Chapter 7

Swelling of a storm

When sorrow gives way to hope

Race against the dark


“Gen ventured far and wide in search of passage to the realms beyond, for only there would he find the aid he sought. By chance, he stumbled upon a white gate that led him to the depths of the world, to the Beneath itself. There he crossed the dark river to the farther shore, and there he saw Abidokuja, the HellSerpent, the God of Death. As great and perilous and awe-inspiring as the mountain that imprisoned it, the enormous ebon viper awoke from its slumber. Its blazing white eyes beheld an unbelievable sight: a mortal samurai, as lowly before it as an ant before a sentient, who now stood where no living thing had ever dared tread. Unafraid, Gen announced his name and intentions in the sacred manner, unsheathed his sword, and challenged the Serpent to a duel.

“Such a duel had never been fought before, and never would be again. One lone mortal, with nothing but his sword and armor, against a God a hundred times his size, wielding power unimaginable. How an ordinary sword managed to cut the Serpent’s black iron hide even once, none shall ever know. The weapon did not survive Gen’s strike; the Serpent’s blood was hot and red as flame, and melted the steel to slag. Yet still Gen fought on, defiant…

“Of course Gen fell, as all must fall before death, but in the aftermath, the Death God looked upon the battered samurai who dared challenge it, and it found itself amused by his audacity. ‘Take up this fang shed from my mouth as proof,’ it said, pushing forward a venomous tooth half as large as Gen himself, torn loose during the battle. It smiled… ‘As proof that you have battled and survived. In times to come, when stand you here again, a favorable judgment shall I give.’

“So Gen was allowed to leave the Beneath, empowered and emboldened. Once he returned to the mortal world, he forged the Serpent’s fang into a new sword, a terrible weapon with a sawblade’s edge. That done, he had only to wait for his chance. It came on one dread autumn night, when under cloak of darkness, Gen stole Hayaoh’s beloved Shizuka away…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]


In the fading afternoon light, all three of them stared at the open scroll, pinned to the floor of Haven Grove with the stem of a sprig of flowers… pale pink sweet pea, with rounded petals curled up at the edges.

Rowan sat in the overstuffed armchair he had donated to Hanami months earlier. It was a favorite chair of his and he had been sorry to see it go, but now it brought him no comfort, none at all. His elbows sat on the armrests, his hands folded in front of his mouth, which was a grim, hard line.

Zero stood so still that one might mistake him for a statue. The words written on the scroll ate away at his insides like acid. He was a fool, an utter fool not to see it before. When Hanami came to him, he had been so distracted by his own sorrow that he failed to notice hers. The kiss only further distracted him, taking up space in a mind already far too crowded. And now…

Only Faun made any sound. She sat in her favorite spot on the couch, head in her hands, sobbing intermittently. Her eyes were bloodshot, raw and puffy with tears. It took ten minutes of Rowan’s pleading and a bucket full of cold water to rouse her from her stupor. At first, she took his words of alarm as some kind of bizarre, alcoholic hallucination. Only when Rowan carried her to Haven Grove and she saw the scroll for herself did realization and guilt come crashing down upon her. “It’s my fault,” she said again. Her voice was husky and broken, absent of her usual brash confidence. “It’s my fault. I was so excited to finally drink with her, I never even thought about why. I’m such an idiot! I should have stopped her, I should have said something! She’s my best friend, I should have known… but I’m just a stinking drunk, a worthless, stinking drunk! Oh Gods…” Her hand flew to her mouth as she heaved.

Without a word, Rowan slid the chamber pot to her again. Any other time, he might have made a sharp remark about the consequences of overindulgence. Not now.

Zero’s claws dug into his palms. He was the first to arrive, so he was first to read the scroll, Hanami’s confession. He alone saw the final few lines, written only to him, an outpouring of her true feelings. He begged the others not to look. “This is all wrong,” he said, partly to himself. “This is all wrong. Why didn’t she say anything before now? Why didn’t she trust us?”

Rowan shook his head. “There is no way to know for certain, but I suspect the circumstances of Hanami’s life made it difficult to fully trust anyone. Her parents—”

“Those bastards.” Faun spat into the pot, then wiped her lips on the back of her glove. “I hope the Scarred One has a special place in the Beneath picked out to boil them forever. I’ll send them there myself if I ever get half a chance. Mangy taints, the both of them.”

“Faun, stop,” said Zero, unable to look at her. “Getting angry over the past won’t solve anything.”

“What the hell else am I supposed to do, Takky?! She’s going to kill herself, and we don’t know where she is or if she even—”

“Strange,” said Rowan. Honey brown eyes scanned over Haven Grove’s interior, at the myriad of plants lining the living oak cottage: irises with drooping purple petals, bright and cheerful marigolds and daffodils, sunburst daylilies, a clutch of morning glories that looked like an ensemble of indigo horns…

“What? What’s strange?”

