They were on a shuttle on the way to the airport, she – primarily dressed in blue, him – in a simple gray hooded sweatshirt and dark faded jeans. Not being used to them, the fabrics and designs of his attire made him fidget and scratch at various places quite often.
He noticed the look on her face and stopped.
“You seem troubled.”
She said nothing, but her frown deepened.
“I hope it is not the Hach. He is too big a fool to get into another mess by himself.”
“He’s too big a fool not to,” she answered\. “I hope we’ll catch him on time.”
“We should be able to.”
The shuttle came to a slow stop.
Winter said, “We’ve arrived.”
With a nod, he picked up a duffel bag from the seat next to him and followed her out, pulling the hood low over his eyes. He didn’t like people in the Unfrozen seeing his face.
“You know that this is all your fault, right?”
“Save your breath and just hurry!”
“Daniel, I’m going to murder you if we miss this flight! My shoes are killing me!”
A heavy backpack on his shoulders, the crowd a mere blur past him, Chris wondered how in the name of the Globe they had managed to miss the shuttle to the airport and had been forced to wait an hour for the next one.
Somewhere ahead, Daniel and Julia were having another argument about whether or not Julia should just take her shoes off (“But you’ll be more comfortable!”, “Out of the question!”), and Chris appreciated that they didn’t stop even for that.
It was Daniel’s fault, Chris reflected; if he hadn’t decided to leave packing for the last minute, he wouldn’t have stayed up until 4am needing help, they wouldn’t have gone to bed so late, Chris wouldn’t have forgotten to set his alarm that way and—
Alright, so maybe it wasn’t entirely Daniel’s fault, Chris had to admit, but he wasn’t the one who had left all his packing for the last possible minute–
“Here we are!” Daniel raised his arm in victory and took a deep breath as they reached the check-in counters. There didn’t seem to be other passengers left on queue for their flight. “Tickets… Chris, are our boarding passes with you?”
“I… think so, hold on.” Thinking of how horrifying it would be if they’d forgotten to print these, Chris dropped his backpack on the floor and fumbled with the zipper while Julia flopped down on her suitcase to catch her breath, holding her purse to her chest. The clerk at the desk just looked on with very badly hidden annoyance.
Julia urged, “Can’t you get them any faster?”
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a suitcase to check in,” mumbled Daniel. His comment didn’t go unnoticed. Julia’s face turned slightly pink.
“I need everything I have in it!”
“I didn’t say anything about–”
“Here, here!” Chris held up the crumpled boarding passes along with his own ID with a victorious cry, more than relieved that he’d managed to prevent yet another argument.
Less than five minutes later they were on their way to the departure gates, allowing themselves the pace of a leisurely stroll. Julia and Daniel seemed to be on good terms again, and Chris watched with an amused smile as Julia pointed at various stuffed toys in the shops and commented on probable quality of the make up that was offered. Daniel, who was holding her hand, nodded along without much comment. Chris’s eyes wandered to the planes outside the large windows and then he turned his gaze to his closer surroundings.
The three of them passed by the lounge that led to Northland’s Official Gates; Chris allowed his gaze to search through it, though he knew he would see no one familiar. He found himself impressed – the lounge was much bigger than any other he had seen, filled with ergonomic chairs, had a mini-bar on one end and the employee at the boarding gate was reading a book, clearly much more relaxed than their colleague back at the check-in desks. There was not much of a crowd, either: five or six Witches and perhaps one or two others standing or sitting around, waiting for their turn to pass through. The enormous clock behind the boarding gate showed that there were five minutes left until the next opening.
As far as Chris was aware, the Gates between the N.C.C. to the West Arctic were not part of the Aurora that surrounded Northland, but had been manually created by Witches some hundred years ago. They were almost never used to import or export merchandise (the massive amount of magical energy of two Gates – that normally drained all battery power – was likely to spoil most products, and so they were taken by sea all the way to and through the Aurora Gate alone), but they were convenient for leisure travel, although their energy was only enough for a maximum of two living beings passing through one after the other and required a cool down of about fifteen or so minutes.
