Friday, June 20, 2014

Chapter Three

ISOLATED



There were no visible stars above when Eena opened her eyes.  Just a hint of dawn’s earliest glow reflected off a whispy sheet of clouds originating from beyond the cliff.  It was impossible to see the sunrise, even though its evidence painted one edge of sky a coral pink. 
   The sound of movement off to the side caused Eena to shift focus.  The fire was out.  Ian lifted up on his elbows, blocking the view of strewn ashes where an orange blaze had burned high only hours ago.  She remembered now how they’d been chasing each other around the fire like crazed wizards with a magic spell on their lips.
   Her eyes locked onto her best friend, seeing amusement in his stare.  They burst out laughing at the same instant.
   After a healthy dose of ‘good morning’ giggles, Eena shook her head.  “I cannot believe you actually kissed me to sleep,” she scolded.
   “You started it,” Ian charged.  “You kissed me to sleep too, you know”
   “Only after you kissed me first!  I barely had time to peck you on the cheek.”
   Ian grinned—a crooked, impish smirk.  “Told you I was faster.”
           
(In your dreams,) she muttered in her head.
   (No, actually, you’re always faster in our dreams.)
   It caught her off guard the way he said ‘our dreams’, claiming her dreams as his too.  It was true they did spend most of their nights sharing the same illusions anymore.
   (So, what now?) she asked, changing the subject.  She went to stand, but Ian hopped up first, offering a helping hand.
(How about we hunt down some breakfast.  Or dinner, depending on which way you look at it.  Either way, I’m sure we slept through lunch.)
   Eyeing her crumpled dress, Eena brushed at a layer of dried leaves stuck to the textured chiffon.  Ian swept his hand along the back of her skirt to help, pulling off a few stubborn twigs.
   (You dreamt of Earth again.)
   (We did,) she said.
   He seemed to disregard her correction.  (Of all our earth days to choose from, you dreamt of the day we had to take that monster of a physic’s midterm.)
   (Hey, I aced that test,) she bragged.
   (Yeah, well I didn’t.)
   (Because you never studied.)
   Again he ignored her.  (I thought the dragon’s kiss was supposed to give you pleasant dreams.)
   (That was a pleasant dream,) she argued, turning to face him.  He stopped picking leaves off her dress and looked up to meet her smile.
   (Okay,) he admitted, rolling his eyes a little.  (I suppose after that horrible test, it was a good dream.  Awesome football game—Knights 28, Eagles nothing!)
   (Almost as good as a mallawum match?) she grinned.
   (Almost.)
   Ian glanced around, trying to decide what to do next.  His searching gaze returned to his queen as he asked, (Any idea where we might find food?)
   He frowned almost as quickly as she thought her answer.  (I didn’t sense any fruit earlier, but you did startle me before I finished healing the entire area.  I could try again.)
   He nodded and crouched to the ground immediately, anticipating her doing the same.
   She laughed before kneeling beside him.  (You must be starving.)
   He patted his belly.  (My stomach woke me up.)
   Eena pressed her palms against a fresh area of grass; Ian placed his hands overtop hers.  They closed their eyes as the dragon’s soul kindled to life.  Healing energy raced through the circle that had been touched by her powers the day before, adding a dash more color and girth to the healthy vegetation.  In the process, Eena scanned for any fruit-bearing plants or herbs.  There were none.  When she reached the edge of healed flora, her concentration intensified.  She lingered on every tree a moment longer, searching for one capable of producing edible fruit if fully bloomed.  Likewise, the scant quantity of bushes were given more attention in the hopes that berries might hang from their branches in the end.  No such luck.
   When she sensed the edge of a cliff, her energies shifted in the opposite direction.  There too she was surprised to find the halting sensation of an abrupt end—another high overhang.  Every other path found the same result.  The hungry hunters opened their eyes when they realized the elevated sea cliff totally surrounded them.
   Eena voiced their discouraging discovery.  “This place is an island.  We’re isolated.”
