Servant of Rage
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Looks to be Suicide
The other hunters shied from the task, mumbled excuses and accepted easier assignments. Fool’s errands, more like. If ten years of training and two more as a hunter had proved anything, it was that Subei was not one to let an opportunity pass him by.
“Let me get this straight,” Kashi said, shaking his head. “The khan marks murderers, horse thieves, and petty smugglers, but we’re assigned to hunt down the longest serving commander in the entire damned khanate?”
“Assigned?” Subei said with a laugh. “Ancestors above, brother. We weren’t assigned. We volunteered.”
Silence followed. Kashi’s expression, previously one of surprise, descended into a suspicious scowl.
“You volunteered, you mean?”
“Well, as the foremost, I speak for all of us,” Subei said, clapping Kashi and their older brother, Bataar, on the back. “So in the eyes of the khan, we volunteered.”
Subei smiled. There was a significant difference between being ordered to do a thing and volunteering for it. It was the difference between mindless servitude and burning ambition. The difference between being no one and being the khan’s finest hunter.
He held tight to his smile even as anger built in his younger brother’s eyes. Looked a river in the summer rains, swelling until it burst its banks.
“You’re a damned madman.”
“You’re going to get us killed!”
“Probably that, too.”
“Ancestors damn it, Subei! Can we not just have an easy assignment for once?”
“Kashi, little brother.” Subei shook his head. Had he learned nothing after all this time? “Opportunity—”
“Opportunity is missed by most because it comes soaked in blood and looks to be suicide. You’ve said it a hundred damned times.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is the part where we hunt one of the fiercest men the steppe has ever known, and probably end up dead as a result.” He cursed under his breath and began to pace back and forth.
Always had been a bit lacking on the courage side of things, had Kashi. A trait from his parents, perhaps. Subei called him and Bataar brother, though they were not brothers by birth but rather by trade. Hunters, trained together from childhood. Subei didn’t share blood with either of them, but after twelve years and countless hunts together, that counted for very little.
Kashi continued to fume for a minute before he finally turned to Bataar.
“Oh, so you’re smiling too?”
The big man shrugged. “It’d be a fine thing to bring down Commander Jian. Horse thieves and smugglers have gotten a bit, well, boring.”
“Boring? Oh, boring is fine. Boring doesn’t end with a spear in my chest.”
Bataar hefted his wicker-and-iron shield and patted the horseman’s saber at his hip.
“You’re the tracker. You find the bastard, we’ll take care of the rest.”
“And after you take care of 'the rest' — or it takes care of you — it’ll be my job to drag what’s left of your bodies back to the khan.”
“Well, you won’t have to drag us far,” Subei said, savoring the best part of the news for just a moment longer. “The commander just left camp yesterday. Hardly has any lead on us at all.” He nodded to the west, through the great tent city that always followed the khan’s camp and out to the wide, windy steppe beyond.
“Oh, wonderful. We can catch up to our deaths that much quicker, then,” Kashi said, shaking his head.
“You worry too much, little brother.” Subei smirked and patted him on the shoulder, but Kashi shrugged the gesture away.
“Someone has to, seeing as neither of you care to bother.”
“Never much believed in it.”
“Well, by all means, don’t start now,” Kashi called over his shoulder as he strode away to see to their horses.
When he was out of earshot, Bataar spoke up.
“You may have pushed him too far. He might actually be angry this time.”
“And what about you?” Subei squinted sideways at his older brother, searching for a hint of his true feelings. Not that he needed to. Bataar spoke his mind, as always. Something he’d learned from his father, no doubt.
“Me? Hell, I’m fine with it. Far as I can see, this is a double victory. Jian’s betrayal ends any chance he had to become khan. Us killing him? Well, that’ll get my father’s attention.”
Bataar was the khan’s son by birth, but that counted for next to nothing in the eyes of his father. A worthy son would prove himself, same as any other Ghangerai. The khan was a staunch traditionalist and had made clear the position would pass to the most worthy upon his death. The title could just as soon pass to a commander or noble as to his own son.
“I know why you were so eager for this assignment, Subei.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“You and I, we understand ambition.” Bataar took a swig from his waterskin, spit some water into the dirt before continuing. “I want to be khan when my father dies, that’s plain enough. But you, you’re a bit tougher. Harder to read.”
“You think too much of me, brother. I am but a servant of the khan, carrying out his orders.”
“Horseshit. Don’t lie to me.” Bataar scowled. “I’ve known you too long, seen you volunteer for too many suicidal assignments like this one. You came from nothing and nowhere. Just showed up one day. Ain’t stopped climbing since.” He laughed. “Twelve years ago, you said you wanted to be the finest of my father’s hunters. But something tells me I’d be a fool to think your ambition ends there.”
“Assuming you believe all this nonsense, where do you suppose my ambition ends?”
Bataar was silent a moment, thinking. He shrugged.
“I don’t think it does. You believe the legend.”
“Oh, come now.” Subei waved the words away. “No one has transcended for a hundred years or more.”
Bataar was insistent.
“It’s the only explanation. The reason you’re up training before dawn, the reason you’re training at the end of each day.”
“Thinking was never your strong point, brother.”
“You believe you can do it, though, don’t you? You believe you can dedicate yourself so much to this way of life that you leave your baser emotions behind. That you forget fear, or pain, or doubt.” Bataar paused. “That you transcend.”
Subei let the faintest hint of a smile pull at the edges of his mouth.
“Might be you’re on to something, brother. Just might be.”
