ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 6

Chapter 6

Woe, oh ancient one

When all that you know is gone

Where will you wander?

“Never corner a fox, if at all possible. When foxes are trapped with no hope of escape and their lives in danger, their first instinct is to attempt to talk their way out of peril. Anyone who has spent sufficient time in the company of foxes could explain why this is undesirable for all parties concerned.

“Foxes, of course, think themselves quite witty. The average todd or vixen has such a high opinion of themselves and their intelligence that they will approach the task of talking themselves through life-threatening danger with the utmost confidence. One supposes they reason that once their adversary is angry or distracted enough that judgment is impaired, the fox can make their escape with impunity. Anger or distraction on the other party’s part is all but guaranteed, given that when a fox speaks at length, their words inevitably become insulting, offensive, or both.

“So provoked, the fox’s adversary will resort to violence, lose their temper, or otherwise make an effort to force the fox to stop talking by any available means. In the ensuing confusion, the fox will take advantage of their clouded judgment, and more often than not will flee the premises, laughing all the way. While the adversary may experience significant frustration over this turn of events, it is often eclipsed by relief that at least the talking has stopped. Thus, a favorable outcome for both parties, all things considered.”

[An excerpt from The Art of Diplomacy, by Gaius Cloelius Fulcinius]

“Look,” said Faun. “I’m just saying, there’s been some kind of huge misunderstanding here.”

The jackal did not answer.

“I mean, I get it. Three thousand years alone, you’re looking for companionship, I come along and… well.” She smirked. “Nobody would blame you.”

The jackal did not answer.

“I’m just saying. There’s better ways to solve that problem, ones that don’t involve me.”

Still the jackal did not answer.

Faun sighed and leaned against the back wall, playing idly with her tail fur. Blasting her way out of her prison was no longer an option; after a few more useless grenade volleys, Seker had taken her boom belt from her. When he grew bored of her constant attempts to retrieve it, he made both the bandolier and his hand insubstantial with a spell that Faun had to admit was rather impressive, then sank the belt into the brick floor. Now it was embedded there, completely out of reach. The only way to access the tower shaft to the lower chamber was by his will, so that was out. That left talking as her only viable option. It was not going well.

Seker stood immobile before the tower’s enormous crystalline picture window, his hands clasped behind his back, as much like a statue as the first time Faun saw him. The jackal cut a noble figure, there was no disputing that… but every time she felt faint stirrings of sympathy for him, she remembered that he intended to keep her there against her will until she agreed to be his eternal companion or died, whichever came first. Any pity she had for him shriveled in a hurry when she thought of that.

At this point, the sole comfort she had was trying to annoy him. It was something she had quite a knack for. “For example,” she said with a wicked grin, “why not try, you know, indulging yourself? I swear it doesn’t really make you go blind, that’s a myth.”

She thought she saw his shoulders twitch, but perhaps it was a trick of the light.

“Or a hobby!” said Faun. “That could help pass your time. Do you have any hobbies? Painting, sculpting, collecting bird feathers? I had a friend back in Unify once that loved bird feathers, he collected all kinds. Sparrow feathers, chicken feathers, swallow feathers, pigeon feathers, seagull feathers, duck feathers, red-tailed hawk feathers, white-tailed hawk feathers…”

As she babbled on and on, Seker was unreasonably glad that the vixen could not see his pained expression, nor his eyes rolling behind his mask. He stood in silence, trying to ignore his slowly growing suspicion that this entire situation was spiraling out of his control. However, he took solace in the fact that eventually, given enough time, she would stop talking. Eventually, given enough time, she had to stop.

Didn’t she?

The jackal suppressed a dry chuckle. Thousands of years spent yearning in vain for the sound of a voice other than his own, and now he found himself wishing for silence. What an irony.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5

Conflicting feelings

From the tower’s peak, the land

Spread out before her

 

            “Oh, to be alive in the Lost Ages, to see the Titans in their prime! What a sight that must have been! Just imagine it: great brick ziggurats and obelisks scraping the heavens themselves! A civilization that may have been more advanced than our own, spreading from the Raikaa Mountains to Earth’s End! All species united under one hand and one rule, with no squabbling or skirmishing over culture, borders, or religion! What knowledge they must have possessed, what wisdom, what secrets, now lost forever… Reader, it is enough to bring a tear to the eye of this old historian at the thought of it.

