Malik had had food bought up for them and he and Reniko talked until well into the evening. Twilight turned to dusk and dusk to black night and Reniko began to feel weary from the long journey she had endured. Covering her face with her hand, she tried to hold back a yawn as Malik continued drilling her on the events of the past four months.
“Sorry, it’s late and you probably want to wash up before you head off to bed.”
“That does sound wonderful.”
“I don’t want to burden the innkeeper with having to haul water up to our rooms so would you mind if we went to the public wash house?”
“Public? I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“They have hot running water there at all hours of the day, much more refreshing than washing in your room.”
“Sounds fine. Oh, before we go I have something I need to give you,” Reniko said getting up from the pillow she was seated on and moving over to the lone chair in the corner of the room where she had set her things. She picked up her cloak, gently folded it and tried to hand it to Malik.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m returning this to you. Milla told me how valuable it is and I just can’t keep it.”
“Well you’ll just have to. I’m not taking it back. I gave it to you in Cabitora because I wanted to, not because I needed to. It was mine to give and so I have.”
“What’s it like in Tordaskar? Not many people knew much about it in Savonly. They said that’s where you got this cloak and that the people there fight openly against the Rük.”
“I guess in a way they do. Tordaskar is out of the Rük’s reach, so there is no reason for those who live there to hide their distaste for them. They, however, do not fight against the Rük as is rumored, only taunt them.”
“I guess in a way they are hiding.”
“Yes, you see Tordaskar is in a place behind what we call the Ocean’s Wall. There is a place on Mo’an Delar where all the rivers meet and drop into a vast expanse. This expanse encircles an island that rises as high as the waterfalls that surround it and also runs as far down. Tordaskar is completely surrounded by water and a seemingly endless abyss. Rük cannot fly, and they hunt the dragons, so therefore they cannot reach those who lie behind the Ocean’s wall.”
“I could never believe such a place existed.”
“I guess it is something you would have to see with your own eyes,” Malik glanced away distractedly. “Well, enough of that I’ll take you to the wash house.”
Reniko nodded, suddenly uneasy in Malik’s presence. She had so many more questions about this extraordinary place but she felt that Malik had a certain dislike for the subject. She decided against pursuing the idea and instead secured Imako to her back and wrapped the cloak around her shoulders. Malik was nearly out of sight when she was finally ready to join him and she ran after him down the silent hallway and out into the deserted street.
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. The guard at the entrance to town mentioned something about a curfew,” Reniko said.
“What’s with you? You tell me not to seek out danger and you go ahead and invite it to yourself without question.”
“If you keep your voice down, we won’t be inviting danger, as you put it. I know this city well and I know when and where patrols will be.”
Reniko sighed, which Malik took to mean she had given up and the two of them walked silently down the twisting streets until the washhouse came into view.
“I didn’t want to take you here during the day since it’s usually packed with people and since humans are not supposed to have weapons on them that may have been a problem in our case.”
“Good idea,” Reniko said as they stopped in front of the entrance to the washhouse.
“Women on the left, men on the right. I’ll meet you out here in half of an hour, is that long enough?”
Reniko nodded. “See you then.”
Malik paused, “Still... watch your back, okay?”
“Of course,” Reniko said as she slid from view and entered the confines of the washhouse.
The inside reminded her of a swimming pool. There was a large length of water that stretched from one side of the room to the other. It looked no deeper than knee depth. A cascade of water fell from the back wall, the source of which was hidden from Reniko’s view. There was a large area to her left where belongings could be kept, also a place to disrobe and wash yourself before you headed into the steaming pool. She headed to this area and began stripping off the layers of dusty clothing that she was wearing, thinking to herself that tomorrow she would have to purchase at least one more set of clothes for the rest of her travels. Her skin rippled with goose pimples from the cold air. It reminded her of Savonly being here and that reminded her of how far she had come. And how far I still have to go.
