Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Four in the Harrowbethian Saga

It seems there is more interest in sunsets than sunrises.
Perhaps because innately we fear the dark.
-Sha Eena
87th Queen of Harrowbeth

Chapter One


Eena opened her eyes to darkness.  She could smell the rain outside, even hear the pitter-patter of raindrops as they splashed against the glass door.  She was in bed, dressed in something silky, comfortable beneath a layer of downy covers.  Her head wasn’t propped up by a pillow but supported by a sturdy thigh.  A familiar touch traced her jawbone, curving around her ear and then back to the tip of her chin.  The action was repeated as if memorized. 
   Despite these distractions, it was the humming that captured her wakening attention—a deep, clear, soft voice mixed with the periodic mumbling of lyrics.  She recognized the tune as from Earth, a comforting melody Derian had sung to her before.
Abide with me fast falls the eventide.”
The muttered line was followed by humming…
…until he reached the end. 
“Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
   The words seemed written specifically for her.  The helpless.  That’s who she was.  That’s who they all were—mortals: destructible, weak, and helpless.
   Her breathing quavered audibly, and the humming ceased.
   Derian leaned over her, checking for open eyes.  She squeezed them shut, aware that her movement against his leg probably gave her away.  His hand covered her cheek, warming it while a thumb tenderly brushed her skin.  She knew this move.  Derian, her promised one, frequently used it to calm her.  She succumbed to his carress, permitting herself to relax at his magic touch.
   “Go to sleep,” he whispered, “It’s still nighttime.”
   Without effort she slipped back into her dreams, but they were no longer carefree and happy.  Ian—her protector both in the real world and inside her dreams—was missing.
   The crooked trees of Lacsar Forest were fascinating and yet eerie the way they twisted into likenesses of deformed creatures with outreaching claws.  Most often they resembled still monsters, patiently awaiting the approach of an unsuspecting victim.  When a breeze blew through the treetops, those warped branches bent as though stretching to grasp at prey.  The congestion of the woods didn’t help much, making it difficult to see far ahead.  In this place it was easy for Eena’s imagination to run wild.
   She ambled aimlessly along a hint of a dirt trail.  The silent night was unfortunately not peaceful.  Now that the spell from the dragon’s kiss had worn off—a temporary spell used to replace sorrowful memories with sweet dreams—her recollection of the recent tragedy returned. 
Angelle was dead—drowned while alone at the river. 
Worry controlled Eena’s thoughts now.  She was concerned for Ian who had only recently been reunited with the victim, a woman his parents had promised him to in childhood.  Eena’s heart bled for Ian, dreading the upcoming funeral.  She also sorrowed for his parents and Angelle’s only surviving family, a sister named Nischeen.  She could hear her earthly father’s voice echoing a truth from her youth: ‘Hey, honey, life’s not fair.  Get use to it.’  But this seemed to delve far beneath ‘unfair’, mocking her present overwhelming challenges with the death of an innocent girl.  It was a cruel sucker punch.
   Eena inhaled deeply, an attempt to feel something on the inside other than the acidic, searing pain burning through her guts.  She hurt.  Her head, her stomach, her heart, even the marrow of her bones seemed to ache within every limb.  Ian hurt too—horribly.  She could sense it through the mental connection they shared.  There was no remedy for a broken heart, however.  None her charmed necklace, the dragon’s soul, could offer.
   She felt both helpless and useless.
   Tormented by these burdens, she tried to cease thinking altogether.  Perhaps concentrating on nothing might lessen the pain.  Her feet stopped on the dirt trail where she rested at the base of a tree, slipping against the trunk down to the ground.  Her eyes fell closed as she breathed in through her nose, attempting to clear her mind by imagining a blank slate.  Absolute nothingness.  Just empty, black, miserable, lonely, grim….   Okay, that wasn’t working. 
   Refocusing, she went the opposite direction.  A blank slate.  A clean sheet of paper.  Unblemished, bright, white, a wedding dress, marriage and babies, much too young, can’t breathe….   Crud, white wasn’t the right color to think about right now.  She could hear the voice of the counsel pressuring her to marry soon and produce an heir.  No, no, what other color was there?  A cheery color.
   Yes, she agreed, pink was good.  Pink was sweet.
   Another deep breath and everything melted into a puddle of pink.  Pretty, plain pink.  Warm, cheerful, friendly, girly, like an innocent child wrapped in a pink blanket.  Gaila’s handmade baby blanket.  Unan and Gaila—Ian’s parents who blamed her for the death of their son’s sweetheart, poor Angelle….
   “Ugh!” she screamed out loud.  Her arms sandwiched her head as she hunkered down against the twisted trunk.  “Stop it!  Stop thinking!”
   Out of the air a whisper touched her ear, calling her.
   “Sha Eena…”
   The young queen looked up.  She heard her name repeated.
   “Sha Eena…”
   It was a dainty, feminine tone.
   “Sha Eena?  Can you help me?” the voice asked.  It sounded nearly childlike.
   Eena pushed away from the tree, glancing around, searching for the person in need of help.  Finding no one, she replied to the voice.
   “Where are you?”
   Eena froze when the ghostly image of Angelle materialized before her.
   “Sha Eena?” the vision spoke.  Angelle’s eyes widened, as if surprised and yet relieved at recognizing her queen.  Her hand rose, reaching out for assistance when she suddenly disappeared.
   Eena’s heartbeat thundered in her chest.  She rubbed at her eyes, unsure and afraid.  Her voice cracked as she stammered out the name in question.
   A lucent image of the late young woman reappeared—a pleasing likeness of Ian’s promised one, more radiant than in life. 
   Eena gasped.
   The ghostly form blurred into an unrecognizable blob, changing shape.  Youthful beauty dissolved and reformed into a repulsive sight—that of the immortal witch, Anesidora.  The apparition cackled with wicked amusement.
   “Mortals,” the specter hissed.  “Predictable, vulnerable……..and pathetically gullible.”
   Eena’s eyes dropped to the ground.  She felt tears swell within her cheeks.  What a heartless joke.  So indicative of Ishtura and Anesidora’s tormenting ways.  Eena squeezed her eyelids shut.  This is what she would be releasing on the universe if her actions continued to serve these awful sisters.
   “You’re wasting precious time, Amora.  I want the remaining pieces to Pallador’s platform.  You’ve uncovered four star points, more than halfway there, but your job is not yet done.  Now get to work and find the three remaining.”
   Eena scowled, looking up at the demanding spirit.  It did no good to refuse the title, Amora; the immortals had branded her as such.  It did no good refusing her help to these awful sisters given how her will always seemed to bend to their bidding despite every attempt to resist.  She would continue to fight nonetheless. 
“I can’t help you.  Your brother sent me home, and unless the next star point is hidden in Harrowbeth, I’m in no position to find it.”
   Anesidora huffed disgustedly.  “Your detour to Harrowbeth is because of my brother’s pathetic weakness for you mortal females.”  The ghost looked Eena up and down with distaste.  “It’s hard to believe he’s affected by such an ordinary girl.”  
   Eena clenched her jaw at the insult.
   “Don’t stand there thinking you’re special.  So what if he submitted to your pitiful pleas?  You’re not his first conquest and you most certainly will not be his last.”
   “I really don’t care because I can’t stand him anyway.”
   Anesidora snorted on a burst of laughter. “You will succumb like all the others.  No woman has ever resisted his charms for long.  Eventually, he will have you.”
“It will never happen,” Eena vowed.
   The ghost rolled her misshapen eyes at the sky, taking the time to gloat.  “And you’ll never find the star points for us, and you’ll never assist in attaining our freedom, and your useless mortal friends will never die.”  She smiled an evil, twisted grin.
   “I hate you.”
   The witch rushed forward, her movement a blur, until her ghastly face was positioned inches before Eena’s.  “I don’t care how you feel.  All I want is for you to do what you were born to do!”
