Wander in the woods
Cavern lit by torch’s glow
Lair of the queen
“What does it mean to be sentient? What makes us different from the animals of our world: pigboars, sheep, birds, insects, and others? ‘That is simple,’ says the average citizen. ‘Sentients are intelligent, and animals are not.’ But can an animal not learn? One sees enough enlarged pigboars pulling carts in and around Unify, and surely no animal is born knowing how to do such a thing. ‘It must be speech,’ says another. ‘We sentients can speak, write, and communicate with each other.’ A valid point; the gifts of words and language seem to be exclusive to sentientkind. However, animals have been observed exchanging information with each other by sounds, gestures, body language, and scent… so in their own way, are they not communicating? ‘It must be magic, then,’ they say. ‘Only sentients can control and manipulate the elements.’ Again, a valid argument… but do the humble ants not reshape sand and soil to build great colonies? Do the birds not weave together twigs and branches to build nests? The squirrels seem to think so; they view magic as manipulation not only of the elements, but of natural order itself. Small wonder that they so zealously forbid its practice.
“Therefore, I propose that what defines us is this: the eight sentient species are the only ones that display knowledge of their own mortality. Every living creature dies eventually, but only sentients learn of our inevitable fate, to someday depart the world of the living and travel to the Beneath, and from there to the worlds beyond. We fear death, and that, I propose, is what truly makes us sentient.”
[An excerpt from Questions of Belief, by Broad Bircholder]
In Tasakeru, the further to the east one ventured, the more difficult it became to tell day from night. Once one crossed over one of the many tributaries of Lake Juniper, the branches overhead grew ever more densely intertwined, blocking out all but the barest shafts of light, even at high noon. In concert, the terrain became steadily rougher; verdant, even soil gave way to hills at sharp angles to the ground, studded underfoot with rough stones that had never seen the sun. It was almost as if the rivers marked a dividing line between the parts of the forest that were merely ominous or threatening, and the parts that belonged to an older world… wilder, angrier, and more savage.
Faun led the way for the Outcasts, being able to see perfectly well in both the dark and the light. Zero followed her, his nerves singing with tension, ears turned back, and one hand hovering close to the hilt of his sword. He knew this forest better than anyone, but even he never went out this far if he could help it. Crossing the rivers always left him with a vague sense of unease, like he was trespassing on forbidden ground. Tonight, Tasakeru’s eastern depths felt even more malevolent than usual, and he couldn’t shake the feeling of many eyes watching him from just out of sight. That wasn’t even mentioning the noise, or lack thereof. All the sounds of a late summer night that he had grown so used to, the wind in the leaves, droning cicadas, and croaking frogs… none of those could be heard here. An oppressive silence lay upon them, one that magnified every small sound of rustling or cracking made by their passage.
Behind him, Drake hobbled along on his walking stick, huffing and wheezing, stopping on occasion to catch his breath or sniff the air, or to call a direction to Faun. And behind him walked Hanami, her ears pressed flat and her tail tucked close to her body. Rowan brought up the rear, moving as quickly and quietly as his bulky frame allowed.
It was only the badger’s presence behind her that kept her from fleeing. There was something wrong about this part of the forest, wrong on a fundamental level, in a way she couldn’t describe… she only knew that it gave her the crawling horrors. More than that, though, there was the old wolf. He was so haggard, worn down on the verge of decaying entirely, and he moved as if every step weighed upon his stooped back like lead. His eyes… something about the way Drake stared at her with those golden eyes when he thought she wasn’t looking. When he stared at her, she had an inexplicable feeling that all his age and tiredness could fall away in an instant, and a tiny voice in the back of her mind squealed a constant, high-pitched cry: Danger. Danger. Danger.
During one of the many times they stopped to allow him to rest, he brushed away any concern with a wave of a twisted old claw. “Don’t mind. Keep going, we’re almost there.”
Zero and Faun exchanged looks, then continued on.
Hanami hung back, preferring to keep the wolf in her sight, so it gave her the fright of her life when he spoke directly to her for the first time: “Oi, girl.”
Squeak. “Y-yes, sir?” Her hands seized her tail tight.
There were those golden eyes again, boring into her. “Not much good at hiding your fear, eh?” Drake said with a grim chuckle. “Even an old wreck like me could smell it on you from a half-mile away.”
“I-I-I’m sorry,” Hanami stammered, beginning to bow out of habit before she caught herself.
“No need. It was just an observation.”
“Lady Hanami, are you all right?” Rowan looked back and forth from wolf to squirrel as he caught up to them, raising an eyebrow.
“Dijo, Longstripe,” said Drake. “Go ahead with the others, I just want to talk. She was fast asleep last night when I came by, never got a chance to give her a proper greeting.”
Hanami swallowed. “Proper greeting”.
“I see,” said Rowan. “As is your custom, but I shall stay close.” That last part was said more for Hanami’s benefit than Drake’s. Ducking under the low-hanging bough of a gnarled hickory, he moved to join the others.
The wolf’s eyes followed Rowan’s back, making sure he was out of earshot, then they swiveled back to Hanami, rooting her to the spot. “Look, girl,” he said. The words were spoken in a soft growl, as close to sounding gentle as he was able. “You get to be my age, you’re able to tell when folk are hiding something.”
Attempt at gentleness or not, Hanami’s fur raised. Primal instincts screamed to reach for the flower tucked behind her ear, but the severity of his gaze kept her hand frozen in place.
“Calm down, girl!” Now there was a bark of annoyance in Drake’s tone. “Stars above, if I was going to tell them, I would have done it by now.”
Hanami relaxed, but only a little. Somehow, she found her voice again, but it came out weak and afraid. “You… you know…?”
“Not the specifics.” The old wolf flicked a tattered ear. “I doubt they’d interest me anyway. Listen, no one comes to this forest without a reason. If you want to keep that reason to yourself, that’s your business. But if what you’re not telling them could save their lives and yours in a pinch…” Here his gaze grew more intense than ever. “I would seriously consider which is the worse outcome: knowing your secret, or death. Your choice.”
