From the tower’s peak, the land
Spread out before her
“Oh, to be alive in the Lost Ages, to see the Titans in their prime! What a sight that must have been! Just imagine it: great brick ziggurats and obelisks scraping the heavens themselves! A civilization that may have been more advanced than our own, spreading from the Raikaa Mountains to Earth’s End! All species united under one hand and one rule, with no squabbling or skirmishing over culture, borders, or religion! What knowledge they must have possessed, what wisdom, what secrets, now lost forever… Reader, it is enough to bring a tear to the eye of this old historian at the thought of it.
“Alas, such is the tragedy of time: seasons change, civilizations fall, towers crumble, and the old is replaced by the new. Someday, even our beloved Unify may be but a memory, or a footnote in some future sentients’ legends…”
[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]
“Damn,” said Faun, duly impressed. “Seriously, damn. I know you said you were good with magic, but… damn…!”
As she spoke, she craned her neck up, and up, and up to see the tower better. Even when she stretched her muscles to the limit, she still couldn’t see the top from the forest floor. Circular, roughly twenty meters across, and built of pitch black stone that was too smooth to be of anything but magical origin, the tower had not been built so much as grown fully formed from the earth at Seker’s command. Sort of like what Hanami did with flowers, but on a far grander scale. And with rock instead of plants. So not much like Hanami’s powers at all, but still.
There was a distinguishing feature to the tower that marked it as derived from the squirrel mage’s power, though: from the black stone there sprouted countless vines of equally black roses in full bloom. The network of thorned vines crisscrossed the structure and left barely a meter of stone uncovered, like a kind of living fence or armor. As far as Faun could see, the rose vines were not only limited to the ground level… they climbed up the walls high out of sight. If there was a height where they thinned out, Faun couldn’t tell.
Next to her, the jackal’s voice rumbled with barely concealed pride as he stroked the Mage Flower’s crinkly petals, as if to thank it for a job well done. “Excellent,” he said. “Exactly as I pictured, apart from the roses… but they add character. A monument to me and mine that will stand the test of time. This will not so easily be forgotten, vixen.”
Faun tore her eyes away long enough to give him a wry smirk and a raised brow. “Compensating?”
A short, booming sound that might have been restrained laughter. “I hardly see the need. Come, let us enter.” One massive hand reached for Faun’s.
She took it, surprised at how someone so big could hold a hand as small as hers with such gentleness. “Wait. Enter? How?”
She could almost see him grin behind the mask. “The tower will provide. I shall demonstrate.” Seker called out to the tower in a commanding voice: “I am home!”
And to Faun’s disbelief, it listened. The rose vines crawled back, and a hole opened in the stone underneath… a hole that widened into a three-meter archway. She could see nothing within but darkness. Something about that arch made her fur rise… No, it wasn’t just the arch, or the darkness. Something else about this entire situation stuck in her craw, but damned if she could pinpoint what it was, or why. “Um,” she said. “Wait. If you’re done building, I really should get the flower back to Flowers… Er, I mean, Hanami. She’ll eat her own tail if she realizes it’s missing.”
The jackal’s masked head tilted to one side, and his booming voice grew softer… almost wounded. “If you leave now… when shall I give you the greatest treasure of all?”
A brief but furious battle ensued in Faun’s mind, her need to return the flower before trouble started and her suspicion that something was not quite right here conflicting with her desire to see what someone who could make gold from dirt considered “the greatest treasure of all”… or maybe that was just greed. Whatever it was, the latter won out. “All right,” she said. “Let’s see it, then I’ll go back to Flowers.”
Hand in hand, they stepped through the archway, into the darkness… darkness which was followed by such a brilliant light that it stung Faun’s eyes. She cried out and rubbed at them furiously with the back of her glove. When they were clear of moisture, and the tower’s interior came into focus, it was…
Faun’s jaw seemed to fall to somewhere around her knees.
