CHAPTER 2, Part 2
“He was your Captain, wasn’t he?” Despite her lingering fear of the wolf’s true nature, Naole found herself leaning forward, clutching her hands in her lap and swishing her tail back and forth with interest. She barely even noticed Legion next to her, studying her carefully and copying her pose down to the smallest detail. She couldn’t help but be reminded of all the heroic tales Zero had read to her as a kit… Her mind burned with the need to learn more.
“That he was,” smiled the old wolf, his gaze far away. “I was one of the first he picked for Squad 13. He chose me, a ferret named Mica… Mica was essentially his partner-in-crime, they did everything together… There was our medic, a badger named Apple, an Order Knight, and…”
“And who?” said Naole eagerly.
<Who? Who? Who?> signed Legion.
The answer came not from the old wolf, but from Nadeshiko. “Her,” she said simply. “The female that you fell in love with.”
Naole grinned wide and almost squealed; this was even better than she had hoped for. “You were in love… so there was another wolf on the-”
“No,” said Drake. Long shadows fell over his ancient face. “I was the only wolf ever inducted into the Order.”
“But then… Oh Gods.” All the excitement left Naole at once, and the grin slid off her face. Slowly her tail went limp, dropping to the floor behind her as she realized. “She was-”
“A vixen.” The skunk’s tone was even, cold as stone but free of scorn or anger. “You and she lived together as mates, did you not?”
Drake turned away from them, away from the morning light slowly seeping in through the windows. “It’s been a long night, we all need sleep. Go rest, and I’ll tell you what happened next after you wake up.” The icy bitterness in his voice made it clear he was through talking for now.
Naole started to reach for him, thought better of it, and put an arm around Legion instead. “He’s… he’s right. Legion, let’s go.”
The hybrid frowned and tilted his head as he signed. <Legion doesn’t understand.>
“What don’t you understand?”
<Oyaji and vixen were in love, yes? Love is a good thing! Why everyone make faces?>
“Oh, Legion…” Naole swallowed heavily.
“What did it-” Nadeshiko shook her head and corrected herself… not something she would have done normally, but right now things were tense enough without inviting an argument. “What did he say?”
Gingerly, Naole helped her to her feet, with Legion following suit. “Easy, Milady, there you go. Legion… Legion doesn’t understand. About foxes and wolves, and… and that.”
The bluntness made Naole cringe. “Right. We… we know of a wolfox who lives out here, she helped us for a while, and I sort of tried to explain back then, but-”
<Naole all right? Made a strange face.>
“Don’t worry, I’m savvy. Come on, let’s get Milady some proper herbs for her neck before we all lie down…”
“That is not necessary, Takaichi, I am more than capable of-”
“With all due respect, Milady, shush.” With that, Naole pushed her toward the bathroom, where their meager medical supplies were kept.
<Shush! Shush!> Smiling brightly, Legion helped push as well, ignoring the skunk’s protests… but before they left the den, he cast another glance back at the old wolf, sitting there alone and lost in memories as the sun rose, throwing him into silhouette. In all Legion’s short life, he had never seen anyone look so sad.
Zero truly hated traveling by boltpath, but he recognized that sometimes it was necessary. Whatever transport magic Drake had used when Naole had been abducted months ago was a little better… becoming thin and intangible in a cloud of mist was unpleasant, but at least it was over quickly. None of this compared to Renubis’s sand spell, however. As he whirled at dizzying speeds past things he couldn’t begin to identify, his consciousness suspended amid the tornado of a million tiny fragments that made up his body, the part of him that wasn’t screaming in terror vowed never to complain about boltpath stones again, not if this was the jackal’s idea of an alternative.
