The charging Ranganese had many bounds of snow to cover, but they were moving fast.
With the roar of the tornado gone, Uncle Takashi could make his voice heard again. “Hold the line!”
Of the twelve men who had formed the line, two were nowhere to be seen—blown away in the high winds. Of those who had managed to stay anchored in the snow, only some were getting up.
“We hold the line!” Uncle Takashi bellowed again and those who could still stand repeated his call across the pass.
“We hold the line!” The voices echoing back were fewer than before.
Uncle Takashi seemed only vaguely annoyed by the thinning of his forces. “You three,” he addressed Tou-sama, Yukino Sensei, and Mamoru. “Spread out further. Cover for those we’ve lost.”
Four, Mamoru thought, his eyes scanning the line. We’ve lost four fighters. There were only eight of them now—the three Matsudas, Yukino Sensei and two of his cousins, and the two most powerful of the Mizumakis. How could eight men defend this pass against an entire army?
As if in response to Mamoru’s thought, Uncle Takashi raised his arms. With them rose a swell of nyama so powerful it shook Mamoru’s body. Throwing his hands forward, Uncle Takashi sent his nyama down the mountain in single massive wave. Pushed by his power, the snow rose to form an army of spikes, jutting upward from the ground toward the oncoming army of men.
If Tou-sama was a paragon of Matsuda precision, Uncle Takashi was the embodiment of Matsuda power. His was the only nyama Mamoru had ever known to echo the crash and pull of the ocean itself.
Uncle Takashi’s spikes met the fonyakalu’s front lines in an explosion of ice and flesh. It was like the watching the white crest of a breaking wave—only this wave crested red. Blood burst from the front line as fonyakalu were impaled or cut into pieces on the spikes.
But some of them—most of them—evaded, taking to the air. At first, Mamoru didn’t understand how, seeing as Uncle Takashi’s spikes covered nearly every koyin of flat ground.
“They can fly?” He blurted out in a mixture of wonder and horror.
“No,” Yukino Sensei said, his intelligent eyes trained on the fonyakalu’s movements. “They’re keeping themselves aloft by throwing their fonya against the ground.”
As the soldiers drew closer, Mamoru could see that he was right. As each fonyaka started to fall toward the spikes, he threw a palm strike or a thrusting kick at the ground, releasing a concentrated burst of wind that propelled him back into the air.
“They’re like leaves…” Mamoru said. A flurry of yellow leaves, buffeted by breeze, never quite touching the ground.
“Well, they’ve come in the wrong season. Autumn dies in the teeth of winter.” Uncle Takashi nodded to his brother. “Let’s put some more red in all that yellow.”
As a fonyaka toward the front of the group started to descend between two of Uncle Takashi’s spikes, a third suddenly burst from the ground, impaling him through the stomach. In the next moment, three more fonyakalu tried to touch down, only to be lanced on spikes so clear and perfectly straight they could only be the product of Tou-sama’s jiya.
This was how the brothers usually worked together, Uncle Takashi leading with his decisive and overwhelming power, Tou-sama following, filling in the gaps with his signature precision.
The brothers fell into rhythm with one another, Uncle Takashi erecting walls of spikes that caught the clumsier fonyakalu on their way down, Tou-sama sending spears up in the openings when more sure-footed fonyakalu tried to exploit them.
Yukino Sensei took a different approach, forming and firing spears that took the enemy soldiers out of the air. Some of the other jijakalu tried to do the same, but the problem with firing at fonyaka targets was that they moved, using air currents to sharply change direction in midair. Yukino Sensei might be landing hits, but without his power and impeccable control, the Mizumakis weren’t having as much luck.
And no matter how many yellow clad soldiers they killed, the army kept advancing. For every soldier that fell to their ice, there was another right behind him. The closest of the fonyakalu were now mere bounds away—close enough to return fire.
The first blast of wind knocked one of the Mizumaki fighters off his feet. Mamoru was scanning the advancing fonyakalu, trying to figure out where the attack had come from when he suddenly found himself on his back in the snow.
It was disorienting to be hit by something he could neither see nor hear coming. If oncoming fonya made an impression in the atmosphere, it was too difficult for Mamoru to distinguish between that and the confusing swirl of air all around him. He wasn’t trained to perceive it.
“Back on your feet!” Uncle Takashi’s voice roared. “Don’t let up!”
Rolling onto his hands and knees, Mamoru started to get to his feet, an ice spear at the ready—only to be knocked down again by another blast of wind, this one stronger than the first.
And Mamoru remembered Kaa-chan’s warning: Fonyakalu are most dangerous at mid-range—two to three bounds. That’s where their attacks land with the most impact.
The closest fonyakalu were still several bounds away. Once they got closer, their invisible wind attacks would do more than just knock men down. They would be fatal.
In a stroke of genius, someone—Tou-sama judging by the quiet effectiveness of the maneuver—lifted the snow beneath their feet, creating a veil of snow particles. The jiya-made fog wasn’t so thick as to obscure the view of the oncoming soldiers. Just the opposite: it brought blessed clarity.
The next time a fonyaka fired off an attack, it billowed through the snow particles, creating a visible break in the veil. Seeing the attack coming, the targeted Mizumaki evaded and returned fire, spearing the fonyaka through the chest.
Mamoru dodged a blast of air, rallying his jiya for a counterattack. But no sooner had he formed the spear than he found himself dodging another dangerous burst of wind. Even with the snow veil lending insight into the movements of the air, it was too much. The fonyakalu were piling into attacking distance too fast.
