Shoring up the defenses
To strike at the heart
“Something evil comes a-lurking
Baring fangs, in shadows smirking:
THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!
Wander not at night alone,
Lest he take you for his own:
THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!
Meet not his gaze, his maddened eyes
And listen not unto his lies:
THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!
His razor teeth, his foul breath,
His ragged claws, all steeped in death:
THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!
Your soul will writhe in endless hell
When takes he, leaving but a shell:
THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!”
[Folk song dating from late Year 1349, attributed to Marlowe the Mad Bard]
In the deepest heart of Aedis Centralis lay the Grand Mistress’s private meditation chamber. Precious few sentients were allowed here; only those of the Argenteus bloodline and their most trusted attendants ever set foot inside it. The chamber acquired a kind of mythical status over the years as a result. Many Order sistren and brethren wondered: what was behind those heavy mahogany double doors? Fabulous riches? Unseemly pleasures? Forbidden magic?
Those who wondered the most would doubtless have been disappointed if they saw the chamber for themselves. While its furnishings changed every time the title of Grand Mistress passed from mother to daughter, it had never strayed much from the concept that Mistress Emeritus Lotus envisioned thirty-three generations ago: a place of peace. A place of warmth, of quiet, of contemplation.
Soft colors dominated the chamber, pastel yellows, greens, and blues. Straight lines and sharp edges were kept to a bare minimum, and there were gentle arches were everywhere. The most striking feature was the water, a natural stream that ran right through the middle of the chamber. Fragrant lotus blossoms floated lazily on the stream’s surface in all seasons of the year, a permanent tribute to the namesake of the Order’s founder. Overlooking the stream was an old spruce footbridge coated in rose-colored lacquer, arcing from one bank to the other. Though there was a throne reserved for the use of the current Grand Mistress, Lily preferred to kneel on a cushion on the bridge, with candles burning low in the sconces that lined its supports. There she sat now, swathed in simple white robes, her eyes closed, her tail curled around herself, and her expression unreadable.
When Nadeshiko came through the doors moments later, she seemed an affront to what the meditation chamber stood for: in full, spotless white-and-chrome armor with broadsword at her side, as usual, not a trace of softness or gentleness in her expression, her lips drawn tight in what Lily feared would become a semi-permanent frown. “Mother,” she said by way of greeting. “I’ve just spoken with some of the head scribes of the news scrolls. They told me that-”
“Little One,” Lily sighed. Beneath her closed lids, her eyes rolled. “Please, I beg of you. Calm yourself.”
As always, Nadeshiko grimaced at the usage of the pet name. “Mother, this crisis must be dealt with. The scribes are balking at altering the public reports any further.”
Lily cracked open an eye. “How many attacks did you tell them to report?”
“I suggested seven, but somehow they heard that Brother Fleming found another victim on his rounds last night. The same as all the others: unresponsive, neither conscious nor unconscious, drained of blood, one large puncture wound and five smaller ones on the torso near the heart. This makes twenty-six altogether.”
Rising to her feet, Lily smoothed out her robes. That news spoiled whatever was left of the chamber’s atmosphere. “Goddess help us,” she said to herself. “And I suppose the scrolls are still spreading hysteria about the… ‘Soulsnatcher’, they called it?”
“Of course.” Nadeshiko’s features twisted into a scowl. “No amount of pressure from us will keep them from exploiting the attacks for a profit. Filthy buzzards.”
“Now, now, Little One…”
“My apologies, Mother.” Like most of Nadeshiko’s apologies, this one was delivered with no small amount of reluctance. “In any event, I strongly suggest that we enlist the aid of the Daigundan in apprehending the culprit-”
“That may not be necessary,” said Lily. A hard edge slipped into her tone. “I have arranged a meeting with an informant tonight, someone whom I suspect may be related to this issue. Whether he is or not, his expertise in the matter will be helpful to us regardless.”