   Eena couldn’t keep from stumbling backwards out of fear.  She cursed herself for doing so because any display of cowardice worked to inflate this haughty immortal’s ego.  Summoning her courage, Harrowbeth’s queen stood as tall as she could, prepared with a retort.
   “I was not born to…”
   But Anesidora wouldn’t allow any backtalk.  She spoke overtop the girl.  “You were given our immortal gene for a specific reason—to withstand the powers of the dragon’s soul and then use that gift to free us!  That is the only reason you exist!”
   Eena cringed.  She was caught by an outstretcehed arm that pulled her in unexpectedly.  Her protector, Ian, stood at her side.  Eena sucked in a gasp, surprised to see him return to her dreams.
   “Leave her alone, you ugly hag!  And get out of her dreams!  You don’t belong here!”
   Eena stared with incredulity at Ian.  His outburst was a bold, perhaps stupid, move.  She looked to Anesidora with concern.  The specter actually backed up, but a flicker of anger tightened her features before shifting into a sly smirk.
   “When I am free,” she said, “restored to my beautiful body and full powers, you two will pay dearly for your impudence.”
   Ian didn’t hesitate with a ruthless response.  “You will never be beautiful, and you will never be free.”
   The young queen was the only one to flinch at Anesidora’s cry of anguish—a shriek that lingered when she vanished.  Eena couldn’t believe the calm bravery of her protector standing up to that witch.  Still held in his arms, she leaned against him and whispered a thank you.
   “Sure, sure.”  He released her and turned away as if he too would disappear.
   “Ian, please don’t go.”
   He froze for a moment, refusing to look back.  “I need to be alone, Eena.  I wouldn’t be much good to you right now.”
   “You were of great value to me just now.”
   He didn’t budge or reply.
   “Ian…” she began.  She dreaded asking the question on her mind, and swallowed hard before proceeding.  “Are you angry with me?”
   She felt his reply was curt, and wondered if it was truthful.  He vanished before she could ask.
   Eena sank to the ground and cried again.

   “Good morning.”
   Her eyes opened at the gentle nudge of her promised one.  It was strange how waking up felt more peaceful than sleep.  It seemed backwards.  But that was probably the case with most nightmares.
   In a dry voice she replied, “Good morning.”  Her head left the warmth of his thigh.  He must have sat up in bed all night supporting her.  She wondered if he’d dozed off at all.
   He asked her first.  “Did you sleep well?” 
   “No, not really,” she answered truthfully.  Scooting back against the headboard beside him, she noted his tired look of concern. 
   “I thought the dragon’s kiss was supposed to put you into a peaceful sleep,” he said.
   “Oh, it did,” she said, “but when the spell wore off I had nightmares.  I dreamt that Angelle was still alive, calling to me for help.”
   The captain sighed sadly and lifted a hand to her cheek.
   Taking his fingers in her own, she tried smiling to reassure him.  “I’m alright, Derian.” 
   He lifted their clasped hands, and motioned to the ring on her finger; the two green stones set in a gold figure eight were referred to as the dragon’s kiss.  “Maybe I should use that ring to put you to sleep every night so you don’t suffer from such nightmares.”
   She reclaimed her ring hand quickly.  “No.  I already owe you for using it on me once.”
   “I only did so to stop your suffering.”  He stroked her hair, his thumb softly rubbing against her cheekbone.  “Besides, I’ve experienced its power a few times.”
   She twisted her head to look up at him with surprise.  “You have?” 
   “Oh yes,” he admitted.  “Your mother had a ring much like that one, only the gems were yellow.  When I was a child, she’d kiss the ring and then my forehead, usually when I was brooding over the loss of my mother.  I had no idea what she was doing at first.  It wasn’t until the third or fourth occasion that I put the ring and the dreams together.  Never had I enjoyed such pleasant, peaceful dreams before.  Sha Tashi pressing that ring to her lips was always the last thing I’d recall before waking up with a smile.”
   “So you knew this ring’s purpose all along?”
   “Yes, but I wasn’t aware you had possession of it when you were kissing Ian.  I just assumed…”
   “I know what you assumed, Derian.”
   “Yes, well….anyway.  I think I got your mother in trouble with your father over the whole thing.  I was talking to Shen Laynn once, and I told him about how wonderful my dreams were after Sha Tashi used that magic ring on me.  He insisted I explain myself, and that was the end of it all.  The ring suddenly disappeared.  I figured she’d lost it.”
   “Oh, Derian,” Eena groaned.  So that was the real reason the ‘girls’ nights out’ had come to an end.  A young Derian had spoiled her mother’s fun without realizing it. 
   The captain kept on talking as if lost in the distant memory.  “I remember, after your mother put me to sleep with that gem, waking up in my own bed the next morning having no idea how I’d come to be there.  But my slumber was peaceful, attached the most wonderful, realistic visions.  I’d spend hours with my own mother—happy and at ease.  It was like having her with me again.  I could touch her skin, hear her voice, laugh and play right along with her.  It was wonderful, and yet when I awoke and eventually realized she was gone…….it was heartbreaking.”
   Eena rubbed his arm sympathetically.
   “The dreams were amazing.  Utter bliss.  Always exactly what I wanted.”  He turned his distant eyes on her and asked, “What did you dream of last night?”
   “Uh…” she hesitated.  It wouldn’t sit well for her to admit she’d dreamt of a day spent on the oceanfront with Ian.  That would only feed Derian’s jealousy.  Thinking quickly she said, “I…um….dreamt of Earth—a day on the beach.  The ocean was beautiful.  It was a weekend my parents had taken me there.”
   “That’s nice,” he smiled.  “You must miss those days.”
   She nodded.  “I do.”
   Knowing it would do no good to venture down that road, she inhaled deeply and focused on the day ahead.  “I should get cleaned up,” she announced.
   Derian threw his legs over the side of the bed while Eena scooted herself to the edge.  That’s when she noticed her bare arms.
   “What happened to my bracelet?” she asked.
   “It’s with your other jewelry.  Your assistant, Livette, put it away when she dressed you.”
   “I have an assistant?”
   “Of course, Eena.”  The captain looked amused by her surprise.  “She hasn’t attended to your needs because you’ve hardly been home, but I called on her to prepare you for bed yesterday.  I would’ve done it myself had there been no witnesses...”
   Eena elbowed him as he trailed off with a goofy grin.
   “Do you know what Livette failed to find on you?”  Derian answered his own question, arching an eyebrow.  “Your new PCD.”
   “Edgar took it from me.”
   “I’ll get you another one then.”
   “Why?  Edgar will just take that one too.” 
Eena hopped out of bed, headed for the bathroom.  Derian stopped her by grabbing her hand.  He turned it over and placed a folded piece of paper in her palm. 
“This was in your pocket.  I thought you might like to have it.”
   She smiled down at the childhood letter he’d written to her so long ago, filled with youthful sentiment.  “Thank you.”
   “Would you care to have Livette assist you this morning?”
   Eena shook her head.  “No, I’ll be fine.”  She felt guilty, knowing the position had been intended for Angelle.  It didn’t seem right to have someone else step into it. 
   “As you wish, my queen.”  Derian bowed grandly.  He lifted his eyes, adding a playful wink. 
   Eena managed a weak smile in return, aware he was trying to be cheery for her sake.  It was sweet of him.

   The therapeutic effects of a hot shower detained the young queen awhile.  Massaging ionic liquids seemed to wash away not only a layer of grime but a build up of physical aches and pains.  Too bad it couldn’t do the same for melancholy.  Eena wished for a magic shower charmed with dragon stones that could wash away despair and anguish and all sorrowful emotions.  She daydreamed of such a thing, where a pass beneath this enchanted waterfall would relieve a person’s misery.  The tragedies of life would evaporate leaving only pleasant memories.  No pain.  No suffering.  No heartache. 
