The heavy doors to the Lion’s Keep rumbled inwards, admitting the small group under the great stone arches. AsaHi spun slowly around as she walked, trying to take it all in. All she knew were the stories and legends, especially the account made by ZenToYa of the pivotal battle between himself and Aur that led to the Guardian joining them in a struggle against the Chaotic ArweinyddZerom.
Wow, it’s huge inside!
A vast circular room built of tawny colored stone unfolded before them. The walls were decorated with mosaic murals that depicted various strange runes, graceful interlocking spirals and lion-like images. The art studded the walls with a rainbow of glittering gems that glowed with an inner light as Aur led them forward.
Long drapes of black and gold spun down from various vaulted arches that rose and fell in pillared rows. The stone floor was one vast multicolored spiral that began at the center of the room and spun outward. It, too, was flecked with crushed gems embedded into the stone, giving the whole surface a luminous quality. Looking closer, she could see that tiny runes were etched in each glittering square.
I wonder who built this, and how long it’s been here.
Zemi seemed to have the same impression as he strode up to one of the ten huge, golden braziers that lined the walls, following the motion of the Keep’s circumference. Each stood nearly twice the Dreigiau’s height, etched with a large rune that would have been illuminated by the light of flame inside. Though now, they were all dim.
When the Arweinydd reached his hand out, a golden light sprang from the depths of the brazier. He cocked a wide grin as the keep lit up, “Not too shabby, Aur.”
“Why not try spending an immeasurable amount time locked inside here and see if you really want to come back,” the Watcher murmured with a slightly droll look. It seemed that he was catching on to the idea of sarcasm and sense of humor more and more lately.
“Point taken. This is where ShinRe said we will find the passage,” Zemi answered.
“Yes. He is correct,” Aur nodded slowly, peering around with hooded eyes.
“If he doesn’t have a heart attack before we even get him inside,” Zento added with a quick laugh. “That was a pretty crazy thing you did out there, Aur.”
“What was?” the Watcher inquired calmly.
“Singlehandedly installing a brand new leader in the Spiral,” the winged man answered. “What made you suddenly do something like that?”
“It was not sudden,” Aur informed him simply.
“Well, it kinda seemed like it was,” Zento pointed out.
“No,” the Watcher disagreed.
“No,” was the final answer.
Zento leaned back with his hands folded behind his head, exchanging funny looks with NaDo. The scientist jumped at the chance to explore the inner structure of the Lion’s Keep and vehemently asked to be included in the group’s expedition – for the good of science, he proclaimed.
“You make it sound like it was something that you knew would happen,” Zemi approached from a different angle.
“Not exactly. It was something I hoped would come to pass,” Aur told them. Most of his attention was now fixed upon the glittering mural that spanned across the nearest wall. His fingers slowly stroked over the soft gems that depicted green grass, blue sky and violet trees.
“Then you really did know about ShinRe?” the Dreigiau prodded.
“Yes,” the Watcher answered. “We exchanged conversations many times before his exile. I knew the kind of leader he was. I made a point of knowing where he took the exiles, until my energies began to fail me. It was my hope that he would return one day to overthrow the rule of the Armsmaster. It seems ShinRe was content to live apart in his own encampment.”
“Auuuur!” Zemi nudged the Guardian with a growing grin. “You are such a plotter! I didn’t know you had it in you!”
“You’re telling me that you set all of this up!” the Arweinydd put his arm around the Watcher’s shoulders with a fake, melodramatic sniff. “You make your Patron proud!”
Aur responded with a long, quiet look. There was still some humor he didn’t quite grasp.
“That’s wonderful and all, as long as he doesn’t die of shock,” Zento grinned, too, rocking back and forth on his heels.
“He will not,” Kudako’s voice entered the chamber, stern. “ShinRe does not back down from his agreements. Even if this was all a contrived plot to put him into power.”
Blue fin ears were folded back. The Dragon didn’t look too happy at the way everyone else was gloating about the situation.
“Come on, ‘Dako,” Zemi answered easily, trying to smooth out the situation. “You can’t tell me that your brother isn’t the best man for this job. He’s straight and honorable, a man who knows the difference between the cruelty of the Armsmaster’s rule and the way people should really be led. Not to mention, he’s willing to aid us against Zerom.”
“That is all completely beside the point,” Kudako scowled. Then he murmured accusingly, “Lord Aur, I’m quite surprised at you.”
“I apologize,” the Watcher answered, looking as abashed as he could. “I am not proud of situating things the way that I did. However, I feel that ShinRe is the most capable of seeing your people through our current crisis. My thoughts are always about protecting the Spiral people. Both ShinRe and the populace were given a choice in the matter.”
“Not much of one,” the Dragon answered, though significantly less miffed than before. It seemed that Aur’s counsel still affected his outlook on things, as well. “You knew that if the Golden Lion named a new leader, then it would be so. You also knew that my brother would not turn down the leadership in a time of need, based on his honor.”