Rowan shifted in his chair and scratched his chin. “Please forgive me, this is terrible to contemplate, and it may not be of any help, but… if Hanami truly wanted to commit suicide,” he said, looking from Zero to Faun, who both cringed, “she had… has… many available resources on hand to do so. Her Mage Flower can grow any plant she has ever touched, can it not? Hemlock, for example, should be a simple task for her. Or oleander. Even nightshade.”

Faun’s ears flattened, and she clapped her hands over them. “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear this…”

How it was possible, Zero didn’t know, but somehow Rowan’s words made him feel even worse. He sank a little deeper into what seemed a bottomless pit of despair. “What’s your point?”

Once more, Rowan’s eyes dropped to the scroll. “Why would she leave her home, when she could have done it here? Poison aside, she could have grown a vine of sufficient length and—”

“Stop, I get it,” said Zero. The dense knot in his stomach pulled taut. “I don’t know, Rowan. Maybe she didn’t want us to find her… like that. Maybe she wanted it to be quick.”

“Perhaps, but still.” Rising to his feet, Rowan wandered to the writing desk by the window and stroked it with one hand. “Again, this is a morbid thought, and I apologize, but it… how to say it?” There was a long silence. “It almost seems that Hanami wanted us to stop her.”

“And? What about it?” The question came out more bitter than Zero intended. “ Whether she wants us to stop her or not is irrelevant, because we still don’t know where she is, how she wants to do it, or if it’s too late.”

The chamber pot clattered as Faun stood up ramrod straight. Sudden clarity flashed in her bleary eyes. “We can track her. Wherever she’s gone, we can track her.”

“False hope isn’t what we need right now, Faun!”

“Listen to me, dammit!” she said as she leaped across the room and grasped Zero by the shoulders. “Even if her trail’s gone cold for me, we have a wolf. Takky, we’ve got Drake. He found the spiders when no one else could, remember?”

A tiny, fragile warmth pervaded the cold gloom in Zero’s heart. “He did. You’re right.”

Now the desperate excitement spread to Rowan as well. He sat down at the desk, ignoring the creak of protest from Hanami’s chair, built for her much smaller frame. “I shall scroll him immediately. The question is whether or not he will answer.”

Already Zero was moving for the front door. “If he won’t answer by scroll, we’ll find him ourselves. I’ll drag him here if I have to.”

“You’re not going without me, Takky. Even hungover, I’ve got a better nose than you.”

“Fine, you too. Rowan, stay here and mind that scroll.”

The tiny wooden pen cut an almost comical sight, clutched in Rowan’s huge fingers. It raced across Hanami’s message scroll, scratching out his distinctive blocky script with none of its usual neatness. “Of course.”

That done, Zero flung open the door—

“What the hell are you all doing in here?” said Drake, standing on the doorstep in as foul a temper as ever. “Haven’t you seen what’s going on?”


The ancient white wolf’s eyes traveled from Zero and Faun, staring at him in mute shock, to Rowan, the pen forgotten in his hand, halfway through a character. “… Something I should know?”

The storm of high-speed babble that followed all but pushed him off his feet. “Stop, stop! Slow down, dammit!” said Drake, shaking his knobbled walking stick as if he intended to clobber someone with it. “Pups!” he spat as a curse. “Now what’s this about the girl?”

“She’s gone, she wants to kill herself, we need you to find her so we can stop her.” The words tumbled out of Faun as she shoved her way past him, grabbing him by the wrist along the way. “Come on, Grumpy, get a shift on!”

“I— of course,” said Drake. His tone was meek, softer than any of them had ever heard before. “That’s why none of you noticed.”

“Noticed what?” Zero was next out the door, where he fought for space on a step that could barely hold two people, let alone three. His eyes caught movement, and— “What in the Gods’ names…?”

A stampede was barreling through the forest. None of them had heard it, because despite the many bodies passing by at high speed, not one of them made a sound. It was a river of luminous beasts standing more than three meters tall, their coats not quite white and not quite grey but somewhere in between, all galloping in the same direction on silent iron hooves. No path in Tasakeru was wide enough to accommodate them all at once, but that did not matter; they ran through whatever stood in their way, whether it was tree or rock or brush, living or dead, as if to them the world were made of air. Not one pebble or blade of grass was disturbed by their passage. Zero stared in awe as one animal reared its head, shaking its mighty antlers… their many prongs faded from existence at their tips. “Pale Deer,” he said. His head swam, as if he had held his breath for too long. “What are they doing? Why are there so many?”