Of course, that wouldn’t bring Angelle back. 
   It was a ridiculous notion.  Life handed out both good and bad.  That’s the way it was meant to be—opposites in all things.  But lately, the bad seemed heavy on the scales. 
   Eena recalled her frightful experience in the cold river of the Semmian Rainforest where she had nearly drowned.  Had she not touched the star point in time, her life would’ve ended beneath those icy waters while Ian stood on the shoreline unable to save her.  It may be he couldn’t have saved Angelle either had he been with her.
   Eena stopped her trail of thought immediately, afraid of Ian reading her mind.  The idea would only make him feel worse.  She sensed his mental presence, but he didn’t react to her thoughts.  Most likely, he was absorbed in his own.
   Outside the shower Eena noticed a change of clothing.  She smiled, touched by Derian’s constant consideration of her needs.  The gown hanging on the bathroom door resembled one Derian had picked out for their first breakfast in the Kemeniroc’s commissary—a tawny colored, chiffon skirt with billowy shoulders.  It took her back to his ship and their first days together when his brother, Gemdorin, had been their worst enemy.  His memory seemed less foreboding now—mortal, destructible, able to die like the rest of them—not like her present adversaries.  Gemdorin and his Ghengats had been near impossible to overcome back then, but a way had existed.  He was dead now.  If only a mortal enemy were her greatest challenge, she might feel they stood a chance. 
   Eena dressed herself, fretting over such thoughts.  They ruminated until she’d worried herself into a bitter dead end.  There was no way to stop an immortal.  No tactic or trickery existed to prevent Anesidora and Ishtura from forcing her to do their bidding.  They would trap her, fool her, force her into it—just as they had up to this point.  And in the end, when her services were no longer needed, Edgar’s horrible sisters would finish her off, making her pay for her insolence as promised.  Ascultone’s portended vision only supported this truth.  Unless…..she agreed to Edgar’s proposal.
     Derian responded to the sound of muted sobbing immediately.  He tapped lightly on the door.
   “Eena?  Are you alright?”  The captain waited, but hearing no response he tapped once more before announcing, “I’m coming in.”
   Slowly the door creaked open, allowing time for her to object.  When Derian stepped inside, he found his queen on the edge of the tub crying quietly into her hands.  He tried to urge her up.
   “Come with me, Eena.  Let’s go sit in the other room.”
   “Why?” she sobbed.  “What does it matter whether I sit here or there or in the middle of some frozen, forsaken island?  My fate will be the same.  I can’t stop them, Derian.  I can’t stop them.  They’ve won.”
   He took a seat beside his weeping sweetheart and brushed aside the hairs that fell forward in her face.  “The game is not over, Eena.”
   She let her hands fall to turn her glistening eyes on him.  “Yes it is, Derian.”
   “So that’s it; you’re just going to give up?  Just sit here and forfeit?”
   “They’ve already won, don’t you see?”  She stared earnestly at him, her expression heavy with despair.  “Anesidora controls the necklace—I don’t.  She controls whether I come or go.  She can trick me into finding those stupid star points.  She even controls Naga against his…”
   Eena stopped in mid-sentence.  Her mind had been so plagued with tragedy, she’d forgotten how her ring was set with Naga’s gems.  Naga’s dragon stones were in her ring.  She controlled the ring!  Her eyes focused on the band adorning her finger before she suddenly jumped to her feet.  She pulled her captain along behind her. 
   “Come on, Derian, you have to take me somewhere.”
   They rushed down the back steps of Lacsar Castle, headed for a shuttle.  The captain seated himself in the pilot’s chair while Eena fell into the seat beside him. 
   She whispered only two words.  “Gemdorin’s treasure.”  That was all she dared say, uncertain of whether or not Edgar was eavesdropping.
   Derian nodded.  Five minutes later he set the shuttle down outside a long, fenced-off warehouse guarded by Harrowbethian patrols on all fronts.  As head of security, Kahm Derian had no trouble getting them inside.
   Eena first glanced up at a high ceiling that stretched on forever, disappearing into a dark, indiscernible void.  Her eyes dropped and followed a long row of tall shelving into the same gloomy shadows.  There were numerous rows of shelving stacked with boxes marked by sequences of bold-typed numerals.  The contents associated with each number-code were, no doubt, kept on file somewhere. 
   Eena headed to the left of the building, determined to find what she needed.  But Derian grabbed her arm and pulled her in the opposite direction.  He didn’t slow down until they’d hustled clear across the floor.  Stopping midsection, they faced the furthest row of shelves.
   “Gemdorin’s things are all here,” he said.  “They’re organized according to origin, then by function, at least as far as initial observation suggests.”
   Eena stared at her captain’s brown eyes for a moment, wishing she could talk to him telepathically the way she could with Ian.  But Edgar’s possible presence kept her from voicing much out loud.  She didn’t want to risk the immortal’s intrusion.  He would certainly make an appearance sooner or later; she was hoping for later.
   Derian grabbed a small box from off the shelf as if he would search its contents, even without knowing what they were looking for.  Eena spit out a sudden warning.  “If you come across a small container with what looks like a beetle inside, don’t touch it.  It’s deadly.”
   He dropped the box in hand as if it were suddenly toxic.  “Criminy, Eena,” he grumbled.  “That’s good to know.”
   The captain watched as she passed up every carton without bothering to check for contents.  Eena scanned the bottom shelves first, moving quickly from one box to the next.  Catching how she peered for just a moment inside the larger crates, Derian made a quick assumption—she was searching for something big.  He hustled to the very end of the row to where a line of high crates stood, too tall to sit on the shelves.
   “Eena,” he called, waving her over.  “How about these?”
   He caught her grin when she let the lid fall from the skinniest package.  Her hand reached over the edge in a circular waving motion.  Derian peered inside, crinkling his forehead at what appeared to be nothing more than a flat-topped podium etched with circles within circles.  He gasped when a ray of light shot up from the very center.  His eyes followed the beam to where a transparent, three-dimensional replica of their galaxy hung overhead—planets, stars, moons, and other celestial bodies floating within a spiral-shaped galaxy.
   “What is this?” he asked.
   Eena kept on task.  “Show me the Alaheron system,” she ordered aloud. 
   They were instantly staring at an exact replica of their own solar system.  Derian reached up to touch the fourth aqua-blue sphere orbiting a bright yellow sun.  His fingers slipped through the tiny planet as it rotated slowly on its axis.
   “Moccobatra,” he whispered.
   “Yes,” Eena agreed.
   Now that she had responded to him, Derian turned his attention to her.  “How did you make this thing work?  It hasn’t responded to anyone, not even me.”
   “It’s an immortal navigational device.  It only works for them.”
   “You’re not immortal, Eena.”  His brow worried substantially.
   “I know,” she agreed, “but I have their gene, remember?”
   “Right.  Of course.”  That made sense.
   She explained further.  “I discovered this on Gemdorin’s ship.  He couldn’t make it work either.  I never told him I could.  I figured out that it’s actually a comprehensive map of the entire universe.  I believe only the immortals could’ve put such a thing together; no one else would have such knowledge.”
   Concerned for time, she turned to the back wall of the building, eyeing the available space between the last bit of shelving and the stone wall.  There was an open area, and the ceiling seemed high enough.  She hoped it would suffice.
   Drawing in a breath, she declared aloud, “Naga!  Dragon, show yourself!”
   To her delight and the captain’s astonishment, the open space filled up with the presence of a large, scaly beast.  The dragon’s long neck was too high for the elevated ceiling, so it crooked forward.  His mismatched eyes stared down at the woman who’d summoned him.
   “You came!” Eena squealed.  Then she sobered immediately.  “I have your ring.”  She showed him.  “This means you must answer to me.”
