The morning sun woke her up, a harsh pain searing her closed eyes.
Aomidori glanced about, already on her feet. Leaves littered the ground, and her sudden movement made the loose dirt she had laid her bedroll on shift into dust. It took her all but three seconds to realize Shii was nowhere around. She took a sweeping step, turning in a circle. There was no noise, everything was dead quiet.
Shii was gone.
Anwil swung a leg over the bay horse, beckoning for Shii to climb on after him.
"Won't Aomi be angry?" Shii asked, allowing the stablemaster to hoist her onto the horse. As they trotted away, the man waved curtly at them and ducked back into his house.
"Oh, no," said Anwil sweetly, not feeling one bit guilty about lying to her. "She said I could take you." Her hands had been clutched on his arm, but with those words she seemed to release the tension trapped inside them.
"Oh," she said. "Where are we going?"
"The orphanage," said Anwil. "You'll be safe and sound there. And," he added, "Gredar and I will visit you." The horse trotted on as he rummaged around in his bag for some bread. "Have you eaten?" he asked.
"Not since last night," Shii said eagerly, and accepted his offering.
Anwil watched Shii eat with a sort of detached look. He was rather caught up and scared of the prospect that Aomidori could be right behind them, and he had to admit it: he was downright frightened of her. He had taken Shii in stupid abandon, his confidence overriding his fear. And it wasn't like he could return her. He had released the arrow: he had to go through with it and hope for the best.
Rage is quite a strong emotion. The feeling of being cheated, being angry about it, is so powerful it could rip apart someone like a ship in a storm. But no one feels it more powerfully than Snowyl Aomidori.
She stood in the middle of the camp, panting hard. Something invisible was gripping at her throat, something with clammy hands. It hissed in her ear like a snake, chastening her like she was a misbehaving child.
"You failed. You're a failure. The best assassin? Don't make me laugh." it jeered. "If you were, you would not have let that child save the Elf. If he had died, she'd be here." it paused a moment. "You've gone soft. Where did the notorious Blood Moon assassin go? You've gone soft for a CHILD!"
Aomidori stood completely still. "I'll get her back," she hissed. "Then you'll restore me to my former place as one of the Council, right?"
The voice seemed to laugh. "The Council do need you," it agreed, "But if you let the Eyu go, she'll complete her real mission. What do you say about that, Liyau?" it shook Aomidori slightly.
Aomidori's eyes glazed over red.
The voice said with a hint of a smile in his words, "Good. Become who you were born to be, and bring her back to us. What do you say?"
"I say I do." she said haphazardly. She slurred her words, like she was drunk.
"Then riddle me this. What is the river of all great kingdoms?"
"Blood. Blood is the river all stand on." Aomidori smiled her creepy smile.
The voice chuckled. "Go make that river run red once again."
The horse carried them almost 30 miles toward Ein that afternoon.
The sun was getting lower in the sky. This time last night, Anwil thought, he was on his way to the Heykla Inn.
"Why isn't the pony tired?" asked Shii, interested, sun shadows cast heavily on her soft baby features. It was like she was seeing the world through different eyes as they traveled along the countryside. Of course, she didn't know that a crazed assassin was going to be on their trail soon, ready to reclaim her.
"It's a special breed," said Anwil, enjoying her company despite the heavy lump in his stomach. "The Shaolinai horse breed. As strong as tigers and as fast as cheetahs. Or, that's what they're marketed as." he patted the horse's side. "Good boy." The horse shot him a look that could've been read as annoyance.
Shii pointed at something in a nearby tree as they trotted along the well-traveled sandy horse trail.
Anwil looked at it. "That's a yule bird." he said, pulling on the reins. Pulling out his arrow and bow, he leveled it with the bird's head. "They are big, easy marks, and taste pretty good, even raw." He shot it, arrow whizzing until it made a shunk sound against the tree as it pinned the now-limp bird to it. Then he directed the horse over to the slightly bloodied creature to collect it. After he swung down to get it and clambered back onto the steed, he tore off some skin with his knife and offered it to Shii.
Shii curled up her nose in distaste. "Ew!"
Anwil chucked and took a mouthful. The horse whinnied and turned back onto the trail, slowing to a walk to sniff at some grass. After the horse ate some, Anwil coaxed him back into a canter, and he took off up the steep incline toward the towering city of Ein.
"Hey! You can't be here-"
Aomidori glanced at the stablemaster with a sadistic smile. "Open to all costumers," she said, taking a sweeping step around. "Even to Blood Moon killers. At least during store hours, eh?"
