“How have you been holding up, dear?” Aunt SaRa asked, gently stroking her fingers through JouKa’s hair.
“As well as I can,” the girl answered quietly. Though JouKa appreciated the concern from everyone around her, she just didn’t feel like explaining the extent of what she felt. She doubted words could describe the emotion.
To one side, Suzume sat quietly braiding her hair. Somewhere between the time when JouKa first met the child and now, the girl’s fingers became more adept. No longer did she tie her long black locks in knots. Now she made a proper braid for herself, which made her look quite pretty.
I remember when…
Watching Suzume braid sparked a tinge of sadness. The days she spent, sitting on the flowering hillsides of Ceiswyr with the dark-haired girl and TsuYa as her companions. Back then, she was short tempered and bold. She challenged everything that the Neffie TsuYa said just to pick a fight. She even slapped him a few times for something as simple as his own sharp words.
What I would do to take it all back.
How foolish it seemed now. Now that he wasn’t there anymore.
Despite the fact that JouKa knew TsuYa killed KoGuRai, she still couldn’t bring herself to hate him. Because something in the way that he fought that last battle just wasn’t himself. He was driven to murder. Driven by the same dark power that transformed and took him away.
And her grief was for both of them.
“What’s on your mind, dear?” Aunt SaRa interrupted, as if she knew exactly what the girl was thinking about.
“Nothin’…” JouKa turned to peer out the window of her room into the darkening night.
Then much to her surprise, Aunt SaRa totally changed the subject, “So what do you think of this Oren fellow? He seems quite taken with you.”
JouKa’s face flushed a little. She shook her head to cover it up. “What do I think? I don’t think nothin’ about ‘im.”
It’s too soon to be thinkin’ anything about anyone.
“That’s a shame. He’s a good looker,” the woman said with a slight smile, gathering up JouKa’s hair again.
“He’s… different,” she admitted, giving in just a little bit, but only because she thought it was fair to humor the woman’s attempts.
“And look, your hair is growing out so nice and pretty,” Aunt SaRa told her. “Have you ever worn it long, JouKa?”
“Long time ago. Before I left my gathering,” the girl said.
I really ‘aven’t worried about bein’ pretty since then.
“Ah, well it looks good on you,” the woman clucked her tongue. “I’m sure Mr. Oren will think so, too.”
JouKa gave an exasperated sound, “Aunt SaRaaaa!”
This only set the winged woman to laughing softly. In spite of herself and everything else, JouKa couldn’t help but laugh a little, too. Suzume joined them, laughing with a little girl smile, despite the fact that she probably didn’t understand what the women were laughing about.
They hardly finished catching their breath when the sound of an alarm rang out through the streets of the Spiral.
“What’s that?” Suzume asked, getting to her feet. The girl rushed to the window with wide, dark eyes trying to see what was happening in the night shadows.
All the mirth left Aunt SaRa’s face, replaced by a frown of concern. She quickly reached over and took the dark-haired girl by the wrist. “JouKa. Suzume. I think we need to go to the Lion’s Keep.”
She knows what’s ‘appening, doesn’t she?
“Aunt SaRa, what…” but JouKa’s words were interrupted by the sound of the repeating alarm.
The winged woman gave no answer. She just pulled them both by the hands, “It could be dangerous. So we have to stay together.”
JouKa didn’t ask anything else. She simply nodded and followed Aunt SaRa out the door.
It was hard to see what was happening. The night was heavy upon the city, heavier than night had a right to be. Darkness swelled thick in the streets, obscuring form, leaving vision with pure motion. JouKa heard the sound of the Spiral people rousing to the alarm and rushing about. At first, she thought that they, too, were running for the safety of cover. Then, she noticed that commoners, men and women both, came from their homes carrying weapons of all shapes and sizes.
The people of the Spiral would not run. They were warriors, each of them, to the depths of their souls.
We should stay and ‘elp them!
JouKa wanted to protest, but the moment her feet slowed, Aunt SaRa grabbed her by the wrist and kept her moving. There was an intensity in the winged woman’s eyes as she led them towards the rising form of the golden Lion’s Keep.
“Keep moving,” she told them both. “We must find Zemi and Zento.”
“Where ‘ave they gone?” JouKa shouted, rushing to keep the pace.
Suzume stumbled once, but Aunt SaRa was there instantly, helping the little girl along. She managed to half turn and answer at the same time, “I’m not really sure. I know it has something to do with the Lion’s Keep.”
The earth shook as something huge and dark dropped out of the sky, landing heavy in the streets just a block over. The terrible snake-like head of the Esgyll rose up over the tops of the golden-stoned houses in a roar that rocked the city. JouKa stumbled as the stone under her feet jolted her, sending the three of them scattering. Dazed, all JouKa heard was the muted cry of Suzume and the shouts of people fighting somewhere in the distance.
Slowly, she pushed herself up on her palms, skin raw from the scrape and fall. Aunt SaRa’s voice was above her, hands lifting her up and forcing her to keep moving.
“Come! Come! We can’t stop here!” the winged woman urged.
The roar of the Esgyll echoed in the streets again, as if to accent the words.
Gotta… keep my ‘ead clear. Can’t die ‘ere!