As Chris was buying himself a bottle of water from one of the stands between shops, he wondered where Winter was, and if she would risk going through these Gates when she took him on another journey.
“Hey, what’s the racket?”
It was Daniel, who was now looking over his shoulder. Him and Julia had stopped by a cosmetics shop and Julia was now slowly replacing a bottle of perfume back on the stand.
“Wow, so noisy…”
There was apparently a loud commotion going on down the corridor from the direction of where the pass to the main hall was: shouting, the sound of footsteps, an occasional yelp of someone being shoved aside. All passengers in vicinity – whether they had been in a hurry or not – turned to look.
“Stay out of the way! Out of the way, I said!”
The figures approaching…
Chris’s mouth gaped open.
He felt Daniel pull him aside and they both stumbled out of the way of two figures running past;in the distance, a few Hunters were following suit.
“Chris, was that just me, or did –Chris?!”
“Are those Hunters?” Chris heard Julia’s exclamation somewhere far behind while someone’s cold fingers were wrapped around his, dragging him away and towards the lounge of the Gates to Northland…
“Chris! Chris, we’ll miss our—Chris!”
Chris paid no attention to anyone around him, feeling as if the world was going blank. He could only register the hand gripping his. After a few seconds of stupor, he became dimly aware that she’d let go of him and that someone was arguing in his vicinity.
“What do you mean, you can’t let us pass? We have documentation!”
Chris thought that someone was pulling his wallet from his other hand and he thought he should stop them, but his palm was still cold from her fingers and his thoughts were barely moving.
“I’m sorry, miss, but you need to wait a few more minutes–”
A boy’s voice insisted, “This is terribly urgent! We have all the sufficient documentation, we must enter right this moment–”
“Winter!” Chris’s heart fluttered and he felt his face flare up when she turned around, all snow and cold scented, her hair falling to frame her face swiftly. Her blue eyes narrowed.
“I am glad we caught you on time.”
Winter’s companion ignored him in favor of another few words exchanged with the employee, who was giving the best resistance the could in the clearly unusual situation interrupting their daily routine.
Chris stammered: “I’m… so-so glad to see you! And uh,” his smile wavered, “Ian’s here too.”
Ian waved his hand at him impatiently, now switching over to a louder tone in Aurorian. The employee seemed to be on the verge of tears, insisting on the rules. Chris felt sorry for them, especially since there was also quite a crowd forming now, primarily of other passengers who seemed to think the newcomers were cutting in line.
It was at this moment that Daniel and Julia finally made their way through to them.
“Oi, Chris, what’s—You! So it was you!”
“You know that there are a bunch of Hunters coming over, yeah?” Julia drawled, “And I don’t have any plans to stand here and wait for them to trample me! And I thought we were done running for today! Can we get out of this crowd?”
“The crowd is convenient,” hissed Winter, and then as if noticing that the couple seemed to be sticking to Chris, she added, “You two go away. Christopher, we need to leave. Now.”
Julia started, “What’s she—“
Winter swore loudly, grabbed Chris’s again and dragged him past the now definitely crying employee, and Chris had little time to marvel at the lax security the Gates apparently had.
Ian kicked the door behind the desk open and the entire group – Daniel and Julia had also trailed them in their effort to either find out what’s going on, or get away from the angry mob – fell into a bright white room with two round holes in the wall opposite from them. One was completely dark and gave an eerie feeling of being on the verge of sucking everything in like a vacuum, while the other was lit by a swirl of pleasant teal light.
“You! Close the door!”
Daniel hesitated, so Ian pushed him out of the way and slammed the door shut right under the nose of a Hunter who’d just reached it. Taking a breath, Ian placed his palm on the gap and the door frame was engulfed by solid ice. The noise on the other side seemed to be duller now.
Finally having a chance to say something properly, Chris looked down at Winter. “What’s going on? When’d you get here?”
“We need to leave. Now.”
“We’ve been tracking you down since the school,” added Ian with a scowl and proceeded to shove some papers into a duffel bag he had hanging from his shoulder.
“Why didn’t you just call me?”
