Gimme, gimme - Editor
Full Force and Fury
by Billy Wong
Hank wiped his longsword and looked back through the rain, to the female warrior lying prone on the tiles of the abandoned courtyard. Her graceful hands still gripped slender swords, but her arms were splayed across the ground, and blood pooled beneath her. Had he gone too far? He walked around to her front and saw her stir.
"Good fight, little lady," he said, wiping blood from his scratched cheek. His arms ached from the pace of their duel, and many cuts stung his skin.
She looked up. Ignoring his offered hand, she struggled to her elbows and knees and spat. Blood dripped from the gash his running slash had put into her chest. "You cheat!" she yelled over the water cascading down from the gutters atop the walls. "How could you throw your sheath into my face like that?"
"You tried to drop a tree on me when I wasn't expecting it. Now, didn't you say you'd tell me where your father was if I won?"
"What? I haven't lost."He stared at her panting, pain-wracked frame. "Haven't lost? You were lying there completely defenseless. I could have done bad things to you had I wanted." Her small, slanted eyes blazed with insulted rage. "What bad things would you have had time to do?"
"Well... kill you, for one."
"Think so? Why don't you try it now, if you do?"
Killing her would not be conducive to his goal, but he aimed a meaningful slice at her collar to prove he could. She blocked with one blade and nicked his leg with the other. He stepped back and frowned. Fighting a severely wounded girl who couldn't even stand wasn't really his desire.
"You're bleeding to death. Give up this foolishness and I'll help you."
"Never!" she cried, dragging herself forward. Crimson darkened the rainwater behind her. He parried a clumsy stab at his groin, kicked her hand to send one of her swords flying away. She forced him back with a wide swing and crawled to retrieve it.
He watched her desperate efforts with admiration and bemusement. Her stubbornness belied the fine-boned features now dirty and scratched and her small frame. "Come on, this isn't fair. You can't even get up, when will you admit you've lost?"
"Get up?" She drew herself gradually up, collapsed but caught herself against a wall so that it supported her in a half standing position. "I'm up. Come get me!"
He obliged her, but put no effort into the blows he rained down, allowing her to easily block. Watching her strained, determined face, he expected her eyes to lose focus and roll up in a faint any moment now. She surprised him with a tackle about the legs, bore him down and raised a blade to his throat.
"I win," she breathed. "I win!"
Hank sensed her trembling body wasn't quite ready to finish him. He put a hand against her blood-soaked chest and pushed her off. "You lost long ago. Admit it already."
He scooted back to sit against the wall, ignoring her feeble attempts to rise again. After a moment, she gave up and dragged herself to lean back next to him. He felt a bit concerned about her wounds, ironically considering he'd inflicted them himself.
"I won't admit anything that's untrue." She paused, breathing heavily. "Why are you here? I've beaten every local swordsman who came for my father's head. Do even foreigners want his life so badly?"
"Is that why you fought so hard? I don't want to kill him! I want to save him."
She gave him an surprised look, which turned quickly to one of annoyance. "Save him? Why didn't you mention that before you slashed me to pieces?"
"You never told me why you were trying to kill me. Besides, I thought a duel with you might be good exercise."
"Good exercise? You thoughtless male. But how do you expect to save my father? No one ever thinks to do that."
"Then I might not be such a thoughtless male, hmm? I'm not just an extraordinary swordsman." He held forward his blade. "See this cross? I am also an exorcist."
"Cross? Isn't that just the hilt of your sword?"
"Who's the simple one again? Now, tell me where your father is so I can help him."
"Give me a second to catch my breath. I'll take you there." He broke into laughter. "What's so funny?"
"You just agreed to take me to him. I guess that means you've accepted your defeat!"
She sighed, and clutching her chest stood and staggered onward.
