Dragon Stalker Bloodlines

Explore the Land of Zandador and All Things Dragon Stalkers

16: The Dreaded Trip

The following is chapter sixteen of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

Taliya woke up with the sun and decided to take a stroll down the beach while the guys continued to sleep.  She soaked in the feelings of the sand between her toes, the cold water lapping at her ankles, and the warm breeze blowing through her hair.

The orange and red hues of the rising sun played with the deep purple ocean, and the stunning beauty of this quiet haven beckoned her to stay.  Her heart and mind agreed.  They knew the next stop on the journey would be Oer, and that was the one place in the Great Rift she never ever wanted to go again.

She had been gone for fifteen years, having left at the age of seven.  Would her parents recognize her?  Did they miss her?  Had her father told her mother where she had gone?

Not that her mother would care.  She had wanted to give Taliya away long before Taliya ran away when she was six to explore the jungle of Noon Stalker Territory that loomed behind the city walls.  Taliya remembered the look of disappointment rather than excitement on her mother’s face when Taliya returned from her exploits as well as the look of relief when Taliya was sentenced to a life of slavery as her punishment for leaving the city limits.

Taliya had often wondered if her mother had suggested that punishment to the governor just so her mother could be rid of her once and for all.

Memories of that miserable year as a slave in the governor’s house made Taliya feel queasy.  She dropped to her knees in the sand to keep the food she ate last night from coming back up.  O how she dreaded having to face that place and those people again!

“Are you okay?” Micah said, sprinting up to Taliya.  Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, and his breathing was faster than usual.  Apparently he had interrupted his early morning jog to check on her.  “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine.  Just nervous about returning to Oer.”  She nodded in the direction of the campsite that she was too far away to see.  “Is Javan still asleep?”

“Yes.  You want to wake him up while I keep running down the beach for a bit?  We should probably get going once I return.”

“I say we let him sleep.  It’s been a crazy few weeks, and we could all use a quiet morning to recover.”

“A nice long run on the coast followed by a swim in the ocean does sound rather appealing.”  Micah slapped Taliya on the back.  “Deal.  Let’s take the morning to ourselves and head out right after Varjiek returns from his noon meal.”

“Noon?”  Taliya felt the color drain from her face.  “That soon?”

“You really don’t want to return to your hometown, do you?  What has you so scared?”

“Scared?  Me?  Nonsense.”  Taliya forced herself to her feet.  She liked to talk but did not know Micah well enough to spill her life story to him at this moment.  “You enjoy your run.  I’ll be ready to go long before Varjiek returns.”

To end the conversation, she trudged back toward the camp.  She wasn’t scared.  Apprehensive?  Sure.  Nervous?  Absolutely.  Terrified?  Most definitely.

But Taliya the Dragon Protector was not scared of anyone or anything.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

“No,” Javan said, shaking his head.  Sleeping late into the morning had him feeling renewed and ready to win the current argument about how best to get to Oer and who should make the trip.  “They aren’t coming.”

“Then I’m not going, either.”  Taliya plopped down and sat crossed-legged in the sand in the spot where her bed was the night before.  She had already dismantled the campsite by the time Javan woke up and before Micah returned from his run.  “We’re a team.  All of us.  Including the dragons.  Where we go, they go.”

“We’ll only be gone for a few days.  After we talk to your dad in Oer and pick up Ravier in Japheth two days from now, we’ll come right back here.  Varjiek is the only one who can fly, so he is the only one we’ll take.”

“Mertzer can run almost as fast as Varjiek can fly,” Micah said.  “He won’t slow us down.”

“He will when we get to the river,” Javan said.  “He hates water and will not want to cross.”

“Not a problem,” Micah said.  “Once we cross, send Kisa back to teleport Mertzer to the other side.”

“Kisa is the problem,” Javan said.  “She’s amazing when she can teleport, but she is much slower than Mertzer and Varjiek.  Plus she’s exhausted.  Teleporting two dragons such a long distance has zapped her energy.  She was zonked out when I checked on her, and she is in no shape to travel anywhere today.”

“I left Mertzer once,” Micah said.  “He’s my dragon.  I’m not leaving without him again.”

“You don’t have to leave without him,” Javan said.  He cleared his throat and stood tall, knowing Micah wouldn’t like what he was going to say next.  “You can stay here.”

“And miss the action?  I don’t think so.”

“I do.  You need to remain hidden.  We’re going to have enough trouble finding the dragon eggs and getting through the portal.  We certainly don’t need the Destroyer knowing you’re alive and back in Zandador.  If that happens, we’ll have her chasing us trying to kill you.”

“You want me to hide?  That seems cowardly, but I’ll stay.  And when this is over, I will find the Destroyer before she finds me.”  Micah kicked the sand and walked away.

“Now we must take Kisa,” Taliya said, standing up and whispering.  “We can’t leave her here alone with a Dragon Hunter.”

“She’ll be fine.  Micah knows she’s my dragon, and he can’t touch her.  Besides, we don’t have a choice.”  Javan took Taliya’s hand and led her slightly inland to where Kisa was curled up and snoring loudly under some trees.  “Look at her.  What do you see?”

Taliya gasped.  “She’s…filthy.”

“Exactly.  She’s so tired that she doesn’t care that her body is covered with a dusting of dirt and her tail is buried beneath some leaves.  We can’t take her anywhere, and we have to trust Micah to look out for her.”

“But that’s my job.”

“Not anymore.”  Javan tried to suck the words back into his mouth as soon as he said them, but the damage was done.  Taliya bit her bottom lip, and tears filled her suddenly sad eyes.  He needed to do some fast talking to keep her from crying.  “I mean it’s your job to look out for all dragons, not just Kisa anymore.  That includes Varjiek on this trip and whatever Dusk and Midnight Stalkers I end up collecting.  So please come with me and be Varjiek’s Protector.”

Taliya sniffled, threw her shoulders back, and uttered one word.  “Fine.”

“Then it’s settled.  You, Varjiek, and I will leave as soon as Varjiek returns from eating.”

Did I hear my name?  Varjiek swooped down through the trees and landed beside Kisa.  The Dawn Stalker kept snoring.

“Yes,” Javan said.  “We need you to fly us to Oer.  Do you know how to get there?”

I know the city.  Its walls are high.  Its factories are loud.  Its people are mean. 

“He says he knows where to go.”  Javan reported Varjiek’s relevant thoughts to Taliya.  “Time to get our stuff and leave.”

“How exciting.”  Taliya turned and walked away, looking and sounding like the least excited person in the world.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Varjiek kept to the coastline as he flew Taliya and Javan north.  Once they crossed the wide river that cut Zandador in half and dumped into the ocean, he adjusted his flight to more of a north-west trajectory that sent them flying slowly over hundreds of miles of the Noon Territory jungle.  They needed to wait until nightfall to approach her father and were thus in no hurry to reach Oer, located along the northwest corner of the Noon Territory border.

Taliya clung to Javan as she studied the vibrant green plants and the sparkling blue waters of the winding rivers below them.  She wanted to jump off and play among the foliage and waterways.  What plants and animals did they have here that weren’t in the rain forests of Keckrick?

Varjiek must have read her mind because he dipped down and drifted just above the tops of the trees.  She reached over and let her fingers touch the fuzzy leaves.

“Taliya, careful!  You’re going to fall.”

“If I do,” she said, her left hand hooked to Javan’s belt, “head on to Oer without me.  I think I would like living here.”

“I’ll be sure to have Varjiek bring you back here after you’ve helped me collect the rest of my dragons.  Until then, you’re stuck with me.”  He reached back, hooked his arm around her waist, and forced her to return to her upright sitting position.

“You’re no fun.”  Taliya sulked long enough to let Javan feel like he had won the battle for her safety.  Once that small threshold passed, she stood and used Javan’s head to help her maintain her balance on the dragon’s wide neck.  “You’ve got to loosen up a bit and let yourself enjoy these moments.  We’re flying on a powerful dragon over some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.  The view is absolutely amazing!”

“I can be plenty of fun, and I am enjoying the view just fine from my seated position.  The possibility of plummeting to the ground has a way of bringing out my boring side.”

“But standing changes your entire perspective.  You should try it.  From here I can see monkeys dancing in the trees up ahead and–”  She plopped down on her bottom, her brain refusing to form the words needed to finish the sentence.

“What?”  Javan turned his head to look at her.  “What did you see?”

“Oer.  I saw the city walls that surround the city of Oer.”

No more words were spoken as Varjiek maintained his trajectory toward the city.

 

To be continued…

15: Waiting for Javan

The following is chapter fifteen of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

I didn’t expect Micah to leave with Taliya, Mertzer said.  Good for him.  I think I’m starting to like the man who made me his slave.

Javan ignored the dragon’s observation and kept his gaze focused straight ahead.  He tried to blink away the image of Taliya leaving in a flurry of colors with Micah, but it would be forever burned on his brain.

