CHAPTER 4, Part 2
CENTRAL SILVER ORDER TEMPLE
ONE-HUNDRED NINETEEN YEARS AGO
“I don’t know what we did wrong, do you?”
“Not a clue.”
The two made for a distinctly odd pair: the snow-white wolf and the plain vixen, almost always seen together, arguing more often than not. More than one of the more orthodox Order brethren suspected there was something improper going on between them, but the truth was far stranger.
“You don’t think…” began Drake, his eyes troubled.
“What don’t I think?”
“You don’t think someone found out, do you?”
“About the lessons?” Rain harrumphed and blew her black bangs upward. “I don’t see why anyone would mind.”
“Maybe you don’t, but I do. I’m not stupid, Rain… I know there are people in the Order who are always watching me. They think that if they take their eyes off me for a moment, I’ll turn savage.”
“They’re stupid, then,” the vixen scoffed as she turned a corner. “Besides, we’re proving them wrong, aren’t we?”
“Maybe you’re proving them wrong.” Drake shrugged. “Come on, Rain, how much trouble could you get into? You’ve got your bow idea and your books. From what I hear, the librarians think you’re the next Eustaceus…
“Euclidius, you mean?”
“Yeah, him, whoever. Me, I’ve been on kitchen duty for the last three weeks. The cooks are overjoyed, they think I’m keeping rats away, or getting rid of them personally. Guess why.”
“Oh, ugh,” gagged Rain. “You’re not, are you?”
The wolf gave her a dark look and snorted. “You know I’m not.”
“I suppose I do wonder sometimes.” The vixen replied with a faint smile.
The white wolf’s shoulders slumped. “Great, even you think I’m a savage. If I can’t convince you-”
Rain stopped, adjusting her glasses. “Now wait, that’s not what I meant. I just meant that I’ve seen you eat, you wouldn’t even notice- gah, fine.” The vixen removed her glasses and covered her eyes with a hint of annoyance. “One. Two. Three. Four.”
Walking past and peering back at her in confusion while she was counting, Drake almost tripped when he came too close to an antique vase. “Rain, what are you doing? Come on.”
“Eight. Nine. Ten.” The vixen uncovered her eyes. “Well. You don’t look any more savage to me. So they’re wrong about you, and I’ve just proved it. Besides, a few people know about my ideas for the bows, and most of them think I’ve got eels in my brain.”
“Bad way to go, I bet… eels in your brain. But it’s good that you can count to ten with your eyes closed, that’s very important in our line of work.” A door with no ornamentation on it suddenly opened in front of them, and the heavily scarred raccoon leaned out of the frame, a small flask in his hand. “And you can find your way around carefully labeled and numbered corridors without a map! So far, I’m impressed.”
From inside the room, a voice stated blandly. “Sir, it’s not that I can’t count to ten, it’s merely that closing my eyes for that long allows you to get in all manner of trouble…”
Rain clasped her hands together in front of herself and bowed, and Drake followed suit. “Captain! Archer Marlette and Soldier… er, Drake. Reporting for discipline, sir.”
The raccoon gave her an odd look that Rainfall wasn’t sure whether she should take for surprise, confusion, or just a leer. The rictus grin frozen on one half of his face didn’t help. “And what are you to be disciplined for?”
“I… I don’t know, sir,” Rain admitted. “I was under the impression-“
“Well, if you’re into that sort of thing, we could make arrangements…”
All right, that was definitely a leer now, and Rainfall bristled. “Sir, if you don’t have anything for us, then I think we’ll just get back to our own squads-“
“Stow that talk, I own both your tails now.” The right side of the racoon’s mouth turned upward. “Why do you think I had you bring your gear?” He frowned, looking at Drake, then at Rain. “Where’s your kit, Marlette?”
“Wh- it’s in my bag, sir, but-.” She began motioning for Drake to give her pack back.
The raccoon just shook his head at her. “In, both of you. You’re late.”
Captain ushered them both into the room, which was musty, poorly lit, and cramped. Somehow, a table had been shoved into the small space, a table which bore fresh score marks from doubtlessly being turned on its side to fit through the doorway. Seated at the table atop upturned wooden buckets were two sentients, about as different from each other as Drake and Rain were, if not more so.
