“What’s going on?” AsaHi asked, holding tight to SoYa’s shoulder. She listened to the muted sounds in the world outside of the Lion’s Keep. “Something terrible happened since we went down to the Stone Lair, hasn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” SoYa told her. He was listening, too, eyes narrowed and flicking around from one end of the Keep to the other. “Zemi told us to stay in here. I think that’s what we should do.”
“There can’t be a battle, can there?” she pressed. “We left Zerom and his forces on the other side of the Cleft!”
“I don’t know,” SoYa answered again, patiently. Then he pulled her closer to his chest, holding her for reassurance.
It was a terrible feeling, just sitting there and waiting. Not knowing if there was a battle, and if so, who was fighting. Or if Zemi might need her help. Chaos still lurked outside, no matter what new power and strength the strange blue stones gave him.
After a while, the door to the Keep opened. Both AsaHi and SoYa leaned forward, faces painted with expectation. When they saw JouKa and Suzume stumbling inside, all they could do was puzzle all the more.
“JouKa?” AsaHi called with a questioning voice.
The moment that the girl glanced up, AsaHi was overwhelmed by the pure absolute grief in her eyes. She had never seen the tough winged girl cry, but JouKa was crying now.
“What’s wrong?” SoYa was on the job instantly, making his way over to them both.
Before anyone could say a word, both JouKa and Suzume had attached themselves to the Athrylith, sobbing.
“Whoa, whoa. Hold on. Tell me what’s happened!” he waved both hands in surprise. “Please, I can’t help you if I don’t know.”
Neither seemed to be in any condition to explain.
AsaHi eventually managed to detach Suzume from SoYa’s waist and pull her to the side. The little girl just curled up under AsaHi’s chin, holding on to her with two shaking hands.
“JouKa,” SoYa’s voice was soothing and calm. The flows of subtle mind magic began to shift through the room. “It’ll be alright.”
“No, no it won’t,” she answered.
“What is it?” he coaxed.
“The Marked and the Esgyll attacked,” JouKa hiccupped softly. “Aunt SaRa. She’s still out there.”
SoYa swallowed, peering over with a concerned look at AsaHi.
So we ARE under an attack.
“Don’t worry,” SoYa was assuring her, “Aunt SaRa is strong. She’ll be just fine.”
JouKa’s voice wavered, “I don’t think so. Not this time.”
Before SoYa could reply, there was a sound at the door. Thinking someone was coming in, he got to his feet, lips pursed slightly. After a time, the doors did not open, though the sound on the other side remained.
“Oh no,” JouKa whispered hoarsely, grabbing a hold of SoYa’s shoulder. “They’ve found us. They know we’re in here!”
At the tone of panic, Suzume gave a muffled little-girl cry. The sound carried and echoed in the Keep before AsaHi could cover her mouth. Suddenly, what was shuffling on the other side of the door became mauling, scraping, raking and banging. Animal like growls and hisses rose to her ears, the sound AsaHi knew was the Marked.
SoYa’s face paled as he took slow steps away from the door. The wood groaned and rattled on it hinges. Then suddenly burst inward as oozing black claws erupted through from the other side.
“What do we do?” JouKa held tight to SoYa’s tunic, shaking him. “This place is a dead end!”
“No it’s not,” AsaHi glanced over quickly. Back towards the passage down to the Stone Lair.
“That’s right!” SoYa shook himself out, ushering JouKa back towards the doorway. Reaching up, he grabbed the nearest torch. “Let’s go!”
“Come this way, Suzume,” AsaHi took the little girl’s hand, leading her forward.
“But it’s dark down there!” she protested, face pinched with fear.
“It’ll be okay, I promise you.”
Without waiting for a reply, AsaHi plunged into the steep narrow passage that lead deep underneath the Lion’s Keep. There was hardly enough light for her to see by. The steps were slippery and damp. She ran one hand along the moss-covered wall on one side, holding tight to Suzume’s hand with the other. When the sound screeching filled the chamber above, her heart nearly beat out of her chest.
“Go! Go!” SoYa hissed from behind, trying his best to shine the light ahead of them.
“Don’t stop!” JouKa repeated over and over and over again.
It wasn’t long before the sound of the Marked was at the top of the passageway. Their shriek shattered the musty air and sent stone raining down around them.
They’re following us!
The shrieks also seemed to have some effect on SoYa, who almost dropped the torch. JouKa was quick to take the light and pushed to keep him moving.
“SoYa, are you alright?” AsaHi gasped, spitting out lingering cobwebs as she raced forward.