Why did he care?  She was just a Dragon Protector who had agreed to help him collect two more dragons.  He shouldn’t be jealous of her leaving without him and being alone with Micah.  Besides, he’s the one who encouraged Micah to go with her.  Which in hindsight was foolish.  He should have gone and let Micah stay to disable the portal.

Javan, Varjiek said, floating in a lazy circle above the city square, wouldn’t now be a good time to do something with that scale in your hand?

Varjiek’s words snapped Javan out of his stupor, and he stepped toward the portal.  But it activated before he reached it.

“Oh, this isn’t good.”

And it wasn’t.  The figures of several dozen soldiers appeared as the cloud of colors faded.

Javan did the only thing he could think of in the moment.  He drew his invisibility sword and charged the portal.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

“Amazing!”  Taliya’s insides felt like they had been shaken, scrambled, and rearranged, but she considered that part of the thrill of portal travel.  She now found herself on the eastern coast of Zandador at the time of night when the moon had just taken over full control of the sky.

In the moonlight, she could see the dark purple hue of the ocean and hear the waterfalls behind her competing with the crashing waves in front of her.  A hundred feet or more of fine bronze sand stood between the water and the combination of trees, cliffs, and boulders that marked the edge of the shoreline.  “This place must look spectacular in the daylight.”

“I suppose.”  Micah shrugged and walked off the portal.  “We should be able to set up a decent campsite under some trees along the beach.  You work on finding a good spot and building a fire, and I’ll work on finding something to eat.”

“Sure.”  She watched Micah disappear into the woods, then spoke to Kisa.  “I know you’ll appreciate the beauty of the land.  Walk with me, help me pick out a campsite, then head back to Javan.  When you return, you’ll be able to teleport directly to the campsite.”

Kisa nodded her understanding and delicately stepped off the portal.  Her front claws sank in the soft sand, and she snorted as she reared up on her back legs and shook the sand out of her claws.

“Really, Kisa?  You’re going to let your obsession with being clean keep you from enjoying a moonlit walk on the beach?  That’s a shame.”  To show the dragon she had nothing to fear, Taliya took off her leather boots and socks and jumped into the squishy sand.  She giggled as it tickled her toes, and she began jogging down the beach.  “Come on, Kisa!”

With the ocean on her left and the forest on her right, Taliya jogged past rocks and shrubs before settling on an inviting cluster of tall, skinny palm trees.  She pointed to the cluster and called to Kisa.  “Found a spot.  You won’t have to come far, and you can leave as soon as you check it out.”

The dragon hesitated before leaving the solid ground of the portal.  Then she quickly pranced her way to Taliya as though the sand was made of lava.  She disappeared the second she laid eyes on the designated campsite.

“Bye, girl.”  For the first time in fifteen years, Taliya was too far away from Kisa to offer her protection.  That thought made Taliya feel helpless and without purpose.  “She’s not yours to protect anymore.”  The reminder didn’t take the sting out of the new reality, and Taliya wondered if she would ever get used to the idea that Kisa belonged to Javan.

“Stop your sulking, and get to work.”  Taliya obeyed herself.  She used the large leaves from the trees to make three beds on the soft sand, then went to work building a fire while Micah hunted for food.

She finished her job before Micah returned from his hunting mission and before Javan arrived from Keckrick.  Part of her enjoyed the soothing sounds of the crackling fire and crashing waves under the bright moon and starlit sky, but most of her felt out of sorts.  She was in a new place that she couldn’t yet explore.  She was hungry but had nothing to eat.  She was tired but couldn’t sleep due to a growing suspicion that something had gone terribly wrong for Javan and the dragons in Nahat.

That suspicion grew worse the more time she spent alone, and she finally decided she couldn’t take the solitary inaction any longer.  She picked up her bag and began marching toward the portal until Micah yelled at her from behind.

“Hey!  Where are you going?”

Without turning around, she declared, “I’m going back.”

“Back?  Back to where?”

“To Nahat.”  She paused and looked at Micah.  “Javan should have returned by now.  What if Omri realized what was happening and sent half his army along with his dragons to Nahat?  They could be fighting a battle while we’re sitting here staring at a fire.”  She took the two activation scales out of her bag and held them up.  “We need to go fight with them.”

“Can’t we eat dinner first?”

Taliya glared at Micah until he dropped whatever animal he had caught and was preparing to cook.  “All right,” he said.  “I’m coming.”

“Good decision.”  She waited for him to catch up to her, gave him one of the scales, and they walked to the portal together.  Fortunately, none of the slots in this portal were filled with slish, making it easy to use.  Micah put his scale in the Dusk slot while Taliya put hers in the Nahat slot.

The portal sputtered, threw off a few sparks, then shut down.  Taliya started to panic.  “It doesn’t work.  The portal doesn’t work.  That means we’re stuck here.  Without our dragons.  Without Javan.  Without any way to get back to them.  I’ve never been separated from Kisa before.  Why did I agree to this plan?”

“Whoa!  Calm down,” Micah said, putting his large hands on her small shoulders.  “The portal isn’t supposed to work if Javan did his job.”

“True, but something’s wrong.”  Taliya shook her head, ducked away from the too relaxed Micah, and picked up the scales.  “What Omri isn’t the problem?  What if the people of Nahat are mad because we cut them off from the rest of the Great Rift?  What if they attacked Javan and did something with him before Kisa teleported back to him?  We have no way of getting there to help!”

“Varjiek and Mertzer are there.  Kisa will find them.  I wouldn’t want to be standing between a Collector, two of his dragons, and a third dragon he can communicate with.  They’ll be back soon enough.”

“How can you not be concerned?”

“Because I’m too hungry and tired to think about anything except food and sleep.”  Micah started walking back to the campsite.  “If Javan and the dragons aren’t back by morning, then we’ll figure out what do.”

“You want to wait until morning?  We need to figure out something now!”

Micah ignored her and just kept walking.  Raging with frustration, she marched back to the fire.  Although the idea of eating sounded enticing, she had no intention of sleeping without knowing how she would return to Keckrick.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

As Micah carefully turned the pheasant he had caught over the fire, he considered what to make of their current situation.  Should he go find Mertzer, wait for Mertzer to find him, or continue north to Noon Territory to find a Noon Stalker and continue his own quest for the throne?  If Javan had been harmed and couldn’t complete his collection, the only way to stop Omri would be for Micah to hunt three more dragons.

That was a near impossible task to accomplish in a mere two months, and he would certainly need Taliya’s help.  But would a Protector be willing to help a Hunter harm three dragons for the greater good of the Land of Zandador?

He glanced over the fire at Taliya.  She had made herself a seat in the sand and was absorbed in a book.  He was about to ask her what she was reading when a cacophony of animal shrieks and rustling leaves cut through the night.

Micah jumped to his feet and drew his sword, ready to fight whatever predator was responsible for the disturbance in the woods.  However, the quick action caused him to drop the bird in the fire.  The flames engulfed the meat, ruining the meal.

“So much for dinner,” Taliya said as the shadow of two large dragon figures appeared on the sand.  The wingless one disappeared, and Javan slid off the other.

“Hey, guys,” Javan said, walking up to the fire.  “I sure am glad to see the two of you.  I didn’t think we were ever going to get out of there.”

“What happened?”  Taliya’s eyes grew wide as she looked beyond Javan.  “Where are Kisa and Mertzer?  Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  Kisa couldn’t teleport two dragons this far at the same time, so she went back for Mertzer.  She’s going to take him to the portal area so he can easily zip into the woods and get away from the ocean.”

“That doesn’t explain what happened,” Micah said, glaring at the Collector.

“I can tell you a cool story that explains everything,” Javan said.  “See, right after you left, dozens of soldiers arrived before I could disable the portal.  They started blasting people with their Jolt Blasts, but Varjiek put an end to it.  He swooped down in invisibility mode and began knocking the soldiers out with his tail.  It was so funny watching those soldiers try to fight an invisible dragon, and I could hear Varjiek talking junk and laughing at them the whole time.  In the middle of the chaos, I managed to sneak onto the portal and stick Kisa’s scale in the Nahat slot.”

“That happened right after we left?” Micah asked.

“Yup.”

“That was hours ago,” Taliya said.  “We’ve been worried.  What took you so long?”

“I haven’t finished my story.”  Javan paused to sniff the air.  “What’s burning?”

“A bird that took me forever to catch.”  Micah put his sword away and crossed his arms.  “This better be a good story.”

“It is.”  Javan nodded and continued.  “Once the people in Nahat saw the soldiers start to fall, they decided they wanted to fight.  They rallied together, overpowered the confused soldiers, and tied them up in the storehouse with the other captives.  I tried to leave, but they insisted on cooking me a feast first.  I ate so much that I’m stuffed!”

“How nice for you,” Micah said through clenched teeth.  He had to hold his arms a little closer to his body to keep himself from punching Javan.

