Woe, oh ancient one
When all that you know is gone
Where will you wander?
“Never corner a fox, if at all possible. When foxes are trapped with no hope of escape and their lives in danger, their first instinct is to attempt to talk their way out of peril. Anyone who has spent sufficient time in the company of foxes could explain why this is undesirable for all parties concerned.
“Foxes, of course, think themselves quite witty. The average todd or vixen has such a high opinion of themselves and their intelligence that they will approach the task of talking themselves through life-threatening danger with the utmost confidence. One supposes they reason that once their adversary is angry or distracted enough that judgment is impaired, the fox can make their escape with impunity. Anger or distraction on the other party’s part is all but guaranteed, given that when a fox speaks at length, their words inevitably become insulting, offensive, or both.
“So provoked, the fox’s adversary will resort to violence, lose their temper, or otherwise make an effort to force the fox to stop talking by any available means. In the ensuing confusion, the fox will take advantage of their clouded judgment, and more often than not will flee the premises, laughing all the way. While the adversary may experience significant frustration over this turn of events, it is often eclipsed by relief that at least the talking has stopped. Thus, a favorable outcome for both parties, all things considered.”
[An excerpt from The Art of Diplomacy, by Gaius Primus Fulcinius]
“Look,” said Faun. “I’m just saying, there’s been some kind of huge misunderstanding here.”
The jackal did not answer.
“I mean, I get it. Three thousand years alone, you’re looking for companionship, I come along and… well.” She smirked. “Nobody would blame you.”
The jackal did not answer.
“I’m just saying. There’s better ways to solve that problem, ones that don’t involve me.”
Still the jackal did not answer.
Faun sighed and leaned against the back wall, playing idly with her tail fur. Blasting her way out of her prison was no longer an option; after a few more useless grenade volleys, Seker had taken her boom belt from her. When he grew bored of her constant attempts to retrieve it, he made both the bandolier and his hand insubstantial with a spell that Faun had to admit was rather impressive, then sank the belt into the brick floor. Now it was embedded there, completely out of reach. The only way to access the tower shaft to the lower chamber was by his will, so that was out. That left talking as her only viable option. It was not going well.
Seker stood immobile before the tower’s enormous crystalline picture window, his hands clasped behind his back, as much like a statue as the first time Faun saw him. The jackal cut a noble figure, there was no disputing that… but every time she felt faint stirrings of sympathy for him, she remembered that he intended to keep her there against her will until she agreed to be his eternal companion or died, whichever came first. Any pity she had for him shriveled in a hurry when she thought of that.
At this point, the sole comfort she had was trying to annoy him. It was something she had quite a knack for. “For example,” she said with a wicked grin, “why not try, you know, indulging yourself? I swear it doesn’t really make you go blind, that’s a myth.”
She thought she saw his shoulders twitch, but perhaps it was a trick of the light.
“Or a hobby!” said Faun. “That could help pass your time. Do you have any hobbies? Painting, sculpting, collecting bird feathers? I had a friend back in Unify once that loved bird feathers, he collected all kinds. Sparrow feathers, chicken feathers, swallow feathers, pigeon feathers, seagull feathers, duck feathers, red-tailed hawk feathers, white-tailed hawk feathers…”
As she babbled on and on, Seker was unreasonably glad that the vixen could not see his pained expression, nor his eyes rolling behind his mask. He stood in silence, trying to ignore his slowly growing suspicion that this entire situation was spiraling out of his control. However, he took solace in the fact that eventually, given enough time, she would stop talking. Eventually, given enough time, she had to stop.
The jackal suppressed a dry chuckle. Thousands of years spent yearning in vain for the sound of a voice other than his own, and now he found himself wishing for silence. What an irony.
For the third time in the last thirty minutes, Rowan completed a circuit of the tower, his striped face aglow with excitement like that of a pup with a new toy. “Astonishing,” said the badger, casting his eyes up and down, up and down. “No bricks, no mortar, no wood, and no nails, only solid stone underneath the roses. And the architecture! It’s like no modern design I’ve ever seen…” He stroked the bristly charcoal hairs on his chin, enraptured. “Ostentatious, yes, to be sure, but at the same time, it’s so simple, so elegant… Magnificent. I must speak with the builder. Only a truly gifted mage could have constructed something like this.”
A few paces back, Zero smirked and folded his arms. “He’s found a new friend. Maybe we should leave the two of them alone for a while?”
Hanami giggled despite herself. “I think it’s cute.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Rowan once he came back around for a fourth time. The sheepish expression he wore clashed with his massive size and intimidating build… as if the excited pup had just been scolded by a parent. “I did not mean to delay us for so long.”
“You’ll have a lot more time to admire it if we can’t find a way inside.” Zero took a few cautious steps forward, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Whoever built this didn’t seem to be too fond of doors. Did you see any on your way around?”
Rowan shook his head. “Not a one. Solid stone through and through.”
“Hmm.” Zero took another step… apparently too close. The black roses rustled as if startled by the noise, and the network of thorned vines knit itself tighter together over the stone.
Squeak, went Hanami behind them. Her tail fur stood on end as she peeked out from behind Zero’s back. “Do… do you think they know we’re here?”
Finally, the jackal moved, if only slightly. “Ah,” was all he said.
“‘Ah’ what?” Faun raised her head from between her knees. She was beginning to worry that the big lummox would just stand there, immobile, silent, and gathering dust until one of them died. Given that he had taken a bomb at point-blank range without flinching, she wasn’t too confident that he would go first. “I hope that was ‘Ah’ as in, ‘Ah, I’ve changed my mind, you’re free to leave…’”
“No.” The golden mask tilted to one side, as if listening to something. The Mage Flower held between his massive fingers twitched, but he did not notice the movement. “There are visitors down below.”
