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A note from NoDragons

I really have to thank Acerorack, Alex M, Angry Koi, RARE_METAL, and J Pal for their kind reviews, and everyone for rating this story.

Sand elves.

While Jasper was delighted to learn this world wasn’t just inhabited by humans, the rest of the hunting crew seemed on edge. Throwing saddles onto their horses, they mounted up, the townsfolk riding along while the hunters moved on their feet.

It was the first chance Jasper had to see a warband in motion, close-up. Skills were still strange to Jasper, but he was learning what to look for, how to spot a touch of magic hidden in mundanity.

The hunters had a unique way of moving, arrhythmic and scuttling, that covered the ground with what felt like impossible speed. As he watched he was sure there was a disconnect between the actual movement of their feet and how quickly they crossed the sand.

At the same time, none of the riders used reins or saddles. They seemed to communicate with their horses through– Telepathy? Empathy? The horses seemed to simply know what the rider wanted.

He followed along, struggling to keep pace against the rise and fall of the dunes, the constant shifting of the sand under his footsteps. He was pleased to see Amun was in a similar boat. The noble boy was weighed down by the metal chain of his heavy armor, puffing away as he stomped through the sand. Teysa was a little ahead of them– Thorn was well in the lead with the other hunters, and she didn’t look back.

Ahead of them, there was a faint cluster of dark spots on the horizon. Amun knocked into Jasper, grunting, his face the shade of a boiled lobster. “Here.”

He pushed a spyglass into Jasper’s hands. Raising it to his eyes, Jasper looked out…

The first thing Jasper saw was the ship. Canvas stretched over bone, with a single mage on a raised platform lifting his hands high, conjuring a wind that struck the sails and sent them skimming across the desert. They were elves, all right. Their bodies were painted with luminous marks of curling, interlocking blue ink. Their hair was wild and golden-blonde and flowing in the wind.

Smaller crafts– canoes as slim as a surfboard, with tall and whip-thin sails– flitted along in the bigger ship’s wake.

And as the two warbands closed in, human and elf, caught between them was a stretch of low ruins poking out of the sand like crooked teeth. Ancient walls and archways made breakwaters for the sand, dunes piling up against them. Statues all but vanished beneath the desert like drowning men…

The sand-devil and its pack of quartz hounds waited within. The elemental ‘dogs’ tilted their heads up and howled to the sky, to the dark above.

“Illumination!” The hunting leader called out. Arrows arked into the sky, carrying glowing feathers. They lodged themselves into the sand and created a zone of light.

“Summons!” Shadows flickered into being, oily patches of darkness collapsing down into the bodies of seven armored men. They wore armor that reminded Jasper of Greek hoplites; they had crested helmets and tall shields and long spears. Their flesh was completely white, as if they were formed from snow, and their armor was completely black.

Could Shards make people? Or at least, people-shaped things?

Jasper shook off the question, passing back the spyglass as the sandship sailed into view. An arrow lifted into the air, rising, sailing high and coming arcing back down. It stabbed into the sand– only a few feet away.

Jasper felt a certain cold coming over him.

Another arrow slammed down. And this one didn’t hit sand. A man tumbled over, his horse shrieking, chaos breaking out as the rest of the warband moved to steer around him, leaving the dead behind.

They threw themselves into the ruin, riders leaping off their horses, getting down behind the shadows of the broken walls. Arrows were coming fast and thick. They rattled off the crumbling brickworks, hit the earth with puffs of sand, and whistled past…

Jasper was shivering, struggling to breathe through his tightened chest. Fear had closed its hand around his lungs. Once again, people were dying all around him.

They were in the thick of things now.

A man threw himself into the shade of the outcropping Jasper was hiding under. It was the captain of the city guard, the leader who’d been shouting before. A thick man with a blocky, round-jawed face, aged silver scars carved beneath his stubble. “Amaria!” He called out.

“Here!” The young woman he’d seen before called out, lifting her head from underneath a short wall. The man gestured frantically for her to get back down. She ducked– and an arrow sailed through the space where her head had been.

