A new arrival
Dusk upon a frigid lake
A flash of scarlet
“Every sentient is taught the story at an early age. Ask any cub, pup, or kit old enough to speak, and they will tell you. It is the story of our world, how it rose from a state of violence and chaos to become the society we know today. They may tell you different names, or different motives, but at its heart, the story is always the same… and it always begins like this:
“Long ago, the world’s eight sentient species were locked in endless war with each other. So brutal, savage, and lengthy was this conflict that all recorded history prior to its beginning was irrevocably lost. All reasons for the fighting, any knowledge to who or what had started it or why, we now have no way of knowing. This tragedy came to be called the Species War. Countless numbers wept… the atrocities committed by every side during that era still haunt us all, even centuries removed from those dark days.
“The lore tells that the last battle was held on a spring morning. What was the spark that ignited into the inferno that followed? No one knows for certain… theories abound, but whatever vile action triggered it, it was enough to awaken something from deep within the earth… a monstrous being, an entity far beyond our understanding. Was it always there, waiting for the day it could reveal itself? Or was it called into existence by our long history of bloodshed? Again, no one knows…
“On that morning, it erupted from beneath us, vast enough to block out the sky, black as night and boiling with hatred… With pitiless eyes of white-hot flame, it looked down upon our multitudes and spoke in a voice that split the skies and cracked the earth: “You fools” it said, and every living creature heard its words and trembled, “This world with all its beauty and promise was given to you, and you have squandered it. You have stained the earth with blood and darkness for far too long. Now, your retribution is at hand. Heed my words, for I am DEATH, and all shall wither before me.”
The God of Death breathed, and all that its breath touched began to burn…”
[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]
For the past half hour, there had been no words between them. Nothing save for the dry leaves crinkling underfoot, the sighing of the breeze, and a few birds up in the branches, singing to warn of the encroaching twilight.
Numb… Hanami felt numb, disconnected from herself. Cold, despite the lingering heat of the late summer evening. It was shock settling over her, she supposed. Shock at not only her new status as an exile (or Outcast, rather), but that what she had been taught and what she had been told about this forest for her entire life had been lies. Deliberate lies, according to the buck called Zero. The foundations of her world were shaken apart… how and why anyone would go so far to distort the truth, she didn’t know.
She found herself wondering what else she had been lied to about.
“So,” said Zero next to her, giving her a start.
“Kya! Y-yes?” Hanami stammered as she ran her hands through her tail fur, trying to smooth it back down.
“It’s my turn to ask a question… if you don’t mind my asking.” He looked back over his shoulder at her, smiling a sad little smile.
“I… I s-suppose not…”
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” said Zero. “It’s just sort of… a custom. When we get a new arrival, one of us asks them why they’re here.”
Hanami froze. Her ears pressed down flat.
“No one comes to Tasakeru without a reason,” he said. “Every one of us made a mistake, or angered our people somehow… we all did something they couldn’t forgive us for.”
Shaking like a leaf in a gale, Hanami’s hands closed tight around her tail. A few dry sounds came from her mouth, but she couldn’t seem to form words.
“It’s all right, it’s all right!” Zero held up his hands and cautiously backed away, giving her space. “Like I said, you don’t need to answer—)”
“She doesn’t have to answer, Takky, isn’t it obvious?” said a new voice from a branch above them, languid and relaxed. “Look at her! She’s a cold-blooded killer, that one.”
Both squirrels’ heads snapped up to follow the voice, one considerably more alarmed than the other. “Faun,” sighed Zero. “This might not be the best time…”
“It looks to me like the perfect time,” said the figure on the branch, swishing a bushy, white-tipped tail lazily back and forth. “You should be thanking me, I just saved you from the dangerous murderer down there. One more second and she would have gone for your neck.” She stretched luxuriously and tumbled down from her perch, performing a completely unnecessary flip on the way down to the earth and landing flawlessly on point.
All of Hanami’s anxiety evaporated at once, replaced by stupefied disbelief. Foxes were beautiful and proud of it; everyone knew that, and no self-respecting fox would ever let anyone forget it. The vixen now elbowing her way between them was a stunning example of her species, even by their high standards. Foxes and their traditional lack of modesty generally made Hanami uncomfortable, and this one… The only things she wore were elbow-length black gloves, a pair of bright red boots that came up to her knees, a black loincloth casually draped around her waist, and a bandolier slung over one shoulder at an angle. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was decorated by a madder red ribbon tied in a bow, which rested just behind her pointed ears. As she turned to greet the new arrival, Hanami saw one gleaming emerald green eye, the other mostly hidden behind her bangs. The vixen leaned forward and smirked, and it was a playful smirk, as if she were amused by a private joke she refused to share with the rest of the world. “So you’re the one who was screaming earlier, huh?” she said to Hanami as she looked her up and down.
