Ruki and the Beast
The once splendid dome lay in ruins, glass shards strewn across the floor of the dilapidated laboratory, or the remnants of where one had once stood. Now it lay abandoned, the many passages haunted by the ghostly cries of those left behind, and the heavy, crestfallen footsteps echoing through the dusty still. Occasionally a rusting machine would buzz as though with power, but before any straggler could approach, it had fallen silent once more, leaving them nonplussed as to its cause, if one even existed.
At the very heart of the facility, the great transmogrification ray still stood, skeletal in its ruin, descending ever further into disrepair. After that day it was destined to never be fixed, but when the attackers departed it had not stopped those left behind from trying. Their efforts still showed in inexpertly patched pieces, but in truth they had just caused more damage. But it had given them something to do.
Dragging his oversized hands behind, the hunched figure of a mutant Mynci stepped into the passing twilight of the day that shone through the devastated dome, blinking stupidly. Slowly one hand rose and scratched its domed forehead with what could almost pass as a thought, but it was quickly gone again and it just trudged on. Stepping full into the light, it paused again and grunted incoherently, scratching itself once more.
‘Look, nobody else is going to come running, so just get on with it!’ came an irritable voice, a fiery head craning over its shoulders and peering into its small eyes.
The Ruki unwrapped his legs from around the Mynci’s abdomen and took his own weight again, pushing the unfortunate mutant with a wave of one hand, still clutching his old dagger tight. The Mynci just grumbled and stepped up to the last surviving item of the laboratory’s prime, the master control computer. Still the screen flickered with the failing traces of power, the ghostly spectre of a small pink head with big, soulful eyes and large white teeth still visible.
Stepping up behind the fiery Ruki carefully reached past and tapped a button at random. The dormant machine crackled into life, the picture flickering until it stabilised, moving into a steadily repeating beep. A snarl crept across the Ruki’s face as he realised the sound was a letter shy of the reality, and promptly lashed out against the sole surviving speaker, restoring the dusty silence, earning him a blank look from the Mynci.
‘Don’t move,’ the Ruki commanded, pushing the lumbering creature aside and turning his attention to the control computer, trying to hide his confusion at the plethora of switches laid out before him.
He tapped a button at random, the screen changing to a map of Neopia, their tiny island lost in the middle of the great ocean flashing with a weak light. Feeling his confidence bolster at the success, he started to fiddle with a pair of levers, but quickly recoiled as the map spun and turned, a collection of frightfully familiar pink heads appearing over a zoomed map of Brightvale. In a panic he attacked the various keys again, but the map just faded from sight, a nonsense scrawl of unfamiliar shapes and symbols replacing it on the dark screen.
‘I said don’t move!’ he suddenly snapped, spinning to face the retreating Mynci, the shining barrel of a blaster pointing at the hulk. ‘If you insist on fidgeting, then make yourself useful and get over here. I need you to work this computer and find something.’
The Mynci gave him a gormless look and just blinked slowly, scratching its disproportionate head again.
Sighing the Ruki beckoned it over, keeping the blaster trained on it the entire time. ‘You have been here ever since this place was reduced to ruins,’ he said slowly, rubbing his own forehead to try and relieve the growing headache. ‘Surely you have some idea what is going on? Use the computer.’
A blank look.
‘You’ve been like this ever since I jumped you,’ the Ruki said in an exasperated tone, lowering the blaster again. ‘Don’t you get that nobody is going to come to help you? Everybody else has already scarpered, and you’ve been left behind. Probably because you are dumber than even the rest of the morons that used to fill this place,’ he added under his breath, feeling fresh pity for the pathetic creature. ‘So, how about you give me a hand, and maybe I’ll see to helping you get out of here. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, as they say.’ He suppressed the look of revulsion that longed to come out at the thought of scratching the Mynci’s back, having been close enough to it for far too long.
Slow though it was, the Mynci finally raised its malformed head and broke into a weak, yet still hideous smile. The Ruki just returned it encouragingly, and moved over slightly to allow the Mynci to look blank at the buttons and switches.
Suddenly it smashed a fist onto the controls. The Ruki leaped back in fright. To his surprise the screen suddenly lit up with another map, a handful of small blue lights illuminating a seemingly random handful locations across Neopia. A broad, triumphant grin spread across the fiery Ruki’s face as he ran a finger over the map, resting on a single location nestled high in the mountains to the west of Neopia Central.
