Chapter 9

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The smell of death lingered heavily in the air. It left a slick aftertaste in the back of Nox’s throat. A stagnant combination of damp mold, crawling insects and rotting flesh. The heat of the tower worsened as the sun rose higher in the sky. Nox had lost track of the hours; he wasn’t even certain he had gotten more than an hours rest over the last two days. Maybe it had been three. He had been waiting: watching the dead Transcender’s body for any sign of movement.

Any sign that Jaq had survived his journey to Transcendence.

The BloodGate may have killed the greatest Transcender the Citadel had ever seen, and all Nox could do was watch. And kill any demons that slithered from the other side of the gate. Jaq had been considerate enough to warn Nox that there would be demons, and lots of them. He hadn’t bothered to mention how long he’d be gone. Nox was losing his resolve to stay still, and not flee to the open space of the desert outside. The smell would be better, certainly. He’d risk the sweltering sun over the oppressive heat of the tower walls. He knew, somehow, that he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d stay until Jaq returned. If he returned at all.

Delirium or exhaustion, perhaps a mix of both, kept Jaq’s words echoing in the back of his mind. Nox’s memory fixated and churned, making sure he had remembered correctly. Making sure he understood what Jaq had asked him.

Then you’ll have to protect her. That’s my last order.

The last order of Jaq Lo’ren, the most dangerous and selfish man to walk the earth: to do the most dangerous and unselfish act a man could do. To protect. Jaq’s final thoughts hadn’t been of the BloodGate, or saving the countless lives of the Jan’caran people, or even of himself (which still surprised Nox). Against all odds, the stubborn old drunk had remembered after sixteen years that he had a daughter and suddenly her life was valuable to him. What was worse, he suddenly believed that Nox was capable of protecting her.

A girl Nox barely knew, but had forever changed her life when they met.

Nox often wondered, if he had never met Malisyn or Allyn, if Allyn might still be alive. If Tas’kara had never been drawn to the village of Tor’vic, if she had just kept wandering the Glass Plains, if Allyn would still live. If Malisyn would be less broken. If Nox would be less broken. If Jaq Lo’ren would have wasted away in the Jan’caran desert without making Nox chase ghosts for three years for the hell of it.

His stomach had been full of regret for so long, Nox had forgotten what it felt like to feel anything else. And now, after so many sleepless nights and restless nightmares: a glimmer, the slightest stirring of something he hadn’t felt for many, many years.

Hope.

He couldn’t bring back Allyn, or any of the lives that the demon Ubel and his puppet Tas’kara had taken. But with time, he could keep them from getting Malisyn, the one they had wanted to begin with. He could keep that promise after they stopped Ubel Gale.

The Shard Sea and hundreds of miles separated Nox from his promise; the Endless Sands and the Burning City kept Ubel Gale safe. Nox would find, and kill, that demon after all. Then he’d return with Jaq to the Citadel, and keep his promise.

The BloodGate shimmered again, and Nox startled awake. The passage of time was so slow-moving, he didn’t know if he had drifted off to sleep or was just imagining the gate had moved. His vision was blurry and his muscles ached in protest as he forced himself to stand. His hand went instinctively to the blood dagger at his hip. He missed the first time.

Bloody demons, in this hot, bloody tower, stuck watching this arrogant, stubborn…The heat made him irritable. Sleep deprivation made him irritable. The thought of dying of dehydration, or starvation, or from demons made him more irritable.

A shadow moved inside the BloodGate. He didn’t imagine it. A long, slender figure stepped from the surface. Nox wondered if, somewhere, Ubel had just murdered another Blood Mage to make room. This time, he did find his dagger. The sound of metal sliding from his sheathe brought him a sliver of comfort. He stepped around Jaq’s body and traced a thin line along the top of his wrist. Just enough for the beginning words for fire, enough to be prepared.

When he looked up―the demon stood right in front of him.

Nox’s blood turned to ice. Before he could even think of his spell—thick, sharp claws slashed across his chest from shoulder to stomach. He felt his shirt tear, and his scarf snag, and his skin rip open like aged fabric. He fell to his knees in shock.

#

Glittering stars and sand blurred together like the ocean shore. Starr could no longer see where the ground stopped and the night sky began. She felt as if she’d been staring in to the darkness for hours. Her head nodded once and startled her awake. She had to stay alert, and reminded herself to focus. She was trying to keep them alive, after all.

