Phantoms of the past
Awakening in the chill
Beginning and end
“It has been over four hundred years since the tales of the Outcasts began to spread throughout the world. Whether they existed or not, or how much—if at all—they influenced the momentous events of those times four centuries past… those are beside the point. Though they would be long since departed from the mortal coil, the Outcasts live on.
“We who compile and study their tales have heard all the classic stories over and over again, told in a thousand different ways: the battle in the underground spider cavern, during which Hanami revealed her powers as a mage to save her new friends. Faun Muranaka’s discovery of Seker, the Last Titan, and his raising of the Black Rose Tower… and the massive explosion at that same tower roughly a month later, which they say was visible from all across the world. The rampage of the Soulsnatcher. The notorious “Infernal Sheep Incident”. The night of the Shroud. The journey to the north to seek out the yuki-majin. Their struggles against the Silver Order, the Demon Fangs, the Shadowhand, Epsilon, and countless other foes and challenges both mundane and supernatural… we know them all. It is, after all, our calling.
“With as many stories as there are, and the surprising degree of consistency in their telling, it is possible to establish a rudimentary timeline of the Outcasts’ history, starting with Hanami’s arrival in Tasakeru, commonly dated mid-autumn of Year 1349. If one were to consult this theoretical timeline, one might wonder: when exactly did the Outcasts cease to be a band of inconsequential exiles and begin to be an undeniable influence on the world at large?
“Some would argue that they made their first definitive mark on history with the explosion at the tower. Others would claim it was the tower’s raising, itself a momentous event. Still others put the true beginning much further back, on that terrible grey dawn when Hanami first discovered that she was far from an ordinary squirrel doe.
“As for myself, I would place the tipping point squarely on the famous duel in the rain between Reimaru “Zero” Takaishi and the Soulsnatcher, long considered one of the most popular pieces of Outcast lore. Moreso than the raising of the tower or its explosion, and moreso than the day that changed Hanami’s life, that duel had lasting consequences that no one, least of all the Outcasts, could have foreseen. Its outcome arguably set the stage for everything that was yet to come.
“I sometimes wonder: had Takaishi known what was at stake on that rainy morning so long ago, would he have chosen to act differently? Would that choice even have mattered, in the end…?”
[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]
Two pairs of eyes watched the pattering of rain on leaves from their makeshift shelter beneath the heavy boughs. One pair, hazel and cautious, belonged to a squirrel doe who was now reconsidering the escape plan that had seemed so brilliant hours ago. The forest of Tasakeru was immense; even her brother had never come close to exploring all of it after living here nine years.
The second pair, almond-shaped and colored bright yellow, belonged to a sentient the likes of which the world had never seen. He watched the droplets pelt the leaves with rapt fascination, delighting in the rhythmic sound they made when they fell. Every few minutes, while his companion mulled next to him, he tried to reproduce that sound with motions of his lips: pop, pop, pop. He was improving as he practiced, but it was not yet accurate enough for him.
Naole barely heard him; she was too focused on the sinking realization that she had made a terrible mistake. Sure, Naole, she thought bitterly. Run out into the rain in an uncharted forest five times the size of Unify with a newborn hybrid to look after. No food, no water, no supplies, no shelter, and a bloodthirsty monster running around that wants revenge on our whole family! Blessed Lady Terra, what have I gotten us into…? Guilt stewed and churned deep in her belly. If she were in this situation by herself, perhaps it would not matter so much. But Legion was here with her, and she was his sole guide to a world he did not understand yet. How to explain to the poor thing that they were lost, with very little hope of ever being found?
A fresh wave of unease crested over her as she recalled phrases from Zero’s many scrolls to her over the years: all of us are hungry… running out of food… not enough to eat out here, you know how it is… It was only in the last two months, after the flower mage Hanami’s arrival, that those kinds of phrases stopped appearing. With her help, Tasakeru was more livable, but still a strange, ancient, inhospitable place. Without her help, it was practically a hostile entity of its own, never mind what things might be living in it. Oh Gods, she thought as the lead weight that seemed caught in her stomach plunged lower. What does Legion eat? Wolves have to eat meat, and he’s part wolf… is there enough game out here for him to live on? If there is, will I have to teach him to— Now she felt a queasy green swirl of nausea. Squirrels only ate meat when they had to, and it was almost always leaner meat, mostly poultry and fish. Even if there were wild fowl or pigboars out here, the thought of having to show Legion how to properly slaughter and prepare one for cooking…
“Legion,” she said aloud, trying to banish the hideous mental image of her new hybrid friend tearing into a fresh corpse, blood caking his snout. “Legion, I’m sorry. I think I might have made a—”
Legion wore a look of intense concentration and deadly seriousness, his brows furrowed and his long ears turned back at an angle. With great care, he pursed his lips together, then blew and made a circle with them: Pop! Pop! Pop!
