The silence after the storm fell over the lands of the Spiral.
Zento could feel it shiver through the forests, a whisper of change sweeping on the sooty wind. The same shiver rippled over his own body as he strode out the Keep’s ornate doors. As they grounded shut behind him, ZenToYa quite unceremoniously flopped down at the top of the dais to catch his breath, his wings folded as he slumped against one of the golden stone walls.
It’s over with, Tsu… it’s really over, now.
Still, it was so hard for him to wrap his mind around the immensity of the battle that just took place within the Keep. Of the Golden Lion, Aur, and of the things that Aur told him. Things that, in his newfound exhaustion, he didn’t want to grapple with.
Instead, Zento’s green eyes lifted to gaze out across the land.
He could see that most of the fires had died down, only drifting smoke marking where the fallen war towers once ringed around the Lion’s Keep. Where the proud banners hung only hours ago, where the tall wooden outlooks of the Spiral stood, there was now only darkened sky and charred ruins.
Though it was harder for him to make it out, he saw the tiny figures of flaxen-haired people scattered in the distance towards the forest’s heart. They were taking refuge from the Dragons within the depths of the trees.
These people… what will become of them?
He remembered the faces of the Spiral guards that stood against them to protect the Speaker. Something about their haunted, vacant eyes set Zento’s skin prickling. Though he could not agree with what was done to the people of the Spiral by those who ruled over them, he felt a sorrow within his heart as he considered what had just happened.
Zemi… I sure hope you know what you’re doing.
The shadow of one of the Dragons darkened the ground in front of the Keep as the creature glided silently across the sky. Zento didn’t know what Zemi ordered the Dragons to do now that the diversion was made and the war towers were torn down.
It sure seems like they’re patrolling this place for something. I wonder what’s going on?
The winged man gazed across the skies, as if to find an answer within the smoke-dappled clouds. The Dragon’s shadow did not return, and for a while, Zento was left completely alone to the churning of his thoughts and the gradual calming of his heartbeat. After some time time, a familiar sight broke away from the line of lilac forest, drawing nearer to the foot of the Keep.
“Kudako! Where have you been? You wouldn’t believe what’s just happened here,” the winged man roused himself and made his way down the steps towards the approaching warrior.
There was something very silent about the look on his old friend’s face. Silent and dark, like the smoky skies. Much to Zento’s surprise, Kudako was holding the reigns to SoYa’s Rhawn, leading the creature over the cobbled ground to the foot of the Keep.
“You went back for Thorne?” Zento questioned, trying to figure out in a round-about way what was going on behind the stillness of the Dragon’s eyes.
“It should not be left to fend for itself in the forest,” Kudako answered slowly, handing the reigns over to the winged man. There was something more avoidant than usual in his withdrawn manner. “There seems to be many Spiral people leaving the destroyed outposts and heading into the shelter of the wilderness.”
Zento’s teeth were set on edge, all of his senses bent on the tone of the Dragon’s voice. The question was forced as it scraped past his lips. “‘Dako, what happened? What’s going on out there?”
“It is finished,” Kudako’s voice was ragged and thin like an old cloth. He fiddled with the fitting of his gloves before leaning his shoulder against one of the golden stone pillars.
His bladed staff… where is it?
“Finished?” Zento echoed, brushing a hand over the nervous Rhawn’s nose.
“The Armsmaster is dead,” the weight of the words were accompanied by Kudako’s glance away into the forest. After a moment he spoke again. “The liberation of the Spiral is complete.”
Zento’s own gaze fell upon the swaying violet leaves in the distance. He drew the tips of his finger over the rough line of his chin.
But at what cost?
As if the Dragon sensed the doubt within the winged man’s heart, he spoke again, “These people will not understand the meaning just yet. It is best not to judge the situation while there is still smoke in the sky.”
Though that made sense, it couldn’t completely quench his concern and uncertainty. Still, Zento made a slow nod.
“What of the Golden Lion?” Kudako straightened again, pulling out of his lean. The change of topic brought Zento out of his thoughts.
“Yes. The Golden Lion,” the Dragon motioned to the doors of the Keep. “Did you go to battle against it?”
“I… did…” Zento replied quietly, his fingers tightening on Thorne’s bridle.
“Then you have defeated it?” Kudako asked with a quiet surprise. And a hint of pride.
“It surrendered to you?”
“No… there was a fight. Of sorts.”
“Then you must have defeated it,” the Dragon gave a sigh for the obvious.
“You can’t really defeat something that was already defeated, ‘Dako,” Zento began to stroke Thorne’s nose again, mostly to comfort himself.
