CHAPTER 3, Part 1
Carefully, wounds are tended
Feuding snow and rain
“As word of Hayaoh’s legend grew, so did the number of warriors who wished to challenge him. Countless numbers staked their honor on duels with the great samurai. All were summarily defeated. Had not Lady Shizuka’s influence calmed Hayaoh’s bloodlust, these poor souls may have lost their lives… instead, he left them humbled, but alive.
“One such warrior stood out among all the others who attempted to best Hayaoh in battle. He appeared out of the mist one winter’s morning, clad in grey and carrying a wicked blade of strange design, and when Hayaoh asked of its origin, even he had to admire the warrior’s fortitude. For this warrior claimed he had traveled to the Beneath, dueled the HellSerpent itself, and fought it to a draw. When the battle was finally over, the Serpent, impressed with his audacity, had allowed him to take one of its dread fangs, hewn from its mouth during the struggle. The warrior had taken the fang as proof of his deed, returned to the world of the living, and forged it into the hilt of his sword. The warrior then swore to defeat Hayaoh by his very name: Gen Tsurugi…”
[The Legend of Hayaoh, squirrel folktale, circa year 500]
Breathing. In when raising the sword, out when letting it fall. A steady pattern of inhaling and exhaling as he practiced the form. Focusing entirely on breathing, on obtaining the Centerpoint, was the only way Zero could keep his mind off of what was happening several rooms away.
He had wandered for a while; the magic of the Black Rose Tower had transformed its interior into a vast space of empty sandstone rooms, with alabaster pillars reaching off into the darkness. He had only stopped when he considered the likelihood of getting lost and being unable to find a way back to the chamber where Hanami lay. So he retraced his steps carefully until he was almost in sight of the dais where Renubis worked; close enough to hear the jackal’s voice should something go wrong, but far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to watch.
A moment’s searching had found this room, what appeared to be a public bathing chamber. A vast, mirrored pool of still water occupied the center. The squirrel had gratefully washed the blood from his fur and splashed some on his face. Then, lost for what else to do, he begun practicing a basic sword form he remembered his father teaching him long ago. Concentrating on the steps was difficult. At any moment he half-expected to hear a cry of pain from the dais, and then dreadful silence… Only by devoting all his focus to his breath was he able to drive out that possibility.
“I am finished,” said a deep bass voice from beneath the arch leading to the main hall.
It took an act of will he thought would kill him, but he didn’t go running off to see her. His sword blade thrummed as it cut through the air. Stay calm. Keep reaching for the Centerpoint. “And?” He hoped that didn’t sound insulting. Renubis claimed he was reformed, but Zero still wasn’t quite sure the jackal wouldn’t happily squash him like a bug, God powers or not.
The jackal’s voice was calm and even. “I have closed her wounds and done all I can to stave off infection. She will have scars when she awakens, but whether or not she does so is up to her.”
That wasn’t much, but it wasn’t the news he was dreading, thank the Gods. “Thank you,” he said as he turned and made a vertical slice.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Renubis bow. It was a strange sight. “You had only ask, young keshin.”
“You called me that before,” said Zero, shifting his stance. Tired muscles rippled underneath his fur in protest… he was forcibly reminded that he hadn’t slept since Faun had placed the bracelet on him last night. “How did you know I was a keshin?”
Renubis grinned his disturbing grin, showing those fearsome white fangs… Zero couldn’t see it directly, but he could feel it from across the room. “Takaichi, your usage of your powers has not been what anyone would call ‘subtle’. I could sense your first transformation from halfway across the world.”
Zero paused, confused by the wording. “Halfway across- you were here? I thought you were going to try to cross the sea.”
“I did,” said the jackal. “Perhaps I should clarify: beyond the ocean I found many strange and wondrous things indeed, a world beyond Sankami. That was one of the reasons it took so long to come back.”
“Wait, wait,” said Zero. He paused his form to try to grasp that concept, which was simply to huge, too strange to wrap his mind around. To him, Sankami was the world. Everything he knew, all the values and experiences, all the lessons he had learned in his life, it was all a part of Sankami. To think of somewhere else… “You’re telling me,” he said slowly,
“that there are other lands like this one? Other places across the sea?”
