I wake to the feeling of delicate, cold flakes on my face. I can’t help but to smile as I open my eyes. They snow is coming down heavily, partially blocking out the light of the moon. By sunrise the ground will be completely covered.
Noah shivers beside me and rolls over, wrapping an arm around me. He buries his face in my chest as he continues to quietly snore.
The snow may be aesthetic but it is also painfully cold. I raise my hand into the air and manipulate the air around us, causing the snow to float away from us. It’s still cold but now it’s bearable.
Wrapping an arm around Noah, I close my eyes and try to sleep again.
I’m woken by the sound of Noah giggling. Confused, I sit up and look at him. He has his face towards the sky but no snow lands on him because my air magic is still redirecting it. The snow has piled up around us like a frozen bubble. It’s as if we’re in a strange, reverse snow globe.
“Haven’t you ever seen snow before?” I smirk.
He stands, causing the air to stop channelling the snow. It’s falling quickly. Within seconds his thick black hair is covered in the white powder. It kind of makes him look like Daniel…
“I’ve just never had the chance to enjoy it before,” he grins.
I shiver as it lands on my face and in my hair. I quickly begin walking. Noah follows me, walking closely beside me. The snow is already at least an inch deep. Winters in Wychelm have never been easy. The snow comes down in sheets, very suddenly. Seasons come and go strangely quickly. In a few months we’ll feel as if the winter will never end but one day we’ll wake up and the sun will be shining brightly again. If only the transition from sadness to happiness was so easy abrupt.
“I suppose this could be seen as good timing,” I comment. “Lamridal will be in such an uproar about the snow. They probably won’t even notice us.”
Noah nods. “The biggest problem will be getting past the wall.” I mumble an agreement, thinking about the tall wall that surrounds the capital. There’s a second one that surrounds the castle in the centre. The king sure does value his protection. “Our safest bet is climbing over since guards will question us if we just try to walk through the gates.”
“Come to think of it,” I begin, “it would be easier with Tessa here. Yes, it would mean a second mage but it would mean one that can just mess with their minds. Tessa could probably make them escort us to wherever the candles are.”
He laughs. “Well, you’re not wrong.” After a moment of thinking he continues. “They’re in a church by the way, the biggest one in Lamridal. They’ll probably be at the altar as a decoration.”
“What’s so special about the candles anyway?” I wonder. The other three things we need are all blatantly special. The sphere is a ridiculously powerful object and getting it proved our strength. Valek’s heart will also prove our strength and it makes sense that the Goddess of deceit is manipulating us into fighting him again. The third ingredient is self-explanatory.
“I asked Bartholomew but he didn’t give a very clear answer,” Noah sighs. We’re both shivering but I’m sure we’ll face much worse than snow. We already have. “He thinks they were a gift from Gods. They really don’t have any use.”
Then why does Violet want them? Or any of the ingredients? Maybe they are nothing more than tests because apparently defeating her in combat won’t be good enough. I grimace at the thought. Fighting an actual Daemonic-Goddess… Not all of us are going to survive this, that is painfully apparent.
“Have you ever stolen anything like this before?” I ask him.
A smile comes across his face. His eyes glaze over and stare suddenly into the past. “Only once,” he says. “I managed to steal something from the king himself.” I can’t help but to gasp. How did I not know that? That’s like stealing something a dragon swallowed. “Some guy hired me to steal a necklace.”
I frown. “Why would you risk so much for a necklace?” Looking around, all I see is snowy hills. It feels as though this journey will never end but I’m with Noah, so would it be so bad if it didn’t?
“Firstly, he paid a lot,” Noah laughs. “Secondly, there was a sad story behind the necklace. It had belonged to the man’s wife who was, shockingly, executed.” I don’t question why she was executed. Sometimes there just isn’t a reason. “When the man went to the king’s council about it, they ridiculed him and took everything that was on his person. That include his clothes, money and the necklace.”
“Holy fuck,” I mumble. “So how did he get the money to pay you?”
