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Aside

ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

A clever mind knows

How to take the advantage

When the Goddess calls

 

            “When examining the life and legend of Faun Muranaka, it is important to note a few things: first, that for all the enduring tales of her heroic deeds alongside the other Outcasts, that she was and is by no means seen as a purely virtuous figure. To the contrary, stories abound of her sneaking into Unify and leaving chaos in her wake. A comprehensive list of her crimes (apart from repeatedly ignoring the terms of her exile, of course) includes but is not limited to: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment, disturbing the peace, breaking and entering, destruction of property, vandalism, a host of assault charges, numerous accounts of fraud both major and minor, and violation of obscenity laws. This last one is particularly notable, as it was apparently us, her own kind, who placed obscenity charges against her. One might think it patently impossible for we foxes of all species to find anything to be obscene enough to place charges, but Faun Muranaka found a way.

            “Which leads us to the second point: Muranaka was, first and foremost, a thief. She was incarcerated more times for this than for any of her other crimes, in cases ranging from simple petty theft and shoplifting to grand mal larceny. Rumors persist that the forge that her comrade Rowan Longstripe used during his Outcast days was procured for him from one of Unify’s leading blacksmiths. The entire forge, so the legend goes, was stolen by Muranaka alone, and somehow smuggled out of the city without anyone noticing. Again, some might call that impossible, but Muranaka apparently found a way. Some variants of the story claim that she stole it piece by piece over a period of months, until the poor, baffled smith was left with nothing but an empty room.

            “Understanding Faun’s propensity for theft may be key to understanding why she did what she did during that early autumn when the last Titan reemerged from his prison. The subject puzzles many who study Outcast lore: by all accounts, Muranaka and Hanami were close and trusted friends, risking their lives for each other on countless occasions. Why, then, would Muranaka deliberately deceive her friend and steal her most precious possession? Was it out of greed? Desire to help the last Titan? A self-imposed challenge? We may never know.”

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

 

This is stupid.

That thought occurred to Zero with such abruptness that he stopped his pacing in mid-step, almost twisting an ankle. The many papers scattered around his drey fluttered in the sudden breeze.

It’s stupid, he thought, frowning at himself. Why the hell should I be afraid of talking to Hanami? She’s a friend, for Gods’ sakes. Friends talk to each other. There’s absolutely no reason for how I acted. So what if she finds out what I was reading? It was inexcusable of me. Gods, I’m an idiot.

I’ll apologize. Zero nodded, straightened his robes and headband, and made for the door. The metal platings on his boots made decisive sounds, a series of purposeful clack noises as he crossed the wooden floorboards, tail held high. Right. I’ll apologize, and then everything will go back to normal.

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 2

Chapter 2

A home in the woods

A tale of power and pride

Shades of ages past

 

“In shadow lay she, in an earthly bed

A crown of lilies white upon her head

‘Beneath the boughs, I’ll wait for thee,’ she said

To gaze upon her was my heart’s delight

To hear her laugh would set my soul alight

Her form, her shape, alluring as the night

Oh, maiden! That again I’d be with thee!

But now, forever rest thee ‘neath that tree

The love that was, ‘tis ever not to be…”

[“In Shadow Lay She”, a poem by Sanshiro]

            Faun and the enormous jackal stared at each other. Or, more accurately, Faun stared up at the jackal, and the black rock crystal eyes set in the jackal’s gold visage stared back down at her. It was unnerving, knowing he could somehow see her through the… mask? Headdress? Helmet? What was he wearing, anyway? It made him seem even bigger, more like a statue than he already was. There was something very off about him, mask (or headdress, or helmet) aside, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.

“Um.” Faun swallowed. This was one of the rare times in her life when she was left searching for something to say. “You… you can talk now…”

“I could always talk,” said Seker, an ominous thrum entering his voice.

Uh oh. “I mean, in New Standard! You weren’t speaking it before, so how did you-”

“The barrier absorbed my magic. With it gone, I only required a moment of contact with you to hear your thoughts and grasp your language. A simple reader’s trick… any decent mist mage could do the same.”

“Right, the barrier.” Faun nodded. A tiny voice in the back of her mind began to question exactly what she had gotten herself into. “I bet you’re glad to be out of there, huh?”

“Yes.” His response was terse, with very little feeling behind it… stark contrast to how he first spoke to her. “Indeed I am.”

“Good, good. Folks shouldn’t be locked up like that. I would know.” After a long, excruciating pause, she added: “Especially not for… how long did you say you were down here, again?”

“Three thousand years.” There was no hesitation to Seker’s answer, no searching for a figure. “More accurately, three thousand, five hundred and seventy years, nine months, and twenty-one days, as of today.”

