Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
After three more days of slow hikes through the snow and settling in shallow caves, Kai awoke one morning to find his horse unresponsive. He patted the beast only to feel cold fur beneath his palm.
“Hypothermia,” Zain murmured, startling him. The others still slept, unaware.
Kai backed up a step, staring at his horse. Its eyes were closed, and if he disregarded its lack of breathing, he might even say it was sleeping.
“We are already down a horse,” he whispered in response.
Zain stepped forward and began unstrapping the bags tied to the horse’s saddle beside it. “And now we are down two.”
When the others awoke, Kai didn’t have to break the news of the horse. Shadya rose from her bedroll, hair tangled around her face. She stepped up beside the horse and stared down at its form. Amani watched her sister cautiously, her jaw clenched.
Shadya placed her ungloved palm on the beast’s abdomen. “Its blood is cold and still,” she said, her voice emotionless.
Kai lowered his brows. She was young yet she seemed so desensitized to the concept of death. Not only the concept of it, but the harsh reality of it.
Shadya turned on her heel and made her way back to Amani. Amani stared up at her sister from the ground, the tips of her lips curved in a frown. When he blinked, her expression was blank once more.
“So, I guess we are sharing a horse?” Ren said to Kai, though tension tugged at each word.
They tried to ignore the dead beast in their midst as they saddled their remaining horses and tied the extra bags to Zain’s saddle. Yet, it seemed the body sucked any remnant of heat in their cave, leaving Kai shivering.
Instead of packing their extra blankets, they piled them beneath the saddles in hopes of keeping their horses warmer. Kai wondered vaguely if his horse would have fared better were Rieka there to advise them on their care.
Their horses were Arlanian, so he shouldn’t have been surprised they could not hold out against the cold of Styrka. Yet, the death shocked him more than he cared to admit. He had seen more death in the weeks of their journey than he had all his life at the palace. The thought almost embarrassed him. Shadya could easily accept death at eleven, but it continued to unsettle him at eighteen. That fact only pointed to how sheltered his life had truly been. He had judged the others for their crimes, but the truth was, they understood this pain—this reality—far better than him.
“So,” Ren mused, peering up at his horse, all saddled. “Do you prefer the front or the back?” Ren waggled his brows.
Kai cleared his throat and looked away from Ren. “I—” Gods, this was truly a nightmare that continued to worsen.
“Don’t you worry.” Ren patted Kai’s shoulder and Kai shifted away from him. “I’ll make sure to keep this little part of our journey secret from your prince.”
“And, I do have to admit… It will be a lot warmer having someone to share my saddle. Make the ride more pleasurable, too.”
“What?” Kai repeated.
“Ah, relax Kai. I’m only fucking with you.” Ren paused and looked up at Kai. “The ‘with’ can be removed—”
Ren laughed and pulled himself into the saddle. “It’s almost easier to make you uncomfortable than the prince.”
Kai didn’t know what to make of any of Ren’s words, so he decided to pretend they hadn’t been said. Instead, he breathed deeply and pulled himself into the saddle behind Ren.
“Mm, cozy,” Ren murmured. Kai shifted, pushing himself as far to the edge of the saddle as he could go. “I’m kidding. Gods.”
Kai shook his head and attempted to situate himself. It would be a long ride.
With the cold biting between every layer of his clothing, Kai eventually forgot about the awkwardness of his proximity to Ren and clung to any warmth he could find. Little flurries of snow continued to fall in spurts, and the flakes clung to Kai’s coat and eyelashes despite his attempts to wipe it off.
“Do you have any more water?” Amani called from behind him.
Kai shuffled through his pack and pulled out the water pouch. After a few shakes, he shoved it back. “I’m out,” he called back. Zain shuffled through his own pack only to come up empty as well.
Shit. That couldn’t be right. They each had a water pouch. He shuffled through his bags once more, finding only the pouch that had belonged to Ren, and it was definitely empty.
