Chapter 1:
Meet the Company

//Outside the Blackston Mercenaries' Estate

The sun ascended slowly above the eastern horizon, in a feeble attempt at rousing those in the manor who had still been abed at the ridiculously early hour. Which, to be honest, was everyone except two lone figures out in the front yard – Aryuka Blackston and the mercenaries' very own cynical tactician, Kalayil Rainier, who also just happened to double as their commander's best friend of sorts.

Aryuka was in possession of a well-toned figure, a round and welcoming-looking facial structure, naturally tousled brown hair, hazel eyes, and a roguish grin. He might have been considered relatively handsome on a good day, though good days were few and far in between, being as the head of the Blackston Mercenaries rarely cared at all about his physical appearance. Kalayil was quite the opposite, always looking impeccably immaculate, from his stormy grey eyes, angular face, and lanky figure down to the position of his black-rimmed spectacles on the bridge of his nose and every last strand of his wispy, shoulder-length black hair. On that particular day, he was dressed in what was considered casual for him, in a dark blue button-up collared shirt with long sleeves that he had rolled back several times and a pair of black dress slacks – a sharp contrast from Aryuka's mismatched outfit of a pair of baggy blue pants and a loose-fitting, dark brown tunic.

At the moment, Aryuka was perched high above their strategist on top of a sturdy brown tree branch, swinging his legs back and forth through the air in an almost childish manner. Kalayil was sitting cross-legged in front of the tree that the branch belonged to with his back pressed up against its trunk, and was in the process of reading some information out loud off a sheaf of papers, as if the nineteen-year-old was actually listening. Which he was not, considering that he was nodding off against a conveniently-placed branch behind him at the time.

However, the tactician tactfully stopped talking and proceeded to plaster a disapproving scowl across his face as Aryuka failed to stifle a yawn, the sound easily traveling across the newly-established quiet. "Hey, Kal," the young commander began, using his old nickname for his best friend. "Remind me again why we're sitting out in the front yard at five thirty in the morning?" he proceeded to question, somewhat testily at that.

"I believe it is due to the fact that the two potential recruits we attracted are scheduled to arrive in approximately two hours, and due to a certain someone's, ah…physical incapacity…last night, we were unable to review the files that they provided. Hence us sitting out here at this ungodly hour," Kalayil responded, sounding rather exasperated.

"Oh. Yeah." Aryuka gave a sheepish grin, running a hand through his already-untidy brown hair. "Sorry about that, I was tired. And I just sort of…fell asleep."

Kalayil gave a somewhat irritated sigh, rolling his eyes. "Spare me your excuses, please. Now we're fifteen minutes short on time, and I don't believe our acquaintances in the estate will manage to wake up on their own. So will you pay attention now, or shall we just return to the estate with me being the only member of this company that knows anything about these two new recruits?"

"Actually, that sounds like a pretty good –" Laughing, the young commander held up his hands in surrender as his best friend suddenly turned his infamous icy glare towards him. "Apologies, I'll pay attention now. You okay, Kal? You're being just a tad more snappy than usual."

"If you were any other person, you wouldn't be complaining about me being just a 'tad more snappy' than usual," Kalayil replied dryly, shifting slightly against the tree trunk. "I should apologize, though. I was up late last night. It's affecting my thought process."

"Again? Were you reading?" Aryuka questioned, swinging down from the tree branch and settling on the grass beside the tactician. "Those books aren't going to get up and walk away, you know."

Kalayil re-settled his spectacles on the bridge of his nose, although there had been no indication that they had needed his attention, and raised his right shoulder in a halfhearted shrug. "Partially. It was mostly insomnia." Before Aryuka could so much as open his mouth to protest, however, the raven-haired adolescent was speaking again. "Though I believe that's enough about me for the moment. We can discuss this at a later date, when we're not pressed for time."

