By Mikazuki Yuriko
Kaya stretched out of her fetal position hesitantly when the shaking finally subsided. Of all times for an earthquake, this had to be one! Fortunately, the roof of the house she was stuck in hadn't caved in and crushed her, though the room was an even bigger mess than before. During the quake, Kaya heard a sound of glass breaking. In the dimness, she gazed around and exhaled with glee when she saw a large shard from a broken mirror lit up with a pale, reflected light. With some difficulty, she squirmed towards it and grinned when she finally laid hand on it. Already forgetting the earthquake, she began sawing at her bonds with renewed vigor.
It took several minutes to get both her hands and feet free, but the job was considerably faster than it might have been with her teeth. Her jaw was stiff from her previous efforts. Now with her limbs free, she could move around a bit more easily. Maybe not much more easily, with one leg completely useless and her hip still throbbing from her adventures underground. She felt unspeakably tired from the exertion of battle during an already sleepless night. But she had to keep going. Until she passed out cold from exhaustion, she had to keep going.
It was extremely difficult pulling herself up onto her good leg using the doorframe she crawled to for support. Sweat oozed from the pores on her face, and she panted from the agony in her injured side. But she made it and stood erect at last. Her victory was quickly dampened by the realization that just getting out of this house, let alone finding Kenshin, would be a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," she reminded herself then scowled. "Or a hop." Keeping a hand on the wall for some balance, Kaya hopped and hobbled awkwardly away from the bedroom, gritting her teeth against the pain and bumbling around in the dark in search for the stairs she knew had to be at the end of the hall. When she encountered them with her toes, she hesitantly sat down and used her arms and leg to scoot down one stair at a time, much like a baby learning to handle steps. All other feeling aside, she felt utterly ridiculous. If she lived through this battle, she'd have to find an easier way of moving about.
It seemed like hours before she reached the last step and went through the trial of standing up again. It was a little less cumbersome than before. Kaya pushed forward and felt for the door. Sliding it aside, her eyes were temporarily dazzled by the pre-dawn light. The air was refreshingly cool. Outside the street appeared deserted, though it was cluttered with broken furniture, scattered sheaves of parchment, and clothes lying all about. Kaya was relieved that there were no dead bodies. Or better yet, living enemies prowling around.
The battle had quieted somewhat after the earthquake. Had either side called a truce or a retreat? Or was it over with that quickly? With a sinking feeling like iron in her stomach, she thought she knew who the victor of such a short, ruthless battle would be.
Looking around for something—anything—that could be of any use to her, Kaya spotted a pair of buckets beneath the broken window of a house across the street. Threaded through their handles was a stout wooden pole. Kaya's spirits rose, and she hopped and stumbled towards it, nearly falling down once halfway. She seized the pole eagerly and freed it. It was as thick around as her wrist and made of good solid oak. Uselful as a weapon as well as a walking stick. Though, if Kaya did run into trouble, she doubted she would last long in her state and without any Kenshin to protect her. That was a depressing idea.
Turning her eyes heavenward to the vast gray sky, she uttered a prayer and began slowly, painstakingly making her way back to the battlefield.
Ashitaka rushed down the streets of Iron Town, a raging demon on a rampage, all of his senses acutely focused on finding San. She had to be in the city. Where else could she be? He hardly noticed the ruined shops and houses—a few of them being consumed with flames—as he ran by them. He stopped here and there to regain his bearings, but in his frantic state of mind, he may as well be running in circles. A keening yelp caught his attention, and he hastily changed his direction and turned into an intersecting street. Three blocks away, he saw a thick knot of armed soldiers pouring out of an alleyway. They were attacking something—a huge white wolf broke away from them and then wheeled around to snap at spearheads and swords jabbing it. The yelping wolf's legs buckled, and he collapsed to the ground in a heap. Cheering, the men continued to torment it.
Fury flared up in Ashitaka's chest, but his body was not engulfed with the surge of agony he had previously come to expect. His feet moved, and in a few heartbeats' time he was charging into the crowd, bowling them over and throwing them great distances. Confusion took over the regiment of soldiers, and they looked around, not quite sure where the assault was coming from. Ashitaka grabbed the iron-hafted spear of one man, flipping him over, and wielded the weapon deftly, cracking bones and leaving large dents in solid samurai armor.
