A War to Win

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Chapter Nine

“I have a bad feeling about this forest,” Jack sighs. He has a newly bought sword at his belt. It’s a rapier, like Tessa’s but more suited to his height and strength. I hope that she taught him how to use it well. “Can’t we just go around it?” We haven’t entered it yet but we will tomorrow. For now, we stand looking at it, trying not to be freaked out by it.

Noah glares at him and Tessa rolls her eyes. “No,” she snaps. “If any tree intimidates you just stab it.”

I can’t help but to laugh at that comment. “Don’t just stab the tree,” I say with a smirk. “Make sure to lunge at it, parry its attacks and make it feel bad about itself before killing it.”

Noah looks confused by my comment. Tessa just scowls. “We’ll make camp here,” she says, looking up at the sky. The sun is almost set. The stars are already shining brightly in the sky. “Noah can go catch a rabbit or something, me and Jack will make a fire.”

“What should I do?” I ask as Noah wonders into the forest. I have to stop myself from telling him to be careful. He probably thinks I hate him and I wouldn’t want to send mixed messages.

Tessa shrugs, gathering sticks. “I would say help Noah, but things seem a little awkward between the two of you. Did something happen?” She asks, piling what sticks she has up and pulling a book of matches from her bag. I’m surprised that she doesn’t know a fire spell, or how to make fire using nature.

I shake my head as Jack sits on the floor, not doing anything to help Tessa. “We just had a disagreement,” I tell her, praying she doesn’t read either of our minds. “I suggested that we didn’t need him with us since he’s just a thief, he got quite angry about him.”

She glares at me as the fire ignites. “We do need him. Noah is just as valuable as me or you.” After a pause she adds; “or Jack.”

“I know,” I sigh, sitting and looking at the fire. It hurts my eyes but that doesn’t matter. “He knows more about the book than either of us, and he’s knowledgeable about combat. We’re going to be in a lot of battles. Noah is incredibly useful to us.” He’s nice to be around as well. Sometimes quite challenging, but that keeps me on my toes.

Tessa nods, sitting down with the remaining sticks in front of her. She pulls string from her pocket and begins tying them together. “Hopefully Noah catches something,” she says. “I’m really craving rabbit.”

He walks from the forest, back much sooner than I expected him to be. He’s carrying two large rabbits, both with blue arrows in their eyes. I wonder if his magical bow did the work for him, or is he just that good with it?

“That forest is creepy,” he says, handing the rabbits to Tessa and sitting down, thankfully away from me. “Are you sure we can’t just go around it?” That comment seems a little hypocritical. He glared at Jack when he asked that.

Tessa sighs., taking the arrows from the rabbits and shoving sticks through them. I’m surprised she has the strength to do that. “It’ll take too long to go around.” As she speaks she skins the rabbits with impressive speed, putting them over the fire once she’s done. “We need to get to Asherton as quickly as possible. We’re not detouring because a forest is too spooky for you.”

“We’ll never make it to Asherton if we’re not cautious about the route we take,” Noah argues.

Tessa rolls her eyes. “You gave me the task of planning our journey so trust me when I say we need to go through this forest. It’s the best way to go. This forest is one we need to go through and it is one we will go through!”

The certainty and anger in her voice confuses me, but assures me too. Tessa seems confident about this forest. Perhaps it’s her inflated sense of self that gives her the confidence, or perhaps she just knows deep down that this is the best path for us.

After a while, she takes the rabbits from the fire and cuts them each in half, giving each half their own sticks. She hands us each a part. I thank her before gingerly biting it, surprised when it actually tastes good. Really good!

“This is amazing Tessa,” Noah says, making noises of pleasure similar to the noises he made last night.

She smirks at me. “Thanks Noah, I often use magic on my food to make sure it really tastes good. There’s nothing wrong with using magic for pleasure every now and again.”

Noah scowls. “Have you been reading our minds?” He snaps, glancing at me. “That’s such an invasion.”

“I can’t help it sometimes,” she says. “The two of you have such loud thoughts, booming in my ears constantly, your inner thoughts and desires begging to be heard… It’s not nice for me either.”

