2-4 The haku set off on foot towards the fort.
Supplies had been ferried in every Spring Equinox for years upon years in order to build the fort, the first and last rest stop in the Yellow Sea. It was a short flight by air, but less-friendly winged creatures were already visible in the sky over the steep canyon walls.
These were youma sniffing out the spreading chaos and destruction in Kyou. Perhaps because they could not see into the depths of the canyons, few travelers fell victim to them here. Those lagging behind the main body had little to worry about.
Hurrying though the wide gates that spanned the road, they entered a stone tunnel. Faint light spilled through the widely-spaced windows. Holes cut into the stone and mortar ceiling and topped with small roofs served as chimneys. Iron railings planted around the perimeter of the roofs warded off youma.
Compared to the size of the tunnel, though, the lighting and ventilation was hardly enough. Above their heads, the earth rumbled to the sound of marching feet as the soldiers raced to their sentry posts.
On this day, here they must hold their ground, not yield an inch, and not allow the youma to pour through the Reiken Gate and over the walls of Ken. Long years of preparation had reinforced Ken’s defensive lines.
Even so, holding back the destruction in Ken, Kyou’s sole beachhead into the Yellow Sea, did not keep the youma from steadily invading Kyou. Nobody knew where the youma came from. They couldn’t fly over the Kongou Mountains and couldn’t pass through any of the Yellow Sea’s four gates except on one of those four days.
Nevertheless, when destruction visited a kingdom, so did youma.
Some said they knew secret tunnels through the Kongou Mountains that lead to each kingdom’s Ryou’un Mountain. Or the youma that spread wide and far retreated underground when a new emperor once again established peace and order. There they hibernated until they sniffed out ruin and decline and and flew forth like bats at sunset.
Every theory was just as likely—and unlikely—as the next.
“Ken is a city in a tough spot,” Shushou said, perched on the back of the haku as it wended its way through the tunnel.
“The whole of Kyou is going to resemble Ken before long, except that few cities are as well protected.”
“Why are there youma in the first place? If I was the Lord God Creator, I would exterminate all of them.”
Gankyuu said with a wry smile, “So after the Imperial Throne, next comes the Throne of Heaven? You never know when to call it quits.”
“Because nobody around here will step up and do what has to be done. It’s up to me to come up with these solutions.”
“Well, then you’d better make sure the Yellow Sea doesn’t end up your graveyard.”
“I am counting on you to watch out for me. That’s what I hired you for.”
There’s no winning with this girl, Gankyuu sighed, staring up at the ceiling.
A light appeared ahead of them. Not from flickering torches but the unwavering light of the sun. The tunnel exited inside the fort. The interior of the fort resembled a small village, halfway between a castle and a town. Around Gankyuu, travelers let out sighs of relief or took sharp breaths in surprise and wonder.
“It’s amazing to find a whole city here.”
“Not big enough to call it a city.”
The streets were narrow, barely wide enough to allow a pair of harnessed horses to pass. Both sides were neatly lined by low, stone structures. Like the tunnel, skylights were cut into the stone awnings above the roads. It wasn’t dark, nor was it particularly bright.
The humid air stagnated. The aging stones soaked up the heat particular to the Yellow Sea. The atmosphere was hardly comfortable, but truth be told, this was the end of “civilization.” Here a night’s lodgings got the traveler a roof over his head and a dirt floor under his feet. But lodgings, at the very least. And a square meal, however roughly made.
The fort was originally built for the cavalry that protected Ken. Its benefits extended to ordinary travelers as well. Gankyuu and Shushou took advantage of those “benefits” too and spend a fitful night on a dirt floor.
Perhaps because she’d been kept awake the night before by the cries of the gathering youma, Shushou’s face the next morning was a bit pallid. When Gankyuu suggested, last of all, that they visit a shrine, she went along out of curiosity. A crowd also making their final petitions for a safe journey line wound in a long line around the shrine in the small town.
After a brief wait, Gankyuu and Shushou stood in front of the shrine. Not far from the shrine was a space just like the one in Ken, with people waiting there for the gates of the fort to open.
Among them, two of the travelers spotted them and with surprised looks pointed fingers and gestured. Another man worked his way through the crowd to get a better look at Shushou’s face. Apparently, she was already a known presence in the fort.
“What’s with the little kid?”
“They together? You gotta be kidding me.”
“I don’t believe it. She’s returning to Ken by noon, right? Just on some sightseeing jaunt.”
