“Zento,” Kudako muttered with a grimace. “Stop pacing.”
The winged man paused in stride to retort, “I’m not pacing!”
“You’re nervous enough to make the trees shake.” As if on cue, a whisper of breeze swept in and sent the branches above the two warriors swaying.
Zento’s eyes darted towards the little clearing in the adjoining glade. In a patch of tree-shadow, he could see the crumpled form of SoYa propped up against a trunk, blankets cushioned behind his head. AsaHi knelt over him, stroking a damp rag along his cheek, the concern never leaving her face.
“What if he doesn’t make it, Kudako?” with that sentiment, he resumed pacing. His strides carried him over the golden grass in a jerky, agitated motion.
“He’ll live,” Kudako stated, watching the scene unfold and leaning against a silver-barked tree. “If the toxins got to him, he wouldn’t be breathing right now.”
“Still, I should have…” Zento’s words fell off.
The images played in his head. Time and time again. Zento remembered emerging from the cloudy breath to the other side of the Passage, leading Thorne out of the disorienting haze. It was very likely the breath dulled his senses so much that he didn’t realize SoYa had fallen behind.
“You did what you could, Zento,” Kudako interrupted the mental re-run. He added with a grumble, “Running back into the breath like you did, not waiting for me. I can see where the boy gets his foolishness.”
Zento could do little to argue, because that’s exactly what he did. He remembered thrusting the reigns into Kudako’s hands and running head-first back into the mists. He could only count himself lucky that he hadn’t become lost in the breath, too. Somehow he managed to find SoYa, splayed out upon the bridge and unmoving, and pull him out to the other side.
“Ya family foolishness,” the Dragon repeated. His golden eyes were locked on to Zento’s nervous gait. “We don’t have time for this.”
A cold shiver ran over Zento’s body, efficiently stopping him in his tracks. “What are you saying?”
“We cannot wait here,” Kudako answered grimly, pressing his lips together. “If we do nott strike at the Spiral before we are noticed, then our quest here will fail.”
“Do you think they realize we are here already?” one fist closed tightly at Zento’s side.
“They are a tribe of pure warriors. That is what they are trained to do. You know that, Zento.”
“Yes… yes I do…” the winged man sighed out his tension. It was a strangely gentle sound, like the wind.
“We cannot drag wounded into this battle. It is a sure invitation to death,” Kudako added brusquely.
“Are you suggesting we leave SoYa behind?”
The Dragon straightened slowly, eyes measuring down the length of his golden-wood staff. “If he does not recover within a day or two, yes.”
“That’s out of the ques–”
“We are in enemy territory now,” Kudako’s voice interrupted, stern and solid. It weighed down with all the pressure of stone. “The closer we come to the Spiral, the faster we will need to move. It is hard enough to get into the Spiral in prime condition. Without all his senses, your boy will not make it through the first fringe.”
The winged man fell silent. Only the sound of his ragged breath rose and fell within the deepening heaviness of the evening.
“Zento!” AsaHi suddenly called, her voice clear and sure even through the confusion. “Zento, he’s waking up!”
His thoughts echoed the girl’s words dizzily. Zento made his way across the indigo glade, eating up the distance in a few long strides. He came to a stop, kneeling down next to SoYa’s quiet form, face painted with a thousand worries.
AsaHi drew the damp rag across the Apprentice’s brow in a few gentle swipes, her voice embracing him. “SoYa? Do you hear me?”
SoYa gave a soft groan, green light peering out from between swollen eyelids. His mouth moved, forming words that didn’t come. Zento raised a cup of water to the boy’s lips, helping him drink.
I thought I lost you…
The Apprentice’s gaze fell first upon AsaHi. She was leaning over him, the damp rag still in one hand, stroking his cheek. The soft smile that spread over his face was one of recognition. “AsaHi?”
“Hiiii!” she breathed, burying her face into his shoulder.
“Hi, AsaHi,” one hand weakly lifted, finding one of her hands with a soft touch.
A wave of relief washed over Zento, his eyes never leaving the face of his son. He realized his own hands were shaking. Grasping his knees, he pressed his palms firmly out of sight.
Why was it so hard to say the words? Zento didn’t know. But ever since he found SoYa again, it was as if some great wall had come between them. It was only in that moment that Zento began to realize the true consequences of his past.
I was never there for you, even when you were younger. I should have done something more — I’m not sure what, but something. All I could ever do was tell you to hide the truth that you were a Mind Mage…
A cheerful exchange of words crossed the sunlit air between AsaHi and SoYa. Their hands pressed together. Their eyes locked. For all the world, they looked perfect together.
Maybe it’s because of Tsu.
Zento swallowed back the lump in his throat, not wanting his uncertainty to show.
Is it because Tsu and I were always so close? Because you and I never made that connection – even if we wanted to?
SoYa’s eyes flickered away from AsaHi, as if noticing his father there for the first time. Silence suddenly fell. There were no words to share.
“Um… I’m going to see if there are any extra blankets, okay?” as if sensing the tension between the two, AsaHi got to her feet. Taking their silence as approval, the girl strode out to the adjoining glade where Kudako was keeping stoic vigil over their packs.