They stood in a cavernous entrance hall, bordered on both sides by a series of looming granite pillars inscribed with the same ancient pictograms she saw inside Seker’s obelisk. Here, the hieroglyphs sparkled with light from even their smallest lines and details… all the cuts in the stone were filled with gold. Faun swallowed. If the Titans were wealthy and powerful enough to use all that gold just for decoration… The hall stretched long before them, far too long to fit inside the tower’s confines, however that was possible. The rows of standing pillars brought to mind soldiers standing at attention, waiting for them to pass by. At the point which they ended, there was a dais raised ten centimeters off the floor, occupied by a single gigantic chair… no, not a chair, a throne, inlaid with precious jewels in a rainbow of colors. The dais was set against the rearmost wall, which was oddly plain as compared to the opulence of the throne, the pillars, and the rest of the hall. This wall extended upward and out of sight into an open shaft, leaving a four meter gap between the back wall and the rest of the ceiling. It could have been the inside of the tower… that is, if the space here worked like it did outside the walls, which was increasingly in doubt.
Less than a meter ahead of them, set into the center of an ebony floor tiled with triangular patterns, there was a shallow square reflecting pool, the water standing smooth and flawless as a mirror. From a glass ceiling far above, the rays of a noonday sun glinted off its surface in dazzling patterns, filling every corner of the hall with natural light. Along the sun-baked brick walls on either side hung tapestries in an array of fabrics that were almost too colorful to be real: pearly white and fiery vermillion contrasting with deep blue and indigo, and blacks so black that they seemed able to draw in the ever-present light from around them. Faun wasn’t much for history, but even she could tell that each tapestry told a story from the way the tiny woven figures progressed along the yards of fabric, constructing tiny glittering obelisks and spires beam by beam and brick by brick.
It was altogether unlike anything she ever expected. Seker’s obelisk was old, dusty, all aged stone and muted colors save for the treasure rooms deep within. But this…
A sigh came from Seker’s mask, the sound pulled from somewhere deep within him, the sound of sweet memories and bitter regret mingled together. “This,” he said, sweeping an arm before her, “was what my palace looked like in my time. The center of a great and glorious civilization, encompassing all the world. It was beautiful.”
“I-” For one of the few times in her life, Faun was speechless. She tried again. “H-how did… we’re still inside the tower, right? But this… this place is too big to fit in- a-and I can see the sun from in here, but it’s night outside… how?!”
The mask faced her, and she could almost see the proud smile behind it. “This is the tower’s magic, Faun… the magic I crafted into it, with your assistance. For those who call this place home, it provides to their needs and desires. Space is no limitation.”
The vixen’s eyes wandered, taking it all in as she tried to absorb his words. It was difficult, too difficult to grasp. Even with magic, it seemed impossible. “I’m sorry,” she admitted. “I don’t really get it.”
“You will. Come, there is much more to see.” Taking her hand again, the jackal led her down the hall to the back of the room, onto the raised dais, until they stood behind the jeweled throne. Faun’s hand made a weak attempted grab for one of those jewels, but before she could touch it, the dais rumbled and shifted beneath her feet.
With a shriek of alarm, she fell against Seker’s side as she lost her footing. A grinding sound of stone on stone, and the dais climbed up the back wall, and up, and up… not a dais after all, but an elevating platform, lifting them up into a shaft so tall she couldn’t see the end point.
One slablike arm pulled her close to steady her. It was intended to be a gesture of comfort, but the fact that the arm had no more warmth or feeling than stone wasn’t comforting in the least. Great Nain, she thought with a shudder, what have I gotten myself into?
It was in times like this that the sentients living in the Outer Rings of Unify proved themselves more fortunate and more resilient than most gave them credit for. When one’s home consisted of four thin walls, a roof, and little else, it was that much more prone to falling down, but also that much easier to rebuild. Citizens of the Outer Rings didn’t have the expensive tastes that the Inners did, so there was less to repair or replace. In the aftermath of the inexplicable earthquake, the Outers of Tachi-cho went to work as they had many times before, banding together to treat the injured, lift collapsed roofs, and set fallen wall panels back in their foundations. They could manage that much on their own before the Silver Order arrived with healers and relief supplies. Fortunately, for all the widespread effects of the quake, it was brief enough that casualties were kept to a minimum.
