TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

Tenets and edicts

Worrisome developments

Autumn ponderings

 

“Hayaoh’s wanderings took him to the great forest of demons in the east, where few dared tread. He was not afraid; all the warriors of the mortal world had offered him no challenge, so why should he fear demons?

“By then, his legend had spread even to the land of spirits. Ghost, phantom, specter, and wraith alike fled at the sight of him. The very trees gave way, shuddering as they drew in their roots to form a path for him to walk. Hours passed, and as the day turned swiftly into night, Hayaoh grew weary with thirst. Coming across a mighty river, he followed the river to its source, a placid lake in a basin of granite, encircled by ancient oaks. The great samurai came to a halt and knelt at the water’s edge, removing his helmet to drink…”

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

 

“I hate this.”

It was a phrase that Sister Camilla Quarta Viviana had already heard many times that day. The jillrabbit sighed as she adjusted the fabric. “I know, Milady. Just a moment, I’m almost finished. If you could raise your arms, please?”

Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus scowled at the arched marble ceiling of her dressing chamber as if daring it to argue. With great reluctance, she did as she was asked, holding her arms out to her sides.

“Thank you,” said Camilla as she fastened each of the straps of Nadeshiko’s ceremonial stola. When finished, she let the pristine white linen drop, and it draped itself around the floris in a pleasing fashion. Pleasing to other people, not to Nadeshiko herself.

“I do not know how my mother tolerates this,” said Nadeshiko, picking at the linen between thumb and forefinger. She ached to be out of the accursed garment as quickly as possible. “For someone of her stature, appearing in public without armor or weapons is horrendously unsafe… any lunatic could attempt to assassinate her.”

“That’s why your knights will be with you, Milady.”

“Fie on my knights.” A less mannered sentient would have spit in disgust for emphasis. “I, at least, do not need protection.”

Camilla bit back a chuckle. “I’m sure you don’t, Milady, but it’s a formality.”

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TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

Speaking without words

A night of laughter and fear

Divine punishment

“Many a lonely year passed as Hayaoh wandered the world with only his sword for company. His heart of stone was hard and cold and heavy within his chest for so long that he grew to used to its burden; its weight became as much a part of him as his breath, as his soul. Young and hopeful bucks often dared themselves to cross his path as tales of him spread, hoping to challenge and defeat the samurai of legend. These he slew, one and all, and the countless faces of those that he cut down ran together in his mind like spilled paint, becoming indistinguishable from one another…”

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

 

“All right,” said Naole. The doe’s bush-like tail twitched back and forth, and her hazel eyes shone with anticipation. “One more time.” She pointed to herself.

Less than a second went by before the hybrid’s large hands and long, spindly fingers began to move. <Na-o-re.> His gestures were delivered with impressive skill and accuracy… save for that last syllable, which was the closest equivalent. Rendering her name in Old Standard had always been a tricky prospect.

“Good. And her?” Naole indicated their new companion, who sat tending the fire as she watched. The flames made contrasting patterns of shadow in her deep blue fur, and danced in the cloudy grey of her eyes.

<A-ri-a!> he signed.

“Good! What about you?”

Beaming, he pointed at himself and signed: <Re-gi-o-n!>

“Perfect!” Naole pounced and seized Legion in a hug, unable to restrain herself. She felt his fur bristle, and wondered if she had startled him… but then his long arms wrapped around her in return, and she laughed, delighted to hear the wheezing barks that meant Legion was laughing along with her.

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Aside

TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 1

BOOK IV: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING

Chapter 1

As dusk is falling

Dreams are dark and filled with dread

Debts must be repaid

“Long, long ago, when the world was wild, there lived a samurai of great renown. Some called him the Shogun reborn, others called him a demon in mortal flesh, but all lands knew his name: Hayaoh! His eyes were steel, his heart a stone, his sword an eternal razor edge that cut through the wicked as easily as air. Few approached Hayaoh and lived to tell the tale, for he was known to be as merciless in wrath as he was in resting. Like the wind, he seldom stayed in one place for long, wandering the hills and valleys in search of his next battle and his next worthy opponent…”

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

At twilight, she wanders through a darkened forest, naked and afraid. When the hour slips between day and night, the ancient woods are cast in an eerie glow of dying orange light that chills her to the bone, for reasons she cannot understand. Nothing is familiar; even her body feels like that of a stranger. This hair, this fur, this tail, all wrong… she feels a powerful urge to tear at herself, at the flesh that slowly suffocates her like a living, breathing prison.

