Chapter Six

‘Mistaken’

 

 

Upon their birth, everyone is given a name.

 

Only a handful is destined for another.

 

 

           

            The road was dark and deserted, save one man walking down towards the next town. He had overslept that morning and gotten a late start, and would not rest much tonight. The moon and stars guided him as the dust rose up from his shoes with each step. The dense forest on either side seemed to be asleep; nothing stirred in the night.

            The man adjusted his pack and began to sing a little tune form his homeland. It was strange how he hadn’t sung it in years since his twenties, but the words came easily and carefree.

            Oh I’m of the Third Army, a prouder man you’ll never see! I’ll cut with my blade an’ axe until the land is free. An ale in one hand and sword in the other, I’ll defend my all o’ m’ sisters and my brother. Oh I’m of the Third Army, what a bunch of dan’grous rakes. With stealth and speed we’ll get what ev’r you need no matter of the stakes. Oh I’m of the—“

            The man suddenly stopped, a rogue breeze picking up around him, sending his straw hat flying towards the woods. With a curse he followed after it, glad it was stopped by the roots of a large sycamore only a few feet from where the road stopped and the grass began.

            “There you are, you rascal,” he dusted off the hat, turning to continue down the road.

            “I always wondered why people sang to themselves,” a voice said.

            “Huh?” The man spun around, looking for what he could not see.

            “Up here,” the voice continued. The voice could not be described as male or female; it rested somewhere in between. It wasn’t the pitch of the voice that made it this way; no, it was the shallow ‘echoing’ effect. As if someone were speaking into a jar without it’s lid.

            Then again, what the man saw in the pitch-black tree branches couldn’t be described as male or female either. He saw nothing but shadow, and a glowing white orb about the size of an acorn. Then again, he couldn’t be sure with the lack of light.

            “I wonder if it’s because they feel lonely,” the voice continued, not interested if the man even remembered the topic of conversation. “Then again, I’m rather lonely, and I don’t sing.”

            “What… What are you?” The man craned his neck up, hat clenched in his right fist.   

            “You can’t tell?” the voice asked.

            The man shook his head ‘no’; jaw slack at what he was beholding.

            “I’m a demon.”

            The blood left the man’s face and his heart began to race in his chest. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck told him this was no joke.

            “That song you were singing… About the Third Army…” the voice mused. “Were you in that army?”

            The man swallowed, trying not to flee and turn his back on the shadowed creature. “N… no… My b-brother was, and he t-taught me that song before he… he died…”

            “Pity,” the voice seemed displeased. “So you wouldn’t know who I’m looking for.”

            The man took a step back from the tree, still unable to take his eyes off the glowing sphere.

            “Well then, we can’t have people knowing about me in this area quite yet.” The shadows moved and seemed to ‘jump’ down from the branch with the orb.

            “W-what are you going to do to me!?” The man backed away slowly and dropped his hat.

            “Isn’t it obvious?” The shadows seemed to shrug when the man made no reply.

            His eyes widened as a metallic silver glint caught his gaze.

            “I’m going to kill you.”

 

 

 

            Maroshi woke up the next morning feeling rather refreshed. Then he remembered they had no money, more than a few miles to the next town, and River and Eva had been in their worst moods ever. The feeling of refreshment did not last.

            “Mornin’ cutie pie!” Tabitha sat down next to him. “What do you want for breakfast?”

            “Ugn…” Maroshi rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and sat up against the tree trunk. “Eggs?”

            Tabitha nodded and put her gloved hands behind her head. “Yeah, eggs would be nice.”

            Maroshi cast her a sideways glance. “Would be nice?”

            “You have to be kidding if you think River-kun is in the mood to use that Ooshi Bowl thing,” Tabitha sighed.

            Maroshi looked towards the highway. They had camped in a small clearing only a few feet from the road. The two younger party members sat on a large sycamore stump a foot from the dusty path, backs to Maroshi and staring out at nothing.

            “Oh man,” Maroshi groaned and thunked his head against the bark. “They’re still like that?”

            “I’m afraid so. Without River-kun to summon any food… No breakfast.”

            It was true Evangeline had been pissed as hell when she heard that River lost practically all their money. She had shaken him furiously, demanding where he left the purse of Rem and gold. The truth was, River couldn’t remember. This only made the cleric angrier.

