2-2 Gankyuu silently walked on. Shushou had to run a little to keep up. Unlike Gankyuu, her footsteps were light. The road before dawn was cold and covered with frost. A child’s stride made the distance all the longer. Even worse, she’d covered the three-day journey from the port city at a half-run, and a single night’s rest had done little to alleviate the fatigue.
But Shushou barely noticed it at all.
She’d really worried about getting to the gate before the Spring Equinox. But not only had she arrived the night before, she’d secured herself a guide to boot.
Shushou knew there were professional guides who escorted people on the Shouzan, quite necessary when venturing into the Yellow Sea. Alas, despite arriving in time, the theft of Hakuto hadn’t left her with enough time to hire a proper guardian. That she’d had the good luck of finding a guide experienced in the Yellow Sea led her to believe that no matter what happened next, she would figure something out.
Right now, curiosity overwhelmed any feelings of anxiety. Following the barrier wall, Gankyuu strode south. Though the boulevards weren’t as big as those in Renshou, the presence of lane partitions was unusual. The intersections of the main roads in Renshou had nothing of the sort, only street-wide square plazas.
In this city, the intersections were dominated by structures as wide as the roads. Some were made out of stone and secured on all sides by iron doors. The barrier walls and ramparts jutted out here and there. The stores and shops lining the streets were equipped with gates and sturdy doors.
Carried by the human tide to the southeast, Shushou surveyed her surroundings with intrigued eyes. Eventually they arrived at a single gate.
“To imagine there’d be a gate in a place like this,” Shushou said, raising her voice.
The loop road that circumnavigated the city inside the barrier walls emptied into the large plaza before the gate. Streams of people spilled into the plaza and collected there as if in a sluice pond. Before them, the watchtowers bracketing the huge gate soared into the sky.
Shushou glanced up at Gankyuu. “This is the southeast?”
Gankyuu let out a long breath. “That’s right.”
He tilted his head back to take in the five story pagodas. County seats and castle towns were usually surrounded by twelve gates at the twelve cardinal directions. The city of Ken did not have a Dragon Gate or a Serpent Gate. Instead, as if the southeast corner had been cleanly lopped off, a separate, larger gate, opening toward the mountains, had been placed there.
“The Earth Gate.”
The looming mountains seemed to press down against the gate. Beyond the layered ranges, the faint peaks were finely etched against the pre-dawn sky. A great black wall blocked the way. The summits reached out to the left and right like the sharp teeth of a lumberjack’s saw, melting into the distance while dissolving into the grey morning air.
The Kongou Mountains. Torn out of the skyscraping peaks and spires, a single road continued on and on. This was one of only four routes into the Yellow Sea.
Because it led to the Yellow Sea, this gate was taller and sturdier than any of the other city gates. Once a year, the doors of the Reiken Gate swung open and the magical beasts that made their homes in the Yellow Sea flooded forth. Or rather, they once did. These were vestiges from that time.
The outer borders of the Yellow Sea and the Earth Gates saw the construction of tall and sturdy towers. More centuries passed before a rugged fortress was built within the Yellow Sea. The youma no longer poured forth, leaving the Earth Gate to stand there in all its mostly meaningless majesty.
“An impressive gate,” Shushou said in hushed awe.
“You know, it’s not too late to reconsider. Take a look at the preparations. They go to such lengths to open the gate once a year for one day. Every building in this city is made out of stone. All of the courtyards are covered. That’s because of the youma.”
Not a single courtyard was open to the sky. The blue tint of the broad roofs came from the bronze plates affixed to the tile. The windows were small, and many covered with bars. The doors weren’t much bigger and invariably reinforced with bands of iron. The thoroughfares were dotted with “street castles.” Like the bastions in the walls and ramparts, they provided shelter when youma appeared.
There were ten times as many watch towers as the typical city, equipped with bells to warn of an impending attack. Protecting against youma here was a natural part of daily life.
Shushou responded to Gankyuu’s suggestion with a carefree smile. “Yes, living here would be tough. But I’m not worried.”
“Where does such confidence come from?” asked the astounded Gankyuu.
Shushou answered without a second thought, “Because I have the divine protection of the Lord God Creator.”
“Of course you do,” Gankyuu said wearily.
He pulled on the haku’s reins. Jammed up against the gate, the crowds came to a halt, like an army waiting for the drawbridge to lower so they could charge across. Watchfires burned brightly on the sentry posts. There were soldiers everywhere.
The crowded plaza notwithstanding, the mood was hushed. Only a low rustling and whispering could be heard. Even the cool dawn seemed tense, waiting in anticipation.
“It’s so quiet—”
“That’s normal. Because after this, there’s only the Yellow Sea. Everybody knows that once you venture in, there’s no leaving until the Summer Solstice.”
“That’s right,” Shushou murmured.
Gankyuu urged her on. They wended their way through the crowds. At the south end of the plaza, next to the gate, was a shrine. Purple smoke hung in the gloomy gray air. People thronged around. Shushou had never seen such a shrine in Renshou.
The plaza wouldn’t be there if the gate wasn’t. The shrine seemed almost an appendage of the barrier wall, wider than it was tall and lined with dozens of votive candles.
Gankyuu faced the shrine, clapped his hands together, and prayed. Shushou couldn’t help gaping at him. She looked closer at the shrine. None of the usual patriarchs were enshrined there. Only a single statue. She couldn’t make it out in the shadows, except that the figure was wearing armor.
The figure was wrapped in a toga-like shawl, bringing to mind the statue of a fierce guardian angel she’d seen once in a temple. As she stood there eyeing it, Gankyuu pushed her head down in a bow.
“Be polite and pay your respects. We are about to enter a world where humans do not belong.”
In the Yellow Sea, beyond the Earth Gate, the rules and reasons of men did not apply. All they could do was petition divine beings like this guardian angel to watch over them.
Next to the altar was a bucket filled with water in which bundles of bare peach branches were soaking. Gankyuu pulled one out and sprinkled water over himself, Shushou and the haku, then thrust it into the saddle.
The rock wall next to the bucket was covered with small wooden talismans hanging from the crevices. Gankyuu draped one around Shushou’s neck.
“You might think yourself too good for one, but wear it for now.”
Shushou picked up the card-sized piece of wood and examined it. “An amulet?”
“A Kenrou Shinkun talisman. It protects people traveling into the Yellow Sea.”
Gankyuu selected two more pieces of the weathered wood for himself and the haku. The black ink was faded and worn. Travelers who returned safely from the Yellow Sea expressed their thanks by leaving the talisman here. An old talisman was one that had protected its wearer for a long time. Experienced hands always chose the old over the new.
Shushou looked back at the shrine. That statue is supposed to be Kenrou Shinkun? “Never heard of him.”
“Don’t be rude. He’s the only person you can absolutely rely on in the Yellow Sea.”
“Aren’t there plenty of gods about?”
“The Yellow Sea is a place abandoned even by the gods. The only person who will come to save you is Shinkun.”
“Huh,” said Shushou.
Silence swept across the plaza, following by the low sound of a drum. The Earth Gate was about to open.