Reniko awoke to sunlight bathing her as it filtered through the tree that was overhead. The breeze was rustling the branches and the sunlight danced across her closed eyes. With a stretch she awoke and gave a smile to greet the day. She was alone hidden behind the dancing branches of a huge willow tree an hour’s walk from Crosshatch. Malik had left for town the night before after sharing a cold meal with Reniko. They had both agreed that it would be best for him to leave and stay at an inn while Reniko remained behind. She was glad for the time alone. Although traveling with Malik and Orric had been nothing but helpful as she traversed through this unfamiliar world, she also noticed the differences between them. It was nice to be able to sit alone with her thoughts and not have them complicated by the trappings of Vespen culture. Smiling at the simple pleasure of relaxing and enjoying the day, she rummaged in her pack for something to eat. Minutes later, she had a small cook fire burning and was stirring the boiling contents of a small pot.
As the morning progressed, so did the heat. As midday came and went, Reniko felt that the shade of the tree was not going to be enough. Running low on water, she ventured away from her camp into the open heat of the day. Fields of wheat stretched in every direction. The tree she had been sitting under stood near the centre of one of these fields and chest high plants were singing in the light breeze. She saw the gates of Crosshatch in the distance, however, there was no sign of Malik on the road. Scanning with her eyes, she looked for the nearest body of water and realized that with so much wheat in every direction, she was unable to see anything but the sea of wheat. Retreating back under the swinging vines of the willow, she removed her shoes and, barefooted, began to climb the boughs of the tree. Finding a comfortable perch, she gazed at her surroundings, now having a distinct advantage. She watched as villagers came and went from the small town, some with carts loaded down with goods to sell and others burdened with packages on their way home. Past that, she watched farmers tending to their fields, fending off the crows that were hidden amongst grass. Boys and girls ran up and down the rows screaming and laughing as the birds took flight. It was such a peaceful scene. Something that Reniko had rarely seen on this planet. It was nice to know that even with all the oppression these people faced, they were still able to smile.
Her gaze traveled away from the city, farther south. There she saw more workers tending their fields and was greeted with the grateful sight of a small watering hole where no less than four children were finding relief from the growing heat. Hoping they wouldn’t mind the company of an adult, she climbed down from the tree. As she landed and turned to gather her things, she was greeted by the smile of an unfamiliar face. Startled, she gasped and stumbled back against the tree at her back.
“Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean to startle you,” the young boy said as Reniko regained her composure. She stared at the boy. He was no older than ten years old with coal black hair and inquisitive brown eyes. He was a farmer’s son, by the tough tanned skin that covered his body. Even at his young age he worked hard.
“My fault, I was too intent on that pond over there,” Reniko said smiling.
The boy returned the smile. “Is that what you were doing in my tree?”
“Well, yes. Your tree, eh? I’m sorry for trespassing, it was rude of me,” Reniko said bowing in apology to the young boy. When she gazed at him, as she stood upright, his cheeks were growing red with embarrassment.
“I don’t mind so much, just never seen a woman so close to town before.”
“Oh, yes.” It was Reniko’s turn to look embarrassed. She wasn’t planning on such a straightforward comment from the boy. “I’m just passing through town with a friend of mine. We are on our way Tresca. He went in to get supplies.”
“Oh,” the boy said as he pushed the dirt around with his foot. “It’s pro’bly a good idea that you stayed here. My sister went into town, and never came back. I would hate if that happened to you too.”
Reniko’s heart skipped a beat. She had been hoping what Orric had said had been unfounded, but to hear the pain in this boys voice… And there is nothing I can do to help him. Not unless I think I can stand up to a whole town of Rük and walk out alive. Reniko shook the thoughts from her head and instead wrapped a consoling arm around the young boy.
“I’m sorry. I know that one day you and your sister will be able to walk this land free. It can’t be like this forever.” Reniko said.
The boy looked up at her incredulously. “It’s always been this way, why would you say such a thing?”
“Well, I know this is all you have ever known, and all you father has ever known, but, you see that wheat field over there?” Reniko asked sweeping her hand out in front of the boy.
“Yeah,” he responded.
