1-5 A torrent of water crashed against the building, blew out the remaining windows, swept a wave strewn with icy shards throughout the room. Youko threw her arms up in front of her face. A flurry of tiny darts stung at her head and arms and body.
Her ears shut themselves to the violence of it all. She heard nothing.
The sensation of being caught in a whirling sandstorm faded away. She opened her eyes. Glass glittered on every surface. Those who had gathered at the windows now crouched in shock on the floor. The vice-principal was curled up in a ball at her feet.
Are you all right, she felt compelled to ask, until she saw that his body was studded with brilliant shards. He wasn't all right. The others were struggling to their feet, groaning. Youko had been standing right beside the vice-principal yet there was not a nick or cut on her.
The vice-principal seized her ankle. "Why?" he groaned.
"I didn't do anything!"
The stranger peeled the vice-principal's bloody hand from her leg. He was as uninjured as she. He said, "We must go."
She shook her head. If she left with him now they would all conclude that they had been in on it together, from the start. But the fear of staying there overcame her. She let him pull her along. The enemy is at the gates. That meant nothing to her. The horror of remaining there amongst the bloodied and wounded frightened her far more.
They lit from the office and at once came face to face with another teacher. He shouted, "What's going on?" His eyes shifted suspiciously to the stranger.
Before Youko could respond the stranger gestured towards the office. "There are injured people in there. They need medical attention." He set off again, Youko in tow. The teacher yelled something at them she didn't understand.
She said, "Where are we going?" She only wanted to run home as fast as she could. Instead of fleeing down the stairs the stranger headed up. "This way goes to the roof," she gasped.
"Others will be using the stairs below."
"But . . . . "
"Where we go now, hell follows after. Better that we not involve anyone else."
Then why did you involve me? Youko wanted to scream at him. What enemy? What are you talking about? But she did not have the courage to raise her voice against him.
He flung open the door at the top of the stairs and half-dragged her out onto the roof. Behind them came the sound of metal ground against rusty metal. A shadow fell across the doorway. Youko forced her eyes up, taking in tawny wings, a gaping mouth beneath a hooked, venom-stained beak.
A catlike howl burst from the wide maw. Each of the bird's enormous wings was tipped with five talons.
I know this creature.
She stood, frozen as if bound hand and foot. With each horrid screech the creature's blood lust poured down upon her.
In my dreams.
An inky dusk stained the overcast skies. Through the heavy pleats of the swirling clouds streamed the roiling red glow of the setting sun.
The great, eagle-like bird had a horn in the center of its forehead. It tossed its head, flapped its wings, buffeting them in a foul-smelling wind. As in her paralyzing nightmares Youko could only stare. The bird lifted its body from its perch, floated upwards, beat its wings once again, tucked in its feathers and plummeted towards her. Its scaly extremities reached out for her, the razor-sharp claws unsheathing from its horny feet.
She had no time to prepare. Her eyes were wide open. Yet she saw nothing. Even when she felt a blow to her shoulders it seemed impossible that the creature's claws could be tearing into her flesh.
"Hyouki!" The name echoed through the air. A bright red fountain gushed before her eyes.
Except that somehow she felt no pain. She shut her eyes. See no evil, she told herself. Incomprehensibly, it seemed that death should be more terrifying than this.
She was taken by the shoulders and roughly shaken. She came to herself, opened her eyes to see the stranger glaring at her. The concrete wall was hard at her back, her left shoulder dug into the cyclone fencing that enclosed the perimeter of the roof.
"This is not the time to swoon!"
Youko jumped up in alarm. The collision had tumbled her clear across the roof. An awful cry of torment arose. Sprawled before the doorway the great bird flapped its wings, fanning about it swirling gusts of wind. Its claws dug deep grooves in the concrete as it flung its head back and forth. It could not free itself. A beast had its jaws locked about the bird's neck, a beast resembling a panther wrapped in crimson fur.
"What . . . what is that?"
"I warned you of the dangers that awaited us."
He pulled her away from the fence. Youko found herself staring at the beast and bird entwined in their death struggle, then back at the stranger.
He said, "Kaiko."
