Reniko shuffled along behind Malik as they pushed their way through the snowstorm. As they traveled, the air began to thin and Reniko began to yawn as her body tried to gather as much oxygen as it could. She was sore and tired, but otherwise quite comfortable on their trip through the mountain pass. Malik on the other hand was not faring well at all. As Reniko watched him move up the path she realized that their progress was slowing and the puffs of air escaping from Malik’s mouth were laboured. His body shook with the cold and his steps were misplaced. Reniko hurried up the slope and joined Malik’s side now worried about her companion.
“Malik are you alright?” she asked as she wrapped her arm around him for support, he leaned into her eagerly, his body shuddering under the warmth she brought.
“I’ll be fine,” he lied, “it’s just cold.”
“Like hell you’ll be fine,” Reniko interjected. “I think your wounds were more severe than you led me to believe. We have to stop.” Reniko began scanning the surrounding cliffs, looking for the familiar black that would indicate a sheltered cave. She spotted one not far away and steered Malik toward it.
He tried to protest, but as the storm blew on, his attempts became feeble, his body losing energy to the cold wind. They made it to the cave just as the storm picked up in intensity and their path was whited out. Reniko set Malik gently onto the icy floor and began pulling out her and Malik’s bedding. When she had it arranged on the floor, she helped Malik to it. He slumped into the growing warmth of the blankets his body shaking with cold.
“We can’t stop here,” Malik muttered his eyes already closing to sleep.
“I’d rather we make it to our destination alive than not at all,” Reniko said. “I’m going to get some fire wood. Until then try to get some rest.” Malik was already not listening having passed out the moment Reniko had spoken. Leaving the now unconscious figure, Reniko went back out into the blinding white in hopes of finding something that would keep the chill away from Malik.
Reniko returned as the storm slowed to a stop. Her footsteps echoing in the empty ice cavern woke Malik from his uneasy sleep. Reniko went over to him and touched her hand to his forehead. He opened his eyes to her touch and looked into her worried eyes.
“I don’t think you have a fever, yet. I couldn’t find anything to light a fire with, but I think I found something just as good. Do you think you’re up for a small walk?” she asked.
“I think I could manage,” Malik said as he threw back the piles of blankets and began shivering as the cold hit his body. Reniko led him up a small incline, when they reached the top it was a surprise to see steam rising into the air. Below was a large pool where a natural onsen had formed. The murky water below looked rather unpleasant, but Reniko pulled Malik down toward it.
“Trust me on this, not only will it help with the cold, but the minerals in the water will help heal your wounds as well. Don’t be put off by the smell,” Reniko said as the smell wafted up to Malik making him grimace. It smelled like blood, metallic but without the sharp sweet smell that human blood harboured.
Once they had made their way to the edge of the pool Malik already felt better, the heated air around the pool made Malik stop shivering. Reniko stood in front of Malik a small smile on her face. Malik’s cloak was on the ground before he realized what Reniko was doing.
“I can undress myself, thank-you,” Malik said brushing away Reniko’s hands as she undid the lace on his shirt.
Reniko flushed and turned to the pool. “There’s a natural barrier that separates the pool, if you stay on that side,” she said pointing to the right, “I’ll stay on the other.” She turned around just as Malik removed his shirt and she gasped. Malik’s shoulders and torso were covered in bandages all of which were soaked with fresh blood.
“Oh Malik, why didn’t you say anything. You’re losing way too much blood.” She rushed to his side as he started removing the bandages.
“It’s not as bad as you think, the dry air up here just split the skin again that’s all,” Malik said and looked again up at Reniko, “do you mind?”
Reniko gave a smirk and turned her back to Malik. “Not at all,” she replied and Malik had the discomfort of watching her disrobe before he too had the common sense to turn his back to her. He stood immobile until he heard the displacement of water behind him as Reniko slid into the murky water. Catching a swift glance behind him making sure his bold companion was completely submerged he too stepped into the water. The sudden heat after the freezing chill stung Malik’s body like fire and he recoiled from the initial shock. He looked at Reniko and wondered how she had slid into the hot water so easily. Brushing the thought aside, he stepped back into the water and slid in, the heat making the wounds on his body throb.
“Feel any better?” Reniko asked a while later as she sat on the other side of the rock ledge that separated them.
Malik made a wordless reply, a simple “uh huh” causing Reniko to chuckle in response.
“I didn’t think something that smelled this repulsive could feel so good,” he said a few minutes later.