Whatever spell held her in place was broken. Hanami hurried to catch up to the other Outcasts, rattled and unnerved, as if someone had trodden upon her grave. However… an odd thought made her stop and look back over her shoulder at the wolf. “What was your choice?” The question was so unlike her that she stopped in mid-step, preparing to apologize again.
Drake’s weathered face fell into such deep shadow that his expression was unreadable. In a voice almost too low to make out, he spoke: “I chose to live.”
He said nothing more, but an inexplicable chill that had nothing to do with the late summer night sank into Hanami’s bones.
“Nain’s glorious kintama,” Faun breathed from up ahead. “What the hell happened here?”
“Did you find them?” Underbrush rustled as Zero came to her side. “Where are they? I can’t see…”
“Can’t you smell?! Yeah, I found them. So did something else.”
“We need a torch,” said Rowan. “Someone, see if you can find a loose limb, or-”
“Will this work?” From behind the badger, Hanami produced an oddly straight piece of dry oak, roughly the length of her arm.
“Perfect, kitto. I swear, you’ve got the Gods’ own luck.” Snatching the branch from Hanami, she dug in her boom belt with her free hand. “There we go. I’m warning you all, you might not want to look at this if you’re still hungry…” Bang. The darkness around them leaped back as the vixen cracked a bomb over one end of the branch, igniting a merry flame.
Against her better judgment, Hanami looked… and retched, clapping a hand over her mouth. The torch’s flickering light threw the scene of the massacre into sharp relief: nearly a dozen mutilated bodies littered the forest floor, only recognizable as wood spiders by the few remaining hairy legs scattered around, broken and snapped like twigs. Each lay in a dark, tacky pool of ichor, split open from head to abdomen, hollowed out like the discarded shells of cicadas. Apart from a few scraps of torn flesh, nothing remained of their innards. Faun was right; now that they were close, the stench was horrific, even faded by time… damp and sharp and pungent, the smell of corpses left to rot.
“I don’t understand,” said Zero, fighting the urge to be sick himself. “What even lives out here that could have done this? Th-this wasn’t just a predator attack, this was-”
“A slaughter.” Rowan finished and closed his eyes. He had seen enough. “Surely, even these creatures didn’t deserve such a fate.”
“Speak for yourself, Stripes.” Faun passed the torch to him and hugged herself tight, shuddering. She sounded far less confident than usual. “Couldn’t have happened to nicer monsters, I think.”
Drake stood at the edge of the torch’s light, a ghostly white contrast to the blackness that surrounded them. The shadows dancing over his thin face made him seem more skeletal than ever. “Whatever it was, I suggest you all keep well clear of it if you do find it. Best of luck.”
Hanami weakly raised her head, bleary-eyed. “You’re… leaving?”
“I did what I came here to do, I led you to the bodies.” The old wolf snorted and turned his back, leaning on his stick. “What you do next is up to you. Go well.”
“Hmph. Fine, go.” Faun waved a dismissive hand. “Thanks for almost nothing. Probably get eaten on your way back, see if we care.”
Zero wasn’t about to give up so easily. “Drake, if you-”
No response. The wolf was already gone, melted into the dark.
“Grumpy old bastard,” Faun muttered, turning back to the corpses. “So what now?”
Zero crossed his arms, deep in thought. “This is more spiders than I’ve ever seen in one place. Maybe there’s a reason for that. If Drake stumbled on a nest or something…”
“We don’t need to find a nest, Takky, we need to find the source. And how are we supposed to do that? Even if they did come from the source, wherever that is, this bloodbath happened hours ago. The scent trails leading away from it are stone cold by now. Even my nose isn’t good enough to follow a- eh?”
“Shhh,” said Rowan in an urgent whisper, placing a huge hand on her shoulder. His pupils were wide, but there was excitement as well as alarm in his eyes as he stared past the others.
“What’s the matter, Stripehead?” Faun cast around for whatever the badger was looking at. “Don’t tell me, you saw a library out here…”
“No. Shhhh,” he repeated. “Stay still. Turn around slowly.”
Zero saw. His tail stood straight up. “Oh my Gods. That… that can’t be…”
Her stomach finally settled, Hanami rose shakily to her feet. “Wh-what is it? Did you see another-” She followed their gazes, and all words left her as she left the nightmare behind, and beheld a vision out of a dream…
“Raccoons are the keepers of the world’s mysteries. Who better than my kind to explore the strange, the bizarre, and the supernatural? We cloak our faces, our bodies, our laws, and even our very names in shadows, so it’s only appropriate that we forever seek out new secrets to unravel.
“Fortunately, the world has more than enough mysteries to pore over for ages to come. There are the Titans, a ninth sentient species who once flourished in what is now the Kamen Desert to the south, and who all vanished within a century. That they disappeared so quickly is strange enough… stranger still that they left no traces of themselves or their culture behind.
“There is Mount Fury, the highest mountain at the world’s northernmost point, where not one single snowflake has ever fallen upon its peak. Every culture has its tales of the place, from demons drawn from the Beneath to steal the essences of the living to the keshin sent from above, it has become a place of both hope and loss. ‘Climbing Mount Fury’ has become synonymous with a fool’s errand, and no sentient has done so and told the tale in generations.
“There are the yuki-majin, the strange giant creatures only glimpsed during the worst of winter storms, which are said to snatch away any sentient unfortunate enough to see their faces. Every Lostmonth, parents still whisper urgent warnings to their children to never set foot outside in deep snow, that they might look upon one and never be heard from again.
“Perhaps most baffling of all, there are the Pale Deer. The Pale Deer, so the stories say, are creatures that defy any categorization. Not quite sentient, but not quite animal; unquestionably alive, and yet insubstantial as ghosts, the Pale Deer are thought by some to be remnants of another world… perhaps the world of the Lost Ages, before the coming of the Gods. Some see them as messengers; messengers of what, not many can say. In fact, proving that they exist at all is so difficult as to be impossible… with no solid evidence of any kind found in centuries, many rabbits have concluded that the Pale Deer are merely a very persistent shared myth, yet that doesn’t explain why they appear in one form or another in every sentient species’ lore…
“We may never know the truth. And that, in and of itself, has made the subject of the Pale Deer one of the most popular topics of discussion among my people for generations.”