And there’s not a darn thing to eat here,” Ian grumbled, a fact he considered more important.
   The dragon’s soul dimmed, and Ian let his hands slip away from Eena’s.  He fell backwards, rolling out flat onto the ground.  His eyes flashed up at a sky turned lavender.
   “They’re gonna starve us to death; that’s their plan, Eena.  Edgar and his warped sisters intend to leave us here until we can hardly stand up or see straight.  Then Edgar will hang a miganmelon over our heads until we either die refusing him or agree to hunt down the remaining star points.”
“Those melons are gross.”
“You’d lick one up if you were starving to death.”
   She made a face, disputing him.  “Not likely, Ian.”
   “Yes you would, Queenie.  You’d eat a trillot if you were starved enough.”
Eena stuck out her tongue and pretended to gag.  “Ick!  No way!”
Ian raised his hands toward the sky and began to speak beseechingly, as if attempting to communicate with a divine presence beyond the wisps of clouds.  “Here me if you care at all for two lowly mortals wasting away with hunger.  We’re stuck on this forsaken island, surrounded by an impossibly high cliff.  We’ve no nourishment of any kind; we can’t even reach the water taunting us far below, simply to wet our parched tongues.”
   “Its seawater,” Eena threw in as she plopped down beside her friend.  “It’s undrinkable anyway, you complainer.”
   Ian aimed his narrowed eyes at her for the interruption before resuming his grumbling.  “This gives us maybe three - four days to choose between dying of thirst, or succumbing to hunger pains and yielding to the demands of your immortal friends.”
   “I wish you’d quit saying that; they’re not my friends,” Eena griped.
   Ian closed his eyes, mumbling almost incoherently, “It doesn’t matter anyway.  I might as well die now and get it over with.  I give myself three days.”  His eyes flashed open, searching for Eena.  Soberly, he gave her simple instructions.  “Bury me in three days.”
   “Ian!” she groaned, not even slightly amused.
   “Okay, so don’t bury me.  Just shove me over the brink.  I’m sure the tide will claim my body sooner or later.”
   “Would you knock it off?  Don’t slip into a foul mood.”
   “Too late.”
   “But we just had the best dream.  You had fun, remember?”
   “It was a dream, Eena.  Not reality.  People don’t live in their dreams.”
            She felt her spirits decline with his.  “It was reality at one time,” she muttered.
   They sat in silence for a good while, Ian with his eyes shut as Eena worried down at him.  She wasn’t sure if his empty stomach or his disposition concerned her more.  When a rumble from his tummy carried in the breeze, she chuckled and poked a finger at him.  His reflexes were fast, grabbing her fingers to stop the unwanted prodding.
   “Quit it,” he ordered.
   As soon as he released her, she poked at his belly again.  This time his attempt to nab her hand came up empty.  This forced his eyes open.
   “I mean it, Queenie.  Don’t push me,” he warned.
   Her lips curved into a mischievous grin as soon as his eyelids closed again.  “You mean I can’t push your buttons……like this!”  She stuck a finger in the spot where his belly button would most likely be.  It seemed she hit the mark.
   “Eena!”   Ian rose up halfway, swatting at her hand.  “I am not in the mood for this.”
   “Well, I don’t like your lousy mood,” she said, giving him a good dig in the ribs.
   The taunter screamed when the taunted scrambled to catch her.  She tried scurrying on her backside across the brush, but there’d been no warning of an impending attack—no time to plan for a getaway.  She found herself pinned to the ground, laughing hysterically as Ian tickled her without mercy. 
   “Stop it!  Stop it!” she screamed between fits of laughter.  “It hurts!  I hate being tickled!  It hurts!”
   “I know it,” he snickered wickedly.  When the thought crossed her mind that she might actually wet her pants, he let up.  Pointing a finger at her nose, he warned, “Do not jab, nudge, prod, poke, or dig at me again…..or I swear you’ll be sorry.”  The intensity of his expression kept her from cracking a grin.  Soon, Ian was flat on the ground as before, both eyes closed at the rising sun.
