Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The worn, yellowed parchment with the detailed layout of Zvezny Pyk was undoubtedly false. After setting up camp the next night, exhausted from a full night and day of riding without sleep, the others passed around the stolen parchment and examined the blueprints. Everyone inspected the layouts with a sharp eye, analyzing entrances, escapes, and pathways through the winding cavernous halls. But when the parchment had made it to Zain’s hands, he knew upon a single glance the prince had wasted away his days to steal a child’s drawing.
They believed wholeheartedly that the layouts were legit. How they could be so gullible was beyond him when the parchment was at least over a hundred years old and hidden in a children’s book. Anyone with something to protect wouldn’t place the safety of it in an old book of legends. One could argue the book was within the most fortified fortress in the entire continent, guarding it well enough, but if four adolescents could manage to steal it, it was hardly protected.
Regardless, even if the Styrkish were foolish enough to allow the document to be stolen, they were well known for being paranoid. The document was likely accurate when it had been drawn—one hundred years ago. Since then, the Styrkish would be wise to change any layouts either by closing up halls and opening new ones or relocating the sword altogether.
In spite of this, the prince spread the parchment before their meager fire and said, “It would be wise if we began planning our course of action.”
“I haven’t slept in over 48 hours. I’d rather not,” Rieka groaned, tossing her arm over her eyes as she settled into her bedroll. She winced slightly at the stretching of the newly acquired wound on her side, but otherwise ignored it.
The others were already beginning to burrow under their new blankets they had gotten from a small village only a few hours before. Despite the quick run into town, their supplies were still dangerously low. While the blankets protected them from the chill, they were in desperate need for new clothing more acclimated to Styrka’s climate. Rieka was the only one unbothered by the cold, unsurprising as she had kept the Styrkish armor and furs from their heist. She barked insults at anyone who uttered a word against the icy air, claiming they were weak. Zain had kept silent despite the chattering of his teeth and only watched the steady bob of the new axe upon Rieka’s back.
He had yet to see the slight girl fight, but from her broad shoulders to her obvious ease with the blade, he knew it would be unwise to underestimate her. With her dominant left hand and her small stature, she was presumably agile and clever in a fight. Though no matter how agile, her axe would slow her down while Zain’s knives would grant him more mobility. Her arrogance and temper would no doubt prove a definite weakness. She was a short fuse and any master warrior would claim collectiveness was far more important than passion.
“What are you looking at?” Rieka snapped, peeking at Zain from beneath her arm still covering the majority of her face.
Zain turned back to the prince and said, “Whatever plans you make will be pointless.” He waved a hand towards the layouts and leaned back onto his elbows. “This isn’t accurate.”
A heavy silence settled over them and all eyes turned to Zain. “What do you mean, it’s not accurate?” Kai asked, his voice hard. His new Styrkish knife lay forgotten in his lap from where he had been examining it before.
“It’s at least a century old. The lines are faded and the details, nonexistent. If it was accurate, the Styrkish would be fools.”
Rieka sat up, her eyes wide and gazing into empty space. “He’s right,” she muttered. “Shit.”
“Wonderful,” Ren said sardonically. “I just risked my life for nothing.”
“Why didn’t you bother to tell us this before?” Kai snapped, his eyes narrowing.
“I didn’t know you all would steal a century old document.”
“Why didn’t I think of it before?” Rieka hissed, scrubbing at her face. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t an accurate layout anywhere. Knowing the Styrkish, they likely only have small portions here and there so the full layout is never released.”
“This insight is coming a bit late, don’t you think?” Ren asked, arching a brow.
“It’s not like you knew anything about Styrka or the fortress to help,” Rieka shot back.
“Because I’m not Styrkish!”
“There’s no reason in fighting now,” Kai muttered, though by his tense expression, he felt quite the opposite. “The heist is over, and unless you can travel back in time, there’s no point in arguing.”
With his new dagger, Zain didn’t doubt Kai would also be an adept opponent. He had the emotional control Rieka lacked and the strength, seeing as he was taller and broader than Zain, though undoubtedly less agile. Though, his honor and nobility would restrict his decision-making. He was a learned fighter, but not an experienced one.
“Hooray for that,” Ren said with a feeble lift of his fist. No one responded.
“So, we’ll need to create a plan without any knowledge of the true layout,” the prince murmured. Unlike the anger the others felt in regards to the lost layouts, the prince seemed too shocked to speak. All his plans down the drain.
“I have a plan,” Rieka said, falling back onto her bedroll. “Charge inside, fight the dragon, then grab the sword. Done. It’s the plan we should’ve gone with in the first place.”
“How are you still alive?” Ren asked.
“Says you. You’d think your mouth would’ve gotten you killed by now.”
“Some do say my mouth is deadly,” Ren said suggestively.