[An excerpt from Ravager’s Guide to the Unknown]
It stood more than three meters tall from its iron hooves to the tips of its upswept ears, taller still if one measured its antlers. Majestic and eerie, the creature’s luminous coat was not quite white and not quite grey, but somewhere in between, casting a soft glow on its surroundings. The antlers extended backward from its skull, like barren branches in winter, each of their many gently curled prongs not ending in a tip, but gradually fading away into nothingness. It took in a breath, its chest swelled, and it exhaled a mist from its nostrils that had more light and more color to it than any mist should, a mist that wreathed its powerful body as if it were standing in a cloud.
“A Pale Deer,” said Zero in awe. “I can’t believe it. I remember reading about them in The Legend of Hayaoh as a kit, but I never thought they were real…”
“What does it want?” Hanami shuddered as the beast’s eyes turned on her. Its irises were an impossible shade of deep green, with swirls of gold and silver that she was sure were moving. She had read the stories too, but nothing prepared her for those eyes… they had an unmistakable intelligence in them, but not like that of any sentient she had ever seen.
“Forget what it wants,” hissed Faun, “what should we do?” Her fingers flexed as she recalled something. “… Do you think it’s true that they carry gold in their bellies?”
Rowan blanched at her. “That your lore would claim such things explains far too much about your culture, Faunelle.”
Riveted by the sight, Zero held stock still, afraid that the Pale Deer would vanish if he so much as blinked. “If we only had some way of telling what it-”
Its upswept ears perked as the beast turned, fixated on something only it could see. Its heavy iron hooves made no sound as it trotted a few paces, up to the trunk of an elm… and passed through it, emerging seamlessly from the other side as if the tree were nothing but air.
“Or m-maybe we should just leave it the hell alone?” said Faun. The sight unnerved her more than she could say. Living things just couldn’t do that, yet the beast looked more solid than any ghost, somehow more real than the forest that it walked through…
“No.” Rowan shook his head. “I’ve read the lore as well. Catching sight of a Pale Deer is no accident. We’re seeing it for a reason.”
“So what’s your plan, Stripehead?”
Already it was moving, its pace picking up to a canter as it followed whatever instincts guided it. It stepped through underbrush and gnarled roots in total silence, its eerie light fading as it left them behind…
“Follow it!” Zero beckoned to the others, creeping along behind it at a safe distance. “We may not get another chance, come on!”
They followed, and the Pale Deer led them on. It never traveled in the same direction for more than ten or twenty meters, yet it never doubled back on itself. It moved with a purpose, that was clear enough… but what purpose it was eluded them.
At one point, Hanami leaned close to Zero and whispered, “What if we can’t find our way back?”
“Dijo,” said the buck, flashing a smile. “See the moss on the trees? It almost always grows on the northward side, which means we’re still heading roughly east.”
Duly impressed, Hanami nodded. “How did you know that?”
“I’ve lived here a long time.” Bitterness crept into his expression as he turned away. “You pick up a few things.”
Twenty minutes later, they caught the first sight of it. Standing in the middle of a copse, illuminated by the torchlight and the Pale Deer’s glow, a shrine gate stood by itself in the depths of the forest, smooth, flawless, and entirely stark white. Built in a similar style to those in front of the old temples in and around Unify, the gate was of a simple design: two tall pillars standing three meters apart, connected by a straight tie beam ten meters up and a gently curved lintel atop that. But there was no shrine for it to guard, no path leading up to it, nothing to suggest that this had ever been a place where sentients worshipped. It was simply there, in a place where no shrine gate should be.
The Pale Deer walked directly to the white gate without stopping, phasing through whatever was in its way. They saw it trot in between the twin pillars… and rather than emerging on the other side, it vanished without a trace, leaving nothing of itself behind, not even hoofprints in the loam.
“I-” For once, Rowan was at a loss for words. “What happened?”
“It’s gone,” whispered Hanami. “It just… disappeared…”
Raising the torch high, Faun approached the gate as if it were something poisonous. “Maybe it wanted us to go through?” She held her breath and stepped between the pillars, prepared for anything as she crossed the threshold… but nothing happened. She stood blinking on the other side, perplexed.
“I don’t understand,” said Zero. Their whole journey had been bizarre, but this? This was nearing the limits of disbelief. “Why would it bring us here if it didn’t want us to go through?” For lack of anything else to do, he came to one of the pillars and laid a hand it. The pure white surface was faintly cool, made of a material he couldn’t identify. Too smooth to be wood, yet not cold enough to be stone or metal.
“Fascinating,” said Rowan. He circled around the gate’s perimeter, chin in hand. “Even if there was once a shrine here… for the forest to have grown around it, it must have been thousands of years old. But there’s not a scratch upon it, not even any vines growing on the pillars. As if it’s brand new…”
Hanami remained silent, wringing her hands. Somehow, this didn’t feel like a place where one should linger. She opened her mouth to suggest going back, when…
“Found something!” Faun called from twenty paces away. There was nervous excitement in her tone.
“What have you got?” Zero drew to her side. His eyes widened.
“Silk,” said the vixen, rubbing the whispery patch of silver between her gloved fingertips. “I think we were going in the right direction after all. This way.”
On they went, leaving the inexplicable white gate behind with its secrets. There was nothing more they could do about it or the Pale Deer, wherever it had gone…
Faun’s prediction proved correct. At the bottom of a steep, rocky incline lay the mouth of an ancient bedrock cavern, a yawning hole in the earth that swallowed up what little light the torch provided them. It was clear that this was indeed the place they were looking for: old, yellowed bones lay half-buried in the soil surrounding the entrance, and it had that same dry, dusky smell that the spiders did, amplified to a nauseating degree.
