Tasakeru

SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 6

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Chapter 6

Glimpse a twisted mind

Travel back into the past

Birth of the legion

 

“For all his terrible deeds, the Soulsnatcher succeeded at one thing: creating a new form of life. As creatures of science, we must acknowledge his achievement as much as we condemn his methods. The Soulsnatcher was insane, yes. A mass-murderer, absolutely… but he brought forth a being the likes of which the world had never seen.

“How to describe this creature, then? How does one describe the indescribable? Does the wickedness of a being’s creation taint its soul? And if not, could it have been done better?”

[Excerpt from Treatises by Galen Primus Avarius]

 

“I’m going.”

“Don’t be a fool, Takaishi. You could barely stand until a few minutes ago.”

“I don’t care. I’m going.”

“And he’ll be waiting.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Do you even know where to go?”

“I’ll find him. Whatever it takes.”

Voices raised in argument cut through the fog clouding Nadeshiko’s consciousness like handsaws through wood. With the loss of the fog came an awareness of both a splitting headache and a deep, throbbing pain in her neck and shoulder. The skunk opened her eyes and immediately shut them, as the infirmary’s lantern light ratcheted up her headache another few notches. “Would you please…” she began, then stopped. Her throat was dry, her lips chapped.

“Little One!” That voice was her mother, no doubt about that. Only Lily had the privilege of calling her by that name. Arms seized her in a hug that was entirely too tight, and her shoulder burned from the pressure. “Little One, thank the Greatmother you’re awake, I thought-”

“Mother!” Nadeshiko wheezed. “Mother, stop, that hurts…”

The arms pulled away in horror. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry-”

Nadeshiko opened her eyes again, more slowly this time. Her temples pounded in protest, but the lights were a bit more bearable now. “Do not apologize, I will be fine. Water, please?”

“H-here.”

The rim of a glass pressed to her lips, and she drank greedily before speaking again. “Thank you.”

Blurry shapes hovered at the foot of her bed, one black and one white. Those shapes resolved into Zero Takaishi and the ancient wolf called Drake, both peering at her with great concern. “You two-” she said.

“Milady, we apologize for disturbing your rest,” said Drake, tilting forward in the deepest bow he could manage. “We shall take our leave shortly.”

With no such attempt at decorum, Zero scowled and turned toward the door of the infirmary. “No more reason for me to be here, then. I’m leaving.”

“Wait!” The word came out harder than Nadeshiko intended, more of a barked command. “Takaishi. That creature, the Soulsnatcher-”

“He took my sister.” Venom seethed in his words. “And the longer I dawdle here, the harder it’ll be to find him and kill him. So if you’ll excuse me, Lady Nadeshiko…”

“I know where he is.”

Only those words could have stopped Zero in his tracks. Stop him they did; his body rooted to the spot as he met Nadeshiko’s gaze in astonishment. “You what?!

“Little One,” Lily said firmly, taking her daughter’s hand. “No more of this, you need your rest.”

“Mother, I can rest when I have less to do. I know where he is,” said Nadeshiko again. “That creature…” Here she shuddered and grasped her shoulder. A patch and healing poultices had been applied in lieu of treatment by a proper Healer… Nadeshiko guessed that most of them were overwhelmed with treating graver injuries than hers. Pain welled in the wounds, but she channeled its fire to keep herself focused. “When we fought in the corridor, he… he used some sort of reader magic to see into my mind. It was…” She cringed and shuddered to recall the sensation, still raw and livid in her memory like a festering sore. “Ugly. Crude, and unfocused enough that I saw into his mind as well.”

Hairs rose on the back of Zero’s neck.

“There was rage… so much rage and hatred. For you in particular, Takaishi,” said Nadeshiko. “If I interpreted correctly, he believes you and your Outcasts killed his mother.”

“He’s out of his mind,” said Zero. He crossed his arms. “If he was talking about what I think he is, there was no one else in that cavern except the four of us, the wood spiders, and their mother, and all of them were killed when it collapsed.”

“But you saw the dead spider on his arm, Takaishi.” Drake raised a snowy eyebrow. “Perhaps, somehow, he thinks he is that spider.”

“How is that even possible?!”

