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The Red Threads of Fortune

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The Red Threads of Fortune

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Author: Neon Yang
Publisher: Publishing, 2017
Series: Tensorate: Book 2
Book Type: Novella
Genre: Fantasy
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Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.

On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.


Chapter One

Killing the voice transmitter was an overreaction. Even Mokoya knew that.

Half a second after she had crushed the palm-sized device to a pulp of sparking, smoking metal, she found herself frantically tensing through water-nature, trying to undo the fatal blow. Crumpled steel groaned as she reversed her actions, using the Slack to pull instead of push. The transmitter unfolded, opening up like a spring blossom, but it was no use. The machine was a complex thing, and like all complex things, it was despairingly hard to fix once broken.

Mokoya might have stood a chance with a Tensor's invention, anything that relied on knots of slackcraft to manipulate objects in the material world. But this was a Machinist device. It worked on physical principles Mokoya had never learned and did not understand. Its shattered innards were a foreign language of torn wires and pulverized magnets. The transmitter lay dead on her wrist, Adi's strident voice never to squawk forth from it again.

"Cheebye," she swore. "Cheebye."

Mokoya repeated the expletive a third time, then a fourth and a fifth and a sixth, head bowed prayerfully over the transmitter's corpse as she swayed on her mount. Phoenix breathed patiently, massive rib cage expanding and deflating, while her rider recited swearwords until her heart stopped stuttering.

The desert wind howled overhead.

Finally Mokoya straightened up. Around her, the Gusai desert had been simplified to macrogeology by the moonlight: dunes and rock behind, canyon and cave in front. A thread of the Copper Oasis shone in the overlapping valleys before her. Sky and sand were blissfully, thankfully empty from horizon to horizon.

No naga. And if the fortunes were kind, she would not meet one before she returned to camp.

Scouting alone was a mistake. Mokoya knew that. The crew had followed a scattered, crooked trail of dead animals and spoor for a dozen sun-cycles, and it had brought them here. Experience told them that the naga's nest would be hidden in the canyon, with its warren of caverns carved out through the ages. The chance of a scouting party crossing paths with the beast while it hunted during the sundown hours was very real.

And yet Mokoya had convinced Adi to let her take Phoenix and the raptor pack to explore the sands east of the camp by herself. I'm a Tensor, she had said. I trained as a pugilist in the Grand Monastery. I can handle a naga, no matter how big. I'm the only one on this crew who can.

Unbelievably, she had said, I know what I'm doing. I'm not a madwoman.

Just as unbelievably, Adi had let her go. She had grumbled, "Ha nah ha nah, you go lah, not my pasal whether you die or not," but her expression plainly said she was doing this to prevent more quarreling and that she considered this a favor to Mokoya, one she intended to collect on. And so Mokoya had escaped into the cool darkness, the open sands imposing no small talk or judgment or obligation, free of all the things that might trigger her temper.

Now, barely an hour later, she had already destroyed the transmitter entrusted to her care. Even if she avoided encountering the naga, she still had to explain the transmitter's death.

She had no good excuses. She could lie and say it was done in anger, because Adi would not stop fucking calling to check whether she was still alive. But such violence was the hallmark of a petty and unstable woman, instead of a Tensor in full control of her faculties.

And what of the truth? Could she admit she had been startled by Adi's voice coming out of nowhere and had lashed out like a frightened animal?

No. Focus. This question could be answered later. Getting distracted by these neurotic detours had allowed shimmering pressure to sneak back into her chest. Mokoya shook her head, as if she could dislodge the unwanted thoughts and emotions.

Phoenix sympathetically swayed her massive head. Her head feathers rustled like a grass skirt. Perched on the giant raptor's back, Mokoya cooed and petted her as though she weren't a beast the size of a house, but a small child. Phoenix was a gentle, happy creature, but one wouldn't know it just looking at her. In cities, people scattered at her approach. Sometimes the scattering was accompanied by screaming. And sometimes Phoenix would think it was a game and chase them.

Mokoya avoided cities these days.

A hooting noise heralded the return of her raptor pack. A hundred yields ahead of Phoenix, the flat sandy ground dropped away and folded into a crevasse: the beginning of the steep, scrub-encrusted canyon that bordered the Copper Oasis. It was over this lip that Mokoya had sent the eight raptors on their hunt for quarry. They were really Adi's raptors, raised by the royal houses of Katau Kebang in the far south of the Protectorate's reach and trained in the arts of hunting any naga that strayed across the Demons' Ocean.

