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

Javan stared at the slot at his foot.  It led to the Land of No Return, the region Omri had banned his father to before Javan was born.  What if his father was still alive?  Javan needed to go to find out if his father was still alive.

This portal could take him to find out, and the sword on his hip could help them both return.

“Javan.”  Taliya waved her hand in front of his face and snapped her fingers a few times.  “Javan, did you hear me?”

“What?”  Javan shook himself out of his self-induced trance and noticed in the dim light of the setting sun that everyone except Micah had shifted to the right side of the portal, leaving Micah as the only one standing in the city square on the left side of the portal.  Why the shift, and how had he missed all the commotion that must have accompanied the brief migration?  “What’s going on?”

“You seriously didn’t hear anything I just said?”

“No.”  Javan scratched his head.  “Nothing.  My mind was elsewhere.”

“That I believe.”  Taliya led him off the portal to where Micah stood.  “We have to get the slish out of the slot to make the portal work.”

“Yeah.  I get that.  So?”

“So we don’t have time to chip away at it with a chisel,” Micah said.  “But a drop of Kisa’s acid will eat through it in seconds.”

“Say what?”  Javan’s eyes widened.  “You want to play with a dragon’s acid?  Won’t it destroy the whole portal if we try that?”

“No.”  Taliya shook her head.  “The slish is a hardened rock that won’t be able to resist the acid, but the acid shouldn’t affect the scales surrounding the slish.”

“Shouldn’t?  Are you sure?”

“Sure enough to try.”  Taliya blew her Kisa-summoning whistle.  A moment later, the boards of the bridge rattled as Kisa and Mertzer stampeded over it, charged across the open square, and stopped side by side in front of the trio.

Finally, Kisa said.  Javan had to concentrate to hear her thoughts over the gasps and whispers of the crowd.  I am ready to get out of this dirty place.  Whom shall I teleport to Zandador first?

Relax, Varjiek said, making his appearance known as he landed beside Kisa.  Nobody is leaving yet.  The humans need something from you first.

Of course.  Kisa strutted to the center of the portal and held her head and tail high.  They want to admire my beauty.

“What is she doing?” Taliya whispered to Javan.

“She thinks you called her here to let everyone admire her beauty.”

That’s not why I’m here?  Kisa turned and lowered her head so her eyes stared into Javan’s.  People don’t want to admire me?

“Yes, they do.  And they are.”  Javan gulped as he felt the heat emanating from the flared nostrils of the dragon.  “We also called you here because we need a touch of your acid to make the portal work.”

Kisa cocked her head.  Now you want to make the portal work?  I thought you took my scales so you could break the portal?

“That’s true, but before we break it, we need to open some of the closed slots.  That way we can send our friends back to Tulkar and us to a strategic place in Zandador that you haven’t been to before.”

“Kisa,” Taliya said, leaning down and sprinkling dirt on the Tulkar slot, “think of this as your very first opportunity to show off in front of hundreds of humans.  If you put one little drop of your spit right here, I can guarantee this crowd will clap and cheer for you when your acid dissolves the slish.”

It would be nice to be recognized for both my beauty and my power.

You won’t be recognized for anything if you don’t act soon, Mertzer said.  I’m sure I can claw out whatever is closing up those slots just as well as your acid can dissolve it.

“Interesting proposal,” Javan said, looking at Kisa.  “Are you going to let Mertzer be the hero here?”

Kisa snorted.  Out of my way.

“Gladly.”  Javan backed off the portal along with Taliya.

Kisa wiggled her body, cleared her throat, and hovered her snout over the Tulkar slot.  She then let a large dollop of acidy spit drop off the pointed end of her long, pink tongue.

The acid made no sound as it spread itself over the slish, eating away at it layer by layer.  In a matter of seconds, a perfectly shaped triangle slot appeared amidst the scales of the portal.

“Oh good,” Taliya said, breathing an obvious sigh of relief.  “It only ate the slish and not the scales.”

“I thought you were sure it wouldn’t.”

“I said I was sure enough to try, which meant I was only about ten percent sure the plan would work.”  Taliya shrugged and smiled.  “Sometimes risks pay off.”

Javan shook his head at Taliya’s bravery.  He preferred to be at least ninety percent sure his plans would work before taking action.  What had he missed out on or not accomplished because he had been too uncertain of the results to even try?

My cheers, Kisa said, her nose once again stuck high in the air.  Where are my cheers?

“They’re coming,” Javan said, thankful for a reason to not dwell on the answers to the question he had just asked himself.  He walked across the portal and encouraged the crowd to cheer for his acid-spitting Dawn Stalker.

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

While Kisa strutted through the crowd and let the people gawk at her imposing figure, Taliya took one of Kisa’s scales from Javan and handed it to Lydia.  “As soon as you return to Tulkar, put this scale in one of the open slots on the portal.  Keep that scale in the slot until Javan returns.  Don’t reopen the portal unless you are prepared to contend with Omri’s dragons.”