I should not be here. The thought trails behind her as part of her shadow, whispering to her the same words every time: I should not be here. No matter how she tries to shut it out, the thought oozes into her ears and sinks into her skull all the same.

Faces loom ahead out of semi-darkness. Awash with belief, she runs for her friends, calling out their names, desperate to escape the whispers and the night she knows is coming, closer and closer with each passing second, inexorable, unstoppable. They are her everything, they can shield her from the dark before it falls.

The first is a huge but gentle presence, forever on hand with wisdom and understanding, safe and comforting as the fires of a hearth. He smells of iron and embers, of ink, paper, and leather bindings.

The second is a bright light and a mischievous smile, sharp and daring, often teasing but always well-meaning, a source of laughter even in troubled times, always an adventure waiting to happen.

And the third… the third is dark and mysterious, but she feels for him as she does for no one else. He is her rock. A noble heart for one so troubled, one who faces pain and overcomes it in ways she knows she never can.

She calls their names, but there is no sound from her lips. No matter how she tries to shout for them, they cannot hear. In desperation, she throws out her hand. The flower she wears behind her ear twitches… Thorned vines creep down her neck and shoulder and snake around her arm, coiling tight. The thorns break her skin and draw blood… and the vines sail out through space and plunge themselves into the hearts of her three beloved friends.

Her blood turns to ice. She screams, but there is no sound.

Their chests burst in crimson fountains. Their eyes grow wide with shock and betrayal as they frost over like clouded glass. She can only watch them wither as the life drains from them, bit by bit. It seems to take years before they fall the forest floor… when they do, they strike the loam with impacts that sound like distant thunder.

It’s my fault. In the ringing silence that follows, she knows with absolute certainty that that thought comes not from the shadow… it is her own.

It’s my fault. I hurt them, just like I hurt everyone. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead, because of me…

I should not be here.

The thorns dig deeper into her flesh, and as she howls soundlessly in the twilight, they spread their poisoned roots through her every vein, growing, growing, unstoppable. Her nerves burn like the sun as a thousand thorns erupt from inside her flesh, tearing her apart—

Hanami sat bolt upright in her bed, every inch of her fur standing upright and her heart pounding a drumbeat in her breast. The last, fatal scream of her nightmare was still upon her lips. Heaving for breath in the darkness of her bedroom, she clutched herself tight, expecting to feel the prickling, burning sensation of the thorns erupting at any moment. Another dream. Another horrible dream. This was the fourth time in a week. And yet again, the thought chased her from the realm of sleep and lingered in the back of her mind:

I should not be here.

 


 

“Takky,” said Faun Muranaka in a hushed tone that was quite unusual for her, “this is insane.”

“It’s a debt,” said Zero Takaishi. One did not need to look at the buck’s bloodshot eyes to see the great weariness that clung to him like clouds. It was all there in his words, low and leaden with sorrow. “Debts need to be repaid.”

Faun’s gloved knuckles rapped gently against his skull. “You get us caught by the tin cans while you’re half-asleep, see if they care about your debt. We should come back when you’re not dead on your feet.”

“No.” Zero shook his head. “We’ve come this far. It’ll be one less thing to worry about.”

They crouched together behind an immaculately trimmed hydrangea shrub in the eastern courtyard of Aedis Centralis, the holiest temple of the Silver Order. Located at the heart of Unify, Aedis Centralis was a sprawling, majestic structure, resplendent with white marble and alabaster columns, spotless walls free of the accumulated grime of the rest of the central city, and clean-scrubbed ebony floors polished to an almost mirror-like sheen.

At least, that was how it was supposed to be. Three weeks after the Soulsnatcher’s terrible rampage through their most sacred grounds, the Order sistren and brethren still struggled to restore Aedis Centralis to its former pristine glory. It was an expensive and laborious process; scores of those beautiful ebony floorboards had to be torn up and replaced, for they were soiled by the blood of the three dozen that the Soulsnatcher murdered on that night. The Order’s edict for their temples demanded that any surface touched by unjustly spilled blood was forever desecrated and must be disposed of with fire. Squirrel temples had similar edicts, but the sight of piles and piles of floorboards stacked up to be burned on the way inside struck Zero as an awful waste.

A waste. That was what the last three weeks had been for him in most part. Though he searched day and night throughout all of Tasakeru for any sign of Naole, there was not so much as a brick-red hair. His little sister was nowhere to be found. If she was even still alive, she was out there somewhere… cold and alone in a hostile forest that even he, a resident of nine years, could barely survive sometimes. Hopelessness crept up on Zero like some insidious disease; it was only his unflagging determination (or stubbornness) that kept him going.

