“You cannot be here!” a woman’s high-pitched voice squealed, like fingernails on slate.
Zento couldn’t help but wince, stopping his advance more because of the ear-shattering sound rather than the demand itself. Shoulders back, hair tied away from his face in a battle-knot, bhinod ready at hand – the warrior stood firmly at the top of the gold-stone stairs. He didn’t even blink when a dozen flaxen-haired guards rushed from their watch, ringing around the woman and mounting the platform that led to her dais.
The structures here were unlike the crude war-towers that Zento saw back in the forest. Tall, step-pyramids rose to the sky, their golden faces inlaid with glittering stones which painted multi-hued spirals reflecting in the sun. The forest hugged the edges of the structures, ancient trees waving over them all with strange lilac foliage.
Zento’s own goal was an ornate arched doorway etched into the far wall, behind the group of armed men. And behind ZenToYa, stood the Dreigiau.
True to his word, Zemi guided the warrior into the heart of the Spiral. Through the chaos and pillars of flaming war towers, the Dreigiau and his Champion forged a path to the great Lion’s Keep.
The Dragons descended alongside of them, their multi-hued jets of flame scorching down from the sky. One by one, the outposts of the Spiral burst, the warriors scattering under the onslaught. They couldn’t fight the simultaneous aerial attacks, especially not ones as devastating as a fleet of Dragons.
However, orders from Zemi were not to kill, but rather to bring down the towers and cause diversion. The Dragons were to keep the Spiral warriors busy at their own outposts so that Zemi and Zento might slip through to the center with as little fighting as possible. Despite the fact that Kudako spoke of the “destruction of the Spiral,” Zemi seemed to be going out of his way to avoid loss of life and conflict where he could.
To see the arrogance upon the face of the woman as they drew near, in the midst of the obvious downfall of the nation, was absurd. Head held high, hair adorn by flashes of exotic gems and strangely colored weaves, she was dressed in a light, flowing robe of ornate design. Her hands folded in front of her, face giving no hint of concern at the two enemies twho stood at the foot of the stair. Her eyes were both piercingly blue and hauntingly vacant.
Who is she, Zemi?
The Dreigiau’s heavy step paused just at Zento’s right shoulder. An answer came, his voice resounding within the warrior’s mind.
-She is SugiRu, sister to UragiRu. She’s spent the last few centuries deceiving the people of the Spiral by telling them that she’s a Speaker, a person who communicates directly with the One from the Time Before.-
Is that so?
-No doubt, it’s part of the way that she and her brother took power over the Spiral. Claiming to know the will of the Golden Lion is hardly a little thing around here.-
-Yeah. It’s all just a big scam. I doubt the creature even has the power to waste on communicating to anyone at this point. And if it did, I don’t see why it would only appear to one chosen individual in order to speak to the entire nation.-
Zento’s eyes narrowed.
Then they’ve been lying to these people, telling them they have orders sent down from this golden lion?
-More or less, yes.-
Gotcha. So, have you cooked up a battle plan for this?
-Nah. Let’s see what happens. It’s sure to be interesting.-
“Interesting…” Zento made an indelicate sound. Then without a trace of concern upon his face, he strode forward, towards the stairway.
“I said, you cannot be here!” SugiRu’s voice screeched up a notch. She lifted a hand in an imperial gesture.
A gesture which Zento ignored.
You shoulda given me something to protect my ears…
-I plan on taking care of the noise pollution shortly.-
Get with it then, Zemi. The sooner the better.
“Stop the white-hair! Do not let him defile the grounds!” her voice redoubled in intensity.
The men moved forward, a fluid wave of jingling weapons and rustic armor. Zento stood unflinching as the rival blades swung out. The flaxen-haired men lashed forward with a sweeping battle cry.
A ripple of scattered light bent the air like a heat mirage. An unexpected wall rose between the flurried charge and the unmoving winged man. Mere feet away, the entire brigade buckled, crumpled then collapsed upon the ground.
“Heh… heh… heh…” a deep, gravelly chuckle came from behind.
Turning over one shoulder, Zento could see the amused, fangy grin pasted to the Dreigiau’s face. Zemi’s hand was still raised, the aftermath of magic lingering around him.
SugiRu took a step back. No doubt, she was realizing things were not going well. Maybe even having second thoughts.
“Good afternoon, SugiRu,” Zemi stepped forward casually, striding over one of the fallen men on the ground. His grin remained, though it was now hard to tell if it was gracious or predatory.
“Who do you think you are?” she demanded, backing away further.
“I am Zemi Dreigiau,” he answered simply.
Her breath visibly caught in her throat. She looked like she was about to melt right there. After a moment, she hissed, “Impossible!”
Zemi didn’t miss a beat. He waved a hand back towards Zento, “And this is the one who was foretold to bring about your destruction.”
The One Who Was Foretold to Bring About Your Destruction? How unoriginal can you get, Zemi?
