“This way, just a little further now,” SaRa urged, tugging gently at the reins of her mount as she led it over the craggy grounds.
The little girl slumped motionless over the back of the rhawn. She looked worse every time SoYa glanced up at her. Despite all the time that SaRa spent with the child in healing wraps and incantations, nothing seemed to be improving her situation.
No matter where we go, TsuYa will follow. And now that he’s taken up the robes of the High Guide, he has the Council of Nefol to support his actions. He could follow us into any town and simply demand our capture.
SoYa eased Thorne around a particularly steep pile of stone, weaving between the scraggly rock brush. Sweat stood on his brow under the rim of his cap. The climate in this area was a lot warmer than a mountain range should be.
After all, I am Athrylith. That’ll be enough to turn people against us.
Aunt SaRa’s face was lined and grim, speaking measures of exhaustion and worry. Now and then, her head nodded, chin dipping to touch her chest.
“Are you okay?” he peered over one shoulder in concern.
“I’m…” the woman paused to catch her breath, “I’m fine. Just a tad tired. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
We’ve ridden nearly non-stop and every chance she gets, she’s been putting healing wards on the girl. It’s no wonder she’s about to pass out.
Aunt SaRa’s eyes turned to look along the path, hardening in determination, “Just a little further. Then we can all take a rest.”
She seems so certain. She claims a city is out here, yet, I haven’t seen roads or other people.
Just as the question passed through his mind, the sound of the rhawns’ hooves on the stone changed in pitch. Looking down, SoYa could see that the ground had leveled out into a wide hollowed area. The stone was perfectly round and inscribed with thousands of runes in a flowing, circular pattern.
The Apprentice couldn’t help but take a sharp hissing breath, “The Host Gate…”
“What was that, dear?” Aunt SaRa asked.
“This looks almost exactly like the…” SoYa stopped and craned his head back, eyes widening as they fixed upon the looming dragon statues above. He barked a proclamation, “It is!”
“Come on now, we’re almost there. I need you to stand in the circle, SoYa. Not much good in me leaving you here, now is there?”
“If you really want to stay here, you can,” she gave him a droll face.
He scurried forward quickly, leading Thorne into the center of the circle.
“I thought not.”
SoYa watched in curiosity as the woman fitted blinders over the eyes of her steed.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked.
Aunt SaRa peered over at him, “In my experience, these Gates bother land creatures. I’d suggest you’d do the same for yours. They still won’t like it all too much, but it prevents them from leaving the circle. Or worse, halfway leaving the circle.”
“What happens then?” he asked in a wary tone.
“I doubt half a rhawn would be as useful as a whole one,” she answered in a conversational tone.
SoYa choked. Without further words, he slid the blinders over Thorne’s eyes.
Once that was done, Aunt SaRa gave a last long look around to see if all was in place. Then placing a steady hand on the girl’s leg, her eyes closed. Instantly the runes upon the stone floor leapt to life, shimmering a brilliant pale blue.
A chill of power rippled up through SoYa’s body from the earth. With an uncomfortable glance, he measured how far he was from the edge of the circle. Then, the Apprentice shuffled closer to his steed, weaving his fingers into the rhawn’s long black mane.
A momentary feeling of displacement churned through his stomach, forcing his eyes to squint shut. Though his feet didn’t leave the ground, his body grew lighter, until he felt as if he might float straight off the earth. As strange as it made his head feel, the sensation was not unpleasant.
Just as he felt ready to lift away, his whole body lurched. With a violent jerk downward, he felt himself dragged back. Eyes flipping open, he found himself still standing on the stony ground in the middle of the circle.
Glancing over, he saw Aunt SaRa reel, then collapse against her white rhawn. A trickle of blood streamed from her forehead.
“Aunt SaRa!” he gave a choked cry, rushing to her side.
“You still call that thing our aunt?” a voice sneered from behind.
SoYa’s breath caught in his throat. His green eyes shifted to look at the blue-clad figure that stood just inside the crevice of the rocks. He recognized his brother instantly. TsuYa wasn’t there alone, either. A number of hooded figures stood at his back with XaNi right beside him. They all bore the same glowing markings of the Ghost Clan.