I sigh. She knows what we did last night, and she probably knows what I’ve been trying to hide from even myself; my desire for Noah but my refusal to get him. “Just keep it to yourself Tessa,” I say with a sigh.

She nods. The four of us continue to eat in silence as the sun fades away and the moon begins to shine. The cracking of the fire is a comforting sound, giving me a sense of safety even with the creepy forest that spans ahead, and with the perilous journey that continues ahead.

Sighing, I throw the stick on the fire and lay down, using my pack as a makeshift pillow.

As I close my eyes it occurs to me that any of them could kill me while I sleep, take all my things before forgetting about me and the little time we’ve spent together. There’s no way I can stop them. All I can do is pray that I’m more valuable to them alive, because nasty things happen when ally turns on ally.

It didn’t take Jojen too long to recover. Within a few weeks he was back on his feet, planning the next steps in the war after our attempt at ending it failed horribly. He seemed to forget about Thalia quickly, or maybe he was just hiding his pain as so many of us do. It was unnerving to say the least. Nobody should be able to move on that quickly or even be able to hide their pain that well. His loss served as a morbid reminder to us all that so much would be lost in the war.

Daniel walked into our inn room, scaring me. I was on the floor doing sit ups. “Did you have a nice time with Jojen?” I asked, increasing my pace.

He sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed and watching me. The two of them had been spending a lot of time together. Daniel told me they were planning moves in the war and training. I believed him, I wanted to believe him, yet there was still a small part of me that felt paranoid. Daniel was everything to me and just the notion of losing him terrified me.

“Yeah,” Daniel said stiffly. “We met with some other mages. You should really come along sometime.”

I stood and stretched. “So I’m invited? Great. Should be fun.”

He sighed deeply. “I’m not even going to question what’s wrong with you right now,” he said, laying down and kicking his boots off. “Jojen wants to see you by the way, he’s in the town hall garden.”

“Right now?” I asked. He nodded. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said, yawning. It was already dark and Dalmerton was quiet.

Groaning, I headed to the door, not bothering to say goodbye. It felt like any day I would be saying goodbye to him and then never seeing him again, might as well make sure it wasn’t that night.

It didn’t take me long to get to the town hall. I went straight to the garden, unable to not feel impressed when I saw how beautiful it looked at night. Mage lights were lit around the garden and above the fountain, casting a beautiful pale light over the rippling water. Jojen sat on the fountain edge. He smiled when he saw me and waved me over.

“Damien, I’m glad you came,” he said as I approached. “Sit down.”

“What do you want?” I asked, continuing to stand.

Jojen frowned, looking mildly uncomfortable. “I was hoping you would start joining us. Soon we’ll be going on missions and it would be nice to have you with us.”

“You want me with you?” I snapped, clenching my fists. It was strange what had come over me. It was a strange, protective instinct over Daniel. “But then however would you be alone with my boyfriend?”

He stood. “I see what’s happening here,” Jojen sighed. “You think I’m trying to take Daniel… That’s not what’s happening, Damien. We’re just friends. Just allies.”

Unable to help myself, I pushed him. He gasped slightly as he was forced to sit back down on the fountain edge. “I see what you’re trying to do,” I told him. “Taking us from our travels wasn’t good enough, now you want to take him from me.”

He tried to stand again, but before I could stop him he seemingly disappeared. “Damien you’re wrong,” he said from behind me. I turned, scowling. The fact that he had speed magic had slipped my mind, much like my ability to think rationally. “All I want from you and Daniel is your friendship and your ability to help me win this war!”

That was weird as all I wanted was to never see Jojen again and to get to travel again with Daniel. I really missed it. Traveling with Daniel was amazing. It was just the two of us against the world, constantly alone together in the best way. We were too young to fight in a war, too naïve. So often are we put into horrible situations and forced to endure them because we love somebody. For me that situation was a war that I endured for Daniel, the same war that caused me to lose him.

“And what do we get in return?” I asked bitterly. “We get to die in a needless war.”

“All wars are needless Damien,” he said quietly.

I wanted nothing more than to murder him. “Then why start one?” I asked through gritted teeth.

“Because the alternative is worst,” he told me. “If we don’t win this the Daemonic Worshippers will take over Wychelm. We are all that stands between them and the downfall of our country.”

