Caution and conquest
A monster and a maiden
The theft of a soul
“Being haunted is the mark of people who have made important decisions. Some of us are haunted by mistakes we’ve made; failures and flaws; words spoken in anger; lovers lost; misdeeds that can never be redeemed; the best of intentions, gone wrong. And some of us are haunted by doing the right thing, because sometimes that can be the the worst of all.”
[Final words of Lady Crocus Argenteus, 31st Grand Mistress of the Silver Order, Years 1201 – 1240]
“I don’t know about this, Faun.”
“Come on, don’t be so timid. He’s right there.”
“Look, Flowers. As your friend, I’m telling you to go for it. You know you’re never going to do it if you keep hesitating. It’s your move, it’s your moment. Go.”
“I just don’t think it’s right.”
“What’s not right about it? He’s open, you know he is. Yours for the taking, so take the advantage, girl! Get over there and rut him..”
“A-all right…” With trembling fingers, Hanami reached for the carved wooden figure. Her eyes were set as she moved the scout over the head of Faun’s paladin and placed it in the square behind it. Satisfied, she took up the captured paladin and dropped it in the cloth pouch on her side of the board.
Faun waited until her paladin was in the bag, then leaned forward. “You’re sure, right? You’re positive that’s your move?”
Hanami nodded. “Yes.”
The vixen’s face split into a triumphant grin that stretched from ear to pointed ear. “Gotcha!” Snatching up her scholar, she jumped it over Hanami’s scout… and her mage, and her archer, then finally over her noble, knocking it over for good measure. “Shouri. You owe me two hundred tri.”
A moan of despair escaped Hanami. “Not again…” After handing over her coins, she slumped in her seat. Her tail drooped in abject misery. “That’s four games in a row. Faun, you’re a genius at this game, I don’t know how you talk me into this…”
“It takes practice, just like anything else,” said Faun, tucking the coins into one of the many pockets of her bandolier. “You have to lose a lot before you can win, you know. Hey…” Reaching over the table, she gently chucked Hanami’s chin. “Daijo. Don’t make that face, it’ll start raining. Look, watch.” She raised two fingers, then one, then three, snapped the first two together… and one of the coins appeared clenched between them. With a flick of her thumb, it spun end over end and dropped into Hanami’s lap. “There. Use it to buy a new dress. Part of one, anyway.”
“Thanks,” said Hanami without much enthusiasm. “I appreciate it.”
The gesture had less effect than Faun expected. “What’s up, kitto? You seem off.”
Hanami’s ears flattened. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, averting her eyes. “About what happened the other night when we were coming home.”
Ah. “The wolf,” said Faun. A shadow passed over her face. “I wouldn’t stress over it. Grumpy probably made sure he’ll never bother us again.”
“That’s just it, though.” Hanami’s hands clenched in her lap, bunching up the fabric of her tunic. “What if he hadn’t been there? I was ready to take him home-”
“I would have protected you,” said Faun, her voice hard. “No way I’d let some filthy brute lay his hands on you.”
“But if you hadn’t been there either…” Hanami sighed, leaned over the game board, and putting her face in her hands. “I feel like I’m too… trusting. Too helpless. When I’m on my own, I mean. I do all right when you and Zero and Rowan are around, but-”
“Says the girl who took out all the spiders single-handed!” Faun snorted. “Flowers, you’re the last person who needs to be worried about feeling helpless. And being trusting… that’s part of who you are. You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t try to see the good in people.”
“Even so. When he and Drake started arguing like that…” Chills tingled down her spine to the tip of her tail. “I just stood there, too scared to move.” Brushing off the feeling, Hanami sat up in her seat and fixed Faun with a determined stare. “I want to learn how to defend myself. Fight for myself, like you do. Just in case… well. Just in case.”
Faun’s response was unexpected: she roared with laughter.