The form of a woman rose out of the solid surface on which they stood, like a bather rising from a pool. Only the upper half of her body appeared, a body clothed in downy feathers, arms like graceful wings. She held a sword encased in a magnificent scabbard. The hilt of the sword was inlaid with gold and pearl and studded with jewels.
It struck Youko as little more than a frivolous ornament. The stranger took the sword from the woman and presented it to Youko.
"What . . . ?"
"It is yours. You alone may use it."
"Me?" Her eyes flashed from the sword to the stranger's face. "Why me?"
He pressed the weapon into her hands, his face emotionless. "I have no taste for the sword . . . "
"But you said you would help me!"
" . . . and no talent with it."
It was heavier than she would have thought. How in the world was she supposed to defend herself with this?
"What makes you think I do?" she shot back.
"Will you die like a lamb led to slaughter?"
"Then use the sword."
Youko was lost in a chaos of thoughts. She didn't want to die, not here, not like this. But neither did she have any inclination to charge into battle waving this weapon above her head. She possessed neither the strength nor the skill to do anything with it. The voices in her head told her to wield the sword, to not wield the sword, to wield it, to . . . .
She chose the third option. She threw it.
The stranger shouted in anger and amazement. "You fool!"
She had aimed at the bird's head. The sword fell short of the mark, skimming the tip of one wing and falling at its feet.
"Damnation!" Snapping off a series of clicks with his tongue the man called, "Hyouki!"
The panther disentangled itself from astride the bird's claws. It stooped, fetched the sword in its mouth and trotted back to Youko. It was clearly unhappy about having to abandon its prey.
The stranger took the sword. He said to the creature, "Wait here upon my command."
"As you wish," the creature straightaway replied.
Patience, the stranger told it shortly. He turned to the feathered woman. "Kaiko."
The woman bowed.
At that moment, the great bird lifted itself free, showering them with gravel and concrete. It gyrated into the air. The panther-beast clambered skyward after it. The woman rose clear of the roof, revealing down-covered human legs and a long tail, and attacked as well.
The stranger said, "Hankyo. Juusaku."
As had the woman, the heads of two fierce beasts appeared from the deck of the roof. One resembled a large dog, the other a baboon. "Juusaku, Hankyo. I leave her to your care."
"By your command." They bowed.
The stranger nodded, turned his back to her, strode towards the fence, and vanished.
"Wait!" Youko called after him.
Without asking her yea or nay, the baboon reached out and wrapped her in a tight embrace. The animal ignored her protests, lifted her up, vaulted over the fence and leapt into the air.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
1-6 The baboon sprang from rooftop to rooftop, from rooftop to telephone pole, hurdling from place to place with great bounding strides, almost as if carried aloft by the wind. This jarring, rampaging form of transport eventually brought them to the outskirts of the city and the ocean shore.
The baboon released Youko atop the breakwater facing the harbor. In the time it took her to take a single breath it disappeared. Glancing up and down the seawall to see where it had gone she saw the stranger winding his way through the thicket of concrete tetrapods. He carried the jeweled sword.
"Are you all right?" he called to her.
Youko nodded. She felt dizzy. This was the baboon's doing, the result of the stark insanity swirling about her. Her knees gave out. She sat down heavily and began to sob.
The stranger appeared besides her. "This is no place to weep."
What is going on? she wanted to ask him. She could see that he was in no mood to offer explanations. She turned her face away from him, clasped her knees with trembling hands.
His reaction was cold and abrupt. "Save such emotions for a later time. They are after us as we speak. We shall hardly have time even to catch our breaths."
The stranger nodded. "You did not kill it when you should have. There is nothing we can do about that now. Hyouki and the others will slow it down, but I fear not enough."
"You mean that bird? What was that bird?"
"The kochou, you mean."
"What is a kochou?"
The stranger replied with a scornful expression. "It is one of them."
The emptiness of the explanation made Youko shrink inside. "And who are you? Why are you helping me?"
"My name is Keiki."
He offered nothing more. Youko sighed to herself. She had clearly heard the others address him as Taiho but she was in no mood to press the matter. She only wanted to run away, go home. Her backpack and jacket were at school. She didn't want to go back there, not by herself. And she didn't exactly want to go home in this state. She crouched on the breakwater lost in her thoughts.
