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The Last Stormdancer

The Lotus War 0.6

by

Jay Kristoff

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,” he roars. “Khan’s word is law.”

“Then kill me.”

“Never.”

“Then die.”

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

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