Date: Many Passes Ago
The killing winter leapt across the land, howling around the two children like something from a campfire story. Except, there was no campfire now. Only the bleached landscape hung around them, sky and ground faded mirrors of nothingness. From time to time, a scraggly tree limb burst up through the snow drifts, like a desperate hand reaching towards the sky.
Zento heard stories of such winters, told by the Elders around the warmth of the Gathering’s fire. Their legends spoke of the First Ancestor, who led the early clans into the Northland mountains and challenged the blizzard storms to battle. Though he tamed the icy winds and made a home for his clan, the frost stole the color from their hair in vengeance, forever marking them as white-haired people of the North.
While some tales flaunted the glory of heroic deeds, most stories about Killing Winters were grim, earning pursed-lipped sounds from those who lived to tell them. Zento’s story was no exception.
His mother insisted that it was too late in the year to make such a risky trip across the Highlands. His father didn’t listen, claiming the freezing season was still another month away. Father had landed a great deal at the final trading post, which put them behind the South Migration. The Gatherings couldn’t stall their journey, and the pass through the Highlands was a tested shortcut for those left behind. As the family set out with their few belongings in tow, the weather decided to favor his mother’s warnings.
Unannounced, the blizzard raged down through the pass, storm winds howling through the passes like ravenous drift-wolves. Of the six who set out on the Migration, only Zento and his youngest sister, SaRa, remained. Zento’s father and older brother vanished one afternoon during a hunting expedition. Only days later, Mother caught chills that grew worse until she didn’t wake up. Though Zento fought to keep the remaining children alive, the elder sister eventually succumbed to the freeze.
Heart heavy with mourning and loss, stumbling feet slogging through the cold, he forced them to keep moving through the pass. When SaRa finally fell stiff and shivering in the snow, Zento carried her on his back.
Each breath shot a stream of crackling white smoke in the air. All Zento could feel was a stinging numbness both inside and out that even the warmth of their bodies pressed together could not dispel. Still he walked, step by tedious step. His father taught them to always move forward, to always fight, even to the last breath. This was the way of the Clans of the North.
It was nearly dark when Zento saw the distant light. At first, he thought it was snow-vision casting tricks over his eyes. However, the light remained steadfast, even as the skies grew darker and the wind’s breath colder.
Though his mind was tired, the boy pondered its appearance before making his decision to follow it. The light didn’t appear to be the sickly blue flames of the Ghost Clan, a dangerous people known for practicing the frightening Deep Magics. Nor did it seem to be the cold flame of a Mist Mote, which lured many unsuspecting travelers to their death within the snow-filled hollows. There the Mists would claim their spirits, taking them into the lands of Unrest.
This light was golden. Something about it called to Zento and filled him with the strength to answer the call. With endurance he didn’t realize he possessed, the boy pushed through the drifts, carrying the weight of his sister on his back. The snow grew abruptly shallow and in mid-step, the toe of Zento’s fur-lined boot caught on stone. He stumbled, fighting to keep his balance, but SaRa’s weight was so great upon him that he instantly found himself sprawled, face-first upon the stone.
For a long moment he simply laid still, his breath streaming ice-decorations on the naked rock under his cheek. Lifting his green eyes, Zento realized that they had stumbled into a cave. Though it looked very deep and dark, he could sense the potential warmth where the stone walls provided shelter against the frigid winds.
Still, Zento felt his strength leaving him with bitter disappointment. There was no sign of a fire. No sign of the saving light that led him there.
Half crawling, the boy gathered up his sister and dragged her away from the mouth of the cave. SaRa was not moving anymore, and only a faint outline of her breath played in the frozen air. Desperate to keep her warm, Zento curled up next to her and wrapped his cloak around them with numbed fingers. He leaned forward and touched his forehead to hers, knowing that she was there even though he could not feel the last of her pale warmth.
I need the strength… to save her…
Zento felt the snow-dreams taking him, his mind growing hazy. Then, despite his internal protests, his eyes fell closed, heavy with the weight of the cold.
It must have been a snow-dream, because everything was white there, too. It was a different kind of white — this white was warm and it tingled wherever it touched.
Zento felt relieved to see SaRa shivering under the cloak next to him. Shivering was motion, a sign of life.
He found a surprising new strength in his limbs, enough for him to push himself up on his palms. Then, the boy realized he wasn’t cold anymore. The light spread everywhere, tiny shimmers of sparkling white and gold dancing through the air. It gathered around them, and Zento knew it was the light that made him warm.
Are you the one who led me here?
