Now witness the end of the beginning.
A ghost-pale girl, sixteen years old, wisps of dark hair and warm scarlet scrawled across her face. A smiling tyrant, stained with his own sister’s blood, a smoking iron-thrower in a white-knuckle grip. The pair standing in the crowded Market Square as children’s ashes swirl and dance in the gulf between them. And she stretches out her hand, and opens her mouth, and speaks the last words the tyrant will ever hear.
‘Let me show you what one little girl can do.’
Fifty-five days ago. Almost two months since the last son of the Kazumitsu Dynasty perished at her hands. So much chaos since then. The earth shifting beneath our feet. The threads beginning to unravel. One by one by one.
Our war of conquest against the round-eyed gaijin collapsed as news of the Shōgun’s death spread, the threat and promise of a now-empty throne coalescing in every clanlord’s mind. And as the shadow of civil war reared over the Seven Isles, the Lotus Guild urged only calm. Obeisance to their puppets in the Tiger clan. Threatening embargoes of their precious fuel – the blood-red chi driving the Shōgunate’s iron heart – to any who disobeyed their will.
Then came the truth of how that fuel was made.
The words that would begin the avalanche were transmitted over the pirate radio frequencies of the Kagé rebels. The Shadows revealed that inochi – the wondrous fertilizer used on blood lotus fields across the Seven Isles – had been manufactured with the remains of gaijin prisoners of war. And Shima’s people awoke to the horror that the Imperium, the technology driving it, their entire way of life – all had been watered with innocent blood.
Like flames on long-dead leaves after a breathless summer, or ripples on still water after rain’s first falling, the riots took seed and spread. Outraged. Bloody. But brief. Brutally suppressed beneath the heels of Iron Samurai still loyal to the vacant throne. Uneasy peace settled over the clan metropolises, broken glass crunching underfoot, as the forty-nine days of official mourning passed in shivering, breathless silence.
Until she returned.
Yukiko. Arashi-no-odoriko. Stormdancer. Astride the mighty thunder tiger Buruu, fire in her eyes, lightning crawling along his clockwork wings. Flying to every capital, from the Floating Palace in Danro to the Market Square in Kigen city. Her voice a clarion call. Urging the people to open their eyes and open their minds and close the fingers on their hands.
How I wish I could have been there.
How I wish I could have heard her speak. But since the moment Yoritomo’s corpse hit the cobbles, I have been running. Fleeing Kigen in a trail of blue-white flame. Abandoning the burnished brass I had worn all my life in some fallow field, my touch lingering on its surface as if I were saying farewell to my oldest friend. Long miles of empty road under my bleeding feet, endless skies of bloody red before my burning eyes, flesh hardened and torn from the weeks it has taken to make it back to the Iishi wilds.
Back to her.
And here I am. Almost there, now. The Lotus Guildsman who betrayed all he knew, all he was. Who gifted a crippled thunder tiger with metal wings to bear him from his prison. Who helped a lone girl slay the Kazumitsu Dynasty’s last son and plunge this nation into the tempest. Traitor is the name I will wear in the histories. Kioshi was the name I inherited after my father died.
But in truth, my name is Kin.
I remember what it was to be encased in metal skin. To see the world through blood-red glass. To stand apart and above and beyond and wonder if there was nothing more. And even now, here in the depths of Shima’s last wilderness, the dogs closing in around me, I can hear the whispers of the mechabacus in my head, feel the phantom weight of that skin on my back and on my bones, and part of me misses it so badly it makes my chest hurt.
I remember the night I learned the truth of myself – my future laid bare in the Chamber of Smoke. I remember the Inquisitors coming for me, swathed in black and soundless as cats, telling me it was time to see my What Will Be. And even as the screams of those brethren who failed the Awakening echoed in my head, I felt no fear. I clenched my fists, thought of my father, and vowed I would make him proud. That I would Wake.
Thirteen years old and they call you a man.
I had never watched the sun kiss the horizon, setting the sky on fire as it sank below the lip of the world. Never felt the whisper-gentle press of a night wind on my face. Never known what it was to belong or betray. To refuse or resist. To love or to lose.
But I knew who I was. I knew who I was supposed to be.
Skin was strong. Flesh was weak. I wonder now, how that boy could have been so blind.
The Girl all Guildsmen Fear
Three Guild warships rumbled across a blood-red sky with all the finesse of fat drunkards lunging towards the privy. They were capital warships of the ‘ironclad’ series; the heaviest dreadnoughts constructed in the Midland yards. Balloons the colour of flame, shuriken-thrower turrets studding their inflatables, vomiting black exhaust into opiate skies.
The flagship leading the trio was a hundred feet long, three red banners embroidered with lotus blooms trailing at her stern. Her name flowed down her bow in broad, bold kanji – a warning to any fool who would stand in her way.
Lady Izanami’s Hunger.
If Brother Jubei felt any trepidation about serving on a ship named for the Dark Mother’s appetites, he hid it well. He stood at the stern, warm inside the brass shell of his atmos-suit despite the freezing wind. Trying to still the butterflies in his stomach, quiet his pounding heart. Repeating the mantra: ‘skin is strong, flesh is weak, skin is strong, flesh is weak,’ seeking his centre. Yet try as he might, he couldn’t still the discontent ringing inside his head.
The fleet’s captain stood at the railing, surveying the Iishi Mountains below. His atmos-suit was decorated with ornate designs, brass fixtures and pistons embossed with steel-grey filigree. A mechabacus clicked and chittered on his chest; a device of counting beads and vacuum tubes, singing the tuneless song of windup insects. A dozen desiccated tiger tails hung from the spaulders covering the captain’s shoulders. They were rumoured to have been a gift from the great Fleetmaster of the Tora Chapterhouse, Old Kioshi himself.
The captain’s name was Montaro, though his crew preferred to call him ‘Scourge of the Gaijin.’ He was a veteran of the Morcheba invasion, had commanded the Guild fleet supporting Shōgunate ground troops against the round-eye barbarians across the Eastborne Sea. But when the war effort had begun disintegrating in the wake of the Shōgun’s assassination, Chapterhouse Kigen had recalled the captain and set him tracking a new foe, back on Shiman shores. To Brother Jubei’s great pride, of all the newly Awakened Shatei in Kigen, Second Bloom Kensai had selected him to serve as the Scourge’s new aide.
‘Do you require anything, Captain?’ Jubei stood at the Scourge’s back, a respectful distance away, eyes downcast.
