Chapter One: Auspicious Meetings

"Was that really necessary?"

"Of course it was," came the reply, followed by a tremendous yawn. Touka glanced over at the source, annoyed. For someone who had just beaten a gang of a dozen village toughs senseless, the woman known as Karura looked more like she was settling down to enjoy a leisurely afternoon nap. Her unconcerned expression, drooping eyelids, lazily twitching tail, and being sprawled out under the shade of a nearby tree along the roadside didn't help much.

Touka let out a clearly exasperated sigh, something like that a mother would make after a day of looking after a particularly restless and bothersome child. In the past year since their decision to wander the land as ankuams, Karura's carefree nature and love of drinking had gotten the two into more than enough trouble, and yet the Evinkuruga woman was never quite able to get used to it. Indeed, at times Touka wondered how it was she had been through her share of danger and still managed to be stressed out by the relatively safe situations instigated by her traveling companion. Still, she couldn't really think of that many other people she would travel and fight with.

Perhaps Benawi, although she supposed he was busy enough supervising the day to day activities of Tusukuru in Oboro's absence. She smiled inwardly at the thought of the diligent commander turned regent of Tusukuru doing anything but taking care of the dizzying array of issues that came up every day. By extension, Kurou was as busy as his superior. Last she had heard, he was filling in for Benawi in the role of Tusukuru's military commander. He definitely had the presence and experience necessary, but she wondered if his sometimes brash nature would get in the way. Then again, Benawi was likely keeping a close eye on him and giving him advice as needed.

Thinking of the present situation, Touka furrowed her brow. It had already been a week since they had received a message from Tusukuru, requesting both her and Karura come back to the palace at once. The two of them had been resting outside of a small inn along a less-traveled road when a woptuar-riding man wearing an odd dust-colored cloak rode up to them. He hurriedly dismounted and gave them a sealed scroll, saying only that the message came from Benawi personally before getting back on his mount and riding away just as suddenly. The message was equally brief and cryptic, mentioning a vague threat to the safety of Tusukuru and that it was important for the two of them to return as quickly as possible. Having just finished a simple job escorting a merchant's caravan from one town to another, they were able to quickly head back in the direction of the friends they had left behind.

Two years. Had it really been such a short time since Hakuoro had disappeared? Her entire life had been turned on end when she had come across him during Orikakan's misguided pursuit of him, and just as quickly when Hakuoro had revealed himself as the incarnation of half of Witsarnemitea only to be made whole and sealed. Immediately afterwards, Oboro, Benawi and Kurou had managed to assume their duties and somehow prevented the entire nation of Tusukuru from plunging into chaos. Meanwhile, Karura and she were for the most part left to their own devices. For a few months, they were needed to supplement Tusukuru's armed forces in repelling border skirmishes and exploratory raids made by some of the other nations hoping to exploit Hakuoro's sudden departure. After the situation calmed down, however, they were left with little to do. The remaining months of the year passed slowly, almost painfully so. Touka suspected that if Karura hadn't asked her to join her in her travels as an ankuam at the beginning of that second year, she would have likely made a similar decision herself. Maybe as a wandering warrior, or a role less crude than a blade for hire, although she had to admit she would not likely be as well fed. She smiled inwardly at herself. For an Evinkuruga clanswoman like herself to be considering the situation from that angle, Karura's attitudes must have rubbed off on her more than she had thought they would.

Going back to Tusukuru would be strange, but altogether comforting. Comforting in the sense that it would be like returning to a familiar home, but foreign in that there would be an empty space around its otherwise unchanged hearth. Touka consoled herself that whatever strangeness she felt would most definitely be outweighed by seeing old friends again. After all, there were three young sisters to see once more, and the idea of seeing how much Eruruu, Aruruu, and Kamyu had grown cheered her up greatly. Seeing Urutori again would be calming as well. Blushing slightly, she also mentally included Gachatara, Aruruu's pet Mikyuun.

Karura looked over at her traveling companion with a bemused look. "Hmm, now what could you be thinking of to make you blush? A past love affair maybe?" She leaned over slightly with a smirk on her face.

"Absolutely not," Touka said irritably, unconsciously straightening up in her seat against the tree. "I'm still amazed at kind of things you actually manage to say."