Astonished, Nadeshiko dropped protocol long enough to gape at her mother. “You’re meeting someone with knowledge of… of filth like this? Mother, why didn’t you tell me sooner?! I need to arrange a protection detail-”
“Thank you for your concern, but I require no such thing.” Now the Grand Mistress’s words hardened into steel. “Our discussion is for no one’s ears but mine and the informant’s. Dangerous he may be, but he has never broken my trust yet.”
All but blowing smoke, Nadeshiko’s ears flattened and her tail raised like a flag at half-mast. “And just who is this informant?”
Lily’s eyes wandered to somewhere far beyond the confines of the meditation chamber. “Someone to whom our family owes a great debt indeed, and who likewise owes a debt to us. I shall tell you all about it when you are older. Please excuse me, I must make ready.” As she left, she brushed her hand against her fuming daughter’s cheek with a smile. “I love you, Little One. Please, try to relax. Not everything needs to be a crisis.”
She was long gone by the time Nadeshiko responded. Her words, muttered under her breath, were almost drowned out by the laughing of the stream: “Don’t call me ‘Little One.’”
Outside Haven Grove, the ground rushed up at Hanami too fast, much too fast. Yet again, she hit the clearing with a thud that rattled her bones, and for the sixth time that afternoon, she tasted rich soil in her mouth. The soft, tender spot below her right rib now blossomed into what she was sure would be a nasty bruise tomorrow morning. Outwitted, outmaneuvered, and thoroughly beaten, her tail drooped in misery behind her she picked herself up and scrubbed her mouth with the back of her hand. “This… this isn’t working,” she said once the taste was gone. “It’s not working. I’m sorry, Faun.”
“Daijo, Flowers.” The vixen knelt at her side and offered a hand. “You tried, that’s the important thing. Learning how to fight is hard, and it’s not for everybody.”
“Thank you,” said Hanami, taking hold of it. Her sore, tired muscles moaned in protest. Gods, she would need a hot bath after this. Or several. “I appreciate you trying to help.”
“To be fair, you got in a couple good hits there.” Faun winced and rubbed her side. Hanami’s fists were tiny, but they hurt when enough force was behind them. “And you’re far from the worst fighter I’ve ever seen.”
A smile tried to form on Hanami’s face, but it was halted by some lesser bruising. “Thank you. I still do want to learn, but… I just don’t think I can fight in your style.”
“Hey, I understand,” said Faun. She shrugged, and winced. That was a mistake. “When you don’t have anyone to fight for you, you learn how to win however you can, you know? Fighting cheap comes natural to me. You’re too nice, it doesn’t suit you.”
“Mmm.” Hanami nodded, lost in thought. “I think… I think I need to find my own way of fighting. Something that works just for me. Does that make any sense?”
Faun grinned and thumped Hanami on the back, prompting a louder than usual squeak. “Sounds like logic fit for rabbits to me, Flowers. Hell, if I tried to fight with a sword like Takky does, I’d probably skewer myself. You need to find a style that’s you.”
“Thanks for understanding.” Hanami’s eyes wandered to the path leading into the deep forest, as they had many times since that night… since she and Faun encountered the strange wolf. No one had seen the young brute since then, but Hanami’s sense of unease did not abate. Reason assured her that he was gone for good, that whatever Drake said or did to him chased him off, but there was nagging doubt in her heart. Haven Grove was supposed to be her sanctuary, but when she thought about the strange gleam in the brute’s eyes, how trusting she had been, and how close she was to leading him to her home… it felt somehow less safe than it did before.
“I get it,” said Faun next to her. “You need to be prepared. It’s a dangerous world out there, and you never know if you’ll be caught without your Mage Flower someday.”
Hanami threw a pointed glance back over her shoulder. “You mean like if someone happens to lie to me in order to steal it…?”
Again, Faun winced, this time for a different reason. There was the Big Lie again. “Dammit. You’re never gonna let me forget that, are you?”
“Never.” Hanami smiled. It was a bit forced, as that betrayal still stung, but she was working on it.
