III. The road

Sano traveled along the path for many days. It was strange in construction - every couple of miles the building materials switched; sometimes to gravel, sometimes to old, cracked mud, sometimes to shining gold. It wound through the sand like an enormous patchwork serpent. It must have taken many demons many years, maybe even lifetimes. There seemed to be no end to it either. The more Sano walked, expecting there to be an end or at least a turn or crossroads, the more it simply extended into the horizon. Trying to find the endpoint with her eyes made them water.

Who could have built this? Sano wondered to herself uneasily. A merchant? A king? She had heard of such things in fanciful stories, though she knew very little of what those titles entailed. This road seemed like the sort of project a merchant or king would undertake. But where is it going?

The road provided no answers, and so she kept walking.

The land shifted, but did not become less barren. It was rare to find plant life in general in bleach-bone deserts, and those that were able to take root often did not make themselves easy for consumption.

There were few travelers, at least ones that were not bestial. Four-winged birds circled occasionally overhead. One time a mouse skittered lightning-quick across the bricks and Sano was too slow to catch it. But other than that, the road was surprisingly bare. Despite presumably having been made for pilgrimage, it seemed to radiate seclusion - a wordless promise that those who walked along it would walk alone.

In her days of travel, Sano encountered the following:

When night passed, Sano made her meager shelter beneath the leafy span of shrubs, curling up as much as possible to remain unseen by passerby. There were strange sounds in the dark, of large unknown things shambling past. Sano shrank in her hiding spot and shivered.

Sometimes, the road contained strange things. Once, Sano caught a glimpse of an indistinct shape up ahead. As she wandered closer, she realized it was a large demon, hunched on all fours over something she could not see, accompanied by the low buzzing sound of flies and a strange metallic tang to the air.

The figure's face was hidden from her; Sano could only see that it had dark orange-yellow skin, its spine jutting from its back in knobby spikes, the slightly torn and stained cloth wrapped around its waist fastened with a leather tie. There was an empty scabbard at its side, and on its hindquarters glinted metal greaves.

Sano had never honed the sense of danger essential to desert travel and was not familiar with the rules of the road, and so foolishly approached. She called out:

"Um— hello?"

The figure froze, then swiveled its head around without moving the rest of its body. It had a strange, wan face, a slack jaw that hung loose under pressed-together lips, two black beady eyes sunk deep into a flat disc of a skull. Its breath was raspy and uneven. It blinked at Sano in a way that spoke nothing of recognition. This was not immediately alarming, but Sano felt unease seeing her distorted reflection in its gaze.

Mystery man

"My name is Sano," she said, voice faltering, as she was also ignorant of the traveling-rule to never give one's name freely. A nervous itch crawled up her spine, she teetered on the edge of the path.

"Do you know where the road goes?"

It was silent for a moment, then grinned. Its teeth were stained red. Sparing a glance at the figure's hands on the ground, she saw a crumpled body, only really identifiable as a torso and arms, then glanced back up to see blood dripping down the figure's chin. Fat flies buzzed around its face, occasionally landing to no reaction.

The demon cooed a couple words in a shivering, curdled voice Sano could not decipher. It offered a handful of entrails from the cadaver’s stomach.

Sano took ten steps back in slow succession and eked a wide circle around the figure. Backing away, she did not take her eyes off it until its image dissipated into heat waves.

The demon's empty gaze tracked her as she went. It did not follow, but she spent much time looking over her shoulder.

The harsh conditions of the road wore on Sano after a while - her scales scalded and peeled; dry winds kicked fine dust into her lungs. The longer she walked, the more hunger and thirst scraped away at her insides like chisels, the more her feet ached on the hard stone.

As her strength sapped away, she began to trudge. Then her feet began to give out on her, and she began to limp. Finally, her legs could not support her body; she stumbled and found herself prone on the ground. Try as she might, she could not push herself back up.

Miserably, Sano wondered how long it would take to expire if she simply curled up on the side of the road. Surely her smoke would dissipate back to the void and be forgotten, as there was no one alive to remember her name. But that would take longer than Sano was willing to suffer. The heat, sweat, and dirt was too much, and Sano was not particularly disciplined nor patient.

So she tugged herself forward on her hands and crawled like a pathetic worm, and in her heart she prayed.

After five days of travel, Sano's starving mind was driving her mad.