“Consider the facts: he remembers events he wasn’t present for and couldn’t possibly know otherwise. He uses the same magic you described the mother spider using on you, albeit in a cruder state. If the wolf I fought in Tasakeru weeks ago and one surviving child spider somehow… merged…”

Zero’s tail swished violently to the right in irritation. “Again, how is that possible?”

“I’ve lived in Tasakeru far longer than you have, young buck.” The white wolf’s voice rumbled like an oncoming storm. “That forest is ancient, older than everyone in this room put together. Old, wild places like Tasakeru have magic we can’t begin to explain.”

Lily said nothing. Her gaze traveled back and forth between the three of them as she tried to comprehend when exactly matters had begin to spin so wildly out of her control.

“It matters not. What does matter is that the Soulsnatcher intends to return to Tasakeru,” said Nadeshiko. “I saw that that creature is motivated by three desires: the desire for revenge against the Outcasts, to resurrect his ‘Mother’, and to use the stolen blood to bring forth a new species to replace her lost ‘children’. However he intends to fulfill all three goals, and whatever he needs to finish doing so, he has it all in some part of Tasakeru.”

Slowly but surely, a fire of determination lit within Zero. “So at least now I know where to start. Thank you, Lady Nadeshiko. I swear, I’ll cut that bastard down when I find him.” Once more, he made for the door…

“Wait,” said Nadeshiko again. “One more thing, Takaishi.” Now she turned to Lily at her side. “Mother, in my bedroom, stored behind my headboard, there is a small sheath-”

Lily bristled. “No. I forbid it. You are in no shape for combat, Little One.”

“Not for myself, Mother, for them!

“I should hope so. And please, mind your tone in front of the civilians.”

Civilians? Drake’s brow twitched.

The younger skunk relented, doing her best not to roll her eyes. “Please, Mother? I would retrieve it myself, but-”

“No. You stay and rest there.” Lily gave her daughter an iron glare that suggested she had better rest, or else, then rose and headed for the door. In passing, Drake noted a few flyaway silver-blond hairs escaping from her usually immaculate bun, waving like blades of grass in a breeze. Moments later she returned, bearing an ornate but timeworn dagger in a goatskin sheath, embroidered with the Order’s seal: an all-seeing eye bordered by climbing rose vines. Set in its pommel was a brilliant red jewel, possibly a ruby, cut to almost a perfect sphere.

“My broadsword was the only weapon that seemed to slow the Soulsnatcher, let alone cause him pain,” said Nadeshiko, pushing herself further upright on her mattress with some difficulty. “I can only conclude that it was due to the blessed silver within its blade. Takaishi, this dagger is forged from that same silver, it is an heirloom passed down through twenty generations of the Argenteus family. Take it, use it to kill that creature if you can… and see that you return it safely along with Sister Naole. Mother, if you please.”

Zero lifted the dagger from Lady Lily and clutched it tight. Was it only a month and a half ago that she had arrested him and threatened to take away his family’s sword? Now she was entrusting him with an ancestral weapon of her own. No warnings or threats of retribution, just an earnest request to see both it and his sister returned. The level of trust she was placing in him… in truth, it made him want to squirm, for he was hardly worthy of it. Still, he recognized the gesture and was grateful. “Thank you, Lady Nadeshiko,” he said… and though it stuck in his craw, he offered her a bow as well. “I’ll do my best.”

Nadeshiko’s lips curled. In any other sentient, it might have been a smile. “And Takaishi? Do not think this excuses any of my other grievances against you. Once this crisis is over, I intend to make you pay for trespassing… and for the bootprints you left on my armor.”

“Heh.” Zero did smile as he tucked the dagger into the folds of his jacket. “Whatever you say, Milady. By your leave.” He turned and ducked through the infirmary’s arch before she could say anything more.

“Takaishi! Dammit…” Drake fumbled for his walking stick as he made to follow. “Lady Lily, Lady Nadeshiko, please excuse me. I’m afraid I must stop the young buck from hanging himself. May you go with the stars.”

 


 

A gentle pattering of rain fell upon Haven Grove. Thick clouds of morning fog surrounded the little oak tree cottage like puffs of cotton or spun sugar. The rain began the previous night, but by dawn it had slackened off considerably. All the leaves of Tasakeru’s countless trees wept fat, intermittent tears that darkened the mossy ground below.