“Way down there? How can you tell?!”
“The tower told me.”
“Three sentients,” said Seker. “Two squirrels, one buck and one doe, and a boar badger. Your friends?”
Something stirred in the vixen’s heart, warming her from the inside. Hope. “Well, I’ll be damned, it’s a rescue party.” A wild, audacious grin spread across her face. “Now you’re in trouble, Helmet.”
“Everyone gets a nickname. Even jerks like you.”
“Hello,” said Rowan. “What’s this?”
It appeared to be a doorway. A quite enormous doorway, built for a creature even larger than Rowan, who towered head and shoulders over the two squirrels. At the peak of its arch, it was at least seven and a half meters off the ground. More alarmingly, it simply appeared with little fanfare before them, opening in the stone behind the curtain of thorned vines like the mouth of a giant, dark and cavernous. The rose vines unknit themselves and crawled back, and now there was nothing between them and the inside of the tower but air.
“A trap, most likely,” said Zero with a dour expression.
“Oh, I have little doubt.” Rowan nodded and scratched his chin again. “An obvious one, at that.”
Hanami swallowed. Her throat was too tight to speak. Staring into the absolute blackness of that doorway was an unpleasant reminder of the spiders’ cavern, and the nightmares they found inside. Her fur standing on end and her ears flat, she made an instinctive grab for the Mage Flower behind her left ear, a source of comfort… and then she remembered. Faun had it. And Faun was, for whatever reason, inside this strange tower, doing Gods knew what with it.
If only things were simple. All she really wanted in life were two things: to live in peace tending to her gardens at Haven Grove, and to be able to talk to Zero, to understand more about the strange swordsbuck with the dark, wounded eyes, always dressed in black. Now, at last, she had a few more tantalizing details about who he was, how he had come to be this way… and thanks to Faun’s predicament, she might never know anything more. Another addition to the list of reasons to be angry with her.
Hanami was so preoccupied with these thoughts that she almost missed Zero and Rowan’s next words to each other. When they registered, she gave off another, much quieter squeak.
“We’re going in, aren’t we?” said Zero.
“Of course,” said Rowan. “By your leave, my friend.”
“But-” The word had trouble making it past the sudden dryness in Hanami’s mouth. “But it’s a trap. You know it’s a trap! Shouldn’t we wait, call for reinforc-”
Zero actually laughed, though the sound was sour. “Sometimes I forget that you haven’t been here for long, Hanami,” he said. “We’re Outcasts, we’re on our own. Even if we did call for help, who would bother to come? Drake?”
“Definitely not,” said Rowan. “Our elderly wolf friend only acts on affairs that interest him. This is not one of those, I think.” He looked up the length of the tower. “And even if it were, I cannot imagine his health would survive a climb such as this promises to be. I believe such endurance is beyond him.”
“But you can’t just- where are you going?!”
“In.” Zero put a hand on the hilt of the timeworn sword at his hip as he strode toward the dark doorway. “Faun’s somewhere in there, she has something of yours, and I intend to get it back.”
“Agreed.” The badger unslung his morning star from his back and followed after him.
Hanami, having little choice, followed them both, wringing her hands together. The alternative was staying outside at night in the wild, uncharted part of Tasakeru; even with the spiders gone, she wouldn’t feel any safer outdoors. First Zero disappeared through the stone arch, then Rowan, then the black was all she could see as she crossed the threshold, it was as if she had gone blind, and- and then there was light, dazzling light-
“My Gods,” Rowan breathed.
She bumped into him from behind, as the badger had stopped dead a few paces ahead of her. For the second time that night, she rubbed her poor snout, her eyes blurring with tears.
“What the hell has Faun been doing?!” said Zero’s voice, awed and confused.
Once her vision cleared, it was easy to understand why they stopped. Hanami goggled; while it was an autumn night outside, it was a blazing summer’s day in the tower, with a noonday sun gleaming off countless jeweled or golden surfaces, and off the still waters of a shallow square reflecting pool set in the center of an impossibly long entrance hall, with spotless ebony floors and great stone columns covered in hieroglyphs flanking each side.
“This…” Rowan spoke past the lump forming in his throat, with some difficulty. “This is extraordinary. I’ve seen rooms and symbols like this in books on the Lost Ages, but this…” He trailed off. “The vixen could not have made all this. No one could have.”
“If she didn’t make it, who did?”
For once in his life, Rowan had no answers.
“They are inside,” said Seker. At last he turned away from the crystal window. It was a statement of fact, not irritation, like someone commenting on the weather.
Faun snorted. “Heh. Yeah, not much can keep us Outcasts out of a place we don’t want to be. Or keep us in. Feeling nervous yet, Helmet?”
“Not at all. I allowed them entry,” he said, tucking the Mage Flower into a groove that formed high in the stone wall at his touch, out of reach of any but himself.
“You-” Shivers ran down Faun’s spine to the tip of her tail. “… What are you doing?”
“It occurs to me,” said the jackal, “that perhaps the hope that these friends of yours will come to your aid is cause for you to refuse my offer. If that is indeed the case, then perhaps witnessing their deaths will change your mind.”
Silence fell, in neat concert with Faun’s stomach.
“Yes,” said the jackal. “I shall take no pleasure in killing them, but if doing so is the only way to force you to see reason, so be it.”
“Bastard,” said Faun, hissing the curse from between clenched teeth. Callousness and indifference were one thing, but threatening murder? Any remaining traces of sympathy for him withered away. “You bastard.”
