It was a sunny afternoon in the city of Helen. A midday shower had left the air thick with moisture, a little oppressive perhaps, but nothing an afternoon of standing around doing nothing couldn’t cure – which was more or less what Ryleine had in mind.
The market square was buzzing, despite the late hour. Aside from the fish vendors that had long since packed up, merchants were having a successful afternoon. The smell of commerce drifted through the air. It smelt clean, due to the lack of fish, and yet dirty, as only a pack of conniving salesmen can.
“Four black coins?” queried the man with the odd nervous shiver, glancing around to see if anyone was watching him.
“Four?” said Kyrnrie. “What do you think this is? A charity operation?”
“Fine. Five. And I’ll have her back by sunset.”
“Sunset? For five black coins? Five?”
“Alright, six. But that’s all I’ve got.”
“Six doesn’t even pay for her outfit, never mind the beautiful woman wearing it,” said Kyrnrie, pointing out Ryleine’s home made leathers, and making a point of looking away in derision.
Ryleine made a show of modelling her outfit to the punter. She had decided to stick to her huntress attire. It had taken her a lot of time and care to make – to trap the animals, to tan the leather, and to design the perfectly shaped tight-fitting clothing. City folk got the wrong idea all the time, but she had become quite used to it, and even rather enjoyed the sidelong looks from the men, the disapproving glares from the women.
“Okay, you’re right,” said the creep. “I’ll give you a blue coin. A whole blue coin! And that gets me—”
“One blue, three black gets you enough time to do the business,” said Kyrnrie. “Nothing more.”
“What? What will I tell my wi…”
A short moment of stunned silence was broken by Kyrnrie bursting out laughing. He was having a little too much fun.
“Two blue, and I don’t tell your wife about this!”
“You bastard. You wouldn’t dare… to hell with you.”
The man stormed off spewing colourful words, and then vanished into a side street, leaving Kyrnrie and Ryleine laughing after him.
“Two blue?” said Ryleine. “Is that how much… they go for?”
“How would I know?” Kyrnrie shrugged innocently. “I am a thief, not a flesh peddler.”
Ryleine was considering pushing the matter and cornering Kyrnrie, if only for the fun of it, but she was interrupted by someone calling her name from across the market square. She searched the crowd to find the source of the voice, and soon found it.
The crowd parted dramatically as if they had rehearsed the manoeuvre. A path dividing the vendors and patrons led all the way across the square, where a man jogged assuredly towards her. He was tall, strong, built as if a team of engineers had spent years on every muscle. He was a warrior, with his great sword strapped to his back, the pommel showing over his broad shoulders. His chest glinted in the humid afternoon sun, pectorals pounding in time with his stride. His hair caught in the breeze, and he shook his head to free it, smiling with pure excitement as he neared, his teeth set like an array of diamonds sparkling in the sunlight, built into a jaw that could chisel a perfect rose from granite.
“Ryleine, my love!” he said, kneeling before her. “I have completed the quest you set for me, and I have returned to you now, glorious, with your reward.”
“Uh… Irikhart? Is that you?”
“It is me, my love,” he said, smiling in smug satisfaction.
“Irikhart… how… what…” tried Ryleine, a little dumbfounded. She knew he had been ageing backwards, but this? “Irikhart… why… why are you wearing nothing but dirty blue underwear?”
His smile vanished, replaced quickly with a confused expression. He looked himself over, as if he couldn’t remember what he had put on that morning.
“My loincloth?” he said. “It’s… it’s how heroes dress!”
They stared at each other in silence for a moment while the crowd looked on. Ryleine was unsure quite how the last few weeks had happened. How a god that had dived from the heavens, and proclaimed his love for her, now knelt before her, a hunk of star so hot the sun would be getting a complex. She had been so determined to get off the island, but now…
“Irikhart,” said Kyrnrie, breaking the stretching silence. “You found the coin?”
The god of fools finally broke his intense gaze, and turned to the thief for just a second as he nodded, then looked back at her, right into her eyes.
“I did!” he said. “I conquered the highest mountain, fought off a hundred ice raptors and I journeyed to the Gren… to the Gil… to the… to the caves. And there I stood against the ancient guardian, the ferocious monster with a hundred eyes and a hundred tentacles, protector of treasures untold. And then I emerged from the caves, the treasure in hand, the quest complete. A quest most noble, most honourable.”
“Um…” considered Ryleine. “Thank you.”
“So you’ve got the coin, right?” said Kyrnrie.
Suddenly the coin was held high in the air, presented before Ryleine, glinting in the sun. A collective gasp echoed through the crowd of onlookers, who had remained otherwise silent up till that moment, enthralled by the curious spectacle. She snatched the coin away in the futile hope that nobody saw it.
