Order under siege
An assault on sacred ground
The night of slaughter
“There has never truly been a wolf in the Silver Order. While of course the Order touts itself as open to all species, and a few of our kind have followed its beliefs, in all recorded history there has never been record of a brute Brother, a fae Sister, or a knight of either.
“Admittedly, there are some practical reasons why this is the case. Wolves wander; the urge to travel is ingrained deep within, and staying in one place for too long is antithetical to us. Since officially joining the Order requires constant contact with Aedis Centralis, most of us would not be able to follow the vows.
“Sadly, the other major reason for our lack of representation in the Silver Order is simple prejudice. For all the strides made by the Argenteus House and their followers in advancing society, they have historically been either unwilling to treat us as true equals, or content to ignore us altogether. This is hardly uncommon; in too many places in the world, our kind is still seen as ‘uncultured’, our ways ‘primitive’. The less charitable tend to call us ‘savages’.
“We have heard ourselves called as much for generations upon generations. We are ‘savages’ because we prefer not to wear clothing. Because when hungered, we favor red meat rather than fowl, fish, grain, or produce. Because we eschew the noise and complexities of life in Unify and the surrounding villages for a plainer, quieter existence. Above all, because our ways are strange and alien to those sentients who call themselves ‘normal’. We are, therefore, less ‘normal’ than they… though perhaps just a bit more normal that our half-brethren, the wolfoxes. But what, to a wolfox, would be considered ‘normal’, then?”
[Excerpt from the writings of Io of the HearthPack]
Oh, he remembered the Silver Order. Elite. Self-righteous. Pretending to be dedicated to “life” while suppressing or excluding those who did not fit their narrow definitions of the word. Worst of all, serving as a front for the damned stinktails and their poisonous belief that females were to be elevated above their natural station. The florises… the florises honestly told people that they cared about all life while forcing their males into subservience. Blatant hypocrites, all of them.
And yet. The Silver Order’s diversity was exactly what Stalker needed to revive Mother, to make her proud, to give her new children to avenge the slain. How ironic, that a former sentient of the one species to be excluded from the Order would see to its downfall.
That last thought gave Stalker pause. Former? Of course he was still sentient, and he still considered himself a wolf at least partially, though he was altered with his rebirth. A wolf, and yet not a wolf. One of Mother’s children, and yet different from any who had come before: able to speak sentient languages, walk on two legs, think and act independently. A true study in contrasts, was he not? A crossbreed of sorts, but certainly a more worthy crossbreed than any of the blue-furred taints.
Wolfoxes… he never despised the taints like some of his brethren did, like the foxes as a whole did. Some of them had to be decent… and a female was a female, though of course his preference had been for proper fae. Still, in his old life he preferred not to think of the wolfoxes at all. Now he realized that using one of them to pave Mother’s way home would be inappropriate. She deserved better. Better, as her new children would be. Not misbegotten things like wolfoxes, but children with the best of every species.
Stalker thought of these things as the mouths in his hand did their work, siphoning the last of the ferret watcher’s blood as his soulless body quivered in its death throes. He had been a good, strong hobferret. Faithful to his Order and his Grand Mistress to the last. Worthy of being a sacrifice. Daring enough that when Stalker climbed over the edge of the battlement, the hobferret did not cower or flee in terror, but made a desperate charge with his spear… the spear now broken and protruding harmlessly out of the wolf’s belly. The sight had rattled the watcher enough that he dropped his guard. Stalker pounced upon him, ripped off his leather breastplate, and extracted his soul. Without it, the hobferret’s body slipped into living death, and he made no move to resist as Stalker tore out his throat with his fangs.
Clattering metallic footsteps told him that the Knights were on their way to his position. Wonderful. With no more to be taken from the watcher, Stalker stepped over his corpse to greet them, displaying the ferret’s blood splashed across his muzzle and chest… a fine accompanied to his marking.
First up to the battlements was a todd with hideous stripes of lime-green dyed into his black hair. He seemed to be in charge of the group. Like the sheep that he was, he launched into Order protocol.
“Halt! In the name of the Goddess, you are bound by law to- oh my Gods.” Captain Stockwell’s ears flattened against his skull, and bile swelled in his throat at the horrific sight. With fumbling hands, he drew his broadsword and trained it on the monstrous figure of the wolf, no, the Soulsnatcher, standing proud and grinning on the old blood-drenched stones with half a spear lodged in his middle, a body that he barely recognized as Brother Calcite lying behind him. “You- what have you done?!”
