Do you remember how we met?" Hassan asked as he watched Sharak light a cigarette. They'd just finished eating breakfast and going over the day's tasks. Now they were outside, on a small balcony, enjoying a quiet moment in the sunshine.
She looked over at him. The air was cold and crisp, and when she spoke, he could see her breath. "I don't."
Her answer was what he'd expected. He smiled and turned his gaze toward the steep cliffs and small villages under Sharak's protection, searching for anything out of order.
"Well?" she prodded. "Was it during our training?"
"Yes." He could feel her watching him.
"Then it's no wonder I don't remember. We were both very fixated."
He forced the smile from his face, knowing that by the end, their training fixations had been very different. Well, at least, his were.
Choosing his words carefully, he asked, "Do you remember how the others picked on you at first?"
"Che. Just like everyone did." She rubbed her bare arm, warming it in the frosty air. "Just like you."
He opened his mouth his mouth to disagree and then closed it. Finally, unable to leave it, he said, "I didn't."
Sharak took a long drag of her cigarette. "Ah, now I remember. What you did was much worse."
Hassan wanted to argue with her, but he didn't. At the heart of the matter, she was right.
Unwanted images of those difficult days flooded his memory. Back during the sanzo training, the other candidates had bitterly complained about her when she'd showed up.
Hassan had already been made a target by several of the other trainees. He'd proven himself proficient in fighting and spells, and because of that, he was the leading candidate. His isolation hadn't bothered him. He'd worked hard and was simply better. But her arrival had changed everything.
"Hey, Hassan," Tsering whispered during their calligraphy class. "Did you hear there's a new member in our group?"
Hassan set his brush aside. "How can that be? We're already a week into the training."
"I know." Tsering was a small man with a gaze that never rested, flickering from person to person but never making eye contact. "Special circumstances or something. But that's not the biggest thing!"
"Well?" Hassan stared at him. "Are you going to make me ask?"
"She's a woman!"
"What? A woman?"
"Yes!" Tsering's cheeks were bright red. "Some of the other candidates are already trying to get her disqualified."
"Why?" Hassan asked. "Women aren't excluded. Those guys should concentrate on getting better themselves instead of worrying about new trainees."
Tsering rolled his eyes. "You're so naive. Some people will do anything to win, you know."
"The training is pretty grueling just to get here. She can probably take care of herself."
"But you know those bullies. They'll play dirty."
The door opened. As the room fell silent, Hassan got his first look at the new sanzo candidate. She swept into the room like she was of regal birth, proud and sure, and gave little notice to anyone else in the room.
Women didn't normally leave much an impact on Hassan, he was after all, a monk. But there was something different about her. She was tall and thin, and deep scars marked both cheeks of her pretty face. The grace and power that she emanated literally took his breath away.
The gray-haired instructor stood next to the newcomer, shorter than her by nearly a foot. "Students, I'd like to introduce a new addition to the training pool." There were rumbled mutterings and for a moment, Hassan could not hear. "--no, her monastery was attacked by marauding bandits and she was detained. Please be sure to introduce yourself to her later. Now, let's get back to work."
"Wow," Tsering croaked out as his gaze darted around the room and back to the new candidate. "She looks terrifying."
"Yeah," Hassan said, swallowing hard. He'd been unable to hear what name they'd called her by.
"And what about those scars!"
"Yeah." Hassan watched her flowing steps as she found a desk and flopped down. "They're so very ... tantalizing."
"You two!" their instructed shouted at them. "Quiet!"
A few days later, Hassan happened to overhear three of the meaner candidates. He was in the communal baths, just out after finishing his training.
"She must've pulled strings to become a candidate. You've seen her, Qiman!" bully number one insisted. Hassan thought his name was Zemar or something like that.
"I'll bet she threatened someone," Qiman added. "You saw the scars on her face, right? She's probably just part of a gang and they got her in."
Bully number three just nodded his head.
"Yeah! There's no way someone that scrawny could beat any of us in hand-to-hand."
"The head of training wouldn't listen to me when I talked to him. He said she was qualified, but I think someone is greasing palms or something."
"I say we should do something about it," Zemar said.
Hassan finally had enough. "I think you should leave her alone."
"Oh, look, it's the favorite son," Qiman sneered.
"I would think you'd want to get rid of her, too," Zemar challenged.
Hassan shook his head. "Why? We'll be fighting one another eventually. If she's not capable, she'll wash out then."
Qiman waved his hands. "You're pathetic! She cheated to get in past the admittance time. "
Hassan shrugged. "I've got nothing to worry about. But you must, huh?"
"You ass!" Zemar shouted. "Are you forgetting there's three of us here?"
Hassan smiled and said, "You're kidding, right?"
"Oh, let me guess, you're gonna run to the instructors and rat us out." Bully number three had finally joined the conversation.
"No, like I said, I'm not worried about it." Hassan stood up, towering over the little creeps. "But let's get something straight, if you do pick on her, you'll have me to answer to."
"Oh, really?" A new voice said from behind Hassan. A female voice.
Hassan froze. There were two problems with what was happening. First, he was sure she'd overheard only part of the conversation. Secondly, he was naked.
He floundered for some way to explain, "Oh, wait, I didn't mean ... It's not―"
A towel hit him in the back of the head. "Get dressed."
"Why?" He wrapped the towel around his waist and turned.
She was scowling as she pointed the bullies. "You three can referee a match, right?"
