Seventeen days passed by slowly, motions became routine until finally the horizon broke and there before the small band was a bustling town. They had come to Mistfall without incident, unaware how close their pursuer really was.
Reniko was more than happy to see the sight of other humans, even if mixed amongst them was the occasional Rük. She and Malik had enjoyed each other’s company but the silences they had endured had made the trip seem far too long. There was a certain amount of doubt around the trust that had been established, and they both seemed to have things they didn’t wish to share with the other. No matter how close they seemed to become, there was still that large gap that had no bridge for them to cross.
“I see why it’s called Mistfall,” Reniko said as they headed into the heart of the town. The town was veiled in just that, mist. The lake here crashed violently against the shore causing a steady spray that caught in the wind and blew directly into the town.
“It’s not always this bad. It depends on the wind, though it mostly blows in a northwestern direction.”
“Bad place to build a town.”
“I think when the town was built the area was different. It had a different name long ago, which was lost to history.”
“How long do you think we can stay here?”
“Not long I suppose, not with a Rük assassin on our trail.”
“We don’t know if he even is. Seventeen days and not a sign, I’m starting to have doubts that we are being pursued.”
“The long period of time is what worries me. He’s better than that. I don’t think we really could have lost him that easily.”
“Well, I always say that you should go with your gut feelings. So if that’s what you think, we should get our provisions and passage to the caverns as fast as possible.”
“There is a small resistance faction here that we can hold up with until we leave –” Malik let his sentence trail off as a faded yellow Rük passed by. He glanced at Reniko as he walked by, giving her a malicious grin.
“Wherever we are going, can we go there quickly? I feel that if I stay out here any longer the Rük are going to try and have their way with me.”
“I wouldn’t doubt that,” Malik said as he guided Blaze down a nearby alley.
“Thanks for the reassurance.”
“I have no doubt you could handle yourself amongst them.”
“Let’s hope I’m not given the chance.”
They rode through the town avoiding the large concentration of Rük and made it to the outskirts where there was a small farm. As they neared, Reniko noticed three boys around twelve years of age minding the fields and a very small boy playing with a litter of pups. The three older boys glanced in their direction and one of them broke from the group and started running to the house, calling for his father.
A middle aged man, weathered from hard days in the field, stepped into the rising sun and caught sight of Malik and Reniko.
Penumbra took this time to speak. They were so keen on you, Renny, because of me.
“What?” Reniko asked confused by the sudden outburst.
The Rük, they know about the reputation of my kind. I probably should have stayed at the edge of town. They’ll be curious about you now.
“Well, we’ll deal with that when that problem presents itself.”
I just thought you should be warned.
“My whole life here makes the Rük angry, nothing is a surprise.”
Penumbra gave a mental chuckle and Reniko smiled. By this time the man from the farm had reached the road and was now addressing Malik. Reniko watched the exchange with mild amusement. Malik seemed to have friends in every town. He’s handy to have around, she thought as Malik looked back in her direction, obviously introducing her to the man.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“You ride a unicorn?”
“I saved his life, so he feels he owes me a favor in return.”
“It’s a rare privilege to meet such a magnificent creature. You didn’t ride him through town did you?”
“Seems that has been my mistake for today,” Reniko said.
I like this man, more respect for his fellow creature than your male friend.
“His name is Malik and he cares deeply for Blaze. You offended him in Rownie. If you would stop being so high and mighty and stop thinking of yourself as so much better than him I bet you would get along fine,” she whispered softly close to Penumbra’s ear.
Him first, Penumbra said stubbornly, refusing to talk with Reniko any longer. Reniko just sighed.
The exchange didn’t last very long and Reniko came out of the conversation just in time for introductions.
“It’s nice to meet you as well, these are my boys Tobias, Ados, Orus, and the young one is Mattus. I’m Jarnen and my wife Amma is preparing lunch in the house.” The older boys looked identical, triplets by what Reniko could discern, though each expressed their own unique habits.
“Pleased to meet you boys. I’m Reniko Dorsalin, and my friend here is Penumbra.”
“Never seen a unicorn before,” one of the triplets spoke, edging closer to Penumbra.
Care to dismount. I’ll keep the young ones busy for a while. You and Malik can go with Jarnen and take care of whatever you need.
“Would you care to show Penumbra around? I’m sure he would be delighted to see the countryside.”
“You serious?” Mattus asked as he pushed through his brothers to come up beside Reniko who had just dismounted from Penumbra.
“He told me as much.”
“You can talk with him? Amazing!”