The Soulsnatcher’s eyes shone crimson. Locking his gaze with that of the young captain, he advanced, his fanged and bloody grin stretched wide. “Captain… Stockwell, is it?” he said. His voice curled around him, thick and oily like smoke. “Tell me, how went things back home in Manolin last month? You were too late to save them, weren’t you…?”
“Sir?” said the raccoon archer at the captain’s side, drawing an arrow on the intruder. “Sir? What are our orders? Sir?”
Captain Stockwell could not answer, could not look away, could not move. The Soulsnatcher’s claws were inside his skull, scraping his brain. His silhouette and those terrible eyes were all he could see… He never had a chance.
In the infirmary’s southeastern ward, Nadeshiko witnessed a remarkable transformation. Before reality could permeate her shock and disgust at the idea of the Soulsnatcher bringing his butchery to their temple, the two bickering squirrel siblings vanished. In their place were two mature adults, well aware of the gravity of the situation. An entire conversation passed between Zero and Naole Takaishi without either saying a word aloud; only people with absolute trust in each other could do that.
“Outside,” said Zero to his sister. “The boltpath needs open air to work. Where’s the nearest exit?”
Naole swallowed and wrung her hands. No more argument from her. “I… I’m pretty sure there’s an alcove, a hidden door that opens to Abram’s Way, for emergencies. But-”
Nadeshiko knew the one, and she recognized a significant problem with the plan. “But the only way to reach it is to cut through a meditation chamber with only one entrance and exit. Should the creature be there, there will be no place for you to hide.”
“If I have to carve us a way out of here, so be it,” said Zero, reaching for the hilt of the old sword resting at his hip.
Nadeshiko’s snout wrinkled. Part of her dearly wished to knock the buck senseless with the flat of her broadsword and go on her way. Doing so would solve many of her problems at once: it would keep Takaishi from making a nuisance of himself while she and the knights dealt with the Soulsnatcher. It would keep him in one place, so she could arrest him properly once the crisis was contained. It would make her feel better, and would serve as decent payback for leaving his dirty bootprints on her armor.
However… with Takaishi unable to fight, he and his sister would be helpless should the Soulsnatcher decide to attack them instead. A right burr in her tail he might be, but having him slip from her grasp again was still preferable to having him dead. Then there was Naole, who was, if not entirely innocent in the matter, then still a Sister of the Order. She still deserved the full extent of the Order’s protection, aider and abetter of an Outcast or not.
Damn it all. There was no time for moral quandaries. A decision needed to be made, and as the Vice-Mistress, in the absence of her mother, decisions fell upon her. Scowling like a stormcloud, she marched to the elder Takaishi and grasped his shoulder, pulling him down to meet her gaze directly. “Takaishi,” she said. “Listen carefully. I will leave here shortly to command the knights. When I do, I shall make every effort to direct the Soulsnatcher away from you. Use the opportunity to escort Sister Naole to the Abram’s Way exit.”
Unable to speak, Zero stared at her. For someone at best two-thirds his age and a full head shorter than he, it astonished him how intimidating the young Vice-Mistress could be. A rueful part of himself acknowledged that she could have made one hell of a Daigundan samurai if she were the right gender and species. She already had the death glare mastered.
Armored fingers squeezed his shoulder. “Do not mistake me,” said Nadeshiko. “Once this situation is dealt with, I expect you to return Sister Naole to Unify with all speed. Fail to do so, and I swear by all my foremothers that I will not rest until I have personally dragged you by your miserable tail into the deepest, darkest prison cell that I can find. Understood?”
Damn, but she had quite a grip, too. Wincing, Zero nodded. “Yes, Milady.”
“I should hope so,” said Nadeshiko. “Kidnapping an Order Sister carries severe penalties, Takaishi. Take advantage of this reprieve, and I shall see to it that you do not see daylight for at least a year.” She released him and strode for the doors, pausing only to look over her shoulder and give a customary blessing to them both. Heavens knew they needed it. “May you both go with the Goddess.”
The creaking of badly-oiled hinges was the only sound breaking the silence that fell over the southeastern infirmary once the Vice-Mistress’s bootsteps receded into the distance. Zero and Naole both stared at the swinging doors.
