NIGHTMARES BREAK US, DREAMS REMAKE US.
Genshu Hidekazu and Masanori lost their family name, their identities, and each other. Nameless and haunted by the remnants of the Nightmare… will they find revenge or redemption?
The path to bushido seems certain for Hidekazu—he will claim the title of bushi, reinstating his name and restoring his honour with it, or die trying. But stuck between the palms of two cruel masters and beneath the shadow of the Nightmare, breaking is only a question of when—and which master will claim Hidekazu’s loyalty when he does.
Home is but a memory for Masanori. Death and demons follow his every move, but he won’t crawl back to those who abandoned him—even when he spots Lacotl in the Nightmare, far from his prison beneath the Cedar Palace. But, surviving his encounter with the kan’thir puts Masanori under the care of a mysterious priestess—one who proves far deadlier than the horrors he runs from.
As the official Acting Shogun, Aihi strives to maintain the structure her mother built before her. But Lacotl’s game carries on, threatening to rip apart Seiryuu whether Aihi wishes to participate or not. And with the Sanlongguon Magician’s Guild seeking nothing more than to destroy a two-century long alliance, Aihi’s time to win is running out. Nothing good comes without sacrifice, and if she must relinquish her spirit to prevent Seiryuu’s destruction and earn herself a chance at freeing Seiryuu from Lacotl’s grasp… so be it.
To unravel the mysteries leftover by the Dragon’s Eye, the twins and the princess must work together against all odds, even in the wake of more disasters and betrayal. Either the Nightmare will break them, and Seiryuu will fall—or the Nightmare will remake them into something stronger.
Masa, Hide, and Aihi’s journey continues in A Dragon’s Sight, the third of four novellas prefacing the Wyvern Wars series: an epic fantasy adventure inspired by selections of Japanese mythology and folklore.
If any game in existence was meant to shed blood, that game would be Go.
Aihi scanned the large board, avoiding the gaze of her opponent, Li Fengge, whose bright, curious eyes observed her every movement. With him sat two other Sānlóngguón diplomats, the refined Hou Nianzu, and their counterbalance, Xiong Zixin, who stared at Aihi with unbidden contempt. Genshu Dano remained neutral at Aihi’s side.
“Seiryuu grows ever more beautiful as its princess blossoms.”—Fengge nodded with approval when Aihi placed her Go piece and surrounded one of his black stones—“Before long, I believe most will find visiting these shores an irresistible adventure.”
“Simple minds oft forget the danger beauty hides, dear Li,” Aihi said. Next to her, Ei, her father’s precious hō-ō, was preening. The bird was at ease, and so was Aihi, but she could only go so long without directly addressing Sānlóngguó’s destroyed ships and dead diplomats.
Fengge gave an amused smile. He was feminine in his appearance, moving and speaking with the grace of a puma, but he held an unparalleled authoritative confidence, reminding Aihi more of a tiger. He was too skilled for the show of emotion to be anything but intentional. “Please, call me Fengge, Your Exaltation. I do hope we might become friends.”
“As you wish, dear Fengge.”
Though Aihi accepted his display of familiarity, she would not extend the gesture, not until she had a better understanding of the man.
While Zixin and Nianzu had attended regular meetings with Shōgun Mika and presented themselves at significant events in Seiryuu, Aihi had never met Li Fengge before this day. He replaced the third member of Zixin and Nianzu’s party, Guo Jing, who had been an unfortunate causality in one of the earliest attacks on Sānlóngguón ships. One of four dead diplomats.
Considering the circumstances, Aihi did not yet understand why Fengge—a fledging diplomat with no prior relationship with Seiryuu—would replace an esteemed woman such as Jing.
“Shadows do not erase beauty outright, Your Exaltation.” Fengge set his next piece, capturing a vacant square adjacent to Aihi’s. “What misfortune, it is, for all this messiness to overshadow your home in the years she should shine brightest. Alas, shadows might always disappear when obstructions are removed.”
“Not all shadows are of equal merit,” Aihi said.
“The advantage of a simple mind is, I believe, to be blind to the shadows which plague others.”
Aihi parsed the game board, seeking her next move. “My cousin, Aochi Raidon, is such an example of simplicity. For all his travel, it is a marvel he has survived so long in this treacherous world. I hear he is currently in Sānlóngguó, enduring yet another adventure of his own making.”
“Adventure is, of course, defined by the adventurer.”
Fengge’s expression revealed no hint of Raidon’s status. Ever since things went sour between Seiryuu and Sānlóngguó, Aihi had expected Raidon to become a hostage under the title of a much-honoured guest. Without knowing if his life was in danger, Aihi had to tread with care. The discussion about the destroyed ships may determine whether he remained a captive or went free. Months had passed since her last contact with Raidon, but that was not unusual when he spent most of his time away from civilization.