‘A sniff of our quarry would suffice.’ Faint annoyance in the crackling buzz that passed for the captain’s voice. ‘Other than that, this weak flesh abides.’ He touched a switch, spoke into his wrist. ‘Do you see anything up there, Shatei Masaki?’
‘No movement, Captain.’ The lookout’s reply was faint, despite him being perched only thirty feet above their heads. ‘But this forest canopy is thick as fog. Even with telescopics, we’re hard-pressed to pierce it.’
‘Clever rabbit,’ the Scourge hissed. ‘He’s heard our engines and gone to ground.’
Jubei watched a spire of rock drift past their starboard; a black iceberg in a sea of maple and cedar. Thin cloud clung to the mountaintops, peaks crusted in snow, the rumble of engines and heavy thupthupthup of propellers echoing in the forest beneath them. Autumn cupped the Iishi Mountains at the edge of a cold embrace, the colours of rust waiting at the edge of the stage.
The Scourge sighed, hollow and metallic.
‘I know it to be the impulse of my weak flesh, but I confess I missed these skies.’
Jubei blinked back his surprise, wondering if he should engage his commanding officer in idle chatter. After long empty moments, the young Guildsman decided it would be impolite not to respond, speaking with hesitance.
‘. . . How long were you stationed in Morcheba, Captain?’
‘Eight years. Eight years with nothing but blood-drinkers and skinthieves for prey.’
‘Is it true the skies above the round-eye lands are blue?’
‘No.’ The Scourge shook his head. ‘Not anymore. Closer to mauve now.’
‘I would enjoy seeing them one day.’
‘Well, the sooner we butcher our rabbit, the sooner we get back there.’ Gauntleted fingers drummed the wooden railing. ‘I’d hoped to run him down before he reached the Iishi. But he’s resourceful, this one.’
Jubei looked at the ships around them, bristling with weaponry and mercenary marines. The discontent rapped at the inside of his teeth, demanding to be let out for air.
‘Forgive me, Captain,’ he ventured. ‘I know Old Kioshi’s son is a traitor. I know he must be punished for crafting the thunder tiger’s wings, aiding in its escape. But this fleet . . . all this effort to kill one boy seems . . .’
‘Hai.’ A slow nod. ‘I have heard rumour that Old Kioshi and Second Bloom Kensai were as brothers. That Kensai-sama raised the traitor as his own son. But, forgive my temerity – does it not seem to you there is more important prey for us to be hunting?’
‘You speak of Yoritomo’s assassin.’
‘And the Kagé rebels who shelter her.’
The Scourge glanced at him, grim amusement in his voice.
‘Shelter her? She is not exactly hiding from us, young brother. Visiting all four clan capitals in the past fortnight. Bringing the skinless to the edge of outright rebellion. Slaying the Shōgun of this nation simply by looking at him.’
‘All the more reason to hunt her down, surely?’ Jubei felt righteous anger curdle his voice. ‘The citizenry say we in the Lotus Guild are afraid of her. A slip of a girl. A child. Do you know what they call her, Captain? The skinless, gathered in their filthy gambling pits and smoke houses? Do you know the name they give her?’
‘Stormdancer,’ the Scourge replied.
‘Worse,’ Jubei spat. ‘They call her “the girl all Guildsmen fear.”’
A hollow chuckle echoed inside the Scourge’s helm. ‘Not this Guildsman.’
Jubei lost his voice, stared at his feet, wondering if he had spoken out of turn. The Scourge glanced at one of their support vessels, the Lotus Wind, rumbling a mile off their stern, twin trails of blue-black exhaust spewing from the ironclad’s engines. He touched a switch at his chest, spoke again into his wrist, iron in his voice.
‘Captain Hikita, report.’
‘. . . o sign,’ came the faint reply, almost inaudible through the static. ‘. . . ut we are almost directly abov . . . site where the Resplendent Glory picked . . . tsune girl last summer . . . ronghold should be . . . rby.’
‘He cannot be far,’ the Scourge growled. ‘He left the river only last night, and on foot. Have your munitioneers prepare a fire barrage. Five-hundred-foot spread from the water’s edge. Time to flush this rabbit from his hole.’
Confirmation crackled down the comms channels, tinged with reverb.
The Lotus Wind banked ponderously and trekked back south, the drone of its propellers smudged across the sky. Jubei saw fire crews swarming over the decks like tiny armoured ants, loading incendiary barrels, setting ignition charges. He was scanning the forest canopy when the Wind’s captain signalled the barrage was finally primed and ready. The Scourge’s voice hissed down the all-comms frequency.
‘Lookouts, eyes open. Captain Hikita, commence bombardment.’
Jubei saw a cluster of black shapes fall from the Wind’s belly, tumble down into the autumn shroud below. A second later, all peace shattered, a series of dull whumping booms accompanying the blossoms of flame bursting amidst the trees, unfurling a hundred feet into the air and buffeting the Hunger like a child’s toy. Faint vibrations pressed against Jubei’s metal skin as the Wind cruised the shuddering riverbank, setting huge swathes of the forest ablaze.
The flames caught and spread, licking autumn leaves with fevered tongues, a curtain of choking soot and char drifting through the woods on blackened feet. Off the starboard side, their second escort, Void’s Truth dumped a second cluster of firebombs amidst the ancient trees, trembling reverb echoing down the river valley. Flocks of shrieking birds took to the wing, animals of all shapes and sizes fleeing north through the undergrowth, away from the grasping flames. Jubei watched it all unfold with a kind of fascination – the power of his Guild’s technology obliterating what had taken centuries to grow in a matter of moments.
‘Any sign?’ the Scourge asked over all-comms.
‘Negative,’ reported the Wind’s lookouts.
‘No sign,’ from the Hunger’s eyes above.
The Truth’s reply popped with faint static. ‘We have contact. Three hundred yards, north-northeast. Acknowledge?’
‘I have him,’ reported the Hunger’s lookout. ‘Seventy degrees starboard.’
The Hunger’s pilot kicked the engines to full burn, the propellers’ song rising an octave as they swung about to begin pursuit. Jubei engaged his telescopics, scanning the shifting chinks in the forest canopy as a sudden sweat burned his eyes. The vista below crackling sharp in his vision. Smoke coiled amidst moss-encrusted giants. Falling leaves and fleeing birds. An empire of bark and stone. But at last, yes, he saw him, he saw him – a thin figure in dirty grey, darting between two gnarled and looming maples.
‘There!’ Jubei cried. ‘There he is!’
Short dark hair. Pale skin. Gone.
‘Ground crews, prepare for pursuit.’ The Scourge’s command was calm as millpond water. ‘’Thrower teams full alert. Second Bloom has ordered us to liquidate target on sight.’