"Fall back!" he heard a strong voice boom out over the wild noise. Ashitaka held his position, striking out at the soldiers ignoring or too slow to heed that command. He stood over the wolf's head and glared at the astonished, retreating soldiers. Then he heard a deep rumble and looked down into a fierce amber eye. The wolf god blinked slowly, chest heaving with ragged, uneven breaths. Its coat was more red than white and covered with embedded arrows, but San's brother was still miraculously alive, if not for long.
"Ashitaka," he implored in him a voice as deep as a cavern. "Find San. I fear she's in danger." His eyes closed and his breathing became more labored. It took a lot to kill a god of the ancient forest, but even they could die. Ashitaka's throat constricted, and his eyes brimmed with hot tears as he stood by, helpless to keep the last of the Wolf Tribe from slipping away into the afterworld.
"Don't worry," he assured the god as its lungs gave its last rasping breath and finally fell silent. "I will." He turned to the soldiers keeping their distance a good dozen paces away.
"What kind of devil are you?" one of them, a wide-eyed man in impressive armor and mounted on a white and gray horse demanded in a voiceless breath. His men made no move to attack Ashitaka, though a good few looked like they very much wanted to try, so he answered,
"My name is Ashitaka. I am a man of Iron Town, and I've come back from the Emperor with a mandate demanding your immediate departure. You, and all of your men." He pulled out the Emperor's letter and brandished it so they could all see the large wax seal boldly impressed on the parchment like a stain of blood. His voice broke when he continued, "In the name of the Emperor, you will withdraw from Iron Town without further aggression." He folded the paper and replaced it inside his coat. "If you fail to abide by this command….." His voice cracked again as the tears continued to stream down his cheeks, "I'll destroy you all myself."
The leader of the group eyed him silently for several long moments.
"Looking at you, I believe that you can," he said. "Let me see that paper." Ashitaka, not letting his guard down for a second, complied and brought it over to him. The high-ranking soldier took it and studied the contents. When he was finished reading, he fixed Ashitaka with a long, piercing stare. "I've seen the seal of the Emperor before," he said. "Only a fool would wield it lightly. Or untruthfully."
Just then, a piercing whistle sounded over the morning air not far off, and though the high-ranking soldier blanched at the sound, Ashitaka did not waver a hair. Could he fulfill his threat if the soldiers didn't back down? Surely he was capable of it, but would he be able to ever live with himself if he obliterated any more life than he already had?
'Oh, San!' he cried out silently. 'Wait for me! I'll find you. I swear I will!'
"So, our castle has fallen," the leader of the band mumbled lips unmoving. Ashitaka's unnaturally keen hearing picked up the words clearly. The high-ranking soldier dismounted, sword in hand, and approached Ashitaka. Ashitaka stiffened and grasped the spear tightly, preparing to defend himself.
"My name is Yamajima Hojo, sub-captain of the Air Rank." He dropped his sword at Ashitaka's feet. "I've had enough of fighting gods and demons," he said. "Whatever spirit you may be, be at peace. With the blessing of the Emperor, my men and I will withdraw in peace."
"And the rest of your army?" Ashitaka questioned.
The sub-captain turned to look back at a group of horse-mounted archers.
"Give the signal to fall back," he ordered them. The archers stared at him with mixed expressions of incredulity and defeat. "Do it," he insisted.
For a long moment as the soldiers hesitated, Ashitaka didn't think to breathe, but then one of them reached into the quiver at his side and selected a short, red arrow with black fletching. Putting it to his bow, he aimed at the sky and let the shaft fly. It sped upwards with a piercing shriek similar to the one heard earlier. Ashitaka shifted his feet, waiting. Now what would happen?
A few moments passed, quiet except for the whinny of a horse and occasional clinking of armor rustling, and then a faraway whistle answered, in a lower hum. Another answered with higher pitch.
"All of the ranks have agreed to a truce. Allow me to take this mandate to show them. With General Azuma dead and likely Lord Asano as well, I'm sure it will be easy to convince the rank captains that we have no more reason to continue this battle."
Ashitaka eyed the hard-earned emperor's letter in the sub-captain's hand. Could he trust this man Hojo? His expression seemed genuine enough. But Ashitaka wanted assurance.
"I want your word of honor that you will do so," he stated deliberately.
