By Emil Terziev
The rays of the early morning sun applied gentle but persistent pressure to Kinzoku’s eyelids, making her face twitch. By reflex in her resting state, she brought her left hand up to scratch it. The stretching box hit her instead, jolting her out of her sleep with a sharp pain. The girl rubbed her forehead against her shoulder to dull it, and let out a light giggle. It wasn’t the first time she’d delivered an accidental blow to her own head in the morning.
She looked out the window and tried to guess the time by the position of the sun’s disk relative to the Hakkoda mountains to the East. It was barely an hour after sunrise. It was not often that one of the servants would part the drapes and let the sun wake Kinzoku this early in the day. There must be news of approaching forces. Today would be a preparation day.
Kinzoku reached out to the small bell on her bedside table and struck it with the stretching box wrapped around her right hand, as if using a mallet. The bell emanated a sound much bigger than its size, effortlessly reaching the ears of the servants in the help’s quarters. Footsteps as light as the sun’s morning rays approached the room, and a screen at one end slid open. Kinzoku’s primary caregiver Kana entered, followed by two young women, no more than twice Kinzoku’s age. The younger pair wore kimonos with long sleeves painted as exotic plumage, which flapped through the air like wings while they walked.
Kana assumed a stoic position at the foot of the girl’s bed, using her body to emphasize the importance of the day. She could not make light of an impending invasion. However, neither could she completely tame her affection for the child, so she began with her usual warm “Ohayou gozaimasu, Kinzoku.”
“Ohayou, Kana! The sun shines bright this morning.” Kinzoku looked at the cloudless sky out the window, then back at the statuesque woman. “But your mood is dark, it shades. Am I correct to think we are expecting?”
Kana gestured for the two servants to approach the bed, one on either side. Kinzoku was familiar with the morning routine, having lived it almost daily for all ten years of her life. She spread her arms sideways like a bird, placing her wood-encased hands on the laps of the servants.
“We are expecting indeed. A city-state on the other side of the mountain has learned of the heat ore located in the depths below Tori. They are not an easily satiable state. They often need to kill in the name of conquest, and they seem to know how well the heat ore can kill.”
While she spoke, the servants began to remove the stretching boxes. They carefully undid the latches that held the two sides of the molds together, releasing the child’s hands from their overnight prisons. The stretching boxes had gone through many iterations as the girl grew, each of which would have seemed impossibly grotesque mere months before it was deemed necessary. The wood was meant to constrict bone growth in certain places and encourage it in others, with the current result being fingers at least twice as long as the palm itself, and thin like sprigs of spring onion. They moved with autonomy, ten wiggling worms able to manipulate ten distinct objects simultaneously. They were capable of folds of unparalleled precision and miniscule size, almost imperceptible to a human eye. And they were needed. The more powerful shapes were simply out of reach for those unwilling to mold both life and body to the art.
Though young, Kinzoku was well-versed in what she was protecting. “Are they not aware of the warnings? The ancestors etched them into the rock above the deposits for a reason. They will lose thousands of their own before they even learn how to handle the ore safely. Even we, its guardians, dare not approach it.” As the girl spoke, the servants rubbed her liberated fingers, and rolled them in their hands like dough. The blood flow in the fingers had progressively diminished over the night from the pressure of the stretching boxes, leaving them a sickly white. The friction of the massage invited blood to flow freely again, and returned a rose tint to her flesh.
“If they are aware of the ore, I am sure they are aware of the warnings from the past associated with it. I suppose they feel they have men to spare in learning to handle it. They certainly don’t seem to expect any casualties in seizing Tori, considering we don’t even have the seedlings of an army to greet theirs.” It was a false confidence all past aggressors had shared. Memories of the previous attempted attacks on Tori made Kana smile. Kinzoku shared the smile coincidentally; the conversation had triggered those same memories in her own mind’s eye. Their art, which far preceded their settlement over the ore, made them more than suitable for their role as its guardians.