The Nature of Conquerors
It is not in the nature of conquerors to kneel. Kemu, Khan of the Ghangerai, Foremost of Those who Tame the Horse, and Fist of the Ancestors, considered himself a most fearsome conqueror. And yet here he knelt. It is not in the nature of conquerors to kneel — except in the presence of even greater men.
“Kemu, my friend, I am glad you have come.”
The Old Father spoke without turning. He sat at the crest of the hill, hands folded in his lap, eyes turned toward the sun rising over the distant horizon. The steppe stretched away before him, a seemingly endless expanse of earth and grass, the occasional gust of wind rippling across its surface.
“The house of Kemujin stands ever at your service, Blessed One.” Whether you deserve it or not, you quivering old fool.
“You speak with honor, as always. But you will forgive an old man if he tires of formalities.” The Old Father patted a spot next to him in the grass. “Sit with me, and let us speak as equals.”
“No man may equal you,” Kemu said as he sat beside him, legs crossed.
“Not while I live, no. But after my death, another will replace me. I only hope he is wiser than I, and does not prolong his suffering.”
Only a fool would say wielding the power of the ancestors was suffering. It was a shame the Old Father was not of Ghangerai blood. Even the lowliest Ghangerai herder would show more resolve than this damned thin-faced westerner. Still, Kemu knew what was expected of him, and played his role.
“You are suffering, Blessed One?”
“It is the bloodrage, Kemu.” He sighed, and the khan saw a shiver run through his frame. “I have seen the birth of nations, the rise and fall of countless kings and emperors. And khans.” He turned to face Kemu. “I’ve known six generations of your family, taught your grandfather’s grandfather the ways of the horse and the bow when he was but a boy. And yet, the bloodrage is still there. It always has been, and I fear it always will be.”
He seemed to dwindle then, the old man — who hadn’t changed for as long as Kemu could remember — shriveling into himself, his wrinkles lengthening as shadows overtook his features.
“The power of the ancestors flows through me.” The Old Father reached out with one hand, palm turned to the sky. Storm clouds growled above and the ground shook below like a great beast stirring from slumber. “And yet I am powerless to resist the bloodrage. Every day it wears me down that much more. Rips another piece of me away and consumes it. I fear soon there will be nothing left. I will have become the rage.” He suppressed another shudder.
“I cannot imagine the pain, Blessed One.” Shall I end it for you?
The Old Father laughed.
“‘Blessed One.’ I once found it an appropriate title. Now I find in it only irony. This longevity, this power, is a curse. But I’ll no longer live as its slave. I will be free.”
The khan forced his burgeoning smile into a solemn frown.
“The rumors are true, then?”
“They are. I have been fighting this battle for what seems centuries. Can’t remember a time I wasn’t. Let the poor fools who come next take their turn.” He paused, as if gathering his words. “Tomorrow is the Ghangerai celebration of the victorious dead. I do not intend to live to see it.”
Finally, you’re speaking sense.
“Do not mourn me, Kemu.”
Oh, I won’t.
“And do not make war on the Zhong Empire.”
Oh, I will.
“I’ve long favored them, as I have also favored the Ghangerai. Just as the world benefits from your strength, so too does it benefit from the knowledge of the Zhong. I know you and they have not always seen eye to eye, but I ask you now to continue the peace with them. They do not deserve your ire.”
Ire had nothing to do with it. It was about conquest, plain and simple. The Zhong lived for their dusty tomes, and they were welcome to them, but the Ghangerai lived for conquest. Now, finally, they would have it.
“At sunup tomorrow, I will leave this world, Kemu. You must prepare. You know what will happen after I am gone, yes?”
“The cycle will begin anew.”
“I am the last of my kind, but once there were many. When I die, there will be many again. They will be young and powerful. They will bring chaos and destruction. And one day, the strongest of them will replace me.”
The Old Father, coward that he was, seemed to find some courage in what he said next. The simple truth of it didn’t leave room for much else.
“Soon, I will die, Kemu, and the cycle will continue. As it always has. As it always must.”
* * *
Sunup was not yet come on the steppe, the last grasp of darkness holding tight to the world. In the predawn dark, Subei trained. As always.
The air was cool, chilly almost, but sweat ran from his forehead, dripping into his eyes with a familiar sting as he followed the ebb and flow of the imaginary battle. An army of opponents stood before him, each twitching with anticipation, waiting for their turn to join the fight. There seemed no end to them. Subei expected there never would be. He’d come from nothing, an orphan of war, but now he was something. More than something, even. Near the khan’s finest hunter, or so he liked to think. But if the imaginary enemies stretching to either horizon told him anything, it was that there was still progress to be made. And he'd be damned if he planned to stop anytime soon.
“Shit! I’ve slept too long!” Bataar jolted awake, pulling himself from his sleeping furs and hurrying to gather his weapons and gear. Such sudden movement should have spooked the horses, but they’d long grown used to Bataar’s frantic morning routine. It had become a regular occurrence over the years.
“Calm, brother. We’ve some time yet,” Subei said as he nodded to the still-dim eastern horizon. He set his weapons down as he did so, resting his round headed mace against his shield. In traditional Ghangerai fashion, the shield consisted of a circular iron base with the outside face wrapped in coiled wicker. The coils spiraled inward until they met at the center beneath an iron spike. As useful for defense as offense.
“You think Commander Jian is taking his time?” Bataar shot over his shoulder while quickly rolling his sleeping furs.
“I think riding in the dark is a dangerous endeavor for marked men and hunters alike. Horse turns an ankle out here, you'd best prepare for a long, slow walk home.”
Subei had led his brothers from the camp days ago, and the world felt right again the moment he had. This was the way they were supposed to live; their horses beneath them, the wide steppe around them, and a hunt just ahead. Anything else was wasted effort.