Zemar blinked several times before saying, "Uh―"
"Good. Outside." She stepped closer and poked at Hassan's chest. "And you! If you try to throw this match because you feel sorry for me, I'll beat you bloody."
"Wait!" Hassan wanted to go after her right away. To make it right. He felt terrible, but looking over at the three smirking bullies, he suspected things would only get worse.
News of the battle had traveled fast, and by the time he'd dressed and stepped out of the bathing room, nearly every student was waiting. They were there to watch the fight between him and the new candidate.
"This is foolish," he said to her. "I don't want to fight you."
"That's because you aren't taking me seriously. You're no different from them," she hissed at him. "Do you really think I need your help?"
Hassan looked at the circle of monks around, their eyes shining with excitement. They didn't care who won, as long as someone was knocked out of the race. The bloodthirsty, jealous fools.
"No, but look," Hassan said, trying to ignore her fierce look of anger. "I didn't--"
She punched him.
His vision blurred and his ears rang. He took a step back on wobbly legs and shook his head. "Hey!"
"I am not a charity case!" She took a step and spun, her back leg swinging around with full power. He tried to dodge, but she was too quick for him. Her foot slammed into his stomach, knocking the air out of him, and this time, he did fall to the ground.
She squatted in front of him as clutched as his stomach and tried to catch his breath. "You'd best not think of me as a woman. When I wear these robes, I'm a monk in sanzo training. Like you."
The crowd started to jeer. Their taunts mixed with her public chastising fueled Hassan's competitive spirit. And even though he hadn't meant to, he ended up fighting in earnest, mistakenly thinking she would be easy to defeat. He did have height and weight on her, but she was faster and better trained.
Despite its slow start, their match was epic, and it lasted for what seemed like hours. Finally, with both of them bruised and bloodied, one of the instructors had discovered them and ended it. They'd also received extra tedious duties to help cool their heads.
He never did manage to explain that he'd only been trying to protect her. As if she'd needed protecting.
Hassan's memory melted away, and he sighed. "I suppose you still haven't forgiven me."
"Never," she said with a small smile. "I had to make a statement and you were the obvious choice. But I can't avoid the fact that you were essentially ostracized after that."
"True." Once the match was over, for some reason, no other candidate had been comfortable in his presence. Initially, Hassan thought they'd felt sympathy for him. But later, after Sharak had consistently proven herself to be the best choice for sanzo, they'd still left him isolated. Even Tsering avoided him.
But Sharak hadn't. Of course, she hadn't really accepted him, either. And after some gentle persistence on Hassan's part, she grew tolerant of him. But it was an icy tolerance at best.
"I was glad when you were named successor," Hassan said.
She narrowed her eyes. "Why do you say that?"
"Had I won the right to be sanzo, I'm not sure we'd still be together."
She made a funny noise, a quiet growling sound of warning. He was treading on very dangerous ground. Her status made their relationship both simple and complicated. Sharak was in charge. Always. If he pressed it, he would most likely earn a temporary reassignment away from the fortress. She'd done that to him in the past.
"Well," he said, placing his hat onto his head, its animal tail sliding over his shoulder. "I suppose I should get down to the village that was attacked yesterday. Some of the fortifications need reinforcement."
"Huh." She gave him an unguarded slow blink before crushing out her cigarette.
His gun was propped up against the wall, and as he reached for it, she said, "Are you still planning to head for the Eastern border tomorrow?"
"Yes, in the morning. As I reported, our scouts say there's been an increase in youkai there. I'll take a small contingent with me and take a look. There aren't many places to get through there, but I'd like to check it out thoroughly. I should be back in a couple of days."
"Then you should dine with me tonight."
He paused, his heart thumping in his chest like a love-struck schoolboy. He was always looking for ways to be with Sharak, and it wasn't unusual to have dinner with her. "But it's Tuesday. You've been very clear about Tuesdays being time for yourself."
"Che," she muttered. "You're always pestering to eat with me, aren't you? Do you want to or not?"
"Of course, I want to." He turned for the door. She was so prickly, but that was one of the traits he found so endearing.
"At seven. Don't be late."
"Yes," he said as he walked away. "We're supposed to get wine in today, I'll make sure to have some available."
Sharak's dinner invitation was a happy surprise. Hassan steps were light with his anticipation as he followed the well-known path to Aadil's front door.
Aadil was Hassan's lieutenant and close friend. He'd been among the first to become an acolyte to Sharak Sanzo. Hassan trusted Aadil. In fact, Hassan was nearly part of Aadil's family. He spent more time in their home than in his own.
Before knocking, Hassan forced the groofy grin from his face. Tahgrid, Aadil's wife, was sharp and while there was much speculation about Hassan and Sharak's relationship, he preferred to not discuss it.
Tahgrid opened the door. She was a small woman, but strong in both mind and body, she'd also been an early acolyte. Her household was run with efficiency and no one questioned who was in charge. There were many strong women in the order, perhaps it was another benefit of having Sharak Sanzo as their leader.
"Ah, Hassan, good morning to you. Aadil is nearly ready. He's helping Lutfi with his homework. I'm finishing up breakfast. Come in."
"Good morning to you." Hassan stepped inside their comfortable home and followed her to the kitchen.
Tahgrid waved at a low table surrounded with cushions. "Sit. Would you like some tea?"
"No, thank you. I've already had breakfast."
