“Here I am, lost in the desert with two beautiful women—”
“One of which tried to kill you earlier today.” Starr reminded him.
“I’m very forgiving. And now, I’m being interrupted.”
“What is that?” Starr’s voice sounded distracted as she watched the fading lights.
“Let me guess: a dead man?” Nox asked. He arched an eyebrow as Kas’andra approached. She jabbed him in the side with a surprisingly sharp elbow.
“The Desert Demons,” Kas’andra spoke in perfect Citadel.
“Sounds very modest.” Nox replied, tightening his grip on his dagger. Starr unsheathed hers as well, for all the good it would do them. Kas’andra was unarmed; at least, Nox didn’t see any weapons.
“You don’t have to worry about the Demons. They sent me to find you.” Kas’andra said. She studied Nox with her steady silver gaze before she turned to face the opposite direction and pointed in the distance. Night was falling fast and Nox had to squint to see what she was pointing at. A second set of lights were bobbing in the sand like stars.
“They, however, may cause problems.”
“Who are they?” Starr asked.
“A rival tribe. Prisoners, just like us, who were tossed out in to the desert and survived. Jan’caro’s dirty little secret. At least, that’s what an old vegetable merchant told me after I bought him a drink.”
“Is there anyone you didn’t drink with while you were in Jan’caro?”
Nox ignored her question and stared towards the approaching tribe while the Desert Demon’s horses came charging over the hill. A set of six horses, white as ivory with their chests and rumps painted bright red, pushed their way through the sand. They moved swiftly and did, in the darkness, blur like ghosts. Three had riders and each pulled a horse along beside them with a loose rope around their neck. One horse with a diamond shape on it’s forehead led the group.
The rider was a tall, slender man with dark Jan’caran skin. His long hair was wrapped with orange silk, and his eyes were lined with ash. His chest was slathered the same red paint as the horses. He wore loose, dark orange cloth that billowed around his legs in the desert wind. A long, dark line ran from his nipple to belly button and looked recently stitched. The skin was raised and welted. His bare feet were dark against the pale horses’ stomach.
He rode between Nox and Kas’andra and reached down to scoop her up in front of him. Nox began to protest—until she let out a squeal that he knew would make even Starr blush. Kas’andra reached up and gave the man a long, sweaty kiss. The bright paint that pressed against her didn’t seem to slow her down.
“Well, I guess she was right about them not killing us.” Nox called over the horses to Starr.
“Nox,” Starr yelled back. “What do they want?”
“To recruit us. Well, make sure the other tribe doesn’t kill us first.”
Kas’andra pulled away from the man and turned to look at Nox.
“Get on a horse if you want to live—we need to ride fast.” Kas’andra moved from the front of the man’s horse, reached to the neck of the other and pulled herself across. Nox looked down at his sheet, then back up to the horse. Starr began laughing uncontrollably.
“I am not riding a horse while wearing a sheet.” Nox crossed his arms across his bare chest, knowing damn well how ridiculous he looked. Kas’andra’s rider looked down at Nox and smiled.
“Good,” he said in broken Citadel, “because we cannot outrun them.” He reached to his side and unsheathed a long, thick blade made of dark colored metal. He handed the blade to Kas’andra.
“Is this the man you went searching for?” The man asked in Jan’caran. He jerked his chin towards Nox. Kas’andra nodded, then focused on the horizon. A group of horses crested the dune, each with a rider baring torches in the night. They howled and cursed loudly in Jan’caran. Nox couldn’t see all of the riders, but he knew by the shouting that there were more than six, closer to ten.
“We are outnumbered,” the Jan’caran man said, pulling his horse and Kas’andra’s around in one motion.
“We will stay and fight.” Kas’andra said. She turned and looked from Starr to Nox. “We have an advantage.”
“One naked man, and one beautiful lady—” he winked, “are hardly enough to fight off the scouts of the Onyx Sun.”
“He has a point,” Nox said.
“That’s one naked blood mage, and one beautiful blood mage, Rai’on.”
Rai’on turned and studied Nox for the first time. He felt Rai’on’s eyes examine the scars that laced across his chest and arms. In the dark with the moonlight, it made Nox’s skin look livid and rough. He felt naked—and that he, and Starr, may be their only chance at survival.
“Then we fight,” Rai’on said as he drew a sword from his opposite belt. It was a long, curved blade meant for fighting on horseback.
