Ayumu stood beside the jagged rocks upon Sōzō-ryoku peak and looked towards the undulating amber horizon as Haru knelt and prayed at the shrine. The pyrotechnician stretched his bandaged right hand over the great solar sphere until it was wholly eclipsed by his appendage. He yearned to grasp it. To rend it malleable to his will. Slowly, he withdrew his arm as the scrapping of Haru’s boots upon the windswept stone signalled his rising.
The two men passed the crag and the shrine and descended old Sōzō-ryoku. They followed a thin, winding path, Haru walking sullenly in back, Ayumu, confidently in front, wielding a small white parasol above his thin azure coat to fend off the heat. The air was thick with cloying junglein moisture and strange birds trilled as if in warning.
The travelers paused upon the road to greet a stranger who hailed them. He an old man with a long, white beard and rust colored eyes who sat beneath the shade of a white, makeshift pergola upon a woven mat, smoking meditatively.
“What is it, old man?” Haru demanded with mild annoyance, folding his banded arms about his breast and tossing his head jauntily upwards, crimson hair rife with the wind.
“Its a hot day. I thought you might be thirsty,” the old man raised a steaming bowl of tea.
“That’s very kind, sir,” replied Ayumu with a brief smile, “But, are you not concerned?”
“That we might be bandits. I hear they’re thick in the region.”
The old man laughed and again held up the bowl of aromatic tea.
“What do I have that you could steal? Tea?”
Ayumu sat before the stranger and took the bowl with a respectful nod. Hesitantly, Haru sat likewise beside his companion and took a second proffered bowl as a young woman emerged from the shrubbery at the edge of the wood, bearing a jar of water.
The old man turned to the woman and gestured for her to join.
“Kumiko, come, we have company.”
The young woman smiled and bowed shyly toward the men. In response, Ayumu raised his bowl. Haru merely nodded gruffly in response.
“I am Daichi,” said the old man, “This is my granddaughter,” the two travelers introduced themselves as Kumiko tended to a small fire beside the pergola. “We’re on our way to Uchū Castle. What brings you two this way?”
“None of your business, old man.”
“Don’t be rude, Haru. We’re also headed to the castle. Looking for work.”
“Your friend appears as a mercenary, Ayumu. But you, I cannot place your trade.”
Ayumu smiled as Kumiko broke in and placed a new pot of tea over the flames of the small fire to the left of the old man’s stand, “His hands are rough, chemically stained, and his right is burned. See there his bandages grandfather. He’s an alchemist. A pyrotechnician, I’d wager.”
Ayumu’s smile broadened and he gave a merry laugh.
“Clever girl. Why did your grandfather drag that sharp brain of yours all the way out here where it could scarce be put to use?”
She paused and gestured to the bowl he held level before him.
“Aren’t you thirsty, sir?”
Ayumu’s eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second whereupon he turned to Haru who was blowing the steam off his tea.
“No. Not really. Suddenly it appears as if all appetite has left me. Here,” Ayumu responded, proffering the bowl to the young woman.
A bolt of concern shot over the old man’s face. Kumiko frowned.
“Oh no, no I’m fine. Thank you.”
Ayumu turned to the old man, “Ah, well here.”
“Oh no, I just had a drink.”
Ayumu’s face remained impassive whilst the old man’s showed signs of fear. His left arm holding the bowl out into the air as Haru moved to take a drink of his own.
“Put your bowl down, Haru.”
“They’ve drugged the tea. They’re slavers.”
Instantly, the girl drew a dagger from her sleeve and brandished it before the travelers.
“It appears I’m not the only clever one.”
Ayumu threw the bowl over his should and rose shaking his head.
“You don’t want to die, do you?”
The old man looked from Ayumu to Kumiko to Haru and grabbed for a cudgel at his side, leaping for the pyrotechnician with a furious howl. He was swiftly waylaid by Haru who broke his unsupped bowl over the back of the old man’s head as Kumiko fled into the darkness of the twisted wood.