Date: 31 Passes Ago
Okay, so things aren’t exactly going as planned.
ZenToYa ran, dodging through the streaming vines and deep forest vegetation. Running away wasn’t his favorite call to action, but at the moment, any other choice was suicide.
I forgot how skilled the Spiral warriors are.
Somewhere, not too far behind, the sound of fleet footfalls followed. Every now and then, a flash of gold gave away the position of one of the pursuing warriors. Though Zento was ahead of them, their knowledge of the land gave them an edge.
‘Dako! Blast it! Where are you when I need you?
There was no one to blame but himself for overextending into unknown territory. The warriors of the Spiral were sharp and observant, and they detected the incoming group from the other side of the Cleft sooner than Zento liked.
KoGuRai, I hope you’ve mobilized. There is no way we can hold our ground against these numbers.
Zento’s mind raced, thinking back to the small group of men stationed on the other side of the thick bramble. All were Nefolians who joined him on this mission, a quest to find and bring back someone that was lost— Zento’s good friend and brother in arms, JinRai.
It was little over a year ago when Zemi sent Jin out on a similar expedition into the Spiral. Only, Jin did not return. The loss of a good friend was tough on Zento. It was even tougher on Jin’s son, KoGuRai. Due to the boy’s pain and bitterness, Zento allowed KoGuRai to join them with the goal investigating JinRai’s whereabouts.
Everything is always easier said than done, isn’t it?
Zento quickly banked to one side as the tree next to him took the brunt of numerous arrows. As he dodged, a shadow dropped down on top of him, driving Zento to his knees.
One glance upwards gave him a good look at his assailant – a large built man of long golden hair and fierce slate-blue eyes. Eyes that were dead of emotion. Red spiral patterns were scrawled in war paint across his face. His clothes were threadbare, and his weapon dented with much use. The metal glittered coldly in the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees above.
“Sorry. No time for this!” Rocking forward, Zento planted his feet hard into the hollow of his attacker’s stomach, knocking him back. With the momentum, the white haired man sprang to his feet, gathering up his own weapon to meet the Spiral warrior’s swing.
I have to get back to the camp!
Zento cursed under his breath as he shoved his assailant back in yet another attempt to break away. The Spiral warrior lunged. Zento hissed sharply as he felt the sting of the blade slash through the back of his sword arm, but he didn’t stop running.
Not a good time to lose use of an arm!
He could feel the shadow of his attacker looming closer behind him. Catching up. The glint of the blade flashed out of the corner of his eye. Zento braced himself for the strike.
It didn’t come.
Instead, he heard the sound of a heavy thud of a body hitting the ground. From somewhere above came a familiar quipping laugh. A laugh lined with uncertainty and strain, but one that Zento was glad to hear.
The white haired man stopped running, panting for breath as he peered behind him at the sprawled and unconscious shape of his once attacker. A heavy rock laid not too far, the tool of his defeat.
Then Zento peered up into the tree, “NaDo. What are you doing here?”
“Saving your posterior. What does it look like?” the scientist gave a wary smile down from the crook of the tree.
“It looks like you’re hiding, to be honest,” Zento answered, squinting back into the forest for a moment. Gauging how much time they had left.
“Hiding?” the quipping laugh came again as the man climbed down, hand over hand. “Would the great and fearless NaDo of Nefol do something like that?”
Zento’s face soured. “Yes. Because he’s smarter than us sword-wavers that walk straight into the thick of battle.”
Hopping down the last foot to the ground, NaDo also gave a serious frown back at the shuffling of the forest. “Are there a lot of them?”
“Too many. We need to fall back,” the warrior replied. Then he asked, “Where is KoGuRai?”
“Gone,” the scientist answered with a frown.
“Then he’s already taken them back towards the Cleft? Good,” Zento gave a sigh of relief.
“No?” the warrior answered. “Then where did he go?”
“Insane is the best word that comes to mind,” NaDo scowled even deeper.
Zento just cursed and renewed his rush back towards the camp. “What happened?”
The scientist scrambled to keep up with the other man’s longer strides. “He just flew into some sort of vengeance blood rage or something, claiming it was the Spiral people that killed his father. Nothing I said stopped him. He rallied the rest of them straight into the enemy. I’ve never seen the likes of it in KoGu before!”
I had my suspicions.
The warrior gave a frown of his own, though yet again, he made excuses for the son of JinRai. “Losing someone close to you does funny things.”
“I didn’t find this especially funny, Zento,” NaDo intoned.
“I know what you mean.”
“I told you it was a bad idea to let KoGu come,” the scientist huffed, trying to keep the pace.
“The boy has a right to find out what happened to his father,” Zento answered shortly.
