WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 1

BOOK I: WITHOUT A NAME

CHAPTER 1

Into the forest

To the place where no one goes

Runaway maiden

“We will never know her name. We will never know where she came from. Even now, after generations of sentients of all species devoting themselves to studying the myths surrounding the Outcasts, the sad truth is that whoever she was before that day will forever be a mystery.

What might have possessed her to abandon everything she had, including her very name? There are countless theories: that she fled an unfaithful mate, that she was a noble tired of the responsibilities of her station, that her life was in danger, that it was only a fit of madness… or perhaps that she was loved and respected, and the Gods themselves interfered in her fate.  

Some scholars would argue that who she was is not important to the narrative; for all intents and purposes, her story, her life, begins on that fabled afternoon, the day she ran away to Tasakeru, the forest of Outcasts…”

[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]

Had they been able, the ancient oaks would have blinked in shocked surprise. An intruder in their forest, they might have thought, and one paying no attention to any of the natural wonders around her. Her panicked flight was unbecoming of the serene, tranquil atmosphere of the late summer afternoon. She ran pell-mell down the narrow, winding path between the mighty trunks, flitting in and out of the splintered sunlight shining down through the vast network of branches, from light to shadow to light again. Stumbling over morasses of gnarled and entangled roots, she struggled to climb the hills that dotted the uneven forest floor. Her clumsiness displaced mossy rocks that had laid undisturbed for centuries, exposing the crawling insects underneath to unwanted sunlight. Loam was trampled beneath her soft sandals, twigs snapped and leaves shuddered in her wake. Bizarre and unwelcome, to say the least.

If the oaks were aware, however, they paid her no notice. The untamed forest was as breathtaking in its beauty as it was absolute in its indifference. High above, a sparrow alighted on a high branch. It watched her for a few seconds, then flew away, its attention on other things.

Time passed. The girl ran on, until she could run no more.

When she finally stopped and leaned against the knobbly trunk of one oak, her legs and sides and feet burned in protest. Even so, she was prepared to flee again, to force her exhausted body into action should she need to. Every muscle tensed, her ears swiveled to full alert as she listened carefully for sounds of pursuit, but there was nothing. The forest was deep and quiet, save for a few singing birds, the rustle of disturbed leaves in the breeze, the sound of her own breathing, and the frantic hammering of her heart. The only scents she could identify were of loam and moss and the great, silent sentinels that stood all around her, dwarfing her in both size and age…

It was all right. She was alone. Then, and only then, did she feel safe enough to stop, to press her body against the wizened bark and weep.

She appeared quite out of place among all the greenery and earth colors around her.  Her eyes were blue as robins’ eggs, her sunny golden hair nearly waist length, tied back in a tail at her neck with a white wool ribbon. Tucked behind one of her pointed, tufted ears was a strange flower, somewhat like a rose and somewhat like a carnation, with deep blood-red petals arranged in an unusual spiral pattern. Her fur was tawny, though on her face and around her teary eyes it faded to a sandy color. The simple cotton tunic she wore had once been white or perhaps very light blue, but now was filthy, scratched and torn open in a dozen places by stray branches, its original color impossible to determine. A long bush of a tail poked out of an opening sewn in the back of her dress. Normally, the tail would have resembled a question mark, standing up straight and curled over at the tip, but now it drooped behind her, limp as a rag.

Her grief and exhaustion combined were an assault to great for her to bear. As if a great weight had descended on her shoulders, she slid down the oak’s rough trunk, staining it with tears. Upon the forest floor she curled up fetal in its roots, looking for all the world like a frightened infant trying to find comfort in a mother’s arms. There was no warmth to be found there, though, only cool wood and long dead leaves blanketing fragrant soil. In desperation she drew her tail around herself and hugged it to her body as she rocked slowly back and forth, crying until she had no tears left.

 


 

From the boughs above her, the creatures watched with growing interest. They moved silently back and forth on many hairy limbs, whispering excitedly to one another. Solid black eyes like beads of ink looked down at her, and slavering jaws drooled at the prospect of meat, young and fresh and tender… but no, the mind would not let them eat yet. The mind wanted this one for other things first. It sent them an order, a single word.

Take. They descended as one.

 


 

Her scream split the forest’s calm like an axe blade splitting a log. Her ears pressed down flat against her skull as they dropped down all around her in a rough half-circle. Six horrible, alien creatures with too many eyes and too many legs, their mandibles moving ceaselessly as they advanced on her. Small claws twitched on their bulbous, melon-sized abdomens, busily spinning whispery white silk. Their scent was dry, dusky, horrid, the stench of death. The girl backed up against the oak tree as if she wanted to melt into it, her robin egg eyes wide and blank with terror. The creatures advanced, making eerie clicking and chittering sounds to one another. One scuttled forward and began to crawl up her leg. Her throat grew tight, her fur stood on end, her tail thrashed the air in alarm. Too repulsed to scream again, the girl’s hand shot up to the flower in her hair…

Something glinted as it fell through a thin splintered ray from above. The thing on her leg jerked, gave a keening screech, and toppled to the forest floor, a tarnished throwing knife now embedded between two of its many eyes. Between one eye blink and the next, a black shadow appeared before her. No, not a shadow, a shape, a solid thing, a thing that drew an old and battered sword, half a meter long and with a shallow curve to it like the barest sliver of a waning crescent moon. The blade flashed once, then twice in the light filtering down from the canopy, felling two of the monsters where they stood. Moving with a swift and savage purpose, the shape made its blade dance like a living thing as it did its deadly work. Another monster split in two, and then another.

