More things will never come if you expect them. Be as a spear, thrust true, and never let things get too close to you. That is weakness. That is danger.
Sword met sword. Blood spilled on the ground. Masuna had not killed anyone yet. It bears repeating here, in this time, before Masuna was lightning, he was only shining.
Shining has never killed anyone, has it? Only lightning.
Masuna was encircled by other warriors of Banwa Pawi, and the only ones within this circle of violence was him and his guro. The Gentleman. The Swordpriest. Sanghati.
Masuna chose a kampilan as his weapon of choice, a kampilan given to him by Datu Sikaran himself, as to give him the blessing of the banwa to not die, to succeed, to achieve victory. At that, Sanghati smirked: the kampilan was not the best weapon to wield for the Blade Gospel Style. The Blade Gospel favored lighter weapons.
They broke apart. They circled each other, both of them performing the performative martial dance-steps of their art. Masuna swung his sword around, collecting spiritual power about him as he brought his sword and hands together into his chest, then he let it move through him as he flared his sword around. This was not Blade Gospel movements, this was Splitting Lightning.
Sanghati performed the sword salute, a farewell, then moved his sword about while crossing his legs like scissors. His other free hand moved quickly, like a sharp knife, jabbing about him. Every part a sword.
Sanghati’s eyes burned with a kind of starfire. “If I kill the boy,” he shouted out, above the din of clamoring onlookers, half of which thought that their fight was simply part of the festivities. “Then I get to fight Sri Kabugwason.”
“That is the oath I have sworn,” said the noble prince, standing atop the porch of the great townhouse of the Datu Sikaran. “And I have never broken an oath.”
“You will wish you had!” Sanghati shouted again, and then directed his gaze, sword-sharp, to Masuna. “I seek no forgiveness Masuna.”
“I would not have given it to you anyway, soul-whetter.”
“Then let us get this over with.”
Guro Sanghati lunged forward, all sharpness and focus and resolve. Masuna stepped diagonally to the side, all conviction and scorn and skill. This was not a Sword Saint technick. It was not Blade Gospel. It was Splitting Lightning, the one taught to him by his father.
The Guro Sanghati unmade Masuna’s disarm attempt and struck, like lightning, six times in a single stroke. Cuts materialized on Masuna’s vest, on his bahag, on his shin. He winced, stepping back.
Sanghati looked upon his sword. It was sheathed, suddenly, in blood. With a quick movement, he flicked it down, unsheathing the blood from the blade. His ginunting shone brighter now, it had drunken deep of crimson.
The next instant, he was beside Masuna, blade biting down, fangs of a crocodile. Of a tiger. Masuna’s hand flickered: live hand, lightning. He caught the flat of the blade and pushed it away, but cuts materialized on his hand. He lifted his kampilan to cut, but Sanghati slapped it away with his free hand. He moved his ginunting in a vexing way, in a perversion, and multiple more cuts dug into Masuna’s collarbone, stomach, back, thigh.
Masuna stumbled backwards and fell to his knees. He kept himself propped up on his kampilan. The clamoring crowd had gone quiet. Blood crowned him. Divinity, or a eulogy.
“Why do you not use what I have taught you?” said Sanghati, in an almost pitying tone, as if he didn’t want to end it without a proper fight.
“I can defeat you with what my father has taught me.”
“Nonsense. You have studied more of the Blade Gospel than whatever backwards savage sword art you have been taught. Stand.”
Masuna did, lunging up, kampilan at the ready. He swung in a circular pattern, a dragon spinning and looping around the sun. Both at once defense and offense. The circular pattern caught Sanghati off guard: he parried the first strike, but did not anticipate the second blade coming back up again, quicker than whirlwinds.
He caught it with a cut he materialized. I suppose I should have illumined how a cut could materialize like that, but it is better if you do not think too deeply of it. Imagine a sword being in more than one place at once: the cut is the stroke of that sword, seemingly materializing out of nothing, out of time, out of reality. It may seem impossible, but that is the Martial Arts, the great Godly Weapon Science.
The cut is solidified sword essence, the substance of the sword’s primary purpose, to cut, used to inflict horrible, horrible violence.
Another cut, bleeding Masuna’s wrist. Masuna pulled away, let go of his kampilan, and then caught it as he spun, bringing it around, slamming it down upon Sanghati’s sword. It was a crude thing, a non-practiced technique. A boulder thrown against lightning.
Sanghati was patient. He cut up, sparking his blade against the length of the kampilan’s as Masuna slammed down. Then, when his blade was free, a flame eager to ignite, he cut forward, biting into Masuna’s bicep, digging deep, drawing blood, flesh pink and raw. The silence deafened Masuna.