“Shadows, if left too long, choke the life from the flowers they hide,” Nianzu said, either content to refocus the topic or oblivious of Raidon’s significance. “No gardener would stand to let his precious creations wither and die under a watchful eye.”
He drew Aihi’s attention, and not for the first time, she glanced over the dualist ruby and jade hair clasps of an esteemed magician. “Every garden must be tended with care,” she said. “Yet shade is not the only—nor is it the worst—force to trouble a budding beauty. Rodents require swift dispatching, lest they leave nothing but waste behind, and little worth recovering from the darkness.”
“And? Have your pests met their end?”
Aihi positioned a stone further from her and Fengge’s main army. She could do better, but her strategy demanded patience. “Some rats require a special poison. Time.”
Fengge focused on the Go board and Aihi on him. He wore no magician’s mark, yet he would not attend a meeting between Seiryan officials and Sānlóngguón magicians were he not favoured by the Magician’s Guild. His hanfu was simple, the robes a mix of subdued greens and reds, while Nianzu and Zixin boasted magnificent scarlet and emerald silk with gold embroidery. Fengge’s adornments were plain silver clasps, too, as though he went through a special effort to appear unintimidating.
“Time is perhaps the most valuable resource of all, Your Exaltation,” Fengge said. “One we are, currently quite limited in, unless we are eager to wait for another tragedy”—he placed his stone and captured three of Aihi’s—“like your previous move in our game.”
The pieces she left vulnerable to lure Fengge into her trap.
“Tragedy is but what we make of it.” She attacked his unprotected flank, capturing five pieces. “I choose not to linger on despair, but the bonds it might create—and reforge.”
Fengge raised his eyebrows and moved to less populated squares.
“An easy, and equally empty, claim made by one who has little understanding of national responsibility.” Zixin’s glare travelled to the disastrous state of Fengge’s side of the Go board. “It is time to cut the pleasantries and pretty words and speak plainly, child. Seiryuu has long been prosperous. What pest could justify neglecting your closest ally, allowing the mutilation of Sānlóngguón trade ships and magicians in Seiryan waters?”
Aihi took her time making her next move. For a diplomat, Zixin had no tact. The severe angles of her jaw and frame matched her attitude. It was easy to see why she had been Mika’s favourite diplomat to deal with: Zixin had little patience for the court’s exhausting language, where most peoples’ preferred form of diplomacy involved avoiding a topic while simultaneously delving into intimate details.
“Perhaps you forgot, Xiong Zixin, about the state of our Honourable Shōgun’s health,” Dano said, breaking his silence for the first time. “I will caution you only once to refer to the Exalted Dragon Princess with the respect due an Acting Shōgun.”
“Yes, the enigmatic ailing constitution of Furahau Mika.” Zixin stood, holding one hand behind her back, the other loose at her side as she circled Fengge, Aihi, and their game of Go. “I heard you butchered her.”
Aihi placed another piece, prepared to launch another attack.
“You will not spea—” Dano started, silenced by Aihi’s raised hand.
“You wish for me to continue without pretty words and fanfare, Xiong Zixin?” She brushed a hand over Ei’s molten feathers and gestured for Fengge to continue playing. “Then please, tell me when to stop.
“A corrupted aki, made by a malicious kan’thir sworn to Ozeki’s service, attacked our Honourable Shōgun. Indeed, I was in the room when the crystal’s vile energy latched on to our Shōgun’s spirit, and, indeed, I severed her arm to control the contamination. I recall, quite clearly, the gush of her blood across my hands as she lay in my lap, in the seconds before—”
Zixin’s powdered cheeks managed to whiten to complete ivory. “Enough. You make your point. We do not need graphic details, only the information which might further our understanding of the situation.”
“Apologies, dear Xiong. I forgot that you have never wielded a sword, that blood might make one queasy.”
When Zixin turned her face away in a show of defeat, Aihi put another stone in place for her finale. “Might you require a reminder of our spiritual practices in Seiryuu? We do not look favourably upon those who follow Ozeki, not when such visits often leave strings of violence in their wake.”
Nianzu twisted his teacup. “So that is what this is. You keep us at a distance, ignoring our predicament, believing us responsible for the monster ravaging your garden. All because we accept the energies of God, Goddess, and the Balance between the two? I thought us generations past this dispute, Your Exaltation. What has our Glorious Teacher done to reverse your opinion?”
Unlike Seiryuu, Sānlóngguó worshipped not only the Dragon Goddess Shirashi but also her brother and rival, the Wyvern God Ozeki. The Balance between them, for Sānlóngguó, was their third deity, a winged serpent of both masculine and feminine energies. Aihi’s instincts were to reject this philosophy. No concrete evidence existed of a third being anywhere near as powerful as Shirashi and Ozeki, but she restrained her thoughts from straying too far from a path of acceptance.