   Naga nodded once in response.
   “Talk to me then,” she commanded.
   The great beast closed his eyes as his head swung back and forth. 
   “But I command you to!” Eena argued.  “You must do it!”
   Like a slithering snake, the dragon’s head slid through the air toward the captain.  Derian’s eyes widened as he took a step back at the approaching snout.
   “Eena?” he questioned with obvious concern.
   “Naga, I have your ring!  You must do…”
   Derian lifted up a halting palm as the creature faced him eye to eye.  Eena watched them stare at one another.
   “Naga?” she uttered.
   “He says he can’t speak to you because Anesidora forbids it.  He’s obligated to keep her command because she gave it first.”
   “He’s talking to you?”  Eena blurted out the question, voicing it with a tint of envy.
   “Yes,” Derian nodded, “in my head.  It’s….unreal!”
   “Can he contact Pallador?” Eena asked the captain.  Her focus shifted to Naga.  “Can you tell him I’m in trouble?”
   Derian answered for the dragon.  “He can’t,”
   “What about Wennergren or any of the other immortals?”
   “Sorry, Eena.  He can’t do that either.  He’s forbidden to contact any of the immortals concerning you.”
   She was disappointed but had considered this might be the case.  “Will you at least tell me this….what solar system and planet does Pallador reside in?  Where can I find him myself?”
   Her anxious eyes searched Naga as he focused on the captain.  Like most immortals, his expression was difficult to read.  After what felt like forever, Derian answered.  “He says their planet is called Laradine.  It’s in the Dranobbi system, located on the edge of our galaxy.”
   She frowned.  That was so far away.
   Turning back to the podium she ordered the navigator, “Show me Laradine in the Dranobbi system.”
   Three-dimensional images zoomed in on one arm of the spiraled galaxy, clear to the tip of its finger.  There, a solar system with only three planets came into focus.  The trio orbited an enormous white star.  The furthest planet from the sun was a giant compared to the other two and seemed to shine above the others as if singled out.  Coils of misty gases circled this red marble, giving it the illusion of a cloak of golden rings.  Eena stared at Pallador’s home. 
And then it disappeared.
   For a second she thought the device had shut off, but the white star continued to shine with two tiny planets orbiting it closely.  Only Laradine was missing.
            “What happened?” she asked, still scanning the display for the immortals’ homeworld. 
   Before Derian could answer in Naga’s behalf, the red marble reappeared. 
   “It’s back,” Eena whispered.  She gasped when all of the Dranobbi system vanished.  This time it had been shut off.  Her eyes lowered to find the culprit.  Edgar stood beside the podium, his blue gaze focused only on her.  His look was unmistakably disapproving.
   “Have you lost your mind entirely, Amora?”  He seemed more annoyed than angry, leaning against the skinny crate with a hand on his hips.
   She wished he’d remained gone a little longer, certain he would now interfere with any further questioning of the dragon.
   As soon as Edgar spoke, Naga raised his neck up as high as the building would allow.  A snort of gray smoke traveled along the ceiling.  The overgrown lizard retreated to the rear wall and waited with a rumble in his gut.
   Edgar continued scolding the young queen.  “Do you have some sort of death wish?  Is that it?”
   “No,” she said, wide-eyed.  “In fact, quite the opposite.”
   The immortal huffed indignantly before approaching her.  “Amora, I can only protect you from so much.  Anesidora won’t like what you’ve done here.”
   “I’ve done nothing,” she defended.
   “You’ve discovered Pallador’s home!”
   “So what?  I can do nothing about it,” she argued.
   His eyebrow lifted above a stern regard.  “And neither can any of your friends.”  Edgar shot a glance at the captain as he announced, “There will be no communications or ships leaving this planet until Amora has completed her work.  Is that clear?”
   Derian turned his silent attention on the ground.
   Edgar went on, threatening further.  “If any attempt is made to contact Pallador, my dear captain, there will be deadly consequences.  Is that clear?”
   Edgar raised his voice at no immediate answer and repeated the question loudly.  “Is that clear?”
   The captain lifted his eyes, scrunched tight with suppressed anger.  “Yes.”
   Eena stepped in between them.  “Leave him alone, Edgar.”
   The immortal softened his demeanor as he tried to catch her eye.  She blinked, avoiding direct eye contact.  Like a sudden gust, Edgar’s hand moved to brush over her silky red hair.
   “My sweet Amora,” he cooed.
   Derian reacted instantly to the intrusive touch.  “Get away from…!”  He appeared to halt in mid-sentence, immobilized.  It was as with Muhra Aing when Edgar had sped up time for only Eena and himself.  She glanced at Naga to see if he too appeared frozen, but the dragon’s eyes blinked and she knew only Derian had been left to stall in real time. 
   Edgar stroked her cheek.  She swatted at him.
   “Stop touching me,” she growled.  “And stop tormenting Derian.”
   “Me?”  Edgar gaped; his look of innocence was obviously false.
   “Yes you!”
   “And what about you?  When are you going to stop tormenting him?”  Edgar stepped past the young queen on his way to the motionless captain.  He circled the man like he was checking out a marble statue on display 
   “I’m not tormenting him; why would you say that?”
   “You have the poor guy believing that you actually intend to marry him.”  Edgar stopped to fix the captain’s collar, raising it up high around his neck.
   “I do intend to marry him,” Eena insisted.  She followed her immortal watchdog and folded down the captain’s collar as it had been.
   “Oh please,” Edgar groaned.  “You’ve had two opportunities to do so and on both accassions you turned him down.”  Edgar lifted up the captain’s elbow into an awkward position, adjusting him like a mannequin.  “The council expressed a desire for you to marry and you nearly hyperventilated over the suggestion.  Then, just recently due to his own paranoia, Derian all but begged you to marry him.  Your refusal couldn’t have been more swift or adamant.”
   Eena pushed the captain’s elbow back down to his side as she retorted, “I’m only seventeen, Edgar!  I have no desire to marry anyone right now.  But when I am ready, Derian will be my husband.”
   Edgar took Derian’s outreaching arm and shoved it forcefully down. “He will not.”
   “He will so!”  Eena raised the arm back to where it had been and warned her rival, “Don’t touch him anymore, Edgarmetheus!”
   “Fine, fine,” the immortal ceded.  Then with a smug grin he added, “If this had been Ian, you’d never have let me touch him in the first place.”
   “That is not true!  I know what you’re doing, Edgar, and I’m onto you.”
   He laughed out loud, “You’re onto me?  Oh, Amora, if you’d like to climb onto me I’d be most accommodating.”
“You’re disgusting.”
“I’m simply trying to help.”
“Help who?  Your sordid self?”
“No, Amora.  I’m trying to help you—to make you face the truth about your own feelings.”
   “The truth is I love Derian!” she exclaimed.  “I’m not in love with Ian, and I wish you’d quit insinuating that I am!”  She pointed to the captain.  “Derian is my love.”  She pointed outward.  “Ian is my best friend.”  She pointed a final stern finger in Edgar’s face.  “And you—you are a filthy jerk!”
   “Tsk, tsk.”  He shook his head disappointedly, pushing her finger aside.  “Why do they always insult the messenger?”
   “Maybe because the messenger’s always a jerk!”
   His countenance suddenly turned serious.  “Let me warn you, Amora, if you continue to defy Anesidora so blatantly, you won’t live long enough to marry anyone.”
   “I’ve done nothing wrong.”  She looked a little worried.
   “You summoned Naga.  Had he been able to, you would’ve sent him after Pallador.”
   “It’s no secret that I don’t want your sisters freed.”
   “And it’s no secret they have warned you of consequences for defying them.”
   She dared to meet his gaze straight on.  “Don’t tell them.  They only know what you tell them.”
