Word count: 825
Total word count: 54,414
The smell of death lingered heavily in the air. It left a slick aftertaste in the back of Nox’s throat. A stagnant combination of damp mold, crawling insects and rotting flesh. The heat of the tower worsened as the sun rose higher in the sky. Nox had lost track of the hours; he wasn’t even certain he had gotten more than an hours rest over the last two days. Maybe it had been three. He had been waiting: watching the dead Transcender’s body for any sign of movement.
Any sign that Jaq had survived his journey to Transcendence.
The BloodGate may have killed the greatest Transcender the Citadel had ever seen, and all Nox could do was watch. And kill any demons that slithered from the other side of the gate. Jaq had been considerate enough to warn Nox that there would be demons, and lots of them. He hadn’t bothered to mention how long he’d be gone. Nox was losing his resolve to stay still, and not flee to the open space of the desert outside. The smell would be better, certainly. He’d risk the sweltering sun over the oppressive heat of the tower walls. He knew, somehow, that he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d stay until Jaq returned. If he returned at all.
Delirium or exhaustion, perhaps a mix of both, kept Jaq’s words echoing in the back of his mind. Nox’s memory fixated and churned, making sure he had remembered correctly. Making sure he understood what Jaq had asked him.
Then you’ll have to protect her. That’s my last order.
The last order of Jaq Lo’ren, the most dangerous and selfish man to walk the earth: to do the most dangerous and unselfish act a man could do. To protect. Jaq’s final thoughts hadn’t been of the BloodGate, or saving the countless lives of the Jan’caran people, or even of himself (which still surprised Nox). Against all odds, the stubborn old drunk had remembered after sixteen years that he had a daughter and suddenly her life was valuable to him. What was worse, he suddenly believed that Nox was capable of protecting her.
A girl Nox barely knew, but had forever changed her life when they met.
Nox often wondered, if he had never met Malisyn or Allyn, if Allyn might still be alive. If Tas’kara had never been drawn to the village of Tor’vic, if she had just kept wandering the Glass Plains, if Allyn would still live. If Malisyn would be less broken. If Nox would be less broken. If Jaq Lo’ren would have wasted away in the Jan’caran desert without making Nox chase ghosts for three years for the hell of it.
His stomach had been full of regret for so long, Nox had forgotten what it felt like to feel anything else. And now, after so many sleepless nights and restless nightmares: a glimmer, the slightest stirring of something he hadn’t felt for many, many years.
He couldn’t bring back Allyn, or any of the lives that the demon Ubel and his puppet Tas’kara had taken. But with time, he could keep them from getting Malisyn, the one they had wanted to begin with. He could keep that promise after they stopped Ubel Gale.
The Shard Sea and hundreds of miles separated Nox from his promise; the Endless Sands and the Burning City kept Ubel Gale safe. Nox would find, and kill, that demon after all. Then he’d return with Jaq to the Citadel, and keep his promise.
The BloodGate shimmered again, and Nox startled awake. The passage of time was so slow-moving, he didn’t know if he had drifted off to sleep or was just imagining the gate had moved. His vision was blurry and his muscles ached in protest as he forced himself to stand. His hand went instinctively to the blood dagger at his hip. He missed the first time.
Bloody demons, in this hot, bloody tower, stuck watching this arrogant, stubborn…The heat made him irritable. Sleep deprivation made him irritable. The thought of dying of dehydration, or starvation, or from demons made him more irritable.
A shadow moved inside the BloodGate. He didn’t imagine it. A long, slender figure stepped from the surface. Nox wondered if, somewhere, Ubel had just murdered another Blood Mage to make room. This time, he did find his dagger. The sound of metal sliding from his sheathe brought him a sliver of comfort. He stepped around Jaq’s body and traced a thin line along the top of his wrist. Just enough for the beginning words for fire, enough to be prepared.
When he looked up―the demon stood right in front of him.
Nox’s blood turned to ice. Before he could even think of his spell—thick, sharp claws slashed across his chest from shoulder to stomach. He felt his shirt tear, and his scarf snag, and his skin rip open like aged fabric. He fell to his knees in shock.