Cold crept along Makuo Muoto’s skin as he stood in the snow-filled forest. The cape of animal fur he had recently acquired did its best, but the chill wind that came down from north of the Silver Mist River tested the limits of its abilities. In a land known for its mild weather, winters were becoming harsher in recent years and they were lasting longer. They were bad times to be on the road and alone, as evidenced by the body that lay before him, eyes staring upward and a dark red stain, frozen in his clothes.
He didn’t move toward the body straight away. Instead, he peered about him, extending his senses into the landscape around him. His hara, as his teacher called it in a time that now felt like another life. He felt nothing. No aggression, animal, human or otherwise. He shuddered all the same and took a cautious step toward the corpse.
This was recent, he thought to himself, taking in the stamped snow, showcasing the signs of battle. Quite a number of footprints, Makuo thought to himself, but a closer inspection told him that they were made by only two people. The dead man and one other.
His feet brushed against something in the snow. Kneeling down, he felt about with his gloved hands and drew up a small piece of a strap and buckle. He recognized it as belonging to a piece of armor.
Curious, he thought, setting the buckle back down. He approached the body. He was lean and gaunt, and the rest of him was stiff as a board. Makuo nodded to himself, feeling about where the wound was.
Recent, yes, but old enough for rigor mortis to set in. He grimaced distastefully as his fingers brushed against the wound. Sword stroke. He didn’t die cleanly.
He cast his eyes about, frowning slightly. The man looked badly malnourished, yet the tramped snow indicated quite the battle had occurred. He had difficulty believing that this dead man capable of putting up such a fight.
But then, if he were on his last legs, that might explain why he died.
His frown deepened. That didn’t feel right, but with the evidence available, there wasn’t much there for explanation. He continued with his investigation a little longer and soon produced a small pouch. It clinked.
He sat there, debating over it, but his hara flared briefly and his eyes shot up. Something was drawing toward his direction. Of what kind he could not tell. Perhaps a snow spirit, enraged that its territory had been breached by a mere mortal, or even a pack of wolves that had caught the scent of blood. Winter had lasted long enough now that they were starting to become bold for lack of game. Day attacks were becoming common out here in the countryside.
He pocketed the pouch and looked sorrowfully at the dead man.
“Afraid I need you to cover for me,” he said regretfully. With that said, he departed swiftly. He hated doing so however and he cursed himself. Karma frowned on those who left the dead unburied and vulnerable to predators.
He found the smoke rising from the village sometime later. For half a second, he had a flash of fear that bandits were in the process of destroying it before his hara told him a different story. His ears and nose chimed in as he cautiously made his way closer, supplying their own take on the situation. There was excitement yes. And smoke. The latter had more to do with the daily happenings of the peasantry doing their best to stay warm while the former involved a crowd surrounding two individuals, both armed with weapons.
Emerging from the brush, he stepped out onto the path. Keeping his distance, he observed through the crowd that there were two men, one armed with a pair of swords, short and thick bladed and of a bronze complexion, yet of a casting style familiar to him. The central spine was of a deep, golden color while the edges were brighter, a result of casting two different kinds of bronze to produce a blade that could keep a sharper edge longer without breaking. These were styled ‘two-colored swords’ and had formed the basis of the rare, blue-edged Toira swords that came later, before the rise of the cheap, ‘black metal’ of the infantry.
Curious, Makuo thought, appraising the bearer of those blades. Beneath a weather stained, yellow scarf, the man wore a series of rectangular plates of iron laced into horizontal rows over a shirt of leather that came down to his waist. Lamellar armor. However, it was the masked helmet that held his attention. It appeared to be designed after a tortuous shell, only molded about the head of the man, encompassing his cheeks and flaring at the tips to catch a potential blow. Not standard issue and neither was the fearsome, demonic-looking mask that covered its owner’s face. A wide, gaping mouth filled to the brim with cruel teeth. And the eyes, painted red irises over white, stared mockingly at its opponent. This confidence was shared by his movements. Casual and without concern. He might as well have been an onlooker watching the sport.
Makuo’s gaze flitted over to the warrior’s adversary. A common looking man with a scraggly beard flecked with grey and a scar gouged on one cheek. He held a spear with an iron tip and a long knife was girted at his side. His steps were even, but he could see a telltale tremor in his hands.
He stands no chance, he thought. Age and winter have bitten him too deep.
Entering the crowd, he glanced askance at a woman, some years short of middle-aged. She watched; her lips pressed together tightly.
“Friend of yours?” Makuo asked. She jumped slightly and looked at him, startled. After a quick internal debate, she relaxed and shook her head.
“Neither of them,” she said, her tone a bit sharp, as if annoyed by the mere suggestion of association. “The buzzard with the spear is a veteran of the Emperor’s armies, may he live forever. He was born here, joined in the wars, and then spent the last five years loafing about. I have no idea who the other one is, but he showed up and next thing I hear there’s a duel on.”