“L-last chance to turn tail, Takky,” said Faun. Her voice was husky and strained, more like a croak. “We know where it is now. Maybe we come back during the day, with more weapons?”
“Too late now,” said the buck. He scanned the dimensions of the cavern’s mouth as he estimated how many spiders might be inside. Given that there were almost certainly more tunnels elsewhere, and that they probably emptied into a much larger area underground… the result was a very, very large number. Not good. Not good at all.
Rowan nodded. “I agree. Delaying any longer will only cost us more.” After passing the torch to Hanami, he reached for his back and unslung the enormous spiked morning star from its holster.
“Come on, do we have to go in? Can’t I just chuck a few bombs down there and be done with it?” Faun said. “It’s quick, it’s simple, and it would solve the problem.”
“It would also destroy all the food they stole,” said Zero. “If we want to salvage anything, we’ll have to go in.”
“Death wish,” grumbled Faun under her breath. “Godsdsamned samurai, you’re all alike… Kitto? You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” Hanami huddled closer to the group as they stepped into the mouth, keeping a tight grip on the torch.
“Good girl.” The vixen clapped her on the shoulder. Squeak. “I swear, if we live through this… I’m tracking down that nice-looking todd, the Order Captain who arrested us, and taking him out for a night on the town.”
Hanami cringed. “That’s-”
“Or maybe I should take the vixen who took our statements,” Faun continued. “She was cute, too. Dammit, now I can’t decide… but mange, why decide? I could just take them both.” She stopped in mid-thought, turning grave. “Unless they’re siblings. Never again.”
The doe stared goggle-eyed at her friend, unsure if she heard correctly. “F-Faun, pardon my asking, but are you-”
“Hmm?” Faun raised a brow. “Am I what?”
“Never mind.” Hanami shook her head. This wasn’t the time for those kinds of questions.
No more than a hundred paces inside, they found the first body. A pathetic sentient shape shrouded in dusty silk, so long dead that its gender and species were impossible to tell, even after Zero cut its bindings open. Its face was shrunken and shriveled into innumerable hairless, leathery lines… the sight so upset Hanami that she had to stop and lean against the tunnel’s far wall for support, ears flat and eyes shut tight.
It wasn’t long before they found another cocooned body, and another, and another… all in the same sorry state as the first; there was no point in checking any of them for signs of life. Soon there had passed so many that Zero stopped counting. On and on, deeper and deeper, until they saw dim light ahead, and…
“Serpent’s breath,” said Zero, his insides churning…
The bedrock of the chamber’s towering walls could not be seen, though they reached so high that they vanished from sight amid a hazy grey light from above, its source unclear. Every square inch of the walls was festooned in gossamer threads, threads that anchored sentient-sized cocoons to every available surface. Dozens of cocoons, if not hundreds, all different shapes and sizes, from huge, lumpy ones that could only contain badgers, to small bundles that each would fit a child. Countless spiders crawled on, over, and around the helpless prey, some no more than the width of a spread-fingered hand, others rivaling the size of hay carts in Unify, or the enlarged pigboars that pulled them. Clicking, cooing voices called to each other back and forth as the creatures went about their business, all of them moving at once…
Faun stumbled backward, almost falling into a curtain of shimmering threads. “T-T-T-Takky,” she moaned, digging her claws into Zero’s shoulder. “There’s too m-many…!”
“For once, I must wholeheartedly concur with the vixen,” said Rowan, in a meek tone at odds with his huge frame.
“They’re not just stealing food.” Zero’s words came out as a strangled whisper. “They’re… stealing people… but why?”
Hanami stared in mute horror at one of those smaller bundles, torchlight reflecting in her wide eyes. She lifted the torch higher, to be sure it wasn’t the shadows playing tricks on her… no, she was certain she saw it. The doe attempted to speak, but couldn’t force the words out past the tight lump in her throat. She tried again. “Th… that one,” she said, pointing upward. “It’s moving…”
So it was. The small cocoon rocked back and forth, only succeeding in further entangling itself in the mesh of threads. A nearby spider took notice; dipping into a crevice, it came back up with something clutched in between its forelegs. The spider brought its store over to the small cocoon…
“My Gods,” said Zero.
… it tugged apart the threads on one end, and shoved its legful of whatever it was into what was surely the poor child’s mouth. More wriggling from the cocoon, and something that might have been a quiet, gagging moan… The spider’s forelegs pressed up and down where the jawline would be, in a slow rhythm. It was helping the child chew.
All of Zero’s fur bristled at once. Gods help him, he understood. The stolen food wasn’t for the spiders, it was for their victims, to keep them alive, trapped in this hell… He spoke, trembling with the effort of containing his rage and revulsion. “We have to do something. Start cutting them down, get as many people out of here as we-”
Four heads snapped upward. The unfamiliar voice that spoke to them was more like one voice layered atop the other, both spoken together. The first voice did not speak in words… it spoke in a raspy, trilling chitter, a similar sound to the ones the spiders made to each other. The second voice, the Outcasts heard not with their ears, but in their minds, in perfect New Standard. It was an old voice, a melodious voice with rich undertones, one that spoke of times long forgotten…
She descended from the unseen ceiling far above on a line of silk spun from her bulbous abdomen. Unquestionably a spider, they could tell that by the shapes of multiple legs, but she was unlike any of the others that made the chamber their home. From the abdomen up, she had the shape of a person: a sleek torso tapered between the waist and ribs, two slender arms ending in hands with three long, spindly fingers each, rounded shoulders, an oval skull atop an elongated neck… like some demented being had fused the upper body of a female sentient with the lower body of an enormous arachnid.
More details became clear as she lowered herself: a crimson hourglass design splashed across her chest that interrupted an otherwise dusty grey coat of fine fur, lank reddish hair that framed her face, two large eyes with crimson pupils and three much smaller pairs of eyes framing those, all swiveling to gaze at them, lips curling into a smile that did nothing to conceal sharp, thin teeth like curved sabers… “Ah,” she said in that bizarre, layered voice. “You are here from the forest, are you not?”