            “Alas, such is the tragedy of time: seasons change, civilizations fall, towers crumble, and the old is replaced by the new. Someday, even our beloved Unify may be but a memory, or a footnote in some future sentients’ legends…”

[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]

 

“Damn,” said Faun, duly impressed. “Seriously, damn. I know you said you were good with magic, but… damn…!

As she spoke, she craned her neck up, and up, and up to see the tower better. Even when she stretched her muscles to the limit, she still couldn’t see the top from the forest floor. Circular, roughly twenty meters across, and built of pitch black stone that was too smooth to be of anything but magical origin, the tower had not been built so much as grown fully formed from the earth at Seker’s command. Sort of like what Hanami did with flowers, but on a far grander scale. And with rock instead of plants. So not much like Hanami’s powers at all, but still.

There was a distinguishing feature to the tower that marked it as derived from the squirrel mage’s power, though: from the black stone there sprouted countless vines of equally black roses in full bloom. The network of thorned vines crisscrossed the structure and left barely a meter of stone uncovered, like a kind of living fence or armor. As far as Faun could see, the rose vines were not only limited to the ground level… they climbed up the walls high out of sight. If there was a height where they thinned out, Faun couldn’t tell.

Next to her, the jackal’s voice rumbled with barely concealed pride as he stroked the Mage Flower’s crinkly petals, as if to thank it for a job well done. “Excellent,” he said. “Exactly as I pictured, apart from the roses… but they add character. A monument to me and mine that will stand the test of time. This will not so easily be forgotten, vixen.”

Faun tore her eyes away long enough to give him a wry smirk and a raised brow. “Compensating?”

A short, booming sound that might have been restrained laughter. “I hardly see the need. Come, let us enter.” One massive hand reached for Faun’s.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 4

Chapter 4

Reaching to the sky

A most ominous omen

Thinned and thickened blood

 

            “Skunk culture confuses many. How, people wonder, can a completely matriarchal society possibly function in today’s world? ‘So many females are small and delicate,’ they say. ‘How can they be fit for the traditional male duties of defending one’s home and providing for one’s family?’ And, ‘Is it not oppressive for females to dictate what rights males have, decide what they can and cannot wear, and prohibit them from holding certain jobs?’

            “Based on many conversations with skunks I have known, they ask themselves the same questions of us in reverse… the squirrels’ treatment of their females in particular is baffling to them. As their philosopher Sister Laurel Saltus once wrote, ‘Do not ask of us, ‘How can you do this thing?’ Ask yourselves, ‘Why do we not?’ One’s way is one’s way.’”

            “To begin with the basics: skunks revere Life, Family, and Motherhood. Alone among the sentient species, their sect of Tritheism elevates their Goddess of Life, Greatmother Rose, as superior to the other two. Time and Death are also Goddesses, but of far lesser stature. Unsurprisingly given these beliefs, the skunks have adopted a largely agrarian lifestyle, seeing it as their duty to tend the fields, cultivate all things that grow, and produce nourishment for the world’s population. Of course, it is the florises that do that tending and cultivating, as well as defending house and home. Who better, they ask, to enrich and safeguard Life than females, the bearers of the young?

“That is not to say there is no place in their society for others. Male skunks (or florins) take on many of what are otherwise traditionally feminine roles, the care and upbringing of children and food preparation among them. Traditionalist florins wear distinctive concealing robes when outside the home, an expression of modesty and devotion to the mate who has chosen them (or mates, as the case may be… polyamory still being popular and accepted in the culture). The life of a male skunk is seen by many outsiders as luxurious, idyllic, and uncomplicated… though the florins I have spoken to maintain vociferously that ‘uncomplicated’ is a gross exaggeration, particularly in regards to child-rearing. They are far less kind in speaking of those who see their treatment by the florises as ‘slavery’, a cross-species argument that has raged for centuries and shows no sign of abating.

“The Silver Order was a natural outgrowth of such beliefs, which began with the skunks and spread to the other species. It is a proud tradition, headed by the daughters of the Argenteus House since its inception sixty generations ago…”

[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]

 

Back and forth. Back and forth. A depressed furrow in the rug marked the area where the Silver Order’s Vice-Mistress and Field Commander paced, her armored hands clasped tight behind her back. The waiting room outside of her mother’s business chamber in the heart of Aedis Centralis was not very large, so every few seconds, Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus did a sharp 180-degree turn on her heel to go back and pace in the opposite direction, her flawless platinum blonde braid whipping around to follow her. For such a young florin at only fourteen years, the skunk’s face bore such a serious, even grave expression… as if she was known to wear any other kind.