The trip to Unify to repay his debt was a diversion as much as anything. It was a way to keep himself going, to relieve himself of at least one burden. Faun insisted on coming along, telling him repeatedly that his constant worry and lack of sleep would lead to his getting caught without her help.

At last, after twenty minutes, the Order knights assigned to patrol the grounds left their routes to change shifts. Seizing the opportunity, Zero and Faun dashed across the lawn and pressed themselves against the temple’s eastern wall as if trying to melt into it. They were blocked from view for the most part by rows of flowering hedges, but both knew that it was best to never underestimate an Order knight.

“I think it’s this side,” muttered Zero to Faun. “From what I remember, Naole usually worked here, in the East Wing infirmary.”

Faun blew air through her lips, causing her auburn bangs to flutter with the draft. “You really think Little Lady Sunshine would be convalescing with the rest of the mortals? Takky, you are crazy. She’s probably got a private wing of her own, and a silver-gilded chamber pot or something.”

Zero blanched. “I really needed that image, Faun, thank you. Honestly, she’s not nearly as haughty and stuffed-up as you think she is. She gave me the dagger of her own free will, when she had no reason to. Against Lady Lily’s wishes, even.”

“I still don’t like her. People that rich make my fur stand up.”

“You don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to,” said Zero. “All I need you to do is stand guard.”

“Fine, fine.” The vixen waved a hand. “Just get it over with so we can go back home and you can get some sleep.”

From inside there came a war cry, muffled by the thick marble walls but still sharp. It was shortly followed by another, and another, in a regular sequence with precise timing.

“That’s her,” said Zero, inching along the wall. “Keep watch, and swish your tail if you see anything.”

“Will do.”

Moving carefully, Zero stood to his full height and peered into the infirmary’s window. He could not help but grin and shake his head at what he saw inside.

Truly, only Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus, Vice-Mistress and Field Commander of the Silver Order, would practice her swordplay in her infirmary room instead of getting the rest prescribed by her healers. A savage bite wound to the shoulder? To her, that was an annoyance at best. The healers would not allow the young skunk to wear her full armor while she practiced, of course, but Gods help anyone who tried to take her greatsword away from her. Zero watched her run through her form with some admiration, thrusting and weaving the massive silver-edged slab like a weapon a quarter of its size. Her piercing green eyes were set, her breathing even, her striped tail with its single wide white bar held high like a banner. It amused Zero to see that even when under the healers’ care, Nadeshiko took pains to not let a single platinum blonde hair escape from her braid. If it were not for the infirmary gown that Zero was quite sure she was being forced to wear, one might think she had never been injured at all.

That impression lasted until one high swing pulled a muscle in her bad shoulder the wrong way. Nadeshiko’s face twisted, and the greatsword fell from her grasp and clanged against the floor as she clutched the bandages on her shoulder. Something that was close to an obscenity formed on her lips, but with the effort of a lifetime of noble upbringing, she suppressed it.

As good a moment to interrupt as ever, Zero supposed. He knocked on the window pane.

Nadeshiko’s ears perked. Pain or no pain, she scooped up the greatsword and rushed to the window, holding it in a defensive stance. “Who’s there? Show yourself, coward!”

Zero tilted the pane inward. “Easy, Milady. It’s me, Takaishi.”

“Ta…” In a moment of genuine surprise, Nadeshiko’s bearing slipped. “Takaishi…? What in the Goddess’s name possessed you to come here? Need I remind you that you are forbidden from setting foot in—”

“I’m well aware.” Carefully, Zero slid the silver dagger through the window. “I’m returning this.”

It took a moment for Nadeshiko to register what she was seeing. It was her family’s blessed silver dagger, the one she gave to Takaishi three weeks ago as she lay wounded. The weapon bore a few scarce spots of blood that had not been there before, but someone had made an impressive effort to clean it. “You… you came all this way to…” She took the dagger and held it to her breast as if cradling a child. “Then… you did it?”

Zero nodded grimly. “Stalker’s dead. The dagger helped. Thank you.”

Conflicting feelings swam inside Nadeshiko. In truth, she never expected to see Takaishi or the dagger again… giving it to him was an uncharacteristic act of optimism on her part. Yet here he was, victorious, having braved arrest once again to return her family’s heirloom. A small part of her was touched. “I…” Her face grew warm, and her ears swiveled back. “I thank you, Takaishi, and I commend you for slaying that beast.”