“I-” The doe’s eyes swam with the beginnings of tears before she caught herself. “I don’t see what’s so funny…”
“Sorry, sorry!” said Faun once she regained control of herself. “Kinda unexpected, you know? But hey, daijo. If you want to learn, I can teach you.” Now it was her turn to lean over the board, her emerald eyes gleaming with excitement. “I’m warning you, it’ll be hard, and it’ll most likely hurt. Just like shouri, you’re gonna have to take a lot of losses before you can win. But if you can deal with that…”
“Good, then we’re golden!” Faun smacked the board for emphasis, rattling the remaining pieces and prompting a startled squeak from Hanami. “So since you’re so eager… wanna start right now?”
What a miserable day. Camilla Quarta Viviana wore a persistent frown as she pushed through the throngs of Unify’s Marketplace, arms laden with potion materials. The jillrabbit’s fur was black and white with the occasional spot of grey, her dark hair cropped short at her neck. Camilla was known for her great patience even in the most trying times, but today was pushing her limits.
Of course Madam Acacia needed flaxseeds today, on the busiest shopping day of the week. Of course she would look down her stripy snout at Camilla with that prim, oh-so-superior willow badger look and inform her that if they had no flaxseeds, the potion for the poor field workers stricken with cracked pads would go unfinished. If the field workers could not work, said Madam Acacia, the barley crops could not be harvested. Lose the barley crops, and thousands would go hungry. If thousands went hungry, then- That was enough to send Camilla out the door, before Madam Acacia could tie her to the starvation and death of all sentientkind.
Morganite’s Apothecary was out of flaxseeds, naturally. So was Gaiman’s Green, and the Wares of Ptolemy, and every one of the other five stores and vendors she visited in her search. After half a day of aching feet and aimless wandering, it was only at a raccoon’s stall that she happened upon a supply… at triple the usual price. The vendor, a one-eyed cloud named Stigma, informed her that flax was in great demand these days, the foxes having found that it was a powerful hallucinogen when crushed with the right herbs and inhaled. Thus, a roaring demand for all flax in all forms, and thus, he explained, the price increase.
Foxes. No other sentient species would turn what was going to be foot ointment into incense. Besides, any who wanted to degrade their mind should just use poppies like a half-sensible person. Honestly, it only made fiscal sense. But no, they had to go and drive up the price of everything. One day, someone would convince them that grass was a priapistic, and whole great fields would go barren.
And now she was being followed. Better and better.
Rabbits, as a whole, were no fools. They were not so far removed from the ancient days of pre-sentience as to completely lose the keen senses that allowed them to thrive before learning over time how to defend themselves. Countless years ago, when the species survived by eating each other, rabbitkind endured by being faster, hardier, and more observant than the carnivore species that preyed on them.
Now, in modern times, only the suicidally overconfident would mark a rabbit as easy prey. They had the Praetorate to thank for that: the directive that mandated that the oldest jack or jill of every rabbit family be given brutal, exhaustive instruction in warriors’ ways. All the eldest siblings among rabbits worked through blood and pain and broken bones until either they had the capacity to defend their families, or they died trying, passing the position to the next sibling in line.
Thus, trying to harm any one rabbit for any reason became a daunting prospect. When any rabbit could be a Praetor, any rabbit potentially could and would fight back and kill their opponent.
Camilla was not a Praetor. It was her oldest sister, Cora, who was given the sacred duty of defending the Vivix family. Defying all tradition, though, Cora taught her beloved little sister all she could when they were growing up, doing so in secret so that their parents and her senior instructor would never know. Even when her body threatened to collapse from the strain of weeks of training from sunup to sundown, Cora always found time. Camilla was forever grateful for that.
Now, whoever had been following her for the last twelve blocks would see the fruits of the Vivix sisters’ labors.
Camilla was sure of it now; the figure in the ragged, filthy hood and cloak was close on her tail. On a hunch, she took routes through the Marketplace that made no sense, doubling back on herself and around in circles. No matter which way she turned, the cloaked figure followed wherever she went.
Well, then. They would just have to learn that Camilla was not one to be intimidated.
She ducked into an alley, a little-used gap between a squirrel tea house and a larger, empty building that had sat unoccupied for some time. Camilla’s snout wrinkled in distaste. Judging by the colors of the faded leavings on the alley floor, the empty building was once one of those abominable fox “pleasure gardens”. No doubt a few of its former patrons were responsible for the flax shortage.