Doubtless, it would not please Nadeshiko to know that some of the lower ranks referred to her in private with the sarcastic nickname “Lady Sunshine”. Never to her face, of course… not that she would react with anything other than her usual cold stare.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

A clever mind knows

How to take the advantage

When the Goddess calls

 

            “When examining the life and legend of Faun Muranaka, it is important to note a few things: first, that for all the enduring tales of her heroic deeds alongside the other Outcasts, that she was and is by no means seen as a purely virtuous figure. To the contrary, stories abound of her sneaking into Unify and leaving chaos in her wake. A comprehensive list of her crimes (apart from repeatedly ignoring the terms of her exile, of course) includes but is not limited to: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment, disturbing the peace, breaking and entering, destruction of property, vandalism, a host of assault charges, numerous accounts of fraud both major and minor, and violation of obscenity laws. This last one is particularly notable, as it was apparently us, her own kind, who placed obscenity charges against her. One might think it patently impossible for we foxes of all species to find anything to be obscene enough to place charges, but Faun Muranaka found a way.

            “Which leads us to the second point: Muranaka was, first and foremost, a thief. She was incarcerated more times for this than for any of her other crimes, in cases ranging from simple petty theft and shoplifting to grand mal larceny. Rumors persist that the forge that her comrade Rowan Longstripe used during his Outcast days was procured for him from one of Unify’s leading blacksmiths. The entire forge, so the legend goes, was stolen by Muranaka alone, and somehow smuggled out of the city without anyone noticing. Again, some might call that impossible, but Muranaka apparently found a way. Some variants of the story claim that she stole it piece by piece over a period of months, until the poor, baffled smith was left with nothing but an empty room.

            “Understanding Faun’s propensity for theft may be key to understanding why she did what she did during that early autumn when the last Titan reemerged from his prison. The subject puzzles many who study Outcast lore: by all accounts, Muranaka and Hanami were close and trusted friends, risking their lives for each other on countless occasions. Why, then, would Muranaka deliberately deceive her friend and steal her most precious possession? Was it out of greed? Desire to help the last Titan? A self-imposed challenge? We may never know.”

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

 

This is stupid.

That thought occurred to Zero with such abruptness that he stopped his pacing in mid-step, almost twisting an ankle. The many papers scattered around his drey fluttered in the sudden breeze.

It’s stupid, he thought, frowning at himself. Why the hell should I be afraid of talking to Hanami? She’s a friend, for Gods’ sakes. Friends talk to each other. There’s absolutely no reason for how I acted. So what if she finds out what I was reading? It was inexcusable of me. Gods, I’m an idiot.

I’ll apologize. Zero nodded, straightened his robes and headband, and made for the door. The metal platings on his boots made decisive sounds, a series of purposeful clack noises as he crossed the wooden floorboards, tail held high. Right. I’ll apologize, and then everything will go back to normal.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 2

Chapter 2

A home in the woods

A tale of power and pride

Shades of ages past

 

“In shadow lay she, in an earthly bed

A crown of lilies white upon her head

‘Beneath the boughs, I’ll wait for thee,’ she said

To gaze upon her was my heart’s delight

To hear her laugh would set my soul alight

Her form, her shape, alluring as the night

Oh, maiden! That again I’d be with thee!

But now, forever rest thee ‘neath that tree

The love that was, ‘tis ever not to be…”

[“In Shadow Lay She”, a poem by Sanshiro]

            Faun and the enormous jackal stared at each other. Or, more accurately, Faun stared up at the jackal, and the black rock crystal eyes set in the jackal’s gold visage stared back down at her. It was unnerving, knowing he could somehow see her through the… mask? Headdress? Helmet? What was he wearing, anyway? It made him seem even bigger, more like a statue than he already was. There was something very off about him, mask (or headdress, or helmet) aside, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.

“Um.” Faun swallowed. This was one of the rare times in her life when she was left searching for something to say. “You… you can talk now…”

“I could always talk,” said Seker, an ominous thrum entering his voice.

