Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
tw: this chapter contains some darker themes such as insinuations of suicide
Ren had come to value only two things throughout his years. Life and wealth. As each of his muscles seized with cold and his breaths felt like ice shards in his chest, he was sure the former was forfeit. As for the latter, he doubted this excursion was worth the gold.
No, Ren shook his head. If he lived to tell the tale, it would be well worth the gold. In fact, there was little he wouldn’t do for that sum. There was little he wouldn’t do for any gold, he realized. Money was always reliable. Ren understood the games it took to gain it, and he even better understood the games it took to maintain it. When it came to wealth, Ren was the unlikely master.
These new games of hunting precious artifacts had initially been enthralling. It was the pinnacle of theft. Not only would he end this magnificent game with coffers overflowing with gold, he would also end it with something worthy to take pride in. His rumors as the best thief wouldn’t only exist in Reindale. They would exist across the world.
Unless, of course, his body was frozen in the wastes of Styrka’s wild slopes. The prospect was becoming more and more probable.
That morning, the clouds had flooded the sky once more. No snow fell, but with the gusts of wind disturbing the piles already blocking their path, it felt as though they were amidst a blizzard. No matter how deeply Ren tucked his face into the furs of his coat or curled his body into itself, any semblance of heat refused to grace upon him. Even with a horse beneath him and Kai at his back.
“Ever heard of frostbite?” Ren called to Kai over the sound of whistling wind.
“What?” Kai shouted into his ear.
“Frostbite? Heard of it?”
Ren sighed and turned his eyes to the white blurred path before them. They had to be close to the peak. “It’s where your skin freezes and turns a permanent blue. Sometimes fingers can fall off,” he yelled back.
Kai shrugged, though Ren’s body was so numb he could hardly tell. Ren doubted Kai had even heard him. The winds were too loud.
He had known a few street rats that had gotten frostbite during the worst days of winter. Fortunately, being a coastal city, Reindale was relatively mild in temperature, but on the days the cold struck, the effects could be detrimental. He recalled several times he had huddled into alleys, breathing onto his bare hands.
Gods, if he got frostbite on his hands… Ren couldn’t fathom losing a finger. Or more.
All the possibilities of death began to spiral through his mind. Avalanche, hypothermia, frostbite, dehydration, pneumonia… The list was endless.
“I’m not going to die,” he screamed as though the mountain could hear. He had to get his money first.
Kai heard those words, apparently, because he patted Ren’s shoulder with a mittened hand. “None of us will,” he shouted back.
“I appreciate your optimism, friend, but I do not believe you for a moment,” Ren said.
Kai didn’t respond. Ren’s words had been once again lost to the wind.
Ren sat up in the saddle, his body seizing. Someone was in the snow.
“Did you see that?” he yelled, turning to Kai. Kai furrowed his brows and squinted into the steep slope.
A flash of brown and Ren pointed. “There! I saw someone!”
“Was it Ambrose and Rieka?” Kai asked.
“No…” Ren leaned forward to look more closely, struggling to urge his horse faster. “I think it was a young boy.”
The child appeared again, and Ren froze. He was young with tattered clothes upon his thin form. His brown skin was streaked with grime and sunken with starvation. But his eyes… They were bright with determination.
“What is he doing out here?” Ren shouted, pointing. The child was eerily familiar, and some part of Ren’s mind screamed at him to remember.
Kai looked to the spot Ren indicated then back to Ren. He slowly shook his head. “Ren…” he started, his voice cautious.
“He shouldn’t be out here,” Ren said matter-of-factly. “He’s going to die.”
“No one’s there, Ren.”
Ren whipped around to Kai. “What do you mean? He’s right—”
He was gone. The kid was gone, as though vanishing in the wind.
Shit, shit, shit. He couldn’t be hallucinating. If he knew anything about freezing to death, it was that the mind often began to lose its grip on reality. He had seen enough boys wind up insane, deliriously proclaiming they had found their families and were feasting before a fire.
“Must’ve been a trick of the wind,” Ren called back. He couldn’t have Kai thinking he was delirious. Because he wasn’t delirious. He was tired, maybe, and definitely thirsty, but beyond that…
Ren stiffened once more, hearing laughter in the breeze. It was a woman’s laughter.
He shook his head, trying to rid the sound from his ears and mind. He knew that laugh and that woman… She no longer lived.
