Early morning cold
Invasion, an intruder!
Rain upon the leaves
“With our every step, we tread upon the ashes of the past… our sins, our legacies.”
[Attributed to Yourichi Shinen, 10th century poet and philosopher]
Misty, prismatic fingers curled around Zero as he floated in the wake of the ancient wolf. Not walked, floated; if there was solid ground beneath him hidden somewhere in the fog’s depths, what he desperately hoped were still his feet did not touch it. He could not turn or deviate from his course, he could only follow after Drake… who, he noted, was not floating. However the wolf moved forward, he did it slowly, trudging through denser, darker, more threatening clouds that clung to him as if trying to drag him down.
Apart from those, the fog bank was lighter and more colorful than Zero felt like it should be. Of the many things he had experienced in the past few months, this ranked as among the strangest. As he was, he was barely less ephemeral than the fog, and he could not shake the fear that one strong gust of wind would blow him apart.
Wherever Drake was taking him, through whatever bizarre magic this was (if it was magic), he was right about one thing: it was not more pleasant than traveling by boltpath. Not in the least. Bolting, as sick as it made him whenever he was forced to use it, was at least over fast, with a minimum of sensation between one state and the other. This, though? Zero felt like a living ghost, divorced entirely from the physical plane, and that turned his stomach in knots.
As they moved, he saw things, shapes in the fog. Blurry and indistinct, but if he looked at them long enough, they almost resembled people, faces… No sooner would he try to focus on these phantoms than they would melt away into featureless swirls. Once or twice, Zero thought he saw the shapes reach out to him with ghostly hands…
And there were the sounds. Not quite words, they would drift out of the fog, whisper urgently in his ear, then disappear as quickly as they came. Fragments of emotion without any meaning attached to them, voices speaking a language he could not understand. They gave him the crawling horrors.
Drake pushed on with Zero following, seeming unbothered by the whispers or the strange shapes. He said nothing, he paused for not a moment, until-
Ahead, Drake came to a brief stop, for no more than a second at the most.
That word cut through the maddening vagueness of the other whispers with such clarity that Zero would have shuddered, were he solid enough to do so. Rain?
Now that he concentrated on it, he could feel a dim pattering of warm, soft droplets upon him, almost like tears. Zero glanced upward. Above him were thick, bloated clouds the color of bruises, clearly the source of the rain… but something in him stirred. There was nothing special about them that he could determine, they were just ordinary rain clouds, but… he found them beautiful.
And there was something that sounded half like a laugh, a musical sound bubbling out of the mists. Then the acrid smell of smoke, and…
The rain stopped. All at once, as if the heavens had slammed a door shut.
Zero opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. With the end of the rain came a tempest of emotions not his own: grief, an unbearable heaviness, his chest filled with cold lead. Wrath, rivers of molten steel scouring his veins. An insatiable hunger, a need to make someone hurt, make someone bleed. As terrible as if someone had murdered Hanami or Naole, but without meaning, without context… Then those too faded, and there was nothing but emptiness. He was little but a shell, his insides hollowed out. He would never be whole again…
A blink, a jolt, and he was himself, no more and no less. The bizarre journey through the mists was over in the space between one heartbeat and the next. Solid once more, Zero stood amid a copse of oak trees, about twenty paces away from a huge granite slab that he finally recognized as Campfire Rock… which meant he was back in Tasakeru. A drizzle of rain, real, proper rain this time, fell from the canopy of leaves and branches above him. Cold droplets spattered his hair and fur, and slid down the back of his neck into the folds of his jacket. Uncomfortable, but the realness of the water on his back was bracing after the surreality of that in the realm of Drake’s magic. He turned to thank the wolf, and then ask him just what the hell he had just done-
Drake was in no position to answer. Wheezing, he sank to his knees in the wet loam, his hands sliding down the sides of his knobbled walking stick as he tried and failed to keep a steady grip on it.
Chills raced down Zero’s spine to the tip of his tail. “Drake?”
“Go,” said Drake in between gasps for breath. “This is… as far as I can take you, Takaishi. Stop… the Soulsnatcher. Find your… sister… Don’t worry… about me.”
Withered, cracked lips curled into a smile. “Haven’t done… a mist walk in a long time, but I’ll… be fine. Go.”
Zero hesitated only for a moment. “… Thank you.” Then he was up the nearest oak trunk in a streak of black. Stalker was somewhere in this forest, in his forest, doing Gods knew what to his little sister. Single-minded purpose propelled him through the maze of greenery above the forest floor. His senses flared on high alert, tuned for any trace of the Soulsnatcher’s distinctive odor, that pungent, rotting stench mixed with the tang of blood…
At the temple, the Soulsnatcher had the advantage over him. Now they were on Zero’s home soil, and here, one way or another, he would make his final stand.