“I’m glad you had time for a feast.”  Taliya picked up a stick and threw it in the fire.  “We haven’t had a chance to eat anything yet.  We were too busy finding food and wood for this fire and setting up camp so we would have a place to sleep tonight.  And now that our very late dinner is ruined, we will have nothing to eat.  So you can take your stuffed self and chill in the bed I made you while our stomachs rumble from hunger all night long.”

Javan held up a bag.  “Or you can eat the food I brought.”

“Oh.”  Taliya cleared her throat and changed her tone.  “That would be nice.  Thank you.”

Micah watched with amusement as Taliya held her chin high and took the food from Javan.  She had said everything he had wanted to say, but because she began her rant before he could, she was the one who had to endure the embarrassment of misjudging Javan.

Micah also noticed that Javan didn’t say anything more to Taliya to make her feel guilty for trying to make him feel guilty.  He simply sat by the fire and let them eat in peace.  Interesting.  And admirable.

This Collector knew how to treat people well, and that was a skill Micah desperately wanted to learn.

 

The story continues with The Dreaded Trip.

14: Portal Travels

The following is chapter fourteen of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

Javan stared at the slot at his foot.  It led to the Land of No Return, the region Omri had banned his father to before Javan was born.  What if his father was still alive?  Javan needed to go to find out if his father was still alive.

This portal could take him to find out, and the sword on his hip could help them both return.

“Javan.”  Taliya waved her hand in front of his face and snapped her fingers a few times.  “Javan, did you hear me?”

“What?”  Javan shook himself out of his self-induced trance and noticed in the dim light of the setting sun that everyone except Micah had shifted to the right side of the portal, leaving Micah as the only one standing in the city square on the left side of the portal.  Why the shift, and how had he missed all the commotion that must have accompanied the brief migration?  “What’s going on?”

“You seriously didn’t hear anything I just said?”

“No.”  Javan scratched his head.  “Nothing.  My mind was elsewhere.”

“That I believe.”  Taliya led him off the portal to where Micah stood.  “We have to get the slish out of the slot to make the portal work.”

“Yeah.  I get that.  So?”

“So we don’t have time to chip away at it with a chisel,” Micah said.  “But a drop of Kisa’s acid will eat through it in seconds.”

“Say what?”  Javan’s eyes widened.  “You want to play with a dragon’s acid?  Won’t it destroy the whole portal if we try that?”

“No.”  Taliya shook her head.  “The slish is a hardened rock that won’t be able to resist the acid, but the acid shouldn’t affect the scales surrounding the slish.”

“Shouldn’t?  Are you sure?”

“Sure enough to try.”  Taliya blew her Kisa-summoning whistle.  A moment later, the boards of the bridge rattled as Kisa and Mertzer stampeded over it, charged across the open square, and stopped side by side in front of the trio.

Finally, Kisa said.  Javan had to concentrate to hear her thoughts over the gasps and whispers of the crowd.  I am ready to get out of this dirty place.  Whom shall I teleport to Zandador first?

Relax, Varjiek said, making his appearance known as he landed beside Kisa.  Nobody is leaving yet.  The humans need something from you first.

Of course.  Kisa strutted to the center of the portal and held her head and tail high.  They want to admire my beauty.

“What is she doing?” Taliya whispered to Javan.

“She thinks you called her here to let everyone admire her beauty.”

That’s not why I’m here?  Kisa turned and lowered her head so her eyes stared into Javan’s.  People don’t want to admire me?

“Yes, they do.  And they are.”  Javan gulped as he felt the heat emanating from the flared nostrils of the dragon.  “We also called you here because we need a touch of your acid to make the portal work.”

Kisa cocked her head.  Now you want to make the portal work?  I thought you took my scales so you could break the portal?

“That’s true, but before we break it, we need to open some of the closed slots.  That way we can send our friends back to Tulkar and us to a strategic place in Zandador that you haven’t been to before.”

“Kisa,” Taliya said, leaning down and sprinkling dirt on the Tulkar slot, “think of this as your very first opportunity to show off in front of hundreds of humans.  If you put one little drop of your spit right here, I can guarantee this crowd will clap and cheer for you when your acid dissolves the slish.”

It would be nice to be recognized for both my beauty and my power.

You won’t be recognized for anything if you don’t act soon, Mertzer said.  I’m sure I can claw out whatever is closing up those slots just as well as your acid can dissolve it.

“Interesting proposal,” Javan said, looking at Kisa.  “Are you going to let Mertzer be the hero here?”

Kisa snorted.  Out of my way.

“Gladly.”  Javan backed off the portal along with Taliya.

Kisa wiggled her body, cleared her throat, and hovered her snout over the Tulkar slot.  She then let a large dollop of acidy spit drop off the pointed end of her long, pink tongue.

The acid made no sound as it spread itself over the slish, eating away at it layer by layer.  In a matter of seconds, a perfectly shaped triangle slot appeared amidst the scales of the portal.

“Oh good,” Taliya said, breathing an obvious sigh of relief.  “It only ate the slish and not the scales.”

“I thought you were sure it wouldn’t.”

“I said I was sure enough to try, which meant I was only about ten percent sure the plan would work.”  Taliya shrugged and smiled.  “Sometimes risks pay off.”

Javan shook his head at Taliya’s bravery.  He preferred to be at least ninety percent sure his plans would work before taking action.  What had he missed out on or not accomplished because he had been too uncertain of the results to even try?

My cheers, Kisa said, her nose once again stuck high in the air.  Where are my cheers?

“They’re coming,” Javan said, thankful for a reason to not dwell on the answers to the question he had just asked himself.  He walked across the portal and encouraged the crowd to cheer for his acid-spitting Dawn Stalker.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

While Kisa strutted through the crowd and let the people gawk at her imposing figure, Taliya took one of Kisa’s scales from Javan and handed it to Lydia.  “As soon as you return to Tulkar, put this scale in one of the open slots on the portal.  Keep that scale in the slot until Javan returns.  Don’t reopen the portal unless you are prepared to contend with Omri’s dragons.”

“Understood.”  Lydia nodded and focused on Javan.  “You realize this will cut us off from the rest of the world.  We’re depending on you to win the throne and re-establish trade between all the regions of the Great Rift.  Otherwise we will become a forgotten society with no hope for progress.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to win.”

“Good answer.”  Lydia offered Javan a nod and hugged Taliya.  “It has been a privilege traveling with you.  We will forever be in your debt for the humminglo flowers you sacrificed to keep Keckrick safe.”

“Thank you.”  To keep herself from crying at the prospect of saying farewell, Taliya stepped back.  “You better go.  The longer we delay, the less likely we are to succeed.”

“Right.”  Lydia held up Kisa’s scale and drew her sword.  “Crew, let’s say our goodbyes and head home.  A fight with some unwelcome soldiers awaits!”

In a flurry of handshakes and hugs, the crew of the Iria bid farewell to Taliya, Javan, and Micah and wished them well in their endeavor to defeat Omri.  As the trio watched from the grass, Cyr put an activation scale in the Nahat slot, and Andre put one in the newly uncovered Tulkar slot.

After a slight delay, the portal burst to life and whisked the crew away.  Once the whirling flurry of colors dissipated, Taliya immediately began searching for the Dusk slot by starting in the center of the portal and walking directly east.  It only took her a few moments to locate the slish-filled slot, and when she did, she whistled for Kisa.

The dragon seemed to sulk her way back to the portal and did not look happy about being taken away from her walk of fame.  “Sorry to cut the party short,” Taliya said, “but we need one more drop of that acid, girl.  This time it’s our turn to travel.”

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Micah stood transfixed by the events he had just witnessed and taken part in.  How did Javan and Taliya get Kisa to do exactly what they wanted her to do without demanding she obey their every word?  Reasoning with dragons rather than ordering them around like slaves was still a curious concept for him to grasp.

Then came the goodbyes.  Real handshakes from genuine friends he would actually miss made his heart hurt.  This, too, was a new concept.  Never before had he parted from people he wanted to be around who wanted to be around him.  He was used to being treated harshly by his mentors or feared by everyone else.  He was used to keeping himself separate from the common people, not living as a friend among them.

As he watched his friends disappear in the cloud of colors produced by the portal, he found himself questioning the sanity of letting himself experience the human emotions involved in friendship he had been trained his whole life to ignore.  Watching the people he had come to care about leave was much too painful.

Not everyone left, though.  Javan and Taliya remained.  Were they his friends, or were they just three people working together toward a common goal?  Could a Hunter really be friends with a Collector and a Protector?

Friends or not, they were going to be stuck together for a while, so he might as well make the best of the situation.  It sure beat being alone.  “How much longer, Taliya?”  He approached her on the portal while she studied the acid eating away at the slish.  “Every minute we wait brings us one minute closer to an attack by Omri, especially after he realizes the Tulkar portal no longer works.  These people are not prepared to defend themselves.”

“It’s hard to tell now that it’s getting darker, but I think the slish is gone.  Micah, you, Kisa, and I better go.”

