The Sword of Kaigen – Part 12

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MISAKI

Misaki wasn’t surprised at the calm sense of purpose that had overtaken her. What did surprise her was that Setsuko seemed to have fallen into it with her. The stout fisherwoman moved around the house with energetic determination, barricading all the windows and doors against the growing wind. Since watching her husband head down the mountain, she hadn’t shed another tear. The tremors had left her breath and hands, replaced by wide-eyed, ferocious focus.

“Alright.” She pushed a table against the last door and turned to Misaki. “What do we do now?”

“We need to take the children and hide in the cellar,” Misaki said.

“The wind seems to be slowing down,” Setsuko said, looking around at the surrounding walls, which had stopped creaking. The storm still howled, but it no longer felt like it was moments from ripping the Matsuda compound off its foundations.

“You’re right…” Misaki opened her hands to the fitful air, feeling for the terrifying roar she had sensed earlier. It wasn’t there. “The tornado is gone!” she exclaimed. They had done it! A tentative hope swelled in Misaki’s chest. If the men had overcome the tornado, they stood a chance.

“Well, if we don’t have to worry about the tornado, wouldn’t it make more sense to take shelter here, near the central courtyard?” Setsuko said.

“Oh, Setsuko.” The fisherwoman was so clever and wise about so many things that Misaki sometimes forgot that the woman didn’t know the first thing about fighting.

“What?”

“This compound might be defensible enough in a jiya fight, with a full retinue of guards, but these walls won’t do us much good against fonyakalu.”

Setsuko still looked confused.

“Ranganese koronu can jump like nothing you’ve ever seen,” Misaki exclaimed. “These walls won’t slow down a determined fonyaka—or honestly a jijaka who can climb worth a damn.”

“Kaa-chan said a bad word!” Nagasa exclaimed.

“But you know what?” Misaki moved one of the tables, slid the door open, and stepped onto the deck overlooking the courtyard. “You raise a good point.”

Shifting Izumo to her left hip, she extended her dominant right hand and activated her jiya. Taking control of the snow covering the courtyard, she formed arm-length spikes of ice, pointing skyward. “We’ll see how they like landing on this.”

As she worked, Misaki was surprised to feel Setsuko’s jiya surge into motion beside her. Having set Ayumi down, Setsuko raised the snow, forming a spike of her own.

“Setsuko, you don’t have to—”

“I want them to die,” Setsuko growled, and pushed her jiya into a second spike.

She wasn’t very good. Fishing jijakalu mainly used their power to corral fish into nets and gut them once they were caught. There was rarely any call for them to make human-killing spikes, and Setsuko’s came out rather lumpy. A fonyaka would have to fall very hard on one of them to work up a decent bruise. But Misaki didn’t say anything to that effect. She knew what it was like to feel useless among powerful fighters who needed help. It was why she had started serious combat training in the first place.

With that thought, she noticed a pulse of tensely cold jiya at her elbow. Hiroshi was standing beside her. His hands were on Nagasa’s shoulders as if to comfort the confused younger boy, but his eyes were fixed on the discolored sky. Of the little children, he was the only one old enough to have some understanding of what was happening.

“Hiro-kun, be a dear and give your auntie a hand,” Misaki said.

“Yes, Kaa-chan.” Hiroshi moved to obey immediately, as if relieved to have something to do.

Misaki returned to her work, driving more spikes skyward, the formations growing taller and stronger as her jiya built momentum. If she was honest, it was unlikely these spikes would do any good, even if any fonyakalu were reckless enough to leap directly into the center of the compound. But it was something to do with the nerve-splitting stress of the past waati. It was a good way to loosen her limbs, see what her jiya could still do… if she needed to use it for real.

“Is this good, Kaa-chan?” asked a small, monotone voice.

Misaki turned and felt her mouth fall open in surprise. She hadn’t expected any more out of Hiroshi than she did out of Setsuko. Yet, at five years old, he was living up to his name. The spikes he had formed were nearly as tall and sharp as her own. If it came to it, they would draw blood. They might even kill.

“Yes,” she said blankly. “That’s very good, Hiro-kun.”

She brushed Hiroshi’s bangs back from his face and looked down at her son.

“Is there anything else I can do, Kaa-chan?” There was a rare note of emotion in Hiroshi’s voice. Frustration.

At his age, it was very possible that Hiroshi grasped only the one thing about his existence: that he was born to fight. His uncle, his father, and his older brother had all gone down the mountain to fulfill that purpose. But Hiroshi was too small. It had to be a horrible place to be—old enough to understand what was happening but too young to do anything about it.

“Not today,” Misaki said, putting a hand to his ice-cold cheek.

“But Kaa-chan—”

“Not today,” Misaki repeated, but she couldn’t bear the strained look on her son’s face, so she added, “Someday.”

