4-7 Youko wandered the backroads. She lost track of how many days had passed since leaving Takkyuu, or for that matter, how long it had been since she left home. She had no idea where she was or where she was going and by this point she didn't much care.
When the night came she drew the sword and stood her ground. When the enemy came they fought. When the morning came she found a place to make her bed and slept. And so her life went on.
Gripping the jewels and using the sword as a cane became natural to her. If there were no enemies about, she sat down. When they attacked at longer intervals, she dragged herself along. If there were no people around, instead of talking she moaned and groaned constantly.
Her hunger became attached to her thoughts. It became part of her consciousness. When starvation threatened, she flayed the dead body of a youma. It had a strange smell and she could not even hold the meat in her mouth. Occasionally she brought down a wild animal. She tried to eat it but her body could not handle solid food.
She struggled through countless nights to meet the dawn. She left the road and tried forging deeper into the mountains. She tripped over a tree root and tumbled down a long slope. Casting care aside, she slept where she fell. She did not even bother to scout out her surroundings first.
She slept without dreams. When she awoke, she found she could not stand, no matter how hard she tried. She was in a shaded hollow within a sparse copse of trees. The sun was already setting and night was falling. If she stayed here like this, if she could not get up and move, she would become a youma's next meal. Even against impossible odds, Jouyuu could hold off one or two attacks. Beyond that, her body would become a useless tool.
Youko dug her fingers into the earth. No matter what, she had to get back to the road.
If she couldn't get back to the road and find somebody to help her, she would die here. She raised her head and searched for the jewels. But even gripping the jewels with all her might, she could not drive the sword into the ground to leverage herself up.
"No one's coming to help," an unexpected voice said.
Youko turned her head. This was the first time she had heard him during the daytime.
"You might as well make yourself comfortable right here, no?"
All Youko could focus on was the monkey's fur, shimmering like blown powder. All she could think was, why was he showing up now?
"Even if you do manage to crawl back to the road, you'll probably only end up getting arrested. Though if you asked for help, they might give it. They might be the type who would put you out of your misery, just like that."
That was undoubtedly what would happen, she thought as well.
She wouldn't ask anybody for help. Now when her need was the most pressing was when she should expect help the least. Even she got to the road, there would be no help forthcoming. If somebody were to pass along the way, they would look the other way. This filthy vagrant would provoke nothing more than a grimace.
On the other hand, maybe she'd only get mugged. But a thief would figure out pretty quick she didn't have anything worth stealing and take the sword. Perhaps he would be kind enough to finish her off there and then. That was the kind of place this was.
Then all at once a new thought occurred to her. The monkey, he fed off her hopelessness and despair. Like some kind of emotional vampire, he exposed all the anxieties and insecurities hidden in her heart and used them to crush her spirits.
Youko giggled. It felt good unraveling this small puzzle. She rolled over, gathered strength into arms and pushed herself into a sitting position.
"Now, wouldn't it be easier if you threw in the towel?"
"Oh, shut up."
"Why not take it easy?"
Youko drove the sword into the ground. Her strained knee almost gave out. She screamed, grabbed hold of the hilt of the sword, caught herself. She almost stood but lost her balance. Her body was too heavy to move like this. It'd be better to crawl along the ground, like an animal newly born.
"You want to live that badly, do you? And what will living get you?"
"Oh, why torment yourself so? No matter how much you hold on to life now, you can't go back."
"I'm going home."
"You cannot go home. There is no way to cross the Kyokai. Here, in this country, you will be betrayed and you will die."
She would trust only the sword. Youko gripped the hilt and focused on the strength in her hands. Depend on no one, trust no one. Only the sword would protect her.
And then . . . ?
Keiki had brought her here and he never said anything about not going home. Finding Keiki was probably the only way. Right now, that was all she could hope for.
"Didn't I tell you that Keiki was your enemy?"
I'm not going to think about it.
"Do you really think he will help you?"
Whether friend or foe, finding Keiki and finding out for herself would be preferable to wandering around like this without a clue. When she met him, she would ask him why he brought her here, ask him how she could get back. She'd get the whole story out of him.
"Supposing you do go home, then what? Eh? You think then you'll live happily ever after?"
She knew what he was saying. She couldn't forget the nightmares she'd had about this place. She couldn't pretend that nothing had happened and go back to the way things were before. There were no guarantees about her appearance, either. And if not, then the Youko Nakajima that used to be was gone forever.
"What a miserable creature, what an everlasting fool you are, little girl."
The monkey's bright, loud laughter ringing in her ears, Youko roused herself once more. She didn't really understand why she was doing it. She was miserable, she was a fool. Nonetheless, if this was enough to make her give up, then she should have given up a long time ago.
Youko considered the current state of her body. She was covered with wounds, caked with blood and mud, her clothing reduced to reeking rags. But she didn't give a damn about her appearance, if that's what it took. Throwing away her life was no longer such a simple proposition. If she was indeed better off dead, then she should have died on the roof of the school when the kochou first attacked her.
It wasn't because she didn't want to die. It probably wasn't because she wanted that badly to live. It simply was because she did not want to give up.
She was going home. Without a doubt, she would return to the place she so deeply longed for. As for what awaited her there, she'd cross that bridge then. Because going home meant staying alive, she would protect herself. She wasn't about to die in a place like this.
Youko clung to the sword and pulled herself to her feet. She thrust the sword again into the rising slope and began climbing the brush-covered hill. No hill she had ever known had been so excruciating, covering so short a distance so slowly. Numerous times her feet slipped out from under her. She urged on her battered self, focused on the objective above her. She at last reached the end of the gauntlet, grasping the shoulder of the road with her outstretched hands.
She dug in her fingers and crawled up to the surface of the road. With a groan she pulled her body onto the mountain road and fell prostrate on level ground. At the same time she heard a faint sound. The sound came from the far side of the road. A bitter smile came unbidded to her lips.
Youko hated this world with all her heart. Approaching the road was a sound like the wail of a crying baby.