“Wait,” Micah said.  “Just me, you, and Kisa?  What about Mertzer?  I’m not leaving without him.”

“The portal is only big enough to send one dragon through at a time, and we only have one more set of activation scales that we took from the soldiers.  We can send Kisa back for Mertzer as soon as we get there.”

“You can send Kisa back for me and Mertzer as soon as you get there.”  Micah marched over to his dragon and climbed up.  “I’m not leaving without him.”

“But that means Taliya will be left alone in Zandador,” Javan said.

Micah hadn’t thought of that. Was it more important for Micah to wait with his dragon or travel ahead with his friend?

“I’m a big girl,” Taliya said, nudging Javan off the portal.  “I can take care of myself, and you need to take care of business here.  Are you sure you know what to do as soon as the portal resets?”

Javan held up one of the scales he had taken off Kisa that afternoon.  “Put this in an open slot and wait for Kisa to return.”

“Exactly.”  Taliya took two scales out of her bag and waved Kisa onto the portal.  “I’ll see you all in a few minutes.”

She put one scale in the Nahat slot, and as she walked under Kisa’s body to get to the Dusk slot, Micah found himself yelling, “Stop!  Wait for me.”  He slid off Mertzer and ran onto the portal.

“You don’t have to come with me,” Taliya said.  “I’ll be fine.”

“So will Mertzer.  I’m ready to get out of this life-sucking humidity and return to Zandador.”  To prevent her from arguing, he took the second scale out of Taliya’s hand and placed it in the Dusk slot.

The portal whirled and shook and blinded him with its brilliant colors.  The last thing he remembered seeing was the look of sheer excitement on Taliya’s face as the colors swallowed them up and transported them to the Land of Zandador.

 

The story continues with Waiting for Javan.

13: Liberate Nahat

The following is chapter thirteen of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

With dusk approaching, Micah’s mood darkened.  He was forced to haul humminglo plants from the storehouses to the portal while Javan and Taliya escaped the grunt work to play with dragons.

What was taking them so long?  All they needed to do was get a few scales from Kisa.  During the hours they had been gone, he had managed to capture a soldier, strategically place the crew from the Iria around the portal so they would be ready to capture the remaining soldiers, and carry countless numbers of plants to the portal through a torrential rainstorm.

He hadn’t been required to haul any flowers.  He wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to fall in line and help, but it did sound like a better option than sitting around doing nothing.  At least it had a few hours ago.

Now he smelled like a brutal combination of sweat, rain, and dirt, and he had so many pieces of dried humminglos stuck to his skin and clothes that he was certain he could recreate an entire flower from the debris.  The worst part was knowing that the longer they waited to shut down the portal, the more flowers his father would get.  Judging by the almost empty storehouse at the end of the row of empty storehouses, his father would be getting all the flowers Keckrick had to offer.

He threw one of the last bushels on his shoulder and spit out a piece of a leaf that floated onto his tongue.  It left a tart taste in his mouth as he marched along the path by the river toward the portal and finally dissipated as he neared the bridge.  That’s where Lydia fell into step beside him carrying a few flowers under her arm to look like she was working.

“We can’t wait any longer,” she whispered.  “My people are ready.  We need to act now, before the last load is sent to Japheth.”

“I agree.  Tell your people to move as soon as I drop this last load of flowers.  Then we’ll have to hope Javan gets back before Omri sends any more soldiers here to investigate.”

“Did I hear my name?”  Javan seemed to appear out of nowhere right in front of Micah.  He was holding one of his swords and had a silly grin on his face.

“It’s about time you got back.”  Micah hoped his stern response helped mask his surprise.  He also wanted Javan to know it was time to be serious, not joke around.  “Did you get the scales?”

“Yes.”  Javan nodded, put his sword away, and leaned in.  “We’re ready to commence with Operation:  Save Keckrick from the Tyranny of Omri by Disabling the Portals with Dragon Scales Plucked from Kisa.”

“You need to work on your operation-naming skills,” Lydia said.

Javan shrugged.  “It sounded better when Taliya said it.”

“I doubt it.”  Micah scowled and looked around.  “Speaking of Taliya, where is she?”

“She’ll be here soon.  She’s riding in on Kisa.”

“We can’t wait for her to get here,” Lydia said.  “Some of the soldiers will be returning to Zandador the next time the portal is activated.”

“What concern is it of yours when we return to Zandador?”  A soldier slightly taller than Micah with wide shoulders, oversized hands, and a bushy white beard interrupted their conversation from behind.  “Enough with the standing and talking.  Your only concern should be getting those flowers you are holding to the portal as fast as possible.”

Micah dropped his bushel of humminglos and glared at the soldier.  “We will stand here and talk as long as we want, soldier.”

“Not on my watch.  I have a job to do, and I’m not going to let anyone—even the king’s son—keep me from doing it.”  The man reached for his Jolt Blast, but he slumped into Micah’s arms before he had a chance to retrieve the weapon.  Surprised by the weight of the large man, Micah fought to keep his balance and stumbled backwards a few steps.  Once he stabilized himself, he lowered the unconscious man to the ground.  That’s when he noticed a dart stuck in the back of the man’s neck.

“What is happening?”  Lydia asked her question while swiveling her head in every direction rather than focusing on the fallen soldier.  Micah stood, followed her gaze, and saw what she saw:  every soldier on and around the portal was dropping to the ground as lifeless as the man at Micah’s feet.

“Taliya made it back.”  Javan pointed to the roof top where he and Micah had faced off earlier that day.

Taliya stood there now with a slingshot in her hand, took a bow, and yelled over the crowd who had yet to realize what was happening.  “Tie up the soldiers, boys.  Nahat belongs to the people of Keckrick again!”

Over the cheers of the people, Micah mumbled to himself.  “How did she do that?”  She was a tiny little woman with a tiny little weapon, and she had taken out an entire squad of soldiers in less than a minute.

“I’m glad she’s on our side,” Lydia said as she picked up the bearded soldier’s lifeless arm and dropped it on his chest.  “I want no part of whatever kind of poison these darts are tipped with.”

“She greeted me with one of those darts when we first met,” Javan said, “and I know from experience these guys are not going to be happy when they wake up.”

“Then let’s get them tied up and moved to the storehouse.”  Micah used the string that held the bushel of humminglos together to tie the soldier’s hands behind his back and tossed the man over his shoulder.  As he carried the man to the storehouse, he decided he was never going to underestimate Taliya again.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

The flurry of action had Taliya’s blood pumping and mind racing.  She had transitioned from super focused while shooting each soldier with her darts to crazy active while retrieving the darts, helping tie up the soldiers, and delivering the antidote.  Now she was back to a state of concentration as she stood on the portal she had only read about and studied endlessly in books.

She felt smaller than usual in the middle of the giant white portal made entirely of Dawn Stalker scales.  She also felt a sense of awe knowing this circle had the power to take her anywhere in the Great Rift she wanted to go.  The trick was figuring out where the openings were hidden while Javan, Micah, and the entire crew of the Iria stood all around the portal staring at her.

Lydia must have noticed that Taliya wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing because she crossed her arms and asked, “Are you certain this portal connects to Tulkar?  We’ve never been able to transport to anywhere except Zandador as long as I’ve been alive.”

“I’m sure,” Taliya said.  Maybe talking through her book knowledge would help her come up with a solution.  “Every portal in the Zandadorian system is interconnected.  The first king of Zandador built the portals so that anyone could go anywhere in the Great Rift whenever they wanted to travel.  Most of the population lived in Zandador, so four portals exist in Zandador, two here in Keckrick, and only one in the remaining regions because fewer people wanted to live in those places.”

“That reminds me,” Javan said, joining Taliya in the middle of the portal.  “There is a portal in Dusk Territory.”

“Yeah.”  Taliya shrugged.  “So?”

“So, we can find the connecting link to that portal as well.  After we send the crew to Tulkar, we can send you, Micah, and the dragons to portal in Dusk Territory, then I can follow after I disable the portal here.”

“That could work.”  Taliya nodded her approval.  “It’ll get us a lot closer to both my hometown of Oer and the capital city of Japheth.  The only place Kisa could get us to right now is Southwest Zandador because that’s the only place in Zandador she’s ever been.”

“It’ll be safer, too,” Micah added.  “Omri’s army is heavily patrolling Dawn Territory and the surrounding area.  He has no need to station any of his soldiers on the east coast in Dusk or Noon Territory because Javan has no reason to be in those areas of Zandador.”

“Great plan, guys,” Lydia said, “but can we get to Tulkar first?  We’re ready to go home.”

“Right.  Of course.  And to do that, we have to find the slot that will take you there.”  Taliya closed her eyes and pictured a fully-operational portal she had seen in one of her books.  She could envision ten outer links but knew that the link for Xyies at the very top of the circle was a dead link.  The other two links on the top half led to Gibbet and Tirza, two of the regions north of the Land of Zandador.

