Jaq shifted against a crumbled stone wall and protected his back from the biting wind. He opened his leather notebook and double-checked his hastily written coordinates. He cursed his luck; no light, just the fierce moonlight overhead. If he was seeing his scribbles correctly: the map lead them straight out to the Endless Sands. Away from the Burning City, away from the ruins of the first city of Jan’caro. Closer to where he had lost every single one of his blood mage friends. Exactly where he suspected it would lead; as deep in to danger as he never wanted to go.
Nox adjusted his back against the wall and felt the stone scratch mercilessly at his sun-burned skin. It didn’t matter how well he fell asleep in the shade, he was always destined to roll out in to the sun at some point. He’d be happy if he never saw the sun again. Kas’andra and Starr stood watch, staring out across the desert, watching for ghosts. They crouched in the moonlight at opposite ends of the remains of the wall. It wasn’t safe to burn a fire. Fortunately, it wasn’t cold enough, either. They hadn’t made it far beyond the walls of the Burning City before the sun had set. They need time to rest and plan their next moves.
“What’s on a map worth dying for?” Nox asked as Jaq studied his notebook in the moonlight.
“Nothing. Everything. I’m not certain where it leads, except to the desert. Wherever it is, it’s somewhere important to Ubel, and that means–it’s important to us.”
“So we need to get there first.” Kas’andra said as she placed her hands on her hips.
“We do, yes.” Jaq indicated Nox and himself. “I need you and Starr to go after Tarik. He must still be alive, and Av’niel needs his family safe.”
“How do you know your informant is still alive? That map was written in blood–” Starr waved angrily over her shoulder back towards the Burning City.
“Not his blood, remember?” Nox regretted his words immediately.
Starr threw her arms up and sat down in the sand with a huff. She blew a strand of black, tangled hair from her eyes. Kas’andra sat down beside Starr. “I am so sick of this desert. I sweat in places I didn’t know I could sweat. This heat makes me angry all the time.” Nox knew it wasn’t just the heat; Starr was angry all the time. He knew better than to correct her.
“We can still have some fun, searching for this man. I’ve seen Tarik before. Tall, strong, pure-blooded Jan’caran. And you know what that means.” Kas’andra arched an eyebrow. “I’m sure he’ll be appreciative of our rescue. Maybe, you won’t mind sweating so much then.” She winked and Starr sighed.
“I’d take the appreciation of a pure-blooded–”
“That is enough, ladies. You’re making me jealous.” Nox interrupted. “This is the Grand Master’s nephew you’re fighting over, after all.”
“Some nephew. He’s never mentioned him before. You’d think, if he was that important–Av’niel would have said something sooner?” Starr said as she laid on her back in the sand. Kas’andra settled down beside her, the two women looked like lazy, hungry cats. Nox felt sorry for any man that laid eyes on those two insatiable women. For once, he was happy to be going somewhere without them.
“Tarik is Av’niel’s last living relative, now. Some things only blood can solve. If Av’niel wants his nephew, then we’ll bring him his nephew.” Jaq took another drink of his wine and shook his head at the ladies. “Bring him back in one piece, alright?”
“We’ll bring back the pieces that matter,” Kas’andra laughed.
“Where do you want us to start searching?” Starr asked. Nox was thankful that, angry or not, Starr could still focus. He wondered how Kas’andra got anything done except for flirting. Not that he’d complain. She did that party very well.
“I believe, if Tarik is alive, he’s on the run. He may already be out in the desert.”
“Do you think the Onyx Sun may have gotten to him first?” Kas’andra asked as she rolled on to her side and stared up at Jaq. The old Transcender studied her for a moment before he nodded.
“He’s safer with them than with Ubel, but not for long. Do you remember where their last camp site was?”
Kas’andra nodded and stood up. She held out a hand to Starr.
