BOOK III: SOULSNATCHER
On an autumn night
Innocent lives cross paths with
Hunters in the dark
“Let us lay to rest a common misconception: though the Outcasts of Tasakeru (at least, those of the era that this book covers, with Hanami, Zero Takaishi, Faun Muranaka, Rowan Longstripe, and the rest being by far the most well-known of them all) are considered folk heroes, they were by no means seen as such at the time. According to most stories, the Magistrate Representatives and their various species governments made every effort to paint them as traitors, outlaws, scoundrels, and what-have-you. This despite the fact that, Muranaka aside, they were not career criminals… at least, not in the traditional sense. The majority of the Outcasts of that era were exiled for violating cultural taboos, rather than exhibiting criminal malice: Hanami for use of magic, Longstripe on his own volition as an act of symbolic protest, etc.
“Of course, that is not to say that all Outcasts were considered heroes. Far from it, in fact. Some Outcasts were undoubtedly exiled for very good reason…”
[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]
The problem was that they just couldn’t see. Couldn’t, or wouldn’t. It was because of that stubborn blindness on their part, that refusal to see what was right in front of them, that he had to do it. He wasn’t to blame. He had done no wrong. Why couldn’t they understand that?
The young brute wolf thought these bitter thoughts to himself as he trudged through the forest at close to midnight. His dark eyes glowered, hidden in part by strands of long, lank black hair that threw the details of his features into perpetual shadow. Perhaps he would have been handsome, had he groomed himself with more care: the claws on each of his long, thin fingers were ragged and overgrown, and his fur was shaggy and unkempt over a lean, wiry frame. Like many wolves, he normally eschewed clothing. Unlike almost all of the wolves, however, his fur bore no markings, no patterns, no indication of any kind that he belonged to a pack.
This was because he didn’t. Not anymore.
They exiled him. They made him an Outcast, because they couldn’t see.
Fools, all of them.
Why couldn’t they understand? He explained it to them over and over, but each time they refused to listen to reason. They imprisoned him, stripped him of his markings, exiled him out to Tasakeru in the cold autumn night. They couldn’t see.
The wolf’s ears perked as he caught two scents: one sweet and flowery, the other bold, confident, and brash. People. Other Outcasts. Females. Perhaps they would see. Perhaps they would listen.
Moving quickly and silently over the carpet of dead leaves on the forest floor, the wolf took cover within the undergrowth, waiting for the females to come close. He could hear their voices now.
“- don’t really like rabbit dramas most of the time. They’re so dry… and usually depressing.”
“This one wasn’t bad, I thought.”
“Yeah, it was fair, but what in Inariko’s name was going through the head of the rabbit who wrote it? A vixen falling in love with a statue? Even for us, that’s ridiculous.”
“Well, what are your dramas about?”
“The fun stuff, Flowers. Romance. Self-expression. Living. You should see our revision of Thisbe and Pyramus, one of their oldest ones. It’s an eye-opener.”
“Oh? What happens in it?”
“Well, for a start, it opens with both of the two lovers in Phase, so the actors start by mating right there on the stage-”
There was a loud squeak. “Faun!” said the softer voice.
“That’s nothing. Wait ‘til you hear what happens in the second act.”
The young wolf’s lips pulled back into a snarl. Mating. Were the Gods mocking him? Hot blood coursed through his veins, and his long fingers curled and uncurled. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t his fault. How dare they discuss mating so flippantly. Didn’t they know? Couldn’t they see?
His pack never could see.
Perhaps these two would.
The brute wolf made a hacking cough to announce himself as he stepped from the undergrowth onto the winding path between the oaks. Hunched over and shivering, he turned to the owners of the voices and pleaded: “Help me. Please, help me…”
One of them raised a lantern, which threw both females into its glow: a doe squirrel and a vixen. The doe was a slender, timid thing, prone to easy sympathy… he could tell by how she held her hands close to her chest, and by the gleam of empathy in her pale blue eyes as she looked at him. Her coloration was strange for her kind: long, sun-golden hair, caramel-colored fur. Tucked behind her left ear was a kind of flower he had never seen before, with blood red petals arranged in a spiral pattern. She was dressed simply, in a sleeveless, short-hemmed white tunic with a sash that matched her eyes.
