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Excerpt for The Mage Heir by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








The Mage Heir


Kathryn Sommerlot











Book 2 of 2 in the Life Siphon duology













Cover illustration 2018 by Jenny at Seedlings Design Studio





License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

To Rob and Caroline—

the cheerleaders who always encourage me to keep writing

Table of Contents

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Prologue

Tatsu woke with such a start, he almost couldn’t breathe.

Heart hammering, he spun up and onto one knee, grabbing his bow and notching the arrow even before his thoughts had completely righted. He waited for one breath and then another, poised and ready to release the arrow into the shadows of the trees. Everything around them seemed threatening, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise—they were fugitives, after all.

His throat closed, pulsing along with his heartbeat. When nothing jumped out from the darkness, it seemed unlikely that the soft sounds were one of the queen’s guards come to drag them both back to the prison cells in Aughwor.

“Alesh?” Tatsu said, voice low. There was no response. It wasn’t Alesh and Ral either, and Tatsu was glad they’d stayed in Dradela, though his stomach clenched at the thought of the queen guessing their involvement in Yudai’s escape.

They were half a day’s walk to the mountains with their camp set up in a small clearing, close enough to feel the threat from both Chayd and Runon breathing down their necks. If the queen hadn’t sent guards after them, then Runon certainly had. The last thing Tatsu wanted was to underestimate Nota—no, his mother, no matter how difficult it was to think of her like that. Underestimating is what had gotten them into the whole mess in the first place.

Whatever was stirring within the brush faded away—a small rodent foraging across the forest floor—and Tatsu’s arms dropped back down to his sides. He focused on slowing his heartbeat back to normal.

He was jumping at shadows, and at such a rate, he’d exhaust himself long before they could hide themselves in the peaks. He settled back down and willed his body to relax as the branches overhead waved gently in the night breeze. There was nothing strange about the trees, but Tatsu kept thinking that he could hear them sing.

After traveling through so much of the drained land and its twisted aftermath, nature didn’t hold the same comfort that it used to.

Tatsu couldn’t see the moon from his vantage point beneath the tree cover, but he guessed that it was halfway through the night, giving them three or four hours before the sun rose. Yudai, sleeping several paces away near the fire pit, was curled into a tight ball on his leather bed roll. Occasionally, he would murmur in his sleep and turn over, but none of it seemed to be enough to wake him. Small favors, if nothing else.

Tatsu closed his eyes, but unbidden, his mind pulled up a scene he'd spent weeks trying to bury: Zakio’s body crumpled in the crimson-stained snow. Tatsu pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes hard enough to leave red spots dancing in his vision after he’d pulled both hands away. The image remained even after he resumed staring out at the trees. When he let his head fall back against the trunk he was leaning against, his hair caught in the rough bark.

At some point, he managed to nod off, still in the uncomfortable position against one of the thicker trees, and by the time he woke again, the sky was beginning to streak with color. Leaning forward, he winced at the pain the movement elicited in his stiff neck. He was preoccupied enough with the tightness to only vaguely notice Yudai stirring across the fire, but the anguished yell a second later startled any residual sleepiness out of him. A split-second of spinning around showed that they were still alone in the clearing.

Whatever relief he felt was achingly short-lived.

Yudai sat up with both hands raised in the air, looking from side to side. Around him, stretched out like a too-bold shadow, was his own sleeping outline burned brown into the withered grass. Tatsu could see the drained blades bent and curled over on themselves, even the ones that weren’t crushed beneath Yudai’s weight. In only a single night, life had been bled dry by Yudai’s wild, uncontrollable magic.

Yudai looked up at him, eyes shimmering with vulnerability.

“No,” was all Yudai said, and that single word reverberated through Tatsu’s core until he feared he could no longer stand. His chest heaved, a pang of copper blood on the back of his tongue.

The life siphon had endured.


One

From his vantage point atop an outcropping of stone on the east side of the mountain, Tatsu stared out over the horizon. The withered trees of the siphon’s original devastation stood out against the turning colors of the hill’s opposite side. Twisted toward the ground, the old trees were still there, but they were far enough away that they didn’t pose a threat. Still, Tatsu stayed for a few minutes, enjoying the last bits of warmth from the setting sun as he looked over the brown swath of long-drained land. With the season slowly cooling into autumn, he knew they wouldn’t be able to stay where they were in the high altitudes. Already, there was a chill when the sun went down that whipped against his cheeks, and the thought of remaining where they were, with relatively few provisions, wasn't helping the tightness in his gut.

After the sun began to dip low behind the dark shapes of the mountain range, Tatsu sighed and made his way back down the rocky slope. Their path, long abandoned and overgrown with weeds, snaked through the higher cliffs and coniferous trees, and they were high enough up on an old trade trail that Tatsu didn’t see any movement in the trees down below. While escaping had been the goal, the quiet around them gnawed at Tatsu’s subconscious. If anyone had followed them, he saw no signs of it, and the stillness was unsettling.

Hunting in the clusters of dark-needled trees was lacking. The abandoned paths only went so far, and after a while, they would have to start looping back, which would impact any potential food supply.

Tatsu couldn’t hear much by way of animal noise as he made his way back towards the small cavern they were set up in, but the mountain insects were already migrating down the slopes, and after that, the birds and rodents would follow.

Yudai was sitting near the fire when Tatsu entered the cave.

“Anything?” Yudai asked. He didn’t look relieved when Tatsu shook his head. The white-drained ends of his hair hung ragged in front of his eyes, but the roots were growing in their natural black, and the transition between the colors looked like a dark halo around the crown of his head.

“We have at most a few weeks of summer left,” Tatsu said, taking a seat across the fire. He leaned forward to twirl the hare that was roasting over the flames, split by a makeshift spit. “Anyone on our trail will probably give up once the cold front comes down.”

“And we’ll freeze if we try to stay here,” Yudai replied.

Tatsu kept his eyes steadfastly glued to the fire when he answered, “You’re not wrong.”

