The voice echoed through the dark recesses of TsuYa’s mind, slicing the thick curtain that obscured his awareness. His body felt heavy, as if it was no longer his own.
-TsuYa,open your eyes!-
The voice prodded him again, a dull pulse within his internal ear. Every instinct shied away from it, fearing to answer… to move… to be discovered.
Zerom…no! I won’t!
-Oh, come on. Give me a break!-
Instantly, something responded in surprise, a jolt strong enough to bring him around.
-Are you going to just lay there and give up?-
TsuYa’s eyes flipped open, a dull ache thrumming in his chest. Lying on his back, he could see the sharp-nosed she-wolf standing over him, her muzzle only inches away from his face.
-That’s better. Get up. We’ve got places to go.-
The Apprentice coughed, choking up something thick in his throat as he attempted to talk. It tasted like rotten meat, but there was little he could do to clear his mouth of the sensation.
-Don’t waste your energy. We’ve got a long road ahead. I managed to pull you out of it… but I can only hold Zerom off for so long.-
What… do you mean? What happened to me?
Zazo tilted her head, tongue lolling out. -Let’s just say you owe me.-
Owe you? For what?
TsuYa gave her a sharp frown, struggling to gather strength enough to get to his feet. But much to his dismay, he could hardly force himself up to a crouch.
-As I said, don’t waste your energy.- Zazo chided.
-He’s gone, and a lot safer than you are.-
That’s right… he took LuShi…
-I still think it’s a BAD idea to leave that thing alive. But do what you will. Things are sticky enough up top without me crossing Zemi, too.-
For the first time, TsuYa realized that the ground under him was still unsteady, shaking and rolling under powerful impressions. Outside the great arch, he could see flashes of lightning in the icy sky. In his mind he could feel the tumult of Chaos that rippled over the land.
They are fighting?
-I’m not sure.- Zazo replied. -It’s probably none of our business. The only thing I do know is that you have to get out of here. You don’t have a lot of time before my wardings on you wear off. And then…-
TsuYa nodded in weak comprehension. Again, he struggled to find the strength to push himself to his feet. And again, he was denied.
-Pathetic Earthian. Do I have to do everything for you?- Zazo snuffed, tail flipping back and forth as if she actually was enjoying herself.
I didn’t ask you to do anything.
-No. You didn’t. I’m not giving you a choice.- The huge wolf crouched next to him, eyes flickering as she moved closer.
What do you think you’re doing?
-Carrying you out of here.-
You gotta be kidding me!
-Stop arguing with me! Just grab on!-
Grab on to wha…
Before TsuYa knew what was happening, his fingers had entwined in thick, silvery fur. Something about it felt unreal, as if the true nature of fur itself was not completely known to its maker. Yet it was solid enough for him to grasp, and he found himself lifted up astride the she-wolf’s sleek back.
A strangled sound escaped his lips as he felt Zazo’s great bounds taking them out into the frozen streets of Nefol. Afterall, he never actually touched an Arweinydd before this, much less ridden on one. TsuYa leaned forward on instinct, flattened long over the she-wolf’s back, his knees pressed into her sides, fighting to hold his balance.
If any of Father’s riding skills ever got passed down to me, please let them show up right now!
Though no streams of breath came from her mouth and no paw prints were left in the cold soil, Zazo certainly felt just as solid as any real creature would. Still, TsuYa could see flickers of the blurring ground through her shape now and again. It was such an unsettling thought that the Apprentice decided to simply shove it to the back of his mind.
-Keeping your mouth shut for once?- Zazo’s voice filled his mind, chiding.
TsuYa gave no answer. He simply grimaced, dark eyes squinting ahead into the streets. All of his concentration was bent on using what strength he had left to cling tightly to the Arweinydd as they sped over cobblestone and past the hollow, empty-shelled buildings of the city.
-Get ready. They’re coming.-
The warning came just a split moment before he heard it. The terrible, inhuman screech of the Marked shattered the air from every direction. Clinging tighter to the scruff of the she-wolf’s neck, TsuYa cast his eyes upwards.
Dripping shadows emerged from the narrow side roads. The Marked were everywhere. Within the buildings. Along the street. And blocking the wide stone exit gate.
What do we do?
Panic flooded through the Apprentice, his breaths coming in frantic gasps. The sky above was growing darker by the minute, casting the streets of Nefol into premature twilight. The clouds split with fierce tongues of violet lightning. One bolt struck a building just a few streets over, sending a spray of stone through the air.
-You got your weapon still?-
TsuYa flicked his eyes back over his shoulder where the weight of his scythe hung.
-Then you better get ready to use it.-
What? I’ve never fought cavalry style!
-Figure out how… real fast.-
No more words were exchanged. The she-wolf simply flung herself forward in a stiff-legged twist. TsuYa felt the world churn around him. His knees pressed sharply into her sides in a desperate attempt to stay mounted.
The intensity of the screeches shattered the air. His eyes could make out the dim shapes closing in from the darkness. With a quick hiss, TsuYa drew the sickle-blade from its clasp on his back, both hands gripping the haft.
He found himself suddenly moving. Twisting along with the wolf, he was carried forward in great, measured leaps. Somehow, he managed to stay astride, weapon gleaming in the dull light.
With a howling snarl of his own, TsuYa swung into the onslaught. All of his concentration was bent on motion, reaction and pure survival. He could sense more than see the Marked as they came. They filled his mind with pressing stench and groping decay from every side.
Yet he was unafraid. An internal calmness carried him, guiding his swings and holding his balance. The she-wolf continued to bank and bound, never once breaking stride.
The ground gave a vast heave underneath them. The earth groaned and jolted them up through the air. The Marked also felt the impact, scattered across the stones of the street. It was what they needed to break away from the groping darkness.
Zazo’s strides were like flight as she dodged past the Marked that were struggling to regain their feet. Her nose pointed straight for the open gate. Leaning down over the she-wolf’s neck for speed, TsuYa held fast.
Come on… come on… come on…
The earth rolled beneath them again. Just as aptly as the first time, Zazo used the jolt as leverage for her own bounding strides. They passed through the gates of Nefol like a silver-tinged arrow, speeding into the unnatural night.
One glance over TsuYa’s shoulder filled him with a sudden sense of sorrow. Behind him, steeped in darkness, lay Nefol, his childhood home. The very stones of the city groaned, splitting and buckling in torrents of grey. The shadows of death shrieked, filling the air with wraithlike lament as the Spire began to tilt. The sky lit in patterns of fury, lightning ripping through the heavens, striking time and again at the earth below.
Then, the vision was gone, lost behind the curve of the dark hillside as the she-wolf carried him away.