Sure enough, the figure in the cloak followed, stepping into the alley only minutes behind her. By then, Camilla had set her packages aside in a neat little pile against the tea house wall. She faced the assailant unafraid, her knees bent in an alert crouch and her fists raised. “Well?” she said. “If you want my flaxseeds, I suggest you try to take them. I’ve had a very unpleasant day, and routing you will be nicely cathartic.”
There was a laugh from under the hood of the cloak, a wheezing cackle. “You impress me, Milady,” said a voice like oil from within. A male. “I was not aware that jills had so much spirit.”
“You clearly don’t know enough about us, then,” said Camilla.
“I know enough to be certain that you will do nicely,” said the cloak. “What is your name, jill?”
“Camilla Quarta Viviana,” she said without hesitation. If nothing else, this fool would know the name of the jill who taught him a painful lesson.
“Quarta,” said the cloak. “Fourth in your family. Not a Praetor, then.”
“Come out from under that hood and you’ll see how much of a Praetor I am.”
Another wheezing laugh. The figure tore away his hood…
Camilla’s ears swiveled back as she bared her teeth. A wolf. If there was anything worse than the debauchery of foxes, it was wolves in general. Savage carnivores, uninterested in wearing clothes and living indoors like civilized sentients, following the stars and whatever fool visions drove them to wander the world. He was a young, wiry brute, shaggy and unkempt, with long, lank black hair that hung into his eyes. Those eyes were thrown into perpetual shadow by a heavy brow, but there was an odd gleam to them. The only pack marking she could see was splashed across his chest, a vivid crimson blotch of dye, in no shape she could identify. It looked as if he applied it himself with an unsteady hand. Camilla’s snout wrinkled again; the brute smelled. Not the normal musk of a young male, but a wet, pungent, earthy smell, like something about to go to rot. The wolf grinned; his teeth were clean, at least, but the expression was disconcerting. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Camille Quarta Viviana. I am…” Something gave him pause. “Hmm.”
“You don’t even know who you are?” It was not difficult to hear the scorn in Camilla’s voice.
“I did,” said the wolf. “But something strange has happened to me of late. I… I met myself, but I was not me.”
A chill scampered down Camilla’s spine. “What nonsense is that?”
“I am more than I was, and less,” said the wolf, deep in thought. “I was Algol of the BladeTail Pack. But I was also… a lost child. A child of the forest. Yes. And now I am both and neither.”
“Quite poetic from a common stalker,” Camilla hissed between gritted teeth. She had no patience for wolf philosophy.
A spark lit in the wolf’s odd eyes. “Stalker. Hmm. Stalker. Camilla, I must thank you… I am Stalker.” He stepped forward, extending a hand…
“This is your last warning, Algol or Stalker, whoever you are.” Camilla stood her ground. This wolf was deranged; whatever his intent, if he took one more pace he would regret it. “Leave me be.”
Beneath his shaded brow, Stalker’s eyes shone dusky red. “Tell me, Camilla,” he said with a smirk that made her stomach crawl, “Why did you resent your sister?”
Taken aback, Camilla wobbled in her stance. “I- what?!”
“Your oldest sister, Cora Prima Viviana. The one who taught you the ways of the Praetorate.” As he pressed forward, he seemed to fill her vision, swelling in size to block the alley entrance from sight. The glow from his eyes intensified, and a sudden prickling of her flesh raised the fur on the nape of her neck. “She told you she taught you all she could, but you always suspected there was more, more she wouldn’t reveal. You were envious of your sister, even though she bent the rules for you-”
“Stop!” The word quivered as Camilla shouted it. The wolf was speaking things he could not possibly know, deep things, secret things she never told anyone… how? How did he know? Fear and anger battled for dominance inside her, there was a clammy, sick feeling in her stomach. “Shut up!”
His fangs gleamed in the dim light, in something that was almost a smile, but… wrong. Twisted. “I thought your kind prided themselves on logic? Those feelings seem hardly logical to me, Camilla.”
Now the light from the alley entrance was gone. All she could see was his silhouette and those eyes, red and glowing like coals. It was like his claws were drawing over her brain, dredging up old memories by force.
