SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5

Petals on the floor

Rectifying past mistakes

Duel in the flames

“How ironic it is that one of the most terrible nights of the Silver Order’s history led to such great change… For all the horror that occurred that night, for all the innocent lives lost or ruined in both the Soulsnatcher’s attack and the events that followed because of it, it is that bloodthirsty monster that was arguably the catalyst for bringing the Order into the modern age.”

[Excerpt from the writings of Sister Belladonna Justitia]

 

None of them seemed able or willing to break the silence. Apart from the hiss and crackle of flames spreading through the meditation chamber, there was no talk, no motion, only the Soulsnatcher, Lady Lily, Drake, and Zero himself, locked in stalemate. And Lady Nadeshiko, Zero reminded himself, either unconscious or dead in the monstrous wolf’s grip. And Naole, still dazed in Drake’s arms, still helpless. Any moment now, he thought, someone would break the spell and all hell would break loose, but as long as no one moved and no one spoke-

“You,” growled the wolf again.

So much for that. There was an unnatural gleam in his crimson eyes, visible even beneath his heavy brow. The word was directed at Zero, but despite wracking his brain for the answer, he could not imagine how the wolf recognized him, or what provoked such seething rage. He was used to being hated on principle, but the only wolf Zero interacted with with any degree of regularity was Drake, and this, clearly, was no Drake. While he searched for an answer, and while the Soulsnatcher still had a hostage, it was best to try to stall. “Sorry,” he said as he raised his blade and dropped into a counter stance. Better to go on the defensive until he had a grasp on the wolf’s fighting style. “I can’t say I can place you. I think I’d remember a face like yours…”

“Murderer!” Froth flew from Stalker’s jaws. “You’re one of them! The ones that killed Mother!”

More confused than ever, Zero blinked. No one had ever accused him of that before. “What the hell are you talking abou-”

Any further attempt to unravel the mystery was derailed by a chilling, wordless howl of rage as Lady Lily Argenteus, the graceful and benevolent head of the Silver Order – Lily the aged, Lily past her prime, Lily whose days on the field were behind her – rushed the wolf that captured her daughter with hellfire in her eyes, her great broadsword’s edge for his neck. Heedless of the spreading flames, heedless of the danger, heedless of the chaos around her, Lily charged at the Soulsnatcher like a frenzied boar. Steel met steel, the heavy clang resounding through the chamber as Stalker raised his stolen cutlass to protect himself.

Lily would not stop. She gave no quarter, clashing against the flat of the cutlass again and again until it was in danger of being cleaved straight through. With every swing, she snarled: “Take… your hands… off… my… daughter…!”

Pushed into a purely defensive position by the savagery of her assault, his weapon near its breaking point, Stalker did the only thing he could do: he hauled his prisoner up to his level and put his claws to her unprotected throat.

And still Lily charged… until she saw Nadeshiko stir feebly and let out a soft moan. Alive. She was alive, by the grace of the Goddess. Alive, but being used as a living shield. Halfway through her charge, Lily froze…

“That’s better, Milady,” said the monster, his blood-caked lips curling into a cruel smirk. “You know the pain of losing family, yes? You and Mother would have much to talk about.”

Lily trembled where she stood, eyes wild, pupils shrunken. She could not hear the wolf’s words, could not feel the heat of the flames licking at her from all sides. In that moment, the only things that existed were herself, Nadeshiko, and the filthy, ragged claws that were a hairsbreadth from stealing her away.

“Milady,” Takaishi was saying. The ronin’s voice was distant, as if he were on the other side of a vast canyon rather than right beside her. “Milady, we still have him outnumbered, I can still help you save her! Milady!

“No, Takaishi, I rather think not.” The sound of that voice reignited the heat of Stalker’s anger. Half of him longed to drop the girl and rip Takaishi apart, but he forced himself to keep his tone level and his mind focused on what he still needed from his hostage. Slowly he pressed a single claw into Nadeshiko’s velvety black fur, found flesh underneath, and broke it. Though his belly still swirled with more than enough blood to both sustain him and contribute to the Legion, the coppery scent of even the tiniest little red beads was as intoxicating to him as the finest liquor… oh, that scent! Not just any blood, but the blood of an Argenteus, perhaps the most prestigious family in all the world. Ravenous hunger seized him and tore at his insides, but not yet. The moment was not yet right. “You are fortunate, Milady, that I already have enough souls,” he said. “Though I have no doubts that Lady Nadeshiko’s soul is mighty indeed. I do, however, need one last thing from your daughter…” His claws dug underneath the floris’s spaulder, ripped the plate and its lames and straps away with one savage motion. Now, now was the time. In full, brazen view of her mother and Takaichi, as if daring them to try to stop intercede, he bared his fangs and plunged them into Nadeshiko’s neck and shoulder.