“I had not taken my phone with me; Gates drain them, and they can be traced. Ian, close that thing. We need to go, the Gate’s ready.”
As if responding to her, the light shining from the hole seemed to strengthen. Chris’s hands were starting to shake.
“I know that this is a bad time to say it, but we were kind of on our way to a vacation, and uh–” Winter gave him a long, hard stare. “Okay, it doesn’t matter, yeah, duty awaits! I’m ready! Crown, fight, all that!”
He felt her cold blue eyes shattered any kind of thought he might have had bubbling up. He glanced to Daniel and Julia.
“Oh, and those are—“
“Doesn’t matter.” Winter was getting impatient. “Let’s just hurry. You go first, Ian. We will all follow one by one.”
“I am not going there!” Julia crossed her arms on her chest.
Winter breathed in sharply. “You, do whatever you want, but if you stay behind, you will be questioned by the Hunters.”
Ian rolled his eyes and stepped through the Gate. There was the vague feeling of wind passing through the room, a few snowflakes carried through behind him, and then he was gone.
. Daniel and Julia exchanged a long look. Daniel mouthed ‘Well?’ and Julia’s eyes widened in warning. She shook her head.
“Julia,” Daniel whispered. “If we stay behind, we’ll really get in trouble…”
Winter was growing impatient. “Christopher.”
Chris was hesitating; on one hand, of course, he had no issue following Winter and of course he wasn’t going to decline her, but he wanted to know what his friends were going to do. The idea of leaving them here didn’t seem very appealing.
“It’ll be fine, I think,” he said. “I mean you can just get back here from that side when things calm down, right?”
“When what calms down?” hissed Julia, giving Daniel another hard look. He shrugged, and nodded towards the Gate. She twisted her face and finally said, “Oh, fine!”
Relieved, Chris turned back to Winter. “Is more than two people okay, though?”
He gave the Gate a cautious look.
“Just go!” and with that, Winter pulled him through.
The group came through the other side without a hitch aside from Chris feeling disturbingly lightheaded. The Gate was now behind them in the form of a circle hovering mid-air. A few short moments after Julia – who was last to come through, with Daniel’s help – had stepped out, the teal light in it blinked several times and then faded out to almost nothing with a fizzle.
Chris’s dizziness receded and he took a look around. Like any of the artificial Gates from outside of Northland, this one opened somewhere on the West Arctic in what looked like an abandoned train platform. To the right, a long corridor stretched out into the distance, and a few meters to the left there was a closed door. There was no one in sight.
In order to actually get to Northland, they were going to have to go through one more Gate – an gap through the Northern Lights of Aurora’s Barrier. Those Gates (or Openings) were positioned in a large white building that Chris could faintly spot through the glass ceiling of the small station they were in. The corridor to their right probably led there.
And on the left…
Winter was already pulling out keys to the door that stood there. She opened it quietly and they stepped out.
The snow stretched out in all directions and Chris coughed when cold air blew into his mouth. Winter locked the door behind them and the keys disappeared under her poncho. Considering the situation, Chris guessed that just like last time, they were going to use the illegal Gates. Those, as opposed to the official Gate Openings that had its own fancy mansion to boost prices, were in wooden cabins scattered about the area and were a place where a person had to pay an extra fee for the comfort of not having any Hunters around. To Chris’s knowledge, the method was used primarily by Booktraders and other outlaws.
Without given a chance to even catch their breath, the group was urged by Winter in what Chris assumed was the direction to the illegal Gates as she started shedding some light on the recent events:
“We went to the school to get you, Christopher, and found out you had already left. We were hoping to get through the airport unnoticed before we found you, but I suppose we got careless.”
While Winter spoke, Julia was mumbling angrily and trying to fix her hair. Daniel produced a small mirror and tried to help, but she shooed his hand away impatiently.
Meanwhile, Ian mumbled, “That was unexpected delegation.”
“An,” said Winter and Ian repeated: “An unexpected delegation.”
Chris said, “Why are they even after you?”
“Does that matter?” snapped Ian. “We need to hurry and get to the other side right away.”