Bataar was not so relaxed. “Commander Jian is halfway to the Westdowns. If he clears those, we’ll never catch him in the deserts beyond. He’ll have escaped.”
Escaping us only leaves him to a far worse fate, Subei wanted to say. The old tales said Ghangerai were bound to their land. As free as they were, as far as they roamed, they could never truly leave the steppe. Those that did lived half-lives, growing sluggish and weak. They would abandon their yurts for a sedentary life, sell their horses for drink and jewels and other shameful fineries. In a generation or two, they’d be Ghangerai no more, absorbed into whatever lesser civilization had seduced them.
The khan refused to let a commander as distinguished as Jian fall so low. Death was a far better alternative. And whether by their hands when they caught him, or the executioner’s blade when they dragged him back, Subei and his brothers were tasked with seeing the commander’s honor never had to bear such shame.
“We’ll catch Jian yet,” Subei said. “In the meantime, I’ve made breakfast.”
A pile of bulbs so small as to almost be mistaken for berries lay in the grass at the center of the camp. Bataar huffed as his eyes fell across them.
“Onions again? I’ll stick to meat. Don’t feel like vomiting today.” He dug a dried strip of salted mutton from his pack.
“You offend the earth itself, scoffing at its bounty so!” Subei feigned insult as he scooped up one of the wild onions and dropped it into his mouth. He crunched into it and forced a smile as the sharp, bitter taste stabbed at his tongue. He swallowed hard with only the slightest cringe. “Delicious.”
“Urgh.” Kashi rolled onto his back and groaned at the sky, eyes half open. He blinked a couple of times before sniffing sharply.
“Care to partake?” Subei tossed one of the pungent bulbs at his younger brother. Kashi swatted it away and mumbled incoherently before rolling onto his side and turning his back to them.
“Come now, that’s no way to start today’s celebrations.” Subei kicked his brother's boot to nudge him into consciousness.
“Celebrations?” Kashi’s voice was muffled beneath the sleeping furs he’d pulled over his face.
“It’s Khulan!” Subei spread his arms wide and tilted his head up to the sky. “Today we celebrate our victorious dead.”
Kashi grumbled and shifted in his furs.
“I don’t know about victorious, but right now, I feel about dead.” He slowly sat up, cringing as the first rays of dawn broke in the east, the light beating against his half-closed eyes.
“Looks to be rain,” Bataar said from behind. “A bad omen on Khulan.”
Sure enough, the brightening horizon revealed a gathering of dark clouds. Lightning flashed within the churning mass, itching to set upon the world below.
“No matter.” Subei dismissed the storm with a wave of his hand. “We’re following Jian west.”
“Storm looks to be heading this way.”
“We’ve outrun storms before. No reason this one will be any different.”
“You sure?” Bataar lifted his chin; Subei followed his gaze back to the horizon.
The storm was closer now. Much closer, the clouds swirling and shifting as they rolled across the sky directly towards them.
“A little rain never hurt anyone, I suppose,” Subei said, but even he felt the uncertainty in his words. Something wasn’t right about the storm. He couldn’t quite tell what. Maybe it was the way it moved, rolling and churning with sinister purpose, or maybe it was the lightning within, crackling and flashing with growing ferocity. Whatever it was, something felt wrong. Unnatural.
Kashi was up now, drowsiness forgotten as he hurriedly packed his gear and loaded it onto his horse’s saddle.
“Breakfast in the saddle, then.” Subei followed suit, strapping his pack tight and untying his horse’s reins from the stake in the ground.
The rising sun’s warmth had just reached him, a relief to the now-cold sweat on his face — until a storm wind kicked up and swept it away.
“The ancestors smile on us on this auspicious day.” Bataar’s voice dripped with sarcasm as he shivered in his sleeveless leather armor.
Then Subei noticed the change in the air. Couldn’t describe it at first. Almost too faint, but the longer he thought on it, the more certain he was. The air was different. Felt…anxious, almost. Another gust of wind rushed past and the grass around them rippled and waved, the longer stalks bent almost to the ground under the assault.
“We need to leave!” Subei yelled, but his voice was lost among the wind, swept up and carried away.
A shout caught his attention and he turned to find Bataar frozen in place, eyes wide. The foremost tip of the storm was just edging over him, but that wasn’t why he'd shouted. His hair, previously hanging to his shoulders, was rising slowly into the air, ends stretched taut as if grasping toward the sky.
“Ancestors above…” Subei began to curse, but the world exploded in a blast of burning blue light.
The clouds split as if torn open and a bolt of lightning as pure and bright as the noonday sun arced down to slam into Bataar. He was lifted off his feet, mouth open in a silent scream, and thrown backward.
Subei shook his head, vision swimming in the wake of the bolt. Bataar lay several feet away, smoke billowing from his clothing, the ends of his hair burning with orange embers. Some small relief rushed through Subei as his brother let out a long, coughing breath.
Bataar mumbled a curse, blinking repeatedly as he raised one hand before him. Where once the skin had been a clay-colored tan, now it was divided by a pale silver scar. It began at the joint of his thumb and ran down the back of his hand to his wrist.
And then it moved. Bataar fell backward, holding the hand away from him. With a sharp jerk the scar shot forward, cutting a path through his skin and up his forearm. Another jump and it reached his elbow, stretching and widening as it went. Bataar screamed and grabbed at his arm as it began to smoke. The scar was glowing now, burning a brilliant blue. A sizzling filled the air as the arm began to pop and hiss like meat over a fire.
