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…

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TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 7

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?”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 7

Chapter 7

Early morning cold

Invasion, an intruder!

Rain upon the leaves

 

“With our every step, we tread upon the ashes of the past… our sins, our legacies.”

[Attributed to Yourichi Shinen, 10th century poet and philosopher]

 

Misty, prismatic fingers curled around Zero as he floated in the wake of the ancient wolf. Not walked, floated; if there was solid ground beneath him hidden somewhere in the fog’s depths, what he desperately hoped were still his feet did not touch it. He could not turn or deviate from his course, he could only follow after Drake… who, he noted, was not floating. However the wolf moved forward, he did it slowly, trudging through denser, darker, more threatening clouds that clung to him as if trying to drag him down.

Apart from those, the fog bank was lighter and more colorful than Zero felt like it should be. Of the many things he had experienced in the past few months, this ranked as among the strangest. As he was, he was barely less ephemeral than the fog, and he could not shake the fear that one strong gust of wind would blow him apart.

Wherever Drake was taking him, through whatever bizarre magic this was (if it was magic), he was right about one thing: it was not more pleasant than traveling by boltpath. Not in the least. Bolting, as sick as it made him whenever he was forced to use it, was at least over fast, with a minimum of sensation between one state and the other. This, though? Zero felt like a living ghost, divorced entirely from the physical plane, and that turned his stomach in knots.

As they moved, he saw things, shapes in the fog. Blurry and indistinct, but if he looked at them long enough, they almost resembled people, faces… No sooner would he try to focus on these phantoms than they would melt away into featureless swirls. Once or twice, Zero thought he saw the shapes reach out to him with ghostly hands…

And there were the sounds. Not quite words, they would drift out of the fog, whisper urgently in his ear, then disappear as quickly as they came. Fragments of emotion without any meaning attached to them, voices speaking a language he could not understand. They gave him the crawling horrors.

Drake pushed on with Zero following, seeming unbothered by the whispers or the strange shapes. He said nothing, he paused for not a moment, until-

rain

Ahead, Drake came to a brief stop, for no more than a second at the most.

rain

That word cut through the maddening vagueness of the other whispers with such clarity that Zero would have shuddered, were he solid enough to do so. Rain?

rain

Now that he concentrated on it, he could feel a dim pattering of warm, soft droplets upon him, almost like tears. Zero glanced upward. Above him were thick, bloated clouds the color of bruises, clearly the source of the rain… but something in him stirred. There was nothing special about them that he could determine, they were just ordinary rain clouds, but… he found them beautiful.

rain

And there was something that sounded half like a laugh, a musical sound bubbling out of the mists. Then the acrid smell of smoke, and…

The rain stopped. All at once, as if the heavens had slammed a door shut.

Zero opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. With the end of the rain came a tempest of emotions not his own: grief, an unbearable heaviness, his chest filled with cold lead. Wrath, rivers of molten steel scouring his veins. An insatiable hunger, a need to make someone hurt, make someone bleed. As terrible as if someone had murdered Hanami or Naole, but without meaning, without context… Then those too faded, and there was nothing but emptiness. He was little but a shell, his insides hollowed out. He would never be whole again…

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 6

Chapter 6

Glimpse a twisted mind

Travel back into the past

Birth of the legion

 

“For all his terrible deeds, the Soulsnatcher succeeded at one thing: creating a new form of life. As creatures of science, we must acknowledge his achievement as much as we condemn his methods. The Soulsnatcher was insane, yes. A mass-murderer, absolutely… but he brought forth a being the likes of which the world had never seen.

“How to describe this creature, then? How does one describe the indescribable? Does the wickedness of a being’s creation taint its soul? And if not, could it have been done better?”

[Excerpt from Treatises by Galen Primus Avarius]

 

“I’m going.”

“Don’t be a fool, Takaishi. You could barely stand until a few minutes ago.”

“I don’t care. I’m going.”

“And he’ll be waiting.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Do you even know where to go?”

“I’ll find him. Whatever it takes.”

Voices raised in argument cut through the fog clouding Nadeshiko’s consciousness like handsaws through wood. With the loss of the fog came an awareness of both a splitting headache and a deep, throbbing pain in her neck and shoulder. The skunk opened her eyes and immediately shut them, as the infirmary’s lantern light ratcheted up her headache another few notches. “Would you please…” she began, then stopped. Her throat was dry, her lips chapped.