            But as the evening wore on, the two turned to each other for comfort and emotional support in a very trying time. Maroshi and Tabitha weren’t particularly worried about money, but the other two… They had both lived in luxury for so long that the thought of poverty was worse than death.

            “I can’t believe we don’t have any Rem,” Eva said softly, looking out at the road, not really seeing anything.

            “It’s my entire fault!” River yelled, clasping his head in his hands. “It’s my fault we’re poor!”

            “No River,” Eva turned sharply to him. “It’s the fates that are cruel! You mustn’t be so hard on yourself!”

            “No!” River suddenly stood on the trunk. “I’m bashing my head on a rock so I can end this nightmare!”

            “RIVER! NO!” Eva caught him by the arms before he could find a rock. “We must endure this! We may not have money, but we still have each other!”

            River turned his head over his shoulder to look at Evangeline. Brown eyes met violet for seconds before the two erupted into boisterous laughter.

            “That was a good one, Eva,” River wiped tears from his eyes.

            Eva finally subsided her laughter into fits of giggles. “Oh, can you imagine someone who actually means it when they say something like that?”

            “Only poor people say that, and we’re not that poor yet!”

            “No doubt!”

            “Are you two shallow meat-heads ready to go?” Tabitha stood on the stump looking down at them with slight distaste.

            “How many more miles until we reach the next town?” River grabbed his discarded Ooshi Bowl.

            “Hmm… According to the map I bought in Plumb City,” Tabitha mused, “about five miles.”

            “Five miles!” Eva whined. “I’m much too depressed to walk that far today!”

            “Five miles?” Tabitha muttered. “What are you talking about? That’s like nothing.”

            “There, there, Eva,” River patted his newfound ‘rehab’ partner on the shoulder. “Try not to think about the money.”

            “I can’t help it!” Eva sobbed. “You worked so hard for it… and… now it… it’s…”

            Eva erupted into hysterical tears as she and River started down the road. The blue-haired boy held Eva’s shaking shoulders in the most comforting way possible, truly feeling her pain.

            Tabitha turned to Maroshi. “Those are some real shallow friends you got there, kiddo.”

            Maroshi shrugged. “They picked me, not the other way around.”

            Further up ahead on the road, Evangeline had finally ended her crying fit and switched into nervous hic-ups. River patted her back soothingly and tried to reassure her.

            “We still have our looks, Eva! We can get by!” River told her.

            “Well, thank you, River,” Eva sniffed. “But I’m sure you’ll need a reliable skill eventually.”

            River cocked his head to the side. “What?”           

            Eva’s hic-ups disappeared and she gave the teen an honest look. “Well, I’m sure I could get by, but with that hair I’m afraid you might not make it.”

            River ran a hand through his spiky locks. “What the heck do you mean?”

            “Well, you look like a porcupine or a frozen pineapple,” Evangeline shrugged as they continued to walk. “And not to mention blue isn’t a very natural color anyway. Didn’t you like your original color?”

            “HEY!” River clenched his hands. “This IS my color!”

            Evangeline laughed.

            River glared at her.

            “Oh! You were being serious?” Evangeline’s brows furrowed in confusion.

            River shoved her roughly, almost causing the cleric to trip. “Too bad my breasts are bigger than yours, then you’d be on easy street.”

            “What!?” Eva straightened herself and caught up to him. “You don’t have any! You’re a guy!”

            River fixed Evangeline with a sly toothy grin. “Exactly.”

            “Don’t tell me this is how they normally act,” Tabitha said dryly. She had been watching the two sob from a distance, but now they seemed intent on screaming at each other. The woman could have sworn she saw cat ears on River and a dog tail on Evangeline.

            Maroshi shrugged. “You get used to it.”

            Then again, he was glad they were a yard or so behind the arguing duo.

 

 

                       

            By the time the four had entered Jasper Ridge some hours later, the young cleric and River had not ceased to argue. People gave them odd looks as they passed through the town’s tiny wooden gate and into the streets.

            Jasper Ridge was a dusty town, only an eighth the size of Plumb City. The houses and saloons were made of wood, each with a large front porch and swinging doors for entry. Horses were tied to nearly every pole and flower box, being the primary way of getting around. The streets were nothing more than dirt, though very wide. The only exception was the market, where the quartet ended up. The stalls of fruit, clothing, and other goods were only ten feet across from each other, their umbrellas and overhangs giving plenty of shade.

