The violet sky overhead slowly began to fade to blue. The sun rose slowly, a hostile ball of fire that would sear the last of the morning dew and turn the desert into a furnace. It was still cool, but the heat would come within the hour and prostrate many of the animals and most of the Palmans.
Eusis kicked his feet back and forth on his rock as he stared out at the rugged landscape of dry dirt and jutting rocks. He liked getting up early to watch the sunrise, but it was always such a pain coming to Mota. His parents dragged him here every summer when things were dullest back home on Palm and took him camping in the middle of nowhere. They were just lucky that his favorite vid shows were repeats during the summer, especially Fantasy Generations.
He grinned. Fantasy Generations was such a sweet show! The main character was a guy named Deel, who was a swordsman who traveled the world with his band of heroes and got into cool adventures. They righted wrongs of all kinds and were out to save the world. Deel's motto was totally awesome too. Every time before the show got into battle, he would shout "Justice, Honor, and Loyalty!"
The fight scenes were the best part of the entire show, too. They moved so fast and every duel looked amazing. Deel fought hard with his sword, and even when it looked like he'd go down he still managed to come out ahead and kill the bad guys of the week. It totally made Eusis wish he had been born a thousand years ago so he could have been a swordsman too. Then he'd have gone on adventures and seen Aristos and fought monsters and stuff.
That wasn't to say he couldn't learn how to fight with a sword. Fantasy Generations was hugely popular and sword gymnasiums were opening everywhere, promising kids the chance to learn how to fight like the heroes of their favorite show. Not that they even used real swords at those places, just wooden practice ones, and it didn't always look like the techniques they were teaching would actually work. To him, it honestly looked like they were just making stuff up. Still, Eusis wished he could be at those maybe-fake lessons instead of stuck in a nature preserve.
A sigh escaped his lips as he looked around. The supercomputer AI Mother Brain had made Mota livable for Palmans and in the process had created a bunch of nature preserves for the native wildlife. The desert remnants were hot and uncomfortable and dangerous the further you went in, but there were campsites around the edge for people who wanted to "rough it." Eusis had no idea why his parents did it every year, but at least they didn't try to do it on Dezo. Winter blew, and eternal winter would have been even worse.
There had been rumors lately that people were disappearing in the desert remnant, which might have made the trip interesting, but his parents thought they were just exaggerations. How did his mom even find time to go camping, anyway? Dido Shani was a rock star scientist with tons of fans, normal people and eggheads alike. Her books were some of the most downloaded on the network. There were even print editions! She was working on a new one that she wanted to finish next year with the title of "Beyond Algo." It sounded cool, but it was weird that she continued to work on it out in the desert. Wouldn't it have been more comfortable working on it from home?
School would be back on once they got back from this camping trip, but so would Fantasy Generations! The season finale had introduced a new character who was already cooler than Deel. The new guy didn't have a name yet, but Eusis and all his friends called him the Black Swordsman, since he wore black armor and had a black cape. Deel had been surrounded and about to die when out of nowhere, the Black Swordsman had appeared and utterly wrecked all the enemies. Wicked cool!
There was a debate going on between his friends on whether or not the Black Swordsman was a good guy. A lot of his friends said that he was probably evil, since he wore black, but Eusis didn't agree. Sure, the Black Swordsman had a super dark aura around him and looked pretty scary, but they'd all seen him save Deel, and why would a bad guy do that? The Black Swordsman might not be as friendly as a goody two-shoes like Deel was, but he wasn't evil.
"I want to change the world," Eusis sang. Every season had a different opening and ending song, and he always pestered his parents into getting them. "Walk again never miss the way..."
"Hey, kid. What are you doing out here?"
Eusis turned his head. A young man stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful hazel eyes and elegant looks that hinted at refinement. The young man wore brown clothes, perfect for the desert. At his hip, he wore...
"Is that a real sword?"
The young man looked down at his waist. A slight smile crossed his lips. "Yes, it is."
"Can I see it?" Eusis asked eagerly. He'd never expected to see a real sword while camping on Mota!
The young man looked around and took in their surroundings before he began to approach. "Maybe. Are you out here by yourself?"
"Kinda," Eusis said. "My parents are still asleep, but they're way back there."
The slight smile became a full-blown grin. With a dramatic flourish, the young man drew his sword. Eusis gaped as the early morning sun glanced off the weapon. Stylized serpentine dragons etched into the metal climbed up the slightly curved blade in a beautiful display of workmanship. The light danced off the sword as the young man lazily spun the weapon through linked infinity loops.
Suddenly, the blade was high over head, poised to strike. Eusis sensed malice pour out of the young man. He's going to kill me. Why...?
Absolute terror paralyzed every muscle in his body. Time slowed down to a crawl. Eusis could only watch as the blade began its descent. His eyes snapped shut; he didn't want to see his death.
Metal clashed with metal in a sound that he had only heard on vid shows. The young man snarled, "You!"
Eusis opened his eyes.