Forget starving to death; Naole suspected she was in far more danger of dying of arrest from laughter. She laughed until her eyes were all but gummed shut from tears, until encroaching lightheadedness and shortness of breath told her that she had best stop or she would faint. “You…” she gasped. “Y-you need to s-stop making me laugh b-before I… Legion?”
The hybrid’s long ears stood straight as flagpoles. His fur bristled all down his spine. The tight, nervous light in his eyes drained the last of her merriment away. He did not know the gesture yet, but Naole half-expected him to put a warning finger to his lips and shush her.
“Is someone coming?” Now Naole cursed herself for losing control. Damn it all, she could have led their captor right to them.
Legion’s nostrils flared and closed in rapid succession. He blinked, unable to comprehend the scent that he picked up. The beginnings of a whine built in his throat.
“Shhh,” whispered Naole, moving close and putting her hand over his. “I’m here. It’s… it’s not him, is it? It’s not Stalker?”
Legion shook his head. That scent would have sent him fleeing in the opposite direction. This one was… strange. Not threatening, but unusual. Mellow and exotic, perhaps just a little bit like his own. He had no way of conveying this to Naole, but with her at his side, he was not afraid.
Now Naole could smell it, even through the rain: something like bamboo incense mingled with cooking spices. Through the forest’s fog and shadows, a shape moved… a tall, slim figure hidden in the folds of a ratty old canvas cloak, an altogether different body shape than their captor. The cloak moved directly toward their hiding place, stepping carefully over wet leaves and twigs, making as little sound as possible.
Naole and Legion held each other tight.
The stranger stopped before the twisting roots of the tree that sheltered them. The feminine voice that spoke from within it was low and cool. “I have been awaiting you,” she said. “Come with me, and I shall give you shelter from the rain.”
“Can we trust you?” Naole tensed and shifted her position. If the cloaked figure meant harm, she would shield Legion with her own body if necessary.
“Trust me or not, that choice is yours,” said the voice from the cloak, “but I believe that Outcasts, hybrids, and halfbreeds are kindred. As such, I am willing to help the two of you find your family, if you will aid me in finding mine.”
“I—” Mystified, Naole leaned forward, trying to peer into the shadows of the stranger’s hood. “Who are you? How did you know where to find us, and how do you know who we’re looking for?”
A faint, musical chuckle. “All fair questions, but one answer at a time. I knew where to find you and why you are here because I have already seen you both, Lady Naole Takaishi and Legion. This meeting between us has been a fixture in my visions for nearly half a season… which leads me to believe that you both must be of the utmost importance to my future.”
Hairs prickled on the back of Naole’s neck. A seer. And she knows our names…
“As for who I am…” The stranger pulled back her hood, and Naole drew in a breath.
There were never many of her kind; some claimed there were only several hundred at the most. The few that Naole saw in and around Unify typically wore concealing clothes within the city walls, for the distinctive steely blue color of their fur made them easy targets. Foxes generally despised them and called them “taints”, an ugly word for an uglier attitude. Wolves usually showed them less overt hostility, but most preferred not to think of them at all. Even in the Silver Order, the Order that claimed to protect all life, many sistren and brethren spoke of their kind in terms that were often disparaging, if not outright cruel. “Never trust a bluefur,” Naole remembered one of her superior sisters telling her after treating one for a sprained ankle. “The lot of them are no good. They can’t help it, they’re unnatural by birth.”
Yet here one stood in the rain, offering them a hand and shelter. A slender, white-muzzled face with soft, sad grey eyes looked at them not with worry or suspicion or fear, but with warmth and kindness. Her dark, arched eyebrows were partly hidden by her bangs, gradient-colored from deep blue to indigo to violet at the tips. “My name is Aria,” said the wolfox, inclining forward in a bow, “and I would be honored to share my home with you both, if you will have me.”