“Nox, together we don’t have enough magic to do anything–”
“We don’t have to do much. Jan’caran’s are suspicious. They just have to think we’re dangerous.”
“So we bluff.” Starr said, shaking her head and watching as the horses galloped towards them. She pressed her dagger blade against her wrist.
“So we bluff.” Nox pointed to one of the two free horses. “Get on the horse. You can still cast from there.”
“If we can’t bluff, then I need you to run. That’s an order.”
Starr cursed loud enough to cause the other two riders to turn and look at her. She held her dagger between her teeth and scrambled with angry grace on to the bare back of the horse. Kas’andra gave a wry smile; Rai’on raised his sword and shouted in Jan’caran. As he did, his white horse reared up, causing the other horses to shuffle backwards to make room. Nox stepped out of the way, trying to keep from getting trampled.
The Onyx Sun descended upon them.
Nox never really had a plan. What he did have was countless years of training at the Blood Mage Citadel, a blood dagger, anger and instinct. And he was very, very angry to be fighting half-naked. Weak magic or no—he knew from his time in the Burning City that most Jan’carans couldn’t cast blood magic. If they were not children of the Sun or Moon houses, or a member of the Jan’caran Military—they were killed for possessing it. The only criminals that Jan’caro actually executed: children. It was a sickening law and one the Blood Citadel had taken drastic steps to try and subvert.
The Jan’caran War itself had been waged over a gifted child. The same war that tore down the Blood Citadel that once stood within the Burning City. The same war that made all blood magic outlawed in Jan’caro.
Nox’s first priority had been to locate and rescue the Transcender known as Jaq Lo’ren. During his past few years in the Burning City, he had heard no rumors of the enigmatic man. Nox had spent his nights working for a local blacksmith who owed the Grand Master a favor. In return for Nox’s hard work—he was paid, and mostly left alone. It allowed him the daylight hours to search for Jaq and to listen for whispers of potentially gifted Jan’caran children.
The Burning City had a type of night sweeping guard—armored men who stalked expecting mothers and were often the first to see the newborn children.
The Jan’caran Royal Guard carried Birthstones with them. That the Jan’caran government possessed such a stone meant that the Blood Citadel was losing them, or someone else was creating them: which was an act of old and powerful magic. Both were scenarios that Nox reported to the Grand Master. It was possible that Ubel Gale was behind the creation of the Birthstones, but Nox couldn’t get close enough to the Jan’caran Palace to find out anything.
The Birthstones were a crude and painful way to test newborn children for the ability to cast blood magic. The Birthstone left scars on the newborns and emitted a very low resonance of magic. They also ran the risk of killing the newborn if done improperly; and since the Jan’caran Royal Guard were no longer trained by the Blood Mage Citadel, that risk was much more likely. Since the Jan’caran War, Blood Mages had been outlawed from the Burning City. The greatest loss from the Jan’caran War was, however, that Jan’caro now trained it’s own Blood Mages and used methods that were considered unstable at best.
The Birthstones simply showed the Jan’caran Royal Guard which children to kill.Unless Nox or another blood mage found the children first. While Blood Mages couldn’t look at a newborn and tell if it was gifted–some could tell from their blood. It was the oldest and purest form of testing for magic, but it had a very small window to work. The night the child was born, when their blood was at its purest, it had to be drawn. Nox was one of the few Transcenders who could see the glimmer of magic in a child’s blood. It made him dangerous to the Burning City and the laws of Jan’caro.
Nox had a system: locate the children, speak with the parents, test and move the children to safety before the Jan’caran Royal Guard arrived. Nox would take the children back to the blacksmith shop and his employer would make sure the children were smuggled out on the next shipment of Jan’caran swords.
There, Lady Starr and her Glass Fleet would board the Jan’caran ship once it was out of sight of the Burning City, take the children, and leave. And thus, the Blood Mage Citadel moved condemned children across the ocean and to their new home. It didn’t happen very often; the Jan’caran Royal Guard was very thorough. Nox was one of a half-dozen blood mages that resided in the Burning City and helped to rescue the newborns when possible. They didn’t always survive the ship ride across the Shard Sea, but he liked to believe they had a better chance for being rescued. He had to believe it.
He had managed to rescue seven children–and one young man–from certain death during his stay, although he could not always save the parents. Often, when their children went missing, the parents were taken as slaves by the Sun or Moon house; whichever family was ruling at the time. They may as well have been executed, for the life they would live as slaves.