"Will you be by for dinner tonight?" Tahgrid seemed to think of Hassan as a lost, lonely dog. She was constantly trying to make a match for him.
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, not tonight."
"Don't tell me Sharak Sanzo is requesting your presence tonight? But Tuesday is our night," Aadil said as he entered the room.
"She did ask me to have dinner there tonight. Something about the eastern border seems to be troubling her."
"That woman will kill herself with work." Tahgrid tched and poked at Hassan. "And you, too. What would we do without both of you?"
"Tahgrid, Sharak Sanzo doesn't request any more from Hassan than she'd give of herself." Aadil picked up a lentil roll and stuffed it in his mouth.
Tagrid frowned and began to wrap up some of the freshly made food. "Well, I think you should marry, Hassan. There's this lovely girl I know who's looking for a husband."
Hassan shifted uneasily.
"Hassan is married to his job," Aadil said, spitting bits of lentil roll.
"Don't speak with your mouth full. It's no wonder Lufti's manners are so bad," Tahgrid said. "But Hassan, as I was saying--"
"Leave the man alone." Aadil winked at Hassan. "You know any woman he meets would pale in comparison to Sharak Sanzo. He'd make a terrible husband."
Hassan tried to keep his features neutral as they both studied him.
Tahgrid finally broke the silence with a long sigh. "Well, I suppose you're right. Sharak Sanzo would be difficult to measure up to. But you could have more." She pursed her lips. "A family and a home."
"I have a home," he said softly. "And I'm content."
"Once again, this tired conversation has come to an end. Until the next time, that is." Aadil grinned and picked up his gun. "Let's go."
"Here's your lunch," Tahgrid said, holding out bundles of food to Hassan and Aadil. There was far more food than they could consume, it was more likely for the hungry people they would see along the way. Hassan suspected there were also a few items of clothing.
Hassan nodded. "Thank you, Tahgrid."
"Yes, yes," she said as she herded them outside. "Just be careful and bring Aadil back. He has some chores that need to be finished."
Aadil slung his gun over his shoulder and they walked down the path to the rendezvous point. "I hope Tahgrid's meddling doesn't offend you. She doesn't understand your loyalty to Sharak Sanzo and feels you're missing out."
"Of course it doesn't offend me,' Hassan said. He was, in fact, touched by his friend's concern for his well-being. He knew Tahgrid didn't understand his relationship with Sharak. Most people didn't, and that included Aadil. But he did keep silent on the subject, much to Hassan's appreciation.
The day was strenuous; a stone wall had been broken through, and there were several bodies that needed to be dealt with. Hassan stayed busy, careful to keep his thoughts from drifting toward Sharak's tall, trim frame and her long, beautiful fingers. Her lovely hands had been the second thing he'd noticed about her.
He remembered early in their relationship, back at sanzo training, one night he'd stumbled on her as she worked on smoothing her nails.
She'd been furious, shouting at him about invading her privacy. He'd felt as if he'd done something wrong, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was. He'd retreated in confusion and she didn't speak to him for several days after that. Several years passed before he'd connected the dots and realized she'd been embarrassed.
Tuesdays were Sharak's night to indulge her feminine side, he knew that. She didn't fixate about her looks or her clothes like some other women did, but she was oddly vain about her fingernails. He loved that about her, but she was so protective of―
He shook his head, seeing Aadil's concerned face. "Sorry. You were saying?"
"We're done, man." Aadil laughed at him. "You were miles away. What were you thinking about?"
"Tomorrow, of course," Hassan said with faltering confidence. "I'm just wondering what might cause a concentration of youkai on the eastern edge."
"Uh-huh." Aadil was definitely not convinced. "Come on, let's go home. I'm hungry."
Dinner. His stomach did a lazy flutter, as it always did, when he thought about quiet time with Sharak. "Yes, I'm ready."
He'd had enough time to take a quick shower and round up the wine before heading for Sharak's door. Outside, and right at seven o'clock, he knocked on her door.
Sharak was sitting on a cushion in her room. She wasn't wearing her sanzo robes; instead, she was wearing a red silk kimono she belted like a robe. In her hand was an emery board and she worked on smoothing her fingernails.
He stopped and stared at her, unsure of what he should do.
She paused and looked up at him. "Is that wine?"
"Uh ... Yes."
"Good." She calmly resumed filing her nails. "That other stuff was like drinking vinegar."
"I'll open it then."
He walked to a small cabinet Sharak used for wine and attempted to open the bottle. It was a simple task, one that he'd done a thousand times in his life, but for some stupid reason, he couldn't get his fingers to work. Finally, after fumbling about for a few moments, he managed to open it.
Silently, he recited a calming mantra, focusing on internal calm and not a red silk kimono. Once he was relatively sure he was more in control, he took closed the distance between them and held out a glass.
"Thank you," she said. As she took the wine, her fingers brushed against his.
He could feel his face heat from the contact and he took a deep drink. He'd inhaled part of it and it caused him to cough.
Her face lit up with a smile. "What's gotten into you today?"
"Nothing," he gasped. After clearing his throat he asked, "So, no robes?"
"Sometimes they need to be washed." She took a drink and sighed happily.
"Ah." He wanted to bash his head into the table, he was such an idiot. And to top it all off, his stomach started to growl.
Savory scents of vegetables and legumes in a spicy gravy, saffron rice, and a flatbread. His mouth watered and his stomach growled.
