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Chapter 1: Salvation by Koran

Chapter 1: Salvation by Koran


page 6

Crackle!!

Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble!!

Just as the thunder and lightning crashed to the earth, oceans of rain began to pour from the heavens. The trees lining the riverbank moaned in agony as the fierce winds shook them.

The river grew visibly deeper by the second. Staring at this river was Ri Hojun, his decorated cloak rippling in the wind, and the metal staff in his hand clanging its rings.

"It’s practically the same…" Hojun thought to himself.

Three years ago, I called you out to this river and I harshly accused you. That same day, the violent raging storm that invaded my heart also drowned my home…

Today is exactly the same…

page 7

"Why….Why did you betray me?!"

But you never answered my question.

Even when I pinned you down, grabbed your right arm, and thrust my dagger in your chest, you said nothing to me.

"Give her…Giver her back to me!"

The river surged up along with my voice.

We lost our footing in the mud-slide, and you were swept into the river.

But when that happened, I had no intention of letting go of your arm.

"….Hojun. Help…me…"

From amidst the whirling waters, you begged for my help.

I did not want to let go of your hand. No matter what horrible things you might have done to me…

But even so, I… I just…

page 8

As Hojun gazed up at the heavens with his lone, right eye, he whispered faintly.

"I’m going…to join you now…"

Then Hojun spoke the name of his late-friend.

"Hikoh…"

Three years had passed now since that great flood had destroyed his home. The single question that began all of the sorrow and regret of Ri Hogun’s last three years was asked once again to his friend.

"This time for sure, please give me an answer. Tell me why you betrayed me…"

Clasping both hands in front of his chest, Hojun flung his body into the muddy, rushing waters of the river.

In the instants that followed, the faces of everyone in that village whom he had loved flashed before him. His father, whom he respected greatly, his gentle mother, his playful and loving little sister… The smiles of the other three members of his family. His ex-friend Hikoh’s manly smile and quiet eyes.

And then…

The face of the one he loved from his heart… No, he was certain that she had loved him, too. The beautiful face of his childhood sweetheart…

page 9

"Oh, dear…" a scratchy voice spoke out from behind a sort of large mirror which reflected the scene. "So it’s finally come, has it? How much longer must I wait for you to grow up into a man?…"

The round shoulders sank with a sudden breath.

"Ko…Ko…ran…?!"

His brain perked up at the sound of that name.

"Koran… Koran…"

The voice calling the name was faint, but clearly distinguishable.

"Koran! Koraaaan!!"

The voice was getting louder and louder. It belonged to a man.

"Okaaaaay. I’m coming, already."

page 10

That was a young, girlish voice, followed by the sound of quickly pounding footsteps.

Hojun squinted his eyes open. "Where am I…?"

In spite of the shock his body had taken from the near-death experience, Hojun was curious of his surroundings.

"I thought I threw myself into the river… Am I dead, then? Or else…"

Hojun tried to pull himself into a sitting position.

"…Ungh!…" Needles of pain shot through his body. As his body sank back into bed, he heard the sound of someone frantically running up to him.

"What do you think you’re doing?! You need to rest!!"

The cute, yet strong face of a young teen-aged girl glared down at Hojun.

"You’ve broken your right arm and left leg. In addition, you’re severely bruised all over. You’re lucky to be alive!"

"Am I… Am I… Am I alive…then?…"

The face that had been glaring at Hojun melted into a smile. "Yes. You’re not in Heaven or Hell, but in Seisen Village!"

[*"Seisen" translates along the lines of "sacred river"]

page 11

"Seisen Village…"

Once again, Hojun glanced at his surroundings. The room he was in was very cozy-looking. From his bedside window, he could see the beautiful white flowers of a pear tree outside. If he listened carefully, he could hear the faint murmur of a river, and the chirping of birds. If the girl had not told him otherwise, he would have assumed such a peaceful, quiet place like this really was Heaven.

"Ahhhh, but I’m sure glad you’re awake."

Hojun asked the ever-smiling girl above him, "Doesn’t my face…make you feel scared or disgusted…?"

The girl cocked her head as if to say "why should it?"

"Dad says you must have lost your left eye years ago. Ah, my father’s a doctor, by the way. I’m sure he’ll be able to heal your current wounds!"