She decided then, with ferocious certainty, that someday would come. It had to. She could still feel Mamoru’s shoulders sliding from her fingers, the moment she let him go. Because he was a warrior. And a part of her understood that there was nothing crueler than denying a warrior the fight he was born for. That, in its own way, was worse than death.

These boys had the same blood in their veins, the same power, the same need. But they were still years from being able to realize it. If she couldn’t deny Mamoru his fight, how could she let these boys die without ever having a chance at theirs?

“You’re good boys,” she said. “You and your baby brother are all going to grow up strong.” She gave Nagasa’s cheek a reassuring pat. “You’re going to find something worth fighting for and you’re going to get your chance to fight. Someday. Kaa-chan is going to make sure of it.” Then she straightened up. “Setsuko, I’m going to need you to take Izu-kun.”

Setsuko looked uncertain as she took her sister-in-law’s baby. Little Ayumi was still tied safely onto her back. She opened her mouth as if to ask why when a sound made her stop.

A crash. It came from somewhere close. Far too close.

“What is that?” Setsuko asked.

“That’s the sound of fonya hitting houses,” Misaki said as the distance came alive with screams.  “They’re in the village.”

“D-does that mean… the men—”

“Don’t think about that now,” Misaki said, smothering her own emotions before they could swell out of control. She herded her boys back inside, slammed the door shut, and froze it in place. “Take the children, and hide in the cellar! Now!”

“Wait—where are you going?” Setsuko demanded as Misaki turned and ran back into the house.

“Don’t worry about me!” Misaki called over her shoulder. “Just hide!” This time, Misaki didn’t hesitate at the threshold of the dojo. She bowed herself in, sprinted to the sword rack and snatched up the first weapon she could find. Too heavy. She knew without unsheathing it that it would only slow her down in combat. She would be better off empty handed; at least she would be mobile.

Casting it aside, she took the next sword down and pulled it from its sheath. Also far too heavy. She bit her lip as more screams pierced the air. At her best, she might have been able to fight with one of these weapons. But she wasn’t at her best. Disuse had made her instincts dull and her muscles soft. She couldn’t afford a handicap.

Turning, Misaki ran from the dojo toward the kitchen.

“Misaki!” Setsuko intercepted her on her way—alone this time. She must have bundled the children into the cellar already. “What are you doing?”

“Don’t mind me.” Misaki didn’t break stride, forcing Setsuko to run after her. “Just go hide with the little ones.” Reaching the kitchen, Misaki dropped to her knees on the floorboards and was faintly annoyed to find Setsuko still at her side. “I said go!”

“Are the cellar doors really going to protect us?” Setsuko asked, flinching as a crash of fonya soundedas fonya crashed into something not far from the compound.

“No.” Misaki froze ice across her knuckles. “I am.”

“What—?”

Misaki hauled her fist back and, with a concentrated burst of jiya, she punched through the floorboards. It was so easy, she could have laughed. She had fixed the boards so securely, with such a sense of finality fifteen years ago. Yet, armed with her claws and a sense of urgency, it took her only dinmanu to tear through the wood.

Forgotten, she had tried to tell herself. It was forgotten, along with everything from her life before. But the little blade had never left her mind or her heart. Her hands found the sheath as easily as if she had put it there yesterday.

“What is that?” Setsuko asked as Misaki straightened up on her knees and brushed a cloud of dust from the dark sheath.

“This…” In spite of everything, Misaki found a smile on her lips. “This is Shadow’s Daughter.”

Encircled with delicate vines and blossoms, the sheath had the appearance of burnished wood, though in reality it was a far stronger synthetic material.

“Like you,” Koli had told her in delight. “Pretty flowers on the outside.”

“And inside?” Misaki asked, raising an eyebrow at the numu.

“Inside…” he beamed, “just like you.”

Tentatively, Misaki gripped the handle and pulled the blade halfway out of its sheath. Her eyes widened. She felt the breath catch in her chest.

“Is this…” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Koli, this isn’t what I think it is!”

“I told you, I have all the connections.”

Misaki fought hard to keep her face impassive. “So… I’m pretty on the outside, but hard and dark on the inside.” She shot Koli a look, even as her treacherous fingers tightened possessively on the weapon. “I feel like I should be insulted.”

“As a lady of Shirojima, you certainly should be. As a fighter, you have no room to talk.”

“Does she have a name?” Misaki asked softly, afraid that if she spoke louder that Koli would hear the irrepressible tremor of excitement in her voice.

“While we were working on her, we nicknamed her Misaki-denyaa. Once you put her to use on the streets, that name might put your secret identity in jeopardy. I thought we might throw in your code name instead, call her Sirawu-denyaa. Maybe Siradenyaa for short?”

“Shadow’s Daughter?” Misaki raised an eyebrow. “A little dramatic, don’t you think?”

Koli crossed his arms petulantly. “I’ll take a thank you.”