Given the choice—most would choose that fate rather than witness the deaths of their children. Except one. Nox closed his eyes at the memory. His most recent “rescue” had nearly gotten him killed. Too close. That had been too close.
“Nox!” Starr’s voice jolted him from his memories. He opened his eyes.
A black horse charged towards him. The rider was dressed in layers of black with just their eyes showing—their skin beneath was painted white. The rider screamed, swinging their curved blade straight for Nox’s head. Nox cursed and threw himself to the side, narrowly escaping the blade. He landed face-first in the sand.
“Get up! You useless, clumsy, son-of-a-” Starr’s voice was swallowed by the cry of the horse as it galloped by. Her temper had just snapped. Good. It would save Nox the trouble of upsetting her; he needed her anger right now.
The black horse turned and the rider narrowed his white-rimmed eyes at Nox. He pointed to the blood mage with his sword and said something crude in Jan’caran. Nox was still trying to translate as an arrow whistled past his head and hit Starr square in the shoulder. She stumbled back and cursed, snapping the arrow off in one, feverish motion. Blood dripped down her arm. The archer rode up behind the first rider and drew another arrow. Two horses faced Nox and Starr, while three more were running up behind them.
Nox used the brief moment to slide his blood dagger from his collarbone to the center of his chest. Sand and dust clung to his skin and found shelter in his wound. He clenched his teeth from the pain; his magic was going to feel like he hadn’t felt since he was a child. He was going to feel pain, and he wanted to end this quickly. For all the blood that dripped across his chest and fell to the sand—he only felt a hint of magic at his fingertips. He felt thirsty, and dizzy and could taste the bitterness of copper in the back of his throat: but it was a high price to pay for the small amount of magic he could just brush with the tips of his fingers. It has to be enough. Let it be enough.
Starr bit her lip and pressed her hand against the wound in her shoulder. This time—she did cry out. She forced blood from the tear in her skin until her arm was soaked. She raised her hand up and pointed towards the rider who had just shot her.
Nox was able to pull a trickling line of fire from his blood. It danced along his chest like a candle flame, slow and steady, until it rolled down his shoulder and arm. The quaint ball of fire sizzled and popped and flung itself at the black horse closest to him. The fire was weak and even the color looked watered down. It moved just enough to still look like fire but had very little heat. The horse reared up and threw the rider off its back in a flurry of smoke and angry cursing. Nox smiled and coughed, waving the smoke away from his nose.
He looked satisfied—until Starr cast her blood magic.
Starr called the very winds from the desert, and the water from the distant ocean—a river flowed from her shoulder in the form of dancing, deep blue water. It roared to life like the crashing of the waves and slammed in to the archer. Horse and man went flying backwards and hit the other horses that were still galloping down the dune. The rest of the horses scattered. In the darkness, Nox heard angry Jan’caran yelling.
“Blood magic!” The single phrase turned the remaining members of the Onyx Sun back the way they had come.
Nox coughed one last time and turned to look at Starr.
“I thought you were—” He gestured with his hand towards the moon. “Out of… magic.”
“I lied. Kas’andra told me she was taking us to meet Jaq. There was no reason for me to escape the guards earlier, so I didn’t.”
“You could have told me sooner. That fire took everything I had.” Nox stumbled as he spoke. “And I mean… everything.” His gray-blue eyes rolled to the back of his head as he fell towards the sand.
“Does he do this often?” Kas’andra’s voice sounded muffled and far away. She nearly laughed as she spoke.
“No. But he doesn’t usually fight—weakened, either.”
“Oh? You didn’t ‘weaken’ him often?”
“He is not mine to weaken—”
“He’s awake,” Ra’ion’s voice interrupted. Something about the man’s voice sounded familiar but Nox couldn’t place it. Ra’ion’s grasp on the language of the Citadel was crude at best and his Jan’caran accent was thick. Nox opened his eyes. He was staring at a darkened ceiling made of cloth. Wind whistled outside and tore at the fabric like claws. His skin felt damp and his mouth was still dry. He turned to the side and saw Starr was sitting in a chair beside him with her boots leaning against his bed.
“Glad to have you back, Captain.” She smiled and winked one dark brown eye. Her shoulder was wrapped in a fresh bandage and she had changed. She wore layers of blue and dull white fabric that rustled in the breeze. It reminded him very much of water, which was probably her intention. Suddenly remembering clothes, Nox looked down and was relieved to see he wore more than a sheet. The cut along his chest was covered in a sticky, pale green poultice and he saw fresh stitches breathing beneath it.
