The sun hides behind the towering mountains, and Houtou's shadow reaches hungry tendrils towards them as the four of them stand together in the pass.
Goku presses up against Sanzo for a brief moment, seeking reassurance, a tiny break from his usual self-confidence. Sanzo deigns, for a surprise, to let his hand rest in Goku's hair, more affection than Hakkai's seen him show in public in a while now, and in another time, at another moment, he would have smiled at it. He stays quiet himself, letting them have their moment. It's not as if he and Gojyo haven't indulged in their own goodbyes, after all.
There's a brief awkward moment of silence as the four of them stand at the mouth of the little mountain pass they took to reach the fortress, grim and desperate. Sanzo, as always, is the one to break it. "Let's go," he says simply, and Hakkai flicks his wrist in a practiced motion, sending Hakuryuu winging towards the sky and to safety, as they begin picking their way down the slope of the mountain, towards the small side entrance Kougaiji had directed them to.
His footsteps don’t echo in the cavernous halls of Houtou. Something about this place leeches sound from the air and breath from the body, the cutting sensation in his lungs that he knows from high altitudes. Saturated in power, so intense he can barely discern its intent, or if it even has one, and as he moves ahead with the stealth of a predator, felling as many sentries as he can to cover for the others behind him, he realises it’s probably the only thing that’s preventing everyone in the vicinity sensing his aura, or Goku’s behind him, sun-bright and grimly focused.
It’s at the third intersection that everything predictably falls apart; a gaggle of guardsmen catch sight of him, and Hakkai has no idea whether they’ve heard of him or just wary of anyone who’s not supposed to be there, but the alarm goes up before he can kill all of them, and the world erupts in klaxons.
So much for subtlety, then.
He risks a glance behind him, long enough to spy the flutter of an edge of Goku’s cape, and then charges towards the large hall he can see at the end of the corridor, relieved when they all trot after him like good little cogs. It’s exactly where anyone who didn’t know Houtou’s interiors would probably go, away from the lower levels.
If Kougaiji’s kept his side of the bargain, there should be enough of his men on guard in the lower levels to guarantee the others relatively safe passage – if Hakkai can stop reinforcements from arriving long enough.
It won’t be a problem. He’s always fought best alone, after all.
The gates to the subterranean levels grind all the way shut far ahead of him, at the other end of the hall he’s just entered; it’s either a stupidly delayed reaction on the part of someone on Koushu’s side, or one of Kougaiji’s supporters lending a helpful hand. Either way, all it succeeds in is cutting off part of Houtou’s soldiers from the basement for as long as it takes someone in authority to realise what a bad idea that is. It does very little in terms of removing the couple of hundred youkai in the hall Hakkai’s just entered. They’re armed to the teeth, rather more organised than the rabble that’s hunted them for the last year and a half, and looking quite businesslike.
He favours them with a pleasant smile, or as pleasant as it can look with elongated teeth and the murderous rage rising in him. He has heard that rage blurs faces and names, that it strips everything in its path of identity, but it isn't the only thing that can; so do conviction and love and insanity. All three fuel him today, and there is little room for anger or humanity in the cold calculation of movement and resistance and trajectory. “Well, I suppose that leaves us to settle things,” he observes to no one in particular, and the words carve through the strange tension in the air, cutting through the strings holding them all frozen. The youkai charge, and as energy – life – grows in his palm, he has a moment’s grim amusement at the idea that this slaughter is sanctioned.
Hours later, any amusement, grim or not, has drained entirely from the situation. Hakkai’s heart is pounding as if he’s run a marathon, his body is drenched in sweat, and a fine tremor is racing through his hands. He’s not used his chi for a while now, relying on his other powers, even resorting to a blade at times when the battle’s been too close. The sword in his hand doesn’t feel quite right; it’s built for a taller man, perhaps, or one less slender. He isn’t quite sure – Cho Hakkai has never used a weapon of any size before. Other than himself, he thinks ruefully, leaning heavily against the smooth metal of the passageway to Gyuumaoh’s resurrection chamber, content to let Kougaiji’s men hold the fort for the moment, trying his best not to look as if he’s been hauling himself along the halls. His handprints on the elevator's doors are bloody from tying a hasty bandage on the gash on his left thigh; he didn’t have the time to heal it then, and he doubts he could find the energy to do so now without passing out from the effort.
He can hear Sanzo's voice ahead, near where the map says the main entrance to the chamber is. Hakkai takes another deep, rasping breath, using the brief moment of respite to gather himself, listening to the conversation without registering anything beyond the tone of Sanzo’s voice – quiet, frantic, actually worried. As attractive as the idea of giving in to the fainting fit that’s been flirting with the edge of his vision for a while is, things won’t be substantially different when he wakes. And he still has his duty to do.
It’s hard to hear them over all the screaming, or sense anything at all over the oppressive weight of power here, though Hakkai suspects the shrill ringing in his ears has more to do with himself, and the solid blow he took to his head from a burly youkai upstairs than any of the sutras. The air is damp, thick as glue, clotting in his nose and mouth with the oily aftertaste of dark magic.