   An illusory fire ignited in Eena’s mind—the only defense against any psychic intrusion into her thoughts.  Ian perceived this mental barrier, wondering what she was trying to hide.  He glimpsed how she’d risen to her feet, now staring down at him from a short stride away.   In a voice of austerity he repeated his word of caution.
   “I don’t care if you are Queen of Harrowbeth or not, you’ve been warned.  If you so dare as touch me, be prepared to run.  And I mean fast.”
   That sounded like a challenge if ever she’d heard one. 
   The only thing to wait for was the closure of his untrusting, avocado eyes.  A split second after Ian lowered his eyelids, Eena jabbed her toes into his ribs, effectively making him grunt.  She screamed and took off running as fast as her legs could sprint from a motivated chaser.  Ian was instantly up and in hot pursuit.  He trailed her through dry piles of underbrush blown aside by their race.  Eena led Ian in circles, using wild shrubs and tree trunks as impeding obstacles.  He was almost within arm’s reach when she called on the nearest tree to lift her into its branches.  It responded at once to her urgent appeal.  Ian jumped as high as he could, hoping to grab her foot.  He missed by a hair, and the tree hoisted her up a safe distance above him.
   “You’re too slow, you’re too slow!” she taunted in a sing-song manner.  She screamed when he pulled himself up into the lowest branches, determined to climb after her.
   Only one other tree stood near enough to call upon for help.  It responded at once to its healer’s urgency, extending a branch for her acceptance.  She jumped like a flying animal and was caught easily.  Her laughter hit the air when she turned to find Ian on the very branch she’d abandoned.  How narrowly she’d escaped!  Ian glared at her across the way, communicating the chase wasn’t anywhere close to ended.  He was on the ground before Eena could begin a descent from her nest. 
At the base of the tree, Ian walked slow circles around what had become a cage with leafy twigs for bars.  He kept a fixed eye on his prey, watching her scamper up to higher branches as if distance translated into safety.  The taunted became the taunter.
   “Eena—Eena—Eena,” he exhaled slowly.   “I’m afraid you’ve really done it this time.  There are consequences for foolishness, Queenie, and they must be paid.”
   “Foolishness?” she repeated his chosen word with a note of offense.
   “You’ve picked a fight with a desperately hungry man who happens to be in a particularly bad mood.  And to top it off, you’ve done so on a forsaken island in the middle of nowhere without any means of escape or assistance.  Not wise.”
   “But we’re not fighting—w..we’re playing.”
   Ian chuckled darkly.  “That’s not how I see it.”
   “You’re joking…..right?  Ian?”  She was growing noticeably nervous.
   Ian refused her any reassurance.  “As your sworn protector and learned elder, I believe it is my duty to share a word of wisdom with Harrowbeth’s reckless, new queen.”
“Reckless?”  Eena’s mouth gaped.  “I am not…”
“Listen up!”  Ian snapped, effectively shutting her mouth.  He pointed a rigid finger at the treetops.  “Heed my advice, Queenie.  Take responsibility for your actions here and now like a model leader.  Climb down and plead for mercy, and I show some compassion carrying out your sentence.  If, however, you choose to remain the reckless fool, you will pay much, much harsher consequences in the end…….once you’re captured and bound.”
“B…bound?”
“Bound—and possibly gagged.”
   She seemed to question his sanity for a moment.  His offer was given brief consideration before she suddenly exclaimed, “Ha!  Nice try.  A true fool is the idiot daft enough to surrender to a lying enemy!”
   Ian looked up through the branches, zeroing in on two wide, anxious eyes.  “This is your one and only chance for any degree of mercy,” he said in a low, sinister tone.
   With worry in her voice she reminded him, “You are my protector, remember?  You have a duty to keep me safe.”
   “From others.”  She thought his crooked smile was a bit too wicked.
