“Guess this isn’t your lucky day, friend,” Zento told the pale-faced Spiral warrior as he tied the man’s hands behind his back. Then he secured the man to a branch of a tree so that the man had only enough slack to stand.
Kudako found the tracks of the Spiral warriors earlier that day, leading out of the forest and back towards the inner circles. Deciding this was an opportunity to gather inside information, the winged man and the dragon executed an ambush. Though most fled with uncharacteristic fear, Zento was able to capture one of the warriors, who seemed to be wounded from a previous engagement.
Kudako paced behind them, a hulking shadow slipping through the trees. The Spiral warrior stared with horror at the Dragon, the whites of his eyes rolling in fear until Kudako was well out of sight. Zento leaned leisurely against the trunk of the tree as he waited for the warrior to catch his breath.
“Now, this is an easy game to play,” Zento told him in a low voice. “We’re going to ask you a few questions, each varying in difficulty and topic. For each of these questions you get right, I’ll give you a hundred points. But should you get one wrong, or should you decide to deceive us, my Dragon friend will have a plentiful meal tonight.”
There was a grumble from Kudako in the depths of the forest, “Just get on with it.”
“You understand the rules of the game?” Zento eyed the prisoner sharply.
The warrior nodded, looking even paler.
“Good,” the winged man murmured, turning towards the shadow in the trees. “He’s all yours.”
Kudako’s voice was level, neither harsh nor gentle. “What is the nature of the banners that fly over the outposts?”
As if he had expected something much more complicated to answer, the prisoner began to blather, very eager to please, “It is the mark of the High Clan.”
“Define the term ‘High Clan’.”
“It is the clan that was chosen to lead us.”
“The Spiral is united under the command of a single clan?” the Dragon growled.
“So it has been for many hundred years,” the warrior nodded vigorously.
“I see,” then, silence from the forest.
Something’s not right with that, I suppose? It’s got Kudako pretty agitated.
“Who identified this High Clan?”
“Why, the Great Lion, of course. SugiRu is a Speaker of mighty talent and wisdom,” the prisoner replied, squirming a bit at his ropes.
Zento didn’t know the names the warrior used, but the Dragon obviously did.
“And what of UragiRu?” Kudako’s questions were quick. Closing in on something.
“He is the Armsmaster while his sister is the Speaker.”
“Their clan should have been destroyed for the acts that were committed against fellow clans. And yet, these are the ones that have taken power in the Spiral?”
The warrior gave a blank, frightened stare. He was far too young to know about the times that Kudako spoke of.
As the Dragon stewed to himself, Zento decided to pull out a few questions of his own. “What was your business in this forest?”
“We were to hunt and kill the intruders…”
“Yes,” the warrior replied fearfully. “The ones who made a camp in the forest. But the Dragons c-came and fought on the side of the intruders. We lost all our scouts and many warriors in retreat.”
They must be the warriors that Islay told us attacked SoYa and AsaHi. If they were sent to find us, that means they know we’re here.
Zento sighed softly, looking into the face of the frightened warrior. His enemy. One that would have slain his son and his future daughter-in-law. One who would have not spared a second thought in cutting himself down if given the chance. Yet, just beyond the edge of boyhood, hardly older than his own sons.
Then, the winged man peered back towards the forest, “Is that all you need to know?”
There was a long silence. Then finally, “Yes. That is all.”
“So whadda do you want to do with him now?” a hint of loathing trailed in his voice.
The shadows began to move forward, as the Dragon emerged from his spot. Everything about his manner spoke his displeasure. The prisoner stared up with glassy eyes, paralyzed at the vision before him. Every inch of his body shook, but the rope did not allow him the convenience of falling to his knees.
“You will return to the Spiral and you will bear a message for UragiRu, the Armsmaster,” Kudako’s gold eyes shown in two thin slits. “You will tell UragiRu that his enemy, KudakoRe, has returned to avenge the murder of his clan.”
Zento’s breath came in a quiet hiss as things began to fall into place.
“Is that clear?” Kudako growled.
The prisoner nodded vehemently, eyes never leaving the shape of the Dragon before him.
“Good. Zento, release him.”
A sense of slight relief fell over Zento’s mind as he flipped out his dagger, slicing through the rope. The Spiral warrior reclaimed his freedom by falling flat on his face. With a wild-eyed look, the yellow-haired man stared over his shoulder at the two. Then without a sound, he staggered to his feet and dashed away through the forest with the speed that spoke of nightmares burning his heels.
“You were soft on the prisoner,” Kudako critiqued with a low voice.
The Dragon returned to his normal man-like form after they had released the prisoner in the forest. However, the message that Kudako had dictated there, the statement of vengeance, left the two in silence as they made their way down into the valley. He stepped over a blackened lump on the ground that was once part of the half-crushed building not far away. Whether it was originally wood or stone was impossible to tell.