It was a pool of deep, dark red fluid, too thick to be water. Six meters wide and one meter deep, it churned sluggishly of its own accord in its basin, hollowed out from the floor of the vast bedrock cavern. No reflection was visible on the pool’s turning, rippling surface, but still the wolf stared down into it as if he expected one to appear at any moment. The pale, shifting glow from above made patterns in it nonetheless, patterns he could almost read.
Two more. Two more, and then…
Nothing could replace his lost brothers and sisters, the children who died in the collapse of Mother’s home. Stalker knew that. But this pool… once complete, this pool would birth new children. Better children, like himself, who would fight in her name until all that dared harm their forebearers paid dearly.
Kneeling, he dipped a claw into the pool, and watched as ripples spread outward from the point where it broke the surface. He and the new children, the legion, would be like those ripples, expanding ever outward, sweeping over and through anyone or anything that stood in their way.
And Mother… Mother would be there to see it happen. Mother would be so proud.
Stalker’s bloodied eyes lifted reverently up to the source of the light: the beacon. An ethereal sphere of ghostly blue flame, expanding and contracting at regular intervals, almost like it was breathing. Tiny, misty orbs of swirling silver spun around it in orbit, more than two dozen of them… almost enough.
The beacon would call to Mother.
The souls would guide her back.
The blood would give her new children.
And Stalker would give her vengeance. No, not vengeance. Justice.
A gnarled wooden walking stick tapped against the paving stones as the ancient wolf slouched up to the soup vendor’s stall. The hood of his threadbare traveling cloak was pulled up, hiding all but the tip of his snout in shadow. Gods only knew why Lady Lily wanted to meet him at a cheap little shack selling watery soup, but debt was debt, and duty was duty. When the head of the Argenteus House called, he was bound to answer.
Drake took pains to make himself inconspicuous. By contrast, Lily stood out, despite her attempt to dress as plainly as possible in a simple green wool tunic and leggings. Everyone knew the Grand Mistress; she could wear rags and still inspire awe and devotion in the masses. The soup vendor, a rail-thin, adolescent todd, was so overcome by the honor of Lady Lily Argenteus visiting his stall that he insisted on offering her the finest soup that he could prepare. Lily had gently refused him each of the eleven times he made a recommendation. It was apparent that the thunderstruck young todd had never served someone of Lily’s stature before, and that little of what she said registered with him. As he gawked at her in between awkward attempts at conversation, he polished and repolished the same soup bowl with a rag that grew steadily more filthy.
Out of the corner of one eye, Lily saw the hooded figure approach, and caught a glimpse of snow-white matted fur underneath. Smoothing out her tunic, she rose and nodded to him. “Thank you for coming. I was not certain you would.”
“I always do, Milady,” said Drake. He sank into as deep a bow as his aching knees would permit.
Seizing an opportunity, the vendor tried again. “Ah, Grand Mistress, has your company arrived? If you’re both ready to order, tonight’s specialties are cream of horenso and wild spring onion with garlic-”
“Ugh,” Drake muttered under his breath.
Lily gave the fox a sympathetic smile. The poor thing. “I am afraid that will be all, but thank you. Your service was impeccable. Here, for your trouble,” she said as she placed a generous handful of tri on the stall’s counter. The vendor’s eyes nearly bugged out of his skull as he stammered his gratitude, bowing over and over to the two as they departed.
Silence fell between Drake and Lily as they navigated the old streets of the Marketplace. The Grand Mistress was given a wide berth by the nighttime citygoers, many of whom prostrated themselves at the sight of her.
After the fourth time this happened, Drake snorted. “You always do attract attention, Milady. Must get tiring, being worshipped.”
“I am not worshipped,” said Lily, indignant. “If I am, I should not be. I am but a servant of the Goddess.”
“News to them,” said Drake. “I confess, I didn’t expect to hear from you again so soon after your excursion last month.”
“This is a different matter.” Lily folded her hands inside her tunic’s sleeves. “Have you read the news scrolls of late?”
“Only glanced at them.” Under the hood, Drake’s tattered ear flicked. “Something about people being attacked. I don’t see what it has to do with me.”