            The town got its name for being located near a ridge that was nearly a quarter of a mile tall. People wanting to continue south would either need to climb down one of the narrow trails, or go twenty miles out of the way east or west where the ridge became nothing more than a hill. Further out from the ridge was a river that had once been very large, as was the ridge at one point. Over time, the river became nothing more than a stream and the canyon much smaller.

            “…of course, if you like wearing dresses, that’s really none of my business,” Evangeline sniffed.

            “DRESS!?” River fumed. “It’s a yukata, you hag!”

            Tabitha and Maroshi ignored it, as they had the last hour. Tabitha continued behind them at a leisurely pace, inspecting the stalls to the left.

            Maroshi was more than a little disappointed by how close the stalls were, and how crowded the market was. First off, he couldn’t tell if there was even an inn, let alone a restaurant anywhere near here. Second, he now had to stick close to Evangeline and River so they wouldn’t get separated by the crowd. Unfortunately, this meant being associated with the pair.

            “…and I can get any man I want!” Eva declared.

            River halted right in his tracks, the other three stopping as well. “Oh really? Fine! Get one!”

            Eva stuck out her tongue and pointed her index finger at Maroshi’s nose. “I choose that one!”

            River slapped Eva’s hand away. “That one’s taken,” he growled.

            Maroshi blinked. “Really? By who?”

            “You’re not too bright, are you hon?” Tabitha yawned from behind the samurai.

            River didn’t hear either of the older travelers. People stepped around the four, trying to get past the human road block to the stands they wanted to visit.

            “Then who!?”

            “The next guy that does something nice for you,” River spat.

            “Fine,” Eva sneered. “Maroshi, I think I dropped my—“

            “I’m warning you,” River cut her off with a death glare.

            “Ugh, do you have to be so picky Riv—--HEY!!” Evangeline whirled around just in time to see a ragged man pickpocket one of the satchels on her belt and take off down the market street.

            “I’ll get him,” Maroshi turned without hesitation, only to feel something latched on to his elbow.

            The samurai turned to see River holding on with an obstinate look. “Oh no you will not!”

            Before Maroshi could argue with his friend, Tabitha broke in. “I wouldn’t worry about it, someone should get it under control.”

            “Huh?” River, Eva, and Maroshi looked down the street. The scrawny pickpocket was running for all he was worth, but getting stopped by people and carts in the way. Finally, as he cast a smirk over his shoulder to the people he had just robbed, a stick caught his ankle and sent him to the ground.

            The satchel flew up into the air as his face met the dirt. A long stick, about as thick as a staff should be stuck under his ankle. Traveling their eyes up the stick, the company found it to truly be a staff that had tripped the man! The staff was some five feet long, wooden, with a blue gem the size of a small dinner plate at the top, surrounded by wood. Four little wooden hoops hung under the gem. What’s more, the blue crystal had black obsidian laced through it to make it look like a slitted eye.

            The man holding the staff pulled it back, seemingly not to know what they had done to the unconscious man sprawled out behind him. Other shoppers stared at the robber, some even cheered. The man still looked the other way, however, at a cart of apples, yet stuck out his left hand and caught the stolen satchel with ease! Even more astounding, it seemed the man’s eyes were closed, as if in meditation.

            Evangeline stared at the man. He was rather handsome in her opinion. At about five feet eleven inches with silver-ish white hair that was cropped short, but still flowed in the breeze, he made for a pretty picture.

            He set the apple back in the cart, and began to walk towards the four travelers. His shoes were nothing more that black slippers like the monks wore, his pants white and loose coming to his ankles. His shirt was a purplish color with red stitches in the wide sleeve cuffs and large shoulders. It almost seemed as if the shirt was really a high vest with a matching shirt under it. The cloth was billowy and covered his chest completely, though Evangeline could spot a huge jade beaded necklace around his neck and the tips of white bandages under his collar bone.

            Eva poked River in the stomach before the man got within earshot. “That’s my man!” Eva walked up to meet him while River still held onto Maroshi, glaring for all he was worth.

            The man smiled attractively and held out the satchel in his hand. Evangeline nor the others could see the color of his eyes; they were still closed.

