Reniko was packed and ready to go before Malik’s eyes even fluttered open to greet the day. When he came out of his room, carrying what belongings had found their way down into the heart of Reflaydun, he was startled to see Reniko dozing in the corridor.
“Did you sleep at all?” he asked her as he slung the heavy pack over his shoulder.
“A little. I had some things that needed to be taken care of,” Reniko said, stretching and coming to her feet.
“It seems that there is nothing for me to do?” his voice carried a statement as well as a question. Reniko decided to treat it as the former.
“Unless you have something to request of the city that I could not think of, I guess all there is for you to do is bring your pack up to Orric so we can be on our way, before the day breaks any more fully.”
Malik shook his head and plodded past Reniko to the door. “I gather Penumbra knows what is going on?”
“Yes. He told me to tell you that Blaze will be well taken care of.”
“Well that’s one worry off my chest,” he said as he stood impatiently in the elevator that promised to bring them to the top of the tower garden. One worry, which makes way for hundreds more, Malik thought as he glanced over at Reniko who seemed to be devoid of the emotion all together. I just don’t understand her. She doesn’t seem at all concerned that she can’t go home, that she is stuck on Vespen for a lot longer, stuck in the midst of my problems. She even seems to be forcing her way into them like a wedge, trying to protect me and force me along all at the same time. She has a rich commanding air, like she was born to the role of paladin, or at least bred to it. I would love to meet this Dertrik of hers. If he made her what she is, he must be a commanding force as well. Together they could create a great advantage over the Rük. These thoughts carried Malik to the top of the root-entangled tower. Reniko, who had sensed his prying eyes on her during the ride up, was first to step off the platform and into the cool breaking dawn. Uncomfortable with the silence that seemed to grow between them, she stumbled forward, grateful when she caught sight of Orric’s massive bulk.
Reniko smiled at the gentle hulk and sauntered over to his side where he assisted in her efforts to climb his scaly hide. Malik, on the other hand, went to Orric’s hind legs to secure the pack he held in his hand with the rest of the provisions they needed for the trip. As he secured the pack to Orric’s leg, he glanced at Reniko’s odd pack. It still felt strange looking at such a synthetic looking pack with the rich blue and the strange closing devices that shut away the contents. He tested one of the sliders on the pack making sure the things inside were secure and walked back to Orric’s neck. There he found Reniko perched in his spot grinning down at him, her dress hiked up to her hips leaving her legs exposed. Or not so exposed as he looked more closely, she wore her brown leather leggings underneath, more than enough protection for her legs against Orric’s skin.
“I guess that means that you weren’t satisfied with sitting like a proper lady farther down,” Malik said as he climbed deftly onto Orric’s back and took up position immediately behind Reniko.
“When did I ever give you the impression that I was a proper lady?” Reniko asked as she slipped the goggles Malik had given her down over her shining teal eyes. There was something in Reniko that Malik had only seen glimpses of before, a spark that shined in her only when she was defending her beliefs against any who would attack. It gleamed in her eyes like a jewel. It unnerved him that she suddenly felt so comfortable riding astride Orric. What a sudden change, like she suddenly remembered something.
“What has gotten into you Reniko? Last time you were astride Orric you looked positively miserable, now you look like a child that has been given what she has wanted most in her life.”
“If you didn’t realize, last time I was on Orric, we couldn’t exactly talk. I had suddenly found myself in a strange world, and I was riding on a beast that I’ve heard of only in stories that made dragons a thing of nightmares. No offense Orric,” Reniko said patting Orric gently as he took to the air. Malik looked puzzled. There was that strange word again, dragons. He knew she could only be referring to Orric but the term distanced him, reminded him that she was not from here.
“None taken, my friend. But dragon?”
Reniko looked sheepish. “Sorry, Teoko.” Orric nodded his approval as he gained momentum and began to speed away from the glittering city.
“I’ve always liked the wind,” Reniko said softly, letting the wind pull her words back to Malik who was settling his own goggles into place. Malik didn’t know what to say; he himself had never quite gotten used to riding through the air on Orric’s back. The gait that he took as he flew through the air always made Malik feel as if he was about to fall off, or have his insides jarred so badly he would drop dead on the spot. Reniko seemed to find nothing but pleasure in the experience. She faced the wind and embraced it as a friend. As he watched her slender body in front of him, her braided hair flinging back almost touching his face and her cloak billowing out to one side, he watched as her body found Orric’s movements and matched them stride for stride. She seemed more an extension of Orric than another being. Malik on the other hand, only felt that ease of movement when he was riding on Blaze or any other horse. Orric’s movements had always felt foreign to him, whereas Reniko embraced them like a long lost friend. Malik shrugged his contemplations aside and instead just scanned the horizon ahead, already bored with the journey. I must be jaded, Malik thought as he remembered how much of his life he had spent traveling on Orric’s back.