   “So, what are you planning to do then?” she asked.
   He started to climb the tree.  “I’m going to get my hands on you first, and then I’m going to tie your hands behind this tree, and then I’m going to tickle you until you really do lose control of your bladder.  Maybe longer.”
   She screamed again.
   When Ian heard her next shouted request, he looked worried for the first time.
   “Naga!  Save me!  Naga come and save me!”
   From out of the blue, two monstrous wings spread a vast shadow over the island.  The tree that held up Harrowbeth’s queen appeared a tiny stick in comparrison to the dragon hovering above it.  Ian jumped down to the ground and backed away quickly.
   (You’re cheating again, Eena.)
   (I’m defending myself,) she corrected.  (If my protector refuses to….”
   (You attacked me!) he contended.  (And that was after I gave you fair warning.  You knew exactly what you were getting into.)
   She laughed at the way he’d put a good distance between himself and the great, scaly beast.
   The dragon set down, causing the ground to tremble.  His muzzle moved in close to where Eena sat.  She reached to pet his snout, giggling at how his nostrils flared at her touch.
   “Oh, thank you, Naga.  You saved me,” she grinned.   “Help me down?”
   The overgrown lizard moved his long neck forward, offering it to Eena.  She slipped on, holding tightly to his ears as he lowered to just inches above the ground.  Eena hopped off, careful to stay close to her new protector.
   (He’s not your new protector,) Ian grumbled.  (You know I’d never actually hurt you.)
   (That’s not the impression you gave a moment ago.)
   (We were playing.)
(Not fighting?) 
(No, of course not.)  Ian looked up at the great dragon and spoke aloud.  “You know she doesn’t play fair.”
   The beast snorted once and agreed with a single nod.  A puff of smoke from his nostrils twisted in the air.
   “Naga!” Eena objected.
   Ian folded his arms across his chest.  “At least he’s no fool—wise enough to see the obvious truth.”
   They both swore they heard a deep-throated chuckle from the immortal beast.  Eena and Ian stared at each other for a moment before the young queen extended her hand. 
   “Can we call it a truce?”
   “Nope,” Ian said, popping the final consonant.  He lifted his chin, a sign of firm resolve.  Eena was unsure of what to do.  Naga couldn’t stay and protect her forever.  She looked to her dragon and then at the blue sky he’d materialized from.  She broke into a full grin with her next idea.
   “What if I can get you something to eat?” she offered.  “Truce?”
   Able to read her brilliant thoughts, Ian conceded.  “Alright, food—truce,” he agreed.  He was very hungry.
   Eena turned around and crooked her neck to stare up into the face of the mighty dragon.  She asked for a favor.  “Will you take us to get food?”         
   (You’re suppose to command him,) Ian told her.
   She grimaced over her shoulder.  (That doesn’t seem as polite as asking.)
   Looking back up at her dragon, she asked again, “Will you, Naga?”
   The great beast nodded his head once before dropping to the ground.  Waddling forward, he positioned his back next to the young queen. 
   Ian was instantly at his queen’s side, cupping his hands low.  (He wants you to climb on.  Go ahead, I’ll lift you up.)
   She set her foot in Ian’s linked fingers, and he hefted her up.  She had trouble getting a grip, however.  Ian pushed on her rump below until she could reach a bony ridge along Naga’s back.  It was easy enough to pull herself up the rest of the way after that.  Ian straddled the dragon’s back with a little more ease, laughing in his seat behind her.
   (You’re all grace, Queenie,) he teased.
   (It’s not as easy as mounting a horse,) she argued, lifting an affronted nose in the air.
   When Ian’s arms wrapped tightly around her waist, her mood softened.  His warm voice breathed in her ear, “You better hold on.”
   She shrieked as two taut wings flapped open with a reverberating crack.  She leaned forward and grabbed at Naga’s neck.  All at once they were soaring.
