“What are we supposed to be waiting here for again?” TsuYa asked, shivering into the depths of his robes against the bite in the air. His breath clouded out in great puffs of white as he spoke.
Everywhere Zento looked, the land drooped under unnatural freeze. The trees, once lush in the summer light now bore the darkened branches of deepest winter. All signs of animal life were hidden from the winds. And the sky had grown dark and grey in lament of a season taken before its time. No doubt, this could have only been from Zerom’s influence. The land shifted, growing more and more devoid the closer they came to the gates of Nefol.
“Zemi just told us to watch for the wolf,” Zento finally replied, eyes squinting across the dark, frozen hillsides. Though the plan seemed to be lacking details, once again, the winged man chose to keep the thought to himself and trust Zemi’s instructions.
TsuYa, however, didn’t have the patience and spoke his concerns straight aloud, “Was it such a good idea for us to separate like this?”
“This is the plan, Tsu.”
“I know it’s the plan. But I’m wondering if it’s a good plan.”
“It’s what Zemi told us to do,” Zento added, glancing over at the scowling face of his youngest son.
TsuYa was scratching at the bandaged area on his cheek, absentmindedly. “Yeah, well, from the looks of it, even Zemi can be wrong sometimes.”
“That’s true,” Zento fiddled with his bhinod, making sure it was secure within its sheath. If everything went as he thought it would, they would see battle before the day was over. “But this is a very serious situation and I doubt that Zemi would tell us to do something that might put the mission in jeopardy.”
TsuYa grumbled quietly to himself, still looking doubtful.
“Besides,” the winged man added, “I doubt we’re heading into this without some sort of guide.”
“Fine, so where is he?” the Apprentice crossed his arms with a discontent huff.
“What?” TsuYa peered over at his father with a puzzled look.
“Hrrmm?” Zento looked back.
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything,” the winged man spread his hands.
“I swear I heard…” TsuYa wrinkled his nose.
-You did hear.-
Both father and son turned on their heels, peering at the source of the strange voice. As one, they startled back as a huge looming shape took form on the rock outcropping only feet away. A silver-white wolf, much larger than any wolf had a right to be, stood there crowned upon the hill. Calculating, intelligent eyes watched them with a disdainful blink. A strange pattern of light seemed to flow from the creature’s form, marking it as something far more than ordinary.
A canine grin crossed the wolf’s face as the words flowed into their minds, clearly as any person might speak. -Perhaps Zeni is right. Earthians are cute. Just a little.-
Finally, Zento found his voice and managed to try to formulate some sort of greeting to the creature, “Hello… you must be the wolf that Zemi spoke of?”
-Zemi spoke of me?-
-He better have said nice things or he’s in trouble next time I see him.-
“Actually,” the winged man gave the wolf a puzzled look, “He just said to watch for you.”
-Well, now isn’t he just Mr. Elegant? He can’t even do his own sister proper introductions.-
The wolf gave a cynical flip to her tail as she began to make her way easily down the steep face of the hill. What would have been impossible for a normal creature to make, she traversed without a second thought.
“Si…ster..?” TsuYa’s eyes boggled.
Landing lightly on the ground before them, the large she-wolf glanced at the Apprentice disdainfully. -Oh, that’s right. You and your little Earthian pre-school tends to forget that the rest of us exist outside of Zemi.-
TsuYa wisely took a step back.
“Please,” Zento offered, a soothing voice attempting to appease. After all, if this creature was really the sister of Zemi, as well as their guide, they fall on her bad side, “Forgive our ignorance, Lady… uh…”
-Zazo,- she informed them with a self-important air.
“Lady Zazo,” the winged man bowed genteelly.
-That’s more like it,- the wolfish grin crossed her face again. -Now. As for business. We’ve got some Sygnus hunting to do.-
“Sygnus hunting?” the Apprenticed echoed.
-Correct. I am here to guide the two of you into Nefol to seek out the presence of the Sygnus. –
“I see,” Zento gave a grim face, rubbing his chin.
“What are we supposed to do once we find it?” TsuYa asked pensively.
-That’s not my business,- the she-wolf flipped her tail again. -I’m just supposed to help get you to it.-
“Well, we probably shouldn’t be putting this off too much longer, then,” Zento took in a deep, biting breath then nodded. “Are you ready to go, Tsu?”