Through a cracked window pane, Naole watched the soft, glowing orange dots of paper lanterns bobbing up and down like fireflies. Dozens of them moved through the streets as the neighborhood watch brigade went from house to house and block to block, performing the usual safety checks and offering assistance when needed. Already, one of the Minaguchis from the next block over had come to check and see if she was all right. Naole told Lord Minaguchi that all was fine, and insisted that he attend to those in greater need. As an apprentice healer for the Order, Naole would be out there with the brigade in normal circumstances… but tonight, she couldn’t leave until Zero got back.
She didn’t have to wait long. A thump on her roof followed by a series of footsteps made her ears perk; moments later, there was a rhythm of taps on her front door, five in rapid succession, then two more after a pause. Naole smiled. That was Zero’s knock.
“Is everything all right? ” she asked as she opened the door and gave him a quick hug hello.
“Seems to be,” said Zero, returning it in kind. “From what I can tell, no one’s hurt too badly and there isn’t any serious damage in the area. Just the usual collapses and a few fractured support beams.” His snout wrinkled. “Old Lady Yue’s turnip garden got flattened again.”
“Oooh.” Naole cringed. “Gods help the poor sistren and brethren Mistress Lily sends to help her. She’s having a fit, I take it?”
“Turning the air black. I’m surprised you can’t hear her from here.”
“So what happened? Was it a quake?”
Zero shook his head. “No such luck. I overheard some of the brigadiers talking about it, and I couldn’t believe my ears. I scaled one of the walls to have a look for myself, and…”
“It’s a tower,” said Zero. He had to admit that it sounded ridiculous to say it aloud, but he had seen its distant shape with his own eyes against the dark of the night sky. “Sprung up from somewhere in Tasakeru.”
“You saw it from here?!” The fur on the back of Naole’s neck rose. “Holy Terra, it must be huge!”
“It must be. I have a feeling the others are pretty bristled right now.” Zero paused. Now came the hard part. Damn it. “Imouto, I have to-”
“Get back home.” Her knuckles bumped his shoulder. “I understand, don’t stress about it.”
“But Naole, you just-”
A second bump, this one more like a soft punch. “Don’t. I’m already feeling better, and I have work to do with the brigadiers before the Order gets here. You’re going, and that’s that.”
At that, Zero couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, Milady. The only question is, how am I going to get back in time? Whatever’s going on back home isn’t going to stop and wait three hours for me to get there…”
“It just so happens,” said Naole, with no small amount of pride, “that Sister Acacia upped my wages last week. Something about ‘exceptional service doing the work of the Goddess’. So I have just the thing. Wait a tick.” She ducked into a cabinet, and came back with a drawstring canvas bag bearing a symbol Zero recognized.
“Oh no.” The smile slid off his face, and his tail fur stood on end. “You’re not serious. Not again.”
Naole poked his nose with her fingertip. “You need to get home fast, and this is the fastest way, so stop complaining.”
Zero groaned as she took a granite spellstone from the bag and pressed it into his hand. With a tiny snap, a static spark jumped between them as they touched. A lightning bolt was engraved in the stone’s surface, ringed by a circle of tiny runes. There were many methods of long-distance travel that were faster than walking; boltpath stones were among the more exotic ones, and there were few that Zero hated more.
The product of skilled lightning mages, boltpath stones could send their users from one corner of the world to the other in seconds. Those traveling on the boltpath usually felt that the experience took significantly longer. It wasn’t a sensation one got used to easily, and the side-effects were less than pleasant. The rarity of skills required to craft them and the expensive (and dangerous) nature of the work involved made them quite pricey. How Naole got enough of a raise to afford a new one, Zero didn’t know.
“Don’t give me that look,” said Naole, cutting him off before he could even open his mouth to protest. “I bought it for emergencies. Strange towers popping up and causing earthquakes qualify. Are you going to go, or do I have to set it off myself?”
Grumbling, Zero turned back to the door. “You really stick in my craw sometimes.”
“You’re welcome. Love you, aniki.”
After a pause: “… Love you, imouto. Thank you. See you again soon.”
The door slid shut behind him. Enough stalling, he thought. It’s not going to get any better by waiting. Zero closed his eyes and concentrated on his memories of Rowan’s sett: the thousands of books, the warm lighting, his beloved overstuffed armchairs, the mellow scent of parchment, paper, and glued bindings mixed with the tang of metal ore and the smoke of the ironworks, a smell that persisted even when the forge’s flames were extinguished. Zero hung onto that memory with all his might as he raised the stone above his hand and spoke the word: “Release!”
