Already dressed, the hunter sharpens his sword against the whetstone, the nearly silent scraping filling his cabin. The sun still falls, the sky dancing on the edge of night. Pouring water over his blade, he stands, his back to the window. Looking into the polished steel, he watches the reflection of the setting sun. Under the veil, he smiles.
Finding the sheath with his foot, he kicks it into the air. Holding the sword upward, he closes his eyes. Like magic, the sheath falls onto the blade perfectly. Opening his eyes, Stanley loops his weapon under his belt, tying it securely to his waist.
The last swordsman leaves his tools to the floor of the barren room. Throwing open the door, he steps into the shadowy twilight. The messenger is there—what’s he doing here, Stanley wonders—waiting on him. His cup, full of jobs for the hunters at the base of the mountain, rests at his side. He’s holding out a strip of bamboo. Frowning, Stanley almost asks the youth what he means by this. Catching himself before breaking the vow of silence in front of the delivery boy, he snatches the strip of wood from the child’s hand and reads it.
The first line says it all, a mission failure. Gritting his teeth, he salutes, not even looking up from the bamboo at the messenger. Turning, the acolyte jogs down the mountain path, the deliveries jostling as he disappears into the shadows. Stanley reads on: “Mission failure, hunter dead.” He scans the job for a name. Finally, his eyes settle on it, “Richard.”
“The orphan,” the swordsman says to himself, a forbidden whisper on the mountainside.
The moon breaks through the heavens, painting the world in a bloody light. He reads the final line, “abomination unknown.” Sighing, he checks again, and heads toward the meeting place. Coming to the circle, he sees a hunter stoking the fire. The shaft of his spear rests at the edge of the circle, sticking up out of the ground. Unfastening his sword, he pushes it into the soft earth next to the polearm. Coming near the fire he sits, waiting for their third member.
Sweeting, the moon’s heat and the fire’s conspiring to drive him mad, the swordsman stands up and begins pacing around the circle. He double checks his strip of bamboo again, “of three,” it clearly reads. Grumbling, he kicks at the circle’s gravel. As the pebbles roll off into the distance, he hears the singing.
Twisting around, he sees the old priest, an orb of blessing floating between his hands. Staring at his sword, Stanley imagines what he’d love to do to this old teacher. Coming into their circle, the priest approaches the fire.
Letting his light fall into the flames, he steps back, the hungry orange tongues transformed into a bright white pillar as tall as a man. Slowly, it dies back down as the old man takes his seat across from the spearman. His hatred hidden under the black veil, the last swordsman sits, completing the trio.
“My sons,” the priest begins. What a pretentious prig, Stanley thinks. “One of our own,” you’re no hunter, Stanley interjects in his own thoughts, “has been taken.” Sighing, the priest gazes into the flames, his white robes shining in the fire’s light. “I knew Richard well,” he pulls out a strip of bamboo from his sleeves. The cracked voice continues, “So I’ll be joining this party to represent his family.” He burns the tip of the bamboo, sticking it into the glowing coals. The spearman follows suit. Snarling at the little strip of wood, the last swordsman plunges it deeply into the inferno.
“Let us bring peace to his soul,” the priest ends.
Rising, they all pull their burnt wood from the fire. The two hunters retrieve their weapons, and start marching toward the road. Behind them, the priest resumes his hymn. Grinding his molars back and forth, Stanley begins to plan.