Go across the plains
To the divided city
Sheltered by the boughs
“To understand why our civilization fractured as it did, it is important to know the differing beliefs that the Three Gods inspired. The only common element between them is the presence of the Three themselves. In all other aspects, each species’ culture and worship differs greatly from the others.
“Squirrels, for example… The smallest in stature of the eight sentient species, but far from the least among us, the squirrels developed a culture based upon the virtues of loyalty, honor, dignity, and strength. Their Godlore focuses on the great heroic deeds of the Shogun, their God of Time, and the boundless empathy and grace of their Goddess of Life, Tsuchi-megami-sama, whose name was later simplified in New Standard as ‘Lady Terra’.
“The Shogun (whose name is Old Standard for ‘General’, though it may be argued that ‘Warlord’ is a more appropriate translation) is said to be the perfect embodiment of a warrior: unrelenting on the battlefield, upholding honor at all times, protecting those weaker than himself and challenging those stronger. Unafraid of death, he is always willing to lay down his life for his cause. A wild, untamed, bloodthirsty beast of a buck at first, the Shogun was eventually tempered by his love and devotion for Lady Terra. It is unsurprising that the squirrels so encourage their young bucks to emulate the Shogun… core tenets of the faith are his sacred Seven Virtues: Loyalty, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, and Justice. These Virtues were written for his first band of loyal samurai followers, and passed down through the ages from father to son.”
[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]
It’s too hot.
Hands pressed against the glass, the soft pads on the tip of each finger and thumb blistering from the inferno outside. Pulling away, seeing the reflection of wide, frightened eyes, and a face bathed in a flickering orange glow.
Someone stop it, please…
Shadows on the wall behind, twisting and contorting like demons in a frenzied dance. The smell, sharp and acrid, scouring, overwhelming everything else…
Stop it! It’s too hot!
And then a familiar sharp crack, a stinging pain… and the glass broke under the pressure of flaming black vines lined with thorns, reaching in through the empty frame to grasp her and crush the life out of her…
Hanami sat bolt upright, her short, sharp scream echoing in the small space. It was dark, too dark to see, and something was wrapped around her, stiflingly hot. In a cold panic, she bared her claws to tear at it, she couldn’t breathe… “Huh?”
Whatever was wrapped around her, it didn’t fight back. Stopping short of ripping it to pieces, she paused and ran the pads of her thumb and forefinger over it… it was soft and warm. Fabric. A blanket. This isn’t mine! How? Where—
An enormous, rumbling noise from somewhere to her right was enough to prompt another scream. Where am I have to run have to get out… Her thoughts were a desperate stream as she resumed her struggle with the blanket, a second, even louder noise setting her fur on end…
Wait. She stopped, heart hammering in her breast and tail ramrod straight, and listened carefully to the noise from the right. It was loud, but regular and even… snoring. Hanami took a steadying breath, and caught a dusky, playful scent, traces of a campfire, and a scant few nuts, seeds, and berries on the sleeper’s breath… it was Faun. Hanami supposed that she must have fallen asleep staring into the fire, and this dark place must be the vixen’s den. Calm settled over her.
She took me back to her home. Yes, that made sense. It was all right now, she didn’t need to run anymore. The doe smoothed down her fur and smiled in the dark, more grateful for Faun’s kindness than she had words to express. Out of habit, she reached up to touch the flower tucked behind her left ear, and found it still in place, as always. I wonder…
“Faun, are you awake? Come and look, you have to see this.”
With a loud snort, Faun rolled off her pile of cushions and onto her floor, waking herself up in her usual manner. Without opening her eyes, she groped around until her fingers closed around the neck of a glass bottle. Shaking it yielded a faint sloshing sound from within, but no wetness from the mouth. It was almost empty, but not entirely… which meant it would do. She brought the bottle to her lips and took a swig, winced, then smacked her lips and tried to think of what was different this morning. It was something important, she was sure, but she couldn’t quite place what it was.
“Faun? Are you all right?”
Ah, that was it. Company. The vixen sat up and yawned, cracking open her bleary eyes. “Mange,” she said to the morning and to the brown blur hovering over her, her usual manner of greeting the day.
The blur recoiled in horror. “F-Faun! That language!”