The logic clicked into place like a puzzle piece. Hybrids, thought Naole, wondering why she had not realized it sooner. They’re both hybrids. Of course. Who would be better to help her teach Legion about how the world worked? Gratitude swelled in Naole’s chest as she smiled up at Aria. She bowed, and indicated for Legion to do the same. “Naole Takaishi and Legion,” she said. “The honor is ours, Lady Aria. Thank you.”
Dull sounds of steel colliding with wood echoed through the clearing. Zero and Stalker circled each other as buzzards circle fallen prey, engaged in the immemorial dance of hated adversaries, puddles rippling at their feet with their motions. The last time they fought, Stalker emerged with the upper hand, his unnatural endurance complimenting his savage strength. Now the field was far more level: Stalker’s many injuries were closed but not fully healed, and Zero knew every square meter of this part of Tasakeru as Stalker could never hope to.
The wolf lunged with his makeshift club, its remaining twigs whipping the air as he brought it crashing onto the flat of Zero’s sword, raised overhead in a defensive position. The club bore many deep nicks and gashes from the ronin’s blade, but Zero noted that Stalker was far more careful with it than he had been with his stolen cutlass. The branch was not made to serve as a weapon, it was exponentially more fragile and less balanced than standard Order steel. That did not mean it would not cave in his skull if Zero gave it the opportunity. In Stalker’s hands, even an old wet branch could be deadly.
That said, Zero still felt the advantage… a slim one, but still an advantage. The key was to remain in the Centerpoint, and to rely on skill rather than trying to match the Soulsnatcher’s raw power. As long as he concentrated on his technique, conserved his energy, and only struck when Stalker made himself vulnerable, he could win.
Takaishi’s calm only made Stalker’s fury burn hotter. He did not think of how unwise it was to challenge the Outcast in his home, he did not think of countering his enemy’s techniques with his own. Stalker lashed out at him in a boiling crimson rage, past caring about what harm might befall him. Takaishi had to pay. For his slain brethren, for his lost eye, for the Legion spoiled by his sister’s weak blood, and for Mother, whom he murdered, and whose resurrection he had surely ruined by now. Without Stalker’s presence, without his hands to guide the process, there was little hope for him to bring Mother back. Damn Takaishi, damn him. Damn the Muranaka whore for catching him off guard and making a shambles of his face, damn the flower mage for nearly crushing him with her accursed vines instead of quietly surrendering her body, blood, and soul as she by all rights should have done. Damn the Outcasts, damn his pack and the worthless fae that had him exiled unjustly, damn this entire wretched, corrupt existence. Everything was crumbling around him; all Stalker had left was this duel, this one last chance to at least kill Takaishi.
An eerie, keening wail filled the hollow of the Black Rose Tower, unheard by any outside its walls. It was a hideous sound, a sound of agony that emanated from the core of the monstrous beacon surrounded by its whirling rings of orbiting souls. A faint shape moved within the confines of the core, its many limbs thrashing. Its thin, taloned fingers tented the core’s upper layer as if it were made of some strange, ethereal fabric, but they could not break it. Straining, the shape’s hand pressed harder, harder. Outlines of a face and body pressed against the surface, becoming more defined as it stretched and thinned…
A great, wrenching tear, and the shape within the core broke through the last barrier. Shrieking, it tumbled to the cold stone floor and lay there stunned.
The beacon crumpled, shrank, and collapsed in on itself. All of the stolen souls that supported it broke from their orbits and burst outward, phasing through the walls of the tower and scattering to the four winds like silver fireflies. Those souls that still had intact bodies would find them in time, drawn back to their mortal shells as if pulled by gravity. As for the souls without bodies to return to, they would only wander aimlessly, until they stumbled upon of the many gateways to the next world, and from there to their rest…
I… The tower’s lone remaining occupant twitched on the floor, feeling returning her body in an overwhelming rush. What has happened to me?Where… Her thoughts, her memories, her sense of self, all were like water, swirling together without cohesion.
Where am I?
Who am I?