The previous Warlock Empress’ failed their duty to Aoryuu—as Seiryuu was named before—in part, due to their strict monotheistic beliefs. They went to war with many civilizations to prove Shirashi’s superiority. They seeded hate and intolerance, and, in the end, that became a weapon that turned against Aoryuu. Shōgun Mika insisted that Aihi would surpass all previous Warlock Empresses. She would correct their failings even if not a warlock herself. Aihi struggled, every day, to prove Mika right.
“You mistake our meaning,” Dano said. “We do not suspect Sānlóngguón involvement; our nations have cooperated peacefully for many long years. However, you must understand our priority has been unravelling the mysteries surrounding the sorcerer responsible for our Shōgun’s ill health.
“The lost ships and magicians are a true tragedy. We are conducting a thorough investigation with all of the resources at our disposal. While we review the evidence, we cannot jump to conclusions. It is our responsibility to reach a satisfactory outcome for both parties.”
Fengge moved to circle Aihi’s growing formation. “If you believe our bond of nations as strong as ever,” he said, “then I wish to understand why our offer to assist in the investigation continues to go unanswered.”
“In light of our budding friendship, dear Fengge, I will honour you with an explanation.” Aihi sipped her tea, and the warm liquid steadied her nerves. “I forgive your ignorance. You have spent little time in Seiryuu, and less, I am sure, debating the devastation of your ships.”
“It is contextual information that I lack, it seems.”
Aihi lifted a stone. “Xiong Zixin, Hou Nianzu, and your predecessor, Guo Jing, were quick to approach our Honourable Shōgun after the first incident early in the month of the dragon.”
“We had a strong relationship with Furahau Mika,” Zixin said, “we wished to collaborate, not sit idle while we might bring the culprit to justice. You misunderestimate Li Fengge by assuming his new appointment makes him ignorant.”
“No, Xiong, you misunderestimate him by assuming his youth makes him a pawn, as you likewise discount me.” Aihi claimed her final point before Fengge could stop her, surrounding another four of his pieces. “I apologize for putting you in this position, my dear Fengge, but sweet Xiong requested I speak plainly, and I must oblige her request for fear that, otherwise, we might never find a resolution.”
Fengge rubbed his thumb and forefinger against his chin. “If you believe your demonstration increases our likeliness of coming to an understanding, then I am more than happy to receive it at my expense.”
“This is unnecessary,” Nianzu said, “when we might have a civil discussion instead.”
Aihi did not miss the warning in his tone, the implication that, by revealing Nianzu and Xiong’s deception, she might make things worse, not better. And though, a month ago, she would not have wavered, a thousand things had changed.
Games and strategy were supposed to be Aihi’s strength, but ever since her first face-off with Lacotl—the kan’thir whose sick game of life and death haunted her day and night—she had become less confident in her skills. She would find a way to beat Lacotl, as she would beat these diplomats. Mika never lost control of the situation. Neither would Aihi.
She still did not understand Fengge’s role in the Magician’s Guild’s scheme to antagonize Seiryuu, but only a fool would trust him. Though Seiryuu’s philosophical differences with the Magician’s Guild were immense, they had once united over their shared reverence of Shirashi. They could do so again.
“Our Honourable Shōgun had every intention of asking Sānlóngguó to support her inquiry into the loss of magicians and valuable trade goods,” Aihi said. “Their first meeting was one of joint horror, formulating swift plans to root out the criminals claiming Sānlóngguón lives. That cooperation should have continued. That is, had Hou and Xiong been more interested in maintaining an alliance than flinging accusations.
“You wonder why we do not accept your assistance?” She lifted her chin to the man and woman to Fengge’s sides. “Ask them what they told Furahau Mika in their second meeting, after Guo Jing’s tragic death. I implore you to demand the exact wording, too—perhaps you will find it as amusing as I did.”
“Thank you for your counsel, Your Exaltation. Perhaps it is time for us to take our leave and resume our game another day,” Fengge said, ending his turn with a neutral placement to the side. “I will consult my comrades on this matter before our next meeting.”
“Seiryuu must take responsibility for its crimes.” Nianzu stood to join Zixin several steps closer to Aihi. “Might I remind you of your cousin, stranded so far from home?”
Ki flared in Dano’s palms, solidifying into calm spirals of water. A warning. “You err in assuming Seiryuu will bend to threats of violence or that she will accept your groundless accusations without recourse.”
“Unless your plan is to sever ties with Seiryuu,” Aihi said, “I recommend reconsidering your negotiation strategy. Aochi Raidon is, after all, more than capable of taking care of himself. And if not, well…”
Nianzu and Zixin swept out of the room, a flurry of reds and greens, like a pair of exotic birds. Fengge’s expression was still unreadable up until the moment he lowered himself into a bow and backed out of the chamber.
