“How do you know that Ubel is planning on destroying the Burning City? What proof could you possibly have, being stuck out in this blasted desert?”
Jaq and Nox sat across from each other at a make-shift table of crates and a wooden plank. Jaq slammed his fist down and nearly knocked the table over.
“I have an informant in the city. His last message was about Ubel and the Burning City but it was incomplete. I believe he is in danger.”
“Can’t you send someone to get him? Like you did Kas’andra? That seemed to work just fine for catching me.” Nox asked as he steadied the table and caught his glass of Isaru wine before it fell over. He regretted that his first question had not been about the informant’s life. I’ve spent too much time in this damned desert.
“There is no one left to send. That’s part of the reason I had Kas bring you in. All of my blood mages, every last one of them—dead to the last man. We can’t fight our way in—or out—of Jan’caro without blood magic. If my informant is in trouble, we need to get him out.”
Nox leaned back in his rickety stool and let Jaq’s words sink in. He did notice that the camp looked rather short on blood mages. Short on people in general. Kas’andra approached the table and refilled both their glasses with wine. Jaq reached for her and she slipped out of his grasp with a giggle. Nox rolled his eyes and drank the rest of his wine with a cough.
“I mentioned the demons,” Kas’andra said as she pulled up a stool and sat next to Nox. “They’re getting more powerful. Harder to kill and in larger numbers. Jaq believes we’re getting close to something in the ruins that the demons don’t want us to find. Something that Ubel is after as well.”
“We’ve lost too many people already. Good men and women, to those demons. Whatever is out there—it’s dangerous. And if Ubel wants it—then we want it first.” Jaq said. He stared in to the bottom of his glass for a moment, wiped away a bit of sand and finished his wine. “The last message I received was message and a set of coordinates. A map, but it was incomplete.”
“And you believe that Ubel wants this map?”
“Ubel is an opportunist. I believe he wants whatever the map leads to. Treasure, magic, it doesn’t matter. He uses people, just like he did that woman in Tor’vic, that Cursed Blood woman. He’s found someone in the Burning City with a weakness for magic and he’s using them to get what he wants. He’s like a spider, pulling at an infinite web, right in the very center of it.”
“I hate spiders.” Nox shivered.
“If I had anyone else to send, I wouldn’t ask for your help.”
Nox looked at Jaq across the table. The man looked tired. He was out of options, and Nox believed it hurt his pride more than anything else to ask for help. The Grand Master had me running in circles searching for this man. And now, I have him, and I’m still running in circles. Why can’t I ever just get a straight answer? His grip tightened on his glass.
“My informant—his name is Tarik. He’s not just any informant. He’s Av’niel’s nephew. The last of the Grand Master’s family alive here in the Burning City.”
“He’s not just an informant then. The Citadel wants him alive.”
“Av’niel wants him alive. Damn the Citadel.”
“Listen,” Nox began, trying to push aside a slow anger that was boiling up within his chest, “I’ve spent a long time looking for you. The Grand Master believes you can help, so I believe you can. You’ve got your own problems, I understand that. Ubel and his demons have hurt and killed a lot of people, and we have to stop him. If finding this map will lead us to him, then I’ll help you. And then, you’ll help me stop him.”
“Ubel has hurt and killed more people than we can imagine. Something tells me, though, he’ s just a pawn for something bigger and darker beneath the surface.”
“Pawn or not—he needs to be stopped. I’ll help you find Tarik, and then we’re going after Ubel.”
“We leave in the morning. Make certain you sleep alone tonight.”
The Jan’caran desert covered the entire land of Jan’caro, from the Burning City at the edge of the ocean to the uninhabitable lands of the scorched south. Jan’caro stretched from ocean to ocean and was overrun by hot, relentless sand. The Citadel was three months away by ship—on a good ship—closer to five on most. The Glass Rose had delivered Nox in just over three months with Starr as her captain. Three years seemed like a lifetime ago.
Staring out across the windy dunes, Nox was as far away from the only place he had called “home” as he had ever been. It wasn’t until he was staring at a set of fresh demon tracks being blown away by the wind that he really started to feel it. He could disappear in this desert and no one would know the difference. Disappear, be dragged away by demons—or die of too much Isaru wine, and would would mourn him? He watched as the last of the tracks disappeared.
The last three years had accustomed Nox to the harsh sun and wind. His once arguably pale skin had tanned golden brown beneath the sun. He had learned the hard way to always wear a protective scarf over his head and mouth. He had managed a rather painful sunburn on his head and shoulders the first week he had resided in The Jeweled Heart. He was afraid he would stay burnt red forever, but thankfully La’th—after he stopped laughing—helped him heal up. Now, Nox owned an impressive collection of colored scarves.
I used to own an impressive collection. La’th has probably sold my belongings for a steep profit. Nox corrected himself. Everything except his blood dagger and one, bitter sheet had been lost when Kas’andra found him. His eyes drifted to the back of Jaq’s horse. Nox rode in the middle. Jaq took the lead, with Starr and Nox trailing behind, and Kas’andra zig-zagging and watching for unwanted followers. They’d been riding for nearly a day and Nox was sore. Riding a horse in the desert was very different than riding on the craggy, sharp ground of Tor’vic or the Glass Plains. Even the hills and mountains of Tala’rico were more forgiving than the constant up and down of the desert. He felt like he was riding his horse upstream on the ocean full of waves. More than once he thought he’d lose his breakfast all over his saddle.