   The sky had lightened into a white-blue, void of any trace of sunrise.  Only around that portion of sun still sitting on the ocean’s horizon was there a lingering aura of peach that melted into blue.  The air that had chilled during the night was already warm again, and it whipped past the dragon riders with ferocity.  They leaned into it, turning their heads sideways to accommodate for more clear visibility.  Once the initial stomach churning and fear of falling subsided, the ride became exhilarating.  Eena squinted down at the waters below, watching ripples flash by in a rush of striations. 
   (We truly were isolated on that island.  It must be miles from civilization.)
   (Just a rock sticking out of the sea,) Ian agreed.
   She could feel the complaints of his rumbling stomach against her back.  It made her glad that Naga had agreed to this.  Guilt would’ve tormented her had Ian starved all day on that island.
   (You blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault,) Ian said.  (Quit with the self-inflicted guilt trips, will you?)
   (Can’t you stay out of my head for one second,) she griped.
   She felt his cheeks ball into a smile alongside her face.  (No, I can’t.)
   When Naga lifted higher into the air and veered to the left, both riders tightened their grip.  The beast’s wings rose and fell, pushing on air currents that forced them up higher still.  Eena marveled at how thin and tight yet powerful those wings were, each one outlined by bony, finger-like extensions.  It was the most beautiful sight to behold—living gliders working their magic, flying them at remarkable speeds.  It was Ian who caught the first glimpse of land.
   (Look!  There’s a coastline!)
   Eena squinted past Naga’s armored chest, scanning the ocean floor for what Ian had seen.
   He pointed to help her focus.  (Way over there; you can see a line of brown.)
   She searched for the change in color.  (I see it now.)
   In no time they were descending—falling closer and closer to a long strip of toasted land.  Naga circled like a crioness before lifting his head, pulling back his wings before digging his sharp claws into the soil.  It was a perfect landing.  Ian slid off the beast’s back, waiting with lifted arms to help his queen down.
   (Hurry,) he urged, (before the plants detect your presence.)
   It was sweet how he worried for her. 
   Eena took a quick survey of the island before joining Ian on the ground.  (There’s no trees,) she noted.  The scenery consisted of nothing more than a long bar of sand supporting bundles of prickly twigs.  It reminded her of the Williams’ farm after an autumn windstorm.  Dried tumbleweeds would line the fences in masses.  This place looked exactly like that, minus the fences….and the farm.
   “Eena,” Ian urged her to get on with it.
   “Okay, okay.”  She followed his lead and knelt beside him.  Her palms hit the soil, topped by his. 
As they closed their eyes, the dragon’s soul went to work.  Every prickly tumbleweed plant was soon covered in shaggy wigs of green, speckled in purple, laden with plump, ripe berries. 
   “Oh, yes,” Ian sighed joyfully.  A smile twitched at each corner of his mouth as he rose to go gather breakfast.
   “Save me at taste,” Eena called out jokingly.
   “I don’t promise anything,” he cried back, jogging toward the nearest cluster of bushes. 
   Eena took her time walking through the sand to join her best friend who was swallowing sweet, plump berries as fast as his fingers could pick them.  Every now and then his enthusiasm met with a spiny thorn and he’d flinch.  That didn’t stop the gorging.  The young queen was working on the bush beside him when she realized Naga had disappeared.  A berry stopped short of her lips as she twisted her neck, searching the bar for him.
   (Where’d Naga go?)
   Ian didn’t stop grazing to answer.  (He went to check on Ascultone and the other dragons.  Anesidora ordered him to keep those killers incapacitated.)
   Eena cringed at the memory of Naga’s attack on Zmey and Herensuge.  She felt sorry for him, aware of how it pained him to hurt his own kind.
   (Would you rather Ascultone come hunting for you again?)  Ian’s eyes lifted just long enough to catch her sour expression.
   (No, of course not.)
   (Don’t worry about it.  Naga’s fine.  He’ll be back.)
