Sea of the Shadow, Shadow of the Moon (Part II)
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Part II


ouko awoke to the sound of crashing waves. She felt the spray of the ocean on her face. She opened her eyes, raised her head. She had fallen onto a sandy beach not far from the water's edge. A big wave broke against the shore. The water swept along the strand, bathing her feet.

Unexpectedly, the water was not cold. Youko lay there on the sand and let the waves wash against her. The rich smell of the ocean surrounded her, a smell something like the smell of blood. The sea was in her veins. That is why, when she closed her ears, she heard the distant roar of the ocean.

The next surge flooded to her knees. The sand churned up in the tide tickled her skin.

That deep scent of the sea.

She looked at her feet. The water lapping against her body was stained red. She glanced at the gray surf, up at the wide, gray sky. She looked down again. The water was indeed red.

She searched for its source. "Ah," she said.

Her legs. The crimson streams were washing from her skin. She bolted to her feet. Her hands and feet were stained red. Even her navy blue school seifuku uniform had turned a dark maroon.

Blood.

She moaned. Her whole body was soaked with blood. Her hands were black and sticky with the gore, as were her face and hair. She cried out, splashed down in the midst of the breaking waves. The water rushed in muddy gray, receded crimson. She scooped up water in her hands. It bled between her fingers. As much as she scrubbed at her hands she could not uncover the natural tone of her skin. The surf rose to her waist. A pool of color spread out around her, scarlet beneath the charcoal sky.

Youko again raised her hands to her face. In front of her eyes her fingernails lengthened, grew to sharp claws half again as long as her fingers themselves.

"What . . . ?"

She turned her hands over. There were a multitude of small cracks or fissures running along the skin. A fragment of her skin peeled away, wafted away in the wind, tumbled into the water. Beneath the skin was a matt of short-haired red fur.

"No, I don't believe this."

She brushed her hand against her arm. More skin flaked away revealing red fur. Every time she moved she shed flesh. A wave swirled against her. Her uniform shredded as if eaten away by acid. Water washed the fur and the ocean ran red.

The claws on her hands, the fur growing on her body, she was turning into one of the beasts.

"No, no, no," she sobbed. Her uniform fell to pieces. Her arms wrenched about like the forelegs of a cat or dog. The blood, the blood of those creatures, it's made me into one of them. It was not possible. She screamed, "God, NO!"

In her own ears she heard no recognizable sound, only the roar of the crashing waves and the inarticulate howl of a beast.



Youko opened her eyes to a pale blue sky.

Her whole body hurt. The ache in her arms was excruciating. She held up her hands and gasped in relief. Normal. She had normal human hands. No fur, no claws.

She sighed to herself. She wracked her brain, trying to remember what had happened. All in a flash it came to her. She was about to clamber to her feet but her muscles were so stiff she could barely move. She lay there taking one deep breath after another. Little by little the pain subsided, some kind of motion returned to her limbs.

She sat up, spilling off herself a blanket of pine needles.

Pine. It certainly looked like pine. She glanced about her and saw a forest of pine trees. The tops of the trees were snapped off, revealing the white wood underneath. A bough must have fallen from those trees.

Her right hand still tightly gripped the hilt of the sword. So she hadn't dropped it after all. She examined the rest of her body and found no serious injuries, nothing except for many minor scratches and bruises. Nothing out of the ordinary. Similarly searching her back, her hands ran across the scabbard tucked into the belt of her uniform.

A light haze drifted across the early morning sky. She heard the distant sound of waves. She wondering aloud, "What kind of dream was that?"

It came back to her, the fierce struggle with the beasts, their blood drenching her.

And the sound of the waves.

She groaned to herself.

She surveyed her surroundings. It was before daybreak. A pine forest crowded the shore. She was alive, she had suffered no life-threatening injuries. That was the sum of it.

It did not seem to her that any enemy was close by. Nothing foreboding lurked in the forest. And no allies either. When they had slipped into the halo of the moon, the moon had hung high in the night sky. It was almost dawn. For that long she had been a castaway. Keiki and the others must have strayed far from their intended course.

When you get lost, she reminded herself in a small voice, you're supposed to stay right where you are.

Surely they were looking for her. Keiki had promised to protect her. If she started out on her own they'd never find her. She leaned against the stump of a tree and grasped the jewel bound to the scabbard. Little by little, the aches and pains began to dissipate.

How strange. But it really did work. She peered closely at the jewel. It seemed like an ordinary stone, though with the luster of polished, blue-green glass. Maybe it was jade.

Still tightly gripping the stone she sat down and closed her eyes.



She had intended only to take a quick nap but awoke to a bright morning sky. "It's getting late," she noted.

But where was everybody? Keiki, Kaiko, Hyouki? Why hadn't they come to get her? Finally she said, "Jouyuu-san?"

If he was still inside her he wasn't telling. She could not feel his presence at all. In other words, he wasn't going to show up unless she started waving that sword around.

"Hey, you there?" she asked herself again. "Where's Keiki?"

No answer. Nothing. A big lot of help he had turned out to be. She raised her head nervously. What if Keiki came looking for her and missed her? She recalled the yelp of pain the instant before she fell. She had left Hyouki behind, surrounded by the monsters. Had he survived?

The unease pressed down on her head and shoulders. She jumped up, quelling the scream of panic rising from deep inside her.

Looking around she spied to her right a break in the woods. Nothing between here and there struck her as dangerous. She could at least venture that far. Beyond the forest was a fallow field. The field was strewn with a thicket of shrubs plastered against the discolored earth. Beyond the field a cliff leaned out over a black sea.

Youko approached the edge of the cliff. Closer, and it was like standing at the top of a tall building and looking over the edge. What she saw amazed her.

It was not the sheer height of the cliff . It was the water, black as the night sky, almost blue in its blackness. Even in the light of dawn the sea looked like night. But then, as she followed the face of the cliff down into the water, she realized that the water itself was not black. It was perfectly clear. How deep she could not begin to imagine. The sea must be so vast, so deep, that no light could penetrate its depths.

Then, from deep within the deep, she saw a glittering point of light. At first she could not make out what it was, but then there were many more of them, the small specks of light spread out against the wide black like grains of sand. Together the light gathered into a faint, background glow.

Like stars.

Vertigo overcame her. She sat down. She knew what it was. She'd seen pictures of stars and nebulae and galaxies. Reaching out below her was the universe. Her thoughts suddenly overwhelmed her. She could no longer turn her face from the truth in front of her: I don't know this place. This was not the world she knew, not the ocean she knew. She was in a different world altogether.

Oh God.

"It can't be true," she said aloud.

Where was she? Was this place safe? Dangerous? Where would she go? What would she do? Why did this have to happen to me?

"Jouyuu-san." She closed her eyes, raised her voice. "Jouyuu! Please answer me!"

She heard only the roar of the ocean in her ears. Not a whisper from the being that possessed her.

"What am I supposed to do? Isn't somebody going to help me?"

One full night had already passed. Her mother must be worried sick about her. Her father would be furious.

"I want to go home."

Tears tumbled down her cheeks. She choked back a sob. "I want to go home," she said again. She couldn't hold it back. She hugged her knees, buried her face in her arms and wept.



Youko finally lifted her head. She'd cried so hard and so long that she felt slightly feverish. Crying her eyes out had made her feel better, but only a little. She slowly opened her eyes. The ocean stretched out before her like the universe.