“Well when it grows you cut it down right?”
“Then that entire field there is bare. Life is like that. Sometimes things need time to grow and when they are ready they can change.”
“So you think that my sister is going to come back?”
“She could, but just like it takes hard work to harvest the wheat it’ll take hard work to change what is happening in this village. Do you understand?”
“You’re saying that I can’t just sit and wait, that I have to do something about it?”
This kid catches on fast, Reniko thought.
“Don’t be reckless. Patience is the hardest but most rewarding thing you’ll ever experience.”
“You’re strange,” the boy said letting Reniko’s words slide over him like water. “I’m Toby. Do you wanna go down to the pond? I’ll introduce you to the other kids.”
“I guess that means you want to know my name,” Reniko said as she slipped her pack onto her back.
“Oh yeah,” Toby said. Reniko smiled and shook her head slightly, kids.
“I’m Reniko. It’s nice to meet you Toby.”
“Reniko –” Toby let the sentence trail off, his thought wandering to other things, and with a shrug he gestured for Reniko to follow him and they headed off toward the water hole.
They arrived at the water hole a few minutes later and the screaming and laughter that they had heard on their way there stopped immediately as the children realized that there was an interloper.
Toby stepped forward as fearless as ever amongst his peers. “This is Reniko, I found her in my tree.”
Another young boy with blond hair stepped forward and looked at Reniko giving her an informal appraisal.
“I know you. You’re that girl that the Rük are looking for.”
Reniko swallowed a large lump in her throat.
“Reniko, that’s where I heard that name before,” Toby said the pieces finally falling into place in his mind. He looked at Reniko with awe. “What did you do that the Rük put posters up everywhere for you? They’ve never done that before. Anyone else that does stuff the Rük don’t like just disappear.”
The rest of the boys that had been swimming stopped and were gathering around Reniko at the shore, all intently listening for the answer.
Reniko felt uneasy. She didn’t realize that her presence on Vespen was this widely known. “I cut down the wheat,” Reniko muttered. Toby was the only one that understood her answer.
“What about your friend. You said he went into town?”
“Yes, he should be back soon.”
“Not if he is the one on the posters with you.”
Reniko’s face widened in horror, I’m not the only one the Rük are looking for. Of course they would be looking for Malik as well. “I have to go,” Reniko said as she began to race back to the road, however, Toby put a hand out and stopped her in her tracks.
“You can’t go into town you’ll just be giving them what they want. That won’t help your friend.” Reniko glanced at Toby, his eyes pleading with her not to go. “You told me not to be reckless.”
Reniko nodded, “You’re right Toby. I think I have a plan.”
“All you have to do is surprise me,” Dertrik said. Reniko looked at him with a frown.
“That’s it? That’s all I have to do? Surprise you? That doesn’t seem very hard.” Reniko was sitting crossed legged on the grass in Dertrik’s backyard trying not to laugh at this new assignment that Dertrik was placing upon her.
“Have you ever snuck up on me?” Dertrik simply asked.
Reniko paused and thought about that. “Well, no, but I’ve never tried before.”
“I’m giving you the chance. No time limit on this, Renny,” Dertrik had said and simply walked away, leaving the fifteen-year-old to stare after him in confusion.
She didn’t try at all for the first few weeks proceeding the assigning of the task. She knew that Dare would be expecting her to, and of course, that made everything more difficult, so she waited and was quite flustered when Dertrik remained silent on the subject. He never once asked her why she hadn’t even tried or if she had given up, he just resumed normal training like he had never asked her in the first place. This sent Reniko’s mind reeling in a thousand different directions. Nevertheless she decided some weeks after receiving the task to surprise her master.
She considered it for a long time and when she finally thought she had a foolproof plan, she executed it. It was past midnight when she snuck out of her house, unnoticed by the household. She had crossed over onto Dertrik’s estate with much difficulty having to bypass his security and avoid various cameras that dotted the grounds. She had slipped into the house with ease and silently manoeuvred her way to Dertrik’s bedroom where both he and Claire slept. She eased the door open and walked cautiously over to his bed. She had decided not to involve Claire in this exercise and therefore had decided to blow gently on Dertrik’s face until he awoke. As she stood over Dertrik however, his eyes popped open surprising Reniko.