Zero moved by instinct alone. Stepping to the front of the group, he drew the old sword from the scabbard on his hip, holding it at bay between himself and the beast… no, monster… no, sentient… before him. “Who… what are you?!” he choked, already dreading the answer.
Eight eyes blinked at him. “I am N’Ktane,” said the spider, laying her spindly fingers over her chest. “This is my home.”
“Impossible,” said Rowan. What he was seeing broke so many laws of the world, upended so many things he considered absolute fact, that it threatened to topple his reason altogether. “You… you can speak, you can think, but you can’t be sentient. There are only eight species of-”
“- of sentient mammals,” N’Ktane finished for him, tilting her head to one side. “Your kind. I am not a mammal… and my poor, dear children, my drones, are hardly sentient. They only survive with my mind to guide them.”
“Th-those things…” said Faun. Her tail now resembled a bottlebrush, the fur standing on end. Regular wood spiders were horrible enough, but this… “They’re your children?!”
“And whose would they be otherwise?” Her voice took on a bored tone.
“You… N’Ktane…” Zero swallowed. Of all the things he had been prepared to face tonight, this was by far the least likely, and no doubt the worst. “Your children have been stealing our food. Attacking and imprisoning our people. Why?”
One of the mother spider’s lips curled upward in a sneer of contempt. “We do what we must to survive.” Her voice grew almost… haughty. “My children and I require so many living bodies to feed ourselves, more than this forest can provide. Each year we must venture out farther and farther as our family grows… we would starve if not for the measures I have taken. I see through my children’s eyes… there are too many mammals already. We bring them here, bind them, paralyze them… and keep them just alive enough to provide for us, as long as possible. We only do as we must… as do you, I imagine, Outcasts.”
The word sent a combined shudder through the four of them. She knew. Somehow, she knew…
And the mother spider laughed at their stricken expressions. “Oh yes, I know of your ways. I know your names. I hear your thoughts… as I hear those of my children when you attack and slaughter them. I hear their screams…” Something sinister gleamed in those crimson eyes as she stared at each of them in turn. “Reimaru Takaishi,” she said to Zero. “Rowan Longstripe,” to the badger. “Faunelle Muranaka,” to Faun, who bristled out of habit. “And…”
Hanami froze, her blood thundering in her ears. All the warmth of the torch she held seeped away from her…
“You I remember,” said N’Ktane, peering at her, alight with sudden interest. “The new one, the one who hides. What secrets do you carry, my pet…?”
Faun threw an arm out in front of her. The vixen shook like a leaf, but there was fire in her gaze. “Leave her out of this,” she said. “If you want to blame someone, blame us. She has n-nothing to do with it!”
“Yes, I see.” N’Ktane sighed, her attention diverted. “You three kill my children, the new one does not. So it is you three I must punish. The other is free to go.”
“I-” said Hanami.
“Pardon me, Milady,” Rowan gave a short bow in the mother spider’s direction. His tone was stiff and overly formal, not quite masking his fear. “Forgive me if I misunderstand, but… You say you hear our thoughts. Which suggests to me that you also hear the thoughts of the many sentients you keep here as food, correct?”
“So I do. What of it?”
“Then you must know that your methods cause these people unbearable suffering,” said Rowan. A steely resolve formed in his words as he gripped the handle of his morning star. “‘Just alive enough’, were your words, Lady N’Ktane. You keep them prisoner, starve them, feed upon them, and discard them when they are no longer useful to you. If you are indeed sentient, if you can indeed read our thoughts, then you must have at least some sense of our morality. You must know that what you do is wrong. More than that, what you do is cruel.”
N’Ktane hissed four words that dropped the temperature of the cave by a dozen degrees: “I do not care.”
The reaction from the Outcasts was immediate: Hanami gasped in speechless disbelief, Zero shifted his stance into an alert crouch, Faun’s hand dove into one of the pockets of her boom belt, and Rowan hefted the morning star…
“I see,” said the badger, heavy with regret. “Since you clearly have no intention of stopping your behavior… I’m afraid we must stop you by force, Lady N’Ktane.”
Baring her curved fangs, N’Ktane stepped back, all her eyes narrowing. “How dare you…” The layers of her voice grew uneven in her rage, the chittering rasp of her natural speech briefly overpowering the mental New Standard. “You would presume to attack me in my own home? I laid claim to this forest long before any of you, mammals… but so be it. Tonight, my children and I shall feast…”
Every drone spider in the cavern stopped what it was doing at once. Hundreds of eyes focused on the four intruders, their mother’s command echoing through them, driving out all other thoughts save one: Make them hurt. They descended, skittering down the walls, over the cocooned bodies, dropping from above on anchor lines, crawling out of rocky passages…
“Hanami,” said Zero quietly. “Run.”
“No!” The doe shook her head.
“You’re not involved with this,” he said. “If you run, you might still make it out. We’ll hold them off you as best we can.”
A circle of hairy bodies surrounded them, more reinforcements joining the ranks every second. Mouth-parts slavered, forelegs raised, fangs glistened with venom…
“Dammit, Hanami!” Zero took his eyes off the mother spider long enough to glare back over his shoulder. “There’s no reason-”
“Shut up and kill them before they kill us!” screamed Faun, who had had quite enough. She hurled a handful of bombs into the gathering crowd… a roar of noise and deafening screeches followed, as a half-dozen drones disappeared in gouts of flame …
The chamber erupted into chaos.
For a few moments, Hanami could only watch in awe as she beheld the Outcasts in battle for the first time. A real battle, not with a small group of spiders or a contingent of knights or samurai, but an honest fight for survival.
Faun’s eyes were wild as she tossed bombs left and right. Even in the throes of panic, the vixen moved with great precision and uncanny grace. The bombs’ effects were random, incinerating some drones, trapping others in tar, entangling more in multicolored ribbons… but every volley hit its targets, by no accident. The few drones that got too close to her fell to the artificial claws in the fingertips of her gloves, or were crushed under the heels of her cherry-red boots.