"What could it be then," Karura said with a mock sigh of weariness. "What else could make our prim and proper Touka color like a young maiden being asked to dance with the one she admires? Ah! Could it be the thought of small, cute animals?" Karura looked at Touka, her expression bright and mischievous, eyebrows lifted up in expectation. Touka didn't answer, her only response to look down at the ground as she blushed a brighter shade of red.

"Oh my, it seems I was right!" Karura narrowed her eyes as she beamed a smile at her and flicked her ears happily.

"Now there indeed is a rare sight, an Evinkuruga blushing. There's something that usually doesn't make it into the stories and songs," a man's voice chimed in. The pair quickly snapped their eyes up, fixing their gazes upon a fairly tall man standing across the road from them. His manner of dress was bizarre, to say the least, as he was wearing what appeared to be a loose long-sleeved tunic, gloves, pants secured with leg wrappings, rough-looking boots, and a loose scarf all in a very odd mixture of colors. The dominant color would seem to be beige, but it was interrupted everywhere by a riot of green, brown, and tan splotches of various intensities and sizes that were seemingly thrown about at random. Overall, the effect was unsettling on the eyes and made it difficult to pick out the man's outline against the rest of the terrain with any certainty. He was also wearing what looked like some kind of harness that went over both his shoulders and was connected to his belt, and had pouches of various dimensions hanging off of it. Touka noted the sheathed long knife that hung below his right shoulder, and what looked like a short sword hanging from his left hip.

Once past the initial shock of seeing his strange clothing, his physical appearance proved distinctive as well. His hair was a color close to that of riverbank sand, a very light shade somewhere in between tan and brown, and his eyes were similarly a strange gray-green color. His ears as well were very uncommon, being more forward-oriented than most and gray in color, and lighter on the inside. From what they could tell, his body was built more on the lithe side, and he appeared comfortably poised even as he leaned back against a large tree trunk with his arms folded over his chest.

Touka's hand darted to her sheathed sword as she dropped into a slight crouch, and Karura stood up propping her own weapon against the ground with one hand. "What's the meaning of this? I can assure you that if you're going to try and waylay us you'll be in for a rather hard fight," she intoned gravely, looking at the man with a hard gaze. He stood up from his resting spot against the tree, and lowered his head slightly as he placed the fingers of his right hand against his forehead. "Ancestors guide and preserve us if there were ever a reason to have cause for quarrel between us, daughter of Evinkuruga. I would ask you forgive any impropriety on my part for appearing before you unannounced," he said, bowing to her. She inhaled sharply as she pulled her hand away from her sword and placed it against her collarbone near her left shoulder, tilting her head forward in the process much like the man.

"Of course! I ask for your patience as well for presenting myself so hostilely, I did not recognize you or see any of the signs, son of Anterei," she said apologetically. The man smiled back faintly, as he raised his head up and dropped his hand, Touka following suit. "Again, I'm sorry for startling you. I would wear the signs, but I'm afraid my task right now prevents me from doing that," he said, crossing the road over to the pair of travelers.

"Please, sit, sit," he said, gesturing at the ground. He waited politely until Touka and Karura had sat down before sitting down across from the two. "I should probably explain what that was all about, Lady..." he began, looking at Karura.

"Karura," she replied. "You are from Clan Anterei, a scout if I'm not mistaken?" The man raised his eyebrows. "I see our reputation precedes us. Yes, that is correct. If you'll excuse me being somewhat forward, I would venture a guess that you belong to the line of Giriyagina. That would make you Karurauatsuurei then, yes?"

It was Karura's turn to be surprised. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised if an Anterei scout would know that, but I'm still curious how you knew that," she said looking at the man a bit more carefully.

"To be blunt, your appearance," he said with a grin. "As far as I was taught, the only ones to possess that particular hair and eye color, along with those particular ears and tail were the Giriyagina."

"Hmm, how very perceptive of you. Still, you must have been posted out in the wilderness for some time, admitting to looking at a lady's tail as casually as that," she said in a teasing tone of voice. "Karura, what are you saying," Touka hissed at her, obviously embarrassed at her companion. The man simply leaned back and laughed. "I was named Touka, after one my clan's ancestors," she hurriedly added, trying to smooth over her friend's remark. The man nodded to her in response before continuing.