“Not long after we escaped, the Onyx Sun attacked us. They couldn’t have moved very far with so little supplies. I don’t think they’ll be hard to find. If Tarik is alive, we’ll find out–and then, we’ll come and join you.” Kas’andra and Starr stood together. Nox knew nothing of the Onyx Sun or the tribes that wandered the desert, but if Jaq believed that’s where Tarik would have escaped to–he couldn’t argue. He was at the mercy of the old Transcender, until his mission was complete. Once they found Tarik, and found Ubel Gale: Nox could kill him once and for all.
It wouldn’t bring back the lives that Ubel Gale had taken, or the damage he had caused, but Nox would certainly feel better knowing the man was dead once and for all. Av’niel may have killed Ubel Gale by his own hand, but Nox would follow the man to the depths of Transcendence to make sure he never returned. He would do whatever it took, for as long as it took. That was his oath to the Blood Citadel, to the Grand Master, and to himself. He wouldn’t fail again.
Nox watched as Kas’andra and Starr gathered their supplies, checked the stars overhead and began their journey towards the Onyx Sun. Jaq didn’t seem to take much notice. He was focused on his map, checking the stars and drinking his wine. Nox hoped that whatever they’d discover at the end of their map: Jaq was sober enough to handle. Nox wasn’t about to die alone in the desert. His memory drifted back to the—thing he had seen on the rooftop. Whatever Jaq used to reach his power, it wasn’t just his blood. Nox shivered.
Drunk or not, that man can handle anything. I should start worrying about myself. Nox took a deep breath and finished his wine. It was going to be a long day.
The Endless Sands were a turbulent, dark sea at night. Moonlight shifted the sands to a moody gray, the wind blew waves and dust for miles.
They had followed the remains of a broken wall across the desert. Rough stone edges jutted up like teeth in the night. Where the sand had scoured the deepest, Nox saw glimpses of black glass. All that remained from the first Burning City was the broken bones of walls and sand blasted to glass.
It reminded him of the Glass Plains. Although there was a strange beauty to the desert, it would never feel like home. It was still too hot for Nox. He had forgotten what a chill morning in the Blood Citadel felt like. He would give anything to be cold again. His head was still pounding from Isaru wine, and his horse was as restless as he was.
“Are you certain this is the place? I don’t see anything but sand. And darkness.” Nox wiped the sweat from his eyes. Even in the middle of the night, it was hot. He had no idea how the people of Jan’caro didn’t sweat to death. The moonlight overhead was bright and the sky was clear. Not a single cloud dotted the horizon. The Endless Sands stretched for miles in every direction. They’d traveled so far from the Burning City that the lights had faded away. This was the farthest Nox had been from the city since he had arrived.
Jaq opened his mouth to respond, took a drink of his jug of Isaru and thought otherwise. He dismissed Nox’s words and shifted in his saddle. Nox knew that hesitation; he was holding his tongue. After a long pause, Jaq spoke.
“Nothing but sand,” the old Transcender pointed across the desert. Then he looked down at the notebook that laid open in his saddle. He pointed in a new direction, behind where they stood.
“Wait, were we going in the wrong direction..?” Nox asked, eyebrows raising as quickly as his anger.
Jaq lowered his hand, closed his notebook and yanked his horse’s reins around. The horse protested and turned to bite at Jaq’s leg. Jaq moved just in time and began berating the horse when something caught his eye. A glimmer. Nox saw it, too.
“I see something out there. Not just sand. Torch light.” Nox said as he dismounted from his horse. Nox loosened the straps on his bracers and checked his blood dagger at his side. The metal was still cool, despite the relentless heat. It was one of the few things that still reminded him of home.
Jaq glared at his own horse and followed closely behind, narrowly avoiding another angry snap. They left the horses behind and continued on foot. Nox took a step and slipped–Jaq caught his scarf just in time and pulled him back. Nox coughed and gasped, pulling at the scarf around his neck that had just tried to kill him.
“Blood and sand, old man–” Nox coughed again.
Jaq waved away Nox’s protest as he usually did, took a drink of his wine and pointed with his jug. Nox had nearly fallen to his death. He had began to slip over a glass shard and would have fallen right off a cliff. A gaping hole full of darkness and glittering lights spread before them, barely concealed by the Endless Sands.
