A home in the woods
A tale of power and pride
Shades of ages past
“In shadow lay she, in an earthly bed
A crown of lilies white upon her head
‘Beneath the boughs, I’ll wait for thee,’ she said
To gaze upon her was my heart’s delight
To hear her laugh would set my soul alight
Her form, her shape, alluring as the night
Oh, maiden! That again I’d be with thee!
But now, forever rest thee ‘neath that tree
The love that was, ‘tis ever not to be…”
[“In Shadow Lay She”, a poem by Sanshiro]
Faun and the enormous jackal stared at each other. Or, more accurately, Faun stared up at the jackal, and the black rock crystal eyes set in the jackal’s gold visage stared back down at her. It was unnerving, knowing he could somehow see her through the… mask? Headdress? Helmet? What was he wearing, anyway? It made him seem even bigger, more like a statue than he already was. There was something very off about him, mask (or headdress, or helmet) aside, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
“Um.” Faun swallowed. This was one of the rare times in her life when she was left searching for something to say. “You… you can talk now…”
“I could always talk,” said Seker, an ominous thrum entering his voice.
Uh oh. “I mean, in New Standard! You weren’t speaking it before, so how did you-”
“The barrier absorbed my magic. With it gone, I only required a moment of contact with you to hear your thoughts and grasp your language. A simple reader’s trick… any decent mist mage could do the same.”
“Right, the barrier.” Faun nodded. A tiny voice in the back of her mind began to question exactly what she had gotten herself into. “I bet you’re glad to be out of there, huh?”
“Yes.” His response was terse, with very little feeling behind it… stark contrast to how he first spoke to her. “Indeed I am.”
“Good, good. Folks shouldn’t be locked up like that. I would know.” After a long, excruciating pause, she added: “Especially not for… how long did you say you were down here, again?”
“Three thousand years.” There was no hesitation to Seker’s answer, no searching for a figure. “More accurately, three thousand, five hundred and seventy years, nine months, and twenty-one days, as of today.”
For a few seconds, the fact that he could recall the exact length of his imprisonment with that degree of accuracy was even more upsetting to Faun than the length itself. It took several seconds more for that figure to sink in. “That…” Her throat felt quite dry all of a sudden. “That’s… a long time to be asleep…”
“I did not sleep.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I was awake for the entire duration.” Again, just a blunt statement of fact.
“There is much you must know, vixen.” Seker brushed past her, heading for the arch she entered through. His heavy footfalls rang off the sandstone walls with every step. “Please, walk with me.”
Faun’s brows knit as she remembered what she came here for. “Wait. Before I go anywhere, explain this: what the hell happened to my ruby, and where are the other rubies that you promised me?”
The jackal was already past the ruby’s pedestal. He moved slowly, each step deliberate, as if he still wasn’t quite sure if he was dreaming or not. “The usurpers crafted my prison well,” he said, reaching out to stroke one of the walls. He sounded duly impressed. “This place was once my palace. It was torn down and rebuilt around me while I lay helpless inside… and the ruby was made a siphon for my magic. The more of my power it absorbed, the stronger the prison became. Removing it from the pedestal broke the spell.”
“So that ruby’s gone,” said Faun, crossing her arms in annoyance. “Great. Where are the others?”
There was that booming bass laugh again. “Quite direct, are you not? Sure in your purpose. I admire that. What is your name?”
“Your name, vixen. What is your name?”
“Faun. Faun Muranaka.”
“What do you know of history, Faun Muranaka?”
Faun flicked an ear. “I never was much for books. I did most of my learning on the street.”
Halfway through the arch leading out of the chamber, Seker turned and spread his arms wide, looking like a great bird of prey unfurling its wings. “Then please allow me to be your teacher, Milady. I was Seker the Last… As the Titans once ruled all sentientkind, so I once ruled the Titans. What you see around you was my throne room, at the center of a palace visible for miles…” His voice rose as he continued down the corridor. Faun got the impression that he was grinning. “Just imagine it: for five years, all the world was controlled by one hand, by one will: mine. Those who pleased me were rewarded beyond their wildest dreams-”
“Speaking of which-” Faun began.
