The haku dashed forth towards the citadel. Created over the course of many months and years with raw materials carried in each equinox, the solidly built citadel was the first and only rest area in the Yellow Sea. It could be flown over in an instant, but already the air above the gorge was filled with countless sets of wings. They were the wings of youchou that had gathered having caught wind of the tumult and the ruin of Kyou.
The gorge was deep, so deep that it was not possible to see the bottom from the air above, and the number of unlucky people caught here by youma was not small. But if one could run to the citadel without being delayed by the wave of people, there was not much danger to be had. Run through the many gates that spanned the width of the road to the citadel and from then on continued a rock tunnel. From skylights built here and there along the way, some weak light poured down into the tunnel. Above the hard stone and mortar ceiling was a small roof. On all four sides of the roof there was iron fencing that obstructed youma while allowing for the circulation of light and air, but compared to the largeness of the tunnel, the roof seemed unreliable. The trembling of the earth and the sound of footsteps that reverberated in the tunnel came from soldiers running along the pathway above the tunnel.
.: 110 :.
During the spring equinox, for this one day, the soldiers would defend this fortress to their deaths. They must not allow a youma to pass through Reiken Gate—through the Earth Gate of Ken. As a result of many years of preparation, the defenses of Ken were very thorough. Because even if the devastation was held in check at Ken, the only shoreline open to the Yellow Sea, undoubtedly the youma would nevertheless slowly make their way into Kyou. No one could predict where the youma would come from. They couldn’t fly over the Kongou Mountains, and if it wasn’t the day of an equinox or solstice even youma could not pass through the Four Gates, and yet somehow the youma were entering into the devastated kingdom. Some claim that there is a secret way to get through the Kongou Mountains, or that there are tunnels from the Yellow Sea leading to the Ryouun Mountains of each area, or even that the flood of youma go into hiding depending on the level of peace and order each emperor is able to maintain. Then they lie in wait and sleep until they sense the decay of the kingdom, upon which they waken and begin to roam once again. It could be that none of these explanations are true, or all of them.
The city in Ken is in trouble…” Shushou whispered from atop the haku as they ambled along the tunnel road.
“Maybe even, soon all of Kyou will become like that. But worse, as other cities are not as prepared as Ken.”
“I wonder why youma exist… If I were Tentei, I would destroy them.”
Gankyuu smiled bitterly.
After the throne, next Tentei? You really are an ambitious one, aren’t you?”
“No one else is stepping up to do what is necessary, so poor little me is left to do everything myself.”
Well, start by keeping yourself alive in the Yellow Sea.
Hm? But you’re going to protect me. That’s what I hired you for, after all.
.: 111 :.
Without replying, Gankyuu turned his eyes to the heavens, and at that moment a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. It was not torchlight, but the bright, white light of sunlight.
Upon leaving the tunnel, they entered into the inner part of the fortress. It had the appearance of a small village, though neither entirely castle-like or town-like, and the travellers around Gankyuu breathed sighs of relief.
“Wow, there’s an entire village here.”
“It’s not big enough to be called a village though.”
The path through the village was narrow. Wide enough for only two mounts to walk side-by-side, and lined by low, stone buildings. The overhead of the path was also made of stone, with skylights cut through, and though it wasn’t dark, it also wasn’t very bright. The moisture there was stagnant, and all the stones were old, and were filled with heat particular to the Yellow Sea. It wasn’t a comfortable place—it was where the world of humans came to an end. There was enough dirt floor space for sleeping, at the least, and enough food some coarse meals. The place was intended originally for the soldiers that protected Ken, but even regular travelers were allowed these things.
Gankyuu and Shushou were also shown this kindness, and spent the night on a dirt floor. In the morning, Shushou looked a little wan—it appeared that she spent a sleepless night listening to the cries of the youma gathered around the fortress. Before departing, Gankyuu led them to a shrine, and Shushou followed along meekly. There were many others who had the same thought towards praying for their safety, and in the front of the shrine in this narrow village was a long, snaking line of people.
It took some time, but Gankyuu and Shushou progressed to the altar of the shrine. Directly to their side was an area reminiscent of the castle in the city of Ken, and the gathered people awaited the opening of the fortress door. People began to notice the two, and some even pointed at them. Some even weaved through the crowd just to get a look at Shushou’s face. She quickly became infamous among the people in the fortress.
“Why is that small child here?”
“A companion? How absurd.
No way. In the afternoon she’ll be going back to Ken. She probably just came this far out of curiousity.”