“What happens when you hunger?” Stalker whispered, the sound echoing weirdly off the stone walls and rattling in her skull. “What happens to your logic when your Phase takes you, and you become consumed, obsessed with the desire to mate, to create life, to fulfill your purpose? The Goddess’s purpose?”
“I warn you-” The rest of Camilla’s sentence was lost as her throat grew tight with terror. Standing upright was becoming more and more difficult, she couldn’t keep her stance and he just kept coming, she had to do something…
“Oh, I know that hunger,” said Stalker. His eyes, his shadow loomed over her, three meters tall and growing ever larger. “They were stupid enough to exile me for it, when I was not even at fault. It was my nature, I was merely following its course. And now-”
Camilla acted without thinking, out of pure, frenzied need to get away from the grim specter with the glowing eyes. One leg lashed out and struck something real, fur and flesh and bone underneath-
With a jolt and a sickening thud, the spell was broken. Camilla was back in the alley, ears flat, shivering like a newborn. And the wolf, Stalker, lay crumpled against the wall on her right, a red, grisly smear marking the place where his skull met the unyielding stone.
Retching, Camilla dropped to her knees. By all the forces, she meant to stop him, not kill him! She couldn’t-
Deep breaths, she thought, willing herself to calm down. Deep breaths. He was sick, he was insane. He meant to attack. There was nothing else you could have done. The bile at the back of her throat argued that point, but- but whatever he was doing, whatever power he used to peel her secrets from her mind, it was horrible. Indecent, wrong. Desperate for warmth, she wrapped her arms around herself. The chill of the autumn evening felt much colder to her than moments ago.
Camilla took a few more breaths, inhaling through her mouth so as to catch as little of the wolf’s scent as possible. Now that he was this close, his odor was more earthy, more pungent than ever. It mixed poorly with the metallic stench of blood. She had to leave; go home, take a bath, wash off the smell and try to put this behind her. Madam Acacia would be furious for the delay in bringing back the flaxseeds, or as furious as badgers could get, but there was no question of going back right away. Not after this. Climbing to her feet, she reached for her parcels-
A hand closed around her ankle and pulled.
As she fell, Camilla’s cry of alarm was cut short by a large hand clamping over her mouth. A hot, foul-smelling weight pinned her to the ground. Another hand turned her over onto her back-
A scream eked from behind the hand. The wolf. The wolf was still alive, still grinning even with half his skull caved in. His eyes, his sclera were dyed solid red with blood…
“As I was saying,” whispered Stalker, the words bubbling as his body knit itself back together. “Something strange happened to me of late: I died.”
Another scream. Camilla’s thoughts flew into cold panic, all her prized logic evaporating. She had to get away-
“At least, part of me died,” Stalker continued, leaning close. “And part of me was born again. I don’t feel the hunger that I did before… not in the same way.” A mixture of blood and spittle dripped from his jaws as they parted, inches from her face. “I could, but… but my hunger is of a different sort now.”
The rabbit thrashed madly underneath him. Her teeth gnashed at him, to no effect. There was something attached to the biceps of his left arm, she now saw. An armband, or something woven into his fur. No, it was something with legs, something with eyes… What in the world was he? By the forces, he was some kind of monster, intending to eat her…
“No,” he said. “Not that sort of hunger either. You will live, after a fashion.”
His other hand dropped to rest beneath her breast. Camilla felt – her eyes grew wide with shock – she felt something in his hand biting her, there was no other word to describe it. Teeth… a circle of teeth dug into her flesh, she was bleeding-
Stalker moaned with pleasure. As he drank of her, he felt himself grow strong once more, the fresh blood mending his remaining injuries from the jill’s attack. It was wonderful. But… but he could not take it all for himself, much as he was tempted. Mother needed him. Mother needed blood…
And Mother needed something else as well.
Camilla choked out a strangled cry. The inexplicable teeth gripped harder at her torso, she felt a bizarre pull… and the pain, the fear, the disgust, it all began to shrink away, funneling down and down. As if she were underwater, her struggles became sluggish, clumsy… Her vision was shrinking, she could see the monstrous wolf called Stalker at the end of a long, dark tunnel, as if from far away… With one final shudder, she went limp. Not in sleep, not in unconsciousness or death, but in… nothingness. A state of in-between.
