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

HELPLESS



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, feeling 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 pattern was repeated as if memorized. 
Despite these distractions, it was the sound of humming that captured her awakening attention—a deep, clear, soft voice mixed with the periodic mumbling of lyrics.  She recognized the tune from Earth, a consoling 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 music ceased.
“Eena?” 
Derian leaned over her, checking for open eyes.  She squeezed them shut, aware that her movement against his leg would give 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 caress, 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 appeared fascinating and yet eerie in the way they twisted up, forming likenesses of contorted creatures with outreaching claws.  Most often they resembled monsters standing still, patiently awaiting the approach of an unsuspecting victim.  When a breeze blew through the treetops, those warped branches leaned over as though stretching to grasp at prey.  The congestion of woods made it difficult to see far ahead.  In this place, it was easy for Eena’s imagination to run wild.
She ambled aimlessly down 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 took over Eena’s thoughts.  She was concerned for Ian who had only recently been reunited with the victim, a woman to whom his parents had promised him 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 used to it.”  But this seemed to delve far beneath “unfair,” mocking her present 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, too young, can’t breathe….   Crud, white wasn’t the right color to think about.  She could hear the anxious voice of the counsel pressuring her to marry and produce an heir.  No, no, what other color was there?  A cheery color.
Pink.
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..A..Angelle?”
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 the scoundrel anyway.”
Anesidora snorted on a burst of laughter. “You will succumb like all the others.  No woman has ever resisted the charms of Edgarmetheus 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 will never find the star points for us, and you will 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.  Her ghastly face stopped inches before Eena’s.  “I don’t care how you feel.  All I care about is you doing 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 inflated the immortal’s haughty ego.  Summoning her courage, Eena forced herself to stand tall and spit out 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 one 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 outstretched arm that pulled her in unexpectedly.  Her protector, Ian, appeared at her side.  Eena sucked in a gasp, surprised to see him returned 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?”
“No.”
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 repeated his “Good morning” back to him  Her head left the warmth of his thigh; he must have sat up in bed all night supporting her.  She wondered if he had 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 at first.  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 placed a hand on her cheek.  Eena took his fingers in her own and tried smiling to reassure him.  “I’m alright, Derian.” 
Raising their clasped hands, he 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 this ring to put you to sleep every night so you don’t suffer from more nightmares.”
She reclaimed her ring hand quickly.  “No.  I already owe you for using it on me once.”
“I only did it to stop your suffering.”  He stroked her hair, his thumb rubbing softly 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 would 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.  I never had enjoyed such pleasant, peaceful dreams before.  Sha Tashi pressing that ring to her lips was always the last thing I recalled 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 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.”
“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 he were caught up 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 had come to be there.  But my slumber was peaceful, attached to wonderful, realistic visions.  Visions in which I spent 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 had dreamt of a day spent on the oceanfront with Ian; the truth would only feed Derian’s jealousy.  Thinking quickly she said, “I….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.”
“I do.”
Knowing it would be unproductive to venture down that road, she inhaled deeply and focused on the day ahead.  “I should get cleaned up.”
Derian threw his legs over the side of the bed while Eena scooted to the edge.  That’s when she noticed her bare arms.
“What happened to my bracelet?” she asked.
“It’s with your other jewelry.  Livette, your assistant, put it away when she dressed you.”
“I have an assistant?”
“Of course you do, Eena.”  The captain looked amused by her surprise.  “You’ve hardly been home for her to attend to your needs, but I called on her to prepare you for bed yesterday.”  Adding a flirtatious wink, he said, “I would have done it myself had there been no witnesses.”
Eena elbowed him, blushing at his shameless grin.
“Do you know what Livette failed to find on you?”  Derian asked and then answered his own question.  “Your new PCD.”  He arched a critical eyebrow.
“Edgar took it from me.”
“I’ll get you another one.”
“Why bother?  Edgar will just take that one too.” 
Eena hopped out of bed to head for the bathroom but was stopped when Derian grabbed her by the hand.  He turned her palm upwards and placed a folded piece of paper on it. 
“This was in your pocket.  I thought you might like to have it.”
She smiled down at a hand-written letter that contained sappy, youthful sentiment.  The captain had written it for her ages ago.  “Thank you, Derian.”
“Would you care to have Livette assist you this morning?”