After washing she stepped into the steaming pool and the chill was purged from her body. She was glad that Malik had suggested coming here. This was so much better than bathing at the Inn. She waded over to the falling water and turned her face up so the water fell onto it in sheets. She put her head down for breath and smoothed back her hair, completely submerging herself in the moment. She let the water run over her for a quarter of an hour before she opened her eyes and her ears back to the world around her, only to be startled by the silhouette of a woman standing by the water’s edge. Reniko felt suddenly self-conscious and backed out of the low lighting that the room was bathed in. As she stepped into the shadows, the woman stepped into the light and water reflections danced on her face, causing her skin to have a slight bluish tint. The woman’s hair was auburn, long and dizzyingly curly. Her eyes were a steely blue and pierced the shadow that Reniko was trying to conceal herself in.
“Well, what do we have here?” the woman called out over the water which caused her words to echo ominously in the room. “With a weapon nonetheless. I should report you to the Rük straight away.”
Reniko’s gaze fell from the woman’s face to the woman’s hand and realized that she was holding Imako precariously in her hand.
“I’d say you are the one that is armed now,” Reniko said stepping out of the shadows and coming closer to the woman. As she neared she realized that the woman was not a woman at all but a girl barely past the age of sixteen. She, however, looked as dangerous as before, despite her age.
The girl looked to her hand and with a quick movement drew the sword up into both hands level with her eyes. Slowly she unsheathed the sword. When she had the blade halfway exposed she snapped it quickly to her side fully exposing the blade and making Imako’s song echo through the washhouse. “Yes it does look that way doesn’t it?”
Reniko stopped her forward movement when the girl unsheathed Imako and instead watched as the ripples she sent through the pool lapped over the girl’s feet.
“Who are you?” Reniko asked feeling uneasy.
“Do you really think you’re in a position to be asking questions right now? I mean you are cold, wet and naked and I do have the sword.”
“Okay,” Reniko said. Where did this girl come from? What does she want?
“This does seem to be an awkward situation, does it not?” The girl was looking over Imako’s blade, her finger gliding across the underside at the same speed as her eyes traveled over it. Reniko did not respond.
The girl looked up from the blade and her icy eyes looked straight into Reniko’s, her face hard she again began to fill the silence. “You should be more careful in the future. You never know who could come walking in through an open door.” The girl slid Imako back into its sheath, laid it gently by the water’s edge, and turned to the wash house’s entrance. Reniko stood watching her.
“My master always told me never to turn your back on an enemy, and to never underestimate them, no matter what advantage you feel you have over them.”
The girl stopped in her tracks and turned back to face Reniko, a bemused grin spread on her face. “My name is Rimca.” And with that final statement, the red headed vixen disappeared into the street, ending Reniko’s shower.
She stepped back out into the cool night air before Malik emerged and stood staring down the street wondering after the strange girl. I think of all the things I have encountered on Vespen, Rimca is the strangest.
Malik came up to her with a worried look on his face. “Are you all right?”
Reniko looked in his direction and smiled. “Fine, a little tired is all. The wash house was definitely a good idea.”
“I’m glad you thought so. Well, we better get back to the Inn, follow me.” Reniko, who had been leaning against the wall of the building, got up and sauntered after Malik her thoughts still lingering on her encounter with the strange girl, Rimca. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing her again.
It had been a little harder to get back to the Inn than it had been to leave. Many of the Rük that had been inside drinking as well as tormenting each other or humans were now roaming the streets, most of them in a drunken stupor. Nevertheless, had they seen Reniko and Malik even in that state they would not have hesitated to put them to a swift end. Therefore Malik had resorted to the back alleys where darkness was more readily available to conceal them. This sneaking back made the trip to the Inn double in time and by the time they had arrived at the entrance Reniko was exhausted. With no more adrenaline to spur her on she dragged herself up the steps of the entrance. Malik was only steps behind her and in not much better condition. As Reniko reached for the door handle she paused, tense. Since coming into view of the Inn she had heard a steady amount of cursing and hissing coming from the Rük that roamed the streets but suddenly it all seemed to die away. She felt suddenly very exposed and felt an urgent voice cry in her head to quickly put herself in the safety of the Inn, but she hesitated. She heard a slight whistle in the sudden silence, a distinct sound of something moving through dead air at a momentous speed. Turning sharply she jumped down the few steps she had traveled up and landed neatly beside Malik. She shot her hand toward his neck and snatched the cause of the whistling before it could embed itself into the soft flesh of Malik’s exposed neck. All this happened in a mere few seconds, but even so as Reniko looked to the source of the deadly projectile all she saw was a retreating shadow. Malik looked stunned.