“I don’t know,” said Naole after a long while. “Yeah, she’s as prickly as they say, but I think I could get to like her.”
Zero thought the same thing. Better not to let his sister know, though. “Come on. Let’s not waste the chance.”
Drake had traveled back in time. That was his impression upon seeing Lady Lily snap to action, taking charge of the main infirmary’s sistren and brethren and the knights that came flooding in to assist them. The Mistress was so much like her late great-grandmother that the old wolf became lost in wonderful, bitter nostalgia… even her voice sounded the same. Gods, had it really been that long?
“Brother Pericleseus and Brother Miller,” said Lily to the two seniormost knights. “Whatever happens, you and your squads are to hold these doors. I do not care if Aconite herself should come down the hall. You will hold, and you will keep both the victims and the infirmary staff safe from harm at all costs. Is that clear?”
The knights, a lop-eared jackrabbit and a todd with a slightly twisted lip, both saluted and answered in unison. “Aye, Milady!”
“Good,” said Lily. “The rest of you have your orders.”
A timid young jillferret spoke up from somewhere in the back corner. “But what about you, Milady?”
Lily’s luminous green eyes hardened. “Lord Drake shall accompany me as my guard while I collect my sword.”
“Lord” Drake. Not “Brother”. Drake fought back the urge to blanch.
There was a murmur of uncertainty. Understandable. The white wolf seemed too withered and frail to protect a newborn, let alone the Grand Mistress… but her word was absolute, after all. If she trusted him with such an important task, there was to be no argument.
Only the wolf himself seemed willing to question her command. “Do you truly intend to fight that thing yourself, Milady?” he said low into her ear. “If the reports are accurate-”
“Come with me,” Lily turned sharply on her heel for the doors. “If the reports match my suspicions,” she said one she was out of the knights’ earshot, “my sword may be one of the only things capable of stopping it. I pray that is not the case.”
Drake shuffled along behind her as fast as he was able. His knees creaked in protest, and the tip of his walking stick clacked a rhythm against the floor. “It doesn’t fit, though, Milady…” he wheezed as he labored to keep up. “The abilities, the methods are all wrong. You should know-”
“I admit it is unlikely, but as I said before, what else am I to think?” Her gaze turned hard as the marble pillars they passed. “Were I you, I would be thankful that I am no longer a suspect. For the moment, at least.”
A growl built in Drake’s throat. “You say that, but you know damn well I’m the only-” He stumbled to a stop. A horrible realization crept over him like tendrils of cold midnight fog. No. It couldn’t be.
It was in combat that Nadeshiko’s true colors shone through. Over the many years of endless grooming, training, and coaching to succeed her mother, she took to learning the art of battle with greater ease than any other subject. Lessons in diplomacy, decorum, and negotiation she could handle well enough, despite her short temper placing her at a disadvantage. When it came to her proficiency in combat, though, she quickly surpassed any and all of her instructors. A born natural, they called her, blessed with a gifted eye for strategy and a presence that commanded respect and discipline. Nadeshiko was a pillar of strength and fortitude for those around her, and woe betide any sentient who dared to face her at her best.
Now, fully armored her in spotless white and chrome plate mail and her visored battle helmet, standing among a selection of hand-picked knights from a dozen of her most favored squads, Nadeshiko proved once more why she was said to have the keenest tactical mind in generations. “Squads 18, 32, and 86 are pushing the creature in our direction. When it comes down the corridor, Captain Sable and the knights of 86 will keep the pressure on it from behind, as our archers, shield-bearers, and lancers hold the corridor’s southern end in a phalanx position.”
“Boxing him in, Milady?” said Captain Callix Lucianus of Squad 98, a grizzled grey jackrabbit who was missing most of his left ear. He smiled with grim satisfaction at the thought, and his hand tightened on the grip of his lance. Captain Callix was a veteran of many battles, as his shorn-off ear would attest, but he had never seen anything like this. One brute wolf against the entire Silver Order should have been suicide, but if the reports were to be believed, the brute just kept coming. If anyone could stop him, he thought, it would be Lady Nadeshiko and her chosen team.