“It was my pleasure.” Zero’s voice turned cold and hard as the marble wall he leaned on.

Nadeshiko inched closer to the window. Now she saw the redness in the squirrel’s eyes, and she knew that all was not well. “Your sibling, Sister Naole. Did you—”

Zero cringed as if struck. “No. I’m still looking for her. Stalker wouldn’t tell me where she was, what he did with her… or if she’s even still alive. I’ve searched everywhere, but…” His sentence trailed off.

She understood. Three weeks lost in Tasakeru with little food and little fresh water. The odds were not in Sister Naole’s favor. To her astonishment, Nadeshiko found herself hurting for Takaishi. Family was sacred to her kind, and he had been arrested dozens of times trying to care for his sister in her infirmity. She should know; many of those times she had arrested him and thrown him in prison herself. After checking to ensure no one was watching, Nadeshiko crouched down lower to the window and whispered, “I apologize, Takaishi. I truly hope you find her.”

“Not to put a damper on things,” said another voice, “but can you two hurry?”

All of Nadeshiko’s sympathy evaporated like morning dew, and her tail fur stood up until it resembled a bottlebrush. “You—” she sputtered. “You brought that guttersnipe with you?!”

“And good morning to you too, Milady,” said Faun, with a hard point on that last word. “Come on, Takky, finish up.”

Zero glanced to his right. “Do you see the knights coming back?”

“No,” said Faun. “We’re downwind, and I’ve got a sensitive nose.”

“Why you—” Nadeshiko sounded like a tea kettle as she hissed through gritted teeth, searching for an insult strong enough. “You harridan! How dare you say such foul things within my own home!”

“I’ll mock you wherever I please, thanks,” said Faun, flashing a savage grin. “Easy, Ginko. You’ll burst a blood vessel.”

Nadeshiko bristled and drew herself to her full height. “My name is Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus, daughter of the Argenteus House and—”

“And rightful bearer of the divine branch up your divine hind.” Faun made a show of yawning. “Takky, really, we should go.”

Zero rather thought they should. Faun and Nadeshiko had developed a profound mutual loathing of each other from the moment they first met, and if they stayed in each other’s vicinity any longer, things were likely to turn violent. “Right,” he said. “Milady, thanks again for the dagger, and I apologize for Faun. If I do find Naole… I’ll send her back to you as soon as I can.”

With considerable effort, Nadeshiko pushed aside her detest of the vixen to finish things properly. “S-she will be welcomed back with open arms, Takaishi. Good luck.”

There were no further words. Two shadows, one black and one orange, raced across the grounds, up the boundary wall, and out of sight. A great urge rose within Nadeshiko to call the knights to arms, if only to find and punish Muranaka for her rudeness… but then, she considered, they would catch Takaishi too. Just this once, she felt she owed him a clean escape. Debts had to be repaid.

END OF CHATPER 1

<- BACK TO SECOND VOLUME INTRODUCTION

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 9

Chapter 9

Phantoms of the past

Awakening in the chill

Beginning and end

 

“It has been over four hundred years since the tales of the Outcasts began to spread throughout the world. Whether they existed or not, or how much—if at all—they influenced the momentous events of those times four centuries past… those are beside the point. Though they would be long since departed from the mortal coil, the Outcasts live on.

“We who compile and study their tales have heard all the classic stories over and over again, told in a thousand different ways: the battle in the underground spider cavern, during which Hanami revealed her powers as a mage to save her new friends. Faun Muranaka’s discovery of Seker, the Last Titan, and his raising of the Black Rose Tower… and the massive explosion at that same tower roughly a month later, which they say was visible from all across the world. The rampage of the Soulsnatcher. The notorious “Infernal Sheep Incident”. The night of the Shroud. The journey to the north to seek out the yuki-majin. Their struggles against the Silver Order, the Demon Fangs, the Shadowhand, Epsilon, and countless other foes and challenges both mundane and supernatural… we know them all. It is, after all, our calling.

“With as many stories as there are, and the surprising degree of consistency in their telling, it is possible to establish a rudimentary timeline of the Outcasts’ history, starting with Hanami’s arrival in Tasakeru, commonly dated mid-autumn of Year 1349. If one were to consult this theoretical timeline, one might wonder: when exactly did the Outcasts cease to be a band of inconsequential exiles and begin to be an undeniable influence on the world at large?