Keeping pace with Kas’andra and keeping herself hidden had taken all of her concentration. She’d give anything to be safe, back aboard the Glass Fleet and sailing home towards the Blood Citadel. She exhaled, blinked to clear the grit from her eyes, and went back to watching the horizon for movement. The truth was, she wasn’t going anywhere until they found Tarik—dead or alive—and returned him to Jaq. She had no loyalty to the renegade Transcender, but her loyalty was to the Citadel and to Nox. Nox wanted Jaq, and Jaq wanted Tarik.

So she’d find Tarik and finally take Nox home.

You’d better be in one—non-mangled—piece when I get back, Nox. Her lip curved at the thought. It surprised her; she wasn’t one to worry about men. Let alone men like Nox; the life of a Transcender was a solitary one, with months and years between assignments. His journeys to Transcendence had changed him, mentally and emotionally. The darkness of Transcendence took a toll, either by right or by force. Physically, he looked no older than thirty summers, but Starr knew he was much older. He was unstable, and reckless, and–

What am I thinking? That’s exactly how I like my men. She rolled her eyes at the realization. She just had to find a way to keep Kas’andra out of his bed.

“What about Ra’ion? Didn’t you kiss him?” Starr asked, mostly to herself. If Kas’andra found the question uncustomary, she didn’t say. Starr was just trying to find someone else to capture the Jan’caran woman’s attentions. Kas’andra grunted, easily the most unattractive noise Starr had ever heard from her mouth. She couldn’t decide if it was a good sound or not.

“Yes, I’ve kissed him.” She turned her smokey silver eyes towards Starr. “Many times. But I have kissed many men. And women.”

Kas’andra’s gaze was always unsettling to Starr. She had very little experience with Jan’caran culture, and only what Kas’andra had told her—which she assumed most were pleasantly veiled lies. The silver and golden eyed people of Jan’caro were royalty, the woman had said. Their blood carried magic, manifested by changing their eye color, and caused them to stand out in the oceans of brown and gray-eyed masses.

Kas’andra had been born in to the royal family of Jan’caro and may even be in line for the Sun Throne itself. At least, that’s the story she liked to smile and tell over her fifth glass of Isaru wine. Kas’andra certainly didn’t act like she was interested in sitting in a throne all day. Unless that throne was also a bed.

Starr didn’t need any light to know that Kas’andra was smiling, and probably arching her carefully shaped eyebrow. A Jan’caran tradition that Starr had yet to understand, either when Kas’andra found the time, how she managed it or why. Well, she knew why: it gave the Jan’caran woman a very pronounced expression of—seduction.

It was a custom Starr was just thankful the men hadn’t yet adopted. She wasn’t sure she could resist. Between the thick ash eye-liner and sharp brows, she’d probably faint. And that was saying a lot: not even the rolling waves of the Shard Sea or the sight of blood made her faint.

“How much longer?” Starr asked as she rolled to her side. Kas’andra laid beside her and peered over a dune of sand. A howling wind blew across the ground and stifled their voices. Far below in a distant valley, a group of torches waited in a large circle.

“I’m getting the final count.”

Starr yawned and pulled herself closer to the edge of the dune. Her skin felt gritty and dry. She needed a bath and a good man. In that order. She felt her hip rub against Kas’andra.

“Now, be still. I can’t flirt and count.”

Starr opened her mouth to argue until she finally saw what Kas’andra had been staring at.

“Kas’andra, that’s an army–”

“It’s not an army. It’s not even impressive. Look, they have more men than torches. They’re afraid of the demons.”

“Aren’t we afraid of the demons?”

“We can fight them. These fools don’t trust blood magic, all they do is kill anyone who might save them.”

Kas’andra was quiet as she watched the torchlight fight against the night wind. The desert was restless tonight. She wondered how long the Onyx Sun would be camped in the open, and if they were as afraid of the demons as Jaq believed. They certainly weren’t doing themselves any favors by killing blood mages, the only chance they had to defeat the demons that roamed the Endless Sands.

The only lead they had on Tarik’s location was that he was either dead—or had been thrown as a prisoner to the Endless Sands, per Jan’caran custom. If he was alive, the Onyx Sun would have picked him up, so that was the first place they began searching for: the current resting place of the roaming band of thieves and bastards, the Onyx Sun.

