CHAPTER 4 (Part 1)
Letting slip the dreaded words
In a lake of stars
“SQUAD CAPTAIN’S REPORT:
Mission accomplished. All captives released, sentient and non-sentient alike. Sect cultists’ lair infiltrated by RM (Scout, bait) and M o/ Clan C (NCO(p), spy). Attack lead by C (Captain), AB (Medic), D (Infantry), L o/ House J (Commander, Order supervisor), Order contingent (VR, backup, cannon fodder). Sect disbanded, lair destroyed due to ingenious use of heavy explosives by M o/ Clan C (NCO(p), spy). Minor injuries to D (Infantry) from said explosion treated by AB (Medic), over former’s protest. AB (Medic) ensured D (Infantry)’s compliance by threatening further injury. RM (Scout) shaken by experience, but reports fit for duty. L o/ House J (Commander, Order supervisor) recommended disciplinary action by Order due to “use of unnecessary force” by M o/ Clan C (NCO(p), spy). C (Captain) reminded L o/ House J (Commander, Order supervisor) of superior rank, suggested that AB (Medic) remove broomstick from unmentionable portion of L o/ House J (Commander, Order supervisor)’s anatomy. L o/ House J (Commander, Order supervisor)’s recommendation rescinded.
“Personal Addendum: Rather pointless to submit reports with all this secrecy mange, isn’t it? It’s not like anyone will read this before it’s destroyed. Waste of a good scroll and ink, really. Won’t be submitting another. Please requisition more liquor for next mission, essential to stakeout operations. Non-negotiable.
[from the Order’s secret archives]
All things considered, Renubis took the breakdown extremely well. He didn’t mind the vomiting or dry heaving, didn’t object to washing his hands in the pool until all of Hanami’s blood was gone and the wisps of red had dissipated in the water, and waited patiently as Zero went through a fresh attack of the shakes. When the buck was together enough to speak again, Renubis simply nodded and asked, “Shall I continue?”
“You…” said Zero, shuddering and wishing he had his jacket. “You don’t think it’s… strange?”
“From what I know of your kind, you send male children to become soldiers, do you not?” said the jackal. “I find it stranger that more of you do not suffer the same effects that you do, Takaichi. The customs of your Militia are savage.”
Zero bristled. “’Savage?!’ This coming from someone who conquered the wo- conquered Sankami?”
“An action I regret, but I did what I thought was necessary during that time.” The opaque black eyeslits stared at Zero. “I certainly did not send children to kill each other.”
“What about the rabbits? They make every firstborn child train to become Praetors! At least joining the Militia is a choice.”
“Do they? I was not aware… interesting, but also savage. However, we have digressed.” With a wave of his hand, the stone upon which Zero lost last night’s dinner turned over twice, and left itself clean. “You asked how I coped with what I learned across the sea…”
“And you said you were insane.” Zero sat down next to him, rubbing his arms. The jackal’s lack of body heat made him feel colder by comparison.
“I spent every second of three thousand years in a small room, alone, with only a mirror to the outside world as company,” said Renubis. He was strangely cheerful. “It should come as no surprise that I lost my mind more times than I can count.”
“You seem remarkably calm for an insane person,” said Zero sarcastically.
“I learned out of necessity to… budget myself, shall we say.” Now Renubis sounded more than cheerful, he was brimming with pride. “To retain only the memories and reason that I needed to be lucid, and lock the rest of the horror and madness safely away. My mind is not a pleasant place, Takaichi.” He tapped the temple of his golden headdress. “I pity the poor psychic who tries to read me. I doubt they would survive the experience.”
Zero stared into the water. This was rather a lot to take in at once. “All right… so you can’t tell me some of the things you saw. Tell me what I will understand.”
“Interested, are we?”
“It’s better than sitting here worrying myself to death about Hanami,” said Zero. “To start with… are there other sentients out there? Other people like us?”
The most frightening grin yet split Renubis’s dark-furred face. “Oh, you have no idea… In the seas, for example…”
“What about the seas?”