It didn’t help that all he had to drink was wine. That’s all Jaq had—no water, just barrels and barrels of wine.
“Drink it or don’t, but don’t slow us down.” That was Jaq’s response to Nox’s protests of drinking wine with every meal. Breakfast had been a dusty bowl of rice, dried meat (he learned to stop asking about what kind of meat) and sun-warmed wine. When he had scrambled on to his horse that evening he fell right over the other side of his saddle. Jaq and Kas’andra, who had drank twice as much as Nox or Starr—laughed and began a galloping lead. It had taken Nox an hour to get comfortable in his saddle without his head spinning.
Nox had lost track of how long they had been riding over the dunes. He knew it couldn’t have been more than a day, but every hill and slope felt just like the last. His eyes stung and his face felt like it had an inch of dirt and grime from his forehead to his neck. The scarf Ra’ion had loaned him was soaked with sweat. His clothes felt dusty and thick. They stopped briefly just as Nox’s stomach began to growl. Jaq didn’t allow a fire; they didn’t want to draw the attention of the Onyx Sun tribe members or demons. No one argued, or perhaps, they were too tired to care.
“So the Onyx Sun—they’re just prisoners and vagabonds like the rest of Jaq’s crew?” Nox asked as Starr and Kas’andra sat down next to him. Jaq mumbled a curse and wandered off to water the horses. “And why do the horses get water, and not us?”
Ka’sandra laughed. “Because your horse does not like wine.”
“Maybe she does. Tell her I’ll trade her.” Starr leaned her head against his shoulder and held out a half-empty bottle of wine. The wind picked up and she smelled of sour wine and dust. Kas’andra arched an eyebrow and snatched the bottle before Nox could reach for it.
“Yes, to answer your question—the Onyx Sun are just like us: prisoners and vagabonds. All fighting for food, water, horses, women—all over this desert.”
“Do they have any blood mages? How many are there?” Nox asked.
“They have a few dozen, but they are disorganized. They don’t have our leadership.” She paused to stare through the night towards the horses and Jaq. “No, from what we’ve seen—they kill the gifted if we don’t find them first. Which is why we find them first. It is their belief, their way. Even after they’ve been thrown out to die, they still cling to that.”
“If we come across any gifted in the city, we’ll bring them back with us. After we find Tarik. Whatever Ubel is up to, we’re going to need magic.” Jaq said as he appeared from the night like a ghost. He really was quiet. “Get up, it’s time to go.”
Over the dunes, the Burning City shone like a fire. A bright, ever-present glow colored the night clouds in shifting orange and red hues. Nox had never seen it while he was in the city itself: but at night, when the city was alive, the name suddenly made sense. Even knowing the city was dangerous for blood mages—the beauty managed to overcome the fear that settled in his stomach. He was drawn to the glowing horizon like a moth to the flame.
The rode in silence, cresting dune after dune as the light from the Burning City became brighter with each step. The white walls rose from the sands like teeth from a giant beast. While there would be more people wandering the streets and going about their daily lives in the cool evening air—it was much easier to sneak in during the night, than try to seek cover from the sun and the Royal Guards.
“I’m going to regret asking this—but how are we getting back in to the city?” Nox croaked and reached for his bottle of wine.
“The same way I’ve been doing it for years. Paying the guards more than their Moon Queen does.”
Nox nodded and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He felt a twinge of disappointment that the great Jaq Lo’ren didn’t have a more elaborate plan. Although, when he paused to consider Jaq’s other plans—such as dressing up like a vegetable merchant just to gleam information from random people, or hiding in the blasted Jan’caran desert in a life of “luxury” for so many years… Somehow, he wasn’t surprised.
Jaq Lo’ren was a name echoed in the halls as a Citadel. If you asked anyone—including Jaq himself—who the most powerful Transcender ever was, they would say Jaq. He was a man that overshadowed all stories, all legends, all whispers of greatness within the Citadel. And yet, after his disappearance and assumed death, the whispers had stopped. Nox himself had never met the man, just chased the glory of his shadow.
The stories said Jaq could cast magic without drawing blood and fight a hundred demons without getting tired. That he had single-handedly defended the Citadel against an army of demons (some stories included Matron Hawk and Master Es’karo in that tale), married a Jan’caran Princess and named the Shard Sea. Also, that he invented Isaru wine.
Now, Nox knew most of those stories were probably told by Jaq himself. Nox hadn’t seen the man fight; he had seen him drink enough wine to fell a horse, expel said wine all over the back of his horse, and then immediately turn and flirt with Kas’andra. Nox didn’t see a “hero” or a “great man” when he looked at Jaq. He wasn’t sure what he saw, but the Grand Master trusted him and that trust alone kept Nox from giving up. That, and every so often—Nox would catch a sparkling blue eye and would be reminded that Jaq was, if nothing else, a father. And a man who deserved a chance.
They approached the towering walls, pausing only to wind their horses across the dunes to avoid detection. Jaq stopped frequently whenever he spotted a sentry atop the wall. Nox couldn’t see a damn thing. He nearly fell asleep in his saddle until he heard the sound of running water.
