“So, what’s got your scales out of whack, ‘Dako?” Zento’s eyes flicked over to where the Dragon was crouching upon a low-rising spike of stone.
A gruff sound was the only reply.
“Don’t give me that,” he fanned his wings, undeterred. The flight felt good even if the company wasn’t as enthusiastic. “Something’s going on in that head of yours.”
Fess up. I know.
When Kudako didn’t acknowledge his words, Zento knew he was right. The Dragon remained silent, the alien-featured face studying the small outpost that lay in the forest at the foot of the mountain. Though their scouting mission had not broken beyond the outer rim of the Spiral yet, Kudako’s demeanor became more and more restless.
He’s not as good at hiding things in this form.
An agitated twitch of tail. The angle his fin-ears tilted. The animal reflexes spoke intensity of emotion that was strange to see in the stoic warrior.
Even after knowing him so long, he gets you fooled into believing there’s not much feeling behind those eyes. The Dragon sure brings it out.
Kudako claimed that he didn’t like the Dragon-form simply because it didn’t fight as balanced as his man-form did. Zento was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t for other reasons as well.
“You see those banners?” the Dragon finally muttered. There was something dark about his tone. If the indicated banners had been within reach, no doubt they would have been shredded.
Zento squinted down at the outpost, eyes making out nothing more than a hazy blur where leaves ended and structures began. It occurred to him that Dragon eyesight was probably far superior to his own.
“Sure,” the winged man lied. “What about them?”
Though he couldn’t see the flags as far away as they were, Zento had a pretty good idea of what Kudako was pointing out. They scouted past a number of outposts within the last round of their flight, and most of the settlements were decorated with intricate war banners.
“Every outpost has the same banner.”
Zento pondered that thought, “Yes. I do believe you’re right.”
What is he getting at?
Sensing Zento’s lack of insight on the situation, the Dragon turned his head. Gold eyes flashed sharply, “It’s not supposed to be that way.”
“What’s wrong with a little yard décor, ‘Dako?” He knew it wasn’t smart to poke fun. Still, experience had long since shown that irritation was the easiest way to get Kudako to spill the truth.
The flick of the Dragon’s tail indicated that Zento was succeeding in one of the two goals.
“Maybe a floral design would be better? It would go with the pink trees around here.”
“Zento,” there was a warning in Kudako’s voice.
“What? I think more war outposts should use flowers as a mascot,” he smirked. “Shows that they’re comfortable in their battle prowess, eh?”
A deep, Dragony sigh. Then, “You do this on purpose.”
“Absolutely,” Zento chuckled good naturedly. “That’s why you keep me around.”
“Debatable,” Kudako gazed back out over the forest below. So much intensity, his was body strung so tight that he could have been an etched part of the mountain side.
“So spill it,” Zento grew less chiding. More concerned. “I’m waiting.”
“The design on the banner belongs to a clan that should not be here,” the Dragon grimaced, fangs showing in disgust, “They were a family of honor-less warriors that deserved all ties cut from the Spiral centuries ago. Last I knew, the clan had dwindled to less than twenty in number. There was a very good reason why this line should have gone extinct.”
Claws dug into the stone of the mountainside causing a downpour of stone and dust to rain down the steep face. There was anger there. A lot of it.
Wow… I’ve never heard Kudako talk like that before.
“Something tells me they’re not on your good list,” Zento noted.
“Perceptive of you,” the tone was frighteningly flat. No humor. No emotion. An underlying note of restrained vengeance.
The winged man fell silent. There was curiosity on one side and a gnawing dread on the other. So his next question chose to explore neither path, “If this clan is so few in number, then how come their banner is at every outpost we’ve passed today?”
Zento’s own words rebounded back to him from the mountain’s stone. Suddenly he realized exactly what was troubling his companion.
A clan so few in number… yet by the look of things, it has come to dominate the entire Spiral.
Within the grim silence, the wind began to blow. It cast through the wild blue streams of the Dragon’s hair, but it did not ruffle his wings.
Something’s just not right with that…
When Kudako spoke again, it was measured. Deliberate. “Long ago, the clans of the Spiral were fiercely independent. A dominating clan was not something accepted.”
