Keeping up with the battle theme of this week I thought it would be fitting to end with the Border Wars: the giant battle that started the entire Dance of the Elements series. This short story was previously unavailable unless you purchased a Kindle copy of Ignited. I hope you enjoy!
He didn’t know he was already a dead man. Josper watched the foreigner with interest. The dead man walking cast furtive glances over his shoulder, his quick steps and hunched posture did little to hide the fact that he carried a large satchel in his arms. Josper snorted. Anyone from around here knew not bring packages through these parts; one was liable to have their clothing stolen off their own backside.
“Who are we watching?” the whisper came from Josper’s side but he didn’t flinch at the sudden presence of his friend, Bard.
“Some poor fool about to get robbed.” Josper raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t decided yet if I’ll intervene. What are you doing out here?”
“Business.” Bard grinned back, his white teeth appeared to glow in the dark of the night.
Josper rolled his eyes. Business meant patrolling the streets for poor fellows such as the easy target in the alley just below. Crime was rampant in the city proper and the majority of the King’s local army was used to escort and protect the water cart shipments. These days, in the northern borders and in the central cities surrounding the Everflame, water was increasingly difficult to come by. Perhaps that was why so many men turned to a life of crime. They lacked hope.
A strangled cry erupted from down below and Josper scowled into the alley. He’d been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t noticed the attack. The satchel was gone and the dead man stretched across the street, his body twisted in an unnatural angle.
“I’ve arranged that meeting for you.” Bard polished a silver dagger as he spoke. “Dawn.”
Josper swore. “As in just an hour or so from now?”
Bard shrugged. “You’re lucky we agreed to this at all. A wise man would tu–”
“What do you know about wise men?”
Bard chuckled, sheathing his dagger.
“I have to believe I can do this. I have to do this, for my father.” Josper would never disrespect the memory of his father by wasting water but he allowed himself to recall the sharp sting of his loss before blinking Bard back into focus. His father had been yet another casualty of Gregor the Great. The man who united the country by forcing an entire nation to swear to his allegiance or face death. Gregor is no king of mine.
Bard grunted in response. He was uncomfortable around strong emotions.
Josper changed the subject. “Let’s talk more about this contact. What do you know about him? Is he a good fighter?”
For some reason the question made him smile. “A good fighter? Yes, one of the finest I’ve ever seen.”
Josper nodded. Good. It was all falling into place. Thank the Everflame, something was finally going his way.
The sun had only just begun to peek above the distant dunes when Josper and Bard arrived at the designated meeting place. Josper stifled the urge to pace and wondered once again how his friend always remained so stoic. Josper wouldn’t admit it aloud but Bard was the one with connections. Bard had arranged every detail of this meeting, he’d achieved the impossible and located a man who had the power to make all of Josper’s dreams come true.
He’s late. Josper scowled down the length of abandoned road. Why did they choose this spot? We’re too exposed. He took a more careful surveillance of his surroundings, noted the quiet rhythm of Bard’s breathing and the placement of the fire pit to his left and behind him. There.
A young woman walked toward them, her steps lazy and her expression bored. She was easily the most stunning woman Josper had ever seen. Her most dramatic feature was her waist length hair, stark glowing white with random streaks of deep auburn. Tiny beads and jewels glimmered from the tips of her hair and they swayed together musically in her approach. She stopped and stared at him in appraisal and Josper reminded himself of Adra and the promises he’d made.
“These streets are dangerous, a woman like you…” He trailed off at Bard’s laughter.
“Josper this is Ailani.” Bard stepped forward and clasped arms with Ailani.
“You…your contact is… she’s a girl.”
“You have a problem with the fact I am a woman?” The woman’s voice was fine diamonds falling onto glass, both beautiful and terrible at one time. Her full lips twisted into a snarl, “I could tear you apart with just my teeth. I wouldn’t even need to reach for the trishula strapped to my back, or the dagger sheathed on my thigh.” She stepped forward. “Or perhaps I’ll just drown you where you stand.” She held out a palm and a tiny ball of water formed above it, flowing with the movement of her hand. “I hear water is precious here. I wonder, how many deaths are from drowning?”
“Easy Ailani, Josper meant no disrespect. I gave him no warning is all.” Bard stepped between the two and Ailani dropped her ball of water with a shrug.
Josper and Bard both flinched at the waste.
“Oh for the sake of the Mother.” With a quick snap of her fingers the water was out of the sand and directed back into her water skin. “Well, are you going to stand there gaping or are you going to tell me your plan?”
He couldn’t say with any certainty, but after hearing his plan he’d seemed to gain some measure of respect from Ailani.
“My people are ready to accept these terms. We wish to open up trade in a safe way beneficial to both parties.” Ailani crossed her arms over her chest. “But we will not send you any more of our people. We will not be slaughtered for the name of trade.”
