TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 8

Chapter 8

With an awesome force

The maiden dreams of dying

A sunlit tower

 

“When Hayaoh awoke and found the space beside him empty, his behavior was strange to behold. Rather than panic or confusion, his first reaction was a sad, resigned acceptance, as if he always feared this day would come. Perhaps she was a dream and nothing more, he thought. Perhaps her love was more than I deserved…

Then, in the pale morning light, he saw a scrap torn from Shizuka’s bedclothes, stained with threads of her blood and pinned to the wall of their bedchamber by a knife. At once he understood: his beloved Shizuka was not a cruel illusion, as he merely dreaded. She was not gone of her own will, but taken.

Fury consumed him, a rage both as hot as hellfire and cold as the depths of the eternal sea. The force of his war cry split the earth asunder, releasing great gouts of flame and molten rock from below, and the stars above trembled at the sound.

For all of Gen’s despicable acts, for all the things for which his name would be cursed in years to come, his plan was a complete success: the old Hayaoh, the merciless warrior once feared by all, was reborn…”

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

 

It is dark. She cannot see, she cannot move… but she can feel, and she can smell, and she can hear. Above and around her, a ceaseless skittering and shuffling of legs, hundreds of legs. Padded feet cross to and fro over her, pressing into her with their weight. Their voices call to each other, some in birdlike chirrups, others in strangled mewling like that of creatures in their death throes.

Her prison encloses her body from head to tail, a soft, tight, unbreakable shell that clings and adheres and entangles every last millimeter of her fur. Escape is impossible, for her movement is restricted to fruitless rocking back and forth, a few millimeters in either direction. She cannot cry for help; her voice is too feeble for anything but moans and whispers, her lips and tongue are numb, and there is no one to hear besides… there is only them, the things with the padded feet and alien voices. Her prison seals her eyelids shut, depriving her of even a glimpse of her captors, but she knows they are always there, always moving, even when she cannot feel or hear them. Their smell never goes away: the dry, dusky stench of withered corpses.

There is no way to tell how long it has been. The outside, the sunlight, the freedom to move, all those things are fading, distant memories. The passage of time is marked only by periods of fitful sleep, and by the protests of her stomach when the hunger is too much. Usually they hear the noise when that happens, and within minutes, they push an indescribable mash of something past her lips, something with many indistinct flavors. They manipulate her weakened jaw for her that she might not choke. It is never enough; the food—such as it is—is to keep her alive, not satisfied.

She is aware that her life is slipping away, despite the feedings. All sensation in her limbs is lost, her muscles have withered from disuse. Even if by some miracle she should be freed from her confinement, she would still be all but paralyzed. When their teeth dig into her, there is only piercing pain for a few moments while their mouth-parts pour their venom into her. The venom always brings with it more weakness, more numbness, melting away her insides little by little. Their mouth-parts drink of the resulting slurry, and when sated, they go away until the next time, leaving her to sink into darkness deeper still.

She has come to long for that darkness, for the brief times when she can dream of freedom, of rescue… when the torment of slow death ebbs enough that she can feel the barest glimmer of hope.

She is not certain whether she is awake or asleep when she hears the voices. Not the screech and chitter of her captors, but words, clear and articulate. She smells them, too: not dry husks, but fresh, warm, living bodies. People, at last. Whether they are a delusion of her fevered mind or not, she surrenders to them. Maybe, maybe someone will find her at last. Vibrations rumble through her… movement. Motion. Joy fills her failing heart…

The rumble escalates into a roar. Something huge, heavy and solid crashes nearby, and her body shakes with its impact. Then another, and another. Her relief is smothered by a renewed sense of claustrophobia, and she trembles in her prison. Air whistles above her—

Crushing force. Pain, pain that she did not think herself capable of anymore. She is bleeding in too many places to count, it oozes up hot and sticky through her fur. A massive weight is crushing her lungs, forcing the air from them like someone slowly compressing a bellows. Every time she exhales, inhaling again becomes harder and harder… until coppery fluid clogs her throat, and she cannot breathe at all. She chokes, she suffocates, she drowns… and the cacophony of many more falling heavy things assaults her as her consciousness fades. She slips into an eternal sleep to the tune of a hellish lullaby…

 

Hanami collapsed against the black stone wall, her hands pressing her temples as if trying to squeeze the vision out of her brain. This newest waking nightmare was born of someone else’s memories, of one of the many helpless victims that died when she collapsed the ceiling of the spiders’ lair. How it was possible to see and feel that person’s final moments, she did not know and did not care. It was another divine punishment, that much was clear. She killed all those people in the cavern. Whether by intention or not, or whether or not they could be saved, it did not matter. She brought the ceiling down on them… and that was just one of her multitude of sins.

