Read Crane Online

Authors: Jeff Stone

Tags: #General, #Speculative Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Animals

Crane (2 page)

BOOK: Crane
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Hok spread her arms wide and let the warm, rising air lift her into the night sky. She welcomed the familiar feeling and soon found herself soaring through the darkness, circling higher and higher. Yet no matter how high she flew, she couldn't escape the smoke. It burned her eyes and obscured her vision.
She had no choice but to descend once more. Maybe she could somehow fly around the trouble.

Below her, the Cangzhen compound came into view again. Through the smoky haze, Hok saw the outlines of a hundred fallen monks. She was as powerless to help them now as she had been during the attack. She frowned, and continued on.

Hok headed for Cangzhen's main gates and saw her former brother Ying just beyond them, his carved dragon face contorted into an angry scowl. Grandmaster was with Ying, and so was her brother Fu. Hok watched as Ying cut Fu's cheek with his chain whip, then blasted a large hole clear through Grandmaster's upper body with a
qiang.

Hok shuddered and blinked, and Ying disappeared like mythical dragons were rumored to do. Fu ran away, and Grandmaster slumped to the ground.

Behind her, Hok heard her youngest brother, Malao, giggle. She glanced back, but saw no sign of him. Instead, she caught a glimpse of a monkey demon dancing across a burning rooftop—

What is going on?
Hok wondered. She had had strange, vivid dreams before, but never one quite like this. Everything was so clear and so … violent.

The images got worse.

Hok saw Grandmaster suddenly stand, streams of smoke drifting in and out of the bloody hole in his chest. He glanced up at Hok soaring overhead, and his wrinkled bald head tumbled off his shoulders.

Hok shuddered again. She had had enough. She
wanted to wake up. She pinched herself—and felt it— but nothing changed. She was still gliding on smoky currents of air. She felt as if she were asleep and awake at the same time.

Perhaps the smoke had something to do with it. If she could just get away from the smoke, maybe she could find a way to wake up. Hok glided beyond the tree line, skimming the treetops. She flew as low as possible, hoping that the drifting smoke would rise above her.

She hadn't gotten very far into the forest when she passed over a large hollow tree and caught a glimpse of herself burying Grandmaster's headless body inside it. Curious, Hok landed on a nearby limb and watched herself finish the job, then drift off to sleep inside the tree.

As Hok stared through the smoky darkness, she saw a soldier with the head of a mantis sneak into the tree hollow and sprinkle something over her sleeping face.

She had been drugged. That was why she was having trouble waking up.

With this realization came a dizzying sensation. Part of Hok's mind raced back to her lessons with Grandmaster concerning certain types of mushroom spores and different plant matter that, if inhaled, could put a person into a dreamlike fog for days on end. Hok grew certain that she was now only half-asleep, which meant that she was half-awake. She made a conscious effort to pull herself into the
waking world, and the smoke around her began to thin.

At the same time, Hok watched the soldier's impossible insect head in her dream. It transformed from that of a mantis into that of a man, and she recognized him. His name was Tonglong. He was Ying's number one soldier. Hok watched Tonglong lift her unconscious body and carry it out of the tree hollow.

Hok spread her arms in her dream and leaped into the air, following Tonglong. She glanced down and saw that two soldiers were now carrying her unconscious body along a trail. She was bound and hanging from a pole like a trophy animal.

Hok blinked and the scene below changed. She was now unbound, having a conversation in the forest with Fu, Malao, and a … tiger cub?

Hok blinked again, and a stiff breeze rose out of nowhere. It whisked the remaining smoke away, and the images went with it.

When the breeze stopped, Hok felt herself begin to tumble from the sky. She pinched herself again.

This time, she opened her eyes.

Hok found herself facedown on the muddy bank of a narrow stream. The earth was cool and moist, but the midday sun overhead warmed her bare feet and the back of her aching head. She raised her long, bony fingers to the top of her pounding temples and felt something she hadn't felt in years: hair. It was little more than stubble and caked with mud, but it was undeniable.

How long have I been asleep?
Hok wondered.
Where am I?

She lifted her head and her vision slowly gained focus. So did her other senses.

Hok twitched. She wasn't alone.

“You've been drugged,” a voice purred from overhead. “Let me help you.”

Hok looked into a nearby tree and her eyes widened. Lounging on a large limb was a lean bald man in an orange monk's robe. The man raised his bushy eyebrows and leaped to the ground with all the grace and nimbleness of a leopard. He approached Hok with smooth, confident strides.

“Dream Dust, I'm guessing,” the man said. “If so, you'll be feeling the effects on and off for days. It's powerful stuff. It blurs the line between dreams and reality.”

Hok stared, unblinking, at the man. If she remembered her training correctly, Dream Dust was derived from the pods of poppy flowers. Powerful stuff, indeed.

“My name is Tsung,” the man offered. “It's Mandarin for
monk.
A simple name for a simple man. I am from Shaolin Temple originally, but I live outside the temple now among regular folk. Hence, my name.”

Hok continued to stare.

“You don't say much, do you?” Tsung said. He stopped several paces from her, keeping a respectful distance. “That's just as well. I'll tell you what I know. I spied on your captors, Major Ying and Tonglong, for
quite some time. I make a habit of keeping an eye on things in this region. I had a feeling you were something special, even before I realized you were from Cangzhen. And once I overheard them discussing the fact that you were a girl, well, let's just say that I was doubly impressed. For fighters as skilled as Ying and Tonglong to go to such lengths to bind and drug such a young captive, that's extraordinary.”