            I wonder if he’s a monk, Maroshi thought.

            Before the man could say anything, Eva grabbed the pouch and flung herself into the man, hugging him gratefully. “Oh, thank you so much, kind sir! I don’t know what I’d have done if—“

            Suddenly Eva pulled back from the man, hands rushing up to her own cheeks. Her eyes were wide and face a total shade of red.

            “What the hell?” River mumbled.

            The man had been a little surprised by Eva’s bear-hug, and seemed too surprised to return it. Now as the young cleric had backed away, he simply cocked his head to the side in wonderment.

            “Eva? What’s wrong?” Maroshi untangled his arm from River and stepped up to the cleric.

            Eva said nothing, just continued to blush furiously.

            “Hmm,” Tabitha sauntered over leaned in close to the mystery man’s chest. The man looked down at the redhead as she veered in inches from the purple shirt.

            The five of them stood there in surreal silence for a minute. Other people passed them by with groceries, carts, and sleeping children, giving an odd look here or there.

            Half a minute passed before Tabitha straightened herself back up and backed away from the man to face them all.

            “Ahem. Upon further inspection,” she stuck her index finger in the air in a scholarly way, “this man has breasts!”

            The “man’s” eyebrow raised just a little as the cleric let out a moan of despair.

            River smiled.

 

 

            “I’m really… really… really… so sorry…” Eva whined and stared into her lap, blush not fully gone.

            “It’s no trouble, really,” the short-haired woman chuckled and ate another egg roll. “You’d be surprised how often it happens.”

            It had been Eva’s idea to buy the woman dinner with a quarter of what remained of their money. While Maroshi had been expecting River to protest, the boy simply stated that nothing in the world could hinder the joy Evangeline’s embarrassment had given him. Tabitha, being the tallest, pointed out a little place nestled between a bookstore and an ironsmith’s.

            “For out-of-towners, you sure know how to spot the best restaurant,” the woman chewed happily on her egg roll as she addressed the other four.

            Tabitha had to admit, it was a lucky pick on her part. Had she ever been to Jasper Ridge? Probably not, she would have recalled this restaurant instantly. The food smelled divine as you came mere feet from the entrance, and the hostess was a kind old woman who complimented her necklaces twice. The redhead enjoyed laid-back places such as this; Tabitha decided to remember the little building for future reference.

            “What makes you think we’re out-of-towners?” Maroshi swirled his tea, sending little brown drops over the edge. The four companions had decided not to spend money on food for themselves, which earned their table a few curious stares from other guests. River’s Ooshi Bowl would compensate for their own hunger later.

            Tabitha’s stomach rumbled as a waitress passed them with a bowl of steaming stew. Then again, I might tackle someone and eat their dinner if I have to smell something that good again…

            The woman chuckled. “You’re certainly an odd quartet. One who carries a sword, one dressed in fine clothes, another with a pan on his back—“

            “It’s a bowl,” River muttered.

            “—and still another with the look of a huntress,” the woman’s eyes, though still closed, turned towards Tabitha with satisfaction on her face.

            “Huntress indeed,” Tabitha laughed shortly. “And what is your profession? One who walks with a staff and keeps their eyes closed in meditation, yet can capture a purse in midair?”

            “Oh, yes, we never asked you for your name,” Eva shook her head at her own rude manners. “Nor did we give you ours! I’m Evangeline,” Eva turned to Maroshi on her left and went around the table full circle. “This is Maroshi, that’s Tabitha you’re across from, and beside her is River.”

            “Well it’s a pleasure to meet you all, and my name is Touya.”

            “It’s a pleasure here as well, Miss Touya,” Evangeline replied, bowing her head down in renewed red-faced embarrassment when Touya smiled cheerfully upon her.

            “Touya…” Maroshi thought for a moment. “I’m sorry, but I thought that was a boy’s name.”

            “It is,” Touya remarked, taking a sip of her iced tea and offering no further explanation.

            “And your occupation…?” Tabitha rolled her hand in the air, trying to steer the conversation back to the question.

            “I’m a monk.”

            So it was like I thought… Maroshi sipped the last of his beverage in silence.

            “What are you doing all the way out here? There aren’t any temples for many miles,” the corners of Tabitha’s lips rose in amusement, like how a cat is amused by a rodent.