The tornado stopped spinning and coalesced, all the particles of sand leaping back together at once, and the buck saw the snowy ground hurling up at him… There was still a heavy weight in his arms; Hanami was still with him, thank the Gods. Without thinking, he twisted his body in midair as he fell, keeping her upright as his body crashed into the snow drift. It wasn’t as deep as it looked, and didn’t serve as much of a cushion; he felt his shoulder nearly dislocate from the impact with the frozen forest floor. He supposed he was lucky he still had a shoulder, and that he and Hanami both felt reasonably whole and intact, with no small pieces lost between here and the Silver Order’s temple…
A shadow loomed over them, a shadow that smiled with far too many gleaming white teeth. “Well, Takaichi? We have arrived.”
Zero gently nudged Hanami to one side and looked up. The three of them were in front of a massive, circular building, thirty feet across, built of black stone and overgrown with vines of thorny black roses, inexplicably still in full bloom despite the winter chill… the chill that was quickly seeping through his bare, wet fur and into his bones. He blinked in confusion. “The B-B-Black Rose T-Tower…?”
“Of course,” said Renubis, the pride evident in his deep, rumbling voice. “It was to be my palace, after all. Where else would we go? Back to my crypt? I think not.” He knelt and reached for the doe. “Come, give the girl to me. I shall tend to her.”
Zero sat up abruptly, shedding snow from his fur. His arms tightened around Hanami’s limp body, still wrapped in his bloodstained jacket. “N-no.” He tried and failed to keep his teeth from chattering.
“Time is of the essence, young buck. Give her to me.”
“No. L-like hell I’m letting her go, she d-did this for me… I’m the reason she’s hurt!”
“Really, Takaichi, are you naturally this stupid or is this a special occasion?” said Renubis. “You begged for my help, and I offered it. Do not make me rescind that offer.”
It was one of the harder things Zero Takaichi had ever done. Glowering at the jackal with undisguised hatred, he gently rose to his feet and handed her over. His fur was matted and sticky with her blood, and the snow was painted red where they had fallen.
“There now, perhaps there’s hope for you yet,” said Renubis, with a smile that only enraged Zero further. “Inside, please. I doubt either of you will be comfortable in this weather.” He turned and faced the overgrown wall of the tower, then spoke to midair: “I am home.”
Vines pulled back and stone shifted. In seconds, there was a door in the tower where none had been before. Without pause, he strode inside, and Zero followed…
The last time he had been inside the tower, it had been bare and featureless save for one long, ascending staircase leading to the highest floor. Now he had to stop in mid-step and goggle with amazement. What he was seeing didn’t make sense… there was a temple inside, its walls and floor made of warm sandstone, its ceiling far out of sight in the shadows above, supported by thick pillars of alabaster inlaid with gold. The entry was lit by flaming torches, which cast their light on more gold: gold tables, gold chairs and benches furnished with deep red velvet cushions, gold archways leading into more chambers. Faun would have picked this place clean in the space of an hour. “How…?”
“Magic,” said Renubis simply, as if that answered it. He carried Hanami easily toward a raised dais that Zero swore had not been there a moment ago.
Cursing himself for being so easily distracted, Zero sped up to keep pace with the jackal’s giant strides. “All right, fine. Faun said you’re supposed to be one of the greatest mages to ever live, so heal her wounds, please.”
“What?” Zero’s tail fur stood on end. “What do you mean?! You said you’d help her, dammit!”
Renubis turned his head, fixing Zero with one of the opaque black eyeslits of his elaborate golden mask. He did not slow in the least. “Boy, do you know nothing of magic at all? Why do you think silver mages are so rare, and healing spellstones so precious?”
The jackal had him there. “I… I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Take heed, then: silver magic is derived from the power of Creation, what you call the Goddess of Life. Healing is a part of that magic, but it has a steep price: the mage must fully experience the pain of whatever injury or sickness they wish to treat.” Finally he stopped in front of the dais. “Do you see why that would be a problem?”
