Strangers become friends
Watching dancing fireflies
“So it was… we heeded the words, and change and new life flourished throughout the world. From our savagery, we were uplifted into civilizations, each one based upon the Gods that so awed and terrified us. We reclaimed the land, healed it as best we could, and made it our own. We tamed the animals, the goats, sheep, pigboars, and fowl, nurturing them as if they were our own children. Where there was once only ruin, we built homes, towns, villages… and Unify, our capital city.
“Built in a circle around the Shinju, the great tree that the Goddess of Life raised in the world’s center and named after part of the message that the Gods gave unto us, Unify spread as our numbers grew. Among the Shinju’s roots we mingled, sharing our stories and our knowledge, and under her boughs we slept in peace. When it came time to lead ourselves, those chosen by each species took to meeting high up in her crown, where the Representatives could see all of Unify spread out before them.
“For a while, it was paradise… but then, to our sorrow, our belief in the Gods led to more conflict than ever…”
[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]
“Well, kitto, there it is!”
A gasp left Hanami’s lips as Faun pulled aside the underbrush blocking their view of a grassy clearing. At the clearing’s center, under a canopy of stars, there stood a huge slab of granite. Ten meters across, it was low enough to the ground that one could step up onto it without having to climb. Its surface was almost perfectly flat, smoothed and leveled by who knew how many centuries of rain, and so polished that it reflected some of the light of the late summer moon above. In the center of the rock there were a half-dozen logs, each large enough to sit on and covered by a hand-woven blanket. The logs surrounded a shallow dip in the rock’s surface, in which lay a pile of blackened timber and ash, the remnants of a fire. All around, the air glimmered with tiny, lazily drifting yellow lights blinking off and on… there was a company of fireflies out tonight, engaged in a courtship dance.
“It’s beautiful,” said Hanami in a hushed tone as she climbed over the edge. The place was like an illustration out of an old storybook, the kind she used to love as a child.
Faun shrugged and grabbed a blanket, wadding it into a rough ball shape before she sat down on it. “It’s not much, but we like it.”
“I can see why.” Smiling, Hanami took her own seat, folding her hands in her lap… which was when she heard and felt something tear. Her ears turned back; doubtless, one of the numerous gashes the branches had made in her tunic had just split open even further. Her lip trembled as she tugged at the fabric, trying to conceal the damage.
“Oi,” chided Faun. “Leave it alone, it’ll tear even worse if you do that. Dijo, I told you you can have some of my clothes when we get back to my den.”
“Erm,” said Hanami. While she was beyond grateful for the offer, that wasn’t exactly a comforting statement.
The vixen’s grin grew wide… already she could read this one like a book. “What’s your preference? Let me guess: short skirts, tall leggings, open at the front to show off the—”
“That will be quite enough, Faunelle,” said a new voice, a deep, rich baritone from behind them. “Not everyone needs to be subjected to your fashion sense, such as it is.”
Hanami turned to greet the speaker… and all that came out was the now-familiar squeak. Approaching them was an enormous boar badger, the biggest she had ever seen. Badgers were large by nature, but this one was well over two meters tall to the peak of his neatly arranged charcoal hair, and he looked as if he could stand head and shoulders above the both of them even when seated. His physique only added to the sense of hugeness; quite unlike the rounder, softer shapes of most of his kind, his build was that of a champion, rippling with muscle and sinews like coiled ropes. The badger cast aside the simple brown traveling cloak he wore, and Hanami’s eyes grew so wide they were in danger of falling out.
Underneath was armor, mostly iron by the look of it, crude and rough-hewn. A breastplate covered his massive barrel chest, an edged tripartite pauldron rested on one shoulder, and there were heavy gauntlets on each wrist. The armor was clearly old, weathered and pockmarked, but meticulously well cared-for, with not a speck of rust. Slung in a holster on his back—and here Hanami goggled even more—was a spiked iron ball larger than her head, attached to a chain and dark wooden handle.
“You must be the new arrival Zero wrote of,” said the badger to Hanami as he came closer. “Greetings and welcome to you, Milady. My name is—”
“S-Stripehead?” The name was out of Hanami’s mouth before she could stop herself. Her ears flattened in shame as Faun burst into a fresh fit of hysterics across from her.
“Ah.” The badger grimaced, but the expression quickly shifted into one of quiet amusement. “I see you have spent time with our vixen friend. No need to be embarrassed, Milady, she gets the better of all of us.” Touching a fist to his breastplate, he bowed… and nestled within the twin black bars of fur that marked his face from snout to forehead, Hanami saw a pair of honey-brown eyes that gleamed with surprising kindness, given his fearsome appearance. “My real name is Rowan, Rowan Longstripe.”