Her last encounter with the Onyx Sun had been lucky; to the last man, they were traditional Jan’caran and fearful of blood magic that didn’t come from their Sun Queen or Royal Guard. They had gotten lucky that Nox and Starr had been able to bluff their way through the battle. Nox barely convinced himself he could cast magic at that point.

She smiled at the memory. She had only been sent to get Nox captured. Jaq had left the details up to her. And what details she had discovered. Nox may have been out of practice, but he wasn’t out of passion—

Kas’andra held up a finger to her lips. Starr froze in place. The curvy Jan’caran woman pressed herself close to the ground and drew a dagger from her belt. How Kas’andra survived in the desert in full dresses, Starr could never guess. The layers of fabric never seemed to slow the woman down.

Cresting over the hill came a torch—and behind it, a dozen figures, men and women armed with the wicked curved blades of Jan’caran soldiers. Starr studied them as quickly as she could. She only saw swords at their belts, no leather bracers or wrapped forearms. No scar tissue marred their golden skin beneath the light. She breathed a small relief: these men and women, at least, weren’t blood mages.

“We can’t die here,” Starr whispered. “Drop your dagger.”

“You are the worst lookout ever.” Kas’andra groaned. She spoke in Jan’caran, using the brief moment to study her opponents.

“I’m used to watching for ships, not men.”

“What about groups of men as big as ships.”

“You were distracting me.”

Kas’andra hesitated, counting the number of muscle-bound, broad-shouldered men that approached her. There were a few women in the group but they looked just as calculating as the men. Starr was right; blood magic or not, they’d overpower the two women. Kas’andra planned on dying on her own terms, not torn apart by a group of desert dogs.

Starr guessed she could kill one or two of them before they got to her, if she was fast enough—but she wouldn’t risk it. She sheathed her dagger instead of dropping it in the sand.

One man carried a torch. He wore a black scarf around his head and mouth, presumably to protect from the desert sand and from onlookers. He picked up Kas’andra’s dagger.

Starr held her breath: the last thing Kas’andra had told her about the Onyx Sun was that they killed blood mages on sight. She clenched her teeth and hoped Kas’andra had been wrong.

“The Onyx Sun does not take prisoners. Certainly not Citadel spies.” He spoke in broken Tala’rican as he pulled his black scarf from his face. “It does take the company of women, spies or not. We’ll have our way first, and then kill you.” The men behind him nodded and laughed.

“Although,” the man moved his torch to get a better view of both women. He did not restrain his gaze from their chests, and seemed to study Kas’andra’s hips longer than she would have liked. He licked dried blood from his bottom lip.

“I’ll make sure to take my time—“

“We’re not spies. We’re looking for someone.” Starr raised her chin, trying to look the man in the eyes. He stepped forward and she realized it had been a mistake.

“Did the Desert Demons send you to spy on us—blood mage whore?” He stared at Starr. His eyes were bloodshot. His nose was crooked and recently broken. A scar ran from his upper lip to the middle of his left cheek. The brand that stared back from his raised flesh told Starr exactly what his crime had been: it made her stomach jump to her throat. She could smell the stale beer on his breath and the scent of a woman.

For the first time in a very long time: Starr wished for a quick death.

The man spat on the ground, narrowly missing Starr’s boot.

“We lost you once because of your cursed magic. We won’t let it happen again.”

He pointed to Kas’andra then to Starr and yelled in High Jan’caran. Starr couldn’t translate, and by Kas’andra’s expression, she didn’t have to.

“Don’t fight them!” Kas’andra yelled.

She smelled rotting fish as a damp cloth bag was pulled over her head. This time, once she was blinded, she felt a hard blow to the side of her head. Then: darkness.

#

“Wake up. You’re not dead yet.”

Kas’andra’s voice made Starr’s head ache. Each word was like a nail pressed against her temple and slowly being hammered upon. It felt like the worse hangover she’d ever had.

“I feel close to it.” She mumbled. Her throat felt dry.

Kas’andra smiled in the darkness and Starr felt a damp cloth touch her lips. She touched her tongue to the fabric and the water slid down her throat.

“Slowly,” Kas’andra eased.

“Where are we?” Starr croaked after she was confident the water would stay in her stomach. Wherever they were, it was dark and quiet. The last thing she could remember made her close her legs together tightly. Chains rattled against the ground.

“Alive, that’s all I know. And untouched.” Kas’andra answered the unspoken question. “Right after that big idiot knocked you out, his boss showed up and knocked him out. And luckily, his boss isn’t as much of an idiot. He had the sense to throw us in confinement until they figure out what to do with us.”