Echoing across time, Zero dimly felt the reverberations in his hands as his sword’s blade struck the jackal’s immortal fur and flesh, and rebounded as if hitting a wall. The realization sent a clammy feeling through his body. “You can’t feel…”
“Correct,” said Renubis severely, laying Hanami down. Her arm fell limply over one edge of the platform, the Mage Flower coiled around her wrist. “A great mage I may be, perhaps the greatest of all, but as a price for my immortality, I lost the ability to feel. Without experiencing her pain, I cannot heal her.”
Cold dread churned in Zero’s stomach. “But then how-”
“Silver magic is only one method, young keshin. I will close her wounds as best I can, but after that, the rest is up to her.” As he spoke, Renubis circled around to the other side of the dais. With surprising gentleness, he turned Hanami over and peeled off Zero’s jacket.
What lay beneath made his knee buckle. He could just barely see the three deep stab wounds he had made with his kunai under N’Ktane’s control… Hanami’s entire back was a mass of snarled fur, shredded fabric, and drying blood. There were four claw marks below each shoulder, their edges already blackened and encrusted. Terrible images swam through his mind, of standing there in stained armor many years ago, looking at wounds like this…
“Perhaps it would be best if you did not watch,” said Renubis, noting his expression. His massive hand lowered over Hanami’s back, and thin, shining threads began to stream from his fingertip.
Zero squeezed his eyes shut. Groping blindly in the dark, his hand somehow found Hanami’s… trying to ignore its coldness, he squeezed it tight. “Forgive me. Please, forgive me.” Feeling a wrenching in his heart, cursing his own weakness, Zero released her and turned his back, walking away. The three stab wounds went with him, lingering even when he closed his eyes.
My hands did this to her. My hands… my fault.
“Shed,” she snarled, driving her fist into the cushion again. “Godsdamned shedding mangy whore…!”
Faun Reinaka was very angry and very sober, an extremely dangerous combination. The moment she had felt the spider’s control over her body loosen, she had torn off the godsdamned bracelet and run for home, intending to drink herself incoherent… only to find her supply of Dead God Firewater empty. Most of her den now lay in tatters because of that. There was a huge, roaring blaze in her fireplace, from real wood and kindling, not a spellstone… and the bracelet was currently melting into scrap somewhere in it. Never mind that it was pure silver, and thus worth a mint even melted down and reshaped… she didn’t want to touch it ever again. It was unclean.
An uninterrupted stream of the foulest curses she could think of poured from her mouth as she punched the cushion again and again. Most of the stuffing was poking out of it now, as she had been doing this for quite some time. She didn’t care.
Used, she thought.Just the sound of the word made her bristle. The spider had used her, just like she had used Ashpaw, and Zero, and doubtless many others. Gods only knew what she made those others do, but Faun… Faun had been used to do something that drove her to this outburst, something that made her tear up her den, melt down something made of pure silver, and beat the stuffing out of this cushion.
She had been used. She hated being used… but she hated what she had been forced to do to Zero more. The spider had dug deep, much too deep, unearthing feelings that Faun had buried for a very, very good reason. Her fingertips hooked into the deep wounds in the torn cushion. With a scream of rage, she hurled it into the fireplace where the bracelet was melting. For several minutes, she was silent, simply watching it burn.
Then someone knocked on her door.
Faun wanted to ignore it, to go find another cushion and tear it apart for a while. Facing whoever was stupid enough to come to her door right now would only end in violence. But then, she thought darkly, maybe violence is just what I need right now.
So she stalked across the den, unlatched the door, and dug into a random pocket of her boom belt, preparing to throw whatever type of bomb was in there into her visitor’s face. She flung the door open and reared back her arm…
It was Ashpaw, the person she least wanted to see at the moment, other than Zero. “Faunelle,” said the badger with infuriating calm.
Faun’s cheek twinged with phantom pain. She almost threw the bomb… but at the last second she thought the better of it, and simply slammed the door in the badger’s face.