Kana’s mouth left the smile first, when she noticed one of the servant women pulling out the relief knives. She would never stay to watch this part of the preparation. “I should leave you be now, Kinzoku. We expect them to arrive two mornings from the current. Today we shall prepare the body, tomorrow the paper. Thank you, Kinzoku. Sayonara.” Kana hugged the girl and exited the room, not to see her again for two entire days.
The servants peeled a Yuzu fruit and squeezed the citric acid onto the tips of Kinzoku’s fingers to disinfect them. The fingers needed to at least partially heal before she’d have to start folding tomorrow, so cleanliness was crucial in order to avoid infection. One of the women rolled up the Yuzu rinds into a fibrous bundle, and offered it to Kinzoku, who placed it in her mouth and clenched her jaw around it. The servants began cutting.
Kinzoku’s molded fingers were the perfect shape for manipulation of the paper, but her skin was still youthful, too smooth. It lacked the grip and roughness that the relief of long-lived-in skin provided. She could not afford to have paper slipping through her fingers, as even small mistakes could invalidate hours of careful folding. That was the purpose of the relief knives. The servants used them to slash hundreds of tiny grooves into Kinzoku’s fingertips. They then slowly and carefully peeled the top layer of skin between each two adjacent grooves, creating indented flesh valleys running through the skin. The process was draining and the pain intense. It stretched a day to geological timescales in Kinzoku’s mind, and she felt like a canyon being shaped by the chisels of winds and waters.
The systematic erosion of the child’s skin lasted until midnight. Despite the stress on the body, Kinzoku was not allowed to eat any food to replenish her strength. The final ingredient to help produce her perfect creations required that she drink nothing but honeysuckle nectar for an entire day before folding. It would saturate her body with resin-like liquid which would leak from her fingertips and act as a light adhesive on the paper, fortifying folds and augmenting the overall structural integrity. Dozens of servants had been collecting the nectar all morning drop by drop from individual flowers, worker bees in service to queen bee Kinzoku. She drank glass after glass of it as the day progressed. By the time the carving was complete, she was already asleep and did not notice the servants leave her room. Even in dream she knew how perfectly prepared she was now, rough fingers already healing, skin shining with a uniform oily film.
Kinzoku was awoken by the song of birds outside her window. As usual, they sensed the folding ahead of time. Some even seemed eager to participate in what would soon transpire. The girl tried to tell time again using her sun-and-mountain clock. This time, she noticed a cancerous black spot at the top of the Hakkoda mountains. She stared at it quietly and saw it descend like a viscous drop of tar, slowly spoiling the beautiful scenery in its path. The opposing army had crossed the mountain at night and were now climbing down the summit on the side nearest the Tori city-state. Judging by how wide the dark spot appeared from even such a great distance, Kinzoku estimated that the frontline was at least a thousand soldiers wide. The child felt her confidence drop. None of her creations had warded off such a large-scale invasion before. She would have to take a risk and use untested modifications.
She glanced at the sliding door and saw that Kana had already slid a stack of paper underneath it. The servants and she would not be entering the room today. Their mere presence could ruin a perfectly balanced creation, be it due to their extra body heat melting the honeysuckle resin, or their excited breaths flapping a fold when it really needed to be still.
Kinzoku picked up the paper. It was made of the bark of gampi shrubs. It was thin and see-through, other than the narrow threads of silver metal that were woven through it in a special pattern.
There were many flat surfaces in the room that could serve as good folding tables. Kinzoku decided on a small wooden desk near the east-facing window, but out of the sun’s rays. She wanted the view of the approaching army to be within her eyes’ reach, to serve as a visual reminder of her dwindling time reserve. She ran her hand over the top sheet of paper on the pile, and instantly discarded it. She examined the next three in a similar fashion and made the same decision. While examining the fifth, it stuck to her palm and chose her.