As he left, Aihi noticed the slender jian at his waist. Fengge was the first Sānlóngguón diplomat to favour carrying a sword. There was some significance to this, but she could not summon the reason through the unsteady thrum thrumming in her veins.
When the fusuma slid shut, and the clamour of footsteps in the hall faded, Dano grunted and puffed out his sleeves. “Your Exaltation, I am not sure this meeting could have gone any worse.”
Aihi looked at the dragon patterns adorning the cloth doors, and then at the game board, an indiscriminate battlefield which might yet topple for or against her. “I feel like we won something.”
Her shoulders rolled forward, jerky with the knowledge that she might have very well sentenced her cousin Raidon to death.
The master flicked a bolt of scorching ki at Hidekazu, sending him flying into the opposite wall. Hidekazu stifled a yelp when he collided with the wood and collapsed to the floor. He struggled into a bow, pressing his forehead to the tatami, daring not to raise his eyes again.
“You forget who you are, what you made yourself,” Barame said. “What is your new name?”
“Shi… Shizu Hidekazu.”
“I am dishonourable, unworthy of my father’s respected name.”
Electric energy hovered like a halo around Barame’s head. “You disappeared for a month. My best shadows could not find you.”
Dishonour. The consequence of trying to do good. But the mission that had sent Hidekazu, Masanori, and Aihi beyond the reaches of Seiryuu was not one Hidekazu could recount without sounding insanee. He settled for sharing their goals before their journey went wrong, before his father exiled Hidekazu from the Genshu clan. Before he swore to redeem himself and reclaim his family name no matter the cost.
“We were investigating the Dragon’s Eye on Aihi’s behalf, travelling to Najadu.”
“I uncovered as much with Ijichi Kira’s testimony. And yet, you never made it that far. Where did you go?”
The hidden warlock library had, at first, seemed whimsical, filled with more books than Hidekazu could imagine. Only, in the end, the creatures of the dark had tried to eat him and his companions alive. A library that wasn’t supposed to exist.
“We got lost.”
Energy rippled around Barame, and his razor-like hair flashed through the air. The sting of ki lashed across Hidekazu’s back. He gritted his teeth against the punishment. He forfeited his right to argue when he disobeyed not only his family but also Barame, to whom Hidekazu had sold his independence. Genshu Dano’s terms to rejoin the Genshu clan were fair. Until Hidekazu proved his discipline by passing the Majyutsushi Exams and becoming a bushi, he was on his own. He was no one, nameless, worthless.
The whip of bladed hair came again, cutting Hidekazu’s shoulders. He cringed. Leaving to unlock the secrets of the Dragon’s Eye was the last time Shizu Hidekazu would disobey.
“I do not tolerate liars,” Barame said.
“I’m n-not lying. Not entirely.”
“We had an agreement, you and I.” Instead of striking Hidekazu again, Barame retrieved a bean-sized gold and green ball from his desk. “But Genshu Hidekazu does not exist anymore. Your own father believes you an undisciplined dog andsent you off for re-education.”
Hidekazu eyed the strange sphere. He’d never seen anything like it before, yet he understood that it was the manifestation of his and Barame’s en bond. With the orb, the spiritual link between student and master came into focus. It didn’t appear, not quite, but the weight of their agreement hung between them like a physical presence all the same.
“I will pay for my mistakes however I must,” Hidekazu said.
“You will.” Barame held the ball out. “You know what this is, do you not?”
“It is an en maru. Proof that I”—sold himself—“agreed to the terms of our bond. It is both mediator and punisher.” This was a guess, at least, based on what he little knew of en bonds.
“Correct. Take it.”
Translucent ki floated around the sphere, hot and dangerous, but Barame touched it without burning. Hidekazu would not be so fortunate. This device would enact whatever cruel will its master demanded. Yet, Barame waited for Hidekazu to claim the en maru of his own free will. And, in doing so, intentionally harming himself in his obedience. He had no power to act against Meki Barame, not as a nameless person with no clan or status to protect him.
He mimicked Barame’s hands, and the ball glowed green. It zapped into Hidekazu’s palm, and he gasped with the sudden weight pushing on in his fingers with immense pressure. No burning yet, but the heat of the ki lingered there, waiting for Barame’s command.
“The three rings on the en maru indicate the status of our agreement. Once you accomplish your part, all of the gold will turn verdant, and you will be freed from my service.”
The rings were solid gold.
“You are now nameless, a consequence of your frequent disobedience,” Barame continued, “and by right, I may do with you what I please. What makes you deserving of my mentorship?”
“I… I am…”
“No. You are nothing.”