Hojun stared at the innocent girl in disbelief. Up until now, no one had ever seen his scarred face this close up before…

"Oh, and there’s something else. We washed your large cloth-thingie."

"…That’s my ‘kesa’ cloak, you know…"

"Huh? Is that so… And we also have your staff that goes *ching-a-ling*…"

page 12

"…That’s called a ‘shakujou’, you know…"

"…Oh, then, are you a monk from Kutoh? Wow, what temple to you live at? For soooooome reason, I find your fashion and hairstyle really cuuuuute."

Hojun answered the girl with the innocent smile, "I’m homeless… I’m just a lone traveler…"

Hojun bit his lip and swallowed. He remembered the last of his travels might have brought him to Kutoh. His body and spirit were so withered, he had not been paying much attention to where he was.

"Yesterday really was a horrible storm, wasn’t it. The say Shouryuu ["rising dragon"] River almost flooded. But we were lucky it flowed into Hijiri ["sacred"] River instead. If it hadn’t done that, you really would be in Heaven right now."

Hojun was shocked to hear that the river he had thrown himself into was the Shouryuu River. The river that had flowed from Kutoh into Konan and had stolen everything precious away from Hojun had been the Shouryuu River.

"You really gave us a scare. We didn’t expect to see a person floating along in Hijiri River. We forgot about the danger and dove in after you, but we had a pretty hard time of it."

page 13

Growing tired of doing all the talking herself, the girl gave her patient a disapproving frown.

"Say, I don’t really care what about; can’t you just say something?" Then, her eyes flashed with mischief. "Give a word to the goddess Koran, who saved your life!"

"………Koran…?!" So the name he had heard earlier belonged to this girl. Hojun once again quietly whispered Koran’s name to himself. I wonder how many times I’ve screamed that name inside my heart these past three years… Along with my best friend’s name, "Hikoh"…

Why?

Why did you betray me?

Both of you, why did you betray me?…

"…Why are you…Koran…you…know?"

"Huhhhh?"

Hojun turned his gaze away from the girl called "Koran", and spoke. "Why did you rescue me? Why didn’t you let me die?…"

"….Huh…?"

page 14

Koran’s body stiffened. "You…you didn’t…"

From his inability to even kill himself, Hojun felt even more self-loathing. A new depression began to shoot through his body. Hojun faced the wall and spoke bluntly.

"Three years ago, I had a fiancee with the same name as yours…"

"The same…name as me? Koran…was her name…?"

"When she agreed to marry me, first thing, I told my best friend, Hikoh about it. He congratulated me and seemed happy for me… The three of us had been friends ever since we were young…"

"And…then what…?"

"… It happened a few days after that… Koran and Hikoh betrayed me… Koran told me she couldn’t be my wife, and that she would marry Hikoh…instead. My girl’s sudden change of heart, and my best friend’s betrayal… I thought I must have been some idiot for trusting them all that time…you know…"

Koran sat in silence.

"Why?! I lost control of my senses, and attacked Hikoh with a dagger. But before I could hear his answer, both of them drowned in the flood…"

The scene from three years ago appeared vividly in Hojun’s mind.

"…No, it would be more proper to say that I killed Hikoh… If only I hadn’t let go of his hand…"

page 15

Koran spoke in a low voice. "So, is that scar on your face from…?"

Hojun’s eye had been destroyed and his grip on his friend had loosened when a large, splintery log swam up and jabbed his eye, but this made no difference to him. No matter how horrid the pain, he should have kept his grasp on Hikoh’s hand. It was his fault Hikoh had died.

"Because there was hate and jealousy for him in my heart…it happened…And to make matters worse… I was the one and only survivor of that flood… That was just too much for me to handle…"

He noticed suddenly that Koran was biting her lip and staring at the ground.

"…So now you understand, don't you? I was supposed to go where I belonged; in Hell…" As he said this, Hojun beheld the heavenly scenery outside the window. Having said this much, even this young, carefree girl must have come to understand even a little bit of his sufferings.

For a while, there was silence between the two.

"…If you really want to die that badly…"

page 16

Korin whispered. "Then give your life to me…"

With a gasp, Hojun looked at Koran.

"Now listen to my story. Yesterday, the man I love was forced to join Kutoh’s army for a three year contract. He probably won’t ever come back. They’ll probably just throw him into some meaningless battle and he’ll die! So if you really want to die that badly, then go take his place!"

