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.