Chapter 9 - Rain in the Desert
Flying was strange. Griffins were stranger.
That was the name of the beasts which served as their mounts. They were four-legged rodents, large enough for two riders. They had long legs with canine paws. Their wings were made of extended bones which were connected by a membrane that was slightly more transparent than skin, though it was skin, and thick at that. Their fur was burnt yellow, a rough hide that was still soft to the touch.
Saddles fit awkwardly but functionally. The fur on their bodies was blotted with black patterns. Aratas’ had red eyes and a more reddish hue to his fur. Finally, they had a huge tongue with which they repeatedly whipped out in an instant to catch bugs. It kept alerting them to the point of fright but there was nothing to be done about it, they were insectivores. Their nose wasn’t so salient as one expected from rodents and so far they seemed to be capable of only two emotions: Boredome and Pain.
They had been warned they felt neither, though, it was just how people, unaccustomed, perceived them. In truth, they were thankfully as near to docile as an animal could be, almost like cattle.
Arata looked around to see his companions were keeping up.
The twins had surprisingly demanded they’d be separated between the two groups. None of the others had ever seen one without the other but what other way had they to ensure the stone was brought back? They were the only ones getting paid to do it, after all.
Nobody had minded. Since they had virtually the same skill-set, it was tactically sounder to separate them. They separated Arata and Jomiko, and that meant Kazuki and Pixa had to be separated too, much to Pixa’s disappointment.
Arata went with Pixa and Fuun’na, while Jomiko went with Kazuki and Sanpu. It seemed the best choice, since it’d be good for a voice of reason to be present in both groups, and Kazuki was the only one with a cautious and patient mind besides Arata. Not that any of them could control Jomiko. Or the Blood twins for that matter.
He sighed, feeling they were all heading to a chaotic disaster. He had been forced to take to the farthest harbor city: Stillshore.
Still, flying was definitely a lot better. Arata had flown before and he really enjoyed it. It gave him an amazing view and he liked the feeling of the wind on his fur.
“Was it really wise for us to separate?” Pixa asked Arata.
He glanced back, looking at her, who was riding on his same Griffin. “How else to cover all the escape points?”
“Well, what good is it to guess where he’ll be if we’re not powerful enough to catch him? You saw what he did, you really think us three can beat him?”
He thought on it, and it was indeed a valid point. Why she hadn’t brought it up before was even more intriguing to him. Fact was they agree that what the bull had done, he had been able to do thanks to his surroundings. There would be no huge wall from which he could fly off next time. And most important of all, “he ran away, Pixa. You don’t do that if you’re sure you can win a fight.”
“Me and Sanpu do it sometimes,” Fuun’na commented with a troublemaking tone of voice. “To make them chase us, and make them more confident. It’s also a good way to take a fight to a place that better suits us.” She smiled, lightly biting her lower lip in amusement.
Arata looked to his side. Her griffin was a lot yellower than his, it had a golden tint to it. “you’re not helping,” he told her, and in reply, she stuck out her tongue at him.
“He can’t get more comfortable than at the top of a huge wall,” he added, “what I’m hoping is that there’s no one waiting for him. If there is, well. I dunno, we’ll see.”
“Okay,” Pixa agreed, still a bit doubtful.
Meanwhile, Jomiko, Kazuki and Sanpu were approaching the harbor town they were supposed to explore: Stormdream. It was the largest of the two but also the nearest.
They could see it much sooner than Arata landed eyes on his target. With an array of boats and ships across its large harbor. That had been where they had landed, since it was the main port, probably because it was closer to the city-state of Fairgrifen. In any case, she could already see storm clouds over the town. Despite the fact the rest of the island was overly deserted, that town had more water than it could spare.
Even when it wasn’t raining, clouds just stood there, looking grim and threatening more rain.
“That’s Stormdream alright. I would recognize their pet micro-climate anywhere.”
“Aw, jeez, I forgot about that.”
“Frankly, a little water would do me good,” Sanpu put in, licking his lips.