Sharak looked up at him through her dark eyelashes. "Did you skip lunch again today?"
"Yes." He didn't tell her about the villagers' limited food supply. She didn't need that worry piled on top of all the others.
"You need to eat. Get yourself a plate already." She leaned forward to place her glass on a table.
Her robe slid off one shoulder, exposing the scar that marked her. He'd heard many people whisper about her scars, how unfortunate they were. But he thought they made her more appealing, revealing her strength, announcing to the world that she―
His stomach growled again, this time much louder. "Right. I'll serve," he said as he sat down with the food."
"I'll be right there. Just let me put this stuff away."
He was filling their plates with vegetables and legumes in a spicy gravy, saffron rice, and flatbread as she joined him. As always, she flopped down on a cushion with little grace. She tugged her robe back into place, causing it to fall slightly open. Hassan half-heartedly tried to look away from the curve of Sharak's breast.
Luckily, she ignored his gaze and asked, "How were today's repairs?"
"Oh." Hassan cleared his throat. "They're finished for the most part."
"So tomorrow you'll be heading east?"
"There's ..." Sharak frowned and took a deep drink of her wine. "Something's coming."
Hassan nodded. For days, he'd felt as if something they'd not experienced before was about to occur. "Yes, I know."
"Feels like that time at sanzo training." Sharak took a spoonful of rice and dahl.
"It does." And as he ate, his thoughts drifted.
One of the last trials they'd had during sanzo training was a cross-country trek. The number of candidates had fallen sharply, and the new test seemed to be the most deadly so far. They were sent out in the deep winter snow to travel through the treacherous mountain passes. Among the possible challenges they would face were hungry wolves, marauding bandits, and yetis to be outwitted. Though, the crazy Sanzo in charge of the exercise assured them, the last encounter was unlikely.
Koumyou Sanzo went on to explain that the task was a battle of endurance and speed. Unfortunately, that was all he managed to get out before most of the candidates had left, running for their supplies and off to finish the race.
Hassan had hung around, knowing the weird Koumyou Sanzo had a tendency to ramble. Sometimes the point of the challenges he gave were steeped in a baffling stream of consciousness. And sometimes, Hassan suspected, there was no point. Staying behind while the other candidates raced for the trail was risky, but this time, it had definitely paid off.
"So, at the end of this exercise, you must have overcome the enemy while displaying cooperation and compassion."
"Koumyou, you took too long," Goudai Sanzo said with a heavy sigh. "Most of them are gone already."
"Are they?" Koumyou squinted at the nearly empty room. "Well, I guess they are. That's all right, they'll find out soon enough, I suppose."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Goudai muttered.
Hassan turned away. As he walked back he compiled a list of what he would need on his trip. Unlike many of others, he was familiar with mountains and the specific requirements. Weather was always a challenge and it was best to be prepared. He wasn't surprised to find Sharak waiting for him in the shared room.
"You heard what he said at the end, right?" he asked as he gathered warm clothing and a rope.
"I did." She shrugged into her pack. "Get your stuff and let's go."
He stared at her. "You mean together?"
"Hurry up, would you?" she demanded. Then she looked down the path toward their destination. "Something's ... There's something out there."
"You feel it, too?" Hassan felt tense, almost afraid of the test. He could feel a looming pressure just on the edge of his awareness, like a balloon that was about to burst. The feeling made his muscles tight, as if he needed to be ready to run.
They traveled quickly, with a sense of unspoken urgency, over well-worn paths with lots of footprints. But as the days passed, signs of previous travelers tapered off, becoming almost non-existent. They kept up their rapid pace, the feeling of darkness kept them moving. And on the third day of their journey, there were clear signs of snow, but little else to alarm them.
Except for the dead man on the path. His throat had been torn out and he had bites everywhere. And it looked as if he'd dragged himself down the trail.
"Hmm," Hassan said, getting close to the torn flesh. "This pattern of bites, it just doesn't look normal."
"So, not a bear?"
"No. There was more than one, but definitely not wolves or cats." He stood up and looked at his companion. "I've never seen anything like this. It looks human."
"Human? The village is supposed to be ahead, right?" She stared down the path.
"It's another day's walk, but yes," he said, and shivered. "Whatever we're feeling, it's there, isn't it?"
A chilly breeze caught her hair and it billowed around her. When she faced him again, her emotions were unreadable. She gazed down at the dead man and said, "We'll need to take care of him first."
After they'd buried the man, they moved out again. Once again, they made good time but when darkness fell, Hassan insisted they find someplace to camp. Sharak wasn't having it. She was determined to press on all night.
"Would you rather walk into a dark village not knowing what you're up against? We're tired and not at our best," he said, perhaps for the sixth time, as he built up a fire. "You need to think this through. I think it will snow soon. I wouldn't want to risk being trapped with whatever's ahead."
"I'm just―" He closed his mouth when she glared at him.
"You've made your point. Just leave it, already!" she snapped, sitting down on a rock and glowering with frustration.
After they ate an unsatisfying dinner of flatbread and beans, they sat around the fire in silence. Both of them were exhausted, as they'd slept little since they'd left the training camp. Hassan could feel aches in his body and his eyes felt scratchy. He watched the fire; its flickering light combined with the gentle snap of burning wood tempted him to sleep.
In the distance, a wolf howled. It was a lonely sound, but probably miles away. Sharak moved a little closer to him.