“You’ve been worrying about it for a week. I can see it on your face every time you come back from hunting.”

When Tatsu didn’t answer, Yudai shifted on the ground. Tatsu watched him stretch out his legs and wiggle his toes near the warmth before he continued, “How long were you going to stew over this on your own?”

“That’s not what I was doing,” Tatsu said, but it was weak.

“Well, you certainly weren’t being truthful.”

“What have I been lying about?’”

“We can’t stay here for much longer, and a lie by omission is still a lie,” Yudai said, sounding a bit put-out. “We have to find somewhere else to go.”

Tatsu looked across the fire at Yudai, who raised both eyebrows and said nothing. As the silence grew too imposing, Tatsu sighed.

“I’ve been going over our options,” he said, taking his time with the words. “I just can’t come up with an end point. We can’t go to Runon—”

“No, we can’t,” Yudai interrupted. His eyes flashed dark and angry.

“—and we can’t return to Chayd,” Tatsu finished. “The queen’s response at this point will be much worse than simply using you for revenge.”

“I’d rather die,” Yudai said, low and more of a growl than anything else. His gaze dropped down to his fingers splayed wide in his lap, curling and uncurling in tandem. “I’d rather die than be used as a slave again.”

After another tense moment, Tatsu said, “I know. I won’t take you back there, you know that. Right?”

Yudai raised his head, teeth chewing on his lower lip. “Where will we go?”

“Far,” Tatsu said. “Rad-em, maybe, or Joesar. Or we take a ship across the Oldal Sea to Dusset and hope luck is on our side.”

“Wonderful,” Yudai said with a mirthless laugh. “That’s worked out well so far. And what are we going to do when I start draining the world around me while we sleep every night? You know it’s getting worse.”

“I don’t have an answer for you,” Tatsu said honestly.

Yudai laughed again. “We’re leaving a bright trail for anyone hoping to catch us, without any plan on where to disappear to, crushed under the hourglass hanging over our heads.”

“Are you yelling at me or the world?”

“Myself,” was Yudai’s frustrated-sounding response before he pressed his hands against his face and stilled, lost in his own thoughts.

The hare was beginning to char on the bottom, so Tatsu spun the spit and sat back again. Even while staring at the sizzling meat, his appetite was fading away. Apprehension returned, throbbing in time with his heartbeat.

“They must have done something to you in Dradela,” Tatsu said quietly as the cavern seemed to close in around them. “There’s a reason that the drain started up again. It can’t be a coincidence that it was only after the queen tried to use your magic for herself.”

“Knowing that doesn’t get us any closer to shutting it off.”

Tatsu couldn’t come up with anything to say to that, at least not anything inspiring. Instead, he crossed his arms over his knees and tried to push the thoughts from his mind.

“You think this is a result of being a prisoner in Chayd?” Yudai asked.

“It makes sense, but I doubt you were in any state to remember what the Chaydese mages gave you.”

Yudai’s mouth was a hard line when he shook his head. “There was only a vague awareness of people around me and nothing else. It’s not very helpful.”

“Then we’re stumbling in the dark,” Tatsu said and sighed. After a few seconds of looking at Yudai’s form, dejectedly hunched over on itself, he added, “I wish I could find you something else to wear. The brown is insulting.”

“Is it?” Yudai asked, looking genuinely surprised. “I had no idea.”

“That’s the color that the lowest citizens wear,” Tatsu said. “For royalty, it’s… something akin to a slap in the face, I suppose.”

Yudai seemed to consider that. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s not an insult in Runon.”

“When we found you, you were wearing white.”

“Nota has a twisted sense of humor,” Yudai agreed. “In Runon, white is the color of funerals.”

“Fitting,” Tatsu said, and there was a sudden tightness in his chest that he didn’t totally understand. Across the fire, Yudai pushed himself up to his feet, his face still lined with a bitterness there didn’t appear to be a remedy for.

“Less talk of dying,” he demanded, “and cut up that hare. I’m starving.”

They moved on the next day, and the path they were walking sloped further upward through short, jagged switchbacks, though the route wove them around several large rocks and sheer drop-offs that Tatsu stayed clear of. Frequent rests, required for the demanding climb, slowed their progress. Even though they didn’t have a destination or an arrival time, the creeping pace made Tatsu’s skin crawl. The uncomfortable buzzing under his skin had increased following their discussion, and they had to get off the peaks before it was too late. There was suddenly a looming limit on their time, and as it crept closer, so too did Tatsu’s apprehension.

When they were unable to find a cavern to set up camp in, they had no choice but to rough it in a small clearing between the trees. Tatsu didn’t mind sleeping under the leaves, but Yudai’s agitation seemed to grow as the sky darkened. He paced back and forth between two ancient tree trunks with his hands clasped behind his back, over and over, until the stars came out.

“You’re going to have to sleep eventually,” Tatsu pointed out, voice mild, once the moon was high overhead. It earned him a growl in reply. “Please just sit down.”

“This clearing will be dead by morning,” Yudai snapped. When he turned to retrace his steps again, Tatsu could see the twist of his fingers clenched together in tight fists.

“You can’t do anything about it, so there’s no point in blaming yourself. It’s probably just making the whole thing worse.”

The look Yudai threw him was dubious at best, but evidently, the possibility was difficult to ignore. Yudai eventually settled himself down between two patches of yellow-green weeds, and he ran his finger over his lip a few times before his eyes flickered up towards Tatsu. “Distract me.”

“You could ask nicely,” Tatsu said.

One corner of Yudai’s mouth quirked upward. “I could,” he agreed, and said nothing more.

“Did you know that my mother had other children?”

Yudai blinked and sat back, face slackening.

“Good distraction,” he said, and from his tone, he was just as surprised by the question as Tatsu himself was. “I was actually wondering when you’d ask about that.”

“Did you?” Tatsu pressed. His lungs felt too big for his chest, pressing against his ribs in a mad attempt to break free. Part of him wanted to take the whole thing back, to inhale the words and swallow them back down his throat—but the other part of him was so desperate for the answer that even the anticipation of an emotional gutting wasn’t enough to stop it.