“Yes, yes. Patience, Milady. Those who opposed me…” That laugh again, but this time there was a sinister edge to it that made her fur rise. “They never did so for long. Despite them, it was a relatively peaceful time. A prosperous time. It should have lasted for eternity…”
Despite herself, Faun was intrigued. “So what happened?”
Just like that, all the pride and merriment was gone from him. Seker let out a deep, bitter sigh. His massive shoulders slumped. “The same things that always happen. Power led to arrogance, and arrogance led me to overlook one clever sentient with an idea… an idea which spread and festered until it became the one thing I could not kill or conquer.”
“You sound like a friend of mine,” said Faun, rubbing her arms to stave off a sudden chill. “Both of you enjoy hearing yourselves talk.”
“Of course I do. For three thousand years, the only one to talk to was myself. I wrote a drama once, out of sheer boredom. I performed it for myself, then destroyed it as an act of contrition. A very therapeutic effort, I assure you. Anything to pass the time.”
Faun frowned. “So if it’s really been that long, and you weren’t asleep… how did you survive all this time?”
“Simple, Milady.” Drawing himself back up, the jackal’s chest swelled. “I am immortal.”
Dead silence followed as Faun stared at him, more confused than ever.
“1349/T3/15t / Ignisday. Sunny, a few clouds. / Morning glory, persimmon, citron.
“I’m afraid I may have made a mistake. This morning, as I was heading to Rowan’s to deliver some fresh vegetables, I came across Zero on the path as he was leaving. We said hello and exchanged pleasantries as usual, and I asked what he was doing there so early.
“That was where it started to go wrong. Zero got very quiet, his ears turned back, and he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. He mumbled something about ‘borrowing a book’, but before I could even ask him what book it was, he bolted up the nearest tree as if his tail was on fire.
“I don’t even know what I said! Is he upset with me? If he would just talk to me, maybe… It seems like all we ever talk about is small things. I want to know so much more about him, about all of the Outcasts, but…
“Then again, I suppose I can’t blame him for keeping secrets. We all have ours, after all. Especially me… It’s not as is I can just come out and tell them…”
[An excerpt from Hanami’s journal]
With a sigh, Hanami lifted the pen from the scroll, putting its blunt wooden end to the downturned corner of her mouth. It was tempting to mark out that last line, but what purpose would that serve? If she had her way, no one else would ever see her journal. Marking it out would only be lying to herself, and that was hardly healthy. Instead, she rerolled the scroll around its spool and placed it back in its box on the writing desk. With that done, she returned the pen to its inkwell and rose from the simple chair that sat in front of the desk, stretching the kinks out of her back.
The writing desk, the pen, the pool, the scroll box, and the chair were each fashioned from a different type of wood. That in itself was not unusual; a skilled woodcrafter could easily manage any one of those objects. No mere woodcrafter could construct those things without making any cuts or using a single nail, however…
Now that she was free to use her magic to its fullest extent, Hanami had proven herself to have a boundless imagination that complemented her unique gift. Within days of revealing her power, she found that growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables with her Mage Flower took little more than a focused thought and a scarce amount of effort. The next step was growing plants in varied shapes: simple things like the pen, the spool, or the scroll box came first. When she could manage those without tiring herself, she advanced to more complex designs, such as her new chair. Growing the writing desk in the right shape proved especially challenging; she worked herself to mental and physical exhaustion two dozen times attempting to render its surface as a smooth plane. It was lucky for her that Rowan needed a constant supply of spare lumber… in the past month, he had already converted four of Hanami’s failed attempts into new bookshelves for his ever-growing library.