Reniko knelt down beside Mattus and whispered in his ear, “If you are really nice to him I bet he’ll talk to you as well.”
Mattus’s eyes lit up and he looked at Reniko in disbelief and that was about the time that he noticed Penumbra along with his brothers had left him behind, heading for the fields. Without even a good bye he raced after his brothers, screaming at them furious for leaving him behind. Reniko watched after him, laughing.
“Ready to go?” Malik asked.
Reniko nodded and headed to the small cabin where Jarnen and Amma waited. When the two travelers reached the cabin Amma was setting the table for lunch and Jarnen was sitting at the table waiting for an explanation for the unexpected visit.
The difference in atmosphere was drastic from outside to inside. The cool mist that had produced a constant wetness on the surface of their clothing was replaced by the dry heat of a crackling fire. It was the first time that Reniko realized she was covered in salt as the water evaporated leaving behind a skiff of white powder.
“Where did all the salt come from?” she asked. “Not from the mist?”
Malik looked back in her direction as he pulled out a chair for her. “Radalean is not really a lake, more like an inland sea.”
“How is it fed? Is it connected to the oceans?”
“As far as we can tell it’s not. This area could have been a lot different in the past.”
“So the river that runs from Radalean to the ocean is salt water?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing!” Reniko said.
“You’re not from around here are you?” Amma asked as she placed the last bowl of food on the table.
“Never mind that, we have more urgent business to attend to,” Malik interrupted before the conversation got out of his control. “We are being pursued by unfriendly company. We are not sure how far behind us they are and we need to get to Mistfall Caverns.”
“Never thought I would be hearing you say you want to go to Mistfall Caverns. Nothing up there but water, shale and long dark passageways that led to nowhere but dead ends,” Jarnen said.
“The less you know about why we need to go there the less danger you are in,” Malik said as Amma laid out a plate of food in front of him.
“Well we could arrange for passage on one of the cargo ships that run past there. Can’t guarantee that you will be able to get passage back as easy,” Jarnen said letting go of the explanation with surprising ease. Reniko was startled by the amount of trust that Malik seemed to receive from all the people he knew. Though in reality she knew nothing at all about how they met or how long they had known each other for, so really who was she to judge? She turned her attention back to the conversation, happy to finally be able to have a warm meal after weeks of nothing but game meat and stale bread.
“We may not be coming back through Mistfall, so that shouldn’t be a problem,” Malik said between bites.
“There is no way anywhere else unless you plan on traveling by boat to Porsshash or Radalean City.”
“Or unless you travel through Mistfall caverns,” Reniko stated.
Malik gave her a look and she said nothing else. What’s he being so touchy about? Suddenly I’m not allowed to talk at all? Reniko glared back at Malik like a child, her only defense against his forcefulness.
“Heard rumors it could be done, though none have come back to tell the tale,” Amma said surprising her husband.
“What fool have you been talking to, woman?” Jarnen asked.
“It’s common knowledge amongst the sailor’s wives.”
Jarnen just scoffed, “In my opinion it’s just that, ‘wives tales’.”
Amma took offense to this and gave her husband a hard slap on the back. “You watch what you say. Most of my information comes from those ‘wives tales’ and most, if not all, has been true to the last word.”
“Oh Amma, I didn’t mean any harm.” Jarnen said. Looking back to Malik he added, “I’ll arrange something for you Malik, though it won’t be cheap. Cargo ships charge high to keep off passengers. I hope you’ve come prepared.”
“Not for what I think they’ll be asking, but we’ll think of something,” Malik said, displeased.
“How much are we talking about?” Reniko asked. “I made a fair deal working at Savonly.”
“Savonly? You didn’t tell me you were traveling with a priestess, Malik,” Jarnen said looking with even more curiosity in Reniko’s direction.
“Not really a priestess, I was an acolyte for a while, but it was more schooling for me than anything. I was teaching the other priestesses Latin.”
“An old Terra language,” Reniko supplied.
“How much do you have, Reniko?” Malik asked, annoyed. Reniko untied her money pouch from her waist and set it on the tabletop. Malik’s eyes went wide.
“She has more than enough, I’d say,” he said noticing the bulging purse.
“Make good money teaching Latin,” Jarnen said, just as shocked.
“I think Milla was paying me too much, but then again, you don’t argue with her,” Reniko said laughing slightly. Amma began to laugh as well, eyeing Malik.
“I gather you wouldn’t let the lady pay for anything thus far. Such a gentlemen this lad,” Amma said directing the latter at Reniko.