His son nodded, somewhat reluctantly. Zento understood why – after seeing the transformation that had overcome the forested lands of their home, it was hard to look forward to what became of the city itself.
Unsheathing his blade, Zento peered over at Zazo, “Alright. Let’s do this.”
-Now you’re talking.- She began to lope down the hillside with a casual pace that was enough to make a man run to keep up with her.
But none of that mattered to ZenToYa. His mind was already phasing the unnecessary out, readying itself for whatever was to come.
His gait became fleet. His age was temporarily no longer a factor as he started out after the she-wolf. Zento could sense the presence of his son not too far behind.
TsuYa’s chilled breath grew panting as he strove to keep step with their rapid pace. The black-bladed scythe slung over one shoulder, balanced with a practiced hand, an assurance that the Apprentice spent time on the islands keeping his fighting skills honed.
Nefol… the kingdom that was once my home. The city that I established for Zemi…
The landscape blurred by them like a dreamscape. The land that he once knew was now unfamiliar and inert. When the first glimpse of the Spire appeared upon the horizon over the twiggy brush, Zento was surprised at how much ground they covered.
How long has it been since I entered the city? I haven’t been back since my exile…
The expanse between the forest edge and the city gates was wide open with only a few dipping hills for shelter. Though silence veiled the desolate path ahead, Zento could feel it. There were a number of creatures moving, as if on patrol. From the lack of self-awareness and the overwhelming sense of taint, Zento could tell these beings were not people.
It’s like they’re being fed information, controlled by something else…
Zazo pulled up to a stop on the crest of a hill. Her tone was disdainful as she glanced down at the city gates, -Zerom’s little pets.-
“The Marked?” Zento asked.
As soon as the words crossed the warrior’s lips, he watched the color drain out of his son’s face. Though TsuYa didn’t say a word, it was obvious he was thinking the worst. Thinking that he was only a hair’s breadth away from becoming like the dark servants of the Arweinydd.
Not yet, Tsu. He doesn’t have you yet.
The winged man reached one hand out, placing it on his son’s shoulder for comfort. For once, TsuYa did not shrug him away, the dark eyes gazing across the clearing with a silent dourness.
We’re going to beat this. You and I… I refuse to let him have you.
-Well?- Zazo turned to peer back at them over one shoulder.
Zento nodded, tightening his grip on his weapon. Grounding his heel into the rocky soil, the winged man turned and crouched, ready.
“Okay,” TsuYa breathed, taking a hold on his scythe.
The three of them sprang out of the crevice, the spectral light of the she-wolf pulsing around them in silvery-white wisps. With all the speed they could muster, they dove across the sloping ground towards the darkened gates of the city.
Instantly, the air shattered with countless shrill cries. The sound was so horrific that it nearly froze Zento’s blood in mid-stride. Seeped in the depths of Chaos, the vicious, animalistic screeches shot at them from every side.
His limbs were heavier for some reason. The weight of induced fear tried to drag him to the ground. His breath caught like gritty lumps in his throat as the shadows churned in a dizzying dance.
-Whatever you do, don’t stop running!- the words of the she-wolf reached his ears through the terrible wail.
As if the voice alone held the power to snap him from the mesmerizing hold, Zento found himself lurching forward again. It felt like the world had just unfolded from underwater slow motion.
Sickly shapes skittered over the ground in formless packs of malice. Everywhere he looked, Zento’s vision was filled with darkness. His mind reeled back from the rot that festered behind the black, soulless eyes.
The thick taste of disease filled his mouth as Zento choked on the putrid air. With eyes watering, it became difficult to make out the path. Only instinct led him to follow the protective light of the she-wolf.
Somewhere behind him he could hear the sound of TsuYa’s screams. He couldn’t tell if they were of pain, terror or battle. Just as he was compelled to turn to his son, Zazo intercepted.
-Move, ZenToYa! Move!-
One glance over his shoulder was all he was afforded. It was all that it took to confirm…
TsuYa was in the midst of battle. A viciousness that was terrible to behold had transformed his face, as his scythe left trails of long, black residue through the air.
His eyes were darker, almost as dark as the creatures that leapt at him. The penetrating sound of the Marked screeches had no effect upon the Apprentice. He phased through the darkness, a smooth liquid motion of man, weapon and death.
Never before had Zento seen his youngest son fight or move in such a way. At that moment, he realized that the Marked were far more of a threat to himself than they were to the Apprentice.
-Move! Move! MOVE!- Zazo’s silver-white blur shot past him. -The boy can take care of himself here. You can’t!-
Zento pivoted on his heel and began to follow the lead of the she-wolf. His heart swelled with fear and longing for his son. But, he couldn’t sense anything of the battle beyond the taint and evil.
As they drew closer to the gates of the city, a wall of darkness rose to greet them. What it had once been, Zento could not tell. There was nothing indefinable but bits and pieces of things that looked to have once been alive, churned together in a swelling mass of shadows.
What in the name of the Seven Universes is…
Zento opened his mouth to scream. But the stench of death was so strong upon that he nearly fell to his knees. His throat tightened, an illness sweeping over him.
His stomach churned and heaved against his will. A round of gagging shook his frame. His watering eyes once again obscuring his vision.
The streak of wolf leapt ahead, undaunted by the forces of death. With fangs that were not fangs, Zazo tore straight into the sickly mass.
A spray of black exploded from the center of the gash. An unearthly gurgle rose up in response, the creature flailing and lashing in desperation. All at once, it was overwhelmed by the brutal jaws of the Arweinydd.
Almost… inside… just a little further…
Holding his breath, Zento leapt through the shower of decayed remains to slip over the slick black-tinged stone. His hands groped in front of him, catching the rough-hewn wall of the gate’s threshold. Skidding sharply around the corner, he pressed his shoulder to the wall. His breath finally wheezed through his open mouth.
What’s wrong with me… why couldn’t I take those things?
It was a rare day that found ZenToYa running away from his adversary. But something in the way that Zazo had demanded him to run… something in the fear that had prickled over his entire body at the simple shrieks that the Marked had made… told him that had he remained out on the field, he would not have lasted very long.
And yet Tsu could…
A wave of concern rushed over him. Against his better will, the winged man found himself moving back towards the arch of the front gates. His mind was fully bent on apprehension for the son he had been forced to leave behind in battle.
As Zento poked his head around the corner, a gentle pressure touched the back of his mind.
His eyes flicked upwards, focusing on a strange white bird that perched on a nearby wall. Tiny wings fluttered as the bright eyes watched him, with a churrup that seemed like a warning.
Zento found himself so enthralled by the creature that it was only the bounding form of the she-wolf that shook him from the daze. Zazo was totally unscathed from her own battle, and not the least tired from her run. Though she didn’t touch him, the winged man felt himself pressured backwards, away from the open door.
-Don’t give yourself away. It looks like many of them were patrolling outside.-
“But… Tsu..?” he startled with a ragged breath, glancing away from the tiny bird.
-You gotta do something about that wheeze… it’s not becoming of Zemi’s Rhyswyr.- Zazo noted.
With a grimace, he took a step forward, only to find himself riveted in place.
-Trust me. He will come.-
Though anxiety demanded action, Zento stood fast at the Arweinydd’s command, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in agitation. After a short passage of time, the sound of struggle outside of the gate had vanished. All was silent again. Even the little bird had vanished.
And a shadow paced through the arched gateway, the dark outline of a scythe slung over one shoulder.
“Tsu!” Zento rushed forward at the sight. Part of him was reluctant, unsure of what he would find. The other part was balanced on the bursting point of a terrified father.
TsuYa turned his head at the sound of his name, a slow and calculated look in his face. His eyes were still darkened and there was a strange flowing motion to his gait. Despite the battle that he had just fought, he hardly seemed winded at all. His voice came calm and distant, “Father…”
-Told you he’d come.-
Yes… but… what’s wrong with him?
Zazo snuffed at the ground for a moment before perking her ears at the Apprentice. -Well, I got you in the gate. Now it’s your turn. Lead us to the place that you saw in your dreams. Show us where the Sygnus sleeps.-
How is he supposed to do that? Didn’t Tsu say he didn’t recognize the place he saw in his dreams?
Much to Zento’s surprise, TsuYa nodded. It was a distant nod, as if he was listening to something far away that only he could hear.
“We’re close,” with a wave of one hand he turned down the nearby street, leading them into the depths of Nefol, “Follow me.”