Malik stood up from the table, his face clouded with so many emotions Reniko couldn’t decide what he was feeling. The news was like a revelation to her. It made so much sense to her that a religion had sprung up from the death of the leaders of this planet, but for Malik, it was like the only world he knew had just exploded and he was left with the aftermath. Anger, fear, doubt, betrayal, confusion, denial; he felt all of these in brief passes. Reniko got to her feet and quickly went to Malik’s side. As she reached out to touch him, give him some sort of comfort, the spell of emotions that had grabbed hold of him broke and only one was left, anger.
“Don’t touch me! Leave me alone. This can’t be true.” He pushed Reniko’s comforting arms aside roughly and ran out the door, leaving Reniko alone with the hologram still in the Levanith Shyma’s form.
Reniko watched him go, ashamed that she could not help Malik through this.
“You accept this?” the hologram asked. Her voice was melodious and soothing, like a mother speaking with her child.
Reniko just nodded, feeling sober and distracted.
“Why can he not?” the hologram asked.
“Because everything he believed his entire life was a lie.”
“Should he not be glad to know the truth?”
“The truth is well enough, but it has destroyed everything he ever knew. Now he has to try and rebuild.”
“We do not understand the workings of emotions. Feeling is not part of our programming. When new data replaces old data they are more accurate, nothing more.”
“Some people love their lies too much to want the truth. They would rather live in a world that is false than have to face the truth. But Malik’s not like that. I just don’t think he was expecting this much truth all at once. To find out that not only is he a descendent from Earth, but that his goddess is mortal and long dead, that was too much.”
“Are you like that? Do you wish truth no matter the consequences or do you wish to keep your lies?”
“I don’t know. I guess it would depend on the truth.”
“Do you wish us to tell you his location?”
“No, that’s fine. He needs to be alone right now. I on the other hand need to talk to Kruok.”
“We advise against that.”
“It’s been noted, but nonetheless I have to see her.” Reniko said grabbing Imako and strapping it solidly to her back.
“As you wish. Please follow us.” The hologram led Reniko out of the room and down a maze of corridors where Reniko came face to face with Kruok suspended in a round room similar to the one that she herself had been in. As Kruok hung suspended in the air, Reniko remained on the ground. This amazed Reniko even more, for they seemed to be able to control gravity differently within different parts of the same room.
When Kruok saw Reniko she sneered in contempt.
“Earthling, you were mine. I won that fight, and yet here you stand free while I am trapped in this magic city.”
Reniko noted the bandages that were wrapped around the wounds that Kruok had sustained. Her shoulder, where Penumbra had impaled her, bled slightly, the crimson colour staining the ragged bandage.
“I would not lose again. I know your tricks now,” Reniko replied.
“Have you come to mock me? My life is forfeit because of you.”
“I never made you hunt me. Don’t blame your misfortunes on me.”
“Why have you come here?”
“You’re going to die here. This city will never let you leave.”
“And your point is?”
“If your own people wish to kill you then why not help us. Help me find my way home, help Malik free the humans.”
Kruok sneered. “Did you actually think I would ever help you?” She laughed. “Why would I ever help free humans? They are my slaves whether I am an exile or not. They fear me and will do my bidding. I am a god amongst them. I’d rather die than help your loathsome kind.”
“I don’t know why I bothered trying,” Reniko grumbled and turned to leave. “I hope you enjoyed your life, Kruok, because it ends here.”
“Wait!” Kruok said as Reniko turned to the doorway. Reniko stopped and turned trying to conceal the hope she felt. Please show me that not all Rük are evil. She was sadly disappointed.
“You say you would never lose to me. If that is so, prove it. Prove that you can best me. If I best you, you will leave this city with me, as my prisoner.”
“I don’t need to prove anything to you.”
“If you win I will join you.”
“How can I trust you?”
“You were willing to trust me the first time you asked me that question. What has changed?”
Reniko clenched her fist weighing her options. What was different now than before? “How can I know you will set aside all the contempt you feel for humans? That’s what has changed.”
“You have my word. I will follow you wherever you go, if you win.” Kruok said her voice losing the malice that had laced it before.
“So be it,” Reniko said drawing Imako from her back and stepping farther into the spherical room. The hologram barred her path, however, the arms of Shyma outstretched before her.
“We will not allow this,” she stated firmly.
“It’s not your choice. Lower her.”
“We will not concede. The Rük cannot be trusted.”
“Even so, I will honour her wishes.”
“We cannot risk it. If she wins, she will take you and the Rük will know of Reflaydun.”
“She will not win,” Reniko said staring into the face of Kruok who sneered at the comment. “You can’t talk me out of this.” Her grip on Imako tightened and she slashed violently at the hologram, which flickered and died.