The Gods demanded atonement. The Gods put the little voice in her mind, whispering the litany: I should not be here. Soon, she prayed, the Gods would grant her release.

Her vision blurred by tears, Hanami scrabbled at the wall behind her, pulling herself up by her claws. She could only see the tower window as a lighter shape contrasting with the darkness of the stones. Outside was an early evening sky, blue tinged with traces of pink as the sun set… it would soon be twilight. As good a time as any. Her hands grasped the sill…

No, said the little voice in her mind. Not yet. The time is not right. Wait.

Very well, then. She would wait. Hanami sat back against the wall… and as she did so, the tower chamber shifted around her, featureless black stone melting and reshaping into a place very familiar, one that she could not forget…


A fourth run around the perimeter of the tower confirmed to Zero what the first three had already told him: the entrance was sealed. The only sign of any sort of door was a blank and featureless patch of black stone, three meters high and two meters wide, curving at the top… the suggestion of an arch, without the arch itself. That was where he thought he remembered entering and exiting the tower months ago, but he couldn’t be sure. As far as he could see, that was the only part of the tower not overgrown with black rose vines.

Once again, he took a few steps toward the arch… and once again, the vines reacted to his presence, crawling over the stone and intertwining with a sound like snake scales. There wasn’t time for this, damn it all. Hacking through them with his sword was a tempting thought, but with so many vines, he would exhaust his energy long before making any progress. If there was any progress to be made. There was still the wall behind the vines.

His ears perked with an idea, and his heart quickened in his chest. It was a reckless idea, probably a stupid one, but perhaps he didn’t need to cut them at all.


Rowan trailed a good distance behind. Zero could travel through Tasakeru faster than anyone, he had the natural advantage. That left the rest of the party to follow his trail from the forest floor, which was far more dense and winding than the canopy, especially in the uncharted regions. His armor protected him from most of the nettles, brambles, and small, sharp, whip-like twigs, but there were still many tiny nicks and scratches accumulating under his fur.

He paid them no mind. As it always did in times of crisis, Rowan’s focus narrowed down to one single thought and held it tight: Something is very wrong. The events of the past few hours played over and over, like a familiar tune whose words he couldn’t quite recall.

Hanami came to his home, asked for the book of the squirrels’ holy edicts, hugged him, and left. Faun’s recollections of the next part were blurry, but she had the basics: Hanami visited, they drank together, she told the vixen she wanted to confess to Zero, then she left. Next was Zero… and while Zero was understandably reluctant to divulge details, Rowan could piece it together based on the available evidence. Hanami returned to Haven Grove, wrote her confession, and left to do the unthinkable at the Black Rose Tower… at least, that was where they hoped she was.

Not altogether an implausible scenario, he thought. Sudden, yes, and horrifying, but not implausible. When he scratched the surface of the matter, though, it all fell apart. Hanami’s behavior could be contributed to exhaustion and depression, yes, but something about it was… what was the word? Damn it all, what was the word he was looking for?

His answer came from an unexpected source. So absorbed was he in his thoughts that he charged face-first into a low-hanging hornbeam branch. His brain rattled in his skull, his snout felt like it might swell like a balloon. Fuming, he wiped a hand across his nose, and the fur on the back of his hand came away stained with thin streaks of blood. Even if he wanted to continue rushing blindly through the undergrowth, a bloody nose would—

Rowan stopped dead in his tracks. One might have thought the branch had given him a concussion, but in fact the collision had shaken loose the word he was looking for.

Convenient. It was all too convenient. He and the other Outcasts had not only been handed a full explanation for Hanami’s actions in her own words, but they were given a chance to find her and stop her before she could take her own life… or so they were led to believe. The puzzle pieces falling neatly into place were part of the problem: life, in his experience, almost never provided such clear-cut answers.

