Chapter 22 - Dead End
Ashitaka, San, and Dumai were formally discharged from Hideyoshi's services with the agreement that they would always come back if something were to happen. Ashitaka actually hoped the peace formed with Hideyoshi as ruler would last as the three left to travel north.
The summer heat finally began to die down as colder weather crept up over the land. Before they departed, the travelers were given provisions, a horse, and clothing to keep warm. Dumai was well aware of how cold it could get up North, and he wanted to be well when he would reunite with his family.
The trio marched further and further north, passing through acres of hilly terrain. Not much was spoken during the journey besides suggestions for stopping locations or to warn someone else about the shaky Earth. Sometimes they would pass other travelers, heading in varying directions. Some were war refugees, merchants, or small families looking to start a new life somewhere else.
During the journey, Ashitaka's arm began to hurt again. The curse began to spread even farther across his face, leaving a hideous, purple stain that was very uncomfortable to look at. Both Dumai and San refrained from saying anything to upset Ashitaka, as they both knew what could happen if he were to get angry. When his arm gave him incredible pain, he would have no choice but to stop for a while and try to shake it off.
"I'm sorry for slowing you both down..." He said as he rubbed some cold water over the purple skin.
"Hey, don't worry about it." Dumai said. "I've been away from my family for years. It won't hurt to wait a little while longer."
Dumai sat down on a nearby rock. "Besides, do you know where we are? Sendai Prefecture. At least, that's what one of the travelers called it when we passed by them before. We're almost there; just a little longer."
Indeed, they were almost at the end of Honshu and into Hokkaido. Ashitaka decided that he had to bear the pain and get to that Phoenix as soon as possible. It was the only way he could live in peace. Quickly, the warrior got back up and straddled Yakul. "Shall we continue?" Ashitaka said before setting off again.
The terrain became steeper as the weather became colder. The group found places to hide when it rained, often sticking together to battle the cold feeling that was setting in. But, when the rain began to turn to snow, the three found it even more difficult to stay warm.
Dumai noticed a small cave along an alcove and suggested they stayed there until the snow blew over. It was coming down hard now, with fierce winds blowing the icy material right into their faces.
A small fire provided the only bit of light in the small, damp cave. San sat herself right besides Ashitaka, laying her head on his shoulder. Mori wrapped behind the two as Dumai snuggled right up against the horse and Yakul. A rabbit was roasting besides the fire; Ashitaka had shot the creature with his new bow a few hours prior.
It wasn't much, but it was enough to quell their hunger for now. Mori ran off briefly to find food to catch as Ashitaka fed Yakul and the horse some seeds he had stored.
"Is it always this cold up here?" Ashitaka asked Dumai, who was busy finding a comfortable position.
"This is probably one of the colder days," Dumai responded. "I'm used to it, though. It actually feels refreshing to be in familiar weather. However, I think we did pick a bad time to be journeying up there."
"We don't have a choice," Ashitaka said. He knew that the curse would not wait for spring, so he had to act now. After feeling a chill down his spine, he realized that the cold was too much for anyone to waste energy talking. They decided to go right off to sleep as soon as possible.
In the middle of the night, Ashitaka woke up to something moving outside. San was in his arms, sleeping soundly, as he slowly got up so as not to disturb her. Pulling out his blade, Ashitaka slowly walked out into the snowy night. It was coming down much harder and faster than earlier, making it hard for Ashitaka to make out anything that would be there. His right arm pulsed for a moment as he looked left and right - nothing seemed to be wrong.
Just then, he saw two faint yellow lights in the distance. Ashitaka squinted his eyes to try to make it out, but it was too far away. As he did so, he noticed the lights getting larger and larger - whatever it was, it was moving. And coming right towards him. Before he could react, the lights were right on top of him - a pair of eyes. The warrior was knocked back into the cave, causing the shelter to shake slightly.
Picking himself back up, Ashitaka finally saw what it was: some cross between a bat and a demon. The yellow eyes were strong beams now, piercing right into Ashitaka's soul. He was frozen in place, unable to move. The beast let out a howling screech, immediately waking up everyone in the cave. Ashitaka did everything he could to try and activate his demon powers, but it was as if the beast in front of him were stopping all of his energy.