The glass weapon was short for a katana. No surprise; Misaki was always complaining about the full-sized swords she used being unwieldly, which was something any craftsman worth his hammer would note when making a custom weapon. But that wasn’t the only design choice that drew her attention. The blade was perfectly straight, lacking the slight curve of most katanas, and the guard was rectangular. There was only one type of fighter who wielded a blade like this—one who moved by night and knew no law. This was a sword for an assassin.

It should not have felt so wonderfully right in Misaki’s hand.

“Koli… I can’t accept this.”

“Too bad. She’s made for you.”

“But… this is such an amazing weapon—”

“One of a kind,” Koli said proudly.

“Shouldn’t you give it to a koro who will get more use out of it? I mean—I’m not even supposed to fight…” She trailed off as Koli rolled his eyes. “What?”

“That’s like saying a knife isn’t supposed to cut.”

Misaki considered the tajaka craftsman for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re a human, Numu Kuruma.” She was aware that this was part of the reason the two of them got along so well.

“What do you mean?” He didn’t sound offended. He had already resumed tinkering with the machinery strewn across his desk.

“Do you see people beyond their physical function? Or are we all just… things to you? Just tools, and weapons, and baby-making machines?”

“I’m a numu.” He shrugged, heating his fingers to weld two components together. “The gods wired me to see the world in terms of raw material.”

“Well, my gods wired me to look pretty, marry well, and make babies,” Misaki said.

Koli snorted. “If you say so. Though that assertion makes Nami and Nagi look like some lousy craftsmen.”

“Excuse me?”

“A competent god would never make a housewife with your skill and hunger. You might look like a decorative flower, but you’re more sword than anything else.”

“You’re doing it again,” Misaki said, pointing an accusing finger. “You’re calling me a weapon.”

“An effective one,” Koli said. “It was supposed to be a compliment.”

“I’m just… not sure I can take it.” The compliment or the sword.

“Then don’t.” Koli said impatiently. “All I can say is that it will be a terrible waste. When you do get into your next fight—and let’s be honest, Koro Tsusano, you are going to get into another fight—you’ll do better with that blade than any other. Like I said, the girl was made for you. She won’t be as good in anyone else’s hands.”

“But—”

“That sword was a gift, not an invitation to tedious conversation,” he said shortly. “You want to debate religion and philosophy, go find yourself a jaseli. Everything I have to say is right there in your hands. Do what you will with it.”

“Misaki, wh-what is this?” Setsuko was stuttering, caught between her fear and confusion, as she stared at Siradenyaa. “What are you—”

“Don’t worry.” Misaki tied the obsidian sword at her hip and realized how much she had ached for its weight there. A baby just wasn’t the same. “I know what I’m doing.”

“You mean… you know how to fight? How?”

Misaki watched the pieces come together for Setsuko, as they had for Mamoru. But this time she couldn’t wait in anxious silence for approval. What Setsuko or anyone thought of her unladylike skill set didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that Misaki and her dishonest black blade were all that stood between her family and certain death.

There was a crash from the front of the house and both women jumped. Someone was trying to break down the front doors.

“You need to hide now!” Misaki hissed urgently. “Make as little noise as possible. Fonyakalu have excellent hearing. It’ll be easier for me to draw them away from you if they don’t know you’re there.”

“Draw them away from us?” Setsuko had a pained look on her face. “Misaki, I can’t—I don’t want you to leave you alone out here.”

“You have to.”

Another crash shook the house. Setsuko’s eyes had gotten impossibly wide. She was terrified. The predator in Misaki could see her itching to bolt for safety. But frustratingly, she didn’t.

“Misaki, I can’t leave you alone,” she whispered. “I know I’m not any good in a fight, but—”

“That’s not it,” Misaki said, looking at her knees.

There were obvious reasons Misaki had kept her history of fighting hidden beneath the kitchen floorboards: violence was a wildly improper hobby for a well-born lady and her husband had strictly forbidden any talk of her time overseas. But if propriety and obedience had made her nail the boards down, something stronger had kept them there, a deeper sense of shame.

The fact was that even if she had been a man, with pure blood and great power, she wouldn’t be the sort of fighter a respectable Matsuda would want to consort with. Takayubi swordsmen were noble fighters who met their opponents face to face on the open field and had the raw power and discipline to back up their reputation. Misaki was just the opposite: a weak deceitful ambush predator who rarely gave her victims the dignity of a clean fight. Because in a clean fight, she would lose.

What she did was an insult to truly noble fighters. The people who had known her for what she really was had been able to forgive it… though she wasn’t sure it was something that should be forgiven.

“Setsuko, I would like it if you… didn’t watch what I’m about to do.”

“I’m not scared,” Setsuko lied, even as the next crash at the doors made her flinch. “I-I’ve gutted so many fish; I can’t imagine fonyaka blood looks too different.”

“That’s not it. I don’t want you to see… me.” Not as she really was. Not what she would become as soon as Siradenyaa tasted blood. The people she had fought alongside in the past had reined her in, preventing her from indulging her killing streak, but if she had to kill…

“I don’t understand.”