Even if her actions were a cry for help, she never actually made the cry. It was all things the others would have taken note of separately, but blind spots for the specific people she spent time with. He would be lost in his books, Faun would eagerly share a drink with any of them, even Rowan himself.  Probably even Drake, if the old brute brought his own bottle. Zero would be too flummoxed by whatever romantic overtures she made to examine the facts clearly.

Something like this was too cruel for the gentle doe. That, more than anything else, convinced him. Now, devastated by Hanami’s revelations and her intent, they were so distracted by shock and grief that apparently only he could notice how well-timed those revelations were. Suspiciously well-timed. As if…

“As if someone or something is manipulating us,” he said aloud. The eerie silence that settled around him as he spoke those words was almost like a validation. Perhaps the collision with the branch addled his brains more than he thought, but the more he dwelt on his conclusion, the more sure he was. There was someone or something pulling them along with puppet strings… and, he assumed, having a merry game of it. Why else would someone bother to set up this scenario, if not for some sick enjoyment?

Rowan unslung his morning star from his back, gripped the shaft tight, and palmed the mighty iron hammer. If his theories were correct and someone was behind all this… then, he thought, they had best pray that Rowan Longstripe never crossed their path.


Faun did not know whether she was supporting Drake, or Drake was supporting her. The burden bounced back and forth between them, she supposed. At least Rowan’s profile made him easy to follow; when he was in a hurry, he plowed through anything smaller than himself, as his wake of trampled loam, fallen leaves, and bent and broken branches would attest. Faun kept her eyes on the signs of his passage and hiked Drake’s arm more securely around her shoulder.

Sick. She felt sick. A little of that was the lingering traces of an incredible hangover, but most of it was the thought of poor Hanami desperate enough to— No. She could not bear to think about it. They would find her, stop her, and comfort her so that she would never again feel that that was an acceptable solution to her problems. Failure was not an option. She slogged on through the queasy green swirls of nausea… there was time to throw up again later, when this was all settled and safely behind them.

“Dammit, vixen—” Drake began as she increased her pace.

“Shut up,” she said. “We’re already far enough behind, I can’t even see Stripehead’s back anymore.”

“I’m going to lose my walking stick if you keep hauling me like that!”

“Oh no, a lost stick.” Faun rolled her eyes, then winced as a sharp pain shot through her temples. “Where in the world would we ever find another one?”

“I like this stick, dammit,” Drake griped. “It’s my favorite stick. I’ll not have you making me drop it out here in the hind-end of nowhere.”

“Look,” said Faun, shooting him a savage glare. “I’m not thrilled with this arrangement either. If it were up to me, I’d have dropped your sorry tail half an hour ago, before we crossed the river. Maybe in the river. Whichever.”

Drake glared right back… with equal ferocity, surprisingly. “And then where would you be?”

“Ten minutes closer to the Tower and around sixty kilos lighter, for starters.”

With a short, sharp huff, Drake unwrapped his arm, took firmer hold of his stick, and moved a few paces ahead of her. “Fine, then. Far be it from me to burden you. I hope it’s worth it.”

“What do you me—”

Crack. The sound was so loud that Faun thought one of her noisemaker bombs had gone off by mistake. She looked around for the puff of smoke and spent shell, but there was nothing on the forest floor. Crack, crack, CRACK. “What the hell?!

Then she saw, and her stomach heaved with renewed fervor. The sound was coming from Drake’s back as the old wolf slowly, slowly assumed a relatively upright posture. His bones creaked and groaned like a stubborn old wooden door with hinges in desperate need of oiling, and there was a symphony of pops and snaps down his spine like those of a far-off fireworks display. Faun watched and listened to the grotesque display, her mouth hanging open in abject horror.

When Drake finished, his stoop was barely visible as a slight hunching forward of his shoulders. Wincing, he rolled his withered arms to try to work the rest of the kinks out. “Stars above, I hate doing that. Satisfied, vixen?”

There was no reply.

“Heh.” Drake smirked and adjusted his grip on the walking stick, holding it at the center of its length. “Not often I see you made speechless.”

“That was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Faun in an uncharacteristic meek tone. “And honestly, that alone is impressive.”

“I’ve known foxes fairly well, so I appreciate the… compliment? Come on now, don’t just stand there, you’ll attract flies.” With that, Drake turned back to the trail and followed… haltingly, and with more loud protests from his bones, but faster than before.

