Regroup and counterattack
Dew drops upon leaves
“THE HOLY RECORD OF THE SILVER ORDER
Lily Argenteus, 34th Grand Mistress
Year 1349, 11th of Raigatsu
“Casualty figures for the Soulsnatcher’s rampage on Aedis Centralis have been confirmed: thirty-seven dead, twelve robbed of their souls, over three score wounded, including my own daughter, Nadeshiko. Funeral rites for the bodies of the dead are underway, and I have informed the mortuary that I shall indeed perform the ceremony of interment.
“The tallyers estimate that it will cost at least a hundred thousand tri to restore our temple, including the cost of replacing all the floors sullied by bloodstains. Some are concerned that we cannot afford such an expenditure; to those I have countered that we can scarcely afford not to. Whatever has transpired, Aedis Centralis is still the Order’s holiest ground… by the grace of the Greatmother shall it continue to be so.
“I write these words as I sit by Nadeshiko’s side in the infirmary. My Little One sleeps soundly for now; she is given the best care that any sentient can ask for, but while she sleeps I cannot help but stare at the bandages covering the wound that the Soulsnatcher left her. That wound is in part my fault. I lacked the strength to strike that creature down, and for that failure, she shall carry a scar for the rest of her days.
“Hollis, do you think she can ever forgive me? I am in need of your counsel…”
Naole leaned to her left.
Legion leaned to his.
Naole touched her nose with her index finger.
So did Legion.
Naole wrapped her tail around herself.
Legion attempted to do the same… but his tail was a good deal longer, fluffier, and heavier than the doe’s, and he did not quite have the hang of moving it yet. The tip of his tail whapped him in the snout, and he stared at it cross-eyed, as if perplexed how it came to be attached to him.
That was enough to send Naole into another fit of helpless laughter. Oh, her aching sides.
The Silver Order often took in orphans, though it was not Naole’s job to teach and evaluate them. That was beyond the duties of an apprentice Healer. She was a good observer, though, and she was familiar enough with the basic tests given to judge a child’s mental faculties: the capacity to distinguish different shapes and colors, follow direction, and communicate clearly with their elders. At least in the mental sense, Legion was no newborn; from the hour-plus she had spent with him so far, she estimated that he was on the level of a sentient child, perhaps five or six years old. Maybe even older, given how quickly he was progressing, gathering and retaining every bit of information that she gave him. Physically, he was a full-grown adult… an adult what was still in question, though she supposed the word “hybrid” was good enough. Not a half-and-half like a wolfox, either, but a true mix of traits and features from all sentient species.
He (and Naole was now quite comfortable with the idea of Legion as a “he”, not an “it”; perhaps a fox would be better at introducing him to the complex subject of gender, but that could come later, when he understood a bit more. A non-intrusive peek at the relevant area told her that Legion was indeed a male in terms of equipment, so that would do for now) was a fast learner. He grasped new concepts well no matter how many she introduced, and he was always eager to learn more. True, he couldn’t speak for himself, but Naole knew well more than a few speaking sentients not even half as quick-witted as Legion clearly was. Speech, she thought, was no indicator of intelligence, and her new hybrid friend was proof positive of that.
Being with him and seeing his eyes light up when he learned something new was almost enough to make her forget her imprisonment. To forget the gloom of the strange cavern, the pool of blood now stagnant in the center, and the otherworldly beacon of blue flame pulsing languidly over their heads with its silver orbs spinning around it in tow. There was nothing either of them could do about any of those things, so they ignored them as they continued with their lessons and games.
“It’s kind of…” Naole paused and furrowed her brow, the tip of her tongue poking out from between her lips. “Hmm. How do I explain this?”
Legion mimicked the same expression, tongue and all, and the sight of that cheerful, goofy face gone so mock-serious threatened to cause another giggle fit.
“All right,” she said, stifling herself before she could get distracted again. “It’s soft, like your tail or your belly fur, but a different kind of soft. Not hairy soft, but kind of chewy and fluffy.”
