4-8 The pack of dog beasts came at her in a rush, the same ones that had attacked her before on the mountain road. Swinging the heavy sword, she dispatched most of them and was soon drenched with blood.
A dog beast leapt at her. She decapitated it. Suddenly she found herself down on one knee, a deep bite wound in her left calf. She felt no pain, as if the limb were numbed, though from the ankle down the pain was intense. She glanced at her blood-soaked leg then surveyed the road for any lingering foes. One dog remained.
This dog beast was bigger than all the rest she had felled. The difference in its physical strength was obvious as well. She’d delivered two solid blows to it already and it hardly looked winded.
The beast crouched low against the ground. She sized up their positions and corrected the grip on the sword. The weapon had almost become an extension of her own body, yet it was so heavy she could barely keep the tip on target. She felt a dizziness verging on vertigo. Her consciousness began to cloud over.
She swung the sword at the shadow that bounded toward her. The blade did not so much cut as it slapped against the dog’s hide. Taking everything Jouyuu had to give she could not deliver a second blow.
The slap from the sword was enough to send the black beast sprawling. An instant later it was back on its feet, flinging itself towards her. She aimed at its snout and could do nothing more than thrust the sword forward.
The tip of the blade ripped through the beast’s face. At the same time its claws tore into her shoulders. The shock of collision jarred the sword loose from her grasp. She managed to grab hold and with a shout turned on the fallen beast and swung down with all her strength.
Her energy exhausted, she stumbled forward, collapsed. Somehow the sword had pierced the beast’s neck. The sword was staked into the ground through a patch of black fur. Dark blood spotted the earth around the end of the blade.
Youko could not move from where she had fallen. But neither could her foe. The two of them lay not more than a yard apart. They each raised their heads and guardedly examined the other’s predicament.
Youko’s sword was pinned to the earth. Her opponent exhaled foamy blood.
They exchanged brief glances. Youko moved first. She grasped the hilt of the sword with enfeebled hands and pulled herself to her feet.
A moment later her opponent roused itself and almost immediately collapsed.
Somehow she managed to yank the blade out of the ground. It weight like an anchor on her arm. She closed the distance between them, sank to her knees, and with both hands brought the sword down.
Her foe lifted its head and howled, gushing foamy blood. Its paws clawed weakly at the ground. It could not right itself. Holding the sword up with both arms, she aimed for the beast’s neck, letting the weight of the sword by itself do the damage. The blade, shiny with blood and fat, sank into the fur. The beast’s claws sprang out, its limbs convulsed.
It spewed more frothy blood, almost seemed to mutter something to itself.
With every ounce of strength she had left, she raised the heavy sword and let it fall. This time the beast did not even twitch.
The sword embedded itself halfway through the creature’s neck. Youko let go of the hilt, rolled over on her back. Clouds hung low against the dome of the sky.
After lying there for a while staring up at the sky, she gulped air and screamed. Her side burned. Every breath tore at her throat. She felt nothing in her extremities, as if her arms and feet had been amputated.
She was grasping the jewel but could not even move her fingertips. Suppressing a sense of dizziness that verged on seasickness she watched the clouds roll by. A part of the sky was stained a faint madder red.
She was suddenly overcome by the urge to vomit. She turned her head to the side and threw up. The corrosive-smelling bile ran down her cheek. She took a breath but couldn’t breathe. She gagged and choked, instinctively turned over and coughed violently.
I’m still alive. Somehow she was alive. As the hacking coughs wracked her body, this was the thought that turned over and over in her mind. When she at last brought her breathing under control, she heard a faint sound, the sound of footsteps.
No! Were her enemies still around? She lifted her head. Her vision spun, blackness closed in. Her head dropped back to the earth.
She couldn’t get up. But within those brief moments, the image that swam into her reeling gaze embedded itself in her mind.
The color of gold.
Keiki! Still flat on her back she cried out, “Keiki!” Of course it would be you, Keiki. You sent these youma. “Why? Just tell me why!”
The footsteps were very close now. Youko raised her head. She caught sight first of a brilliantly colored kimono. Then the golden hair.
“Why . . . ?”
There was no reply to any of her questions.
