Author's Note: A mild typo from last chapter. It's "Kourin" not "Kyourin". Previous chapter has been changed already. Just for your info, if you read it awhile back. Also, the village "Kouya" is now referred to as "Koya" if you have noticed, else it might be a bit misleading. There is a place in Japan mentioned here. It does not exist and is not meant to.
The smell of people was clearly unnerving Keiki, Shunrin noted. It was not that Keiki didn't descend to the lower world time to time; it was just that unlike the Twelve Kingdoms, people in Hourai packed closer and lived in greater density. She too struggled with herself as a housewife sat beside her carrying a basket laden with fish and meat. The housewife casted the trio an odd look, sliding from Shunrin to Suzu and then to Youhei. Suzu shifted awkwardly in her black outfit that Shunrin called 'office wear'. They clung to her body and made movement confiding. Shunrin and Youhei had explained that they had police that caught children for skipping school, but Suzu could not fathom why anyone would even bother. When she said that, they just sighed in exasperation. She went along with it regardless seeing both of them were from this place's era.
There was the distinct winter chill as they stepped out of the train. Winter was approaching. When Yoko had been lost in Hourai, it had been almost Autumn, now Yoko has been missing for over two months and counting. From the news that Renrin brought them every night, it sounded like either En or Kei was tilting fast. The ministers were betting on En, seeing how in spite of the short absence of the Queen, the work done by the ministers were still following the way. Even Tai took 4 years to develop the state it was, remarked one of the lower ministers.
Shunrin was not too sure about the ministers of Kei, but she could trust Yoko that she was doing something out of a necessity rather than a whim. Yoko had been the first non-kirin she saw when she entered the Twelve Kingdoms. Dressed in long robes, Yoko's piercing green eyes and fiery red hair stuck her as scary. She was a person of few words however so Shunrin had heard that Yoko was not always so sullen. Despite her quiet demeanor, Yoko's brutal honesty felt the most trustable in the strange world she had just arrived in and even though Yoko was not a fellow Kirin, she found Yoko more easily relatable than the other kirins. When Shunrin told her so, a ghost of a smile surfaced on Yoko's face. A memory she would never understand, one of the Nyosen told her when Shunrin had asked. Shunrin had later realized that when they stood side by side, their red hair could make people mistaken them for siblings; which she developed a secret wish that Yoko was actually her sister despite it being even possible, after all Kirins came from the hand of God itself.
Ignoring the 'Keep out' sign, they strode over broken fences, through unkempt gardens and occasionally in and out of houses, passing rows and rows of houses. The paint was peeling off many of them; bits of rubbish littered the gardens.
"What's with these houses?" Youhei finally asked, breaking the gloomy silence that had fallen on the four of them since dawn broke.
"They're-" Shunrin paused, searching her memory of her old history classes. Though Youhei was now eighteen, he had been lost in the Twelve kingdoms for over four years and had not have studied them since they were only taught of this in the graduating classes of sixteens and seventeens. "Part of the old Yogata. A few decades ago, an outbreak began here and spread through Yogata. Citizens that could be evacuated were moved to the outer areas. The government quarantined these Citizens in these houses. Thousands died and in fear of infection, many areas were burnt. These houses survived it, but since it was within the Inner Yogata, no one ever wanted to move back. The government barricaded this place and called it Old Yogata." She explained as they rounded the bend.
Suddenly, Keiki uncharacteristically broke into a run. Without even bothering to exchange looks, the trio hurried after him. Their heavy steps echoed through the empty houses, their breaths were ragged by the time they caught up with Keiki who had stopped. In front of them were none other that Yoko and Kei's Daishiba, Kantai.
It was night by the time they arrived back at Koya. Ranjoku, flanked by Rikushun was waiting for them at the gate. Their faces were solemn as they watched Sekki and Shoukei arrive.
"Lord Sekki, Lady Shoukei," he said, affirming their presences. "I assume that you have found what you were looking for?" He asked though it did not seem much of a question but rather a statement.
Shoukei and Sekki glanced at each other. Shiozo's story had been quite sufficient to give them an idea of what might have happened, but his last reply was intriguing. Feeling much like chess pieces on an unseen board, Shoukei asked, "It was quite satisfactory. This sage 'Keishi' seems to have played a larger part of history that we knew." Rikushun flinched horribly at her name.
Ranjoku nodded agreeably. Unlike Rikushun, Ranjoku had not reacted to Keishi's name. "We have more questions to ask you," Sekki said. They took another turn into another hallway. This turquoise building was laid out more complex than they had originally thought possible. Ranjoku slid the key into the lock and pushed the door. Slowly, it swung open, opening itself to a room filled with nothing but books. Stacks of book piled onto the floor and onto the table. The only thing that did not seem to have books on it was the bed and the lone cushioned chair in the middle of the room. There was no other indication of whom might have stayed in this room. Ranjoku strode in, weaving his way around the books to the lone chair. Rikushun stayed outside the door, his head bent like some do when in face of royalty.
"Is there-" Sekki began, sweeping his eyes across the room. Shoukei and Sekki entered the room. Struggling their way across the room, Sekki noticed the repeated pattern on the turquoise carpet. He stopped, pushing the piles of books from the carpet. Shoukei looked quizzically at him then at the ground. There was nothing special on the carpet, at least not to her. The pattern was later of the embellishment of Royal Kei and En entwined together. The imagery of the Kirins embracing the symbol, a larger and smaller kirin, Layer over layer to bring about a bigger pattern, hiding the true pattern to except those observant.
"Lord Sekki, Lady Shoukei," Ranjoku patiently called out. He had freed another two chairs from their burdens and sat comfortably in one.
"I'm starting to get tired of this mystery," Shoukei remarked. She heaved herself heavily down onto the chair. "What's the point of this anyway? I got the rough idea of what's going on now, but how is this going to help?"
"There is a story you should listen to," Ranjoku said. "It all started when-"
Their last conversation.
None of this is real, Yoko. We are all chess pieces. Shouyu laughed hysterically. Kenroushin-kun are all fakes. Every hundreds of years, another is born to replace the fallen. Just like Gyokuyo. No one remembers the previous. Always remembering that they are the first. He laughs even harder.
Shouryu! Shouryu! Don't leave me!
She ran after his vanishing figure. He laughs crazily. His laughter is the only remaining sound. It echoes endlessly. She covers her ears, but they are of no use.
She struggled. It was a dream; that she knew. The fires rose around her, screaming, urging her. The heat that radiated from the ground seemed to melt her soles as the coals crunched beneath her steps. She walked in search for something: a destination, one that she didn't know of yet. Buildings rose around her. They cried at her pleading, occasionally cursing her.
They would cry.
Burn, burn, burn.
She spun around; the Suiguutou had appeared in her hand- unsheathed. It glimmered in anticipation. The fires now seemed to crackle at her, they laughed at her.
They crowed. Rising in height, swirling around her, they laughed.
'NO!' She screamed, swinging her sword at the fire. The fire slid into too, and the image shifted. A man lay dead at her feet, her sword dripping in blood. Who was he? What happened?
"Yoko!" she heard someone call and turned around. The man with the long brown ponytail, ran towards the bleeding man and flipped him over. It was Kantai. She laughed manically. Kantai had died at her hands. She had killed Kantai. She could feel the adrenaline coursing through her body. Her fingers tingled with excitement. She felt alive again. Who cares who died? This fading feeling of being alive, she wanted it.
They should all be burnt.
She laughs. With the sound of Shouryu's laughter merging into one, she wakes with the sound of laughter on her lips.