Shushou cast a scornful glance at the source of the loudly-whispered asides, turned back to the cavern-like shrine and bowed. Covering the kindly face and armored torso of Kenrou Shinkun, the guardian angel of those venturing into the Yellow Sea, were layers of scarf-like shawls.
“What are those shawls?” Shushou asked in a small voice.
“The stories say that Shinkun wore armor made from the hide of a youma called a Ko, and wove jewels into the scarves so he could present them to the youma.”
“Youma and youjuu have a hankering for jewels? And by youjuu, we’re talking about kijuu, right?”
“It’d be more accurate to say that there’s a kijuu inside every youma. And inside every kijuu and youma is something that’s intoxicated by jewels.”
“Intoxicated? Like when people drink too much alcohol?”
“Something like that. I don’t really know myself. But they get tipsy the same as us humans. So it probably is like getting drunk.”
“How strange. Not the kind of thing you learn in school.”
“I’m not surprised. Books could be written about what we don’t know about youma and youjuu. Like the real difference between youma and youjuu. That’s a head scratcher too.”
Shushou’ eyes opened a bit wider. She looked up at Gankyuu and said, “Youma attack people and youjuu don’t. Right?”
“Well, that’s what passes for common knowledge. Catch a youjuu unprepared and they’ll attack you right back. Though they won’t single out a person and track him down.”
“You don’t say—”
“Among corpse hunters, it’s said that youma and youjuu started out the same. The different names simply apply to those that stalk human and those that don’t. But that doesn’t mean all youma especially hunt people. It’s also said the difference is that you can tame a youjuu but not a youma. But that doesn’t mean all youjuu can be turned into kijuu. Others say that when a kingdom descends into chaos, youma are the ones that come out of the woodwork, not youjuu. Except it’s not like youjuu never appear at times like that. What it comes down to is, you can’t domesticate youma. I’ve heard tales of hunters trying to catch and tame harmless mushi, but they die soon after being trapped. And when they die, it’s like they give off a signal and bigger ones come after them.”
“I wonder why.”
“Who knows? Youma that prowl around towns and cities don’t die. So it’s not like they’re vulnerable to human civilization. And despite dying when trapped, they’re still awfully hard to kill on purpose.”
“Huh,” Shushou muttered, trailing after Gankyuu as they left the shrine behind.
“Youma hunt humans. You really okay with that?”
“Aren’t there any yaboku in the Yellow Sea?”
Any creature finding refuge beneath the yaboku tree, whose fruit gave rise to beasts and birds in the wild countryside, was safe from any predatory youma or youjuu.
“Nobody’s ever seen a yaboku in the Yellow Sea. Then again, there aren’t any normal beasts or birds in the Yellow Sea either. There are corpse hunters who’ve searched for the yaboku that give rise to youjuu, but no one’s ever reported finding one.”
“I see. If you could find a youjuu tree, you could pretty much dispense with hunting them.”
“Same goes for youma. Find a yaboku and that’d make short work of it.”
“Yeah,” said Shushou. Put a fence around the yaboku and kill them as soon as they’re born.”
But then she grimaced. The riboku, whose fruit gave birth to children, and the yaboku were sacred trees. Any animal was safe beneath its branches. Not even a youma would attack anybody there. Such marvels demanded respect, it was said, and nobody should kill anything within view of one.
“Youma probably aren’t ever little children. Ever heard of a baby youma?”
“They don’t exist, or so people say.”
Gankyuu nodded. “I’ve never seen one. And never heard of one being seen.”
“That is strange.”
“The trees they’re born from; how long they live in the first place; why they’re all males; how intelligent they are; whether they understand human speech; where they well up from in times of trouble; what scents or indicators bring them to the surface—we don’t know the first thing about them. That ignorance makes it all the harder to protect ourselves.”
“Huh,” Shushou muttered.
Just then, a cheerful voice rang out. “Oh, good. I see you’ve arrived safely.”
Shushou turned back toward the wall of people. “You—”
Rikou waved from among the crowd of onlookers curiously regarding Shushou and Gankyuu.
Shushou ran over to him, her eyes wide. “What are you doing in a place like this?”
Rikou laughed. “Oh, I just had to find out whether you’d made it here in one piece. What happened to Hakuto?”
Shushou’s head drooped. “After all the effort you went to securing me that certificate, he ended up getting stolen.”
“Oh,” Rikou said and gave Shushou a sympathetic pat on the back. “And still you made it all the way to Ken. I should have tagged along with you.”
“That’s okay. I really loved Hakuto and it hurt terribly to lose him. But this has got my dander up.”
