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

“How far away did you say Japheth is from here?”  Taliya looked out the window of the secluded cabin while Micah sharpened his sword on the other side of the spacious room.  She could see a giant barn to her left, rolling hills in front of her, and a gently flowing river to her right.

“A half a day’s journey by foot,” Micah said, “but only a handful of minutes by Noon Stalker.”

“Then why isn’t Javan back yet?  He’s been gone nearly half a day.”

“He’s probably still waiting for Ravier.  Vince never said what time to meet him there.  Getting into Japheth is not an easy task.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Ravier waited until dark to show up.”

“I hate not knowing what’s happening.”  First Javan had sent her ahead to Dusk Territory.  Now he had left her behind while he went to put his Dawn Stalker scale in the column at Stalker Square.  Some team they made.  She wanted to play an active part in this mission, not be left out of all the action.  On the plus side, she did enjoy sleeping in an actual bed last night and eating fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden on the property.

“I understand the feeling.  Have you forgotten that you and Javan left me behind while you got yourself captured and almost killed?”

“Nobody in Japheth wants to hang me.  Javan should have let me go with him.”

Movement near the river caught her eye.  She opened the door and stepped on the porch to get a better look.  Sure enough, a woman was securing her canoe to the dock.  “Micah, didn’t you say this training camp belonged to you and that no one else ever came here?”

“Yes.  My father had this place built just for me.  Only myself and those who trained me even know this place exists.”

“You might want to add that woman to the list.”

“What woman?”  Micah popped out of his seat and joined Taliya on the porch.  “Who is she, and what is she doing here?”  He propped his sword against the wall.  “I’m going to send her away.”

“Not so fast.”  Taliya grabbed Micah’s arm.  “You’re dead, remember?  You need to stay inside and out of sight.  I’ll go.”

“If she’s wandering these hills, she’s probably in hiding herself and hasn’t heard about my untimely passing.”  He jerked his arm free from her grip.  “Besides, it’s just a woman.  She looks perfectly harmless, and I doubt one conversation with her will somehow get back to my father or the Destroyer that wants to kill me.”

“Fine.  Go.”  She watched him walk away, then went back inside for her slingshot and darts.  She had a strange feeling that the woman wasn’t as harmless as Micah suspected.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Javan pushed the sleeves of his light weight green shirt up past his elbows, letting the warm Zandadorian sun kiss his tan arms.  He probably should have worn the one brown shirt he owned that matched a normal civilian’s clothes for this trip into the capital city, but this shirt Esara had given him in Keckrick with its sweat-resistant, cooling material was his favorite.  It also happened to be stylish and made him feel like a dashing warrior even though it desperately needed to be washed.

I cannot wait quietly here much longer, Varjiek said as a streak of scales on his tail turned golden.  The peak of my feeding time may still be hours away, but my stomach wants food now.

“Give me five more minutes.”  Javan clamped his hand over his mouth and pressed his back firmly against Varjiek’s side as if that would make him more invisible.  Every word had been magnified from his position on the stage in Stalker Square, and he hoped no one would investigate the noise in the otherwise empty amphitheater that made the one in Oer look shabby.

It had ten times as many rows of concrete seats.  The seats wrapped three quarters of the way around a square half the size of a football field paved with Stalker scales.  A wall with arched openings near the top that separated the square from Omri’s castle rose higher than the rows of seats, and four fountains with life-size statues of Dragon Stalkers as centerpieces decorated the four corners of the square.

The rainbow-colored Dawn and Dusk Stalkers in the front two corners and the golden Noon Stalker and black Midnight Stalker in the back two corners were Javan’s favorite part of the arena.  He could enjoy the magnificence of all four fountains from his place on the theatre-sized stage in the middle of the square.

He had managed to stay still and quiet since they landed on the stage at sunrise, but that stillness was mostly the result of a very long nap he had taken curled up beside his dragon.  Both of them had needed the rest, but now Javan felt anxious to meet Ravier and get on with the day.

Where was his grandfather?  Had Vince been able to get word to him?  If so, had he been able to sneak Ravier into the city?  Javan assumed the answers to those last two questions were yes and that Ravier was watching and waiting for him to put Kisa’s scale in the Collector’s column.

Ravier would have no way of knowing Javan had arrived if he continued to remain invisible.  With that in mind, he untucked the scale from his belt and stepped away from his cloaked dragon.

What are you doing?  You are fully exposed!  The stage shook, indicating Varjiek had risen to his feet.  Draw your invisibility sword.

He shook his head and exited the stage by way of the front spiral staircase.  Nerves wracked his body as he made his way to the front left column.  Being in plain view of whoever happened to pass by made him feel vulnerable, but he forgot all about his surroundings when he reached the column.

The handprints he had made in the soft, malleable surface on his first trip here remained.  Forming those handprints had officially entered him in the Battle of the Throne and brought him face to face with the Dark King at the same time.  He traced his handprints as he recalled that terrifying meeting, then brushed his hand down the vertical line of four triangle-shaped holes above his handprints.

Varjiek’s scale filled the top slot and retained its intense, golden glow despite having been placed there on his second trip to Stalker Square almost a month ago.  On this third trip, he would give Kisa’s scale a chance to shine.

He rubbed Kisa’s white scale one final time, gave it a kiss, and inserted it in the slot just below Varjiek’s.  Javan jumped back as the column hissed and sparked while the scale intensified to a blinding white.  Then with one loud pop, the scale began to display four bright, distinct streaks of red, orange, pink, and purple.

“So cool,” Javan whispered.  “Kisa would be so proud.”

“Are you going to stand there staring at your dragons’ scales all day,” said a gruff but quiet voice in his ear, “or should we get out of here before you’re arrested for violating the dress code?”