“Yes, Captain,” said Nadeshiko. “The Soulsnatcher will not have any room to maneuver in such cramped quarters. It is simply a matter of driving it onto the lances and skewering it.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer bastard, Milady,” said Sister Emerald of Clan Salem, one of Squad 54’s best archers. The jillferret had eyes like a hawk and a thirst to prove herself. Not every Order sister got a chance to fight alongside the Vice-Mistress herself. That she was here at all spoke volumes about the faith Lady Nadeshiko had in her. Given the chance, she would gladly fill the Soulsnatcher’s carcass with so many arrows that its body would resemble a pincushion, given all that beast had done… but if Lady Nadeshiko was there to see her do it, so much the better.
“Let me be clear…” Now Nadeshiko spoke to all in attendance. “You are to focus all your efforts on the Soulsnatcher, not on defending me. I do not require any of you to place yourselves in harm’s way for my sake. As of this moment, I am a knight the same as any of you.” To prove the point, she drew her broadsword, a slab of steel half her height, its cutting edge gleaming with blessed silver. Those less familiar with the Silver Order’s knights might think such a weapon would be too slow, heavy, and unwieldy to use as anything but a blunt instrument, but they would be sorely mistaken: in the hands of someone like Nadeshiko, trained to make use of it since she could walk, she could make it dance as fluidly as a rapier a tenth its size. “I am capable of protecting myself, the sick and injured are not. Is that clear?”
There was a chorus of voices in reply: “Aye, Milady!”
A young, dark-haired buck by the name of Sennoh Rokuda stood behind Sister Emerald. His tail fur stood straight up at the expression the Vice-Mistress wore, the gleam of icy fury in her eyes. Sennoh was one of very few buck squirrels who chose to serve the Order as knights rather than train to become Daigundan samurai. He was under no illusion as to how most of the Daigundan ranks viewed people like him: soft, timid types who lacked the fortitude and discipline to live a true warrior’s life. That view generally extended to the Order as a whole, for no love was lost between samurai and knights. At that moment, though, when Sennoh saw the look on Lady Nadeshiko’s face and how those bright green eyes caught the lamp light’s glow off her broadsword… “soft” was the last word in the world he would use to describe her. He actually felt a bit sorry for the monstrous thing heading their way, for when the Vice-Mistress finished with it, it would be lucky to still be in a dozen pieces.
On the far wall at the end of the corridor, a shadow moved.
“Milady!” said Emerald in an urgent whisper.
“I see it.” Nadeshiko’s answer radiated calm and control. “All ranks, form up and prepare to fire.”
Shields clattered as they slid into place, their edges overlapping one another. The lancers poked their weapons through the gaps between them, while behind, Emerald and her fellow archers notched arrows to their bows. They waited, and the shadow moved, slowly, deliberately, growing in size as the one casting it approached…
“Steady,” said Nadeshiko. “Steady…”
Little by little, the shadow’s features resolved in the flickering, rising glow of a lantern: a lupine body, magnified to gigantic size, its jaws open and its fangs dripping and bared. Its silhouette was grotesquely distorted, its shoulders hunched, dozens of pointed shapes bristled out of its back like the spikes of a morning star.
Sennoh trembled where he stood. “Milady…?”
“Stay calm, Brother Sennoh.” Nadeshiko did not flinch, did not look away. “This is a ploy, an attempt to intimidate us. Do not let it succeed.”
The glowing lantern came around the corner of the adjacent corridor first, shortly followed by the beast itself. Nadeshiko’s stomach dropped; horrified gasps came from behind her.
By the light of the lantern that it held, they saw that the Soulsnatcher’s body was saturated with drying blood, its fur caked almost black with it from head to tail. Bared in a savage grin, the creature’s fangs stood out from the carnage, perversely clean and white. Mad eyes gleamed crimson at the knights from between the lank strands of his his dark hair. At least six broken arrows peppered its back and shoulders, and a cutlass was buried in its middle, the crimson handprint of its unfortunate former owner still visible on the hilt.
This was no mindless monster or demon. That much had been clear for some time, but the extent of its – no, his – monstrosity, brazenly dragging blood and filth and murder into the holiest of the Silver Order’s temples… His grin said it all: the Soulsnatcher was well aware of the obscenity of his crimes, and reveled in them. Nadeshiko trembled where she stood, not in fear, but in righteous fury. Her tail raised like a flag as she shouted to her assembled ranks: “Fire.”