He laughed, a great, booming laugh that echoed from the sandstone. “You mean to tell me that you never even suspected that Sankami isn’t all there is to the world?”
“Don’t laugh at me,” he growled, his ears flattening and his back fur bristling. “I know about the Beneath and the Celestial Plain-”
“The realms of your Gods, yes, yes,” chuckled Renubis, waving a hand in a dismissive manner. “Young buck, let me tell you something. I once considered myself the most knowledgeable being to ever live, if only because I have experienced a larger span of life than any other sentient. But when I left Sankami…” That grin was back. “I realized how small, how limited my point of view truly was. Three thousand years is nothing. There are things out there, boy, things you cannot begin to imagine… simply telling you of some of them would snap your mind like a twig.”
“Then how is it you can handle it?” asked Zero, with more sarcasm than he intended.
“Simple,” said Renubis with unmistakable cheer. “Insanity.”
Zero stopped his form entirely and turned around to stare at him.
That was when he saw that the jackal’s hands were drenched, painted red from the wrists down. His sword dropped from his grip and made a clattering sound on the sandstone floor, leaving a gouge where it fell.
Renubis followed his gaze and looked down at himself. “Interesting. Interesting indeed. What kind of warrior fears the sight of blood?”
The buck’s mouth tried to move to answer, but it had gone bone dry.
“Now hold the bandage down, and press with your fingertips. Tight, but not too tight, so the wound can breathe. See?”
<Tight but not tight? Naole not make sense.>
“Like this, just watch me.”
Yellow eyes studied Naole’s fingers intently as she finished changing Nadeshiko’s bandage. With the tip of his tongue protruding from his mouth, he tried to copy the movements with his own.
“I must admit, I am… impressed,” said Nadeshiko grudgingly. Her head was tilted at an uncomfortable angle, to allow Naole easier access to the bitemarks. “Your friend is not at all what I expected.”
“I’m glad!” The squirrel beamed as she applied a bit of sap to the edges of the bandage. “He’s not what I expected either, honestly. When Stalker took me and told me what he was doing… well, making a friend was the last thing in the world I thought would happen that day.”
“It is strange,” said the skunk. “So much of our culture depends on birthright. Only daughters of the Silver House may become Mistresses of the order, only females may seek employment… And among your kind, only males may become samurai, correct?”
“Yes, that’s right. Hold still.”
“It has been that way for centuries. The circumstances of one’s birth determine one’s entire life.” Nadeshiko’s eyes narrowed. “By that logic, Legion should be just as much a monster as his creator was.” Unconsciously she reached up to touch the faint scar on her shoulder. “And yet…”
Naole followed the motion and shuddered. “Is… is that where…?”
“Yes,” said Nadeshiko darkly. “But then… the fact that my blood runs in your friend’s veins makes him… almost family.”
“Interesting point, Milady. I suppose he sort of is…”
Just the barest hint of a smile tugged at the skunk’s lips. “Somehow I doubt that Mother would approve of that notion.”
Naole finished applying the sap and fixed the Vice-Mistress with her smile. “Maybe we could change her mind?”
Drake watched the three of them from the next room, but he didn’t hear a word of their conversation. The old wolf was fixated on the hybrid and the doe, such an impossible combination. Gods only knew what had conspired to bring them together, but they were happy… one complemented the other. It was more familiar than anyone knew. His mind traveled backwards in time, recalling another couple just as strange…
CENTRAL SILVER ORDER TEMPLE
ONE-HUNDRED NINETEEN YEARS AGO
Their footsteps were a study in contrasts; one tread lightly, her sandals barely making a sound against the polished ebony floor, while the boots of the other made loud and obvious squeaking sounds, proudly announcing the presence of the wearer. Of course, Captain could move silently as a shadow when the occasion called for stealth, but when it didn’t… well, he liked people to know he was there.
“So, Milady, I already have some candidates for my new squad,” said the raccoon, drawing a wrinkled piece of paper from his overcoat.
“Do you now?” said Lady Crocus. “It just so happens that I have a few as well.” Then she stared. “Is that a page from the confidential personnel files?”