"On my name, my honor, and my hope to enter the Western Paradise, you have it," the sub-captain answered immediately.
Ashitaka breathed in deeply and sighed. "You have my thanks, sub-captain."
The sub-captain's mouth was a hard line as he nodded once, and then he opened it to speak.
"I trust that you will call off your own people as well—outside, as well as within the town. They are rather…..persistent."
Ashitaka nodded. He was reluctant to linger a moment longer, delaying his search for San, but he had to show his own good faith if this fragile peace was to last. He was uncertain as to how to get word out for Iron Town to stand down. Perhaps if he found Eboshi, she would command her troops to pull back. He focused his thoughts again on San, reached out with his mind for her essence. He stretched his senses as far as they would go, and…..
He caught it. A faint presence, like a whisper from afar. He nearly cried with relief. She was alive. And close. He could tell, now that he was concentrating. But she was weak. Very weak. His sense of her faded in and out, like the last rays of sunset smothered behind clouds. He had to find her soon before that presence altogether vanished.
Yamajima and his soldiers were regarding him quizzically. Ashitaka raised his eyes and stared at the sub-captain.
"Your word," he reminded him, driving the spear into the ground. He underestimated his strength—the shaft plunged in more than a third its length—and he fled the scene.
Leaning heavily on her newfound staff, Kaya dragged herself along the quiet streets of Iron Town, heading for Eboshi's massive manor house in the eastern district where all the noise now seemed to be coming from. The only people she came across were the dead—some freshly killed and injured in just about every manner imaginable. It turned her stomach to see both mercenary and neighbor sprawled in bloody heaps in the streets. She avoided the ways where the casualties littered the ground too thickly to navigate through. By the time she made it half a dozen blocks, tears were running unchecked down her dirty cheeks. But every face that she peered at that wasn't Kenshin renewed the spluttering flame of hope inside her heart. Inside her head a ceaseless prayer for his safety—his and San's and Ashitaka's—was quietly chanted.
One man in Iron Town garb that she saw lying on the side of the street with dried bullet wounds riddling his chest had a dagger the length of her forearm still clutched in his blood-soaked fist. Kaya paused long enough to pry it loose and untie the dead man's belt to secure it to her own waist. A blade at her side may not help her any more than her sturdy walking stick, but it made Kaya feel just a little bit better.
The occasional sounds of guns firing and constant shouting of men fighting had become just a hum in the back of her head, hardly noticeable. But when piercing shrieks ripped the morning air, she was taken off guard. Whistles sometimes sounded a retreat, but they were not any signal that the resistance used. Could it possibly be? Was Asano's army falling back? Bright hope flaring inside her, Kaya stumbled and hobbled even faster, eyes scanning the streets less warily as she pressed on towards the manor house.
Ashitaka felt as though his feet were hardly touching the ground as he raced through alleys and streets, occasionally knocking over makeshift barriers of carts and barrels that blocked his path, honing in on the weak little whisper that to his senses was San. His surroundings were vaguely familiar, but the houses and shops seemed to come from a past life, or a dream. A few were smoldering—black, charred peaks and roofs that had been torched during the battle. The air reeked with death—with smoke and sulfur and the stench of blood. His eyes, too, were assailed with the aftermath of the fighting. Faces, some recognizable, some too blurred or mutilated to make out, stared at him unblinkingly. The hairs on the back of Ashitaka's neck rose as the feeling that the dead were watching him followed in his wake. So much killing and destruction. Had he come too late?
As he dashed across the intersection of a narrow street, his eye caught sight of a figure standing nearly a quarter mile down its length. He skidded to a stop, kicking up dust, and backtracked into the open to get a better look.
"I don't believe it," he breathed, and bolted down the street to meet her. "Kaya!" he called out loudly. "Kaya! It's me!"
The frail-looking figure, becoming larger and more identifiable as he approached, staggered as her knees gave way. Ashitaka was before her in an instant, supporting her. She looked a mess, covered in dirt and blood, her clothes stained and torn. She was obviously badly injured, too. Her wide, pain-filled eyes latched on to him, filling with tears, and she threw her arms around his neck and sobbed into his shirt.
"Ashitaka!" she blubbered. "What took you so long?"
Ashitaka chuckled humorlessly. "Sorry I'm late. I came as fast as I could."
