Sano didn’t think he’d ever made such good time between Seijuurou’s house and his own, but running nearly the entire way rendered him almost useless by the time he reached the village. This was fortuitous, as he was forced to slow down about when crossing the irrigation bridge into Eloma; he hadn’t been thinking very clearly most of the way over, and would probably have flung himself immediately, sword drawn, at anyone he didn’t recognize once he arrived, so being compelled to ease up for a few minutes and be rational was undoubtedly for the best.
He took the same back route he had last night, avoiding the center of town, toward his house, letting his lungs and various muscles stop burning as he proceeded a little more slowly and carefully. This path provided him no sight of outsiders or anything dangerous, but as he approached his home from behind, he heard quite clearly a dismaying crashing noise within.
From around in front someone said loudly, “There’s nobody here!”
Quietly Sano moved to the corner of his residence and peered out to where exactly what he’d feared was evidently going on. The angry speaker wore what he’d seen on the men in the memories: the white shiiya of a royal knight with the blue-green ocean wave symbol of Gontamei in the diamond on the chest. And the object of his ire was the father of one of Sano’s friends, a grey-bearded man that appeared, at the moment, rather distressed. Even as Sano watched, the Gontamei knight took the man by the front of his shiiya and pulled him roughly closer.
“Have you been lying to me, old man,” he demanded, “or are you just blind and stupid?”
“No, master,” replied Genji’s father a little unsteadily, struggling as the other pulled him off balance, “I saw him come home last night carrying someone on his back! It must have been who you’re looking for.”
“Well, they’re not here now. If someone here’s hiding them…” The knight gave Genji’s father a threatening shake.
“He may have left again when nobody was looking,” suggested the old man helplessly.
Abruptly, in a motion almost more a shove, the knight released the old man so the latter fell hard to the ground. Turning to someone Sano couldn’t see, he gestured widely and angrily. “They can’t have gone far if Hajime had to be carried. Search every house! Search the orchards! And be thorough about it!”
Judging by the crash he’d heard as he’d approached, this last command implied free destruction throughout the village. And since the person they sought definitely wasn’t here, it probably wouldn’t end after only a few houses.
Genji’s father must also have realized this, for from his seat on the ground he said, hasty and desperate, “Please, master, I swear we don’t know where they are! The boy comes and goes on his own–”
But Sano had a better way of keeping the false knights from doing any more damage — at least to the property of those uninvolved. Stepping forward, drawing his sword, he interrupted the old man loudly, “Fucking right I do.”
The knight that had been giving the orders whirled to face him. He reached for his sword, but never managed to pull it more than a few inches free of its sheath. Sano’s energy blade, full and bright now with the strength of his rage, cut a long red line into the man’s arm, and Sano had brought the thick, round pommel down on the man’s head and knocked him senseless before the knight could even raise his other hand to clutch at the new wound.
Eager for another target, he turned, but what he saw made him pause even in his anger. Previously hidden from his view by the house, perhaps ten more men in Gontamei royal knights’ shiiyao were gathering slowly into a tighter group from where they’d probably been dispersing to follow orders. They all stared at him, evidently surprised by how quickly and easily he’d taken care of their leader.
On seeing just how many of them there were, Sano’s immediate reflection was, Seriously, how important is this Hajime guy? He didn’t really have time to think about it, however, since the men were drawing their weapons and eyeing him darkly. Instead, determined to make the first move, he pressed forward, sword flashing.
On the rare occasion when not annoyed with Seijuurou, Sano was willing to admit he hadn’t learned nothing from the man. True, he was still about as far from keonmastery as he had been before meeting Seijuurou, but his general swordsmanship skills had increased quite a bit. And if this hadn’t been the case, he would have gone down almost immediately in this situation.
Of course, ten on one was still pretty bad. Seijuurou could have taken them with no problem, but Sano found himself slowly forced into retreat, and would soon have his back to the wall of his own house, or possibly worse. Probably worse. In fact, worse was definitely about to come to worst in the form of one of the Gontamei knights charging Sano with sword raised while Sano was busy blocking a strike from another.
This attack, however, was turned away by the haft of an axe placed fortuitously in its path by Genji, who joined the fight at just this moment. Almost simultaneously, in the corner of his opposite eye, Sano noted the appearance of his other friend Tomo with what looked like the pole of a long lopper — which didn’t seem like a very comfortable thing to have slammed into the side of your head, if the way one of the false knights went down was any indication.
Sano kicked out at his primary opponent and sent him staggering back, then took a step backward himself to stand more firmly between his two friends. They had a momentary breather as the knights regrouped, glaring at him and his newly-arrived allies, and Genji leaned toward Sano a bit (rather than actually turning his direction), and demanded, “Sano, what the hell is going on? I swear to Yumi, if this is your fault…”
“I have practically nothing to do with this!” Sano protested.
