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 6

Chapter 6

Glimpse a twisted mind

Travel back into the past

Birth of the legion

 

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

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

[Excerpt from Treatises by Galen Primus Avarius]

 

“I’m going.”

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

“I don’t care. I’m going.”

“And he’ll be waiting.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Do you even know where to go?”

“I’ll find him. Whatever it takes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“H-here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know where he is.”

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5

Petals on the floor

Rectifying past mistakes

Duel in the flames

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

[Excerpt from the writings of Sister Belladonna Justitia]

 

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

“You,” growled the wolf again.

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

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

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

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

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

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 4

Chapter 4

Order under siege

An assault on sacred ground

The night of slaughter

 

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

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

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

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

[Excerpt from the writings of Io of the HearthPack]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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SOULSNATCHER, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

Preparations made

Shoring up the defenses

To strike at the heart

“Something evil comes a-lurking

Baring fangs, in shadows smirking:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Wander not at night alone,

Lest he take you for his own:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Meet not his gaze, his maddened eyes

And listen not unto his lies:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

His razor teeth, his foul breath,

His ragged claws, all steeped in death:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!

Your soul will writhe in endless hell

When takes he, leaving but a shell:

THE SOULSNATCHER, beware!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 seventeen 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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