She held on to him tightly with surprising strength, given her condition. He held her firmly, too, though he had to be extremely careful. As powerful as his demon-given abilities had now become, he didn't want to risk accidentally killing her. She cried against him for a few moments, babbling to him about how badly she missed him and what a mess things in Iron Town had become. That he could witness firsthand.
He didn't want to cut short their reunion, but there was still San to find.
"Kaya, have you seen San?" he inquired, gently prying her arms off his shoulders. She raised her head to actually look into his face and gasped.
"I know. But I can't think about that right now. I have to find San. Is she close by?"
Kaya's expression fell. "I don't know," she replied. "We were separated in the tunnels underground. She could be anywhere. But I could venture one good guess." She stared off towards the east.
Ashitaka frowned. The battlefront, of course. As brave and determined as she was, where else could she be?
"I have to go, Kaya. I have to find her. That's the most important thing right now."
Kaya nodded. "I understand. I have to find someone, too. Someone very dear to me."
Ashitaka looked her over. She was hardly in any shape to stand, let alone rove about Iron Town—still dangerous in these newborn minutes of a truce—on her own.
"Climb on my back," he instructed, turning around and squatting. Without argument she dropped her staff and draped herself across his shoulders. She didn't feel any heavier than a feather. "Hold on as tight as you can," he warned her and took off as fast as an arrow.
The bottom of the steep hill atop which Eboshi's house was built and the surrounding streets and markets were packed with bodies. Many of them wore drab Iron Town garb and makeshift armor, but the majority wore Asano's colors and heavy leather and steel. It appeared at first that the mercenaries and soldiers were gathering together, filing out of the streets slowly, while the Iron Town resistance looked on warily. Then a soldier broke free of the rank and charged at the Iron Town men standing nearby.
"For Lord Asano and the Rising Sun!" he bellowed, waving a sword. A couple of his comrades, all with equally vindictive visages, followed after him without hesitation, ignoring the shouts of their commander to stand down. A gun fired and arrows flew as the men about to be attacked raised their weapons of knives and clubs.
"Hold it!" Ashitaka heard a familiar woman's voice shout. The breakaway soldiers stumbled and fell, one dead on the spot from a bullet wound punched right between his shoulder blades, the other two from hits to the backs of their knees or hips.
"I said stand down!" a deep voice roared from the soldiers' ranks. Ashitaka didn't recognize the high-ranking man on horseback down the line who spoke up, but he saw him lower his gun. The arrows must have been loosed from the bows of the men flanking him. "Anyone who steps out of line will wind up the same!"
Toki came running over, hair askew and looking worse for wear, to join her men. She glanced at the dead soldiers lying just feet away from her people and snarled, wheeling on the rank's captain.
"Just what does a truce mean to you, you mangy, flea-bitten son of a—"
"Toki, look!" a man next to her interrupted, pointing, having finally caught sight of him. A few others followed the direction of his finger, and eyes widened, and a few jaws dropped at the sight of him. Toki's was one, and she gasped,
"Ashitaka? Is that you?"
"Yes, Toki," he replied. Before he could repeat his question to her, he heard a woman scream and gasps ripple through the crowd. All eyes turned towards the front of the square, where a large man with a long sword at his hip was carefully descending the rough, corpse-strewn stairs set in the hillside, accompanied by an entourage of weeping men and women. Ashitaka recognized Gonza's bald head and fierce expression almost immediately. In his arms was a woman's body wrapped in a sheet. Ashitaka felt a twinge of shame as he sighed in relief—the long raven hair spilling over Gonza's arm couldn't be San, and his sixth sense of the weak, fluttering whisper still pointed in the direction of the manor house.
"Oh no!" Kaya's voice in his ear was a tremble. Ashitaka couldn't take his eyes off the macabre procession. More bodies were being brought down, bodies of townspeople, more of his friends and neighbors. The one exception was a stocky man's limp form being supported between one wiry and one strong-looking woman, both with faces concealed with cloths. A wailing dirge suddenly took up among the women and men in his company as Gonza and the head of the column came into better view, but Ashitaka's eyes darted over to the retreating mercenaries and their captains, wondering how they would react to the sight of their slain commander being so unceremoniously carried down. They looked wary, many with scowls and narrowed eyes, and Ashitaka feared yet again for the fragile peace.