She flicked an ear. “Sorry. M’not exactly the type for early mornings, kitto. Foxes were nocturnal back in ancient times, you know.”
“I-” The blur began to resolve into a face, a face with wide, pale blue eyes. “I’m sorry for waking you,” it said, moving in what was probably a bow, “but I thought you would want to see what I found. It’s right outside.”
“All right, all right, I’m coming.” Faun gingerly worked her way through the clutter of her floor, following Hanami’s bushy tail as it disappeared through the den’s door frame. She grimaced as she emerged into the bright sunlight, screwing her eyes shut and letting slip a few more words that the doe would have been shocked to hear. The summer cicadas were in rare form this morning, droning in concert with the songs of sparrows and the basso croaking of frogs… a racket like that, Faun would need a few more drinks to drown it out. “Now, what’s got you all puffed up?”
“I was looking for seeds or roots for breakfast,” said Hanami, her tone entirely too cheerful for this time of morning, Faun thought, “and when I found this, I couldn’t believe my eyes…” She pulled a few branches aside, and—
Faun’s jaw dropped. Tucked away among the moss and roots of an oak was a cluster of strawberry vines, laden with the fattest, ripest fruits she had ever seen. Their prickly red skin glistened with morning dew, and it looked as if several of them were so engorged that they might soon fall off the stems. “Inariko’s blessed boin,” whispered Faun, rubbing her eyes and looking again, just to be sure they were real. They were. “Kitto, this is fantastic!” Unable to restrain herself, she seized the closest berry and stuffed it into her mouth, letting out an unabashed moan of bliss as the sweet, tart juice ran down her chin. “Don’t just stand there, let’s eat!”
So eat they did. The two were a study in contrasts: Hanami took her time, choosing each fruit carefully and nibbling at it in a delicate manner, while Faun simply ate as many as she could at a time, making a mess of her glorious coat and not caring one bit. The doe fought the urge to giggle at her friend’s display; for a squirrel raised to believe etiquette was paramount, watching the vixen eat was quite a spectacle. Things are different here, she reminded herself. And I suppose table manners aren’t going to be much use to Outcasts, are they?
Once they both had eaten their fill, Faun sat back, patted her belly, and let out a satisfied belch. She was euphorically happy. “That was…” she began, searching for the right words, “… heavenly. I didn’t even know strawberries grew out here. And look, there’s still plenty more left! We gotta share this with the others… where’s my boom belt?”
“Your… excuse me?”
“My boom- oh, right, you haven’t really seen it yet, have you? C’mon, I’ll show you.”
Faun led the baffled doe back to her den, set in the side of a hill and marked with a circular wooden door. The door was well-camouflaged, with an arrangement of moss and pieces of bark tied to its surface with twine… but if one looked close enough, one could see a tiny carved sign that read “Faun’s Lovely Suite” tucked within the various pieces. Past the door was a short flight of stairs… and past that, Hanami got her first real daylight look at Faun’s home.
Calling it “crowded” would have been an understatement. Every available wall and surface was packed with treasures that had caught the vixen’s fancy… there were even stashes of random trinkets suspended from the earthen ceiling by thick-woven nets anchored to the support beams. There seemed to be no organization to the hoard at all… some of it was doubtlessly quite valuable, but Gods only knew what Faun was doing keeping old food wrappers, pamphlets dated from months or even years past, and what appeared to be a small boulder made of pumice. Among these, Hanami spied a few tapestries and sculptures she was sure she had seen before in Unify’s art museums, and somehow she doubted these were reproductions. There were priceless jewels and gemstones lying haphazardly around, mingled together with the junk in no pattern that Hanami could make out, and more gold than she had ever seen in one place in her life: goblets, necklaces, bangles, rings, bracelets, and even a few unrefined ingots… Faun was quite fond of gold, apparently.
The contents strewn about on the floor were far more cause for alarm: dozens of mismatched cushions in lieu of any sort of furniture, many, many empty liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes, and a few picture scrolls with very detailed drawings depicting—
Squeak. Hanami’s ears turned back in abject shock, and she averted her eyes in a hurry.
“Ah, here we go!” Faun’s voice came from a pile of unidentifiable stuff next to the makeshift hammock that she slept in. Emerging with a triumphant grin, she held up her bandolier with pride. “Let’s go back to the berries… it’ll be less dangerous to show you outdoors.”