Eena shook her head.  She felt guilty knowing the position had been promised to the late Angelle.  It seemed wrong to allow someone else to assume it so soon after the tragedy of her death.  “I’ll be fine on my own.” 
Derian bowed grandly—a deep, playful gesture.  “As you wish, my queen.”  
Eena was aware he was trying to be cheery for her sake.  It was sweet of him.  She offered a weak smile in appreciation.

A hot shower detained the young queen for a while.  Every muscle in her body surrendered to the therapeutic effects of massaging ionic liquids that seemed to wash away not only a layer of grime but an accrual of physical aches and pains.  Too bad it couldn’t do the same for sorrows.  Eena wished for a magic shower charmed with dragon stones that could rinse away despair and anguish and all miseries.  She daydreamed of such a thing where a person could pass through an enchanted waterfall and obtain relief from every sadness.  The tragedies of life would evaporate, leaving only pleasant memories.  No pain.  No suffering.  No heartache. 
It was a desirous and tempting fantasy, but it wouldn’t bring Angelle back. 
Eena recalled her own near-death experience, nearly drowning in the cold river of the Semmian Rainforest.  Had she not touched the star point in time, her life would have ended beneath those icy waters.  All the while, Ian had stood on the shoreline unable to help.  Had he been with Angelle when she drowned, it likely could have amounted to the same situation; he may have been unable to save her.
Eena quickly ceased her trail of thought, afraid of Ian reading her mind.  The images would only make him feel worse.  She sensed his mental presence, but he didn’t seem to react to the notions in her head.  It was understandable; he would be absorbed in his own thoughts.
Stepping out of the shower, Eena noticed a change of clothing set out for her.  She smiled, touched by Derian’s constant consideration of her needs.  The gown hanging on the bathroom door resembled one he had chosen on a previous occasion: their first breakfast in the commissary on the captain’s ship, the Kemeniroc.  The dress was tawny in color with a chiffon skirt and billowy shoulders.  It took her back to their first days together when his brother, Gemdorin, had presented the greatest threat.  In memory, he seemed less foreboding—a mortal, able to die like the rest of them.  Unlike her present adversaries.  Gemdorin and his Ghengats seemed near impossible to defeat at the time, but that proved untrue.  And now he was dead.  If only a mortal enemy were her greatest present challenge; she might feel she stood a chance. 
Eena dressed herself, stewing over these thoughts until her fears threatened to swallow her up.  There was no way to stop immortals.  No tactic or trickery existed to prevent Anesidora and Ishtura from forcing her to do their bidding.  They would trap her.  Fool her.  Coerce her into doing whatever they wanted—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…...unless she agreed to Edgar’s proposal.
Derian responded to a muted sound of sobbing.  He tapped lightly on the door.
“Eena?  Eena, are you alright?”  The captain waited for a response.  Hearing none, he tapped once more before announcing, “I’m coming in.”
Slowly the door creaked open allowing time for an objection.  When he peeked inside, he saw his queen on the edge of the tub crying 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 have no way to beat them.  They’ve won.”
He took a seat next to his weeping sweetheart and brushed aside the hairs that hung forward in her face.  “The game isn’t over, Eena.”
“Yes, it is.”  She let her hands fall into her lap and turned her glistening eyes on him.  “There’s no way I can win this.”
“So that’s it?  You’re just going to give up?  You’re ready to forfeit?”
“They’ve already won, can’t you see that?”  Her eyes were earnest and heavy with despair as she spelled out the impossible odds.  “Anesidora controls the necklace, Derian—I don’t.  She controls whether I come or go.  She plays me like a puppet, forcing me to gather up those star points against my will.  She even controls Naga against his will…”
Eena stopped suddenly.  Her thoughts had been so plagued with tragedy, she had forgotten a wonderful fact: her new ring was set with Naga’s dragon stones, and she owned the ring!  Her focus shifted to the band adorning her finger.  She was fast to her feet and pulled her captain along with her, fueled by a tiny spark of hope.
“Come on, Derian, you have to take me somewhere.”
They rushed down the back steps of Lacsar Castle and boarded a shuttle.  The captain took 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 aloud.
Derian nodded his understanding.  Five minutes later he set the shuttle down outside a large warehouse, fenced of and guarded on all sides by Harrowbethian patrols.  As head of security, Kahm Derian was granted immediate access.