Bataar rolled onto his stomach and buried the arm beneath him, wrapping his entire body around it as if to smother the pain. The hissing grew louder as the scar continued to spread. It stretched up over his shoulder and then disappeared beneath his leather armor. It reappeared at the base of his neck, reaching up toward his head before fading away in an ever-thinning line.
Bataar’s scream burst from his throat as he rolled to his knees, veins bulging beneath his skin. The scream ended in a whimper as his voice cracked, then gave out altogether. His eyes rolled up and he collapsed back to the earth. His skin continued to burn and pop, but the scars faded slowly, their light dwindling by the moment. His chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Subei released the breath he'd been holding.
His relief was short-lived.
The air was growing charged again. He could feel it once more, could feel the tension rising. Subei raised his eyes. The clouds above were churning rapidly, seeming to swirl around Bataar, a gaping hole opening at their center. Inside was nothing. A void. Darkness so deep it seemed to swallow the light around it, to suck it away into some eternal depths. A growling roar echoed from within and the ground shook.
Subei cursed and looked to Bataar. Any moment, another bolt could strike down and finish him. But it wasn’t his brother he needed to concern himself with.
He gasped as pain jabbed into his side.
The air began to pop. Quiet at first, then more rapid, and louder, louder, painfully loud. A spark of light snapped from Subei’s belt buckle and arced into his stomach with a painful jolt. Then another. And another. He choked down a gasp as the jolts built to a frenzy, stinging, burning, searing again and again as the tension in the air continued to build. It grew and grew as if the very world had sucked in a great lungful of air and was holding it in, waiting, waiting. He felt the hair on his head pulled upward, stretching to stand on end — and then it broke.
The sky screamed as it split again, a bolt of lightning exploding from the gaping void amid the clouds.
The world burned blue, and then he was airborne.
The ground was below, then above, then below once more, rushing up to slam into him. Subei's breath burst from his lungs in a wheezing gasp. He coughed, choked, sucked in deep, but the breath would not come, was stuck in his throat. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. His flesh, he realized, as the world shook and wavered.
Kashi was running toward him now, one hand outstretched. Something hot pricked at Subei’s arm. He looked down as light burst from his left arm, the same scars he’d just seen on Bataar clawing their way through his flesh.
The pain spread like fire racing through his veins. He could feel his skin splitting, feel the scars working their way up his arm, over his elbow, burning like streams of molten steel as they grew and branched sideways into a latticework of fiery light.
His world was pain, his thoughts were fire.
The burning grew, searing and popping and hissing until he feared his flesh would melt, would drip from the bone like wax from a candle. The wind whipped around him and rain began to lash his face. Steam rose where the raindrops touched his flesh. The world spun as darkness ate at the edges of his vision.
Kashi arrived next to him, sliding to his knees.
Subei fell forward and the world went black.
The World We Knew
Fire. Ash. Smoke. That was all he could see. Stinging his eyes, burning his nose.
The dream was back.
He was a boy again, cowering in his family’s burning yurt. His mind spiraled with fear, thoughts swirling and spinning, a mess of emotions all at once. He shook uncontrollably as warmth spread down through his pants to pool at his feet. Screams echoed outside, near-drowned beneath the thunder of hooves, the clang of metal on metal.
A figure burst through the entrance of the yurt. Nila, his older sister. Practically a woman now. She was crying, tears streaming down her cheeks, a spot of blood smeared across her chin.
“Nila! Over here!” He reached out to her from where he was hiding.
She turned toward him, took a step forward.
A spearhead burst through her chest, toppled her forward and pinned her to the soil. Shock overtook her eyes as she stared up at him, mouth moving but making no sound.
A warrior entered the yurt, saber in hand. His eyes turned to Subei.
“Best you run now, boy.”
And run he did, tears clouding his vision as he plunged through the flames of his home, his family, of everything he’d ever known. All that was left now was fire. Ash. Death.
Subei’s eyes flickered open.
The dream was gone. He was awake. Thank the ancestors, he was awake.
The ground tilted and turned beneath him, and the world was quiet but for the clopping of hooves. Something dug into his stomach. He was on his horse, slung crosswise across the saddle, head hanging down toward the ground. He groaned and tried to shift his weight, felt himself slipping. The grass rushed up to meet him and darkness flared at the edges of his vision as he slammed into the ground.
Kashi. He swung from his saddle, hurried over.
“Stay with me, brother.”
Everything was spinning.
“Stay with me,” Kashi said again, but the world was spinning, spinning...
* * *
Darkness. Night. And then a campfire. Bright, painfully bright. It stabbed into his vision, forced his eyes open. Kashi sat beside it, cooking meat on a spit.
Subei groaned and turned his head. Bataar lay beside him, unmoving but for his chest, which rose and fell with deep, even breaths.
He made to sit up and found he couldn’t. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words caught in his throat, stuck to the inside of his impossibly dry mouth.
Damn, it was hot. He groaned and tried to sit up again; couldn’t. Why was he so hot? Sweat poured down his face, pooled in the grass beneath him. The faintest stab of pain burned in his left arm. A slight groan escaped his lips as he raised the arm before him.
Thin, silver scars divided the skin, tearing through it like cracks through a broken pot. As if he’d been shattered and poorly put back together. Then he remembered the storm. The lightning. The fire.
Agony surged in his arm, rushing over him. A scream burst from deep in his chest and he was burning, burning, hissing and steaming like the meat on Kashi’s spit. The pain rose inside him and he arched his back, heat in his veins, flames in his head. His world was fire. His world was pain. And then he was falling, tumbling backward into the abyss, the light above dwindling away as the pain washed over him. He fought to keep his eyes open, but he was falling, falling. The last light slipped from the world and he fell down, down…
* * *
It was summer on the steppe. One of those comfortably cool nights when the breeze swept off the hills as no more than a whisper through the waist-high stalks of grass. The clear night air was far preferable to the stuffiness of his family’s yurt, and Subei once again found himself sprawled out in the quiet of the night, eyes turned to the skies.