“No,” Yudai said. There was nothing on his face that betrayed any other truth. “Not until you showed up in the castle that day. But it makes sense.”

“Why?”

Yudai’s head fell to one side a little, and the white ends of his hair brushed against the curve of his cheekbone. “There was a mage in Runon, when I was young, who served as my mentor. He wasn’t particularly gifted or strong, but he was a sensible man, and my father respected him. He never tried to hide his distrust of Nota. He told me that she’d spent years trying to convince my father that marrying her and producing magical heirs was the best thing he could do for his country.”

Tatsu shook his head. “I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

“Don’t you?” Yudai asked, sounding surprised again. “If she’d had a child that possessed no magical abilities, it would severely discredit her bid to be at my father’s side. There would be no guarantee that their offspring would share the gift. Her only hope was to hide the evidence of such a child to save her own chances at becoming queen.”

Though expected, the hurt blossoming through his body shocked him with its strength. Shame rippled all the way down his arms, weakening his muscles until his fingers trembled against his thighs.

“It didn’t work anyway,” Tatsu said, so quiet he thought perhaps Yudai missed it.

But Yudai’s face was open with sympathy. “No, it didn’t. My father married an advisor’s daughter. And every chance Nota thought she still might have had was destroyed when I was born.”

“The most powerful mage Runon had ever seen,” Tatsu said and tried to smile. He couldn’t quite manage it.

He expected the quip to earn him a smirk, but instead, Yudai’s expression wrinkled further. “That’s what they said anyway.”

As Tatsu tried to pull himself out of his own thoughts, Yudai put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t do this to yourself.”

“I’m just—I’m trying to understand,” Tatsu said, and then clarified, “Understand my father, I mean. The Queen of Chayd knew about me and my heritage, but I don’t know how.”

“Your father probably went to the crown for protection,” Yudai suggested. “He was Chaydese, so the country would’ve felt compelled to help him. Without magic, you really weren’t much of a threat to them.”

Then Yudai chuckled, and his fingers tightened around Tatsu’s shoulders. “Until you were a threat to them, and in a way that no ruler ever could’ve predicted.”

It was not the first time that the full realization of his transgressions hit him, but it seemed to knock more of the wind from his lungs than it usually did. Tatsu struggled to find his breath and right himself in the forest that had suddenly flipped upside down, leaving him with nothing to hold on to.

Phehon,” he said as he squeezed his eyes shut.

“What’s that?”

“The Chaydese word for treason,” Tatsu replied. “I’m a traitor to the crown now.”

He ran a hand through his hair as laughter bubbled up in his chest. “A traitor, most likely bastard-born, abandoned by my mother and fearfully isolated by my father, exploited by the queen I then betrayed to save the life of a man I hardly know.”

“Prince,” Yudai corrected. “A prince you hardly know.”

“Oh, of course that makes it all better,” Tatsu said.

“It sometimes feels as if you forget that fact.”

Tatsu snorted and pressed his fingers against his temples. “I sincerely doubt that you’d ever allow anyone to forget that.”

He did feel slightly better, though, and the tension in his chest eased somewhat. He leaned back against one of the sweet-smelling trees, allowing his hair to get caught in the rough bark. Staring up at the stars twinkling between the leaves, it didn’t feel quite so bad. Each moment he was still breathing and still free, and the feeling of guilt slowly faded away into a low hum in his veins.

“Well,” Yudai said. “It could be worse.”

“That’s true,” Tatsu agreed. “Tomorrow morning, we could wake up to find you’ve drained this whole mountainside.”

Yudai narrowed his eyes.

“That’s not funny,” he said, but the lifting of his lips gave him away.

“Go to sleep, Your Highness.”

Yudai grumbled for quite some time while getting himself comfortable amidst the grass, and Tatsu just stared up at the moon, wondering if somewhere, somehow, his mother was doing the exact same thing.

He woke up to a strange silence, the suspicious absence of humming insects and singing birds a warning sign on the forested mountain pathway. Senses on alert, Tatsu pushed himself up to take stock of their surroundings, but it took a second for his eyes to adjust.

There were no birds up in the leaves above them. Over the closest ridge that led down the mountainside, however, he could hear a few jays in the middle of their morning serenades. The quiet seemed to be limited to their immediate area, and when he looked left over the remnants of the fire pit embers, Tatsu could see why.

The outline of Yudai’s sleeping form was burned into the ground, resulting in an expansive human shadow filled with withered grass blades.

As Tatsu stared, Yudai stirred awake and sat up with bits of the decayed turf clinging to his hair. He looked to both sides, and while his expression didn’t change as he absorbed the morning reality, his shoulders stiffened. When he looked at Tatsu, his gaze was very hard.

“You said that when you found me in the castle, I was surrounded by black market toxins.”

“That’s what Alesh said, yes,” Tatsu agreed.

“And we need to decide on a destination before the oncoming season change decides for us.”

Tatsu nodded, unable to follow.

Yudai bent over and ripped up a handful of the dead grass, apparently unafraid of the lingering effects the siphon always seemed to leave behind. Clumps of dirt and scraggly roots crumpled out from between his fingers.

“Then we go to get answers about what those poisons really did to me,” Yudai said, full of finality, with all the weight of a man expecting to get his way. “We’re going to Joesar.”


Two

Getting back across the mountains to the border of Joesar was no easy task. It took several days to backtrack away from Chayd’s territory and doubling over their own path significantly decreased both the edible vegetation and the wildlife. Tatsu spent an entire afternoon traveling up and away from the trade route they were following to get to the overgrown cliffs he could see from down below. He returned that night with two plump, well-fed pheasants and a jack hare in its light brown summer coat.

He set about readying the animals, defeathering and skinning before carefully trimming off all the fat he could find with his knife. Yudai hovered nearby, somehow enraptured by the process.

“You can use this for soup,” Tatsu said as he handed over the strips of fat and ignored the disgusted look that crossed Yudai’s face. “The fat will cause the meat to spoil faster, and we’ll need this to last.”