‘Gotcha,’ he muttered, pressing his face close to the glass.
With a sudden flash and crackle of dying electric, the screen went black, the controls sparking dangerously and making the Ruki jump back once again. He shot the Mynci an agitated look, but the mutant just returned him a trademark blank look, once again leaving him pondering the question of whether there had even been a brain in the Mynci’s head to start with; the process of transmogrification using the old machine had always left the subject strong yet stupid. The perfect servant for the menial tasks the old master had given.
Shrugging off the minor setback, the Ruki gazed up into the gathering darkness of night, closing in rapidly around them. Reaching into a pocket, he found a simple torch in the shape of a squashed blue Kacheek and flicked it on, giving it a sharp whack and waiting for it to warm up. The single shaft of light stretched out back into the many darkening passages, guiding their path.
‘A deal’s a deal,’ he remarked, looking back around to his new companion. ‘Let’s go.’
Rolling his eyes at the dim-witted response of the Mynci, the Ruki just started to set off alone into the passages. Abruptly he halted as a frail sound rang out through the silence, choked by the ravages of time and poor maintenance, yet still instantly recognisable: an alarm.
He looked back around at the Mynci, who was just starting to acknowledge the existence of the new sound. ‘What does that alarm mean?’ he asked.
The Mynci’s face spread into a wicked grin. ‘Intruder,’ it grunted, laughing a slow, stupid chuckle.
Growing more irate with the Mynci at every passing moment, the pity now barely a memory, the Ruki rolled his eyes again. ‘It’s not a good sign, you moron!’ he snapped. ‘Anybody who would come to your aid has long since forgotten about this place, which means the only ones who could have come in are not here to help you. On the plus side, I know the only ones who would bother to come to a dump like this. You have two choices: you can either come with me and maybe get off this rock, or you can get off this rock and go to jail. Which is it?’
He could almost imagine the cogwheels grinding around inside of the hollow skull, wasting precious time they did not have; he had no idea how far out the alarm sensors were placed on the island, but it would not take them long to reach the laboratory.
A light flicked on in the malformed head. ‘Me go you,’ it grunted.
‘Great, then let’s go!’ the Ruki insisted, rushing from the heart of the facility and into the dark passages, guided only by the meagre light of his old torch. Trying to remember the path was quickly proven futile, and he was left with no other choice than to wait for the slow-minded mutant to catch up.
‘Which way to the back door?’ he asked hurriedly, immediately cursing himself for bothering with such a stupid question. Impatient, he kept glancing deeper into the various passages branching off from their hub, listening intently for the sound of footsteps reverberating through the rusted metal passages, or the flash of a torch ahead of the newcomers.
At length the Mynci pointed. The Ruki rushed ahead, following the curvature of the passage and ignoring all other routes. Behind him he could hear the lumbering and clumsy footfalls of his companion, surprisingly quick on its feet if lacking all subtlety.
It was not long before they slid to a halt, the Mynci’s mechanical mindset wanting to keep going, while the Ruki’s sharper senses found the sound of voices. Waving at the mutant to wait, he flicked off his torch and followed the sound cautiously, listening to the various voices, feeling the old familiar feelings wash over him. Too many old memories.
On the balcony overlooking the catastrophic remnants of the entrance hall to the facility, a large circular structure that had borne the front of the last defence when the attackers came through, the last surviving pieces of rusted railings had long since surrendered to gravity’s cry and lay strewn across the ground, leaving nothing between the Ruki and the crumbling edge of his balcony.
Guided by the sharp silhouette against the light below, he edged closer to the lip and gazed down to the cluster of pets gathered in the entrance hall, waving their torches around without a care, the light bouncing off the shiny badges each wore on the front of their uniforms. At their head stood a pirate Shoyru, the old bandana wrapped about his forehead a stark contrast to the freshly laundered waistcoat he wore over his baggy shirt, his badge pinned proud on his chest.
The Ruki heaved an inaudible sigh and backed away slightly. Far too many old memories.
‘Spread out and search this place thoroughly for anything dangerous,’ the Shoyru commanded. ‘Keep an eye out for anything we can salvage too; the money tree could use a few more donations, and this stuff could earn a bundle in scrap.’