The clouds had parted to reveal a vast expanse populated by stars beyond measure. Scattered and swirled, they flickered in constellations his mother could have called by name. Guiding his eyes from one faint light to another, she’d often sit with him, recounting stories of the ancestors whose names they bore. He could never remember all the names, but he’d cherished those nights. When she’d passed, his sister Nila had taken her place. He’d resisted, at first, but they were of the same blood and she was just as stubborn. Subei could never remember all the names, but she could, and would tell their stories just as had their mother.
“Altan, He Who Raced the Wind,” Nila said from next to him, arm outstretched toward a shining point of slightly blue light. “The fastest rider on the steppe. Even in death he races on. First to rise at sundown, first to reach the far horizon.”
“Right, I remember that one. And that’s Rughai, just there?” Subei nodded to the larger sphere of light Altan had already passed.
“Arughai, the Hunter,” she corrected him. “He chases the Hart across the sky from dusk to dawn, always a step behind.” She traced the path with her arm, dragging it slowly in an arc from horizon to horizon.
“Not much of a hunter,” Subei said. “Must be awfully hungry by now.”
“You’ve used that joke before.”
“What, getting too old for your brother’s jokes now?”
“I’m a woman, almost. There are expectations. But you’ll understand when you’re older.” She flicked his ear like she always did when picking on him.
“Hey!” He recoiled, then reached out to return the favor, but she’d already rolled to her feet with another laugh, padding softly in the grass as she danced away.
“You’re in for it now,” he growled, trying to look angry as he fought the smile stretching across his face. Woman or not, she was still as fast as he was and twice as devious. He rose to follow her as she darted in among the dark shapes of their family’s grazing horses.
“Over here…” she taunted, voice faint, whispering from somewhere off to his left. He spun to the side, lunging towards the voice.
“Subei…” she called again, this time from the right.
“Well, that’s just not fair,” he said, squinting into the night. Between the quietly grazing horses and those lying down to sleep, he could hardly make out anything, much less his sister when she didn’t want to be seen.
“Here.” She was directly behind him now. He turned, and his foot caught on something, ankle twisting as he fell.
“Gah!” He sucked air through his teeth, cradling his knee to his chest and rubbing at the soon-to-be swollen ankle.
“Subei.” Nila’s voice again, but different. Not a taunt, but a plea. As if she were in pain.
“Nila?” he questioned the darkness as he rose. She had been right there. “Where are you?”
Her hand slammed into his throat and planted him firmly on his back. The air burst from his lungs. She frowned down at him, one hand curled back in a fist, the other tightening on his throat. Something hot and wet dripped on his cheek and he saw the spearhead. It protruded from her chest just as it had the day she’d been killed, a stream of blood running across its cold steel edge.
He tried to speak, but no words could escape her crushing grip. He squirmed, shook, clawed at her arms, desperate for a breath.
“Did you think you could forget? Did you think I would forget?” She snarled, teeth bared, fist rearing back. The world exploded around them, the night burning away like canvas before flame. Fire roared on all sides and they were back in their family’s burning yurt.
Above him, Nila bled, the skin around the spearhead a great mess of blood and torn flesh. Her clothes were stained red and scorched along the edges, wisps of smoke curling into the air.
“You did this to me,” she snarled, slamming a fist into his chest with a deep thud. His ribs cracked, his vision shook.
“I didn’t mean— I didn’t know—"
Another punch, and he blacked out —
— and was shaken awake, the heat of the flames washing over him once more. They roared in his ears, hissing and popping, but were still somehow drowned out by the agony in his sister’s voice.
“You let them kill me. What kind of brother are you?” She grabbed his forearm, crushed the bone with an impossibly strong grip. “You’re a disgrace. Nothing but a coward who let his family be slaughtered. You’re nothing. No one.” She pulled, and his arm felt it would rip from his body, the pressure growing, growing.
His chest shook as the shoulder jumped from its joint, arm falling dead. With a whoosh of air, a section of the yurt collapsed. Burning rubble pinned him to the ground.
He screamed. Nila smiled.
“You’re nothing.” She grabbed his head in her hands and squeezed. “You’re no one.” He screamed again as the pressure grew and his skull began to crack. But she was right, wasn’t she? He was a coward. He’d let her die.
The pressure increased.
Something clicked sharply in his skull. He’d failed to protect her. Had been too scared to do anything.
His cheekbone caved in. This was what a coward like him deserved.
He woke screaming. One eye saw only black. The other blinked rapidly, vision fuzzy but growing more and more defined with each breath that rushed into his lungs.
“Whoa! Calm now, calm!” A hand pressed against his shoulder, holding him down. Kashi knelt above him, frown drawn tight with concern, eyes deeply shadowed.
Subei groaned. His body was a mess of pains, chest throbbing, left arm burning with a deep heat that seemed to ache all the way to his bones.
“Don’t try to move too much.”
“What’s happening?” Subei said, but his voice was hardly more than a whisper. Ancestors above, his throat was dry. Burned something terrible.
“Water…” he managed to rasp.
Kashi pressed a bowl to Subei’s mouth and tilted it slowly. Sour water spilled over his lips and down his chin. He drank deeply, the dryness in his throat fleeing before the bitter liquid, then coughed as he inhaled. He waved the bowl away, coughing into the bedding.