“Zain, you should have two,” Kai called, struggling to keep his voice calm.
“They’re both empty,” Zain assured.
Shit. Shit. Why hadn’t they been better about conserving their water? He had completely forgotten about the lost supplies on Amani’s horse when it had fallen. Who knew how long they had until they got to the mountain, and without any water…
They managed to ride the rest of the day without a drink. Kai’s mouth became increasingly dry, each breath of the frozen air piercing his lungs. He prayed each minute they rode that their destination was close. That Ambrose and Rieka were safe and hopefully with water.
When they finally settled for the night in a cave, they gathered around the small fire and stared at empty water skeins. The dried foods only made Kai’s mouth drier, but he managed to choke down his share, which he had rationed into a smaller portion than usual.
Watching the flames dance, he thought back to his room at the palace. The fireplace in the corner; the threadbare rug on his stone floor that had once been a deep maroon and was now faded; the small bed he had used to hate with its worn mattress but he would now give anything to sleep in. All the little things he had once taken for granted. That he had once been ashamed of, for their lack of quality was a symbol of his lack of worth.
Yet, all of it was better than this. He had been provided with meals and water. With warmth and comfort. He had known his purpose in the palace, even when the prophecy was years away. But, for some reason, amidst the progress of the prophecy, he felt as though his purpose had been lost.
He let his eyes fall closed and the light from the fire burned beneath his eyelids. With his hand placed upon the cold stone ground, he prayed to the gods for guidance. He needed not only motivation, but faith that there was true meaning behind this journey. He believed in the gods and their word, however, that belief was no longer enough.
He had killed for this prophecy and he may die for it, too. He had resigned to that fact the weeks prior when he had faced the clergy, but he was naive, then, to the hardships he would face. They hadn’t yet recovered the first artifact, and he already doubted the gods.
Please, he prayed. I believe your word is true, but I need to know… Know what? The gods were merciful and the prophecy was clear: should they complete it, strength and prosperity would be restored to Arlan. The struggles of famine and dissonance would be resolved. Arlan was a good, stable country, but this prophecy would make it great. He had been taught that since birth.
So, what did he want from the gods? Affirmation? Motivation?
Kai opened his eyes and shook his head. The gods could do many things, and he had to trust that whatever pain and discomfort he experienced was for some greater good. He was a pawn in the scheme of the world, and he was fine with that. He was fortunate to be a piece at all.
He was on the wall of the Aryotsk Fortress once more. Ren and Ambrose struggled behind him, attempting to lock the door. Rieka sparred with the guard posted on the wall and she was losing, each swing of her axe slow and weak. The dagger Ren had stolen was heavy in his palm. He had to help. He was trained for these moments.
The guard swung his blade and it grazed Rieka’s side. He was winning, and soon, Rieka would no longer be able to fight.
Kai lurched forward and jabbed the dagger at the guard’s exposed skin between his armor.
The blade made contact and the jolt of it followed his arm up to his shoulder. Kai’s eyes went wide and he struggled to dislodge the blade. He twisted it and pulled until, finally, it yanked from the man’s flesh with a sickening quelch.
The man didn’t fall. Instead, he remained still with hard, unmoving eyes while Kai stared at his bloodied blade.
“He’s not dead,” Rieka said, shaking his shoulder. “Stab him again.”
“No,” Kai murmured. “I can’t.”
“You have to. Stab him again.”
His hand shaking, Kai jabbed the dagger forward once more, and when it stabbed into the man’s flesh, blood poured onto his hand.
“Stab him again,” Rieka repeated.
The blood was hot and sticky on his skin, and when he pulled out the dagger, it dripped onto the stone, leaving small puddles of scarlet.
“Kai,” Rieka whispered. “Stab him again.”
“Kai,” Zain jolted him from sleep. “It’s dawn.”
Kai sat up, his breaths heavy. Despite the chill air, sweat filmed over his forehead and lip.