“Is it that?” NaDo’s eyes slid over with a sly glance, “Or are you just tired of being blamed for the disappearance of Jin?”
“Maybe both,” the warrior made a final leap through the brush into the clearing where their camp had been only hours ago. The place looked like it was hit by a storm. Supplies, blankets, pots and pans were strewn everywhere. Not far in the distance, Zento heard the sounds of battle.
KoGuRai, what are you doing? You’re going to lead them to their deaths!
NaDo must have read the look of horror on his friend’s face. One hand fell lightly on Zento’s shoulder, his voice concerned yet comforting, “Come on. Your men need you. We can turn this around Zento.”
Zento shook his head out slowly, “Maybe, with a miracle.”
“We’ve seen worse,” NaDo quipped, trudging towards the sound of battle.
“That’s debatable,” Zento followed, cautiously scouting ahead. “We’re going to get pressed by two groups before this is through. If things fall through, I want you to go and find Kudako and get to the Cleft.”
“You’re talking crazy!” came the protest.
“Someone has to return to Nefol!” the warrior protested back.
“I came out here to find what happened to one friend, not to lose another!” NaDo answered sharply, fighting to lift his voice above the battle din that now filled the glade.
With no more time to speak, Zento drove forward, pulling his blade free with one hand. He could see flashes of white through the thick forest growth, indications of his men struggling in a battle that was hard pressed to win. Despite their training, nothing prepared them for facing the soulless Spiral warriors.
Zemi, if you can hear me, your Champion needs a little back up here.
In the middle of the battle, he saw the furious form of KoGuRai. His face was twisted in a fierce battle rage as he spun and slashed relentlessly. KoGuRai’s eyes held an intensity that Zento had seen before — in Jin’s eyes, during dangerous moments of unwavering determination.
“KoGuRai! We need to fall back!” Zento lifted his voice, trying to rise above the shouts of rage and dismay. Instead, he found himself the target of nearby Spiral warriors who heard his call.
The slice on the back of his arm burned. His breath came in pained gasps as he lashed out, fending off the attacks from every side. The smell of blood and sweat filled his senses as he jostled against bodies of friend and foe in close-quarter battle. On every side, he heard the shouts of his men, voices that were momentarily familiar before pain or death overtook them.
Is this it? Is this where it all ends?
Zento struggled to find his voice. To call the orders for retreat. To get his men to safety. Even if gave the call, he knew it was impossible for them to hear his command with the doom of battle pounding from all sides.
No! I refuse to go down here!
There was no other choice. It was either hold on to his secret and watch his people die, or face the consequences.
I have to…
He began to concentrate, drawing on strength from within. Tapping into the flow of the power he kept locked away for so long. The power that was shunned and feared by those who could not understand the truth behind it — mind magery.
-WE CANNOT FIGHT THIS! WE MUST FALL BACK TO THE CLEFT!-
Zento’s command released over the glade, resounding within their minds. Even KoGuRai stopped in mid-swing, both hands still gripping the haft of his weapon. Zento didn’t have time to study their reactions – his full concentration was on dulling the wits of their attackers just long enough to allow them to escape.
The Nefolians needed no more encouragement. With the command still ringing sharply in their minds, they fled into the forest. Sweat dripped from Zento’s brow as he stumbled behind, losing his speed to concentration. There were so many enemies to subdue. Though his will was strong, the Spiral warriors struggled viciously against his hold, quickly exhausting him.
Then a warm grip took Zento’s good shoulder, helping to carry him forward. Glancing to the side, the white haired warrior could see light reflecting from NaDo’s looking glasses as the scientist struggle to rush them out of the fray.
“ZenToYa, what did you just do?” his voice was quiet and shaken. No doubt, NaDo knew what he had just witnessed, but the expression on his face said that he didn’t want to believe it.
No one wanted to accuse their friend of being a mind mage.
Zento couldn’t answer. His mouth was dry. His limbs were heavy and sluggish. It felt like every inch of his body was burning with a cold fire. If it wasn’t for NaDo, he didn’t know if he could keep moving forward at all.
What’s happening to me?
He used mind magic before, but it had never had an after-effect like this.
Zento felt the Spiral warriors rousing behind them as the last of his strength slipped away. Distantly, he heard their battle cries. Felt the earth shifting as they began their chase. Heard the air slice as they drew their weapons.
“Oh no! Oh no!” NaDo’s voice rose a fearful octave. The scientist gave a shout to one of the Nefolians, running not too far ahead, “KoGuRai! Help me! Zento’s weakening!”