Rowan, the gentle, soft-spoken scholar… Hanami saw for the first time why he only used his morning star when he deemed it necessary. The badger tore into the horde like a living hurricane, the massive spiked hammer spinning on its chain, a circle of iron death. Tremors shook the bedrock at his feet each time the hammer came down, flattening anything unfortunate enough to be in its path. Even in the ferocity of battle, he was calm and controlled, wielding his immense strength as a fine tool, not a blunt instrument.
And Zero… a samurai in all but name, he charged straight ahead for N’Ktane, sword flashing in the dim light as he carved his way ahead. Nothing seemed able to touch him… as Hanami watched, he sprung up and away from the horde, leaving the ground as if he had just grown wings… and he aimed his blade down at the mother spider, bellowing the time-honored Daigundan battle cry: “TENRAIIIII…!”
They fought, with everything they had, these friends she had known for only a few short hours. Blood flowed, fire blossomed, and every instinct in Hanami’s mind told her to run, just run, leave everything behind…
But sometimes instinct was wrong.
So Hanami swallowed, raised her torch, and joined the fray, determined to back her share of the horde.
The overhead strike should have been a lethal blow, a certain kill. It was aimed as such… Zero didn’t believe in prolonging fights if he didn’t have to. So when N’Ktane looked up and smiled at him during the downward arc of his leap, then harmlessly stepped to the side at the last moment… the shock of seeing her do that rattled him even more than his unplanned landing on the chamber floor. “What-”
Above him, something hissed as it sliced the air. He raised the flat of his blade… and a set of talons crashed down on the battered steel. The tips of the mother spider’s claws oozed with clear fluid as the two struggled back and forth…
Feint, thought Zero. Feint, then aim for the chest. He drew back as if to strike again…
… and N’Ktane refused to take the bait. Her forelegs lashed at him, and a sheet of silk cascaded from her spinnerets.
Dodge left, parry, then-
Again she anticipated his movement exactly, countering his attempt to gain a more favorable position. How the hell…?
She grinned, hissed at him, and her voice cackled in his thoughts. “Clearly, you have never fought a reader, Young Lord Takaishi…”
A reader. Horror and comprehension dawned on him. Readers among sentientkind were rare enough to be almost nonexistent, but it made an awful sort of sense. If she could direct all of her children with her mind alone… Claws lashed out at him and slashed through the sleeve of his robe, raking his forearm. After a few seconds, the wound began to tingle, and…
… and the next time he met the mother spider’s eyes, she not only read him, she dove into his mind…
Young Lord Reimaru Takaishi, N’Ktane purred, digging deeper. “Zero”. I see now… so much guilt, so much pain and anger… You committed the ultimate sins of your kind, did you not? Desertion. Dereliction of duty. Cowardice…
Stop. Only instinct saved him as she brought her talons down; he barely raised the blade in time to stop the blow.
“The samurai afraid of death…” A merry laugh filled Zero’s thoughts. That was what they called you? What a pity. You had so much promise… I see that your father was quite ashamed.
Stop! His teeth gritted, Zero strained against her strength as she bore down… he could feel his own faltering…
But you see, you do not have to fear death, Young Lord Takaishi. Death can be painless. Peaceful. Welcoming. I can show you…
Once more, Zero locked eyes with N’Ktane. They gleamed with crimson light, he couldn’t look away…
Hanami saw. Somehow, for all his strength and skill, Zero was outmatched. That look in the mother spider’s eyes, that unearthly glow… She was doing worse than simply reading him. Swinging the torch and scattering embers, she plunged into the horde. Hairy bodies brushed against her legs, fangs jabbed at her in passing, but she pressed on. “Zero, don’t look in her eyes! Don’t listen!”
Faun heard. She tore off the drone clinging to her shin, shoved a flare bomb into its tangle of legs, and punted it as far as it would go. She dug for another… and cried out in disgust as one drone spat thread at her, gluing her hand to the flap of her boom belt’s pocket. Now down to one useable hand, she swore as the drones regained their nerve and approached her, screeching in anticipation of victory.
Mange! Mange, mange, mange, mange…
Rowan heard as well. By now, he was several meters from the others, having swept a furrow through the mass of drones. Now the biggest of them gathered before him, a living wall blocking his way, raising their branch-like forelegs. Other drew in close behind him and to his sides, and the strategy became clear: by denying him space to maneuver, he couldn’t swing the morning star without great risk of injury to himself. Now they slowly backed him into a corner… he could forego his weapon and engage them with his fists, yes, but that would carry a much greater chance of being bitten…
Drop your sword.
No…! The spider’s words encircled Zero like warm fog. Dropping his sword would lead to pain, to death… but some part of him longed to give in.
You do not need to be afraid of death any longer, Takaishi. Drop your sword.
His will rose up, the famed stubborn pride of the Takaishi family flaring inside him. My friends. My sister. I will not… fail them again…!
N’Ktane leaned close, her face almost touching his. Dripping inner fangs unfolded from her jaws and hovered over him. You still need convincing, she crooned. More of my venom will open you fully to me, make you see reason. Do not resist. Drop your sword.
The sword was all that was between him and those fangs. It was a war of attrition, which he was losing bit by bit. He could feel himself slipping…
Drop your sword…!
Hanami pushed harder, but wading through the swarming drones had become as slow and tiring as swimming against the tide. They barreled hard against her legs, threatening to trip her. She couldn’t fall, she couldn’t fall here, if she fell, she would never rise again… Straining, she waved the torch low. Flames shone in dozens of inky black eyes, but only a few of them drew back from its light and heat. The rest-
Pain. Twin fangs plunged into the soft flesh of her calf, something cool spread through her veins. Venom. She was poisoned… it didn’t matter, she had to do something… Her legs wobbled underneath her, and she thought she could almost hear the spiders whispering…
Terror seized her heart in a frozen grip as she saw Zero’s sword waver.