“Might be,” said Captain, who was busily trying to smooth out the wrinkles as he walked.
“Could you tell me where you acquired it?”
“Let me think… I’m fairly certain I got it from the storage room where they keep the confidential personnel files, Milady. Yes, that was it!” said Captain cheerfully, slapping his thigh.
Underneath her fur, a vein bulged. “Of course you did. So, if I may ask…”
“Mica, of course,” said Captain. The undamaged half of his face shone with happiness. “Mica’s a given. I wouldn’t dream of attempting something like this without him.”
“You are aware that Lord Mica is still under probationary status?” Crocus raised an eyebrow.
“Ah yes, that incident where he blew up the Fangs’ secret weapon cache.” Captain chuckled. “And the Fangs that were guarding it. Hob’s got no love for cultists, no Ma’am.”
“I can see that attempting to dissuade you would be pointless.” The Mistress sighed. “Very well, Mica may join your squad… provided you also accept my first choice.”
“And whom might that be, Milady?” Captain appeared to be steering toward the mess hall as if a magnet were drawing him there.
Crocus wasn’t particularly hungry, but she knew that asking Captain to wait would be equally as pointless as attempting to convince him to leave Mica out of the squad, so she resigned herself to a light lunch. “Lady Blackburne,” she said, stepping up her pace to match his long strides.
Captain almost stumbled, but quickly regained his footing. His one eye glinted with what might have been panic. “Apple Blackburne, Milady?! With all due respect, are you mad?!”
“Not at all,” said Crocus with a sweet smile. Part of her dearly enjoyed the rare sight of Captain unnerved. “You need a Healer on hand, especially given the nature of the missions you’ll likely be assigned. Lady Blackburne is a superb Healer, well versed in treating many types of injuries.”
“From what I hear, she’s also well-versed in causing many types of injuries,” said Captain with a shudder. “Isn’t it true that she once threw one of her patients out a second-story window? What was it he called her that made her snap?”
“I believe he called her ‘soft,’” said Crocus. “Consider her a way of keeping you in line.”
The scarred raccoon cringed. “If it’s for the good of the Order, Milady, but I swear that badger’s unbalanced.”
“Perhaps going out for field work will mitigate her temper somewhat, hmm?”
“I’m not sure anything can mitigate Crabapple’s temper, Milady, but we’ll see.”
“We most assuredly will.”
They had reached the archway leading into the mess hall. A long, set with long mahogany benches, there were already dozens of brethren and sistren there, eating, chatting, reading, or in some cases catching a few moments of sleep in one of the marble alcoves. Delicious smells wafted through the room: smoked salmon, seasoned with herbs and drizzled with ginger sauce, flagons of rich, dark mead, fresh-baked bread toasted almost to the point of burning, and here and there traces of some of the cooks’ famous spiced pumpkin pastries, which were rarely made because they tended to be sold illegally to civilians at exorbitant prices.
Normally those aromas mixed nicely with a gentle buzz of chatter from the seated brethren and sistren, creating a pleasing effect, but today there were a pair of voices raised loud above the others, disturbing the peace and attracting stares. It wasn’t hard to determine the source of the disruption… one of the speakers tended to stand out even when perfectly silent.
He was a young brute wolf, perhaps eighteen years, wearing only a loose set of grey trousers tied at the waist with a heavy cord. From head to tail, his unusually thick fur was pure, snowy white, with not so much as a speck of another color. Currently his russet eyes were wide with alarm and confusion as he argued with the sentient next to him. “Come on, Marlette, I said I was sorry! I promised I won’t say it in front of your squadmates, what more do you want?!”
“Promises aren’t good enough!” the vixen shot back at him, with surprising ferocity considering that she stood a full six inches shorter than her companion. She was quite unusual for a vixen, in that the only word to describe her was… “plain”. Compared to females of other species, she was still breathtakingly beautiful, but among others of her own kind, one couldn’t help but notice that her fur was a quieter shade of orange, her muzzle and cheek fur a dull cream color instead of the typical rich cream or driven white, her eyes a shade between muddy brown and green depending on how one looked at them. Her figure was trim and slender, not voluptuous as vixens tended to be. The light utterly failed to shine attractively on her flat black hair, tied into a simple bun, but it caught nicely in the lenses of the glass spectacles perched on the bridge of her muzzle. “You promised me last time you wouldn’t call me that, and you forgot, just like you always do!” Her tail was standing up almost straight, its fur rising on end as she jabbed the wolf’s chest with the finger of her free hand. The other hand was clutching an old, leather-bound book tightly to her extremely modest chest. “I’ve had enough, Drake! I’m tired of you embarrassing me!”