   Edgar grinned impishly.  He stepped up to her, drawing her in.  He had her caught in his stare.  “You think you have it all figured out.  You think I care so much for you that I would keep secrets from my sisters.”  His fingers lifted, gently resting against her face as she continued to drown deeper into his liquid eyes.
   “No,” she managed to utter, “I…I don’t know…”
   Her breathing quickened when he pulled her into his arms.  “Kiss me, Amora, and I won’t tell.”
   He blinked and she lowered her head, forcing her gaze away.  With her head bowed, hair hiding her face, she carefully lifted the ring to her lips, pressing it against her mouth before looking up at Edgar again.
   “Okay,” she agreed.  “Just one kiss, though.”
   He beamed like the sun.
   She took hold of his chin and turned his face, letting him know her intention was merely a peck on the cheek, but when she went to kiss him, he turned at the last second to meet her lips.  He took advantage of her, his hands on either side of her face, keeping their lips pressed together.  She squealed in her throat, a strong objection.  When he pulled away, his mischievous grin met a look of outrage.  Then he fell to the ground.
   “I hate you!” she hissed, angry that he was now passed out and not awake for her to smack.  She kicked him instead, good and hard in the ribs.
   “Ouch!” he exclaimed.  His eyes opened wide with incredulity.  “Why did you do that?”
   “You’re not asleep?” Eena screeched. 
   She readied to kick him again.  Edgar moved out of reach within a blink.  She knew it was pointless to try and take her anger out on him now.  His blinding swiftness would make him impossible to catch, so she yelled at him instead.
   “The dragon’s kiss doesn’t even work on you!”
   He grinned impishly.  “Of course not, Amora.  The rings were made to effect mortals only.”
   “Who would do that?” she demanded.
   “Your sister made these rings,” she groaned.  How just her luck. 
   “Yes.”  Edgar seemed amused by her disappointment.
   “How many of these stupid charmed trinkets did your sisters make?”
   Edgar shrugged.  “A few.  Others have made use of the dragon stones as well.  Pallador created his platform and the prison that holds my sisters captive.  Wennergren formed the bracelets.  Eurodite created the charmed earrings.  I created a belt.”
   “You made a belt?” Eena asked.  “What kind of belt?”
   Edgar grinned at her sudden curiosity.  “A magical one.”  He waved his fingers in the air for dramatic effect.
   “And I’m sure it only works on us poor, pathetic mortals,” she grumbled.
   “Actually, no.  I created it specifically to work on immortals, but it does fool mortals as well.”
   “Fools mortals?  What exactly does it do?” Eena asked.
   “Something entirely amazing,” he crowed.
   Edgar folded his arms over his chest as he declared, “I’m not going to tell you.”
   “Where is it then?” she asked.
   “I’m not going to tell you that either, unless—”  He uncrossed his arms, leaning forward cautiously in case she had some inclination to hit him, “—unless you agree to come with me.”
   Her lip curled up unattractively.  “Never.”
   “Then I shall never tell you,” he huffed.  His arms crossed defiantly over his chest again.
   Her arms did likewise.  “I don’t want to know anyway.  It’s probably something stupid.”
   “No it’s not.”
   “I hope someday I find a dragon stone.  Then I’ll make a charmed jewel that will give me the power to quiet all you annoying immortals.”
   “You wouldn’t be able to,” Edgar announced, his nose lifting in the air with offense.
   “And why not?”
   “Because Pallador and the governing body put an end to creating anything else with the dragon stones.  All the eggs, and the gems inside them, have been confiscated and are under strict guard.  Any new dragon egg, once discovered, is likewise locked away.  If an immortal were caught attempting to create a charmed device with a dragon stone, he or she would be tried and sentenced quite severely.”
   Eena narrowed her eyes before reminding him, “Technically I’m not immortal, so that rule doesn’t apply to me.”
   “Then technically you don’t have the power to create a charmed trinket in the first place.  Only immortals can do such a thing.”
   She glared for a long moment at his smug expression.  Finally she muttered, “I hate you.”
   He grinned with amusement.  “I know.  Hate…love—”  His hands shifted in the air resembling the balancing of the two emotions.  “—they are so closely related.”
   “Will you just go away?”  She stepped up beside Derian who was still stuck in a statuesque pose.  “Leave us alone.”
   Edgar twisted his head and looked up at the dragon who’d been watching silently from above.  “You heard her, Naga, go away.”
   “Not him!” Eena hollered.  She kinked her neck to look toward her dragon.  “Naga, come to me if I call for you again.”
   The great beast nodded, snorting a small release of smoke.
   “Oh, and one more thing,” she added, flickering a sly glance at her immortal watchdog.  “Bite Edgar’s butt for me.”
   There was another nod by Naga, this one much deeper and complemented by a seething growl.
   Edgar’s eyeballs widened and then suddenly narrowed.  He vanished only a second before his scaley pursuer, but not before exclaiming, “How dare you!”
   Eena laughed, feeling somewhat vindicated as she turned back to her captain.  He lurched forward, reanimated.  She stopped his heated steps with a flat hand against his chest.
   “Edgar’s gone,” she said. 
   Derian looked around, feeling confused and out of sync.  “What just happened?”
   She didn’t get the chance to answer his question, for her hand was no longer pressed against his chest but raised in the air, beaten by a hot evening breeze.  She was looking out over a large body of water where far off on the horizon a red sun appeared to be sinking into the choppy sea.  As her eyes lowered, she realized her toes were curling over the brink of a cliff.  Far below, shards of rock and debris spiked up threateningly toward her.  She immediately backed away from the danger.

Copyright 2014 Richelle E. Goodrich

Chapter Two

Just Try and Kiss Me

   It was hot. 
   The air felt especially sweltering in stark contrast to the cold warehouse Eena had been standing in a second ago.  This was a new land, untouched by its healer.  A quick glance at her surroundings revealed an accumulation of dead leaves and branches spread across flat terrain.  A scarcity of trees pointed skyward across the scene, bare like toothpicks.
   Eena dropped to the ground and pressed both hands against a knot of needle-thin twigs sticking out of the soil.  On contact, she sensed the weakness of the flora as well as sadness for those plants that had died in her long absence.  She called on the necklace attached below her chin—an heirloom referred to as the dragon’s soul—to shine and transfer healing energy to the dying plant life.  Her arms warmed in the process; the heat spread to her fingers. 
A circle of rich greens and browns bled outward from where her touch met the terrain, expanding and intensifying every passing moment.  Exotic bushes thickened at the stalks, plump with gold and burgundy veins.  Colorful fronds as delicate as silk threads pushed up from the tips of low-lying scrub.  And scrawny trees climbed to new heights, swelling at their trunks while branches with curled leaves resembling kale jutted from every side.
   The healer stopped short when she heard her name.
   She winced at the scolding manner in which it was spoken.
   “You do know that Naga is duty-bound to carry out your requests.” 
   Eena turned to her protector and grinned.  She bit her lip when he frowned critically in response.
   “Yes, I know,” she shrugged with nonchalance.  Standing to meet his critical scrutiny, she defended her actions.  “It’s not like Edgar doesn’t deserve it.  The jerk deserves far worse.”
   “Aren’t you worried even the tiniest bit about repercussions?” Ian asked, his brow line arching.
   “No, I’m not.”  She was being honest.  Edgar had already proven he had too much of a crush on her to retaliate in any harmful manner.  He wouldn’t want her to hate him for all eternity, would he?
   Ian sighed at her thoughts.  “You know, you’re not much good at making friends of enemies.”
   “So what?”  Her toes kicked at a pebble that soared out over the cliff’s edge.  She watched it fall for the longest time before losing sight of it.
   “So you seem to be too good at making worse enemies.”
   “I never claimed to be Imorih’s pupil.”
   “Obviously.  But it wouldn’t hurt for you to reread the book.”