Drake lay sprawled in the damp leaves and soil, his walking stick fallen at his side. Whatever young Takaishi saw during the mist walk, he could only hope that it would be soon forgotten. Forgotten, as Drake hoped himself to be forgotten… faded into the forest, as much a part of it as the bark and leaves and moss.
With the last of his fading strength, he heaved himself over and upright. His weary bones and muscles screeched at him in protest, but he could at least breathe easier facing up. From this vantage point, he caught glimpses of a ceiling of dark clouds far above him, traces of misty white and grey and indigo peeking through the forest canopy. Soon he was soaked to the skin by falling water, but he did not move. He would not be able to move for some time, old fool that he was. Old fool, for not finishing the young brute called Algol sooner. Old fool, for letting the resurrected Algol, now Stalker, escape with Naole Takaishi. Old fool, for using a mist walk when he knew he barely had the strength or energy for it. Old fool, for a thousand more reasons, most of which he would rather forget. The heavens wept upon him, and droplets trickled down his face and snout in slow streams.
“Rain,” he whispered with a bittersweet smile.
Heat rose in Stalker, heat that the persistent rain could not quell. Wandering through this damned forest in the damp and chill had been an aggravating chore, but finally, he had arrived. His quarry was near, so near he could almost taste her.
There in the clearing stood a cottage built inside a living oak tree, its outsides lined with hundreds of varieties of sweet-smelling flowers. Their scent led him here, that scent mingled with the lingering traces of a vixen’s perfume… the same perfume he smelled on the night of his rebirth, he was sure of it. Through one of the cottage’s circular windows, he saw a feminine silhouette working at something with delicate hands.
What good fortune, what providence! His old life ended after he encountered that doe, and now new life, better life, would come from her. And if that new life coincided with her death… so much the better.
Stalker bared his fangs in a mad grin. He charged…
“Iya!” A spot of blood welled on the pad at the tip of Hanami’s index finger. This was proving harder than she thought. A number of oversized bay leaves, each about as big around as a wagon wheel, lay discarded at her feet, some of them in pieces. Three more leaves sat in her lap, partly stitched together by a needle and thread. Growing the bay leaves was not the problem; the problem was assembling them into something useful.
Faun was in her bathroom, having a long soak in her tub… her den’s hot water spellstone still had yet to be replaced. It was only fair to let her have this small luxury, Hanami thought. Faun ran all the way to Haven Grove in the rain, sans an umbrella, to help her overcome her melancholy. If she had anything to say about it, Faun would at least stay dry on the return trip to her den. To that end, sewing the oversized bay leaves together as a makeshift umbrella. Sadly, it appeared that her sewing skills were lacking. A pricked finger was just the latest in a series of problems with the project. She thought about just growing one huge bay leaf for Faun, but if she made it too big, the leaf would wilt over her and she wouldn’t be able to see where she was going.
Perhaps leaves were simply unsuited for the task, she thought as she stuck her bleeding pad in her mouth. Some kind of light wood, perhaps spruce or pine, in the shape of an umbrella? That might work. A dome shape would be simple enough to grow with the Mage Flower. Then again, if she made it out of wood, it would likely swell and warp out of shape when it got wet… and wetness would likely lead to mold or mildew growing on it.
Hanami grimaced around her fingertip. What a bother.
Crash. Something from outside tore through her front door like a shot from a cannon. Wet fragments and splinters of oak littered her entrance floor as she leapt to her feet with a scream, the clumsily-stitched half-umbrella sliding forgotten from her lap. There was something in her doorway, a dark shape, drenched with rainwater… a shape that leered at her with unmistakable hunger.
A quarter-mile away, Zero’s ears perked at the sound of the crash and the faint scream that followed. That sound brought him to a skidding halt; only the grooves of his boots digging gouges into the bark beneath him prevented a fall that would be lethal from this height.
“Hanami…!” He knew that voice, but how he knew that it was him, that he was the reason for her screaming, he had no idea. How he knew was not important. All that was important was that he knew with dreadful, inexplicable certainty where Stalker was, and that he, Zero, was still much too far away to help her.
Gritting his teeth, Zero tossed caution to the winds and hurled himself in the direction of Haven Grove. Countless branches whipped at his face, the forest passed by him in dizzying streaks of green and grey and brown…
Oh, her scream. Stalker’s remaining eye shone with unbridled hunger and greed as he stepped into her home, taking his time, savoring her fear like a fine meal. Nothing left between himself and the blood needed for Mother’s new legion but a few scant paces. Just a few hours ago, he had taken Takaishi’s sister away from him… now he would take his mate from him as well. How wonderfully prudent. Mother would be so proud.
He advanced and the squirrel retreated, step by step, doing an odd dance with each other until she backed into the opposite wall and could go no further. She pressed herself into the wall like she wanted to melt into it, her tail ramrod straight and all its fur on end, her ears flattened against her skull. A wordless cry of denial tore itself from her as she thrust both hands out at him. There was something bright clutched in her fingers, something red… a flower.