Noah shrugs. “I never asked. His business is his own.”
Wow. Noah really is a professional thief. What a change of pace dealing with a Daemonic-Goddess must be for him. “So how did you actually get in and out of the castle?” I ask him. The security is ridiculous. Not only is there a wall surrounding it but there are countless guards. All the staff live in the castle to avoid them sneaking things in or out. Anybody who sees the council has to be checked and questioned first. The king rarely leaves the castle. He can see executions from his high towers. That’s all the sick bastard needs in his life.
“With the food, of course,” he grins. “I hid in a barrel for ages before getting into the castle. Then it was just a matter of navigating, picking a lot of locks and finding the necklace. I then used rope to climb down the wall. I quickly found the man, gave him the necklace and fled the city.”
“Have you been back since?” He shakes his head. “Well you sure went out in style.”
He’s still grinning. “People like us always go out in style.”
The snow actually relents around the same time we reach a forest. We’re both freezing and wet so we light a fire despite it being midday. Since we haven’t eaten in a while, Noah hunts for rabbits. It doesn’t take him long. However, it does take us both a long time to prepare and cook them.
I actually find myself missing Tessa. Not only is she an amazing cook but she’s great company. Being alone with Noah is nice though. This is also the first time in a while that I don’t have to be weary of what I’m thinking about.
“How much longer until we reach Lamridal?” I ask.
Noah grimaces as he eats his rabbit. “We should get there tomorrow night which is convenient. The guards on the wall change shifts an hour or so after sunset. It gives us about a five-minute opportunity to get over the wall and out of sight.”
“Do you know the way around the city?” He nods. “We should head straight for the church then. It should be easy enough. We might be able to just blend in as citizens.”
Once we’re both done eating, Noah stands, picking up his things. “We should continue travelling until night. We should get out of this forest by midday tomorrow, then we just need to go past a bunch of farms.”
I nod, standing and gathering my things too. I drink a fair bit of water. The good thing about the snow is we have an endless supply of water, if we purify it of course. We both pile snow onto the fire to kill it. As soon as we do it becomes instantly cold again.
Noah groans as we begin walking through the forest. Even here the snow is an inch deep on both the ground and on trees. “I bet Tessa knows a spell that would keep us warm,” he mumbles.
“Things like this really make me wish I had bothered learning more spells. All I really know is that light spell and how to purify water.”
“There’s always time to learn more spells,” he points out. “When we see Tessa again you should get her to teach you.”
I nod, considering it. If anybody could teach me it’s Tessa. “Why don’t you know any magic spells?” I wonder. I don’t think I’ve asked him before.
“Never cared to learn,” he explains. “I’ve never really seen myself as somebody who uses magic, more as somebody who uses magical weapons. I just feel like they’re more reliable.”
“Also, you’re great with weapons,” I tell him, thinking about his bow and sword. They’re the only weapons I’ve seen him use but I assume he has more at his disposal. “Where did you get your weapons anyway?” I wonder.
He touches the bracelet on his wrist reflectively. “I’ve had the bow for about three years now. Honestly, I won it on a bet.” I ask him what bet when it’s obvious he isn’t going to elaborate. He coughs awkwardly. “In this town there was a very self-centred woman. A bunch of guys who had failed before bet that I couldn’t seduce her.”
I frown. What a ridiculous thing to do. Seducing people isn’t a sport. He sees the look on my face. “I would never do anything like that now though,” he reassures me. “I know it was a shitty thing to do.”
“What about the sword?” I ask, wanting to change the topic. I suppose Noah is different now… He has slept with me and Georgina in the last few weeks, but there’s a connection. It’s not just sex, it’s something more.
“I’ve had it for about a year,” he smirks. “Believe it or not, this is Deucalion’s sword.”
I make a strange noise of befuddlement. “That’s impossible. The sword was lost during the final battle.”
Noah shakes his head. “After the battle, there was about a month before people went and cleaned up Dalmerton.” I nod, knowing that this is true. They put everybody who died in mass-graves in a location unknown to me. “A few weeks before they cleaned it up, I went to see the scene for myself. I found the sword.”