“So why is it acceptable now?” the warrior asked with a slow frown.
“Everything changed when the Lion appeared.”
“Lion?” Zento echoed with interest.
“I did not know what was really going on as I grew up. Of course, I could not know. I had never spoken with Lord Zemi,” Kudako seemed to be half musing with himself. “It is only now that I look back and recognize the Lion as One that existed before the Fall of Time.”
The winged man scratched his chin, “Yes, you’ve talked about this creature before. So it has a form?”
“The people of the forests call it a Lion. That is what it resembles. But, what it is really is, no one knows.”
“This is the same creature that sent his warriors to hunt down my people, correct?” Zento furrowed his brow, trying to play connect the dots.
“Yes… and no,” Kudako answered, messing up the pattern.
“Make up your mind.”
“It is hard to explain,” the Dragon pursed his lips. The tail was twitching again. “The Lion appeared in a fantastic display of power, impressing my people. It gave us a warning against the nation of the north realms, the ones who were protected by the Dragons.”
“Because of this, the scattered people of the forest came together. The independent clans united and were given instructions by the Lion to create the structure now known as the Spiral.” Kudako drew a circular motion in the air with one finger. “But it was the people who decided to begin training for war.”
“So what are you saying?” Zento’s voice was low. Grave.
‘Dako, buddy, when you keep secrets, you keep them big.
“The Lion merely brought the warning about the people who were associating with Lord Zemi. It said that Lord Zemi was increasing in his influence, and this could be a danger to our lands,” the Dragon began biting off the words. “But it was the nations of the Outterlands that chose to hunt down your people in a senseless bloodbath. It was the people of my clan who chose to train their children to become Annihilators.”
“I see. So the Lion had nothing to do with organizing the war against my people. It simply brought the news of Zemi’s involvement?” Something big to think about, for sure. “But this Lion… it still remains in the Spiral?”
“That is part of the reason that Lord Zemi has sent us here.”
Zento stated sharply, “The reason we are here is because of my son.”
“Maybe,” Kudako’s voice grew firm. “Or it just so happened that your agenda and Lord Zemi’s have run alongside each other. One way or another, we would have come here, Zento.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” his head snapped around, green eyes narrowing.
“I am not at liberty to discuss that.” Offhand. A dismissal.
Zento scowled, “Don’t just brush me off like that, ‘Dako. Zemi’s up to something, isn’t he?”
“I am not at liberty to discuss that.”
The winged man grimaced in frustration. When Kudako went tight-lipped, there was nothing more to be done for it.
“Zento,” Kudako’s voice was level, offering some form of consolation. “There are things in motion that you and I cannot begin to understand. The Arweinydd nowwalk the earth. The flow of Chaos is strong in our world. It is only a matter of time before something will have to bend.”
Letting out a long, shivering breath, Zento peered at his companion.
“I do not know the mind of the Arweinydd,” the Dragon continued. “I am merely a Servant to his plans. However, I believe that Lord Zemi cares for the people of Ceiswyr. I believe he will do whatever he has to in order to protect them. I believe that the people in the Outterlands have proven vicious enough to warrant us to be here today.”
“Maybe so,” Zento sucked on his bottom lip. “Though I don’t understand what he expects us to do here and how this is supposed to help cure Tsu.”
“I do not fully understand either. I trust Lord Zemi will tell us what we need to know when we get there,” he said. “We are the only ones he could send to do something like this. You know that, yes?”
Kudako nodded. Then he added quietly, “Lord Zemi cares about your son. I do not think he will abandon him.”
The winged man let out a long sigh, “I guess so. It just sucks when Zemi starts lining all these things up without telling us. You’d think by now he’d know he can trust us.”
“I do not think it has to do with trust or the lack thereof,” Kudako shook his head. “I do not think even Lord Zemi can predict what is on the horizon. We all play life by ear.”
Kudako’s gaze had left the outpost in the forest below. Gold eyes scanned the sky in the distance. The direction that the two had flown in from earlier.
Zento found himself turning to follow the gaze, a slow tension creeping through his limbs. Two dark, winged shapes were making their way towards the Cleft, outlined in a hazy wash against the cloudbanks.
Kudako’s voice only confirmed what he already knew. “Dragons…”