Flame in the Mist
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass.
The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.
Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she's within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she's appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she's ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.
Excerpt from Flame in the Mist
In the beginning, there were two suns and two moons.
The boy’s sight blurred before him, seeing past the truth. Past the shame. He focused on the story his uba had told him the night before. A story of good and evil, light and dark. A story where the triumphant sun rose high above its enemies.
On instinct, his fingers reached for the calloused warmth of his uba’s hand. The nursemaid from Kisun had been with him since before he could remember, but now—like everything else—she was gone.
Now there was no one left.
Against his will, the boy’s vision cleared, locking on the clear blue of the noon sky above. His fingers curled around the stiff linen of his shirtsleeves.
Don’t look away. If they see you looking away, they will say you are weak.
Once more, his uba’s words echoed in his ears.
He lowered his gaze.
The courtyard before him was draped in fluttering white, surrounded on three sides by rice-paper screens. Pennants flying the golden crest of the emperor danced in a passing breeze. To the left and right stood grim-faced onlookers— samurai dressed in the dark silks of their formal hakama.
In the center of the courtyard was the boy’s father, kneeling on a small tatami mat covered in bleached canvas. He, too, was draped in white, his features etched in stone. Before him sat a low table with a short blade. At his side stood the man who had once been his best friend.
The boy sought his father’s eyes. For a moment, he thought his father looked his way, but it could have been a trick of the wind. A trick of the perfumed smoke curling above the squat brass braziers.
His father would not want to look into his son’s eyes. The boy knew this. The shame was too great. And his father would die before passing the shame of tears along to his son.
The drums began to pound out a slow beat. A dirge.
In the distance beyond the gates, the boy caught the muffled sound of small children laughing and playing. They were soon silenced by a terse shout.
Without hesitation, his father loosened the knot from around his waist and pushed open his white robe, exposing the skin of his stomach and chest. Then he tucked his sleeves beneath his knees to prevent himself from falling backward.
For even a disgraced samurai should die well.
The boy watched his father reach for the short tantō blade on the small table before him. He wanted to cry for him to stop. Cry for a moment more. A single look more.
But the boy remained silent, his fingers turning bloodless in his fists. He swallowed.
Don’t look away.
His father took hold of the blade, wrapping his hands around the skein of white silk near its base. He plunged the sword into his stomach, cutting slowly to the left, then up to the right. His features remained passive. No hint of suffering could be detected, though the boy searched for it—felt it—despite his father’s best efforts.
Never look away.
Finally, when his father stretched his neck forward, the boy saw it. A small flicker, a grimace. In the same instant, the boy’s heart shuddered in his chest. A hot burst of pain glimmered beneath it.
The man who had been his father’s best friend took two long strides, then swung a gleaming katana in a perfect arc toward his father’s exposed neck. The thud of his father’s head hitting the tatami mat silenced the drumbeats in a hollow start.
Still the boy did not look away. He watched the crimson spurt from his father’s folded body, past the edge of the mat and onto the grey stones beyond. The tang of the fresh blood caught in his nose—warm metal and sea salt. He waited until his father’s body was carried in one direction, his head in another, to be displayed as a warning.
No hint of treason would be tolerated. Not even a whisper.
All the while, no one came to the boy’s side. No one dared to look him in the eye.
The burden of shame took shape in the boy’s chest, heavier than any weight he could ever bear.
When the boy finally turned to leave the empty courtyard, his eyes fell upon the creaking door nearby. A nursemaid met his unflinching stare, one hand sliding off the latch, the other clenched around two toy swords. Her skin flushed pink for an instant.
Never look away.
The nursemaid dropped her eyes in discomfort. The boy watched as she quickly ushered a boy and a girl through the wooden gate. They were a few years younger than he and obviously from a wealthy family. Perhaps the children of one of the samurai in attendance today. The younger boy straightened the fine silk of his kimono collar and darted past his nursemaid, never once pausing to acknowledge the presence of a traitor’s son.
The girl, however, stopped. She looked straight at him, her pert features in constant motion. Rubbing her nose with the heel of one hand, she blinked, letting her eyes run the length of him before pausing on his face.
He held her gaze.
“Mariko-sama!” the nursemaid scolded. She whispered in the girl’s ear, then tugged her away by the elbow.
