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A sword cut.

They were simple words. Obvious, even. He had been insulted the first time he had heard them, thinking it a dismissal.

Liang He’s long blade flicked out, an arc of green, and three screaming missiles, vortices of ripping wind, fell apart, their fragments barely ruffling his robe. Overhead, his foes circled. Behind and below, the people of the village fled to shelters beneath the earth. Liang He stood over the gate and reset his stance.

Xian, his spirit beast, cried to be let free, to savage the foes who thought themselves rulers of cloud and sky. But there were so very many of them.

On a snowy mountainside, he had poured out his lifeblood, seeking instruction on becoming a sword. He felt the bite of the old wraith’s edge even now, cutting, carving, flensing.

A sword cut.

The truth of those words had been carved into his flesh and spirit, the meaning impressed upon his mind. To cut was to destroy. A sword was a tool for destruction. It had no other purpose.

Scholars spoke of beauty and harmony in the strokes of a sword, but this was merely a comforting lie. There was no harmony in destruction, no beauty in violence.

Liang He moved. His steps left gauges in the granite blocks of the village wall but no longer tore the earth asunder. He had improved from that.

An arrow, set to take a soldier in the eye, fell in twain. A jagged bolt of heavenly power hissed and spit sparks as it met the edge of his blade, carving a furrow across the ground at the base of the wall. More howling missiles fell and came apart in shreds, their motive force carved asunder. All around the perimeter of the village, Liang He moved, phantasms of speed lingering in his wake.

In a girl’s song, he had seen clarity. The end - his End - opening before him, as inevitable as the rising of the sun. It had only been the smallest fragment of a truth, but it was a truth all the same. In that moment, staring into the abyss, he had not felt fear but dissatisfaction that his end might be so soon and without meaning. That was what had driven him to the wraith, driven him to risk death.

Blazing wings erupted from the air above him, and his partner let out a fierce and joyful cry. The air distorted, and scintillating rainbow light poured forth as his flying sword sprang from his dantian as well, filled with the part of himself that still roared with joy in the heat of battle.

Liang He let out a breath and readjusted his stance, feet set wide and sword raised high, worn leather creaked under his hands as he tightened his grip. He swung his sword, and Cut.

Far above, a man screamed as arms tumbled away, the shredded wings of his glider fluttering off in the morning breeze. Liang He let out a breath, and the fire in his blood turned it to steam.

A sword cut.

He was not a sword. He would never be a sword. He was Liang He, son of Liang Da and Gong Lei. He was a soldier of the Empire. He was, in his own mind at least, not a terrible poet. Most of all, he was a human.

A human chose.

The sword was a tool, a much admired and lionized tool but a tool all the same. A human becoming a tool could only be called a degradation. A loss. Yet to wield the sword qi was to become a sword in the end.

Destruction was an unforgiving master. To achieve the purity that allowed him even now to glide across the walls, defending his people from their enemies, he could not help but pour himself into the gleaming jade of his blade. He could not help but lose himself in the satisfaction of a perfect cut, divorced from any notion of purpose.

Liang He gazed dispassionately up at the sky, freed for a moment as the barbarians circled and rallied, readying their next volley. He felt the sword qi running through his arms, his spine, and his legs. Like a river of knives, the qi cut at him, threatening to carve away all that he was and all that he could be until the only beauty he could know was violence. Until only a sword remained.

Until he could only Cut.

Yet he was a swordsman. He could not stop. He would not stop. It was his skill by which the people below remained safe. His Way daunted, a blade thin path suspended over a void of self-destruction. Was he choosing to stunt himself in refusing to achieve oneness with his blade? He could not know. At what cost came mastery?

He vanished, carving still more missiles from the air. He could feel his qi burning, the strain in his legs as he moved unceasing from place to place, cutting and cutting and cutting. No barbarian strayed close enough to taste his blade again.

He gazed at the sky, frustration drifting across the meditative calm of his thoughts. He could leap, take the battle to them, and cut them down for their cruel mockery of honor, if only for a moment. But to do so it would leave his charges vulnerable. How many would die in his gambit, overwhelmed by numbers?

A few months ago, he would have done it anyway, a sword seeking battle. Now, he hesitated and wondered if it was concern or cowardice that stayed his hand.

Another breath of curling steam escaped his lips as he swatted aside three arrows with a flick of his blade. His sword ached in his hands, vibrating with the desire to taste blood.

But his sword was not him, and he was not his sword. Another breath, and the vibration stopped. It was not his blade which was vibrating, but his hands which were trembling. Here again, he faced death and lied to himself that he did not feel fear. In the churning storm and the score and more of barbarians, he saw his End. The desire to spring up, to fight and flail and cut - that was fear.

He was Liang He, soldier of the Empire and of the Argent Peak Sect, and he was not alone. Help, reinforcements, would arrive. He would ensure that they did not arrive to find only corpses.

Liang He set his shoulders and adjusted his grip down, grasping the hilt of his sword with both hands as he dashed, putting his full strength into a spinning slash that carved a meter-wide bolt of lightning in two, dissipating the heavenly energy into no more than dancing sparks.

A sword cut.

He chose to live.

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