The sword hung at his waist. It remained still despite the sway of his stride and the slight breeze that rippled his braided hair. The blade was hidden in its sheath, but Minutono knew its every characteristic, starting from the crisscrossing bands of leather that wrapped the hilt, worn down by the years of continuous death grips. The hilt shifted, without warning, to the curved blade that stretched the full length of a man’s body.
He wore his clothes loose for ease of movement. The extra space allowed his bamboo necklace to lift from his chest with each step, creating an unharmonious clacking from the collision of the individual pieces.
Minutono walked past two men, elderly, sitting underneath the roof’s overhang, awaiting the coming rain. They watched him walk past. No comments except the spitting of saliva on the ground by one of the men.
Minutono liked small villages such as this. The people watched you with open suspicion but never acted unless forced to. It was the opposite in more populated area. People watched from corners of eyes and fought for the smallest of infractions, their clustered numbers bringing false confidence… and false security.
The scent of frying poultry touched his nose, and in the next second, he felt his hand gripping the hilt of sword. He looked left, seeing the fragrant smoke escaping a set of curtains that hung down as makeshift walls.
A shop. Dilnon never could resist the temptations of gluttony.
Minutono parted the curtains, seeing first the five empty plates, then the man sitting next to them, enjoying a sixth. Beside him was a long sword, not to the length of Minutono’s, but what it lacked in distance it made up for in thickness. Compared to Minutono’s two finger width blade, Dilnon’s was the size of an average man’s thigh. Though not an overly well-built man, the years of wielding a weapon with such weight could be seen in the tightness of the muscles around his neck. Minutono’s hand threatened to pull the blade from its sheath, but he held it back.
“It’s dangerous for you to be here,” Minutono said. The man kept eating. “Why have you come?”
The man added the sixth plate to the stack, then gestured to the cook behind the counter to make some more. The cook hurried to obey. The tension was visible on his face.
“Leave cook,” Minutono said. “These are my parts, not his. You are relieved of obligation.”
The cook looked from one to the other, not willing to make a choice that may end with one of the two blades in the room through his chest.
Dilnon let out a suffering sigh and waved the cook away. He fled to the back of his shop, and Minutono had no doubt out the back if there was an exit.
“Would you believe me if I said it was for the food?” Dilnon asked.
Dilnon chuckled. “Ever the serious one.” He turned, making eye contact for the first time. “We’re being hunted.”
“We’re always being hunted… by each other.” Minutono felt his blade begging to be drawn.
Dilnon’s hand twitched closer to his own blade, then stopped. “Not by us. The Emperor has sent Hunters after the seven of us.”
“Are we considered a danger to society now, then?”
Dilnon laughed. “We’ve always been a danger to the ones around us… but no. I’ve met the Emperor, had a conversation with him. He cares not for the people, only for the power of the seven sacred blades.”
“The blades would never allow themselves to be wielded by one foe,” Minutono replied.
“Tell the Emperor that.” Dilnon shook his head. “Felis has already fallen. His blade’s whereabouts are unknown.”
Minutono felt his grip on the weapon loosen. “Impossible. He must be in hiding. He was the longest wielding of us all.”
Dilnon’s face remained placid, but his eyes fell. “His body hangs on the capital walls. I saw it myself.”
“No. It is impossible. He is a bearer of a sacred sword. No mere Hunter could defeat him.”
Dilnon reached up and unclasped his vest. It fell open, displaying the fresh scars beneath. “There’s been a shift in the Hunter’s power. This is what five did to me before I felled them.”
Minutono examined the scars, burning them into his memory. The rain started to descend in a trickle, pattering against the roof.
It was impossible… and what’s more, foolish. These blades and their wielders had kept the balance in this fragmented land. They were yin and yang both, pushing and pulling on each other’s borders until equilibrium was reached, each blade claiming its own territory to protect and rule. That balance was now shattered.
“What of his territory?” Minutono asked.
“Fragmented. The Emperor didn’t move quick enough. Perhaps he didn’t think he’d actual succeed. Regardless, he took control of seventy percent, the other thirty being separated by low name Feudal Lords. Peace should be reached in the coming months… but the loss of life in that time…”
Minutono growled. It was a rumble that matched the thunder crashing outside.
“They will come for you,” Dilnon warned.
“They will try.” Minutono turned. “I thank you for your warning.” He took a step towards the billowing curtains.
“That isn’t the only reason I’m here,” Dilnon said.
Minutono stopped but didn’t turn around.
“This is what five of them did to me. They sent hundreds to my lands. I cannot return.”