The moon, as ever, watched them. It was a quarter of a way full, having stepped past its own boundaries of darkness.
He hobbled backwards, the rush, the adrenaline, the high-of-violence letting him ignore the lancing pain from the laceration. “Use what you have learned, if you want to defeat me,” Sanghati snarled.
“I wish to mock you,” said Masuna, biting down on his lip.
“If you wish to mock me then be a better sword than I am!” Sanghati shot forward and cut, three times in one stroke. Masuna stepped diagonally to the side, felt pain shoot through him as it found a hole in his adrenaline-barrier, and succumbed.
Instead of a Splitting Lightning disarm, he went into Swallow Gospel Stance, bending low. He cut once, but held his left hand near his blade at the ready. A live hand: something not explicitly taught in the Blade Gospel style.
Sanghati, of course, knew exactly how to counter Swallow Gospel strikes. He lifted his feet, and met the down-and-up strike with his own blade, pointed down, a god pointing at his worthless creations.
The logical answer to this, as Masuna had been taught, was to step right and strike diagonally from right to left, or left to right. Sanghati knew this.
So Masuna channeled his lightning live hand instead, as taught to him by his father. With his left hand he batted away the flat of the blade. However, the danger with combatting Sword Saints is that they are always in a perpetual state of cutting: Masuna grit his teeth as he deflected Sanghati’s sword away with his bare hand; his hands were cut.
Then he continued the down-and-up swooping strike of the Swallow Gospel, and found his mark: his kampilan cut savagely into Sanghati’s right breast. Again, as I’ve already sung: Kampilan strikes were usually in circling, naga cycles. It must be, because the kampilan is heavy, and its slashes always follow through. Its follow throughs are always other slashes.
Masuna’s kampilan looped, backwards, switching seamlessly from the down-and-upward violence of Swallow Gospel into the looping dragon naga of Splitting Lightning, this particular strike known as Twelve Stones Kicked Against Giants. Masuna looped his sword to his left, parrying a wild swing from Sanghati, then he pushed the blade away with the back of his live hand. No cuts this time, as Masuna finished the follow through of the kampilan and struck up, chopping deep into the wound already gored.
Then, with his live hand, he pushed, his hand becoming his own sword. Sanghati hobbled backwards.
Masuna panted, Sanghati stood, eyes wide.
“I am far from death. Break my poise, little sword.”
“I will break more than just your poise, guro.”
They met again, a violent clash. This time they were more even, as Masuna’s soul was blanched, dipped, sheathed, and quenched in the violence. He watched and remembered Sanghati’s teachings, in little flashes of lightning-inspiration, but he did not use them. For to use them was to invite certain death, he knew. Sanghati would have eviscerated him in seconds, used his own knowledge against him.
Masuna still used it, of course, but in conjunction with what he has learned. I will not be the sword you wish me to be, Masuna thought in fulmination, in anger, in wrath, in bright-white hot flashes of enlightenment.
Sanghati smirked at him, as they clashed, another flurry of checks and counterchecks, of live hands being cut and swords being swatted away by ephemeral cuts. As if he had read his thoughts. “You have become a sword, Masuna.”
Masuna had long thought and wondered at what that meant exactly. What did it mean to have one’s own soul sharpened into a killing point? What did it mean to turn one’s own soul into a sword? Did it mean that everything you do was a killing stroke? Did it mean that all your actions hurt others?
But swords are meant to cut, not to kill. Masuna remembered the words of his father. And truly, in the Sword Isles, this was a true adage. Swords in the Sword Isles don’t kill, they are used to chop down bamboo, trees, to cut away brambles and scythe away grass to make way for incoming swiddens. They were used to cut cloth into perfect squares, and to showcase what little divinity we have in our own little lies.
What, then, did it mean to become a sword?
Sanghati cut through the heart of the matter again, sword scything through his defenses. As if he had heard Masuna’s thoughts, the Guro said: “To become a Sword is to become a killing tool! Nothing else. To become a Sword is to draw blood, to eviscerate, to decapitate. To become a Sword is to become violence, for with the sword you can force others to bow to your commands! And what else is violence but forcing others to follow your whim? Rejoice in the glory of combat! Bask in this festival of battle! Violence before enlightenment!”
Masuna was pushed into the back foot. But he was not flatfooted: Splitting Lightning footwork was much quicker, much lither than Blade Gospel movement. Blade Gospel’s swiftness came solely from the quickness of the blade, from the speed of the strokes, of the scorn.