“Wasn’t that cursed hole on your map? You nearly got me killed–” Nox rubbed his neck and loosened his scarf.
“That thing belongs on your head, not around your neck. No wonder you’re sweating so much.”
Nox couldn’t answer. Jaq hadn’t answered his question, and Nox hadn’t really expected him to. Nox often wondered if Jaq had a map at all.
“There’s someone down there,” Jaq said as he dropped to the ground. Nox followed, belly-down in the cool sand. His heart began to pound in his chest. He took a calming breath and checked to both sides and once over his shoulder. Where there was one in this desert, there would be others. He crawled ahead and joined Jaq behind the remains of a shard of black glass. He could feel the magic trembling within the stone. They leaned against it and Jaq risked taking another look.
“Is it Ubel? Or Aviv?” Nox asked, shifting to get a look of his own. Jaq waved him closer. The two men pressed against the sand and peered over the edge of the glass. The glass shards washed over an old, decaying stone wall. The remains of the wall led straight down in to the earth. It was a tower with broken stairs that travelled in a circle down deep within the ground. The moonlight only penetrated a few feet down, but torches lit at intervals that showed how deep the tower was.
“This looks like the tower in the Blood Citadel–” Nox began.
“There is something very powerful at the bottom of the tower. This is exactly what Ubel was looking for. Let’s just hope we found it first. Those torches didn’t light themselves.” Jaq added, jutting his grizzled chin towards the bottom of the dark tower.
“We need to get a closer look,” Nox said. Jaq nodded and together they stood, brushed themselves off and climbed over the shard barrier. Sand had nearly filled up the inside of the tower. The crumbling stairs looked recently reinforced; fresh wood and stone had been brought in to repair the steps. It couldn’t support more than one or two on the stairs at a time. The wood creaked loudly when Jaq placed a foot upon it. Nox winced.
“Do we have a plan?” Nox asked as he leaned against the wall and peered down.
“I have one,” Jaq muttered as he took another step forward. The stairs creaked again.
“Does that plan include falling down the rest of these stairs and landing on whatever is down there? Because that’s exactly–”
“Quiet. That’s a terrible plan. How did you ever become a Captain?” Jaq started walking again. Nox moved to catch up.
They were surrounded by sand on all sides. Kas’andra and Starr were days away from them. They walked along a rickety staircase that could break at any moment. The only thing Nox could find worse was if the bottom of the tower was somehow filled with spiders. The thought made his skin itch.
Jaq stopped every few creaky steps to check beneath him. Nox stopped as well—which gave him time to think about spiders he was avoiding. A sticky web touched his shoulder and he pressed closer to the wall with a shiver. Neither of the men were short or narrow. Passing beneath the torches without being seen was the hardest part. Jaq had broader shoulders than any man Nox had ever seen. Nox was thankful the last few years had been hard, he didn’t have quite so many soft spots to try to suck in.
On their fifth circle down, after what seemed like an hour of delayed movement, Jaq heard a noise and stopped. He reached a reinforced section of the stairs and Nox was able to join him safely. The boards creaked beneath their weight but did not break. They listened for the noise again: voices.
The desert wind howled in protest near the top of the tower. The echoed voices were loud and harsh. It sounded like an argument, and one they weren’t worried about being overheard. Nox strained to hear over the wind. The words were shrill—spoken too fast to be anything but panic and anger. One word caught his attention: the High Jan’caran word for blood. Someone from the Jan’caran Palace was all the way in the middle of the Endless Sands, and they weren’t alone.
Jaq used the argument to his advantage; he crept forward until the voices stopped. Nox followed again, cursing beneath his breath at every creaking step. At the last reinforced section of stairs, they saw the source of their argument below. Two towering Jan’caran men, dark-skinned and wrapped in the white silks of the Palace, stood on either side of a woman. She was on her knees in the sand, with chains around her neck and arms.