“But it looks nothing like Deucalion’s sword,” I say. “And it didn’t even have magical properties. It was actually really useless…”
He shakes his head again. “You guys just didn’t see it’s potential. That’s when I went to Isaac, like I mentioned back in the library.” I nod, remembering that he said he spent time with Isaac after the war. “He helped me change the swords appearance and unlock its magic.”
“That man is a bigger enigma than all the Daemonic-Gods put together,” I mumble.
“He’s a good guy though,” Noah says. “He just has his secrets. We all do.”
I nod, not sure whether I believe it. He did seem certain that we would one day meet again. Maybe I’ll decide what to think of him if that day comes.
Like most of the damn forests in Wychelm, this one seems to go on forever. The snow started again an hour or so before sunset. Once night drew in we made camp. Right now, we’re sitting next to a fire with more rabbits cooking. I’ve used my wind magic to divert the snow away from us again. Once again we find ourselves in a world that belongs only to us.
“Just one more day of travel,” I sigh.
“And then there’s the journey back,” Noah points out. “I think this is the first time we don’t have teleportation crystals to rely on.”
I smile wearily. “The stakes are higher than ever and yet they keep going up.”
Noah gives me a confused look as he gets the rabbits from the fire and hands me one. “Things can only go so high before falling,” he says. “It’s like how once you hit rock bottom, the only way is up.”
“Good point,” I say, biting into the rabbit. This one is considerably better than the last one. It’s actually cooked well. Once we’re done eating I lay down, Noah does the same. There isn’t much point in having one of us keep guard. There’s no chance of anybody reaching us this deep in a forest in this snow.
“How exactly are we going to get Valek’s heart?” Noah asks. “It’s not like we can just ask him nicely.”
I laugh. “I feel like he would jump into an inferno if it stopped us from getting it,” I say. He was always one for spite. “But I guess we can just bait him out. He’s probably watching us, or the church. If he sees any chance to get the book back, he’ll pounce on it.”
“So it’s just a matter of setting a trap,” Noah sighs. “Should be easy enough…”
The snow stops around the same time the forest does. What lays ahead is fields upon fields covered in untouched snow as well as the occasional farmer’s house. The setting sun casts a fantastic light on it all.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” Noah says blissfully. The sun is reflected in his blue eyes and it casts a shadow across his face.
We make our way along the fields relatively quickly. The cold isn’t bothering us much anymore. Since it has begun snowing we’ve lived in a perpetual state of coldness. Trotting through ankle deep snow has also left us with damp, heavy feet. We try to avoid the farm houses as we travel and before long, the capital is in sight.
Lamridal is obnoxiously large. The large stone wall surrounding the city has large braziers burning with fire on top of them. The king’s castle and its tall towers can be seen even from this distance. The fires burn brighter and brighter as the sun continues to set.
There are three gates into Lamridal. There’s the main, largest gate. One for farmers and a smaller one for travellers. All are heavily guarded so I follow Noah to a part of the wall without a gate in sight. We arrive just as the sun finishes setting.
“We’ll wait until the guards change shifts,” he says quietly, looking up. The wall is about fifteen feet tall. “Like I said before, we’ll have about a five-minute slot.”
I nod, cracking my knuckles. The quickest way up the wall is to just erect a pillar of ice beneath us and I fully intend to do that. Pretty much directly above us is a guard standing next to one of the braziers. I wait until he moves away before raising my arms, and a pillar with them. Noah looks shocked as we rise towards the top of the wall.
When we reach the top, we jump off the pillar of ice. With a click of my fingers I make the ice shatter. Thankfully it falls almost silently to the ground.
“You could have warned me,” Noah snaps. I mumble an apology as we creep towards the stairs leading down into Lamridal. We arrive in what thankfully appears to be a secluded part of the city. The houses look rundown and the lamps are not lit. If we stick to alleyways we should get to the church with minimal difficulty. “Follow me,” Noah whispers.