Splitting Lightning demanded you to become quick, to become too like the lightning. Not just your weapon, but your entire body. Masuna found ground and launched an attack back at his own. A quicker, fanged attack.
All the commonfolk—even perhaps the prince—could see it: no one should be able to move a kampilan that quick.
“I am a Sword,” said Masuna, admitting, as he parried away two strikes and chopped down in a single fluid motion, faster than he could think. Masuna embedded himself into the violence, sank into it, embraced it. As he did, his movements became faster, he could see actions, cuts, before even Sanghati would do them. As he moved, he found himself implicitly directing Sanghati’s movements so that he could parry them and know how to act afterwards. He was guiding him to his doom.
Masuna was thankful then that the Guro had taught him so much.
“I am a Sword that cuts, that chops, that breaks bamboo to draw water.” A few of those damned ribbons of light, summoned from the speed of cutting, emanated and materialized and bit into Masuna’s skin, lacerating flesh, gashing, sending blood and viscera into the air. Masuna powered through. A Sword was tenacious: to chop a tree down one had to hack away at it for many swings and strokes. “I am a Sword that rips and clears away brambles and underbrush, so that it can become a new swidden.”
Sanghati’s eyes were somewhat confused, but there was now a tinge of spite in it. Genuine spite, not the showman’s wrath that he had been showing thus far. Masuna was getting under his skin. As a sword ought to.
Masuna realized then that, if Sanghati was born and raised in Virbanwa, he probably had not seen much swiddens. Virbanwa and Ba-e were both kingdoms that found themselves surrounded by large swathes of arable land, wherein they could cultivate wet rice. In the dagger islands to the northwest and the fractured islands of the central Sword Isles, from which Masuna came from, they did not have that privilege. They did not have that land.
Each island was made up of hard to cultivate land, so to farm one had to cut away swathes of trees and burn them to create swidden farms. These swiddens shifted over the year, so one had to cut away swathes of trees every now and again. Of course, this can only be done with the consent of those that lived in the trees: the diwata, the divinities, the spirits. Particularly, these were the banwadiwata, the diwata of the land, the forests, the trees, the mountains.
As Masuna realized this, he also realized another thing. Enlightenment brings more enlightenment. He realized that Sanghati has never seen a sword used for any other purpose than to kill. The Guro Sanghati has never seen a sword used to chop down bamboo—how could he? In his grand Ananara, City of Cities, Jewel of Jewels, where the dying breaths of gods are turned into sickly light? Where cottages are piled on top of each other so high that they sway in the wind? Where roads are wide and large and made to accommodate carriages and wagons and pangolin-chariots carrying goods and trade instead of people?
How could he, in the Sword of Swords? In Virbanwa, the great violencer, the conquerer of conquerers, Gran Imperia?
“You are a fool and a dullard,” said Sanghati in response. He swung his sword in an arc, and summoned burning spikes of light that burned crimson above him. Flying Blades of Makaubos. With another hasty movement, Sanghati sent them down on Masuna.
Masuna was just as quick, however, having the upper hand. He moved forward, swung with his live hand, and summoned his own array of Flying Blades. He had been taught this, he had been taught most of the primary technicks of the Blade Gospel.
He only summoned three blades, which skewered three. Two zoomed through. Masuna parried one with his kampilan, moving diagonally upward. He caught the last with his live hand as it came up with his kampilan’s arc.
At that Sanghati was upon him, moving like the wind, straight through him. When he ended his movement, a field of cuts followed after him, every cut he had performed during the movement, only materializing after he stopped moving. Cutting Field Reaping.
Masuna knew how to defeat this one, as is the benefit of someone who had learned the Blade Gospel. As the cuts materialized and began cutting air, moving swiftly to pincushion Masuna, our young warrior bound forward to his Guro, just as quick as him, and cut diagonally again, lower right to upper left, a wicked strike. Faster than the wind.
Blood in an arc. Every wound that Masuna had inflicted upon the Guro began bleeding. One Thousand Metal Kites, a special Blade Gospel art that opens wounds already inflicted, causing them to sting all at once. No movement wasted: Masuna used the right to left strike to reposition his left foot, using it as leverage for twisting, left to right, and sent a kick behind him, parrying every cut that struck him from the Cutting Field Reaping.
Masuna was in his flow. He turned to his Guro, who lashed out in wrath. Sword coming in from his sheathe—he had sheathed his blade when Masuna had his back to him. This was Cut Tongues, a technick that the Guro had used against him in the beginning of all of this. The technick that cut off your fighting ability.
