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One Night in December

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Mt. Kurama was not the highest of mountains in the land, nor was it the most majestic. It was, however, far enough from the capital and situated in such a way that it had a distinct air of isolation about it that kept all but the very fewest of people from venturing too close. The valley at its foot was the origin of both fire and water, a holy site revered by the imperial family since the beginning of time itself. The forest climbing its slopes was dense, continuing uninterrupted to its very summit, and those who dared to lived in its shadow had no shortage of tales of the strange, otherworldly creatures residing among the tangled branches therein.

On one particular occasion, as the full moon made its journey into the cloudless expanse of the sky, a certain boy slid open the outer door of Kurama Temple and escaped into the night.

This was not the first such adventure Shanao, as the boy was now called, had undertaken. Having resided in the temple as long as he could remember, he was no stranger to the ebb and flow of mysterious energies that permeated the area. And being at a particularly troublesome stage of life, he hadn’t the slightest compunction following his curiosity wherever it might take him, consequences be damned. Indeed, there were many nights when the constant restlessness within him became too great to endure, forcing him outside and deep into the forbidding forest.

This night, however, that compulsion was unlike any other that had come before it. It was so strong, in fact, that he had the urge to do so, he would have been powerless to resist. It was fortunate for Shanao, then, that he had no such designs.

He moved through the forest almost completely silently, his footsteps impossibly light. So familiar was he with the mountain that it was nothing at all for him to avoid the tangled masses of tree roots, even covered as they were with freshly fallen snow. He darted between trees, passing a small spring as he made his way upward, driven forward by an imperceptible, yet monstrous force.

As the moon climbed to its apex in the brilliant night sky, so did Shinao reach the summit of the mountain. With nowhere left to go, he stood for a moment, head thrown back as he gazed into the heavens. He wished for a moment that it were somehow possible for him to take flight, continuing his journey upwards until the world disappeared from around him and there was nothing but wide, open space.

A sharp rustle of branches drew his attention back downward, just in time to see a creature descending from the trees beside him. Enormous wings, darker than any ink, spanned out on either side of its enormous form. Its face was in shadows, but Shanao could make out the shape of a long, hideous beak protruding from the tattered cloth shrouding the figure. It occurred to him that he should likely be afraid, terrified even, at the way it towered over him.

Tengu. And by the looks of it, not just any tengu either. As sure as he knew his own name, Shanao knew that this was Soujoubou, King of the Tengu. Any other human would have feared for his life; however, the thrill that raced down Shanao’s spine hadn’t the slightest bit to do with fear.

A voice, soft in the depths of his mind, whispered that perhaps this is what he had been searching for, all this time.

“What do they call you, boy?” The voice that cut through the silence of the night was deep and gravely.

“I am known as Shanao, of Kurama Temple,” he replied, the light tones of his own voice a sharp contrast.

So focused was he on taking in every detail of the creature before him that the bow that followed was unforgivably sloppy, much too shallow and lacking the deference owed to one so great and terrifying. Soujoubou, however, seemed to pay this no heed. In fact, he remained as silent as the forest around them, allowing the boy to gaze upon him as he wished.

Shanao, with the same quickness of wit that had earned him a reputation of nuisance at the temple, came to the abrupt realization that all was not as it appeared. And with that particular rashness that can only accompany a sharp, untempered intellect, he stepped forward and closed the distance between them.

The enormous figure towered over him, dark and foreboding. Shanao reached out, the loose fabric of his coat falling back to reveal a slight, delicate wrist, and ran his fingers gently over the rigid feathers at the very tip of one of the wings. Then, faster almost than the eye could detect, he reached up and grabbed the joint, twisting his fingers to snap the pieces apart with a loud, wooden crack that echoed in the space around them, despite the thick blanket of snow.

Soujoubou would have killed any other being on the spot, human or otherwise, painting a gruesome masterpiece with their life’s blood in the snow. He, and those who had come before him, had been feared for good reason. Today, however, was not a day for bloodshed. He had heard rumors of the boy’s precociousness and was in fact pleased to discover they were entirely founded; it would make things so very much more interesting.

“I thought so,” Shanao said with an unexpected confidence, his eyes darting away to watch the feathers he’d shaken loose fall lazily toward the ground. “They’re not real,” It was accusation and a question. The more he examined the figure before him, the more apparent it became that this was no tengu at all---

“None of this is real.”

“No,” Soujoubou confirmed, “none of it at all.” He reached up and pulled off his mask, revealing deep pockmarks and a stern, forbidding countenance. From the wings to the beaked mask concealing the man’s true face, it was all a façade. Soujoubou was as human as Shanao himself.

A silence stretched out between them, as cold as the night air.

“Why?” Shanao finally asked.

“The King of Tengu is expected to be monstrous, is he not?” Indeed, it was a widely-accepted fact that tengu were hideous, fearsome beasts.

“You’re a man,” Shanao countered.

“I am,” Soujoubou replied. “But I am also the King of Tengu. And as such

“You’re fairly monstrous without all of this.” He reached out and ran his fingers across the feathers of the broken wing again.

At that, Soujoubou burst into laughter, the sound so terrible it shook the very mountain upon which they stood.

“Expectations are powerful things,” he explained. “They have the ability to shape the very reality around us.”

“Why would you want to do that?” To Shanao, who had spent his entire life immersed in Buddhist teachings, such a thing was entirely beyond his frame of reference.

“There are some men who were born to achieve a great purpose.” There was a perceptible shift in the energy of the mountain, one that prickled across Shanao’s skin and raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

“Are you one of them?” he whispered.

"Oh yes.” Soujoubou placed an enormous hand on his shoulder, dwarfing the slender frame. “And so are you.”

“Me?” Shanao went still under the firm pressure, the ever-present need for movement that tormented him day and night extinguished in an instant. The King of Tengu certainly would have a purpose, but Shanao himself?

“My purpose is to give you yours. And it all begins here, with a story.”

“A story?”

“An epic tale of two families at war … and the greatest hero the world will ever see.”