The hybrid tilted his head to one side.
“And the center is sort of… sweet, but a little grainy.”
“Augh,” said Naole to herself as she recognized her error. “How do I describe ‘sweet and grainy’ when you haven’t even eaten anything yet?! This is harder than I thought.” Crossing her arms, she blew a puff of air upward, which ruffled her bangs. “I suppose you’ll just have to try sweet bean mochi for yourself once we get out of here.”
Delighted by this new discovery, Legion swelled his cheeks and blew. His sleek black forelocks were quite a bit longer and less tidy than Naole’s, and they fell back into his eyes on the downdraft. Undeterred, he blew again and again, sounding a bit like an overenthusiastic bellows operator.
That sight sent Naole into another fit of laughter, which only stopped when the first familiar wisps of light-headedness and shortness of breath that indicated an imminent fainting spell forced her to either calm down or pass out. “Ha… ha… whew…”
When her vision cleared, Legion’s yellow eyes were staring into hers, wide with concern. Both his ears stood up straight as flagpoles. He made a whining noise, in which she could hear the essence of a question.
“Daijo, I’m f-fine, I’ll be… fine…” She tried to smile at him in a reassuring way. “Sorry, Legion. It’s just something that happens to me. Thin blood. Hmm… you probably don’t even know ‘thin’ yet, either. It’s a comparison word.” Naole took his hand in her own, and gently wrapped it around one of her fingers. “Thin.” She moved it to her forearm. “Thicker.” Then she mimed opening and closing his fingers. “Thinner and thicker.”
The hybrid blinked, put his hands to her sides, then touched his own, pleased with himself.
Naole took a moment to interpret that. “… Are you saying I’m thicker?”
A big, fanged smile and a nod.
Perhaps a bit too clever for his own good. “All right, as a rule, you never tell someone that. Unless they’re a badger, they would take it as a compliment. Anyway, I should be fine. Better once we get out of here.”
Another whine, this one with less concern and more confusion.
“Hmm. I suppose you don’t really know what ‘out’ means either, do you?” Naole spread her arms to the rocky cavern around them. “Imagine a place with no walls, and no roof,” she said, gazing upward at the ceiling of limestone stalactites festooned with spider silk, and the enormous, pulsing, misty-glowing orb with its many satellites spinning lazily around it. “Just miles and miles of open space. Green grass, and trees, and people… I can’t wait for you to see it.” Her eyes wandered to the spot where Stalker summoned the exit from the solid stone floor. “If we could just figure out how he made those doors!”
He was unable to articulate that last word, but Legion mimicked the tone of it as best as he could manage.
“Doors?” said Naole. “You know, kind of like… this.” She traced a rough shape in the air for him with her fingertips: flat at the bottoms and sides, a rounded arch at the top. “He must have made them with some kind of magic. You saw them, didn’t you? When he was—”
The cavern floor trembled, just slightly. Both doe and hybrid stared in astonishment, for the double doors had reappeared in the same spot as before, for no apparent reason.
Naole’s lips moved after a few seconds of silence. “Did… did you do that, Legion?”
Legion made a sound that was doubtless the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
“It could be a trap,” said Naole. “It probably is a trap. It’s too easy; there’s no way he would just leave us a way out, that would be crazy.” Crazy. She stopped and pondered that for a moment. “But he is crazy, isn’t he? He’s out of his mind. Maybe if he didn’t know we could—” Legion whimpered in alarm as she climbed carefully to her feet. “Daijo,” she said to him. “I won’t leave you, I just want to see.” Hardly daring to believe, she crossed the cavern floor one step at a time, at each footfall expecting the doors to melt back into the limestone. But the doors stayed solid and real as the inches between them dwindled. When she was close enough to touch them, Naole sucked in a nervous breath and pushed on the one closest to her with the flat of her hand…
The door swung open without a sound, revealing a forest of ancient oaks on wet and foggy late autumn morning. All was quiet save for the whisper of raindrops on leaves. “Mange,” whispered Naole. Her awed smile grew into a grin that felt ten miles wide. “Legion, we did it, this is it! We can go out!” She spun on one heel, her tail ramrod-straight with excitement. “Come on, it’s right here!”