Reluctantly, the commander let the issue go, knowing that his younger friend would refuse to talk about it when they actually were not pressed for time, but resolving to attempt to bring up the subject anyway. It was just the tactician's nature, even though he had apparently been plagued with insomnia for at least two months now. Either that, or it was just an extremely plausible, convenient excuse that Aryuka continually fell for; he could never really be sure with Kalayil. "So, we have two people who want to join our company?" he prompted, steering the conversation onto less personal subjects.

"Yes, one male and one female," the grey-eyed strategist supplied, straightening up slightly and peering down at the papers in his hands. "Rayun Carlin and Katara Randall, respectively. Rayun is twenty-two years old and is also apparently a skilled archer who has been appointed to be Katara's guardian by the Randall family. Katara herself is twenty years of age, and a self-taught mage specializing in wind magic, who is also…" He trailed off, his tone undecipherable as he stared blankly at the pages in front of him. There was a thoughtful pause.

Noticing the sudden silence, Aryuka cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "Something wrong?" he inquired.

Kalayil shook his head slowly, pushing his spectacles up on his nose again. "No, nothing's wrong. As I was saying…Katara specializes in wind magic, and she has apparently taken responsibility for the large-scale hurricane that struck Rochelle out of the blue five years ago. Most likely due to the fact that self-taught mages tend not to teach themselves self-control at the beginning of their studies as they should."

"But if she was able to conjure a storm that strong when she was still a fledgling mage, then she must be on par with the renowned by now," Aryuka reasoned out, brow creasing in a frown. "Am I correct in thinking that?"

"No, not necessarily," Kalayil responded flatly. Seeing the irritated expression on the commander's face, he continued, "While it is true that some mages that exhibit magical power of this magnitude at the beginning of their training continue to show that much power throughout their lifetimes, it's actually a relatively rare occurrence. Most of them end up having to deal with their magic fizzling out, so to speak, shortly after their flashy and commonly reckless displays of aptitude. In most cases, their magical reserves have not yet grown to the point where their powers could sustain such a large tap. Hence, burnout." He crumpled one of the scrap sheets of paper on top of the stack into a ball as a demonstration, then tossed it at Aryuka, who deftly snatched it out of the air and attempted to smooth it out. "Some of them even lose their magical powers altogether."

"So she's either a magical genius or a completely useless novice. Is that what you're saying?" the brown-haired leader questioned.

Kalayil was unusually quiet for a few moments, then nodded slowly. "I believe you've pretty much nailed it."

"Should we assume that she's the latter, then? As efficient as the Blackston Mercenaries are, I doubt our name has spread so far as to attract magical genii."

"It's actually geniuses," the tactician corrected absentmindedly. "It's a commonly-made mistake. If you pluralize the word 'genius' as 'genii', you are indicating that you are speaking about a spirit of either positive or negative alignment, as opposed to someone with exceptional intellect or creative ability." The commander rolled his eyes at this tangent, prompting Kalayil to add, "You do, however, have an extremely valid point there."

"Which brings about the question," Aryuka pointed out. "What do we do with her if she really does end up being useless? I doubt her guardian would just abandon her if we turned her down, so we'd also be losing someone who is a fairly good archer – which is something we don't exactly have a surplus of at the moment."

Kalayil blinked once, before giving a rather exasperated sigh. "I should think the answer to that would be obvious. Regardless of whether or not we have spare archers lying around, we cannot accept her into the group. First of all, it would be a meaningless dip into our savings, considering she would most likely never be deployed on any of our missions. Tomiko is already relatively capable, but she is still barely included in any of my strategies. There is no indication that Rayun would in any way be an exception to that standard. Second of all, she…" The tactician pursed his lips thoughtfully, then decided against continuing the list. "There is no second of all."

The hazel-eyed commander blinked, then hardened his tone into an accusatory one. "Kal, you may be a bit…ruthless…at times, but you never say anything without having a good reason behind it. What were you about to say?"

