Youko leaned forward and shouted, "Keiki! Help me!"
"What the . . . ! " The man next to her grabbed her shoulders and shoved her down.
Youko whirled around. "Stop the wagon! There's somebody I know out there!"
"There's nobody you know here."
"He was just there! It's Keiki! Please, stop!"
The horses slowed their gait.
The golden light was already in the distance. But she saw enough to know that there was definitely somebody there, that next to him was another person, and that person was wearing a dark cloak over his head like the grim reaper, and that he had gathered about him a number of beasts.
As she turned and called out, the man yanked back on Youko's shoulders. She fell hard on her behind. When she raised her head again the golden light was gone. She could see the place where it had been, but the people there had vanished.
"Enough already!" the man said, roughly shaking her. "There's nobody there! Quit trying to play us!"
"He was there!"
"Shut yer mouth!"
Youko cringed. The horse cart continued on its way. Youko cast a resigned glance back behind her. Of course, there was nobody there.
The voice she had heard, in the instant she believed she had seen Keiki, it had surely been Jouyuu's. So it must have been Keiki. She had seen his fellow creatures as well. So they must be okay.
But then why didn't he help me?
Wracking her thoughts in confusion, she let her gaze wander. But she couldn't see that golden glow anywhere.
At that moment from within the forest came a cry.
Youko stared at where the sound was coming from. So did the man next to her. It was the cry of a baby. They were hearing the spasmodic wailing of a child.
The driver had up to that point said nothing, only driven the wagon forward. He shot the two of them a look and loosened the reigns. The horses quickened their pace.
"Hey . . . . " His companion pointed off in the direction of the crying. "But it's a baby."
"Don't care. You hear a baby crying here in the mountains, that's good reason to keep your distance."
"But, still . . . . "
The baby began wailing like it was being scalded, a pressing, urgent cry that no human could bear to ignore. The man continued to search for the source of the sound, leaning out over the side of the wagon. The driver snapped, "Pay it no mind. I've heard there's man-eating youma in these mountains that'll howl just like a baby crying."
Youko felt herself tense up at the mention of the word. Youma. Demons.
The man frowned, looking at the woods and then at the driver. With a hard expression on his face, the driver snapped the reins again. The wagon began to bounce and sway along the hill road. The forest crowded the trail on both sides, shadowing it in gloom.
For a brief moment Youko had believed Keiki was going to save her, but Jouyuu's presence was growing more intense, her entire body was tensing up to an alarming degree. There was no way he'd be like this if he was simply happy they were about to be rescued.
The baby's keening voice was suddenly much closer and clearly getting closer. Answering it, a cry came from the opposite direction. Then the wailing was all about them. Circling the wagon, the high-pitched voices reverberated down the hill road.
"God!" The man's body went rigid as he scanned the surroundings. The horse cart sped along at an increasingly heedless pace. The wailing rang out again, nearer. Not that of a baby. Not that of a child. Youko shuddered, her pulse raced. The sensation she was feeling permeated her body. This time it was not Jouyuu's presence, it was more like the roar of the ocean.
She shouted, "Untie me!"
The man looked at Youko and shook his head.
"If we're attacked, do you have any way to protect yourself?"
Flustered by the question, he could only shake his head.
"Then untie me. And give me that sword. Please."
The ring of cries encircling the horse cart was contracting. The horses were at full gallop. The wagon leapt and bounded as if trying to buck off its passengers.
"Hurry up!" Youko screamed. The man made as if to hit her. That's when it happened. A huge crash. She was catapulted into the air.
She hit the ground hard, vaguely realizing that the cart had tipped over. Catching her breath, choking down a wave of nausea, she looked up to see that the horses and wagon had toppled sideways in a complete wreck.
The man with the cloth sack had been thrown a short distance from her. He sat up shaking his head. He still had the sack clutched tightly to his chest. The baby cries rang from out the edge of the forest.
"Please! Untie me!"
A horse let loose a wrenching scream. Youko turned with panicked eyes. A huge black dog was attacking one of the team. The dog had a hugely overdeveloped jaw. When it opened its mouth it looked like its head was splitting in two. Its muzzle was white. A second later it was crimson. The man shrieked.
"Untie me and give me that sword!"