As impressive as the writing desk was, however, it was hardly her crowning achievement. Nor was the chair in front of it, or the couch in the corner, or the birch frame she had made for the futon in her bedroom. The creation she was proudest of encompassed them all within its walls: her new house, which she had christened Haven Grove.
Haven Grove was far from an ordinary house. It was a cottage inside a newly grown oak tree, with every wall, floor, ceiling, hall, doorway, and window frame formed from its living flesh. The effort of growing it all, keeping focus to shape it correctly, and expending so much power kept Hanami bedridden for a week with backburn, but it was worth it. Wherever she went in her new home, whatever surface she touched, she felt life pulsing within it… glorious, unbound, unbridled life. Nowhere else on earth was quite like Haven Grove… a place that was totally, completely, unquestionably her own, a place that could never be taken from her. In less than a month of living there, she already felt as if it were an old and trusted friend.
The other Outcasts quickly came to feel the same. On one of the couch cushions, there was already a pronounced groove that marked Faun’s favorite sitting spot. Directly across from the couch, there was one of Rowan’s favorite overstuffed armchairs, given to her as a housewarming gift, and frequently used by him whenever he stopped by. Zero provided an old, chipped tea set of mixed porcelain and ceramics. The dishes and cups were now nestled in one of the many cupboards in the kitchen, and only used for the most special of occasions… mismatched though it was, that tea set meant more to her than any new one that could be found in Unify.
The only Outcast who hadn’t contributed anything to her new home was Drake. The ancient white wolf had not been seen since the night they discovered the spiders’ cavern. Concerned, Hanami mentioned him at the housewarming party… but Faun told her not to worry, the old brute would come around again when he felt like it.
But when is Zero coming around again? As had happened many times over the past few weeks, the buck intruded on her thoughts. Hanami put her elbows on the writing desk and slumped forward, cheeks in her hands, her tail drooped behind her. Will he even talk to me when he does? If he does?
Just what’s wrong with him, anyway?
And just what’s wrong with me…?
I’m an idiot. A complete fool.
Zero groaned and put the book aside. Trying to concentrate on it was pointless… what had happened with Hanami that morning refused to leave his mind.
She caught him in a bad position, it was true, but the possibility of being ribbed over his choice of reading material was nothing new. Years ago, when Naole found out… he could still hear her laugh and see that mischievous spark in her eyes that meant she had discovered another of her older brother’s weak spots. Whatever Hanami might say to him, his sister had most likely said worse.
So why had he run for it? Why did the thought of Hanami knowing what he was reading fill him with ungodly terror?
His features wrinkled. Maybe because I’m a stinking coward, as well as an idiot.
Hanami. She was an amazing talent, she was a Godsend to the Outcasts, she had saved all of their lives, and she was a better friend and ally than any of them could ask for… but something about her jumbled Zero’s thoughts and deprived him of speech whenever they were alone together, whenever he looked into those wide, pale blue eyes… he went to pieces.
Well, since he wouldn’t be able to read any time soon… Zero crossed to the center of his drey and sat down on the floor, folding his legs underneath him and laying his tail flat behind him. He put his hands on his knees, closed his eyes, and reached for the Centerpoint.
The cornerstone of a samurai’s discipline, the Centerpoint was a state of in-betweens: between knowledge and instinct, between thought and action, between reason and emotion. It was a state of focus that combined peak alertness with dreamlike grace and ease of movement. Attaining the Centerpoint sharpened all the senses and made one intimately aware of all of their surroundings down to the smallest details…. that level of awareness could mean the difference between life and death.
Anyone could learn Centerpoint techniques, but very few could master them. Reaching the Centerpoint required heart and mind to be in perfect balance, clarity of focus, the ability to tune out-
“- all distractions!” barked the scarred warrior, his pauldron displaying a commander’s markings. He paced back in front of a group of nervous, giddy sprigs… untrained and untested kits, about to be sent on their first real mission for the Daigundan. Every young buck dreamed of this at least once: wearing the red, white, and gold and going out to fight the good fight, just like Akira and Sanshiro and even the legendary Hayaoh had once done. A proud tradition, stretching back nearly a hundred generations, encompassing the greatest names known to their kind.