The young warrior paused to glance over his shoulder. It took him but a moment to assess the situation, peering at Zento half draped over NaDo’s shoulder. The smaller man struggling to carry their leader away from the raging danger that swarmed behind. The vicious faces of the Spiral warriors who charged headlong, thirsting for their death.
“Help us!” NaDo’s voice creaked, eyes wide.
Without a word. Without any other motion. The son of JinRai turned away from them and vanished into the forest.
Just as NaDo’s shout broke the air, Zento felt his knees buckle. His body convulsed, jerking upright even as he fell. He heard a scream that might have been his own as a wave of freezing pain wracked his limbs.
Then just as suddenly as it came, there was numbness.
A brilliant light.
The feeling of suspension and weightlessness.
-My Champion, it’s your time.-
Zento’s eyes opened as the familiar voice echoed through his mind. His lips parted, whispering a single word. “Zemi…”
As the world faded back into view, NaDo’s terrified face was the first thing he saw. The scientist was sprawled upon the ground, on his hands and knees, staring up with a mangled expression of shock and fear.
The Spiral warriors, too, recoiled, staring dazed and unsure as light streamed across the glade. Light that slowly took the form of feathers.
Zento heaved a choking breath, gasping like someone who just returned from the brink of death. Light tingled over his form. His senses were sharp, picking out each small motion… the crunch of grass under foot… the panicked heartbeat of NaDo… and the ragged breathing of the Nefolians who stopped to watch from the shelter of the forest.
What happened to me?
As Zento stretched out his hands, he realized the light was coming from his form. The feathers were his own, too.
A pair of luminous white wings spread from his shoulders, stretching in a protective arch over NaDo’s shaken form. Any wounds or weariness of the previous battles were washed away. His mind and senses focused in a way he’d never felt before.
-ZenToYa, you have become as you were meant to be. You are Awakened.-
Zento slowly turned to face the Spiral warriors. His blade glittered with reflected light from his white wings as they stretched wide. His eyes sharpened, brows drawing downward as he focused on the enemy. One hand reached up, surrounded by a brilliant blue flame.
-Now take my power, and protect our people.-
Even before he released the spell, the Spiral warriors broke formation. They scattered as the blast rocked the glade, sending trees groaning and rocks splintering in every direction. A warcry rose in Zento’s throat, a sound that rumbled through their minds like the roar of the Dreigiau.
-Well done, Zento!-
The Dreigiau’s voice faded, but the presence and power did not. The power that was gifted to the Arweinydd’s chosen Champion.
Voices around him drew him out of his thoughts. Voices of the others, of the Nefolians that he fought to protect, and one voice in particular he heard above all others.
“He’s becoming a monster!” KoGuRai exclaimed, green eyes wide, focusing on the wings that stretched from Zento’s shoulders.
“W-What?!” Coming back to earth was a painful jolt. His wings buckled back, depositing him with an unceremonious plop before them. It was all Zento could do to land on his feet.
No one seemed to notice. They were all staring at him with open fear and mistrust. Their mutters echoed KoGuRai’s accusing words. The very people he fought to protect, the very people that he led, taught and nurtured, now turned on him with cold eyes.
“Hold on! Do these wings really look that monstrous to you?” Zento found himself protesting, hands wide as he tried to approach them.
His answer came in the unsheathing of weapons. Some drawn in caution. Some leveled at him in warning.
“Stay back! We all felt what you did!” KoGuRai snarled, eyes reflecting as his naginata lowered into a battle position.
Zento took a stunned step back. His tone grew pleading as his gaze cast about for anyone who would hear him out, anyone who might look beyond the transformation. “NaDo? NaDo, please! Tell them! It’s still me!”
The scientist stared up at him with cloudy eyes, confusion and doubt playing over his face. His mouth opened and closed as if trying to find a voice that would not come. Before NaDo could speak, the others moved forward, weapons drawn.
“Mindsucking monster!” KoGuRai goaded them forward, two steps ahead of the other Nefolians.
“No, I can explain! It was Zemi!” Zento stumbled back further. His breath came in hoarse gasps, his mind reeling to grasp the incredulous turn of events.
There was little sway of sympathy to his pleas. Not even the hint of remorse on their faces as they advanced. Either their fear was just that great, or KoGuRai’s command of them was far stronger than Zento suspected.
Only one friendly voice rose above the advance — NaDo’s shout, “Zento, run!”
His white wings unfolded before he could think twice. With one great downward sweep, Zento was in the air. As the winds carried him higher, KoGuRai’s words faded into nothing more than furious demands from below. Those who were once his people shrank to specks soon hidden by the branches of the overhanging trees.
With watery eyes, ZenToYa forced himself to fly. Fly and not turn back. He knew that nothing in his life would ever be the same again.