“This is our stop.” Kas’andra said as she dismounted in one graceful movement. Nox climbed off his horse as carefully as he could. He didn’t want to make his pounding headache any worse. Starr cursed as she caught her foot in her stirrup and tumbled to the ground. Nox held out his hand and helped her up.
Kas’andra stayed behind with the horses and Jaq continued walking. The sound of running water became louder.
“Isn’t she coming with us?” Starr asked as she watched Kas’andra gather up the reins of the horses.
“She’ll catch up. We can’t leave the horses here or the guards will find them. It’s about the only thing they are good at—finding and killing my horses.” Jaq waved a hand towards the wall. They walked down a steep bank and Nox finally realized where the water was coming from. A river ran along the wall and glistened in the night. The river had been hidden by the rolling sand and the sound of the wind until he was nearly on top of it. He noticed there were rivulets of water trickling down the side of the city wall itself.
“Tell me we’re not going in there.” Nox stopped in his tracks. Dark, murky water slashed against Jaq’s sandalled feet. The old man didn’t answer as he leaned down in to the water and picked up a handful of mud. The slimy sand and mud slipped through his fingers. With a grin he couldn’t contain anymore, he reached over and slapped a muddied hand across Nox’s chest. The impact made Nox stumble back a step.
“That stinks.” Nox said as he picked at the fabric of his shirt and tried to shake out the sand. “Wait, that smells like—oh, no. No, no, no.” Nox stripped off his shirt and tossed it to the ground like it was on fire. Just to be certain, he kicked it a few feet away.
“It’s exactly what you think it is, and yes, we’re swimming across it. There is no other way. That is why you’ve always found me as a dirty vegetable merchant, because I was. Now, get in or I’ll drag you in myself.”
“Couldn’t we ride the horses across—”
“You can’t lay there all day.”
“Yes I can.”
“I smell terrible. I’m not going anywhere until I wash this–”
Nox was interrupted by a kick to his side. Jaq’s wet, bare foot would leave a bruise. Nox cursed and pulled himself up from the damp ground. He sniffed the air, rubbed his side and said nothing. He was only glad that Starr and Kas’andra were not there to witness the wet, smelly mess that had washed up beneath of The Burning City.
The last light he had seen was the moonlight reflecting off the water he was swimming across. Once he had followed Jaq inside the wall of the Burning City, it had become a dark, watery maze. A maze they had just climbed a slippery rope ladder out of, climbed through another tunnel and passed beneath a heavy metal grate. Pale moonlight streamed in from the overhead grates. It did very little to light the way. He wasn’t sure it was possible, but the tunnel seemed warmer than the desert above. Hot and humid. His skin felt damp.
“Where are we? Better question: where do I find a change of clothes?” Nox winced as his voice echoed in the tunnel.
Jaq motioned for Nox to help him. Together they lifted the heavy metal grate back over the tunnel they had swam in through. The metal was slimy and heavy, and both men grunted with the effort of lowering it quietly. Satisfied the grate was secure, Jaq began his barefoot walk along the inside of the tunnel.
“I can’t see anything,” Nox whispered as he followed behind Jaq, painfully aware of every echoed splashing footstep.
“Neither can they. Now be quiet and follow me.”
Nox bit his tongue, which made him gag from the smell of the tunnel. The sound made Jaq stop in his tracks.
“Did you just—have you ever been outside of the Citadel before? What do they train you with, glass daggers and straw dummies?”
“I thought we were being quiet—”
“I hope you’re a better Blood Mage than you are a man.”
Jaq threw up his hands and continued forward with stomping footsteps. He muttered under his breath but Nox kept his distance. He knew he didn’t want to hear what the great Jaq Lo’ren was complaining about now. He had already heard enough of his shortcomings on the ride across the desert, the swim through the muddy river, and basically every moment since they had met. He felt like he suddenly had a father.
To Nox’s relief, they continued down the tunnel in silence. Jaq stopped periodically to peer through a grate overhead, or when a shadow blotted out the moonlight above. The longer they walked, the louder the streets above them became. Once the moon was high in the Jan’caran sky and the wind cooled down—the Burning City would come alive. Jaq and Nox needed to be out of the tunnels before then. More and more lights were covered up as people, carts and animals moved overhead. Sand and water dripped down through the grates. Just as the noise became a deafening roar overhead, Jaq turned a sharp corner. The familiar smell of pipe smoke and Isaru wine managed to briefly overwhelm the stench of the tunnels.
“Wait, I know this place.” Nox said. A torch was lit and burned bright next to a rickety wooden ladder.
A white, poorly painted sign read “The Jeweled Heart.” An arrow pointed up, just in case there was any confusion. Nox recognized La’th’s shoddy handwriting.
“La’th is the one who warned me about my informant. Also, you smell, and you need a change of clothes.”
“I smell? Of course I smell, I just waded and swam through–”
A door opened up overhead. Smoke and the scent of wine filled the tunnel. Torchlight blinded Nox.
“You sold all of my things.”
“Yes.” La’th said.
“And you rented out my room.”
“To the same person who bought all of your things. Yes.”
Nox’s eyebrows raised. It was worse than he imagined.
“And my scarves? Did you save any of my scarves?”