-People seem to like melodrama around here. Just trying to fit in.-
Yeah, well, if that name sticks, I’m going to blame you.
At this point, SugiRu seemed to have totally lost it. Her voice rose in an unending stream of shriek, “You cannot enter the grand Keep of Aur! You and all Dragonkind will be struck down upon touching the sacred grounds! The Golden Lion will protect his Speaker and his Warriors! There will be no–”
Zemi’s deep voice rose above the harpy-tempest, booming in demand, “If that is true, let me see proof that your Patron Guide… this Aur… protects you! Tell him to revive your warriors! Tell him to show his support, if he really claims you as his people!”
Stunned silence fell over the Speaker.
Zemi – thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
-Don’t mention it.-
“Well?” the Dreigiau watched the woman shrewdly. “Let’s see it?”
SugiRu ran her tongue over her lips, then lifted both hands to the sky, entreating in a quavering voice, “Great Lord Aur… Mighty Golden Lion! Please bestow your favor upon your people! Strike against the insolence of the Dreigiau who has come to raid our lands! Show him your might!”
Zento peered over at Zemi.
If someone called for you like that, would you answer it?
-A little ego stroking never hurt. You should try it sometime.-
The winged man sighed, leaning back on one foot, waiting for the inevitable.
Her raised hands were greeted with silence. Lifted face stared into the nothingness of the sky. A slow trickle of sweat made its way down the side of her cheek, a blemish on the imperial grandeur.
The Spiral guards gathered their senses and turned with all confidence to watch the power of their honored Speaker at work. Her upraised hands began to tremble.
“Oh, Mighty Lord Aur!” she beckoned to the silence a second time. “Give us the strength to overcome your most despised enemy! Bring us the power to conquer the Dreigiau!”
Again, only silence came from the smoke-smeared sky. This was broken by the sound of armor jingling as the Spiral warriors began to shift and peer between themselves.
“Well, no one seems to be home,” Zemi spoke after a while.
“No…” her voice was shaken. Unthroned. Her eyes settled upon the Dreigiau as one who could see her own end.
“The Golden Lion did not come,” one of the Spiral guards murmured. A murmur that began to echo through the rest of the men.
“Why would he want to? All you’ve ever done is murder and lie in his name. You think that’s what any Guide in his right mind wants to be known for?” Zemi snorted.
SugiRu shook her head as she stared down at the Spiral warriors. Absolute desperation written across her face, “It is a trick of the Dreigiau! His presence is keeping my words from reaching Lord Aur! He must be–”
“Give it a rest, already,” Zemi muttered. “How long do you think you can keep these people fooled by your trickery?”
She looked ready to protest further, but a motion from the Arweinydd’s hand cut her voice short. The false Speaker gasped, struggling as the air around her invisibly condensed, reaching about her waist and arms and binding her fast.
Zemi’s voice sounded in Zento’s mind once more, pulling his attention away from the defeated woman. The winged man turned his eyes upward.
-To go inside the Keep?-
You’re not coming with me?
Zento squinted over at the Dreigiau in surprise. Zemi turned his head, peering the other way. He didn’t look happy.
You’ve got to be kidding me! What happened to the whole ‘being my guide’ thing?
-I’d go in if I could. You better believe this bothers me as much as it bothers you. But the whole place is rigged and warded against me and any that bear the signature of my energies. Which includes all of my Dragons. That’s why I need you to do this for me, Zento.-
I thought you said the creature doesn’t have any power left?
-The wards were placed long ago, back when he still had some strength. I’ve tested the bounds of the magic in this Keep as we’ve been standing here. For me to fight these wards, power on power… it could result in a very nasty backlash of energy. No telling what something like that will do.-
So then, the plan is…?
Zento shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable in the weight of his sudden assignment.
-You must go inside the Keep and disarm the wards. Only then will I be able to come in and claim this… Aur-creature, as SugiRu calls him.-
You’re saying I’m gonna be in there, one on one? What if the Golden Lion is anything like you? I’m supposed to be able to fight this thing?
-Zento, I really don’t know what to expect once you get in there. But we’ve got to try to capture it. Remember… this is for Tsu.-
The winged man froze as the words registering, echoing in his mind. Head lowering slowly, his hand gripped the familiar haft of his weapon. His face grew grim as his green eyes focused sharply on the doorway.
“Yeah… For Tsu,” he found himself echoing. Then he took a step forward.
“Zento,” Zemi’s voice held a hint of plaintive concern. He lifted one hand, then dropped it to his side, seeming unable to find the words to match his feelings. But the worried affection that vibrated in the single word spoke all that needed to be said.
Driven by the determination of a devoted father, ZenToYa climbed the stairs, and strode past the shaken form of SugiRu. With a single glance back at the Arweinydd, the warrior entered the Keep of the Golden Lion.