Hok glanced at her wrists and ankles. They were raw and coated with dried blood, but she didn't feel a thing. The Dream Dust must be numbing the pain.

Tsung nodded at her. “Interesting outfit you're wearing. It appears large enough to fit a grown man.”

Hok looked at her oversized robe and ill-fitting orange pants. She'd always worn clothes that were too large, in preparation for the days when loose clothes would better hide her gender. It seemed that didn't matter anymore. She shrugged. She didn't know what to say.

“You really
aren't
doing so well, are you?” Tsung asked.

Hok shook her head. The movement made her dizzy, and her vision began to tunnel.

“I'm taking you to Shaolin,” Tsung said. “I have a horse nearby, and we will be there in no time. I'll take care of you.” He flashed a toothy grin, and Hok sensed something beneath the surface. Something sinister. He took a step toward her.

Hok formed a crane-beak fist with her right hand, bunching the tips of all four fingers together and pressing them tightly against the tip of her thumb.

Tsung's smile faded. “A crane stylist?” he said. “I should have guessed.”

Hok didn't offer a response.

“They say Dream Dust allows the user to see into the hearts of others,” Tsung said. “Do you think this is true?”

Hok didn't respond. The world around her was growing hazy as if smoke was drifting over her eyes. She felt her crane-beak fist loosen, her fingers relaxing into a limp open hand.

“Very interesting,” Tsung purred, his feline grin returning. “Since it appears as though you're about to drift away again, I'll let you in on a little secret. My brothers at Shaolin no longer trust me, either. In fact, they haven't let me into the compound in years. However, that is all about to change. You shall be my ticket in. The ticket for me, and a few thousand of my closest friends.”

“O
pen the gate!” Tsung shouted into the darkness two nights later. “A young monk needs help.”

Shaolin's great front gate remained closed. No one replied.

Tsung shook his bald head and climbed off his horse, taking care to make sure Hok's unconscious body remained steadily draped across his horse's back. He untied a small pack from the horse and slung it over one shoulder. Then he slung Hok over his other shoulder and walked up the stone steps toward the gate, which was fashioned like two giant wooden doors. The doors stood higher than two men were tall, and surrounding the door frame was a gigantic brick wall, painted bright red. Set into the
wall on either side of the doorway was a huge circular hole filled with intricate wooden latticework. Tsung was certain someone was peeking out through the circle on the right.

Tsung approached the huge doors and kicked them hard enough to echo on the far side. “The monk in need of care is from Cangzhen,” he shouted. “A girl. You don't want her death on your shoulders, do you?”

Tsung waited for a reply. He got none. He kicked the doors again.

“Go away,” a firm voice said through the latticework.

“No,” Tsung replied. “Open up. I am alone. The night sky is overcast, but I am certain you can see well enough to know I speak the truth.”

“We cannot afford to take any chances by letting strangers or questionable guests inside,” the voice said. “Least of all you. There are soldiers about. We believe troops are gathering in the area. You might be part of it.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Tsung said. “I am alone, and the girl is unconscious. Come see for yourself.”

The person behind the latticework shuffled over to the great doors, and after a series of bolts were disengaged, one of the doors opened a crack.

Tsung took two steps back, and the door opened farther. An elderly monk poked his bald, wrinkled head out. He scowled at Tsung.

Tsung raised his bushy eyebrows and glanced at Hok hanging over his shoulder.

The old monk sighed and approached Tsung, reaching out to touch Hok's face. He lifted first one eyelid, then the other. “Dream Dust,” he said.

Tsung nodded. “That's what I think, too. It was Major Ying's doing. He and his number one soldier, Tonglong. They destroyed Cangzhen, you know.”

“So I've heard.”

“This girl might have information about the attack,” Tsung said. “I have information to share, too. I did some spying on Major Ying and Tonglong.”

“I am more concerned about healing this child,” the old monk said. “What is in this for you?”

“You know how I feel about Major Ying. If he shows up here and attempts to destroy Shaolin like he did Cangzhen, I want you to crush him. My information will help you. I'm assuming hers will, too.”

The old monk ran a hand over Hok's robe. “She does appear to be from Cangzhen. Their robes are noticeably different from ours. It seems I will have to trust you. I will call a meeting immediately. Take the girl to the female guest quarters at the back of the main dormitory and meet me in the banquet hall. She will stay with us as long as she wishes, but you will not. You will leave as soon as the meeting has concluded.”

Tsung nodded and shifted Hok to his other shoulder. “I will make sure the girl is comfortable before joining you. It shouldn't take long.”

“You're right,” the old monk replied. “It shouldn't take you long at all. People will be watching you
throughout the compound. Once you step inside, you will be locked in with more than a thousand warrior monks. Do not attempt anything foolish.”

Tsung waved one hand casually. “I wouldn't dream of it.”

The old monk stared hard at Tsung. “Come inside, then. The sooner you are out of here, the better.”

H
ok woke with a start from a long, deep sleep. She was nauseous and her head ached. She sat up in a strange bed and rubbed her weary eyes.

She found herself in one corner of a very dark room. Only a few stray rays of moonlight crept in through old wooden shutters, but Hok swore she saw tendrils of smoke in the air. Was she dreaming again? She didn't think so. She glanced around for clues to her whereabouts and saw nothing of significance. However, as her other senses began to clear, she started to hear and even smell things that made her heart race.

BOOK: Crane
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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