Lily said nothing. Claiming ignorance of the matter was not the same as claiming innocence, not in this case.
“Last I saw was something about a sleeping sickness,” said Drake. “What was it? Seven sentients of all different species affected, all showing the same symptoms?”
“That was what we instructed the scribes to report,” said Lily. “We told them to suppress the actual number and the nature of their other symptoms, so as to avoid a panic.”
“You shall see.”
Lily would say nothing more on the matter until they reached the high, smooth granite walls that surrounded Aedis Centralis on all sides. They were dirtier and more worn than Drake. remembered, but still so much the same as back then. Rather than enter through the main gates, Lily moved to a small side door hidden in an out-of-the-way alcove, its lock designed by mages to admit only a select few. It clicked open at the touch of her finger, and she beckoned him to follow. Through the alcove was an enclosed tunnel he had never seen before; he wondered when it had been constructed. Following Lily’s striped tail, he emerged out of a doorway into the light…
The wolf’s golden eyes brimmed with bittersweet tears as a torrent of memories rushed back to him. The Hall of Honor. How many times had he walked this hallowed ground, the place where the Order’s greatest were interred? He could not count them all. A terrible stab to his heart accompanied the realization that many of the sentients he had known in his day now doubtless rested here. Out in the forest, the years passed him like breezes, one feeling much the same as another, but here, in the heart of it all… entire generations of Order sistren and brethren had studied, fought, fallen in love, mated, had children, grown old, and died, all while he remained, unchanging…
Drinking in every detail, Drake tread carefully down the Hall. Great pillars of white marble with inlaid silver veins flanked each side like sentinels standing watch. His walking stick tapped against the ebony floor, bearing far more scratches than he remembered. And on the walls… on the walls, inscribed in the marble and wreathed in carved rose vines, were innumerable names of the departed, those whose remains slept within. Portraits and statues of the honored brothers and sisters in their glory days. Mementoes and personal effects, sealed forever in crystalline bubbles of clear glass. Names leapt out at him every few steps, each one attached to another long-gone face, another faraway memory…
Walking beside him, Lily took note of his stricken expression. “I apologize, Drake,” she said, her voice soft. “I did not think-”
Drake tore his eyes away with difficulty. In his gaze, Lily saw pain so raw that it might have happened seconds ago, not decades. “They’re not here, are they?”
Of course. “You mean-”
Lily averted her eyes. He already knew the answer, and he had every right to hurt over it. “No,” she said. “The Order’s official records still state that Squad 13, and those who were a part of it… did not exist. I am sorry.”
“Did they deserve that?” Grief and bitterness swirled in his words. “After everything that they went through, that we went through, after we all shed blood together, after so much death… do they deserve to be forgotten by the Order they served? The Order that still pretends it all never happened?”
“The Order does,” said Lily. “I do not. The truth about Squad 13 will pass down to Nadeshiko someday, as it was passed down from my mother to me, and from her mother before her. No matter what may happen, the Argenteus family will forever remember its debt to you, Drake Who Walks Alone.”
An icy silence fell between them.
“Show me whatever you want me to see,” said Drake after a long time. “Let’s get it over with.”
“Very well.” That brought Lily back to the subject at hand. Whatever the history between Drake and the Order, it was only that: history. Things long past. What mattered was the nightmare in the present… “Come with me to the main infirmary.”
Drake followed in step behind her, relieved to leave the Hall and all its memories behind him. That life was gone, long since crumbled into dust.
His relief evaporated the moment Lily opened the door to the infirmary.
“Stars above,” the old wolf whispered in horror. Lying in state throughout the room were more than a dozen sentients, a mix of males and females of all different species. To a one, they stared vacantly up at the ceiling, their chests rising and falling in slow unison. Healers crossed back and forth from bed to bed, gently applying wet cloths to those eyes, moistening them so they would not dry out. Each one bore a wound dressed in linen bandages, stained dark with blood.
“This is only half of them,” said Lily with a grave expression. Her grip tightened on the door frame. “There are more in the southeast ward.”
