Rhett spread his legs wide atop the burning sand, creating a stable base for himself before squatting. With his back straight and knees forming a ninety-degree angle, he brought his fists to his waist and narrowed his eyes.
His gaze focused on his opponent, who barely matched his current height even though she was fully erect. Rhett’s veins popped, appearing more detailed on his arms, neck, and forehead. The sweat glistering over his onyx skin and sliding down his bare muscled chest all the way into the garment he pulled down to his waist reflected a tyrant sun.
“Today, you shall learn to never underestimate your enemy, no matter how weak you think they are,” Rhett said, moving one foot in a quarter circle until it was behind the other while bringing one fist to the level of his chest.
“Martial arts?” Rhett’s opponent smirked. She stood straight, one arm bent behind her back, and with the other, she formed a fist but left her thumb straightened, using it to draw an image of the number one above her chest. “What chance do martial arts have against gate magic?” she asked rhetorically, pushing her arm forward and forming a claw with her fingers.
Rhett’s beige garment started to wrinkle, becoming tighter around his body, and pushing on his skin.
His arms tensed, his muscles popping even more, the detail of each becoming clearer. He grabbed the edges of his garment and split it in half with one move, then pushed it toward the ground.
“Is that the best you can do?” Rhett asked, but before his smile fully reached his face, the fabric came back up, wrapping his nearly naked body, its movement following the girl’s fingers. She was now using both hands, and when she locked her fingers together, threads of the torn garment flew toward one another as the piece of clothing reattached itself and started pushing on Rhett’s body again, squeezing it and blocking the path of blood in his veins.
Rhett pulled the full garment off his body with one pull, tearing it another time before performing a backflip. While his hand touched the ground, he freed the rest of his body from his clothes and performed another backward flip to put distance between himself and the fabric which was now following him.
Rhett began running across the desert, his clothes chasing him while coming back together. His velocity, however, was faster than the girl’s moving arm, who seemed to be struggling with matching his speed while controlling the fabric.
He continued to run in a circular pattern until he was behind the girl who dropped her control of the clothes as she turned to face him. But before she could, Rhett grabbed her from the back. He sat on one knee, one arm wrapped around her neck and the elbow of the other, locking her head in place.
“I told you,” he whispered in her ears, “never underestimate an opponent, no matter—” Rhett dropped his words when he saw someone land on the ground a few feet opposite him. He glanced at the plank of wood flying in the sky before returning his gaze to the new man who stood in a long white tunic, a scarf covering his neck and the bottom half of his face.
“Is everything okay?” Rhett asked, letting go of the girl and rising to his feet.
“Yes, Master Rhett,” the man said, bowing, “but the council requires your presence.”
The man nodded.
Rhett turned to the girl and kneeled again, putting his hand on her head, his voice softening. “Just because your enemy doesn’t have the same magic as you doesn’t mean they are weak. They can still have many tricks up their sleeves.”
The girl lowered her head, her features expressing defeat. Rhett smiled and ruffled her hair. “I liked your idea of controlling my thobe and using it against me, though. You are good at taking advantage of your surroundings.”
“But it wasn’t good enough.” The girl pursed her lips into a fine line. “I was too slow.”
“Controlling objects is no small feat. With practice, you will get a lot faster, and you won’t feel the object’s weight at all.”
“Do you really think so?” She raised her eyebrows, and her face relaxed.
“I know, my dear.” He kissed her forehead. “Now, shall we go?”
The girl frowned again. “But we didn’t finish training. You promised me the whole day.”
“I know, but your father has to work.”
With her frown still on her face, she nodded. Rhett lifted her and carried her, planting a kiss on her cheek before walking to the other man who lowered the flying plank of wood to the ground, and all three climbed on top.
Rhett fixed his long beige tunic, which his daughter had put back together, leaving no sign of it having been torn. While adjusting his scarf around his wide shoulders, he walked through the main entrance of the red temple with fast steps, stopping only when he reached the center room where the other four council members had gathered.