Koran rose to her feet and shook her fist at him. "…Stop begging for sympathy!"

Her eyes, wide open, were trembling with tears. "You have no right to talk about such selfish things!"

There was no response from Hojun…

"And besides… And besides, you spoke badly of another girl with my name… I won’t have that."

One tear rolled down her cheek. "What about…Koran? You aren’t giving her the benefit of the doubt at all…!"

page 17

[Picture]

page 18

Suddenly, the third presence in the room made himself known.

"Now, now. You mustn’t scream so hatefully in front of an invalid, dear," said a middle-aged man with a mustache as he peered at Hojun from above. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am this girl’s father, and I am called Oh Kenmin. I apologize deeply for my daughter’s inappropriate behavior. It must be a result of the stress from finding you."

Hojun avoided his gaze guiltily.

"Well then, shall we have a look at you?" Koran’s father said as he began the examination. "You’ll probably need a couple months rest. I am also the chief of this village, so please stay as long as you’d like."

"…Daddy, you see, this man was…"

Ignoring Koran’s words, Kenmin continued. "My wife died five years ago, and the fifteen year old boy I had been raising as my own just left yesterday for Kutoh’s army. I live here alone with my daughter now, so don’t feel as though you are imposing."

Hearing her father’s kind words, Koran looked away with conflicting emotions. Hojun thought to himself that the boy of which Kenmin spoke must be Koran’s sweetheart.

page 19

"Well then, may I ask your name?"

"….I am called Rin Hojun…"

"You are from the Konan Kingdom, aren’t you."

"Excuse me?" Hojun looked up at Oh Kenmin in surprise.

"And I believe you have yet another, very distinguished name." The chief of Sacred River Village pointed at Hojun’s right knee. "You are one of Suzaku’s seven warriors from the south…"

"Whaaaat?!" The previously sulking Koran raised her voice in shock and rushed to look at his knee. "He’s right! You have a…"bowl" symbol on your knee. Wowwww! So you’re Suzaku’s Sir Bowl?"

[The character for "bowl" is Chichiri’s symbol with a little dash in the center]

Koran’s father admonished her. "The dash in the middle of his symbol is a wound, Koran. Don’t you remember my stories of the seven warriors?…"

With a nod, Koran place her hand to her forehead, as if she was trying to remember. "Let’s see here… The gods of the four kingdoms, Konan, Kutoh, Sairoh, and Hokkan, are Suzaku, Seiryuu, Byakko, and Genbu…. And each god has a priestess with seven warriors to protect her. Suzaku has, um… Tamahome, Hotohori, Tasuki, Nuriko, Mitsukake, Chiriko…and then, there’s… That’s right. Chichiri!"

page 20

Hojun’s face turned red at the sight of Koran’s pointing finger.

"…But…but I… I don't deserve to be Suzaku’s warrior…"

"You speak nonsense, young man. It’s not a matter of deserving, but a matter of destiny," Kenmin told Hojun teasingly. "I am very proud of my daughter who saved the life of one of Suzaku’s seven. I pray that you recover quickly and make your way back to Konan as soon as possible."

However, Hojun was scarcely able to nod in agreement.

Two months had now passed since then…

The fishing line that ran beneath the river’s surface was tugged.

"Ah! You’ve got one! You’ve got one!" Koran raised her voice. Hojun quickly reeled in the line. "Wow! It’s huge! Let’s cook it up for…" Before Koran could finish her sentence, the fish was taken off the line and tossed back into the river.

"Sheeesh! If you’re not gonna eat it, then why fish in the first place? What a strange hobby."

page 21

Hojun explained his position to the angry girl. "This is all I need to do when I fish. It relaxes me, you know…"

As Hojun threw his line once more into the river, Koran shrugged her shoulders. On this gentle afternoon, the sunlight reflected off the clear river’s surface and sparkled.

"This river truly is sacred…you know…"

Hojun was once again taken by the calm beauty of this "sacred village" of which he had not known before. Upstream, just on the other side of the mountains was the Kutoh Kingdom. And just a bit downstream lay the Konan Kingdom. Created by the raging waters of the Rising Dragon River, this Sacred River remained calm in the center of the village.