Still the girl’s eyes did not waver. Even when she passed the pool of blood darkening the stones. Even when her eyes narrowed in understanding.
The boy was grateful he saw no sympathy in her expression. Instead the girl continued studying him until her nursemaid urged her around the corner.
His gaze returned to the sky, his chin in high disregard of his tears.
In the beginning, there were two suns and two moons.
One day, the victorious son would rise—
And set fire to all his father’s enemies.
Illusions and Expectations
Ten Years Later
On the surface everything seemed right.
An elegant litter. A dutiful daughter. An honor bestowed.
Then, as if to taunt her, Mariko’s litter lurched, jouncing her shoulder into the norimono’s side. Its raised mother-of-pearl inlays would undoubtedly leave a bruise. Mariko took a deep breath, stifling the urge to grumble in the shadows like an angry crone. The smell of the norimono’s varnish filled her head, bringing to mind the Dragon’s Beard candy she favored as a child.
Her dark, sickly sweet coffin, bearing her to her final resting place.
Mariko sank farther into the cushions. Nothing about the journey to the imperial city of Inako had gone well. Her convoy had left later than intended and stopped all too often. At least now—by the way the norimono listed forward—Mariko could tell they were traveling down an incline. Which meant they’d moved past the hills around the valley, more than halfway to Inako. She leaned back, hoping her weight would help balance the burden.
Just as she settled in, the litter halted suddenly.
Mariko raised the silk screen covering the small window to her right. Dusk was starting to descend. The forest before them was shrouded in mist, its trees a jagged silhouette across a silver sky.
As Mariko turned to address the nearby soldier, a young maidservant came stumbling into view. “My lady!” the girl gasped, righting herself against the norimono’s side. “You must be famished. I’ve been remiss. Please forgive me for neglecting to—”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Chiyo-chan.” Mariko smiled kindly, but the girl’s eyes remained wide with worry. “It was not I who halted the convoy.”
Chiyo bowed low, the flowers of her makeshift hairpiece falling askew. When she stood once more, the maidservant passed along a neatly wrapped bundle of food to Mariko. Then Chiyo moved back to her post beside the litter, pausing only to return Mariko’s warm smile.
“Why have we stopped?” Mariko asked the nearby member of the ashigaru.
The foot soldier wiped the perspiration from his brow, then switched the long pole of his naginata to his other hand. Traces of sunlight glinted off its sharp blade. “The forest.”
Mariko waited, certain that could not be the extent of his explanation.
Beads of sweat gathered above the soldier’s lips. He opened his mouth to speak, but the clatter of approaching hooves stole his attention.
“Lady Hattori . . .” Nobutada, one of her father’s confidants and his most trusted samurai, reined in his charger beside Mariko’s norimono. “I apologize for the delay, but several of the soldiers have voiced concerns about traveling through Jukai forest.”
Mariko blinked twice, her features thoughtful. “Is there a particular reason?”
“Now that the sun has set, they fear the yōkai, and they worry—”
“Silly stories of monsters in the dark.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing more.”
Nobutada paused, doubtlessly taking note of her interruption. “They also claim the Black Clan has been seen near here recently.”
“They claim?” A dark eyebrow curved into Mariko’s forehead. “Or they’ve sighted them in truth?”
“They are merely claims.” Nobutada lowered the chin guard beneath his horned helmet. “Though it would be unusual for the Black Clan to rob us, as they do not generally attack convoys containing women and children. Especially those guarded by samurai.”
Mariko lingered in consideration. “I defer to your opinion, Nobutada-sama.” Recalling the foot soldier from a moment ago, she attempted a smile. “And please see that the ashigaru have time to rest and take in water soon, as they appear overtired.”
Nobutada scowled at her last request. “If we are forced to go around Jukai forest, it will add a full day to our journey.”
“Then it will add a full day to our journey.” She was already beginning to lower her screen, the awkward smile still pasted across her face.
“I’d rather not risk angering the emperor.”
“Then it is an easy choice. We must lead so that others may follow, Nobutada-sama. You taught me that, even as a young girl.” Mariko did not look away as she spoke. Nor did she attempt to apologize for the sharpness of her retort.
His scowl deepened. Mariko smothered a sigh. She knew she was being difficult. Knew Nobutada wished for her to make a decision. At the very least, wished for her to offer an opinion.
