A maiden escapes
To the place where no one goes
And dark creatures lurk
“I can’t say just why I ran away. I wasn’t sure they were coming for me. I didn’t even know if they knew exactly what I had done. But I ran anyway, and by late afternoon I had reached the forest, with nothing left of my old life but the clothes on my back… and my flower.
“My mother and father had never mentioned the forest, as far as I can remember. I had seen it, of course; you could just make it out on the horizon if you looked out from Shinboku. And I know I must have asked about it at least once, but they never answered. I heard things from the other children, though… Strange things. Awful things. The general view was that it was haunted; that monsters lived there that could kill you with a mere touch or a glance. One girl told me what her parents had said, that it was where ‘the bad people’ went. As for me, I honestly didn’t think about the forest much at all. I doubt I was even thinking of it when I started running that day. But I suppose, somewhere deep inside me, I knew that if I went to Tasakeru, no one would follow…”
[An excerpt from the compiled journals of the Outcasts, translated from New Standard]
The ancient trees would have blinked in startled surprise, had they been able. Here she was, stepping on leaves and pushing aside branches in the deepest heart of the forest, their forest, and evidently not paying attention to anything around her. Not only that, but she was running down the path, completely at odds with the tranquil atmosphere of the late summer afternoon. It was strange to say the least. However, if the trees were aware, they paid her no notice. A sparrow alighted on a high branch, watched the girl for a few seconds, and then flew away, its attention on other things.
Time passed. The girl ran on.
It was a short time later when she stopped, leaning against the cool bark of an elm. Her side and legs burned with white-hot fire, protesting the distance she had run. With all the greenery and earth colors around her, she looked distinctly out of place. Her sun-gold hair was nearly waist-length, tied back at her neck with a white ribbon. Tucked behind her left ear was a strange flower, somewhat like a rose and somewhat like a carnation, with deep, blood-red petals. She wore a short-hemmed, sleeveless white tunic made from a single piece of cloth, wrapped around her and fastened with a pale blue sash that matched her wide, frightened eyes. The dress was dirty, scratched and torn quite badly by stray branches. Soft fur covered her body, a rich caramel brown save for her face, where it faded to a cream color. A long bush of a tail would have normally curled over at the tip like a question mark, but now it drooped flatly behind her, expressing her exhaustion. Her pointed ears and small black nose twitched at the unfamiliar sounds and smells of the forest.
It was deep, and it was silent, save for a few birds singing softly and the sound of her own breathing. Relieved, she pressed her face against the bark and wept.
“When my heart stopped pounding in my chest, the first thing that struck me was how quiet it was. Just as I write this, it occurs to me that it was the first time in my life I had ever truly been alone... I was glad for that.
“It wasn't quiet for long, though. Those old children's stories were right after all. Monsters did live in the forest…”
High above, the creatures watched her with growing interest. They moved silently back and forth on many legs, whispering excitedly to one another. Solid black eyes like marbles looked down at her, and slavering jaws drooled at the prospect of young, fresh, tender meat… but no, the mind that guided them would not let them eat. The mind wanted this one for other things first. It sent them an order, a single word. Capture.
The girl let out a scream as they dropped down all around her in a rough circle. Six horrible, strange creatures with too many eyes and too many legs, their mandibles moving ceaselessly as they advanced on her… Small claws twitched on their melon-sized, bulbous abdomens, busily spinning whispery white silk. The girl backed up against the oak tree as if she wanted to melt into it, her eyes wide with terror. The creatures moved forward as a group, making eerie clicking and chittering sounds to one another. They could smell her fear, as sweet and intoxicating as wine… One scuttled forward and began crawling up her leg. Too terrified to scream again, the girl’s hand shot up to the flower in her hair…
A battle cry echoed through the trees, and something glinted as it fell in the afternoon sunlight. The thing on her leg gave a loud screech and fell back to the forest floor, a metal throwing knife now embedded between two of its many eyes. A shadow dropped down in front of the girl and charged at the creatures, drawing an old and battered sword. The blade flashed once, then twice in the light filtering down from the canopy, felling two of the monsters where they stood. Moving with a swift and savage purpose, the shadow made his blade dance almost like a living thing as it did its deadly work. Another monster fell in two, and then another... When the last in sight was finally dispatched, the shadow turned around to the girl, who was staring speechlessly, barely able to breathe. His ear twitched, and his brown eyes narrowed as he asked…
“What are you doing here?!”
