Zento could hear the hollow sound of his breath expanding and contracting around him in the narrow corridor. No matter what he did, he couldn’t make the sound any less nervous. No matter how firm his footsteps sounded as he strode toward the lit archway, he couldn’t ease the thundering of his heart.
I must be getting old…
It was the first time he ever considered it, and maybe it was true. In his younger days, he would meet such an encounter with excitement and eagerness. But now, with the future of his son on the line, Zento could find nothing but a welling of trepidation.
So much for the great warrior ZenToYa.
No noise came from the golden room ahead. That fact alone bothered him more than any living sound could have. Zento realized that his bhinod was out in one hand.
Kudako would have my head for this…
The Dragon always taught to never flash a weapon around until it needed using. The winged man never completely understood why that particular habit was drilled in his training. Maybe his instructor didn’t have much faith in his student’s sense of judgment when it came to handing him a pointy weapon.
Not that I’d blame him, brash and foolish as I was. And still am… Why else would I be here?
He knew the answer to that, but left it at the arched doorway. For now, the great Keep opened around him like a massive lion’s maw.
It was a vast circular room built of tawny colored stone. The walls were decorated with mosaic murals which depicted various strange runes, vast interlocking spirals and lion-like images. The art studded the walls with glittering gems and would have been worth a fortune in material, if not in design.
The stone floor was one vast multicolored spiral that began at the center of the structure and spun outward. It, too, was flecked with what seemed to be crushed gems embedded into the stone itself, giving the whole surface a strange luminary glow.
Ten huge golden braziers lined the walls, following the motion of the Keep’s circumference. Each stood nearly three times Zento’s own height, etched with a large glowing rune that were illuminated by the flames of the tall pillars.
Obviously magic of some sort. Real fire doesn’t burn like that…
Long drapes of black and gold spun down from various vaulted arches that rose and fell in pillared rows. They whispered hushed warnings as Zento strode down the narrow steps into the heart of the chamber. His feet crunched as his boots met the shimmering spiral pattern on the floor. Only in looking closer could he see that tiny runes had been etched in each glittering square.
They certainly spent a lot of time working on this place. It’s gonna make it hard to figure out what in here activates the wards. It could be every stone in the floor for all I know.
And that would be a problem.
He felt drastically exposed as he strode into the center of the Keep. Still, there was nothing but silence to greet him. Unnerved, Zento chose to make the first move.
“So, yeah. Nice hospitality you got going on around here.”
His voice echoed sharply from the golden walls. As it faded, he was again met with only the whispers of the drapes.
“I think you know what I’m here for,” Zento continued. Talking helped to ease his own nerves, despite the fact that his hand still clung tight to the grip of his bhinod. “And I think we’ve got a lot of things figured out. There’s no need to prolong this.”
Still, a pool of silence remained.
“I guess that means you don’t mind if I tear this place apart… cuz like it or not, I’m going to bring down your wards,” the winged man grimaced. He hated resorting to threats. His always sounded so lame. Kudako once told Zento it was because his face was far too friendly to be threatening. “That’s fine with you? Good to know, Aur. I can call you Aur, right?”
As if the sound of the name triggered something within the room, a rumbling began to shake the ground under Zento’s feet. The fires within the pillars burst up wildly, now seeming more like beams of light than flame. Each became a stream of gold that rose straight to the ceiling, tracing the runic arches until they met in a brilliant pulsing vortex in the center.
I had to open my big mouth…
Zento back-stepped away, not wanting to be caught in the middle of the room should something decide to collapse. The picture on the largest of the mosaics began to writhe, blindingly reflecting the pooling of golden light. At first it seemed a trick of the eyes, but as Zento watched, he could see it.
The lion-creature within the picture was moving. Its ice-colored eyes remained unblinking as it stalked forward, growing larger and larger in perspective. Just when it seemed impossible for it to expand anymore, for it had reached the threshold of the wall, it burst beyond its picture confines into the room, looming huge above the warrior.
The earth shook as the beast landed. Zento found himself backpedaling away. One great paw would have easily crushed his entire body if the creature had just taken one more step.