The Truth’s shuriken-throwers opened up, followed by the Hunger’s; twin batteries of razor-sharp stars spraying from their flanks and shredding the curtain of curling leaves below. Severed branches crashed earthwards, the chug!chug!chug!chug! of the ’throwers ringing over the rush of starving flames. Jubei thought he saw their quarry flitting amidst the undergrowth, a hail of gleaming death raining all around him. The Hunger’s marines were performing final weapons checks, readying to drop into the woods below. Flames to the south. Troops and spinning death from above. Ironclads overhead.
Jubei smiled to himself, surging flames reflected on metal skin. The rabbit had led them on a long chase, to be sure. But at last, his luck had come to an end.
The Scourge turned from the railing, grim satisfaction in his voice. ‘You may get to see Morcheba sooner than you—’
A flash of light.
Searing. Magnesium-white. It took a split second for the shock wave to catch up to the flare. Jubei saw the air around him grow brighter, highlights glinting on brass skin. And then came thunder – a shuddering, bone-shaking report sending Lady Izanami’s Hunger skidding sideways across the sky, engines wailing in soot-smeared protest. Jubei lost his balance, and to his shame, clutched the Scourge’s arm to stop himself falling.
A rush of superheated air. Tortured metal screaming, the hollow thudding booms of secondary explosions. Jubei turned, breath catching in his lungs, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
The ironclad off their starboard. Void’s Truth. A complement of twenty Guild marines, twelve Lotusmen, four Artificers, six officers and thirty crew. All of them.
They were falling from the sky.
The inflatable was simply gone, a long, ragged fireball swelling within a blackened exoskeleton, great flaming hands reaching down to incinerate anything on her deck. Cables snapping, motors whining as she reared up under unrestrained thrust, bow pointing into the sky even as they plummeted earthwards. The comms system was filled with screaming; tiny burning figures spilling over the railings and tumbling towards maws of rock hundreds of feet below. Jubei could see a few crewmen struggling with the aft lifeboat, bent low in terror. Another deafening explosion sounded as the Truth’s chi reserves ignited, her backside blew apart in a shower of blazing shrapnel, and she spun end over end towards her grave.
‘What in the First Bloom’s name?’ the Scourge bellowed into the comms system. ‘What hit us? Report!’
The Hunger’s crew was in chaos. Marines scrambling for the secondary shuriken-throwers. Shouted orders. Running feet. Fire teams on the dirigible yelling for target coordinates, lookouts aiming their telescopics through the billowing smoke, ashes falling like rain. Jubei saw the blue-white flare of rocket-trails through the haze off the starboard side; brothers who had survived the explosion and managed to engage their jet packs.
‘There!’ he yelled. ‘Survivors!’
The closest Shatei was forty feet from the Hunger’s railing when it took him. A flash of white amidst the smoke, the squealing crunch of ruptured metal, a strangled shout. And then Jubei saw the rocket pack flare and die, a haze of red, and the brother tumbled from the sky, the top half of his body struggling to keep pace with his legs.
‘First Bloom, save us,’ he whispered.
Jubei felt the Hunger shudder, heard a bass-thick crackling across blood-red skies. A sound that shivered the flesh inside his skin, rivets squealing, deck trembling under his feet like a child beneath his sheets in the thick, dead of night. The unmistakable roar of thunder. And yet, aside from the smoke, the skies around them were clear as polished glass . . .
‘Battle stations!’ the Scourge roared. ‘Battle stations!’
Jubei heard the shuriken-throwers arcing up again; a heavy chug!chug!chug!chug!, the hiss of pressurized gas, the clunking clatter of feeder belts. The sky around them sparkled with shards of razored steel, withering death sprayed blindly into the smoke. The mechabacus upon his chest spat a chattering spiel, confirmation requests from Chapterhouse Kigen flooding his inputs. His hands were shaking too hard to respond.
Screams again. Cries of ‘Contact! Contact!’ A pinprick of flame off the stern. Jubei looked behind in time to see that same white silhouette skirting the Lotus Wind’s inflatable, talons rending the reinforced canvas of their sister ship like damp rice-paper.
The world held still for a fleeting second, the deathly hush between one heartbeat and the next. Jubei looked across the space between him and that white blur, a sky of spinning steel and acrid smoke, and in that tiny, fragile moment, he saw her: a black shape, long hair whipping in an ember wind, crouched between two metal wings on the back of an absolute impossibility. And as its long and terrible talons ripped the Wind’s inflatable asunder, he saw a flash of orange light in the girl’s hand, a tiny flame at the end of a handheld flare, tumbling from her fingertips towards the escaping hydrogen.
And then light. Rippling, deafening light.
The explosion rocked the Hunger onto her starboard, the shock wave sending four marines over the side and into the abyss. Fire blossomed, the Wind’s inflatable tearing apart like an overfull bladder, timbers snapping, choking smoke. The Scourge bellowing, the chatter of shuriken fire, the roar of wounded engines, the ironclad spinning like a child’s toy as the white shape swooped around and down the port side amidst a hail of ’thrower fire, taking the Wind’s engine off at her shoulder.
So fast. So impossibly fast.
‘Concentrate fire! All ’throwers fire! FIRE!’
The shape wheeled away, keeping the Wind’s tumbling corpse between itself and the Hunger until it was well out of range, diving behind a towering knuckle of black mountain stone. Jubei heard a rumbling crash as the Wind hit bottom, flaring like a second sun as her chi tanks exploded, setting the autumn valley ablaze. The pilot was spinning the wheel beside him, the Hunger’s nose swinging towards their quarry. Jubei saw several rocket packs flaring, heard the rush of wings, lonely, awful screams out in the smoke. Bursts of shuriken fire. Metal thudding on wood. The Scourge shouting orders to the radio operator to report contact, request backup, a tumult of voices over the open frequency.
‘Did you see it?’
‘What was it?’
‘Need ammunition. ’Thrower four, twenty per cent.’
‘’Thrower seven, fifteen per cent!’
‘Eyes high! They came from above!’
‘Do you see anything?’
‘This is Captain Montaro!’ The Scourge’s roar cut through the babble like a chainkatana. ‘Clear comms of unnecessary chatter now! The next brother who speaks out of turn is headed straight for the inochi pits!’
Silence rang out, tinged with frightened static.
‘Munitions, get those ’throwers restocked. I want extra eyes on the inflatable, compensators on, maximum contrast. Helm, get us out of this accursed smoke. Hard to port. Engines full. Ascend one hundred feet.’