His chest was still bare to let his wound air out, but he wore an opened leather vest with loosened strings. The vest had an intricate pattern of beads and silver stitching.
“It’s mine,” Kas’andra said as Nox raised an eyebrow at it.
“And the pants?” Nox asked, lifting his blanket to peer beneath. Loose-fitting in the fashion of Jan’caran men and the color of storm clouds.
“Borrowed. Don’t get blood on them.” Ra’ion said. Nox turned to look at the man who was standing beside Kas’andra. He thought he was looking at a ghost. The man could have been Porteur’s twin. Nox hadn’t noticed earlier—from the darkness or the oncoming battle, he hadn’t bothered to take note of the man’s face. Nox knew now where he had heard the voice before; Ra’ion was Porteur’s brother. Not a twin, but the resemblance was unmistakable.
“Any news from the Citadel?” Ra’ion asked. Nox couldn’t answer him. His throat closed. “My brother is a Guardian there. Porteur Summersong. I haven’t heard from him in three years—”
Nox’s jaw tightened.
“Captain,” Starr said, looking fro Ra’ion to Nox. “I believe there is someone here you want to see.”
Nox sat up in bed and threw off the blanket that covered his legs. Kas’andra sat down on the bed beside him and stretched out a length of cloth. She touched his shoulder.
“We need to get this wrapped before you do anything else.” She wrapped the cloth a few times over his shoulder and under his arm until the wound was secure. The poultice felt cold against his skin and he didn’t feel the sharp pain from earlier. He laced up a pair of leather sandals that smelled of mud.
“Where are we?” Nox asked as he stood and rolled his shoulder, testing the bandage. Kas’andra stood with him.
“In the lair of the Desert Demons. Safe. For now.” She gestured to the inside of the cramped tent. Ra’ion didn’t persist in his questions, simply pushed open the tent flap and let Kas’andra lead the way out. Nox followed, then Starr, and Ra’ion closed the flap behind them.
Nox stepped out in time to see the sun rise over the ruins of a destroyed city. Tall, broken pillars of white stone jutted through the sand like old bones. It looked to be the remains of a long wall that stretched for miles in either direction and curved in a large circle. Tents and make-shift structures leaned against the ruins and filled every place not blasted away by sand and wind. Horses took shelter in the shade. Men and women—mostly men—carried buckets sloshing with water in the early hours of the morning from tent to tent. Horses neighed, hungry and thirsty, as the they passed.
One pillar stood higher than the rest, black as obsidian against the sand. It came to a dull point at the top and rested in the sand at a sharp angle, as if it had fallen. Nox had seen it before: a similar black, sharp stone crowned the Jan’caran Palace. Nox took a step towards the ruins and something crunched beneath his sandals: glass. Black, brittle crystal shards just like the Glass Plains beyond the Blood Citadel. He brushed his boot against the sand and revealed that, beneath the sand, the ground was blasted to smooth glass.
Kas’andra continued without a word towards the leaning obsidian pillar. Starr walked beside Nox. He leaned in close to her ear and whispered—loudly, to try and be heard over the wind.
“How long was I asleep?” Starr smiled when she finally heard him.
“Long enough for me to get a nap. You slept for two days.”
“Two days!” Nox shouted, then quieted as he continued. “Two days… What were you doing? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“Exchanging stories with Kas,” Starr winked. Nox shook his head. “And I didn’t wake you up because he wouldn’t let me near you.” She nodded her head towards Ra’ion. “Did you notice—”
“I noticed. No one has told him. Who knows how long he’s been out in this endless desert. It’s not as though the Jan’caran’s are going to deliver him a letter.”
“So this,” she motioned to the collection of tents and crumbling walls, “is what happens to the people that the Burning City throws out? They either die in the desert, or get fought over and dragged to live this life of luxury?”
“It appears so. Although…” Nox found himself studying the men and women. All of them were dark-skinned Jan’carans. None of them were blood mages. They all bore dark and ugly tattoos across their backs or bare shoulders. One man had the right side of his face nearly burned off. None had the tell-tell signs of a blood mage: no scars, no stitches. They were just law breakers and vagabonds. Every one of them wore some kind of crude sword or dagger, but none of them looked like a blood mage.
“Where are all the blood mages? I thought the Burning City threw us all out here.” Nox said.
