Wander in the woods
Cavern lit by torch’s glow
Lair of the queen
“What does it mean to be sentient? What makes us different from the animals of our world: pigboars, sheep, birds, insects, and others? ‘That is simple,’ says the average citizen. ‘Sentients are intelligent, and animals are not.’ But can an animal not learn? One sees enough enlarged pigboars pulling carts in and around Unify, and surely no animal is born knowing how to do such a thing. ‘It must be speech,’ says another. ‘We sentients can speak, write, and communicate with each other.’ A valid point; the gifts of words and language seem to be exclusive to sentientkind. However, animals have been observed exchanging information with each other by sounds, gestures, body language, and scent… so in their own way, are they not communicating? ‘It must be magic, then,’ they say. ‘Only sentients can control and manipulate the elements.’ Again, a valid argument… but do the humble ants not reshape sand and soil to build great colonies? Do the birds not weave together twigs and branches to build nests? The squirrels seem to think so; they view magic as manipulation not only of the elements, but of natural order itself. Small wonder that they so zealously forbid its practice.
“Therefore, I propose that what defines us is this: the eight sentient species are the only ones that display knowledge of their own mortality. Every living creature dies eventually, but only sentients learn of our inevitable fate, to someday depart the world of the living and travel to the Beneath, and from there to the worlds beyond. We fear death, and that, I propose, is what truly makes us sentient.”
[An excerpt from Questions of Belief, by Broad Bircholder]
In Tasakeru, the further to the east one ventured, the more difficult it became to tell day from night. Once one crossed over one of the many tributaries of Lake Juniper, the branches overhead grew ever more densely intertwined, blocking out all but the barest shafts of light, even at high noon. In concert, the terrain became steadily rougher; verdant, even soil gave way to hills at sharp angles to the ground, studded underfoot with rough stones that had never seen the sun. It was almost as if the rivers marked a dividing line between the parts of the forest that were merely ominous or threatening, and the parts that belonged to an older world… wilder, angrier, and more savage.
Faun led the way for the Outcasts, being able to see perfectly well in both the dark and the light. Zero followed her, his nerves singing with tension, ears turned back, and one hand hovering close to the hilt of his sword. He knew this forest better than anyone, but even he never went out this far if he could help it. Crossing the rivers always left him with a vague sense of unease, like he was trespassing on forbidden ground. Tonight, Tasakeru’s eastern depths felt even more malevolent than usual, and he couldn’t shake the feeling of many eyes watching him from just out of sight. That wasn’t even mentioning the noise, or lack thereof. All the sounds of a late summer night that he had grown so used to, the wind in the leaves, droning cicadas, and croaking frogs… none of those could be heard here. An oppressive silence lay upon them, one that magnified every small sound of rustling or cracking made by their passage.
Behind him, Drake hobbled along on his walking stick, huffing and wheezing, stopping on occasion to catch his breath or sniff the air, or to call a direction to Faun. And behind him walked Hanami, her ears pressed flat and her tail tucked close to her body. Rowan brought up the rear, moving as quickly and quietly as his bulky frame allowed.
It was only the badger’s presence behind her that kept her from fleeing. There was something wrong about this part of the forest, wrong on a fundamental level, in a way she couldn’t describe… she only knew that it gave her the crawling horrors. More than that, though, there was the old wolf. He was so haggard, worn down on the verge of decaying entirely, and he moved as if every step weighed upon his stooped back like lead. His eyes… something about the way Drake stared at her with those golden eyes when he thought she wasn’t looking. When he stared at her, she had an inexplicable feeling that all his age and tiredness could fall away in an instant, and a tiny voice in the back of her mind squealed a constant, high-pitched cry: Danger. Danger. Danger.