Masuna was prepared. He knew how to counter this. He had been taught this, of course. His Guro’s greatest project, him, was to be his downfall. And when Sanghati saw the confidence in his eyes, he realized that Masuna knew exactly what to do.
A chink in his armor of cuts.
Masuna broke forward,
suddenly shattering a parry that he had already begun.
Remember, as Splitting Lightning: break off from your moves at a moment’s notice. His sword found Sanghati’s thigh, cutting, riveting. Sanghati stepped back and parried away with such strength that one thousand cuts bit into Masuna’s kampilan, climbing up the length of its blade until it struck home in Masuna’s cheek, though the strengths of his cuts had wavered when it reached it, so only small lacerations manifested.
The Blade Gospel is aparticularly far-ranged art. It focused on keeping distance from the target, and then coming in and striking multipel times in a single lunge, before overcoming attacks with superior Footwork. Masuna realized this only now, as he began to understand the intricacies of Sanghati’s style.
No, he realized then, suddenly. My art. This was the art that he learned, the art that he had been taught. Only in deathly violence with his own style did he learn how to truly use it.
Splitting Lightning, on the other hand, was a very close-range style, in the foundational tradition of Lightning Styles. It depended on your strikes forcing the opponent to get closer to you, until you are in range of the style’s dangerous live hand.
Working with both allowed Masuna to become blossoming flower in marshy mangrove trees. Beautiful yet deadly. Deadly yet effective.
“As I cut bamboo I only get sharper,” Masuna said, as his feet bit into the dirt of his village, his settlement. “As you are bathed in blood you only grow more rusted.”
They engaged again, and at this point Masuna realized that there was music playing. The quick thrum of drums and tambourines created a lively, rhythmic beat, and a kudyapi playing in the far background set the reverberations of their sword slashes and steel clashes upon a musical string.
“Is this what you have learned, little sword? Rusted one? Unsharp one?”
Live hand caught a blade and Masuna did, for the first time in the battle, something he had been watching Sanghati’s movements for: he parried away Sanghati’s blade, and then, he deftly redirected every cut that materialized after, each invisible sword stroke nothing to the mastery of his opponent’s movements. This was a Splitting Lightning move, common across central Sword Isle martial arts: Live Hand Catches The Lightning.
Masuna took this opportunity: he stepped forward, cuts still shining, ribboning into light, cutting into nothingness, now behind him.
And Masuna thrust forward with his own learned technique. He swung his kampilan in a far-ranged slash: Sword Judas. Moving his kampilan about him, in that graced naga circle, he redirected the cuts that still ribboned behind him around him, bringing the cuts with him. A reaper harvesting rice, cutting a swathe like scissoring blades. He redirected Sanghati’s own cuts back to him.
Lacerations etched themselves into him, running up the length of his body until it cut into his collarbones. Sanghati hobbled backward again, lost his footing, lost his poise, his structure, his position, his mettle.
He almost fell to the ground, but he used his ginunting to catch himself.
Was this their final engagement?
Masuna moved up to him and caught his ginunting with his live hand, tripped him thoroughly, a mock. He pointed both his kampilan and Sanghati’s own ginunting at him, positioning them so that they scissored around the Guro’s neck.
“That’s enough,” said Masuna, his soul thoroughly sharpened. “I am sharp enough.”
Sanghati looked up at him without fear in his eyes. Only amusement. A tinge of pride? Masuna felt disgusted. “Oh, oh how great! The little sword has sharpened himself! The little sword must only seal its fate, then. Seal your fate now! Bathe yourself in the blood of your master! Dip yourself into violence, become the sword you always say you would never be.”
“Lightnings strike you,” said Masuna. “As a sword, I only clear the way.” Then he stepped back, and he tossed the kampilan to Sri Kabugwason, the Morning Star Prince.
The prince had stepped down from the porch of the town house, caught the kampilan, and made it quick. “You get what you came for, Sword Saint. Virbanwan.”
“I will revel in the glory of my God. Where will you be when you die, heathen?” asked Sanghati, but he wasn’t looking at Sri Kabugwason. He was looking at Masuna, who embedded the ginunting into the ground.
Sri Kabugwason answered: “I will be remembered.” He struck down and ended things.
After all was said and done, Sri Kabugwason demanded that feasting recommence, and that the death of the Sword Saint was nothing but a ritual sacrifice dictated by the diwata of the banwa. The priestesses of the banwa consulted the divinities upon this, smoke wafting from their eyes. When they sacrificed another wild pig, they were possessed and given an answer: in their trance dance, the sword saint was a proper offering. One that will guarantee significant merit until Banwa Pawi passes from the realms.