The Scourge walked to the edge of the pilot’s deck where his crew could see him. The engines’ volume increased, a deep shuddering whine, thupthupthupping prop-blades. The smoke thinned, ashes coating the deck like flurries of grey snow.
‘I know you, brothers. We’ve served together on this ship for years. The gaijin speak of Izanami’s Hunger with fear for a reason. A terror of the skies. Undefeated in battle. And I tell you now we will not quail before this—’
‘Contact high! Port side!’
‘Out of the sun! They’re coming at us out—’
Jubei heard it again. That awful thunder, turning his gut to water. The Hunger dropped thirty feet as if slapped out of the sky by the hands of angry gods. His legs were jelly-soft, mouth dry as ashes, gripping the rails so hard his gauntlets scored the wood. He longed to rip the helmet from his head, paw the salt burn from his eyes. For one moment of blessed relief.
He thought of his Awakening, the blurred and tumbling visions of his What Will Be, the destiny that could be his if only he had the strength to seize it. The Chamber of Smoke had showed him precious little of his future to make sense of, but he’d seen nothing about burning to death on this ship, being crushed to pulp on teeth of stone a hundred miles from the place he called home. And as the shuriken fire began again, as panic gripped their lookouts and that shape plummeted towards them out of the blinding sun, Jubei felt himself break. Red fear rising up and strangling reason, all the mantras and doctrine fleeing his mind, leaving him with a single truth burning bright before dilating pupils.
He was not meant to die here.
The terrified Lotusman ran to the bow’s edge, ignoring the Scourge’s bellowed order, fumbling with the ignition switches on his wrist. His boots scraped against the railing as he leapt up and over, snatched from gravity’s pull by blue-white flame. The rockets’ vibration shook his flesh, overshadowed by a spear of bright light at his back, the thunderous resonance of the Hunger’s inflatable bursting apart. His comms rig was filled with the screams of dying marines, the conflagration’s roar, the agony of flame on naked flesh. He switched it off, left with the frantic high-frequency data streams from his mechabacus, demands for someone – anyone – to report.
He set his pack to full burn, rocketing away from the Hunger’s death throes, the echoing crash of her ruin on the mountainside behind him. He could see the shape clearly in his mind’s eye, a lithograph etched in sweating fear and sour-tongue adrenaline. Wings twenty-five-feet wide, clad in iridescent metal. Sleek feathers at its head, eyes like molten amber, forelegs of iron-grey. Snow-white fur on its hindquarters, rippling stripes of pitch-black, long tail lashing like a whip behind it. Muscle and beak and claw; a creature from impossible fictions sprung inexplicably to life and spattered red with the blood of his brothers.
He prayed. For the first time he could remember, he prayed. To gods he knew weren’t there, who couldn’t listen. Figments of the imagination, crutches for the skinless and the ignorant, a superstition no Guildsman he knew really believed in. And yet he prayed with a fervour that would shame a priest. That his pack would fly him faster, get him out, away, his pulse rushing so hard he feared his veins would burst. If his heart were an engine, he would have thrashed it to breaking. If his blood were chi, he would have opened his veins and poured every last drop into his fuel tanks to fly just one foot farther.
And still, they caught him.
A rush of wind behind, the thunder of beating drums. He glanced over his shoulder and they hit him in a shower of sparks and flame. He bucked in the thing’s grip, arms pinned, his skin screeching like a wounded corpse-rat. Throat torn raw, spittle-flecked lips, screaming until at last he realized that, though he hung in those talons like a gaijin corpse above the inochi pits, completely at their mercy, the death blow hadn’t fallen.
They hadn’t killed him.
They flew for what seemed like years, south over the sky-clad ranges. A sweeping ocean turning slowly to the colour of flame, an undulating carpet of whispering trees and frost-clad teeth that seemed to go on forever. Finally they descended, circling above a flattened spur of rock and snow. A sheer cliff face dropping down onto grey foothills below. The very edge of the Iishi.
Twenty feet from the cliff top, they dropped him. He fell with a crash, sparks and grinding metal, skull cracking against the inside of his helm, biting hard on his tongue. Skin squealing across the plateau, he skidded to a halt two feet shy of the precipice.
And he lay there, too terrified to move.
He heard them land behind him, the crunch of claw on frost, a thumping wind. He rolled over and saw the beast; a looming hunk of beak and talons and snow-white fur, spattered with thick sprays of crimson. Kioshi’s son – the rabbit they had chased across the entire country – was slumped on its shoulders, clutching a bloody wound on his arm, pale and sweat-slicked, but still very much alive. Grubby grey cloth, short, dark stubble on his scalp, knife-bright eyes. The boy did not look like much. Not the kind to raise his fist in defiance of all he’d been raised to believe. Not the kind a fleet should die for.
But Jubei’s gaze was pulled to her, the girl (just a girl) slipping down off the beast’s shoulders, light as feathers. She was clad in loose black cotton, long dark hair flowing around her shoulders, pale skin dusted with ash and daubed with blood. Polarized goggles covered her eyes, an old-fashioned katana strapped at her back, the obi about her waist stuffed with hand flares. She was slender, pretty, impossibly young.
‘Take that off.’ She gestured to his helmet, her voice cold. ‘I want to see your face.’
Jubei complied, fumbling with the latches at his throat. He pulled the helmet from his head, felt icy wind on his flesh. Licking his lips, he spat blood onto the snow between his feet. The world was garish, horribly bright, the sun scalding his eyes.
She drew her katana, the blade singing as it slipped from its scabbard. Marching over to him, she sat on his chest. The arashitora growled in warning, long and deep, setting the plates of his skin squealing. The girl pulled down her goggles so he could see her eyes; flat black glass, bloodshot with rage. She pressed her blade to his throat.
‘You know who I am,’ she said.
‘. . . Hai.’
‘You’ve seen what I can do.’
‘Run back to your masters. Tell them what you saw here. And you tell them the next time they send a sky-ship near the Iishi Mountains, I’m going to carve my father’s name into her captain’s chest before I paint the sky with his insides. Do you understand me?’
Jubei nodded. ‘I do . . .’
She pressed on his neck, her blade sinking a little farther in. Jubei gasped, not daring to move, blood welling and running down his throat. For an awful, terrifying moment, he could see it in her face; the desire to simply open him up, ear to ear, to bathe in the spray of his carotid and jugular, lathering the bloody froth from his windpipe on her hands. Her lips peeled back from her teeth, blade twitching in his flesh, looming over him like a terror from some children’s story, some nightmare sprung inexplicably to life.