Drake leaned over one victim, an elderly willow badger, and was appalled to see her unblinking eyes, frosted like marbles. “This is no mere sleeping sickness, Milady. This is… some sort of spell, or a curse…”
“We do not know what it is that ails them, nor do we know how to reverse it. Nothing we have been able to do can help them to sleep, or to wake, for that matter. The news scrolls claim that their souls have been stolen.” The moment of truth. Lily braced herself for the inevitable.
Drake turned to face her. “Is that what you believe? Stolen souls?”
“I ordered full examinations of each victim.” The Grand Mistress’s eyes bored into his. “They were all found to be suffering from severe anemia… the attacker specifically aimed to spill as much blood as possible from each. No matter where each was wounded, the wound itself was uniform: a series of punctures. Teeth marks.”
Drake’s veins filled with ice water.
“Teeth marks,” said Lily in barely a whisper. She stared at him, hard and cold as black iron. “What am I to think, Drake?”
“M-Milady…” His mouth had gone numb. “It wasn’t me. I swear by the very stars, by Orion’s name-”
“I did not wish to believe it,” said Lily, “but against all this evidence, who else am I to suspect? Another of your kind…? You and I both know how unlikely that is. And we both know that your oath to the Gods, however impassioned, has been broken before…”
“Damn it all…” Nadeshiko had resumed her customary angry pacing in the main infirmary’s southeastern ward. “If there is any possibility of danger to her person, she should have protection. The regulations are clear. Why would she refuse, especially with this ‘Soulsnatcher’ horror on the loose? Can she not see the danger?!”
An apprentice healer watched her storm back and forth as she tended to her patient, the black-and-white jillrabbit who was the first victim found. The apprentice was a doe squirrel with dark brown fur, a boyish build, brick-red hair cropped at her shoulders, and a near-constant smile. “I’m sure she means well, Milady. It’s not as if she’s completely helpless.”
“No, of course not,” said Nadeshiko, making another lightning turn on her heel. “But Mother is not as young as she used to be, nor has she seen full combat in many seasons. I have reason to be worried, yet she still insists on… on dismissing me, as if I am a child…”
The apprentice flicked an ear as she dabbed the rabbit’s forehead with a damp towel. “Mothers are like that. At least, I suppose they are. I never knew mine.”
Most of what she said flew past the Vice-Mistress. “I am not a child. I am almost fifteen, I have been fully of age for nearly two years now-”
“I say the same thing to my brother,” said the apprentice. She wrung out the towel over a bucket as she spoke. “I tell him, ‘Aniki, stop treating me like a ceramic doll. I’m sixteen, I’m living on my own, and I have a job. Just because I’m sickly doesn’t mean you need to hover over me like a hawk, you know.’ But he never listens. Just this morning he scrolled me, insisting on coming all the way out here to take me to the forest until this Soulsnatcher business is over. As if I’d go! How am I supposed to do my job if I’m out in Tasakeru?!”
Tasakeru. The forest’s name pulled Nadeshiko out of her stewing. For the first time, she stopped and really looked at the apprentice. No. It couldn’t be. “Wait. You are-”
Rising to her feet, the doe smiled and tilted forward in a bow. “Sister Naole, Milady. Naole Takaishi. I believe you and my brother are, ah, acquainted.”
Nadeshiko stared. Now she could see the family resemblance: similar colors, the same bright sharpness to her eyes, even a little of that smirk of Takaishi’s, the one that so riled her nerves. “You are that ronin’s sister?!”
“I’m afraid so, Milady.” Naole sighed. “I really should apologize for all the trouble he puts you and the knights through. He’s overprotective because of my condition.”
“Chronic anemia,” said Naole. “Thin blood, Milady. It’s not that bad, I just can’t overexert myself. But aniki apparently thinks I shouldn’t even get out of bed in the mornings.”
This was difficult to process. Of course, Nadeshiko knew that Takaishi’s sister was the reason he kept coming back, and she knew that said sister was part of the Order, but any details beyond that she dismissed as being irrelevant. Takaishi was a criminal, and he had to be dealt with as such.