“Hanami,” she said, bowing in return and repeating the gesture. “I-it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you as well, Lady Hanami.” Rowan smiled, and Hanami felt far more at ease. A smile like that spoke of a warm and gentle soul, one that you could trust in completely. While his body, armor, and weapons gave the impression of a bloodthirsty warrior, that smile was one of a poet, someone with a fundamental understanding of people and the way the world worked. He turned that smile to Faun, who was still wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, and raised a bushy eyebrow. “Are you quite finished, Faunelle?”
Hanami swiveled to see who he was talking to before it clicked. “‘Faunelle…?’”
Faun cut off in mid-laugh, and her emerald eyes blazed as she shot a death glare at the badger. “I’ve told you before, Stripehead, my name is Faun. NOT Faunelle!”
Rowan leaned close to Hanami. “The prevailing theory is that Lady Muranaka is so incensed of her full given name that she insists on using nicknames for herself and everyone around her. A sign of much deeper issues, clearly.”
Hanami giggled, liking Rowan more and more by the minute.
“In any case, when in Faunelle’s company, I suggest you keep your wits and your valuables about you at all times,” said Rowan, finishing with a sage nod.
“And you need to watch yourself around him,” Faun countered, jabbing a thumb in his direction, “because Stripehead can turn anything, and I mean anything, into a week-long debate.”
“Guilty, if highly exaggerated,” said Rowan, stooping down to the fire pit. “Faunelle seems to think it is a crime to love words.”
“It is a crime if you talk people to death with them!”
“Ah, but would not such a death be a noble one? Far better to be felled by words than by a blade or illness, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, for Gods’—it was a figure of speech and you know it, Stripes!”
“A figure of speech! My, Faunelle, you are improving. Perhaps soon you can graduate to proper similes and metaphors.”
“Metaphors my backside, you stuffed-up—”
Hanami watched the back-and-forth with a growing temptation to burst into laughter herself. It was obvious that this type of verbal sparring happened often, and that both parties enjoyed it immensely… though of course they would never admit that to each other.
“How many books have you read today, Stripehead? A dozen? Two dozen?”
“Nineteen. Thank you for asking, Faunelle.”
“You have not! That was supposed to be a joke! And my name’s not Faunelle, dammit!”
“The pursuit of knowledge is never a joke, Faunelle! But then again, perhaps you are an exception…”
“OI! Come here and say that to my face, I’ll show you an exception!”
By now, Hanami had a hand over her mouth, desperately fighting to keep herself in check. Barely audible over the fox and badger’s arguing, there was a rustle in the boughs above. A few leaves drifted down as Zero dropped down to the rock, landing with barely a sound. The corner of the buck’s mouth turned up as he came forward. “Dijo,” he said, bowing to her. “They actually do get along when they’re not stepping on each other’s tails.”
“I’m glad to know,” said Hanami, beaming up at him and returning the bow. “Good evening, it’s nice to see you again.”
“Ho!” Rowan stepped back from the pit as it erupted into a roaring bonfire. His fist went to his breastplate again. “Good evening, Zero. Did you find what you were looking for?”
Zero mirrored the gesture, then shook his head with a frown. “A few smaller nests, a hunting pack or two, and some stragglers, but still no sign of where the damned things are coming from.” He sighed and crossed his arms. “This is becoming a serious problem. I can’t ask Naole to come out here with spiders running around…”
“A conundrum to be sure,” grumbled Rowan. “Our food supplies won’t last much longer without her help, and if they keep finding our stores—”
“Um, excuse me.” Hanami raised a hand. “I told Faun earlier that if you all need fruits or vegetables grown for you… that’s something I can help with. If you’re going to let me stay here, it would be the least I could do.”
“That is exceedingly generous of you to offer,” said Rowan, nodding in her direction. “We would all be grateful for your assistance, Milady.”
“Same, kitto.” Faun leaned back and grinned. “Someone who could grow us fresh fruit and tubers, so we wouldn’t have to live on nuts and berries and mushrooms… Speaking of which, Takky, what have you got for us?”
“Not much, I’m afraid.” Reaching into his jacket, Zero pulled a drawstring pouch and passed around its contents. Once it came to her, Hanami found a scare handful of dried berries and a few sunflower seeds inside, and her heart grew heavy. Having always been relatively well-fed, she couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live on such meager meals for days or even weeks on end… everyone deserved to be able to eat well, especially her friends.