“But we requested fifty men. We need t–”
“Fifty of my people’s men. In a fight on the land when our home is the sea. I alone will more than suffice. I am as strong as fifty land men.” She squinted at him in the early morning sunlight. “I worry for you, however. You are quite thin.”
Josper grinned, “I have some secrets up my sleeve.”
Gregor’s current holding was a series of tents pitched around the Everflame. He was known to pack up and move whenever he fought new land conquests but he always returned back to the Everflame and where he called home. It was ridiculous in Josper’s opinion. He was barely from the Sand Sea. His parents had been merchants just as Josper’s had been. Struggling to trade for food and the precious water while their country was ripped apart by war. But Gregor had discovered the blood chains. Now anyone who opposed Gregor was disposed and anyone seen as a threat was enchained. The country was no longer at war, but at what cost? It stops now.
The plan was simple. Infiltrate his holdings and kill Gregor. Josper theorized the death of Gregor would release his hundreds of captives from their hold of the blood chain. He didn’t allow himself to think of what would happen if the plan wasn’t that simple. Everyone was in their place. Ailani had drilled them with questions, she left no outcome uncovered. They were ready.
Josper waited impatiently for a signal. The fire pit he waited next to had just been ignited and the sun had nearly disappeared from sight, the sky streaked dusty orange and purple. It won’t be long now. He checked to make sure his scimitar was free in his sheath and released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He heard the sharp cry of a desert hawk, three times in a row and he stepped forward, embracing the shadows.
He could no longer remember when he had first discovered the odd talent. He’d always been aware of the heat around him and his own connection to it, he thought everyone was. It had been mere accident or perhaps fate that led him to discover what he could do. Whenever he wanted, Josper could make himself invisible. That wasn’t all he could do, Josper could control the heat particles in the air, he could change the temperature in a room. He was very much in danger of having the powers of a Torch. Even before Gregor’s reign of terror, people had needed Torches. How else can one get access to fire? The Everflame chose its servants carefully, chosen by the god it was their duty to serve. Was Josper marked by the Everflame as well? Was he meant to be born a slave? He pushed aside the old worries, turning his attention to the current task at hand. His stealth was needed. He had every faith in Bard and Ailani’s ability to create a distraction. Josper simply needed to sneak into the king’s tent and murder him in his sleep. It was easier said than done. Josper had never killed a man. Ailani had argued that he should allow her to do it since she was more experienced in the matter but he felt he needed to be the one to complete the deed. He owed it to his father. The crazy thing was, it seemed like it just might work. He hurried across the base, picking his way through various camp sites. There were a surprising amount of fire pits out here and Josper once again found his mind wondering to the Torches employed under Gregor. There had to be dozens, hundreds maybe. Were they all enchained?
He continued south, closer toward the glass walls that imprisoned the Everflame and closer to the massive tent stationed just in front of it. It was time for Gregor to die. Josper approached the tent, his heartbeat hammering in his ears cutting off any other sound. Did he hear distant screams? The soldiers posted just outside the king’s tent took off at run.
Their distraction was working. Josper continued forward, emboldened by his invisibility and the lack of guard. He shoved his way into the tent.
It was empty.
Josper whirled in a tight circle, clenching his jaw to prevent a frustrated growl from escaping. There was no one inside. No attendants, no guards, no Gregor. Rather than waste time exploring the empty tent, Josper rushed back outside the back entrance of the tent to find the king.
He was greeted by pandemonium. Bard must have set fires to the tents. Dozens of them were aflame and men scrambled to put out the flames.
Where is Gregor?
He ran past the flaming tents and the massive tent that he’d assumed belonged to Gregor. The Everflame rose up above him and for a moment he stood paralyzed before it, humbled by its massive beauty. A bone chilling roar tore through his senses and he turned toward the sound stumbling and falling to his knees in awe.
A massive beast stood before him. A monster. With leathery wings and a shining lizard like body. But this was no desert lizard. This was the thing nightmares were made of. A dragon. Josper never thought he would see one alive and in front of him. And there, just in front of the creature, was Gregor.
The king appeared strong and virile despite his advancing age. He was sixty-five if intel was correct, yet the man stood straight and tall, his biceps corded with muscle, his eyes sharp and seeing everything.
Not you. He doesn’t see you, so move! Josper unsheathed his scimitar and stumbled forward, aiming for Gregor’s heart.
“I see there are those here who think they can do me harm.” Gregor bellowed out, effectively stopping Josper in his tracks.
“Bring them forward.”
Soldiers appeared, dragging Ailani and Bard behind them. Bard’s eyes widened at the dragon. To her credit, Ailani no longer appeared bored.