“You mean other than rape us and then tear us apart?” Starr asked. The water in her mouth tasted stale and bitter, the coldness and comfort fled with her words.

“I’ll kill you myself before I let that happen.” Kas’andra whispered.

“Kas’andra, that’s awfully romantic of you.” It hurt to smile. Whatever hit her had left a bruise on her cheek that was puffy and swollen. They hadn’t stopped with her face: her ribs hurt when she laughed. It distracted her from the overwhelming fear that waited just beneath the surface. The wrong word or glance now, and Starr wouldn’t be very helpful at all. She took a deep breath.

“They’ve kept us alive this long. A few hours, at least. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t have the luxury of being knocked out.”

“Next time, I’ll remind them to hit you first.” Starr smiled and she felt a scab on her lip break open.

“I spent my time wisely. I’ve been listening. The Onyx Sun are nothing more criminals banded together loosely—and very loosely. They have one thing in common. Most of them speak High Jan’caran, which means they were close to the Royal Palace. So they’re civilized criminals, and may have served the Royal House itself. And that means–”

“Tarik might be here. At least we’re in the right place.”

Kas’andra rested her head on Starr’s shoulder. Starr flinched.

“Let’s just stay alive long enough to find him, and get out of this place.”

Starr cracked one swollen eye and glanced at Kas’andra. “And burn it to the ground.”

The Jan’caran woman smiled. “A woman after my own heart.”

Starr groaned.

“You want everyone’s heart. And their ass.”

She felt Kas’andra shrug beside her.

“Why limit myself?”

It was Kas’andra’s time to sleep, while Starr used one blurry eye to keep watch. The Onyx Sun did take prisoners, but not effectively. She may not have her blood dagger, but she could still feel her magic. She was fortunate the big idiot hadn’t kept his promise. He either didn’t know, or really had been knocked out just in time. Starr felt a tear roll down her cheek.

I’m not helpless. I have my magic, and my wits, and my anger. She smiled and the fear in her stomach began to subside. That’s worth more than most of those bastards already.

Kas’andra began to snore. Starr sighed, shifted her aching legs, and joined her. She was too exhausted to start looking for an escape until she got a few more hours rest: or they killed her. She didn’t sleep well.

#

Ubel Gale stood and looked in disgust over the army Aviv had provided him. Thieves, beggars, rapists. Not a single one of them trained in more than a curved blade or dagger. Some were cast out from the Royal Guard and had noble blood but most were little more than rejected house slaves and vagrants. Still, they had one advantage: none of them were blood mages. He had made sure the blood mages were killed. That had been one direction Aviv had been able to follow.

Aviv was told to assemble an army, not a disorganized, angry mob.

You should have killed him. A voice sounded in his head—or was it the wind? He smiled slightly, or someone smiled for him.

The Burning City and the nation of Jan’caro had been in turmoil since the their Sun Queen became ill. When her failing health became apparent, the Royal Houses and families within the Burning City began fighting for the right to succession. When she died alone three years ago, without appointing an heir—the city erupted in to chaos. Dozens of Royal Houses and families paraded for attention and claim to the Sun Throne. With blood magic outlawed in the city, and no heir to the throne, the Burning City had no way to choose their next ruler—except by force. The traditions of Jan’caro would not accept a new ruler unless they could provide Royal blood—any full Jan’caran blood that also was imbued with magic—and with the proper military background.

Aviv Ha’dar had been one such man with royal blood who had attempted to claim the Sun Throne and failed. Aviv was nothing if not relentless. The Jan’caran people, even after outlawing blood magic from outside its walls, still held strong to their tradition for their rulers: whomever held the Sun or Moon throne, must be capable of protecting the people and the land by magic. Aviv did not have magic, but he had something stronger: determination. Magic he could get through an arranged marriage; he needed influence. His need for power led him to desperate measures, the most recent of which summoned a man to his very doorstep—from death itself.

Aviv was sweating profusely. Sweat dripped down his sun-kissed forehead and stained his white scarf a tainted gray. His piercing golden eyes looked at Ubel, then back to his army. It wasn’t the heat of the Endless Sands that made the ambitious Jan’caran man afraid—but the abomination that stood beside him.

