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 great broadsword’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 broadsword at her side, as usual, not a trace of softness or gentleness in her expression, her lips drawn tight in what Lily feared would become a semi-permanent frown. “Mother,” she said by way of greeting. “I’ve just spoken with some of the head scribes of the news scrolls. They told me that-”

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

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ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 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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Music Page Update: Autumn Afternoon

I’ve uploaded a new song to the Music page called “Autumn Afternoon”. It’s a gentle, mellow guitar theme for Zero and Hanami’s relationship.

– BHS

Aside

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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Music Update: Zero’s Theme

“The Samurai Who Feared Death – Zero’s Theme” has been added to the Music page!

– BHS

Aside

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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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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