A brief examination of the cavernous entrance hall yielded no sign of Faun, or anyone else. In truth, only Zero put much effort into the search; Hanami much preferred not to stray too far in a strange place, and Rowan was too enraptured by the details of the hall to concentrate.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said the buck, tapping an angry rhythm against the ebony floor with the tip of his boot. “The tower’s more than tall enough for multiple floors, but I don’t see a single staircase, or anything that even looks like it leads to an upper floor. Where could she have gone?”
“Maybe she got lost?” said Hanami. “It’s a big tower.”
“Bigger on the inside.” Rowan chimed in as he leaned over to examine the gem-encrusted throne on the raised stone dais. “Hmm. Rose quartz on the crest rail, with inlaid rubies, sapphires, garnets, amethysts, and pearls distributed on the body. This is quite an expensive throne.”
That drew Hanami’s attention. “Are all of those real?”
“Difficult to say, but I would suppose so.”
Reflections of the gems’ facets gleamed in Hanami’s widened eyes. “But… but how? Gemstones are supposed to be rare, how could someone find enough to cover an entire chair?”
“I do not know, Milady. However it was built, it’s a wonder that Faunelle hasn’t made off with it.”
“This whole place seems like it was built with her in mind,” said Zero, coming to stand on the throne’s other side. “Gold and jewels plastered everywhere… it’s like one of the Shichi Meimon estates back in Unify, but this looks like it’s worth more than all seven families put together.”
“Which Meimon estates have you-” Hanami started.
It was then that the dais shook. All three Outcasts started and grasped the throne for support as the sandstone rumbled beneath them like a localized earthquake. Stone grated on stone, and to the accompaniment of that awful sound, the dais lifted off the floor, beginning a slow climb into the open shaft above their heads.
“It would appear,” said Rowan, shouting to be heard over the grinding, “that we have been invited to the upper floors!”
Zero swallowed and put one hand on the hilt of his sword. With the other, he grasped Hanami’s hand. “Stay close to me!”
That wouldn’t be a problem. High places made Hanami nervous… squirrelkind used to make their dreys in trees in prehistoric times, but she couldn’t see the appeal; she always felt more comfortable being as close to the ground as possible. Zero’s grip on her hand made her shudder for a quite different reason, though… not even the temple pepper could stop the burn when he was so close. The tip of her tail curled and uncurled as she found herself drawn to the details of the buck’s face, which was bathed in light from the top of the shaft, Gods only knew how far up. His eyes really were intense, the color of black tea with milk in it. Bright like stars and sharp like knives, but there was a glimmer of constant hurt in them that she recognized: she saw it in the mirror every morning.
Apparently, the walls of the shaft widened out to accommodate the dais after a certain point; now it floated unsupported by anything else. “Zero?” she asked once the noise subsided. “About that battle…”
Zero turned those intense eyes back on her, making her shiver. “Right,” he said. “I didn’t finish telling you the rest of the story. It’s only fair. Rowan, you know some of this, but… you should probably hear it too.”
“As you wish.” Rowan had been preparing to feign deafness for another few minutes, but Zero discussing his past openly was a rare opportunity that should not be ignored.
“I warn you both,” said the buck, his voice dark. “It’s not easy story to hear. Even less easy to tell.”
Rowan’s whiskers drooped. “If it involves the Fangs, I expect nothing less, my friend. You have my deepest sympathies.”
Hanami squeezed his hand. Her heart fluttered in her chest.
Bowing his head, Zero began again. “Of the Seven Days of Blood, the battle I was in happened on the second-to-last of them. I don’t remember the actual fight at all. Everything was a blur… my hands were moving my sword on their own. What I remember was afterward… the smell, the smell was the first thing that hit me. The air was so heavy with the scent of blood that I was almost choking on it. There were flies… huge swarms of black flies, buzzing everywhere like living clouds. It was like I was waking up from a dream… I just stood there with my sword, wet. Shaking. I couldn’t understand how I got there.”
A breath caught in Hanami’s throat. She knew that feeling.
“And then I saw… Tornado. Tatsuya, my squadmate,” Zero continued. His voice trembled with old rage and sorrow, and his free hand balled into a fist so tight that his claws dug into the pads on his palm. “He looked like something thrown from a fishmonger’s stall, and his… his everything was dragged out in front of him. He was staring, wide-eyed. I don’t even want to think how much of it he actually saw before he died. Wildfire, Oni, Slash, Falcon, Madeye, Earthquake… all slaughtered. Butchered. They murdered seven of us, and ten civilians who tried to help us fight them off. Everyone else who lived was badly injured… Yuudai had a huge slash across his face, and Bolt… Bolt never walked again. All those bodies lying there rotting, all that suffering, all for a stupid little patch of land that didn’t mean anything… and in the middle of all of them was me, alive and unhurt. Somehow, I survived… with just a few dents and cracks in my armor. My body? Not even a scratch.”
Anyone else would call that a miracle, but true miracles were in short supply, Rowan thought. For someone to survive the Demon Fangs unscatched would take divine luck and immense skill. He made to say so aloud, but what Zero said next silenced him.
“It made no sense,” he said, shaking his head, his eyes haunted and far away. “No sense at all. I wasn’t the best fighter in the squad, I wasn’t the best strategist. Hell, I was so terrified, I don’t even remember what I was doing. So why wasn’t I hurt? Why did I walk away when they couldn’t? Why me?”
In sympathy, Hanami laid a hand on his shoulder, unable to speak.