"There wasn't anything," Kalayil firmly stated, throwing in a glare as well to silence any further protest from his friend. "It was simply the insomnia speaking. I'll have to get more sleep in the future." And there was that excuse again. Rising from where he had been seated underneath the tree, he stretched slightly, a wince crossing his face as the blood rushed back into his legs. "I would estimate that this meeting leaves us approximately an hour, perhaps fifty minutes, for breakfast. It would be a good idea for you to go rouse your friends before that amount of time is reduced to half an hour and you have to withstand their, ah…severe irritation…as you're trying to eat."

"I guess so," Aryuka sighed, springing to his feet as well. "Are you going to be helping me with this oh-so-daunting task, or are you going to opt out as usual?" It really was a daunting task, considering most of the estate's current occupants were heavy sleepers, and also never too appreciative of an early wake-up call.

The black-haired tactician directed what could only be deemed as a smirk at the commander. "You know me too well," he responded, purposefully omitting an answer to the actual question. Changing the subject, he continued, "Don't forget that I scheduled for both of them to attend private interviews with the two of us, along with your father. It's standard procedure; you should be aware of this by now."

"Got it," the brown-haired commander said agreeably, nodding a confirmation.

"Ah, and I may be a few minutes late for breakfast. There's something I want to check up on before the two recruits arrive," Kalayil said vaguely.

Aryuka frowned. He could sense when his best friend was being secretive, and now was definitely one of those times. "This doesn't have anything to do with Katara, does it?" he asked skeptically.

Kalayil considered the question for a few seconds before answering. "Not with her directly, no. Don't worry; I can assure you that I will have absolutely nothing to do with any of the trees in the front yard collapsing on her."

Aryuka opened his mouth, most likely about to voice an indignant protest. Anticipating this reaction and wanting to stop it before it actually got out into the open, the stormy-eyed seventeen-year-old promptly turned on his heel and proceeded to stride off towards the main entrance to the estate without so much as an actual farewell. He had never been one to abide by much social propriety, anyway.

The brown-haired commander watched him go, scratching the back of his head in slight confusion. Finally, resigning himself to attaining a few more bruises before breakfast, he set off in the direction of the manor after the tactician.

//The Blackston Mercenaries' Estate :: The Great Hall

The fresh morning air had done a significant part in counteracting Aryuka's initial frustration at having to get out of bed so early to review the profiles of the two recruits who would be arriving shortly. As a result, he didn't mind having to navigate the estate's many stairs and hallways so much, considering that he was more physically fit than a typical mercenary might be expected to be, and that the sunrise was helping to illuminate most of the typically pitch-black hallways of the building. That just left the arduous task of getting his companions down to the Great Hall for breakfast.

And it was indeed an arduous task. He was sporting a few newly-acquired bruises when he finally arrived at the aforementioned dining hall after practically forty minutes of coaxing, flat-out wheedling, and, occasionally, shouting, to find that his fellow mercenaries were already taking their typical places at the elongated table in the center of the room. Some had already begun to eat. His father, Teryll Blackson, was at the head of the table as usual.

"Morning, everyone," Aryuka said automatically, as he lowered himself into the vacant chair next to his father and grabbed one of the bread rolls from a basket in front of him.

"Morning, Commander," was the general response, though the tone of the reply varied wildly from person to person. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired twenty-five-year-old sitting next to him exclaimed something that sounded suspiciously like "Hey, Ary!", eliciting a snort from the young commander. Her name was Mia Randolph, and she just so happened to be the Blackston Mercenaries' most skilled swordswoman. This fact did nothing to stop the brown-haired nineteen-year-old from throwing the roll he was holding at her.

She deftly snatched the bread out of the air and took a bite out of it, all in one smooth motion. "Needs butter," she quipped good-naturedly, as she reached for the aforementioned condiment. "Couldn't have put any on before you felt the need to throw it at me, could you?"

"No," Aryuka replied promptly, helping himself to both another roll and some eggs.