“Don’t worry, it’s not real,” said Kyrnrie desperately, a ridiculous smile failing to conceal anything. “Let’s go.”
“Have I sufficiently proven my love for you, Ryleine?” queried the god, still kneeling. “Or is there something else you would have me do?”
“Thank you, Irikhart. I… I need to think. Meet me at the The Spotted Seahorse tomorrow; it’s an inn nearby. And, please, find some clothes!”
She turned to walk away with Kyrnrie, leaving Irikhart in the market square, once again in search of a decent outfit. If he had any hope that anything was going to happen between them, the god would need to get his wardrobe in order.
“Let’s take this coin to Arynlock,” she said. “And we can see if he has located any more for us to retrieve.”
“If he has any more quests for your lover, you mean?”
She glanced at him to see his wry smile. He was making a joke, but she wondered momentarily if he had missed his chance.
They walked quickly towards Arynlock’s mansion, up the hill and away from town. As they travelled further from the market, the city became much quieter. Evening neared and it started to cool down, and the humid air felt lighter, a gentle breeze making the trip comfortable, even as they walked in silence.
As they began passing the fancier houses with guards standing at the gates, Ryleine noticed three old women standing on the side of the road. They were glaring at her, as only crones could do, as if the very fact that she was alive was an insult to them. She was used to the looks she got from the locals, but this seemed excessive. They passed the three, and Kyrnrie began to chuckle.
“Those three looked like witches!” he whispered to her. “Like sisters, triplets even, in some evil coven.”
“Witches? Like in the fairy tales?”
“Is there such a thing?” she asked doubtfully.
“Is there such a thing as a god? Falling from the skies to proclaim his love for you?”
Ryleine glanced back at the three, uncertain about whether she was more or less certain about the existence of witches. They were still there, the three of them. Glaring at her.
* * *
Irikhart was waiting outside The Spotted Seahorse. Not inside; outside, underneath the sign. At least he was wearing clothes again.
“Ryleine, my love,” he proclaimed, “I’m so glad you have come.”
“How long have you been standing here?”
“Since sunrise, of course.”
They stood in silence for a moment, before the innkeeper popped his head out of the door.
“Any drinks? Shall I set a table?”
“No thanks, Deklow,” said Ryleine. “Wait… Deklow?”
“Hi Ryleine,” said the keeper. “Nice to see you again.”
“What are you doing here?” she said. “When did you move to Helen?”
“I get around,” he said shrugging, then vanished back into the inn.
“Ryleine,” said the god, “have you thought on our discussion from yesterday? Is there anything more you would have me do to prove my undying love for you?”
“Uh, yes, actually. We need another coin. It’s in Fools’ Escape on the north coast.”
“Consider it done,” said Irikhart as he began trotting off.
“Wait!” she called after him. “This time, we are all going.”
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up. “All three of us?”
“Four. We are waiting for one more.”
“I’m here,” came a rough voice from behind.
The man looked to be around sixty, and the years and sun had not done him any favours. But he supposedly had plenty of experience in the desert, and they were going to need him if they would have any chance of reaching Fools Escape.
“Abbikson,” she said, holding her hand out to shake, and nodding to her companions. “This is Kyrnrie, and Irikhart.”
“I suppose you don’t remember me?” he said. “We met when you were just a girl, a few years old. Before you moved to the forest.”
She thought about it for a second, then shook her head. She couldn’t remember a time before the forest. But if he knew her back then, he must have known her parents. Questions started boiling up, but she didn’t know what to ask first. A timely interruption gave her the opportunity to back out.
“Irikhart!” came an excited voice. “Finally, I have found you!”
And old man with a grey cloak stood there with wide eyes, his arms held open as he grinned in delight. Beside him, a younger man hovered meekly as if he hoped nobody would notice he was there as all.
“Who are you?” asked Irikhart suspiciously.
“I’m your loyal servant, Cedwyck. I have dedicated my life to you and your kin. I am here to serve you, now that you have descended from the night sky!”
“Cedwyck… the druid?” said the god. “You are the crazy man with all the apprentices, aren’t you?”
Cedwyck briefly glanced at the nervous man accompanying him, who shifted uneasily under the attention.
“Acolytes,” he corrected. “Yes, I have had a few who haven’t quite worked out.”
“Look, Mr… Cedwyck,” said Ryleine. “We need to leave—”
“Not without me,” he interrupted. “I have found my god, and I will not leave his side.”
She sighed as she saw the determination in his eyes, and decided not to waste the effort arguing. She looked around at the party, six of them. Kyrnrie shrugged his agreement, Irikhart nodded, and Abbikson appeared not to care either way, his long years in the wilds giving him the annoying ability to not give a damn, and show it.
