1-8 The heavens were suffused with a cold, starry light. Across the surface of the earth a constellation of artificial 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.
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 hold 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 . . . ”
“Make sure you do not lose the scabbard either.”
“The 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. Always know where they are.”
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 tightened her embrace around Youko’s waist.
“But . . . ”
She had no time to raise any further 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. She couldn’t tell whether the light streamed from head to foot or the other way around. In either case, they would cross it’s length shortly.
No sooner had they leapt into the circle of light but 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 couldn’t 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 darkness of the gathering clouds.
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 the vision appearing before her eyes. She’d 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 night.
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 through 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.