"Is Kalayil holed up in his room again?" Teryll questioned, in the process of unwrapping a freshly-baked muffin. "Do I have to send someone to go get him again?"

Aryuka frowned at the empty seat across from him, where the tactician usually sat when he wasn't, as his father put it, holed up in his room. Or the library; both were areas commonly frequented by the seventeen-year-old when he should have been at meals. "I think he is," he said reluctantly, lowering a forkful of eggs back down to his plate so as not to drop them while he was speaking. "He said he had something else he wanted to check before the two new recruits arrived. I don't think sending someone is necessary, though. He'll probably be down soon."

"If you say so," his father replied somewhat resignedly, starting in on the freshly-baked pastry.

"Sounds like typical Kalayil," Zack, the brown-haired, emerald-eyed lance wielder sitting diagonally two seats down from Aryuka scoffed as he spread some butter on the flimsy slice of bread in his hands. "If he doesn't show up in ten minutes, I'm taking his muffin."

Tomiko, the archer that the strategist had mentioned earlier in his conversation with Aryuka, and who also happened to be sitting next to Kalayil's empty seat, rolled her sapphire-colored eyes at Zack's immaturity. She then jabbed the other end of her fork into the blue-speckled pastry on her plate and tossed her otherwise-untouched muffin onto his plate, proceeding to flick a wayward lock of black hair out of the way of her face, so she could eat without interference. "You can have mine, I don't like blueberries anyway. And Kalayil is like…like a stick. Maybe skinnier. You don't need to be so insistent on taking his food."

"You only say that because you like him," Zack muttered spitefully under his breath, popping a small piece of what was formerly the archer's muffin into his mouth.

"Ew," Mia interjected abruptly. Tyrell quirked an eyebrow at her. Aryuka elbowed her lightly, frowning at her in disapproval. Holding up her hands in surrender, she returned to her breakfast.

"I haven't the faintest idea what you mean," Tomiko responded primly, turning in her chair to face the figure whose shadow had just fallen across their section of the table. "Morning, Kalayil," she greeted cheerfully, giving the brown-haired male next to her a pointed look. Zack turned away from her and the tactician equally as pointedly, choosing instead to engage Karina Glass, the curly-haired, hazel-eyed brunette and resident fire mage that was sitting on his other side, in conversation.

Kalayil nodded curtly in greeting to everyone sitting at the table. "Good morning," he said noncommittally, gracefully dropping down into the empty seat across from Aryuka and pouring himself some orange juice from the pitcher in the center of the table. There were a few murmured greetings, but it paled in comparison to the welcome the commander had gotten. The stormy-eyed tactician remained completely unruffled by the lack of enthusiasm, sipping his juice and helping himself to the last muffin at that end of the table, as per usual.

"Look who finally decided to show up," Aryuka teased, offering his best friend a grin. "Did you manage to find what you were looking for?"

Kalayil finished chewing, swallowed, and gave a half-hearted shrug. "Possibly, though the information isn't quite as reliable as I would have liked. I may be forced to improvise."

"What are you researching?" Tyrell questioned.

"…Something about the new wind mage, Katara Randall," Kalayil said shortly after a brief pause, obviously not feeling like explaining. "It's nothing important." Seeing the skeptical looks that everyone at that end of the table was shooting him, he rolled his eyes in irritation. "Yes, I am quite certain it's not important – there's no need to look at me like that."

"Are you checking the validity of her claim about the hurricane?" Aryuka ventured a guess, remembering the way that the strategist had trailed off when they had been discussing that subject in their earlier conversation.

Kalayil took another sip of juice before shaking his head. "No, her assertion is perfectly feasible. She would have been the correct age – or very close to being so – and she lived in a village approximately five miles from Rochelle. The facts match what eyewitnesses stated that they observed. Or the majority of what they stated that they observed, anyway. What with the confusion and shock that would most likely follow the materialization of a large storm right in the middle of your city, it's quite understandable that some of them may have had their thoughts jumbled up a bit." He absentmindedly drummed his fingers against the tabletop, then abruptly set his glass back down on the table. "Hmm. That may be it."

