enrin ran into Ransetsu Hall. “I’ve found him,” she called out.
Keiki and Rokuta leapt to their feet. Slumbering in her master’s lap, Hanrin perked up her head as well.
“Taiki’s aura. And it wasn’t left too long ago.”
Rokuta ran over with strides as long as his legs could manage. Together they returned to the Kokinsai. Keiki followed after them. Hanrin took off for Seikou Manor like a shot.
At the end of the winding corridor, a wan light spilled from the mouth of the Kokinsai. The tail of the silver snake wrapped around Renrin’s arm still illuminated the round circle of light. Taking her hand, Keiki passed through the glow. Coming to the end, it widened into a dark, inorganic cavity.
The sterile cavern that was this room was a perfectly square, box-like structure. Thirty or forty drab, aseptic-looking desks were arranged in rows. A dilapidated air hung over the prison-like room, like that lingering around old ruins.
Observing all this, Keiki remembered something. “This is a school, perhaps?”
Keiki had observed rooms like this before, when he’d traveled to Yamato to meet Youko.
“A classroom?” suggested Rokuta.
As he always did, Keiki felt discomfited by Rokuta’s presence. Normally his golden, gleaming hair marked him clearly as a kirin. But the boy standing there did not resemble Enki at all.
“I bet it’s Taiki’s school,” Rokuta muttered, casting his gaze around the place.
Following after Rokuta, Renrin appeared, and the wispy glow in the corners of the room winked out.
“En Taiho, Kei Taiho, it’s over there.”
Renrin moved quickly between the desks and pointed at a spot on the floor. “Here. The shirei discovered it.”
Behind her, the forms of her companions wavered half-transparent in the air, now and then losing their human contours and revealing the beasts within.
Renrin turned to the flickering shadows and pointed at a deep purple spot on the floor. A thread of light glowed there, as if clinging desperately to life, continuing on in dots and dashes.
“This is the aura of a kirin?”
“I believe so. However—” said Keiki. His words seemed to loose their way in the shadows.
“It continues in that direction.”
With a slight shiver, Renrin followed along the wall of the classroom. Silhouettes prowled the empty, dark corridor like so many ghosts. On the floor beneath the feet of the prowling shirei were scattered the thin remnants of light, like a trail of breadcrumbs cast down by the lost kirin.
“It ends there, but it’s definitely Taiki. Moreover, I believe this trail was laid down in the past few days.”
Keiki furrowed his brows and nodded firmly. “You are undoubtedly correct, however—”
Rokuta picked up where Keiki’s voice trailed off. “For a kirin, an ominous sign.”
“It’s contaminated,” said the small dog-like creature, appearing at her feet. It lowered its snout to the floor and sniffed the wane glow. “I smell blood. Cause for worry.”
“You think so, Juuko?”
“I’m positive. The maledictions of blood and accumulations of poisoning impurities. Something has happened to sicken Taiki. Something quite bad.” He turned his muzzle again towards the floor and growled ominously. “This is the aura of his Nyokai. She has the smell of death about her.”
That odor was clear to Renrin and Keiki and Rokuta. An ominous, unclean smell that swamped what should be the clear, bright tones of the kirin’s aura. Something indeed had happened to Taiki. It was entirely unclear what. But one thing was clear. The stench of combat hung around this place.
“Gouran has taken on the character of a youma. Sanshi’s aura is being torn asunder. Something bad is happening in Taiki’s environment.”
Keiki nodded in blank amazement to Rokuta’s observation. The aura of blood and violence. Taiki was caught in that vortex, his nature as a kirin being stripped away. It would not last long at this rate.
“If we don’t hurry, all will be lost. Taiki is very ill. And more than Taiki’s illness, we must consider the faltering shirei. Though Gouran and Sanshi don’t appear to have lost their powers, if things don’t change soon, Taiki will drown in this festering whirlpool.”
Keiki brushed his fingers against the remnants of light. “His powers of judgment would be affected. If this stupor came upon him as a result of the shirei falling ill, that would constitute the main source of the impurities.”
“You’re probably right. Any and all provocations ending in bloodshed. The tiger chasing its tail into eternity.”
And when he lost hold of his essential nature, Taiki would lose control of his shirei as well.
“Did we understand that this is how things would turn out?” Renrin implored, turning to face the gloom around her. From here and there the many creeping and crawling shadows answered her with only a cruel silence. Renrin buried her face in her hands.
“We are definitely getting close, and yet—”
“Let’s keep looking,” said Rokuta. “We should be able to find where this thread breaks off.”
He set off into the dark cavern, where no glimmer of light could be seen. Renrin and Keiki followed after him. Vacant classrooms lined one face of the corridor. A staircase like a well shaft sunken into the earth. Within the uninhabited stillness and tightly-coiled blackness, they wandered to and fro, seeking the strands of fading light. Around the building similarly crept the grotesque forms of the shirei, searching for the fading evidence.
“I can’t find anything anywhere,” a dejected Renrin said.
They had searched the building inside and out. Renrin returned to the classroom where those shimmering filaments had first appeared and sadly studied them. The tracks continued to glitter wanly, casting off the strange scent. They didn’t appear to have been laid down today or yesterday, but the lack of any newer traces suggested that Taiki might not be here at all.
“En Taiho, Kei Taiho, what shall we do?”
“We don’t know where he’s gone.” Rokuta let out a deep sigh.
Keiki said stiffly to Rokuta, “This is no time for despair. There is no need for it either. We have ascertained that he was here in the past. This constitutes anything but grounds for capitulation. He was here before. He may appear here again. In any case, we should expand our search efforts with this location as the locus.”
Renrin nodded. She called out, “Hanshi.” With a sound like tape peeling off glass, a black shadow detached itself from the floor and stood up. “You did a good job finding this. I’d like you to stay behind and keep watch.”
The shadow raised its head like a cobra and waved its body as if in agreement. Then just as quickly slithered away, rejoining the shadows at her feet.