Friends? Hanami stopped and blinked as she chewed on a particularly tough and leathery berry. I’ve only known them for a few hours… As she looked around at the three faces aglow in the firelight, though… the word felt right, like a puzzle piece sliding into place. Friends, she thought. These three had known each other for a long time, she could tell, but already they were accepting her as one of their own, in a way that no one in Unify ever had. My friends. People who need me, who I can help.
People who won’t reject me… The sudden melancholy thought intruded into her mind, and her hand reaching up to the flower tucked behind her left ear as her eyes wandered to the dancing sparks of the fire. Despite its warmth, she shuddered and clutched at her blanket. No, they won’t reject me. As long as they never find out…
“In some respects, it was inevitable. As time went on, the number of living witnesses dwindled, and the stories of the Gods turned from history to legend, with details changed, embellished, or forgotten along the way. Each of the eight sentient species had their own ideas of who the Gods were and where they came from… our beliefs spread and flourished in so many directions that they could not help but contradict each other. And when so many different cultures each think that their particular set of beliefs is the ‘true’ one… they tend to start believing the others to be false by extension.
“Quarrels turned to fights turned to skirmishes turned to battles. The Representatives watched from the Shinju’s crown in horror… by then, almost five hundred years had passed since the Day of Three Gods, but the stories of the Species War and its horrors were not forgotten. If nothing was done, another war would erupt, worse than before… and first Unify, then the rest of the world would be torn apart.
“With few options, the decision was made to build walls: a hundred meters high, sturdy enough that no one could break through, slick enough that no one could climb them. Unify would be cordoned off into eight sections, one for each sentient species, with only the centermost ring around the Shinju’s trunk preserved as it once was. Within each designated section, the species would be free to live and govern themselves as they saw fit, so long as their way of life did not interfere with the others.
“An imperfect solution, and some would argue a tragic one… but for the most part it was effective. Relative peace was restored… the only cost being our harmony.”
[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]
Silence fell soon after the little group finished eating, only broken by the chirping chorus of the evening’s frogs and cicadas, and the crackling of the firewood as it blackened and settled. The way that the four sat staring into the bright flames, one would almost think them hypnotized by it.
Faun was the first to break the spell. “I should probably make a run to Unify tomorrow,” she said, with little of her usual enthusiasm.
“Agreed,” said Rowan without looking up. His fingers were steepled together, his hands resting against his chin. “Food, supplies, and spellstones, the usual itinerary.”
“Don’t suppose while I’m there I should mention the spiders to the Reps, eh?” Her face wrinkled in disgust. “It’s not like they’ll want to help us.”
“Doubtful,” said Rowan with a sigh. “I checked my message scroll this morning. There are sporadic sightings of wood spiders in the city as well.”
“Let me guess.” On the other side of the fire, Zero leaned forward. “The Reps think we’re to blame.”
Hanami said nothing.
“They’d probably blame us for bad weather if they could.” Turning to one side, Faun spat in disgust. “Bunch of old gasbags with their tails up their—”
“Faun,” Zero chided her, and then chose to ignore her sticking her tongue out in reply. “I’m not too pleased with their decisions either, but I’d appreciate you at least being civil if you do talk to them. They’re even less likely to listen if you’re rude to them.”
“We should go with you tomorrow,” said Rowan. “The three—pardon, the four of us can carry more than you can yourself. Add that to what Naole can gather for us…”
“Hey, yeah!” That perked Faun up considerably. “Another set of hands means more for all of us! What do you say, kitto? Kitto?”
There was no response. Hanami had slumped over and was now leaning against Rowan’s massive arm, her eyes closed and her chest rising and falling slowly.
Faun smirked and made to get up. “Honestly…”
“Don’t,” said Zero. “Let her rest. It’s her first night as an Outcast, she must be exhausted.”
“You just want to watch her in her sleep, don’t you, Takky…”
“Faun!” hissed Zero as his fur bristled. “I do not!”
Smiling softly, Rowan moved the doe so that she lay down on her log, sliding his blanket underneath her head as a makeshift pillow. She clutched it tightly in her sleep, and her tail curled around her as if to shield her from harm. One of her ears twitched, threatening to dislodge the flower tucked behind it.
Another silence fell, but this time the Outcasts watched the strange girl instead of the fire.
“The first year out here is always the hardest,” whispered Zero after a while, heavy with sympathy. “Do you think she’ll make it?”