“We will trust you with your word, Reniko, Levanith friend.” As the voice echoed around the room Kruok was slowly dropped to the floor a few feet from where Reniko stood.
“You will regret this,” Kruok said taking up the two chakram that clung to the belt at her waist.
“I could say the same for you,” Reniko said.
As was Reniko’s fashion, she let Kruok strike first, her round blades glancing off of Imako with the sharp sound of metal hitting metal. The force of the blow set Reniko off balance, as did the deflection that Reniko had dealt Kruok. As both parties regained their composure the fighting began anew. Reniko took up the defensive while Kruok held the offensive, having the advantage of two weapons.
As Reniko deflected each blow, Kruok’s attacks became more and more aggressive. The blows coming harder and faster, Reniko’s blade flashed in a blur of steel as each chakram was stopped and thrust aside. Nevertheless, Reniko could see the steady degradation in Kruok’s fighting style. She had seen it at Mistfall and nothing had changed since then. Kruok had no stamina. Her battles were won with pure force, quickly. It was efficient against most people of Vespen, but not for those trained as Reniko was. Kruok had never stood a chance. In a fair fight, Reniko had the advantage, in speed, and most of all in stamina. As Kruok grew weaker, Reniko grew stronger, and as the battle progressed Reniko knew it was just a matter of time before the opening came. And it did, without fail. With the shorter reach of the chakram all Reniko had to do was gain enough distance between them so that Kruok had to extend her reach. Kruok realized her fatal mistake at the same time Reniko saw the opening. After an arduous battle it came to a sudden end as Kruok swung at Reniko’s midsection causing the creature to lower her body right onto the point of Reniko sword. Kruok came to an abrupt halt as she realized that Imako lay poised for its final death dealing blow. With the steel cold against her bare neck she cried out in rage.
“It’s impossible. No human can beat a Rük. No human can beat me.” Kruok sank to the ground, Reniko’s sword following closely.
“Yet here it is done,” Reniko said suddenly realizing the truth about Kruok that hope had kept her blind to. Kruok would never join Reniko. She would never turn against her kind despite the fact that she was being hunted by her own people. Kruok had been so sure of victory and with nothing to lose had only said what Reniko had needed to hear so she would fight. She was Rük to the core and nothing Reniko said or did would change that. Imako shook slightly as Reniko came to a realization of her situation. Kruok noted the change and looked Reniko in the eye.
“You know what needs to be done. Do it,” Kruok spoke, the venom back in her voice.
Looking into the eyes of her opponent Reniko drew back Imako. Breath shaking slightly she held her position, sword raised high. I can’t.
“Do it!” Kruok shouted again her eyes fierce with bitterness and anger. And Reniko did, swift, without thinking, a downward stroke straight through, severing head from body and silencing the hatred and rage. She dropped her sword as the body before her, stained with the crimson red that pulsed life, collapsed lifeless to the floor, the chakram sliding from the limp hands. Reniko’s own form fell to the floor as she stood gazing at what she had done. Tears slid down her face and a single cry escaped her lips as she watched the crimson liquid pooling before her. Eyes lost in the wake of her actions she noticed nothing else around her. Instead she only saw things that no other eyes could behold.
Malik stood at the top of the tree encased tower, lost in his own sea of thoughts, as lost to the world as Reniko. He walked around the tree ignorant of the garden that surrounded him or the wind that swirled blossoms around him. His anger had turned to sorrow, and his thoughts could not dispel it. Without the goddess, there was no prophecy, and without the prophecy, there was no hope. No one was coming to save Vespen from the Rük. They were on their own. Even if all the humans, Teoko and Le’a’to gathered together, we could never hope to defeat the Rük. They are too strong, too many, and we are all untrained. It’s all for nothing.
“Why? Why have you done this to me? I have nothing, I’ve placed my trust in something that never was, in a being that died so long ago,” he screamed to the air, to anything that would listen and received no response. “I have nothing, do you understand? Our lives are hopeless. My life is hopeless. This isn’t what I wanted.” He slumped to the ground, sitting on an exposed root of the giant tree that towered far above him.
“Nothing is hopeless Malik,” Reniko said as she moved to join him on the root. Imako was sheathed hidden by the folds of her cloak; however, her eyes still remained clouded by deeds done.
“What do you know? Why do you even care? Go home Reniko. That’s what you came here for.”
Reniko’s face creased with pain. “I know that you are going through something painful, I know that you’re my friend, and most of all I know that even without the goddess, you got this far. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“I wish I had never come to the place.”