“There is a society of creatures that live there. Sentients, like ourselves, but far more advanced than you can even conceive. Somewhat like fish, but much larger, carnivorous, and hunting in packs like wolves.” As he spoke, he ran his fingertip over the floor, sketching a long, roughly cylindrical shape. It took Zero a moment to realize that he wasn’t drawing a picture in dust or dirt; he was actually carving the image into the stone with nothing but his fingertip. The sight disturbed him, but he couldn’t say why. Fascinated, he watched as the creature took shape. It was like no fish he had ever seen. “These creatures… the Laughing Ones, they call themselves, or Those Who Listen… they live in shining cities, strange and terrible, that float within the oceans. There they harness powers beyond magic, always watching. They know of our land and our ways, and they regard us with some concern… but for the most part we amuse them. Someday, they say, they might make their presence known to the worlds on the surface, but for now they wait.”
By now Zero could vaguely make out which end was the head and which the tail, but it still mystified him as to how such a thing could exist. “How did you learn about these things?”
“When I left Sankami, I walked in one direction along the ocean’s floor until I found dry land again.”
The squirrel stared at him. Then it clicked. “You don’t breathe.”
“No. And I am patient enough that I was willing to take the journey slowly. I passed by several of the Laughing Ones’ cities on my first journey, and on my way back they approached me and offered me a somewhat faster mode of transport. I believe they found my… condition… particularly amusing. They had not seen such a creature before.”
“You didn’t ask them for help? I thought you wanted to die…”
Renubis sighed. “More than anything, but even they could offer me no release, nor could any of the races I found in my travels. I came back for one reason only, young keshin. I believe the power to free me from my immortality may rest only in the hands of your Gods, and those they have chosen.”
“So you want me-”
“And your lady friend. I feel she might be crucial.”
“Me and Hanami, to-”
At that moment, a brief, pained cry came from several rooms over. The squirrel and jackal looked at each other, each drawing the same conclusion. As Renubis made to sit up, Zero was already on his feet and through the entranceway, his tail streaming straight out behind him.
“I love him, Stripehead,” said Faun to Ashpaw, who nodded silently. There was no sound other than her words and the crackling of the fire. “Takky, I mean. Zero. I think… I think I’ve always loved him.” She looked down into her half-empty wine bottle as if it contained all the answers. “And what kills me is, I know I shouldn’t. The one thing all the species agree on, right? Crossmating is a sin. An abomination. The Order would prob’ly burn me at the stake or something if they knew I had even thought about it. It’d never work, I know that. So I hid it down deep, buried it away. Even laughed at Flowers the first time she brought it up…” The pain made her close her eyes. “Thought I could make it go away, and then N’Ktane… she rooted around in my head until she found it, and she used it to catch him, just because she knew how much it would hurt me.
“It was bad enough when it was just us… just you, me, and Takky for all those years. Now that Flowers is here… I’m not stupid, Stripes. I’ve seen how they look at each other. Both of ‘em are too shy to say it, but they’re in love. And I can’t… I can’t do it to either of them. I can’t lose them. I love Takky, and Flowers is my best friend. Gods help me, she’s my best friend, but a part of me hates her…” A choking sound escaped her, one that might have been a sob. “Because I know, because of her, I’ll never have him. Not ever. They’ll go on, and someday they’ll admit they love each other, and mate and have children… and I’ll just have to be there, watching.
“I think… I think that’s why I was so terrible when I first met her. Met Aria, I mean. My own half-sister, a wolfox… Something snapped. I hated what I was saying, but couldn’t stop myself. Couldn’t accept it. That Ma and I were… alike in that way. All the pain she went through, just because she loved someone…” The vixen wiped her eyes on the back of her glove. “Anyway. That’s it, that’s my big secret… Whaddyou think, Stripes?”
Ashpaw let out a deep, rumbling snore in reply and shifted on his cushion. He was fast asleep, as she knew he had been for the last half hour. She had made sure he was sleeping before she bared her soul to him; it was the only way she had enough courage to say the words aloud.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Crawling over to his side on her hands and knees, she leaned up and left a feather-light kiss on the end of his nose. “Thanks for listening, Stripes… you big lug.”
TO BE CONTINUED…