            The monk just continued to grin happily, as if not a thing could bring her off her cloud. “Many monks often go away on spiritual journeys to find themselves, Miss Tabitha.”

            “Aa,” Tabitha nodded a bit. “And what have you found?”

            Eva was too busy blushing and picking fuzz off her skirt to notice the sudden change in mood, though River and Maroshi picked it up instantly.

            Touya’s smile wavered for a split moment, as Tabitha’s coy look remained in place. Before either woman could say another word, a cry alerted everyone in the restaurant.

            River had seen it first. The old woman who had seated them fainted to the ground, as a waiter rushed to her side. Another man in militia uniform bent down to try and catch her, without success.

            Other patrons rose from their seats to see what was the matter, as did Eva. Her chair screeched across the floor, but a strong hand around her wrist stopped her from getting anywhere.

            “She’ll be fine,” Touya said flatly. “She’s just fainted, no use to waste your healing.”

            Eva’s eyebrows knotted together and she watched the hostess being lifted by two waiters and carried into the back. Reluctantly, the blonde sat back down, as did the other customers, and conversation resumed once more.

            Before anyone at their table could utter a word, the militiaman and a waitress came to stand by them, talking in hushed tones.

            “What happened!?” the young girl put a hand to her mouth in shock.

            “Now, now,” the man quieted her down before continuing. “I’ll tell you what happened to your grandmother, but you mustn’t say a word to anyone, y’hear? We’ll cause a panic if the news gets out too soon…”

            The waitress nodded anxiously, and Maroshi’s ears twitched.

            “Her nephew was supposed to be commin’ home yesterday, but he never showed up,” the man glanced around a bit then resumed his explanation. “He’s usually never late, so naturally your grandma was worried.”

            “And?” the waitress asked.

            “And me and some of the boys were heading back from scouting when… we found him… …tree… … blood… … …slashes… Restless… ing Dem…”

            The rest of their talk was drowned out from Maroshi as the man’s voice quieted and the jabber of patrons grew. He turned his head a little to see the waitress’s face pale before she rushed back into the kitchen where the old woman had been taken.

            “You heard it?” Touya inquired when the samurai turned back to the table.

            He nodded. “Most of it. Did anyone get the last part?”

            “No,” River and Eva both shook their heads.

            “I did,” Tabatha stopped her sentence and another waitress came to clear the table. After the girl had gone, the redhead continued. “Something about a Demon.”

            “A demon?” Eva’s violet eyes widened.

            “The Restless Demon, The Restless Wanderer, or The Restless Wandering Demon is had been called,” Touya crossed her arms over her chest and frowned.

            “What’s that?” River piped up.

            Touya continued to look down at the table, as if the information had been carved into it. “It is a demon that has been around for quite some time, only making itself known to ordinary people for perhaps ten years it is now. It kills without warning, though always in the same fashion. Its victims are totally random; it seems as if the demon travels from one place to the next without consideration of where it shall be headed tomorrow.”

            “Hasn’t anyone tried to stop it?” the boy questioned.

            Now Touya looked up from the table to the ceiling, musing on something for a brief moment. “There have been rewards put out, though no one knows what it looks like. The only thing authorities have to link one death to the next is the fashion of the murder.”

            “I heard a few holy knights and priests tried to go after it, though their luck was not good enough,” Tabitha interceded.

            Touya looked down from the ceiling, nodding in agreement. “Many monks tried as well, with little more success… Some are still trying.”

            “How horrible,” Eva mumbled.

            The silver-haired woman chuckled, her smile returning into place. “There are many terrible things in this world, Miss Eva.”

            Touya arose from her seat, grabbing the wooden staff propped against the wall.

            “I hope you shall not meet them any time soon.”

 

 

            It was a nice night, so the four companions decided to sleep outside under the stars. Well, two decided, the other two were forced.

            River grumbled as he tossed more sticks under the Ooshi Bowl, the little campfire casting odd shadows on the ground. He was running out of sticks… How long could it take Maroshi and Tabitha to get a branch or two? They were in a forest for the love of all things holy!

            Eva sniffed the air and sat down beside River. “Mmm… That smells good.”

            “Thanks,” River turned the meat over in the bowl to let the other side sizzle. “So… What did you think of that woman?”

