Chapter 14: Prince of the Desert


The sandstone pillars and walls of Skreigh, the capital city of Ventrayna, gradually came into focus behind the perpetual sandstorms that had plagued the travelers since they crossed the desert’s border. All but blindfolded beneath his desert headscarf, Tristan could see nothing but endless sand in every other direction. Five long days of riding beneath the sweltering sun and shivering through the frigid nights by the fire had worn him to the bone. His skin was covered in uncomfortable grime while his cheeks felt as if they had been scrubbed clean by sand that slipped past his protective cover. As reluctant as he was to return to the domain of the Witch Emperor, Tristan was more preoccupied with thoughts of a good bath, a hearty “sand-free” meal, and the comfort of a warm, clean bed.

Of course, Tristan also hoped that the bed came without the poisonous scorpions or serpents the Empress had slipped into his chambers last time. Tristan still remembered the unfortunate slave that had discovered the deadly creatures while preparing his master’s inner tunic. The man’s purple bloating skin, foaming mouth, and rolled back eyes was not a sight soon forgotten. Brayen had been his name—not that Ventrayna slaves were ever addressed by their given name.

The shadow guard maintained their protective circle around the prince, even in the desert whipped and howled around them like a sea of wretched, mourning specters. After a small ceremony honoring the man Tristan and Aurelia had burned to death, the shadow guard elected a new leader. Both new and old commanders went by the chosen name of Umbra, or Shadow, and Tristan reluctantly transferred that name to this new faceless bodyguard.

“Is the Emperor already aware of our arrival, Umbra?” Tristan shouted past the cloth wrapped around most of his face. His words were muffled behind the rough linen and the howling wind, and yet the shadow leader heard him all the same.

“We have long sent word of our arrival, your Highness. I am sure the Emperor knows.”

Tristan nodded. The winds volume diminished as the massive walls, carved from ancient volcanic rock, offered the group some shelter from the storm. He could finally make out Aurelia and Isleen up ahead beneath the flickering beacons that guided them along the curved walls towards the bridge that stretched out across a pit filled with spears, half-buried in the sand. At the end of the bridge, an iron-barred gate sealed the capital’s entrance.

Aurelia urged her blood bay mare onto the volcanic stone bridge and flicked her wrist lazily towards two torches that had been blown out by the storm. The sparks that floated from her fingers swirled towards the smothered stubs, that quickly flared and roared alive once more. Beneath the torches, the ancient carved language of witches, illuminated by fire and shadow, read, Ignis ambulant. They who walk through fire.

The groan of chains rattled along the pullies behind the iron gate and echoed through the moaning winds behind them. The barrier rose steadily to reveal a narrow, short tunnel that led inside Skreigh. Desert men in leather armor, their faces hidden beneath a black scarf, formed uniform lines along the street and knelt before Aurelia, who took the lead as they entered the heart of the desert.

“Welcome back, Altus Ignis,” greeted a soldier as he offered Aurelia a chalice of water with his head respectfully bowed.

“Captain,” Aurelia returned in a flat tone as she pulled down her scarf. She took the chalice, quenched her thirst, and passed the remaining water to Isleen, who accepted it gratefully. “Send word to the palace of our return.”

“It has already been done, Altus Ignis.”

“Good,” Isleen muttered, some weariness slipping past her imperious tone. She tossed the empty chalice back to the captain and rubbed her shoulders. “The sooner I get home, the sooner my slaves can give me a proper bath and a much-needed massage.”

“Agreed. No point in wasting time here.” Aurelia turned her copper eyes towards Tristan, surrounded by shadow guard, and sighed. “Come on then, bastard. I need to figure out which warden you’ve been assigned to so I can be rid of your stench.”

“Warden?” Tristan echoed as he urged his tired steed after her.

“Father wants someone keeping tabs of you at all times, both for your protection and to ensure you don’t run off—again.”

Tristan scoffed and gestured to the shadow guard. “I thought that’s what they were here for.”