The ball flared, and a slight burning crept into Hidekazu’s palm. Nausea rose inside him, alongside a spinning white at the edge of his vision. “I will survive.”
“Recite page four hundred and sixteen, paragraph eight.”
Knocking sounded in Hidekazu’s head, but he pushed it aside and searched his garbled memories for the correct text to appease Barame. “The White granted no mercy, for there was no mercy for the fallen. In his hand, he took the cobalt scale of his Divine Mother and delivered her justice, a curse of madness to cure insolence.”
“Now in Ryuugo,” Barame said.
Hidekazu deflated. He’d memorized the section in Seiryan, but not in Ryuugo—the dragon’s tongue, or the Old Language once used by warlocks.
At his silence, the orb’s ki intensified, and the heat bled into his skin, his tendons, his bones. He lurched, unable to make a sound through the thickness of his shock. The ball wouldn’t fall from his hand, no matter how hard he tried to fling it away.
“You cannot toss away what you gave to me.”
White fog pressed in on Hidekazu from all sides, but though the sphere’s ki subsided, the white remained. An unnatural chill slithered in his head, the coiling dragon that kept his mind imprisoned. Naoji, the White Warlock, was Hidekazu’s warden in all places Barame could not monitor. Without Sayuri’s presence—Hidekazu’s tsukumogami companion—nothing held Naoji’s intrusion at bay.
“Aw, and here I was, overjoyed at Meki Barame sharing a story about me,” Naoji said. In Hidekazu’s mind, the words were difficult to distinguish from his own thoughts. “They always get the bit about madness wrong; they should meet my beloved brother and sister. At least I’ve made no one mad but myself.”
Barame circled. “Did I misjudge your ability?”
“No, Headmaster,” Hidekazu said.
“And yet you fail me, one time after another. Why?”
Hidekazu’s last words to his brother, you better not come back, made him suck in a breath. He held it, afraid that, if he let go, he would lose the hot air that kept him buoyed above the Nightmare’s terrors, and he would descend into that pit and never return.
“Look at me.”
Hidekazu hesitated, and then lifted his gaze to Barame’s. The older man scrutinized him as if the secret to Hidekazu’s dispassion would be hidden within plain sight. Perhaps Genshu Dano himself instilled a faulty belief that left Hidekazu defective.
If only it were so simple. Hidekazu’s deficiencies ran much deeper than that.
Beside the shoji leading to the terrace, the white collected into an ivory cloud. As soon as the vapour caught Hidekazu’s attention, and his pupils flicked away, the en maru released a shock of searing energy. Needles jabbed his nerves, methodical in their path up his arm. A low whine reverberated in his throat when, this time, the sensation didn’t subside.
“Your vision falters. Do you still wish to become a bushi? Did you ever?”
Hidekazu spluttered, and the calligraphy scrolls on the wall warped into wicked grins. His mind betrayed him, and when the white smoke circled nearby, Naoji stepped from it and into the room. Bells jingled in his silver hair, and his matching haori billowed as he moved. He peered at Hidekazu with his one eye, the other side of his face wrapped with undyed silk.
“You are better than this, Hidekazu,” Naoji said. “Why do you let this old man beat you when you could crush him like a dead cicada? As amusing as it is… surely you do not love the floor that much.”
Naoji knelt in clear view of Barame, and yet Barame never paid the warlock any mind. Both regarded Hidekazu instead as if he were the mad one. Naoji must not understand the definition of the word, for this, and everything Hidekazu had experienced in the last two months, redefined the term.
Sweat drenched Hidekazu’s forehead. His fingers popped under the pressure of the en maru’s ki. He bit down on his tongue, the hot gush of blood enough to make him swallow instead of scream.
“You enjoy this suffering. Is that it?” Barame said.
“For once, I must agree with the Headmaster’s assessment.” Naoji’s claw-like nails crept down Hidekazu’s cheek. “Lacotl enjoys pain, too. In his anguish, he breathes in his immortality. Nothing makes him feel more powerful.”
Naoji’s nail cut the corner of Hidekazu’s face, igniting the memory of a perfect book-shaped burn. The hot brand shrieked beneath Naoji’s touch, and Hidekazu wheezed. Burning fingers, burning face. He couldn’t take much more. Soon, he would crack. But not yet.
“Masochists,” Naoji scoffed.
Barame curled his fingers, controlling the flow of the en maru’s ki. The next burst of energy burned Hidekazu’s hand raw. Finally, he screamed. The sound ripped from his lungs, ragged and miserable. When, at last, the fire receded, Hidekazu’s fingers wouldn’t move.
No one, nameless, worthless. He reminded himself of his status because he could think of nothing else. Were he still a Genshu, he would not experience such torture.