He looked intently at Reniko’s hand and watched as a few beads of blood dripped from her clenched palm onto the dusty ground.
“What just happened? By the goddess... were you hurt?” he asked reaching out to touch Reniko’s hand. Reniko’s hand shook slightly.
“I don’t believe so, just aggravated some old wounds.” She lowered her hand and opened her palm to show the water soaked wounds that were seeping blood. “Bathing must have loosened the calluses.”
Reniko looked at the small metal dart she held in her hand and looked up at Malik. “It looks as though someone is trying to kill you.”
Malik nodded his head. “Let’s get into the Inn. We shouldn’t stay exposed like this.”
“We should probably leave tonight. Whoever this assassin is, he knows where we are staying and that is never a good thing,” Reniko said as she ran back up the stairs and pulled open the door.
“I was afraid this would happen. I knew there was someone on my trail; I just didn’t realize they were so close.”
“Malik,” Reniko said stopping as they reached Malik’s closed door, “I’m sorry.”
Malik looked at Reniko, “There’s nothing to be sorry for. You didn’t choose all of this. I on the other hand choose to help you, chose to, rather. Thank-you, by the way. You saved my life.”
Reniko had no words left and instead sheepishly nodded her head and hurried to her room where her few belongings waited. When she had re-emerged, Malik stood with his own assortment of goods.
“I’m low on provisions. I don’t think it would be wise to leave town without obtaining some of the things I need. I have a friend in town that can help us out. We’ll head there, unnoticed if we can and figure out our next move from there.”
“Sounds better than what I had.”
“What was your plan?”
Reniko looked up at Malik and grinned. “Wing it.”
Despite the seriousness of their situation Malik and Reniko gave soft chuckles before heading to the back door of the Inn, where they gained access to the stables.
Reniko had nearly forgotten the beauty that she had ridden atop the day that Malik had found her. She was glad to become reacquainted with the beautiful Arabian horse, only wishing she had more time to get to know the animal. It was a strange for her to not be able to talk with the beast. After spending so much time with Penumbra that absence of speech from the gentle horse distanced her from him.
Malik whispered soft words into the horse’s ear, instructions that no doubt he would follow and set the horse loose into the deepening night. Reniko watched as he slipped into the darkness, his silky rich brown hide only blemished by the white patch that covered his back left leg like a sock. His raven black tail swished silently as the outside air hit him and with one glance back at his master he disappeared into the night, leaving Reniko with the image of the white diamond that he bore regally on his forehead.
“He’s beautiful,” Reniko said to Malik as they escaped out the opposite side of the stables and stumbled blindly down the unlit back alley.
“He’s a great friend, loyal and fiery,” Malik replied. He fell silent hoping that Reniko would do the same.
The whole situation felt like a mere passing dream to Reniko. Malik’s silence again clued her in to the danger that this night held for her, but it still felt surreal. She felt almost untouchable and as this thought graced her mind she knew she was in even more danger. It was when you felt invincible that you were the most susceptible to death--Dertrik had taught her that. A warning to never become overconfident, for it was a weakness that your opponent could see openly and expose. She corrected her outlook and followed Malik in a cautious silence, fully aware of the danger.
When Malik knocked fiercely at the solid wooden door for the second time, Reniko began to feel uneasy. She felt exposed and the harsh discordance that the knocking sent through the night broke the weary silence, making made her feel as if every person in the town knew they were standing before that door. She was relieved when a light flickered on inside and the shadow of a short portly fellow filled the frame where the solid door had been only moments before.