Aurelia scowled at his escort and muttered under her breath as she continued forward. Tristan barely caught the words, “useless…priest…dead…bastard,” as another wave of wind and sand billowed over the fortress walls and rained down upon them. He pulled up his scarf and resumed a safe distance of six feet behind Aurelia and Isleen.

Sand carved houses framed by beams of wood, volcanic rock, and desert stone rose in stature as they progressed through the quiet city. The few natives who wandered from shelter did so buried beneath their protective cloaks and head scarfs. Sandstorms like this were hardly an uncommon occurrence during the summer, but once the storms passed, Skreigh transformed into its only bustling metropolis.

Regardless of the weather, Skreigh’s citizens were careful to avoid the streets on which the returning royals traveled. In Ventrayna, slaves and lower mortals were forbidden from gazing upon the royal family, who were revered as immortals, though, from Tristan’s experience, they still bleed and died the same as any man. Occasionally through the storm, he would spot a native merchant traveling with their slaves, always on the end of a chain. Each time the merchant stopped to bow while the frightened slaves buried their faces in the sand, least they face punishment for disrespecting royal blood.

Tristan took notice of one impatient master, who half-choked his slave-boy as they continued on their way, bore the crest of a burning horse on his cloak. The copper emblem of a burning horse marked the coven witch as one of Lord Haemish’s men.

Three leading fire covens made up Ventrayna’s vast population. Each coven was ruled by one of the leading witch families, almost always a pure-blood, and each coven had sworn fealty to the Witch Emperor long before Ventrayna’s palaces were built.

Lord Haemish was an exception to this rule, though his coven was small and had very few pure-bloods to speak of. The Ambassador was a mere coven witch himself, while his wife, Lady Lavinia, was a pure-blood witch. The covens little cared to discriminate between a male and female witch, and Haemish was a political animal with dangerous ambitions for himself and his offspring. Lady Lavinia supported her husband’s political endeavors, if only for her children’s future and her own security.

Hierarchy within each coven was governed by the old belief that power was ordained through bloodlines. As such, coven witches and pure-bloods were granted freedom and privileges that half-witches and mortals would never dare to obtain. The purer a witch’s blood, the higher their family rose within the covens, and the more glory they were granted by the Emperor in status.

At the top of that hierarchy of bloodlines and power stood the indomitable Emperor, his vicious Empress, and the, until recently, unopposed royal heir, Princess Aurelia.


The black stone, volcanic structure of the royal palace pierced the chaotic sky above. The skyscrapers jagged tips that once formed the now dormant volcano’s peak remained obscured behind the desert storm. More Ventrayna soldiers, decked in black-iron armor, bowed their heads before the returning members of Ventrayna’s royal family.

“Honor and Glory, Altus Ignis.”

The echoed greeting repeated as Tristan passed through the palace gate. He glanced up and caught Aurelia’s infuriated glare as she turned to Isleen, who shook her head and shrugged. It seemed a lot had changed since his last visit if the palace guards were now permitted to acknowledge him as the Emperor’s son publicly.

“Honor and Glory, Altus Ignis!” A general dressed in black armor trimmed with gold waited before them on the palace road atop a black warhorse. “I have been sent to escort Prince Tristan to the Emperor.”

“General Zere,” Aurelia growled with evident displeasure.

“Princess Aurelia,” Zere bowed his head politely. The torchlight glinted off the dark gold-threaded braids of his hair that ran down the general’s back as he turned his attention to Tristan. “Altus Ignis, if you would follow me?”

“I am tired,” Tristan replied with little interest. “I have been traveling for five days, General.”

“The Emperor is most impatient to speak with you, Prince Tristan.”

“Then he can wait until I have bathed.”

A whisper passed through the soldiers around them, but one look from General Zere scattered the men’s attention.

“I understand you must be weary from the journey, your Highness,” Zere said firmly. “I am sure the Emperor would appreciate your patience.”