“Don’t let up!” Uncle Takashi commanded again.
But with so many fonyakalu coming at them, flying over the spikes, dodging between spears, climbing over ice formations, it was impossible to attack and defend at the same time.
Recognizing this, Uncle Takashi changed his orders. “Shield!” he called down the line. “Shield and hold your positions!”
Mamoru raised the snow before him and formed a thick wall just in time. Two separate attacks slammed into the other side. The ice cracked and Mamoru rushed to mend it. Bracing his hands against the shield, he gathered a layer of softer snow on the outside, hoping to cushion the impact of the next attack. But defending against wind was evidently different from defending against blades or blunt objects. The next attack blasted the snow away, nearly shattering the ice beneath. Only the stubborn force of Mamoru’s jiya kept the shield from breaking into a thousand pieces.
Ice shields cracked and shattered all down the line, but Yukino Sensei spent his days teaching and training on the Kumono ledge, one of the windiest place on the mountain. He knew how to shape a shield that stood strong before the gale.
Mamoru felt his teacher’s jiya rise before him, reshaping his insufficient shield into a thick wedge, shaped to divert even the strongest wind.
“Good thinking, Dai,” Uncle Takashi said. Combining their jiya, they erected wedged shields all the way down the line, protecting their fellows.
“Stay behind the barrier!” Takashi bellowed. “Brace!”
“Brace!” the men’s voices echoed his down the line. “Brace!”
It wasn’t until a hand closed on the back of his kimono and Yukino Sensei shouted, “Brace, Mamoru-kun!” that Mamoru realized he had just been standing there.
Yukino Sensei pushed him into the barrier and Mamoru put his hands against it, doing his best to add his jiya to the strength of the ice. The wind attacks had gotten more powerful, but with eight strong jijakalu supporting Yukino Sensei’s well-designed barrier, their defense held.
It wasn’t until Mamoru tried to speak that he realized that he was shaking. “N-now what?” he asked.
“We hold here and wait for the enemy,” Uncle Takashi said.
“So, we’re just going to let them come?” Mamoru asked blankly. “We’re just going to let them past the shields?”
“In close,” Uncle Takashi said with a nod. His hand had moved to the blue-wrapped handle of his wakizashi, Namimaru. “Where we want them.”
The fonyakalu were almost on top of them now. Mamoru could hear the foreign whoosh of their fonya and the quick crunch of their feet on the frozen ground. Taking a slow breath, he gripped the handle of his own sword. The feel of the weapon in his fingers usually leant him strength, made him calm—
The first yellow-clad soldier came flying over the barrier.
And Mamoru froze.
Moving was never something Mamoru had trouble doing. He was always the first to react, the first to jump into action. But suddenly, it was as if he wasn’t Mamoru at all. Just a shell of himself, watching a muscular Ranganese soldier descend before him and charge.
It was only out of reflex that his arm jerked his sword out of its sheath in a slashing motion, causing the fonyaka to jump back. If he had been focused and ready, Mamoru would have easily been able to deliver a lethal cut. But he wasn’t ready. The tip of his sword only grazed the front of the fonyaka’s uniform.
As his enemy stumbled, Mamoru’s conditioned hands flipped his sword over into position for an overhanded cut, but his mind couldn’t finish the attack. He couldn’t swing.
The moment of hesitation was all the fonyaka needed to throw a kick into Mamoru’s solar plexus. The breath jolted from his body. His back hit Yukino Sensei’s barrier. His head cracked backward into the ice, spilling stars across his vision.
Blinking, tried to get into a defensive stance, but it was too late. The fonyaka was already lining up an attack, which at this distance, would certainly kill him. His head spinning, his jiya in disarray, he wouldn’t be able to defend or counterattack in time.
The fonyaka raised a hand.
Then his body jerked. The curved blade of Nagimaru stuck through his chest. In another flash, the sword’s shorter companion, Namimaru, cut the man’s head from his shoulders.
The katana was yanked free and the two pieces of fonyaka thudded to the ground to reveal Uncle Takashi, splattered with blood, a sword in each hand, looking furious.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?”
“S-sorry, Uncle! I—”
“If you’re not going to fight properly then get out of the way!” Hooking the handle of Nagimaru behind Mamoru’s head, Uncle Takashi pulled him away from the barrier and threw him back, just as a new group of fonyakalu came vaulting over the wall.
Unlike the typical, right-handed Matsuda, Uncle Takashi was completely ambidextrous. With his katana, Nagimaru, in his right hand and his wakizashi, Namimaru, in his left, he cleaved through all five fonyakalu in a single spin.
As he stumbled to avoid the sudden spray of blood, Mamoru found a firm hand on his arm.
“Be my second line,” Yukino Sensei said, his voice as kind and calm as ever.
“Stand there,” Yukino Sensei said, pushing him further back from the barrier. “Watch my back. Clean up if any fonyakalu get past me or my cousins.”
“Y-yes, Sensei,” Mamoru managed, but Yukino was already turning to face the fonyakalu, his katana drawn.
Yukino Sensei’s sword was Takenagi, the Bamboo Cutter, an elegant weapon with a handle wrapped in sage green and a guard of silver bamboo leaves. It was the oldest of the Kotetsu-forged weapons still in use, passed down the Yukino line through several generations, but Mamoru couldn’t imagine it suiting any wielder better than Yukino Dai. Shorter than Tou-sama’s Kyougetsu and slighter than Uncle Takashi’s Nagimaru, Takenagi was built for speed—like its master.