"Are you ready?" Keiki asked.
"Ready for what?"
"Ready to leave."
"Leave? Where to?"
Again, nowhere, anywhere. Youko couldn't care less. Keiki took her by the arm, again, for the umpteenth time. Why didn't he explain himself? Why did he keep dragging her all over the place?
She said, "Hey, wait just a second."
"You've had time enough. There is no more to spare."
"Where is there? How long is it going to take?"
"If we leave at once, a day."
"What do you mean by that?"
His tone of voice cowed her. She had been toying with the idea of going with him out of curiosity. But she didn't know him from Adam. And a whole day. It was out of the question! What would her parents say when they came home to an empty house? They had never permitted her to travel anywhere that far by herself.
"I can't. I just can't."
None of this made any sense. Why did he keep threatening her, keep making these impossible demands? She wanted to cry. She knew he would berate her if she did so she hugged her knees, clamped her mouth shut, desperately held back the tears.
A familiar voice echoed around them.
Keiki quickly scanned the sky. "The kochou?"
A shiver ran down Youko's spine. The monster bird was coming. Keiki said to her, "I need your help." He pulled her to her feet, placed the sword in her hands. "If you love life at all then use this."
"I keep telling you, I don't know how!"
"No one else can."
"That doesn't change anything!"
"I shall grant you a Hinman." He called out, "Jouyuu."
At his command a man's head rose out of the rocky surface, an ashen countenance with sunken, red-rimmed eyes. Higher, and it became clear that he had no body below the neck except for dangling, jellyfish-like appendages.
Youko gasped. "What is it?"
The thing slipped free of the ground, turned and flung itself at her. She tried to run. Keiki caught and held her. The creature clung to her neck, cold and soft, and then oozed down her back. She screamed, "Get it off me!" She flailed uselessly with her hands. "Stop it, stop it!"
Keiki held her still. "You are being unreasonable. Calm yourself."
She wanted to retch. Tendrils like cold strands of pasta snaked around her body from her spine and beneath the flesh of her arms. She felt it pressing heavily along the back of her neck. She shrieked in terror. She twisted away from him, pulled herself free, tumbled to the ground, fell to her knees, tore in a panic at her neck and shoulders, to no avail.
"What is it? What did you do?"
"Jouyuu has taken you as a host."
"Host?" Youko ran her hands over her body. The loathsome sensation was gone.
"Jouyuu knows the way of the sword. This knowledge will be at your disposal. The kochou will arrive soon. You must kill it, and not only it, if you are to escape."
"Not only it?" So there were more coming after her, the same as in the red dawn of her dreams. "I . . . can't. That Jouyuu or Hinman or whatever it is, where did it go?"
Keiki didn't answer. He stared up at the sky. "They come."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
1-7 In the moment she looked to see for herself, behind her, she heard that strange cry. The sword was thrust into her hand. It didn't register at first. She turned towards the cry and saw the great wingspan of the bird as it circled and fell towards them.
She shouted in fear, realizing at once that there was no place to run. The bird was descending faster than she could flee. The sword was useless. She had no idea what to do with it. Confront this beast with it? It was an absurd thought. There was no way to protect herself.
The bird's fat-clawed appendages filled her vision. She wanted to shut her eyes but couldn't.
A shock of white light flashed in front of her, followed by a violent, hard sound like two stones crashing together. A heavy talon, gleaming like the blade of an axe, stopped right before her face. She had checked its motion with the sword, half-drawn from its scabbard, held out in front of her and braced with both hands.
She had no time to ask herself how she had done it.
Her hand, as if of its own accord, drew out the rest of the blade. In the same motion she swung at the bird's feet. A warm spray of bright red blood showered down on her.
In dumb surprise she could only think, I am not doing this. Her hands and feet reacted of their own accord, hacking at the limbs of the Kochou as it wheeled above them in confusion.
More blood rained down, drenching her. The warm liquid ran down her face and neck, soaked under the collar of her shirt. She shuddered with revulsion. She--her legs, rather--retreated, dodging the eruptions.
The monster climbed into the sky, righted itself and plunged towards her. She slashed at the wings. With every move she felt the cold tendrils rippling through her.