The two links to the left and right of the middle slot where she stood led to west and east Zandador.  That left five links on the bottom half of the circle.  The two on the left side connected to Upper and Lower Keckrick, the one furthest south connected to the Land of No Return, and the two on the right side connected to a town in the middle of South Zandador as well as a city in the middle of the region of Varzack.

She opened her eyes, faced the bottom half of the portal, and studied the circle.  The one visible link on the outer edge of the portal coincided with the Nahat slot in Upper Keckrick.  Somewhere between it and the bottom half of the circle was the slot for Tulkar.

“I know what to do.”  Taliya walked to the southern end of the portal, dropped to her knees, and felt the scales.  She talked as she let her fingers search.  “The portal is constructed of seven-year dawn scales that feel cool and smooth to the touch.  The way Omri blocked access to the other portals was by filling the open slots with slish, a white substance that hardens over time and resembles a dragon scale.  But it has a slight roughness to it and no sense of coolness.”

“Okay.”  Javan followed her and dropped to his hands and knees beside Taliya.  “We’re feeling for a rough patch somewhere in this vicinity?”

“Exactly.”

Less than a minute later, Javan declared, “I found it!”

“Really?  Let me feel.”  Taliya bumped Javan out of the way and put her hand where Javan’s had been.  Sure enough, the surface looked exactly like the scales around it but felt bumpy.  “That’s it.  Now all we have to do is find the Tulkar link.”

“I thought I just did.”

“Not quite.  This is the link to the Land of No Return.  I wanted to find this one first because the link to Tulkar is halfway between here and the already open slot for Nahat.”  She pulled Javan to his feet and positioned him on top of the slish-filled slot.  “You stay put to help me figure out where the halfway point is located.”

She stepped back toward the middle of the circle, approximated the midpoint between Javan and the Nahat slot, and skipped to it.  “This has to be it.”  She squatted and let her fingers dance all over the area.  Sure enough, they encountered a slightly rough patch among the otherwise smooth scales.  “Ha!  I found it!”

When Javan didn’t say anything, she looked up to see his face contorted into a strange, pensive look as he kept his eyes locked on the slot that would lead to the Land of No Return.  Why would he care about that place?  No one did.  That’s why it was called the Land of No Return.  “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”  Javan shook his head.  “Let’s just find the slot for Tulkar and get on with the day.”

“Umm…I just said I found it.  It’s right here.”

“Oh.  Right.  Good.”  Javan had clearly jumped to a different place in his head and was in no mood to share his secrets.

To keep herself from asking questions to discover what had Javan preoccupied, she turned her attention to the newest problem—the slish.  How was she supposed to get the slish out of the slot without damaging the portal?

 

The story continues with Portal Travels.

12: Limitations

The following is chapter twelve of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

Javan’s legs caught a sturdy branch on his clumsy plummet to the ground.  He wrapped his legs around the scratchy bark and searched for Taliya from his upside-down position.  “Taliya?”

He felt light-headed, dizzy, and confused.  Why had he ended up in this tree?  He had intended to teleport himself to the ground in front of the treehouse where he, Micah, and Taliya were standing when the white winds whisked them away.  Instead he found himself in the tree that used to hold Taliya’s house.  His teleportation technique obviously needed some work.

“I’m here.”  Taliya appeared below him.  “I would suggest you let go so I can catch you, but we both know that wouldn’t work out so well.”

The image of Taliya attempting to catch him brought a smile to his face.  “Right you are.  Is Kisa around?”

“I’m sure she is since she just brought you here.”

“She didn’t bring me.”

“Did Varjiek fly you here?”  Taliya molded her face into a scowl and crossed her arms across her chest.  “Did you not trust me to come back to Nahat?”

“No.  I mean yes. I mean–” Javan shook his head and started over.  “I figured out how to teleport on my own and somehow ended up in your tree.”

Taliya’s eyes grew wide.  “You have the ability to teleport?  On your own?  Without the aid of a portal?  That’s unheard of.”

“Not anymore.”  He hoped she would still be impressed once she learned he needed his Stalker Sword to teleport, a sword that was no longer in his hand.  Where had it landed?  Or did it vanish on the way here?  Was it only good for one teleportation jump?

“Prove it.  Take me back to Nahat.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Javan said, scanning the ground below him for his sword, “I’m kinda stuck in a tree.”

“Good point.  You know, I do have a whistle that summons Kisa.”  Taliya tugged on a long, thin black string around her neck and held up what looked like a dragon’s tooth that was attached to the end of the string.  “I suppose I could blow it if you ask nicely.”

“Are you serious right now?”  The branch creaked, and Javan had a hunch it wasn’t going to hold him much longer.  “My life is in danger, and you’re harassing me about saying please?”

“If we’re going to be working together, I want to know I can expect you to be polite and respectful no matter the situation.”

He could tell by the amusement underlying her words that she was simply enjoying his precarious predicament.  Still, he decided it was in his best interest to play along.  “Please blow the whistle.”

“Was that so hard?”  Taliya smiled and blew the whistle.  Javan didn’t hear anything, but Kisa appeared in the clearing ten feet away from the tree seconds later.  He had to get himself one of those whistles.

“Hey, girl,” Taliya said.  “Your Collector needs some help getting to the ground without breaking his neck.”

Kisa cocked her head and studied Javan.  Why are you hanging in the tree?

“I’m not really sure.  Can you please just get me down?”

Kisa walked over and lowered her nose underneath Javan.  He walked his hands up her long snout, unhooked his legs from the branch, and plopped on the dragon’s head.  She dropped her nose to the ground and let Javan slide off.  He planted his feet beside Taliya and wobbled slightly until the blood that had rushed to his head while hanging in the tree redistributed itself throughout his body.

If it’s time to go, Kisa said, tell Varjiek to make himself visible.  I can’t teleport him back if I can’t see him.

“He’s not here,” Javan said, kicking the long grass under the tree searching for his sword.  “One of your scales enabled me to teleport myself here when I put it in my sword.”

Kisa took a step back.  A human can teleport?

“Yup.  I’ll show you as soon as I find my—aha.  There it is.”  A glint of sun reflected off the rainbow-colored steel on the other side of the tree.  He picked it up with his right hand, walked back to Taliya, and offered her his left hand.  She didn’t take it.

“I think you’re forgetting I can’t hear Kisa’s side of the conversation.  I’m not sure what you’re wanting to do.”

“I’m wanting to show you and Kisa I can teleport.  Please take my hand, and I will return you to Nahat.”

“This should be interesting.”  Taliya placed her hand on his palm and wrapped her fingers through his.  “Let’s go.”

Javan liked the way her hand fit his and squeezed back.  He smiled, closed his eyes, and pictured the bridge in Nahat.  He waited for that whirling, swirling sensation that accompanied his first teleportation trip, but that sensation never came.

“If you wanted to hold my hand,” Taliya said, breaking his concentration, “you could have just asked.”

Embarrassed, Javan opened his eyes and dropped her hand.  “I…I don’t understand.  I got myself here.  Why couldn’t I get us back?”

Your mind isn’t strong enough yet, Kisa said.  Teleportation requires intense mental focus, and it’s especially hard when you are trying to teleport someone else that has a mind of her own.  It will take time and practice to learn.

“What’s she saying?” Taliya asked.

“She’s saying she’s going to teach me the fine art of teleportation.  Since we don’t have time for any lessons right now, though, she’s going to take us back to Nahat herself.”

I said all that?

Javan glared at Kisa.

Of course I said all that.  I’m your dragon.  I’ll be happy to teach you how to teleport.  It will be fun taking you to my favorite places by the waterfall and—

“Kisa!  Nahat.  We need to get back to Nahat.”

As you wish.  Kisa lowered her neck to the ground.  Javan helped Taliya up, then let her help him climb up behind her.  A heartbeat later, Kisa had whisked them back to the clearing near the gate of the city.

 

The story continues with Liberate Nahat.

11: Javan’s Discovery

The following is chapter eleven of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

A loud growl jerked Javan out of his sound sleep.  He sat up and instinctively drew his swords.  That’s when he realized the rain had stopped and the growling was coming from his stomach.  “I need food.”

He put his swords away and crawled out from under Varjiek’s wing.  The sun had returned with a vengeance, having already dried the grass and plants and causing drops of sweat to form on Javan’s forehead.  He wiped the sweat away and tapped Varjiek’s wing.  “Hey, V.  Thanks for the shelter.”

Good.  You are awake.  Varjiek shook out his wing and folded it against his body.  My wing was growing stiff.

“Have Kisa and Taliya returned yet?”

Not that I am aware.

Javan checked the time:  4:11pm.  “It’s been nearly an hour.  They should be back soon.”  His stomach grumbled again, reminding him he needed to eat.  “Do you see anything around here that is edible?”

No, but I did find a patch of blackberries when I was hunting for my meal earlier today.  I can take you there.

“Can you go get them and bring them to me?  I need to make sure I’m here when Kisa returns.”