Ubel Gale, as the man had introduced himself to Aviv the past summer, was an outcast from the Blood Citadel in Tala’rico. Blood mages were forbidden to step within the walls of the Burning City if they weren’t Jan’caran, and even they were required to be born of Royal or Militant families. Ubel had been neither, and yet he had gotten within a dagger’s length of Aviv, and that alone impressed the Jan’caran Royal.

Over the next few months, Ubel had showcased his powers as a blood mage—burning down entire Royal Houses, with their families and slaves inside. Other families had disappeared, or gone silent and given up their claims to succession. Any who opposed Aviv’s claims to the Sun Throne were subjected to Ubel’s unique form of magic.

Ubel wielded a strange kind of blood magic, and he wielded it with a brutality that the Jan’caran people had never seen. What Ubel called blood magic, most would call murder, torture or sacrifice. He claimed to be from the Citadel, but even Aviv knew there was no school that could teach a man what Ubel practiced. Aviv was forbidden to see Ubel’s chambers, or visit his working area—but was required to send a number of gifted Jan’caran men, women and children upon Ubel’s request. Aviv didn’t ask, and Ubel only ever showed results.

The strange, ancient blood mage wanted an army of ungifted men. Of “pure” blood, he called it. And in return, Ubel would place Aviv upon the Sun Throne and then he would deliver to him the people of Jan’caro.

Aviv hadn’t realized at the time that Ubel Gale was little more than a corpse stitched together by blood magic. And a stinking, fly-ridden one at that. The smell only became worse in the heat. Ubel may not have noticed, as Aviv was sure the man wasn’t capable of feeling pain. Ubel had been summoned by Aviv, through a dangerous and complex ritual, and could not return to Transcendence until Aviv released him. Although bound to serve the Jan’caran man, Ubel had ambitions of his own and he did not bother to keep them a secret. Aviv would get his Sun Throne, and Ubel would rid the world of blood magic by force.

It only took a few well placed pushes from Ubel to get Aviv to agree: there was an infestation of blood magic within the Burning City. Ubel had shown Aviv a sight that few living still remembered: the remains of the first Burning City. An entire city, leveled to nothing but glass and ash. And all caused by the selfishness of blood magic. Aviv would be more than their Sun King, he would be their savior from the horrors of magic. He would unite all of Jan’caro, destroy the blood mage sickness that threatened to overwhelm their world and deliver his people to safety. No blood magic—no demons, Ubel had said. Everyone would be safe, with Aviv Ha’dar sitting upon the Sun Throne to rule them all.

Ubel would start by cleansing the Burning City. And everyone in it. Only the Jan’caran blooded people chosen by Aviv would be spared—and then he would destroy The Burning City. He’s make certain the Jan’caran people and the rest of the world knew that blood mages were responsible for the destruction, and this time: no one would forget. Aviv and the wife of his choosing would rule without blood magic. And from the Sun Throne, they’d cleanse the world with the fire of the Endless Sun.

Aviv blinked slowly. Often, the gaze of Ubel sent his mind spiraling somewhere beyond his control. His ambitions, his plans, even his memories—seemed thick and hard to remember. He wiped sweat from his forehead and pulled his scarf from his face to breathe in the cold night air.

“I have brought you an army, Lord Gale.” Aviv inclined his head and held his breath. A fly crawled from inside Ubel’s mouth.

“You have brought me the filth you already cast off to the desert.” Ubel’s dead white eye twitched. He turned a stiff neck towards the would-be Sun King. “Do not call this an army. Call it what it is: a search party.”

“What are they searching for?” Aviv asked. He swallowed around a cold lump in his throat.

“The first step in cleansing your Burning City. Finding the only person who could stop the flames: the BloodGate Heir. The only blood mage of any real consequence is sleeping somewhere withing your Burning City.”

“If we’re searching for a blood mage, wouldn’t we want other blood mages?” Aviv asked, indicating his army that was, as Ubel requested, not.

The man’s ivory colored skin drew tight against his mouth as he forced it to a stern, disapproving line. Aviv waited for the backlash that generally followed questioning of Ubel’s plans. Ubel took a shuddering breath, and Ubel could hear the air rattling around in his empty lungs. White eyes burned against gold.

“Consider it a mercy. If your army is without blood magic, that is a few less thousand I’ll be forced to kill later.” Ubel did smile for himself this time, he was certain.

