V. Sano trains in the art of hatred

In the seasons that passed, Sano honed her swordplay and became accustomed to the art of violence.

Swordmaster's regiment was brutal, expectedly. Four miles of running at the crack of dawn, five sets of physical drills. Three different styles of unarmed martial arts, because Swordmaster claimed if you were no good without a weapon you were a walking corpse. Sano's body was a switch bent, beaten, reshaped into elasticity; her scaly hands mottled with calluses which echoed the shape of her sword. She became able to easily balance her master's noodle-carrier on her back, flit across the sands at lightning speed, and perform extensive handstands (though these made her nauseous).

Swordmaster sparred with her often, though she was able to thrash Sano easily; through this, Sano learned a skill just as valuable as defeating an opponent, how to be beaten and spring back quickly. She gained a voracious appetite, putting away up to three full buckets of rice noodles a night. She slept with her sword by her side as a defensive measure, a self-reminder of improvement, a proud display of all she had learned in the discipline of violence.

Sano trains in judo

In all her time training, Sano learned little more about her master. Beaten Dog could not communicate any details, for neither of them could write or read. As she became familiar with some of the locals, they told her stories of Swordmaster's kind, the lotus-people - how they originated from a great, old god which sprouted from the earth, how they formed by being sliced from the roots and grew like trees to their demonic forms, forever incomplete. Swordmaster, ever taciturn, would elaborate on nothing.

Seasons came and passed. Sano grew incrementally stronger, and more and more confident that she could one day seek out her adversary. Yet it was never enough to leave. Despite her promise, she grew accustomed to the tin-roofed hut and the cot she occupied, the smell of spices and dried herbs which Swordmaster hung from the ceiling to make salves, the warm buzz of evening cicadas which made it easy to drift off to sleep. It was perfect stasis - the more she honed her skills, the farther the horizon of her training stretched, and the more content she became living this sparse, humble life with its predictable routine.

This would not last. Sano's refuge ended at the cusp of summer, three seasons after her home was destroyed.

"It is time for you to progress in your training."

Sano looked up in surprise at Swordmaster's interjection - usually, Swordmaster did not speak unless spoken to (and even then, most of the time). Sano had a mouthful of food and could not immediately respond. She struggled to swallow.

"Uh- um?"

"Tomorrow, you will perform a test." Swordmaster's face was inscrutable. "If I find your results sufficient, you will continue your training. Then, in time, you will set out on your journey."

"Really?" Sano sprang to attention in her seat, eyes wide. "You think I'm ready?"

"I did not say that."

"You wouldn't be saying I had to take a test if you believed I couldn't do it!" Sano squawked, pointing with an accusatory finger.

"You misunderstand the point of tests."

Sano sensed she was not getting anything else out of Swordmaster and huffed, taking her bowl and sliding out of her seat. "I'm gonna pass your test. Just you wait."

She shuffled past Swordmaster to the kitchen's exit, but a thought made her hesitate before she left. She leaned back into the doorframe.

"What happens if I fail?"

Swordmaster let out a long exhale full of loathing, and predictably, said nothing.

Sano scurried off and climbed to the roof, where she often went to eat meals on her own. The eyes of the sun shone hot overhead. As she ate, she pondered Swordmaster's response. At this point, she was fairly good at reading Swordmaster's non-answers - she took the silence to mean that in the eyes of Swordmaster, there was no option for failure.

Sano slurped the rest of her broth and set down her bowl. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

I can do it, she thought to herself. I'm the only one who can. What more can she even teach me, I'm already getting beat to shit every day?! I have to do it.

She lay down and breathed in. The open sky seemed to extend into forever.

There's no other option.

The day leading up to her trial, Sano found herself restless. She cleaned every spot in the house she could reach, even though she was a mediocre housekeeper at best and Beaten Dog had already done so earlier that morning (as he had diligently through the seasons). But the feeling did not subside.

When that was done, she went to the training grounds and did some basic drills, running till she blazed forward and her toes barely touched the ground. Brutal exercise routines suited her youthful, endless energy. Yet she could not shake her uneasy feeling.

Finally, she approached a training effigy and drew her sword. This one was old, made of bone-plank and straw repaired over and over. There were faint grooves at the base of its stand in the shape of horns.