She made a harrumph sound, clearly indicating what she thought of that. Yet, Makuo noted that she stayed, curious about the outcome.
It’s to the death, he thought. He ran an eye across the crowd. Many were making bets and passing coin between one another. He shrugged. Entertainment of this kind didn’t come often to villagers and the spearman was one of their own. He supposed that warranted a certain interest.
“All right!” called another man, stepping forth. He was tall and lankly, with a thin reedy beard. “Are you two ready?”
“Yes,” the masked man said in a voice that almost came out as a laughing hiss. Cold breath billowed out from the fanged gap that covered his mouth, and for a moment Makuo felt that he was a demon.
“Yes,” the spearman said, his voice hitching slightly.
“Very well,” Reedy-beard nodded, stepping back. “Begin!”
The spearman struck first.
He advanced quickly, one foot moving after another, yet never allowing both to leave the ground. The spear head remained at the forefront, aimed at his opponent’s center of mass. With it, he had the reach, and if he were strong enough it could potentially break past his opponent’s armor. Spears ruled the battlefield, especially out in the open where there were no obstructions. His opponent’s reach was simply too short. Unless he found a way to overcome that disadvantage, he would be skewered.
At least, if things were textbook. The spearman was old however and, as Makuo swiftly noted, his adversary was a wily one. With a laugh, the sword fighter danced back, getting out of range instead of trying to close in and remove the spear’s reach advantage. He backpedaled, moving closer to the crowd. The spearman advanced, thrust, only to fall short as the swordsman retreated again, moving in a circular fashion and drawing closer to the crowd.
“You might want to move back,” Makuo said to the woman. She blinked and looked at him curiously. A second later, understanding dawned on her and she did that.
“Everyone, move back!” she yelled out, and at that the sword fighter bellowed a curse at her. The crowd however looked at one another in confusion, not sure what was going on. The spearman, however, caught on and retreated back a step.
“Coward! You would use the villagers as a shield?”
The demon-mask shrugged before rotating a sword, edges glinting in the sunlight.
“All’s fair in war,” he said. Makuo noted that his voice came out odd. Strained, as though it were fighting against something. Seeing though that his plan had been ruined, he advanced now, swords held low as he crouched, like an animal preparing to pounce. He hissed again and Makuo felt his skin crawl, aggression positively radiating off the man like an illness. The blades licked out as the spearman advanced again, and both evaded one another. A test of defense and reaction time. Another flick and this time a tap as the sword slapped the spear shaft.
It’s going to be over soon.
The demon-mask exploded into a sudden frenzy and charged first to the side for two steps before rushing in, his body angled. The spearpoint skipped along his armor and seconds later its owner was down, a sword thrusting up into his belly. The spearman gaped at the demon-mask, and he made a choking sound as his limbs fought to react. Demon-mask didn’t give him time though and headbutted him. The man collapsed to the ground, crimson flooding the front of his clothes and spilling out into the snow beneath him.
“You are not worthy to wear me,” the demon-mask said, approaching him. The spearman continued to struggle, reaching for his long knife. Demon-mask grabbed hold of him by the hair and wrenched his head back, exposing his throat.
His two-colored sword slid across it. Blood flowed in a curtain and after that, the spearman’s movements jerked, then slowed, drawing his knife partway out of its sheath, and then slumped.
Demon-mask let him drop and he stood up, the front of his attire a scarlet stain.
“Who is next?” he demanded, and again the strange sound to his voice, as though he were fighting with himself. “Who will be the next to accept my challenge? Or have I bled this village of all its warriors?”
The woman next to Makuo glanced over at him, and he saw her eyes fall on the hilt of his sword. Makuo shook his coat, hiding the hilt of the blade. He said nothing.
“Eh? Eh?!” The demon-mask shook his arms, blood falling from his swords. “No one?”
He made a tsking sound, clearly disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm.
“Fine. I’ll take my leave of you.”
After wiping the blades of his swords onto the shirt of his fallen opponent, the mask-wearing man sheathed them. Preparing to leave, he ran his eyes across the crowd one more time, to make sure that he hadn’t missed anyone. Makuo pressed his lips together into a tight, thin line. The man’s spirit was powerful. Trying to spark some kind of reaction! Perhaps a call for vengeance from a son or grandson. Perhaps even a lover.
As his eyes swept by, Makuo saw the painted irises shift of their own accord, and then the mouth gap moved, closing the fangs together.
He spat and glared at the dead spearman again.
“You weren’t worthy of wearing me,” he said again, and this time, his voice sounded more natural. As though whatever strife he had been dealing with had ended.
With that, the demon-mask stalked over to a corner of the crowd and swept up a cloak of animal skin. Tying it off, he tromped away.
Makuo felt his fists unclench themselves. He realized he hadn’t even known he had made them.
“An eshai,” he said softly, causing the woman to look at him sharply. “That was an eshai.”