“You have more patience than I did,” Dertrik whispered into the night air.
He pointed at the window that stood behind Reniko. She looked and saw the moonlight filtering through the sheer curtains. When she looked at Dertrik she realized that she was casting a shadow on the bed.
“I await your next try. Until then, Renny, get some sleep. It’s three in the morning. Your mother will be worried if you are not in bed when she wakes up in the morning.” Dertrik laid his head back down on the pillow and soon Reniko could hear the even breathing of sleep. Stunned, she retreated.
She had tried numerous times after that first endeavour to surprise Dertrik, a task she soon deemed impossible. It wasn’t until she was seventeen that the opportunity finally arose.
Two years to the day after Reniko had been assigned the task, Dertrik went riding into the forest behind his estate. Reniko had come onto his estate just as he had left, grinning as she realized that Dertrik had not seen her enter his yard she decided it was time to show Dare what she had learned. She knew the woods better than Dertrik did, she had traversed all the paths that led through the woods both manmade and animal made and she knew where Dertrik was headed. She headed out on foot, traveling fast. She skittered along the path soundlessly until she saw Dertrik ahead. Changing her trajectory, she skirted through the woods and around Dertrik. Finding a branch that hung low over the path below, she jumped and swung quietly into the depths of the foliage. She didn’t have to wait long for Dertrik to come up the path. Locking her legs around the branch she swung down startling the horse and Dertrik. With her face inches from him and her outstretched hand touching the base of his throat, she grinned.
A smile finally spread across Dertrik’s face as Reniko swung down from the tree branch and landed soundlessly onto the ground.
“Let me guess,” Dertrik said.
“Two years to the day. I thought you would be expecting it.”
Dertrik smiled, “I was.” He turned his horse around and headed back home. Reniko frowned and followed.
“So what does that mean?”
“It means that even though I was expecting you to try, you still managed to surprise me.”
“So I’m done my task?”
“Do you know why I asked you to surprise me two years ago, Renny?”
Reniko knew. “To teach me stealth, silence, the ways of an assassin.”
This comment surprised Dertrik as well.
Reniko grabbed hold of Dertrik’s reins and began leading his horse down the path. “Well there are various arts, aren’t there? Honour can’t always be used, sometimes there are going to be times where I will have to sneak in and acquire things in secret.”
Dertrik nodded. “It’s an art, but not one to be used lightly. I taught you the skills of an assassin for purely one reason and one reason only.”
“What is that?”
“Those skills can also help you be deft in the blade. Good or evil, Renny, always remember that.”
I will. Reniko thought as she stood outside the gates of Crosshatch. She was covered in shadow in the middle of the cool night. Dressed all in black, face hidden, she looked the part of a ninja, a night-time assassin. It is days like these that I am glad that Dertrik had the sense to teach me the less honourable arts.
The city sounds had died hours before. She had waited patiently until all that was heard were the footsteps of the sentries that stood watch around the walls of the town. Men had been posted during the day, but as the sun began to set, the Rük had taken their positions, intent on making sure no one disobeyed the laws that they had placed. As the Rük had become more prominent, the city’s culture had died. She could hear the boisterous talk of the nearby guards who seemed to be more intent on their drink than on their duty. There was no way she was going to get through the gate, having seen only sober Rük roaming close by, so she had chosen a spot on the wall where she could climb over with ease. Silently, she began her ascent, her form hugging close to the shadows. She made no sound as she slid over the wall and landed softly on the other side. The two Rük she had heard earlier were to her left, bathed in a glorious array of torchlight. Reniko stood just outside the ring of light and watched as they spoke their crude language. The two Rük, of a forest green colour, seemed to be having a match in a game that Reniko had never seen before. As she turned to leave, she heard one of them shout loudly. She turned only to see that the two sentries had begun a fight and were attracting the attention of other Rük nearby. As they converged on her point, she slipped down the other side of the wall and stood amongst the shadows of the city buildings. She paused for a moment as she heard the fighting directly overhead. Daring to look up, she gave a quick glance only to look straight into the eyes of an emerald green Rük. Holding her breath, she waited for the inevitable call that would give her away, only to have him walk away without even a second glance in her direction. Letting out her breath she moved deeper into the city using the shadows as her shelter.