“You always must choose to be difficult,” Kudako noted.
“This whole thing has been nothing but difficult,” he murmured in reply.
“I agree,” came a nod in reply.
Feeling that Kudako deserved some sort of explanation, Zento continued, “All I did was go in and bring down the wards that were set up in the Keep. The Lion itself… was merely an illusion maintained by the power of the wards. Once the illusion was broken, however, Aur was too weak to defend himself.”
“That’s the name of the creature from the Time Before,” the winged man nodded. “Once I pulled down the wards, there wasn’t much left to him. Zemi went inside a while ago, saying he was going to take care of the situation. I haven’t heard anything from him since.”
“I see,” Kudako frowned.
Zento lowered his head for a long moment. When he spoke again, his voice was strained. “‘Dako… I came here to find the power to help restore my son. If Aur is supposed to be that power… then….”
The Dragon glanced over, watching the winged man fumble to pull words out of the emotion. “You do not think that this Aur-creature has the strength to help your child. Is that your fear?”
“I saw what I saw, ‘Dako,” Zento took in a long breath. “It hardly had the power to keep itself sustained.”
“Then why did it fight against you?”
“Because it didn’t want to fall under Zemi’s hand,” the winged man glanced over. “That much I could sense from it. It would have rather died than allowed Zemi to take it.”
“Mmm….” Kudako’s face was pensive.
“Is Zemi really doing that much wrong that Aur should feel that way?” Zento pressed, eyes growing focused and concerned. The scent of dry smoke was irritating his nose, making him sniffle.
It took a bit of time before the Dragon spoke again, his voice thoughtful and distant, “Do you want to know what I believe?”
“I believe that Lord Zemi is doing the best that he knows how,” Kudako peered over, golden eyes deep, reflecting the long days past. “I also believe that he wants to help this Aur-creature because it holds knowledge that has been lost to time. If you are patient, you will find the answers to your son’s problems lie along the same path as what Lord Zemi seeks to know.”
“Is this another ‘have faith in Zemi’ lectures?” Zento frowned.
“If that’s what you want to call it,” the Dragon grimaced. Then he added, “Do not doom things before they have a chance to begin. We must all hope for the best, even in what seems to be the darkest of times.”
Strangely enough, it felt as if Kudako’s statement was meant just as much for himself as it were for Zento. As the final words faded, the winged man held his silence and found his eyes wandering over the forests once more.
There was nothing more to say – not with the secrecy in the stillness that Kudako fell back into. It was obvious that things happened to him as well, things that the Dragon didn’t want to talk about.
Finally, after what seemed a very long time, the doors to the Keep gave way with a resounding grumble. Zento turned at the sound, green eyes flicking up to the top of the dais. There, as he had expected, stood the Dreigiau.
What he didn’t expect was the stranger that stood just behind.
The stranger was very tall, nearly rivaling Zemi’s height in stature. His hair was a deep sandy-gold color, standing wild and mane-like, only to be caught back in a long tail of a wrap. His skin was bronzed, much darker in complexion than the Spiral people were. He observed the two warriors with a quiet look, caught somewhere between watchful and unconcerned.
There was a hint of recognition as the golden eyes fell upon Zento’s face. The winged man could not help but shiver under the suppressed power of the glance.
“Lord Zemi,” Kudako gave a quick half-bow. Like someone reporting after duty was complete.
“Sorry it took so long. Got caught up in some of the tricky stuff,” the Dreigiau nodded to the warrior, then began to make his way down the steps. The stranger followed with a slightly mechanical gait.
“Zemi?” all the questions that churned in Zento’s mind eeked into the sound of the name. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t find the voice to ask.
“Relax Zento,” Zemi’s voice offered a soothing comfort. “Everything’s going to be alright now.”
The winged man felt himself mouthing ‘are you sure?’. But the sound of his doubts choked and caught in his throat. Zento wanted nothing more than to believe what the Arweinydd said was true, and to voice a question might break the comfort.
“Let me introduce you folks to the new kid in town,” Zemi aptly changed the subject. With a grandiose motion, the Dreigiau indicated the stranger behind him, “Say hello to Aur!”
It was like getting hit with the flat of a blade right between the eyes. Zento boggling for all he was worth at the man-who-wasn’t-just-a-man-a-little-while-ago.
Aur glanced from Zento to Kudako then back again, face unconcerned and unresponsive.
In the midst of the silence of the Spiral, only one thought flickered through the winged man’s mind.
This… is going to be… interesting…