Am I… alive? She seemed solid enough. Her body had weight and presence to it, but… but her heart was still and silent within her chest when she felt for its rhythm. Lurching horror swelled up within her, she clawed at herself in a frenzy… and felt sizzling lines of pain as her talons broke her flesh. So, a body without a pulse, but still capable of being hurt. It made no sense.
Crack. The hornbeam branch split down its middle; it could take no more. The following strike of Zero’s sword tore it from Stalker’s grip and sent it spinning out of his hands. He scrambled after it… and found his movement brought to a halt by the handle of the sword, which Zero slammed into his gut. Reflexively, he crumpled to the forest floor, gasping for breath…
“Get up.” Zero’s blade stayed trained on Stalker’s neck. “I said get up.”
Stalker climbed to one knee. His eye rolled in its socket, their gazes met—
A searing thunderclap shot through the inside of Zero’s skull and tore him from the Centerpoint in an instant. Damn Stalker, he still had his reader’s powers… or some portion of them, even without one of his eyes. Assuming that he lost those abilities was a mistake that would cost Zero his life, surely. He tensed, waiting for the killing blow…
… but over the lingering remnants of the pain, he only felt the wind and rain shift as the wolf passed him by, and a rough, unfocused shove, sending him stumbling. “Coward!” Zero roared after him. “Dammit…” Taking a single step after him made him reel, the forest whirled around him in circles. No chance of following until his head was straight again. He fell roughly to his hands and knees, and felt the silver dagger in his jacket thump against his chest. Damn him…
Bleeding in dozens of places, disarmed, and only a few seconds ahead of Takaishi at the most. Stalker ran, stumbling through bracken and underbrush, slipping on wet leaves and moss-covered stones. This could not be how it ended. Somehow, some way, he had to avenge Mother. Somehow, he had to make his life count for something.
When the scent reached him, at first he thought he must be hallucinating in his panic. Fortune could not be so kind to him, not after all of his failures. He took a heaving, heavy breath, just to be sure… It was real, it was no illusion. A crazed grin split Stalker’s face. He turned on one heel, nearly twisting his ankle, and made for the source of that scent, crashing through anything in his way.
Hanami was drawn by the coppery smell of blood, the smell she hated. Only as she drew closer did she pick up Stalker’s scent as well, that wet, dank odor of earth and decay. She could not make her way through the forest anywhere near as quickly or easily as Zero or the wolf; she stuck to the winding paths among the ancient trunks whenever she could, and hoped that she would not arrive too late.
Her ears perked at the sound of snapping branches and startled rustling leaves. She froze, her tail standing ramrod straight with its fur puffed out in alarm…
The thing that came lumbering out of the underbrush was barely recognizable as the wolf that had invaded her home an hour ago. Now he was even more a figure of nightmares: he was soaked to the bone, the score of blade marks he had taken clearly visible through his sodden fur. His face and snout were swollen with a mass of ugly purple-black bruises; the maddened eye looking out of those bruises was like a wound welling with blood. Clutching at the spider corpse embedded in his left biceps, he staggered toward her, his lips curled in a vicious smile. “You…”
Hanami’s paralysis broke. This time, she would not be caught off guard. She tore the Mage Flower from behind her ear and pointed its blossom at Stalker. “Stay back!”
“It was foolish to follow us, little maiden.” A ragged, hacking chuckle. “Perhaps I cannot kill Takaishi. But by killing you, I can still make him suffer…” He raised his right hand, fingers spread wide…
Hanami let out a choked cry of horror and disgust.
There were holes in his hand. No, not just holes, mouths. A wet, yawning, toothless mouth in the center of his palm, and five smaller, vertical mouths on his thumb and each fingertip, ringed around their edges with yellowed lamprey teeth. They appeared to gasp with hunger as he staggered toward her.
“Stay away!” Hanami recoiled, fur prickling and skin crawling, repulsed to her core. A weapon, she had to make a weapon.
“Mother,” said Stalker. He was almost giddy with joy. “Mother, are you watching? I have her at last. I’m going to kill her. I’m going to avenge you…”
Out of the darkness, something called to her. A sound, a cry. Some vague sense of familiarity. Confused, she moved toward that sound… her steps took her to the smooth, circular stone wall. When she put her hand upon it, it sank through with barely any resistance, as if the surface were still water. She only paused for a moment before plunging through the wall. A moment of darkness, then…
A forest, old and vast, thick with morning fog, and rain falling from the canopy high above. She watched, fascinated, as drops of water passed through her body and spattered the soil at her feet. Solid inside the room where she awakened, but insubstantial outside of it. How…? she thought again.