“Release him.” Bard was shoved forward. He fell to his knees before the king, staring up at him with fury.
“What is your name?” King Gregor asked.
Bard refused to answer, causing a sinister chuckle to escape from the king. “Refusing to answer the question?” He snapped his fingers and a golden chain was immediately carried over by one of his soldiers. “You do understand I have ways of making you talk?”
Bard reached into his boot and pulled out his dagger. A second later he’d removed his own tongue from his mouth. He threw it into the dirt before the king.
King Gregor shuddered. “That was…disturbing. Seize him.” Bard did not protest when he was once again grabbed by either arm.
“Let me go before I decide to kill you in ways more painful than necessary.” Ailani’s cool voice echoed across the noisy campground.
The king laughed. “You kill me? Little girl, perhaps you don’t realize the situation you find yourself in. You’re completed surrounded by my enchained men and if they weren’t enough I have a dragon who follows me as its own master. What could you possibly think gives you an advantage enough to make such a threat?”
Startled by the mention of his name Josper started forward, scimitar ready. He leaped toward Gregor and was tackled to the ground by a grinning woman with short brown hair. He scrambled in the sand, fingers searching for his scimitar. The woman laughed.
“Was that your big plan? This skinny little man playing hide and go seek?” She kicked the scimitar further out of his reach.
Josper darted to his feet, distorting the heat around him.
“I can still see you.” The woman’s voice was playful. The kick she sent to his face was not. He blinked back stars and struggled to regain focus. How can she see me? He pressed a hand into his chest in an effort to stop his heart from exploding right out of his chest.His plan had failed and they were all going to die.
“Did you see this coming?” Ailani pulled the water from the woman’s water supply at her waist and shoved the water up the woman’s nose. At the same time, she jumped into the air kicking either leg up and behind, ramming her feet into the face of the men on either side of her. Startled by her sudden attack, they released their hold on her arms and she was off and running toward to Josper.
“I’ll take care of her while you get the king. Go. Now!” Ailani planted a fist into the brunette’s jaw.
Josper reached for his scimitar. The king’s soldiers had surrounded him, cutting him off from the king. Ailani shoved her trishula through the brunette’s chest. He watched as another auburn lock of hair turned white.She turned toward the sea of men, not breaking her form, using water magic to disarm and her trishula to stab. Josper parried a blow from a soldier, ducking low to avoid losing his head. At this rate he would never get to the king. The air grew thick and hot around him. He could feel the individual particles of heat against his skin. What good was invisibility when he couldn’t get close enough to the king? How could he get over the throng of soldiers? A sudden idea had him leaping into action. He ripped off his tunic and shoved the hot air beneath it.
Work, please work. His feet lifted off the ground. He held on tight to his makeshift balloon, funneling more hot air under the cloth until he was shooting into the air and above the king’s line of defense. It worked, he was over the soldiers but he had no way of steering himself toward the king and he was running out of time.
Bard brandished his dagger before him, blood still dripped from his mouth, covering his chin and chest. He needed medical attention. Ailani was outnumbered by nearly thirty men, somehow she was still alive, spinning a wide whirlpool of death around her. The king was directly below him. He had one more chance to make this right. Josper let go of his tunic and fell down.
King Gregor waited for him, twin scimitars drawn and ready. Josper met Gregor’s thrust with one of his own, cursing his lack of skill with a sword and once again wishing things had gone according to plan.
They still can. He disappeared only to reappear behind the king, slicing across the King’s arm. The King spun toward him, pivoting tightly and bringing his steel down with what would have been a crushing blow. But Josper rolled to the side and once again disappeared, reappearing when the King’s wild swing was met with his own scimitar. Gregor changed direction, whirling his twin scimitars together and pinning Josper’s own sword beneath them. The younger man’s scimitar was yanked from his arm and thrown to the ground behind him.
King Gregor laughed. “I like you, boy. I’m going to enjoy turning you into my latest pet.”
“Why?” Josper strangled out, leaping to the side to avoid being sliced in half. Cold steel slashed against his exposed stomach and Josper noted how warm the blood was that flowed from his wound.
“Why? What sort of question is that? Because I can.” King Gregor slashed down with his scimitar, slicing across Josper’s leg and causing him to crumple into the sand.
“Because I have the power to make nations bow to me. Because centuries after I am gone people will remember my name as the most powerful man to ever live. And people love me for it. Before Gregor the Great there was only war. Now we are united. The entire Sand Sea has come to know my power and soon, the rest of the world will know too.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a tiny delicate chain. “When I put this on you, you’re going to feel a tiny pinch, that’s the chain tasting your blood. It feels good at first, I’m told. And then, well Everflame only knows what you’ll feel then.” He smiled. “But you’ll be mine.”
