BOOK I: WITHOUT A NAME
Into the forest
To the place where no one goes
“Hanami. That’s my name, my only name. I don’t think anyone knows who I really am, or why I ran away. Honestly, sometimes I’m not even sure myself. Maybe the reason I’m writing this is to try to figure it out. Not because I think someone will read it, but for me, just me.
“On the day that it began… I made one mistake, and everything fell apart. I didn’t think, I didn’t plan, I didn’t know where I was going, if anyone was coming after me, or if they even knew what it was that I did… I just started running, as far away as I could. The running itself… it’s all a blur, I barely remember it. There was pain, of course. My feet were screaming at me to stop, my eyes were burning… but I just kept going, until I found myself in the forest…”
[An excerpt from the compiled journals of the Outcasts, translated from New Standard]
Had they been able, the ancient oaks would have blinked in surprise. Here she was, stepping on leaves and pushing aside branches in the deepest heart of the forest, their forest, paying no attention to any of the beauty around her. Not only that, but she was running down the narrow, winding path between the mighty trunks, her panicked flight at odds with the tranquil atmosphere of the late summer afternoon. Bizarre, to say the least. However, even if the oaks were aware, they paid her no notice. High above, a sparrow alighted on a high branch. It watched the girl for a few seconds and flew away, its attention on other things.
Time passed. The girl ran on.
“As far as I can remember, my mother and father never mentioned the forest, and it never came up in my lessons. I had caught glimpses of it before, though; you could see it clearly if you stood on top of Unify’s outer wall. Maybe I asked about it at least once when I was small, but I can’t remember them ever answering. I heard things from other kits, though… strange and awful things. They said that it was haunted; that monsters lived there that could kill you just by touching you or looking at you. One girl told me what her parents had told her, that it was where the ‘bad people’ went. That if you disobeyed or got into trouble, you would be sent there and never come back. It wasn’t a place I ever thought about going, in any case. But maybe on that day, some part of me realized that if I went to the forest, no one would follow…”
When she finally stopped and leaned against the cool trunk of an oak, her legs and side burned white-hot, protesting the distance she had run. Even so, she was prepared to flee again, to force her exhausted body into action should she need to. Every muscle tensed as she listened carefully for sounds of pursuit… nothing. The forest was deep and silent, save for a few singing birds, the sound of her own breathing, and the frantic hammering of her heart.
It was all right. She was alone. Then, and only then, did she feel safe enough to press her slender body against the bark and weep.
With all the greenery and earth colors around her, she looked quite out of place. Her eyes were robin’s egg blue, her sunny golden hair nearly waist length, tied back in a tail at her neck with a white 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 more sandy color. The simple wool tunic she wore had once been white, but now was filthy, scratched and torn open in a dozen places by stray branches. A long bush of a tail poked out the back of her dress; normally it would have curled over at the tip like a question mark, but now it drooped behind her, limp as a rag.
The sadness and exhaustion combined were simply too much for her to bear. As if a great weight had descended on her shoulders, she slid roughly down the oak’s trunk, staining its bark with tears. Upon the forest floor she laid nestled 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 curled her tail around herself and hugged it to her body as she rocked slowly back and forth, crying until she could cry no more.
“The forest was so huge, and I was so small… it was like I was the only person in the world, like everyone and everything else had disappeared. Thinking back on it, that was the first time in my life I had ever truly been alone… maybe that was what I needed.
“I wasn’t alone for long, though. Those old children’s stories were right after all. Monsters did live in the forest…”
From the boughs above her, the creatures watched with growing interest. They moved silently back and forth on 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 young, fresh, tender meat… 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 melon-sized, bulbous abdomens, busily spinning whispery white silk. Their scent was dry, dusky, horrid… The girl backed up against the oak tree as if she wanted to melt into it, her pale blue eyes wide and blank with terror. The creatures advanced, making eerie clicking and chittering sounds to one another. They could smell her fear on the air, as sweet and intoxicating as fine wine. One scuttled forward and began crawling up her leg. Her throat grew tight, and her fur stood on end… 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 ray of afternoon sunlight. The thing on her leg tensed and gave a loud screech and dropped back to the forest floor, a metal throwing knife now embedded between two of its many eyes. A shadow dropped down in front of the girl and drew an old and battered sword. 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 shadow made its blade dance almost like a living thing as it did its deadly work. Another monster split in two, and then another… When the last monster in sight was dispatched, the shadow turned around to the girl, who was speechless, barely able to breathe. It spoke, in a shockingly blunt, direct tone… no formalities, no courtesy, just a question:
“What are you doing here?!”
“I had no idea what to think. My mind had just stopped working… Here he was, in the middle of an ancient, haunted forest, looking at me like I was the one who shouldn’t have been there…”
He was taller than she was, slightly older by the looks of it, and his scruffy fur several shades darker. Long, unkempt chestnut hair framed his angular, thin face, with a black headband barely visible beneath his bangs. He had a muscular body, but at the same time lean and underfed from what she could see of him. Making out his exact build was difficult due to his loose-fitting robes with wide sleeves… a fighter’s clothes, all black save for a few scarce lines of red trim. A dark wooden scabbard for the old sword hung from the wide belt on his hip. There were deep red climbing boots on his feet, with grooved metal soles for better 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.