Two generations of the Argenteus house screamed at once: one in agony, the other in anguished denial of the horror before her. White-hot fire seared through the nerves of Nadeshiko’s upper body, but far worse than the pain was humiliation of the foul beast digging his fangs in, savoring the taste of her flesh as he greedily drank from her mangled shoulder, an oversized leech suckling her lifeblood away. Her free arm flailed at him, numb and still half-asleep, but he would not be deterred, latched onto her and draining away her strength. Her vision swam, the meditation chamber was all a blur, her mother was screaming but the sound was distorted, as if she were underwater… The disgusting, damp, earthy warmth of the Soulsnatcher’s body pulled away from her as he let her drop, and bitter cold crept into the seeping wound. As quickly as it returned, her consciousness slipped away again as she collapsed.

In the mad rush that followed, neither Lily nor Zero paid any heed to the spreading flames. The Grand Mistress’s broadsword gouged a divot in the floor as she let it fall, uncaring where it should land. Her only thoughts were for her child, whom she gathered in her arms and held tight. Hot blood oozed through her robes, staining the white linens deep red, but still she cradled Nadeshiko, heaving sobs of mixed terror and relief.

Zero sidestepped them both and took a flying leap, then brought his sword screaming down in a Hayabusa-Ougi, an overhead slice designed to split a foe in half from skull to tail. Rage, fear, and disgust fell by the wayside… for now he was deep within the Centerpoint, mind and body and skill in balance. There was only himself and his opponent, a monster that needed to be stopped at any cost.

And Stalker registered surprise bordering on real anxiety, less at the onslaught itself than the sudden deadly focus of the squirrel ronin. Instinct brought his battered cutlass up to deflect the blow, but the impact reverberated into his bones just the same. A cutlass versus a katana was a far more even match than Lily’s massive broadsword had been; both were primarily slashing weapons, the katana swift and light, and the cutlass stronger and heavier. Takaishi’s sword required both hands to wield effectively while his blade was best used single-handed, but that only bought him a slim advantage. Once recovered from the shock of the clash, Takaishi tilted his sword at an angle, and brought it up for a horizontal strike at his ribs. Too late to parry the blow; Stalker rolled to one side to avoid it and answered with a thrust to his foe’s shoulder, only to have it knocked aside by the katana’s flat. A blistering dance ensued between the two, sparks flew wild and firelight gleamed in scratched and pitted steel, and Stalker’s surprise gave way to rage once again. To run across Takaishi of all people, here on this night with his mission almost complete! The injustice of it all was kindling to the furnace of his rage, and he let it blaze to fuel his strength, his need for revenge…

 


 

From the chamber’s archway, Drake watched the battle stupefied. Despite part of his brain screaming at him, his tired old limbs refused to move from the spot. Too much to process…

The image of Lady Lily in a berserker rage, who charged battle against a brute at least twenty years her junior and held her own. She resembled her great-grandmother so closely that the white wolf’s heart mourned at the sight. Long ago, long before any of the others in this room were born, he had watched Lady Crocus charge into battle with that same indomitable spirit… the spirit he was once convinced could never be broken. Now Lily knelt amid the flames, rocking softly back and forth as she embraced her injured daughter, fragile as spun glass.

The brute wolf now called the Soulsnatcher, whom he recognized as the miserable creature he met in Tasakeru weeks prior, the one that attempted to prey on Muranaka and Lady Hanami. The one that spoke with such venom of the injustices done to him by his pack, the one with the feral hunger in his eyes that Drake had seen too many times before in others just like him. Algol had been dead, he was sure of it. The sound and feeling of snapping the young brute’s spine haunted him like a vengeful ghost. Yet here he was, right before his eyes, having fought off the entire Order by himself, caked the blood of dozens and more insane than ever. Drake could no longer deny the truth: the Soulsnatcher’s methods were wrong, his abilities were wrong, and Gods only knew what else was wrong with him, but the fact that he was here, now, seeking blood… it meant that all of this was Drake’s fault.

Takaishi’s sister dazed in his arms, in what state the Gods only knew, but heedless of the violence and chaos around her. And lucky for it, he supposed. Such a small thing she was, and so young, too young to witness this kind of carnage. Takaishi had entrusted him with keeping her safe, the best course of action was to flee before the entire east wing burned down. But that would mean-

“Put me down,” said a small, shaky voice at his chest.