He was right. I knew that he was right but I couldn’t help the hatred that boiled within me. The right thing to do was to fight in the war without complaint, but the right thing to do is so rarely the easy thing to do.

I punched him in the face, unable to contain my anger anymore and unable to argue back. He staggered back, glaring at me. “Think about what you’re doing!” But I wasn’t thinking.

Without pause, I punched him again. Jojen staggered again but this time conjured a sword as he did so.

“You’re going to stab me?” I laughed. I created my own sword out of ice.

“I don’t want to hurt you Damien,” he said calmly.

I laughed, swinging my sword. He blocked it easily and retaliated with a swing of his own. I ducked to the side, dodging before rolling to avoid another strike. As I stood I conjured small shards of ice in my spare hand and hurled them towards his face.

Jojen dropped his sword, raising both arms to protect his face. I took advantage of this and ran at him, kicking him down. He landed on his back and gasped. “Damien calm down!” He shouted, trying to get up.

I kicked him again. He cried out in pain and it was music to my ears. “You have torn us from a good life,” I told him, kneeling down and putting my hand against his throat. “You think you can save the country? You think that’s what I want from you?” I asked, tightening my grip. “I want nothing from you except the feeling of you writhing beneath me as I choke the life from you.”

He began struggling as I dropped my sword and put both hands against his throat, squeezing tightly. His hands grasped at my hands and face. He desperately fought but I was stronger than him. His strength was speed, but what good was that?

As the colour drained from his face and his struggling lessened I realised how ridiculous I was being. Jojen was doing what was right. I was doing what was selfish.

“I’m sorry,” I gasped, letting go and standing, backing away from him as quickly as I could. I felt such horrible shame…

Jojen coughed loudly, gasping for air. He croaked when he spoke. “You done throwing your fit?” He asked bitterly. I nodded, unsure what else to do. “Good.” He stood, rubbing his throat. I was surprised by how fast he recovered. “You should leave. Leave Dalmerton if you want, stop fighting in this war. See if I care.”

I nodded, feeling horrible

as I left him there.

It was obvious that I couldn’t stop fighting in the war. I had to see it through. For Daniel, and for Wychelm.

That was my darkest moment. Unable to control my anger and jealousy I almost killed an innocent man who wanted nothing but the best for Wychelm. I was wrong to hurt him.

Glancing around, I see that Tessa and Jack are asleep. Noah sits by the fire with a book in hand looking completely immersed.

Feeling restless, I stand and stretch. Noah glances at me but I ignore him. It’s probably not the best time, or place, to do it, but nevertheless I want to exercise.

“What are you doing?” Noah asks, frowning at me as I position myself for push ups.

“Is it not obvious?” I snap. What I did to Jojen should probably have taught me to contain my anger or to let it go, but I’m unable to move on. Maybe soon I’ll be able to. Holding onto anger is good for nobody.

Noah just goes back to his book, leaving me alone to exercise. After a while he puts the book in his bag and lays down, looking up at the stars. “You can’t deny this forever Damien,” he says quietly. “We both want it. Deep down.”

I know he’s right, but I’ll deny it for as long as I can.

“Rise and shine,” I hear. Opening my eyes slowly, I see Tessa standing and stretching. “We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”

Jack yawns, sitting up. Noah remains laying down. “Why is it a long day?” He asks miserably. The weather matches his mood. The sky is full of dark clouds which hide the sun away. I hope it doesn’t rain.

“We need to cross the forest before sunset,” she explains. “So we’re going to be walking. A lot.”

I stand, stretching too. “Then we better get going,” I sigh.

She nods, helping Jack up before grabbing her bag. “There should be a river within a mile or two. We can wash up there before continuing.” Tessa leads the way to the forest, leading us in at a thin path clearly created by people walking on it. The trees of the forest stretch very high. They allow very little natural light in…

We walk in silence. The only noise is the crunching of leaves under foot and the occasional noise from an animal. The quiet is nice. Familiar. If I close my eyes or look away from my companions, I can almost pretend I’m alone again. Or with Daniel, traveling Wychelm. There were rarely silences when I travelled with him. We never ran out of things to talk and laugh about, or debate. Ours was a pure relationship full of unconditional love. Before the war at least.

