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.