“I—” Hanami found it difficult to speak. It was tempting to run and hide behind the nearest trunk, but that would also be rudeness of the highest order.
“Oooh, yeah, Takky. You found a real monster here.” The vixen tossed a sly smile back over her shoulder. “We all better start locking our doors.”
“Faun,” said Zero again, sharper this time. “Please don’t make this harder on her. She ran into a pack of spiders, I barely got there in time—”
“Ouch.” Faun cringed. “That’s a hell of a welcome for you.” Her expression softened as she leaned forward and put a hand to the side of her mouth, as if she were imparting some great secret. “Don’t worry, kitto, everybody gets spooked by those things at least once. Except me, of course.”
“Funny,” said Zero with his own smirk as he crossed his arms. There was a gleam of amusement in his eyes. “I seem to remember someone screaming blue murder the first time one dropped on her…”
“It dropped on my dinner, Takky. That was a scream of rage, not fear. There’s a difference.”
The tension in Hanami’s body began to ebb away. There was something infectious about the vixen’s cheerful manner… a sort of odd charm that snuck underneath her defenses. “I— Um… it’s a pleasure to meet you—”
“Right, introductions,” said Zero, stepping forward. “I apologize for the rudeness… with her, you tend to stop noticing it after a while. Hanami, this is Faun Muranaka… Faun, this is Hanami.”
Out of habit, Hanami tilted forward in a bow. “Just Hanami. G-good afternoon, L-Lady Muranaka. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Faun goggled at her. “Wow, is this one tight-wound, or what?” she said to Zero. Then, back to Hanami: “Call me Faun, kitto, and forget the bowing stuff. This is the last place in the world where you need to be worried about formalities.”
“F-F-Faun,” she stammered. All these given names would be harder than she thought.
“And I see you’ve already met our Takky.” The way Faun kept shifting her attention back and forth between them resembled someone watching a game of catch. Now it was Zero’s turn. She dug an elbow into his side and waggled her eyebrows. “Not a bad eye you’ve got there, I’m impressed! You need anything, Takky? Candles, sweets, oils?”
Hanami blinked, totally lost. “Oils?”
“Faun!” The buck’s face did contortions of horror as his ears pressed flat. “We’ve only just met! And please don’t call me ‘Takky’ in front of her, it’s embarrassing!”
“You know my rule, Takky. Everyone gets a nickname. ”
“I apologize, Hanami.” Zero put a hand to his brow. “Faun can be… less than tactful, but she’s still one of us. You can trust her… most of the time.”
“It’s… all right…” said Hanami, still wondering what oils to do with anything.
“In any case…” Zero crossed his arms and attempted to steer this conversation back in a more comfortable direction. “Faun, if you wouldn’t mind, could you give Hanami a bed until we can find a proper place for her? I’d offer, but-”
The vixen clapped him heavily on the back, making him jump. “Say no more. C’mon,” she said to the doe. “Let’s get you settled in.”
“A-are you quite sure that’s all right, Lady Mura- um, Faun?” Hanami took hold of her tail again. “I wouldn’t want to impose…”
“Dijo! You’re not imposing at all.” A small squeak of alarm left Hanami as the vixen wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. “We Outcasts have to stick together, right? Your home is my home.”
“I-if you’re sure…” Hanami smiled more genuinely this time. A strange person indeed, but at least she was friendly. Loud, blunt, overly casual with her speech, and with little sense of personal space, but friendly.
“Sure I’m sure!” Faun delivered another of those heavy claps on the back, which prompted a second squeak. “Takky, are you heading home?”
Zero nodded. “After I make one more run through the area. I want to be sure there aren’t any more packs wandering around.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Stick ‘em for me if you see them.”
“I will. Meet you at Campfire Rock later tonight for dinner. Go well, Hanami.” And with that, the buck raced straight up the trunk of the nearest oak, as if gravity had ceased to apply to him. Just like that, he was gone, with only a few falling leaves to show he had ever been there.
“‘Meet you for dinner,’ he says,” muttered Faun with a flicker of annoyance. “Right, that’s assuming anyone finds dinner…”
Once again, Hanami found herself staring as the leaves drifted down. True, in ages long past, squirrels were said to have lived in forests like this one, but surely even their ancient ancestors weren’t able to climb like that… how did he even—
Someone poked her shoulder. “Beg pardon,” said Faun. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but maybe we should get going.”
Hanami’s ears turned back as she stumbled through an apology. She almost started to bow again before she caught herself.
