Chapter 15

2-7 Youko sat down against the fat trunk of a tree.

Halfway down the hill she had cut off the path into the mountains. Here was where her legs finally gave out.

She raised her sleeve to wipe away the sweat on her brow. The fabric of her seifuku uniform was heavy with blood. She grimaced, peeled off her jacket and used it to wipe down the sword. She held the blade up in front of her eyes.

She recalled reading in her history class that you could kill only so many people with a Japanese sword before the blood and gore dulled its effectiveness. She was sure that the sword must have been damaged during the melee, and carefully buffed the metal until there was not a shadow left on the steel.

"Strange . . . . "

Strange that only she could draw the sword. When she had first taken hold of it, it had seemed heavy in her hands. But now, free of the scabbard, it was as light as a feather.

Having restored the glitter to the razor-sharp edge, Youko wrapped the sword in her jacket. She took a minute to organize her thoughts.

She had left the scabbard behind. Perhaps she should go back and get it.

Never separate the sword from the scabbard. So she was told, but was that because the scabbard itself had any special value? Or was it because of the jewels attached to it?

The T-shirt she wore under her uniform jacket was soaked with sweat. It was getting cold but she couldn't stomach putting on that bloody jacket. Now that she had the time to sit and think about it, her body really hurt. Her arms and legs were covered with wounds.

There were teeth marks through the sleeves of her t-shirt. Blood welled up under the T-shirt spotting the white cloth.

Her skirt was torn, her legs etched with countless lacerations. Most were still oozing blood, but compared to the kind of damage those fangs could do--that took that man's head off just like that--these were pretty minor cuts and bruises.

Again, strange. There was no way she should have come out of it like this. Though now that she thought about it, when they were in the vice-principal's office and the window shattered, everybody around her was hurt while nothing happened to her. And when she had fallen from Hyouki's back onto the beach she'd suffered little more than a few bumps and bruises.

It was all so weird, though considering that even her physical appearance had changed, it wasn't any more weird than anything else that happened to her.

Whatever, she sighed. She took a few more deep breaths. She noticed that her left hand was still clenched into a fist. She uncurled her stiff fingers. The blue-green jewels tumbled out. Closing her hand around them again it was clear that the jewels were alleviating the pain.

She held the jewels tightly and dozed off for a while. When she awoke, all her wounds had clotted and closed.

"This is so weird . . . . "

The gnawing pain, once enough to bring tears to her eyes, was gone. She felt only a light fatigue. She was definitely not going to lose those jewels, the one thing in her life she was definitely thankful for. That must have been why they had told her it was so important to not lose the scabbard.

She removed the kerchief from the collar of her seifuku jacket and with the sword cut from it a thin strip of cloth. Tightly twisting it she threaded the strip of cloth through the holes in the jewels and hung them around her neck.

"Jouyuu," she said, directing her attention inwardly. There was no reply.

"I have a question. Say something."

He did not answer.

"What am I supposed to do now? I mean, where should I go?"

No voice answered her. She knew he was there. She concentrated her thoughts, focused her attention, but she felt no evidence of his presence. She heard something like the faint rustle of leaves, but all she felt was silence.

"Hey, a right or a left would be fine by me!"

Youko continued on in her monologue. "Look, I don't know the first thing about this place, okay? I'm just asking for a little advice, that's all. If I go someplace where there's a lot of people I'll probably get arrested again, right? And if I get arrested, I'm as good as dead. So I keep on running and make sure I don't meet anybody, then what? Should I be looking for some magical door that'll take me back to my own home? Not likely, huh?"

Forget about what she must do, she didn't even have a good idea of what to do next. She wasn't helping herself at all just sitting here, but it wasn't like she had anyplace to go, either.

The dusk was falling fast in the forest. She didn't have any kind of light, nothing that could be called a bed. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink. It was too dangerous to go near cities or towns, and wandering around in the wilderness wasn't exactly safe, either.

"All I want to know is what to do next! At the very least could you give me a hint or two?"

As expected, there was no reply.

"What the hell is going on? What happened to Keiki and everybody? That was him back there, wasn't it? What'd he just disappear for? Why didn't he help me? Why?"

Only the rustling of leaves answered her.

"I'm begging you. Can't you say anything?"

The tears welled up. "I want to go home . . . . "

She couldn't say she loved the life she had been living. But now that she was separated from that life, she missed it so badly it hurt. She'd do anything to be back home again. If she could go home she'd never leave again.

