A War to Win

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Chapter Eleven

After what feels like mere minutes I’m being shaken awake. “Damien it’s your turn to take watch,” Tessa says as I sit up. It’s still dark and the fire is dying down. “Wake us when the sun comes up,” she instructs, laying down and yawning.

I nod, standing and stretching. Jack and Noah are sleeping. They both look peaceful which I didn’t think would ever be possible again after what happened yesterday. Maybe the magic Diana used on Jack is still affecting him, and maybe Noah just isn’t scared.

I find my water from my bag and take a long sip. My stomach grumbles but I still feel too uneasy to eat. After all the commotion none of us thought to eat before sleeping.

After drinking some water, I find some more wood for the fire, making it roar again. There are probably just a few hours until sunrise. I decide to make use of the time and begin to exercise. It feels like a weird thing to do during the night but the alternative is sitting still for hours. I’ve never been one for stillness, and besides, if I did just sit down for hours I’d probably fall asleep. Then we’d all die.

It occurs to me that even if any of us do see Diana coming, we’ll die anyway. Maybe we’re just taking watches so that we can see our deaths coming. Nobody wants to be taken by surprise. We all want to believe we have some choice and some say in when we die, but the reality is we don’t. Most of us don’t anyway. Daniel made a choice, he made a choice for the both of us. The only difference is that I have to live with the consequences of his choices.

After exercising for a while I sit down, a little out of breath. Noah sits up and yawns.

“Sorry, did I wake you?” I ask, taking a sip of water.

He shakes his head. “I meant to get up early to hunt for breakfast,” he tells me, standing and stretching. “Want to come with me?”

I shrug. The thought of going back into the forest terrifies me but I try not to show it. “Can you even hunt when it’s dark?”

He smiles, touching his bracelet. His bow appears in his hand, its blue glow as beautiful as ever. “Easily. Most animals are sleeping. A stationary target is easier to hit than a moving one.”

“A visible target is easier to hit than a target in the dark,” I comment, standing. “But sure I’ll come.” The alternative is letting him go alone. That would be dangerous. I don’t think I could handle loosing Noah…

He starts walking towards the forest with a surprising confidence. It’s weird that he’s willing to go back in. Even with him, I feel uneasy, but I trust that I’ll be safe with him.

“Don’t be loud,” he whispers as we reach the forest and walk in. We don’t enter through the path made by Deucalion. It’s unlikely that any wildlife will go near that ever again. Instead, we enter where the trees don’t seem too thick. My eyes adjust quickly which is a relief. I don’t want to fall over.

Noah starts whistling quietly as we walk which strikes me as weird. Didn’t he tell me not to make any noise? It seems a little hypercritical.

He suddenly spins, pulling on his bow string as he does so. He fires an arrow. It soars through the air and lands in the eye of a rather fat bird which falls to the floor. He repeats before walking over and picking them up. The arrows disappear.

“That was impressive,” I tell him.

He laughs, handing me the birds. I hold them by my side as he walks deeper into the forest. “I’ve had a lot of practice catching my own food,” he tells me. “I could have easily stolen it but hunting is satisfying.”

“I’ve never even held a bow,” I say with a smile.

Noah looks shocked. “You can’t be serious!” He gasps. I nod, looking down. His bow disappears and he takes his bracelet off, handing it to me. “Put it on. I want to see how you do.”

He takes the birds from me and I gingerly put the bracelet on, unsure what to expect. It has a strong magical presence on my wrist. The bow appears in my hand. It’s almost weightless…

“Shoot that tree,” he tells me, pointing to one.

I hold the bow up and pull the string, surprised by how much effort it takes. I don’t expect to hit it, so I just shoot in the general direction of the tree. Noah laughs loudly as the arrow soars away, never to be seen again.

