The morning broke, leaving the two of them still impeded by the dark. Malik was the first to wake, his biological clock so in tune with early morning that he did not even need the sun to tell him that it was time to wake up. He lit the nearest lantern and set about packing things away that he had forgotten to collect the night before. Reniko slept on unaware of his actions, exhausted beyond anything she had ever felt before.
She woke not much later reluctantly, but upon seeing Malik fully awake she too became alert.
“Sorry, I was trying to let you sleep longer. You seemed very tired.”
Reniko nodded as she stretched. “Not quite used to all of this hard traveling yet.”
Malik looked at her quizzically. “You’ll have to tell me about your home some time.”
“Maybe, but right now, being reminded of it kind of stings.”
“I found you some more clothing. I noticed yesterday that your clothes took quite a beating on your trip to Rownie and since we are heading into the mountains up north I thought it would be best if you had some warmth.”
Reniko glanced beside her bedroll and sure enough new clothes were laid out neatly. One bundle was tied with twine, ready to be packed away for later use, and the other was laid out ready to be worn. She noted that the chemise was a deep forest green this time with the over tunic a muted emerald green the trim of which bore a silvery thread that seemed to grow from one point like a vine. It was thick with quarter sleeves and very long. The hose was brown leather, not unlike the ones she wore now, but in a more sound condition.
Malik cleared his throat and hefted his saddlebags over his shoulder. “Well, I will leave you to get dressed. Just come into the storage room when you’re done. Marnie has cooked us a small feast before we set off.”
“Thanks. What do I owe for all the goods that I have taken from Abus and Marnie?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve settled our debts.”
“I earned quite a lot of money working with Milla at the temple. You don’t need to carry my debt, Malik.”
“No doubt, next time I’ll leave it up to you.”
“Thank you for everything.” Malik nodded and closed the door tightly behind him.
When Reniko finished dressing and had repacked her things she headed into the storage room where the smell of warm food wafted. Malik was already engrossed in the meal and Reniko followed suit, more than ready to break her fast.
Abus said no farewell to them as they left. Malik mentioned to Reniko that he had dealings with the Rük and that because of the stir they caused last night, he was under more scrutiny than ever. As a result, the two of them left quietly through a back entrance that left them near the edge of town. Hiding amongst the dense crowd of people, hoping that the Rük would pay them no mind, Reniko and Malik finally made it to the sanctuary of the surrounding hills.
They found Blaze not far from the town, grazing on the sprouting grass. When he heard the two of them coming he looked up and walked keenly to his master. As Malik proceeded to secure his provisions onto Blaze’s back Reniko called out softly into the hills, walking further away from town and closer to the dense underbrush that skirted the area.
“Penumbra, it’s me Reniko, are you nearby?” She was answered quickly by the sound of movement and a black shadow emerged from a thick patch of brambles.
Did everything go all right back in town? I thought you would be gone for another couple of days.
“I met an old –” Reniko paused and looked back toward Malik who had stopped securing his things to Blaze and now stood staring intently at Penumbra, eyes ablaze with awe. “He saved my life when I first came here. His name is Malik.”
Penumbra met Malik’s gaze, his eyes piercing Malik like his entire mind was exposed. Malik had never felt more uncomfortable in his life. It seemed so strange to hear Reniko talking to this creature, even stranger that she seemed to be the only one to hear what he was saying. His gaze faltered after a while and he turned from the unicorn’s stare to meet Reniko’s gaze instead.
“He says it’s a pleasure to meet you. He also says that you may have won my trust but his will not be so easy to win, though the care you take in handling Blaze does please him,” Reniko said, uneasy being the interpreter.
Malik took another look at the unicorn and looked back at Reniko. “He seems friendly,” he spoke sarcastically and began adjusting the weight of the packs on Blaze.
“I wouldn’t be so testy, Malik, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Penumbra kill a Rük.”
Malik nodded. “I’ll remember that.” Malik lifted himself onto Blaze’s back, mildly annoyed by this new companion. Just when I thought there could be nothing worse than the company of a Teoko, I find myself in the company of one of the most reclusive species on Vespen. How did she ever become friends with this Penumbra?
“I saved his life,” Reniko said startling Malik out of his thoughts. Her comments matched his thoughts so well he thought for a moment she had reached into his head and sifted through his very thoughts. “I mean you were wondering about how we met right. I didn’t really give you an explanation back at the inn. I wanted to make sure Penumbra was okay with me telling you more of the details. I mean it is his family’s life on the line, not mine.”