“You.” He glanced to Jasper, and nodded towards the girl. “Take her. Go get the spirit beast. We’ll hold the line.”

So much for staying back and playing support while others rush in…

A gulp ran down Jasper’s throat. He wished now he’d taken the bubble shield, instead of the ray of cinders. Stopping an arrow…

That sounded nice.

Jasper scrambled across the earth, dashing over to the girl. “Hey.” He said, as he threw himself into cover with her.

“Hey?” She said in a low squeak. “That’s what you lead with?”

Hey.” Jasper repeated. “I need you to be cool.”

“Be cool.” She said, slowly, and then again, “Be cool.”

“Come with me.” Jasper had spotted a segment of the ruins that was mostly intact, a house that was still partially standing. It had enough of a roof to serve as a shield against the rain of arrows.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her forward. Together they ran– the big ship was hanging back, the archers kneeling under a row of shields along the deck, firing up into the air. The smaller ships were shooting forward, warriors leaping down, running into the ruins.

At the same time, the human forces were advancing slowly, creeping through the shadows as the arrows held them down.

Jasper saw Amun and Thorn. They had found a basement, a yawning space that descended beneath the sand, and were using it as a foxhole. Thorn was firing her bow, picking off elvish warriors while Amun stood guard.

“Where’s Teysa?” Jasper hissed. The battlefield wasn’t loud, but the blood was flowing through his ears like a wardrum.

Amun nodded back towards the outer edge of the ruins.

Jasper felt a sense of relief. At least someone had done a good job staying out of the shit.

“We have to get the spirit beast.” He called over.

“Well, that’s easy to say.” Amun groaned. “We can’t take a whole pack of quartz hounds alone.”

“I have this.” Besides Jasper, Amaria reached into a small bag and pulled out a polished bronze cylinder the length and width of a sword-hilt.

“What…”

“It’s a lightning bolt.” She clarified hastily, face a stark white that told Jasper she was on the verge of cracking. “For killing the salt-devil.”

“Right, right…” Jasper looked down at the weapon in her hand, and up to the scared, nervous girl holding onto it. Hard shivers were running up her frame and she looked at the very edge of her ability to hold on.

“Hey.” He asked. “Why did the gods create war?”

“I- I don’t know I-” She was about to break.

“Only way to teach the Ardish geography.” Jasper said.

And she cracked up. Genuine, shaking laughter, almost crying. It wasn’t that funny and it didn’t need to be.

“Okay, okay.” Jasper squeezed her wrist. “We’re gonna bring the enemy to you. You just need to hold steady, and get ready to throw that lightning on my command. The main thing is– clear out all the hounds. If we kill the salt-devil, great. If not, we can lead it to your people and deal with it there.”

She nodded, blinking away the tears. Biting down until her jaw stopped shaking.

Jasper scanned the field. In the distance, the white-skinned and black-armored soldiers were clashing. He saw an elf leap straight up a wall, trying to dart around a soldier’s massive shield, only for the faceless creature to catch the elf in the hip with its spear. With a casual flick, the desert warrior was flung back onto the ground. As they tried to rise, the soldier slammed down with their shield, sending them sprawling.

Another stab finished things.

Arrows peppered the sand and the ruins. Shadows in the night, streaking down in a rain of death. Men lay with a dozen feathered ends poking out of their back, blood pooling beneath them and sinking into the desert.

He caught sight of an archway, at the middle of a long wall. “There.” Jasper pointed. “We’ll lead them through there. When they’re all grouped up– you do your thing.”

She nodded, setting off in an awkward crawl to stay below cover as she moved.

He turned to Amun and Thorn. The noble boy had gotten a shield of a dead man, and was holding it overhead, arrows rattling as Thorn nested beneath his arm and fired back.

“We need to go get the elementals. Bring them to her!”

“That’s an awful plan, and you’re not in charge!” Amun called back. As he did, an arrow snapped against his shield.