“Some would argue that they made their first definitive mark on history with the explosion at the tower. Others would claim it was the tower’s raising, itself a momentous event. Still others put the true beginning much further back, on that terrible grey dawn when Hanami first discovered that she was far from an ordinary squirrel doe.

“As for myself, I would place the tipping point squarely on the famous duel in the rain between Reimaru “Zero” Takaishi and the Soulsnatcher, long considered one of the most popular pieces of Outcast lore. Moreso than the raising of the tower or its explosion, and moreso than the day that changed Hanami’s life, that duel had lasting consequences that no one, least of all the Outcasts, could have foreseen. Its outcome arguably set the stage for everything that was yet to come.

“I sometimes wonder: had Takaishi known what was at stake on that rainy morning so long ago, would he have chosen to act differently? Would that choice even have mattered, in the end…?”

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

 

Two pairs of eyes watched the pattering of rain on leaves from their makeshift shelter beneath the heavy boughs. One pair, hazel and cautious, belonged to a squirrel doe who was now reconsidering the escape plan that had seemed so brilliant hours ago. The forest of Tasakeru was immense; even her brother had never come close to exploring all of it after living here nine years.

The second pair, almond-shaped and colored bright yellow, belonged to a sentient the likes of which the world had never seen. He watched the droplets pelt the leaves with rapt fascination, delighting in the rhythmic sound they made when they fell. Every few minutes, while his companion mulled next to him, he tried to reproduce that sound with motions of his lips: pop, pop, pop. He was improving as he practiced, but it was not yet accurate enough for him.

Naole barely heard him; she was too focused on the sinking realization that she had made a terrible mistake. Sure, Naole, she thought bitterly. Run out into the rain in an uncharted forest five times the size of Unify with a newborn hybrid to look after. No food, no water, no supplies, no shelter, and a bloodthirsty monster running around that wants revenge on our whole family! Blessed Lady Terra, what have I gotten us into…? Guilt stewed and churned deep in her belly. If she were in this situation by herself, perhaps it would not matter so much. But Legion was here with her, and she was his sole guide to a world he did not understand yet. How to explain to the poor thing that they were lost, with very little hope of ever being found?

A fresh wave of unease crested over her as she recalled phrases from Zero’s many scrolls to her over the years: all of us are hungry… running out of food… not enough to eat out here, you know how it is… It was only in the last two months, after the flower mage Hanami’s arrival, that those kinds of phrases stopped appearing. With her help, Tasakeru was more livable, but still a strange, ancient, inhospitable place. Without her help, it was practically a hostile entity of its own, never mind what things might be living in it. Oh Gods, she thought as the lead weight that seemed caught in her stomach plunged lower. What does Legion eat? Wolves have to eat meat, and he’s part wolf… is there enough game out here for him to live on? If there is, will I have to teach him to— Now she felt a queasy green swirl of nausea. Squirrels only ate meat when they had to, and  it was almost always leaner meat, mostly poultry and fish. Even if there were wild fowl or pigboars out here, the thought of having to show Legion how to properly slaughter and prepare one for cooking…

“Legion,” she said aloud, trying to banish the hideous mental image of her new hybrid friend tearing into a fresh corpse, blood caking his snout. “Legion, I’m sorry. I think I might have made a—”

Legion wore a look of intense concentration and deadly seriousness, his brows furrowed and his long ears turned back at an angle. With great care, he pursed his lips together, then blew and made a circle with them: Pop! Pop! Pop!

Forget starving to death; Naole suspected she was in far more danger of dying of arrest from laughter. She laughed until her eyes were all but gummed shut from tears, until encroaching lightheadedness and shortness of breath told her that she had best stop or she would faint. “You…” she gasped. “Y-you need to s-stop making me laugh b-before I… Legion?”

The hybrid’s long ears stood straight as flagpoles. His fur bristled all down his spine. The tight, nervous light in his eyes drained the last of her merriment away. He did not know the gesture yet, but Naole half-expected him to put a warning finger to his lips and shush her.

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 8

Chapter 8

New discoveries

Regroup and counterattack

Dewdrops trembling

“THE HOLY RECORD OF THE SILVER ORDER

Lily Argenteus, 34th Grand Mistress

Year 1349, 11th of Raigatsu

“Casualty figures for the Soulsnatcher’s rampage on Aedis Centralis have been confirmed: thirty-seven dead, twelve robbed of their souls, and over three score wounded, including my own daughter, Nadeshiko. Funeral rites for the bodies of the dead are underway, and I have informed the mortuary that I shall indeed perform the ceremony of interment.