Chris sighed. “I take it you’ve found no cute boys to improve your mood, huh?”
Ian grunted and sped up past him.
“Too bad,” mumbled Chris, falling behind in step with Daniel and Julia, mostly to avoid looking at Ian’s face too much. They hadn’t seen each other in about two or three months, and if you asked Chris, it wasn’t long enough. Judging by Ian’s attitude, he seemed to be of about the same opinion.
Ian’s sharp handsome features and striking teal eyes were framed by wild dark hair, two locks of which had been allowed to grow longer so that they were left hanging by the sides and covering half of his pale cheeks. As far as Chris knew this curious hairstyle had an explanation, although he was never sure he quite understood it; and even if he did, he didn’t think he would care: Ian had an air of self-importance about him at all times, strengthened by a frequent sneer, which made everything he say sound like a thinly veiled insult. He was especially arrogant regarding anyone who wasn’t a Witch, and when it came to Chris specifically, Ian often liked to remind him that he, as opposed to Chris, was a pure-blooded Witch of a respectable and noble family in Northland, and that he was the one who had been promised to Winter at an early age. Chris found the latter hilarious, as Ian himself seemed to harbour no real romantic feelings towards Winter (or any girl, as far as observation had proven), in addition to the fact that, if you looked into Northland’s official records, Winter had been recorded as assassinated twenty years ago.
Ian also happened to be one of the very few people in the world who knew Chris wasn’t human.
Chris still remembered, clear as day, their first meeting – back when he and Winter had first arrived at the Gates in the Arctic.
[September | Ian White Burness]
“This can’t be it!” Chris exclaimed, looking at the little door. “I’ve seen pictures of this side’s Gates building; this–”
Winter gave him a sign to be quiet and knocked several times on the dark door.
A grumbling voice that suggested that its owner had never been left alone for as long as they’d like called, “Documents at the Official, payment ‘ere or sod off!”
“We’re for Burness,” Winter replied and the door creaked open. An angry face that seemed to be a meter above the ground popped out and looked up at them, giving Chris a long, unblinking look before saying:
“All right, gettin’.”
For a moment Chris was confused, but when the door opened wider he realized they’d be told to ‘get in’. The gnome stepped aside for them. “He’s been waiting ‘ere all night, y’know.”
“We were delayed.” Winter entered and scanned the room..
As Chris tried to prepare himself better for the upcoming trip through the Opening of the Aurora (his first passing as a kid had not gone so well), he also took a look around.
The place they had entered looked like a waiting room at a doctor’s office, but a lot more… wooden. Lit by large gas lamps hanging from the ceiling, with a desk by the door and a many shelves on every wall. The furniture consisted mostly of chairs – sofas, folding chairs, wooden chairs, elegant chairs, milking stools and something that looked like a park bench that, after further inspection on Chris’ side, appeared to have a person wrapped in a robe sitting on it.
Winter moved between the chairs towards the sleeping figure and the Hach followed her without question.
The person that they had approached had pointy ears, so Chris came to the conclusion that they were Witch, and seemed quite pleasant on first impression.
Winter said, “Ian.”
Nothing happened. Winter tried again, louder. This seemed to give the wanted result. The Witch moved, opening his eyes slowly with a quiet confused noise.
“Miss Winter?” He fumbled around to fix his clothes. “You’ve finally arrived!”
He stood up then and gave her a bow, touching his ear with one hand, as per the usual sign of respect between Witches. After Winter responded in kind, Ian turned to look at Chris.
“And you are?”
“Er – Christopher Hawks.”
The other gave him a somewhat stiff nod and said, “I am Burness.”
Judging by his pleasant appearance, Chris tried to break the ice, “Wait, you’re the North Central’s ambassador’s son, right? Steven White’s? I remember seeing you in the papers a while ago.”
Ian gave him a long look that right away cancelled Chris’s first impression that the Witch was pleasant. So much for a first impression.
“It’s Ian White Burness,” Ian said finally.
Wintered opened her mouth to speak, but an outburst from the general direction of the front door interrupted them and they turned to look at the commotion.