The hybrid hung back by the edge of the pool of blood, eyeing the space beyond the doors with great suspicion. A few tiny whimpers escaped him as his ears drooped.
Naole had seen that same expression on hundreds of children during her time at the Order. It was a “first day at the Marketplace” look, the same one every kit, pup, or cub had when they first left the familiar behind and ventured into the big, frightening unknown. “Daijo,” she said softly, extending her hand. “I know it’s scary… it always is at first, but you’ll see. The world outside is a great place. I’ll show you, and I’ll be right there beside you the whole way. Do you trust me?”
His eyes wavering, Legion looked around, from the pool of blood that had birthed him, to the ghostly beacon overhead, to the rocky crags of limestone that were all he had ever known in his short time. There was familiarity here, yes, but that was about all. He shuddered at the memory of the first few confused and agonizing moments of consciousness, of his creator’s enraged blows hammering him, his first experiences of pain.
There was familiarity here, but not comfort. There had been pain, but then there had been other things. Naole had always been present. The pain was in the past, so far only good things had happened since the pain went away. Naole said they should leave, and he trusted her. Legion stood and gave Naole a smile that did not quite mask his fear. Carefully crossing the floor just as she had, he took her small hand in his long, spindly fingers. She could feel him trembling.
“Daijo,” she repeated. “We’ll go when you’re ready. Just one step at a time.”
After a while, Legion nodded.
The two stepped out into the rain, and Legion jumped with a start as Naole let out a short bark of triumphant laughter. It didn’t even feel cold; after hours in the cramped cavern suffused with the stench of blood, the rain was like a blessing. “This is it,” she said to him, beaming. “The whole world, Legion! You’re out, you’re here!”
Fascinated, he stood and let the raindrops soak into his fur, awash in new feelings he could not yet describe. Legion opened his mouth to catch a few of the falling drops; they were wet and cool as they slid down his tongue.
Laughing, Naole took his other hand and pulled him fully from the doorway. “Come on. There’s so much I have to show you.”
So happy were they that neither questioned or even noticed when the doors shut of their own accord behind them. Likewise, they did not question that the doors appeared to lead from a natural limestone cavern to the exterior of a clearly sentient-made tower, a massive black circular pillar that extended far above even the endless canopy of trees. They did not question the tower, or the network of thorny vines that crisscrossed its exterior, nor the black roses that flowered in full bloom on those vines even in the chill of late autumn. Naole and Legion left the cavern, its pool of blood, and its eerie beacon behind, putting it out of their minds. There were more important things.
Within the Black Rose Tower, the silk-lined limestone cavern waited, empty and silent. The beacon that hovered within its circle of stalactites pulsed like a beating heart as it turned. If there were anyone to chart the movements of the many souls orbiting it, they might notice that the souls spun faster around the immense flame as time passed, increasing speed at a gradual rate. Likewise, the beacon’s pulsing quickened. Its core began to stir, as if something within it stirred in its sleep…
Showing professionalism that would have shocked anyone who knew her in other circumstances, Faun took charge of the situation. Speaking not a word, she took Zero’s hand, steered him out of the room, and shoved a few bandages and a healing poultice from her boom belt into his hands. The ferocious look she shot him told him in no uncertain terms to go somewhere else, mend the cut on his cheek, and not even think of coming near Hanami until Faun’s explicit say-so.
Hanami was next. Faun approached her with great care, as if treading over a floor scattered with shards of broken glass. In a low, soothing voice, she asked the doe to find her favorite chair and sit down in it while Faun made her a cup of tea.
So Hanami did, without a word.