“I had no idea what to think. My brain had shut down... Here was this strange buck in all black, in the middle of a supposedly abandoned, haunted forest, staring at me like I was the one who shouldn't have been there…”
He was taller than she was, and his scruffy fur several shades darker. Long, unkempt chestnut hair framed his face, with a black headband barely visible beneath his bangs. He had a lean but muscular build, somewhat obscured by loose-fitting robes with wide sleeves, a fighter's clothes. The robes were all black save for a few scarce lines of red trim. A dark wooden scabbard for his sword was slung across his back. On his feet were deep red climbing boots, with metal soles with grooves cut into them for better grip and traction. His tail twitched; there may have been a curl in it at some point, but the fur was too untamed and overgrown to tell. Altogether, his appearance was strange, wild, almost feral...
“What are you doing here?” he said again.
She didn’t answer him. She just stared at the stranger, her lips moving without forming words. Finally, her voice emerged in a dry croak. “You’re… you’re a squirrel!”
His frown disappeared, replaced by an amused smirk. “So are you.”
This did nothing to alleviate the girl's fear. “But- no one’s supposed to-”
“Oh, I understand now... Grew up hearing the stories, did you?” he said, crossing his arms. “'Don’t go into the forest, it’s full of monsters, right?'”
“How did you know?” she stammered, completely lost. "A-Are you a..."
He sighed and closed his eyes. “That’s what the Magistrates tell everyone. It’s not entirely true, but they figure it’s the best way to keep people from coming here. Look, I'm not going to hurt you, I promise.” He sheathed his sword and held up both hands. “See? It's going to be all right. Can you calm down?”
Hesitantly she nodded, still ready to cut and run if he made a wrong move.
“Good. Here's the truth: you're in Tasakeru Forest,” he said, leaning back against a tree. “The Magistrates in Shinboku tell everyone this place is haunted, or full of murderers or thieves. Occasionally they mention monsters, too, but…” A note of bitterness crept into his voice. “We’re more like the rejects that nobody wants to deal with. We pushed too far, or did things we shouldn't have. So they sent us here, and forbid us from ever coming back. Basically,” he said with a smile that didn't reach his eyes, “we’re trash. But we prefer to call ourselves the Outcasts.”
“Outcasts,” she repeated, tasting the word. She was still afraid, but her fear was being pushed back by a sense of pity. He had described himself so casually as a reject, but there was no masking that resentment in his tone... She was curious despite herself. "How many of you are there?"
“Just a few, I've never seen more than a dozen at a time. By the way,” he said as he tilted forward in a short bow, “I go by Zero. Takaichi's my surname, but I don't use it often.”
She tucked her flower more securely behind her ear and returned the bow, clasping her hands in front of herself. “It's... it's nice to meet you. My name is Hanami.”
The two of them rose from their bows and smiled at each other, one with a practiced, casual ease, the other with lingering traces of fear and trepidation. Hanami's ears turned back as she made a futile effort to smooth over the tears in her tunic and dress... not that Zero seemed to mind, or even notice. Her eye wandered to the motionless leg of one of the creatures that had attacked her. “I-if you don’t mind my asking… what were those things?”
Zero grimaced. “They're called spiders. Nasty little things. They have a nest somewhere in the deepest parts of the forest. Come on, let’s move before more show up. They're less likely to attack if we stay together.”
"Move? Move where?"
He had already started down the path. With a sad smile, he looked back at her over his shoulder. "Don't take this the wrong way, but... If you've come here, you're not going back home. So we need to find you a place to stay."
Wordlessly, Hanami followed him, holding back tears. She had suspected as much, but to hear another person say it struck her like a blow to the stomach. She was never going home... there was an awful, almost unbearable weight in that realization. She turned around and gazed at the winding path that had brought her to this place, Tasakeru: an ancient, abandoned forest, filled with monsters and with people that called themselves Outcasts, people that apparently no one wanted her to know about... For a moment, she considered going back.
Then she remembered why she had run away, what would be waiting for her if she should return. With a shudder she turned back around and followed Zero deeper into the forest.
High above them, the single remaining spider watched. When the warrior had begun slaughtering its brethren, it had retreated. Briefly, it considered jumping down on him and avenging the fallen… but no. The mind didn’t want that. The mind wanted it to stay hidden, to watch and listen, and to follow the two mammals. Vengeance would come another day.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking… what did you do?”
