Time: 8 Moons Ago
KoGuRai couldn’t feel his hands anymore. Everything from his shoulders upward was numb from hanging, shackled by the wrists for endless hours. Hunger gnawed him from the inside and exhaustion drooped his head, his long white hair streaming in front of his face. Though his senses were dull, and his head pounded fiercely, he could still feel the presence of someone entering the room.
She returned to torment him, but he hardly cared anymore. Part of him just wished for it all to come to an end. Even death would be a kinder release.
The Ghost Clan won’t let me die. Something about a grudge against my family line.
Not that the whole Ghost Clan thing made much sense to him. They were once nothing more than back-woods stories his father, JinRai, used to tell around the campfire. Those days, things were more simple and concrete. People that you thought you knew didn’t turn out to be vengeful spirits of the past.
Ugly ones, at that.
The room felt chilled as XaNi approached, bathed in a pale, ghostly light. From behind his curtain of hair, KoGuRai could see the blue glowing veins that traced under her skin, vanishing under the close-fitting leather armor. He didn’t dare look into her face, which now had a skull-like appearance, as if flesh was withering away with time.
Like those Marked things, maybe.
Unlike the Marked beasts, XaNi was very much in control of her vicious, hungry, actions. She reveled in his pain and bathed in his terror, searching for ways to push him beyond his threshold without killing him. When he stopped responding, she appeared all the more enthralled.
“Did you miss me, KoGuRai?” she drew near and whispered in his ear. Her scent nearly made him gag.
She lifted one blue-ghost finger and traced it across KoGuRai’s bare torso. He could feel his flesh curdle and scar under her burning touch. Though he fought to remain stoic, his body flinched and jerked wildly in reflex.
He choked back the whimper that tried to force between his lips.
XaNi’s voice was cold and lifeless, like her touch. “I never thought I’d see the day that a Rai would run like a coward.”
“I didn’t run,” he rattled from between clenched teeth.
“Oh? Then what did you call your little escapade?” she laughed hollowly. “A noble sacrifice, leading the people from the city? Too bad we could track you for miles. You have nothing of your father’s sensibilities in you.”
KoGuRai steeled his face, knowing that defending himself, even with words, was exactly what XaNi wanted. Still, it was so hard to hold his silence.
I wasn’t running. I was leading the people away…
He’d done a lot of things in his life that he wasn’t proud of. KoGuRai would be the first person to admit to his failures. This, however, was different. This time, he really did try to help people escape the darkness invading Nefol.
Maybe it was because of his mother’s influence. She always brought out the best in him. Then again, she always seemed to understand him, far better than his father ever did. So when KoGuRai tried to evacuate her from the city, and she told him that they should help other people do the same, that’s what he did.
It ended just the way XaNi said, however. The Marked hunted them down. Rounded them up. Dragged them back to Nefol. KoGuRai tried to fight them off to the best of his ability.
There’s not a lot you can do against things ten times your strength and speed.
He didn’t know what became of the others who were with him. His mother. His neighbors. The little family that used to run the shop down the street. The girl he once dated when he was hardly two decade-turns old. Taken by the Marked. All of them.
But, they brought me here. Taking and keeping prisoners doesn’t seem like their style. I wonder why me?
A dark voice suddenly rang throughout the chamber, echoing within his mind simultaneously, -Because I have a proposition for you, KoGuRai.-
XaNi stiffened and stepped away from him, turning with a look of mild surprise. KoGuRai fought to lift his head, shoulders aching and burning with the motion. At the far end of the room, a shifting shadow loomed, filling the corner with a void that rivaled midnight. Though he squinted in attempt to make sense of what his blurry sight told him, the shape continued to escape his eyes.
“Lord Zerom,” XaNi murmured, lowering her head ever so slightly, the most respect she allowed herself to offer.
The shadow remained where it was, not acknowledging her in return. KoGuRai could feel all of the immense attention focused on him, despite the fact he could hardly move his head.
“What kind of proposition?” he asked, trying not to let his voice creak.
-You muse about seeking your end. Such a waste,- came an answer that was not an answer.
KoGuRai didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure where this was going, but it probably wouldn’t be good.
-It’s whispered that you’ve come from a long line of legendary warriors. The Rai people are known for their ferocity and strength.-
XaNi made an indelicate sound under her breath.
Still, KoGuRai didn’t answer. If this Zerom thought he was a warrior like JinRai, he was greatly mistaken. However, the less the shadow knew, the better.
-You don’t have to die here,- it informed him. –I don’t believe that’s what you want. It’s not what I want, either.-
“But..!” XaNi began to protest. “You told me that I could have–”
“No, of course not.” KoGuRai answered. Seeing the woman’s displeasure at the sudden turn of conversation, he decided to play along with the shadow. Anything that annoyed the Ghost Clan was a win for him at this point.
-You’re obviously a man of deep ambition.-
Zerom’s tone was warm and buttery. KoGuRai recognized it instantly, as he used the tone many times himself when cajoling to get his own way. Though warnings sounded in his mind, he found that he couldn’t stop listening.
-You had big dreams for the leadership of Nefol, didn’t you?-
“Yeah, but those are pretty moot now,” KoGuRai responded.
