to defend oneself.”

“No,” agrees Sanzo. “But the four of us are travelling west to stop the youkai madness. Release them, and we will leave tonight.”

“I cannot let you go now that you know we are here.”

Sanzo’s eyes narrow. “I’ve known since this afternoon. Since we found your neat little burial pit. Bodies don’t throw themselves into pits naturally.”

Silently, she bends and puts down the knife and the lantern on the ground. Sanzo watches, gun unwavering. Rising again, she locks her fingers together in an unfamiliar form. “Father Earth, Mother Sky, nine dragons riding the winds; drums beat, leave shake, the ground quakes, the stars fall. Lord of Dreams, hear the voice of she who calls you, take this heathen under your spell.”

It’s magic, a primitive, shamanistic power held by the tribesman high in the mountains. Nothing like the rigid doctrine of Buddhism; it’s raw and unformed. The wind whistles in the trees and the sounds of animals in the night die away. There’s no form or smell to the magic, but Sanzo falls back a step, throwing an arm up in front of his face. His revolver drops from his fingers, hitting the earth with a thud, and he falls slowly to his knees. His violet eyes are closing.

“Sleep forevermore,” says the shaman, with a smile.

Sanzo lifts his head slow as though weighed down by leaded weights. His nails are digging into his ripped palms, blood soaking his fingertips. Sweat runs down his face; his eyes burn violet. “On mani hatsu mei un. Makai Tenjyou!

The sutra flies outwards, its indigo aura illuminating the falling dark. There’s a brief struggle as old magic meets new, and then the sutra rolls right over the sleep spell, shattering it like glass beneath a hammer.

The shaman falls back, her eyes wide and staring. “What are you?” she demands, making a warding sign. Beside her the dog barks madly, sensing its mistress’ fear and distress, but shies away from attacking. From high above Jeep returns, whistling downwards and landing sharply on Hakkai. From his position on his master’s body, he hisses at the dog.

“The 31st of China, Genjyo Sanzo,” replies Sanzo, bending down to pick up his revolver. “And if you don’t want me to raze this whole goddamn forest, you’ll take your spells and enchantments and leave us the hell alone.”

On the ground beside him, Goku stirs, eyes flickering open. He stares up at the priest above him. “Nn. Sanzo?”

Sanzo glances downwards. “Get up, monkey. And wake up those other two bastards.” He looks back to the woman, now backing up slowly. “Well? Do we have a deal?”

“Never return to these woods again,” she says, hands still upraised.

“Trust me, it’s the last thing on my mind,” replies Sanzo. She makes a sign, and the candle in the lantern dies.

In the moment it takes for Sanzo to light his flashlight, she’s vanished.

***

They stumble out of the forest that night to find the stars bright in the sky above, the night cold and crisp after the dankness of the woods.

Gojyo breathes deeply, making a sound of contentment. “Haa. Never thought I’d be so glad to be out in the open,” he says, hitching his backpack higher on his shoulders.

“I thought you said you’d been in plenty creepy-ass woods,” retorts Goku.

“Sure I have. But none quite this batshit. We almost slept our way into our graves! Thankfully Sanzo-sama saved us,” he adds, sidling up to Sanzo. “I never would’ve thought you had it in you, Sanzo!” he says, throwing his arm around Sanzo’s shoulder.

“And you can thank me by jumping off the next cliff we come to so I don’t have to worry about your sorry ass again,” retorts Sanzo, elbowing him hard in the gut. Gojyo folds up, groaning; Sanzo keeps walking.

Hakkai tickles Jeep under the chin. “Well,” he says to the dragon, indicating the open road before them. “Shall we get going?”

“Shouldn’t we stop for the night?” asks Goku, glancing at Sanzo. The priest looks at the stars.

“There’s enough light. And we’ve got miles more to go. Unless you’re telling me you’re tired after that nap you took?” he adds, raising the harisen.

“Nu-uh, I’m good! Let’s go!”

Jeep transforms and they load up. Moon rising over the horizon, they head west.

END

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