Stalker withdrew his dripping hand from her rib. There was something bright in his palm, a tiny, misty orb of swirling silver. He grinned at it. It was almost like the rabbit was looking back at him. “Mother thanks you for your sacrifice,” he said to it. It was only courteous to do so.
Stepping over the prone body, the being once called Algol, now called Stalker, made no other sound as he vanished into the fading light of evening.
It was hours before anyone found the body. “The body” was what the healers called it, but it hardly took close examination to see that the young jillrabbit still breathed and still had a pulse. What baffled the Silver Order’s medical staff was how she showed no response to pain or any other sort of stimulus, yet some part of her was clearly awake… her lips moved constantly, but without sound. They likewise had no explanation for the five ragged wounds torn in her flesh, just below her left breast, or for the larger circle of puncture wounds below those. Running the standard tests revealed that her blood was thin, rather like that of someone with anemia… but even after a healing mage was called to restore her blood to normal levels, she remained incoherent and unresponsive. There was little to do but move her to the infirmary at Aedis Centralis. Better to have her rest there, among the highest concentration of expert healers in the world.
The Silver Order’s Grand Mistress, Lady Lily Argenteus, stood alone at the jillrabbit’s bedside, speaking to no one. None would have dared interrupt her vigil without her express permission. So it was a shock to all when her daughter, Lady Nadeshiko, came stomping into the infirmary, face set and armor spotless as usual, her black banner tail with its single broad white stripe streaming purposefully behind her. “Mother?”
“Yes, Little One,” said Lily. Those were the first words the elder floris had spoken in hours. They were heavy with weariness.
“We have managed to identify the victim,” said Nadeshiko as she unrolled a scroll. “Camilla, fourth daughter of the Vivix family. I have assigned a squadron to guard their estate, in case the attacker attempts to take advantage.”
“Thank you, Little One.” Lily smiled back over her shoulder. There were a few more lines in that smile than there were yesterday, and something haunted in the luminous green eyes that she and her daughter shared. “I doubt they will, but your caution is appreciated, as always.”
“Mother…” Despite the use of her hated pet name, Nadeshiko softened, in a way that she only ever did in front of Lily. Even then, her softening was a rare occurrence. Her duty as Vice-Mistress never went away, even when the two were alone. “What is this?” she asked. “What manner of creature could do this to a person?”
Lily did not answer, but her gaze grew hard as she looked down at the face of the poor jill, trapped between waking and sleep, life and death, an unending nightmare. She saw her own reflection in Camilla’s eyes, empty and lifeless as marbles. Within her flowing robes, she balled her hands into fists, her claws digging into her palms.
Far away in Tasakeru, the ancient white wolf’s tattered ears perked. There was a sound in his cabin, bouncing off the walls of crumbling, moss-covered stone. It was a sound he had not heard in some time: the chime that indicated a scroll receiving an incoming message.
Puzzled, Drake groped for his walking stick, rose to his feet with much creaking and cracking of bones, and shuffled over to the dust-covered desk in the corner. He had been seated in front of his fire; his old body complained at the change in temperature. This message, whatever it was, had better be important, he thought. In normal circumstances, he only used his scroll to send reports every month or so. The last time someone sent him a message was-
His ears swiveled back. It was a long, long time ago.
Words written in graceful script flowed down the page in neat right-to-left columns. The message was short and direct, but elegant nevertheless. As was to be expected of the Grand Mistress; it was so fitting with her style that he hardly needed to see the signature to know whose writing it was. That signature gave him pause, though. There was nothing he had done since they last spoke that warranted being so formal. Usually, they were on better terms than that. Drake squinted through bleary eyes at the message’s content, written in smaller script. It was much harder to read than the last time anyone bothered to scroll him.
The message said simply this:
We must speak. Come to Unify as soon as possible. Please do not make me force you.
Lady Lily Argenteus, 34th Grand Mistress of the Silver Order.”
END OF CHAPTER 2