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

With dusk approaching, Micah’s mood darkened.  He was forced to haul humminglo plants from the storehouses to the portal while Javan and Taliya escaped the grunt work to play with dragons.

What was taking them so long?  All they needed to do was get a few scales from Kisa.  During the hours they had been gone, he had managed to capture a soldier, strategically place the crew from the Iria around the portal so they would be ready to capture the remaining soldiers, and carry countless numbers of plants to the portal through a torrential rainstorm.

He hadn’t been required to haul any flowers.  He wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to fall in line and help, but it did sound like a better option than sitting around doing nothing.  At least it had a few hours ago.

Now he smelled like a brutal combination of sweat, rain, and dirt, and he had so many pieces of dried humminglos stuck to his skin and clothes that he was certain he could recreate an entire flower from the debris.  The worst part was knowing that the longer they waited to shut down the portal, the more flowers his father would get.  Judging by the almost empty storehouse at the end of the row of empty storehouses, his father would be getting all the flowers Keckrick had to offer.

He threw one of the last bushels on his shoulder and spit out a piece of a leaf that floated onto his tongue.  It left a tart taste in his mouth as he marched along the path by the river toward the portal and finally dissipated as he neared the bridge.  That’s where Lydia fell into step beside him carrying a few flowers under her arm to look like she was working.

“We can’t wait any longer,” she whispered.  “My people are ready.  We need to act now, before the last load is sent to Japheth.”

“I agree.  Tell your people to move as soon as I drop this last load of flowers.  Then we’ll have to hope Javan gets back before Omri sends any more soldiers here to investigate.”

“Did I hear my name?”  Javan seemed to appear out of nowhere right in front of Micah.  He was holding one of his swords and had a silly grin on his face.

“It’s about time you got back.”  Micah hoped his stern response helped mask his surprise.  He also wanted Javan to know it was time to be serious, not joke around.  “Did you get the scales?”

“Yes.”  Javan nodded, put his sword away, and leaned in.  “We’re ready to commence with Operation:  Save Keckrick from the Tyranny of Omri by Disabling the Portals with Dragon Scales Plucked from Kisa.”

“You need to work on your operation-naming skills,” Lydia said.

Javan shrugged.  “It sounded better when Taliya said it.”

“I doubt it.”  Micah scowled and looked around.  “Speaking of Taliya, where is she?”

“She’ll be here soon.  She’s riding in on Kisa.”

“We can’t wait for her to get here,” Lydia said.  “Some of the soldiers will be returning to Zandador the next time the portal is activated.”

“What concern is it of yours when we return to Zandador?”  A soldier slightly taller than Micah with wide shoulders, oversized hands, and a bushy white beard interrupted their conversation from behind.  “Enough with the standing and talking.  Your only concern should be getting those flowers you are holding to the portal as fast as possible.”

Micah dropped his bushel of humminglos and glared at the soldier.  “We will stand here and talk as long as we want, soldier.”

“Not on my watch.  I have a job to do, and I’m not going to let anyone—even the king’s son—keep me from doing it.”  The man reached for his Jolt Blast, but he slumped into Micah’s arms before he had a chance to retrieve the weapon.  Surprised by the weight of the large man, Micah fought to keep his balance and stumbled backwards a few steps.  Once he stabilized himself, he lowered the unconscious man to the ground.  That’s when he noticed a dart stuck in the back of the man’s neck.

“What is happening?”  Lydia asked her question while swiveling her head in every direction rather than focusing on the fallen soldier.  Micah stood, followed her gaze, and saw what she saw:  every soldier on and around the portal was dropping to the ground as lifeless as the man at Micah’s feet.

“Taliya made it back.”  Javan pointed to the roof top where he and Micah had faced off earlier that day.

Taliya stood there now with a slingshot in her hand, took a bow, and yelled over the crowd who had yet to realize what was happening.  “Tie up the soldiers, boys.  Nahat belongs to the people of Keckrick again!”

Over the cheers of the people, Micah mumbled to himself.  “How did she do that?”  She was a tiny little woman with a tiny little weapon, and she had taken out an entire squad of soldiers in less than a minute.

“I’m glad she’s on our side,” Lydia said as she picked up the bearded soldier’s lifeless arm and dropped it on his chest.  “I want no part of whatever kind of poison these darts are tipped with.”

“She greeted me with one of those darts when we first met,” Javan said, “and I know from experience these guys are not going to be happy when they wake up.”

“Then let’s get them tied up and moved to the storehouse.”  Micah used the string that held the bushel of humminglos together to tie the soldier’s hands behind his back and tossed the man over his shoulder.  As he carried the man to the storehouse, he decided he was never going to underestimate Taliya again.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

The flurry of action had Taliya’s blood pumping and mind racing.  She had transitioned from super focused while shooting each soldier with her darts to crazy active while retrieving the darts, helping tie up the soldiers, and delivering the antidote.  Now she was back to a state of concentration as she stood on the portal she had only read about and studied endlessly in books.

