Swollen and heavy as stone, Lady Sun fell westward into the waiting oceans. A chill followed her descent, coiled in the mountain shadows, creeping towards the dusty little farm and its withered fields. The wind brought the brittle bite of approaching winter, the vapour from the deadlands stirring like a lover at its touch, rippling with the sound of their mother’s screams.
Tetsuo and Hikita crouched together in the dirt, all grubby faces and threadbare rags. The children had fled the house when the noise became too much. Their mother’s agonized cries had reduced little Tetsuo to tears, and Hikita took his younger brother’s hand and led him out into the dark and quiet. Hikita knew he must be strong. He was the man now. Thin shoulders only ten summers old, carrying the weight of his family and the weight of the world.
Their neighbour had arrived with the midwife, and now the women clustered about the bed as Mother wailed, stepping outside only to dash buckets of red water onto cracked earth, or wring bloody rags between their fingers. Hikita would watch them then, his eyes hidden behind soot-smeared glass, black and empty as the dusk above their heads.
He knew what another mouth meant for his family. Knew their pitiful stead wouldn’t have enough good earth left next season to feed three, let alone four. But the baby was coming, whether he willed it or not. There was nowhere else for it to go, after all.
Tetsuo stabbed at the ashen earth with a stick. The blood lotus crop around them swayed and rolled, voices whispering in the husk-dry leaves.
‘Do you think it will be another boy?’
‘Only the Maker knows,’ Hikita replied.
‘I would like a sister.’
‘I would like the cur who put that baby in her to be at her side. I would like Father to still be alive.’ Hikita scowled, climbing to his feet. ‘Like has nothing to do with life.’
He stared at the Tōnan Mountains to the west; jagged fists raised against the setting sun. Between Hikita’s feet and those stone roots, miles of deadlands stretched into the dark – cracks in the earth running twenty feet deep, wreathed in choking fog. Through the fumes, he could see a broken wagon here, a collapsed barn there. Farmsteads run to ruin, swallowed by the blackness spreading from the Stain. He knew somewhere in those mountains loomed First House, the heart of Guild power in Shima. The ones who fed the lotus with the blood of roundeyes, or so the radio sometimes said. The ones who were bleeding this land dry for the sake of fuel and flowers.
Sometimes, when the sky-ships flew overhead, the windows would rattle and little Tetsuo would wake from his sleep, thinking demons were rising from the Hells. But Hikita knew the oni had better things to do than trouble the sleep of foolish boys. The Endsinger’s children dwelled below the earth, deep in the Yomi Underworld. It was men who stained the clouds in their roaring machines. Men who turned the sky to red, the land to ashes, the rain to black. Not demons. Not gods. Just men.
A trembling wail split the dusk, Mother shrieking, throat raw. Hikita scowled again, lifted his kerchief and spat. Brother or sister, it didn’t matter. He’d hate that child. Hate it as he hated its father, with his smooth talk and smoother smile. A dog who took advantage of a widow’s loneliness, left her in dishonour, a bastard in her belly. He’d kill him if he saw him again. Show him that though they lived on the Stain’s edge, in the poorest lands in all the seven islands of Shima, they were still Ryu clan. The blood of Dragons still flowed in their veins.
The windows began rattling and Hikita looked up, expecting to see a Guild sky-ship lumbering out of the dusk. But the sky was an empty, fading red, scabbed with storm clouds. The rattling intensified, the earth trembling so violently he fell to his knees. Tetsuo crawled across the bucking soil, a great belly-sore rumble beneath them. The brothers held each other as the island shook, Tetsuo crying out in fear.
The fifth in as many weeks. The rumbling stilled, choking slowly, until the skitter of rotten earth into the deadlands fissures was the only noise. A thin cry began; a newborn’s first bewildered plea as it was dragged from bloody warmth into this world of men. Kicking and screaming.
‘It’s here!’ Tetsuo cried, the tremors forgotten.
He slipped from Hikita’s embrace and dashed into the house, dirty heels beating the verandah like drums. Hikita stood slowly, listening to the hungry wails from their newest mouth. He could hear his mother crying, the joy in her voice as she called for him to come meet his new sister. And the boy shook his head and licked the ashes from his lips, looking across the tall stalks of blood lotus to the desolation around the mountain’s feet.
He blinked. Squinted in the gloom.
Tiny lights. Blood-red. A pair, shining between the lotus fronds. The crunch of little feet in dead leaves and deader earth. Hikita peered into the dark, the wails of his new sibling filling his ears. The deadlands fumes were an oil-thick shadow, rippling like black water. The lotus stalks bent gently – something moving through the crop – and the tiny lights flickered out, once, twice, winking like the long lost stars in the skies overhead.
No, not winking, he realized.
A figure shuffled from the stalks, covered in black earth and ashes. It stood two feet high, but its arms hung long and low, back bent as it shuffled forward and snuffled at the air. Its eyes were scarlet, casting a bloody light over heavy brows, hairless skull, swollen lips. It saw the boy, lips splitting into an idiot grin like a toddler who’d just found a new playmate. But its teeth were yellowed fangs, tusks protruding from its lower jaw, and Hikita realized that beneath the mask of dirt and ash, its skin was midnight blue.
‘Uh-uuhhhhhhhh,’ it said, holding out its arms.
Hikita’s eyes were fixed on the talons set in those grasping fingers, sharp as katana.
‘Gn-uhhhhh . . .’
‘Oni,’ he breathed. ‘Lord Izanagi save me.’
The demon flinched at the Maker God’s name, eyes growing bright and wide. It loped forward, knuckles dragging in the earth, a shriek of rage spilling from crooked fangs.
Hikita screamed. Screamed with his sister, here on her birthing day in the shadow of those broken peaks, amidst the rot creeping like a cancer across the island’s skin. Screamed as if it were his final breath. As if it were all he was, and all he ever would be.
As if the world itself was ending.
ENDSINGER releases November 25, 2014.
You can pre-order your copy here: