“Hedd-ynad!” SoYa exclaimed for the fifth time in the space of ten minutes.
He clung tightly to AsaHi from behind, head ducked down, eyes clamped shut in the howling face of the wind. Their cloaks snapped around them in the frigid air, made all the more cold by their altitude. The motion of the huge white Dragon underneath them was unsettling despite the fact this was the Apprentice’s second time on Dragon back.
I don’t know how AsaHi does it so well! It must have been all the time she spent with the Dragons back in Wyndor.
Then, again, it didn’t help the case that the Dragon they were riding happened to be Zemi himself. At this point, it was just the three of them… himself, AsaHi and Zemi… striking out on this branch of the mission, heading to infiltrate the Spire of Nefol.
Something in SoYa was leery that the Dreigiau would change his mind about the promise he made. Especially since Zemi was the one who, surprisingly, asked for SoYa to be part of this group. At this point, there was no one else there to stop the situation if things got out of hand.
Not Father… or Aunt SaRa… or anyone. Oh… I’m not going to get back to the Islands alive, am I?
It didn’t help that he could sense it… the strange connection that traced back and forth between AsaHi and Zemi. SoYa wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it was strong — a bond of understanding, communication and emotion that even his mind powers couldn’t define. For the very first time, the Apprentice got the sinking feeling that, just maybe, AsaHi had her own feelings for the Dreigiau as well.
What am I thinking? This isn’t supposed to be about me, Zemi and AsaHi!
SoYa shook out his head, righting his gaze towards the horizon again.
This is supposed to be about what’s going on in Nefol. Concentrate, SoYa.
His hands gripped tighter around AsaHi’s waist, face growing grim. Ahead, he could make out where the cloud banks dipped and seethed, becoming darker closer to the Spire. A streak of electric violet shot through the sky, a strange, unnatural lightning slashing through the frozen air. Where it struck, SoYa didn’t know, but the resounding crack rattled his entire body. The great white Dragon flew on, undaunted.
This isn’t going to be easy. There’s no telling what we’re going to find when we get home.
If the place could even be considered “home” anymore. The ground that stretched below them was dead and unmoving. Only bare branched trees remained groping up to the skies with claw-like agony. Everywhere he looked, SoYa could sense the overwhelming pressure of anguish and death.
Is this what Chaos looks like?
The Athrylith found no answer or solace in the world below. As the Dragon began banking downwards, SoYa ducked his head again, sheltering his eyes in the folds of his cloak. Only the motion underneath him spoke of their descent. The pounding of his heart in his ears rushed a jittery feeling through his whole body, which was accented by his shivering against the bitter winds.
Then, there came a jolt. Anticipated, yet unexpected at the same time. SoYa knew that Zemi finally touched down. It was the hardest thing for him to pull his arms away from the warmth of AsaHi’s body as the Dreigiau’s huge wings buffered the winds for their dismount. The stiff jolt of sliding from the Dragon’s back onto the slick ground left SoYa stinging for a moment, both hands still upraised to help AsaHi down.
She didn’t acknowledge his motion, having no trouble getting down. It was only after she was already on the ground that AsaHi’s sheepish expression spoke of her realization that he was offering her his help. Playing it off the best that he could, SoYa wrapped his arms around himself and proceeded to rub his shoulders for warmth.
“This way,” Zemi’s gritty voice rose above the din of the wind. Suddenly no longer a Dragon, he stood in the arched doorway on the top platform of the Spire, waving a hand to beckon them forward.
What? When did he turn back into..?
“Come on, SoYa,” AsaHi grabbed him by the hand, following after the Dreigiau in a quick trot.
With no room to argue the point, and not wanting to stand out in the cold any longer than he had to, the Athrylith jogged alongside of the girl, his breath misting out in wide clouds of white. This place was familiar to him – it was the top platform on the roof of the Spire itself. It wasn’t a place he went to very often, especially after Aunt SaRa’s warnings about the dangers of falling from such a height.
TsuYa liked it up here, though.
Why that thought occurred to him, SoYa didn’t know. It was a sudden rush of memory… the image of his brother as a young teen, leaning out upon the uncertain railing, no fear of falling. But then, TsuYa never seemed to be afraid of anything.
Not until now…
SoYa didn’t know the whole story of what was happening to TsuYa. But he couldn’t forget the dream-vision that he saw when crossing the Passage in the Cleft…. the dark skin, dark eyed, black-haired image of one who held his brother’s features, yet was so far removed.
It’s not going to happen! I won’t let this Zerom-Arweinydd take Tsu…
His thoughts scampered from his mind as they passed through the doorway of the Spire into the inner chambers. What was once a large, vaulted room of great beauty now dripped before him in dark decay. The walls and ceilings were built of a transparent material, once affording a vibrant view of the entire city from the top of the Spire. But now, the light that spilled into the room was dimmed by the dark underside of the churning clouds.
The first thing that struck was the scent of decay, so powerful that even the crunch of AsaHi’s step on stone faltered. Her hand tightened around SoYa’s at the same moment that he felt a gasp rip from his throat. Her voice was weak and tiny in the face of the mounting shadows, “Zemi… What’s that?”
The Arweinydd didn’t answer. His back was to them, attention fixed straight ahead.
Part of the room caved in on the far end, leaving the chamber wide open to the biting winds that ripped at the shredded banners that once marked the beauty of their civilization. In the center of the room, stood a make-shift throne. It was a distorted, twisted structure woven from strands of dark, rotting tissue draped over malformed stone and bone.
Loping around the foot of the throne’s dais were things that were alive once, but now so marred by the touch of death and decay, they were far beyond recognition. Some might have been various animals from the nearby forests. Some were once people, now twisted into the grey-skinned form of the Marked.
SoYa felt his whole body responding in sickened repulsion as the countless black-pit eyes turned to regard their approach. AsaHi’s hands gripped at his arm, her hands shaking as another violet bolt of lightning shattered the air around them, striking not far outside.
Sitting on the throne was a figure so steeped in darkness that the rest of the room seemed light in comparison. His robes were of a similar make to those that the people of Nefol wore, yet the violet cloth was embellished with strange golden symbols that SoYa didn’t recognize. Th symbols seemed to warn his eyes away, a deep dread stirring in the pit of his stomach.
Though he looked like a man, there was something about him that screamed of monstrosity. His face was handsome and finely-sculpted, yet there was a glimmer of eager malice behind the dark eyes that left SoYa chilled with revulsion. Though a smile crept to his lips upon the sight of the three of them, its intent held no joy or kindness.
Is… it… Zerom?
The man rose from his place on the throne, feet not touching the ground as he made his way down the dais. His hands lifted, outstretched towards Zemi in a gesture that might have been welcoming, if the feeling of hatred didn’t cling to every motion that he made.
“Brother,” the voice was cold and dead, sounding much like the icy winds outside. “Welcome be to you.”
A snarl rose within the Dreigiau’s throat, a sound so fierce and unexpected that SoYa was suddenly glad he could not see Zemi’s face. “Zerom, what are you doing?”
The smooth voice replied, “Awaiting your arrival, of course.”
“You’ve given yourself an Earthian form?” Zemi accused sharply, obviously shaken by the fact. “After you lectured me about the dangers of it?”
A slow smirk crossed his face, eyes burning under the wisps of light and dark hair. “As brilliant as you are, big Brother, I figured there must be some merit in.”
“Don’t try to sweet talk me, Zerom,” the Dreigiau slowly strode closer, everything in his stance spoke of contained violence. A crackle of pale energy snapped from the edge of his form.
“So hostile, Zemi?” the other said, lifting one hand calmly. “After I waited so very long for you to decide to return to Nefol, too.”
“These people… these lands… this place… was not yours to do this to!” Zemi grated, fangs bared.
“Oh, I see. You are saying that these people belong to you?”
“Yes!” the Dreigiau barked, answering on emotion-torn impulse.
AsaHi took a sharp intake of breath, her hand clutching ever tighter to SoYa’s shoulder. As if the sound magnified a hundred fold, Zemi’s focus broke, his gaze shooting over to take in the horrified expression on the girl’s face.
“Really?” Zerom’s voice was a sly reminder, prodding the Dreigiau to recognize the meaning of what he had just said.
“Wait! It’s not like that!” Zemi blinked, shaking out his head to clear it, “I meant, these people…”
“They are your little pets, aren’t they?”
“You just said they belong to you.”
“I said no!” frustration flooded through the words as Zemi bit them off sharply.
As the Dreigiau’s anger grew more pronounced, SoYa felt himself shrinking back. A pressure filled his mind — a power so vast, so terrifyingly overwhelming. He could almost see the pale energy shifting to a looming darkness around Zemi’s outline, a force that felt not too different to that which clung to Zerom.
No! He’s trying to pull Zemi into the Chaos!
Zerom’s dark eyes flickered over to the Apprentice warningly. SoYa’s breath whooshed raggedly from his lungs as he nearly crumpled under the power of the gaze. Then, returned his focus back upon the Dreigiau.
“Zemi… Zemi… dearest Brother,” the voice was soft, chiding and affectionate as it turned the tide of the conversation away from his own transgressions. Casting the weight fully on the Dreigiau. “Isn’t it time you stop playing these games? We all know what it is you seek from this world. We all know that you gather your power from these pitiful Earthian creatures, and that is the only reason you pretend to care about them. Everything you give to them only turns to benefit you in the end.”
“That’s not the reason!” Zemi’s voice strangled in outrage. His balled fists quivered with the flood of emotion, shadows sweeping around him in a wild caper.
“But you cannot deny that what I say is true.”
SoYa felt himself shivering as the presence of darkness grew stronger with each word that Zerom spoke. It fed on Zemi’s emotion and doubt, for each defense the Dreigiau cast up, Zerom overshadowed the room more and more.
“I…. I’m not…” Zemi stumbled back, struggling to come to grips with himself. Struggling and visibly losing — his fangs were more pronounced, face sharpening with vicious rage, his eyes alternating between fiery-brilliant and deathly-dark.
AsaHi’s voice was a quavering sound in SoYa’s ears, “What’s happening to Zemi?”
“The Chaos,” was all he could choke out, eyes wide as the darkness unfolded before him.