Zero. Faun. Rowan. Her friends… If the only other choice was dying here, in this miserable place…
Hanami threw the torch aside, stood up, and reached behind her ear.
N’Ktane’s fangs were poised at Zero’s neck when she heard the shout.
“Leave him ALONE!”
Next she knew, something heavy slammed into her, propelling her into the back wall of her chamber. She screamed in hatred and fury, her eyes whipping upward to see…
The fog retreated from Zero’s mind, but for a moment, he was certain he was hallucinating. It had to be some kind of trick, what he saw didn’t make any sense. The mother spider was being attacked by something… no, many long, thin somethings, like snakes. Snakes didn’t have leaves, though, so what on earth…? Turning slowly, he followed them back to their source…
There was Hanami, distraught but still standing, ears pressed back and eyes wide, clutching the strange flower from her hair with both hands. From behind its blossom sprouted vines, hundreds of them, entangled together in one huge green mass as thick as the tree trunks outside, a makeshift battering ram. The doe trembled in place, but still she stood… and she faced N’Ktane, deathly afraid but refusing to yield.
“Don’t,” she said in a soft voice.
Outcasts and spiders alike stared in total silence, all frozen in place.
Then, louder this time, Hanami spoke: “Don’t hurt my friends.”
It was Faun whose words shattered the calm. “Holy hell,” she whispered, looking from the flower, to the vines, to Hanami and back again. “You’re a mage?!”
Rowan gaped openly, for once at a complete loss for words.
Stunned, Zero opened his mouth to speak… but the look in Hanami’s eyes stopped him. He knew that look; he had seen it in the mirror, in the faces of Daigundan comrades, in Naole when her temper was raised. The essence of his kind… a warrior’s spirit. In others, that look could be inspiring, dangerous, or even frightening… but in Hanami, in her pale blue eyes, it was beautiful.
N’Ktane snarled and tore at the vines pinning her. Accursed things, they grew like weeds, constricting her body, trying to choke the life out of her. It was that doe’s fault, that girl, the one who kept secrets… “You!”
“I won’t let you hurt them!” Hanami’s voice rang from the chamber’s rocky walls. “Not anymore! I’ll-”
N’Ktane locked eyes with her, and…
… and countless memories rushed to the forefront of her thoughts, all at once. Whatever she had done to Zero, this was the same a thousandfold. The mother spider’s talons raked her mind, knives pierced her skull…
You should have run, my pet. You should have saved yourself when you had the chance.
Superheated glass blistered the soft pads on Hanami’s fingertips. It’s too hot…!
Hanami… that’s your name, isn’t it? Show me more…
NO! Her vision swam, but her grip tightened on the flower’s stem. Thorns burst from the vines, digging into the spider’s body, and creepers threaded themselves into the sheets of webbing blanketing the chamber walls, taking root in the crevices of the bedrock behind her.
Let go, Hanami! You do not want to hurt any more, do you?
Ugly black vines, cascading forth to crush whatever they touched. A stinging pain on her cheek, a worse pain in her heart…
I see it. I see your suffering. Let go, and I can end it for you…
I… will… NOT!
Fool, what use is there trying to resist me? My child’s venom courses through you, I can see everything…
Tears spilled down Hanami’s cheeks, sobs wracked her body. Her mind was on fire… it hurt, it hurt more than anything should hurt, but she wouldn’t let go, she couldn’t… But her injured leg was giving way, she began to fall…
… and was caught by two massive hands that supported her weight and kept her upright. “I’m here, Milady,” said Rowan. “I am right behind you.”
A black-gloved hand on her left shoulder. “Don’t stop, kitto! Whatever you’re doing, keep giving her hell!”
And another hand on her right… it was Zero, weary and bloodstained, but alive. “‘Attagirl, Hanami, you can finish it!”
Hanami steadied herself with a deep breath. She gave her flower one more command, unleashing all her power.
It leapt in her hands, the mass of vines snapped as they tore from the main stem. A rain of seeds fell from the center of the flower’s blossom, scattering over the chamber floor… and each seed exploded into a cascade of new vines, racing across the rock and through it, burrowing down into the cavern’s depths. It was done, it was all she could do. The pain overwhelmed her, and she collapsed in Rowan’s arms.
Only seconds later, there was a flash and a wave of heat from paces away. The discarded torch had set one of the curtains of dusty old silk aflame. Now, tongues of fire consumed the threads, growing in size and strength by the second. Dust fell from the unseen ceiling high above as the chamber rumbled, Hanami’s vines eating away at its structure…
Faun looked upward, fearing for her life. “Mange, she’s bringing the whole cave down! We’re pinched if we don’t get out of here, now!”
“But the cocoons, the victims-” Rowan began.
“There’s nothing we can do!” Guilt tore at Zero’s belly at the thought of letting innocents die, but… “Even if we did have time to get them out, none of them would be able to make it to the surface!”
“Gods forgive us, you’re right,” said Rowan. “May they find peace in the Beneath… Hurry, my friends!”
The three Outcasts ran, the badger carrying their fallen comrade, following the twisting tunnel back the way they came. As they fled, a tide of panicked drones swarmed past them in the opposite direction…
Damn them all, damn them.
She was trapped, firmly ensnared by the thorned vines, as if someone had trapped her in one of her own webs. N’Ktane heard her children screaming, pleading for help, for direction, for safety from the fire and the falling boulders as the cavern shook in its death throes. She had no help to give them, she could barely move. Even if she commanded every drone to focus on freeing her, the cavern would soon collapse. She was dead already… and so were her poor children. They couldn’t think for themselves… The feeling of their mother in danger led them all here. No command she could give would send them away, no order could fight against that most basic instinct.
Damn them all… Damn her…
The doe with the golden hair and the strange flower, the one who kept secrets. Hanami. This was her fault. N’Ktane had even been willing to spare her, but she had not only refused that mercy, she had killed her… she had killed them all.
