Fires of the Desert: Chapter One (excerpt)

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Fires of the Desert

Leona R Wisoker

The small candle flame went out without warning, leaving Alyea in complete darkness. In the silence, her own breathing seemed loud in her ears, and her sweat stung her nose, pungent and sour.

Midnight-chill air currents flowed around the edges of the shuttered window. She shivered, sweat cooling to icy unease; a warm breath on the side of her face did nothing to reassure.

“See it lit,” Deiq said in her ear, his low voice as dark as the room around them. His presence warmed her back and legs. “Know it’s lit.”

Alyea drew a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tried to remember what a lit candle looked like. Deiq’s presence behind her was a distraction; she had a sudden recall of his hands sliding over her skin–had it been only hours ago? She shivered again, but not with chill this time.

He sucked in a sharp breath, his hands closing around her shoulders. “No problems with your memory, at least,” he muttered. His fingers dug in, then relaxed, amusement returning to his tone. “You need to focus. Put that aside and focus, Alyea. Think of the candle–”

She made herself think of the candle; put her attention on thinking about the shape, the color, the stand, the wick. The image solidified in her mind. She saw a glow forming at the tip, a faint yellow, blue, flaring orange for just a moment–

Deiq’s hands tightened again. “Open your eyes.”

Across the room, the candle flame swayed in the air currents.

Good,” Deiq said, giving her a little shake. “First try. That’s damn good.”

His arms came around her from behind, hands splayed across her stomach. He pulled her back against him; she started to turn, found he wouldn’t allow it.

“See it out,” he said in her ear. “Bring back the dark.”

The heat of his body against hers made it impossible to think about anything else. He’d turned out to be very good as a lover; as he ought to be, with centuries of experience. Her breathing hitched, went ragged.

“You have to learn to handle distractions,” he said, staying perfectly still. “Candle, Alyea, candle. Think about the–”

On mischievous impulse, she focused instead on an explicit memory from earlier that morning.

He grunted as if struck, his own breath turning rough; went to his knees as though they’d simply given way beneath him. His arms wrapped around the outside of her legs.

“We have got to get you some kathain,” he said, then laughed, ducked down, lunged forward and up, lifting her onto his shoulders. She shrieked like a child without meaning to, grabbing his hair for balance. Her face went hot with embarrassment at the involuntary reaction.

Still laughing, his hands anchoring her legs, he turned to face the candle again. “Look at the damn candle,” he said. “See it out.”

Darkness descended a heartbeat later.

“Good,” Deiq said. “Now, while I have your attention, think about what you just did.” No amusement or warmth remained in his voice. “You decided something would be a certain way, and it was that way. A candle is small. It doesn’t take much effort. Don’t mistake a bonfire for a candle.”

Suspended in darkness and silence, her pulse jagged from the surprise lift, she had no breath or voice to answer with.

Deiq stood still for another moment, as though waiting, or thinking; then, in a swift movement, reached up, lifted her over his head and down to the floor again. He pulled her against him and said, “There’s something needs to be done. I haven’t–been able to. Maybe you can.”

He breathed against her hair for a few quiet moments, his hands tight on her hips.

“Follow me,” he said at last. The candle flared to life again as he stepped back, releasing his grip. Alyea turned to look up at him and found his expression bleak and grim. She stepped back rather than forward, a chill running through her chest.

“No–” she said, suddenly knowing, if not what, at least where he was talking about.

He shook his head, then turned away and walked through the doorway.

“Could we at least wait for daylight?” she said to the empty room, knowing perfectly well his sharp hearing would pick it up.

No answer. Her hands clenched into fists as the silence continued and the candle slowly began to gutter.

Shit,” she snarled, and made herself follow him.

The stairs seemed to go on forever, yet ended far too soon. Deiq was waiting for her, leaning against the wall beside the lowest door to be found in the entire tower: a heavy metal door, studded with black rivets and radiating an underground chill. A lantern hung on a hook by the door provided barely enough light to see Deiq’s taut expression.

Veils of shadow gathered in every crease and hollow of his lean face, threaded along the long strands of ebony hair. His black eyes gave away nothing in bright light; and here, masked in uncertain illumination, they conveyed even less than usual.

She stopped three steps from the bottom, staring down at him with a sudden bright hatred blossoming in her chest.

He glanced at her, then put his attention to the floor before him. “I’ve never been inside,” he said, voice muted.

Her rage damped instantly.

Deiq knew what had happened in the room beyond that metal door as well as she did; had his own weight of pain over the matter, obviously, although he’d never shared that with her. The rooms above their heads were almost entirely decorated with breathtaking murals of sunny days and vast landscapes, images that portrayed only joy and love and beauty. Images done by a master’s hand.

