Tylak had been nine years old when it happened. Sykk had been a toddler, an appendage on his mother’s hip. They had been walking home from the fair or the market and the sun was dipping behind the dunes casting the city in an eerie orange glow. Tylak skipped, still full of energy from such an exciting day. His mother worked constantly, long hours that drained the day away so that when she made her way to the hovel they called home she did little more than feed her children before collapsing on her frond mat. This particular day had been a rare treat and the nine year old boy could not remember one better. He loved his mother fiercely and understood the importance of working hard. That’s why he helped her at home everyday, watching his baby brother and setting snares for hares and lizards that would make supper. He was young but he was the man of the house and she’d said so when she gave him the stone. It was blue. Like the color of the ocean, his mother had whispered dreamily. He had never seen the ocean but he imagined it was beautiful, like his mother.
He held that stone in a leather pouch that hung at his waist. He liked to touch the stone from time to time to marvel at it’s smoothness. He’d been thinking of his stone and the adventure of seeing the ocean. Skipping ahead, he didn’t notice the two men come at his mother from behind. He heard her cry out and Sykk’s quiet whimpers. He turned around and found his mother on the ground while two men pawed at her.
He’d been so angry. How dare those men hurt his mother. She was beautiful and full of light and these men were evil. Tylak remembered his hands shaking,he dropped the stone back into its place in his pouch, the stone was hot to the touch. He was hot and the anger burned inside of him as he growled and lunged at the two men.
He landed squarely on the back of one and bit the man’s ear hard, soliciting a scream. The second man grabbed him by the throat and ripped him off his partner’s back and Tylak gasped for air as the man held him up over the square’s fire pit.
Flames shot out, running down the arm of his captor and leaping onto his face. He howled, his expression panicked as he dropped Tylak to the ground. The flames engulfed the man, he flailed wildly, his arms desperately reaching out for salvation. The other man took off running but Tylak couldn’t watch him go, his eyes mesmerized by the burning corpse.
His mother had been fine. She never spoke of the incident again. Don’t think about it, she’d told him rubbing his back in calming circular motions. It never happened.
And in a way it really hadn’t. Not to him anyway.
Tylak knew they had arrived because he no longer felt nauseous, his throbbing head ache however, was another story. He’d spent the better part of an hour being hauled around in a rain barrel. He’d probably traveled in the bed of a water cart, though he couldn’t be sure because whoever had tied him up had also blind folded him, which meant that it wasn’t the palace guards. Though he had a varied list of individuals who hated him, he felt with fair certainty the identity of his captor. The Shadow Dancers. He was in trouble, deep dragon shit kind of trouble. The unmoving cart told him one thing. He had only a brief opportunity before he was taken into yet another building. His best chance at an escape was to leave now on the open road.
The rain barrel was heaved off the cart with a grunt and Tylak hit the ground with a jarring thud. Ignoring the pain, he jumped to his feet, kicking out around him. He heard a familiar chuckle before the blindfold was yanked off of him.
“Easy, you should be thanking me.”
Tylak looked up into the very amused face of his one time friend. “Peppik, is that you?” He held his hands out for Peppik to untie. “What did you hit me with?”
Peppik winced. “I thought you’d be mad at that. I was only trying to help,” he smiled. “I could see you were in a bit of a sandstorm and I thought I’d see you out of it. I only hit you so I could skip over the explaining part and get to the rescuing part. Which is what I did. It was a daring rescue, you’re welcome.”
Peppik had attached himself to Tylak once before. Stalked him, was more accurate. He’d been forced to have the simple minded fellow in tow for the better part of the year before he’d gotten caught up with the Shadow Dancers.
Tylak gingerly reached up to feel the knot on his head. It burned hotter than dragon’s breath but it didn’t appear to be bleeding. “Where are we?”
Peppik’s smile widened and he handed Tylak a skin of water before gesturing his hands wide. “Outside the city gates. On the road that leads to the border of Kitoi. You’re free.”
“I’m not leaving the Republic.” Tylak swallowed another gulp of the tepid water and handed the skin back to Peppik. “Thanks for the rescue. Really. But I need to remain in the capital. I lost something in the palace and I know someone that can help me get it back.”
“But, the trial. You were arrested, they said you’d be executed.” Peppik’s voice rose in nervous excitement. “I saw it happen. I rescued you.”
“Yes, but that was before I made a deal with Jura. Wait, you were there? What were you doing in the city walls?”
Peppik bowed his head and Tylak remembered how much older his friend was than him. He noted the thinning hairs on Peppik’s head and the wrinkles that folded around his dark eyes. “I was there waiting for you. You told me to wait in the city.”
Tylak tilted his head in wonder. “Peppik, that was years ago.”
Tylak had been fifteen years old. His mother had died a few years before and Tylak had taken the position as the blacksmith’s assistant. The work was long and tedious but he’d made a fair pay and he and his brother had been happy. Sykk was a quiet boy and never wanted to play with boys in the city, no matter Tylak’s encouragement that he do so. He preferred the company of animals and spent much of his free time with his pet goat. He made cheese from the animal and Tylak could trade it for a canteen of water. His brother asked for nothing and so on the eve of his tenth birthday when he expressed a desire to go to the arena Tylak had vowed to make it possible.
Olver, his friend and a free citizen blacksmith had been delighted at the idea. He insisted that Tylak take his tickets to the night’s match and sent him and his young brother on their way. Peppik had appeared, following behind them, watching Tylak in his odd way. It’d felt good to take his brother to the fights and he’d looked forward to the evening.