By contrast, the vixen was a beauty by anyone’s standard. A generous figure, very little of which was concealed by clothing: just a bandolier over one shoulder, a black loincloth, cherry red boots and an equally red ribbon tied in her auburn hair. Eyes like emeralds, sharp and crafty. He could tell that she laughed often, but there was suspicion in those eyes, in the particular way that she held out her arm to stop the other from rushing forward.
A doe and a vixen. Not at all ideal, he thought. In times past, he would not have given either of them a second glance. Now, though, he was an Outcast anyway. He had been shamed, humiliated, exiled, because the fools of his pack couldn’t see. Perhaps a broadening of his perspective would not be such a bad thing.
“Wh-who are you?” asked the doe, a tremble in her voice. “Are you hurt?”
“Easy, Flowers,” said the vixen. “Hold your tail for a second.”
“I have been exiled,” he said, spreading his arms, humbling himself before them. “My pack left me with no food, no clothing, no shelter. I am so tired. Please, help me.”
The doe turned to her companion. “Faun, Haven Grove isn’t far. If we both help carry him-”
“Just wait,” said Faun. Her eyes narrowed. “Most of the wolves I’ve known would brag about having no clothes or shelter. Living off the land, sleeping under the stars, that sort of thing. Isn’t that right, friend?”
“Please,” said the brute, pressing harder. “I am cold and hungry and tired. If you have any mercy, please help me.”
“What were you exiled for?” Faun did not move.
“My sentence was unjust, I did nothing wrong!” Now the brute bowed low to the ground before the doe, shivering more than ever. “Surely you would have pity on a fellow Outcast, Milady?”
Now the one called “Flowers” wavered. “Come on, Faun. He looks sick. It can’t hurt to at least give him some soup and a bed for the night.”
The wolf’s ears twitched. A bed. A real bed would be nice. But not necessary.
It seemed that the doe’s persistence paid off. With a sigh, the vixen called Faun lowered her lantern. “If you say so.” Her tone suggested she still had grave misgivings.“Come on, up you get.”
“I thank you for your kindness,” said the wolf. His lips pulled back in an approximation of a smile. “Rest assured, you shall be repaid for it.”
“Can you walk?” asked the doe, reaching for him. “It’s only about thirty meters to my house-”
“That won’t be necessary,” said a new voice.
With a startled yelp, the brute found himself hauled upright by the scruff of his neck. A bony hand grasped his shoulder and turned him around-
The brute’s ears swiveled back. The lantern’s glow revealed an ancient figure of a wolf, bent double over a knobbly walking stick. He appeared so ravaged by time that it was hard to believe he had once been the young brute’s age. His fur was white as driven snow, bare of any markings, matted over a withered build that had once been powerful and muscular, a long time ago. He wore only a ragged set of trousers that looked as if he had had them for decades. There was something unsettling about the old wolf’s eyes… they shone golden in the lantern’s light, and seemed untouched by the age that weathered the rest of him. A low growl built in the white wolf’s throat; his yellowed fangs were prominent as he spoke in Wolven, the traditional tongue of their people: “What business have you here?”
The doe and vixen watched in confusion as the two conversed in a language they could not understand, which sounded like a hundred different pitches of growls, snarls, short barks, and whines…
“Greetings to you, old one,” the young brute said, engaging in the lupine Rite of Introduction. “My name is Algol. I come here seeking aid.”
“I am called Drake Who Walks Alone,” said the white wolf, responding in kind according to the Rite. “Greetings to you, Algol. From what pack do you hail? Where are your markings?”
“I regret that I have been cast out from the BladeTail Pack,” said Algol. He hung his head. “They saw fit to wash away my markings and exile me to this forest. Most unjustly, I assure you. The crime was hardly such. I see that you lack markings as well, my esteemed elder. Are we of similar company?”
“No,” said Drake, in a curt voice that suggested he was offended by the very idea. “All of my pack is long dead. For what crime were you exiled, Algol of the BladeTail Pack? A severe one, for your pack to erase you so, I wager.”
“Not so at all, esteemed elder. It was… a difference of opinion, regarding the place of the fae in the pack.”
“Explain.” It was not a request.