La’th jerked a pointed chin towards his son, who was scrubbing at the a table lazily. He wore a bright orange scarf around his neck.
“How do I know you won’t yell ‘blood mage!’ and get me hauled back out to that blasted desert?” Nox asked as he pulled his eyes away from his favorite scarf. La’th laughed, a deep, resonating sound that filled the empty tavern. The same laugh he had when he just charged a Royal Guard double for their drink.
“I only yelled what your friend paid me to yell. He didn’t pay me to say anything this time.”
Nox arched an eyebrow and turned to look at Jaq at the bar. The old man seemed suddenly very interested in finding the bottom of his Isaru wine glass. Nox slumped down in to a chair. He was too tired ask questions.
“La’th, listen, I need something to eat. Something to drink that isn’t Isaru wine, and I need a change of clothes. For me and my friend.” Nox waved a tired hand towards Jaq who was already sitting in front of the bar. La’th closed the hidden door to the sewers and rolled out a brightly colored rug over top of it. He used his hip to nudge a wooden table and chairs over top of it.
“Your friend has a change of clothes in his own room and has already paid for his water and meal.”
“Wait, his own room? When did he even have time to–never mind. Just put it on his bill.”
“There is hot water waiting for you. And soap. Lots of soap.”
Nox nodded and approached Jaq at the bar.
“You seem awfully relaxed. Aren’t you afraid he’ll call the Royal Guards on us? Like you paid him to do the last time?”
Jaq set down his empty glass and peered over his shoulder. He looked back at his glass and wished it wasn’t empty.
“I didn’t pay him to call the guards. I paid him to yell loud enough for the guards to hear him. Besides,” Jaq motioned to La’th, “it’s not profitable for him to have his wealthiest clients arrested or killed.”
“He’d lose too much money. Right, that sounds like La’th.”
“Go and bathe, quickly. I can’t have you stinking up the place and attracting the guards. I’m not certain how much time my informant has left.”
Nox wanted to ask more questions–but the door to the Jeweled Heart opened and a group of young men stepped inside. La’th’s first customers of the night, and he bellowed loudly at them and began washing cups. Nox slipped past them and up the stairs to his bath. As he walked up the stairs he heard Jaq order another wine, and a round for their new guests.
Nox felt better than he had in weeks. He had washed sand and something from every crevice and corner of his body. He wanted to lay in his warm bath water and fall asleep. He sunk beneath the water one last time and held his breath until his chest ached. He pulled himself out of his bath and stood, letting the water run down his skin. The air in the Jeweled Heart was so full of smoke and sweat that he felt immediately dirty again. The night air was still warm enough to suck the water from his skin. He was dry before he slipped back in to a pair of loose fitting leggings and a silk vest. The clothes fit perfect. Too perfect.
He stared down and realized they were his clothes. He he paid La’th for his own clothes. Nox shook his head and walked the short distance from his tub to the open window. At night, no windows were closed in the Burning City. Aside from just letting in the cold night air, the open window had a clear view of the star filled night sky. The Jan’caran people lived and died by the sun, but they believed in the mercy of the moon. It was believed that the Sun King and Moon Queen ruled beneath the stars, and that every Jan’caran should be able to see the stars and remember: the night kept them alive. The mercy of the Moon, and the Moon Queen, saved the Burning City each night with her cool embrace.
He stood in the open window and watched the stars until a quiet knock came at his door. He pulled the curtain closed and turned to approach the door–only to find it wide open. Torchlight spilled in through the doorway. Jaq leaned against the doorway.
“La’th gave me a spare key,” Jaq said as he let himself in to Nox’s room.
“How kind of him.” Nox sat down on the edge of his bed that was barely a few steps away from his bath tub. Somehow, Nox wasn’t convinced his “room” was used for sleeping or bathing, but a combination of the two that would earn La’th more money. Nox just hoped his water had been fresh.
Jaq poured himself a glass of warm water from a pitcher beside the bath tub. It was the first time Nox had seen the man drink anything aside from Isaru wine.
“We’ve been inside the city for two hours. I’ve heard no word from Tarik or any of my other informants. What ever has happened to Tarik is keeping him silent. Another few hours won’t make the difference.”
“Dead men don’t contact their masters.” Nox said.
“The boy may be dead already, yes. But if he isn’t then there is still a chance we can save him. Tarik must have stumbled upon something Ubel didn’t want him to find. Get some sleep. As soon as the sun rises and the rest of the city sleeps, we’ll head across the city to Tarik’s house. If the boy is alive, he’ll be there.”
The journey across the Burning City was tedious and hot. The Jan’caran Royal Guard walked the streets and patrolled the city. Even in smaller numbers, it still felt as if there were guards at every turn. Jaq knew every side-street, stairwell and dark alleyway in the entire city. Although Nox had set foot across most of the Burning City, he was really only familiar with a few miles surrounding The Jeweled Heart. He ended up losing his sense of direction more than a few times and struggled to keep up with Jaq, which only added to the old man’s irritation.
They made quick and careful progress, with frequent stops to check streets and the location of the morning sun. Their path took them closer to the Jan’caran Palace than Nox had ever been. The palace was the tallest building in the entire city, marked by a large onyx spire that rose from the heart of the palace. Tall, thick stone walls rose up around the palace for miles. At one point their path pressed them right against the wall itself and Nox noted that the wall wasn’t made of bricks of stone like the rest of the city. He ran his hand along the white surface of the stone and felt nothing; no lines where bricks had been formed together, no lines of any kind, as if the massive slab of stone was one piece.