Lady Terra was handling the watering just fine on her own, so there was no need to go outside and water the garden today, Hanami thought as she sat at her tiny writing desk by the window, nursing a cup of green tea that had gone stone cold an hour ago. That left her with less to do than usual… something to be happy about, she supposed, but instead there was a persistent melancholy surrounding her like one of the fog banks outside, all but deadening her senses.

Her thoughts kept wandering back to that night weeks before, and the miserable young brute wolf that she and Faun ran into in the dark. How she felt such sympathy for him, how she was ready to invite him into her home with barely a second thought. Now she recognized how naïve she had been, but that did not make the truth sting any less.

Oi, Flowers!” Her front door creaked open, then shut, and in came Faun, having shielded herself from the rainfall with a huge bay leaf. The vixen shook herself of the excess water, then headed for her favorite spot on the couch, marked by the divot in the cushion that was slowly molding to her shape. “I got your scroll. You all right?”

Any other time, Hanami would have answered “Of course!” and offered her best friend a cup of tea. (Faun almost never took her up on it, preferring stronger stuff, but she nevertheless kept offering out of politeness.) Today she only answered with a long sigh.

“No, of course not,” said Faun as she settled into her usual sprawl across the cushions. “You’re in a pretty deep funk, it looks like. Talk to me, what’s bothering you?”

“It’s…” Hanami’s snout wrinkled as she picked out the words. “It’s that wolf. The one we met.”

“Ah,” said Faun, her expression turning several shades darker. “Him. Well, I don’t blame you for being bothered by that bastard, but it’s probably best to try to forget him.”

“Not just him, but-” Words came tumbling out of Hanami in a rush. “People. I mean, people like him. I can’t stop thinking, ‘Why?’ What kind of person would do what he tried to do? I was willing to help him, to give him shelter, and he took advantage of that, Faun! I was just trying to be kind, the way I was always taught to be. And now…” Sadly she stared down into her chipped porcelain tea cup, as if it contained answers. “Now I keep thinking that because of him, I shouldn’t be so kind, and I hate that. I hate that someone awful is making me less of who I am.”

Faun winced but said nothing. She hoped that her own misguided attempt to take advantage of Hanami a month prior had not influenced this feeling.

“Sometimes…” Hanami’s gaze drifted back to the window and the rain. “Sometimes I think I like plants better than people.”

That was an unusual statement. Faun sat up a bit. “What do you mean?”

“Plants are simple,” said Hanami. “Uncomplicated. It’s easy to tell what they need: water, soil, and sunlight. As long as you understand how much of each is enough for each plant, they’ll grow for you. They don’t deceive. They don’t take advantage of your kindness. They don’t hurt you if you know what you’re doing. I can see what plants are… more than that, I understand them. But people?” A deep sigh escaped her. “People I can’t figure out at all.”

“Flowers.” Black-gloved hands rested on her shoulders from behind. “That’s what we do.”

“Huh?” Hanami looked up at her friend, uncomprehending.

“That’s what terrible people do,” said Faun. “We figure out what you’re looking for, and we give that to you.  It’s… not something wrong with you, Flowers.  Everyone wants something, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. But the problem isn’t with you.  If we were all open with what we want, life would be better, sure.” The vixen grinned. “Stripehead once said that I treat every conversation like a game of shouri.  There’s give and take and eventually I win.”

“But-”

“But you’re honest, Flowers, which means you’re terrible at cheating. What you need to learn is how to be better at playing fair. It’s harder to take advantage of someone if they start with a handicap.”

Hanami blinked a few times, trying to make sense of that statement. “I don’t get it.”

Daijo. I’ll teach you how to start the game with a few more pieces,” said Faun, with a smile more gentle and genuine than Hanami had ever seen.

“Isn’t that cheating?” said Hanami, furrowing her brow.