“Was that water or piss?” he managed between the coughs that racked his frame.
“It’d probably taste better had you not spent the last few days throwing up, well, everything.” Kashi frowned at a bucket at the edge of the sleeping furs.
Subei groaned and raised a hand to his head. It came to rest against a bandage across his eye. He followed the fabric down below his ear and then around to the back of his head. A soft pull and it came loose. He blinked in the piercingly bright light as vision returned to his right eye.
“Don’t be pulling at things, now,” Kashi warned, pushing his hand back down. “Shape you’re in, something might fall off. And I don’t mean just bandages.”
Subei ignored him and sat up, fear suddenly striking him.
“Where’s Bataar?” He looked around. They were in a large yurt, daylight shining through the fabric from the world beyond. Several still forms lay scattered about the ground, coughing or groaning. He didn’t have to look far to find his older brother.
Bataar lay still, by all appearances sleeping peacefully. He seemed normal but for a few bandages covering what appeared to be burns on his arms and chest.
“He’s fine,” Kashi assured him, easing Subei back down. “Been resting peacefully since we got back.”
“Back?” The word nagged at him. “Back where?”
“To the khan’s camp.” Kashi let out a long sigh. “Didn’t know what else to do after you two were struck by that freak storm.”
“The khan’s camp?” No! Subei pulled himself up, legs wobbling as they took his weight. His entire body ached and there was a faint heat boiling in his left arm. Nonetheless, he forced himself to take a shaky step.
“You’re going to hurt yourself further,” Kashi said, springing up to stop him.
“We returned without Commander Jian.”
“No, Subei.” Kashi’s eyes went hard. “We’re not going down this path. Yes, Jian got away, but you and Bataar nearly died. What choice did I have?”
Subei grunted as the world spun. He fought the dizziness and drew himself to his full height.
“I don’t blame you, Kashi. You did what you had to.”
“Then lie back down. You need to res—”
“I’m going after Jian.” It was as simple as that. They’d vowed to bring Jian back to face judgement. There was no alternative. He would uphold his word, or he would die trying.
“You should stay with Bataar.” He patted Kashi on the shoulder, then bent down, searching for his mace and bow.
“I’m not letting you leave this tent.” Kashi crossed his arms and planted himself in front of the entrance flap. “I didn’t drag you here half dead just to let you ride back out to your death.”
His mace was nowhere in sight. Nor his bow. Subei turned to face his brother, fighting to calm his racing thoughts. Fighting to stop the world from spinning around him. He had to go. Kashi wouldn’t understand; never had.
“You’re wasting time, Kashi. Hunters don’t fail. If we don’t bring back Jian, we’ll never hunt again. There’s nothing else to it.”
“And you’re willing to die for that? For this?” He spread his arms wide, gestured to the still form of their brother. “For some damned fool notion that you’re going to be the khan’s finest hunter?”
“I’m not going to die.”
“Struck by a bolt of lightning, and three days later you’re ready to hunt the fiercest commander in the entire khanate? By yourself? And you think you’re not going to die? You’re either the bravest bastard I know, or the dumbest.”
“You’re not fine. An hour ago you were halfway to meeting the ancestors.”
“Allow me to prove it to you, then, damn it.” He pushed past his younger brother and into the daylight beyond.
“The hell are you going?” Kashi called from behind, close on his heels.
Subei squinted into the sunlight, forcing himself to stride confidently as he took in his surroundings. The camp bustled with activity, but he ignored it, searching for one thing only.
The world had stopped spinning now, and the aching in his body was lessening. He felt better with each step. Just needed some fresh air, that was all.
A flash of silver caught his eye and he noticed the scars on his arm. Took his first good look at the bastards. They’d stopped burning now, thank the ancestors. Subei rolled his sleeve down to cover them. He’d seen a lot of scars in his life. Earned more than his fair share of them, as well. A few more, no matter how unique, made little difference. There’d be time to bandage them later. For now, he had a statement to make. He may have been dragged back to the khan’s camp slung across his own saddle, but he wasn’t dead yet. Far from it.
The clanging of swords reached his ears and his head snapped to the side. He’d found what he was looking for.
“Don’t even think about it,” Kashi began, but Subei had already jumped the fence, heels squishing down into the well-trodden grass of the training grounds.
Kashi thought him weak. Thought him too injured to carry out the hunt he’d sworn to finish. If he thought that, others would as well. The khan most of all. The solution was simple. He’d prove otherwise. Show the world it’d take more than some damned freak storm to stop him.
All around, men fought and trained. Some held sabers, the blades heavy and dull for training. Others fought hand to hand, wrestling against one another. Others still eyed targets downrange, loosing arrows at straw men.
Subei strode to the center of the commotion and clenched his fist. Pounding it twice against his chest, he raised it high in the air, eyes staring defiantly at any who would meet his gaze.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” Kashi hissed from beside him, voice low as he looked at the various Ghangerai warriors who had stopped to take notice.
“A challenge has been made.” Subei spoke loud enough for those around to hear. “Who will accept it?”
More warriors turned at his words, each seeming to consider for a moment. Inevitably, they recognized him and looked away. Few would dare fight a hunter, even an injured one.
Subei cursed inwardly. Come on, you bastards.
A few more long moments of silence and another dozen downcast eyes.
“Have some courage!” Subei beat his fist against his chest two more times before returning it to the air above him. “Not a pair between the lot of you, huh?”
Silence. A couple of warriors shuffled away.
“Just as well, then. You need to rest. Let’s end this nonsense and—”
“I accept.” A lone fist rose from among a crowd of onlookers. Faces turned and eyebrows raised as the crowd split, stepping aside to reveal who had accepted.
