It was a harrowing climb to the high school. Eight hundred twenty-one steps. Mamoru had counted one time on his way up—no easy feat while focusing on not toppling off the side of a mountain. For most fourteen-year-old fighters, the winding way up to the school was a true test of nerve and agility, but Mamoru, with his springy legs and boundless energy, woke each morning looking forward to the challenge.
“Mamoru!” his friends panted from the steps far below him. “Not so fast!”
Itsuki and Yuuta had to take the steep path to the school because they lived in the western village, further down the mountain. Mamoru’s family compound was built high enough that he could have taken an easier way if he chose, but Matsudas weren’t known for taking the easy way to anything. He rose every day before dawn, amid the chanting of crickets, so he could make the loop down the mountain toward the western village and tackle the steep climb with his friends.
“You two are too slow!” Mamoru called back. “We don’t want to be late!”
“We’re not going to be late,” Itsuki called in exasperation from the mist below. “Just wait up! Please!”
“Fine, fine.” Mamoru lowered himself to the rock ledge and sat, letting his feet hang over the edge. It had still been dark when the three boys began their climb, but by now, morning had seeped through the veil of fog to touch the rock face with its pale brushstrokes. It was rarely possible to see the base of the mountain from the Kumono steps. Beneath Mamoru’s dangling legs, there was only mist, rolling in slow waves against the cliff side, growing gradually brighter with the sunrise.
The moment Itsuki and Yuuta dragged themselves over the ridge where Mamoru was perched, he grinned and got to his feet.
“Finally!” he said. “Are you two ready to keep up now?”
“Are you kidding?” Yuuta gasped, doubling over to catch his breath.
“You’re a monster!” Itsuki groaned.
Mamoru slapped each of them on the back. “I’ll wait for you at the school,” he said cheerfully and took off up the mountain.
His toes knew each ledge, each jutting rock, and he took the steepest part of the path in swift, confident bounds, skipping six steps at a time. He had just rounded the last curve when his feet slowed. There was a figure hunched over in the fog up ahead, a boy clinging hard to the rock wall as he panted for breath. Mamoru wouldn’t have thought much of it—there were dozens of students who climbed these steps each morning—but this boy’s clothing wasn’t right. Instead of Kumono blue, he wore a modern-looking black uniform Mamoru had never seen before.
Read the Japanese-inspired epic that Fantasy Book Review and Novel Notions have counted among their best of 2019!
“Fantasy and martial arts aficionados alike should enjoy this emotionally supercharged novel about love and loss, which pierces readers’ hearts with the precision of a samurai’s razor-sharp blade.” – Blue Ink ★ Starred Review
“Highly imaginative… Intricate and original.” – Kirkus Review
“The Poppy War’s darkness meets The Last Airbender’s Elemental Magic… I haven’t been so emotionally moved by a book in a long while.” -JC Kang, USA Today bestselling author of The Dragon Songs Saga
“[A]n engaging work of high fantasy… compelling and rife with magic and heartbreak.” – Foreword Clarion
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