Authors: Jay Kristoff
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All I taste is blood.
All I see is red.
All I know is rage.
I plummet from the sky, wind clawing at my eyes. Warm and scarlet painted thick upon my tongue. Wings pressed tight to my flanks, lighting crackling along my feathertips. My beak is open and I am roaring, bellowing like the storm itself, impossible brightness cracking the skies, black clouds closing at my back as if I were a player stepping out for one last turn upon the stage. My talons locked with his. My friend. My foe. Our plumage dipped in crimson and fluttering in our wake as we flail and bite and kick. Descending.
Mountains loom below us. Jagged peaks rising from the rolling mist of rain and ashen smoke, snow-clad teeth set to tear us to pieces. But still we struggle. Chained together by this, my rage, my hatred. Unwilling to let each other go. At the last, he breaks away, kicking loose in a shower of blood. I spread my wings, feel ragged wind cup my feathers, distant pain from the wounds he has torn in me stealing my breath. He was ever my match. Even when we were cubs, the stripes at our haunches still muddy gray. Not my blood. But yet my brother.
And now, my enemy.
We level out, circle each other through the hissing sleet. He calls to me, voice as loud as the storm, my blood in his mouth.
“Stop this, Koh. Stop this madness.”
I growl reply between the thunder claps.
“Only three ways this will end.”
“I am Khan here,”
. “Khan’s word is law.”
“Then kill me.”
I tear across the sky toward him, tempest at my back. All around us is chaos, the voices of our packmates raised, eyes watching the drama unfold. The air itself pregnant with knowledge that this battle’s victor will decide all our futures—to remain and fight the Lotus Guild, their poison, their lies, or have us abandon these shores and all within them to their fate.
We collide like comets, like falling, burning stars. I dig my talons into his flesh, knuckle deep. He tears at my shoulder, blood brighter than the poisoned sun, and we are snarls and shrieks and roars, all a-tumble across the sky. Lightning rocks the clouds, gleaming in his eyes as we plummet toward teeth of stone. His beak closing about my throat. Mine about his.
My friend. My enemy. My Khan.
How did it come to this?
* * *
Ninety-nine years after the birth of the Kazumitsu Dynasty, in the midst of a too-warm spring, I watched an eighteen-year-old boy limp to the highest summit of the Four Sisters Mountains.
Not the most spectacular of beginnings, I will grant you. Not one to bring audiences to their feet, hands to their mouths in shock. Not the way stories about heroes should begin. But if this introduction strikes you as simple, monkey-child, avail yourself of these three facts:
First, that the Four Sisters are the highest mountains in all the lands of the Tiger clan, and truly, all the Shima Imperium. They stand so far above the sea that fully half their height is veiled in snow, even in the warmest summer months. In those days, the Four Sisters were home to my kind—thunder tigers, or arashitora as some among you name us—and the tallest peak was the seat of the Khan. The ruler of all our race.
Monkey-children such as yourself were not welcome there.
Visitors had come to us in days past, of course. Samurai mostly, warriors true, flying up the mountain in bloated, wingless birds to seek audience with our greatest. Steel in their hands and fire in their hearts, these men of pride would seek the right to ride one of us in battle—as if we were kin to the poor beasts of burden coughing and wheezing in the fields below. Your kind gifted a name to warriors who had sat astride thunder tigers in ages past; Stormdancers, you called them. And though the last of them had perished generations before, though such tales were slipping from the scrawlings of history into the mists of legend, there was no shortage of brave monkey-children in iron suits who would travel to the Aerie and seek to make their own names myth.
The polite ones we simply sent packing with scars enough to remember us by. The arrogant among them (and they were plentiful), we would take high up into the heavens, where the clouds pressed their lips to the edge of the sky. And there, we would try to teach them to fly.
You note that I say “try.” Perhaps you wonder how the lessons fared?
Locals around the mountains had a saying. When the rain hammered down in sheets thick as city walls, when the deluge beat upon their roofs with all the fury of the gods combined, Four Sisters folk would not say it rained cats and dogs, no.
They would say it rained samurai.
Fact, the second: the boy did not fly to the mountains, as most who sought audience with our Khan did. He did not skulk aboard some bladder of hydrogen and twigs, pushed up into the reddening sky to be set alight by capricious lightning. He did not travel from his home by motor-rickshaw, nor hunched on the spine of some poor, suffocating horse, miserable in the spreading pall of strange blue-black smoke.
No, the boy walked. All the way from the Blessed Plains in Kitsune lands. A journey of something close to one thousand miles, with only a stick of lacquered pine in his hands and a small winter sparrow sitting on his shoulder, white as newborn snow.
And the third fact you should be availed of, little one? The most important of them all?
The boy was blind.
The scruffy locks overhanging his lashes could not hide the vacancy of his gaze from my eyes. The cloud-white film over iris and pupil. The way he kept his head tilted, staring into nothing. He was wrapped in heavy black cloth and tattered furs, travel-worn boots held together by rags and prayers. He did not hide his eyes from the burning sun behind goggles of black glass as many monkey-children now did; the damage was already done, I supposed.