Miku led the tall, rough-skinned stranger deeper into her family estate, struggling to hide the pain. Her chest burned intensely, but she was a samurai lord's daughter and she would not falter. Yet it proved hard not to cry, seeing the state her home had fallen into. Though it was midday and the rain had slowed, storm clouds darkened the sky in which the sun had not shone for a long time. The cherry blossoms had withered and drooped from their trees, and twisted weeds slithered out from cracks in the unmaintained floor and walls.
"Are you all right?" the man with the crude straight sword asked as she blinked back tears. Hank, he called himself. His short, tousled brown hair would have made her think him lowborn, but he carried himself with confidence enough for a noble. "Do you need help with your wounds? I hurt you pretty bad."
"I'm fine. I've been trained to handle this." She had already slowed the bleeding with her ki. Otherwise, she would have fallen long before. "Are you truly an exorcist? I thought they would carry more exotic tools—and dress in fancier clothes than cut up leathers."
"You had a part in making them cut up. I'm not an exorcist by trade, I'll admit. I just heard about this area being tainted with demonic energy and decided I ought to help. Fiends' tricks cost my best friend his life, so I'm inclined to stand up against them."
"Not a real exorcist? I would've fought harder to stop you if I knew that." She gazed upon the pointy-topped main keep ahead and exhaled. "I suppose I should thank you, though. I might never have found the courage to face my father if you hadn't came." Merely guarding him from outsiders while the land grew warped around them was no long-term solution, after all.
"So how did your father come to be involved with demons?"
"I don't know. He was studying the Splendid Sword—our family's secret art—like he always did, when one day he said he'd made a great breakthrough and killed my mother! I ran, of course... at first I thought he'd just gone insane, but then the plants started dying, and I realized something otherworldly must be going on." Tears mingled with the rain on her cheeks by now, and she couldn't stop shaking. "I've been hiding around here ever since."
"He killed your mother," Hank said softly, "and you still protect him? You're a good daughter."
"I won't believe my father could do such a thing in his right mind. So how do you drive a demon out of someone?"
"There are several methods, but the one I've used before involves making the demon expend its energy. Fiends get tired too, and if you wear them down enough, it can give the will of the possessed a chance to fight them off."
She blinked. If she'd known that, she might have tried it earlier. Then again, she would have been hard pressed to take on her father alone. She had forgiven Hank entirely for wounding her now.
"I should go to the stable," she said as they approached the low, drab structure over which the keep loomed. "Wait for me here."
"The stable? What do you need there?"
Jogging over just because she didn't know how long she could hold her resolve, she went to the one stall occupied still. A familiar neighing greeted her. Lightning, her old chestnut horse. He wasn't fast anymore, but he'd remained her one companion after her family's downfall. As long as she kept feeding him, he tolerated the unearthly presence nearby in stride. She'd spent many a cold, terrifying night here, her only comfort his warm flank under her head. Now the time had come to say goodbye.
"Come, friend," she whispered, and holding his neck led him outside. Her jaw was clenched as she brought him to Hank's side. She slapped his rump. "Go ahead. Koji wants to play once more."
"Koji?" Hank asked.
Lightning trotted obediently forth. From behind the wall around the keep issued a rumbling growl. Through the gate stepped a hulking quadruped being, ten feet at the shoulder, with a long triangular head and hide like mossy green cobblestones.
Hank stared. "What is that?"
Her body shivered at the alien form which did not belong in this world. "Koji. My father's dog."
Grotesque bulging eyes fixed on Lightning and the altered canine rushed. The horse turned and galloped away, but though he ran faster than Miku had seen in years it was clear he wouldn't be swift enough. Koji bounded after him more like a giant slathering bear than hound, covering over a dozen feet with each hop. Tiles cracked and scattered beneath its crashing paws. How she'd hated that dog, so loud and frightening towards guests and her friends. She would have fought it despite her fear, except she had little experience battling non-human foes. It pained her not to be able to afford the risk now.
