“Well, now. Welcome back!”
The voice was overly cheerful, even through the groggy haze that clouded AsaHi’s mind. The girl’s eyes inched open, then fluttered against the amber light filtering in from window above.
“Sunset already?” she murmured. “I slept that late?”
There was the sound of a warm chuckle, “You like understatements, don’t you?”
AsaHi pushed herself into a sitting position. Instantly, stiffness racked her body, nearly forcing her to collapse back against the pillows again. She fought the desire until her muscles finally complied with a dull ache.
“How do you feel?” the voice asked.
“Like I fell off the top of the Spire,” she grumbled a reply.
Rubbing her temples, the girl rolled her head around to loosen the tension in her neck. Then she glanced towards the source of the kindly voice. Instantly, she recognized the middle-aged woman who sat there. “Aunt SaRa?”
“You really are one for getting into nasty scrapes, aren’t you? You remind me of me when I was young. Between Zento and I, I am surprised we left Zemi with any sanity at all,” the woman gave another chuckle.
“Lord… Zemi…” AsaHi heard herself speak as if a million miles away.
Everything suddenly came back to her. Images flickered through her mind, superimposing upon each other until they became one. The flower… the cave… the statues… the globes… the runes of light… the shadow… The Dragon. An overwhelming fear and awe gripped her at the realization that such a creature really did exist, that she saw it with her own eyes, and she was still alive.
The girl reached out, grasping the older woman’s robes, “He’s real!”
“Who is, dear?” Aunt SaRa gently removed the girl’s fingers from the hem of her garment. Then with a silence born of grace, she strode to the other side of the room and began pouring a drink over a little tray on the table.
“Lord Zemi Dreigiau!”
“Of course he is,” she replied drolly. “Now, do you take your mastak with or without sweetening?”
“I… I… didn’t believe it!”
“You seem the type to like yours sweet,” Aunt SaRa dropped a spoonful of soft white powder into the cup and began to stir gently.
“I didn’t think I’d find anything there!”
“I see,” the sound of stirring stopped. “So that’s what you were doing in the Host Gate, was it?”
AsaHi nodded meekly.
“I’m certain you discovered that Zemi doesn’t like when his existence is discounted. It must have been quite a blow to that colossal pride of his,” Aunt SaRa glanced over, her deep eyes shimmering in mirth.
“There’s nothing funny about this! He could have easily…” the girl swallowed, leaving the thought unfinished.
“Bah!” The woman waved a hand with a girlish grin, “Zemi needs to be taken down a few notches every now and then. Either that or the old fossil will get too big for his own scales.”
Aunt SaRa didn’t seem to notice as she carted the tray across the room on one palm, placing it in the girl’s lap. It was filled with an array of sliced fruit, cold-cut sweet meats and warm puffed pastries. “Here, you must be starved. Close the talk and grab a bite to eat.”
The girl stared down, eyes moving over the cuisine in wonder. At the sight of the food, she realized she was absolutely ravenous. With nothing more than her fingers, AsaHi began to tear into the dishes with great relish, stuffing bits of this and that into her mouth all at the same time.
“I’m afraid it’s not much. I didn’t have time to prepare for you.”
AsaHi attempted to speak her thanks, but all that came out was a muffled, “Mrruph!”
“You’re welcome,” the older woman nodded before continuing. “I didn’t trust to leave you alone.”
The words were so grave that the girl swallowed down the mouthful of food, pausing with a concerned look, “What do you mean?”
Aunt SaRa gave a sad but encouraging smile. “Finish your plate. Then we’ll talk. You’re going to need all the strength you can muster.”
Troubled thoughts drew around AsaHi as she returned to eating with a good deal less enthusiasm. The apprehensive look on the older woman’s face was not one that she had seen often. When Aunt SaRaYa was displeased about something, there was truly a cause to worry.
The girl fidgeted, an uncomfortable feeling rising, “I’m in serious trouble, aren’t I?”
“AsaHi… How do I explain?” the older woman paused, looking uncertain, one finger tapping her lower lip.
“Lord Dragon wants me punished, doesn’t he?”
Then, Aunt SaRa gave her the look.
Urk… maybe I should keep things to myself…
She fell silent with a shudder, waiting for the woman to speak. When the voice came again, it was firm and direct.
“What you did was terribly thoughtless, child. The powers that you were toying with are not things to take lightly,” Aunt SaRa’s eyes grew sharp. “It is not because of Zemi’s anger that you were in danger. I doubt he was upset by your appearance there, despite what you or anyone else thinks. I believe the one thing that would have upset him was the danger that you placed yourself in by summoning him.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re no Apprentice, child.”
