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

I cannot just drop you off and leave you.

“We’ll be fine,” Javan said.  Now that daylight was fading into night, Javan was ready to get going, but he couldn’t allow Varjiek to come with them into the city.  “We’ll be invisible when you drop us off, I can keep us invisible for as long as we need to be, and no one except Taliya’s dad will ever know we were even there.”

What if you need an emergency rescue? 

“Then I will teleport to this spot.”  Javan pointed at the stony ground by the lake Varjiek had brought them to before they reached the city.  Wild strawberries the size of baseballs decorated the rolling hills around the water, and a sprinkling of massive pine trees provided enough privacy for Javan and Taliya to talk and stretch without being seen or heard by the guards on the walls.  They didn’t provide enough coverage to hide a dragon, though, so Varjiek had kept himself invisible while they waited for the sun to set.  “Come back here after you drop us off.”

I should come with you. 

“You’re too big and you know it.  Take us into the city now and return for us at midnight.  Stay in stealth mode.”

Fine.  Varjiek rolled his eyes and crouched so Javan and Taliya could climb up.  Once they were settled into flying position, he pounced up and into the sky.  They zoomed over a drab city with rows and rows of uniform, box-like houses and large, loud factories until they crossed the river.

On this side of the river, mansions acres apart from one another dotted the land in the northeast corner of the city while official-looking government buildings constructed in a square around a glowing fountain rounded out the northwest corner in front of the gates.  A large amphitheater separated the city square from the mansions.

People dressed in the standard Zandadorian garb of brown shirts, brown pants, and brown dresses streamed out of the buildings and made their way in single-file, obedient fashion toward the lone bridge.  “My father works in the building closest to the city gates.  He hates crowds and is always the last one to leave.  We’ll follow him home and hope my mother has a late shift at the factory tonight.”

“You don’t want to see your mother?”

“No.  If she finds out I’m back, she’ll report my presence to the governor.  And if the governor catches me, she’ll have me hanged.”

“What?  Why?”

“I’ll explain later.  Right now have Varjiek land in the wide open space at the top of the amphitheater.”

“You hear that, Varjiek?”

Yes, indeed.  The dragon floated down to the cobblestone street.

Javan drew his invisibility sword and was the first to slide off.  Taliya followed, staying in touch with Varjiek until she took Javan’s hand.  “See you back here at midnight,” Javan whispered to the dragon.

I’ll be waiting, Varjiek said and flew away.

Javan was about to ask Taliya for an explanation about the hanging threat when a pair of guards walked by.  She put her finger up to her mouth to warn him not to talk and led them quietly across the city square to wait for her father to exit his building.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

“That’s him.”  Taliya’s breath caught the second she spotted her father Hizel walking out of the double doors of the three-story stone building.  She remembered him as a tall, muscular man with a well-trimmed black beard and wise, alert brown eyes.  The man she saw before her now had a stoop to his tall, thin frame, an uneven long beard speckled with white strands, and lifeless eyes.

He walked with no zeal, making it easy to follow him as he worked his way over the bridge and through the narrow dirt streets on the other side of the river.  Here the familiar stench of the housing district attacked Taliya’s nose.  The combination of rotten fish and decomposed garbage caused her to force back a gag reflex.

She still felt like puking once they reached the house in the middle of the row of other identical houses and couldn’t wait to get inside away from the horrible stenches of the streets.  She watched her father open the door and go in before whispering to Javan.  “Promise me you’ll stay invisible no matter what when we go inside.  This will go quicker if my father doesn’t know you’re here, and if my mom comes home in the middle of our conversation, I don’t need you getting caught, too.”

“But–”

She squeezed his hand.  “Promise me.  No matter what.”

“I promise.”

“Thank you.”  She dropped his hand, eased the door open, and stepped inside, the invisible Javan right behind her.

The dim light from the fireplace in the front right corner revealed the house looked the same as Taliya remembered it.  The loft that used to be her room hung over the kitchen in the back left corner, her parents room took up the back right back corner, and bookshelves covered the walls of the common room that spanned the width of the house.

The only furniture was a round table with three chairs near the kitchen and two rocking chairs near the fireplace, one of which was currently occupied by her father.  Seeing that third chair at the table surprised Taliya.  Her parents must have kept it there as a reminder of their lost daughter.  Encouraged by the fact that they did miss her after all, she approached Hizel.

“Good evening, father.  I’m here for some information about dragon eggs,” she said, maneuvering herself between him and the fireplace.  “I need to know where the Dusk and Midnight eggs are kept and how to get them through the portal.”

He father stopped rocking and calmly opened his eyes.  That wasn’t the startled response she was expecting.  “Did the Collector collect the Dawn Stalker I sent you to Keckrick to protect?”

“You haven’t seen me in fifteen years, and the first thing you want to know is did the Collector collect his dragon?”

“You haven’t seen me either, and the only thing you want is information.  I didn’t think we were going to do the sappy how-have-you-been stuff.”

“Correct.”  Taliya pushed her emotions down and her shoved her shoulders up.  She desperately wanted to hug her father, sit in his lap, and tell him all about her adventures in Keckrick since her arrival there.  But her mother would be home soon, and she did NOT want to see her mother.  “I will answer your question if you answer mine.”

“Deal.”

“The Dawn Stalker Kisa is now a part of Javan’s collection.  To finish his collection, we need to gather a Dusk egg and a Midnight egg, take them through the portal to hatch, and bring them back to Zandador so he can ride them.  You know where the eggs are and how to decipher the codes to activate the portal.  I’ve read the book of codes kept in the library in Tulkar but would appreciate a summary.  That’s one thick book.”

