“Can you believe the nerve of that KoGuRai?” TsuYa complained to his rhawn as he secured the reigns to a sturdy branch on the nearest tree.
The frustration in the young man’s voice and the sharpness of his tone would have set any lesser mount on edge. But this dark dappled rhawn was Steadfast, the colt of Certainty, who had been the legendary steed of ZenToYa himself. Much to his name’s credit, Steadfast was quite used to his owner’s tirades and daily grumblings, and merely flicked an ear in response before turning to graze.
“Some help you are,” TsuYa snorted through his nose as he pulled his practice weapon from the packs on the rhawn’s back. Despite his gruff words, he patted his steed’s flank and made sure all was well before heading towards the silence of the waiting Host Gate.
Silence was the one thing that helped him keep his temper in check, especially on days like this, when he had more than enough of the Council’s nonsense. He was especially sick of one member in particular — his long-time rival, KoGuRai.
He’s got it coming to him. If it wasn’t for SoYa, I would have already…
TsuYa let the practice blade whistle and slice the air, venting his frustration on the watching nothingness. Windmilling his arms, he relished the feel of stretching muscles and the control of the weight of the weapon in his fists. Then, with one measured stroke, he lashed out at the shoddy practice dummy that he had set up only days before, sweeping what passed as the bouldered head from the lop-sided body.
How’d you like that? Huh?
TsuYa named the sad creation KoGuRai, in honor of the source of his frustrations. There were, of course, fitting parallels between the two — mostly because it was a dummy, and also because of the rock-hard noggin. Though TsuYa was a stark realist and rarely gave thought to fantasies, there was something immensely satisfying about imagining KoGuRai’s shocked face in the place of the dummy’s boulder-head.
If Dad was still here, he’d take KoGuRai out back and teach him a thing or two.
However, TsuYa’s father, ZenToYa, was not there anymore. Neither was KoGuRai’s father, JinRai. And that’s where the problems in Nefol, and TsuYa’s life, began.
No one was certain how Nefol lost two of its founding leaders within so short a span. All anyone could confirm was that JinRai went on an expedition to the Outterlands and didn’t return. When Father went to search for his old friend, he didn’t come back either. The message returned saying that ZenToYa was slain during battle with the people of the Spiral.
The stories came back in jumbled pieces from every side. Many things didn’t add up, but it was so hard to sort fact from fiction when TsuYa wasn’t there to see things for himself.
Something just doesn’t feel right about this. And I bet it all has to do with KoGuRai.
TsuYa lifted the boulder in both hands, placing it back on top of the dummy shoulders with a grumble. The only other thing that was certain was how the whole Council had fallen apart without the Founders there to guide the city. It was almost as bad as the old stories where clan bickered with clan over primal hunting grounds. Just more political. And stupid.
Father would have a fit if he knew what this has become. But what I can do?
With KoGuRai and his lapdogs constantly trying to thwart SoYa’s succession to become the next High Guide of Nefol, it had quickly become the Rais against the Yas. While some said that SoYa’s timid nature was not fit to be the next leader, TsuYa had every intention to fight and protect his brother’s birthright from the wolves waiting in the shadows.
Another crack resounded as his practice weapon sent the boulder rolling, this time straight into the mouth of the Host Gate. TsuYa paused, looking uncertain. Though he came to the Host Gate often, it was only to practice and get away from the mess of the city. Something about the place always made him feel closer to his father, somehow – probably because his fondest memories often revolved around this place.
Though they said the voice of the Dreigiau echoed among the stone, TsuYa did not enter the cave or seek to speak with the Patron. Not the way his brother, SoYa, did. It was another thing he was sure his father wouldn’t have approved of, but TsuYa rarely had anything to say to anyone, much less the Patron Guide.
Not that Lord Dragon would waste his time to talk with me, anyhow.
Still, TsuYa was a perfectionist. The thought of leaving the dummy-head there in the mouth of the cave seemed fairly rude. So, he resolved to claim it. Quickly. Then leave.
Carefully, he crept forward, conscious of every scrape and scuffle his boots made on the stone. His green eyes fought to adjust to the growing dimness, his mouth pursed into a straight line. The boulder rolled further inside than he accounted for, and the thought of pressing deeper into the Host Gate began to weigh heavy on his shoulders.
There it is!
Finally catching sight of the stone, he scuffled forward and reached for it. As his fingers extended into the shadow, a sudden hissing wind gusted through the cavern, making his skin prickle. The darkness seemed to grow more pronounced as he watched his coat flap around his ankles.
The wind is going the wrong direction. It’s coming from inside the cave!
TsuYa took a staggered step backwards, instantly forgetting about the boulder. The air pressed from every side, feeling somehow weighted and heavy with an unnatural chill. Shadows stretched, etched across the darkness of the cave walls, and a soft hiss scraped across the stone like a heated knife.
For a moment, the wind seemed to speak his name. TsuYa jumped as the whisper drew close, sounding next to his ear. When he turned, he saw nothing. Just as quickly as it came, the wind vanished, sweeping away through the mouth of the cavern and fading into the normal daylight.
What was that?
His shaking hands were the only proof that anything had happened at all.
What WAS that?
But there was a more troubling question.
How did it know my name?
TsuYa let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Then gathering his wits, he began to make his way back out of the Host Gate. That’s when he realized something still didn’t feel quite right. Glancing over one shoulder, he could make out the faint outline of flickering light cast across the far wall.
He balled one fist around the grip of his practice weapon and pivoted on his heel, facing back into the depths of the cave. If something really was happening, it was his duty as an Apprentice to inspect and report the situation to Nefol. Still, that didn’t stop his throat from tightening at the memory of the foreboding presence on the wind.
The sound of his boots on the stone was louder than he wanted it to be. The closer he crept to the central chamber, the more light he could see. Finally, the cave yawned wide before him, full of streaming light, dancing runes and unearthly illumination. TsuYa had visited the Host Gate many times in the past, but had never seen such a phenomenon, not even when Father was there.
As his eyes adjusted to the pulsing light, he made out a strange shape in the far room. Steeling his resolve, he stepped into the glow. Strangely enough, it appeared to part for him, almost welcoming as he moved forward.
Is that… a person?
TsuYa almost chided himself for allowing his imagination to play tricks on him. After all, no one actually came inside the Host Gate. And if they did, why would they be laying in the middle of the floor?
Yes… I think it is!
All logic lost to amazement, he realized his first instinct was right. There was someone lying within the cave. Carefully, he knelt next to the unmoving figure and rolled them over with one hand.
TsuYa’s eyes widened as he instantly recognized the familiar face. She was his brother’s Promised, and one day would become SoYa’s Bonded wife. However, the fact that she was there, within the Host Gate, and certainly without permission, would cause all sorts of trouble.
Oh man… oh man!
He gripped the girl’s shoulders and shook her very gently, “AsaHi! Wake up! We need to go!”
She didn’t respond, only a limp heaviness drawing down her limbs. TsuYa tried shaking her again, and was met with the same silence. Only her shallow breath and heartbeat told him that she was still alive.
Great. This is a real fine mess.
TsuYa grumbled to himself as he reached down and scooped the girl up in his arms.
If the Council finds out she was here… if they see this magic activity…
He carried her out of the cavern towards his rhawn, legs bowed as he struggled to hold her weight against his chest. With a final heave, he hoisted AsaHi up over the back of Steadfast, then swung up behind her in the saddle.
SoYa, you better thank me for this!
Practice time and dummy were forgotten as TsuYa wheeled his steed around. His thoughts were now focused on where in Nefol to take the girl and how to get her there as unnoticed as possible.
This isn’t going to be easy.