In his prime, Yukino Sensei had been one of the fastest swordsmen ever recorded. Now, at twice Mamoru’s age, his speed was still unmatched among the fighters of Takayubi. His art was not in complex technique or flashy tricks; it was perfect execution of the basics, at three times the speed of the average swordsman.
It was strange how natural Yukino Sensei looked as Takenagi sliced through the first unlucky fonyaka, painting the snow with his blood. Mamoru had sparred and drilled with this man for so many waatinu that he knew his movements like the steps of a dance. It was strange to watch those comfortingly familiar steps and strokes, separate heads from bodies, spill organs on the ground, and sling arcs of blood across the whiteness.
In his light gray kimono and hakama, Yukino Sensei blended in with the snow. Many fonyakalu who came in his direction probably fell to his blade without ever seeing him. He moved efficiently on his quick feet, positioning himself so that no more than two fonyaka ever reached him at once, turning a many-on-one fight into many one-on-one fights. And one-on-one, there were few living fighters who could contend with Yukino Dai. Mamoru noted with awe that it never took the swordmaster more than a single cut to fell a soldier. No swing was wasted.
The idea that any enemy would get past the Yukinos was laughable.
Despite their numbers, the fonyakalu were fighting at a deadly disadvantage. Unable to penetrate Yukino Sensei’s wind-repellant barrier, they had to jump over it, landing in a dangerous position—jijakalu directly before them, an unbreakable wall of ice at their backs. Between the barrier and the swordsmen, the Ranganese didn’t have the two-bounds of distance necessary to throw their wind attacks at full power, and they weren’t prepared for a close-range fight with men of Takayubi.
Every Ranganese soldier carried what appeared to be a standard issue sword and a shorter dagger, but their steel was inferior. Their weapons broke so easily against the jijakalu’s Kotetsu steel that they may as well have been fighting with sticks.
Some of them might have been able to propel themselves further up the mountain and attack the jijakalu from behind, but there was a reason Uncle Takashi had chosen this place to make a stand. The slope behind them was steep and slick with ice. Lacking jiya to give them a foothold, the few fonyakalu who tried to make the jump ended up sliding back into the danger zone, if Matsuda or Yukino ice didn’t jut from the ground to spear them first.
Dozens upon dozens of the gold-clad soldiers leaped into the death trap, and the bodies began to pile up.
While Yukino Sensei methodically took down his enemies one well-placed cut at a time, Uncle Takashi was savagely disposing of fonyakalu almost faster than they could come at him. He spun, snarling and smiling at the same time, one blade flashing after the other, as if trying to see how much blood they could fling across the mountainside.
When Nagimaru stuck in one fonyaka’s ribcage, Uncle Takashi simply let go of the weapon. The poor fonyaka who had darted in to take advantage of the break in momentum abruptly found himself skewered on the end of a Whispering Blade. Laughing, Uncle Takashi spun, cleaving another soldier in two with his ice blade and throwing Namimaru into the chest of another oncoming fonyaka. He came out of his spin with a Whispering Blade in each hand.
He was the only man in history ever to dual wield Whispering Blades. Apparently, his master, Matsuda Mizudori, had complained that they weren’t flawless manifestations of the technique—not as perfectly sharp as they would be if he focused his jiya on just one. But they seemed to serve their purpose well enough, slicing through fonyaka muscle and bone like it was nothing.
He roared and the energy in his voice was nothing like hatred. In fact, from the smile on his face, Mamoru almost would have thought that his uncle loved these Ranganese invaders—more than he loved his wife, his baby girl, or anything in the realm of Duna.
“Come on!” he roared, coming out of another bloody spin. “Is that all you’ve got, Ranga? Come on!”
But no more fonyakalu came vaulting over the wall to meet him.
Quite suddenly, everything had gone quiet.
The only sound was the heavy breathing of the Takayubi swordsmen and the horrible gurgling breaths of the few Ranganese still dying at their feet.
Mamoru’s eyes swept across the blood-stained snow, trying to estimate the number of Ranganese corpses. There were a lot—dozens upon dozens—but the soldiers who had charged up the mountain toward them had numbered in the hundreds. So why had they stopped coming?
“What are they doing?” one of the Mizumaki men asked.
“They’re shaken,” Yukino Sensei said. “They probably expected to roll over us with ease. If they’re smart, they’ll fall back to regroup and reconsider their strategy.” He turned to Uncle Takashi. “We might do same, Matsuda-dono.”
“Yes.” Uncle Takashi nodded, though his eyes were wild and faintly glazed, seeming to look through Yukino Sensei. His mind was still in the thrill of his own fighting. He was drenched in blood. “Yes, we might.” Blinking his way down from his fighter’s high, he swept some of the blood from his skin and clothes. Then he turned to his men. “We still have our eight, yes?”
“Yes, Matsuda-dono,” Yukino Sensei said.
One of the Mizumakis was wounded, but everyone was still on their feet.
“Mamoru-kun,” Uncle Takashi said with a glance at Mamoru’s clean blade. “You didn’t kill any fonyakalu.” His tone was more surprised than anything else.
“You didn’t leave me any,” Mamoru said weakly.