"How very strange--"

She felt as if she was gazing down on a sky shot through with stars, a starry night arraigned against the serene blackness, the galaxies turning slowly in the water.

"So strange and yet so beautiful--"

In time Youko calmed down and managed to collect her wits about her. Absentmindedly she gazed down at the stars in the water.
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Chapter 10


2-2 She sat there staring out at the sea until the sun had risen high in the sky. What kind of world was this? Where was she?

They had passed through the halo of the moon to get here. That alone was hard enough to believe. In any case, to capture a moonbeam like that, it seemed equally unlikely that you could do the same thing with the light of the setting sun.

Then there was Keiki and all those strange creatures. None of them were from any species on Earth. They must come from this world. That's the only thing that made sense to her.

What was he thinking, bringing her here? He said it was dangerous, he said he would protect her. Yet here she was. What were they up to? Why did those monsters attack her? It was like out of a nightmare, the same dream she'd been having for the past month.

From the beginning, from the moment she met him, none of it had made sense. She knew this much: she was lost. He had shown up out of nowhere, had dragged her off to this strange world without a second thought about the circumstances of her life. It wasn't because he hated her, she was sure. But if they had never met she wouldn't be stuck here, she wouldn't have had to kill all those creatures.

So it wasn't that she missed him. There simply wasn't anybody else she could trust and he hadn't returned to retrieve her. Perhaps something had happened during the battle with the monsters that kept him from coming back for her. Whatever the reason, it only made things worse for her now.

Why must I keep dwelling on it?

Because it wasn't her fault. It was Keiki's fault. It was his fault the monsters came after her. The enemy is at the gates, the voice in the vice-principal's office had said. But that didn't mean they were her enemies. She had no reason to make them her enemies.

And that business about calling her his lord. She'd been thinking about that as well. Because she was his lord, his enemies had gone after her, not him. She'd had to use the sword to defend herself, and she'd ended up here.

Nobody had made her lord of anything.

He'd made the whole thing up. Or he'd made a mistake, a really dumb mistake. He said he'd been searching for her. You'd think when somebody was searching for their king or whatnot, they wouldn't screw up this bad.

"So who are you protecting now?" She grumbled to herself. "This is your mistake, not mine."



The shadows lengthened. Youko got up. Sitting here complaining about Keiki wasn't solving anything. Glancing to her right and left she couldn't find the gap in the trees she'd come through before. Whatever, she told herself, and marched off into the forest. She didn't have her coat but it wasn't that cold here. It must be a warmer climate than where she lived.

The forest looked like it'd been hit by a typhoon, broken branches strewn all about. The forest was not deep, and when she emerged she found herself at the edge of a wide marsh.

It was not a marsh but a rice paddy. Directly in front of her a causeway jutted above the water. She could see the tops of some kind of short green vegetation blown flat against the muddy lake. Beyond the rice paddies a handful of houses formed a small village. And beyond that, the steep slopes of a mountain.

There were no telephone poles or power lines. No television antennas. The roofs of the houses were made of black tile, the walls of yellow adobe. The village had once been ringed by a line of trees. Most of the trees were toppled over.

Youko pressed her hand to her chest. With a great sense of relief she took in her surroundings. It wasn't the sight of the buildings, or the strange landscape she had more or less been prepared for. This could be any plot of rundown farmland scattered around the back country of Japan.

Some distance away she spotted the forms of a number of people working in the rice paddies. She couldn't make out any details, but they didn't look like monsters.

"Oh, thank God!"

The exclamation rose unconsciously to her lips. She was still recovering from the confusion of seeing that black sea of stars. But, finally, here was something comfortingly familiar. If she ignored the complete lack of telephone poles she could pretend it was an ordinary Japanese village.

She took a deep breath. She decided to call out to them and see what happened. She hated the thought of talking to people she had never seen before. She didn't even know if they spoke the same language. But if she wanted any help she didn't have much choice. Partly to encourage herself and partly to calm her nerves, she said aloud, "I'll explain my situation and ask if anybody's seen Keiki around."

It was the best she could be expected to do.



Youko returned to the causeway she had seen earlier and made her way toward the people in the fields. As she drew closer to them it became apparent they were not at all Japanese. There were brown-haired women, red-haired men. Many reminded her somewhat of Keiki. Their features and stature weren't Caucasian, either. Their oddness seemed mostly due to the color of their hair. Take that away and they'd be quite normal.

Their clothing wasn't that dissimilar from traditional Japanese garb. All the men had their hair grown out and tied back. They were breaking down the causeway with their shovels.

One of the men looked up. Seeing Youko he pointed her out to his companions. He shouted something at her, but she couldn't make it out. The eight or so men and women there turned and looked at her. Youko acknowledged them with a slight bow. She couldn't think of what else to do.

A black-haired man in his thirties scrambled up the bank to the causeway. "Where you from?" he asked.

Youko registered the question with a deep sense of relief. They spoke the same language. She almost felt like laughing. She wasn't as bad off as she thought.

"I was over there, by the cliff," she said.

"The cliff? I mean, what's your hometown?"

Tokyo, she started to say, and changed her mind. She'd decided simply to explain her circumstances, but she doubted now that they would find anything she said believable. As she stood there trying to think of what to say, the man pressed again, "You're not from around here, are you? You come from across the ocean, huh?"

It was close enough to the truth. Youko nodded. The man's eyes widened. "Yeah, figures. A real pisser, you know, your kind showing up out of the blue like this."

The man grinned at her, as if comprehending something that she did not. He stared, his look approaching a leer, until his gaze fell on the sword she held down at her side. "Hey, what have you got there? Looks important."

"Someone . . . gave it to me."

"Who?"

"His name is Keiki."

The man closed the distance between them. Youko took a step back.

"Looks heavy. Don't worry. I'll take care of it for you."

The look in his eyes did not assuage her. She didn't like the way he spoke to her, either. She clasped the sword to her chest and shook her head. "It's okay. Where am I? What is this place?"

"This is Hairou. Frankly, missy, a dangerous thing like that, don't want you waving it around, specially when you don't even know where you are. Hand it over."

Youko retreated again. "I was told not to."

"C'mon, give it up."

The force of his demand made her quail. She didn't possess the courage to tell him no. Reluctantly she held it out to him. He snatched it from her and examined it. "Yeah, fine work, this. The guy you got it from must have been loaded."

The other men and woman gathered around them. Somebody asked, "One of those kaikyaku, is she?"

"Yeah. Look at what she was carrying. Must be worth a fortune." He went to pull the sword from the scabbard. The hilt did not budge. "So it's just an expensive toy!" He laughed and tucked the sword into his waistband. He reached out and grabbed Youko by the wrist.

"Ow! Let me go!"

"Can't do that. All kaikyaku get sent to the governor. That's orders." He gave her a shove. "Get going. And don't try anything." He raised his voice to his companions as he pushed her along. "Hey, I could use some help, here."

Youko's arm hurt. She could not begin to guess this man's true motives, nor where he was taking her. What she wanted most was to be free of him.

Immediately as the thought entered her mind a cold sensation crept into her hands and feet. She jerked her hand free of his grip. Her arm, quite on its own accord, reached for the sword at the man's waist and came away with both it and the scabbard. She jumped back from him.

"The bitch! Watch out! She's got the sword!"

"What? It's just an ornament. Hey, little girl, calm down and come with us."

Youko shook her head.

"You want to get dragged the whole way there? Huh? Quit clowning around and get your ass over here."

"No way."

More people were gathering around them. The man took a step towards her. Youko pulled the sword from the scabbard.