Sure.  I need to stretch my wings anyway.  Varjiek extended his wings and lifted himself in the air.  If they aren’t back by the time I return, I’ll fly you to Fralick.

“Thanks.”

Varjiek nodded his head and flew north.

Javan suddenly found himself alone in the middle of the rain forest.  No Taliya.  No Micah.  No dragons.  Just him amid the chirps and howls and hisses of the animals he couldn’t see all around him.  “This is rather unsettling.”

He drew the stalker sword hanging on his right hip with his left hand, knowing he was now invisible thanks to Varjiek’s scale in the triangular space between the handle and the steel blade that was a bright golden yellow on one side and a dark midnight black on the other side.

“Hmmm.”  Javan studied the scale.  If it made him invisible, would Kisa’s scale give him the ability to teleport?  “That would be so cool!”

Javan had tucked all four of Kisa’s scales between his belt and his back.  He took one out and switched it with Varjiek’s scale in the sword.  He wrapped his fingers around the handle, closed his eyes, and pictured Taliya’s house.  He waited a few seconds, then opened his eyes.

“Oh.” He hadn’t moved an inch.  The river was still in front of him, and the poison berry bushes were still beside him.  “That’s disappointing.”

He swapped the scales back and resheathed his sword.  As he did so, the sun bounced off the golden side of the blade, temporarily blinding him.  And giving him an idea.  “I wonder…”

Javan drew both swords and studied the blades.  The golden/black blade represented the Noon and Midnight Stalkers, and he became invisible when Varjiek’s scale was inserted between the blade and handle of the Noon Stalker side.  The blade on his other sword was a beautiful mix of colors:  red, orange, pink, and purple for the Dawn Stalker on one side and pink, purple, blue, and green for the Dusk Stalker on the flip side.

He had assumed they were called Stalker Swords because of the colors of the blades, but what if that wasn’t the full meaning?  What if they allowed him to take on the same abilities of Dragon Stalkers if he had a scale from each Stalker to insert in the triangular gap just under the blade?

“That’s why I can become invisible when holding the sword with V’s scale in it, and that’s why Kisa’s scale didn’t work with that sword.  I bet I’ll be able to teleport if I put her scale in the Dawn side of the blade of the other sword.”

He once again put the golden/black blade away and retrieved one of Kisa’s scales.  He took in a deep breath as he inserted Kisa’s scale under the swirls of the red, orange, pink, and purple blade.

He kept a tight grip on the handle with his right hand, closed his eyes, and pictured Taliya’s face.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Taliya had spent the last hour searching the perimeter of the treehouse she had called home for the last eight years.  All she found was half of a book cover, a fork, and a handful of feathers from her mattress.  Everything else was gone, carried away by the white winds that had taken her, Javan, and Micah to South Keckrick weeks ago.  The only thing that the wall of white winds hadn’t blown away was the tree itself along with remnants of the floor and roof of the treehouse that dangled from the tree like extra branches.

This treehouse been a lonely home, the place she had retreated to after the volcano wiped out her village and killed her grandparents.  But it was her safe place.  Her learning space.  Her laboratory.

She had a clear purpose when she lived here.  She woke up every morning knowing she had a duty to protect Kisa; experimenting with plants to develop medicines and healing ointments turned out to be a nice bonus.

Now that Kisa was no longer hers to protect, she wasn’t sure who she was or how she fit on Javan’s team.  Until she found a new purpose of her own to pursue, she would have to be content helping Javan fulfill his duty.

“I’m going to need more darts for that.”  She dropped to her knees at the base of the tree and opened a small door that gave her access to the hollowed-out tree.  She crawled through the hole and stood inside the dimly lit space that was wide enough to let her stretch her arms and tickle the smooth bark with her fingers.

Years ago, she had carved shelves in the thick walls to hold her most important treasures:  her darts, the poison she tipped them with, the antidote for the poison, samples of her medicines, and a collection of the scales Kisa had shed over the years.  Most of the shed scales were buried in specific spots in the area around the tree, but Taliya had kept some at hand to use in her medicinal experiments.

“I think I’ll miss this place the most.”  She took a slow last look around the inside of the tree, then got to work stuffing darts in her dart pouch and filling a leather bag with a variety of her medicines as well as the poison and antidote for the darts.  Then she carefully added five scales, knowing they would prove valuable assets in Zandador.

She flung the bag over her shoulder and was about to exit when the tree shook.  The shake was followed by a grunt, and she heard someone yell, “Ouch!  Where am I?  This isn’t good.”

Taliya crawled through the door and looked up to find a man swaying by one arm from a thin branch fifteen feet above her.  “Javan?”

“Hey!  Umm…is Kisa around?  I could really use her—”  Javan didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence thanks to the sound of the snapping branch.

 

The story continues with Limitations.

 

 

10: Home Again

The following is chapter ten of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

“That scale right there.”  Taliya stood under Kisa’s wide chest next to Javan and pointed to a scale just above Kisa’s right front leg.  “That’s the one we should take first.  I can reach it if you let me get on your shoulders.”

“Why would we do that when we can take a scale from the bottom half of her leg without anybody having to get on anybody else’s shoulders?”

Taliya rolled her eyes.  Javan clearly did not understand how much appearance mattered to Dawn Stalkers.  “If you want to keep Kisa happy, you have to take the scales from places she won’t be able to notice.  If you do anything to mar her reflection—like taking scales from her legs—she won’t be able to function, and you’ll have a sullen, useless dragon in your collection.”

Javan leaned over and whispered in Taliya’s ear.  “Haven’t you ever explained to her that beauty comes from within? This obsession with her looks isn’t healthy.”

Taliya whispered back.  “My job has been to protect her, not teach her human lessons of morality.  But if you think now is a good time to tell her how wrong she is to be so vain, go for it.”

They locked eyes for a moment, then Javan shook his head.  “Fine.  We’ll do this your way.”  He walked over to the dragon’s front right leg and lowered himself into a squat.  “Get on.”

“Smart man.”  Taliya dashed to Javan and draped her legs over his shoulders.  He slowly wobbled to a standing position, and she reached up to take the scale she had pointed out.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t quite reach it.  “Hold still.”

While holding on to Javan’s hair, Taliya rearranged her feet, putting one at a time onto Javan’s shoulders.

Javan swayed beneath her.  “What are you doing?”

“Getting the scale I want.”  Taliya let go of his hair and walked her hands up the side of the dragon’s leg as she stood.  “Standing is the only way I can reach high enough.”

Taliya felt Javan’s wrists on her ankles as she extended her entire body to reach the designated scale.  When she finally wrapped her hands around the cool, smooth scale, she began to change her mind.  How could she pull it knowing it would cause Kisa pain?

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to hurt Kisa.”

“She’ll be okay.”  Javan’s voice sounded strained.  “It’s for the good of Keckrick.  Now yank it before I lose my balance and drop you!”

Taliya closed her eyes, turned her head away, and slowly began to inch the scale away from Kisa’s body.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Kisa stomped her front leg.  Has she gotten my scale off yet?  I need this torture to be over!

“What is taking so long?”  Javan listened to Kisa as he kept his eyes locked on the third claw of the dragon’s front foot to maintain his balance.  His knees felt ready to buckle under Taliya’s weight.  He needed to speed the process along for his sake as well as for Kisa’s.  “You should have been able to remove a dozen scales by now.”

“I’m not going to apologize for being gentle.”

“You’re being too gentle.  Just rip it off.  Kisa will be fine.”

“You’re being too brutal.  I’m sure Kisa appreciates my approach.”

“Actually, she’s quite ready for you to be done.”

“She is?”

“Yes.  She said she wants the torture to be over.”

“Why didn’t you say so sooner?”   Kisa’s leg flinched a second later, then Taliya said, “Quick.  Walk me to the back leg.”

Javan was about to tell her to get down and walk on her own two feet, but he felt her weight shift forward.  To prevent a fall, he had to move with her.  He barely had time to stabilize beside Kisa’s back right leg when he saw the dragon’s leg jerk and heard Taliya announce, “Next!”

Once again, she swung her momentum forward, this time toward Kisa’s back left leg.  “Whoa!”  Javan tightened his grip on Taliya’s ankles and sped up to prevent her from toppling forward.  “Not so fast.”

“You’re the one who told me to speed up.”

“I meant be faster about ripping the scales off, not scurrying from leg to leg.”

“That’s not what I heard.” Taliya paused, dug her toes into Javan’s shoulders, and grunted.  “Got it.”

“Fantastic.”  Javan sighed and began to bend his knees so Taliya could get off.

“What are you doing?  Stand up and take me to the other front leg.  We still have one more scale to get.”

“Why?”  Javan straightened his legs and stared at a piece of grass to help him restabilize.  “We only need three scales:  two for the portals and one for the column in Stalker Square.”

“And one to make everything even.”

“Seriously?”

Kisa snorted.  I can’t walk around knowing an odd number of scales was removed from my body.  I’d never be able to face the world again.  Make her take the last one. 