“Eh?” Drake looked down.

Takaishi’s sister stared up at him with tired but defiant hazel eyes. “Put me down.”

“Young Lady Takaishi,” said Drake, “you’re not well, and your brother specifically instructed me to keep you sa-”

Aniki is being stupid. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know someone needs my help. Put me down.

So Drake did. The doe took a few wobbly steps, paused to catch her breath, then weaved through the scattered and smoldering cushions of the meditation chamber to kneel at Lily’s side. “Grand Mistress,” she said with a short but respectful bow, “I need to dress Lady Nadeshiko’s wound so we can get her out of here. We don’t have much time.”

“I…” It seemed to take a few seconds for Lily to process that someone was speaking to her. The fog of grief and worry that choked her mind gradually gave way to reason. “Sister… Sister Naole… but y-you’re an apprentice…”

Naole’s ears turned back as she blanched. “I’m not a full-fledged healer, but I know what I’m doing, Milady. Trust me.”

Reluctantly, Lily released her grip on her daughter. “Promise me. Promise me she will be-”

“She will be all right, if we hurry. Help me lay her down, gently.”

Working together, the two lifted Nadeshiko, carried her back to the archway away from the fires, and eased her down into a lying position. With that done, Naole raised her arm and tore at the sleeve of her apprentice healer’s robe with her teeth. A long strip of woven cotton came away; she kept working at it until half the sleeve was unraveled. “That’s good, Milady.” Naole withdrew a tiny flask from an inner pocket of her robes, uncorked it, wrinkled her snout at the heavy fumes, and held it over Nadeshiko’s wound. “Now, you’ll need to hold her still, because this is going to sting like hell even if she’s not awake for it…”

Drake averted his eyes from the half-circle of ragged holes in Nadeshiko’s shoulder. The stench of blood was hard enough for him to bear.

 


 

It was a test of skill versus endurance, a battle that Zero felt himself losing bit by bit. Whatever kind of monster the Soulsnatcher was, whatever abilities he possessed, they seemed to afford him an inexhaustible supply of energy. Even the most gifted swordsbuck, one who could achieve the Centerpoint at will and stay in it through all distractions, even he could only swing a blade for so long before tiring, and Zero never thought of himself as particularly gifted. Whereas the wolf, damn him, gained more understanding of his blade with every parry. To make matters worse, the chamber filled with acrid smoke as the broken lantern’s flames spread around them, smoke that stung his eyes and made it progressively harder to breathe. Not optimal conditions. Outfighting Stalker seemed less and less likely as the duel dragged on; that left outsmarting him as the only viable option.

Think, Zero demanded of himself. He’s angry. More than angry, he’s furious with me. Anger leads to mistakes. If I can use that anger… Both blades locked together. Zero stared his foe right in the eyes and dared to pluck his strings: “Whoever your mother was, if she was anything like you, I can’t say I’m sorry for what happened to her.”

Stalker’s bloodied eyes flashed with hatred. “Insolent cur… I swear by the stars, until Mother returns, I’ll make you writhe in her stead!” Snarling, he wrenched his blade free, then brought it crashing back down. A wild and unfocused strike that Zero sidestepped easily, but there was still enough raw strength behind it to fell someone twice his size.

Until Mother returns. So he was not only enraged, but more insane than Zero ever thought. The simple explanation was that the wolf was raving mad, but something nagged at him, the suspicion that there had to be more to it. If he could just glean a little more from him… “I don’t even know who you are!”

The Soulsnatcher rose to the bait. Fur bristled all the way down his spine to the tip of his tail as he raised his sword to bear and hissed: “Know this: I am Stalker, child of the forest, called ‘Soulsnatcher’ by your kind. I exist to rain the fires of vengeance upon you, and upon those who murdered Mother and all my brethren! All Outcasts shall suffer… but before you die, I shall make you watch as I take your beloved flower mage’s life. Slowly. I shall bleed her to the last…”

Realization hit Zero like a thunderbolt. Stalker spoke of things he could not know and could not have seen, unless… The thing that the wolf wore on his left biceps, the thing that until now Zero had mistaken as some kind of grotesque armband. It was not so at all, it was a body. A corpse. A spider… “N’Ktane,” he said softly. A susurrous whispered down the back of his neck to the tip of his tail. And now he recognized the violent smear of a tribal mark splashed in red across the wolf’s chest, barely visible beneath the blood that caked his fur: a crude, misshapen hourglass. “You think your mother is N’Ktane…

