Chapter 1. "Awakening"
Once, the First told me a tale of long ago. It was a story that went like this.
It began with eight riders charging across the plain. My Estelle lead the way, tireless and strong. A sword was at my waist, the wind in my hair, a bow at my back. Seven strong men were around me, sword-priests of the sword god. His blessing and his wind was always with us, and with that power we had turned armies and closed the gates on countless evils. But today, we could no longer feel his wind. We are not charging, we are fleeing; fleeing from a manevolent evil that sweeps everything before it. The blood soaking into my ceremonial robes shows clearly that this enemy was more than beyond us. Lesser mortals would feel only despair.
"He's coming!" Kageki warned, his voice clear as water under the midday sun. "He will catch us!"
The earth trembled beneath his great footfalls, leaves falling from the trees and spiralling slowly downwards. An autumn fit to acknowledge this day, the beginning of the godless month. We were fleeing without looking back at that dark shadow, but we knew its name, and we knew its nature. The great, ruddy demon of the earth, Hi no Ashinazuchi.
"What do we do, master?" Kageki asked.
"Leave it to me," I suggested calmly. "I can oppose him with my power. The rest of you, please reach the shelter of the Himemiya family as we'd planned."
"Don't be ridiculous!" the master said angrily. "You can't defeat that thing alone! If you die here, everything will have been meaningless."
"He's coming," I repeated softly. "There isn't any other choice."
"We will fight him ourselves. That's all there is to it."
I looked at him, eyes betraying my dismay. "But with your power-"
"Don't think about it," master said calmly. "You do not need to think. This is the will of Ame No Murakumo."
I collected myself for a long moment, remembering my place. I am just a blade, no more and no less. "I understand. If it is your will, Master Ogami."
"No matter what, you must reach the Himemiya. You must reach your other self."
"Yes." They fell back as I spurred Estelle on. Despite myself, I turned my head to watch.
Though they were there, my eyes were drawn to him. As large and strong as a mountain, tree-trunk red legs bound with rings of black steel, a single-horned head and a right arm as large as the oldest tree on earth. And behind that demon, a dark, brooding shadow lingered… the face of our enemy, Orochi. Compared to that, the seven were too small, too weak, too mortal, even though I know Ame No Murakumo's power was on their lips and in their blades and arrows. And at that moment, I felt the claws of black despair reach for me, dark and cold, threatening to claw me into the shadow. I rejected it with an impulse, my purity and defiance… I would not be bowed by this. If they died, I would not mourn them. I would remember them, in song and in prayer, and that would give rise to an ever-greater strength and purity. I felt the shadow receed in my mind, Orochi's tendrils thwarted. And I rode on, the cold fading sun my only witness in a bleak and empty world.
But what we came to at the end of sun's fall was ruin, not salvation. The Himemiya castle was in ruins, their estate smashed and burning. The sky was abruptly set alight with a blaze of purple, licking through the air. I could feel it, though dark clouds obscured it from sight. Another demon who had allied itself with Orochi.
I had already given my word, though. No matter what I must find him, my other self. If we combine our powers, it may yet be possible to snatch victory from despair. So I rode through the ruined gates. Estelle's hooves crunched on hot ash. I dismounted, mentally ordering her to stay put and approaching the fallen soldiers scattered there. Most of them were dead, their wounds unclean, their lives spilt across the bitter ground. To die before a god without being able to do anything… it was almost more than I could bear.
One man was alive. He looked blearily up at me, his eyes widening in slow comprehension. "So you've come."
"Where is he?" I asked calmly. "The Lunar Priest, Shuu-dono?"
He struggled to point towards the cloud. "He… went ahead… to fight that monster… hurry. You must go there."
"I understand." I turned away. "I will go."
"Wait," he said. "Are they coming? The Ogami?"
Just say that they were coming, and he could die in peace. I know that to be true.
But that is not the way of Ame No Murakumo. "They aren't coming. Just me. They have already been destroyed."
