TsuYa knelt down at the edge of the stream, and splashed it over his face. He found that the Outterlands were more humid than the Inner Realms. Because it really didn’t suit his style to be sweaty all the time, it was nice to take a pause to rest and clean up.
Though they travelled hard for most of the day, the trail left by the flying ship eventually faded into the passage of time. With that final frustration hanging over their heads, they found a quiet place next to a stream where they could regroup and try to figure out what to do next.
Zazo seems to think there’s some way of getting in touch with Zemi, even way out here. I hope she does it soon. The longer this takes us, the further away Lucci is getting.
He shook his head out, white hair dripping in his face.
I sure hope the kid is okay, wherever he ends up.
Itching at a spot on one shoulder, TsuYa gave a grumble. It was another bug bite. They discovered that the insects that infested the humid forest areas near the beach were far more aggressive, and far larger, than the ones back home. Already, he had numerous itchy spots along his legs, though he had no idea how they managed to bite through his pants.
At least Aur knows something to make the sting go away. He seems to be a lot more resourceful out here, considering he was originally a giant lion.
TsuYa stripped off his coat, glad to be rid of the extra heat. He then worked down the buttons on his shirt, opening the collar with a sigh of relief. There was no getting around it anymore. The coat had to come off. It was just too hot there.
As he opened his shirt to inspect the bite on his shoulder, the warrior’s eyes flickered over his reflection in the water. What he saw there froze him to the core, a low, gasping breath choking its way from between his teeth. At first he wanted to write it off as a trick of light and shadow. But the longer he stared at the reflection, the more unwavering the image was.
No… I don’t believe it!
One hand lifted, fingers shaking, to touch his chest, under his shirt. He lived over the past year and a half with the small, irregular patch of grey skin. It showed no sign of change ever since Aur gave him the medallion to help contain the shadow. But now, as TsuYa stared down, he could see that the dark spot had grown, stretching across one side of his upper torso.
“No… no!” his face reflected down, panic-stricken. With a quick snap of his wrist, TsuYa clamped his shirt front closed.
It wasn’t like this just the other day! I know it wasn’t! How could it have spread so quickly?
With no thought for the pressing heat, he threw his coat back around his shoulders, as if covering it and covering it again could blot it out.
Think! Think! There has to be a reason for this!
His mind stopped functioning. There was nothing but the frightened drumming of his heartbeat. A frantic panting breath. His fists gripping the damp soil of the bank.
He didn’t know what to do. If he should tell someone or if he should keep it a secret. Everyone was pretty familiar with the Marked now and knew the dangers that the creatures brought. If they were to find out what was happening to him, that somehow, the seal was coming undone…
If I’m becoming one of the Marked, then, they have a right to…
TsuYa choked at the thought of the fate that he’d suffer. Still, he knew that he’d rather face death at the end of a companion’s blade than become something dark and terrible that would hunt down his own family and bring their destruction.
“TsuYa,” a quiet voice rumbled his name, like soft thunder.
The warrior felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as his body stiffened. A flicker of gold reflected from the surface of the trickling stream. There was little doubt who stood there, but more curiously was the reason why.
“Aur,” TsuYa didn’t turn around. One fist clutched the front of his coat, knuckles turning white and knotted.
Does Aur know? And if he does, what will he do to me?
Much to the warrior’s surprise, the tall man strode over and stooped, crouching next to him in silence. His golden eyes fixed on the motion of the water before them. Somewhere during their break from travel, the Watcher must have reverted to his normal form. For some reason, he seemed to prefer it to his animal shape.
When he finally spoke, his voice was low and solemn, “I wondered how long it would take before you realized.”
As the words sank in, it felt like the world was pressing down around his skull. From inside, a panicky fear bubbled up, threatening to find a way to release itself into the world. Aur knew. Aur knew before him, even.
And despite that, Aur didn’t do anything to me.
That single ripple of thought across the sea of crashing fears was enough for TsuYa to hold on to. A hope that maybe, though things looked bleak, there might be something left to do. Aur wouldn’t be wasting his time and energy sitting there if there was nothing left to say.
“That’s it,” the deep, golden voice told him. “Relax.”
Balling and unballing his fists, TsuYa realized that he had nothing but mud in his hands. With a scowl, he shook them out, and in an effort to stay poised, washed them in the cool of the running stream. Anything to keep him from looking the Watcher in the face.
“No one else knows yet. Your situation is safe with me.”
“Why?” TsuYa finally found words to say.
“Because. I made a promise to your father,” came the solid, straightforward answer.
“Oh. Yeah. And here I thought you had an overwhelming fondness for me,” the warrior intoned with a heavy sarcasm, shaking his hands to dry them.
There was silence for a moment. Then a reply, “I am concerned for you as well.”
TsuYa glanced over, chancing a look in the Watcher’s direction. That was a lot more than the warrior had given the creature credit for, and perhaps the first time that he heard Aur admit to having feelings for much of anything.
