Authors: Hideyuki Kikuchi
heir swords were drawn. Glittering flecks rose into the air, collecting there, waiting for the fateful moment of blood spray. There were five combatants against one. As for their opponent, the blade he should’ve drawn to counter them remained sheathed in a scabbard shaped like a crescent moon.
Look around. The location was an outlying area of the village of Satori in Sector Nine of the northern Frontier—the ruins of Castle Macula. There was a crowd ten or twenty deep composed of villagers from Satori, as well as the residents of the three neighboring villages of Elk, Tabi, and Fouran, folks who seemed from their style of dress to be instructors, travelers, bar girls, hookers and gigolos, performing troupe members, gamblers, outlaws, and peddlers of everything from booze and tobacco to medicines, swords and spears, synthetic meat, and motorized equipment, ad infinitum.
Just because this was a Frontier village, that didn’t mean they spent all day, every day, shooting and stabbing each other. So when something did happen, everyone in the village locked up their homes and shops and came running. However, there were so many vendors and tradespeople here, it almost seemed as if they’d come days ago and pitched camp. The proof lay behind the rows of onlookers, where roasted-mushroom vendors more suited to late autumn and dried-fish sellers had set up shops side by side, followed by the always popular kebob shops, peddlers of Frontier sweets, and a shop selling rainbow-colored beans, their gaudily illustrated tents lining both sides of the broad thoroughfare. It was just like a carnival boardwalk. In fact, among the crowd were children with eyes aglitter as they gnawed on candy sticks, while their fathers sipped syrupy narcotic drinks from paper cups. Though the smaller stalls had only started to set up two days earlier, people had been coming into the village of Satori for the past three days, and the cause of all this commotion traced back to a day earlier than that.
“Draw!” one of the men urged. He was a hulking fellow; his arms, legs, torso, and head all looked like they’d been assembled from enormous meatballs. Everything about him was round and plump, while his head and limbs were devoid of even a single hair. His adversary stood there as still as a shadow that’d taken form on a winter’s day, so he was practically begging when he continued, “C’mon, when I tell you to draw, draw already! If you don’t, we can’t have much of a sword fight.”
The man seemed truly in a bind, and his opponent finally responded, saying, “Come at me.” His right hand went for his scabbard, and then with a flash of prismatic light, his blade was drawn. More than the beauty of its glint, it was the subtle forcefulness with which the young man raised his arm that shook everyone.
“Son of a bitch!” snarled another of his opponents—a muscular giant of a man who was exactly how you’d expect a warrior to look. He sounded both disgusted and enraged. He had beady little eyes, a broad, flat nose, and terrible buckteeth. “You damn show-off. I’ll see to it you get yours!”
His boots made a determined step forward.
“Wait! Let me handle this,” said another young man, standing to the right of the first. He was the smallest of the bunch, and his weapon was a bit strange. From the back of his left hand, iron claws projected a foot and a half—he wore what the ninja had called a
, or “hand claw.” The average sword could cut down about four people before its blade was so coated with blood and fat that it was rendered useless. But with its row of four iron claws, the
could use its tips like a raptor’s talons to rip a foe open without the fat dulling the effect.
“No, I’ll do it,” the fat one said.
“No, me. I can’t stand pretty boys. You wouldn’t believe how many times they’ve screwed me over,” said the bucktoothed warrior, and he evidently meant it.
“Shut up. You geezers keep out of this!” the young man with the
shouted with so much force his body quaked, and then he kicked off the ground. An incredible jump sent him in excess of fifteen feet, and he swung his weapon down from where he’d raised it overhead. There was an unearthly, mellifluous sound, and then the young man flew back. It almost seemed miraculous, the way he followed exactly the same trajectory and landed back where he’d started the leap.
Cries of astonishment rose from the onlookers, while the warriors looked at each other.
“All of you can come at the same time,” the young man said. His voice had become hoarse.
Though his expression twisted with puzzlement for a second, the bald, fat man charged forward, saying, “I’m next!” From the way the bucktoothed warrior muttered, “The bastard’s done it again,” it seemed the fat man made a habit of stealing others’ places in line.