“I’ve never known unicorns to befriend anyone that was not of their kind.”
I owe a debt, a unique case I assure you. Malik heard the voice ringing in his head. Reniko looked puzzled.
“Did Penumbra say something to you?” she asked. She was now seated on Penumbra’s bare back. Malik set Blaze in motion and Penumbra followed close behind.
“Does it always feel that unnerving when he talks to you?” Malik asked in answer to her question.
Reniko laughed, “I always found it as a sort of comfort. Penumbra said that you shouldn’t get used to it.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Malik asked flashing his head back to meet the unicorn’s gaze.
Reniko shrugged. “I didn’t get an explanation.”
Malik sighed and faced forward again. This is going to be a very long trip.
It wasn’t until midday that conversation again started up. By this time Rownie had faded into the distance and all they could hear were the waves of Radalean Lake crashing against the nearby shore. Penumbra had added no further comment since the morning and Reniko was growing uneasy with the silence that surrounded the group.
“Do you think that assassin of yours is following us?” Reniko asked, breaking the silence.
“I’ve been keeping a sharp eye. No sign of anyone yet. Penumbra would probably be more sensitive to that sort of thing though, best to ask him,” Malik responded, less testy and with more respect than she had heard earlier that day.
“Pen?” Reniko asked.
We seem to be the only travelers for many miles in either direction. I’ll keep alert. He spoke to Reniko.
“Nothing then,” Malik said. The silence again descended.
“I’m not fond of this at all,” Reniko finally blurted. She urged Penumbra to catch up with Blaze and the two creatures strode side by side, making it so Reniko was within arms-reach of Malik.
“I’m sorry,” Malik muttered.
“Well the only way you can fix it is to talk to me.”
“First things first, I want to apologize to Penumbra, for my rash behaviour this morning.”
“You’re forgiven,” Reniko spoke and Malik accepted this humbly.
“I’m not used to mouthy creatures.”
“It always seemed to me that you and Orric were always having at it.”
“Really, how so?” Reniko cocked her eyebrow teasingly at Malik.
“He’s my mentor of sorts. I’ve lived with him since I was very little.”
Reniko fell silent again. “I understand. So tell me about yourself. I’ve told you so much about my life and I know nothing of yours. What is it you do Malik?”
“What I do?” Malik looked thoughtful, “no one has ever really asked me that before. I guess you could say I rally the resistance. Try and make it so that everyone in the Rük resistance knows there are others out there, keep them organized and informed.”
“I guess that makes you their leader of sorts.”
“No, nothing like that. Each faction has their own leader. I’m just the diplomat, I guess.”
“Around four years now, ever since I found out there were more people on Vespen besides my home town that were not taking the Rük rule sitting down. It’s just a lot less open in the rest of the world. Right now we are organizing training camps so that those in the resistance can learn to handle weapons in a fashion, though it’s been tough acquiring not only the weapons but people with skill enough to teach the rest of us how to use them. Humans have lost not only the art of wielding blades but also making them and it makes everything difficult.”
“Your home town, are they open about their dislike with the Rük?”
“Yes, I’m from Tordaskar.”
“Are they not actively helping the rest of Vespen fight against the Rük? Surely they train in weapons there?”
“They are rather secluded, reclusive. They don’t venture out from behind Ocean’s Wall. The Teoko there are the only ones who know anything recent about the rest of Vespen, though that’s because they can come and go from Tordaskar as they please. And no, our records of weaponry were destroyed a long time ago, by whom we do not know.”
“How did you manage to leave Tordaskar?"
“I left with Orric. I was banished from Tordaskar. I can’t go back, wouldn’t want to if I could. All they do is hide. Hide behind Ocean’s Wall, hide behind their traditions. They’ve given up on the rest of Vespen when really they should be Vespen’s hope.”
“Glad? Glad of what?”
“I’m glad you left Tordaskar. I’m glad you’re helping the rest of the humans on Vespen, and glad you’re helping me.”
“Once I found out what was happening out here, I couldn’t turn my back on it. I have the power to do something and I will not throw it aside.”
“So what do you plan on doing now?”
“I’m going to find the truth, the truth of Vespen’s past, the truth about the Rük, the truth about… everything.”
“You said something along those lines in Rownie.”