Now left on their own, father and son remained looking at each other, uncertain of where to begin. Then, Zento lifted one hand, reaching it slowly forwards. He noticed that his fingers were still shaking. By the look on the SoYa’s face, he saw it, too.
How can I help you believe that you’re just as important to me? That I was just as scared of losing you back there… as I would have been had it been Tsu?
SoYa’s eyes grew suddenly pained, as if he could feel everything, all the emotion churning within his father’s soul. The Apprentice’s hand closed around Zento’s trembling fingers, his skin still cold to the touch from the freeze of the Passage.
“Father,” he said. His voice cracked.
Zento fought to keep his shaky hands still, “SoYa, I should have been paying more attention in the Passage. I should have realized that you weren’t there.”
You know I’d never leave you there on purpose. Leaving you behind the first time was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do…
SoYa’s face scrunched up, the other hand coming to enclose Zento’s. “It wasn’t your fault. The strap snapped in my hand.”
“I thought you were gone,” Zento’s voice rasped.
He could hear himself. It sounded nothing like the great leader of Ceiswyr. The self-assured warrior, unflinching even in the face of overwhelming odds. Yet, seeing his reflection in the softness of SoYa’s eyes, he was not ashamed.
“If I lost you,” Zento clasped his son’s hands more surely, “I would have lost a part of myself.”
SoYa seemed surprised, “You… mean that?”
“Yes, of course I mean that,” the winged man gave a choked laugh, finding no humor in the implications of the words. He said the only thing that his mind could grasp, coiled in rings of guilt, “SoYa, forgive me.”
SoYa closed his eyes, as if gathering some sort of inner strength. When he opened them again, they bore a striking glint of apology. As his mouth opened, the Apprentice struggled to sort through his emotions, not sure where to start or how to form words around what he felt.
It runs in the family…
Zento remained attentive during SoYa’s struggle, hope beginning to rise. For the first time, he could see there were words between them, waiting to be released. There was the possibility of something to share.
“I was wrong,” SoYa decided to start simple. Direct. There was a lot to respect in getting the toughest statement out on the table first.
Zento offered encouragement in the way of a sympathetic look, gentle smile. SoYa’s hands were beginning to warm under his fingers.
“You were right,” the Apprentice admitted. The second hardest statement to make.
“How so?” the winged man tilted his head, giving his son the room he needed to try and express himself.
“You told me I needed the blindfold. I thought I could handle it. But I was wrong,” SoYa choked. His eyes misted over. Whatever he saw there in the shadows, he was re-living. “I wish I had never seen…”
“What?” Zento’s voice was rich with concern. “Seen what?”
The boy opened his mouth, eyes wide, suddenly vulnerable. His face flushed, an aftereffect of the toxins running through his system. He would probably be ill for days to come. “Just… really nasty illusions. Mind playing tricks on me… stuff about the Marked.”
There’s more to it.
Zento could sense it but didn’t press the issue. He simply retrieved the damp rag left by AsaHi, and began to wipe the heat from his son’s brow. SoYa was already distraught enough and his complexion was growing more flushed by the moment.
“Father…” the Apprentice’s eyes dropped weakly. Spots of fever broke out over his face. “Am I just a failure?”
There was a slur to SoYa’s voice that suggested the boy was talking out of his head as the fever swept over him. But there was also a sense that such a question had always loomed in the Apprentice’s mind – it had just taken a moment of illness to loosen his tongue.
“What? What makes you say that, SoYa?” Zento’s words crumbled, trailing off into the wisps of indigo leaves that swayed just above. A welcome cooling breeze.
The soft swish-swishing of the tall, golden grass lulled the glade. The Apprentice did not answer, as if contemplating the sound. His eyes closed slowly.
“SoYa?” Zento repeated, worry clenching his throat tightly.
“Let him sleep,” Kudako’s voice came across clearing as he poked his head into the glade. The one visible point of strength left in the world, the Dragon seemed to know best when Zento’s own senses left him. “He will need to rest off the fever.”
It was logic. But logic didn’t stop the feeling of falling apart inside. The shock of having almost lost his son to carelessness. Zento’s face seemed more worn, more drawn with age as he remained kneeling, holding SoYa’s hand.
“He is a strong boy. He will be okay, Zento.” A hint of sympathy. Sympathy was hard earned from the Dragon.
“Yes, of course,” the winged man drew a long breath in.
Without flinching, Kudako added, “We have to press on. You know that.”
“Press on?” Zento echoed, his voice distraught. “Then you do mean for us to leave him behind.”
“Remember what we are here for.”
“Yes,” the winged man lowered his gaze. “TsuYa.”
“Time is against us,” Kudako nodded. “We must not slow our pace. I believe that SoYa would agree, as well.”
Zento breathed in deeply, through his nose. The scent of the indigo trees was soothing. It was hard to believe danger could come from a place so dream-like. But Kudako knew these lands better than any of them could. The Dragon was born and raised in the Spiral.
Torn with a sinking sense of a father’s torment, Zento pushed SoYa’s hair from his eyes. He finally nodded, “Yes. I know SoYa would agree. We must not slow our pace.”