Before long, the trees become suddenly shorter and further apart. I can hear running water ahead of us. “Are we at the river already?” I ask, breaking the silence.

Tessa nods, speeding up. We come onto a large clearing, cut in half by a large river. “How are we going to get across?” Tessa wonders aloud. Nice to see that she thought ahead.

“Is that a girl?” Jack asks. I look to where he points. To my surprise I see he’s right. Kneeling by the lake is a girl with dark black hair that goes most of the way down her back. She turns to us; her mouth opening in surprise. For whatever reason she’s wearing a white dress and no shoes. She can’t be older than thirteen…

“Let me handle this,” Tessa mumbles, walking towards the girl. Jack, Noah and I follow behind her slowly. “Hello,” Tessa says, speaking with a gentle tone. She’s being nicer to this strange little girl than she’s ever been to any of us.

The girl stands, brushing off her dress. “Hello,” she says nervously. “Who are you?”

“My name’s Tessa, and these are my companions; Damien, Noah and Jack,” Tessa tells the girl, gesturing to each of us. “Who are you? And why are you out here alone?”

The girl sighs. “My name’s Diana, and I’m lost.” She walks closer to Tessa. “I live on the other side of the river, beyond the forest. I guess I wondered too far.”

“Holy fuck,” Noah mumbles. I glare at him.

Tessa laughs lightly. “I guess so, but you’re in luck. We’re going that way. Do you want to travel with us? It will be a lot safer.”

Diana smiles, looking at each of us individually before speaking. “I doubt that.”

Something seems horribly wrong with this strange little child. I ignore the feeling of paranoia because it probably is just that; paranoia.

Tessa ignores Diana’s little comment. “Do you know a way across the river?” She asks.

Diana nods, cracking her knuckles.

“Oh that’s not natural,” Noah mumbles, squinting suspiciously.

“I’ve seen you do that a thousand times,” I snap, staying quiet to avoid Diana hearing us.

He laughs. “We’ve barely known each other a week… Bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”

I roll my eyes. “Funny that you would mention that we’ve barely known each other a week,” I sigh, “considering you’re the one making out that we have some forbidden romantic connection.” It feels weird to say that aloud, to confront these ridiculous feelings so directly.

“When you know, you know.”

Diana turns to the lake, raising her arms beside her. The ground vibrates ever so slightly beneath us. Suddenly, rocks and pebbles fly from the lake, splashing water everywhere. They form a bridge across the river, bonding together tightly with the help of mud. It looks very sketchy.

“How the hell did you do that?” Tessa asks, the kindness gone from her voice, replaced with weariness.

Diana begins making her way across the bridge. “I have powerful parents,” she says simply.

Tessa glances at us with a concerned expression before following Diana. The bridge seems able to carry their weight, so we follow them across. I’m the last one to reach the other side. Once both of my feet are on the grass, the bridge behind me collapses. The pebbles and mud fall back into the river.

“That was a really neat trick,” Noah comments, smiling awkwardly at Diana.

She smiles, tilting her head to the side. “Thank you!”

Turning from the unnerving child, I kneel by the river and cup the water in my hands. I wash my face, sighing with relief. Only now do I notice how humid of a day it is. Before we leave I make sure to refill my water supplies, mumbling purifying spells to ensure the water isn’t nasty.

Tessa, Diana and Jack walk ahead, following another thin path. It’s annoying that they leave me alone with Noah.

“Am I the only one who finds Diana incredibly scary?” Noah asks quietly.

I sigh, deciding that I might as well just talk to him now. “I too find her terrifying,” I tell him. “I’ve fought an Arch-Daemon and I’ve seen people murdered brutally, but her smile tops all of that.”

He laughs. “What exactly is the difference between an Arch-Daemon and a Daemonic-King or Queen?”

“How the hell do you not know that?” I snap. He shrugs. “I’m going to assume you know what a Daemon is. Just a basic being from another realm. Generally, no magic and used as tools by those above it.”

“I know that,” he says proudly.