A tremendous crack of displaced air, a sharp, burnt-tin odor, and he was gone, only a few wisps of smoke to show that he had ever been there.
Naole sighed and leaned back against a wall for support.
Keeping one’s eyes closed during boltpath travel was not essential, but most elected to do so. Traveling at speeds sentients were never meant to withstand made the world pass by in a maddening smear of colors, not for the faint of heart or stomach. The unpleasantness did not end there: there was also the bizarre sensation of having a tiny piece of one’s body stretched out like a piece of taffy, one end lengthening and thinning and lengthening and thinning until it felt no larger than a needle’s point, with the rest of one’s mass lingering behind, huge and disproportionate, until it was hauled along for the ride with a violent snap.
Some wealthy folk used boltpath stones regularly, to save on travel time. Zero couldn’t imagine doing this on a regular basis… those folk were out of their minds, in his opinion. Stranger still were the small but devoted groups of people who actually enjoyed the sensation. These people, generally possessing far more money than sense, bought spellstones in bulk and engaged in “bolting” as a kind of competitive sport. “Bolters” raced each other across miles and miles of wilderness in the blink of an eye, and claimed it was an exhilarating experience. Many of these races ended with the participants embedded inside trees, walls, or large rocks, so the pastime had yet to catch on with the populace at large.
At last, there was the snap, and about time too. Not much more to endure now. Zero held his breath as the rest of him raced across the world. As he did every time he was forced to use one of these blasted things, he fervently hoped that his dinner would stay down once he landed. Gods only knew how Rowan would react to someone vomiting all over one of his priceless texts. The badger code of pacifism could only be pushed so far.
Another thunderclap jolted him off the path. He stumbled forward from inertia, head spinning and stomach heaving. The room spun around him in a blur, but his nose told him he was indeed in the right place. So did the heavy striped arm that reached down to support him a moment later. “Thank you, Rowan,” he said with a sigh of relief. “I really hate those things.”
“Your sister scrolled to let us know you were coming,” said Rowan’s baritone from somewhere in the huge fuzzy shape looming over him. A low chuckle. “You must have been worried, if you elected to use a boltpath again.”
“Don’t remind me,” said Zero. He grimaced and shook his head to try to clear it. “Twice in a month is more than enough. What’s going on?”
Another pair of hands grasped his arm on the other side. The body they belonged to was equally indistinct, but Zero knew the scent well enough by now: fertile earth, nervousness, and an array of dozens of different flowers and herbs, all in full bloom. “Faun’s gone missing, she stole my Mage Flower and ran off…” Her words came tumbling out like river rapids. “And just a moment ago we felt that quake-”
“That was no quake.” Zero shook his head again. Still blurry. “Someone put up a huge tower in the southwest, raised it from the ground. I have a hunch that Faun… that Faun…”
His words trailed off as his vision cleared. There was something… quite different about Hanami tonight. A ribbon in her tail fur, her long golden tresses pinned up with a comb, faint amounts of powder on her cheeks, most of it washed away by tears.
Zero stared. His lips and tongue went numb. Pieces of his conversation with Naole earlier floated through his mind without connecting to each other, parts of words about Phase and Hanmi being “interested” in him, and there was an especially clear memory of Naole calling him an idiot for not realizing sooner, and suggesting that he just talk to her. Now that Hanami was face-to-face with him, though, clinging to his arm and looking… well, like that… speech seemed to be beyond his abilities. Not that he wasn’t struck dumb whenever those pale blue eyes stared at him normally, but tonight in particular…
“Zero?” said Hanami, tilting her head to one side. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Zero. Before he could stop himself, he added: “You look amazing.” Following that was a furious series of mental admonishments as he cursed himself for letting that slip out. What if she got the wrong idea? What if she didn’t take it well? What if-
“Oh,” said Hanami. Her ears pressed down flat in embarrassment, but she smiled, bright as the morning, and Zero’s heart skipped a few beats. “Oh. Th-thank you, I-”
“Ahem.” Rowan coughed a polite cough in their direction. “Lady Hanami, if you would like to freshen yourself while I inform Zero of the current situation…”
“Of course! Yes. Thank you.” Hanami let go of Zero’s arm in a hurry, gave a quick bow, and scuttled off to the back of the sett.