The demon lifted a clawed hand, ready to strike down on Ashitaka, before being knocked back by Dumai. Another screech saw Dumai freeze up in place, letting Ashitaka free in the process. Immediately, Ashitaka's arm turned yellow as long tendrils shot out towards the demon. Wrapping around the demon's wrist, Ashitaka brought it down hard onto the ground. "San, get Dumai and get out of here!" He yelled. San obeyed and went to get Dumai. Laying him over Mori, She then went on to get all of the animals out of the cave as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, The demon clawed at the tendrils, struggling to be free of Ashitaka's grip. The claws did hurt the warrior, but he kept a steady hand as he dragged the demon along the ground. Finally, the demon stabbed right into Ashitaka, causing the grip to loosen. Ashitaka stumbled backwards and hit the wall, causing a cloud of ice to form in the air. Ashitaka saw this and came up with an idea: he took his sword and slashed at all of the snowy parts of the cave, causing dust and snow to fly up and get into the demon's eyes. The distraction lasted long enough for Ashitaka to get a good stab at those yellow eyes. Screeching in pain, the demon covered its face and retreated to another corner of the cave.
"Got you right where I want you..." Ashitaka said slyly as he studied the demon's movements. Now blind, the demon's pointy ears perked up as he stood still. Ashitaka slowly crept towards the demon, being careful not to make a sound. His right boot stepped on a pile of snow, making a loud crunching sound. The demon responded to this and immediately swiped in that direction. Ashitaka held his blade up and managed to slice the demon along its arm. The beast screeched again and dived forward, tackling Ashitaka to the ground.
Before Ashitaka could respond, the demon took its good claw and stuck it right into Ashitaka's chest. Each talon pierced Ashitaka's armorless body in various locations on his chest. The pain was excruciating as Ashitaka let out a scream. Upon hearing this, the demon began to close his fingers together, causing the talons to begin to tear through Ashitaka's flesh as they began to converge.
Ashitaka was in too much pain to think. He had never felt anything like this before - not even from the pain of his arm. As he screamed, he began to lose feeling in his right arm due to how intense the pain in his chest was. However, the skin turned yellow. Ashitaka noticed this long enough to force his tendrils to form, but he couldn't get anything to happen. The cold air was not helping as his entire body began to feel numb.
Suddenly, the demon was knocked to the side. Dumai had come back, holding his blade in his hands, as he took a swipe at the demon right on its head. The talons forcibly left Ashitaka's body, giving him even more pain, but it was nothing compared to what the demon was about to do.
As for the demon, Dumai's blow proved to be somewhat effective as a giant slash mark appeared on the side of the demon's head. Dumai could see that the demon was in some sort of pain as a claw went up to touch the wound. The demon screamed back as tendrils formed along the cut. They thrashed about disgustingly as the demon took a moment to try and recuperate.
Dumai went right for Ashitaka. "Stay with me!" He yelled, holding Ashitaka up. Ashitaka could hear Dumai's words, but his vision was fuzzy. He couldn't feel his body except for the cool feeling across his chest. Before long, Ashitaka felt himself pass out.
"Ashitaka!" Dumai yelled as he held an unconsious Ashitaka. The demon screeched again, promting Dumai to let Ashitaka go and pick up his blade. Holding two swords, Dumai faced the demon. Dumai couldn't help but stare at the tendrils thrashing on one side of the demon's face. The thing was ugly enough, but now Dumai couldn't stand the sight.
What he noticed, however, was the the demon was blinded. The two stood there for a minute; the demon looked as if it were trying to find out where Dumai was. The soldier looked to his own blade and threw it to the opposite side of the cave. The demon immediately jumped towards that direction, causing its claws to sink into the cave wall.
Dumai took this chance and went into action. He took Ashitaka's blade and rammed it as hard as he could into the demon's back, piercing a wing as he did so. The demon screamed again, trying to shake Dumai off. Tendrils shot out of the wound, gripping one of Dumai's arms. It felt hot on his arm, causing Dumai to let go of the blade and fall to the ground. The tendrils grabbed the sword and pulled it out of the demon's back who took it and tossed it away.
Now weaponless, Dumai held his breath as the demon loomed over him. It was ugly: a demonic, purple face, bat-like wings, seemingly muscular and scaly. If it weren't blinded, both Dumai and Ashitaka would have surely been killed by now. The soldier didn't know what to do in this situation: he had never fought anything that wasn't a human before. He knew Ashitaka had some sort of demon curse, but he never knew how dangerous demons actually were. All he could think about was seeing his little daughter's face again.
The demon stood there, snarling and waiting. It took a step forward and bent down to pick Dumai up by the ankle. Dumai was hoisted up in the air as if he were a fish. The claws dug into his skin, causing him more pain than he had ever experienced before. Hanging upside- down, Dumai stared right into the face of the demon, who prepared to give the finishing blow. Dumai had finished struggling at this point, ready to accept the hand fate had dealt him.