“That was terrible,” he grins. Before I can say anything he gets behind me, wrapping his arms around me and taking hold of my arms. I feel myself tense up as he raises my arms, holding them tightly. “Your arm was too low and somehow too tense at the same time,” he begins. I make an effort to relax which is hard when he’s holding me. “Also I don’t think you even aimed, you should probably aim.”

“I did aim,” I lie. “I have no idea what I’m doing so don’t expect anything from me.”

“I always expect great things from you Damien,” he tells me, putting his hand under my chin and lifting it up. “Now is no different.” Putting his hand over mine, he gently pulls back on the string. “Exhale as you shoot, and just relax.” He takes his hand off mine and steps back. A small part of me wishes he didn’t.

I release the arrow, actually bothering to aim this time. It’s flies through the air and hits the tree, bouncing off instead of penetrating it. Groaning, I take the bracelet off and handing it to him. “I’ll stick to daggers and magic,” I tell him, taking back the birds.

Noah just laughs and begins to walk again as the bow appears in his hand again. The sun is beginning to rise now. “We should probably get back,” I say. “They’ll be waking up soon and I don’t want them to think we died.”

“You go,” he tells me. “I’ll hunt a few more birds.”

“Will you be okay by yourself?” I ask, looking around and shivering. Diana could still be around, or maybe even Daemons looking to avenge Deucalion.

He nods, smiling. “Yeah I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.”

“Okay, I’ll see you soon,” I sigh, turning around and walking away.

It doesn’t take me long to get back to where we made camp. The fire is still blazing which is good since we need to cook soon. Tessa and Jack are still sleeping. Strangely enough, I find myself wondering what they dream about. Fears? Aspirations? Nothing at all? It’s a queer thing to think about. I dream of all three sometimes, all at once.

I kneel beside Tessa and gently shake her. “Wake up,” I instruct. “It’s morning.”

She yawns and sits up quickly, glancing at Jack. “Let him sleep a little longer,” she says before looking around. “Where’s Noah?”

“Hunting more birds,” I tell her, sitting down and handing her the two he gave me. “We were hoping you’d cook us up a nice breakfast.”

Tessa nods and stands. “Yeah I will, we need to travel a lot today.”

“How much longer until we get to Asherton?” I ask, feeling a strange pressure on my chest when I think of that place. I keep having to remind myself that this is what’s best. For all of us. It’s best for me and Daniel. It’s best for Tessa, Jack and Noah too. Presumably.

She begins gathering sticks and making frames to cook the birds on. “If we don’t have any problems like yesterday, we should be there the day after tomorrow.”

I sigh. I thought it would take longer… “Are you scared?” I ask her.

“Obviously,” she says. She speaks quietly and nods her head. “We’d be stupid if we weren’t. I just have to keep reminding myself that going to Asherton and getting that book is the right thing to do. It’s going to help a lot of people…”

Noah walks from the forest, carrying two birds. His bow is away now. He walks over and hands the birds over before sitting down. “There’s a small chance that Daemons are seeking to avenge Deucalion,” he says.

Tessa frowns, touching her arm where she was burned. I had almost forgotten about it. She’s just carries on as if she isn’t injured. “We really can’t deal with them right now,” she sighs. “What makes you think they’re wanting to avenge him?”

“A fire Daemon in the forest,” Noah tells us. “It attacked me after Damien left.”

“Are you okay?” I ask, feeling instantly bad. He could have died because I was reckless enough to leave him!

He nods. “It was very weak. I think it was supposed to just be a scout, even Jack could have taken it.”

Tessa glances at Jack, as if to make sure he’s still asleep. “I doubt that,” she whispers viciously. I raise my eyebrow, shocked that she’s being so horrible about him. “When we’re in Asherton, we have to do our best to keep any Daemons or worshippers away from him. He can’t handle any of this… He’s not ready.”

I look at him, sleeping, looking innocent. I know that his innocence will soon be lost. Nobody remains innocent for long. “Maybe we should send him back.”

She shakes her head. “If any of us go back Valek will get us. Our only chance of us all surviving is just going to Asherton, getting the book and seeing what happens from there. It’s too late to turn back now.”