Eena first took notice of a high ceiling inside the warehouse that extended on and on, disappearing into a dark, indiscernible void.  Her eyes naturally moved downward onto the long, tall rows of shelving that reached far back into the same gloomy shadows.  There were numerous shelves laden with boxes, each one clearly stamped with bold, sequential numerals.  The contents associated with each number-code were, no doubt, kept on file somewhere. 
Eena started towards the left of the building, determined to find the item she needed, when Derian grabbed her by the arm and pulled her in the opposite direction.  He didn’t slow his steps until they were standing before the furthest row of shelves that lined the rightside wall.
“Gemdorin’s things are all here,” he said.  “They’re organized by origin, then by function, at least as far as initial observation suggests.”
Eena looked intently at her captain for a moment, wishing she could talk to him telepathically the way she could with Ian.  The possibility of Edgar eavesdropping kept her from voicing her intentions out loud.  She didn’t want to risk the immortal’s intrusion.  He was certain to make an appearance sooner or later, but her hope was he wouldn’t show up until considerably later—preferably never.
Derian grabbed a small box from off the shelf as if he meant to search its contents, even without knowing what he was looking for.  Eena spit out a sudden warning.  “If you see what looks like a beetle, don’t touch it.  It’s deadly.”
The box in his hands fell to the floor as if it had rapidly turned hot.  “Criminy, Eena,” he grumbled.  “I guess that’s good to know.”
The captain watched with interest as she passed up every carton without bothering to check for contents.  She scanned the bottom shelves first, moving quickly from one container 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 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 the grin on her lips 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 consecutively larger 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.
“Whoa, what is this?”
Eena didn’t answer his question, focusing on the task at hand.  “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.
Hearing her respond to him, Derian turned his attention on her.  “How did you make this thing work?  It hasn’t reacted to anyone’s touch, not even mine.”
“It’s an immortal navigational device.  It only works for them.”
His brow worried substantially at her announcement.  “You’re not an immortal, Eena.” 
“I know,” she agreed, “but I have their gene, remember?”
“Right.  Of course.”  That made sense.
She went on to explain further.  “I discovered this device on Gemdorin’s ship.  He couldn’t make it work either.  I never told him I could.  I figured out that it’s a comprehensive map of the entire universe.  I believe only the immortals could have put such a thing together; no one else could possess that amount of knowledge.”
With concern etched on her face, she turned to the back wall of the building and eyed the available space between the end of the shelving and the rear wall.  There was an open area, and the ceiling seemed high enough.  She hoped it would suffice.
After a “here-goes-nothing” inhale, she voiced aloud, “Naga!  Dragon, show yourself!”
To her delight and the captain’s astonishment, the open space filled up with the presence of a large beast armoured in scales.  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 had summoned him.
“You came!” Eena squealed with glee, sobering almost instantly afterward.  “I have your ring—your dragon stones.”  She showed him.  “This means you must answer to me.”
Naga nodded once.
“Talk to me then,” she commanded.
The great beast sadly closed his eyes.  His head swung regrettably back and forth. 
“But I command you to!” Eena argued.  “You must do it!”
Like a slithering snake, the dragon’s muzzle slipped through the air toward the captain.  Derian’s eyes widened as he stepped back from an enormous, looming snout.
“Eena?” he questioned with obvious concern.
“Naga, I have your ring!  You must do…”
Derian lifted 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?”  Unmistakable envy permeated the question.
“Yes,” Derian nodded, “in my head.  It’s crazy unreal!”
“Can he contact Pallador?” Eena asked the captain.  Her focus shifted to Naga.  “Can you tell Pallador 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 guessed this might be the case.  “Will you at least tell me this….in what solar system and on what planet does Pallador reside?  Where can I find him myself?”
Her anxious eyes searched Naga’s face 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.”
Turning back to the podium Eena 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 giant in size compared to the other two and seemed to shine above the others as if singled out.  Coils of vaporous gases circled this red marble, giving it the illusion of a cloak of golden rings.  Eena gazed with wonder and excitement at Pallador’s homeworld. 
And then it disappeared.
For a second she assumed the device had shut itself off, but the white star continued to shine with two tiny planets orbiting it closely.  Only Laradine was missing.
“What happened?” she asked, scanning the display. 
Before Derian could answer in Naga’s behalf, the red marble reappeared. 