Ren released his stiff hold on the reins to bat his ears and head. He pounded his hands into his face, hoping it would get rid of that awful sound, but the laughter only grew louder—
“Ren, stop!” Kai barked, grabbing Ren’s hands and stilling them. “What are you doing?”
“She keeps laughing,” he shouted, trying to pull his hands away to cover his ears. Why was she laughing?
“There’s nothing funny. Why is she laughing?”
The laughter suddenly ceased and Ren stilled.
“I’m sorry, Ren,” a smooth, feminine voice whispered in his ear. Ren whipped around and looked to the spot just right of Kai. It was empty but for the steep downhill.
“What?” Ren said, his voice broken and scattered by the wind.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this any longer. Join me. No more fighting,” she said.
“Where will we go?” Ren whispered, his voice sounding infinitely younger in his own ears.
“I don’t know. Perhaps some pit of despair. Perhaps an island of bliss. Perhaps we will simply cease to exist. It will be an adventure for you and I.”
Ren’s heart plummeted to the recesses of his stomach. “I’m afraid,” he responded, though his lips were so numb he wondered if they even moved. Someone was shaking his shoulders.
“What is there to fear?” the woman said.
Her laughter started anew. “Darling, we are already lost.”
“No, no,” Ren murmured frantically, his eyes darting around for her face, though it was nowhere to be found. Her laughter was fading. “No, we’re not. Don’t go. Please, don’t go.”
Then he saw her. She stood amidst the wind and snow, her expression serene. She was never serene. Her thin, yellow gown blew in the wind, sullied by sweat and gods knew what else. Her tight, dark curls were unruffled by the gusts. Her skin was unharmed by the cold, still a rich, dark brown. And her eyes… They were Ren’s eyes, dark and framed in thick lashes
Suddenly, her face crumpled, tears streaming from her eyes. “It hurts. Oh, baby, it hurts.”
Ren leaned forward in the saddle, but something was holding him back. “What? What hurts?” he called.
“This living,” she cried. “I want to leave. Please, we must leave.”
“No, don’t leave!” he shouted, lurching forward, arm raised.
Her arm reached for him, fingers inches from his own. Then she dissolved into snow just as the world went black.
“You knocked him out?” a voice hissed, enraged.
“I didn’t know what else to do—”
“You don’t knock him out, that’s what.” The voice lowered to a mumble. “Idiot.”
“He was trying to pull the horse around. We were slipping. If he continued, he was going to send not only us down the slope but Amani and Shadya behind us.”
“Then you take over the reins. Not knock him unconscious. Do you know the risks you pose by knocking a hypothermic, dehydrated person unconscious?”
“He might never wake up. Or, if he does, he might have officially lost his mind. How did you all survive for days without me?”
Ren tried to move, his limbs stiff. His head throbbed worse than every other muscle, which was saying a lot because every other muscle felt as though they had been ripped from his body and then sewn back on in the wrong location.
He was sweating, he realized. Heat flushed his face and his body was cocooned with thick layers of cloth. Maybe that was why he couldn’t move.
“Shit,” that second voice murmured, layered with guilt and agony. That was Kai.
“Yeah, ‘shit’,” the first voice spat. Rieka. “Really thought this one through.”
“I didn’t know—”
“Stop,” a quiet voice. The prince. “I think he’s awake.”
Silence fell and Ren tried to open his eyes. They were stiff but after a few tries, a dark cave lit with firelight came into view. And directly in front of his face was Rieka, her grey eyes wide and her lips pursed in a scowl.
“Fuck,” Ren murmured, his voice a weak rasp. Rieka raised a brow. “I almost died and you are the first thing I have to see? My life is a joke.”
Rieka shook her head, though her scowl seemed to slip. She rose and turned to look past Ren. “Well, at least we know he is just as annoying.”
Sounds of shuffling and then the others were all in Ren’s line of sight. Even Zain, who stood in the shadows.
“I’m sorry,” Kai muttered, rubbing his neck. “I didn’t know what to do…”
“When I was talking to delusions and risking your lives? Naturally. No hard feelings,” Ren said, embarrassment threatening to bring red to his cheeks. The thought of those hallucinations whispered into his mind once more, and he attempted to shove them back. None of it had been real. But the fact that he had fallen for them… that he had been so blind and lost to show such vulnerability… He was an idiot. The mistake wouldn’t be made again, no matter how close to death he got.