“We need that book,” Noah says sternly. “We have to get it quickly.”

I frown. What’s with his sudden urgency? “We will get it. Don’t worry. We all need it and besides, leaving it with Valek would be a bad thing to do. Maybe the only reason he didn’t win the war was because he didn’t have a weapon on his side like we did.”

“You did?” Tessa asks. “I thought you just won through brute force.”

Noah speaks before I can. “They couldn’t, if they tried to win through brute force they wouldn’t have stood a chance. They had to outsmart the worshippers.” After a pause he adds; “You should really read a book, Tessa. Being uneducated on things as important as the mage wars is kind of… Ignorant to say the least.”

She glares daggers at him. “I have better things to do than sit reading books about a war that isn’t even going on anymore.”

“It kind of is still going on,” I sigh. “If you think about it, the war will never end.” They both give me a perplexed look. “It was a war between good and evil. That never ends. There are still worshippers and mages who still fight each other. We’re fighting in the war right now. Even though we’re not fully intending do, we’re stopping the worshippers from using the book for evil…” I never left the war, I realise. I never will.

Jack sits up now, yawning. Tessa starts cooking as the moon is replaced by the sun.

“What were you talking about?” Jack asks sleepily.

Noah stands and conjures his sword. “About how you need a little more practice before we get to Asherton,” he says, offering Jack a hand up.

Jack frowns, taking it and standing. “Your sword is a lot bigger than mine though, it hardly seems fair.”

“Size doesn’t mean everything,” I say, trying not to giggle. “And Noah will go easy on you.”

Tessa just sighs but ignores us, setting the birds over the fire. Jack grabs his rapier and stands sideways with a hand behind his back. Noah strikes at him and Jack blocks it, quickly striking back. He misses completely but that’s still better than I expected.

“Your defence is good,” Noah says, striking again. Jack blocks it but makes no attempt to attack. “Focus on defending yourself from anything that attacks you and let us kill it, okay?” Jack nods, blocking off yet another blow. It’s quite weird to watch since Jack is considerably smaller than Noah. I’m assuming Noah just isn’t trying or else he would probably kill Jack.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been the one getting trained. Daniel taught me how to sword fight but that was before the war. We had very few opportunities to train during the war, but we did once, shortly after we rescued Adrianna and Allyssa. Foolishly, I passed up the chance to learn something.

***
“It’s nice that Jojen is on his feet again,” Daniel said. He was laying down in the shade of the town hall garden and I was sitting beside him. “He’s even recruiting. Those twins we rescued from that town agreed to fight with us.”

I nodded. “Adrianna and Allyssa,” I told him. “I think Adrianna is okay now, though that was a pretty nasty wound. Isaac has been helping her back to health.” I laid down next to Daniel, holding his hand and looking up at the bright blue sky. Things had been a little less tense in Dalmerton since Isaac had joined us. He had a way with people and so he reassured the town.

“I think Jojen will be back today,” Daniel told me, sounding a little bit like a child waiting for his mother to return from the store. About a week after we saved the twins, Jojen left to go and check on a town and look for mages. He had been gone for a few days. “Hopefully he’ll have some more mages with him.”

“Hopefully,” I mumbled. “How much longer do you think this will last?”

“The war? I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe a few months. We’ll probably keep going on like we are, taking back towns and cities until one side strikes like we did before.”

I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but we were interrupted. Isaac, Adrianna and Allyssa were approaching us. Adrianna was walking a little sluggishly, obviously still weak. “Hey you two,” Isaac smiled, sitting with us. Daniel sat up as Allyssa helped her sister down. There were slight differences between the two. Allyssa’s hair parting was in a different place to Adrianna’s, and Adrianna had a scar on her cheek that I hadn’t noticed before. Other than that they were completely identical.

“What are you talking about?” Allyssa asked.

“Just Jojen,” I answered. “He should be back soon.”