“You…” Misaki’s words caught in her throat and she had to swallow. “You think I’m a good person.” She touched Setsuko’s hands. “That saved my life.”

“What?”

“I never admitted it because I’m proud and stupid—” and they were running out of time. Misaki blinked rapidly. No time for tears. “You saved me. I’m going to return the favor. But I need you to trust me and hide.”

Setsuko hesitated for a moment. Then she nodded, squeezed Misaki’s arm, and leaned forward. Their foreheads touched, pressing together in a moment of silent support. Then the two parted ways, Setsuko rushing back toward the cellar and Misaki turning to face the threat. She might not be worthy of belonging to this family, but she was going to protect it with every bit of venom, and bloodlust, and underhanded trickery in her.

Fonya crashed against the doors, cracking them, as Misaki stepped into the front hall. There was nothing she hated more than meeting her opponents face to face. Every instinct in her screamed to hide and set an ambush, but she needed to draw the soldiers away from Setsuko and the children, and to do that, she needed their attention.

The double doors blew open. As splintered wood clattered to the floor, Misaki found herself face to face with four men in yellow uniforms—well, not quite face to face. Her body was angled slightly to hide the sword at her hip, giving her the appearance of a diminutive housewife. In its own way, that was better cover than any shadow.

 

MAMORU

The mountain had gone from rust to red. With the last of the fonya-made clouds gone, the sky was clear again, but it wasn’t the bright light of day that shone through. Instead, sunset touched every koyin of snow not already soaked with blood, bathing the corpse-strewn mountainside in red.

Among the mess of yellow and black-clad dead, Mamoru found two crumpled forms in sky blue—the Mizumakis—and two in light gray—Yukino Sensei’s cousins. Uncle Takashi stood two bounds away, looking significantly more exhausted than before, but still smiling. He and Tou-sama were the only fighters left standing.

“You… you killed all of them,” Mamoru murmured in awe. “All those elite soldiers.”

“Our Yukino and Mizumaki comrades did their part before they succumbed,” Tou-sama said. “Their families can be proud.”

“And the fast one?” Mamoru asked. “The dragon killer?”

Uncle Takashi let out a chuckle. “The ‘dragon killer,’ huh?” There was a touch of annoyance behind his smile, but Mamoru thought a fighter who had bested Yukino Sensei in single combat and held off both Matsuda brothers more than deserved the title. “Your father took care of him,” Uncle Takashi said with an appreciative smile at Tou-sama.

“Almost.” Tou-sama flexed the fingers of his right hand with a distant, faintly irritated look on his face. “He didn’t die.”

“Really?” Uncle Takashi said. “It looked like a direct hit.”

“He deflected at the last moment.” Tou-sama said. “The spear connected but missed his heart.”

“Well, it still sent him flying a good distance,” Uncle Takashi said dismissively. “So long as he was sufficiently stunned, the fall will have killed him.”

Far down the mountain, Mamoru could make out movement—yellow-clad figures climbing through the ruins of the western village, coming for them.

“Take these siiranu to gather your strength,” Uncle Takashi told his brother and nephew. “The fighting will only get harder from here.”

At that moment, a scrabble of movement on the nearby rocks drew Mamoru’s attention. Instinctively, he and his uncle reached for their weapons, jiya rising, but Tou-sama held up a hand.

“It’s one of ours.”

And sure enough, the figure that appeared over the rocks was dressed in a kimono and hakama. His hands clutched a bamboo longbow.

“Katakouri Senpai!” Mamoru said in surprise.

Katakouri Hakuzora was the youngest of the archers who had gone to cover the northern pass, a slight, quiet boy one year ahead of Mamoru at Kumono Academy.

“Why have you abandoned your line?” Uncle Takashi demanded.

“Th-there are no more lines, Matsuda-dono,” the boy said. His hands shook on his bow.

“What?”

“I’m the only one who…” his voice broke and tears ran down his face through well-worn tracks. “Forgive me, Matsuda-dono. I’m the only one left.”

“What?”

“They broke through within siiranu. There were so many of them!”

“What do you mean, Senpai?” Panic flooded Mamoru. “You mean they’re in the village?”

“We tried to stop them—”

“Takeru,” Uncle Takashi said immediately. “Go back to the house.”

Tou-sama froze, an uncharacteristic flicker of hesitation crossing his face. “Nii-sama—”

“Now!” Uncle Takashi growled. “You need to protect Setsuko and the others.”

“There are still the advancing Ranganese to deal with,” Tou-sama said. “I should stay and help you hold them here. Mamoru should go back.”

“We can’t gamble the fate of our family on a fourteen-year-old boy, no matter how skilled. You’re the strongest fighter, so you will go. Ensure that our family survives.”

The logic was sound. Mamoru had never known Tou-sama to reject sound logic… or to question orders. Yet he made no move to obey. His eyes flicked to Mamoru, then back to his brother.

