TsuYa led them into the cold under chambers of the Spire, picking his paths with seemingly little forethought. The path was a good one, out of the ranging sight of the Marked creatures that probably filled the upper halls.
I didn’t realize Tsu even knew about these chambers.
Then, it occurred to Zento that maybe his son didn’t. Maybe TsuYa was functioning on some strange sort of instinct alone. That was a thought that the winged man didn’t want to linger on.
But I can see it in his eyes…
The lower chambers were originally built for food store and utility purposes. However, the way the floor was littered with grime and stained with blackened puddles, told a grim tale. Past echoes of torment and fear still hung heavy in the air, choking Zento’s mind mage senses. That, along with the roving Marked, whose screeches caused much mind-damage, cautioned him to keep his mind as closed as possible.
Perhaps that was why Zento didn’t realize the lower chambers weren’t completely vacant until he stumbled into the make-shift cell. The winged man froze, staring across the dark room at the shadow that hung, both arms chained to the wall.
The prisoner’s body hung limp, draped in tattered rags that was once Nefolian robes. Discolored splotches mottled his skin, signs of battle and mistreatment. His limbs held the hint of near malnourishment and his unkempt white hair obscured his face where it hung about his drooping head.
“Wait… I’ve found someone!” Zento called to his companions.
But Tsu was not in the mind-set to wait.
-No time for this,- Zazo echoed back with impatience. –We came to find the Sygnus. The Earthians can wait.-
Momentary disgust boiled in the pit of Zento’s stomach. If he left this man a helpless prisoner, he knew he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself. Despite the sound of his companion’s footfalls drawing further away, Zento turned aside and approached the battered figure on the wall.
That’s when his senses told him something extraordinary. He knew it instantly. This was the son of his once brother-in-arms, JinRai.
“KoGuRai?” the winged man’s voice wavered in the darkness.
He was also the one who betrayed Zento and set the Council against him. The one who sent him on his long, painful exile, stealing the tender time he had with his young sons.
“KoGu, can you hear me?” Zento rushed over , lifting the younger man’s head, looking for a sign of awareness.
None of that mattered now. How could it with the battered form of his best friend’s son hanging before his eyes?
To his surprise, KoGuRai groaned in response, puffy eyes cracking open with great effort. It took time for his gaze to lift and settle on Zento’s concerned face, and even more time for the younger man to decipher what he was actually seeing.
“Zen… to?” KoGuRai choked on the name. Then he turned away. “Has your spirit come to take revenge on me in the end?”
“No, KoGu. Look at me.” Zento gently cupped his head in both hands. “I’m really here. I’m not dead.”
“Not…?” the green eyes flicked upward, the first sign of the usual cunning and calculation. “How can that be?”
The winged man gave a creased smile in return. “You think you can do me in that easily? I am ZenToYa!”
“I… suppose not,” KoGuRai responded, the sound of guilt wavering between his words. “The things I did to you… I …”
“We’ll worry about it later,” Zento told him, focusing on working open the cuffs. Made of strong metals, they glittered with a strange blue sheen. “After I get you out of here.”
KoGuRai fell silent, seeming too overwhelmed to respond. When he did find words, all he could ask was, “Why would you…?”
“You’re Jin’s son,” the winged man answered without hesitation. The cuffs repelled any attempt he made with magic, so he began searching the cell for anything that might cut the chains or pick the locks. The cell was woefully unequipped. “I can’t just leave you here.”
The expression on KoGuRai’s face prompted Zento to stir up conversation. Keep him talking to keep him alert.
“What happened, KoGu? How did Nefol fall to this?”
“I… I don’t know,” he struggled to respond, fighting back memories. “It was small at first. Things weren’t right in the city and the things I saw… well… I knew I needed to get Mother out of Nefol.”
“Where is she now?” Zento asked with genuine concern.
KoGuRai’s silence spoke what words could not.
“I’m… sorry…” Thrusting the blade of the bhinod into the point where the metal plate connected to the wall, the winged man fought to pry the chains from the stone.
“I did everything I could,” the younger man’s eyes cast down. “Other people… ended up joining with us. I tried to lead them… and protect them… but the Marked just kept coming.”
Zento grit his teeth, fighting with all his strength. Neither steel nor stone gave ground.
“Zerom took everyone he could find… Nefolians… Ghost Clan… entire Gatherings,” he choked.
KoGuRai nodded, “Zemi must not have realized. This was going on long before now. Zerom chose the Ghost Clan just like Zemi chose Nefol. Only… now that it’s come to this, Zerom is turning them all Marked, too.”
Finally Zento had to stop to catch his breath. He internally cursed age for catching up with him. Catching his breath, he offered encouraging words, “Zemi’s here to fight for Nefol. We’ll take it back and stop what Zerom has done. There must be a way to reverse this.”
“Reverse this? The Marked?” KoGuRai responded with a haunted, bitter voice. “You know very well that there are things in life you can’t ever take back.”
“Pragmatic, just like your father,” Zento muttered. The moment the words crossed his lips, he wished he spoke more carefully.
A sullen shadow passed over KoGuRai’s expression. However, he lifted his head with a listening look, his words hissed a warning instead of a response, “She’s coming, Zento!”
“XaNi,” he spoke the word as if that told everything Zento needed to know.
In response, the winged man began to jimmy at the wall with renewed fervor.
“No,” KoGuRai choked, gritting his teeth. It was obviously very difficult for him to say. “You can’t get captured… not because of me. You have to help Zemi. He has no idea what he’s up against!”
“And leave you like this?” Zento protested.
“Just like I left you.” The young man retorted bitterly, “All’s fair.”
“That’s exactly why I won’t.”
“Take care of Zerom,” KoGuRai ‘s tone spoke his belief that he didn’t deserve Zento’s mercy. “Come back for me later. I’ve been here long enough. I can deal with a little more.”
Zento took an unhappy step away. The chains weren’t budging and KoGuRai’s words made sense. Though part of him stung at the thought of abandoning the son of JinRai to Zerom’s darkness, to stay much longer would put the whole plan in jeopardy.
“I’ll come back for you,” Zento promised as he, too, could make out the sound of approaching footsteps. Sliding back into the shadows, he slipped towards the hall.
“Oh,” KoGuRai responded in an off-hand manor, with a hint of bitter humor, “I’ll be right here. Don’t worry.”
The winged man shot one last concerned glance over his shoulder at the wilted form. Then, mustering up all his willpower, he turned his back and rushed silently down the hall where his companions continued without him. It wouldn’t be too hard to find them, not with Zazo spieling out Arweinydd energies the way she did.
Very little time passed before Zento caught up to them. He was surprised to see that the she-wolf actually came back to look for him.
-Where have you been? We found the chamber!- she snapped at him.
“I had some business to take care of,” he answered.
-You have business to take care of here, too. Stay on track!- Zazo snuffed, nose lifting to the air as she trotted back down the hall. He could hear her faintly muttering, -This is what Zemi gives me to work with.-
Zento knew the she-wolf was right, that he needed to keep his mind on their mission. Still, it was difficult to shake the memory of the haunted light in KoGuRai’s eyes and the sorrow in his voice.
The boy tried to apologize to me back there. I think he meant it.
Rais never offered and apology without meaning. As much as KoGuRai broke his father’s mold, he still carried with him many of the Rai family ways.
Perhaps finally, we can have closure about this. Our families were meant to be kinsmen, not enemies.
Zento stopped, peering up at the tall doors to the next chamber. He could make out streams of silver light that escaped through the cracks in the wood.
We just have to make it out of here alive.