“Little One!” That voice was her mother, no doubt about that. Only Lily had the privilege of calling her by that name. Arms seized her in a hug that was entirely too tight, and her shoulder burned from the pressure. “Little One, thank the Greatmother you’re awake, I thought-”

“Mother!” Nadeshiko wheezed. “Mother, stop, that hurts…”

The arms pulled away in horror. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry-”

Nadeshiko opened her eyes again, more slowly this time. Her temples pounded in protest, but the lights were a bit more bearable now. “Do not apologize, I will be fine. Water, please?”

“H-here.”

The rim of a glass pressed to her lips, and she drank greedily before speaking again. “Thank you.”

Blurry shapes hovered at the foot of her bed, one black and one white. Those shapes resolved into Zero Takaishi and the ancient wolf called Drake, both peering at her with great concern. “You two-” she said.

“Milady, we apologize for disturbing your rest,” said Drake, tilting forward in the deepest bow he could manage. “We shall take our leave shortly.”

With no such attempt at decorum, Zero scowled and turned toward the door of the infirmary. “No more reason for me to be here, then. I’m leaving.”

“Wait!” The word came out harder than Nadeshiko intended, more of a barked command. “Takaishi. That creature, the Soulsnatcher-”

“He took my sister.” Venom seethed in his words. “And the longer I dawdle here, the harder it’ll be to find him and kill him. So if you’ll excuse me, Lady Nadeshiko…”

“I know where he is.”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5

Petals on the floor

Rectifying past mistakes

Duel in the flames

“How ironic it is that one of the most terrible nights of the Silver Order’s history led to such great change… For all the horror that occurred that night, for all the innocent lives lost or ruined in both the Soulsnatcher’s attack and the events that followed because of it, it is that bloodthirsty monster that was arguably the catalyst for bringing the Order into the modern age.”

[Excerpt from the writings of Sister Belladonna Justitia]

 

None of them seemed able or willing to break the silence. Apart from the hiss and crackle of flames spreading through the meditation chamber, there was no talk, no motion, only the Soulsnatcher, Lady Lily, Drake, and Zero himself, locked in stalemate. And Lady Nadeshiko, Zero reminded himself, either unconscious or dead in the monstrous wolf’s grip. And Naole, still dazed in Drake’s arms, still helpless. Any moment now, he thought, someone would break the spell and all hell would break loose, but as long as no one moved and no one spoke-

“You,” growled the wolf again.

So much for that. There was an unnatural gleam in his crimson eyes, visible even beneath his heavy brow. The word was directed at Zero, but despite wracking his brain for the answer, he could not imagine how the wolf recognized him, or what provoked such seething rage. He was used to being hated on principle, but the only wolf Zero interacted with with any degree of regularity was Drake, and this, clearly, was no Drake. While he searched for an answer, and while the Soulsnatcher still had a hostage, it was best to try to stall. “Sorry,” he said as he raised his blade and dropped into a counter stance. Better to go on the defensive until he had a grasp on the wolf’s fighting style. “I can’t say I can place you. I think I’d remember a face like yours…”

“Murderer!” Froth flew from Stalker’s jaws. “You’re one of them! The ones that killed Mother!”

More confused than ever, Zero blinked. No one had ever accused him of that before. “What the hell are you talking abou-”

Any further attempt to unravel the mystery was derailed by a chilling, wordless howl of rage as Lady Lily Argenteus, the graceful and benevolent head of the Silver Order – Lily the aged, Lily past her prime, Lily whose days on the field were behind her – rushed the wolf that captured her daughter with hellfire in her eyes, her greatsword’s edge for his neck. Heedless of the spreading flames, heedless of the danger, heedless of the chaos around her, Lily charged at the Soulsnatcher like a frenzied boar. Steel met steel, the heavy clang resounding through the chamber as Stalker raised his stolen cutlass to protect himself.

Lily would not stop. She gave no quarter, clashing against the flat of the cutlass again and again until it was in danger of being cleaved straight through. With every swing, she snarled: “Take… your hands… off… my… daughter…!”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 4

Chapter 4

Order under siege

An assault on sacred ground

The night of slaughter

 

“There has never truly been a wolf in the Silver Order. While of course the Order touts itself as open to all species, and a few of our kind have followed its beliefs, in all recorded history there has never been record of a brute Brother, a fae Sister, or a knight of either.