Nox had heard stories of the architecture and beauty of the Burning City, but a wall made of a giant slab of stone? It would have taken the entire Jan’caran army to raise a stone that size, and the equipment required–he couldn’t even imagine. Nox turned to ask Jaq about the wall but decided against it when he noticed the old man’s frown. Nox pulled his attention away from the wall and the onyx spire and continued to follow Jaq.
The sun was high over head when Jaq indicated they were getting close. Every white stone building was beginning to look the same to Nox. Without the unique, colorfully painted doors or curtains, he would have been lost forever. Nox was beginning to have a new appreciation for the wooden and stone structures from Tor’vic. How Jaq could tell one street from the other was beyond him.
“Tarik was Av’niel’s nephew as well as a member of the Jan’caran Royal Guard,” Jaq spoke as they walked down a street that was shaded with silk sheets. Sunshine filtered through the fabric and cast a rainbow of shadows against the white stone and sand. “He was one of the youngest men to ever join the Jan’caran Royal Guard and a damned good fighter in his own right. If he was captured or killed, he would have been caught off guard. We cannot afford to make the same mistake.”
The colorful street ended with a looming white stone house. The front door was painted dark blue with a delicate ghost-white moon and a spattering of stars. The streets were empty except for a skinny brown dog that panted in the shade. All the other doors and windows were closed tight against the sun. Jaq took the lead and they walked up the stone steps to the door. The door looked crooked within its frame. Jaq placed his hand on the door and pushed. The door swung inward.
“This looks more like a palace than a home,” Nox said as he followed Jaq inside quickly.
“Serving the Jan’caran Moon Queen has its advantages. The Royal Guard are paid well–but they are also watched closely.” Jaq closed the door behind them and used his shoulder to push the door back in to place. The hinges appeared to have been broken by force and the door itself was splintered. A large crack in the wood spread across the painted moon.
The smell of hot, thick death greeted them. Nox was thankful his scarf covered his nose.
“We need to be quick,” Jaq said.
The two men stood just inside the doorway. The smell of rot hung in the air like smoke. It clung to Nox’s skin and made his stomach lurch. The sunlight that filtered in through the door and windows managed to light up the entire room. It was enough to see that the house was destroyed. Piles of ripped parchment and maps were scattered across the stone floor. Bottles of ink and sand had been overturned, spreading across the floor like water. Books were ripped apart, paintings torn off the walls and broken upon the floor. Carpets overturned and flung across the room.
“Well, unless Tarik is messier than–”
“Quiet.” Jaq put his finger to his lips. Nox nodded and stepped over a pile of broken glass. Outside, they heard only the sound of wind and the occasional bell or wind chime. No sound of guards or whispering neighbors. Jaq moved from the foyer to the living area: a wide room with a large window, sheltered from the sun by layers of white fabric. All the rooms looked the same, as though someone had turned the house upside down and shook it. Everything that was once in drawers or resting upon shelves was now on the floor, broken or ripped in half. Nox didn’t notice any pattern. Everything was touched, everything was searched.
Nox discovered the source of the rot in the living room: a young woman, nearly sliced in half, hidden beneath an overturned book shelf. He moved to lift the heavy shelf and Jaq stopped him.
“We don’t have time. Tarik may still be alive.”
Nox wanted to argue, to push the old man aside and pull the woman from the mess she had died in. The
smell alone would attract guards soon, but Jaq walked away before Nox could respond. Nox stared down at the fallen woman: her walnut-colored hair spilled across the floor, her skin was dark and smooth Jan’caran brown. She was laying face down with her head turned in towards the bookshelf. A pool of sticky blood had pooled beneath her and now fed a host of buzzing flies. Her white dress was ripped down her back and he saw the hint of the sword stroke that had killed her. She didn’t appear to have any weapons, just bloodied finger nails where she had tried to defend herself. She was only a house servant to the young Tarik, cut down for being in the wrong house at the wrong time.
Nox walked carefully through the rooms and saw other servants that had fallen when the house was searched. Men and women with dark Jan’caran skin and matching white uniforms with the same moon that was painted upon the door. From the heat and the varying states of the bodies Nox found, he guessed the servants had died within the last two days. The smell lessened as they walked up the stairs to the bedroom area. Dried blood lined the walls and staircase, and the flies became thickest under the door to Tarik’s room. Jaq kicked at the door to scatter the flies and turned the door knob.
A body tumbled forward and on to the floor; both Jaq and Nox took a step backwards. It was an older Jan’caran man dressed in dark blue silks and loose fitting pants. His neck had been cut open and he had fallen against the inside wall with only the door to prop him up. His neck left a smear of thick blood across the floor. Nox knelt down next to the man.
“Is this him..?” Nox turned the man’s body over to face the ceiling. His eyes were puffy and dark.
“No, but this is his room. Looks like he had a visitor.”
Jaq stepped carefully over the body and pushed the door the rest of the way open. The air seemed fresher in this room, and no more bodies waited for them. Tarik’s desk faced the door and was turned on its side. The drawers had been removed and were scattered on the floor. The floor was covered in papers and books. A spray of blood lined the inside of the door where the man had spent his final moments before slumping against the wall.