“Well if I would have seen her purse before, I wouldn’t have objected so,” Malik said. “Oh, put that away before Jarnen decides to charge us double.”
It was the scream more than the sound of galloping horses that caught the attention of the house’s occupants. Reniko was the first to her feet when she heard Mattus screaming for his mother. She had made it to the door before anyone had time to shout a warning and as she flung the door open and felt a large muscular hand envelope her throat, she wished she wouldn’t have been so brash.
The Rük’s grip was unceasing, and Reniko was hauled into the misty air with such force that she felt pressure building in her head. Unable to inhale or exhale, she merely clawed desperately at the scaly yellow hand at her throat.
Malik was at the door, his sword drawn, looking with ferocious anger at the eyes of the Rük who held Reniko. Reniko couldn’t see. Her vision was going black. She only hoped that the Rük would ease his grip before she died.
“Let her go,” Malik demanded. The Rük backed up at the sight of the blade and snarled.
“No human speaks to a Rük like that,” he spat at Malik.
Amma stepped between Malik and the angry Rük holding her arms outstretched while she scanned the horizon for her children.
“Please. You’re killing her,” Amma said hoping to quell the anger of the Rük.
The Rük looked at Amma with a glare and tossed Reniko away. Reniko landed on the ground gasping for air, her vision still black and her head spinning.
“It’s against the law for humans to brandish weapons,” the Rük said. “Give the male over to us and we may spare your farm.”
Amma looked past the Rük, spotted her children, and with her eyes told them to run, and run they did, fast and silent. Reniko’s vision came back shortly after the Rük had let her go and she stood up, now behind the devilish creature. With a quick glance around her she noticed that this Rük was not alone. A yellow-green Rük stood to her left and two more Rük of a more familiar colour, a lime green, stood to her left. Two I could handle. Three… maybe, but four, God help me! She paused unsure what to do. Finally she looked in Malik’s direction and caught his gaze. He looked terrified which didn’t help Reniko at all. The yellow-green Rük took a step toward Reniko and instinctively she drew Imako. The sight of the blade halted the Rük in his tracks and also drew the attention of the others.
“You. Where is that ugly beast you were riding earlier?” the yellow one said, his attention drawn away from Malik by the ringing of Reniko’s blade.
“Is that what you came here for?” Reniko asked, shaking.
“One reason,” one of the limeys said licking his lips as he looked over Reniko. Reniko was repulsed by what those words implied. They mean to rape me. With a fierce anger, she stopped shaking and faced the limey Rük. I’ll die before they get their slimy hands on me.
Malik took this distraction to his advantage and struck at the yellow Rük, his exposed back to Malik. His sword hit with surprising accuracy only to be glanced aside. The Rük turned around annoyed and with his hand knocked Malik to the ground. As he turned, Reniko could see a long scar in the fabric of his cloak and under it, his exposed flesh, undamaged. Their skin acts as amour. I never noticed that before. Her eyes wide, she understood. Their backs were armoured but their fronts were soft flesh. She had had only frontal confrontations with Rük before and she was now very glad of it.
“How dare you, boy. You will die slow and painfully for that,” the enraged Rük said staring down at Malik who was lying on the ground, his face beaded with blood. The Rük kicked the sword from Malik’s reach and turned back to Reniko.
“Care to take a try, wench!” he growled at Reniko.
“If I do, it’ll be you who dies the painful death,” Reniko said, her voice cool with rage.
The Rük began to laugh, his crew joining in. “No human can kill a Rük, especially no woman.” He spat out the last word like the mere thought of it repulsed him.
Seething Reniko prepared to attack, but sudden footsteps from behind made her lose her concentration as she realized something was headed in her direction very fast. She spun around and came face to face with a white Rük. No bone crown adorned her head and she was holding back Imako with a pair of chakram. This Rük was different from the others, and not just because of the lack of bone crown. She was smaller, closer to Reniko’s height than the height of her kin and she was fast, faster than the other Rük Reniko had seen.
“Where did you come from?” Reniko asked her blade still locked with the Rük’s smaller circular blades.
The white Rük just smiled. Malik peered in Reniko’s direction when he heard the sound of her voice and blade hitting blade. Wiping the blood from his eyes he caught sight of the female Rük and shouted a warning.
“Reniko, don’t let her scratch you!” This resulted in being kicked hard in the side by the yellow Rük.
“You stay out of this, boy,” the Rük growled.
Confused, Reniko glanced back at Malik briefly and suddenly felt the resistance against Imako lessen. Anticipating the attack from Malik’s warning Reniko pulled away from the embrace. Nevertheless the Rük had gained enough speed and her claws raked against Reniko’s forearm momentarily before Reniko could pull away.