His eyes… they bored into the girl, making her shiver. Mahogany-colored, intense, hard and unreadable, they scanned her, took in her ruined clothes and her state of near hysteria without so much as a blink of surprise.
This strange, wild, violent creature frowned, and once again he spoke. “What are you doing here?” he repeated, harsh with suspicion, just as blunt as before.
She didn’t answer him. She just stared at the stranger, her lips moving without forming words. Finally, her voice emerged in a dry croak. “You’re… you’re sentient…”
His frown disappeared, replaced by a darkly amused smirk. “So are you.”
“And… and you’re a squirrel…”
He let out a sound that might have been a chuckle. “Again, likewise.”
This did nothing to ease the girl’s panic. “B-but— you just can’t be…!” Even frightened out of her wits, her speech was far more reserved than his. “N-no one is supposed to—”
“Grew up hearing the stories, did you?” he said, crossing his arms. “‘Don’t go into the forest, it’s full of monsters’, right?”
“H-How did you know?” she stammered, completely lost. “A-Are you r-reading my—”
He sighed and closed his eyes, shaking his head. “That’s what they tell everyone. It’s not entirely true, but they figure it’s the best way to keep people from coming here. Look, I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.” He flicked the ichor from his sword, sheathed it, and held up both hands. “See? It’s going to be all right. Can you calm down?”
Calming down seemed hardly better than facing more monsters, but at least he had now put his weapon away. Hesitantly she nodded, still ready to cut and run at the slightest sign of aggression.
“Good.” The stranger took a few steps back, giving her space. There was softness in his voice that hadn’t been there moments ago. “Just take it easy.”
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 panicked as before, she nodded at him again.
Still he kept his distance. “I think I see what’s going on. You came here without knowing anything about this place, right? Without knowing anyone lived here. Which says to me that you didn’t mean to be here… no one told you to come.”
“I’m sorry.” She swallowed, feeling her throat tighten again. “I’ll leave, I promise!”
“Settle down, settle down.” He held up a hand once more. “Please, let me explain. You’re… not exactly the first person to come here like this.”
The girl blinked. “B-but… I thought this place was forbidden—”
“It is. At least, that’s what the Reps tell everyone,” said the stranger. Bitterness crept into his tone. “They don’t want anyone to know the truth that doesn’t have to. It’s part of the punishment.”
Bad people. The words from long ago echoed through her mind. The forest is where the ‘bad people’ go. She tensed and prepared to flee…
Again, those intense eyes bored into her, freezing her in place, but now she could see in them… sympathy. Sympathy, and regret, and loss. A deep pain that would most likely never heal. “I understand you’re afraid,” he said, “but it’s not what you think, I promise. This forest is called Tasakeru; it’s a place for exiles.”
The word struck a chord with her, cutting through her fear. “Exiles?”
“Outcasts, is what we call ourselves.” There was that bitterness again, more than before. He looked away, gazing at the expanse of woods around them. “We’re the people who don’t belong in the world… rejects. Trash. Some of us were banished by the Representatives, because we went against the ways too much, or we were too difficult to deal with. Others… well, others didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Against her better judgment, the girl’s heart opened for him. The stranger described himself and his fellow exiles with such harsh words, but in such a casual tone… Trash, rejects. Clearly, those words and others like them had been levied at him so many times that he had grown accustomed to hearing them. But of course they still stung, even if only a little… no wonder she sensed so much anger in him. “I’m sorry,” she said, softer this time. “I’m sorry. That’s so terrible…”
“You get used to it after a while.” He shrugged. 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 stung. She bit her lip and nodded. “Yes.”
“Then you’re in the right place, whether you meant to be here or not.” A deep sigh escaped him… but then he smiled, and while it was a sad, tight smile, it was also full of warmth and understanding. “Welcome to Tasakeru. I’m Zero Takaishi.” He punctuated his statement with a bow, his hands at his sides.
“Good afternoon, Lord Takaishi. My name is Hanami.” The girl wiped her eyes and bowed in return, 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.”
“Please, there’s no need to be formal out here. 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, 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, pretending not to notice. Still, the silence festered, growing uncomfortable… she cast around, desperately searching for something else to say. “I-if you don’t mind 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. “Remember how I said the rumors about monsters weren’t exactly true? They’re the ‘not exactly’ part.”
“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 in the city, 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, if you don’t mind my asking… again… 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… now that you’re here, you’re not going back to Unify.”
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 a stranger calling himself trash, an Outcast, a person that no one wanted her to know about… 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 shoppers go by as she bought breakfast at the marketplace? It 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 the stranger, to hurry home to her bed, her tea, and the familiar marketplace. 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 that life, that home, was gone, its sense of safety and routine forever shattered. Even if she was able to go back by some miracle, what had happened there this morning…
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 hurt so much to throw it all away, it hurt more than she thought she could bear… but when faced with the alternative, 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 reason to question it.
END OF CHAPTER 1