Hank ran after Koji, catching up when the beast butted Lightning down with its snout and stopped. As Koji drew back for the fatal bite, Hank ran up its tail, leaped across its back and plunged his sword down. The blade slid between two scales at the base of its skull, and its dagger teeth froze fingertips away from Lightning's spine before its eyes dimmed and its head thumped to the ground.
"That was the plan, right?" Hank asked, looking back. "Surely you didn't mean to sacrifice a good horse just to avoid this weakling?"
Miku smiled, heart warm with gratitude as Lightning walked back to her. She just might have to pick up some of Hank's boldness quick, if she was to do what she needed to help her father.
After retrieving his sword, wedged tight between Koji's stone-hard scales, Hank let Miku return Lightning to the stable before leading him onward. What a courageous girl, to stay here all alone. It would have been safer to let the horse get killed, but he'd hardly pass up a chance to impress her. Big dumb beasts, when you weren't afraid of them, and especially when they were distracted, really tended to be less dangerous than skilled men.
Still, that a creature could be as changed as Koji had been worried him. There must be a powerful demon around to do that. He hoped he wouldn't be forced to kill Miku's father. Many times a fiend's host had proven too weak to shake off their possessor, and left Hank with no choice but to slay them.
They had almost reached the keep when the iron doors swung open. Framed in darkness towered a figure resembling a nearly naked human male. The way gigantic muscles bulged and rippled from his body, however, should not have been possible on any man. Ridges of excess tissue ran atop the elephantine torso and limbs. Stretched so taut, his skin looked almost transparent. His skeleton should've collapsed under that weight; yet he still stood and, somewhat comically, tied a ripped shirt around his waist to conceal his manhood.
Miku hesitantly readied her swords. Hank too raised his. "Is this your father? He looks strong, but I'll wager he's fairly slow. Don't think it'll take too long to tire him out."
"No, this isn't him. It's our head retainer, Shirou."
"I see. Do you want to save him too?"
She regarded the giant before them, seeming to weigh the risk of not going all out against her compassion. "We'll try to subdue him first. If it's too hard, then, well... he's not family."
They charged, one to each side of the enemy. Hank settled on distracting Shirou, figuring he could leave incapacitating it to her. She probably knew more nonlethal attacks with her background than him. Before they could get into striking range, however, the monster lifted its great hands with palms out.
"No," it said in a slow, fumbling voice. "I don't want to fight."
Hank and Miku stopped in their tracks. "You can talk?" she asked. "Thank the gods for small blessings."
"You're still here?" Shirou asked, Hank barely able to understand his jumbled speech with his own rather basic knowledge of their language. "I thought everyone had fled but me."
Miku bowed her head. "I'm still not as loyal as you. Why didn't you move farther away, so the taint wouldn't reach you?"
"I liked the way my body changed at first," he said, eyes glum inside sockets made deep by the surrounding muscle. "By the time I realized I was turning into a monster, I couldn't leave here without losing all my strength."
Not very smart, Hank thought, but his dedication to his lord was admirable. "Have you tried to help her father? If we rid him of his possessor, you might just be able to return to normal."
"Of course I have! I tried to talk him out of what he was doing. But he attacked me, and I had to flee... every time I've approached him since, he's run me off before I had a chance to speak." His shoulders slumped like mountainous slopes. Frightening though he looked, he sounded incongruously disheartened and helpless.
"Are you ready to try again?" Miku asked, touching his shoulder. "We'll go together this time."
Shirou nodded. "He loves you the most. If anyone can reach him, it should be you."
They started into the keep, before Hank realized the utter lack of light inside. "I see your vision must've been altered too. But for our sake, wait for me to light some torches, will you?"
The three made their way up to the keep's apex, where Shirou carefully slid open the panel door to the lord's chamber. Seated on the floor in a meditative pose with his back turned, pretending not to detect their presence, was Miku's father. Was the demon honing its ki, like its host so often had? The only light in the room, besides their torches, came from the faint red glow pulsing about him.
"Master? I've brought someone to see you."