His charge, which made the very ground tremble, seemed little more than the mad rush of a fool.
“Is he an idiot?” the hoarse voice spat, and then the young man in black’s blade pierced the fat man’s thigh. The thrust felt odd. Though the blade sank into his foe, it didn’t feel like it was piercing muscle and fat. It was like jabbing a stick into a wad of rubber cement.
The fat man collided with him. From his face all the way down to his knee, the young man in black sank into the doughy flesh. At this point, it wasn’t the spectators who gasped in astonishment, but rather the other four warriors. No one had ever withstood the fat man’s charge. Merely planting one foot back a little, this young man hadn’t even been knocked off balance. However, if he were to remain like that, he was as sure to die of suffocation as an old-timer with a rice cake caught in his throat.
The fat man wrapped his pudgy arms around the young man’s back. At the same time, his face turned toward the sky. The young man’s left hand had pushed his chin up—and no sooner did the people see that than the massive white form was thrown backward with incredible force. Until he struck the ground within spitting distance of the crowd—having been knocked a good twenty-five feet—the other warriors forgot about launching their next attack.
“All right, now it’s my turn!” the bucktoothed man said, flourishing his sword once. His amazement at the young man’s strength had changed to delight. It thrilled him to the core to fight such a man.
“Just a moment,” someone called out. It was the last of the group—the fifth and final warrior. Framed by a head of red hair that seemed ablaze, her beautifully pale countenance also burned with determination as she gazed at the young man.
Everyone present had to wonder why a woman with looks that would have allowed her to lead a charmed life would choose to do this instead. In fact, they’d been pondering that ever since they first laid eyes on her. But now they realized something. She directed an unwavering stream of murderous intent at that inhumanly gorgeous young man. And on neatly drawing her sword, she struck a daunting pose. The woman seemed the most formidable adversary of the bunch.
“Well, I’ll be,” the hoarse voice rasped appreciatively. “What a surprise! This little lady’s tough!”
Extending her sword, the woman slowly raised it to shoulder height. Her left hand was outstretched, fingers curling. No sooner did the people notice that the woman’s blade was strangely straight and thin than it flashed out. The woman made a thrust; in fact, she made a dozen simultaneously. All of the silvery flashes appeared to pierce the young man who stood some ten feet away.
However, it was the woman who gasped with surprise. There wasn’t a mark on the young man, and she hadn’t felt the tip of her sword sinking into flesh. The gorgeous young man in black had moved with an alacrity that surpassed the lovely woman’s speed with the sword. What she’d pierced had been an afterimage he left behind. Her willow-thin eyebrows rose in anger. The murderous intent that billowed from her became an inferno. At that moment, the people realized the woman’s destiny. There was only one way this could play out.
The woman advanced.
But a tall figure stepped out in front of her. Their one-eyed leader.
“Out of my way, Mikado,” the woman told her colleague in a tone of pure spite.
“Call it a day. You can’t take him.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know exactly what I mean. I won’t have any of my people throwing their lives away.”
“I’ll never know unless I try.”
“Delilah,” the man said, his good eye reflecting the beautiful woman. Her blazing animosity suddenly vanished. “Watch real closely.”
And with that, there was a rasp of steel as the man they called Mikado drew the sword from the scabbard on his hip.
the young man with the hand claw fairly gasped.
And the fat man, finally back on his feet, could only nod absentmindedly. “Mikado drew his blade,” he said, his voice shrill.
The world fell silent.
Mikado’s blade was low enough to touch the ground, while the young man squared off against him with his sword shoulder high and leveled at his opponent.
“Well, look at that,” a hoarse voice was heard to say.
Mikado had begun to shift his sword to a high position. At the same time, his face became as starkly white as paraffin.
Something was going to happen. Something outrageous. Sensing that, everyone waited with bated breath. The young man didn’t move. It was still as a holy winter’s night.
Without warning, Mikado lowered his blade. The color instantly returned to his complexion. Streaks of sweat rolled down his cheeks as if by popular consensus.