Malik came out of his thoughts with a start, nearly jumping from his seat. “I forgot the storm. Orric can’t travel through a storm like that,” Malik shouted suddenly, causing Reniko to look back in his direction.
“Don’t worry Malik. Orric already took care of that. When I told him that we were heading to Mo’an Delar he talked to the city about the storm. Apparently they created it to keep unwanted visitors away. They said that they would make it stop until we were well beyond its reach. I’m supposed to inform them when we have reached the edge of the shale cliffs.”
“How are you supposed to do that?”
Reniko grinned having forgotten Malik did not know about Kruok’s sphere. “I’ll show you when we land,” she said and turned back to face the horizon. Malik shook his head and sat back. Between the two of them, they didn’t need Malik at all. They seemed to have everything covered. Why did I agree to go back to Tordaskar with this pair? Malik asked himself as he watched Reniko’s hair dance wildly in the wind. To protect her from herself, that’s why. She doesn’t have any idea what she is getting into. In the back of his mind a nagging thought persisted and tried to make it to the surface, it finally succeeded and Malik sighed. Because you won’t tell her anything. His life was getting very complicated.
As the sun reached its zenith and the heat started to become oppressive, even at their high altitude, they decided to land and seek shelter until the heat receded and flying would be more comfortable for all. Orric didn’t seem to mind the heat at all, but Reniko, her water bag nearly empty, was wiping beads of sweat from her brow even as the wind washed over her body. She began to feel hot and cold all at the same time and it sent chills running through her body. Malik was in no better condition and Orric, sensing that his human companions were wilting in the weather, landed into the sea of melting white snow that surrounded them. Seeing as there was no relief from the glare and the heat Orric fanned out his wings casting a cool shadow on the ground as his wing absorbed the burning sunlight. Reniko looked relieved when they touched the ground and as soon as she slid from Orric’s back she wandered into the shade he provided and began stretching and doing her hypnotic movements. Malik followed her into the shade, but not having her discipline, took the time to rest his screaming muscles. He still couldn’t understand how Reniko caught Orric’s movements so easily. Where he felt sore and tired from the long hours of traveling, Reniko looked rested and refreshed. Slightly jealous of this, he turned his attention away from her and began preparing a small meal for the two of them.
As soon as Malik pulled out some of the dried fruit and meat from his pack and Reniko smelled the food, her concentration was broken and she settled onto the frozen ground next to Malik to enjoy the simple meal. Afterward the two of them packed snow into their water sacks and let them lie in the heat to melt.
Before long the small group was rested and fed and they took to the air, the heat lessening with every moment that passed.
“I would have liked to have found out how they controlled the weather. It’s almost summer, I can tell by the heat, yet when that storm starts again it will be as cold as the dead of winter,” Reniko said as she reseated herself on top of Orric.
“It seems very supernatural to me,” Malik replied.
“Oh there was an explanation. Just because we don’t know how a thing works doesn’t mean that it is suddenly some form of magic. Just like every person that is different from you is not a witch,” Reniko instructed.
“Are you saying that there is no such thing as magic?” Malik asked.
“On Earth, everything can be explained in some way or another. So no I don’t believe in magic.”
“I see, so if I was suddenly to sprout wings and transform myself into a Teoko, that wouldn’t be magic.”
“Well you aren’t going to sprout wings and turn yourself into a Teoko are you?”
“Well no, but what if I could?”
“Well, I would try to find out an explanation for it. If there was none, it would be magic, but then again, that can’t really happen, can it.”
“I still think that there are some things out there that can’t be explained. What about Rimca?”
“What about Rimca?” Reniko asked finally turning around and staring at Malik. Her face was set in a look of pure stubbornness. Malik had a feeling he knew what to say to her to rid her of that.
“What about the power she used on you that night in Mistfall?” Reniko’s mask fell instantly and a look of terror replaced it. She instantly looked forward again. Malik was unsure if she was going to respond, but then he heard her voice soft on the wind.
“I truly think there is an explanation for everything. Maybe we just don’t have the means to understand it yet.” Malik dropped the topic. For all he knew, she could be right, but for now he was content to believe in forces that could not be explained.
That night, they camped at the base of the shale rocks, the waves of Radalean Lake lapping at the shore just below them. Reniko had shown Malik the small sphere that the city had given her before they had departed. She activated it by the sound of her voice and a miniature figure of the Levanith, Shyma, hovered above the core that was exposed as the lairs of the sphere peeled back, all aglow in a wash of silver and blue.