Now, though, she stood quite literally face-to-face with living proof that this problem was more complex than she ever assumed. Nadeshiko had always kept herself in perfect health. Being ill was for people with less to do. Sister Naole had no such luxury; having a chronic illness made every day of one’s life a struggle to survive.
“I-” said Nadeshiko. Stymied, she slipped into one of the things she did best: giving orders. “Sister Naole, if you have difficulty managing your illness, I suggest you seek the counsel of a healer. There is no need to involve your brother.”
Naole puffed out her cheeks and blew air upward, making her red bangs flutter. “With all due respect, Milady, if the healers could do anything for me, they would have already. I might feed the next one who tries to make me eat watercress soup her own spoon.”
A most improper grin threatened to break out across Nadeshiko’s face at the thought, but she managed to catch herself and suppress it into a prim smile. Stubbornness and spirit ran in the family. “I would not suggest attempting that with Sister Wormwood.”
“Please, Milady.” Naole smirked. “I’ve heard that Sister Wormwood says my tongue would tarnish any spoon she has. Apparently, she has problems with my disposition. It would explain the honey candies she keeps trying to slip me whenever I see her.”
Caught off guard, an uncharacteristic laugh bubble up from inside Nadeshiko, but with difficulty she disguised it as a sharp cough. Something else they had in common: Sister Wormwood was none too pleased with her disposition either. “I see.”
“Anyway, with the way he is, I doubt aniki would stop coming even if I were in perfect health,” Naole continued. “There’s nothing I can do about it but eat right, try not to stress too much, and deal with trouble whenever it comes. I manage.”
“I admire your bravery.” That statement slipped out before Nadeshiko could stop herself. Her ears turned back in shame. “That is, Sister, I-”
“Milady, please,” said Naole, wrinkling her snout in disgust. “Again, all due respect, but being called ‘brave’ for having an illness makes me want to throw up. It’s not bravery to do what you have to do.”
“I-” For the second time in as many minutes, she was at a loss for words. Nadeshiko’s idea of bravery was the total opposite; following orders, doing what had to be done and damn the consequences, that was bravery. And yet… she had to admit that Naole had a point. First a laugh, then a compliment, now conceding points. All were things Nadeshiko never did if she could help it, and all happened within the same few minutes. Remarkable.
Something the doe said a few moments ago finally clicked. “Wait. Did you say that your brother intends to come here to retrieve you? Tonight?”
The doe made a strange sound, a mix of a chuckle and a sigh. “Don’t worry, Milady. Even he wouldn’t be so reckless as to come here with the whole city on alert. He’ll most likely wait on a roof somewhere in Tachi-cho until I pass by.”
“But if you know he intends to come…!”
“Damn.” Naole made a pained face. “I’ve just incriminated myself, haven’t I? I apologize, Milady, but it’s family. I’ve tried to stop him, but he won’t listen…”
“Sister Naole,” said Nadeshiko, folding her arms, “if you have knowledge of criminal activity and choose not to report it, the entire justice system is undermined. The law is the law, it must be obeyed. Your brother is-”
Whatever Zero was, neither of them found out. Her words were interrupted by the sound of a great brass bell tolling from one of the temple’s high towers. The lead watcher’s voice, amplified by magic, echoed through every room, hall, and corridor: “Intruder! Intruder on the north wall battlements! Intruder!”
By force of habit, Nadeshiko reached to her hip for her sword, and grasped nothing but air. Damn. No weapons in the infirmaries, stated Regulation 318, barging to the forefront of her mind. Her broadsword was checked at the entrance desk. “Sister Naole,” she barked, “stay here and bar the doors when I leave. If the Soulsnatcher is here to finish its victims-”
“Aye, Milady!” Overly casual to her superiors she might be, but when it counted, Naole Takaishi followed orders.
Mere seconds later, the lead watcher’s voice rang out again: “Intruder, intruder on the north grounds, heading southwestward! All squads on duty, intercept!”