“I bet Kisa will tell you she wants the extra one removed.”

“She just did.”  Javan carried Taliya to the final front leg, grimaced as her right foot dug into his neck, and watched for Kisa’s involuntary jerk reaction that signaled the scale had been removed.  Once he saw her leg shiver, he said to Taliya, “Sit back down on my shoulders, and I’ll lower you to the ground.”

“No need.”  Taliya leapt off Javan’s shoulders, spun around in the air, and landed facing Javan.  “Look at these beautiful scales.”  She untucked them from her waistband one by one and stacked them in the palm of Javan’s hand.

The bottom scale seemed to vibrate in his hand while he could see his reflection in the smooth surface of the whiter than snow top scale.  “Stunning, Kisa.  Your scales are stunning.”

Yes, I know.  I work hard to keep them that way. 

“We should probably go,” Taliya said.  “The storm will be starting soon.”

“All right.  I’ll wait for you here.  But you need to be back in an hour whether the storm is over or not.”

“Deal.”  Taliya nodded, checked her pocket time piece, and put her hand on Kisa’s leg.

We’ll be back, Kisa said.  Before Javan could say another word, both Kisa and Taliya vanished just as the downpour began.

Javan sprinted toward the trees to find cover when Varjiek swooped down, blocked Javan’s path, and spread out his wing.  I’m not scared of a little rain.  Hide here, young Collector.

“Thanks.”  Javan jumped on top of Varjiek’s back left foot and wiped his wet hair away from his face.  Varjiek let his extended wing rest on the ground, providing a cozy shelter for Javan.  He rested his head against the dragon’s body, closed his eyes, and listened to the soothing pitter patter of the rain drumming on the wing above him.

With nothing to do except worry that Kisa and Taliya would never return, Javan allowed sleep to chase his worries away.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Taliya’s body tingled from head to toe.  She wasn’t sure if that was due to the teleportation or to exchanging the humid, stuffy air by the river for the cool, clear air of Kisa’s cave.  Whatever the reason, the tingling dissipated after a few deep breaths.

Kisa didn’t appear to be bothered by the sudden change in location.  Her focus seemed to be on her reflection in the shimmering rock walls of the cave.

“See,” Taliya said, walking to the nearest wall and pointing at Kisa’s image, “you look as amazing as always.  Even you can’t tell any of your scales are missing.”

Kisa studied her reflection from all possible angles before looking at Taliya and nodding her agreement.

“Now that you see you are just fine, can you take me to my home?  I want to see what’s left of it and salvage what I can.”

Kisa nodded and reached out her leg.  As soon as Taliya touched it, her body tingled again as it teleported across the forest to the tree that once held her home.

 

The story continues with Javan’s Discovery.

9: How to Negotiate with a Dawn Stalker

The following is chapter nine of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

The gentle breeze had upgraded itself to a moderate rustle, bringing with it the distinct smell of rain that was bound to pour from the darkening sky at any time.  The prospect of getting wet didn’t bother Javan.  What bothered him was the fact that one of his dragons had disappeared while the other snoozed alongside Taliya.

How could Varjiek and Taliya rest when there was so much to do and so much on the line?  He had spent the last half hour wearing a path in the grass while attempting to contrive a contingency plan for every aspect of his main plan that could go wrong.  What if they couldn’t find a Dusk egg?  What if they did find the egg but Taliya couldn’t open the portal?  What if the egg didn’t hatch once they got it to earth?

He didn’t yet have solutions to those potential problems, but he did think he could convince Kisa to give him some of her scales to set the action in motion…if she ever returned.

“I have a solution for that problem, too,” Javan mumbled as he marched over to Varjiek.  The dragon’s head rested peacefully on the ground, and Javan stood on his tip toes to yell up into the dragon’s ear.  “Wake up, Varjiek.  Time to fly.”

The startled dragon jerked his wings up and stood, sending Taliya rolling under his tail.  Fly?  Who said something about flying?  Doesn’t matter.  I’m ready.  Let’s go.  Where are we going?  It’s not the desert, is it?  I can’t fly over the desert.

Javan ignored Varjiek and rushed over to Taliya.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”  Taliya cocked her head from side to side as she took Javan’s hand to help her crawl out from under the dragon’s tail.  “That was a brutal way to wake up.”

“Sorry.  I guess I should have known better than to disturb a sleeping dragon when a person was sleeping right beside him.”

“I’m glad I could help you learn that lesson.”  Taliya flashed him a smile and looked around.  “Did Kisa come back?”

“No.  I decided we’re going to go find her.”

We won’t have to go far.   

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Taliya noticed Kisa before Javan did.  The dragon was standing just upriver from them on the other side of the berry bushes staring at herself in the water.  Sadness filled the dragon’s eyes, and Taliya knew it was because Kisa couldn’t stand the thought of losing any of her scales.  How could Taliya protect the dragon’s pride and get her to willingly surrender the scales they needed for the portal?

“I see her.”  Javan’s irritated tone cut through Taliya’s thoughts.  “She better stay put until we can get to her.”  He started to stomp his way through the bushes, but Taliya grabbed his wrist before he got more than two steps in.

“Javan, wait.”  If he approached Kisa with that attitude, he was sure to spook her into teleporting again.  “You’re the one who needs to stay put.  Just give me a minute.  Let me talk to her alone first.”

He sighed, nodded, and backtracked out of the bushes.  “If that’s what it will take to get her to give up her scales, go for it.”

“Thank you.”  Taliya gave his wrist a gentle squeeze and wove her way under and around the branches, leaves, and juicy violet berries of the bushes.  When she emerged from the patch of bushes five minutes and two spider kills later, she found herself freshly in awe of the white dragon in front of her.  Kisa wasn’t as massive as Varjiek, but she still made Taliya feel like she was an ant approaching an elephant.

Despite her insignificant size in relation to the dragon, Taliya knew she could convince Kisa to do whatever she wanted.  The trick was to stroke the dragon’s ego first.  “Hey, girl.  Looking good.”

Kisa swiveled her neck and focused her gaze on Taliya.

“You know, your scales do more than just look fantastic on you.  They’re also quite powerful.”  Kisa’s ears perked up, and she moved her head slightly closer to Taliya.  “They are the only things that can properly disable the portal and keep all of Keckrick safe from King Omri’s dragons.  That will make you a great heroine.”

The dragon stood a little taller, and the pride in her eyes began to overtake the sadness.  Confident that she had Kisa’s attention, Taliya kept schmoozing.

“Think about it.  A few days ago, no one knew you existed.  Now you can forevermore be known as The Dragon Who Saved Keckrick.  The best part is that no one will be able to see your missing scales.”

Kisa looked away at the mention of missing scales.  Taliya had to talk fast to keep the dragon interested.  “Giving up a few scales is a tiny price to pray for the glory you’ll receive.  Plus, we’ll make it as easy on you as possible by taking one scale from the underside of each of your legs.  You’ll still be a magnificent creature, and you may even gain the ability to run faster without the weight of those scales holding you back.  In return, Javan will let you return to your cave for a bit so you can hide from the storm that will soon be blowing through here.”

“I will?”

The sound of Javan’s voice above her startled Taliya.  She looked up to see him jump out of the sky and land beside her.  “Javan!” she said, punching his forearm.  “You can’t be hovering around on your invisible dragon and dropping in to private conversations like that.  It’s rude!”

Instead of apologizing, he rubbed his arm and smiled.  “I gave you the minute you requested.”

“Just for surprising me,” Taliya said, trying to think of some way to shock Javan the way he startled her, “you have to let me teleport back with Kisa.”

His smile vanished.  “What?  Why?”

That seemed to hit a nerve.  Good.  Maybe he wouldn’t pull anymore appearing acts on her after this.  “You’ve asked me to leave my home and everything I know to go with you.  And I’m in.  I’d be a lot happier about it if I had a little bit of time to gather a few things to take with me that weren’t destroyed when the white winds blew my house apart.”

“Guess that makes sense.”  Javan turned to Kisa.  “You promise you’ll come back?”  He must have gotten an acceptable answer because he then turned to her.  “You promise you’ll both come back?”

“My home no longer exists, and my dragon is with you.  I have no reason to stay in Keckrick anymore.”

“Then it’s settled.  Kisa lets us take her scales, and you both get to take a short trip back to Fralick.”

“Excellent.”  Having gotten what she wanted from both Javan and Kisa, she linked her arm with Javan’s.  Kisa may have agreed to give up her scales, but Taliya still wasn’t about to get too near the acid-breathing dragon without the Collector as close to her as possible.  “Let’s get those precious scales.”

 

The story continues with Home Again.

8: Micah’s Choice

The following is chapter eight of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

By the time Micah reached his unconscious friends, the soldier had already tied Cyr’s hands behind his back and was in the process of tying Lydia’s hands.  Micah wasn’t sure whether he should praise the guy for his efficiency or berate him for shooting his friends.