Rounding the corner shows them all gathered just outside the entrance to the chamber, even Kougaiji and Lirin – except, oddly, for Sanzo, who’s hanging back a little from the rest, slumped with his back to the wall. He doesn’t react when Hakkai comes up next to him, which is strange until he sees the hand Sanzo’s holding to his ear, and the thin trickle of blood from his nose. There's enough dripped down on his robes (human blood, Hakkai can smell it at this distance) that he's been bleeding copiously for a while.
“What…happened?” Talking feels like choking on rubble, but it helps distract him from the throbbing pain in his leg and his head, and in his right hand, burned from a shield that hadn’t lasted too long in the face of a particularly vicious fire-wielder. Sanzo doesn’t respond, although he glares at Hakkai viciously enough that it's somewhat reassuring. Sanzo trying to conserve his hostility is infinitely worse. Then he sees the inside of the chamber, head-on, and his breath stops.
The sutras are here all right, and judging by the way Goku's hands are clamped around his head, the shrill whine in his ears isn't about his head injury after all. They're placed inside four clear pillars, arranged in a circle of eight altogether - there are devices of some kind on the others, but he can't understand what they are - and the power radiating from the circle is almost visible, if he squints right; it's certainly palpable, pressing against his skin in warning, like the finest edge of a blade that could remove skin without breaking it, tugging at him, drawing his life from him, almost. It draws his gaze inexorably to the centre, the small device placed precisely in the centre of the pillars, and he doesn't need a reply to figure out what that probably does.
Oddly enough, though, Kougaiji's the one who answers. Hakkai doesn't bother to look at him, letting the words wash over him, picking out what he needs to over the white noise of his pain and the resonance of the sutras. A trap, made with four of the sutras, fuelling the dark energy that swells from the heart of Houtou, absorbing the qi of all around it, critical mass. So that, he thinks, explains why Sanzo's bleeding from ears and nose and mouth from carrying a fifth in. The power generated by the sutras, magnified by the other devices, turned in on itself and impenetrable. Dead bodies lying by the side, youkai who were absorbed. He wonders dazedly if their souls are part of why the power in the room feels so utterly foul, or if that's his own nature recoiling before it.
Sanzo makes a rough choking sound behind him, and the light grows just a little brighter, more intense. Time's running out, he can feel whatever's in the circle growing, gathering itself, and there's no way to break the circle without entering it, no way to enter without dying. Kougaiji and the other youkai aren't even a possibility; his power's far too little to handle this, and he's barely standing upright as it is. Goku...rechargeable, and a very bad idea. He doesn't know what pitting the full energy of the earth against the sutras that sustain the land will do, and he has no desire to find out.
And there's so little reason not to choose the simplest option.
He breaks away from the rest, staggering forward through the waves of forbidding power to the perimeter of the circle. He hears a cry that might be his name, but the light beckons, and he steps into the circle before anyone can-
It's ice-cold inside the circle, as if he's stepped into another dimension entirely, and the air crackles and bites and claws at him, a rush of fatigue racing through his already weakened body, slowing his mind, abrupt and total enough to make him stagger forward, his leg buckling. The movement tears the wound on his thigh partially open, and he thinks he screams out, although he isn't sure, he can't hear a sound above the roar of the sutras around him.
The power that rushes from him stings his skin, his lungs burning as he struggles to force breath into and out of them. The air feels beyond thin - it cuts at him so deep it feels like he's haemorrhaging - he might well be, using his power at this point of exhaustion, and with the circle draining him besides. All around him is light, blazing from him, reflecting off the shining steel walls, seeping into the corners of his vision, tinted red with capillaries bursting in his eyes, blood draining from him anywhere it can. He forces himself to take one step forward, then another, and though it's only a few feet to the centre, it feels like walking through solid concrete, a vicious stab of pain shooting from thigh to gut every time his foot touches the ground. Sweet-iron taste of blood welling in his mouth, swift and strong, would be artery-bright if he parted his lips, and he'd cry out, but it hurts too much to draw enough breath.
For a brief moment he's utterly certain he can feel Gojyo next to him, smell the tobacco-sweat-leather of his skin, but of course he's alone, the thought taking him that last stumbling step to the centre and sparks a crushing pain in his chest. He's felt the beginnings of it before, twice while healing Gojyo, but it's more this time, final. He smashes his fist down on the little device, a rush of savage satisfaction as the small lights racing over it wink out with almost anticlimactic ease, at the same time his legs do. His sight blurs as he sags forward, forcing his senses to extend, vines racing out from his body to curl around the bases of the pillars. Bright white light racing to the centre of the circle, bright white pain in his heart, and he tugs, the sound in his ears building to a shattering scream, the birth cry of the world tearing him open from the inside out, and
oh, Gojyo, Gojyo, I'm so sorry
all the things he could ever regret, pillars smashing out, the circle broken, but it's too late, finally too late, and it turns out, against all his expectations and experience, that it's revoltingly easy to die after all.