Tea was not normally Faun’s forte, especially not the tea the squirrels liked, but she thought she could manage it well enough. After all, she had seen Hanami make it enough times: boil water in a kettle, crush the tea leaves with a pestle, steep it, stir it, and serve. As she worked, she considered adding a few nips of something stronger to the mixture to help Hanami calm down… her hand was on a flask of brandy from her belt before she changed her mind. No, she thought, shaking her head and moving to replace the flask in its pocket. Whatever comes next, she needs a clear head. Alcohol won’t help right now.
For Faun, that last thought was almost unprecedented.
Once Hanami had her tea, Faun hurriedly dried herself from her bath and set to clearing as much of the wreckage from the floor as she could. There was no question of repairing the door itself, as it was split nearly in half, but the wolf’s muddy footprints could be cleaned, as could the many stray leaves from Hanami’s retaliation. Faun attacked the footprints first, scrubbing furiously at them with a rag while her heart screamed at her to stop wasting time, to get out there, find the filthy bastard that left those footprints, and make him pay.
Faun Muranaka was normally not one for restraint or self-control. Nor were foxes in general, really. For Hanami’s sake, though, she would do this right or not at all.
It took three cups of the most bitter almost-tea Hanami had ever had before she felt composed enough to talk. Her eyes watered from its flavor; it was evident that Faun didn’t know there was more to a good cup of tea than just leaves and water. She appreciated both the gesture and the bitterness regardless. Though it made her lips want to pucker together as if trying to drink from a blocked straw, the harsh taste helped to keep her grounded.
“You two met that maniac before?” asked Zero in disbelief. Some minutes ago, he peeked from a side room and asked, very quietly, if it was all right to come out yet. For the time being, the flow of blood from the thin cut on his cheek was stopped.
“We did,” said Faun, her expression like a thundercloud. “Weeks ago, on our way back from the theater. Frankly, he never smelled right to me.”
“But before, he wasn’t like that.” There was no need for Hanami to explain further what that meant. “He was just a normal brute—”
“You’re too nice. There’s nothing normal about that one, Flowers.”
“Something changed him,” said Zero. He crossed his arms… a little awkwardly, as the silver dagger from Nadeshiko was still inside the breast pocket of his jacket. “Whether it was that spider he’s got on his arm or something else, I don’t know and I don’t much care. he needs to be stopped, here and now. Whatever it takes.”
Hanami put down her teacup, eyes hard and set with rare determination.. “I agree. If he wants his ‘mother’ so badly… I think we should send him Beneath to meet her.”
“Hot damn, Flowers.” Faun’s face split into a somewhat terrifying grin. “Now you’re speaking my language.”
And just like that, Hanami softened once more. “Was… was that good? I tried my best.”
“You’re fantastic, kitto. Keep up the good work.” It was still too soon for one of Faun’s signature claps on the back, so she raised a thumb in her direction instead. “So, if we’re done talking about it, I think there’s just one thing left to decide.”
“And that is?” said Zero, raising a brow.
“Which one of us gets to finish him off. Fair warning: if I find him first, there won’t be anything left of him for you two, so try to keep up.” And Faun was gone, out the door and into the rain in an orange streak.
“Dammit! Faun, wait!” Zero’s words fell on deaf ears. He knew as well as anyone that nothing short of unconsciousness or death would stop Faun now. His hand flew to the hilt of his sword, and without thinking, he spoke: “Hanami, stay here. Faun and I will handle—”
“No.” The word was delivered like steel wrapped in silk: soft and frightened on the surface, but unyielding underneath.
It stopped Zero before he could take a step. “Hanami?”
She trembled, but stood firm. “No,” she said again. “I’m coming with you. This needs to stop.”
“You don’t understand!” said Zero. “Hanami, that monster killed dozens of Order knights. He took my sister, he could have killed you! The last thing on earth I want is to put you in more danger!”
“I know.” Hanami bit her lip and looked him right in the eyes. “I know you think you need to protect me, and I appreciate it. But instead, this time… let’s protect each other.”
That struck Zero dumb. To be fair, Hanami’s eyes had that effect on him quite often, but this was different. There was something in Hanami that was scared half to death but would not flinch. Something that he admired… and that he envied.