Two dozen feathered shafts took flight and sailed the length of the corridor. The Soulsnatcher simply stood and spread his arms, allowing the missiles to strike him. They buried themselves in his upper arms, his chest, one even speared him clear through between his neck and shoulder… yet his only reaction was to stagger backward a step or two from the combined force of the impact. His gleaming fangs parted, and he spoke… he laughed… “Good evening to you, Vice-Mistress Nadeshiko and company. If perhaps you are still waiting for Captain Sable and the others, I must regrettably inform you that they are somewhat indisposed.” He licked some of the dried blood from his lips and added, “The Captain sends his regards, Milady. He fought well, and was a noble sacrifice for Mother and my legion. The Beneath accepted him with honor.”
If Sennoh was intimidated by the Vice-Mistress’s expression before, now he was terrified. Her eyes burned with flame that far surpassed the lantern the Soulsnatcher held, every hair on her tail seemed to be standing on end. Holding her broadsword high, she addressed them: “All ranks, close combat, now! I hereby permit any means necessary to strike that creature down!”
They charged. The lancers and shield-bearers thundered down the corridor, still in tight formation, and Nadeshiko slammed down her helmet’s visor and charged along with them, roaring a wordless battle cry. This night, she swore to herself, she would make this monster pay dearly for its crimes.
The Soulsnatcher grinned, set down his lantern, crouched, leaped straight upward… and did not come down again. Whether it was some unknown gravity magic or an innate skill, his hands and feet stuck to the ceiling beams above their heads. With impossible speed, he scuttled across the beams, crawling on all fours like a gigantic cockroach… a cockroach that grinned down at them, mocking their attempts to stop him.
“Archers!” Nadeshiko thundered. “Second volley, now!”
Another rain of arrows flew upward into the rafters as he raced by. These had even less effect than the first, barely even slowing him. When he came to a stop directly above the assembled ranks, he released his grip, dropping like a stone right into their midst…
The formation crumbled. Knights scattered before him like leaves in a gale, their strikes repelled or simply taken by the wolf with no sign that they caused him the slightest discomfort. As Captain Callix came near, he seized the old jackrabbit by the neck with one hand and crushed his windpipe, then tossed him into four of his subordinates to strangle. Brother Sennoh made a brave stand with his own broadsword, only to have the Soulsnatcher rip the cutlass from his own belly and run it through him with impossible strength, as if his armor were mere paper. Nadeshiko saw its point emerge from the buck’s back before he withdrew it and let the him fall and bleed out on the ebony floor. Sister Emerald was last. Having foregone her longbow at close range, she stood ahead of Nadeshiko with a dagger and made a calculated stab to the wolf’s heart. That seemed to impress him; he leered at the jillferret, his eyes shining with dusky crimson light. His lips moved… he was speaking to her, though his words could not be heard over the clamor of battle. Whatever he said, it caused Emerald to freeze, her dagger dropping from her numb fingers… and then the wolf was upon her.
“Fall back, all ranks! Fall back! Leave him to me!” Nadeshiko shouted to any who could still hear. Pushing through the remaining knights, her vision reddened with rage, she brought her broadsword to bear on the monster’s neck. See how invincible you are without a head…!
The spider half-embedded in Stalker’s arm twitched. He did not know what the instinct or where it came from, from which half of his being, but something gave him cause for alarm for the first time that night. Something made him drop the drained body of the jillferret and leap out of the way of the broadsword’s gleaming edge as it came crashing down, gouging a divot in the floor. He rolled into a crouch, every sense on high alert, but he spoke with all the oily calm he could muster: “Lady Nadeshiko, come to face me herself. I am honored.”