“‘Practically?'” echoed Tomo.
Clutching at his sword with one hand and a cut in his shoulder with the other, one of the knights called out, “You country boys need to mind your own business!”
“Anyone else notice these guys are assholes?” Tomo said conversationally.
“I noticed when they threw my dad on the ground,” replied Genji.
“Yeah, apparently their boss usurped the king or some shit,” said Sano.
“Guess it’s really not your fault, then,” Tomo allowed, backing up against Sano as the knights began closing in again.
“That explains the shiiyao,” Genji remarked, doing much the same.
The fighting resumed, and was even more chaotic than before now the numbers had changed. However, neither Genji nor Tomo was terribly proficient in combat, and when their weapons were designed to cut wood and prune trees they simply couldn’t hold out. Even Sano’s keonblade would fail here eventually, as soon as the anger settled a bit. He experienced a fresh burst of this emotion at seeing both of his friends fall — not dead, he thought, and hopefully not even too badly injured, but very distinctly defeated — but that circumstance also freed up more of the knights to attack him. He couldn’t last much longer.
And that was when he caught sight of a nearby figure bending slowly to retrieve from the grass the weapon of one of the fallen knights. Sano lost track of the battle for half an instant of intense surprise, and was lucky he didn’t die right then.
It was Yahiko.
With a pensive frown, the boy straightened, holding a sword almost as long as he was tall. He seemed to be muttering something to himself. Then, in a movement so fast Sano barely even saw it, he darted forward, lifting the weapon. There came a rushing like heavy wind, a great deal of motion, startled and pained cries all around, and then it was over as quickly as it had begun.
What had taken only a few moments to accomplish took at least twice as long for Sano’s brain to assimilate. He felt his arm drop limp, pointing his sword at the ground. The latter was strewn with what had been his opponents, most of them now in various states of bleeding pain or unconsciousness. Just before him, almost at his feet, one of them sat staring at the ruined remains of his shattered sword, while beside him another lay unmoving. As Sano looked haltingly around, he saw the man whose swordtip had been at Genji’s throat clutching now at a long cut across his chest, and the one that had been keeping Tomo at bay not only weaponless but in fact without a hand — the appendage, still uselessly holding the hilt of a sword, lay on the ground behind him.
Sano turned again to stare at Yahiko, who returned the gaze with a sad, determined look while his sword dripped blood onto the grass.
“Yahiko?” Sano faltered at last.
Yahiko nodded slowly. “What’s going on?”
Baffled, Sano shook his head, trying and failing to get a better mental grasp of the situation. “No,” he finally managed, “what’s going on with you? How the fuck did you just do that?”
With a frown, Yahiko drove the red point of the sword he held into the dirt, perhaps as an excuse to break eye contact with Sano, and released the weapon. “We should make sure your friends are all right,” he said evasively.
Sano couldn’t decide whether he was more afflicted by annoyance at not having his question answered or the amazement at what he had just witnessed. So for the moment he simply did as Yahiko suggested; resheathing his sword, he walked over to Genji. The knights he passed did nothing to stop him; some of them were getting slowly to their feet, and amid the groans of pain from those that were wounded, a muttering had begun.
“You all right?” Sano asked as he reached down to help his friend.
“Nothing a little explanation won’t fix,” Genji replied, accepting the hand up.
His father had approached, doubtless to see that Genji was all right, and now said to Sano, “It was you I saw last night, wasn’t it?”
Sano tried not to look guilty.
“Fuck, Sano,” said Tomo as he also drew near, “this is your fault?”
Three distinct groups were beginning to form of the various people involved in or watching the fight: first, Sano, Yahiko, Tomo, Genji and his father, and a couple of other villagers that had been nearby, clustered together to discuss the matter; second, the knights, gathering into a little knot to give what treatment they could to the worst wounded and decide what to do next; lastly, what looked like the entire remainder of the village, which had undoubtedly been so permeated by the sounds of clashing steel and shouting as to leave nobody peacefully ignorant.
“Look,” Sano began in response to Tomo’s comment, “there’s some kind of bullshit going on in Elotica.”
“Those guys don’t look too happy,” Genji’s father remarked uneasily, eyeing the huddled knights.
Sano also threw a glance in that direction, and thought he caught the words ‘demon child’ from one of the strangers.
Genji, who’d evidently also heard it, asked, “Who the hell is this kid?”
“I’m–” Yahiko began, but Sano interrupted him impatiently, still wanting to explain himself:
“Listen, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I guess the king’s been overthrown, and these are the new guy’s men. If he’s anything like them, we’re all in for some rough times.”