The first leapt into view and landed in a cloud of sand, tail held like a rudder for balance, teeth and claws splendid in the moonlight. They were exactly like Phoenix--narrow-headed, long-limbed, plumed in coruscating feathers--only differing in size (and in other aspects that Mokoya did not like to discuss). One by one they loped toward their giant sister and stood patiently at attention, their hot breaths a whistling symphony.

Nothing. The raptors had found nothing.

Mokoya's fingers tightened around Phoenix's reins. If she listened to common sense, it would tell her to return to camp immediately. It would tell her that lingering alone in a naga's territory with a dead communications device was tempting the fortunes. It would tell her that there were worse things in this forsaken world than having to fend off Adi's wrath, as if she didn't already know.

She whistled and sent the raptors farther east to comb through more of the valley.

As Phoenix slouched after the sprightly creatures, her clawed feet sinking deep into the sand, the weight of the dead transmitter pulled on Mokoya's left wrist, reminding her what a fool she was. Mokoya ignored it and reasoned with herself, running guilt-assuaging lines of thought through her head. This assignment was an abnormal one, and abnormal circumstances called for abnormal tactics. She was making the right move, plowing through unturned ground as fast as she could.

The sooner she found the naga's gravesent nest, the sooner they could get out of this blighted desert with its parched winds that could peel skin and blind the unwary. And that was the sooner Mokoya could get away from Bataanar and its web of things she did not want to get tangled up in.

Naga hunting was a specialty of Adi's crew. In the uncharted south past the Demons' Ocean lay the Quarterlands with their permissive half gravity, separated from the Protectorate by the claws of sea tempests that no ship with hoisted sails could cross. Megafauna lived there: crocodiles the size of ships, sloths the size of horses, horses the size of houses.

Above all, there were the naga. More lizard than serpent, they soared through the skies on wings of leather, bird boned and jewel toned. These were apex predators, graceful and deadly, inscribed into the journals of adventurers with the kind of reverence reserved for the gods of old. A single bite could cut a man in half.

But even gods had limits. When the storm winds caught unwary naga and tossed them across the Demons' Ocean, they turned ugly and ravenous, struggling against the newfound heaviness of their bodies. Full gravity ravaged them, sucked them dry of energy, turned their predator's hunger into a scything force of destruction. Mokoya had seen countrysides decimated and villages torn to shreds as they attacked and devoured anything that moved. The crew ran capture-and-release operations whenever they could, but over the two years Mokoya had worked for Adi, through dozens and dozens of cases, only twice had the naga been allowed to live.

And yet. The stupidity of humankind knew no bounds. Calls north of Jixiang meant an escaped pet, scarred by chains and fear. Smuggled eggs, hunting trophies, bribes from Quarterlandish merchants: the wealthy and privileged had many means of sating their lust for conquering the unknown. Naga raised in full gravity grew up malformed and angry, racked by constant pain, intractable once they had broken their bonds. Adi said that killing these creatures was a mercy. Mokoya thought it should have been the owners who were strung up.

Then there was this case. The Gusai desert lay in the high north, on the edge of the Protectorate's influence. There was nothing out here except hematite mines and a city to house the miners in: Bataanar. The naga they hunted hadn't come from here. The trail of reported sightings, breathless and disjointed, pointed a straight line toward the capital city, Chengbee. Between Bataanar and Chengbee stood a thousand li of mountains and barren wilderness, two days' travel for even the most determined flyer. And wild naga hunted in spirals, not straight lines. Straight lines were the precinct of creatures that knew their destination.

That was the first abnormality. The second was the naga's size. From the mouths of frightened citizens came reports of a beast three, six, ten times larger than anything they'd ever seen. One exaggeration could be excused by hyperbole, three could be explained as a pattern induced by fear, but two dozen meant some form of truth was buried in them. So--the creature was big, even for a naga. That implied it wasn't a wild capture, that something had been done to the beast.