The girl all Guildsmen fear.
‘Please,’ he whispered. ‘Please . . .’
The wind was a lonely, howling voice between teeth of stone, a threadbare wail singing of death and the hunger of wolves. In it, he could hear the voices of his dying brothers. In her eyes, he could see an ending. The ending of all things. And he was afraid.
The boy on the thunder tiger’s back finally spoke, voice soft with concern.
‘Yukiko?’ he said.
The girl narrowed her eyes, still fixed on Jubei’s, hissing through clenched teeth.
‘His name was Masaru.’
She smeared blood across her cheek with the back of one hand.
‘My father’s name was Masaru.’
And then she stood, chest heaving, breathless. Knuckles white on her katana’s grip, she thrust it into the ground beside his head, left it quivering point-first in the snow. Without another word, she turned and stalked back to the beast, leaping onto his shoulders, her hair a long ribbon of black. The rabbit put his arms around her waist, leaned against her back. And with a rush of wind and that awful sound of breaking thunder, they dropped out into the void, soaring away on sweeping thermals, a swirling trail of ashes in their wake.
Jubei watched the three of them fly away, growing smaller and smaller on the smoke-stained horizon. And when they had disappeared from sight, when all he could see was red sky and grey cloud and distant fumes, he glanced at the sword beside his head, a faint smear of his own blood running down the steel.
He closed his eyes.
Lowered his head into his hands.
And he wept.
Slow flames danced in the light’s decline.
Her tantō rested near the fire pit’s edge, thrust tip-first into burning embers. Dark ripples coiling across the metal gave the impression of the grain in polished wood, or whorls at a finger’s tip. The blade was not blackened or smoking, nor incandescent with a forge’s heat. But a wise man might have noticed the way the air about it rippled, and like any man once burned, he would have left well enough alone.
Yukiko had watched the blade waiting on the glowing coals, no light in her eyes. The cedar logs crackled and sighed, oppressive heat smothering the air; a weight in her chest to match the one on her shoulders. She’d seen the air shivering around the steel and realized she was almost looking forward to it. To feeling again.
To feeling something.
‘You do not have to do this yet.’
Daichi had watched her across the fire pit, eyes underscored by the flames.
‘If not here, then where?’ she asked. ‘If not now, then when?’
The old man’s skin was worn; leather browned too long beneath a scalding sun, his biceps a patchwork of burns. Long moustache, close-cropped hair, just a blue-grey shadow upon a scalp crisscrossed with scars.
‘You should sleep. Tomorrow will be a hard day.’ Daichi groped for the words. ‘Watching your father put to the pyre . . .’
‘What makes you believe I’ll watch?’
The old man blinked. ‘Yukiko, you should attend his funeral. You should say good-bye.’
‘It took us five days to fly here from Kigen. Do you know what this heat does to a body after five days, Daichi-sama?’
‘I have a notion.’
‘Then you know what you burn tomorrow is not my father.’
Daichi sighed. ‘Yukiko, go and sleep, I beg you.’
‘I’m not tired.’
The old man folded his arms, his voice as hard as the steel gleaming on the embers.
‘I will not do this.’
‘After all I’ve done for you. After all you took from me.’
She’d glanced up then, and her expression had made the old man flinch.
‘You owe me, Daichi.’
The Kagé leader had hung his head. Breathing deep, he coughed, once, twice, wincing as he swallowed. She could see it in his eyes as he stared at the calloused hands in his lap. The blood that would never wash away. The stain of the child forever unborn. The mark of the mother who would never again hold her daughter in her arms. Her mother.
He spoke as if the word was bile in his mouth.
‘. . . Hai.’
Daichi had picked up the jug of red saké beside him, rose like a man on his way to the executioner. Kneeling beside her, he retrieved the tantō from the flames.
Yukiko hadn’t looked up from the fire. She loosened the sash at her waist, shrugged her uwagi tunic off her shoulders, covering her breasts with her palms. Her irezumi gleamed in the firelight; the beautiful nine-tailed fox tattooed upon her right shoulder to mark her clan, the imperial sun across her left marking her as the Shōgun’s servant. She’d tossed her head, flicked her hair away from Yoritomo’s mark. A few stray strands still clung to damp flesh.
As he held the knife up, the air between them had rippled.
‘Are you certain?’
‘No lord.’ She swallowed. ‘No master.’
He placed the saké jug on the floor between them.
‘Do you want something to—’
‘Daichi. Just do it.’
The old man had breathed deep, and without another word pressed the tantō to the ink.
Every muscle in her body seized tight as the blade touched her skin. The air was filled with the spittle-hiss of fresh fish upon a skillet, the sizzling tang of blackening meat and salt overpowering the scent of burning cedar. A long moan shuddered over her teeth and she closed her eyes, fighting the scream seething in her chest. She could smell herself burning.
She’d reached out with her mind, to the flood of warmth waiting just outside the door. Feather and fur and talons, wide amber eyes, his growl shaking the floorboards beneath him. The thunder tiger she’d found amidst storm-torn clouds, and now loved more dearly than anything beneath the sky.
Buruu . . .
Gods, it hurts, brother . . .
HOLD ONTO ME.
She’d clung to his thoughts; a mountain of cool stone amidst a flaming sea. Daichi peeled the steel from her shoulder, bringing ashen layers of tattooed skin with it. The blade that had killed her lover, Hiro. The blade that had been in her hands as she ended Shōgun Yoritomo, as the shot rang out and took her father away. Five days and a thousand years ago. She’d gasped as the agony receded to a dull ebb, and for a second, the urge to turn to Daichi and beg him to stop was almost overpowering. But she set her back against the thunder tiger’s strength, forced it down, far easier to swallow than the thought of that bastard’s mark still inked on her skin.
Anything was better than that.
She looked at the saké bottle on the floor beside her. Buruu’s thoughts washed over her like a summer breeze.
YOU HAVE BEEN STRONG ENOUGH FOR ONE DAY, SISTER.
Reaching for the bottle with trembling fingers, she gulped a mouthful of liquid fire, cooler than the steel in Daichi’s hand. The liquor rushed down her throat, burning her tongue, promising a return to the oblivion she’d been so eager to escape just moments before. The choice between agony and emptiness. Between living or existing.
It had been no choice at all on a night that dark.
‘Do you want me to stop?’ Daichi had asked.
She’d swallowed another mouthful, blinking back her tears.
‘Get it off me,’ she whispered. ‘Take all of it away.’
Yukiko closed her eyes, bloodshot and throbbing in their sockets.