   A yellow sun found its place in the sky as Eena and her protector feasted on berries.  They strolled from bush to bush, enjoying a warm breeze that swept across the sand bar.  The murmur of ocean waters played continually in the background.  They kept close together, shifting between chitchat and stretches of silence.  When the young queen hadn’t spoken for a long time, Ian asked about the subject consuming her thoughts.
   (Why do you think about Gemdorin so much?) 
   His question broke her concentration.  She hadn’t realized she’d been caught up in the past again. 
   She denied his charge.  (I don’t think about him so much.)
   (Yes, you do.  Mostly about your time on Hrenngen and afterwards.)
   She shrugged and filled her mouth with berries.  She knew Ian was right.  He could read her mind, and proved on a daily basis that he did so nearly every waking moment.  Of course her nosy protector knew. 
   (I’m not nosy; I’m……attentive.)
   (Which basically means nosy.)
   Ian frowned.  (I pay attention to your thoughts to help you—to protect you.  It’s my job.) 
   Eena gave in.  (Okay, whatever you say.)  Truthfully, she’d grown to appreciate their connection and his special attention. 
   (So, why do you think about Gemdorin so often?)  He wasn’t going to let her off the hook.
   Again she shrugged.  Reluctantly, she chose to talk about it.  (I guess I wonder what would’ve happened if King Wennergren hadn’t intervened.  The only reason I was able to defeat Gemdorin was because an immortal stepped in and showed me what to do.  If he hadn’t used the dragon’s heart to help me,) she sighed, (I would be Gemdorin’s prisoner right now.)
   (No you wouldn’t,) Ian disagreed.  (We’d have found another way to defeat him.)
   Her brow creased with serious doubt as she reminded him, (Derian would be dead.  Gemdorin would’ve finished him off had I not interfered when I did.  And that would never have happened if not for King Wennergren’s interference.)
   (Eena, that’s all in the past.  We won.  Gemdorin and the Ghengats are history now.  Why worry about it?)
   (I’m not worried about it.  I just…)  She stopped to rethink what it was that truly bothered her about that situation.  (Gemdorin told me that the dragon’s heart had shown him a future in which he’d won me over.  A future where I actually, willingly, chose to be with him.)
   Ian could see the idea repulsed her.
   Her face soured as she said, (I just wonder what would make me willingly follow such an unscrupulous person.)  The torment in her thoughts, readable in her expression, caused Ian to stop and give her his undivided attention. 
(Ian, I never thought I’d do something like that.  I can’t believe I’d be that way.”
   He rounded the bush to meet her.  Her eyes followed him as he drew near.  (You didn’t do it, and you’re not that way,) he declared.          
(But according to the dragon’s heart, I would have.  I would’ve followed Gemdorin.)
   (No,) Ian insisted.  (Not you—never.)
   (Ian, it was predicted by the dragon’s heart.  You’re not even considering the likelihood …)
   He interrupted, loud and andamant.  (Because I would have stopped it.  I would never have let it happen!) 
   He moved directly in front of his queen, taking her by the shoulders.  Eena looked him in the eye, seeing fire behind his stare.  His nostrils flaired like Naga’s. 
(But, Ian……what if you were dead?  What if everyone was dead?  What if I had nothing left to live for?  I may have followed him then.)
   Ian squeezed on her shoulders.  (Stop with the what if’s!  That’s not a decision you’ll ever have to make, Eena.  Gemdorin is dead.  He’s gone, flattened, beaten, finished, croaked, okay!  He’s not coming back for you.)  Ian’s eyes were as wide as saucers, still wildly ablaze.  She was sorry she’d said anything.
   (Okay,) she ceded.  (It just bothers me sometimes; that’s all.  It makes me wonder if I really know myself.)
   (I know you.  You would do the right thing, Eena, and that’s all you need to know.)
   She managed a weak smile.  Ian went back to popping berries into his mouth, but kept a watchful eye on her. 
