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, 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

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