“You-” The skunk spared only a moment to kneel over the fallen jill and close her sightless eyes. Anger boiled off of her like the waves of a heat mirage as she raised her sword once more. “How dare you…” she spat. And she lunged, the blade’s edge a blur as she cut a horizontal slash through the air-
Stalker was taken aback by her display of skill. From hearsay, he was aware that the Grand Mistress’s daughter fancied herself quite the warrior, but this was evidence to support the fact. Despite her rage, every strike was controlled, every movement carefully planned. Only that temper kept her from being a truly formidable opponent, and it was apparent that it only hindered her so much. Fascinating. Again and again she pressed him, bringing the blade within millimeters of his flesh each time. Even fully armored, she was faster than he was, and she swung the huge blade with grace that belied its size. If he was too careless-
A flash, and a jolt of genuine pain, the likes of which he had not felt since his rebirth. The broadsword’s edge cleaved into his left shoulder at an angle, and it burned, searing his flesh like a white-hot iron. A scream of agony and shock tore from his bloodstained lips…
The skunk’s eyes shone with triumph through the slits of her visor. “I shall make you taste more pain than that, scum… You will atone for your crimes a hundred times over before I send you to Aconite for judgment!” And with that, she pressed the sword’s edge deeper into the wound…
Stalker could not speak, could barely think. All that mattered was being free of the blade and the inexplicable fire it spread through him. Only one choice remaining: he locked eyes with the Vice-Mistress through the visor and joined his mind to hers. For his other victims, reading them to prey on their fears and doubts was enough to incapacitate them, at least long enough to disarm them and feed, but for her… he made no attempt to read her, he only sent her pain. A thunderbolt of pure suffering, distilled from the very people she sought to avenge and delivered directly to her thoughts.
It worked. The skunk cried out and stumbled back, her grip on the broadsword slackened. Groaning, Stalker wrenched it from his shoulder. The flesh of the wound was charred black and deadened, but there was no outward sign of fire magic or anything of the sort. How was that possible? He carved through every Silver Order knight in his way up until now, and their strongest blows were mere trifles to him, so long as he fed on enough blood to restore his injuries. There was more than enough swirling in his belly now to withstand far worse. Why such pain from one sword wound?
No time to ponder, already the Vice-Mistress was recovered from the attack on her thoughts. Once more she charged, and Stalker charged to meet her, cutlass in hand, more driven than ever to defeat both her and the hated Silver Order she represented.
Sparks flew with every clash of their blades and scattered across the floor, now pitted and scarred from the scuffle. Stalker gritted his fangs, dug in his footclaws, and pushed back against the skunk as they crossed once more. Unbelievable. That broadsword looked as if it weighed half as much as she did, but the way she moved it… she left no openings, gave no quarter. Every parried slash was followed by a savage riposte, forcing him to constantly keep up his guard to avoid taking another hit from that blade. Unnatural strength and endurance could only last for so long against her raw skill and superior equipment. Before long, the wolf felt each blow ring through him from head to tail, the fingers that clutched the cutlass’s hilt grew numb from the constant assault. Two choices left: cut his losses and run, trusting that the Vice-Mistress would be too noble to pursue given all her sheep still in danger, or…
Or choose her as the next to empower the legion. Why not? She was strong, oh she was strong. The Argenteus bloodline was ancient and hardy indeed. If she could be of use…
The next time her sword came down, he locked edges with it and drew in as close as he could. A hellish glow lit his eyes, and he stared through the bars of the skunk’s visor once more. His mind touched hers, and his voice encircled her thoughts like the coils of a snake…
“Tell me, Lady Nadeshiko,” he said, rewarded by the alarm that flashed in her eyes. “Why do you worry your poor mother so…?”
To her credit, she fought it. A stubborn will, stronger than any of the sheep that followed her, pushed back against his assault, refusing to give an inch. All he could read of her were brief flashes, glimpses of memories, thoughts and feelings blinking by like someone flipping through the pages of a book, but those were enough. Pride, he saw. Pride, a fierce determination to prove herself, and oh my, such frustration… such anger…
Stalker grinned. “If you continue to be such trouble to her, Milady… why, you may inherit the Order sooner than you think. Such a shame that would be. Unless, of course, that is your intent…”
Shock. Shock and outrage, doubt and fear. Nadeshiko’s blood turned to rivers of ice water, and for a fraction of a second, her control slipped-
Aedis Centralis had never seemed so empty or silent. Passing through corridor after familiar corridor with none of the usual faces or sounds to greet her gave Naole the crawling horrors. It reminded her of nightmares she had as a kit in which she got lost within her own home, in halls and doorways that looked just the same as usual but did not lead to where they were supposed to. In those dreams, she would call and call and get no answer save for the lonely echoes of her own voice. Those nightmares always woke her feeling ill, cold and shivering in her bed…
And as she remembered those nightmares, she remembered how Zero used to come running to her room no matter the hour of the night, how he would hold her hand and reassure her until she fell back asleep. There were echoes of that feeling in the way that he clutched her hand now as they ran together through the empty corridors. His presence, his unshakeable courage, they always used to bolster her own, ease her worries enough that she could fall back to sleep in peace.