The only response Malik received was that of dripping water from behind him. As he turned his head to look over the shelf he felt strong hands grab his head and turn it forward.
“Reniko, what are you doing?” he asked incredulously his face flushing as he tried to scramble away from the rock ledge.
“Hold still, I want to take a look at your wounds. Don’t worry I can’t see anything,” she said as she released his head and let her hand fall to the torn flesh on his shoulder. Malik endured her probing hands, felling rather uncomfortable with Reniko’s naked body so close by to his own.
“It doesn’t look too deep. I think he was going more for pain than mortal wound. It’s healing well, if it would stop cracking from the dry air up here.”
“I could have told you that,” Malik said. Reniko’s hands slid away from Malik’s shoulder causing his skin to tingle. He heard her as she splashed back into the water on the other side of the wall and began to relax once again.
“Why do you hide so much from me Malik? Am I that uncomfortable to be around,” Reniko asked suddenly.
The question startled Malik. Why did he hide so much from her? I want to protect you, he thought, but could not bring the words to voice. A thunderous sound and a shadow passing overhead left the question unanswered. Reniko and Malik both stood up out of the water and gazed overhead. Malik caught a glimpse of sun shining on blue scales and called out to it.
“Orric? Is that you?” When he heard the noise pause and saw it turn, he knew he had guessed correctly. Forgetting the situation he was in he turned to face Reniko, who as well turned to face him and they both stood in shock before falling into the water below.
“Sorry,” they both called at the same time. Reniko was the first to laugh followed closely by Malik. Orric’s head appeared on the ledge above and he stared down at the two humans in the murky pool below wondering what had gotten into them.
“This isn’t a pleasure trip,” Orric said as the two humans continued laughing below. “What on Vespen inspired you to make a trip to the hot springs?” This sent the two humans into another bout of laughter and Orric was made to wait for an explanation on the cliff side high above.
The laughter did not linger long, once the three of them had exchanged stories they sat in a sombre silence. After Reniko and Malik had dressed, the two of them had climbed onto Orric to examine the extent of the damage that Jekkah had inflicted upon him.
“What could make your own brother do this to you?” Reniko asked as she applied a salve from her backpack to the wounds around Orric’s wings.
“I ask that question every day of my life. I do not know the thoughts that inspired my brother so. I only know that with his help the Rük are not far behind us. I just hope I delayed them long enough for us to get away.”
“We must be quite disturbing to the Rük for them to have called Jekkah to the hunt,” Malik observed.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better I’m afraid,” Reniko replied handing Malik the jar of salve. He took it from her outstretched hand and began applying it the wounds he was tending.
“How long before you can fly again?” Malik asked.
“I don’t know. Hopefully not long, if we can make it to Mountain Side I think there are some medical supplies there that will do the trick.
“How fast can we make it to Mountain Side?” Reniko asked.
“Tomorrow, I hope.”
“Let’s pray that Jekkah and Orborok aren’t there to greet us,” Malik said. The group fell into silence at this comment, all of them being helpless to do anything about it.
“We’ll deal with that when it comes, if it comes to that,” Reniko said.
“We better leave soon. If the Rük are so close behind, I’d rather not waste our time here. Meet us back at the path Orric, we have to grab our things from the cave below,” Malik said as he jumped down from Orric followed closely by Reniko.
“I’ll take a look around while you do that, to make sure we’re still a safe distance in front of them,” Orric said as he stood up and leapt to a nearby ledge.
“Come on,” Malik said, gesturing for Reniko to follow him.
The three of them met again a half an hour later. Reniko secured the packs to Orric’s leg and climbed on top of him. This time Malik rode point. Reniko had arranged it this way afraid that he would lapse into a fever or chills. Pulling down her goggles, she braced herself for the initial jolt of motion. In seconds Orric had leaped onto a high ledge and was scrambling up the cliff face, his claws finding holds no human hands could. Reniko could feel the air thinning around her, and could feel her body adjusting to the uncomfortably thin air. She watched Malik steadily for any signs of ill health and was comforted to find that he was handling the altitude well. As time went on and Reniko could no longer endure the jolting motion that Orric incurred she felt the walls in her mind ease enough to accompany the motion that was so familiar to Orric. Orric felt her presence immediately.
“Are you all right Reniko, I feel you in my head,” Orric spoke causing Reniko to wake from her drowsy state. She looked around and saw that Malik was slouched in the space between Orric’s bony spine sleeping.