Hoof beats clattering in the street behind him made him turn, and he saw the sub-captain approaching with other horse-mounted men of even higher rank, judging by their armor and the way they carried themselves. One of them rested a halberd decorated with a strip of fabric, a symbol of surrender and non-aggression, in his stirrup. Ashitaka tensed when he saw sub-captain Yamajima's eyes and those of the rest look ahead to where Asano's bearers were descending the last step. He looked back to the sub-captain, but it was one of his companions, the one bearing the standard, who, at a word from the sub-captain and a pointed stare at Ashitaka, nudged his horse forward.
"All ranks, stay your hands!" he shouted to the shifty crowd in a loud, clear voice, following with the repeated order of "Move out! Return to the camp!" Then, with hardly a glance for Kaya or any of the other townspeople gathered in the square, he addressed Ashitaka with hard, wary eyes.
"I'm told you are the…..leader…..of these people," he stated, not in question.
Ashitaka studied him just as warily and replied, "Only a citizen."
Mouth set in a downward curve, the man introduced himself as Captain Aoyoshi of the Earth rank, and with him were Captains Yoshinori of the Fire rank and Jun of the Water rank. He did not bother to mention Hojo, who seemed content to merely hang back at his superiors' heels. The three Captains did not seem to have any doubts about their position, though.
"Well then, who is your leader?" he demanded, clearly displeased with his situation and the task he had at hand. Ashitaka turned to look towards Eboshi and Gonza, but Toki volunteered herself, gaze leaving her fallen mistress as she whipped her head around to glare at the mounted soldiers.
"I'm in charge here," she said boldly, marching towards them. A handful of meagerly armed people, mostly women, trailed behind her as an escort. The captain's face dissolved into an even deeper grimace as he studied the group and its leader. No doubt he wasn't accustomed or favorable to dealing with assertive women. Ashitaka frankly didn't care if Toki browbeat him all day then tossed him out of the town like garbage. He had more important things to attend to. He ignored Captain Aoyoshi and turned to face Yamajima.
"The Emperor's letter," he said in just short of a demanding tone. "Give it to me." Yamajima's eyes skipped over to Aoyoshi, and the captain, apparently annoyed at the lack of respect Ashitaka showed him, grudgingly complied. He handed it to Ashitaka, who passed it along to Toki. "This should make things perfectly clear," he told her.
Toki looked confused, then unfolded the letter and started reading, eyes and smile growing wider with every passing moment. She then flashed the letter to all the captains. Aoyoshi's brow wrinkled with consternations, and he turned in his saddle to grumble to sub-captain Yamajima,
"Likely we'll all become wandering unemployables after this whole affair, but be assured that your head is mine for getting us into this." Yamajima hardly seemed affected by the captain's words. He merely gave the man a one-sided smile. Then, returning his attention to Toki, Captain Aoyoshi continued, "On behalf of the…..late…..Lord Asano, I'm here to negotiate our…..surrender." His eyes did not meet Toki's, but were instead fixed on the body of Asano which was then being ungraciously dropped to the ground right in front of their horses' feet. Toki paid her friends no heed and instead focused her driving glare on the captain.
"All right, let's hear it," she said confidently.
Ashitaka drew back—his business here was done for now—and scanned the crowd for someone to take care of Kaya, but at a tap on his shoulder, he inclined his ear to her.
"Ashitaka! Look! Over there! I can see him!" There was little doubt as to whom she meant by "him." Ashitaka looked over the dozens of faces and spotted a tall, dark haired man pushing through the crowd recklessly as if in a hurry. Ashitaka recognized him and felt a wave of relief.
"Will you be alright?" he asked Kaya as he gently let her down and helped her to keep her feet.
"I will be now!" she replied, a wide smile spread out over her face.
Ashitaka scarcely waited for Kenshin to join them. As soon as the samurai laid hand on Kaya, he was off, dashing through the square and weaving through the throng towards the manor house.
"Ashitaka!" he heard a man shout as his foot hit the first wide step in the hillside. He paused to see Gonza kneeling near him on the ground at the base, reluctant to let go of his lady's still form even while he was being crowded by wailing, sobbing women who attempted to take Eboshi from him. Tears were still leaking down the seemingly invincible man's face; he looked haggard and worn. Ashitaka impatiently waited for him to speak, but the man couldn't get a word out and instead turned his face away in sorrow and shame, cradling Lady Eboshi's body to him. Ashitaka left him there and flew up the earthen stairs.