“I’m thirsty too but that doesn’t make me want to dive under a waterfall,” Jomiko rolled her eyes. “I just hope he comes to this one, all that rain’ only gonna make my mood worse.”
“Contain yourself, Jomiko,” Kazuki cut in, a bit judgementally, “he’s very powerful. And likely tired of being on the run. If we can work things out through dialogue--”
“Then I’ll punch him less,” Jomiko cut in, making Sanpu laugh.
“Hahah..I’ve forgotten how funny you were, Jomiko.”
“Humpf,” she slightly pouted in response, lashing at the griffin with a light heel so it would speed up.
She was riding with Kazuki, Sanpu being the another griffin. They pierced the rain and, minutes later, descended into the city. It was large, actually, filled with stone houses which had wooden windows covered by a gray layer of very thin stone, so to keep the wood dry.
They left their mounts at the entrance, on one of the three stables that were conveniently located at the town’s gates. Sanpu easily paid the fees to the jolly Pan who took them in.
“Argh, this rain!”
“A constant blessing,” the jolly Pan replied. He had an overcoat covering himself, with a hood over his head.
Jomiko gave him a spiteful look while Kazuki asked him, “do you have some of those to sell?”
“As a matter of fact, I do!” He nodded, pleased with himself. He gestured inside.
He had a long coat hanger at the end of the room where he had several overcoats, of several colors. That made sense, any traveler would be ill-prepared for Stormdream’s rain.
That must’ve been what he meant by it being a blessing, Jomiko wagered.
“Do you mind, Sanpu?”
“Nah,” Sanpu replied, handing out the money required to buy three. Kazuki picked a black one, Jomiko a red one and Sanpu a blue one. It was their colors, after all.
Pulling the hoods over their heads, they headed to the gates, easily obtaining entrance.
The rain was falling hard on top of their coats, echoing against their hoods, which they were holding on to with both hands so they wouldn’t flap back because of the wind.
“This is actually good,” Kazuki mentioned, “we’re harder to recognize like this.”
“What’s with you people and all the rain loving?”
“I’m just saying that, from a tactical point of view, it’s actually beneficial to--”
“Shut up,” Jomiko waved her arm to shut him up, “Ahh…Ahhh…ACHOO!” Her sneeze burst out, violently loud. Enough to frighten some people that were crossing the road near them.
They all looked at her a bit surprised as she brushed her nose with her sleeve.
“Screw you, Kazuki. And your rain.”
Kazuki frowned and Sanpu giggled, ever amused.
They walked through the main square, which had a small circular tank in the middle that was being filled by the rain. It was overflowing into a storm drain that surrounded it, and people were using it as a pool. Children mostly, from all kinds of races. Parents and the like surrounded it, holding umbrellas over them while engaging in casual conversation. The street was flanked by rows of buildings, most of them taverns and bunkhouses.
“I don’t remember it being this rainy,” Jomiko complained, feeling her feet all saggy.
“Doesn’t seem to bother them,” Sanpu pointed the children out.
“I don’t think any kind of rain bothers them,” Kazuki pointed out, “except for when there’s a real storm raging. You’ll notice most everything is made of stone and firmly built into the floor. They get some nasty winds here. I imagine they hide away for cover then.”
“Whatever,” Jomiko broke the dialogue, as they neared the center of the harbor. “We’ll split up, ok? Whoever catches sight of him messages the others.”
“Sounds best,” Kazuki concurred.
“Fine by me, but for how long do we look?”
“Until we find him,” Jomiko told him with obstinate determination.
She turned right to patrol the row of ships and the adjoining fish market. She would take a close to look at everything and everyone.
“What does that mean?” Sanpu asked Kazuki, who shrugged back at him.
“Until we hear from Arata, or until we find the bull, I guess. Resting is dangerous as he may then elude us.”
“Wow. I should’ve slept in the griffin…I’ll go the other end and work my way back, you stay here, Kazuki. It’s the main entrance to the harbor.”
“Actually, I’m going to go to the stables,” Kazuki told him, “he might just buy one of our griffins and fly away. That would be pretty embarrassing.”