“Well, what’s your plan?” Jasper snapped.

“I- Well-” Amun was stumped. Another arrow hissed into the sand next to him.

“Then why the fuck would you be in charge?!”

Thorn exchanged a silent look with Amun, and the boy set his jaw. “Fine! On three, we move for the center. We keep moving! We stick together! We find the salt-devil and we bring it back!”

“One!”

Jasper felt the coldness descend again. Now that Amaria wasn’t in danger of breaking…

“Two!

Now that he was in real danger, and had nobody he needed to be brave for…

“Three!”

All of them shouted and roared as they broke from cover, hurling themselves through the ruins, praying that they’d survive the open distance before the next wall. The moments between, all Jasper could feel was the cold of the sweat on his face and the burn in his legs. They threw themselves from one wall to the next, scrambling in a zig-zag through the ruins.

Until a quartz hound burst out from around a corner, snarled, and threw its body at Thorn. Amun intercepted, cracking it across the skull with the shield and the weight of his body. The beast’s stony skin broke with an audible crystalline shattering.

Amun flung the shield aside and shifted both hands to his spear, cleaving into its leg and forcing the beast down as Thorn circled around his back for a clear shot, firing into its head. It snapped and snarled–

Another arrow put it down.

More were coming. As they rounded the wall, they saw a battlefield.

The elves had arrived first. The quartz hounds were tied up against the desert warriors, chasing them through the ruins, spreading out further and further– drifting away from the salt-devil. The elves were clearly pulling their own tactic, dividing and conquering. A core group was moving closer, closer, closer to the massive man made of salt and stone.

“Thorn!” Amun called.

She lifted her bow, whispered something Jasper didn’t hear, and fired.

The arrow flitted through the air and shattered against the salt-devil’s rocky skin. Its faceless, lumpy head turned towards them…

And on cue, the quartz hounds broke away from their combats– some of them getting cut down as soon as their attention shifted– and began to rush towards the trio.

‘Run!”

They broke away, rushing back through the ruins with more than just the fear of the deadly arrows raining down over them– with the gemstone-clad bodies of the quartz hounds and their snapping, bared teeth at their heels.

The sand raced away underneath–

The dark silhouettes of the ruins rushed past–

Jasper barely spotted a lip of a crumbled wall poking out of the sand, leaping over before it tripped him–

He turned back for a brief second, catching a vague glimpse of the pursuit. The hounds were pouring through and over the ruins like a tide of stone. At their head, rumbling forward in huge, plodding footsteps, was the sand devil.

And ahead of him–

The archway stood like a safe refuge. The finish line to this mad chase.

He could see Amaria, framed by a nearby light-arrow, her mouth repeating two words silently over and over again. The adrenaline made the scene oddly clear, and Jasper realized then and there he’d remember this hellish night for as long as he lived.

She was saying.

‘Becoolbecoolbecoolbecoolbecool…’

Amun threw himself through the archway and rolled aside. Thorn was a step behind him. Jasper was last, the closest to the hounds, and as he ran through he swerved a hard right to make room for the shot.

Behind him, they rushed through the chokepoint, their bodies packing tight together, grouping up—

“AMARIA! NOW!”

She lifted her arm like a javelin thrower, the bolt of sealed lightning raised high. As she hurled it, as it left her hand, the bronze casing broke apart. Raw, thunderous power poured out, extending from a single bright burst of white-purple lightning into a jagged finger of storm that reached through the air in a single sparking moment…

And blew the archway, the hounds, everything away.

Jasper hit the ground hard. All he could see, after that initial flash of purple, was white burned into his eyes. All he could hear was the high-pitched ringing…

But he could feel the earth beginning to sag underneath him, beginning to break, sand trickling through his fingers.

Blind and deaf, Jasper was plunged into a cavernous underground space as the ground gave way beneath him.

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About the author

NoDragons

Bio: Author bios are for the mangy dogs who think they write literature. I write trash, and I am the king of the trash.

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