“Back at the Gakuen… they congratulated me,” said Zero. Now his words grew cold, cold as a midwinter’s night. “They told me I had proven myself as an exceptional warrior, and that I would make a fine samurai someday. They told me to be proud. To be proud, while five of my friends were barely alive in the infirmary… and seven of them were in the mortuary in pieces.” He stared down at the dais floor, and his eyes disappeared into dark hollows in the shade of the black headband he wore. “I couldn’t take it,” he said. “The guilt. Surviving, knowing that I wasn’t worthy. So that night, I snuck out of the infirmary, took the family sword, and I ran… I deserted. I wasn’t gone six hours before they found me and dragged me in front of a tribunal. Disloyalty, they said. Cowardice. Dereliction of duty. I went against three of the Seven Virtues the samurai swear by in one night, so it didn’t take them long to decide. ‘The samurai who feared death’ had to be punished. They declared me a ronin, made me an Outcast, and sent me here to Tasakeru. I’m a coward, a coward who failed my comrades, my father, Naole, and my family legacy… and I don’t have a single scar to show for it.” Zero stared right at Hanami then… and in that expression, in his eyes, she saw the ghost of the kit he was nine years ago, the young buck who only wanted to make his family proud. “That’s me,” he said, hushed. “That’s who I am.”
Part of him died there. The thought struck Hanami and would not be dismissed. It was followed shortly by another: It’s not true that he doesn’t have scars. His scars are all on the inside…
Secrets. Scars. Family betrayal. In that moment, she felt kinship for Zero unlike anything in the past. It was not mere attraction, though that was still there, if muted. Whatever the circumstances that led them to this moment, they were not mere friends or fellow Outcasts anymore. There was a deeper connection, beyond physical: the bond of two souls that both knew great suffering. It was almost as if the rest of the world were falling away as the two of them rose to the heavens on the dais, closer together than ever before…
A strange, low, throaty sound broke the spell. It took them both a moment to realize what it was: the sound of Rowan sobbing. Tears spilled freely from the badger’s warm, honey-brown eyes, matting his stripes. “My friend…” he choked.
Zero bristled, suddenly uncomfortable. “R-Rowan, it’s nothing. Please, don’t.”
“No,” said Rowan, wiping his eyes, then his snout. “It is most emphatically not nothing. You are a brave, brave soul, Milord.”
“I’m not brave at all, I’m a coward-”
“Nonsense.” After a long, prolonged snort to clear his sinuses, the badger seemed more composed. “I have always sided with the mentalists in thinking that repressing trauma makes it worse, you know. Negative emotions need an outlet, or they will fester and grow. So many sentients fear that they will be seen as weak for sharing their pain, but that is foolish and illogical, I think. It is more shameful to hide the pain, pretending it does not exist… and it takes far more strength to acknowledge and face it. What you have just done, baring yourself to us with openness and honesty, despite how awfully you have suffered… That is, without question, one of the greatest acts of sheer courage I have ever seen. You have not only my sympathies, Lord Zero Takaishi… but my awe, and my purest and utmost respect.” And to the buck’s complete shock, Rowan bent to one knee, bowed his head, and put his fist to his breastplate… an old, old gesture of great humility before a superior, just as a true samurai would do before his master.
Stunned, Zero opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out.
“And mine,” said a soft voice behind him. “I can’t put it as well as Rowan did, but… you’re not a coward. You’re not, and you never were. Even if you think that about yourself, I never have, and never will.” Hanami smiled through her own tears, and he thought his heart might stop. “I wish I were as brave as you.”
He was shaken to his soul, well beyond words. “I… th-thank you,” Zero managed after several seconds. “Thank you.” Nothing more than that. The shame of his actions would always be with him to the end of his days, but for the first time… he felt it lighten, just a little. A break of sunlight coming down through the clouds of the last nine years. For Rowan to know of his disgrace and still humble himself in that sacred way, that was gracious enough. More respect than he was worthy of, Zero thought. But for Hanami to say what she just did, to hear that story and still be able to smile and say that…
I wish I were as brave as you.
Zero’s mind drifted away, a feather on the wind. For a few seconds, he simply basked in the warm glow of her smile and her words.
When he regained his senses, his first thought was: Naole was right. I’ve been such an idiot. “Hanami,” he said, clasping her hand. “If we make it out of this, there’s something I-”
With that, the dais shuddered to a stop. At once, a rumbling bass voice washed over them like a wave from the eternal ocean: “Seker the Last bids welcome to the Outcasts of Tasakeru. Presumably, you have come to my tower to retrieve the vixen, have you not?”
His moment with Hanami broken, Zero stood, one hand flying to the sword hilt by instinct. The voice came from the enormous black-furred figure in the ancient loincloth, standing in front of a crystalline window and blocking their way to Faun, who waved from behind him with little enthusiasm. The giant’s entire head was encased in a mask of what looked like solid gold. Zero bristled, took a breath, and prepared to launch into the sacred samurai ritual: a formal introduction and an intent to challenge-
Evidently, rituals would have to wait, as he was interrupted by a gasp of delight from the badger before he could begin. “A Titan,” said Rowan, his eyes aglow. “There’s no mistaking that build, no other sentient on Earth looked like that! Faunelle, how in the Gods’ names did you find a living Titan?! This is a historic event!” He sank into a bow, giddy with unbridled joy. “Milord, however you have come to this era, I bid you welcome. I beseech you, if you would deign to answer a few questions, and perhaps allow me to take notes…”
Seker wasn’t listening. The golden mask pivoted back to Faun. One could sense his eyebrow raising beneath it. “‘Faunelle?’” he said.
Faun’s ears flattened in disgust. “Oh, thanks a lot, Stripehead.”