“There is a water basin in the second room on your left,” said Rowan.
“Right,” said Hanami. “Thank you. I’ll be just a moment.” Her tail followed her out of sight.
With that, Rowan turned to the near-motionless Zero, who was staring after her tail as if he were intending to wait several weeks for it to come back. “Hmm,” Rowan mused aloud with a hint of a smile. “Perhaps the vixen’s scheme had an unintended benefit.” Quickly he steered the buck into an armchair, before he could ask what that meant.
All things considered, it was an easy conclusion to come to: Faun’s theft and disappearance and the rise of the mysterious black tower shortly thereafter had something to do with each other. The suspicion was all but confirmed once the group of three made the long trek through the woods to the southwest, traveling past the dividing line of Lake Juniper’s tributary. Once there, firmly within the most hostile part of Tasakeru, Zero took flight to the high branches to check their position relative to the tower.
“We must be a quarter-kilo from the site, but I can smell the roses from up there,” he said after he returned to the forest floor, brushing stray leaves and needles from his coat. “The whole tower’s covered in them. I’m no mage, but I’d bet a thousand tri that your Mage Flower raised that thing, Hanami.”
“How?!” she said, wringing her hands together. “I’ve never been able to do anything like that with it!”
“Perhaps our vixen has met another mage?” said Rowan in the lead. “One with supreme skill, to build something of that size.”
“Whatever she’s done with it, I need it back!”
“Easy, Hanami.” Zero placed a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll get an explanation, and one way or the other, Faun’s going to pay for this. What did she lie to you about, anyway?”
“Rowan didn’t tell you?” Hanami fell quiet; quieter than usual.
Up front, the badger cleared his throat and began to clear a very noisy path through the undergrowth.
Zero blinked. “He only said that she lied to distract you and get the Mage Flower. Why, what was it?”
“She…” Crestfallen, Hanami’s eyes traveled down to her sandals, scuffling in the loam. “She said that she would arrange for you and I to… meet. And talk.”
“Oh,” said Zero. “Oh,” he said again a moment later, comprehension dawning. His ears swiveled back as he shot a venomous glance to the southwest. “Why that sneaky, underhanded…!”
“I’m sorry.” Hanami bowed before she could stop herself. “It’s my fault, I wasn’t thinking clearly, I should have known-”
“Don’t. It’s absolutely not your fault. You… weren’t yourself. Faun should be ashamed of trying to manipulate you while you’re… you know. Like that.”
“I just want to know you.” There it was, the desire at the core of this whole embarrassing situation… a desire that gnawed at her inside, one that had nothing to do with the physical desire being kept in check by the temple pepper. Who was he, anyway? How could she know if her feelings for him were genuine or not without knowing more about the person that he was?
A smile bittersweet as red wine flickered on his lips. Something changed in his eyes, there were flashes of old pain, of wounds never fully healed. “If you want to know, I can tell you,” he said. “I warn you, you may not like some of what you hear.”
Hanami shivered. That statement was more accurate to both of them than he would ever know. “Please,” she said after a while. “Start at the beginning. Faun said you were from a samurai family…”
“That’s right.” As he spoke, his face fell into shadow, and Hanami became very aware of the perfume of the tower’s distant roses, as if they had chosen this moment to announce themselves. Zero moved into a thin patch of moonlight shining down from the thick and twisted canopy, which bathed him in a ghostly glow. “My father, my grandfather, and all my forefathers were Daigundan samurai. We were never one of the richest or noblest families, but we were respected. Pop started teaching me to carry a sword almost as soon as I could walk. Attending the Gakuen and continuing the tradition was never in question for me… It was fate, I suppose. I was going to be a samurai, I’d be proud of it, and my father would be proud of me. That was all I wanted growing up.”