When the last in sight was dispatched, the shape turned around to her.  It spoke; she recognized the words, but they were delivered in a shockingly blunt, direct tone. No formalities, no courtesy, just demands:

“Don’t move. Tell me what you’re doing here.”

He smelled of old leather, polished steel, and troubles long remembered. Long, unkempt chestnut hair framed an angular, thin face. A black headband barely visible beneath his bangs. His build was lean but fit and wiry; the build of someone muscular who had gone on a long extended fast. Making out his exact shape was difficult due to his clothing: loose-fitting robes with wide sleeves… a fighter’s clothes, all black save for a few scarce lines of red trim. A wooden scabbard for the old sword hung from the wide red sash around his waist. There were crimson climbing boots on his feet, with grooved metal soles, perhaps for grip and traction. His tail twitched; there may have been a curl in it at some point, but the fur was too untamed and overgrown to tell. A buck… a squirrel, just like her. Rather than familiarity, though, that realization only brought her more fear.

His eyes bored into her, pinning her to the spot. Mahogany-colored, intense, hard and unreadable, they took in her ruined clothes and her state of fright without so much as a blink of surprise, only caution.

The buck frowned, and once again he spoke. “Tell me what you’re doing here,” he repeated, harsh with suspicion, just as blunt as before.

She only stared at him, her lips moving without forming words. Finally, her voice emerged in a dry croak, a single word: “No.”

His grip tightened on the hilt. “No?”

Her tone fluttered with hysteria. “No, please… I promise I didn’t mean it. I didn’t—” Even in the throes of panic, her speech was far more reserved and formal than his. Her hands were frozen at her sides, her tail whipped about in a frenzy.

His eyes softened. “I see,” he said. “So that’s how it is.”

This did nothing to ease her panic. “Please don’t, don’t hurt me! I didn’t mean it, I promise you!”

The sword moved. Barely able to breathe, she tensed her every muscle and waited for the kiss of the blade, for the end.

It took a moment for her frenzied brain to register what she saw next: the buck flicked the ichor from his sword, gently leaned forward to clean the rest upon the carpet of moss at their feet, then slid it back into its scabbard… all done with deliberate slowness. Moving back a few paces, he held up both hands, now empty. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. Trust me.”

Trust? Trust someone violent enough that her first sight of him was him slaying half a dozen monsters? Absurd. It could have been funny, in other circumstances. “I don’t even know how you found me,” she said, her words a constant stream like a babbling brook. “I’m sorry I ran, please let me go and I’ll never—”

“Easy, easy.” There was softness in his voice that hadn’t been there moments ago. “You don’t know where you are, do you?”

She realized she was still pressed against the tree, the claws on her fingertips digging into the bark. With a great effort, she relaxed her muscles and forced herself to take a few deep breaths. Slowly, her fur settled and her ears perked back up as the adrenaline thundering through her veins subsided bit by bit. When she felt a little better, or at least not as miserable as before, she shook her head in the negative.

He sighed, running a hand through his scruffy hair. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but you’re in Tasakeru.”

Tasakeru. The name made her heart skip a few beats… the wild forest that covered the world’s eastern side. The forbidden place, the ancient place, where none dared tread. Its name was a warning, a whisper to be told to terrify naughty children into submission. And it was closely connected to a word capable of striking fear into the hearts of children and adults alike: Outcast.

“I’m sorry,” she said yet again. “I’ll leave, I promise.”

“It doesn’t…” His expression tightened once more. “It doesn’t work that way. If you’re here, in the state you’re in… you’re an Outcast too.”

“I’m not,” she said, desperate. “I’m not a criminal, I didn’t mean to do anything—”

“Criminals?” A short, bitter laugh escaped him, the laugh of someone who had heard that word many times before. “Yeah. That’s what the Representatives tell people, that we’re all murderers and thieves who deserve our punishment. Most ordinary people just think we’re monsters and demons; no one bothers to correct them.”

Belated realization dawned on her: whoever this strange buck was, he did not know her or what she had done. He was not sent after her. He did not intend to bring her back. It was with great relief that she slid down the tree again, the strength and tension slowly easing from her aching muscles. She could not speak, she merely gazed at him, mystified.

Again, those intense eyes bored into her, but now she could see in them… sympathy, regret, and loss. A deep pain that would most likely never heal. “We’re not who you think we are,” he said, soft and wounded. “I’m sorry, I know this is difficult, but I’ll try to explain.”