“You’re assuming there won’t be much hunting when we get to Joesar.”

Tatsu leaned into his work, slicing against the grain with precise, deliberate care. “Joesar is mostly desert, and we’ll be forced to travel at night, but the lack of food isn’t even the worst of our problems.”

“You think we’ll die of thirst,” Yudai said. He sounded cross, but he dumped the fat strips into the cast iron cooking pot that Tatsu usually kept strapped to the bottom of his pack and swirled them around with the wooden ladle.

“We don’t know where we’re going,” Tatsu told him. “I’ve never even seen a complete map of Joesar. Our best bet to finding information about the poisons is to head to the capital, but I don’t have the slightest clue which direction it’s in.”

“Moswar.”

Tatsu frowned, looking up from the growing pile of thin slices. “Is that a direction?”

“The capital of Joesar is Moswar,” Yudai said. “I’ve never been, but I had to learn about the surrounding countries during my lessons. My father had closed Runon’s borders before I was born, though, so I never met any representatives in court.”

“So you know the direction we should go?”

Yudai’s face flushed a little. “Northwest. That’s all I can tell you, and I wish it could be more. If I was ever taught anything else about Joesar’s cities, it’s gone now.”

It wasn’t much, but Tatsu tried to school his features into something he hoped would pass as optimistic. “Well, it’s better than nothing. At least we have a vague plan.”

Yudai shot him a look that clearly said Tatsu hadn’t fooled him at all. He continued to stir the fat bits in the stew as Tatsu finished cutting up the strips to dry and keep as jerky.

“I would have known more about these lands,” Yudai commented quietly, after Tatsu was done. “I would have been well-versed in the countries around my kingdom and their cities. I would have been taught more of their policies and customs as I grew into my time to rule.”

“I know.”

Yudai’s eyes locked on the pot of boiling soup, and Tatsu wondered if he was seeing something that Tatsu couldn’t. “I can’t stop thinking about it now, the life I should’ve had.”

Then he laughed, the sound sardonic. He wiped a bit at his eyes with the back of his hand without bothering to disguise the action as anything else. When he met Tatsu’s gaze again, his eyes were shimmering.

“This is stupid, isn’t it?” he said. “That I’m feeling this way now?”

“No,” Tatsu replied, voice gentle. “When we first got you out, the only goal was survival. There was no room for anything else. It’s after survival is guaranteed that everything else catches up with you. You’re grieving.”

Yudai barked out a laugh. “That’s a useful emotion.”

“But necessary,” Tatsu said, and Yudai’s next look was long and shrewd.

Neither of them spoke for a spell. Yudai didn’t look away during the silence, but Tatsu did, folding under the weight of the knowing gaze.

“What about you?” Yudai asked, voice sharp.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Tatsu said to the slices of meat, but it was forced even to his own ears.

“Survival is guaranteed now, right? Mostly, anyway. So what are you grieving?”

Everything was the honest answer, but Tatsu couldn’t bear to let it fall from his tongue. There was too much pulling his heart down into his stomach—too much that tasted bitter and ashy in his mouth, coating the flesh all the way down his throat. With every breath, he mourned the loss and then felt silly for doing so in the same instant. The truth of it was that he was grieving absolutely everything, even things he’d never really known, and he couldn’t separate the strands from where they were tangled up.

“The image of my father,” he finally settled on. “I thought I’d known who he was, but I was wrong. And now it feels like I’ve watched him die all over again.”

Yudai didn't offer any compassion in response. Instead, he said, “I know what you mean. Everything is different now.”

“I wish I could say that it gets better…” Tatsu started, and Yudai cut him off with another harsh laugh.

“Of course it doesn’t get better. You just have to deal with it. You learn to harden yourself against everything else.”

Staring down at his hands, Tatsu wasn’t quite sure that was the right answer, but he kept it to himself. He already felt exposed enough; Yudai’s eyes seemed like they could pierce through his defenses at the best of times. Sitting by the crackling fire with the probing conversation strung between them, it felt like all his shields had fallen away.

When Tatsu looked up again, Yudai was still staring at him, his expression seeking.

“Well, this has been a very uplifting conversation,” Yudai said.

Tatsu laughed, surprised at how genuine the action was. “I’ll try and tailor the rest of our interactions to bolster your spirits, then.”

“Don’t,” Yudai said, with force. “Don’t you dare.”

He looked uncomfortable when Tatsu raised both eyebrows across the flames at him. “You’re the only one who treats me like a normal person. It’s just… been a long time since anyone talked to me like an equal. Like I was something other than the prince or a magical prodigy.”

“And?”

“It’s nice,” Yudai huffed, and rolled his eyes. “Obviously.”

The tension in the air was back, and it was heavier than before. Yudai had curled in around himself, looping his arms over his knees as if he could disappear into nothing more than a ball of skin and bones. Afraid that he would shatter the easy chemistry of their travels, Tatsu let the subject drop.

“That soup should be almost done,” he pointed out. “Skim the foam off the top and divvy it up—we’ll need all the energy we can get once we hit the edge of the desert.”

Within three days, Tatsu could see an expanse of rolling sand dunes over the cliffsides. They were an hour or two from the desert itself, and already the air had changed into something much drier and sharper. The old trade road they’d been walking didn’t veer off into Joesar, so they cut their own path through the wild overgrowth that clung to the side of the last mountain like barnacles on the underbelly of a ship. The land seemed to pull away from the desert, and the rocks that met the edge were smooth, beaten for years by the harsh, dry winds.

As they grew nearer, Tatsu’s confidence wavered. He could get them northwest using the stars and the sun’s arc, but all they had was a vague heading. They didn’t know how long of a journey across the dunes it would be or what they’d encounter along the way. They were going in blind, and there were few worse things they could do in a new, foreign land.

Tatsu thought about bringing up his worries to Yudai, but they’d woken up that morning to find the usual dead zone had expanded further than it usually did. It could mean only one thing: the siphon was growing in power.