“So, six of us then, heading out on a quest to find a lost treasure. A hunter, a thief, a rogue, a warrior god, a druid, and an apprentice—”
“Acolyte,” corrected Cedwyck.
“What’s the difference?”
“Seems less personal. I have less trouble, uh, dismissing acolytes.”
“Fine. Apprentice it is. So we have a dangerous quest, and a stereotypically unlikely party to face it. What are we missing?”
They all glanced at one another, eyes darting back and forth, not saying anything.
“Ahem,” came a soft voice. “Excuse me. I couldn’t help but overhear you are going on a quest? It sounds fun. Can I come?”
“Who are you?”
“Merilyce,” she said, waiting for the silence to pass before adding. “I am a fishergirl.”
“A fishergirl? We are going to the desert. What use is fishing going to be there? Get out of here, girl, you have no place in this tale.”
“Gods damn you all. I don’t need you. I have a hundred pounds of gold! I can do whatever I want…”
They watched the girl storm off, complaining bitterly. The group all shrugged their shoulders at each other, chuckles and grins all around. That was odd.
“Right,” said Ryleine, shaking herself off. “Let’s go. We make for Lexlish Pass.”
“Penlish Pass,” corrected Abbikson.
“Right. Follow the old man of the desert.”
* * *
Penlish Pass was remarkably easy to cross, and they all but burst through the mountains into the desert.
“Ahh,” said Abbikson. “I’m home! The land of everlasting drought. It’s been a hundred years since the last rain, and very little survives out here. I hope we fare better than most travellers in these parts. And I hope we don’t run into…”
“Into?” prompted the huntress.
“Well… I might have pissed off an ancient spirit of the desert last time I was here.”
“Is this spirit of yours the vengeful type?”
“Nothing we can do about it now,” shrugged Abbikson. “We should walk through the night, then find shelter in the morning. We should reach Dead Girl’s Crater in two nights, then another two nights to reach Fools Escape.”
“Dead Girls Crater? Why is it called that?”
“You will see.”
They walked through the night, mostly in silence. Ryleine kept her eyes open, scanning the barren desert for vengeful spirits, but she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for. Her attention kept drifting back to Irikhart, god of fools, walking beside her loyally, well clothed again, and still with the sword strapped to his back. Even in the night, his smile kept catching the starlight.
On the other side of her, Kyrnrie, professional thief, whom she had met while he was attempting to rob her grandfather. He was nice and everything, and perhaps she thought there was something there. But it wasn’t easy to compete with a god who turned out to be the most handsome man on the island.
The druid followed close behind, occasionally imparting some odd wisdom to the poor acolyte, who appeared to be doing his best to avoid the attention of his master.
Abbikson carried on ahead, leading the way. He seemed comfortable in the desert, happy. He glanced from side to side as they went, searching for something, but not in fear. Hope, perhaps.
As the walk became more and more tedious, the mountains faded slowly into the distance behind them. When the sun finally rose, Abbikson was quick to act.
“We don’t want to get caught out here,” he said. “Keep your eyes open for any cover. Even dead trees we can hang the linens from.”
Ryleine was amazed at just how quickly the sun heated up; it was barely morning, and she could already feel the burn. The difference between the sun in the desert and on the greener side of the mountains seemed almost unnatural.
“Here we go,” said Abbikson as they arrived at some scattered tree trunks that looked to have been dead for a hundred years. “Tie the covers in the trees, and make sure the bottoms are in the sand. If a dust storm arrives, we want to be underneath it as it passes.”
They had barely finished preparing camp when they heard an odd sound echoing across the sand. A sort of cackling, snickering.
“Your spirit?” asked Kyrnrie, who seemed strangely more nervous than the rest of them.
“No,” said Abbikson softly as he tried to listen. “Something else. I don’t recognise it.”
Three figures emerged from over the next dune, and closed in on them rapidly.
“Irikhart, you fool!” screeched the first in a rough woman’s voice.
“Irikhart! We have you now!” cackled the second, though she sounded exactly the same as the first.
“Irikhart! You are ours now!” croaked the third in a hoarse voice as she burst out coughing.
“It’s those three!” said Ryleine. “They were watching us yesterday near Arynlock’s mansion.”
“Yes, the witches!”
“I told you they were witches!”
“Witches?” rasped the first alleged witch.
“We’re not witches,” added the second. Or was it the third?
A moment of silence passed as the party of six faced the three intruders. They certainly looked like witches. They were at least a hundred years old, wore black cloaks, and had the look in their eyes that suggested they enjoyed eating small children.
Kyrnrie, apparently emboldened, stood forward to inspect them.