"Why don't you sleep?" he offered. "I'll take the first watch."
She opened her mouth, ready to protest but it was at best, half-hearted.
"I'll wake you in two hours. For your watch."
"All right," she agreed. "Two hours and no more."
As promised, he woke her for her shift. Snow was just beginning to fall as he drifted off. But when his internal clock woke him for his second rotation, he found himself alone.
He searched the campground, and while he didn't find evidence of a struggle, he couldn't determine which direction she'd gone. Snow fell steadily and as the thin morning light appeared, he rushed toward the village, nearly frantic for her safety. It was during his desperate, cold morning trek that he knew she meant more to him than a friend.
The village was small, maybe ten homes clustered together with a clearing at one end. Further away he could see another six or seven houses. But there wasn't any sound other than the crunch of his boots on the undisturbed snow. There were no footprints, animal or otherwise.
He paused at one of the houses. After receiving no answer to his knock, he tried the door. It was unlocked, and he cautiously stepped inside. Normally, he wouldn't have been so bold, but images of a dead Sharak with bite marks all over her spurred him on.
"Hello?" he called out, walking into a cold, empty room, reeking of rot. On a small table, there were plates covered with moldy food. Nearby was a cooking pot positioned over a long dead fire. There were no signs of a fight, but it was as if the occupants had left in the middle of a meal.
The door was hanging open at the next house. Snow had accumulated inside the small dwelling, but other than that, he didn't see anything different from the first house. Dinner was set out on the table and nothing was out of place. Wind whistled through the open door, a lonely, haunted sound.
Hassan was on edge. There was no sign of Sharak, and as he walked to the next building, he couldn't shake his feeling that something very bad had happened. The structure was bigger and looked as if might be the village meeting place.
He opened the door with care, trying to remain silent. Inside, a very different scent washed over him. This smell was not only of rotting food, but also of unwashed animals. He examined the doorframe and the floor, taking note of deep scratches in the wood. Cautiously, he crept inside. Feeble rays of morning light through low windows gave him an idea of the room's dimensions, but did little to help him see into dark, shadowy corners. His fingers lightly touched the wall, using it as a guide. There was no sound other than his tense breathing as he forced himself to banish his fear and move forward.
Moments passed and his eyes adjusted to the minimal light. In his path, he could see there was a body, but he was unsure if the person was living or dead. Carefully, he toed at the body, readying a spell as he turned it over.
It was Zemar, and he was quite dead.
Hassan crouched down to examine the corpse. Zemar's throat was torn out, and coagulated blood clung to the side of his face. Several maggots writhed in the mess. Hassan turned away and swallowed hard, trying to keep himself from throwing up. He looked again, ignoring the gore and focusing on Zemar's temples. There were burn marks on either side and a smaller scorch mark across his forehead.
Something shuffled in the other room and a shadow loomed from an internal doorway. At one time it might've been human, but it wasn't any longer. Its arms were unnaturally long and its eyes glowed a sickly yellow in the dark. It snarled at Hassan, and long, sharp teeth glinted as he gathered itself for an attack.
Inside his tumble of fear and revulsion fought to wrestle control from his mind. Hassan forced his thoughts away from the horror running toward him and he reached for calm. Words of banishing formed on his tongue. Now if he just had enough time―
Pain blossomed from the back of his head, and he staggered and then fell. As he fell, he understood that he'd been hit hard enough to stun, but not hard enough to knock him out. Someone with a shock of white hair and dressed in a white lab coat hovered over him. Hassan desperately tried to shake his head, screaming at himself to get up and run, but before he could gather enough strength, he felt the prick of a needle in his neck.
"That should do it," the man in the lab coat said. "And would someone please turn on some lights? This skulking about is unsavory."
"Yes, Dr. Zheng," someone else said. After a moment, several lamps lit up.
"Well, that's much better," Dr. Zheng said. "Is that monster back in its cage?"
"Yes," someone else snarled.
Hassan couldn't move. Nothing worked, not arms, legs, mouth. He was paralyzed. But he was aware there were several others in the room. He caught a glimpse of a youkai, but because he couldn't turn his head, his vision was limited. He did see a massive chair, dark wood and metal, with several wires connecting it to some sort of machine.
Dr. Zheng fiddled with some knobs, and a deep humming noise filled the room. "Place him in the chair."
Two youkai men picked up Hassan and dropped him, none too gently, into the chair. His arms and legs were strapped to the wooden frame. He felt incredibly helpless and unbelievably stupid. He tried to focus, tried to meditate and resist the paralyzing effects of the injection.
"Don't worry, the drug will wear off soon." Dr. Zheng picked up a metal circlet with an array of wires attached to the machine. His grey eyes sparkled as he placed the apparatus on Hassan's head and tightened it. "Of course, by then it will be too late. Those of your order have been very helpful, and I hope there will be a few more. I need their magic."
"What is that smell?" Dr. Zheng's nose wrinkled and he looked over at Zemar's body. "Clear out that mess over there. It's disgusting."
The two youkai dragged Zemar's body toward the back of the room. Hassan could hear a chorus of enthusiastic growls and grunts from another room and some shouting from the youkai.
"Good, good." Dr. Zheng stared at Hassan, his gaze momentarily unfocused, as if remembering what he was supposed to do. He checked his machine and then added, "Ah yes. The harvester is ready, so let's get on with it, shall we?"
