Eight. A Mission from Thane.
"The Arkene Godstone? Why does he want us to check on it? I'm pretty sure the Godstones can more than take care of themselves," Nikko said, weakly hiding the contempt in his voice. Red shrugged, hugging her knees to her chest.
"I'm not sure. He didn't say why, but you just don't question Thane's orders. He just said to find the Godstone and to send an Ice Phoenix back with a message and await orders." Nikko glanced at her sharply.
"So we just have to chill out in the Arkene? No pun intended," he grumbled. Red suppressed a smile.
"That's about the size of it. What's got your knickers in a twist about it? I thought you grew up in the Arkene," she said, glancing at him. His expression was nearly unreadable, except for the grim line of his lips.
"I did. That's why I don't want to go back." He paused and hefted himself to his feet, jamming his hands into the pockets of his trousers. "My parents think I've settled in a small, tolerant fishing village just north of Raza, whose populace appreciates a sorcerer's help." The magi gaped up at him.
"You lied to your parents? Why would you...?" she trailed off.
"Sorcerers originated up north, in the Arkene. We also populate the Alasre Mountains. The Black Hunters are prominent in those places." Shrugging, he picked up a stone and skipped it across the lake. A young Leviathan basking in the shallows gave a delighted roar and swam after it. "I was tired of running. I could never do anything I wanted to do. So I left. Told my parents I was going to find someplace to settle. I wasn't totally untrue when I told them about the fishing village. I stayed there for almost a year, made a decent living. The people loved that I could use my magic to gut multiple fish with a wave of my hand. The village prospered."
"But," Red prompted. She looked up at him. His face was carefully blank as he watched the young Leviathan play.
"Rumours spread of the kind sorcerer living by Raza. The Black Hunters found me. Trying to fight them off and protect the people all but destroyed the village. They would rebuild, but I had to leave. I couldn't put those people in danger any longer."
"See, you're a total softie," Red said, not unkindly. Nikko smiled, but there was no warmth there. "And the Hunters have been hot on your tail since, huh?" He nodded. With a sigh, Red stood and brushed the dirt off her rear. "And the you slept your way from town to town?"
"Got to get my kicks somewhere," he said with a wink. Red muttered something that sounded like 'dirty mutt', though Nikko had a feeling that 'mutt' wasn't what she said at all.
"Well, let's get going," she said. Tossing the remainder of the apple onto the shore of Lake Lakira, she watched as it was set upon by a wandering Mantis.
"Where?" Nikko asked. Red rolled her eyes and pointed to the east.
"Where else?" She ran her hands through her bright hair, ruffling it up. "Home," she said, unable to keep the fondness from her voice.
"But I thought..." Nikko looked thoroughly confused.
"We need proper traveling gear and the right companions. I'm not walking 'round the Arkene; who knows how long it could take to find the Godstone if she doesn't want to be found? And it's going to be dangerous. Paladine is coming with us," she told him. They began to walk to the stable, where Hollywood and Lightfoot were waiting for them.
"And Paladine is..." he wondered aloud. Red flashed him a grin, a wicked glint in her eye.
The ride to Shoal Keep was uneventful. The Unicorns, having been away from home for so long, were anxious to get there, and set the pace at a gallop the entire way. Red and Nikko couldn't hold a conversation for the life of them; the thundering of hooves made hearing one another nearly impossible, and Hollywood and Lightfoot decided to make a game out of seeing who could go faster, longer.
As they raced down a hill and past a large coniferous forest, Nikko could smell salt in the air. Sea breezes floated over the land, whipping his hair around and stinging his eyes. He chanced a look at Red, who had a fierce look on her face, one he couldn't quite put his finger on. It was excited and hard and anxious all at the same time. Suddenly, as they crested the hill, she pointed ahead and gave a great whoop of joy.
Perched on the cliff's edge loomed a gigantic fortress. Lightning blackened stones made up the exterior, and the battlements at the top had great chunks missing. Half a dozen towers that looked like they did not belong to the original carapace of the fortress were made of plain grey stone and jutted into the air like beacons. Though probably not in the initial design, there were windows everywhere, allowing light to stream inside the otherwise dark and probably dank building. Not far from it, to the right, was a large, cozy looking two story stable. To the right, a little further out, was a patch of forest containing the humidity-loving trees of the Raza Jungle. Mist rolled out of it, and he could hear wild bird calls echoing from it.
Below Nikko, Hollywood whinnied happily, swishing her tail and running full-tilt toward the fortress. Was this weather beaten, ancient fortress actually Shoal Keep?