“She’s one of mine–the last of my blood mages who went missing. I thought she’d been killed.” Jaq’s voice was a hoarse whisper. Nox had never heard the man stumble over his words before, but the hesitation in his voice was raw. The words caught in his throat like a knife.
Long, blonde hair fell to the ground, matted with sand and blood. Her dark clothing was ripped and soaked with sweat. Her voice shook as she yelled at her two Jan’caran captors. Even though Nox didn’t understand what she was saying, he understood what she wanted: her life. The Jan’caran men yelled back. One stepped forward and hit the side of her head, rattling her chains and sending her chin-first to the ground. He pulled on her chains and forced her to stand. She spat on the ground but stopped yelling when he raised his hand again.
The two men walked deeper in to the tower and dragged the woman behind them. Her silence didn’t last long. As soon as they left the immediate torchlight, she began to yell again. Once they disappeared from view, Jaq and Nox waited. Her voice faded away.
“What do they want with your blood mages?” Nox asked.
“There has never been a time that the Burning City wanted Blood Mages that didn’t involve someone burning.” Nox’s nose wrinkled at the thought. “They’re from the Jan’caran Palace, I’m guessing they were sent by Ubel or Aviv. It means we didn’t get here first.”
“Then we’d better hurry and find out what was so important that Tarik risked his life.” Nox said. They ran down the last spirals of stairs and let the wind erase their footsteps. The bottom of the tower was buried in sand and shards of black glass. The ceiling extended outwards like a bottle and the base of the tower, now buried, was much larger underground. The sound of the wind died down and the air was cold and stagnate. It felt old and suffocating.
The tower was empty. Nothing but sand and blackness spread before them. The torches did little to light up the circle of stone beneath the ground. There was no sign of the Jan’caran men or the blood mage.
“It’s a dead end.” Nox’s voice echoed against the walls.
“Bring one of those torches. Quickly.” Jaq said. Nox returned with a torch from the wall.
“At least we reached the dead-end alive. Our friends weren’t so lucky. Many of our friends.” Jaq pointed ahead.
The Jan’caran Guards had escorted the woman—and themselves—straight to death. The men had collapsed, broken and limp, to either side of the woman. Their bodies fell in to a pool of their own blood; it seeped from their skin like sweat, forced out by magic. The chains that bound the blood mage were broken and bloodied. Bits of metal littered their bodies as if the chains had exploded. The smell is what caught Nox’s attention; he didn’t have to get any closer to know there were more bodies beyond where he could see.
The blood mage was barely alive, twitching and gasping for breath. A piece of metal was lodged in her throat; she’d bleed to death any moment. She pulled herself forward, mouth open in a voiceless scream. Her eyes were wide, staring at something no one else could see.
Nox ran forward and Jaq threw out his arm to stop him.
“She’s dying.” Nox snapped.
“She’s already dead, and you’ll be the same if you rush forward blindly. What do you think killed those men?”
“She was a blood mage, she defended herself–”
“Look around you, boy. We’re in a tomb. They’re not the first to die here. Do not move any closer.”
“I don’t see anything.” Nox paused. His jaw tensed. “Is there a demon here?”
“There is something worse than a demon here.”
“What do you mean?”
“There is a BloodGate somewhere in this room, hidden in Transcendence. They got too close, and paid for it. Ubel probably told them to bring the woman here, the same as all my others… knowing full well they’d never return.”
Nox didn’t move any closer, as instructed, but he did move outwards and took the torch with him. There was no sign of struggle, the men didn’t look surprised in death—just fallen to the ground, mangled by magic.
“What is she staring at?” Nox asked.
“I know what a BloodGate is, Jaq. We could still save her, she’s just on the other side–”Jaq dropped his arm and Nox shoved forward.
Nox got close enough to feel as the air was ripped from his lungs. He had known the empty embrace of Transcendence long enough to know when he approached death. He couldn’t get any closer to the fallen woman or the guards without slipping in to the world of Transcendence. Unprepared, even his blood magic couldn’t save him from a sudden death. The only thing that had kept the woman from being killed instantly was her blood magic. Even then, all it did was delay her inevitable death. Jaq was right; rushing in would only kill him. He took a slow step backwards.