Deiq’s hand.

He’d painted the inside walls of the former Northern Church tower with an eye to the good that had gone on here, not the evil that had slowly wormed through the previous inhabitants. It had to have taken him months of unsleeping, unrelenting effort and attention–and he’d never come below the first floor? Not once?

What had happened to him here? She knew better than to ask aloud, and the slight, sharp movement of his head told her that he’d heard the thought and wasn’t answering.

Alyea came the rest of the way to his side and said, hoarse with conflicting pains, “Get it over with, then.”

He let out a long breath and raised a hand. The door shifted in its frame, opening as though on its own. A fetid stench spilled out. Alyea put a hand over her nose, gagging.

Deiq gripped Alyea’s shoulder hard. Fine tremors ran through his muscles, and he breathed in great, rasping gasps.

“Ah, gods,” he muttered. “Bad idea–”

“Focus,” she said sharply, prodding him in the stomach; his eyes popped open, and he stared at her as though shocked from a dream. “Focus, damnit!”

He wet his lips, his gaze fixed on her with disconcerting intensity. “Yes,” he said. “Focus. Thank you.” He swallowed hard, raising his head to stare at the darkness beyond the now-wide-open door. After a moment, he let go of Alyea’s shoulder and said, “I can’t do it. It’s–I can’t explain right now.”

He raised his hand again; the door began to swing ponderously shut.

Alyea put out a foot and stopped it. “No,” she said, black fury suddenly surging through her. “I’m not walking away. I’m not letting what that ta-karne did stop me.”

“Alyea–”

No.” She swung to face the doorway and willed any candles in the room to light.

Deiq let out a sharp, pained hiss.

The room beyond flared into bright detail. Multiple lanterns along each wall, as many thick candles in arrays and singles; a loose pile of candles had been dropped atop a rumpled mound of dark cloth. The cloth went up a moment later, kindling that had only been waiting for an invitation.

Alyea spared the growing blaze a disinterested glance, enough to be sure it was only cloth and not a body left behind. She advanced a step into the room, studying the contents with growing anger.

The walls were a pale yellow, a mild and obscenely pleasant color compared to what lay within their bounds. Alyea recognized a number of the tools laid on the small tray stand by each table; Tevin had used most of them on her. She’d only been spared from the items too large to fit into Tevin’s work chest, and there weren’t many of those.

Worst of all, the tools were, one and all, clean; even shining, as though the occupants had scrubbed them and polished them with meticulous care before setting them in neat rows and walking away to some other, more reputable way of making a living.

The stench of the room had no clear source; no blood staining the tables, no urine sprayed against the walls. But Alyea could hear the screaming that had happened here, could feel the pain washing through the air like a dark rip-current.

For just a moment, she thought she could smell rosemary and garlic.

Fuck this!”

She didn’t realize she’d said it aloud–no, shouted–until she felt the strain tickling through her throat in its wake. A heartbeat later, the candles and lanterns–

–just–

exploded, throwing a white flare of heat across the room; she staggered back a step, felt Deiq’s hands lock onto her, drawing her out of the way. The metal door slammed shut, leaving them outside the room. A series of muffled booms shook the ground.

“Gods damn,” Deiq said, his whole body trembling, and pulled her close against him.

Alyea heard something sizzling inside the room. A thick heat began to emanate from the metal door. The booming faded to a sharp, erratic popping.

It took her a few more moments to realize that Deiq was shaking, not with fear, but with laughter. She jerked free and glared up at him.

“Well done,” he said, grinning openly. “Now, about the difference between a candle and a bonfire–”

“You–” Bastard never made it out. A wave of dizziness crashed over her, and she fell forward into complete darkness.

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“The difference,” someone said in a grey haze, “is the anger. Fire needs strong emotions; the stronger the emotion, the stronger the fire.”

She blinked. The grey stayed, blocking her vision.

“To work with water needs an entirely different approach,” Deiq’s voice went on, placid and even. “As does air, and earth, and spirit. And each one takes a different toll on you.”

“Bastard,” she managed to croak.

“Don’t waste your time with being angry at me,” he said, tone mildly amused. “Pay attention.” A snapping noise in front of her; then he asked, “Can you see me?”

Abrupt terror washed through her. “No!”

He grunted. “Give it some time. You did the hells’ own job on that room. I doubt we’ll find anything left besides melted slag once we open the door. That took a huge effort on your part, and it had to come from somewhere. You’re paying that price I mentioned.”

“You tricked me!”

“I taught you something important.”