Craning her head backwards, she realized it was not Keiki’s face. “Oh,” she said. Not Keiki. A woman. The woman peered down at her. Youko stared into her eyes. “Who are you?”
She was a woman with golden hair, maybe ten years older than Youko. On her slender shoulders perched a brightly-colored parrot. The woman’s extraordinarily beautiful face was suffused with sadness. Staring up at her, Youko was struck by the realization that she was on the verge of weeping.
“Who are you?” Youko asked in a hoarse voice.
The woman looked at her and said nothing. Tears gathered in the her crystal clear eyes.
“What . . . ”
The woman blinked slowly. Tears fell softly down her cheeks. She averted her eyes. Youko was too taken aback to speak. The woman turned her attention to the beast lying next to Youko. She gazed at it with a sorrowful expression, then slowly stepped forward. She knelt down next to the corpse.
Youko could do nothing but watch. No words came, she couldn’t move her body. She had been trying all along to rouse herself but she couldn’t move a finger.
The woman gently reached out and stroked the beast. The tips of her fingers brushed a patch of red. She jerked back her hand as if she had touched a red hot iron.
“Who are you?”
The woman didn’t answer. She reached out again, grasped the hilt of the sword—the blade was still embedded in the beast’s neck—pulled it free and set it on the ground. She eased the beast’s head into her lap.
“Did you send them after me?”
The woman didn’t speak. She cradled the beast in her lap, petted its coat. Her luxurious kimono was soon stained with clotted blood.
“And all the youma who’ve attacked me up to now? What do you have against me?”
Hugging the beast’s head, the woman shook her head. Youko raised her eyebrows. The parrot perched on the woman’s shoulder flapped its wings.
The shrill voice no doubt belonged to the parrot. Startled, Youko looked at it. The woman opened her eyes and glanced at the parrot as well.
“Put an end to this.”
The woman spoke for the first time. “I cannot.”
“Kill her. Finish her off.”
The woman shook her head emphatically. “Please! That is the one thing I cannot do!”
“I am giving you an order. Kill her.”
The parrot beat its wings and soared into the sky. It circled once and glided back to the earth. “Take the sword.”
“The sword is hers. It would be pointless.” There were echoes of pity and supplication in the woman’s voice.
“Then cut off her arm.” The parrot spoke in a loud, shrill voice. It flapped its wings vigorously. “I shall ask this much of you: Cut off her arm so she cannot hold the sword.”
“I cannot. As I said, I cannot wield that sword.”
“Then use this one.”
The parrot opened its beak wide. Something glittered deep in its mouth behind its round tongue. Youko stared disbelievingly as the parrot coughed up the tip of a glossy black rod. Before her startled eyes, inch by inch, the bird continued to disgorge the full length of a Japanese-style sword in a black scabbard.
The woman’s face was white with despair. “Please, I beg of you.”
The parrot once more flapped its wings. “Do it!”
As if struck physically, the woman covered her face with her hands. Youko pawed at the earth. She had to get up and get out of here. Yet the best she could do was rake the ground with her fingers.
The woman turned towards Youko, her face wet with tears.
“Stop.” Youko’s voice was so hoarse she could barely hear herself speak.
The woman reached down and seized the sword the parrot had disgorged. Her hands were soiled with the blood of the dog beast.
“Don’t do this. What kind of person are you?”
What kind of thing was that parrot? What kind of creatures were those beasts? Why was this happening to her?
The woman’s lips scarcely moved. Forgive me, Youko barely heard her say.
“Please . . . don’t.”
The woman aimed the tip of the sword at the spot on the ground where Youko’s right hand clawed the earth. As strange as it might seem, it was the woman who looked about ready to keel over, she was so gray.
Observing this, the parrot flew over and perched on Youko’s arm. Its thick talons dug into her flesh. For some inexplicable reason, the bird was as heavy as a boulder. Youko wished to fling it off her arm but couldn’t budge an inch.
The parrot cawed, “Do it!”
The woman raised the sword.
Youko exercised every ounce of strength left in her, but she was too weak, the weight of the parrot riding her arm too heavy, and the woman drove the sword down faster than she could possibly move.
She felt nothing, only the shock of the impact.
Youko was not even sure she was still alive. Before shock could turn into pain, she lost consciousness.