He had not changed.
Turning his back on the group, the Ruki made to head back, his mind lost in the fading dream of his memories. Immediately he paid the price; his foot caught on the debris. He reached out automatically to balance, a gasp escaping into the air as the quiet torch slipped from his grasp, slowly spinning through the air toward the ground.
It struck with a loud crash, bouncing over the edge of the balcony.
Not bothering to wait, he bolted into the passages again, feeling the torchlight on his back as he disappeared into the shadows, retracing his steps to where the patient Mynci still stood, staring vacantly at a spot on the floor.
‘Wipe the drool from your mouth and start running!’ the Ruki hissed forcefully, trying to push the lumbering creature on before its mind engaged and it realised it should be moving again.
The Mynci vanished into the thickening darkness, leaving the Ruki frozen where he stood in the circle of torchlight, the eyes of the youthful Shoyru upon him. Irresistibly the memories rushed back to him, reminding him of the very reasons he had wanted to avoid this encounter. He had hoped he would be in time, but the dawdling Mynci had ruined his plan.
‘Why are you here, Lucas?’ he asked, spinning to face the Shoyru. ‘The Defenders of Neopia shut this laboratory down years ago. Why come back now?’
The Shoyru lowered the torch, glad his face was secluded in the half-light on the outskirts of its range. ‘Orders are orders,’ he replied simply. ‘Judge Hog wants us to make sure there is nothing left that could be used for evil.’
Leban just retorted with a humourless laugh. ‘You never got the hang of lying, Lucas, you are too nice for it,’ he said slowly, ‘which means you are trying to hide something. I don’t believe in coincidences, and that means you knew I would be here. Or that something would be here. I hate to disappoint you, but there is nothing left in these ruins, and soon enough there won’t even be me.’
‘Why are you doing this?’ Lucas suddenly blurted out, waving his arms in manic despair.
‘Lucas, you know why,’ Leban answered firmly, turning his back on the Shoyru. ‘While he is still out there, Sara is still in danger. He still wants vengeance on me for what happened here in the first place, and for what happened on Terror Mountain. Either I put an end to this now, or he will go through my sister to get to me, just as he did last time.’
‘We want the same thing, Leban, so why do you insist on doing this alone?’ Lucas persisted, advancing on his old friend only to find the barrel of a blaster shining back in the light of the torch.
‘I tried that before, and it didn’t work out,’ Leban replied solemnly. ‘I am sorry, Lucas, but my allegiance will never be to Judge Hog, not again. My sister comes first, now and forever. Don’t get in my way, Lucas, please.’
‘Leban, I am the one who should be sorry.’
From the shadows stepped the Defenders of Neopia, taking advantage of Lucas’ distraction to circle the fiery Ruki in the dark and leave him stranded in their heart of their snare. As one each flicked on their torch, blinding him in the intense light that sent the shadows fleeing into the deepest recesses of the facility.
‘I didn’t want to have to do it this way, but you haven’t left me any other choice,’ Lucas explained, unable to look at his old friend. ‘You proved last time how dangerous your rash decisions can be, and I cannot allow you to do this.’
Suddenly there rang out a mortifying wail, the hoarse voice all too familiar to Leban, although for the first time in his life he was glad of it. The Defenders parted like the waves of the sea breaking against the rocks, their lights turned to the monstrous hulk of the untamed beast, bowling aside those unfortunate enough to be caught in the wide sweeps of its arms like feathers in the breeze. Unperturbed by its appearance, Leban cast one last look at Lucas before an arm closed about him and he was swung onto the Mynci’s back once more, the dumb-witted creature instantly falling back into its mechanical motions and leaving the scattered and broken Defenders of Neopia in its wake.
‘Let’s get out of here!’ Leban called over the resounding echoes of its heavy footfalls, holding on tight around the mutant’s neck and trying to ignore the extreme discomfort in which he had found himself. He wanted to close his eyes and wait for the journey to end, the darkness hanging close all around and sending a worried chill down his back. Yet he kept his eyes open, knowing he had to stay alert.
Sharply the Mynci turned aside from the path. Leban clutched tighter about its neck as he realised what was happening, his petrified gaze locked on the moonlight shining through the window at the end of their passage.