It's that thing, the Jouyuu.
Its wings shredded, the bird shrieked and crashed into the ground. In a glance Youko took in the scene. The Jouyuu was doing this, she knew, was jerking her arms and legs around like a marionette's.
The giant bird writhed in agony, pounded its wings against the ground and clawed towards her. Without a moment's hesitation she attacked. Dodging its assaults she hacked away at the body. She soon was covered in bloody gore. All that registered were the loathsome repercussions in her hands as each blow parted flesh and bone.
She groaned in disgust but could not stop herself. She ignored the spewing blood and drove the sword deep into the bird's wing, yanked it out, severing a good part of the wing. She turned on her heels, face to face with the animal's screeching, frothing head.
The great bird flapped its wounded wing but was unable to lift its body off the ground. Youko ducked around the beating wing and stabbed at the bird's torso. She shut her eyes to what she was doing but felt the soft resistance in her arms as the blade sank through fat and tissue. She pulled it free, spun, and swung at the bird's neck.
The animal's spine stopped the sword's forward motion. She pulled the sword free, splattering herself with flesh and fluid, swung again and severed the head cleanly from the body.
Only after she had wiped the sword clean with the bird's still quivering feathers did the control of her own body fully return to her.
She wailed in anguish and threw the sword as far from her as she could.
Youko leaned over the edge of the breakwater and vomited. Sobbing, she slid down between the concrete arms of the tetrapod and splashed into the sea. It was the middle of February. The water was cold enough to cut her in two. But her only desire was to wash the bloody filth from her face.
By the time she had returned to her senses she was shivering so badly she could do little more than crawl up the embankment to the breakwater. Back on solid ground she burst into tears. She wept with fear and revulsion, wept until her voice was hoarse, until there were no tears left inside to come out.
"Are you all right?" Keiki asked.
"Am I what?"
There was no color in the man's expression. He said, "That was not the only one. More are coming."
"And?" Her body was numb. His warning stirred in her nothing. Looking up at his face she now felt no fear of him at all.
"They are strong, they are relentless. If I am to protect you, you must come with me."
"You are being foolish."
"I want to go home."
"Your home is not safe, either."
"I don't care. I'm cold. I'm going home. Those monsters, they're all yours. You can have them." Youko glared at him. "And take this Jouyuu thing out of me!"
"You will still need him."
"I don't. I'm going home."
"You stupid woman!" He exploded in a rage that made Youko's eyes go wide with surprise. "Do you welcome death? I do not understand. If you do not want to die then you must come with me!"
"Shut up!" Youko screamed at him. "Shut the hell up!" Not once in her entire life had she ever said anything like that to another person. A strange sense of exhilaration stirred in her chest. "I'm doing what I want and I don't want any part of this. I'm going home."
"You are not listening to what I am saying."
"I'm going home." She swatted away the sword offered to her. "I don't take orders from you."
"You do not understand the danger!"
Youko answered with a thin smile. "Well, if it's fine with me, then what's it to you?"
He said in a low growl, "It is everything to me."
He nodded as she passed. Before she could react two white arms had reached around and had taken hold of her.
"What are you doing?"
She strained to glance back over her shoulder. It was the winged woman who had first borne the sword to her. She pinned Youko's arms, forced the sword into her embrace.
"Let me go!"
Keiki said, "You are my lord."
"I am your what?"
"You are my lord. Under any other circumstances whatever command you gave I would obey. You must forgive me. Once your safety has been secured then any explanation you desire I will provide. If you wish to return home, that too I will endeavor to accomplish."
"When in the world did I become your lord?"
"There is no time for that," he answered with a cold look. "I would gladly see one such as you abdicate, but that is not my decision to make. I cannot abandon you. The best I can do is keep more innocents from being drawn in. If force is what is required then force I will employ. Kaiko, take her."
"Let me go!"
"Hankyo," Keiki beckoned. The copper-haired beast emerged from the shadows. "We must get away from here. This place is thick with the scent of blood."
Next appeared the enormous panther called Hyouki. Still pinning Youko's arms the woman climbed astride the panther-beast and set Youko onto its back in front of her. Keiki in turn mounted Hankyo.