He looked up into the shaft of silvery light. “On my thirteenth birthday, my father took me to the Gakuen as part of my coming-of-age ceremony, to have me fitted for my first set of armor. I’ll never forget his face… I’d never seen him so excited.” His smile became something warm and nostalgic. “I almost laughed as they led me back into the armory. He was watching the whole way, with this… this silly grin on his face. They took my measurements, strapped me into the armor, put my helmet and faceplate on, and pushed me in front of a mirror…”
Here, Zero’s voice grew soft, heavy with sorrow. “I didn’t recognize myself. The little buck I saw in the mirror was a stranger. It scared me, Hanami. I don’t know why, but it terrified me. I should have known then that something was wrong, but I had to make my father and my forefathers proud. It was what I was meant to do… my fate. I pushed that fear back down, I went to all my lessons and training sessions, I followed the regulations. I pressed on. After a few weeks, I even started to enjoy myself, despite the hard work… I made friends with my comrades.” Now he smiled again. “They were the ones who started calling me ‘Zero’… the ‘rei’ and ‘maru’ in my first name can both mean ‘zero’ in Old Standard, see. We all had names like that. It’s tradition for sprigs… that’s what the elders call new recruits,” he clarified at Hanami’s puzzled expression. “My best friend Yuudai Yamano was ‘Dragon’. He was the oldest son of one of the Shichi Meimon, so we thought he needed a name that sounded dignified. Then there was a scrawny little buck named Tatsuya, the fastest one in our squad. His surname was Umaki, so we called him ‘Tornado’… ‘tatsumaki’, get it?”
“Bolt, Slash, Madeye, Falcon, Wildfire, Oni, Earthquake… all the sprigs got names,” Zero continued. “If you were lucky, a good one stuck to you. I didn’t like ‘Zero’ at first, but… it grew on me. After three months of training, the other sprigs and I were put in the 477th Recruit Squadron, Eastern Division… They wouldn’t let us participate in real battles at that age, of course, but they sent us out on peacekeeping missions. Settling property disputes, assisting civilians, stopping petty crimes, that sort of thing. Three months with my fellow sprigs, my brothers. I almost forgot about how scared I had been on that first day. And then…” His face fell so deep into shadow that Hanami lost track of the direction of his gaze. “You know about the Demon Fangs, don’t you?”
The forest grew deathly quiet, and even the scent of the roses seemed to be lost in a sudden chill as Hanami drew in a short, sharp breath.
“Their existence is something of an open secret: a group of sentients whom almost everyone knows exist, but barely anyone will speak about. Discussing them in the open is seen as inviting disaster… there is too much blood spilled, there are too many tragic stories.
“I speak, of course, of the Demon Fangs: a fanatical cult of Death God worshipers that have maintained a constant presence for at least a thousand years. The ferret society receives an unfair share of the blame for creating them, perhaps because of the unusual prominence of the Death God in our Godlore, but the story that ferrets comprise a majority of Fang cultists is a slanderous rumor at best. Hard as it may be for some high-minded folk to accept, there are Fangs from every species. It is a sad truth that all kinds produce those who would rather hide their faces and commit atrocities against their fellow sentients than attempt to coexist with others.
“‘Atrocities’, in fact, hardly seems a strong enough word for their actions. There is no crime too base, no sin too foul for the Fangs: mass slaughter, violation, ritual sacrifice, desecration of their flesh and that of others, random acts of pointless destruction. All these are done to glorify a sick, twisted interpretation of the Death God. Those of us unfortunate enough to have seen the aftermath of their presence can confirm that the stories of their wanton cruelty are not exaggerated. Worse still, on the sadly rare occasions that Fang cultists are apprehended, they see fit to mock the survivors of their rampages by taking their own lives rather than facing justice for what they have done.
“I say again: the sickness that created the Demon Fangs is not confined to any one species. It is a sickness that resides in all of us, with no apparent cure save for radical, fundamental social change. That, perhaps, is the most frightening part of this entire ugly tale… that any one of us, given enough time and dark impulses, could don the hood and weapons of a Fang…”
[An excerpt from Demon Fangs: A Crisis for All Sentientkind, a pamphlet scroll by Danburite of Clan Pensieve. Eight days following the mass distribution of the scroll in Unify’s Marketplace, the author vanished from his home without a trace.]
“You…” Hanami’s mouth didn’t want to work right. Of all the terrible things she imagined could have led to Zero’s exile, none of them could compare to this. “Y-you were-”
“You’re around the same age as Naole, aren’t you?” said Zero in a monotone. “In that case, you probably didn’t know about the fighting nine years ago… you were too young. It happened in the grasslands east of Unify, a dispute between rabbit and raccoon families over the territory rights, and… it got worse. Much worse. The news scrolls called it ‘The Seven Days of Blood.’”