“They still hold true.”
Reniko nodded and sighed. Malik looked at her with concern. Reniko just smiled back at him. “You have so much conviction, so much passion.”
“You are the same.”
Reniko shook her head. “All I want to do is go home. There’s not much conviction in that.”
“I’ve seen it in you Reniko, when those Rük held you captive, when you threw away that sword –”
“Let’s talk about something else. This is getting dangerously close to my comfort zone,” Reniko said smiling, holding back feelings that Malik could see flashing across her eyes.
Reniko broke the conversation, shattered it as she recalled her own past. Much like Malik she didn’t feel like talking about it. Her reasons were far different from his, however. While he wanted nothing but to forget the place he was banished from, Reniko wanted nothing but to get back to the place of her memories and the thought of talking about things she was hoping to get back to made her emotionally unstable.
“Where is Orric anyway?”
“Orric? He had some business elsewhere. We thought it would be better if we split up, hoping to lose our pursuer. Not only did it not work, but I’ve also been informed that Orric is now caught up in something with the rest of his kin. I don’t really know the details though. Hopefully he comes back soon. We could sure use his help right now.”
“We’ll just have to fend for ourselves until then. I think we’ll be all right, Malik. Cheer up.”
Malik looked at Reniko who was now sitting tall on Penumbra her eyes gleaming mischievously. “You confuse me.”
“I seem to confuse a lot of people. Come on, let’s pick up the pace. We have a long journey ahead of us and if we go any slower that assassin will have no trouble finding us at all.” With this comment Penumbra shot off. Blaze followed suit without a word from Malik since the horse hated seeing another animal in the lead.
Near the end of their first day the road they were following turned from neatly kept to overgrown until it was nothing more than a cramped trail. It looked like it had been unused for many years and their traveling pace decreased with the increase of weeds.
“Is this the only path to Mistfall?” Reniko asked as she watched the overgrown trail unfold before her.
“As far as I know. When the Rük took over Rownie, the roads were not kept up and travelers from Rownie to Mistfall decreased for many reasons. Mistfall doesn’t get many visitors from the rest of Edonal Eclith. They are a boating community, they communicate with Porsshash and Radalean more frequently than Rownie. Rownie’s ports are all closed off, so basically the Rük tried to isolate Mistfall though no one really knows why.”
“Have you ever been to Mistfall before?”
“Once, with Orric, we flew there, I saw this trail as we flew overhead. It’s also occupied by Rük, though not as overrun as Rownie.”
“Our punishment for our sins, if you believe the temples.”
“And do you?”
“I’m not sure anymore. I did a long time ago, but now –”
“Looking for the truth, right?”
“Well Reflaydun has to have some of the answers you seek,” Reniko said stretching her limbs as they rode forward.
“That’s what I’m hoping,” Malik said and he too began to stretch his tired muscles. “I think it’s about time we made camp for the evening.”
“I have no objections to that,” Reniko said as she scanned the area for a suitable campsite. Within the hour they had made a small cooking fire and were preparing themselves for the night to come.
That night Reniko slept soundly carried into her dreams by the rhythmic breathing of Penumbra. Malik slept with less ease, still worried about the assassin he knew would not be far behind them.
Kruok sat uneasily on her horse. She had left Rownie only hours before, hoping that she had not lost too much ground. She had underestimated the girl. She knew that the girl had killed some Rük of lower ranks but the speed she displayed was incredible and something that Kruok would not underestimate a second time. It had been bad timing on her part, bad luck. Those noisy patrolmen had fallen silent at the wrong moment and that girl, that human had heard the poison dart. Heard it! The mere thought of hearing its passage made Kruok cringe in disgust. She would not have believed it was possible had she not seen the girl do just that. The human had perfect timing, had plucked the deadly needle from the air like it hadn’t been moving at all and, of all things, had looked directly to its source; looked at Kruok herself. Luckily Kruok had had the sense to disappear the moment she saw that girl pluck her plan from the air.
It had taken her all night to find out even a scrap of information about where that boy and that wretched girl had gone. By the time she had finally picked up on their trail, wringing the information from that fat human male, they had left Rownie, headed in one of two directions, Porsshash or Mistfall. Around noon she saw horse tracks heading up the road to Mistfall and had followed suit. Back on the trail of her prey she now had time to think about what to do about the human female. She needs to be taken swiftly, and first. I will not be beaten, not by a mere human.