Adrianna frowned. “Who’s Jojen?” I was confused by how she didn’t know him at first, but then I remembered that she was unconscious when we saved her and he left before they met.

“He’s basically the leader of us mages,” Isaac said, smiling at Adrianna. He sat closely beside her. “Jojen is basically a genius. He usually has decent plans and he’s always willing to help people.”

“How do you know Jojen?” I asked, frowning. Isaac felt very mysterious. He just turned up one night and helped us save the twins. We knew very little about him except that he had magic and could fight well. He must have learned it all somewhere. Perhaps a college?

Isaac just shrugged instead of providing an answer. “We just met a few years ago,” he said.

“You’re all mages, right?” Allyssa asked.

Daniel nodded. “I have fire magic. Damien has ice and wind. Isaac has illusion. What about you two?”

Allyssa smiled at me. “We’re both wind mages too,” she said. “Maybe we could teach each other a thing or two.”

“I doubt I could teach you two anything,” I laughed. “I barely use my wind magic, mostly just ice and my daggers.”

She frowned. “Wind can be very powerful. You should really make use of it.” I knew that wind could be a powerful magic, but I doubted that I could make good use of it. It just felt easier to keep using my ice and daggers. They were familiar, and what was familiar was good.

“Maybe you two should teach me something,” I said, smiling. I didn’t exactly want to learn how to use wind magic more but it seemed like a good chance to see how powerful Allyssa and Adrianna were.

Adrianna spoke up. “Allyssa, you should teach Damien how to use wind more effectively. Maybe Isaac can teach me a thing or two about weapon handling.”

Isaac smiled. “Is that a good idea?” He asked. “You’re still weak.”

She stood up, grimacing ever so slightly. “I can handle a little bit,” she said. Isaac stood, looking uncertain. “Just teach me some basics.”

They walked to near the fountain before Isaac handed Adrianna a staff. It was like his but less extravagant and without the dagger looking bit at the end. To avoid having to learn any wind magic, I stood and walked over to them, sitting on the fountain edge. Allyssa and Daniel both joined me. Isaac was teaching Adrianna how to block attacks with the staff. It was a very different weapon to a sword or daggers. With the exception of Isaac’s, staffs were basically just sticks that you used to beat people to death with. It was a difficult weapon to be good with but paid off when you were.

“Why do you fight with daggers?” Allyssa asked me as we observed the lesson.

I shrugged. “They’re just easy to use, it allows me to focus on my magic. I know how to use other weapons too, but daggers just seem fitting for me.”

“I don’t use weapons,” Daniel spoke up. “At least not much. I just rely on my fire magic,” he told us. “What about you Allyssa?”

“I’ve always been happy just using wind magic,” she said. “Adrianna however, has always wanted to learn to use a weapon. Hopefully Isaac can teach her to use a staff effectively.” It was clear how much Adrianna and Allyssa cared about each other. They had a sisterly bond that protected but also endangered them. They would do anything to help the other, including self-sacrifice.

“I think he will be able to,” I said. “Isaac seems to know what he’s doing,” I told her, remembering how amazingly he fought back in Rishoven. He cut and knocked down the undead like they were nothing. He also saved me and the twins. There was something about Isaac that screamed ‘hero’.

We sat and watched the lesson for a while until Adrianna couldn’t continue. It was a nice day. There was no real fighting. We could almost forget we were in the middle of a war. On days like that it was like we were friends and not just people brought together by tragedy.

***

Noah and Jack train for at least an hour which is surprising. I didn’t expect Jack to have that much stamina and I didn’t expect Tessa to let us stay for this long. I expected we would set off straight after breakfast, which we ate about forty minutes ago but instead we just stayed here. I’ve been watching Noah and Jack while Tessa has just been sitting, reading books and examining maps.

“What exactly is the plan once we get to Asherton?” Noah asks, sipping water.