“Do?” asked Hanami as they walked along a well-hidden path, marked only by dead leaves pressed flat against the soil. They had been silent for most of the past twenty minutes, and she was grateful for that.
“What I meant is…” Zero paused, trying to choose the right words. “You were exiled, right? What did you do?”
From above them, someone chuckled. The two squirrels looked up to see a feminine figure lying on her back on a low branch, her arms behind her head. Her fur was a brilliant red-orange, and that along with the voluminous, white-tipped tail hanging down from one side of the branch identified her species immediately. “You’re kidding, right, Takky?” said the fox without opening her eyes. “Her? Even from up here, she looks too scared to sneeze out loud, let alone do something to get herself exiled. C’mon, admit it. You brought her here for a quick one, didn’t you? What's the matter, is the forest getting too lonely for you?”
Down on the ground, Zero blanched with distaste, while Hanami’s ears laid themselves flat in embarrassment. “Faun, get down here and stop being rude...” His tone was admonishing, but there was an unmistakable hint of amusement in it.
The vixen did a needlessly flamboyant flip and tumble off the branch, landing silently on her feet. Faun’s one visible eye was emerald green… the other was almost hidden behind the bangs of her auburn hair, which was shoulder-length and topped in the back by a vivid red bow. From what little Hanami knew about them, foxes prided themselves on beauty, and this one had the kind of voluptuous figure that would make any todd jump at the chance just to be near her. Black elbow-length gloves, knee-high, cherry-red boots, a casually draped loincloth, and a bandolier thrown over one shoulder were the only articles of clothing she wore… and that bandolier strategically covered approximately half of a bust that was extraordinarily generous by anyone's standard, fox or not. Hanami was mortified just by looking at the vixen’s state of near-undress, and it didn’t help at all when she leaned close, smiling devilishly. “So, you were the one that screamed earlier?” One black-gloved finger poked the doe squirrel gently. “Soft, aren’t you?”
“I seem to remember you screaming the first time you saw a spider, Faun,” said Zero with a smirk.
Faun stood up straight and shot him a glare. “It landed on my dinner! That wasn’t a scream of fear, it was a scream of rage.” She looked back at Hanami, who had her hands over her ears in an unsuccessful attempt to hide her embarrassment. “So what’s her name?”
“M-my name’s Hanami,” she stammered, bowing to the vixen out of habit.
“You can forget the bowing stuff here, kitto. ‘Hanami’ what? What’s your family name?”
She cringed; she couldn't help it. “My name’s… just Hanami.”
Zero gave Faun a warning nudge with his elbow. “Hanami, this is Faun Reinaka," he said as he put a hand on her shoulder. “She’s our resident thief and explosives expert. She’s loud and annoying, but mostly harmless.”
“Oh, Takky, you flatter me.” The vixen smiled, batting her eyelashes. “And you know I’m hardly harmless.”
“Please don’t call me ‘Takky’, Faun, it’s embarrassing.”
“You know the rule, Takky. Everyone gets a nickname.”
“Anyway,” sighed Zero, “Faun, why don’t you take Hanami with you for a while. Show her around the forest for a bit. We’ll meet up later tonight at Campfire Rock for dinner.” As the vixen nodded, he placed a hand on the bark of a nearby tree. “I’m heading home. I’ll see you tonight.” With that, he ran up the trunk as if defying gravity, and was gone before they could blink. Only a few leaves drifting down showed that he had ever been there.
“What a show-off,” muttered Faun under her breath, shaking her head. “Right, meet up at Campfire Rock for dinner. That’s provided someone finds dinner…” Putting on a smile, she clapped a hand onto Hanami’s shoulder, making her jump. “All right, what say we-” Faun noted the ragged and dirty state of the squirrel’s tunic. “Hmm. What say we go by the lake and get you cleaned up first, and then we'll go meet Takky and the others. I’d offer to let you use my bath, but my hot water spellstone ran out.”
“I don’t mind,” said Hanami, inexplicably starting to warm to the vixen. She was indeed loud, and her manner was blunt, and she seemed to have no concept of personal space... but there was a lightness about her, an infectious sense of good cheer. Hanami found herself smiling as she said, “The lake sounds fine...”