When he made no response, Miku added, "Father, are you in there? You mustn't allow this fiend to use your body anymore!"
Without turning around, he raised a hand in Shirou's general direction. "Oh, is that where my missing energy went?" Darkness flickered at his fingertips, and Shirou jerked forward as something seemed to be pulled from him. He began to rapidly shrink, back towards the size of a normal burly man.
"I-I'm human again! Master, thank you!" Then his eyes widened as he realized he continued to thin, and he screamed. Miku gasped in horror as his flesh sank inward. The skin hung loose around his bones, and his skeletal corpse toppled onto the carpet.
Miku couldn't believe her father would kill his long-devoted servant so heartlessly. No! It wasn't him. Crying, she stammered, "G-get out of my father, you soulless fiend!"
"You ask my demon to leave? But why should he, when I was the one who invited him in the first place?"
She felt Hank stiffen beside her. Her blood ran to ice as she forced out her next words. "You invited him? Did the demon even make you kill my mother?"
He rose, his blood-red robe flowing down like water over him. "Yes, it did." Finally he turned, the calmness of his movements unfathomable given the subject. He looked younger than she was used to, having sired her late; but frighteningly so, skin supple and posture straight with a foreign strength. "I had to summon him."
Miku staggered back, breathless. Hank put an arm around her to steady her, but kept his eyes on their adversary. "Don't panic. It could still be the demon, trying to deceive you."
But she would have known her father anywhere, and was fully convinced she listened to the real him. "Y-you really are insane," she whispered, voice choked with sobs. It had been so much easier to think an external force had been responsible for all he'd done. "Why? Look around you. This doesn't help you!"
"What, you think I did it for power in the way you would understand? No, I am not so obsessed with the outside world. I simply wanted to achieve something for myself, that no one had ever done before. I will reach the highest level of Splendid Sword!"
"The highest level? But that's a theoretical state that's never been attained—even our ancestor who created the art died trying!"
"That is because no mere human can endure the strain of wielding that power. But with the infernal energy of the demon within me, I will do so."
"This has to stop. Your quest is turning the world against you, and you have to turn back before it's too late." Why am I still trying to help him? He killed my mother of his own free will! But he was the only family she had left now, and she still clung to the hope his mind might be restored. "If it's not too late already."
"Daughter, your mother would understand better than you. I don't care what happens after this. But I will grasp my dream!"
Hank squeezed her arm. "We have to fight him now. If you won't, we should go."
She shrugged him off and returned her gaze to her father. "So you haven't done it yet? What makes you think you ever will?"
"My demon needed time to build back the strength lost coming from the netherworld. Now that the energy Shirou leeched away has been returned... the time has come!"
Miku drew her swords, and Hank appeared to realize she meant to fight. "What's this Splendid Sword like? Have you trained in it?"
"Yes, but he's much more advanced than I... even more so now, I'm sure. Let's just be careful and hope the two of us can overco-"
Her father ducked, throwing his robe straight up to reflect the light of their torches with the mirrors hidden beneath it. Knowing the old family trick, Miku shielded her eyes; but Hank did not know it, and looked away reflexively in surprise. Miku's father whipped his katana from its sheath, slashed down to launch a roaring wave of energy at the vulnerable swordsman. Knowing that he could not dodge in time, Miku barreled into him and knocked him away.
The blast caught her full in the chest. Her wound tore open, pain ripping through her breast, and she was flying with the tang of blood in her mouth. She crashed through four paper walls before tumbling to the ground, tried to rise only to fall back moaning with the agony of smashed ribs. Desperately she reached up, with a hand that looked puny and fragile even to her. Her vision blurred, her thoughts grew distant, and she vaguely felt her arm fall...
Rubbing his eyes clear, Hank looked to Miku lying crumpled in her own blood and back at her father who regarded her with concern. "What are you thinking? Do you mean to kill your own daughter too?"
"You led her astray! I will nurse her back to health and make her see the error of her ways, after I kill you."