But that was so long ago, before the Seven Days of Blood, before his exile, before everything changed. Of course he was still her brother and always would be, but… but even all these years later, the trauma of the battle with the Demon Fangs hung over him like a persistent raincloud. It was there whenever he came to visit her, hiding just behind his eyes, worry and sadness that never truly went away. No surprise that he fretted about her health and safety so much more often over the past nine years. Zero could no longer run in from the next room over when she was ill or plagued by nightmares, and he took that as a failure on his part. Nothing she could say could-
Naole missed a step and stumbled a bit. Her vision had gone swimmy, the corridor tilted back and forth. Damn it, she thought, closing her eyes and pouring all her focus into matching pace with Zero. Not now, not now! Hold it together, hold it-
Ahead of her, Zero thought of nothing but escape, for his sister first and then for himself. He would be fine, he reasoned. Even if he ran into this Soulsnatcher thing, it would be all right as long as Naole was out of danger. She still had what he did not: citizenship, a career, a future in society, a life. All those were in jeopardy if she stayed here, but as long as they found the damned Abram’s Way exit in time. “Mange,” he said under his breath before casting a glance back over his shoulder. “Naole, this temple is like a maze, are you sure we took the right-”
His heart seized in his chest as if caught in a vise. Naole’s breaths came hard and heavy, she wore an unfocused, faraway expression. He knew that look, he could never forget what it signified. As his mind flashed back to many years before, to when he saw that look on her face just before she collapsed the first time, a barrage of mocking voices filled his skull: Fool, stupid, idiot, you shouldn’t have made her run all this way, it was too much for her, this is all your fault… “Naole!” Immediately he skidded to a stop, the grooves of his boots scuffing the floor.
“I’m fi-” she tried to say, before her knees buckled beneath her. She dropped slowly, as if underwater…
Zero caught her and cradled her before she could fall more than an inch. A cacophony of bitter laughter joined the mocking voices in his head and stung his ears. “Easy, imouto, easy,” he said to her, whispering though there was no need to do so in the quiet of the abandoned corridor. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” It was as much to reassure himself as her.
A soft moan was her only reply.
Possible courses of action raced through Zero’s mind, and each was less likely to succeed than the last. Naole needed rest, rest and a quiet place to recover. Taking her back to the southeast infirmary was no option; if the Soulsnatcher was on his way there, or there already, Gods forbid, he would only be putting her in more danger. Continuing on to the Abram’s Way exit was the next best option, but he doubted she had the strength to make it that far, or to endure boltpath travel back to Tasakeru, for that matter. That was discounting his questionable ability to even find the Abram’s Way exit without her help. Damn it all, what was he supposed to do? A tide of helplessness rose like bile within him, his hands began to shake-
“Takaishi?” A gravelly voice spoke from behind him. Zero’s hand leaped to the hilt of his sword by instinct… then he stopped and stared, for there was a familiar face approaching. Two familiar faces, though he only knew one of them by proxy. “Drake…?” Zero said, disbelieving. When he recognized the second face, he slipped from disbelief into abject shock. “Lady Lily…!”
Coming up a half-step behind the ancient wolf, the Grand Mistress of the Silver Order barely resembled the warm, motherly figure he grew up seeing in portraits and news scrolls. She carried herself differently, walking with a warrior’s stride instead of a mother’s grace, still radiant in her beauty, but deadly and awe-inspiring as a summer thunderstorm. As he watched, she hefted a massive slab of a broadsword over her shoulder like a knight half her age, her expression hard and set. Such was her transformation that Zero wondered why he ever thought her days of commanding the knights directly were long behind her. “Young Lord Takaishi, I presume?” she said, raising one eyebrow. “My daughter has had much to say of you, little of it complementary.”