Growing frustrated, Zero tried again. “Seker the Last, I am Zero Takaishi of Tasakeru, and-”
This time, he was stymied by Hanami, who barged between him and Rowan in a very un-Hanami way to stand at the front of the group. It seemed she did not even see the Titan, for her gaze was locked on Faun…
“Er,” said Faun. “H-hi there, Flowers.” The vixen swallowed and backed a little further up against the crystalline window, her tail dropping between her legs. Her image of Hanami was of a soft, cute, delicate thing… but the wild-eyed look of bilious rage on the doe’s face now suggested she could fight a dragon bare-handed, and Faun wouldn’t take odds on the dragon winning. The dissonance was unsettling. She swallowed a whimper.
“Hanami,” said Zero over Hanami’s shoulder. “You should flank us until we get your Mage Flower back…”
“But Faun’s right there, and she-!”
“I know, I know! I just don’t want you getting hurt!”
Seker coughed to catch their attention. Amplified by the golden mask, the sound was like a muted cannon blast. “Excuse me,” he said. “If all of you wish to make any final attempts to change the vixen’s mind before you expire, I suggest you do so now.”
“Obviously, Milord, you have not spent long in Faunelle’s company,” said Rowan, not bothering to suppress a smirk. “In our experience, changing her mind requires at least a dozen flagons of Firewater and an act of divine intervention, and you seem to be lacking both.”
Faun made a sound that indicated that the badger would pay for that one.
“Seker the Last, I am Zero Takaishi of Tasakeru,” said Zero, having finally pushed to the front again. His long-delayed introduction was delivered with no small amount of relief. “I have to insist that you return both Faun and the flower she stole. Do so, and we can end this here and now. Refuse, and you leave us no choice but to take them back by force.”
The mask’s impassive black crystal eyes looked down on him. “Your kind used to talk less, Zero Takaishi. Another adjustment to be made once I reinstate my reign.”
“May I take it that you do not intend to surrender, Milord?” Rowan’s tone was tinged with disappointment.
A long silence from the jackal, as if allowing Rowan to consider the folly of what he had just said. Then: “You may, badger.”
“Then,” said Rowan, unslinging his morning star, “I suppose we find ourselves at odds.”
Beside him, Zero drew his sword from its scabbard.
“Come now,” said Seker in growing irritation. “Will you truly be so stupid as to-”
“TENRAI!” Zero’s shouted battle cry echoed off the stone as he charged. A downward slash across the chest should do it, he thought. His target wore no armor, carried no weapon. He was a big fellow, but big usually meant slow, so if he kept out of reach-
A huge, muscular arm shot out like lightning. One giant hand caught the razor edge of the sword as it came down and stopped it dead. Zero’s charge came to a sudden and unexpected halt; not only could his sword not even scratch the Titan’s flesh, but his body absorbed all of his momentum… how was that possible? Then he was hurtling backward into Rowan coming up from behind, the two of them landing in a tangled heap…
“Perhaps you have not grasped it yet,” said the jackal. His footfalls rang out heavy as he advanced, like distant drums. “I am immortal. None of your weapons can harm me, no magic can-”
Extricating himself, Rowan pounced to his feet. The badger moved like water up to Seker’s side, dodging under an outstretched arm as it reached for him. The spiked morning star whirled on its chain in a circle, emitting a deadly hum as it lashed the air. Its motions a blur, it wove up, down, around behind the jackal’s masked head, and it struck at the back of the skull with a thunderous crash-
Seker did not even flinch.
“Hmm,” said Rowan. In an instant, the Titan tore the weapon from his grasp, tossing the heavy weapon aside like an old rag. Rowan saw the fist sailing toward his face, shoved hard against the wrist to deflect it, and it struck his breastplate with a noise that flesh and bone on steel should never make… the metal yielded and crumpled.
Stars clouded Zero’s vision as he attempted to sit up. There was a ringing in his ears; he shook his head to clear it.
“Are you all right?” That was Hanami, having rushed to his side.
The buck winced, tasting blood. “We may need a new plan,” he admitted. “Get behind him and take Faun, see if the two of you can escape while we distract that monster.”
“But he’ll kill you!”
“If we’re fast enough, hopefully not.”
Too late. He was already up and charging again.
Hanami felt tempted to use a few of Faun’s favorite words. Instead, she hugged the wall, trying hard to be invisible and stay as far away from the battle as possible as she edged toward the vixen. To her relief, the Titan seemed too focused on proving his invulnerability to the buck and badger to notice her.
“Listen, Flowers-” Faun began as she came near.
An icy blue glare stopped her short. “Sometime this year, you may find poison sumac growing in your den, and I won’t tell you where.”
Faun swallowed again. “So you’re still mad, then. Point taken.”
“Idiots!” bellowed the jackal, startling them both. “Have you no sense?! I cannot feel! I do not bleed, or tire, or sleep, or breathe! Why continue this pointless struggle? What hope do you have to stand against me?” His voice rose like thunder, heightened, maddened with rage… rage, and a hint of sorrow. “What hope does this world have…?”
A meter away, Zero coughed and spit out a bloody fragment of a tooth, righting himself once more. He brandished his sword, useless as it was. “I can’t speak for the world,” he said. “But as for us? I suppose we’re just stupid that way.”
A savage growl built from inside the mask as Seker strode forward. Without breaking step, he backhanded the badger attempting to mount a surprise attack on his side, sending him back to the stone with an earthshaking thud. Moonlight gleamed off his golden mask… there were so many ways to hurt these fools. So many ways to kill them for daring to defy him, with magic or with his bare hands. The swordsbuck called Zero gazed defiantly up at him, still attempting to resist though the battle was long lost.
It made no sense.
Seker raised his fist again…
“OI!” said a sharp voice behind him.
“What are you doing?!” hissed Hanami, tugging at Faun’s hand. “Faun, stop!”
“Don’t try to stop me, Flowers!” The vixen pulled away and stomped across the room, tail held high. “OI, I said! That’s enough!”