“Do you think I enjoy doing this to you? You hear, but you do not listen. You do this to yourself. Stand.”
The world spun when Hidekazu moved, but a palm settled on his scalp and kept him down.
“You forget that you are his pet,” Naoji said, leaning close. “Dogs do not stand. Or have you decided to listen to me, not the whims of an old man?”
A strand of ki forming the en bond between Barame and Hidekazu pulsed. He would not obey Naoji, even if that meant leveraging the link to Barame, which was designed to subdue Hidekazu’s independence at every turn. Hidekazu grappled with the en maru’s energy, and the orb sunk into his skin, leaving the three gold, metallic rings imprinted in his flesh. The surge of ki made Hidekazu wobble, but it allowed him to stand.
He knocked Naoji’s hand aside, as though swatting an annoying fly. The en bond wrapped tight around Hidekazu’s neck like a collar. He was Barame’s dog until their arrangement was over.
Barame gave a satisfied nod. “Now tell me: what changed from last we met?”
Hidekazu could not find the words to articulate a response worthy of the question and accurate to his true feelings. Everything had changed.
“Masanori left because of me.”
“Truly, Shizu Hidekazu, you lost the will to live because of your brother. Not because of your shame?”
“Masanori is my shame.”
“At least you are not so oblivious. Genshu Dano took your name because Masanori’s willfulness infected you.” Barame waved his hand, and the tome in front of him slammed shut. “I will stamp it out and create you anew. Assuming you survive.”
“I will survive.”
“He will make you fit to serve,” Naoji said. “I will make you fit to rule. You must only listen to me.”
“Yes, Headmaster.” Hidekazu flexed his hand without thinking, and threads of agony snaked through his arm. His fingers were still numb and inoperable from the en maru, but now the orb also burned inside him, a constant, demented presence, a scratch he couldn’t itch.
This was nothing. Despite the physical torment he endured at Barame’s hand, Hidekazu feared nothing as much as the sadistic glint in Naoji’s eye. Still, Hidekazu would not become Lacotl or Aihi, who sought power at the expense of their sanity. He would not become Masanori, who abandoned his life because he could not attain the strength he longed for.
“Though I am not the White,” Barame said, “and see no sense in delivering a bushi crippled in mind or body into the Goddess’ service, I can do much worse than expel you. Let your temporary incapacitation serve as a reminder that your time here will otherwise be short. You are dismissed.”
Hidekazu backed away, maintaining a low bow, and swallowed thoughts of protest as he closed the fusuma.
Behind him, Naoji effused from the crack between the door. “I was wrong about Meki Barame. Soon, he will understand how worthless you are. And when that happens, you will be mine.”
Hidekazu lowered his head. He would obey and overcome the barriers set before him. He would become a bushi and, in doing so, reclaim his rightful Genshu name. And Hidekazu would do it without Naoji.
* * *
Each of Hidekazu’s professors admonished him for arriving at the Academy more than a jun—ten days—late, halfway through Monkey’s month. In turn, they observed his injured hand with a hint of satisfaction. A worthy punishment, they agreed. No permanent damage. Now, he needed to choose between falling further behind in his classes to heal or catching up and continuing to harm himself. A sadistic paradox, more like.
The Academy gave him no real choice: Hidekazu could not go the day, let alone the next jun, with only one hand.
In Martial Ki Fighting, Tano Natsuko sidelined Hidekazu, limiting him to watching his classmates practice in the courtyard to her instructions. “You will not participate for a jun, so you best take notes,” she told him.
The professor to his Military Strategy class refused him entry to the classroom, citing how a dedicated strategist would not arrive late to battle. Hidekazu would join them in Rooster’s month, assuming he continued reading the textbooks on his own. Otherwise, he might as well not come back at all. In Advanced Kigou, Hidekazu’s pride had him attempt calligraphy with his injured hand, despite his ambidexterity and his swollen, sensitive joints.
“You write like a child,” Nakayama Kazuki, Hidekazu’s professor, said. “You will not become a bushi if your kigou are illegible. How will you cast spells?”
Hidekazu kept his head low, accepting the punishment of doubled writing homework for the entire semester with grace. It wasn’t his fault, he wanted to tell everyone. But he didn’t voice the lie. He chose to disobey his father time and time again.
Hidekazu was no one, nameless, worthless. The more he reminded himself, the closer he came to believing the mantra as truth.
The gold rings on his palm served as a reminder. Touching them irritated the burns tainting his flesh, but the sensation grounded him. This was his reality now. He would become a bushi or stay nameless. Classwork would not defeat him.
Upon entering Advanced Linguistics, his professor, a round woman with greying hair, barraged him with questions in formal Sānlóngguón. By the end of her interrogation, she declared him prepared for the class. She gave him no extra homework, only the expectation that he would finish all the assignments, whether they were late or not. He left feeling uplifted instead of brought down further.