Sano approached with her practiced, careful stance as to remain silent on her toes - she could walk without a sound, these days. She crept closer, closer to the effigy, feeling every muscle in her body tense, then strike.

Her blade met its target and ripped through. Sano felt the force of it ripple through her arms down her spine, felt the burn of it in her nostrils. The dummy ricocheted backwards, its wooden shoulder cleaved from its torso.

She could not copy Swordmaster's perfect cut, but being able to exert a facsimile of such force upon the world, even on something as inert and helpless as a training dummy, flooded Sano with power. The act of violence was enthralling, addicting; whenever she did it she felt like she could take on anything, especially whatever Swordmaster would throw at her. She puffed her chest in pride and confidence.


Sano yelped, nearly toppling forward onto her face and dropping her sword. She scrambled to pick it up as Swordmaster approached with a slow, even gait, Beaten Dog silently slinking at her heels.

"Master!" she said, trying not to sound caught off guard and failing. "I've been - been training." She attempted to summon some of her shaken confidence and puff her chest again. "I'm ready for-"

"Your trial begins now," Swordmaster interrupted. She kicked Sano's sword towards her. It spun across the ground and clattered at her feet. "Pick it up."

Sano obeyed.

"Your goal is to show me your true mastery of the blade. That in your time here you have not grown weak-minded, soft-hearted, and insolent."

Swordmaster pointed at Beaten Dog.

"Kill him."

For a long time, no one moved. If viewed from afar, it would seem statues littered the training grounds. Beaten Dog's tail was tucked between his legs, his large head bowed down towards the floor.

Sano struggled to summon the words as she sputtered in disbelief. "I..." She looked from Swordmaster, to Beaten Dog, back to Swordmaster. "But why?!"

"Because he is a useless, worthless disciple," Swordmaster said, "and his living purpose is to be struck down."

Sano could not stop her hands from shaking. She turned to look at Beaten Dog and the tip of the blade drifted towards him slowly. He raised his head, but there waa no fear on his face. Only a grimace of anticipation.

Sano prepares to strike

Sano stammered, "He's not even drawing his sword..." For indeed Beaten Dog's blade hung sheathed at his hip. "How is this fair?!"

Swordmaster's dry, gnarled lips curled. "This is not a spar. This is a trial for your capacity for hate. That you might put your sword to a throat and cut through it with nothing in your heart."

Sano swallowed. "Master, I don't..."

"You think I'm your master? As long as he stands he is my pupil, not you. He has years more of training, techniques you couldn't fathom. Meanwhile you are a fool girl who barely knows how to swing her piece of metal."

Swordmaster gestured at Beaten Dog again. "But he could not complete this trial, and so became useless. If you do not strike him down, you will become useless. Another garbage disciple." She pointed at Sano, pinning her with accusation. "Your family will go unavenged. Their names will rot with you in the stomachs of buzzards. You are running out of time to convince me. Kill him."

The distant drone of insects was deafening in the silence.

Sano slowly shuffled forward, heels dragging every step of the way. Her eyes darted from the sword to her target back to the sword.

She was screaming inside for Beaten Dog to retaliate, fight back - but he only bowed his head as she approached. Sano wondered if he was remembering the test he'd failed all that time ago. If he was trying to give her a chance to pass.

Sano raised her sword and took a deep breath.

The air was sour like rotten fruit.

The insects buzzed.

Sano's blade swung. Her arc missed Beaten Dog's exposed neck and careened towards Swordmaster, sinking deep into her rooted body and tearing through it.

It was a limb-severing cut, one that Sano had practiced many times before. However, her stance was clumsy and the blow barely managed to breach Swordmaster's clavicle. Swordmaster was so disgusted by this terrible blow that she was stunned into stillness, and was able to Sano take Beaten Dog's wrist and run before she could stop them.

They ran so far and fast their feet barely skimmed the sand, ran to the edge of the sun-bleached Road, ran across dirt and bricks and tile until their lungs and eyes burned. Swordmaster's screams echoed after them, ringing long after she disappeared over the horizon, long after the hut became the size of a dot, then a speck, then nothing, long after the Road had taken the two of them far, far away.