Yudai hadn’t said anything about it, other than a few too-casual jokes, but his face was pinched at the sides. His steps were more careful and his fingers more controlled. It was almost as if he were afraid to touch anything for fear of the siphon bursting free.

Tatsu took the lead through the thick clusters of coniferous trees until, suddenly, the trees stopped, and there was only the pebble-strewn, uneven cliff leading them down. Bits of the sand crept nearer and nearer to the grass, which thinned out until it was nothing more than tufts of prickly blades. Free from the mountains, the stretch of blue sky seemed never-ending without any clouds, and that would work against them.

Tatsu stopped moving before they reached the border so they could seek shelter beneath the last bits of the tree canopy.

“Now we wait?” Yudai asked.

“Now we wait for nightfall.”

They settled in for the last hours of daylight, and Yudai’s eyes fluttered closed almost immediately. Tatsu, however, couldn’t get his heart to stop hammering so hard, so he took the chance to commit what he could of the desert to memory. It wouldn’t aid them much as there was little beyond the dunes stretching out in front of them. The sand wove up and down like gentle hills, and past that, Tatsu couldn’t see anything they could use as navigation. There were no mountains or trees, just the vast nothingness of the rolling Joesarian desert. Even guessing the time needed to cross the expanse was impossible.

To their right, the Turend mountain range continued north to where it eventually met up with the Great Mountains of Runon. To their left, the peaks would slowly meet up with the Oldal Sea and the kingdom of Rad-em.

There was only the tan of the desert sands stretched out in front of them, tinged orange beneath the setting sun.

Tatsu waited until dusk to wake Yudai. Tatsu tried to look busy as Yudai stood and brushed bits of dirt off his pants, frowning down at the small ring of decayed undergrowth.

“At least you won’t be able to drain much in the desert,” Tatsu said.

“Small favors,” Yudai agreed, but didn’t seem cheered by the prospect.

As the sun dipped below the undulating horizon line, they set off into the sands. The air shimmered for only a half hour or so before it rapidly dropped the lingering heat. It settled around Tatsu’s shoulders like a cold cloak, but it was no worse than it had been along the mountain paths. The dunes beneath them were harder to deal with—the sand shifted under their boots, too dry to stick together as they sank down into it. Each step was a heaving lift to forcibly remove their feet from the granules, and overhead, the moon rose as a perfect half-circle, unobscured by clouds.

The desert itself was quiet, save for the breeze that rustled the sand in swirling arcs across the hills. Every once in a while, they would come across a part of the dunes where the land flattened and grew rockier, strewn with fist-sized stones that were battered and weathered from the elements. These patches were far easier to walk across, but what energy he saved in the journey, Tatsu redirected to intensify his own focus. It was in the flatter areas that he caught glimpses of the zig-zag paths left behind by the desert sidewinders. They likely hid in the shadows of the small rocks during the relentless sunny days and did their hunting at night. He hoped they were too big a target to entice the snakes, because he didn’t know how large they could grow out in the sands.

He stopped them every few hours or so for water. Even at night, the desert’s dry heat made it easy to fall prey to dehydration, and Tatsu was acutely aware of their limited supply. He rationed it as best he could and pushed their pace as much as possible without exhausting both of them.

Yudai didn’t seem impressed with the never-ending dunes.

“What’s the point to having this much sand?” he grumbled, grunting as he lifted his leg high to step over and across a shifting ridge. “You can’t grow anything, and nothing shows up naturally.”

“There has to be something, or else no humans would’ve settled here,” Tatsu said.

“I don’t think there are any humans here,” Yudai pointed out. “We haven’t seen anything but sand for hours. It’s a barren wasteland.”

“That’s not true,” Tatsu told him, as they paused for just enough water to wet their tongues. “There were several reedy plants at the last stop that likely grow fruit near the midpoint of summer, and I saw at least one lizard near the rocks that could be enough for a meal if cooked right. Besides, didn’t you see that desert hawk that’s been circling us on and off all day?”

Yudai stared at him incredulously for a long beat before his face contorted in disbelief. “A few plants, a lizard, and a hawk? You’re arguing an ecosystem with that?”

Tatsu shrugged. “I’m just saying, there’s likely more here than we realize, or else no one would ever have journeyed through the sand.”

Yudai sputtered out something incoherent, and Tatsu caught only snippets of words like “disturbed” and “reaching” before they started out again. At least Yudai’s grumbling provided decent background noise as Tatsu worked out their plan. The sun would be up soon; already, the sky was lightening behind them, where the last bits of the Turend Mountains could still be seen. The desert would be nearly impassable at the height of the day, and they needed to find somewhere to sleep. Unfortunately, Tatsu hadn’t seen any rock formations large enough to provide the shade they needed since they started out, and they had only an hour or two left.

Dawn proved even hotter than he’d initially anticipated. Before the sun had even fully rose out of its slumber behind the horizon, the air began to swelter and haze. They stripped off their outer layers and wrapped them around their heads to shield their faces, but it didn’t seem to do enough to stave off the worst of it. The rolling sand beneath their boots only served to reflect the heat back up at them, catching them in an inescapable pocket of broiling oxygen, until the sweat was running down Tatsu’s face so much that swiping his tongue over his lips rewarded him with a burst of salt.

“We have to stop,” Yudai moaned, wiping his hands under the white-black strands of hair and coming away with damp fingers. “We can’t keep up like this.”

“Ten more minutes,” Tatsu said. “To the bottom of this ridge so we can set up the tent parallel to the wind.”

It took several tries to secure his leather skin to the ground without trees to tie it around. He used his pack for one side, to pick it up off the sands, and the other he secured with their cooking pot and a bit of the kindling he carried. There wasn’t much space between the leather and the ground, but there was enough to catch the wind and allow it to flow through. The sand beneath the tent was too hot to lie on directly, so Tatsu spread out the sleeping roll and they both collapsed onto it. He stripped down as much as he dared, in case they needed to get up and moving quickly, but it wasn’t nearly enough. He lay staring at the underside of the leather. He could feel the sweat continuing to bead and roll across his forehead, likening him to a hare roasting inside cast iron.