“Let’s focus,” Kai barked.
Zain glanced between them all. Something had happened. Something beyond the worthless layouts. Ren and Rieka still bantered the way they did before, but it wasn’t harmless. Rieka was more aggressive and Ren’s jokes were stiff and forced. Kai’s eyes were glazed as if he had lost a piece of himself within the fortress, and the prince… well, the prince was as silent as always.
“I don’t have the energy for this now,” Rieka murmured, turning onto her side and burrowing her face into the blankets.
Ren stretched, releasing a yawn loud enough to be heard for miles. “When I wake up tomorrow, I’m going to kill you, Rieka. I’d say that’s a good price to pay for making us all risk our lives for nothing.”
Rieka grunted from beneath her mound of blankets, likely too exhausted to even comprehend his words. Within moments, everyone settled themselves into their bedrolls, sleep pulling them under despite the revelation of the worthless layouts. Sleep deprivation was a good tool in blocking out any anxieties.
When the sounds of snores and deep breaths filled the night air, Zain opened his eyes to stare up at the star-speckled sky. In this momentary silence, he could work on his own plan. A plan that would be enacted before they ever entered Zvezny Pyk.
Before the prince had left all his maps within the capital, Zain had managed to glimpse them and the surrounding mountains around the peak. The hike to get to their destination would be a gruesome one, and along the steep slopes, the Ghost’s untimely death wouldn’t come as a surprise. The difficulty came in getting her alone long enough to kill her without arousing suspicion.
Then there was the matter of proving his kill. Typically, he took an heirloom from his victims to instill credibility and gain his reward, but he had yet to find any heirlooms that the Ghost carried. In fact, she held no personal items, only Arlanian supplied clothing and amenities. With victims such as these, he had to show proof of his work in a more foul manner, often presenting a severed head. Doing so with the Ghost would be impossible should she die now. They still had months until the end of their journey.
Killing her sooner was the wiser choice. She was perceptive and he knew it was only a matter of time before she discovered his other purpose within their group. And once she knew, it would make his work all the more difficult.
Zain drifted off before he had settled on any plans. All he had were options and contradictions and no resolutions to any of them.
Zain watched the main road within the shadows. Two days had passed and due to their shortage of supplies and need for warmer clothing, they had all agreed to stop at the village near the base of the mountain range and replenish their supplies. Rieka naturally ventured into town and was accompanied by Kai for “protection” as the prince labeled it. Rieka nor Kai had seemed pleased by the prospect, but it allowed Zain to scout freely, his sole possible competition gone.
What he was looking for, he wasn’t entirely sure. Peace and quiet was definitely needed, but he hardly needed to watch the main road for that. But he was already hidden in the shadows so he decided to learn from whatever he could.
The more he watched the passersby along the road, the more he realized he and the others all stood out. Not only from their threadbare clothing made of cottons and linens, which starkly contrasted with the thick furs and woolen cloaks of the Styrkish, but from their mannerisms. The Styrkish walked with a proud tilt to their heads and a flaring of their chests. Man and woman alike, they all held themselves as predators to be feared. It was sharply different from the lowered heads of women and the pretentious lifted noses of wealthy lords in Arlan. If any guards were posted around the Sword of Strength, the challenge would no doubt be equal to that of a single dragon.
The sheer number of warriors patrolling even a rural road was astounding. They roamed in groups of ten to forty, moving from one base to the next. Zain didn’t know much about Styrka other than what Rieka had told them, but their power and paranoia far exceeded what she had insinuated. It only furthered his concerns regarding their theft of the sword.
Truthfully, the dissonance and inexperience within their group was what raised the most concerns. He had little doubt Rieka, Ren, the prince, or truly any of them would do something insanely stupid and end their journey, and therefore, chances at a new life of luxury. Only two, other than Zain, knew how to fight, setting them at a distinct disadvantage. And what good was a thief, an extractor of secrets, and a prince against a dragon?
And that was not mentioning Shadya. Whatever the Ghost was thinking by dragging her eleven-year-old sister along was beyond him. Even if they left her hidden in the trees when they went to steal the sword, she would be alone should none of them return. Alone in the high peaks of the mountains to freeze and starve. Strangely, the prospect was a horrific one.
The gold from both his assassination of the Ghost and his theft of the artifacts had managed to conceal all these concerns when he had agreed. But now, stuck in the chill air of Styrka, he realized what a fool he had truly been.
Regardless, he was in Styrka now and the prospect of that gold still fueled him. No matter how doomed their journey was, the possibility of success outweighed the numerous concerns.
Zain slowly backed away from the road. Rieka and Kai would return soon. He would find a way to kill the Ghost, and he would find a way to steal the Sword of Strength and every other artifact after that. And once he did, he would have his gold and thus his freedom.