They were standing in an imperfect circle, wearing thobes that were nearly identical to his, long tunics that fell just above their ankles. Even their scarfs seemed to match, differing only in color.
“Does your summoning mean we know who it is?” Rhett asked first, the stone walls surrounding him barely lit by a stream of light coming from the main corridor.
“We do,” one of the council members replied as she handed him a letter.
When Rhett noticed how she avoided meeting his eyes, his brows drew together, and he glanced at the other three noticing how they too were looking away.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Just open it,” the same woman said, her dark brown eyes appeared light next to the color of her skin.
Rhett brought his gaze to the folded letter in his hand and opened it. The moment he saw what was inside, his eyes widened, and his head jerked back. “That can’t be right,” he said, looking at the other members, but they continued to avoid eye contact. “Fine. We will send someone else then.” He threw the letter on the ground and turned to make his way toward the exit.
“We can’t send someone else. They chose you,” another council member called out, his voice calm, age wrinkles visible on his forehead.
Rhett exhaled loudly and turned back. “I don’t care who the Umholi chose. We can nominate whoever we want. It’s our right.”
“He wasn’t talking about the Umholi,” the woman who spoke earlier said. “You were with us when we prepared the magic letter, and you sent it yourself. Whatever name it revealed to the Umholi came directly from the gods.”
Rhett walked closer to her, their gaze meeting, though his had more fire in it. “I am a council member. My job is to watch over our faction, not join the Illicitums.”
“Lead them,” another member corrected, his voice soft.
“We don’t know that yet,” the oldest member argued. “He has to go through a qualifying round to determine whether he would be the new Umholi or one of the Illicitums.”
“Yes, but with his power, there’s no doubt that—”
“You’re talking as if I agreed to go already,” Rhett interrupted, his tone becoming sharper.
“You will go.” The elder, whose voice remained calm, walked toward Rhett with a straightened pose.
“You can’t force me. I’m part of this council too.”
“Perhaps. But you are the youngest, and it hasn’t even been a year since you joined us. I’m sure we can outvote you.”
“Come on, Rigs. I have a family. I can’t just leave them and go to live in the Forbidden Palace.”
“This is your duty.”
“No, it’s not. My allegiance is to my faction. I swore to take care of our people, to serve Kala, not to look over the entire continent.”
The councilwoman put her hand on Rhett’s back. “You can help us a lot by being there.”
“Right.” Rhett chuckled. “Like the Kalangou, they already have, did for us. You are delusional, Raya. They wash people’s minds in this palace.”
“This is different. Times have changed, and we are not the same people we were over two centuries ago.”
“What are you even complaining about?” Rigs asked, his voice becoming louder. “Being an Illicitum is the dream. They will teach you even stronger magic, and you will live to pass two hundred and fifty. You will see how our world evolves long after we are gone.”
“I don’t care about any of that. I’d rather be weak than live long past my children.”
“I understand,” Raya interrupted, positioning her body between Rigs and Rhett while facing the latter. “You care about your family. But think of what you can do as an Illicitum. Your job will be to keep the peace between us and the other factions. You can give them a chance to live a happy life, and not only will you see your children grow old, but you will live long enough to see multiple generations of your own bloodline. I would do anything to get a chance like that.”
Rhett closed his eyes and took a step back, his lips pinched while he thought. She is right, he told himself. I can make sure that my kids would have peace and won’t need to pay for their magic with their lives.
“Alright,” he said, meeting Raya’s eyes. “I will do it, but in return, you must promise me that my family will be well looked after.”
“Of course, they will be. They will have an amazing life and receive the best training. I promise.”
Standing atop the fifty-foot-high stone wall surrounding his faction, Rhett crossed his hands and rested them atop the edge while leaning forward. He was looking at the sandy streets of his home village and how they wrapped themselves around the simple mudbrick houses of Kala. The rays of a young sun were soft on his skin and not bright enough to bring his shadow forth. He sighed heavily, watching the few people who needed to start working at first light traipse through the natural roads.