Its wild mane blazed from the peaked forehead down to the powerful curve of shoulders. A double set of pointed ears brushed the top of the vaulted ceiling. At the narrowest point, its huge tail was thicker than the trunks of the large, ancient trees that grew near to Nefol. The hide glistened, iridescent gold marked with strange looping symbols that resembled spirals, yet were not.
Up close, Zento could see this was certainly no lion… but that was the closest word that could describe it.
“ZenToYa,” the voice was a rumbling that came from everywhere at once.
It knows my name…
The warrior crouched, eyes never leaving the huge beast that towered over him. He tried to sound unsurprised, “That’s correct…”
“I ask but once — return now to your Master and trouble this Keep no more.” The tone was very polite and reserved. So much that it almost made Zento feel like some malicious intruder.
“I’m sorry,” the winged man answered. “I can’t do that. The life of my son depends on bringing you back with me.”
“Surely your Master knows that there is little power here to bring back.”
Surprised that the creature was so honest and forthright, Zento pushed ahead, hoping to barter out of a battle, “Yes, and he told me that he wishes to help you. Zemi doesn’t look to destroy you.”
There was a moment of silence. Zento wondered if the creature didn’t believe him.
When the voice came again, it seemed to hold a hint of sadness. “Of course he would not wish to destroy me. I am a valuable tool, you see. You do understand that is the way of the Arweinydd, ZenToYa? It is their nature to capture, shape and dominate.”
“No, you’re wrong. Zemi isn’t like that.”
“Then tell me why he has built an empire in the Northlands. Tell me why he captures people, makes them into Dragons and calls them his Servants?” the rumble softened some. “Young Earthian, I have seen the rise and fall of an age, the near-death of our universe, due to the flux of Chaos and Creation that takes root in the heart of the Arweinydd. They cannot help themselves. It sweeps them and everything they touch into oblivion.”
Zento fell motionless, overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the stark honesty. Knowing that the creature spoke the truth, and the truth without hidden desires. Still, something in his heart fought back. A flicker of faith in the Dreigiau. Something that wanted to believe that somehow Zemi was different than the others.
“What you say about the Arweinydd may be true.” Zento’s hand gripped the haft of his bhinod tighter. Determination marked his voice, “But, until Zemi shows me otherwise, I will trust in him and follow his guidance.”
“I see,” the ocean-blue eyes were heavy upon him. “Then there is nothing more to discuss.”
“I guess not,” the warrior ran his tongue over his lips, readying himself. Having no idea how to fight such an impossible beast.
True to its word, the creature struck. One huge paw lashed, catlike in speed, crashing into the spot on the ground where Zento had just leapt from. As heavy as it was, as sharp as the sword-point claws gleamed, no damage was done to the stone of the floor.
This is not cool! I’ll never dismantle the wards like this!
Zento leapt again, springing away as the beast rounded on him, huge maw open in silent ferocity. The lion’s agility was simply astounding. Though he had been trained by Kudako to perform well during high-speed battle, nothing could have readied Zento for the way that this creature moved.
Still, the warrior managed to continue to evade the massive paws, rolling and dodging, springing through the arches. When the lion’s maw came too close for comfort, Zento resorted to ripping down the drapes and flinging them into the beast’s face. Hoping to buy time. Hoping to figure out a way to bring down the undefeatable.
Sliding under the shadow of the claw, Zento grabbed hold of the end of the beast’s tufted tail. Instantly he was thrown about, shaken by the vast thrashings. Catching a moment of balance, he used the momentum of the lash to swing up over the beast’s back. His wings folded for speed, he plunged down at the unguarded flank, the hooked end of his weapon ripping a long gash straight through the golden haunches.
Landing lightly on his feet, Zento turned to run a quick survey over his handiwork. Only to find no trace of a weapon-wound on the beast’s body at all.
He only had a second to leap out from under the next round of crushing swipes.
It didn’t even touch him!
Zento’s breath whistled through his open mouth, a sudden stinging in his lungs. Again he dodged under one of the stone arches, trying to dart away from the creatures’ watchful eye.