Olver’s seats allowed them access to arena seating and Sykk was too excited to notice the boys were out of place. He bounced in his seat excitedly while Tylak kept his head down, afraid of making eye contact with one of the men or women of upper class. While these people were far below the reach of the Thirteen ensconced in their glass box below, none of these people were of the slave race. Sykk and Tylak had more in common with the Fire Dancers than with the people around them. Their elaborate robes and made up faces unsettled him and though they spoke the same language their inflections caused it to seem unfamiliar to his ears. He and his brother’s seats were a far cry from anything good, yet they were surrounded by free citizens of the Republic and Tylak had never before been so painfully aware of his low status.
The trumpets initiated the beginning of the battle and Sykk stood up in his seat, grabbing his brother’s arm and squeezing with surprising strength. “There he is! Look, it’s Ash! He’s my favorite, he can defeat anything,” the last part was breathed out in a reverent whisper and Tylak smiled at his brother’s excitement.
Ash had long been the most popular Fire Dancer and was, by far, his brother’s favorite. Tylak was grateful he’d gotten tickets to the night’s battle because Ash’s battles often sold out early.
The battle was epic. Ash fought the opening fight to get the crowd all excited. In it, he fought two leaping animals that were called jaguars. They were black and fierce and attacked with a ferocity that had Sykk gripping his brother’s arm in anxiety. Ash defeated the two creatures and Sykk stood up and cheered as Ash ran off the field. Then a pair of Fire Dancers took to the field and exhibited a grand display of shooting fire, they leaped and danced around it in a way that Tylak found beautiful. Sykk murmured that he thought it had been a good show but when was the dragon coming out? He didn’t have to wait long. Ash returned to the field with another Dancer and the two leaped and twirled, demanding excited cheers from the crowd.
The dragon was as magnificent as Tylak thought it would be, more so. The sheer mass of the beast was inspiring, but more than that was the radiance that glimmered off his pearly scales. The regal toss of his head and the sensuous movement of it’s body was mesmerizing. It was beautiful. Sykk was equally delighted and showed his enthusiasm by pumping his fist in the ear and screaming Ash’s name.
The deadly dragon had flown out of his containment box jetting a stream of molten fire directly at the unprepared and nameless Fire Dancer in the arena beside Ash. He’d landed in a smoldering heap of soot and dust on the floor. Not wasting the opportunity, Ash had plunged his assegai deep into the dragon’s exposed belly. The dragon had shot up to the ceiling of the dome, circling the glass and occasionally growling his displeasure. The crowd hissed and threw things at the dragon, though no one’s aim was far reaching enough to hit the monster. He continued to circle the dome, alternately flapping his leathery wings or gliding along wind currents that he had created. The crowd grew restless as the dragon made his ceaseless circles and they cried out their displeasure. Screaming loudly and stomping their feet they created a frenzy that Tylak and Sykk were easily swept up in. He could still remember the feel of the warm air rushing at his face when the dragon rose in front of them.
It was the job of the Fire Dancers to distract the dragon if the crowd captured its attention. It was rare, but training procedures were implemented on all new cadets. It’s said on that fateful day Ash did all he could to regain the dragon’s blood lust but something attracted him to that particular section of the crowd and he would not be pulled away.
One moment, Tylak screamed and stomped his feet with his brother, and the next moment the dragon was directly in front of them. Tylak saw his horrified expression reflected in the beast’s gigantic eye. The dragon opened his mouth in a slow yawn and Tylak noticed with wonder that the beast held fangs that were as large as the span of his arm. He reached for Sykk’s hand and thought of his mother. The fire started in the back of the dragons throat and gushed forward in a rush of brilliant red.
Sykk had screamed, they all had. But Sykk had thrust out his arms and when he did the fire shot back toward the dragon, curving away from the crowd and back at the dragon’s face. He roared in fury and swept down to the field; the crowd screamed in excitement.
It didn’t take them long to come. Minutes? Seconds? There were three of them, tall robed figures in red that swept his brother up and away from him. Tylak had leaped to his feet, confused and ready to fight. He kept demanding to know what was happening but there was no explanation, he was just held back as his baby brother was escorted away.
“There’s nothing you can do.” A wrinkled old face had stared at him in pity. “He’s been chosen. He is Fire Dancer, he must begin his training.” She shook her head, clicking her tongue in her mouth. “It’s a miracle it took them this long to find him. Must be a late bloomer.”
He’d ignored the old woman and struggled against the man holding him. It was all so wrong.
“I don’t understand. Sykk isn’t a Fire Dancer, he’s my brother, he–” Tylak fell to his knees confused and suddenly very tired. “What’s happening to me?” The robed men had blown smoke in his eyes, they must have poisoned him.
The old woman’s dark eyes shined with amusement. “Poor little fool. Your brother never belonged to you.”
Tylak shook his head at the memory and stared at Peppik in wonder. “You found me after the guards threw me out of the arena. I woke up in the alley with you. You told me that there wasn’t a way to get Sykk back and I didn’t believe you.”
“This is right. You said you would find a way and that you were leaving. I asked what you wanted me to do and you told me to wait for you in the city. I’ve been waiting for many years and finally I found you. Only you had been arrested by the palace.” Peppik frowned. “Who is Jura?”
Tylak couldn’t believe that Peppik had waited for him after all this time. He knew the simple minded man had been unbalanced, but for him to wait for so long bothered him. In any case, he was stuck with him now. Thank the Everflame for his presence,Tylak thought. He can help.
“Jura is the one that is going to help us get my brother back.”