The Blood Mage

It was important I suffer.

Suffer but not die. Too many had died so I might live.

I swiped my dusty hand across my brow and continued kneading the dirt. In the Zenabi desert, plants struggled to survive to adulthood, so each small shoot had to be carefully tended. One plant could mean the difference between life and death.

Life and death. A line I always seemed to toe but had to stay to one side of, no matter how much I wanted to leap across the chasm into death’s outstretched arms.

The sun’s rays beat down mercilessly. Through my cotton shirt, I felt the star’s flaming fingers rake my back. The whips of fire kept me grounded. My penance, my sole companion. My body tried to compensate by producing sweat which pooled on my skin only to be devoured by the arid desert heat, leaving nothing but a filmy, salty grime behind.

It was a discomfort I’d grown accustomed to over the years. At first, it’d seemed nearly intolerable, but I’d forced myself to struggle through the constant burns anointing my white flesh, refusing the salves offered by local priestesses. When my magic tried to soothe the worst of the blisters, water swelling inside me, I locked the rebellious power tight. I gritted my teeth and wrapped my heart in apathy, pushing myself to keep breathing. After a few months, I stopped burning beneath the pitiless sun, and my once-white skin turned the color of honey.

The sun rose higher as I worked, and my mind stayed silent. As long as I kept moving, I didn’t have to remember.

When my little pile of dirt was broken into clumps not much larger than grains of sand, I pulled a single seed from my shirt pocket to place in the ground. With all the care I could muster, I covered it, fed it a few precious drops of water from a nearby pail, and closed my eyes. Nikolai, watch over this seed as you once watched over me. Nurture it as you nurtured me. Help it grow strong and tall.

Prayer complete, I opened my eyes and froze. The ground before me was covered in shadow. Years of warnings to always be on my guard stiffened my muscles. Nikolai, my master, my lover, had schooled me to be cautious. My refusal to do so had gotten him killed. I wouldn’t let it do the same to me.

Slowly, I flexed my fingers, dry palms cracking as dust fell from my hands. I wanted whoever stood above me to know I was unarmed, to think I wasn’t a threat before I moved. Five slow heartbeats later, I cupped my hand over my brow to shield my eyes and squinted upward.

The woman hovering over me was enormously tall. Her hair was so blond it was almost white and when I searched her face, my eyes got caught up in hers—eerie gray bleeding into the whites of her irises. Her flesh was burned pink, telling me she hadn’t spent enough time in Zenabi for her white skin to adjust to the sun. Her face was strong and hard, and her thin lips were pulled back in an irritated scowl. She was dressed like I was, in tight leather breeches and a lightweight cotton shirt. Daggers were fastened to each hip with another on her right ankle. A Drifan, then, likely one of their famous women warriors. But why was a Drifan here of all places, so far from the sea?

I brushed the dirt off my hands and stood. I wasn’t afraid. Fear was an emotion for the living, not the damned, but I was curious. Drifans didn’t often leave their remote island homes. I’d only met one other in my life, one of the Sanctum’s Four—a water mage, like I had once been.

As if simply thinking about it gave it some reason to believe it’d been summoned, my magic bubbled to the surface, pressing gently against my skin, singing to me. I clenched my jaw and slammed it back into submission.

I glanced back at the woman’s unflinching scowl. I had no idea how long we’d stood there. Time moved differently in the desert, or in my mind, which one I wasn’t quite sure. Still, she didn’t speak, and because I didn’t speak Drifan, I started to rifle through the catacombs of my memory for the languages I’d abandoned years ago. “Brisetan?” I asked in that language. She stared blankly back. I frowned and returned to my memory’s library, skirting past the drawers where I kept the dangerous things locked up. “Vinostian?”

Again, nothing.

Before I could try a third time, a petite woman with skin the color of onyx shouldered her way past the Drifan and into my field of view. “Stazan,” she said, grinning.

I stared at her in shock as the drawers of those dangerous memories flew open, scattering dirt and ruin at my feet. My mouth dried as a name formed in the back of my throat and escaped into the world by way of a hoarse whisper, “Celine.”

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