“We’re passed the shale cliffs now, but I was wondering if you could wait a few more days, just until my friend Penumbra has made it safely back to the Mistfall Caverns.”
“We can delay such, milady, for you. We wish you well on your travels. Please take heed of our warnings, stay concealed, and do not display your true nature unless you absolutely must. The Rük are hunting you with every means they have. They will not rest until they have found you. We fear for your safety.”
“Seems to me that you are learning human emotion,” Reniko teased the hologram.
“We never said we were unable to learn,” the hologram said and flickered out of existence. Reniko looked at Malik and smiled.
“That was strange,” she said as she tucked the sphere away.
“Very,” Malik replied. “No use pondering over it now. I need some rest.” Malik gave a stretch and laid down into the folds of his covers. Reniko followed his example and they passed the night in dreamless sleep.
As dawn began to break early the next morning, Malik woke to a forceful nudging on his back. He hadn’t been aware he had slept so deeply until the prodding projectile had jolted him from his dreams. When he turned to face the intrusion, he came face to face with a very awake Reniko. The object of annoyance was the bokken that Reniko held out to the still sleepy eyed Malik.
“What’s this?” Malik asked as he gave a forlorn stretch and pushed aside the mounds of blankets.
“It’s called training, and you’ve been slacking,” Reniko said matter-of-factly.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Malik said, resigning to his fate.
“You are the one that wanted this, don’t get mad at me. I’m being easy on you. If Dertrik were here, you may have had no sleep at all, and you wouldn’t have had any days off, even in Reflaydun.”
“That tough, eh?” Malik said as he warmed-up for the coming spar.
“Tough, but he knew my limits. He never pushed me beyond what I could bear, most of the time.”
“Most of the time?” Malik asked as he took up his fighting stance.
“There were a few times when he pushed me and I wasn’t ready. We never talked about it much, but for a long while after those two incidents he backed off, didn’t press as hard. He was never unkind, he instead punished himself too much. It never took me long to recover, but it seemed even though I took the damage, it was Dertrik that truly suffered. I don’t think he ever let it go.” Reniko’s eyes reflected a hidden sadness despite the smile that played across her face. Malik understood to some extent. Dertrik was a very important person to Reniko, maybe even more important to her than herself. He could see it in her eyes that deep love, a love that ran so deep your life no longer mattered as long as that other person was alive. It was a love you died for.
“You love this man?” Malik asked as he lunged at Reniko trying to throw her off balance. Her arm had healed completely during their stay in Reflaydun and she was showing no mercy.
“As a daughter loves her father. As a student loves her mentor. As a friend loves a friend. I would gladly give my life for him.” Reniko said, blocking Malik’s oncoming attack and pulling away in a blur of speed. Malik tracked her movement as best he could and luckily turned and blocked just as she came up on his left. The sudden stop of Reniko’s forward movement threw Malik off balance and before he could recover Reniko was on top of him, her sword at his throat.
“Is he the reason you miss Earth so much?” Malik asked as he again prepared to spar.
“Mostly, which is strange. I never thought I depended so much on him. So much for independence,” Reniko said. This time she took up the offense startling Malik into focus. Losing the thread of the conversation, he instead became absorbed in the battle.
The two of them sparred until the sun had risen fully over the shale cliff. Reniko spent the whole time correcting ingrained mistakes and showing Malik more advanced techniques. She was surprised and grateful with how fast he picked up what she taught. By the time they finally sat down to rest, both of them were sweating from the exertion and Malik had yet to best Reniko. He was frustrated with that, but somehow glad of it. He knew that Reniko was a far superior fighter--years of training had that affect--and if he had beaten her at all it would have been because she let him. That she didn’t let him win showed Malik she was not being easy on him despite what she claimed. It made Malik respect her even more.
Orric, who had woken up shortly after the sparring had begun, was mildly impressed. “I do believe you are improving, Malik. Though it’s probably a good thing Lyss is not your enemy.”
Malik grinned and took a long draught from his water sack. As he set it back down he said, “I feel almost sorry for the Rük. Maybe we should try and convince them to surrender.” Reniko tossed him a glare, as well as a shove, as she drew close to Orric to pack away the bokken.
“Now I know how Rimca felt,” she muttered.