“Oh, that’s a good point,” Sanpu granted, impressed.
Kazuki nodded and walked off.
Sanpu sighed, looking down the very long harbor, bored by the anticipation of how bored he was about to be.
“This is gonna be a loooong day.”
Not it wasn't - not for the reason he thought.
Kazuki went and stayed beneath the roof of a stable, quietly minding his own business, looking carefully at every figure that passed.
It took the bull about an hour to show up.
He was mounted on an Ascillia, a fowl beast which was big enough for three people and yet only carried him. It had large, narrow and squinty eyes, and was covered in tanned fur, even over its small and slim snout. It had two legs with strong canine paws.
Kazuki cautiously observed – from the anonymity of his hood - the Bull dismount. He sold the beast to the jolly Pan before marching towards the gate.
He wants a boat, then.
Once the bull was far enough, Kazuki, without losing sight of him, got out into the rain to give chase. He was very cautious in doing so, sort of joining a group which was now entering the town.
“Volceiso,” he casted, “Jomiko and Sanpu.”
Two bracket-like symbols glowed into existence, hovering next to his ears. They were white and shiny.
He was walking along, trying to look as casual as possible in his pursuit. They were crossing the town’s actual entrance when he heard Jomiko and Sanpu overlapping voices. They would be audible to him alone.
“What is it?”
“He just went into the city,” Kazuki told them, “run to the main square and keep in contact, I’m tailing him.”
“YES!” Jomiko yelled, making Kazuki smirk a little. “We’re on our way.”
He nodded to no one, but it was a very slight nod so no one saw it.
He tailed the bull until he went into a tavern. He didn’t go inside, he pretended to go look at a vender’s stall two stores over.
That was actually odd, shouldn’t he be in a hurry? Why would he stop for a drink? It was a sign things were about to go wrong because the only explanation that made sense to him was that the bull was meeting with someone.
“I don’t see him!” It was aggressive but at least it was a whisper, again, only audible by him.
“He went inside that tavern,” he let them know. “I’m outside, it’s a bit after the well, to your right. It’s called Storm’s Brew.”
“Ha! I remember it from when we were here. We’ll be there in a minute.”
He didn’t reply but simply nodded again out of habit.
He kept his eyes on the tavern’s entrance until Jomiko and Sanpu arrived.
To her credit, she didn’t wave and yell like an idiot, she tapped his shoulder to let him know they were there without surprising him or calling the attention of anyone. He glanced at them knowingly and they nodded. All three closed their eyes in a secondary focus to dispel their communication spell.
Then they looked at each other again. Kazuki was serious, convinced there would be trouble. Jomiko was angry, wanting there to be trouble. Sanpu was smiling, hoping for trouble. They all walked inside expecting the same thing for different reasons.
Their cloaks and even hair were dripping onto the stone floor as they stepped inside. Jomiko, flanked by the two as if they were her bodyguards, was emanating such a dangerous mood that most inside immediately looked over at them.
That included the bull. And he wasn’t alone.
Sitting across the table from the Lan bull was a Jun. The two of them really stood out, the tall and wide Lan bull, looking back at them, and the tall and lean Jun, facing them, with long red hair and what seemed to be two large staffs laid out in an ex across his back. His skin was remarkably pale and his eyes had that particular Jun red to them.
The bull seemed disgruntled but the Jun looked on, interested in a dangerous way. If he had wanted them to be intimidated, he would be disappointed.
Jomiko pulled the hood out with a hungry smile, followed by Kazuki and Sanpu, with a serious expression and a childish smile respectively. They all just ignored the fact they were dripping wet and were decades younger than the men they were staring down. They ignored the fact they didn’t look intimidating in the slightest.
They still made the room silent with the way they stared down the two, with the presence of their stance. However foolish they looked, neither of them were particularly afraid or hesitant in their clearly belligerent intentions. They had the air of adventurers ready to turn the whole town upside down in a chaotic fight for reasons ordinary people would never understand.
“We’ve got some unfinished business, Old Bull.”