-It doesn’t have to be this way,- came the quick response.
“Then, why is it?”
-I’m lacking one key thing. A Champion,- Zerom told him.
KoGuRai mulled the answer in his head, taken by surprise. When he spoke, it was slowly and with hesitation, like walking across thin ice. “Champion? You mean like ZenToYa?”
XaNi’s face grew pale. She obviously didn’t like what she was hearing.
A feeling of approval came from the shadow, -So, you do understand the Arweinydd and Champion dynamics. Good.-
“Not completely,” KoGuRai admitted. That was the boring part of history. The one he slept through. All he knew was Zento was Zemi’s Champion, and that made him somehow more important than his own father, JinRai.
-Things are out of balance because I have no Champion,- the explanation was more patient than KoGuRai expected. –However, that is something we can remedy.-
Before he could open his mouth to respond, XaNi blustered forward with a heated look. The blue Ghost-light burned around her in fury as she faced the dark Arweinydd.
“This is not what we agreed!” she argued. “You said that I would be your Champion now that TsuYa is no longer within reach! Nefol would fall to dust and the Ghost Clan would triumph against the Founders as it was meant to be!”
The shadowed voice responded with nothing but heavy silence, like a keeper who was deciding what to do with a misbehaving charge. Even KoGuRai found himself holding his breath, but the Ghost Clan woman was either too brash or too careless to realize she was overstepping her bounds.
In the midst of the silence, came the soothing temptation. Not words, but not exactly feelings, thoughts or images. KoGuRai knew Zerom was projecting his will upon him, but his strength was too sapped to reject the slithering tendrils that closed in on his mind.
– I can give you the greatest power of all. Anything you wish.- the voice had become a private whisper made just for him.
Visions of KoGuRai as the leader of a newly restored Nefol. His mother and the others he tried to protect ringed around him, showering him with adoration. Most importantly, they were alive, safe and not Marked.
-Is this what you want?-
The visions shifted as the darkness dug deeper into his mind, dredging up hints of memory and truth. His hopes and desires flowered before him, promises so sweet that KoGuRai couldn’t fight the pang. The hazy dream returned to him, devouring his senses.
The pond. She stood, with soft wings half folded.
-This is the one that you want.-
“JouKa,” KoGuRai’s voice rasped as he struggled against the chains that held his wrists. This time, the metal groaned, as if fighting to hold something much stronger than himself. Distantly, somewhere outside of the dream-vision, he could hear the echoes of XaNi’s furious demands.
His thoughts remained fixed on JouKa, watching as she turned. Knowing that she would leave. Struggling to come to terms with the transformation that divided them.
-I can give her to you.-
“Not this,” he said quietly. Defeatedly.
“It’s impossible,” KoGuRai almost turned away. That’s when he caught the reflection of himself fluttering across the surface of the water at his feet.
What he saw there wasn’t the broken man, tortured by cruelty and circumstance. Instead, he was dressed in sleek dark colors, his appearance restored and almost majestic. From his shoulders a pair of wings spread wide, strong and noble, though tipped with shadows.
“I’m… just like..?” his words formed a question mark as he stared at his reflection. Then, he turned his green eyes towards JouKa.
For the first time ever, the dream began to change. She saw him, too. Not with those hazy, pained eyes, but with a look of wonder and longing. She saw his wings. Saw that the two of them were the same, and that meant they could finally be together.
“KoGuRai,” JouKa reached for him, her fingertips shimmering into mists when they moved. Instead of turning away, she was turning towards him.
He reached for her, too, the sound of metal squealing sharp in his ears. His wrists began to burn, fissures of darkness cracking along his skin.
Wasn’t he chained to a wall somewhere in Nefol?
-That doesn’t matter.-
No, it doesn’t. Not when JouKa was there, reaching for him.
-She is yours.-
He was finally able to change the outcome of the dream that haunted him night after night.
Burning. Sizzling. His entire body began to ache as he surged forward. Reaching JouKa became his one consuming thought. The shadows drew along the tips of his strange new wings, the feathers growing darker.
Then one last sharp jolt forward and he was free.
KoGuRai took a stumbling step, the ground slick under his bare foot. Looking down, what he expected to be water was instead a dark, oily pool. The blood of the Marked. Except, he could see the stream of darkness dripping from his own bleeding wrists.
The last of the dream-vision dissolved, JouKa’s face blasted to mist as the hideous mask of the skull-like XaNi appeared before him. Instantly, she lunged for KoGuRai, her bone blade drawn and ready to strike a killing blow. Her mouth opened in a guttural war-cry, eyes wide open, blazing with the blue ghost-light of the Deep Magics that burned within.
-Destroy your ancient enemy, just as your ancestors once did!- The shadow’s whisper filled him with strength.
Any fear that might have once gripped KoGuRai at the sight of the Ghost Clan was cast off, his body moving forward almost beyond his own control. He found himself looming huge above XaNi as he swept forward, animal instincts enveloping his senses.
Claws. Fangs. Great Chaos-lined wings spreading from his shoulders. The screech ripped from his throat as he bore down upon his Ghost Clan adversary, relishing the sudden scent of fear.
The next scream belonged to XaNi. Mangled. Gurgled. Then cut short by a death-silence.