Hidekazu’s last class for the day, Advanced Practical Defence, was in full session when he arrived. He slid the doors open, peering into the spacious room. Four rows of about fifteen students total knelt at their low wooden desks, their brushes gliding as the professor drawled on at the front. Tanaka Yoshi, a former shugo and military defence strategist, assuming Hidekazu’s notes were correct.
Like the other classrooms, two sheer curtains decorated with a yōkai symbol flanked each row; the desks for oni, tengu, and kappa were full. The embroidery on Hidekazu’s uniform was a dragon, and the seating in the appropriate section was empty.
Yoshi stopped speaking. “Ah, our mysterious missing student.” His hair was collected into a loose topknot that bounced as he directed his attention to Hidekazu. “Arrogant enough to skip a jun of classes and shameless enough to arrive half an hour late. Name?”
Hidekazu lowered his chin in preparation for yet another public reprimand. He would take it, like all the rest. And like all the rest, he would not announce his namelessness.
In the back of his skull, Naoji’s cold presence slithered about, preparing a sarcastic remark. Hidekazu stiffened in anticipation. His first day of classes had been horrible enough without the warlock’s interference. However, this time, Sayuri’s presence rose to silence Naoji before he made a sound. The coldness dissipated.
In thanks, Hidekazu pressed a hand to the concealed wooden knot of his shrunken staff where she resided. She acted as the only barrier between him and Naoji. Without her, Hidekazu stood no chance of resisting Naoji’s constant chatter about the Book of Inochi long enough to reclaim the Genshu family name.
“Hidekazu,” Yoshi said. “You are here in time to demonstrate the focus of today’s class: the Siphoning Wind Shield.”
Any other day, Hidekazu might have completed a siphoning wind shield in his sleep. His burnt fingers throbbed to remind him this was no regular day.
The assembly murmured, but in the cloud of Hidekazu’s mind, he only registered a general sense of disbelief. Taking these lessons on defensive ki was a formality; by most accounts, he had mastered the art during his training as a shugo.
“I would be happy to assist you in your demonstration, sensei.” Hidekazu managed to keep his voice level, an inaccurate portrayal of the steady panic rising inside him.
When he reached the front, he retrieved his staff and welcomed the feel of Sayuri’s serene energy as he extended the weapon to full length. Yoshi regarded him with curiosity, not quite vindictive as Hidekazu expected, but that observation did little to ease his impending humiliation.
He held his staff with his off-hand, keeping his injury hidden in the shadow of his sleeve.
“I take it you are familiar with the spell,” Yoshi said.
“I am, sensei. Would you like me to give the class an overview of the history and prerequisites as well?”
“The Toku family developed the original Siphoning Wind Shield, and this signature spell enabled the clan’s climb to prominence in the expertise of defence. However, as defensive ki theory expanded, spells evolved, and the needs of Seiryuu changed.
“Although no longer one of the Toku clan’s guarded secrets, and now common amongst defence specialists, Siphoning Wind Shields are still considered advanced spellcasting because they require dual concentration—that is, the ability to both attack and defend simultaneously.” Hidekazu fell into the comfortable rhythm of reciting his knowledge from memory. Around him, the sound of moving brushes wiped away any hint of the students’ prior mockery. “Siphoning Wind Shields enable a majyu to use less personal ki to cast more spells, as the essential kigou steal the momentum and ki from an opponent and use their own energy against them. Often, they serve to absorb and redirect attacks instead of completely blocking them.”
A lifetime ago, he used the barrier in an attempt to hush the flames during Lacotl’s attack on Tsukiko, where Hidekazu had been too unskilled to aid Aihi while she tried to rescue Benri Torra. That did not mean he could use it now.
“The difficult part, for most people,” Hidekazu continued, “is maintaining defences while manipulating attacks as they come. The timing must be precise, and grappling with the energy and losing control is often more dangerous than failing to grab it in the first place.”
When Yoshi faced Hidekazu, he looked impressed. “Then let us do a demonstration for the class, yes?”
Hidekazu fell into a familiar kijaku-style defensive stance. He rested on the balls of his feet, staff positioned at a horizontal angle. His breaths came steady and even, ready to make the best of his situation, even if his injured hand would cripple his performance.
Yoshi flung his hand to the side. Inky ki gushed through the room, disturbing the banners hovering around the students. The energy solidified as dark needles and spiralled toward Hidekazu in an unpredictable pattern.
Hidekazu flicked his staff and drew kaze while creating the symbols for the actual shield with the undamaged fingers on his other hand. The swelling made his ligaments stiff and uncooperative. Every twitch sent shockwaves through his hand, a build-up of energy and overexerted nerves that he would pay for later.