Hassan's scalp tingled, and he knew somewhere close by, someone was casting a spell. He held his breath, hoping it was someone from his training class or possibly even one of the Sanzo priests themselves coming to help. He wasn't a coward, but he wasn't particularly brave either. And quite frankly, with the drug and the straps, he was screwed. Whatever dark misdeeds the insane doctor was up to, Hassan was certain he wouldn't survive.
The door flew open. For a moment, like a dream, all Hassan could see was a silhouette of a tall, thin monk before a series of gunshots rang out. A youkai's head exploded in a splatter of bone, gray-matter, and blood, and another fell to the ground, blood pumping out of a gaping chest wound. The hum of the machine changed pitch, and it sputtered before falling silent.
Dr. Zheng's lab coat was a speckled with blood and brains, and for a moment, he looked as if he were about be sick. But then his features contorted with fury. "NO!" He ran to his machine as a small fire erupted inside its panel.
From a back room inside the building came a loud commotion, and three new youkai spilled into the room.
"Outside, you useless idiots! There's one outside!" Dr. Zheng smothered the fire with his lab coat, wailing about months of work all wasted.
Hassan looked at the door, seeing more youkai join in the hunt. If it was Sharak outside―and he was certain it was―then she was seriously outnumbered. Adrenaline poured through him and his limbs began to respond to his commands. He tugged on his arm restraints and felt a wave of relief as one ripped, loosening enough so he could pull free. Thankfully, they'd not been designed for someone of his strength. He unfastened the remaining buckles with surprising speed and tore the bizarre wire crown from his head.
"What?" Dr. Zheng faced Hassan when the helmet clattered to the floor. "Get back in that chair! I'll need your magic to―"
Hassan hit the crazy man hard enough to knock him out. In the next room, he heard the continuing cacophony, but he ignored the guttural cries and ran for the door. His partner was outside fighting for her life.
As he dashed outside, he was reminded once again that she was more formidable than she appeared. Of the six that had surrounded her, only two were still standing. The other four were on the ground, either silent and unmoving or groaning (and bleeding) in pain. He watched as she viciously kicked a remaining youkai in his groin and then punched him in his head on his way down.
If the last demon had been right in the head, she whould've surrendered or run away, but she didn't. And because she growled and leapt like a wild thing at Sharak, Hassan felt the need to intervene. He tackled her and they rolled on the ground together, as she snarled and tried to bite him. Finally, he got enough leverage to push her head away and Sharak hit her with the butt-end of her rifle. The youkai fell limply to one side.
Sharak held her side and was breathing hard as she said, "I'm glad you're not dead."
He started to laugh as he climbed to his feet. "Likewise. And thank you for, you know, saving me. Twice."
She shrugged. "You'd do it for me."
Hassan stared at her. She was dirty and bruised, and she was bleeding in several places but she was ... sexy. He shook his head, now not the time for that. He said, "So, where did you go? And where did you get a gun?"
"A travelling trapper, who I think, might've been one of the Sanzo priests. It's a long story, but first, let's move these inside the building. We need to bind them until we figure out what to do with them."
"All right." He threw the girl over his shoulder and dragged one of the others by an ankle. "Just so you know, there's something else inside. Growling and ... eating people. Several somethings," he said.
She rolled an unconscious demon into the building. "Yes. Experiments, like these―only worse, I think."
"Experiments?" Hassan dumped the girl and pushed the big youkai inside. "Is that what happened to them? I've never see youkai so vicious. It's as if they lost their self-preservation instinct."
"It's a project. I think someone's been merging science and magic." She waved at the mess on the ground. "This is a side effect."
Hassan sputtered as he picked up the last youkai. "How―"
"It's taboo for a reason. It does something to upset the natural balance of life," Sharak said as she drew a symbol on the door.
He dropped the last of the six youkai inside the room and leaned on the door jamb. "So that's what Dr. Zheng was doing." Hassan nodded in the direction of the chair, just in time to see Dr. Zheng race into the back room. "Shit."
"It's all right. There's no back door."
"But there's those things―"
There was a rising sound of growling, guttural cries and then a grinding sound of metal-on-metal. Through it all was the sound of Dr. Zheng shouting instructions. He was trying to get those creatures, whatever they were, to attack Hassan and Sharak.
"I don't think we're going to have much time." He glanced at Sharak.
Sharak was already performing a complicated spell of binding.
Hassan's attention remained fixated on the next room. He heard the sounds turn to something like glee, followed very quickly by Dr. Zheng's screams of anguish. Then he saw the first of them―animals that walked on two feet―fighting to be first into the room with Hassan. They were all drooling caricatures of human beings with sharp teeth, yellow eyes, and savage grunts. And they were terrifyingly quick.
Hassan made a grizzly connection. "They're the villagers, aren't they? And some are―"
Sharak pulled at his arm, dragging him outside as she hissed, "Come on, you fool! They'll eat us if they catch us."
"But I know them," Hassan said as Sharak slammed the door shut.
"Not anymore you don't. Now help me!" She twisted her fingers in a complicated series as she chanted the final pieces of the binding.
There was a loud bang and wood began to splinter and crack from the weight of the creatures. They'd be through in moments if they kept that up.
Hassan closed his eyes and joined in the chant, forming the correct symbols with his fingers. The spell was nearly done, but the door was almost shattered. Together, they had to strain to finish in time. When the spell fell into place, an electrical current spiked through the air, and inside, the creatures let out wails of pain and frustration but the pounding force ceased.