“See? You’re learning already!” Faun beamed with pride. “We’ll make a real Outcast of you yet. Let’s get you home.” The vixen eyed Hanami up and down, taking in her dirty, disheveled fur and ragged clothes. “Hmm, scratch that. Let’s get you cleaned up first. I’d let you use my bath, but my heating stone ran out, and we don’t exactly want to set a fire unless we have to, if you mark me. There is a lake nearby, though… it’s cold this time of day, but it should do.”
“I don’t mind,” said Hanami. “The lake sounds perfectly all right, thank you.”
“Everything blackened and turned to dust… our homes, our land, our loved ones, nothing was spared from the flames. The God of Death knew no remorse, no mercy, no pity. Young and old, healthy and infirm, criminal and innocent alike, all perished when it breathed upon them. The few that escaped its gaze swore that they heard it laugh, a cold laugh without any trace of mirth.
“When all seemed lost, when the last frightened survivors had all but resigned themselves to oblivion… that was the moment that twin pillars of light broke the ceiling of black clouds and smoke that had gathered over the world. From that heavenly radiance came two figures, one whose body burned hot and golden with the strength and boundless courage of a newborn star, the other with a silver glow, serene and gentle, slow to anger but terrible in her wrath. The survivors were struck dumb, terrified of these two and awed by them in equal measure.
“The two new Gods did battle with the Death God, and all creation trembled. The Gods commanded the elements between them, the land and sea and wind and fire coming to their aid, changing the shape of the world forevermore. Some say that the old world perished in that battle, and that only at its end did the world we know emerge.
“But end it did… the new Gods sealed the God of Death deep underground, placing a mountain atop it that would mark its prison forevermore, an immense, dead rock where no greenery would grow and no sentient would set foot. This is the place that we know today as Mount Fury.
“Finally, all was quiet. The heaving of the earth and the raging of the sea gave way to calm… and in that calm, the new Gods revealed their natures to the people below. The golden warrior was the God of Time, the relentless one that brings change to all things… and by his side, the silver Goddess of Life, from whom all things are born. They passed onto us a message: ‘The time for war is over. Now is the time to unify… go forth, grow strong, bring change and new life. And remember us, for one day all three of us will return.” The Goddess raised a mighty tree in the center of the world, a mark of that promise… and then they left, returning to the heavens once more. This was the birth of our civilization, the beginning of the Age of the Three Gods…”
[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]
As it happened, the lake wasn’t just cold, it was frigid. Shivers ran up and down Hanami’s spine just from dipping a toe into the water. It was clear, though, and deep enough to submerge herself. Now, if only she could work up the nerve to step in…
It was a small lake, centered in a break between the endless oaks. More of a large pond, if one wanted to get technical. There was enough space between the trees to let the fading afternoon light through in golden beams that shone bright spots like mirrors on the water’s still surface.
“Want a push?” said Faun with a devious grin. She was seated on the bank with Hanami’s tunic and sandals, arranged in a neat little pile with her flower on top. Faun had even agreed to turn her back while the doe disrobed, though it didn’t make much sense to her; they were both females, after all, and public bathhouses were common enough in Unify. Another old habit, she supposed.
Hanami blanched. “No, thank you!” The thought struck her that if she stalled enough, the water would grow even colder, so she might as well get it over with. Taking a deep breath, she advanced until the water rose up to her shoulders. That was better, it didn’t seem quite so chilly now. She set to work, washing the dirt and grime from her fur.
Silence fell, broken only by the water’s gentle rippling. Hanami closed her eyes, tempted to forget that anyone else was here, to relax completely and let herself drift… but that would be rude to her new companion on the shore. She wracked her brains, searching for something to talk about, and landed on the way that Faun and Zero spoke to each other. In her experience, limited as it was, the only people outside of family members who used such casual speech were, well… “Your mate seems quite nice,” she said, trying not to sound judgmental.
“My… my mate?” Faun stared at her for a moment before it clicked. “You don’t mean Takky?!” This was followed by hysterical, whooping laughter that echoed through the forest, disturbing a few flocks of resting sparrows.
Burning hot with shame, Hanami fought the urge to sink underneath the water’s surface and stay there for a few hours… or maybe years. “I-I apologize,” she mumbled, mortified. She had to remind herself once again that there was no need to bow… besides, if she tried that now, she would only get a snout full of lake water. “The way you talked to him, I thought—”
“Oh, Gods,” gasped Faun, wiping a tear of merriment from her eye. “Are you ever off the path, kitto! I know we’re a long way from Unify, but damn! Listen, even out here in the wild we have standards! Crossmating doesn’t happen, it just doesn’t. Me and Takky?!” The thought was so ridiculous that it set her off again.