I don’t believe this!
But always, he was targeted. There was no getting away.
How’m I supposed to fight this thing if it can’t be hurt?
Zento realized the beast was merely wearing him down. Waiting for his aged endurance to fail him.
This Lion form… It’s like Zemi’s Dragon illusion…
He sprang to the top of the stone steps, caught hold of an overhanging piece of the doorway, and swung himself up inside of the narrow corridor. Arms and legs splayed against the wall and ceiling, Zento wedged tight. The paw swiped up under him, just a little too large to be able to do much but bat into the hallway.
And Zemi used to say that all illusion had a source…
His position was only going to bide him time — his aged muscles were already burning as they bore his weight in the little crook of the wall. The moment he let go, he would fall straight into the grip of the claws.
Think, Zento! Think!
He could feel the beast shaking the entire structure of the building, trying to force its way through the tiny doorway.
The Keep began to shudder around him. Zento groaned as he felt his hands slipping.
Then, a brilliant flash of light engulfed the other room, a blast of heat unbearable, crackling dry through the air. The corridor below him burst into a stream of flame as the creature attempted to flush him out. Zento gave a shout as the golden fire leapt at him, seeming to have a singular purpose of its own.
His own power rose to counter it. Flinging one hand forward, the shield of luminous blue light swept around him, pulled from the heart of desperation. Having lost his hold on the wall, Zento plummeted down into the vortex of flame that waited below.
Not here! Not so close!
He could feel the heat steaming up through the soles of his feet from where the fire melted the stone of the floor. He could smell the singe, his eyes blurry as he felt the brittle pain upon his body. Yet, his own power held. A blue light in the midst of the gold.
I’m not done yet!
And he thrust forward with both hands. Teeth bared, face turned towards the heart of the chamber, blind to anything else but a desire to overcome. To triumph. To return victorious in the eyes of his son.
I won’t disappoint you again…
Tendrils of smoking blue broke through the rage of flame. Cracks of jagged light began to form in a sizzling azure sphere around the winged man’s form. Outward, he demanded. And the sphere expanded from the flat of his open palms.
But just as the creature’s flame was deflected from Zento’s sphere, the warrior found it impossible to break through, to direct the full force of his own power into the center of the room. Cursing, he watched as his energy spun off, wayward blue streaks leaping, repelled.
One shot straight into the nearby brazier.
A sudden shift took the room. Stunned, Zento watched as the blue light struck the pillar of gold flame, instantly extinguishing the light. It cracked the golden metal, shattering the once-gleaming rune upon its face.
The image of the beast wavered, looking paler and less substantial as a resounding peal shook the walls of the keep.
The fires are the source of the illusion!
Instantly, Zento turned his attack away from the center of the room and towards the ten individual pillars of flame. Daggerlike, blue energy streaked from his fingers, leaping around the edge of the room from one brazier to the next, a wave of cooling light.
The reverberation within the Keep was intolerable. The image of the lion withered and faded, growing more distant as each pillar doused. When the final fire died away, the beast vanished all together, the walls of the chamber groaning and buckling inward. A deluge of shimmering tiles began to stream away, a vast crack streaking across the stone floor, straight through the center of the spiral.
Zento felt himself knocked to his knees as the earth rolled beneath him. Weak from exhaustion, he only barely caught himself on his palms. A moment later, all was still. Forcing his head up, he could see that there was now only one source of light left to the ruins of the Keep.
One tiny, almost insignificant flame of gold still remained. Struggling to fight back the darkness. Struggling simply to exist. Within the face of that desperate, paltry image, Zento could only feel pity. For he knew that this was all that was left to the once-majestic creature from the Time Before.
“Aur…” the sound of Zemi’s voice came from behind.
Zento did not hear the Dreigiau enter the chamber. He was too transfixed upon the sad little light. As the gentle hand dropped upon his shoulder, the warrior hardly felt it.
“Well done, Zento,” Zemi told him warmly. “Now, why don’t you rest outside? I’ll take it from here.”