“I can’t sleep,” Yudai said, groaning. “It’s so hot.”

“We need the rest,” Tatsu said, though he wasn’t able to relax any better. Outside, the sun was beating down on the sand, the heat rising up and wavering across the horizon when he squinted out at it from their boiling respite in the shade.

At some point, he did manage to drift off, only to wake in fairly regular intervals when his body simply was too hot to sleep. When the evening finally arrived with bursts of color across the still cloudless sky, he was painfully aware of how little sleep he’d gotten. His limbs felt heavy and foreign, as if they were filled with the same sand they were moving across.

He sat up and began pulling his layers back on. To his left, Yudai did the same, moving sluggishly. The heat was a physical weight on their shoulders, slowing all of their actions.

“I’m exhausted,” Yudai admitted.

“Me too,” Tatsu said and sighed. “We’ll see how far we can get tonight.”

Lack of energy slowed their pace considerably. Tatsu couldn’t tell exactly when his boots began to feel heavier, but it increased throughout the night as they traveled by the stars. He kept them moving northwest as best he could, charting from the constellations he’d known since childhood. He saw a snake slithering across the granules and a large arachnid that clung to the side of several small rocks. Above them, another desert hawk made lazy circles in the sky, punctuated by a few screeching calls. Around the middle of the night, when the air reached its coldest point and they shivered against the chill, the clouds rolled in and their route disappeared. They had to double back a few times after that to wait for a glimpse of the navigational stars between the clouds.

By the third day, Tatsu’s whole body might as well have been dragging across the dunes behind them. His legs ached from the extra exertion needed to move across the sand. His cheeks felt raw from the wind and his lips were chapped from the heat. Their water stores were down to half, and he’d seen nothing that would allow them to refill.

As dawn crept nearer, the wind picked up around them. What had only an hour before been the calm roll of the sand, tinged blue by the low-hanging moon, was suddenly alive in a swirling mass of air. It reminded Tatsu of Yudai’s magic in their escape from Dradela, accompanied with all the grains of sand that the wind could pick up. They both removed their outermost tunics and tied them around their faces to shield their noses and mouths, but the intensity of the storm increased with each minute that ticked by.

“There,” Tatsu yelled over the roar of the wind. It was an incredible stroke of luck—in front of them, half-concealed by the nearest sand dune, was a small stretch of rock slightly taller than them. “We can find shelter from the wind!”

It was a struggle to make it to the rocks, but they did, just as the sandstorm seemed to reach its peak. Tatsu had only meant that they could crouch down behind the stone and let the land take the brunt of it. He certainly hadn’t expected to find a small cavern carved into the rocks, low and black in shadows. Visibility dropped to almost nothing as he almost fell into it. He could have wept in relief as they both stumbled inside, sand falling from their clothes and hair.

Outside, the howl of the storm battered against their rocky shelter, and when Tatsu pressed his fingertips to his cheekbones, pain blossomed along the raw-rubbed skin. He didn’t know how long sandstorms in the desert lasted. Summers in Chayd would sometimes bring dust storms in from the coast, and the white-washed buildings in Dradela would later be covered in a fine layer of dirt, but he’d never seen anything so devastating before. The wind echoed in his ears, low and steady, accompanied by erratic clicks.

Gods,” Yudai huffed from behind him.

“We’ll stay here until the storm passes,” Tatsu said.

He shrugged off his pack, and it hit the ground with a strange sort of crunch. He was so rattled by the sting of the sand that it took a moment for the sound to register. Far too slowly, his eyes started adjusting to the darkness. He felt Yudai’s fingers wrap around his elbow in a grip that was almost tight enough to be painful.

“Tatsu. Do you hear that noise?”

He had to be talking about the clicking—the odd sound hadn’t gone away, even when the reverberations of the wind had. Tatsu couldn’t see the back of the cave without light, and everything was swallowed outside by the wind and rage. His body froze in response, muscles clenching. The two of them stood motionless until Tatsu’s eyes slowly started to make out the dips and swells of the rocky interior around them.

To his left, the wall was moving.

“Yudai,” Tatsu whispered, and couldn’t have gotten anything louder past his lips if he’d tried. “Back away.”

“What are you talking about?” Yudai hissed. “That’s back into the storm!”

“We have to get out of here.” Tatsu took a single step backwards until he realized he’d left his pack on the floor where it had fallen. His eyes were glued to the movement on the wall that he’d thought to be jagged rocks—it was instead hundreds of scurrying, clicking exoskeletons, walking over and under and between each other in a revolting mass of legs and mandibles.

They’d walked straight into a scorpion nest.

“Tatsu?” came the shaky question from over his shoulder. Tatsu reached for his bag, thinking only about their water supply kept within the leather, their only source of survival in the desert. Instead of his strap, his hand closed down around a wriggling insect. A second later, there was a flash of pain through his palm and then another on the back of his hand. He yelped and yanked the bag back, bringing several of the creatures with him. Another prick of pain to the back of his hand, and he stumbled backwards, finally dislodging the rest that had crawled up onto his pack.

“Run,” he gasped, pulling his throbbing hand towards his chest as he slung his bag over his shoulder. “Yudai, run!”

There was nowhere to go but back into the sandstorm itself. Tatsu pulled his tunic closer to his mouth, throwing his other arm up to try and shield his eyes from the worst of it. With Yudai barely visible in front of him, they ran into the mass of whirling sand until there was nothing else around them: no rocks, no sky, no horizon. There was only the wind shrieking around their ears and the sand biting at their cheeks.

Tatsu tried to push his tunic closer to his mouth when sand leaked in through the side and caught between his lips, but his arm, aching and stinging all the way up to his shoulder—had it always been hurting so far up?—didn’t obey his commands. It fell back down to his side as he stumbled, and the sand around him went black at the edges.