   Eena shoved playfully at her criticizer, making him stagger a few steps backwards. 
   “Hey, I said you should make friends of enemies, not enemies of friends!” 
   He acted overly upset, so she laughed.  Her response caused him to laugh as well, yet with sadness behind his smile.  Eena noticed and apologized for an entirely different matter.
   “I’m really sorry you were called away with me again.” 
   Ian stepped along the cliff’s shelf as it curved inward.  His best friend walked beside him, keeping a sauntering pace.
   “Don’t be sorry; I was expecting it.  Besides, it’s better than listening to Nischeen cry all day.”
   Eena sighed, feeling bad for him.
   (Just stop it, will you?)
   She was stung by his curtness.  Her eyes turned up in question, catching a deepening frown as Ian explained himself telepathically.
   (I’m just sick of people feeling sorry for me,) he complained.  (Everyone feels such enormous pity.....that’s not what I want.  I hate it.)
   (Maybe not everyone,) Eena suggested.
   Ian’s eyes grew big, emphasizing his certainty.  (Yes, everyone!  I can read minds, remember?  The whole darn city pities me.  I don’t need it.  I don’t want it, so stop it!  Just stop it!)
   Eena grew defensive and struck back.  (If you hate it so much, quit reading our minds!  We never asked you to intrude on our personal thoughts.)
    (You’re right, Eena.)  Ian’s head hung as he apologized.  ( I’m sorry.)
   Still a bit offended, she grumbled a reminder.  (You’re the one who said you wouldn’t judge me for my thoughts, remember?  Getting angry because I feel for you, because I care—that’s judging me, Ian. )
   (I know, I know.  You have a right to think and feel whatever you want to.  I guess I should be glad that you care.)  He didn’t sound all that convincing.
   Eena thought for a moment.  (You would pity me.  I know you would, if I were to lose Derian.)
   He didn’t comment.
   (And I would probably hate your pity too,) she mumbled, trying to understand his feelings.
   Ian snickered in her mind.  Her eyebrows lowered instantly.
   (I know you better than that, Queenie.  You would love how sorry I felt for you.  In fact, you would cry your eyes out balled up in my arms, soaking up every bit of sympathy I could manage for your loss.)  He quickly added, (Not that I want anything to happen to Derian.  I mean….you know….Derian’s not the one I’m worried about.)
   (You worry for me?)
   (Very much.  Nothing can happen to you; I can’t lose you too.)
   (You won’t.)  It was an empty promise.  She reached for his hand, and he accepted, squeezing once on her fingers before letting go.
   They walked along the cliff’s rim in silence, lost in mingled thoughts.  The wind blew constant against their faces.  It was more than a light breeze, yet it offered relief from the heat.  The sky grew darker each moment as a sinking sun slowly disappeared off to their side.  The sunset was beautiful—a rich, striking crimson. 
   (Do you have any idea where we are?”) Eena eventually wondered, noticing how the cliff seemed as endless as the rough waters surrounding them.
   (I don’t,) Ian admitted. 
   She imagined it didn’t really matter to him, especially with the dismal thoughts occupying his mind.  It occurred to her that his parents might miss him again.  Surely Gaila would be livid over what she'd perceive as Eena’s selfish consuming of her son’s time.  Perhaps Edgar could be convinced to send him home.
   (I don’t want to go back,) Ian said.  (My parents won’t miss me for a while.  I told them I was taking a walk around Lacsar Grounds.  They’ll expect me to be gone for hours.)
   (When they find you missing, your mother will…)
   (I’ll explain it all to her eventually.  She’ll get over it.)  Ian addressed the real worry on Eena’s mind.  (She doesn’t hate you.  Mom’s just hurting.  She doesn’t know who to blame, so she’s lashing out at you in behalf of Angelle.)
   (In behalf of her?) 
   (Yes.  Mom’s been thinking a lot lately about how she was left alone while Father spent his days at Sha Tashi’s side.  It was okay when I was young, but after you were born, I started accompanying my father.  Mom felt abandoned.  She envied Sha Tashi for seeing more of us than she did.  It bothers her that Angelle died alone while I was off with you—another Sha.  Mom’s reacting personally to it, standing up for Angelle in a way she never did for herself.)
   (I guess I can understand how she must feel.  I would probably be envious too.  I know I would want my husband’s time and attention.)
   (And you’ll have it,) Ian informed her.  (Derian thinks of almost nothing else but you.)
   (I doubt that,) Eena disagreed.  (He spends the majority of his time with the council.)
   (Not these days.  He’s been trying his best to avoid Jorban so he doesn’t have to explain your situation.)
   Eena was confused by this news.  (But I thought he was determined to tell the council everything.  He told me he was going to ask for their help.  He’s already informed Jerin and Marguay.)
   (Yes, but Edgar threatened him since then.)
   (Edgar told Derian that he’d never see you again if he breathed a word of what he knew to the council.  He basically warned the captain to keep his mouth shut or else.  The threat was enough to scare him.)
   (Is that why Derian came seeking me back in Gabert Forest?  Is that why he’s so paranoid of losing me?)
   (It’s got a lot to do with it, yes,) Ian nodded.
   Eena balled her hands into tight fists.  (That dirty little twit!  That jerk!  I’ll kill him!)
   (Hey, hey, Eena, clam down.)  Ian held up a halting palm.  (This is exactly why I don’t tell you things.  You go spouting off prematurely before thinking things through.)  He shook his finger at her as he warned, (You can’t breathe a word of this to Edgar, or Derian will end out paying for it.)
   Eena slouched—deflated and defeated.  Still strolling with her friend, she sighed, (You think I’m reckless, don’t you.)
   (You’re impetuous, that I know—which is the reason Naga’s chasing after Edgar’s derriere right now.)
   She tried not to laugh at the thought.
   (Eena, most of the time it’s no big deal.  But sometimes the wellbeing of others is at stake.  You have to consider the potential consequences—think it completely through—before you act.)
   She believed he sounded just like Derian.
   (Well, sometimes Derian is right.)
    (Okay, okay, I see your point,) she gave in, (but Edgar really does deserve a good, solid bite on the butt.)
   Ian couldn’t keep from grinning.  (Perhaps.  However, it would serve you much better to stay on his good side.  I know he’ll forgive you for what you’ve done; I read it in his thoughts.  He’s infatuated with you, and I hate it.)  Ian grimaced distastefully.  (And yet…’s probably good in a way.  He’s determined to protect you from Anesidora’s wicked temper, despite your own attempts at getting yourself in trouble.  He won’t tell his sisters about your recent discussion with Naga.  He’s decided that.)
   Ian stopped walking and turned to face his queen.  His voice lowered to a more serious tone and his countenance sobered to match.
   (In all honesty, Edgar may prove to be the one person who manages to keep you alive through all this.  I’d like to think it would be me…)  He trailed off, shaking his head at his own unvoiced concerns.  (Let’s just hope, for all our sakes, Edgar stands up to his sisters if it comes down to that.)
   Eena knew Ian was aware of the immortal’s offer, and she reminded him, (He would take the necklace from me now if I agreed to his terms.)
   Ian objected, perhaps too emphatically.  (No, Eena!  I don’t mean for him to help you like that; you can’t leave us.  What I mean is, if we don’t find some other way out of this and you’re forced to free his sisters, I hope he steps in and protects you.)
   She couldn’t help but conjure up Ascultone’s fatal prediction.  Neither said a word about it.
   “It’s getting dark,” Ian finally announced aloud.  “The moon isn’t up yet, which means its gong to be impossible to see anything soon.”
   Eena glanced beyond the waters at a slivered crescent of crimson sun, the only bit of daylight still showing.  It wouldn’t take long for the sea to swallow it up. 
   “Maybe we should start a fire.”