“Tsu!” he stammered, mouth going dry. “What what did you do to Aunt SaRa?”
The man lifted his foot slowly from where the toe of his boot crossed the circle’s pattern. A sickly smile broke over his face, a smile that did not touch his dead-colored eyes.
“I’m sorry. It seems I broke her circle,” the chiding tone spoke anything but apology.
SoYa hissed, taking a step forward, “Haven’t you done enough damage? I can’t believe that you could-”
“Believe?” TsuYa snapped, taking a step forward in return. His face was wary, like a man approaching a snake. “Believe? I’m the one that can’t believe!”
“SoYa, my brother… the saint of saints… the good child…” a scowl accented the words. “All this time you were an Athrylith!”
Murmurs from the figures behind echoed the word, leaving SoYa shaken.
“Tsu, I swear to you,” he began to back away fearfully. “I didn’t hide it with evil intentions or use it to hurt anyone!”
“I suppose what you did back at Nefol wasn’t hurting anyone?”
SoYa’s grit his teeth, “You ordered them to attack us. They’re Ghost Clan, TsuYa! What are you thinking aligning yourself with them?”
“An Athrylith spouting off about the Ghost Clan,” TsuYa chuckled with a hollow sound. “That’s irony.”
The elder brother shook his head, caught between standing his ground and backing away. Any further would leave Aunt SaRa and the girl exposed. “Father told me to keep it a secret.”
“I don’t! He knew! He knew and told me to never tell anyone… not even you!” SoYa snapped in return.
“Father wouldn’t allow a curse like you to thrive in Nefol!” TsuYa snarled.
“Obviously he didn’t think I was a curse!” SoYa retorted.
“Well, I do!” The sound of shifting metal revealed a cold, black blade, reflecting darkly.
DuLlafn! Father’s old scythe! He took that along with the robes?
The sound of murmurs rose from the hooded figures again. The curve of the long-hafted scythe leveled at SoYa’s head, a wicked intensity balanced upon TsuYa’s poise.
Weaponless, the elder brother shifted backwards once more, both palms open in a pleading motion. “Tsu…”
“Finish this,” XaNi’s cruel voice encouraged. “You’ve talked long enough. The Athrylith will snare you with words.”
“Tsu… don’t…” SoYa grit his teeth.
“Or what?” his sneer came with a forward jab of the blade. “Will you take my mind, too?”
No… no… I couldn’t do that to you, Tsu.
The point of the scythe traced across the soft flesh of SoYa’s throat. Their eyes met, mirroring green on green. When TsuYa spoke next, the voice was not his own, “So weak… I gave you a chance to make your choice. And all you did was run.”
SoYa’s breath caught sharply. His mind reeled back to the meeting in the forest, the thing that looked and sounded like AsaHi, but was AsaHi at all. The voice was the same as this. Still, as he stared into the distorted snarl in front of him, he knew that it was no trick this time — it was really his brother’s face.
A cold scoff gurgled TsuYa’s his throat, “You have so much power, but you’re so weak. I could’ve given you these robes if you hadn’t resisted me. I could’ve given you all of Nefol.”
“You can’t give someone something they already own,” a strong voice rang out from above.
SoYa peered up at a silhouette perched on top of the coiled tail of one of the stone dragons. Even in the dim light, the eyes reflected brilliant, slitted green.
TsuYa turned with a frown, “You better walk away and mind your own business!”
A deep-throated chuckle rang down from above, “My, my. Quite the confident one, aren’t we?”
A snarl broke over the younger brother’s face, “I gave you a warning!”
“How kind. How about I give you a lesson in return?” an obvious grin was woven into the words.
SoYa’s eyes widened as the figure on the rock rose and stretched a pair of feathered wings into the starlit sky. With unimaginable speed, the shadow sprang, darting from rock to rock until it landed only feet away. The Apprentice didn’t have the time to decide whether he was surprised or relieved. The shadows that perched upon the top of the stone clefts began to rise up, each bearing the shape of wings. More people leapt down, following the first.
“Dreigiau’s Cursed!” XaNi snarled, drawing her weapon.
“Ghost Clan Bane!” one of the winged figures retorted hotly.
SoYa suddenly realized he was standing the crossfire of a clan battle that reached back for countless generations.