And Faun laughed that barking laugh and clapped her on both shoulders at once. Squeak. “You’re just playing with a different rule set. It’s not your fault if your opponent starts out playing the wrong game, you know? Daijo, Flowers. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

 


 

It would have made an amusing sight, were anyone in Aedis Centralis in the mood to laugh: Zero Takaishi doing a fast walk that threatened to break into a sprint down the halls, as if there were a fire smoldering under his tail… and roughly twenty paces behind him, a decrepit old white wolf making a fruitless attempt to keep up with him, wheezing and coughing and shouting curses at his back in between pleas for him to slow down. The chase only came to a halt when Zero took yet another wrong turn, swore, and doubled back. “How the hell does Naole get around in this place? Every hallway looks the same…”

“Damn it, buck!” Drake reached out and caught his shoulder before he could dart off again. “Are you that eager to get yourself killed?! Stop and think for a minute, for Gods’ sakes!”

“He took my little sister,” said Zero again. “For all I know, he could be feeding her to whatever it is he’s making out there. Every second I spend here is another second she’s in danger.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“I was sort of intending to cut off parts of him with my sword until he stops moving, then go from there.”

The wolf put a hand over his eyes. “Oh, stars above, what does the Daigundan teach you people?! Come with me, Takaishi.”

“I don’t have time for-” But Drake dug his claws into his shoulder with an astonishingly strong grip, and he hauled the buck back down the corridor as if he were a disobedient child. The soles of his boots made gouges in the ebony floor as he struggled against the pull; some poor lower-ranked sister or brother would have to spend hours smoothing them out again, no doubt. “Stop that! Let go of me!”

“Not until I show you something,” said Drake, who didn’t even bother to look back at his prisoner.

Past the infirmary doors they went, through a bustling throng of overworked Healers and their apprentices going to and fro with armloads of supplies. Another right turn, which took them through a squad of shaken knights passing a bottle of strong drink back and forth and avoiding each other’s eyes. Drake seemed to be finding his way by scent alone; every few seconds, he would stop and sniff the air. Finally he stopped before a plain, unmarked door made of unfinished yew, threw it open, and shoved Zero inside before closing it on them both.

Zero bristled and braced for a fight the moment the claws released his shoulder. He did not particularly relish the prospect of scuffling with someone so old, but if he really intended to stand in the way…

“Here,” said Drake, settling back onto his walking stick as he took position before the door. “Take a good long look until you get it.”

Fuming, Zero turned on his heel. “If it gets this over wi-” The words died in his throat as it grew too tight for him to speak.

No wonder he could not recognize the smell; it was masked with the more mellow scents of basil, bay laurel, and periwinkle. It was still there, though, lingering underneath the ritual herbs and oils: the tang of blood, and the musky odor of death. He would never forget that smell, never.

Before him lay a dark-haired buck barely older than himself, laid out on a marble slab awaiting completion of the proper rites. Still wearing the chrome and white armor of an Order knight, the buck stared eternally up at the ceiling with eyes frosted like marbles. A brother or sister had cleaned his broadsword as best they could and placed the hilt in his lifeless hand. There was a savage four-inch gash in his breastplate and the fur and flesh underneath… a cutlass wound, Zero realized, but very few had the strength to ram a slashing weapon like a cutlass through plate steel.

He couldn’t move, he couldn’t speak. He stood there, stiff and frozen as the marble slab and the corpse that lay upon it, unable to look away. Arranged around the room were more bodies on slabs, covered in shrouds of white linen, awaiting their own rites, but Zero’s eyes would not leave the buck’s face.

And yet again, as it did so often in his dreams, and as it did too many times in waking life, the world slipped away from him and he was back there. On that worthless little patch of empty grassland where Reimaru Takaishi died and Zero was born, a terrified thirteen-year-old buck coming out of a haze and into a nightmare. The old family sword was in his hands, dripping with gore, and he could not remember how it got there or how the blade was so sullied. Something warm oozed into the cracks between the plates of his almost-new armor. Fat black flies buzzed maddening dirge as they flitted in great black clouds from body to body to body where they lay unmoving in the grass. That smell, that awful, metallic, sour smell, overpowered everything else, it was so thick he almost choked on it…

And as the rest of his senses came back to him, he found himself looking at what was left of Tatsuya Umaki, dubbed “Tornado” by the rest of the sprigs, who only that morning had been zooming around the barracks just like his namesake, talking a mile a minute about how excited he was for this mission. Tornado lay there motionless, staring down at the sad little pile of organs spilled out before him as if he were still confused as to how to put them back in his body. Hollowed out like a gourd.