            “Touya?” Evangeline brought her knees up to her chest and hugged them. “I thought it was odd… that a woman would want to become a monk. Not to mention she seemed to know I was a cleric without even asking me.”

            “No, no,” River put a stupid grin on his face. “I mean… are her breasts bigger than yours?”

            “River!”

            “Hey, we’re just wondering, cos’ you were the only one to—OW!!”

            River rubbed his head tenderly where the stick met with his noggin. “Can’t take a joke I see.”

            Eva tossed the stick into the fire. “Jerk. Why don’t you quit making fun of me?”

            River rolled his eyes. “Gee, possibly because you always do the same to me.”

            “Hmmph… Well, if I stopped calling you names, would you cut it out?” Eva bit her tongue. She wasn’t too sure she could make that kind of commitment just yet.

            “Ch’,” River stirred the broth a bit with his wooden spoon. “If I had half a Rem for every time someone called me gay I’d be a millionaire.”

            Eva giggled. “I guess about eighty of those would be from me… What are you cooking anyway? It smells wonderful.”

            “Griffon steaks,” River mumbled.

 

 

            “I think that’s enough,” Maroshi picked up one last stick. “We should get these back to camp before River flips out.”

            “Yeah,” Tabitha yawned. “Sure is a clear night out…”

            Maroshi looked up past the trees. Through the oak leaves he could see patches of the milky-white moon. “Yeah, it does.”

            Tabitha turned and dropped her pile of sticks and branches at the base of a tree. “C’mon, River can wait a few more minutes.”

            “Huh? What’re you doing?”

            Tabitha swung up on a low branch, her gloves scraping against bark. “I’m baking a cake. What does it look like, kiddo? Climbing the tree.”

            Maroshi frowned… They really should get back to camp before the other two party members started to worry.

            Or kill each other.

            The young samurai looked up once again.

            The moon seemed to call him, its feathery beams of light charming his soul. For an instant, the night he encountered the wolf came back into his head. It had been a huge moon that night, and he wondered how this one would compare.

            With a sigh at his own childishness, Maroshi set his stack by Tabitha’s and leapt up the tree with amazing speed and agility. In mere seconds he was beside Tabitha, sitting on a bare branch that jutted out at just the right angle.

            The woman had chosen a good tree, he thought as he took a seat next to the trunk. This particular one was taller than the others, and gave a fantastic view of the tiny town that glowed softly in its own quaint way, and the stars that dazzled the sky with a glory that only the moon could match.

            “It’s peaceful,” Tabitha murmured in a near whisper. “I like it like this.”

            Maroshi said nothing, but was inclined to agree.

            A slight breeze rustled the few branches above them, and stray leaves began to fall. The yellow-eyed man continued to look out at nothing, but seeing things he could not have otherwise.

            “…remember me always…”

            Time seemed to trickle slowly into a fountain of youth. One by one candles were put out in the town, a certain campfire burned into ashes, and even the stars began to fade… They faded for Maroshi, and all he could see was the moon…

            What happened to you, Mother…?

            Maroshi blinked.

            How long had he been up in that tree? His back was stiff from sitting at an odd angle, and cracked when he shifted. It must have been for a while Maroshi thought; the moon was much smaller now and the constellations had shifted place. Tabitha was gone as well.

            The young samurai looked around the branches, and not seeing the redhead, leapt down the oak. His feet hit the ground softly, knees bending to absorb some of the gravity, as Maroshi learned in training.

            “You had this distant look in your eyes, so I decided to leave you up there,” Tabitha said. She was leaning against the tree with her arms crossed. “You’ve been looking at the stars for some time now.”

            “The moon, actually. Sorry,” Maroshi mumbled sheepishly and went for his pile of sticks.

            “Leave it. I doubt River or Evangeline has the fire going at this hour,” the woman stepped away from the trunk and slapped Maroshi on the back.

            “I hope we didn’t worry them, staying out so long,” Maroshi turned to follow Tabitha back to camp.

            “Nah,” she yawned. “I went to check on things fifteen minutes ago; the boy and the cleric were sound asleep.”

            “That’s good,” Maroshi smiled.

            “They ate all the dinner, too.”

            “That’s bad.”

            Tabitha chuckled and continued through the woods. Maroshi followed her closely through the trees and did not look back at the moon once.