"What the hell!"

"Don't come any closer . . . please."

Everyone around her froze. Youko eyed them and backed way. As soon as she turned and started to run she heard footsteps behind her.

"Don't follow me!" she shouted, but as soon as she had glanced back to see them coming after her she drew up, raised the sword, her body preparing itself for combat. Her blood roared in her ears.

"Stop it," she told herself.

She lunged with the sword towards the nearest man charging towards her.

"Jouyuu, stop!"

It was pointless to argue with him. The tip of the sword traced a graceful arc in the air.

"I'm not killing any more people!"

She shut her eyes. At once the movement in her arm stopped. At the same time someone came upon her on horseback, yanked the sword from her hand and knocked her roughly off her feet. Tears welled up in her eyes, more from relief than pain.

"Stupid girl." They jabbed and kicked and punched her, but it was not too much to bear. Someone dragged her to her feet and pinned her arms behind her back. She did not care to resist. She pleaded with herself, with Jouyuu, do nothing.

"Let's take her back to the village. Better take that strange sword to the governor as well."

Her eyes still tightly shut, Youko could not tell who had spoken.
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Chapter 11

2-3 Youko was marched down a narrow path that wound through the paddies. After a fifteen-minute walk they arrived at a small town surrounded by a high fence. It was the hamlet she had spied earlier, little more than a rough handful of houses. Here, though, set into one wall of the squarish fence was a sturdy-looking gate.

The gate opened inwards, revealing another interior wall decorated with many pictures drawn in red colors. In front of the wall, for no discernable reason, someone had left behind a wooden chair. Youko was pushed along past the wall and towards the center of the village. When she came around the red wall, an unbroken view of the main street opened up to her.

The scene again roused in her both feelings of familiarity and strangeness. The feelings of familiarity came from its overall resemblance to oriental architecture--the white, plastered walls, black tiled roofs, the distinctive latticework of the arbors. But despite this, she felt no affinity for the place, undoubtedly because of the utter lack of a human presence.

A number of smaller paths branched out to the right and left of the wide street facing from the gate. She didn't see a single person. The houses were no higher than a single story, but were all hidden from the street behind a white fence that reached as high as the eaves. Gaps appeared in the fence at regular intervals, revealing glimpses of houses set back behind small gardens.

The houses were uniform in size, and looked very much the same, despite small differences in their outward appearance. They could have been rolled off an assembly line.

Here and there a window was open, the wooden shutters propped open with bamboo poles. Yet from the street Youko could sense no human presence. Not a single dog. Not a sound.

The main thoroughfare was no more than a hundred yards in length, ending at a plaza. Commanding the plaza was a building tiled with brilliant white stones. Yet the dazzling decoration seemed little more than a facade. The narrow streets intersecting with the plaza ran no more than thirty yards or so before meeting the surrounding wall of the town and bending out of sight.

On the streets there was no sign of human activity.

Youko glanced about the plaza. Beyond the uniform black-tiled roofs she could see only the high wall of the town. Turning around she could begin to make something of its shape. It was something of a long, narrow and deep box. The confines of the town were suffocatingly narrow, no more than half as wide as her own school. It was like being inside a big well, Youko thought. The town itself was like the rubble buried beneath the water at the bottom of the well.



They brought her to the center of the buildings facing the plaza. The building reminded her of Chinatown, in Yokohama. Yet the red-painted pillars the sparkling walls struck her as no less superficial than the rest of the town.

They entered a long, narrow hallway in the center of the building. It was dark and also devoid of people. After pausing to discuss some matter, the men prodded her forward again, and then shoved her into a small room and shut the door.

Her immediate impression of the room was that it was a jail cell.

The floor seemed to be covered with the same tiles as the roofs, though many of the tiles were cracked and broken. The earthen walls were cracked as well and stained with soot. A single window high up on the wall, blocked with bars. A single door, its peephole latticed with bars. Looking through the peephole she could see men standing just outside the door.

The room's furniture consisted of a wooden chair, a small table, and a larger platform the size of a single mattress. A thick cloth was attached to the top of the platform. It was obviously intended to be a bed.

She wanted to ask where this place was, what kind of place this was, what was going to happen to her next, and a thousand other questions. But she hadn't the courage to ask the guards. And they clearly had no desire to talk to her, either. So without another word, she lay down on the bed. There was nothing else she could do.



As time passed the human presence within the building became more marked. Outside her cell people came and went. There was a changing of the guards. The blue leather body armor the two new guards were wearing reminded her of policemen or security guards. She caught her breath, wondering what was about to happen. But the guards only gave Youko a pair of fierce looks and said nothing.

It was almost more cruel this way. It was better when something--anything--was happening. Several times, she determined to speak to the guards, but could not find the courage to speak.

The hours dragged on. It was enough to make her want to scream. After the sun set, and the cell had sunken into blackness, three women arrived.

The white-haired lady at the head of the three wore the kind of outfit Youko had seen in old historical dramas about China. It was a tremendous relief to finally meet someone, and a woman at that, not one of those grim-faced men.

The old lady said to the two who had accompanied her, "You can leave now." They deposited the articles they were carrying on the bed, and, bowing deeply, exited the jail cell. After they had gone the old lady pulled the table next to the bed. She placed the lamp on the table. The lamp resembled a candlestick of sorts. Next to it she put a bucket of water.

"Well, then, you'd better wash up."

Youko answered with a nod. Slowly she washed her face and hands and feet. Her filthy, blackened, reddened hands soon regained their normal color.

By this point, Youko began to notice how hard it was to move her limbs. This was no doubt because of Jouyuu. Over and over he had forced her body to do things it was hardly capable of, and now her muscles were torn and stiff.

As best she could she washed her hands and feet. The water soaked into the fine lacerations. She went to comb her hair, undoing the three braids gathered at the back. That was when she became aware of something truly strange.

"What . . . what is this?"

Undone from the braid her hair spilled down like a wave. She stared. She knew she had red hair, a red that faded at the ends, almost as if bleached. But not this! Where did this bizarre color come from?

It was red, a red steeped in blood, a red changed to a deep, dark crimson. To be called a redhead was one thing, but this was not that! She could not think of what to call it, this impossible, freakish hue. A shudder ran through her. It was the same red color as the coat of the creature in her nightmares.

"What's the matter?" the old lady asked. When Youko indicated her hair, she tilted her head to the side. "Why worry yourself so? There's nothing strange about it. A tad unusual, perhaps, but pretty enough."

Youko shook her head, searched in the pocket of her uniform and brought out a small hand mirror. No doubt about it, those scarlet locks were hers alone.

But who was this person peering back at her? For a moment it didn't make any sense. She timidly lifted her hand and touched her face. So did the stranger in the reflection. It was her, she realized in amazement.

This is not my face!

Even accounting for the effect that her hair might have on her appearance, this was somebody else's countenance. Its attractiveness was not the problem. The problem was plainly that this face--with its sun-bronzed skin, its deep emerald eyes--was the face of a stranger.

Youko cried out in great alarm. "This isn't me!"

The old lady turned to her with a dubious expression. "What isn't?"

"This! This is not who I am!"
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Chapter 12

2-4 The old lady took the mirror from Youko's distracted grasp and calmly examined it. "Nothing wrong with the mirror from what I can tell." She handed it back to Youko.

Now that Youko thought about it, her voice sounded different, too. She had become a completely different person. Not a beast or a monster, but . . . .

"Well, then, so you don't look exactly like you used to."

