Something was happening down on the ground. AsaHi didn’t know exactly what, but she did manage to catch a flurry of activity as Zento led a whole group of winged people through the rift circle.
Whatever is going on must be important. They all had weapons and armor.
Curious and waiting for the winged people’s return, AsaHi hoisted herself into the swaying branches of the drooping feather tree next to the pond. The girl watched ripples dance away from a straying leaves that fell into the water. Then her eyes squinted as she caught a change of light on the pond’s surface.
A pattern formed on the island, one not unlike the runic engraving on the stone ground far below. As if being drawn by an invisible hand, the writing spread outward from the circle’s center, tracing gracefully up the trunks of the trees, under the surface of the water and across the grassy hills.
The girl hopped down from her perch, backing away from the circle’s glow. As the blue light grew stronger, shapes appeared, standing inside of the circle. She watched a large group of people and two rhawn appear in the Rift Gate. As their forms wavered and solidified, AsaHi crept forward, peering out from under the leaves.
Kaze stood there, cradling a figure gently within his arms. AsaHi could barely hear the soft words he spoke, the sounds shifting and dancing away from her mind just as they came to her ears. But all of that was lost upon her as she began to make out the features of…
Aunt SaRaYa!? What’s she doing here?
The older woman looked much worse for wear than the last time AsaHi had seen her. Her eyes were closed, face lined with exhaustion.
Zento stood next to them, hunched with the blue-robed body of another man over one shoulder. His face was taunt, making him look somehow older and more careworn than she remembered. The blue robes that the two men wore somehow contrasted, despite being the same color.
Daring to take a step out from her hiding place, everything around her shifted. AsaHi’s heart stopped cold in her chest. She hadn’t seen him standing there before, since he was concealed on the other side of the rhawn’s bulk. Her eyes traced him over and over…
Zento took a few wavering steps forward. His eyes turned gently to his son.
“Welcome to the city of Ceiswyr, SoYa,” the sound of pain cracked his tone. “I wanted you and Tsu to come here one day to be with your Aunt and I. But this was hardly the way I envisioned it happening.”
The man over Zento’s shoulder is TsuYa?
Sudden concern gripped her.
What’s happened? Why do they all look like they’ve just been to the depths of the Lost Hills and back?
“AsaHi?” that was the moment SoYa saw her. “You’re here, too?”
She wanted to run out to greet him, hands flung wide until they fell around his neck in a soft embrace. But she didn’t. Something about him seemed distant. The way he looked at her gave her the feeling that he wished she didn’t know that he was there at all.
AsaHi found her voice quickly, “Why are you here? Are you okay?”
His reply was silence as he turned away.
“SoYa?” she took a step forward, concern creasing her face.
“AsaHi,” Kaze gave his familiar murmur.
The girl turned towards the big man. There was something wild about him, not unlike the first time they met. His eyes plainly spoke that there was more going on than she knew.
“Y-yes, Lord Zemi?” she heard herself stammer his real name without meaning to.
The Dreigiau blanched, his voice watery as he forced the words out, “Will you please take SoYa to the guest quarters for a proper meal and bath? I would see to it myself except that the wounded need tending…”
“Of course,” AsaHi adverted her gaze.
She turned to SoYa and reached out her hand. Only a few weeks ago, he would have taken it and hugged her close. She yearned for that more than anything as she felt the world of familiar strangers closing in around her. But it didn’t come.
She settled for merely motioning to him, “Follow me?”
The silence that rose in reply broke her heart.
“Is he really Lord Zemi?” SoYa eventually found the courage to speak to AsaHi. He figured that was the easiest topic to pick, though the look on her face said otherwise.
“I think so,” her voice was weak, eyes fixed on the bridge beneath their feet. Her delicate hands wrapped around the white gossamer ropes that connected the structure from one islet to another.
He was scared. So scared. Scared to look at her. Scared to talk to her. Scared that she might finally see him for what he was – an Athrylith.
Though his face reflected with distance, his heart was aching. He wanted to hold her… he wanted to feel her arms around him… he wanted to tell her how glad he was that she was okay. He wanted to tell her how much he had missed her. And he wanted to tell her about all the things that had happened.