“Admittedly, there are some practical reasons why this is the case. Wolves wander; the urge to travel is ingrained deep within, and staying in one place for too long is antithetical to us. Since officially joining the Order requires constant contact with Aedis Centralis, most of us would not be able to follow the vows.

“Sadly, the other major reason for our lack of representation in the Silver Order is simple prejudice. For all the strides made by the Argenteus House and their followers in advancing society, they have historically been either unwilling to treat us as true equals, or content to ignore us altogether. This is hardly uncommon; in too many places in the world, our kind is still seen as ‘uncultured’, our ways ‘primitive’. The less charitable tend to call us ‘savages’.

“We have heard ourselves called as much for generations upon generations. We are ‘savages’ because we prefer not to wear clothing. Because when hungered, we favor red meat rather than fowl, fish, grain, or produce. Because we eschew the noise and complexities of life in Unify and the surrounding villages for a plainer, quieter existence. Above all, because our ways are strange and alien to those sentients who call themselves ‘normal’. We are, therefore, less ‘normal’ than they… though perhaps just a bit more normal that our half-brethren, the wolfoxes. But what, to a wolfox, would be considered ‘normal’, then?”

[Excerpt from the writings of Io of the HearthPack]

 

Oh, he remembered the Silver Order. Elite. Self-righteous. Pretending to be dedicated to “life” while suppressing or excluding those who did not fit their narrow definitions of the word. Worst of all, serving as a front for the damned stinktails and their poisonous belief that females were to be elevated above their natural station. The florises… the florises honestly told people that they cared about all life while forcing their males into subservience. Blatant hypocrites, all of them.

And yet. The Silver Order’s diversity was exactly what Stalker needed to revive Mother, to make her proud, to give her new children to avenge the slain. How ironic, that a former sentient of the one species to be excluded from the Order would see to its downfall.

That last thought gave Stalker pause. Former? Of course he was still sentient, and he still considered himself a wolf at least partially, though he was altered with his rebirth. A wolf, and yet not a wolf. One of Mother’s children, and yet different from any who had come before: able to speak sentient languages, walk on two legs, think and act independently. A true study in contrasts, was he not? A crossbreed of sorts, but certainly a more worthy crossbreed than any of the blue-furred taints.

Wolfoxes… he never despised the taints like some of his brethren did, like the foxes as a whole did. Some of them had to be decent… and a female was a female, though of course his preference had been for proper fae. Still, in his old life he preferred not to think of the wolfoxes at all. Now he realized that using one of them to pave Mother’s way home would be inappropriate. She deserved better. Better, as her new children would be. Not misbegotten things like wolfoxes, but children with the best of every species.

Stalker thought of these things as the mouths in his hand did their work, siphoning the last of the ferret watcher’s blood as his soulless body quivered in its death throes. He had been a good, strong hobferret. Faithful to his Order and his Grand Mistress to the last. Worthy of being a sacrifice. Daring enough that when Stalker climbed over the edge of the battlement, the hobferret did not cower or flee in terror, but made a desperate charge with his spear… the spear now broken and protruding harmlessly out of the wolf’s belly. The sight had rattled the watcher enough that he dropped his guard. Stalker pounced upon him, ripped off his leather breastplate, and extracted his soul. Without it, the hobferret’s body slipped into living death, and he made no move to resist as Stalker tore out his throat with his fangs.

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

Preparations made

Shoring up the defenses

To strike at the heart

“Something evil comes a-lurking

Baring fangs, in shadows smirking:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Wander not at night alone,

Lest he take you for his own:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Meet not his gaze, his maddened eyes

And listen not unto his lies:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

His razor teeth, his foul breath,

His ragged claws, all steeped in death:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Your soul will writhe in endless hell

When takes he, leaving but a shell:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!”

[Folk song dating from late Year 1349, attributed to Marlowe the Mad Bard]

In the deepest heart of Aedis Centralis lay the Grand Mistress’s private meditation chamber. Precious few sentients were allowed here; only those of the Argenteus bloodline and their most trusted attendants ever set foot inside it. The chamber acquired a kind of mythical status over the years as a result. Many Order sistren and brethren wondered: what was behind those heavy mahogany double doors? Fabulous riches? Unseemly pleasures? Forbidden magic?