From far away came Drake’s voice, drifting through his thoughts as if not quite real. His familiar rasp was… gentler, as if he understood. “Take a good look, Takaishi,” he said. “That buck’s only a little older than you, by my reckoning. Full Order training as a knight, that one… and if he was hand-picked by Lady Nadeshiko to defend that corridor, he must have been one of the best. The Soulsnatcher killed him in one blow. You want to rush after him, go ahead. Just be prepared to end up on a slab like this one… if there’s even enough left of you afterward. I have my doubts there will be.”

Reality snapped violently back into place, banishing the past back to Zero’s memories. Back in the Aedis Centralis mortuary, on hands and knees on the floor, bile in his throat and his stomach contorting itself into double knots as the chamber spun around him in dizzying circles.

The old wolf’s crooked shadow loomed over him. “There are things in this world, Takaichi, that don’t care a whit for your Honor, or your Righteous Fury, or even the grace of the Gods,” Drake said, hard and gravelly once more. “They simply exist, and worthiness means nothing to them. They do not care, and for some damned reason, they go on. So you must be smarter, harder, and more damnably unstoppable than they are, or I might as well clean a slab for you and your sister. I’ll even find a matching pair.”

“All right,” Zero heaved and forced his numb, trembling fingers to ball into fists. “All right. I get it. No more.”

Stooping down low with much protesting from his back, Drake offered a withered hand. “Made my point, have I?”

“Y-yes.” Zero took it, grasped it for dear life, and held his breath as he clambered to his feet. As long as he did not look at the corpse or breathe in any more of the smell, he could make it. Naole. Think of Naole… The rage and worry that accompanied the thought of his sister gave him enough strength to stumble to the door and throw it open. Never had the clear morning air been such a blessing, he thought as he sucked in lungfuls of it.

Drake waited. “So. What’s your plan now, Takaishi?”

“I need to get back to Tasakeru as quickly as possible, and meet up with Faun and Rowan,” said Zero. “That bastard took my boltpath stone, but if I can get my hands on another one, I should be all right.”

“That may not be necessary,” said Drake. “There are other ways to the forest, young buck. Not much more pleasant than bolting, I grant you, but there are other ways.”

“What do you m-” Zero began. The sentence cut off before he could finish it, as he no longer seemed to have a mouth to speak the rest. Nor did he have lips, a tongue, a throat, or lungs, or anything, for that matter. All that he was, and that was not much, seemed to be fading into the fog bank that rose around Drake and himself with unnatural speed. Zero felt the stirrings of panic rise within his rapidly dissolving chest…

Yet the wolf stood as calmly as Zero had ever seen him, leaning on his walking stick in a casual manner. “Be still,” said Drake. “Let me handle this.”

 


 

Naole’s head swam, as if her skull were filled with thickened soup. “Wh-” Her voice came out stuffy and congested. Hay fever? This was the time of year for it, but… A cursory examination of her snout made her wince and draw back her hand in a hurry. Probably not broken, but quite tender. She licked her lips and tasted dried blood in her fur. Someone had struck her square in the face. Presumably the same person who left her lying face-down on a chilly stone floor, she wagered. Groaning, she rolled herself over, trying to ignore the sudden burst of stars and haze that accompanied the action.

“Awake, Milady?” said a voice to her side, a voice like oil. “Good.”

Her memories crashed to the forefront of her mind like a wave on the shore at high tide. “You!”

“Me,” said Stalker, the Soulsnatcher, who sat crouched at the edge of a rocky pool with his back to her.

Naole scrambled backward, putting as much distance between them as she could. Too soon, she felt a rough stone wall impede her progress. No chance of outrunning him… not like she could, anyway. Even crawling a few feet made her head fuzzy again, in a way that far surpassed her usual episodes.

“There is no escape from here.” Stalker stood and folded his hands behind his back. “The door only appears when I command it.”

Some kind of barrier magic? Naole blinked. This would be harder than she thought. She opened her mouth to speak-

“You will no doubt be pleased to know,” said Stalker, “that I took the blood I needed from you while you slept. No more is required. The first of the legion will be born soon.”