Josper’s fingers curled into the dirt. He tried to stand up but he was exhausted from using so much of his power and from loss of blood. He only wanted to close his eyes but he struggled to remain focused on King Gregor’s advancing form. His fingers found something.
My scimitar. His heart sang, but as his fingertips closed around the object he realized it was much too narrow to be his sword. What did it matter, his friends were both dead anyhow, and soon he would be too. The king jumped forward and Josper held up his stick. A spear, he realized, not a stick and the long length shoved deep into Gregor’s throat. The king fell face forward, his blood pooling in the sand.
The dragon bugled in anger. No longer a docile monster at his master’s side the beast rose onto his hind legs and released a stream of molten fire. Soldiers, now civilians awakened from Gregor’s spell, struggled to run from the angry creature. The dragon released another deadly stream of fire directly at Josper. A Torch stepped in front of Josper, blocking the fire with a furious twist from his arms. He sent the flames up toward the night sky and Josper scrambled to his feet, surprised to see Ailani making her way toward his side.
“Did you see that?” He exclaimed, his jaw dropping as the Torch dispelled yet another stream of fire from the dragon.
“These fires are out of control.” Ailani growled. She sported several cuts along the lengths of her arms and dozens of bruises marred her beautiful face but she looked no worse for wear. Every strand on her head was now a glowing white although it was covered in blood and gore. She directed water onto a tent burning just to the side of them. “We need to leave. Now.”
“Not without Bard.” Josper shouted over the roar of the dragon. More Torches had surrounded the dragon. Every time the beast blew fire they directed the flames out of harm’s way.
“We don’t have time for this.” Ailani growled. She gripped the tip of her trishula and heaved it forward, out of her arms and directly into the exposed belly of the angry dragon. She shoved past the falling beast as though she killed dragons every day and called back over shoulder.
“Found Bard! He looks like a sodden mess though, I’m going to need help carrying him.” She glared at Josper’s slack jaw. “Are you coming or not?”
Three days later Josper found himself back in front of the smoldering remains of Gregor’s former campsite. Bard, a silent statue beside him and Ailani, bored and playing with the colored stones in her hair. Hundreds of people gathered before him. The blood chains had all been removed. They came off easily now that King Gregor was gone.
Josper struggled to find the correct words to direct to the waiting crowd. “It’s been a rough time lately. I don’t remember a world without King Gregor in it—”
“That’s because you’re just a kid!” Someone shouted out from the crowd. The man was doused with a splash of water from Ailani.
“I might be young, and maybe I don’t remember a world without King Gregor in it, but…my father did. I did this for him. So that we could get back to the old world, a better world. No, I’m not saying things should go back to the way before.” He held up a hand to stop more protests. “I’m saying that we have an opportunity to build a better world. A republic of nations where we all experience fair trade and equal opportunities. That’s why I’m opposing this alliance. An alliance that prevents us from starting more wars. An alliance that offers religious freedom and equal trade. An alliance for a better tomorrow.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’ll miss you.” Ailani cocked her head to the side as if regarding him in a new light.
“You could stay here in the Sand Sea.”
“And make a home in this new Republic you’ve created?” She snorted. “My people need me. Besides, there is no place for me here.” She sent an appraising look over to Adra who stood watching them from a distance. “She’s beautiful.”
Josper smiled. Adra was his future. A future he’d never thought would be possible.
“Keep an eye on our friend.” Ailani gripped Bard’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“You’re lucky Josper, not everyone can say they have a friend as willing to keep their secrets as you do.” She winked at Bard. “You’ll have to find another way to talk now.” She interlocked her fingers and wriggled her thumbs. “There. That means good-bye.” She pulled Bard in for an embrace and then turned toward Josper.
“You think Kitoi will hold up their end of the bargain?” Nearly everyone in the new Republic seemed to be thrilled with the assassination of King Gregor. The few supporters he had remaining had all fled the country, presumably seeking refuge in Kitoi. They had just signed their treaties this morning. The Tri-Alliance was everything Josper hoped it could be.
“I think so,” Josper replied. “I think everyone is ready for a little peace.”
Ailani nodded. “And the chains? You destroyed them all?”
“Of course,” Josper answered. “No one in this world should hold such absolute power.” His fingers stretched toward the singular chain that lay hidden in his pocket.
Ailani smiled. “Well then, I guess I’ll head home. Mother knows I’ve missed the sea.” She pulled Josper in for one final tight embrace. “You’re tougher than you seem. I think you’ll make a great king.”
“King? Oh no, the Republic won’t have another king. I’ve devised a new system. A fair system, that allows us to uphold our beliefs and prevents any one person from gaining too much power. There will be Thirteen…
This story was so much fun to write and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself revisiting Josper, Bard, and Ailani in the future. Did you like Josper’s story? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!