Those who wondered the most would doubtless have been disappointed if they saw the chamber for themselves. While its furnishings changed every time the title of Grand Mistress passed from mother to daughter, it had never strayed much from the concept that Mistress Emeritus Lotus envisioned thirty-three generations ago: a place of peace. A place of warmth, of quiet, of contemplation.

Soft colors dominated the chamber, pastel yellows, greens, and blues. Straight lines and sharp edges were kept to a bare minimum, and there were gentle arches were everywhere. The most striking feature was the water, a natural stream that ran right through the middle of the chamber. Fragrant lotus blossoms floated lazily on the stream’s surface in all seasons of the year, a permanent tribute to the namesake of the Order’s founder. Overlooking the stream was an old spruce footbridge coated in rose-colored lacquer, arcing from one bank to the other. Though there was a throne reserved for the use of the current Grand Mistress, Lily preferred to kneel on a cushion on the bridge, with candles burning low in the sconces that lined its supports. There she sat now, swathed in simple white robes, her eyes closed, her tail curled around herself, and her expression unreadable.

When Nadeshiko came through the doors moments later, she seemed an affront to what the meditation chamber stood for: in full, spotless white-and-chrome armor with greatsword at her side, as usual, not a trace of softness or gentleness in her expression, her lips drawn tight in what Lily feared would become a semi-permanent frown. “Mother,” she said by way of greeting. “I’ve just spoken with some of the head scribes of the news scrolls. They told me that-”

“Little One,” Lily sighed. Beneath her closed lids, her eyes rolled. “Please, I beg of you. Calm yourself.”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

Caution and conquest

A monster and a maiden

The theft of a soul

 

“Being haunted is the mark of people who have made important decisions. Some of us are haunted by mistakes we’ve made; failures and flaws; words spoken in anger; lovers lost;  misdeeds that can never be redeemed; the best of intentions, gone wrong. And some of us are haunted by doing the right thing, because sometimes that can be the the worst of all.”

[Final words of Lady Crocus Argenteus, 31st Grand Mistress of the Silver Order, Years 1201 – 1240]

 

“I don’t know about this, Faun.”

“Come on, don’t be so timid. He’s right there.”

“But-”

“Look, Flowers. As your friend, I’m telling you to go for it. You know you’re never going to do it if you keep hesitating. It’s your move, it’s your moment. Go.

“I just don’t think it’s right.”

“What’s not right about it? He’s open, you know he is. Yours for the taking, so take the advantage, girl! Get over there and rut him..”

“A-all right…” With trembling fingers, Hanami reached for the carved wooden figure. Her eyes were set as she moved the scout over the head of Faun’s paladin and placed it in the square behind it. Satisfied, she took up the captured paladin and dropped it in the cloth pouch on her side of the board.

Faun waited until her paladin was in the bag, then leaned forward. “You’re sure, right? You’re positive that’s your move?”

Hanami nodded. “Yes.”

The vixen’s face split into a triumphant grin that stretched from ear to pointed ear. “Gotcha!” Snatching up her scholar, she jumped it over Hanami’s scout… and her mage, and her archer, then finally over her noble, knocking it over for good measure. “Shouri. You owe me two hundred tri.”

A moan of despair escaped Hanami. “Not again” After handing over her coins, she slumped in her seat. Her tail drooped in abject misery. “That’s four games in a row. Faun, you’re a genius at this game, I don’t know how you talk me into this…”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 1

BOOK III: SOULSNATCHER

Chapter 1

On an autumn night

Innocent lives cross paths with

Hunters in the dark

 

“Let us lay to rest a common misconception: though the Outcasts of Tasakeru (at least, those of the era that this book covers, with Hanami, Zero Takaishi, Faun Muranaka, Rowan Longstripe, and the rest being by far the most well-known of them all) are considered folk heroes, they were by no means seen as such at the time. According to most stories, the Magistrate Representatives and their various species governments made every effort to paint them as traitors, outlaws, scoundrels, and what-have-you. This despite the fact that, Muranaka aside, they were not career criminals… at least, not in the traditional sense. The majority of the Outcasts of that era were exiled for violating cultural taboos, rather than exhibiting criminal malice: Hanami for use of magic, Longstripe on his own volition as an act of symbolic protest, etc.