The third abnormality wasn't about the naga. It was Bataanar itself. An ordinary citizen might consider it a humble mining city of a few thousand workers, watched over by a dozen Protectorate Tensors and the raja, who was answerable to the Protector. A Machinist would know that Mokoya's twin brother, Akeha, had turned the city into a base for the movement, a nerve center of the rebellion far from the Protectorate's influence. And an ordinary Tensor might not know anything about the tremors of power that rumbled under the foundations of the city, but a well-placed one would know that Raja Ponchak, the first raja of the city, had passed two years ago. And while Ponchak had been a Machinist sympathizer, her husband, Choonghey--the new raja in her stead--was not. Bataanar was a recipe for disaster, on the cusp of boiling over.

The fourth abnormality was not, in fact, an abnormality, but merely a rumor. A rumor of Tensor experiments in the capital: whispers about a group who had taken animals and grafted knots of Slack-connections--like human souls--onto their physical existences. The details of these rumors sent uncomfortable shivers of familiarity through Mokoya. She felt somehow culpable.

Putting these four things together, one could only guess that the naga they hunted was one of these unfortunate experiments, sent by the Protectorate to destroy Bataanar and cripple the Machinist rebellion. The fact that the creature was skulking around and killing desert rodents for sustenance lent credence to the idea that someone was controlling it. It was waiting for something.

Abnormal circumstances, Mokoya reminded herself. Abnormal tactics. She was being perfectly rational. Adi would agree with her on this. Or maybe Adi wouldn't. But Akeha would, her brother would, he would understand. Or Yongcheow. Or--

Mokoya exhaled shakily. Now was not the time. She had drifted from the present again. Pay attention. Focus on Phoenix, patient and rumbling under her. On the sand bluff the raptors had disappeared over. Focus on breathing.

Something was wrong. Her right arm hurt. An ache ran from the tip of her scale-sheathed fingers to the knitted edge of her shoulder, where the grafted skin yielded to scar tissue. Spun from lizardflesh, her arm called naga blood through the forest-nature of the Slack. Was the beast close by? Mokoya clenched her right hand. Tendons emerged in pebbled skin turned yellow by stress, but it didn't help.

She raised the hand into view, splaying the fingers like a stretching cat. Tremors ran through them. "Cheebye," she hissed at herself, as if she could swear herself into calmness.

Perhaps profanity was not the answer. Mokoya wet cracked lips and closed her eyes. Her mindeye expanded, the world turning into wrinkled cloth, each bump and fold representing an object. On top of that, like colored paper over a lantern, lay the Slack with its five natures.

There she was: Sanao Mokoya, a blaze of light spreading outward, a concentrated ball of connections to the Slack. Still human, despite everything. Under her was Phoenix, with her peculiar condition, unnatural brilliance garlanding her body. The raptor's massive bulk warped the fabric of the Slack. Farther out, over the cliff edge, raced the pinpoints of the raptors, tiny ripples in the Slack, running toward her--

Wait. Why were they coming back?

Mokoya's eyes flew open just as Phoenix barked in fear. She barely had time to seize the reins before her mount spun in the sand. "Phoenix--" she gasped.

The raptors burst over the bluff like a storm wave, chittering war cries.

A wall of air hit her from behind.

Moon and stars vanished. Phoenix reared, and Mokoya lost her grip. She fell. In the second between the lurch of her stomach and her back hitting the sand, there was a glimpse of sky, and this is what she saw: an eclipse of scaly white belly, wings stretched from end to end, red-veined skin webbed between spindly fingers.

Naga sun-chaser. Naga sun-eater.

Hitting ground knocked the wind out of Mokoya, but she had no time to register pain. The naga beat its wings, and sand leapt into her nose and mouth. The creature soared over the valley, long tail trailing after it.

Braying, Phoenix sprinted toward the canyon drop. The raptor pack followed.

"Phoenix!" Mokoya scrambled up, knees and ankles fighting the soft sand. Her reflexes struck; she tensed through water-nature and threw a force-barrier across the razor line of desert bluff. Nausea juddered through her as Phoenix bounced off the barrier, safe for now. Safe. The raptor pack formed a barking chorus along the edge.

As though a thick layer of glass stood between her and the world, Mokoya watched the shape of the naga descend into the canyon toward the caverns nestled within the far wall. Wings bigger than ships' sails, barbed tail like a whip, horned and whiskered head bedecked with iridescent scales. Creatures of that size turned mythical from a distance. Nothing living should have the gall to compete with cliff and mountain.

The naga spiraled downward and was swallowed by shadow, vanishing into valley fold and cavern roof. Gasping, Mokoya released her hold on water-nature, and the barrier across the sand bluff dissolved into nothing.