The ground was a blur beneath them, falling leaves filling the spaces between each beat of Buruu’s wings. The air had the vaguest hint of chill, autumn’s pallid touch creeping through the Iishi wilds. The towering trees around them were fading; a subtle shift from gowns of dazzling emerald to a brief and brittle lime, their hems beginning to curl and rust.
They flew above it all. The pale girl swathed in mourning black, long hair flowing in the piercing wind. The boy with his dirty rags and dark, knowing eyes. The majestic beast beneath them, twenty-five feet of clockwork wings, cutting effortlessly through the sky.
Kin was perched behind her on Buruu’s back, one arm wrapped about her waist, the other hanging bloody at his side. He was obviously exhausted, shoulders slumped, head hung low. Yukiko could feel the heat of him through their clothing, hear the faint catch in his breath. Her mouth dry, stomach curdling with fading adrenaline. It’d been nearly two months since she’d seen him last – this boy who’d saved her life, who’d given up everything he was to see Buruu freed. In the chaos after Yoritomo’s death, the riots, her speeches, the threat of civil war, she’d spent every spare moment searching for him; urging the Kagé city cells to be on the lookout, patrolling the Iishi’s edge for hours on end in the hope of catching a glimpse. They’d owed him that much. That much and more. And now, to find him at last . . .
‘Are you sure you’re all right, Kin-san?’
Yukiko spoke over her shoulder, concerned eyes hidden by polarized glass.
‘Well enough,’ he breathed. ‘My arm is bleeding . . .’
‘We’re still an hour or so from the village. Can you hold on until then?’
A slow nod. ‘It took me over a month to get this far. A few more minutes won’t kill me.’
‘Wandering the Iishi alone might have, though,’ Yukiko said. ‘You were travelling the wrong way. Headed right towards Black Temple. You could have run into an oni, or gods know what else. The Kagé village is northeast of here.’
‘I know,’ he nodded. ‘Once I realized the ironclads were on my trail, I tried leading them away from the stronghold. I didn’t want to put anyone else in danger.’
Yukiko smiled, reached down and squeezed Kin’s hand. She should have known. Just as selfless as always. His own safety ever a distant second. Her thoughts were all a-tumble, emotions jostling for position in her chest; joy they’d found him, guilt it had taken so long, genuine fear at how close he’d come to death. Underscoring it all, the feel of his body pressed against hers, his hand about her waist, the tumult of confusion and adrenaline and Buruu’s fading bloodlust thudding in time with her own racing pulse.
She drew one shuddering breath, let it out slow.
‘Try to get some rest, Kin-san. You’re safe now.’
They flew on towards the Kagé village, the smoke of the ironclads they’d torn from the sky still hanging in their wake. Kin rested his head against her back and closed his eyes, his breath slowing, exhaustion getting the better of him. Buruu’s muscles seethed beneath them, his eyes narrowed, amber and gold, glittering like embers in a forge’s belly. Sleek feathers and thick fur, the colour of melting snow on the Iishi’s highest peaks, his hindquarters wrapped in long, snaking bands of deepest jet. Thunder tiger. Arashitora. The last of his kind in all of Shima.
His thoughts were intertwined with hers, images echoing in each other’s skulls, the pair of them linked by a bond deeper than blood. Yukiko and Buruu. Buruu and Yukiko. Harder and harder to tell where one ended and the other began these days. The ability to speak to the minds of beasts was called the Kenning in old folklore, but to even give it a name seemed to lessen it now. The truth was, it was more than a thing of weak and clumsy words. It was her father’s legacy, his gift to her, forging a friendship that had defied a Shōgun, ended an empire.
It was a reminder. A birthright. A blessing.
THE BOY IS LUCKY WE FOUND HIM BEFORE ANY DEMONS DID.
She winced as Buruu’s thoughts filled her own, just a touch louder than they’d ever been before. The sky seemed a little too bright. Her skull a fraction too small.
I know. The western slopes are crawling with them lately.
FOOLISH OF HIM. STILL, I AM GLAD HE IS SAFE.
You must be. You didn’t even call him ‘monkey-child.’
WELL, DO NOT TELL HIM THAT. I HAVE A GRUFF DEMEANOUR TO MAINTAIN.
Laughter died on her lips almost as soon as it had begun. Yukiko pushed up her goggles, pressed her fingers into her eyes. Pain throbbed at the base of her skull, the echoes of Buruu’s thoughts sending barbed tendrils up and across her temples. Ice-cold and burning.
YOUR HEAD STILL HURTS?
Only a little.
YOU ARE A TERRIBLE LIAR, GIRL.
There are worse character flaws. All things considered.
THIS PAIN HAS LINGERED FOR WEEKS. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.
I have more important things to worry about than headaches, Buruu.
FORTUNATE THEN, THAT I DO NOT.
You fret too much.
AND YOU NEVER ENOUGH.
You know what they say. Kitsune looks after his own.
Yukiko pressed against the mighty beast beneath her, felt the blood-red percussion of his pulse, the smooth motion of his flight. She ran her hands through the arashitora’s feathers, following the glass-smooth lines down his shoulders until her fingertips brushed the metal framing his crippled wings. The feathers clipped by a madman, barely a month in his grave.
At least now Kin is back and he can adjust your wings for you. This contraption looks ready to fall apart. How long until you molt?
YOU CHANGE THE SUBJECT AS ARTFULLY AS YOU LIE.
You’re becoming quite the master at avoiding questions, though.
The thunder tiger growled in the back of his throat.
I WILL HAVE NO NEW PLUMAGE FOR MONTHS. NOT UNTIL MY WINTER COAT GROWS IN.
Yukiko curled her fingers through sleek feathers, right where neck and shoulder met. His favourite spot.
And then what?
I DO NOT TAKE YOUR MEANING.
I mean what will you do after you can fly again under your own power?
WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO?
I don’t know. Go home, maybe? Leave this place behind.
LEAVE YOU, IS YOUR MEANING.
. . . Yes.
AFTER ALL WE HAVE BEEN THROUGH?
This isn’t your fight. This isn’t your home. You could fly away right now and forget any of this ever happened.
YOU KNOW THAT IS A LIE.
YOU KNOW ME. AS YOU KNOW YOURSELF.
I don’t know anything, Buruu.
THEN KNOW THIS. BETWEEN AND BENEATH AND BEYOND ANYTHING ELSE I MAY BE, I AM YOURS. I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU. NEVER FORSAKE YOU. YOU MAY RELY UPON ME AS YOU RELY UPON SUN TO RISE AND MOON TO FALL. FOR YOU ARE THE HEART OF ME.