For a few seconds, the fact that he could recall the exact length of his imprisonment with that degree of accuracy was even more upsetting to Faun than the length itself. It took several seconds more for that figure to sink in. “That…” Her throat felt quite dry all of a sudden. “That’s… a long time to be asleep…”

“I did not sleep.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“I was awake for the entire duration.” Again, just a blunt statement of fact.

“How-”

“There is much you must know, vixen.” Seker brushed past her, heading for the arch she entered through. His heavy footfalls rang off the sandstone walls with every step. “Please, walk with me.”

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 1

BOOK II: ETERNITY AWAKES

Chapter 1

Sands of the desert

Cover an ancient secret

Lost in time, it waits

“Kamen Desert is not natural. That much should be obvious to anyone who looks at it. The world contains a few small stretches of what we call ‘wastelands’, inhospitable areas charted by the wolves and studied by the rabbits, but otherwise of no use to sentientkind. However, just because they are of no use to us does not make them useless to other creatures. There are remarkable creatures that make the wastelands their homes: dune snakes, armored scorpions, birds that roost in hollow gourds, even a few species of hardy mice. There are useful dry grasses, flowering aloe plants, and even a few thin trees… there is much to be found if one takes the time to scratch the surface.

            “Kamen Desert has none of those things. Travel far south enough from Unify, and after a certain point, the rolling hills of grass simply… stop. There is a dividing line, an eerily smooth line, separating the grasslands’ southernmost border from the miles upon miles of burning sand.

            “To put it simply, there is nothing there. No plants, no animals, no water, nothing save for endless dunes of fine white sand reaching to the shores of the endless sea. Some see the place as an extension of the Beneath, for understandable reasons. Some claim that on the Day of Three Gods, the Death God’s terrible gaze landed directly on this area, cursing it barren forever more.

“And others… others theorize that Kamen Desert is where the Titans lived. The Titans, of course, are known from the very few surviving Lost Ages records as the world’s ninth sentient species, but they are long since disappeared. Preserved in museums throughout Unify are priceless ancient carvings and drawings of a giant people similar to the wolves and foxes, a people that built great angular towers to the skies and possessed forgotten magic. Though we have lost all but a fraction of what we knew of the world before the Species War, there is enough evidence to support that the Titans did indeed exist, and were not a creation of lore.

            “If they did exist, though… where did they go, and why?”

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

It was the same sun that shone down upon Tasakeru, Unify, and the rest of the world… but in the desert it was a sinister thing that sapped all life and water from the cursed place, leaving only sand and relentless heat. Even the wind here was beastly hot and dry as bone, and there were no trees or buildings to provide any kind of relief. That sun beat down upon Kamen Desert as if trying to punish mortals for their arrogance.

The lone source of shade was in a pit dug fifty meters deep into the sand, excavated by earth mages who had been paid handsomely for their service. Some mad, rich hobferret claimed half a year ago that he had received guidance from the Magus Aurum Ruby himself in a dream, and personally financed the mages to dig out here, here where there was nothing at all to be found. It was good work if one could get it, even if it was pointless… or so they thought.

The discovery shocked and amazed historians, explorers, and adventurers the world over. Fifty meters down, the reports said, the earth mages found something… not sand, but something solid. Everyone who could stand the heat joined in the excavation, with earth magic, shovels, and their own hands, until the solid thing beneath the sands was uncovered: an obelisk. One single, enormous obelisk made of sandstone and inscribed with ancient writing… For anyone who knew their history, it only meant one thing: a remnant of the Titans had at last been found.

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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 8

Chapter 8

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.

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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 7

Chapter 7

Attack at twilight

Appropriate punishment

Sixteen eyes watching

 

            “As one might surmise from the various grumblings of more vocal members of society, the Magistrate Representatives are not typically held in high regard by the average sentient. The Magistrate is a noble idea in theory: a governing body in which each species has an equal voice and equal influence… but in execution, sadly, it leaves something to be desired.

            “To begin with, each Representative is appointed or elected by their species in whatever manner their culture sees fit. The rabbits and badgers, for example, choose their Representatives by popular vote, while the squirrels delegate that responsibility to the heads of their noble families, the Shichi Meimon, with the common folk largely excluded from the process. For skunks, the Representative is chosen by the Grand Mistress of the Silver Order herself, and the wolves select theirs by convening the various packs and praying to the Gods for guidance. Foxes, to my knowledge, pass the position on to whomever wants it, and does not mind wading through the massive amounts of paperwork required to obtain it. Ferrets divinate to find their Representative, and as for the raccoons… like almost everything else in their culture, their method of choosing a speaker for themselves is a mystery to the rest of us, unlikely to ever be solved.