Uh oh. “I mean, in New Standard! You weren’t speaking it before, so how did you-”

“The barrier absorbed my magic. With it gone, I only required a moment of contact with you to hear your thoughts and grasp your language. A simple reader’s trick… any decent mist mage could do the same.”

“Right, the barrier.” Faun nodded. A tiny voice in the back of her mind began to question exactly what she had gotten herself into. “I bet you’re glad to be out of there, huh?”

“Yes.” His response was terse, with very little feeling behind it… stark contrast to how he first spoke to her. “Indeed I am.”

“Good, good. Folks shouldn’t be locked up like that. I would know.” After a long, excruciating pause, she added: “Especially not for… how long did you say you were down here, again?”

“Three thousand years.” There was no hesitation to Seker’s answer, no searching for a figure. “More accurately, three thousand, five hundred and seventy years, nine months, and twenty-one days, as of today.”

For a few seconds, the fact that he could recall the exact length of his imprisonment with that degree of accuracy was even more upsetting to Faun than the length itself. It took several seconds more for that figure to sink in. “That…” Her throat felt quite dry all of a sudden. “That’s… a long time to be asleep…”

“I did not sleep.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“I was awake for the entire duration.” Again, just a blunt statement of fact.

“How-”

“There is much you must know, vixen.” Seker brushed past her, heading for the arch she entered through. His heavy footfalls rang off the sandstone walls with every step. “Please, walk with me.”

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 1

BOOK II: ETERNITY AWAKES

Chapter 1

Sands of the desert

Cover an ancient secret

Lost in time, it waits

“Kamen Desert is not natural. That much should be obvious to anyone who looks at it. The world contains a few small stretches of what we call ‘wastelands’, inhospitable areas charted by the wolves and studied by the rabbits, but otherwise of no use to sentientkind. However, just because they are of no use to us does not make them useless to other creatures. There are remarkable creatures that make the wastelands their homes: dune snakes, armored scorpions, birds that roost in hollow gourds, even a few species of hardy mice. There are useful dry grasses, flowering aloe plants, and even a few thin trees… there is much to be found if one takes the time to scratch the surface.

            “Kamen Desert has none of those things. Travel far south enough from Unify, and after a certain point, the rolling hills of grass simply… stop. There is a dividing line, an eerily smooth line, separating the grasslands’ southernmost border from the miles upon miles of burning sand.

            “To put it simply, there is nothing there. No plants, no animals, no water, nothing save for endless dunes of fine white sand reaching to the shores of the endless sea. Some see the place as an extension of the Beneath, for understandable reasons. Some claim that on the Day of Three Gods, the Death God’s terrible gaze landed directly on this area, cursing it barren forever more.

“And others… others theorize that Kamen Desert is where the Titans lived. The Titans, of course, are known from the very few surviving Lost Ages records as the world’s ninth sentient species, but they are long since disappeared. Preserved in museums throughout Unify are priceless ancient carvings and drawings of a giant people similar to the wolves and foxes, a people that built great angular towers to the skies and possessed forgotten magic. Though we have lost all but a fraction of what we knew of the world before the Species War, there is enough evidence to support that the Titans did indeed exist, and were not a creation of lore.

            “If they did exist, though… where did they go, and why?”

[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]

It was the same sun that shone down upon Tasakeru, Unify, and the rest of the world… but in the desert it was a sinister thing that sapped all life and water from the cursed place, leaving only sand and relentless heat. Even the wind here was beastly hot and dry as bone, and there were no trees or buildings to provide any kind of relief. That sun beat down upon Kamen Desert as if trying to punish mortals for their arrogance.

The lone source of shade was in a pit dug fifty meters deep into the sand, excavated by earth mages who had been paid handsomely for their service. Some mad, rich hobferret claimed half a year ago that he had received guidance from the Magus Aurum Ruby himself in a dream, and personally financed the mages to dig out here, here where there was nothing at all to be found. It was good work if one could get it, even if it was pointless… or so they thought.

The discovery shocked and amazed historians, explorers, and adventurers the world over. Fifty meters down, the reports said, the earth mages found something… not sand, but something solid. Everyone who could stand the heat joined in the excavation, with earth magic, shovels, and their own hands, until the solid thing beneath the sands was uncovered: an obelisk. One single, enormous obelisk made of sandstone and inscribed with ancient writing… For anyone who knew their history, it only meant one thing: a remnant of the Titans had at last been found.

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