Malik just tossed a playful look in Reniko’s direction and began packing up the remaining gear. Once they were all packed up and Malik and Reniko had taken their positions on top of Orric, he took to the air. Most of their gear was now secured snugly onto Orric’s back instead of around his legs for this leg of the trip. They were passing over North Radalean Lake, which meant no more dry stops. Orric planned on flying the entire time, but if an emergency landing was in order they wanted to make sure as many things as possible remained dry. Malik and Orric had both reassured Reniko that flying for a couple days over the body of water would be no problem. Orric had flown longer distances before, the main one being the flight from Mo’an Delar to Edonal Eclith, and since they were going to be doing that flight soon as well, this was nothing more than a small preparation for things to come. Begrudgingly, Reniko conceded with only mild protest. Orric could only smile at her concern. So with full water sacks and a decent supply of food, the small group took to the air leaving the land temporarily behind.
“Are you sure you had enough to eat?” Reniko asked Orric.
Orric just smiled and turned his head, his eye catching the gleam of the sun. “I went hunting last night while you slept. I ate enough to last me for the next couple of weeks at the least. No need to worry about me. I’ve survived on a lot less.”
With her last worry subsided, Reniko fell into silence.
It was a subtle change, one that no one in the group noticed. Or rather they noticed, but did not realize the importance of it. Reniko was the first to notice it, since she was the only one experiencing it.
As they flew over the sunlit lake, the exertion that Malik had issued in the training earlier that morning caught up with him, and with lack of anything to do he began to doze, leaving Orric to do the flying and Reniko to become lost in her own company. For a long time, her thoughts dwelled on the training she had done with Malik, reviewing his progress and preparing for the next lessons to be taught. Along with this, she reviewed her own performance, noting the weakness that she had gathered since she had come to this planet. Hesitation was born in her actions. She did not like this, but couldn’t figure out a way to fight without it. So far this weakness had not been exploited. Reniko knew the thoughts that caused her to hesitate. They were a mixture of compassion and sorrow and seeing as she could not force these feelings from her being, she began working on a plan to make them into a strength rather than a continued weakness. So lost was she in these thoughts she almost didn’t notice the slight change she was feeling in her body. It was discreet, almost unnoticeable. Her movements already mirrored Orric’s. Having caught the general flow of his form, she consciously reacted to his movements, but it was that they were becoming a subconscious thing that was the cause for worry. As soon as she realized this, her thoughts strayed. She no longer thought about fighting, training or even of other things that were usually on her mind. She could only think of one thing, how natural it felt to fly. With her defenses down, her mind could not recover, she slipped steadily downward into thoughts not entirely her own. Closing her eyes to the world, she began to try to understand the workings of flight. She felt the muscles rippling through Orric’s skin as his wings beat in strong steady waves; soon she could see the inner workings of his wings like they were her own. Just as suddenly she became aware of the air moving around her. She understood the exertion it took to fly over the water, thermals rose and fell in chaotic patterns as wind currents collided and shifted. She dwelt on this chaos, trying to understand how anything could fly in such a place. A breeze washed over her, and as goose pimples rose on her skin, she understood. You didn’t fight the thermals at all, you moved with them, as one ended you searched for the next and let it carry you on. Not only did this cause less strain overall, it was exhilarating. Such was the exhilaration she felt that she could think of nothing more.
Malik woke as the sun passed behind a large cloud, causing the glow on his body to stop, plunging him into a deep cold. This lack of heat woke him with a start. It was only when he was wide-awake that he realized he had been sleeping at all. He glanced at Reniko who still sat in front, her hair blowing gently in the wind that carried them. He watched it for a time, not wishing to disturb whatever thoughts she was absorbed in. He instead just watched her. Watched her body as she sunk and rose in response to Orric’s flying, as she faced the wind letting it caress her rather than oppress her. He watched as her whole form became relaxed, as her grip on Orric faltered and her hands fell limp at her sides. Malik sat straight up as he also realized that Reniko’s safety line was loose. No, not loose at all but rather untied. It was hanging off to one side, like she had done it deliberately. He watched as her body leaned to one side slipping from the surface of Orric’s blue-black skin and began plunging toward the water far below. He reacted faster than he thought possible. Scrambling to his feet, he tried to maintain a footing on Orric’s back as the wind threatened to throw him off balance. Lunging forward as much as he could, he strained against his safety line reaching for Reniko’s limp frame as she slid from Orric’s back. He caught her by her hand just before she left his sight entirely. Orric, noticing the sudden weight shift on his back, faltered in flight.