   As appetites grew satisfied, the grazing slowed.  Concern for their next meal prompted Ian to plan ahead.  He wanted to pick berries to save for later.
   “And what are we supposed to store them in?  Our pockets?” Eena asked.              Ian hummed in his throat, contemplating their limited options.  What did they have that could be used as a container?  His lips grinned crookedly when an idea hit him.
   “How attached are you to that dress?” he asked.
   She slapped her hands down over her skirt.  “You’re not taking my dress!”
   Ian chuckled at her worries.  “No, no, but how about the underskirts.  Would you mind much if I…..ripped one off?”
   She understood now—cloth tote bags.  (Good idea!)
   Reading permission in her thoughts, Ian knelt down and grasped at the bottom of her skirts.  It was a beautiful gown…..or it had been before the dried leaves and twigs had stuck to the delicate chiffon.  Eena pulled up on four layers of cloth while Ian took hold of the final one.  He gave it a good hard yank.  Unprepared, Eena stumbled forward, catching herself on Ian’s shoulders.  The young protector found his head buried beneath layers of underskirt. 
   “Criminy, Eena!” he griped, shoving the material off his face, only to find her angrily scowling at him.
   “You could give a girl some warning!” she barked.
   “Alright, alright.”  He wadded up the hem to grasp at it a little more securely.  “Are you ready now?”
   She held on tight to his shoulders.  “Ready.”
   He had to give two good yanks before they heard the material rip partially free.  Eena twirled around as Ian tore at the rest of the slip, pulling it away from the other underskirts.  When it finally fell loose, she lifted her feet free.  Ian began ripping the cloth into five long strips.  The remainder of the material he used to create four squared blocks.  Two he gave to Eena and two he kept for himself.
   “Fill up these blocks with as many berries as they’ll hold,” he instructed, “and then tie them off with the strips.”
   “Yes, sir.”  Eena saluted like a dutiful soldier.  She smiled at how he rolled his eyes in response.
   It was awkward trying to hold a cloth in one hand and pick fruit with the other.  They soon realized the task was easier to perform with four hands rather than two.  After a short time they developed an effective system.  Ian cupped his larger hands beneath a square of cloth while Eena filled it with the highest mound of berries it could hold.  Then she folded up each corner and tied the sack closed with a cloth strip.  When they’d successfully filled all four squares to capacity, Ian knotted each bag together with the remaining strip.
   “If I lose one, I lose them all,” he announced, holding up the entire connected package.
   “They’re going to turn to mush, you know.”  The bottoms of each bundle were already oozing purple juice.
   Ian shrugged.  “When you’re hungry, this mush will look awfully appetizing.”
   She didn’t argue with him.
   Naga hadn’t returned yet, so they walked barefoot along the beach.  Eena was up to her ankles in seawater.  Ian finally set down his package of berries, at Eena’s insistence, and was scooting a pebble over the sand with his toes, kicking it in front of him over the compact sand.  Eena had insisted that he remove his shoes too.  She watched him kick the pebble over and over again.  When he reached down to pick it up and prepared to toss it out to sea, her mind returned to Wanyaka Cave.
   “Hey,” she stopped and turned to him.  “Did you retrieve the Kritz?”
   Ian nodded.
   “Have you analyzed it yet?”
   “Not really.”  Then he admitted, (I did manage to read some of the findings back at the cave.  There wasn’t enough time for me to read everything.)
   She copied his switch to telepathic communication.  (Do you have it now?)
   Ian reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny mechanical device that resembled the pebble he’d been kicking around.  Eena’s eyes lit up.
   (How do you read it?)
   (There’re a couple ways you can do it,) he said.  His finger pressed on the central button, causing the device to puff into a ball.  Instead of pressing on the squared corners this time, he twisted the center halfway round.  A faint ‘click’ preceeded the opening of two flaps on the top half.  It looked like a fat lady bug with opened wings.
   (Cool,) Eena breathed.