Undaunted, his voice filtered through the wooden door. “I understand your being unhappy to see me…”
“Go away.” Her hand reached up to her face, where underneath her fur there was still a faint bruise from the badger’s huge fist. The spider had used him too… it wasn’t his fault, but dammit, having someone to blame just felt better.
“Please understand, you cannot possibly know how sorry I am for-”
“I said go the hell away. Leave me alone.”
There was a pause, and then a sigh. “Would you like to get drunk together, Faunelle?”
The vixen opened the door again, if only to see if she had heard him correctly. Her green eyes stared at him incredulously. “What did you say?!”
Ashpaw’s smile was kind, but his eyes were wounded. From underneath his straw winter coat, he drew two dark bottles. “I asked if you would like to get drunk together. It’s not Firewater, I’m afraid… it’s Hornbeam’s Blackberry Wine. Vintage 1337, an unusually good year. I was saving it for a special occasion, and I assumed this would qualify.”
Conflicting emotions swam through Faun’s mind. She did desperately need to get drunk… but Ashpaw asking to drink with her? It was so out of character that she had to ask: “You’re not still wearing that bracelet, are you? Or did one of your godsdamned encyclopedias fall on your head or something?”
His smile widened just a bit. “No and no. May I come in? It is rather cold outside.”
Part of Faun considered grabbing one of the bottles and slamming the door on him again… but then, who else was there to drink with? Not the people at the Fool’s Rush, there was no way they’d understand, and she’d only end up getting in a fight, possibly arrested. Not Flowers, wherever she was, she made it clear she didn’t drink, ever. And certainly not Takky… She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “All right, come on in. Mind the mess.”
The badger had to duck to fit through the frame, and his head almost scraped the earthen ceiling once he was inside. To his credit, he didn’t make a single snide remark about the state of the place… another sign that something was wrong. He shrugged off his straw coat, letting it fall to the floor, and went straight for her largest, most overstuffed cushion. “Thank you, Faunelle. Do you have glasses, or shall we simply go without?”
Again Faun stared at him, hardly believing what she was hearing. This situation had gone beyond strange and was approaching surreal. “Kyuubi’s glorious kintama, you did hit your head. What happened?!” she asked as she took her own seat. “What the hell did she make you do?”
To Faun’s astonishment, she saw tears begin to form in Ashpaw’s eyes. “I believe, Milady, that you and I both have some considerable crises to work through in that regard. The wine should help.”
For the first time in hours, Faun smiled, albeit bitterly. “Yeah. Yeah it will, Stripehead. Good call. Here.”
The two friends raised their bottles, clinked them together, and whispered, “Kampai.”
“You can have her, my friend, her sister is the real prize. One day, when I have enough san, I swear I’m going to take Natsuki from that house and make her mine…”
The two samurai walked side-by-side, full and sated, fresh from breakfast and entertainment courtesy of their favorite pair of geishas. The snow piled on their wide straw hats, and on the shoulders of their overcoats, but for the moment they were too warm and happy to care about the chill. Fine sake raced through their veins, and they laughed together as they approached the wooden bridge that led to home.
“And which day would that be, Kaoru?” said the older of the two. “When the Captain decides to give you more wages, just out of the goodness of his heart?”
“He’s not that bad. You just have to know how to talk to him…”
“Says the fool who’s been stuck in the same rank for three years.”
“I don’t see you advancing, Ryuunosuke. You always- Wait, who is that?”
Kaoru had just spotted the figure standing motionless on the bridge, looking out over the frozen river. They could only tell he was a squirrel like themselves based on the style of his armor… every inch of him was covered and plated, and even his tail was completely bound with dark leather straps. Only the most paranoid of warriors protected themselves in such a way; attacking your opponent’s tail was considered barbaric, a coward’s act, it simply wasn’t done. That alone suggested to the two other samurai that something was amiss…
“Ho, there!” called Ryuunosuke to the figure, determined to at least be polite… perhaps he was on guard. “It’s a cold day to be standing outside in full armor, friend. Are you all right?”