The laughter in the old lady's voice made Youko look at her. "But why?" she asked. She again peered at herself in the mirror. It gave her a strange sensation, seeing that stranger in place of herself.

"Why, indeed. Not something I'm bound to know."

With that, she took hold of Youko's hand and with a wetted cloth dabbed at the many small wounds.

When Youko looked more closely at the her inside the mirror, she could begin to tease out the vestiges of herself that seemed familiar. But they were very faint.

Youko put down the mirror, resolved not to pick it up again. As long as she didn't look it wouldn't matter what she looked like. True, mirror or not, she couldn't very well ignore her hair, but if she pretended it was dyed she could put up with it. That didn't mean she was resigned to every other aspect of her appearance, but at this point she didn't have the courage to take an unvarnished look at herself.

The old lady said, "Can't claim to know much about it myself, but it happens, or so I've heard. Sooner or later you'll settle down and get used to it."

She took the bucket off the table. In its place she placed a large bowl. It contained something like mochi rice immersed in soup.

"Go on, help yourself. There's plenty more to be had."

Youko shook her head. She had no appetite whatsoever.

"You're not going to eat?"

"I don't want any."

"Give it a taste and see. Sometimes that's the only way to know if you're really hungry or not."

Youko silently shook her head. The old lady sighed. From an earthenware teapot that resembled a tall water jug she poured a cup of tea.

"You come from over yonder?" she asked. She drew up a chair and sat down.

Youko raised her eyes. "Over yonder?"

"Across the sea. You come from across the Kyokai, did you?"

"What's the Kyokai?"

"The sea at the foot of the cliffs. The sea of emptiness, the sea as black as night."

So it was called the Kyokai. Youko tucked the word away in her mind.

The old lady put a box with an inkstone on the table and spread out a sheet of paper. She took a writing brush out of the box and held it out to Youko.

"What's your name?"

Youko pushed aside her mounting confusion, obediently took the brush and wrote down her name:

"Youko Nakajima."

"Oh, yes, a Japanese name."

Youko asked, "This is China, isn't it?"

The old lady cocked her head to the side. "This is Kou. Specifically, the Kingdom of Kou." She picked up another brush and wrote out the characters.

"This is the town of Hairou. Hairou is in Shin, a county of Rokou. Rokou is a prefecture of Fuyou, which is a district in Jun. Jun is a province in the Kingdom of Kou. I am one of the elders of Hairou."

Her style of writing was only subtly different from the Japanese Youko knew. Even the Chinese characters looked pretty much the same.

"That's kanji, right?"

"If you mean what I'm writing, then that's what it is. How old are you?"

"I'm sixteen. So what are the kanji for Kyokai?"

"It's the Sea (kai) of Emptiness (kyo). What's your occupation?"

"I'm a student."

The old lady paused hearing Youko's answer. "Well, you can speak, and you do know your letters. So, besides that strange sword of yours what else are you carrying?"

Youko emptied out her pockets: a handkerchief, a comb, a hand mirror, a notebook, and a broken watch. That was it. After a cursory examination, the old lady asked what each one was or meant. She shook her head, sighed again, and deposited everything in the pockets of her dress.

"Um . . . what's going to happen to me next?"

"Well. That's to be decided by my superiors."

"Did I do something wrong?"

They were sure treating her like a criminal, Youko thought. But the old lady shook her head.

"Don't mean you've done a thing wrong. It's just that all kaikyaku got to go see the governor. That's the way it is. No need for you to go jumping to conclusions."

"Kaikyaku?"

"Means the visitors (kyaku) from across the sea (kai). They say they come in from the east over the Kyokai. They say that at the eastern edge of the Kyokai there's a country called Japan. No person has ever seen it for himself but it must be true, what with so many of them ending up here."

The old lady looked right at Youko, "Sometimes those Japanese people are swallowed up in a shoku and wash up right on our shores. Like you. That's what the kaikyaku are."

"Shoku?"

"It's written with the same character as 'eclipse.' It's a tempest, a great storm, but it's different from a storm. It's there in the blink of an eye, and gone in an instant. Afterwards, that's when the kaikyaku appear."

Then she added with an uneasy laugh, "Most of them are long dead. And even if they're living, they don't last long. But, still, we take them to the governor. There's lot of very smart people up there who'll figure out what to do with you, too."

"Like what?"

"Like what, you ask? Frankly, I wouldn't know. The last time a living kaikyaku came ashore in these parts was back in my grandmother's day, and the word was that he died even before he got taken to the prefecture seat. A lucky girl you are, making it this far and not being drowned along the way."

"But . . . . "

"What, child?"

"But exactly where am I?"

"The state of Jun, I told you. Here." The old lady pointed to the list of place names she had written down.

"That's not what I mean!"

She turned and pleaded with the old lady, who looked back at her with wide eyes. "I don't know anything about this Kyokai. I don't know what kingdom the Kingdom of Kou is. I don't know anything about this world! What is going on?"

The old lady had no answer except a troubled sigh.

"Tell me how to get back home."

"Can't be done."

The abrupt answer made Youko wring her hands together. "It can't?"

"No human being can cross the Kyokai. No matter how they somehow arrive here, there's no going back."

This explanation did not satisfy her in the least. "No going back? That's just stupid."

"It's impossible."

"But . . . I . . . . " Tears welled up in her eyes. "But what about my mom and dad? I didn't go home last night. I missed school today. I have to go to school. Everybody's going to be worried."

It was an awkward moment. The old lady averted her gaze. She stood up and began arranging the things on the table. She said, "Probably better you get used to things being the way they are."

"But coming here wasn't my idea! I had nothing to do with it!"

"That's what all kaikyaku say."

"My whole life is there. I didn't bring anything with me. Why can't I go home? I . . . "

No more words came. She burst into loud sobs. The old lady paid her no mind. She left the room. Everything she brought with her she took with her, even the candle, leaving Youko alone in the pitch black cell. The sound of the locking bolts echoed in the dark.

Youko screamed, "I want to go home!"

But it was too hard to carry on in such distress. She curled up on the bed and wept. She finally cried herself to exhaustion.

And slept without dreams.
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Chapter 13

2-5 "Get up."

Youko was roused from sleep. Her eyelids were heavy from weeping. Hard sunlight stung her eyes. Fatigue and hunger left her drained but she still had no desire to eat.

The men woke her up then bound her--not too tightly--with a length of rope and led her outside. When they emerged from the building there was a wagon waiting in the plaza, harnessed to a team of two horses.

She was hoisted onto the horse cart. From this vantage point she could see around the plaza. Here and there and on the street corners crowds of people had gathered and were staring at her.

Where, she wondered, had all these people been hiding? Yesterday the place had looked like nothing more than the deserted ruins of a town.

They appeared Oriental, though the color of their hair was markedly different. With so many of them together it made for quite the human kaleidoscope. Every person wore a mixed expression of curiosity and hatred. They really did see her as a criminal getting shipped off in a paddy wagon.

In the fleeting moment in time between when she had opened her eyes until she had truly woken up, she had prayed from the heart to make it all a dream. The dream was shattered by those men dragging her out of the cell.

They hadn't given her any time to tend to her dress or appearance. Her school uniform was still drenched with the stench of the ocean from when they had plunged into the whirlpool in the sea.