“Do you wish to plead for your friends’ lives, harlot?” said Seker. One of the mask’s rock crystal eyes looked back at her.
“‘Harlot?’’’ said Faun, incredulous. Her eyes blazed with emerald fire. “That’s the best you can come up with? Three thousand years of time to think, and you can’t come up with anything more creative than ‘harlot’? Listen here, you metal-headed lummox, I was being called ‘harlot’ when I was eight. You gargantuan, stuffed-up, milksop son of a taint, look at me! I’m tired and hungry and grumpy as hell and I can still think of a dozen better insults than that!”
Seker turned to her in abject shock. He raised a hand to speak-
“Don’t start with me!” Now Faun’s voice built to a roar of her own. The fur on the ruff of her neck stood on end as her tirade raged on: “Why don’t you go back into your hole in the sand and lie in it, you mangy, shedding, pigboar-snouted, flea-bitten, pathetic excuse for a wart on a senile goat’s hind! Better yet, do us all a favor and go back to the Beneath that spawned you, you pigeon-livered, dropsy, addlepated, toffee-nosed, bearingless, short-sticked waste of matter! I’d spit on you if it weren’t wasting perfectly good fluids! What’s the problem? Worn out your tongue from grooming your mother, or did you finally go deaf?”
Silence fell upon the tower. A long, uncomfortable silence.
It was only broken by the most unexpected of sounds, one that the world had not heard in three thousand years: the sound of Seker the Last howling with laughter.
From their positions on the floor, Zero and Rowan stared.
Hanami stared from the crystalline window.
Faun didn’t blink. She kept her blazing eyes locked on the jackal as he doubled over, hands on her hips, waiting for him to finish.
It was a considerable length of time before Seker regained enough control of himself to speak. There would be tears in his eyes, were he still capable of producing them. “My dearest Lady Muranaka,” he finally said. “Please forgive me for my lateness in realizing what I should have long ago…”
“I cannot be your mate,” said Seker. One got the sense that he was grinning underneath the mask. “Among many other reasons, I see now that I do not deserve you.”
“You’re damned right you don’t,” Faun huffed.
“All the same, thank you, Faunelle Muranaka,” the jackal said, bowing deeply to her. “Thank you, for shouting some sense into this old fool’s head in your inimitable fashion.”
“You’re welcome.” The response still had quite an edge on it. “And don’t call me Faunelle, ever. So no more of this mating or companion nonsense? You promise?”
“Certainly not. I promise. If you will allow me.” Seker stepped away from the fallen Outcasts, leaned down, and sank his hand into the stone floor as easily as dipping into the surface of a lake. He rose back up with Faun’s boom belt held gently, almost reverently, in his hand. As if submitting an offering to the Goddess, he presented it to her on bended knee.
Faun took it, with considerably less grace.
“What…” said Zero, perplexed. “What just happened?”
“I believe Faunelle just saved all of our lives,” said Rowan, flexing his jaw. It felt a bit loose. His ribs felt worse, so he had no desire to test those. “In, as our Titan fellow said, her own inimitable fashion.”
From across the room, Zero and Hanami shared a baffled expression. It quickly turned to one of mutual embarrassment, so they averted their eyes.
Before them loomed the borders of the forest, dark and foreboding. Lily shuddered, remembering the fear that gnawed at her the first time she came to Tasakeru with her mother, so many years ago. She wondered if her mother had felt that way her first time, or if Nadeshiko felt that way now. This was not her first time, of course, but they had not made the journey since she was very small.
If she did feel fear, Nadeshiko would never show it. Clad in full armor, every plate spotless, she turned on one heel and faced the knights, her voice carrying to the back of the ranks. “Halt!” she barked, raising the great slab of her enormous greatsword. “Stay in formation until the Grand Mistress gives the word!”
“Aye, Ma’am!” came the reply in chorus.
Giant spiders and mysterious towers appearing in the space of a single night were not the kinds of problems the Silver Order’s Grand Mistress was expected to deal with, Lily thought. Preserve Life, the faith demanded above all. And following that: Protect the Weak, Feed the Hungry, and Shelter the Poor. It was easier in the days of her mothers and grandmothers.
With a few exceptions. Her brows narrowed. She hoped that one of those exceptions was not involved with the black tower. Lily thought he knew by now to keep himself out of the Order’s eye, but one never could tell with that one.
“Grand Mistress?” said Nadeshiko in a whisper. Observing protocol while on duty, as always. “Are you all right?”
“Of course, Vice-Mistress,” said Lily smoothly. A lifetime’s experience taught her how to mask the turbulence of her emotions under a veneer of calm. “We will advance momentarily. I was merely gathering my thoughts.”
“Are you expecting the mission to be difficult?”
“I sincerely hope not, but one must always be prepared.”
“At last, I have realized,” said Seker, standing once more in front of the crystal window, “what terrible mistakes I have made.”
The four Outcasts watched him from behind, Faun and Hanami standing, Zero and Rowan sitting while the doe tended their injuries with poultices of onion flower and plantain. Treating battle wounds was new territory for her, so Rowan took her through it step by step. Seker retrieved her Mage Flower from the wall and presented it to her with many apologies some minutes ago… the moment her hands closed around its stem, she hugged it tight to her bosom as if she would never again let it go.
The jackal’s shape threw a sharp silhouette onto the strange clear crystal. “It was a mistake to brew the immortality potion in the first place,” he said, his voice low. “A mistake to take it. A mistake to usurp and murder my Faraou… and a mistake to pursue you, Lady Muranaka, when I was finally freed. Many, many mistakes.”
Faun was silent, for once.