#

The shock of death was cold and tight, like a lover’s embrace dragging Nox beneath the ocean waves. One last time. The realization that the demon had slit him wide open was more shock and disappointment than actual pain. Killed by a demon. Just a demon, not anything special. He hadn’t planned on Transcending. He hadn’t thought about the cost. The world of the living faded away as he felt his body fall to the rough desert sands. The last thing he saw before he fainted from the shock was the demon’s eyes staring down at him, knowingly.

They had wanted him to Transcend. At least he had been killed by a crafty demon. That made him feel a little better. As good as he could feel with his lifeblood pouring unchecked upon the ground.

A less experienced Transcender would not have been able to keep their grip on a dying body. Nox held on tight; his magic was stronger than most. Not that he’d ever tell them, of course. He slipped easily in to the cold embrace of death and closed his eyes tightly. He waited for the silence to overwhelm him—and then the screams. Without preparation, he was going to crash in to Transcendence without someone to watch over his dying body; and worse: he was going to fall like a shining star in the darkness. No blindfold to protect his sight, and no idea of where he may end up, it was all he could do to keep from falling past Transcendence to Final Death.

He had brushed too close this time. The chill he felt when the world surrounded him was colder than any winter night. When the screaming stop—he opened his eyes to the darkness.

Ice licked at his eyelashes and spread cold hands down his chest. The darkness shimmered and faded, revealing a desert full of star-filled sand. Miles in every direction, with an endless sky above. Far across the deserts of Transcendence, he saw the ghosts of The Burning City behind a dune. The memories of hundreds of demons, stumbling over each other to form some semblance of a city. Their attempt at humanity—stealing the memories of Transcenders and the innocents, and filling in the gaps in their own world.

Nox waited for a demon to find him. There was no entry to Transcendence without a cost. And this was an uninvited trip; Nox had nothing to offer and nothing to ask for, except to return to his own body. Well, he could think of a few things, if needed.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Over the black sand dunes, kicking up stars in its wake, a demon ran towards him. This one was female; with smooth white skin, the body of a human woman with feathers where her hair would be. Long, graceful feathered wings spread from her shoulders and long, curved horns jutted from the sides of her head like a goat. Feathers fell around her shoulders, soft and silky. Every few steps, she lifted her decidedly human feet and glided across the sands. Nox knew better than to trust the physical appearance of demons; often, they could appear as humans, or memories, or the something straight from a nightmare. They wanted something, and were prepared to take whatever form was necessary to get it. This demon preferred flattery—and was, to Nox’s memory—the most beautiful demon he had ever met.

The moment wasn’t meant to last, however. Just as the beautiful demon crested the hill and descended towards Nox—Jaq barreled over the opposite dune, trailed by another demon.

Nox recognized the demon that followed behind Jaq, from the rooftop back in Jan’caro. So, he hadn’t just imagined it. Jaq really did have a demon that followed him. Somehow, that did little to comfort Nox as the two raced towards him. The demon that followed Jaq slammed straight in to the other demon and the two went rolling in the sand, lost to Nox’s view.

Jaq approached Nox, his bare feet leaving no foot prints in the black, glittering sand. There was no sound, no howling wind, nothing but the sounds of two demons struggling in the distance. A woman’s scream pierced the emptiness of Transcendence, and Jaq’s demon reappeared. Bright, red blood dripped from the demon’s pale chest.

“Did you send that demon to kill me?” Nox asked, subconsciously running a hand across his chest, where he knew his physical body was bleeding out.

“Did I send the demon that cut you open? Yes. I didn’t send her,” Jaq waved behind Nox, where the sounds of the woman’s screams were fading and dying out. “I didn’t have any other way to get your attention. I’ll stitch you up when we get back. We’re running out of time. Follow me.” Before Jaq had even finished his sentence, he was walking up the black sand dune. Nox struggled to keep up.

The demon followed behind Nox; he tried his best to ignore it. The demon was half man, half beast, with long wings the color of shadows and a red blindfold over his eyes. Nox felt the chill of Transcendence begin to sink in. He knew Jaq was right: they didn’t have much time. His body was dying.

As soon as Jaq and Nox reached the top of the dune, Jaq stopped. He held up his arm to keep Nox from walking any further. Just as Nox opened his mouth to protest, movement caught his eye. Down in the shadows of the dune, the glittering lights he thought was the demon’s version of sand—was, in fact, a churning pile of demons. Their black, slick bodies rolled and pushed, fighting for room on the desert floor.