And then there were new and different shouts inside.
"The youkai? Are they killing the youkai?" Hassan asked between his ragged breathing, not really expecting an answer.
"So it would seem."
"Then the ones they had caged are humans? What the hell is going on?"
"We can't leave them," Sharak said, her features grim. "We need to take care of them."
"They aren't human or youkai any longer. They prey on the living. What would you have us do?"
Hassan searched for words, searched his through his confusion and his sadness. "Some of them were friends."
"Yes," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "Tell me, you were nearly made into one of them. What would you have wanted?"
He sighed. "Not to be that."
They burned every building in the village, even the one containing the monsters inside it. Sharak set that one alight on her own, not asking him to help.
That night and in the years that followed, he remembered her set, determined features as she watched the building burn, stoically weathering the screams and cries from within as she chanted a sutra. After it was done, both of them covered with soot, he'd been careful not to mention the tear tracks on her face.
"Are you listening?" Sharak poked him under the table with her toes.
"No, I'm sorry," Hassan said and gave her a sheepish look. "What did you say?"
She gave him a patient smile and crossed her arms over her knees. "Are you living in the past again?"
He laughed; she was good at reading him. "Yes. I was just remembering our last trial as sanzo candidates."
"Are you back on that? You can be so single-minded." She stared wistfully at her empty cup.
"So you tell me. Often," he said as he got up to get the wine.
After a moment she asked, "Why are you thinking about that?"
"Do you think that was the first run at the Minus Wave?" He filled her glass, emptying the bottle.
"Maybe," she said with a shrug. "But does it really matter?"
"No, I guess not." He lay back on the wool rug and closed his eyes. He never felt completely relaxed unless he was with Sharak.
"Did you shower before coming over?"
He cracked open an eye at her odd question. "Yes."
"Too bad," she said as she stood up and let her robe fall to a puddle on the floor. She took a few steps toward her bathroom. "I was hoping you'd bathe with me."
"Uh, I still could," he stammered. Why did he always sound like an idiot around her?
She looked over her shoulder and blinked very slowly. "Good. I need my back scrubbed."
He remembered their first time together with crystal clarity. They'd made their way to the end of trial, shell-shocked and saddened but alive. As Hassan had expected, there weren't many candidates remaining, and those who'd made it back were out of the running. The trial had actually been to vanquish the evil in the village.
That night, after eating and showering, he'd been unable to sleep and had made his way to the hot springs. His companions were stars and burbling water, both soothing to his troubled spirit. The incidents he'd witnessed in the village bothered him, and he suspected would haunt him through his life. But more troubling were his feelings for Sharak. He shouldn't be thinking of her as anything but the next Sanzo―because she was the correct choice―but he still felt cheated. Under different circumstances, their future would've been very different.
Maybe she'd allow him to stay with her. As an acolyte. It was better than nothing.
Off to his right, he heard a branch snap, and he turned his head to see Sharak standing there with a towel in one hand.
"Oh," he said. "I can get out if you want some privacy."
"No," she said as she dropped her towel onto a rock and handed him a beer. Then she untied her gi top and added it to the towel.
Hassan stared at her.
"What?" She smiled at him as she loosened the ties on her pants. They fell into a pool at her feet, and her underwear followed them. She reached behind and unfastened her bra. The straps slid down her arms and soon joined the rest of her clothes. Grabbing a pair of chopsticks from within the towel, she walked to the pool.
Hassan licked his lip as he watched every graceful movement: the fluid motion of her long legs as she stepped into the pool. Her deceptively strong arms as she twisted her shiny black hair into a complicated pile on her head, securing her work by sliding the chopsticks in place. Her breasts were perfect, with dark areolas and nipples that were a little lighter, but erect and inviting. Underwater, his cock throbbed to life. He considered leaving the pool, but leaving would expose him in more ways than one.
She placed her hands on her slim hips. "Don't tell me you've never seen a naked woman before?"
"I have," he managed to say without his voice cracking. "But that was when I was about to ... um, well, sleep with them." He could feel his face heat and was glad the moon wasn't bright enough to see through the water.
She was laughing as she sat down and opened her beer. "Who would guess you're so shy?"
"Hey, I'm not―" he closed his mouth. Around her, he was definitely a little out of his element. "It's just you that turns me into an imbecile, you know. Besides, even you have to admit it's not all that common for women to disrobe in front of a man they aren't ... Well, you told me not to think of you as a woman!" He rubbed his chin in memory. "In fact, you made that very clear."
"Maybe." She drained a large part of her beer and then leaned back. "But you're certainly looking at me like I'm a woman."
"That's because you're beautiful, you know."
She laughed again, a sound that made him catch his breath. "You have strange taste in women. Anyway, you should drink your beer. It'll help you sleep."
"I doubt it will help. I'm sort of up, now." He opened the beer, not because he felt like drinking but because he was hoping it would derail his thoughts.
"Ah, then maybe I could help with that." After she finished her beer, she slid over next to him. Before he could gather his thoughts, she was kissing him.
He could taste beer in her kiss but beneath that was her own flavor, savory and strong. Sliding his tongue along her lips prompted her to open her mouth and the kiss became more insistent.
She pulled away. "Maybe we should take this encounter elsewhere."