"I wanna go home."

As she sobbed like a child, a thought occurred to her. She'd escaped. She'd escaped from getting shipped off to the governor, from getting eaten by those dogs. She'd come this far and she'd survived. She hugged her knees to her chest.

But was she really any better off?

If it hurts so bad . . . .

She shook her head, pushed away the thoughts welling up in her mind. It was too scary to think things like that, thoughts more persuasive than any words. She hugged her knees more tightly.

That was when, out of the blue, she heard the voice. A strange, high-pitched voice, laughing like an old man, laughing at the thoughts she was trying so hard to resist.

"If it hurts so bad, why, it could all be over in an instant."

Youko scanned her surroundings. Her right hand was at once on the hilt of the sword. The forest was black with the night. There was only enough light to make out the height of the undergrowth and trees.

From the midst of the night came a dim glow, maybe two meters from where Youko was sitting, a thin, blue phosphorescence radiating through the undergrowth.

Gazing at the light Youko gasped, caught her breath. It was a monkey, its fur shining like foxfire. Only its head appeared, parting the tall weeds. He looked at Youko and bared his teeth and laughed, a screeching laugh that grated at her ears.

"If they had eaten you up, it would have all been over before you knew it!"

Youko drew the sword out from her jacket. "What . . . are you?"

The monkey laughed its screechy laugh again. "I am what I am. Silly little girl, running away, are we? If they'd gobbled you down like that, well, there'd be no more of these unpleasant thoughts."

Youko raised the sword. "Who are you?"

"But I told you, did I not? I am who I am. Your ally. I thought to tell you some nice things for a change."

"Nice things . . . ?"

She didn't buy a word he was saying. Jouyuu exhibited no tension or concern, so she did not think he was an enemy. But his strange appearance convinced her that he couldn't possibly be a normal living thing.

"There is no going home for you, little girl."

Youko glared at him hard. "Shut up," she spat back.

"Oh, no, you can't go home. Absolutely, positively not. Because there's absolutely, positively no way for you to do so, now, is there? Shall I tell you something nice?

"I don't want to hear it."

"Oh, I shall tell you anyway. You, little girl, you have been royally taken in." The monkey let loose a shriek of laughter.

"T-taken in?" It felt like getting doused with cold water.

"You're such a silly girl, now, aren't you? It was a trap right from the start, don't you know."

Her breath stopped in her throat. A trap. Whose trap? Keiki's? Keiki's trap? The hand holding the sword began to shake, but she could not find the words to deny what the monkey was saying.

"You knew it all along, didn't you? He brought you here, and there is no going back there. That's the trap, don't you see?"

The monkey's piercing laugh stabbed at her ears.

"Stop it!"

She swung the sword blindly. The tips of the grass danced with a dull, dry whish. For all her reckless effort, the flailing tip of the sword failed to reach the monkey.

"Now, now, not listening to the truth won't change things a bit. You go waving that thing like that, well, you're going to hurt yourself."

"Stop it!"

"And what a fine piece of work it is, indeed. Why not put it to even better use? Off with her head! A do-it-yourself job!" The monkey threw his head back towards the heavens and shrieked hysterically.

"Shut up!"

She lunged, but the monkey was no longer there just beyond the tip of the sword. He was a little further off, still only his disembodied head visible.

"Now, now, do you really want to kill me? After all, if I wasn't here you wouldn't have anyone at all to talk to."

The raw truth of the statement struck like a blow.

"Have I done you wrong? Have I not most politely deigned to converse with you?"

Youko held her temper, squeezed her eyes shut.

"Oh, yes, poor, poor pitiful you, being hauled off to such a place as this."

"What should I do . . . ?"

"I can't see as there's anything you can do."

"I don't want to die." The mere thought was still too dreadful to contemplate.

"Do whatever strikes your fancy, then. I don't wish you to die either, little girl."

"Where should I go?"

"Does it really matter? It really can't, not when you're being chased by both people and youma."

Youko buried her face in her hands. The tears welled up.

"That's right, little girl. Cry while you can. Before you know it there won't be any tears left."

The monkey laughed his high, chirpy laugh. The sound of his laughter was farther away. Youko lifted her head. "Wait!"

She didn't want it to leave her. He might be a complete unknown, but it was better having someone, anyone to talk to than being lost and alone in this place.

By the time she had raised her head to look he was gone. She heard only the screeches of laughter fading into the distance, echoing in the pitch black darkness.