“Most of our blood mages have been killed,” Kas’andra replied, a little too casually for Nox’s liking. She turned and spoke over her shoulder, shouting over the wind. “The demons that hunt in the night, they’ve become harder and harder to kill. They attack relentlessly and in numbers we’ve never seen before. Our last blood mage—aside from myself and Jaq—was killed three nights ago.”
“That’s when you were sent to find me.” Nox said. His voice was hollow.
“Not because I was looking for Jaq, but because he was looking for me.”
Kas’andra nodded. She stopped beside the leaning black pillar and crouched down. She brushed her hand across the sand and uncovered a heavy wooden door. The pillar was hiding a staircase that cut deep beneath the ground. A staircase constructed of magic, cut from the glass itself. Just looking at it gave Nox a stomach ache. The staircase had not been built by man, but by a demon.
“The Ghost King is waiting for you.”
Kas’andra disappeared down the carved stone staircase. Ra’ion held the door open for Nox and Starr to follow. As soon as Nox placed a foot on the first step, he caught his breath. The ground was trembling with magic. He could feel it shifting along the surface of the smooth glass and up his legs. It made him feel weak. He continued forward, trying not to think too hard about how the stairs were created. He ran a finger along the edge of the door frame and picked up a faint dust of black glass. It prickled against his skin and sparkled.
“Nox,” Kas’andra called from the darkness. He looked up from studying the dust and realized he was holding up the line. Starr pushed him forward gently but she could feel the tightness in his shoulder. She reached and gripped his right hand, squeezing it just once. He let her hand drop and took a deep breath.
Different staircase. Different demon. The magic resonating along the ground helped to distract him from his memories. A faint yellow light rested at the landing of the stairs. The stairs cut a few feet underground, enough to drown out the wind above when Ra’ion closed the door behind them. The walls were narrow, wide enough for only one person to walk at a time. Nox nearly brushed the top of his head against the ceiling. His legs felt like jelly by the time he reached the bottom. The air was cool and stale beneath the ground. The air was thick with dust.
The stairs had cut right in to the remains of a white stone building and once Nox was away from the glass, he couldn’t feel the magic any more. Kas’andra waited for them, standing outside an elaborately carved door lined with two oil lamps. The light flickered and made the white stone walls appear pale yellow. The doors were two thick slabs of dark stained wood. Faded paint and carvings trimmed the edges. Nox recognized the intricate writing as Jan’caran and it hurt his eyes to look at it for too long.
“Where are we?” Nox asked. His voice bounced off the walls.
“Someplace safe, and cooler than above ground.” Kas’andra said. She reached in to her blouse and pulled a key from some lacy corner. “I need to ask your lady friend to wait here.”
“Where my Captain goes, I–”
“No,” Nox said. He turned to look at her. “I’ve waited a long time to meet this man. If he wants to do it alone, then I’ll let him.”
“It could be dangerous.” Starr said, glancing to the door.
“Of course it’s dangerous. Which is why I need you out here, in case we have to fight our way out.”
“That didn’t work so well the last time.” Starr reached out and pressed a finger against Nox’s bandage.
“Right. Well—last time we weren’t fighting atop a giant blood relic.”
“Is that what that is..?” Starr looked back at the smooth black walls.
“One giant slab of blood magic. Yes.”
Starr wrinkled her nose. “How is that even possible?”
“I’ll be sure to ask.” Nox winked one gray-blue eye. Kas’andra turned towards the door and used the skeleton key she had been holding. The door clicked and slid open enough to allow entry. She stepped aside, motioning for Nox to enter. Starr hesitated.
“I’ll be right here.” She said. Nox smiled and stepped through the strange wooden doorway.
Nox barely fit through the door but he couldn’t push it open any wider. He sucked in a breath and hoped the others couldn’t see him do it. He imagined he scraped off a layer of skin from his chest as he slid by. His pride ached more than his flesh. Once past the door, he stood in the center of a large room with a vaulted ceiling that had once been beautiful. Black glass spread like spiderwebs dripping from the ceiling and halfway down the walls. Oil lamps burned along the wall leaving dark, sooty trails in their wake. The air smelled heavy with incense and—wine. Isaru wine. He was sure of it.
“You son of a bitch.” Nox’s voice was hoarse. Anger closed his throat. “You’re the vegetable merchant.”