Hanami swallowed audibly.
Once they returned to the cluster of vines, Faun unslung the bandolier from her shoulder and spread it out for Hanami to see on the forest floor. She opened one of its many pockets, and packed together tightly inside were a number of small black spheres.
“Marbles?” said Hanami, hardly thinking that could be the case.
“Bombs,” said Faun with a wild grin. “I make them. It’s sort of a hobby.”
That made Hanami scoot backward in a hurry.
The vixen let out that barking laugh. “Dijo, dijo! They’re safe, I was just kidding earlier. They only go off if you tap or squeeze them hard.”
Cautiously, Hanami moved closer, her fur still on end. “You make them?”
“Yup! All I need is a hollowed-out stone or nutshell, a little flint and gunpowder, and a spellstone… and boom! See, watch.” Faun took one of the little spheres from its pocket, squeezed it in between her thumb and forefinger, and tossed it into the air…
Bang. A small explosion and a puff of smoke accompanied the sudden presence of a tablecloth drifting down on the morning breeze, its edges slightly singed. “That one was a compression bomb,” said Faun, retrieving the empty shell. “It shrinks your stuff down so it’s easier to carry and doesn’t take up so much room. You can’t put anything really valuable in them, ‘cause it’ll get a bit burned, but I’m working on that. I’ve got dozens of different kinds: regular grenades and flashbangs, of course, but also tar bombs, oil bombs, smoke bombs… and then there’s the really special ones!” She indicated each pocket as she spoke; Hanami watched with wide eyes, wondering how she kept track of which ones were which. “Water bombs, shock bombs, freezing bombs, trap bombs… you name it, I’ve got one that does it. And every couple weeks or so, I make a new kind, just for fun.”
“That’s… incredible,” said Hanami with the beginnings of a smile. “You must have a lot of talent!”
“Why thank you!” Faun grinned from ear to pointed ear as she folded the tablecloth into a makeshift haversack. “It’s always nice when somebody recognizes what a beautiful, talented, humble genius I am. Here, help me pick the ripest ones.”
An hour later, they met with Zero and Rowan at Campfire Rock, where their find was greeted with much surprise. A very filling meal followed, mostly silent save for the sounds of chewing and the occasional minor squabbles over who got the biggest berries. Hanami sat back and watched, basking in the glow of her three new friends’ happiness, glad for the part she played in it.
When they had all finished, Rowan gave her a warm smile. “Many thanks to you, Lady Hanami. I think we all needed that.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Zero, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “I can’t remember the last time I had a breakfast that good. Thank you, Hanami.”
“Hell yes!” Faun pumped a fist in the air. She had helped herself to another few dozen berries, of course. “Kitto, you keep feeding us like that, and you’ll have a place here for life.”
“E-everyone…” Hanami stammered, running her hands through her tail fur. “You really don’t need to thank me—”
“‘Course we do!” said Faun, sidling over and clapping her on the back. Squeak. “You found them, didn’t you? Hell, they were practically under my nose, and I never knew they were there. You deserve a lot more than just our thanks, kitto. Point of fact… wait here a few ticks.”
Before she could ask, Faun was gone in a flash of orange fur. Hanami looked over at Zero, who shrugged in reply.
Fifteen minutes later, the vixen returned with a package clumsily wrapped in brown paper. “Never let it be said that I don’t repay my debts to my friends,” she said, handing it to Hanami. “Figured you’d want this before we set out to Unify. It’s one of mine from a few years back, but I think it’ll do. Er, sorry if it’s a little loose up front, I can alter it later if you want.”
Mystified, Hanami opened the package… and inside was a simple white sleeveless tunic, and a neatly folded sash almost exactly the same color as her eyes.
“White and blue were never much my colors anyway,” said Faun with a smirk. “What do you think? Kitto?”
Hanami couldn’t answer. She clutched the tunic and sash to her chest, happy tears welling in her eyes. Since her throat was too tight to speak, she bowed to all three of them in turn, then climbed down from the rock and vanished behind a thick trunk to try her new clothes on.
“It’s not like you to give things away, Faunelle.” Rowan raised a bushy eyebrow, clearly amused.
Faun blew air threw her lips. “Oh, go sit on your tail, Stripehead.”