Zero could not speak. His words seemed to be lost somewhere in the pit of his stomach. The Grand Mistress, here, with Drake of all sentients…
“What are you doing here, Takaishi?” said Drake. He then caught sight of the doe on the floor behind him, her chest rising and falling, her eyelids fluttering… it clicked. “Your sister. Is she-”
“She isn’t hurt, it’s her anemia,” said Zero, pulled back to the matter at hand by force. “She had a fainting spell. I need to get her out of here to somewhere safe, somewhere she can rest, but I can’t find the damned exit-”
“Abram’s Way,” said Lily, nodding. “Under normal circumstances, Lord Takaishi, I would subdue you and send you to the Crown for sentencing, but considering the present crisis… I shall grant you leniency, just this once. Drake, if you would take Sister Naole, please. Gently.”
“Aye, Milady.” Drake did not argue, he would not dare. Casting aside his walking stick, he stooped down low. With much creaking and cracking from his knees and back, he gathered Naole into his arms.
Zero’s attention was torn from his sister for a few brief seconds as he stared back and forth from Drake to Lily. The way she addressed him was… familial. To an absurd degree, given her station, but why would she do that? Drake’s response was another puzzle. He spoke to her with more respect than Zero had heard him grant to anyone. Not even a grunt of protest. There was something strange happening here, unrelated to the Soulsnatcher, but- Zero pushed it from his mind. Once more he took Naole’s hand, squeezed it, and whispered to her. “It’s going to be all right, imouto. Just hold on.”
Her fingers grasped his without much strength as she peered at him through bleary eyes. “Stupid aniki…” She tried to smile, and could only manage to raise one corner of her mouth. “… told you… not to worry so much. You’ll go grey…”
Zero chuckled, but it was a hollow sound, embittered by the guilt coursing through him. If Drake and Lady Lily had not happened to come along… he could not bear to think of it.
Once she was sure that Sister Naole rested comfortably, Lily took the lead. “The Abram’s Way exit is this way. Follow me, please.” Drake and the elder Takaishi drew in close behind. It was strange, she thought. From what she knew of the family’s history, he was made an Outcast for the crimes of cowardice, desertion, and dereliction of duty. Yet here he was, risking arrest and his very life to lead his sister out of danger in her time of need… hardly cowardice, in her opinion. In the young buck’s eyes was a burning need to see his family safe, a need she found quite familiar. Such unfortunate circumstances.
Their flight through the corridors came to an abrupt halt mere paces from the meditation chamber closest to Abram’s Way. From somewhere in the dark came a flicker of motion, then the musical sound of breaking glass and the heavy scent of lantern oil. Hungry flames raced across the ebony floor, blocking their path. Lily threw out an arm to stop the others, drew her broadsword, and dropped into a defensive stance.
“Lady Lily.” A voice as thick and wet as the oil spoke from behind the curtain of dancing flame. “I had hoped I would come across you this night.”
Lily’s eyes narrowed. “In the name of the Goddess-”
“Yes, yes,” said the figure silhouetted by the fire, waving an arm. “Your oaths and Order protocol. I am well familiar with them.”
From behind Lily, Zero stepped forward and unsheathed his katana. “Lady Lily, if you would permit me to assist-”
“My permission is freely given, Young Lord Takaishi,” said Lily. “I would be grateful.”
“That’s not one of yours, is it, Milady?” said the Soulsnatcher, snickering to himself. “Run out of sheep to hide behind?”
That voice. Drake nearly lost his grip on the doe as pure fear chilled him to his marrow. His worst suspicions confirmed. It was his fault… all his fault…
The Soulsnatcher stepped forward through the spreading flames. He dragged something behind him, something gleaming and white… “It does not matter,” he began. “I should be happy to-” He came to a halt. A deadly silence fell upon the chamber as they stared at each other in varying states of recognition and shock…
Lily’s heart seized in her chest. The thing the Soulsnatcher dragged behind him was a body, a knight. Not just any knight, Nadeshiko. He dragged her by the braid of her hair, and the only way Nadeshiko would ever allow herself to be handled like that, let alone taken prisoner, was if… was if…
The Soulsnatcher stared not at Lily, but at the buck just behind her. “Takaishi.” A rush of memories came to the fore of his mind, not from the wolf called Algol, but from the lost child merged with his arm. A battle. Blood. Flame. Steel. Vines. Mother’s pain, and the pain of a thousand brothers and sisters, shared by a single mind. A rain of dust and falling rock as the cavern collapsed in on itself… Bilious hatred boiled up within Stalker as he met eyes with one of the four Outcasts who caused it all, who destroyed the lost child’s home, who killed Mother… “You…!”
END OF CHAPTER 4