“Yudai,” he tried to say and wasn’t sure that he did. The wind was whipping at his clothes, but it was tilting to the side as the whole world started to topple over on itself, taking his body with it. He was only vaguely aware that he had fallen, because it felt like he lifted instead, up into the storm that was threatening to steal them both away.

He heard Yudai screaming his name, but that also got lost in the haze that seemed to float down and envelop him. The last thing he remembered seeing on the wind and sand was a hawk, that blasted desert hawk again, cutting through the worst of the clouds, and he wondered if the bird would finally find itself a warm meal out of their remains.


Three

He had no concept of how long he was out. When he finally came to in a burst of awareness both jarring and excruciating, there was only darkness and the sensation of cool water on his forehead. It took several moments for him to muddle his way through the foggy sensation enough so that he could crack his eyes open, only to immediately snap them back closed when the piercing light assaulted his vision. His head swam and his stomach roiled, but his throat was too dry to swallow the discomfort down.

After pushing through his nausea, Tatsu tried again. The second time, he managed to keep his eyes open for long enough to take stock of his surroundings: tan leather stretched over his head, several clay-based bowls next to his reclining form, and a rack made of large, smooth antlers holding a few wicked-looking blades. None of it was familiar, and bile burned up through his throat and into his mouth.

There was a flash of movement next to his side that only escalated his pounding heartbeat until a hand came down gently on his right arm.

Loanai,” a woman said in a tongue he didn’t recognize and then added in Common, “Do not worry. I will bring you water.”

Tatsu’s throat was too sore to respond. A splash of cold hit his lips, and his mouth opened greedily to gulp it down, but the flow of drink ended before he was fully quenched.

“More,” he rasped.

“Not now,” the woman said. “Your body is too sick. If you can keep it down, I will give you more as the sun sets.”

Tatsu had to close his eyes again. Even the sunlight filtering through the thin patches of the leather tent was too much to handle. He swallowed several times, body still alight with pinpricks of pain, and tried to shift his position.

“Where?” he asked.

“In the Cabaj dominion of the desert,” was the response, “north of the ridgeline and east of the An-ny oasis.”

None of that meant anything to Tatsu, though even if he had knowledge of the area, he wouldn’t have been able to place it. He was too light-headed to focus on much. As his thoughts fluttered in and out without settling on anything, he tugged his heavy eyelids open again. The woman standing over him was nearly covered in wide-woven layered fabrics, save for her face, which was dark brown in color. As she looked at him, the corners of her mouth were pulled down in what appeared to be sympathy.

“Yudai?” he asked.

“Ah, your friend,” she said, and her lips twisted into a smile. “He is quite fine. Bossy, but fine.”

Tatsu sighed as his muscles uncoiled and his weight settled down into the hazy waves of throbbing pain. His body wanted to drift because it was easier than dealing with the reality of the situation, but his mind struggled to stay aware. He was in an unknown area, surrounded by strangers, and his training was screaming warnings at him. Walking into the wilds without knowing what manner of beast lurked within was suicide.

Still fighting against the war inside, he took another slow, shuddering breath before his body won out, and he fell into the embrace of darkness.

The second time he woke, his head felt clearer. The light still burned, but he pushed through it and opened his eyes to find Yudai seated next to him, hovering over the skins Tatsu was resting on.

“You’re awake,” Yudai said. Tatsu couldn’t tell if he was concerned or irritated, and Yudai’s face betrayed nothing.

“You’re alive,” Tatsu replied, joined by a rush of warmth in his blood. Yudai was intact and seemed to be in much better condition than Tatsu himself. “We both are.”

Yudai’s face clouded. “But only barely. And your hand…”

That alone was enough to jolt Tatsu out the rest of his haze. He hadn’t even noticed that he’d failed to get any responses from his left hand. He craned his neck down to look at it and found himself staring at several layers of wrapped linens, crusted and solid as if they’d been thoroughly soaked and then left to dry that way in the heat. He tried to wiggle his fingers inside the wrapping but couldn’t feel anything. Below his elbow, his senses disappeared completely.

His chest tightened as he realized that he wasn’t even sure his hand was still there.

“Is it…?” He couldn’t finish.

“The toxins nearly killed you,” Yudai said. He no longer sounded annoyed; instead, his voice was thick with regret. “Nys said—”

“Nys?”

“The woman taking care of you,” Yudai said. “She’s acting chief of the Cabaj-walkers. She gave you some kind of tonic to neutralize the poison and then drew it out with these big leaves I didn’t recognize.”

Tatsu stared down at the cloth covering his arm. “Is my hand still there?”

“Yes.” The guilt hadn’t left Yudai’s tone, and wondering why made Tatsu’s stomach heave. He turned away from his arm, trying to think about anything else.

Yudai leaned forward, dragging his hands slowly over his face before peering back down at Tatsu with a heavy expression. “Tatsu, I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“This shouldn’t have happened,” Yudai said. “I should’ve been able to do something to stop this. If I had access to my magic, I could’ve helped you. I could’ve stopped the toxin.”

“You can do that?” Tatsu asked.

“I can do anything,” Yudai said, eyes blazing, and the absurdity of the claim made Tatsu smile. They sat for a few minutes in silence, and the coolness of Yudai’s hand on his good arm was a small bit of solace in the bright, sunlit bleakness. Then the flap of the tent opened as Nys walked inside carrying a clay bowl in her hands.

“You are still here,” she said to Yudai. His face scrunched up at the edges, but he didn’t say anything. There seemed to be more behind her statement that Tatsu was missing.

“I heard that you saved my life,” Tatsu said, and the skin around her eyes crinkled in a warm smile.

“That is the duty of the walkers.” Nys shooed Yudai away from the side of the bed to take his place. “How are you feeling now?”

“Tired,” Tatsu said, “but grateful.”

He didn’t mention his arm, because he didn’t really want to know about it. In a perfect world, sidestepping the topic would cause it to disappear. But Nys reached for the hardened linens despite Tatsu’s mental prayers to avoid it and began to pull them apart.

