Chapter 40

"We should find somewhere to take shelter!"

"If you see anywhere where we're not going to freeze, I'd love to know, Yoon…"

Shin-Ah looked back at the group as Hak and Yoon yelled at each other, the icy rain pouring down on the group. The mountains between Kouka and the neighboring northern empire were not as snowy as the ones where Lien lived, but it was still winter and a storm was blowing through. It would probably start snowing some time soon, but before then they would be soaked through by the rain and sleet.

"I think we should all get masks like you, Seiryuu," Zeno said, grinning even though water and flecks of ice were dripping off his hood. He was trudging along beside Shin-Ah in the slush and mud, keeping up with the taller dragon.

Shin-Ah half-smiled behind the mask, his worry giving away to a flash of wry amusement. He was glad that none of his friends needed to wear one, but he could see the benefits of it at this moment. Behind him, everyone was mostly keeping their eyes on the ground, their shoulders bent into the cruel wind. Lien, Yoon, and Yona were walking right behind Hak, Jae-Ha, and Kija, who seemed to have joined forces to create a wind break with their taller, broader selves.

"I feel like we've been here before," Jae-Ha said, his teeth chattering around the words. "Lien, are there any other traveling performance caravans with pretty girls that will miraculously save us around here?"

"Not that I know of," she said, "Sorry."

"Our luck has run out, then," Jae-Ha sighed, "Time to freeze, everyone."

Kija frowned at him. "I'd rather not…"

"No one's going to freeze," Yoon said, hugging his arms around himself as if to hold in the warmth. "We just need to find someone to bunker down for a while, at least until this blows over."

"If we find a cave, there will be a bear in it," Hak grumbled. When the others gave him incredulous looks, he shrugged. "What? That's our luck."

Yona frowned, one hand holding her hood over her face, shield her eyes from the rain. "Could we set up the tents? Or just one tent?"

"I think it'll get too wet," Yoon said, "A cave isn't a bad idea, actually."

"This really is a repeat of back when Lien joined," Jae-Ha said, "Déjà vu, anyone?"

Shin-Ah looked at Lien, who was huddling together with Yoon. She glanced up at him and offered a smile, though he could see ice beginning to gather on the edge of her cloak. Yoon and Hak were right, they had to find shelter and soon. Turning around, he took a few steps forward, searching the nearby area for anywhere that looked promising. While this wasn't a blizzard like the last time, it was freezing and they needed to stay warm even though it was still a few hours until nighttime.

A very faint glow caught his attention. He zeroed in on the northeast until he caught sight of a warm yellow light. It looked like…

"A building."

"What?" Hak said, having been the only one to hear Shin-Ah.

"There's a building." Shin-Ah pointed in the direction of where he had seen a structure of some kind. "It looks…sturdy? Someone is there. There's a light."

"Guess we should go introduce ourselves," Jae-Ha said, crossing his arms over his chest. He locked eyes with Hak and then glanced back at Yona, Yoon, and Lien meaningfully before looking back at Hak.

"Maybe we shouldn't all go to start with," Hak said, frowning, "They might not be friendly."

"I'll do it," Yona volunteered.

Hak rolled his eyes. "I just said that they might not be friendly."

"But someone has to go, so I don't see why it shouldn't be me," Yona said stubbornly, frowning right back at Hak. "Most people wouldn't be able to recognize me, and honestly, I'm not as intimidating. Someone might close the door in your face, but maybe not in mine, and I can still defend myself."

"But someone might recognize you," Kija said, anxiety leeching into his voice, "We shouldn't risk it."

Yona crossed her arms over her chest and ducked her head farther into her hood. "Fine…"

"I guess I could go, if we're going for unintimidating," Yoon said, "I could at least suss out the situation after meeting them."

"Right, but you're not a good fighter," Hak said, getting a glare out of Yoon.

"I can when I need to, sort of," Yoon snapped. "We don't all have to be weapon wielding lunatics, you know."

"Zeno could do it," Zeno said cheerfully, "We just need a few rooms, right? Zeno could ask."

"I'm not sure…" Hak started but Zeno had already started walking off in the direction that Shin-Ah had pointed out. Reaching out, Hak snagged the back of Zeno's cloak and dragged him back. "No offense, but you're sort of weird and I think they might shut the door in your face too."

"I could go," Lien offered. When Hak gave her an incredulous look, she lifted her chin stubbornly. "I can be very convincing, and you keep turning down offers. Plus, no one would recognize me."

"So if they attack you, you're going to throw fire at them?"

"Maybe? If I need to…"

"I'll go too," Shin-Ah said quickly.

Kija shook his head as everyone gathered in a circle, huddling up against the storm. "If we're trying to not alarm anyone, I don't think they'll like your mask. Sorry, Shin-Ah."

"You'd scare the devil out of someone," Yoon said.

Shin-Ah's shoulders drooped, but he swiftly straightened them again, looking at Lien. She couldn't go alone. It wasn't that he didn't trust her to be able to handle herself, it was that he didn't trust the people in the building. They could be soldiers or warriors or thieves. He didn't want to risk her.

"You can't go on your own," Hak said, voicing Shin-Ah's opinion. "It's not safe."

"I'll go, too," Jae-Ha said, smirking, "It'll be fun, and this will hardy come as a surprise, but I'm more charming than the rest of you."

Hak's face was set in a deadpan expression. "Wow."

"Not to mention, if something does go wrong, I can get us away quickly." Jae-Ha slung an arm over Lien's shoulder. "Are we jumping there or walking?" He obviously felt like the decision had already been made. "We should jump, I think it's a fair distance and it'd be a pain to walk."

"Do you think they'd notice us landing?" Lien asked, biting her lower lip uncertainly.

"If they did, they might think we're gods or something," Jae-Ha teased, "It could work in our favor."

Lien scrunched her nose up at the idea. Shin-Ah stepped closer, looking down at her. "You don't have to go, if you don't want to…Jae-Ha can go alone."

"Well, thanks, Shin-Ah," Jae-Ha said, smirking, "I'm going to take that as a vote of confidence and not some kind of weird insult."

"I'll be fine," Lien said with a quick smile, "Besides, I'm pretty good at talking to people."

"And that makes two of us," Jae-Ha said. He extended a hand to Lien. "Milady?"

"Wait, are we walking or jumping?" Lien asked even as she put her hand in his. "It'll be so wet—"

Jae-Ha's answer was a grin as he pulled her over and swept her up into his arms, taking a couple steps back from the others. He crouched down as she began to form a protest, and they were gone, almost disappearing into the icy cloud-heavy sky.