ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 6

Chapter 6

Woe, oh ancient one

When all that you know is gone

Where will you wander?

“Never corner a fox, if at all possible. When foxes are trapped with no hope of escape and their lives in danger, their first instinct is to attempt to talk their way out of peril. Anyone who has spent sufficient time in the company of foxes could explain why this is undesirable for all parties concerned.

“Foxes, of course, think themselves quite witty. The average todd or vixen has such a high opinion of themselves and their intelligence that they will approach the task of talking themselves through life-threatening danger with the utmost confidence. One supposes they reason that once their adversary is angry or distracted enough that judgment is impaired, the fox can make their escape with impunity. Anger or distraction on the other party’s part is all but guaranteed, given that when a fox speaks at length, their words inevitably become insulting, offensive, or both.

“So provoked, the fox’s adversary will resort to violence, lose their temper, or otherwise make an effort to force the fox to stop talking by any available means. In the ensuing confusion, the fox will take advantage of their clouded judgment, and more often than not will flee the premises, laughing all the way. While the adversary may experience significant frustration over this turn of events, it is often eclipsed by relief that at least the talking has stopped. Thus, a favorable outcome for both parties, all things considered.”

[An excerpt from The Art of Diplomacy, by Gaius Cloelius Fulcinius]

“Look,” said Faun. “I’m just saying, there’s been some kind of huge misunderstanding here.”

The jackal did not answer.

“I mean, I get it. Three thousand years alone, you’re looking for companionship, I come along and… well.” She smirked. “Nobody would blame you.”

The jackal did not answer.

“I’m just saying. There’s better ways to solve that problem, ones that don’t involve me.”

Still the jackal did not answer.

Faun sighed and leaned against the back wall, playing idly with her tail fur. Blasting her way out of her prison was no longer an option; after a few more useless grenade volleys, Seker had taken her boom belt from her. When he grew bored of her constant attempts to retrieve it, he made both the bandolier and his hand insubstantial with a spell that Faun had to admit was rather impressive, then sank the belt into the brick floor. Now it was embedded there, completely out of reach. The only way to access the tower shaft to the lower chamber was by his will, so that was out. That left talking as her only viable option. It was not going well.

Seker stood immobile before the tower’s enormous crystalline picture window, his hands clasped behind his back, as much like a statue as the first time Faun saw him. The jackal cut a noble figure, there was no disputing that… but every time she felt faint stirrings of sympathy for him, she remembered that he intended to keep her there against her will until she agreed to be his eternal companion or died, whichever came first. Any pity she had for him shriveled in a hurry when she thought of that.

At this point, the sole comfort she had was trying to annoy him. It was something she had quite a knack for. “For example,” she said with a wicked grin, “why not try, you know, indulging yourself? I swear it doesn’t really make you go blind, that’s a myth.”

She thought she saw his shoulders twitch, but perhaps it was a trick of the light.

“Or a hobby!” said Faun. “That could help pass your time. Do you have any hobbies? Painting, sculpting, collecting bird feathers? I had a friend back in Unify once that loved bird feathers, he collected all kinds. Sparrow feathers, chicken feathers, swallow feathers, pigeon feathers, seagull feathers, duck feathers, red-tailed hawk feathers, white-tailed hawk feathers…”

As she babbled on and on, Seker was unreasonably glad that the vixen could not see his pained expression, nor his eyes rolling behind his mask. He stood in silence, trying to ignore his slowly growing suspicion that this entire situation was spiraling out of his control. However, he took solace in the fact that eventually, given enough time, she would stop talking. Eventually, given enough time, she had to stop.

Didn’t she?

The jackal suppressed a dry chuckle. Thousands of years spent yearning in vain for the sound of a voice other than his own, and now he found himself wishing for silence. What an irony.

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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 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 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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