I broke into an explosive run, leaving him behind. My heart had also shook and twisted with those words, a reminder of a bleak truth. They, those I called my family, were all died, struck from this world by another god. Without the heavens to witness their valour, their kind hearts and brave swords had fallen, one after the other. Now there was just me, racing through the ruined compound and past the blasted dead. This is the bleak fate of a sword wielded only in war, to witness killing and death without end. So it has been before, so it shall ever be. Remember that.
The thick, dark clouds momentarily cleared and I saw a single figure clearly, framed against that light and flying through the sky as no mortal could. Long blue hair, a sword, a mighty bow aimed into the maw of the unseen beast above. The shot loosed in one smooth movement blazed with silver light, the incarnate wrath of Ame No Murakumo. My spirit was rekindled by the sight and redoubled my efforts to reach the north wall, where I could still feel the spirits of warriors standing against their overwhelming enemy. Undoubtedly, my other self was there.
In a few more moments, I had reached it. These walls alone were intact, teeming with archers who unleashed a bold barrage of shafts into the dark clouds. The blue-haired figure stood there too, nocking another arrow. Doubt dying in my heart, I ran to join them.
"Haruki-sama! You have come!" I slid to a halt, looking at the Himemiya Head, Uchito-sama. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he looked down. "But it's too late. My son… the Lunar Priest is dead." He choked with the pain of a fate betrayed. "Everything, everything is over."
I looked down with horror, taking in the sight of Shuu Himemiya laid respectfully on a white blanket, peacefully and beautifully dead. His long blue hair was splayed out around him, while a bloody flower blossomed in his violated snowy breast. I felt my knees fold under me. My destined one, the other self I barely knew, was already dead. "How… how could this be…"
"We were undone by treachery!" Uchito-sama screamed, slamming his fist against the ground. "A blade in the night! And now this." He touched Shuu's face with a trembling hand. "I am sorry, my lady. We have utterly failed you."
For a moment I was paralysed by pain and despair. It was my sword that called to me, clear and loud. Everything was already over. Without my other self, this battle was meaningless, already lost. My hand touched the hilt of my katana. Wouldn't it be best to end it nobly, here and now? To fall bleeding on the breast of he who I am destined to accompany, and die with him? Those dark thoughts filled me to overflowing, but a single echoing thunderbolt cleared my thoughts and opened my eyes. "His sword… where is it?" I asked urgently. "He should be with his sword."
"She… she took it," Uchito-sama muttered brokenly. "That wretched failure. She would die fighting with it, she said."
"Who?" I said. "Who said that?"
Uchito-sama raised a trembling hand, pointing to the ramparts.
I looked up just in time to see another lightning bolt crash down. And this time I saw it clearly. The blue-haired warrior, bow in one hand, raising my other self's sword in their other hand. The lightning bolt struck the blade head-on, scattering harmlessly overhead. "Who is she?"
"It doesn't matter," Uchito-sama said. "She can do as she pleases. It's already done with, ever since she failed. I'll take his sword back from her body and give it back to him-"
I slapped him hard. He looked up at me with disbelieving eyes, clutching his cheek. "You fool! Right now, she is more right than either of us! Thank the heavens she was there to pull the scales from my eyes!"
"Aren't you ashamed? How can these men fight without their lord? They feel no less fear, no less despair!" My voice blazed with the agony of the repentant sinner. I had failed as gravely as he had in this moment. "Stand! Fight! Even if we have no hope left, we must fight before we can die! That is the will of Ame No Murakumo!"
Uchito-sama stared at me for a long moment, then bowed his head low to the earth. "Please forgive me, priestess!"
"Stand and draw your sword," I instructed coldly, turning away. "Here and now we must only fight."
I jumped, feeling Ame No Murakumo's power warm my breast as I landed on the battlements in one leap. I strode forwards, pushing past the crowd of men. "Do not despair! Ame No Murakumo is still watching over us!" I drew my sword, stepping up to the highest point. "We can still win the day!"
"The Solar Priestess… the Solar Priestess…" I could hear those words pulsing like lightling through the battered defenders. And I could feel their warrior spirits catch fire again, lit up by hope, desperate and deluded thought it might be- but it was something. It was enough. When men stand and fight evil without fear, I know well, Ame No Murakumo will always acknowledge that.