Next to him, Yuudai Yamano stood ramrod straight at attention, eyes ahead, with no trace of fear or uncertainty. “Understood, sensei!” he answered the commander.
Zero allowed himself a small grin. Yuudai took this all so seriously. No mock battles with shinai in the barracks or slacking off during duty hours for him. The talk among the boughs was that he was already being eyed for full service, and why not? The Yamanos were one of the Shichi Meimon, the seven noble families that governed their entire species. Even if for some insane reason he decided to leave the Daigundan someday, his name alone would ensure he had a future. Yuudai didn’t need to try to surpass everyone, but he tried anyway. You would expect someone with his background to be a high-branched thorn… however, Yuudai was kind and respectful to everyone, even to those below him. Quite unlike the sons and daughters of most other elite families.
Some of his fellow sprigs were in it to attain class like Yuudai’s family had, Zero knew. Becoming a full-fledged Daigundan samurai was a chance for wealth, power, land of your own, prestige… Not him, though. For Zero, there was only one reason he joined their ranks…
Zero’s eyes darted back and forth beneath his lids, and his fur began to rise as his veins filled with ice. As surely as night followed day, that memory of standing before the scarred commander would be followed by another…
Voices raised in panic shouted at him from all directions, a hurricane of noise. Moans, screams, and shouts of fury, interspersed with strains of mad laughter…
“Barrier at our flank is down, more Fangs are coming-”
“Someone get a healer, Yamano’s bleeding out-”
“- I can’t see… Why can’t I see?!”
“- bastards took Kyoji, only just managed to get his sword -”
“Where did the Captain go? Someone find the Captain-”
“- we’re not ready -”
“Takaishi! Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
No, he was almost sure he wasn’t hurt. But if he wasn’t hurt, why did his armor feel so wet? What was that awful, thick, copper smell that blotted out everything else? Zero looked down at himself…
… and saw a white breastplate, almost new, drenched red with blood that wasn’t his.
Whose blood was it?
Whose blood was it?
His heart lurched in his chest as if it wanted to tear free of his body. Zero shot to his feet, every hair on end, as out of breath as if he had just run to Unify and back. The room spun around him as he fought to breathe… He was home, he was safe. Far away from that day, from that battlefield, from that horrible smell…
“Immortal,” said Faun, just to be sure she had heard correctly. “You’re immortal.”
The jackal nodded. “Indeed.”
“So that means you’re not going to give me my rubies?”
Seker stopped in mid-nod. “I beg your pardon?”
“I mean,” said Faun, subtly reaching for her bomb belt, “if you’re immortal, doesn’t that mean you’re just going to… kill me? Without even thinking about it?”
There was a long, long pause between them.
Abruptly, the sandstone walls rang with booming laughter, so loud that it hurt Faun’s ears and rattled deep into her bones.
“I like you, vixen!” Again, Seker gave the impression that he was grinning beneath his immobile mask. “You amuse me! Immortal, my dear, not ‘immoral’. I found a way to live forever…”
“Oh. Oh.” Well, that was a different thing altogether. “Wait, what-”
“Please, allow me to explain,” said Seker. “Long ago, I was a mage in the employ of the Faraou Thoth the Fifteenth, then the ruler of both my kind and all the other species. I was skilled at my craft, yes, but hardly exceptional. I was primarily needed for tending wounds, enchanting weapons, protecting our crops from harm… simple enough. My Faraou had faith in me, and my life was comfortable.