“But of course.” Rikou smiled broadly.
Shushou said, “What are you doing here in the Yellow Sea?”
“I couldn’t help wondering what kind of trouble you might be getting into on your own.”
Shushou looked up at Rikou’s grinning face. “Are you suggesting you want to come along?”
“You should have a bodyguard, no? You’re a tough little girl, but hardly equipped to swing a sword and keep the youma at bay.”
The smiling Rikou indicated the sword slung around his waist. Shushou smiled back. Gankyuu clapped his hands on her shoulders.
“Ah, he came to my rescue on my way to Ken. His name is Rikou. He says he wants to come with us.”
“It must be my virtuous nature at work. Rikou, this is Gankyuu. I hired him as my bodyguard. Though I don’t suppose one can have too many bodyguards.”
“No, I don’t suppose one can,” Rikou said.
Gankyuu regarded the affable young man with a startled expression. Have you been chasing after her all the way here?”
“Wouldn’t her welfare weigh on any man’s mind? A little girl like Shushou alone in the vast Yellow Sea—”
“You knew she was coming here?”
“She said so herself.”
Gankyuu barked into Rikou’s bright face, “Then you should have stopped smirking and stopped her!”
Rikou only grinned. “I can only imagine you said as much. And yet here she is.”
The quick comeback caught Gankyuu off guard. He stumbled for an answer. “I, ah, tried to stop her.” At a loss for words, Gankyuu scowled at the happy-go-lucky countenance in front of him.
“Gankyuu, there’s nothing to fight about,” Shushou looked up at Gankyuu with a complacent smile. “He’s a nice guy. A fellow bodyguard can keep you company.”
“You don’t have any desire to go back? We could make it back to Ken today.”
“No matter how many times you ask, the answer will always be the same. I hired you. You need to snap to it and start leading the way.”
However Shushou wished him to hurry up, the gates of the fort leading to the Yellow Sea took some time opening. A subdued aura emanated from the watchtowers above them. Voices urging the opening of the gates came from without. Finally the soldiers standing guard slid open the massive bolts.
Strong light poured in, accompanied by the fresh stink of blood and death. Shushou narrowed her eyes. The soldiers motioned them forward. Having hoisted up their traveling packs, the people waiting there timidly stepped through the gate.
Shushou and Gankyuu joined the line. Exiting the gate, the source of the smell was hard to miss, the corpses of dreadful-looking beasts piled up in corner of the large plaza outside the fort.
“Gankyuu—” Shushou said and pointed.
Gankyuu nodded. “Want to turn back?”
“That isn’t funny,” Shushou retorted, but couldn’t resist a glance over her shoulder, searching for Rikou in the crowd as he went to retrieve his kijuu. She spotted him soon enough. He saw her and waved back. The sight of that indomitable smile did make her feel a bit better right then.
The soldiers on the watchtowers atop the fort and on the nearby stone terraces scanned the heavens. Nothing was visible in the warm blue skies above.
Shushou sighed as she looked at the people crowded into the plaza. A rugged, bolder-strewn slope sharply descended from the plaza. Spreading out from its base, as far as the eye could see, was a broad expanse of green. The Yellow Sea.
Aside from the Kongou Mountains looming to their left and right, there was nothing particularly unique about the view.
“The Yellow Sea looks awfully normal to me,” said Shushou.
Overhearing her, Gankyuu said himself, “You don’t say.” He knew the Yellow Sea like the back of his hand. A corpse hunter who didn’t would soon become a dead corpse hunter.
Small bands separated from the throngs in the plaza twos and threes. These were the corpse hunters, committed to hunting the Yellow Sea until the next Day of Ankou. About to follow them, stopping and casting bewildered glances at the prevaricating crowd behind them, were those setting off on the Shouzan. The entire group came to at least five hundred.
Many of those going on the Shouzan were accompanied by a group leader. It was not unusual to see travelers surrounded by a dozen bodyguards. Most carried weapons and not a few had horse-drawn wagons heavily laden with supplies. Of these, perhaps only eighty were actually going on the Shouzan.
Confirming this, Gankyuu breathed a sigh of relief. Twenty years ago, the kirin had stepped forward to select the next emperor or empress, and so the Shouzan had commenced. It was hardly surprising that the number of people making the attempt would have dwindled over those two decades.
Kyou’s Day of Ankou notwithstanding, this could be called a good gathering. Relying on their good graces should significantly lessen the hardships of the journey.
