THE GIRL ALL GUILDSMEN FEAR
Three Guild warships rumbled across a blood-red sky with all the finesse of fat drunkards lunging toward the privy. They were capital warships of the “ironclad” series; the heaviest dreadnoughts constructed in the Midland yards. Balloons the color 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 center. 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-gray 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 rumored 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 Shogunate ground troops against the round-eye barbarians across the Eastborne Sea. But when the war effort had begun disintegrating in the wake of the Shogun’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 colors 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 rumor 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 Shogun 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 armored ants, loading incendiary barrels, setting ignition charges. He was scanning the forest canopy when the Wind’s captain signaled 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 gray, 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 earthward, 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 earthward. The comms system was filled with screaming; tiny burning figures spilling over the railings and tumbling toward 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 toward 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 toward the escaping hydrogen.
And then light. Rippling, deafening light.
The explosion rocked the Hunger on to 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 toward 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 percent.”
“’Thrower seven, fifteen percent!”
“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 gray 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 toward 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-gray. 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 fervor 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 color 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 on to gray 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 gray 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.
“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 gray 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.
Copyright © 2013 by Jay Kristoff