"Hojun, have you heard of the Legend of Rising Dragon?"

"If I remember correctly, it says that lovers who see a dragon rise from that river will live happily ever after…"

"So, since this Sacred River flows out from Rising Dragon River, it’ll still work, right? I’d sure like to see the dragon," Koran said as she gazed longingly at the flowing waters.

That beautiful, peaceful village in which they sat was currently under Kutoh’s control. The villagers even suspected there might have been some deceit involved in the acquisition. However, wanting to avoid any violent confrontations, the villagers resigned themselves to continuing their peaceful lifestyle.

page 22

Koran faced Hojun. "How’s your leg?"

"Better. I’m sure I’m mostly healed by now, you know…"

"Oh, really? I’m glad to hear that, you know!" Koran said, imitating Hojun’s speech-habit as she stood up. "It’s been about two months since then, huh."

"I really am grateful for all your help, you know…"

"Say…Hojun," Koran began. "I’ve been wanting to ask you this for a while, but… Your former-fiancee named Koran…what was she like?"

Hojun answered, his eyes glued on his fishing line, "She was exactly the opposite of you."

"Hey, do you mean to say…" Koran nudged her face close to Hojun’s and said, "She was terribly beautiful, effeminate, and polite?"

"Correct."

"Sheeeesh! Hojun, you idiot!"

page 23

After sulking for a while with her back to Hojun, Koran finally spoke, "Why don’t you try having faith in her?"

Her companion was silent.

"She must have had a good reason for what she did. I don’t think she would have cheated on you. I don’t think she’s the kind of girl who would be so fickle."

"…I don’t need to discuss this anymore."

"You do SO need to! Why can’t you trust the girl you loved the most?!"

Trust…? Just what part about her is this girl saying I was supposed to trust…? Hojun thought to himself wearily. I walked in on Koran and Hikoh passionately embracing barely days after I proposed to her… Who is she to think she can understand how I feel??…

"If I were in your shoes, I’d still give my lover a chance, no matter what!" Koran told Hojun in an almost angry voice.

"Do you mean your male-friend with the three-year contract?" Hojun whispered.

Hojun had heard of Koran’s lover the day she had rescued him. The very day he had decided to take his own life, this other young man was sent off to die against his will…

page 24

However, Koran had never spoken of this man since. From what Hojun gathered, he used to live with Kenmin, but his name never even came up at meals.

Did Koran’s father forbid them to get involved? That must be it…

"…I’ll admit that three years can be very long…" Koran’s voice, which had been getting smaller and smaller suddenly burst out. "But I still trust he’ll come back to me!!"

Koran leaned against the big pear tree nearby. "We made a promise. When he is released from Kutoh’s army…that we’ll meet under this tree and get married…"

Hojun was startled over hearing "married" come from Koran’s mouth. But by the time the three years are up, she will have matured into a seventeen-year-old woman. Thinking of this Koran at age 17, and remembering the Koran he had once loved who lost her life at age 17, Hojun’s chest tightened.

Pushing these feelings down inside of him, Hojun softly smiled at the girl. "I hope you find happiness with him…For my sake…"

"…Hojun."

"My life was saved by a girl with the same name as her… that must have been fate… Koran must have…wanted me to keep living…"

page 25

Koran’s concerned face slowly melted into a smile. "So…everything’s okay then… Hojun."

"Yes."

Hojun stood to his feet and gently placed a hand on Koran’s cheek. This girl had cared for him until he was able to get out of bed, and had tactfully and quietly stayed by his side, watching over him for so long.

"I really appreciate all you’ve done for me, you know… Koran."

Koran hastily wiped her moist eyes and returned to her former mood. "Okaaay! Let’s have a ‘Hojun Got Well Party’ tonight! Oops, I guess I’d better get some food fast. Arrrrgh, why’d you have to let that fish go, you idiot!"

As Koran ran off home, her cheeks bright red, Hojun squinted his good eye and watched her.


With the Sacred River at the center, there were pear, apricot, and peach trees… this village was decorated with the sweetness of fruit and peace.

Ri Hojun took one last look at this scenery, as if to implant it in his mind, and turned away.



CHAPTER 2: The wandering traveler

When he awakened, Hojun stood alone in complete darkness.