"Uh," he said as he looked over at her. With her hair stacked on her head, he couldn't help but notice her neck. It was tempting to bite. He forced his gaze to her eyes. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"
"Well, if you think I'm suggesting sex, then yes." She stood up and stepped out of the spring, water cascaded off her, reflecting moonlight in quicksilver rivulets. Her scars stood out, random patterns of past pain and agony merging with unmarred alabaster skin to create a vision of power and strength.
Hassan's heart was thumping loudly in his chest and his cock was almost painfully hard. He felt strangely torn with the two feelings and wondering if his desire sullied her. "But what about the―"
"They've already made up their minds, so anything we do now won't matter. Besides, you've seen the Sanzos drinking and smoking, and they don't strike me as the type to worry too much about rules. I suspect that includes sex."
He opened his mouth, but words would not come out.
As she dried herself off she said, "Come on. Fucking under the stars may sound romantic, but I'm not crazy about the dirt and the cold. Not to mention the rocks and bugs. I have a very comfortable futon and a room all to myself."
"Right." He looked toward his towel and clothes. They were both too far away to reach from inside the pool. He would have to get out, hard-on and all.
She removed her chopsticks from the haphazard bun on her head. Dark hair tumbled around her shoulders and down her back, creating a halo effect. She tipped her head to one side and grinned. "Well?"
"Right," he said again because saying something seemed necessary. He stood, and the comforting cover of the water slide away, leaving him exposed to her unreadable, penetrating gaze as he toweled off.
Finally, she exhaled with a throaty chuckle and said, "Oh hell, I knew you'd be well hung. Now, I think we should go!"
They half-dressed in a hurry and ran back to her room. The door was only half shut before her clothes were off. When his clothes were in a crumpled pile on the floor, she jumped on him, wrapping her legs around him. He grabbed her ass, holding her in place as they kissed.
It was a passionate kiss made all the more so by her hands pulling him close. He wanted to touch her, taste her, and take his time with her, but she wasn't having it. She was the strength of her arms and thighs to grind against him and soon, he found himself grinding back.
She twisted her hips and the tip of his cock slipped inside her. "Yeah," she panted. "I've wanted you inside me all day."
Her words were too much for him, and he pulled her closer, pushing himself completely inside her with a rough thrust. She was slick with moisture but still incredibly tight. She cried out, muscles clenching and he groaned in answer.
"Are you all right?" he asked while trying to center himself.
"Of course, but it's been a while and you're on the well-endowed side," she said and then bit his neck. "But I think I need better leverage. You're going to have to put me down."
"If you insist." With the two of them still interlocked, he managed to sit down without losing his balance or dropping her.
"You're freakishly strong," she said and then pushed him backwards onto the futon, giving him a slow, sensuous kiss.
She sat up, changing the angle as her knees hugged him tight. The feel of her wetness caressing his cock was dizzying. His fingers squeezed her hips. "God, you feel so good."
"Yeah? I hope so." She placed her hands on his chest and slowly raised her hips. After a moment, she reversed direction.
He moaned with her careful strokes, her body clenching him in tandem with her movements. This wouldn't take long, but he didn't want to disappoint her. He touched her legs, running his fingers along the inside of her thighs. Wetness coated his thumbs and he brushed one against her clit.
"Oh," she gasped. "More."
His thumb pressed a little harder, rubbing against her slick folds in time with the roll of her hips. Her strokes became more frantic.
He could feel his orgasm approaching, a coiling of his muscles and a fluttering in his nerve-endings. He wasn't sure how much longer he would last but he focused on her, on hearing her quickening breaths, feeling her nails digging into his chest, and seeing her skin glow with a light sheen of sweat.
She closed her eyes and threw back her head, long hair flowing like thin black ribbons as she shook, squeezing his cock as she came.
He really wanted to wait, to spend more time inside her, but electricity seemed to arc between them, and his body tingled and tightened, his orgasm resonating with hers.
The sun was just peaking over the mountain tops when Sharak rolled off him. She'd been particularly hungry for him that night.
Hassan touched her cooling body, as he always did after they'd had sex, ever since that first dream-like time at sanzo training. He followed the lines of her scars and licked at her perspiration. It was the only time she would be so unguarded with him.
"How long will you be on the Eastern border?" Sharak asked with a contented sigh.
"I don't know," he murmured as he nuzzled at her neck. "Until we find what's coming. Hopefully no more than a few days. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Of course you will." She smiled at him, rolling onto her side and touching his face. "Otherwise I'd kick your ass."
He laughed and sat up. "All right, I suppose I should get ready. I told Aadil I'd meet him at sunrise."
"Without a shower?" She raised an eyebrow. "You'll reek of sex."
"Yes, I will." He leaned forward, wanting one last kiss.
She anticipated him and pushed his face away with her hand. "Enough."
Sharak Sanzo was back.
"Right." He stood up and dressed in silence. Sharak watched. After so many years, he was more comfortable with her watchful gaze on his nudity, but it filled him with a cautious happiness. Sharak allowed him to see sides of her no one else did. He should he should be happy with what he got. But sometimes ...
"I'll see you when I get back," he said as he slipped on his shoes.
He faced her and said, "Yes?"
"Be careful." She looked very serious, almost worried.
He couldn't help but smile. "Of course. You know I'd do anything for you, Sharak Sanzo. Especially after something like last night."
His words hung in the air like an executioner's ax and he knew he'd crossed the line. And as walked to the door―perhaps a bit faster than usual―he had to dodge a ceramic vase.