To make a useless play at control. A play Nobutada could then smugly subvert, as her elder.
As a man.
Try as she might, Mariko could not help the resentment simmering beneath the surface.
Control is an illusion. Expectations will not rule my days.
“Perhaps not easy,” Mariko amended, her fingers toying with the edge of the screen. “But it is simple.” She softened her tone—a pitiful attempt to mollify him. One that was sure to chafe, as her contrary nature so often did. Her brother, Kenshin, frequently gave her grief about it. Frequently told her to be less . . . peculiar.
To conform, at least in these small ways.
Mariko dipped her head in a bow. “In any case, I defer to your wise judgment, Nobutada-sama.”
A shadow fell across his features. “Very well, Lady Hattori. We shall proceed through Jukai forest.” With that, he urged his charger back toward the head of the convoy.
As expected, Mariko had irritated him. She’d offered no real opinion on anything since they’d left her family’s home that morning. And Nobutada wanted her to play at directing him. To give him tasks befitting such a vaunted role.
Tasks befitting the samurai in charge of delivering a royal bride.
Mariko supposed she should care she might be arriving at Heian Castle late.
Late to meet the emperor. Late to meet his second son—
Her future husband.
But Mariko did not care. Ever since the afternoon her father had informed her that Emperor Minamoto Masaru had made an offer of marriage on behalf of his son Raiden, she’d truly not cared about much.
Mariko was to be the wife of Prince Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. A political marriage that would elevate her father’s standing amongst the ruling daimyō class.
She should care that she was being exchanged like property in order to curry favor. But Mariko did not.
As the norimono lurched forward again, Mariko reached above to adjust the slender tortoiseshell bar speared through her thick coils of hair. Tiny strips of silver and jade dangled from its ends, snarling with one another in a ceaseless war. After Mariko finished sorting them into place, her hand fell to the smaller jade bar below.
Her mother’s face took shape in her mind—the look of determined resignation she had worn as she slid the jade ornament into her only daughter’s hair.
A parting gift. But not a true source of comfort.
Just like her father’s final words:
Be a tribute to your family, Mariko-chan. As you were raised to be. Forswear your childish wishes. Be more than . . . this.
Mariko’s lips pressed tight.
It doesn’t matter. I’ve already taken my revenge.
There was no reason for Mariko to dwell on these things anymore. Her life was on a clear path now. Never mind that it was not what she wanted. Never mind that there was so much left to see and learn and do. She’d been raised for a purpose. A foolish one at that—to be the wife of an important man when she could easily have been something else. Something more. But it did not matter. She was not a boy. And—despite being barely seventeen—Hattori Mariko knew her place in life. She would marry Minamoto Raiden. Her parents would have the prestige of a daughter in Heian Castle.
And Mariko would be the only one to know the stain on that honor.
As dusk fell and the convoy made its way deeper into the forest, the scent of warm, wet air took on a life of its own. It mixed with the iron of the earth and the green of newly trod leaves. A strange, heady perfume. Sharp and fresh, yet soft and sinister all at once.
Mariko shuddered, a chill taking root in her bones. The horses around the norimono whickered as if in response to an unseen threat. Seeking a distraction, Mariko reached for the small parcel of food Chiyo had given her, staving off the chill by burrowing into her cushions.
Perhaps we should have gone around Jukai forest.
She quickly dismissed these doubts, then turned her attention to the parcel in her hands. Within it were two rice balls covered in black sesame seeds, along with pickled sour plums wrapped in lotus leaves. After unfolding her meal, Mariko shifted her fingers to light the tiny folded-paper lantern swaying above.
It had been one of her earliest inventions. Small enough to hide in a kimono sleeve. A special slow-burning wick, suspended by the thinnest of wires. The wick was fashioned from cotton braided with river reeds dipped in wax. It kept its shape despite its size, all while burning a steady light. Mariko had made it as a child. In the heavy dark of night, this tiny invention had been her savior. She’d placed it beside her blankets, where it cast a warm, cheery glow by which she’d penned her newest ideas.
Smiling in remembrance, Mariko began to eat. A few black sesame seeds fell onto the painted silk of her kimono; she brushed them aside. The fabric felt like water at her fingertips. The color of sweetened cream, its hem bled through with darkest indigo. Pale pink cherry blossoms crowded the long sleeves, unfurling into branches near Mariko’s feet.