Someone with a sword was in front of him. Eusis could only see his back, but it was clear that the blue-haired kid was older than his own nine years, but shorter and younger than the man who had tried to kill him.
The young man glared hatred. "What are you doing here?"
His sword steady between them, his rescuer replied, "Did you really think your crimes would go unpunished?"
Derisive laughter met that question. "What crimes? The old man said it was an old custom to test a new sword or a new fighting style out, wasn't it? My sword needed to be blooded, that's all."
Cold contempt filled his rescuer's words with a weight beyond his years and lent him a dark aura that awed Eusis. "He also said it was a barbaric practice that should never have existed. How many people have you murdered?"
Eusis began to shake. He did not understand half of what they were talking about, but what he did get was bad. The missing people hadn't disappeared; they'd been murdered.
"Not enough," said the killer with a terrifying smile.
"I won't let you hurt anyone else."
"You think that just because you're a sword prodigy, you'll win? How reckless of you. This is not sword practice under the old man's eye with dull blades, you know," said the killer as he readied his sword. "If you're so eager to die, then so be it."
"I will decide when and how I die," his rescuer replied coldly. "This is neither the place nor the way."
Rage filled the killer's face. Without another word, he dashed forward, already at full speed despite the fact he had had no time to build up momentum. His rescuer darted toward the killer, just as fast. It took the first clash of blades for Eusis to realize what he was witnessing.
Unlike the guys in the sword gymnasiums popping up everywhere, these guys were real swordsmen. Their weapons and moves were the real deal. They weren't playing; they were really out to kill each other. He should have been horrified, but now that the initial shock was past, Eusis was fascinated. Their techniques felt... natural. He watched them fight and felt something stir in his chest, a thrill foreign, yet familiar. It was like a memory of the past touching his soul.
Unable to run away, unable to look away, Eusis watched, his hands tight on his pants in excitement. The swordsmen circled around each other before they flowed into attacks as quick as lightning and as elegant as a waterfall. The two of them would then part for a heartbeat before they smoothly glided into a new series of attacks. He had never seen anything like it.
They probed and slashed, each movement punctuated by the sound of metal against metal. Eusis whimpered each time a vicious attack slipped through his rescuer's defense and bit into flesh. The killer had the advantage in reach and strength and used it without mercy. One strike cut his shoulder, another sliced into his left forearm, two more slashed into the thigh.
"Don't' lose," he whispered. "Don't lose, don't lose…"
The killer arrogantly moved into another attack, but his rescuer had anticipated that. His right foot pointed toward the killer and his weight on his left, his rescuer thrust his sword straight toward the killer's chest. The killer just barely managed to avoid the attack. A no man's zone opened up between the two of them.
"I commend you for not fleeing," the killer said, his murderous smile back on his face. "Surely you see you are outclassed. Why don't you lie down and let me kill you quickly?"
Eusis looked at his rescuer. He was sweating, breathing heavily, and bleeding from several wounds on his body. Had it been him, Eusis would have given up or begged for his life, but his rescuer said nothing. Instead he sheathed his sword, a smirk on his face as he faced the killer. The message the smirk conveyed was clear.
I'm better than you.
Once again, rage filled the killer's handsome face. "Then die!"
The killer dashed forward at full speed, his sword high and eager to kill. His rescuer stood his ground as the seconds vanished, impossibly calm. He took one step forward with his right foot. Eusis blinked. By the time he opened his eyes again, it was all over.
Blood poured out of a vicious wound that had opened the killer up from his hip to his shoulder. His beautiful sword had slipped from his fingers and into the sand. The killer fell to his knees, his eyes glassy from shock and pain, his face twisted into dismay and fear. Blood poured from his mouth as he spoke. "...h-how... R-Rev...olution..."
"That look suits you," his rescuer said coldly, his left foot now in front of his right. "Die already."
The killer toppled face first into the sand and moved no more. A heartbeat of silence. Two. Three. Then the youth collapsed to his knees. As he fell, he thrust his sword into the sand. His breaths came in desperate gasps, as he desperately tried to fill his lungs with air. His entire body shook like a bush in a wind storm, his only support the upright sword.
Eusis approached carefully, making sure his rescuer could see him. He licked his lips nervously. "Are you alright?"
Blue hair moved as the swordsman shook his head. "What about you? Did he hurt you?"
His rescuer sounded genuinely concerned for his well-being. Eusis smiled at him. "No," he replied, carefully not looking at the body. "You stopped him just in time."
A grin warmed the swordsman's face. "That's good."
Curiosity compelled Eusis to ask his next question. "How'd you learn to use a sword like that? None of the stuff in the sword gymnasiums looks anything like it."
"Feh, those clowns wouldn't know the point from the edge," came the swordsman's reply, his face twisted into a look of distaste. "It's a dying art, but there are still a few swordmasters left. You're from Mota, aren't you? I remember there is a swordmaster on Uzo Island."
"Oh, I'm not—"
"What happened here?"
