"She's the White Raven?" said Shii, after she had received some clothes from the orphanage's stock. She sat with Anwil in the back room with the hearth, where Ic'enix and Wryx had requested them to meet.
"Yes," said Anwil, still intrigued.
"Hello," said Wryx, smiling as he greeted Shii. Shii blushed red as he commented on her old clothes. "You may want to put the new ones on. People may wonder if you're a little adventurer with those you currently have."
Anwil sneered. Wryx was practically everything he wasn't, his foil. He was nice, kind, honest, pure, and a hit with kids, probably cause he looked a bit like one. Anwil, on the other hand, was conniving and mean: he didn't like describing himself this way, but he realized how unlikable he was.
"Ic'enix," said Wryx. "This is Shii Eyu."
Ic'enix bowed and offered the girl her hand. "Nice to meet you."
Ic'enix wore a pair of stretchy pants and a form-fitting sleeved top that encased her full hands like a glove, her outfit all white. She was very athletic, bending every which way like a contortionist, and moving like a graceful gymnast. Her movements captured Anwil's imagination.
Shii looked innocently at Wryx, snapping Anwil out of his trance. "Are you two together?"
Wryx shook his head. "No," he said. "She's a thief, and I'm a law-aiding citizen. But she's a fascinating individual." he smiled. Anwil recognized that, of course, Wryx liked Ic'enix, but in a platonic way. In fact, Anwil couldn't imagine Wryx being romantic with anyone.
"Are you coming?" asked Anwil disgruntledly. The flames played off his features, his face a valley of dark grey, tan, and orange flittering across it.
Wryx nodded. "I know exactly where the Ash Country is, and where in it we have to go. Ic'enix is coming, and Jinokusa." Anwil spluttered as the boy continued. "I believe that's everyone, unless Ic'enix brings someone from her gang along."
Anwil paused. "Where am I in this plan?"
"You... aren't coming." said Wryx.
"What?!" Anwil said, outraged. He felt cheated. He had brought Shii here, been through all of this violence caused by Aomidori during the last few days, and he would just be left in the dust?! Aomidori was sure to target him first off, since he was the last person with Shii, and they were going to just leave him like a lamb for the slaughter?!
"You aren't fit for the journey." said Ic'enix. "Elves aren't cut out for traveling long distances, you know. They have to train, and you look like you need to hit a self defense class."
"I was a BODYGUARD!" Anwil seethed.
"He can hunt," offered Shii helpfully. "He's the best hunter in the kingdoms."
"Then why haven't I heard of him?" asked Ic'enix. "I've heard of the world's greatest killer, the Liyau; I've heard of the world's strongest man, Jinokusa; I'm the supposed world's greatest thief." she paused. "What does 'best hunter' do to hold a light to any of those titles?"
Anwil knew she wasn't being mean, but he couldn't tell what she was trying to do.
He sighed, and made to get up. But Shii grabbed his arm.
"I won't go without him," she said. "He has to come! He's my friend."
Wryx and Ic'enix sighed.
"I knew it," said Wryx. "That settles it. Tomorrow, we'll get the team together and set off."
"But Aomidori's already on our tails," said Anwil. "She'll kill us all if she catches us."
"Let her try," said Ic'enix bitterly. "No one can catch a thief that's made off a billionaire by pick-pocketing even the most weary of assassins. What do you think I can do with this hands and a sword? How do you think I robbed the King in the far east?"
"But you saved the Emperor." said Anwil.
"Oh, he offered me a reward even more than I was going to get away," said Ic'enix. "But I would never kill. Death is wrong, and if you had the money in the first place, of course you can get it back if you work honestly. I only thieve from those who take it illegally."
"So you're more a hero than a villain." said Anwil, stretching back on the couch.
Ic'enix's eyes flashed, offended. "Of course I'm not a villain." she said. "What do you take me for?"
Aomidori stood outside the Ein gate, Usa at her side.
"We gonna sneak in?" he asked placidly.