“You still are a fast talker, huh?”  Her dad smiled and stood.  “Hand me your bag.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see.”

Taliya lifted the strap over her shoulder and handed him the bag that held her darts and scales from Kisa.  She kept one eye on the door and one on her father.  The door remained closed while her father moved a stone from the hearth of the fireplace and pulled out a small blue bag as well as a rolled up parchment.

“This bag contains the four scales you’ll need to activate the portal to Earth.  Once you insert them, pay close attention to the flashing colors.  Whatever color flashes first is the dominant color and determines the order in which you’ll tap the scales.”  He put the small bag in her bag and held up the parchment.  “This is the map that will lead you to the Dusk eggs.  They are in an underground that serves as an incubator for the dormant eggs, and the cave is protected by several traps to ensure predators do not disturb the eggs.

“After you remove the egg from the cave, you have a maximum of forty-eight hours to get it to earth.  Otherwise the baby dragon will die before it ever has a chance to hatch in Earth’s atmosphere.”

“Where is the map for the Midnight eggs?”

“I am not the keeper of that map, but it doesn’t matter.  You won’t have time to gather more than one egg, especially with Ayzyd roaming the land in Midnight Territory.  She is the largest, fiercest, most dangerous Midnight Stalker to ever live and has been known to eat humans even when he isn’t hungry.”

Taliya shivered at thought of encountering such a dragon and was about to ask what kinds of traps they could expect when the door opened.  Her mother stepped inside, followed by a boy who looked to be about ten years old.

She stared at the boy in disbelief until the sharp, grating voice of her mother broke her concentration.  “I thought I was rid of you.”

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Standing behind the rocking chair within arm’s reach of everyone in the room, Javan forced himself to remain invisible despite his immediate distaste for Taliya’s mom.  She wasn’t much taller than Taliya and had the same brown skin, black hair, and strikingly beautiful face but with an evil edge to her eyes and harshness to her voice Javan wasn’t prepared for.  Taliya apparently wasn’t prepared either because she stood with her mouth gaping open staring at her mother.  Or was she looking at the boy beside her mother?

“What?  The talkative Taliya has no response?”  The woman cocked her head as she continued her speech.  “Perhaps you’ve learned some manners wherever you have been hiding, but that won’t do you much good when I return you to the governor.”

“You can’t turn her in,” Taliya’s dad said, putting the bag on the mantle and stepping between her and Taliya.  “She’s here on important business and was just leaving.  There is no need to mention this little visit to the governor.”

The woman smiled.  “As a loyal citizen of the Land of Zandador, I must obey the law.  That includes turning in wanted criminals.”

A wanted criminal?  What had Taliya done to warrant that title?

“You know as well as I do that she is not a criminal,” Taliya’s dad said.  “All she did was explore the land outside of the city.  Even as a child, she had the courage to do what none of the rest of us dared.  You can’t punish her for that.”

“The law says we can, Hizel.”  Lily grabbed Taliya’s arm and spoke to the boy.  “Samson, hold on to her other arm.  We’re going to collect our reward from the governor when we turn your sister in.”

Javan lifted his sword and was about to shout when a pale Taliya looked in his direction and shook her head.  She mouthed the words “Take the map,” and eyed the bag that her dad had put down.  Then without a fight, she let her mother and brother lead her out of the house.

Once the door closed behind them, he sheathed his sword.  His sudden appearance caused a high-pitched yelp from Taliya’s father as he tripped over the hearth.  Javan didn’t bother trying to calm the man’s sudden fears.  “What kind of a man are you?  How can you let her take Taliya away like that?”

“Where did you come from?  Who…who are you?”

“The name’s Javan, and you’re coming with me to get Taliya back before they take her to the governor.”  Javan reached for the man’s arm, but the man’s hand touched Javan’s cheek first.

“Incredible.”  He rubbed his thumb under Javan’s left eye.  “I didn’t notice those eyes the night you were born, but now I see the prophecy is true.  You are the boy whose eyes shine like emeralds who has entered the Battle of the Throne.  You are the Collector.”

Javan brushed the man’s hand away.  “Yes.  I am.  And I need your daughter to help me find a Dusk egg and get me through the portal.  Without that dragon, I can’t complete my collection.”

“Correction.  You need a Protector.  I am a Protector.  I can help you find the egg and open the portal.”

“No.  I need Taliya.  We need to go get her now.”

“It’s too late.  My wife is right.  Taliya broke the law and must pay the consequences.  She’ll be hanged by noon tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?  We can’t let that happen!  Where are they taking her?  How can we help her escape?”

“Nothing short of a pardon from the king himself can save her.”

“I’ve got two swords and a dragon that say otherwise.”

“Listen, boy.”  Hizel’s voice lowered and took on a threatening tone.  “The throne is more important than one person.  She has done her duty by keeping Kisa safe for you.  Her purpose has been served.  My purpose remains:  help you win the throne.  I got you to earth when you were a baby; I can get you to earth again.”

“Unbelievable.”  Javan shook his head in disgust.  “No wonder Taliya didn’t want to come home.”  He snatched the bag with the map and scales.  “First, I’m going to save your daughter.  Then I’m going to win the throne.  When I do, I will find some sort of fitting punishment for parents who betray their own blood.”

With that said, he gripped his Dawn sword and teleported to the rendezvous point by the lake.

 

The story continues with Imprisoned.