“Wait,” said Faun, hurrying to catch up. “You could have done that all along?!”

“I’ll have you know I’ll be bedridden for the next week or more after this. It’s not something I do if I ever have a choice, but I’m needed.”

For Drake, that was almost touching, she thought “If you actually do care, how come you stay shut up in that moldy rock of yours all the time?”

An offended sniff. “Who says I care?”

“You just put your entire upper torso through what I’m pretty sure was a torture session to get there faster. And you said ‘I’m needed.’”

Faun thought she saw his hackles rise for a second. “Poor choice of words,” he grumbled.

“Oh no.” She was tempted to give him a hard poke in the back, but for all she knew, he would crumble into a pile of dust if she tried. “You can’t escape that easy, Grumpy. I heard it, and you know it.”

There was a long, pregnant silence before he answered. “It’s not something I would wish on anyone. Wanting to die, that is. Or dying, for that matter. I’ve had more than enough of both.”

Now what the hell did that mean? Faun was about to ask, when her ears perked with a sound: someone huge and heavy tearing through the forest at double-speed. “Looks like Stripehead found a lead.”


Rowan emerged from the brush to a horrific sight: Zero Takaichi was on the ground, out of breath and clutching two patches of grass stained bright red with his own blood. “Zero!” He thundered to his friend’s side, dreading confirmation of what he already knew. “Good Gods, did you really—”

“T-tried to climb the rose vines,” Zero hissed through gritted teeth. “They fought back.”

“Let me see.” Gently he took the buck’s hands in his own. His pads were a shambles, scored deep with more cuts and puncture wounds than Rowan could count. “Sit still. I have a silver spellstone in my pouch. I hope for your sake it still has enough charge.”

“She’s here, Rowan.” Zero’s eyes were bleary, but triumphant. “She’s here, and she’s alive. There’s still time, I have to get inside… right now!”

“You will be of no help to Lady Hanami dead from blood loss,” Rowan snapped. Zero actually cringed away from him, and he immediately regretted both his words and the harshness of his tone. “I apologize, my friend, but please. Conserve your strength and your energy. If my suspicions are correct, Lady Hanami will take no action until we arrive.” Carefully he retrieved the spellstone, squeezed it, and ran it over Zero’s palms and fingers. Its gossamer glow was faint, but present. Tendrils of light sunk into his flesh and ejected dozens of stray thorns and fibers as the magic did its work, restoring what was Zero’s own and removing what was not. The healing quickly taxed the stone to its limit; it knit the wounds closed, but it cracked and fell apart into glittering fragment before anything could be done about the scars.

“Thank you, Rowan, that’s good enough.” Zero tore his hands back, flexed his fingers, and reached for his sword. “If I can just—”

“No,” said Rowan, laying a heavy hand on Zero’s shoulder. It was not a hard push, but his knees buckled all the same. “I insist that you allow me.”

“Rowan?”

Rowan faced the black stone wall where the arch should have been, his expression blank as the wall’s surface. With great care, he drew his morning star from its holster one more and let the hammer dangle on its chain, the tips of its spikes brushing the blades of grass below. His muscles bulged and sinews stood out like coiled ropes as he wound up, bringing the weapon to a spin, then to a whirl, the hammer’s own weight propelling it faster and faster until it was a deadly cyclone at his side. The air thrummed and moaned around it, its momentum built and built like the swelling of a storm… and at the peak of its speed, Rowan roared a battle cry, a deep and terrible ululating sound that sent flocks of nesting birds in the branches above to wing again. He gripped the shaft with both hands and took his first swing at the wall. A thunderclap, the entire tower shook, a thin rain of dust drifted down from above. Again he swung, and this time the hammer left an impact crater the size of Rowan’s head in the featureless black stone. Not enough. Again and again, attacking the wall with the force of all his anger, all his worry, all his awful suspicions that someone had orchestrated this madness to make them suffer. Each blow of the hammer hit like the fist of a god… a network of cracks raced through the stone, the crater grew larger and larger, deeper and deeper. Finally, after nearly a dozen strikes to the same spot, the stone buckled and collapsed, leaving a gaping, three-meter wound in the tower’s side and a pile of powdered stone and debris at his feet. Through the breach was only darkness, black as pitch and impenetrable as lead. Fighting for breath, Rowan relaxed his aching muscles, letting the hammer slow to a stop.