The lake, as it turned out, was frigid. Hanami shivered even from dipping a toe into the water. But it was clear, and it was deep enough to clean herself off. Now if she could only work up the nerve to go in…
“Want a push?” said Faun with a grin. The vixen was sitting on the bank along with Hanami’s clothes.
“No, thank you!” Hanami swallowed and slowly took a step forward into the water.
"Then hurry up! Just get it over with.”
The squirrel sighed and advanced into the lake until the water rose up to her shoulders. She watched the dirt and grime slowly sift away from her fur as she did so. The water wasn’t quite as bad when one was submerged in it. Closing her eyes, she decided to try to make conversation to keep her mind off the chill. “Your mate seems very nice.”
“My… my mate?” Faun blinked. “You mean Takky?!” She burst into a fit hysterical, barking laughter, making Hanami’s ears flatten again.
“S-Sorry,” she stammered, starting to bow once more before she caught herself, the tip of her nose almost touching the surface of the water. “I just thought-”
“My mate! Damn…” gasped Faun, wiping her eyes. “You’re way off the path, kitto. Even all the way out here, crossmating doesn’t happen… We're not that far removed! Still, I’ll pass on the compliment. And hey, like I told you. Forget the bowing stuff, it's too formal. Besides, there’s barely anyone here to bow to.”
“Who else is there?”
Faun counted off on her fingers. “Well, there’s me and Zero, and there’s Stripehead, you’ll meet him later.”
“He’ll say his name is something else, but don’t believe him. Oh, and there’s the old one, Dark or Derk or something like that. You won’t see much of him.”
“Why not?” she asked as she worked some of the tangles out of her hair. “Is he shy?”
“More like anti-social. He's real old and grumpy, doesn't say much. We usually don’t see him for weeks at a time.” Faun picked idly at a patch of grass on the bank while she waited. She glanced over at Hanami’s clothes, and then at the strange flower lying there. “What’s with the flower? I’ve never seen one like that before. Pretty color, though.”
Hanami tensed slightly. “It’s special. I used to grow them.”
“Gardener, huh? We could use someone who can grow stuff. There's not enough out here that's edible... we've got some berries and mushrooms and stuff, but not much of them.”
“I see. Hold on.”
With that she took a deep breath and ducked under the water, leaving Faun alone on the bank. After a moment, the vixen picked up the squirrel’s tunic, and casually checked the pockets, finding nothing. Frowning, she searched the skirt, and even the sash, but both came up empty. “Didn’t grab a damned thing, did she?” Faun muttered to herself. “Must have been in a hurry.”
A moment later, Hanami came up gasping and shivering. “It’s even colder at the bottom! How can you stand it?!”
Faun quickly turned the girl’s pockets back in, careful to make it look like she was only folding the clothes. “Like I said, I usually have a hot water spellstone. Either that, or I go to the hot spring, but that’s pretty far away, and if you fall in the swamp on the way back, it’s all for nothing. We can go to Shinboku tomorrow if you want to get some new stuff.”
“Go to Shinboku? How?! Aren’t you- aren’t we exiles?”
Faun tapped the side of her nose, winking. “Don’t worry about it. We have ways of getting in even with the laws, you’ll see. So, you want to come along?”
“I- I’d like that, but I don’t have any money…”
I know, thought Faun. Aloud, she said, “Hey, no worries, it’s savvy. I can loan you a couple hundred san, and you can pay me back later. Here are your clothes.”
“Thank you,” said Hanami, taking them gratefully. She started to bow once more before she remembered, and rose back up with an uneasy giggle.
“Heh. So the new girl is perky," said Faun with a devious grin. “And speaking of ‘perky’... you've got a nice pair, there.”
“Pair?” Hanami blinked, then followed the vixen’s glance and looked downward.
Her expression nearly made Faun split her sides laughing.
The mind watched through the spider's eyes from the darkness far away, as the vixen laughed and the squirrel stammered between apologies and indignation. It lingered on the doe with the golden hair, so innocent and fragile... and yet she had escaped the spiders' grasp, thanks to the warrior's arrival. Reckoning would come to the warrior, of course, but for some reason the mind lingered on that strange girl. It could feel something guarded about her, a secret that would remain hidden despite her growing friendship with the exiles. Whatever that secret was, the mind would lay it bare once the girl was alone again. She would not escape twice.