Shushou looked in the direction of the whispering voices with disdain, then turned to face the cave-like altar and bowed.
The guardian of those traveling to the Yellow Sea, Kenrou Shinkun, with a gentle-looking face, armor made of animal hide and a hire (shawl-type thing) wrapped over his shoulders.
“What’s with that hire?” Shushou asked Gankyuu in a small voice.
”Dunno. Shinkun is said to have made his armor out of the hide of a ko youma, and carry a hire with an orb attached to it that he made to give to a youma.
“Do youjuu and youma like orbs? Youjuu are kijuu, right?”
“It would be better to say that there are some youjuu that become kijuu. And there are some kijuu and youma that are intoxicated by orbs.”
“They get drunk? Like adults do with alcohol?”
Or not. I don’t really know. They act just like tipsy humans, so we say they’re intoxicated.”
“How strange… it’s not something that’s taught in schools.”
I’m not surprised. There’s lots we don’t know a lot about youma and youjuu. Like what makes youma and youjuu different—because really, we don’t actually know.”
Shushou opened her eyes and looked up at Gankyuu. “Youma attack people, but youjuu don’t, right?”
“That’s what everyone says. But even youjuu, when approached without caution, have been known to attack people, although they don’t actively hunt people.”
Among youjuu hunters (猟尸師), youma and youjuu are considered essentially the same, with the only thing setting them apart being the question of whether they hunt humans or not—but even among youma there are those that don’t particularly go out of the way to seek out and kill humans. They say that youjuu can be tamed but youma can’t be tamed, and yet it’s not as if all youjuu can become kijuu. When a kingdom is in trouble, it’s youma that are said to appear, not youjuu, and yet there are some youjuu among the youma that also come forth. Really the only thing that can be said for sure is that youma cannot be tamed. Someone once tried to catch and tame a harmless insect youma, but it died right after being caught. As if to point out that it was dead, a bigger youma came along and ate it up.
“I wonder why.”
Dunno. It’s not as if youma wandering around places inhabited by humans just up and die, so it can’t be said that being in human territory makes them weak or anything. They’ll die as soon as they’re captured, but when we try to kill them they just won’t seem to die.”
“Hm…” Shushou muttered as she moved away from the altar to follow Gankyuu.
“Youma hunt people. Are you really going to be okay, kid?”
”Are there no yaboku in the Yellow Sea?”
In the countryside, while under the branches of a yaboku from whence grow the seeds of birds and animals, youma and youjuu will not attack.
“No one has ever seen a yaboku in the Yellow Sea. Neither are there birds or animals, as you might expect. There were some youjuu hunters that tried to find trees that youjuu are born from, but I’ve never heard of anyone finding any.”
“Well, if they could find a youjuu tree they would no longer need to hunt—and that would sure makes things easy for them.”
“I suppose. And I’m sure everyone would know by now if anyone had found a tree for youma.”
“Right. They could encircle the yaboku and kill the off youma as soon as they were born,” said Shushou, and she scowled. The riboku and yaboku trees that birthed newborns were sacred. No matter what the beast, none would fight when under the branches of one of these trees. As long as one remained under a sacred tree, youma would not attack. As a show of respect for this wonder, it was said that one must never kill within site of these trees.
“I wonder if youma have no young. No one’s ever heard of baby youma, after all.”
“There are none, some say.”
Gankyuu nodded in response to Shushou’s question.
“I’ve never seen any. And I’ve never heard of anyone seeing any.”
“Whether or not there is a tree that births youma, just how long their lifespan is, and why there are only male youma and youjuu, whether they have any intelligence, whether they can understand human language, where youma come from, how they know when to come out—we don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and because we don’t know these things, we don’t really know how to hunt them, either.”
Just as Shushou breathed out a little “Hm….”—
“Aha, so you got here safely then,” they heard a chipper voice call out, and Shushou turned back to look towards the mass of people.
From within the crowd of people looking curiously upon Shushou and Gankyuu, Rikou waved.
“—why are you here?”
Rikou laughed at Shushou as she stood staring at him in amazement.
“I was wondering if you’d made it okay. What happened to Hakuto?”
Shushou hung her head in despondence.
“He was stolen just after you gave me that certificate.”
“Is that so,” Rikou sympathized, clapping Shushou comfortingly on the back.
“Nevertheless you managed to reach Ken. Still, it would have been best if we’d come together, huh.
“That’s alright. I loved Hakuto, and I’m still a bit bitter about it all, but I’ve come out fighting,” replied Shushou, causing Rikou to break out in a big smile.