“He was not much more than a boy, ‘Dako,” Zento replied, stiffly.
“That boy would have slit your throat if you had so much as turned your back to him.”
“And does that mean that we should stoop down to their level?”
“Zento, this isn’t about stooping,” the Dragon pushed through the scraggily brush. The ground was nothing more than a large black smear as far as could be seen and the scent of dead-silence hung on the air. “This is about surviving. They will have no mercy for you. Don’t you forget that.”
Still… he was hardly much older than Tsu…
Word came earlier from Islay that AsaHi and SoYa were both safe in Wyndor. Kudako took the Dragon aside for a long conversation. After parting, he struck out due south, face a mask of stern determination.
Something’s going on… and he’s not telling me what.
Arms crossed, the winged man scowled. “When are you going to tell me what we’re doing here?”
Kudako let out a deep breath, “Too much to explain.”
“No.” Zento’s eyes narrowed. “Not later. Right now.”
The Dragon scowled darkly, holding his silence.
“Listen, I know this has something to do with me. A lot to do with me,” he stabbed a finger forward. “Even if you’re not telling me a thing, I know that I’m a piece to some puzzle that’s being played. I don’t appreciate being led around by the nose without having a clue as to what I’m doing, where I’m going, and most importantly, what I’m fighting for.”
Kudako’s golden eyes narrowed.
“‘Dako, is this your game of vengeance? Cuz that’s not what I came for,” Zento began to ground his teeth. “I’m here to find a cure for my son, not to get involved in some ancient battle that is still running around in your fin-headed brain.”
The Dragon pulled in a slow breath, measuring the words with a grim face. When Kudako spoke again, his voice was troubled, “Lord Zemi aims to destroy the Spiral.”
“Where did this come from? No one told me anything about this!” Zento walked fast to keep up with his companion’s long strides.
Kudako just kept walking. “Calm yourself. It all fits together for a reason, Zento. You must trust Lord Zemi.”
“That’s all well and good,” he grumbled. “But that doesn’t give me heads up on what’s going on. Don’t tell me you go into battle without knowing who you’re fighting and why. Not even for Zemi.”
“For Lord Zemi I would,” the Dragon stated firmly.
“Well I wouldn’t. And I won’t,” Zento muttered, suddenly refusing to follow anymore.
Kudako stopped, a perplexed expression on his face. As if he couldn’t imagine anyone denying Zemi’s orders. “You don’t mean that.”
Realizing he found a bartering chip in the situation, Zento crossed his arms. “I do. I’m not moving one step from here until I know the full thing. Got it?”
Head bowed, ears pined back, a low grumble rose in his throat, “Fine. I’ll tell you. Just don’t stand there like a fool. I have something to find.”
“The concept of the Spiral was created in the haze of insanity,” Kudako began, pushing against a fallen stone next to a half-melted structure. “The Chieftain who first led the forest Clans to unity was a tactical genius at warfare. I’m convinced that he was absolutely mad.”
“Then why did anyone follow him?” Zento frowned. Seeing that the Dragon wanted the rock moved, he leaned down to lend a hand.
“The forest people were very primitive in those days. Survival against the wilderness and other rival clans was all that mattered. They couldn’t recognize the madness. Or they simply didn’t care.” Pulling the stone away revealed a tilted, nearly rectangular entrance. The Dragon murmured to himself, “Ah… here we are.”
“So this guy comes along and wows them all, yeah?” Zento made sure to keep the conversation on track.
“His timing was perfect. It corresponded with the finding of the Spirit Lion,” Kudako explained, squinting into the gloom below. “After the Lion gave his warning about the coming of the Dragons, the Chieftain began to have his Visions. Speaking of which, how about some light?”
“Voices in the head… never a good sign,” Zento clicked his tongue. He lifted one hand, a small sphere of blue flame building within his palm, casting a pale light ahead of them.
“It was more than just voices,” the Dragon frowned, running his fingers along the side of the wall. When he found nothing he nodded and moved forward. “His visions became a prophecy which detailed the impending doom of the forest people. He talked about how ‘a man of the white-haired clan’ would descend upon us ‘with the wings of the north wind.’ And how this man would ‘cleave apart our nation,’ leaving our people ‘scattered in fear for our enemies to destroy’.”
“I see where this is going,” the winged man sighed, following Kudako into a passage that led deeper underground. The blue flame was almost not enough to keep the gloom illuminated. “Prophecy of doom. White haired people from the north. Add that to the Dragon threat and you’ve got the Hunt that nearly destroyed my ancestors.”
“Yes, and the reason for the creation of Annihilators,” the Dragon pressed his hands against what looked to have once been a wooden door.
“I getcha,” Zento frowned, scratching his nose. There was a lot of soot down there.