"You're oddly open about your choice of allegiance," said the stablemaster's wife. She was curt-looking and older than him: you could almost mistake her for being his mother. She surely seemed to act like it.
Aomidori smiled at her, teeth bared. "Wouldn't you be?"
"No, I wouldn't--" said the wife, but Aomidori raised her sword. She shut up, and said in a stutter, "W-what do you n-n-need?" she was oddly cooperative now, the risk of her life being taken hanging in the balance.
"Don't flash your sword at my wife!" said the stablemaster loudly. "I'll call the guards!"
"Please do," said Aomidori, bored. "Haven't been on a killing spree in a while."
"You-" hissed the man, but she was at his throat now, and she asked him,
"Where's your son?"
"Upstairs! Why do you want him?"
"I need a partner. Didn't you know he joined the Blood Moon guild?"
The man's eyes went wide. "Not Usa, not my son! Usa would never do that!"
"But he did." said Aomidori, and turned to face the tall man in the doorway upstairs. "Usa."
"Snowyl," he said. "I heard you killed some of your Moon brethren yesterday."
"They had it coming," she said sweetly, tapping the side of her head. Her eyes were still a potent shade of red. "I lost who I was, anyway. Would you mind helping me reclaim the last Eyu?"
"Does it involve a death?" Usa asked. He had the same look of sadistic pleasure on his face, his eyes covered slightly on one side by black hair that reached his neck. He started to descend the stairs, his parents looking on disbelievingly.
Aomidori nodded. "One, or maybe two. Maybe more."
Usa grinned. "Consider me signed. What do you need?"
"A horse," she said. "Your fastest one."
They slid off the steed onto the cobblestone ground and walked him to the tall gate. One of the guards welcomed them jovially and offered to hitch the horse up to the guard's watchtower down the road. Anwil accepted, and Shii walked off with him into the capital city.
As they passed, a lean grizzled man, obviously a guard, handed Shii a little lollipop made out of powered sugar crystal and made a "shh" sound with his finger to his lips. Shii smiled as they passed under the tall, stone gateway. It was grander than any of the small town gates.
The turrets of the glass castle in the distance rose up in the sky. It was the highlight of the city, nestled among the several village houses, vendors, and large stone buildings. Shii was awestruck: everything was so different compared to the ocean town Aomidori and her had been hiding in. since leaving the Wyland, where they had barely went into civilization.
"Have you been here before?" asked Shii, before remembering he had been the orphanage bodyguard.
Anwil nodded dejectedly. The city seemed to bring back some bad memories for him, or that could've been the fact that he had stolen Shii from her guardian and he was fearful of the consequences... but he quickly smiled again. He felt different around Shii. She was among the first people to be nice to him, beside Gredar. That changed him, somehow.
They walked through the alleyway that lead straight through the usual traffic of people. Anwil shoved people aside while Shii clutched his shirt to avoid getting lost. After a moment, Anwil stopped. He smiled, and pointed up to the tall rafters of the wide, stone structure. A sign read in big plain letters:
A paper under it said:
If you are here to drop off a child, please see our second in command, Wryx. if you are here to adopt a child, please see one of our representatives. If you are here to pick up a child, please make sure you have all your papers and wait in the lobby until called.
"Okay," said Anwil, opening the tall wooden Dutch-style door. "They'll make you feel right at home here, okay?" Shii nodded, nervous, and they stepped through into the warm lobby, away from the nipping cold of the autumn day.
The first person they saw was an average-height older man with a stone-hard face. He glanced at Anwil, and his serious expression broke into one of taunting pitifulness. "Aw," he said. "Our former bodyguard shows his face after what he did, eh? Want your job back? Your hunting gig didn't work out?"
Anwil shot him a look. "Shut up," he said evenly. "I'm just here to deliver this girl."
"Hmmm," said the man. He extended his hand to Shii. "I'm Jinokusa. You?"
"Shii," she said, shaking his large hand with her little fingers uncertainly. "Um," she said. "What do I do now?"
Jinokusa smiled at her. "We just have to ask you a few questions," he said, "And we'll find you a room. Elf," he said to Anwil, refusing to use his actual name like he always did while in training under him. They had always had a rather bitter relationship. "Would you mind talking to Wryx? He'd like a word with you."
Anwil nodded, preventing the bile bubbling in his throat to rise and spit at Jinokusa. But once Jinokusa had returned from taking Shii to another room, where the elderly headmistress greeted her jovially, Anwil smiled with downturned eyebrows.
"How you been?' he asked.
"Not bad at all," said Jinokusa. "Pay's good, women come easily, and, ya know, what? The kids love me."