   The pair gathered armloads of wood—dead twigs and branches that had accumulated over the years.  This natural compost seemed to cover the landscape fairly thickly.  Eena imagined the powerful ocean winds had torn these brittle limbs off the wilting trees.
   “Over here!” Ian called.  “We can camp here tonight.”
   The young protector had found a small cluster of timbers grown tightly together.  It would act as a decent wind break and good back support. 
   Ian cleared a wide area of all but the soiled ground.  Then he broke apart some of their collected firewood and piled it into a nice, high mound.  Eena took over from there, using her powers to create enough spark to start a small campfire.  The air cooled quickly with the setting sun, and both companions were grateful not only for the light of the fire but for its warmth.
   They sat in silence beside one another, staring at a circle of dancing flames.  The periodic spit of sparks wasn’t enough to break their trance.  They were absorbed in thought, although Eena was aware Ian could hear hers.  She wished their mind link worked both ways so she could listen in on his concerns as well.  It didn’t seem fair. 
   What a stupid thing to think—that life should be fair.
   Inhaling a breath of smoke-scented air, Eena pulled her knees in close and laid her chin on crossed arms.  Her head inclined just enough to watch Ian stare at a billion stars above.  To her they were unfamiliar constellations.
   Wondering what was on his mind, she wasn’t surprised to hear him respond to her curious thoughts.  In a faraway voice, he asked a question.
   “Where is she, Eena?  I mean, where do the good spirits go when they’re done here?”
   She sighed solemnly before answering, hoping he didn’t take it as a sign of pity.  “I don’t know, Ian.  Some say our spirits go to a paradise where all good people live together.  Others say we just dissipate—cease to exist entirely.”
   It was quiet again as Ian continued to stare up at the night.  A sudden popping from the campfire blew up a bright puff of orange sparkles.  The light reflected off of Ian’s face, highlighting shimmering streaks along his cheeks.  Eena realized her best friend was crying.  She lifted her head and scooted close enough to slide her arm around his.  Not knowing what to do or say, she laid her head on his shoulder.
   Ian didn’t react to her closeness.  She kept her cheek warm against his arm until he uttered another heartbreaking question.
   “Why did she have to die?”
   Eena offered her best answer.  “All I know is everyone dies at some point.  It’s unavoidable.  It’s a part of life we have to pass through.”
   “No, that’s not true,” he disagreed, shifting his weepy eyes to look down at her.  “Your stupid immortal friends will never die.  They just keep living on and on and on……screwing up the lives of those with terribly limited days.  And the worst part is, they don’t even appreciate what they have.  To never suffer the loss of a loved one.  To never have to hurt this way.”
   “They don’t appreciate it, Ian, because they can’t possibly understand it.  It’s outside their experience.”  She reached for his trembling hand, sandwiching it between her own.  “In a way, I think it makes us far better people than they are.”
   “Why do you say that?” he asked.  He watched the way her hands gently caressed his own.  Tears continued to glide silently down his cheeks. 
   “Well, the fact is, we can appreciate all life has to give because we know how fleeting it is.  It makes us grateful and more compassionate, kinder and wiser.”
   “Wiser,” he groaned.
   “Yes, Ian,” she said, squeezing his hand tenderly, “because we’re able to learn from tragedy and the consequences that stem from it.”
   “So, what exactly have I learned from losing Angelle?”  His eyes squinted at the question.
   “You’ve learned to never take love for granted, but to appreciate every moment you have with the ones you love.”
   “That’s great,” he exclaimed sarcastically.  His hand pulled away from hers and he wiped the wetness from his cheeks.  “And what good does it do me now?  To learn this powerful lesson and not be able to make use of it?  She’s gone, Eena!  She’s gone forever!”  The intensity of grief in his voice made her want to cry right along with him, but she swallowed back the tears.
   “I know.  That’s the sad irony of life.  Once you finally get it……it’s over.”
   “So what good is it then?  What good is living if you lose everything in the end?” 
   “I know, Ian, it doesn’t make any sense.”  She grabbed onto his arm, pushing it to make him look at her.  She understood how desperate he was for answers.  “That’s why I can’t believe death is truly the end for us.  Everything we’ve learned here, all we’ve become, all we’ve accomplished……it must serve a purpose somehow, somewhere.  I can’t believe life truly ceases once we die.  Angelle is still out there; I know it.  I’m sure of it.”
   “Then I want to go with her, Eena,” he cried.  “Let me go with her.”
            She rose to her knees and took her best friend in her arms, hugging him as securely as she could.  He grabbed onto her like he would never let go. 
   “I don’t want you to leave, Ian.  I still need you here.”
   “You have Derian.”
   She felt the guilt stab at her.  “I know,” she whispered.  She thought it sounded far too much like an apology.
   Ian held on, silently crying within her embrace.  Eena stroked his dusty hair as quiet tears wet her face.  When he pushed himself away, quickly wiping his cheeks and focusing back on the night’s sky, she tried not to be offended at the feeling of rejection that lingered.  She knew this was hard for him to deal with.  It was hard for her too, but her arms found their own comfort wrapping themselves snugly around bent legs.  She rested her head sideways on her knees to watch her best friend.  His somber voice broke the silence again.
   “It’s bad enough that she’s dead, that I’ve lost her for good.  It’s even worse that I wasn’t there with her when it happened.  I should’ve been there.”  His head shook, tremulously.  “But what really eats at me is the fact that I didn’t even have a clue she was in trouble.  I didn’t sense anything, not even the slightest twinge of uneasiness.  How the hell could I not have known she was in trouble?” 
His gaze all of a sudden fastened onto Eena with surprising intensity.  She lifted her head, but all she could do was shake it uselessly back and forth until he looked away.  He went on talking, anger heightening in his voice. 
“There I was living it up, laughing along with the Grotts, while Angelle was all alone, drowning.  How could I have not sensed it?  How could I have not known that my promised one was in trouble?  How could someone I love be suffering—dying—and I not feel anything?”
   “I was with the Grotts too, Ian.  I didn’t know she was in trouble either.”
   He shook his head, dismissing her attempt to ease his burden of guilt.  “It’s not the same,” he argued.  “You weren’t in love with her.”
   “No, but…”
   Ian interrupted, stopping Eena mid-sentence.  His eyes squinted as they turned on her again.  “I would’ve known if it had been you.”
   They stared at each other for the longest moment.
   Her utterance broke their trance.  “Not necessarily.”
   Ian’s brow furrowed, questioning her comment.
   “You were asleep when Ascultone almost killed me.”
   The way his countenance fell rueful made her sorry she’d reminded him of the incident.  She apologized.  “I didn’t mean anything, Ian, just that, well, you can’t be aware of every bit of suffering another person goes through, no matter how much you love them.”
   “I would know if you were dying,” he insisted.  “I would know.”
   She exhaled heavily.  “Only because we’re connected.  Normal people aren’t that way.  Derian would never know.”
   “No, he wouldn’t,” Ian agreed.
   “But if something ever did happen to me, he’d feel guilty—just like you, Ian.  It’s normal.”
   She watched her best friend draw in a deep breath and exhale.  “Yeah, he would,” Ian finally decided.
   The conversation ended.  All was silent excepting the far-off sound of waves crashing against jagged rocks at the bottom of the cliff.  It was growing chillier by the hour.  Ian rose and tossed an armful of wood on the fire.  It only took seconds for the flames to swell high and wild, greedily eating up the added fuel.  He stood above the blaze, across from his queen.  The heat seemed to reach up at him, threatening to burn his arms which were folded across his chest.
   “You ought to get some sleep,” he said.
   “I can’t sleep.  I just woke up a few hours ago,” she reminded him.
   She coiled her hair around a finger, watching her protector.  His face looked angry illuminated by the orange firelight, but she blamed it on dark shadows that blackened every dint in his features.
   “If I went to sleep, I’d just have nightmares anyway,” Eena said.