“But…” Drake seemed completely lost. “I was just joking around… You know I don’t mean anything by it!”
Behind the lenses, Marlette’s eyes began to water. “Don’t you think that between you and my sisters, I’ve had enough joking around?”
The wolf’s confusion escalated to full-on panic. “Oh, come on, please don’t cry!”
She turned her back on him. “Just go away. Leave me alone.”
“Please, Sticks? I’ll get you some of that honey pudding that you like…”
“Don’t call me that!” she shrieked, stamping her foot. “Aaaargh, you’re going to drive me insane!”
Frowning, Crocus started to move forward to intervene. Of course it was Drake causing the commotion. Quite a few people had thought her insane eighteen years ago, when she had taken him into the Order after the Frothing Blight left him sole survivor of his pack. Wolves didn’t belong in the Order, it was common knowledge. They couldn’t handle the structure, the discipline, the confinement. A few of the less tactful called them savages, barely civilized enough to be called sentient at all. But despite the nay-saying and the shock and the assorted tut-tutting, she had taken him in anyway. The Order had a creed to protect life, and she had known at the time that this poor, snow-white wolf pup would perish without a pack to care for him.
The brethren and sistren had done their best, and for the most part their work in raising him was commendable. He exhibited none of the wildness that wolves were known for; he was overly excitable at times, to be sure, but with a gentle manner despite his considerable size. He was fiercely loyal and always eager to learn, willing to try his hand at any vocation once he came of age. Most of those vocations had ended in disaster, true, but few held grudges against him for that. In fact, the people who knew Drake tended to think the world of him, and he of them. It was the others that confused him, the ones that barely knew his name but glared at him in the halls, or muttered darkly when he passed by, thinking he couldn’t hear. Social graces were mostly lost on the young wolf; he stubbornly believed that if someone disliked him, it was his duty to either rectify the problem personally, or if that failed, to dislike them right back. That attitude had sent more than one brother to the Infirmary with a broken nose over the years.
Crocus opened her mouth to address him, but stopped in shock when Captain struck out his arm and laid his hand on her shoulder, in a spectacular breach of protocol.
“Wait,” said the raccoon. “Just watch.”
“Look…” The wolf had turned the vixen around, and was gazing at her pleadingly with those russet eyes. “If that’s what you really want, I’ll leave you alone.” His tail and ears were drooping as he spoke. “But please, Marlette… you’ll keep giving me lessons, won’t you? Say you will, you know I can’t find anyone else who’s willing to teach me!”
The vixen’s ears started to turn back. “Gods… don’t look at me like that, it’s embarrassing, and you know I can’t-” A heavy sigh blew up her black bangs. “Fine,” she said as she adjusted her glasses. “This is your last chance. For your sake, I hope you’ve been practicing your letters more than you did last week…”
A shriek escaped her as the wolf grabbed her in a tight hug and briefly lifted her off the ground, grinning from ear to pointed ear. “You’re the best, Marlette!”
“All right, all right! Put me down, people are staring!” Extremely flustered, the vixen readjusted her glasses as the wolf gently set her back down. “And another thing… please, please, call me by my first name… call me Rain from now on! Not Marlette, and not ‘Sticks!’”
Grinning even wider, Drake clapped her on the shoulder, making her knees buckle slightly. “Rain it is!”
Crocus waited for two full minutes as she watched this drama unfold, then gently but insistently removed Captain’s hand from her shoulder. “Captain, if you please-”
“Them,” said Captain, his good eye gleaming, one lip curling up into that ghastly smile of his.
The skunk blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Drake and Rain. I want them for the squad, both of them,” said Captain, turning to face her. “They’re perfect.”
TO BE CONTINUED…