“Where did Mister Kudako go?” AsaHi questioned, taking note of twilight’s arrival.
“To change,” Zento answered plainly.
“It takes him that long to change?” the girl asked in an incredulous tone.
And SoYa thinks I’m bad?
The winged man didn’t answer. His expression was lost to his own rising worries, as he had been for the past day. Now the night was coming, the sky casting a soft rose glow over the land and causing the tops of the indigo leaves to reflect in twilight.
Kudako scouted out a safe resting place for SoYa. AsaHi and Zento spent the day tending to the Apprentice in hopes that it would be enough for him to gain the strength he needed to continue with them.
He’s staying awake longer, now. But he still seems so sick.
Though SoYa’s fever broke over the night, his awareness seemed to edge in and out of sleep through the day. Every now and then, the Apprentice would add a sudden splurt of commentary to their sparse conversation.
I wonder if he knows that Zento and Kudako are going to have to leave us behind? I wonder if it would bother him.
AsaHi didn’t know where the warriors were planning to go next. After a while of swimming in the silence, she told Zento so.
“The Spiral,” he answered. As if that told everything.
The girl frowned, “That doesn’t help much.”
“Truth is, I really don’t know much about the Spiral,” Zento peered over at her. He was stripping the bark from a victimized stick that he discovered next to the woodpile. “We all need to trust in Kudako.”
“Because Kudako came from the Outterlands?”
“Yeah. He came from the Spiral,” Zento nodded slowly. “He doesn’t talk about it a whole lot. But, it’s the place he grew up and where he was trained to be an Annihilator.”
“No wonder. I wouldn’t want to talk about it either,” AsaHi shivered. “Is there a reason they call it the ‘Spiral’?”
“Kudako says it has to do with the way the people here set up their defenses,” the winged man began to draw a slow spiral in the dirt with the stick.
AsaHi watched him, curiosity reflecting on her face. She could see that SoYa was awake again. He was watching Zento, too.
The stick scratched a number of little “x”s along the outer rim of the spiral. Once this was done, he began to explain, “They build all of their outposts in a circular manner like this, in layers. That way they can protect the domestic settlements in the center.”
“That’s a good idea,” AsaHi admitted. She wasn’t one for understanding tactics. But it made enough sense to her.
“For them, yes. For us, no,” Zento murmured, poking the stick at the center of the spiral. “Because the thing we’re looking for is right here.”
SoYa shuddered, “You mean, you’re going all the way into the middle of an enemy nation?”
“That’s right,” the winged man leaned back, looking down at his sketch. He began to scratch through it with the tip of his stick, as if it might help breech the defenses that the warrior would face.
“Let’s just say… Kudako and Zemi both agree that there’s something pretty important there.”
“Something that will heal Tsu?” SoYa perked up a little, eyes watering.
“Maybe. It’s not a promise,” Zento frowned, scratching his chin between his thumb and forefinger.
AsaHi watched the warrior as his words trailed away. His face clouded with thought, showing his mind was going off in some other direction. The girl pulled him back on track, “Do you know what it is?”
“Well…” Zento shook himself out and continued, “Zemi says that long ago, the people of the Spiral were approached by a strange being of light… that may still remain there. Kudako seems to have evidence to back up this idea.”
“That’s right,” SoYa slurred slightly, trying to force his mouth to work along with his thoughts. “Kudako mentioned something about the creature that came from before the Fall of Time. That it appeared to the people of the Outterlands.”
AsaHi swallowed. “Does he think the creature might be guarding something that can help Tsu?”
They can’t expect to be able to fight something that powerful, can they?
“That’s what we’re going to find out, I suppose,” the warrior stretched his arms over his head with a low groan.
As if in reply to the sound, the forest gave a deep rumble. The vast vibration traveled over the ground like the din of an irritated thunderstorm brewing on the horizon. Except it was close. Real close.
“What!?” SoYa’s head jerked up, his eyes now fully open, jolted into waking.
AsaHi found her fingers clasping on the blanket that was wrapped around the Apprentice’s shoulders. Whether she was reaching to him in order to ask or give protection, she didn’t know. Her voice quavered, “Zento!”
The winged man was already on his feet. But to her surprise, his manner was relaxed and unassuming as he turned to face the forest. His voice teased, “Took long enough. Must be old age getting to you.”
“Wha…what..?” SoYa’s voice quavered.
“Relax, kids. It’s only ‘Dako.” Zento peered back over his shoulder with a droll expression. He added a quick explanation, “He’s taken his Dragon form.”
Both SoYa and AsaHi froze. The Apprentice managed to speak first, “Dragon… form?”
“That’s right,” Zento chuckled. “Kudako is a Servant of Zemi. He is a Dragon, you know?”
“Oh…” SoYa swallowed, eyes fixed nervously on the sounds of the forest.
AsaHi’s cheeks colored at Zento’s comment. She felt a little dumb — it had never occurred to her that Kudako had more than just the fin-ears and strange golden eyes.
I suppose it makes sense. Zemi changes forms, too.
“An odd sort of Dragon,” Zento murmured. “But that’s a whole ‘nother story.”