A priceless kimono. Made of rare tatsumura silk. One of the many gifts sent to her by the emperor’s son. It was beautiful. More beautiful than anything Mariko had ever owned in her life.
Perhaps a girl who prized such things would be pleased.
When more sesame seeds fell onto the silk, Mariko didn’t bother brushing them away. She finished eating in silence, watching the tiny lantern sway to and fro.
The gathering of shadows shifted outside, growing closer and tighter. Mariko’s convoy was now deep beneath a canopy of trees. Deep beneath their cloak of sighing branches and whispering leaves. Strange that she heard no signs of life outside—not the caw of a raven nor the cry of an owl nor the chirr of an insect.
Then the norimono halted again. All too abruptly.
The horses began to pant. Began to stamp their hooves in the leafy earth.
Mariko heard a shout. Her litter teetered. Overcorrected. Only to strike the ground with a vicious thud. Her head smacked against varnished wood, throwing stars across her vision.
And Mariko was swallowed into a void.
Mariko woke to the smell of smoke. To a dull roar in her ears.
To shooting pain in her arm.
She was still in her litter, but it had toppled to one side, its contents smashed into a corner.
The body of a familiar maidservant lay across her. Chiyo, who had loved to eat iced persimmons and arrange moonflowers in her hair. Chiyo, whose eyes had always been so open and wide and honest.
The same eyes that were now frozen in Death’s final mask.
Mariko’s throat burned. Her sight blurred with tears.
The sounds of movement outside brought her back into focus. Her right hand pressed into a tender lump on the side of her head. She gasped into full awareness, the sound a strangled sob. Her arm pulsed sharply, even with the smallest of movements.
Mariko shook her head clear. And looked around.
From the way Chiyo was positioned across her—and from the way Mariko’s lacquered zori sandals had fallen from the maidservant’s hands—it was clear the girl had tried to free Mariko from the wrecked litter. Tried to free her and died in the attempt. Blood was everywhere. Splashed across the shining inlays. Spilling from the nasty gash in Mariko’s head. Pooling from the fatal wound in Chiyo’s heart. An arrow had pierced clean through the small girl’s breastbone; its tip dug into the skin of Mariko’s forearm, a trickle of crimson in its wake.
Several arrowheads were embedded in the wood of the norimono. Several more were fixed at odd angles across Chiyo’s body. Arrows that could not have been meant to kill a kind maidservant.
And had it not been for this kind maidservant, these arrows would undoubtedly have struck Mariko.
Mariko’s eyes brimmed with more tears as she clutched Chiyo tight.
Thank you, Chiyo-chan. Sumimasen.
Blinking away her tears, Mariko tried to shift her head. Tried to seek her bearings. The ache near her temple throbbed, keeping time with the rapid beat of her heart.
Just as Mariko began to move, a rumble of male voices drew near. She peeked through a break in the mangled screen above. All she could discern were two men dressed in black from head to toe. Their weapons shone bright in the light of nearby torches, their blades oiled a sinister red.
It can’t be . . .
But the evidence was irrefutable. The Black Clan had overrun her convoy.
Mariko held her breath, wincing into the corner as they moved closer to the litter.
“She’s dead, then?” the tallest one said in gruff fashion.
The masked man to the right considered the overturned litter, his head cocked to one side. “Either that or she passed out from the—”
A howl in the distance swallowed the last of their conversation.
The men eyed each other. Knowingly.
“Check once more,” the first man said. “I’d rather not be forced to report we failed in our mission.”
The second man gave a curt nod and moved toward the litter, his torch held high.
Panic took hold of Mariko. She clenched her rattling teeth still.
Two things had become clear as these masked men spoke:
The Black Clan obviously wanted Mariko dead. And someone had tasked them with killing her.
Mariko changed position, ever so slightly, as though it might conceal her from their prying gazes. As though it might shrink her into nothingness. Chiyo’s head slumped forward, thwacking against the battered wood of the norimono. Mariko bit back an oath, cursing her thoughtlessness. She inhaled through her nose, willing her heart to cease its incessant pounding.
Why did it suddenly smell so strongly of smoke?