That sound again. It was an odd tingle in the back of her skull, a sensation that she could not resist. She drifted, phasing through trees and clouds of fog alike…
“Mother.” The voice cut through her confusion for a brief, fleeting moment. It was a word that held great importance to her, though she did not know why… At a loss, she floated in the direction of the speaker.
It was a dark, bedraggled animal, half-dead by the look of it, soaked with a mixture of blood and water. The voice came from it… from him. He beamed with mad glee as he spoke again, ranting to this “Mother” about how she would finally be avenged.
That was when she saw the child. A sad little thing grafted to the wolf’s left arm, its milky eyes staring at nothing, the lower half of its body melded with the larger creature’s flesh. A child, a wretched, deformed thing… a child.
Her child. She knew.
Step by step, Stalker staggered closer to her, each footfall seeming to take a thousand years. She was all his to savor… her scent, her terror, her blood and body and soul. All he needed had been dropped into his lap. Perhaps all was not lost after all.
When the thorned vine spouted from the center of her flower and lashed across his cheek, tearing it open with tiny, sharp barbs, he barely felt it this time. Pain was nothing, humiliation was nothing. It would all be worth it in a few minutes’ time. Still, he thought, he would prefer not to be struck again. His eye caught hers and opened wide…
Hanami felt it. Thoughts that were not her own, scraping at her mind like claws, dredging up random memories. Memories of pain, of fire, of loneliness… The connection between herself and Stalker was tenuous and fragmented, but he could see her, the real her. Ice-cold fear clawed its way up from the pit of her stomach, energy rushed into the stem she clutched between her fingers…
The image of the type of weapon she needed was in her mind almost before she was consciously aware of it, and her flower, as always, responded to that image…
In his wounded state and minus an eye, Stalker could only focus long enough to read for a few seconds at a time… but what little he saw from Hanami was not at all what he expected. “Hrm,” he said with a smirk. “So the little flower bud still hides some secrets, eh?” Now he was all but within arm’s reach of her. Any remaining secrets she had would be laid bare once he touched her. The six mouths in his fingers and palm stretched open wide.
The Mage Flower twitched in Hanami’s hands. A long, jagged spear of ironwood erupted from within its blossom. Guided as sure as an arrow loosed from a trained archer’s bow, it grew with explosive force, plunging its pointed end straight into the yawning mouth in the center of Stalker’s palm. There it kept growing, penetrating deeper and deeper inside the wolf’s arm. Smaller branches split off from its main body expanded, tearing through flesh, bone, and muscle like paper…
“GYAAAAAAAAA…” An inarticulate sound of mingled pain and frustration ripped from Stalker’s throat. When the wooden shaft snapped off from the girl’s flower, his now-useless right arm fell, limp and heavy, mangled from the inside out by the pronged spear now permanently lodged in it. Redness and rage filled his vision as he raised his other arm, claws spread, meaning to tear the doe in two… but a twitch stopped him, some inexplicable sense of imminent doom should he try. Cursing the very stars, he hobbled back into the underbrush. She would live, for now, but so would he.
Zero found Hanami standing in the rain in the middle of the path, staring at a morass of churned and reddened mud with the wolf’s footprints leading to and from it. All his instincts cried out to him to run to her and gather her in his arms, tell her that everything would be all right…
“Takky, don’t touch her!” Faun’s voice in his thoughts stopped him as his hand was halfway to her shoulder. It pained him in ways he could not explain, but he withdrew his hand. Swallowing the hurt, he merely spoke to her, softly and gently: “Hanami?”
Hanami looked back at him, and there was a fraction of an instant of confusion in her pale blue eyes, as if she could not remember who he was. Her voice came out low, muddled. “Ze… Zero…?”
“Did he hurt you?”
“Thank the Gods, I thought—”
“I hurt him.”
That struck Zero as an extremely odd thing for her to say. “… I beg your pardon?”
“I hurt him,” said Hanami, in a state of stunned calm. Shock, Zero realized. “Really badly this time, I think. I grew a branch in his arm, there was a hole. I don’t think he can get away again.”
