Anwil sighed. He leaned up against the front of his horse, rubbing his eyes.
They had been on the road to the Ash Country for more than a few hours, and Anwil's legs were seizing up. He hated the way Wryx was riding like he wasn't a city boy, like he knew what he was doing, leading the way with the absence of Ic'enix.
The dark sky stretched overhead. Wryx turned to the group behind him: Jinokusa with Shii on their huge horse, and Anwil on a thin, lean chestnut. "Okay," he said, "We have a few more stops before we can officially get on our way. Jino, you have all the supplies?"
Jinokusa nodded, Shii bouncing as he shifted his hands on the reins to pat the huge sack tied to the horse's rump.
"And what are those stops?" Anwil asked, spitefully.
"We have a few more people to pick up. They signed on last moment, so Ic'enix said I should go get them and brief them. She should be with them, hopefully she got away from Aomidori."
"Isn't it dangerous?" said Jinokusa, voicing what Anwil thought, "to have so many people help us? What, did you broadcast your need for warriors all over the country?!"
Wryx shook his head. "No, of course not. But Ic'enix has contacts." He smiled, his black horse moving smoothly under him.
They pulled up to a tall wooden cabin, somewhere deep in the wilderness surrounding Ein. It was a tidy grand looking house, even if it was cut off from almost all of civilization.
Wryx dismounted as the dawn steadily approached. Anwil followed suit, and Jinokusa swung off his steed, lifting Shii down with detached accuracy. You would think he was a lumbering fool, but his carefulness made you doubt that.
"Hello," said Wryx, walking up the little stone path to the front door. Ic'enix opened it, holding a slab of meat to her eye. Grinning, she waved them inside. Anwil felt his stomach drop: inside, there were several beady-eyed dark strangers, each with a dagger or sword hitched to their hip, waist, or back. One even wielded a huge mace, much like the one Jinokusa used on occasion.
"This is the White Guild," she said, waving to the men and women flanking her. This is our base of operations, if you're too thick to figure that out. Anyway," she pointed to a few in the small group. "These three are coming with us."
A woman and two men approached, and they stood in front of Anwil, Wryx, Shii, and Jinokusa with an air of defiance. When Ic'enix gestured with her hand, they delicately pulled their hoods off their heads, and their cowls down from their mouths.
"This is Xiv Pyira." Ic'enix pointed to the first man, who looked on to the other four with an easy gaze. He was quite handsome, with white-blond hair styled in a pomp, and ice-blue eyes, and he smiled without difficulty. Anwil immediately hated him.
Xiv smiled his annoying smile and bowed.
Jinokusa looked at him with unease. Wryx smiled and said, "What can you do, Xiv?"
"He's a real nice guy," said Ic'enix lazily. "A real ladies' man. He tends to be a grifter, though. He's very useful on big, drawn-out heists, but that's not why I let him join us." she smiled. "He's an expert at martial arts-style fighting."
"Why do we have so many melee fighters here?" asked Jinokusa indignantly. "I'm all you need!"
"Your style is brute force," said Ic'enix calmly. "And Xiv's isn't."
"So much for a well rounded group," said Anwil sarcastically. "We have a wizard, a brute, an archer, a thief, and a burden." he said, gesturing to Wryx, Jinokusa, himself, Ic'enix, and Shii in turn. They gave him slightly angry or hurt looks, all except Wryx, who had learned to ignore Anwil's outbursts by this point.
"Well," purred Ic'enix, her voice smooth as honey even though her eyes were fire, "just wait until I introduce everyone, Quar!"
Xiv smiled, and the other two shifted as Ic'enix pulled her gaze away from Anwil and to them.
"This is Tezko Helna," she referred to the second man, who was older than Xiv and looked about Jinokusa's age. His hair had turned grey, but he still looked relatively young, but he wasn't very much of a looker. "He's a medic. Or at least, that's his 'official' occupation. Here in the Guild, he is an expert at all things medical AND historical. While he isn't much of a fighter, he is a big help because he's one of the smartest people in all of the kingdom."
"That's a big title," said Anwil, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Tezko nodded. Apparently he couldn't tell the difference between sarcasm and honesty. "Yes. I can do lots of things, but mainly it's just medicine and lore. Ic'enix thought I would know about the Ash Country, and I do."
Wryx grinned and said, "That's good. I know quite a bit, but only which is written in the books here in our kingdom. I'm sure you have more access."
Tazko nodded once again, and told Wryx not to worry. "I am the leader of the College," he assured him, which was the center of knowledge for all three kingdoms, situated in the neutral territory that all three could populate without violating any treaties. "and have the most extensive library in all of the realm."
Ic'enix moved onto the last recruit. By this time, the rest of the Guild had slinked away down the dark hallway, one by one, as if lingering long enough to jump into action should something or someone attack their leader.
"This is Ryn Au." The girl, around Ic'enix's own age, had soft, long tawny hair the color of a deer's pelt. Her eyes were the brightest amber color, and her in her entirety reminded Anwil of autumn. "She is our most accomplished thief, besides me, of course. She is an expert at lockpicking, sneaking around, and gymnastics. However, she can't speak to us."
"Huh?" Anwil said. Jinokusa and Shii also looked confused. Wryx looked surprised, even if slightly.
"What's that mean?" Shii asked, speaking for the first time since leaving the Ein orphanage.
"Her affiliation is officially with the spirits," said Tazko. "She can understand you, hear you, everything- but she's not permitted to speak to us. She hears voices, and she only speaks when they tell her to."
Xiv continued. "She can speak to me," he said, "because I am, by birth, of the priest line of which her family converses. She can't speak directly to anyone else," He looked at Ryn with compassionate gaze, and Anwil understood. These two were together, but he couldn't tell if it was because of the family circumstances or actual love.
Ic'enix nodded. "She can tell us when we can restore Shii to the Ash Country."
"How'd you get away?" asked Anwil suddenly. "From Aomidori."
"She's strong," said Ic'enix, "but she's not as quick. Under no circumstances will any of you attempt to fight her. I know she was just toying with me, and if that's her weakest state, who knows what her strongest is." She stared intently at Anwil and Jinokusa. "I mean it."
"We should be able to leave now," said Wryx. "We still have a few other stops."