A man sat cradling a bottle of Isaru wine against one knee, lounging in the tattered remains of a—throne. A Jan’caran Sun Throne, made of gilded metal and dusty gems. His chin was grizzled with black stubble. His black hair was slicked back against his skull with white wings at his temples. His light blue eyes stared at Nox over a glass of wine.
“Nearly three years, I drank with you—and you never said a word.”
Jaq Lo’ren smiled and leaned back in his throne.
“I was busy. And, you never asked.” Jaq took a sip of his wine.
“You were busy.” Nox’s voice an empty echo. It took him a moment before he realized they were both speaking Citadel and not Jan’caran.
Jaq balanced his glass of wine on the armrest of the throne and stood up. He brushed dark glass dust from his pants and rolled his shoulders. He was shirtless with a scarf around his neck to help him breathe in the thick desert air. His skin was tanned brown from the sun. Nox was accustomed to seeing him fully clothed, dirty and—at least, what he believed—drunk.
“The Blood Citadel declared you dead. And yet, the Grand Master sent me here to chase your ghost. Why?” Nox asked. He chose his words carefully so they didn’t end up being curses instead.
Jaq opened his arms in the mockery of a shrug.
“I needed time that the Citadel would not give me. I’m sure you can understand.” Jaq paused. “I’m good at what I do. Transcending, fighting demons, drinking—very good. I drank with you because you gave me information. You weren’t actually useful until now.” Jaq arched an eyebrow and looked him over. Somewhere, Nox felt as though he was being judged—and had failed. “If you are what the Grand Master calls a Captain now, then I have no doubt he’s in trouble. It’s hardly my fault if the Blood Citadel believed I was dead.” Jaq stepped off the pedestal that held his throne. His bare feet sent piles of Jan’caran coins scattering loudly. The throne was surrounded with coins of every shape and size, silver and gold. A small fortune. And Jaq had been sitting right on top of it.
“Is this—” Nox motioned to the pile of coins, “why you’ve been gone? Over some lost treasure buried under a blood relic?” Nox turned and pointed to the door. “While you were off gallivanting around the desert and collecting prisoners, the Blood Citadel was busy fighting a Cursed Blood allied with demons. A man who killed innocents, destroyed families, hunted children. And you could have stopped it.”
Nox felt his anger pounding in his chest and he took another step forward. Nox tilted his chin slightly to meet Jaq’s gaze.
“No, Captain, gold is not why I’ve remained hidden from the Blood Citadel.” Jaq’s voice was very quiet but Nox could hear a current of anger, like lightning, just beneath the surface. “I’m aware of Ubel Gale, and I know exactly what he is capable of. Av’niel made sure I heard the entire story so I could understand the loss. I may even know where he is hiding, but contrary to what the Av’niel and the Blood Citadel believe, I have bigger problems than Ubel Gale. We all do.”
Nox paused at the mention of his Grand Master by name.
“What could be worse than a mad man running with demons?”
“A mad man with an army of demons, ready to burst out in to the desert—unless I stop them.”
“And how, exactly, are you going to stop him? You’re one man. One man against an army of demons.” Nox couldn’t hide his disbelief. He nearly threw his arms up in frustration. Three years I waited to find his man and he’s as arrogant and pompous as any of the stories Av’niel ever told me. Nox turned to leave, shaking his head. “Av’niel was wrong. You can’t help us. You’re drunk.”
“I am not drunk.” Jaq took a step forward and nearly fell. “I may be a little. It helps me sleep.” He followed after Nox. “I can’t prove anything to you during the day. Sleep, and see the Burning City during the night as she’s meant to be seen. Then, Captain,” Jaq put his hand on the door to block Nox’s path, “I promise you’ll believe I’m not just a drunk, crazy old man.”
Nox looked at Jaq’s arm blocking his way, then to the bottle of Isaru wine he was holding. He reached over and took the bottle.
“I have trouble sleeping during the day. I’m taking this.” Nox took a drink from the bottle.
“Time to wake up,” Kas’andra whispered against his ear. Nox startled awake and sat up straight in bed. His head was pounding. His mouth felt dry.
“Did you poison me?” He croaked as he opened his eyes. Kas’andra laughed and lit an oil lamp. Warm, gentle light filled the inside of his tent.
“No, you poisoned yourself. That was Jaq’s own desert brew in that bottle. A bit stiffer than Isaru wine.”
“It tasted the same—” It hurt even to talk, so he stopped trying. “Is it night yet?” As if to answer his question, a cold breeze rustled the outside the tent. Kas’andra had changed clothes again: now she wore layers of dark blue silk that fell around her legs and left her neck and arms bare. He didn’t think it was possible for her to wear anything that didn’t look like it was meant for her.