On his left, right, front, or back…nothing could be seen. It was a horrid darkness that seemed as though it had been painted over and over with ink.

"You are Ri Hojun, are you not?"

A voice sounded from somewhere. The voice sounded both like a baby crying and a young woman whispering. It also sounded of an angry man, and even of the murmur of an old man.

Hojun, not knowing where to turn, nodded.

"What are you doing now?" The multicolored voiced asked Hojun.

"I am…traveling…"

page 27

"A journey of enlightenment by a regretful monk?"

Hojun looked down, unable to answer.

"I understand just how horrible the flood three years ago was for you."

At the mention of his past, Hojun frantically searched for the source of the voice, but he could not even see his own fingers in the vast darkness.

You were born into a family of government officials, fell in love with your beautiful childhood friend, then proposed to her. But the days that followed crumbled all of your happiness to pieces. Three years later, you wore a monk’s cloak and wandered the earth in search of salvation. But in the end, you had lost your very will to live…

"Whom do you hate? Your fickle fiancee? Your friend who stole her from you? Or else…" the voice pressed.

"I hate myself…"

"…Oh?"

"I should have drowned in that flood along with Hikoh… I don’t think it’s fair that I was the only one who survived…you know…"

page 28

Hojun’s voice trembled in anger.

The mysterious voice continued. "I understand completely. I understand exactly how you felt when you watched your friend take his final breath in the water.

Hojun’s breathing grew in intensity. His clenched fists began to drip with sweat. "…It was…almost like I was in another dimension…when I saw the scene from above the river…"

"That is because you had placed a barrier around your body to protect it."

Hojun was silent.

"That is when you noticed, was it not? That is when you noticed you were one of Suzaku’s seven warriors."

Hojun swallowed hard. I’ll admit, I did notice. I saw the red mark of Suzaku shining on my right knee through the rips in my clothes.

"But then…why?! Why couldn’t I use my powers then to save Hikoh…!" Hojun screamed into the darkness. "If I had the power to save him, then why didn’t I!!"

The voice remained silent for a while.

page 29

"Saving your own life was the best you could do at the time. Your powers were still as young as a baby."

The genderless, ageless voice let out a soft, husky chuckle. "However, while three years have passed since then, you remain still a baby."

Hojun bit his lips. Ever since his display of powers on the day of the flood, Hojun had avoided all use of such powers. …However, in times when he least expected it, his powers would flare up and do things beyond his control.

"I also know why you are not able to control your own powers at will," the voice said, as if letting out a sigh. "It is because you are greatly ashamed that your powers were unable to save the life of your friend and that it was you who was saved."

All Hojun could do was nod dumbly as the voice read everything in his heart.

"Was being born a warrior of Suzaku too much responsibility for you…?"

page 30

Hojun lowered his already hanging head even more.

"However, I will not permit you to retreat. Those born as Suzaku’s warriors must fulfill their destinies."

The voice quietly asked Hojun, "You made a resolution today, did you not?"

Hojun suddenly raised his head. "I decided…that I would take my second, no third chance at life to fulfill my duties as Suzaku’s warrior…"

"And you hold true to this resolution?"

Hojun nodded slowly.

"So what do you plan on doing?"

Having been asked this, Hojun shrank back a little. "…I thought…I’d start by traveling some more…"

At Hojun’s meek response, the voice let out a nasal laugh. "Listen well. Where you are now is inside your mind."

page 31

"Inside my mind…?"

"So, which way will you go? Forward? Backward? Right or left?…"

Hojun shook his head weakly. The ground surrounding Hojun’s feet was filled with unimaginable darkness and terror.

"Up until now, I had not once seen you in here. Perhaps that was better for you," the voice told Hojun profoundly.

"Now, I will ask once again."

Hojun closed his eye. I see. The inside of my mind was so dark… and during these past years, I’ve just been wandering aimlessly through it.

But not any longer. I’ve finally realized what I must do.

"Are you ready to take on your destiny and responsibilities as one of Suzaku’s seven warriors?"

I longed for light. For the light that would illuminate my path.

I’m ready…! Hojun yelled fiercely in his mind.

Then listen well to what I tell you…

32

The voice echoed inside Hojun’s mind. You must become stronger.

Hojun dropped his head slightly.