“It’s back,” Eena breathed with relief.  She gasped when the entire 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 expression 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 hip.
She wished it had taken a little longer for him to appear, certain he would now forbid any further questioning of the dragon.
As soon as Edgar spoke, Naga raised his neck as high as the building allowed.  A snort of smoke traveled along the ceiling.  The overgrown lizard retreated to the rear wall and waited with a disgruntled rumble in his gut.  Meanwhile, Edgar continued scolding the young queen. 
“Do you have a death wish?  Is that it?”
“No,” she snapped, wide-eyed.
The immortal huffed indignantly and approached her.  “Amora, I can only protect you from so much.  Anesidora will not like what you’ve done here.”
“But I’ve done nothing.” 
“You discovered Pallador’s home!”
“So what?  I can’t do anything about it,” she argued.
Edgar raised a skeptical eyebrow, regarding her sternly.  “And neither can any of your friends.”  The immortal 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 kept silent.  In response to this, Edgar reinforced his threat. 
“If an attempt is made to contact Pallador, my dear captain, there will be deadly consequences.  Irreversable consequences.  Is that clear?” 
Met with silence again, Edgar raised his voice to repeat the question loudly.  “Is that clear?
The captain scrunched his eyes, and with suppressed anger he grumbled an affirmative yes. 
Eena made a protective gesture by stepping in between both men.  “Leave him alone, Edgar,”
Her immortal watchdog softened his demeanor and caught her eye, but she blinked and looked away, avoiding prolonged eye contact.  Like a sudden gust of wind, Edgar closed the gap between them and placed a gentle hand on her silky red hair.
“My sweet Amora,” he cooed.
Derian reacted instantly.  “Get away from…!” 
His words were cut short.  He appeared to halt mid-sentence, immobilized.  It was exactly like what had happened to Muhra Aing when Edgar 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 understood that only Derian had been left to stall in real time. 
Edgar stroked her cheek.  She swatted his hand aside.
“Stop touching me.  And stop tormenting Derian.”
“Me?”  Edgar gaped at her; the look of innocence was obviously false.
“Yes, you.”
“And what about you?  When will you stop tormenting him?”  Edgar moved past the young queen to approach the motionless captain.  He circled the man as though he were checking out a marble statue on display 
“I’m not tormenting him; why would you say that?”
“You have the poor guy believing you actually intend to marry him.”  Edgar stopped to fix the captain’s collar, raising it up high and stiff around his neck.
“I do intend to marry him.”  Eena followed her immortal watchdog and folded down the captain’s collar, repositioning it as it had been.
“Oh please,” Edgar groaned.  “You’ve had two opportunities to do so and on both occasions you turned him down.”  Edgar elevated the captain’s elbow—adjusting him like a mannequin—leaving it in an awkward position.  “The council expressed a desire for you to marry, and you nearly hyperventilated over the mere suggestion.  And just recently, due to his own paranoia, Derian all but begged you to marry him.  Your refusal couldn’t have been more swift or more 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 would never have let me touch him in the first place.”
“That is not true!  I know what you’re doing, Edgar—I’m onto you.”
He laughed out loud, “You’re onto me?  Oh, Amora, if you would 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, no.  I’m trying to help you—to make you face the truth about your feelings.” 
“The truth is I love Derian,” she maintained.  “I’m not in love with Ian, and I wish you would quit insinuating that I am!”  She pointed to the captain.  “Derian is my love.”  Her finger shifted to point outward, nowhere in particular.  “Ian is my best friend whom I care for deeply, yes, but that’s all.”  Finally, a stern finger landed in Edgar’s face.  “And you—you are nothing but 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 is always a jerk!”
His countenance hardened all of a sudden, serious and severe in expression.  “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 repeated; however, she was unable to completely conceal every trace of justifiable apprehension.
“You summoned Naga.  Had the beast been able to, you would have 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 Edgar’s gaze straight on.  “Don’t tell them.  Don’t say anything to them.  They only know what you tell them.”
Edgar grinned roguishly.  He moved cautiously closer, drawing her in with his magnetic 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 reached to rest against her face as she continued to drown deeper in the blue of his eyes.
“No,” she managed to utter, “I…I don’t….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 eyelids, 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.  “One kiss.  Only one.”
He smiled wide at her quick willinglness to agree, his countenance beaming like the noonday sun.