“Sorry, I was uncomfortable,” Reniko said.
“I’m glad that I can give you comfort, do not be afraid, just be careful,” Orric responded.
“I’ll try,” she said yawning. Slipping into the same position that Malik was in, she let her lids drop and her breathing became shallow as she slipped into sleep. Orric was left to the lonesome echo of his movements through the mountains, his only comfort was that Reniko was opening up again, and was willing to share feelings with him. It was all he needed to give him the energy to keep moving.
Reniko woke when she realized that Orric had stopped moving. As she sat up, she realized that both her companions were sleeping now and that they were in a large cavern. She could hear water echoing, as it dripped into a pool somewhere in the distance. The smell in the cave was of life. Although it was abandoned, she knew that recently beings had inhabited this cavern. They had reached Mountain Side.
A faint glow could be seen in the corners of the caverns, a source of light the Teoko had created that had yet to fade and die. It lit the room with the cosiness of firelight but without the warmth. As she glanced around the cavern they were in, she saw the devastation that the Rük had wreaked on this small city. The city was strewn with rubble, pillars broken and contents of rooms scattered on the floor. Everything that was left in the city was either ruined or of no use to the Rük, the sight disgusted her and saddened her at the same time. All those lives destroyed, for nothing.
Although she was sure that Orric had secured the place before he had fallen asleep, she was adamant to join her companions in their slumber. They needed a lookout since there was no telling now how far the Rük were behind them. And they already know we’ll be heading here. Heading away from the interior of the cavern toward the entrance, she located a well hidden sentry point and settled herself into it for the rest of the long night to come. I’m the only one not injured, and that is because I’m the only one they want. The thought sent a wave of guilt coursing through her. To think that all her friends’ pain was her doing was unbearable. But if I leave them now, I’ll only be causing them more pain. Who would protect them? Who would stop the Rük from hunting them? With a resigned sigh, she focused on the settings moons, hoping that nothing would interrupt the tranquility of the night.
Reniko’s hopes were fulfilled, for the silence of the night did not go unbroken, however, as dawn broke, she could hear the shuffling steps of someone climbing to the heights of the cavern entrance. Reniko, who had been half asleep, became fully alert. Withdrawing Imako from its sheath she climbed down from her vantage point and hid in an alcove near the entrance. As the steps came closer to her hiding spot she was surprised to hear only one set. They were light on the ground and sounded halted and jerky, like the bearer was wounded. Unsure now to whom these footsteps belonged to, she tried to take a look around the corner, however, she was unable to do so without exposing her position. Instead she waited until the footsteps came close to where she stood and thrust Imako out into the air before the intruder. Her action was accompanied by a startled cry that was clearly female. As Reniko stepped around the corner, still holding the sword before the figure’s throat she saw the dishevelled form of Rimca standing before her, tears in her eyes.
“Rimca, my word, what happened to you?” Reniko said as she dropped Imako’s tip to the floor.
“Thank the maker you’re here. I didn’t know… I was scared you wouldn’t be here,” her words trailed off into sobs as she collapsed into Reniko’s arms. Reniko was stunned. Rimca looked terrible, her clothes were torn and patches of dried blood covered her arms and legs from wounds not properly taken care of. Her clothing was stained and muddy from travel and her hair was matted with leaves and mud as well.
The terrified scream that had risen from Rimca had woken both Orric and Malik who were asleep deeper in the cavern and they had rushed to the entrance expecting the worst. They both halted behind Reniko confused by the sight of the ravaged Rimca.
“Rimca, by the goddess what happened? How did you get here?” Malik said stepping forward and touching Rimca’s shaking frame. Malik’s words seemed to awaken something in Rimca and she leaped from Reniko’s arms to stand on her own.
“Malik, I… I’m so glad I found you. I knew you would be coming here, but I was afraid I was going to miss you,” Rimca said as she fought to hide the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes.
“Come on, there are supplies in the city that we can use to help clean you up, you can tell us everything when you’re feeling better,” Malik said wrapping his arm around Rimca and guiding her further into the tunnel. Reniko watched them until they turned a corner and were hidden from view. As she put Imako back in its sheath, she noticed that Orric was still by her side.
“I’ll stay here and keep watch, Lyss, go help Malik take care of Rimca,” Orric said as he settled himself on the ground near the entrance. Reniko nodded and took off in the direction that Malik had headed.