“You look like witches.” he said. “You and your sisters.”
“Sisters?” said the first.
“We’re not sisters,” added… one of them. They were all circling each other rather confusingly.
“Then what are you?”
“We’re demon goddesses!”
“Oh dear,” sighed Abbikson.
“Demon goddesses?” said Kyrnrie. “What’s that? And what do you want?”
“We want Irikhart! Was that not clear?”
“Enough!” roared one of the demon goddesses, fury in her voice.
“You have tested our patience!” screamed the second.
“And we had no patience to begin with!” yelled the third.
Ryleine could sense something building up. The air quickly became thick, the wind picked up, hot and fierce. The tents began flapping wildly, and she dropped to a crouch to avoid being blown over. Thunder clapped overhead, and dark clouds built up in moments, covering the entire sky, violently colliding in a swirl of energy.
“We are the bringers of the storm!” screeched the three demon goddesses in unison.
Lightning struck repeatedly all around them, thunder hammering them, vibrations shaking the ground. Thick raindrops began pelting down, landing hard enough that Ryleine tried to cover her head with her arms. She could barely move as the wind was so strong, the sand whipping in her eyes.
The solid ground began to soften as the rain seeped into it. Her feet began to drop into deep mud, and she was barely able to keep from sinking. The thunder was deafening, and even in between, the wind was so thick in her ears she couldn’t hear anything else, nor could she see her companions.
“Anyone there?” she yelled, but it was no use.
She scrambled to find a way to float on the mud, quickened by torrents of rain, the downpour having turned their camp into a death-trap. Even as she struggled, she could feel herself weakening, her resolve failing as her fight to survive became futile.
Suddenly a wall of dust hit from one side, the violent wind churning in circles, hot dry dust twisting in burning blasts. Her soaked hair and clothes were almost instantly dried and cracking with dust, getting ripped at by the winds. The dust storm was no easier to stand in, but the ground quickly became more solid.
She tried to search for anyone else, but she could barely see her own hands. Resolved to survive once more, she folded up and tried her best to breathe as the sandstorm passed. Abruptly, the wind died, and the dust floating hundreds of feet in the air began to fall back down to the ground.
She battled to see, but soon picked out a few figures nearby; Kyrnrie, Irikhart, Abbikson, Cedwyck. She couldn’t see the acolyte.
Up ahead, three figures lay still in the sand. Slowly, they began to rise. They glanced towards them, and turned and fled, disappearing into the distance as the dust covered their escape.
“Are you all okay?”
Ryleine turned to see the source of the new voice. A woman stood there, tattered clothes, but she stood tall, proud. She was beautiful. Surely if Irikhart was the most handsome man on the island, this was the most beautiful woman. Ryleine was dumbstruck, partly by the barely clad woman in front of her, but mostly by the fact she had no idea what had just happened.
“Abbikson?” said the woman. “You all right?”
She leant down to pick him up off the ground, cradling him tenderly. He accepted her help, though a little reluctantly, and brushed himself off.
“I’m okay,” he said, then glanced around at the scene nervously. “Thanks for saving us.”
“Lytette?” exclaimed the druid as he clambered up off the dirt. “Is it really you? In the flesh?”
“Hello, Cedwyck,” she said, smiling at him.
The druid suddenly looked at Abbikson, and Abbikson back at him.
“You?” said Abbikson.
“You?” said Cedwyck. “You? I challenge you—”
“Calm down, boys!”
“Lytette?” said Ryleine, trying to ignore the sudden rise in testosterone. “You did this?”
“This is my desert.”
“Well… thank you, I guess,” she said, scanning the mess. “Kyrnrie, you okay? Irikhart?”
The thief nodded, but he did not appear to be completely okay. The god, on the other hand, seemed far from concerned about the storms. Irikhart stood quite calmly, eyes fixed on Lytette.
“Cedwyck. What happened to your acolyte?”
“He didn’t work out,” said the druid shrugging. “I had to let him go.”
“What? Out here?”
“Well, you see—”
“What happened here, Lytette?” asked Abbikson ignoring the druid. “Those three were after Irikhart?”
“They wanted Irikhart alive,” said the demon goddess. “The rest of you, they wanted dead.”
“Why?” asked the old man.
Lytette sighed deeply as she gazed far into the desert. It wasn’t a sigh of impatience or boredom. It wasn’t an expression of exasperation or disappointment. No – it was the irritated sigh of a person that had been unwillingly dragged into a situation that she had done her absolute best to avoid.
“Because,” she said, “they wanted to make sure that you don’t find the mainland.”
I hope you enjoyed reading Renryre Island Chapter XIII: Everlasting Drought
Next, Chapter XIV: A Tail Of Revenge.
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