"We could," said Aomidori, the night sky stretching over her and the moon shining dimly on her face, making her eyes milky white. "But what's the fun in that?" She gestured to the soldiers in the watchtower in the distance, their voices and laughs carrying over to the black-clad duo.
A siren went up from outside the city.
Anwil, Ic'enix, Shii, and Wryx all leapt to their feet. "She's here," said Anwil.
"Let's go, then." said Ic'enix. "I really wanna meet this chick." she smiled, and Anwil saw a flash of anger in her eyes, as if these two women shared a complicated and painful history.
A powerful boom echoed outside the front door of the orphanage.
"She's at the door!" shouted Jinokusa from the lobby. They all heard the clatter of metal against a iron sheath as he drew his greatsword.
"Get back here, Jinokusa!" yelled Wryx. "She'll cut your head off-"
Jinokusa stumbled backwards, narrowly avoiding a swing of sword aimed at his neck, into the room. "You were almost right," he panted, his face contorted, and Shii tried to pull him up. Wryx turned to them.
"Jinokusa, Shii. You two go to the cellar. Jinokusa, protect her, you got me?" Wryx said.
Jinokusa nodded, and retreated backwards as the lobby door fell inward. The slam of the cellar one seemed to ease Wryx, because the boy got a determined look on his face and stepped behind Ic'enix and Anwil.
"You'll get yourself killed," yelled Anwil. "You can't fight!"
"What's it to you?!" said Wryx, "You've never seen me fight!"
A dark figure was the first inside the lobby, screaming echoing behind him. He was a young man, slightly older than Anwil but definitely younger than Jinokusa, with dark hair covering one eye. He had the mark of the Blood Moon on his arm, and seemed rather bored, despite being covered with blood that wasn't his.
"Yep," he said lazily. "There're in here, Snowyl."
"Thanks, Usa." said Aomidori, stepping into the room. Anwil noticed her blood red eyes, and something clicked within his brain. She smiled at Ic'enix and said, "But who is this?"
Ic'enix grinned back. "Like I would tell you," she said. "That's what gives me an edge." Aomidori's face contorted with anger. Anwil watched the two women in their brief standoff, waiting for one to leap into action.
The White Raven and the Liyau stood motionless.
The thief and the killer should have been no match for each other. But it was, in reality, a battle orchestrated in hell: both women were the best enemy for each other.
Anwil knew this. They looked at each other like they had know each other forever, a lifelong relationship of hatred, even if Aomidori had no idea who she was looking at. Anwil held his breath in, as the first blade swung up and caught the light.
The first flash was black: Aomidori had moved first.
Ic'enix barely dodged the blow, moving expertly out of the way. She spun on her right foot, swinging her own sword at Aomidori's head: a thin stream of blood came away from the latter's hand, as she had brought it up to block the sharp blade.
Anwil watched with bated breath as he and Wryx stood back, mesmerized. The small lobby, its wooden floorboards creaking under the constant shifting and removing of weight from the women, could barely contain the two fiery spirits.
"MOVE!" shouted Ic'enix at Wryx as she flipped backwards toward the back room, landing on all fours before leaping off again. Aomidori slammed herself into Ic'enix, using one hand to block her sword and the other to slash a dagger into Ic'enix's arm. She staggered backwards, the blood falling in thick pools, but didn't break stride otherwise. She unsheathed another sword from her hip and leaped forward at Aomidori.
"USA!" Aomidori yelled at the young man, "Find Shii, now!"
Usa grinned, and stepped past the ongoing battle.
Wryx and Anwil were his only obstacle to the cellar.
"I won't slit your throat," he said lazily, "If you kindly let me pass."
Wryx took on an extremely determined face, the one Anwil had seen when the boy had been working on some big project to benefit the orphanage, or the children he helped care for. Anwil had always taken Wryx to be weak combat-wise, so he stepped forward to help him as Usa waited for an answer,
"No," said Wryx simply.