Taking hold of his chin, she turned his face to let him know her intention was merely a peck on the cheek, but when she went to kiss him, he rotated 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 big 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 punch.  She kicked him instead, good and hard in the ribs.
“Hey, that hurt!”  His eyes opened wide with incredulity.  “Why did you kick me?”
Eena gasped.  “You’re not asleep?” 
She readied to kick him again.  Edgar moved out of reach in 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 the scoundrel 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.
“Anesidora.”
“Your sister made these rings?”  She groaned her aggravation.  How just her luck. 
Edgar seemed highy amused.
“How many of these stupid charmed trinkets did your sisters make?”
“A few.  There are others who 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 fashioned a pair of charmed earrings.  And I, myself, created a very impressive and stunning belt.”
“You made a belt?” Eena asked.  “What kind of belt?”
Edgar smirked 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.”
“Actually, no.  I created it specifically to work on immortals, but it does fool mortals as well.”
“It fools mortals?  What exactly does it do?”
“Something entirely amazing,” he crowed.
“What?”
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 so I can 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 pointing upward with both haughtiness and 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 now 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.  “I hate you.”
“I know,” he grinned with amusement.  “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 walked over to stand beside Derian who was still stuck in a statuesque pose.  “Leave us alone.”
Edgar twisted his head and looked up at the dragon that had 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 narrowed.  He vanished only a second before his scaly 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 wind.  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 curled over the brink of a cliff.  Far below, shards of rock and debris spiked up, threatening her from a distance.  She quickly 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 contrast to the cold warehouse in which Eena had been standing a moment ago.  This was a new area of land untouched by its healer.  A glance at her surroundings showed an accumulation of dead leaves and branches spread out over 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 that poked out of the soil.  On contact, she sensed the weakness of the flora as well as a shared impression of mourning for plants that had died during her long absence.  She called on the necklace attached to her chest—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, spreading further while 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 while scrawny trees climbed to new heights, swelling at their trunks.  Branches jutted from every side of these growing trees, sprouting curly leaves resembling kale.
The healer stopped short when she heard her name spoken in a scolding manner.
“Eena!  What were you thinking?  You do know that Naga is duty-bound to carry out your requests, no matter how absurd they are.” 
The young healer reacalled her last words spoken to Naga.  Grinning at the idea of her wishes being carried out, she turned to see her protector standing just out of arm’s reach.  She bit down on her lip when Ian frowned his disapproval.
“Yes, I know,” she answered indifferently, standing to meet his scrutiny.  She defended her actions even though in her heart she knew the request had been both childish and risky.  “It’s not like Edgar doesn’t deserve it.  The jerk deserves far worse.”
“You’re not worried even the tiniest bit about repercussions?” Ian asked, his brow line arching.
“Not really.”  She was mostly certain— relatively certain—that Edgar had too much of a crush on her to retaliate in any hurtful manner.  He would never want her to hate him for all eternity.
Ian groaned at the justifications in her thoughts.  “You know, you’re not much good at making friends out of enemies.”
His criticism put a sour grimace on her face.  She kicked at a pebble and sent it soaring over the cliff’s edge.  “So what?” she shrugged, watching the pebble fall for the longest time before her eyes lost sight of it.
“So you seem to be too good at making worse enemies out of enemies that are foul enough already.”
“I never claimed to be Imorih’s pupil.”
“Obviously.  But it wouldn’t hurt for you to reread the book.”
Eena shoved at her criticizer, making him stagger a few steps backwards. 
“Hey, I said you should make friends of your enemies, not enemies out of your friends!”  He acted as if he were overly upset.  Eena busted out laughing.  This earned a laugh from Ian as well, yet he seemed unable to completely shed the veil of sadness draped over him.  It was noticeable.
“I’m sorry you were called away with me again,” Eena apologized.  
Ian glanced out at the bright, cloudy sky.  His feet started forward along an edge of cliff that curved inward by degrees.  His queen walked beside him, keeping at his sauntering pace.
“Don’t worry about it,” he finally said.  “I was expecting it sooner or later.  Besides, I’d rather be here than at home listening to Nischeen cry all day.”
Eena sighed a grave sound of sympathy; she felt bad for him.
(Just stop it, will you?)
His curtness echoed in her mind.  She turned her eyes up in question, catching a deepening frown on her protector’s face.  He tried explaining his irritable reaction telepathically.