Zero only smiled, enjoying the feeling of actually being full for once…
“As the Shogun is the squirrels’ male ideal, so Lady Terra is the same for females. Serene, wise, and ever-beautiful, their Goddess of Life embodies calm, femininity, charity, and motherhood, the opposite side of the coin from the Shogun. In the Godlore, she not only raised the Shinju from the earth at the conclusion of the Battle of the Three Gods, but she planted a multitude of seeds that would heal our burnt and blighted world… the beginnings of the great plains of farmland that provide so much of our food today. So radiant was she that even the Death God, an enormous black viper called Abidokuja (“HellSerpent” in New Standard) coveted her to brighten its miserable existence. One day, when it could stand the emptiness no more, the Serpent dragged Lady Terra down to its lair, darkening the world and inspiring the Shogun to travel to the Beneath. There he dueled the viper and won her back after a terrible battle. From that point on, so it is said, the Shogun and Lady Terra were inseparable, as he pledged himself her servant, her lover, and her eternal guard.
“This tale is most likely where the disparity in genders among squirrel culture originates. Just as the Shogun treasured and protected Lady Terra, so all males must treasure and protect females, keeping them from harm and away from battle at all costs. So revered is she that all squirrels, male and female alike, obey a ban on the usage or casting of magic, believing that only Lady Terra should affect or change the natural order.
“Some, particularly those of the matriarchal Silver Order, refer to squirrel culture as barbaric, decrying what they see as crippling inequality between the genders. While there are points to be made there, it is important to note that the squirrels’ culture, among the oldest of all sentients, is steeped in tradition as well as spirituality. Their faith is deeply ingrained, their reverence to the old ways unwavering. Given the legendary innate stubbornness of every squirrel I have known, they are unlikely to ever change in any significant way.”
[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]
It took most of an hour for the group to walk to Tasakeru’s borders, and another hour to make their way far enough through the rolling plains to reach the first farmlands, and with them the first signs of sentient civilization. Here, Rowan passed around simple brown traveling cloaks, “just in case.”
Continuing on their way, they followed the first dirt road they found, winding a path through the gently sloping hills past tiny towns and villages, populated with those who found Unify too crowded or stifling for their tastes. There were never more than a hundred people in these sorts of towns; only wolves and badgers tended to prefer life outside the city to inside it, and the traditional badger territories were a long way from here, in the more hospitable forests far to the west of Unify. As for the wolves, on the rare occasions when packs would stay in the same place for more than a few months at a time, they felt more at home high in the rocky peaks of the Raikaa Mountains in the north. So the people in the small towns kept to themselves, living generally peaceful lives in the plains, where there was enough space to avoid species one would rather not encounter… most of the time.
Though they were far less noticeable to the untrained eye, here in the grasslands were also the sites of great battles past, from both before and after the Species War. Dig deep enough into the soil in almost any place, and one could find scattered bones, ancient husks of weapons and armor, and rocks carved with names and dates in Old Standard script, marking the resting places of long dead warriors from all species. Occasionally there would be remnants of a rusted sword, a broken spear shaft, or a shattered helmet, all half-buried in the earth… these were places where there had been no time to carve a gravestone, no rest from fighting long enough to give the fallen their proper rites. These sites were depressingly common… much blood had been spilled in these hills. It was near one such site that Hanami thought she saw Zero shudder within his cloak… but he turned away when she made to ask him why.
A passing hay cart hitched to a magically-enlarged pigboar made their journey easier. The pigboar’s tusks were filthy with mud and grime, and the beast had a distinctively pungent odor about it that the cart’s driver didn’t seem to notice or care about, but amid the stacks of hay in the back there was more than enough room for four. Once Faun paid the driver a few handfuls of tri, the crotchety old jackrabbit agreed to let them all ride the rest of the way to the city.
“I meant to ask you,” said Hanami to Faun over the squeaking of the wheels and the intermittent grunting of the enormous pigboar. “Wouldn’t you have more money for food if you sold some of that stuff in your den?”
The vixen made a noise of shock and clutched at her heart. “What, and give up my collection?! Mange, kitto, you might as well ask me to cut off a limb. Besides, it’s not that simple to sell, and getting the food is only part of the problem, see…”
“Oi, you lot!” shouted the driver over his shoulder. “Comin’ up on Unify now, ride’s almost over!”
