1-5 A torrent of water crashed against the building and blew out the remaining windows. A wave strewn with icy shards swept through 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 wasn’t 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 fled the office and 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 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 to 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 with 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 send her tumbling 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.