“Hrm?” the Dragon peered up from where he was assembling the timber for the fire.
“What’s that dark area out there?” AsaHi pointed.
The sky was shifting into deep amethyst tones, the sparking hints of starlight poking through the canopy above. Where the golden pool of sun sank on the horizon, a long black smear marred the view. AsaHi first took note of it earlier that afternoon. Thinking it was a set of dark stone hills, she figured it would pass eventually. But it did not.
“Dragon’s Cleft,” he answered.
“What’s that?” the girl frowned.
He paused for a second, face shifting back and forth between considerations. Part of him seemed to want to be polite and answer the question. The other part of him looked about ready to tell AsaHi to go fetch the pans and start making supper.
“That is the problem with you Inner Realm-dwellers,” the Dragon muttered shortly. “You don’t know half of what has been going on in the world around you.”
“Hey now, don’t rag on the girl,” Zento strode into the camp. The limp bodies of three large brown birds hung over one shoulder. No doubt it would be their supper that night.
“Was I talking to you?” Kudako frowned.
“Does it really matter if you were or not?”
“No, you would say what was on your mind, no matter how foolish it made you look,” the Dragon snorted in mock insult.
“Exactly,” Zento grinned.
AsaHi gave the winged man a soft smile. He was always there to stick up for her at just the right times. She didn’t know if it was just because Zento loved to hassle Kudako, but he kept his trouble-maker’s grin ready.
“So, what is Dragon’s Cleft?” AsaHi squinted between the two of them.
“Ask Kudako. He’s the exxxpert on these things,” Zento gave a short laugh and flopped down a little ways from the group to pluck his catch.
AsaHi turned to look at the Dragon.
“Thank you,” the warrior grumbled, lighting the pile of brush with the firemaker.
“It’s the least I can do, old buddy,” the winged man chortled.
SoYa listened as he pulled a wide, flat-headed grooming brush out of the pack. Walking over to where Thorneblade grazed, the Apprentice began to work over the creature’s flanks with long practiced strokes.
AsaHi stared very purposefully at Kudako, waiting for her answer. The Dragon’s golden eyes alighted on her, then they fixed back on the young fire he was nursing. A wide grimace shifted over his face as he tried, not very successfully, to ignore the girl.
SoYa watched the two of them from over the back of the rhawn. AsaHi finally cleared her throat, expression growing stern in the face of the warrior’s silence.
Kudako sighed and answered quickly, “Dragon’s Cleft is a fissure that separates the Inner Realms from the Outterlands. We have to cross over it eventually. So you will be seeing enough of it in the future.”
The Apprentice gave a few more innocent sweeps of the brush before leaning forward, “Why is it called ‘Dragon’s Cleft’?”
“Aren’t you the Nefolian teacher, here?” the Dragon frowned, a strangled patience making lines at the corners of his mouth.
“You don’t know the answer?” AsaHi chided.
“I bet you don’t,” SoYa grinned slightly.
“I don’t think he does either,” AsaHi peered over at the Apprentice with a playful shrug.
“I just said I did,” Kudako’s teeth began to grind.
Zento didn’t even try to hide his amusement. A low chuckle spilled down from the hill he was sitting on, soft blue-green eyes shimmering with mirth.
Kudako grew absolutely silent, face falling stone-stiff.
“Lighten up will ya?” the winged man prodded with a good-natured smile. “The kids are just curious. Would it hurt you to associate with them for just a little while?”
Kudako’s golden eyes shifted from AsaHi to SoYa. Finally, he leaned back from the fire, craning his head to look into the twilight sky. “What do you want to know?”
“Well,” AsaHi blinked, surprised at the Dragon’s sudden change in demeanor.
SoYa sat his brush aside and crept closer, sitting cross-legged on the grass. He repeated softly, “Why is it called ‘Dragon’s Cleft’?”
“Because Lord Zemi created it.”
The girl’s hands tightened their grip around her knees. “Zemi? Zemi made that?”
“Why and when?”
“One question at a time,” Kudako held a hand up with a frown. “You are getting into deep history. You are not going to understand any of it jumping head-first into the middle.”
“So, where does it begin?” AsaHi tilted her head.
The Dragon toyed with a blade of grass silently before his voice shifted in tone. It was so sudden, so different that the girl had to look hard to make sure it was Kudako who was speaking.
“It begins long before any of us were born, in the time when this world was young. Before there was such a thing as the Inner Realms or the Outterlands, they were originally one and the same.”
“Really?” the girl tilted her head in fascination. “How do you know?”
“It is the history that is tied into my bloodline, the Re Clan. I was raised knowing this story before I learned how to spell my own name,” Kudako’s eyes were sharp.
“Re Clan?” AsaHi peeped softly. “But weren’t they the… the…”
She stared at Kudako, “If you’re from the Re Clan, then you’re… you’re an Annihilator?”
“We prefer the term Purger,” he answered curtly.
“AsaHi,” Zento interceded quickly. “Kudako gave his pledge to Zemi. He’s no longer a Purger. He’s a Dragon now.”
“What Zento says is true,” Kudako’s tone was grim. “I have long since forsaken my clan name. I serve Lord Zemi. His will is to preserve the people of the Inner Realms. Thus, I have not acted as a Purger in over four hundred years.”
Still a bit shaken, AsaHi sucked on her bottom lip.
“You would think I had suddenly grown a pair of fangs the way she acts,” Kudako muttered.
“You already have fangs,” Zento reminded him.
The Dragon grunted, “Only on special occasions.”
“But they’re still there.”
Zento grinned, setting aside the second plucked bird.
“Now, do you want to hear this story or not?” Kudako eyed AsaHi sharply.
The girl nodded, still trying to catch her breath.