She moved closer to him, she had to feel another warm body, only that could dispel the dreadful chill swelling in the pit of her stomach. “And you were there?”
Zero moved away, averting his eyes. “I wasn’t supposed to be. The recruits were sent out after one of the elder squadrons left, to clean up and assist the civilians. There had just been a skirmish, so there was… a lot to clean up.”
Hanami said nothing.
The buck stared hard at something she couldn’t see, something far away and long ago… His voice grew hard as iron. “Someone… no one knows exactly who, but someone called for the Fangs. They laid in wait for us, knowing we weren’t trained enough to fight them. We were just sprigs…”
“Oh Gods.” Hanami put her hands over her mouth. The beginnings of tears stung in her eyes. “Zero, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I’m sorry that they hurt you…”
Only now did he look at her again, his gaze piercing her to her soul. “They didn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t hurt in that battle. Not at all.”
Confusion rippled through the winter chill of Hanami’s horror. “But-”
Before she could ask, a rustling of leaves and branches announced Rowan’s return. “Your pardon,” said the badger. “I do not wish to interrupt, but I have located the tower, and… well, unbelievable as it may be to hear, I doubt my words can do it justice. More to the point, I scented both Faunelle and the Mage Flower near its entrance… the trail leads straight through it.”
“Here,” said the jackal as the platform shuddered to a halt. “This is it.”
For the second time that night, Faun was speechless. It felt like it had taken an age for the platform to reach its destination, but at last she was here. At what had to be the tower’s peak, there was an enormous window, reaching from the floor to a meter above her head, set with glass too perfectly clear to be anything but magic. And beyond that glass…
The world stretched out before Faun like a patchwork quilt. By looking directly down, past the tangles of black roses crowding the tower’s exterior, she could see the distant treetops of Tasakeru far below, a lake of leaves. Farther in the distance were the rolling hills of the plains. She could make out slightly lighter or darker shades among the green, set into even squares. She knew those were patches of crops maintained by the grasslands’ farmers, but from here they looked so small that she could almost cup one in the palm of her hand. A dark shape further in the distance was a grey shape that was Unify, she could tell by the great branches of the Shinju reaching out over the walls. Even this late at night, the branches were aglow with hundreds of tiny, moving lights… those were sentients going to and from the Crown.
Then more grasslands, greens slowly fading to yellow, then white, and beyond that… The ocean. Faun had heard stories of it, she had seen it described in books, but she had never seen it for herself: an unthinkably vast expanse of water that surrounded the world on all sides, unable to be crossed, unable to be tamed. It struck her that she was quite literally staring at the ends of the earth… the thought was so disturbing that she had to look away.
Her turn brought the Raikaa Mountains into sight, standing out sharp against the night sky in the north. Each mountain was striped with bands of dense forest interrupting the rock… somewhere in those high forests, wolf packs roamed back and forth as they had done since time began. From this distance, those packs could have been ants. Glowering over the peaks of the other mountains was Mount Fury, like the fang of a giant upended in the earth, dwarfing its brethren in its shadow. Perhaps it was Faun’s imagination, or all the stories she read about the how the place was cursed, but Mount Fury looked to her to be even less hospitable than its name implied. Every inch of it was barren rock, as devoid of life as Seker’s desert. It even lacked the snow that capped the Raikaas in all seasons; its peak was as dry and grey and lifeless as the rest of it.
All of this splendor lay underneath an endless canopy of stars twinkling in the velvet of the night sky, more stars than she could count, more than she ever thought existed. From this high up, she could see them more clearly than she ever could before, and she could see how groups of them swirled together in dazzling whorls of light… For the first time, Faun understood why the wolves loved the stars so much, how they could base their entire lives around the movements of the heavens. Hell, if she had enough time and a view like this, she might do the same…
A heavy hand came to rest on her shoulder. “This is it, Faun,” said Seker, his deep voice soft with wonder. “This world is the treasure that I give to you.”