“Of course, that is not to say that all Outcasts were considered heroes. Far from it, in fact. Some Outcasts were undoubtedly exiled for very good reason…”

[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]

 

The problem was that they just couldn’t see. Couldn’t, or wouldn’t. It was because of that stubborn blindness on their part, that refusal to see what was right in front of them, that he had to do it. He wasn’t to blame. He had done no wrong. Why couldn’t they understand that?

The young brute wolf thought these bitter thoughts to himself as he trudged through the  forest at close to midnight. His dark eyes glowered, hidden in part by strands of long, lank black hair that threw the details of his features into perpetual shadow. Perhaps he would have been handsome, had he groomed himself with more care: the claws on each of his long, thin fingers were ragged and overgrown, and his fur was shaggy and unkempt over a lean, wiry frame. Like many wolves, he normally eschewed clothing. Unlike almost all of the wolves, however, his fur bore no markings, no patterns, no indication of any kind that he belonged to a pack.

This was because he didn’t. Not anymore.

They exiled him. They made him an Outcast, because they couldn’t see.

Fools, all of them.

Why couldn’t they understand? He explained it to them over and over, but each time they refused to listen to reason. They imprisoned him, stripped him of his markings, exiled him out to Tasakeru in the cold autumn night. They couldn’t see.

More

WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 3

Strangers become friends

Watching dancing fireflies

Outcasts’ gathering

“And so it was. We heeded the words, and change and new life flourished throughout the world. From our savagery, we were uplifted into civilizations, each one based upon worship of the Gods that so awed and terrified us. We called the brutal battles of our past the Last War, in hopes that it would ever be thus. We reclaimed the land, healed it as best we could, and made it our own. We tamed the animals, the goats, sheep, hogboars, and fowl, nurturing them as if they were our own children. Where there was once only ruin, we built homes, towns, villages… and Unify, our capital city.

“Built in a circle around the Shinju, the great tree that the Goddess of Life raised in the world’s center, named to remind us of the message that the Gods gave unto us, Unify spread as our numbers grew. Among the Shinju’s roots we mingled, sharing our stories and our knowledge, and under her boughs we slept in peace. When it came time to lead ourselves, those chosen by each species took to meeting high up in her crown, where the Representatives could see all of Unify spread out before them.

“For a while, it was paradise… but then, to our sorrow, our belief in the Gods led to more conflict than ever…”

[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]

“Well, kitto, there it is!”

A gasp left Hanami’s lips as Faun pulled aside the underbrush blocking their view of a grassy clearing.

At the clearing’s center, under a canopy of stars, there stood a huge slab of granite. Ten meters across, it was low enough to the ground that one could step up onto it without having to climb. Its surface was almost perfectly flat, smoothed and leveled by who knew how many centuries of rain, and so polished that it reflected some of the light of the late summer moon above. In the center of the rock there were a half-dozen logs, each large enough to sit on and covered by a hand-woven blanket. The logs surrounded a shallow dip in the rock’s surface, in which lay a pile of blackened timber and ash, the remnants of a fire. All around, the air glimmered with tiny, lazily drifting yellow lights blinking off and on… there was a company of fireflies out tonight, engaged in a courtship dance.

“It’s beautiful,” said Hanami in a hushed tone as she climbed over the edge. The place was like an illustration out of the old storybooks she loved as a child.

Faun shrugged and grabbed a blanket, wadding it into a rough ball shape before she sat down on it. “It’s not much, but we like it.”

“I can see why.” Smiling, Hanami took her own seat, folding her hands in her lap… which was when she heard and felt something tear. Her ears turned back; doubtless, one of the numerous gashes the branches had made in her tunic had just split open even further. Her lip trembled as she tugged at the fabric, trying to conceal the damage.

“Oi,” chided Faun. “Leave it alone, it’ll tear even worse if you do that.  Dijo, I told you you can have some of my clothes when we get back to my den.”

“Erm,” said Hanami. While she was beyond grateful for the offer, that wasn’t exactly a comforting statement. More

COPYRIGHT

Tasakeru, tasakeru.com, and all related contents, text, and media are the Intellectual Property (IP) of BHS and BHS Productions, registered in 2009, and may not be modified, reproduced, or changed in any way, shape, or form without the author's express permission. For more information on usage rights, see the From the Author page.

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