Sensations resolved: the feel of the thick bed-mat beneath her, her clothes hot and scratchy, muscles from wrist to shoulder quivering as though just released from an incredible strain. Air currents chilled one side, warmth radiated on her other. Deiq had to be the source of the warmth.

She punched out to the left, hard. He caught her hand in his own and laughed.

“You’re wasting your energy,” he said, moving her hand to rest on her chest. “There’s no point being angry at me, Alyea. What emotion do you think you need to work with water? What’s opposite from anger and hate?”

She drew in a long breath, squeezing her eyes shut, and made herself be calm and still. “Grief,” she said at last.

“No.”

She considered a while longer; at last said, tentatively, “Love?”

He hummed to himself for a moment, then, “Not exactly. But that’s a mistake most humans make. Do you know what hatred is? You know what it feels like. But what is it, really?”

She opened her eyes; the grey haze blocked vision, so she shut them again and lay still, thinking about that. Anger still simmered through her, a desire to shout and scold Deiq until heunderstood that he’d been wrong

“Think about what you’re thinking,” Deiq said. “That’s your answer.”

“I’m not thinking that–”

She stopped, considering, and finally abandoned her initial protest of I’m not thinking that I hate you; that was too obvious an interpretation, and Deiq rarely did that. So he meant her to see something else. She thought about her anger, her desire to argue with him, and slowly sorted through to what he had more probably meant her to see.

“I don’t–have the words,” she said at last. “Something about…not wanting to understand the other point of view. Shutting out anything but your own belief.”

“Good.” Deiq hitched around to sit directly behind her. He leaned forward, his breath warm on her forehead; worked his fingers into her hair, rubbing Alyea’s scalp lightly. His hands slid around to just behind her ears, then he hooked his fingers gently under the base of her skull, to either side of her spine, and tensed into a slight pull.

Alyea moaned as knots of tension dissolved, and relaxed into his hands without hesitation.

Deiq released his hold, massaged her scalp again briefly, then splayed his hands along her cheeks and said, “You’re doing very well, Alyea. I mean that. Most desert lord trainees are already aware of what I’m teaching you before they ever reach the trials. I’m doing things the hard way because we’re having to skip over years of training in a hurry.”

She listened to the thudding pulse working through his hands and said, “Is that an apology?”

His hands tightened a little, then pulled away.

“No,” he said. “I don’t have anything to apologize for.”

Annoyance flared tension back into her body. “I’m blind! You could have warned me.”

“It’s temporary, and it’s only one of several possible consequences. You’re in a safe place to experience any of them. Stand up.” He shifted position again. His hands tucked under her shoulders, urging her up, then wrapped around her arms, steadying her as she stumbled to her feet. The grey haze remained unrelenting, and terror chilled her again as Deiq let her go and stepped away.

“Don’t–” she said involuntarily, taking a cautious step forward; one arm out ahead, the other to the side, fingers spread wide.

“I’m right here,” he said. “Stand still. Shut your eyes. Where am I?”

She caught control of bubbling panic and forced herself to look without her eyes, as he’d taught her. His presence was a dark bulk, more sensed than seen, to her right.

He said, “Focus. I’m reaching out to touch–”

“Right side,” she said immediately, and put her hand out without hesitation, grasping his fingers tightly.

“Good. See, blindness isn’t important.” He tugged his hand free. She could feel him moving another step away and to her left; she turned, eyes still shut, to find him in his new location. “It won’t last long, in any case. Less than a day, I think.”

“You think?”

“Mm. Stay there.”

She stood still, eyes shut, and listened carefully to the small sounds he made over the next few moments; at last she said, “You’re–undressing?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why not?” The laughter had returned to his voice. He returned to stand in front of her.

She blinked, unable to find an answer to that. His fingertips stroked the sides of her face, then continued down the sides of her neck, shoulders; down her arms to her wrists, which he took in a gentle grip and lifted upwards, over her head.

“Reach up,” he said. “Stretch.” His hands trailed down her arms, along her sides, lifted the bottom edge of her shirt; she sucked in a breath and arched her back as he set his mouth against her stomach, sending hot chills through her entire body.

“Is this another lesson?” she rasped, bringing her hands down to rest on his head.

“You could call it that,” he said. “Or a way to pass the time until the next one. Whichever you prefer.” He stood, tugging her shirt over her head as he moved.

“We have got to get you some kathain,” she said, grinning into the grey haze.

“No,” he said, voice suddenly rough, “we don’t. Not while you’re around–”

His hands caught into her hair, then moved to other areas. Surprise at that comment faded fast, and soon even the comment was forgotten completely.