“I trust that my family line is enough to credit what I have to say, and that there will be no more interruptions.”
SoYa remained silent and still.
“Good. Now where was I?”
“There was a time when there wasn’t an Outterland or Inner Realm?” SoYa offered with a wave of his hand.
“Hrm, that is right. They were both one land.” Kudako leaned back. Once more, his tone shifted into a lyrical rhythm, “During those days, there were people of all kinds. Though they were spread to every corner of the land, the clans held a long-reigning peace between each other.”
“How many clans were there?” the Apprentice mused.
“I would say about five main groups of people, based on geography. But since then, they have split off into so many little family clans that I cannot keep up with them,” Kudako frowned. “The clans were much more involved with one another during the early days. They were fighting for survival and to obtain cultural advancement.”
“What about Zemi? Wasn’t he there to help out?” AsaHi’s brow wrinkled.
“You would be surprised to know that no, he was not involved with the Earthians at that point. He was probably too interested in his Dragons.”
“Yes, the other Dragon Servants. Like myself. He created a number of them during that time,” Kudako tapped his chin with one finger. “It was, in fact, the Dragons that first put into motion the events that led to the creation of Dragon’s Cleft and the Inner Realms.”
“How could Dragons do something like that?”
“They began to associate with the Earthians. The northern clan, in particular,” the warrior answered. “Which just happens to be the people that included the Ya family line.”
SoYa peered up, “Us?”
“Yes. Your people originally came from the clan that moved to the cold northland regions.” With this statement, Kudako’s eyes strayed to the northernmost set of stars by instinct.
“Does that mean there are still some of our relatives living there?” the Apprentice squinted at the Dragon across the growing haze of the fire.
“No? Why not?”
Kudako pulled his gaze from the sky, focusing his golden eyes on the two of them, “Everyone from that clan that did not reach the Inner Realms was slain.”
AsaHi took a quick breath in. “Slain? Why?”
“Do you remember the story that Lord Zemi told. The one that spoke of beings that existed before the Fall of Time?” Kudako pressed his lips together.
“Yes, I remember.”
“There is one such being that still exists here in the Outterlands.”
“What?” SoYa nearly fell over.
“But, I thought they all died with the Mistake?” AsaHi hissed softly.
“There are always exceptions to the march of time. I cannot answer how it is that this being has come to exist. But the story says that it became uneasy when it sensed Lord Zemi’s Dragons were associating with the people of the northlands.” Kudako peered off into the flames, his eyes shifting in memory, “This being appeared to the other clans in the form of a lion made of golden light. It warned against the clan in the north from joining with the power of the Dreigiau.”
“Was it Zerom?” SoYa choked.
“No, it was not Zerom. This creature is something far different. I am certain of this.”
“But it’s an enemy of Lord Zemi?”
“I do not know why it would warn the clans to stop the infiltration of the Dragons. It is my thought that it saw Lord Zemi as a threat.”
“A threat to what?” AsaHi looked confused.
“I cannot answer that. I do not know the mind of these higher powers. I only know that my ancestors were sent to stop the Dreigiau from influencing the land,” Kudako answered. “And when it did not happen peacefully, terrible war broke out between the clans.”
“War?” the girl’s tone was horrified.
“My people believed that the golden lion held the key to their survival. It showed power that awed them, and that was enough to sway their minds.” The Dragon lifted first one hand, palm up. Then he lifted the other, “However, the clan in the northlands believed the same about the Dragons and the growing influence of Lord Zemi. Neither side agreed. So battle broke out between them.”
“Who won?” SoYa asked meekly.
“No one. The war is not over with yet,” Kudako answered.
“What? But there’s no war going on,” the Apprentice objected.
“Not one that you can see. But it is still there,” the Dragon argued softly. “The people of the north were greatly outnumbered. Their warriors were no match for the united clans against them.”
“They died?” SoYa swallowed.
“Yes. Their lines did not hold,” he nodded grimly. “But as the armies from the south marched on their homeland, the women and children made a desperate escape. The clans pursued.”
AsaHi pressed her hands together fearfully, “What happened to them?”
“A miracle,” Kudako paused, a slow smile crossing his lips.
“You might say it was Lord Zemi’s first act of compassion. I think he eventually became aware that the people his Dragons befriended were being hunted down and slain,” the warrior paused to gather his thoughts.
AsaHi and SoYa were both leaning forward, eyes expectant.
“I cannot tell you exactly what happened,” Kudako finally continued. “All I know is that during their flight into the north, Lord Zemi struck out, rending the earth into pieces. It was then that the Dragon’s Cleft was created — a huge crack that surrounded the land behind the fleeing people. It was so deep that the other clans could not find a way across it.”
“Zemi… protected them?” AsaHi asked quietly.
“Yes. It is the cleft that surrounds this very land. Its purpose is to keep those from the outside from attacking. As you can see, it has worked for a long, long time.”
“That’s how the Inner Realms were created,” SoYa pondered.
“Then why do you say that the war still continues? We aren’t trying to fight anyone from the Outterlands,” AsaHi protested.
“The war continues,” Kudako replied. “That is why you had Purgers — those who are trained to cross the Dragon’s Cleft and infiltrate the Inner Realms to destroy the people of the Dreigiau.”
AsaHi turned her eyes on the Dragon.
“I was the last of the Re Clan,” he informed her crisply. “There have been no Purgers sent here since. It is my duty to guard the Cleft and see to it that it never happens again.”
“Is it a good idea to go into the Outterlands if the people there will want to kill us?” SoYa grimaced.
“They will not know that we are there. I do not plan on letting anyone seeing us.”
“And if they do?”
“They will not live to remember the encounter,” Kudako stated firmly. The Dragon then fell silent, the light of his eyes was lost to the past.