“It shouldn’t have killed her.” Nox clenched his fist as his side. “Blood magic doesn’t work that way, the BloodGate shouldn’t have killed her.”
“We don’t have much time.” Jaq drew his blood dagger.
Jaq kept his wary gaze on the blood mage as he sliced the blade across his palm. Blood dripped between his fingertips. He let it fall to the sand. The air shimmered like the reflection from the Jan’caran sun across the dunes. The darkness began to lighten as something appeared.
The light revealed what else was hidden by the shadows: bodies. Hundreds of bodies, fallen and piled atop each other like a discarded midden heap. And it smelled even worse. Some bodies were recent, others showed signs of decay from weeks previously. Skin and hair hung from broken bones—but all were undeniably dead. No one could have waited in that pile and not died from the smell. Being this close made Nox’s stomach scream in protest.
“Blood and sand, why does it have to be dead bodies—I’d prefer spiders. Just, for the future. Spiders.” Nox pulled his scarf over his nose. He blinked until his eyes understood what was happening: he was seeing what was really in the empty expanse of sand. Hidden somewhere between life and death, within Transcendence, a BloodGate floated in to view.
“I’ve never seen magic that can conceal something within Transcendence,” Nox said.
“It is very old and powerful magic—and it is failing.”
The Jan’caran Guards and the blood mage had died while approaching a shining stone staircase. The light was harsh and bright; too bright to look at directly for long. The stone wasn’t anything found in the living world. It glowed and ebbed like a star-filled night sky. Glittering black, white and death.
Nox had only seen one other BloodGate before. One hidden beneath the Blood Citadel, and even then—it had been so long ago, his memory was foggy. He had lost count of the years it had been since his Apprenticeship Journey. A century, perhaps. He remembered there should have been something at the top of the stairs, and it was missing. No teardrop shaped gate waited at the top. Instead, he saw it was half buried beneath the sand and black glass shards. The stone teardrop drifted in an out of the living world. Each time it dimmed, Nox saw what waited on the other side.
The eyes were always what he noticed first. Bright, burning white with smoke leaking from the corners. All different sizes and shapes, some as tall as a man—some as tall as two. Glistening black skin, wet with water or worse. Long, unnaturally bent arms with deadly claws instead of fingers. They howled and leapt, scratching at the edges of the BloodGate, waiting to come through.
Then he saw the bodies of the Jan’caran Guards twitch, and then the woman, and he stepped backwards. His stomach plummeted to ice. He had hoped never to see the dead return again. The memories threatened to overtake him.
Lifeless, breathless, the bodies began to move. With each lurching, stiff movement, they pulled themselves up the remaining stairs. Nox could only move backwards. He drew his blood dagger and stood beside Jaq. The Jan’caran Guards stood, with the woman between them, at the top of the stairs. In a sickening rip of flesh, their blood was torn from their bodies–from eyes, mouth, fingertips–wherever it could escape. The blood swirled like an angry storm and plummeted to the sand below. It surrounded the broken gate in a pool of bright blood. The bodies fell forward–straight in to the depths of the broken BloodGate.
“What just happened? I think I’m going to be sick.” Nox asked. He realized he could breathe again, and took a deep breath. He regretted it, as fear ejected it from his lungs. He tasted blood in the back of his throat. The smell of death was all around.
“Tarik’s map led us to a BloodGate. Something isn’t right. It looks broken, and someone is—feeding it.”
Jaq pointed to the pool that extended well beyond the blood that had just joined it. It looked more like a lake than a pool, hidden in the shadows of the tower. The bodies seemed to pile around the pool. Nox watched them closely, waiting for one to move.
“I hope your magic is as good as Av’niel claimed. I’m going to need it.” Jaq said. “I’m the only one with enough magic to stop this BloodGate from breaking down completely. If it breaks, then the gateway never shuts, and the demons keep coming through.”