“Yes. Jaq is waiting for you.”
Kas’andra was kind enough to let him dress in private; although he knew she and Ra’ion were waiting just outside the tent flap. After he stumbled around his quarters for a few moments, he heard Starr yelling for him outside.
“I have your dagger,” Starr said as her shadow appeared against the tent door. “May I come in?”
Nox opened the door in answer, deciding against talking. She held out his dagger and he took it, strapping it to his belt. The metal felt cold against his skin.
“You fell asleep pretty quickly. Ra’ion had to help me get you in to your bed. Kas’andra tried to climb in with you—I made sure she left.” Starr winked. “They wouldn’t let me stay, but I didn’t want to risk someone taking it while you were sleeping.”
“Thank you,” Nox said and cleared his throat. He unsheathed the dagger and gripped it just enough to prick the inside of his hand. He felt the smooth release of magic, like tension, from beneath his skin. That simple gesture helped to clear his head and take away some of the pain of that damned desert liquor. His blood magic had returned early, it seemed.
“That crazy old man is out there waiting for you.”
“That crazy old man can hear you.” Jaq’s voice sounded outside the tent. Nox shook his head.
“We’d best not keep him waiting.” Nox pushed aside the tent flap and stepped in to the brisk Jan’caran night. Cold wind rushed through the camp, kicking up dust in its path. Jaq and Kas’andra stood waiting for him, each now wrapped in heavy cloaks that covered their faces from the sand. Ra’ion’s head was wrapped in his orange silk and he handed two matching scarves to Starr and Nox. Jaq pointed to a series of restless horses. The same white-and-red horses from earlier.
They made their way across the camp. Torches and oil lamps blazed against the strong wind. The population seemed to have doubled since the last time Nox had walked through. If the collection of prisoners behaved like their Jan’caran captors, they’d be sleeping during the hottest part of the day: and awake at night. It was one part of the lifestyle that Nox had never become accustomed to. Drinking Isaru wine to help him sleep, coincidentally, had been the advice of the vegetable merchant: of Jaq himself. Nox shook his head at the memory.
They approached the horses. Ra’ion and Kas’andra held the reins and allowed Jaq and Starr to choose a horse. Jaq took the remaining beast and led the way. Kas’andra handed them torches and they galloped through the camp after the strange older man. The wind tore behind them and the horses’ hooves sent sand and dust scattering in to the wind. They left a dust cloud in their wake as the three blood mages began a race across the desert.
Jaq must have known the way by heart; he ran his horse blindly ahead without a torch. Nox and Starr followed behind, pushing to keep up.
“How do we know we won’t be attacked by another tribe?” Nox yelled over the sound of the wind. Jaq slowed his horse as they began to crest a sand dune. He waited for them to catch up.
“Kas’andra is close by and keeping a watch. We’re hardly alone.” Jaq urged his horse up the hill. “Besides, you have me. Let them attack. They’d lose.”
Starr turned to look at Nox. Although the scarf covered most of her face, he could still see the look of disbelief in her eyes.
“I’d be more worried about the demons than the tribes.” Jaq said as he kicked his horse in to a gallop.
They rode for a few hours in silence, switching from a fast run to a casual trot to keep the horses from exhausting themselves. Jaq was relentless and Nox wondered how many horses he had killed in the desert. Kas’andra had given herself away with one of her throaty laughs that Nox was certain he was meant to hear. As for the other men, Nox never saw them. He saw no signs of demon or men during their entire run.
“How much longer?” Starr asked as she wiped the damp neck of her white mare.
“I think we’re there.” Nox said. Jaq began to slow his horse to a walk.
Jutting up from the cool desert sand were the long remains of a white stone wall. The wall was too tall for the horses to jump, and Jaq rode along it with confidence. Nox reached out and ran his fingers along the stone—it was still soaked with sunlight and felt warm against the chill of the wind. After another long period of silence, Jaq came to a break in the wall. He dismounted and tied his horse to a post that had been hammered into the wall itself.
“Put your torches there,” Jaq motioned to an archway that blocked most of the wind and had two torch holders on either side of the arch. The white stone was cracked and broken and nearly buried in the sand. Nox and Starr tied their horses next to Jaq and placed their torches as instructed. The wall became taller here, enough to blot out the desert sky beyond. Jaq continued through the archway to the base of a fallen set of stairs just barely illuminated by the torch light. The stairs were the same onyx black as the pillar back in their camp. As Nox stepped beneath the archway, the ground began to tremble again.
