5-9 Evening approached. Goryou, the city they planned to stay in that night, had just come into view.
The travelers moving hastily along the highway created a crush of people in front of the gates. Youko found herself caught up with them and quickened her pace. It was about five hundred yards to the gates. To hurry them along, from within the walls a big drum began pounding. When the drum stopped sounding, the gates would close. Everybody started running. This only added to the throngs jammed up at the gates.
Then amongst the crowds somebody started yelling.
As if drawn along by the voice, a person, then two, then more looked back and up at the sky. Here and there the crowd came to a standstill. Noting this with great suspicion, Youko glanced back over her shoulder. Already she could clearly see the silhouette of a great bird. A great bird like an eagle with a horn. And there were eight of them.
The screams reverberated, a wave of humanity rushed toward Goryou. Youko and Rakushun took off at a sprint. But it was obvious the kochou would get there ahead of them.
With total disregard to the flood of people, the huge gates began to close.
Those idiots. They certainly had the right to defend themselves against the kochou, but even if there were nobody else but those inside the gates, what good would closing the gates do against these flying monsters?
The cries echoed out around them. Youko pushed Rakushun away from the crowds. They were still a good distance from the gates. Had they been alone at the gates, they would have been trampled and crushed by the onslaught of people pushing and clawing their way through. It looked like some inner circle of hell.
Putting distance between her and the human tidal wave, Youko ran toward the city. She permitted herself a hollow laugh.
This is a country that asks nothing of God.
Even being attacked by youma, they expected nothing from their gods. So they thought nothing of tearing down the people in front of them to get there faster. Yet the gates closed on the travelers as if they weren’t there. Whether or not they were being attacked by youma, wasn’t it up to them to keep on their toes? And wasn’t being rescued or not all up to them, solely the product of their own efforts?
“The fools!” she said aloud. This bunch couldn’t be more powerless.
That sound grew nearer, like the wails of a crying baby. Youko stopped on the spot. Running along next to her, Rakushun looked back over his shoulder and shouted, “No, Youko, it’s pointless! We won’t make it!”
“You keep heading toward the city!”
The circling kochou was now close enough that she could see the spots on his breast. Glaring at it, she again motioned Rakushun toward the gate. She undid the shroud wrapped around the sword. That familiar sensation crawled along her skin. She was used to Jouyuu’s touch by now and did not find it unpleasant at all. A smile came to her lips.
It’s not pointless.
The kochou were taking their time. There were only eight of them and her sword would easily pierce their fat flesh. The bigger the foe, the bigger the target. At the intervals they were gliding in, they’d be easy pickings.
It’d been a while since she’d gone toe-to-toe with her enemies. Her gleeful self was looking forward to it. Her wounds had healed, she had energy to spare, and no doubts about defeating them. Hearing the cries of the people who could do nothing but run—many of whom would otherwise be hunting her—sent a strange thrill up her spine.
A rancid smell was in the wind. She prepared herself as the flock of kochou dove toward her. The blood boiled in her veins, the sound of raging seas roared in her ears.
I am an animal. A beast. No doubt about it. I am a youma.
That’s why meeting her enemies on the field of battle was such a great joy.
The slaughter began. The slaughter of kochou, the slaughter of humans.
She felled the first one that came at her, and the second. By the time she had four down and four to go, the road was a river of blood. The fifth dropped on her like a crashing plane. She cut off its head, dodged the sixth. The sixth grazed her with its talons, tore through a bunch of travelers behind her and rose back into the sky.
Youko stood her ground and did her job. She’d long ago become used to the scent of blood, to the sensation of severing flesh and bone. The sight of dead bodies no longer aroused within her any sensitive feelings. To parry and kill, to draw blood and retreat—when it came down to it, that was all she cared about
She struck down the seventh and looked up at the sky. The eighth kochou was maintaining altitude, turning circles high in the air, as if confused about what to do next. The falling dusk turned the sky the color of rust. The dark shadow of the youma bird passed by overhead. No matter what powers Jouyuu gave her, she couldn’t chase a kochou into the sky.
“Come on down,” Youko muttered to herself. Come into the reach of my claws.
As she stared up at the wheeling shadow, she also searched the landscape out of the corners of her eyes. Her foes had appeared in the light of day. And that meant that the woman—the golden-haired woman—had to be close by.
If she was anywhere nearby, Youko would grab her. She could do that now. She’d grab her and find out what she was up to. And if the woman didn’t have anything to say, Youko was pretty sure lopping off an arm would get her into a talking mood.
