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 broadsword 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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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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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 5

A raucous outing

Treasure in the back alley

Bonds beyond distance

“When it comes to the foxes, I regretfully inform the reader that this next chapter may lose its objectivity and sway into personal opinion. I have no doubts that some foxes are fine, upstanding citizens who are decent in their morals, obedient of the law, and respectful to other sentients. Unfortunately, I have yet to personally encounter any who meet most of those criteria, so I must therefore relate my information regarding the fox culture based only on research and hearsay.

“I theorize that the entire race centers on the twin concepts of excess in consumption and excess in expression. Foxes eat too much, drink too much, mate too much, celebrate too much, and above all, talk too much. When using the word ‘gluttonous’ to describe them, one demonstrates the versatility of the word; they overindulge not only in food, drink, and self-gratification, but in every kind of experience, especially of the debauched and depraved variety. They explain themselves to other species by claiming that they are, and I quote, ‘living passionately’. To which I counter thus: living passionately is one thing, and constantly debasing oneself for one’s own pleasure is quite another.

“However, though it pains me to admit, the foxes are talented at expressing themselves in a variety of ways. More art, music, literature, theater, and dance comes from their species than from all the others combined, as if creativity swells inside each one and might burst their bodies should they not let it out. The content of their creative works is… varied, shall I say. For every great and meaningful piece that they produce, there are ten pieces which tend to make decent-minded folk recoil in disgust.

“In the words of their noted philosopher, Maurier: ‘Life is beauty. Beauty is life. We are the most beautiful of all sentient species, and our beauty must be shared with all.’ My response to Lord Maurier’s words is to point out that foxkind shares quite enough already without his encouragement, thank you very much. One only hopes that the next great fox philosopher introduces them to the concept of self-restraint.”

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

 

One constant in every species’ portion of Unify was the layout. In all eight of the great city’s walled-off districts, the richest and most powerful lived closest to the Marketplace, in the Inner Rings. These were the oldest sections of the city apart from the Marketplace itself, housing noble and influential families that dated back centuries. As one traveled outward from the center, one saw a steady decrease in signs of luxury: simpler clothes, smaller dwellings, and shabbier surroundings. The newest areas of the city and its subdivisions were by extension the poorest; those on the Outer Rings didn’t have much of anything at all.

Hanami thought of this as she walked behind Faun, two overstuffed wicker baskets of bread, meat, and vegetables under her arms. The vixen had offered to let her use one of her compression bombs to carry the load, but Hanami declined; they made her nervous.

Not helping her nerves was the fact that the same principle that applied to the rest of Unify seemed to apply to the Marketplace at a smaller scale: the further you strayed from the Shinju at the center, the dirtier, poorer, and more ominous their surroundings became. She shivered… she had always been taught to avoid these places. “Faun, if you don’t mind my asking…”

“I never do, kitto.” Faun turned and smiled, walking backward with her arms behind her head. It seemed she knew the way well enough that she didn’t even need to look where she was going. “Go ahead.”

“Um, two questions, actually,” the doe admitted. Her eyes darted back and forth… every alley seemed a prime place for someone to jump out and attack them. “First of all, just where are we going?”

“You’ll see. You’ll have a great time when we get there, I promise,” said Faun, grinning widely. “What’s your second question?”

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