            “It is diverse, yes, but just because a Representative is popular and well-liked by his or her own kind does not necessarily mean that he or she will interact well with the others. Thus, frequent arguments, dysfunction, and stagnation… all legitimate reasons to feel cynical about the entire enterprise.”

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

 

            “This meeting of the Magistrate Representatives is called to order. Takaishi Reimaru, step forward,” said the battle-scarred buck from his perch, using the Old Standard naming order. The vermillion rays of the setting sun lit him from behind, giving him an almost divine appearance.

After a hard push from the two samurai flanking him, Zero did as he was told, grimacing as he did every time someone not of his family or close friends used his given name. He had been “Zero” for so long now that being called “Reimaru” left a bitter taste in his mouth… it reminded him too much of the past. Funny, there was a time he hated the nickname “Zero”, and now he found himself preferring it. At least “Zero” didn’t imply as much familiarity… Then again, being called that by the Representatives would have an additional, unwelcome meaning: “Zero”, meaning “nothing”.

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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 6

Chapter 6

Usual suspects

Face the iron hand of law

Awaiting trial

“Like the cherry blossoms falling,

So we go! So we go!

Come now, brothers, death is calling,

So we go! So we go!

Standing straight and unafraid,

So we go! So we go!

Crimson blood upon our blades,

So we go! So we go!

Like the winter turns to spring,

So we go! So we go!

For to settle everything,

So we go! So we go!

Though the Beneath awaits us all,

As sure as summer turns to fall,

We march to war and heed the call,

So we go! So we go!

-Traditional Daigundan battle anthem

 

“Three cheeses and five loaves of bread,” said the grimacing willow badger in Healer robes as she pawed through Zero’s belongings, including the bread and cheese he had been forced to release from Faun’s compression bombs. The badger’s brow was wrinkled in a semi-permanent frown. The skinny little ferret at her side studiously took notes on a scroll. “One loaf badly burnt,” she said, her distaste evident. “Three flasks, filled…”

“Careful.” The word of caution came from Lady Nadeshiko, standing guard over her prisoner. Zero’s wrists and ankles were shackled with heavy manacles, but she knew better than to assume he would cooperate. “Those may be from the vixen. They could be dangerous.”

“It’s milk,” said Zero, rolling his eyes heavensward. “You do still drink milk in the Order, don’t you, Milady?”

“Silence.” The floris, as ever, was in no mood for levity. “Sister Cherry, if you would, please.”

Nodding, the willow uncapped one of the flasks and brought it to her great striped muzzle to take a sniff. “It’s milk, Milady.”

“Check the others to be sure.”

“Is this really necessary?” Zero shifted in his chains. “Just send me to the Crown and get it over with.”

They stood in an enforced stone bunker near the base of the Shinju, an ugly little building that stood out like a canker amid the natural beauty of her roots. At least part of the sacred tree was visible through the barred windows of every cell… supposedly, the architect’s idea was that prisoners would be forced to contemplate the Shinju’s majesty and how they had wronged what she represented. It was a novel idea, but it grew less effective over time, especially when one had been held here as many times as Zero had.

“You will hold your tongue, Takaishi, unless I direct you otherwise!” snapped Nadeshiko.

“They’re all milk, Milady,” the badger reported.

“Hmph. Carry on.”

“A dozen small kunai throwing knives.” said Cherry. The ferret scribe’s pen scratched away.

Brilliant green eyes bored into Zero. “And what are those for, may I ask?”

“Escaping,” said Zero with a devious grin. It wouldn’t help his case, but he couldn’t resist.

Nadeshiko tapped one armored foot against the floor, a growl rising somewhere deep in her throat. Her eyes remained locked on the buck, daring him to try something.

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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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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 4

Go across the plains

To the divided city

Sheltered by the boughs

    “To understand why our civilization fractured as it did, it is important to know the differing beliefs that the Three Gods inspired. The only common element between them is the presence of the Three themselves. In all other aspects, each species’ culture and worship differs greatly from the others.

    “Squirrels, for example… The smallest in stature of the eight sentient species, but far from the least among us, the squirrels developed a culture based upon the virtues of loyalty, honor, dignity, and strength. Their Godlore focuses on the great heroic deeds of the Shogun, their God of Time, and the boundless empathy and grace of their Goddess of Life, Tsuchi-megami-sama, whose name was later simplified in New Standard as ‘Lady Terra’.

