1-7 Sanshi took a deep breath. The murky, golden gloom surrounded her. She was inside a narrow, endless “somewhere.”
I made it in time.
She had broken through without breaking free. She’d held on. A vague twinge of unease passed through her. She let the air out of her lungs, almost startled by her profound sense of relief.
A voice abruptly echoed from somewhere out of the amber darkness.
The surprised tone of the voice made her to take hold of her senses.
Had he accompanied her? Amidst all the confusion? “A cell?” Sanshi was about to challenge him, half in startled wonder, when she realized this as well. They were within the familiar confines of Taiki’s shadow.
In truth, Sanshi had no idea where they were—wherever the murky, golden darkness had descended. No earth and no sky, no beginning and no end.
Sanshi and the other magical you-beings did not sleep as did animals or people. There was no way of them to imagine such an analogy, but “sleep” was to them like a waking dream. She vaguely understood she was “somewhere.” But not what kind of place or its location. Whether the muddy, saffron mist was falling on them or whether the weak, golden light was radiating around them—
She coudn’t distinguish even that much.
Wherever they were was narrow and confining. It plainly felt so. And something firm and strong seemed to be holding them here. And that wasn’t simply because, compared to its normal strength, the “golden” hue of the light was so terribly dim.
They were definitely enclosed in a kind of cell.
“This is—” she said, but she sensed no air passing through her throat. Only the thought. Perhaps only the intent to speak.
“What is this shell?” asked Gouran. But that equally may have been nothing more than the intimations of his voice. Confusion enveloped her.
Her intuition told her this was Taiki. The thing surrounding them gave her every impression that this was Taiki. Testing this hypothesis, Sanshi tried pushing her consciousness beyond their confines. Normally, she should come into contact with ley lines entwining Taiki. But a vicious resistance blocked her.
“We can’t escape his shadow!”
No, it was not impossible. Concentrating with all her might she somehow might be able to rupture these restraints. But she sensed that the effort would exhaust her. It would take an extraordinary amount of energy and no little pain.
And yet Sanshi had possessed every intent of surveying her surroundings.
The dim light reflected the weakness of Taiki’s ki. Its bright source hidden from them, the frighteningly thin ley lines descended as if through a heavy downpour.
“We are closed in—”
Gouran’s voice sent a chill down Sanshi’s back. A kirin was one species of you-being. The energy required by these magical beings to transcend the pedestrian taxonomies of “human” and “beast” was bestowed upon them by Heaven. The thread of the spiritual energy infusing them was thin indeed.
The shirei lived off that energy. And yet in time like this it could not necessarily be counted on.
The opening through which that energy trickled was thin as well. The ley lines surrounding Taiki were no less weak. More critically, he could not tap into them and access that psychic energy. Because he lacked the use of his horn.
They were slowly devouring themselves.
The more of Taiki’s energy Sanshi and Gouran consumed, the less was left to Taiki. Not enough energy was left over to keep their threads of life alive.
Despite the presence of his enemies.
Enemies who’d attacked him. The sudden transformation to kirin. And the shoku rising out of his scream. Taiki could not have known how to create such a shoku. The power was given to kirin by Heaven, but Taiki didn’t understand the powers of a kirin very well. The shoku he produced was purely instinctual. The severe wound he had taken to his horn must be related to it. That something so dreadful could have happened while Sanshi and Gouran were journeying to Gyousou was undoubtedly part of the same devious plot.
Some person or persons unknown had made sure that Sanshi and Gouran would not be at Taiki’s side. And then took advantage of their absence to attack him. If the kirin died, so would the emperor.
This is an insurrection, Sanshi muttered to herself. But by whom?
In the midst of the shoku, Sanshi was sure she had perceived a single, lingering shadow. But she hadn’t been able to ascertain its identity.
That must have been the assailant. Or perhaps the leader of the rebellion. Just as the rumors said, Gyousou had been lured to Bun Province, and Taiki had been inveigled to dispatch Sanshi and Gouran to Gyousou. As a result, they hadn’t been there to protect him. Taking advantage of that opening, Taiki had been attacked. But the enemy didn’t kill Taiki. If only by a hair, the assassination had failed. Their enemies could be mounting another attack even now. And yet here they were trapped.
“What should we do?” came Gouran voice from the midst of the saffron darkness.
“We must sleep.”
Sleep consumed the least psychic energy. Not the sleep of beasts, which would leave them defenseless. They would rest their physical bodies while setting their consciousnesses free to sense any attack.
“Remain vigilant. Our enemies may soon be upon us.”
In a daze, drawn to the curtains of black and white funerary bunting, Taiki approached one of the houses. The crowds of people dressed in black reached from the front gate up to the genkan. The smell of chrysanthemums and incense hung in the air.
Then with a cry of surprise several of the adults rushed toward him. Through the crowds he could see a man and woman dressed in black.
Behind the sobbing woman was a picture frame wreathed in chrysanthemums. A photograph of an old woman. At last he understood the nature of the building in which the altar was located.
This was his home.
“Where have you been all this time?”
“What happened to you?
“A whole year has passed!”
Speaking as if in one voice, the sounds of the crowd washed over him like a wave. He was in danger of being inundated. Strong claws dragged him back to shore. The hands of the kneeling, weeping woman in front of him dug into his arms.
He blinked. For the life of him he couldn’t understand why his mother was weeping so. What were all these people doing here? What were they all shouting about? What were these black and white curtains for? Why was his grandmother’s photograph being displayed like that?
He tilted his head to the side. A woman from the neighborhood asked him, “What have you been doing up till now?”
“Up till now?” he echoed.
A flood a memories coursed through his thoughts, vanishing before his mind could seize upon them, leaving behind a deep, empty space. A curtain of snow danced at the bottom of that hole. Large, heavy snowflakes falling on a courtyard.
He’d been standing in the courtyard. His grandmother had scolded him and sent him outside. And—
“What I am doing in this place?” he asked the adults surrounding him. At the same time, a heavy lid closed in his soul. Everything about him that was beast and not human, together with his horn, was sealed tightly inside him.
What do you mean, this place?” The woman shook his shoulders. “Don’t you remember? You’ve been missing for a year. Your mother and father have been worrying themselves half to death.”
But he’d been in the courtyard until just minutes ago. He raised his arm to point the way and felt his hair that at some point had grown out. He grasped a lock of his hair in bewilderment.
“Most definitely,” the old people standing next to him said, dabbing at their eyes.
“Your grandmother called to you. In the end she seemed to have caught but a glimpse of you.”
With that, the old woman turned to the other people there. “Well, let’s give the family some time alone for now. Let them say their final goodbyes before the funeral procession.”
“Indeed,” other voices agreed, and he was escorted along with his still weeping mother into the house.
His time here once again began to move forward. At the same time, so began the long absence of Taiki, the “other” and now forgotten part of him.