1-6 The baboon sprang from rooftop to rooftop and 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 for explanations. She turned her face away from him and 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 hardly have time 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 her present condition. 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 rested long enough. There is no more time 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. That was out of the question! What would her parents say when they came home to an empty house? They’d 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’re coming.”