“The tallyers estimate that it will cost at least a hundred thousand tri to restore our temple, including the cost of replacing all the floors sullied by bloodstains. Some are concerned that we cannot afford such an expenditure; to those I have countered that we can scarcely afford not to. Whatever has transpired, Aedis Centralis is still the Order’s holiest ground… by the grace of the Greatmother shall it continue to be so.

“I write these words as I sit by Nadeshiko’s side in the infirmary. My Little One sleeps soundly for now. She is given the best care that any sentient can ask for, but while she sleeps I cannot help but stare at the bandages covering the wound that the Soulsnatcher left her. That wound is in part my fault. I lacked the strength to strike that creature down, and for that failure, she shall carry a scar for the rest of her days.

“Hollis, do you think she can ever forgive me? I am in need of your counsel…”

 

Naole leaned to her left.

Legion leaned to his.

Naole touched her nose with her index finger.

So did Legion.

Naole wrapped her tail around herself.

Legion attempted to do the same… but his tail was a good deal longer, fluffier, and heavier than the doe’s, and he did not quite have the hang of moving it yet. The tip of his tail whapped him in the snout, and he stared at it cross-eyed, as if perplexed how it came to be attached to him.

That was enough to send Naole into another fit of helpless laughter. Oh, her aching sides.

The Silver Order often took in orphans, though it was not Naole’s job to teach and evaluate them. That was beyond the duties of an apprentice Healer. She was a good observer, though, and she was familiar enough with the basic tests given to judge a child’s mental faculties: the capacity to distinguish different shapes and colors, follow direction, and communicate clearly with their elders. At least in the mental sense, Legion was no newborn; from the hour-plus she had spent with him so far, she estimated that he was on the level of a sentient child, perhaps five or six years old. Maybe even older, given how quickly he was progressing, gathering and retaining every bit of information that she gave him. Physically, he was a full-grown adult… an adult what was still in question, though she supposed the word “hybrid” was good enough. Not a half-and-half like a wolfox, either, but a true mix of traits and features from all sentient species.

He (and Naole was now quite comfortable with the idea of Legion as a “he”, not an “it”; perhaps a fox would be better at introducing him to the complex subject of gender, but that could come later, when he understood a bit more. A non-intrusive peek at the relevant area told her that Legion was indeed a male in terms of equipment, so that would do for now) was a fast learner. He grasped new concepts well no matter how many she introduced, and he was always eager to learn more. True, he couldn’t speak for himself, but Naole knew well more than a few speaking sentients not even half as quick-witted as Legion clearly was. Speech, she thought, was no indicator of intelligence, and her new hybrid friend was proof positive of that.

Being with him and seeing his eyes light up when he learned something new was almost enough to make her forget her imprisonment. To forget the gloom of the strange cavern, the pool of blood now stagnant in the center, and the otherworldly beacon of blue flame pulsing languidly over their heads with its silver orbs spinning around it in tow. There was nothing either of them could do about any of those things, so they ignored them as they continued with their lessons and games.

“It’s kind of…” Naole paused and furrowed her brow, the tip of her tongue poking out from between her lips. “Hmm. How do I explain this?”

Legion mimicked the same expression, tongue and all, and the sight of that cheerful, goofy face gone so mock-serious threatened to cause another giggle fit.

“All right,” she said, stifling herself before she could get distracted again. “It’s soft, like your tail or your belly fur, but a different kind of soft. Not hairy soft, but kind of chewy and fluffy.”

The hybrid tilted his head to one side.

“And the center is sort of… sweet, but a little grainy.”

Legion blinked.

Augh,” said Naole to herself as she recognized her error. “How do I describe ‘sweet and grainy’ when you haven’t even eaten anything yet?! This is harder than I thought.” Crossing her arms, she blew a puff of air upward, which ruffled her bangs. “I suppose you’ll just have to try sweet bean mochi for yourself once we get out of here.”

Delighted by this new discovery, Legion swelled his cheeks and blew. His sleek black forelocks were quite a bit longer and less tidy than Naole’s, and they fell back into his eyes on the downdraft. Undeterred, he blew again and again, sounding a bit like an overenthusiastic bellows operator.

That sight sent Naole into another fit of laughter, which only stopped when the first familiar wisps of light-headedness and shortness of breath that indicated an imminent fainting spell forced her to either calm down or pass out. “Ha… ha… whew…”

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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 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.

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