That night Reniko was haunted by dreams of dying Teoko. The disturbing voices she had heard in her dreams the night before now had faces attached to them. Her sleep was broken and by morning she felt like she had had no rest at all. She could hear the wind outside blowing the snow just as harshly as the day before and her spirits fell. Orric had provided shelter for them, extending his wing as a canopy; the heat that the three of them created warmed the shelter perfectly. She had worried about him, worried that the inescapable cold would kill him, but Orric had eased her concern, telling her that Teoko didn’t feel the cold like humans did.
When she stepped out of the shelter, followed closely by Malik, she was surprised to find that there was not much snow covering Orric’s still form. What little had landed had either melted on contact of had been swept away by the wind once again. Orric awoke when he felt Reniko emerge and folding his wings once again to his side he revealed Blaze and Penumbra, no worse for wear than the day before.
Penumbra immediately drew close to Reniko. Still troubled by your dreams? He asked as she packed her things on top of him and climbed on.
Numb from her interrupted sleep, her words came slow and uneasy. “I’m fine.”
Did you sleep at all last night?
Penumbra questioned her no more. Worry plagued him and he wished that he could ease the pain that had engulfed her. Unable to, he merely followed her direction into the unceasing storm.
Five more days passed in the cold unceasing blizzard. Each night Reniko was disturbed by terrible dreams and each morning she realized that with the broken sleep, it was as if she had not slept at all. Cold, worn and tired she led in a stupor. Malik tried to engage her in conversation, but like Orric and Penumbra, he too realized she was beyond his reach. Finally, as they were packing up on the seventh day since leaving the Mistfall caverns, Malik had had enough.
Reaching Reniko’s side he prevented her from mounting and instead turned her to face him. She gave no resistance and he was terrified by what he saw. Her face was streaked with tears, frozen from the cold. Her eyes no longer showed the spirit that she always held. What he had before him was no longer Reniko, but a shell.
“Reniko, what’s wrong? Please talk to me,” he pleaded. She only closed her eyes, wincing in pain as the sound of his voice reverberated in her head.
“I’m fine,” she mumbled turning back to Penumbra.
Malik stopped her. “No you’re not fine. You haven’t slept in days. When you do sleep, something disturbing plagues your dreams. What are you hiding from me?”
The arm Malik held in restraint began to tremble as fresh tears slid down Reniko’s face. “I don’t know. It’s like the closer we get to Reflaydun the more haunting my dreams become. I’m scared, scared to go on, scared to go back. I don’t know what to do anymore, Malik.”
“I don’t understand. Reflaydun may hold the way for you to return home. What are you afraid of?”
Reniko couldn’t speak. Her dreams filled her mind; the slaughter of the Teoko, the mistreatment of the humans, the screaming, and the cries of pain. All of it and here she was ignoring it all, ready to turn her back on all of it for the safety of her home. Maybe I don’t want to go back. That’s ridiculous, what can I do? My presence on this planet means nothing.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore!” she screamed, collapsing to the snowy ground pulling Malik down with her. She was no longer crying, just staring through him like he wasn’t even there. Terrified, Malik grabbed her shoulders and held her close to him.
“Reniko, whatever it is you feel you have to do, let it go. I expect nothing from you, no one does. Don’t burden yourself with things you can’t change.”
Reniko unburied her head from Malik’s chest and looked up into his golden eyes. “But what if I can?” Her comment moved him to silence. He looked to Orric. Surely his words could reassure Reniko, but as Malik’s gaze fell upon him, he turned aside, ignoring all that was happening. What is going on? He asked as he noticed that Penumbra as well had fled from Reniko’s side. When he looked down again, Reniko was still staring up at him, her question burning in her eyes. She needs me to answer. What do I say?
“Then stay. I’ve never said you had to go. I would be glad to see you stay with us. But Lyss,” Malik wiped the tears from Reniko’s face, “only stay if it will ease your pain. However, if you plan on staying in this state by not leaving, I’d rather see you go home. I can’t stand seeing you like this, all the fire has gone out of you.”
Reniko buried her head back into the folds of Malik’s clothing, still confused. Malik sat unmoving. He felt strange, so warm. Holding Reniko felt right somehow, and this more than anything unsettled him. What is this I’m feeling?