Kinzoku’s serpentine fingers began folding. She took minutes to complete even the initial, simplest folds. She made careful measurements several times before making the irreversible creases. The talons, the beak, the tail, and most of the body only took a couple of hours to complete. They were purposefully crude, only a vessel for the wings. The wings were Kinzoku’s specialty, the reason why she had been entrusted with the position of folder. She created thousands of individual feathers, each barely held to the body by thin strands of paper. A moderate shake would sever the delicate attachments and cause them to molt. Kinzoku decided to experiment with the outermost layer of the feathers on the wings. She used her fingers to fold the paper over and over like a swordsmith making a katana. She folded each outer feather sixteen times, making them painfully sharp to the slightest touch, and tough to break.
Just before sunrise, Kinzoku’s work came to an end. From her window she could see that the incoming army was now pouring through the trees of the forest that surrounded Tori. They had made the final stretch of their trek in record time. Their metal armor reflected the last of the moonlight as they moved. Hopefully Kinzoku’s metal would be stronger. She opened the window, and held the bird she had constructed in her cupped hands. The girl blew a gentle wind at the paper wings, and her creation departed on a waving air current. The birds that had sung her out of sleep the prior morning now flew in the air above the forest like a cloud of soot. As soon as they saw their paper counterpart, they started following it in formation, filling the sky with screams almost as loud as those that were about to come from the invaders. Birds, live and paper, disappeared over the horizon.
The trees of the forest, previously still, picked up a sudden gust of wind with their leaf sails, and began rocking violently. A large mass of air was gushing in from the direction that Kinzoku’s bird had migrated to. The silhouette of her bird rematerialized on the horizon, returning from its trip. It seemed unchanged at first, but as it got closer, the rising sun threw light at it and created a shadow dozens of trees wide. It stopped in the air just over the warriors minutes before they had reached the gates of the city-state, casting its silhouette over them and obscuring the sun. It began to flap its enormous metal wings.
The first warrior to look up and see the bird had no time to react before one of the smaller metal feathers pierced his eye socket and lodged in his brain. He collapsed with a violent cry. The others immediately tried throwing spears and shooting arrows at the bird. Few had the strength to reach the necessary height, even fewer could put a dent in the hovering metal.
The feathers that Kinzoku had so freely attached to the body of her origami creation shook loose with each wing flap, raining metal on the army, ranging in size from a small sword to a small human. The smaller feathers sliced limbs, faces, dignities. Under their weight, they accelerated to speeds great enough to pierce both armor and skull. The bigger feathers fell erratically, often turning sideways before they reached the ground. They flattened people into human puddles, leaking internal organs from every orifice. By the time every loose feather had molted, over half the men were liquid, seeping into the soil.
But there were those that survived the onslaught of feathers. More than enough of them to seize Tori yet. Kinzoku felt fortunate. Had she not made her modifications, she would have failed her city. The reinforced feathers that she had sharpened into blades at the tips of the wings had resisted the shedding. The giant bird started circling the air above the living soldiers and gaining velocity. After tracing several large circles, it dove beak-first, letting gravity provide a final speed boost.
Just before it impacted the earth, it spread its razor-sharp wings fully and turned, flying perfectly parallel with the ground about a meter above it. It headed straight for what was left of the army and crossed it back and forth several times, meeting little resistance from the armor. Torsos slid off of hipbones and dripped intestines as they fell. Legs remained upright supported by leg armor, but terminated just above the groin in a perfect surgical incision. Like worms dividing, the wings had split all into halves. Unlike worms, they would neither continue to live in their new state, nor would they deserve to.
The bird had exhausted whatever force had given it power, and fell to the ground, disintegrating into a pile of tree pulp and metal string. All around it lay the limbs of thousands. The ground had quickly saturated with blood and most of the plasma floated above it, unable to soak through. Here and there in the sea of red, hearts and livers floated among their previous owners. There was slight movement in some of the bodies, but their mauled condition implied it was only cadaveric spasms.
Kana entered the room and joined Kinzoku at the window. They celebrated a silent victory in each other’s presence. The victory was not in the death of the enemy.
Emil Terziev is a student in Astrophysics, with a lifelong passion for horror, fantasy, and science fiction that couldn’t be contained anymore. He started writing short stories two years ago and started working on making short films a year later.