His moment of distraction was all that Stalker needed. Abandoning all reason in his fury, the wolf threw down his sword and pounced upon his hated enemy. No claws or fangs for him this time; they would work too fast, and Takaishi needed to suffer…

 


 

Naole’s ears stood up straight. The sound cut through everything else: the sizzle of the frames, the unnatural quickness of Lady Lily’s breath, the small groans that filtered through Lady Nadeshiko’s clenched teeth as the alcohol burned in her wound, all those faded before the sickening, dull thud, thud, thud of the Soulsnatcher hammering away at Zero with clublike fists. An unknowable power seized Naole in that moment, bid her to guide Lily’s hands over the makeshift bandage and press down. It forced her to stand, fists clenched and tail raised like a flag. It made her scan the burning meditation chamber for something, anything that she could use as a weapon…

 


 

Beneath him, Zero Takaishi sputtered blood and fragments of teeth . Not enough. Mother needed him to suffer more, suffer enough for each and every one of the siblings killed when the cavern collapsed. Not just killed, murdered. The injustice of that monstrous act… it brought the memories of the wolf he used to be to the fore, of the wolf who was bleached and banished for no crime at all. In his mind, Takaishi’s bloodied and swollen visage took on that of the pack elders, the ones who refused to see. All the more reason to make him hurt. A hard object fell from the inner lining of his jacket; too small to work as a proper bludgeon, but solid enough to inflict damage. Stalker snatched it up and raised it high. No mercy, no quarter, only-

“Get off of him!” The voice came from behind. It was followed by a blunt strike to the back of his skull. Not enough to cause pain, but enough to give him pause. Stalker turned and looked over his shoulder.

There stood a scrawny doe squirrel in the ruined garb of an apprentice healer of the Silver Order, her robes spattered with blood and missing most of one sleeve. She clutched a porcelain vase in her small hands, and her hazel eyes were wild.

Stalker stared. It made no sense; why would anyone come to Takaishi’s aid, given his crimes? Surely the Order had to hate him too, though not as much as he. Yet this doe was- Wait. Most squirrels looked alike to him, but the colors of her fur and the angular shape of her face were familiar. Her hair and eyes were different, but there was a resemblance. And that scent of stubborn pride, of defiance and arrogance. “A sister,” he said aloud, the corners of his lips curling into a demon’s grin. “The murderer Takaishi has family. How fortuitous…”

The doe raised her makeshift weapon. The effort seemed to tax her, as she wobbled slightly on her feet. “Get off of him, I said! I’m warning you!”

This tiny scrap of a thing, threatening him in his moment of glory? Stalker guffawed and sneered at her. “You warn me? And what will you do, little maiden?”

Fury blazed in Naole’s eyes, and the hair on the back of her neck bristled. “My name is Naole Takaishi, you bastard!” With that, she brought the vase crashing down on his skull, shattering it to pieces.

Time seemed to slow for Stalker as porcelain shards rained down on him. The blow was more a surprise than anything, barely more than a nuisance, but the audacity behind it, that was what irked him. Bad enough that Takaishi should live without punishment for his crimes, now his sister was intent on further antagonizing his family. Still, there was something to be said for her spirit. Perhaps killing her would make Takaishi suffer? Killing her, or even better… {He made  a slow grab for the girl to gauge her reaction. It was a pleasing one: she cried out a word and swerved to avoid it, dropping what remained of the vase. The word she yelled was “Aniki!”

Aniki. Old Standard. The ancient squirrel language was never one that Stalker bothered to learn in his former life, but he had heard that word before. Now what did it mean? Something relating to family. Was it a warning to her brother? Or perhaps not a warning, but… a call to action?  He turned, realizing too late. Battered and bloodied, Zero Takaishi had already risen behind him, a knife-like shard of porcelain clutched in his raised fist. Stalker’s crimson eyes widened in disbelief-

His howl made the rafters above them tremble. Both Takaishi siblings fell, scattered by the wild flailing of his arms. Half his vision was dark, the blasted tree rat had taken his eye… how dare he, how dare they… A simple death was too good for either.

 


 

Zero blinked blood out of his eyes and dove for the blurry figure of his sister, felt for her hand, and clutched it. “Are you insane?!” he hissed in the direction of what he was reasonably sure was her ear.

“You’re welcome,” came the reply. He could hear her smirk.