I nod, doing as he instructs. He leads me in a slow jog around winding alleyways. He makes no sound as he runs whereas my feet trod loudly on the stone streets and my breathing is heavy. When we stop at a corner he glares at me before peeking around the corner. “Three guards,” he whispers. “It’ll honestly be easier to just fight them. We’d have to detour a lot to avoid them…”
“Won’t it draw attention?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I’ll draw them here and we’ll kill them quietly.” For a few seconds I’m hesitant to kill three guards but then I think of all the atrocities they have most likely committed. Even if they haven’t done any of the horrible things the Royal Guard are infamous for, they still work for the king. That’s reason enough to kill them for me.
“How are you going to get them here?” I wonder.
He just smiles and picks up a random rock from the ground. He walks out onto the street and hurls the rock towards them. I’m not even surprised…
I hear shouts of “Get him!” followed by hurried footsteps towards Noah. He just remains stationary, looking at them.
As they run past where I hide, I throw out thick shards of ice in their direction. Despite how they’re wearing ridiculous looking white armour, two are impaled while the third looks around confused as his fellow guard drop dead. He’s holding a long sword with both hands. Noah is grinning at him. “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” he says.
The guard runs at Noah, his sword in the air. Noah’s sword appears suddenly in his hand. He ducks under the guard’s strike and cuts him open. “That was easy,” he mumbles as the guard drops down.
“That was an awful line,” I tell him. Noah rolls his eyes as he runs to another alley. We creep around Lamridal for what feels like hours before we reach the church. It’s surrounded by lamps which illuminate the pretty stain glass windows. The church’s steeple towers above the other buildings in the vicinity.
“The candles are in there?” I ask. Noah nods. “Won’t people see us if we try to go in?” He nods again. The church is in one of the nice parts of Lamridal. It makes sense since it’s the biggest church in the city, maybe in the whole country. “So how are we going to get in?”
He considers it for a moment. “We run really fast and hope for the best.”
Before I even have time to tell him what a stupid idea it is, he sprints from the alley we’re in towards the church door. I curse as I follow him. It occurs to me that it’s weird that we haven’t seen any more guards. I assumed they’d be prowling the streets, especially near the church.
Once we reach the door Noah crouches next to the lock and pulls something from his pocket. A lock-picking set.
“Do you know how to use that?” I ask. I instantly realise what a stupid question it was. Does the thief know how to pick a lock? He doesn’t even dignify my stupidity with a response.
Within seconds the door clicks open. We get inside quickly and shut the door behind us. There are not candles inside so I conjure a light. This church is so much bigger than any I’ve been to before. They are probably enough pews to seat hundreds, maybe even thousands.
The altar at the front of the church is huge with hundreds of strange offerings. I imagine people coming here, praying for the Heavenly-Gods to come back and save us all. Why they offer up things to them is beyond me. The things range from weapons to bones…
“Wow,” I mumble. I follow Noah down the aisle of the church. “Why people believe in them is beyond me.”
Noah looks puzzled. He’s examining the different offerings. “If we don’t believe in something we’re just left having to believe in ourselves.”
I laugh stiffly at that comment. “So what do you believe in?”
“I believe in us,” he says. After a pause he adds; “as a group, I mean.”
I nod as we arrive at the altar. It’s like a really grim wishing well. “Where are the candles?”
Noah looks around before pointing. “There, I would assume,” he says. He’s pointing at thirteen tall, thin black candles. They have white wax on them in pretty patterns. Each one also has a gem at the base, each a different colour. “I’ll get the black one,” Noah smiles, approaching them. “It suits Violet’s heart.”
I watch him moving to the candles. He brushes his hands over random items. There’s a small box that’s the perfect size for a human heart. How queer.
My attention turns to the church door when I hear a sudden bang outside. “Go check that out,” Noah instructs. He has the candle in his hand and he’s examining it.