“That’s what I came to ask you,” said Drake. “One of them went right through my damned house. Scared the living hell out of me. Do you folk have something to do with this?”

“We—” Faun stammered, at a loss for words. That was a first. “No?”

As there was no more room on the front step, Rowan gazed at the spectacle through the window nearest the writing desk. There seemed no end to them. “I have never heard stories of anyone sighting more than one Pale Deer at a time… Zero, which direction are they traveling in?”

After tearing his eyes away, not without considerable difficulty, Zero searched for the sun among the canopy of trees. “Southeast,” he said after a moment.

“Well, Takky? What’s southeast of here?”

“Mostly uncharted regions. A few of the lake’s tributaries. The pit where the spiders’ cavern used to be. And—” He had it. Fire lit his eyes. “The Tower. The Black Rose Tower.”

“That place has an evil air to it, it raises my fur,” said Drake. “But if I were to pick a spot high enough to jump from, high enough that it wouldn’t hurt at the end, that would be it.”

“Of course!” Zero almost slapped himself. “That’s where she’s gone, it has to be!”

“A sensible conclusion,” said Rowan, “but I fear it is still a leap of logic…”

Faun shot the badger a glare that could curdle milk. “Do you have anything better?”

“No,” he said. “No, I do not. And if this will help find Hanami and stop her, I am all for it.”

“You four,” said Zero. “Follow from the ground. If you get lost, stick with the Pale Deer for as long as you can still see them. I’ll go from above. If any of you see Hanami on the way, do not let her out of your sight!”

It took the better part of an hour, by which time the sun’s rays through the canopy were long and vermillion. The Pale Deer were straight in their courses, charging southeast with singleminded determination… until the Outcasts grew close enough to the Black Rose Tower’s walls to make its shape out on the horizon. For no reason they could fathom, each and every Pale Deer instantly blinked out of sight when they came within roughly five hundred meters of the tower, as if vanishing into a tunnel that only the beasts could see. There was nothing special about the point where they all disappeared; no landmarks, no unusual formations of rocks, no streams, nothing but a stretch of forest much the same as any other. Still the stampede continued without apparent purpose, and without apparent end.

Zero took the treeways with reckless abandon, barely conscious of the Deer’s stampede except as a guide to his destination. A thousand branches and twigs lashed at him as he passed, leaving tiny, stinging welts that could just barely be seen beneath his coat. Storms of leaves fell in his wake as he hurled himself from branch to branch. He did not care, this was no time for caution. If there was a chance, even the slightest chance in all the heavens or the earth that Hanami was still alive, that he could still save her, he would face death itself to take it.

His mind drifted back to the stories of Hayaoh, the ones he and Naole used to stay up all night reading by lantern light. More than once he had imagined himself in Hayaoh’s place, gallantly striding forth to vanquish evil and keep his love from danger. Back then, those stories brought him comfort… the world seemed so simple. All one needed was a sword, bravery, a sense of right and wrong, and nothing was impossible. Even death could be overcome.

Oh, that he could think that way again. As far as he remembered, Hayaoh never doubted himself. Hayaoh never faltered. The demons he fought were simple things, ugly monsters and wicked people that existed primarily to be cut down in the name of honor and justice. Zero’s demons, Hanami’s demons? Even more ugly, even more wicked, but swords could do nothing against them. They were as impossible to cut down as air, as light…

Please, Gods, grant me light. That was a line from the end of one of the greatest tales of Hayaoh, the story of Gen Tsurugi and the Dokugaken . It floated to the forefront of his mind as he closed the distance between himself and the tower, wind howling in his ears, his heart a hammer within his chest. If there was ever a time to pray, now was it. Shogun and Terra, grant me light…

Not much further now, he could see the endless thorny vines lining the tower’s outer walls. Zero put on one final burst of speed, pushing his tired body to its limit. He flew like an arrow loosed from a bow, out of the canopy, touching down with a stumble on a section of the rough, upturned earth that surrounded the tower in a ring… remnants of its violent birthing from the earth. He took no time to brush the dirt and dust from his clothes, he made straight for that damned tower, willing to tear it down piece by piece if he had to.

High above, perhaps half a kilometer above the forest floor, there was a breach in the vast expanse of vines and black roses, a window. And for just a moment, he was sure he saw a flicker of movement and color at the window… a tiny speck of light gleaming off of golden hair.

She’s alive.

Whatever happened from here, there was that much. There was still a chance to stop her. To save her. Perhaps the Gods were listening after all.

She’s alive…!




3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 6 [Reupload] | Tasakeru
  2. Trackback: BHS Blogress Report: 2019, Week 6 – Never Again | Tasakeru
  3. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 8 | Tasakeru

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