“Of course, Lord Drake. I revered my pack’s fae, you see, yet time and again my attentions were spurned. As I explained to the Pack leaders: females exist to bring about life, do they not? It is the highest duty, given by the Goddess Andromeda herself. A fae should only be honored to be chosen as a brute’s mate.” Algol’s voice rose in fervor as he spoke. His long fingers stretched, as if trying to grasp something. “To deny a brute is for a fae to deny their very purpose. Such is a travesty that I would not stand for. I had no choice; I was forced to take action.”
As he listened to this, Drake’s tattered ears swiveled further and further back, his eyes narrowing to slits. “Forced, you say.”
“Indeed.” Algol’s voice quivered with emotion. “It was no fault of mine, esteemed elder. The fae knew not their place. They denied their purpose. The BladeTail leaders had no respect for the way things should be. I was not to blame for my actions, Milord, I assure you. Any would have done the same in my place. Surely you must understand…?”
“You two.” Drake’s abrupt switch to New Standard startled the two females. “Leave, now. Go back to Haven Grove, and lock the door.”
The fur on the back of Faun’s neck rose. “What did he say?”
“Things that you and Lady Hanami don’t need to hear,” said Drake in a low voice. “Go. Now.”
“Is there some way we can hel-” Hanami began. The sentence cut off into a squeak as the vixen grasped her by the forearm. “Faun, that hurt-!”
“You heard him, Flowers.” The cast of the lantern light revealed a face more grim and set than Hanami had ever seen her friend wear. Faun’s eyes bore none of their usual warmth or amusement; they were hard and cold as the jewels they resembled.
Cowed into silence, Hanami allowed the vixen to lead her past the wolves and down the path, increasing her pace to keep up with Faun’s strides. Their tails blew behind them like flags as they receded into the night, and they were gone.
Now the wolves were left alone. As shadows moved over the waning moon, an unnatural chill settled over the forest. They stared at one another… neither seemed willing to look away.
“Leave,” said Drake finally, switching back to Wolven. “There is nothing for you here.”
“But my esteemed Lord…” Algol tilted forward and spread his arms. It came off as a less than humble gesture. “The doe did offer bed and shelter for the night. Would it not be rude to accept?”
“The doe is young.” Drake’s reply was curt. “Young, and she has suffered too much already. She knew not your intentions, Algol of BladeTail.”
“My… intentions?” Again with that almost-smile, his lips pulling back. “Milord, as I have said: I did no wrong, committed no crime. My sentence was unjust-”
“I shall be the judge of that,” the old wolf interrupted. “I say again: leave.”
Algol rose from his bow. Amusement slithered over his features like quicksilver. “Ah, I believe I see now,” he said, his ears perking. “The way you spoke to them. You claim those two as yours, Milord?”
The snarl that had been building in the back of Drake’s throat rose to full volume. “They are not mine to claim or to keep, nor are they anyone’s. They are their own, and you would do well to keep that in mind.”
“Ah,” said the young brute again, tapping his chin with a ragged claw. “Then, by that logic, you have no right to speak for them.”
“That I do claim. They’re in my damned forest.”
“So you claim everything within the forest. Admirable, Milord. Then they are yours already, thus I may challenge you to claim them, and any others that may live here-”
“Pup,” said Drake, low and even. The word he used to address the younger wolf was not one of endearment. “You know not what course you tread. Stay upon it, and you will come to harm.”
“So you condemn me, then.” The young wolf sneered. He and Drake began a slow circle of each other in the narrow space between the trees, like buzzards over a fresh kill. “Just as the BladeTail Pack did. I suppose you, like they, would chastise me for my… open-mindedness… in choosing mates.”
That made the fur bristle up and down Drake’s bent spine. All politeness vanished from his tone as he snarled, “Shut up.”
“A typical small mind, constrained by tradition.” Algol all but spat the word. “Why should one female not be good as another, then? If they have all that one requires-”
“Shut up,” Drake repeated.
“I did no wrong,” Algol said. Again the fervor rose in his voice. “I acted only as my instinct bid me to act. Any male would do the same in my place. They, the fae and the pack leaders, were the ones who could not see, who would not listen, who rejected me…!”
“Perhaps you should reflect upon yourself,” said Drake, in a voice like ice, “and ask yourself if they had reason to reject you, Algol of BladeTail.”
Now the young brute did spit. “Enough. Since you are so unwilling to let me speak my peace, I will speak no more. Stand aside. Let me have that which I claim, if you will not claim it for yourself.”