But the fear was too great.
What will she say when she finds out that I haven’t told her the whole truth?
“I thought you didn’t believe that Lord Zemi existed?” he asked.
“I was wrong.”
SoYa peered up quickly, blinking in disbelief. Those three words were rarely, if ever, heard coming from AsaHi’s mouth. The girl was the most stubborn, rock-solid soul that he knew. She seemed less likely to buckle to pressure than the foundations of the earth.
His mouth opened slightly, green eyes focusing on the girl’s back. For the first time he realized that something about her had changed.
His footsteps sounded hollow as they left the final plank of the bridge. The grass under his feet was enticingly green, even in the shadows of the early night. Islets floated off on the distant twilight haze. Winged people were heading home along the expanses of shimmering bridges, fading in and out of the sifting clouds. But he did not see any of it.
Lord Zemi is here? How is that possible?
His mind simply churned on.
And how does AsaHi know him?
Here eyes were upon him. There was a strange, knowing look behind her gaze. A look that had never been there before.
What a terrible… terrible mess…
“SoYa,” her voice was soft and quiet. There was emotion there. Uncertainty. Yet, hope. Always hope.
His eyes met hers. Their gazes held. Silence choked him and blanketed his mind. There was so much that he wanted to say, but he couldn’t make a single sound.
“Don’t be afraid. This place is safe,” she told him, misinterpreting his expression of unease.
The shadows of birds broke into a swooping scatter across the faint line of the rising moon above. The breeze rippled through the dangling tree limbs and streamed gently through AsaHi’s hair. The scent of warm flowers dappled the evening air, a scatter of petals fluttering through the wind. Misty clouds drifted across the grass leaving sparkling trails of dew in their wake. Not far away, a cheerful waterfall babbled, reflecting crystalline moonlight.
Off over the hills, nestled safely within the valley, were a number of tiny white structures. SoYa guessed they were some sort of shelter, even though they looked nothing like the houses that he knew back home. Somewhere in the night, was the sound of children laughing — a laughter more clear than he had ever heard.
SoYa had never seen a place of such magnificence before. Everything seemed more rich, more mystical, yet more real. Still, despite the beauty that dawned all around him, confusion bubbled in his heart.
“Where are we?” he finally asked. Anything to keep a conversation going.
“It’s called Ceiswyr. I don’t know a whole lot about it, but it’s the place where the winged people live,” she answered.
“Winged people?” SoYa’s voice dropped in tone. “Like Aunt SaRa?”
AsaHi fell silent. Her face seemed uneasy. “Aunt SaRa, too?”
“I didn’t know she was…” he attempted.
“Neither did I,” the girl offered.
SoYa began to grapple to keep the words flowing between them, “How long have you been here?”
She blinked up into the sky, her face calculating, “I’m not really sure. Time passes sort of weird up here. I think it has to do with the way the sun looks when it gets below the clouds.”
“I’m… glad you’re safe…” his voice cracked slightly as he forced the words out.
AsaHi peered at him, face softening, “You are?”
“Of course. I… couldn’t stop worrying about you,” he nodded quickly.
“SoYa,” her lips parted with the sound of his name.
Encouraged, he pressed on, “I really missed you.”
“I missed you too,” AsaHi answered. He couldn’t tell if it was from conversational habit or if she really meant it.
“It’ll be okay, right?” his voice quavered as he tried to hide his own need to seek comfort from her. Somehow it felt as if AsaHi was handling everything so much better than he was.
She nodded, “Lord Zemi and Zento will make everything better, I’m certain of it. So don’t worry… just follow me and we’ll find a room for you to rest.”
A million questions bubbled up in his mind, but AsaHi was already walking ahead over the flower-dotted hill. He watched her make her way through the knee-high grasses with the moonlight shifting through the trees and reflecting off her hair.
Somehow, he couldn’t help but feel that she looked completed here, as if the mystical realm in the clouds had perfectly embraced the magic-less girl. As AsaHi vanished over the hill, the last solid foundation of his past broke away, leaving him to flounder in the symphony of lost shadow and sound.