"Let me guess," Tomiko interjected dryly. "Nothing?"

"You catch on quickly," Kalayil said loftily, then pointedly took a bite out of his muffin to indicate that the conversation was closed. Relatively exasperated by this point, and unwilling to attempt to pry anything else out of the stony-faced seventeen-year-old, Mia turned to converse with others sitting further down the table. Tomiko remained fixated on the quickly-evaporating shreds of what had previously been a conversation for a few moments longer. Eventually realizing that neither Kalayil nor the commander intended to revive it, however - the former had actually taken to staring out the window with a frown on his face - she joined Mia in her conversation.

Aryuka quirked an eyebrow at his friend. If he was hoping to pry any further information out of the tactician now that the two girls were not paying attention, however, he was to be sorely disappointed, as the only thing Kalayil said was, "Typically, I would deem it a good idea to brief the rest of the company a second time directly before the two's arrival." This statement was not an unexpected or unwelcome one, considering that the strategist had given his first and only 'concise' briefing about the potential additions to the group over a week and a half ago, and it didn't take someone of his intellect to realize that not many would be able to retain that information for that amount of time, especially considering the terms Kalayil had put the information in. Though he liked to consider himself relatively well-learned, Aryuka was certain that it was the first time that he had ever heard the word 'circumspect' used in an actual conversation, and he still had not gotten the opportunity to look up the meaning of the word 'thaumaturge'. Sometimes, he thought his best friend reserved all words above three syllables for company meetings, simply because he relished the simultaneous confusion that would plaster itself across everyone's face as he cracked out a word like 'temerity' or 'constellate'. When the two of them had private discussions, he usually had no trouble understanding the seventeen-year-old genius.

"Unfortunately," Kalayil continued, withdrawing his gaze from the window, "we're going to have to forego that idea, against my better judgment."

"Why's that?" Aryuka inquired. Peering outside the same window that the stormy-eyed strategist had just finished looking through, he noticed nothing out of the ordinary. He then surreptitiously glanced at the old clock that was pushed up against the corner of the room closest to them to confirm that seven-thirty had not yet rolled around. "We have ten minutes before they're scheduled to arrive. That should be plenty of time to review their names and skills with the rest of the company, shouldn't it?"

"In theory," the tactician replied wryly, abruptly rising from his chair. "They seem to have reached the manor earlier than expected, however, which means that our arrival outside is long overdue."

By now, Aryuka's father was also searching the grounds for any sign of the two new recruits. "What gives you that impression, Kalayil?" he asked, preemptively voicing the question that his son had been about to ask. "It doesn't look like they're here yet."

"If you look closely enough, you can observe that the branches of the trees on the outskirts of the manor's front yard seem to be swaying more than usual," Kalayil pointed out. "Aryuka, when we were conducting our meeting outside this morning, did you notice the existence of a particularly strong breeze at all?"

The tousle-haired nineteen-year-old frowned as he tried to recall the weather conditions of that morning, then shook his head. "No, there wasn't one."

"And what does Katara Randall claim to specialize in? Wind magic. It's elementary logic, actually." However, Aryuka was already on his feet and heading towards the exit before Kalayil could complete his sentence, having already figured out what the tactician was attempting to get at.

The seventeen-year-old allowed himself the luxury of casting an exasperated glance at the vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall for approximately three seconds before setting off after the Blackston Mercenaries' commander. "I suppose it's too much to ask that you let me know when you've figured it out, so that I can conserve my breath," he muttered underneath his breath, before disappearing out into the unlit shadows of the estate's main hallway.

//End Chapter 1

Author's Notes:

- About the genii/geniuses switch - I'm fairly sure that my interpretation is correct. If I've got a faulty dictionary, though, feel free to point it out.