Mariko’s eyes darted around in alarm. The edges of Chiyo’s bloodstained robe were blackening. Brushing against the crumbled wick of Mariko’s tiny lantern.
It took all her restraint to remain quiet and still.
Terror pressed in on her from all sides. Pressed her to make a final decision.
If Mariko lingered, she would be burned alive. If she moved from her hiding place, the masked men outside would undoubtedly finish their dark task.
Flames licked the hem of the maidservant’s robe, grasping for Mariko’s kimono like the tentacles of an octopus.
Her panic rising, Mariko shifted once more, stifling a cough in her shoulder.
It was time to make a decision.
How am I to die today? By fire or by the sword?
The advancing man halted a hairsbreadth away. “The litter is on fire.”
“Then let it burn.” The taller man did not flinch. Nor did he look their way.
“We should leave.” The man just outside glanced over his shoulder. “Before the scent of blood and singed flesh draws the nightbeasts.” He was near enough to touch. Near enough to strike, had Mariko the courage.
The taller man nodded. “We shall leave soon enough. But not before you check to make sure the girl is dead.”
The mournful baying grew louder. Closer. Hemming them in.
When the man nearby reached for the mangled screens, one of the norimono’s damaged poles split in two. The broken wood struck his arm, sending a flurry of sparks every which way.
Leaping back, he cursed under his breath. “The girl is as good as dead.” The man spoke more forcefully, his torch whipping about in the wind. Heat from the mounting fire sent sweat down Mariko’s neck in steady trickles. The growing blaze near her feet crackled as it seared Chiyo’s skin.
Mariko’s stomach lurched at the smell. Sweat poured onto her stiff white collar.
Make a decision, Hattori Mariko! How do you wish to die?
Her teeth chattered. With a forceful swallow, Mariko dug her fingernails into her palms, her eyes flitting about the small, shattered space. Bravery did not come to her naturally. She spent too much time weighing her options to be brave. Too much time calculating the many paths before her.
But Mariko knew it was time to do more. Time to be more.
She would not die a coward. Mariko was the daughter of a samurai. The sister of the Dragon of Kai.
But more than that, she still held power over her decisions.
For at least this one last day.
She would face her enemy. And die with honor.
Her sight blurring from the thickening smoke, Mariko pushed Chiyo aside, her hands trembling despite her best efforts.
A shout rang out in the darkness. The man near the norimono twisted around at its cracking toll.
The cries were followed by the snarl of an animal. The growl of several more.
Another shriek. The echo of a death knell. With it came the cries of feasting animals.
“The nightbeasts!” The man with the torch pivoted again, his flame leaping with his motions. “They’re attacking our flank!”
“Check the girl,” the first man insisted. “The girl is more important than—”
“The prince’s bride is as good as dead!” With that, he threw his torch on top of Mariko’s norimono, whirling away as he sealed her fate. “Collect our fallen. Leave nothing behind,” he yelled to men she could not see.
Mariko bit back a scream as clanking metal and rustling bodies converged in the nearby shadows. Chaos grew with each passing moment. The flames in the norimono leapt higher. Faster. Their heat turned her skin pink. She clasped her fingers tight, smothering her coughs as she shrank farther into the corner. Tears streamed down her face, leaching her of all resolve.
The torch above crackled to fire against the varnished wood of the norimono.
It wouldn’t be long before Mariko would burn along with it. The lacquered tinder around her popped and fizzed, the melted resin burning into blue flame.
A shuddering breath flew past her lips.
I am not a coward. I am . . . greater than this.
Her tears stained the front of her kimono silk. She refused to die like an animal locked in a cage. Like a girl with nothing save her name.
Better to die by the sword. Better to die at the mercy of the nightbeasts.
To die in the night air. Free.
Her pulse trilling in her fingertips, Mariko shoved Chiyo’s body away in final decision. She kicked open the norimono’s door. One glossy sandal fell as she struggled to heave herself through, gulping air to quench the burn in her throat. Mariko reeled from the ruins, her eyes wild as she glanced about, frantic.
The forest was full dark.
And her kimono was on fire.
Her mind worked quickly. Instinctively. Mariko wrapped the silken material around itself, robbing the fire of the air it needed to burn. Her wrist seared beneath the kimono’s folds, smoke curling from the watered silk in grey wisps. With a rasping cry, Mariko tore at her obi, cursing the way it had been wound about her waist. So intricate. So unnecessary. Stumbling through the underbrush, she ripped the beautiful kimono from her shoulders, lurching away from the burning norimono like a drunken fool.