“I have existed for far beyond my natural span.” Seker folded his hands behind his back and gazed out at the world, the world he once was foolish enough to think he owned. “I should have vanished into dust, into history along with my people, but here I stand. I cannot help but think how… futile… it has all been. Clearly, I learned nothing from my imprisonment. I gained eternity, at the cost of life… I made a fool’s bargain. By your grace, Lady Muranaka, I see that now.”
The vixen’s ears turned down. Something about the Titan humbling himself was deeply embarrassing, but she couldn’t place what it was.
“Perhaps I was instrumental in my people’s downfall. I do not know,” said Seker. The golden mask bowed in shame. “What is done is done. I must bear the burden of my sins… until I find a way to finally have my rest.”
“Y-you…” Hanami swallowed. “You want to-”
“I do not seek death, precisely. Only the knowledge that I can one day walk that path. There is a certain horror in silence and darkness. I shall not submit to it again.” Seker sighed, a mournful sound that spoke of every one of his many years. “I shall go now, to seek a way to break my curse. Perhaps, beyond the eternal sea, there is a land where that can be done.”
Zero shuddered. The thought of welcoming death was almost foreign to him, but… If he’s been awake this long, I suppose it really will be like going to sleep.
“Are you certain you will not stay?” said Rowan next to him, wincing as Hanami applied another poultice to his ribs. “I feel we would have much to learn from each other.”
“That we would, Lord Longstripe,” said the jackal. “I regret that we cannot share our knowledge, but I must first consider whether or not mine is worth sharing. Knowledge unearned is a warning unheard, and I have troubled all of you too much already.”
“Well,” said Faun with great reluctance, “will you ever come back? I mean. We’re sort of all you’ve got.”
“If there is nothing out there, then perhaps.” Seker faced them. “I confess, there are certain people in the modern age that I would enjoy knowing further. In a strictly platonic sense, of course.”
Now Faun’s ears went flat. “Um.”
The jackal’s laugh boomed off the tower walls. “For now, I shall trouble you no further. I thank you once again, Lady Muranaka, for my freedom. Someday, I hope to repay my debt to you properly. When I leave this place, you are all free to go. May your Gods bless and watch over each of you.” With that, the jackal bowed, then dissolved into a cloud of glittering white sand. Stone grated on stone once more as the tower’s interior shifted, rearranging itself around the baffled Outcasts. Bricks ran like rivers in a bizarre display, melting and rearranging themselves until-
They found themselves staring at a massive open doorway, seven and a half meters tall, where the window had been seconds before. The grand entrance hall was gone, and only an interior of sparse, bare black stone remained. Through the doorway was the deepest part of Tasakeru, quiet and still. The cloud of sand that was Seker the Last streamed through the doorway with a flourish and was gone.
One by one, the four Outcasts looked at each other.
It was Hanami who broke the awkward silence. “Faun,” she said, refusing to be distracted any longer. She crossed her arms and gave the vixen her best glare. “I believe you have something to say to me.”
Faun actually cringed. “I was wrong, stealing your flower and lying to you was a mistake, I paid for it, and I’m sorry…?” she said hopefully.
“That’s a good start. Keep going.”
Miles away, a pair of tattered ears perked up. It took the ancient wolf’s rheumy vision a few seconds to focus on the sand cloud swirling before him, but when a huge, black-furred figure stepped out of the cloud-
“Surprises upon surprises,” said Seker. “I hardly expected to see one of your kind again.”
Drake’s lips pulled back in what was either a grin or a grimace, it was hard to tell. He leaned on his knobbly old walking stick for support, a strange light in his golden eyes. “Hrmm. Might do you good to walk with me for a while, stranger. We have a fair bit to talk about.”
“It speaks!” The jackal sounded quite pleased. “That is new. Well met, then. We shall talk.”
No more than thirty meters into Tasakeru’s depths, Nadeshiko held out an arm to stop the advance of the contingent. “Halt,” she said. “Don’t move. Someone’s coming… I smell it.”
Lily could do more than smell it. The two approaching figures were not bothering to keep their voices low or muffle their tracks. One voice she recognized, the other- “Goddess,” she breathed, reaching for her greatsword.
Rounding the bend was an enormous figure, seven meters tall and built like an ebony statue, its entire head encased in a solid gold mask. Next to it was a withered old figure of a wolf with fur as white as driven snow, bent double over a walking stick.
Both parties stopped. For a moment, no one dared move.
“Your pardon,” said the Titan in a booming bass voice. “I mean no harm. I was about to take my leave.”
Lily gaped up at it, forgetting about the wolf entirely in her disbelief. She had seen the carvings. She knew the stories. They were all supposed to be long dead, their bones and their cities nothing but dust. Yet here one was, plain as the nose at the tip of her snout. It could be nothing else; no other sentient race could grow to that size.
Nadeshiko, professional as ever, took a stance and hefted her greatsword. Not even a walking, talking dead creature would keep her from her duty. “Halt! We are the Silver Order! In the name of the Goddess, I demand that you identify yourself!”
“Merely an old relic whose time has passed,” said the Titan. “You need not concern yourselves. Please excuse me.” Before they could react, he simply melted, his body crumbling into a million grains of sand that blew past them in a gust of hot, dry air.
That was enough to crack even Nadeshiko’s composure. “Someone, stop that creature!” There was a foreign note of strain and panic in her voice. “It’s only a dust spell, do not-”
“Don’t bother, Young Lady.” Drake chuckled and leaned back on his stick. “You couldn’t catch that one if you tried. And where he’s going, you don’t want to follow.”
Sure enough, the sand slipped away through the trees and was lost to the night, leaving the Silver Order company shaken.