“Then you have Greater-Daemons,” I continue. “They’re stronger and usually have magic. The more powerful Greater-Daemons use Daemons, making them do their dirty work, using them to become stronger. If a Greater-Daemon becomes strong enough it can begin ruling a realm. That’s when they become Daemonic-Kings and Queens.”

Noah frowns. “It’s really weird to think that there are different realms, beyond our reach.”

I laugh. “They’re not beyond our reach, we could get to a Daemonic realm. The important thing to remember is, just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should.”

“Well said,” he says.

“Anyway,” I continue. “Daemonic-Kings and Queens can draw power from their realms which make them strong. They rule over a lot of Greater-Daemons and Daemons. Crossing them is not a good idea.” I can’t help but to wonder what Tessa, Diana and Jack are talking about. I really hope Diana doesn’t find out anything about what we’re doing. “Above Daemonic-Kings and Queens are Arch-Daemons. These tend to be Daemonic-Kings and Queens who have earned the favour of a Daemonic-God or Goddess. They’re granted incredible power and abilities. They’re used to do the bidding of the Daemonic-Gods and Goddesses.”

Noah smiles. “I can’t believe I didn’t know the difference between them all,” he says. “It’s very valuable information.”

Before I can speak, I notice that ahead of us they’ve abruptly stopped. Diana speaks suddenly, somehow quietly but audible too. “Deucalion has found me.”

Deucalion? Surely she doesn’t mean the Daemonic-King… What would he even be doing here? After a little girl… I knew there was something wrong with her!

“Deucalion, the Daemonic-King?” I demand, walking to them.

“My mother angered him,” Diana says calmly. “Now he wants me dead.”

Noah sighs. “I kind of want you dead right now.”

Tessa glares at Noah. “You can’t say that to a child,” she snaps. Turning to Diana, she speaks in a calmer tone. “Can you tell me who Deucalion is?”

Diana laughs, sending chills down my spine. “He’s a Daemonic-King,” she tells Tessa. “And he really likes fire.”

“You mean like that fire?” Jack asks, looking behind me.

Turning, I see the forest behind us alight. There’s nothing natural about that! Deucalion is here, seeking Diana. We’ll be nothing but collateral damage.

“Run!” I shout, pushing them forward.

Thankfully they do run forward, but it’s futile. In front of us erupts a large pillar of fire. We stagger back as the pillar shoots towards us; a tornado of hellfire.

I feel frozen despite the heat immense heat. As the pillar approaches I feel myself being dragged. Looking, I see Noah is dragging me quickly to the side. The pillar shoots past us and leaves a wall of fire in its wake, splitting the forest in half as far as I can see.

“Do you think it will spread?” Noah asks, panting slightly. Considering the vast amount of fire there’s very little smoke.

“No,” I say, looking around. Tessa, Jack and Diana are nowhere to be seen… I’m assuming they’re on the other side of this wall. “We should get away from this wall though, just in case it does spread.”

Noah nods, walking away from it. I follow him. “Do you think the others are safe?”

Tessa knows how to look after herself, and I’m sure she can protect Jack and Diana. “Yeah. Tessa’s tough.”

We walk in silence for a while, thankfully, until the smell of fire dissipates and the wall is only just in sight. I sit down, sighing. This whole incident with that horrific child is going to set us behind. If we’re not careful Valek will catch up. The fire is basically a giant beacon pointing to us.

“We should scan for them soon,” I say, getting my pack and finding some food. “I don’t really like the thought of Tessa and Jack being alone with Diana.”

Noah nods, sitting with his back to a tree. “There is something seriously wrong with that girl. I’m praying she doesn’t come and get the book with us. She’d probably destroy the world with it…”

“At least we’ll use the book for good things,” I sigh.

“Do you trust me enough yet to tell me why you need the book?” Noah asks.

I consider it. Maybe if I tell him he’ll let his thoughts of us being together go, but on the other hand he could think I’m crazy. Whatever it makes him think, Noah deserves to know. “I’m going to use the book to bring Daniel back,” I tell him. “Bartholomew told me I’ll fight a Daemonic-Goddess. I’m assuming that’s how I’ll bring him back.”

Surprisingly, Noah doesn’t look too surprised. He just quiet says; “oh.”

Silence takes over us. There’s nothing else to be said.

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