“Is he going to be all right?” Yudai asked from behind her shoulder. He inched around her near Tatsu’s head, radiating a nervous energy that seemed to rattle the whole tent.

“He will live,” Nys said. It was not a comfort.

The world seemed to still as Tatsu waited for her to finish unwrapping his hand, his heart sinking lower and lower with each piece removed. When Nys got to the end, there was nothing—no sudden feeling, no reaction from his arm. The skin of his arm looked pale and sickly, even in the well-lit interior of the tent, and there were long streaks of black just beneath his skin. Whatever the toxin of the scorpions was, the effects of it were still visible.

“Do something,” Yudai ordered. “Wiggle your fingers.”

“I’m trying,” Tatsu admitted quietly.

And he was, only nothing happened. He couldn’t tell if the commands to his hand were being received. There was no response, not even the barest shiver of movement. His hand might as well have been missing below his elbow for all he could feel.

Tatsu raised his eyes to Nys’ face, unsure what he was searching for. “I can’t move them.”

She stepped forward to grasp his bad hand. “Can you feel this?”

“No,” Tatsu whispered.

Yudai stared at Tatsu’s motionless hand with a thunderous expression before storming out of the tent without another word.

Nys sat back, and Tatsu tried to take some comfort in the fact that her expression hadn’t changed. “The toxin has been removed. I believe the feeling will come back in time, after your body has time to recover.”

“And I’ll be able to move it?”

“It is possible,” she said.

Tatsu’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, prohibiting him from saying more. He stared at the flap in the leather that Yudai had disappeared through.

“Give him time,” Nys said quietly as she smoothed the pelts beneath her knees. “He refused to leave this tent once we knew you had passed the critical phase and would live.”

“What has he told you?”

Nys stood, and Tatsu could hear the cracking of her knees. “Enough. Your survival was more pressing than your background. The poison of the enlusk scorpion is quick.”

“Why help us?”

“What danger were you to us?” she asked. “You were half-dead. I will bring you some food. It would be helpful for your blood if you got up and stretched your legs. The healing will progress faster if you are active.”

It took an hour or two, plus a hearty meal of a grain-based stew, for Tatsu to feel strong enough to push himself up from the pelts and move around. Nys helped to set his lifeless arm in a linen sling held close to his chest. At first, he was unable to take more than a few steps without feeling winded, and his muscles were shaky from the period of disuse. But the worst of it was the sensation of a dead limb attached to his body—it was suddenly foreign, an object he didn’t recognize, grafted to his chest like the ghost of what he used to be.

Slowly, he made his way outside of the tent. The sun was falling overhead, his only notion of time in the desert, and the air was beginning to cool. He didn’t know how many days he had been unconscious, which was unsettling, and he still didn’t know where in the desert they were. As he stepped out to face the setting sun, he couldn’t see any sign of mountain peaks on the horizon behind the leather dwellings.

Nys’ band of Cabaj-walkers wasn’t large; Tatsu counted only seven tents, plus a half-tarp that appeared to be a makeshift stable for short, stocky horses. But all of the supplies looked sturdy and well-worn, as if the entirety of the camp had seen many seasons in the harsh desert. The leather was almost the same color as the sand itself, and if viewed from afar, the tents would blend in with the dunes. It was a good camouflage, especially if one expected hostile outsiders. He didn’t know the political situation within Joesar, but that aside, a good defense was a practical base for everything.

With the sun going down, some of the walkers had set up torches in the sand that bathed the area in orange. The others milling nearby were dressed like Nys, with many light layers crisscrossed, likely to be taken off as the heat reached its peak during the day. Their heads were covered with loose hoods and their feet with tall boots that tied near the knees. Tatsu watched them move around the tents with practiced precision before he finally spotted Yudai near the far side of the camp, staring off into the distance. It was still difficult to move across the sand, and his exhaustion didn’t help matters.

He approached Yudai slowly and stopped a few paces away.

“Nys says my hand might get better,” he said. “The feeling should come back.”

Tatsu had guessed Yudai was feeling guilty, but as the other man whirled on him, he realized what he was actually seeing wasn’t regret but anger. Yudai was almost sparking with rage, eyebrows furrowed and lip curled back so that he looked more like a feral cliffcat than a man.

“How can you do that?” Yudai growled. “How can you talk about this so calmly?”

“It’s not the end of the world…”

“Look at you!” Yudai cried with a wide gesture of his arm towards Tatsu’s sling, and the implication of it stung so bad Tatsu nearly stumbled backwards. “Look at what’s happened! Look at the consequences of what was done to me! And it’s going to keep happening as long as I’m alive!”

A bubble of emotion lodged in Tatsu’s throat. “It’s not necessarily forever. It might get better—”

“And you’re acting like this?” Yudai’s voice was loud, too loud, his shouts carrying easily on the still air. “How are you not angry?!

“Of course I’m angry!” Tatsu exclaimed. It physically hurt when the dam burst free; his veins were on fire, and so were the tips of his ears, and it felt like every muscle in his body was throbbing in time with his heart. “Gods, Yudai, I’m furious! Do you think I don’t realize what this means? That I’ll never shoot a bow again? That I’ll have to relearn every skill I’ve ever been taught? I know what this means, and it could be a death sentence! Of course I’m angry. But I’m not angry at you.”

There was a moment of perfect stillness before Yudai’s expression collapsed.

“You should be,” he moaned, and his head sank down to his hands.

“This isn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it is.” The words were a bit muffled by the palms of his hands. “All of this is because of me. You did all this just to try and save my life by basically giving up yours. I should’ve been able to do something.”

He turned his back on Tatsu to face the sand and wiped at his face with his sleeve. Tatsu could almost see all that loathing turn inwards—frustrated and powerless, with nowhere to go. It bottled up in Yudai’s shoulders, slumped forward and down. Tatsu closed his eyes for a second, as if the blackness could swallow up all the time since they’d crossed into Joesar’s borders. He took several deep breaths to settle himself and then cracked his eyes open again.


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