Chichiri, the warrior of Suzaku, holds extreme magical powers. Having a strong will and command of ones psyche is imperative. You will not be able to control your magic with half-hearted feelings.

Hojun nodded deeply.

Your training will take a long time, and will be very difficult. Can you stand up to it?

…Yes, I can.

Now promise me you will not forget those words.

As the voice faded out into the darkness, a stream of light was illuminated by Hojun’s feet.

Hojun opened his eye with a start.

The roof of the house at which he had been staying for the past two months entered his vision. With a glance out the window, it was apparent from the bold moon that morning was still a few hours away.

33

He got out of the bed, straightened it, then, taking his hat and staff, he softly left the room. Even before he had heard the oracle-like vivid command in his dream, he had intended on doing this. First, Hojun made his way to the master bedroom, placed his hands together and bowed. Then, he made his way to Koran’s room.

Inside his mind, Hojun told the girl, "Don’t worry. Since you saved my life, I will use it for good from now on…" Smiling faintly, Hojun quietly opened the door to the house.


Supper that night had been so merry and gay that Koran had been unable to sleep. As she turned in her bed, Hojun’s vow entered her mind.

"Don’t worry. Since you saved my life, I will use it for good from now on…"

"What…? Hojun…?!" Waking up with a start, she frantically light her room. But no one was there. Then, the sound of the front door closing was heard, and she rushed to her window.

…Hojun…

34

She saw the faint outline of Ri Hojun quietly making his way away from their property.

No…why?! Why do you have to leave without even saying goodbye?!

Although she had intended to scream this out to him, her voice would not emerge, and her mouth merely opened and closed rapidly.

Maybe Hojun was trying to leave secretly on purpose? Koran considered the possibility. Maybe the reason I was having so much trouble sleeping was because I felt it…

Koran panicked and tried to run out of the house after him, but this time, her body would not move.

Hojun, you idiot! How dare you leave without saying something to the one who saved your life! Why, youuuu impudent, cursed ass of a monk!!

As Koran’s mouth opened and closed furiously, Hojun’s silhouette grew smaller and smaller.

…Hojun?!

A sort of fog was enveloping the monk and seemed to be carrying him away. After his body disappeared, Koran suddenly regained control of her body.

"Huh…? Ho…Ho!…Ho!…Ho!… Holy craaaaap!!…Er, I mean, Hojunnnnn!!! Don’t goooo!!"

She shrieked out with her newly found voice and set off to run after him, but this time, her father held her back.

35

"But, Daddy! Hojun is…"

Kenmin faced his daughter and shook his head quietly. "We mustn’t disturb him. … He must have set off on a new journey…"

Fully aware that Hojun had been wandering lonely and aimlessly in sorrow and despair, Kenmin had kept a close watch over the young man those past two months.

Bringing his eyebrows close together, he whispered, "I can only hope that this village between Kutoh and Konan can remain peaceful…" Because if Konan and Kutoh ever become enemies, the time might come when I will have to fight against Hojun…

"…Hojun…" Koran’s eyes filled with tears as she suddenly realized that the man who she had rescued, nursed, and lived with carelessly for the past two months was gone. Her father gave her drooping shoulders a squeeze. Realizing that his daughter must have been lonely for a companion, Kenmin’s heart was also filled with sorrow.

36

When Hojun made his way out of the door of the Oh house, what entered his vision was not the beautiful front garden to which he had grown accustomed.

"What is this…?"

Hojun put his strength into his right hand that was holding his staff. What lay before him was large boulders, sprawled randomly across the barren land. He swiftly turned around, but naturally, did not see any sign of Koran or her house. The area in which he stood was lit so vaguely, it was difficult to tell what time of day it was. However, compared to the dark, frightening dream which he had just seen, these gloomy rocks seemed welcoming. Placing his hands together in thanks to the owner of the mysterious voice in his dream, Hojun set forth.


He walked on endlessly for a day or so… time never seemed to pass. Hojun merely gazed up at what seemed to be the top of the mountain, and continued to climb.

37

Suddenly, he felt the presence of another human. More than a presence, rather…it was a crying voice.

Hojun strained his ears. He could hear it clearly. The whimpering voice of a child. Hojun started off towards the source of the voice.

"Where is my…home? Where is…my home…?" Repeating these words over and over again, the young girl’s voice grew louder and louder.

"Where are you?!" Hojun called out.