The first person there was Captain’s constant companion, Mica. Occasionally they had seen Mica tailing his superior in and around the temple, but this was their first clear look at him. He failed to make much of an impression; everything about him from his hair to his eyes to the patterns of his fur was simple and unassuming. If one looked at him, they would be hard pressed to describe him in any terms other than simply “ferret”. Still, there was no doubting his loyalty or his enthusiasm: the moment Captain entered, he got to his feet and bowed respectfully.
The table’s other occupant did no such thing… perhaps because there was not sufficient space for her to stand up. Apple Blackburne was a willow badger with rust-red hair, beady dark eyes peering out from her stripes, the physique of several boulders stacked atop one another, and a semi-permanent scowl on her face. They said that Apple was one of the most successful Healers in the Order’s history. That was probably true, but that was more due to her patients’ earnest desire to stay in her company for as little time as possible. Apple had an attitude that was foreign to her species… she hated quiet contemplation, didn’t see the point of philosophy, couldn’t stand debates. This was coupled with an infamously short temper, a quality the other badgers looked at with varying degrees of horror. She may have been bound by the Code to forsake all weapons, but her massive, slab-like fists could cause quite enough damage without them.
“Welcome to Squad 13,” said the scarred raccoon, waving a hand over the small room. “This is our current staging ground.”
Rain blinked. “This? Um, Captain, all due respect, but-”
“This is a broom closet.” Drake stated, sounding a little perplexed.
“Very observant. Was it the size, the smell, or the rack of brooms that gave it away? This is our temporary current staging ground, emphasis on both temporary and current. Don’t get too comfortable, we’ll be moving on to bigger and better things soon enough. Now, on to more important things. You’re probably all wondering why I gathered you here.”
Apple stood from the overturned bucket she was sitting on. Her beady eyes fixed dangerously on Captain. “This room is filthy, we’ve been waiting an hour, and I’ve asked that already, several times. If I wanted to spend my day surrounded by dirt, I would donate my time to healing children. Why are we here, and what do you want from us?”
“Easy, Milady, easy. I think you’ll like this. Most of you are here because, frankly, you either don’t play well with others, don’t fit the Order’s guidelines for ‘proper service’, or just plain aren’t being used to the fullest of your abilities. As for what I want from you, we’ve already got our first mission lined up.” That hideous farce of a face lit up with a twisted grin of pure pleasure. “We’re going to hunt the Demon Fangs where they live. Any questions?”
“She’s finally asleep.”
Naole’s voice shook the old wolf from his reverie. He stood by the window, staring out at the light snow that had started falling a few moments ago. He did not look back at her… looking back at her would pull him fully back to the present. “Legion?”
“He’s watching over her. I told him to come get us if she starts to bleed again.”
“Ah,” said Drake.
An awkward silence ensued. He could feel the doe staring at him, but he was determined to stay quiet until she inevitably said something. Drake could sense a Moment of Truth coming, one of those moments that usually meant he was about to feel more alone than ever.
Minutes passed. Then, softly: “Drake?”
He sighed and turned around to look her in the eyes. Over the past month or so of spending time with her and Legion, Drake had begun to appreciate just how different the Takaichi siblings were from each other. It was common knowledge that Zero wore his heart on his sleeve, and was an open book to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of reading people. Naole was the opposite; at the moment her face was so neutral that she could be thinking anything at all. Without a word, she sat down by the table, taking a moment to smooth out her robes, her hazel eyes never leaving Drake’s for a moment.
Drake ran his hand through his hair. “I assume you have questions.”
“I do,” said Naole. “I’m trying to think of where to start.”
That made the wolf smile a bit. “No rush, young one.”
She put her hands in her lap and closed her eyes. “Maybe I should start by asking if I can even trust the things you’ve said,” she said primly. “You have technically been lying to us this entire time.”
“Fair point,” he huffed. “I’m not sure I can answer you simply. You may trust what I say, but it might not be wise to trust me. I don’t know exactly how my… slip… will affect me, after all. It’s been such a long time since I truly fed, so long that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like…”
“To not be hungry.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “All right. I can deal with it. Next question: are you dangerous?”