JouKa shook herself out, then helped Suzume. Moving forward. Ever forward. Towards the great golden form of the overlooking Keep. In the sky above, she saw the winging shadows of more of the terrible winged creatures. Pulses of flame and cold light marred the underside of the clouds – the Dragons arrived.
Does that mean that Lord Zemi knows what’s goin’ on now? Are we saved?
A new sound echoed in the Spiral streets. Terrible screeching sounds. A sound that JouKa heard before.
She stopped to turn, on instinct alone. Dark shadows darted behind them, leaping on the Spiral people who came out to battle. Wild cries and shouts. Screeches as the Marked moved with inhuman speed, almost unreal to watch.
But TsuYa wasn’t there.
It must mean ‘e’s in the city somewhere, though!
“JouKa!” Aunt SaRa’s voice was strong. “We cannot stop. Not even for TsuYa.”
‘Ow did she know what I was thinkin?
She had no time to ponder it. The echoes of shrieks and animal snarls were closer now, coming from one side, just in front. Aunt SaRa pulled them quickly around the corner, then up a set of narrow stone stairs that led them up to the second floor of the building.
Fire flickered and shot through the sky, lighting up the battles that raged in the streets below. People of the Spiral fearlessly defended their homelands, golden against the darkness, reflecting the flash of flame and light. The Marked darted and lashed with wicked claws and fangs, moving like elastic as they bounded in small groups off walls, crates, fences, posts. Moving with a weightless speed of impossibility.
A great explosion sounded as a pillar of fire and destruction erupted from the city somewhere behind them. Flaming stone rained down on them, some catching into smaller fires as they landed in the streets.
“Ow! Owww!” Suzume cried as some of the hot stone scorched through her feathers.
Aunt SaRa drew the girl to her, covering her face and head with her own wings protectively. “Shhh…. We can’t let them hear us, love. We’re almost there. Just a little further.”
Will the Lion’s Keep be any safer than the streets?
JouKa took the moment to catch her breath, watching as the Marked began to thin out in search of more prey. Motionless forms of the Spiral people lay, dotting the streets. People trained to protect their families, but were not the perfect warriors like the men of the Spiral armies.
They ‘ave no chance against these monsters.
She didn’t know if anyone had a chance.
“Come,” Aunt SaRa took her attention away from the streets. “Don’t look at that. We must keep going.”
Despite her words, the winged woman’s voice was taut with fatigue. Still, she led them down the stairs and into the streets again. All the way, she kept Suzume’s face covered, protecting the girl from the grisly visions that lay splattered around them.
JouKa couldn’t help but look as they passed one of the Spiral men, not too far way. She heard his groan, a contorted sound of pain, and the healer in her wanted to stop.
‘E’s still alive!
As she stepped closer, she could sense that something was terribly wrong with him. The gashes across his face and chest had turned a sickly grey color. What appeared to be a cloud of shadow and decay hung over his body, arching up over him, sucking away light and life. His eyes turned toward her as they glazed over in a sheen of darkness, the pleading hand that reached towards her was mangled and claw like.
JouKa jumped back with a gasp. She had seen this before.
‘E’s turning Marked?!
Terrified, her green eyes shot across the bodies that littered the street. All of them were the same. Thick cloud of shadow and decay rising over them. Slight movement and struggle. Convulsions.
No! No! NO!
This time, it was her turn to urge them forward. “We’ve got to run! Aunt SaRa! Those people are falling to Zerom’s Mark!”
Suzume gave a muffled cry. Aunt SaRa held the girl closer, eyes sharp. “Don’t stop. It’s not much further.”
That’s when the air around them exploded in a hurricane of flame and terror. JouKa screamed as she was thrown from the sudden impact, landing all the way on the other side of the street. Luckily, she found her wings tangled in the bushes and trees of the Spiral’s Square, just at the foot of the Lion’s Keep. Not far away, she heard Suzume’s soft cry.
The ground shook again, the square echoing with the sound of huge beasts in battle. Freeing herself, JouKa could see that one of the Dragons was driven to the ground under the fierce strength of a black Esgyll. The vicelike jaws clamped hard on the Dragon’s throat, and though the beast raked with claws and lashed with wings and tail, the roars became suffocated gurgles.
JouKa rushed over to the sound of Suzume’s cries, working to untangle the girl from the brush, “Suzume. We’re almost there! Let’s go!”
The Esgyll lifted its head, trumpeting in terrible triumph as the Dragon’s limp head hit the ground. When the girl turned, she realized with horror that a familiar winged figure lay only a few yards from the huge beast.
Aunt SaRa! No!
She was torn. Torn between moving forward and getting Suzume to safety. Or rushing back to help the winged woman.
Her indecision was answered as Aunt SaRa’s head lifted and the winged woman pushed herself to her feet. The sharp green eyes focused on the two of them. Even across the shadow and the distance, JouKa could see her face clearly.
The command was spoken with so much strength that the girl could do nothing but obey. As the Esgyll’sdark gaze fell upon Aunt SaRa, JouKa turned towards the steps of the Lion’s Keep. Her hand gripped Suzume’s smaller hand tightly.
There was no sound behind them. Nothing but a brilliant flash of light that lit the golden square, blinding the terrible beast as it lit the way for their frantic flight. It was Aunt SaRa’s light — her final stand of strength, determination, will and pure love.
Then, the light was gone.