In any case, these weren’t the kind to whine that since saving their own skins was all that mattered, their escorts were there for their own good, and all the supplies were theirs. Even if they thought it, it wouldn’t be in their natures to say it. After this, the heavens would test those dispositions.
Their bodyguards and their generous supplies would soon become necessary. There was a limit to how much a single haku could carry and the road was long. However they economized, they couldn’t bring enough along to cover the entire distance. If any unforeseen incidents arose and they ran low, he’d have to light a fire under the haku’s splendid walking skills and cover the remaining ground by air.
Youma, however, targeted fliers above all, making flying significantly more dangerous than proceeding along the ground.
“All right, then. We’d better get going,” Gankyuu said when Rikou caught up with them. He took a look at Rikou’s kijuu and his jaw dropped. “That’s a suugu.”
Rikou smiled. “Ah, so you have a fondness for kijuu too.”
Shushou tugged at Rikou’s sleeve. “Gankyuu is a corpse hunter.”
“How about that!” Rikou said, sounding both surprised and impressed.
Gankyuu knelt down in front of the suugu. “This guy is really something. Do you catch him yourself?”
“Nothing of the sort. It was given to me.”
“Given to you?” said the even more amazed Gankyuu. He glanced up at Rikou, who had imparted this information with hardly a second thought. If Gankyuu could capture a suugu and sell it, he’d never have to venture into the Yellow Sea again. “What I’d give to have such generous friends like that.”
“I see you have a haku. You catch it yourself, Gankyuu-san?”
“Gankyuu is fine, without the san. The chap who can capture and bring a suugu to heel deserves a san, not a guy like me.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Gankyuu inspected the suugu. Even Gankyuu had rarely seen a suugu up close. He’d almost captured one once. But it was too fast and too strong and too smart to fall for the trap he’d laid. The very annoyed animal proceeded to maul three of his companions and ran off. He was only grateful afterwards that nobody got killed.
Suugu came in mostly-white and mostly-black . This one was more of the former, and with black stripes on a white coat, the more common. Either variety had the same swirl of color in their eyes and the same long tail.
The suugu looking back at Gankyuu showed neither an aroused mood nor irritation. Maybe a detached sense of superiority. The ferocity he had once witnessed was nowhere to be found. That such a beast could be so tamed was itself extraordinary.
Thoroughly fascinated, Gankyuu rose to his feet. Shushou said to him lightly, “I’m going to ride with Rikou. He says that Seisai won’t mind.”
“Yes, yes. A suugu’s probably better than a haku, Miss. However—”
Shushou cocked her head to the side. “When did you turn stupid?”
“Who say anything about that? We’re not going on some sightseeing trip. This is the Yellow Sea, you know.”
Gankyuu’s eyes flashed. Rikou chortled with laughter.
“I don’t weigh very much. Even so, a kijuu would feel the weight. I know that. But in a pinch, the question is which kijuu would feel it the least. That’s what I was referring to.”
“Since my weight won’t have any effect on Seisai, I’ll ride him. Anyway, what is the name of your Haku?”
“It doesn’t have a name,” Gankyuu said gruffly.
“You should give it one.”
“If you think it should have name, go ahead and give it one. But listen to what I have to say and don’t interrupt this time. You must not leave the side of the kijuu, but don’t ride them.”
“Because we will be accompanied by people on foot. The group will proceed no faster than a walking pace. There are tasks that can only be done while on foot. There is no taking it easy once you’ve entered the Yellow Sea.”
“But—” Shushou started to say.
Gankyuu cut her off. “Be quiet and do as you’re told.”
Shushou glared at Gankyuu, a determined expression on her face. “Have you forgotten who hired you?”
“I haven’t forgotten. My job is to deliver you safely to Mt. Hou and return you to civilization.”
“This probably won’t be a round trip.”
“If you say so. I was hired as your bodyguard, but I don’t recall including my life in the bargain, not for such a paltry sum.” As Shushou silently sulked, Gankyuu turned his attention to Rikou. “Have you ever been to the Yellow Sea before?”
“Not once, alas.”
“Have you ever tangled with youma before?”
“That I’ve done on several occasions.”
Gankyuu let out a small sigh. In other words, he had two amateurs on his hands. Perhaps overhearing that sigh, Rikou added apologetically, “I’ll do as you ask. I intend to learn all I can about the Yellow Sea.”
“Count on my asking,” Gankyuu snapped back, albeit without much heart.
Starting with those closest to the descending slope, the crowds of people in the plaza began to break up. They at last began to move.
“Shushou, stay between the suugu and the haku. Let’s go.”