Snow swirled about him, caked in his locks. He was lean, hardened by the miles beneath his feet, soft whiskers at his cheeks, crusted with frost. The tiny snow sparrow nestled in the blood-warm crook of his neck shivered, blinking at me with eyes deep and black as midnight. The boy trudged up the slope, miserable boots scrunching and crunching, walking unerringly until at last he stood before the seat of the Khan.
Four dozen thunder tigers crouched atop the stones around him. A dozen more stalked through the snow behind him. The monkey-child could not have known it, but he had stumbled into the largest gathering of arashitora to take place in decades. A Skymeet we called it—where the Khan called his subjects to his side and asked counsel before making decision on matters of greatest weight. For good or ill, it was a meeting that would live in the history of the thunder tiger race for generations.
The boy’s timing was … less than exemplary.
Our strength had been gathered from the Four Sisters, the Iishi Mountains, Earthsky and Kogane Isle. Proud and fierce we were, with talons like razors and beaks as sharp as any monkey-child’s katana. The heads, wings and foreclaws of mighty white eagles we had, eyes gleaming like embers in a fire wind. The hindquarters of great white tigers, stripes black as midnight etched upon our fur, claws that could rend rock to ribbons. And behind us, loomed he to whom all paid heed.
Kreii was his name in our tongue; a word for “wind” (we have fourteen). But to all thunder tigers in Shima, he was simply Khan. The rule of us had been his for near twenty winters. Longer than any Khan in remembrance. And looking down on this little blind boy traipsing so blithe into our home—right into the middle of a Skymeet no less—the Khan spread his wings, thirty feet of gleaming feathers and crackling current, and opened a beak sharp enough to bite the horizon in half. His roar shook the earth. Stilled the blind monkey-child in his frozen tracks.
At this point, our wide-eyed visitors from the lands below would usually speak with their jabber-tongues. Make the sounds of rutting hogs and expect us to understand—as if arashitora had a caring for the language of things crawled but newly down from the trees. They would kneel and draw their swords and make nonsense with their mouths until one of the bucks would blood them and send them on their way. Either that, or make it rain.
And here now, this boy. This blind one. Crawled up the mountainside with a tiny bird at his shoulder and a stick in his hand, twig-thin limbs all a-shivering. The bucks around me growled and tore the earth with their talons. Their rage plain for any with eyes to see. Interloper. Monkey-child. Prey. But looking down at this boy, this blind child of men, something inside me stirred. I say not for certain what it was. Curiosity, perhaps. The muddy stirrings of prescience?
And so, though it was far from my place to do so, I fixed to be the one to make him feel unwelcome. Tempers in the Skymeet had been running hot, roaring and crackling and bloody-red, and I thought it better my talons gift the boy a little bleeding than another’s fling him screaming from the mountainside.
I sprang down from my stone near the Khan’s left flank and bellowed. Wings spread in threat. Buffeting the snow about the boy into tumbling flurries. He did not flinch. Did not tremble, save for the cold. He did not fear. This took me aback. Made me look small in front of my kin. Set my hackles to rippling.
And so I sought to teach him what fear was.
I stretched out with my talons, quick as hummingbird’s wings, intent on brushing foreclaw’s edge through his frost-pale skin. Nothing too deep. Nothing to bring a killing. Just a hurting he would feel in place of hubris for the rest of his living days.
Yet the boy moved.
than hummingbird’s wings. Quicker than the kiss of blinding lightning to scorched earth. Quicker than I could blink, he stepped aside, and around, and tapped my hindparts with his walking stick. Just once. The sound of lacquered pine striking my haunches louder than thunder.
A moment of stillness. Glances among my packmates, incredulous. Grim amusement rippling amongst the Skymeet, gleaming in scores of amber eyes. Sudden rage swelling in my breast, blinding and red, settling me now not for the scarring, no, but for the
—to drag this monkey-child up into the sky, and see if his arrogance would gift him wings enough to hold him aloft. Blind or no. Boy or no. I would be his ending, true.
My roar shook the very stones, reverberating across the mountainside. A roar to begin avalanches, to send boulders of ice crumbling free and crashing into the canyons below, all Four Sisters trembling with the fury of it. And I raised my talons, set to seize and tear and shake like a doll of rags and bones and bloody—
A voice in the back of my mind. Gentle as spring wind’s kiss upon newborn buds. Never had I heard the like in all my life.
I mean no offense, great one. Forgive me. Please.
I blinked. Shook my head. Talons ripping furrows through the ice at my feet. The boy stood before me, hand outstretched, head tilted still, frozen breath hanging in rolling white drifts between us. And in all of me, from the bottom of my belly to the tips of my wings, I knew—somehow
—that the voice I heard in my mind was his.
I looked to my Khan. My kin gathered on the rocks about me.