“Nii-sama… please.”

“What?” Uncle Takashi snapped, looking ready to hit his brother.

“I’m… not that strong.”

“You are,” Uncle Takashi’s tone somehow came off harsh rather than encouraging. “You have your orders.”

Tou-sama’s jiya rose for a moment, as if in rebellion—then dropped back to its flawless calm. An invisible tension left his body.

“Yes, Nii-sama,” he said without emotion, his gaze was down. He didn’t even look at Mamoru as he told him, “Hold the line.”

“Yes, sir,” Mamoru said.

Without another glance back at his brother or son, Tou-sama tore up the mountain. There was no time to watch him go. The next wave of Ranganese was almost on top of them.

These soldiers mostly wore yellow, but a figure in black led the charge, brandishing a pair of swords.

“I-I’m sorry, Uncle,” Mamoru said as he took up his fighting stance. “I don’t know how to help you with any advanced attacks or—”

“You won’t have to,” Uncle Takashi said, eyeing the oncoming soldiers. “Just take care of the four furthest to the left. Leave the rest to me.”

“Yes, Uncle.”

Katakouri Hakuzora had taken up a position as well. Though the boy’s quiver was empty, he formed an arrow from ice and nocked it to the string.

“Don’t bother, Katakouri-kun,” Uncle Takashi said.

“Matsuda-dono?”

“This fight is beyond you. Head up the mountain and do what you can to protect the women and children.”

Unlike Tou-sama, the young Katakouri didn’t need telling twice. “Yes, Matsuda-dono.” He bowed and turned to run up the mountain.

And the fonyakalu were on them.

This time, Mamoru didn’t freeze. Something in him had hardened when the life left Yukino Sensei—as if a piece of the swordmaster’s powerfully calm nyama had passed into him. His blade had already tasted blood. Now that he knew he could do it, the movements came more easily. The first fonyaka caught his katana in the stomach, falling into two pieces across it. The second wisely drew back, out of Mamoru’s cutting range, and pulled his arm back for an attack. Too slow. Mamoru shot a spear of ice into his throat.

The next two fonyaka fired blasts of air pressure at him simultaneously. He jumped clear of one attack, only to have the other catch him full in the chest, knocking the breath from his body. He stumbled and one of his enemies took advantage, darting in and grabbing his sword arm, immobilizing it in an iron grip.

Smart move, Mamoru thought ruefully.

The fonyaka drew his own sword back for the killing blow. And even if Mamoru had had the physical strength to contend with a full-grown theonite, he didn’t have the time to spare wresting his sword arm free. But what he lacked in strength, he made up for in speed.

Before the man could complete his swing, Mamoru snapped an ice-knuckled punch into his face. The jab had been more of a distraction anything else. It didn’t break the fonyaka’s nose or even cause his grip to loosen significantly. What it did was buy Mamoru a moment to draw the surrounding water molecules into formation.

The water gathered to his left hand formed a weapon to mirror the metal one in his right. And Mamoru sliced upward. It was no Whispering Blade. Mamoru knew that. His ice wasn’t sharp enough to cut through steel, but he felt a savage thrill of pride when he confirmed that it was sharp enough to cut through human muscle. The fonyaka screamed, dropping his own sword as blood spurted from his arm. Annoyingly, he didn’t relinquish his grip on Mamoru’s right arm.

Lifting a foot, Mamoru slammed a kick into the bleeding man’s stomach, knocking him back. The fonyaka’s grip was so stubborn that he ended up ripping Mamoru’s katana from his hand as he fell. It didn’t matter. Mamoru’s right hand instinctively moved to join his left on the handle of his newly formed ice sword, and he shot forward, slicing the man’s throat open.

The next soldier was coming at him, sword drawn. Mamoru’s eyes flicked to his steel katana, lying less than a bound away in the snow. He might have time to retrieve it… But he felt so strong here in the high of battle. Maybe… He brought his ice sword around to meet the fonyaka’s metal one.

The crash sent a shockwave through his arms.

Both blades broke. Not quite. Mamoru gritted his teeth in frustration. Not quite good enough. The stumbling fonyaka was so surprised to find his steel broken that he couldn’t rally any sort of defense before Mamoru’s ice reformed and drove through his chest.

Having carried out his orders, Mamoru turned to help his uncle, but there wasn’t much left to help with. At least a dozen yellow-clad soldiers lay dead at Uncle Takashi’s feet. The only fonyaka still standing was the black-clad elite, and he didn’t look like he would be standing much longer. His left hand was clenched hard around the handle of a broad-bladed Ranganese sword, but his right arm was sliced open to the bone, pouring blood. Uncle Takashi would be able to cut him down in a single stroke.

