Saturday, June 21, 2014

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, 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.
   “Eena?” 
   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.
   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 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?”
   “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 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.
   “Anesidora.”
   “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.
   “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.  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

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