The Burning City: Chapter 9, entry 3

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Word count: 1,808 Total word count: 57,939

Chapter 9 Entry 3

“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 worst 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 Aviv 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.

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The Burning City: Chapter 9, entry 2

 

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| Read Chapter 9 entry 1 | Return to the Table of Contents |

Word count: 1,645 Total word count: 56,059

Chapter 9 Entry 2

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.

#

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