Minutono looked over his shoulder at his enemy—at his comrade. “My blade will not let you stay here.”
Dilnon grabbed the hilt of his own blade. “I know.”
Minutono found it difficult to look away from the intensity in his eyes. “I see.”
He stepped outside, feeling the rain kiss his cheeks and dampen his braided hair. In one motion, Minutono unsheathed the sword, pulling the scabbard behind his back with his offhand to create the distance necessary to pull it free. A faint ringing hung in the air as he pulled it free; it lasted for a count of three.
Dilnon joined him, his blade sheathless, always exposed to the elements. He swung it in a wide arc, as if testing its weight. The rain displaced itself under the blade, creating a moment of dryness before filling it with liquid once again.
He nodded. Minutono returned the nod.
Their blades clashed to the sound of thunder above, the sparks from the contact like mini bolts of lightning. Minutono was on the offense, his movements fluid and continuous, like air whipping through a forest of trees, constantly bending to the path of free movement. Dilnon’s movements were abrupt pulses of energy, each impact feeling like a clash of stone on steel.
Minutono disengaged. “You are slower than when we first traded blows.”
“I’m older,” Dilnon said.
He leapt forward, going on the offensive. Minutono stepped back, turning each of Dilnon’s heavy swings to the side. On the next deflection, he brought his sword in an arc towards Dilnon’s neck. The bigger man jumped back to avoid the attack but still felt searing heat where the blade took him on the bridge of his nose.
Dilnon reached up and wiped away the trickling blood. “That reach of yours has always been your biggest threat.”
“You handled it better in the past.”
The two connected again, their blades moving at a speed hard to follow, each arc displacing the rain like a noble’s umbrella, yet Dilnon remained on the back foot, the cuts on his body increasing with every engagement.
They broke apart again, Dilnon panting, the steam leaving his mouth and mixing with the humid air. The water on the ground beneath him was tinged red. Dilnon yelled, then brought himself into another barrage of diverted attacks.
Minutono waited for the right moment, the moment where form transitioned to ferocity—the moment where the force of his attack would carry it into the ground. It came two strikes later. Minutono saw the change in the eyes, saw the increased tensing of his muscles. This time, when he attacked, Minutono deflected the blade downward, lifting his foot to catch the top of it and drive it into the ground. In the same motion, he pushed his blade forward, driving it through Dilnon’s chest. As quick as it entered, it was pulled free, Minutono taking several steps backward.
Dilnon looked down at his chest. He laughed, tried to lift his blade from the ground, then fell onto his back. Minutono approached without caution. Some other bearers might try trickery, but not Dilnon. It would only dishonor him and his sword.
Minutono looked down at him. Seeing the blinking eyes and the rising chest. His eyes focused on a patch of bruising on the man’s right shoulder, nearly covered by his vest. Minutono swiped with his sword, cutting a slit in the clothing from shoulder to wrist. His arm was discolored, bearing a dozen deep wounds in the beginning stages of infection.
“You were a fool to push this. With wounds this severe, you may have lost to a regular swordsman.”
Dilnon let out a laugh that turned into a cough, spraying blood on his chin and cheeks. “That’s why I came to you. Better to die by the blow of a sacred sword than hollow metal.”
Minutono considered him for a few moments, then nodded. He could understand that much at least. Bearers of sacred swords either died of age or at the hands of another sacred sword; anything else was a smear on both the wielder and the sword.
Minutono turned to leave but felt Dilnon’s fingers grip his ankle.
“The blade. You must take it.”
Minutono looked down at him, bewildered. “It will find another master, just like it found you. Besides, my blade would never let me grasp it.”
“Then burry it twenty feet down.” Dilnon’s voice was growing weaker and hoarser. “The Hunters… I hated them, the same way I hate that blade you wield.”
“What are you insinuating?” Minutono asked. There was a seriousness to his tone—a note of fear to it.
“I… I’m not sure… but I fear for my blade…”
The hand wrapped around Minutono’s ankle went limp; Dilnon’s chest rose once more before turning to stillness. Minutono’s eyes shifted to the blade still gripped in Dilnon’s hand. He knelt, feeling the furry of his own blade as he reached for the grip of Dilnon’s. His hands shook, one reaching for the blade and the other threatening to swing his own. His fingertips grazed the larger weapon’s hilt. Damp, layered leather rubbed against his fingertips. The moment of subtle familiarity faded quickly, changing to a blinding pain that pulsed like an explosion in his mind; He blinked, then fell unconscious.