I walk back down the aisle away from him. When I reach the door I try to open it but to no avail. It’s not locked, something is blocking it! “Noah, we’re trapped,” I say. He’s walking towards me. I assume he put the candle away.
“Are you sure?” He asks, pushing the door himself.
I glare. “Yes I’m sure! Somehow I think I’m capable of knowing whether a door is blocked or not.” He just sighs and looks around. “Is there another way out?”
He shakes his head. “The only priest I know who’s crazy enough to have secret exits is Bartholomew. We just need to wait until morning and then sneak out.”
“Seriously?” I snap. He nods and slumps to the ground. “Can’t we just smash a window? Or jump off the steeple?”
“Damien, no,” he says calmly. “They’d both raise too much attention. Our best bet is to just hope to blend in when somebody opens the doors tomorrow.”
Sighing, I move to sit on a pew. Noah stands up again and sits beside me. “Why the glum face?” He asks.
“Because we’re trapped in a church in Lamridal,” I snap. “I’d rather be in some other, anarchist country.”
He laughs a little. “Believe me, you do not want to go to another country.” After a moment of silence, he continues speaking. “You should get some rest. I’ll keep watch.” He moves up on the pew, giving me room to lay down. I don’t even ask before using his lap as my pillow.
When I wake the sun is shining through the windows. They create fantastical patterns all around the church.
“Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” I ask Noah, sitting up and yawning. “You didn’t get any sleep.”
He shrugs. “I can survive without sleep.”
I give him a questioning look. Before I can respond however, there’s a noise at the door. “Fuck,” I mumble, jumping up. Noah does the same and we both grab our things. “Hide behind the door.”
Just as the door opens, we hide behind it. A priest walks slowly in and leaves it open behind him. We manage to make it out onto the street without him noticing. A few people wandering around glance at us but I doubt they care.
“Should we leave the way we came?” I wonder.
Noah shakes his head and leads the way down the street. “We’ll have to leave through a gate. We can probably take the smaller one. Less questions will be asked there.”
“Questions like ‘how the hell did you get it?’” I mumble. Noah just laughs. “So where is the gate?” I wonder.
“It’s about a half hour walk,” he says. “We’ll cut through the town centre.”
I frown, thinking it unwise. Isn’t that where his father was killed? Isn’t that where even more executions will take place? I decide not to voice my concerns. If Noah wants to stroll down memory lane, then I’ll stroll with him.
We reach the town centre quickly. It’s much bigger than the one in Dalmerton. It’s a large clearing surrounded by high-end shops and a few houses. In the centre of the square is a raised platform made of wood. This is where executions take place. There are three different ways they do it.
One is by hanging. There are numerous rows of nooses. Beneath each one are false floors that give way whenever a lever is pulled. The second way is beheading. The council have a guillotine for that. The final method isn’t exactly execution but more a slow, painful and public death. The council strip somebody down and beat them to a pulp in front of the whole town before putting them in a tiny cage on the platform. They’re left there to die of starvation or hypothermia, whichever comes first…
“I had forgotten how grim it is,” Noah mumbles, looking at it.
“Let’s just keep going,” I say with a shiver. What makes it worse is that like everything, the platform is covered in snow. The snow is sprinkled with blood. “There’s nothing we can do.”
That much is true. There’s nobody being forced to starve to death at this moment. If there was, I’m sure we’d both want to save them.
Noah sighs loudly, averting his eyes. “I wish I could just save somebody.”
“You’ve saved me,” I point out. “In more ways than one.”
He breaks a smile at that comment. I’m thankful when he doesn’t even look back once we leave the square. After that, it doesn’t take us long to reach the gate. It’s smaller than I expected it to be. Only one guard stands near it. When we approach, he steps forward.
“Why are you leaving Lamridal?” He asks.
Noah pulls a few coins from his pocket and hands it to the guard. He grins as he takes the money and literally turns his back.
“That was easy,” I mumble once we’re a fair distance away from the city.
Noah nods. “It’s almost as if somebody wants us to succeed…”