Another man climbed into the wagon next to her. The driver loosened the reins. Sizing up the two of them, Youko's only thought was, God, she was dying for a bath, dying to immerse her body in the steaming water, wash herself with sweet-smelling soap, dress in fresh pajamas and go to sleep in her own bed. And wake up and eat the food her mother made, go to school, meet her friends, and talk about all the dumb stuff that didn't matter to anybody.

It occurred to her that she hadn't finished her chemistry homework. A book she'd borrowed from the library was overdue. Her favorite TV show, that she'd been watching forever, was on last night and she'd missed it. She hoped her mother remembered to tape it for her.

Dwelling on it now it was all so pointless. The tears welled up again. Youko hastily hung her head. She wanted to bury her head in her hands, but with her hands bound . . . .

Better you get used to things being the way they are.

No, she couldn't accept that. Keiki never said she couldn't go back home. It couldn't go on like this. It couldn't. Not being able to wash or put on clean clothes. Tied up like a criminal, hauled along in the back of this filthy wagon. She knew she was no saint, but she didn't deserve to be treated like this!

Glancing back at the gate receding behind them, she hunched her bound arms and wiped her cheek on her shoulder.

The man next to her--she guessed he was in his thirties--clutched a sack to his chest and gazed blankly at the passing scene. "Um . . . " Youko asked him timidly, "where are we going?"

The man looked at her suspiciously. "You talking to me?"

"Um, yes . . . where are we going?"

"Where? To the county seat. You're going to see the governor."

"And after that? Will there be, like, a trial or something?" She couldn't shake that feeling of being branded a criminal.

"Oh, they'll shut you up someplace safe until they figure whether you're a good kaikyaku or a bad kaikyaku."

The bluntness of the statement made Youko turn her head. "Good kaikyaku or bad kaikyaku?"

"Yeah. If you're a good kaikyaku, you get yourself a guardian and you get to live someplace. If you're a bad kaikyaku it's off to prison, or they just execute you."

Youko reflexively shrank into herself. Cold sweat ran down her back. "Execute . . . ?"

"When a bad kaikyaku shows up everything goes to hell. If bad things start a-coming and it's because of you, off with your head.

"When you say, bad things coming . . . . "

"I mean wars and disasters and hell following after 'em. If you don't kill 'em quick they'll wreck the whole kingdom."

"But how can anybody be sure?"

The man laughed a mean little laugh. "Oh, lock 'em up for a little while and you find out quick enough. You show up and bad stuff starts to happen at the same time, that means you're bad seed, no doubt about it." There was a threatening look in his eyes. "You brought a few disasters along with you, didn't you?"

"What do you mean . . . ?"

"That shoku that sent you here. You know how many farms got buried in the mudslides? This year's harvest in Hairou going to be a complete bust."

Youko closed her eyes. Oh, yes, that, she thought. That's why they were treating her this way. To these villagers she had become an omen of doom.

The thought of death frightened her to the core. The thought of being killed, even more so. If she were to die in a foreign place like this no one would weep for her, or miss her. Her parents could not even claim her body.

How did it come to this?

At any rate, she could not believe that this was her fate. The day before yesterday she left home just like on any other day. "Later," she had said to her mother. The day had begun like always, it should have ended like always. Where had everything gone wrong?

She probably shouldn't have approached those villagers. She should have been more patient and stayed there by the cliffs. She should have stuck it out with those who brought her here--or for that matter, not gone anywhere with them in the first place.

But she didn't exactly have a whole wide range of choices open to her. Keiki told her she was coming with him whether she liked it or not. Then they were pursued by those monsters. She'd done what she had to do to protect herself.

It was like she'd been lured into some kind of trap. On that perfectly ordinary morning the snare had already been set. In the hours that followed the noose had drawn closed. By the time she'd noticed that anything was amiss it was too late, there was no way out.

I've got to get out of here.

Youko checked her growing desire to spring into action right then and there. There was no room for failure. If she blew her chance at a clean getaway she could not imagine how they'd make her pay. She had to pick the moment and get herself the hell out of here.

Thoughts and ideas were spinning around like crazy inside her head to a degree she'd never experienced before in her life.

"Um . . . how long will it take to get to the county seat?"

"By wagon, about half a day."

Youko raised her head. The sky was the kind of clean blue you see after a hurricane. The sun was directly above. She'd have to make a break for it before the sun set. She had no idea what the county seat would be like, but no doubt escaping it would be a lot harder than this horse cart.

"What about my things?"

The man looked suspiciously at Youko. "Everything a kaikyaku brings gets turned in. Them's the rules."

"The sword, too?"

The man again flashed her a distrusting look. She took it as a warning. "What you asking for?"

"Because it's important to me."

She lightly clasped her hands behind her back. "The man who caught me, he wanted it real bad. It's such a relief to know it didn't get stolen."

The man sniffed. "Useless crap. We'll hand it over like we're supposed to."

"Yeah, it's just an ornament, but it's got to be worth a lot of money."

The man looked into her face, then opened the cloth sack on his knees. The jeweled sword buried within gleamed and sparkled.

"This is an ornament?"

"That's right."

Being this close to the sword made her feel that much better. But Youko focused instead on the man. He put his hand on the hilt. Go ahead, she urged him, try and pull it out. That man back in the field, he hadn't been able to. Keiki said that only she could wield the sword. Perhaps it was true that no one besides her could, but she wanted to be sure.

He put all his effort into it. The hilt didn't budge from the scabbard even a fraction of an inch.

"Please, give it back to me."

He laughed to scorn at Youko's request. "Like I told you, it gets turned over to the authorities. Besides, it won't do you much good, what with your head chopped off. No matter how much you want to look, you can't see much with your eyes shut."

Youko bit her lip. If not for these ropes, the sword would be hers. Perhaps Jouyuu could help her out, she thought. But as much as she tried the cords would not give. Not even Jouyuu could give her supernatural powers.

Glancing about for some way to cut the rope and get hold of the sword, a flash of gold in the passing terrain caught her eye.

The horse cart turned onto a mountain road. There amongst the rows of trees neatly arrayed in the dark forest she recognized a familiar color. She opened her eyes wider. At the same time Jouyuu sent his presence crawling across her skin.

There was a person in the forest. A person with long golden hair, a pale face, wearing a robe that resembled a long kimono.

Keiki.

As Youko whispered his name, a voice she knew that was not her own echoed inside her head.

Taiho.
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Chapter 14

2-6 "Stop!"

Youko leaned forward and shouted, "Keiki! Help me!"

"What the . . . ! " The man next to her grabbed her shoulders and shoved her down.

Youko whirled around. "Stop the wagon! There's somebody I know out there!"

"There's nobody you know here."

"He was just there! It's Keiki! Please, stop!"

The horses slowed their gait.

The golden light was already in the distance. But she saw enough to know that there was definitely somebody there, that next to him was another person, and that person was wearing a dark cloak over his head like the grim reaper, and that he had gathered about him a number of beasts.

"Keiki!"

As she turned and called out, the man yanked back on Youko's shoulders. She fell hard on her behind. When she raised her head again the golden light was gone. She could see the place where it had been, but the people there had vanished.

"Keiki!"

"Enough already!" the man said, roughly shaking her. "There's nobody there! Quit trying to play us!"

"He was there!"

"Shut yer mouth!"

Youko cringed. The horse cart continued on its way. Youko cast a resigned glance back behind her. Of course, there was nobody there.

Why?

The voice she had heard, in the instant she believed she had seen Keiki, it had surely been Jouyuu's. So it must have been Keiki. She had seen his fellow creatures as well. So they must be okay.

But then why didn't he help me?