“This is the place you come to when you have nowhere else to go.  And as far as the rest of civilization is concerned, that’s where you put things you don’t want: the trash, the rejects, the vagrants. We’re not criminals. At least, most of the people who have lived here aren’t.” His eyes were on her, but his gaze was somewhere far away. “If the world has abandoned you, you belong here, with the Outcasts… but I need to be sure you understand exactly what that means.”

He described himself and his fellow exiles with such harsh words, but in such a casual tone… Trash. Rejects. Vagrants. Clearly, those words and others like them had been levied at him so many times that he had grown accustomed to hearing them… accustomed, but never immune to the sting. No wonder she sensed so much bitterness in him. For the first time, she saw him not as a stranger or some threatening “other”, but as a kindred spirit. “I’m sorry,” she said, softer this time. “I’m sorry. That’s so terrible…”

“You get used to it after a while.” He flicked an ear in a dismissive manner. The hurt in his voice diminished, but didn’t fade entirely. “Like I said: people who come here don’t have anywhere else to go. That’s you, right?”

The girl’s eyes watered. She bit her lip and nodded. “Yes.”

“Then you’re in the right place, whether you meant to be here or not.” He sighed, and then he smiled. While it was a sad, tight smile, it was full of bittersweet warmth and understanding. “Welcome to Tasakeru.” He bowed to her, hands at his sides. “Takaishi. Zero Takaishi.”

“Good afternoon, Lord Takaishi. My name is Hanami.” The girl wiped her eyes and bowed in return with her hands clasped in front of her. As she rose back up, she tucked the flower more securely behind her ear, lest it slip out of place. “Just Hanami.”

“The only ‘Lords’ out here are even more lost than we are. Call me Zero.”

The prospect of doing so with someone she had just met made her ears turn back, but she forced the name past her stubborn lips. “Z… Zero.”

They met each other’s eyes, and the forest held its breath. Even the birds stopped singing.

The moment was broken when Hanami realized the state of her ruined tunic. Her ears turned back as she ran her hands over the tears in the fabric, trying to cover them or smooth them out. It was a lost cause, but she made the attempt anyway. To his credit, Zero looked in another direction, making an effort not to notice. Still, the silence festered, growing uncomfortable. She cast around, desperately searching for something else to say. “P-pardon my asking,” she began, her eyes falling on the motionless leg of one of the monsters. “What were those things?”

“Wood spiders,” said Zero, his features twisting into a grimace. “One of the bigger troubles Outcasts have to deal with.”

“Those were spiders?! ” Hanami goggled at him. “But they’re huge, I’ve never seen them grow anywhere near that big!”

“Near as we can tell, that’s what they are.” Zero shrugged. “Some kind of older, offshoot breed is my guess. They look like the tiny ones outside the forest, but they don’t act anything like them. They hunt in packs, they’re hostile, and they can overwhelm you if enough of them catch you off guard. We should get moving, in case there are more around.”

Trembling, Hanami nodded. After a pause, she tilted her head. “Um, pardon my asking—again—but get moving to where?”

He had already started down the winding path that snaked between the trees. That wounded smile from before flickered on his lips as he spoke to her over his shoulder. “To find a place for you to stay. I’m sorry to have to tell you this so abruptly, Hanami, but… wherever you’re from, you’re not going back there. From the sound of it, Unify won’t be open to you much longer either.”

Fresh tears prickled in the corners of Hanami’s eyes. She had suspected as much, but to hear another person put it into words struck her like a blow to the stomach. She was never going home… there was an awful, almost unbearable weight in that realization. Turning around, she gazed back at the winding path that had brought her to this place, to Tasakeru: an ancient forest filled with monsters and someone calling himself trash, an Outcast. The strangeness and confusion of it all crept up on her at once, overwhelming her to the point that she could hardly stand.

Had it really been only this morning that she woke from her bed, made a cup of tea, and watched the villagers go by through her window? That was the same routine she had done every morning for years. It was only hours removed from her, and already it felt like memories from someone else’s life, the life of a stranger. Everything was different now… suddenly, horribly, terrifyingly different. Hanami was seized by a sudden desire to go back, to escape the forest, the monstrous spiders, and Zero, to hurry back to her bed, her tea, and the familiarity of her tiny little cottage. To go home.

That was when she remembered what would likely be waiting for her there if she should return.

A chilling sense of loss settled over Hanami as the realization finally sunk in: that life, that home, was gone. Its sense of safety and routine was forever shattered. Even if by some miracle she could go back, what had happened there two hours ago…

No. Hanami turned and followed Zero’s back as he disappeared into the depths of Tasakeru, wordlessly bidding farewell to her old life. Iron bands squeezed her heart. It was agony to throw it all away, it hurt more than she thought she could bear. When faced with the alternative, though, there was no other choice.

 


 

High above them, the single remaining spider watched. It had retreated to the shadows when the warrior slaughtered its brethren. Briefly, it considered leaping down on him and avenging the fallen… but no. The mind didn’t want that. The mind demanded that it stay, that it watch and listen, following the warrior and the new arrival. Vengeance would come another day.

And the mind knew best, of course. There was no questioning it.

END OF CHAPTER 1

 

<-INTRODUCTION

BOOK I, CHAPTER 2->

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