“Keep coming through?” Nox asked.
Jaq didn’t need to answer. The lake of red water began to boil and froth. The air became thick and hot, which only made the smell worse. The BloodGate shimmered and three figures leaped through before the gate went dark again. They moved fast, but Nox saw what he needed: elongated limbs, red-tinted claws and white, smoky eyes. Everything they needed to tear a blood mage apart.
The creatures were fast—but Nox and Jaq were faster. Nox slid his blood dagger from his sheath and scrawled the symbol for fire down his arm. The desert was too hot for his bracers. The symbols were sloppy and weak, but the flames didn’t seem to mind. Fire rolled to his fingertips and lit up the sand around him. The demons ran in a pack, running on four legs with eyes sewn shut. Light burned and tore at the stitches, trying to escape. The demons howled in anger as Nox’s fire got too close.
Jaq made his move as the fire kept the demons at bay. While they hissed and claws at the flames, Jaq unsheathed his own dagger and sliced haphazardly across his bare chest. No symbols, no eloquence, no method to his madness. He seemed to do it just to spite Nox.
Black and blue flames arched from the old Transcender’s wounds. They spun together and wrapped tightly around his arm. In a flash of light, Jaq held an impossibly delicate and sharp sword. The blade blurred as it moved, and he sliced down the demons effortlessly. One by one, the demons fell to the sand and began to boil. Their black skin and bones melted in to the sand. Jaq’s sword disappeared so quickly, Nox wondered if it had been there at all.
Nox sheathed his blood dagger and tried to conceal his look of grudging admiration. He still didn’t like the man, but he couldn’t deny he was skilled. And stylish. For an old man.
“Three bodies, three demons. This is where all my Blood Mages ended up. Killed to make room for more demons. Ubel must have a small army by now.”
“Have you seen all the bodies? There’s a few hundred down here. Hundreds of demons traded for the lives of blood mages.” Nox waved his hand towards the limp pile. “How long have you know this was here?” Nox could no longer keep the anger from his voice.
“Long enough to risk everything, and everyone, I had. I’m a BloodGate Heir, Av’niel knew that, he must have known this would be here. Until Tarik got us that map, I wasn’t certain we could stop it in time.”
“A BloodGate Heir? Jaq, you’re not making any sense–”
“I needed someone with me when I found the BloodGate, in case it was broken. I have to stay here, now that I’ve found it. I’m the only one who can keep it from destroying itself—and the desert along with it. Ubel is sending people to their deaths, and trading their lives for demons. He wins whether this gate is open, or gone.”
“Did you know it was broken? That Ubel would try and use it like this?” Nox arched an accusatory eyebrow.
“I knew there was a chance. Nox, believe me when I say that Av’niel and I have been looking for this BloodGate for years–”
“I don’t have to believe you. You used me. To help get you here. Were you ever actually looking for Tarik—or just the map, so you could find what you wanted?”
“Yes, I used you. More importantly, I’m using you right now to keep me alive.”
Nox knew it was not the time or place to argue, but he promised himself next time he saw Jaq he’d punch the man square in the jaw. Something about the way Jaq was looking at him, though, made him wonder if he’d ever get the chance.
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I had my suspicions about the demons. A BloodGate is a gateway to Transcendence. It allows anyone with Blood Magic to pass from our world to the world of demons. It allows demons to pour in to our world unchecked by the laws of magic. If this BloodGate is broken open completely, we won’t be able to stop the demons from coming through. The gate will explode—and destroy The Burning City and half the desert along with it.”
“You told me that part already–”
“I can’t close the BloodGate.” Jaq shrugged.
“What do you mean you can’t close it—don’t shrug at me—”
“The gate can be closed, but not by me. All I can do is slow it down.”
Nox turned on his heel and cursed. And cursed again. Loudly.
“How do we close it?”
“Every BloodGate is protected by a BloodGate Heir. Someone who has demon blood in their veins. The problem is, there are so few left in our world, and the knowledge has been lost to time. Magic has a way of correcting itself; there must be a BloodGate Heir for this gate. Someone with Jan’caran blood, someone who can close it—or, with the wrong influence, open it.”