The woman was so old she looked already half in the grave. She stood alone, bright blue eyes surveying Subei with sharp, quick movements. Her face was as wrinkled as a leaf in autumn, while her ash-gray hair was pulled tight in a small bun positioned high on the back of her head. She wore a homespun gray deel, the fabric of the long robe tucked over itself once and held closed at the waist by a cloth belt. Though the fabric was loose, there was no hiding her foreign proportions. She was too thin, too tall, as if she had been grabbed by the head and feet and stretched at birth. Her face was too narrow, her coloring too pale, several shades lighter than that of the Ghangerai. She was no daughter of the steppe.
Subei frowned. This was not the display he’d had in mind. The woman must’ve been confused — unaccustomed to Ghangerai ways, perhaps.
“I fear you may be confused, old one.” Subei advanced a step, lowering his fist. “I have issued a challenge of one on one combat.”
It was not too late. Her acceptance wouldn’t be confirmed until—
“My name is Mahtma Dolma of the Teshkai, and I accept your challenge, hunter of the Ghangerai.”
Until she did that. Subei sighed. Some day this was turning out to be. A week ago, he’d have imagined things could only improve after being struck by lightning. He’d have been wrong.
“Look, we don’t need to do this,” Subei said, moving forward.
“Oh,” Mahtma said, eyes going blank as an expression of surprise spread across her face. She stepped within arm’s reach of him. “Has the duel already begun?”
“Technically, yes. But—”
“Good.” She hardly seemed to move, but then the breath burst from his chest and he was on his back. “Then let us duel.”
Around them, the crowd gasped and several murmurs echoed through the assembled warriors.
From where he lay in the dirt, Subei drew in a wheezing breath, sucking hard to fill his lungs. He coughed and blinked his vision steady.
“That was impressive, though decidedly unwise,” he warned, rising to his feet.
His legs had hardly straightened before she darted forward and swept them from under him. The ground rushed up to drive the breath from him once more. Groaning, he pulled himself into a sitting position.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I told you, I am Mahtma Dolma of the Teshkai.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean to say—”
A palm strike caught him in the forehead, slamming him down onto his back.
“The khan’s finest hunter, some call you. Consider me unimpressed.”
Subei frowned. Enough of this. He’d come here to make a statement. To prove he was strong enough to continue the hunt. He would not be beaten by an old woman, no matter how trained she appeared to be.
She lunged forward and stomped down at him. He rolled to the side, her boot clipping his ear on the way past. He snatched her leg and threw her to one side. She folded into a roll as she fell, moving more like one of the khan’s dancers than a crone, and rose smoothly to her feet.
Subei pulled himself from the dirt, wiping a dribble of spit from his chin.
“Last warning. I won’t mourn your death when my first blow stops your heart.”
“Many will celebrate my death, I don’t doubt. But not today.”
She stutter-stepped toward him, then spun into a kick. Subei raised his arms to block — then charged headlong into the attack.
Subei often found force to be the greatest answer to force. The list of warriors who’d held strong in the face of one of his charges was few. Today, it grew one name longer.
His guard broke on impact and he found his face in the dirt once more, the world spinning yet again. Above him, Mahtma held her stance a moment longer, one leg extended at chest height. She released a long breath and slowly withdrew the leg, returning to a resting position.
A shout broke out from the crowd, several voices cheering her on.
Subei rose, clenching fistfuls of dirt. He was battered and bruised, already weak after the ordeal with the storm, but now his injuries cut deeper, straight to his pride. This was embarrassing. And it ended now. Something surged inside him, rose from so deep within he hadn’t known it existed. To describe it as anger would be to compare a drop of water to the immensity of the ocean. It was something greater. Something fiercer. It rose within him, and he found he could not resist it.
If Mahtma sensed any change in him, the only indication was the faintest of smiles tugging at the edge of her mouth.
Subei growled, an animal sound deep in his chest. It was a sound as old as the world itself. A sound from another time, from another place, from another being entirely. Subei blinked once. When his eyes reopened, something had changed inside him. He was warmer, angrier. Eager.
He smiled, then spoke with words he hadn’t planned. Words he didn’t know he had.
“I can smell it, you know.” He took a step forward, hands clenching and unclenching as if eager to be about their grim task. “I can smell the blood pulsing through your veins. Such a shame to keep it hidden there. Let’s see if we can free it. The world needs more blood.”
“Subei,” someone called. “Are you okay?” Kashi. It was Kashi. He recognized the voice. He turned to answer — Of course, I’m fine — and found he couldn’t move. Or rather, wasn’t in control of his movements. Without willing it, he stepped closer to the old woman, eyes unwavering from her seemingly frail form. As if compelled by some inner demon, he lunged forward, fist aimed for her head.
It found only air as she ducked under it and rose behind him to unleash a flurry of punches into his now-exposed kidneys. They landed with the sound of a butcher tenderizing meat, each thumping blow reverberating across the training grounds.
Subei growled and spun around with a backhand strike. It was a blow that would have felled near any warrior. Would’ve damn near taken the poor bastard’s head from his shoulders. But Mahtma was not just any warrior. Subei swung with all the might of his new-found irresistible rage, but the blow never landed.
With her first two fingers and thumb pinched together in a point, Mahtma jabbed him below the armpit as she ducked under his attack. His arm fell limp. Dead. He staggered to the side, eyes wide. He shook his shoulder. The arm flopped lifelessly.
Subei growled again. Then, as if he knew what he was doing, as if he’d practiced his entire life, he raised his left arm, palm open wide toward the sky.
