6-6 Late that night, beneath the light of the Moon, somewhere on the seas surrounding the kingdom of Yamato, the surface of the ocean was behaving bizarrely.
No sign of land could be seen in any direction. The strangely flat surface reached out to the horizon. There were no boats—not a living thing—in sight, only the moonlight shimmering like a white stone.
Slight perturbations like wrinkles in a bolt of cloth cut across the water’s surface, interrupting the Moon’s reflection. The reflection warped and shattered, suddenly growing, and then tracing a perfect circle in light.
In the center of that circle of light, shadows danced below the water’s surface. The countless shadows soared up into the heavens and abruptly stopped. The Moon’s reflection beneath them thinned and began to return to its original form.
All at once, its shape was broken by the waves. The psychic streams tossed and turned, changing into violent currents in the air. The raging billows churned the ocean into a sea of foam.
The shirei headed toward the far shore. Those youma divided in number by the Kouyoukyou, joined the youma recruited from the Yellow Sea, and grew to unprecedented numbers. They stealthily advanced upon the shores and there raised their voices.
Amidst the howling gale came the cry, We are here, further beckoning the surging winds.
The voices of those being summoned to these shores—and the voices beckoning them there—were caught up in the sound of the wind swirling over the coastline.
At long last, a single shadow on the shore called out to a single equine shadow galloping across the raging surface of the sea.
He had wandered to this shore. And now he realized that all those voices in the wind and rain were calling out to him. Their voices sought out the essence of the long-sealed beast inside and resounded within him.
He did not understand what they were saying.
He did not understand why they were beckoning to him.
But he said, come.
And on they came.
The heavy lid that had long sealed his true nature began to stir.
Miraculously enough, the invisible golden strands left behind by those searching for him had set it in motion. Without intending to, wandering to and fro in their quest, their tracks had spun around him a spider’s web of golden silk. The golden currents of the life force infused the ink-black shadows of his existence.
Wrenching the cage further open were his searchers. Renrin had observed him finding his way along the shore. She could not say herself what motivated her to remove the Koseisan and transform before him. Having met him once before, perhaps she felt emboldened to appeal to him in person.
Perhaps she wanted to entreat with him: You are a kirin.
She had no idea how he would interpret this gesture. Though being named a kirin, he would not be aware of it himself, or comprehend what sort of a creature a kirin was, or that he was being returned to Mt. Hou in human form. He would not remember the first time when, with Keiki’s help, he had embraced the truth about himself and transformed.
The transformation that symbolized the completion of the journey from “himself” to “Taiki.”
When Renrin departed, trailing the golden threads behind her, he remembered.
He remembered he was Taiki. He remembered Tai. And his Emperor.
The wind and rain pounded against the dark shore, as if sweeping the equine silhouette from there to here, driving it down to the broad expanse of the gray beach.
Amidst the breaking waves, falling on them like a small rain of hail, the one shadow stood rooted at the water’s edge.
Astride Rikaku’s back, Shouryuu looked down at the shadow. The shadow looked up at Shouryuu.
The boy clearly trembled. He didn’t know this man by his taika visage, that which had been bestowed by the place of his birth on this side of the Kyokai. And even if Taiki could remember the world over there, it was unlikely that he would have recognized Shouryuu in his current state.
By the same token, neither would Shouryuu know Taiki on sight. Except that the damp, wind-tossed hair reflecting the dark light brought to Shouryuu’s mind this person’s unique characteristics. Those jet-black eyes that spoke of an inner resilient strength, the bent bow returning to its true form.
“Do you understand if I call you Taiki?”
He nodded silently.
Seated upon Rikaku’s back, not waiting for a response, Shouryuu reached out and placed his hand upon his head. “According to the authority invested in me as Emperor of En, I appoint thee Taishi.”
As soon as he spoke those words, the boy closed his eyes and fell back a step. Shouryuu grasped the arms reached up to the sky and hauled him onto Rikaku’s back, in the same motion jumping off himself, slapping the beast on the flanks.
Rikaku spun around, cut like a knife through the swirling winds, and took off like a shot, leaving the wave-swept shore behind.
Shouryuu watched them leave. Hankyo nudged at his heels. He climbed onto Hankyo’s back, glancing over his shoulder as the fleet-footed beast soared into the sky.
The coastline turned away the battering waves like so many splashes in a pond. Past the coastline, the city reached out and out and out. His people, his country, everybody he knew no longer existed. Japan—Yamato—was a foreign nation to him now.
His native land and the people of his youth sank into the mists of time. He nodded once, acknowledging the strange new world that appeared before his eyes.
And so he buried his past, his country and his kin. This had become, in a sense, his final and long-delayed funeral.
Clouds gathered from the east. The winds rose, scouring the peaks of Mt. Gyouten. A black spot appeared on the lead-colored clouds. Unconsciously, Rokuta rose to the tips of his toes. A second black dot appeared beside it. The winds swept them through the sky at such a speed they seemed on a collision course with the mountains ridges.
They traced an arc around the back of the wide terrace and then swooped down and landed. The assembled crowd ran up to the pair of youma, each bearing a figure of a person on its back. The one glanced over his shoulder at them. The other slipped off the shirei’s back and fell prostrate on the ground.
Keiki impulsively scrambled ahead of Rokuta and then abruptly held up. Rokuta as well skidded to a stop and groaned aloud.
The figure on the white cobblestones appeared younger than he should be at his present age. There was hardly a spark of vitality left in his ashen face and tightly-closed eyes. The color of his complexion suggested profound debilitation. The steel-colored hair lying against the stones appeared distressingly short to Keiki and the others. The arms thrown out at his sides were sickly, pallid, and thin.
As much as they wanted to draw nearer, the overpowering stench of death held them back.
“That’s our little pipsqueak?”
Rokuta took a step backwards. Keiki as well had no choice but to retreat.
A deep and profoundly evil spell coiled around Taiki, pushing Keiki and the rest of them backwards like a force field. Like the curse of death congealed, the bloody, bilious scent was invisible to their eyes but overpowering in its presence.
“What could have brought him to such a state?” Rokuta wondered.
As if overwhelmed by the situation before him, he took several more steps backward. Keiki seemed to hold his ground, but could not resolve to approach any closer.
Keiki glanced back over his shoulder and nodded to Youko, who marched through that invisible wall. Risai stumbled after her.
“What is going on?” cried out Hanrin, clinging to the Imperial Han. “Such impurities cannot be the stain of blood! This must be the curse of malice and bitterness directed at Taiki himself!”