Satisfied, Datu Sikaran nodded and let the feasting recommence.
Masuna stayed in the far outskirts of the jubilation. Upon a boulder on a small hill, watching over the banwa.
The Morning Star prince found him there. Sri Kabugwason, out here, was not very intimidating. With just him and Masuna together, he was just a few inches taller than Masuna. Masuna actually had more muscle, while Sri Kabugwason was lanky, though his tattoos helped up his intimidation factor.
“My Lord,” said Masuna, turning and bowing. Healing leaves and herbs had been adhered to his wounds. He could not stay in his room.
“You are horribly wounded.” Without the din and extravagance of the place, Sri Kabugwason seemed soft. His grin was still a devil tiger, however. “You should have rested, my sword.”
“I know. I… I cannot stay still.” Masuna bowed low at the “my sword”. His heart raced: was he being acknowledged? By a prince of the Rajah?
“A sword cannot stay still. It must always be cutting.”
Masuna did not know what to answer, so he just nodded.
The morning star prince asked if he could sit beside him on the boulder, wrapped by olive green moss. Masuna, of course, nodded. The night was still dark, but palm leaf torches illuminated it enough that they could see themselves. The trees swayed with the cold winds, dappling the deep indigo of the night with greens and pinks and reds and yellows from the flowers that they bore as gifts. The flowers that were fleeting, dead in the next instant, as they became fruits.
“Where did you learn how to fight?” Sri Kabugwason asked.
Masuna looked down. Should he be honest? Should he say where he actually learned the techniques he showed in that fight? He pondered lying, but the wounds burned in his skin and he was forced to tell the truth, lest the spirits of disease fill his scars. “I learned from my father, but also from Sanghati himself.”
“You know of the Blade Gospel style?”
“It was to protect the banwa,” Masuna replied. His tone was too defensive. “If I didn’t, the Guro would have cut us all. He was stronger than any of us.”
“And now you beat him. What does that make you?”
“Blessed?” Masuna poked, tentatively.
“You answer as if I am but a lover.” Masuna blinked again, bowed low. Kabugwason’s hair hung about him like weeping cypresses. “I’m just fucking with you, of course. I’m here to offer something you might find hard to reject.”
Masuna waited for it.
Kabugwason rose to his feet. “Your skill with the sword is undeniable, of course. Especially now. And soon it will be peerless, if you wish to learn and perfect it with us.” He turned. “I invite you and your family to live with us, as my vassals. No, that’s not particularly right. As the Rajah’s vassals.”
Masuna blinked. That was a powerful proposition. He would be lifted out of peasanthood and shot straight into what is essentially nobility, though the details of the vassalage might change that.
But becoming vassals of the Rajah would be a surefire way to secure the future of himself, his parents, and his forthcoming siblings. He would be a fool to decline. This was his way into safety, into peace.
Or perhaps into violence, when Masuna realized then that as vassals of the Rajah they are beholden to fight for him should he seek it.
“You will be trained to become Royal Kawal: guardians of the Rajah. The Dragon Guard,” said Kabugwason.
There was the catch. Masuna laughed at himself, thinking that it was stupid of him to think he would finally find peace. He had just become a sword, he had just been unsheathed from his scabbard. He will be dipped into deeper, more overwhelming violence now, more than he has ever felt.
But for his family, for his father, for his mother, for his siblings… it was not a difficult decision. It was not a scary proposition.
And so he nodded. “I accept. We accept. I will be your Dragon Guard.”
Kabugwason smiled. “I am a moon at its most perfect. I was nervous there, for a second.”
“I make you nervous, lord?”
He grinned again, that tiger grin. They stayed for a few more silences, watching over the feast, until Kabugwason decided he was hungry. Masuna walked with him back into the feast.
Masuna awoke in the middle of the night then. Him, again, he thought to himself. Sri Kabugwason. He was gone right now, deep into the vast pagodas and jade dragon-corpses of the Baik Hu Empire, the Middle Kingdom, the Jaden Hegemony. He wished him safety, but he knows that the diwata will guard after him.
Masuna’s heart was racing. He calmed it down with deep breaths.
Mito was deep into slumber beside him, talking while dreaming. He was half on his rattan mat, half on the wooden slats of the cottage.
Masuna couldn’t help but smile and exhale slowly. He let himself fall back into sleep again, and hoped that this time it was a dreamless void.