As she turned over the possibilities in her mind, she found herself aghast. Where did such ferocity come from? The nature of the beast was revealing itself to her. Or perhaps she was simply intoxicated from so much blood.
The shadow overhead suddenly changed the angle of its movements. Here it comes. Youko regripped the sword and strengthened her hold on the hilt. But in the moment she raised the sword, the bird corrected its course and once again climbed vigorously into the sky.
“C’mon!” she yelled. “Bring it on!”
Did a youma hold its own life precious? They’d had no problem attacking people up till today! Youko flipped the sword around and sank it into the corpse of the kochou at her feet. “You don’t come at me!” she shouted, fully intending her words to be understood, “I’ll cut your buddy here to pieces! How’s them apples, huh?”
The wheeling kochou suddenly plunged earthward, streaking toward her like an arrow. In a flash, Youko yanked the sword out of the corpse, flicked the flowering blood off the steel, parried the sharp, hooked talons and ran the sword through the bird’s legs.
The bird raised a strange cry, beat its wings. A great wind buffeted her as it tried to take itself back into the air, and her along with it. Youko stepped on its feet, freed the sword and sank the blade into its torso. She did not sense an immediate response to her thrust, but when she jumped back a moment later, pulling out the sword, blood gushed onto the ground.
It was easy work after that. Unable to hold itself aloft, the bird crashed to the earth. After a second strike and a third, she delivered the coup de grace and cut off its head. Nothing around her moved as she whipped the sword around in a great arc, flinging off the gore.
Not only the kochou but people as well lay in heaps on the road. She could hear moaning, so that meant that not all of them were dead. Dispassionately observing all of this, she wiped off the sword using the neck of the kochou. She reminded herself, I said I didn’t want anybody coming with me.
When she looked back up the road toward Goryou, the gates had opened wide enough to allow a line of soldiers to stream out.
She again surveyed the ground between herself and the city gates. Some distance removed from her, she spotted a fallen creature. Its gray fur was soaked with blood that had turned its coat a dark red.
She started to run toward him then looked again at the city gates. The soldiers pouring through the gates were calling out to each other. She couldn’t catch what they were saying. She estimated the distance to Rakushun and the distance from him to the gates. She couldn’t judge the extent of his wounds from here, but doubted that all the blood muddying his fur came from kochou crumpled up on the ground close by.
Youko grasped the jewel hanging around her neck. She didn’t know if the jewel worked with everybody or if, like the sword, they only responded to her. But if the jewel was not particular about the patient, it would likely help Rakushun.
Thinking this, she held the jewel, unable to move. She should run to him, determine the state of his injuries and see whether the jewel had the power to help him. As far as Rakushun was concerned, that would be the best thing to do. But all the while she was treating him with the jewel the soldiers would be approaching. And the distance between them was simply not that great.
Standing there amidst the fallen bodies, Youko stood out like a sore thumb. Anybody observing from afar would have seen the kochou going at her and would know it had been her taking them down. That would strike anybody as more than a little suspicious.
She had a sword without a scabbard. It would take another two seconds to figure out that her hair was dyed and that she was a kaikyaku.
But if I take off now. . . . She looked at the prone, unmoving matt of fur. She didn’t think Rakushun would inform on her if she ran away and abandoned him here.
The sword that was the slender bundle she was carrying—the color of her dyed hair—dressed like a man—traveling to En by way of Agan—if such things were revealed, the noose would quickly draw tightly around her neck. But she didn’t have the physical strength to haul Rakushun along with her.
She should go back for Rakushun’s own good. And for her own good . . . The blood throbbed in her veins. Go over there and put him out of his misery.
Are you crazy? a voice asked inside her head. Who was exhorting her to do such things? She didn’t have time to second-guess herself. If Rakushun said too much, Youko wouldn’t last long. She couldn’t go back. She’d be throwing her own life away. She couldn’t cast Rakushun aside like this. That was just as dangerous.
If she went back, the best she could do was find Rakushun’s purse and take it with her. At least then she’d have a chance to get herself out of this predicament. She had time to do that. And nothing else.
The gate opened wider. More and more people rushed out. She took one look at the approaching stampede and instinctively retreated.
Once she made her move, she couldn’t stop. She spun around. The remaining travelers rushing from the highway swarmed around her. She slipped through the crowds and left the scene at a sprint.