“It’s heading here. Goddess protect us…” By the jillrabbit’s bedside, Naole knelt and clasped her hands together. “Blessed Lady Terra, mother of us all-”
Nadeshiko had no time for prayers. She ran to the door and threw it open, and was confronted by a dozen knights storming past, all bearing arms and shouting to one another. Only random snatches could be heard: “- single intruder -” “- no casualties reported -” “- carrying a sword and wearing black -”
That last fragment caused Naole’s ears to perk. Her expression changed to one of horror. “Oh no,” she moaned. “Oh no. Milady, that’s not the Soulsnatcher! You need to call the knights back!”
Calamity reigned in the halls. From the direction of the north grounds came a sharp bang, the faint smell of smoke, and a stream of angry curses… but no screaming, no voices raised in terror.
In a state of disbelief, Nadeshiko glared back at the doe. “Sister Naole, you said-!”
“I know what I said!” Naole flailed her arms as if trying to swat flies. “I just never thought… I thought even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to- Milady, please!”
From much closer, there was a clanging of steel on steel, and a muffled shout of rage. To the sound a second bang, louder than the first, a cloud of thick black smoke blossomed from around the nearest corner. The figure flying out of it and trailing wisps behind him was lean but muscular, dressed in loose black fighter’s robes, his dark hair and fur scruffy and somewhat overgrown. His eyes widened in recognition as he and Nadeshiko saw each other, and they both said in unison: “You!”
Unarmed and with no other options, the floris drew herself to her full height and raised her arm, palm outward, as she roared: “In the name of the Goddess, you are bound by law to-”
The intruder did not lose a step. He pushed off the ebony floor and took to the air like a sparrow in flight, and Nadeshiko saw lamp light gleam off the metal grooves in his boots before kilos of force came down on her shoulders. Crumpling under the weight, the floris felt the intruder push off a second time, vaulting off of her like a springboard and into the center of the room…
Upon righting himself, Zero Takaishi stood proudly, brushing himself off and smiling for his beloved little sister. “Sorry I’m late, imouto. Where were you? I waited outside your house for half an hour…”
Naole’s ears flattened as she put her face in her hands. “Oh Gods. Aniki, I told you not to come! What were you thinking?!”
“And I told you I’m not letting you stay here while that thing is on the loose! Come on, we’re getting out of here. I’ve got one more charge on this blasted Boltpath, might as well use it for a good cause.”
“I am not going with you, you stupid, reckless-”
“Ouch! Naole, that hurt! Stop it!”
“- idiotic, foolish, brainless-”
“Gyaaah, dammit, that’s my ear! Stop it, I said!”
From her position on the floor, Nadeshiko watched in total confusion. Was this really happening? Was Zero Takaishi, the constant thorn in her side, the embodiment of the disorder she so hated, the bane of every knight in the Silver Order, really being cowed by his little sister, of all people? It certainly appeared that way; the younger Takaishi resembled a red-headed firestorm as she railed into him, giving his ear another pull until they stood at roughly the same height, and then following with what looked like an exceedingly painful twist for good measure.
Not even that spectacle, grimly entertaining as it was, could distract Nadeshiko from fury as she realized that Takaishi’s boots had left two partial bootprints on her formerly spotless armor. If Naole was a firestorm, then Nadeshiko was a geyser about to erupt from beneath the earth. Any sentient there would have sworn they saw her eyes flash red as she stared in livid disgust at the dirt and mud caked onto her shoulder plates. Trembling with rage, she rose from the floor and faced the squabbling siblings…
Before she could speak, the great bell clamored from on high once again. This time, when the lead watcher’s voice rang through the halls, it was choked with raw panic: “Intruder at the gate facing 3rd and Acheron! All hands, prepare to defend the grounds! It’s him! The Soulsnatcher is here…! It’s a brute wolf, red markings on the che-”
With his voice still amplified by magic, all in Aedis Centralis heard the wet, sickening gurgle that was the last sound the lead watcher ever made. It was followed by a pall of thick, terrible silence.
END OF CHAPTER 3