“One year, though, Faraou Thoth grew gravely ill and nearly died… when he recovered, the experience had changed him. It had given him a fear of death that consumed him until it was all he could think of. So afraid was he that he came to me, and entrusted me with finding a way that he would never die, never have reason to fear again…
“For three years, I toiled night and day for my Faraoh, working days without food or sleep, driving myself half to madness in pursuit of my goal. It did not matter that so many others had tried and failed to do the same… Do you understand, vixen? My Faraoh depended on me, so I could not fail. Have you any idea what that was like?”
Those black rock crystal eyes bored into Faun, making her shiver.
Seker’s tone grew hushed. “It took three years, but I did it. I did it, vixen. What sentientkind had sought since time began, I somehow accomplished. I made a potion that would conquer Death. It was in my hands, and I…”
Inch by inch, Faun moved toward him. His story set her fur on end; she needed to be close to someone, anyone…
The jackal’s voice grew impossibly deeper, heavy with regret. “I took the potion for myself. A rash choice, a foolish choice. Perhaps my work did drive me mad… or perhaps the act of becoming immortal made me lose my reason. After all I had sacrificed, I felt that Faraoh Thoth did not deserve immortality. It was my work, so it should be my reward… I remember it coursing through me like rivers of flame, every fiber of my being consumed in agony…” He fell silent for a long time. “Forgive me, Milady. I should not talk of such things, but it has been so long since anyone listened…”
“Seker…” Faun whispered. Some instinct moved her hand forward to touch his arm… but the moment she made contact, she drew it back in shock.
The jackal’s body had no warmth, nor was it cold like that of a dead thing. It simply existed. There was no pulse, no smell, no outward sign of life at all. Realization struck Faun like a thunderbolt as she realized exactly what was so off about this creature: in all the time she had spent with Seker, she had never once heard him breathe…
“I awoke some time later,” said Seker, in a voice now as flat and featureless as the stone walls around them. “It was as if time had stopped for me. No weapon could harm me, no spell could cause me pain. I needed no food, no water, no air… When I marched upon Thoth’s palace, there was nothing that could stop me. I murdered my Faraoh with my bare hands, and took his rule for my own. In a matter of days, the world was mine.
“Arrogance, vixen.” There was that hard edge again. “I assumed myself to be invincible as well as immortal. After five years, the attempts to overthrow me grew so tiresome that I came to ignore the warning signs. What could they possibly do to challenge me? I, who had overcome Death itself?”
Seker sighed. “You already know the rest. Since the usurpers could not harm me, they collapsed my palace around me and made it into my prison. They siphoned my magic away, bound me, and encased me in this…” One massive hand reached up to touch the mask’s gleaming surface. “They poured molten gold over me, into my mouth, my eyes… and made a cast of my likeness after it had cooled. I believe the intent was to ensure that history would never forget my face, or my crimes. A warning to others.”
Now a bitter humor crept into his words… Faun could almost taste the vinegar in them. “As a final, cruel joke, they placed an enchanted mirror in my cell, so that I could watch, helpless, as they tore down all I had built. It was my sole connection to the outside world… until you.”
Faun regarded him in stunned silence. Logic told her that the only thing to do was blow a way out of here with a few grenades, leave this miserable creature, and bolt back to Tasakeru as fast as her feet would take her. Forget the rubies, forget everything. This wasn’t anything she wanted to be a part of.
And yet… something kept her from running. Some part of her felt sympathy for him. The jackal had done terrible things, that much was clear. Perhaps he even deserved to have such a downfall. But to be all alone for thousands of years, locked in the same tiny room… Loneliness was something Faun understood too well, but surely no other sentient on earth knew loneliness like Seker had.