They were not far from the inn and Reniko felt that this was a poor place to take up residence. The further they fled the better chance they had of putting themselves out of harm’s way. Malik on the other hand obviously did not have the same view. Having the feeling that he had been in a situation like this before, she trusted his judgment and after Malik had exchanged a few words with the home’s occupant she stepped into the softly lit room. They didn’t stay long in this room and before Reniko had enough time to survey her surroundings Malik was ushering her down a long corridor and into the cramped passageway that served as an entrance to an underground storage facility.
The portly fellow soon followed after he had made sure the passageway entrance was securely closed. He gave Malik a hearty welcome when he knew they were safe in this underground asylum.
“Malik ol’ friend, Marnie an’ I thought you had returned to Mo’an Delar for sure. We haven’t seen you for almos’ a year now. What have ya been up to? Obviously quite a lot o’ mischief as usual, seeing the urgency you are in at the moment.”
“Abus, good to see you as always. Marnie’s doing well?”
“As good a’ can be expected. She’s havin’ a hard time trying to keep the Rük off our back though. They’ve become rather suspicious of us these days. Had a lot o’ late night visitors an’ all.”
Malik cocked his head slightly in puzzlement. “Who?”
“A lot of Tordaskans actually. Why’s I thought you had headed back to Mo’an Delar –” Abus stopped as he caught sight of Reniko who was listening intently to the conversation between the two men. “Who might you be, lass?”
“Reniko Dorsalin,” Reniko said, nodding her head slightly as she set down the pack she had carried from the inn.
“Strange sort o’ name. Where do ya come from, Miss Reniko Dorsalin?”
“A question for another time Abus, right now we are in quite a hurry. We need to leave town immediately and I was wondering if we could buy some wares from you,” Malik interrupted.
“As always my friend. Be sure an’ tell me what’s going on when ya get the chance won’t ya?”
Malik nodded. “I’ll look around and find what I need, if you will please see to Reniko. She’ll need a pair of gloves at the least.”
Reniko nodded, “Your countryside hasn’t been very kind to my hands.”
Abus joined Reniko and led her to a bench that was set with an assortment of gloves. She scanned the piles and finally pulled out a pair to her liking. She slid them on careful of her reopened wounds and was pleased with the results.
“Do you have a more open space that I can try these out in?” Reniko asked glancing around the cluttered room.
Abus looked quite baffled by her request.
Malik heard her request and spoke from across the room. “She knows the Art, Abus,” he said still glancing at various items on the tables.
Abus looked more intently at Reniko his eyes wide with surprise. “Ya know Rumeum’antra?”
“I’m not familiar with that word,” Reniko said looking at Malik as she spoke, hoping for an explanation to his outburst.
Malik looked up at her and lifted his brow in confusion. “You don’t know the name of your art form?”
Reniko gazed back at Malik, “Dertrik, my master, always just called it the Blade. I didn’t know you had something similar in style here on Vespen.”
“Had is right. No one practices it anymore, it’s forbidden to use any sort of weapon on Vespen. I told you that, right?” Reniko nodded.
“There are a few of us that defy the law. I know how to handle a sword in my own respects, but the ancient arts were lost decades ago along with the Levanith. Rumeum’antrawas the oldest as far as I know. We call it the Art now. You’re the first I’ve seen that had even compared to the elegance of the Art.”
“I’m really lost now,” Abus interjected. “Here on Vespen? Where are ya from lass?”
“I’m not entirely sure if Malik would want me to tell you or not.”
“Oh tell him, he’ll spread worse rumors if you don’t. Just try not to let the whole world know about it all right, Abus. What she is could get her killed, or worse.”
Reniko froze at those words. What is worse than death? She had a feeling she didn’t want that thought to be followed to its conclusion and instead focused back on Abus.