“Understood.”  Lydia nodded and focused on Javan.  “You realize this will cut us off from the rest of the world.  We’re depending on you to win the throne and re-establish trade between all the regions of the Great Rift.  Otherwise we will become a forgotten society with no hope for progress.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to win.”

“Good answer.”  Lydia offered Javan a nod and hugged Taliya.  “It has been a privilege traveling with you.  We will forever be in your debt for the humminglo flowers you sacrificed to keep Keckrick safe.”

“Thank you.”  To keep herself from crying at the prospect of saying farewell, Taliya stepped back.  “You better go.  The longer we delay, the less likely we are to succeed.”

“Right.”  Lydia held up Kisa’s scale and drew her sword.  “Crew, let’s say our goodbyes and head home.  A fight with some unwelcome soldiers awaits!”

In a flurry of handshakes and hugs, the crew of the Iria bid farewell to Taliya, Javan, and Micah and wished them well in their endeavor to defeat Omri.  As the trio watched from the grass, Cyr put an activation scale in the Nahat slot, and Andre put one in the newly uncovered Tulkar slot.

After a slight delay, the portal burst to life and whisked the crew away.  Once the whirling flurry of colors dissipated, Taliya immediately began searching for the Dusk slot by starting in the center of the portal and walking directly east.  It only took her a few moments to locate the slish-filled slot, and when she did, she whistled for Kisa.

The dragon seemed to sulk her way back to the portal and did not look happy about being taken away from her walk of fame.  “Sorry to cut the party short,” Taliya said, “but we need one more drop of that acid, girl.  This time it’s our turn to travel.”

 

◊          ◊          ◊

 

Micah stood transfixed by the events he had just witnessed and taken part in.  How did Javan and Taliya get Kisa to do exactly what they wanted her to do without demanding she obey their every word?  Reasoning with dragons rather than ordering them around like slaves was still a curious concept for him to grasp.

Then came the goodbyes.  Real handshakes from genuine friends he would actually miss made his heart hurt.  This, too, was a new concept.  Never before had he parted from people he wanted to be around who wanted to be around him.  He was used to being treated harshly by his mentors or feared by everyone else.  He was used to keeping himself separate from the common people, not living as a friend among them.

As he watched his friends disappear in the cloud of colors produced by the portal, he found himself questioning the sanity of letting himself experience the human emotions involved in friendship he had been trained his whole life to ignore.  Watching the people he had come to care about leave was much too painful.

Not everyone left, though.  Javan and Taliya remained.  Were they his friends, or were they just three people working together toward a common goal?  Could a Hunter really be friends with a Collector and a Protector?

Friends or not, they were going to be stuck together for a while, so he might as well make the best of the situation.  It sure beat being alone.  “How much longer, Taliya?”  He approached her on the portal while she studied the acid eating away at the slish.  “Every minute we wait brings us one minute closer to an attack by Omri, especially after he realizes the Tulkar portal no longer works.  These people are not prepared to defend themselves.”

“It’s hard to tell now that it’s getting darker, but I think the slish is gone.  Micah, you, Kisa, and I better go.”

“Wait,” Micah said.  “Just me, you, and Kisa?  What about Mertzer?  I’m not leaving without him.”

“The portal is only big enough to send one dragon through at a time, and we only have one more set of activation scales that we took from the soldiers.  We can send Kisa back for Mertzer as soon as we get there.”

“You can send Kisa back for me and Mertzer as soon as you get there.”  Micah marched over to his dragon and climbed up.  “I’m not leaving without him.”

“But that means Taliya will be left alone in Zandador,” Javan said.

Micah hadn’t thought of that. Was it more important for Micah to wait with his dragon or travel ahead with his friend?

“I’m a big girl,” Taliya said, nudging Javan off the portal.  “I can take care of myself, and you need to take care of business here.  Are you sure you know what to do as soon as the portal resets?”

Javan held up one of the scales he had taken off Kisa that afternoon.  “Put this in an open slot and wait for Kisa to return.”

“Exactly.”  Taliya took two scales out of her bag and waved Kisa onto the portal.  “I’ll see you all in a few minutes.”

She put one scale in the Nahat slot, and as she walked under Kisa’s body to get to the Dusk slot, Micah found himself yelling, “Stop!  Wait for me.”  He slid off Mertzer and ran onto the portal.

“You don’t have to come with me,” Taliya said.  “I’ll be fine.”

“So will Mertzer.  I’m ready to get out of this life-sucking humidity and return to Zandador.”  To prevent her from arguing, he took the second scale out of Taliya’s hand and placed it in the Dusk slot.

The portal whirled and shook and blinded him with its brilliant colors.  The last thing he remembered seeing was the look of sheer excitement on Taliya’s face as the colors swallowed them up and transported them to the Land of Zandador.

 

The story continues with Waiting for Javan.