“Hurts…” was all that he could manage, stumbling after her.
Finally, a glint of light somewhere below indicated that the Stone Lair was getting closer. AsaHi half fell the last few steps as the stone deposited them into the giant, underground forest. She heard JouKa’s sounds of awe just a moment before it was drowned out by the screeching from the tunnel behind.
SoYa took one look at the huge towering trees above, then peered back at the three girls. He spoke only one word, “Fly!”
“What?” AsaHi demanded, incredulous.
“Fly!” he pointed up into the trees. “They’ll never be able to climb and catch you quickly enough. You can be safe up there!”
“I’m not leaving you down here, SoYa!” she protested.
With the sound of the Marked pressing closer, JouKa grabbed Suzume by the hand, “Fly with me, okay, Suzume?”
The dark-haired girl nodded and sniffled. She stretched her two black wings.
“I’ll take care of her,” JouKa told them. She glanced up into the trees, then back at SoYa before spreading her wings. Without another word, the two girls were airborne, lifting off into the endless trunks and branches above.
AsaHi and SoYa, however, were running again. And arguing all the way.
“I’ll be fine!” he protested.
“No! I’m not just going to leave you alone to face those Marked!” she snapped back. “They do funny things to you.”
He muttered, “Just the sound of the shriek…”
“See! How can I leave you like that?” AsaHi scowled, dodging under the shadow of a tall mushroom- plant.
“Well we have to find some place to hide or they’re going to catch us both!”
They were running haphazardly, she knew, dodging around the huge tree roots, in and out of bushes and banks. They didn’t have much time to explore the Stone Lair the first time they were down there. So for all she knew, they might be running in circles.
They made their way further and further, hand in hand. Never did they stop to catch their breath or figure out what direction they were moving. The pressure of the earth was heavy above them and the forest itself was completely silent on every side.
It was in the midst of the silence that the ambush came, just when AsaHi began to think the silence meant their safety. As they turned the corner around the roots of a tree, a huge dark shadow dropped down upon them. She felt herself forcefully yanked away from SoYa’s grasp, watching as he was knocked away spinning, then slammed up against the trunk of the tree.
“No! SoYa!” AsaHi cried, reaching for him.
It felt like a lash of cold iron had curled around her neck as she was pulled back and so easily lifted up off of her feet. Something immeasurably strong captured her, one large arm curled up under her chin to hold her. No matter how she struggled, she couldn’t loosen the grip.
SoYa wasn’t getting up.
“SoYa! SoYaaa!” Her struggles became more frantic, fighting against the unmovable strength. Her cries became more desperate. Just as quickly, her captor turned her around, and she found herself face to face with a terrible sight.
It’s just like everyone said…
She knew TsuYa when she saw him, no matter how different he looked. Despite the fact he was now twice her size, and then some. Despite the grey skin, black eyes or dark hair and wings. Despite the wicked claws and fangs and black spikes that covered his body. There was something in that intense, dark gaze that was still the TsuYa she remembered.
As scared as she was at that moment, she almost wanted to cry.
“AsaHiiii,” her name escaped his lips in a rasping hiss. It seemed difficult for him to speak.
Her gaze locked with his, searching the depths of his haunted black eyes. There was something behind them, a look of distant recognition.
“TsuYa,” AsaHi whispered. “Is it you?”
“The Master wants you captured,” he warned her.
AsaHi winced quietly. TsuYa would never call anyone “Master,” not willingly, at least.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you can protect Zemi,” was the quiet answer. Then, he stumbled away from her with a snarl. “Run.”
“What?” AsaHi stared at him.
“Run!” TsuYa snapped, cold fangs showing.
She backed away, eyes flicking towards where SoYa still lay, “But…”
“He’ll be fine,” the Marked growled. “The Master only wants you.”
The sound of Marked screeches rang through the forests, coming closer. AsaHi realized she was out of time and options, and that perhaps being with SoYa was more dangerous than running somewhere far, far away from him.
Please be safe.
She swallowed, peering at TsuYa’s face one more time before she took a step away from him. For some reason, she trusted his word, even if he was the Marked Champion. There was something within him that was still the TsuYa she knew.
“You’ll get in trouble for this,” she warned as she spread her wings.
“I’ll enjoy every second of it, too,” the familiar arrogant smirk crossed his face. “Now get outta here!”
With a sweep of her wings, AsaHi launched into the air. Though her heart was beating fast, her flight was steady, carrying her away from the dangers below. With a heavy feeling in her chest, she wondered if she would ever see TsuYa again.