Short Story – Red Blade

A short story I wrote for my second year creative writing portfolio.

Red Blade

The ceremonial hall was filled with students, all draped in silk robes and hair pulled neat and tightly from their faces, kneeled in straight lines on the floor with their heads bowed. The walls were decorated with ancient tapestries featuring samurai in battle, ancient scrolls telling of great battles and feats of bravery. Burning oils filled the room with a delicate flowery smell, wafting small trails of smoke around the room. On the far wall, between two stoic figures in armour, hung a vast number of weapons – mostly swords- of all sizes and colours. Each of them to be awarded.

At a low table, before them, sat Haru-sensei. She was a powerful, stern woman dressed in regal finery. Her black hair was pulled into a perfect katsuyama bun, and her intricate robes spread out around her. On the table was draped a long parchment, on which all of the student’s names were written. She traced a finger along it as she read.

“Ryuusei,” she called, voice gentle but full of power.

He stood, forcing his knees not to shake. He was lean, lightly toned with a young face and brown fly-away hair. Only his silvery eyes stood him out from a crowd. Someone’s hand brushed his leg, and he swallowed the lump in his throat before heading to the table.

He kneeled before her with his head bowed to the floor and waited until she spoke. There was a pause as she regarded him until she commanded he sit straight. He obeyed quickly, forcing his face into an expression of calm and seriousness. He held his breath as a huge, six foot blade was brought over.

“With this blade, you graduate my class, and become a grown man. Before you came to us with no name, and no family. We named you Ryuusei, a shooting star. Now we give you your family name, Hibki, an echo. Know your name, and know who you are. May this identity shape your future.”

The odachi’s wooden sheath had been dyed deep red and the thick black chord wrapped around the blade’s handle had a well shined glean to it. He held his hands before him, palms flat, and the great sword was handed to him gently. He closed his fingers around the sword- his sword –and bowed his head once more, before politely moving away from Haru-Sensei for the next student to graduate.

He glanced over as he left, and saw Taro sat beside the space he’d left. He was dark-skinned and broad, his muscles covered in scars. His dark, gently rounded eyes were squinted slightly with the grin he was barely hiding. Ryuusei felt a small rush of emotion in his chest, and couldn’t help the grin that pulled at his cheeks as he left.

That night he was yanked from his sleep. He had a faint memory of Taro being taken away as well, their limbs being detangled as a pungent cloth was held over his face and forced drowsy fumes into his lungs.

He was dragged, limp and underdressed, to a dark and mostly unused ceremonial room on the grounds. Incense burned, filling the room with a strange ever-moving smoke that distorted the huge colourful masks that were hung on the walls and covered the faces of his attackers. He was dumped on his knees, held up by his shoulders before a great figure with a brightly coloured mask with tusks.

They had his sword.

He couldn’t react before the blade pierced his chest, bursting out of his back until the tip of the blade hit the floor. The pain was temporary, like being punched with a metal fist, and did not prepare him for the agony that came next. It was slowly drawn from his chest, grating against his ribs, and seemed to take with it something else. Nausea burned in his throat and churned his stomach.

He tried to scream, but was too intoxicated to make a sound. He gazed down at his own weapon as it finally left his chest, dripping red and somehow more than it had been when he’d first held it. The odachi was sheathed, then returned to him. It was like holding a living thing, like his own arm.

They pulled him up to his feet and dragged him out, exhausted and feeling like he’d been cut in half. His robes were stained a deep red.

He sat, shoulders nearly touching, beside Taro. They matched each other both in the ugly scars on their chests, and the way they held their weapons close to themselves. Taro’s fingers were firmly clasped around the long wooden hilt of a blue naginata, the short blade on the end covered with a leather bag. Something about physically having your soul made it harder to share.

“Do we have to go to that meeting later?” Ryuusei asked, voice barely a whisper.

“We graduated for this. We’re fully fledged samurai now. We serve our master.” Taro answered, weary.

“I don’t want to,” Ryuusei grumbled.

“You never did pay attention to our ways. How did you graduate with such an attitude?” Taro asked, voice heavy.

Ryuusei glanced over at him, and found Taro looking back with a furrowed brow. He realised that the space between them had grown a little since they’d sat down. Or perhaps it had started growing since the graduation. He sighed and turned his head to look down at his lap.

“I’m a crafty bugger, I guess. It’s what you get when you’re from far away.”

Ryuusei stormed out of the meeting, face flushed and hair falling from its tie and tangling against the straps that held the odachi to his back. He tore off his ceremonial robe and threw the delicate silk aside.

“I cannot believe her!” he growled.

“She’s doing what she has to,” Taro replied quietly, stood in the doorway

“She’s declaring war, Haru Taro,” He emphasised the other man’s samurai name with disgust, “Are you just defending her because she’s accepted you into her little family?”

