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.

 

The story continues with Retrieving Information.