He was deaf to her pleas. Trembling, he clambered to his feet. Clutching the sack, free hand clawing at the sky, he stumbled down the hill.
Four black beasts sprang from the woods, bounding through the air after him. Man and beasts became one. Then the beasts alighted on the ground, leaving the frozen form of the man behind.
No, he wasn't petrified with fear. He was missing an arm. And his head. A moment later the body toppled over. A fountain of blood sprayed forth, painting the ground around him with a rainfall of red. Behind Youko, a horse screamed, a high-pitched neigh.
Youko took cover behind the wagon. Her shoulder touched something, making her start and twist around. It was the driver. He grabbed Youko's bound hands. She saw he was holding a small knife.
"Don't run," he said. "If we go now, we can slip by the bastards."
He undid the cords binding Youko's hands and started down the hill, marching her in front him. One horde of beasts was gathered around the horse at the crest of the hill. At the bottom of the hill another crowded around the fallen man, forming a small black mound over the body. His only recognizable feature, his head, lay a few feet away.
Youko shrank back from this scene of sudden slaughter. It was happening to somebody else, not to her. But her now unfettered body was preparing for battle. She scooped up some nearby stones and picked one out.
What am I supposed to do with these pebbles?
She straightened, faced the bottom of the hill. She could see the man's leg jerking in gory syncopation to sound of frenzied feeding coming from the furry swarm. She counted the pelts. Six altogether.
Youko approached the pack. The baby-like mewing had ceased. The air was filled with the sound of crunching bone and muscle. One of the dogs suddenly raised its head, its muzzle stained with blood. As if called to one by one each of the animals raised its head in succession.
She charged forward at a small run. The first dog came at her. She hit it squarely in the nose with a stone. Not hard enough to knock it down, but enough to make it hesitate in its stride.
This isn't going to work.
The pack drew back, exposing the form of what had not yet ceased to be recognizable as the body of a man.
I'm going to die here.
She'd be devoured like him. Their jaws and fangs would tear her to pieces, into lumps of meat, and they'd wolf her down.
Even as she was assaulted by such hopeless thoughts, Youko drove the dogs back with the stones and set off at a run. Once Jouyuu had been roused to action there was no stopping him. The best she could do was get out of his way and pray that the end would be quick and painless.
She ran, sharp shocks of pain radiating down her legs and arms and back.
Looking back over her shoulder for help she saw the driver running towards the forest in the opposite direction, madly flailing about with the knife. Just as he plunged into the undergrowth he was dragged down into the shadow of the trees.
She asked herself why he had headed off like that and immediately understood that he had intended to use her as a decoy. While the dogs were busy attacking her he'd slip away into the woods. It hadn't turned out the way he'd planned. It hadn't occurred to him that they'd go after him instead.
She was running out of stones. She was three paces from the dead man's corpse.
A beast came at her from the right. She smacked it in the snout with her free hand. Another nipped at her ankles, rose up and almost bowled her over. She skipped, stumbled, was hit again hard in the back, lurched forward and plowed head-on into the dead man's body.
She didn't scream. She was too numb by now. She felt only a mild repulsion. She righted herself, turned in a crouch, braced herself. She didn't think it'd do much good to try and stare these monsters down, but, surprisingly, they lowered their heads and held their distance. Still, she couldn't keep this up forever.
Youko worked her right hand under the corpse, searching amongst the mangled flesh. Fresh in her mind's eye was the fact that he had been alive one moment, dead the next. She was out of time. Once the pack made their decision, it'd be all over.
She felt something hard at her fingertips. The hilt of the sword practically jumped into her hand. An inarticulate thrill shot through her.
She seized her lifeline. But when she tried to extract the scabbard, halfway out it got stuck on something. She was told to never separate the sword from its scabbard. She hesitated, and she didn't have time to hesitate. She slipped the sword out of the scabbard. With the tip of the blade she cut the cords holding the jewels, clasped them in the palm of her hand.
The dogs made their move. The first one charged into her field of vision. Her right arm moved, the sword flashed.
"AYAAAA!!" An inarticulate cry tore from her throat.
The dogs came at her from the left, from the right. She cut them down, opened up a gap in the throng, plunged through and ran. They charged after her again. She slashed and retreated, and then with all the energy left in her body fled the scene.