"Home!" Red shouted gleefully over the loud pounding of hooves.
Red slowed Lightfoot to a halt in front of the large, near-garishly painted iron doors of her Keep. A large 'M' was painted on them in red, bisecting both doors. Various signatures were either painted on or etched into the metal, along with well-wishes for Red, or amusing inside-jokes. Nikko reined Hollywood up beside her and dismounted when she did.
"Welcome to Shoal Keep," Red said proudly, slapping a blackened stone with her hand and grinning up the structure. There was a rustling behind them; Nikko turned to see that Hollywood and Lightfoot were trotting off toward the stable, their tails swishing behind them. He gazed toward the stable to see a dark-skinned man standing behind the half-door, his black hair pulled away from his face. He watched as Hollywood and Lightfoot approached this man (who was just as tall as the Earth Unicorns) and whickered happily in greeting. Nikko was about to raise his hand in greeting when a sharp, loud whistle made him clap his hands to his ears.
He looked at Red as if to ask her what the need was for such a racket, but she was gazing around, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet.
"Shh!" She cut him off, bringing her finger to her lips. She darted around a battlement and crouched low to the ground, listening. Nikko followed her, taking wide, slow strides, his arms crossed, watching her in amusement.
And suddenly Red was tackled to the ground, and he couldn't see her. A fog like the one that rolled out of the nearby jungle surrounded her. His magic crackling, Nikko tried to blast the fog away with gusts of air, but nothing happened. From within, he could hear Red grunting as she grappled with her unseen assailant and... laughing?
He leaned against the stone of the battlement, his lips quirked upward in a smirk. The fog dissipated, and he saw that a large green panther-like creature had Red pinned to the ground, and was licking her face. Twisted black horns protruded from between the creature's ears, and her eyes were shut tight. Its tail swept back and forth happily. Red ruffled the fur behind her ears. She sat up, and the panther, her paws still on Red's shoulders, sat back on her haunches, rather like a dog.
"Nikko, this is Siobhan, my Mist Stalker," she said, wiping the cat-drool from her face. "She's been a dear friend of mine for a very long time." In an agile way that seemed almost impossible to Nikko, the Mist Stalker twisted her body and turned to face the sorcerer. Her eyes opened and she gazed at him calmly, as if assessing him. "Just go along with her."
Siobhan raised herself and stalked over to him; he watched the muscles ripple in her legs and back, saw the sharp white gleam of her claws. She was a powerful creature, built by the gods to be capable of great destruction. She circled him, her tail flicking in that way that a cat's did when it was about to pounce on a rat. And then, from behind, he felt paws on his shoulders, pushing on him. With a sharp look at Red, he dropped to his knees in the grass. He stared straight ahead, keeping his body very still. He had a feeling that with one swift motion she could tear his throat open and-
Then Siobhan buried her face in his hair. She snuffled at his scalp and then licked him. He grimaced at the sensation, imagining how horribly his hair would stick up. Red, however, was looking at him with a mixture of amusement and anxiousness. Suddenly the weight left his shoulders and he looked to the side quickly, and watched as Siobhan walked around him and, without a backward glance, trotted over to Red.
She pressed her head into Red's hand, her tail flicking back and forth. Red looked up at Nikko as if seeing him for the first time, then she smiled.
"You passed," she said. Nikko was trying very hard to mash his hair back down, his fingers coming away sticky with saliva.
"That was a test?" Red nodded.
"When Siobhan gets her nose near someone's scalp, she can... it's almost like she can see into their mind, and determine what kind of person they are. She likes you," she said, as if it were perfectly normal for giant cats to go around reading minds. "Now all you've got to worry about is.. well, everyone else."
"Just peachy, love." He stood and wiped the dirt from the knees of his black trousers. "Is the rest of your Keep going to run out at you and non-verbally interrogate me?"
"No, just one more," she said cheerfully. "But I doubt she's here at the moment. Otherwise, she'd be right here." Red stood and dusted herself off, Siobhan looking up at her expectantly. "Let's head inside. I've got some things to discuss with Raistlin."
"What kind of things?" Nikko asked.
"You're nosy." She walked past him, back around the battlement. She tugged on the iron door. "Raistlin is brilliant. He'll know more about the Godstones, and why they're the subject of our mission."
Yes, be prepared for a fun Shoal Keep interlude! Nikko will learn more about magical companions, and there may be an assault of beetle hatchlings on him. Who knows?By the way, Siobhan is pronounced shi-VAWN.
I hope you enjoyed it!