Glass rained around, Ruki and Mynci soaring through the night air together and into a running landing on the raised outcrop of the surrounding jungle. Leban gasped with a mixture of awe and fright at the miraculous finish. He risked a glance back and saw a lone figure standing watch atop the laboratory, the silhouette of his old friend cast against the moon. He showed no sign of pursuit.
Slowing its pace slightly, the Mynci continued in its frenzied charge through the jungle. Leban clung desperately as the low branches struck his face and threatened to throw him loose. He tried to cry out to stop, but every time his mouth opened, a new branch appeared from the darkness and forced him into silence. Grumbling nonsense to himself, he tried to settle in and wait out the wild ride, when he suddenly realised what was about to happen.
They were on a very small island.
‘Do you trust me?’ he shouted, his voice muffled by an errant branch.
The Mynci just nodded.
‘Good,’ Leban mumbled, tightening his grip and bracing himself.
The ground ended. Gravity quickly sought to reassert its authority, but as the slow mind of the Mynci kept its legs scurrying madly over the peaceful ocean, Leban’s wings opened, the low buzzing strained as he struggled to support the weight of his newfound companion. A bemused smile spread across the mutant’s face as it felt the wind on its face, and the surreal sensation of flight washed over it. For the first time in many years, it felt true bliss.
Fluttering above, Leban grimaced in pain, his every muscle already screaming in agony. It was a long way to the nearest haven from Lucas and the Defenders of Neopia, and his wings were not going to get them the whole distance.
He needed a new plan.
* * *
A bustling hive of activity, the port was rumoured to be the sole stand of law and order across all of Krawk Island, home of the many notorious pirates and underhand villains seeking escape from the Defenders of Neopia. Any ship that sailed across the seas in this part of Neopia would undoubtedly pass through here eventually; it was the heart and soul of these tumultuous seas, on the doorstep of thieves who would not dare plunder it.
Through the crowd the fiery Ruki forced a path, a scrunched letter in one hand, a bag of coins in the other that felt far lighter than it had just minutes before. He slipped into the open air out of the main throng and approached the comparatively-sophisticated café where his companion waited, the mutant Mynci out of place among the small tables and their smaller cups, earning him a number of odd glances from the other patrons dining outside in the midday sun. On the table before him were a number of empty china cups, and a plate coated in a thin layer of crumbs. A veritable feast after his life before.
Leban collapsed into the chair opposite and laid the bag in front of his friend. ‘There’s not a whole lot in there, but it’s yours,’ he said, leaning back gratefully into the simple yet comfortable seat. ‘I’ve managed to barter you passage to Neopia Central on a ship leaving in a few hours; you’ll fit in there like nowhere else. It takes all sorts to make that place, and they are always in need of someone like you.’ Strong but dumb, he added to himself, feeling a pang of guilt.
He had been surprised by the Mynci since their escape from the island. He had hoped to last until they found a ship, but his wings had given in long before and dropped them like stones into the ocean. Yet the Mynci had proved a strong swimmer, and with Leban on his back had pressed on further until a merchant ship had found them and brought them to port. The whole time they had been together, the Mynci almost a bodyguard against some of the others on the merchant ship, secretly seeking refuge in the lawlessness of Krawk Island. Strong yet dumb were the truest terms any could apply to the Mynci, but he was also loyal, and possessing of a powerful, if slow sort of gentleness.
To be parting at last had given him a surprising shock in how difficult it was.
‘You come too?’ the Mynci grunted slowly.
‘I’m sorry, but I have a different sort of ship to catch,’ Leban replied, staring disconsolately at the empty plate. One look at the selection of cakes had been enough to ensure his friend was not going to be eating any place else in this port. ‘It is better this way, for you to go to Neopia Central and settle in. I will come and visit when my task is over, and check in on you.’
He climbed back to his feet, meeting the sad expression of the Mynci. ‘It has certainly been an experience meeting you,’ he declared, proffering a hand. ‘I look forward to when we meet again.’
Shaking hands, the Ruki turned to leave but paused before he could be consumed by the crowd again. ‘Oh,’ he called back, ‘don’t spend it all at once!’ He beamed at the Mynci and winked. The Mynci smiled back.
He was never going to have a winning smile, and nothing Leban could do would ever change that.