(I’m just sick of people feeling sorry for me,) he complained.  (Everyone feels such enormous pity.  I hate it.  I don’t want anyone’s pity.)
(Maybe not everyone feels that way,) Eena suggested.
Ian’s eyes grew big, emphasizing his certainty.  (Yes, everyone!  I can read minds, remember?  The whole city pities me!  I don’t need it.  I don’t want it.  So stop it.  Just stop it—everyone stop pitying me!)
Eena struck back at him defensively.  (If you hate it so much, quit reading people’s minds.  We never asked you to intrude on our personal thoughts.)
(You’re right.)  Ian hung his head.  ( I’m sorry, you're right.)
Still a bit defensive, 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 for you—that’s judging me, Ian. )
(I know, I know.  You have the right to think and feel whatever you want.  I guess I should be glad that people care.)  He didn’t sound very convincing.
Eena thought about it for a moment.  (You would pity me.  I know you would, if I were to lose Derian.)
Ian didn’t comment.
(And I probably would 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.)
(Who are you worried about?)
(You, of course.  I worry a lot for you.  Nothing can happen to you; I can’t lose you too.)
(Nothing’s going to happen to me.)  It was an empty promise.  She reached for her protector’s hand.  He squeezed once on her fingers before letting go.
Continuing along the cliff’s edge, they fell silent, lost in mingled thoughts.  The wind blew constant in 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.  She noted how the cliff seemed as endless as the rough waters surrounding them.
(I don’t,) Ian admitted. 
She imagined it didn’t 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 would 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 home,) 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’re 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 Angelle?) 
(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 was allowed to.  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.)
(What?)
(Edgar told Derian that he would 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 thinking about it.  (That dirty little twit!  I’ll kill him!)
Ian held up a halting palm.  (Hey, hey, Eena, clam down.  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—having her resolve deflated.  She sighed a sound of defeat.  (You think I’m reckless; I know you do.)
(You’re impetuous, which is the reason Naga is chasing after Edgar’s derriere right now.)
She tried not to laugh at the imagery.
(Most of the time, Eena, 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, but Edgar really does deserve a good, solid bite on the derriere.)
Ian couldn’t keep from smirking.  (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.  But it’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 in a more serious manner 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 of this.  I’d like to think it would be me…)  He trailed off, wagging 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 about it.  (Edgar would take the necklace right now if I agreed to his terms.)
Ian objected emphatically.  (No!  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 in a tired voice.  “The moon isn’t up yet, which means it’s going 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.”
“Agreed.”
Together they gathered armloads of wood—dead twigs and branches that had accumulated in the area over the years.  This natural compost was like a thick carpet covering the landscape.  Eena imagined the powerful ocean winds were responsible for tearing these brittle limbs off the wilting trees.
“Over here!” Ian called out, gesturing to a cluster of timbers grown tightly together.  The natural wall would act as a decent wind break as well as provide decent back support. 
“We can camp here tonight.” 
Ian cleared off an area of ground around his feet.  He broke apart some of their collected firewood and piled it into a nice, high mound.  Eena took over from that point, using her powers to create enough spark to start a small campfire.  The air cooled quickly at the setting of the sun, and both companions felt grateful for the fire’s light and warmth.
They sat beside one another in silence, staring into the heart of red, flickering flames.  The periodic spit of sparks didn’t have the power to break their trance.  Though they were both absorbed in personal thoughts, Eena was aware that Ian could read her mind like an open book.  His own, however, was locked up and kept secret.  She wished their mind link worked both ways so she could listen in on his concerns.  It didn’t seem fair that it was a one-way connection. 
What a stupid thing to think life would be fair.
Inhaling a breath of smoke-scented air, Eena pulled her knees in close and placed her chin down on crossed arms.  She inclinded her head just enough to watch her protector.  He was looking up at the night’s sky, his face tight and concentrating as if counting the billions of stars above.  For the young queen, those stars formed unfamiliar constellations.
Wondering—guessing to some extent—what was on his mind, it didn’t surprise her when he responded to her curious thoughts.  In a faraway voice, he asked a desperate question.
“Where is she?  Where do good spirits, like her, go when they’re done here?”