"The reason why chicks like you is because they think you'll babysit their children," Anwil said dryly. "You'll probably end up marrying into one of those big clans from downtown."
"The Syn Clan? Well, yeah. She may be divorced with seven children, but she's the prettiest girl around. Didn't you have a little boy crush on her back in the day?" Jinokusa smiled his annoying smile, having fun as he jabbed at Anwil for the first time in years.
"Before she got married and had a dozen kids!" said Anwil. "Kids aren't my thing, Jinokusa."
Jinokusa smiled again. "Then why did you bring that little girl? Besides your ulterior motive."
Anwil glared at him, hard. "I didn't just bring her because I wanted to brag about my new hunting gig, which is going amazingly, by the way. She needed help."
The man smiled. "So, someone finally broke that cold heart of yours?"
"She didn't break anything," said Anwil. "She's just a sweet kid who deserves better."
"Keep telling yourself that, Elf. You care about her, like a dad or uncle or something." At Anwil's enraged expression, Jinokusa hastily continued: "By the way, you should probably get your butt down to Wryx's office. He's waiting."
Turning and seething, Anwil took several strides across the stone floor toward one of the halls, and turned down it into an office.
Wyrx was an odd character, He was honest and kind, but he had hair the color of lavender. He also had small pointed wolf ears that extended from where his ears should be, but otherwise he looked like a good-looking teenage boy, which puzzled Anwil even more.
"They let a minor take the job of second?" Anwil asked snottily, as he always did when he had to meet with Wryx.
Wryx smiled. "You never did like me," he said softly.
"Yeah, you look like you haven't aged a day." spat Anwil. "You're too pure for your own good, too. You could be a priest, if they didn't consider your kind heathens." he scoffed. Which was true, Wryx was apart of the broad-termed "Therianthrope" race, or Therians as they were commonly known to races outside themselves.
Wryx shrugged. "Beside the point, Mr. Quar. We heard about your involvement in the Heykla Inn murder." he shifted himself forward, narrowing his soft yellow eyes at Anwil. "You were with Liyau, right?'
"Whose asking and why?" Anwil said, avoiding the question.
"Let's not play games," said Wryx. "You always ask me endless questions when I'm just trying to get one answer out of you. Please answer me."
"Yes," said Anwil.
"You weren't involved, right? In the killings?"
"No! They tried to kill me, but it was the Liyau who got any killing blows," said Anwil hastily. "After all, she's after me, I think."
Wryx looked up in interest. "Yes?"
"I took the girl from her," he admitted, speaking slowly. "The girl, Shii. Shii Eyu."
"Eyu?" said Wryx, rubbing his forehead, twitching his ears. "Didn't know you were that stupid. You don't take an Eyu away from a Liyau. But it may have been for the best."
Anwil stared at him. "What?" he was mildly insulted.
"Your comment about me being a priest? Well, I do something similar on my downtime." Wryx smiled. "Apparently, Eyu is the supposed hero of our world. The family has been locked away by the Liyau for centuries, trying to keep them from preforming their only purpose."
"That is?" Anwil said, somewhat curious about the young boy's words.
Wryx laughed and said, "And that's to make the journey to the Ash Country and restore the balance to our world by becoming the Dragon." He tapped his desk lightly. "If an Eyu gets there, he or she can become the Dragon, which is the creature that keeps our balance, well, in balance. Right now it's very distorted, and the world is on the edge of collapse."
"You're not kidding?"
"Oh, no. You've got an angry Liyau on your tail now, but you've got a head start to get Shii to the Ash Country." Wyrx paused. "Do you need any help?"
"No, I don't think s-"
"Wryx!" a girl swung open the door behind Anwil, a girl with short brown hair and green eyes the color of sunlit grass. "Wryx, I just heard of the news! I got some of the best hired warriors back home if you need them-"
"Ic'enix!" said Wryx under his breath. "You're not going, so don't-"
Ic'enix shot an angry look at him.
"This is Ic'enix," said Wryx to Anwil. "She's my 'friend'." He said it as if he could get in trouble for saying this. " She really wants to go to the Ash Country for some wacko reason."
"Um, what can she do?" asked Anwil, looking at the plain looking girl and sniggering. "Doesn't look like she could even pick a bug off a tree without help, eh?" The girl was rather scrawny looking, compared to everyone else Anwil knew.
In a minute, Ic'enix was on the other side of the room, swinging Anwil's sword.
"Give it back!" shouted Anwil.
Wryx smirked. "She's the White Raven," he said.
Anwil blinked in disbelief. But...
"Isn't it odd how you all assume that the world's great thief is a man?" Ic'enix smirked, tossing Anwil's sword up and down.