Youko pleaded with him. "Please, I'm not kidding. Take me home! Take this thing out of me!"
"He is of no bother to you, is he? Now that he has fully possessed you, you should not feel his presence again."
"I don't care if I can feel it or not! Get rid of it!"
Keiki addressed himself to the Jouyuu. "Do not reveal yourself. Be as if you were not there."
There was no reply.
Keiki nodded. Youko barely had time to grip the woman's arms to steady herself as the beast rose on its haunches and leapt upwards. "Stop!" she shouted.
The panther-beast did not heed her. It climbed effortlessly into the sky, doggy-paddling through the air as it slowly gathered speed. Were it not for the ground falling away beneath them she could have believed they were not moving at all.
As if in a dream the beast galloped farther and farther away from the earth, revealing one last glimpse of the city below, wrapped in the falling dusk.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
1-8 The heavens were suffused with a cold, starry light. Across the surface of the earth a constellation of stars traced the outlines of the city.
The panther-beast soared over the bay as if swimming through the air. The speed of their departure stole her breath away, yet strangely she did not feel the fierce and expected wind and so had little sense of their velocity. She knew how fast they must be going only from the rate at which the cityscape disappeared behind her.
No matter how much she pleaded no one answered her.
And with no way to judge the rate of their progress, her fear in this regard subsided, and instead shifted to the uncertain nature of their destination.
The panther-beast turned towards the open sea. She could no longer see Keiki astride his flying creature. He had promised this was to be a long journey.
Along with her exhaustion, a profound sense of indifference overcame her. She gave up, ceased her protests. And now that she thought about it, as she shifted her limbs about, she was not uncomfortable. The woman's arms were warm around her waist.
Youko hesitated, then asked, "Are they still after us?" She twisted around to look at the woman.
She said, "They are legion." Yet her voice was gentle and somehow reassuring.
"Who are you?"
"We are servants of the Taiho. Now face yourself forward. He would not be pleased if I dropped you."
Youko reluctantly straightened. All she could see was the dark sky and the dark ocean, the faint light of the stars, the faint white light of the waves. A high, winter moon. Nothing else.
"Keep ahold of the sword. Under no circumstances should you let it out of your possession."
The reminder struck within Youko a chord of fear. It could only mean that more gruesome battles faced them.
"They pursue us. But Hyouki is fast. Do not worry."
"Then . . . . "
"And see that you do not lose the sword or the scabbard.
"Or the scabbard?"
"Sword and scabbard are a pair and must be kept together. The jewel attached to the scabbard is there for your protection."
Youko looked down at the sword in her arms. A blue-green sphere the size of a ping pong ball was attached to the ends of the ornamental cord wound around the scabbard.
"Yes. Hold them and see for yourself. It should be cool enough to tell."
Youko grasped the spheres. The sensation gradually seeped into her palms. "They're warm."
"You will find them of use whenever you are wounded or sick or fatigued. The sword and scabbard are valuable treasures. Do not lose them."
Youko nodded. She was thinking of her next question when their speed suddenly slowed.
The white moon shone in a halo on the dark water. The intensity of the reflection weaving across the waves grew as they descended, almost as if the moonlight itself was exciting the whitecaps into a lively froth. Closer and she could see the surface of the ocean churning into a waterspout.
Youko realized that the panther-beast was about to dive directly into the ring of light at the center of the sparkling whirlpool.
"I can't swim!"
"Do not worry," the woman said, tightening her embrace around her waist.
"But . . . . "
She had no time to raise any other objections.
They plunged into the whirlpool. Youko shut her eyes, prepared herself for the hard collision with the water. She felt instead . . . almost nothing. Not the spray of the surging waves, not the cold touch of the sea. Nothing but an immersion in the silver light, light that leaked through the corners of her eyes.
Something like a thin gauze brushed against her face. She opened her eyes. They were ensconced, it seemed, within a tunnel of light. There was no darkness, no wind, only an encompassing glow that enveloped them from head to toe, a halo of moonlight cutting beneath the black waves.
"What is this?" Youko wondered aloud.
There was a ring of light below the beast's feet, as there was above its head. Whether the light streamed from head to feet or the other way around she could not tell. In either case, they would cross it's length shortly.