“Hibiki Ryuusei, don’t take your anger out on me. I’m trying to talk sense into you. This isn’t a war, it’s us responding to being antagonised for far too long.”

“So she’s challenging them? What are we, children?”

“This isn’t a matter of who’s the best in the training grounds, Ryuusei. It’s politics. It’s power. The consequences are far more devastating.”

“War is devastating, Taro. War will kill everyone on this island!”

“It’s necessary! It’s what we have to do!”

“Nothing is necessary, Taro! None of this was- don’t you see that? Isn’t all of this so fucked-up to you?” His voice began to break mid-speech, his eyes burning with frustration.

“Listen to yourself! There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing you should do. You could never just behave, could you? She’s protecting our honour.”

“To hell with honour,” he snarled. Taro flinched like he’d been struck. “I’d rather be a living coward than a dead hero!”

“Then you’ve forgotten yourself,” Taro hissed, expression dark, “You’ve forgotten what Haru-sensi told you on your graduation.”

“No. I’ve remembered who I was. Before this. Before you,” he snapped, cold and furious.

“Stay away from me, and I won’t have to hurt you.”

The armour plate hissed over each other as he moved, flecks of blood barely visible on the red finish. He trailed patchy footprints behind him as he approached his master’s room. The shadows around him shifted, and a figure draped in black robes appeared before him. Rin, a tall powerful girl with cropped hair and sharp eyes, with a set of long black-handled sais in each hand. Something sharp poked the top of the back of his neck, and he turned his head a little to see Mei, a smaller rounded girl with hair in twin buns, dressed in blue armour and holding a matching katana. Both girls from his sparring class.

“Nakano Rin. Haru Mei.” He acknowledged them with a small not of his head, careful not to scratch himself on the katana against his neck. “I suppose you’re going to stop me?”

“Yield, Ryuusei,” Rin commanded, her voice somewhat strained, “It’s too late for redemption but your execution will be quick.”

“Otherwise we’ll take you down ourselves,” Rin added, twirling the sais into position.

He said nothing, but watched as Rin approached, his eyes on the longer prong of the sai held closest to him.

“Keep an eye on him, I’ll take his sword,” Rin muttered to Mei.

“Take care, you’ve seen how he fights sometimes. Remember when he broke your nose?”

“Shut it,” Rin growled, and reached out a hand.

As her fingers touched the scabbard of his sword, he felt an intense queasiness. It was wrong. Deeply wrong.

Despite the blade tickling his skin, he lashed out. His armoured elbow caught Rin square in the face and he heard a grotesque crunch. She yelped and staggered back, desperately trying to stem the blood flow and keep hold of her sais.

He jumped towards the door and spun around, now out of reach of the katana. For a moment a flash of daring appeared in Mei’s eyes, as though they were about to have a sword fight. However, as he unsheathed his odachi, the length of the blade alone caught her off guard in the first attack.

He stepped forwards and pulled open the sliding door, making sure both Rin and Mei were tidily lying aside from view with their eyes closed.

“Hibiki Ryuusei,” Haru-Sensei spoke, knelt down among her maps and pieces. The onna-bugeisha was dressed grandly as usual, her armour the same blue as the rest of the Haru clan, but decorated with intricate black patterns. Her robes beneath were a shimmering silver-white silk, masking wherever she kept her weapons. “I’m surprised you’re challenging me like this. You were one of my more cautious students. So afraid of conflict.”

“It’s that fear of conflict that brought me to this,” he growled, “Your war will kill everyone on this island, and I won’t let that happen.”

“You’ve done a good job of killing this dojo by yourself,” she hissed, and before he had time to reply she’d shot from her kneeling position at him, hands full of short knives.

He couldn’t keep her back, she slipped around his blade like a dancer and sneaked her knives under the armour plate. She jabbed, stabbed and slashed out at every opening, and he fell back with a yell. She kicked him to the ground and pushed a knife under his armour, pressing it against his stomach.

“This isn’t just about the war, is iti? You struggled with our ways, and the graduation broke you. You’re no samurai, Ryuusei, you’re barely a bushi. So accept your loss, killing me won’t put you back together.”

“How messed up are you? To do this to your own students?”

“It is our way, child. And you shan’t live to understand it. Now, yield. You never stood a chance.”

“You won’t stand after this,” he grinned, and kicked out sharply at her ankles, sending her sprawling to the ground. The knife embedded itself in him, but only left a shallow wound. He rolled over and pinned her to the ground with a knee.

“Have you no honour, Ryuusei?” she shrieked.

“Never did,” he spat, and thrust his blade down through her chest until it dug into the wooden floor on the other side of her ribs. She choked and writhed for a moment, glaring at him fiercely, before falling limp.

He flopped to the side and lay on the floor, every inch of him smeared in blood. After a moment, the adrenaline wore off and he began to weep.

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