“I should not come out,” the rumble in the forest suddenly formed words. It sounded a lot like Kudako. Only bigger.
“They’ll have to deal with it sooner or later, ‘Dako,” the winged man waved a hand, beckoning toward the forest.
A deep grumble shook through the treeline, “Fine. But you get to deal with the hysterics.”
What does he mean?
Zento simply chuckled again.
I’ve seen Dragons before. Why would Kudako think I’d be afraid of him?
But as the branches trembled and parted, AsaHi could instantly see that this was not at all like the Dragons she had seen back at the Cleft. The creature was a mish-mash of Dragon and person, all mixed up in a crazy jigsaw conglomeration.
“Uh..!” AsaHi breathed the sound out through her mouth.
Her first reaction was to jerk back. Afterall, a Dragon was a Dragon, animal-like in its appearance, solid in its inhumanity. This creature was neither man nor Dragon, and something about this was greatly disarming.
The creature was large, nearly twice the size in height and mass that Kudako, and Kudako always stood very tall over everyone. The face was eerily familiar and plainly Kudako’s, striped with the markings of a Dragon. His blue hair had grown wild, held back by a steel plate across his forehead. His fin-ears had grown longer, more pointed, more pronounced.
At first glance, AsaHi thought that his body was covered by some strange sort of plated armor. Looking closer, she realized that the armor was actually embedded into the flesh itself, covering Kudako as Dragon’s scales would. Thin fleshy tendrils spread from a star-shaped area in the center of his chest. They roped over his shoulders and arms and re-connected at the point that two powerful wings spread from his back.
Though he stood upright on two legs, his lower half looked all Dragon. Feet were now claws. Legs were now jointed haunches. A long, winding tail curled behind him, completing the unsettling image.
AsaHi peered over at Zento, her words rushing out in a breathless gasp, “You said he left to change–”
“I think you can call this a change, yes?” the winged man winked at her, amused with himself.
“You didn’t say anything about changing into a Dragon!” the girl covered her mouth, realizing she was probably being rude to Kudako.
“Hedd-ynad…” was all SoYa could manage. His expression was more of shock than real fear.
The Dragon remained detached from the camp, watching the three of them with sharp golden eyes. Finally, he murmured, “Odd.”
“Odd?” AsaHi forced the word out, trying not to squeak. Though Kudako’s Dragon form was not what she expected, it was not really that terrible to look at. Not after she had a minute or two to adjust.
“Yes,” Kudako’s tone was low, as if he knew his voice had much more volume than before. “People are usually afraid of the Dragon.”
‘The Dragon.’ The way he said it was disowning. Though he didn’t seem distressed by his transformation, AsaHi could tell that ‘The Dragon’ was not his form of choice.
“It’s not so bad,” the girl tried to sound encouraging.
Kudako did not seem to hear. He gave Zento an inquiring look, “How can it be that the Dragon’s fear aura takes no effect with them?”
AsaHi fell quiet. The conversation had just flown directly over her head.
Zento shrugged, “Athrylith and Drei’distau. What’s so hard to understand?”
“Ah,” the Dragon murmured thoughtfully. “That is true.”
AsaHi peered at SoYa. She could only take comfort in the thought that the Apprentice looked just as lost as she did.
“But why? Why the Dragon form now?” SoYa asked.
“Because, we’re going into the Spiral.” Zento grinned his way into the conversation, “There’s no point in hacking your way through outpost after outpost when you can simply fly over them!”
AsaHi’s mouth grew round. For just that moment, ZenToYa seemed like the most clever man in the world. But she would never tell him that…
“I see,” she said quietly. Then she peered at Kudako, trying to figure out how to phrase her curiosity in a way that it would not cause hurt feelings. “Master Kudako, can I ask a question?”
“If it pleases you, yes,” the Dragon began to move closer towards the camp. His pace was slow, as if not to cause alarm.
“Why do you…” AsaHi winced, “Look… so different from the other Dragons?”
SoYa hissed a warning breath, even though he really wanted to know, too.
The Dragon, however, didn’t seem bothered by the question, “Mmm… you really wish to hear?”
AsaHi nodded quietly.
“As you know, long ago I served as an Annihilator. I held no mercy for man, woman or child,” Kudako’s voice rose in a distant cadence. For a moment, he was not all that different from the Kudako that they knew. “And because of those things, I now serve as a Flawed beast. I can never be fully Dragon. Never fully man. You can now see the full effects of my curse.”
AsaHi wrung her hands, a sudden welling of pity in her heart. For as aloof and serious as Kudako was, he had never truly been unkind to her. “Zemi… has done this to you?”
“Do not speak of it as an accusation,” the Dragon’s gaze fell upon her.
His words were not harsh, but she still shrank back a little.
“If I had been given the justice I deserved, I would have been tormented a thousand deaths – the same as I caused as the Annihilator,” he gave a soft sound, what might have been a sigh. “Lord Zemi gave me this form, yes. It is a form that demands my repentance. But it is also a form that presents me with a second chance. It is far more than a creature like me deserves.”
With that, AsaHi knew his narrative was over. The silence closed in around him, as it always did, a wall between the Dragon and the rest of the world.