Eena sighed solemnly, hoping he didn’t misread it as a sign of pity.  “I don’t know for certain, Ian.  Some say our spirits go to a paradise where all good people live together.  Others say we just dissipate—cease to exist entirely.  I personally find it absurd to think death could be a final end.  The very idea snuffs out any purpose or meaning to our existence.  There must be more; it only makes sense.  I’m sure she’s somewhere, Ian.  I’m sure Angelle is somewhere nice.”
It fell quiet again as a troubled soul continued to stare up at the night.  A sudden popping from the campfire stirred up a bright puff of orange sparks that reflected off Ian’s face, highlighting shimmers of moisture on his cheeks.  Eena realized her best friend was crying.  She scooted close enough to slide her arm through his.  Not knowing what to do or say, she put her head on his shoulder.
Ian didn’t react to the closeness.  She kept her cheek warm against his arm until he uttered another heartbreaking question.
“Why did she have to die?”
Eena gave him her best answer.  “All I know is that everyone dies at some point.  It’s unavoidable.  We have to pass through death; it’s part of life.”
“That’s not true,” Ian disagreed, shifting his weepy eyes down on 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 understand it.  Death and loss are outside their experience.”  She reached for his trembling hand.  “I think it makes us far better people than they are.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked.  He watched her fingers gently caress his own while tears continued to glide silently down his cheeks. 
“Well, the fact is we value life because we know how fleeting it is.  It makes us grateful and more compassionate people.  Kinder and wiser.”
“Wiser,” he groaned.
“Yes, Ian,” she said, tenderly squeezing his hand, “because we’re able to learn from tragedy and the consequences connected to it.”
“So what exactly have I learned from losing Angelle?”  His eyes squinted at the question—skeptical and yet desperate for answers.
“You’ve learned to never take love for granted, and to be thankful for every moment you have with the ones you love.”
“That’s great,” he muttered sarcastically.  His hand pulled free from caring fingers to wipe away the wetness on his cheeks.  “What good does that 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 weep with him, but she resisted, swallowing back her tears.
“I know, Ian, I know.  That’s the sad irony of life.  Once we learn our lessons……it’s over.”
“So what good is it then?  What good is living if you lose everything in the end?” 
“I know it seems hopeless.”  She grabbed his arm, pushing on it to make him turn and look at her.  His need to make sense of his loss was understandable, and she wanted to help him find reason in it.  “That’s why I can’t believe death is the end for us.  Everything we learn in life, all we become, all we accomplish……it must serve a purpose somehow, somewhere.  I refuse to believe life ceases once we die.  Angelle is still out there; I know it.  I’m sure of it.”
“Then I want to go where she is, Eena,” he cried.  “Let me go with her.” 
Rising instantly to her knees, Eena took her best friend in her arms, hugging him as securely as she could.  He grabbed onto her and held tight as if he never meant to let go. 
“I don’t want you to leave, Ian.  I need you here.”
“You have Derian.”
She felt guilt stab her like a dagger because she still had her promised one.  “I know,” she whispered as gravely as if it were an apology.
Ian held on to their embrace, silently crying.  Eena stroked his dusty hair while silent tears wet her face.  Eventually, he let go and pushed away, wiping his cheeks while resuming his scrutiny of the night’s sky.  Eena tried not to feel rejected despite how abruptly he turned his back on her.  She knew this was hard for him.  It was hard for her too.  She found comfort in her own arms, wrapping them snugly around her waist.  She watched her best friend, unsure of what else to do.  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 have been there.”  His head wagged back and forth, signing disappointment in himself.  “But what really eats me is the fact that I didn’t 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 darted sidelong, finding Eena, locking onto her sad eyes with surprising intensity.  She inclined her head, but all she could do was shake it uselessly back and forth until he looked away.  He went on talking, anger amplifying his voice. 
“There I was living it up, laughing along with the Grotts while Angelle was all alone, drowning.  How could I not have sensed it?  How could I not have 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.”
With a sweeping gesture, he dismissed her attempt to ease his burden of guilt.  “It’s not the same,” he argued.  “You weren’t in love with her.”
“No, but that…”
Ian interrupted, stopping Eena mid-sentence.  His eyes squinted as they turned on her again.  “I would have 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.”
His countenance paled, resembling a ghost, making her regret reminding him of the incident.  She apologized at once.  “I didn’t mean anything, Ian.  It’s 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 would feel guilty about it—just like you.  It’s normal.”
Ian drew in a deep breath and slowly blew it out, thinking.  “Yeah, he would,” Ian finally decided.