Almost as soon as they had leapt into the circle of light she again felt the gossamer veil brush her face. With a bound they shot above the water. The sounds of the ocean returned. Raising her eyes she again took in the wide, dull expanse of the sea. They slipped from the halo of the moon. How far from the surface she could not tell. All she could see were the tops of the waves bathed in the moonlight.
The surface churned into a radiant foam, as if driven by a fierce wind. The waves rose up around them in concentric rings, broke into whitecaps. Astride the panther-beast Youko could feel nothing of the hurricane, only the draft of a slight crosswind. The clouds roiled above. The beast pushed harder and climbed into the sky. They were soon too high to see even the moonlight weaving across the storm-tossed seas.
"Hyouki!" the woman shouted.
The alarm in her voice made Youko look back at her. Following the woman's gaze she saw a multitude of black shadows leaping out of the moon's bright halo.
The only light was from the moon and its reflection upon the sea. They raced into the covering darkness of the gathering clouds.
There was no heaven and no earth. And then only the deep amber glow that remained of the moon, a faint light that danced and shifted like the flames of a raging fire. She saw the countless shadows and knew they were coming for her. The creatures raced from the blood-red moon, the apes and rats and birds, the red-haired beasts and black-haired beasts and blue-haired beasts.
Youko stared in amazement at this vision before her eyes. She had seen it before. She knew it. "Faster!" she screamed. "They'll catch us!"
The woman shook her. "Calm yourself. That is what we are doing."
The woman pushed Youko's body flat against the back of the panther-beast. "Hold on," she said.
"What are you . . . ?"
"I shall attempt to impede their progress. Tighten your grip, do not let go of the sword."
Assured that Youko had understood her instructions, she took her arm from around Youko's waist and vaulted rearward, kicking up and away from them. For a moment Youko caught a glimpse of the golden stripes running down her back before she was swallowed up by the darkness..
Youko could see nothing but the engulfing gloom. They were buffeted by gust of wind. She plastered herself against the beast's back.
"H-Hyouki-san?" she said.
"What is it?"
"Are we going to get away?"
"That is hard to tell," he answered, inscrutably. He shouted, "Watch out! Above you!"
Youko looked up and caught a faint flash of red.
"A gouyu." Hyouki turned without warning. Something slammed into its side and fell away.
"What was it?"
Hyouki continued on, dodging from side to side. Suddenly it slowed. "Draw your sword. It is an ambush. They have cut us off."
"What do you mean, an ambush?"
Peering ahead into the darkness she watched as another crimson light blossomed, watched as the hoard came leaping towards them out of the shadows.
The thought of raising the sword again filled her with loathing. At the same time the cold tendrils touched the insides of her legs. With a force that made her joints crack her knees clamped to the beast's sides. The icy worm crawled up her spine. Her body peeled unwittingly from Hyouki's back. Her hands released their grip, her arms prepared for battle. She drew the sword, tucked the scabbard into the belt of her skirt.
She extended the sword with her right hand, with her left she grasped the beast's mane.
They closed on each other, tore into each other like storms colliding. Hyouki plunged into the midst of the hoard and Youko's sword sliced into the onrushing flood. She could do nothing but scream and close her eyes. It wasn't just the killing of living things. She couldn't even bear the sight of a frog autopsy in biology class. Her existence should not demand so much slaughter.
The sword halted its motion. Hyouki called out, "Open your eyes! Jouyuu cannot defend you otherwise!""
The beast reared, threw back its head, doubled back. Youko kept her eyes tightly shut. She was not going to cause any more death. If shutting her eyes stilled the sword, then that is what she would do.
Hyouki swerved abruptly to the left. They struck hard, a collision like hitting a wall. She heard the yelp of a wounded dog. She opened her eyes and saw only black. Before she could grasp what had happened Hyouki keeled over.
Her legs lost their grip. She pitched into the air.
Before her startled eyes charged a beast like a wild boar. In her right arm she felt the impact as steel severed muscle and bone, heard the roar of the eviscerated monster, her own screams.
And then nothing. No sight, no sound, no taste or touch or thought. Only her falling and falling through the endless dark.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love