“I’m not ready to die yet,” Mikado creaked, squeezing a voice from his throat that was equally hoarse. It was like the sound of someone spitting up blood—or breathing their last. Turning to his compatriots, who were rooted to the ground in a daze, he said, “That’s about the size of it. He’s more than we can handle. We’re done here.”
A relieved murmur went through the crowd of spectators.
Mikado turned to face the young man once more. His opponent had already sheathed his blade and turned his back to the man. “Hold up,” he said.
The man in black halted.
“Why didn’t you cut us down? You don’t seem the sort to let somebody walk away after drawing on you.”
The young man began to walk away. Over one broad shoulder, a voice asked, “Why did you come at me one at a time?”
There was no way to describe the expression that wafted across the faces of Mikado and his people.
“Would you at least give us your name?” Mikado asked. “I’m Mikado, and the girl’s Delilah. The fatty’s Tong, the runt’s Enba, and the first guy you dealt with is Galil.”
They had their answer soon enough.
The color drained from the faces of all five. “You’re—” one of them started to say. Or perhaps it was all of them. After that, the warriors said no more, merely watching the young man walk off. Though the wind gusted past him, the murderous intent it should’ve borne had already died out.
D didn’t stop until he reached the black ten-foot sphere that loomed near the center of the clearing. The lustrous sheen of its surface as it reflected the sunlight told him it was metallic. The stone walls and rounded columns scattered around it, as well as the remnants of a well, made it plain that the whole clearing was the remains of something belonging to the Nobility—the ruins of Castle Macula. Six days earlier, a powerful quake had struck the region, causing extensive damage. The ground had subsided and there’d been a rash of landslides, but the torrential rains five days ago were the final blow. The mountainside crumbled, muddy torrents coursed over it, and the clearing that at first had been little more than a cramped depression grew to over ten times its former size. And it was four days ago that a piece of history that’d been kept hidden by those thousands of tons of earth and stone was discovered—the black sphere before the Hunter. That was how it all started.
Twenty-four hours was all it took for word to spread from one member of the town hall’s damage-assessment team to the entire village of Satori, and then to travelers and merchants. A remnant from the Nobility. And in superb condition. Bolstered in part by the object’s somehow humorous form, those who worked up enough courage to go over and touch it or bang on it were unharmed, and that only spurred on the commotion. Villagers had swung mattocks and pickaxes at it, and the blacksmith had pitted first an acetylene torch and then a laser cutter against it, but nothing had even scratched the sphere. It could be struck by a hundred-thousand-degree beam one second, yet be cool to the touch a second later, glistening in the sunlight.
It took no time at all for the people’s thoughts to go from
What’s it made of?
What’s it for?
—before winding up at
Is there something inside?
And those musings were transformed into a feverish morass of hopes and expectations when a physics instructor from a nearby school had come two days ago, spending half the day filling the walls and floor of his hotel room with scribbled calculations that ultimately spilled out onto the dirt of the clearing, until the fateful moment when he asserted, “There’s something in this sphere!”
Something? Could it be jewels and precious metals belonging to the Nobility, or the key to their ageless and undying nature? Drooling, with bloodshot eyes, the people set about trying to break the sphere open. Some shot at it with guns, while others planted dynamite around it. However, no matter what they tried, they couldn’t make this perfect sphere move even a fraction of an inch, despite its shape making it seem like it might roll away at any second. Time merely mocked them with its passing.
There was a reason for their feverish desire. Castles and ruins from the Nobility could easily be found anywhere on the Frontier. The northern Frontier was particularly thick with them, and the artifacts discovered there were purchased either by the government in the Capital or by local dilettantes for considerable sums of money, making communities and individuals quite rich. When signet rings, swords, clothing, sculptures, portraits, and the like could change hands for hundreds of millions of dalas, the villagers were forced to defend their interests. Ruins within the village bounds would be tightly guarded while surveys were conducted under watchful eyes. However, many of the sites turned out to be nothing more than ruins, and the people soon awoke from their fever to find mere fragments of an ancient dream littering the weedy wasteland.