Hank gripped his sword two-handed and held it high. "I know what I promised Miku, but I have to defend myself. Give up now or I won't regret it if I kill you."
His opponent laughed. "An admirable last showing of bravado," he said, and Hank feared he was right. He seemed totally confident in his skills, and if Miku had given Hank such a fight what would her father do? Then again he was much older too, and even with a demon empowering him his body might have certain limits. Finding them was the only plan which Hank could see a hope of succeeding.
He charged, thrusting his sword. Miku's father seemed to vanish, reappearing scant feet away in the corner of Hank's eye. Magical transportation? Hank slashed at the old man's neck, and again his target disappeared. But this time he managed to pick up the incredibly brief tapping of footsteps, and realized Miku's father had simply dodged. He'd just done so too fast for Hank to see.
The old man stood relaxed, expression neutral but with a grin in his eyes. He could have killed me already if he tried, Hank thought, but was merely toying with him. Concentrate, dammit! He needed to focus on following his foe's movements.
The light reflecting off the katana shifted, just enough to warn Hank of the upcoming movement. He jumped back as Miku's father blurred forward, slicing down. The blade's tip nonetheless cut open the length of his shirt. Another inch and he would be catching his guts. He struck back at his opponent's face. The old bastard didn't even move, except to flick his sword up. Upon contact between their blades, Hank found half of his sheared away.
Hank stared for a moment at his cleanly cut steel sword while Miku's father mocked him with smirking eyes. He growled and threw the broken blade. The subsequent clang told him it had been deflected with ease, but he was already running to Miku's side. If the family's blades were all made in the same way, maybe hers could stand up to her father's. Hank made to take the sword from under one of her limp hands, only for her fingers to close around it.
She looked up, and seemed relieved to see it was him. "You woke me up. Surprised you're still alive."
Her father shot in, stabbing at Hank's back. Hank tried to dodge, watched the katana's tip burst from his shoulder as the strike was too fast. "I need your swords!" he said through gritted teeth. "He cut mine."
"Take one." She dropped one blade, slashed up with its twin. "I'll use the other."
She had managed to nick her father's sleeve, perhaps because he hadn't expected her to dare attack him. "You insolent whelp!" he snapped, and with a palm thrust launched a spear of ki point-blank into Miku's chest.
The blow drove her down hard to her back. She cried out, blood exploding from her mouth. "Miku!" Hank yelled, and swung at her father with all his might. The impact jarred his arms. He gaped to hear a ding and see the sword stopped, as if of its own volition, inches from his adversary's face.
"A solid shield of ki," Miku whispered while the air shimmered a subtle red just before the halted blade. "I'd thought only gods and heroes of legend could create such a thing."
"Are you convinced yet, daughter? Come back to my side, and I will show you the path to enlightenment too."
On her elbows, struggling not to fall back, she shook her head. "Father, no. Martial enlightenment is not the same as a righteous path in life, and the former is worth nothing without the latter!"
Hank hacked repeatedly at the barrier to no avail. Behind it, the old man sneered in rage. An unseen tendril seemed to reach out from it, wrapping about Hank's neck and lifting him into the air.
"You are the one who has corrupted my daughter! Now die!"
With a pained shout, Miku shoved herself up. Holding her sword in both hands, she chopped down between her father and Hank. There was a thunderous boom, and the old man screamed. Freed of the choking pressure around his throat, Hank fell to his side and wheezed for breath. When he found the strength to look up, Miku knelt clutching her sword for support and drooling blood. Her father stood hunched and panting a few steps back from where he'd been, and seconds later spat bloody spittle of his own.
"You did that?" Hank asked. "I thought you were much weaker than him."
Miku swayed sideways and almost fell over, but caught herself at the last instant. "That took all my strength. I don't think I really hurt him much, either."
Her father straightened and raised his sword, a red glow of anger blazing from his eyes. "You dare strike me, you weak, useless girl? You have disobeyed me for the last time! My blood or not, I will kill you!"