However, it seemed to take the Matsuda patriarch a considerable amount of effort to step forward and swing his katana. When he did, the stroke was weak. The fonyaka managed to block with the sword clenched in his left hand. Nagimaru screamed against the Ranganese blade and bit into the fonyaka’s shoulder. Then, with a primal roar, Uncle Takashi flipped Namimaru around in his left hand and plunged the smaller blade into the fonyaka’s stomach.

The air writhed and the fonyaka lurched forward, snarling, striking at Uncle Takashi with astonishing power for a dying theonite. Steel clipped Uncle Takashi’s shoulder before he stepped back, ripping his own swords free, ending his enemy’s life in a burst of blood.

The wound in Uncle Takashi’s shoulder was shallow, but as he staggered back, Mamoru realized why his movements had been slow. Amid the haze of fresh blood, Mamoru hadn’t sensed it, but he could see now: a deep cut ran the length of Uncle Takashi’s torso, from his left shoulder to his right hip—and it was pouring blood.

“You know…” Uncle Takashi smiled through clenched teeth, even as his dark blue kimono turned a darker shade of red. “I’ve never fought another dual wielder. Bastard got me good, didn’t he?”

“Uncle!” Mamoru hurriedly shed the blood from his own sword, sheathed the weapon, and ran forward. He reached his uncle just as the bleeding man listed forward and fell into him.

“I’m fine,” Uncle Takashi protested as his nephew caught him, but he was leaning far too heavily on Mamoru’s shoulder for that to be true.

Uncle Takashi was still muttering blatant nonsense about a shallow papercut, but Mamoru knew he had to do something. Apologizing profusely, he pulled open the front of his uncle’s kimono and tried to apply pressure to the wound. He grimaced as his hands slid in the blood and the sleeves of his kimono quickly became soaked with it. There was no way he would be able to stem the flow with his hands alone. And Mamoru realized he was going to have to disobey his mother again.

He took a shaky breath.

“Don’t be a girl, Mamoru,” Uncle Takashi scoffed, his words slurring as if he had consumed too much sake. “It’s just a bit of blood.”

It would have been inappropriate to do anything but agree, so Mamoru just nodded vigorously. “Of course, Uncle. Please—please hold still.”

With a sweep of his hand, he pulled the excess blood from his Uncle Takashi’s chest. So much of it. Too much. But he couldn’t think about that now. Putting both hands over the deepest part of the wound, he poured all his focus into his palms.

“What are you doing, boy?”

Mamoru didn’t have the attention to spare on an answer. He had never congealed this much blood at once. It consumed every bit of his concentration. Uncle Takashi was quiet for a moment, still as he felt Mamoru’s jiya struggling to solidify the blood leaving his chest.

“Where did you learn to do that?” he finally asked in confusion.

And Mamoru wouldn’t have answered if he could. He had promised Kaa-chan he would never—

“Misaki,” Uncle Takashi murmured, arriving at the only logical conclusion himself. Matsudas and Yukinos never so much as dabbled in blood manipulation. Kaa-chan was the only person who could have taught him. “Strange little woman, my sister-in-law. I think… I would have liked to know her better.”

Mamoru squeezed his eyes shut, tuning out his uncle’s murmurs along with the rest of the world as he fought to control the blood beneath his hands. This was nothing like scabbing his own damaged knuckles or the cuts on Chul-hee’s legs. Mamoru had never encountered blood that so adamantly fought against his jiya, so eager to leave the body. The fonyaka’s sword must have hit a major blood vessel near Uncle Takashi’s heart. In trying to stem the blood flow, Mamoru was fighting against the pumping core of all his uncle’s power—and that was inevitably a losing battle.

“I’m sorry.” Mamoru opened his eyes, knowing that the weak scab he had managed to form would never hold. “I can’t do it. I’m not strong enough. I’m sorry.”

Nagimaru fell to the snow beside them and Mamoru was surprised to find Uncle Takashi’s hand atop his head. “You can do it,” he murmured very quietly. “You worry too much, Takeru-kun.”

“Uncle, I—I’m not…” Mamoru trailed off as something yellow moved in his periphery, far down the mountain. “Oh no.”

“There are more coming our way, aren’t there?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“Hmm.” Uncle Takashi didn’t sound particularly concerned. “You see how many?”

“I… It looks like twenty? Maybe more.”

Yukino Sensei and Tou-sama were the jijakalu with truly superior senses. Without them, Mamoru and his wounded uncle were blind to most of the mountain around them.

“Alright. More than twenty,” Mamoru said as the group drew closer.

“I should hope so.” Uncle Takashi stooped to pick up Nagimaru and a bit of blood spurted from a weak place in the makeshift scab across his chest. “This time I’ll try to leave a few more for you, kid. No promises though.”

Mamoru unsheathed his sword, but before he could take up his position, a shrill sound echoed down the mountain. Screams. Mamoru and his uncle both looked up sharply. Those weren’t battle cries, Mamoru realized with sinking dread. Those were screams of terror, of women and children. Too close to have come from the main village, but…

“The blacksmiths!” Mamoru exclaimed.