“The Shogun (whose name is Old Standard for ‘General’, though it may be argued that ‘Warlord’ is a more appropriate translation) is said to be the perfect embodiment of a warrior: unrelenting on the battlefield, upholding honor at all times, protecting those weaker than himself and challenging those stronger. Unafraid of death, he is always willing to lay down his life for his cause. A wild, untamed, bloodthirsty beast of a buck at first, the Shogun was eventually tempered by his love and devotion for Lady Terra. It is unsurprising that the squirrels so encourage their young bucks to emulate the Shogun… core tenets of the faith are his sacred Seven Virtues: Loyalty, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, and Justice. These Virtues were written for his first band of loyal samurai followers, and passed down through the ages from father to son.”

[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]

 

It’s too hot.

Hands pressed against the glass, the soft pads on the tip of each finger and thumb blistering from the inferno outside. Pulling away, seeing the reflection of wide, frightened eyes, and a face bathed in a flickering orange glow.

Someone stop it, please…

Shadows on the wall behind, twisting and contorting like demons in a frenzied dance. The smell, sharp and acrid, scouring, overwhelming everything else…

Stop it! It’s too hot!

    And then a familiar sharp crack, a stinging pain… and the glass broke under the pressure of flaming black vines lined with thorns, reaching in through the empty frame to grasp her and crush the life out of her…

Hanami sat bolt upright, her short, sharp scream echoing in the small space. It was dark, too dark to see, and something was wrapped around her, stiflingly hot. In a cold panic, she bared her claws to tear at it, she couldn’t breathe… “Huh?”

Whatever was wrapped around her, it didn’t fight back. Stopping short of ripping it to pieces, she paused and ran the pads of her thumb and forefinger over it… it was soft and warm. Fabric. A blanket. This isn’t mine! How? Where-

An enormous, rumbling noise from somewhere to her right was enough to prompt another scream. Where am I have to run have to get out… Her thoughts were a desperate stream as she resumed her struggle with the blanket, a second, even louder noise setting her fur on end…

Wait. She stopped, heart hammering in her breast and tail ramrod straight, and listened carefully to the noise from the right. It was loud, but regular and even… snoring. Hanami took a steadying breath, and caught a dusky, playful scent, traces of a campfire, and a scant few nuts, seeds, and berries on the sleeper’s breath… it was Faun. Hanami supposed that she must have fallen asleep staring into the fire, and this dark place must be the vixen’s den. Calm settled over her.

She took me back to her home. Yes, that made sense. It was all right now, she didn’t need to run anymore. The doe smoothed down her fur and smiled in the dark, more grateful for Faun’s kindness than she had words to express. Out of habit, she reached up to touch the flower tucked behind her left ear, and found it still in place, as always. I wonder…

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WITHOUT A NAME, CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 3

Strangers become friends

Watching dancing fireflies

Outcasts’ gathering

“So it was… we heeded the words, and change and new life flourished throughout the world. From our savagery, we were uplifted into civilizations, each one based upon the Gods that so awed and terrified us. We reclaimed the land, healed it as best we could, and made it our own. We tamed the animals, the goats, sheep, pigboars, and fowl, nurturing them as if they were our own children. Where there was once only ruin, we built homes, towns, villages… and Unify, our capital city.

“Built in a circle around the Shinju, the great tree that the Goddess of Life raised in the world’s center and named after part of the message that the Gods gave unto us, Unify spread as our numbers grew. Among the Shinju’s roots we mingled, sharing our stories and our knowledge, and under her boughs we slept in peace. When it came time to lead ourselves, those chosen by each species took to meeting high up in her crown, where the Representatives could see all of Unify spread out before them.

“For a while, it was paradise… but then, to our sorrow, our belief in the Gods led to more conflict than ever…”

[An excerpt from Godlore: Our Sacred Legacy and Foundations of Society, by Ash Caeruleus]

 

“Well, kitto, there it is!”

A gasp left Hanami’s lips as Faun pulled aside the underbrush blocking their view of a grassy clearing. At the clearing’s center, under a canopy of stars, there stood a huge slab of granite. Ten meters across, it was low enough to the ground that one could step up onto it without having to climb. Its surface was almost perfectly flat, smoothed and leveled by who knew how many centuries of rain, and so polished that it reflected some of the light of the late summer moon above. In the center of the rock there were a half-dozen logs, each large enough to sit on and covered by a hand-woven blanket. The logs surrounded a shallow dip in the rock’s surface, in which lay a pile of blackened timber and ash, the remnants of a fire. All around, the air glimmered with tiny, lazily drifting yellow lights blinking off and on… there was a company of fireflies out tonight, engaged in a courtship dance.

“It’s beautiful,” said Hanami in a hushed tone as she climbed over the edge. The place was like an illustration out of an old storybook, the kind she used to love as a child.

Faun shrugged and grabbed a blanket, wadding it into a rough ball shape before she sat down on it. “It’s not much, but we like it.”

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