“Do you know why he has summoned me back?”

Zere’s mouth twitched before it hardened into its usual flat line. “I would not presume to speak the Emperor’s mind.”

“Does the Emperor not wish to see me?” Aurelia snapped as she shook the scarf from her braids. “Or does he have so little concern for his first-born daughter now that the bastard son has returned?” Her words and eyes brimmed with seething irritation that directed its wrath at Tristan.

“I believe the Empress was looking for you, princess,” Zere replied calmly.

Aurelia’s anger withered as she shifted uncomfortably in her saddle. “You should have said so sooner. I will leave the bastard with you then.”

“Wait!” Zere raised his hand as Aurelia moved to bypass him. “You should know the Emperor has forbidden any form of disrespect to your royal brother—in particular any implication that Tristan is a bastard.”

“What?” Aurelia scoffed.

“Since Princess was absent and unaware of this recent royal decree, I have informed her accordingly,” Zere continued with another head bow.

“Even a soldier dares to lecture me now?” Aurelia scoffed.

Zere expression remained emotionless as he replied, “The penalty for disobeying the Emperor’s royal decree is death, as I’m sure the Princess is aware.”

Fire flickered in the air around Aurelia’s copper eyes. Isleen moved quickly between the Princess and General. “Thank you for your guidance, General. We will go on ahead to greet the Empress.”

“Lady Isleen is to accompany myself and the Prince to visit the Emperor,” Zere corrected as he pulled a small scroll from his belt and extended it to the surprised witch. “At your father’s request.”

Isleen frowned as she unfolded the scroll and read it.

“Ah, it seems a lot has changed in the weeks we’ve been away,” Aurelia muttered as she glanced at the contents of the message. “You better go with them, Isleen. Just be careful they don’t tie you to a post for this bastard to breed.”

“Princess,” Zere growled.

Tristan yanked the scarf from his head with a frustrated sigh. “Since we all have someplace to be, let us move on. I little care who chooses to call me a bastard—” he fixed his gaze upon Aurelia “—titles are temporary after all.”

His half-sister’s copper eyes burned with rage before she whipped her blood bay mare and galloped away in the direction of the Empress’s residence. Unlike Lafeara, the palaces of Ventrayna were co-joined into one massive structure, but the volcanic fortress did have separate entrances for the Emperor and Empress’s quarters.

Zere gazed impassively after the disappearing princess and adjusted his reins. “Then—if you would follow me—Altius Ignis.” The general turned his warhorse and led them along the road towards the first palace gate. Isleen followed close behind, while Tristan and his shadow guard maintained their distance.

Tristan’s tiredness quickly faded with the imminent reunion before him as old wounds and confusion fumed and boiled in his gut. If anyone could understand the dangerous relationship Tristan shared with Kritanta, it was Arius, who had been similarly blessed.

“She chose you, as she chose me, to do her bidding and to reforge the world with fire. Just remember that all such power comes at a cost.”

Tristan shook the foreboding warning from his mind. He never once regretted accepting the deal from the goddess of death, but he was cautious about using the power she had bestowed upon him.

Arius had told him nothing else regarding his own arrangement with Kritanta. Not that they had spoken often during Tristan’s brief stay and recovery at the palace. The destruction of Wolfthorn forest had drained Tristan to the point of collapsing. He barely remembered the events that followed before waking up in Ventrayna’s palace with the Emperor at his side. For two moons, his body was trapped in a fever of magic as it adjusted to its newfound strength. During that time, the Emperor and High Priest Haakon were the only two faces he saw.

When Tristan was finally introduced to the royal court as Arius’s son, disbelief and chaos quickly ensued. It was High Priest Haakon’s assurance of the strength and purity of Tristan’s bloodline that silenced the doubt and suspicion of the haughty coven leaders and even the Empress. Unfortunately, even his new identity as Prince of Ventrayna did not spare Tristan from further assassination attempts.