“Where are we?” Nox asked. While he waited for Jaq to answer, half expecting him to remain silent, his hand drifted to his blood dagger. There was magic again, just beneath the ground, thick like honey. He squeezed the handle and his blood felt like fire in his skin.
“The remains of the first Burning City.” Jaq announced as he walked up the stairs that were slanted at a dangerous angle. They rose out of the sand, the largest stone staircase Nox had ever seen, black as midnight and angled just flat enough to walk on. They looked as if they had been tossed in to the sand and forgotten by some mad architect.
“The first Burning City?” Nox asked as he struggled to keep his footing. Starr had no trouble. Her legs were sea-legs and the angle of the stairs made no difference to her. Nox gripped the side of the stairs and cursed. Jaq reached the top and waited.
“Draw your blood,” Jaq said. “And you’ll see what others can not.”
“What spell?” Starr asked.
“There is no spell, no shape, for this—just draw it, and the magic will know what you need.”
“Nox, that’s free magic. We can’t do that.” Starr protested. While it was true that Nox often drew blood without a purpose, more of a feeling of what he needed, the Blood Citadel taught structure. No blood shed without a purpose. No cut done without a spell in mind. Even his impromptu bloodshed on the battlefield was calculated, a shape pre-determined by what spell he was going to pull from his blood. It took years—it took Nox nearly a half a century to learn all of his—and free magic shook all of his training to the core. Free magic wasn’t taught at the Citadel, and most argued that it could not be taught, only felt. It was unstable.
“Captain, I didn’t bring you out here to discuss rules. You’re not going to destroy an entire institute of magic by drawing blood without asking first—” Jaq removed his hooded cloak and reached to his hip where a crude, pounded metal dagger rested. He drew the dagger and closed his eyes. Jaq’s arm was ghostly white, nearly every inch of his skin was covered in raised, old scars. It took Jaq a moment to find a place he could draw blood without having to force the blade through scars.
The old man pulled the rough metal across his flesh in a rough, circular pattern along his forearm. It had no pattern, nothing that resembled the spells taught at the Citadel. His blood ran bright and red down his arm and disappeared in to a haze of deep blue smoke. Nox unsheathed his own dagger and held it against his arm.
“The Grand Master trusts him, so I trust him. Free magic or not: he’s here to help.”
“I don’t like it.” Starr said as she shook her head.
“Then you can wait with the horses. I don’t have time for this.” Jaq waved her away and sheathed his dagger with his blood still on it. Starr turned on her heel and marched back down the stairs. The wind graciously muffled her colorful opinion of Jaq. Nox was left in the middle, with the magic clawing at his legs and making him feel heavy—and the cold blade against his arm. I have to trust him. Nox reminded himself and drew a line across his arm as he walked. The magic he felt earlier exploded around him. His arm felt like it was on fire. He leaned against the stone staircase as he continued to walk. The air was almost too thick to keep walking. He reached the top of the stairs and saw the remains of the Burning City below them.
“Anyone without the gift—would see miles and miles of sand, perhaps the occasional white wall.” Jaq pointed. “This was once the Burning City, the center of ancient Jan’caro.”
Stretched across the desert—in vision intoxicated by magic—Nox saw the ghostly remains of the city. Even with his magic, Nox felt like he was peering deep underwater. A once glorious city of white stone and towering buildings: reduced to charred and crumbling remains. A thick layer of jagged, black glass covered everything like soot. They were buried beneath the relentless Jan’caran sand.
In the darkness, no eyesight unaided by magic could see it. Pale blue light wrapped the white skeletal remains of the Burning City and made the horizon glow.
The ruins stretched on for miles in every direction: buried and lost to time.
Far across the desert, Nox saw the faint glow of the Burning City itself, alive during the cool night.
“How is this even possible?” Nox breathed. The devastation, the loss of lives in a city this large would have been—beyond counting.
“It’s not a story you’ll find in any book or memory. It’s a terrible secret, hidden by—and from—the Jan’caran people. The first Burning City was destroyed by magic. And demons. All that remains are the shadows.”
Nox was silent as he stared across the desert.
“What do the remains of a lost city have to do with Ubel Gale?”
“They have everything to do with him—because he’s trying to do it again.”