“You’re telling me that the only person who may be able to close this thing—doesn’t even know they can. And that I need to find the BloodGate Heir to close the gate before Ubel finds them and makes them open it.”
“When you put it that way–”
“Why can’t you close it?”
“It’s not my gate. I didn’t make this one. My blood won’t work—all I can do is keep it from opening any more, and even that is going to take everything I’ve got. And I have a lot.”
“Since you seem to have all the answers, how do you propose I find the BloodGate Heir in a city that kills Blood Mages on sight?”
“You’ll think of something. But, yes, I do have all the answers. Take this.”
Jaq reached inside his vest pocket and pulled out a skeleton key on a red ribbon. It was clear and bright like a diamond, and ice cold to the touch. He laid it in Nox’s hand.
“It’s a BloodGate key, it will help you find the Heir.”
“Of course it will.”
Nox took the key and turned it over in his hands. It reminded him of keys he had seen in the past, forged by humans following the instructions of demons. Just like the key that brought demons to Tor’vic, or in to his camp during his Apprenticeship Journey. There was one other time—but he couldn’t remember. He just knew he hated skeleton keys. This key didn’t look or feel like the others, though. He wasn’t immediately sickened by its touch. He was, however, still very angry and that wasn’t going away any time soon.
The BloodGate rumbled from within. The gateway began to shake.
“What else is coming through?” Nox shoved the key in his pocket.
“Right—well, BloodGate Heir, remember? I tend to draw the attention of demons.”
“How big of demons?”
As if his words had summoned her—a slender, ivory skinned arm jutted up from the BloodGate. Her claws were long, broken and black. She grasped at the sand, pulled herself up and flopped down in the pool of blood that surrounded the gate. Her body was featureless; white skin pulled over bones like tight fabric. No hair or clothing, just skin and claws. Long, blackened wings stretched and flapped, touching the air of the human world for the first time. She had stitches marking where her eyes and mouth should have been. In one clawed hand she gripped a sword made of blackened bone.
She stood up from the pool of blood and screamed.
“Why does it always have to be a woman.” Jaq sighed.
“Jaq Lo’ren, you are lucky there is a demon here—it’s the only thing keeping me from strangling you right here, right now!”
The demon turned her head in their direction, but remained in the pool.
“Now what? You’re here, the BloodGate is here, the demon is here—what am I supposed to do?” Nox’s voice rose with each word. He kept his focus on the demon who was stumbling around the gateway.
“I need to Transcend, and pour everything I’ve got–”
“And your demon?” The words surprised even Nox, but he knew what he had seen on the rooftop.
“Everything we’ve got in stopping this BloodGate.”
“And, what? You just brought me along to protect you?”
“No. Just this once. Keep that demon off my back. I’ll Transcend—and then I can’t come back. I’ll be
stuck in Transcendence. Until you get back with the BloodGate Heir.”
The word caught the attention of the demon. She turned and began walking towards them.
“What if I don’t come back? What if the BloodGate Heir is dead, or gone, or Ubel has them? You’re risking everything. You’ll never see your daughter again–”
“Then you’ll have to protect her. That’s my last order.”
“That’s a promise.”
“We’re running out of time. I can’t stop the BloodGate from here, I have to Transcend.”
“Jaq, there’s a big, ugly demon headed our way–”
“What’s why I brought you with me. I need to survive this.”
Nox didn’t have the words. Av’niel had sent him specifically–to protect a legendary Transcender, from being torn apart by demons and a BloodGate?
“Is it safe to Transcend so close–” Nox stopped. Jaq fell to his knees in the sand. The scream of the demon was getting closer. Nox reached around his neck, untied his scarf and wrapped it around Jaq’s eyes. Jaq unsheathed his blood dagger and ran the blade across his wrist. His life began to spill out in to the sand.
The demon screamed when she saw Jaq. Nox drew his blood dagger.