The first time Tristan encountered the shadow guard, who had been charged to protect the prince, had been when a female slave attempted to stab him while bathing. He quickly came to appreciate the skill and prowess of these desert assassins, who served only the Emperor blessed by their goddess. Four months later, after the Empress’s pet scorpions killed his slave, Tristan decided that he had had enough of the Emperor’s inaction—and left Ventrayna three days later.

Perhaps that was why the Emperor reacted so strongly and stripped Aurelia of her title. It little mattered to Tristan now. He wasn’t going to stick around very long this time, either. After all, Tristan was confident that Kritanta’s missing heart was not in Ventrayna.


Outside the main palace entrance, royal attendants and guards were careful to greet Tristan as Altus Ignis, a title only given to recognized members of Ventrayna’s royal family. A title the Empress had been most unwilling to grant the Emperor’s bastard, who now threatened Aurelia’s inheritance.

Tristan glanced over the gold emblems worn on the right shoulder of the officials present. The burning scorpion distinguished those who served the Emperor. Also present were three insignias of the leading witch covens who held power under the Emperor: the burning hawk, the burning viper, and the burning lizard, which often resembled a dragon—though such verbal comparisons were forbidden.

“Honor and Glory, Altus Ignis,” they all greeted with various levels of enthusiasm. Tristan noted that the attendants with the burning lizard, the Empress’s coven, were the least represented among the group.

Tristan ignored the lower-ranked officials with equal disinterest as he continued to follow the General. He had never once felt he belonged in this nest of scorpions, and Tristan had every intention of leaving the moment he obtained the Emperor’s assurance of Lafeara’s safety.

Giant stone pillars carved with gold symbols of flame and black scorpions adorned the hallway, which led towards the Emperor’s throne room. Zere signaled the guards, who bowed respectfully to Tristan before they turned to open the two great doors.

Inside the throne room, towering red glass windows speckled with gold cast a glow of fire throughout the space. Black tapestries embroidered with gold burning scorpions and a lush red carpet that led up to the Emperor’s throne stood out against the white marble floor blemished here and there with scorch marks of those Arius had personally executed. It was a familiar sight to Tristan, who focused upon the dais that held Ventrayna’s throne and Emperor. On either side of the Witch Emperor stood too well-known Coven Lords.

“The rebellious son returns,” commented Duke Zenaku with his usual stone-cold gaze of disapproval. The emblem of a burning viper on his shoulder marked the coven he led, which was notorious for its bloodthirsty battle witches and countless victories

To his right, Duke Tyrrell, who wore the burning hawk emblem, whispered something to the Emperor, who waved his hand permissively.

Duke Tyrrell led the oldest fire witch coven, which afforded him much respect among the other covens, and even the Emperor. It was also the reason Tyrrell’s only son had been married to Princess Aurelia.

General Zere bowed respectfully as Duke Tyrrell approached.

“Pardon, Altius Ignis, I need to speak with my daughter for a moment,” Tyrell stated bluntly as he took Isleen’s arm and pulled her quickly to the far corner of the throne room.

Whatever private matter they were fervently discussing, Tristan couldn’t help but feel uneasy given Zenaku’s displeased scowl. General Zere continued to the end of the carpet and knelt before the Witch Emperor. Tristan followed behind the general and reluctantly raised his gaze to the burning, calculating amber gaze of Emperor Arius—his father.

At nearly half a century in age, Arius remained in the prime of life. The Emperor radiated the power and glory his people greatly admired and respected. As a boy, he had roamed the desert, hunted by the church and his treacherous uncles. As a young man, he had toppled the dynasty of Pope’s and forged old Zarus into Ventrayna. The first witch nation in which all covens were welcomed and protected from the reach of the church—if they willingly bent the knee.

A witch-steel crown with blood-red rubies glimmered against Arius’s dark copper-brown hair, above those ember-like eyes that Tristan had inherited, which now stared back at him with overwhelming power and great impatience.

“You have made me wait,” Arius said, his voice low but dangerous.


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