“Isn’t it better to know the truth? I know it’s hard, but now you can find another way to defeat the Rük without having to rely on the goddess. The strength you had before is still there. Just because your first option is gone doesn’t mean that you are helpless to do anything. Malik, I believe in you. I believe in the people of Vespen. It doesn’t matter that you are on your own, what matters is that you believe you can do it, that you have the same faith in yourself as you placed in the goddess. There is always some way, Malik, don’t give up. It may not be easy, but you don’t have to do it alone. Everyone is here to help you. I’m still here, Orric is here, Rimca, Pen… we are all here. That’s real. What we have all accomplished is real. Finding out the goddess is mortal doesn’t change what we have done. Don’t you understand?”
“Without the prophecy Reniko, there is no hope for Vespen.”
“Malik listen to me. There is hope, there always was. The Levanith, they fought the Rük, they may have been destroyed because they opposed the Rük, but they left behind their knowledge in hopes that people like us would find it and find a way to destroy them. We can do that, I know we can.”
“Do you really think that a civilization that was destroyed could hold the key to the Rük’s undoing?”
“I do. They may have found it too late to save themselves, but I believe that somewhere on Vespen they have the knowledge we need to beat them. It may not be in Reflaydun, but there are other places. We just have to keep looking. Fharlasina and Tordaskar, the capital Sentralon as well, they are all places where we can get one step closer to facing the Rük and defeating them.”
“I just need time. Can you give me some time?” Malik said searching Reniko’s eyes and stumbling upon her own grief. “Reniko what happened?”
“It’s nothing.” Malik looked down at Reniko, her hands placed softly in her lap. He was surprised to see her dress soaked in blood, the scarlet colour nearly hiding the stain.
“Reniko, you’re covered in blood. Are you hurt? What happened?”
“I’m fine. I went to see Kruok. I… I killed her.” Reniko lowered her head, mixed feelings again filling her soul.
Malik sat silent, the stillness only broken as Reniko got up to leave.
“I can give you time. Think about what I’ve said Malik. I can’t ease the pain you feel, but don’t forget that life is not hopeless; it’s just a different path to walk. Just ask the hologram when you are ready to talk again. She’ll know where I am.”
“Was that how you found me?”
Reniko nodded and left. Malik watched and sighed as she disappeared from view lost in the turmoil that she had set in motion.
“Now you have a choice to make,” Malik heard Orric say his deep voice echoing through the empty city. He turned, startled by the sudden presence of his long-time friend.
“How long have you been here?” Malik asked.
“Since before you came up. I talked with the city. It told me all I need to know. You aren’t very observant when you are lost in thought. Better watch that,” Orric said stretching out his blue-black wings, blocking the sunlight and causing a wash of blue light to cascade down on Malik.
“So what choice do I have to make?” Malik said walking closer to Orric and slumping down near his head to talk.
“To move on and go with Reniko and find a way to rid Vespen of the Rük, or wander Vespen lost in your misery.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“You’re the only one making it difficult.”
“Why are you taking this so well?”
“Because I knew all along. There are still some of my kin that remember the Levanith in their form. They are old and do not leave the Teoko dwelling place, but they have told us many things from that time.”
Malik stood up enraged. “You knew! You knew all along that the Levanith and the goddess were the same being and you still let me go on believing. Why? How could you?”
“Would you have believed me? You barely believe it now, when the city the Levanith left behind has told you. Malik, you weren’t ready to know, you still aren’t. If I had told you so many years ago you would have been without hope. You wouldn’t be helping the resistance. You wouldn’t have run into Reniko. None of what we have accomplished would have been done. You would have stayed in Tordaskar. You wouldn’t have even tried to help.”
“What does that mean? That you’ve been using me? I’m just a tool to you. All us humans are, aren’t they.”
Orric sighed. “Calm your anger. Malik, listen to me. When I first met you, when my son was born, I saw something in you. That day we formed a connection. Did you never wonder about why I chose to come with you?”
“I have every day of my life.”
“The Teoko that live in Tordaskar have a special gift not shared with the rest of our kin. Growing up around humans we’ve come to have a sense. That day we met I sensed something great in you, something that made me realize that you could accomplish great things, and so you have time and time again. I couldn’t bear to destroy the spirit that you hold. The prophecy was your motivation and I couldn’t take that away from you. It would have destroyed the person you were, the person you are. I only hope that you will forgive me for that which I withheld.” Orric closed his eyes and settle his wings back in place. Malik sat to the ground again shaking his head.
“So much has changed.”
“That is life, Malik. I withheld that change for as long as I could, until you could find something new to place your hope in.”
Malik looked at his friend confused. “What do you mean?”
Orric shook his head and laughed as he lifted his body from the ground. “I think I’ll give you some time to think about what I have said.” Orric leapt off the ground, his wings extending, sending a sharp gust of wind gusting upon Malik as he took to the air leaving Malik once again alone with his own thoughts.Suddenly as he watched Orric fly off into the afternoon sky he knew. It was Reniko. Orric had given him Reniko.