“Stand aside, I say!”
Drake did not move. “Take one more step, and stars above help you…”
With a roar of fury, Algol lunged. Flecks of spittle flew from his jaws as he pounced upon the old wolf, driving him to the old leaves on the forest floor. The knobbly walking stick went skittering into the loam. From the hollow beneath his brow, his dark eyes shone with savagery as he struck, once, twice, again. Blood welled, not enough for his liking. His roar escalated into a crazed laugh as he raked the elder wolf’s body with his ragged claws. Pools of deep red stained Drake’s white fur like wine spilled on fresh snow. Something in the body beneath him snapped. Algol’s lips pulled back with glee, his hair flew wild as he struck with no form, no style, no elegance, only intent to make the old wolf hurt as much as possible… A few more blows, and he tasted the tang of foreign blood in his mouth. Its flavor and scent were intoxicating; the feral beast inside him hungered for more…
And a withered arm lashed out from the pathetic form and seized him by the neck with impossible strength. The old white wolf, the wolf that should have been dead already, stared at him with one of those strangely youthful golden eyes burning hot… and Algol felt himself shiver deep to his core for reasons he could not explain.
A hideous cracking sound came from the old wolf’s bent spine, followed by another, and another: Crack. Crack. Crack. One by one, his vertebrae protested and ground against each other as Drake drew up, and up, and up, straightening to his full height for the first time in Gods only knew how long.
Algol flailed at the arm that held him. That arm, which should have broken like a dry twig, held him with an iron grip, fingers clamped around his throat. He felt his claws score deep cuts through muscle, almost to the bone, but the old wolf would not release him, nor did he even flinch. Both of Drake’s molten gold eyes bored into him now; the ancient wolf seemed to swell in size, looming over him. Algol choked and gasped for the breath now denied him, stars dancing in his vision. The pads of his feet left the forest floor, his toe claws cut through cold air…
“You,” rasped Drake, “are not welcome in this forest.”
And Algol hurtled backward, propelled backward at fantastic speed by the arm that should not have been able to lift him at all, let alone throw him. His scream was lost to the night wind, howling past his ears as he flew and flew like a living arrow loosed from a bow. At this speed, he could have flown for miles without touching the forest floor again… were it not for the old yew tree directly in his path, springing up out of dark a hundred paces away and ending his flight with unyielding force and a sickening crunch.
Pain. Pain, terror, and confusion suffused Algol’s being. Every nerve that could still feel sang and scoured him with fire. An attempt to peel himself from the yew’s cold bark only made his limbs spasm weakly… they twitched as if no longer connected to his body. Blood gurgled in his throat as he tried to speak; it flowed from his lips and spattered in his fur.
Through the haze of red and agony, he saw the old white wolf approach him, mauled and bloodied enough to kill a brute half his age, but inexplicably still alive. Still straight-backed, still walking. Still staring at him with the golden eyes that struck terror in his heart.
“What…” Algol managed through another mouthful of blood, feeling his life ebbing fast. “What… are… you…?”
“Damned,” said Drake, and Algol swore that flames danced in those golden eyes.
His head lolled to one side, and Algol saw nothing else but darkness.
Drake hovered over him, the crimson battlemist still clouding his sight, his blood singing hot in his veins. For a few moments, he was conflicted. A secret war raged behind his eyes… but only for a few moments. In silence, he reached down to the fallen young wolf, took his head in both withered hands… and twisted, carefully, deliberately, until he heard the telltale snap.
Only then did he speak, two words: “No more.”
With that, he bent double once more and hobbled off into the forest at the best speed he could manage, in search of his walking stick. More blood stained his fur with every step, and it left a grisly, uneven streak behind him on the loam.
The mind was gone.
The mind was gone, and all was lost.
One lone child escaped from the collapse. By cruel chance, as that one rushed to Mother’s aid in response to the summoning, a rock dislodged from the cavern roof fell upon it, and crushed one of its rearmost legs beneath its weight. That one strained and pulled desperately, hearing the hideous screaming of Mother, of its brethren, but by the time the lone child ripped the smashed and broken limb from its body in a frenzy… all was lost. Mother was gone. The mind was gone.
All was lost.