“I’m from Terra if you must know. Though I’m not entirely sure I know how I got here.”
Abus grinned. “Ya must be the woman that everyone’s been talking about, the Rük slayer.”
It was Malik’s turn to freeze. “Oh by the goddess! My wicked tongue.”
“What are ya talking about lad?” Abus asked.
“That was my slip up. I told the shopkeeper about Reniko just before I stopped her from killing herself.”
“Nothing can be done now, Malik,” Reniko said stung by Malik’s comment.
“Anyway, let me show you to a more spacious room, Reniko,” Abus said gesturing to a closed door. Reniko moved around the cluttered tables and opened the door. Inside it was dark as pitch. Abus grabbed a flame from near the door and went around the room lighting the sconces that bordered the walls. A small square room came into view, a perfect place for practicing.
“This is where I keep my armoury when I have a supply. Thought it might be a little too dangerous just now to keep weapons what with the Rük snooping around and all. So for now it’s empty.”
Reniko nodded her thanks and removed her cloak which she let fall to the ground by the door. As she moved into the centre of the room she reached over her shoulder and withdrew Imako from its scabbard. Abus watched with silent awe and Malik joined him in the frame of the door ready to watch a master at work.
And master she was, she danced around the room with a grace unseen by the inhabitants of this world for nearly a millennium. Her style was not just that of a choppy wielder defending herself without direction, but that of a graceful tactician with every move planned and every thought on her body and her sword. She showed fighting as the art it had been, in a state that few knew of and even fewer had mastered.
She finished silently, suddenly, and turned to Abus, Malik standing at his back. “These will work fine. I’ve never fought with gloves before.” She said as she slid Imako back into its sheath.
Abus said nothing, just nodded. Malik furrowed his brow. Reniko made no sense to him at all. How could she have learned to fight and never used gloves? He brushed aside the question and the peculiarity for another time, a quieter time when he could talk to her about where she came from more thoroughly.
When Reniko came and stood by the door waiting for the two of them to move from her path she suddenly felt uncomfortable.
“You’ve really never seen anyone fight like that?” she asked.
“Like I said, the arts were lost decades ago.”
“It’s so strange here. So suffocating and hopeless,” Reniko mumbled to herself. Malik had a feeling she had not meant to say those words aloud and as Abus went to counter her words he gave him a nudge warning against it. When Reniko had made her way across the room to examine the goods on the tables Malik whispered softly into Abus’s ear.
“She has some things she has to figure out. Don’t pester her too much. I have a feeling life on Vespen is a lot different from the life she led on Terra.”
Abus nodded. “I’ll set out some fresh bedding for ya in the amour. When ya’re done collecting the things ya need ya can spend the night. Get a fresh start in the mornin’.”
“Thanks Abus, we do have some things to discuss before we head out. You’re a life saver.”
“Time to repay ol’ debts,” Abus said as he slunk up the stairway leaving Malik and Reniko alone.
They wandered around the room in silence. Abus came down with the bedding also without a word, and when he left Reniko sidled over to the room and, gathering up the things she needed, took a corner and began repacking her backpack. Malik came not long after and broke the silence.
“Could I take a look at that map of yours? If that’s where we are headed, we better figure out the best way to get there.”
Reniko stopped packing and instead pulled out the leathery parchment that Rillan had copied the map onto. Malik took it from Reniko’s outstretched hands and laid it on the floor between them. The map showed the entirety of Edonal Eclith with the added location of Reflaydun.
“No one has ever known the locations of the ancient capitals and here one is marked so plainly on a map. No wonder no one had ever found it. It’s located in the depths of hell.”
“What do you mean?” Reniko said peering at the map. “From what I can tell it shouldn’t be much different from Savonly.”
Malik looked at the map. Savonly and Reflaydun were the same latitude on the map but Savonly was sheltered by the mountains whereas the country that surrounded Reflaydun was a cold barren landscape pitted with never ending cliffs of jagged rocks. No one had scaled them and he didn’t see how he and Reniko would.