Uncle Takashi laughed—a loud, half-mad sound he usually only let out when he was drunk. But something far more intoxicating than alcohol had clearly filled his uncle’s veins. “We didn’t.” He laughed. “I suppose that was rude of us, na, Takeru-kun?”
Tou-sama glanced up at his brother, but didn’t dignify the joke with a response. He appeared to have taken out a ridiculous number of fonyakalu in his quiet, efficient way. Judging by the number of corpses at his feet, he had killed as many as his brother—yet he had somehow managed to do it without getting nearly so much blood on his person.
The fighting had changed Uncle Takashi and Yukino Sensei, making Uncle Takashi’s eyes turn wild and Yukino Sensei’s jiya hyper alert. But Tou-sama was virtually unchanged. Except for the smattering of red and the slightly accelerated rise and fall of his chest, he looked no different from his usual immaculate self. It was as if cutting through a small army didn’t affect him.
He sublimated his Whispering Blade, letting it turn to vapor, before crossing to where his Moon Spire protruded from a fallen fonyaka’s chest. Pulling it free, he swept it clean of blood, restoring the weapon’s celestial shine before returning it to its sheath.
The trouble with steel swords—even ones as good as these—was that they could only go through so many bodies before they started to lose their edge. A Whispering Blade bore no such drawbacks. It was customary for a Matsuda to switch to his Sasayaiba after felling eight men. Mamoru guessed that Nagimaru, Namimaru, and Kyougetsu had all been pushed far beyond the eight-body standard by now. There were so many bodies…
Mamoru had been here on the battlefield so many times in his dreams. But his dreams had not accounted for all the blood. He was accustomed to the feel of blood in all its consistencies, but he was unprepared for a world soaked in it. It felt heavy, sickening. This was Takayubi—a clear place, a clean place of crystal springs and pure white snow. It felt wrong with the heavy iron of so much red sinking into it. And for the first time in his life, Mamoru thought he understood why Grandfather Susumu had always called blood and its manipulation ‘dirty.’
“Resume your positions,” Uncle Takashi commanded.
Mamoru had to step over a severed arm and a mess of organs he couldn’t even identify when his uncle motioned him back to his place in the line.
The finawu said that jijakalu and fonyakalu had seethed together in the same primordial sea before Nagi’s spear touched the waters and stirred them into human form. Was this what they had all looked like at the dawn of the world? Before Nagi’s power made them human? A frothing mess of flesh in the seafoam? Absently, Mamoru found his thumb tracing the god-serpents that formed the guard of his sword. Nami. Nagi. Is this all we are?
“Mamoru-kun,” the voice brought him sharply out of his bloodstained trance. Yukino Sensei was looking at him in concern, but somehow the only thing Mamoru could focus on were the flecks of red spattered across his teacher’s pale face. “Our numbers are too few for me to keep protecting you. You are a strong enough fighter to face these men. You are. But you need to be ready—”
Yukino Sensei was interrupted by a crash that made them both jump. Shattered ice flew in all directions, and Mamoru watched his teacher’s eyes widen. Someone had broken through the barrier.
“But—” one of the other Yukinos started, “How—?”
But no sooner had he started to speak than there was a second crash. This blast of wind so powerful it not only blew apart a whole bound of the barrier, but knocked Mamoru back a few steps. Chunks of ice rained down around them. With the middle part of the barrier down, Mamoru and the others could once again see down the mountain.
Yukino Sensei had been right about the fonyakalu falling back to regroup. The yellow-clad soldiers, their numbers diminished considerably, had fallen back several bounds down the mountain—only now they were not alone. There were new soldiers with them. Soldiers in black.
With a prickle of apprehension, Mamoru remembered his mother’s words. Rank and file Ranganese troops wear yellow. Their elite fighters wear black. If you see yellow, you stand a chance. If you see black, I want you to run.
His hand tightened around his sword.
“The ones in black are supposed to be strong, right?” Uncle Takashi said with a hungry look in his eyes.
“They broke through Yukino-dono’s barrier,” one of Yukino cousins said as the newly reformed lines of Ranganese burst into a charge, “at such a distance. They’re monsters.”
“Their strategy has changed,” Yukino Sensei mused as the black-clad fonyakalu broke out ahead of their yellow-clad inferiors. “They’re sending their best fighters ahead to clear the way for the rest. Maybe this is about to become a fair fight.”
A fair fight? The black shapes moved so fast it was impossible to count them, but there were far more than eight of them.
Tou-sama and Yukino Sensei lifted a new veil of snow particles just in time. The fonyaka at the head of the group turned a flip in the air, spinning as Mamoru sometimes did to generate power, and threw an attack. If Mamoru had not seen the wind disturb the mist, he never would have been able to avoid it. As it was, he barely managed to spring clear before the wind slammed into the side of the mountain. Even the fonya coming off the fringe of the attack sent Mamoru tumbling. Rolling back onto his feet, he couldn’t help but wonder if the fonyaka knew—if he knew even at that distance—to aim for the weakest link.
Both Uncle Takashi and one of the Yukino cousins took shots at the lead fonyaka. The man in black deflected them both before a smaller ice bolt from Yukino Sensei struck him in the throat, and he went down.
As the black-clad soldiers moved closer, Yukino Sensei became a blur of movement, firing spears so fast Mamoru’s eyes could barely follow them. The lightning swordsman sacrificed the normal impressive size of his spears, substituting in smaller projectiles that he rained on the attackers like arrows. Even with his speed and reflexes, Mamoru couldn’t imagine charging into such an onslaught. Yet the men in black kept coming, dodging, deflecting, even taking bolts to the limbs and shoulders and pressing on anyway.