It took a few tries before Faun’s mouth regained enough feeling to respond. “I… I don’t get it. I mean, th-that’s very poetic of you, but-”
“Your treasure is the world,” said Seker, spreading his other arm out before her. “The world, in all its splendor, with all the riches it contains. I give it to you as thanks… for now that I am free, it will once more be mine to give.”
That broke the spell. Faun looked up at him, stupefied. “Wait, what?”
“As I said, vixen.” A low, rumbling laugh. “I once ruled the world, and I shall do so again. This time, with you at my side.”
Something about the way he said that made Faun’s fur rise. “What?!”
The blank black crystal eyes of the mask stared into hers. “I still remember how to make it. The potion I crafted so long ago, the one that made me immortal… I shall bestow it upon you, so that I may never be alone again. We two shall be together for eternity, ruling the world as mates.”
A lead weight dropped in Faun’s stomach. It all made sense, a horrible kind of sense. The queasy sensation she had ever since he took her into the tower was now fully justified… and amplified. “Listen…” she said, gentle but firm as she could. “I don’t know how it was in your time, maybe that sort of thing was normal then, but… no. Absolutely not. Foxes don’t crossmate. End of story.”
Seker’s head tilted. “… Ah. I see your confusion. Worry not, I am no longer capable of mating in the physical sense. Even were I so, that is not my intent at all,” he said. “I refer more to mating as companionship, two sentients supporting one another-”
“I don’t want that either!” Faun interrupted. “You’re a Titan, I’m a fox! The answer is no!”
“But-” For the first time, she heard a note of hurt in the jackal’s voice. “Think of what I offer. You desire treasure, do you not? I am offering you the world-”
“I don’t want the world, I just want to be rich! What good is being rich if I can’t feel anything?! And spending forever with you…” The thought of it made her ears turn flat in disgust. “Look, I’m sorry, there’s been a big mistake here. I’m impressed, really I am, and I’m grateful, but I’m not going to be your mate. Ever. Take over the world if you want, I don’t care, but leave me out of it. Now give me the Mage Flower so I can go home!”
Seker was silent.
Faun stamped her foot. “Hello? Did you hear me?”
“No,” said Seker.”
“What do you mean, no?!”
“No,” said Seker again. His tone was calm, flat… and very, very dangerous. “I waited three thousand years for someone to free me.” His voice rose in volume, louder and louder, deeper and deeper… “Now that I am freed, my savior has the gall to refuse my gifts? No, I think not. The fates are not so cruel…”
Faun’s hand flew to the pocket of her boom belt. “Last chance,” she growled. “Give me the flower and let me go.”
“I think,” said Seker, turning away from her, “that I shall keep you here until you change your mind. I have no need for food, nor water, nor rest… I am willing to wait, for as long as I must. If my patience must be tried, so be it.”
Faun hurled a bomb at him. Relatively low-yield, but with power enough to fell a full-grown badger. Given the golden mask, she figured that the noise alone would disorient him long enough to start an escape. She tucked and rolled out of the way as the marble-sized sphere crashed against the mask and detonated with a thunderous roar and a burst of smoke… the sound rebounded off the stone walls, nearly deafening in the enclosed space.
Wasting no time, Faun dove for the jeweled throne. There had to be some way to make the platform lower itself. If she could only figure it out before he recovered… In a frenzy she pressed the jewels on the armrests, tugged at anything that looked like it could be a hidden switch. “Pinch!” she swore, giving it a solid kick. “Come on, come on, you stupid…”
The smoke thinned. Faun chanced a look upwards, reaching for another bomb, just in case… and Seker stood there in precisely the same position as before, absolutely motionless, the point-blank explosion having had as much effect on him as a light breeze. There wasn’t so much as a scratch on him, not a single scorch mark on the golden mask, not even the smallest dent in the metal. Even falling dust shaken free from the explosion seemed to fall away from him, revealing the Titan in horrible clarity. Slowly, slowly, the mask turned to face her, and her blood ran cold. Those black crystal eyes had never looked so dark and empty.
“That,” said Seker, “was not a wise idea.”
END OF CHAPTER 5
 Shichi Meimon (SHE-chee MAY-moan): The Seven Noble Families. The ruling clans in squirrel society, composed of the oldest and most influential bloodlines.