The lone child wandered, aimless, dragging itself through the dark forest with no direction. That one hid itself away until the raw stump of its lost leg was no longer wet. That one ate sparingly, only what prey it could catch on its own… sick things, rotten things. Now the lone child, too, was sick and rotten. The forest was merciless: it took no pity on anyone, not even an injured child. Its flesh was torn in a dozen places, half of its eyes were blind with pain.
Without the mind, without Mother, the lone child could only wander, driven by what few of its own instincts it possessed: take, eat, rest, flee from danger. The lone child knew death; death was a fixture of a hunter’s life. The concept of its own death, however, was far too much for it to comprehend without the mind, without Mother.
Perhaps if the lone child could understand the concept of its own mortality, it would have welcomed it.
More and more of the lone child’s body failed it as the days went on. It felt an unknowable, inescapable darkness encroaching upon it, and it cried out to Mother in its fear… but Mother did not answer. Mother was gone. The mind was gone. All was lost…
So half-crazed with agony and grief was the lone child that it barely noticed what it had found until it stumbled across the body.
Even with half its sight gone, even without the mind to guide it, it could recognize a body. Bodies were for eating. The lone child’s foremost legs prodded it. Warm. Soft. A mammal. Dimly, it recalled feeding on mammals before. It knew what to do. The child’s pedipalps trembled as it brushed the mammal’s fur aside, searching for a vein.
Now, belatedly, it smelled the blood… vast amounts of blood. At the same time, it felt the body’s sluggish pulse, irregular, uneven. Fading.
Somehow, the lone child understood: the body beneath it was near death. One instinct told it to plunge its teeth into the flesh, to feed before the body’s meat was rotten.
Another instinct, though… another instinct gave it pause. Through the tatters of its memory, it recalled the bodies in the cavern, kept alive for its brethren to feed upon whenever they wished. Would it not be wiser to keep this one alive, for a similar purpose? After all, thought the lone child, if it could feed enough to move and hunt again, it could seek out the mind, seek out Mother, wherever she had gone.
Even better, if the body beneath it had a mind of its own, perhaps it could begin to replace the mind that was lost…
The lone child made its decision. It lowered its fangs to the vein and pierced the flesh-
Something within the darkness stirred, overtaking the two bodies that hovered precariously at the edge of the abyss… It took them, seized them, changed them. Instead of one body feeding off another, the two became a paradox: both bodies feeding off each other, and sharing both the hunger and the nourishment… and then it was gone, as if losing interest.
The process was slow, gradual. Torn muscles and sinews knit themselves back together. Not as strong as before, but there was no need to be. Shattered and displaced bones grated against each other as external force pushed them back into a semblance of their proper shape. Frayed and overtaxed nerves soothed themselves as they reconnected, restoring feeling to broken limbs. Where only moments before their pain was dull and distant with the coming of death, now it surged back to the fore… but somehow less important, less debilitating, shielded from their returning senses by a dense fog.
One pair of eyes opened, the whites now dyed crimson with blood, while four more pairs lost sight for the final time. The wolf drew in a labored, rattling breath, shifted, and rose unsteadily to his feet.
His thoughts were jumbled, confused. The old white wolf had killed him, flung him against a tree and broken his neck, but now he stood. He could move. And yet, his heart stayed still and silent beneath his breast. At the same time, he felt… himself, but not himself. There was another mind inside his brain, another set of memories foreign to his own, another consciousness.
He was Algol, disgraced from the BladeTail Pack.
But he was also the lone child, the one survivor of the cavern’s collapse two months before.
Puzzled, he looked over his bloodstained body… and his bloodied eyes widened as he beheld the shell of the poor creature half-embedded in his left arm, its seven remaining legs merged with his biceps, its fangs still buried in one of his veins. Some part of him recoiled, recognizing that shell as his own body… but…
No, he thought.
No, he was no longer merely Algol.
He was no longer merely the lone child.
Two wretched, half-dead bodies had merged together by some miracle, creating something both alive and not alive… something that was both and neither of them at once. Something new.
So, what now? the new being asked himself.
The answer came as an instinct, a feeling, an irresistible drive from one of his former selves, surfacing long enough to give him guidance.
Of course. That was it. He could see.
His lips pulled back in a familiar almost-smile as he spoke the answer aloud to the silent night: “Mother.”
END OF CHAPTER 1