I looked down at the blue-haired warrior. She was on her knees, gasping for breath. Blood dripped from her face and deep cuts on her arms and shoulders. "Please forgive me… for my blasphemy… Haruki-sama…" she managed weakly.
"Please stand," I instructed. "What is your name?"
"Sayomi. Sayomi Himemiya, of the Himemiya branch family." She struggled to her feet, her arms trembling from fatigue. "This dishonoured body is yours. Please do with it what you will."
"Then live," I instructed, turning to face the dark, malignant sky. "Live and stand and fight with that blade, Sayomi-dono. I need your power, so please remain by my side."
She looked at me, eyes wide with shock. "Haruki-sama."
"Enough," I said. "It's coming again." I raised my free hand when Sayomi Himemiya struggled to lift her sword. I brought my sword up to guard with both hands, leaping upwards as the purple lightning slashed down. Light blazed from my divine mark, wrapping my sword with golden light. In an instant, I cut through the enemy's attack, dispering it all. A moment later, I flipped back and landed on the battlement again, breath coming fast. That unnatural lightning is insanely powerful, and yet an ordinary believer could turn it with the Moon's sword? Is such a thing possible? Even for my sword and my power, this is difficult.
The monstrous clouds roared in frustration. "It sounds annoyed," Sayomi Himemiya said calmly.
"I will take care of everything here," Uchito-sama said, his voice coming from behind us. "Please fight without holding back, Haruki-sama."
Sayomi Himemiya looked back over her shoulder. "Himemiya-sama."
Uchito-sama closed her eyes. "And you as well, Sayomi Himemiya."
Sayomi turned back, her expression strong despite her injuries. "As you command, Himemiya-sama."
The soldiers continued to pour arrows into the clouds. Another great bolt shot towards us. This time, I simply raised my sword, drawing the bolt into it and slashing down. The purple lightning crashed down into the ground in front of the wall, cratering it instantly. "Please concentrate all of your power in your legs, Sayomi-dono," I instructed, taking a stance again. "We will rip through that demon's clouds in one strike and reach it at that moment. Cover my body with your strength, and I will take care of the rest."
I gritted my teeth as I released all my power, a surge of strength washing through me. A wave of pure golden light poured through my priestess' uniform as my divine mark became a glowing brand. But I could also feel Ame No Murakumo's strength pouring off Sayomi Himemiya, unclean and unclear though it was- a strong silver light that was filling her with the righteous energy. It should be impossible, but I was in no mood to question miracles. "Now!"
Another lightning bolt crashed down, bigger than ever before. We exploded through it, our swords ploughing through in unison and reducing it to nothing. In the next instant we slashed through the clouds, a shockwave parting them across the sky and revealing our enemy. My eyes flashed over the tough-skinned purple body and the eight tentacled arms- undoubtedly, Yatsu no Onokoshizuchi. Thick tendrils of lightning exploded from its arms, crashing towards us from all sides. I slashed forwards with one great blow, clearing our path as we landed heavily on the first tentacle. I flipped my sword round, driving it into the tentacle and pulling it upwards as I charged. Sayomi Himemiya deftly switched to her bow, firing charged bolts of energy and deflecting the lightning falling on us from all directions at once. The demon screamed in pain, two of its tentacles thrashing round to crush us. "Jump!" I shouted. We both barely leapt clear, landing at the centre of the beast's gross mass. I landed deftly, raising my sword. Sayomi Himemiya landed more roughly, supporting herself by driving her sword into the creature's skin and holding it tightly with her left hand. I would have to take care of the rest.
"So you really did come. Or should I say, as expected of the Solar Priestess?"
We looked up as a figure resolved itself from the remaining mist. A beautiful purple kimono, long black hair and malicious golden eyes- an elegant woman stood watching us, standing at the centre of the beast. Darkness spilled around her. I gritted my teeth. "You're a disciple of Orochi, aren't you!"
"You!" Sayomi Himemiya screamed in the same moment. "You're the one! You killed him!"