The figure’s helmet turned in their direction. Only his eyes could be seen through his facemask, so dark and cold that they seemed to draw in the light. His voice was soft, deep and cultured, his words almost too formal. “Good day, sirs,” he said, bowing to them. “I hope you are well this winter morn.”
Kaoru had drunk more sake than his companion, so his tone was a bit brash. “Better than you, I’d imagine. What are you doing out here by yourself?”
The mysterious samurai laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. “I am seeking someone.”
That piqued Kaoru’s interest. “Seeking who?”
“Takaichi,” said the armored figure. “I must find a samurai named Takaichi. It is of utmost importance.”
Ryuunosuke was somewhat taken aback. “Takaichi?” He wracked his brains and frowned. “I’m sorry, friend, there’s only two people named Takaichi that I know of. One’s long since retired, and one is a female, an apprentice Healer.”
“No, wait,” said Kaoru, a memory floating through the haze. “Captain Yamano from 042… didn’t he mention a squadmate named Takaichi a few times?”
“You’re right, I think he did. Thank you, Kaoru,” said Ryuunosuke, nodding. “Yes, I think I remember that, but he died shortly after the Week of Blood, didn’t he…? Poor young buck.”
“Thank you, sirs,” said the figure. “but it appears you are misinformed. Young Lord Takaichi is indeed alive, and I must find him.”
“Who are you, anyway?” asked Kaoru, peering at him. Now that they were closer, he noticed that the stranger’s armor didn’t resemble that of any squad he knew of… it was tarnished and weatherbeaten, all grey down to the last plate and buckle. He could have almost blended in with the winter sky above them.
“Forgive me for not introducing myself, sirs,” said the stranger. “I am called Tsurugi, Gen Tsurugi.”
“Gen Tsurugi…” muttered Ryuunosuke. “I’ve heard that name, my grandfather used to tell me stories about-”
Ryuunosuke stopped in mid-sentence, and stared down at the sword sticking through his middle. The strange grey samurai had moved like the wind itself. With a slick sound, the sword was withdrawn, and the last thing Ryuunosuke saw in his mortal life was the iron-colored sky. The last thing he heard was his dear friend Kaoru crying out in alarm…
“You bastard! What the hell are you doing?!” Kaoru’s hand leapt for his own sword as Gen Tsurugi calmly cleaned the blood from his weapon.
“I apologize, but the two of you know nothing,” said Gen, without a trace of emotion. “You are therefore of no use to me. You said that this Captain Yamano knows of Takaichi, yes? I must find him. I can waste no time.”
Red mist clouded Kaoru’s eyes, much the same as the sake in his veins clouded his judgment. He drew his sword and charged the armored figure calling himself Gen Tsurugi, intent on avenging his friend…
Once more, Gen moved like the wind. Two swords struck together, one gleaming and well-polished as if it were new, the other as old and weathered as its wielder. Gen’s blade had a wicked, serrated edge, clearly designed to leave terrible wounds. The opposite half was crimson red from hilt to tip along its length, making it appear bloodstained even when clean.
“You bastard,” repeated Kaoru, blazing with rage. “I’ll make you pay for what you did to him!”
“No, you will not,” Gen said with that same awful calm. “I commend your bravery, warrior, but you are not the one with whom I must do battle.”
“Take your battle to the Beneath, you-!” With that, Kaoru drew back and raised his sword over his head…
It was the last thing he ever did. The duel between the samurai ended in a bloody flash as Gen’s blade cleaved Kaoru’s head from his shoulders. It fell, still wearing an enraged snarl, the body following only a second after. Pools of blood oozed over the surface of the old wooden bridge, quickly hardening and darkening in the winter air.
Without a glance backward at the bodies, Gen Tsurugi cleaned his grisly blade and sheathed it at his side, walking off into the cold.
END OF CHAPTER 2