He leaned back, bracing himself for the big question. “So, what’s happening to me?”
Aur’s breath shifted into what sounded almost like a sigh, choosing his words with caution. His speech came slow and measured, “The seal I placed on you, through the medallion, is weakening.”
“Huuuh?” the sound came out on a rush of air as prickles of fear once again raced over TsuYa’s body. “What do you mean weakening? Why? Is it because we’ve moved outside of the Inner Realm? Is it because I’ve been away from the Islands for so long? Should I think about going back? Will that stop it from spreading more? Should I–”
“TsuYa,” the Watcher intoned in a gentle, patient voice.
That’s all it took to silence the young warrior’s verbal stream of thought.
“My protection over you works similar to the way the powers of the Arweinydd work,” Aur told him. “I can only have power if you allow me to. We both must want the same thing. In an essence, you must give me permission to keep the seal working. The moment your will changes, my protection fades.”
“But,” TsuYa’s face was completely baffled. “Do you really think I WANT to end up like the Marked? Of course I want your protection! Of course I want it sealed away!”
“No, I know you don’t desire to become the Marked,” Aur nodded slowly. “But in times of anger, it seems that you have desires that are stronger than your fear of falling to the shadows.”
The warrior fell silent, watching the shimmer of the water as it drifted past them. Finally, he shook his head, “I don’t understand.”
“It happened when you fought KoGuRai,” the Watcher stated simply.
“What about it?”
“Your desire to defeat him was stronger than your fear of the shadows,” Aur explained, lips pressed together with a serious look. “In order to hold your own against him, you tapped into the dormant Marked powers that lie within yourself. Every time you do that, my protection over you grows weaker. The medallion you wear takes physical damage, until the point that one day, it will break.”
TsuYa stared at the Watcher, the color draining out of his face.
“If you don’t believe me, look for yourself,” the golden-haired man motioned up with one hand.
Swallowing, TsuYa glanced down. With one hand, he carefully raised the medallion. For the first time, he noticed the small fissures of light, just tiny hair’s width, running along the surface of the pendant. Though it was hard to see, it was obvious that the magic contained within was under great pressure, and that it wouldn’t take much more to break it completely.
Aur must have noticed his hands shaking, for his voice was calming when he spoke next, “It’s not too late, TsuYa. The seal is still intact. I can recast the magics once we get back to the Inner Realms, and everything will be fine. But…”
TsuYa glanced up quickly. “But?”
“You cannot allow your anger and thirst to defeat your rival to drive you into reckless battles. You are destroying yourself in doing this,” the Watcher’s frown was grim. “You must get control over this before it takes control over you. Do you understand what I’m trying to say, TsuYa?”
“Good,” Aur pushed himself to his feet, peering down with a silent gaze. “I know you have a will that is far more powerful than you could imagine. You can overcome this. The choice is within your hands. One way or another, there are people here who are looking to you for guidance and leadership now that we are far from the Inner Realms.”
“I know,” he let out a long breath, feeling the weight of the words heavy on his shoulders.
“Oh, do you?” the Watcher crossed his arms. “Do you know that a leader cannot give away everything in the name of anger and vengeance, no matter what your enemy did in the past? These are the dark emotions that the shadows feast on. These are the things you must avoid.”
TsuYa just sat there with his mouth parted, hanging slightly open, peering at the golden-haired man.
Seeing that his words were met with silence, Aur inquired, “Am I wrong in saying this?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then what is the strange expression for?”
“I was just thinking that you’ve been hanging around Dad a little too much. You’re even starting to scold like him,” TsuYa’s eyebrows arched upwards.
The Watcher digested that statement. Then a slight smile traced along his lips. As if for just a moment, he had discovered the tail end of humor and irony.
After sitting and mulling for a short while, the warrior got to his feet and looked up. “So you think I can beat this?”
“I believe that you can do whatever you put your mind to doing, TsuYa. Such is the power of the Earthian peoples,” Aur responded.
Somehow, the words made TsuYa feel a little better. Just a little. “All I have to do is keep my cool, and get back to the Islands in one piece, then?”
“Alright, I can do that,” the warrior nodded slowly.
“Good, I’m glad to hear that,” Aur turned and began walking back through the forest. “Now, I am going to return to the ladies, as they were exchanging the most frightening glares as I was leaving. I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave them alone too long.”
“Yeah, I suppose not,” TsuYa frowned to himself. Then he tilted his head back at the sound of retreating footsteps, “Aur, wait.”
“Hrm?” golden eyes shifted to glance back at him.
“I just wanted to say thanks… for… being concerned. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have this chance in the first place. I know that. I didn’t thank you before now.”
“Oh?” Aur didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He simply nodded before turning and walking off, “You are always welcome.”
TsuYa sighed and glanced down at his reflection in the water one last time. Then he buttoned his shirt, closed the collar of his coat and fixed his hair before turning and heading back as well.