A half-dozen armored soldiers had arrived behind them, obviously surprised by the sight before them. Weapons up, their faces concealed by their helmets, they were alert for ambush. Their apparent leader, a large, broad-shouldered man, suddenly ordered, "Secure the area. Sweep, two pairs, left and right."
Four soldiers began to look around, their shots ready to be fired. Two of them went left, the other two right. The commander and a short soldier with a heavy-looking metal backpack advanced toward them warily. "What happened?"
The swordsman didn't say anything, so Eusis took it upon himself to explain. "He tried to kill me," he said, pointing at the dead killer. He smiled when he pointed at his rescuer. "He saved me."
Black visor looked straight at the swordsman. "Is that true?"
"It's the short version, yes."
A brief silence hung between them as the commander looked down at them. "Well, then. If it's the way you say it is, we'll just take you in to Paseo so the Agents can question yo—"
"I'm an Aristo," the swordsman said coldly, that dark aura around him again. "So was that corpse. There is no law against murder amongst the Aristo."
Eusis gawked. The Aristo were the descendants of the old nobles who had ruled Algo before Mother Brain. Way back, hundreds of years ago, a calamity had struck Palm and Mota, and the Aristo had negotiated for Mother Brain to take over everything and save everyone. In exchange, Mother Brain had given them a few privileges that normal people didn't get.
The strangest of those was that if one Aristo killed another, there was no legal punishment for it. It didn't mean they could kill normal people without consequence, but it had still sounded awful to him. His mother had explained that the reason the Aristo had asked for that privilege was so that they could police themselves. If one Aristo did something that could endanger them all, then the offender could be quietly eliminated without drawing unwanted scrutiny or worse, the loss of their special status.
That barely crossed his mind as Eusis stared. A real Aristo had saved his life! There weren't many of them left, since Mother Brain had established strict rules for how Aristo status could be passed on but that just made them more interesting, not less.
"That may be so, but—"
"It is," the young Aristo said firmly. "What's your name?"
"I'm Lieutenant Steiner," the commander replied icily after a long pause.
"Well, Lieutenant Steiner, in case you forgot how it goes, you take a blood sample from me and the corpse, confirm a positive ID, and let me go, preferably before I bleed out."
Eusis wished he could hide as hostility filled the air between the Aristo and the Lieutenant. One of them had to give in first, and neither wanted to do so. It was majorly uncomfortable, but the way the Aristo met that eyeless glare without flinching was awesome.
Lieutenant Steiner gave in first. "You antique aristocrats are relics from the past," he said hostilely. "I don't know why Mother Brain doesn't just revoke your privileges and cut you down to size."
"Since we're the last link to the time before Mother Brain, I wonder that myself," the Aristo replied. "The blood sample?"
"Specialist Evans, please handle this," Lieutenant Steiner said, still upset.
"Already got a blood sample from the corpse, sir. I'll get his now," came a feminine voice. The short soldier walked forward and removed her helmet, revealing a pretty, young brunette. "Would you like me to patch you up after I get the blood sample?"
Whereas the Aristo had been confrontational with the Lieutenant, he was much nicer to the specialist. He gave her a smile that transformed his face from that arrogant mask to the expression Eusis had seen when he had been asked if he was alright. "Please, if it's not too much trouble?"
The specialist crouched down by his rescuer and took out a small class plate. Eusis leaned forward, curious. The brunette soldier noticed and gave him a big smile. "Hello, there. What's your name?"
"I'm Eusis Shani," he replied. "What's yours?"
His rescuer and the specialist stared at him nonplussed. The Aristo youth asked, "…Shani, as in Dr. Dido Shani?"
"Yes," Eusis replied with a little sigh. Having a famous mom was tough.
The brunette solider recovered quickly and gave him another warm smile. "I'm Specialist Beth Evans, Mister Eusis Shani. It's really nice to meet you."
"I'm just Eusis, Specialist Beth Evans," he replied with a smile of his own.
"If you're just Eusis, then I'm just Beth," she said lightly as she deposited the glass plate in a slot on her backpack. She took out some healing materials from her belt. "Just a couple of monomates and some bandages. You'll probably want to get it looked at by a doctor in Paseo."
"I'm very grateful," the Aristo said. He bowed his head as Beth poured the restorative potion on the wounds. "Thank you very much."
"Just my job," Beth said. A tone sounded. She removed a small terminal from the side of her backpack and tilted her head to the side. "Lieutenant, it looks like they're both Aristos. Sending the data to you now."
Lieutenant Steiner didn't say anything for a few moments. "Alright, your identity's been proven, Orakio Sa Riik. Since we were only brought in due to lack of manpower, we'll inform the Agents and give them the report. You're free to go."
"Indeed," Orakio said as he got to his feet. He winced. "Thank you for your care, Specialist Evans. I'll be sure to go have a doctor look at it before I go home." Orakio looked at him. "Take care, Eusis."
His friends might argue over whether or not the Black Swordsman was evil, but it was obvious to Eusis he was one of the good guys. After all, he'd just met the real life version.