“He’s the only body,” Jaq spoke as circled the room, nudging piles of papers and overturned shelves with his foot. A breeze blew in from the window that stood behind Tarik’s desk. The movement caught Nox’s attention and he moved to check the window. Bloody fingerprints lined the side of the window where it had been broken and forced open.
“The window’s open. Tarik may have escaped.” Nox forced the window the rest of the way open and climbed out on to the balcony. Jaq followed and as soon as both men were on the balcony, they heard the sound of angry Jan’caran below. Nox peeked over the side and saw a dozen Royal Guards spilling from the street in to the house. He caught the flash of drawn swords in the light.
“We’re out of time,” Nox began. Jaq wasn’t listening. The old man was pacing along the balcony and staring at the ground. A few drops of dried blood had created a trail that Jaq was following. The trail led to the far side of the balcony where it ended abruptly. A braided white rope hung down from the rooftop. Nox wouldn’t even have noticed it if it hadn’t been for the bloodied hand prints that marred it. Jaq didn’t hesitate, he gripped the rope and began to pull himself up. Inside the house, Nox could hear the guards yelling and exchanging orders. They were getting closer.
Jaq reached the top of the roof and Nox climbed after him. The rope was sticky with blood. Nox had trouble getting his grip. The climb wasn’t very far but the heat made every movement feel sluggish. He finally reached the top and Jaq leaned over to pull him the rest of the way.
They pulled the rope up just as the first guard stepped out on to the balcony. Jaq and Nox dropped to the ground. The rooftop was scorching. They listened for the guard to walk back inside the house.
As Nox turned away from the shallow wall and looked across the rooftop: a river of blood was sprayed out across the white stone. Jaq motioned for him to move forward and they took a few careful steps across the roof. No body rested upon the roof, no weapons or sign of a struggle. In the opposite corner of the roof sat a wooden bucket. Jaq circled the puddle and stopped near the bucket to peer inside.
“The blood came from here,” Jaq said as he nudged the bucket with his boot. Flies and insects buzzed around the top, feasting on the sticky old blood. Jaq leaned over and sniffed the blood. “It’s not Tarik’s, this smells like horse’s blood.”
“You can tell the difference?” Nox asked. He took a few steps back as close to the wall as he dared without casting a shadow down below.
“There’s so much blood. I’m glad it’s not Tarik’s.” Nox whispered. He turned his head to the side. He could read basic Jan’caran script and some High Jan’caran, but the blood didn’t spell anything he could read. Jaq moved to stand beside Nox, but instead of watching his shadow, he stepped up on to the low roof.
“They’ll see your shadow–” Nox choked, but Jaq ignored his protests. Instead, he used Nox’s shoulder to steady himself as he tried to get a better view.
“There’s someone on the roof!” A man’s voice called from the balcony. A moment later, an arrow flew past Jaq’s head. He cursed and pulled himself a little closer but his eyes still scanned the roof.
“It’s not a word, it’s a map.” Jaq jumped down from the wall and moved to the puddle. He pointed to a splatter of blood in the top corner. “There, that’s the Shattered Star to the north,” he moved along the edge, “and the river of The Fallen to the east. It’s a map. In blood.”
“You’d think the man would have carried a quill.”
Jaq reached in to his muddied shirt and pulled out a small leather-bound notebook. He flipped it open and began scribbling furiously with a nub of charcoal. The shouting below was getting louder. Another arrow flew by for good measure.
“Get that bucket, we need to get rid of this before those guards find it.”
Nox nodded and moved across the roof. He picked up the half-filled bucket and wrinkled his nose. He carried it back to the puddle and held it, ready to pour on Jaq’s word.
“Whatever Tarik found–this map will lead us right to it. And anyone else who finds it.” Jaq made a few more scribbles and closed the notebook.
“Now,” Jaq said. Nox splashed the bucket across the ground and watched as the liquid washed away the map.
“That’s not just horse blood,” Nox said. “Your nose is broken, old man. That’s part lamp oil.”
“Then let’s light the damn thing and get out of here.”
Nox nodded, tossed the bucket to the ground and drew his blood dagger. He had just managed to carve the symbols for fire across his wrist when a grappling hook dug in to the wall. Then another. Nox lit the oil and blood ablaze just as the guards clamored on to the roof.
Two Jan’caran Royal Guards began cursing and yelling in High Jan’caran. One tall man shielded his eyes from the flames while he helped another guard on to the roof. They wore the flowing white armor of the Moon Queen with silver moons embroidered on their sleeves and pants. Heavy, wooden and metal clubs hung by their sides. Specifically, they were armed with weapons that didn’t draw blood. These weren’t the usual city guard; these men were trained to hunt and kill Blood Mages. Except one, who clamored over the rooftop. He looked fresh off the Palace grounds.
“Jaq, these aren’t the usual guards–”
“We’ve got bigger problems. Like the roof.”
Nox and Jaq stood and realized: they had no way of getting off the roof. A roof which was now burning and covered in guards. And fire. Nox took a step backwards. He looked to either side of the roof, then threw the empty barrel straight at the first guard.