Black ki hit the filament of Hidekazu’s barrier as opaque bands lifted around him in time to catch Yoshi’s attack. The temperature in the room dropped as Hidekazu wrestled with the energy, redirecting it through the shield. A monumental feat without his hand to balance Yoshi’s ki as it thundered through the gale. Dragonscales sprung up along the staff as Sayuri attempted to support Hidekazu.
“Maintain your focus,” Yoshi said, almost drowned out by the hurricane.
His stolen voice, the wind, and raging energy brought Hidekazu back to the disaster aboard the Dragon’s Blossom, wood cracking beneath his feet, surrounded by the dying screams of shipmates, transported back to that bleary place with Masanori covered in blood and the dead girl with tiger-lily hair in his arms—
Storm-blue energy shuddered through Hidekazu, ripping him, disoriented, back to reality. Ki numbed his bones, but he raised himself from his catatonia and fumbled at redirecting the spell. He forgot a line in one symbol, misordering the strokes in the next, skipping one kigou altogether.
Not because of negligence, but because of the wreckage of his mind—you better not come back, you better not come back; if only you cared about us as much as… as much as what? If only Hidekazu could remember, maybe he never would have pushed Masanori away—and without the use of all his fingers, his entire technique became impossible.
The ki within the hovering kigou buzzed, colliding against their calligraphic prisons. Hidekazu’s control snapped. Undirected energy ricochetted outward as the shield dispersed. Strands collected in his bruised hand, and he stifled a scream.
If Barame had taught Hidekazu anything so far, it was that he could not let his suffering control him.
He thrust his staff forward, calling to the latent elements around him to redirect the dangerous ki. The air and earth responded. A subtle breeze coiled around him, a vibration beneath his feet, and the untamed energy collected about the sapphire head. He flicked the weapon, discharging the accumulated power against the wall adjacent to him and Yoshi before it could spiral toward the unsuspecting students.
The ki incinerated the blank scroll. Ash dusted to the floor, but otherwise, a minor disaster averted.
He allowed himself a breath of relief before returning his attention to Yoshi, expecting an extended lecture on using spells beyond his skill level. He used his burnt hand to brush a stray lock of hair from his eyes, ripped free from his braids.
Yoshi grabbed his wrist, dragging Hidekazu nearer. He pushed back the singed sleeve, examining the damaged fingers dangling from swollen joints. It did not take a genius to realize the failed demonstration had not caused the injury.
“Your theory is on point, Hidekazu,” Yoshi said, “though your technique requires refinement. I recommend you acknowledge your limitations and where you might seek external assistance.”
Hidekazu picked a desk, conscious of the stares. Let them be smug in his failure. None of them would complete the first half of the spell, let alone a successful cast.
Yoshi cleared his throat. “An entertaining debut for our newest student, no doubt,” he said, “but let us return to our initial discussion. The Wind Siphoning Shield will be a critical tool for majyu who…”
Ink dripped from Hidekazu’s brush, one stroke after another, rebuilding his barrier of will against Naoji’s energy. The pressure grew, and Hidekazu pinched his fingers, but that only beckoned for Naoji’s return.
“If you used the Book of Inochi,” Naoji whispered, “you would need no hands at all.”
The lecture ebbed and flowed in the background of Hidekazu’s thoughts. He needed to succeed at this school to attain bushido and reclaim his family name, but the memory of his failures haunted him, not just Naoji. In Nagasou, Furahau Mika, Seiryuu’s beloved Shōgun, withered away because of Hidekazu’s indecision. With the promised Book of Inochi, he could save her, as he, Masanori, and Aihi had planned all along.
“Must I remind you of the impending tragedies we face if you ignore me forever?”
Hidekazu willed Naoji to shut up and continued scribbling notes. According to him, the world would descend into the chaos of Masanori’s Nightmare unless Hidekazu claimed the Book of Inochi for himself. The tome that he, Masanori, and Aihi and left Seiryuu for as a last resort to save the dying Shōgun Mika’s life. Hidekazu had found the book, but because of Naoji, he wouldn’t use it.
But if Hidekazu did nothing, Mika would die.
In his previous life, he had pushed Masanori away. The only one capable of verifying what would happen depending on what Hidekazu decided to do with the Book of Inochi.
Surely, saving Mika was the right call. She controlled Seiryuu’s military and was a beacon of hope for them all, besides. Yet, Hidekazu’s doubt kept him dedicated to his studies and from using the Book of Inochi at all.
What was so bad about Masanori’s Nightmare?
Ready to read more? A Dragon’s Sight will be available on December 22nd, 2020. For a limited time, pick it up at a special $0.99 launch promo. And, if you’re already in love with the series, you can also pre-order book 4 in the series (coming out May 2021) at a discount, too.