   (You can connect this to a computer and download the results.  It’s easier to analyze and read on a larger screen.  However…)  He pointed to a small black square inside the device.  (You can read the results on this tiny display here too.)
   Eena peered in closer and realized there was white script running across a flat, darkened sphere.  It was very small, but readable.
   (What does it say?) she asked.
   Ian rambled through the readings, describing every recordable property of a cold cavern.  It was a hollow, rock enclosure with no entrance or exit bigger than a crack.  The temperature barely fluctuated between chilly readings.  The structure was mostly zinc and cadmium stone composite.  The walls were approximately five feet thick in most places.  A constant trickle of spring water ran overtop the cave and seeped in through tiny fissures in the roof.  The air was a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, small traces of hydrogen…
   (Yeah, yeah, yeah,) Eena finally butted in impatiently.  (That’s all good and boring, but is there anything helpful this thing can tell us?)
   Ian tapped his nail against the side of the Kritz, causing the readings to scroll faster.  He scanned the information as it zipped past. 
   (Hey, look at this,) he said, stopping the screen with a gentle tap of the nail.  (There’s an especially high energy output below the cavern floor.)  His eyes grew big looking up at Eena.  (You’ll never guess where.)
   Her mind raced, trying to think of a likely spot, but Ian divulged the answer first.
   (Right between the two stone columns where Ishtura and Anesidora’s bodies are sealed.)
   It was clear what that meant.  (The gem that acts as a prison for their spirits—it’s buried right there with their bodies.)
   (Look here.)  Ian pointed a little further down the display.  (The constitution of the floor in that same area is entirely different than the rest of the cave.  An oval section just below the surface is a solid crystalline structure.)
   (Ohhhh, It has to be the gem,) Eena said.  (But how can this help us?)
   A beastly roar carried with the wind, accompanied by a thud that shook the sandy bar.  Ian’s fist folded over the contraption in his hand, closing the flaps inward.  Eena noticed how his middle finger pressed on the ball, causing it to deflate back into pebble shape.  It was shoved into his pocket before he turned to face the mighty dragon eyeing them both with his mismatched eyes.
   “Naga!” Eena cried happily.  She ran to her dragon, splashing up water with every leap.
   Ian followed at a slower pace, bending down to pick up his bundle of berries along the way.  (He’s here to take us back to the cliffs.)
   (What if I don’t want to go back?)
   (I think you better go,) Ian said, (or Anesidora might make him do something he doesn’t want to do.)
   Eena turned to her dragon and commanded him strongly, “Stop listening to Anesidora.  Don’t do anything else she tells you to do.”  She could hear Ian chuckle at her orders.
   (Eena, Naga says you can’t order him to ignore the witch.  She controls his gem.  He’s bound to her, just as he is to you.)
   (That’s not fair,) she pouted.
   (Well, it works both ways.  Anesidora can’t order him to ignore your orders either.)
   With Ian now caught up to them, Naga dropped his neck and lowered his body as near the ground as possible.  Ian put down his bundle of berries and made a step with his intertwined fingers again.  It was a clumsy mount, but Eena managed to pull herself onto the dragon’s back.  Ian tossed his package up to her, prepared to climb behind it.
   “Oh, ick, Ian!” she complained when the syrupy, purple liquid oozed from the cloth, splattering her dress. 
   “Oh, um….sorry.”  He couldn’t keep from snickering a little.
   As soon as he was seated behind her, she twisted at the waist to hand him his messy goods. 
   “Yuck, Ian!” she complained when he set the bags directly at her back.  She groaned, knowing her tawny dress was undoubtedly ruined with purple stains now.
   (We can dye the whole thing purple,) Ian teased.
   (It’s not supposed to be purple; you’ve totally ruined my dress.)
   (Hey, you’ll thank me later when you’re starving.)
   He laughed at how overdramatically she complained at him.

   A pair of dragon wings spanned the width of the sandbar as Naga stood to catch a breeze.  A few powerful flaps and they were soaring high above the waters again.  

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