The woman laughed maliciously. "You're both right. Orochi's Second Neck, Mamiko-sama, at your service." She brought her hands together, purple light forming there and creating two transparent fans. She snapped them open, revealing an impossibly fragile glass. Her head chimed as it moved, small crystal bells tied into her hair. "Please rest easy. I will send you both thereafter to meet with the one you have already lost."
I frowned, giving Sayomi Himemiya a warning look. "Leave this to me."
"But!" Sayomi Himemiya shouted, frustration plain on her face.
"Ara. Can you really afford to be saying such casual things right now?" Mamiko smirked. Purple light collected across Yatsu no Onokoshizuchi's arms as it charged for another blast of lightning.
I looked around, gritting my teeth in frustration. What would they shoot at? Us or the soldiers? Could I really afford to let them all die? How could I fight in this situation?
"Leave this one to me," Sayomi Himemiya said calmly.
"You can't!" I said automatically.
"Please destroy the demon, Haruki-sama," Sayomi Himemiya said, raising her bow and nocking another arrow. "I will take care of this enemy."
I stared at her in momentary disbelief. Such an impudence and lack of deference was beyond my expectations- but what I saw in her eyes changed all that. The anger was gone, as was all fear. All she had was the determination of one making a sacrifice, and staking everything on her blade. The eyes of a true warrior. "I understand. Please win and live so we can meet again."
I turned and ran back down the first tentacle without looking back. From now on, I would have to put her battle out of my mind. My own chances were hardly less bleak; even my power cannot match that of a god incarnate. But what I could do was annoy her. I turned and drove my blade into the gaping wound I'd already made, forcing it down and filling it with waves of Ame No Murakumo's power. Yatsu no Onokoshizuchi screamed again in rage and pain as I drove my Sun's sword in to the hilt, pressing my feet against the pommel. The tentacles twisted, pointing their blazing tips towards me. My eyes narrowed as I took in the glowing suckers, pulling my bow from my back and pulling an arrow into place. The lightning rippled towards me in one great wave, threatening to engulf me. I forced myself to wait until the last moment before I jumped upwards, flipping in mid-air. I pulled the string back, filling the arrow with Ame No Murakumo's blessing and letting fly. It struck the wall of lightning head-on, driving it into the deep wound I'd gouged. The demon spasmed as I landed on the blackened ruins of a tentacle, shouldering my bow and pulling my sword from the charred mass of split flesh. One down.
I whipped up the slumping arm, jumping as more tentacles lashed out and driving my sword into the tip. It swung me through the air, trying to shake me off. My divine mark blazed with power as I held on tightly, golden hair whipping around me. Then I let go with my left hand, pulling two arrows from my quiver and charging them with light. They slammed into its suckers, sticky black blood welling up and dripping along their length. Finally, I kicked off as it twisted upwards, pulling my sword free and landing close to the head. Once again, I drove cold steel into hard flesh. No matter what, for as long as the Orochi disciple is alive, it cannot tilt its head more than a little. That will be my shield; with my bow and my sword, I can undo it. I pulled my bow from my back as the remaining seven tentacles curled upwards to face me, gathering more purple light. I held one arrow with my teeth, pulling and loading another as the light pooled and gathered. I took aim at one cluster of suckers and shot a golden arrow. My second bolt fell from my teeth and I caught it in mid-air, loading and aiming in one motion. Two of the tentacles were shot, violent explosions of purple lightning destroying their tips. The monster thrashed, wailing plaintively. I shouldered my bow and pulled my sword free just in time, spinning with a light-wrapped blade to cut through the lightning crashing towards me. I yelped in pain as some slammed into my back, drawing blood. But a good three of the blasts had been wasted sailing over my head. The remaining tentacles turned away, shielding their suckers from my sight.
It can learn, slowly. That's good. That means it can fear and it can doubt. I drew my bow with one hand and held my sword with the other, charging across the edge of the great head. I can trap it with those emotions and destroy it, if Ame No Murakumo guides my blade.