She felt smaller than usual in the middle of the giant white portal made entirely of Dawn Stalker scales.  She also felt a sense of awe knowing this circle had the power to take her anywhere in the Great Rift she wanted to go.  The trick was figuring out where the openings were hidden while Javan, Micah, and the entire crew of the Iria stood all around the portal staring at her.

Lydia must have noticed that Taliya wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing because she crossed her arms and asked, “Are you certain this portal connects to Tulkar?  We’ve never been able to transport to anywhere except Zandador as long as I’ve been alive.”

“I’m sure,” Taliya said.  Maybe talking through her book knowledge would help her come up with a solution.  “Every portal in the Zandadorian system is interconnected.  The first king of Zandador built the portals so that anyone could go anywhere in the Great Rift whenever they wanted to travel.  Most of the population lived in Zandador, so four portals exist in Zandador, two here in Keckrick, and only one in the remaining regions because fewer people wanted to live in those places.”

“That reminds me,” Javan said, joining Taliya in the middle of the portal.  “There is a portal in Dusk Territory.”

“Yeah.”  Taliya shrugged.  “So?”

“So, we can find the connecting link to that portal as well.  After we send the crew to Tulkar, we can send you, Micah, and the dragons to portal in Dusk Territory, then I can follow after I disable the portal here.”

“That could work.”  Taliya nodded her approval.  “It’ll get us a lot closer to both my hometown of Oer and the capital city of Japheth.  The only place Kisa could get us to right now is Southwest Zandador because that’s the only place in Zandador she’s ever been.”

“It’ll be safer, too,” Micah added.  “Omri’s army is heavily patrolling Dawn Territory and the surrounding area.  He has no need to station any of his soldiers on the east coast in Dusk or Noon Territory because Javan has no reason to be in those areas of Zandador.”

“Great plan, guys,” Lydia said, “but can we get to Tulkar first?  We’re ready to go home.”

“Right.  Of course.  And to do that, we have to find the slot that will take you there.”  Taliya closed her eyes and pictured a fully-operational portal she had seen in one of her books.  She could envision ten outer links but knew that the link for Xyies at the very top of the circle was a dead link.  The other two links on the top half led to Gibbet and Tirza, two of the regions north of the Land of Zandador.

The two links to the left and right of the middle slot where she stood led to west and east Zandador.  That left five links on the bottom half of the circle.  The two on the left side connected to Upper and Lower Keckrick, the one furthest south connected to the Land of No Return, and the two on the right side connected to a town in the middle of South Zandador as well as a city in the middle of the region of Varzack.

She opened her eyes, faced the bottom half of the portal, and studied the circle.  The one visible link on the outer edge of the portal coincided with the Nahat slot in Upper Keckrick.  Somewhere between it and the bottom half of the circle was the slot for Tulkar.

“I know what to do.”  Taliya walked to the southern end of the portal, dropped to her knees, and felt the scales.  She talked as she let her fingers search.  “The portal is constructed of seven-year dawn scales that feel cool and smooth to the touch.  The way Omri blocked access to the other portals was by filling the open slots with slish, a white substance that hardens over time and resembles a dragon scale.  But it has a slight roughness to it and no sense of coolness.”

“Okay.”  Javan followed her and dropped to his hands and knees beside Taliya.  “We’re feeling for a rough patch somewhere in this vicinity?”

“Exactly.”

Less than a minute later, Javan declared, “I found it!”

“Really?  Let me feel.”  Taliya bumped Javan out of the way and put her hand where Javan’s had been.  Sure enough, the surface looked exactly like the scales around it but felt bumpy.  “That’s it.  Now all we have to do is find the Tulkar link.”

“I thought I just did.”

“Not quite.  This is the link to the Land of No Return.  I wanted to find this one first because the link to Tulkar is halfway between here and the already open slot for Nahat.”  She pulled Javan to his feet and positioned him on top of the slish-filled slot.  “You stay put to help me figure out where the halfway point is located.”

She stepped back toward the middle of the circle, approximated the midpoint between Javan and the Nahat slot, and skipped to it.  “This has to be it.”  She squatted and let her fingers dance all over the area.  Sure enough, they encountered a slightly rough patch among the otherwise smooth scales.  “Ha!  I found it!”

When Javan didn’t say anything, she looked up to see his face contorted into a strange, pensive look as he kept his eyes locked on the slot that would lead to the Land of No Return.  Why would he care about that place?  No one did.  That’s why it was called the Land of No Return.  “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”  Javan shook his head.  “Let’s just find the slot for Tulkar and get on with the day.”

“Umm…I just said I found it.  It’s right here.”

“Oh.  Right.  Good.”  Javan had clearly jumped to a different place in his head and was in no mood to share his secrets.

To keep herself from asking questions to discover what had Javan preoccupied, she turned her attention to the newest problem—the slish.  How was she supposed to get the slish out of the slot without damaging the portal?

 

The story continues with Portal Travels.