“Stars above,” said Drake, breaking the silence as he squinted at the younger floris. “You can’t be little Nadeshiko… the last time I saw you, you were barely above my knee…”
“You-” Nadeshiko sputtered and drew back, eyes blazing. “You have interfered with an official Order investigation. You will tell us all you know of that creature, now.”
“Stand down, Little One.”
Her mother’s breach in protocol was enough to shock Nadeshiko out of her stance. “G-Grand Mistress…?”
Lily stared not at her daughter, but at the old white wolf, her expression unreadable. “Drake Who Walks Alone,” she said, inclining her head.
“Lady Lily Argenteus.” Drake did the same. “It’s been a long time.”
“Vice-Mistress,” said Lily without breaking her gaze. “You will take the knights back to Tasakeru’s border and await further instructions. I shall return to you shortly.”
“But Mother-!” Now it was Nadeshiko’s turn to breach protocol. The knights behind her exchanged stunned glances. That was unprecedented.
“That is a command, Vice-Mistress,” said Lily, in a tone that discouraged further questions. “I expect it to be carried out.”
For a few seconds, Nadeshiko stewed in place, her ears flat against her skull. Finally, she performed another lightning turn on her heel, failing to suppress a growl of irritation. “Fall back,” she said to the contingent. “Grand Mistress’s orders.”
There was much hemming and hawing among the knights, and a few grumbles of protest, but they all complied, filing down the path. Nadeshiko’s striped tail streamed behind her like a banner as she followed, kicking up dry leaves in her wake.
“She has your eyes,” said the ancient wolf once they were out of hearing range. “And your attitude, at that age.”
“Out of the courtesy I am due to you,” said Lily in a cool voice, “I will not insist upon you accompanying me back to the city. I doubt you would comply, even if I did. However, I must insist that you tell me all you know of that creature and the black tower, at once.” One eyebrow raised. “I will also take your usual report on the whereabouts and activities of your fellow Outcasts at this time.”
Drake snorted. “Am I the warden of this damned forest, or its ward?”
“Both, on your own recognizance.”
“Fair enough.” Drake flicked an ear and beckoned to her with as low a bow as he could manage. “If you would walk with me, Milady.”
Hours later, Hanami sat curled in Faun’s favorite divot on the couch in Haven Grove, gently stroking the Mage Flower’s crinkly red petals. The only remnant of her old life, and she had almost lost it. Never again. Despite how bittersweet those memories were, she would never lose sight of it again.
A knock at the door interrupted her. Puzzled, Hanami rose from the couch and moved to answer it. “Oh…”
“Hanami,” said Zero. He shuffled from foot to foot, trying to hide something hastily wrapped in cloth behind the bush of his tail and doing a bad job of it. His ears were flattened, and he seemed to have a hard time meeting her eyes. “Sorry for coming so late.”
“No, not at all! I’m sorry to make you go out of your way. Do you want some tea?” That last sentence came out perhaps a bit more hopeful than she intended.
“No, thank you, I’m not staying. I just-” Zero swore under his breath. “I just wanted to give you this.” Swallowing heavily, he pressed the cloth-wrapped bundle into Hanami’s hands.
“Oh.” Hanami’s eyes widened as she took it. Heavy and solid, and she felt straight lines and angles within it. “Th-thank you. What is it?”
However it was possible, Zero’s ears pressed lower against his skull. “A book. The book I was borrowing when you… surprised me before. One of my favorites. I shouldn’t have run away from you, I apologize.” One eye peeked out from beneath his headband. “I was… embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have been.”
Mystified, Hanami took great care in unwrapping the cloth. The book inside had all evidence of being someone’s favorite: its leather covers were worn down at the corners, and it fell open easily in her hands, to a yellow-tinged page titled “In Shadow Lay She” which looked as if it had been thumbed to many times over the years. There was a pleasant smell to the book, that wonderful, leathery, musty, bookish smell… mingled with Zero’s own scent of sword polish and stubbornness. Hanami closed the covers again to read the title: In the Heart of That Eternal Sea: The Romantic Poetry of Sanshiro.
“It’s from Rowan’s library, but he told me you could have it,” said Zero in a rush. “I… you know, everyone knows Sanshiro for his samurai poetry, especially Wind Dancing on Graves… but I’ve always liked these better. Just my preference.”
He was prepared for laughter. After all, Naole laughed for a week when she first found him reading romantic poems years ago. What he was not prepared for was Hanami’s bright, sunlit smile, for the breathless gasp of joy as she clutched the old book to her heart like a precious treasure. That smile made remaining upright all the more difficult.
“Thank you,” said Hanami, bowing low. “Thank you, Zero. I love it.”
“I love it too. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“Of course! I will. Right now, in fact.”
“You don’t have to read it right now if you don’t want to-”
“Dijo! I wasn’t doing anything important. Honestly, this is wonderful.”
Silence feel between them, broken only by the singing of crickets and night peepers.
“I’ll go,” Zero said simply. It was blunt, very blunt, but it was all he could think of when she smiled at him like that.
“Go well,” said Hanami, who didn’t seem to mind. “And come back soon.”
“I will. I promise.”
Then he was gone in a rustle of leaves, a shadow blending into the night.
Hanami remained standing at the door for quite a long time, beaming, warm, and delighted. In truth, she had never even heard of Sanshiro. By tomorrow morning, though, she promised herself she would know at least one of his romantic poems by heart.
“So long as my name and deeds and creations are remembered, so shall I forever live… the very stars shall weep to see my grandeur.”
[Inscription from a fragment of a Titan archway, found buried in the Jiburi Grasslands. Presumed to be a quote from Faraou Marduk the Fourth, the true author is unknown.]