“Although, you didn’t have to hit my head so hard,” Ren said, hissing as he twisted his throbbing head. “You’ve been waiting for an opportunity to knock me out, haven’t you?”
Kai shook his head, but forced a brief grin.
“What have you all done to me?” he asked, shifting. He was wrapped up in several blankets, securing all his limbs tightly to his sides. “I can’t move.”
“We saved your life,” Rieka said. “You’re welcome.”
“Well, I’m alive now, so if you could… unravel me,” Ren said, trying to work his arms free. He was too weak.
Kai stepped forward to throw another stick on the fire while Amani knelt beside Ren to help him up.
“You had us all a little frightened,” Amani murmured, smiling gently.
“Frightened of me dying or talking to nothing?” Ren joked, stretching his sore limbs as the blankets fell away. The cool air touched his sweat-slicked skin and he leaned closer to the fire.
Ren expected her to joke back, but instead, she grabbed one of the fallen blankets and tucked it around his shoulders. “Both.”
“Speak for yourself,” Rieka muttered, setting herself beside the fire. She tossed Ren a skein of water. “Seeing you wake up was likely the most disappointment I’ve felt in my life.”
Ren took a gulp of the water, soothing his burning throat and lungs. “That’s lovely to hear,” he said, peering into the skein to see if there was enough for him to drink more. “Are we at the peak of the mountain?”
Silence settled over them, riddled with nerves. “Yes,” Kai said, holding his hands before the flames.
Ren looked between them. “Hooray…? I mean, we made it. You all are acting as though someone died.”
“We arrived a few days ago,” the prince said, drawing all eyes to him. He looked different from the last time Ren had seen him. His cheeks were burned and blistered from the cold and his face had thinned. Yet, there was also a strength in his gaze that hadn’t previously existed. “We scoped out the area and found the entrance to the cave.”
“I am failing to see why any of this is bad,” Ren said.
“Are you strong enough to walk?” Kai asked.
Ren began shivering the minute he left the warmth of the cave. His legs were weak beneath him, but he managed to walk a short distance, following behind Rieka and Kai.
“Shit,” Ren muttered, as he realized just why everyone was so morose.
The entrance to the cave was hardly an entrance at all. It was a slim crevice in the mountain that even he could hardly fit through. Only darkness could be seen within.
Ren scooped through the snow until he found a rock. He dropped it through the crevice. It took several long seconds before it hit the bottom, the sound echoing up to meet him. The mountain seemed to rumble beneath his feet in response.
“This might be the only entrance,” Rieka said.
Meaning… If they even managed to get in without dying, they would also have to come out the same way. With a heavy sword in hand. And a dragon on their heels.
“I’m going to return to that other cave and finish dying, now,” Ren murmured, drawing a weak chuckle from Rieka.
Back in the cave, they all gathered around the fire, bundling beneath blankets once more.
“This doesn’t change anything, does it?” Ren said, breaking the tense silence.
That continued silence was answer enough.
Ren had been content to explore a labyrinth of a cave when he had thought entering it would just take a few steps. Now, with his near death still clinging to the hairs on his neck and gnawing at his resolve, any prospect of danger was abhorrent. Not to mention, the lingering effects of his dehydration and hypothermia were beginning to creep in, his nose starting to run and his throat feeling dry and harsh.
It would be different, he tried to tell himself. Within the cave, he would be in his element. Hiding and sneaking.
His attempts at abating his growing anxiety fell through. It wouldn’t be like his heists in Reindale. Or even Aryotsk. It would be very different, indeed.
“You do not have to go in alone,” the prince said, his voice strained. “It may pose more danger if you try to gather the layout initially. If you provoke whatever threat lies inside, it may be impossible to get you out or anyone else in.”
No one spoke any agreement to the prince’s words. Ren knew what they were all thinking. If they attempted to storm the cave without any tangible knowledge, they would all likely die. If Ren went alone, the casualties could be minimized.
“If I do this,” Ren said. “I expect a significant portion of each of your prize money.”
Rieka’s brows rose. “As if the initial sum isn’t enough?”
Ren shrugged, forcing a grin. “One can never be too wealthy.”
“Not a chance I’m giving you my money, thief,” she told him.
Ren sighed heavily. “Fine. But I would like to eat first. And take a long nap. One that never ends.”
Rieka grinned wickedly, her hand landing on the hilt of her axe. “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
Ren chuckled warily. “Sometimes, darling Rieka, I’m not entirely sure if you are joking.”