He turned to find the familiar green eyes of Ravier, but nothing else about him looked the same.  He wore the black uniform of one of Omri’s soldiers.  As if that wasn’t surprising enough, his slicked-back, shoulder length brown hair and wild, bushy beard were gone, leaving his head bald and his cheeks bare.

Although he was still tall, his wide shoulders and once thick chest had lost most of their muscle mass.  Had the man eaten anything since Javan had last seen him weeks ago?

“Grandfather?”   Javan had to work to keep his voice low to prevent it from the magnifying effects of the amphitheater.  “What has happened to you?  And where did you come from?  How did you sneak up on me like that?”

The gate opened before Ravier could respond, and nine soldiers carrying a combination of Jolt Blasts and swords entered the square.  One of them yelled at Raiver.  “Why are you in Stalker Square, soldier?  This isn’t your area to patrol.”

“It’s a good thing I passed by,” Ravier said casually, directing his gaze to the stage rather than the small army.  “I’ve just caught the Collector adding a scale to his column.  I was going to arrest him for his blatant disregard of the civilian uniform law, but I don’t think his dragon will let that happen.”

“What dragon?” the soldier asked.

“That one.”  Javan pointed to Varjiek, who immediately uncloaked himself and roared a streak of fire through the air.  “Nice, V!  Grab Ravier and take him back to the camp.  I’ll meet you there.”  He drew his Dawn sword, confusing Ravier.

“What are you doing?  You don’t need to stay and fight.  Fly away with your dragon.”

“You can go with Varjiek.  I don’t like traveling by claw.”

“Huh?”

Varjiek swooped down, scooped Ravier up in his back claw, and flew away.  That left Javan alone with the soldiers, one of whom had his Jolt Blast aimed right at Javan’s heart.  Javan smiled and waved as the soldier pulled the trigger.  He vanished a split second before the lightning bolt reached his position.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

When Micah stepped off the porch, he planned to shoo the woman away.  But the graceful way she moved as she eased out of her canoe onto the dock captivated him.  With her honey-colored skin, wavy auburn hair that brushed past her shoulders, and standard brown dress that somehow perfectly fit her tall, slender figure, she looked unlike any woman he had ever come across.  What was such a vision doing wandering in the valley between the Land of Zandador and Midnight Territory?

“Are you going to stand there and stare at me all day,” the vision said in a silky sweet voice, “or do you intend to say hello?”

“Hello.”  That wasn’t the word he wanted to say.  He wanted to say something witty to impress her, but watching her saunter down the dock towards him apparently dislodged the wit center of his brain.

Her brown eyes twinkled as she stopped right in front of him.    “You’re still staring.”

“And you are intruding.”  He finally made his brain form words while the wonky feeling traveled to his knees.  He usually towered over women, but she was only a mere two inches shorter than him and smelled like roses.  “No one is allowed here without my permission.  How did you even know about this place?”

“I have my ways.  Besides, I was told you were dead.”  She shrugged.  “I didn’t think you would be using this place anymore, and it would be a shame to let all that food in your garden go to waste.”

“Ah.  You know who I am.”  This brought a smile to his face and helped him relax.  Now he could use his status to impress her.  “I could have you arrested for trespassing, but I’m willing to overlook it if you cook me lunch.”

“There’s one problem with that.”  She locked eyes with him and placed her hand on his cheek.  “I’m not really the cooking type.”

“Oh?  What type are you?”

She slid her hand down to his neck and flipped it over so that the sharp edge of a ring he hadn’t even noticed she was wearing pricked his neck.  “The kind who follows orders.”

“Orders?  What orders?”

“The king’s!”  Javan yelled the answer to Micah’s question from somewhere behind him.  When had he returned, and why would he choose this moment to make an annoyance of himself.  “Get away from her now, Micah!  She’s the Destroyer!”

The Destroyer?  Not a chance.  Javan had to be mistaken.

“How did he know that?”  She backed away on her own.  A combination of shock and anger filled her once-inviting eyes, indicating Javan was right.  “I guess we’ll have to finish this later.”  Without another word, she sprinted down the dock, leapt in her canoe, and rowed away with a speed Micah admired.

Too bad she wanted to kill him.  He kind of wanted to marry her.

“She almost slit your throat,” Javan said, spinning Micah around.  “Are you okay?  How did she know you were here?”

The jerk from Javan plus the warm trickle of blood down his neck brought Micah out of his trance.  He should have thanked Javan, but the realization that he just avoided an embarrassing death brought a defensive question out of his mouth instead.  “How could you not tell me that the Destroyer was a woman?”

“Why would you assume the Destroyer was a man?  You should have stayed out of sight and let Taliya deal with any visitors.”

“To be fair,” Taliya said, approaching them from the cabin carrying her slingshot, “it is Micah’s land, and I told him to go talk to her.  When I saw her put her hand on his neck, I had a dart ready to shoot her with.  Then you teleported yourself into my line of sight and ruined my shot.”

“Um…Taliya?  Javan can’t teleport.  He needs Kisa for that.”

A strong breeze followed by a thump interrupted the conversation.  A bald soldier appeared in the grass a few feet away, and a suddenly visible, partially golden dragon turned a somersault in the sky as if to say hello, then vanished.

“Don’t you ever tell that dragon to carry me in his claw again,” the soldier said, shaking his finger at Javan.  “I ride on his back or not at all.”

“Sorry, grandfather,” Javan said.  He shrugged and tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile.  “We needed to get out of there quickly, and that was the fastest way.”

“No.  The way you left was the fastest way.  How did you get from there to here without riding on your dragon?”

“Yeah, Javan,” Micah said, wondering the same thing.  “How did you get here without riding Varjiek?  Don’t tell me you really can teleport.”

One look at the Collector’s sly smile answered Micah’s question.

 

To be continued…