Tomo made a gesture of helpless exasperation. “You know, honestly, Sano, I don’t care what’s going on in Elotica. What the hell are we supposed to do now? We’ve got a whole bunch of knights or something here that we’ve managed to piss off, and–”
“I don’t know, all right?” Sano broke in, stung. “I told you I don’t really get what’s going on; I just came rushing back here because I thought there might be someone here making trouble and you guys might need a hand.”
“And started a completely unnecessary fight,” said Genji’s father severely.
Sano turned his wrath on the man. “Uh, maybe you forgot, but that guy was right in the middle of pushing you around when I showed up. Oh, yeah, and you were right in the middle of selling me out.”
“Hey–” said Yahiko.
“I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted!” the old man protested, scowling.
“Oh, so you just figured it’d be fine to send them to my house.”
“They’re looking for someone else… some royal knight… I thought they would just ask you the same things they asked me.” Genji’s father really didn’t seem to think he’d been in the wrong.
“Sano–” said Yahiko.
“And what if I was really hiding the guy, huh?” Sano took an irate step toward the old man, fists clenched. “Did you think of what they might do then?”
Here Genji jumped to his father’s defense. “Ladies, Sano, cut it out. He didn’t mean you any harm.” One of his own fists was clenched as he threw out an arm to stop Sano’s forward progress.
“Not much good, either,” Sano growled at him. “Nobody cares what happens to the town heretic, do they?” This accusation, admittedly rather unfair, caused the others all to speak at once:
Genji’s father said hotly, “That had nothing to do with it. You know we’ve never cared about that.”
Tomo groaned, “Oh, seas, Sano, don’t drag that into it.”
And Genji said, “You can’t blame him for trying to get guys like that off his back. It had nothing to do with you personally!”
Sano was drawing breath for another angry retort, when suddenly Yahiko said, “Hey!!” in a tone so loud and carrying that everyone in the group looked down at him, startled. He appeared anxious and unhappy, and glanced around with that same skittishness Sano had observed in him when they’d first met. He said, “Sano, I think you and I should leave here right now.”
Surprised, Sano said, “What? Why?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” murmured Genji’s father.
“Because,” said Yahiko firmly, “those guys are going to want to start fighting again pretty soon, and I really don’t want to have to kill anyone.” He gestured over at the knights, still grouped tightly a few yards off. “Besides, they’re after somebody you’ve got hidden somewhere else, right?”
Sano’s brows rose in continued surprise. “You pick up shit pretty fast.”
“They’ll leave the town alone once they know he’s not here, won’t they?” Yahiko prompted.
Sano turned toward the Gontamei knights, who were throwing dark glances over their shoulders at everyone else — especially at Yahiko — and still evidently discussing what to do next. The other villagers, none of them appearing terribly happy with what had happened here today, were doing the same. Sano thought very little of the way they looked at him in particular. He realized suddenly that if the rest of Eloma felt the way Tomo did — that Sano had just helped to make them the enemies of a group of royal knights or whatever they were from the capital — none of them were likely to feel very sympathetic toward him at the moment.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he finally said somewhat reluctantly. He turned back to his friends. “Sorry about the trouble, guys.”
They all stared at him, uncertain and unhappy. After a long, hesitant moment, Genji’s father cleared his throat and said, “It’s probably best if you don’t come back.”
“Somehow I figured you’d say that,” Sano muttered. Despite this having been the case, actually hearing the words seemed to drop a cold weight onto his heart that he didn’t know when or if he would be able to shake off. After so many years, even relatively happy years, in this town, after everything that had happened to him here, he must say goodbye to Eloma.
He turned abruptly and began to walk away.
“Sano…” said Genji sadly behind him.
“Sano–” said Tomo, almost desperately.
Sano didn’t look back. Yahiko had joined him, and together they moved away from the now-nearly-silent people of the village. Nobody else called after him, and his friends had nothing else to say.
At the point in his path closest to the huddled knights, Sano stopped briefly. Without looking over at them, he announced loudly, “You guys are looking for that knight Hajiwhatever, right? Well, he’s not here. Follow us if you want to die.” At the moment these words were not just bravado; Sano was so angry, he was absolutely certain of his own powers at least to make these men sorry they’d ever laid eyes on him — and that was before taking into account Yahiko’s presence. Still, as the purpose of the statement was to draw the knights away from the village, he corrected himself. “I mean, if you want to find him.”
Then he and Yahiko continued wordlessly away from Sano’s house and out of town.
Divine lady Kaoru. As you can see, the symbol used to represent her is an erupting volcano, since she is (among other things) the lady of righteous wrath. Here’s the full-color version as well: