Coming back to the ground was a strange sensation. SoYa felt somehow more heavy-limbed and uncoordinated. Though he couldn’t understand why, back in Ceiswyr, his mind seemed more agile and light, and he found himself missing it the moment he stepped foot on the ground.
There’s something about that place. It’s strange at first and takes time to adjust. But once you’ve been there for a while, it’s hard to come back down here.
A big splash of rain fell directly on his nose.
Not hard to understand why. It seems so dreadfully murky in comparison.
Then, it began to pour.
“Hedd-ynad!” the Apprentice jammed his cap down tightly over his ears. “We haven’t even been out here half a day and it’s already started raining on us. Isn’t that a sign of bad luck?”
“Luck is what you make it, SoYa,” Father smiled back over one shoulder. His wings were cupped over his head for protection. The rain slipped easily off the pristine feathers, never touching him.
“Superstition is for the simpleminded,” Kudako added gruffly. The Dragon’s steps were measured, falling softly upon the damp earth. Though he had no protection against the torrent from above, it didn’t bother him in the slightest.
AsaHi half-jogged to keep up with the grueling pace. She was the only one who thought to bring a hooded garment. Her green eyes peered out from under the shadows of the dull brown wool, face plainly speaking similar displeasure at the turn in the weather. SoYa wasn’t sure how the girl ended up traveling with them. Something very strange must have happened for Father and Kudako to both bend on the matter.
A rumble of thunder pealed over the sky, a deep threatening sound from the bellies of the low rolling clouds. Thorneblade balked, throwing back his head with a sharp snort.
“Come on,” SoYa coaxed the rhawn, fingers tightly gripping the halter’s lead. With a little struggling between the two, he managed to get the creature to continue down the rocky hillside. “I know you were never meant to be a packmule, but…”
He didn’t want to leave Thorne behind in the city, and as it turned out, it was much more convenient to bring the rhawn along to tote the supplies. So, they packed the poor creature with enough for what was expected to journey there and back.
It would have been so much easier if we all just rode.
That was his thought on the matter. But it didn’t happen.
There weren’t enough rhawn for all of them to ride, to start with. And secondly, there wasn’t a rhawn that was large enough to support someone like Kudako. Not that the Dragon would ever let his pride stoop low enough to ride one of the “foul-fettered beasts.” Or so he called them.
It’s a wonder that he and Father get along so well. Everyone knows how much Father loves his rhawns.
It was the one and only thing that SoYa had been able to share with his father. Riding and grooming had been some of the best times that they spent together. TsuYa never had the same love for the creatures.
The Apprentice grimaced, trying to erase the memory of his brother’s pain-stricken face. TsuYa struggled with the thought that Father would be leaving so quickly a journey, and he couldn’t join.
It’s Lord Zemi’s orders, though. The only place Tsu can be protected is up in the city. Anywhere else, he runs the risk of being taken. And we can’t let that happen.
The goodbyes at the Gate that morning were hard. SoYa could see that his father was just as reluctant to leave TsuYa, and the winged man now kept a constant expression of concern etched on his face.
Sometimes it hurt to see the attachment between TsuYa and Father, simply because they seemed to share a secret kind of bond. As much as SoYa was glad that Tsu’s heart was at ease, he couldn’t help wishing that their father would treat him the same.
I wonder if he would do this… a journey all the way to the Outterlands, if it was me nearly taken by Zerom instead of Tsu?
SoYa fixed his eyes on the gravely ground at his feet. Puddles were forming in the hollows. They were too murky to reflect anything but grey.
I shouldn’t think like that.
His soft green eyes flickered over towards the winged outline that strode purposely before him.
I shouldn’t, but I still do.
Thunder rolled through the valley once again.
Why they took a direct path into the Lost Hills, SoYa couldn’t figure. This ground was much rough than the open plains would be, and the uneven see-saw motion seemed to eat up so much time.
The stones are bad on poor Thorne’s hooves, too.
Still, Kudako was their guide. He came from the Outterlands and knew how to get there. Not one to challenge the Dragon, SoYa kept his thoughts to himself. Like it or not, they were climbing through the hills.
As the rain began to lessen, clouds of thick fog shifted down over the land. White ran in streams, lifting from the ground in a strange, hazy fascination. It poured down from the hillsides into the darkness of the hollow that dipped before their feet. Kudako’s ears flatted as their area of vision began to diminish. SoYa could feel Thorne growing restless and flighty under the firm touch of his hand.
“What’s wrong?” AsaHi whispered softly. She shot a nervous look back and forth between Kudako and Father. The silence pressed around them, devouring her words.
The Dragon gave a soft hiss, eyes narrowing into slits. It was obvious that something left him extremely uneasy, too. His words were straight and to the point, “We should not go through the ravine.”
Father paused, peering over at his friend. “Something down there that you know about and we don’t?”
“I am not sure. But I do not want to take that chance.”
“What’s the alternative?”
Kudako motioned towards the steep side of the small mountain that rose above their head.
“No way,” SoYa heard himself murmur.
“No way?” the Dragon gave the Apprentice a slow look.
SoYa straightened under the strange yellow-eyed stare. “It’s just that… Thorne… he won’t make it up.”
“Which is why we should have left the smelly beast at home,” Kudako frowned.
“And who do you suppose would carry all the supplies for this trip, eh?” Father chided quietly. “It would make it much more difficult on us if we had to shoulder it on our backs.”
The warrior gave a low grunt.
“Any other alternatives?”
“Not that I see.”
“Then I suppose we have to foot it through the chasm.”
“I do not like this,” Kudako’s voice grew in strength. “Visibility is next to none. It is a perfect setup for an ambush.”
“Ambush?” SoYa shivered at the thought. “Who do you think is going to ambush us?”
“One can never tell,” the Dragon’s face was grave. “I doubt that the Marked that I fought earlier were the only ones out here.”
“But that was some days back,” AsaHi peeped.
“It does not matter,” Kudako answered. “Zerom knows that his hold on Tsu has been countered. If he is smart, he will be expecting us to be doing exactly what we are doing right now. Likely, he has been waiting for us to leave the Ceiswyr all along.”
“You really think so?” SoYa squinted into the rain, his mind making frightening shapes from the scraggly trees in the distance.
“Look now,” Father interrupted quickly. “You’re scaring the kids. It’s not like there’s anything he can send after us that we can’t handle.”
As if on cue, a huge gust of wind flung past them, sending Thorne into a rearing fury. A haunting screech shattered, echoing off the stones from the darkness below. It was met and answered by a chorus of ghostly howls that rose then fell to silence from all around them.
“Spoke too soon,” the Dragon muttered, his weapon seeming to appear from nowhere. “Bringing us foul fortune as usual, Zento?”
“Hey, superstition is for the simpleminded, eh?” the winged man’s face had grown very serious. Pale light shimmered off the edge of his bhinod as he pulled it from his back.
AsaHi gave a frightened sound, stepping closer to SoYa’s side.
“Wha… wha… what was that?” the Apprentice staggered back. He fought to gain control of the frightened rhawn and juggle AsaHi all at the same time.
“We are about to find out,” Kudako’s face was sharp and dangerous. He shook out the golden sheened bo-staff. The sections broke away into three pieces of sanbon nunchaku, each bound by heavy black chain.
Though frightened, SoYa reached across the packs on the rhawn’s back to retrieve his own staff. Finally pulling it free, the Apprentice darted forward stand with the warriors.
“SoYa,” Father’s voice was sharp. “Stay here!”
“But!” SoYa’s face contorted at the order.
“Watch over AsaHi and the supplies,” one finger thrust back to point at where AsaHi stood.
“I can help!” the Apprentice’s voice rose in frustration.
“That is helping,” Father was already making his way towards the crevice. His eyes flicked back over his shoulder once, voice crushing and firm, “And it would help even more if you stopped arguing.”
Face flushing, SoYa shut his mouth with a click.
“Good,” without another word, the winged man sprung forward into the shifting strands of haze. Kudako followed only a few leaps behind.
As the two of them vanished, SoYa’s grip on his staff tightened.
He still doesn’t think I can handle it! Am I nothing but a child to him?
His knuckles grew white, hands trembling. He didn’t know if it was from fear or anger.
He might as well have just told me “Shut your mouth and do what you’re told!” I bet he would have let Tsu fight along side with him.
A soft touch brought him out of his dark thoughts. AsaHi’s hand was on his arm. Her fingers were shaking. Her face was pale and pleading. Her eyes round and luminous in the sallow light.
“SoYa,” her voice was hoarse. “Stay with me?”
The Apprentice swallowed. He could feel the resentment draining away.
But it’s true… someone has to protect AsaHi. She looks so scared.
His gaze became more resolute as he nodded slowly, “I’m not going anywhere, so don’t worry. Okay?”
It was the first time in a long time that AsaHi looked at him with confidence and trust. The first time she turned to him for support. The first time that things felt just a little like they used to be…
I’ll prove to you that I can protect you, that I’m just as good as the rest of the big-shots around here. Even if you don’t believe in me anymore…
Sounds of battle rang from the darkness down below. He could hear the haunting cries of countless creatures as one after another fell. There was only silence from Kudako and Father — SoYa knew that during serious battle neither of them wasted breath on needless noise.
AsaHi’s expression became more and more horrified as the sounds lingered on, “Master Kudako was right. They were going to ambush us.”
“I don’t know. But, it looks like it,” SoYa’s voice was watery to his ears as he fought to keep the fear from showing on his face.
“Will they be all right?”
“Who? Father and Kudako?”
“I’m sure. They’ve fought together for years, even before I was born.”
“So you know Master Kudako?” her words wavered. It was as if she was floundering to make conversation simply to push aside the pressing fear.
“Well, more or less,” SoYa frowned, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “He really doesn’t talk to too many other people than Father and Aunt SaRa.”
In a fit of tenseness, Thorne shook his mane out and gave a squeal. SoYa grasped the lead line with both hands trying to keep the rhawn from rearing up again. AsaHi stumbled back, not wanting to get in the way.
“Do you think he senses something?” her words were concerned.
“Yeah, the battle. He hears it just as well as we do, probably better.”
Thorne snorted, head jerking back hard on the lead. His squeals became more frantic as the sound of battle shifted in the ravine below. SoYa gritted his teeth, working with all his strength to keep the creature under control.
“Thorne! Now, calm down there, boy! Nothing’s going to–”
As low growl shifted through the air, AsaHi sidestepped straight into SoYa’s chest. The Apprentice startled, stumbling back as the two collided, hands slipping from the rhawn’s halter. With a wild scree, the creature swiveled around and bolted.
SoYa cried in horror, “Thorne, come back!”
AsaHi’s grip around his waist kept him from pursuing. A frightened shiver moved through her body, “SoYa!”
His gaze darted up.
Three sets of black eyes glared down on them, all attention focused upon himself and AsaHi.
“Marked,” the girl whispered. She began backing away, holding so tightly to the Apprentice that she pulled him back with each shaky step.
This is what Zerom is trying to turn Tsu into…
“I think… they were people from Nefol, SoYa,” AsaHi’s face was ghostly white. “Look-see their clothing?”
“How?” he choked.
A terrible sinking feeling rose in his heart as his mind slipped back to memories. Memories of the Ghost Clan Council members who had stood TsuYa on the platform in the center of the school. The ones who had come at Aunt SaRa with glassy-eyed obedience.
“SoYa!” AsaHi’s cry broke through his thoughts.
The nearest creature leapt forward with speed so incredible that his eyes could hardly follow the motion.
“Run!” SoYa ducked back, jostling AsaHi out of the creature’s reach.
He could hear the sound of soft-padded footsteps echoing as the girl broke away at full speed. Terror gripped him as two of the dark shapes sprang from the rocks, darting after her.
Just as SoYa turned to follow, the weight of the first Marked bore down on him, slamming him on his back. A hoarse cry ripped from his lungs as one oily claw seized his neck. The other claw began tearing at his robe, ripping long shreds of cloth away. Fangs hissed warm, putrid breath into his face. The dead, black eyes reflected an image of SoYa’s horrified expression. The creature’s skin was so brittle and dry that grey patches stripped away as he wrestled to get out from under its weight.
He could distantly hear AsaHi’s scream echo his own.
Desperation swelled within his chest, spreading through SoYa’s entire body with a sharp jolt. Sparks of light flew before his eyes. His mind contracted, then lashed out in a vast expansion of power. A shaft of pure rage channeled through him. It shattered the air with an enormous impact, ripping through the creature’s mind.
The Marked reeled back with a horrific cry. Its eyes misted over in a cold white color and began to bulge out ward from the building pressure within its head. Both claws left SoYa’s throat instantly. They flung up to rake frantically at its face, shredding patches of oily hair from its skull. Long trails of black ooze began to stream from its nose and ears.
With a firm kick, the Apprentice shoved the writhing creature away. SoYa scrambled backwards on his palms with a choking gasp. His hands shook as a retch heaved through his body. A murky puddle of darkness spread from where the Marked lay, crumpled and contorted. There was no motion left to its body, mirroring the sudden stillness of the mountainsides.
Silence had fallen in the ravine below.
SoYa forced himself to roll over on his stomach. His eyes flung across the distance as his voice rose in a hoarse croak, “AsaHi! Where are you!?”
The sound of a soft whimper drew his attention. Her pale, shimmering form was curled up into a frightened little ball next to the side of a stone outcropping. The two creatures that leapt for her were sprawled out on the ground a few feet away. The only motion was their final convulsions.
Their eyes were also cloudy white.
SoYa’s breath whistled between his dry lips. A terrible fear began to churn within his stomach. Pressing realization drew around him.
I… I did that… didn’t I?