“Every minute we spend here is another minute he could get away,” said Hanami. “We should go.”
Faster and faster, the beacon expanded and contracted. A sound built from within it as the orbiting souls whirled around it in unbroken trails of silver: a terrible sound, an unearthly sound, a turbulent peal of madness and joy, confusion and ecstacy all at once. No living thing had ever heard anything of its like before, and perhaps none ever would again.
A hand briefly broke the beacon’s fiery surface. A most unusual hand, with long, thin, stick-like fingers that tapered into talons…
Finally. Stalker lifted himself from the muddy furrow of his trench, satisfied that his bones and muscles were healed enough to move. Gods only knew how much blood he had wasted mending the damage from the damned flower mage’s battering ram, but he would take back that blood and then some when he returned to her quaint little cabin. A wicked snarl built deep in his throat as he thought of all the things he would do to her. So much justice still yet to be served.
Thump. Something small and hard struck the crude hourglass scrawled in dye on his chest and bounced off of him, landing in the wet loam. Stalker blinked. With only one eye, it was difficult to make out what it was. He leaned down over where he thought it fell, perplexed. There was a round shape like a nut or acorn by one of his footclaws. Was that it? As he bent over it, he thought he heard it hissing faintly.
A thunderclap as the round thing detonated into a corona of brilliant light. White-hot spears of pain surged from Stalker’s eye to the center of his brain, he roared in agony. Injuries were of little concern, but his senses… those were still as keen as they had been, and the explosive took full advantage of that.
“I’ll be honest,” said Faun Muranaka, stepping out from behind a tangle of moss-covered roots several feet away. Her voice was low and deadly, devoid of humor, and her eyes were smoldering emerald fires. “That night I first saw you? You’re damned lucky Hanami was there, because I was going to kill you myself if old Grumpy didn’t. I don’t know much Wolven, but I got the gist of why your pack exiled you.”
Stalker spat at the orange blur, the constant amid the floating green spots that the flashbang left in his vision. “You whore! You’re nothing but a whore, just like all foxes!”
“Heard that before.” Faun shrugged. “Males like you say it a lot, actually. Any female that turns you down is a whore, is that right?”
“The fae denied me, they denied their purpose—”
Crack. The heel of Faun’s boot slammed into the side of his snout. Three of Stalker’s teeth splinter from the blow. “I know exactly what you are,” she said, cold and merciless as midnight in winter. “I could smell it from the first time I laid eyes on you, reeking of want. Scum like you brought the taints into the world… You just can’t help yourself, can you? Species doesn’t matter.”
Blood trickled from the wolf’s jaws. Damn the vixen, damn all of them. “The wolfoxes,” he panted, “the taints… are an accident. An aberrance, the spawn of whores. They are a mistake to be corrected once my Legion is born. After I finish with you, I’ll use your precious flower mage to comple—”
And the vixen was upon him like a hurricane, foregoing her bombs to pummel his face with a flurry of blows. Her knuckles welled with blood inside her gloves, but she did not care. “BASTARD!” she bellowed over the sickening sounds of her fists hammering flesh and bone. “Stay… the hell… AWAY… from Hanami… you filthy… stinking… lowlife…” His flailing claws gouged furrows in her face and arms that she could not feel.
Not far off, a shape moved through the branches of the forest canopy, dropping withered leaves in its wake. Stalker’s mind raced… if he had more time, he could dispatch the vixen and the other Outcasts one by one, but taking them all at once, while still not completely healed from the mage’s battering ram? Unwise, and potentially fatal. Much as he hated the thought, he had to withdraw. The next time the vixen’s fist came down, he tilted his head to one side, opened his jaws wide, then snapped them shut on her forearm.
“Gyaaah!” Teeth like knives punctured Faun’s glove and dug into her flesh. Not a deep bite, but enough to disorient her and stop her for a second… it was all the wolf needed. Stalker shifted his weight and shoved her off of him as he released his grip, and fled for the nearest scrap of underbrush that would conceal him.