   Ian’s eyes flickered at her for a second before returning to the fire.  “It shocked me to see Angelle in your dream,” he admitted.  “She looked beautiful.”
   “Yes, she did.  I don’t know how Anesidora managed that.  You’d think if she could create such illusions she’d make herself look better.”
   Ian actually chuckled.  It was unexpected, and Eena glanced up as though checking to see if her ears had deceived her.  She smiled, finding a softer look on his face.
   “She is one ugly ghost, isn’t she?” Ian said.
   “Frightfully ugly,” Eena agreed.
   Quiet prevailed again.  Eena hugged her knees as she stared blankly at the fire.  Ian had planted his feet very close to the flames, viewing them from above.  The predominate sound, a background murmur of sea water, captured Eena’s ears and she found herself thinking about her dream of the Oregon Coast.  It had felt so real, as if she and Ian had been transported back to Earth—just two, good, high school friends, carefree and happy.  Their problems had vanished for the hours they’d dreamt together.  It had been lovely.
   The young queen looked up again, checking on her best friend.  His feet were still planted before the fire.  One arm remained across his chest, but the other had lifted to cover his face with a guarding hand.  Eena straightened up, watching him closely.  She noticed how his hand trembled while at the same time his back seemed to shudder.  She was certain he was crying.
   Eena skirted the campfire in seconds.  Not knowing if he would accept or reject her comfort, she wrapped her arms around his waist from behind, pressing a cheek against him.
   “Oh, Ian.  I’m so sorry,” she breathed.
   It took a moment, but at last he turned around.  His arms encircled her as she buried her head beneath his chin.  The young protector broke down, sobbing much like he had at the morgue.  She cried with him.
   It was painful to experience the extent of his broken heart—the way he secured himself to her, gasping for breaths while mourning over his loss.  All she could do was hold onto him as desperately as he held onto her.  She wished for more options, for another way to ease the grief or heal his broken heart entirely.  There was no easy fix……but there was a source of relief.
   Eena pulled her hand in, pressing Naga’s ring against her lips.  Her actions were too slow this time.  Ian reacted immediately, snatching her by the wrist and stepping outside of reach.  He held her hand up in the air between them as he objected staunchly.
   “No!  No, you’re not doing that to me again!”  He wiped the blinding tears from his eyes with a free hand while protesting.  “I understand why you did it the first time…..I lost control then.  But you’re not putting me to sleep with that thing again.”
   She pled with him, whining his name, asking him to surrender to sweet dreams.
   “No, Eena!  Don’t you dare kiss me!  Sleeping isn’t going to solve anything.  It won’t bring Angelle back, and it will leave you alone here without a protector.”
   His eyes were moist but alert, keeping tabs on Eena’s every move.  He wasn’t going to let those loaded lips near any part of him.
   She tried to explain her motives.  “I didn’t use the ring last time because you lost control but because you were hurting so badly.  It’s hard for me to watch and feel how you suffer.  This ring will offer some relief from that.” 
   She took a step forward, but Ian yanked on her arm, forcing her to the side and away from the fire.  She squealed at the unexpected twist of her wrist.  Her eyes grew more incredulous when she realized Ian had sneakily pulled the ring up to his lips during the shuffle.  He was armed with a sleeping kiss now too.
   “Don’t you dare touch me with those lips!” she warned.
   Ian challenged her as he declared, “If you try and kiss me, I swear I’ll kiss you first.”
   She attempted a good, hard tug on her wrist, but he kept a firm grip.  Then his eyes brightened with a notion.
   “You know, I think the dragon’s kiss would be put to better use on you anyway.  If I can keep the powerful Sha Eena asleep under its spell, those wicked, immortal sisters won’t get their hands on the remaining star points.”  He pointed at her with his free hand.  “You’re the one who needs a good, looooong nap.”
   Afraid that he might actually attempt something, she used the dragon’s soul to send a mild electric shock to his gripping hand.  He let go, shaking his fingers wildly in the air.
   “Criminy, Eena, that smarted!”
   “Just stay away from me,” she warned.
   “Likewise,” he retorted.
   They stood face to face, both folding their arms squarely across their chests.
   “All I was trying to do was help you,” Eena pouted.
   Ian repeated the same declaration.  “And all I’m trying to do is help you.”
   She rolled her eyes.  “If you would just sleep, you’d feel better.  Didn’t you have pleasant dreams last night?”
   Ian shifted his weight onto one foot.  “Yes, but that’s beside the point.  You’re trying to make reality go away, but it won’t work.  Angelle’s not coming back and I have to face it.  I can’t hide from the real world.”
   “I know, but…”  she stepped toward him. 
   He retreated with a backwards scuttle.  “Stay back,” he warned. 
   His actions just managed to peeve her, and she defiantly took two giant steps forward. 
   Circling to the opposite side of the fire he told her, “I’m faster than you are, Queenie.  You better knock it off or my lips will be on your cheek before you know what hit you.”
   The threat did nothing but provoke her competitiveness.  “You are not faster than me; I always beat you in every race we ever had on Earth.  I was the first one to school, the first one home, and the first one to the top of the hill every night.”
   “That’s only because I was being a gentleman,” he contended.
   “Oh, convenient excuse,” she groaned.  “I’d have beaten you anyway.”
   He laughed once.  “Never!”
   With that, she took off after him, rounding the fire as he did.  When she stopped, he stood across from her with a smug grin on his face.  Her eyes narrowed as she doggedly tried the other direction, halting abruptly to twist and reverse course.  Ian copied her moves perfectly, keeping himself lined up across the fire at every step. 
   Eena reacted to an idea the very second it struck, not allowing her competitor a chance to counteract.  His leg was bound and secured by a nearby tree root before he could growl.
   “You cheater!” 
   Eena was standing before him in a flash.  The root released its hold as they wrestled, struggling to keep the other person’s lips away from any area of exposed skin.  When Eena’s mouth reached for the hand securing her wrist, Ian pulled both their arms down forcefully, taking the opportunity to lean in.  His lips pressed against his queen’s forehead.  There was a split second of sheer surprise when he felt her lips touch the side of his chin at the very same instant.  They fell to the ground mingled in a dead sleep.
   It seemed as if they were forgetting something important.
   “Did you remember to do your homework?” Sevenah asked her best friend.  It was the most likely thing to have forgotten. 
   Standing outside the white gate to her front yard, she rummaged through her backpack to find her physics assignment completed and tucked away in a green folder.  Satisfied, she handed her backpack over to Ian.  He slung it across his shoulder, careful not to mess up his place in the paperback book his fingers had propped open.
   “What homework?” Ian said, a culpable grin on his lips.
   “I don’t know why you even bother going to school,” she grumbled.  “You should put down those sci-fi stories and pay attention to the real world now and then.  How do you ever expect to get into college?”
   “Sorry, Mom.  I’ll try to do better, I swear.”  Ian held his free hand up—a mocking vow.  He chuckled when she rolled her eyes.
   Side by side they stepped down the dirt road that led to Royal City’s high school.  It was Friday.  Sevenah loved Fridays because her parents relaxed on curfew and she could spend more time with Ian and her other friends.  She was excited to get past the day’s big test and on to the football game they’d be attending that evening. 
   “Hey!”  Ian’s voice pulled her from her thoughts.  “I’ll race you to school.  I’ll even give you a head start this time,” he offered.
   “Like I need a head start against your skinny legs,” she teased.
   The next thing he knew she was tearing down the dirt road, kicking up a trail of dust behind her.
   “You cheater!” he called out.  Ian smiled big, allowing a sizeable gap before stepping into a run himself.
   He caught up with her five minutes to the school, and they raced side by side until the familiar gold-brick building drew near. 
   Then both runners took off in a deadlock sprint.  Sevenah barely won…..again.

Copyright 2014 Richelle E. Goodrich