Wracking her thoughts in confusion, she let her gaze wander. But she couldn't see that golden glow anywhere.

At that moment from within the forest came a cry.

Youko stared at where the sound was coming from. So did the man next to her. It was the cry of a baby. They were hearing the spasmodic wailing of a child.

The driver had up to that point said nothing, only driven the wagon forward. He shot the two of them a look and loosened the reigns. The horses quickened their pace.

"Hey . . . . " His companion pointed off in the direction of the crying. "But it's a baby."

"Don't care. You hear a baby crying here in the mountains, that's good reason to keep your distance."

"But, still . . . . "

The baby began wailing like it was being scalded, a pressing, urgent cry that no human could bear to ignore. The man continued to search for the source of the sound, leaning out over the side of the wagon. The driver snapped, "Pay it no mind. I've heard there's man-eating youma in these mountains that'll howl just like a baby crying."

Youko felt herself tense up at the mention of the word. Youma. Demons.

The man frowned, looking at the woods and then at the driver. With a hard expression on his face, the driver snapped the reins again. The wagon began to bounce and sway along the hill road. The forest crowded the trail on both sides, shadowing it in gloom.

For a brief moment Youko had believed Keiki was going to save her, but Jouyuu's presence was growing more intense, her entire body was tensing up to an alarming degree. There was no way he'd be like this if he was simply happy they were about to be rescued.

The baby's keening voice was suddenly much closer and clearly getting closer. Answering it, a cry came from the opposite direction. Then the wailing was all about them. Circling the wagon, the high-pitched voices reverberated down the hill road.

"God!" The man's body went rigid as he scanned the surroundings. The horse cart sped along at an increasingly heedless pace. The wailing rang out again, nearer. Not that of a baby. Not that of a child. Youko shuddered, her pulse raced. The sensation she was feeling permeated her body. This time it was not Jouyuu's presence, it was more like the roar of the ocean.

She shouted, "Untie me!"

The man looked at Youko and shook his head.

"If we're attacked, do you have any way to protect yourself?"

Flustered by the question, he could only shake his head.

"Then untie me. And give me that sword. Please."

The ring of cries encircling the horse cart was contracting. The horses were at full gallop. The wagon leapt and bounded as if trying to buck off its passengers.

"Hurry up!" Youko screamed. The man made as if to hit her. That's when it happened. A huge crash. She was catapulted into the air.

She hit the ground hard, vaguely realizing that the cart had tipped over. Catching her breath, choking down a wave of nausea, she looked up to see that the horses and wagon had toppled sideways in a complete wreck.

The man with the cloth sack had been thrown a short distance from her. He sat up shaking his head. He still had the sack clutched tightly to his chest. The baby cries rang from out the edge of the forest.

"Please! Untie me!"

A horse let loose a wrenching scream. Youko turned with panicked eyes. A huge black dog was attacking one of the team. The dog had a hugely overdeveloped jaw. When it opened its mouth it looked like its head was splitting in two. Its muzzle was white. A second later it was crimson. The man shrieked.

"Untie me and give me that sword!"

He was deaf to her pleas. Trembling, he clambered to his feet. Clutching the sack, free hand clawing at the sky, he stumbled down the hill.

Four black beasts sprang from the woods, bounding through the air after him. Man and beasts became one. Then the beasts alighted on the ground, leaving the frozen form of the man behind.

No, he wasn't petrified with fear. He was missing an arm. And his head. A moment later the body toppled over. A fountain of blood sprayed forth, painting the ground around him with a rainfall of red. Behind Youko, a horse screamed, a high-pitched neigh.

Youko took cover behind the wagon. Her shoulder touched something, making her start and twist around. It was the driver. He grabbed Youko's bound hands. She saw he was holding a small knife.

"Don't run," he said. "If we go now, we can slip by the bastards."

He undid the cords binding Youko's hands and started down the hill, marching her in front him. One horde of beasts was gathered around the horse at the crest of the hill. At the bottom of the hill another crowded around the fallen man, forming a small black mound over the body. His only recognizable feature, his head, lay a few feet away.

Youko shrank back from this scene of sudden slaughter. It was happening to somebody else, not to her. But her now unfettered body was preparing for battle. She scooped up some nearby stones and picked one out.

What am I supposed to do with these pebbles?

She straightened, faced the bottom of the hill. She could see the man's leg jerking in gory syncopation to sound of frenzied feeding coming from the furry swarm. She counted the pelts. Six altogether.

Youko approached the pack. The baby-like mewing had ceased. The air was filled with the sound of crunching bone and muscle. One of the dogs suddenly raised its head, its muzzle stained with blood. As if called to one by one each of the animals raised its head in succession.

Now what?

She charged forward at a small run. The first dog came at her. She hit it squarely in the nose with a stone. Not hard enough to knock it down, but enough to make it hesitate in its stride.

This isn't going to work.

The pack drew back, exposing the form of what had not yet ceased to be recognizable as the body of a man.

I'm going to die here.

She'd be devoured like him. Their jaws and fangs would tear her to pieces, into lumps of meat, and they'd wolf her down.

Even as she was assaulted by such hopeless thoughts, Youko drove the dogs back with the stones and set off at a run. Once Jouyuu had been roused to action there was no stopping him. The best she could do was get out of his way and pray that the end would be quick and painless.

She ran, sharp shocks of pain radiating down her legs and arms and back.

Looking back over her shoulder for help she saw the driver running towards the forest in the opposite direction, madly flailing about with the knife. Just as he plunged into the undergrowth he was dragged down into the shadow of the trees.

She asked herself why he had headed off like that and immediately understood that he had intended to use her as a decoy. While the dogs were busy attacking her he'd slip away into the woods. It hadn't turned out the way he'd planned. It hadn't occurred to him that they'd go after him instead.

She was running out of stones. She was three paces from the dead man's corpse.

A beast came at her from the right. She smacked it in the snout with her free hand. Another nipped at her ankles, rose up and almost bowled her over. She skipped, stumbled, was hit again hard in the back, lurched forward and plowed head-on into the dead man's body.

Oh, gross.

She didn't scream. She was too numb by now. She felt only a mild repulsion. She righted herself, turned in a crouch, braced herself. She didn't think it'd do much good to try and stare these monsters down, but, surprisingly, they lowered their heads and held their distance. Still, she couldn't keep this up forever.

Youko worked her right hand under the corpse, searching amongst the mangled flesh. Fresh in her mind's eye was the fact that he had been alive one moment, dead the next. She was out of time. Once the pack made their decision, it'd be all over.

She felt something hard at her fingertips. The hilt of the sword practically jumped into her hand. An inarticulate thrill shot through her.

She seized her lifeline. But when she tried to extract the scabbard, halfway out it got stuck on something. She was told to never separate the sword from its scabbard. She hesitated, and she didn't have time to hesitate. She slipped the sword out of the scabbard. With the tip of the blade she cut the cord holding the jewel and clasped it in the palm of her hand.

The dogs made their move. The first one charged into her field of vision. Her right arm moved, the sword flashed.

"AYAAAA!!" An inarticulate cry tore from her throat.

The dogs came at her from the left, from the right. She cut them down, opened up a gap in the throng, plunged through and ran. They charged after her again. She slashed and retreated, and then with all the energy left in her body fled the scene.
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Chapter 15

2-7 Youko sat down against the fat trunk of a tree.

Halfway down the hill she had cut off the path into the mountains. Here was where her legs finally gave out.

