5-6 “That son of a bitch!”
Shushou said, “I don’t think this is splitting the difference so much as calling it a draw due to injury.”
Gankyuu raged at her, “What are you so calm about?”
“I’m here because I chose to be here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m perfectly happy to lie in a bed of my own making.”
“That’s why I—”
“You don’t know when to give up. Rikou is already gone. Factoring in the speed of a suugu at a full run, he should catch up with the goushi soon enough. We only have to hold out until then.”
“Do you think we can hold out until then?”
Shushou smiled. “We’ll be okay. I’m sure my good luck will hold.”
“It’s running out faster than you think.” Gankyuu held onto the boulder and hauled himself to his feet. “Bring me the haku.”
“That’s what you should have done from the start!” Shushou shouted back at him.
She grabbed the lead rope and pulled the haku to the boulder. The haku hesitated at first, stared at the sky and shook its head. When she handed the reins to Gankyuu, he mounted up, not quickly but still with a fair amount of skill. He reached down to her.
“Doesn’t your leg hurt?”
“I told you before. This isn’t that big a deal.”
So he said, though his right foot didn’t rest in the stirrup and there was no tension in his knee. The painkillers that kept most of the torment at bay left his leg numb and unresponsive. He pulled Shushou into the saddle and slapped the haku three times on the side of its neck.
Follow your instincts, the gesture meant.
The haku raised its head and set off at a gallop. Following a youjuu’s inborn instincts, it sprinted from approaching danger. It still had room to flee. Were a youma attack imminent, a haku would freeze in place instead.
The haku ran and glided off the ground. A slight tug on the reins brought it back to earth, where it was again once again given free rein. Unlike a horse, any kijuu worth its salt, even one the size and disposition of a donkey, had a knowledge of the Yellow Sea bred into its brain. That made all the difference in the world. They instinctually knew the best way to protect themselves from youma.
The flapping of wings behind them made Shushou start. Gankyuu clamped his hand over her mouth and quieted her down. Perched on the saddle in front of him, she twisted her head, looked up at him, and nodded.
The haku followed the contours of the land, soaring over the low-lying areas. This flying style was not in its nature and was exhausting even for a haku. But this was the best way to stifle the sound of its footsteps.
Again came the flapping of wings, accompanied by menacing shrieks mingling high and low. Youchou were fighting each other over the prey.
The haku flew along the path taken by Rikou and the suugu, until it darted between an outcropping of boulders and veered off on a separate course. Cutting through a wide-open field and diving low over a brush-covered basin, they plunged into a rocky forest.
This is not good, Gankyuu said to himself.
The haku was trying to make its way to safety, the same as Gankyuu. That’s why he’d wanted Rikou and Shushou to leave him behind. Except with Shushou with him, he couldn’t very well bring her there too.
He had no choice but to pull back on the reins. Beneath the forest canopy, he calmed the balking haku and turned it in the opposite direction. Of course the haku was bewildered. The safe haven was right ahead and they were heading away from it. Gankyuu did his best to pacify the youjuu as they raced through the forest.
The haku made a flying leap. Gankyuu pressed Shushou flat against the haku’s neck as the haku broke through the canopy into open sky. Beneath them, black shadows disturbed the branches.
“There’s something down there.”
“It can’t fly.”
The purple sky was growing lighter along the horizon. Flying was the worse possible option at this point but they couldn’t set down now.
“Lie down,” Gankyuu said, but he was too late.
Shushou said softly, “Gankyuu—look—” She raised her arm. “Wait. There are lights down there!”
She pointed. Beyond the forest, the dark shadows of the forest revealed the outlines of an encircling woods. The center of the woods rose up forming a small, double-crested mountain, the tops of which glimmered in the moonlight, bare as a monk’s head. A light glowed at its base.
Not just one. There were at least three.
The haku ignored her and flew away from the grove. Shushou grabbed the reins and tried to halt the haku.
“Wait! There are buildings!”
Gankyuu clucked. “You’re imagining things.”
“I’m not imagining things. There’s definitely—”
The haku sailed through the skies. The buildings at the foot of the mountain disappeared from view, but not the points of lights.
“You didn’t see anything.” When Shushou glanced over her shoulder at him, he added, “There was nothing there, okay?”
“Because if you insist that you did, I’m going to push you right off.”
Shushou looked down despite herself. Here and there in the thinning forest, the tops of the slender trees shook back and forth. Something was tracking them along the ground. Even if they were safely alone, the fall alone would kill her.
“Then go ahead and push.”
“Coming meekly to heel after only being warned of the consequences is the behavior of a barnyard animal. As long as you’re treating somebody like an animal, what difference does it make whether you push them off or toss them into the mouth of a youma?”
No sooner had Shushou shouted back at him but something flickered across his field of view. The haku neighed, an octave lower than a horse.
Searching the indigo sky, he caught a glimpse of wings streaking through the air practically within arm’s reach.
The haku dropped like a rock, faster than Shushou had time to scream. The forest canopy rose up beneath them. At the same time, a sound like a rusty metal hinge screeched above them.
A raptor-like bird with two heads dove at the haku. Both mouths shrieked. The haku dodged to the side. The youchou cut through the air like an arrow, swooped around and rose toward them—only to meet the edge of Gankyuu’s sword.
The haku neighed. Another shadow appeared in the early dawn sky. It had no wings but was galloping through the air.
Gankyuu swore aloud. He guided the haku over the hill below. Past a ragged promontory covered with boulders and underbrush, he set down middle of a grove of trees.
He dug a coil of black rope out of the saddle pack. The haku was carrying Rikou’s packs. Grouping around by touch alone took him a long minute. A goushi would have stuck the rope in the shoulder bag.
“Undo the shoulder bags. The water too.”
As soon as they touched ground, Gankyuu laid the haku down. Favoring his leg, he rolled off its back. He tied the black rope to the reins, hopped on one foot to a nearby tree, and tied the rope around the trunk.
“Gankyuu? I removed the packs.”
Gankyuu hopped back to the haku, took the packs from her. He glanced over his shoulder at the haku, stroked its neck and gave it a sympathetic pat.
“Got the water?”
“Yes.” Shushou nodded.
Gankyuu threw his arm around her shoulders. Using her as a crutch and dragging his leg behind him, they hurried along at a half-run, leaving the haku behind.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it?”
Shushou looked back at where Gankyuu had tied the haku to the tree.
It was a long, thin rope but was tied fast. The haku was still lying down as Gankyuu had ordered it to. Now it followed Gankyuu and Shushou with its eyes as they came to the bottom of the hill and grew further away.
“Gankyuu, the haku can’t run away. Whatever is after us—with it tied up like that—”
“It’s fine where it is.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Remember how you said you were going to give the haku a name?”
She did, back when they first entered the Yellow Sea.
Gankyuu said, “Koushu don’t give their kijuu names. This is why.”