He wasn’t sure how he knew the light could hear his thoughts. It just seemed like the most natural way to speak to it. He was also not surprised when it answered him with a vast, yet gentle, voice within his mind.
What… are you doing?
~I am granting your wish.~
I didn’t make a wish.
~I am granting it anyhow.~
I don’t understand.
~You wanted the strength to save your sister, yes?~
The boy nodded.
~Then make a fire.~
Zento looked around, feeling a gentle nudge against his shoulder. He turned to see a small gathering of dry twigs piled on the cave floor. But…
I can’t. I don’t have Father’s fire-making device.
There was a good-natured snort from the light.
~Device? Maybe they needed help to make a fire. But you don’t.~
Zento stared up in confusion.
~Relax. I’ll show you.~
At first, he felt a quiet tickle in the back of his mind, like an itch on the inside. Then a strange feeling rushed through him with such intensity that the boy gave a startled gasp. His eyes grew dim, turning inward as pulsing visions leapt through his mind. The world around him became instantly clear and he knew what to do.
Zento rose to his feet, his hands lifting higher, as a new light spiraled around him with increasing velocity. He could hear SaRa’s alarmed voice from somewhere in the distance, but he couldn’t answer her. He couldn’t even answer himself. There was nothing but this vast, new awareness and the power that filled him.
With a striking motion, the boy’s hands swept forward. At his command, a tiny pillar of flame leapt from the middle of the wood pile. An immense, triumphant hum filled the cave as heat pulsated from the growing blaze, as if the presence within the light was encouraging him.
Zento shuddered, his mind still reeling as the vast touch slipped away. He stared for a long time at the glowing heart of the flame. Somehow, he knew that something within him created this fire. The knowledge was both exhilarating and frightening.
SaRa stirred awake, then in time, crept closer to the fire, her eyes already more clear and alive. When she looked at Zento, her expression was tired, yet apprehensive. Then she looked up into the dancing spiral of light.
“Hello?” she said, somewhat quizzically.
A soft hum filled the cavern. It sounded like laughter.
~Hello, little one. Do you like the fire?~
“Yes,” SaRa nodded and nodded and nodded.
~ZenToYa has quite a talent, if I might say. You never knew your brother could command fire, did you?~
The girl’s mouth cupped into the shape of a little letter “o” as she turned to stare at the boy, “No…”
“Ididn’t even know!” Zento spluttered quickly in his own defense. Then he pointed at the light, “He showed me how to make it! I didn’t do it on my own!”
The girl tilted her head, returning her attention to the light, “Can you show me how to make fire, too?”
~Maybe when you’re a little older,~ came the soft promise.
“How did I do that?” the boy’s voice was low and shaky. “Was it some kind of magic?”
~You can call it that if you like. It’s really nothing that wasn’t already there within you.~
“It’s not something evil, is it? Like the Bane… or the Deep Magics?”
Zento knew very little when it came to magic, after all, his people did not embrace the wild powers the way the Ghost Clans did. The Elders told of the dark downfall of men who were lured by the temptations of such power, and the thought that Zento could be one of them, one of the Bane-holders, was enough to make his teeth chatter.
~ Evil? Is that what your people have come to believe?~ the voice was very grave. ~Magic becomes what the user makes it. This is why I want you to be my Myfyriwr.~
“Myfyriwr? What’s that?” Zento echoed the unfamiliar word.
~It means… I’d like you to stay here with me and I’ll teach you what I know about magic. Would you like that?~
“But, what about Mommy and Daddy?” SaRa’s lower lip trembled.
The light paused with a long moment of silence.
~I can feel your pain, though I don’t understand the emotion clearly. I can’t replace what you have lost, but I’ll take care of you, if you’ll let me. I’ll protect you and teach you. That’s all I can offer.~
The boy asked slowly, “Who are you?”
~I am the Arweinydd, Zemi Dreigiau.~
~It is an old word from another time… it means “Guide.” I am a teacher of sorts, you could say.~ The light rose slowly, a motion not unlike someone getting to their feet. ~Perhaps I will give you time to consider my offer. This must be a lot to think about.~
“Where are you going?” Zento watched as the light began to drift further away.
~Earthians require more than flame to survive, yes? If I remember correctly, they also require nourishment.~
“Earthians?” the boy echoed.
The voice did not answer. Instead, a flurry of light danced at the mouth of the cave. Then, as it passed outside, the light vanished.
“Did you see it?” SaRa asked, her mouth still slightly open.
“See what?” Zento was staring towards cave’s door, trying to make sense of everything.
“The dragon in the light,” she clarified.
He had seen it too, but he found himself saying something much different, “It was just your imagination.”