She rested her head on his neck, wrapped her arms around him and breathed. The burn scar on her shoulder was a distant, nagging ache. The last few weeks with Buruu had been like something from a dream – flying to the clan capitals and speaking to the people, watching the fire grow in their eyes as she spoke. In Kigen, the citizens had laid out hundreds of spirit stones in the place where her father died. In the Dragon capital of Kawa, their arrival had kicked off five days of rioting. In Yama city, home of her own clan, the Kitsune, they had been treated like heroes. The whole country felt ready to rise. To throw off the shackles of the old Imperium and forge something new.
And still, the memory remained. Grief turning to slow and smouldering rage. Her father’s death. His blood on her hands. Dying in her arms. She hadn’t attended his funeral pyre. Hadn’t watched the flames consume the swollen, bloated thing his body had become. Hadn’t visited his grave in the days since, to burn incense or pray or fall to her knees and weep.
She hadn’t shed a tear since the day he died.
She glanced over her shoulder at the boy pressed against her, his breath soft, eyelashes fluttering against smooth cheeks.
One hand seeking his, the other pressed to Buruu’s feathers. Surrounded by those who cared for her. And still . . .
And still . . .
Part of me feels like I’m still trapped in Kigen, you know. I can see Yoritomo looking at me over the barrel of that iron-thrower. Hands stained with his own sister’s blood. It makes me want to scream. To reach inside his head and kill him all over again.
YORITOMO CAN HURT NO ONE NOW. HE IS DEAD. GONE.
He’s still all around us. In red skies and black rivers. In soldiers’ graves and blood lotus fields and dying soil. The Kazumitsu Dynasty is shattered, but even without a Shōgun, there’s still the Lotus Guild. They’re the cancer at this nation’s heart.
She shook her head, felt the warm swell of rage in her breast. Sudden and seething, curling her hands to fists. Remembering the heat of conflagration on her skin, the screams of dying Guildsmen as the sky rained ironclads. Because of them. Because of her.
And it felt right.
Daichi and the Kagé speak the truth. The Guild needs to be burned away.
AND YOU WILL BE THE SPARK? A HANDFUL OF WEEKS AGO, THE ACT OF TAKING A SINGLE LIFE WAS UNTHINKABLE FOR YOU. AND NOW—
A handful of weeks ago, my father was still alive.
THERE IS BLOOD DOWN THIS ROAD, SISTER. BLOOD LIKE A RIVER. AND THOUGH I SWIM IT GLADLY, I DO NOT WISH TO SEE YOU DROWN.
He bled out into my arms, Buruu. You don’t know what that’s like.
I KNOW THE SHAPE OF LOSS, YUKIKO. ALL TOO WELL.
Then you know what I have to do.
The thunder tiger sighed. His stare fixed on the ancient forest below, glazed and distant, staring into a future stained a deeper scarlet than the poisoned sky above.
WHAT WE HAVE TO DO.
Buruu banked down into murmuring gloom.
Her bedroom trembled in the midnight hush, candles flickering on the walls like dawn through rippling autumn leaves. Yukiko watched the shadows play through the blur of her lashes, eyelids made of lead, the same blood-drenched pain that had plagued her for weeks pounding inside her skull. Fists to temples, breathing deep. Teeth clenched, focusing on the aching scar at her shoulder to stop her mind drifting back into the dark. The place where her father lay, cold and dead, the ashes of his funeral offerings caked on his face. The place where she was helpless. The little one. The frightened one.
She drew the back of her fist across her mouth.
Buruu’s low growl dragged Yukiko from the throb inside her head, the ache in her body. She closed her eyes, tried to look through the Kenning to see what he was grumbling about. But as she reached inside his head, the world flared bright and loud, screeching and clawing – the thoughts of a hundred tiny lives out in the gloom flooding her skull. An owl soaring through the velvet dark (seekkilleatseekkilleat), a tiny furtive thing of fur and pounding heart hiding in long shadows (stillstillbestill), mockingbirds curled in their nests (warmandsafesafeandwarm), a lone monkey howling (hungreeeeeeee). So many. Too many. Never in her life so impossibly loud. Gasping, she closed off the Kenning, as if locking a disobedient child in an empty room in her mind. Breathing hard, she dragged her eyelids open, squinting out to the landing.
A figure stood in the shadows.
High cheekbones and steel-grey eyes. Dressed in dappled forest-green. An elegant, old-fashioned wakizashi sword at her waist, a scabbard embossed with golden cranes in flight. A long, black fringe cut to fall over one side of her face, almost concealing the jagged diagonal knife scar running from forehead to chin.
Another of Yoritomo’s legacies.
Daichi’s daughter lurked in the near darkness, wary eyes locked on the thunder tiger.
‘He won’t hurt you,’ Yukiko said. ‘Come in.’
Kaori hovered for a few uncertain moments, then slipped past Buruu as quickly as she could. The arashitora watched her, amber stare glittering. His metal-clad wings twitched, and he lay his head back down with a sigh and a hiss of pistons, tail sweeping in broad, lazy arcs.
The bedroom was ten feet square, unvarnished wood, wide windows looking out into a sea of night. The perfume of dried wisteria mingled with sweet candle smoke, doing their best to banish the pulsing ache at Yukiko’s temples. She lay back in her unmade bed with a sigh.
‘The lookouts told me you had returned,’ Kaori said.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t come see you and Daichi-sama. I was tired.’
The woman looked her over with a critical eye, lips pressed tightly together. Her stare lingered on the empty saké bottle at the foot of the bed.
‘You look awful. Are you unwell?’
‘The Guild ships are dealt with.’ Yukiko’s arm was slung over her face, words muffled in her sleeve. ‘They’re no threat to us anymore.’
‘Your Guildsman is resting. He is torn. Bruised. But Old Mari says he will recover.’
‘He’s not my Guildsman. He’s not a Guildsman anymore at all.’
‘My thanks, anyway.’ Her tone softened. ‘Your father honours me with his trust. I know what it means to have Kin here.’
‘I sincerely doubt that, Stormdancer.’
‘Don’t call me that.’
Uncomfortable silence fell between them, broken only by the whisper of dry leaves, the thunder-rumble breath of the arashitora outside. Yukiko kept her arm over her eyes, hoping to hear Kaori’s retreating footsteps. But the woman simply hovered, like dragonflies in the bamboo valley where Yukiko had spent her childhood. Poised. Motionless.
Finally, Yukiko dragged herself upright with an exasperated sigh. Pain flared at the base of her skull, claws curling up through her spinal cord.