San took Mori, Yakul, and Dumai's horse far enough away from the cave. After recovering, Dumai had run off to save Ashitaka, leaving San behind with the animals.
The wolf princess grew tired of waiting and decided to go and see what was happening. "Stay here," She said to Mori. Her brother obeyed and sat down. San then darted off, pulling her twin blades out as she hoped that the others were okay.
When she reached the mouth of the cave, San dropped her blades in shock. In front of her was Dumai, being held upside-down by his ankle. Three talons protruded from his backside, with drops of blood falling onto the icy cave floor. On the other side lay Ashitaka in his own pool of blood, with several wounds on his chest seeping blood.
San channeled her sadness to rage as she quickly picked her blades up and ran towards the demon, who threw Dumai aside in anticipation of the new footsteps. San ducked and slid right under the demon before getting up and slashing at the monster's back. The demon screeched in pain again as it turned around to swipe at San. She ducked again and slashed across the demon's front, causing it to stagger backwards. All San wanted to do was kill the thing that hurt her friends. If they ended up dead, San would make sure the demon never leaves the cave alive. She noticed the demon's blindness and circled around the beast, who thrashed about to no avail. Several stabs here and there left the demon with a bunch of slash marks, each causing tendrils to appear and squirm. San noticed they became smaller and smaller as more slash marks were made: the demon used those to repair itself, but too many wounds were beginning to pile up.
Aiming for the legs, San furiously slashed and danced around the demon, who began to grow fatigued. Finally, the demon fell to the ground. San dropped her blades and looked around the cave, finding Ashitaka's sword. She quickly went to grab it and return to the hurt demon's location. The beast screeched and growled, but San wasn't moved. She lifted the sword above her head and brought it down on the demon's neck. It made a different screech this time, as if it were really hurt by the attack. San lifted the blade again, dropping it on the neck. Again and again, up and down.
Before long, the demon stopped moving. The tendrils died down as the life poured out of the demon. However, San continued her assault. With each strike she let out a grunt of frustration. Blood splashed up with each strike, getting over the blade and the cave, as well as on San's clothing and skin.
It was a good ten minutes before San finally stopped, collapsing on the ground. Her body was convulsing as she sobbed, aware of everythign that had transpired in that cave. She first crawled slowly over to Dumai, who was closest. He was not breathing. Blood left his wounds as the soldier lay dead in front of her.
"No..." San choked up, realizing that this man would never see his family again. Slowly, she then made her way over to Ashitaka.
Ashitaka was not breathing either. San began to shake even more violently as she tried to touch the man. Her fingers trembled as her voice shook.
"Ashitka...n...Ashitaka." San ran a hand over his wounds, seeing how each talon dug through his flesh.
Finally, the wolf princess burst into complete tears as she lowered her head to rest on the lifeless body in front of her. She heard something approach the cave from behind, but she was too emotional to turn around. She just clung to Ashitaka's body tightly, crying her eyes out.
"San..." Mori's voice was not enough to break her away from the sudden reality that tore through their journey. They were just fine a few hours ago. They were going to fight the demon and cure Ashitaka's curse. They were going to reunite Dumai with his wife and daughter. Ashitaka and San were going to be together forever.
Now, all of that was gone. San didn't know what to do. She didn't know where she was, or how to get back home. She didn't even know if she wanted to return there. How would she face the villagers, who would definitely inquire as to what happened to Ashitaka. How could she face Kaya?
"You need to be with Ashitaka to see the quest through to the end." Kaya had said to San. "If something happens to him, who'll be there to protect him?"
"I'm...sorry." San said, trying to control herself. She repeated those words over and over again, clinging to Ashitaka even tighter now.
Before long, she looked up again to stare into Ashitaka's face. She saw his eyes, blank and empty. The eyes that had used to be so full of energy were now dull. She saw the outline where his curse had spread, the red skin clinging to his face and right arm.
...Wait, red skin?
San knew that Ashitaka's skin was purple when the curse was inactive, and black when it was. She had also seen yellow for his tendrils, and green for when he would stop time. But red? Red was...
Placing a hand on the right side of Ashitaka's face, she immediately felt the warmth of his skin. It felt as if he were still alive - cold, but alive. San's eyes teared up again as she lowered her face towards Ashitaka's. She didn't know what came over herself, but she kissed the warrior right there. As she did, she felt something move in her hand.
Ashitaka's right arm began to glow an even brighter shade of red. As she looked on, San saw some sort of portal open right up in the middle of the cave. It looked similar to the one Ashitaka had used to get San out of the spirit realm before, when she was abducted by a demon.
Without any words, San picked up Ashitaka's sword and her own daggers, and stepped right into the portal.