“What do you think, Takeru-kun?” Uncle Takashi glanced at his brother. “Shall we see if these monsters are strong enough to face a god?”
Tou-sama offered a nod. “I’m ready, Nii-sama.”
And Mamoru realized that he was about to witness one of the Matsuda family’s most advanced techniques in action.
Unlike that of the Whispering Blade, the theory behind this technique was no secret. It was a structure of interlocking ice pieces, joined at the seams by mortar of liquid water. When done correctly, it created a weapon with the fluidity of water and the strength of ice. There were many master jijakalu who could achieve the technique with a modest amount of water. An Ice Snake, it was called.
But when two fully realized Matsudas combined their power, the result was no snake; it was a dragon.
The full power of the Matsuda line surged into motion as Uncle Takashi took hold of what remained of Yukino Sensei’s barrier and turned it to water. Tou-sama followed, lacing his brother’s stream with ice, forming scales as hard as steel and spines as sharp as swords. Uncle Takashi’s fury intertwined with Tou-sama’s cold refinement to form a new creature, long enough to cover half the pass. It was the teeth of winter. It was poetry. It was God in water.
The Matsuda Dragon reared up to tower over its enemies, ice shard eyes flashing with power beyond simple jiya. It gnashed its teeth, and the sound of its several thousand scales shifting against one another made a hungry hiss.
The fonyakalu pulled up short.
These men could create tornadoes. But even they hesitated when faced with a god.
“Ji xu!” one of the black-clad fonyakalu said roughly, seemingly ordering the others forward. They hesitated. “Ji xu!”
One of them took a step—and the dragon struck.
In an instant, the fonyaka was gone, leaving only a bloody smear on the snow. Black shapes scattered into motion and the Matsuda Dragon surged after them. Uncle Takashi led the water, slinging the dragon’s coils with his trademark speed and unpredictability. Tou-sama followed, spinning the blades, keeping the ice of its scales hard and sharp.
A pair of fonyakalu dodged the dragon’s gnashing teeth, only to find themselves sliced apart by the rush of scales spinning along the outside of the serpentine body. The dragon’s head, while an impressive weapon, mainly served to distract from its equally dangerous coils. It was in the dragon’s coils that Uncle Takashi’s power spun fastest, lending deadly speed to Tou-sama’s razor-blade spines and scales. Mamoru resisted the urge to flinch as a fonyaka made the mistake of trying to spring off the body of the dragon with his feet. His legs weren’t so much cut up as they were disintegrated, turned to a fine spray of blood and bone fragments.
Multiple fonyakalu attacked the dragon. They were strong, and a few managed to blow apart pieces of its body, but this had little effect on the creature as a whole. The dragon’s true body was made of the unspoken understanding between Uncle Takashi and Tou-sama, which wasn’t something that could be destroyed with any amount of blunt force. Most of the attacks on the dragon backfired. Dispersed scales acted like shrapnel, cutting up unfortunate fonyakalu in range of the blasts.
Several fonyakalu tried to get past the dragon itself to attack the Matsuda brothers directly. But with the dragon’s central coils encircling its creators, this was impossible for even the fastest fighters.
It wasn’t enough to dodge the sporadically lashing body of the dragon. The whole thing was coated in ice scales that Tou-sama could shoot out to pierce the flesh of anyone within a significant range. The fonyakalu’s powerful long-range attacks had little effect. And any fonyaka who got close put himself at the mercy of the dragon’s projectile scales.
Mamoru realized that he had started backing away from the Matsuda Dragon as the hungry god feasted on its prey. It wasn’t because he feared it… Why should he fear the power of his own family? But what help could he be alongside such power?
Further down the line, Yukino Sensei had kept up his rain of spears, supported by his cousins, just managing to hold the lines of elite fonyakalu at bay. Mamoru had just taken up position alongside the Yukinos, readying his own spear, when he saw something that made him pause in confusion: a black shape so fast Mamoru might have mistaken it for the shadow of a diving hawk zig-zagged between the spears of ice. It took Mamoru a moment to realize that the shape was another fonyaka, and he wasn’t just weaving in between Yukino Sensei’s ice spears, he was springing off of them on the balls of his feet—simultaneously nudging them off course and using them as steps on his way up the mountain.
“So fast!” one of the Yukino cousins exclaimed in shock.
“Keep firing,” Yukino Sensei ordered his cousins, lowering his jiya and reaching for his sword.
The fonyaka may have been fast, but he was charging straight toward certain death—in range of Takenagi. In a flash of speed, he was on the swordmaster. Takenagi whipped out of its sheath and Yukino Sensei made his cut—quick and clean as lightning.
The fonyaka dodged.
Mamoru felt like his brain had short-circuited. It was barely possible for a quick-footed fighter to evade Yukino Sensei by staying out of his cutting range. It wasn’t possible for someone to dodge his blade in that close. It wasn’t possible.
Yet the fonyaka had done it, deftly tilting his body, avoiding the bamboo-splitting lightning strike of Yukino Sensei’s blade.
Takenagi sheared off the tip of his braid as his foot shot upward, slamming into Yukino Sensei’s chest. The swordmaster flew backwards, flipping over in the air to land on his feet.