“Dammit,” he spat. “We need to get out of here before this whole temple burns! Naole-”

Hideous, unnatural strength wrenched the two of them apart. Looming out of the flames like a demon from Beneath, Stalker struck with both fists at once. The shock of the blow was too much for Naole; she crumpled like an abandoned doll-

Zero’s snout exploded with agony and his vision trembled at the edges, but he clung tenaciously to the sliver of consciousness remaining to him. With nothing more than his claws, he swiped at the dark shape that hoisted Naole over its shoulder. That shape’s remaining eye burned the color of fresh blood, and its sharp fangs gleamed in the firelight as it spoke: “Be honored, Takaishi. Not only shall your sister’s blood complete the first of my legion, she shall also be its first meal. A proper sacrifice for Mother.”

“Let go of her, you bas-” Again the wolf’s fist smashed into him. More than his fist, he held tight to something hard and round and surging with power. A chill cut through the burning  haze of pain consuming his body as he realized what that thing was. No…! As he crashed to the floor, with all his remaining strength, Zero filled his lungs and shouted to the one remaining person who might yet make a difference: “DRAKE, STOP HIM! DON’T LET HIM GET OUTSIDE!”

At the arch, Drake threw aside his walking stick. Never mind the flames, never mind the countless failures that led him to this point, never mind the weakness of his great age. Bones and muscles alike screamed inside him as he vaulted across the burning chamber, over the heads of Lady Lily and her daughter, less than two meters behind the brute fleeing with his unconscious prisoner. This was it: a second chance. Not one that he deserved, but one he had to take. For the Takaishis’ sakes, for the Argenteus family’s sake, for the sake of the Order itself. Stalker, formerly Algol, was his mistake, a mistake that led to so much tragedy, but if just one more tragedy could be prevented…

Drake ran. He ran as he had not run in fifty years or more, though daggers pierced his heart and lungs with every step. He could do it. He had to do it.

Ahead of him, the younger wolf laughed, pouring on speed. The tiny Abram’s Way exit door was just at the end of the hall, leading out onto the street and to freedom. He did not slow in the least as he barreled for that door; between himself and the unconscious Naole, there was enough weight between the two to carry them right through it. The magical wards that kept the door from opening save to authorized personnel only protected it from the outside… Still, even if he did intend to crash through that door, it was likely the impact would slow them. Drake could still make it. He could still-

Then he saw the monstrous brute raise his free arm high, his fingers wrapped around a small grey object. An object that began to glow, dull yellow first, then rising in hue to blinding white-

It was when Drake realized what that object was that his burst of strength left him. All his years caught up with him and clung to his body like chains of lead… for the thing that Stalker carried was the stone that fell from Zero’s jacket, a spellstone. A boltpath stone, ready to be unleashed and spirit them both out of reach to stars knew where. Boltpath spells were grounded inside the temple’s borders, due to the protective magic suffusing the walls, but when he set foot outside-

If it had enough charge for a full transport, Drake had already lost. He had lost before he even began the chase.

If it didn’t have enough charge… there wouldn’t be enough left of Stalker or Naole for it to matter.

Wheezing and stumbling to a halt, his muscles torn and his bones burning, he watched with helpless dread as Stalker and Naole broke through the door, tearing it off its hinges. The moment they were free of Aedis Centralis’s protective barriers, Stalker roared the spellstone’s invocation in triumph: “RELEASE!”

A burst of light, and a rumbling crack of air rushing in to fill the void. They were gone, both of them.

Drake’s entire body sagged as if he were about to melt into the scratched ebony floors, a miserable puddle of old, useless flesh and tired bone.

Not only had he failed, he never had a chance.

Takaishi’s sister was gone, now the prisoner of a deranged monster. The Order was in ruins. Nadeshiko lay bleeding, possibly dying, and Lily was all but shattered by grief.

All his fault. All because he was not strong enough.

Everything, all of it, was Drake’s fault.

END OF CHAPTER 5

 

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 4 | Tasakeru
  2. Trackback: BHS Blogress Report: 2017, Week 40 – Give It Time to Grow | Tasakeru
  3. Marc
    Oct 03, 2017 @ 10:05:24

    The wait was worth it.
    I read the first incarnation of Tasakeru, and I do not remember such a tension as the one coming from these pages.
    Thumbs up for a very well written chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  4. Trackback: BHS Blogress Report: 2017, Week 41 – Cadet Tilly Gives Me Life | Tasakeru
  5. Trackback: SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 6 | Tasakeru

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