Toby, the day before had drawn a rough map of the city. As crude as it had been, he had shown Reniko the only possible location at which Malik could be. She made her way there as quickly as possible, not daring to breathe as she crossed the path of vicious Rük. As she neared her destination the amount of passers-by grew as well. As the streets filled with Rük, Reniko took to the rooftops, gliding on top of them. The groups of Rük below never saw her. Occasionally, she would pass by leaving a shadow on the roof, and knowing as much, she hid as a nearby Rük glanced in her direction. It was lucky for her that the Rük on this planet felt as secure as they did--in their wildest dreams they couldn’t imagine a human that would take a stand against them, so to them, her minor mistakes were no threat at all.
After almost an hour of hidden traveling, Reniko made it to her destination. The Rük here had set up a centre of operations inside the city, unlike Rük from other areas that lived in their own centres and only came into the human towns to terrorize and plunder. Here the centre of the city housed the pride of the Crosshatch Rük, a fortress that no human had ever willingly entered. Those who were taken there never left, and this was where Reniko was to find Malik, if, as she hoped, he was still alive.
She stood on the nearest rooftop and listened. A party was raging inside. Toby had told her that this was not unusual for the Rük who were seen more during the night than they were in the day. The whole building was ablaze with light; this was to Reniko’s immediate disadvantage. The only shadows on the building were inaccessible, which left Reniko the roof as her only route in. Toby had told her that at night screams could be heard from the building, all of which originated from the lower levels. He said that he had been told there was a labyrinth of passages deep underground that crisscrossed under most of the buildings of Crosshatch. Reniko had agreed that that would be the place where they were keeping Malik. Resigned to a long and perilous journey down, she skated across the rooftop and landed softly onto the slanted roof of the Rük fortress.
Running on a burst of adrenaline, Reniko slid into a nearby window emerging into the dank confines of the Rük’s domain. She nearly gagged when she inhaled. The smell of rot and filth a miasma in the air. Thankful for the cloth covering her face that helped filter the smell, she navigated the empty bunk room and quietly opened the door. The hallway before her seemed to be empty, so she slid out of the room. She could hear the music and laughter filtering up the hallway from below. The noise seemed to be more confined to the right, so she headed to the left, away from the concentration of Rük. The stairs she found herself on spiralled down into a black void. Cursing silently, she navigated downwards, wishing that she had been better prepared with a layout of the building. She hated the fact that she was running through this fortress so blindly with hundreds of Rük within a hair’s breadth of catching her.
The smell of death became more prominent as she spiralled down the stairs: she had chosen correctly. She passed hallways that ended at the staircase on every level of the fortress. Each time she would pause and wait until the Rük that populated the areas close by were distracted. On two occasions she had to divert their attention away. As she neared the bottom of the stairs, she began to feel uneasy. The way down had been too easy to traverse, the Rük in the building had been too distracted, security too lax. Unnerved by this sudden realization, she hesitated to go on. She was about to turn back when two things happened. The first was she heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and the second was a cry she heard from deep within the confines of the underground, a cry that could not be mistaken. Malik was down there and he was alive, but for how long Reniko could not guess. Unsure whether she was walking straight into a trap, she headed farther into the labyrinth following the sound of voices and Malik’s screams.
She knew she had found the place she was looking for when she saw two cream Rük guards posted outside a door. Light filtered from behind the door as well as screams and the harsh voice that could only be formed by a Rük. Hiding in the shadows around a corner, Reniko reached into a pouch on her belt and pulled out an array of throwing knives. Breathing deeply, she tried to calm herself for the actions she was about to commit. Dertrik had always told her that throwing knives was not her specialty; she just hoped that this night she performed well enough. With one last cleansing breath, she darted around the corner. With her targets in sight, she threw the deadly projectiles and was rewarded with the best result--no sound as the life seeped out of the two Rük guards.