She sank to her knees, forehead collapsing against the cool sands. Great Slack. Great Slack. She was lucky to be alive. She was lucky to--It should have killed her. Maybe it wasn't hungry. It could have picked Phoenix off. It could have--

Her heart struggled to maintain its rhythm. How had she missed it? This shouldn't have happened. Even as a juvenile, a naga's bulk had enough pull to deform the Slack, stretching it like a sugar-spinner's thread. She should have felt it coming. She hadn't. She had been too distracted.

"Cheebye," she whispered. "Cheebye."

Her nerves were trying to suffocate her. This was pathetic. She was Sanao Mokoya. Daughter of the Protector, ex-prophet, former instigator of rebellion in the heart of the capital. She had passed through hellfire and survived. What was all her training for, all those years of honing her discipline, if the smallest, stupidest things--like a quarrel with her brother, for example--could bring her to ruin?

Still kneeling, she kept her eyes shut and moved her lips through a calming recitation. A last-resort tactic. The words she muttered were so familiar to her, they had been bleached of all meaning.

Remember you, bright seeker of knowledge, the First Sutra, the Sutra of Five Natures.

The Slack is all, and all is the Slack.

It knows no beginning and no end, no time and no space.

All that is, exists through the grace of the Slack. All that moves, moves through the grace of the Slack.

The firmament is divided into the five natures of the Slack, and in them is written all the ways of things and the natural world.

First is the nature of earth. Know it through the weight of mountains and stone, the nature of things when they are at rest;

Second is the nature of water. Know it through the strength of storms and rivers, the nature of things that are in motion;

Third is the nature of fire. Know it through the rising of air and the melt of winter ice, the nature of things that gives them their temperature;

Fourth is the nature of forests. Know it through the beat of your heart and the warmth of your blood, the nature of things that grow and live.

Fifth is the nature of metal. Know it through the speed of lightning and the pull of iron, the nature of things that spark and attract.

Know the ways of the five natures, and you will know the ways of the world. For the lines and knots of the Slack are the lines and knots of the world, and all that is shaped is shaped through the twining of the red threads of fortune.

It was a long spiel. So long that by the time her attention had slogged all the way to its odious end, her lungs had stopped trying to collapse upon themselves. Her head still hurt, lines of stress running from the crown to the joints of neck and shoulder, but her legs held when she stood.

Phoenix came and pressed her massive snout against Mokoya, whining in distress. "Shh," Mokoya said, palms gentle against the pebbled skin of the creature's nose. "Everything will be okay. I'm here. Nothing can hurt you."

The raptor pack circled them. They were almost as tall as Mokoya when dismounted. Unlike her, they seemed to be largely unaffected by the naga's passage.

Mokoya marked the spot where the beast had disappeared. She could spin this into a triumph. No more hunting, no more groping through unsympathetic desert searching for signs. She had found the naga's nest. And the best part of it: defying the reports they'd heard, the naga was average for its kind. They'd hunted bigger; they'd certainly captured bigger. This wasn't the otherworldly monstrosity Mokoya had been fearing. Adi's crew could definitely handle this one without problems.

Mokoya raised her left wrist to deliver the good news, then remembered what she'd done to the transmitter. Cheebye.

Wait. No. There was still the talker. How could she have forgotten?

Phoenix lowered herself to the sand at Mokoya's command. She reached into the saddlebag and rooted around until she collided with the talker's small round mass, the bronze hard and warm against her palm. Tensing through metal-nature infused the object with life-giving electricity. Its geometric lines lit up, plates separating into a loose sphere. Slackcraft. Mokoya turned the plates until they formed the configuration twinned with Adi's talker.

Several seconds passed. Adi's voice welled up from the glowing sphere. "Mokoya! Kanina--is that you or a ghost?"

"It's me, Adi. I'm not dead yet."

An annoyed noise, another expletive. "Eh, hello, I let you go by yourself doesn't mean you can ignore me, okay? What happened to Yongcheow's stupid machine?"

"Something," Mokoya demurred. "An accident." She leaned against Phoenix's warm, patient bulk. Get to the point. "Adi, I'm coming back. I found the nest. I did it, all right? I found the naga's nest."

Copyright © 2017 by Neon Yang


The Red Threads of Fortune

- spoltz


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