When Hanami crashed through the brush from a different direction minutes later, she found Faun sitting on a stump, clutching her arm and swearing enough to turn the air black. “Mangy coward got away,” said Faun, bitter as vinegar.
“Faun, what did you do?!” Hanami’s Mage Flower was sprouting aloe and garlic leaves by the time it was halfway down from its perch behind her left ear. “Oh Gods, here, keep these pressed against it until it stops bleeding, what were you thinking—”
“I was thinking I was gonna kill the bastard,” said Faun, wincing as she applied the makeshift poultice. “After what he tried to do to you, he deserves it.”
“Yes.” Hanami’s voice trembled with concern. “Yes he does, but don’t ever let yourself get hurt for me. It’s not worth it.”
“What the hell do you mean, ‘it’s not worth it?!’”
“Keep those leaves in place. There’s more back at Haven Grove, in my poultice cabinet… get back there and wash your wounds with water as soon as you can.”
“Flowers, that’s not an answer—”
Hanami tried to smile, but the expression got lost on its way to her face. “I need to catch up to Zero. Don’t worry, we’ll get him. I promise.” And off she went.
“Pinch,” said Faun, long after she had gone. Her eyes glistened, but with one arm bad and the other holding the poultice in place, she could not dry them.
The tower. If he could make it back to the tower, he would win. No sentient alive could harm him in there unless he allowed it. If he got back quick enough, he might even make it in time to witness his flawed Legion finishing off Takaishi’s sister. Stalker grinned at the thought, then winced as the action hurt his swollen, bloodied face. Damn that vixen. Even more blood would be wasted to heal from—
“You made three mistakes.” The voice rang strong and clear as a great brass bell, echoing down from somewhere high in the canopy.
Damn it all, Takaishi was here already! Stalker stopped; he could not afford to lead any of them to the tower, or the Legion would be lost, Mother would be lost, all would be lost. His eye scanned low and high for any sign of movement. The mist gathered low around the trunks limited his vision even more, the squirrels could be anywhere.
“The first mistake was hurting my little sister.” Closer now, but the direction was still unclear. It was almost like Takaishi was everywhere at once, but that was a ridiculous notion. A twig snapped; Stalker swiped in that direction, but his claws cut through nothing but mist.
“The second mistake was trying to hurt Hanami.” And even closer.
Stalker erupted in hysterical laughter. “And which of those two did you choose over the other, Takaishi? I’m certain dear Naole will understand why you left her to save your mate. She’s waiting for you right now! If you find her fast enough, you may even recognize her bones… Or what’s left of them!”
Only silence in reply. The rain began again in earnest, pattering down among the leaves.
“The third mistake,” said Zero from directly behind Stalker’s right shoulder, “was trying to run from me in my forest.”
Stalker lunged for him, but was already gone, melted back into the gloom. Damn his eye! Damn the stinking, murderous tree rat’s whole wretched family… “Enough!” he howled into the gathered fog. “If you dare face me, face me plainly, Takaishi! Or did you desert your honor along with your service?”
A soft, scraping sound of a steel blade exiting a wooden scabbard. Stalker felt the sword before he saw it emerge from the mist, wielded by a young buck in all black with almost no resemblance to the one he fought in the temple the night before. This was Takaishi with no distractions, no purpose in mind but to defeat his opponent. Fully immersed in what his kind called Centerpoint, his dark eyes like a drill boring into Stalker’s heart, deafening in his silence and terrible in his serenity. The buck raised his blade, took his stance, and waited.
Snarling, Stalker reached for the first weapon he found at hand: a bare branch from an old hornbeam. He tore the limb from the tree as one would tear the wings from a fly, snapping away its few remaining leaves in a rage. No use as a proper sword, but as a bludgeon it would do nicely… and he only needed one good strike. “Come then, Takaishi,” he said. “Both our families have been wronged. Let us settle the grudge.”
Zero said only one word more: the old samurai war cry, spoken at barely above a whisper: “Tenrai.”
The duel began.
END OF CHAPTER 8
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