Appalled, Naole checked herself over, and found a small, lamprey-like bite mark on her right wrist, still wet, trickling a dark stream into her fur. No wonder she felt light-headed. “What are you even doing?!” she said, in a voice that came out weaker and more frightened than she intended.

“Birthing new life,” said Stalker. He turned around… and Naole nearly retched. The wolf’s right eye socket, visible between strands of lank black hair, was a mass of swollen, inflamed flesh. It looked as if he had tried to remove the shard of porcelain vase from his ruined eye by himself, with disastrous results. “Not to your taste, Milady?” His lips curled. “You and your brother shall both pay for the loss of my eye… I will add that to the list of sins your family has committed against mine.”

“Listen,” said Naole, trying not to tremble or throw up. “Whatever you think Aniki did to you, you’ve got it wrong-”

“To Mother! To my brothers and sisters! Not to me!” Dust rained from the ceiling, dislodged by the volume of Stalker’s shout. As the echoes died down, he clutched at the spider corpse grafted to his left biceps, as if it could still feel pain. “I felt it. I felt them all die, crushed and burned to death! Their pain, their terror carved itself into my mind! Do not presume to tell me that you mammals are not to blame!” He spit the word “mammals” as a curse.

Naole’s eyes traveled back and forth from the wolf’s livid face to the spider’s body on his arm. It was no use; she could not follow his train of thought, nor could she comprehend the connection between what Zero told her of the spiders and the being ranting at her. Her mouth opened and closed in silence as she stared, at a loss, before she finally whispered, “You’re insane.”

“So they say.” Stalker turned his back to her again, staring down into the pool. “But once the legion is born, and Mother is returned… it will not matter whether I am sane or not. You and all your kind will be dead.”

No reasoning with him. Naole rather doubted there would be, but still. She had tried to follow her Order credo to “respect and protect life”, but if said life would not respect her in return? Well, it was time to move on to the squirrels’ way of doing things. Drawing up her courage, she faced his back and narrowed her eyes. “Well if that’s the way it’s going to be… go Beneath.”

At that, Stalker cackled. The sound echoed weirdly from the stone walls and made Naole’s tail fur rise. “My dear maiden,” he said, spreading his arms, “what do you think we are standing over?”

Only then did Naole fully take in her surroundings. The little rocky pool was part of a great rocky cavern made of some kind of limestone and festooned with sheets of spider silk. Great stalactites hung from above like the teeth of giants, and nestled between those, an ethereal sphere of ghostly blue flame expanded and contracted at regular intervals, almost like it was breathing. Tiny, misty orbs of swirling silver spun around it in orbit, dozens of them, like fireflies…

Naole knew the stories. The Beneath, the vast, shadowed realm where the souls of the departed traveled to be judged by the God of Death. That God, the great HellSerpent Abidokuja, was buried deep beneath Mount Fury on the Day of Three Gods, forever exiled from the world above, forever hating all that lived. The Beneath and the HellSerpent figured prominently in many of Zero’s favorite hero stories growing up. She recalled many nights when she would lie awake in bed and he would read to her by lantern light… stories of some great hero like Hayaoh, Reppu, Mifune the Magnificent, or even the Shogun himself, questing to the Beneath, challenging the Death God and barely escaping with their lives.

Oh, she believed. Maybe not every last word to the letter, but she was devoted enough to the Order and had seen enough miracles in her sixteen years to be certain that the Gods were real. It followed naturally that the Beneath was also real, but as strange and frightening as the Soulsnatcher’s cavern was, it was assuredly not the Beneath. It was too solid, too real to be the realm of the dead.

However, the unearthly power that radiated from the ghostly sphere, the eerie, whispering aura that she could feel on her fur and in her flesh… whatever it was, she had no doubt it was connected to the Beneath in some way. Nothing in the living world looked or felt like that. Her veins filled with ice water, and she shuddered.