With a sigh, he spoke, “It’s no use deciding now, let’s get to Reflaydun. When the time comes, you can make your choice.”
Reniko lifted her head and pulled away from Malik. “You’re right. There really is no use thinking about it now. I’m just tired.”
“Ride with me and you can sleep. I think I have figured out the compass well enough.”
Reniko smiled and handed Malik the compass. “Thank you.”
It wasn’t long before Reniko felt comfortable enough in Malik’s arms to fall asleep. Her sleep was much more peaceful and her dreams more pleasant. His presence reminds me of Dertrik. I remember how easy it was to trust Dare. I feel the same with Malik. He will protect me. The thought confused Reniko. She had never felt she needed protection. In all accounts she was more apt at protecting Malik than he her, but nonetheless, the aura that surrounded him made her feel she was protected. Dare had always been the same for her when she was younger, but as she grew, she realized that she had enough strength of her own to protect herself. This whole sensation was new to her. It was almost a relief to be able to rely on someone else. These were the thoughts she drifted to sleep on.
Once Malik knew Reniko was asleep, he confronted Orric, enraged by his earlier actions, or lack there-of.
“What was your problem back there? She would have listened to you, if only you had said something. She respects you. Couldn’t you see the pain she was feeling?” Malik spat, holding back most of his rage for fear that he would awaken Reniko.
“It was not my place to interject,” Orric responded curtly.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
It means that we are not as understanding of human feelings as you are, Penumbra said, ambling up beside Blaze.
“Don’t do that. You both understand well enough, probably better than I do. What are you hiding from me?” Malik asked sensing a deeper rift than this conflict.
“You will understand in your own time,” Orric replied.
“And who decides this? You? Penumbra? The goddess?”
“How can I know if it’s my time if you don’t tell me anything?”
Orric glared at Malik, sneering at him. “When you stop running from your past maybe you’ll understand better. Until then, stop questioning me. These hands do not belong to a sheep but a dragon. I am not afraid to use them.” Malik remained silent, shocked by Orric’s outburst. He had never seen this side of Orric before; it was so strange to see his friend so provoked. Stung by his words, he motioned Blaze forward leaving the two conspiring creatures behind.
What are you running from? Penumbra asked, his question two-fold. Malik ignored him. Clutching Reniko tightly and consulting the compass he plunged deeper into the storm forcing Orric and Penumbra to follow. As the day wore on, Malik noticed a steady change in the weather. The wind had died and the flakes of snow now fell gently to the ground, bigger and less frequently than before. The never-ending storm was failing.
It was an hour later when the sun was breaking through the last of the clouds that Reniko woke. Glancing around disoriented, she tried to figure out what was different now. She sat up with a jolt as she realized that the storm had passed.
“It wasn’t never-ending after all,” Reniko said giving a stretch and sliding from Blaze’s back.
“Actually we just passed through it,” Malik replied. Reniko looked behind her at the path they had walked and realized he was right. The storm raged behind them a gray and white barrier.
“Well either way, I’m just glad it’s not snowing on us anymore.”
“You seem better,” Orric said stretching his wings in the now still air.
Reniko nodded and turned back to Malik. “Do I hear water?”
“I think we finally made it to the Reflayda River. Once we cross that we should be very close to the city.”
Reniko looked past him. There was a slope in front of them, cutting off their view of what was beyond. Anxious to see an end to this journey, she started up the slope on foot. Ten minutes later she reached the ridge and looked down into a sea of dazzling reflections. The river was wide and torrential as the snow that surrounded this strange valley melted with the heat of late spring. Beyond the river, across a silver bridge that stood only feet away was the most glorious sight Reniko had ever seen in her life. A city spanned for miles, a wash of brilliant colours. It was like she was looking at a forest, only this one was not made up of trees but of buildings. The structures reminded her of Savonly, the buildings dripping to the earth like rain turned to ice, but all in blues, greens and silvers, sparkling in the midday sun. Pathways littered the area like vines. Some touching the ground, others branching upward toward the tops of the buildings, all intersecting in a pattern only found in the chaos of nature. It was Levanith, and they had harnessed nature.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful! It’s like they collected all the stars in the heavens and used them to make their city,” Reniko said looking to Malik and Orric who both stood unspeaking.