When Rhett heard fast footsteps atop the wall, he pushed against the stone and straightened, turning toward his daughter, who came running at him. He lowered to his knees, and when she jumped on him, he took her in his arms, lifting her and placing her on the stone railing. The girl’s back faced the village, her eyes meeting her father’s.
“Are we going to train today?” she asked, her grin wide.
Rhett shook his head.
The girl frowned. “But mother said to meet you here and that we will spend the morning together.”
“Then why don’t we train? My first gate exam is in less than a week.”
Rhett kissed her forehead. “You will ace it, Ruby. I have no doubt about that. You know everything about first gate magic already.”
The corners of Ruby’s lips lifted. “Really!”
“Yes, but that’s not why I wanted to spend the morning with you.”
The girl’s eyes widened, her black pupils reflecting happiness and curiosity. The rising light of an aging sun behind her created a halo around her dark-skinned body.
Rhett continued. “You know that I’m on the council, and my job is to take care of everyone in our faction, right?”
“Well… To do that even better, I have to take a job that will take me away from Kala.”
“For how long?”
Rhett lowered his head, his gaze falling to his feet. Ruby put her palm on his cheek, and he raised his head again, meeting her eyes.
“I’m eleven now, Father, and about to be a gate one master. You can tell me.”
Rhett lifted her hands and enveloped them with his own. “I won’t come back. I have to move to the Forbidden Palace and look after the entire continent, not just our people.”
Ruby’s expressions froze for a moment, tears on the edges of her eyes, but she quickly replaced them with an awkward smile. “It’s your duty, Father. You always said that we should never abandon our duty.”
A tear escaped Rhett’s eyes as he leaned forward, kissing his daughter’s forehead and wrapping his arms around her until he could stop his own tears. Wiping them away, he readjusted his stand and looked at Ruby.
“Alright,” he started, forcing a smile. “One last all-inclusive lesson.”
Ruby’s body shook a little as she smiled and clapped twice, giving her father all her attention.
Rhett continued. “While the first gate of magic gives you power over objects, the second will allow you to control the elements, but don’t let that scare you. Think about the elements the same way you feel the objects surrounding you, and you will learn quickly. Learn as much as you can about the first two gates before moving to the third and fourth. Those gates are like the first two, but instead of controlling what is already there, you will be able to conjure either objects or elements, depending on the gate you use. So, the better you are at the first two, the faster it will be to master the other ones.”
Rhett smiled at how Ruby focused on his every word and brushed her hair with his hand. “The fifth gate will give you control over your inner energy. To master it, you need to be in touch with your emotions. When you are learning this gate, don’t be afraid to listen to your gut, even if it sometimes tells you strange things. Do not fear your feelings, and never suppress them. It will only make your life harder. When you turn twenty, you will learn about the awakening and the price we all must pay for our magic. Don’t let that scare you but be aware of it. Learn how to listen to your body and every single beat of your heart. And then there’s a secret.”
Rhett turned left and right as if making sure no one was around. When his gaze returned to Ruby, he put one finger on his mouth and spoke in a hushed tone. “There are two more gates that nobody knows about. If you want to learn them, you must get strong enough to be on the council. Only they can teach you.” Rhett’s eyes grew watery again as he realized he had nothing else to tell his daughter about gate magic, even if he could remain to teach her a lot more.
Ruby’s tears flowed down her face in reaction, and Rhett carried her while she rested her head on his shoulder, her lips nearing his neck.
He walked to the opposite edge of the wall. “Look,” he said, pointing at the open desert. “I will be just behind this field of sand, and once you learn the third gate, you will be able to reach me in half a day or less. You can come visit me whenever you want.”
“Okay,” the girl said.
He then took off the necklace with a heart-shaped pendant around her neck. “If you don’t mind, I would like to keep this, so you can always be by my side.”
She nodded but kept her head down.
Rhett lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “Promise me one thing, though.”
“Anything for you, Father.”
“Take care of your little sisters. Make sure they are strong too.”
“I will,” Ruby said, and Rhett kissed her forehead one more time before shifting his gaze back to the desert, thinking about what awaited him at the Forbidden Palace.