“You will find that in this place, the walls between our mortal world and the worlds beyond are very thin indeed, Milady,” said Stalker, taking sinister pleasure in the sight of the doe’s fear. “It is not merely blood or souls or rituals that will birth the legion and resurrect Mother, oh no. It is this forest, Tasakeru itself, that makes my work possible. There are forces at work out here that you and your kind cannot imagine. The forces that created me, that rose the tower from the earth, that gave Mother the long life that she had… all are connected. Call me insane if you wish, but then witness what I have done…! I have built a beacon of souls, a light to guide Mother back from the Beneath, and I have made her a species of her own!”

As his voice rose with mad glee, the pool’s surface bubbled. Naole’s fur all rose at once; even backed up against the wall, she could see that the pool was filled with swirling blood. Only the injury to her poor snout had prevented her from gagging on the smell. She pressed herself as tight against the wall as possible, as if she would melt into it, for that pool moved on its own. It churned, it bubbled, it heaved as if it were alive…

“Look,” said Stalker. He beamed at the pool of blood like a father admiring his firstborn. “See, the first of the legion already awakens! Witness it!

A hand. Something that was quite clearly a hand broke the surface of the blood pool. A hand with elongated fingers, coated in raw muscle with no skin to contain it, spattering deep red droplets everywhere before it sank once more.

Oh Gods. Naole’s heart seized in her chest, on the verge of stopping. Please, please, Shogun and Terra, let it fail.

More shapes, larger shapes, floundering in the morass… an expanse of the creature’s spine, a skeletal limb, a flash of an enormous tail. Stalker watched reverent, Naole watched horrified. Whatever it was, the glimpses of bare muscle and sinew became fewer and fewer. It was growing skin, layer by layer. Fur and hair began to sprout soon after, in rough, irregular patches over its flailing body. And finally, enough of it was complete for it to heave itself to the rim of the pool and drag itself out…

Naole saw the teeth first, a wolf’s fangs, curved and sharp as daggers, housed in a fox’s long snout. Above the teeth were almond-shaped eyes, an unnatural shade of bright yellow ringed by markings like a raccoon’s, and above that a pair of what could only be lepine ears, only beginning to stiffen to their full height. There were muscles, and many of them, bulging from its body with sinews like ropes. Those stalk-like fingers were now scratching at the cavern floor with raven-black claws that looked like they could disembowel a sentient in one swift stroke. Thick and powerful legs and thighs, and an absurdly long and flexible tail that looked more like a snake attached to its body. It was bizarre, alien, frightening in its wrongness…

Stalker lifted his remaining eye and mangled socket to the ghostly sphere and cried to it: “See, Mother! See the first of your new brood! A perfect hunter, made to kill the mammals from the mammals themselves! Speak, my brother! Sing out, my legion!”

The creature opened its mouth… but what came out was not a word, but a choking, mournful sound not dignified to call a howl. The effort was too much for it; it gasped for breath, heaved, and made the pathetic pseudo-howl again, even louder.

“Eh?” Stalker tore his eyes away from his beacon. “Legion, my brother, what is this? Shout your blessing to Mother, let her hear your words!”

The thing Stalker called “Legion” blinked. It made that sad moaning howl a third time, with an unmistakable note of confusion. Then it fell to the cavern floor in obvious pain, its new skin erupting into oozing sores.

Something happened to Stalker’s face. All the joy of moments before drained away, replaced with disgust and rage… “You cannot speak, and your body wounds itself. You are flawed,” he whispered. “Flawed, but how? Everything was perfect, everything was as I planned… Blood from every species, blood from-” He stopped. Slowly, his eye moved to the doe trying to melt into the limestone wall. There was something about her, something that nagged him. “You. What is wrong with you?”

Naole couldn’t answer. The horror was simply too much for her, her vision blurred as she fought for breath, for consciousness…

Some kind of attack, Stalker reasoned. A weakness. Her weakness. His gaze lowered to her wrist, to the wound that still had not closed… thin blood. And since her blood was now part of the creature… “Flawed,” he snarled. “Look what you have done, female! You sullied my Legion…” With an ugly sneer, he eyed the bleeding wounds marring his creation’s body. “No, perhaps Lesion is a better name for this… thing. A worthy child for Mother, it is not. It will not do, no…” His foot moved like lightning, falling against the miserable creature’s spine like a hammer blow as it struggled to right itself. “This will not do at all. I must start again, gather stronger blood, pure blood, before Mother returns…” Again and again he brought his foot down, he heard something crack…

“S-stop it!” Naole’s scream tore itself from inside her before she was even aware what she was saying. “Leave it alone, you’re hurting it!”

