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 streaked down her skin. She bolted to her feet. Her hands and feet were stained red. Her navy blue school seifuku uniform had turned a dark maroon.
She moaned. Her whole body was soaked with blood. Her hands were black and sticky with gore, as were her face and hair. She cried out and 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, “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 back 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 gripped the hilt of the sword. 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 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’d 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’d 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’d 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 a break in the woods to her right. 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. She came 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.
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.
What in the world . . . “This 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.