Now a war sprung up within Zero, one side demanding that he stay here and comfort her… and the other telling him to get the hell away from her and stop Stalker while he still had the chance. After a brief but intense struggle, the latter side won out. “Go back to Haven Grove,” he said, with what he hoped was great authority and purpose. “Find Faun and help her patch up.”
“But I… I should help—” Again that dreamy, not-quite-there voice.
“You have,” said Zero, meaning every inch of the words. “But I need to finish this, and it’s not something I want you to see.”
One of the last things Zero expected was for her to accept that logic so easily, but he pushed aside the sensation of wrongness for now. “Daijo,” he told her. “We’ll both get through this, I promise.” His boots made splashes in the growing puddles lining the path as he raced away, following the staggered footsteps in the mud and the trail of blood mixed with the wet soil.
When he was gone, Hanami stared down at the Mage Flower, its stem still threaded between her fingers. In most times, it was a source of comfort and strength to her, an anchor to the world. Now, and not for the first time, it felt different, in a way that made her stomach turn.
Those eyes. Those pale eyes, like robins’ eggs. She saw, and when she loosed her attack on the strange wolf with the child in his arm, she remembered.
Over the next few minutes, much of what the blue-eyed girl and the sword-wielding figure in black said to each other went unheard. It was only when the one with the sword took off to catch the wolf that she moved to follow.
His trail was not difficult to follow. Hanami’s makeshift spear had thrown off his center of balance; there was an uneven line of crushed leaves and bracken that zig-zagged back and forth, dotted with drops of blood that the rain had only begun to wash away. Zero slowed his pace and drew his sword from its scabbard. If he—
“You!” And Stalker was upon him, flailing at him with his ruined arm and incredibly, still trying to fight. “You…” Stalker panted, “… and that damned mage…”
“It’s over,” said Zero. Each swipe was easy to fend off, but he knew better that to underestimate the wolf again. “You’ve failed, Stalker.”
“Have I?” Mad laughter rang through the forest, echoing off the old trunks. “Perhaps… but so have you, Takaishi…”
Takaishi. That was a name she knew. Takaishi.
“There is still… my Lesion, my maligned creation…” said Stalker. When Takaishi’s blade came down, he shoved his deadened limb into its path, despite the pain already lancing through it. On the return, he hefted that arm and swung it wild, an improvised club. “It still… has your sister…”
It made little sense, Zero thought. Stalker’s body was torn up, he could barely stand. But even a creature all but immune to pain would try to use his good arm in place of the damaged one. Why would he favor his left arm to the point of absurdity?
It was as if a match were struck in Zero’s mind. The next time the wolf’s arm came at him, he sidestepped rather than retreating backward to dodge the blow. Moving smoothly, continuing the motion, he let go of the hilt of his sword and pulled the dagger from his jacket with his non-dominant hand. Its blessed silver blade gleamed even in the dim, misty light; Zero prayed that Nadeshiko’s foremothers had forged it for more than just ceremony as he drew it in a long guided slash, not across the wolf’s neck, but through the spider embedded in his biceps, splitting it open from head to bulbous abdomen.
Burning. Agony. Somehow, Stalker knew he was dead from the moment the red-streaked dagger emerged from his arm. The only thing that caused him pain even remotely like this was the Argenteus child’s broadsword when it bit into his shoulder. His every nerve was on fire, his limbs jerked in spasms as if he had been struck by a bolt of lightning. He stumbled, he collapsed, sliding down against the bark of a tree… a yew. How strangely fitting.
Zero watched. His hunch had been correct. It was over… or it soon would be. Just one thing left to do. Kneeling down, he stared into the wolf’s red eye as he spoke: “Where is my sister?”
Stalker chuckled weakly. Blood bubbled at his lips. “Beneath… at least, I suppose… by now…”
With a grimace of disgust, Zero looked away. The dagger was still clutched in his hand; he ran it through the damp grass until it was somewhat clean again, then tucked it back into his jacket pocket. No sense in returning it to Nadeshiko soiled. “Listen to me before you die,” he said, taking hold of the hilt of his sword again. “I want you to look at this sword, Stalker.”