Stalker stopped. An idea, an idea occurred to him. Two flawed beings… perhaps one could solve the problem of the other. “I must go,” he said, turning away from the quivering lump at his feet. “I must hurry and gather more blood, begin again. I will leave this Lesion here… flawed it may be, but it must be hungry. It will eat its fill of you, Milady, then when the true legion is born, it will be a meal for them in turn. An elegant solution, I think. Yes.” Now he smiled once more, colder and more cruel than ever. “And as I still need blood…” Memory, stirring within him, from before his rebirth. A vixen, and a doe squirrel with hair like the sun, one who wore a strange flower behind her ear. The other half of himself knew that doe… “Ah, yes. Takaishi’s lovely little flower mage. Perfect.” All agrin, Stalker turned and took a few steps to his right…

Naole gaped in astonishment as a huge oaken set of double doors burst from the rock a few paces in front of him. The Soulsnatcher strode easily through, then let them swing closed. She righted herself, praying that her tired, weak body could stand to run long enough to-

As quickly as they had appeared, the doors melted back into the blank, featureless stone floor from which they came.

Alone. She was alone with Stalker’s hybrid monster, with no hope of escape. Shivering, Naole sank back down against the wall and curled her tail around herself for comfort…

By the pool’s edge, the creature twitched. It moaned. Slowly, painfully, it pushed itself onto its feet. Now that it stood upright, there was a visible hunch to its shoulders and upper back, as if its spine were malformed. The creature moaned again and looked at itself, then scanned the rest of the cavern… its eerie yellow eyes fell on Naole.

“No,” she whispered. “No, stay back.”

It took a step. Then another. Already it was finding its balance. It lurched in her direction, its snakelike tail weaving back and forth.

“Stay back!” Naole scrabbled for any weapon she could reach, a loose stone, a pebble, even. Nothing. “Don’t come any closer!”

Another four steps, then another. It was close enough now that she could smell the blood caked in its fur, sharp and metallic even to her injured nose…

“Stay away!”

It loomed over her, and Naole became aware of just how muscular it was. A badger’s build, no doubt. Probably strong enough to rip her in half like paper. Cornered, unable to fight, and unable to mistake, she did the only thing available to her: she prayed. Oh Serpent, I ask of you a fair judgment on this soul! Grant that I may find favor in your sight-

A wet nose prodded her cheek and inhaled, catching her scent.

– and become one with the Joined! Oh Serpent, I ask of you-

Then something that was clearly a tongue. Tasting her. It really did intend to eat her.

– a fair judgment upon this soul…

Naole waited for the first strike of its claws, hoping against hope that she would at least die quickly.

She waited. And waited. And waited.

When she dared to open her eyes again, the creature stood patiently before her, waving its tail back and forth. Its rabbit-ears perked when she met its gaze.

“You…” No, this didn’t make sense. “You’re not going to-” Without thinking, Naole reached for it-

Its reaction was immediate: the hybrid howled and fell head over tail backward in a quivering heap.

Naole stared. The thing shook like a bowl of jelly, almost like…

… almost like it was afraid of her.

It could have been a trap, of course. She would guess as much from the Soulsnatcher. But this creature was not the Soulsnatcher, in body or temperament. Naole had been around enough kits in the Order infirmary to recognize a newborn’s genuine fear. And what had been its first experience in its short life? Being yelled at, insulted, and attacked by its creator. No wonder it was scared. “Oi,” she said to it, a little astonished at her own boldness. “Daijo, I won’t hurt you.”

Still the creature huddled in its ball of misery.

“It’s all right.” Naole bit her lip as she moved her hand toward its shoulder. If she was wrong about this, the mistake would be fatal. If she was right, though…? “It’s all right.” When she touched its fur, it was dense, warm, and soft despite the blood caked in it. She could even see the beginnings of stripes in it.

The creature peeked out at her from between its long fingers. It whined, almost as if it were asking a question.

“Naole,” she said. “I’m Naole. And you’re Legion, right? That’s what he wanted to call you. Legion…”

END OF CHAPTER 6

 

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