Coming out of his kick, the fonyaka caught his braid as it whipped around. Seemingly unconcerned with the second Yukino swordsman advancing on him, he took a dinma to frown at the cut-off ends of his hair in annoyance. Without so much as a sidelong glance at his attacker, he dodged the swipe of the Yukino cousin’s blade and pulled out what Mamoru realized was a hair tie.
As Mamoru watched in disbelief, the fonyaka started tying off the end of his braid. Out of curiosity, Mamoru raised a spear and fired at him. The Ranganese soldier casually stepped out of the way without looking or taking his hands from his work. A moment later the Yukino cousin attacked again. The fonyaka ducked under his swing and spun a hooking kick into his jaw, knocking him backwards.
Straightening back up, he finished tying off his braid, tossed it over his shoulder, and turned to face Yukino Sensei.
“Ni qie le wo de tou fa.” He scowled and strode purposefully toward Yukino Sensei.
Mamoru and the Yukino cousin both started forward to stop him. With a flick of his wrist, the fonyaka released a wave of air pressure so strong, it knocked them both back. As he fell in the snow, Mamoru watched the inhumanly fast fonyaka break into a run. Reaching to the back of his belt, he drew a pair of twin daggers.
Yukino Sensei ran to meet him. White met black in a thunderclap of speed. Blades clanged and flashed. Even as Mamoru struggled to keep track of the movements, something was horribly apparent: Yukino Sensei was losing. Mamoru had never really thought about the fact that the lightning swordsman was past his prime, the peak of his physical ability behind him. Like most of the Ranganese soldiers, this fonyaka looked to be in his early twenties. It made a difference.
Yukino Sensei hit the ground, a dagger buried in his left shoulder. He had deflected the stab so that it missed his heart, but he was now on his back, bleeding, Takenagi pinned under his enemy’s boot. The fonyaka drew his other dagger back to deliver the finishing blow.
“No!” Mamoru scrambled forward, raising a hand to form an attack—
The Matsuda Dragon reared out of nowhere. Jaws of water and ice crashed together on the black-clad soldier, eating him whole.
Yukino Sensei let out his breath. “That was a bit dramatic, Matsuda-dono.”
“You’re welcome, Dai,” Uncle Takashi smiled as the dragon slithered back to coil around its masters.
“Nii-sama,” Tou-sama said suddenly, his voice urgent. “Something is not right.”
“What?” Uncle Takashi turned to his younger brother. “What do you—”
The dragon’s head exploded into bits of ice and water droplets.
Unbelievably, the fonyaka emerged, drenched in water and blood but still breathing, still alive.
Not only had this Ranganese soldier bested Yukino Sensei in single combat. He had destroyed the Matsuda Dragon—from the inside. The Matsuda brothers should have been able to reform their dragon with a thought, but the fonyaka had burst from its head directly between them, disrupting the intrapersonal flow of jiya that kept the creature intact.
The dragon’s teeth had opened cuts all over the fonyaka’s body, but apparently none deep enough to be lethal. His own teeth chattered for a moment before he shook himself and threw an attack. Uncle Takashi dodged the burst of wind and he and his brother simultaneously returned fire.
The fonyaka spun, and though it may have been impossible for a single theonite to make a tornado, this one could create a miniature whirlwind powerful enough to repel both Tou-sama’s and Uncle Takashi’s attacks at once. He was so fast!
But there was no time to stand and watch.
With the dragon gone and both Uncle Takashi and Tou-sama occupied with a single opponent, the rest of the Ranganese elite pressed forward, emboldened. Yukino Sensei stood, tearing the dagger from his shoulder, and rained spears on them, but they kept coming.
Five fighters advanced toward where Mamoru stood with his teacher. Mamoru readied his sword, but Yukino Sensei moved in front of him, releasing a hail of small close-range projectiles. The first elite took ice to the eye and went down, but the other four either deflected or dodged. In the scatter of movement, one managed a counterattack that hit Yukino Sensei in his right arm, knocking Takenagi from his hand.
But that didn’t stop the swordmaster. He might not have had a Whispering Blade to fall back on, but he was far from defenseless in an empty-handed fight. He slammed an elbow into the first fonyaka’s temple, knocking him unconscious, then kicked the man’s limp form into his nearest fellow, buying him a moment to retrieve his sword. He turned, Takenagi in hand, and engaged two of the others—but the fifth dodged past him, heading straight for Mamoru.
This fonyaka carried a sansetsukon—a three-segmented Ranganese staff—a weapon Mamoru had heard of but never seen in use. The bizarre weapon consisted of three short staffs, each about the length of a man’s forearm, connected end-to-end by a pair of chain joints.
Mamoru attacked first, hoping that his speed would be enough, but the fonyaka moved fast too, deftly parrying with one segment of the staff before swinging the entire weapon around like a whip. Unfolded to its full length, the sansetsukon covered too much distance for Mamoru to clear its range with a quick back-step. He dropped to a crouch, nearly flattening himself to the snow to avoid having his head taken off. The jointed staff whooshed over him, sending up a spray of snow.
As soon as it had passed, Mamoru lunged to his feet, pressing forward to take advantage of the moment of follow-through. Against a swordsman, it might have worked. But the sansetsukon wasn’t a rigid blade with a single trajectory to follow. As Mamoru aimed a stab at the fonyaka’s solar plexus, the sansetsukon curled around its wielder’s body, the end segment whipping around to slam into the top of his katana, knocking it off course yet again.
