The Spiral lands stretched out before Zento in every direction, reminding him how far he was from home. Soft rolling hills of yellow-tinged grass ran up to greet the edge of the lilac-leaf forests. Groups of stone huts huddled together in their tell-tale circular patterns. Banners emblazoned with a glittering gold lion snapped in the late summer breeze. Soon, autumn would be on the land, and the distant harvest fields lay heavy with anticipation.
ZenToYa visited the Spiral on a number of occasions in his life. Sometimes as an enemy. Sometimes on a mission for his people’s survival. It was lately that came as a friend, despite the general unrest that the Spiral people still held for their white-haired neighbors.
Never did he come with such a heavy heart and shattered spirit.
They said it was here that Tsu was turned.
While the battle had raged hot in the sky Islands, a different battle took place here. His youngest son, TsuYa, fought to protect the children of Nefol, and the great warrior’s spirit Awakened within him. But upon Awakening, the wards that protected him from Zerom’s shadows were destroyed.
So little time to know his Awakening.
All Zento had left of his youngest son were stories. Stories and the fleeting mind images from those who were there. Terrible images and feelings he couldn’t bear to see. Instead, the winged man fled, searching for a place far away from anyone who held the dark memories of his son’s fall.
We had so little time together, Tsu. That’s all you really wanted, in the end. For us all to be together.
His burdened mind wandered back to a time long ago, to the first time Zento felt such a crushing pain. The loss of his wife. It was sudden. Unexpected. Unexplained.
Zento was out in a hunting party, which was nothing out of the ordinary. When he returned home at the end of that week, everything in his life changed. No one could explain what had happened to his wife. There was no body left behind to tell the tale. Nothing was left but a gaping hole in his heart that was once been filled with her laughter and light.
When you left us, the boys were never the same.
SoYa grieved for the loss of his mother, as was expected. But TsuYa was so young, so deeply affected. He grew more distant and more serious. Eventually, he became so different from the happy little boy he was while his mother was still alive. Left a widower father of two children, Zento felt helpless to stop the changes he saw in his youngest son then, just as he felt helpless to protect his son from the dark transformation that changed him now.
I was his hero. But time and again, I let him down.
It was too late now. Zento’s world shifted and spun out of control, once more leaving a gaping hole in his soul. For as hard as he fought and struggled to find a way to save his child, TsuYa was still swallowed by the darkness.
Just as Nefol was.
Just as Ceiswyr was.
Just as we all will be…
He bowed his head, shoulders sagging with the burden of sorrow. The burden of a leadership that he didn’t know if he could rightly bear any longer. Telltale grey strands of hair fell into his eyes, sticking to his face where it was hot with shameless tears.
“That’s not true,” a soft voice carried to his ears from somewhere just behind.
Zento’s head jerked up in momentary surprise. He didn’t expect anyone to find him, let alone reach the spot where he chose to mourn. He certainly didn’t expect that anyone could sense his thoughts.
A soft hand touched his shoulder. A tingling sensation spread from the touch, a warm and comforting feeling spreading through his chest.
“Times feel dark right now, ZenToYa. You must never give up the fight to save your son,” the voice sounded again, this time just beside his ear.
Zento stiffened slightly, head turning. A woman leaned over him, her slender hand soft upon his shoulder. At first, he thought she may was one of the Spiral people, for she had a similar coloration. But her features were small and delicate, unlike the inhabitants of the Outter Realms. She seemed to glow faintly with a wavering golden light that accented her deep golden skin and pale blond hair. Her eyes shown with quiet violet wisdom and intense concern.
As Zento stared into her face, he felt at once that he should know her. But when he shook his head out, the nagging familiarity scattered away, blamed on a trick of the sunlight’s reflection.
“Zento,” she spoke his name again, a soft accent between slender lips. Her hand lifted from his shoulder, brushing his cheek ever so slightly.
A shiver rushed through his body, his mind reeling back instantly, reaching to hold fast to his internal dedication to his late wife. It was only then that he realized he could hardly remember what she looked like.
“E-excuse me!” he gave a gasping exclamation. His wings flailed as he jerked away from the woman’s hand, eyes staring at her in shock. “Do I know you?”