How? Had some Ranganese gotten past them in the chaos, while Mamoru sat frozen by Yukino Sensei’s body? Or had they cut across to the numu village from the northern pass after breaking through the lines there? It didn’t matter. The blacksmiths were in danger.

“Go.” Uncle Takashi nodded in the direction of the numu village, where plumes of smoke rose against a darkening sky.

“But…” Mamoru looked from the smoke to the charging Ranganese. The wave of soldiers would be here in a siira and Uncle Takashi was bleeding so much…

“Go ahead to protect the smiths.” Uncle Takashi said. “I’ll thin these fools out for you.”

“But, Uncle…” There were so many. And without Tou-sama to back him up, Uncle Takashi couldn’t make his ice dragon—

“Hey!” Uncle Takashi grabbed Mamoru’s face is in a bone crushing grip that sent a jolt of pain through Mamoru’s mouth—a sharp reminder that one of his teeth had just been knocked out. “You don’t worry about me. You do what I say. Those numuwu are under our protection. They need you!” He shoved Mamoru from him. “Go!”

“Yes, sir.” Mamoru’s legs obediently stumbled into motion and he ran. A selfish part of him was glad that there was no time for him to bow or wish his uncle nyama. If he had, he would have had to acknowledge the unspoken truth that part of him understood:

He was leaving his uncle to die.

 

MISAKI

The Ranganese hesitated in the doorway of the Matsuda compound, regarding Misaki with expressions that ranged from apprehensive to amused. Had she been a man or even a more imposing woman, they surely would have attacked by now, but they hung back, confused by the tiny housewife who stood before them. The hallway was too narrow to accommodate all four of them shoulder to shoulder. Someone had to make the first move. Her first victim stepped forward, unknowingly sealing his fate.

He looked to be nearing middle age—in his late thirties or early forties—yet he still wore the colors of a low-ranking soldier. He must not have been particularly skilled or powerful to have gone so long without a promotion. One look into his face and Misaki could see straight through him, to the internal mechanisms that moved him. This man was insecure, looking for an easy way to look powerful. Like picking on a defenseless housewife.

Robin would have seen the humanity in that kind of cruelty, even if it was turned on him. He would have seen a way to make this man better. Misaki saw only eye sockets, a throat, a sensitive groin, a hundred targets and pressure points to choose from.

Instead of drawing her shoulders back as the fonyaka approached, she cowered. Like dropping bait in the water before a clueless fish. He smiled— the smile of a weak man seeing a very rare chance to feel powerful.

“Don’t hurt me,” she whimpered in Shirojima dialect. She knew how to say the words in Ranganese, but why let on that she knew their language? Why let them see any of her before it was too late? “Please, don’t hurt me.”

Drawn to her lure, the man closed the distance between them with hunger in his eyes. Misaki waited until he was almost on top of her, then opted for the simplest point of attack. Why waste her best material on this idiot? She snapped a kick into his groin. With a high grunt, the fonyaka doubled over.

The kick was by no means incapacitating, but it bought her the moment she needed to gather ice to her fingertips. Before the man could straighten up, she grabbed him by the throat. Misaki’s hands were so delicate that her grip was not particularly dangerous in and of itself. That was why she had invested so much time and training in her claws. It was these men or her children. Robin would forgive her. Five nails of ice pierced deep into the fonyaka’s neck.

His eyes widened in shock. He opened his mouth as if to scream and blood bubbled from between his lips, dribbling down his chin. Curling her fingers in as far in as they would go, Misaki ripped her hand free. His windpipe shredded in her fingers.

Like that. She was a killer.

The remaining men let out cries of alarm as their comrade fell, but Misaki didn’t give them time to take stock of the situation. Before the body had thudded to the floor, her bare feet were moving, sprinting toward the next nearest soldier. She picked up speed and focused on her target’s face, reading his expression. He fell for it. He thought she was stupid enough to charge him.

Looking confident, he drew his arm back and threw a palm strike. Just before the burst of fonya left his hand, Misaki veered left, running up the wall. In the end, Misaki never did find out if her legs had the strength to carry her to the end of her old signature maneuver. The peripheral wind off the blast pushed her body, flipping her over onto her feet directly behind the fonyaka. Realizing his mistake, the soldier started to turn, but it was too late. Siradenyaa was out of her sheath. A single stroke severed his spinal cord.

In the same spin, Misaki turned and cut through the next soldier. Only a few steps behind his comrade, he probably didn’t even see what had happened before Shadow’s Daughter separated his torso from his legs.

One more to go.

Misaki made her cut, but this last soldier was a young man—fast—and he stepped back, out of range. Wary eyes flicked over her, taking in her stature, her weapon, her stance, sizing her up. She couldn’t let him do that, so she pressed in, black blade flashing in a second attack meant to drive him up against the wall.