“But why are you here in the Yellow Sea?”
“I thought that alone you would run into all sorts of problems.”
Shushou looked up at Rikou’s magnanimous smile.
“You don’t mean—you’re going to come with me?”
“It would be best for you to have some protection, would it not? You’re a sensible person, but any way you look at it, you’re not really the type to face down youma while holding a weapon,” laughed Rikou while showing her the sword strapped to his hip.
Shushou laughed in return, and Gankyuu nudged her.
“Hey… who is this guy?
“Oh, he was very kind to me as I was making my way to Ken. His name is Rikou. Seems he’s going to be coming along with us.”
“I wonder if this is because of my natural charisma? Rikou, this is Gankyuu. I hired him to be my bodyguard, but naturally when it comes to being protected, the more the merrier.
“Of course,” agreed Gankyuu, looking askance upon the affably smiling young man.
“So you came here following her?”
“Well it’s a bit worrying isn’t it, when a small person like Shushou is going to the Yellow Sea.”
“You knew she was planning on coming to the Yellow Sea?”
“Shushou said as much, yes.”
“If she’d said as much, rather than smiling you should have stopped her!” Gankyuu shouted at the smiling man.
He laughed slyly.
“And what about you? Why didn’t you stop her.”
Being asked such a question in such a casual manner, Gankyuu unthinkingly chocked on his words.
”….I tried to stop her!”
“And you couldn’t, right?”
At a loss for words, Gankyuu settled for glaring at that insolent smile.
“Gankyuu, no fighting alright. You’re an adult. You’re both my guards, so you’d best get along,” said Shushou with a cheeky smile, looking up at Gankyuu triumphantly.
“Don’t you have any urge to go back? You can still return to Ken.”
“No matter how many times you ask I’m not going to change my mind. I’ve hired you, so guide me already,” said Shushou quickly, but in reality the fortress gate that opened out towards the Yellow Sea was actually rather far removed from it. The sentries overhead quieted, and from the other side of the gate, came a voice that urged its opening, and the soldiers standing in front of the door unbolted it.
Together with the smell of dead meat came a strong light, causing Shushou to squint. The soldiers pressed forward, and all at once those dressed for travel timidly stepped toward the outside. Shushou and Gankyuu followed the line out, and spotted the source of the smell—a fearsome pile of beast corpses piled in the corner of the open space just outside the fortress.
“Gankyuu…” Shushou pointed to the pile and gankyuu nodded.
”You feel like going home now?”
“Don’t be daft,” Shushou said, and turned her back to the pile of corpses. She looked in the crowd for Rikou, who had gone to get their kijuu. As soon as he got out of the crowd, Rikou spotted Shushou and lifted his hand, and within his normally impassable smile was a hint of relief.
The sentries on top of the fortress and soldiers on the surrounding stone walls glared at the scoured the sky. For now, there was no sign of anything in the blue skies overhead.
With a small sigh, Shushou gazed upon the people gathered in the clearing, from which descended rocky slopes. Below that was a broad expanse of green woodland as far as the eye could see. This, was the Yellow Sea.
Excepting the Koungou Mountains, which closed in from the left and right, nothing in really stood out.
“It’s surprisingly ordinary, the Yellow Sea.”
Hearing Shushou say this, Gankyuu thought to himself, I wouldn’t be so quick to judge. Gankyuu knew the Yellow Sea very well. Youjuu hunters that didn’t also didn’t tend to live very long.
Standing apart from crowd of people in the clearing were small groups of three to five. They were the youjuu hunters that intended to stay and hunt in the Yellow Sea until the next solstice day. The ones who stopped as if wanting to turn back, the unmoving group of people that turned back in bewilderment were those there to ascend Mt. Hou (昇山). Altogether there were about five hundred of them.
Many of them had brought with them a small retinue. It was not unusual for someone to have as many as ten guards. Most of those guards had weapons, and brought with them a large amount provisions on horse-drawn carts. Those aspiring to ascend themselves were about eighty or so in number.
Upon confirming this, Gankyuu breathed a sigh of relief. It had been twenty years since the kirin had begun to allow ascension. That after so many years the number of ascenders would have decreased was to be expected. Even considering that this was the equinox particularly for the gate in Kyou, this was a fairly good gathering. And depending on the benificence of these people, the difficulties faced by Gankyuu, Shushou, and Rikou could significantly decrease.
Anyhow, none of them were thinking solely of saving themselves. At the least if you thought about it they would need to do more than just talk. For them, from this point on it was all about proving proving their character to the heavens.