When the door didn’t budge, Kudako pushed his shoulder against it with a grunt, “The Spiral was dismayed when the people from the north escaped safely into the Inner Realms. The Chieftain decided that the only way the Spiral could survive against the terrible prophecy was if they created a society of perfect warriors.”
Zento stepped forward, raising his hands. The flame’s light grew stronger as he did. “Here, let me give it a shot.”
“Be careful. This place isn’t too sturdy,” Kudako warned, stepping back as the flame leapt from the winged man’s hands, bursting against the old wood. “That was when things began to get out of hand. The Chieftain’s idea of the perfect warrior was one that could kill on command, no matter the situation.”
“Yeah, well, people don’t work that way,” Zento argued softly. The door gave way, but it took more effort than he had thought. “You can’t deny feelings of right and wrong. It’s just the nature of people.”
“Tell me what happens when that nature is removed,” the Dragon’s eyes reflected strangely in the light of the blue flame.
“What do you mean?” The wood gave a final crack and buckled inward, leaving a space just large enough for them to pass through.
“Feelings of right and wrong,” Kudako murmured, waving his hand in front of his face to clear away the smoke. “That’s exactly what the Chieftain was thinking. And that’s why these people have no soul.”
“‘Dako, you don’t just take away someone’s soul,” Zento stuck his hand inside, lighting the next chamber. One small room. He could only wonder what it was Kudako was after down there.
“Maybe not literally, but they have come close enough,” the Dragon carefully stepped over the remains of the shattered doorway. Again, he ran his hand alongside the wall. “The Chieftain’s alchemists developed some sort of Implant – beyond the name, I don’t know what it is. I do know it takes away a person’s emotions and makes people susceptible to the commands of the Armsmaster.”
“Whoa, there,” Zento paused, peering around. “Are you telling me that those warriors we ambushed couldn’t feel a thing? That kid sure looked scared enough to me.”
“The boy, yes. He could feel. He will get his Implant soon,” Kudako’s eyes studied the wall intently. Other than a few discarded lumps, there wasn’t anything else in the room.
“So you’re sure it’s the Implants that take people’s… um…”
“Souls,” Kudako repeated, seeming engrossed in the floor. “And yes.”
“Why didn’t someone just take the Implant out then?” Zento frowned, holding the light closer to give better light.
“We do not know how to safely manipulate the Implants yet,” the Dragon gave a groan as he lifted, the sound of stone shifting under his fingers. “I think that is part of what Zemi is trying to discover.”
Zento froze with a sudden thought. “What about you, ‘Dako?”
“What about me?” he motioned for the light to come closer to the newly-opened hole in the floor.
“Did you… get one of these Implants?” he swallowed.
The Dragon peered up. “I was an Annihilator. I was from a clan that was bred to kill. Unlike other boys, I was fitted with an Implant shortly after I was born.”
“You mean… you never… you’ve never felt anything?” Something about it left him almost numb inside.
“Can I get some light, Zento?” the Dragon evaded answering.
“‘Dako..?” the winged man’s face was etched in concern. “Do you?”
Kudako took a deep breath in. “No, I did not. I knew nothing different.”
“What about now?”
“Do you feel things now?” Zento slowly brought the light forward.
The Dragon tilted his head. Ever so slightly, he gave a soft, thin-lipped smile. “You tell me.”
He watched as Kudako reached down and pulled a small metal box up from the narrow gap in the floor. Somehow, the Dragon knew what points to touch for the latches to open. Then he withdrew a short cylinder of plain black metal.
“What are you doing?” Zento finally ventured to ask.
“I will fight the Armsmaster of the Spiral,” Kudako rose to his feet slowly, looking at the strange treasure with a pleased expression. He gripped it between both hands, holding it at length in front of his body. “His name is UragiRu. He is the descendant of the Chieftain.”
“So if you take him out?”
“I will break that line of command,” Kudako nodded grimly. “There will be no one left to steal souls. Perhaps then we can find a way to undo what has been done to these people. And I will avenge the murder of my own clan.”
Zento squinted. “I was meaning to ask about that…”
The cylinder began to change within Kudako’s hands. With a soft hissing sound, it lengthened on either side shifting like molten metal. As Zento watched, the innocent looking cylinder became a peculiar black-bladed battle staff.
“You knew this was here?” the winged man blinked up.
“Yes. This weapon belonged to my ancestors,” Kudako’s eyes glinted with a strange light. “This was the place where I grew up. Not everyone in my family accepted what the Armsmaster did. As punishment for disobedience, UragiRu hunted down my clan and destroyed my home outpost. Now, he will come to attempt to finish the deed, for I am the last of the Re clan.”
“Are you sure he’ll come?”
“I sent him a challenge. He will come and we will finally end this,” a slow, vicious curve drew back his lips until the tips of his fangs showed.
Within that moment, there was no doubt that Kudako was a creature capable of feeling. His expression alone was enough to send chills over Zento’s body.