Before Mamoru could regain his balance for a second attack, the sansetsukon was unfurling toward him again in a hard snap, like a striking snake. He blocked, but he wasn’t used to countering a weapon with joints. When he intercepted the middle segment, the end segment swung around into the fonyaka’s free hand—and Mamoru realized he had played right into his enemy’s trap. The sansetsukon snake tightened around its prey, trapping his sword.
With a hard twist of his body, the fonyaka jerked the segments of his weapon in opposite directions, trying to snap Mamoru’s sword in two. But it took more than that to break a Kotetsu blade. The movement jolted Mamoru’s arm, nearly wrenching it from its socket, but his steel remained intact. When the fonyaka realized he wasn’t going to be able to break the sword, he seemed to settle for breaking the wielder.
With an eerily high-pitched growl, the fonyaka snapped his head forward, into Mamoru’s. Stars sprayed like blood across Mamoru’s vision, knocking the world off kilter. He had a hard head, but the fonyaka’s forehead had slammed into his temple.
Through his dizziness, Mamoru registered the stomping kick to his knee a split-dinma before it made contact. Unable to evade or counter, he turned his knee inward and let it buckle under the force. It put him in a horribly vulnerable position, down on one knee with his sword trapped, but at least the blow hadn’t shattered his kneecap.
Hoping for the best, he gripped his trapped sword with both hands and slammed it against its prison. And for the thousandth time in history, a Matsuda had a Kotetsu to thank for his life. Even though the strike was clumsy and poorly-aligned, his superior steel severed the chain joint of the fonyaka’s sansetsukon.
With his katana free, Mamoru spun in an attempt to cut the fonyaka’s legs out from under him, but the black-clad soldier was faster. Wielding the broken sansetsukon like a nunchaku, he slammed the weapon into Mamoru’s face.
When Mamoru’s back hit the ground, his blood was splattered across the snow beside him, along with at least one of his teeth. He couldn’t feel his mouth. Before he could rise, the fonyaka was on him again, pinning his sword arm down under a knee. Clinking metal slithered against his neck.
Dizzied, Mamoru didn’t register what was happening until the chain yanked tight and he couldn’t breathe. The sansetsukon was around his neck and the fonyaka was leaning his weight into it, strangling him. Panic flooded Mamoru, his body jerking.
His free hand scrabbled against the fonyaka, but the movements were frantic and haphazard. He knew that his only chance was to draw on the snow beneath him for a counterattack, but blood was pounding in his ears. The ice he formed spasmed and cracked before he could use it to strike.
The fonyaka leaned in harder and chuckled. Even through his dizziness, the sound made Mamoru blink, and a confusing thought flashed through his mind: Kaa-chan? But his mother wasn’t here. Why, then, did that laugh bring her to mind?
Mamoru blinked, and in a strange moment of clarity, his eyes finding the fonyaka’s. He had been so preoccupied by the color of the uniform and the strange weapon that he hadn’t actually looked into his opponent’s face. Now that he did, he found soft, delicate features. Beautiful, he thought before blackness swarmed to swallow him.
A silver blade flashed into view.
Takenagi cleaved through the black shape above Mamoru, going straight through the soldier’s spine. Abruptly freed from strangulation, Mamoru coughed, wheezed, and heaved ice-clear awareness back into his lungs. Yukino Sensei kicked the body off of his student and calmly watched it fall. Then something on his face changed. His expression turned to shock and then to horror, as he realized what Mamoru just had:
The fonyaka was a woman.
She had a sweet face, pretty even as the color drained from her cheeks and her eyes glazed over. She looked to be about thirty, no older than Yukino Sensei’s own wife, Hyori. And though her dark chuckle had sounded rather like Kaa-chan’s, she really did look like Hyori…
The hands on Takenagi shook.
“No…” Yukino Sensei said in a low voice. “I didn’t…”
Sensei, Mamoru tried to say, but he choked and had to turn onto his elbows, coughing flecks of blood into the snow.
“I didn’t…” Yukino Sensei whispered and Mamoru hadn’t known his teacher could look so lost. The swordmaster didn’t see another black-clad soldier advance in his periphery, didn’t sense the blast of wind.
Even if Mamoru had been able to get his lungs working, the warning would have come too late.
The air pressure slammed into Yukino Sensei with a horrifying crunch of bone. The force sent him flying several bounds to crash in a spray of snow further up the slope.
“No!” Mamoru scrambled to his feet.
He almost made the same mistake as his teacher, but he registered the fonyaka lining up an attack, just in time to jump back. The concentrated wind hit the slope where he had been a moment earlier, blasting it clear of snow and cracking the rock beneath.
“Ni hao kuai,” the Ranganese soldier said, barring his way.
A childish, panicked part of Mamoru couldn’t move past the crunching sound Yukino Sensei’s body had made when the attack hit him. Run! Kaa-chan’s voice said as his heart hammered. If you see black, I want you to run.
But this man stood between him and Yukino Sensei.
Mamoru let out another slow breath, cleared his mind of emotion, and sized up his opponent. This one was decidedly male, heavier set than the other elites Mamoru had seen. He didn’t carry any weapons, suggesting that he specialized in bare-handed attacks. With that bulky build, he couldn’t be a kicker. Mamoru guessed that his primary method of attack was the thrusting palm strike that created that concussive burst of air pressure.