“A thousand years and its beauty is not lost,” Orric finally spoke. “Come let us see if they will reveal their secrets to us.”
Reniko nodded and she touched Malik lightly on his thigh waking him from the spell the city had cast on him.
“How could the Rük wish to destroy such a thing?” he asked as he slid off Blaze and began walking his steed to the bridge.
“Evil cannot see true beauty, and what beauty they see they know they cannot possess. If they cannot possess it, they feel no one should. They envy and loathe it,” Orric said and with a leap jumped off the cliff side and took to flight. “Ah, I almost forgot how soothing the wind can be.”
Reniko was the first to reach the bridge. It extended like a silver branch from the side of the cliff to the other side of the river far below. It was more stairway than bridge with vine-like railings on either side. Testing her weight on it and finding it solid, she stepped fully onto it, only to feel a sizzle of energy. A sudden smell of ozone made her pause, suddenly wary of stepping on the bridge further.
“What’s the matter Reniko?” Malik asked seeing her hesitate.
“Well, I’m wondering if the Levanith left behind a few defenses. I felt something strange, like I passed through something. Do you think I might have set off some sort of trap?”
“Well you seem fine enough. Nothing seems to be happening. I would think that sort of thing would be instantaneous.”
“You’re right, it was nothing,” Reniko said and took another step forward. Penumbra, who had been behind her, put one leg on the stairway and immediately shied away.
I think Blaze and I should stay behind. Whatever that is, it’s too slippery for our feet. Besides, I think you were right, intruders are not welcome here. That city does not like me. Be careful, Reniko. I worry for your safety.
Malik stepped onto the bridge when Penumbra had stepped aside and he wavered in his stand. Reniko was right, there was a barrier here, and he had felt its resistance to his presence. It made him shiver.
“Pen and Blaze aren’t coming,” Reniko said. “He told me to be careful, the city doesn’t like intruders.”
Malik nodded. “Let’s move. I don’t like just standing here.” The two of them moved farther onto the stairway, heading down into the valley toward the silently hostile city. Neither spoke until they saw Orric wheeling overhead.
After they had crossed over the riverbed and into Reflaydun they stopped. “Orric, have you seen anything. Do you know where we should be heading?” Reniko asked.
Orric circled lower preparing to land, only to be stopped by some invisible force. His body stopped with a jolt and he found himself suspended hundreds of feet in the air on what felt like solid ground.
Reniko cried out in shock, as did Malik.
“What is going on here?” Malik asked.
“It looks like a force field of some kind. Could be why the city hasn’t been touched by the elements. But if that’s the case, this city must be using a lot of energy,” Reniko said.
Orric looked down on Reniko and Malik who were now directly beneath him. “Sound seems to travel just fine through this thing. I think I found what we are looking for, a building of archives. I’ll lead the way from up here,” Orric said taking flight again, wary of the invisible barrier.
“Why did it let us through and not anyone else?” Reniko asked.
“We are human and the others are not,” Malik supplied.
“The Levanith weren’t human.”
“No, but humans and Levanith worked side by side, so it only makes sense that the city would let us through.”
“I don’t like this, Malik. We’ve come into something very foreign. If it decides we are a threat suddenly, there will be nothing we can do. Not when we are in the heart of it.”
“Have faith Reniko, the goddess will protect us.”
Reniko frowned, but did not respond. She looked back into the sky and spotted Orric, small against the hazy blue backdrop. With a sigh she plunged onward.
The silence that covered the ancient city was deafening. Reniko’s own breathing began to sound too loud in the absence of other noise. As they headed farther into the heart of Reflaydun, Reniko felt that her every step betrayed them. There was danger here. She could sense it in every doorway and every intersecting path. This city, its inhabitants dead for a thousand years, was nonetheless alive. Something watched them and hid itself well.