“Rowan…” said a hushed voice behind him. It was clear that his unbridled fury had disturbed Zero quite a bit. “Are… are you all right?”

Daijo… my friend,” he panted, shaking to remove the fine coating of powder from his coat. “This… is why I train. Not because… I feel the need to use my weapon, but because… sometimes I have no other choice.”

“Thank you.” Zero came to his side and laid a hand on his back. “What you said, though, about Hanami waiting for us to arrive, what did that mean?”

“It means that I suspect someone has planned all of this.” The words came out with a throaty growl. “I have no idea how they could do so, but there is simply too much that strikes me as… rehearsed. A farce for some unknown party’s amusement.”

Zero’s claws dug into his scarred palm, almost drawing blood again. His ears swiveled down flat. “If that’s the case, then so help me, I’m going to find who’s responsible and tear them apart.”

“That may prove difficult, should I find them first.” That sentence rattled Zero to his core, Rowan could tell by the sharp intake of breath. It was a wholesale violation of the badgers’ sacred Code, the law of absolute pacifism that their elders enacted as penance for their brutal actions during the Lost Ages and the Species War. The Code was as ingrained in Rowan as it was in all his kind. Even his forging of his morning star and armor, a supremely heretical act, was done not out of need for bloodshed but out of necessity… a symbolic statement that when another war inevitably came, the badgers would need to defend themselves or be made extinct. Exiled he might be, but Rowan prayed to the Gods every night that his weapon and armor would forever remain a statement and nothing more. For Zero to hear him express a desire to not just harm but kill another sentient… it must have been a betrayal of everything Zero thought he knew about him. Rowan tried to smile, though it did not quite reach his eyes. “I think you’ll find even badgers have their limits, young Takaishi.”

Behind them, Faun emerged from the detritus with Drake close behind. “Mange!” she said upon seeing the tower’s new entrance. Her eyes were wide as saucers. “We heard that racket from half a kilometer back, Stripes! You mangled it!”

“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” Drake bent forward, hands on his knees, wheezing. “It’s a waste to haul that damned thing around if you don’t use it for anything.”

“We can discuss it later,” said Rowan, slinging the morning star back into its holster. “Come, my friends. Lady Hanami needs our help.”

The hole in the wall was easily wide enough for the four of them to slip through. Nothing at all could be seen of the tower’s inside, the darkness was absolute… until, in the space of an eyeblink, it wasn’t. All four cringed as their eyes were assaulted by something not just improbable, but impossible…

Sunlight.

They stood amid a sea of rolling, dusty hills… a place that bore a resemblance to the Jiburi Grasslands miles away, but there was not a scrap of vegetation to be found. All there was was dry, parched soil and bleached rock. A high noon sun blazed from above, making the barren hills farthest from them ripple with heat mirage. Smooth stones at their feet were arranged in a gently curving footpath leading up the closest hill, where sat the shell of a building… a humble farmhouse, long since abandoned and fallen to ruin. The thatched straw roof had rotted away, its support beams collapsed in four places, sagging in a dozen more. Where there were still panes of glass in its uneven windows, it was either shattered or caked over with dirt and grime. It was a miserable specter of a home, as devoid of life as the earth beneath their feet.

But altogether stranger than the barren landscape, more unsettling than the abandoned farmhouse or the inexplicable noonday sun, was the window that hovered in midair fifty meters away. It hung there like a portrait on a wall, but with no means of supporting itself. Its frame was the same black stone that composed the outside of the tower, and through it they could see rosy clouds gathering the evening sky, in bizarre contrast to the spotless blue above their heads. Cold, thin air lowed through it with a mournful groan… however its connection with the outside world worked, they could tell at a glance that the window led to somewhere high, high off the forest floor.

Standing on the sill of that window, framed by the incongruous dusky sky, was Hanami. She was dressed in simple white robes, clearly made from crumpled bed sheets… a makeshift burial shroud. Her eyes were wide, haunted, raw and red from crying. And as the four of them all moved toward her at once, her name on their lips, she inched backward.

END OF CHAPTER 8

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 7 | Tasakeru
  2. Trackback: BHS Blogress Report: 2019, Week 14 – A Little Faith Restored | Tasakeru

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