Book 3 Chapter 1

The Marked shriek echoed fleetingly from the cliff side, then broke off into a gurgle as cold steel constricted around its throat. ZenToYa twisted the two ends of the Bhinod’s chain between both fists, ripping the creature off the ground in black-foamed convulsions. The warrior’s face was shadowed and haunted as he completed the deed, taking no pleasure in the mercy killing. The Marked were, from his understanding, once one of his own, a resident of Nefol.

A student. Teacher. Warrior. Future resident prospect, perhaps. Someone he had bitterly failed to protect, now twisted by the dark claws of Chaos into a form forced to mindlessly kill and destroy.

The only way he could make amends was by severing the hold of the dark Arweinydd. So far, death was the one release. With each Marked he destroyed, his conscience grew heavier, a choking weight born in silence. Something Zento knew he had to find the strength to endure.

If things continue down this path, it will only get harder.

War now shattered his home, spreading from Nefol across all the Inner Realms. The mainland was no longer safe for people and creatures alike, transformed as the shadow of Chaos spread over the land like a virus. The more that Zeromus fed on the life force of the living, the stronger he became.

It’s all we can do to find the remaining Clans and lead them to Ceiswyr.

The skies were no less dangerous as the beasts of Zeromus now took to the air as the black-winged Esgyll, a mocking imitation of Zemi’s Dragonkin. As more Chaos shadows swept through the clouds, they all knew it was a matter of time before Ceiswyr would be challenged to battle.

“Zento,” Kudako’s quiet voice murmured next to his ear. “You appear preoccupied.”

“Huh?” the winged warrior blinked, pulled from his thoughts.

The Dragon motioned down with one hand, indicating the slumped body of the Marked still dripping from the curve of Zento’s chain.

“Oh, right,” the man gave a grimace and released the chain, dropping the creature with a splatter on the forest floor. Instantly, it puddled away into oily darkness, whatever left of the once-living body no longer held together by Chaos’ corrupting power.

The Light take you, poor soul.

“Are you certain you are up to this hunt?” Kudako inquired, a flicker of concern wrinkling his brow as he observed his old friend.

Zento’s first thought was to wave him off. After all, it had been so long since the Dragon visited Ceiswyr, and it was good to get some battle practice while ensuring what passed for roads remained clear for refugees. Kudako could sense the truth, though.

“You know what,” the winged warrior cleaned the grime from his weapon with a Marked-proofed cloth. “You’re right. There’s not much good in wasting time picking off stragglers with the Assembly coming tonight.”

Kudako grunted.

“Don’t want to smell of Marked for the ladies,” Zento added, striking his imitation heroic pose.

Kudako just grunted again, unimpressed.

“Tough crowd today.”

“The Assembly troubles you,” the Dragon noted, dropping down from the stone alcove, graceful beyond his years.

Zento sighed and followed, ignoring the jarring feeling as his feet hit the ground below. He was getting too old for this.

“It does.”

“A little,” he admitted.

“A little?” Kudako’s gold eyes flickered over his direction. “ZenToYa, understatements do not suit you.”

“Okay, maybe a little a lot,” the winged man frowned. “But what can I do about it? Zemi’s made up his mind to involve the Sygnus. I’ve talked to him about this LuShi thing until I was blue in the face. Not that he ever listens to me.”

“Ah, so it is the Boy-Sygnus that concerns you,” Kudako picked his way over the stones towards the rift gate that would take them back up to the floating islands. On a clear day, you could see the earthy under-stone of Ceiswyr from the ground. But today, the clouds were thick, obscuring both sun and sky.

Zento’s nostrils flared for a moment, but he schooled his response, “Doesn’t he concern you, too?”

“Maybe. But the future remains unwritten,” the Dragon answered.

“The past has plenty to say about the dangers of the Sygni,” he almost stubbed his toe as he paid more attention to his words than the path ahead. Regaining his balance, Zento continued, “So much of it’s lost to us.”

“Exactly why it should be heeded with care.”

“But everything Aur says… and all the ancient tales… it’s nothing but destruction in the Sygnus’ shadow,” Zento let out a breath as the first light of the rift began to transform the silent stonework. “They were called the Dark Stars, you know. Earthians who bore the burden of the Arweinydd’s power. It was too much for them, their minds broke and…”

“I am aware of the old stories,” Kudako interrupted him with a single motion.

“You aren’t taking them seriously, either,” the winged man frowned.

“ZenToYa. When do I not take things seriously?” the Dragon mused in a droll tone.

The man huffed and kicked at a loose stone like a discontent child. He didn’t make a move to enter the rift light. His companion didn’t either.

“So you’re agreeing with Zemi. Is that what this is?” Zento finally turned to address the Dragon, fixing him with an unwavering gaze. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Staring into the silent golden eyes took a lot of gumption, even as long as they’d known each other.

“There was a time when your people would have felt the same about me, an Annihilator,” Kudako told him without hesitation. “Zemi gave me a chance to become something more than what the world told me I should be. Perhaps the same is true of this boy.”

“This is different,” Zento objected.

“How so?”

“It just is,” he scowled at being pressed to explain something so obvious. “He’s hardly a boy anymore, Kudako. We found him… what… a turn and a half ago? He was just a child then, but he’s aging fast. It’s just unnatural. We’re going to have a full-grown Sygnus on our hands in another half a turn. Maybe sooner.

“It may be the truth of his kind,” Kudako suggested, tapping his staff against his boot heel. A subconscious motion that meant he was uncomfortable about something, but hiding it.

“His kind?” Zento’s mouth pressed into a firm line. “His kind is something that Zeromus created. A weapon of war. I’ll tell you why he’s aging so quickly. Because a child Sygnus is no use to Zeromus in this war. He needs the power of an adult.”

Kudako grunted.

“For all we know, Zeromus meant for us to find him, take pity on him and bring him here. He looks enough like us…”

“Now you are being daft,” the Dragon muttered.

“We bring him up to Ceiswyr. Zeromus ignites him upon us like a fireball!” Zento spread his hands in the show of explosion.

“That is quite enough,” Kudako snorted through his nose and walked towards the waiting rift.

“I’m being serious!” the winged man bit back his frustration. “No one’s listening to me. But when this all falls apart, it’s going to be innocent people who are hurt! I’m the one that they’re looking to for leadership, but my thoughts hold no weight!”

“Zento,” the Dragon paused, turning back over his shoulder, “You must be afraid.”

The Champion wanted to deny it. But he couldn’t. He just swallowed down the lump in his throat in silence.

“It is not like you to believe the worst in someone,” Kudako continued. “That has never been your way or your philosophy.”

“No… I know,” he didn’t have an excuse for why he felt the way he did. He knew that more often than not, he steeled himself away from caring about LuShi, even though the truth was, the Sygnus was really still a child in spirit.

“I understand that you are trying to do what is best for your people. But you are not alone in leading Ceiswyr anymore,” the level voice of his old teacher told him. “You worry so much about how Chaos will use the Boy-Sygnus against us. Be more concerned about how Chaos might turn your heart cold against someone who needs your guidance.”

Zento closed his mouth with a click, unable to find a response. He gave two slow, abashed blinks as the Dragon turned and became obscured in the riftlight that carried him skyward.