The desert was shifting - shifting! It was rippling in waves like an ocean and kaleidoscopic colors and shapes were swimming in her vision, the likes of which Sano had never seen! And there was a house! A familiar house; had Sano seen it before? It was the four-horned skull, miraculously whole!

And there was her family, her seventeen siblings, her mothers smiling and waving, all miraculously whole, miraculously alive, and Sano tried to wave back but her limbs were too heavy, her arms too weak. But she had to reach them! Up and up and up she dragged herself off the pulsing brick of the road onto the cool desert sand, yet the further she dragged herself the farther they seemed to be, beckoning towards her with waving hands. She wanted to scream, I'm here, I'm here! Wait for me! But her voice was nothing more than a dry wheeze in her throat.

Stars were dancing behind Sano's eyes, making it difficult to see. She pushed herself forward in a mania. Even though she was moving faster than she had in days, she was gaining no ground. She was almost there - so close! Her family's faces swam before her, stretched into vacuous grins.

Blindly hurtling forward, Sano managed to launch herself into the air, crack headfirst into a hard object that rattled her skull to the teeth, and subsequently passed out.

There was something hard and cold pressed to the middle of Sano's forehead. When she finally managed to blink her eyes open and peel herself away, the first thing that came into focus was the stake-foot of a scarecrow.

It was sunset. The sands were cool, which was lucky; resting face-first on the ground in the scorching daytime would have certainly cooked her alive. Sano did not feel particularly grateful. Her head was throbbing quite profusely, and her inner cheek tasted like blood where she must have bitten through it. With some difficulty, she tugged herself to a sitting position.

The knock to her head at least brought some clarity; on the hill, there was not the home she had seen before, but there was indeed a building. She thought it a mirage at first, or a hallucination, but then surmised that it was too ramshackle to be either; a conjured household would not have a lopsided tin-roof riddled with holes, or patchwork walls made of shoddily-hewn scaleskin. A hallucinatory shelter would surely look more appealing.

The single front-facing window was seldom cleaned and smeared with dust, so Sano saw nothing trying to peer through it. Perhaps no one lived here either. But there was a front door, and it was bolted shut, and on it Sano knocked.

Minutes passed before there was a heavy shuffling of feet, and the door opened just a sliver. It was dark inside. Sano could not see anyone, only the single ember of a lit pipe which curled red smoke up into the air. A low, raspy voice emerged out of the black.

Sano meets Swordmaster

"So you're alive." A pause, then a hacking cough as a glob of spit landed at Sano's feet. "I thought you might have dashed your idiot skull open on my training effigy and bled out."

"Oh," Sano muttered. "Sorry."

They stood in silence for a moment.

"Well," the door jerked and slowly began to close, "no solicitors."

"Wait!" Sano cried hoarsely, shoving her hand between the door and frame before it could shut.

"Get your filthy paws off of my property."

"Pl-please let me inside! I beg you." Sano fell to her knees. She assumed the requisite position for groveling with a deep bow. "My family is dead and my home destroyed. I have traveled for so long... there's nowhere for me to go."

"And there is no place for you here. Leave."

"I can cook and clean," Sano begged. "I'll clean gutters and chamber pots and red mold. I'll re-shingle your roof! I'll do anything!"

"I already have a worthless disciple to do such things," the voice sneered. "There are enough hungry mouths here. If you want a task, return to the road and become food for the buzzards."

Sano looked around in desperation. The training effigy caught her eye. "You're - you're some kind of warrior, right? Please, teach me how to use a sword! If I continue on I'll surely die, let me learn to defend myself at least... then I'll never bother you again, I swear!"

There was a long, long pause.

The door swung fully open, startling Sano out of her groveling pose onto her backside. The figure towering over her was a lotus-woman - plant-bodied demons with faces resembling sliced roots, whose knowledge and wisdom were said to be ancient. Her wiry body was riddled with scars, and she leaned all her weight on a massive wooden stave.

"You'll learn until you're a better student than my last," the woman said decisively, "and then you will go on the road to become food for buzzards."

With that, she withdrew and left a trail of red smoke from her pipe. Sano gaped at the empty door before quickly scrambling in after her, closing it behind her.

This was how Sano found the swordmaster's hut on the hill. She would learn in time to use a sword, and in doing so take the first step to dooming herself.