“Are they sleeping?” Nox asked, glad he didn’t have a stomach to worry about or it would have made him ill.

“They’re waiting. They have the advantage of not having time.” Jaq pointed to the center of the pile. As he did, the demons seemed to withdraw from his touch. Beneath the snarling, bloodied mass was the BloodGate. The shimmering surface of the gate was nearly overrun by demons, and the strain on the structure was apparent. Every few moments, a harsh flash of light would erupt from the gate, scattering the demons in every direction.

“It’s breaking, Nox. I can’t leave.” Jaq lifted his arm, and as if his words had made it happen, a chain appeared. One end stretched through the sand behind Nox, where he knew it would be connected to the demon. The other—straight down the dune and now tied irreversibly to the BloodGate. A faint light shimmered from with Jaq’s chest and vibrated down the line to the BloodGate.

“Right now, I’m all that’s holding it together. If Ubel sends any more demons at the BloodGate—well, I can’t stop them all.”

“Did you bring me here to show me this?” Nox asked. He watched as the demons smothered the chain, pulling Jaq a little closer to the BloodGate.

“I needed you to see what I’m dealing with, why I can’t come back. Just in case Av’niel asks, you can tell him I wasn’t lying.” Jaq pulled on the slack of his chain.

“Before you tell me anything else, Jaq. What is that?” Nox turned around and, as he had suspected, the demon stood behind him. Fresh red blood dripped down the demon’s human chest, over tight muscles and endless scar marks. Jaq spoke behind him, and he sounded tired.

“My price, as a BloodGate Heir. Saddled with my own personal demon.”

The demon turned, craning a muscled neck to stare with his blindfold at Jaq. The demon’s stitched mouth twitched and stretched in to what could only be called a smirk.

I had a name. Lost to this world. I was given one. A voice whispered against Nox’s ear. A man’s voice, and a woman’s voice, in unison.

“You’re going to have a headache when you wake up. Every time he does that.” Jaq said.

Nox felt blood drip down his jawline.

BloodBane.

“I answered your question—well, he did—the attention hog.” Jaq waved dismissively at BloodBane. The demon shrugged, a single motion that sounded like breaking glass. “You’ve seen my problem. Now, let’s get you a little closer to stopping it. We need to narrow down the hiding places for the BloodGate Heir in the Burning City. Whatever price the demon wants, I’ll pay it.”

“What demon?” Nox asked.

In a heart beat, or a blink of an eye—BloodBane appeared beside Jaq. Only the slight rattle of chains gave the movement away, as if he hadn’t been standing there the entire time. Nox felt the chill in his body fade away and was replaced by something warm, and gentle. He felt two arms slip around his shoulders and pull him backwards. He didn’t struggle; he wasn’t falling, he was flying, held in the embrace of a demon. It was intoxicating, and suffocating, and warm. He never wanted to leave.

“Nox, seriously. We don’t have all day.” Jaq cleared his throat. Nox opened his eyes. He was laying on the desert sand with his head in the lap of a woman, feathered wings draped over him like the leaves of a tree. Warm, red blood spread across her chest and dripped down her stomach. Claw marks—from where BloodBane had attacked her earlier. As Nox watched, the wounds closed and a string of light stitched closed her wounds. The blood soaked in to her pale skin.

“Demons,” Nox sighed. “How long did I lay there?” Nox asked, struggling to sit up. The woman released her grip with a sigh.

“She nearly killed you.” Jaq said and crossed his arms over his chest. The demon woman smiled, and she helped Nox stand back up.

“This one is awfully… helpful. Are you sure she’s going to ask for anything?” Nox asked. His skin felt warm where the demon had touched him. At Nox’s words, the woman turned to stare at Jaq. Her pale, shimmering eyes narrowed.

“This one knows me.” Jaq said with a shrug. “She’s usually first in line to kill me, and first in line to help. I’ve never seen her give anything for free.” The woman approached Jaq with arms open. He would have sighed, but instead surrendered himself to her embrace. She wrapped her wings around him tightly and pulled him close to her chest. All Nox could hear was muffled curses until she released him.

Jaq pushed her away, hard enough that she skipped across the desert sand and floated backwards. She looked angry, eyes darting from Jaq to BloodBane, back to Nox. The demon screamed, a sound that Nox would remember for a very long time, and flew off in to the desert.

“She looked angry. What did she ask for?” Nox asked. Jaq shook his head.