 

 

 

            “Will you two hurry up?” Eva stopped on the path for what seemed to be the thousandth time. “For a warrior and a huntress you two are awfully slow!”

            River snorted and came to stand beside the cleric. “It’s pathetic, really.”

            The two ‘slackers’ finally caught up, each moving carefully as if through a fog. Indeed, Maroshi had been up in that tree for a long time. He and Tabitha only got four hours of sleep by the time they made it back to camp.

            Maroshi yawned. “Sorry, Eva…”

            “I’m not a huntress!” Tabitha whined.

            “Then what are you?” Maroshi wondered aloud.

            Before the woman could answer, River spat. “A drunk.”

            “You little…” Tabitha glared.

            “Oh my, if it isn’t the strange little troupe I met yesterday!”

            Four sets of eyes looked over the next rise in the dusty path. Coming towards them at a walking pace was Touya, smile neatly in place and staff at her side.

            Eva blushed furiously and bowed politely as the monk came to stand next to her. “How do you do…

            “Quite well, thank you!” Touya chirped. “Where would you all be heading off to?”

            River shrugged. “South. Whatever town is next on the road and down the canyon.”

            “Ah. The ridge is very pretty this time of year, it will be a pleasant walk for you all,” the monk replied.

            “Where are you headed, Touya?” Eva inquired. Behind her, Tabitha and Maroshi’s heads had konked together and the two were sleeping standing up. River glared at the drool coming out of the redhead’s mouth.

            “Back into town. Oh dear…” Touya chuckled at the scene.

            “Hm?” Eva turned around just in time to see the blue-haired boy kick the back of Tabitha’s knee, sending the two sleepers to the ground in an ungraceful heap.

            Tabitha gave a snort as she landed on top of the sleeping samurai. River laughed.

            “HEY!!” Tabitha snarled and leapt to her feet in an amazing display of newfound energy. “You’re gonna get dunked into the next stream we cross, kid!!”

            River stuck out his tongue before taking off down the path. “You’ll have to catch me first, hag!”

            Tabitha growled and chased after the boy. “HAG!?! I don’t look that old, YOU PUNK!”

            “Oh dear,” Eva shook her head sadly at the two running, yelling, and kicking up a storm. “I guess I better catch up to them, and maybe even give Tabitha a hand...”

            “You do that, but don’t forget your friend,” Touya nudged Maroshi with her staff.

            “Zzz… Sam’rai…”

            “Of for goodness sakes…” Eva sent a swift kick to his ribs. “WAKE UP!”

            “Oof!”

            Touya turned and hoofed it down towards town, not even needing to see the duo to know what would ensue next. The sounds of an angry cleric and disgruntled samurai would put the first real smile of the day on her face…

 

 

 

            The inn-keep’s daughter flipped through the newspaper idly, one page of black and white passing by with nothing of interest. It was Tuesday, so that meant her father would be off to the bank for a few hours, leaving her to tend the hotel.

            “Miss?”

            The girl looked up from the news paper to find a woman standing there. Then again, the youngster was taken aback. The voice had been female, but the figure looked as if it could pass for a man, had her bandaged chest not been exposed this much.

            “Yes?” the girl folded up the paper and put it under the counter. “How may I help you?”

            “Well,” the silver-haired woman began, “I was staying here last night, and checked out this morning. I don’t think it was you who was at the desk.”

            The girl shook her head, sending her little braids flying. “No, that must have been my father.”

            “Ah, I see,” the woman put her thumb to her chin in a thoughtful manner. “In any case, I left something on the nightstand. I was in room number ten; was anything found by chance?”

            “I’ll check,” the girl bowed and scampered off to a room marked ‘Private’ behind the check-in.

            “Thank you!”

            A few minutes later, she came bounding out with a piece of paper in her hand. “Is this it?” Upon seeing how the woman’s eyes were shut, the girl stammered a bit. Could she be blind? “It’s a letter with a green marking…”

            “That would be it,” she took the offered letter and flipped the young lass a coin. “Thanks again.”

            “Oh, sure thing! Come back soon!”

            I swear, if my head wasn’t attached to my neck… This little setback may cost me half a day’s travel. No matter, I’m sure I can always catch a ride from some farmer and his mules.

            Touya stepped out into the midday sun, stuffing the letter into her shirt and setting out down the main road.