“Just a scratch, you’ll have to do better than that,” Reniko said resetting her stance to face the stealthy Rük.
“Think so?” The Rük said.
Reniko gazed at the Rük without understanding and slowly Imako’s weight began to be too much. Without warning, the sword dropped to the ground. Reniko clutched her arm in shock. She could feel nothing; nothing at all in her arm. It was as if her arm had died. Or was paralyzed. Her claws cause paralysis?
“Terrans aren’t very resilient to my toxins, are they,” the Rük hissed.
“You’re the one who tried to kill Malik back in Rownie?” Reniko said realizing she was in direct confrontation with their pursuing assassin.
“I would have succeeded had you not got in my way.”
“Kruok, why have you interfered with my kill?” the yellow Rük asked.
“I have orders from Lord Orborok to bring the female with me and kill the boy,” Kruok spoke openly. “You can help me or hinder me, though if you refuse to help me Lord Orborok will not be pleased.”
“I will dispose of the boy for you,” the yellow Rük said drawing his blade to strike at Malik. Jarnen took this time to reappear brandishing a mace and with a mighty swoop he struck the Rük square in the chest, knocking the creature to the ground, never to stand again. Malik looked up at Jarnen with relief.
“Sorry I took so long, I had to make sure Amma and the children got to safety. You understand, right?”
“I would have done the same, my friend.” Malik said grabbing his sword from the dust and standing to face the remaining Rük.
Reniko took the commotion as an opportunity and quickly picked up Imako in her left hand standing on legs that were unaffected by the toxin. Kruok caught the motion and blocked Reniko’s swift attack.
“I’m not down yet, beast!” Reniko shouted.
Kruok looked at her in frustration, “Why can’t you be more co-operative?”
“Not in my nature, I guess,” Reniko said as she started deflecting the coming blows. Kruok was now down to one chakram, having dropped the second to lash out at Reniko. However, she still had an advantage since Reniko’s arm was dead weight and she was not as good fighting with her left hand. As they fought with intensity, so did Malik and Jarnen with the remaining Rük. They were sorely outnumbered and poorly skilled and soon they were having trouble just deflecting the coming blows.
Reniko saw the trouble and began moving her fight closer to Malik. As she neared the uneven battle she heard the whistling of an arrow and saw one of the lime Rük fall dead, an arrow stuck squarely in the centre of his forehead. Trying to keep from losing her own battle with Kruok she ignored the source of the saving grace and became more aggressive knowing her friends were no longer overwhelmed.
Kruok became more resolute as she witnessed the fall of her kin and with pure heated rage she thrust her chakram forward only to meet with Imako. With a surge of energy she pushed the sword aside and struck at Reniko’s exposed leg with her deadly claws. Reniko let out a quiet gasp as she felt the deep wounds in her left leg and suddenly felt nothing at all. With no strength left to stand her legs gave way and she found herself defenseless on the ground. The others were still occupied with the remaining yellow-green Rük and were unaware that Reniko had been defeated.
Reniko looked up into the face of her tormentor with contempt. “Well it looks as if you’ve won.”
Kruok looking down at Reniko mockingly, “I have to admit, you have given me more trouble than I thought possible.”
“I seem to have that effect,” Reniko said and with the last of her energy she swung Imako at Kruok’s leg. Kruok let out a scream as Imako bit into it. Reniko let the sword fall from her grasp as she fell backward onto the ground, unable to make another move.
“What I wouldn’t do to kill you!” Kruok said holding her wounded flesh. Reniko just looked at Kruok her eyes giving the grin she could not.
She didn’t feel anything as Kruok lifted her off the ground. She had no idea what had happened to her friends, she could only hope that they hadn’t died at the hands of the Rük. Please let them be okay.
She didn’t realize she was back on the ground until she saw Penumbra’s black head come into her vision. She would have laughed and cried if she had been able. Instead she lay there eyeing her friend.
Sorry I was late, but someone had to make sure those foolish kids didn’t get themselves killed. Penumbra nuzzled Reniko. You’ll be all right now, I promise. Everyone else is just fine, thanks to a friend of Malik’s. They’ll fill you in when you feel better. For now we’re going to take you some place safe. Penumbra stumbled out of Reniko’s vision and was replaced by Malik. He smiled down at her, his face bloodied from battle.
“I don’t think we’ll be worrying about our assassin any longer. Penumbra saw to that.” Silence ensued as Malik and his companions carried Reniko away from the bloody battle toward a safer residence.