“Are you okay?” Zain asked, his brows furrowed. “You’re sweating.”
“I’m fine,” Kai grunted, standing to begin packing up his things. “Just a bad dream.”
Zain nodded, appeased.
“If you get hypothermia, make sure to tell us, unlike the horse,” Ren said from across the cave.
“Ren,” Amani scolded, her lips pursed.
Ren raised his hands in placation. “Sorry, sorry. Just trying to ease the tension.”
Kai tried and failed to shake the remnants of the dream. It was the first dream he had had since killing the guard, and he doubted it would be the last. The struggles of hiking up the mountains had deterred his mind from his guilt, but guilt had prevailed. Somewhere was a family who mourned a son; a husband; a father. He had been the one to take that life away, and that was no minor crime.
Ren made his usual jests before they got upon the saddle, but his words fell upon deaf ears. The minute they exited their cave, the sweat on his skin froze, and he began to shiver, but even that cold was of little consequence.
A man’s body was cold and lifeless in Aryotsk, and that was on him.
Midday, the thirst grew so unbearable, they all succumbed to eating snow. They were already cold down to the bone, but water was more necessary than warmth. They took handfuls from the thick piles and scarfed it as though it were a feast. Unfortunately, it only filled Kai’s stomach with a hollow sensation, his mouth as dry as before.
Their horses—weak from a lack of water and food—grew slower by the minute, each step laborious. Kai knew if they didn’t make it to Zvezny Pyk in the next few days, they wouldn’t make it at all.
He had given up on trying to direct their course and only followed the uphill slopes. The vegetation grew sparse throughout the day, and by the afternoon, it was clear there would be no fire that night as there was no longer any wood to make one with.
Kai tried to watch their path for any obstacles or tracks, but with the sun glaring off the snow, he could only look out for so long. From what he did see, they were on the side of a mountain, hiking at a sharp incline. Their horses would occasionally stumble, but catch themselves in the snowdrifts.
That night, they couldn’t find a cave and ended up pressing together under the shelter of a protruding rock. They leaned close to their horses, savoring their warmth, and were too exhausted to unpack the saddles.
“Maybe we should begin cashing in those bets now,” Ren mumbled, his shoulder pressed tight to Kai’s right side.
Kai licked his numb and cracked lips. “What bets?”
“On how we are going to die.” While his words should’ve been a joke, there was no humor in them. The wind whistled sharply in response.
The clouds parted and a flicker of light shined from between them. Kai glanced up to the sky.
As the clouds began to dissipate, the stars became visible. There were more than he had ever seen. They filled the sky to the brim, speckled in colors of blue and gold.
Then, a flicker of green, the light bright yet strangely soft. The light grew and soon, the sky was filled with dancing ribbons of green rimmed with purple. Kai lifted his gloved hand as though he could feel it, like silk slipping against his fingers. It was such a contrast from the rest of Styrka, which was cold, harsh, and monotonous. Instead, the sky was full of color and gentle beauty.
“Makes you wonder,” Amani whispered, her voice hoarse. Her face that he had deemed perfect upon his first introduction was now splotchy and thin. Yet lit under the lights in the sky, everything, even the rough terrain, was beautiful.
“What?” Kai responded.
“Whether the stars truly do have power as Rieka believes.”
Instead of refuting her, Kai turned back to the sky. He had no words. Perhaps the beauty of the sky was a product of the gods, yet he found it hard to believe that something so magnificent wasn’t its own entity. It had to be more than just a sight. It had to mean more than just colors in the sky. Watching the colorful ribbons then… They did hold power despite what the clergy had taught him. They held the power to make something harsh, beautiful. They held the power to remind him that the world wasn’t all desolate. More than that, they held the power to reinstate the life that had been slowly draining from his bones.
None of them slept that night. They instead took to watching the sky until the lights disappeared, and kept watching after, waiting for them to return until the sun fatefully broke the horizon and scared the stars away.