A brilliant light burst from beneath the fabric of his sleeve. Another moment and it grew even brighter, the scars that ran up and down his arm becoming all too apparent as their light swelled through the fabric, lines of blue burning in his skin. The crowd gasped and fell back; warriors who’d known death and war since they were old enough to walk scrambled away at the unnatural sight.
Subei himself recoiled. Or would have, had he control of his body. Despite his horror at what was happening, he found he was smiling. A warmth rose within him, starting deep in his stomach. It grew and roiled, rising ever higher. It swarmed over his shoulder and down his arm, over his elbow, his forearm, his wrist, and out to the palm of his hand. With a crackling pop, an orb of floating blue light swelled into existence. Gasps poured from the crowd as men and women stared with mouths agape.
The orb hovered, as large and wide as his hand and almost too big to fit. It bobbed slightly back and forth, seeming unable to stay in one place. Miniature bolts of lightning crackled and popped within it, the occasional bolt breaking free to arc into his flesh. The skin tingled where they struck, but seemed otherwise unharmed.
Subei wanted to stare, but before he knew what he was doing the anger guided his arm. It whipped forward and flung the crackling orb at the old woman.
Time seemed to slow as the orb flew, arcs of tiny lightning snapping out to rage at the air around them. Mahtma made to lunge backward as the orb reached the ground in front of her. Just before it hit, a single bolt of lightning broke free. It arced into the ground with an angry hiss. and the orb exploded.
It was as if the sun itself had fallen from the sky. A wave of heat, then blinding, burning light as the patch of ground beneath the orb disappeared in a roaring plume of flame.
The crowd screamed, scattered, trampled those that fell in their panic to flee. A shower of debris fell from above, clumps of burning soil and other unrecognizable detritus slapping back to earth.
The old woman was gone, reduced to ash and smoke in the blast, no doubt. The last debris fell amid a pitch-black cloud of smoke. The wind caught it and drove it swirling away to reveal a crater scorched into the earth, half a man deep, the soil blackened and burned within. Subei breathed heavily as the scars on his arm slowly faded, the blue light seeming to slip away back within his flesh.
In the wake of the blast, the world was silent. Nothing remained of the woman but charred soil and the stench of smoke.
And then she hit him from the side.
She locked his arm behind his back and pulled up sharply. Subei howled as his wrist bent upward, toward his shoulder blades. Another jab in the armpit and she released him, both arms now hanging limp and useless.
Subei looked from one dead arm to the other, breathing hard, thoughts racing. He was still in shock from the explosive light he’d somehow conjured.
He made to retreat, but Mahtma was on him. Two quick steps and she was all he could see, those bright blue eyes seeming to fill the entirety of existence. Her arms were a blur. Pain blossomed in his stomach and chest and his legs fell away. Next thing he knew he was on his back.
The old woman leaned over him and pressed her thumb into a spot just behind his ear. Subei spat and snarled, fighting against the growing pressure at the base of his skull, but he might as well have been fighting the onset of winter, so certain and unrelenting was she. His movements slowed until he could barely move at all, breath seeming frozen in his throat. He blinked once, slow, sleepy. When his eyes opened again, the uncontrollable rage that had risen inside him had relented.
He gasped, air flooding into his burning lungs. He was on his back, Mahtma kneeling above him. Kashi rushed over.
“Subei! Are you okay?” Kashi fell to his knees beside his brother. “The hell just happened?”
Subei opened his mouth to speak. Found he had no words. Found he could barely even process what he’d just seen.
“I think that will do.” A voice from behind.
Mahtma bowed to someone Subei couldn’t see and stepped backwards.
Subei pulled himself into a sitting position, life returning to his arms, albeit slowly. They felt fat and numb, as if waking from a freezing night in the dead of winter. He turned and found the lord of the Ghangerai above him.
The khan looked down at him. Subei swallowed hard. The khan smiled.
The reality of the last few days slammed into Subei like a storm wind and a rush of excuses flooded his mind. He spoke quickly, words falling from his mouth. First excuses about failing to retrieve Jian. Then the storm, the unnatural lightning that had struck him and Bataar, how they would be okay, would recover, were just as strong as they’d always been. Then he realized the gravity of what had just happened; tried to explain his sudden bloodlust, his rage, and the orb — ancestors above, the orb. How could he even begin—
“Subei.” The excuses and explanations trickled to a stop as the khan spoke. “Forget Jian. Forget the world we knew. Everything has changed.”
The bravest of the crowd had returned, were edging closer now, hanging on every word the khan spoke.
“The Old Father is dead.” A shocked murmur ran through those that had returned. From beside him, Subei heard Kashi curse. The realization took a moment longer to sink in for him.
Dead? The Old Father? The man — if he even was a man — hadn’t aged in…in as long as anyone could remember. He had come from the west centuries ago and lived a reclusive life since. But none doubted his power. All knew the stories. He was a man even the khan bowed to. And the khan bowed to no man.
Nodding to the scars coursing along Subei’s arm, the lord of the Ghangerai leaned in closer.
“In the wake of the Old Father’s passing, you and my son have become something…” He paused, as if considering his next words. Then smiled. “Something more. Something greater than mere men.”
Subei heard the words, but didn’t understand them. Or didn’t believe them. Or both, maybe. He wasn’t sure. The khan broke the silence.
“This power is the beginning of a journey for you and my son, Subei. It is the beginning of many things, including your path to transcendence.”
Kemu, Khan of the Ghangerai, Foremost of Those who Tame the Horse, and Fist of the Ancestors, extended his hand.
“Let me guide you, Son of None.”
Subei could only nod.