She raised her sleeve to wipe away the sweat on her brow. The fabric of her seifuku uniform was heavy with blood. She grimaced, peeled off her jacket and used it to wipe down the sword. She held the blade up in front of her eyes.

She recalled reading in her history class that you could kill only so many people with a Japanese sword before the blood and gore dulled its effectiveness. She was sure that the sword must have been damaged during the melee, and carefully buffed the metal until there was not a shadow left on the steel.

"Strange . . . . "

Strange that only she could draw the sword. When she had first taken hold of it, it had seemed heavy in her hands. But now, free of the scabbard, it was as light as a feather.

Having restored the glitter to the razor-sharp edge, Youko wrapped the sword in her jacket. She took a minute to organize her thoughts.

She had left the scabbard behind. Perhaps she should go back and get it.

Never separate the sword from the scabbard. So she was told, but was that because the scabbard itself had any special value? Or was it because of the jewel attached to it?

The T-shirt she wore under her uniform jacket was soaked with sweat. It was getting cold but she couldn't stomach putting on that bloody jacket. Now that she had the time to sit and think about it, her body really hurt. Her arms and legs were covered with wounds.

There were teeth marks through the sleeves of her t-shirt. Blood welled up under the T-shirt spotting the white cloth.

Her skirt was torn, her legs etched with countless lacerations. Most were still oozing blood, but compared to the kind of damage those fangs could do--that took that man's head off just like that--these were pretty minor cuts and bruises.

Again, strange. There was no way she should have come out of it like this. Though now that she thought about it, when they were in the vice-principal's office and the window shattered, everybody around her was hurt while nothing happened to her. And when she had fallen from Hyouki's back onto the beach she'd suffered little more than a few bumps and bruises.

It was all so weird, though considering that even her physical appearance had changed, it wasn't any more weird than anything else that happened to her.

Whatever, she sighed. She took a few more deep breaths. She noticed that her left hand was still clenched into a fist. She uncurled her stiff fingers. The blue-green jewel tumbled out. Closing her hand around it again it was clear that the jewel was alleviating the pain.



She held the jewel tightly and dozed off for a while. When she awoke, all her wounds had clotted and closed.

"This is so weird . . . . "

The gnawing pain, once enough to bring tears to her eyes, was gone. She felt only a light fatigue. She was definitely not going to lose the jewel, the one thing in her life she was definitely thankful for. That must have been why they had told her it was so important to not lose the scabbard.

She removed the kerchief from the collar of her seifuku jacket and with the sword cut from it a thin strip of cloth. Tightly twisting it she threaded the strip of cloth through the holes in the jewel and hung it around her neck.

"Jouyuu," she said, directing her attention inwardly. There was no reply.

"I have a question. Say something."

He did not answer.

"What am I supposed to do now? I mean, where should I go?"

No voice answered her. She knew he was there. She concentrated her thoughts, focused her attention, but she felt no evidence of his presence. She heard something like the faint rustle of leaves, but all she felt was silence.

"Hey, a right or a left would be fine by me!"

Youko continued on in her monologue. "Look, I don't know the first thing about this place, okay? I'm just asking for a little advice, that's all. If I go someplace where there's a lot of people I'll probably get arrested again, right? And if I get arrested, I'm as good as dead. So I keep on running and make sure I don't meet anybody, then what? Should I be looking for some magical door that'll take me back to my own home? Not likely, huh?"

Forget about what she must do, she didn't even have a good idea of what to do next. She wasn't helping herself at all just sitting here, but it wasn't like she had anyplace to go, either.

The dusk was falling fast in the forest. She didn't have any kind of light, nothing that could be called a bed. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink. It was too dangerous to go near cities or towns, and wandering around in the wilderness wasn't exactly safe, either.

"All I want to know is what to do next! At the very least could you give me a hint or two?"

As expected, there was no reply.

"What the hell is going on? What happened to Keiki and everybody? That was him back there, wasn't it? What'd he just disappear for? Why didn't he help me? Why?"

Only the rustling of leaves answered her.

"I'm begging you. Can't you say anything?"

The tears welled up. "I want to go home . . . . "

She couldn't say she loved the life she had been living. But now that she was separated from that life, she missed it so badly it hurt. She'd do anything to be back home again. If she could go home she'd never leave again.

"I wanna go home."

As she sobbed like a child, a thought occurred to her. She'd escaped. She'd escaped from getting shipped off to the governor, from getting eaten by those dogs. She'd come this far and she'd survived. She hugged her knees to her chest.

But was she really any better off?

If it hurts so bad . . . .

She shook her head, pushed away the thoughts welling up in her mind. It was too scary to think things like that, thoughts more persuasive than any words. She hugged her knees more tightly.

That was when, out of the blue, she heard the voice. A strange, high-pitched voice, laughing like an old man, laughing at the thoughts she was trying so hard to resist.

"If it hurts so bad, why, it could all be over in an instant."



Youko scanned her surroundings. Her right hand was at once on the hilt of the sword. The forest was black with the night. There was only enough light to make out the height of the undergrowth and trees.

From the midst of the night came a dim glow, maybe two meters from where Youko was sitting, a thin, blue phosphorescence radiating through the undergrowth.

Gazing at the light Youko gasped, caught her breath. It was a monkey, its fur shining like foxfire. Only its head appeared, parting the tall weeds. He looked at Youko and bared his teeth and laughed, a screeching laugh that grated at her ears.

"If they had eaten you up, it would have all been over before you knew it!"

Youko drew the sword out from her jacket. "What . . . are you?"

The monkey laughed its screechy laugh again. "I am what I am. Silly little girl, running away, are we? If they'd gobbled you down like that, well, there'd be no more of these unpleasant thoughts."

Youko raised the sword. "Who are you?"

"But I told you, did I not? I am who I am. Your ally. I thought to tell you some nice things for a change."

"Nice things . . . ?"

She didn't buy a word he was saying. Jouyuu exhibited no tension or concern, so she did not think he was an enemy. But his strange appearance convinced her that he couldn't possibly be a normal living thing.

"There is no going home for you, little girl."

Youko glared at him hard. "Shut up," she spat back.

"Oh, no, you can't go home. Absolutely, positively not. Because there's absolutely, positively no way for you to do so, now, is there? Shall I tell you something nice?

"I don't want to hear it."

"Oh, I shall tell you anyway. You, little girl, you have been royally taken in." The monkey let loose a shriek of laughter.

"T-taken in?" It felt like getting doused with cold water.

"You're such a silly girl, now, aren't you? It was a trap right from the start, don't you know."

Her breath stopped in her throat. A trap. Whose trap? Keiki's? Keiki's trap? The hand holding the sword began to shake, but she could not find the words to deny what the monkey was saying.

"You knew it all along, didn't you? He brought you here, and there is no going back there. That's the trap, don't you see?"

The monkey's piercing laugh stabbed at her ears.

"Stop it!"

She swung the sword blindly. The tips of the grass danced with a dull, dry whish. For all her reckless effort, the flailing tip of the sword failed to reach the monkey.

"Now, now, not listening to the truth won't change things a bit. You go waving that thing like that, well, you're going to hurt yourself."

"Stop it!"

"And what a fine piece of work it is, indeed. Why not put it to even better use? Off with her head! A do-it-yourself job!" The monkey threw his head back towards the heavens and shrieked hysterically.

"Shut up!"

She lunged, but the monkey was no longer there just beyond the tip of the sword. He was a little further off, still only his disembodied head visible.