The little voice responded. "Who? Whooo are you?" A little person leapt out from under the shadow of a boulder about ten meters away. At the sight of Hojun, the little girl jerked her head up. The girl wore an exotic outfit with her belly showing, and carried a flowing cloth in her arms that made her look almost like a nymph. What was a little girl like this doing there? But Hojun had not the time to ponder this.

CRACK, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK!

Noticing the boulder above the girl’s head starting to fall made Hojun’s heart jump to his throat. Is this…part of the training…?

38 and 39

[picture]

40

If so, how can I rescue her? What kind of powers can I use? Should I place a barrier around her just as I did with myself years ago? What should I do?

Hojun asked himself these questions in a mere second. However…

CRACK, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK!!

As the boulder started to fall just meters above the girl’s head, Hojun could only think of one thing. "Get down!!" he commanded and flung himself over the girl’s body.


"You are…heavy…"

After a while, he could hear the tiny voice coming from underneath him. Returning to his senses with a gasp, Hojun frantically got off of the girl. Glancing down, he saw the boulder that had been intended for them was headed off on another course down the cliff.

41

"…Phew. That was close, you know…" Hojun lifted the girl off the ground and stood her to her feet. Once again, he peered curiously at her strange appearance.

"Little girl…what is your name?"

"What about you? What about you?" the girl pried back with wide eyes.

"…I am called ‘Hojun’, you know…"

"Hojun, Hojun, Hojun… hmmmm."

"Well, what is your name, little girl? Tell me where you live, you know? What are you doing here, you know? If you don’t tell me, I won’t know what to do with you, you know."

The girl seemed frightened by Hojun’s sudden stream of questions and by something else as well. With a gasp, Hojun quickly looked away from her. From having lived for two months with Koran and Kenmin, and the understanding villagers of Sacred River Village, Hojun had completely forgotten about the grotesque scar on his eye.

Imagine just how frightening my face would be to a little, lost child… I probably won’t be able to get her to talk to me.

42

Then, Hojun noticed there was something hanging from the girl’s neck. It was a toy-mask whose face resembled that of a fox. Its eyes were turned into two crescent-shaped closed eyes, and its mouth was turned up in a merry grin.

"I’ll let you have this…" As if reading Hojun’s mind, the girl removed the mask from her neck and held it out to him.

Hojun silently took the mask and put it on. Maybe with this happy mask covering my face, the girl will cooperate with me Hojun thought to himself. The girl smiled in approval.

"My name is Nyan-Nyan!" Even though she had not been asked, she voluntarily gave her name.

"I see. That’s a very cute name, you know!" Hojun answered back playfully.

"It looks good! That mask looks good on you, Hojun!" Saying this cheerfully, the girl excitedly grabbed his hand and started to shuffle along with him in tow. As the nymph-like girl held his hand and walked merrily through the boulders, Hojun began to feel like he had become a new man.

I am free from all pain and sadness now.

43

That’s right. Because my face has no scars from the past. Instead, it smiles happily, you know.

"Ahahahaha!"

"Dahahahaha!"

For a while, the two laughed and frolicked through the rocks. Darting ahead of Hojun, Nyan-Nyan spoke up.

"Come on! Come on!" she said as she grabbed his hand.

"But where are we going?"

"To Nyan-Nyan’s house. We’ll go look for my house."

"…So you are lost, you know…" But how in the world did she become lost in such a place?… Hojun puzzled as the girl dragged him along. Hojun raised a hand to his mask, and suddenly, his feet stopped.

"…What is this…?!" The mask had become Hojun’s face. The eyes, nose, and mouth… All elements of the mask had melded themselves with his real face. What is the meaning of this?… =44=

For a moment, he was confused and nervous, but the next instant, Hojun accepted it. That’s right. This time for sure…I might be able to leave my past behind. I might be able to be reborn…

Nyan-Nyan, standing by his side, pointed at his knee and said, "What’s that? What’s thaaaat?"

Nyan-Nyan smiled curiously and the red symbol shining on Hojun’s knee through the tear in his pants he had just received from protecting her.

"You mean this? …This is," taking a little breath, Hojun changed his voice into a very high-pitched and bright tone. "This is the red mark of Suzaku, showing that someday I will become a very strong and powerful man, you know!"

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