“See this surrounding area here? Just past Mistfall?” Malik asked as he showed Reniko the city that stood at the northwestern corner of Radalean Lake, the large inland sea that made up the centre of the Edonal Eclith continent.
“Yes, looks like plains.”
“No the map is inaccurate. This is all shale and rock cliffs. They’re impossible to pass.”
Reniko looked at the map more intently. “So you’re saying that there is no way to get to Reflaydun?”
“Well we could try venturing across the land bridge that leads through Radalean Lake. If we make it to Porsshash we could possibly rent a boat and sale to the Mistfall caverns on the north side of the lake. I heard there are underground tunnels in there that make pathways past the shale cliffs.”
“Land bridge? Is that what that is?” Reniko said pointing to the road that led directly through the centre of Radalean Lake splitting the lake length wise, creating a north and south to the large body of water. Porsshash stood near the centre of the lake, and by what Reniko could tell from the map it was suspended over the water, in ways unknown to her.
“It is a dangerous route to take. The waters are violent and wash over the land bridge constantly. Also a section of the land bridge has been worn away; all that is left there is a bridge built by the ancients. Porsshash is pretty isolated though, Rük don’t venture out over the land bridge. They are not fond of water. If we did take that route we could lose our pursuer.”
“Porsshash… Too bad Orric isn’t with you. If he was here we could just fly over the cliffs to Reflaydun.”
Malik nodded. “But he’s not and we still have a decision to make.”
“Well we don’t really have a decision do we. Unless we can get to Mistfall and get a boat to take us to the caverns from there.”
“That’s an idea.”
“Malik I do have to ask you. Why are you coming with me? You can leave now, back to wherever you came from. When I get to Reflaydun I’m just going to be leaving anyway, it’s not like you have any loyalty to me at all.”
“I don’t know. My life is in danger and it seems logical that if it’s in danger I should at least have a reason for it to be that way. If I leave you here and head to Mo’an Delar I will still be hunted. At least this way, I can see a little of what I have been searching for, for my entire life.”
“Answers, Reniko. You may find your way home at Reflaydun, but I may find a way to save Vespen, or at least find an accurate history of how we came to be like this and what it was like before the Rük left. I may be able to find out who the Levanith were and why –” Malik’s voice fell silent and he looked away from Reniko anger clenching his soul.
“Never mind, it’s not your concern really. I have my reasons for going, that’s all.”
Reniko nodded. “Another time, maybe.”
Malik just turned his attention back to the map. “I think you are right about Mistfall. It is the safer route of the two.”
“In some respects. The Rük will still give chase if we head to Mistfall. We may be able to lose him if we head to Porsshash,” Reniko said.
“I don’t know what to do. The dangers are intense either way.”
“I’m not afraid to fight,” Reniko said.
“To Mistfall then?” Malik asked.
“I know it sounds foolish but I would rather fight the Rük than nature. The Rük can be predictable, or at least tactical. I feel I have some control in that situation, but fighting against the planet is another matter. There is no control except what it holds over us. I think we have a better chance if we head to Mistfall than to Porsshash.”
“I agree. We’ll head to Mistfall, but for now, let’s gather our strength for the journey ahead.”
Reniko nodded and fell into the soft blankets that were arranged on the floor. Inside them she felt warmth but no comfort. When she heard Malik’s breathing turn to the steady rhythm of sleep she sat up and opened her eyes. Surrounded by the unrelenting darkness she felt the weight of her thoughts descend upon her.
“You know nothing about me, why do you trust that I will make the right decision?” she whispered in the dark.
“If Milla trusts you, there is not a doubt in my mind that I can trust you as well.”
Reniko gasped in surprise.
“Sorry, I thought you knew I was awake,” Malik said turning to face Reniko. Reniko gazed in his direction unable to place where he lay.
“It’s all right. Thank you again, for everything, especially for your trust.”
Malik did not respond and Reniko was glad of it. When she finally laid her head down again and fell asleep it was with less unease.