The conversation ended on that note.  The night turned silent excepting the far-off sound of waves crashing against the 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 the hairs off his folded arms.
“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 a strand of hair around a finger, watching her protector.  Illuminated by the orange firelight, his face looked severely angry.  She blamed it on dark shadows that blackened every dint in his features.
“If I went to sleep, I would just have nightmares anyway.”
Ian flickered a glance at her before returning his gaze 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 would make herself look better.”
It was a sweet sound to hear Ian actually chuckle out loud.  It was unexpected.  Eena looked up as if checking to be sure her ears hadn’t deceived her.  She smiled at a softer look on his face.
“She is one ugly ghost, isn’t she?” Ian said.
“Frightfully ugly,” Eena agreed.
Silence subtly prevailed again.  Eena hugged her knees close as she stared blankly at the fire, aware of the toasty feeling permeating her arms and legs and face.  Ian had planted his feet very close to the flames, continuing to view 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 vacationing on the Oregon Coast.  The dream had felt as real as if she and Ian had been transported back to Earth as two high school friends living out their days as carefree and happy as before.  Their problems had vanished while lost in that dream.  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 was raised to cover his face.  Eena straightened up, observing closely.  She noticed how his hand trembled while at the same time his back appeared to shudder. 
Eena skirted the campfire in seconds.  Not knowing if he would accept or reject her comfort, she embraced him from behind, pressing a cheek against his back.
“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.  Eena cried with him.
To experience the extent of his broken heart—the way he secured himself to her, gasping for breaths while mourning over his loss—was painful.  All she could do was hold onto him as he clung to her.  She wished for more options, for another way to ease the grief or heal his broken heart entirely.  But there was no easy fix.  However, there was a source of temporary relief.
Eena pulled her hand in close enough to press Naga’s ring to her lips, but her actions were too slow.  Ian reacted fast and snatched her by the wrist, stepping outside of reach.  He held her hand up in the air between them and objected staunchly.
“No!  No, you’re not doing that to me again!”  He wiped the blinding tears from his eyes with a free hand, continuing to protest.  “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, begging him to surrender to pleasant dreams.
“No, Eena, sleeping won’t solve anything!  It won’t bring Angelle back, and it will leave you alone out here without a protector.  Don’t you dare kiss me!”
His squinted gaze was moist but alert, keeping tabs on Eena’s every move.  He was determined to keep her loaded lips away from him.
She tried to convince him, explaining 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 give you some relief from that.” 
She took a step forward, but Ian yanked on her arm, forcing her sideways and away from the fire.  She squealed at the painful 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 now armed with a sleeping kiss 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 arm, but he kept a firm grip.  Then his eyes brightened up 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 will never get their hands on the remaining star points.”  He pointed a finger at her.  “You’re the one who needs a good, looooong nap.”
Afraid he might attempt to carry out his threat, Eena used the dragon’s soul to send a mild electric shock to his grasping hand.  He let go of her, shaking his fingers wildly in the air.
“Criminy, Eena, that smarted!”
“Just stay away from me,” she warned.
“Likewise,” he retorted.
They faced off, glaring, both on guard.
Eena stuck out a pouty lower lip.  “All I’m trying to do is help you.”
Ian repeated the same words back at her.  “All I’m trying to do is help you.”
“If you would just sleep, Ian, you would feel better.  Didn’t you have pleasant dreams last night?”
Ian shifted his weight onto one foot.  “Yes, but that’s beside the point.  What you’re trying to do is make reality go away, but it won’t help.  Angelle’s not coming back and I have to face it.  I can’t hide from reality.”
“I know, but…”  she stepped toward him. 
He retreated, maintaining a gap between them.  “Stay away,” he warned. 
His insistence only peeved her, and she took two defiant steps forward. 
Circling to the opposite side of the fire he cautioned, “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.”
Ian’s 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.”
“Oh, convenient excuse,” she groaned.  “I would 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!  You shameful cheater!” 
Eena was standing before him in a flash.  The tree root released its hold as the pair 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 and stole 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, gesturing 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 that everyone with any school spirit would be attending that evening.  
Ian nudged her to pull her from her thoughts.  “Hey, I’ll race you to school.  I’ll even give you a head start this time.”
“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 shameless cheater!” he called out.  Ian smiled big, allowing a sizeable gap to form 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