I zigged and zagged across the perimeter, but wherever I moved it shielded its suckers from my line of fire. I could feel it gathering its malignant energy, thick and deadly. Undeterred, I sped up my movements, dodging left and right and watching carefully as they moved. Almost time. Forwards and left. Now right. I exploded forwards in that instant, moving as fast as I could. Pain shot up my back but I turned in mid-air, skidding to a halt on one of the remaining tentacles before it could move. The other tentacles shot upwards, turning in an instant to let fly. I looked it straight in its ugly, beaked face, bringing my arms up and together. I shot my sword into its left eye before it could blink protectively. In the next moment I was sailing through the air after my weapon, purple light exploding behind me and ripping another tentacle to pieces. I caught the sword before its eyelid could fully close, slamming my feet into its eyeball and pulling my sword downwards. It began to thrash and spasm uncontrollably, writhing in pain. I desperately kicked off, barely landing on the ruined tentacle behind me and racing back to the centre. This time, no tentacles assailed me. Instead, it began to sink, slowly, towards the earth.
I returned my bow to my shoulder. Most likely, it wouldn't be able to understand what I had just done. By locating its face using its screams and using its reactions to my movements to bring one of its tentacles into position to take a shot, I could create an opening. God or not, that was human wisdom and human power. With Ame No Murakumo's guidance, of course.[/spoiler]
"[spoiler]Strong words," Shiria Sano said, looking amused. No, Mamiko, the Orochi Disciple. "It's a shame that's all you have. Look at you. You've already been torn up, punching above your weight like that. I suppose this is as far as a fake can go, after all."
"Shut up!" I shouted.
Mamiko snapped her fans shut again, covering her lips with the one in her left hand. "But it's nostalgic, actually. You said very strong words about Shuu-chan, as well. 'I will protect him with my life, on my honour as a Himemiya…' You have a terrible record with oaths. Though I suppose you can't have a real sense of honour, since you're alive before me now."
"That's enough! That's not true at all!"
"Ara? What's not true?" Mamiko smirked. "It's certainly true that I killed him without being able to do anything at all. Now you're standing before me now, usurping his sword and his position… is that your ambition? But it's also certainly true that I'll kill you now, and you'll break your word with the Solar Priestess as well. Betraying them both in one day is quite the achievement." She brought her hands down to her waist, cocking her head. "Or how about you do it another way? We're still looking for the Eighth Head, you know. It may be suited for someone as wretched as you. How about it? At least that way you'd survive."
I smiled, calmly taking my aim and pulling back the string. "Please die."
Your words cannot reach me, not since I saw you kill Shuu-sama.
I shot. The next thing I saw, the arrow was spinning through the air, deflected by a single strike from one of her fans. Not good. She charged me in the next moment, moving incredibly fast. I hastily shouldered my bow and pulled out my sword, stepping back and barely blocking the first two strikes with a single parry. Her golden eyes glowered at me, her expression a scowl. I jumped back, trying to give myself space to swing, but she kept after me, forcing me into a rapid defensive. My limbs groaned with pain as we exchanged a blistering number of blows, sweat dripping down my forehead. I know well after seeing her kill Shuu-sama, those fans are as deadly as any sword. I've already been torn up; if I take any more hits, I'm going to lose my strength and die. That's all there is to it.
But why? Why am I feeling this power rush through me, this thrill? My senses are elevated to a plateau I've never felt before, a high of perception that shouldn't even be possible. Even though she's attacking this rapidly, my instincts can turn everything aside. Why is my mind asking… is this all you can do, with your power?
I thrust down my excitement, raising my sword and blocking the first fan with my blade. I twisted my body, letting the second fan slide past me. In the next moment, I pushed bodily forwards, knocking her off balance, then slashed into the opening. She kicked backwards, barely evading the attack, but I rushed forwards, sword raised. Grimacing, she brought her fans round. My sword dropped, scraping across the purple hide before slashing up from below her line of sight. Her fans spun uselessly a hand's span from my face before she desperately dodged sideways. But I drew blood from her smooth skin, cutting into her flank before we seperated. I brought my sword back to guard, heart pounding fast. Yes, just like this. No matter the pain. No matter my back, which felt like it was being frozen in ice. With this, I could leaverage the length of my weapon. With this, I could win.