Soon Gankyuu’s group would be needing to share in the protection of these followers and would need the provisions the ascenders’ benevolence would provide. At any rate, there was a limit to the amount of provisions a single haku could carry, and the journey was long. Having sufficient supplies was a minimum necessity, and without a doubt they didn’t have enough to go the full distance, not to mention that if unforseen circumstances cropped up that exhausted their supplies, no matter how good a walker the haku was there might come a point when they would have to try and fly the remaining distance. But flyers were easy targets for youma. Flying through the sky was a lot more dangerous that travelling overland.
“Alright, come on, best of luck,” Gankyuu muttered to himself as Rikou walked up to him. Seeing Rikou’s kijuu, Gankyuu’s jaw dropped.
Rikou smiled. “Oh, so you’re also a kijuu-lover?
Shushou tugged on his sleeve.
“Gankyuu’s a youjuu hunter.”
“Oh?” breathed Rikou, sounding not at all surprised or impressed as Gankyuu knelt down in front of the suugu.
“He’s amazing. Don’t tell me—you were the one who caught him?”
”No way. I was given him.”
“’Given’—“ Gankyuu repeated, surprised, and looked up at the smiling Rikou, who’d said such a thing so unaffectedly. To catch and sell a single suugu would mean never having to return to the Yellow Sea.
“I would love to meet someone so generous.”
“And you have a haku, Gankyuu-san? Did you catch him yourself?
“Just Gankyuu is fine. To be referenced so politely by someone who deals with suugu would only weigh on my conscience.”
Shaking his head, Gankyuu inspected the suugu. Even Gankyuu could only count on one hand the number of times he’d been this close to a suugu. One time he’d been trying to catch one, but it had too fast, too strong, and intelligent enough to easily slip through the trap they’d set. Enraged, after swiping at the three of them it had run away. That noone had died had been enough of a miracle.
There were black and white suugu, and this one was white. White with black stripes—and rarer than it's black counterpart. But whichever color their pelt, all suugu had the same multicolored eyes and long tails. The suugu looking back at Gankyuu now showed no sign of belligerence or irritation. Really, it seemed rather aloof, or at least it in its gaze there was no indication of ferocity. It must have been difficult taming it to this extent.
“I’m going to ride with Rikou,” said Shushou as the amazed Gankyuu stood up. “He said Seisai won’t mind if I do.”
“Alright. Naturally, a suugu would be better than a haku, my lady. But—“
Shushou tilted her head to one side.
“Are you stupid?
“Who was saying anything like that? We’re not going for a picnic. You do realize this is the Yellow Sea, right?
Gankyuu blinked in confusion, and Rikou burst out laughing
“I may not weigh much, but I’m still a burden when riding kijuu. We were talking about how, when push comes to shove, which kijuu I will impact less riding, were we not?’
“…Well. I apologize for my rudeness.”
“Since my weight won’t have any impact on Seisai, I’ll ride him—by the way, what’s the name of your haku?”
“It doesn’t have one,” Gankyuu replied with some astonishment.
“Well give him one.”
“If you want to give it one, go ahead. But don’t interrupt others when they’re speaking, okay. I wanted to say, while you should be sure not to leave the kijuus’ sides, you won’t be riding.”
“Because some of the retainers are going to be walking. We’re all going to be going at walking speed. There’s some things that must be done while walking, too. Once you’ve entered the Yellow Sea, taking it easy is no longer an option.”
“Be quiet and do as you’re told,” interrupted Gankyuu as Shushou broke off.
Shushou glared at Gankyuu with the face of someone used to having her way.
“Are you forgetting who hired you?”
“As if I could. I’m here to get you safely Mt. Hou, and then back to the human lands.”
“You don’t need to worry about escorting me back.”
“How presumptuous. I was certainly hired to protect you, but I don’t remember you selling away your life for so little money.”
Gankyuu turned from the quiet Shushou to look at Rikou.
“Have you been to the Yellow Sea before?”
“How about fighting youma?”
“That I have done a few times.”
Gankyuu let out a small sigh. In other words he was here with two complete novices. Hearing Gankyuu’s sigh, Rikou said placatingly “Whatever you order me to do, in order to learn the way of things in the Yellow Sea I will do whatever necessary.”
As Gankyuu sighed, in the clearing the crowd parted around one corner of the slope. Soon, they would be moving.
“Shushou, walk inbetween the suugu and the haku. Right, let’s go.”