She pulled her hand away, face mirroring his surprise. Then calmness draped back over her features and an easy smile curved her lips. “ZenToYa, relax. You’d think I was a Dragon come for her prey.”
That’s when the voice clicked in his mind. And though he never saw her person form before, he recognized her. The name whooshed out of his lungs in an embarrassed stammer, “K-KaiShi?”
The woman rewarded him with a silvery laugh.
“KaiShi!” Zento choked, caught somewhere between staring awkwardly and an immense sense of relief. “Why?”
“Silly Zento,” she answered, gently chiding. “I knew that you’d run off and find a secretly secret place to cry your sorrows out. What else would you do if I wasn’t there?”
He couldn’t help but swallow down the last of his discomfort, staring into the light of her eyes. KaiShi was someone whom he always trusted with the deepest burdens of his soul. When he came for her council, she always knew exactly what he needed to hear.
She turned her head, a subtle shyness showing, “I just didn’t think the Dragon would cut it this time.”
“What do you mean?” he arched one eyebrow curiously.
“You have so much sorrow to battle inside of you, ZenToYa. All I can give you is a hug.” Before he could protest, KaiShi wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his shoulder. Her touch was vibrant and warm, once again spreading the soothing sensation through his grief-tightened chest.
Zento didn’t pull away this time. His strength was stolen by the sorrow that, for the moment, was put to rest by the unexpected care of another. They sat there together, her arms comforting him, watching as the sunlight began slipping downward, setting the violet treeline aflame.
After time passed, KaiShi was the first one to speak, “I know that it’s difficult for you to show your pain to others. I know what it’s like to try to remain the strong leader for your people.”
He leaned back on his palms, sucking on his bottom lip for a moment. Allowing her to finish.
“No one expects you to be an unemotional, unmoving mountain. Especially not right now,” she told him.
“We’ve lost so much,” Zento picked his words slowly. “I have no right to show my grief for the loss of one life when so many others have died. When I was unable to protect our homelands… unable to–”
“Shhh,” KaiShi reached up and tapped him on the lips, deftly interrupting. “What is it with you guys, always thinking the weight of the world must be born upon your shoulders alone?”
“You’re a man, ZenToYa,” she intercepted quickly. “You’re a great man. A man with so much power, but at the same time, so much love. You’re more than just some bedtime story legend told to children in Nefol.”
He found no words to answer.
“You’re a man, and you have a right to be a grieving parent if you need to be. There’s no shame in that.”
Zento turned his head slightly. She reached up and gently turned it back with the touch of one finger.
“You have earned the love of your people. Don’t shut us out in your time of grief,” she pleaded softly. “Let us help you. Let us help TsuYa.”
He furrowed his brow with a questioning frown, “You don’t think it’s too late for that?”
“I believe almost anything’s possible,” she lifted her chin slowly. “TsuYa has the same strong spirit as his father. I don’t think he will give up the fight to return to us. That’s why he needs us to keep fighting as well.”
Tsu would keep fighting.
The thought didn’t occur to him before now, not with his mind clouded with so much grief. He knew that she was right. If there was anything left of his son’s spirit, TsuYa would never stop fighting.
Then, I must keep fighting, too.
“That’s right,” she whispered quietly, the twilight glow reflecting from her eyes. “We must all keep fighting. You’re not alone in this battle.”
Not knowing what else to say, Zento lowered his head, “Thank you.”
KaiShi nodded and slowly pulled away, getting to her feet. He could feel a puzzling reluctance as she did, as if it was difficult to let him go. Her face didn’t let it show.
Instead, she straightened, peering off into the sky, “Please come back to us when you’re ready. We still need you.”
Zento nodded, trying to reassure her despite his lack of words.
She said nothing more. She simply took a few steps away, then her form was encased in a brilliant shaft of golden light. The stone outcropping shook under Zento’s palms momentarily, his breath stolen from his lungs as he stared up. Great Dragon wings unfurled above him, reflecting the sun’s dying glow in unspeakable grace and beauty.
Then KaiShi was gone, a golden Dragon winging off over the crest of the Spiral lands.