They all sat around a small fire that Malik had lit. Rimca was now bandaged and clothed and was busy sipping a hot cup of tea. Now more comfortable, they began to relate their adventures since having parted in Mistfall. Rimca was the first to start having already heard rumors about Malik and Reniko.
“I was in Porsshash when I heard news from Deressy, captain of the Pollas, that you had reached the Mistfall caverns safely six days before. This was after I had talked with Orric and sent him your way. After I had news of you I left Porsshash and was on my way home,” Rimca glanced at Malik and paused momentarily. The two shared a private glance and Reniko could only discern that the two of them had talked about this once before. Back in Mistfall, Malik had said she was defying her place. Were they talking about her going home? Reniko let the thoughts pass as Rimca continued her recount.
“I took a boat to Radalean and when I reached there I still had no news of what had become of you. I was worried, but I figured you could take care of yourselves, besides I was in a rush to get home.
“I left Radalean on Jia and we bypassed Crosshatch, going along game trails until I reached the road to the A’barra Mountains. I came here to see the damage and collect the supplies I needed and I headed out. About three days ago I ran into a group of Rük on their way to Crosshatch. They also had the first news I had heard about you two since Porsshash. They said that Reniko had been captured and was being held in Crosshatch. I was on my way back toward Crosshatch when the Rük caught up with me and overtook me,” Rimca paused again and shuddered. Reniko could only imagine the horrors that the Rük had inflicted upon her and she felt nothing but pity for the Le’a’to. She put a reassuring hand over top of Rimca’s and the Le’a’to looked up at her with shock.
“You’re safe now, you don’t have to tell us what happened,” Reniko said.
“But we’re not safe, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I escaped from the Rük, but not until after I had heard that you two had escaped from Orborok. I had to come warn you. You can’t stay here. They mean to trap you here. And Jekkah… Jekkah’s here and that means the skies are no longer safe.”
“We’ll leave, right now.” Reniko said as she began to gather up her things, “Orric can you fly?” she called out to the blue Teoko.
“Well enough,” he called back.
“We’d better hope so, because there’s no time to find out. Hurry,” Orric shouted.
“But Jekkah,” Rimca shouted as Malik pulled her to her feet and rushed her to the cavern entrance.
“Don’t worry about Jekkah, we’ve already run into him,” Malik said as he followed Reniko toward Orric. When they reached him, they scrambled hurriedly onto his back glancing down the mountain path that led to the city entrance and finding the path clogged with hundreds of Rük.
“Move,” Reniko shouted as she secured herself to Orric. Rimca and Malik jumped up onto Orric’s back sharing the same seat. Malik quickly tied the safety line around both him and Rimca just as Orric took to the air. It was a rough start with Orric’s wings still sore from Jekkah’s attack and the added weight to his back, so it was with great difficulty that he cleared the group of Rük and the rain of poisoned darts they sent in his direction. Orric scanned the skies looking for the familiar yellow glint of Jekkah’s hide and was relieved to see that although the party of Rük Rimca had had the misfortune of encountering had found them, Orborok, Jekkah and the others were still nowhere in sight.
Once they were a safe distance away from the Rük army, the whole group began to relax. Rimca was the first to speak.
“Um, you wouldn’t mind taking me home would you?” she asked.
Malik smiled. “What do you think Orric, should we make a detour to Corbasin and drop off the Lady Rimca?”
“It’s on the way Rimca, we would be honored to take you there,” Orric replied.
Reniko sat silent. Lady? Did Malik just call her Lady Rimca? The honorific never meant anything to Reniko, but here on Vespen it was different.
Rimca was the first to become aware of Reniko’s silence. “Is something troubling you, Reniko?” she asked.
“No it’s nothing, I’ve just never heard Malik say that before,” Reniko said.
“Say what?” Malik asked.
Rimca flushed a little and laughed. “It’s nothing, Reniko, my family owns some lands in Corbasin City and we share lineage with the royals in Corbasin, distant cousins to the King. Malik just likes to tease me. I’m really just a farm girl with a title.” Malik grinned at Reniko and Rimca pinched him. As the two of them squabbled and teased one another, Reniko felt strange. She suddenly became aware of how close Rimca and Malik were sitting, tied together at the waist, it made Reniko uncomfortable and even a little, jealous? Why should I be jealous? She turned her attention away from her two companions and stared into the wind, confused by what she was feeling. I’m going home. Why do I feel jealous?