1-7 In the moment Youko looked to see for herself, behind her, she heard that strange cry. The sword was thrust into her hand. It didn’t register at first. She turned towards the cry and saw the great wingspan of the bird as it circled and fell towards them.
She shouted in fear, realizing at once that there was no place to run. The bird was descending faster than she could flee. The sword was useless. She had no idea what to do with it. Confront the beast with it? An absurd thought. There was no way she could protect herself.
The bird’s fat-clawed appendages filled her vision. She wanted to shut her eyes but couldn’t.
A shock of white light flashed in front of her, followed by a violent, hard sound like two stones crashing together. A heavy talon, gleaming like the blade of an axe, stopped right before her face. She had checked its motion with the sword, half-drawn from its scabbard, held out in front of her and braced with both hands.
She had no time to ask herself how she had done it.
As if of its own accord, her hand drew out the rest of the blade. In the same motion she swung at the bird’s feet. A warm spray of bright red blood showered down on her.
In dumb surprise she could only think, I am not doing this. Her hands and feet reacted of their own accord, hacking at the limbs of the kochou as it wheeled above them in confusion.
More blood rained down, drenching her. The warm liquid ran down her face and neck, soaked under the collar of her shirt. She shuddered with revulsion. She—her legs, rather—retreated, dodging the eruptions.
The monster climbed into the sky, righted itself and plunged towards her. She slashed at the wings. With every move she felt the cold tendrils rippling through her.
It’s that thing, Jouyuu.
Its wings shredded, the bird shrieked and crashed into the ground. In a glance Youko took in the scene. Jouyuu was doing this, she knew, was jerking her arms and legs around like a marionette’s.
The giant bird writhed in agony, pounded its wings against the ground and clawed towards her. Without a moment’s hesitation she attacked. Dodging its assaults she hacked away at the body. She soon was covered in bloody gore. All that registered were the loathsome repercussions in her hands as each blow parted flesh and bone.
She groaned in disgust but couldn’t stop herself. She ignored the spewing blood and drove the sword deep into the bird’s wing, then yanked it out, severing a good part of the wing. She turned on her heels, face to face with the animal’s screeching, frothing head.
The great bird flapped its wounded wing but was unable to lift its body off the ground. Youko ducked around the beating wing and stabbed at the bird’s torso. She shut her eyes to what she was doing but felt the soft resistance in her arms as the blade sank through fat and tissue. She pulled it free, spun, and swung at the bird’s neck.
The animal’s spine stopped the sword’s forward motion. She pulled the sword free, splattering herself with flesh and fluid, swung again and severed the head cleanly from the body.
Only after she had wiped the sword clean with the bird’s still quivering feathers did the control of her own body fully return to her.
She wailed in anguish and threw the sword as far from her as she could.
Youko leaned over the edge of the breakwater and vomited. Sobbing, she slid down between the concrete arms of the tetrapod and splashed into the sea. It was the middle of February. The water was cold enough to cut her in two. But her only desire was to wash the bloody filth from her face.
By the time she had returned to her senses she was shivering so badly she could do little more than crawl up the embankment to the breakwater. Back on solid ground she burst into tears. She wept with fear and revulsion, wept until her voice was hoarse, until there were no tears left inside to come out.
“Are you all right?” Keiki asked.
“Am I what?”
There was no color in the man’s expression. He said, “That was not the only one. More are coming.”
“And?” Her body was numb. His warning stirred in her nothing. Looking up at his face she now felt no fear of him at all.
“They are strong, they are relentless. If I am to protect you, you must come with me.”
“You are being foolish.”
“I want to go home.”
“Your home is not safe.”
“I don’t care. I’m cold. I’m going home. Those monsters, they’re all yours. You can have them.” Youko glared at him. “And take this Jouyuu thing out of me!”
“You will still need him.”
“I don’t. I’m going home.”
“You stupid woman!” He exploded in a rage that made Youko’s eyes go wide with surprise. “Do you welcome death? I do not understand. If you do not want to die then you must come with me!”
“Shut up!” Youko screamed at him. “Shut the hell up!” Not once in her entire life had she ever said anything like that to another person. A strange sense of exhilaration stirred in her chest. “I’m doing what I want and I don’t want any part of this. I’m going home.”
“You are not listening to what I am saying.”
“I’m going home.” She swatted away the sword offered to her. “I don’t take orders from you.”
“You do not understand the danger!”
Youko answered with a thin smile. “Well, if it’s fine with me, then what’s it to you?”
He said in a low growl, “It is everything to me.”
He nodded as she passed. Before she could react two white arms had reached around and had taken hold of her.
“What are you doing?”
She strained to glance back over her shoulder. It was the winged woman who had first borne the sword to her. She pinned Youko’s arms, forced the sword into her embrace.
“Let me go!”
Keiki said, “You are my lord.”
“I am your what?”
“You are my lord. Under any other circumstances, I would obey whatever command you gave me. You must forgive me. Once your safety has been secured then any explanation you desire I will provide. If you wish to return home, that too I will endeavor to accomplish.”
“When in the world did I become your lord?”
“There is no time for that,” he answered with a cold look. “I would gladly see one such as you abdicate, but that is not my decision to make. I cannot abandon you. The best I can do is keep more innocents from being drawn in. If force is what is required then force I will employ. Kaiko, take her.”
“Let me go!”
“Hankyo,” Keiki beckoned. The copper-haired beast emerged from the shadows. “We must get away from here. This place is thick with the scent of blood.”
Next appeared the enormous panther called Hyouki. Still pinning Youko’s arms the woman climbed astride the panther-beast and set Youko onto its back in front of her. Keiki in turn mounted Hankyo.
Youko pleaded with him. “Please, I’m not kidding. Take me home! Take this thing out of me!”
“He is of no bother to you, is he? Now that he has fully possessed you, you should not feel his presence again.”
“I don’t care if I can feel it or not! Get rid of it!”
Keiki addressed himself to the Jouyuu. “Do not reveal yourself. Be as if you were not there.”
There was no reply.
Keiki nodded. Youko barely had time to grip the woman’s arms to steady herself as the beast rose on its haunches and leapt upwards. “Stop!” she shouted.
The panther-beast did not heed her. It climbed effortlessly into the sky, doggy-paddling through the air as it slowly gathered speed. Were it not for the ground falling away beneath them she could have believed they were not moving at all.
As if in a dream the beast galloped farther and farther away from the earth, revealing one last glimpse of the city below, wrapped in the falling dusk.