Her eyes sought the darkness for any beacon of light. All she could see was her litter, engulfed in flames. Her kimono smoldered against the forest floor.
If the men return, they will see the kimono. They will know I escaped.
Without hesitating, Mariko took hold of the hem and hurled the silk back at the pile of hissing flames.
It flared as it touched the melting varnish. Burning silk and scorching lacquer. Melting Dragon’s Beard candy.
Mingled with the scent of searing flesh.
She blinked hard, struggling to remain steady.
All around her were the bodies of her father’s convoy. Maidservants. Samurai. Foot soldiers.
Slaughtered as one.
Mariko stood swathed in shadow, her chest heaving as her eyes flew across the damp earth.
Anything of value had been taken. Swiftly. Efficiently. Trunks had been emptied. Imperial chargers had been yoked as chattel, leaving nothing but their tasseled reins behind. Ribbons of red and white and gold littered the ground.
But Mariko knew robbery had not been the primary objective.
The Black Clan tried to murder me. Even though they knew I was to marry Prince Raiden, they still carried out their task.
Someone with sway over the Black Clan wishes me dead.
Cold shock descended upon her in a sudden rush. Her shoulders began to wilt. Again—as if on instinct—Mariko set them straight, her chin braced against the threat of further tears. She refused to succumb to shock. Just as she refused to grant refuge to her fears.
Think, Hattori Mariko. Keep moving.
She staggered forward, intent on fleeing without a glance back. Two halting steps were all she managed before she thought better of it. Thought better about the odds of proceeding through a darkened wood, unarmed and dressed in nothing but her underclothes.
Shielding herself from the worst of the carnage, Mariko moved toward a fallen samurai. His katana was missing, but his shorter wakizashi was still in its scabbard, bound to his waist. She took the small, wieldier weapon in hand. Pausing only to kick soil across her tracks, she moved through the forest, without direction, without purpose. Without anything, save the need to survive.
The darkness around her was oppressive. She stumbled on roots, unable to see. After a time, the lack of one sense heightened all the others. The snap of a twig or the scuttle of an insect rang through the air with the resonance of a gong. When the bushes nearby rustled—steel grinding against stone—Mariko pressed into the bark of a tree, terror finally taking the last of the warmth from her blood.
A low growl crawled from the earth, cutting through her like the thunder of an approaching army. It was followed by heavy paws padding over dead leaves.
A savage sort of stealth.
A nightbeast, stalking the last of its prey.
Mariko’s stomach clenched, and her fingers shook as she prepared to meet her end.
No. I will not cower in a corner.
She scrambled away from the tree, her ankle catching on a scree of rocks. Each movement jolted through her as she landed on the forest floor, only to claw back to her feet. Her body felt alive, energy rolling beneath her skin in waves, all while her blood coursed through her body. There was nowhere to hide. The white silk of her underrobe did nothing to shield her from the forest’s most sinister monsters.
The growling behind her had become a steady grumble. Undeterred. Moving ever closer. When Mariko spun around to face her attacker, two saurian yellow eyes materialized in the darkness. Like those of a giant snake.
The creature that formed around these eyes was immense, its features resembling a jaguar, its body as massive as a bear. Without further provocation, the beast rose on its hind legs, saliva dripping from its bared fangs. It threw back its head and howled, the sound ricocheting into the night.
Her knees turned to water as Mariko fought to brace herself.
But the creature did not attack.
It looked to one side, then back at her. Its yellow eyes glowed bright. It canted its head, as though glancing past her shoulder.
Run! a voice within Mariko cried out. Run, you silly little fool!
She inhaled, taking a slow step back.
Still the beast did not attack. It glanced again to the same side, then back at her, its growl rising in pitch and ferocity.
As though it was warning her.
Then—without another sound—the beast glided toward her. Like a ghost. Like a demon of the forest, flying on a whorl of black smoke.
Mariko’s scream tore through the night sky.
The creature disappeared in a whoosh of air. In a swirl of inky darkness.
“Well.” A gruff voice resonated from behind her. “Fortune has indeed smiled upon me tonight.”