Drake smiled sadly. “Some would say ‘Very.’ Long ago, though, they sometimes called me ‘the tame wolf of the Silver Order’. Of course, that was before I became… this,” he said, flexing his fingers. “That said, though… when the wolf that became the Soulsnatcher first came here, I broke his spine.”
To her credit, she barely shuddered. “He was like you, wasn’t he? A little different, taking souls instead of blood, but similar, right?”
“I’m not even sure what ‘like me’ means,” said Drake with a frown. “I’m the only one of my kind I’ve ever met. I’m a monster, certainly, but Stalker was a different creature entirely. He may have been like me, but I’m not certain he ever truly got a chance to feed, or if he even knew how.”
“But there have to have been others, if there’s a word for it, right?” Naole leaned forward, her tail twitching. “I mean, if there’s a word for you…”
“Rain found the word in an old book, thought it sounded appropriate. That book might even still be in the Order’s library, if it wasn’t purged.”
She decided not to ask what he meant by “purged”, though she had a pretty good idea. “… Right.”
“To answer your earlier question, though… if by ‘dangerous’ you mean whether I would ever harm you or Legion, I can tell you honestly that I would never, hunger or no hunger. I would die first.”
The doe smiled uneasily. “Well, you don’t have to do that, but thank you.”
Drake looked at her for a long time before he spoke again. “Strange to thank a monster for not being a murderer, don’t you think…? It’s odd.”
“You and the pup… you remind me so much of myself and Rain…”
That was a comparison that Naole didn’t expect. “How so?”
“You taught him how to speak,” said Drake, mimicking the intricate signs that Legion made with his hands. “And Rain,” he said with a faraway, longing smile, “Rain taught me how to read…”
The snow around them was turning red with blood… all of it Yuudai’s own. The most talented Militia samurai in a generation wasn’t able to make a dent in the armor that covered Gen Tsurugi from head to tail… he couldn’t even slow him down. His adversary pressed him backward, a relentless juggernaut of iron and steel.
“I commend you for your skill, Captain,” said Gen in that cultured tone of his. “Not many can duel with me for this long. However, if you do not tell me where Young Lord Takaichi is, I will be forced to end your life.”
“Go ahead, then,” said Yuudai, spitting out blood. “Because I’d rather die than-”
A groan cut off his words as the wicked serrated blade bit into his biceps. More red stained his white funeral robes as he brought his own sword up to pry away his enemy’s. Darkness infringed on Yuudai’s vision, he wasn’t certain how much longer he could stay upright…
“I will ask once more,” said Gen as they locked blades. His cold eyes narrowed behind his mask. “Where is Takaichi?”
Yuudai tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace. “G-Go Beneath…”
The grey samurai’s armored knee rose up and collided with Yuudai’s thigh. The Militia captain felt something fracture… he crumpled to the snowy street, his sword slipping from his grasp. He looked up at Gen, at the edge of the terrible blade poised over him, certain that the last thing he would ever see would be the light glinting off of it… Forgive me, Zero, Naole… I can’t stop him…
Gen’s sword fell… then stopped a hairsbreadth above Yuudai’s defenseless neck. “Ah,” he said.
“Wh…” Yuudai sputtered. “What…”
“The forest,” said Gen. “Your eyes flickered to the east many times during our battle, no matter which way we faced, which leads me to conclude that Takaichi can be found in the forest to the east. Tasakeru, is that correct?”
Yuudai froze. Had he truly betrayed his old friend so easily?
“Your expression confirms it,” said Gen. “Thank you, Captain Yamano. It was indeed an honorable battle. For that, I shall not kill you today.” He bowed, sheathed his sword, and turned his back.
“W-Wait!” Yuudai scrambled for his sword and slipped in a puddle of his own blood. Rising to his feet made his injured leg scream in protest, but he had to-
Gen Tsurugi was gone. Only his footprints remained.
Yuudai’s shoulders sagged as he let himself fall again. He could only hope that the Healers would find him soon… and that Zero, wherever he was, was prepared for the fight of his life…
TO BE CONTINUED…