The gnome behind the desk was having an argument with a tall Witch wearing worn out jeans and an even older grey overcoat. The man put down a box he was carrying in order to gesture more freely while explaining something. A quite complex something, as it seemed.
They weren’t speaking English – although it was common in Northland, the native tongue was called Aurorian, and was taught in most mixed schools in the Unfrozen as well. Upon concentrating a little, Chris managed to understand bits and pieces that pertained to some “print” and something to do with a passage. Overall, though, it was impossible for him to tell head from tail.
“Print?” Chris murmured, raising a brow.
“It is the equivalent of ‘book’, but,” (He pronounced the word ‘but’ as if it started with a sound between b and v) “with less respect.” Ian’s stare became just a little nastier than it had been a moment ago. Chris thought this quite unfair: he had studied a little of this language but it was commonly understood that only Witches were actually expected to understand and speak it fluently. And anyway it wasn’t like Ian’s English was perfect, especially when the Witch was worn out; he had the habit of turning to Winter mid-speech, waiting for her to correct him or complete his sentence with the right phrase, or slipping in Aurorian words and grammar whenever he could himself. To his credit, however, Chris had to say that this habit didn’t at all make him look any less threatening or bad mannered.
It was now three months later and Chris was frowning at Ian’s back. Some things just didn’t change.
“Hey, I have a question,” called out Julia, walking a few steps behind the group. “If half the blazing army’s on you two’s tails, how come no one stopped us when we got here?”
Winter replied without breaking her pace: “The Frontier isn’t that heavily guarded outside the official building of the Aurora Opening.”
“There were Hunters here too, but they owed me,” said Ian, a hint of satisfaction in his voice. “I asked them to… what’s the word in English… scram.”
Julia gave him a strange look, mumbled “No one says that ever”, but by then they had reached the illegal Opening’s location and Ian got too distracted to hear her. Winter knocked on the familiar small door, which opened without any questions this time. From what Chris could notice, the inside was the same as he remembered it, albeit without a soul present.
Winter thanked the gatekeeper and Ian asked, “Do only the Hunters know right now?”
“Your father is discreet ‘bout family affairs.” The gnome looked at them from under his thick eyebrows. “Hurry up, I’ve got a big party comin’ up in a few!”
“What is this about?” asked Chris as Winter headed for the door next to the counter.
“Not now.” She then raised her voice, “Rodney, do you have three sweatshirts for us? Charged. And…” she looked around at Chris, Daniel and Julia over. “Yes, and two pairs of boots. We’ll pay the extra.”
The gnome looked up at her, frowning deeply. She waited until he murmured, “Shoe size?”
Winter gave Chris a look. “You and Daniel.”
After giving the requested information, the gnome muttered something like “A’right, wait ‘ere” and shuffled to his desk by the door. A moment later he reappeared with the requested clothes and dumped them in Winter’s hands, who handed them around to Chris, Daniel and Julia.
“Whitelake is not so close to the Openings, so we need to turn up the pace once we get to Northland.”
“Thanks. But, uh, can’t we just take a train?” asked Chris as he put the surprisingly warm sweatshirt on. Meanwhile, Julia had used the one handed to her as a cover on top of a chair she’d propped herself on. She waited while Chris and Daniel replaced their sport shoes with boots.
“There are no trains to Whitelake.” Ian scuffled past them. “We go- we will get— ah…”
At this point he paused and gave Winter a somewhat pleading look. She finished the thought for him:
“We will take a train to Polarshade and reach Whitelake on foot.”
“Chris,” he heard Daniel murmur across from him, and looked up. Daniel was still fiddling with the laces of the boots. “You okay? You look pale.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Daniel gave him a long, studying gaze.
Chris stuffed his now unused shoes in his backpack and tried not to think about the upcoming trip through an Aurora Opening. He had only passed through a few of those, and he wasn’t too keen on repeating the experience.
He concentrated on what he was doing instead and gave Daniel a smile, then said:
“I’m just tired.”