‘I’m tired, Kaori-san.’
‘Thirsty too, no doubt.’ Steel-grey eyes flickered to the empty saké bottle. ‘But we have news from our agents in Kigen city.’
She sensed the hesitation in Kaori’s scorn. The weight.
‘Is Akihito all right?’
‘Well enough. He cannot escape Kigen while rail and sky-ship traffic is locked down. But the local cell is looking after him.’ Kaori walked to the window, avoided her reflection in the dark glass. ‘The city is in chaos. The Tiger bushimen can barely maintain the peace. We get new recruits every day. Talk of war is everywhere.’
‘That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? The body thrashing without its head.’
‘The Guild seek to grow it a new one.’
Yukiko blinked through the headache blur. ‘Meaning what?’
The woman sighed, clawing her fringe over her face, kohl-rimmed eyes downcast.
‘I take little pleasure in telling you this . . .’
‘Telling me what, Kaori?’
The woman looked at her palms, licked her lips. ‘Lord Hiro is alive.’
Yukiko felt the words as a blow to her stomach, a cold fist of dread knocking the wind from her lungs. She felt the room spin, the floor fall away into a beckoning nothing. And yet somehow, she managed to sway to her feet, to hold her centre and pretend she didn’t feel like a stranger clawing at the insides of someone else’s skin.
She could see him in her memory, lying on sweat-stained sheets, the light of a choking moon playing on planes of smooth skin and taut muscle. His lips, soft as clouds and tasting of salt, pressed against hers in midnight’s hush. Peeled back from his teeth as she drove her blade into his chest, as Buruu’s beak sheared his right arm from his shoulder in a spray of hot crimson.
How could it be? He was dead. They killed him.
I killed him.
‘Gods,’ she whispered. ‘My gods . . .’
‘I am sorry,’ Kaori said, still staring into the dark. ‘We hear but whispers. We only have one operative left who can move freely within the palace grounds. But we know Hiro is one of three seeking the title of Daimyo. Rumour tells he has the full backing of the Lotus Guild. Once he secures position as clanlord, he will claim the Shōgun’s throne.’
‘But that’s madness.’ Yukiko tried to swallow, her mouth dry as desert dust. ‘Why would any of the other clanlords support him?’
‘Their oaths of fealty bind them to the Kazumitsu Dynasty.’
‘But Hiro is not of Kazumitsu’s blood. The dynasty died with Yoritomo.’
‘There is one of Kazumitsu’s line who still lives.’
Yukiko frowned, trying to clear her thoughts. To focus. Buruu was on his feet, growling, his heat echoing through the corridors of her mind. She could feel the nightbirds beyond the window glass. Monkeys flitting across the trees. Tiny lives and tiny heartbeats – hundreds of them, bright and burning in the Kenning. So hard to think. To shut them out. To breathe.
‘I don’t . . .’
A flash of memory in her mind’s eye. Yoritomo in Kigen arena. His eyes dancing with hate. Wiping his hand across the bleeding gouges on his cheek.
‘No, my sister refused to betray you. And still she dared to beg me for mercy.’
Yukiko bent double, hands on her knees.
‘She found none.’
Black flowers bloomed in her eyes, unfurling in time with the strobing pain in her skull.
‘Hiro will cement his claim by joining the dynastic bloodline through its last surviving daughter.’ Kaori spoke as if her words were a eulogy. ‘He and Aisha are to be wed.’
The dark fell still. Sudden and silent as death. No nightsong.
No wind. A wet thump rang out in the room and Kaori flinched, squinting through the bedroom window to the black beyond. A small splash of blood was smeared on the glass. Another thump, against the far wall. Another.
She turned towards the girl, saw her doubled over in pain.
A sparrow smashed itself against the window, colliding headfirst and dashing its skull open against the glass. Another bird followed, another, as dozens upon dozens of tiny bodies slammed into the bedroom walls, the ceiling, the glass. Kaori drew her wakizashi, blade gleaming in the candlelight, turning in circles, her face thin with fear as the pounding of flesh against wood became thunderous. A rain of soft, breathing bodies and brittle bones.
‘Maker’s breath, what is this devilry?’
Yukiko was on her knees, hands pressed to her temples, forehead to the floor. Eyes shut tight, features twisted, teeth bared. She could hear them all – a thousand heartbeats out in the dark, a thousand lives, a thousand fires, hotter than the sun. Their voices in her skull, nausea rising black and greasy in the pit of her stomach, overlaid with the taste of his lips, the bitter words he had spoken right before she killed him, she killed him, gods, I killed him.
‘Good-bye Hiro . . .’
Buruu. Make them stop.
THEM? IT IS YOU. THIS IS YOU.
YOU ARE SCREAMING. STOP SCREAMING.
‘Stop it,’ she breathed.
Kaori took hold of her shoulder, squeezed tight. ‘Yukiko, what is happening?’
Hearts beating in thin, feathered chests. Blood pumping beneath fur and skin. Smashing themselves against the walls, falling broken and bloodied towards a grave of fallen leaves. Eyes burning bright, teeth gnashing, the girl inside their head screaming and screaming and screaming and they had to make it stop because it hurt what does she want why won’t she stop make her stop make her stop.
‘Yukiko, stop it.’
SISTER, STOP IT.
Knuckles and pulses and a thousand, thousand sparks.
Her scream rang out in the darkness, her eyes wide and bloodshot, hair splayed in dark tendrils across her face. Silence fell like a hammer, broken only by the sound of small, still-warm bodies tumbling down into the darkness below. Bright spots of red spattered on the boards between her knees. She reached up to her nose, felt sticky warmth smeared down her lips. Pulse throbbing in her temples in time to the song of her heart, Buruu’s thoughts cupping her and holding tight, the Kenning’s heat receding like floodwaters out into a cold and empty black.
Kaori knelt beside her, blade still clutched in one trembling fist.
‘Yukiko, are you all right?’
She dragged herself to her feet, smudged blood across her mouth with the back of one hand. Stumbling out the door, she wrapped her arms around Buruu’s neck. Sinking to her knees again, him beside her, wrapping her beneath his clockwork wings. Salty warmth on her lips, clogging her nose. Echoes bouncing inside her skull. The sparks of every animal out in the forest, out there in the dark, flaring brighter than she could ever remember.
‘Good-bye Hiro . . .’
She could feel everything. ‘Gods, what’s happening to me?’
Excerpted from Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff. Copyright © 2013 by Jay Kristoff.
First published 2013 by Tor, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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