“She wanted you.” Jaq arched an eyebrow.

“You did say you’d give her whatever she wanted–” Nox said with raised eyebrows.

“I can’t give her a heart that is already taken. I told her she’ll have to wait, or settle for someone else. Looks like she’ll wait for someone else.”

The thought made Nox feel cold again. Could Jaq have just sworn Nox to the company of a demon? Was that even possible? Nox had been asked for many things by demons; some he could remember, some he couldn’t. Some he didn’t want to remember. Usually they were small things. A memory from his childhood, to change the color of his eyes, to visit a place and remember. He had never been asked to stay.

“She’ll be back soon and she won’t stay long. Do you still have that key I gave you?”

Nox reached to his neck and, for the first time, wondered if he was actually wearing anything. He had Transcended so fast and with such desperation, sometimes the magic didn’t always carry over. He was relieved when he felt the inside of his vest and the cold skeleton key that rested in his pocket. He handed it to Jaq. The key burned his hand as he let it go.

Jaq held out the key and waited. Nox watched the surrounding desert, still wary of other demons that may have been alerted to their presence. The only demon that returned was the woman, floating gracefully through the darkness on soundless wings. She hovered in the air before Jaq and reached out with delicate, clawed hands. Her touch was soft, gentle, knowing; she cupped her hands over Jaq’s and he dropped the key.

As it touched her hands, she screamed again, and a bright flash of light erupted. Nox felt himself falling backwards, Jaq stepped back but his chains held him firmly in place. BloodBane didn’t seem to notice. When Nox was finally able to see—the woman’s clawed hands were bloodied where the key rested. She turned her pale eyes towards Jaq, and Nox heard a voice again in his mind.

This is a BloodGate Key. A voice, a mix of ocean waves and wind chimes but decidedly female. What you ask of me will require payment. Not this time, Jaq Lo’ren. She craned her slender neck to the side as she studied the old Transcender. She gripped the key tightly between her clawed fingers.

“I’ll repay you,” Jaq said. His voice shook, and Nox felt dampness on his cheeks. The demon’s voice made him cry. He scrubbed the dampness away.

I will show you the way. She turned and looked at Nox. The price is his to pay, Nox’tellan. But I will keep my memory of you. If you need me, remember. And I will remember you.

Her words left Nox aching, not wanting to let her go. He strained to hear her voice just once more, but she didn’t say another word. Somehow, although the voice wasn’t entirely human, there was a quality about it that made him want to remember.

From the darkness shimmered an image—like a faded memory, unstable and dark around the edges.

This is a memory. From demon, or trespasser, I do not know.

“Trespasser?” Nox asked.

“She means Transcender. Anyone not a demon.”

The image shimmered, and began to move. The movement was quick and jumpy, as if through the eyes of a child. There were no colors in the memory; just the crowded streets of a moonlit Jan’caran marketplace. Nox recognized the hanging cloth used to cover the various shopping stalls, and all the burning lamps and torches that lit up the walls and pathways. Everyone else in the memory was faceless; their features burned away by time. All except one.

“There she is.” Jaq whispered.

Nox watched as the memory blinked, then approached the only woman with any features. She was young, Jan’caran, with dark skin. Her eyes glowed a slight color of gold—the mark of Jan’caran royalty, someone with magic in their blood. Her long, dark hair was braided with orange flowers from the desert. She tried to blend in, but the body guard that stood behind her—Jaq seemed interested in the man—told those around her she was anything but.

“You’re telling me that the person—the woman—that Ubel is after. Is a member of the Royal House? When was this memory from? Does Ubel already know?” Nox asked. The woman looked up from the memory, her golden eyes stared directly at Nox. Then, the image was gone.

“This was an earlier memory.” Jaq said. The demon nodded.

“How do you know?”

“The man guarding her—even without his face, without seeing anything beyond that. It was Tarik. Av’niel’s nephew. He must have discovered who the BloodGate Heir was and was caught.”

“Then they may both already be dead.” Nox felt his skin begin to prickle from the cold.

No. The BloodGate Heir lives. But her life is in danger, Nox’tellan. You must hurry. Use the key, you know her face; it will guide you towards her.

Nox didn’t what to know what that had just cost him.

Jaq drew his blood dagger from his belt. He took a step towards Nox.

“You know who you’re looking for. Take the key—find her, Nox. Before Ubel does.”

Before Nox could answer—Jaq had slit his throat.

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