The region closest to the Aurora was the Middle Frontier and right next to it was Whitelake – the most seemingly ‘forgotten’ of all regions. Whitelake’s one town consisted of boats and ships of all sizes and kinds that served as houses for the inhabitants. These previously moving vessels were now lodged in the ice underneath, not having moved for years upon years. That was Whitelake: a frozen lake where the ice ran for over twenty meters in thickness, where holes had been drilled in by Summer Witches at certain spots so that people could sit by and fish or pull up water. Long decks had been built to get from one entrance of ship to another. The decks were wide enough so that even a wagon, or a sleigh, could pass them without a problem. Whitelake was also the pace where most refugees, or people who didn’t want the commotion of the cities and other regions, lived – Furless or ex-criminals, few Witches who weren’t too keen on the Crown, as well as many humans and Hacches who, for one reason or another, didn’t want to be looked for easily. As Ian had said, even the railway line (which by itself did not stretch to many places) didn’t have a stop there. The only way to get there was a train ride to Polarshade, the town on the very edge of the Middle Frontier region.
Passing through the Aurora Opening, the small walk to the train station and the ride to Polarshade all felt like a dream to Chris; it helped that there were few passengers besides them, and even fewer who seemed in a state awake enough to notice their surroundings. Chris had no idea how many hours he spent just staring out at the scenery that was lit by the Northern Lights, fighting to keep his eyes glued on the outside and not, say, at Winter, who was sitting across from him. With a small delay he realized that someone had been rambling on for a while.
“–And our suitcases!” Julia finished, throwing her hair back.
“Your suitcase,” Daniel corrected her tiredly.
“This is our stop,” Winter announced, getting up.
Daniel yawned and fixed his sack more comfortably on his shoulder as the small group dragged themselves towards the exit. Julia’s hand was wrapped around his elbow for balance and they were last to get down.
“Whatever!” Julia pouted. “My point stands! We have to go back, not further in! I signed on for the South, not Eternal Snowla–”
“Enough!” Ian snapped at her, his eyes twitching. “We have not heard anyone else’s voice since the Frontier, so quiet down, human girl! If you are so much–” he paused to think. “–so against this place, you should not have come at all!”
“First of all,” Julia raised a finger, “I’m not human, I’m a Summer Witch, my name is Julia and I don’t believe I know yours, so–”
“A Summer Witch?”
Ian stopped on his steps and looked at her directly, then at Winter.
“We have taken a Summer Witch with us?” His voice grew quieter, “Miss Winter, this is–”
“—this is no reason to stop walking,” Winter cut him off. “I want to get there before midnight, Ian.”
“What does it even matter if I’m a Summer Witch?” Julia’s face turned red and she stopped, forcing Daniel to do so, too.
“Summer Witches are bringers of bad luck!” Ian replied huskily, his words directed at Winter. It seemed that he didn’t want to acknowledge Julia at all now.
“Shut up! Daniel, aren’t you going to defend me?”
“Mm… she hasn’t brought me any bad luck so far,” Daniel said, but it was clear his heart wasn’t really in it. Ian gave him a long, measuring look that said ‘the very fact that you’re with her is your bad luck’.
“If something bad will happen–” Ian huffed and corrected himself, “Happens, I will hold her responsible.”
He had been gesturing enthusiastically and nearly knocked down an abandoned newsstand.
“How dare you!” Julia protested.
“Come on, Ian, that is a bit of a stretch… sorry!” Chris’s last remark was directed at a person he’d just bumped into on their way out of the dimly-lit station. The young man only gave them an indefinite nod and hurried along.
Ian sneered. “You, Hach, do not know a thing about this, so keep your maw shut.”
“Well, I know enough to say you’re being a big d–”
“Quiet!” Winter barked, turning to look at them all. “We are merely wasting time. We cannot afford a sleigh and we’ll have to walk by foot so move it!”
Julia cursed quietly and leaned on Daniel so she could take off her boots; the snow had been too much for them, but fortunately she wasn’t one to care for the cold weather.
Getting wet, however, was another thing altogether.
“Daniel, give me a piggyback, won’t you?”