It caught the man in the throat and sent him stumbling backwards–right back on to the balcony. Jaq and Nox retreated and pressed themselves against the low wall. The fire was already beginning to burn out. It wouldn’t keep the guards at bay for long. Jaq stared at the dying flames and made sure the map had been burned away with it. He couldn’t stare for long. Another arrow whizzed past his head and brought his attention straight and center.
Two Jan’caran guards stood with nocked arrows in short bows. They didn’t have to shoot very far or very accurate, just straight. Another nine filed on to the roof from a ladder they had managed to find inside the house. As they spread across the smoldering rooftop, they each drew their wicked looking clubs. Long and black metal meant to bruise and pummel.
Nox’s fingers twitched towards his dagger and the guards began shouting in Jan’caran.
“You will stop and put down your weapons.” A guard spoke but his words were interrupted by the smoke. He began to cough and the other guard continued in his place.
“Does it take eleven Royal Guard to arrest two men within The Burning City?” Jaq asked as he took a step forward. The two guards adjusted their arrows accordingly. “I’m a blood mage, I’m not invincible.”
“We know who you are, Jaq Lo’ren.” The first guard said after his finished coughing. He stepped forward with his club. The bows followed his lead. “Caught again within the city walls after we exiled you once before? That’s punishable by death, without a counsel. A quick death.”
“I’ve been inside these city walls far more than twice. This is simply the second time you’ve caught me.” Jaq smiled and his blue eyes sparkled. His lips were dry and cracked from the sun.
“Put down your weapons. I won’t ask again.” The guard’s voice was dangerously low.
Jaq shrugged. He reached behind his back and unsheathed one curved blade and a second dagger Nox had never seen before. He reached inside his vegetable merchant cloak–the smell of it nearly made Nox’s stomach turn again–and pulled out a second set of daggers. He tossed them to the ground, away from the fire. His blood dagger rested across his chest, hidden beneath his cloak. The handle rested across his heart. He made no move to reach for it.
“All of your weapons, Jaq.” The guard motioned with his sword to Jaq’s chest.
“I didn’t come back in to this damned city to be stripped and beaten before your Moon Queen–” Jaq took a step forward. The first guard released his arrow. It slammed in to his shoulder and knocked the blood mage back a step.
“Stand down!” The guard yelled and the man lowered his bow.
Jaq looked up from the arrow shaft sticking out of his shoulder. Blood soaked through his smelling cloak.
“You bloody idiot, he’s a blood mage, what do you think he uses as a weapon–” The guard shouted.
“Make sure you pick up my dagger. I’m not going to lose it on this roof top.”
“Why am I–”
“I’m about to be very busy.” Jaq said as he reached up and snapped the arrow off at his shoulder. He threw the shaft down on to the ground and drew his blood dagger from across his chest.
Jaq held out his free arm as if shielding a child. Nox felt a twinge of irritation. What business did this man have protecting him? Jaq was probably still drunk and twice as old as Nox, if not older. It should be the other way around. His thoughts didn’t last long. The rooftop exploded.
At least, that’s what Nox thought happened. One moment he was narrowing his eyes at an arrogant Transcender, the next he was knocked backwards through the air. He slammed hard against the roof and felt the stone scrape and tear at his skin. His ears rang from a high pitched sound and his vision blurred. He pushed himself upwards and searched the smoking rooftop for Jaq.
Smoke and sunlight blinded him. He saw only shadows against the smoke and flames–and the smoke seemed to be spreading and pouring over the rooftop like a heavy fog. He heard muffled screams; not the angry Jan’caran commands from earlier but the screams of the dying. A raindrop hit his head and startled him. He pressed his fingers to his forehead expecting blood, but only water returned. Another drop, then another until the entire roof was covered in warm rain.
Jaq let his dirty cloak fall to the rooftop. It touched the last of the struggling flames and caught fire. He drew his blood dagger from the sheath across his chest. The metal was old; older than anyone on the roof. The blade was as sharp as it had ever been. A touch as light as a whisper slid across his chest. Bright red blood fell down his skin. The arrow wound throbbed at the edge of his senses but he couldn’t feel it. All Jaq felt now was the roar of blood magic in his veins and the fire that burned inside him.
His blood dripped towards the sky. It lifted off his skin and drifted like rain falling the wrong direction. As if his world was tumbling all around him. But his world stood still. The guards weren’t moving, the smoke wasn’t drifting, the flames had frozen in their dance. Thunder cracked in the sun-filled sky and clouds boiled in to the air. Rain began to fall and smothered the last of the flames. Each drop sounded like a hammer blow against the stone until a bloodied puddle of water covered the rooftop.
Jaq stood alone in the center of his chaos. He stared down in to the puddle and saw the faint reflection of the chains that bound him. They shone bright in the water, like rays of sunlight and fire, and burned his skin just the same. Manacles around his wrists that stretched from the rooftop down to the puddle and disappeared. Beneath the water, a demon stared back: a demon who wore the same shackles.
The demon was tall and muscular with the chest and head of a man. His skin was white as alabastor and a skeleton key was expertly stitched in to his chest. Large horns like a goat spiraled from his head and were wrapped in barbed-edge wire. His eyes were covered by a red blindfold but beneath the cloth shone an eerie pale light. His chin was strong and his cheekbones were sharp. The face may have been handsome if not for the stitches that covered his mouth and held up one side in the mockery of a grin. Wet whisps of red-brown hair floated beneath the water’s surface.