“Yes, I knew. I was counting on these things,” Aur admitted, brushing his hands over the mural one last time. “It is a troubled time, KudakoRe. We all have to make our sacrifices. I know that you know this as well.”
Kudako lowered his head and turned slightly away. “Yes. I know. I am willing to make my sacrifices.”
“Then let your brother choose to make his. For the good of your people,” the Watcher told him gently.
The Dragon was silent for a long time. Finally, he nodded. “I understand and will say no more.”
For a time after that, no one spoke. They all waited, swallowed within the maw of the great Lion’s Keep. What they were waiting for, AsaHi didn’t quite know. Though she glanced at SoYa and Zemi from time to time, she didn’t dare break the silence to ask. She learned long ago that happenings revolving around Arweinydd and Awakened and Watchers and Champion all had their own way of working out in awkward timelines.
So she spent the time studying the glittering pictures upon the wall, paying special attention to the one that Aur touched earlier. It was not very long before she felt a large presence at her side. Looking up, she saw the golden-eyed Watcher gazing on the mural once again.
“This has always been my favorite one,” he told her.
The statement took her by surprise. In order to have a favorite, one must be capable of attachment and fondness, emotions that AsaHi didn’t think Aur was capable of until just lately.
“I can see why. It’s very pretty,” the girl complimented.
“Yes,” Aur answered, his tone growing somewhat somber. “It always reminded me of what these lands were like before.”
The way that he left the statement hanging, AsaHi couldn’t help but ask, “Before what?”
“The Mistake,” the Watcher answered simply.
A curdling feeling shifted in the pit of her stomach at the word. Such a simple word. Such an understatement for what she sensed really happened. Something that so few of them knew anything about, except maybe Aur, himself.
Then it occurred to her, “We aren’t doing the same thing over again. Are we?”
The golden eyes flicked over towards her. But he didn’t answer.
So she expanded on the thought with a frantic, quiet breath, “We aren’t doing things that might lead up to another Mistake. Or are we?”
Seeing her alarm, Aur spoke calmly, “I was left here on this Living World to see that such a thing never happened again. That has always been my purpose.”
Something about the resigned tone in his voice made AsaHi feel really sad for the Watcher.
He must have seen so much, lived through so many difficult things. And yet, he’s still here, still working against all these big and frightening powers.
She reached her hand out, but paused, not daring to touch his arm. Or offer a kind squeeze on his fingers. Or any sympathetic motion that she might give anyone else. She was always reserved about Aur, but she didn’t know why.
“I hope there is more for you than just a single purpose. I hope there are things that bring you some happiness,” she told him. The best offer she could make to let him know that she cared.
The Watcher gave her a quizzical look, as if he didn’t understand a single word that she just said. He quietly shook his head, “My happiness is not as important as the promise of life to the Arweinyddand Earthian peoples. Without them both,and the bonds they can share, life will be lost once again.”
“But you’re a part of this life, too, Aur,” AsaHi argued softly.
“I have lived my life,” he told her gently. “I have no regrets. I will give myself to my purpose to ensure that the Chaos that would devour all does not succeed. In doing that, I have my happiness.”
AsaHi sighed, knowing that she was not going to win that debate. Instead, she lightly touched his arm, telling him in a tone of deep respect, “You are one of the noblest people I’ve ever known. I hope that you will find something that brings you joy, in time. Even if it is something you don’t expect or believe you need.”
Aur just responded with a quiet smile. It was one of the most genuine smiles she’d seen from him.
It wasn’t much longer before the great stone doors of the Lion’s Keep grated open once again. This time, ShinRe walked through, carrying something between both hands.
“I’ve finally located it,” the leader announced with a hint of relief. “I apologize for taking so long.”
“No problem,” Zemi grinned. “We couldn’t get the party started without you.”
“Er, nevermind,” the Dreigiau waved his hands to dismiss the train of thought. “So what did you bring? Are you sure this is where we should be?”
“Yes. This is where the entrance to the Stone Lair is hidden. I’m sure of it,” ShinRe nodded with pursed lips. Then he unfolded his hands to reveal a strange, tear-drop shaped stone. It reflected the dim light in the room, flickering with a gentle blue glow of its own. “And this is the key that opens it.”
AsaHi leaned forward with her mouth agape and eyes wide. The stone had a presence all its own, almost as if it was a living thing. Something in the back of her mind compelled her to reach out and touch it, to explore the answers to the mysteries that it would offer her. Judging from the expressions of everyone else, they, too felt drawn for the same reason.
“Hedd-ynad!” NaDo suddenly exclaimed, mirroring their unspoken excitement. “It’s… it’s…”
“It’s what?” Zento urged him.
“It’s just like a miniature Vision Stone!” the scientist blurted in exaltation.