“I know,” AsaHi looked down meekly.
“There are boundaries between Zemi’s realm of existence and ours. It’s like an invisible wall, if you will, one that we Earthians cannot perceive, much less cross over. But he can. That’s how he comes to speak with us. Does this make sense to you?”
The girl’s mouth was slightly ajar. She nodded.
“It takes a great amount of power to push through this wall.” Aunt SaRaYa continued, “The Apprentices train to be able to handle the force that it releases.”
“And what if someone is not trained?”
“Death is possible. Or worse, living with half a mind for the rest of one’s life.”
AsaHi sucked on her bottom lip, “I didn’t know.”
“Now you do.”
“But, why am I still alive?” the girl finally breathed.
“Zemi protected you.”
She croaked out one word, “Why?”
Aunt SaRa’s face was unmoved. “Why not?”
“Because I’m just a… a… nothing… next to something like him!”
“I don’t think he’d approve of that sort of thought from you. Not after all he went through to see that you came out of this alive. If you are truly nothing, then all he did was for nothing, yes?” the woman pressed her lips together. “Besides, what would you do if you saw someone hurt?”
“I’d help them if I could, of course!”AsaHi answered without hesitation.
“Then why do you think Zemi wouldn’t do the same?”
“I… don’t know. I just didn’t think…”
“I am living testimony to his generosity,” Aunt SaRa’s face softened though her voice grew more grave. “Besides, the danger you are in now doesn’t come from Zemi.”
The girl blinked up questioningly, “Danger?”
“This infernal institution has gone too far. This is nothing like what he would have wanted it to be.”
“You mean the School?”
“Yes,” Aunt SaRa answered quietly.
“The Council won’t be happy with me,” AsaHi looked down.
“To put it lightly, no.”
“I knew they wouldn’t be. I just thought that all of this was a way of keeping the people quiet. I didn’t know that Lord Zemi was real,” the girl let out a long, ragged breath, winding her fingers together. “What are they going to do to me?”
“Do you want to wait around to find out?” Aunt SaRa’s tone shifted once again.
AsaHi’s head jerked up, “What are you saying?”
“I promised SoYa that I’d see you to safety.”
“SoYa? He knows?” AsaHi’s chest ached at the thought.
“Too many people know,” the woman nodded. “That is why you must make haste with the night.”
“You mean leave?”
Aunt SaRa looked as if she wasn’t sure of what she was about to say, “I know that you’re aware of the threat that the Council poses to SoYa and his position as the rightful successor as the High Guide of Nefol. This is nothing new, however. It’s something that’s always been, since before my brother… vanished.”
AsaHi could only look up in quiet wonder. It’s the first time her own fears about the Council of Nefol and their ambitions had been confirmed by someone else. And now that it had been said, she discovered she didn’t have the words to reply. The thought that the Council, the people who were the leaders and protectors of the city, would be working towards something so treacherous left a lump in her throat.
“I assure you that the Council doesn’t understand the will of the very Patron they claim to serve,” the woman lowered her head in thought. “They have forgotten what it meant to be a part of Nefol and to spread the knowledge that was given to us.”
The girl blinked, the concepts ringing in her mind.
Aunt SaRa’s head lifted again, a sadness creeping back into her eyes, “You don’t have much time. It’s your choice to stay or leave, though I gave my word to take care of you. And I don’t believe you will be safe here.”
“This is what SoYa wants?”
“Yes. He already talked to me about it. He understands what happened and he thinks it’s for the best,” she nodded.
AsaHi took a deep breath, “Won’t the Council try to find me?”
“If they do, they will discover you are well protected,” Aunt SaRa answered with a somewhat mysterious look.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t think that I would send you on a journey unprotected, do you?”
“Well… I…” the girl blinked, eyes turning towards the window.
The world outside was falling into a deep, blue slumber under the glow of the triple moons. Nefol lay silent beneath the shroud, flickering lights dotting the darkness where homes of people lay, people that she had grown up with, whom she loved. As much as the girl enjoyed traveling and exploring, she always had a home to return to. Suddenly it didn’t feel that way anymore. There was a spot in her heart that had grown cold and afraid. A spot where something important was missing.
“What is your choice, dear?” Aunt SaRa asked, giving the girl’s hand a soft squeeze.
After a long moment, AsaHi nodded, “Tell me where I must go.”