San called him to the massive house where townspeople still milled about, some managing groups of disarmed guards and mercenaries, some gathering up the lifeless forms of their friends in burial sackcloth. Many gave him astonished looks as he darted around, but he was quickly gone before any of their lips could form his name. He ascended stairs, raced down halls, and ran through rooms, often breaking the doors down thoughtlessly in the process. Sometimes it seemed as though she was just on the edge of his mind, but then she would slip away momentarily. Ashitaka's heart beat wildly in his chest. 'Please, San, please hold on. I'm coming,' he called out to her with his thoughts. The cool ribbon of her presence drew him higher and higher up, and when it seemed he could go no further, he spotted a ladder hanging down in the corner. Eagerly he went to it and, scaling it, burst out onto the roof. There he saw two women in robes with rifles slung over their shoulders, backs to him as they knelt down over something in the center. His sense of San was clearer than ever now, but wavering as if she was on the brink of an abyss and about to fall in. He lunged forward, leaping over the kneeling women and rounded on them.
His eyes confirmed what his heart already feared. His beloved lay there motionless, covered in drying blood. Her eyes were closed as if she were sleeping. Pale as she was, Ashitaka had never seen a more beautiful sight in his life. The women had torn strips of material in their hands, and judging by the frayed hems of their garments, it seemed they had been trying to bandage San's wounds. They stared at him with startled eyes. He wasn't familiar with either one of them, but they seemed to recognize him.
"We're sorry, Ashitaka, but I don't think there's anything we can do. She's too far gone."
He dropped to his knees, arms reaching out for her. Her skin was cool; she felt so light and fragile. As he pulled her close, he saw the puddle of blood on the spot where she lay. Her wounds were far more severe than he could have imagined.
Grasping her tightly, he lowered his head to whisper into her ear.
"San. I'm here now. I'm with you." He stroked her short hair and caressed the contours of her face. His emotions warred with one another, frantic about her safety and yet at the same time utterly content just to have her back in his embrace. His purplish-black fingertips grazed her neck; her pulse was so weak it could hardly be felt. The two women there exchanged glances then stood up in unison. With slight bows they backed away and retreated from the roof, no doubt to give him privacy during what might be the last moments he had with San. Ashitaka watched them go sadly. They seemed so certain that San was lost, but he could not give into that dread.
He rocked San's body gently as though she were an infant, all the while whispering her name and re-memorizing the features of her face with his fingers.
"I love you," he told her soothingly as his lips traced lines of kisses over her white skin. She felt so cold. His hot tears splashing onto her skin did nothing to warm her. "Don't go." He reached for the crystal dagger tied around his neck—his gift to her so long ago. He had hoped that returning it would have been a joyful occasion, not his parting gift. He pressed the shard into her palm and closed her fingers over it.
Closing his eyes tightly, he concentrated on the soft cool ribbon that she was in the back of his mind. He imagined himself far away from the rooftop, away from Iron Town, in a place where all was mist and darkness and the sound of running water. Trees began to take form, and he imagined her running through them, fast and free like a deer, her wolves at her side. He heard her laughing, happy and carefree as she should be, but immediately the wind picked up, rustling through the pines and threatening to carry her away. Desperate, Ashitaka clung to the thought of her.
They were on the mountaintop together, basking in the balmy twilight and watching the stars appear in the ghostly sky. The forest stretched out forever beneath them, rippling with mountains and streams. The sounds of the unseen nightingale and cricket serenaded them. The moon was a slender sickle above them, chasing away the last vestiges of sunset.
San pulled away from his embrace.
"I have to go," she told him. "I can't stay here anymore." She drew away from him, melting into the deepening shadows. Ashitaka quickly reached out his hand for her, but she was already beyond his grasp, just a wisp of ribbon slipping away.
"I love you, Ashitaka. Forgive me."
"No, San! Wait!"
The sky and forest around him began to spin until all became blackness, but Ashitaka refused to lose sight of her. He trembled with fear and frustration. He could shake the earth, but he couldn't do anything to save the one person he loved more than life itself! No! It couldn't be! He wouldn't allow it! He would give up everything—he would become the king of demons!—if he could only keep her from disappearing. He drew a deep breath and screamed.