As the sun began its decent into the surrounding hills, Reniko and Malik reached their destination. After being lost in a maze of tangled paths, they found that most, if not all, of them led to the same point. If the city had a heart, this was it. After the absence of life the sight before them was shocking. A tree grew taller than all the buildings around it. It was soon apparent to Malik and Reniko that the tree that stood before them concealed another structure: a castle of some sort. The strange silver-blue material that built most of the rest of the city could be seen under the roots that stretched to the ground far below. The tree had encased this building like a protective wall.
Around this marvel was a large circular courtyard, devoid of all life. As they came upon this site, Reniko hesitated, causing Malik, who had been staring at the monstrous tree, to collide with her.
“What’s the matter Reniko?” Malik said stepping around Reniko and heading deeper into the courtyard. Reniko grabbed his arm and pulled him back onto the path that they had emerged from.
“Malik, don’t. I have a bad feeling about this. There is something alive here besides that tree and it doesn’t like us. I don’t think it’s just going to let us waltz up to that thing.”
“That’s ridiculous. This city has been abandoned for a thousand years. That tree is the only thing alive.”
“Okay not alive. Aware.”
“What’s that supposed to mean.”
“If the Levanith were so smart then they could build something that is aware but not alive. We’re close to just that sort of thing on Earth.” A shadow passed at the far end of the courtyard and Reniko reflexively unsheathed Imako. Startled Malik stepped back from Reniko and ended up farther into the courtyard.
“Malik, get back here,” Reniko hissed staring in the direction of the shadow.
“Look, I’m fine. What’s your problem anyway?” Malik said walking closer to the tree-encased castle.
Reniko sighed, realized she had been seeing things and followed Malik into the courtyard. “I thought I saw something.”
“There is nothing alive in here, how many times do I have to tell you that?”
“I’m just being cautious.” Reniko mumbled as she skirted past Malik and sheathed Imako.
“I think there is an entrance on the other side,” Orric shouted down. He was sitting squarely on top of the tree glaring down at the two humans, the barrier separating him and the tree by mere inches.
Reniko looked up at him as she walked. When she collided with something hard her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. That is, until she realized that she had run into another invisible wall.
“Well so much for going in there,” she mumbled and turned back to Malik.
Malik, who hadn’t been paying attention to where Reniko had gone, was nearly out of sight heading around the tree. “Malik, wait!” Reniko shouted, running after her friend, only to find herself face to face with another invisible barrier. Malik ran back as he heard her shouts and found Reniko, her face drained of colour. I just came through here, there was no barrier.
“This can’t be happening,” she said, her eyes staring past Malik, her hands pressed palm up on the invisible surface.
“Reniko, what’s going on?” Malik said running his hands on the shield looking for the end. Reniko followed suit. They realized when they had come back to the starting place that the box was complete.
“Reniko, don’t panic. I’m going to find you a way out. Just stay calm, I’ll be right back.”
Reniko nodded, frustrated and annoyed. “Don’t take too long.” She looked up toward Orric and saw he had gone. Where to, was beyond her.
Turning her back on Malik, she leaned against the barrier and slid to the ground. Eyes downcast, she sighed. I’m ready to go home now. She closed her eyes and laid her head on her knees as she waited for news from Malik. A sound like sand falling startled her out of her rest and when she looked up it was with a mask of terror.
“Malik!” she screamed, scrambling to her feet and pressing herself as flat against the barrier as possible. Malik ran back breathless, freezing in place as he saw what Reniko faced. Radiating out from the centre of the cage she was in, the ground was breaking apart, trickling like sand into a black pit.
“No!” he shouted running up to where Reniko stood. Hearing his shouts, Reniko turned around her face alight with panic. Pulling out his sword, he thrust it at the barrier only to have it deflected, leaving his arms numb from the impact. Dropping his sword, he faced Reniko who was vainly trying to push her way through the barrier.
Reniko turned her head to look at the ground as it gave way and then looked back at Malik. There’s nothing we can do. I’m going to die. Tears welled in her eyes and she pressed her hands against the barrier, staring at Malik, trying to forget what the sound she heard behind her meant. Breath catching in her throat, she felt the ground give way beneath her feet and she was falling into darkness. Malik watched, helpless, as Reniko disappeared into the blackness, the scream echoing in the air the only thing left of her.