As Mamoru watched, the fonyaka sank into his stance and drew a hand back to his ribs, gathering all his fonya to his core for an explosive release. Attacks with that much wind-up couldn’t be fired off in quick succession. The fonyaka had to plant deep in his stance to pool that much power, which left him immobile. In between those rock-shattering palm strikes, there was a window of opportunity… Mamoru just had to get close enough to take advantage of it.
It was a lot of distance to cross. But Mamoru was fast. He could do it.
Fonyakalu are most dangerous at mid-range—two to three bounds. Don’t linger in their mid-range striking zone.
Mamoru estimated the bounds between himself and the fonyaka with his eyes. He was standing just over three bounds away, just out of the optimal striking zone. The fonyaka was waiting for him to get closer.
Mamoru stepped into the striking zone.
The fonyaka attacked immediately. But the charge had been no more than bait, and Mamoru sprang left. Even the fringe of the attack was enough to knock him off his feet. Instead of wasting precious time trying to maintain his footing, Mamoru let the wind throw him forward and dropped into a forward roll. As he came out of his roll, his feet found purchase in the snow. Pushing off with legs and jiya, he burst forward with a single thought: close the distance. Close the distance as fast as possible.
The Ranganese man was already planted in his stance, winding his fonya up for a second palm heel strike. As his hand drew back, Mamoru shifted to a single-handed grip and extended his free hand, raising the snow at the man’s feet. He didn’t have enough control to make a spear while sprinting—but he could make ice.
A bound from the fonyaka, Mamoru darted right, narrowly avoiding the second attack. The wind threw him off balance again, but he didn’t let it break his focus. As his feet stumbled beneath him, he maintained his control over the snow, and turned it to ice around his enemy’s boots.
The ice hardened just as Mamoru came up beside the fonayaka. The man tried to turn and face him, but of course, with his boots frozen in place, he couldn’t. He started to swing an arm around to hit Mamoru—with a closed fist, an elbow his body, or some kind of wind attack, no one would ever know.
Mamoru made an upward cut. Steel hit flesh, crashed through bone, and the fonyaka’s arm flew from his body. Kaa-chan was right; it really was easy with a clean stroke. Mamoru followed his sword through its arc and made a second cut, slicing the immobilized fonyaka open under the ribs.
The man made a terrible choking sound, the air around him jerking as though itself in pain as he tried and failed to draw breath. Mamoru turned away from the sight, as he shed the blood from his katana and slid it back into its sheath.
He had just defeated his first serious enemy in single combat. His nameless sword had tasted its first kill. It should have been a proud moment. But Mamoru didn’t feel any pride—just the sickly hammering of his own heart—as he turned and raced up the slope toward Yukino Sensei.
He knew before he reached the body that it was too late. The swordmaster’s nyama was powerful and distinctive, yet there was no hint of it when Mamoru fell to his knees beside his teacher. Yukino Sensei lay on his side, Takenagi still resting loosely in his hands. The wind had hit him so hard that his skull had caved in. One of his eyes had come partway out of its socket.
Had Mamoru been a dignified warrior, worthy of his name, he might have taken a moment to pray. He might have considered that this man was the last of the true Yukino swordsmen, that his passing ended a line that stretched all the way back to Takayubi’s founding ancestors. He might have had some words of respect to ease his teacher’s way into the Laaxara.
Instead, he just shook, like a child, and said, “I’m sorry, Sensei,” his voice weak and ragged. “I’m so sorry.” He reached out and touched his master’s hands—the hands that had taught him how to hold a sword. “Don’t go.”
He didn’t register how lucky he was that no fonyaka attacked his unguarded back. He didn’t notice when the whirl of wind and clang of blades died down around him. He didn’t even move when a hand rested gently atop his head.
He should say something. He should face his uncle and commander. But he couldn’t muster any movement.
“Mamoru,” a voice said, and Mamoru blinked in surprise when he realized that it didn’t belong to his uncle, but his father. He didn’t think his Tou-sama had ever touched his head like that… affectionately. “It’s time to stand up.”
“Yes, sir,” Mamoru said mechanically, but couldn’t quite get his body to obey. His hands were frozen atop Yukino Sensei’s, unable to let go.
He expected his father to grow impatient and scold him, maybe yank him to his feet. Instead, Tou-sama’s voice was soft. “He died fighting, Mamoru. It’s what he was born to do.”
Mamoru bowed his head in a nod but found that he couldn’t lift it again.
“The fonyaka who did this…”
“I killed him,” Mamoru said numbly.
“Then you’ve done right by your teacher,” Tou-sama said with calm certainty that Mamoru wished he could share. “He can move on in peace. But our work is not finished. The Ranganese started bringing boats ashore as soon as the tornado cleared the beach. These waves of soldiers are not going to stop. The next will be on us in a siira.”
“He died protecting me.” Mamoru didn’t know why he needed his father to know. “If he hadn’t stopped to save me, he would still…”
“Then he’s left what remains of this fight to you,” Tou-sama said. “Will you disappoint him?”
Mamoru closed his eyes. Of course, Tou-sama was right. He dragged his hands from Yukino Sensei’s, fists clenching in the snow. What was he doing crying on his knees? Certainly, Yukino Sensei had taught him better than that. Certainly, he had expected better when he gave his life for his student…
“Stand up,” Tou-sama said once more.
This time, for Yukino Sensei, Mamoru obeyed.