A red silk cloth wrapped around the man’s waist and that is where his humanity ended; his legs were long and bent like a dogs. His skin gave way to fine white hair like a winter rabbit. His feet ended in the sharp claws of a hawk. Long, delicate wings spread from behind his back and floated in the water. The wings were the color of shadows; irridescent and dark.
“BloodBane, I need you.”
Jaq’s demon smiled beneath the water, a limp, bloodied smile that strained his stitches.
You always need me. A voice whispered in his head. Jaq shrugged and lifted his arms, pulling against his chains. Beneath the water, the chains pulled at the demon’s own wrists and blood plunged in to the water. The blood slithered like an inky black snake along the chain until it passed the puddle, then shone ruby red in the light. It wrapped itself around Jaq’s wrists and he cried out.
The rain stopped, the fire died, and the guards began to run towards Jaq with their clubs lifted. As if they hadn’t seen a thing. Nox was still lying prone, trying to understand what he had just witnessed. After Jaq’s yell, the chains shattered like glass and the puddle disappeared in a flash of light that could have just been a reflection from the sun. Nothing remained of the puddle or the demon except the blood that dripped from Jaq’s wrists and hands.
The guards surrounded Jaq. One managed to swing his club and hit Jaq square in the side. Nox heard the distinct sound of bruising flesh. Another guard began to swing. In a moment, they had him surrounded. He’d be beaten to death by the guards if Nox didn’t do something.
It was the most elegant magic Nox had ever seen–blood arched like a whip from Jaq’s hands, flying outwards in a giant circle. The blood shone bright, surrounded by whisps of black smoke that crackled like thunder. It sounded like a thunder storm was erupting on the roof itself. The blood looked like strips of silk flying through the air, as if Jaq was only performing some kind of elaborate dance.
The arrogant Transcender lifted his arms towards the guards–and killed them.
Nox couldn’t stomach it. After the first guard was nearly sliced in half at the stomach by whatever spell Jaq had cast, Nox turned his head to the side.
The silk flew outwards as if caught by a high wind and slid across the guard’s bodies. They slid across exposed throats, wrists and the white leather armor of the Royal Guard.
They sliced through flesh and armor like paper. He could still hear the sickeing slump of bodies as they slid, terrified, to the rooftop with wide-eyes. In a matter of heartbeats, the guards were torn asunder and discarded across the roof. Their weapons were cut from their hands and left by their startled corpses.
Blood sprayed across the white stone. Jaq was once again left alone. His breathing was heavy. Blood was slashed against his chest and jaw; a mix of the guard’s and the demons but none of his own.
“That wasn’t a fight. That was a slaughter.”
“As it was intended. The next guards will think twice before chasing the man who tore their comrades apart.”
“The man–or the demon?”
Jaq didn’t answer.
“There will be more guards soon. We need to leave.” Jaq sounded tired. He picked up his cloak from the ground and wiped off the blood from his hands. Nox stared across the roof and his stomach began to protest. He turned on his heel to face the opposite direction.
“How are we getting down?” Nox decided he didn’t want to ask any questions about what he had seen. Not until they were away from the slaughter. The sun was already making the smell saturate the air. His clothes would stink of blood and death.
Jaq peered over the edge towards the balcony. Already he could see more guards assembling in the streets below. Nox turned to look across the rooftops of the Burning City. Tarik’s home was taller than most of the houses on either side: most were single story with basement levels to protect themselves from the sun. On either side was another rooftop or the unforgiving streets below. A fall to either would break bones or land them right in the middle of a crowd of guards. Nox didn’t like his options.
Of course, Jaq could probably fight his way out, leaving Nox to stare in horror…
Nox really didn’t like his options.
“Kas’andra should be here soon.” Jaq said.
“Soon? How soon? Those guards aren’t going to slow down–”
Nox heard a clattering sound behind him and he turned to face it. A wooden ladder was settling in to position from a nearby rooftop. Nox walked to the low wall and looked over. Kas’andra and Starr each held a side of the ladder and stared up at him. Starr waved.
“Don’t just stand there, hurry up and climb down.”
“I think I’d prefer the guards,” Nox said. The height made him dizzy.
“Your choice, but we have a map to follow–and fast.” Jaq pushed past Nox and balanced his way across the ladder. Nox thought he’d be sick watching the old man walk like a cat along a rickety ladder. Nox looked back over his shoulder. He could hear more Jan’caran yelling. Nox looked at the ladder and the three skeptical faces staring back at him. He removed his blood dagger, turned over his wrist and cut the symbol for flight.
Wings made of silver light spread from his shoulders. He outstretched them and jumped from the rooftop. He glided over the ladder and landed on the roof before his wings disappeared like fading sunlight. Kas’andra’s mouth was agape; Jaq rolled his blue eyes.
“Showoff,” Starr said as she punched him in the shoulder. Kas’andra and Jaq pulled the ladder over and they moved to the next building.
“Those wings… I haven’t seen that spell before.” Jaq spoke beside Nox. “They didn’t teach that at the Citadel when I was there.”
“I didn’t learn that spell at the Citadel.”
“It appears we both have our secrets then.”