He cleared his throat and opted for a little of both.  “Nice work, soldier.  What’s your name?”

The man glanced up, resumed his tying, then jumped to his feet a second later holding his Jolt Blast.  “You’re Micah.”

“Yes.  I am aware of that.  I want to know who you are.”

“Ramsey.  I’m, umm, Ramsey.”

“Why did you shoot these people, Ramsey?”

“They tried to cross the bridge.  People aren’t allowed to cross the bridge.  Unless it’s you.  You can do whatever you want.”

“Of course I can.”  Micah found his characteristic cockiness comforting yet obnoxious.  No wonder he never had any friends until he boarded the Iria and learned how to be part of a team.  Although it irritated him to listen to himself, he remained in the cocky mode Ramsey expected.  “I can also get you to do whatever I want.”

“Yes, sir.  What can I do for you, sir?”

“Drop your Jolt Blast, untie this man, and bring him to me.”

“Right away, sir.”  The weapon clanged against the wooded bridge, and Ramsey quickly cut through the ropes on Cyr’s wrists.  “Where am I taking him?  Back to the portal to take to the castle’s dungeon?”

“No.  We’re not going back to Zandador just yet.”  Micah picked up the Jolt Blast with one hand, slung Lydia over his shoulder with the other, and used the weapon that looked like a handheld crossbow to point to the house he had just come from.  “Bring him to the second house on the left.  I’ll wait for you there.”

While the man struggled to lift Cyr, Micah marched to the house, gently placed Lydia on the dusty cot, and waited for the soldier.  As soon as Ramsey dragged Cyr inside, he turned to Micah for further instructions.  “What now?”

“Now?”  Indecision paralyzed Micah.  He could jolt Ramsey and escape, or he could jolt Ramsey and stay to explain Javan’s plan to Cyr and Lydia once they recovered from the electric shock of the blast.  Either way, Ramsey needed to be zapped.  “Now I shoot you.”

Micah pulled the steel bow string back, clicked it into place, and engaged the trigger.  A spark of electricity flashed through the shaft made of Midnight Stalker scales, and the string that scraped along the top helped create a lightning bolt that shot straight into Ramsey’s right shoulder.  He jerked and twitched his way to the floor.

Lydia began to stir.  If Micah was going to go rogue, this was his only chance.  He had to leave before she woke up.  Why weren’t his feet listening to his head?

“What did that man shoot me with?”  Lydia sat up, shaking her head and rubbing her arms.  “My blood feels like it’s on fire beneath my skin.”

“It’s called a Jolt Blast,” Micah said.  “It stings for a bit, but you’ll be completely recovered in an hour or so.”

“Fantastic.”  Lydia stood, wobbled, and regained her balance by leaning against the wall.  “Where are Javan and Taliya?”

Micah looked at the door, then back at the short-haired warrior struggling to stand.  In that instant, he made his decision.  “You might want to sit down for this.”  He stepped over Ramsey and helped Lydia resume her seat on the cot.  “They’re working on a plan to keep Keckrick safe, and we’re going to need your help to execute it.”

 

The story continues with How to Negotiate with a Dawn Stalker.

7: Snags in the Plan

The following is chapter seven of The Dragon Protector.  (Need to start at the beginning?  Click here to go to chapter one.)

“Do you see her?”  Javan leaned to the left while holding onto Varjiek’s neck as they coasted over the walls of Nahat.  Exchanging the sight of battered houses and broken buildings for the colorful trees, plants, and flowers of the rain forest allowed him to relax and drink in the energizing air.  The trick now was finding Kisa somewhere amidst the foliage.

“Not yet,” Taliya said from behind him.  “Where did you instruct her to go?”

“I told her to find a good hiding spot outside the city gates and wait for me to come get her.”

“Have Varjiek fly over the river.  She’s bound to be near the water.”

“Good point.”  That dragon did like to look at her reflection and keep her scales ridiculously clean.  Her constant fixation with bathing had driven him nuts as he rode her across the western half of Keckrick on the way to Nahat.

I found her.  That was all the warning Varjiek offered before taking a sharp dive, skimming the water of the river, and landing in a wide clearing edged by a clump of berry bushes to the right.  He noticed Kisa laying in the tall grass licking her tail ahead of them, but the sight of the fist-size, violet berries stole his attention and made Javan’s stomach rumble.  The rumbling reminded him that he hadn’t eaten a thing since dinner the previous night.  He had been too nervous to eat breakfast and too busy to find food at lunchtime.

“These look delicious.”  Javan slid down Varjiek’s leg and tugged a berry loose from the nearest plant.  The sweet grape-like aroma caused his mouth to water while the soft outer shell felt squishy in his hand.  He licked his lips in anticipation of taking that first delightful bite.

Taliya knocked the berry out of his hand before he could sink his teeth into it.  “Hey.  What did you do that for?”  He wasn’t sure if he was surprised by the fact that she snuck up on him or angry at her for ruining his snack.

“It’s going to be hard for you to collect any more dragons if you’re dead.”

Javan swallowed at the implication.  “You mean that berry is poisionous?”

“Yup.  You would have been dead before you finished chewing.”

“Oh.”  He looked down at the splattered berry on the ground and no longer felt hungry.  “Thanks for the assist.”

“No problem.  Now good luck getting Kisa to give up her scales.  I doubt I’ll be able to help much with that.”  Taliya patted Javan on the back, crossed her arms, and leaned against Varjiek’s side.

You want me to what?  Kisa jerked her head up and stared at Javan with her round, trusting dark eyes.

“Hey, Kisa.”  Javan figured the dragon might respond best if he started her off with a compliment.  He slowly walked toward her and said, “Your scales are looking immaculately white and stunningly clean today.”

Varjiek glared at Javan.  You’ve never said anything that nice about my scales.

Of course he hasn’t, you Noon Stalker.  Yours are grey and always look dirty.  Mine are as white as white can be and sparkle in the sun.  They won’t be this clean for long, though.  She hung her proud head.  A storm is coming.  The wind and rain will cover my scales with dirt and debris.

“We can get out of here before the storm comes,” Javan said.  “I just need one small favor first.”

Sure!  Anything to stay clean.

“Well, in order to disable the portals and keep the people of Keckrick safe, we kinda need your help.  You don’t have to do anything, and it probably won’t hurt too much.  It’s just a little–”

“Goodness man, just be blunt.”  Taliya threw her hands in the air.  “Javan needs to rip three scales off of you.”

Rip? My? Scales? Off?  Not today.  Not ever!  Kisa doused the bushes behind her with an enraged stream of acid.  The leaves and berries immediately withered as Kisa vanished.

“Umm…where did she go?”

“She teleports when she gets mad.  Guess we have to wait for her to calm down and return.”

Dawn Stalkers, Varjiek said with a sigh as he nestled into the grass and closed his eyes.  They are unnecessarily dramatic.

“I think Varjiek has the right idea.”  Taliya snuggled against Varjiek’s body in the shade created by his hind leg.  “This is a fabulous time for a nap.”

“A nap?  Now is not the time for a nap.  We need to go find Kisa!”

Taliya didn’t respond.  Neither did Varjiek.  In the silence, Javan’s head began to throb.  How was he supposed to follow through with any of his plans if he had a high-maintenance, uncooperative, teleporting dragon in his collection?

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Micah watched Varjiek fly away with Javan and Taliya, then sat down on the stone steps of the porch to think.  His head had been spinning since he had learned how his father intended to use the humminglos to control the people of Zandador, and that spinning only got worse once he learned his own father wanted him dead.

Ironically, he had been ready to die, but his death would have been on his terms and for a worthy cause.  Now with every breath he took, he grew more and more determined to live.

How would he live, though?  Did he really want to follow orders and fight alongside the Collector?  Wouldn’t he be better off fighting by himself to bring his father down?  He could still be on Javan’s side; he just didn’t have to be by the Collector’s side.

If Micah worked on his own, he could move with speed and precision.  He wouldn’t have to bother debating plans and could act on his decisions immediately, decisions like destroying the portal.

Mertzer was wandering among the ruins near the house.  One sharp whistle would bring the dragon to him, and one command would force the dragon to surrender one of his scales.  Micah still had enough sway with the soldiers to walk by them without arousing suspicion.  He could have Mertzer’s scale in one of the portal slots before anyone realized what he had done.

“My way is best,” Micah said, mumbling to himself.  “Forget the team.  I’m going to take care of the portal, then ride back to Zandador on Mertzer.  I’m not waiting for any Destroyer to find me.  I’ll find him first.”

Micah stuck his pinkies in the corners of his mouth and prepared to whistle for his dragon, but activity on the bridge caught his eye.  Lydia, a Chief from Lower Keckrick, and Cyr, the Captain of the Iria, were halfway down the bridge walking towards him.  Lydia pointed at him while Cyr waved.

Micah lifted his hand to wave back just as a soldier shot both of them from behind with a Jolt Blast.

 

The story continues with Micah’s Choice.

« Older posts