“What’s going on?” Orric implored, casting a worried glance back. Malik didn’t answer, couldn’t spare the breath, having his whole strength and attention focused on not dropping Reniko. She was dead weight, giving no help at all to the situation. Realizing that he couldn’t stay in this position forever, he let gravity help out and leaned backward. This helped pull Reniko back onto Orric’s back, but caused Malik to slip and nearly plunge over the other side. Regaining his balance, he crouched next to Reniko’s still frame. Reaching over her, he grabbed her safety line and secured it around her waist. Reniko now lay prostrate over Orric’s back in the same area as Malik was trying to sit. Realizing that they both were not going to fit well between Orric’s spinal ridges he decided to roll her onto his lap. When he was finally comfortable, Reniko lay unconscious across him.
The first thing he tried to do was shake her awake. When that didn’t work, he called her name softly over and over rising until his voice was a shout of panic. Orric turned to this sound, as concerned about the situation as Malik was, but was unable to do anything but fly.
“Malik, what happened?” Orric asked trying to calm his companion down.
“I don’t know. When I woke up she was limp. We have to stop. We have to set down now!” Malik cried out frantically.
“We can’t, Malik. There is nothing but miles of water in front and behind us. Just keep her comfortable until we can get to land.”
Malik looked down at his charge, calm rising in him at Orric’s gentle words. Let’s assess the damage, he thought as he worked his hands and eyes over Reniko’s body. Her body temperature was fine, her breathing normal, her pulse steady. For all purposes she looked like she was in a deep sleep. The only thing odd was that she was not waking from this sleep. Malik had never known Reniko to sleep so deeply that her environment no longer registered, no longer had an effect in waking her up. No one slept like this, no one but the dead.
“She sleeps like the dead,” Malik shouted to Orric, “but yet she feels so alive. I don’t understand. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Orric slowed his flying and suddenly sped up. Malik noted the change. His friend knew something.
“I have seen this before. It’s called a coma. It means that Reniko is asleep and nothing we do will wake her up. Something is unbalanced in her body and this is how it is responding to it. She will wake when her body is again in harmony.”
“But what caused this imbalance? Isn’t there anything we can do to help speed up the process?”
“There is but we cannot do it until we reach dry land.”
“I can attempt to help now if you only tell me what to do,” Malik said.
“It is something only I can do, my friend.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with her?” Malik shouted, frustrated with his inability to help.
“You know that connection I told you about, the one I said I share with you?” Orric asked.
“Of course,” Malik said.
“Well I share one with her as well,” Orric stated.
“That doesn’t explain anything, Orric. If that is the cause, why am I not in the same state as Lyss?”
“Because where our link is one sided, Reniko and mine is shared. She has Engaged my mind. I didn’t realize she had touched it until just now. She invaded so silently, but the contact is new for her, she didn’t understand it and now she is lost in it. I have to disengage our minds, but I cannot, not until we are on dry land. Keep her safe until then, Malik.”
“I don’t understand. How can she share this sense of yours?”
“It is very rare for humans to share this connection, but not unheard of. If I would have known she was one of the few, I could have had a chance to explain it to her. But alas she didn’t show any of the signs, not one. She guards her feelings well, even from me. I had no idea.”
“But why now, why not when she first met us? Why has she lapsed into a coma now?”
“Prolonged exposure. Her thoughts protected her before. She was always busy living her life. Her thoughts were centred, focused, but out here with nothing to engage her mind, her defenses strayed. When she caught my thoughts she latched on and they carried her away.”
“You can’t just loosen her grip on them?” Malik asked as he wrapped Reniko’s still frame in the folds of her cloak.
“It doesn’t work that way. If she were in my conscious thoughts I could easily explain to her what has happened and guide her out, but she isn’t. She grabbed hold of my subconscious thoughts and that makes everything a lot more complicated.”
“Because I don’t have access to my subconscious thoughts until I sleep.”
It suddenly became clear to Malik: Orric could sense Reniko’s presence in his mind but couldn’t talk with her. And the only way he could was to stop flying and go to sleep.
“How did she get there?”
“She has raw talent, that’s for sure. I can usually sense another presence in my mind because every time another touches a mind they have to travel through the consciousness to get to the subconscious. Reniko didn’t do that; she just went straight into the subconscious. Not even Brium, our most adept Engager, can do that.”
“She also isn’t a Teoko. That may constitute the difference.”
“Very true. She is the first non-Teoko to ever exhibit the trait in my lifetime. I would have to consult the elders to see if this is a common occurrence amongst human Engagers.”
“I don’t think that’s really something you need to be concerned with right now, Orric. Just get us to dry land as quickly as possible.”“No need to tell me twice,” Orric said as he sped up the pace of his flight, more worried about Reniko’s condition than he let on to Malik. He neglected to tell his human friend that the more time Reniko spent engaged in his mind, the less of Reniko there remained.