"Get up, Hank," Miku said. She took his hand and, jerkily as a puppet, reeled to her feet. "We'll win, or die fighting."
Even with her will, her quiet voice sounded resigned to the latter. Hank rushed with her, far enough apart that they would take her father from two sides. Before they could get within five feet, the energy shield around him flared outward and blasted them away. It flickered violently around him, its red light like leaping flames. A smell of brimstone flooded the air, and the outline of a gigantic bulky, horned and clawed figure superimposed itself over him.
"Now," he bellowed, features distorted so that he seemed to have fangs and a double pair of eyes, "you will feel the Splendid Sword's full force and fury!"
Unearthly energies roared as they swirled into his sword. The katana twisted and grew, becoming a thrashing coil of flame. The whole keep shook with the overwhelming power. Miku tried to rise, possibly only to meet death on her feet. Hank just lay there, his strength gone. Miku's father brought the fiery blade down...
Miku had just started to duck when suddenly, the conflagration went out. Her father's eyes bulged, and above him one of the demonic outline's gigantic arms popped. Its jaw too dropped in shock, then great rifts tore open all over its body. With a howl like dying wind, its broken form blew away to nothingness. Blood erupted from a dozen places on its host's frame. The crimson energy shield shattered and he toppled to his knees, thick black liquid bubbling over his lips.
Miku ran over, cradling him in visibly shaking arms. Hank dragged himself after her. "Father! Father, what's wrong?"
He vomited out some more black gunk, turned his head wearily to regard her and whispered, "Miku, you were right. The highest level of Splendid Sword really was a theory and nothing more."
"Even a demon's power couldn't handle it? It must not be meant for this world. Father, hang on! I'll use my ki to heal you."
He sighed. "No, don't waste your strength. Kill me."
She recoiled, staring at his hopeless eyes. "What? No! I can't lose you! You're... you're all I have left."
"Do you think... the world would forgive me for what I've done? I'll only be a burden on you. Do it. I'd rather die than live knowing I wasted your mother's life for naught."
When she refused to move, Hank walked forward, raising his sword. "It's what he wants. I wouldn't be able to live with myself, either."
Despite her terrible wounds, she lurched to her feet and blocked his downward blow. "I said, no! Father, you know what you did was wrong, don't you? Your obsession blinded you, but it's done now. I'll take care of you."
The only answer came in the form of a gurgling sound, and Miku looked back. Hank glanced over her shoulder. Her father's eyes had rolled up, and he'd gone into convulsions. Before she could move, they stopped. His body lay still, eyes fixed and tongue lolling out of his mouth. She collapsed over him, sobbing.
Silently, Hank knelt to comfort her.
A few days later, Hank had recovered enough to travel. Putting on his sewn-up shirt and the eastern sword Miku had given him from the armory, he opened the door to the hall. Miku waited there to see him off, looking much more feminine in her billowy house clothes.
"Hope you're not still angry about me wanting to kill your father."
Tears glistened in her eyes, but she shrugged. "No, I understand why you'd think it was the right thing to do. Anyway, it doesn't matter now." She looked up and smiled. "But thank you for helping all you did. I especially appreciate you setting my ribs."
"You were splendidly tough not to pass out while I did. What do you plan to do now?"
"I could stay here, become the lady of the house and try to restore my family's good name." She took off her kimono, revealing the traveler's pants and jacket underneath. "Or I could leave this sad place behind and come explore the world with you. Interested, brave hero?"
"I don't know. Having you around might make it harder for me to woo other girls." He winked. "But seeing as it probably won't be hard work to protect you, I'll give it a chance."
"I'm glad you're not scared of me like most men."
"Why would I be scared? I did beat you in a fight, remember?"
She pouted. "You did not! So, where to? North, west, or south?"
"Or further east? It might do your perspective some good to meet people even smaller and more prideful than you."
Laughing, Miku followed him into a new life and, gods willing, happiness.