"Now, now, do you really want to kill me? After all, if I wasn't here you wouldn't have anyone at all to talk to."

The raw truth of the statement struck like a blow.

"Have I done you wrong? Have I not most politely deigned to converse with you?"

Youko held her temper, squeezed her eyes shut.

"Oh, yes, poor, poor pitiful you, being hauled off to such a place as this."

"What should I do . . . ?"

"I can't see as there's anything you can do."

"I don't want to die." The mere thought was still too dreadful to contemplate.

"Do whatever strikes your fancy, then. I don't wish you to die either, little girl."

"Where should I go?"

"Does it really matter? It really can't, not when you're being chased by both people and youma."

Youko buried her face in her hands. The tears welled up.

"That's right, little girl. Cry while you can. Before you know it there won't be any tears left."

The monkey laughed his high, chirpy laugh. The sound of his laughter was farther away. Youko lifted her head. "Wait!"

She didn't want it to leave her. He might be a complete unknown, but it was better having someone, anyone to talk to than being lost and alone in this place.

By the time she had raised her head to look he was gone. She heard only the screeches of laughter fading into the distance, echoing in the pitch black darkness.
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Posted 3/28/08
Chapter 16

2-8 If it hurts so much, it could be over in an instant.

The monkey's words rested heavy on her heart. She could not dismiss them from her mind. Neither could she tear her eyes away from the sword resting on her knees. It lay there, cold and hard, glimmering in the barely perceptible light.

If it hurts . . . .

She could take the thoughts no further. She shook her head, cast them aside. She couldn't go back. She couldn't go forward. She just sat there and stared at the sword.

After a while the blade began to throw off a faint but discernable glow. Youko opened her eyes wider. Slowly, the white outline of the sword emerged in the dark. Youko picked it up and held it out in front of her. The sword cast a brilliant glitter into the night. The flat of the double-edged blade was as wide as her fingers. She concentrated her attention on the curious colors dancing up and down its length.

She gathered that it was an image of some sort being projected by the sword itself. At first, she thought it was herself, but realized that it was not. When she looked closer at the blade she saw it was the silhouette of a person, of somebody working.

She heard a familiar sound. The high, clear sound of water, of a drop striking the surface of calm pool. As she concentrated, the projection from the sword came clearer. The notes sounded and the image drew into focus, like the ripples drawn across the mirrored surface of a pond gently subsiding.

It was a woman, a woman busying about in a room.

Youko grasped what she was looking at. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Mom . . . . "

It was true. The person she was seeing was her mother, and the room she was seeing was her own room. The wallpaper with the ivory pattern on a white background, the curtains arrayed with a design of small flowers. The patchwork comforter on her bed. The stuffed dolls on the bookshelf. On her desk, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Her mother walked aimlessly around her room, touching things here and there. She went to pick up a book, flip through the pages, went to open a drawer, maybe to look inside, but then sat down on the bed and sighed.

Mom . . . .

Her mother looked tired. The gaunt expression on her face made Youko's chest hurt. Her mother really was worried about her. Two days had passed since Youko had left. Not once had she even been late for dinner without informing them of her whereabouts beforehand.

One by one her mother picked up the stuffed dolls arranged along the edge of the bed and gently petted them. Then she lay back against the headboard, clasping the doll, and burst into muffled sobs.

Youko couldn't help herself. "Mom!" she called out, as if she were there in the room with her.

As soon as she spoke the scene ended. She suddenly came back to herself. Her eyes refocused. All she saw was the sword. The glittering light was gone, she could see nothing in the blade. The sound of falling water ceased.

"What was that?"

What in the world had she been looking at, she wondered. It looked so real. She again held out the sword in front of her. No matter how much she concentrated, the images did not reappear. Nor did she hear that sound of water.

The sound of a falling drop of water.

She remembered.

It was the sound she had heard in her dreams. The dreams that had gone on for a month. That same high sound of falling water had accompanied them. Those dreams had become reality. But what about the vision she had just seen? The more she thought about it the less she understood it. She shook her head. No, she had seen her mother because she wanted so badly to go home.

She looked off in the direction the monkey had vanished.

You can't go back. It was a trap.

If that was true, all her hopes were in vain. But it wasn't a trap. Surely, even if Keiki hadn't been able to help her, that didn't mean he had abandoned her.

No . . . she hadn't clearly seen his face. She could have been mistaken. Maybe it wasn't him at all.

"That must be it."

It looked like Keiki, but it wasn't him. People around here had hair in all kinds of colors. She thought it was Keiki because he had blond hair, but she hadn't clearly seen his face. And now that she thought about it, the figure of the man she had seen was a little bit smaller than Keiki.

"Yes, yes, that's what happened."

It wasn't Keiki after all. Keiki simply wouldn't have deserted her like that. If she could only find Keiki, she was sure she could go home again.

She firmly clenched the hilt of the sword. A series of sensations scurried down her spine.

"Jouyuu?"

Her body roused itself of its own accord. She undid the jacket wound around the sword and cast it aside, prepared herself. "What is it?" she asked, knowing there would be no answer, her eyes scanning the surroundings. Her pulse raced.

From ahead of her came the dry whush of something pushing its way through the underbrush. That something was coming her way. The next thing she heard was a howl, as when a dog marks its territory for all within earshot.

Those dogs.

The same dogs that had attacked earlier?

In any case, she was at a clear disadvantage fighting in this darkness. She cast a glance behind her. She had to find someplace where there was even a little bit more light. She moved with careful steps, relying on Jouyuu's promptings to guide her. She took off at a sprint. At the same time, behind her, that big something broke free of the undergrowth and rushed after her.

Youko ran through the black forest. Her pursuer should have been fast enough to overtake her but was not quick enough or smart enough. As she dashed from tree to tree, she could hear its heavy mass lurching from side to side, and the occasional thud as it collided hard against a trunk of a tree.

She ran towards the light, bounded out of the forest.

She found herself on a terrace that jutted out from the deforested side of the mountain, bathed in white moonlight. Below her an unbroken view of a range of gently rolling mountains opened up. Cursing that this was not a level and open field she turned and steeled herself. With a great crash the huge shadow charged into the clearing.

It resembled a big bull with a long shaggy coat that rolled in waves as it breathed. It growled at her like a Doberman.

She felt neither panic nor surprise. Her heart raced, her breath burned in her throat, but any fear she might have towards this strange beast faded away. She focused her attention on Jouyuu's whisperings. Her body filled with the roar of the ocean. Yet she couldn't help thinking, God, I hate getting blood all over me.

She lost track of time. The moon rose high in the sky. The silver sword gleamed in the clean light of the moon.

And then, under the night sky, it was stained black. Three more blows brought the beast to its knees. As she drew close and delivered the coup de grace, she saw the glowing red eyes gathering around her in the surrounding dark.



She walked only where there was light. Countless times she beat back the attacking youma.

These creatures could not abide the daylight. So they came at her over and over again throughout the night. Though it was not one long continuous battle, the jewel could not stave off her growing fatigue. By the time daylight finally broke over the deserted road, she was jabbing the sword into the ground and using it like a cane. Walking hurt like hell.

It grew brighter and the attacks came farther apart. With the first rays of the sun they ceased completely. She wanted to collapse there at the side of the trail, but it'd be dangerous if anybody came across her there. Dragging her aching limbs she crawled in amongst the trees shouldering the road and found a patch of soft ground cover. She clasped the sword to her chest and fell into a deep sleep.
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