The void around him shattered, and he wrenched his eyes open.
San blinked weakly, looking up at him.
"A-Ashi—" Her lips barely moved, as though speaking was too much of an effort. Ashitaka grasped her hand tightly in his.
"I'm right here, San. I'm not letting go." He wouldn't. Not ever again.
The corners of her mouth twitched slightly, almost into a smile, and then her head slumped back, eyes fluttering shut. Ashitaka's heart leap into his throat, choking him, but he relaxed instantly when he saw that she was breathing peacefully. She even seemed to be a bit warmer to his touch. He looked her over and was astonished to see that the wounds she'd sustained earlier, some of them serious, were healed under the drying blood, as if they'd never been. He pulled away bandages and probed them carefully; her skin was whole and unbroken. A memory was suddenly summoned to his mind from a time when he, too, was injured and dying, with San watching over him. A mysterious power had healed him, a gift from a great god. Ashitaka looked at his own mottled hands. Perhaps his own powers were not so demonic. He noticed her fingers tightly wrapped around the crystal dagger and pressed to her chest. Ashitaka let out the heavy breath he'd been holding and touched her other hand to his lips.
"Come, San," he spoke to her gently, holding her close. "It's time to go home."
Leaning heavily on her cane, Kaya uttered a small gasp and put a hand to her stomach to quiet the baby tumbling inside her. Toki paused in hauling on the well rope and looked at her with concern, but Kaya waved it aside. The other woman laughed and brought up the bucket, pouring the contents into the pails she intended to carry back to Kaya's house for her. Kaya was touched by the woman's generosity—that was one thing that certainly hadn't changed with her assuming Lady Eboshi's mantle as the leader of Iron Town. Kaya regretted making the former forge woman go through the effort, especially as she hauled the heavy pole supporting the pails onto her shoulders and began walking away, but Toki wouldn't hear of Kaya lifting a finger to do any heavy labor.
"That kid of yours is going to make a great forge worker, as strong as she is," she joked. Kaya shook her head and smiled wryly. Toki never lost her sense of humor, either. She couldn't imagine how hard it must be for her, widowed and shouldering enormous-seeming responsibility, but Toki was still grinning and making jokes as always. Kaya was grateful for her friendship, especially during the long days when her husband was away, employed as a guard for the wagon trains exporting Iron Town's precious metals. She hoped Kenshin returned soon; the baby would come any day now.
Kaya's house, one of those heavily damaged during the war to free Iron Town from Lord Asano's army of soldiers and mercenaries, had been rebuilt not far from the town square. Kenshin had helped to construct it and many others over the past months. Iron Town was slowly returning to normal. Slowly, but as surely as spring always followed the long winter.
Before leaving the square, Kaya turned to look at the tall stone plinth that had been erected in the center of the square. An obelisk of dark gray granite, it was inscribed all around with the names of the many who gave their lives defending Iron Town against her invaders—a constant reminder of everything her people had lost, and kept. It was there that Lady Eboshi's body had burned on the funeral altar while every man, woman, and child in Iron Town attended the rites. All but one.
Not everything could return to the way it was.
Whenever she thought about him, Kaya's gaze stole away to the forest that lay just beyond Iron Town's gates. Though she hadn't seen her older brother since he descended, unspeaking, from Eboshi's house, an unconscious San in his arms, and departed through the main gate into the forest, he was still close in her thoughts. She often wondered what had become of him and San and their child. But more often she wondered if she would ever see him again, if he would ever again reenter the world of men.
He was a hero in Iron Town, but no one was quite sure what to make of him. People told strange stories, some heard from the defeated, retreating mercenaries, of a monstrous god who could shake the earth and call forth demons to fight for him. Some said that had gone into the forest and died to be with his Princess. Still others claimed he was really the Great Forest Spirit reborn and reigning with her over their kingdom. Kaya didn't know what to believe, but nothing altered the fact that to her, he would always be her brother.
The baby kicked again beneath her wide silk obi, and Kaya sighed, picking up her uneven, hobbling pace to catch up to Toki, passing by the shops and houses, some rebuilt, some still little but skeletal frames—bastions of progress that would never fail—all under the watchful and ever-present peaks of the towering forge.