It was hard to see, hard to breathe… thick black smoke billowed through the chamber. Stalactites came crashing down from above… her children screamed…
N’Ktane closed her eyes, felt for the mind of the sleeping doe, and willed that her last thought would haunt her forever more:
Damn you, Hanami. You will suffer…
With an awful roar, the old cavern fell in upon itself, then all was quiet.
The first sight Hanami awoke to was a late summer moon, shining down amid a dark canvas studded with stars. Smaller moving lights danced lazily around the edges of her vision, green and gold, flickering on and off… fireflies. She lay on her back on cool, smooth stone, not in the hell of the cavern, but back at Campfire Rock. She blinked in confusion… how had she gotten here?
A voice answered her question. “You awake, kitto? You had us scared for a while there.” Then a friendly face, with emerald eyes and a smile that suggested amusement with some private joke that the wearer refused to share with the rest of the world.
“Indeed,” said a baritone to her right. An enormous figure sat in front of a roaring fire, bathed in its glow, his hands clasped together with his fingers steepled. “That was quite a performance, Milady.”
And one more voice, from a shape in black that sat right by her side, his hand on hers. “Welcome back, Hanami.”
She stirred and attempted to sit up before dizziness forced her back down. There was a wet cloth on her forehead, cold and comforting, a tight bandage wrapped around her calf, and blankets draped over her. “We all…” She swallowed thickly. “We all… made it?”
“We did,” said Zero. “Thanks to you.”
“Damn right!” Faun raised a tankard, grinned, and downed it.
“Where’s my-” Hanami began, reaching behind her ear. The flower was there, tucked in its usual spot. She remembered, and suddenly, she felt cold. Oh no…
“A mage,” said the badger, raising his eyebrow. “A silver mage… creation magic, I believe. That is a rare and extraordinary gift, Lady Hanami. How did you come about it? How does it work?”
“I-” Hanami shut her eyes, feeling tears welling. She took the flower from its spot and clutched it to her chest. “I’m not sure. I… I call it a Mage Flower. I just have to hold it and think about growing something, and it grows… Any plant or flower I’ve touched before grows right away, in any shape I want…”
“So, is it just vines, or-” Faun leaned forward. Her eyes grew wide. “Wait a minute. Don’t tell me…”
Oh no. Hanami knew what was coming. She huddled into the blankets, waiting for the storm.
“Those strawberry vines outside my den. The privet bush in Unify. Our shackles in the prison… and the torch!” said Faun, clapping a hand to her forehead. “Gods, that was all you?!”
Meekly, Hanami nodded.
“Fascinating,” Rowan breathed. Already his mind churned with dozens more questions, and it took a heroic effort to keep them from spilling out.
“Fascinating? Kitto, that’s incredible! Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I think I know.” It was Zero who spoke. He stared into the fire, and it cast long shadows over his face. There was no hurt or anger or suspicion in his voice, it was calm and even. “Our kind forbids using magic. Mages are against our law, it’s our first Edict.‘Cast not the spell or the enchantment, for such should be the realm of the Goddess alone.’ Most of us would think of it as ‘interfering with the natural order’. That’s why you were made an Outcast, isn’t it, Hanami?”
There was more, but he had it in essence. Hanami could no longer hold back the tears; they rolled silently down her cheeks, leaving damp trails in her fur. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I just wanted to stay, I was s-so afraid that if you knew, you would…” A pause, and a husky whisper. “I’ll leave, if you want me to.”
Silence all around, save for the musical croaking of frogs, the wind rustling the leaves, the persistent drone of cicadas.
“Are you kidding?!” said Faun, goggling at her friend as if afraid she had lost her mind. “Not only did you feed us and spring us from jail, you fed us! And…” A spark of excitement lit up her eyes. “And if you can grow anything, that means… that means food! More strawberries, rice, wheat, barley, all the food we can eat! Kitto, you’re not a criminal, you’re a Godsend!”
A broad smile spread across Rowan’s face as he nodded. “A most extraordinary gift indeed, Milady. We would be honored to have you share it with us.”
Scarcely daring to hope, Hanami looked from Faun to Rowan… and then to Zero.
Out of the three of them, he smiled widest of all. “You’re new, so maybe you didn’t understand,” he said. “All of us are Outcasts. We all got rejected by our kind for different reasons… that’s why we came here. We know better than anyone else in the world what that’s like…”
“Zero,” said Hanami. Warmth swelled within her, it was hard to breathe…
“… so the idea that we’d reject you just for using magic, especially after using it to save us all tonight, and especially with the kind of magic you’ve shown us… Frankly, it’s ridiculous. I vote that you stay,” he finished, extending a hand. “And I’ll fight to the death anyone who says otherwise.”
“I’ll second that,” said Faun, refilling her tankard. She nudged Hanami with it and clapped her on the shoulder. Squeak. “You’re in for life, Flowers.”
“I third it,” said Rowan with a sage nod. “There is always a home for you here, if you should want it.”
Zero pulled Hanami upright, clasped her hand, and smiled a smile that nearly stopped her heart. “So, what do you say? Are you officially an Outcast?”
Hanami couldn’t answer, couldn’t even speak past the lump in her throat. Through happy, grateful tears, she nodded.
She would stop running, for she was home, at last.
One a ronin runaway
And one a maiden fair
Who wore a bloom of many secrets
In her golden hair
One a thief, with clever wit
And one a scholar wise
Whose knowledge hid a champion’s heart,
A warrior disguised
And all of them in exile lived
In wilderness uncharted
Their tales remain, for you to hear
Though they are long departed…
The days of old were filled with bold
And wondrous acts of glory
Come one and all, and gather ’round
And hearken to the story…
[An excerpt from “Song of Tasakeru”, a traditional fox folk ballad from circa 400 years after the Outcasts. The author is unknown.]
 Yuki-majin (pronounced “you-key mah-gene”, Old Standard, lit. “Snow demon”
 Pronounced “Knock-tān”, with a long “a” sound. – BHS
 Tenrai: (“Ten-rye”) Old Standard, from the characters for “heaven” and “thunder”. Can be translated as “divine judgment”.