Tessa smiles. “You guys are lucky to have me,” she says. “I already have a plan worked out.” After a pause she continues. “We’re going to send Noah into scout and then we’ll plan accordingly.”

I wait for a few seconds, wondering if there’s anything more to her plan. Apparently there isn’t. “That’s a shit plan,” I snap. “We can’t send Noah in alone!”

Noah laughs. “It’s nice that you care, but I know how to get in and out of a place unseen. I’ll be fine.”

“What do we do after that?” I ask. “See if we can just stroll in and get the book?”

“Well Valek isn’t in Asherton,” Tessa sighs. “We might as well try. Once we have the book we’ll be safe from him.”

“We’ll never be safe from Valek, not as long as he’s alive,” I tell her.

Sighing, I stand, gathering my things. It is an awful plan but I can’t think of a better one. The only alternatives are just storming in all guns blazing, but the last time that happened it ended horribly. “Let’s get going then” I snap. “We’ll be there in a few days.” Just a few days and we’ll either all be dead or we’ll have the book. Just a few more days of traveling with these people.

They follow me but after a while Tessa takes the lead with Jack by her side. I loiter behind them with Noah a few metres behind me. We spend a while walking over and around hills. Nobody talks.

After a few hours of this, Tessa stops suddenly.

“What is it?” I ask, looking around. The day is still dull, the sky covered in grey clouds.

“We’re not alone,” she says. Tessa sprints forward without warning, and we all take after her, trusting that she’s making a good decision.

We don’t get far before Valek appears in front of us, causing us to stop. We can’t turn because worshippers appear all around us. Like wounded animals we begin getting closer together.

Valek steps closer to us, smiling wickedly. I draw my dagger and step in front of my allies. “Stay back,” I warn, trying to sound braver than I feel.

He just laughs. I doubt he buys my mock bravery. “Just give me what I want and I’ll leave,” he says calmly.

“You’re not having the key,” Noah snaps. “You’ll have to go through us first!” He steps beside me, his sword in hand. Tessa and Jack have their backs to us. I assume they’re keeping an eye on the worshippers.

“I could very easily cut through all four of you,” Valek muses. “But I don’t want the key.” What? What else could he want from us? “I want him,” he smiles, looking at Jack.

The worshippers close in suddenly while Valek stands back, examining his nails. I manage to stab one worshipper in the throat before two pounce on me, knocking me down. I lose track of everything else as I fight against them as they try to pin me down. Twisting away from a hand that holds my wrist, I point my hand to the worshippers face and shoot sharp spikes of ice. They piece his face and he drops away. I kick the other one off me and stand up, kicking him again as he tries to stand.

Valek smiles at me as I examine the scene. Tessa is duelling two worshippers at once while Noah is being pinned down by three. Jack is struggling against one, but he’s managing.

I rush to Noah, stabbing a worshipper in the back and pushing him down. One continues trapping Noah, punching him repeatedly as the other turns to me. Two black daggers appear in his hands and he rushes at me, striking out. I dodge, trying to stab him as I do. He blocks the attack with his and goes at me again. Jumping back, I splay my hand, knocking him back with a fierce wind. Once he’s down, I stab him in the heart; quickly and mercilessly.

Turning my attention to Tessa, I see her parry an attack before putting her fingers to her temples. The two worshippers fighting her freeze suddenly before turning to each other, stabbing each other in the guts with robotic movements. Tessa slumps slightly, obviously weakened by what she did.

Noah stands up, the worshipper somehow dead. He looks around. “Where’s Jack?”

Tessa steadies herself, looking around in shock. “No!” She shrieks. She rushes to where Noah dropped his bag, her sword vanishing. She grabs the bag from the bottom and tips the contents over the grass that is wet with blood. She flattens a map over the ground. “Jack Stormcrow,” she whispers. “Jack Stormcrow…”

Stormcrow? That’s weird. Her surname is Byrd. She told us they were siblings.

A small dot lights up on the map and she gasps. “Valek took him to Asherton.”

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