"How is this possible?" Mamiko breathed. "Did I make some mistake-"
I charged her without hesitation, aiming my sword for her face. As I kicked off the ground to cover the final distance I noticed an innocent movement. She switched the fans between her two hands.
I stabbed her in the face and she shattered like glass, dissolving into crystaline fragments before my eyes. In the next moment, I was surrounded by mirrors that rippled with light, reflecting my shocked face and melding seamlessly into dozens of scenes. My childhood in the dojo. Watching Shuu-sama from afar. Praying to Ame No Murakumo. Bowing to Himemiya-sama. Shiria Sano bowing to Shuu-sama. Staring in horror at her glass fan, buried in his chest while he slept.
I felt an indescribable fear, dodging desperately sideways. I was stabbed in the chest.
Mamiko smirked, meeting my eyes as blood ran down the closed fan. "I have pierced your heart. You cannot breathe. You cannot move. In a few seconds, I will open my fan and you will die instantly. Please use the remaining time to regret challenging me, and the failure that has become of everything you have ever attempted."
My left hand grabbed her wrist and broke it. My right hand slashed upwards, cutting her in half at the waist. I watched her dully as she split into two, falling down before me. I've killed before, but this is the first time I've had no regrets.
My knees folded under me as I gasped wretchedly for breath. The monster we were riding screamed in noisy pain as my vision swam. I think I'd managed to move aside far enough at the last moment, but she probably took one of my lungs. Most likely, I'm going to die. But that's fine. Her sins were talking too much, and holding back that bizzare power until the very last moment. For Shuu-sama and I both, combat was never just a game. It is earnest and it is silent; it is to the death. Someone like that… could only take Shuu-sama's life in his sleep, that's the extent of her capacity. And now I have avenged him. Going to join him like this is fine.
I ran to the centre of the beast as it descended, sword raised. I had no idea what I would encounter. Whether Sayomi Himemiya was dead or alive… I could only hope. Could I have won faster? Did I fight too cautiously? Already, I'm gnawed up by those doubts.
The scene I was confronted with stopped my breath. "Sayomi-dono!" Seeing the fallen Orochi, I sheathed my sword and ran to Sayomi Himemiya's side, kneeling and looking anxiously at her. Undoubtedly, she was still barely alive, but blood was freely welling up through her kimono. The fan was still buried there, straight through her chest. My mouth turned to ash. A sure-kill wound. How could I accept that?
It took me a few seconds to notice that tears were welling up in my eyes. It was strange. I've been trained since I was five and I've fought in battle since I was twelve. I'll killed and I've seen countless men die, allies and enemies. I've reached a state where passing by a wounded comrade is a matter of fact, and letting someone ride to the death for my sake isn't anything outside the ordinary. And yet… and yet… this girl, who was braver than me and stronger than me, who fought through dishonour and deep wounds not for destiny or a sense of the divine but for her own duty, her own beliefs… this girl who had believed in me and followed me here was dying, and I was crying. I didn't want it to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this. We'd just made a miracle happen by combining our powers. How was I supposed to accept an end like this?
I wiped my eyes, gritting my teeth, and put my hands on her shoulders. No, I couldn't accept this. "Sayomi-dono! Don't die!" It was a ridiculous request, I knew. "Don't die! You promised me you'd survive!" I drew on all my power, the divine mark on my chest blazing with golden light. My words strengthened as I felt Ame No Murakumo's blessing racing down my arms and seeping into her body. "You must live! You're a necessary person!" My request became an order. I gritted my teeth as my chest was wracked with pain, further intensifying the flow of light. "Survive, and stay by my side!" I instinctively pulled the fan from her chest, throwing it aside. "Sayomi, live!"
Tears ran down my cheeks as I met her eyes. "I've ordered you to live, Sayomi Himemiya-dono."
Her silver light rose around her body as she struggled to lift her right hand. "If it is your order… Haruki…"
I took her hand and smiled. "Yes. Your energy belongs to me now too, remember? So we will be together from now on like siblings bound together by the same kokoro."
Yatsu no Onokoshizuchi crashed into the ground, crushing the landscape around it. I simply sat without moving and looked down at her, our radient auras merging and dancing in the falling dark of night.