“I tire of this place.” Seker rose to his full, towering height. “Please, come with me. Show me what has become of the world in my absence.” One of those huge hands reached for her…
Swallowing, Faun closed her hand around one club-like finger. Her own fingertips couldn’t even touch each other. “Y-yeah. I’ll show you, if you want. But how are we-”
“Enough of my magic has returned for this.” The jackal bowed his head…
Faun screamed. A tornado of sand whipped up around them, a howling gale of countless particles with them at the center, whipping them apart piece by tiny piece… She felt herself sweeping down the corridors at blinding speed, barreling around the many corners of the maze that led her there, up through the trap door she fell through, down the hallway lined with carvings, and out of the huge stone doors…
With a snap, the motion stopped. Faun fell to her knees, shaking like a leaf. Whatever that was, it was something she was in no hurry to experience again. Boltpath stones were bad enough, that was something else altogether. She opened her mouth to ask Seker just what the hell he thought he was doing… then she fell silent in a hurry.
They stood at the upper edge of the fifty-meter pit in which the obelisk sat uncovered, ankle deep in smooth white sand. Evening was falling, painting the sky in streaks of indigo and violet, a few stars beginning to peek out overhead… there was no sign of the rabbits or their expedition.
Slowly, Seker turned around in a circle, the black rock crystal eyes of his mask scanning the endless white dunes that surrounded them for miles. It was hard to follow his gaze, but at least once, he clearly looked down at the obelisk in the pit, then back to the expanse of the empty desert.
When he spoke again, Faun almost didn’t recognize his voice. It sounded nothing like the booming, earth-shaking tones she heard echoing off the walls inside the obelisk. His voice was… empty. Confused. Disbelieving. “I…” he said. “I do not understand.” Once more he made a circle. “Where is it?”
Faun gingerly picked herself up, brushing sand out of her fur. “Wh-what do you mean? Where is what?”
“Everything,” said Seker. “The cities. The monuments that we built. Our civilization. We were here, this was our home… All of this was Amonu, our capitol. Even if all the jackals were gone, something of it should still be here…!” He spread his arms wide, just as he had in the corridor down below… but now, even his massive size was dwarfed by the vastness of the desert. The gesture made him look small, helpless. “Where… where did it go?”
Despite the lingering desert heat, Faun shivered. “I…” she began. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but…” Her throat grew too tight to speak. She tried again. “That place where we found you… th-that’s all that’s ever been found out here. No other Titans, no buildings, no artifacts… nothing. Some time ago, they just… disappeared. We know they were here, we have a few carvings and things of them from other species, but…”
The jackal turned his back to her, looking out once more at the dunes.
Faun reached out to touch him, opened her mouth to speak… but words wouldn’t come. What could she say? What comfort could she possibly give him? She was looking at a sentient out of time, someone who had just learned that he and his prison were all that remained of his kind, of his entire civilization.
What would it be like? Faun thought. To lose everything you ever knew?
Seker said nothing. Motionless, he stared out at the desert for so long that he resembled a statue more than ever, a lone sentinel standing out in an ocean of sand.
It was well past nightfall when he finally spoke again, in that flat and lifeless tone. “So,” he said. “I am indeed Seker the Last. I gave myself that name, as I thought there would be no other rulers after me…” A chuckle came from the hole in the mask’s mouth, the darkest chuckle Faun had ever heard. “It seems that fate has made my title more appropriate than ever.”
Now Faun came to his side, gently touching his shoulder. The feeling was so alien, but… she had to do something. “Seker, I…”
“Vixen,” he said. “Faun. You have done me a great service in freeing me… for that, I shall grant you the treasure that I promised you… no, far more than that. I shall give you the greatest treasure that the world has to offer.”
“Y-you don’t have to-” Some part of Faun couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“However,” the jackal continued, “I am afraid I must ask you for one more thing beforehand. If I am to make amends for what has happened here… I must have a source of great magic, to fully replenish my power.”
Before his request finished registering, Faun nodded. “Great magic, right. Dijo, I’ll get it for you. But where-” She stopped. An image sprung to mind, of a certain timid mage who lived in a cottage inside a freshly-grown oak in Tasakeru. A mage who wore a strange and incredible flower in her golden hair… “Never mind,” said Faun. “I know just the thing.”
END OF CHAPTER 2
 Shinai (she-nai) : A training sword, made of strips of bamboo lashed together.