Hanami stared down into the depths, her ears pressed flat. “I apologize,” she said once more. “I didn’t mean to offend—”
“It’s not offensive, it’s funny,” said Faun once she finally calmed down enough to speak coherently. “Dijo. You meant well, and at least you didn’t think I was mated to Stripehead. I’ll pass on the complement.”
At least there was that. Hanami went back to washing, then paused. “‘Stripehead?’”
“One of the others. He’ll say his name is something else, but don’t believe him.”
“How many others are there?”
“Me and Takky and Stripehead are the only three there’s been for at least- oh, wait.” Faun wrinkled her brow. “I almost forgot the old one. Dark or Derk or something, I can’t remember exactly. Hardly matters, you won’t see much of him.”
Something about that piqued Hanami’s interest. She turned around as she brushed tangles from her golden hair. “Why not? Is he shy?”
“Shy? Pffft.” The vixen snorted. “He’s ancient as the hills and about as friendly as a cold brick. Months go by and we don’t hear a word from him.” She picked idly at a patch of grass by her side as she waited. Her eyes fell on the strange red flower, carefully placed atop Hanami’s folded clothes. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flower like that before. Pretty, though… it’s a nice color, and the petals are all swirly. Did you grow it yourself?”
Hanami tensed. “I… I used to grow them, but that one’s… special. Please, don’t touch it.”
“Gotcha.” Faun pulled her hand back in a hurry. “Gardener, huh? We could use someone like that. Not enough grows that’s edible out here, unless you like eating bark, moss, mushrooms, and the occasional berries. If we’re lucky.”
“I see, I might be able to help with that. Just a moment.” Hanami took a deep breath, shut her eyes tight, and ducked under the water, leaving Faun alone on the shore.
The vixen watched the ripples spread for a few seconds, then casually patted Hanami’s folded tunic, being careful not to disturb the strange flower. A few touches confirmed what she had suspected: she carried nothing else with her. No purses, no coins, no spellstones, not even any valuables or personal mementos… the only things she had were her clothes and that flower. Faun’s brows knit as she smoothed out the fabric. “Huh. Didn’t take a damned thing, did she?” she said to herself. “Must have been in some hurry.”
A moment later, Hanami resurfaced, gasping and shuddering. She shook herself as she made her way back to the shore, and a cascade of droplets fell from her sodden fur. “It’s even colder at the bottom! How can you stand it?!”
Faun flicked an ear and shrugged. “You get used to it. Like I said earlier, I usually have a heating stone, but mine ran out. There’s some hot springs to the northeast, but it’s a long walk, and if you fall in the swamp on the way back it’s all for nothing. It’ll be all right, I’ll get another stone tomorrow.”
“From where?” Hanami tilted her head. “Is there someone out here who makes spellstones?”
“Nope. I’m planning on making a run out to Unify to pick up some food and other things. I can get you some new clothes while we’re there, too.”
If anything, that only made Hanami more confused. “To… to Unify? How?! Aren’t you—I mean, aren’t we exiled?”
Smiling that devious smile, Faun tapped the side of her nose. “Yup, but that’s never stopped us before. We have ways of getting past the guards, you’ll see. Want to come along? I can get you whatever else you need.”
“I… that’s very generous of you, but I don’t have any money,” said Hanami as she looked down at her feet.
I know, thought Faun. Aloud, she said, “Dijo. I have an emergency stash of a couple hundred tri, you can pay me back later. All done with your bath?”
“I think so,” said Hanami, reaching for her clothes. “I’ll dry off on the way to wherever we’re going, I suppose.”
“Where we’re going is to the Rock for whatever we can find to eat, then back to my den.” Again with that grin… Faun eyed the tattered tunic and winked. “You could always borrow some of my clothes until you can get new ones. I know I’ve got something perfect for you… maybe something tight, in goatskin leather…”
Hanami fought to keep from blanching. A feeling of inexplicable dread filled her belly as she imagined what kind of attire the vixen would consider “perfect” for her…
Her attempt to hide her fear was wildly unsuccessful. The expression on her face made Faun nearly split her sides with laughter.
The mind watched through the spider’s eyes from the darkness far away, as the vixen whooped and the squirrel stammered. It lingered on the one with the golden hair, so innocent and fragile… and yet she had escaped their grasp, thanks to the warrior and his blade. Reckoning would come to him, of course, but for some reason the mind lingered on that strange girl. It could feel something guarded about her, a secret that would remain hidden despite her slowly growing trust in the exiles. Whatever that secret was, the mind would lay it bare once the girl was alone again. She would not escape twice.
END OF CHAPTER 2
 Dijo (die-joe): Informal Old Standard slang meaning “It’s okay”, “Don’t worry”, “No problem”, etc.