“Yes, thank you,” said Zero, who was picking pieces of straw out of his tangled tail fur, occasionally muttering dark words under his breath. “The ride’s been just lovely, I’ll be so sorry to see it end.”
Hanami crawled to the edge of the cart and pushed the hood of her cloak back, gazing at the massive walls looming on the horizon. “I’ve never gone into the city by hay cart before! It’s kind of exciting, don’t you—”
A hand pulled her back and replaced her hood. “Careful,” said Zero in her ear. “You’re an Outcast now, so you’ll want to keep that on in case the Order or the Daigundan recognize you.”
“Oh, right,” said Hanami, her tail drooping. “That’s… that’s the way it always is for you, isn’t it?”
Zero nodded. “It gets harder every time I go to visit Naole.” There was a distinct note of bitterness in his voice. “I can only dodge so many guards before one notices me.”
Tilting her head to the side, Hanami reached for his hand. “Who is—”
“Down, all!” came Rowan’s baritone. Everyone ducked into the hay as the cart passed through the arching gate set into the outer wall, and into the tunnels that led directly to Unify’s center. The gate was flanked on either side by three knights wearing the distinctive chrome armor of the Silver Order… fortunately, none of them saw the Outcasts amid the haystacks. One knight nodded absently to the driver as he urged his pigboar forward.
For a while, it was dark save for the glow of torches set in sconces at intervals along the walls of the tunnel. This route led underneath one of the eight mighty walls that sectioned off each species’ territory. It was hard not to feel oppressed in here, with a thousand tons of rock above you. Once the cart emerged into the sunlight of the Marketplace, however…
It was a sight that never failed to impress, no matter how many times one saw it. In the shade of the Shinju’s massive branches, there were countless booths, tents, log cabins, stone pagodas… every type of building or shelter one could imagine, all sharing the same space. Sentients of every species came and went in bustling crowds as they attended to their business, some laden with packages, others simply browsing through the many different vendors. Here was a tent full of a business of ferret mages dressed all in midnight blue, hawking potions that could give one’s fur a lustrous shine… or so they claimed. Across from them, a buck with a grizzled beard made steaming plates of noodles, and glared at anyone who stopped to take a sniff without showing a tri first. Further along, a knot of wolves were stopped in front of a weapons vendor, only identifiable as a racoon by the ringed tail protruding from his (her?) concealing robes. The wolves seemed to be having an argument with the vendor over the quality of his (or her) knives. Badgers ran booths stuffed to bursting with scrolls, books, and ancient tomes, most of whom were quite absorbed reading selections from their own stock.
Placed among them all were the guards: not only Order knights of multiple species, but bucks wearing the red, white, and gold of Daigundan samurai, and tough, muscled rabbit Praetors carrying wicked lances. The knights, samurai and Praetors kept the peace in the Marketplace, the only part of Unify where all species still mingled… none of the three military forces were very fond of the other two, but they tolerated each other well enough most of the time.
Once the elderly rabbit had shooed them from his cart, Zero turned to face the others. “I’m heading to Aedis Centralis before I gather food,” he said. “Might as well see Naole while I’m here, and ask if she can help out too.”
Rowan nodded. “Shall we meet at Miranda’s Fountain once we’re all finished, then?”
“Sounds acceptable to me. Give me two hours.”
“Two hours it is. Go well, my friend.”
“Go well.” With that, Zero disappeared into the crowd.
“Who is—” began Hanami… only to squeak again when Faun clapped her on the back.
“Any you know where we’re going, Stripes.” There was a smile on the vixen’s face that Hanami wasn’t at all certain she liked. “I need to treat my new denmate to a celebration in her honor.”
Rolling his eyes heavensward, Rowan mouthed something that resembled “Dear Gods.” Kneeling to Hanami, he looked her in the eye, his expression grave. “Be careful. Do not let her drag you into her troubles, Milady.”
“I’ll… try?” said Hanami.
“That is all you can do,” said the badger with a sigh. “Go well.”
Hanami was halfway through a farewell bow to him when Faun hauled her by the shoulder in the opposite direction. “F-Faun, wait…! Where are we going?!”
Somehow, Faun’s grin became even more frightening. “The best place in Unify, kitto. Hell with that, the best place in the world.”
END OF CHAPTER 4