Infuriatingly, he evaded again, backing through the genkan and partway out the door, drawing his own sword. Smart boy. The aggressive part of Misaki itched to follow him, but she knew that if she let him take the fight outside, onto open ground, she was a dead woman. So instead, she darted right, through the nearest side hallway, disappearing as she always did.

The windowless hallway was so dark it might have been one of Livingston’s alleys, and it was going to stay that way. Misaki formed a block of solid ice over the light switch. As she went, she slid all the doors open, coating the doorframes in ice. Then she flattened herself against the wall, melting into its shadow, and waited.

The soldier moved down the hallway cautiously. If he was smart, he was listening closely, his hands open, trying to detect her breath stirring the air. But Misaki could hold her breath for a long time. That was the inconvenient thing about being a fonyaka in a darkened space: despite their acute hearing, fonyakalu had no sense of a person’s heat signature or blood flow, making them blind to a stealthy enough opponent. Misaki, on the other hand, could feel every inch of her enemy as he approached—a pulsing network of arteries, capillaries, marrow, and spinal fluid.

As the fonyaka neared her position, Misaki flicked her fingers, using the ice she had formed on one of the doors to slam it shut. Instinctively, the man whirled toward the sound, turning his back to her.

Misaki peeled from the shadow and stabbed.

There was a crunch, accompanied by a choking grunt of surprise, as Siradenyaa hit her mark. The fonyaka didn’t have to linger long in his pain. Darkness leant Misaki’s attacks unparalleled precision. Without the distraction of clothes, skin, and other human features that came with sight, she could hit the exact internal part of a person she was aiming for. Unhindered by the bones that would have stopped a lesser sword, Siradenyaa had driven straight through the young man’s heart.

Misaki slid the blade from the soldier’s chest and felt his blood pour onto the floor. She stood still for a moment, absorbing sensation, considering it. She had always wondered what it would be like to stab someone through the heart, but this… this was disappointing.

She had assumed, for some reason, that killing a person would be hard. But it wasn’t. When you were used to slicing tendons, of course cutting a man in half was easy. When you were used to stabbing between major arteries, of course piercing a big organ like the heart was easy. With a blade like Siradenyaa, killing was obviously going to be easier than not killing. She should have understood that, so she couldn’t explain the emptiness that suddenly overwhelmed her.

The line between wounding and taking a life had been such a concrete and non-negotiable thing to Robin and Elleen. Yet Misaki had just crossed it without experiencing so much as a tug of resistance. It took her a moment to realize that she had wanted there to be resistance. She had wanted killing to be hard. In the end, she had hoped there was something of Robin in her.

The young man’s blood spread outward, seeping between her bare toes. He had been someone’s son. Why couldn’t she feel anything? As a mother, a woman, a human… how could she feel nothing?

Unbidden, her free hand lifted to touch her waist.

How could she?

A shuffle of movement from the hallway drew Misaki’s attention. As her hands moved to grip Shadow’s Daughter, she welcomed the emptiness. It didn’t leave any room for fear as she went to face her next victims. Three yellow-clad fonyakalu faced her in the front hall.

And for the moment Misaki let herself be thankful for the thing she was.

A lady wouldn’t have been able to slice a man’s legs out from under him and then put a blade into his mouth when he opened it to scream. A mother wouldn’t have been able to cut a young woman’s head from her shoulders. A human being wouldn’t have been able to turn from their corpses without a single pang of guilt.

Thank the gods she was a monster.

The third soldier managed to catch Misaki in the arm with a burst of fonya, knocking Shadow’s Daughter from her hand. Back in Livingston, she had carried a pair of Koumbia-forged knives to fall back on if she was disarmed. But her greatest concealed weapon had never been made of steel or glass. It was her brutal ingenuity.

Snatching one of the long pins from her hair, she darted toward the last fonyaka. He threw a palm strike, but it was telegraphed. She evaded and drove her hairpin into the side of his neck, burying it all the way up to the flowery bauble at the end. He choked, blood spattering from his mouth, and clawed at his throat. Not wanting him to suffer, Misaki plunged her first two fingers into one of his fearful eyes. The Blood Needle pierced deep into his brain, killing him instantly.

She let out a breath as the man’s body crumpled to the floor. Her hair, now free from its tightly pinned bun, stuck to her neck, making her realize how sweaty she had gotten. In Livingston, disabling seven enemies would have been a warm-up for her. Now, she was breathing as if she had just sprinted from the base of the mountain. Trying to ignore the burning pain in her muscles and the stitch in her side, she picked her way through the corpses to retrieve Siradenyaa.

Her eyes stayed trained on the broken-down doors as she swept the blood from the blade, but no more soldiers appeared. She had just set the top of Siradenyaa against her left knuckle to return the weapon to its sheath.

Then the air stirred against her skin, making her stop. Fonya. Strong fonya. She returned both hands to her sword handle as a pair of uniformed figures appeared in the doorway.

“Oh, xuro,” Misaki swore.

Because these soldiers wore black.

 

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