Usa's face didn't change, and Wryx stepped forward, holding his fingers up. After a little chant under his breath, a flash lightened the dark room and made a huge bang noise. Anwil swung a dagger into the man's chest, as the spell did not stagger him. He only smiled, grabbed Wryx's shoulders, and swung him out of the way, and proceeded to do the same to Anwil.
Anwil caught Wryx before he hit the wooden-panel walls, and said to him, "Go to Shii, now. I'll try and hold this guy back until you can get outside the city!"
Wryx sighed. "Is it just me, or are you somewhat nicer?" He retreated before Anwil could reply.
Anwil grabbed a chair and heaved it into Usa, but the man dodged and grabbed a short katana from his back. With a few swings, Anwil had been backed all the way back to the cellar. He heard children in adjoining rooms off the lobby, and realized that Wryx had locked all the doors to keep them safe. He had a moment of indigitation, still hating the kid, but his mind snapped back to the task at hand when Usa's blade cut him square across the face.
"Quar!" said a voice behind him. Jinokusa lunged from the back room: Anwil could see Wryx and Shi retreating out of the secret passage that Anwil used to smuggle weapons for his proteges during training. The hefty man grabbed his battlemace and whipped it across his body, and Usa fell in a heap of bloody black rags.
The mace had knocked him out, a shallow cut extending from his forehead to his chin.
"He must have thick skin," said Jinokusa. "Let's go, Quar."
"Wait," said Anwil. He could still hear the clanging of blades in the lobby. He raced forward, signaling to Ic'enix they were leaving. She saw him, but made no inclination she had heard. After a moment, he retreated as Aomidori thrust her dagger into Ic'enix, but she dodged and swung her own at the Liyau, who also managed to avoid it.
"At that rate," said Jinokusa, "It's just a matter of who will collapse from exhaustion first. Don't worry," he said to Anwil, "Ic'enix can take care of herself. She won't be able to kill Snowyl, but she'll be able to get away without being hurt too bad."
"I'm not worried," said Anwil curtly, "Let's go, before that psycho sees us."
Anwil sighed. He leaned up against the front of his horse, rubbing his eyes. It was dark.
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 careful accuracy. You would think he was a lumbering fool, but his gentleness made you doubt that.
"Hello," said Wryx, walking up the little stone path to the front door. Ic'enix opened it, holding a odd looking rag 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. They stood silent, in neat lines against the walls.
"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 small 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 Academy," 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."
"And no one would guess you're a thief," said Anwil.
Tezko shook his head. "I'm not officially apart of the Guild. I just help out sometimes, but I don't fully agree with the side hustle Ic'enix has going."
Ic'enix , lips pursed, 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, and she stared back at him, not breaking his gaze until he finally looked away.
"Could beat us all in a staring contest, this one," said Jinokusa, attempting to lighten the mood.
Ic'enix nodded and added, "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." She stared intently at Anwil and Jinokusa. "I mean it."
Jinokusa looked away. "Well," he said loudly, trying to divert attention away from the fact that he was itching to get a blade swinging, "is this our last stop, Mr. Wryx?"
"Yes. Anwil, you know anything about ships?" asked Wryx.
"I have a buddy who takes people across the ocean sometimes. Why?"
"Get him booked," said Wryx. "We're heading there next."
"Why?" asked Shii.
"We need something from the Council." said Wryx. When he looked around to see confused glances, he sighed. "Tezko, can you kindly explain who the Councils are?"
Tezko smiled. "Short answer, there are 2 Councils. Both have 6 members ideally, but Scorpio, one of the 12 collective members, tends to skip between, leaving the Good Council at a disadvantage."
"Is it like the government?" asked Shii.
"Yep," said Tezko. "All of the leaders of the kingdoms answer to them. We have Leo, the leader of the Right Wing, and then we have Cancer, leader of the Left Wing. Both have opposing views for the kingdom, but the Right is commonly called the Good Council because they are for the people. the Left has grown increasingly corrupt, trying to wage wars they can't finish and the like." Tezko shrugged. "It'll all make sense when we get there. Government's a bit complex."
"Oh sure," said Anwil grumpily. He stretched his back, dreading another trip on his horse.