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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