"Truly, I'm sorry if that came off as being crude, although I would imagine I would've have been suffering from a slap to the face at this point if that were so," he said with a smile. "But, I'm getting ahead of myself. My name is First Sergeant Jaren Strasert, from Clan Anterei's First Division. Being a Giriyagina, you've been privy to knowledge of our existence for some time now, I imagine," he said, looking to Karura, who nodded. "More specifically, I serve as part of Captain Treyar Kern's Free Company, which you may have heard some wild stories about carelessly told in taverns and such," he said.

Touka looked up at the tree branches above her, thinking. She had heard of the famous First Division of Clan Anterei, having learned the shared history between her people and theirs, but she wasn't too knowledgeable regarding this Free Company he mentioned. Thinking back, she could've sworn she had heard the name at least once or twice, but couldn't place exactly where. Most likely she had overheard the name from guards swapping exaggerated tales of fighting and adventure around a campfire or barracks in Tusukuru, or maybe even earlier when she was still fighting for Kuccha Keccha.

Karura nodded. "Quite often, actually. I have heard many accounts, but they all say that the Free Company was almost entirely responsible for breaking the grip of a bandit group called the Black Talon over several regions last autumn. They all disagree on the size of the group in question, of course. The first time I heard the story it was fifty bandits, and every time I heard it told again the number had jumped. They never mentioned anything about Clan Anterei or the First Division, of course," she added as an afterthought.

"I'd certainly hope so. In any case, it sounds like you have the basic idea. We're a very specific offshoot if you will, of Clan Anterei's military forces. We handle the more... unusual missions, I guess you could say. The Black Talon situation was something that we had to handle as quickly as we could, seeing as how we had received requests from the leaders of several regions that we have agreements with to assist them in return for being able to settle on their lands. They were well-organized and well-armed for bandits, but at the end of the day nothing still a bunch of rabble."

"Enough bragging from me, I should get down to why I'm here. The reason why I'm here as part of Clan Anterei through my service in the Free Company is to answer a request for aid from Regent Benawi, of Tusukuru. It's the same reason you should have received a message from a rider recently," Jaren said.

"We did, although it didn't give much in the way of details," Touka said, producing the letter from a pocket in her coat, and handing it to him. Jaren quickly read it over and returned it. "Yes, that's a matter of necessity. The decision was made to leave it vague to minimize the risk of any potentially vital information to be intercepted, however small that possibility might have been. Our couriers are the best, but even then, there is always the chance they could be captured, or even merely intercepted by bandits. Speaking of intercepted, let me introduce you to my team members, Lynia, Kyr, it's fine, they know about us," he said looking past them.

Two figures melded out of the trees and undergrowth behind the tree they were all sitting at, and approached the seated party. They were both wearing the same odd clothing as Jaren, which made them wonder how Jaren had managed to pick them out of their surroundings. One of them, a very tall man with short black hair and brown eyes had a smile on his face. He had a rather large object slung over his back swaddled in drab green cloth The other, a relatively shorter woman with dark brown hair cut slightly above her shoulders and green eyes had more serious expression on hers, and appeared to be sizing up the two sitting with Jaren as she walked up. She had a rather large sword slung over her back, the metal of the pommel and guard dulled with some dark substance. "Good afternoon, First Sergeant," the woman said, snapping a sharp salute with her right hand, the other man following suit. "Nothing new to report, sir, just some local toughs out looking for these two," she said, nodding towards the two ankuams. Karura smiled while Touka winced and put a hand to her forehead.

Jaren grinned as he returned their salutes, and they all dropped their hands as he did. "Lady Karura, Lady Touka, these are my fellow scouts. Assistant team leader, Leading Sergeant Lynia Milthas, and team specialist Sergeant Kyr Ilvos," he said, gesturing towards the two. They both bowed to Karura, and did the peculiar ritual Jaren had done earlier with Touka when facing her, which she returned.

"Well, now that we've all introduced ourselves, we should probably start heading to Tusukuru. It's about two days away, so we can tell you about the situation that's developed along the way. I figure we have a slight lead on the local strongmen, but they'll likely catch up this evening if they're pacing themselves well. We'll be able to prepare a little surprise for them, and we can show you how the Free Company fights," he said with a smirk. "Shall we get going?" He looked at Touka and Karura, then to his team members. All of them nodded.

"Alright, Free Company's Fifth Team, let's move!"