The spider on Stalker’s arm twitched.
That was the last sensation he felt before the mass of green struck him, an unstoppable living battering ram of hundreds of thorny vines entwined together. Like a charging pigboar in a blood rage, it slammed into him, lifting him off his feet and carrying him helpless out the cottage’s door, across her front lawn, out of the clearing and back into the forest proper. Nor did it stop there… winding back and forth between the great trunks like a snake, it propelled him deeper and deeper into the depths of Tasakeru at blistering speed. At some point, the vines tilted downward, plowing him into the forest floor… his body gouged a furrow in the earth nearly fifty meters long before the vines finally tossed him aside in an almost petulant manner.
Spitting up grass and clumps of sod, beaten, torn, and knocked half-senseless, Stalker could do little but watch in disbelief as the thorned vine-ram-snake retracted back into the morning gloom as quickly as it came. Defeated for the moment, he slumped into his trench and waited for his injuries to heal themselves.
Zero shot from the foliage like an arrow loosed from a bow, following the vines as they shrank… back into the open doorway of Haven Grove, just as he had feared. If Rowan were there, he would have laid a gentle hand on Zero’s shoulder and told him that logic suggested if Hanami was alive, well, and coherent enough to use the Mage Flower, then he was not too late… but Zero had no time for this phantom-Rowan. He was still too late to stop whatever happened here, and that was all that mattered. He tore pell-mell through the doorway after the vines, her name already on his lips.
Hanami was motionless against Haven Grove’s back wall, wide-eyed and staring. The last few vines retracted back into the Mage Flower’s blossom, still clutched in her numb fingers. Only then did she feel her frantic heartbeat slow its hammering within her breast, and only then did she let out the breath she did not know she was holding. Then the shivers started, wracking her body as she slid down the smooth surface of the wall, her legs like jelly, her mind a blank white, buzzing void… Zero’s calling of her name went unheard.
It was as if she were floating somewhere a few inches above herself, disconnected from her physical form. She heard Zero shouting, but at a distance, from behind a pane of thick glass. The face she knew so well simply did not register to her senses. All she saw was the remnants of her front door, lying shattered and sad on her entrance floor, amid a few dozen shredded leaves and stray thorns from the battering ram. It seemed to her that for the rest of her life, she would remember the exact positions of each splinter of her door, each fallen leaf, each thorn, each muddy footprint marring her formerly spotless entranceway. Through the numbness and shock, one clear thought pierced her brain: Not again.
Her next clear feeling was a rough, wet hand shaking her shoulder. That drew her back to her body with a violent snap… her voice returned in a rush, and she shrieked with breathless terror and slashed at the offending arm with the only weapon she had: her Mage Flower.
Crack. A single vine burst from the Mage Flower’s blossom, sailed through space, and carved a thin gash in Zero’s cheek.
He flinched back, his hand flying to his stinging face. “Hanami…?”
“Don’t.” Miraculously, the word somehow came out clear despite Hanami’s trembling. “I’m… I’m s-sorry, but don’t…”
“But are you-” Hesitantly he reached for her again.
Before he could finish that question, Faun Muranaka skidded around the corner leading to Hanami’s bed and bath, wrapped in a towel, fur soaking wet, wild-eyed. It took only a fraction of a second for her to realize what was happening, she roared the words before she was fully conscious of what they meant: “Takky, don’t touch her!”
Zero withdrew his hand as if it had been burned.
“Pinch,” breathed Faun. She stood there dripping, taking in the wreckage of the last few minutes: Hanami trying to curl into a ball against the back wall. Zero staring dumbfounded, the fur of his left cheek matted with blood. The many pieces of Hanami’s front door, spread across her floor along with leaves, thorns, puddles of rainwater… and muddy footprints. Wolf footprints. Belated panic squeezed her insides down into a tiny ball. Some bastard had attacked Hanami, right in her own home, and where was Faun Muranaka, Hanami’s supposed best friend? Lazing half-asleep in her tub. Sick guilt wove itself into the tight, cold sensation of panic gripping her heart. All she wanted was to throw her arms around Hanami, to comfort her and make all this go away for a few minutes…
But Faun knew better. She knew from the haunted look in her friend’s eyes that Hanami was not to be touched, not until she gave explicit permission saying it was all right. Maybe not even for a while after that. That realization hurt Faun more than she could express, but she stayed still, the remaining suds from her bath soaking into her towel. A few drops fell from the towel’s edges and splattered the hardwood beneath her. The sound of each drop striking the hardwood was like the crash of a drum in the deafening silence: boom. Boom. Boom.
Finally, Hanami met Faun’s gaze. It was as if she were waking from some terrible dream as she spoke: “It was him. The wolf… from that night…”
END OF CHAPTER 7