Her heart beating with the rush of danger, she stepped out from the shadows and searched the guards for the key to the cell. When she found it, she peered overtly into the window in the door. She was greeted by a terrible sight. Malik hung suspended from the ceiling by two chains that shackled around his wrists and twisted his arms up behind him. He wore no shirt, only pants and what skin that was exposed was burned or bleeding. He seemed barely alive. Worst of all was the form that stood beside him. Reniko had never seen a Rük that was so tall. He stood over nine feet, his bone crown stood tall and pristine, untouched and razor sharp. His gray skin rippled with tension and joy as he watched Malik suffering before him.
“Tell me where the girl they call Reniko is and all this pain will end.” His voice was throaty and menacing, it made Reniko shiver to hear him talk.
She watched as Malik tried to breath, the weight of his own body hanging pressing hard against his lungs. She was surprised when she heard him respond.
“I will die before I let you lay a hand on her,” Malik looked at the Rük with rebellion and spat the blood that had collected in his mouth onto the Rük’s feet. This was rewarded by a hand on his shoulder that tore through his skin slowly and with intense pleasure. The scream that issued forth made Reniko’s body tense. With a vehemence she had never felt before, she plunged into the room, pulling out a pair of daggers as she blazed through the door.
Not at all unnerved by this sudden intrusion, the gray Rük turned to look at the small fuming figure before him. He smiled and this action caused Reniko to come out of her blind hatred. She had been right. It was a trap; she knew by the look on Malik’s face as he saw her step into the room. He tried to scream for her to run, but the gray Rük slapped him hard knocking the words from his mouth.
Reniko began to ease back into the hallway. The gray Rük advanced, the smile still spread across his face.
“Where are you going, my dear? Would you leave without your friend?” He was getting so close to Reniko. She had never felt so frightened in her life as this imposing creature fell upon her, his gaze and words holding her in place, daggers posed for the kill.
“Whatever made you think that you could stand against the might of the Rük?” the gray figure asked. His question reintegrated the rage that Reniko had felt and she glared at the nine-foot figure with disdain.
“You bleed just as I do. What makes you think you are so powerful?” Reniko asked. The gray Rük sneered at her. Reniko took a threatening step toward the Rük only to stop as she heard footsteps in the hallway behind her. She paused and glanced over her shoulder slightly.
The Rük’s smile reappeared. “There is no way out. Come along quietly and there will be no need to hurt the boy further.”
Reniko glanced at Malik, his body sagging with defeat. He looked at Reniko with pleading eyes and whispered hoarsely, “Run, Reniko, run away. Leave me here, save yourself. Just run.”
Reniko paused unsure what to do. Every moment she stood there waiting, the closer the footsteps came, but how could she just leave Malik here? I can’t condemn him to death. She looked again at the gray Rük, his smile piercing her like hot knives.
“If I promise to stay in his place and not kill anymore Rük, will you let him go?” Reniko asked, seething.
In response to her words, the gray Rük loosened the chains holding Malik and Malik dropped to the floor. Reniko dropped her daggers and ran to Malik’s side helping to hold him as he tried to lift himself from the ground. The footsteps converged on the room as Malik lifted his head to look at Reniko.
“Why? Why didn’t you leave?” His eyes pleaded with her. She had never been so haunted by a sight in her life. He looked as if every piece of him had died.
“I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave you to die. I’d rather you live than I. The resistance needs you. You’re the only one that can stop them, Malik.” Reniko felt a hard grip on her arm and she was torn away from Malik’s grasp. He slumped again to the floor as two Rük converged on his position. Reniko felt the mask she had over her head being ripped away, her hair tumbling gracefully down her back. With an unexpected gentleness, the arm that held her turned her around. She stood looking at the face of the gray Rük who hovered over her, a daunting ten feet as he raised himself to his full height, her strength drained by the sight of her distraught comrade.
The Rük still held the smile, the smile of victory. Reniko couldn’t help but hope that when she won, she never held the smile that this creature before her wore.
“So you are the mighty Reniko. You’re the first human to kill a Rük and the last. I’ve waited a very long time to meet you. I am Orborok, ruler of Edonal Eclith.”