Unable to do much else, Stalker pivoted his eye downward. It was a katana, typical of the kind the samurai carried. Obviously old, nicked and scratched in many places, but with a razor edge that indicated it was well cared-for. His eyes traveled up the meter of squirrel steel to the handguard, a circle that resembled a wagon wheel. No, what he mistook for spokes at first were in fact eight scythes, one at each cardinal and intermediate point, their curved blades merging smoothly into the handguard’s outer ring. His view of the hilt was mostly blocked by Zero’s hands, but he could see leather underneath the black fabric woven over the hilt in a pattern of diamonds. He smirked. “Should I… be impressed…?”
“This was my father’s sword,” said Zero, reverent, but hard as iron. “It belonged to Takaishi Tesshin of Daigundan Squad 3527, and before that to Shinji Takaishi of Squad 1662, who became the regent of District Eighteen in Tachi-cho. All my fathers and grandfathers carried this sword… and it used to have a name. A great and noble name, for the great and noble Takaishi family. Do you hear me, you bastard?”
“Family.” Again Stalker chuckled. “One thing… we have in common.”
“I carried this sword with me on the day my squad and I were attacked by the Demon Fangs,” said Zero. A tremor of emotion entered his words. “I fought with it while my brothers died for no reason. I carried it with me when I ran away, and when I was sentenced to exile in this forest. That was when this sword lost its name… because the person who held it was no longer a samurai, and no longer part of the Takaishi family. Its name is nothing now.
“I used to wonder just why I took it. I knew I would never be a samurai again… I feared death. To us, to my kind, that’s an unforgivable crime. So why take the sword? It took me years to figure it out… I took it to remember. To remember my failure, but also to try to make up for it by protecting the only things that are still important to me: my home. My friends. And my little sister.
“This old sword may not mean much anymore,” said Zero, rising to his feet, “and I may have no right to call myself a Takaishi. But the sword that belonged to my father and my grandfathers deserves better than being sullied by scum like you. So if you won’t tell me where my little sister is… then I’ll leave you here to die. You’ll suffer here, for however long it takes… It’s a coward’s death. Coming from a coward… maybe you can appreciate it more.” And he turned from the wolf, flicked the blood from his sword, sheathed it, and began to walk away.
“W… wait…” The word was pathetic, almost pleading.
Something rose within Zero that he could not suppress. An aching need, a sense of a matter of great importance, left unfinished. It would gnaw at him, taunt him endlessly, unless he made it right.
So he swiveled on his heel, eyes blazing, hand on the hilt. He drew the nameless katana from its scabbard, and it flashed in a single, crescent-shaped arc. When he brought it to a stop, half its length was painted crimson.
The wretched, twisted being resting against the yew, the sentient once called Algol, then called Stalker the Soulsnatcher, sagged against the rough back. His head lolled to one side, slid off his shoulders, and thudded to the mossy earth.
Once more, Zero knelt to clean his sword in the grass. When he was finished, he gazed at his reflection in the old, tarnished blade. “I’m sorry, Father,” he whispered to it.
Pain, sensation, thought, all faded. Stalker’s head blinked and gasped as its mockery of life eked away.
Strange. Before the darkness claimed him, he thought he heard something. A voice. A familiar voice. He was too far gone to comprehend its words, but it sounded… almost like…
Goodbye, Stalker. Goodbye… my child. My son.
She did not scream when the wolf’s head was struck from his shoulders. She made no sound at all. She only felt deep sorrow and pity for the poor, half-mad monster who had given his life—or what passed for it—for a mother he had never even met.
All was not lost. This she vowed. The wolf that called himself her son had succeeded in at least a few things, though not in the way he expected. What remained of her child spoke to her before Takaishi carved it in two, and it told her things. It told her of the hybrid and Takaishi’s sister, it told her of the beacon that pulled her from the Beneath, and it told her the nature of the bizarre tower where she emerged. More importantly, the child reminded her, once and for all, of who she was…
Her name was N’Ktane. Months before, she and all but one of her children had died in the collapse of their home, a limestone cavern in the depths of an ancient forest called Tasakeru.
Now she knew, and now she burned with the need to ensure that her last child had not died in vain. When she was finished, the Outcasts, to a one, would suffer… and she had all she needed to make that happen.
1ST VOLUME: SWORD AND FLOWER
2ND VOLUME: NIGHT AND DAY
Everything will change.