“Damned if I know.” Faun shrugged. “She sure didn’t come prepared… no belongings, no tri, nothing except her clothes and that flower. Must have been in a hell of a hurry.”
Rowan tore his eyes away to glower at the vixen. “You went through her pockets?”
“It’s not like it did me any good! Besides, I was just seeing if there was enough for actual food. You know as well as I do, Stripehead… seeds and berries aren’t cutting it, and I can only get so much out of Unify without being caught.”
“And what we do have, the spiders keep finding.” Zero crossed his arms. “I like your idea, Rowan.”
“If we all split off in different directions, and stay out of sight of the Order and the Daigundan…”
“Right, sounds like a plan.” Some of Faun’s cheer came back as she rubbed her hands together at the thought of the haul. “You know, maybe we could get the old one in on this, too. Five is better than four, right? We should try to find him, see if he wants to—”
A guttural rasp came from somewhere over her shoulder, as if the voice’s owner had not spoken for decades. “See if I want to what, vixen?”
Faun fell off her seat, her tail fur puffed out and standing on end as she let out a yelp of shock.
Behind her, slowly coming into the fire’s light, there stood a decrepit figure of a wolf. He was little more than a skeleton, hollowed and gaunt, his skin and coat stretched tightly over his ancient bones, his face as lined as crumpled paper. The only clothes he wore were tattered trousers, and the only thing he carried was a knobbled wooden walking stick. Every inch of his fur was white as driven snow, overgrown and matted in some places and thin in others. Bent double over his walking stick, he hobbled close to the fire, his tail dragging behind him and brushing against the rock. The flickering glow reflected in his golden eyes, the only part of him that still appeared oddly young…
“Good evening, Drake,” said Rowan, rising briefly to touch his breastplate. “What brings you around?”
The wolf didn’t bother to return the gesture. “Someone new’s here. Is that her?” He bent a crooked, yellowed claw in Hanami’s direction.
Zero frowned… more than once, Drake had appeared like this out of the blue, asking intrusive questions like this without explanation as to why. He found the practice irritating. “Yes, she’s new.”
Panting, Faun climbed back up to a sitting position with an assist from Rowan, clutching her chest. “A warning next time, please! Gods! Here I thought you’d died or something.”
Drake ignored her. “What’s she done?”
“Does it matter?” Strangely, Zero found himself edging closer to Hanami, his scabbard thumping against his shin. “She’s young, and scared. It can’t have been anything criminal… she won’t even tell us her last name.”
The walking stick clacked against the granite as Drake shuffled over for a closer look. He said nothing.
“Don’t tell me you honestly think she’s suspicious!” Faun said in disbelief. “She’s too afraid to sneeze out loud without apologizing, let alone get herself exiled!”
“Could be an act,” said Drake. One of his hunched shoulders moved in what might have been an attempt at a shrug. “People lie.”
“I’ll keep my door locked just in case,” Faun said flatly. “Look, as long as you’re here… we’re going to Unify tomorrow to get food. You should come with us so you can—”
“No,” said Drake.
Now Faun began to bristle. “That’s it?! Fine, whatever! See if we bring you anything to eat!”
“You don’t need to.” The wolf didn’t even look at her… his eyes were locked on the sleeping doe, his expression unreadable. “I’ve never asked for your help finding food, and I don’t intend to start now.”
That did it. Faun reached into one of the pockets of her bandolier…
“Don’t,” said Rowan in a warning tone. “Antagonism will not help anyone right now.”
It was Zero’s turn to stand. “If there’s some sort of problem with Hanami…” he began, fighting inside to keep his tone casual.
“There’s no problem,” Drake said after an interminable pause. “Thought I smelled something about her, but it was nothing.” Apparently satisfied, he turned and limped away from them all.
“Wait,” said Rowan to his back. “One other thing. The spiders seem to be growing more aggressive. You should—”
“I’m not worried.” Was that a hint of dark amusement in the wolf’s voice? “Best of luck tomorrow.” With that, the old white wolf melted into the dark, the tapping of his stick the only sign than he was ever there. In seconds, even that was gone.
Grumbling, Faun rubbed her arms to smooth her fur back down. “Creepy old bastard. Who stepped on his tail?”
“He has his ways, just as all of us do, Faunelle.” Rowan turned back to the fire with a sigh.
Zero had no comment. Once again, his eyes were on Hanami. She was twitching in her sleep, making faint noises of distress. The first year out here is always the hardest. His words from earlier echoed through his thoughts. I hope you are strong enough to make it through, Hanami…
END OF CHAPTER 3